Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Boardgame review — Comancheria


Lords of the Southern Plains


Designer: Joel Toppen
Player count: 1
Publisher: GMT Games



In my review of Navajo Wars, the original game in the First Nations series, I wrote about the Navajo that “their history—rife with conflict—is one upon which designer Joel Toppen has crafted an experience that is part simulation, part history lesson. Listen closely.”
And I wouldn’t change a word to introduce Toppen’s second opus, Comancheria.

[Although I will make every effort to review Comancheria on its own terms, comparisons with Navajo Wars will sometimes prove inevitable. I shall then present such insights within brackets, so that readers unfamiliar with the previous title might easily navigate around the unwelcome interruptions.]

This time around, the game brings the Comanche empire back to life, in all its glory, and asks the player to lead the Lords of the Southern Plains in their struggle against formidable foes—from rival tribes to the Spanish, to the Mexicans, all the way to the Americans. Can you preserve the Comanche culture and way of life?
Not to spoil anything, but the deck is stacked against you. Quite literally.

Comancheria is strictly a solitaire experience: you jump in alone, against the “cardboard computer” the designer has put together. The game cycles through a simple sequence of play, first having enemy armies (if any have formed on the board) march towards your territory, then letting you move from point to point on a large map and execute one action, before (probably) resolving enemy actions. You then reap the rewards and/or suffer the consequences, the great clock ticks forward one step, and the cycle repeats itself. This keeps on until either defeat ensues (when the Comanche culture and military might are completely eradicated) or you survive the end of a Historical Period, indicating victory. Unless the chosen scenario calls for more than one Historical Period to be braved…

Actions available to the player are Moving, made easier with a horse, but otherwise still feasible; Hunting, in order to provide Rancherias (bases) with much needed food; Raiding, to destroy rival tribes as well as acquire horses and the occasional captive; and Trading, which makes it possible to upgrade resources and gain a crucial edge over the hostile environment. There’s also the Culture action, which strengthens Comanche culture according to occupied territory; Planning, where community leaders make use of their influence and Rancherias are relocated; and Passage of Time, when new Rancherias are created (affording the player more options) and community leaders risk dying of old age.

[At seven, the number of possible actions is a bit less than the 10 Navajo Wars offered. But seven is really all you need in this case, and it makes jumping into the game that less overwhelming.]

I think it fair to say that the game revolves around Raiding. This is something you will find yourself performing over and over again, not only for the resources that successful raids provide, or the destructive effect they can have on rival dwellings (the elimination of which proves vital more often than not), but also because Raiding is the only way to boost the influence and power of the Comanche community leaders. And the more powerful those leaders become, the more effectively their Rancherias can operate and thrive.

Raiding is resolved by drawing a number of counters from an opaque cup. Some of those counters indicate a success (resources taken, rival dwelling ravaged, and leader potentially more influential), while others show a number of action points that enemies will be able to use at the end of the turn. Nothing’s ever free, even when you ride a horse without a saddle.

[At first I, too, missed the great raid resolution mechanism from Navajo Wars, which had us drawing colored cubes from a bag. But you’ll soon see what exciting twists and turns the drawing of counters in Comancheria makes possible.]

But no matter what action you select, the game’s timer moves down one notch once that action is completed. After a few times, you start rolling a die to see if your next action will be a free choice, or if you will be forced to take the Passage of Time action summarized above. The more the game moves forward, the greater the chances of a mandatory Passage of Time. And after each Passage of Time, the game’s second timer goes down one notch, while the first one resets. (Think of this as two hands on a clock: the little hand counts down the number of player actions, while the big hand counts down the number of overall rounds in the game.) When that second timer reaches zero, the Historical Period is over. You check for victory (or at least avoidance of defeat), and then call it a day or proceed to the next Historical Period.

But before we get to that glorious conclusion (or ignominious kick in the butt), enemies also get to play, and that almost on every turn. Depending on the scenario, the identities and natural tendencies of enemies will change from one Historical Period to the next. But the basic mechanism for activating them remains the same.
Their actions are decided by an Instruction Display where instruction counters are set up in four columns—one for each enemy—at the start of the game. A die roll determines which enemy will wreak havoc on the board this turn, while another roll flips over a counter in that enemy’s column, revealing a different instruction. Action points accrued through failed raid attempts are then used to pay for each instruction, and the enemy works its way down its column of instructions, until it runs out of action points. At that point, used counters are cycled back to the bottom of the column, and everything shifts up in preparation for the next turn.

Easy, right? But the random enemy selection and the equally random flipping of an instruction counter mean that while you always have a pretty good idea of what will probably happen, you can never be sure of it. Plans need to be kept flexible.
There’s one more twist, this one made possible by the counters used to determine the success of a raid [something that wouldn’t have worked as elegantly with the cubes in Navajo Wars]: instruction counters sometimes make their way into the success cup, waiting for the unwary player to fish them out of the cup instead of a success counter. So you thought you were going on a tranquil raid and could prepare for enemy payback at the end of the turn? Surprise! The enemy is coming out of its lethargy early this week.

Three types of cards round out the game’s engine. Culture cards are purchased with culture points, and represent Comanche skill advancements. Development cards are essentially events that, for good or bad, influence life on the plains; they include such evocative titles as Mild Winter (good!), End of Ute Alliance (bad!) and Epidemic (I think I’ll go home now). The last type, War cards, regulates armed confrontations between the Comanche and their enemies, allowing war parties to move on the map and bestowing one side with an advantage or saddling them with a drawback.
Combat is simply resolved with modified die roll. There’s no need for more: this isn’t a game about war, but a game about survival. (Which sometimes requires military action.)
  
PRODUCTION

True to the series it gracefully expands, Comancheria is one beautiful game.
Again, I’ll steal from my description of Navajo Wars to capture the elegance of the components, “from the evocative box cover to the stunning (mounted) board, right down to the various cards and counters, all produced with the same earthy palette of soothing tones. If you’re going to stare at a game for a couple of hours, it might as well go easy on the eyes—and this one certainly does.”

