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Ivor the Engine Review

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British people of a certain age tend to regard children’s animators Peter Firmin and Oliver Postgate as minor deities, so totally did their wonderful conjurations dominate the world of kids TV in the 70’s. Dizzying edifices of imagination and storytelling, built on Firmin’s instantly recognisable art and Postgate’s incomparable animation, they remain a colossal founding pillar of my childhood.

Now here there is a game, a modern game, based on my most cherished of all their creations: Ivor the Engine. It’s here, in my hands. This is going to go very well, or very badly.

The first thing that comes out of the box is the board, newly illustrated by Firmin who has clearly lost none of his touch with the passage of the years. On it are all the locations from the cartoon, set down in relation to each other and joined by joyfully shaky train tracks. If anything could kick my nostalgia buttons any harder, it would physically hurt.

Underneath there are sheep. Lots of lovely wooden sheep.

So, one of the teeny, tiny five minute story arcs from the films was of Ivor and his driver, the unflappably innocent Jones the Steam, collecting lost sheep and this forms the basis of the game. Wooden woolies are randomly distributed across the board at the start of the game, and players move their wagons around, rescuing one sheep from their current location at the start of each turn. You can burn coal cubes for extra movement, and gold cubes for extra coal or hoard them for extra points at the end of the game.

At the end of each turn they are forced to take a card from a face-up selection. These have two purposes: you can either use the special ability, like a bonus move, or visit the location printed on the card, fulfilling an imaginary job like bringing coal to Mr. Dinwiddy the gold miner, for some bonus sheep. But there’s a catch – you can only cash in jobs for locations devoid of wandering sheep.

It’s a sweetly challenging framework for younger gamers: easy to learn, simple to play but with just enough strategy to challenge and stimulate tweenagers. It’s surprisingly diverse, too. While the building blocks are hewn very obviously from the European school of ploddingly mechanical game design, there’s just enough friction, in the form of players blocking each other into corners of the tight board, to keep things interesting.

The problem is that whil those self-same building blocks make a solid foundation for a game, they’re poor moorings for any kind of story, and stories are critical to the appeal of Ivor. With them, it’s a magical corner of an wistful Wales of the recent past, full of wonder and pathos. Without them, it’s nothing but pretty pictures on a piece of cardboard.

There are so many failings in the game’s attempt to conjure Ivor that it’s almost painful to list them. Multiple players need multiple engines, instead of the one so central to the TV series. Cashing in cards with words on them for extra sheeples doesn’t in any way equate to the humour in Dai Station’s jobsworthness, or the simple joy of watching Evans the Song weave beautiful music from his choir. The game promotes competition, while the people of Llaniog rejoice in sharing and friendship.

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The job cards try a little harder, but they’re just text and pictures. In amongst the job cards there are also event cards which feature famous moments from the show like Nell the Sheepdog’s rescue of a particularly foolish ewe. But like almost everything else in the game these offer cracking mechanics but little emotion: you can pick them from the card stack to trigger the event effect, a matter of strategy and timing which often gives you the chance to stick one over on the other players, but the bare bones mechanics can’t conjure up the playful narrative that’s the heart of Ivor.

There’s no better example of this dichotomy than the fact that you’re forced to pick up a job at the end of a turn, and if you go over your hand size, you’re penalised by one sheep. Mechanically, this is sold stuff: it keeps job cards moving through the game and provides a big incentive to players to get those sheep cleared. But even leaving the magic of Ivor behind for a moment, it makes no real-world sense. Why do you have to pick up another job? Why does a job sometimes weirdly equate to extra coal instead? Why do you lose sheep if you have too many?

Some may feel I’m flogging this too hard: no mere board game can realistically expect to capture the wonderful, whimsical spirit of Ivor after all. And that’s true. In which case, why try? Why not release what’s otherwise an excellently designed family train game instead?

I shouldn’t be too hard on Ivor the Engine. As a family board game it’s really rather good, a nice balance of strategy and excitement. My original fear was totally misplaced: it went neither very well nor very badly, but is in fact a very fun game with a very weak theme. The trouble is that that theme tramples heavily on an awful lot of my childhood memories. Tread softly, because you tread on my dreams.

