By Which We Measure Our Pain – An Inspire: Works of Mercy review

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When I stumbled over Inspire: Works of Mercy in my preparation for Spiel 2016 I was intrigued by the hook of the game: you go out to help people in need. Not in a somewhat abstracted, top-level manner where you eradicate dangerous diseases before they spread out and cause harm. Nor in that almost superheroic manner where you drag a young woman (and later her dog) out of a burning building before it collapses on top of you. Instead you reach out to people who are homeless, who suffer from addiction or depression. You reach out and try to help them. The problems in this game are normal life-type issues. This grounds the game, makes it relatable and to be honest… kind of awesome.

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Photo by Sławek Wiechowski

Unfortunately the rest of the game’s ideas are hopelessly outdated and barely functional. You lay out cards in a 5×5 grid, representing people that need help and people that may support you in helping others. In order to move your cube towards one of the people in need, you roll a die. In order to help them, you need to spend resources depicted on the card you landed on, which you get by first moving to one of the corner spaces of the play area and rolling a die. In the tradition of such game design luminaries as Snakes & Ladders or Monopoly, dice make all relevant decisions for you.

To be fair, the game does have a kernel of two good ideas buried within it. The card piles of “people in need” and “helpers”, that make up the play area, are both are face down, so you don’t know what awaits you when you end your turn there. Some cards have arrows on them, that add costs to moving off of them in a specific direction. This could have been used to make movement a clever and engaging little puzzle. But since the cards are set up in an alternating pattern, it only matters if you’ve rolled an odd or even number. Odd numbers will move you onto a different card type, even numbers will move you onto the same card type you started on.

The other kernel of a good idea is the introduction of an “everybody loses” ending to the game to encourage cooperation among players. When you reveal a person in need that you can’t help, other players may spend their resources to keep the card from being discarded. If they don’t, the card is removed from the game, and once you’ve discarded 7 cards this way, everybody loses. But since players are actually capable of counting, this threat is both toothless and easily ignored.

Basically, the game is not very good. It replaces decision-making with randomness, and the short bursts of enjoyment when you can claim to have helped a lonely old man by showing an interest in him, and giving him a gift… are simply not enough to keep you engaged for the 20 minutes it takes to play this game.

Which means now is about the right time to talk about the game’s central idea: Christianity.

Inspire is clearly not supposed to be played as a game, to foster social interaction, to create a space for play or even appeal to the puzzle-solving or challenge-seeking player. Inspire exists to promote Christianity. Most likely Roman Catholicism, since that is the most wide-spread strand of Christianity in Poland.

In fairness, it’s not particularly shy or coy about it. The box comes with a small booklet named “Message of the Game” and has short descriptions of the historical and fictional characters featured on the cards. As well as an “inspiring” (Get it? Get it? Did you get it?) opening chapter that talks about the power of mercy, and God’s love… and possibly accepting Jesus as your lord and saviour. (I am not sure about the last part actually, my booklet was badly miscut.)

Honestly, all of this isn’t much of an issue – assuming that you don’t have any particularly complicated feelings towards organised religion. You could insist that a depression isn’t cured with a nice chat, a gift and a job offer. Which is all true. But then, neither do you plant and harvest a wheat field by putting one worker in it. Nor does the crop double in size, because you send their brother after them. Call it abstraction or simplification, but it would seem strange to criticize Inspire for doing what all games do.

Sure, you could also get offended that being a non-conformist (“rebellious”), an atheist or an orphan is treated as a personal crisis akin to unemployment, homelessness or addiction. Yet a game like Chaos in the Old World rewards you for murdering innocent peasants and we treat it as a non-event and trivial fiction.

Because it is.

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Only a man who is spiritually empty would be proud of that haircut.

Actual murder is awful and harrowing. Rolling a 4-6 and removing a piece of cardboard from the table… is not. Whether a card says Atheist or Conservative doesn’t really matter. Sure, in reality one means that you’ve given your soul over to eternal damnation and abandoned what moral compass you had, and the other that you don’t believe in the existence of god(s)… but in the end it’s only words. We don’t celebrate murder, because we slaughter peasants for points; nor do we assume atheists are deeply unhappy people, because we get to “help” them in this game.

