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Cracked LCD- Psycho Raiders in Review

psycho raiders

I love it when games have moments- those points where the narrative, the structure, the rules and the interaction all come together to equal something more than a group of people rolling dice and pushing counters around with a context mostly held together with pictures and nomenclature. Nate Hayden, one of the best game designers working today, blew me away last year with The Mushroom Eaters. A game full of moments. I named it my Game of the Year last year because that’s what you do as a critic when something has a profound effect on the way you think about whatever medium it is that you are criticizing.

Psycho Raiders, which Mr. Hayden and his gang released last year as a “Halloween Horrorgame Magazine”, had a moment. Fleeing from the titular murderers that had already immolated their friend, three young campers on Halloween night in 1978 made it to the outskirts of a small, rural town. They managed to scream loud enough to alert a mechanic in the gas station. He grabbed a hammer and ran outside, seeing these kids running from a black van and a couple of gas masked psychopaths on foot. The mechanic threw the keys to a fixer-upper parked under a streetlight to Randy, who had been injured when the Psycho Raiders attacked his pickup with a flamethrower. Ginger had run alongside Randy, while their friend Dawn made a run for the woods.

All three made it to the car. The mechanic stalled one of the raiders, attacking him with the hammer. The van sped along the road while the kids got the car going. Randy floored it. And flipped it on the first turn out of the gas station.

All three crawled out. Randy told the girls to run for it. He picked up a tire iron, badly hurt by this point but determined to fight back. Torch, the raider with the flamethrower, blasted him again but it wasn’t enough to kill him. But it still set him on fire. He was about to die from burning on the next turn.

And then it started raining. The friend I was playing with uttered “bullshit.” We cracked up, because what else are you gonna do but laugh at that?

With the fire out, Randy lunged and smacked Torch with the tire iron. But Beau, one of the other Psycho Raiders stood by and laughed, jabbing their victim with a rusty old saber. Randy just wouldn’t die. He took a swing at Beau, but he dropped the tire iron. Beau stabbed him through the eye.

It was such a strangely sad, grim moment. Randy was at the end of the line and he knew it. But he grasped at every chance he could take. It felt like he deserved a better end, and when it rained on him it almost felt like there was a shot at survival. But when he dropped his makeshift weapon- bloody, burned but still fighting- it was like this nihilistic collapse of goodness, courage and hope punctuated by a bloody red KILL card.

This is the root of what makes Psycho Raiders great. It’s brutal, violent and it has that same sense of grand guignol seediness that permeates the kinds of gritty horror films that the game is clearly referencing. It’s a game that is not fair. It does not seek to empower its players. It does not serve to make anyone feel smart or clever. When playing as the campers, it captures a sense of being hunted down and slaughtered by amoral, remorseless human monsters. When playing as the Psycho Raiders, it puts the player in the role of soulless, evil gods of death deciding not if people are going to die, but how mercilessly they are going to die. It is the perfect horror game that accomplishes a level of psychological terror that I, for one, previously thought was not possible in game design.

Needless to say, this is not a game for everybody. It’s rated X and it means it. This is savage, questionable entertainment rife with the very blackest of humor and heavily influenced by 1970s exploitation films. It’s the tabletop equivalent of a video nasty. Yet it is a game that should be played by anyone that thinks they understand what atmosphere, theme and narrative mean in the context of a gaming hobby currently bogged down in a morass of bloated production values, redundant structures, a despairing lack of risk-taking and a complacent fear on the part of designers to challenge players to expect more.

Ironically, this is a game that could have been published in 1980. The very specific, simulation-oriented rules call to mind classic SPI or Avalon Hill adventure games, not Fantasy Flight or Z-Man ones. Most of the game is very simple and familiar in terms of movement and combat, it’s all classic hobby gaming structure. The map is paper and printed right there on it are all the tables you need to roll on for results. Be prepared to bring your own dice, cut the cards out yourself and supply players with pencil and paper. If all of that sounds barbaric to you, maybe give Psycho Raiders a pass and go play Last Night on Earth instead.