The game also comes with two well laid-out player aids that remove the need to constantly dig through the rulebook for answers. In fact, you could jump right into the first scenario and learn the game as you go, using those player aids as trusty guides.
  
RULES

Like its predecessor, Comancheria runs on just 19 pages of rules. Rules that are well written, easy to read, and mostly make sense. I say “mostly,” because the way Passage of Time works (the two clock hands I mentioned earlier) was not immediately obvious. But beyond that minor snag, the game just clicked.

As I mentioned before, it would be entirely possible to hit the deck running and learn the game just from the player aids. Everything in the game is procedural: knowledge from outside each procedure is not necessary to its execution. (You might run into some surprises later on, though, but your scars will heal and you’ll have learned a valuable lesson.)

Alternatively, you could also grab the Play Book and go through its 20-page tutorial. That will take you through several preprogrammed turns, at the conclusion of which you can keep going with the rest of the scenario, or reset the game and start over. (Think about that: the tutorial is one page longer than the game’s rulebook. How’s that for quality service?)

Then again, you could go old school and just read the rules. It’s only 19 pages—knock yourself out.

Once you’re done, there are six scenarios waiting to, uh, play with you.
  
FUN FACTOR

When I reviewed Navajo Wars, I declared it my favorite solo game (with John Butterfield’s RAF flying in close formation right behind). But I have to admit that Comancheria is giving my number one a run for its money.

Let’s take a look at this new offering through the lens of my three solo criteria.

Significant Decisions
Do you, as the human player, have a major influence on the way each game unfolds? Absolutely. This is not a “rail game” by any stretch: you’re allowed to gallop every which way and decide what to do. Avoiding raids will not be possible for too long, but that would be like complaining that a wargame forces you to attack the enemy. Your objective is to get rid of intruders and establish dominance over your territory.
But you get to choose how and when to accomplish this. (Good luck.)

Balanced AI
Does the artificial intelligence present a challenge and yet remain beatable? Yes. And it sure doesn’t feel like more of the same from one turn to the next—the clever instruction counters make sure of that.
Enemy instructions range from Hunt (which removes valuable Bison from the board!) to Settle (sending varmint ever deeper into Comanche territory), to all-out War (which can bring about the destruction of entire Rancherias—and cost you the game).
It also happens that an enemy will declare a truce, but hey, that never lasts.

Replayability
I need to steal from my review of Navajo Wars one more time. (Last one, I promise.)
“Because the aforementioned instruction counters always come up in wildly different orders, no two games are alike. At all. Multiply that by the number of different scenarios included with the game (six), and by the variations in deck shuffling, and you get a dizzying array of possible outcomes.”

There’s more: depending on what culture cards you decide to purchase, the ways in which your bands of Comanche riders will capture and hold on to precious territory will be myriad.


PARTING SHOTS

In short, I love this game. It made it to #4 on my Top Ten of games published in 2016.

Comancheria is clever, challenging, rewarding, it tells a story, and it also teaches history. What more do you want? You don’t even need a gaming partner—just open and consume whenever you’re ready.

It’s also a game that requires a rather negligible time investment. While your first game will no doubt eat up a chunk of your evening (I would recommend you set aside three hours if you intend to finish that first scenario), subsequent plays will clock in at less than 90 minutes for a single Historical Period.
We’re talking an afternoon for the campaign game (all four Historical Periods), which is outstanding.

[So does Comancheria feel like just a reskin of Navajo Wars? Not at all. It has some familiar moving parts (mostly the Instructions Display) but it presents a challenge all its own. For one thing, I feel less like I’m reacting to enemy moves, and a bit more like I’m setting the tone (for however long that lasts…). I also found Comancheria to be a little simpler, mechanically speaking, but also a tad more difficult to win. It’s an easier game to ease into, and it also requires less time to play a short scenario.]


I still have ways to go before I can claim to have conquered all six scenarios. But I’m already looking to the horizon, where Toppen has alluded to a future encounter with the Great Sioux Nation.



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Sunday, January 1, 2017

A Year of Boardgaming, 2016 Edition

 Another year has come to a close and, as always, I like to steal a peek over my shoulder (usually the left one) and take stock of my boardgaming activity.
So let’s dive into the 2016 stats, shall we?

GAMES
I played 148 different titles (down from 196 in 2015), for a total of 489 plays (down from 573). This translates to 538 hours spent enjoying the finest boardgames (as well as suffering the occasional turd) with family, beloved friends, and a random selection of total strangers. That’s over 22 full days of cardboard action, which is actually up from the 430 hours I racked up in 2015. This means that I played longer games in 2016: a natural conclusion, considering the vast majority of my plays didn’t occur over lunch at work, where time is limited and one needs to gravitate towards shorter experiences.
By the way, 75 of the 148 games I played last year were new to me, down from 105. It appears I’m trying to play my “old” games a little bit more, which is good news.

So here are the top 10 games I played the most in 2016:
1. Combat Commander (23 plays)
A WWII tactical wargame, and my favorite game of all time (for the last decade).
2. C&C: Napoleonics (21 plays)
A simulation of the Napoleonic Wars, which I only play with the GF.
3. Ottoman Sunset (19 plays)
A solo WWI wargame, part of the exciting State of Siege series.
4. Automobiles (17 plays)
A thrilling racing game with a deck-building twist.
5. Viticulture (13 plays)
A fun worker-placement game about producing and selling wine.
6. World of Tanks: Rush (13 plays)
A very simple, yet addictive, WWII deck-builder.
7. Codenames (12 plays)
The thinking man’s party game.
8. Star Wars: The Card Game (11 plays)
One of the best living card games out there.
9. The Gallerist (10 plays)
A superb worker-placement game about buying and selling art.
10. Dungeonquest (10 plays)
The new edition of the classic game where you try to survive for more than five minutes.

PEOPLE
Last year, I sampled the best the boardgaming world had to offer in the company of 66 different players (down from 76 in 2015). Again, not playing at work with my usual crowd sent the stats tumbling a bit. And it’s rather heartbreaking, when I look at the Top 10 that follows, for me not to see the names of coworkers who used to populate that list for the past decade.

