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Postcards from Tradocia

Category: board games

For the Emperor

The Emperor's Finest

You couldn’t tell they can’t walk sideways by looking at them

In what must be roughly 25 years of miniature gaming, modeling, and painting, I can say with little to no exaggeration that the twelve Space Marines pictured here are the first unit of anything that I’ve completed in that time. Not only that, but they’re my best work, largely thanks to greater patience (from being older) and the ultimate store of human knowledge known as YouTube.

In the old days, in order to learn how to paint miniatures, you had to a) read a book, b) know someone else who was good at it, or c) just figure it out yourself. Fantasy miniature painting is a bit of a niche hobby, so options A and C were pretty much it. Recently, though, when I decided to get back in to painting, I just fired up my browser and watched a guy do it. It all made sense when you could see the actual brush strokes!

These guys are from Space Hulk (4th edition), the latest incarnation of Games Workshop’s classic Aliens rip-off corridor shooter board game, first released in 1987 or so. It’s a tense two-player game that seems at first glance to be a tactical miniatures game, but soon reveals itself to be a time-limited tactical puzzle for one player and a gleeful disposable-dude simulator for the other. You see, the space marine player is on the clock: 3 minutes per turn to move your whole team, and those bulky guys have limited maneuverability. There are 16 scenarios in the box, and each one has a different layout of modular board tiles and different victory conditions and special rules. It’s the marine player’s job to spend his limited actions and precious armored dudes as efficiently as possible to achieve the scenario objective. He’s got several different weapons – gatling guns, flamethrowers, swords, psychic powers – but despite their heavy-looking armor, they all die in one hit, so failure is just one bad die roll away.

Meanwhile, the genestealer player usually has an unlimited supply of monsters to throw at the enemy, but no ranged weapons and nothing in the way of special abilities – but up close, they can mow down the space marines. Sometimes, though, just the threat of the genestealers is enough to enough to shut down the marine player’s plans, since if the marines aren’t aggressive enough, the genestealers will eventually clog the corridors, making a marine victory all but impossible.

It’s a great game overall, but despite the shiny coat of paint (literally – the tiles are the shiniest I’ve ever seen), it’s a classic old-school design, with all that entails. It means that while the game is streamlined, straightforward, and brutal, it’s also more puzzly than I’d like and some of the scenarios are poorly balanced. The game could almost be a co-op, since the genestealer player is usually just doing whatever is most obviously damaging to the marines. With nothing to do but either sit tight or run headlong into the guns of the marines, the genestealer player is often reduced to being the hand that cranks the meat grinder. And once the marine player “solves” a given scenario (for those where that’s possible), I’m not sure the genestealers can stop them.

Then again, those imbalances, rough edges, and unforgiving dice rolls are part of Space Hulk’s old-school charm, when the “technology” of board game design wasn’t as refined (or perhaps over-engineered) as it is today.

I Used to Bullseye Womp Rats

The problem with ship's-eye-view is you get a lot of pictures of guys' nuts

The problem with ship’s-eye-view is you get a lot of pictures of guys’ nuts

I’m not what you’d call the world’s biggest Star Wars fan. I love the original trilogy and all, but aside from a couple of video games, I never delved any deeper into the lore or the so-called “expanded universe,” and after the debacle of the prequel trilogy, I decided that Star Wars was dead to me.

My favorite thing about Star Wars – more so than light sabers or Jedi or Darth Vader – was the space combat. Space dogfighting makes no sense, but it’s awesome and it also makes the PC gamesĀ X-Wing andĀ TIE Fighter the best things to come out of Star Wars media. When Fantasy Flight Games released their X-Wing Miniatures Game two years ago, I didn’t pay much attention, but I should’ve known I would get sucked in eventually. It’s essentially Space Dogfight: The Game, and with my love of the PC games combined with my tabletop game renaissance, playing the game was almost a foregone conclusion.

I spent many hours of my youth playing other miniatures games like Warhammer 40,000 , and while X-Wing bears some similarities to that granddaddy of the genre, it is better in many ways while also being difficult to directly compare. X-Wing is a much faster game; a typical session is 60-90 minutes, while Warhammer is usually a multi-hour affair. This is largely a function of the smaller size of the game – the photo above shows all of the models on both sides during that game, compared to Warhammer which might feature a hundred or more models in a single battle.

Like in Warhammer, X-Wing has a squad-building component, where you select your force composition before battle, which is probably half the fun of the game. What’s becoming my favorite part of the game, though, is the mind game of choosing each of your ship’s maneuvers and trying to intuit what the opponent will choose. You see, each of your ships has a dial that is used to select its move for the turn, and these dials are placed face down on the board, only to be revealed when that ship comes up in the turn order. You have to choose your move without knowing what the opponent will do, and so you need a good grasp of the game state, each ship’s capabilities, and the mind of your opponent in order to win.

This sort of mind game is known as “yomi,” a term popularized by game designer and fighting game dude David Sirlin. He presents this idea:

Yomi is the Japanese word reading, as in reading the mind of the opponent. If you can condition your enemy to act in a certain way, you can then use his own instincts against him (a concept from the martial art of Judo). Paramount in the design of competitive games is the guarantee to the player that if he knows what his enemy will do, there is some way to counter it.

