, | Features
space_halls

I start the game by distributing the crew around the ship. Captain Neema Strof starts on “C” Deck in Pod 3 near the risor. Science Officer L.J. Gepidus is on “B” Deck, as is Maintenance Officer Najeb Kelly, although he’s all the way down the hall at the other end. Ground Survey Officer Blnt Skraaling and Biology Officer Hesiod Charybdis (I am not making any of these names up) start together up on “A” Deck, in the same pod no less.

After the jump, the adventures of Blnt and Hesiod Continue reading →

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black_hole_cygnus

The history of gaming is distinct, I think, from the history of gaming ideas. Gaming has been such a fragmented hobby that very often people weren’t aware of their peers’ ideas, leading to a lot of reinventing of the wheel. This struck me the other day when I was reading an excerpt from “Designing Modern Strategy Games” by George Phillies and Tom Vasel. Phillies is an old hand from the days of 1960s boardgaming, but what grabbed my attention was not about him, but about someone else. A guy named Sid Sackson. The excerpt below comes from that book. The “I” in the excerpt is Phillies.

Once upon a time, [I] had the good fortune to visit the greatest American board game designer, Sid Sackson, at his New York home. Sackson had by far the largest collection of traditional board games in the world. (He did not collect board wargames.) He estimated to me that he had 20,000 distinct titles. I can confirm that almost every room of his house was filled from floor to ceiling with games, including shelves in the middle of every room except the kitchen. He also had various game fragments, such as the cover of Race to the North Pole, a nineteenth-century game about a race to the North Pole via Montgolfier balloon. The collection was carefully organized, so that he could find whichever game he wanted almost immediately. Sackson’s game library was backed by a set of notebooks, so that when I described design elements of games from my board wargame collection, he rapidly inserted those details into a notebook and indexed them.

I have never heard of Sid Sackson, even though he wrote a column in the 1970s in Strategy & Tactics magazine, and has a Wikipedia page. That is almost certainly my loss. But if someone like me who plays (or at least knows about) a fair number of boardgames has never heard of the greatest American designer of such games, you can at least make an argument that someone should be doing a better job of spreading this information around. Oh, for those notebooks! So many designers were working in a vacuum, oblivious to all the game mechanics Sackson catalogued, reinventing wheels and warp drives.

But games do carry a flavor of their time, and picking up a box from thirty years ago can either dissuade you with the musty smell of outdated implementation, or entice you with the allure of imagination. There is a lot of imagination in games about spaceships. One particular one — The Wreck of the BSM Pandora by Jim Dunnigan and Redmond Simonsen — has about equal parts imagination and frustration. For the time, that was probably a big win. If only they’d had Sackson’s notebooks.

After the jump, the big win Continue reading →

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starcutter

This is Free Trader Beowulf, calling anyone … Mayday, Mayday … we are under attack … main drive is gone … turret number one not responding … Mayday … losing cabin pressure fast … calling anyone … please help … this is Free Trader Beowulf … Mayday …

–cover of the original Traveller game box

One of my favorite books as a child was this oversize picture book called Space Wars Worlds and Weapons. It’s basically just a big book of paintings of science fiction stuff: aliens, planets, and lots of spaceships. There is some desultory text trying to tie these themes together, but it’s really all about the pictures.

The book starts out with a section on “space vehicles,” and the text quickly bogs down.

However you call it — star ship, rocket ship, space machine — the space ship is the foremost, some would say ultimate, sf symbol. If science fiction is all about other worlds, then the space ship is a part of that other-worldliness, connecting solar systems and universes … the public transportation factor.

After the jump, space fare Continue reading →

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To_Stop_a_Titan

There’s one last element to the scenario — a huge Titan bearing down on a space colony — I didn’t mention yesterday, and that is that the space lords have sent us a relief force!

Roll one die at the beginning of the End/Repair Phase and record a running total. When the total is equal to or greater than 12, the TDF player receives reinforcements (BCH, BC, CA x4) within 2 hexes of (E). This happens once per game.

Oh but it’s not here, yet.

