Archive for the ‘ Gaming ’ Category

Making It Suntory Time

Last week, MK and I blew out of town to go hang out with Julian Murdoch for a few days, and the ensuing visit was like a G-rated Swingers: hard drinking, gaming to exhaustion, running around in a forest, playing games with Jen and Peter, dinner with Hasbro’s Rob Daviau and Lindsay Braun, and a surprise visit from the ATF.

OK, that last part isn’t strictly true. But it was pretty awesome nonetheless.

I’m becoming more and more convinced that the board gaming strategy scene is far healthier than what we generally have on PC. It’s not that the games themselves are superior, but their variety and playability leaves me envious. So many board games can be fully understood by the end of the first or second turn, while I can play a game like Europa Universalis or Starcraft II for months without really grasping what’s happening underneath the hood. If strategy depends on understanding, then board games get players strategizing almost instantly. With PC games, there tends to be a long, perhaps endless, period of fumbling in the dark before the game becomes clear. Board games have a short run-up from Learning to Fun. PC games tend to play a more dangerous game, promising that more and deeper fun awaits if you’re just willing to play these half-dozen tutorials and wear out your “alt” and “tab” keys  flipping between the game and the PDF manual.

Different platforms, different markets, I know. But still, I love the straightforward trade-offs of Fresco and Agricola, with their cruelly limited number of actions per turn and scant resources. I was amazed at how Formula D, a board game about auto racing, so successfully translated the essence of racing onto a playing field of spaces, dice, and counters. Rob and Lindsay brought over a game, Catacombs, that involved little more than hurling little blocks across a board and stealing turns, but it managed to offer great team play and fast-changing tactics.

On the other hand, board games have it easy because the game’s community is right there in the room with you. Who cares how big the player base is, when all it takes to get a game going is one copy and a couple friends? Board games can court minimalism, and choose oddball themes, because they require so much less of an audience than do PC games.

Beyond that, I also learned valuable information such as: G’vine gin makes a brilliant martini, Suntory’s Yamazaki single-malt is a solid but indistinct scotch, and the new Sherlock is brilliant except for one little problem: the mysteries and plotting are actually not very clever at all, which leaves Moffat’s Holmes looking uncharacteristically dense and careless at times.

Final thought: I love the setting and the themes behind Bioshock Infinite, but I hate the Bioshock branding. More than that, however, I resent a gaming community that complains about branding and lack of “original IP” (a term which adopts the bloodless corporate term for what we used to call an idea) while doing nothing to create an environment that fosters risk-taking and originality.

Thank God, I Have Done My Duty

You may have heard something about me working on a review. The game was Making History 2, and the review just went up at GameShark.

This was a game I volunteered to review because I was interested in it, and I liked the guys making it. Had I known, going in, that I would dislike the game so much, I would never have volunteered for the assignment. With something like this, you go into it hoping you’ll have something to champion. Unfortunately, there’s always the chance that something you wanted to like will turn out to be a huge disappointment.

Starcraft II Round-Up

Longtime TMA listeners and readers know that I’ve been deeply skeptical of Starcraft II for quite awhile, and now that I’ve played it, I think my skepticism was well founded. However, I didn’t expect to like the direction Blizzard have gone nearly as much as I do.

But I don’t think it’s the towering achievement that it is so often portrayed to be. In fact, I think this is one of the toughest games to assess.

Last night, Tom Chick rejoined us on TMA, and ex-Gamasutra writer and future Irrational employee Chris Remo stopped by to share his thoughts. We had a fantastic discussion, and wrestled with the many problems Starcraft II poses for those trying to judge it. Go give it a listen.

However, I also penned some thoughts of my own for Gamers With Jobs, a site at which I will now be writing regularly. This is exciting. GWJ is probably my favorite gaming community, and I’m friends with just about everyone who writes there. In fact, my not writing there was starting to seem a bit odd. So they took me in, and I promptly picked a fight about Starcraft II.

Go read my first piece for the site, and enjoy the brisk discussion that follows.