So here are the top 10 people with whom I played the most in 2016:
1. Jean-Luc S.  (143 games)
2. Suzie D. (105 games)
3. François P. (93 games)
4. Ophélie K. Lalumière (58 games)
5. Gustavo A. (45 games)
6. William L. (40 games)
7. Héloïse K. Lalumière (26 games)
8. Jonathan P. (21 games)
9. Philippe M. (17 games)
10. Robert Lalumière (15 games)

So two of my daughters, the GF and her son all show up on the list—along with my father Robert, which is simply astounding. And an honorable mention goes to Gustavo, as the only one of my ex-colleagues who hung in there.
Also, Ophélie had told me 365 days ago that she wanted to improve her rating; well, she did! She climbed from #9 to #4, and got involved 58 times in a game with her old man, which is almost double her 30 from last year. The game we played the most together was Codenames, closely followed by Viticulture.

LOCATIONS
Yes, I also track where I do my boardgaming now. Hey, you can’t be only half a freak.
The interesting here is that while most of my gaming happens at home (72%) and then at my friend Jean-Luc’s (13%), I managed to grab a game (or more!) in 12 different places. Yet this is down from 16, pretty much because I simply didn’t go through the boardgaming pilgrimage that took me to Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands in 2015.

RANDOM OBSERVATIONS
I just started a new job and I’ve already identified a handful of boardgamers, and while none of that cardboard stuff is happening at work right now, but I intend to change this in the coming months. And I’m curious to see what those Top 10 lists will look like at the end of the year!
Last January, I said that I thought C&C Napoleonics would end up as my most played game of 2016, and I wasn’t far off: it missed the #1 spot by only two plays. However, other wargames didn’t enjoy the same sort of glorious dusting off. I did break the seal on Empire of the Sun, but Hearts and Minds remains unplayed. And now Triumph & Tragedy has joined the pile of games looking for their turn in the sun, but that should be easily remedied.
My first game of 2016 was C&C Napoleonics with Suzie, while the very last was Star Wars: Rebellion with my buddy Jean-Luc. Very satisfying bookends, if you ask me.

So what’s next? As of this writing (noon on January 1st) I still haven’t played my first game of the year. But I already know that I’m embarking on a new card game adventure with Arkham Horror: The Card Game for 2017. So the new year promises to be, at the very least, terrifyingly entertaining.


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Thursday, December 29, 2016

My Top 10 Boardgames Published in 2016

Since I try dozens of new boardgames each and every year, I thought it might be fun, enlightening, perhaps even life-altering (...) to share my personal Top 10 as the year comes to a close. 
So here are my picks for the ten best games published in 2016.


10. MICRO ROBOTS (designed by Andreas Kuhnekath, published in North America by Z-Man Games)
This little gem came as a total surprise at the end of year. The cover caught my eye and I couldn't help but buy a copy and give it a shot. You see, I'm a long-time fan of Alex Randolph's Ricochet Robot, where players compete to solve a puzzle that involves moving one of four robots to a specific spot on the board according to simple movement rules. The covers of both games are visually similar—intentionally so—and Micro Robots seemed to promise an experience akin to that of its predecessor in a fraction of the time. So does it? Absolutely.
Just one robot, simpler (but oh so clever) movement rules, and a game that plays to completion in under 10 minutes. And eminently portable, on top of everything.


9. TALON (designed by Jim Krohn, published by GMT Games)
While Eclipse had turned out to be the space exploration game of my dreams, my shelves were still lacking when it came to a great space combat title. I had tried many of them but still felt I hadn’t found what I was looking for (cue U2). Then came along Talon, with gameplay that’s best described as Star Fleet Battles with much less (and much more organic) bookkeeping. The action moves fast, fleets are absolutely manageable, and the game can be played in teams as well as head-to-head. Plus, who doesn’t like actually writing on game components?


8. 13 DAYS: THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS (designed by Asger Harding Granerud and Daniel Skjold Pedersen, published in North America by Jolly Roger Games)
I have been playing the classic Twilight Struggle for more than a decade (already!), re-enacting the Cold War with friends and loved ones. Enters 13 Days, which zooms in on a specific episode of that sprawling conflict of influence and brinkmanship. The game ratchets up the same kind of edge-of-your-seat tension that Twilight Struggle generates, albeit in a fraction of the time—and table space.


7. GUILDS OF LONDON (designed by Tony Boydell, published in North America by Tasty Minstrel Games)
A game about appointing liverymen to various guilds in a London on its last medieval legs? Sign me up. (Right?)
It’s all about managing your hand, where each card can be used to do multiple things—oh, but you have to pick just one. That sweet agony is compounded by an ever-expanding board where players vie for control of London’s most prestigious guilds (as well as some of the lesser ones, if they happen to fit into your plans…)


6. HANDS IN THE SEA (designed by Daniel Berger, published by Knight Works)
When I heard that Daniel Berger had taken A Few Acres of Snow (one of my favorite games by my favorite designer, Martin Wallace), replaced the French and Indian War setting with the First Punic War, and added a bunch of wargamey chrome, I knew the end result would be quite something. And it is.
Think deck-builder with territorial conquest, coupled with naval control, together with an economic engine, and with a little siege action sprinkled on top. Tasty.


5. AUTOMOBILES (designed by David Short, published by AEG)
A twist on the deck-building genre, Automobiles proposes a bag-building experience, where players add cubes of various colors to their pouches, only to randomly draw them afterwards and try to make the best of the results. Some cubes represent gears that move your race car forward—speed and trajectory depending on the color of said cubes—whereas others enable coveted special abilities. It’s racing at its geekiest and it’s a lot of fun. I’m surprised it has been flying so low under the radar.


4. COMANCHERIA (designed by Joel Toppen, published by GMT Games)
I was already enthralled by Toppen’s Navajo Wars, so I expected big things from volume 2 in the series. And big things I got.
A solo game about the rise and fall of the Comanche empire, Comancheria pits one fearless player against hordes of Spanish, Mexican and American invaders—not to mention a bevy of hostile tribes to the North. The AI that drives the show is lifted straight from Navajo Wars, albeit with a few twists here and there that turn clever into sublime. My favorite solo game, from 2016 or any other year.
You can real my full review here.