After the jump, I’m sure it will arrive any minute. Continue reading →

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title_pic

Sci-fi? Sure, I like it, but only the trashy stuff. Not so much trashy as phony. The kind I can dip into between shifts, read a few pages at a time, and then drop. Oh, I read good books, too, but only Earthside. Why that is, I don’t really know. Never stopped to analyze it. Good books tell the truth, even when they’re about things that never have been and never will be. They’re truthful in a different way. When they talk about outer space, they make you feel the silence, so unlike the Earthly kind — and the lifelessness. Whatever the adventures, the message is always the same: humans will never feel at home out there. Earth has something random, fickle about it — here a tree, there a wall or garden, over the horizon another horizon, beyond the mountain a valley … but not out there.
–Stanisław Lem, “Tales of Pirx the Pilot”

I have always thought that science fiction, despite being forever linked with fantasy in the “fantasy/sci fi” section of bookstores and libraries, was actually best appreciated by adults. Unlike traditional* fantasy, which is wrapped up in quests and knowledge acquisition which are essentially coming-of-age concerns that resonate best with adolescents and young adults, science fiction at its best challenges our notions of what is possible by stripping away all the things we find familiar, and thus letting us examine fundamental beliefs and assumptions we have spent a lifetime constructing. It also taps our fascination with the unknown, specifically, that of distance.

After the jump, how far is far? Continue reading →

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, | Game reviews
Matilda_tank1

Never underestimate the effectiveness of direct mail marketing. A few days ago, I got an email from a site called Wargame Downloads. The name kind of gives it away. It’s a site that has a bunch of print-and-play games, mostly about historical subjects but not without the occasional elf or sportsman. I wrote about it a few months ago after buying a couple neat solitaire games. For a few bucks each, how can you lose? One of the games not mentioned in that article is called Baptism at Bardia. It comes in standard print-and-play format: color printer and glue stick required. But then I got the email: Baptism at Bardia has been released for PC! Straight to the site I went. It cost $12. If the Wargame Downloads guys can figure out a way to make each one of their emails turn into twelve bucks, they can probably afford to start printing and selling some of those wargames themselves.

After the jump, what twelve bucks buys these days Continue reading →

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Eastern_Front_1941

See that? That’s a screenshot of one of the most amazing things I ever saw in wargaming: snow in 1941. As I pointed out a while back, that’s more of an observation about what computers could do for wargames back in 1981 than doubt about the weather in Russia. So I was glad the third bullet point in Shenandoah’s press release for their newly announced game, Drive on Moscow, proclaimed “a changing map based on weather conditions.”

After the jump, I predict famous designers. Continue reading →

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imba

Balance is like the reverse of pornography: everyone can give you a definition, but no one seems to be able to know when they see it. Oh sure, they think they know. Plenty of people will tell you that this race is overpowered, or that class is imba, and people go on to repeat it until it takes on a life of its own. I’ve seen plenty of game reviews declare a game is balanced or imbalanced, often on release day when I’m not sure how anyone can know that for sure.

The problem with balance is that just because someone hasn’t won with a particular race, or strategy, or build, doesn’t mean they can’t. Likewise, just because you found a strategy that won a bunch of games early doesn’t mean there isn’t a much better strategy that someone just hasn’t figured out yet. Or more pointedly, that they haven’t used against you.

But, after the jump, Battle of the Bulge is imba! Continue reading →

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Christmas_44_in_the_Ardennes

With so much die rolling in Battle of the Bulge, you’re bound to hear a number of complaints when things don’t go someone’s way. It’s the case with any game where you roll dice, and you can make an argument that the complaining is just as much a part of the game as the act of rolling. “You sank my battleship!” “Pretty sneaky, sis.” Et cetera. But there are a couple of places in Bulge where the customer service seems to be particularly bad.

One of those places is Eupen.

After the jump, how do you say that, again? Continue reading →

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A long time ago, strategy articles about boardgames went through an extensive process to get to you. First, they had to be typed. Diagrams had to be mocked up. They then had to be mailed to an editor, who put them in a magazine, which had to be printed and mailed. Eventually, they appeared in your mailbox.

