Omen: A Reign of War

kolossal games cover

I gave collectible card games a good try. Several years ago some friends and I put together a small league of Magic: the Gathering, and we had a really fun time. But it fizzled out after less than a year. I also invested (then divested) myself of at least two or three of Fantasy Flight’s Living Card Games. I got a fair bit of mileage out of the Star Wars one in particular. But once again when I lost interest I ran far in the other direction. In both cases the problem wasn’t so much the cost, since I was managing that about as well as could be expected. It was more an issue that I didn’t want to deal with the game when I wasn’t actually playing it. I didn’t like having to think in the abstract about what impact cards would have on my decks. I just don’t function that way; I do far better with playing and seeing game effects in person.

Yet I find the idea of CCG gameplay compelling. The combo-heavy, in-your-face flow of most CCGs is intoxicating to me. The way individual cards can destabilize the whole game is really fun. A lot of people feel this way, so it’s small wonder that a lot of two-player card games have tried to recreate this feeling in a single box. Some have done better than others, but none I’ve played have succeeded in quit the same way as Omen: A Reign of War. It’s not a CCG at all, but it checks a lot of the same boxes for me.

Designed by John Clowdus and originally published in 2011 by Small Box Games, Omen is a two-player card game where players vie for influence over three cities. On your turn you can send out units to give your side more strength, and if a certain threshold is hit between the two sides the city gives a reward to the stronger player. There are five kinds of units: Warriors, which trigger an ability when they come into play; Oracles, which trigger every round in a specific phase; Beasts, stronger units that can be discarded for a strong effect; Spirits, who provide one of two effects when played, or both if you spend the money; and Heroes, who can swing a specific battle but are worth points if they go unplayed in your hand. The big tension of the game is managing your hand while also making sure you can generate enough coin to put cards in play effectively. There’s also a subsystem of what amount to achievements, and bonuses generated by rewards taken from cities.

Omen: A Reign of War has some sharp artwork, even if the card design in earlier editions (like in this promotional picture) had some problems. Later editions have maintained these great illustrations.

Omen comes in a lot of forms and playstyles (probably too many, as we’ll see in a moment), but in broad strokes the game always comes down to the tug of war for the three cities, and the race to make those achievements. Either system can trigger the end of the game, so there are a few options for how players can rush to the end. The cards are all various levels of overpowered, able to unbalance any situation in just about any turn. There’s very little keeping a player from exploring a “broken” combo here, because there is almost certainly another combo the other player can pull off that will send the game off the rails in the opposite direction.

This ties into the two things I love about Omen the most. First of all, this is a game that allows flexibility. You might be behind in one way or another, but it feels like you’re always one good card away from jumping back in the game. That flexibility leads into my other favorite thing about Omen, it’s propensity to create “bomb” moves. By “bombs” I mean those turns where you chain together numerous cards to create a knock-out punch that can leave your opponent reeling. There’s a lot of drama packed into a game of Omen, making it a highly addictive experience. I almost always want to shuffle the cards and go again after finishing a game.

The setting of the game is broadly one of Greek mythology, though it’s not reflected that well in the actual design. The players theoretically are sons of Zeus vying for rulership of Greek cities, but it’s largely an excuse to pit two largely similar sides against each other. There are a lot of creatures from Greek mythology that make an appearance, and even though they all have unique powers a lot of them seem to be named somewhat arbitrarily. This can make it a little hard to learn the game, because although the cards all have very different effects they aren’t always very distinct from each other thematically. In your first few games you might have a hard time telling apart the Keeper of the Tides from the Shadow Sculptor. One place where that Greek setting is expressed really well is in the illustrations, which all share a sort of ethereal darkness. Through all the different iterations of Omen, the artwork has been uniformly great. Rather than making everything look polished and heroic, the figures look weird and a little grotesque, particularly the beasts. It lends the game a more otherworldly vibe that a straight Greek mythology theme might otherwise lack.

The second edition, which I own, came in a long box with enough room for lots of expansions.

For a game published about eight years ago, Omen has seen a staggering number of editions and spin-offs. Early versions of the game had much larger decks, because every card had multiple copies. This made for a much more volatile experience. The whole thing was a bit longer and a bit more swingy. Beginning around 2014, newer editions reduced this to a single copy of each card, adding in Spirits and Heroes, which were originally expansion content. This made a somewhat more stable setting, and one that I think is generally positive. If you find the game today odds are good this is what you’ll get. These versions can be hard to track with, given the spotty availability of many of John Clowdus’s games. The newest edition is thankfully in mainstream distribution channels, since it is now published by Kolossal Games. In addition to the edition confusion, there are a couple of spin-off games as well. The only one of these I’ve played is the much-condensed (and excellent) Edge of the Aegean, but there is also Fires in the East, and Heir to the Dunes on its way next year.

All of this can be very confusing, and if I have any serious criticism of Omen as a product it’s that this endless churn of editions and versions has made the game much harder to get into than is necessary. But even if there were only one edition, Omen (at least Reign of War) sets itself apart through its sheer versatility. Every version has some form of draft or deckbuilding play in the rules, and this is a great way to play for people who want to pull the game a little closer to the constructed play of classic collectible card games. This is a great test of skill for those who want to do it, because it rewards knowledge of the deck and of the way cards interact. I tend to prefer playing from a common deck, but both ways are outstanding.

If the last two paragraphs made your head spin a little, don’t worry. Just know that Omen: Reign of War is a great game, one that is generally available and worth your time. Those who might be weaning themselves off of the CCG addiction might not find quite the scope of that genre, but they will find something that is dynamic and versatile, with great illustrations and a great sense of unbalanced balance.

Why I Love Merchant of Venus

avalon hill cover

There are a handful of games I’ve reviewed multiple times, which is something that can happen when you write about games for a long time. While this may seem like repetition (mostly because it is) it’s often a good indication as to the quality of a particular game. In the case of Merchant of Venus, it’s true that it’s a great game. Honestly, it’s one of my favorite games ever. But this is the third time I’ve written about the game, and part of the reason is because I’ve had a hard time pinning down exactly what it is about Merchant of Venus that I like so much.

That’s partially because Merchant of Venus is the rare game that I clicked with immediately. This was around 2011 or so, and I was playing someone’s homemade copy. There was something about the game that made me want to have its experience in my life. I never had to analyze something that wasn’t working for me, because it all worked right away. Part of this can just be chalked up to it being a genre I like. There’s a curious niche of thematic pick-up-and-deliver games out there, games like the Merchants & Marauders, Xia, Firefly, and Wasteland Express Delivery Service. There’s something fundamentally appealing to me about games like these, I think because they present a vision of really living in a fantastic setting. It’s not a struggle, and they aren’t (always) geared toward conflict. You need to go to places and do things besides fight other people.

