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Bolt Thrower : StarCraft, Civilization, X-Wing, Hard West, Journey

It’s been a while since I steered anyone toward my series on tabletop versions of video games over at Gamerati. But since I did one on the StarCraft board game to coincide with the final digital game in that series, Legacy of the Void, I figured it was time for a reminder.

However great the StarCraft board game was, I think it would have been better with looser ties to the source material. It would almost certainly have resulted in a similar game but one which was a lot less complex to digest. In that respect it’s almost the opposite of the Civilization board game which, as I argued in another column, is a quite brilliant reduction of the digital essentials to tabletop format.

The other thing I wanted to talk about this week is lasers. I was playing X-Wing a couple of weeks ago when my opponent pulled out a laser line for checking up on some the firing arcs. It’s a brilliant idea: X-Wing models are so top-heavy, it’s hard to get a ruler in to measure the angles properly without knocking them all over. The laser is more accurate, less clumsy and, best of all, looks awesome in the middle of what’s supposed to be a laser dogfight.

I was so impressed that I wrote a piece about using the device in X-Wing and Armada for the manufacturer. It’s called a Target Lock and, while they’re made in Denmark, you can get them from specialist shops all over the place. So stick one on your Christmas list. I can see it being useful in pretty much any and every miniatures gaming system.

Speaking of Christmas, what I’d like most in the whole world is some more Patreon supporters. But it’s not something I can really put on my Christmas list so I’m putting it here instead.

My video game time recently has been all about Hard West. This has been trailered around as being a “cowboy XCOM”, which it kind of is. But the essential mechanics of XCOM remain easily good enough to power a game. And on top of that, what makes Hard West special is the excellent and imaginative atmosphere and storytelling.

It’s more weird west than wild west, but the supernatural elements are done with subtlety and flair. You do get to flat-out demons in the end, but the narrative along the way is excellent. There are eight campaigns, each of which, in a neat twist, ties in with events or characters from one of the previous stories to make a satisfying whole.

It hasn’t got massive critical acclaim, but I think it’s one of the best things I’ve played this year. Worth the entry price for the experience alone.

I’m also contributing to Pocket Tactics now, which is great as I can’t think of a much better place to explore my crossover of interests. My first piece there was a review of Steam: Rails to Riches, a title I wholly recommend to deep strategy masochists who don’t want to deal with other human beings, even over the internet.

The other big event in gaming is that I finally got to play Journey. It was worth the wait. I feel like I could write essay upon essay about this game. About all the tiny clever design choices that go in conveying emotion to the player. About how you naturally find ways of communicating with your fellow players using only musical notes. About how freedom of movement, or lack thereof, is central to the game’s message and appeal.

But I won’t. I’ll just settle for saying if you haven’t played it, play it. It’s one of the best games of the last decade.

Cracked LCD- Clash of Cultures in Review

Clash-of-Cultures-game-in-playBack in 2010, Christian Marcussen essentially issued a stop work order to anybody developing a pirate-themed board game. Merchants and Marauders was and still is the best pirate game ever published, a stunningly complete expression of the concept that was dynamically open-world, filled with narrative adventure, and rich with both traditional economic game elements and exciting naval conflict. Late last year, Mr. Marcussen showed up on the “Civilization lite” scene and again pretty showed anyone working on such a game the door. Z-Man Games’ Clash of Cultures is a masterpiece of judicious design, careful abstraction, and economy- it is the new standard by which all games descended from the works of Frances Tresham and Sid Meier should be judged. There’s never been such a fighting fit, slim and ready-to-rock game of civ-building.

The basics may as well have been written in cuneiform thousands of years ago. You start with a settlement and a settler, your fledgling culture at the precipice of seeing what’s over that mountain or beyond the forest. You send your one, lone pawn into the wild, looking for fertile land and hoping to avoid local barbarians. Eventually, you found another settlement, and then another. These settlements grow in population, technology, knowledge, and wealth. Your people develop skills, tools, techniques, and concepts that help them do things better or create new opportunities that weren’t there before. The general mood of the populace shifts, as can their mode of governance. Sooner or later, you’ll encounter neighbors, and eventually there will be conflict.

Of course, that’s hardly a rules explanation or description of flow. I don’t want to reveal all of the intricate ways that Mr. Marcussen has shorn this genre of so much fat, like tying population attitude and culture increases specifically to technology advances and using those resources to modify core actions. I want you to discover those things for yourself and to experience the kind of revelation I had playing this game, that you can make the epic manageable. The key is that for all of its carefully measured and metered rules, its stately sense of progress, Clash of Cultures never feels rules heavy, overly complicated, or bogged down in systems.

Yet this is not a simplified, toothless game. There are diverse mechanics at work, including a multilayered resource mechanic that depends on Settlers of Catan-like combinations to build assets and an absolutely brilliant (and simple) one that reflects how neighboring cultures influence and integrate with each other. When cities develop, you add on a physical piece to the existing site so that you can always see the level of development. Other, stronger cultures might exert their influence and change the color of one of your city pieces to their color, earning an endgame victory point. These city pieces also carry special benefits and are part of the technology game.

Everything makes perfect sense, from the tech trees to the basic dice-and-cards combat resolution. There’s never a point where you’re looking at a bloated, byzantine set of rules or structure propping up its epic theme- quite unlike some other recent botched attempts at condensing the civilization building game. By tying a lot of the detail to cards, it’s also a highly narrative game despite the degree of abstraction. Event cards affect famine, revolution, calamities, and good harvest. Objective cards give you multiple paths to victory, and at any time you might have anywhere from two to six different possible “suggestions”, so to speak, as to how to proceed with your turn to achieve these goals. Each action card offers a civil effect and a military one, imparting a sense of control and strategic planning in terms of hand management.

Clash of Cultures doesn’t attempt an “all of human history” scale and it remains, like the original Civilization, in the Classical era. Some may chafe at the lack of real-world signifiers like geography, specific player nations, or national advantages and I thought this would be a concern myself, but in play I found that I didn’t really care about that part. It was fat, and the goal of this game’s design is something leaner, fiercer, and tighter than something like Fantasy Flight’s fumbled board game version of the Sid Meier PC game. Tresham’s design didn’t have national powers either. This led me to realize that part of the genius of this design is in how it bridges gaps between the original Civilization board game, the classic PC game, and a highly modernized and hybridized ideal of the civilization building concept. Its linkages are clear, but in its wake are so much dead weight, extraneous detail, and superfluous mechanics.

Clash of Cultures is a masterpiece of its genre. I regret sort of overlooking it at the end of last year. At the time of its release, I felt as if I didn’t really want to play another game that makes another mediocre stab at this genre, which isn’t necessarily burgeoning, but it’s a class of game where one or two great examples are all you really need on your shelf. I should have had more faith in Mr. Marcussen as a talented, insightful designer. This game’s approach and what it accomplishes are different enough from my other favorite civilization games, Mare Nostrum and Innovation, and it absolutely carves out its own space not only there but also among the best games of recent years. It’s a thrilling, spectacularly successful design that is fearless, maverick, and utterly exciting to engage with and play.