Kicking It Old School

One of the modern byproducts of getting into tabletop roleplaying games is that you accumulate PDFs. The proliferation of sites like DriveThruRPG and charity bundle sites like Humble Bundle and Bundle of Holding make it very easy to have piles of rulesets to games in electronic format. What used to take up tons of shelf-space now sits in a folder on your hard drive. While I much prefer having physical books to read, this trend makes it easy to expose yourself to a wide variety of game styles. It’s especially easy because many of these games are available in PDF for free or next-to-nothing. One wing of the hobby that has taken advantage of this movement is the Old School Revival.

The Old School Revival is a trend in tabletop roleplaying that could easily take up a whole series of articles by itself, either as a history or a philosophy. I’m too new to the hobby to do write such a retrospective, or even to sum it up. But in short the Old School Revival (normally abbreviated as OSR) encompasses a variety of game systems that are either directly or indirectly inspired by the rules of classic roleplaying games, which often means Dungeons & Dragons. Many OSR games are overt (and it should be noted, legal) recreations of games like the original 1974 D&D, the various Basic sets from the late 70s and early 80s, or the 1st edition of Advanced D&D. Those that aren’t direct copies of the rules (known as retroclones) are often very similar rulesets in new settings, or else are inspired by older games in a more abstract way. The overall goal is not generally to dial back the clock on advancements in game design, though there is certainly some of that. Instead it’s focused more on making sure that a certain type of game stays relevant, one that is much deadlier, much simpler, and more reliant on the players to create interesting moments than on the DM to meticulously create things.

If you’ve been reading my work for any length of time you know that I have a soft spot for old games. As a result the OSR has taken up a huge amount of my spare reading lately. Games like Basic Fantasy Roleplay, Swords & Wizardry, and Labyrinth Lord are meant to evoke very old RPGs, but they do so in a form that is much more readable than the classic versions of the games. I’m also a big believer that any gamemaster in any game needs to at least have a passing understanding of how things are done in other system. It’s a little like understanding another language, which can have the effect of helping you understand your own a little better. Knowing other rulesets can only make you a better gamemaster.

But as I’ve given it more thought I find myself thinking about that “old school” moniker. As I write this I am two weeks away from my 37th birthday, and I feel like I am surrounded by people trying to get me to return to a feeling I had all those years ago. Movies, TV shows, and video games have all leaned hard into the familiar. And the thing is, it absolutely works. We all want to be reminded of how we felt when we were young. Whether it’s comfort food at home, sequels to familiar movies at the theater, or classic RPGs on the table, you’ll never go broke with nostalgia.

Ultima Underworld is actually a very cool game, if you are fine with taking lots of notes. I kind of am not.

However I’m also becoming more aware at how the promise of nostalgia is often more satisfying than the nostalgia itself. Throughout 2019 I have buried myself deep into retro PC gaming. Much of it has been rewarding (I wrote about the first two Monkey Island games a while ago) but far more of it has been an object lesson in why things aren’t done a certain way anymore. It turns out I don’t want to have to take notes during Ultima Underworld, engage with the janky controls of Thief, or look at the ugly polygonal graphics of Jedi Knight. I love the idea of Sid Meier’s Pirates! and Railroad Tycoon, but both games are just too old-fashioned in their interface for me to fuss with. It’s telling that those last two Sid Meier games have had semi-recent remakes in the last 20 years, making them far more approachable. Sometimes progress is just that, and to pretend otherwise is an act of self-delusion.

Even those OSR retroclones tacitly admit this. The mere act of reorganizing old rulesets requires a bit of interpretation on the part of the writer. This is especially true now that all of the old editions of Dungeons & Dragons are available for legal download in PDF form, something that wasn’t true when the OSR began some fifteen years ago. If they were perfect such reimplementations wouldn’t be necessary in the first place. Just go download the original Players Handbook and call it a day. No one would accuse the writing of Gary Gygax or Tom Moldvay to be perfect, of course, but in reading some of the discourse surrounding these retroclones there’s certainly a touch of wistfulness, a desire to go back to things as they used to be. In this nostalgia’s most sanctimonious form, there is just a hint of scorn for “kids these days,” with their desire to have less character death and detailed character abilities.

(Hopefully I don’t need to say this, but I don’t mean this as a criticism of the OSR movement, or of any of these particular systems. It’s more just an observation from someone who still plays a lot of 5e, and has only been roleplaying actively for a couple of years.)