3. GRAND PRIX (designed by Jeff and Carla Horger, published by GMT Games)
Another iteration of a previously published system, Grand Prix reprises the thrilling engine that made Thunder Alley a favorite of mine (with 41 recorded plays at the time of this writing). This time, the action moves from NASCAR to F1, but with a game that feels more like a Formula One-themed game than an actual simulation. Nevertheless, I rate it a notch above its predecessor.
You can read my full review here.


2. STAR WARS: REBELLION (designed by Corey Konieczka, published by Fantasy Flight Games)
I know, everything and anything is labeled Star Wars these days, but this is one instance that rises above the crowd. By a mile.
It’s a game of cat & mouse between the Rebel Alliance and the Empire, with the bad guys trying to locate and destroy the pesky Rebels’ base before time runs out. The game’s got everything: epic space and ground battles, resource management, bluffing, great use of beloved characters, and components like you wouldn’t believe. Rebellion is the opposite of a quick cash grab: it sets the bar for what games based on a popular franchise ought to aim for.
If you have three or four hours to spare and don’t mind gripping armrests until your knuckles turn white, treat yourself to a game of Rebellion. It won’t be your last.


1. GREAT WESTERN TRAIL (designed by Alex Pfister, published in North America by Stronghold Games)
Last year, I was blown away by Pfister’s Mombasa, a brilliant design whose only flaw lied in a daunting learning curve. So it was with excitement but also some nervousness that I approached the man’s 2016 offering. Turns out I needn’t have been so cautious: Great Western Trail is the best new game I’ve played in 2016—and a totally intuitive experience to boot!
Each player is a rancher intent on reaching Kansas City to unload valuable cattle. This is achieved through clever use of buildings on the way there—some of them yours, some of them belonging to your opponents. Will you rush to Kansas City to deliver your cargo as many times as possible, or would you rather benefit from everything the intervening buildings have to offer so that your herd is the absolute best it can be once your reach your destination?
You’re just going to have to play it to find out. Again and again.


So there you have it, ten great games in a year that was very generous as far as new games went. (I don’t remember 2015 thrilling me as much.)

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a game waiting.



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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Lucas Land, Part 2: Welcome to Tatooine


In Lucas Land, Part 1, I mentioned an old magazine article I had penned upon my return from Tunisia, where I visited many of the shooting locations used to create the original Star Wars movie. I did manage to unearth that piece (albeit in physical form—somehow I can’t locate the 20-year-old Word file) but I was rather disappointed to find out that it dealt a lot more with the Star Wars Customizable Card Game than with the North African journey itself. It’s basically a gaming article peppered with references to the trip. And since that wouldn’t be much of a fun thing to reproduce here, I’ll dig deep into my memories and try to lift the veils of Time so that I can offer a humble summary of my Tatooine adventures, circa 1997.

As was to be expected, just getting there was part of the fun.
I linked up with our intrepid guide, archaeologist David West Reynolds, in Pittsburgh before flying across the pond for a quick layover in London. It happened to be on that day that a new air corridor was being inaugurated, and with a brand new Boeing 777 to boot. So not only did the plane offer the most quiet flight I’ve ever experienced (it truly is amazing), it also had that brand new car smell to it, having never welcomed passengers before we showed up to soil its carpeted floor and leave snack crumbs all over the seats. The flight itself was uneventful, as was the next one, which took us from London to Tunis. But we still had one more hop ahead of us, in order to land deep into the heart of Tunisia. And that flight, my friends, made me feel like Indiana Jones taking off from some forgotten runway in the mid-1930s. (Not the only connection to Indiana Jones during the trip, as it would turn out.)
It was an old, rickety aircraft packed to the rafters with Tunisians—we were clearly the only tourists onboard. I could hear poultry somewhere in the back, there was some high-pitched local song playing on the PA system, and a thick, spicy smoke filled the entire cabin. When the plane ran out of asphalt and aimed at the sky, the big machine groaned under our collective weight. Not for long, however: we were to land about half an hour later, emerging from a craft bursting with foreign music, animated conversations in Arabic, and laughter. So much laughter. It was the happiest flight I’ve ever been on, the most communal 30 minutes I ever spent trapped with strangers in a tin can. A startling contrast to the high-tech comforts of the Boeing 777, which seemed very sterile by comparison.

Upon arrival, we were assigned a Toyota Land Cruiser and a driver. Both were rugged and reliable, and while the vehicle resembled something you’d see deployed on the front lines, the man behind the wheel was a warm, friendly chap who always had a good story to tell. Communications took place in French, so I found myself acting as translator for my American companions. (When I had to switch to German for one particular encounter, it wasn’t long before references to C-3PO started popping up. Reynolds still calls me TalkDroid to this day.)

Not a Jawa in sight.
Our archaeologist had already mapped out most of the shooting locations during his own, personal trek the year before, which allowed us to proceed without delay. One of the first places we came upon was the cantina. Now you have to understand that when George Lucas and his production team departed Tunisia, they left a great many things behind. Bits of set dressing, building extensions, backdrops: most of it stayed there and was repurposed by the locals. Take the cantina, for instance. The building that would become the iconic Star Wars watering hole was an adobe construction that was already there: set builders just added a small extension, built a Star Wars-looking door and threw plastic domes on top. When we disembarked from our trusty Land Cruiser, the look of the cantina was unmistakable, although the flimsy extension was long gone and so was the door; but the plastic domes had survived and were used as protective covers in the back yard. 

