Monday, July 29, 2013

Twenty Years Out: Ten Games

Thinking back I remember more the board games I didn’t play than those I did. I’m not sure if that’s buyer’s remorse or something else. As much as anything it feels like a judgment on the attention span or younger me. I remember many games I only played once: tons of Microgames (Rivets, Chitin, WarpWar, too many Melee solo adventures), longer pocket games (Swordquest, Intruder), oddball games (Barbarian Prince, Struggle for the Throne), and bigger ones (Alpha/Omega, Blood Royale, Up Front, Warrior Knights, Rogue Trooper). I subscribed to Strategy & Tactics and Ares, but only remember actually getting to play a couple of those. Then I had bigger games that never saw the table (Gunslinger, Vampyre, Ambush, Grav-Ball, and many more). My sister gamed, and we played a few games- but the age and interest gap was pretty wide. My dad never wanted to learn the rules to anything more complex than Mastermind, so we never played anything together. I remember setting up Berlin ’85 and World War 1 in hopes of enticing him to play. He read the rules to the latter but then told me they were too much for him.

RPGs remain my first love, but I love board games. I don’t know why- I’m not very good at them. I never did well with CCGs, any wargames I’ve won have been flukes, and I rarely manage to think more than a couple of turns ahead. But I love mechanics and mechanisms- I love watching how they work. Even as I’ve moved to more streamlined rpg experiences, I’ve come to appreciate how game engines operate. This weekend I played several small games with simple concepts that created amazing play and interaction: Love Letter, Hanabi, and Skulls & Roses. That’s a far cry from many of the games I played when I was young.

The most recent Top Ten from The Dice Tower got me thinking about this. They presented their Top Ten of boardgames from 1993 or before, anything over twenty years ago. And they left off many games that I adored. Not great games, but games that I actually played multiple times and stuck with me. So here’s my list with some comments. As a side note, I read/skim many geeklists. I’m guessing I’m pretty normal in checking title and paragraph one to see if I want to read further. I’ll admit I tend to skip nostalgia lists like these. I normally wouldn’t put one together, but I’m curious about how much my experience parallels or differs from those of my generation.

I suspect my preference for RPGs shows through in this, with many of these having a heavy narrative.

Our group bought and played all of the various Gamemaster series from Milton Bradley (Samurai Swords, Broadsides & Boarding Parties, Conquest of the Empire, Fortress America). But none of them survived as long as Axis & Allies. Some got a single play (B&BP), some more (FA), but eventually we'd return to this game. I bought a second set just to have more pieces and the updated rules. Then after multiple plays we hit the road block of figuring the game out. In particular the Russian/German moves and plays became a problem. I remember at least three sessions where one player quit within fifteen minutes of play when their opening gambit failed. After that A&A gathered dust. I tried a couple of times to bring in some of the fan-published expansions to extend and change the game, having new poster maps printed. However those did add much and usually just made the game longer- with people having to go home after a while. So I gave up on it. Even the release of new versions and area expansions couldn't grab my interest. I remember the early plays fondly, when everything was new.

An odd game I remember playing a handful of times and really enjoying. It had programmed movement and a role-playing aspect to it. You made up characters and fought with them in a bar-room brawl. I wish I could remember why I stopped playing it- perhaps I couldn't find anyone interested in it. I'm not sure. I played several arena style games in the same era- Arena of Death, Man to Man, Melee, Gladiator- but I don't recall any of them as fondly as this one. Perhaps I just had a really good time the few times I played.

Yes, I played Star Fleet Battles. I had binders of the rules and SSDs. I played only rarely, but bought everything. Then I quit. Then I went back and bought everything again. Then I played against someone who knew SFB and played it competitively. Then I quit and never played it again. SFB remained a rarity, an occasional game with a terrible money to fun ratio.

On the other hand, Starfire was relatively cheap. I had the original bagged game and the expansion. It was small enough I could sneak it into middle school and play at lunch or on breaks. I loved the concept of the simple ship listings and the way that different guns and systems interacted with that. I still love that concept- easy record keeping which offers all kinds of interactions with other ships. I think someday I want to figure out how to use that with the many space ships I've accumulated from Silent Death and Battlefleet Gothic. I've got a ton of the Heavy Gear 25mm figures- perhaps I could adapt Starfire to that for a fast game.

Flip books- what could be easier and more appealing? We never played with any of the advanced rules, instead settling down to flipping pages and checking for hits. I bought some of the additional books- Ace of Aces: Powerhouse Series and Ace of Aces: Flying Machines, but generally I just liked the goofy pleasure of trying to guess what would happen if I did X. It wasn't so much trying to outguess my opponent as trying to figure out how to actually fly my plane. I liked telling stories in my head about my pilot. Sometimes I'd play it solo, making the game more a toy than anything else. I enjoyed one other implementation of this system, Bounty Hunter: Shootout at the Saloon which I wished they'd done more with. Strangely I never got into the Lost Worlds series which spawned from this.