I’m no better of course. I have a lot of thoughts about what current game design trends are good and which are bad. I find myself increasingly out of step with how board gaming in particular has evolved. I just don’t want games that are trying to recreate experiences from other kinds of games. That means no board games trying to be RPGs or tactical minis or CCGs. No more multi-faction conflict games where everyone has a new win condition, alright? And while we’re at it, let’s stop crowdfunding everything! Let’s slow down the rate of release so that old reviewers like myself can keep up! Oh, and there are too many video reviews. Why don’t people write things anymore?

Maybe you find yourself nodding in agreement with some of those things, or maybe you think I’m going off the deep end. Mayne some of those trends really are unsustainable and will end. But the point is that when they end they won’t go back to how they were before. Everything has changed, because everything is always changing. That’s why so many attempts to recapture nostalgia and how things used to be fall totally flat. It can never be truly recaptured, because we aren’t the same as we were back then. I can’t go back and experience my favorite games for the first time, even if I had a perfect set of circumstances. The game didn’t change, I did.

I’ll probably go to my grave saying Cosmic Encounter is the greatest game ever. (Image courtesy of user killroy_locke on

And that’s a very good thing. So many of my first experiences with games were deeply underwhelming, and it was only after constant exposure that I understood their brilliance. There is real pleasure to be found in those games that keep on evolving as I do. That’s why I have such a deep love for Cosmic Encounter, a game so multifaceted that I am still discovering new elements. That’s why roleplaying has become such a huge part of my life, because I always have the freedom to adapt the game to wherever I am at the time. And some games, like Power Grid, have served as a little island in a sea of transition. This is its own kind of nostalgia, but one that is driven more by long term relationships with pieces of culture than by a misguided attempt to go back to the way things used to be. One embraces the changes of life, while the other wants to deny their existence.

Then of course there is the need to always be in conversation about our past. We understand our future much better when we can look at the things that came before. This is where I think OSR games have shown their greatest value to me. It’s very hard to read, for example, the 1st edition Monster Manual, and figure out what roleplaying must have been like in the early days. But thanks to a lot of these OSR games, it’s not a hard thing to imagine. And it has also served as a sort of Rosetta Stone for board games I’ve loved for many years like Dungeonquest and Talisman. While to modern players they feel random and deadly, to players in the early 1980s they truly were the most accurate representation of roleplaying in board game form.

Hopefully this hasn’t come off as either a plea for old-school gamers to shut up and quit whining, nor as a wistful look into the days of yore. In truth we all tend toward either one of those extremes now and then, because everything in our lives is changing at different times and in different ways. As gaming moves in whatever direction it’s headed, it’s so valuable to have one eye on what came before, not because we want to go back there, but because those things are still with us now.

Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle

HP box cover

Innovation is overrated.

Not that game designers should never strive to try to do something fresh and exciting, but by its very nature, innovation is often unpolished. Rare is the game that does something totally new in a manner that is also clean and playable. But one of those rare instances was Dominion, the smash 2008 game that launched a dozen expansions and far more copycats. Deckbuilding as a genre has come a long way in the last decade plus of development, but Dominion continues to stand toe-to-toe in terms of polish and playability with just about any other game in the genre.

It should be noted that Dominion’s originality is almost totally mechanical. Thematically the game is about as generic as it gets. While I’m generally fine with games that don’t innovate mechanically, I long for game designers to branch out into different themes. The nondescript aesthetic of Dominion is one of the things that eventually burnt me out on that game. Well, Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle is not a very innovative game, mechanically or thematically, but it’s now the only deckbuilder I own. That happens to be because I like Harry Potter a lot, and Hogwarts Battle offers enough connection to its license to overcome some very conservative game design.

Actually, it’s not totally fair to say that Hogwarts Battle offers nothing innovative. Taking a page from more long-form experiences like Pandemic Legacy, it makes the ambitious choice to encompass all seven years of Harry Potter’s schooling. The game starts in Year 1, with characters that you will recognize from the first book/movie. This is indeed a basic deck-building experience, instantly familiar to anyone who has played a single game of Dominion. You play cards, buy cards, then shuffle them all and do it all over again. It’s a cooperative experience, so there are villains who must be stopped and bad-guy events that must be dealt with every turn. But it’s not at all taxing, and could easily be played by most kids.

Inside the trunk
Confession time: I still haven’t made it to year 7, so I don’t know what’s in that box.