Merchant of Venus is older than all of those games by at least a good 25 years, but it is telling that is also simpler than many of its descendants. As a space pilot, you are given a ship and a galaxy to explore. There are fourteen races scattered through different systems, each one producing a good that can be bought there are sold to several of the other systems. The early game features exploration pretty heavily, but that eventually gives way to setting up trade loops. You take buy one good in a location, take it to another to sell it for profit, and repeat that a couple times before ending up where you started. Since the goal is to reach a particular level of cash in the bank, a strong loop can be a huge advantage.

Full map
The whole galaxy on my dining room table.

There are different ships you can buy and upgrades that enhance your ride, and you will also be able to buy some businesses that will improve the infrastructure of the system, making trade easier. But for the most part the game is about trying to leverage the geography of the map and the layout of the different races into a stable trade route. It’s a fundamentally pleasurable gameplay loop, one that goes down so smooth it’s taken me years to figure out why it works so well. But an interview I heard with Sid Meier offered a clue to me. In that interview, the great video game designer was reflecting on the addictive nature of his magnum opus, Civilization. He guessed that it had something to do with the combination of short term and long term goals. Your overall goal might be to send your people to space, but it’s built on very small goals that take a few minutes to complete. You make the goal to settle a new city, or to build a certain wonder, or whatever, and the game gives those goals explicit endpoints. So you finish the Pyramids, but then you also have this settler who is about to be completed in another city, and then when they’re done you want to go settle that new city, and so forth. Before you know it, you’re in “one more turn” mode.

I found myself reflecting on this in my last game of Merchant of Venus, which was with my son. This is a game that gets the value of offering clear short term goals. You have cargo you need to get to another system, or an undiscovered planet whose denizens may have something good for you. You want to go somewhere to upgrade your ship, or to pick up a passenger and take them back to Galactic Base. The game does a great job at doling out rewards for accomplishing these goals, without ever making the whole thing feel like it’s only in service of winning the game. In that moment, the specific effectiveness of your strategy isn’t important, it’s all about your small goal. It’s fundamentally satisfying to, say, upgrade your ship, regardless of whether it ultimately helps you with your victory.

While old games from the 1980s have a reputation for being baroque and complicated, Merchant of Venus is quite focused, and is all the better for it. Everything is in service of the single goal: make money. You don’t explore for its own sake, you do it to open up the game’s economy and put new goods into play. You don’t upgrade your ship to shoot down space pirates, you do it because it’ll let you fly between planets faster or haul more cargo. Although I wouldn’t call Merchant of Venus a simple game, it is a refreshingly straightforward one. It presents a clear goal, and gives you a whole galaxy to explore to accomplish it.

2012 FFG version
The 2012 Fantasy Flight version.

This is something that its descendants haven’t quite figured out. Later thematic pick-up-and-deliver games always something pulling focus away from the gameplay loop, or abstractions that muck with the immersion of the experience. Merchants & Marauders has a clunky combat system and victory points. Firefly has a license to flaunt, and is also an absolutely sprawling experience. These are all fine games, and these details are meant to evoke a sense of setting and open up the scale of the experience. But the overall effect is that they also can feel a little overstuffed, their pleasures diluted through their scale. Fantasy Flight Games, who released their own updated version of Merchant of Venus in 2012 fell into the same trap. Their version added quests, space pirates, outside industries, and various mechanics. It wasn’t bad exactly, but it was a definite downgrade. (Thankfully, due to a weird licensing snafu, the original design was included in the FFG edition. That’s the version I play.)

It’s remarkable that even given the more focused design, designer Richard Hamblen was able to create an experience that was more immersive and richer than any of its progeny. It’s hard to pin down why it worked so well, though I think one big reason is that it’s fine with the little emergent details that emerge from the game. Because its endgame is a finish line and not a timer, there is room for the game to go a little long and for strange systems to develop. If you play to 3000 credits (and that’s the best way) some planets start to actually run out of goods to sell, which disrupts the game’s economy in the late game. It also had the good sense to tie the game’s variety to what systems go where, rather than the physical geography of the board. This means that while you can get used to the challenges of navigating the board, the need to go to different areas changes every time. Even choices like using dice for movement show a comfort with unexpected outcomes that is not common in modern designs. Sometimes stuff just doesn’t work like you wanted it to. Through all of that, Merchant of Venus gives the player a great deal of agency. It trusts you to play well, and gives you the freedom to play poorly. More than that, it somehow still manages to make poor play feel satisfying in its own way. After all, there are all of those little short-term goals you got to accomplish. You lost, but you chose exactly how you would lose.

I mentioned the 2012 FFG reprint, which is the most recent edition. Sadly it is no longer available. I have no idea how well the game sold, but its presence a couple years ago on the FFG Holiday Sale is something of an admission of failure. There could be a million reasons why it didn’t sell as well as hoped. The presence of two versions in the same box, FFG’s redesign and the original version, likely inflated the game’s price by at least $20. Perhaps it was successful and just didn’t fit into the corporate strategy. Maybe it wasn’t marketed well, I don’t know. But I suspect Merchant of Venus’s appeal is sadly a little limited. It’s not a hard game to learn, but it’s not an easy one to learn to play well. It also has a couple of old-fashioned elements, like its endgame and its requirement that players figure out percentages of profits here and there. On top of all that it’s comfortable with bad luck in a way modern gamers often aren’t. The unfortunate result of all of this is that a game that was once rereleased with so much fanfare is now back in the wilderness.

close up action
It’s worth travelling through the asteroid system for those fine melf pelts.

While I firmly believe this classic games deserve to stay in print, there is something vaguely romantic about Merchant of Venus being hard to get. It has always given me the feel of a DOS computer game from the late 1980s. It’s world is somehow made bigger and more expansive because of its lighter detail, and the whiff of absurdity in those details feels old-school. I mean, no one in 2019 would think to make “rock videos” humanity’s main export. Hamblen is often regarded as one of the great Avalon Hill designers, and Merchant of Venus is a clear demonstration of his prowess, not to mention a true classic.

How Lost Made Me Better At Running Roleplaying Games

lost cast

Everyone who runs tabletop roleplaying games brings a certain set of influences with them, particularly when we act as the gamemaster. My own influences pull from common ones like Tolkien and Star Wars, but I pull from other properties like Doctor Who and Tintin. Of course we all have our favorite TV shows that influence us, like Breaking Bad, or even the new Dark Crystal TV show. (Seriously, watch it. It’s so good.) But I think the single biggest single influence in my understanding of roleplaying and how to structure adventures comes from my favorite dramatic TV show, Lost.