I know Traveller was an important early rpg for many people, but it never really caught on in our group. Some of us had copies of it, but we never played out a full campaign. Instead we would spend sessions rolling up characters and seeing what happened to them- a weird push your luck game. We had cool character sheet pads we burned through, making up PCs and coming up with backstories. But I don't recall any actual play. Sessions of Snapshot came closest to actual play. We did it as a competitive board game with each player having control of several characters and trying to gun one another down. We loved the maps and the crunchy, detailed combat mechanics. I wouldn't be the last time I'd see an rpg engine used as a battle game. We spent hours playing "Open Combats" with Champions. Since it had solid and mechanistic combat rules, you could have everyone make up 250 point characters and just go at it.

My sister had this and Ariel Games version of Mystic Wood. I really can't tell you much about the actual mechanics of play. I just remember going into the dungeon or woods and slowly getting killed. I don't think I ever won. But putting out the cards and building the scene was awesome. Mind you the art was pretty mediocre, but it was still cool looking at the final board. I enjoyed this more than other "adventuring" games I played in the same era: Dungeon! and Talisman. The former felt stagnant and boring after a few plays. The latter just wouldn't end. That got worse the more expansions people brought to the table. I know at least three times I drew the black void at the end of the game- killing me and sending me back to the start.

So kind of an rpg, in that you could define your character a little and tell a story. I used to 'borrow' this out of my sister's room and play solo adventures (and die).

4. Spies!
A game I must have been miserable to play with given my age. This ended up being the only large "wargame-y" big box game I ended up playing multiple times. I really liked the idea of it. I'd read the LaCarre novels early, but more importantly I'd watched the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes movies, several of which dealt with spies and the same period as this game. I loved the idea that events and secrets could push the time track forward- creating alternate histories and progressions for the lead up to the war. Spies could have been a Euro-game if it hadn't had a whole set of extra complexities. I picked up a copy of this a few years ago. I've been trying to figure out how to redo it to make it a more modern game with less fiddlyness. I've also been thinking how it could be used as a background to an espionage rpg campaign.

Man, I owe an apology to all of the patient teens and adults who played this with me. I had to own all of the expansions for this, despite my sister having a copy. I tried to play it with others my age- and a few of them enjoyed it in a goofy throw cards at each other way. We played with multiple powers, hidden powers, switching powers, any goofy option. That meant that when I went to conventions and played I could be truly annoying and unfocused. I'm sure negotiating with me drove others crazy. Ugh. But I loved the game, not perhaps for the gameplay, but for all of the crazy alien races. I used to take those out of the box and just read through them. I had all kinds of stories about what the galaxy must be like filled with these bizarre people.

I picked up the Avalon Hill and recent Fantasy Flight version of this, but I still haven't played either of them. I suspect it has been at least thirty years since I've played this.

I find it bizarre that this didn't appear on the Dice Tower's list. We played this dozens and dozens of times. I had a couple of copies of the plastic box version of this and the expansions. I've heard some people dislike it for the cheating options, but we never played with those. In grad school we played the boxed set with the much better poker-chip megabucks. I enjoyed the back and forth and the tension of the play of it. I think it hit a sweet spot for me: negotiation, straight smart play, and just enough luck to give me an excuse for losing. When INWO came out I dived deep into that as well. I bought the most recent edition of Illuminati and hated it: garish art borrowed from the CCG and terrible card stock. I have that packed up and haven't played it in years.

The first game I played with my future wife. Before that, she only knew me as the guy who ran the game room and was a terrible Magic: The Gathering player. I'd bought into the GW kool-aid pretty heavily by the time MoW came out: 40K, Mighty Empires, Rogue Trooper, Dr. Who, Judge Dredd, Chainsaw Warrior, WHFRP, Blood Bowl, Space Fleet, etc.). But I loved Man O' War. I was simple, fast, and fun. Even wish the expansions you could get a solid and satisfying combat done in under two hours. Players could easily create cool and striking terrain pieces. It had randomness and some strategy- with goofy turn-arounds and overpowered vessels. Most of all you didn't have to buy a ton of ships to be able to play, though I did. That meant many people who might not otherwise have bought into it invested and played. But it also meant that MoW looked like a product dead-end for GW and then quickly stopped supporting it. Most players, following GW's dog-whistle, moved on to other games. My stuff's gone now- a chunk lost in the fire. I thought briefly about picking up Dreadfleet, but the reviews made it look terrible and the price point seemed high.


  1. We overlap with Axis and Allies, Starfire, Snapshot, Cosmic Encounter, and Illuminati-- though the first and last of those got the most plays by far....

    I really liked the rules changes in the revised edition, but the more recent cheapo edition made for Target and Barnes & Nobel was pretty disappointing.

  2. Wow, what a trip down memory lane! I had a lot of those Steve Jackson minigames and Starfire but the other boardgamers only wanted to play "serious" historical wargames. Well, except for OGRE for some reason.

    1. I wanted to try some of the more serious historical wargames, but generally either had no peers who wanted to give them a try or hit against the hurdle of the rules.