It’s old fashioned and out of fashion, but there are two masterstrokes that modern designers should be paying attention to. One is the hiding mechanic, which lets players place and move multiple on-board tokens to obscure where they actually are. The other is the best use of the tired, hackneyed “traitor” mechanic I have seen to date. There are a couple of townsfolk that can enter play like the mechanic mentioned above. The Raider player can secretly designate a die roll’s worth of the townsfolk to be sinister and on their side. What’s more, the Raider player can actually let the campers use the townfolk and decide at an opportune moment for them to show their true color, which is of course always black.

There are also many details such as rules for screaming, unsafe driving, for using a telephone, for weather, for spreading fires and for tear gas. There are rules for if Joey shows up in his Camaro as a kind of white trash Deus ex Machina as well as other events that could happen. You may never see any of these things happen because the gameplay is wide open- how the story of these campers on the run from the Psycho Raiders is entirely up to you. Situations like the moment described above may occur once but never again. This is truly emergent gameplay enabled by relatively loose rules and a masterful design-level grasp on balancing playability, simulation and narrative.

psycho raiders 2

The old timey packaging is absolutely brilliant- it is an old fashioned magazine game. The components are a paper map, a few counters and some cards that you have to cut out yourself. The illustrations are willfully crude, unrefined and raw. If you expect every game to be stuffed full of possibly toxic made-in-China plastic and kitschy-ass fantasy artwork, you might mistake this game for ugly or cheap. But the slightly sleazy, off-putting visual design is absolutely part of the package.

You even get a gas mask-wearing underwear model in the centerfold, standing in front of a wood panel wall with a cheap Halloween decoration on it. It’s the kind of slightly upsetting thing that makes you feel like something is wrong either with the people who made it or with you for buying and owning it. Flipping through the magazine, which contains the rules, there are several weird cartoons that range from surreal to disgusting. There’s an upsetting piece of short fiction. This stuff is as transgressive as board games get. This stuff is as immersive as board games get.

But most significantly, the magazine also includes a comic that serves as a direct prelude to what occurs in the game. Turn one literally picks up right from the last panel, with the campers’ pickup barreling down the road with the Raiders’ van right behind it. From there, the players finish the story. This is how background story or fluff text should be done from here on out.

Psycho Raiders actually came out last year but for various reasons it was one of those games I never got around to. At this point, it’s clear that I was wasting my time looking for transcendent moments in other games. This is the real deal, this is the mythical, Utopian game I’m always on about that is innovative, progressive, playable, narrative, thematic and compelling. It’s every bit as good as The Mushroom Eaters, and as such I’m appending my 2014 Game of the Year award to include both games released last year that have Nate Hayden’s name on them.

This is an incredibly renegade, daring piece of game design and packaging that makes me want to buy a copy for every single person who has ever used the asinine turn of phrase “dripping with theme” and one for every person who thinks that anything coming out of the morass that is Kickstarter is anything approaching “innovative” or “progressive”. It would be an object lesson in what a truly maverick game product should look and play like in 2015, even if it is defiantly and gruesomely atavistic.



Thrower’s Tallies: Games of the Year 2014


Another year, another end of year wrap piece. Time to reflect on the past 365 days as you force down another sweetmeat and another glass of cheap sherry and then to wonder what the future holds.

This has not been the best gaming year for me, personally. Not just in terms of titles released but in terms of finding opportunities to play. For one reason and another, I just haven’t spent the time at the gaming table I’d have liked.

That makes me sad. Real life is important, of course, but you only get one shot at it, a thing I’ve become increasingly aware of as the years slip past. Since gaming is one of my favourite things to do, I ought to be able to find more space for it. Other things just always seem to intervene.

So I look at my collection, much of which is gathering dust in the attic, and wonder if I’ll ever play most of them as many times as they deserve. Or that one day I might look back and regrest not making more time for my favourite things, which so often get lost in the push and shove of family life.

I guess that’s a game in and of itself.

Anyway, enough of the melodrama. This long preamble is setting up the point that a lot of the games I’ve played this year just haven’t lasted beyond the required review plays. Not because they’re bad games, just because they weren’t quite good enough to elbow their way in to a very crowded itenerary.