What happens, though, when your enemy knows that you know what he will do? He needs a way to counter you. He’s said to be on another level than you, or another “Yomi Layer.” You knew what he would do (yomi), but he knew that you knew (Yomi Layer 2). What happens when you know that he knows that you know what he will do (Yomi Layer 3)? You’ll need a way to counter his counter. And what happens when he knows that you know….

It’s this sort of recursive thought process that happens during maneuver selection in X-Wing (at least, among people who have played enough to be familiar with the game and the moves available). Actually, the game may not meet Sirlin’s criterion of three “yomi layers,” since there are often situations where each ship has a limited number of viable moves, and despite knowing with high confidence what the opponent will do, you may not have a counter-move available.

At first, this aspect of the game wasn’t apparent to me, as all I worried about was avoiding ramming my ships into asteroids and each other. Move selection at the outset, then, was mostly about just making the game work on a basic level. But as I’ve become more experienced, I’m better able to “see” the battlefield, and visualize both my own moves and those of the opponent.

All told, the game is a worthy addition to the space dogfight heritage of Star Wars, but more importantly, it’s a good game on its own merits, not just for being able to repeatedly make groan-inducing quips from the movies (“they came…from…behind…!”).

A Game of Thrones card game overview

I’ve been playing so much of this damn game lately (and thinking about it, and dreaming about it, and reading about it, and…) that I figured I should pimp it on here. It’s great! Here’s why:

THE FORMAT

A Game of Thrones (or AGoT) was originally a conventional CCG like Magic: The Gathering, but later became FFG’s first foray into a Living Card Game (LCG). In the LCG format, each card pack has a fixed set of cards instead of a random one, and chapter packs (as boosters are called) are released on a more-or-less monthly basis. To date, there are five series of chapter packs with six packs each, four “deluxe” boxed expansions, and the core set. Total cost (MSRP) for one of every product is $490, though you certainly don’t need one of everything and you might want more than one of some others.

The basis of the game is FFG’s favorite new term, the Core Set. It’s $40 and has four preconstructed decks of 45 cards each, the rulebook, and a cute little board and miniatures that are used when playing with more than 2 people. Like Warhammer: Invasion, you can just buy the Core Set and be done with it; unlike Warhammer, the precon decks are a little boring and you’ll quickly find yourself wanting at least a few more cards to round out the game.

Each of the four boxed expansions is a little different. Two of them – Kings of the Sea and Princes of the Sun – each add another faction to the game (Greyjoy and Martell, for you Martin fans). The other two – Kings of the Storm and Lords of the North – expand on existing factions (Baratheon and Stark, respectively).

The chapter packs are arranged into “cycles” of six packs each, with each cycle having some sort of unifying thematic and mechanical concept. For example, the Time of Ravens cycle focuses on a “seasons” mechanic, where players can make it “winter” or “summer,” which is both thematic and game-changing. For the first four cycles, the packs were 40 cards each, with some cards being 1 per pack and others being 3 per pack. The last cycle (and all others going forward) has 3 of each card for a total of 60 cards per pack.

THE MECHANICS

I’m not going to break down the entire rulebook here; as with all FFG products, it’s available on their site, along with the official FAQ. Instead, I’m going to highlight three of the mechanics that I think make the game kick ass.

All men must dieThe first is the plot deck. The plot deck is a separate deck that contains seven cards; each turn, each player chooses one of his plot cards and reveals it. Your plot card determines your income, initiative, and claim value (which determines how much damage you inflict during challenges, to be discussed later) for that turn, in addition to having some other game effect. Once a plot card is used, you cannot use it again until you have cycled through all seven of your plots (if the game lasts that long, which it often doesn’t).

Obviously, selecting your plot cards is a crucial part of deckbuilding because they need to provide enough income to play your cards, as well as have the effects that you need to further your strategy (or interfere with the opponent’s). Choosing plot cards during the game is also crucial, as timing is everything. In fact, choosing plots in a tight game is a great expression of David Sirlin’s “yomi” concept, and adds yet another fateful decision to a game that’s full of them.

The second mechanic I’ll discuss is the draw cap. Each turn, during the aptly named Draw Phase, each player draws two cards from his or her deck. Other game effects may allow a player to draw more cards, but you can never draw more than three additional cards (above the two you get in the Draw Phase). This keeps the lid on weird builds that cycle through the entire deck in a turn (as mentioned in Dragonstout’s recent Magic article) and puts the focus on tactical play and making the most of the cards in hand.

The lord and author himselfThe third mechanic that makes the game great is the Challenges phase. Challenges are the combat mechanic in the game, and the procedure is broadly similar to that of Magic (attackers vs. defenders, count up numerical strength, higher number wins, ties break to attacker). Unlike Magic, however, there are three types of challenges: military, intrigue, and power. Military challenges kill the defender’s characters. Intrigue challenges remove cards from the defender’s hand. Power challenges take power tokens from the defender’s total and add it to the attacker’s. (Accumulating power tokens – typically 15 – is the win condition in this game, but there are other ways to get them besides the power challenge.)

