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That’s right, my weekly board games column is moving here so don’t go looking for it in its old spot. Details are limited right now, but watch the skies. But yeah, Barnes Best, editorials, reviews, trolling, everything is going to be right here from now on and I’ll keep to my Thursday schedule- because I haven’t missed a non-holiday, non-E3 Thursday since 2007.
Without further adieu, read on for my take on Gorilla Games’ World Conquerors.
Jeff Siadek is probably best known for Battlestations, a complicated science fiction RPG-board game hybrid that I never could get to work with any of many groups. He’s done a couple of other smaller designs, like the rather nasty card game Lifeboat but his newest issue is World Conquerors, a highly abstracted dudes on a map game that was recently Kickstartered into being via Gorilla Games. The elevator pitch is that players drive a territorial control board game with multi-function cards depicting the big names in world conquering ranging from AAA-class superstars like Adolf Hitler, Napoleon, and Alexander to lesser known megalomaniacs like Harald Fairhair, Pachacuti, and Cao Cao. Factual context and chronology be damned- this is a battle royale, not a history lesson.
The high level concept isn’t particularly novel. There’s obviously a generous dollop of Risk involved in the proceedings. Take over a map of the world with wooden cubes. There’s plenty of dice-rolling combat and take-that action cards. You’ve done all of these things before. Even the conceit of shifting goals, here embodied by selecting a different leader card each turn and attempting to meet their objective, is specifically descended from Britannia and History of the World.
But Risk, Britannia, and History of the World are not games that play in an hour and change. The pace is relentless, and there the impetus in each of the four turns for players to outperform their last turn gives it a very aggressive, competitive tone. It’s short enough, casual enough, and compact enough that along with a couple of systematic checks and balances, no player is ever actually eliminated or rendered non-competitive- functionally or materially.
On a turn, players receive a number of army cubes based on an automatically escalating scale to add to any left over from the previous turn. The player picks a leader card out of their hand, and that historical personage sets up camp in their home territory. The owner of the home territory gets some bonus armies-here’s one of those checks and balances- and from this region the player begins an epic campaign to take over as much of the word as possible.
A defending region gets a default die and then one for each allied region adjacent to it. Likewise, the attacker rolls one and then one for each adjacent region as well. Whoever has the highest single die wins, ties go to the defender, and if you roll straight fours your leader dies. Any player- not just involved parties- can play leader cards as “agents”, meaning they impart a one-time special effect, or as reroll-providing “generals” in battles occurring in their home region.
Win and you put an army cube in the territory. Lose, and you have to pay the current supply cost for your turn meaning that you have to discard an army from your supply. Worse, your supply cost goes up so the next fight you lose you pay two and so on, making momentum (and a little luck) extremely important. Naval attacks have a default supply cost attached to them, so fighting larger campaigns over the course of turn can get expensive. If you can’t afford the supply cost, you’re done. Once your run is over, you tally up the territories you took over and adjust your Empire Mark and if you met your leader’s goal you get bonus armies. Next turn, do the same thing but with a new leader.
With only four turns, every one counts. It is actually feasible to take over every territory on the map for the win, but games seem to end more often with the player with the highest Empire Mark- meaning the largest empire at any point in the game- taking the victory. The game is definitely at its best with three or four, the two player option lends itself to landslide victories and the single player game lacks friction. With three or four, the gameplay and board state are much more dynamic and wild swings of die-rolling luck are much less catastrophic. There’s also a rules peculiarity wherein all players draw leader cards on every player’s turn, so there are less cards in circulation and in hand with less players.
Other than not really hitting its mark with less than three, this is a very smartly designed, compressed game. The subject matter is terrific although the actual narrative and setting is vellum-thin. It’s less abstract than Risk, but nowhere near as specific as Nexus Ops. It’s not necessarily an innovative or ground-breaking design, but its implementation of supply costs and multi-use cards makes it feel fresher and more compelling than you might expect. And it’s so tightly wound and aggressive that it makes other dudes on a map games seem pudgy and sluggish.