Clearing the Rubble

Having a review assignment go spectacularly wrong feels a bit like being John Dortmunder. Dortmunder was the protagonist of Donald Westlake’s comic novels, a brilliant but hopelessly unlucky professional thief who always had the best plans for pulling down a huge score, but who always watched it all go wrong in slow-motion tragi-comedy. While the general arc of the stories was formulaic, the adventures themselves were not, and it was always a joy to watch the new and horrific ways it could all go wrong. But of course, to Dortmunder it was all deadly serious.

I went through a similar thing with this last review. I thought I’d identified a good job, something that would be quick and rewarding, and I sold a a few people on the idea. Then, once I got to work on the assignment, it started to turn on me. In the meantime, other work was sliding away from me because I was furiously trying to extricate myself from the debacle. Now I’ve managed to pull off my daring escape, and the review will go up sometime in the near future, but in the meantime it’s left me in some deep trouble with other assignments.

Still, there is a part of me that feels suffused with virtue. I knew, within an hour of starting my first game, that this game was in trouble. Not too much longer, I knew it was nothing I could ever enjoy or recommend. But I didn’t entirely understand why, which meant I hadn’t yet completed the review process. Anyone can tell you what he likes or doesn’t, but that reaction won’t help anyone unless the reviewer can explain where he’s coming from and why he had the reactions he did. So I continued my grim death-march toward understanding.

I suspect it’s probably a good thing to, every once in awhile, find yourself locked in a room with a bad game. Not because it helps us keep other games in perspective, but because it underlines the bromides and truisms that critics and designers like to throw around. Meier’s “series of interesting decisions” description of a game means a hell of a lot more once you’ve played a game that’s a series of pointless, illusory decisions. It’s easy to wonder why a game doesn’t have certain features that might make it more historically accurate or interesting, until you see how verisimilitude unbound from design discipline can send an entire game cartwheeling into an abyss of incoherence.

Still, it came at a cost. It’s Wednesday morning and I still feel like I’m shaking off a bender. There are sources that must be harassed, editors that must be appeased, stories that must be written, and games that must be played. And there’s not enough time for any of it.

Reviewer’s Blues

Without getting into details, I’ve been working on a review of a mediocre game lately. Second time this has happened in as many months. I wanted to have it wrapped up a week or so ago, but I’ve been dragging my feet on it because I simply cannot stand playing it. Which certainly makes it sound as if I’m ready to review it, but the problem is that I know enough to dislike it but not enough to explain why, or be certain that all my complaints are valid. So I really need to log some more time with it.

The problem is that ever since this game bubbled to the top of my priority list, I’ve effectively stopped getting anything done. I’m holding back on other projects to finish this one, but every time I sit down to play this game, I can’t click the icon. I find other stuff to do. Correspondence, cleaning the kitchen, a quick match of Starcraft II, reading recipes, etc.

The problem is that the game doesn’t really have a fixed endpoint. I’ll be ready to review it when I’ve fiddled with it a lot more, but the thought of putting in the several additional hours to do a review fills me with despair. Somehow I need to figure out a way to make this process palatable.

But I don’t have lot of experience reviewing games, and I’m on a streak of bad ones. My first review was Napoleon: Total War, which was a complete milk-run. I got a great game for free, and cheerfully spent thirty or so hours plowing through the campaign. But games like Real Warfare: 1242 and the one I’m working on now just defy my will.

So how does one approach a game where the act of playing it is nearly painful, and the job seems overwhelming? What bargains do I need to make with myself to get my ass in front of the computer to play this game?

The Once and Future Format

After spending so much time among strategy gamers, and falling under the influence of people like Troy, Julian, and Bill Abner, I have become a convert to board gaming and it’s now one of my favorite pursuits. However, I’ve also become fascinated by the potential for board gaming to help revitalize strategy on electronic platforms. The Escapist let me explore how board game sensibilities are infiltrating the casual game market. That piece went up yesterday.

My thesis is that there are elements of board gaming that might well be the cure to what ails modern strategy and wargaming, and that modern networking provides the ideal platform for employing mechanics that were formerly only possible with board games. I set out to prove my case, and along the way, I chatted up Soren Johnson, Brian Reynolds, Iron Helmet’s Jay Kyburz (Neptune’s Pride), Petroglyph Community Manager Mathew Anderson (regarding Panzer General: Allied Assault), and Muzzy Lane’s Dave McCool. Go give it a read, and by all means leave comments over at The Escapist.