But when I looked back on what I’d played this year, I conveniently found that there were exactly three games that had broken that trend. Three games that had forced themselves back onto the table after I thought I was done with them by virtue of their brilliance. I was also exceptionally surprised by what they were. Can you guess?

Before I reveal all, I wanted to mention something that’s been bothering me more and more in recent years. I’m just not seeing as much fun in new titles as I used to. I still want to game as much as I ever do, but that itch of excitement when you read a preview or tear the shrinkwrap has gone.

The problem, I think, is that game design has become a process of iterative improvement rather than fizzing creativity. When I got back into board gaming at the turn of the millenium, the design community was still buzzing with the influx of ideas from Germany. Over the next few years, recombining this new paradigm with the traditional American model of gaming proved a fertile furrow.

Now, those ideas seem to have run dry. Genre-breaking games seem to be few and far between. I think this is because, with the market glutted by kickstarter titles, we’re near the limits of what can be done with mere card, wood and plastic. Newer titles are, for the most part, still a step up on older ones. But the improvements are so small, it’s not worth the money or the effort to acquire and learn them over existing games.

We’re done with the misery. On to the awards.


#3 Band of Brothers: Ghost Panzer

Don’t judge games by their boxes. I was put off the original game in this series, Screaming Eagles, by the small publisher and the bad art. Then, while it had its supporters, it didn’t seem to gain much fan traction either, so I wrote it off.

That was a serious mistake. I enjoyed its perfect blend of realism, accessibility, tactics and excitement so much that I played it solo, something I never do. I enjoyed it so much that I went right out and bought Screaming Eagles second hand in case it never got reprinted. The components still suck, but these may be the best tactical wargame rules ever made.

#2 Splendor

This was the real shocker. In many respects, Splendor represents a lot of what I dislike about modern game design. But it keeps coming off the shelf, again and again. And it keeps finding its way into friends collections, again and again. It’s a keeper and, on reflection, one of the best Eurogames I’ve played.

While everyone was mistakenly raving about the way Five Tribes had cross-hobby appeal, Splendor was quietly doing just that in the background. It has one page of rules, can be played competently by my 8-year old, yet is challenging to win at consistently. It’s got gorgeous pieces, a smidgen of interaction and can be completed in 30 minutes. When you step back, what’s not to love?

#1 Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition

Ok, so I’m cheating slightly. But in terms of table time, this is the undoubted winner this year. I thought I was done with role-playing games. I thought over-heavy rules and anti-social players had ruined the genre for me forever. Then fifth edition came along and reminded me of just how amazing, how limitless and soaring, role-playing can be when it gets things right.

I have never seen a rules system which achieves so much with so little. Yes, there’s still lots of spells and magic items and stats to remember. But the actual play mechanics are lean and mean, yet manage to cover almost any situation, allowing groups to mine whatever rich seam of fantasy they choose. I’m so looking forward to where this system is going to go next year. More so than any board game in the pipeline.

Well, except XCOM, perhaps.

Speaking of which, I guess I spend enough time iOS gaming nowadays to make a best of year list for that platform too. I have an odd love-hate relationship with my iPad. Part of me longs for the hours and hours of total engrossment that only a AAA PC or console game can provide. On the other hand, in a busy life I’m grateful that I can now enjoy such excellent bite sized gaming.

It feels like 2014 is the year mobile gaming came of age with meaty franchises and big studios finding their way to the app store. But these are the top of the pile for me, staying installed long after their peers have been deleted.

#3 Hoplite

I’m a big fan of rogue-like games but the classic model doesn’t tend to port well to tablets. It’s too involved, too stat-heavy. Hoplite hit the nail on the head by reducing the genre to a kind of puzzle game, with role-playing elements. It sounds dull, but isn’t, because the procedural generation ensures every puzzle is unique.

#2 FTL

FTL may be the most perfect game in the most perfect genre ever devised, an endless story generator with strategy and role playing thrown in for free. I’ve yet to beat it, even after about twenty hours of play time. And I’m still trying, even after about twenty hours of plat time. This might be number one, were it not marginally better on PC than tablet.

