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There’s Always A City: Experiencing Bioshock for the First Time

Ever since the original Bioshock came out in 2007, the whole series has occupied a fascinating spot in the gaming hobby. Like Doom and Half-Life, the original Bioshock was the right game at the right time, a first-person experience primarily designed for consoles that came out just as gaming was truly become mainstream. As such the original game developed a reputation as a poster child for the “games as art” narrative, arrying atmosphere, political and philosophical weight, strong story, and solid gameplay. That’s pretty unfair to a lot of games that came before that did all of those things, and it creates a set of expectations that the series struggled to live up to, through two sequels that were each controversial in their own way. That’s why it’s been so much fun for me to go through the entire series for the first time. The legacy of Bioshock is such that it can be hard to approach them with fresh eyes, but I think I came about as close as is possible.

The biggest single mind behind the Bioshock series is Ken Levine, working with Irrational Games. Levine’s previous claim to fame was System Shock 2, a highly immersive first person RPG from 1999. In that game the player uses stealth, hacking, psionic powers, and good old-fashioned gunplay to unravel the mysteries of an abandoned spaceship. System Shock 2 is part of the “immersive sim” genre, a rather specific label reserved for first-person games like Thief, Deus Ex, Ultima Underworld, and the original System Shock. These games all emphasized a heightened level of player agency, a highly reactive environment revolving around designed systems, and a non-linear level design meant to emulate real environments. As its title implies, Bioshock was billed as a “spiritual successor” to the System Shock games, a sort of console-friendly interpretation of a genre that embraced the complexity of PC gaming.

The first two Bioshocks are set in the underwater city of Rapture.

The extent to which Bioshock and its sequels can really be considered “immersive sims” is hotly debated. Though I’ve not played either of the System Shock games, Bioshock is certainly a simpler game, both in terms of design and difficulty. That said, the setup for Bioshock is pretty similar. In the first game the player arrives in a huge underwater city, a 1940s art-deco metropolis called Rapture. Rapture is a remarkable piece of video game design, a majestic piece of human achievement that has gone completely rotten. As the player travels through the ruined city, they learn about Rapture’s history and its leader, Andrew Ryan. This is done through audiologs, recordings the player finds from Rapture’s denizens. (This mechanic was used in both System Shock games) Most of these people are now gone, and by all indications Rapture did not meet a gentle end. As the game goes on, the player meets the only people still living in Rapture: unhinged megalomaniacs, genetically-altered citizens called Splicers, and hulking creatures in diving suits called Big Daddies.

Eventually the player learns that Andrew Ryan started Rapture as a Randian utopia, where every citizen is a bastion of personal freedom and capitalist innovation. Rapture was therefore founded to get away from “parasites” who would steal the hard-earned money of entrepreneurs like him. Much was made in 2007 of the philosophical overtones of Bioshock. Andrew Ryan may have set out to make a utopia, but Rapture is at this point a nightmare city. As the game goes on it becomes obvious that his ideals engendered a sort of moral rot in all of its citizens.

If this series has any overarching theme, it is how ideologues and tyrants consume people for their own purposes. Not that we’d know anything about that in 2020.

The sequels would differ from the original in both subtle and overt ways, but if there is one common thread in the series it is an obsession with self-made messiahs who promise utopia. In Bioshock 2 we meet Sofia Lamb, a Rapture citizen who we learn rebelled against Ryan, promising freedom not through individuality, but through collectivism. The second sequel, Bioshock Infinite, moves the action to a completely different city, Columbia. Unlike Rapture, Columbia floats in the sky and has an early 1900s aesthetic. Led by Zachery Comstock, Columbia is a hyper-nationalist American dream, thick with the religiosity and racist imagery that we associate with the uglier side of American culture. As the characters in that game mention, there’s “always a man, always a city.”

Much was made of the criticism of Andrew Ryan’s objectivist viewpoint in 2007, but as the series went on it displayed a deep cynicism for anyone who promised utopia. The antagonists of the Bioshock games are almost always ideological revolutionaries who believe that human life is expendable in the service of their beliefs. The logical extreme for such ideological rigidity is not peace, but violence, of which there is plenty through the whole series. This gets interpreted as a sort of both-sides fallacy by some people, but I think the more accurate representation would be suspicion of anyone who subscribes to a single view of how the world must be. The Bioshock series is deeply skeptical of people who are certain of their perspective, a lesson that I found poignant and relevant in 2020.

I knew about a lot of this philosophical content before I ever played these games. But as I went on I was surprised to notice that all of the ideas were actually played with a pretty light touch. While the philosophical and political statements are always overt, they tend to be used as a way to provide background to the rest of the game. In the first two games, the real focus is on the place itself. Rapture is one of the most remarkable settings I’ve ever seen in a video game. It is deeply atmospheric, filled with art-deco architecture that has become crusted over with sea life as the ocean slowly reclaims it. It’s a truly frightening place for a game, and the most powerful parts of Bioshock 1 and 2 revolve around lights flickering at the worst times, disembodied sounds that signal unseen danger, and the sad and horrible things shared in the audiologs. As if that weren’t enough, Rapture is also impressive from the standpoint of level design. All of the areas in the game feel like real places. The city is filled with abandoned shopping centers, theaters filled with corpses, and science labs where horrible things happened. The player objectives will push you to explore every nook and cranny, solving problems and discovering secrets in a non-linear fashion. The first two Bioshock games are master-classes of level design, among the best I’ve ever seen in any game.

The first weapon you get in Bioshock is a wrench, a little homage both to System Shock 2’s wrench, and to Half-Life’s crowbar.

Bioshock Infinite is a different beast altogether. While I enjoyed all three games immensely, it must be said that compared to Rapture, Columbia is less impressive. Infinite is a more linear experience, and while it does wonders for the game in some ways (more on that in a minute) it means that the levels sometimes feel like you’re on a conveyor belt. There are still secrets and audiologs to track down, but those mechanics really work better in a more open level design, and Infinite is too invested in its narrative to really work that way. It also makes some series staples feel downright goofy. Columbia is not yet in ruins like Rapture, and people go about their business all over the place. In such a setting it seems weird to open every locker and eat food out of the trash for health, something that is common in every Bioshock game. But Columbia does have its own strengths as a setting. There’s an openness and brightness to it that is a great change of pace, and much of the gameplay revolves around skyrails, railings suspended in the clouds that the player leaps on to like a steampunk Indiana Jones. You get to leap through the air, fly around on the rails, and then leap back down, then turn around and blow someone off of into the wild blue yonder. Columbia is less conducive to exploration, but it is much more conducive to fast-paced action.

