[Editor’s note: it’s time for another installment of Just in Tima with Nick Sima]
Bring out your DM’s!
Gloomhaven, Descent, Star Wars Imperial Assault, Zombicide… What do all of these games have in common? They’re board game versions of a tabletop RPG that miss the mark slightly. I recently received a copy of Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition Starter set so that I could run a small campaign with some friends. While I was reading up on how to run the first dungeon they scope out, I noticed a couple of tips for Dungeon Masters that linked up perfectly with a discussion Chris and I had months ago.
The thing that Tabletop RPG board games like Gloomhaven and Zombicide is missing is a Dungeon Master. The thing that Star Wars: Imperial Assault and Descent is missing, oddly enough, is a Dungeon Master. Sure, you’ll say that Descent has a player acting as the bad guys, but that’s not what a Dungeon Master does entirely.
The missed point in Gloomhaven is so egregious that one of our intrepid members fired the game from just one room. A really simple AI works in theory, but sooner or later a room will be encountered where it’s a logistical nightmare just to figure out what enemy does what. Balancing the checkbook has never been fun, doing it for which zombie decides to punt you over the mountains is unbearable. Zombicide masks this by just choosing yes in all columns for where zombies go. It’s ridiculous, but it’s still more tedious than is ‘good’
Let’s go back to Descent and Star Wars: Imperial Assault, they both have a player operating the bad dudes. That’s good, right? Well, not really. The player running the bad guys and the players playing their hero have diametrically opposed goals. I played as the overlord in Descent for a while. I won some long odds fights from good card play and luck. This made me stronger which made it easier for me to win against my friends more and more. I got stronger and stronger and they had less and less fun. Talking with our resident GM/DM Kevin, he shared a similar experience in Star Wars: Imperial Assault. The GM having an opposite goal and benefitting from winning leads to 3-4 players having a bad time more often than not.
So, what do these games need to be better? I think we need a GM that wins when the players win. Chris and I discussed some viable options where the two victory conditions could be met independently such as the GM needing only to save one bad guy from a fight while the heroes running around need to loot all the treasure. It could also just as easily be set up where every time the heroes level up, the GM also gets a couple new toys. Is it more a simulation or activity than a board game at that point? Yeah, probably. Would it be more fun? Hard telling, I’ll need a big named board game developer to make it so I can find out.
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Well folks it’s the holiday season and that means that at least 1-5 people are going to travel home to be with their families and usually that means a board game or two pops out of the closet that threatens to ruin everyone’s holiday. Now, you might be thinking, ‘Man, I really hope he doesn’t write an entire blog post about Monopoly right now,’ and you’d be in great luck because we, at the Annex, just played a great game of Diplomacy recently. If there was a game that would cause someone to lose their friendship at the Annex, it might just be Diplomacy.
The disclaimer for this blog post is that all quotes are generalities on what was said for lightheartedness and to paint myself in far better a light than what would show if a tape recording was produced. Also, if a tape recording was produced, I would promptly destroy it.
In our most recent game of Diplomacy, we got a full complement of players which was great because there’s nothing quite like watching all the other countries feast on Italy while, as the Russians, you just think, ‘Norway seems mildly nice.’ The game plays 7 people if you are unaware, and we had a 6 way tie by the standard rules. By any other rules, I have no idea what the score was. The tie went to Italy, Germany, Austria-Hungary, England, Turkey, and France. Our lonely Russian player, me, was ejected from the game a round or two early.
Now, I am known in the Annex as a meta breaker and this is a fine title for me but that moniker comes with some downsides. Metas like the Annex tends to have in games are tried and true because they tend to work more often than not. People don’t specifically play the same strategy in games, but they do tend to favor certain tactics more than others. Our resident blogger and proprietor, Chris, is well known for putting as many of his pieces on the board as he can in most every game. I tend to play differently than others in the Annex, I think because I look at problems slightly differently. Is it right? Sometimes. Is it wrong? Yes, a lot. I dragged you through all that nonsense to say, I played Russia my first game (Yes, I was the sad Russia who wanted a piece of the Italy treasure trove) and I played Russia in my second game as well. In my first game, my plan was to lie to a person in the first round and do my best to get what I wanted without telling them I wanted it. That led to an angry England who distrusted me the rest of the game. In my second game, that we will spend some time with, I tried to be friends with all my neighbors except filthy, dirty Germany.
In the second game I walked proudly to Austria-Hungary and Turkey and wheeled and dealed brilliantly in the first diplomacy round, then walked over to England who had hearty guffaws with me about what grand plans we would have for Scandinavia, and finally I looked Germany dead in the eye and said, ‘We’re not friends’. One enemy is just fine in the game especially if you’re blustering. Wait. Back up. How did I get knocked out of the game if I did such a profoundly spectacular first move? It is as simple as not really doing what I thought I did.
