Maturity, Inclusion, and the Game Industry in 2014

Microsoft E3 Presser

So, E3 is happening. Over Monday and Tuesday there were pressers and demos and a Brinks truck loaded with video. There’s always one or two things to stand out to me from these events, but the topic that’ll stay with me for awhile is maturity and the strange dichotomy in which this industry (fans included) needs more of it yet sometimes fails to recognize it when it appears. There are two catalysts for this post. One is the all too predictable trolling of Danielle Riendeau’s 100% on-point and valid piece on the lack of female presenters during the major press conferences. (Hat tip to the excellent work Danielle is doing at Polygon. We miss her a ton!) The other is a post from “Ashelia” on her Hellmode blog, defending the teaser trailer for the next Tomb Raider game against attacks that it’s made a victim of Lara Croft. (Apologies that I don’t have a real name to attribute to Ashelia.)

Originally, this post was mostly about Tomb Raider and a bit about Brothers and not laying charges of sexism where they don’t exist because it does disservice to those examples of brilliant work this industry is capable of producing. I can’t, in good conscience write on this topic without first calling attention to this sort of abhorrent behavior and state outright that when someone like Danielle speaks out on this topic and meets an ill-considered, reactionary response like this that it is all of our responsibility to condemn it in no uncertain terms. I don’t want these troglodytes, these soulless imbeciles, carrying the torch for who we are as gamers. I know we’re better than this. You know we’re better than this.  But unless we slam the door on this sub-human behavior we’ll remain defined by it. And in case you think I’m overstating, enjoy this piece of human filth:

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Jumping the Shark Podcast #208

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Image: Filomena Scalise / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Did you think we’d gone? Admit it, you thought we had completely checked out. But Brandon and me? We recorded our 208th show last week. It’s been up since Sunday night. I’m just the wanker who didn’t make time to tell you about it. But I digress. With wedding shenanigans (and you’ll hear all about those) behind us, we’ll be back on our every other week format. This show features Brandon’s descent in the privacy-free world of Watch Dogs. The man’s inner-voyeur has been set loose and we should all be very, very afraid. There’s also a long look at Transistor and how the beauty of its world enthralls Brandon, but he sees enough short-comings to believe it not quite as awesome as Supergiant’s opening masterstroke, Bastion.

After the break, a quick sidenote…

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Eight Minute Empire Review

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Of all the lies that are told in the context of board gaming, the biggest and most odorous are those printed on boxes alongside the legend “playing time”. Yet even amongst this exalted company, Eight-Minute Empire reaches new heights of outrage. Whatever it says on the box, the rules inside freely admit that it’s probably three whole times as much as claimed, and my experience supports that.

Of course, that’s still only twenty to thirty minutes. So I might be over-egging this pudding just a little.

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Cracked LCD- Pocket Battles in Review

 pocket battles

I missed out on Z-Man Games’ Pocket Battles series the first go around. This set of small box, low complexity wargames saw print from 2009-2012 but then they blinked out of print, with at least one of them (Macedonians vs. Persians) appreciating substantially in the aftermarket. The three original games- all designed by Paolo Mori and Francesco Sirrochi- are filtering their way to retailers along with a new title, Confederacy vs. Union.  Z-Man was kind enough to send me a review copy of the Civil War set, so after some time with itI can issue forth on what has become something of a cult classic. Continue Reading…

Cracked LCD- Galactic Strike Force in Review

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Galactic Strike Fore comes in hot, all guns blazing, with a great-looking science fiction style and a cool concept. The bad guys seeking galactic dominion in this one aren’t up against some benevolent planetary federation or other official Organization of Good Guys United for the Common Good. They are fighting for control of a galaxy defended chiefly by a ragtag bunch of anti-heroic scoundrels, pirates, freelancers and other spacefaring riff-raff. Han Solo types, if Han Solo were a Neo-Elf or a Techno Dwarf. While you’re at it, maybe imagine that the Millennium Falcon is a giant cellular mass with tentacles that fights a Laser Dragon. Continue Reading…

Cracked LCD- Star Realms in Review

star realms

When talk of Star Realms, a new deckbuilding game from a Magic Hall of Famer (Darwin Kastle) and one of the guys behind Ascension (Robert Doughtery) started making the internet rounds, I can’t say that I was profoundly interested. We’re now in Year 6 A.D.- that’s After Dominion- and it takes a lot to get me interested enough in a deckbuilder to pursue it. Ascension is pretty much my go-to deckbuilder, but I strictly play it on IOS. I like Dominion and I just traded my way into a pretty large set, but it’s never requested by my gang these days. I had a torrid fling with Legendary, but it was ultimately just too flawed (and ugly) to hold my interest. Most of the others on the market have momentarily held my attention at some point, but these games always tend to leave me wanting more- and not just another expansion.