I would have liked to have seen a little more careful copyediting in some of the cards because there is some confusing, sometimes conflicting wording of some effects. The rulebook is one of those that you read through and think you know how to play the game, but in practice you’re eyeballs deep in it every turn during the game. But the text issues are minor nuisances in what is otherwise a surprisingly excellent- and very modern- example of its genre.
Plaid Hat Games, the folks that gave us the great Summoner Wars (“wretched”- Tom W. Chick) are preparing a new title called Mice & Mystics that has become my #1 most anticipated game- even though it’s a co-op and I am co-opped out. What I’m drawn to in this game the most is that it’s not the typical worn-out, post-Tolkien fantasy setting and there’s an emphasis on narrative. It’s also apparently more of a family-friendly game (listed as ages 7+), with the focus on story, drama, and adventure rather than on rules, depth and strategy. I’m OK with that.
It’s being billed as a adventure game with a focus on storylines and something called the “Cheese System” that must be amazing, and obviously it looks like it takes a couple of pages from the Secret of NIMH/Redwall/Mouse Guard playbook with field mice heroes fighting against evil cats, cockroaches, spiders, and so forth. A couple of early eyewitness reports are claiming that there are 11 story-driven adventures in the box and that they are sort of one-shot deals. But Plaid Hat seems to be grooming this title to be an ongoing concern, so expansions are likely. You’ve got to see the miniatures.
Plaid Hat is running a preorder special, you can get it for 33% off retail plus you get a couple of promo cards.
If there is genuinely a board game version of development hell, as distinct from the normal travails designers have to go through trying to get a publisher to notice their games, then Wiz-War deserves the award for the longest time spent therein. Originally published in 1985 and much beloved of the early Dungeons & Dragons crowd it went through seven editions before ending up, rather oddly, with dice manufacturer Chessex who promptly sat on the license for 15 years before handing it over to Fantasy Flight Games to release an 8th edition of the game. Shockingly, as someone who was playing board games back in the late 80’s, I never played the original but thankfully Fantasy Flight sent me a review copy so I could finally get the chance to experience this seminal title.
The concept is simple. Each player is a wizard, pitted against one another in some sort of labyrinth where they must gain ascendancy by killing other wizards or stealing their magical treasures or some combination thereof. Wizards have a hand of spell cards which consist not just of out and out attack spells but a very wide variety of magical effects covering such things as altering aspects of the labyrinth, summoning things, buffing, protecting and transforming the wizard and more besides. The range of effects is pretty spectacular and it’s from the unpredictable nature of combining and stacking these effects that the game gets much of its charm. If this reminds you a bit of Magic: the Gathering this is because the designer of that game was heavily inspired by Wiz-War.
Wiz-War has a long history, and a tendency to divide gamers into love it and hate it camps. Those who hate it cite an overwhelming level of randomness from the card draw and an almost complete lack of strategy. The player relationships are free form: you can pick on, ally with, backstab, gang up on and generally interact with whoever you want however you want whenever you want. The victory conditions are easy to achieve and the maze is claustrophobic and restricts interaction in unpredictable ways. The result is that many games are won or lost extremely suddenly thanks simply to being in the right place at the right time with the right card.
The hate it camp is completely right. It is also entirely wrong.
I recently played a four-player game (the maximum it permits) of Wiz-War that lasted 37 minutes including setup and rules explanation time. I’ve never had a game run over an hour and in spite of the heavy card text and occasional need to pause and check the rules to figure out precisely how two card effects interact the game is quick-playing and downtime is minimal. It’s a fast, exciting, thrilling game, fast enough that it would almost qualify as filler material. The fact that the game can deliver a scintillating, ever-shifting and unpredictable landscape of allegiances, grudges and desperate last minute attempts to foil someone on the home straight in this short a time is positively a bonus, not a problem. Yes, by all means whine and complain about 3 hour plus games that reproduce this effect and I’ll gladly join in. But this is a sixty-minute game and it’s the perfect place to experience and enjoy the wide gamut of interaction allowed by free-form negotiation that often becomes incredibly tedious in a longer game. You might prefer challenging, logical games with perfect mathematical solutions but for the sake of variety, for the sake of your humanity, you owe it to yourself once in a while to let your hair down and actually interact with your opponents. Wiz-War is the perfect place to do it, cramming virtually every possibility into the smallest possible package.