When we visited the troglodyte (i.e. underground) hotel in Tataouine (you read that right) that served at the Lars’ homestead in the movie, some of the set dressing was still there, 20 years after the fact. Reynolds and I had breakfast at the table where Luke ate with Owen and Beru, and we re-enacted their famous disagreement with great relish. (“But I was going into Tosche Station to pick up some power converters!”) I even stood in the main courtyard, looked up at the huge circular opening, and started yelling “Luke! LUUUUUKE!” like a complete nitwit. (I would have regretted not doing it for the rest of my life.) 
Sulking at breakfast.
(Notice the set dressing in the arch above my head,
still present 20 years after shooting. The motif painted on the
ceiling was already there when the production crew arrived.)

My view of the courtyard lacked a couple of vaporators.

The exterior of the homestead was shot somewhere on the outskirts of the Sahara Desert: the mock adobe domes had been removed but the scars in the ground were still there, 20 years after the fact. So was the circular ridge where Luke rests one of his feet as he gazes longingly into the twin sunset. (I’m sad to report that only one sun shone down on us during our visit.)

Waxing introspective in the middle of nowhere.

We trekked our way to many minor shooting locations, including the cliff where Obi-Wan points to Mos Eisley in the distance, declaring it a “wretched hive of scum and villainy”—the three iron rings nailed to the rocks and used to latch the camera tripod into place were still there, patiently waiting for us. Our driver would always shake his head in disbelief when I asked him to drop us off in the middle of nowhere and come back to fetch us four hours later. But he was always on time, and no doubt surprised to find us all still alive.

Not a bad spot for Sand People snipers, don't you think?

We retraced Skywalker’s steps to the spot where Obi-Wan revives him (yes, we re-enacted that scene as well…) but Reynolds was still one location short: the exact spot where they filmed the Tusken Raider attack on Luke. We knew it had to be close by so, armed with production photos and trading cards (!), we started walking around, scanning the horizon for a peculiar break in the rocky formations. I eventually spotted it and hastened to stand right on the spot where the attack had been captured on film. As if on cue, a donkey (that must have been barely out of sight) started braying, which froze the blood in my veins for a second: the first part of its call, echoing through the canyon around me, sounded exactly like (and was indeed used for) the Tusken Raider war cry.

I emerged unscathed and we eventually made our way to Obi-Wan’s home, which is really a fisherman’s hut, just a few meters away from the Mediterranean. It wasn’t altered at all for its movie role, but was filmed using a low angle to conceal the vibrant sea frothing behind it, and make it look like it’s standing deep inside Tatooine’s barren land.

Standing in front of Obi Wan's humble abode...

... right next to the sea.

You know what? Let’s take a break here and rest our feet while we enjoy a glass of blue milk. I have to catch my breath before I launch into the infamous cantina door story and retell those Indiana Jones tidbits…



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Monday, November 7, 2016

And Now, For My Next Trick


I’ve been performing magic longer than I’ve been dating or driving. I am not alone: even in the mid-‘80s, when magic was far from the relatively mainstream “thing” it has since become, the arcane arts attracted their fair share of adepts. Back then, of course, one learned from books: teaching DVDs were but a dream, and DropBox videos would lay dormant for two more decades.
Gatherings proved equally problematic in those pre-Internet times. Whereas nowadays each and every geek can reach dedicated online fora—no matter the subject matter—in olden days, magicians were only afforded two avenues. The first was a handful of select clubs (such as the fabled Magic Castle in California) where a personal invitation was the only thing that could get you in; not the most realistic prospect for a budding legerdemain. But option 2, despite its more accessible trappings, was no less intimidating.
I’m talking about the magic shop.

Entering one of those special lairs was a sort of test. The location of magic shops was not kept secret, nor was a password or special handshake required to gain access to the premises. But the minute you walked in, you knew you were being judged. Evaluated. Weighed. Were you the tourist, wandering in as you might any other strangely inviting shop? Or perhaps the casual performer, looking for a new self-working trick to have fun with friends and coworkers? Or maybe, just maybe, you were the serious student, questing for the next move to add to your arsenal, the missing tool from your box, the final feather in your cap. Whoever you happened to be, you were welcome in there, and the old wizard tending shop would see to your particular needs.

I’ve always loved those exotic places, but it took me a while to grasp the exact reason. Many other establishments sold items I was excited about. Why did magic shops hold me spellbound in that regard? It eventually dawned on me that these surroundings made me feel like a kid all over again. Everywhere I looked, amazement waited, barely contained. A new mystery to solve, a new world to explore, a new question to answer… And I know it’s precisely what keeps calling to me, after all those years.

Over the course of my magical studies, I’ve come across quite the array of spectators. I know all the types: the easy-going guy who just enjoys the show, the girl who won’t stop screaming in excitement, the broody kid who wants you to fail, the know-it-all who calls the shots in advance, the guy who feels insulted because he can’t comprehend what he’s seeing, the pleased grandfather who wears a smile as big as his hat, the grandmother with a hand to her chest who looks like she’s about to faint, the alpha male who fumes at seeing his girlfriend melt at your fingertips—it takes all kinds. But I have to say that the vast majority of spectators are on the magician’s side and genuinely want the experiment to succeed: they understand it’s a little collaborative lie we’re telling ourselves, and that it functions best when everyone is onboard.
Similarly, I’ve encountered a wild variety of magicians, from the smug performer who assumes an air of superiority at being the only one in the room with any knowledge of what’s really going on (or so he likes to think), to the shy illusionist who almost apologizes when something out of the ordinary happens (which it’s supposed to!). Again, I’m happy to report that most magicians are a friendly bunch whose only desire is to entertain in a mystifying way.

To my absolute delight, I have found myself performing in several different settings. In a darkened corner at a fundraiser for a friend’s theater project (where a passerby ripped the deck out of my hands, looked at one of the pasteboards and shuffled it back in with the others, before handing the whole mess back to me and daring me to find his card); on a bumpy cab ride en route to Heathrow airport (during which bad lighting conditions both helped and hindered everything I did); at a large wedding in San Francisco (a completely improvised affair at the request of the groom, and one which was met with such enthusiasm that it derailed the proceedings and earned me the eternal wrath of the wedding planner); as part of actual magic shows (it does happen!); in the middle of an open-air market in Tunisia (where I was dragged from one stall to the next—with live chickens flying and clucking out of the way—so that I could repeat my demonstration for a friend or a relative); in multitudes of friends and family gatherings; and so on.

