What’s in a Game? Part 2

Gamers field a lot of questions from people once they realize our passion. One of the most frequent ones is “Why do you play all those games?”  It sounds like an easy question, but when you’re talking to someone that just doesn’t get it, making your case gets. . . complicated.

Games give us more than a lot of people realize. First and foremost, of course, is the entertainment value. That’s the easy part. When you sit down to play a game your first goal is to have a good time, and any game designer worthy of the title will do their best to make sure you do.  But there is much more than that going on. See, games also teach us. Think about the first games you ever played. You know, the old classics, like Candyland and Chutes and Ladders, or maybe you cut your gaming teeth on Ravensburg games. The objective were clear, the mechanics blindingly simple. And while you were playing it, you learned to take turns. You learned how to win, and even more importantly, how to lose. Social skills are really what those games are all about.

As you grew older, you moved into the more advanced stuff. Clue taught you basic deductive reasoning. Monopoly disguised math and simple economics training as a fun afternoon. Battleship schooled you in the art of logic and patterns. Stratego taught you basic strategy, and threw in a smattering of history when you asked question like “Why is the Field Marshal so strong?” (For my part, Stratego was also a continuation on the “how to lose well,” lesson. Anyone in need of an ego boost need merely bring a Stratego set to my house. My humiliation is likely to follow soon after that.) Checkers showed you the value of looking ahead, a lesson Chess sharpened. Scrabble improved your spelling and your vocabulary. Concentration trained your memory, Perfection honed your fine motor skills, and Twister showed you new meanings of the word “pain,” you were were probably sorry you learned. Or was that just me?

Many people stop there. The world becomes more important than the game board. They move on and get their lessons shipped direct by living. But for those who continued on the gamer’s path, there were games like Scruples, which forced you to think about ethics, to form arguments and consider alternate positions. Trivial Pursuit shone a light on pop culture and history, while giving you a chance to look back on your life as you searched for the answers.

Say you went on from there, into historical strategy games. From Axis and Allies to World In Flames, these games schooled you in the lessons of logistics, the finer points of strategy, and if you were curious, detailed history. You learned places, names, dates. You learned why Rommel was called the Desert Fox, and what effects mobile artillery had on a battlefield.

And then there are those games which teach you the most important lessons of all, how to conquer the world and rule it after you do.

There are many games out there teaching this mighty lesson, but in my house we only really play two of them. The first is MWAHAHAHA! (No really, that’s what it’s called.) from White Wolf. I’m not sure if this game is in print any more, but as it’s a fairly recent release you should still be able to find it. MWAHAHAHA! is a whimsical romp of a game in which you play a mad scientist bent on global domination. But rather than build an army or go out and blackmail a bunch of people, you decide to do it the old fashioned way. You build a doomsday device and threaten to use it.  You have a base, which determines what resources are easiest for you to get, empires, which are business that supplement  your base and contribute resources, and minions to protect them and steal the resources from others. And yes, Virginia, there are flying monkeys in the minion deck. As you gather resources and build your device, you gain the power to threaten larger and larger areas, beginning with cities, then counties, then states, countries, and finally THE ENTIRE WORLD!! (When we play, villainous speeches are optional, but appreciated.)   Some devices are easy to build, but difficult to use. Others are expensive to build, but almost assure your victory once complete. With evil geniuses like Doctor Dookie, C’Horthutuk, Professor  Kontiki, and Hypatia Gutterjunque using devices that create tsunamis, incite bestial behavior, or that time honored favorite, raise the dead, conquering the world and ruling over its pitiable masses has never been more fun. The game takes two to three hours to play, but hey, taking over the world takes time.

