Just as the warm lull of consensus threatens to turn the internet into a sea of sharing agreeable opinions with one another, and acknowledging individual experience… the Contrarian valiantly climbs upon the highest horse he can find to loudly declare his edicts of the school of Nuh-uh!
Namely, reviews & reviewers. Quite possibly the talkiest of all D&D-supplements.
Motion Pictures is a deckbuilder that hides its genre, by very carefully and precisely paring down everything that’s become accepted about deckbuilders: hand size, shuffling, discards, scoring. It is in a way a haiku of deckbuilders. If it was delivered by a bored teenager only half-paying attention, because they are too busy playing with their phone. Yes, I’m talking about you, Shannon! Will it kill you to put that thing down?
The first thing to strike you about Motion Pictures is that the cards do not look great. While that kind of superficial complaint is easy to dismiss, it does manage to temper both the appeal of the game as a whole, as well as the appreciation of its design. For a game that drapes itself in the most visual of modern art forms, it’s both surprising and disappointing that the visuals might be the game’s Achilles’ heel. (Because they’re Greeks, see? The designer, the publisher, the myth… I’ll link to a youtube video later, that will explain it all.)
As film producers you try to put together the right crew (i.e. play cards) to complete projects (i.e. collect other cards), that will give you victory points (i.e. VP) at the end of the game. So far, so elevator pitch. In what is an amusing, little “spot-the-reference” game, the projects you complete have illustrations that bear an eerie resemblance to posters, scenes or promotional material of well-known film and TV entries. From Doctor Who to Jurassic Park to The Godfather to Τροχονόμος Βαρβάρα* – Admittedly the references are not so much references, as casually traced artwork, but that’s beside the point.
Unfortunately, the choice in art direction does not lead to a sense of charming recognition that makes you feel like a big name in Tinseltown. Instead it makes the game look cheap and lazy. Which is a shame. Because the game’s design is solid (if flawed). Every time I sat down to play it, I was surprised at how quickly it was over. The importance of the decisions I’ve taken in the first few turns only became apparent to me in hindsight. If only I had only bought this card, it would have paid off in later turns. If I had discarded that card, my hand would have been even leaner in the end game. Since your deck rarely reaches twice your hand limit, every single card in it counts.
Yet Motion Pictures can be played so casually, with long-term consequences of your actions barely noticeable, that you might come away thinking that there is no meat to this game. Its presentation adding to this impression of it being a barely average deckbuilder.
Buying new cards or pledging cards to a project are simple decisions. But they subtly change the flow of the game, its dynamic and most importantly the breadth of options available to you. Just like any good deckbuilder does. Why then is this delicate gem so overlooked? Why aren’t ther more people talking about it?
Because while the subtleties and intricacies of timing and deck composition are apparent to anyone who pays attention to the rules, they are also easily overshadowed by what I can only describe as a blatant oversight during the game’s development: the player with the laziest strategy is no worse off than the smartest play you can come up with. Sheer luck of the draw puts you on an equal footing to a player strategically putting together their deck. You can rush the game by simply completing the cheapest projects available to you, possibly even scoring additional points at the end due to having the most projects, or projects of a genre, etc.
Although you can choose to play subtly and cleverly, just going for the lowest hanging fruit each turn is just as competitive. This simple fact ultimately hollows out whatever tactical or strategic appeal the game has. It is too easy to complete projects with your starting cards, even towards the end of the game, to make deck construction all that necessary. If the right projects show up on your turn, there is little incentive to think ahead. No reason to consider cards in the market. No need to jettison dead weight cards.
To be fair, it is always possible that an unexpected strategy completely upends a game’s design. Approaching the game from an unusual angle might mean that the design’s careful arrangement of incentives and limitations simply misses its target. In Motion Pictures, though, you can do what you’re supposed to be doing in the dullest and most obvious way, and still have a shot at winning. None of the intricate decision spaces ever open up for you, and the game just patters along and then ends. Generally painless, but without much to remember it by.
* – That is a lie. There is no reference to this milestone of cinema. And I am outraged by this omission. OUTRAGED!