I can hear a lot of people groaning about this. It’s been almost a decade since Lost took its final bow, and the ending has soured some people on the show permanently. But more than most shows, Lost is actually structured in much the same way GMs build adventures for their groups. There’s a mythology that is often somewhat sketchy in its details, even as it seems to go forever down the rabbit hole. There are the shifting character motivations that turn the plot on a dime, sometimes in ways that serve the needs of the show more than anything else. Even the structure of the show, where characters frequently need to trek around the island to find this or that gewgaw, reflects how many roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons play out.

Of course the ending has made it hard to talk about Lost without people getting upset. I’m not here to defend the ending (not many people want to listen to me anyway), but I do think the show has given me numerous lessons for how to run games more effectively as a GM, particularly from the narrative and character perspective. So here are some valuable GM lessons I learned from Lost.

Note: Lost ended in 2010, which I think is well past the statute of limitations on spoilers. Nevertheless, if you haven’t seen Lost and want to go in totally cold, I do have a couple of small image spoilers here, as well as some other very light plot points. Nothing earth-shattering, but I’d hate for people to feel like I spoiled a show that was so fun because of how unexpected it was.

Make sure your single session is strong.

As TV shows have become more serialized, the emphasis on the individual episode has been diminished. Consider any show that comes on Netlfix. They know they’ll get at least a full season, so they can chop up a single story into different pieces. But like many older TV dramas, Lost was not guaranteed a full run. Each individual episode had to be compelling and exciting in its own right, and even those who were ultimately frustrated by Lost can name some episodes that were so good they hurt. Episodes like “Pilot,” “Walkabout,” “Flashes Before Your Eyes,” “Ab Aeterno,” and of course, “The Constant” told memorable contained stories, even as they advanced the overall arc of the show.

the constant
Desmond makes an important phone call.

GMs can learn a lot from this. It’s easy to worry about the great sweeping narrative of the show, but the bulk of our time really needs to go into making sure THIS session will be fun. That means we don’t overemphasize any one component too much, like having endless combat dominate the session. It also means we need to begin with a strong punch, and find an ending that will make the players want to come back for the next session. I try to end every session on some kind of cliffhanger, or at least on some kind of major development. Maybe the players are about the enter combat with a crowd of bugbears, or maybe they’ve finally reached the dwarven stronghold. Either way, they’ll be excited for how everything picks up again next time.

Like old network TV shows, we can never be sure that we’ll get to the end of our proposed narrative. We may not have ratings to worry about, but every group has scheduling conflicts, players who move away, and other distractions. Hopefully everything works out, but maximize the time you have, because your only guaranteed session is the one you’re about the play. Make it count.

Let characters interpret their surroundings.

Lost set itself apart with a mythology that was not only dense, but at times was inexplicable. It stretched across millennia, and the characters in the show only ever got to interact with little bits of it at a time. This sometimes resulted in a show where no one seemed able to explain what was going on. Instead they could only ever offer interpretations. Characters like John Locke or Benjamin Linus acted like they understood the mysteries of the island, but as the show went on their understanding was shown to be misguided or outright wrong. Some characters, like the mysterious Jacob, were shown to similarly be in the dark about what was happening. The reality of all of that mythology wasn’t something any one character could know. They could only express it as best they knew how and respond accordingly.

This is a terrific way to add richness to the world of your roleplaying game. You as the GM have the only full knowledge of what is happening in your world, and so it’s tempting to use NPCs as vessels for that knowledge. Maybe it’s a wizard who explains the whole thing to the characters, or an ancient book the players discover that fills in the details. But what if instead of imparting that wisdom to the NPCs, we instead thought about how they feel about the reality they face? If an ancient lich is marshalling an army of the undead, maybe there are some villages that treat that lich like a god rather than a menace. Every NPC in your game will have a certain point of view on the world you’ve created, and we can lean into that as GMs.

Fans may recall Richard’s own interpretation of the nature of the island. Everyone sees things differently.

Now this may seem like a lot of work, and it could be. You also don’t want the different interpretations to be so varied that it hampers the ability of the players to engage with clues and secrets. But it doesn’t have to be really overwrought. While you can decide the specific perspective of major NPCs, think in terms of communities to simplify it. How would a specific village view the reality of your world? Little touches like this can give great texture to a game world, and it can provide space for the players to interpret the game world as well. They’ll do it anyway, so you might as well build it into the fabric of your game.

Geography is fluid.

If you watch Lost long enough, you will eventually notice that even though the show is set almost entirely on a single island, the actual geography of that island is highly malleable. Think about the stretches where the characters are frequently hiking between their camp, the caves, the hatch, New Otherton, and all manner of ruins in service of some kind of plot device. There never seems to be much consistent distance between any two points. Maybe there was a map in the writer’s room that helped them keep it straight, but in truth it never mattered very much. If the show needed Jack and Kate to be hiking through the jungle for a couple of days, well, then that’s what they would do.

Dungeons & Dragons, long the trendsetter in tabletop roleplaying, has its roots in tactical wargaming. That particular hobby favors precision and structure, which is one reason that D&D from its earliest days asked the GM to create a map for their campaign. Even today, in the fifth edition of the game, the Dungeon Master’s Guide tells DMs to start by making a map of their world, preferably on a hex-grid. Other RPGs have had a much softer understanding of geography, but there is almost always a component of physical space to every game. I do think a map with some key points of interest is valuable, and if you are the type to make a detailed world map, I salute you. But as GMs we have the ability to create a softer geography. No place is a set distance from anywhere else at the outset. Instead, you can look to the needs of your game, and decide that the gnollish camp is, say, three days from the village where the characters are.

That interesting element in your world, like a mysterious wrecked plane, can be wherever you need it to be.

In my experience as a GM I’ve run published adventures almost exclusively. However, I’m working on some homebrew stuff as well. My method has been to think about where the characters will start, then to make a list of a ton of interesting locations they could discover. The plan then is to slot those locations into the game when a new one is needed, based on what would be interesting to the players and where they are now. If you need to fill it in on a map that’s fine, but don’t consider any of those places set in stone until you actually need to set them. Not only that, but think of all the interesting stuff they could encounter on their way there. Instead of rolling random encounters, you could formulate a couple good ones for any different kind of terrain, and then insert them when things need a kick. I have always found it more constructive to come up with ideas independent of an actual structure, and allow the players to dictate the structure as the game goes on. We see this most at work when we use a soft geography.