For the more sophisticated conqueror, there is Steve Jackson’s Illuminati. Lurking behind the scenes of modern society, the Illuminati are a shadowy group of conspirators using guile, treachery, political wherewithal, and lots and lots of money to influence and eventually control the world. Perhaps you are the Bavarian Illuminati, pulling the strings of power from the castles of Germany. Or maybe you are the Gnomes of Zurich, using your limitless wealth to steer the course of human destiny. Maybe you’re a Servant of Cthulhu and just want to watch the world burn. It’s even possible to be the UFOs, and stir the pot of humanity from your safe haven among the stars. Using your influence and unique powers, you infiltrate organizations like the Pentagon, C.I.A., and arms smugglers, or fund crackpots like the Evil Geniuses for a Better Tomorrow, or my personal favorite, the Semiconscious Liberation Army. Hey, I could be doing the work of the Illuminati right now, because Bloggers are also a group you can control. Some groups offer tangible benefits to your plot to control the world. Others just add bodies. Spend a little money on expansions and you gain access to Artifacts, like Einstein’s Brain of the Holy Grail. As you play, you see your influence spread over the world through the power structure you construct. A quick game of Illuminati takes about two hours. Longer ones can go deep into the night, which is where the best conquering happens anyway. You can play with two or three players if you want, but the game is MUCH more fun with four or more. It supports up to six players.

When we feel like conquering the world, this is how we do it in my house. How about you? Do you have a favorite way to rule the unsuspecting peons that make up this complex society? What are they?


What’s in a Game? Part 1

I have met people that play D&D, and only D&D, that call themselves gamers. Or perhaps their thing is Call of Cthulhu. Maybe they live and breathe GURPS. But when they play an RPG, they play the same one every time.  Or maybe they are heavily into the electronic gaming thing. Sure they play lots of different games, but they stick to one medium.   They don’t play table-top games of any stripe. Don’t misunderstand me, there’s nothing wrong with that. If that’s what you like, by all means have a great time. I think  it’s kind of cute how they call themselves gamers, though.

I am a gamer. I have a bookshelf near my office that is just loaded with RPG systems. The reason they are near my office is because I don’t have room for them in my office with all the other books I keep there.   I’ve run or played most of them, and read all of them more than once. I have another shelf in my basement dedicated to board and card games. I had a young guest come to my house once, and when she came upstairs, she looked at me with eyes wide and said, “You have seventy four games.”

“Those are just the ones you can see”, I replied.

That was a couple of years ago. There are more now.

My one weakness as a gamer comes in the field of electronic games. My wife and I decided early on to keep video games to a minimum in our house, so we have a Wii. Our only other platform is the one I’m typing on now. But I don’t mind that, because electronic games, while they can be tremendous fun,  lack a key element I get out of a game.

I get to play with people.

Like many writers, I tend to be reserved around people I don’t know very well. I’ve gotten better at it over the years, but I am usually the guy in the back watching what everyone else is doing.  Put me in a room full of total strangers and a game we can all agree to play, though, and I’m at the center of the action. Games provide an instant framework, a built in topic for conversation, and something fun to do all at once. You can learn a lot about a person by playing games with them.

So for the next few posts, I’m going to write about my favorite games

I’m particularly fond of co-operative games, where players win or lose as a team. There are many out there, from the day long epic battle that is Arkham Horror, to the quick playing Forbidden Tower. My personal favorite so far is a game called Pandemic, from Z-Man Games, in which researchers and scientists from the Center for Disease Control battle plagues in a race against time. It’s quick to learn and you can play a complete game in about an hour, an invaluable trait for a game when your family is as busy as mine gets. With the On The Brink expansion, it has enough variations to make the game extremely re-playable. I still haven’t played the Mutation variation, but I am eager to.  The game is challenging to win, and fun to play.

Another excellent co-operative game is Witch of Salem, from Kosmos. Set in H. P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos, the Witch of Salem pits intrepid investigators against horrors from beyond the stars. A mad priest named Necron is trying to open a gate in Arkham Massachusetts to allow a Great Old One into the world. If he succeeds, the people that don’t get eaten immediately will go mad, then get eaten. Investigators travel the town, sealing gates and defeating monsters while they gather the information they need to stop Necron. I have yet to win this game in my several attempts, but I’ve come within one turn of winning twice, only to have hope snatched from my grasp at the last second.  Like Pandemic, you can play a full game in about an hour, give or take. It’s slightly more complicated than Pandemic as well, but it plays smoothly once you have the hang of it.

