Posts Tagged ‘ board games

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.

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.


This entry could easily be 5000 words long, a blow-by-blow account of the glories of Rabbitcon. You cannot share a house for four days with such excellent and interesting people, doing nothing but talking and playing games, without walking away with some stories. But I’ll restrain myself for now, and just share some of the highlights.

Rabbitcon is one of those things that I always wished I could attend, but never really expected I would. I first heard about it on the Gamers with Jobs Conference Call, back before I really knew anything about the guys behind it. Once or twice a year, Julian “Rabbit” Murdoch has an army of friends over to his house on a long weekend, and they all spend that weekend playing board games and catching up. It sounded like the greatest slumber party ever.

But then I moved to Cambridge, started doing the Three Moves Ahead podcast with Troy and the gang, and eventually met Julian. Not too long after he and I started recording podcasts together, MK asked if I thought he might ever invite us to Rabbitcon. It was mostly as a joke, but we both thought it sounded like a great time if you could get on the list.

That did not seem likely, however, because the things Julian chooses to keep private, he keeps very private. I mean, the very first time we talked I sensed him clamming up the moment the conversation drifted toward personal information. Since we’re both New England residents, I asked him whereabouts he lived and he responded like a man pulling up the drawbridge and posting sentries on the castle walls.

“I live in the… west-errrn part,” he told me, which is to say he lives somewhere west of the Atlantic. For all that we’d chatted via Twitter, and knew one another’s work, I was still a stranger from the internet. As someone who lives on the internet, I can understand it. So much of your life becomes publicly available that the few things you hold back to maintain your privacy and sense of security become absolute no-fly zones.

To my delighted surprise, Julian was nice enough to invite MK and me to the Memorial Day Rabbitcon, and that’s where I was for Memorial Day weekend. We got to his place in the early afternoon and, after a whirlwind tour of his house, were immediately pulled into a game of Shadows over Camelot with Lara Crigger, her husband George, Allen “Pyroman” Cook, and Mike “McChuck” Bretzlaff. This became my primary game group for the remainder of the weekend.

So here is a smattering of stand-out Rabbitcon moments from 4 days somewhere in rural New England.

Who Knew It Was a Role-Playing Game?

I’m on bass, Sean Sands is drums, and McChuck is McCartney in Beatles Rock Band for “Oh, Darling”. McChuck starts strong and we’re powering through the song, but McChuck is lost in the moment as we hit the refrain again and again. By the third time he’s screaming, his voice at the breaking point and the mic is completely overwhelmed as he hammers, “OOOOOOOO-OOOOOOOH DAAAARLING! PLEASE FOR-GIVE ME!”

People start coming in from the rest of the house to find out what the fuck is going on. McChuck’s face is locked in a rictus of rock, and Sean, who has been giggling since the first verse, completely loses it. He dissolves in gales of laughter, curled over the drums like a seasick sailor pitching over the gunwales. This starts the rout. The laughter is contagious and my bass line starts to get shaky. McChuck plunges onward, no drums, no bass, and inaudible guitar. “-VER MEANT YOU NO HARM.”

Beatles: Rock Band pulls the plug on us, saving McChuck’s life and allowing Sean to breathe again.

Steve Holt!

The game is Last Night on Earth, perhaps the coolest board game at this party. The way George describes it, you’re all characters in a bad zombie flick. In the background, a soundtrack that ships with the game casts a gloomy yet chintzy pall over the proceedings. One each of the lavishly illustrated cards is a dramatic scene from the movie in which you are trapped: the Sheriff and the headstrong son getting into a shouting match while other survivors look on in nervous fear, or the sexy farmer’s daughter weeping into her tied-off plaid shirt.

Right now MK is playing Sam, the ex-Marine turned small-town diner cook. George is playing the zombies / film director, and played an affliction card on MK that makes Sam feel overconfident. The effect is that Sam cannot run from the zombies anymore. As the text on the card says, “Leave this to me!”

Our group of survivors has gotten involved in a melee in a barn while looking for some gasoline. My character, the town priest, is overwhelmed by zombies so I play the, “Let’s go, TJ!” card, in which I just stumble across a convenient and friendly horse named TJ that can whisk me away from the slaughter. I fend off a couple zombies and then make a break into the gloaming on the back of a white steed.

Then the lights go out on the rest of the survivors. Amanda the Prom Queen uses her flashlight to escape while Sam stays behind to fight a ridiculous number of zombies. He’s tough as nails, but the odds are against him. Someone finally turns over a card that lifts the “Overconfidence” condition. The gravity of his situation abruptly dawns on Sam and he begins trying to bull through the crowded darkness of the barn. He’ll never make it.

Then McChuck plays, “Hey, guys, what’s going on?” In which T-Bone (or some such name) the linebacker stumbles into the battle and rescues you. The card is magnificent. A corn-fed American boy with pudgy cheeks and thick, heavy features wearing a royal blue letterman’s jacket smiles up at the player, totally unfazed by the walking dead.

McChuck says, “Man, he’s just like that one guy in Arrested Development. What was his name? He always said, um, oh, yeah, ‘Steve Holt!” And we thrust our arms into the air in celebration as Sam escapes the barn.

“I’m really hurt that you guys all think I’m a Cylon.”

We’re playing the Battlestar Galactica board game, and a combination of probability and logic dictate that Cory Banks / Starbuck is a fracking Cylon. Allen, our resident Cylon, has just given Cory two loyalty cards. Since a single Cylon card makes you a Cylon, and Cory has four cards in his hand, the odds of him still being on Team Human are vanishingly small. To top it off, he contributed two cards to a skill check, and we only had two unaccounted-for bad cards in that check. He’s a Cylon.

But now it all gets screwed up. Lara Crigger / Boomer can check someone’s loyalty card. I only have one unknown card, so she wants to eliminate the possibility that I’m a Cylon. I think this is plainly a waste of a special power, because there is simply no way that I’ve been a Cylon agent. Lara and I turn on each other immediately. Why does she want to waste her check on me? Why doesn’t she check someone else, like Cory?

Cory starts whining. There is really no other word for it. “Why don’t you guys trust me? I’ve been helping out so much this entire game and now it’s like you’ve all turned on me.”

Lara won’t check his cards. “I can check one card, he has four. It’s a wasted check. It probably won’t tell us anything about whether or not he’s a Cylon. With you, I can be absolutely certain.”

“We’re already absolutely certain. This is a blown check.”

McChuck has lapsed into angrily disinterested silence at the head of the table. He’s reading his cards and looking at rules.

Cory looks like we’ve just told him he’s adopted, or that Fluffy ran away. “This sucks. Can I just show you my cards? Will that make you guys trust me again?”

“You can’t show us your cards.”

“But I’m not a Cylon!”

“The hell with this.” Lara stands up, marches over to the crowded bar, and grabs a bottle of Corazon. She yanks out the stopper, flips it on the table, and takes an epic pull of tequila. This game has officially jumped the shark.

“Allen, you fucked up my life,” Cory snarls at Allen, who is watching us meltdown with a smile of suprise and delight. He cover his mouth as he is overcome by a fit of cheerful giggles. The Cylon is the only person still having fun.

Lara finally checks my card. She reads it, turns to the table, and says, “He’s not a Cylon.”

“Gasp,” I say.

The check is passed. A turn later we do an emergency jump away from the Cylon fleet. Since Cory is the admiral of the fleet, he chooses our destination. We end up at a dead world, out of fuel. Game over.

Cory flips his cards over. “I was a Cylon. Being Emo-Boy was my only defense.”