Sunday, August 31, 2008

Films

Before I start, I'd like to point out that I've just recently discovered http://games.asobrain.com, where you can log in to play, for free, online versions of Settlers of Catan, as well as Carcassone and a couple other silly games. They don't CALL them Catan or Carcassone; they call them Xplorers and Toulouse, since they aren't actually approved, associated, or licensed by the creators of Catan or Carcassone. But they're the same games, all right. You can play basically with any of the expansions, and you can play against human players or against bots or both. My fans should log in and play with me sometime!

Anyway, on to the topic of today's essay. I started thinking about films about gamers the last few days, over the course of two separate events. The first is that I felt the need to watch Über Goober. The second is that my wife found a video on YouTube that was an ad for a "series" called Gamerz.

Über Goober
is a documentary about gamers. It examines the three main types: historical miniatures war gamers, roleplayers, and LARPers. It was made by non-gamers, so it does a good job of looking at gamers from the outside and examining them in a truly impartial way, exploring humour based on gamers both mainstream (like when Lisa Simpson asks a guy wearing a helmet and a shirt that says "Game Master" if she can sit with him, and he says, "Yes, IF you can answer me these questions three. Question the first..." and she says "never mind," and walks away) and gamer humour (like the Dork Tower comic). It also examines the controversy involved in gaming, like the James Dallas Egbert III fiasco, as well as the role played (hah!) by gaming in the Columbine shootings and the religious backlash against gamers.

It's a great film, at times funny, at times heartwarming, and at times it made me want to scream "What the hell is wrong with you?" Listening to the two guys representing Christian organisations against gaming, one of which used to be a GM, talk about some of the scenarios he ran, and thinking, "What was WRONG with you that you ran games like that?" He was talking about a raiding party taking a caravan of 50 women hostage to use as sex slaves at one point. Not the sort of game I'd ever want to play...

Anyway, it's a good movie, and I recommend it.

I also saw a film called The Gamers a few years ago. It's a short movie about a group of college students playing D&D in the dorms. Five principal actors play the gaming group; one is the DM, the others are the players, and also play the PCs as they act out the story of their adventuring party. It's very funny, and a lot of fun. You can see the trailer, although it is NSFW, based on the language used in the trailer.

They've just released the sequel, The Gamers: Dorkness Rising as well. I'd very much like to see that at some point.

This just brings me to Mazes and Monsters, the atrocious made-for-TV movie starring Tom Hanks made in 1982 (warning: the link above contains spoilers; if you want a synopsis without spoilers, try the IMDB link instead). It was basically the erroneous reports of the Dallas Egbert events expanded into a horrible untruth. I'd like to watch it at some point, just to see for myself how bad it is. I'm hoping for the humour-derived-from-people-talking-about-something-they-don't-understand aspect of it.

Anyway, I'm going to finish now with my reference to Gamerz. This is apparently an online series made by some people I used to know. I thought it was going to be about paper-and-pencil gaming, but no, it turns out to be about slackers sitting on a sofa playing the Xbox. Which goes back to what I was saying a few weeks ago about computer gaming. Once again, true gaming is marginalised. Oh well...

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Board Game Review - Settlers of Catan

It's been a while since I've reviewed any board games, so I think it's time to do so now. Let's do Settlers of Catan today. I realise that if you're reading this blog, chances are good that you've played this game before. Still, it's a great game, and I like it a lot, so I'm going to review it anyway.

Remember the review system? Here we go:

Strategy: 4
Randomness: 3
Complexity: 3
Humour: None.
Attractiveness: I'm torn between giving this game a rating of "Nice" and "Average."
Expected Length of Game Play: an hour and a half

Here's what happens: The game board is made up of a series of hexagonal tiles. Nineteen of these represent land, and are arranged to form a vaguely circular island, surrounded by the remaining eighteen tiles, which represent water. The land tiles can be mountains, hills, plains, pasture, or forest, with a single tile representing a desert. The players start with two settlements that they place, in turn, on the board. Settlements are placed at the junction of three tiles, not on the tiles themselves, and no settlement can be adjacent to any other settlement, your own or another player's. Settlements, by the way, are represented by small wooden houses in your colour. Also present in this game are roads, which are small square dowels, also in your colour. You get one for each settlement at the beginning.

Also arranged on the playing field are a series of numbered tokens, one for each non-desert land tile. These contain the numbers 2 through 12, skipping only seven. Each player is given resources corresponding to the three tiles on which his second settlement is placed.

