Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Shooting in the dark

With a few exceptions, space combat as depicted in the various Star Trek television series and films has never been what I would describe as "action-packed." That isn't to say that it isn't dramatic: in my opinion, the original series episode "Balance of Terror" is one of the best space battles ever put on film, and the battle in the Mutara Nebula between Kirk and Khan in Star Trek II is a very close second.

Those battles take their cues from World War II submarine movies, slowly building tension rather than going for fast movement and explosions. While this makes for excellent drama, it may not necessarily translate into interesting gaming.

Starship Duel, designed by Heroclix mastermind Jordan Weisman and published by FASA in 1984, attempts to recreate the dramatic tension seen in the space battles from Star Trek II and III. To its credit, the game tries to do something different, foregoing the traditional board with miniatures or counters representing the ships in favor of a wheel that shows the other ship's position and heading relative to yours, with no accounting for distance.

Game play involves trying to anticipate the direction your opponent is going to move. Your ship has a limited amount of power, so you have to decide which side of your ship to charge the weapons and shields on, hoping that your opponent's ship will end up in the right position, and ideally that you'll catch him from a side that he hasn't charged his shields on.

On paper, it sounds very much like space combat the way it was depicted in Star Trek at the time, with ships floundering in the dark and never seeming to have enough power to fight effectively. In practice, however, it can be frustrating. It is often difficult to visualize the position of the ships, and in the end it's mainly a guessing game, as you try to put power into the weapons and shields that you hope will be facing your opponent.

It was an interesting idea that just didn't translate into a playable game, and FASA quickly abandoned it in favor of the more traditional Starship Tactical Combat Simulator.

Rating: 1 (out of 5) While we applaud the effort to try something different, we found this game to be frustrating and difficult to play.

Date played: October 26, 2014

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Too much like something else

With a feature film, 10 seasons on television, two spin-off series and two TV movies, you would be hard pressed to call the Stargate franchise anything other than successful. There was clearly an audience for the series and the stories it told, so it's not too difficult to see why someone thought a Stargate Trading Card Game would be a good idea.

In broad terms, the Stargate series tells the same kinds of stories that Star Trek does, with the Stargate itself taking the place of the Enterprise's transporter room as the device used to deliver the characters to the action. Like Star Trek, most Stargate episodes involve the characters arriving on a new planet and getting involved in some kind of plot there, with the occasional story taking place at Stargate Command, much like the ship-bound episodes of Star Trek. The point being that, like Star Trek, Stargate is about stories and intrigue more than it is about fighting and conflict, and the game's publishers seem to have understood that, to the extent that they hired several game designers who had worked on Decipher's Star Trek CCG to develop the Stargate card game.

The similarity between the two properties shows, but unfortunately so do Stargate's shortcomings. Faced with the relatively small number of underdeveloped alien cultures depicted on the show, the game designers opted for a setup similar to Decipher's Lord of the Rings Trading Card Game, with each player given control of their own crew of series regulars that exist independently of their opponent's crew.

The game play is understandably similar to the Star Trek CCG: a turn consists of a mission being played by the active player, which has a set of requirements, such as Culture, Combat, Ingenuity, or Science. The active player sends his characters to the mission, reinforcing them with gear and event cards, while the opponent plays obstacles and adversaries in order to make the mission more difficult. If the active player succeeds, he has the option to either keep going if he thinks he has enough unused characters to solve another mission, or stop if he doesn't.

When the active player's turn ends, the players switch roles, with the opponent now playing a mission and sending his characters to try to win out against the first player's obstacles and adversaries. It's a solid solution to the "good guys vs. bad guys" problem that faces game designers working on a licensed property, but in this case it combines with several other game features that are also taken from the Decipher Lord of the Rings TCG, such as a token based card cost system to balance the number and power level of the cards each player can play. Even the method of playing missions is very similar to the site path featured in Lord of the Rings. It makes for a game that feels very derivative and doesn't offer anything new other than the Stargate setting.

Rating: 2 (out of 5) This game would probably be fine for a fan of the Stargate franchise and trading card games, but we found it to be too mechanically similar to Lord of the Rings, and too thematically similar to Star Trek, with none of the depth or texture of either.

Date played: October 26, 2014

Friday, November 7, 2014

The theme's the thing

I imagine that most of designer Reiner Knizia's games begin as abstract concepts before having a theme grafted on to them. With a few modifications, Through the Desert could be played with the symbol and color based tiles from Ingenious, and its game play is similar in that it is about placing tiles (or in this case, little plastic camels) in rows on a hex grid, in an attempt to create the largest groups of adjacent matching pieces.

But rather than being a criticism of the common features many of Knizia's games have, I think this example is an excellent illustration of why theme is so important in tabletop games. While some gamers may reduce all the games they play to their core mechanics and strategy, I believe that this is the exception rather than the rule, and the majority of these types of gamers tend to gravitate toward games like poker or chess, where they can explore pure strategy.

Most gamers (us included) play games in order to be immersed in another world. It doesn't matter whether it's a world of elves and goblins or real estate brokers, the point is that we get transported to a world different from our own, and the game mechanics merely provide a useful way to frame the experience in terms of strategy and competition (or cooperation, in may cases).

In Through the Desert, players take on the roles of caravan leaders. The game is played on an irregular hexagonal grid, with several spaces marked out as oases, and many more marked as watering holes with various point values. There are five piles of different colored camels, and the game starts with each player placing one of each color on the board, marked with a rider identifying whose camel it is.

