Sunday, July 11, 2010

That's How I Roll - Part II - Revelations and Reminders

Hello, Fellow Gamerz.

Welcome to Part II of my board games confessional.  Okay, so where were we? Oh, yes...

By the time I'd reached my mid-teens I'd become bored with chess.  I was tired of its scripted and abstract qualities and was now looking for strategic games with more variables and realism.  One day when I was at my local library I came across this fateful tome:

When I found out that there were board games that simulated famous battles of history, I became somewhat obsessed.  This led to immediate frustration.  I could read about the existence of these so-called "war games", but I couldn't get a hold of any of them where I lived. Even mail order was limited back in the Dark Ages and E-Bay didn't even exist.  What to do?

About the only game I could get with a vaguely war-gamey feel was this old "Parker Brothers" chestnut:
But even as a kid, Risk failed to impress. It was w-a-a-a-a-a-y too unrealistic and abstract.  It used to piss me off when your opponent would turtle down in Australia.  Where were my amphibious landing craft and columns of marauding tanks, dammit?!  

I know the most recent versions of the game have improved things somewhat, but I can still only give Risk three pips out of six in good conscience:

Mercifully the Leisure World hobby and craft store forty minutes away in Corner Brook started stocking cool games in the early Eighties.  This was one of my first purchases:

Y'see, Godzilla was another huge fixture of my childhood, making this a no-brainer for me. The only challenge with this game was trying to get one of your willing buddies to play the military side while your patron monster gleefully mashed populace units, crushed buildings and lit half the map on fire.

The Creature That Ate Sheboygan was proof positive that there were games out there for every area of interest, games that were sophisticated and realistic.  Or, as realistic as a board game could be about a giant  robot annihilating a major piece of real estate in Wisconsin.

For allowing me to get my smash-on, The Creature That Ate Sheboygan rates four pips outta six:

And then there was this pop-culture behemoth:

Frankly, I'm not gonna dwell on this very much, 'cuz, frankly, it deserves it's own entry.  But if Star Wars was my childhood obsession, then Dungeons & Dragons was what creatively propelled me through my early teens. 

Dungeons & Dragons represents another major sea-change in gaming.  It was the first of the "role-playing games" in which players could create their own customized avatars with variable strengths and weaknesses.  Supported by a rule set that accounts for any possible action, the characters band together and are set loose into a world brought to descriptive life by their Dungeon Master.  

Random die rolls, difficulty levels and the character's own innate abilities determine their likelihood of success or failure with tasks like sword-swinging, spell-flinging and other examples of daring-do.  The goal of the game is for the players to work together to overcome obstacles, slay the monsters, gather the treasure and explore avenues of self-advancement.  Not that much different from real life, n'est pas?

Back when the Lord of the Rings movies were coming out (ten years ago now, madre de dios!) I got a group of eight people together to run a few games of this and we had such a blast! 

Hmmmm, I must blow the dust off the 'ole dice pouch (and, no, that's not code for something).  For those of you predisposed to giving it a shot, it's been revamped in a Fourth Edition recently.  I personally can't vouch for it, but many people say it adopts some of the evolutionary traits of modern-day online role-playing games.  Frankly I'm not sure if that's good thing or a bad thing...

Dungeons and Dragons Core Rulebook Gift Set, 4th Edition

For teaching problem solving, social skills, inspiring a host of other pretenders to the throne (World of Warcraft, I'm looking in your direction) and resulting in the death of millions of innocent orcs, D & D scores a full six pips out of six!

Here was another major discovery for me:

Finally I had my columns of tanks! We played the hell out of this. Some matches would get really heated.  Two of my best friends (who were like oil and water together) often came close to blows over this one, even when they were supposed to acting together as allies! 

One of these two characters eventually became the co-creator of an independent expansion game for Axis & Allies called Enemy on the Horizon.  I’m even listed in the rules as a play tester!

If you're going to use the word EPIC at all to describe a game, it's Axis & Allies.  It depicts World War II globally on a grand, tactical level.   Up to five players take the role of the major powers of the war: for the Axis it's Japan and Germany and for the Allies it's the USA, the United Kingdom, and the USSR. 