Now there is no denying that I enjoy the art of magic as a whole, but close-up magic holds a special place in my heart—and my hands. To me, magic has always been about the connection with spectators, and there’s no better way to connect with them then a close-up performance. The impossible happens right under the onlookers’ noses, sometimes directly into their hands: they are part of the event in a very personal way. I have specialized in card manipulation, always with a completely ungaffed deck: no shenanigans, no secret thing added or taken away, no special cards. Pure manipulation and misdirection. Not because I look down on special apparatuses—many of which are incredibly clever and allow for mindboggling miracles—but because I like to use a borrowed deck of cards, or else give mine away after I’m done. People actually enjoy this: their cards have gone through “something special,” and/or they walk away with a magical souvenir most of them will cherish for years to come.

So what does all of this add up to? The simple fact, I guess, that people from all walks of life, in all sorts of situations, will usually react the same way when presented with an entertaining demonstration that they can’t possibly explain. Their brains will look for a solution in column A, then in column B, maybe in column C (where all the clutter accumulates), and realize there’s none to be found. What they’re witnessing can’t be filed anywhere. And at that moment, that truly magical instant, their mouths will part in a toddler’s grin and their eyes will light up like those of an infant witnessing the world for the first time. Something ethereal will emanate from their features, something profound and beautiful. It’s there for just a second, but it (almost) never fails to show up. No matter where you are in the world, no matter whom you’re performing for. It’s there.
And I am hopelessly addicted to that unique something, that primordial look in their eyes. Like a vampire on the prowl for human blood, I keep performing magic to stimulate that response, so that I may quench my special kind of thirst, if only for a little while.
(At the same time I feel a bit guilty because everyone is busy looking at me: I’m the only one who gets to look back at all of them and take in that luminous glory.)

Living legend Paul Harris often refers to magic as “the art of astonishment,” a phrase that sings in its exactness. People are not just puzzled: they are SO puzzled that they revert to a state when everything was still new and full of wonder.

So the next time you see a magician at work, sacrifice your own enjoyment for a moment and look at the person next to you—especially towards the end of a trick. That is where the true magic happens.


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Thursday, October 13, 2016

A Legacy Apology



Destroying boardgame components is a stunning new trend adopted by thousands of enthusiasts who, not that long ago, frowned over a dog-eared card and scowled at a Pepsi-stained board.
How the hell did this happen?
Boardgames have a come a long way since the turn of the millennium. Where they mainly used to exist as unsophisticated wargames (like Risk or Axis & Allies) or variations on the roll-and-move model (such as Candyland, Chutes & Ladders or Monopoly), they are now so varied in concept and execution that it’s getting difficult to keep track of it all.
Nowadays, boardgames cover a myriad of themes and employ a dazzling array of mechanisms to create fun and excitement at the gaming table. Some of the best-selling titles of the past decade involve establishing railroad networks in various parts of the world (the Ticket to Ride series), running a 17th-century farm and trying not to starve (Agricola), working together to stop deadly viruses from spreading all over the globe (Pandemic), and producing and shipping goods during colonial times in the Caribbean (Puerto Rico).
(For the uninitiated, it’s worth mentioning that none of the above games use dice in any way, shape or form. New boardgames definitely don’t play the way they did 20 years ago—but that’s a topic for a different blog post…)

However, for all their newfangled twists and original backdrops, today’s games share one crucial characteristic with their ancestors: they reset at the end of each and every session. You set up the game, play it to its conclusion, and then break it down and put it back in the box, where it’ll wait in that inert state until someone begins the cycle anew. Sessions will unfold differently depending on random set up elements and decisions taken by the players, but the game always starts with an empty board, in a sort of virginal state. Unsoiled.
But all that is slowly changing, thanks to an unassuming game released in 2011.

Ironically, the game that shook up the established order came from Hasbro, a toy maker not known for innovative gameplay (thanks to tired games—Clue, Risk, Operation, etc.—endlessly refitted with the hot intellectual property of the moment). But that is where designer Rob Daviau conceived of a game that would NOT reset at the end of every session. A world that would evolve with each run-through and offer players an ever-changing landscape.
Of course, the idea of “campaigns” wasn’t a new one in the boardgame world. You would play one session and the results of said session would influence the next one, and so on (usually through changes in set up to reflect, for instance, lost combat units or gained resources). But what Daviau was proposing went way beyond some inter-session bookkeeping: he wanted to physically alter the components of the game. Forever.

And so was born Risk Legacy, another entry in an ocean of Risk variations. But that one was different; that one was crazy. Sure, the game used the basic Risk mechanisms and offered yet another setting (sci-fi warlords vie for Earth domination) but it came in a box with sealed packages and envelopes, together with strict instructions as to when to open them. Players were invited to select a faction that they would play throughout the entire 15-session campaign, and then write their names on the faction cards. Using a permanent marker.

That first act of desecration was already too much for many gamers, who simply refused to take part in such atrocities. But the madness was only getting started. The game, among other things, allowed for cities to be conquered, burned to the ground or fortified. And so the conquering, burning or fortifying player was required to use one of the many stickers provided with the game, and apply it to the board to denote the city’s new status. We’re not talking Post-It notes, here: those are stickers that never, ever come off. That city got destroyed? Well it’s destroyed. For all eternity.
… in your copy of the game, that is. Because the group next door, who’s also playing its own campaign of Risk Legacy, will most probably not go through the same motions your group did. So different cities will get different treatments. Different factions will acquire different technologies (note it on your faction card!). Sealed events will happen at different moments and affect different elements of the game, and so on. In the end, each group winds up with a completely personalized copy of the game, an extreme level of customization achieved through 15 sessions of pure exploration. Not only do you not have access to the full roster of game components when you first start out, but even the rules evolve over time, with holes in the rulebook being filled with stickers that modify the way the game is played.