After this setup, players take turns placing camels of the various colors, which must be placed adjacent to a camel of the same color connected to the one with that player's rider on it, and cannot be adjacent to another player's camel of the same color. The goal is to earn points create lines of camels that connect to the oasis spaces and through the watering hole spaces, and also to enclose areas of desert, cutting them off from opponent's pieces.

It's a little hard to describe without having the game in front of you, but it makes perfect sense once you start playing. There is almost no random chance involved, other than the point value of the watering holes when they are first placed. The game consists entirely of the strategy involved in choosing what color of camel to place, and where to place it, adjusting your plans based on what your opponents are doing.

Sure, Through the Desert could be played with abstract pieces on an abstract board, but then it wouldn't be a game about caravan leaders guiding their lines of camels across the barren wastes in search of the best routes between watering holes. It would just be about putting markers on a board, and that wouldn't transport you anywhere.

Rating: 3 (out of 5) a solid strategy game whose mechanics fit the theme very well, even if that theme isn't overly compelling.

Date played: October 19, 2014

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The undisputed king of adventure games

Talisman was the first adventure board game I ever played. It showed me that board games could be more than Monopoly or Clue, and it set me down a life-long path of gaming that I can't see ever straying from. To this day, the games I like best tend to be the ones that remind me of Talisman in some way, like Firefly, Fortune and Glory, or Runebound. Those games have all improved on Talisman's formula, to the extent that they get played a lot more often than Talisman does, but respect must be paid to the game that, for me, started it all.

The game structure will be familiar, since so many other games have copied it. Each player takes on the role of a character with specific strengths and weaknesses, whose goal it is to wander around the board fighting monsters and gathering treasure, weapons and magic items. Eventually, players must fight their way to the center of the board where they will assume the Crown of Command and attempt to use it to knock the rest of the players out of the game.

It is this sense of open-ended adventure that I love most about Talisman, the idea that you can just wander around the countryside encountering bandits, dragons, kindly wizards, and bags of gold inexplicably laying in the middle of the road. I enjoy the journey so much that I usually have to remind myself that there is an end goal: I would much rather just explore the world.

However, because the characters get gradually stronger as they defeat more foes, eventually you find that run-of-the-mill goblins are too easy to beat, and it's time to head to the center of the board and try to win. In many ways, this is where Talisman's game play falls a little flat for me.

In the base game, the center of the board is occupied by the Crown of Command, which can be used to force the other players to either admit defeat or grow gradually weaker. However, if another player manages to make it to the middle, you have to fight it out using all the weapons, armor and spells you've gathered on your journey. If the other player manages to defeat you, they then take up the Crown and go to work on the other players.

It's amusing, but at the same time it makes Talisman into an elimination game like Monopoly, and it can take a long time to determine a winner as players stubbornly hold on to life in an effort to knock the Crown of Command from your head.

One of the expansions I have (my copy is the Second Edition from 1985, rather than the current version published by Fantasy Flight Games) replaces the Crown with one of six random, surprise endings, so that the first player to reach the center doesn't necessarily know what they're getting into. Choices range from the Belt of Hercules, which allows you to teleport around the board picking fights with the other players, to the Demon Lord, a powerful enemy whose defeat wins you the game, to the Horrible Black Void, which simply destroys the first player to land on it.

My favorite is the Dragon King, whose reaction is random: he could just eat you out of hand, he could attack you, or he might even decide he likes you and head out to devour your opponents.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) Even though later games that have followed in Talisman's footsteps have improved on its adventure game formula, you just can't beat the original.

  • Talisman official website for the revised Fourth Edition
  • Talisman on

Date played: October 18, 2014

Aligning the symbols

When we play The Stars Are Right, I often joke about how much I hate it, but that's not really true. It really is a fun little game, and what I don't like is that my brain just isn't wired the right way to be good at it.

There are two elements to the game: a deck of cards, from which every player holds a hand of five, and a 5x5 grid of double-sided tiles in the center of the table. The tiles are printed with different symbols, and the idea is that each player needs to manipulate these tiles so that the symbols appear in the right patterns to bring their cards (representing Lovecraft's Great Old Ones and their minions) into play.

It's a lot harder than it sounds. Cards are printed with a particular pattern of symbols, which need to be found in the 5x5 grid in order to play the card. The more powerful the creature on the card, the more complex the pattern, and the more points the card is worth when played.

The cards are also printed with different combinations of moves that allow players to either flip a tile over (revealing the symbol on the other side) swap the places of two adjacent tiles, or push a whole row so that all five tiles move up one space, moving the tile on the end to the opposite side of the row. In this way, the symbols in the grid of tiles are constantly shifting and changing as players try to align the symbols in the right way to get their creatures into play.

Since the tiles are constantly shifting (especially in a game with three or four players), it is virtually impossible to plan more than one move ahead. If you need multiple turns to get the symbols aligned to play your Cthulhoo or Hastur card, chances are something is going to change between now and then, destroying your carefully laid plans. Maybe this is why Lovecraftian cultists are always insane...

It's really a game about spotting opportunities and seizing them. I tend to be a deliberate, methodical thinker, and I always want to win with the big, impressive creatures rather than the small, easier to play ones, so I'm always trying to control the board. And in this game, the board is uncontrollable.

Fortunately, I know the difference between a bad game and a good game that I'm just not very good at, and I don't need to be good at a game to enjoy playing it.

Rating 3 (out of 5) Too chaotic to allow for much in the way of strategy, but definitely an exercise in thinking on your feet.

Date played: October 18, 2014