Put on some Kool & The Gang, turn your stereo up to 11… we have reached episode number 50. And put out all the stops. Literally. This is the longest episodes we’ve ever released.
Naturally, we use this achievement to rest on our laurels and instead of coming up with questions, we spend an extraordinate amount of time answering yours. Find out everything you want to know about the two hosts you’ve uncritically listened to for the last two years.
The great T.C. Petty III. returns at 1:13:50 to let you all in on what he has been up to, when he has not been in it. And by it I mean the recent episodes.
Sober and with new-found purpose we return to the guild at 1:21:31, and talk about the things that matter most to you: is the one-hour-euro a gift or a curse to this hobby?
The board game professor Nick Mariner returns at 1:37:35 to spread the word(s) about his 50 favourite board games of all time. You will not believe what’s on number 6! Or maybe you will. It’s hard to read minds over the internet.
Our review this week is all about looking back at the past, and there is no bigger highlight in our gaming past than Chaos in the Old World. So today you get to hear why.
My first Essen was extremely ad-hoc. I’d submerged myself into gaming and was blissfully gliding through the deeps of the hobby. I’d just moved to Germany and knew enough of its geography to know that it contained Essen. Everyone in gaming talked about Essen. Two weeks before the event I scoured hotel websites looking for something cheap and rose from the Mariana Trench of the internet with something that cost me 22euros a night. I shared a room with a man and his teenage daughter. Not a word passed between us in the days we spent together. They were sleeping when I left and they were sleeping when I arrived back. The only sign that I’d ever been there was the steadily growing pile of games and the blood curdling screams from my congenital night terrors.
Millions of words have been written and digital vats of virtual ink have been spilt eulogising Essen, Gen Con and conventions in general. Barns full of innocently hyperbolic paragraphs containing adjectives like “awesome” and “life-changing” cover the internet landscape and reap bushels of upvotes. This isn’t one of those pieces. I’ll leave those pieces to the people who enjoy the devotional adjective more than me. Safe to say I broadly agree with those sentiments and welcome the billions of words that will cover that well trodden ground in the future.
I mention my first Essen for two reasons. Firstly, it was where I bought, on a whim, five minutes before leaving, the game I’m writing about in this piece and secondly because I’m incurably prolix and need a three hundred word run up on any topic I choose to handle.
This is a piece about a game I love. A game I have had many hours of enjoyment from and I game I still play. This is a piece(as you will have already guessed by the title) about Spyrium by William Attia.
Spyrium is little remembered today, a scant four years after its release but it was quite the thing at the time. This was the follow up from the person who had designed the titanic, Caylus and that was a big deal. This game’s subsequent descent into the annals of obscurity is a shame, an understandable shame but a shame nevertheless.
But why is it understandable I hear you ask. If you love the game so much you should be bemused at its fall from grace rather than accepting, shouldn’t you? SHOULDN’T YOU!!!!
I shouldn’t and if you’ll calm down for two minutes I’ll explain why. There’s the theme, it exists but barely. There is nothing to grab on to. Nothing that plunges hooks into the flanks of your imagination. The players are people and doing something for Queen Victoria with some new mineral. Or something. There is a lot of muddy brown and men in steampunk spectacles. In fact if muddy brown is your thing then you have found Xanadu. Everything is caked in it and what isn’t caked in brown is smeared with the grey and black smut of the factory. It seems the graphic designer had taken Friedrich Engels and George Elliot as their jumping off point and just got drabber from there.
Also the game is modest. It comes in a small box and doesn’t boast the kinds of toys that are so in vogue. It doesn’t stand out. It doesn’t have any “shelf presence”(I take a pause to scrub myself after using that phrase).It uses a fantasy theme but barely and has components that do their job rather than drink the entire Caledonian oil reserves in their production. It’s an exquisite and quiet game so subsequently gets drowned out in the neon roar of plastic and apps; it is wonderful though so in my small way I want to try and amplify it and bring it to a wider audience.