Those days are gone, and I’m a little sad about it. Now, people apparently watch gameplay videos. That’s okay, I guess. There is a set of gameplay videos up for Battle of the Bulge which I haven’t watched yet. Videos are great for watching, but less great for savoring. You can bet that’s what I did with every morsel of strategy advice I ever read for Afrika Korps. Maybe games are more disposable now, or maybe they always were and I just didn’t know it. But there is something to examining a game methodically, and turning it over and over until you have a better appreciation of what it offers. Even if it doesn’t come in a cool magazine.

After the jump, first we take Bastogne Continue reading →

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I’m not quite sure exactly what it is about wargames that befuddles people. Something about NATO symbology* which translates armored units into rectangles with ovals in them. Or hexagons. I know some people don’t like hexagons. Although Neuroshima Hex has those as well, and it does all right.

I think the biggest obstacle to playing wargames is all the weird things you have to be aware of to play a game properly, without any way to judge how important they may be. Wargames sometimes make you use tools that you often didn’t even know you had. One of those is unit breakdown.

After the jump, is your Panzerkampfwagen under warranty? Continue reading →

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A very accomplished game designer once told me his best ideas were mostly borrowed, but that he made them his own in the way he arranged and adapted them to a setting. Part of good design, he said, is knowing what works in a particular situation, and why. Good ideas keep coming around in new forms for a reason. They are borrowed, adapted and thus evolve, while the bad ones are discarded.

So it always puzzled me that computer wargames didn’t seem to have this evolving pool of good ideas. Instead, too often they were races to the bottom of some massive simulation pit, at the nadir of which was presumably an infinitely complex reality modeling engine. In retrospect, it was logical: when your platform is a supremely powerful computation device, it makes sense to make it compute as much as possible.

But nothing shakes up the status quo like a new platform that behaves like a new habitat, forcing its inhabitants to adapt or die. John Butterfield’s Battle of the Bulge feels like a game designed from the ground up for the tablet and its touchscreen*, where simple rules and clean design are ambitions instead of compromises. It’s also a fascinating example of how a hobby that once strove for superlative accuracy is willing to compromise in the name of superlative gameplay.

After the jump, dance of the wargaming masters Continue reading →

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, | Game diaries

By now we’re at the fourth installment in this new War in the East series, and you’re probably wondering if I’m ever going to attack another hex, or if I’m going to just keep going to my closet and pulling out different games about Stalingrad. I assure you that both of those things are definitely going to happen. But I also promise that before this post is done, I will have attacked many hexes and shown you several actual in-game screenshots. But before that happens, I have to tell you a story. It’s kind of long, but at the end you’ll know a little more about what I’m trying to tell you. If you don’t like it, I promise to give you your money back.

After the jump, follow me down the board wargaming rabbit hole Continue reading →

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, | Game diaries

Before we can get to the fight for Stalingrad or whatnot, there is the small question of Sevastopol. This naval base on the Crimean peninsula, famous as the site of the focus of the Crimean War in 1855, was the home of the Soviet Black Sea Fleet in 1941 and stood as a fortress through a 250-day siege until it finally fell to the Germans in 1942. In War in the East’s Operation Blue scenario, the Soviets get 50 points for every turn they control the city. That’s a lot of points, so I need to make an all-out assault on the first turn to limit the damage to my final victory.

After the jump, Germany made an all-out assault of their own. Continue reading →

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, | Game diaries

When you start watching The Two Towers, you get a little reminder of important stuff that happened earlier, like the wizard who fell off the bridge fighting the flaming minotaur. It’s an integral part of the Lord of the Rings, because the mistakes made earlier in the story lead to the choices available to the protagonists at the start of the second book.

When you start reading any book about Stalingrad, you get a little reminder of important stuff that happened earlier, like Operation Barbarossa. It’s an integral part of the Stalingrad story, because the mistakes of the previous year’s campaign led to the choices available to the Germans at the beginning of the second summer in Russia.

Explanations are good, because things seem weird and arbitrary if you don’t know why they happened, whether it is two midgets taking a two-thousand-league trek into the heartland of a genocidal warlord, or a genocidal warlord fighting a campaign two thousand leagues into the middle of nowhere. On the other hand, sometimes things just seem weird and arbitrary.

After the jump, David Glantz vs. J.R.R. Tolkien Continue reading →

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