Posts Tagged ‘ Julian Murdoch

Quo Vadimus

A couple springs ago, I logged into Quarter to Three and saw that I had a private message from Troy Goodfellow. I’d run across his name when I was researching another piece I’d written for The Escapist, but I didn’t know much more about him. He liked an article I’d done for them, and wanted to tell me so.

I don’t know many writers who go out of their way to drop messages of appreciation to their juniors, but Troy does. He was willing to chat a bit with me over the next few months, and provide advice and counsel when I needed it. And then at some point he brought me in to help out with a feature series he was running, and shortly thereafter he brought me onto Three Moves Ahead to fill in for Julian and Bruce.

Freelancing often comes down to who you know, and whether or not they like you. Troy reached out to me and opened far more doors than I could have hoped for, starting with his invitation to become a regular 3MA panelist. He vouched for me to editors, and he helped me build an identity and reputation. He is generous with his assistance to those he believes in, and I am very lucky to have won his confidence. There are not many so generous with help in so competitive a field, and games writing is losing more than you might think as Troy transitions to a career in PR.

On his way out the door, he has given me some more amazing opportunities and responsibilities. The one I want to talk about right now is Three Moves Ahead.

Continuity and Change

When 3MA began, it had four incredibly qualified panelists on hand to discuss strategy games. Julian has a very deep well of experience from which he can draw when it comes board games. Troy and Tom Chick know the strategy genre better than any other writers in the US, and more importantly, they can communicate their understanding to readers and listeners. Bruce knows wargames inside and out, and has a logician’s approach to discussion.

Had that group continued to have the type of conversations it did in the first half of 3MA’s life, I would likely never have been a part of it, and the show would be none the worse. They were a great panel and I still consider many of their episodes to be the gold standard against which I judge those I’ve been a part of.

But other commitments made it hard for four or even three of the panelists to record together, and their busy work schedules made it very hard for them to coalesce around a topic on short-notice. Remember that I came aboard as a semi-regular fill-in, and one of the great advantages Troy had in working with me is that I was chronically under-employed and was willing to crash-research a game or a topic. Until joining 3MA, I had never considered myself a strategy gamer. It just happened to be a genre where I spent a third of my gaming time. But I liked 3MA, I was honored to be helping out, and I was learning a lot. I dug into the genre so that I could make more valuable contributions. But I don’t flatter myself in to thinking that I bring what Tom or Bruce does to an episode.

So as I take over the show, one of my goals is to get the mixture of panelists closer to how it was in earlier episodes. It’s a better show when we have a larger group of intelligent people examining the topic at hand. Hopefully Tom and Bruce can help out from time-to-time, but I’m also hoping to add enough depth to the bench that the show is less dependent on me and Julian. In this vein, I’m also hoping to have longer fuses on each 3MA, so that we can better prepare for a topic. If we can get these two things right, I am certain 3MA will be as good as it’s ever been.

All that said, I have different tastes and views than Troy. My definition of what constitutes a strategy game is probably closer to Tom Chick’s heretical “everything is a strategy game.” While I’d never do an episode on Bioshock 2 like he wanted, I might do an episode on the Brothers in Arms series. Not all my favorite games are strategy games, but almost all my favorite games have significant strategic or tactical elements. From time to time, I will beg your forgiveness as I try to catch glimpses of strategy existing outside its natural habitat.

Likewise, it is inevitable that my increasing interest in board games, and Julian’s knowledge of the format, will result in board games playing a larger role on the show. However, I will try and ensure that board games come up in the context of theme shows where  they might be relevant, or when we uncover a particularly interesting game.

Beyond that, you should also expect more classic game analysis. Frankly, we haven’t really scratched the surface of games that are worth revisiting. If we can get the planning right, there’s a wealth of rich topics waiting to receive attention. Episodes like this will also allow Troy to rejoin us on a regular basis.