But the word on the street was that Star Realms was good and the price on the street was even better- this is a game you can pick up for $15 at a FLGS or for about $10 from an online discounter. I’ve been very interested lately in games that deliver big bang for the buck and that come in small packages, especially now that it is quite clear that the “Coffin box” era has passed and some publishers and designers are smartly looking at ways to do more with less. I didn’t feel like $15 was a big enough risk to keep me away from trying a potentially good new card game, so I picked up a copy. Continue Reading…

Rivet Wars Review


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Hot off the back of a successful kickstarter campaign, I really wasn’t sure what to make of Rivet Wars. It channels a first world war theme, yet presents you with a wildly incongruous steampunk theme, rendered in a weird, chunky anime style. It claims to be a board game representation of a real-time strategy game but has no resource control. What is this bizarre oddity?

Well it turns out to be a pretty streamlined two player game of tactical aggression. You pick a scenario, assemble a board out of modular components then use an allowance of resources each turn to purchase from a selection of units and march them up to the front line to contest control of critical objectives with your opponent. To spice things up a bit, both players have secret missions to fulfil for extra points, and action card that allow units to do unexpected things.

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Cracked LCD- Rogue Agent in Review

rogue

If Panic Station was Belgian designer David Ausloos’ homage to films like Alien and The Thing, then his new game Rogue Agent (just out from Stronghold Game in a special limited edition) is clearly his love letter to Blade Runner and 1980s-era cyberpunk noir. Complete with miniature agents that looks unashamedly like Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard character and an “android” gameplay mode that aims to create some of the “is he or isn’t he” suspicion from the film, it’s really mostly a cops-and-robbers game where you gather resources, track criminals and bring them in for bounties back at the Rain City police HQ. And speaking as someone who once owned one of the only 100 copies of it ever made, it is a far better representation of the theme than the legendary Blade Runner game was.

Like Panic Station, the game has been met with mixed reviews, including one from Lord Tom Vasel and a general “kiss of death” sub-seven aggregate user score at Boardgamegeek.com.  I have to admit- again, like Panic Station- that I did not like this game the first time I played it. In fact, it crashed and burned so hard with my group that it almost got the ultimate penalty for an ill-favored game- to be swept back into the box without sorting for storage. I felt like the theme was muddled, with this odd bomb defusing thing going on and lots of dice-rolling to find gas or bullets, which basically means to bump a cube up one of your agent’s resource tracks. I really do not like “roll to find” mechanics in general, so this game was sticking it to me from the get-go. The rulebook, while not as messy as Panic Station’s, still baffled us and I’m not sure anyone defused a bomb correctly in that maiden outing.

So I started to think “oh man, I’m going to have to throw this one under the bus too”. But something about the game stuck with me and I found that I wanted to go back to it. For one thing, I wanted to try it with the android rules, which are effectively a variation on the Cylon/hidden traitor mechanic. But for another, I wanted to look at the game from a different perspective. Because Rogue Agent is not, come to find out, quite the highly detailed adventure game that you might think it is.

With measured expectations (and a couple of different players), I came to realize what Mr. Ausloos was aiming to do with Rogue Agent. Despite the very clear nods to Blade Runner and similar antecedents, Rogue Agent is really pitched more as a medium-weight Eurogame where resource management is balanced with some risk-taking, a little dice rolling, and some surprisingly nasty opportunities to interfere with other players. What’s more, I actually found that the higher degree of abstraction and lack of reliance on flavor text and background fluff actually made the overall setting feel more successful in some ways than Kevin Wilson’s Android. You have to work out on your own why your guy got busted up searching Rico’s Gas Station or why he completely flopped an attempt to bring in Eyon Six or Lola Bruise.

This is a much leaner and more direct game than Android. Your character’s only story is what he has to do his job, what criminals he brings in, and his record at defusing those bombs. You’ve got a resource tracking card that shows how much ammo, gas, information and so forth you have as well as what upgrades to your weapon and armor you’ve achieved. There are some simple mechanics that create a sense of environment. Precinct tiles have skull icons, indicating the degree of low-level thug activity. Unless the Police Squad miniature is there, you either take damage or you can spend bullets to shoot your way out of the bad neighborhoods. Or maybe you’ve got an informant on the streets there that gets you through safely. Criminals make the bombs tick down faster, and assassins will actually break out of their proscribed movement pattern to attack you or your hapless informants you’ve stationed in a precinct.

