Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Football in the Bubble

Unless you count the game between two East Coast teams that’s going to be played next weekend, American football season is over. (Alright. I'm bitter.)

While I’m waiting for my preferred football season to start (better known as Major League Soccer) here’s a hilarious soccer variant from Norway. It approaches NFL violence levels by placing semi-professional players in bubbles! “Look for the man first; take him out, then get the ball.”

Monday, January 30, 2012

Delicious? Or Devilicious?

While I’ve been working on new games, Epic Spell Wars has skipped ever-closer to its early/mid-February publication.

Cryptozoic has six ESW wallpapers up now, ranging from Thai-Foon’s Delicious Chicken to Midnight Merlin’s Devilicious Exorcism.

Even better, Cryptozoic put a photo album of the game’s unboxing on its Facebook page. Man, I didn’t even know there was going to be a Mt. Skullzfyre standee. I’m tempted to make a rule for using it in the game, but ESW is a game that does well with a minimum of rules, so I’ll resist temptation for now. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

all day permanent red

When I read the Iliad as an undergraduate, I envisioned it as if filmed on the side during the night warfare scenes of Apocalypse Now. I wasn't looking back to imagine a true record of an ancient conflict, I was translating a clash of heroes into the most powerful visual language I’d been exposed to.

This will do as a short cut to describing Christoper Logue’s poetic retelling of the Iliad. He’s using the most powerful visual language he can invent to retell an epic war between heroes, patron gods and hapless (but named) spear fodder.

A pure classicist might freak out at battle scenes invoking the future spirits of aircraft carriers smashing through the sea of spears, or references to King Marshal Ney smashing his sabre on a cannonball, or the thwarted lethality of a Tiger tank at Kursk. But the images from other times are judiciously chosen. Logue chants with voices from the past and voices from the more recent past, and if you have any fondness for the Iliad, you won’t regret trying this alternative phrasing.  

War Music: An Account of Books 1-4 and 16-19 of Homer’s Iliad is the other piece of the ongoing translation I own. Unlike all day permanent red, it’s not just battle scenes, but I’ll wait to recommend it until I’ve finished it.

I've seen a couple different covers for War Music, both interesting choices. Which leads me to believe that the cover of all day permanent red carries an extra kick if you know where the photo is from. But I don't recognize the image and would love to have it explained. 

Friday, January 13, 2012

What Use is a Dead Wizard?

One of the mechanics in Epic Spell Wars (due out in February) may be entirely new.

Generally I shy away from saying that about something I’ve designed. Yeah, I aim to design innovative games, but it’s often the case that people I don’t know about have enjoyed precisely the same thrill of innovation. Given the reach of the Internet, I expect that mentioning the Dead Wizard Deck from ESW as an innovation is going to be like casting Summon Previous Game Mechanic V!

Epic Spell Wars is a multiplayer game that awards ultimate victory to the first player to win two games. You win a game by being the last wizard standing after all other wizards have been knocked to 0 HP. When you are knocked out of a game, you wait around for the battle to be decided so that the next game can start. The games usually go quickly but you’re still likely to have to wait for several rounds.

In earlier designs I’ve kept all players involved in the game until it’s over for everyone, but in ESW I took a different approach. Each player who has been knocked out draws from the Dead Wizard Deck. You get a draw when you’re slain and another draw at the start of each round. Dead Wizard cards provide advantages in the next game. You might get +2 Hit Points next game, or a bonus Wild card in your starting hand, or even a draw from the Treasure deck.

The worse you lose, the stronger you are likely to be for the next game. You’ve already been hit by the stick; here, have a carrot! It’s a fun dynamic and it gives players who’ve been kicked around the usually-correct impression that they’re going to be more dangerous next time.  

I can’t remember playing a tabletop game that uses a mechanic like this. Maybe it is new (Summon PGM V)! If it isn’t new, I’m curious to hear how other games have handled it. If the approach improves a game you’re playing or designing, I’m curious to hear that too. 

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Glorantha: the West is East

If you are not interested in Glorantha or in the ways that long-established gaming worlds grow over time, this post may not be for you.

The main thing that bugged me about RQ3 (way back in 1981!) was its introduction of the sorcerers and knights of the West. I was more-or-less OK with Kralorelan draconic traditions that borrowed themes from Japan & China. But the introduction of saints and knights and what felt something like a Catholic monotheism calling itself Malkionism didn’t fit my sense of Glorantha.

When I worked at Chaosium in the late 90’s, Greg was digging into a deeper vision of the Lunar Empire. He was heavily influenced by Indian mysticism, saying that you could find most every form of religious expression within Hinduism somewhere.

I bought into the Lunar conversion. I enjoyed its mysteries and the faces of the Goddess reflected in the cycles of the moon. Yeah, I still hold onto a few of the older visions of the Lunars, but that’s because early visual impressions are hard for me shake, the same way I have trouble remembering that the Normans of 1066 didn’t wear plate armor…. Because the first I ever saw of Normans was a Classics Illustrated Ivanhoe comic that put all its knights into late Medieval heavy plate!

Happily for Glorantha, the Western shoe has finally dropped. A recent post on the Moon Design blog explains how Greg (in combination with Jeff Richard and Dan Barker) now sees the West. It looks heavily influenced by the Neo-Platonists who proceeded the Greek Christians, as well as caste and military systems of India. The ‘knights’ aren’t just knights, the wizards aren’t saints… yeah, this makes me happy, particularly the crazy-ass area called Safelster where Western philosophy overlaps with abnormal Gloranthan cults, creating heresies and conflicts that reference RE Howard and the Etruscans. I can dig it.