And whilst it’s entirely true to say that ultimately there is very little strategy to the game, trying to claim it has no meaningful decisions is entirely false. Every turn the seven or so cards you have in your hand combined with your three squares of movement stack up to a mind-boggling array of creative possibilities. Simply waltzing round a corner and power-thrusting a startled wizard is a sign of the terminally unimaginative. In games I have found myself boxed into a corner through a truly fiendish combination of create wall and stone block spells. I have crowed with delight as I have forced another wizard to repeatedly walk in and out of yet another wizards’ thorn bush. I have watched in amazement as a wizard projected themselves across a corridor and bounced a lightning bolt back and forth between the two walls, electrocuting the poor unfortunate in the middle. I have bathed in acid, turned into a pile of goo, eaten walls, reversed gravity, punched people to death with my bare hands and many other things that would make even Gandalf and Harry Potter stand agog.
The endless card combinations together with Fantasy Flights’ innovation of combining spells with the energy needed to power them into dual-use cards where you choose one effect or the other mean the game is packed with creative tactical choices making every round a fun, fascinating puzzle to explore. No, in the end all your creativity and skill might not matter one jot in determining who wins, but it will keep you in the running for a bit longer and it will be tremendously entertaining. I once pointed out that I’d delight in Twilight Struggle even if the game were horribly unbalanced and largely random (Twilight Struggle is neither of those things) because trying to work through all the possible card effects was so engaging. It’s the same here, on a smaller scale. Who cares who wins when it’s just so much fun to try? This is the magic behind how it works 2-player in a straight fight to the death. It’s not as much fun as 3 or 4, but it’s plenty fun enough.
Aside from combining spells and energy on the same cards, Fantasy Flight offer a variety of other innovations to old fans of the game. The most notable is the division of the spell deck into schools of magic, allowing you to pick school (and thus card) combinations you like and ignore ones you don’t. It also has the effect of focusing card types together, ensuring for example that if there are Create Wall spells in the deck, there will also be Destroy Wall spells and a higher chance you’ll get the latter to respond to the former with thanks to the thinner deck. But pretty much all the changes that Fantasy Flight made – and they’re mostly improvements in my opinion – can be reversed by old-school players thanks to an optional rules set that can configure the game back to its original state.
The publishers have also taken the opportunity to tighten and clarify the rules leading to less confusion over the plethora of possible interlocking spell effects. There’s still some, sure, but they’re minor and can usually be decided in a “sensible” way with the agreement of all the players. Of course this reprint also has the legendary Fantasy Flight production quality with cool plastic sculpts and fine art – I particularly like the fact that the wizards in most of the illustrations on the cards actually look like the wizard miniatures, a nice attention to detail. I originally turned my nose up a bit at the space-age boards but they look fantastic in the flesh, mystical chambers crackling with fluorescent magical energies. It’s great quality stuff for the relatively reasonable asking price.
I love Wiz-War. It’s an unbelievable, outrageous distillation of everything that’s great about multi-player conflict games, take-that card games and fantasy adventure titles into an incredibly heady brew. If I have one black mark against the game its simply that they left out some old fan favourite spells such as Buddy and Amplify and my own personal favourite group of spells that allows you to summon minions, lord it over them and send them to attack your enemies. It’s simply less of a game that you don’t get the chance to be a gloating necromancer. But it’s clear from the rules and spell descriptions that many of the missing effects have been planned for, so hopefully an expansion pack is in the works to rectify this. And in the meantime I’m still going to be trash-talking and smacking down my would-be competitor mages over and over again. I mentioned earlier this is short enough for filler and so it is: but the fact of the matter is that so far it’s never been used as filler because one game to start a session has inevitably lead to it dominating the table for the whole time. Too much, it seems, is never enough.