Atari at 40- 4k Memories

Last week, Atari turned 40. Like most gamers of my generation, the name conjures up a lot of great memories. I remember my parents taking me into a Rich’s department store in 1980 to buy me an “electronic game”. I thought I was going to get something like the Mattel handheld football game. What I got was one of the old wood panel Atari 2600 and a couple of games, including Asteroids and Missile Command. Paddle controllers. Warlords. Some math game, probably called “Math”. I was five years old. It made me a video gamer for life.

It was a very long time ago, but I can still feel the soft give of that orange button- a controller with X and Y buttons would have blown my mind. I still feel those rubber-booted controllers in my hand. And when that boot tore off, that meant that the controller would be used by the sleepover guest. When you were the sleepover guest, you could blame your terrible Combat performance on the busted controller. What was that rattling in the paddle after David Green turned it too far? The resistance of those metal switches. Having slide the switch from “TV” to “Game”. Sense memory.

I remember my parents taking me to Zayre and Service Merchandise to get Donkey Kong and Pac-Man on release, and I remember having to wait in a long line both times. The night I got Donkey Kong, I played it so long that my hand started to hurt. Yes, I had E.T. and I didn’t hate it at all. In fact, I loved it. I loved that bizarre Raiders of the Lost Ark game, and never realized that the part at the end where Indy is on that weird platform with the Ark was the “end”. Then there was Swordquest: Earthworld and Swordquest: Fireworld- never saw the other two. The G.I. Joe game with the giant Cobra that shot lasers from its eyes. All the Imagic games, with their silver boxes and all the Activision ones with their rainbow trails. Star Raiders, Space Jockey, Montezuma’s Revenge, Demon Attack, Pitfall, Barnstorming, Reactor, Spider-Man, Demons to Diamonds, Krull (!), Kaboom!

I remember so many particulars about those games- probably more than I remember about what I played last year. Indeliable, no-bit impressions of abstract shapes and the sound of bitcrushed crunches before bitcrushing ever existed. Ads in comic books, demo kiosks at K-Mart, “Yar’s Revenge, it’s new from Atari”, a TV jingle I never forgot. Have you played Atari today?

But I somehow never upgraded to the 5200 or the 7800, instead playing my 2600 until Christmas of 1985- in other words, the Christmas of Nintendo. I had friends that had the other Atari systems, and I was always jealous even though I hated the controllers. They seemed so sleek and modern at the time, especially compared to my old wood panel console. Then there were the Atari computers, which I never owned but always admired. This older kid called Eric that I knew had an Atari 800, and we played Temple of Apshai on it. He explained to me that the 400 had a membrane keyboard, which sounded very sci-fi, but you couldn’t feel the keys on it. I remember when his dad bought him a top-of-the-line 1200XL to replace it. I also never had a Lynx.

No, the last Atari console I ever actually owned was the Jaguar. Yep, I’m one of the few and the not-so-proud. I suspect that most Jaguar owners bought the console almost exclusively for Jeff Minter’s Tempest 2000, which at the time was not available anywhere else. And it was awesome, but then again Tempest is my all-time favorite arcade game. When KB Toys closed out their stock of the failed platform, I bought almost every game that was available for it at $1.99 a title. Very few were worth mentioning- Alien Vs. Predator and Defender 2000 were the only other titles worth owning. If you haven’t seen the Jaguar’s attempt at a 3D fighting game, you simply must get your hands on Fight For Life. It has to be the worst fighting game I’ve ever played in my entire life.

Of course, Atari has released games for other systems up through the current generation and their name- despite company sales, lawsuits bankruptcies, the Great Video Game Crash, dwindling reputation, and a general sense that this pioneering company got left in the dust- remains an important one. Whenever I see that logo with its retro-futurist font, it brings back so many memories from my life in games. I think of the great frontiersmen like David Crane and Larry Kitchen. I think of sitting in the living room floor wide-eyed in wonder that I could play video games in my living room. Yeah, they weren’t as good-looking as the games in the arcade and playing Robotron 2084 with only one stick sucked. But this was the company that, until Nintendo arrived in the US, was synonymous with video games on our living room TVs.

It’s sad that Atari is now more recognizable as a logo on a novelty T-shirt than as a significant part of the games industry. What they were doing in the late 1970s and early 1980s touched my life tremendously. Getting that “electronic game” when I was five years old is one of the reasons I’m here writing for a video games blog today.