There are some gameplay threads that connect all three games. The whole series focuses on a combination of shooter mechanics, and what amounts to a kind of “magic” system. (In the first two games, these powers are called “plasmids,” while they are called “vigors” in Infinite.) Between the different weapons and vigors, the player has a huge range of choices in how they want to approach combat. All three games reward specialization as well, allowing you to upgrade your powers and weapons to make them more effective. Indeed, Infinite forces you in this direction by only allowing you to carry two weapons at a time, something that disappointed a lot of fans. The level of polish on these mechanics varies a little between each entry, though gamers have a tendency to overstate the badness of any of them. All three games are perfectly approachable and mostly quite intuitive. That said, in terms of raw mechanics, Bioshock 2 feels the most well-executed, since it takes advantage of the range of player options most fully, and has some of the best level design in the series.

Whether in the underwater nightmare of Rapture or the above-the-clouds nightmare of Columbia, Bioshock has a lot of fascinating rhymes in every installment.

But the Bioshock series is not just about mechanics. If that were the case I wouldn’t have burned through three whole games in a couple of months (though quarantine helped with that too). The story is what drives all three games, whether the story of Rapture that we learn in the first two games, or the story of the main characters in Infinite. All three games manage this part very well. There are huge twists throughout the series, but there are also tons of small easter eggs for people who are playing the games again, small visual clues that pay off when you are already familiar with the scope of the story. These games are great at environmental storytelling and the big overt moments as well, and that’s what pushed me to keep playing.

They are also super easy to play these days. The Bioshock Collection is available on all three major consoles, and the often go on sale through Steam. The Collection also includes the DLC campaigns for Bioshock 2 and Infinite, which are not to be missed. Minerva’s Den is a small add-on to Bioshock 2, a mostly unrelated experience that manages to pack a powerful emotional punch. Infinite includes the two-part Burial At Sea, itself a sort of coda to the entire arc and with some of my favorite gameplay in the series. As to which game is best, I’m not sure I could choose. The first Bioshock is a triumph of atmosphere and was the one I found most genuinely frightening. Bioshock 2 cannot match that power, but makes up for it in highly polished design, probably the best in the series. Infinite is the most flawed game in the series, but its focus on character and narrative overcame a lot of my complaints. It’s certainly the most ambitious game in a series filled with ambition, though whether it succeeds is up to you. For my part, I could barely tear myself away from Infinite. It’s a glorious mess, one that I found compulsively playable even when it didn’t really work.

As a medium video games are unkind to innovators. When a game is really impactful, imitators will often refine those innovations while putting them in less exciting settings. I get the impression that the Bioshock series has fallen into this realm. The legacy has also been complicated by the sequels. Bioshock 2 is sometimes considered too similar to the first, and Bioshock Infinite is, as I stated already, kind of a mess. I am not generally a huge fan of shooters, so I don’t have a very strong point of reference. That said, the Bioshock series joins the likes of Half-Life and Portal for me as an unparalleled single-player experience. These are the sorts of games that make me happy to be a gamer, immersive stories set in remarkable locations with unforgettable characters. In trying to make sense of their messier tendencies, they’ve actually given me something to think about as well. That is perhaps the highest compliment one can pay to art of any kind.

Wiz-War and the Monumental Task of Updating Games

Roughly eight to ten years ago, Fantasy Flight was known for reprinting classic experiential games like Merchant of Venus, Dungeonquest, Talisman, and Cosmic Encounter. Of course they were also known for bungling those reprints. To be sure, there were some missteps. Their original reprint of Dungeonquest integrated a cumbersome combat system totally at odds with the breezy stupidity of the old-school dungeon crawl absurdity. The height of this absurdity was their reprint of Merchant of Venus, which through a mangled wreck of rights ambiguities, included both the original classic game and a totally redesigned version.

While the criticism was partially justified, I can’t help but think that in hindsight, it was a tad unfair. For my own part, Fantasy Flight served as my introduction to almost all of my favorite games. Cosmic Encounter, Talisman, and Merchant of Venus are all among my most beloved designs, and that can largely be credited to the handsome reprint jobs done by Fantasy Flight. The most grievous changes were almost always presented as optional (Merchant of Venus), purely cosmetic (Nexus Ops), or later corrected (Dungeonquest). I reflected on this as I taught my oldest son Wiz-War, the classic from designer Tom Jolly, itself reprinted by FFG in 2012.

I’ve written a number of times about Wiz-War. At its core it’s a classic take-that game where wizards do battle in a magical labyrinth. There are two ways to win: either be the last wizard standing, or steal two treasures from your opponents. You do battle with a deck of cards, all representing different spells. In the past this was done with cheap cardboard components and cards with only text. For FFG’s eighth edition, there were fancy plastic miniatures and nicely illustrated cards, but the overall effect is to my knowledge basically the same.

The minis is my copy look even nicer, because I painted them.

It would be disingenuous of me to compare the FFG version to earlier ones, since I have never played the game in any other form. I know a lot of old fans who took issue with some changes, such as card wording that affected timing or went against previous convention. Personally I’ve never had many issues with this ambiguity, but then I don’t actually know better. But other changes are more noticeable. Most of these are in the back of the original rulebook, so that players who want to can reverse-engineer something resembling the original game. Early on I rejected all the new rule changes, and it saved the game from the trade pile for me.

Overall I think this was the right call, but as I’ve played with my son I’ve started to see some of the wisdom of Fantasy Flight’s changes. The first one was how the deck itself was constructed. In past editions, all of the cards were in one big stack. But as FFG added expansions the number of cards nearly doubled. From the beginning, they introduced a mechanic called “Schools of Magic,” where the cards were divided into little 24-card packets arranged kinda-sorta thematically. Players would select a few of them each game, and leave the rest out. This was continued in the expansions, but I threw them all in the same giant deck. But after doing this for literally years, it felt like the game was starting to bog down too frequently. Not only that, but they didn’t have a lot of personality from session to session. Re-introducing the Schools of Magic created a much more focused experience. There are far fewer mechanical elements, but those elements are much more pronounced, making the whole thing more compelling and a bit more fast-paced. The variety from game to game has also gone way up.

Another big change involved the victory conditions. FFG introduced a system of victory points, where you get one point for either killing another wizard or stealing a treasure, rather than making it a duel to the bitter end. This is one of those shorter games where I think player elimination is actually a better fit, but as the player count goes up to five (with an expansion) the VP system begins to make a bit more sense. It makes for a shorter game, and it does create a different experience from the original game, but it’s not one that I think is unfaithful. To me Wiz-War always resembled Mario Kart more than, say, Starcraft. It’s a game of finding momentary advantages, not long battles of attrition. With lower player counts, it’s less necessary, but I’ll never play with five players any other way.

My son beat me in our first game. Now the circle is complete.