In part one of our interview, George Rothrock, Playdek’s Director of Product and Busines Development and Gary Weis, Playdek’s Chief Technology Officer talk about what was behind bringing Ascension and Food Fight to iOS, the joys of asynchronous play and why Agricola is so appealing. Come back on Friday for part two where we talk more about Nightfall and Summoner Wars, the importance of good tutorials and what’s up with the missing third AI notch in Ascension.
What’s the background on Playdek. You’re in Carlsbad, CA, correct?
George: Yes, we are in Carlsbad, CA near San Diego. We began life in 2005 as a console development studio with THQ and after a number of very successful titles, high quality titles for Xbox 360, PlayStation, Wii, went independent and now we’ve become a publisher. We do all our own development in house and we have transitioned to this space where we bring the best in hobby and table games to digital platforms.
Your first two iOS releases were Food Fight and Ascension. If you were to look at these games in terms of their popularity among the board gaming community, they’re well known but there are more popular games out there. What intrigued you about these games to make them the first Playdek games for iOS?
Gary: We started with Ascension because I had been a playtester on the WOW miniatures game that Justin Gary and John Fiorillo had designed for Upper Deck. So I knew them from three or four years prior. I had playtested that and then had tinkered with doing my own implementation of WOW miniatures on the PC. So when they broke away from Upper Deck and started their own thing, I had heard about that and so was kind of paying attention. I had just discovered Dominion and Thunderstone and we were playing those a lot around the office and I saw they were doing something similar so I kind of paid attention to what they were doing, and as I got information, kind of threw together a prototype that I was able to show them and having that existing relationship was the impetus for starting with Ascension. They were looking to find a way into the digital space and weren’t having much luck finding somebody who they were confident could get the job done and we were exploring the possibility of trying to do something independent of a large publisher contract.
So you approached them, essentially?
Gary: I approached them with a protoype and we spent a good two, three months discussing what do we want to do with this, where do we want to take it. Eventually we decided to circle around on iOS and make that our starting point and that launched the ball.
When you approached them, did they see the appeal of iOS as opposed to another platform, say a PC or XBLA or PSN game?
Gary: Obviously, coming from a console background, XBLA and PSN was something we were thinking of early on. We were aware of the success of the iPhone and the iPad wasn’t out yet. Actually, I guess it was. We had just started playing Small World on the iPad so we were aware of the direction that was going to take us but we didn’t have any experience developing for iOS. We considered Steam, there was a strong argument to take it there and then after much discussion decided that the iPhone was the place to start and I think that’s proven to be the correct decision for us at this point.
Talking about the iPad a little, I don’t have a strong board gaming background but what intrigued me about Ascension is that it seemed like the perfect platform to try out a game such as this. How do you feel the iPad has affected the adoption rate of Ascension and Food Fight?
Gary: It certainly gets the title in front of more people than having it on the store shelves in a hobby game store. Just having somebody who you know who might be interested in this, that maybe played Magic 15 years ago or has some experience with strategy type games, it just only takes one comment to say “Hey, you should check this game out. It’s only five bucks, If you’ve got an iPhone or an iPad you should give it a try.” We don’t necessarily have a distinction in sales data between iPhone and iPad so we can’t really put our finger on who’s buying it more for the iPhone or if the iPad is a large portion of our sales.
George: To follow along with that, the great thing about the iPad is it’s such a great platform to showcase these games on. There’s a lot of buzz around it and it commands a lot of attention when these games show up on it. Our guess is that probably more people play it on a day to day basis on their iPhone or iPod. We do universal applications so that you get it on both if you happen to have both devices. I play more on my phone than I do on my iPad, and I was kind of surprised myself at that but I have my phone with me all of the time. It’s a great focal point and it’s a great place to bring these games that are so well known for being laid out on the table and the tablet looks like that. Playdek is a publisher, we can take it to XBLA or PSN, any of these platforms, and we will consider them all for each game but we try to do the best for what the game itself wants, but the iPad has been very good for us. We went to Europe, we went to Essen last year, we had a booth at Essen, the big game show, and we found out there that the iPad is still very expensive in Europe, so not a lot of people actually have them yet, but everyone who came to the booth knew it and really wanted one and was very excited about it.