#1 Hearthstone

FATtie Erik Twice has asked me several times why I complain about it all the time on social media, when I profess to love it. The answer is simple: it’s the same reason drug addicts complain about crack. Addiction is a terrible thing, but it doesn’t make the high point of the trip any the less sweet.

Cracked LCD- Barnes’ Best 2013: The Triple Crown



I’m doing my Barnes’ Best Game of the Year commendation a little differently this year. I’ve been rolling over my short list time and time again over the past couple of weeks and trying to come up with a GOTY nominee that I can feel completely comfortable with selecting over other candidates. This year, there was a higher-than-usual number of not just really good but great games release, despite the influx of mediocre Kickstarter titles. Games that I think are going to be around for years to come. Games that I thought “there’s nothing coming out this year that is going to beat this” when I played them. In all, I think it’s been a great year for high quality, impactful, and innovative designs.

So this year, it’s a Triple Crown.

That’s right, I’m awarding three Game of the Year prizes because if I picked one of these over the others, I’d be spending the next few years wondering if I made the right choice. So this is the only way that I can do it and live without guilt. Call it a cop-out if you must, but I think every one of the three I’ve selected deserves to be called Game of the Year. And I’ve decided to retain a five game runners-up list, so that also allows me to acknowledge some of the great titles that would have just missed the cut. Note that some of these games are actually very late 2012 releases- given that some of these weren’t widely available (or thoroughly played) until 2013, I think it’s appropriate since they may have missed eligibility for last year’s commendations.

So first, the shortlist. All of these games are outstanding, all of these are games that I’m looking forward to playing more in 2014 and beyond. As most folks around me know, I don’t tend to keep most games I bring in, preferring to trade or sell to keep things fresh and flowing. But all of these are on the Forever Shelf, and I think that says a lot.

FIREFLY (Gale Force Nine, Aaron Dill, John Kovaleski, and Sean Sweigart)


Firefly should have been the year’s biggest surprise since I wasn’t really a fan of the show. But coming from the publisher and designers that made last year’s biggest surprise in Spartacus (a GOTY shortlister itself), it turns out it was a shoe-in. Firefly is exactly what a licensed game should be, designed almost against a checklist of things that fans of the property would want to do. It’s a classic pick-up-and-deliver game with a science fiction theme appropriately squared on characters rather than hardware, and the mixture of commerce and adventure is irresistible. I can’t wait for the expansions.

Clash of Cultures (Z-Man Games, Christian Marcussen)


Christian Marcussen pretty much wrote a stop work order to everybody designing a pirate game a couple of years ago with Merchants and Marauders. Last year (really the very end of 2012), he did the same thing for the “Civ-lite” genre. Clash of Cultures is a masterpiece of economically expressing an epic scope, with traditional Civilization elements and some news like a brilliant method for depicting cross-cultural influence and propagation. It’s a perfectly executed design that was almost enough to bump the venerable and storied Mare Nostrum off my shelf.

KEMET (Asmodee/Matagot, Jacques Bariot and Guillaume Montiage)

kemet 2

Kemet is one of the most aggressive Dudes on a Map games I’ve ever played, and it’s one of the most innovative. By making the geography almost (but not quite) irrelevant and keeping proximities brutally intimate, the usual problems of the genre including “Cold Wars” and turtling are eliminated. Fun resource mechanics and a great upgrade scheme match up with an awesome fantasy Egypt setting to make Kemet one of the best games in its genre since Nexus Ops. It’s a great follow-up to Matagot’s Cyclades, and I love that there’s an expansion that combines the two games.

LOVE LETTER (AEG, Seiji Kanai)

love letter

Love Letter is the smallest game I’ve ever awarded a GOTY nod to, and it’s the first time a Japanese game has been listed. Hopefully it’s not the last. A tiny deck and handful of wooden cubes create one of the most interesting and smartly designed “filler” class card games I’ve ever played. There’s light deduction, some bluffing, and a surprising amount of intrigue for such a tiny game. It’s shockingly minimal, but the way that the cards interact with each other tell a definite story. AEG released two editions of the game this year, one set in their proprietary Tempest game setting. I like the black box Kanai Factory limited edition better, if only because I prefer the more stylized Japanese illustrations.

