Gamer’s Notebook October 2006

Recess (Atlas Games) is the first published design by Morgan Dontanville, a frequent contributor to various internet forums, and consultant for Café Games. Morgan always has some insightful and often pointed views on games, and design, so it was with some interest that I sat down with the shiny, bright blue box. How would the established critic negotiate his own stated preferences and attitudes, and what sort of commentary could he expect as feedback? I really ask because I am in the same boat…

I was three lines into the rules introduction when the two fateful words appeared – Lunch Money. The bad memories of their earlier game came flooding back and, once again, Atlas Games manage to spoil my day with their portrayal of playground bullying and violence. Recess, to my great surprise, covers similar territory. I was on the verge of putting the rules down and refusing to review it, but I took stock, read on, and realised that I play games on subjects far worse than bullying. I am not sure I should, but I do.

Nevertheless, the feeling of unease stuck with me and it is still there. I was left with the unarguable conclusion that not only did Atlas Games still think bullying a suitable topic for a family game, but that now another designer does as well. Over time, and two plays, this concern became almost moot because if Lunch Money is at the sick, evil, dark end of subject treatment, Recess sugars the pill, wrapping it up in candy coloured coat, and a level of abstraction, that makes the subject at least palatable for the purposes of review. But still not acceptable. The honest truth is that I am never going to like the game because of the subject matter, and the associated memories of Lunch Money’s disturbing images. So, Atlas, here’s one less than satisfied customer.

With all that in mind, let’s take a look at the game. At heart Recess is okay, and it works quickly and elegantly. It is a simple, light abstract, of which we have seen many before, except that this time there is an egg timer to make sure that you never take more than a minute for your turn. With just 30 turns in total, you are guaranteed to take no more than half an hour, and often much less. This is appropriate, and makes the game feel close to what it is – a mad rush of kids into the playground, chaos, and then it is all over and back to class. Recess is easily learned from the clear rules. The only thing we didn’t work out was how to reset the egg timer if a player took less than a minute…

Each player has three boy and three girl schoolkids. They start at opposite ends of the playground, along with two nuns who are keeping an eye on things. Your aim is to end the game with the most lunch money, which you extract by whaling away on other pupils and rifling their pockets. As there is no cover in the playground, everyone is fair game. Except, of course, the nuns. So you can run, but you can’t hide – eventually an opponent will move up to one of your pupils and sit on him. Money changes hands in an upwards direction until the aggressor gives up, or another pupil or nun break it up. If the Holy Sister catches you, it is detention time, but surprisingly you get to keep the money. So, crime pays.

Play is easy enough, and soon your pieces are charging around the playground as we all no doubt recall from our time at infant school. There is a good feel to this, aided by the speed of play and the time pressures. But, in time, we all sat there wondering where the clever tactics came in. Sadly, they don’t, because almost the only way to win is to get most money, and almost the only way to get money is to bully. There is one highly appealing exception to this, the kiss, on which more later, but in our games we found that although it provided a neat alternate strategy and therefore some much needed interest, it never managed to provide a winning total.  If it did, I think we would have a game just about worth the admission price – perhaps a variant beckons?

So, no clever twists here: there is no real tactical depth, there are (I believe) no tricks to discover, and there is nothing special going on – something we always look for as a minimum from German Games. Instead, it is an old school square grid abstract, and the rules are largely obvious because we are dealing with basic actions – bullying, fighting, tattling, breaking up fights. The theme is intact, but merely gives rise to the mechanisms rather than sustaining a worthwhile narrative.

The design rises a notch because of an ingenious movement mnemonic – 3,2,1,nun. Meaning that you move pupils three, two and one spaces, and then you must move a nun. Pupils are slow rooks, the nun is a queen. For some reason neither can go on the swings or roundabout obstacles, but these do – in a weird Squad Leader reference – block line of sight. What line of sight is doing in a game like this, I have no idea.

Anyway, if the nuns can’t see you, you can pummel away raising your personal wealth, or try to grab a quick snog. If you get a girl and boy to kiss in the same space (or two boys or girls, one would think, in these progressive times), the game is over and you get some bonus money, but it seems never enough to overhaul an efficient pugilist. The point being that that there is some fun to be had manoeuvring for a discreet peck, but very little in sitting on someone’s head and nicking their pennies.

Recess is mildly diverting, but surely just a theme-first, multi-player abstract American game in Euro clothing? Nevertheless, it’s a solid three star game, largely because it doesn’t over-reach, and I have seen a lot worse from first time designers. Although nothing to get excited about, Recess is really okay, and no-one would feel bad about buying it as a filler. But at £17 ($32) here in the UK, Atlas Games and their distributors have got to be joking. Your local gamestore may make the purchase more palatable than the subject matter, which still leaves me cold. Accordingly, I have transferred my sincere hopes to Morgan’s next game, Spectral Rails.