(I feel differently about smaller-scale locations, like the interiors of dungeons. Those benefit enormously from concrete maps, although even then the specific contents are more up in the air until the players are in a room. In that case I make a list of different monsters that I can use, and then I put them in as needed in different encounters. The point is to leave yourself with flexibility, not with a set level that can’t respond to your players.)

Know the expectations of your players.

Lost’s legacy as a TV show will forever be tied to its finale. Instead of unpacking all of the dense mythology, the final season of the show mostly set up a final conflict, and then had the characters resolve that. Along the way there were lots of great character moments, but those who wanted the show to actually explain itself were left frustrated. I have always been one who found the ending moving and exciting, but then I liked Lost more for its ambiguity than for its details. Or to put it another way, the details were interesting to me BECAUSE of their ambiguity, not in spite of it. To explain those elements would be a classic instance of telling instead of showing. But a lot of fans were disappointed because for them the mysteries existed to be solved. Everyone brought different expectations to the show, and from that standpoint disappointment is totally understandable.

TV shows can subvert expectations more easily that games can, because games bear the additional burden of being fun.

Whatever your feelings on the finale, GMs can learn a lot from this. Unlike a TV show, I think GMs are putting together their story purely for the enjoyment of the players. We can’t make big meditations on life and existence if we cannot fulfill the basic need to entertain the people who play our games. This is one place where the difference between games and other narrative mediums needs to be pronounced. You absolutely CAN tell a nuanced powerful story in a tabletop RPG, but as a GM you aren’t doing this for you, or at least not just for you. You’re doing it for your players, and their expectations need to be met on some level, even if you do so by defying those very expectations. As you move toward the endgame of your adventure or campaign, think about the loose threads that are still out there. Is it best to subvert them, or will it be more satisfying to lean into an expected ending? Can they be resolved before you are done? Or will they have to wait until a sequel adventure? If the latter, make sure you let your players know there is always more to be discovered, even if the group can’t continue to play together.

None of these ideas are gospel laws that everyone must embrace if they want to GM effectively. Instead they are specific lessons I learned from one of my favorite TV shows. Maybe they are useful to you as an aspiring or experienced GM. But even if these don’t work for you, all of the stories we experience have the potential to give us lots of tools to create great RPG adventures. Whatever stories you love, you love them because they speak to you. If you can create roleplaying experiences that speak to you as well, that enthusiasm will bleed through for your players.

Why Super Mario Odyssey Feels Different

Super Mario Odyssey!

In keeping with my tradition of buying every Nintendo console roughly two years after they launch, I finally got myself a Switch in June. The first game I bought for it was Super Mario Odyssey, because if you are a Nintendo gamer you are almost certainly a Mario fan as well. I’ve been plugging away at the game for a few months now, and I’m beginning to appreciate more and more the different atmosphere it brings to the franchise.

Granted, it’s taken me a long time to nail down what it was that feels different this time around. I did know that I enjoyed the game, but it was a question of how much, and more importantly, why. To figure that out I’ve had to think about a lot of the patterns in the major Mario games. There are two generally accepted modes in which Mario has existed. First of all, there’s what I’ll call “stage-based” Mario. These are the games where the basic flow of the game is to get Mario from point A to point B. Whether it’s a flagpole in Super Mario Bros. or a star in Super Mario Galaxy, these kinds of games exist as clear challenges with obvious goals, and the tough part is surviving a gauntlet of some kind.

The second kind of Mario game is what I call “free-roaming” Mario. Until recently there was only two games in this tradition, but they had a huge impact. The first one, Super Mario 64, has long been lauded as a trendsetter in the medium, the first time that exploring a 3D space felt intuitive and comfortable. Here it was no longer about a clear goal with an obvious finish line. Now it was about repeated visits to the same areas, exploring every nook and cranny. You would select a star to seek out, but it was sometimes what must be done was rather oblique. It’s no coincidence that with this new style of gameplay, Mario’s moveset expanded drastically. Mario 64’s direct sequel, Super Mario Sunshine, followed the same format, and even added a new set of movement mechanics in the form of the water-jet-pack FLUDD.

Super Mario Odyssey is clearly much more of a free-roaming Mario game, but I think its strength lies in just how thoroughly it commits to that model. Again, it’s helpful to think about Mario 64 and Sunshine and how they contrast with Odyssey. Those games had open worlds to explore, but kept the model of set goals for the player. If you achieve that goal you are moved back into the hub world, whether it’s Peach’s Castle or Delfino Plaza. You might have to work out how to solve a specific problem, but like stage-based Mario games, the experience revolves around attaining goals. You need to swim down to the bottom of the lake and explore a shipwreck, or you need to use your jetpack to reach the top of some tower. When you get there, you get a star and you are taken out of the stage. The big difference between the free-roaming games and the stage-based games is not the nature of the goal, but the ability to move in three dimensions. Mario can do whatever in whatever order, but he still needs to do stuff. Those two streams of Mario games have a different execution, but they both revolve around achievement.

Mario attends a playoff game in Green Bay.

Contrast that with Odyssey, where the central mechanic of collecting Power Moons feels almost incidental. Rather than acting like the goal for the player to achieve, they are another kind of collectible. First of all there are a ton of them, over 800 of them if you’re counting. Secondly, there are also a whole range of ways to get them. Some of them require intense exploration, but some of them require simply talking to the right person or putting on the right kind of costume. Since there are so many of them, even the most casual player will find hundreds. The “story” portion and its levels are gated behind specific numbers of discovered moons, but you can actually reach the final Bowser battle with less than 250 of them, less than a third of the total in the game. So after the final boss fight, mostly all that’s left is to keep on discovering them. There are very few explicit goals. It’s just about hitting a certain number to unlock a couple of big boss fights, and unlocking new costumes in the store. Anything you try to accomplish after that is purely player-driven.

Odyssey is therefore the first Mario game to feel like it has no real goals besides running around and exploring every corner of the stage. The game encourages experimentation, because so much of that experimentation will give you another Power Moon. And when you find a Moon, you get right back in the game and keep going. This allows the game to get rid of a surprising amount of stuff that has previously been sacrosanct in the series, such as lives. Now when you die, you lose ten coins and respawn at the last checkpoint. You can try the same tough stretch again and again and never see a “Game Over.” The point is that the game is never over.