A player's turn consists of two stages. First, he rolls 2d6. Whatever number comes up determines which tiles produce resources. So, for example, if a 5 is rolled, all tiles that have a 5 produce the appropriate resources, and any players with settlements on those tiles receive a card to represent that resource. Pastures produce wool, fields produce wheat, forests produce wood, hills produce clay, and mountains produce stone. If a player has two settlements on a producing tile, then he receives two of that resource. Three settlements produce three resources. And so forth.

Notice that there is no 7 token. This is where the robber comes in. The robber is a black pawn that starts in the desert. Whenever a 7 is rolled, the current player activates the robber. This involves three steps: first, all players with more than seven resource cards in their hand must discard half of those cards (round down, their choice). Second, the player moves the robber to another land tile (he cannot return the robber to the desert once it has left that tile, and he cannot leave the robber on its current location). Third, he steals one resource card at random from one player who has a settlement on that tile. In addition, no tile produces any resources so long as the robber is on that tile.

Once the dice have been rolled and the resources distributed or the robber dealt with, the player moves on to the second stage of his turn. At this point, the player may do two actions, as much as he likes (and is able), in any order he likes. He may A) trade resources, and B) build.

Trading is simple: he may trade whatever resources he likes to another player for any resources. The only rule regarding what he may trade is that both players must agree to it. Thus, if both players are willing, it is perfectly legal to trade eight ore cards and a wool card for a single wheat card. Note that while the current player may trade with whoever he wishes, the other players may not trade with each other; they may only trade with the current player.

If you are unwilling or unable to trade with the other players, you can also trade with the bank. Any player may, on his turn, spend four of any single resource to purchase a single resource of any type. This becomes more economical if you have ports; half of the ocean tiles represent ports, and a player who has a settlement on this tile gains the advantage of that port. There are two kinds of ports: the three-for-one and the two-for-one. Three-for-one ports let you trade with the bank at a discount; you need only spend three of a single resource to purchase a resource card. Two-for-one ports are more specific. Each two-for-one port is associated with a single resource type, and a player with a settlement on that port can trade two of that resource for one of any other type. For example, a player with a settlement on the wheat port can trade two wheat to the bank for one of any of the other resources.

Building involves spending your resources to purchase new roads, settlements, cities, or development cards. You must build a road (roads must be placed along the edge of tiles, never crossing a tile) to the location in which you want to build a new settlement before you can build one. This is a major point of strategy: if you can arrange your pieces in such a way that another player cannot build roads to a new location, he is no longer able to build settlements. Roads cost one clay and one wood.

Settlements are the main thrust of the game, as they give you resources and victory points (more on this in a moment). They cost one each of wood, wheat, wool, and clay.

Cities are, in essence, upgraded settlements. They are not built on their own, but are instead used to replace an existing settlement. This has two advantages: it gives you two resources when an adjacent tile produces, and it is worth two victory points. Cities cost three wheat and two ore.

Development cards are the "wild cards" of the game. They cost one each of wheat, stone, and wool. There are three types: the first is a soldier. You may play a soldier on your turn to move the robber and steal a resource card from a player with a settlement on the new tile (it is, in effect, the same as rolling a 7, except that nobody loses half of their cards). Don't discard a soldier card once you've played it; although you get no further benefit from it, you might get the "Largest Army" card later on.

The second type is victory point cards. These are rare, but there are development cards that are simply worth a victory point.

The third type is what I call the "Wild Cards." You simply play them and follow the instructions. They include: Year of Plenty - you gain two resource cards of your choice; Monopoly - all players give you all resource cards of a single type that they possess; and Road Building - you place two road segments as if you'd just built them.

Once you've finished trading and/or building, you pass the dice to the next player, who rolls them to begin his turn.

The object of the game is to be the first player to earn ten victory points. Victory points are earned in the following ways: Each settlement is worth one point (thus, the game begins with all players having two points), each city is worth two points, and each Victory Point Card is worth one victory point. In addition, there are the "Longest Road" and "Largest Army" cards. Each of these two cards is worth two Victory Points. Whichever player has the longest road of at least five continuous segments gets the Longest Road card (the card can be stolen by another player who exceeds your current longest road section). The player who has played the most Soldier cards gets the Largest Army card, so long as he has played at least three Soldier cards. This too can be stolen, if someone plays more than you.