I asked my fellow Diplomats to throw a couple of their ideas about how their game went so that I could knowingly recount their viewpoint with as little skew as possible. All of those who weren’t resolutely in the Team Russia camp during the game obliged me. On that fabled first turn that I so eloquently planned, the other players, who oddly enough had their own agendas, saw my strategy a bit differently. Germany saw my first move as entirely militant. It was. Austria-Hungary, who minutes before had listened to me soapbox a speech about how the Balkans should be split but never replied quickly and efficiently took back the portion of the Balkans I had claimed as my own. Turkey sat back and allowed me to think he was not the invading sort. He was. With a hurt ego and a supply center deficit, I walked back to Austria-Hungary and said ‘We have a problem here, and I am going to need to fixate on you.’ Austria-Hungary was unmoved by my speech. I now have one mortal enemy in the game.
But wait, I already upset Germany. As the true peace keeper I was, I swiftly went to the proud, strong German player and pleaded with him. It was abundantly clear that Austria-Hungary was a warmonger and a traitor and should be dealt with. Apparently Germany thought that Prussia was enough of a stolen kickball that he wanted only to play on Austro-Hungarian playgrounds from this point forward. I have officially gotten myself in over my head. At least I have Turkey to back me up in real danger. Wait. The very neutral, very bearded Turkish player? Oh, he waltzed into Sevastopol at his first ability and worked to carve up his new Turkish-Russian empire.
It is at this point we can basically fast forward to the end of the game because a simple mental montage of seething rage, backing into a corner, more seething rage, becoming entrenched in the corner, a quick bite to eat, and a dash of blinding anger will get you all you need to know about how the once honorable Russian player handled himself. It is worth noting that the player who knocked out the once towering beacon of Russian pride was none other than his staunchest of allies, England. In a misplay that will go down in legend, England failed to leave St. Petersburg on his final movement of a turn and captured my last supply center. What looks to the third party observer as a case of death by head inserted into lion’s mouth was probably not as much and I will believe this until England tells me to do otherwise.
After the game, a few of the players stuck around and discussed what happened for about one quarter of the time that we had actually played the game. We then, a couple of days later, discussed the game again for another hour or two this time adding in extra viewpoints from people who weren’t even around for the game. In the end, aside from the blinding rage and PTSD symptoms from a bullied childhood, the best part of the game is dissecting what went wrong and enjoying the experience that was had. So, like those people who are going back home for the holidays and will break out any sort of game that may or may not end in tears, remember to lick your wounds and have a great time experiencing the delight that is social board gaming.
Hey! What’s that in your pocket? There’s a good chance that it’s an iPhone or an Android (whatever flavor you choose) phone. Well, it is also possible that you are reading this blog post on that device so it’s in your hand. Technology storage logistics aside, we live in a world where almost everyone has some sort of connected device and most people have them on their person more than wear socks. (This is a statistic I’ve made up as I rarely wear socks).
This is part two of of three in our Encroaching Technology in Board Games series. I’m here to talk about the present. Ghost of Board Games Past, Chris, did a bang up job talking about what the world has seen by way of springs, records, and microchips leading us right up to today. I started my journey trying to understanding the present of technology in board games like I have started so many journeys, in a spreadsheet. I decided that to really understand where our community is in technology based board gaming I need to start classifying things. I looked at:
What games had apps
What games required apps
What games had apps that game straight from the developer
What games had apps that the fanbase had to create out of necessity (or because they wanted to.
I did all these things and then the other night I was playing one of the Annex’s favorites, Letters from Whitechapel, and I noticed that we had used our last sheet of Jack paper on the last play through. No big deal, right? I can just grab a sheet of paper and make notes for myself with little to no trouble. About half way through night one I was patiently waiting for the constables to deliberate on where I had wandered off to and got a bit annoyed at the idea that I had to make my own player sheet.
I thought about the new game I played at Gen Con, The Last Friday. If you are unfamiliar with the title, it is sort of a spiritual successor to Letters and comes from the original publisher of Letters, Ares. In The Last Friday, the Jack player has to do a little creative origami to make a blank piece of paper fit into the player shield before play begins. This solves the Letters from Whitechapel custom page problem but creates its own. As I waited for my turn, I picked up my phone and started looking for some fan-made apps to deal with Jack’s movement. I quickly found one but found it lackluster. It laid out the whole map for me and made me pick spaces by tapping their actual locations. Maybe on an iPad or other tablet this might be fine, but in a pinch an iPhone will not cut it. An app that stops me needing a finite resource is what was needed.