I love crunchy decisions. The crunchier the better. I absolutely hate it when someone leaves the bag of decisions open over night and they go all soft. I want my decisions to be audible ten rows down in the cinema and Spyrium is just one big plastic bag full of crunchy decisions.
Game designers like to reiterate systems and William Attia is no exception. Worker placement rests on the twin pillars of Agricola and Caylus but Spyrium shows a greater departure from the subtle steps forward that Uwe Rosenberg makes in his reiterative designs. There is worker placement in Spyrium but the system has been gutted and rebuilt from scratch. The chassis is old and battered but the engine is running on hyper-kenetic-cryo-fuel.
Cards are placed out in a grid and workers are placed in between giving players an option of which card they can activate. Couple that with the fact that removing a worker can also furnish you with the cash needed to do the actions in the first place, the simple act of plopping down a meeple becomes a tactical game of chicken where the person who blinks first can lose vital coins or have the one building that completes their plan swiped from under their nose.
Placement and activation are separated into different phases here like in traditional worker placement games but the decision of when to make the transition between phases is decided on by the player independently. Do you place all of your workers and get more actions but run the risk of being gazumped or do you pull the trigger quickly, giving you fewer options but letting you operate quicker?
The cost of actions are determined by the prices on the cards but also the amount of workers that surround it so waiting is cheaper and money is tight but if you wait someone could jump ahead of you steal that vital component of your machine. Timing is everything in Spyrium and it is in that that the joyous crunch of Spyrium emerges.
I have to declare a bias here. Those games that I bought at that first Essen are tainted with the gossamer corruption of nostalgia. It’s as if they are smeared with Vaseline and bathed in candle light so that whenever I look at them they appear in eighties soft-focus but, importantly, most of them haven’t been played since. Spyrium has and recently too and I can say, without reservation, that it is as good and crunchy now as it was that first night when, punch drunk and booze drunk, I tore off the cellophane, laid it on the table, started the machine and watched it chug under my inelegant fingers. I recommend that you do the same. I recommend you go to wherever you can find this game and buy it. Spend hard cash on this game that some rando on the internet is gushing about. Don’t look at the cover or the size of the box. Give the person behind the counter your money and then rush home and start up this wonderful machine. I promise you, you won’t regret it.
Ahh, cookies. Everybody loves cookies. It’s an immutable law of physics: people love cookies. Soft or crumbly. Chocolate or nut. More or less. But have you ever really thought about the care and skill that goes into creating such a cubic delight of pastries? The artisanal craft that lays the groundwork for you to ravish that seductively arranged box of cookies. A cookie box so to speak.
What trade secrets go into its selection? What obscure recipe has brought forth the many delights that this pack of well cooked dough evokes? Who…
Ah, sod it. It’s just a game. Arrange your tokens as dictated by a card, before the other players do. Bam! You’re sorted.
It also looks cute. The tiles you arrange have icons on both sides, although the two sides never match. So finding the right “waffle”-icon hiding behind the “blueberry”-icon that you already need elsewhere, leads you down the rabbit hole of hectically flipping over tiles, arranging them, cursing, re-arranging them, cursing some more and letting some panicked expletives fly across the room as somebody else rings the bell, before you get to it. Yes, the game comes with a bell. It’s bright, and shiny. And loud.
If you are now wondering whether you and your friends might enjoy such a game… you have to ask yourself a different question first: how seriously can you take this game? How eager are you to beat your friends in a competitive tile-arranging game? Without spaceships? Without scary art of a post-apocalyptic wasteland? Without some rennaissance-type man blandly staring at you from the game’s cover?
In other words how seriously can you take a game that is bright, happy and cute? A game that drapes itself in a foppishly droll and trivial theme, and delivers a challenge that is seemingly without much bite or depth?
