Oh, hi there. Welcome to the NEW Cracked LCD in its NEW home, here at Nohighscores.com!
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.
When Wizards of the Coast resurrected the Avalon Hill brand and used it to push out a variety of fast-playing, relatively simple dramatic, narrative-packed games that would have undoubtedly made the staffers at the original Avalon Hill very proud, there was considerable surprise. But what’s perhaps more surprising is that the title which was widely considered the best of those games, Nexus Ops, was allowed to go out of print and never got re-released. Trust Fantasy Flight Games to pick up the slack and make sure gamers got to have another bite at this particular cherry, and they were good enough to send me a copy so I could see for myself what they’ve done with the license.
At first glance there’s little that’s particularly ground-breaking about Nexus Ops. It’s a science fiction game where players use the income from mines they control to buy a variety of human and alien troops with different stats and abilities which then issue forth across a random geomorphic map to do battle and hopefully gain control of some more mines so that there’ll be more money for more troops on future turns. Its design lineage is thus vast and ancient, although it has a very clear relationship with venerable World War 2 dinosaur Axis & Allies in the form of sharing a combat system. But leaving it there would be doing Nexus Ops a vast disservice.
For starters games of this ilk have traditionally been long and complex affairs, frequently governed by an overarching diplomatic meta-game of unstable alliances and unconvincing pleas to attack other players which was as important, if not more so, than mastery of the mechanical strategies of the game. Nexus Ops is neither long nor complex: it takes ten minutes to teach and about thirty minutes per player to complete. And whilst you can certainly do a bit of negotiation to enrich the experience if you so desire, it’s certainly not allowed to dominate the strategy of the game. As a result the game also scales very well across two, three and four players, as it’s hard to meaningfully gang up against a single unfortunate player.
The secret to this startling transformation is actually very simple. Instead of the fixed territorial or economic win conditions of most games of this ilk, Nexus Ops works on a victory point model driven by a very large and diverse stack of mission cards for the players to complete. Winning any old combat will net you a point, but depending on what cards you’re holding you might get bonus points depending on where the battle was fought, what units were involved, which special abilities they deployed and how many died in the course of the fight, sometimes even if you lose. This means that a clever player can continue to eke out occasional points from a relatively weak position, and the result is that traditional tactics like ganging up on the leader are still effective without significantly slowing the pace of victory points coming into the game, so keeping it to a manageable length and preventing diplomacy and alliances from dominating the play. In another clever move, players collect these mission cards in secret meaning that a canny gamer who has set up the board to his advantage can quite suddenly cash in a number of cards and come from nowhere to lead or even win the game. This system rewards smart play, aggression and careful planning whilst remaining deliciously exciting and tense. It’s an absolute gem, and I’m surprised it hasn’t been more widely copied elsewhere.
To add to the variety players also get a hand of power-ups called Energise Cards, which have a wide range of different, well-designed effects and which often require skill and foresight to use to maximum effect. In a nice simple mechanism to help keep weaker players from sinking completely, winning a battle nets you victory points but losing one nets you an energise card. But the easiest way to get these cards is simply to control the central space on the board, known as the Monolith, which gives you two each turn. This is a fantastic way of encouraging the players to fight rather than hang back and build up but rather awkwardly, two cards per turn seems to be a bit too powerful while one seems insufficient reward for the effort of defending this important space.
Aside from this slight imbalance, the only other black mark against the game is a certain feeling deja-vu and repetition that creeps in after a few plays, the sense that you’ve seen this before, done it in the past. And this is where the Fantasy Flight reprint comes into its own. It looks like they’ve tweaked a couple of cards here and there but the major difference between this and the previous version is an appendix in the rules containing a quite staggering number of variants for you to try in order to help keep things fresh. Two try to solve the Monolith balance problem, one by awarding a choice of victory points or cards, other by turning the Monolith into a chaotic vortex that sucks units up and spits them out elsewhere, which will be pleasing for those who want more randomness. This is completed by another which posits face-up missions that anyone can fulfil, and will be pleasing for those who want less randomness. There are variant board set-ups, unit powers and exploration rules and more besides. They are, for the most part, well-designed and hugely welcome.
The other thing that Fantasy Flight did to Nexus Ops was to give it a fairly major visual overhaul. The original game had the peculiar innovation of featuring miniatures sculpted out of a transparent plastic that reeked of solvents and glowed under ultraviolet light. I’ve always wondered where on earth the people at Avalon Hill got that idea from, whether they think all board gamers are basement-dwelling troglodytes who would naturally have several UV lamps hanging around in order to enjoy this spectacular effect. In real life I don’t own a UV light, and I’ve never met another game who has ever seen the glow in action, although photographs exist that demonstrate how cool it is. But however pointless the addition might be, its mere presence endeared it to a lot of gamers, who complained that the Fantasy Flight reprint is muddy and ugly. And whilst this observation is entirely correct it seems to miss the fact that unless you play regularly under UV, the original is horribly garish and just as ugly. Which is a long-winded way of saying that I see no earthly reason to prefer the original over this reprint with its gameplay additions and (probably remote) possibility of expansions.
Nexus Ops is a wonderful game, which offers a rare and pleasing balance of strategic choice and escalating skill against randomness, variety and vibrant player interaction all wrapped up in a highly manageable package. It also represents, I think, a watershed moment in game design when suddenly a very large number of much longer, much more complex and much less interesting older games became obsolete because we suddenly saw how easily all the chaff could be stripped away, leaving us focussed on the core joys of planning extreme violence and rolling dice. One thing that length and complexity do bring to the table though is an epic, grandstanding feel and that’s the one thing that Nexus Ops lacks which its predecessors had. Otherwise, you’d be hard pressed to find a better way of fitting a nice slice of science fiction combat into your games evenings than this.
Fantasy Flight’s Rex: Last Days of an Empire has been out for about a month now and I’ve put it through its paces. It’s a nominal reprint of Avalon Hill’s classic Dune board game, but since FFG couldn’t get the license they reskinned the whole thing to fit their proprietary (and uninspired) Twilight Imperium setting. To FFG’s credit, they were sort of in a no-win situation with not being able to get the rights to the IP, and likely did the best they could.
The result is a surrogate Dune. It’s the guts of Dune, it plays like Dune, but it isn’t Dune. It doesn’t have Dune’s heart and soul. It’s a clone with metal eyes- like the Gholas in Herbert’s novels. Instead of Houses Atreides and Harkonnen clashing over Spice blows on the sands of Arrakis, you’ve got space turtles and space cats duking it out over abstract number chits in a space city that’s more or less a rip off of Coruscant.
You can buy this game and experience- at least mechanically- why Dune is one of the best games ever published. But the make-it-fit setting, horrendously misguided map redesign, and needless alterations spoil the experience to a degree. Review is at Gameshark. Prognosis? Just play Dune, if that’s an option for you.
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.