There is no overarching mystery to solve, all opposition comes from the “datastream”, a bag from which you draw tokens representing criminals and assassins that move automatically through the city and bombs that count down until they explode unless someone manages to get to them and disarm them. Over the course of the game, you’ll move through square tiles representing Rain City to accomplish “Justice” actions. These might be revealing and attempting to subdue a criminal, arresting a subdued criminal to take them in, searching the area (and rolling those search dice that I really don’t like), using information to look at an unrevealed criminal’s card, fighting an Assassin token or hijacking another player’s collar so that you can take him/her/it in for the bounty.

The goal of the game is to be the agent with the most influence (a really rather poor nomenclature for victory points) at the end, based on how many of the game’s diverse bad guys you busted, assassins you thwarted and bombs you deactivated. There really is not much of a cooperative angle here, apart from in the android mode where the android players are working at cross purposes with the agent players.

I really liked playing the basic game with more aggressive players that realized that intercepting bounties was a good way to get other players to do the heavy lifting before effectively stealing their collar. With more passive players, the game does feel less interesting and the shifting of cubes up and down the resource tracks feels more grinding. But the android mode is, I suspect, the way that most folks will want to play it and a couple of extra rules pay off nicely. The thing I like the most about the android rules is that you’re not given an identity at the outset. The android tokens you get only increase the possibility that you will be revealed as an android. So true to the Blade Runner theme, you’re not really sure what you are when the game starts. This is brilliant.

As an android mode game progresses, you might be forced due to game effects to show one of your identity tokens to other players and you can choose which to show.  If at any point you’ve reveal two android tokens, you’re a dirty skinjob and your role is to attack agents and damage city locations. You might also have to reveal identity tokens if you are cornered by another agent and subjected to a scan action to reveal identity tokens. Blade Runner fans will recognize that as a Voight-Kampf Test. “Whaddya mean I’m not helping?”

So it took a good three games for me to come around to Rogue Agent. The first was a disaster, the second I had adjusted expectations plus a more aggressive group of three other players and in the third we did the android mode game and had a really good time with it. But I still feel there are some rough spots and over-complications that I really wish had been ironed out in development. The bomb defusing sub-game is an interesting concept, somewhat similar to the kinds of mini-games that were in Mansions of Madness, but it comes down to good or bad luck on big die rolls too often. The end game scoring is needlessly complicated, with players getting bonus points for having multiple members of one of the game’s syndicates. Some criminals have effects that trigger if they have been investigated by a player, others have effects if they have not been investigated. But neither state really adds to the story or gameplay.

I keep coming back to a Panic Station comparison, which was also a compelling mix of thematic mechanics that were near-brilliant and overcomplicated elements that were counterintuitive. But I think that, after just three published games, it’s pretty clear that this is very much the Ausloos style and it’s apparent that the Ausloos style can be pretty divisive. What it comes down to for me is that what I really like about this Ausloos style that is on full display in Rogue Agent is that he completely commits to a thematic vision and tries to make mechanics work with it, logic and sense be damned. Sometimes that’s awkward, sometimes it’s overly complex and kind of just makes you confused. But other times- when his games are really working, you kind of just give into his directorial concept and let it just work in the context of his rules and the environment he creates.

Cracked LCD: Marvel Dice Masters: Avengers vs. X-Men in Review

 

dice masters

Wizkids’ new Marvel Dice Masters: Avengers versus X-men is a sensation. The starter sets are sold out everywhere because demand simply outstripped supply. There is already a healthy aftermarket with players and collectors shelling out $40 or more for “super rare” cards. Tournaments and organized play supported by Wizkids are waiting in the wings and the buzz over the game is overwhelmingly positive. It looks like it’s primed to be one of the most significant hobby game releases of 2014. Building on their design work with Quarriors and the Lord of the Rings “dicebuilding” game, Mike Elliot and Eric Lang have produced a hybrid that exists somewhere at the crossroads of those games, Dominion and Magic: the Gathering. All coated with a billion dollar Marvel Comics paint job. Continue Reading…

Jumping the Shark Podcast #207

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Image: Filomena Scalise / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Episode #207 of Jumping the Shark is a throwback to old times as IGN’s Mitch Dyer re-joins Brandon and me for some long overdue catching up. Just to complete the picture we even wrote a new script for our Bill Abner character, which delivers the goods in the form of many, many musings about Dark Souls II. And there’s plenty more. Hear all about Mitch’s DOTA obsession, Brandon plays himself some Child of Light, and we talk a bunch about the highs and lows of dealing cards in Hearthstone. There’s more Hitman Go and FTL musings, and some old-fashioned TV talk to wrap it all up. Lastly, we’re going to our next recording due to my upcoming nuptials. So, look for JtS #208 on June 2nd. Sorry all, but Mexico beckons!

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