OK, so I forgot that it was Cracked LCD’s fifth anniversary. Blame it on Summoner Wars.
That’s right, Cracked LCD debuted June 28th, 2007. What a different time it was not only in my life but also in gaming. IOS gaming, the whole freemium issue, on-disc DLC, Dominion, FFG’s decline into imperialistic hubris- none of that had happened yet. I didn’t even have a current console, the Wii notwithstanding. Ididn’t even know that I’d be here five years later writing about all kinds of games, let alone that Cracked LCD would last five years and wind up here at No High Scores. It’s funny, in Bill Abner’s headline for the article he introduces the column and says that it’s a “small taste of what we can expect in the coming weeks”. I don’t think he expected it to go on for as long as it did either.
But now, Gameshark is no more and MadCatz has transitioned over to their “Premium Gaming Lifestyle” Web site, and neither I nor Cracked LCD are apparently part of the “Premium Gaming Lifestyle”. So I’m taking that as the high sign that it’s time to start reprinting some of the old material for a new generation. To that end, and to celebrate five years of Cracked LCD, I give you Ultimate Cracked LCD HD Classics beginning with this reprint of the very first column I submitted to Bill Abner. Over the coming weeks we’ll revist some of the better reviews, editorials, and of course There Will Be Games. Some of these will have a little commentary too, in italics.
Without further preamble, let’s go back in time to 2007.
All my life I’ve been a gamer. I remember being five years old and my parents taking me out to Service Merchandise to buy me an Atari 2600 and a pile of games for my birthday sometime in 1980. At eight, I was already interested in role-playing games like STAR FRONTIERS and DUNGEONS & DRAGONS and throughout middle school I spent an inordinate amount of free time running elaborate RPG campaigns, playing through any number of classic NES games, or sitting around an eight hour game of AXIS AND ALLIES with my friends.
(MB- OK, so here’s the deal with the all-caps game titles that you’ll see in a lot of these early articles. Over at BGG, where I had been recently banned, there was this silly folktale that I wasn’t talking about games as much as other gamers and gamer politics. I was called a posturing demagouge, a violent redneck, and a couple of other things. So I got into this habit of putting the game titles in all caps to emphasize that I was TALKING ABOUT GAMES and you should be PAYING ATTENTION TO THE GAMES MENTIONED over everything else. I’ve stopped doing this, but this is the origin of all that.)
These days, I’m a bit of a gaming luddite; I’m a Mac user, so the most recent game available is Diablo II and I couldn’t tell you what the latest hot FPS is, although I do own (and adore) a Nintendo Wii. All of my gaming time, energy, and money is spent not on building up some MMORPG character or keeping up with what’s new on the PlayStation 3 but rather on board games.
I realize that a lot of people reading this, particularly younger folks who came along after online gaming and multimillion dollar blockbuster video game releases stole the thunder of the hobby game business, are going to see the phrase “board games” and be immediately put in mind of mainstream, mass market games like MONOPOLY, RISK, or (God help us) CRANIUM.
Yet, for the past decade or so board gaming has thrived, persevered, and made significant advances that gamers of all descriptions should be made aware of—if you’ve never heard of SETTLERS OF CATAN, which recently showed up as an Xbox Live title, you should start there. It’s a simple civilization building game that’s been around for over a decade now and is one of the most widely played hobby games in history. Sure, you can play it on your HDTV screen, but nothing beats the visceral thrill of physically playing the actual game with three friends—go on, try it. You’ll be surprised at how much fun you’ll have interacting and trading with face-to-face opponents; you’ll be surprised at the immediacy and excitement some cardboard and wooden bits can generate, and I’m fairly sure you’ll find yourself immersed in and addicted by the rich, deep gameplay that provides an almost perfect mix of luck, skill, and strategy.
Admittedly, it does seem a little odd to be advocating something as frankly old fashioned as board gaming, but I fully intend to use this column to share with the readers of GameShark a world of gaming they may not even realize exists.
For instance, you might be aware of the so-called “Eurogame” phenomenon that’s been going on for the past couple of years. “Eurogames” are fairly short (typically no longer than 90 minutes) non-violent games with a high degree of abstraction that are largely suitable for family play with often non-competitive themes such as farming or impressing authority figures with astute civic planning. Not the most exciting stuff, in my opinion, but there’s a huge market out there for them and there are some really great titles that deserve your attention that we’ll take a look at in future editions of this column. You may have heard of some of these titles like PUERTO RICO, CARCASSONNE (another recent Xbox Live addition — ed), and TICKET TO RIDE through, ironically enough, digital incarnations of the games. Despite the relative popularity of the Eurogames, which tends to appeal to older and more processed oriented gamers like computer programmers and middle managers, I firmly believe that the resurgence of “Ameritrash” games, with their influences rooted in the hobby games of the 1970s and 1980s and bursting with baroque fantasy, science fiction, horror, and other pulp genre themes and featuring much more competitive and conflict oriented mechanics, are the best thing in town—particularly for the video game generation who would likely prefer to roll Panzers over a wheat field rather than plant one.
