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March 21, 2004

We the Gaming

Last week's trip to the game & comic shoppe happened in the midst of a power outage that blacked out a chunk of Portland's Hollywood District. The store was reduced to using an old fashioned credit card swiper, and people were standing around squinting at the comics along the walls. Despite the murk, a group of gamers in the back were still playing.

"We're surrounded by nerds!" I hissed at Al. Then I thought about it for a moment and remembered we were there hoping to find a pair of Buffy trading card game starter decks. The clerk told us those come and go at odd intervals. We were there for a game, though, and that particular shop does either trading card games or assorted RPG systems. So we punted and went with Magic, which has the disadvantage of being popular (no cool-kid points for us), but the advantage of being popular (which means booster packs are everywhere).

Magic's fun, but on the "imagining the action" level, it's got some odd issues. The bestiary of "charging goblins" and "giant octopii" feels stitched together in the same way TSR's first Monster Manual managed to feel, only without the benefit of a selective dungeon master to smooth the weld lines between the hodge-podge of mythoses. (For my money, Fiend Folio was a better piece of work. It felt like there was a theme. Maybe it was just the consistent artwork, or maybe it was because the Drow and Githyanki were cool.)

I know: It's just a card game. But part of the fun is imagining something is happening besides people comparing numbers.

I think we'll still be looking for a Buffy set, or I'll just give up and order one even though I hate buying things like that without getting to hold them first and let the ad copy on the back of the box get me all worked up.

All Time Favs
So while I'm in a gaming chat mood, I might as well toss out my fav game list:

Traveller: A SF RPG from Game Designer Workshop which seems to still be around, though I'm not sure if it's as it was in the '80s. I dug Traveller because it was the first RPG I got into after AD&D, it was my discovery among our gaming group, the character generation was pretty cool, and there was a good hard SF feel to the rules and backstory: The designers understood that ballistic weapons will probably never go out of style.

Boot Hill: Pure nostalgia. Dad bought it for me for Christmas and we played one-on-one games a few times. Thin rule book, simple combat, reasonable "wound to part of body" system instead of just "you took 10 points to wherever and your, uh, core body temperature dropped." The Old West setting was a fun break from D&D, too. I don't know enough about early TSR games to place this one, but it seemed to come out of the same generation as Gamma World. Well before the TSR Glut Orgy of licensed RPGs like the Indiana Jones RPG, the Conan the Barbarian RPG (what the hell was wrong with just using AD&D besides scaring your fundamentalist parents?) and perhaps the worst of that era:

The Marvel Superhero RPG: It's a fav because it was so freaking silly.

GM: O.k. The rocket smashes into your jetpack and you fall 50 stories. You take, uh, 100 points of damage and pass out.

Player: Is anyone else nearby?

GM: Yeah, Jax the Mutant Piglet Boy sees you hit across the street.

Jax: I'm going to render aid.

GM: O.k. He lives.

Mighty like a comic book, I suppose.

Moving out of RPGs:

Cosmic Encounter: I first read about this game in Starlog 12, the same one with the complete Prisoner epsiode guide. That was, I think, 1977, which means I was eight or nine years old at the time.

The game's best described as something akin to "poker with alien powers." Every time I've introduced it to people, they've loved it. One of the few games where I set aside all decorum and start talking serious trash. And one of those games where getting inside the other guy's head can make a big difference, especially when you're playing double powers and you're packing a Chronos/Sorceror combo.

I finally got a copy of my own (after obsessing about it for years but never turning it up anywhere) in the late '80s at a KayBee Toy store for $5. Sadly, my copy (a West End edition) was destroyed in a move. I ended up replacing it with the inferior Avalon Hill version. It's still a fine game, but AH isn't interested in doing much more with the property than letting it sit in the catalog, so there are less alien powers and less "stuff." And no more than four people can play. Bleh. A six- or eight-way CE brawl would be a blast. Fortunately, links to versions of a better vintage remain available, and CE enthusiasts are still actively hacking older versions, so I might get around to making a good set with more expandability than AH is offering.

I should make obligatory note of the online version, but playing CE online is about as satisfying as any other game of wit and bluff online. Your opponent misses the benefit of your steely gaze as you Cosmic Zap his blustering Macron into a sad little one-ship attack force that dashes itself against your defenses. It's also a little slow, and the AI is still willing to allow "group wins" a little too readily. Humans are generally more cussed, and that's nothing but good for a game like CE.

Ogre: This is another classic game from the '70s. Steve Jackson was producing "Microgames," super-cheap ($5) games that came with fairly simple rules and super-portable playing pieces and boards. It's a tactical wargame, which turns a lot of people off, but it's a blast if you like that kind of thing. The premise is pretty engaging: The Ogre is a 50-meter-long robotic tank vs. a small mixed force of infantry and armor plus a few (expensive) artillery pieces. The game is really well balanced and can end with some nail-biting moments of suspense as the defenders whittle away at the Ogre's treads to slow it down and the Ogre tries to get close enough to pop off a rocket at the defender's command post (the destruction of which is the only way the Ogre can win in the basic scenarios).