This whole process of bouncing between different variants to get a game to work perfectly has made me think about how we talk about reprints. I’ve now been in this hobby long enough to see games that I loved in their original form get reprinted with slight tweaks, and it can be a disorienting feeling. Game design is a holistic pursuit, and even slight changes can have unintended consequences to a design. When I see a new version of something like, say, Citadels show up, I am immediately defensive. I know that any change will result in something that is just a bit unfamiliar to me, and that’s not what I want.

This defensiveness can even extend to how I approach reprints of games I’ve never actually played. I’m a great lover of history, particularly board gaming history, and I want something “authentic,” as if there’s a moral imperative to play games as they have always been. But that betrays a bit of possessiveness on my part. Precious few games can ever exist without any changes at all, and so much art requires its original context to fully make sense. I admire the attempts to recontextualize old games to make sense to modern gamers. What a thankless task that must be. Not all changes are good, and some are catastrophic, but there are still new fans created. That’s how you grow the hobby while keeping it connected to its roots.

Fantasy Flight Games is today a very different company than the one that reprinted Wiz-War. Indeed, Wiz-War is now out of print, though I doubt it will stay that way for long. But I still want to take a moment to thank those tireless fans who work, through their craft, to explain to new players why the games they love are still relevant. So thank you to Fantasy Flight Games, Restoration Games, Stronghold Games, and any other publisher who is trying to recontextualize a game for a new age. It’s through the work of people like you that I have discovered the board games that have spoken to me in their own way. That is quite an accomplishment, and I will always be thankful.

Why You Might Not Like Cosmic Encounter

Cosmic Encounter is the best game I’ve ever played.

I’ve felt that way for over a decade now. It’s everything I want in a board game, a full embrace of what makes board games so special as a medium. It also happens to be one of the most influential board game designs of all time, directly informing genre-defining designs like Dune and Magic: The Gathering, and more niche designs like Citadels and Wiz-War. I’ve never been shy about my love either. I’ve written about it on numerous occasions on other platforms, and I even had a chance to interview one of its designers. It’s the best example of how board games can embrace social interaction, subtly brilliant design, and endless variety into something that still manages to be approachable and fresh with every new game.

But not everyone feels the same way. I’ve had a pretty high success rate introducing it to other players, and I’ve gotten down explaining this huge game to a science. Games may be for everyone, but the truth is that no single game is for everyone. It felt like a gap to not yet have an article on this blog about my favorite game of all time, but rather than simply gushing about it for a couple thousand words I thought it might be interesting to think of reasons why someone might not like Cosmic Encounter very much. I believe that all of these things are true about this wonderful game, but that doesn’t mean you’ll find it enjoyable.

It’s a really social game.
I’ve never played a strategy game that embraces every facet of social interaction in quite the same way Cosmic Encounter does. Lots of games embrace certain kinds of social interaction, whether it’s hardcore negotiation, alliances, cooperation, competition, or deception. But to me what separates Cosmic Encounter from all of them is that you need to be pretty good at all of those things without ever totally committing to any one of them. You certainly can play it as a very cut-throat game, but the situation will often call for a softer touch than that, and open collaboration can be extremely effective. Likewise open honesty can win just as well as deception. There isn’t one sort of social interaction that carries the day. A really good player needs to know how to switch between all of these modes, sometimes from turn to turn.

Without this embrace of these “soft” skills of negotiation, socialization, and collaboration Cosmic Encounter can seem pretty thin. It’s the sort of game that really needs those elements to function well. But the truth is that not everyone likes engaging that way. For some people heavy social interaction is a source of anxiety, and board games represent a way to put some limits on interaction. If you are one of those people, then you might find Cosmic Encounter to be a uniquely irritating game. It’s not just that it is highly interactive, it’s that the kind of interaction can shift quickly.

It’s a chaotic game.
Cosmic Encounter has a lot of mechanics that inject variety into the design. There are the artifacts and flares, cards that can change the game state unexpectedly in myriad ways. There are the vagaries of alliances, which shift every round. Most of all there are aliens, unique powers given to each player at the beginning of the game that allow them to break a specific rule. By themselves, each of these mechanics would make a varied and interesting design, but together they can create a chaotic maelstrom where things change instantly without warning. This represents the sci-fi setting better than anything, where there are always new interactions to discover and bizarre effects that I still haven’t seen before. It truly is a game about the unexplored edges of space.

Rather than attempting to temper this insanity, Cosmic Encounter leans into it. Wild reversals are common, and it can be hard to know what is and isn’t really happening in the game. No gain is permanent, and no setback is truly debilitating. It exists entirely in the moment, not caring much for the future or the past. Powers and card effects can fly fast and furious, and it only amps up with more players. Besides that, it’s just silly. This is a game that is comfortable making the players do zany things like call everyone “sir” and “ma’am,” or permitting a certain player to whine about how badly they are losing. There’s even a card that gives the possessor permission to cheat, and makes it easier if they get caught. It’s a strategic game, but it’s not a very serious one. It is perfectly fine being loony, and if you aren’t this one might really grate on you. It is possible to tune the game by excluding certain cards or limiting the number of players, but even then the game will threaten to go off the rails. New players should definitely be aware of this tendency before diving in.

More than one player can win.
In my experience this might be the single most controversial design choice in Cosmic Encounter. Through a system of alliances and card effects, it is entirely possible that two or more players can win simultaneously. Such shared wins are not really understood as ties, but simply as multiple winners. This is a weird design choice, but it’s also a necessary one. Cosmic Encounter is driven by a hand of cards, and with cards the deal is everything. It’s surprisingly difficult to get new cards too, so a bad deal can be devastating. Shared wins tend to come through negotiation and cooperation, and so they represent an out for players who were dealt a hand of garbage. They also tie back into the myriad forms of social interaction, allowing more non-competitive people to win in a way that they find appealing. If you are the type who plays with big groups, shared wins are also just about the only way to get a victory with six or more players. You really need someone’s help to walk away with a victory at that stage.

As far as I’m concerned this is a feature, not a bug. And for people who don’t like it I don’t get the impression that it’s a deal-breaker (so to speak). But I think a lot of those people can point to endings they found particularly lame, when two people suddenly decide they will win together and no one can stop them. If you are the competitive type, such an ending can be deeply unsatisfying, but to remove the shared win entirely puts the players much more at the mercy of their cards, dooming bad draws to likely defeat. So you’ve been warned.

(Another complaint that I actually have about my favorite game is that the end can happen a little anticlimactically if you aren’t experienced. New players will often find themselves in a situation where things are rolling along and, oh, the game is over I guess. I think Cosmic Encounter is one of those “journey before destination” games, so I’m not including it as a deal-breaker. But it’s definitely there.)

This is from The Walking Dead. It is notable for the shirt, and also for the fact that it looks so much like me it makes me wonder if I’m being followed around.