Ultimately the idea of helping people in need is great and fun. Inspire is at least respectful enough of non-Christians (the atheist card notwithstanding), that the tokens used to aid people have a religion-themed name and a secular name. Prayer is also conversation. Word of God is also “kind word”. You can easily fill in the thematic negative space with a narrative about how you had a heartfelt conversation, gave somebody a gift or spend some time together to help them turn their life around.

Whatever good intention of promoting kindness, solidarity and compassion might have found an outlet in people turning to the bible, which in turn led to the creation of this game… Inspire’s design simply falls short of capturing anything but the most superficial details of it all. The act of helping people becomes rote and mechanical as you play. There is no uncertainty, no risk of failure, no sacrifice. The ennobling act of helping the helpless is instead replaced with players reading out a card’s flavour text, i.e. quote from the Bible, as if it were a game of Arkham Horror.

Inspire is simply not very good. The rules fail to coalesce into an interesting game. It is not even a good piece of Christian marketing, but possibly on par with a typical issue of The Watchtower.

Minus the long-form articles.

And centrefold.

Inspire’s game is pasted on and that is how it undoes whatever missionary purpose it was supposed to have. It doesn’t fail, because it’s religious, but because the game fails to promote the values with which Christianity promotes itself.

Ben Thinks – About Theme

Always the deep and ponderous thinker, Ben welcomes you on his mind’s journey as to the question why we want theme, and what we get out of wildly fantastical game settings.

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Everybody Wants Some

[Speaker’s Corner] Odeious Declarations

Ah, ’tis the month of love and romance and rumpy-pumpy! Splurge out on a box of chocs and some flowers…and then, hopefully, you’ll be able to ‘splurge out’ on the object of your desires! But, no – seriously, you need some better tools (no sniggering at the back!) if you want to attain true companionship and soul-mating mating; and by tools, I mean ‘poetry’ so consider this:
Shall I compare thee to the Family Game?
Thou art more complex and more intricate:
Start play’r doth put thy drafted cards in play,
And Stone it never e’er accumulates:
Sometime two Reed is there for you to take
And often Occupation’s tightly fought
And mighty wars do rage for Sow and/or Bake
With Oven, Well and workshops keenly bought
But thy eternal appeal shall not fade
Nor leave the gaming table ne’er returning
Nor sold on eBay or in Maths Trade
I think I’d rather see my gonads burning!
(N)ein Fest nor Dwarfish caverns ever be
Belov’d as much as ‘Gricola and me.
Have you got any Odes (to a Grecian Euro) of your own to share (that one about ‘the good merchants of Venus‘ doesn’t count BTW)?
-Tony

Perfect Information Podcast Episode 35 – When the Going Gets Tough

Handling the embers of gaming

February has to start on a somewhat dour note as we tackle the big question of how to keep going, when you feel burned out.

A few words for our sponsor: Spielpro.com (36:50)

This week’s stay at the guild is shaped by the vibrant and exciting discussions happening on our forums. Particularly your replies to our question of conflict in gaming. (38:10)

A few more words for our sponsor: Yolo-Games.com (1:01:00)

And finally, we review When I Dream by Chris Darsaklis. A small, gimmicky-seeming party game that is much more satisfying than it seems at first. Not least of all because you get to wear a naughty blindfold. Though, possibly not for the reasons you might assume (01:03:51)

In unrelated news, we can neither confirm nor deny that the absence of our regular contributors Nick Mariner and TC Petty III. in this episode has to do with their involvement in a top secret counter-counter-counter espionage mission to get two infamous political leaders, code-named “Man Boobies” and “Puppet”, to play Munchkin until they utterly despise each other.

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Perfect University 102 – Negotiation in Board Games

Everybody Wants Some

Negotiation is a skill. In some cases it is even an art. Negotiation in board games on the other hand is something of an unanswered question mark. Today’s lecture will touch upon how board games incorporate negotiation and how to recognise it.

(There is also mention of the best negotiation game currently on the market. And it’s probably not the one you’re thinking of right now.)