Ogre was designed to be a "quick over-lunch" sort of game, so a pair of competent players can run through one of the basic scenarios in 30 minutes or less. I had some fun designing Ogre scenarios using the boards of Avalon Hill wargames my dad had on the shelf, which provided a huge field in which to pit Ogre-supplemented task forces against each other.

It's good to see this one is still around and healthy.

Globbo: Another Steve Jackson game. Almost all premise: A planet has children so evil they have to be left in a nursery with a cybernetic nanny/assassin (the Globbo). The children take three forms: blips, yeasts, and biters. You have to combine two blips and a yeast to form a biter. The Globbo is a collection of giant hands (slaps) and rayguns (zaps) along with a head. The biters try to kill the Globbo by biting off parts, the blips try to kill the Globbo by running into him and exploding, and the Globbo tries to slap or zap the children, who explode into blips and yeasts that then attempt to reform into more biters. People are still selling this one here and there. I'll have to look for a copy. Silly fun.

And here's a list of games I haven't played enough, but sure liked:

Paranoia: I feel inadequate for not playing this more. Just never had a crew that was into it.

Space Opera: Another SF RPG with (as I recall) a much more complex combat system than Traveller. The character generation was the big attraction to me: All sorts of variations in terms of species and homeworld types made for a lot of variety.

Guillotine: A simple card game I've played a few times at Leopoldo's. It involves French aristocrats standing in line for the guillotine. Morbid fun.

Instinct: Another Leopoldo find. Light diversion.

Point of Curiosity
I've read mention of "designer" or "German" games as a genre. A few recommended examples (besides Settlers of Catan, which I'm already curious about) would be welcome.

Second Point of Curiosity
Recos of two player games (or games well suited for two players) are welcome, too.

Posted by mph at March 21, 2004 05:22 PM


German-style game recommendations . . .

Best introduction to German-style games: Settlers

Best overall German-style game to get, post-Settlers: Puerto Rico

Best hard-core strategy, brain-hurt sort of German game: Tigris & Euphrates

Best German-style-but-simple-enough-for-everyone game: Carcassonne

Other honorable mentions: The Princes of Florence, Torres, El Grande, The Lord of the Rings board game

Posted by: nate at March 21, 2004 09:07 PM

Thanks for the list, Nate.

What makes a "German-style" game a German-style game, though? I don't understand what sets them apart from other games, and the one attempt to explain that I ran into was pretty limited (as in "They're fun!").

Posted by: mph at March 21, 2004 09:11 PM

"German-Style" games are designed to be played casually and quickly, with the primary interest being in group fun rather than individual victory. Therefore, most are highly interactive (Puerto Rico, Settlers, or LotR) or feature quick turns with straightforward (but often critical) decisions (Carcasonne, Torres, T&E). When played by more competitive sorts, the latter style of games often either break down or require addition of a time limit.

Because of their "fast and loose" play style, many German-style games are also fairly abstract, linked to their "story" by only the thinest of justifications. Thus, you can even see some games re-worked in totally new settings with minimal changes.

Apparently, the cause of this style is that, in Germany, these games are "party games" like, in the USA, Trivial Pursuit and Pictionary. Thus, they tend to follow familiar forms, straightforward outlines, and quickly-grasped strategies (though some, like Puerto Rico or E&T, offer very deep strategies behind the obvious level). They also usually try to look sharp and attractive, with plastic or wooden pieces one can move, stack, arrange, or otherwise gather as part of play.

There's lots of Germany-style games among the "Favorite Games" I micro-reviewed back at my own blog. http://www.matantisi.com/ghoul/archives/cat_favorite_games.html

Posted by: Ghoul at March 22, 2004 04:40 AM

Adding to what Ghoul said . . .

In Germany, the boardgaming hobby is much more robust and mainstream, with family 'game nights' being commonplace. Also, game designers have authorial status there, something that you're seeing in American boardgames in the past few years, but didn't before.

German games tend to be more abstract and involve less luck than American games -- even American ones outside the mainstream of Risk, Monopoly, etc.

I wouldn't use the words "fast and loose" to describe German games as Ghoul does. They run the gamut when it comes to complexity and time to play, though the upper limit is around 2.5 hours. They do a better job of managing pacing and turn structure, though, so that everyone in the game stays involved all the way through, with less downtime.

"German" has long-since ceased to be a geographic descriptor. Other European designers have made German-style games for years, and we're starting to see plenty of American designers making games that feel "German," to say nothing of games that aren't German per se but have clearly been influenced by German design principles. Which is all for the good, as far as I'm concerned.

Posted by: nate at March 23, 2004 01:51 PM