One of the things that I like about the iPad, is that you guys make some really slick interfaces and not just for Ascension. What is your secret to making these interfaces, because they are extremely well done.
George: While that’s a trade secret and we can’t just give that away in a interface, it’s equal parts, over a decade, 15 years of experience in high quality console game development here, both [Playdek COO] Jeff Garstecki and Gary and the developers we have here. Then it’s equal parts collaboration, playing the original game and discussing what is key about that game, working with the original designers and developers and it’s a process, it’s a lot of iteration and development and play time.
When you guys sit down to discuss bringing a property to iOS, what are the beginning questions have to be asked and the considerations that have to be made to determine if it’s something you can do, and if you decide you want to do it, to be able to tailor the table top experience to the iOS platform as well as possible?
George: For my part of it, we play it, we see how often Gary wins and, no I’m kidding, we play, we discuss, we talk about the different features that would make the game more accessible, that would make the hardcore fans really enjoy it. It’s a big Venn diagram and each title is a little bit unique.
Gary: Just to add on to that, we play the game in its physical form to see if there’s something there that we enjoy. We don’t want to spend four to six months working on something that we’re not going to enjoy when we do have a lot of properties that we can choose from. We sit down and we play it, I spend time to start out with, getting a prototype of the rules in place, trying to at least get the core gameplay elements in place so we can start to do a digital testing on that. Have that all in place, before we’re starting to work on the interface so we understand which effects and which cards are going to be the ones that are tricky, that need to be incorporated in in a special way so we can be sure that the overall design of the interface can handle the requirements for all of the things that need to be presented . Then we spend some time thinking about what’s it going to take to do an AI for this game, some of the stuff we have coming up, in terms of implementing a computer player is going to be a little more difficult than what we’ve seen with Ascension and Food Fight.
Speaking of Food Fight, what is it about that game that interested you in bringing it to iOS?
Gary: We had a connection at Cryptozoic through our agent and he put us in touch with them as soon as we knew we were going to be doing Ascension and that established a relationship. They were looking for someone to do digital versions of their upcoming stuff. Unfortunately, everything they had done previously was the WOW trading card game and I had implemented that five years ago, I did the base set as a digital version, but obviously, Blizzard isn’t going to be interested in moving forward on that at that pace and so working with them required us to work with their upcoming stuff, and Food Fight was the one that was closest to being ready when we were talking with them. So that got us to sit down and to start to playing that with them and discussing what would it take to get it on to the platform, what would we need to do to try and maintain the theme and the flavor of the game. It was a big step for us, in taking on the campaign mode just because one of the more attractive features for us of Ascension was the asynchronous play and that game laid down in a way that you could take your turn, I could take my turn and Food Fight required more micro decisions and an interleaving of decisions between players so we felt that it was important to provide more content for a player who might not find the asynchronous play in Food Fight as attractive.
Talking about the asynchronous play, the appeal there, is it as simple as being able to let people play the games on their own schedule or is there more there from a design and implementation standpoint?
Gary: There’s more to it on our end on the server side, to be able to track the state of every game and make sure that players, when they log in, they can download the current state, make some decisions, upload those to the server and have that reflected to the other players and get a push notification that it’s your turn to play again. When we were first looking at Ascension, we felt that was important because there were other games on the platform that supported it and we knew it was a mode of play that people wanted to use with this device in their pocket all of the time but there wasn’t an off the shelf solution that really worked for us. We talked, very early on, to OpenFeint but they only supported two people, and we knew that we wanted to do four for Ascension, and so we ended up having to implement our own solution and it was only as we were completing that, that Apple announced that iOS 5 would have the asynchronous play mode. I still feel like having done our own solution and having our own server in place now, will allow us to do more and take it beyond what is available in the Apple implementation.