It’s easy to have a lousy game.
I love Cosmic Encounter, but I will admit that there are a lot of ways it can go wrong. Almost all of these boil down to the alien powers that are in the game. With all of the expansion content released for the current edition, there are lots of them that are, well, kind of lame. Lots of others are riffs on the same basic concept, and still more are only good in specific situations. That last one is, I think, the biggest impediment to having a good experience with Cosmic Encounter. A lot of powers are only good if there are a certain number of players. Still others would be great, were it not for that other power in the game that basically renders them useless. It’s not much fun for a new player to sit in a game and not be able to use the thing that makes their experience unique. Besides that, a deeply social game like this one makes it uniquely vulnerable to bad actors. Some people just want to ruin the fun for everyone, and this is a game that does allow some of that.

I don’t want to overstate the volatility here. The issue of jerk players is one that would be much worse in the hands of lesser designers. But there are checks on that sort of behavior baked into the game, like how it uses a destiny deck to determine which player will have an encounter with which other player. The alliance system, whereby players join with the offense or defense to get rewards or move closer to victory, forces players to keep a lose grip on grudges. But the issue of weird power mixes is one that I’m afraid is endemic to the design. You could always remove powers you don’t like (I don’t, but I’m lazy that way), but unless you handpick everything you play with you will sometimes just end up with a dud. Not too often, but it’s definitely a thing that can happen. If that happens to you enough, you might just swear off Cosmic Encounter altogether.

Let me be perfectly clear: I think you should play Cosmic Encounter. It’s a brilliant game filled with laughter, surprising strategy, and constant interaction. But because the game is so special to me I think it’s important to set expectations. Travelling through the galaxy and meeting alien species is treacherous work, but if you know what you’re getting into you might just discover that it’s the only game you’ll want to play.

Sid Meier’s Civilization VI, or How I Learned to Deal With Change

Build an empire to stand the test of time.

It’s fascinating how certain bits of culture become associated with specific times in our lives. For me this has especially been the case for computer games, the first type of electronic gaming we had in our home after my parents bought their first computer in the early 1990s. As an adult, no series of games has forged these associations quite like Sid Meier’s Civilization series. While I dabbled in the fourth installment, it was Civilization V that truly hooked me. It was part of the tapestry of my time in grad school, and in fact I have found it hard to return to it since that time. That’s partially because I’m not in that time or place anymore, but it has more to do with Civilization VI, which came out a little over three years ago and has become my most played game in that time.

Interestingly enough, Civ VI came at an equally transitional time, as my family and I were preparing to move overseas. It went on sale on Steam mere days before our departure, and our busy schedule was such that I wasn’t able to complete my first game until we had already moved. Civ VI was there in the wee hours of jet lag, and as I got used to the reversed time zones there were a few 3 AM wake-ups where all I could do was fire up my new game. In my first three weeks in Asia I think I approached about 75 hours. It’s become my go-to strategy game, and indeed one of the only ones I enjoy with very little reservation. But it did take a little while to get there.

To understand why it’s important to consider the evolution of the series as a whole, particularly the transition to the fifth game. It was Civilization V that transitioned the map to a hex-based layout, and imposed a limit on how many units could be in one of those hexes. It was also a more transparent game than Civ IV, which by the end of its lifecycle had become quite sprawling. These changes were controversial in the overall fandom, but it explains why I was able to latch onto the fifth game instead of the fourth, which eluded me a bit. Civ VI keeps those same elements, making it feel like a more evolutionary game than its predecessor. But it’s far from a retread.

Nothing quite like seeing those Wonders get completed.

The big change in Civ Vi was to make cities take more than a single tile. Players now had to found a city center, where a few buildings were available, but everything that is even vaguely specialized now had to be put in a specific district. Science buildings required a Campus District, production buildings an Industrial District, and so forth. All of these districts got bonuses depending on their placement as well, so city layout was suddenly a huge consideration. Not every city can support a Theater District, so not every city will be much use for generating culture. This made city planning a lot more granular, requiring some considerable foresight to really make any sense of it at all. In fact, while the Civilization series has always been pretty heavy on micro-management, Civ Vi is a big step up from the previous installment. There were now two “tech trees” in which to advance, one for scientific discoveries and one for cultural. And then of course all of those wonders took their own hex as well, requiring even further planning. Lest we forget, when I first played it was without any of the expansions. Two of them have since been added, along with copious DLC. As of early 2020, Civ VI has sprawled out to incorporate city loyalty, governors, climate change, and a re-jiggered diplomatic subsystem. It’s a sort of frog-in-boiling-water situation for me, but I can’t imagine what it would be like to take it all in at once.

The upshot of all of this is that I liked Civ VI without really loving it. Meticulous planning has never been my strong suit, but this was a game that felt like it demanded it. It felt much fussier and slower to me, and I constantly forgot to tend to different mechanical subsystems. It was the first time I had been a fan during the release of a new installment, and I soon discovered it was a little like having to learn to tie your shoes all over again. Familiar strategies failed me, and concepts I thought I understood eluded me. I was basically enjoying myself, but it all felt so weird and foreign.

Always fun to play Civ and find a natural wonder from the country where you live.

How appropriate then that I would grow into Civilization VI while I experienced the arc of moving to a new culture. My surroundings were strange and unfamiliar, and the world around me didn’t function in ways I understood. There were many times that I longed to return to what was familiar. But the thought of returning gave me little pleasure. The unfortunate truth of life after a big transition is that it’s become impossible to recapture what came before. You’ve changed too much, and you can’t experience the old stuff without carrying the new stuff with you. Returning to Civ V pointed out to me all of the different things that I had now internalized from the newer game, and what used to feel comforting now felt kind of thin and unpolished.

I now find Civilization VI to be a much more satisfying game than Civ V. Some of the things I initially didn’t care for, like multi-hex cities, have become a source of much enjoyment. In older games, the cities eventually all took on the same flavor, since you could build every building in each of them. But now the cities have to respond to their surroundings, and your strategy has to adapt. I recently played a game as Teddy Roosevelt and America, and my intent was to pursue a cultural victory. But I had such a great placement, well-suited to science and production, that after about 100 turns I had shifted to a science strategy, one that paid off well. It just feels more adaptive, and the different leaders feel less scripted than they did before.

Another big change I appreciate is the combat, which feels much snappier than it did in Civ V. In that game it often felt like a battle of attrition, the stacking limit creating a slog of a fight that dissuaded me from ever pursuing a domination victory. I have never been much of a fighter in the first place, so I didn’t need much convincing. But it feels like Civ VI has a better handle on the stacking limit combat. I couldn’t begin to explain the mechanical causes of this, but combat feels less protracted, and a little less tilted in favor of defenders. I’m not at all sure why this is, but I know what I experienced, and I like it a lot. The importance of combat has also been tuned back from the original release. In the base game I found combat necessary at a very early stage, but after all of the expansions and DLC it feels like you can play a mostly peaceful game if you like.