It’s no surprise that Greg’s deepening explorations of his world have drawn more and more from India and now Indonesia. He’s a creator who absorbs all the primary sources, he started with Western sources and has branched out into other cultures. What's curious is that India and Indonesia are the territories that were also drawn on by the first game world to hit print: M. A. R. Barker’s Empire of the Petal Throne.

Risking extreme simplification, Barker is concerned with mining the exterior forms. Stafford does well with the exterior forms but he also wants to detail interior experience. Barker’s focus has always been on the social structures and language forms and the external shapes of history. Barker’s world has plenty of gods, but enlightenment and mystic communion and spiritual paths, all hallmarks of Stafford’s blossoming Glorantha, are not something I associate with the gods of the Petal Throne.

Gaming cycles apparently take two or three decades to turn. Glorantha is in a good place. The West is now East, Heroquest is its own roleplaying game (instead of only a Milton Bradley boardgame box), Kingof Dragon Pass is successful on a platform it’s suited for, Gloranthan minis are about to hit the market again, and WyrmsFootnotes is about to serveup another helping of sense of wonder. I’d say the wind is up.  

Monday, January 2, 2012

SAGA Review

There’s a new game I love. It’s a Dark Ages skirmish miniatures game. Wait, wait, don’t walk away! SAGA isn’t just for lead-heads: there’s a lot here for fantasy gamers and maybe even Euro boardgamers.

I wouldn’t say that about 95% of the miniatures games I’ve tried, but SAGA is a cunning hybrid. It sells itself in the miniatures gaming community as a straightforward historical game. But SAGA sets itself apart with elegant core mechanics, an exceptions-based approach to the fighting styles of four different Dark Ages cultures, and its willingness to draft elements of heroic myth.

If you’ve played historical wargames, you’ve encountered the practice of giving your units orders before the turn. SAGA brilliantly reinterprets this convention. The core mechanic is that each of the four cultures in the base game (Viking, Anglo-Danish, Norman, Welsh) has its own battle board and set of six-sided dice featuring symbols associated with that culture. At the start of your turn you roll as many SAGA dice as your warband deserves, then assign the different die results to your battleboard, giving orders to your warriors for the turn (and possibly for the enemy’s turn) to come. Some orders only require one die; others require a combination of two specific dice. Your best warriors can be activated with most any die; your worst warriors can only be activated by one of the rarer symbols.

Trading card gamers will be right at home with the ability to exploit combos and synergies while generating SAGA dice and assigning abilities. Eurogamers should recognize the tension of planning a turn of action with limited resources while choosing between direct action and abilities that can only be used during an enemy turn.

The core game statistics are dead simple. Instead of offering charts of slightly different stats for warriors who were armed and armored quite similarly, the game gives almost identical attack and defense stats to four different classes of warrior (Warlord, Hearthguard, Warrior, Levy). But the orders on the battle board, especially the culturally unique abilities that you can only use once per turn, make each of the factions fight entirely differently.

The Norman battle board is a great example. Reading the rules, I was surprised that mounted units function almost exactly like units on foot. They move faster, they have lower armor against enemy shooting and they can’t enter buildings. The abilities of mounted units don’t live in the basic rules; they live on the Norman battle board: Charge!, Terrified, Gallop and Stamping are all abilities that can only be used by the Norman’s mounted warriors, and the most powerful of them have devastating effects when they’re used against non-mounted enemies. It’s not just good game design, it’s also delightful reinforcement of the Norman’s unique advantages.

Each of the four factions play differently thanks to the interaction between their SAGA dice and their battle board. The Normans move quickly, fire crossbows well, and stomp non-mounted enemies into the dust, but they also tire quickly. The Anglo-Danish start slow but gradually wear their enemies down before making the decisive push. The Welsh use every terrain advantage to escape most direct confrontation and pepper the foe with missiles. The Vikings seek melee early and often, don’t want to fight extended battles, and most especially don’t want to have to chase lightly armored Welsh around the bogs.

The Viking battle board introduces another aspect of the game that should appeal to fantasy gamers: abilities named after the Norse pantheon. Using the Thor ability lets you fight a melee twice, using Valhalla lets use eliminate a few of your own warriors to gain immense numbers of melee attack dice that fight. Use Loki and an enemy unit of lower-grade warriors that has taken some casualties will simply melt away from the battlefield, confused or frightened or slain by the trickster god, you decide, one way or another they’re gone.

Evocative use of myth continues with the special Warlord abilities assigned to Heroes of the Viking Age. A Viking warband can spend one of its six points to have Harald Hardrada (King of Norway) or Ragnar Lothbrok (King of Sweden and Norway) as its Warlord. The other factions have their own heroes. The Hero of the Viking Age abilities are extremely powerful and different, exactly the type of thing you can build an entire warband around. But it’s only one warrior so the power balances out. SAGA’s willingness to emphasize the fun of its setting instead of getting bogged down in simulation sets it apart.

Ordinarily I look at great games and consider the ways they can be adapted for other game worlds I enjoy. Pieces of Sartarite Glorantha are the obvious choice here, and I might end up using some Orlanthi minis for SAGA. But I don’t feel the need to complicate SAGA with magic rules and the other elements it would need to mesh with Glorantha/Dragon Pass. If I use Orlanthi in SAGA, I’m more likely to draft Orlanthi into our world’s physics, to treat the Gloranthan gods similar to the way that designer Alex Buchel treated the Viking gods.

If you’re in the UK, Gripping Beast is the publisher and main SAGA distributor. In the USA, look to Architects ofWar. In France, you’re playing in the game’s native tongue thanks to StudioTomahawk, which means you’re also able to enjoy a couple other games by this designer, lucky you.