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Perfect Information Podcast Episode 34 – When Two Worlds Collide

We are leaping headfirst into the unknown… like that Assassin’s Creed guy Fassbender… and boldly throw out episode 34 of this fancy podcast. This time Ben & I talk about conflict in board games. Inevitable and ubiquitous as it may seem, there is still something about being at cross purposes that is cause for friction and unease. So why not bring it out into the open?

Then T.C. Petty III voices his unique take on dominance in Deep Design, touching on the Prisoner’s Dilemma and how to deal with dominant strategies (35:35).

A short commercial break for our sponsor yolo-games.com (47:47).

We then return to the guild (48:44) and it has been quite busy in our absence. Ben asked if professionalism in board games is a good or bad thing, and the replies have been as enlightening as ever. 

Another short commercial break for our sponsor Spielpro.com (1:09:07).

The ever eloquent Nick Mariner speaks as The Boardgame Professor and delights, excites and educumirificates for your and all our betterment (1:10:42). And more importantly draws his blinding analytical gaze to Penny Press.

And finally we review Kreo (or Kreus) by Cooi Mini or Not & Sweet Games. A cooperative card game that may run the risk of being overlooked in the oncoming deluge of heavy hitters. Does it deserve a closer look? We know and we aren’t telling! 

 ….

Alright… maybe we are telling.

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Opposites detract.

Living on the Edge – A Between Two Cities review

If our world were to carry a motto, a legend that would simultaneously underline the core essence of human existence, while transcending those deviations that are caused by social structures and cultural mores, that motto would be ‘might makes right’.

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Photo by Stonemaier Games

From the dragon-haunted days of warring states China to our current folly of handing the reins of our fragile planet to a rampaging Id, wrapped in orange bacon and topped with a piss-coloured wig, the ability to thump one’s chest and roar as loud as possible has been the way to get on in the world.

The art of the deal has never been clever manipulation, no matter what Machiavelli or Milton Friedman may tell you, but the ability to not show even the slightest remorse as you relentlessly pummel your opponent into the shag pile carpet. Whether that be using a beautifully tempered Guandao or the cast iron certainty that even your lies are true.

This is why CMON and FFG stand so tall in board gaming. It is their sheer adherence to might above all else. If the oil fields of plastic don’t get ya, then buying up all the distribution channels will.

The result of this is that small and delicate voices can be crushed under the sheer volume of weightier titles.

This is what happened to Between Two Cities, the wonderful partnership city building game from Stonemaier Games. No sooner had it been released than Scythe came and stomped all over it with its huge, metal feet.

Between Two Cities was drowned in the smoke of choking diesel and the roars of Siberian tigers and while it’s gargantuan stable mate is of undoubted quality, I want to put a case across for the little guy, and I speak, not as a hollow demagogue, manipulating your prejudices for my own ends, but as someone who feels that there is always room for a subtle voice that implores us to find a more amicable solution.

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Photo by Ivan Kosak

If Between Two Cities had a motto it would be, ‘Work Together To Your Own Benefit’.

In this game cities are built between players and each player contributes to the city on their right and their left. Players draft two tiles, 7 Wonders style, then place them into their cities. Tiles represent entertainment establishments, residential buildings, offices and factories. Particular placements score points in particular ways. For instance, entertainment buildings score more points the more of them there are in a city, and offices get bonus points, if they’re next to them, because there is no better antidote to the workaday life than cirrhosis of the liver.

Tiles are placed, draft direction is reversed and reversed again until between each player a four by four grid is sat, that represents their valiant attempts at civil engineering. Some of these may be great metropolis like New York or Kuala Lumpur, and some may be Preston. But the fuel that pushes this game along and gives it its heart is that players will only be scored for their lowest value city, so there is no incentive to allow one city to fall into managed decline and pump all of your resources into the other one (can you hear me, Margaret Thatcher?).

This is a game that scales beautifully, but really sings at its full player count of seven. There is no doubt that there is much borrowed here from 7 Wonders, but this isn’t simply a grave robber making off with the funerary mask of Tutankhamen. Between Two Cities has gently brushed off the foundations of 7 Wonders and built something beautiful on top of them.