It’s hard to read here, but there’s a subtle bit of social commentary for those who live in the Philippines in this picture. You may notice that Catholicism has been replaced by Jollibee.

Like any big change, there are things that I will never be wild about. It introduces a Religious Victory, where you have to convert the whole world to your religion. It’s fine in principle, but it doesn’t feel very organically integrated with the rest of the design, more of a parallel game happening alongside the main game. The recent Gathering Storm expansion reintroduced a Diplomatic Victory, but it feels like it requires a very specific set of variables to make it work. It remains the only victory I haven’t achieved, though I’m sure I’ll get there eventually.

But the things I loved, the stuff that has made me fall in love with Civilization in the first place, is all still intact. Going all the way back to the original 1991 Sid Meier design, the Civilization series has been a master class in short-term goals paired with long-term strategy. These games do such a great job of presenting you with all of the milestones that are just around the corner. You’ll complete Petra in two turns! There’s a World Congress coming up soon! You’ve almost finished researching a new type of government! Civ VI emphasizes this even more, by creating a timeline of all of the specific milestones your civilization has achieved. No matter how bad you play, accomplishment and affirmation is right around the corner, and when you look back on the whole game you’ll see the sweep of everything laid out behind you.

As long as Sid Meier’s Civilization keeps that quality, it will be the most popular strategy game series of them all. I’m not sure I’d characterize it as the best or the most accessible, but in my experience it’s the most addictive. You can get hooked without ever really understanding how to play well, to the point where hours can pass by and you barely notice. “One more turn” is the common refrain, and every Civ player since 1991 has experienced it. I’m glad I stuck it out through the rough early going, because it has proven to be a rewarding and addictive game. As I’ve moved to a new culture, Civilization VI has helped me process changes. It taught me that change is always tough, and that I have what it takes to get through it.

The Games I Want About the Things I Like

adventure time!

In the 21st Century, everything is a shared universe. It can get exhausting when we get one more piece of media from Marvel or Star Wars, and in gaming we are given countless offerings from other franchises. Whether it’s Warhmmer, Dungeons & Dragons, or the Cthulhu mythos, the age of IP dominance is alive and well across all of popular culture. But while this can be exhausting, there’s a good reason for it: people like what’s familiar. When you really like Star Trek, it’s nice to have a game that’s lets you set phasers to full, or set the warp drive and engage.

For me at least the issue is not so much the presence of so many different franchises, but that we are offered the same ones over and over. Granted, there have been lots of great games based on a lot of different media, but there remain some gaps. Well, not so much gaps as specific franchises that I would love to see on my tabletop or laptop screen. So let’s look at some popular franchises, and look at some ways that I think you could make them into first-rate game experience. Mostly this is just stuff I’d like to see. Indulgent? You betcha, but it’s my blog and I can indulge all I want!

Adventure Time Board Game

Let’s start with the one that I think is the biggest slam dunk, one obvious enough that I am not the first to make the connection. Adventure Time has a decent claim to being the most important animated series of the last decade, and even though its run on Cartoon Network has ended it still has its fans. That’s why it’s able to support a few games already, notably a couple 3DS titles and Card Wars, a kinda-sorta collectible card game that actually has a counterpart on the show. But for fans like me and my sons, I think an old-school adventure board game is the perfect format for Pendleton Ward’s particular brand of insanity.

When I say “old-school” I have one particular game in mind: Talisman. Talisman draws heavily from the same pool of old-school roleplaying that informs the insanity of the Land of Oo. For crying out loud, Finn even makes mention of his “alignment” in at least one episode. Killing monsters, getting loot, and going on bizarre adventures is basically all you do in Talisman. It has that same sort of mildly nonsensical arc, where you can meet goofy monsters, random stuff happens to you, and you fight your way to get the Crown of Command. All that’s required is a coat of Adventure Time paint, and I think it sells itself. The powers that be keep circling around this idea by setting Talisman in the Batman and Kingdom Hearts universe. Maybe they’ll get there eventually.

And if you aren’t wild about Talisman, there are a ton of light dungeon-crawling games that are just screaming for Jake the Dog and Finn the Human. Old games like Dungeonquest or Heroquest are layups, and even newer stuff like Clank would work. Adventure Time screams for a good adventure game. Let’s make this happen, Cartoon Network!

Great snakes!

The Adventures of Tintin Graphic Adventure

I’m one of those snooty comics fans whose formative experience in the medium was The Adventures of Tintin. It remains a somewhat niche series in the US, but the rest of the world has grown to love the adventures of Tintin, Captain Haddock, Professor Calculus, and all the others. I also enjoy graphic adventure games from the 1990s, particularly those made by LucasArts. The way they resolve around puzzles, vibrant characters, and compelling stories means that it would be a great fit for Herge’s seminal series.

In its way, this could serve as a bit of a corrective to some tired elements of both Tintin and of graphic adventure games. Adventure games trended toward broad goofy comedy, requiring the player to do some silly stuff to get from point A to point B. This was most noticeable with LucasArts, who for all their great games worked best when they could laugh at themselves. But Tintin has enough different characters that it could be approached almost like Day of the Tentacle, which let the player switch between different viewpoints and plots all happening in different time periods. You can give more serious puzzles to Tintin and Snowy, more comedic pratfall stuff to Captain Haddock or Thompson & Thomson, and even science puzzles to Professor Calculus. There’s a lot of room for variety, globe-hopping, and mystery. Combine it with the ligne-claire style utilized by Herge, and you have a graphical feast as well.

More importantly, it provides an opportunity to address some of the more regressive elements in Herge’s work. Some early Tintin books, particularly Tintin in the Congo, have been justly called out for their colonial viewpoint and the infantilization of African characters. To Herge’s credit, such ugly qualities became less common as later books became better-researched, and as he made friends with people from the lands he was portraying. That said, these books are still tainted at least somewhat by unfortunate stereotypes. To add to that, the world of Tintin is oddly bereft of female characters. A more nuanced view of other cultures and more pronounced female perspectives would be welcome, either in a new story or even in an adaptation of an old one. I’m sure the notoriously stodgy Tintin fan community would lose their minds, but I think we’d have a pretty great game on our hands.

The Stormlight Archive Roleplaying Game

As of the time I’m writing this in 2020, fantasy author Brandon Sanderson remains the rare bestselling author who has never had a screen adaptation of his work. While I would pay cash money to see a screen adaptation (movie or television) some qualities of Sanderson’s work make him a great adaptation for the tabletop world. This has already been done for his Mistborn books, but for me the holy grail would be a tabletop roleplaying game based on The Stormlight Archive. This would be a truly massive undertaking, since the series is projected to eventually cover ten volumes. We already have three with a fourth on the way, each over 1000 pages long. I think that only a TTRPG could do it justice.