The world map is divided into land and sea regions which help you determine movement of your units.  The game is chock full o' awesome "bits" like plastic miniature fighters, bombers, tanks, infantry, anti-aircraft, transports, subs, battleships and even aircraft carriers.  Every one of these units performs like a reasonable facsimile of their real-life counterparts.  For example, tanks are great on aggressive blitzing offensive moves but are weak defensively and more expensive than infantry, which are cheaper to produce and better on defense.  Players can even invest in weapons development to try and invent fancy things like jet aircraft, rockets or...EEEK...the A-bomb!  

In theory, the players who are allied together have to co-ordinate their efforts economically, strategically and militarily in order to win. As you capture or liberate enemy territory it goes towards your resources, thus allowing you to build more units.

Now it may seem odd for me to lovingly talk about war games like this, but I really do believe these things are educational.  They teach players geography, history, and analytical thinking.  In fact, I wish we could see world leaders sit down over a board game and settle their differences like this instead of shedding real blood.     
This game series has been wildly popular and there have been a lot of different versions.  Here's the latest revision:

Axis & Allies 1942

Axis & Allies deserves its 5 pips out of 6!

Here's one a buddy of mine bought from the same line as Axis & Allies that I thought didn't fare quite so well:

And, yes, that is a picture of Saddam friggin' Hussein on the box Pretty nutty, huh?

Basically, Fortress America is Red Dawn, the board game.   It taught me a valuable lesson about the hobby: regardless of how amazing the game's components look, balance is still a critical consideration. 

No matter how many times we played this thing, the invaders always got their collective butts handed back to them. We even tried a few house rules, including scaling back the frequency of heavily-armed redneck partisans popping up, but to no avail.

I guess the designers took the whole "land of the free, home of the brave" thing a bit too seriously.  I always thought the thing was kinda "broken", but it was worth a few yuks at the time.   For being so grossly unbalanced I can only give it two pips out of five:

My love affair with licensed games continued when a buddy of mine introduced our gaming circle to this beauty:


In 1987 I'd been appropriately blown away by James Cameron's sequel to Alien.   The dude who owned Fortress America (who apparently had the ultimate hook up and unlimited funds for acquiring this sort of contraband) also introduced our gaming group to this and it was an immediate smash.

It was my first experience with a truly "co-operative" board game.  Every player took control of a certain contingent of heavily-armed Colonial Marines and the game rules controlled all the aliens automatically, essentially playing them as 'bots.  You really had to rely on your fellow player to use teamwork in order to survive.

I can't think of too many games that do such a fantastic job replicating the frenetic action of the movie from which it’s based. This game also taught me that board games can quickly devalue due to components that aren't exactly “built to last” or go out of print almost overnight. As soon as I heard the phrase E-Bay years later, this baby had to be mine!  I paid a king's ransom for the friggin' thing, but it was worth every penny and is still one of my prized possessions.       

I give the Aliens game five die pips outta six:

As I went through my late teens I had a regrettable bout of being too "cool" for stuff like this (at least as cool as I could muster).  I wouldn't even be caught dead in the toy section of a department store at the time.  

Ah, the sad and oft-vain pursuit of trying to get laid.  

I look back on this and ponder what a moron I was!  There were some awesome games that were released at the time that, like Aliens, are long since out of print.

But once a board game geek, always a board game geek.  Something would inevitably come down the pike that would lure me, Siren-like, back to my beloved hobby.  And that inevitable something was Magic: The Gathering:

M:TG was the very first Collectible Card Game (or CCG for short).  Players can buy pre-made decks or design them from scratch using "Booster Packs" of fifteen random cards of varying scarcity or visit retailers that sell individual cards.  

After you've procured a functional deck you can use it to duel against an opponent. Both players start off with twenty life points and by using mana-producing land cards to cast creature cards, spells and artifacts, they attempt to lower their rival's life total to zero for the win.  Since there are now over eleven-thousand  different cards to play with, the deck combinations you can construct or encounter is virtually limitless.

Like war games and D&D before it, M:TG was a full-blown gaming phenomenon that I just couldn't avoid.  In May of 1995, gaming magazine Inquest referred to Magic players and collectors as "rats on cocaine." Amen, brother. This was my first lesson that games could be COLLECTIBLE (Read: “financially draining”). 