These are small changes, but I think they could have a major impact on the show. I have other plans in the works: a site for the show, better production equipment and practices, and perhaps even taking the show twice  monthly if it means we can make better preparations and and deliver a better product. But some of these are minor changes, and others are just ideas, not plans. In the last analysis, 3MA answers to two groups: the panel, and the audience. I want those of us who record 3MA to be proud of our effort, and I want those of us who listen to it to come away feeling like it’s as interesting and thought-provoking as ever.

I don’t entirely know what that will entail, which is why I want your input and suggestions. In the meantime I am, as ever, honored by Troy’s trust, and the goodwill of the listeners who have been offering their congratulations and best-wishes since we made the announcement. I will do my best to live up to the standard he set.

There and Back

I bailed.

Rabbit and his family were going to be out of town through Thanksgiving, and MK was going to be putting twelve and sixteen hour workdays together. So it seemed like a good time to leave Boston and all my habits behind. Before I knew it I was back at Rabbit’s burrow in the Mass countryside.

It was like I stepped out of my life. I was enjoying an unfamiliar, complete solitude in a familiar and comfortable setting. At first, I was trying so hard to unwind that I was actually stressing out. I would be furious at myself if I wasn’t walking in the forest before lunch, or reading a book in the last of the afternoon light. But by the end of my second day, I was off-schedule and not looking back. I was sitting down to dinner and a movie at 11:30 at night. At 1 in the morning I was enjoying the juiciest clementines with the coldest, driest martini I could make.

I took a long, long walk in the woods one afternoon, wearing my heavy boots and warmest flannel. I walked until I was exhausted. Then I descended the hill into town, where I saw the lights burning in the window of the game store. Inside it was warm and snug, and I spent an hour browsing the inventory and chatting with the owner about the glory days of PC gaming and the delights of board gaming. I ended up buying War of the Ring and Hold the Line, a wargame of the American Revolution.

Walking the woods with MK and the Murdochs

Somewhere in all of this I started realizing that hours and hours were going by without checking Twitter, or even opening a web browser. I scarcely used my laptop at all. I was focused on whatever I was doing. I had no responsibilities and no distractions. Was it time for a game? Then that’s all there was in the world until I was bored with it. Then maybe it was time for a movie, or another game, or a chat with a friend on Skype. Or both.

I wrote, of course. Not as much as I intended, but that was all to the good. The lesson of Julian’s house was that I intend too much and enjoy too little. Finally, when it was time to bring MK out for Thanksgiving, I felt as light as a feather. I enjoyed every minute of the long drive in and out of the city, and we quickly started preparing for our little Thanksgiving celebration.

On Twitter, I could watch my friends enjoying or enduring familial gatherings. But for us, Thanksgiving was just a chance to try some ambitious new things in a big kitchen. We played and cooked and walked all we wanted. Then Julian and Jessica came home with the kids, and we spent another day or so doing more of the same with them. I lost an excruciatingly close game of War of the Ring to Julian, went on a long walk with him and the kids, had a blast doing an epic-length GWJ podcast (edited to be listenable-length), and finally had to leave. I was ready, and even eager to start making some changes to how I do things here in the city.

The classiest bird ever: butterflied, rubbed for two days, red wine and tangerine glaze

I’m back now, and have been for about a week. In some ways, at least. In others, I have yet to return. I’m still keeping life a bit quiet. It seems a little pointless to get back to full speed when I’ll be taking a train to the Midwest in under two weeks. I’ve got a couple assignments left to clear off my plate, and a few pieces whose status is a complete mystery to me, but after that life will kind of come to a halt while I’m on my holiday travels.

I’m also trying to put some lessons I learned these last few weeks into practice. Small stuff, but important stuff. My goal is to find a new balance and a new rhythm. Something a little closer to the quiet, relaxed productivity of my time in the country than the insignificant sound and fury that sometimes characterized my workdays here in Cambridge.

Tango On

This is a trite observation, but I am amazed by how much easier life is with friends around. Thursday night a WordPress update and a server error combined to sink this blog like the Lusitania and I was locked in a downward spiral by midday Friday. I couldn’t get the blog straightened out, I wasn’t getting anything else done, and I was falling behind on every front as I entered the weekend.