Three particular qualities of the Stormlight Archive make it ideal as a roleplaying experience. The first is that, as with many of Sanderson’s books, there’s a mechanical quality to how the world works. Magic in particular is informed by some pretty hard and fast rules. This is more pronounced in Mistborn, and Stormlight is hampered by the fact that after over 3000 pages we still don’t totally understand how or why it all works though. I have no doubt that such an explanation will eventually be forthcoming, but the wait might mean that we won’t see such my game until 2040 or so. But Stormlight also contains some wicked combat, revolving around the legendary shardblades. While their exact nature is also still unwinding, there’s a huge potential for cinematic fights with a magic system that could create something highly narrative. (The temptation would be to bog it down in mechanics, but it could be really fun too.)

The actual world of Roshar is particularly compelling as well. While most epic fantasy series have world-building as an integral part, the different cultures and national politics of Alethkar, Jah Keved, Kharbranth, Shinovar, and many other places lend a rich texture to the world. There are also different religions and cultural mores that would make for some fun roleplaying.  

But the biggest draw for me is the characters. An appropriate subtitle for The Stormlight Archive would be “PTSD: The Fantasy Series.” Characters like Kaladin Stormblessed and Shallan Davar are carrying around painful pasts, dark deeds, and all sorts of trauma. Not only that, but they form all sorts of connections as the series goes on. Roleplaying games like Burning Wheel (unplayed by me) have shown how deeply character backstories and relationships can be integrated into a roleplaying experience. A focus on character and backstory would be ideal for Stormlight, and I’d be all over it.

Look, we don’t need more games, and we certainly don’t need more games based on someone else’s work. But we’re getting them anyway, so hey, it never hurts to dream about what we’d like to see. At the bare minimum, it’s good to prepare yourself for the kind of things that you’ll want to spend money on. These are ideas that would make me post the “shut up and take my money” Fry theme…Now that I think about it, a pick-up-and-deliver game based on Futurama might be fun.

Clank! in Review

The pitch for Clank sounds a little like the board game equivalent of magnetic poetry. A deck-builder? Combined with a dungeon-crawl? It feels focus-tested within an inch of its life. There are so many deck-builders and dungeon-crawlers out there that my eyes glaze over whenever I hear about new entries into either genre. That’s my excuse for why I gave Clank a pass for so long. I really only picked it up because it seemed like something I could play with my son, and because it is one of those games that has been extensively distributed in Asia. Most game stores here have several versions and expansions on their shelves, so it was only a matter of time. I’m glad I took the plunge, because while Clank doesn’t sound like anything fresh, it makes up for it by being well-executed, with a keen sense of what it wants to do and with few of the annoyances that dog either of its well-represented genres.

Chief among Clank’s many pleasures is how it handles deck-building. Ever since Dominion changed the hobby in 2008, deck-building has served as a genre that is best-suited to optimization. The whole mechanic is built around feedback loops. You keep adding cards to a deck that will allow you to execute some particular goal, usually to generate points. This boils down to a couple of key strategies that have always been key to deck-building. One is to identify a couple of cards that jive well together, and to hammer them to generate big combos. Another is to remove less efficient cards from the deck, making it more likely that the really good stuff is drawn. As a result deck-building has always favored experienced players, and punished people who have to shift strategies in mid-stream. Or at least that was my experience with Dominion, still the most popular deck-builder out there and one of the best in terms of polish.

Clank does require some of this stuff. In this game the cards generate four different resources, three of which you want. (We’ll talk about that fourth one in a minute.) Movement lets you travel deeper into the dungeon, while attacks let you defeat monsters along the way. Skill serves as the currency for buying new cards. You need to strike the right balance to get in and out of the dungeon with the most treasure. But Clank also doesn’t seem that interested in being an optimization exercise. There are a couple of stock cards that are always available, ensuring that you can always buy a card with more attack or more movement. But the more interesting cards are all in one big deck, with six available at any given time. There’s a decent chance you won’t see exactly what you need for sale, so it’s hard to build really killer decks. In a half-dozen games I have yet to find a card that isn’t at least pretty good for its cost, so it’s while it’s hard to build a deck that will wreck everyone it’s also pretty easy to build a half-decent one. There also aren’t many card effects that let you cycle cards in your deck endlessly, and even fewer that let you actually remove cards from your deck. As a result, you don’t go through your cards that quickly, and you can’t really fine-tune stuff on the fly.

The board is actually two-sided, with a beginner’s map and one for more advanced players. Expansions have added other maps and cards.

This will drive some people crazy. Clank is not a game that is interested in tournament play. But the plus side is that most people will get what they need to do very quickly, and will have a decent shot at winning. It wants you to have fun right away, instead of insisting that you “git gud” before you figure out how to steal treasure. This laid-back feeling extends to its structure. Rather than there being a precise action and buying phase (think of the ABC turn from Dominion) you can just put all your cards out there and do all your things in whatever order you like.

As a dungeoncrawl, Clank draws the most from classics like Dungeonquest, albeit with much less interest in making the players lose. The shape of the game is almost identical though. Your adventurer needs to travel deeper into the catacomb, stealing as much treasure as possible then leaving before you get destroyed by the dragon. Remember that fourth resource generated by cards, the one you don’t want? That would be clank, a representation of noise made while shuffling around the dungeon. Expressed in colored cubes that sit in a pool on the board, every so often a card will trigger a dragon attack. When that happens, all those cubes go in a bag, and a few are drawn out that have the potential to become damage on a character. Some of the nicest cards generate a bit of clank as well, meaning that someone who buys all the best stuff will be more likely to suffer the dragon’s wrath. It’s not a punitive measure, but it’s definitely possible to overstay your time in the dungeon and to get yourself killed before you leave.

As a genre, dungeon crawls have had their problems. One big one is mess that can be generated with tons of wandering monsters. Clank sidesteps this by making monsters a type of card in main deck. When they come up they can be “bought” with attack, and immediately discarded for an instant benefit. Until then they can have adverse effects on the game state. It’s a really great way to make players want to fight monsters, and to give them a meaningful impact on the experience, while still avoiding clutter in the game state and in record-keeping. There are also “features,” isolated things in the dungeon like a shrine or a ladder, that are represented as cards in the deck as well. Like monsters, they are purchased and immediately discarded for an effect. The board itself is mostly just a network of locations. There are a couple of spots that hold artifacts, and collecting one allows you to leave the dungeon and trigger the endgame.

