Five days with Fifth Edition Dungeons & Dragons

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At age eight I was rummaging through a book stall at an agricultural fair, and I found a book that would change my life. It was “What is Dungeons & Dragons” and it stood out like a monstrous thumb among the worthy tomes on seed rotation. If I hadn’t bought it, it’s unlikely you’d be reading this column right now.

I haven’t played D&D in 20 years. I gave up at the advent of third edition, deciding it wasn’t worth re-learning the rules all over again.

Now, fifth edition is out. And my eldest daughter is eight, the age I was when I discovered the game. The co-incidence felt like a sign: it was time to teach the game to my kids, and rediscover it myself, too.

So I picked up a copy of the Starter Set.

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Cracked LCD- Impulse in Review

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Five words sum up Impulse, a new card game from Carl Chudyk and Asmadi Game: deconstructed, minimalist, innovative, stark and idiosyncratic. All of these words could also be used to describe Mr. Chudyk’s previous game Innovation, a cleanly filed-down civ-building design that reduced the genre to little more than the effects of technologies over the course of time. With Impulse, the designer is compressing another sprawl-prone game type into a shockingly compact, lean card game and the results are sometimes baffling, sometimes stunning. Impulse is a 4x (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) space empires game in the vein of Twilight Imperium or Eclipse but divested of a metric ton of fat, fluff and filler. Continue Reading…

Cracked LCD- Reiner Knizia, Master of Theme

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Over the past year, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and re-thinking about what makes a game “thematic” versus “abstract. I reached a certain impasse, a level of dissatisfaction with games that were regarded by gamers with the dreadful “dripping with theme” appellation, which almost always means that a game has plentiful artwork, nomenclature and lore regardless of the relative interchangeability of mechanics derived from a stock list of routine processes and procedures. I’ve argued in the past that there are levels of theme occurring at “executive” (illustration and fluff) and “conceptual” (mechanics and contexts) levels. But a few games that I’ve been revisiting of late have caused me to completely rewrite the Barnes Position on theme in games- where it exists, what generates it and what it should be doing as part of a design.

It may surprise many readers, who have bought into a certain online gamer forum party line, that all of these games were designed by Reiner Knizia. For as far back as I can remember- going back to rec.games.board newsgroup at least- the general consensus was that Dr. Knizia was the case study for the pasted-on theme, a layer of pictures and text to impart a post facto sense of meaning or setting to colored, numbered cards or auctions.

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Why the Internet is Full of $#!t About Destiny’s Story

Destiny-Logo-XBox-One-PS4Like many of you, I’ve been playing Destiny. I’ve mostly retired from playing AAA video games for a number of reasons documented here at NHS and elsewhere, but a new game from the creators of Halo was compelling enough to get me to go to Gamestop- for the midnight release, no less- to pick up a copy of this big-budget blockbuster. Because Bungie understands video games better than many other developers. They understand play, and the Halo games have always excelled at providing players with lots of ways to engage their content. Their mechanics are impeccable and their games are thankfully free of the kinds of negative, hateful “let the bodies hit the floor” style violence so common in other popular action games.

But one thing Bungie has never been good at is telling a story.

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Cracked LCD- Eurogames Reclamation Project #4: El Grande

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“The Big”.

That’s what my friend said, translating the title, when we sat down to play El Grande at a convention back in the late 1990s. I really had no idea what we were in for based on the scowling Spanish aristocrats on the board, the wooden tower, the piles of wooden cubes, secret selection discs, mobile scoreboards and of course the rather phallic titular pawn. I played that first game in utter confusion, the lack of clarity afforded by a couple of $12 hotel bar Long Island Iced Teas notwithstanding. I distinctly recall feeling like the game was somehow important and austere, but with a nasty edge when somebody’s caballeros suddenly turned up in your area and took the place over. The next day, I found a copy in the dealer’s room. It was in German and I paid too much for it. Continue Reading…

Jumping the Shark Podcast #215

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Image: Filomena Scalise / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

On JtS #15, Holly Green is back and she’s here to spin yarns of all things PAX. It’s a smorgasbord of quick hits on the latest iterations of Saints Row, Magicka, Costume Quest, and Dance Central. Find out what she thinks of the new Wander MMO and Not a Hero and why she owns so many versions of Deadly Premonition. And if that’s not enough, listen just to hear me brag about how awesome Venice is as a money-making enterprise in Civilization 5 only to find out I was wildly overestimating my success. Good times. To wrap up, Brandon has Shadowrun: Dragonfall DLC and Star Realms truth bombs to drop.