But once you beat Year 1, there’s a series of little tuckboxes labelled “Year 2,” “Year 3,” etc. With each victory you open the next box and add the components into the game. Mostly these are more of what you have already seen, new villains and events, and new cards for the players to buy. But every so often they introduce advanced mechanics into the game. Maybe it’s a new type of special ability you can utilize, or an upgraded form of an old one. To say more would be to spoil some of the fun, but by the time you get to Year 4 the experience has become richer and more complex, though still very accessible.

This basically makes Hogwarts Battle a legacy game, but it avoids some of my little annoyances with that genre. (My main exposure to legacy games is from the very good Pandemic Legacy.) First of all, no single year adds very much in the way of complexity. Impatient people who want to get on with it can safely add Years 2-3 right off the bat, giving some nice variety without much complexity. It avoids the feeling of continually adding new rules to internalize by keeping the whole thing streamlined. Also in the game’s favor is the fact that resetting the game is simple and easy. If you complete all seven years you can put everything back in the tuckboxes and start over, or maybe loan it to some friends to try for themselves.

Perhaps most notably, the legacy elements represent the most meaningful connection to the Harry Potter world. There’s a definite sense of progression and rising stakes with every successive year, and every new character added into the deck gives a little jolt of recognition. It should be noted that Hogwarts Battle uses stills from the film series, not illustrations from the books. While I’m sure a lot of Potterheads would have preferred to see the illustrations of Mary GrandPré or Jim Kay, this is probably the best move. It makes the game immediately recognizable and provides a wide range of stills for the production. That production totally nails the license too. The box is designed like Harry’s school trunk, complete with an illustration of the contents of Harry’s trunk when you open the box. It’s a very well-designed physical product too, with great spaces to store everything and some decent organization solutions right in the box. (A must for deckbuilder games, I think.)

Player as Harry
A kid the age of Year 1 Harry is probably able to learn this straightforward game.

One could therefore be forgiven a bit of disappointment at the simple nature of the game. While the Harry Potter universe affords great possibilities for thematic design, Hogwarts Battle plays it very safe. This is not an altogether bad choice though, as it keeps the game squarely in the grasp of anyone who would ever want to play it. It’s the sort of game you could sell at Target, and most Harry Potter fans, children included, will understand it. It generally uses the most straightforward solution to every mechanical challenge, and it proves to be a worthwhile trade-off. I’m now at a point in my game-playing life where learning a new game is a little bit of a burden, so new games had better wow me. I’m not altogether sure that Hogwarts Battle clears that bar, but it’s so frictionless to learn that it makes up for it. There’s something to be said for a safe design that can be played easily.

But there are places where the game could really use a little more precision in its design. For example, the card tableau very sensibly has one giant deck, and every type of card is all mixed together. You have six options at any given time, and that’s all. This is the simplest way to play, and it offers a lot of unique cards to the player. But it also keeps the player from refining their deck very much, since you don’t have a ton of say in what kind of card you can get. That dulls the unique qualities of the different characters. Not only that, but when all six cards are a little pricey it can bog down the game quite a bit while players wait for a draw with enough purchasing power. There’s no way to flush the card selection, so you’re out of luck. It has the double whammy of slowing down the game, and giving the player a lot of turns where nothing much positive happens.

I also take issue with the game loss condition. In each game there are two or three locations, and events put evil influence on those cards. When all of the cards have been filled with influence, the game is lost. That’s not a bad way to do things, but the game never wavers from this mechanic, and it pushes against the various climaxes from the stories that most fans will be thinking of. It’s adequate without being very interesting. There are a few places like this where the accessibility is wielded like a blunt weapon, bashing out smart design in favor of simplicity.

Malfoy and Basilisk
The villains get much more difficult than either of these cupcakes. More numerous too.

This design approach begins to take its toll in some of the later years. As the stacks of different cards grow thicker the experience grows streakier. It feels like success in the later games is contingent on getting a lucky break in all of various card decks. The easy villains need to come out early on, the right cards for your deck need to become available, etc., to have any real shot at success. And like the novels the game is based on, the later years get a whole lot longer. What started as a simple 45-minute card game bloats all the way toward the 2-hour mark by the time you get to year 6. It’s still very playable, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that with a better design and development team it could be a lot more enjoyable.

I don’t want to be too negative on the experience though, even in the later game. This is one of those games that has a couple of very specific niches for me. It’s a simple game I can play with my son, a no-fuss deckbuilding experience, and a chance to play in the Harry Potter universe for a bit. Even as the design begins to creak in the later games, it still ticks all those boxes ably.  Sometimes recycling the ideas of others can make for a fun game, particularly if you slap a well-loved license on the box and do right by that license. Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle does just that, and as a result it’s one of my most-played games of 2019.