The basic game is designed for three or four players, although an expansion has been released that allows for up to six players by increasing the number of tiles in the game board, as well as the number of resource and development cards. There is also the Seafarers expansion (and the 5-6 player Seafarers Expansion) that allows players to build ships across the ocean and explore new territory. There is also the "Cities and Knights of Catan" expansion, which has a lot of additions and alterations, mostly centred around upgrading cities to metropolises and using Knights to defend against the robber and to attack other players. There's also the Catan Card Game, the Catan Dice Game, a kid's version of the game, and several spinoffs, including the "Starfarers of Catan" and "Settlers of the Stone Age," to name just a few.

I really like this game, although the randomness does on occasion screw things up quite horribly (I've seen a game where the dice simply refused to give one of the players any resource cards at all, and at the end of the game, she still only had the starting two points and had managed only to build a couple of road segments). It's fun to plan and scheme, and as one friend put it, "it doesn't sound like it'd be fun, you know, trading wheat and wool and stuff, but once I played it, I loved it!"

Sunday, August 17, 2008

A brief rant on computer games

I have a great t-shirt. It was given to me by a friend of mine; it had Igor from Dork Tower sitting on a street corner holding a sign that reads, "Will game for food."

I wear this shirt rather frequently. People see this shirt and think I'm talking about computer games (there was one memorable incident when I was wearing it in a gambling town in Colorado, and someone thought it was in reference to casinos).

I don't generally care for computer games, and I'll tell you why: it's not because of the graphics. It's not because of the gameplay, or the mechanics, or even necessarily the story. It's because of the replay value. Most computer games (especially if we're talking about console gaming, like the PlayStation or XBox or Nintendo) are story-based RPGs. They DO have some non-linear games, like the Wii Fit (which has me scratching my head; yes, it's a good idea, but where did anyone get the idea that this was a GAME?), or old classics like Tetris and Intelligent Qube (there was a great game; the only game for the PlayStation that I really liked, and no one else liked it, so it didn't sell), or things like Mario Kart. But most of them are the sort of story-based games like Final Fantasy or The Elder Scrolls. And in my opinion, once you've played the game once, why play it again? You've seen the story. These sorts of games seem to me more like a very long movie, only at several points, you have to undergo some sort of task or else figure out where to go and what to do to get to the next part of the movie, and if you fail, you have to try again until you get it right. That seems kind of silly to me.

There's no replay value to these games. Puzzle games and adventure games and strategy games... these are more interesting to me. It's not the same every time; it varies from game to game. There's no need to sell off the old game once you've beaten it.

Granted, there are a few exceptions. Chrono Trigger, for example, has several points where your decisions affect the ending in certain ways. I still like the old Burn:Cycle game, even though it's especially formulaic and composed of a "railroad plot." But mostly, the few computer games I actually play are Doom (the original, and that's rare any more; I know where all the monsters are, and it's too easy to kill them if I'm ready for them) and Civilization II.

That's why, when I list the breeds of Game Dorks (Roleplaying, LARP, Wargaming, and Miniatures), I do not mention computer gaming. It's not really a form of gaming. Gaming involves dice or some other determinant factor of random chance, and no computers.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Interactive

Some of you may have seen this video already:



For those of you who haven't, and don't want to spend 16 minutes watching it (I think you should; it's an encouraging look at the future of societal entertainment), the basic gist of it is this: People are no longer content to simply sit back and consume entertainment that has been produced by someone else; they are realising that they enjoy producing entertainment of their own.

YouTube is just one example. Most of what is posted on YouTube is mindless drivel, a bunch of spastic adolescents filming themselves chatting and then sticking it up for everyone to see, as if anyone aside from themselves cares about who Lucy's sleeping with this week. But there's some great stuff on there as well. Tony vs. Paul is just one example of the cool things that amateurs are doing now. Ping Pong Ball Manipulation is another. There are many more examples.

Anyway, the point is that people don't want to have only non-interactive entertainment any more. The speaker's new motto is: we're looking for the mouse (this comes from the story of a four year old girl who, while watching TV, starts rooting around in the cables behind the TV set looking for the mouse; as he puts it, "Four year olds know this: A screen that ships without a mouse ships broken.") His prediction is that the future will be successful for those creators who find a way to locate all the places where the audience has been locked out and invite the audience in. No longer do you just sit back and watch the story, but you can participate in it as well!

Which brings me to MY point: isn't that what Role-Playing Games ARE? Since the 70s, gamers have been enjoying interactive storytelling around the gaming table every week. Probably every night. Could it be that society is becoming more open to the idea that RPGs are worthwhile forms of entertainment? You're not just watching the story (or reading the story or listening to the story), you're INVOLVED in it! You affect the outcome! You control one (sometimes more) of the characters, and have power over where the story goes!