Do you have a rough idea as to how many notifications you push out in a given day?
Gary: We don’t have that, but we have counts on other stuff that’s going on. We’re up to almost a hundred and fifty million moves submitted and about, I think we just ticked over eight hundred fifty thousand games that have been created on our server. There’s a lot of Ascension being played.
George: Just to follow on the asynchronous question, what we really love about what we do, is there are two things that we think that games on this platform do for the player. One, you get to play the game you really enjoy more than if you have to hit the table with your game group. I can pull the game out and I get to play. And it expands the number of people that you can actually play with. I actually love asynchronous play. There’s a guy, I don’t even know his name, but we both really like 14 day games, and so for how long now, I’ve had a continual game and every time it ends we immediately hit rematch and we play. We’re always with a couple of points of each other. For me, it’s been a really great way to play, and I do occasionally play games immediately with someone, in real time but we really like that asynchronous allows people to play more games.
One of the things that people I play with have wanted, is some sort of chat facility, either to send a message or be able to chat while the game is going on. Is that something that you would be interested in bringing to future games?
Gary: We realize how important that feature is, it was probably the most requested feature that we didn’t get in from our playtesters as we sent the game out of the door. Obviously it’s been a while now since Ascension came out and it has been continuously requested by the fans and we want to find a way to get it in. It’s part of a bigger server reorganization that we’re going through in order to be able to support four titles. So we’ll see it hopefully sooner rather than later but when it arrives we’ll do it in a way that makes sense and provides the feature in a way that everyone can take advantage of it.
I’d like to talk about the upcoming properties: Summoner Wars, Nightfall and Agricola. Let’s start with Agricola. If you look at the games that you’ve done and the games in the pipeline, Agricola looks like the odd man out. It’s a little drier than the other properties and has a longer playtime. What was the draw there?
George: Agricola is a fantastic game, in and of itself. It is certainly incredibly popular and a great seller, all of those kinds of things but for us, it’s a landmark game and we wanted to be able to do it. What we’ve announced, on our slate, does look very card heavy but we definitely have a portfolio of games that we’re going to be doing over this year and bringing out. We’ve only announced a small portion of our calendar, essentially the first couple of quarters and there will be more coming from us. But Agricola, first and foremost is a fantastic game and we’re really looking forward to bringing it out. It’s dry, I don’t know if I would say that, maybe compared to…
I don’t want to knock the game, but if people look at what you offer, you’re banishing demons, you’re fighting werewolves and then you’re farming, at first glance, without getting into the guts of it, it doesn’t seem as exciting.
George: Play it with my wife. (laughs) You’ll find yourself in a struggle for your life.
Gary: The majority of the people that are working here are board gamers, we like to pull something out at lunch time and get together and play for an hour and there isn’t one type of game or one genre of game we have a preference for, it’s just that we started with a card game and that attracted more of the same and that was easy for us to approach and figure out and you know once we got Ascension done, Nightfall isn’t that far off in terms of the mechanic that we needed to implement. Obviously, Agricola is a departure from that so we had to start over and implement from the ground up in terms of the game mechanics. We want to be in that space as well with worker placement games because there are others that we could potentially be doing that would build on and off of Agricola. Some of the other stuff that we haven’t announced is very unique from what we’ve done in the past and that will allow us to diversify in the types of things that we’re bringing out.
Which decks are going to be in Agricola?
George: We haven’t announced all of the launch features, we will definitely be supporting everything. We partner with these great companies and launch features will be set soon and we will be announcing what will be available then and either updated later or purchasable at launch. So you’ll here more about that but we will definitely support everything.
So is that the similar answer for the factions that will be available for Summoner Wars?
George: Yes, absolutely.
Summoner Wars has a number of faction decks, Nightfall has a number of expansions, Ascension already had one expansion and presumably you’re working on the next expansion. Is that true, are you working on bringing the next Ascension expansion out?
George: Yeah, absolutely.
A big thanks to George and Gary for taking the time to sit through my long winded questions. Again, come back on Friday for part two of our talk.