Risk Legacy quickly found its audience, and it was only a matter of time before other legacy-style games saw the light of day. Daviau himself designed a sequel of sorts, once again picking up an existing design—the aforementioned Pandemic—and giving it the legacy treatment. In Pandemic Legacy, Season 1 (which strongly hints at a possible continuation of the storyline), two to four players get together to fight the spread of deadly viruses. And it feels pretty much like your good old Pandemic—well, perhaps apart from naming the characters you decide to play and logging the date of each session on their cards—until the shit hits the fan. Things spiral out of control, characters die (yes, rip that card to shreds and throw it away), heroes emerge from the wreckage (new characters to choose from!), a new, deadly virus makes a dramatic entrance (time to alter that rulebook), special missions become priorities (it almost feels like we’re playing a different game!) and so on, for a campaign experience that spans 12 to 24 sessions, depending on your level of success at the end of each run.

Was it fun? You bet. The experience ranks among the highlights of my long and distinguished career as a boardgaming geek, and it showed me that boardgames can tell gripping, edge-of-your-seat interactive stories to rival movies, videogames and those page-turners that keep you awake all night.
(Come on: I remember my group finishing a session of Pandemic Legacy past midnight and immediately launching into the next one, even though we all had to get up and go to work just a few hours down the line.)
Will we play with our Season 1 box again? No. While the game does permit further sessions—you just keep playing with your customized game, even though your actions no longer contribute to an ongoing storyline—it has essentially run its course. We keep it archived and look at the resulting board from time to time, like a worn out diary that speaks to turbulent times and obstacles now overcome.
Will we buy Season 2 if it ever comes out? Only death would prevent us from doing so. Maybe.

Many of my gamer friends have shied away from the legacy experience. They can’t begin to imagine altering and even destroying game components, nor can they accept the fact that after the campaign is over, you don’t really want to play the game again, and you can’t sell it or trade it. It’s done.
But it’s all worth it. Not a single doubt about that.

Your typical, serious boardgamer will have a collection numbering in the hundreds, and will play each game in that collection, on average, a dozen times over their lifetime. (And I’m being generous here. A handful of titles will get played to death—I have racked up more than 300 sessions of Combat Commander—while others will sit on the shelf, unplayed for years.)
That’s fine: say you paid $50 for a new boardgame and play it 10 times with two of your friends before you move on to other, shinier titles. Assuming that each session lasts about an hour, the cost of the game breaks down to $5 an hour. For each person, that becomes $1.67 per hour, which is about as cheap as you can possibly get when it comes to entertainment.
So what if you play Pandemic Legacy only 12 times? (That’s the bare minimum of sessions required to finish the story, if you and your friends are the best players in the universe.) The game will still compare favorably to the rest of your collection. (My trio—composed or hardened boardgamers already very familiar with Pandemic—had to struggle through 17 sessions to get to the end, loving every second of it.)

I understand the initial aversion to physically altering game components. But trust me, it’s part of the fun. Knowing you can’t go back and use that character again no matter what the rules say (because he’s in the trash now!) really ratchets up the tension and makes the experience all the more tasty.
And memorable.

Of course, more legacy games are coming out now, but not as quickly as one might imagine. They are massively complex to design, especially if they’re not adapted from an existing game: you first have to design a fun and solid game, and then throw in a story arc that offers exciting twists and turns without derailing the gameplay you spent so much time fine-tuning.
And once again, Rob Daviau is leading the way, with his completely original Seafall releasing this month. No need to ask the question: yes, I’ll be tearing cards and putting stickers in my rulebook and writing stuff on my board like a maniac as soon as I can get my hands on a copy.

I wouldn’t want all of my games to be legacy contraptions. But going through one of those babies each year?
I could live with that.


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Monday, October 3, 2016

Boardgame review — Grand Prix

This One Goes to Eleven


Designers: Jeff Horger, Carla Horger
Player count: 2 to 11
Publisher: GMT Games





After the enthusiastic reception of their first racing game, Thunder Alley, designers Jeff and Carla Horger announced that the next title in the series would be Grand Prix. Whereas the original had tackled NASCAR, the encore would take on Formula One racing. And although the first title had taken years to attain publication, its successor would cross the finish line in record time.
Clearly, fans were hungry for more.

At first glance, the two games are so similar that one might reasonably believe that Grand Prix will feel like nothing more than a special scenario for Thunder Alley.
But that assumption would be wrong.

Grand Prix can accommodate up to 11 players (!) around the table, each controlling a team of two cars—which means that those cars add up to 22 rumbling machines on the track. And thanks to neutral cars, that number never goes down: for each missing human player, two neutral cars are thrown into the mix. In some cases, neutral cars can be activated by any player; in others (with 2 to 5 players), a subset of those neutral cars is assigned to each player.

On your turn, you can activate one of your two cars, or a neutral car assigned to you, or one of the neutral cars not assigned to anyone. This is accomplished through the play of a movement card, out of a hand that varies from 12 (in a two-player situation) to just three (when a full complement of 11 players are competing).

Those cards display movement points that range from 4 to 9, in four different varieties. With Solo movement, the activated car moves on its own along the track. With Leader movement, the activated car will take along for the ride all touching cars behind it. With Pursuit movement, the activated car will “push” all touching cards in front of it. And then there’s Line movement, where touching cars both in front and behind the activated car will move together.
Many cards sport a short paragraph of text, where special restrictions—or advantages!—are highlighted. Most cards also indicate what sort of wear the activated car incurs, from tire wear to transmission trouble, and everything in-between. Wear markers influence the condition of each player car (neutral cars ignore wear) and too many of them will slow down even the most tuned of engines. Unattended, they can even lead to the vehicle’s ultimate demise.

Once every car has been activated, the turn is over. An event card is drawn, its effects applied—ranging from a change in weather to a catastrophic crash—and each car is afforded the opportunity to pit, which allows for the removal of wear markers. (A specific subset of neutral cars is always forced to pit, depending on the event drawn.) Then a new turn begins, and so on, until three laps have been completed. Points are assigned to the cars that finish in the top 10 positions, and the team with the higher combined score is declared the winner. 