The result is a game that has a surprisingly breezy attitude. Previous games in the series, 64 and Sunshine included, emphasized challenge. You need to get good enough to beat something, almost to prove you deserve the reward. This challenge also ramped up as the game went on, though that challenge would take different forms. Maybe the game would force you to get through a storm of enemies without getting hurt, or emphasize perfectly-timed platforming. Some of the later areas in Mario 64 function as a sort of one-way loop, forcing the player to redo large portions if there was a mess-up. There’s not much difficulty ramp-up in Odyssey though. There are certainly big challenges for the player in the endgame, but the vast majority of the post-boss experience will be spent essentially screwing around. This exploratory attitude also explains the grab-bag aesthetic, like the oddly realistic humans in New Donk City and the goofball costume combinations that players can create. This is a video game designed as a big toy, rather than an achievement.

I think we can all agree that more games could use mopeds.

I don’t want to be too hard on 64 and Sunshine, because they’re great games. Both were made under some serious time constraints, and in the case of 64 there was a limited amount of memory to work with. (This is why other characters fade in and out of existence based on how close they are to Mario.) It’s hard to completely reinvent the language of video games, and somehow Mario 64 pulled it off. But the fact remains that both are not as refined as they might be. Sunshine in particular has a lot of visible seams. There’s the endless hunt for blue coins, and some punishingly tedious levels here and there. Odyssey feels much more assured in this regard, like the dev team took exactly as much time as they needed. They also benefitted from a lot of experience in making games like these. Mario 64 and Sunshine laid the groundwork for what Odyssey perfected.

Odyssey shares a common beef I have with any game that allows a lot of non-linear exploration, which is that it doesn’t have much arc at all. The challenge doesn’t really ramp up much, and since it’s entirely player-driven you’ll find things late in the game that are stupidly easy, right next to genuine challenges. That’s more of an observation than a complaint in this case though. I think the unstructured nature of Mario Odyssey speaks well to the power of open worlds in the first place. Challenge, while present in some late-game moons, isn’t really the point here.

I wouldn’t say Odyssey is my favorite in the franchise, because I need to sit with it for a few years yet. I would still at least put Super Mario Galaxy 2 ahead of it, the only other Mario game whose endgame is quite as expansive. But Odyssey does feel like the first time I’ve been given a completely different feel in these games. By committing so thoroughly to a different kind of goal, it feels surprisingly focused for as expansive as it is. It’s one of those games that rewards every moment you spend with it, and that is a sign of a lasting experience.

Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation

lotr the confrontation cover

Reiner Knizia is so prolific as a designer that he’s managed to publish several games based on the works of JRR Tolkien. Two of them are terrific adaptations of that classic world, but they take completely different directions. The one that most people remember, simply called Lord of the Rings, was one of the first big hits in the hobby that featured cooperative gameplay. That game cast the players in the role of hobbits journeying through the entire story of the novels, taking the approach of hitting the most popular story beats in a specific order every time. It’s for people who want to live the books, and it’s a great game, one of the most important designs in the hobby around the turn of the millennium. But it’s not the only classic that Knizia has authored in Middle-earth.

Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation is an altogether different experience. Designed for two players, one player takes control of the Fellowship of the Ring, while the other plays the role of the various monsters and villains serving Sauron. The good guys are tasked with taking the Ring to the other side of the board to drop the it in Mount Doom, while the bad guys can win by either destroying Frodo or overrunning the Shire. Taking its cues primarily from the classic game Stratego, the identity of each piece is hidden to your opponent. That means that when your wargs attack, they won’t know if they are facing Pippen or Gandalf, so there’s a huge potential for bluffing and double-guessing. It matters quite a bit too, because each piece has a special power unique to them, making it feel like a game of Chess where you can’t differentiate between your opponent’s pieces.

Frodo and Sam
Little does my son know that Frodo and Sam are totally buddies.

There’s some outstanding design built into these special powers, because they recreate the specific characters in the book so well. If Samwise shares a space with Frodo, he can replace Frodo in battle and become much stronger. Boromir is able to destroy any piece by destroying himself. The Flying Nazgul can attack any single piece on the board, at the cost of revealing the piece’s identity itself. All eighteen pieces feel distinct and well-observed, but they also feel balanced. The result is a game with a ton of thematic flavor, but also an accomplished asymmetric design where each move has a possible counter-move.

If you’ve ever read anything about this game, the character powers are usually celebrated as the big design accomplishment. But they are given more power by the subtlest and best work here, which is the board. The Confrontation uses a square board angled 45 degrees, meaning the players are playing on a diamond shape. The entire geography of the novels is recreated here, with the Shire on one end and Mordor on the other. Each half of the board has six spaces, and there is a spine of four mountain spaces right in the middle. Movement is highly restricted under normal circumstances. Pieces can only move forward, and there can only be two pieces in any given space. In the mountains it’s even more restrictive, since there can only be a single piece on any mountain space. There are also some specific geographical features on the map as well, such as the River Anduin, which the “good” player can use to move horizontally, or the Mines of Moria, which can be used to bypass the mountains completely.

Frodo made it to Mordor, but you can see all the servants of the Eye that my son expended trying to stop him.

It’s not really an accurate map like the one at the front of your copy of the novel, but it does an outstanding job of forcing the players to make the same kinds of decision points as the characters in the novel. The mountains dictate the whole rhythm of the game. The Good player will need to contend with how to get around them, while the Evil player will need to balance their defensive abilities in the mountains with the need to be proactive and hunt down Frodo. Of course this is all combined with the hidden identity of each piece, meaning that players won’t always be making the obvious move. Or they might be, but will try to make it look like it isn’t so obvious. Bluffing is weird that way.

The potential for bluff and the various decision points give The Confrontation a sense of branching narrative that the cooperative Lord of the Rings avoids entirely. What would happen if Gimli accompanied Frodo all the way to Mount Doom? How about if the Shire was overrun with Orcs and Wargs before Frodo could ever succeed? Combined with a light bit of card combat and a tight 20-30 minute playtime, and you have a surprisingly addictive experience. Most sessions of The Confrontation consist of at least two games, and sometimes more. It’s an intoxicating blend of planning, bluffing, and recreating a beloved story, and it goes down so smooth that it always feels like you could play again.

Original Kosmos art
The original box art from Kosmos. This is the version of the game I have, and the one in the pictures above.

Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation was originally published by Kosmos in 2002, and like its big cooperative ancestor it featured great artwork by John Howe and got an American release from Fantasy Flight Games. This initial version came in a small square box, making it extremely portable. That’s the version I have and if you find it I would give it my highest recommendation. But there has also been a larger deluxe version that has made it to print a couple of times. This version has a larger board and pieces, and it looks really nice, but the real motivation there is the eighteen alternate characters. If you want to inject some extra variety into the experience, that’s definitely a good option. I can’t vouch for the experience with the alternate characters, since I’ve only ever played my copy. Really, there’s no bad option here, it’s just a matter of what combination you want of portability, variety, and price.