All of these different elements mesh together really well, and Clank does a great job at forcing the player to be good at a few different things. You do need to optimize your deck a bit, but you also need to know when to take a big risk, and when to admit that your plan just isn’t working. That it does all of these things without ever feeling burdensome is impressive indeed. Clank is the sort of game that looks like low-hanging fruit at first, but reveals a lot of smart design when you get into it. I can play it with my kids and with casual gamer friends, and more importantly, I really want to.

Steam: Rails to Riches and Its Complicated Family

steam box cover

We all have games that we admire more than we enjoy. Or else games that we only enjoy in a narrow set of circumstances. One such game for me is Steam, originally published by Mayfiar Games in 2009. It was the result of a labyrinthine rights battle around that time. You see, Steam was based on the 2002 game Age of Steam, itself designed by Martin Wallace. Owing to a messy divorce with original publisher Warfrog Games (At least I think so. I followed the whole thing and still couldn’t explain it to you.) Age of Steam somehow ended up fracturing into numerous different titles. One of these was a reprint of Age of Steam reprinted around 2011.  The second was a version called Railroad Tycoon, based on the classic series of PC games and eventually rebranded as Railways of the World when the license ran out. The last was Steam, the version with endorsement of the original designer, and the version that I own.

In all of these forms, the game represented a sort of Euro-style reimagining of the venerable train game. As a genre, train games have almost as rich a history as wargames. There are certain markers that always need to be hit, like laying track, transporting goods, and managing finances. In different measures these have always been the focus on games with extensive product lines, like the Empire Builder or 18xx series. Age of Steam hit all of these elements, but it did so in perhaps the most stripped down way possible. The goods were simply different colored cubes. The finances were mostly handled in a simple system of loans and interest. In general the focus was on abstraction, an embrace of the idea of train games above the minutiae.

(In this Wallace was in sync with another popular Eurogame: Power Grid. Friedemann Friese’s classic has its roots in the route building and economics of trains, even if it doesn’t actually deal with them.)

Martin Wallace’s big contribution to the train game was to put playability above details. This was done graphically as much as it was mechanically. Goods are shipped to any city that matches the color, rather than the cubes representing any real life commodity. The player doesn’t deal with specific historical train models, but rather represents advancing technology through a series of levels, from 1 to 6. Even the goal of the game, to generate income and points through transporting goods, works better in mechanical terms than in simulationist ones. Since the player gets points for each length of track they use, it is more advantageous to use the most circuitous, inefficient route you can. Heck of a way to run a business.

age of steam
The newest version of Age of Steam. The deluxe edition has a price to match.

The upshot of all of this is a game that is definitely thematic, but in that sideways way that Eurogames used to embrace. It’s all mechanical theme with little care for visual trappings. One could make the argument that abstracting so much historical detail misses the point of train games in the first place, and I don’t think that’s completely off-base. But in all its forms Age of Steam is still a compelling title, even as it inches toward two decades in age. The question is of course which version to get. As I said before I own Steam, even though I’m not actually sure it’s the best version.

That sounds kind of silly, but then our game preferences are matters of the heart. In my case, it is thanks to my friend Brad that I own Steam at all. When it hit shelves in 2009, it was after several years of Age of Steam, its predecessor, not being readily available. My friend Brad, always more of a Eurogamer than I was, eagerly bought a copy. We played several times, and my own response was always one of mild enjoyment, edging up to appreciation depending on the day. I also played a game or two of Age of Steam and Railways of the World, but Steam remained my primary point of reference for the whole dysfunctional family. After I eventually moved away I didn’t play it again for years, until I suddenly found myself wanting to try it again. By this time of course I lived in Manila, and the prospect of ever getting a copy was distant. But amazingly I found an old used copy on forgotten shelf at a store here. My nostalgia got the better of me and I bought it without a second thought.

game in progress
Steam has an understated but classy presentation. I actually really like it. (image taken by user killroy_locke on

Revisiting the game has been an interesting experience. I’m at a place in my life where I’ve become much more comfortable with games that don’t quite line up with my tastes, and so I think my estimation of the game has definitely gone up. Upon reflection, the design is frankly brilliant. There are a lot of complex economic elements that go into rail games that are all expected to be there, and Steam hits them all so efficiently. In particular, I want to praise the game’s financial system, which revolves around an income track. Your position on the track dictates your income each turn, whether positive or negative. You can choose to move down the track to get a little more money, but if you go negative you will actually owe money to your investors. Or maybe it’s the bank. The real brilliance is that it can be either one. It represents the whole spectrum of financial management in a single system. It’s tough as nails and I love it. I am also a big fan of the way cities on the board grow. Players have the option to develop minor cities on the board, making them produce goods that can then be shipped around the board. It’s a great way to represent the urbanization of minor cities in the age of rail. All of this in a game that wraps up in a reliable 90 minutes if you play the gentler basic game.

But how fun is all of this? Well, pretty fun, but it has a certain stuffiness about it. Steam was born out of an age when Eurogamers were generally afraid of luck at all, and once the board is set there’s none at all in Steam. If you like planning that much then bully for you, but I think it lends the game a sort of fussy quality, altogether too much control for any game that wants to recreate the real world at all. This is in contrast to its relatives. Age of Steam at least lets you draw cubes randomly when new ones are placed on the board, and Railways of the World has cards that inject a little bit of chaos into the system. In a vacuum both of those things would be preferable to me, because Steam definitely favors the more analytical players at the table. It’s the sort of game I like best when played with people around the same skill as I am, because otherwise it’s not much of a contest. I’ve never been one to see extended networks in the abstract, and so I always play games like this at a disadvantage.

railways of the world
Railways of the World is perhaps the most decked out version, with enormous maps, plastic pieces, and take-that cards. It’s fun, but approaches too much of a good thing.

Steam could stand to loosen up, but it’s also the most approachable game in the series. It is somewhat more forgiving for inexperienced players, and provided with both a Basic mode (which I frankly prefer) and a Standard game closer to Wallace’s original release. It has a good deal more polish than the original game, with none of the chromed-out overproduction of Railways of the World. I feel like it’s also shorter than either Age of Steam or Railways of the World, though my memory is a bit hazy there. Most importantly, it’s just the version I know best. Sometimes familiarity lends importance, and that’s definitely the case here. There’s a decent chance I’d prefer the other two games all things being equal, but all things aren’t equal. They aren’t the ones I own, and I’m frankly not inclined to buy another similar title.

Oddly enough, Steam has become the rarest game in this little family tree. It’s become less common recently, still available here and there but far more obscure than its siblings. I think Mayfair determined it wasn’t worth trying to compete with a NEW new version of Age of Steam that has recently become available, or with the Railways games, which are still active as well. It’s kind of a shame, because in its way Steam was pitched squarely at the new gamer. It’s a nicely produced, affordable game, more forgiving than its siblings but still basically the same game. Not only that, but it opened up a huge library of expansions. Of course there were those designed specifically for Steam, but with very little conversion you can also use the numerous maps for Age of Steam. But instead we have the bigger, more expensive editions that are pitched at people who are already gamers. They have much to recommend them, but Steam is the one that to me best fulfills the promise of a train game for gamers of every type.