A lot of games try to channel the competitive energy that gamers harbour within them through take-that mechanisms, conflict rules in which player forces clash into one another with heavy losses on either side, or even through the refined passive-aggressiveness that is blocking. So much so, that occasionally I end up feeling worn out and tired of fighting against my friends over and over again, when we sit down to play. The rules take the place of stick-and-carrot, pushing us into a headspace that allows us to indulge our inner caveman. There’s nothing wrong with that. A little escapism goes a long way towards clearing your head. Still, some designs are a little more obnoxious and in-your-face about it than others. Like a hopped-up, neglected 8-year-old smashing his action figures together over and over again in the hopes of one of them breaking.
Or rather, Cookie Box. There’s none of that here. No rules explicitly made to mess with your opponents. No component scarcity for the sole purpose of creating conflict. This game’s competition works the same way that multiplayer solitaire games allegedly work: by tapping your skill at completing a task before anybody else does. No interruptions. No blatant randomizers. No kingmaking. If that is what you want: Cookie Box delivers.
Admittedly, you won’t have to calculate the exchange rate of wheat to stone or plot the actions you will have to take three turns from now, or even when to place that special tile to give you extra actions. Instead you flip tokens. And move them around.
If you and your group enjoys small and silly competition for its own sake, you might get a kick out of this game. Much like how we enjoyed grown men panicking and despairing at arranging brightly coloured tokens before somebody rung the bell. Its simplicity only gives players’ room to let their gamer id run wild.
Cookie Box might conceivably claim its place on the gamer party pantheon. Among such highlights as Looping Louie or Happy Salmon: a bane to the po-faced, a talisman to the joyful!
Why can’t everything be anticipation? The delicious uncertainty that is anticipation. Anticipation is the glisten in the eye, the tickle in the stomach, the tremble in the voice. It’s anticipation that drives us through life. That holiday in the summer or that date next week or that movie you just have to see. Anticipation is what hauls us through the workday and delivers us, panting, to a midnight screening, a field at dawn or another’s embrace. The key to a happy life is to forge a chain of anticipation. It’s one good reason to look forward to the future after another, until the day you can’t anticipate any more because your limbs are stiffening and you look like the singer from Mayhem.
Anticipation can have its drawbacks, though. One day you’ll be confronted with what you’ve waited for and it’ll be held up to the scrutiny of your anticipation. Can anything survive under the heat of such scrutiny? Sometimes. Sometimes in rare cases the actual thing can outstrip your expectations. Sometimes you can be surprised at the limits of your imagination. That you never imagined that something could be so good. Usually, though the opposite ends up being true. That movie can never live up to your conception of it. That person that you were dying to meet is just a person, that forest just a collection of trees and sometimes the target of your anticipation can be an unremitting, brow furrowing, genital shrinking, soul-desiccating disappointment.
This is a review of Seafall by Rob Daviau.
I anticipated Seafall. I anticipated it hard. This was to be the Legacy game for gamers. Not a great idea diluted by a huge corporation and an outdated game system. Seafall would take the single most revolutionary game innovation of the last twenty years and marry it to something vital, modern, relevant and worthy. Seafall was to be singularly significant. That is… until it wasn’t.
Seafall took too long to come out. By the time it was available Pandemic Legacy was already number one on BGG and the bloom had faded on the Legacy rose. All forms of art are prone to fads and board games are no exception. Like micro games before it, Legacy had basked for a short time and was now just another hill in the gaming landscape. Also, Seafall was expensive. It seemed that the greatest innovation that F2Z and then subsequently Asmodee had brought to its acquisitions was to hike up the prices (as the increase from €50 to €70 for Pandemic Legacy from one Spiel to the next testified to). Then the rumblings started to trickle out. That maybe, just maybe, this wasn’t the game everyone had hoped it would be…
I didn’t listen to those rumblings. I bought Seafall and I played it (this is where the review starts by the way).
Seafall is a legacy game set on the high seas during the Age of Sail. Players start with an empty map and through the unlocking of “chests” will find islands, lost treasures and discover the secrets of the ancients. Players can take different paths to victory. They can buy and trade. They can become pirates and raid other players’ ships and harbours, or they can take to the high seas and become explorers, discovering the bounty and horror of the new world.