I mention all of those options because I really think Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation is one of those games you will probably like. It’s simple enough to be enjoyed by my nine-year-old son, but also complex enough to present something new every time I play it. Reiner Knizia may always be better known for his cooperative Lord of the Rings game, and that’s an excellent game. But I think The Confrontation is the one I would pick as the more durable design. Its polish and variety, not to mention its well-observed recreations of elements from the novel, make it a no-brainer for people looking for a great two-player experience.

Exploring Monkey Island

Sometimes we aren’t ready for certain kinds of art right away. In the 1990s when my interest in PC gaming was at its zenith, I had no interest in adventure games. Like many others I found them obscure and frustrating. I was aware of the genre mostly through my sister, who was a fan of games like Myst, and through the many LucasArts catalogs I had around the house. LucasArts was of course the computer gaming company originally founded by George Lucas in the 1980s, and their graphic adventure games were known as one of the high points of the genre in the 1990s. To me though they were the company that made Star Wars games, and that’s all my Mountain Dew-addled brain cared about back then. That means I missed one of the most celebrated of all adventure game franchises, the Monkey Island series. It wasn’t until I watched an outstanding YouTube documentary on the series that my interest was piqued. I have since become not just a fan of the original series, but of the numerous adventure games LucasArts released from the mid-80s until their last adventure game in 2000. Finally I was ready to appreciate them.

The graphic adventure genre used to be one of the more popular ones in computer gaming, but I’m surprised how many people I meet who have no familiarity with it. I suppose its current niche appeal necessitates some background explanation. Nailing down a precise definition of the genre can be difficult, but to me the biggest requirement is a linear narrative with a couple of strong central characters. The player guides those characters through the plot, usually through a series of puzzles revolving around inventory items, logic problems, and dialog trees with other characters. There’s no mechanical standard really, though the games usually revolve around exploration, collecting items, and combining and using them in unusual ways. For years, adventure games from companies like Infocom were text-based, requiring the player to type in commands like “go west” or “pick up box”. These eventually gave way to games by companies like Sierra Online that were based around graphics but still used text commands as the main form of input. LucasArts was among the first to move away from typing altogether, with the classic game Maniac Mansion. This 1987 game was one of the first to ditch text commands entirely, instead providing a selection of verbs the player can use to interact with items on the screen using the mouse. The engine they designed for Maniac Manion, known as the SCUMM Engine, would be the backbone of almost all of their best-loved adventure games.

Through the 1980s adventure games were notoriously punishing. The puzzles might make little sense to anyone who didn’t design the game, or the player might inadvertently make their game unwinnable by missing a crucial item somewhere. Then there were the places where a character would just die without warning, forcing the player to reload old saves to keep playing. It was this notorious difficulty that designer Ron Gilbert found disheartening. Gilbert worked at LucasArts as a part of the Maniac Mansion team, and he had a lot of issues with the adventure game genre. He didn’t care for the genre’s sharp edges, particularly the random deaths and locking the player out of victory. LucasArts eschewed these punishing mechanics, the idea being to make their games more accessible. (They still were prone to bizarre puzzles; more on that in a bit.) They would harp on this accessibility in their rulebooks, obviously viewing it as a big selling point. Gilbert was also weary of generic fantasy settings, and along with a team including Tim Shafer and Dave Grossman, began work on an adventure game revolving around pirates. The resulting game, The Secret of Monkey Island, was released in 1990 and eventually became deeply influential not just for LucasArts, but for adventure games as a whole. LucasArts would eventually publish four games in the series, and a fifth game, published in several episodes, would be published by the now-defunct Telltale Games.

That’s a lot of background information to bring into this, but I think it’s pretty crucial for understanding why I responded to The Secret of Monkey Island so positively. This was the kind of game that I’ve needed over the last year. It does a great job at explaining the parameters of how adventure games work, and it does so with a lot of appealing characters, self-aware humor, and delightful 16-bit graphics. The main character of the whole series if Guybrush Threepwood, a young guy with a desire to be a pirate. All of the games also feature Elaine Marley, the romantic interest, and LeChuck, the evil ghost pirate who acts as the main villain. The games take place around the various islands of the Caribbean, though the precise location varies from title to title. They interact with a lot of goofy characters, and all of the games have a sense of humor that hangs a lampshade on the conventions of both pirate fiction and adventure games in general.

Let’s just say the game is not shy about embracing anachronisms.

The first game has all of those qualities, but what I appreciated most about it was that it places some reasonable boundaries on what was possible. Right off the bat, the game funnels you to a specific location where you are given three things you need to do to become a pirate. It doesn’t give much in the way of precise instructions, because that’s the whole point of the game in the first place, but it sets local goals in front of you right away. Because there’s no way to die or lock yourself out of victory, you are free to experiment and try stupid stuff to your heart’s content. When you find a solution to a specific puzzle, there’s often a little moment of laughter at the solution, since they often revolve around puns or pop-culture references.

Adventure games, including those by LucasArts, often have the reputation of being filled with “moon logic” puzzles, where the solution is so esoteric and weird that no one would get there on their own. This reputation is not altogether undeserved, since adventure games are often the brainchild of a distinct author, and what makes sense to one person might not make sense to another. LucasArts in particular embraced wordplay and pop culture references, some of which don’t translate that well to intuitive puzzle design. Over the last year I’ve hit most of the high points of their catalog, and I’ve not yet had one that I’ve been able to get through without a walkthrough of some kind. That’s not as bad as it sounds, because if there’s one thing I’ve learned about the genre it’s that different kinds of puzzles challenge different kinds of people. One person’s moon logic is another person’s simple solution, and there have been lots of times when I’ve seen the solution to a puzzle and thought, “oh yeah, that makes sense.” Still, there will always be some puzzles that are too wacky or specific for most people to figure out on their own. When these games came out decades ago, I am sure there were lots of frustrated players who couldn’t just turn to their smartphones if they got stuck.

On the irritation scale, The Secret of Monkey Island does better than just about any other LucasArts game, making it a great starting place. Not that there aren’t some moments that made me roll my eyes a little. I don’t think there’s any moment where a solution isn’t subtly broadcasted elsewhere in the game, but it’s not always as clear as I would like. At least one puzzle depends on the player knowing a particular English idiom, and not one that I think is used that often anymore. There are also times where Guybrush needs to do something and it’s not obvious to the player that he’s actually able to do it. Maybe you won’t know that you can pick up an item, or that you can go to a location. A certain amount of outside-the-box thinking is necessary here and there. This is one of the few cases where I could see someone making it through without any clues at all if they were patient enough. (I’m not.)