Then Cory Banks gave me a phone call out of the blue. He was here on some business and stuck in Boston with nothing to do. He had a place to stay in Arlington, but he didn’t want to go sit by himself in the burbs for four hours while working himself. So he got my number from Julian Murdoch, and I invited him over.

In no time, we’d discarded the whole idea that he’d be staying in Arlington. He would crash at my place throughout the visit, and I gave up on meeting any of my goals. But as we sat around drinking, he started fiddling with my blog until he had quietly fixed the problems and gotten it 95% restored. We were also half in the bag from supplementing the air conditioning with cocktails. That meant it was time to go have dinner with Julian and Jess, Dave Lennon and his wife, and Ken Levine and his wife.

I will pause for a moment here and simply observe that my life has changed a great deal in the last year. For me, people like Ken Levine and Julian Murdoch both existed in another world, providing entertainment and intellectual companionship through ice-blue Wisconsin winters. I treasured dispatches from people who cared passionately about the things I cared about, and did the kind of work I wanted to do. Sitting at dinner on Friday, it dawned on me that by some miracle, I find myself living in the world I chose.

The nine of us passed the evening arguing about the best squares along the Red Line, the dubious merits of Quincy, and the best way to dispose of old electronic equipment. Lennon’s company had the best solution: one of their employees takes old CRT monitors and server stacks out to a shooting range and proceeds to unload on them until they turn into modern art. After dinner was over, Julian and Jessica took us out for ice cream in Harvard Square, before leaving the MK, Cory, and myself to go bar hopping around Cambridge.

The plan for the next day was that the three of us would grab crepes and then meet with Julian at a games store in Central Square, but Julian and his family decided to go to a fair in New Hampshire. Cory adores the entire Murdoch clan, and while I didn’t really want to go hang out at a fairground, I figured, what the hell, it might be fun.

Which it was, because fun has a way of following Julian. The three of us barreled out of Boston after a late brunch, and an hour later we were being led from arcade to arcade by Julian and his son. I had my first funnel cake, heard about Julian’s life as a medieval battle re-enactor (is use the term loosely), and stole a few licks off MK’s soft-serve ice cream cone. Peter played air hockey against MK and they fought each other to a draw, but he didn’t have as much luck with me in skee ball.

Julian also made a point to introduce me to some truly superb pinball machines, like Stern’s excellent Pirates of the Caribbean.  There was a point where Julian, Cory, MK, and myself were all lined up at different machines, hunched over the flippers while we juked and twisted in a futile effort to control the ball through psychic energy. I also came away with a new appreciation for pinball: there’s a lot to be said for the tangible thrill of launching the ball into a nest of bumpers and watching the score counter go berserk while the machine shudders beneath your fingertips with the clicks and snaps of the machinery.

Finally, the three of us went out for an evening of food and drink. If you’re ever feeling a little low, I can only suggest you attempt to get a dinner date with Cory. Over burgers and beer he spent two hours finding alternately stroking my ego and demanding that I go get the work and career my talents deserve. By the end of the meal I was ready to call it a night and spend the rest of it writing pitches and taking on the whole Empire myself.

Today, Cory and I were too wiped to do anything more than stay inside playing Summoner Wars, hitting the Steam sale, and watching The West Wing, which he and I have a habit of quoting at one another. He and I wrapped up the weekend with pizza, a stiff cocktail, and the opening episodes of Season Two. It wasn’t really the weekend I wanted or planned. It was quite a bit better than that: just a series of delightful surprises from great friends.

Rabbitcon

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.”

One Move Behind – Narrative & Stairway Thoughts

I have hit saturation point with 2 v 2 Age of Mythology comp-stomps, I realized last night. My girlfriend and I had a date for some LAN gaming, but the thought of more AoM made me a little ill. What we need to do, I realize, is just bite the bullet and get another copy so that we can go play online. But for some reason, paying $20 for a game we already own just rubs us the wrong way.