At this stage in my life, games had very nearly fallen by the wayside, replaced at first by the blissful chaos of university followed by a gut-wrenching jump into the deep end of the pool of life. Magic reminded me that games, fun and escapism would, and should, always have its place in my world no matter what. 

Here's a fully-playable pre-made deck from the 2010 Core Set:

Magic the Gathering- MTG: Magic 2010 Core Set - Theme Deck - Intro Pack White : We Are Legion

Despite being a bit of a money pit, I can't deny the elegant brilliance and staying power of this game.  In fact, just a few days ago I caught myself buying a few new single cards to make what I hope is the ultimate "killer deck".  I can't wait to pit my new brainchild against a willing opponent to test my hypothesis.

Magic deserves it's six pips out of six rating:

The Collectible Card Game fad was so popular in the mid-to-late 90's that it extended to every licensed product imaginable.  As if Magic wasn't tempting enough, this friggin' thing appeared from out of nowhere:

"Okay, let me get this straight. It's like Magic fused with Star Wars? And exactly how much money can I get for donating a pint of blood?" Another hard lesson learned; I have binders filled with these damned things and I don't think I've ever played against an opponent who didn't bear an uncanny resemblance to me.  

This was a sprawling, ridiculously detailed game that eventually collapsed under it's own weight. The cards and images were all handsomely produced and it had plenty of "chromey" bits to keep fans amused. Regrettably each new expansion came with a new rules sheet instead of introducing these concepts on the cards themselves to make it simpler.  Because it's such a daunting game to teach people and (in my opinion) doesn't really capture the spirit of the movies, I can only give it three pips outta six:

The next major revelation in board games came in the form of this juicy little number, which some people may have seen sitting around in Chapters, Indigo and Toys R Us:

The Settlers of Catan

Bless (or it that curse?) that now-defunct Inquest magazine.  Even during the height of the Collectible Card Game craze, they ran board game reviews. One such column in the February 1997 issue gave a very flattering nod to this abstract-looking but eye-catching German game. In the words of the reviewer Jeff Hannes: "The next time you're at your local game store, put down those costly booster packs and pick up a copy." 

Thanks, Jeff, wherever you are. I owe him a debt for turning me on to a completely new, elegant, inventive genre of games: "Euro" or "German" boardgames.  

In Settlers of Catan players vie for dominance on a completely randomized island of varying terrain types.  At the start of every players turn, dice are rolled to determine what areas of the island produce resources.   From this players build towns, roads, armies, cities and developments to try and score ten victory points for the win.  

Games like Settlers are often referred to as "gateway games", because they tend to appeal to people who think board games begin and end with sad, crappy old Monopoly.  Needless to say, if I wanted to illustrate the appeal and potential of modern board games I'd sit you down for some Settlers instead.  

Although I've played it to death, Settlers of Catan is like the board game equivalent of putting on a pair of comfy slippers.  It rates six pips out of six.  

I'll end this segment with a game that turned so many of my clique into slavering board game...uh, zombies.  

Zombies!!! 2nd Edition

I gotta come clean here, folks.  As played right out of the box, Zombies!!! ain't the best game in the world. In fact, in the intervening years since it's first publication back in 2001, zombie game technology has improved, giving us better options.  Having said that, nothing seems to bring folks together like a randomly-generated town rife with shambling undead! Add a healthy "screw-you" factor to the game and you've got an experience that, in my humble opinion, outshines a LAN party any day.  

True story: the day after I introduced this game to four other people, our local FLGS (Friendly Local Game Store) sold each participant a copy when they independently went into the store on four separate occasions to get one.   Cripes, I need to start earning commission on this sort of thing...

That's it for now, folks.  Next time I'll give you more modern examples of how one of my favorite hobbies has truly reached the high-water mark and give you some recommendations on where to start if you want to dive in.  Until then, keep on rollin' in the free world!

EPIC: Amazing source for quick and entertaining modern board game reviews:

FAIL:  Just a few examples of the poo-flavored landmines that have given board games their needlessly bad rap...

Also, due to a medical emergency last week, I didn't get around to doing a comic.  Hopefully this will make amends:


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