(MB- I actually recycled that Panzers on the wheatfield line from a review of Memoir ’44 that I wrote for Games International some years earlier. I’ve always been that clever.)
Games like those produced by Fantasy Flight Games- TWILIGHT IMPERIUM, ARKHAM HORROR, FURY OF DRACULA and TIDE OF IRON are sure to please lapsed board gamers who might have grown up on titles like TALISMAN, SQUAD LEADER or COSMIC ENCOUNTER and the immediacy, rich themes, and awesome scope of these games will likely impress even the most hardcore video gamer.
It’s hard to imagine someone who is really into the CALL OF DUTY games not sinking their teeth into the squad-level World War II combat of TIDE OF IRON and any fan of 4X style space exploration games will weep tears of joy during their first game of TWILIGHT IMPERIUM (particularly if they’re a MASTER OF ORION alumni). And if you still think board games means pushing around those little plastic pawns like you’d find in SORRY, then you’ve got another thing coming. The board games of today are lavishly produced with sculpted miniatures, some of the best genre art out there, and extremely high quality components that evoke theme and atmosphere almost as thoroughly as anything your graphics card can render. Take a look at any big-box board game published in the last year and I think you’ll have a hard time not wanting to check out how it plays based on its physical merits alone.
Yet I still hear complaints about board games and comments that basically relegate them to the same attic of obsolescence where most people store vinyl LPs and 300 baud modems. I remember showing a non-gamer friend of mine a copy of POWER GRID, a Eurogame about setting up, running, and maintaining a system of power plants, and his response was, “We have computers that will do the same thing this game does now.” Which is absolutely true. Electronic gaming has made a lot of the calculation, logistics, and hassle out of gaming. No doubt, some of the older games- even the better ones like the previously mentioned CIVILIZATION- suffered from a large amount of administration and overall complexity that these days can be effectively put behind a curtain in a computer or video game. Looking at a PC game like HEARTS OF IRON it pretty much does the same thing a board game like WORLD IN FLAMES does (simulating all of World War 2…all of it) but without the backbreaking labor involved. Yet, advances in game design idioms and paradigms has resulted in more efficient, effective rules where a lot of the “work” involved has been eliminated.
(MB- but that paradigm is shifting back with mobile gaming and the emergence of board games on that platform. Now, almost ALL of the work can be eliminated.)
Even in wargaming, that last bastion of rules filled with minutiae, exceptions, and staggering complexity, there has been a shift toward simpler, more accessible gameplay without losing essential details. Playing these games has become fun again, and in no small part due to an impetus on accessible, immediate rules design that favors getting players into the game as quickly as possible. There’s no doubt though, that some kinds of games, particularly extremely expansive games that involve a lot of factors, are definitely better suited for electronic applications but I am continually surprised at the level of depth and strategic richness today’s board game designers can cram in ten or less pages of rules–for the record, that’s less reading than most of the booklets stuck in video games these days.
Obviously, there is also an intellectual component to all this as well. I’m not one of those people who believes that playing video games makes you stupid, but I do believe that playing face-to-face games against human opponents is a far greater challenge requiring a lot more intuition, empathy, gut-level intelligence, and psychology than sending out the typical “d00d u got pwned” messages. When I’m playing a game like the amazing Avalon Hill DUNE (a 27 year old game that feels just as fresh as it did the day it was published), there is a social component that Internet messaging (or even voice chat) can never match. It’s one thing to renege on diplomatic relations with some kid in his parents’ basement in Hoboken, but it’s another thing altogether to look your friend in the eye five feet away and inform him that you’re moving the troops to attack his stronghold at Arakeen.
(MB- I never reviewed Dune for Cracked LCD. I always meant to.)
So then, I invite you all to my gaming table here at GameShark to check out some really great board games. I hope to enlighten those of you who might not be aware of what’s been going on in other areas of the gaming hobby and maybe I can turn you on to something new to do with your friends on a rainy day. Or maybe I can make you one of us…a dice-tossing chithead prowling Ebay for moldy, long-forgotten bookcase games and constantly wondering when the next Fantasy Flight big box game is coming out. If you’re already in the board gaming brotherhood, it’s great to have you here and I hope I can entertain you with insights and ideas that aren’t necessarily the pro-Eurogame “party line” expressed on other board gaming sites. I’m committed to promoting this hobby because I love it, I write about it because I love it, and I believe that if your idea of “gaming” stops at a control pad or ends in a wall outlet then you’re missing out on a lot of fun.
(MB- Well, that wasn’t as bad as I was afraid it was going to be. Apart from that “one of us” line, which creeps me out a little bit.)