It’s also a genuinely funny game, though it arrives at its humor in a different way from its sequels. If you play the original version, the cut-scenes are portrayed in a fairly realistic style. In other words, the pirate setting is played pretty straight, making all of the self-aware humor just a little more effective as a result. Later games would remain funny, but they would take the game in a far more cartoony direction, the wackiness more overt. To paraphrase Roger Ebert, The Secret of Monkey Island is funny because it’s wearing a funny hat and is trying to act like it isn’t. The later games all know they are silly, and revel in it.

From all I’ve been able to tell, The Secret of Monkey Island was something of a slow burn, the kind of game that wasn’t a true smash but still sold well. Its sequel, Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge, arrived just a year later, and its whole mindset is one of “bigger.” The scope of the game is zoomed way out, particularly in the second act where Guybrush must travel between several islands, resolving a numerous puzzles at the same time. I’ve never been one to take notes in a game, but Monkey Island 2 would have benefited from jotting down some lines about all of its spinning plates. It’s also a longer game, and its puzzles are substantially more complex. I often thought I had figured something out, only for the game to throw a couple more steps in front of me.

In that respect, Monkey Island 2 was a slightly more frustrating experience for me. More of the puzzles were of the variety where there was no way I was going to figure it out on my own. To some extent that says a lot about my own ability to solve stuff like this, but there were one or two times where I found the solution and thought, “That’s total crap.” The design is just a touch less refined, and its sprawl can get a bit exhausting here and there. I have read many people who feel that the sequel is better than the original, which tells me at least some of my frustration is not shared by others. I could see how someone would think of it as the richer experience, but I would consider it a little like the comparison between Portal and Portal 2. The first game is the tighter design, but the second has a lot to recommend it too.

Best to play both games and decide for yourself, honestly. Monkey Island 2 is still a lot of fun. Most of the puzzles have that same sense of laughing realization, and the game’s graphics are probably the best the series has ever looked. From a technical standpoint, it definitely feels like the series levelled up. The music in particular is really cool, since this is the first game to utilize the iMuse system, the LucasArts program that allowed for responsive music cues that would change based on what was happening in the game. This is pretty normal today, but after playing the first game it feels revelatory.

Monkey Island 2 is really funny too, though as I said before, it’s a little more over-the-top. Guybrush mugs for the camera and has some distinctly cartoony reaction shots. He’s also required to commit some distinctly anti-social behavior to get through the story, things like stealing items that another character definitely needs. Some people feel this makes him less sympathetic, but I consider it another aspect of the game’s satirical edge. This is honestly how most adventure game protagonists act, and Monkey Island 2 draws enough attention to it that I think it’s a conscious design choice. Speaking of unorthodox choices, the game ends on a note that is, shall we say, open to interpretation. I like that kind of stuff, but there are people who are still irritated by it.

Monkey Island 2 is a great looking game, and even though the sequels would get technically more advanced I don’t think the series ever looked nicer.

It was after Monkey Island 2 that director Ron Gilbert would depart LucasArts to start his own studio. It would be designers like the great Tim Schafer, one of the writers and designers on the first two game, who would carry on the success LucasArts experienced in later titles like Day of the Tentacle and Grim Fandango. There would of course be two more Monkey Island sequels, but I’ll write about them at a later date, since they feel pretty distinct from these first two games. It would be a good six years between the second and third game, and the time between those games is reflected in some of the design choices present in the later titles.

The first two Monkey Island games are both available on digital platforms like Steam and GOG. The versions you will find there are “special editions,” released by LucasArts about a decade ago. They feature updated graphics and voice acting. The latter is welcome, but the former is more mixed. Thankfully they both feature a way to revert back to classic visuals, and I strongly recommend you play the games this way. The jerky animations just look better in their 16-bit glory, and in a couple of cases puzzles are much easier to solve with the old interface. Both games also include a hint system, which I found generally pretty helpful for the moments I got stuck.

The Monkey Island series has been my biggest game discovery of the last twelve months. As I edge closer to 40, I find myself more willing to engage with a game that is over in about ten hours, doesn’t require me to learn twitchy button sequences or think in terms of challenging long-term strategy. It’s a more relaxed form of gaming, and I find that it’s well-suited to my lifestyle right now. There also can be a fun communal aspect to these games. It’s enjoyable to sit with your spouse or kids, and to figure out together the solution to the next puzzle. My sons have seen solutions to these games that would never have occurred to me, since their minds aren’t as restrained by conventional video game tropes. So even if you aren’t much of a computer gamer, I think you might be surprised at how fun these games are.

If you really are into the history of Monkey Island, and computer gaming in general, I would recommend the great hour-long documentary by Ahoy. It covers all of the Monkey Island series, and touches on many of the other high points in the LucasArts catalog. You should also check out the piece on the first game by The Digital Antiquarian, who writes an ongoing project on the history of computer games. (We have differing opinions on the second game, but it’s a great article.) He’s covered several other LucasArts games as well, and his work is always worth your time.

Dune – Wheels Within Wheels

Avalon Hill Dune cover

This article is a modified version of something I wrote three years ago on my old blog. With a new version of Dune making it to store shelves I wanted to take the opportunity to talk about why it’s such a great game. If you’re interested, you can read the original entry here.

Unlike a lot of other pillars of nerd culture, Frank Herbert’s classic novel Dune is still waiting for its perfect adaptation. The 1984 David Lynch film is kind of a slog with amazing art direction, and the Sci-Fi channel miniseries reduced the scope of the novel lower than it could really bear. But if we expand the search to include other media, Dune has received two of the most important games of the last forty years. Westwood Studios’ Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty essentially codified real-time strategy games in the video game world. But Dune’s greatest adaptation might just be the classic board game, published by Avalon Hill in 1979.

Designed by the same team that changed gaming forever with Cosmic Encounter, Dune is a monument of thematic gaming. Six factions from the novel square off on the planet of Arrakis: House Atreides, House Harkonnen, The Fremen, The Spacing Guild, The Bene Gesserit, and the Emperor’s forces. They seek to control Arrakis (also called Dune) so that they can control the flow of Spice, the substance that makes space travel possible and allows humans to expand their minds to new horizons. The board game takes place over up to fifteen rounds. Players buy new troops, move them around the board, and engage in combat to secure strongholds and new supplies of Spice, which allows them to buy more troops and bring back dead leaders. The winner is the person who controls three of Dune’s five strongholds at the end of a turn, although there are some special win conditions for some of the factions. The broad strokes of the game are actually quite abstract. The troops are mostly generic tokens, sort of a resource that can be spent in combat to control territories (more on combat in a minute). Likewise movement is very limited, allowing players the ability to move from just one territory to one other in a turn, as well as allowing them to bring troops from off the board into a single location.