On the other end of the complexity scale is  Arkham Horror, from Fantasy Flight games. Like the Witch of Salem, Arkham Horror has ordinary mortals battling for survival in a town swarming with monsters zombies and . . .things. Another Lovecraft inspired game,it also features a Great Old One stirring and consequences most dire looming. While you can play Witch of Salem in an hour, Arkham Horror takes nearly that long just to set up, and can last eight hours or more easily. I have only played this game three times, and only finished it once. However, the game plays like a well written story, with quests, treasures and even some possible plot lines.  If you have a day to set aside, a game of Arkham Horror can make it a memorable one.

For an interesting twist on the co-operative game, I like Betrayal at House on the Hill, a re-release by Avalon Hill games. Several friends get together and explore the old House on the Hill for a lark, and wind up battling for their lives when one of them goes mad and tries to kill them. Or possibly they want to keep them from saving someone else, or maybe even take them home to their own dimension and save them in little jars on their shelves.  The beauty here is, you really don’t know. In terms of re-playablility, I have never seen any game that is the equal of Betrayal. The players build the House as they play, drawing room cards and placing them as they explore. At a randomly determined point in the game, a random player becomes a traitor. There are fifty possible haunt scenarios, each with its own set of winning conditions for each side. Most of the time you will know who the traitor is. Sometimes you won’t. And in a few cases, there isn’t a traitor at all, but something else threatens your lives and/or souls. So far, the game seems balanced so both the Traitor and the Heroes have an equal shot at victory. It has a wonderfully creepy atmosphere, and fairly intuitive game play.

If you have friends over and an hour or so to spare (Or a day or two in the case of Arkham Horror,) a game can be a great way to have fun. The games I mention here have kept my family happily entertained for hours. I think they would do the same for you.

Ascending Empires

Ascending Empires is a strategy board game for two to four players released by Z-Man Games . It costs $54.99, and is recommended for players 10 and up. The premise is simple. Humanity, driven off Earth by the Great Civil War, flees to the Andromeda galaxy. There four factions settle in the four quadrants of the galaxy, where they turn their starships into cities and build anew. Two hundred years later the four factions re-emerge into the new starscape and pick up where they left off. Players take over worlds, dig for materials, build infrastructure, develop technologies, and do battle amid the stars. The goal of the game is to have the most victory points, which are earned by successfully attacking other players, developing technology first, and holding planets. The more developed the planet, the more points it’s worth.

Setup is easy and takes about 5 minutes. The nine piece board snaps together like a jigsaw puzzle. It fits on a standard card table, but you’ll need somewhere to put your technology track and supply depots. I recommend a kitchen table. Planets are arranged in four predetermined stacks, based on how many people are playing. Each stack is then shuffled and placed randomly in one of four quadrants on the board. There are six different kinds of planets. Homeworlds, where each player starts,  four types of colored worlds, which determine what technologies can be developed there, and asteroids, which can do everything a colored planet can do except research.

Game play is simple and very fast. Each turn a player may take one action. Actions include recruiting, moving, building, developing technology or mining. A player recruits by putting troops on owned worlds.  Building happens by replacing designated troops and occasionally structures with other structures. Mining is simply removing troops  and gaining VPs.

Movement includes launching and landing spaceships. Worlds are claimed by landing spaceships on them. But movement is also where the element of randomness kicks in. Ships are moved by flicking or striking them across the jigsaw assembled board. Ships can flip on their side and roll, sending them far from their intended targets, or ricochet off worlds and carom off into deep space. Any ship that falls off the board is lost. If two ships collide, they are both destroyed. Combat is also part of the movement action, and happens automatically. If the active player outnumbers an enemy in range,  they are destroyed.

Technologies exist in four tiers, each with a different specialty.  Technology trees can improve your offense, your recruiting capacity, your movement, or your defenses. Each technology can only be developed on specific worlds, designated by color. Players have a limited number of research stations available, which forces them to choose carefully which technologies they want to develop. There are advantages to maxing a technology tree out, but there are advantages in diversifying, too.

This game is fast and fun. It takes a bit over an hour to play a complete game, but turns go by very quickly due to the simplicity of the rules. It doesn’t demand deep strategic thinking, but one does have to play smart to win. There are different paths to victory, which makes it nicely replayable.  It is challenging enough to keep an adult interested, and simple enough that that adult can still lose to their child. I give it four dice out of a possible five.

Coming Soon!

We are just getting started. More to come!

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