While we were negotiating what else we could play (a conversation that requires UN mediation), I noticed Skype was blinking at me. Troy was about to record Three Moves Ahead and it was looking like it was going to be just him and Julian Murdoch unless I could join. The topic was narrative and story in strategy games, and we were recording in three minutes. I ran over to the bar, poured a drink, and got back to the computer just as the call began.

Given the lack of prep time, I was surprised at how well the podcast went. It’s one of my favorites. It turns out I had lots of things to say on this subject, as did Troy and Julian. Nevertheless, within ten minutes of wrapping up the podcast I had thought of a couple things I should have said.

First, I made the argument that the nature of a strategy game doesn’t gel with the nature of story, which is all about the author manipulating events. Strategy games are more systemic than shooters, because their mechanics are inseparable from competition between players. Julian, in what I consider an almost criminal abuse of semantic agility, made the case that all games are systems and this is no more a problem for strategy games as it is for shooters. Shooter fans are as focused on multiplayer as strategy players.

Seeing both sides of an argument tripped me up here, but on reflection I still think Julian was underplaying a key difference. The strategy game usually has no existence outside its multiplayer mechanics. Build a base, destroy the enemy base. Capture and hold some key locations. It’s the same in both multiplayer and single-player. That’s just not true in shooters.

The most popular FPS game modes (capture the flag, king of the hill, control point, assault-defend) have no single-player analogue. The single-player shooter is about a one-man army versus an actual army. All the systems that govern multiplayer depend on teams and magic-circle constructs: my team and I are going to defend this flagpole because that is the point of the game, and you are going to try and take it. We will all use different weapons that complement one another, and whoever fights best and coordinates best will win.

However, I do have an example of an FPS game that is a competitive system and tries to adapt that system to a single-player campaign: Section 8. Section 8 brings all the multiplayer mechanics into the campaign, and result is exactly the kind of brainless, repetitive missions you find in RTS campaigns. So there is a case in point for you.

Second, I wanted to mention World in Conflict as a great example for a story with great production values and some good characters that is hamstrung by the player’s lack of identity and its lousy mission structure. In World in Conflict and the Soviet Assault campaign, you play as the American Lt. Parker and the Soviet Lt. Romanov. Parker is ostensibly your narrator, Alec Baldwin, but he is mute in all the cutscenes involving other characters. He just nods while the NPCs argue with one another, at which point you have to ask why they bothered making your guy a character at all. At least he has an avatar, however, whereas Lt. Romanov is invisible. This gets awkward as the other characters make decisions that your guy would want to discuss, presumably. It’s especially bad in the Soviet campaign, where your character plays no role whatsoever in a growing schism among the Soviet leadership.

Worse, however, is the way the missions are crafted. No matter how dramatic the situation, each mission boils down to a list of menial errands. You start off capturing a hill  at the edge of a town, and are then sent to capture the bridge. You capture the bridge, but naturally the enemy destroys it before you can cross. Your commander then tells you that you have to march all the way around to the other side of the map and capture another hill. You go do that. Then he orders you to march around the map again (at this point you have traveled in a full circle) and take a road leading into the town. Then you have to go take the town. Then you have to hold it.

That is every mission in this game. Over and over again.  Just a lot of pointless marching around to different victory locations with the vague assurance that this is all very important.

Third, I wanted to mention the exact mission that made me stop playing the Company of Heroes campaign: the V-2 mission. Every WW2 game has some bullshit mission where you have to go infiltrate a Nazi base, usually to stop them launching V-1 or V-2 rockets. It’s always a Top Secret mission, which means that it’s obnoxiously difficult and you’re hamstrung from using most of your equipment.

I had played this exact mission, and variants of it, in a wide variety of shooters and strategy games. Running across it again in Company of Heroes, which was already straining itself trying to be Saving Private Band of Brothers: The RTS, was a bridge too far.

Oh, and I could have been more articulate about Myth, but it’s difficult to explain why that game works so well without getting into a serious discussion about its elements. Hopefully we’ll have a Myth retrospective on TMA, and really do the game justice.