A picture from a game I played at BGG.Con in 2015.

However, woven into this very limited system are numerous mechanics that transport the whole thing to Herbert’s world. Some of these are tied to the board and how Spice appears. There is a constant windstorm that circles the board, destroying troops and consuming Spice that it passes over. Troops can take shelter in certain spaces, but it’s a constant consideration, pushing players to take risks when they otherwise might not. There is also what is called the “Spice Blow,” a card draw every turn that makes new Spice appear on the board. Every so often one of the Spice Blows is accompanied by Shai-Hulud, one of the great sandworms of Dune, which destroy everything beneath them. These are omnipresent factors in the novel, and the game recreates them with aplomb.

But much of the strategy and thematic depth of Dune comes from the factions themselves. Having already designed Cosmic Encounter, the Future Pastimes team was no stranger to player powers. But Dune embraces these differences to a much deeper effect. House Atreides has access to information that would otherwise be hidden. The Harkonnens are given a much larger hand of Treachery Cards, allowing them to pull more nasty tricks. The Spacing Guild controls the highways of space, and so they receive Spice whenever someone ships onto Dune. The Fremen, being native to Dune, don’t need to ship units to the planet, and are able to move much faster. The Emperor receives Spice for the purchase of treachery cards. Finally, the Bene Gesserit are able to force players to do their bidding, and are able to execute a secret victory if at the beginning of the game they correctly predict who will win and on what round they will do it. There are other powers at work for each faction, and their setup at the beginning of the game means they will all be in different states when the game begins.

It is impossible to overstate how well these factions are designed. Each of them recreates the abilities and weaknesses of their counterparts in the novel so thoroughly that the players find themselves thinking like their factions. The Harkonnen player will naturally be given to aggressive military moves and dirty tricks. The Bene Gesserit player will begin to subtly manipulate others to compel them to do what they want. The Emperor and Spacing Guild can use their great wealth of bribe the other players into doing their bidding as well. As alliances form, the game will also reward certain combinations over others, many of which line up with the novel as well. The Atreides and the Fremen for example have a lot of possibilities, and the Harkonnen and the Emperor are a formidable combo.

The Descartes reprint from the 1990s. This edition, which includes both of the original expansions, is the one that I happen to own.

That’s right, alliances are a pivotal part of Dune as they are in Cosmic Encounter. Whenever a sandworm appears, the players are forced into a nexus, where they can formally ally with each other, giving each other special benefits. This also means that it’s extremely common for more than one player to win at the same time. This is an endlessly fascinating part of the game to me. It is almost always better to work with someone else than on your own, unless you are in a very good position. The powers granted by allies are sometimes useful enough that temporary alliances are worth forming just so you can use specific powers until you don’t need them anymore. Then you can find a new ally at the next nexus. When combined with the nature of deals, which in this game are always binding, and Dune has some of the most subtle and well-executed interaction I’ve ever seen in a board game.

Another brilliant element is the combat. There are two combat wheels, and when combat begins each player secretly picks how many of their troops in the territory they are willing to commit. They can also use the strength of a leader and weapon cards. Once both players reveal their battle plan, the person with the lower total must remove all of their troops from the territory, while the winner loses just the troops they committed. This creates a huge amount of tension, since new troops cost a lot of Spice and are a precious commodity. How much should one commit? Enough to win might mean that there won’t be much left to hold the territory. The added tension of the leaders, who may be traitors for the other faction and cause you to lose automatically, is delicious. And the weapon cards add another layer of double-guessing.

If it is not obvious already, Dune is a game of hidden information. There is very little random chance in the game, but it’s loaded with secrets. Everyone has their own plans, which dovetail into plans for alliances and enemies alike. It truly is a game of wheels within wheels, different plots that fall into place and are undone by a moment of delicious reversal. Because of this, Dune tends to play out in a rhythm of big moments. A player will get their strategy lined up for a big push toward victory, and will find themselves almost there…until they find themselves at the wrong end of a lasegun explosion. These moments can be crushing for a good stretch of the game, though as the game goes on it is often possible to recover and have another chance. It is not a game for those who like to have a sure thing, because every decision is made with roughly a quarter of the necessary information.

Dune is regarded as one of the greatest designs of all time, and it’s not hard to see why. For all of its thematic detail, it is actually quite streamlined, with an almost Eurogame feeling in its abstraction. I’ve even played with people who felt the game was a bit too simple, since almost all of its depth comes in the interaction of the players and the possibilities of alliances. Still, although the game was ahead of its time, it was originally published in 1979, and it shows. It really requires six players to work best, though five will do in a pinch. Several factions have instant win conditions, meaning the game is as likely to take two hours as it is six. It also requires the player to track a lot of information on a piece of paper. This is probably the best way to manage the protean nature of the game, but it will put off some modern gamers. Parhaps most troublesome, the rules as written in the original Avalon Hill edition are notorious leaky, able to explain the broad strokes of the game but leaving some common interactions murky. It’s not helped by the presence of optional rules (which I always use) and controversial advanced rules, which I’ve mostly left alone. One of the great quests of the Dune page on Board Game Geek is to find a unified rewritten ruleset that irons out these kinks, but by its very nature Dune resists such efforts. A certain amount of flexibility is the best medicine.

The new edition from Gale Force Nine.

For years Dune was something of a white whale in gaming reprints. Even as several other out-of-print classics made their way back to shelves, Dune’s license made for a difficult sell, aside from the ersatz re-theming released by Fantasy Flight Games called “Rex.” But the Dune faithful finally have cause to rejoice, because Dune is getting its first American reprint since the Reagan administration. This new edition, published by Gale Force Nine, looks like it will be faithful to the original release. This reprint has been overseen at least in part by two of the original designers, Peter Olotka and Bill Eberle. Although Dune is a tricky game to get played in the rhythm of the hobby today, the prospect of a new movie adaptation, and the strong reception from the current version of Cosmic Encounter, makes me think that the world might be ready for Dune again. I’m excited enough to keep my eyes peeled for a copy, even though I already own the 1990’s French version from Descartes. That’s how badly I want this new version to succeed.

Because that’s the effect Dune has on people. This is a game that fully embraces the medium, and it’s power has always been not in how it is recreates the setting so faithfully (which it does), but in how the original themes of the novel are so strong in board game form. The intense scarcity and environmental aspects of the book are here, the plots of the powerful are thrown into disarray by unlikely events, and the wheels-within-wheels scheming that fills the book also fills the game table. This is as vibrant a game in 2019 as it was in 1979, and our world is better for it.