Granted, this depends on a lot of factors, not limited to what game you're playing, who you're playing with, and who the GM is, but still, that's what RPGs are, at the core: interactive storytelling.

Of course, the hobby has a lot to overcome before it can be accepted as a mainstream hobby. Besides the misconceptions and resulting negative stereotypes that have plagued gaming for years (the case of James Dallas Egbert III is just one example), there's the difficulties I mentioned in a previous post. Plus, there's the fact that by far the most common and popular RPG is still Dungeons and Dragons, which, while I'm not suggesting that it's not a good game, has problems of its own, not the least of which is that it's a fantasy game, and the general public still looks askance at anything from the fantasy genre. This is becoming less of an issue with the success of the
Lord of the Rings film series, and maybe in time, fantasy will not be irrevocably tied in people's minds with socially inept nerds sitting around in their parents' basement on a Saturday night with their dice and their miniatures.

Perhaps gaming companies can use this as a new marketing strategy. We have a long way to go before this can be successful, but dare I hope, that as we enter the 21st century, we realise that THIS IS OUR TIME?

Ah, I'm probably being overly idealistic. But it's a worthwhile thought, eh?

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Munchkin Quest

I just read a review for the forthcoming "Munchkin Quest" board game by Steve Jackson Games.

For those that don't know, this game is, in essence, converting their popular "Munchkin" series of games into a board game. The Munchkin games started with the first Munchkin set, and was supplemented by six expansions, all of these being set in a typical fantasy setting. The idea is that it's making fun of the standard D&D game, which is a bunch of power gamers and/or butt kickers running around a dungeon killing monsters and taking their treasure. The cliché is "Open door, insert sword, collect treasure." And Munchkin trades heavily on that cliché.

The game consists of two decks of cards: the first is the "Door" cards. Your turn consists of "kicking down a door" (drawing a door card). Most of these are monsters, which you fight by comparing your level to the monster's level; the higher level wins. If you win, you are rewarded with an increase to your level and a number of "Treasure" cards (the other deck). If you lose, you have a chance to run away, and if you blow that as well, then "Bad Stuff" happens (exactly what Bad Stuff depends on the monster you're fighting). If the door card is not a monster, it will serve as a "game effects" card, allowing you to affect the game play in some way.

For the record, there are many side games (just a few examples: Star Munchkin - the same game in a sci-fi space setting, Munchkin Fu - a martial arts setting, Munchkin Bites - a horror setting, and Super Munchkin - a four colour superhero comic setting), some of which have expansions of their own. All these spin-offs are compatible, so you can mix your Munchkin sets together and end up with a vampire half-elf/half-dwarf cleric with x-ray vision that knows kung-fu and has a laser pistol, a shoe phone, and a suit of power armour fighting cute fluffy tentacled monsters from outer space who are hanging out in a dungeon with their sarape-wearing companions... you get the idea.

So it seems that this is a natural leap to board game format. Munchkin Quest consists of a series of dungeon room tiles, connected by doors, and on your turn, you can move about the dungeon exploring new rooms and fighting the monsters within to gain levels. As in the card game, you can bribe the other players to help you, and the other players can choose to help, or even to help the monster instead.

It seems to me that the humour in the game (it is meant to be a comedy game) is based mostly on the silly nature of the cards (the horror edition, for example, has a card called the Schadenfreudian Slip, which is an underdress that gives you a bonus when Bad Stuff happens to other players), but is intended to be funny in the way that the cards interact and the players are constantly backstabbing each other.

Which leads to one of the biggest complaints of the game (my own, as well as the reviewers): the game ends up being a sort of "Who's closest to winning? Let's all team up against him!" And of course, once a new player is closest to winning, the players team up against HIM, and so forth, until the players have run out of cards that they can use to stop the other players from winning, and whoever happens to be in the lead then becomes the winner. The reviewer calls this the "4th Player Wins" scenario (and by the way, is the same reason I didn't like the game "Kill Dr. Lucky," which I'll tell you about at some other time).

For me, though, in addition to the 4th Player Wins problem, there's the fact that the people who love Munchkin tend to be power-gamers and butt-kickers, who love the game not because it's funny, but because it's another venue for them to engage in their oh-so-beloved activity of opening doors, inserting swords, and collecting treasure. This means that the game takes HOURS to play, with very little return on investment (for my taste, that means humour), and the reviewer says that the board game takes twice as long to play. Which means that I'll be sad to have to pass on Munchkin Quest, but unfortunately, that's the way it looks at the moment.