This game is short, but nourishing. The decisions and limitations are interesting and challenging. There are enough elements here to make you think but not too many as to overwhelm but it is in the cooperation that this game really stands out.

In building the cities you are compelled to engage with the people either side of you, but with the limitation that you can’t consult with them when you draft your tile. Between Two Cities is a game of compromise and rubbing along with one another. It is a game of presenting what you have and then, with the help of your partner, making it work. Between Two Cities teaches you that your success is directly dependent on the success of those around you. In this it is as much a lesson in social cohesion as it is a game. The important thing is, though, is that it never lets you forget that it is a game and as a game it is beautifully designed and a real pleasure to play.

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Photo by Stonemaier Games

We are entering an age in which ostentatious bluster will be the norm, and those of a more delicate demeanour are in danger of being swamped by the gaudy, gilt-drenched absurdity of it all. This is why it is incumbent on all of us, who value something more than just size, should make our voices known and extol small, subtle pleasures whenever we can. This is why I’m writing this review and this is why you should play Between Two Cities.

-Ben

Ben Exposits – The Purpose

In this week’s slice, Ben makes with the speaky-speaky using the wordsy-smordsy and asks himself: what is the point of gaming? 

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On the why of gaming.

Georgios Draws First Blood – Star Trek: Ascendancy

Whoever said that you can’t have an opinion on a game after only one play? Fanboys, that’s who! And since we here at Perfect Information are fanboys of our own opinions first and foremost, we’d never keep the Perfect Information Podcast Listeners (or PIPL for short) from experiencing the raw, real and unrefined reaction to a game we just played.

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It’s a big box promising big ideas

There are many ways for a game to achieve greatness. It can have rules so refined and precise that they seem impossibly simple and effective (Flamme Rouge). Its design can boldly break new ground to excite and mesmerize (Vast: The Crystal Caverns). The game’s presentation might be so vivid and inviting, that you can’t help but want to dive in and play it (Seasons). Or it may reliably produce a memorable and fun experience every time you get it to the table (Hoax). Actually, there is no limit to the way in which a game can be great and each year you’re bound to come upon a game that is great in a whole new way.

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Artist re-creation of playing Star Trek: Ascendancy the first time

Star Trek: Ascendancy, sadly, only makes it halfway to greatness. The potential for a milestone in licensed board gaming is there. But in what might be the most heart-breaking failure to capitalize on what a game’s design can do, Ascendancy squanders it all when you enter the mid-game.

I cannot overstate just how effortlessly and elegantly the opening act of Ascendancy manages to encapsulate that unique Star Trek feel. The sense of wonder and exploration as your intrepid spaceships go forth to find new planets, interstellar pheonomena and new civilizations isn’t achieved by some mind-blowing feat of new ideas. It uses familiar mechanics and it just plain works. More than that, it sings. In the most basic terms, it’s really not all that different from the way you explore the haunted mansion in Betrayal at House on the Hill. Random dice rolls determine distances between star systems and blind card draws determine what you encounter on planets. As an aside, the way that the concept of Warp speed is dealt with in this game – namely allowing you to skip systems if your ship or fleet sits out a few turns – is ingeniously thematic, yet easy to grasp. But all this isn’t something you haven’t seen before. Yet the visual presentation, the references to Trek lore and the suddenness with which exploring ships can simply be lost to the vastness of space make the whole thing crackle with excitement. This is exploration: pure and simple.

It’s also quite interesting, that when Star Wars Rebellion felt more like a remixed version of the movies, Star Trek Ascendancy feels far more like your own take on the Trek universe. The planets, nebulas and events have far less narrative baggage, so when Risa or Deneb V are placed on your table, it doesn’t come across like a re-edit of the series and is instead simply an Alpha Quadrant that is uniquely yours.

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Earth’s backyard is wondrous and full of dangers. And parties on Risa!