Thoughts on Essen

As I write, Essen is a little over two weeks away. This event sets the scene for this time of year: Autumn chills and misty mornings are very much with us, the nights are closing in, and it almost always clashes with the World Series – requiring late night dashes to the internet to check the boxscores. It also suggests a mad handful of days charging around the game buyer’s mecca, tiredness, overspending, Weizenbier, huge meals, choppy Channel crossings, and hopefully finding the latest gem – Caylus, Jenseits, Triumvirate etc – name your poison. It also defines a level of game fuelled excitement that carries on right through till Christmas, normally resulting in a break in January. Well, at least until the Nuremberg games start appearing…

Try as I might, because it spoils the enjoyment, I have sneaked a look at the upcoming games and have formed a short list of games I want to try or have a good look at. There are quite a few interesting titles, as usual, but one normally finds that these thin out based on local comment, play, playlength or sometimes (but not very often) price. For me, a factor now often considered is the size of the box. This year I have a pretty strict budget, and no great desire to lug heavy suitcases around, so I am aiming to buy five games or so <roars of laughter in background>.

Currently rated AAA prospects are Through the Ages (I can’t tell you how much I want this to work!), Khronos (ditto) Pillars of the Earth, Take it to the Limit, Shogun, Prophecy and Yspahan. Two of these games are from the newly emerging Czech publishers, who seem to operate an interesting ‘difficult to get’ marketing strategy: takes me back to the old days. Space Dealer is another tempter, because eventually someone must get this genre pinned down, but if it is anything likely the dreadful Neuland, I will pass. I should get Fowl Play, if my mate Mr Breese has kindly put me one aside, and I hope to secure a copy of the sold out Hameln from Fragor because of my international superstar status. I may be disappointed here. Leonardo da Vinci looks right up my street, as do Italia, Justinian, Marvel Heroes, Perikles and Millionen von Schwalben – Urs Hostettler always has a good angle. Ark Expansion from Doris and Frank is a given, as is Buka Invasion for Blue Moon. Finally, I want to pick up copies of End of the Triumvirate, Mare Nostrum and A Game of Thrones cheaply, plus possibly Die Sieben Weisen about which I have heard good thing.

Coming in at BBB we have quite a few appealing prospects that will need to be culled, one by one, or I will stagger back to England with the lot:  Genesis, Graenaland, Die Baumeister von Arkadia, Balam, Factory Fun, Valhalla, Evolution, King of Chicago, Midgard, Taluva, Tekeli-li, Der Dieb von Baghdad, Salamanca, Fiji, Hermagor, Ur, Gheos and Silk Road. As ever, there is a huge temptation to throw in a couple of made-up names, but I didn’t. Really.

The speculative CCC rated junk bonds are shaping up as Gloria Mundi  – I see this as a Cheapass game: to be avoided unless someone trusted says it’s stunningly wonderful, and even then I will want convincing,  Experiment could be hit or miss, and of course the same applies to FF Spiele. I am pretty sure I don’t want a copy of Imperial from EggertSpiel, but I will reserve judgement. I wasn’t that taken with Antike, and I bet this is more of the same – rondel and all. I am also tempted by Medici vs Strozzi, a two player version of Medici, but after the disappointment of the Tigris Card Game I will keep my powder dry until I have played it. Much the same applies to Alhambra – The Dice Game. If they are new games, great. But if just a cash in, they can whistle.

And finally there will be the handful of games that no-one has yet picked up on radar and which make Essen such a great experience – I expect a strong showing from the Japanese and Korean stands here. Overall, I think a perfectly valid sales tactic is to not advise Rick Thornquist about your game, hide out back in one of the fringe halls, and have lots of people walk round talking about your game – ideally on the last day. If you don’t sell out purely on the frantic rush to hoover up anything potentially exciting, then I would be very surprised.

So that’s it. Over one hundred games on offer before we even get there, from which I am short listing thirty odd games, to prune down to five or six purchases in the space of three days. Mmmm. It’s a good job I don’t go in for abstracts, eh?

One of the highlights will be the chance to see the demo copies of BattleLore from Days of Wonder. I expect that I will eventually crack on this one, if only so I can set up fast playing mediaeval or Lord of the Rings battles. The appeal of generic fantasy battles is not there for me, never has been, but it doesn’t take a genius to see that if the historical versions of the system have sold by the truckload, then this is going to be a monster hit for Richard Borg. The expansion potential is virtually limitless.

Another highlight is that Sierra Madre Games might be in attendance, and I hope to have the chance to meet Phil Eklund who has designed some of my favourite games. I will also pick up American Megafauna Second Edition and the expansion, along with The Artifact.

I know quite a few of you are attending Essen this year, so please drop by to say hi, or thrust free games into my hands. I will be loosely based at Richard Breese’s stand (4-14), but as I have only three days at the show, meetings, beers to drink and a report to compile, I will be moving fast! Look for a Siggins style Essen report at soon after the show closes. It won’t be comprehensive, or up to the minute, but it will be more than plain old news reporting.

Mike Siggins