NAVAJO WARS (GMT, Joel Toppen)


I’ve not yet formally reviewed Joel Toppen’s Navajo Wars, that’s forthcoming in the next couple of weeks. But there is no possible way that this beautiful, sensitive and actually quite moving game would not make this list of 2013’s best games. Navajo Wars isn’t so much a war game as it is the story of families struggling not just to survive, but also to continue their traditional way of life against outside aggression, interlopers, and influences. It’s a single-player or partnership game because the designer didn’t feel right about casting a player in opposition to the tribal subject. So he instead designed the best automated AI system I have ever seen in a board game. It’s genius, and it’s a system I guarantee you will see in other games in the future. This is the best game that GMT has produced in years, and that says a lot given the routine high quality of their products.

And now…I give you the Triple Crown, your Cracked LCD Games of the Year, Barnes’ Best for 2013.

DUEL OF AGES II (Worldspanner, Brett Murrell)


One of the main things that keeps me coming back to Duel of Ages II- beyond the extreme variety of characters, equipment, and situations- is the sense that this game is much more in the spirit of playing cops and robbers or cowboys and Indians than it is in the spirit of playing the usual hobby board games. It’s a game that invites you to play, constructing not only exciting strategic and tactical situations but also group narratives. It’s a game with a lot of heart and soul, and those rare qualities are matched up with rules that reflect the designer’s interests and more than a little influence from classic designs like Squad Leader and Gunslinger. The irony of naming DOAII one of my Games of the Year for 2013 is that when I played the game in its first incarnation ten years ago, I didn’t like it. Maybe it wasn’t the right time for me to encounter it, or maybe it’s that this new edition corrected what I didn’t care for. Both way, DOAII has become one of my favorite games and I think it has what it takes to be a classic worth revisiting for years to come.

PATHFINDER (Paizo Publishing, Mike Selinker)


RPG publisher Paizo certainly made a grand entrance into the board gaming end of the business this year with the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game. Designed by Mike Selinker, Pathfinder pretty much has anything you could want in an RPG-style card game and then some. Essentially, it’s an extended variation on the Talisman model of flipping a card and rolling dice at it, but detailed characters with a full character’s sheet worth of statistics and persistency between scenarios- which means actual leveling up and ability development- give this relatively simple game a lot more depth and longevity. It’s also truly cooperative (and soloable) with meaningful differences and codependences between character classes. Additionally, I like the serial release of new modules that tell an overarching story. I think Pathfinder was my most played game of 2013, and when my copy of the new adventure cards shows up this week I’ll be getting a head start on 2014.

ROBINSON CRUSOE (Z-Man Games, Ignacy Trzewiczek)

crusoe board

The surprising thing about Robinson Crusoe is that it is really a hardcore, really quite complex worker placement Eurogame. But it tells a much richer story than most Eurogames can muster thanks to a variety of survival and exploration scenarios that contextualize the mechanics and provide a very rich sense of detail and meaning. Robinson Crusoe never feels abstract, and the struggle for survival on an uncharted island often feels tangible as players try to budget resources to deal with weather, wild animals, disease, and other potentially disastrous events. Ignacy Trewcizk’s design work is elaborate, always thrilling, and proves that Eurogame mechanics can support great narrative.

It’s been a great year, hopefully 2014 will keep us spoiled with great new titles to play and enjoy. Happy new year!

Cracked LCD- Battle of the Bulge (IOS) in Review

I’ve only had the game for a couple of days, but after playing it almost constantly through the week I’m already prepared to tell you that Shenandoah Studio’s Battle of the Bulge is the new standard as far as IOS boardgaming goes. Unlike the many ports we’ve seen of popular tabletop games or downscaled PC-style wargames like Battle Academy, Battle of the Bulge is a ground-up tabletop design by veteran designer John Butterfield that just happens to be on your iPad instead of rendered in cardboard chits. It’s a digital-only, low complexity area impulse wargame in the classical sense, and it is just about the most accessible and immediately appealing one in any format I’ve played in many years. This is it folks, this is the flashpoint game that makes wargaming a very modern, very real proposition for the tablet generation.