PRODUCTION

The game ships with four tracks printed on two double-sided, six-panel mounted boards.
Those are heavy, but a charm to race on. The box also holds two decks of cards (movement and events), administrative markers, wear markers, thick car tokens with rounded corners, and 11 team sheets use to track the condition of player cars.

I have to say that the tracks in Grand Prix look a bit better than their Thunder Alley counterparts. The colors a slightly more vibrant, and there is something naturally more exciting in the snaking subtleties of an F1 track, as opposed to the flat perspective of a NASCAR oval.

The car tokens—with their depiction of the recognizable F1 silhouette—are easy to handle except for one thing. Since a car is flipped over after it’s been activated, each token has a side with a light background, and another with a dark background. That way, it should be easy to figure out at a glance which cars have yet to move. But whereas Thunder Alley went for a white side and a black side (which makes playing options obvious), Grand Prix goes for an arguably more stylized light gray & dark gray option that unfortunately doesn’t introduce enough contrast between the two sides of a car token. Things gets worse with neutral cars, whose background adopts a hachured pattern to set them apart: this further blurs the distinction between the two sides.
You do get used to it, but there’s no excuse for the extra work to which players are subjected while planning their moves. Even under ideal lighting conditions, players often check with their opponents to make sure they’re not overlooking a car they could activate. (“So 22, 1, 14 and 99 have yet to move, right?”) 

RULES

While the rulebook in Grand Prix is a little longer than that in Thunder Alley, the game is just as simple to play. (I can typically get newcomers up and driving in 10 minutes.) And if you’re already familiar with Thunder Alley, a few adjustments are all that’s necessary to get you going with Grand Prix.

For instance, the four types of movement work the same way in both games. However, in Grand Prix, when a car that’s displaced laterally would end up going off the track, it moves one space forward instead of backward.

Pitting is different—and simpler—in Grand Prix. Each wear marker sports a number (from 1 to 10) that indicates how many spaces a pitting car has to move back in order to get rid of said marker. Done.

A special marker makes an appearance in Grand Prix: the close call marker. Each time a car displaces another car laterally, it gains such a marker. A close call marker is not a wear marker and so doesn’t really affect cars… until an event comes up that punishes the car with the most close call markers. Basically, the car that takes the most risks might end up paying for it. By comparison, lateral displacements were the meat and potatoes of Thunder Alley and incurred no penalty at all.

One major change here is the weather, although one might argue that it’s presented in a rather abstracted manner. A race normally begins with dry weather, which can change to rain (and eventually back to dry) through some event cards. Accordingly, different tire types may be employed: soft, hard or rain tires. In accordance with standard F1 rules, each player car is obligated to pit at least once to change tire types; apart from that, players are free to install tires on their two cars as they see fit. But rain and hard tires don’t do anything: only soft tires allow a movement bonus after the play of a card (and then the tire marker is flipped to its used side, and needs to be replaced in order to be used again). Hard tires only exist to force players to use different tires (essentially without a bonus) for part of the race, as per the rule highlighted above. A change in weather urges player cars towards the pit in order to get new tires. Should you refuse, all you get are one or two close call markers (or the occasional tire wear marker), and that's it. Scot-free.
It works well and is easy to explain, but I will admit to missing the tire subtleties present in other racing games.

Another new feature is the concept of the safety zone, which is deployed when a minor incident occurs. The safety zone is a corridor 11 spaces long—five in front of the affected car, five behind—where cars must move in a single lane and cannot pass each other. The safety zone is lifted at the end of the turn.

The rules do a great job of teaching the game and acting as reference material when the action gets underway. Some imprecisions and minor omissions will annoy sticklers such as myself (Are neutral cars affected by a change in weather? Can you simply refresh soft tires or are you forced to switch to a new tire type?) but they are few and far between, and common sense will usually take care of things. 

FUN FACTOR

Grand Prix is a metric ton of fun. If you’re any kind of boardgame racing enthusiast, this one is definitely worth a pit stop.

Safety zones, tires and weather, as well as some of the event cards and the way cars are affected by lateral displacement are all elements that do feel like F1 racing, albeit in a superficial way. Wargamers often refer to some games as being “war-themed games” rather than actual wargames, and I’m tempted to use the same construction here: Grand Prix is an F1-themed racing game, but not really an F1 simulation.

That’s not a bad thing in itself: I think Grand Prix is an astoundingly fun racing game, and one that I’m looking forward to playing again and again. It rewards strategy a little more than its NASCAR brother, and bad stuff seems to happen to those who actually went looking for it (expect perhaps for the Serious Crash event, which will wipe out anyone who just happened to be driving next to the car with the most close call markers).

I also think the game works better as a two-player contest than its predecessor. In Thunder Alley, a two-player game involves only 12 cars (six per player), and really feels like a tug-of-war. My cars against yours.
In Grand Prix, no matter the number of players, you always have 22 cars crowding the track. And the neutral cars—especially those that either player can activate, which is the majority of them in a two-player scenario—can really mess things up. In a good way. They also introduce additional opportunities and risks when it comes to timing: do you make use of that neutral car now, or do keep it in reserve for a super play a couple of moves down the line… if your opponent hasn’t decided to use it for himself?

PARTING SHOTS

If you’re not expecting a Formula One simulation and accept the abstractions and simplifications inherent to the system—not a hard thing to do, believe me—Grand Prix offers a racing challenge to rival the best of them. As a Thunder Alley fan (40 sessions as of this writing), I would go so far as to say that Grand Prix sits one position ahead of its big brother on my “to play” list.

And it bears repeating: Grand Prix has a feel all its own, and is not at all just a Thunder Alley clone.

Now, if four tracks aren’t enough asphalt to satisfy your high-octane ambitions, you already have access to more: the four Thunder Alley expansion tracks, released last year, have alternate F1 trajectories already baked into each NASCAR oval. In fact, the tracks of both games (12 in total, counting the expansion pack) are compatible with either system.

Still not enough? The Horgers have stated that the next title in the series would be a Mad Max-style of gladiatorial racing, with armored cars and shrapnel galore.

In the meantime, get driving!



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