Through the hiring of crew and the leveraging of guilds (which are actions you can take) players increase the renown of their provinces and receive the glory, that will win them the game.
Seafall combines resource gathering and manipulation with good, old-fashioned Ameritrash dice rolling and combat; and in both aspects it fails. Miserably.
While it is true that there are different paths to victory, each path is a long dreary trudge through a drab, mud-brown landscape and the destination is as dull as the journey.
There is the path of the merchant. Travelling down this path involves making tedious goods conversions until you’ve got enough money to buy things that reward victory points until you mercifully pass the VP threshold to claim victory. This is Splendour on Mogadons. The constraint on which actions can be taken each turn make acquiring and divesting yourself of resources take forever. As if the solution to a runaway leader problem was to encase their wellies in concrete. This strategy can certainly win you the game but at the expense of your mental well-being. I would describe it as Sisyphean, but I imagine Sisyphus had more fun chasing the boulder down the hill and swapping dirty jokes with that bird that pecked the liver out.
There is also the piratical path. The combat in this game, like all of the skill checks, is resolved by the rolling of dice. Buffs and constructions add extra dice to your pool and then you toss them leaving all of your planning to the caprices of chance. This is by-the-book output randomness, that can leave you hugely frustrated or simply underwhelmed. Couple this with the fact, that the resources you’re stealing have taken about a month to acquire, being a pirate in this game will result in the rest of the table wanting to hang you by your unmentionables. On top of this, the time it takes to become a viable pirate will have you looking longingly at that patch of drying paint in the toilet as an enticing form of alternative entertainment.
Exploration is the engine of the game. It is through exploration that the chests are unlocked and the story progresses. In these chests you will find various accoutrement that introduce new rules and others that have seemingly no function until you’ve spent half an hour trawling the forums on BGG.
Exploration tests are resolved by dice, then story sections are read and the player receives a cube. Essentially exploration involves the endless reading of almost identical texts and the receiving of cubes. The writing isn’t bad but after two plays they assume the character of a Philip Glass composition. They become wordless, dada tracts that dispense cubes. The words lose all meaning as you’ve read this all before and you start skipping to the bits that tell you how many cubes you’ve earned. If he were still alive Andy Kaufman could make a fortune reading from this book on college campuses.
The biggest problem with Seafall is that there is no game there. It is a jumble of ill-conceived and thoroughly dull ideas cobbled together to deliver a story. When the story is delivered, it drips the same uniform dull, brown lacquer that the rest of the game is drenched in. There are some interesting components and some interesting ideas, but by the time they’re revealed the will to engage with the game has drained away. Pandemic Legacy worked so well because the story emerged from a great game. Narrative in board games has to be rooted in the game and not the other way round, because without a decent game the narrative flounders and in Seafall it is sunk after the first play.
I would like to say that Seafall has chastened me. That I don’t let anticipation colour my view of things when they eventually arrive but that would be a lie. To misquote triteness: anticipation is the spice of life and to rob yourself of childlike excitement at the future is to confine yourself to the grey pragmatism of adulthood and to do that is to die before you’ve died. Let anticipation take you and sweep you away and even if you end up disappointed, it won’t be two minutes before you’re swept away again and so on into the never ending carnival of expectation.
In today’s contentious new episode we talk about punishment. But not the fun kind with whips, clamps and wax candles, but the weird and creepy kind with VP loss, resource denial and blocking. Is it really punishment? Or is thinking of it as punishment just leading us astray? Also, Nietzsche.
Ben would like to remind you of Gamechangers.org and how you can help young people in Uganda. It’s really worth it. You owe it to yourself to go and have a look yourself, and if some small donation makes its way into that campaign… it’s a small contribution to making this world a little better. Also, games.
We return to our beloved establishment of ludic or luscious extravagance and look at what you think are the games most dependant on the “right” group. Also, jealousy.
And finally, we review Arkham Horror: The Card Game. It is a card game. In case sleuthing skills didn’t lead you to that conclusion already. It also set in Arkham. Horrible as the place may be. (Please clap. We worked until 4 a.m. to come up with this joke.)