A large part of what makes this game so successful and so innovative is its presentation. I don’t know that I’ve ever played any wargame that was so accommodating, welcoming, and beautifully presented. Everything from the the user interface to the multimedia elements and right on down to the font choices are tasteful and impeccably modern. The usual graphic design traps that usually result in wargames looking like something for your grandpa are avoided, but more importantly this game barrels right through pretty much every barrier to entry the wargaming hobby has ever had.

The first time you start it up, you’re immediately shown a set of “basics” slides that show you all you need to know to get started. Newcomers will feel immediately comfortable with classical, time-honored conflict simulation mechanics. Veteran wargamers will feel like they’re coming home for Christmas- a Christmas spent fighting one of World War II’s most gamed battles. There’s also a comprehensive tutorial that actually isn’t irritating or overly didactic, and if that doesn’t satisfy you there’s a full rulebook complete with- get this- all of the tables and CRTs for total rules transparency.

Two Bulge scenarios are included, one of which is a three-day, abbreviated version of the full game wherein the Axis just needs to get to the Meuse river to win. You can play this in fifteen minutes. The longer game offers more objectives and victory point opportunities as well as more time to maneuver and really experience what the game’s quite challenging AI has to offer. Both scenarios allow you to command either Axis or Allies in opposition to one of the other side’s two commanders, each of which plays with a different personality.

I’m not going to recount the whys and wherefores of the Battle of the Bulge and I sure as hell am not going to give you the order of battle in the space of a review. If you want historical background, the game has a generous section filled with a succinct history lesson complete with a glossary and description of the arms and armor used. All you need to know right now is that this is a game of the Axis pushing hard with their Panzers and Fallschrimjagers against a reactive defense, racing against time to gain ground while trying to maintain a supply line. You want artillery? It’s there. You want narrative events and historical detail? They’re there. Terrain effects? Yep, they’re there too. Pretty much everything you could want in a high-level wargame is present, and it’s all executed masterfully in a no-bullshit fashion.

The interface is as smooth, sensible, and well-thought out as any I’ve seen in an IOS board game, and there are some brilliant ways of presenting information that make everything easy to understand. Attack a unit getting a terrain bonus and you’ll see in the combat resolution how one of your hits- a bullet hole- is absorbed by the terrain icon. Battles can be previewed and a graphic is shown that represents the likelihood of hits or retreats. Odds don’t look so good? Hit undo and try it again.

The gameplay is addictive and challenging. The time pressure is brutal for the Axis player, particularly in the short scenario where you’ve got to make the best use of roads and armor breakthroughs if you’re going to make it to Bastogne for the draw or the Meuse for the win. I love that the passage of time is variable, which means that a turn could take anywhere from zero to 120 minutes. Coordinating forces and getting decent stacks of three units (the stack limit) to the front and in position to smash the lines- or hold them- is just as compelling as it is any tabletop hex-and-counter wargame.

If the AI can’t beat you- but I think it will- there are hotseat and async Gamecenter multiplayer options, and they are both fantastic. I expect to see this game getting a lot of action into the new year with folks on my friend list. I’m really interested to see how different folks play the attack or defense differently.

I’m completely blown away by this game. It does some things that even the best IOS board games and titles like Battle Academy haven’t been able to do. It’s completely nailed the right ways to present a tabletop game in a digital format with absolutely no compromise, and in a way that anyone can enjoy. It does all of the things that digital board games should do, removing the administrative and logistical burden inherent in physical games and allowing the players to have fun with and really engage the mechanics. It’s such a no-nonsense design, almost effortless in its mastery of the traditional wargame form but with an eye toward the future of the hobby.

The easiest criticism about it is that it’s yet another Bulge game, another World War II game. But I think it needed to be something this familiar and well-tread to succeed. If this were a tabletop game, I don’t know that I’d be that interested in it because of the subject matter and the mountains of games available on it. But on the iPad, it’s fresh and innovative enough to be considered groundbreaking.

So the word is out to other publishers working on IOS wargames. Battle of the Bulge is the one to beat. At least until Shenandoah graces us with another $10 miracle- notice that it’s billed as volume one of “Crisis in Command”. Highest recommendation, and a Game of the Year candidate on every level.