Star Wars: Outer Rim

box cover

It’s hard for me to gauge the buzz in board gaming circles these days, but the release of Star Wars: Outer Rim this last summer completely passed me by. From way over here in Asia, it barely seemed to register at all. The consensus was one of muted approval, a perfectly cromulent game but little more. I’m glad I gave it a chance, because while Outer Rim is a different game than I expected, I am altogether in love with the game I got.

At first glance Outer Rim appears to be in a very particular tradition, that of the pick-up-and-deliver genre. Merchant of Venus is a good starting place for games like this, where the player builds a network of routes to move items around the board. Games like Xia, Merchants & Marauders, and the Firefly board game have all riffed on this in various ways, adding different narrative elements like ship customization and combat. The results are generally very appealing to me, which was what attracted me to Outer Rim in the first place.

Outer Rim certainly has all the trappings of the genre. You take on the role of a scoundrel from the Star Wars universe, and then make your way through the outlying planets in the galaxy. This can be accomplished by moving cargo around the board, but you can also be a bounty hunter or go around the galaxy doing odd jobs. These different activities make you money, which can then be used to buy a better ship and do more stuff. The end goal is to make a name for yourself in the form of fame, and the first person to 10 fame is the winner.

There is a fair bit going on here besides mere pick-up-and-deliver. Furthermore, if you go into Outer Rim with the logistics of trade as your primary desire, you might leave disappointed. The board is actually a long corridor of systems, surprisingly linear in its design as opposed to the large network of locations in, say, Merchant of Venus. It is never very difficult to come up with a route to what you’re doing; either your goal is close or it isn’t. In truth Outer Rim is much more interested in letting players explore the Star Wars setting, doing what they like and making a name for themselves however they like best. It actually has much more in common with big adventure games like Talisman or Arkham Horror, more a light roleplaying experience than an economic one.

Outer Rim has a weird arc instead of a traditional board, making deliveries feel far more linear.

In that regard Outer Rim succeeds admirably. Other FFG Star Wars games have sought to recreate specific situations from the beloved movies, usually large-scale conflicts. Games like X-Wing, Rebellion, or Armada all put players in the role of Rebels or Imperials, maybe with some Scum and Villainy thrown in for variety. But Outer Rim is the first board game I’ve played that seems to really recreate the Star Wars universe itself. It represents a vibrant ecosystem of characters, spaceships, and worlds playing out against a backdrop of intergalactic conflict, and the player is given the option to experience it as they think best. You can take the role of famous characters like Han Solo or Lando Calrissian, more obscure ones like Bossk or IG-88, or ones that didn’t even appear in the movies. The game pulls from all three film trilogies, the various TV shows, and even the comic books. And it’s all there for you to explore.

This sense of freedom is pervasive, even as the characters steer you toward different strategies. Indeed, the character you play can make a huge difference in how you interact with the galaxy. Some are well-suited to bounty hunting, while others are really built for smuggling. But there’s never a big penalty for mixing and matching, for taking on a small smuggling job to make some extra credits. You can also build a crew for your ship, made up of characters like Chewbacca or Maz Kanata who might fetch nice bounties if captured by other players. You can even turn on your own crew members and turn them in for bounties if you want to. Outer Rim offers a huge range of narrative possibilities, playing out with surprising specificity.

Other board games have pulled off this trick as well, but what impresses me most about Outer Rim is how efficiently the game does it. Instead of feeling like a sprawling mess of a game with piles of seldom-used subsystems, it feels like it was designed to use the bare minimum of cards and tokens possible. This has been interpreted by some as a lack of content, an obvious attempt to leave something for an inevitable expansion. The game doesn’t really need more cards though, because the variety here is not achieved through huge piles of cards, but through mechanical interactions. The game changes quite a bit based on where NPCs are located, what ships are available, how patrols move, and what characters are in the game. Of all of FFG’s designs, it reminds me most of Battlestar Galactica, another design that relied on permutations of the same relatively simple setup. (Indeed, the games share a designer in Corey Konieczka, here sharing design credit with Tony Fanchi.) Outer Rim feels like a complete and finished experience, and while I would love to see more characters and more planet encounters, it feels like the sort of game that could easily be brought down by an expansion that isn’t quite as well-considered.

The narratives generated in Outer Rim feel surprisingly detailed, without a whole bunch of mechanical cruft.

Design-wise, Outer Rim is not at all flashy. There are very few elements that feel innovative or particularly unique. But it’s a classic case where basically everything here works well. Fantasy Flight has an unfortunate history of games that are great aside from one particular issue, often the combat. This was also an issue in Merchants & Marauders, the very fun pirate game with combat so overwrought that the players avoid engaging with it. Nothing in Outer Rim feels like a hassle, and the efficiency of the design means that all of the different mechanics come up in basically every game. The lack of “innovative” mechanics also means that you can engage with the game’s fun parts right away. At no point have I felt like I was at war with the rules, or that they were forcing me to learn something before I could enjoy myself. It just works, and it lets the players have fun on the first try. The only bit that feels a little undercooked to me is the use of “secret” cards, special player actions that can be gained on different planet encounters. They aren’t something that kills the flow of the game, but they are the only part of the design that feels like an afterthought.

To be fair, the experience does have some bumpy moments. While the design feels cohesive and intuitive, it does have quite a lot of rules, and there will be some references to those rules while you internalize everything. It’s also not a particularly deep experience. A lot depends on card flips a die rolls, and those who want more control might find themselves frustrated. Perhaps more worryingly, the game takes a while to get going. The first third to the first half of the game are occupied by small stakes, easier jobs and simpler bounties that allow you to get better ships, crew, and gear, thereby allowing you to go for the big stuff. As a result, the early going can feel endless, since most of the fame generated comes in the back half. It’s hardly a deal-breaker, but it’s a 2-3-hour game, and patience is definitely required if you want to see what it has to offer. However, the pace does have its benefits. I always feel like I’m able to explore as much of the galaxy as I want, and a faster pace might cut that short. I am fine with the tradeoff, but others will think it too long-winded. That’s especially true if playing with the full complement of four players.

Look, I’ve only had this game a short time. But in that short time I’ve played a whole lot. I have yet to find any major red flags in Outer Rim that would prevent me from giving it my highest recommendation. It’s exactly the Star Wars game I’ve wanted for years, a chance to play in the universe I’ve loved since I was a kid with very few boundaries. The fact that it’s in a well-designed game with few mechanical issues is just icing on the cake. This is one of my favorite games in a long time.

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.