Enjoy!

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I Wrote the Wrong Post (on Misogyny and Gaming)

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A few months ago I wrote a piece that was ostensibly about maturity in the game industry, but that was really about trying to define what is and isn’t sexism and misogyny in games. Yes, I uncategorically condemned online harassment. Yes, I absolutely supported the idea that the gaming industry desperately needs to grow up and become more inclusive. But I also wrote that the mere appearance of sexism doesn’t make something inherently sexist. I wrote that it’s impossible to avoid stereotypical pitfalls 100% of the time and that its surface appearance, which absolutely should be open to analysis and criticism, also shouldn’t come to define the entirety of the work. I wrote that we can better see the real problems the industry has with inclusion by looking more at the aggregate than the specific.

I was making the wrong arguments…

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Cracked LCD- Spurs: A Tale in the Old West in Review

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Spurs: A Tale in the Old West, new from Mr. B Games, is a fairly light adventure game with an all-too-rare American West setting and a structure that is pulled straight from Red Dead Redemption and other open-world video games. Each player takes on the role of a western archetype (Lawman, Gunslinger, Bandit and so forth) and travels around a small map to reach quest markers. You might find yourself hunting animals to sell their pelts back in town, tracking down gangs of desperadoes or bringing fellow players to justice that have done bad things like robbing the bank or victimizing local ranchers. Mine for gold, and you’ll be drawing plastic nuggets out of a bag. Try to corral cattle or break a horse and you’ll do so in a die-rolling minigame. You might get bit by a rattlesnake, involved in a brawl with a drunk down at the saloon or get hired to escort a stagecoach from one town to another.

All of the above has likely set many gamers’ mouths to “salivate” because there simply aren’t enough games with this kind of setting, and it’s quite fitting that the game is designed by Ole Steinness (with Mr. B. Games’ Sean Brown). Mr. Steinness was responsible for one of last year’s big surprises, the modern cop co-op Police Precinct. The two designs don’t really have much in common except in one key aspect. They are both fun, unique games with under-represented settings that unfortunately fall short of pushing into “must-play” territory due to some bland design choices and a lack of polish. Continue Reading…

Jumping the Shark Podcast #214

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Image: Filomena Scalise / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

And another one that actually went up last week that I”m posting late. Blame my day job. Also, that’s why you should subscribe to the show and not wait for me, right? Right. Anyway. For our 214th episode, Gameranx.com’s Managing Editor, Holly Green, makes a welcome return to the show to talk all about Civ V, her upcoming digital cookbook and why it’s always better to sleep in one’s own bed when attending conventions. From there, Brandon and I dig into Rogue Legacy and discover why it’s the perfect game to sit down with when you have 30 minutes to kill and then marvel as two hours pass by and you’ve left your kids waiting for you at the bus stop. (Disclaimer: This did not actually happen.) Also Brandon falls in love with Diablo III all over again because… well, I haven’t the foggiest really. But he did.

Enjoy!

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Hold Fast: Russia 1941-1942 Review

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I’d wager that the Eastern Front of World War 2 is the most common setting for board games, ever. More so than the far future, or a Tolkienesque fantasy or even satisfying the whims of Renaissance nobles. So why do Worthington Games think we need another?

The answer is that there isn’t another Eastern Front game quite like this, at least not in the modern canon. It’s a block game, like Eastfront, but that’s a far less approachable title. It’s low unit density like No Retreat, but that’s a far more complex title. It’s easy for any gamer to pick up like Conflict of Heroes, but that’s a far less realistic title.

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