The challenges phase is fraught with decisions, because not every character has every icon (unlike George pictured here), and only characters with the appropriate icon can participate in that type of challenge. Additionally, defenders as well as attackers must be tapped (or knelt, as this game calls it), which means that if you play second during the turn, you may choose to take some hits in order to preserve your ability to strike back.

The diversity of challenges means that there are many ways to win. You might focus on the military challenge, killing opponents’ characters so they can’t do anything. The intrigue challenge strips the opponent of cards, which can be crippling given the aforementioned draw cap. Focus on the power challenge leads to a “rush” strategy that can result in a quick win.


OTHER COMMENTS

This game has the most airtight rules system of any I’ve played. The official FAQ breaks down the game in such lawyer-like detail that there’s virtually no room for argument during a game; in my few months playing, I’ve never seen anyone even get mildly cranky about a rules interpretation. There are a few vague spots, as is inevitable with a game like this, but none that are game-breaking.

The playerbase is exceptionally mature and friendly. No kids play this game. Everyone I’ve met playing the game – and on FFG’s forums – has been a decent guy. The douchebag factor is extremely low.

The game designer (Nate French) is very accessible. He’ll answer rules questions directly by email, and he plays regularly at the FFG Event Center.

There’s a print-and-play sample of the game on FFG’s site, and there’s also unofficial (but semi-sanctioned) online play through the OCTGN program.

I wish there was more promotion for the game. It’s hardly advertised, the league play seems largely unsupported, and there’s no new player outreach of any kind. It’s a hard game to get into, but great once you do.

If you’ve enjoyed Magic and are a fan of George R.R. Martin’s novels, you’re almost sure to like AGoT. If you don’t like his books or haven’t read them, though, you can still enjoy the game for what it is: a tightly constructed, affordable, brain-burner of a card game.

The Journey

Gaming has been a hobby of mine for over twenty years. I received the red D&D box as a gift when I was about ten, and my dad bought Axis & Allies right around the same time, thus sinking the twin hooks of role playing and board gaming into me at a young age. In my teens I did my best to buy my parents out of house and home by devouring every RPG and miniature game product in sight, spending hours at the FLGS (Friendly Local Game Store, in internet parlance) playing, plotting, and idolizing the proprietor (John – who was godlike in my eyes, by simultaneously going to college, working at a game store, AND having an attractive wife who played games!).

Why my parents never cut me off is beyond me – being a spoiled only child has its advantages, I guess – and somehow my dad was able to feed the family alongside my growing habit. Naturally, though, it was mostly my mom who bought me the stuff (being both the master of coin and susceptible to my wheedling for more stuff), and this led to a shocking revelation one day when my dad took me there instead. The store had a kind of rewards program, with a punch card that got you $10 of stuff after spending $100; the cards were stored in a card file behind the register and John would keep all of your used cards stapled together, in some hall-of-shame type of deal. This was revealed when my dad went to pay for my latest purchase and John pulled my card from the file to add the punches – revealing the thick stack of already-filled cards. His eyes widened and he exclaimed, “how much has your mother spent on you in this place?” I just grinned sheepishly, knowing he could count the cards as well as I could, and he grudgingly forked over the cash. (Thanks, dad!)

At any rate, I proceeded down the parallel roads of Games Workshop hobby gaming and tabletop RPGs, eventually sinking vast amounts of my own money into the stuff. But after high school ended and my gaming friends went their separate ways for college, I found myself drifting away from the game scene. I had a hard time finding a new circle of gamers, being introverted but somehow not weird or socially awkward enough to fit in with game groups at the campus or game store – in other words, a regular guy, unable to mesh with the Asperger’s cases in the gaming population.

Some friends in college really got into Eurogames (or Euros, a genre of board games known for their abstract themes and wooden blocks), and I figured hey, I like games, let’s give this stuff a shot! I don’t remember what games they had us play (Catan was in there I’m sure, and maybe Carcassone – I didn’t do much drinking then but probably should have given his selections), but the whole time I had to make laser sound effects and pretend I was laying waste to the countryside every time I placed a wooden dude on an alpaca farm or whatever, just to keep from passing out. They laughed awkwardly and I’m sure thought I was weird, and I did too – like, hey, these are games, you used to like them, what happened?

That was ten years ago, and in the intervening years I didn’t do much gaming, mostly turning to video games instead. But recently, I figured out what bothered me about those Euros: I wanted to play games where decisions mattered, where you walked the razor-thin line between victory and defeat, life and death! Where the victor would be decided in a battle of wits and with bare bloody fists (expertly abstracted by a series of dice rolls, natch), not by using a spreadsheet to calculate the optimum path!

So, in the last six months, I’ve returned full force to the gaming hobby, buying boxes of cardboard and plastic shit left and right and geeking out on rulebooks and gaming websites nonstop. To Mrs. Melobi’s credit, she’s taking it in stride, as she has with all of my hobbies – and she actually enjoys this one! It’s great fun, but the stuff piles up fast. Hopefully we can move next year before our house sinks into the earth, because I’m pretty sure we’ve exceeded the load rating for this place, having crammed more stuff in here than I ever thought possible.

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