Another favorite of the Annex is a game called Twilight Imperium. We play it quite regularly for the depth and duration of the game. Not only do we play it, we have some interesting rules for set up because of the deep reporting statistics that Chris likes to keep. Before our last 8 player game, I decided it would be nice to have an automated system that would randomize our races for us. It would end up being a complicated program to some extent if it had all the bells and whistles we wanted. I made a clunky version that worked if a very adept user was at the helm of all the inputs. It was during the struggles I had in making that monstrosity that I decided to reach out a few places for help. One of the people I reached out to was a guy who makes the Imperium app for iOS. It is a handy little app for showing starting techs and racial powers and keeps tabs on what your ships should be hitting for and what they cost all the while only taking up as much space on the table as your phone. It seemed a perfect fit to reach out to him on this project as having a randomizer in general would make the start up of games much faster and having our method be there would make pickup games just this side of possible. I have not gotten any word back from him since our initial chat, but his app still stands as a beacon of why apps should be included in games. Currently when I play Twilight Imperium, I keep two sets of books on my technologies. [Editor’s note: Mr. Sima won his first game of TI3 last Sunday!] The only reason I do this is for other players at the table. It is actually a common problem in our games that someone gets a tech and even declares that they have purchased it for that tech to be the deciding factor in a victory or defeat where the other player involved had no real idea that the tech was purchased. In a perfect world, all that information would be collected into one place and be available to all players readily.
What makes a great game? At this point I’m more confused about this than ever before because two of the hottest games on my list are diametrically opposed to one another. One game plays identically for all players and the other plays almost entirely differently for all players and I am still hooked on both.
The first game is Karuba. It’s been nominated for the Spiele de Jahres and totally deserves that nomination. It’s a game where 2-3 players put down tiles with paths on them to get 4 adventurers from the ocean to a temple. All players are placing the exact same tiles every turn and have the same Adventurer/Temple set up at the beginning of the game. A passerby noticing the end game state might never notice this because the board state at the end of the game is so different for each player. This really accentuates and glorifies why different strategies can be almost identical in pay out in some games. For this I find this game to be incredibly rewarding (even in a loss).
The second game is Vast: The Crystal Caverns. It’s a dungeon crawler where someone in the game can be the Cave! Obviously the Knight and the Cave have to play differently, but the developers did not stop there. They also have a Dragon who is just Dragon-ing all game which is nothing like the Goblins who can also play and Goblin all game. I have yet to play with the Thief in the game, but to my knowledge he’s different entirely too as he is immortal. I’ve heard from a Queen song that he has inside him blood of kings. What is truly amazing in Vast is, even with the massive asymmetry of the game, games come down to a one or two turn spread for winners. In both games I’ve played (and a few games I’ve listed to people talk about) at least one other player was going to win on his next turn if someone didn’t spoil it by winning just a bit faster. This asymmetry and balance makes it obvious why Vast was the sleeper hit of Gen Con.
As a person who likes to be able to quantify why he likes a thing, this polarized situation in gaming is truly frustrating. As a person who loves varied games and mechanics, it is just about the best thing to happen to my gaming repertoire.
Hey, you got video games in my board games! No, you got board games in my video games!
This past Christmas I was given a gift certificate to a local game store. I promptly wanted to drop everything and spend all that money. Without consulting the current repertoire of games in the Annex I
grabbed a game that looked like it would appeal to my non-tabletop friends as well as the folks at the Annex. I ended up with Descent: Journeys in the Dark (Second Edition). I found out quickly that the folks at the Annex were underwhelmed with it for some reason or another so it quickly traveled to my house and set up shop on my gaming table.
Descent takes the hard parts out of playing a role playing game. It really scratches the same itch that Heroquest did back in the 80s and 90s. It also has incredible minis. I read the rules and begged my non- tabletop friends to play it with me. I took up the role of the Overlord (I’m not super fond of being the sole bad guy, but if it has to be done to get the game to table, so be it) My friend, Matt (not Matt S or Matt B) who claims to hate board gaming was immediately interested in the game, but his cohorts Chad and Nate were flummoxed by the game or just staying conscious at the table (we’re looking at you Nate). This lead to a lot of wins from the Overlord player. This lead to a lot of apathy toward playing the game.
As though Fantasy Flight knew such problems exist, an app called Road to Legend was announced and then dropped onto the App store. The app will play the Overlord, it claims. How could this be
without telling it every piece of information on the board, thus making the board extraneous? What Fantasy Flight did was realize that positioning could be handled by the players in regard to both monsters and heroes as long as the app itself knew who had been killed and who had already had their turn. This allows for a fairly seamless game play experience as long as the core rule of RPGs like Dungeons and Dragons is upheld; Keep the game moving and fun. If a decision needs to be made, just make it and keep playing.
So, why does this reinvigorate Descent for my group? Well, I picked up an expansion which gave us new heroes. I figured letting our old heroes paddle off into the sunset like a Baratheon bastard was fine if we had shiny new spoony bards to play. I also got to switch to the hero team which meant two players who were squaring off against one evil force.
This is the second time (XCOM was the first) an iOS app has infiltrated a game for me in a meaningful way, (No, I’m not counting Avalon’s helper or the life counter for Betrayal at House on the Hill) and I’m going to say, I like it.