Soon enough exploration turns into expansion. You start colonizing distant planets. You begin to expand your cultural influence to make other civilizations join your side. Your presence in space becomes more and more pronounced. The rush and excitement of the opening act gives way to a very traditional area control game. Resources generated at the end of the turn are invested into new buildings, increasing your resource output which allow you to invest said resources in further expanding your presence in the galaxy.

Expansion then quickly evolves into exploitation as your colonized planets start to produce resources for you. Your options widen and allow you to dive into research to get extra abilities, or improve the combat capabilities of your fleet. You can build bigger and bigger fleets. You start collecting victory points.

And this is where the game begins to falter. Because victory points (i.e. culture tokens) are automatically generated in every culture building you control at the end of every round. Which means, much like the highly criticized Imperial I strategy card in Twilight Imperium, that gives you 2 VP each turn for free, the game doesn’t really need much in the way of decision-making to advance you. You simply build as many VP-generating buildings as you can, and then sit and wait.

But the game doesn’t really go completely off the rails, until – ironically – you enter First Contact. That is to say, the first time one of your explored systems connects to one of another player, the game opens up a new layer: direct player interaction. What should be the crowning jewel of any reasonably complex or just any 4X game: the last surge of energy to propel the game into an epic finale… instead turns Ascendancy into a petty squabble over real estate. If the first half of the game is a sandbox that is yours to shape, the endgame is all about trampling other people’s sand castles out of spite with invasions, massive destruction of fleets and razed planetary surfaces.

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In this new episode the Federation goes to war with the Romulan empire over a community theatre and two dairy farms

In what is the most jarring tonal mismatch between theme and license, Star Trek Ascendancy ends as a simplistic, generic wargame where fleets of ships clash into one another, players chuck handful of dice across the table to obliterate the enemy and invade colonies. Because if Star Trek is known, remembered and loved for one thing it is the carnage of its epic space battles and the fighting over territory. When I think Star Trek, I think space war.

It is heart-breaking to see such a pitch perfect opening give way to what is basically Risk. And in 2017 that’s just not good enough. It’s not even one of the recent iterations of Risk. It’s basically a dusty old copy from your uncle’s attic, with all the mission cards missing, a tattered rulebook and most of the pieces replaced by some distant cousin’s Napoleonic wargame tokens from the late 1960s.

But it’s rage-inducingly frustrating because the solution, and the return to a game that is in line with what people love about Star Trek, is so apparent. VP could have been based on completed objectives, like in Twilight Imperium. They could have been based on playing to type, in the way that advancement tokens are awarded in Chaos in the Old World. Imagine a Star Trek game, where you explore planets and then try to deal with planetary crises, espionage plots, outside threats and diplomatic missions to stabilise the quadrant as you all compete for hegemony. THAT is the Trek game I want. That is the Trek game that would bring all the boys (and girls) to the yard.

Star Trek Ascendancy has fantastic production values. It starts off promising and is then content to just let you turtle as you accrue VP, or play a game of Risk. Whoever at Gale Force Nine was responsible for the creative decision to have every game culminate in large-scale fleet battles has badly misjudged the appeal and draw of the Trek license. And while an argument could be made that this is a case of a license being stretched to fit the demands of the 4X-genre, you have to ask yourself why that would be necessary in the first place. The hobby has more than enough great 4X games already, but there is a definite dearth of great Trek games. Even now, with Star Trek Ascendancy on the market.

 

-Georgios

 

Perfect Information Podcast Episode 33 – Heart at Work

Here we go…. again.

The new year brings minute differences… so let’s not dwell on what has been but instead on what awaits you, dear listener, in this fancy new episode.

We open up on a spirited (if most likely alarmingly ignorant) discussion on the amateurist nature of the board gaming industry. Does it exist? Is it good? Is it bad? What is a sentence construction?

We remind you of our sponsor spiel-pro.com and all the great things they offer.

Our sojourn at the guild is tragically cut short.

 

Then we offer a few words for our sponsor yolo-games.com.

Nick Mariner, he of laconic intonation, unveils his new segment “The Boardgame Professor” in which he fixes his edumucationalary gaze on “Lewis & Clark“.

Our review game is the drinking extravaganza Raise Your Goblets.

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