Perfect Information v Seth Jaffee

TMG’s Seth Jaffee enters our hallowed interviewing halls.

Let me right away dispel any rumours about the way this interview came to be. There was no blackmail involved, people did not go missing. They just naturally showed up again after the interview was conducted. It happens every day, thank you very much.

That said, Seth Jaffee was kind enough to sit down with Perfect Information to answer our burning questions in all matters playtest-y and Eminent Domain….-y.

In this long-form interview, Seth Jaffee talks about the essential qualities of a good playtesting session and how designer and players can contribute to it. He also delves into some of the history of Eminent Domain and its expansions. As well as talk about the next Eminent Domain expansion: Oblivion.

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The 2 Minute Review – Episode One

In these hectic times we live in, decisions need to be made quickly and decisively. The 2 minute review will help you steer your gaming collection in the right direction.

The One in which Ben goes to a Diner.

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Perfect Information Episode 17 – Social Engineering

I know that you know that I know that you’re a spy!

Let’s face it: as gamers we are extraordinarily intullig-intally-intellug-… smart.

As such it comes naturally to us, to use our huge brains to cleverly deduce when best to place a meeple next to a cube to score victory points. But recently, there has been a rise in games that flummox and confound our superiour innu-… intoullekt… smartiness.

These games are both social and deductive. Why are they? How are they? And is there a point to it? Ben & Georgios get to the bottom of this.

T.C. Petty III. draws a line in the sand and takes a principled stand on principles and philosophy. On game design. It’s game design. Come back. It really is about game design.

Nick Mariner has risen again to bring us his thoughts on the nature of licensed board games (coincidentally, Georgios wrote about Star Wars: Rebellion recently), or mostly the frothy craziness that seems to swirl around IP property. And what licensing does to gaming.

And for our grande finale, we review Dogs of War and don’t quite see eye to eye on this game. Much to everybody’s surprise.

And if you like to read some of our thoughts on all things gamery.. (or ornery)… we have a long-form piece to accompany last week’s Classic slice on Diplomacy.

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[folio] The Classics – Diplomacy

I’m not saying you’re a back-stabbing s**t but…

I have a hole. In me. It’s a big hole. It’s a hole that is very noticeable, if you speak to me for even a few minutes. People walk away from a conversation with me thinking: “nice enough guy but what about that gigantic hole?”

I wage a constant war against that hole. I try to fill it whenever possible. I look for help in books, TV, friends and family. Wherever I can, I try to corral aid to help me fill this very noticeable hole that I have.

I am, of course, talking about the huge hole in my knowledge. Whether it’s string theory, the cultural impact of early twentieth century Russian literature or the simple act of conducting a conversation without making the other person want to slice their own ears off. Whichever subject I choose babble mindlessly about, it is clear that I know about as much as a well trained cocker spaniel. Except humping tree trunks or other people’s legs, then I beat that sucker hands down… paws down?

Gaming is no exception. What I don’t know about gaming could be crammed into thousands of servers, placed in locations around the world, that would service the informational, commerce and sometimes fetishistic needs of the world’s population. Which would seem to revolve around a super human desire to take pictures of cats. What I don’t know about is Cats. Cats with clothes on. Cats with their heads pushed through slices of bread. Cats conducting the second round of debt ceiling negotiations. What I don’t know about gaming is cats. I need to change this.

I posted a request onto a website a couple of weeks ago, asking people if they could give me a list of classic games that I should play. The ones that have gone some way to defining the hobby and shaped the direction of travel. As always the people were fantastic, giving me a comprehensive list of the classics I need to play. This piece is a response to that.

I’ve decided that I shall embark on a quest to fill the hole in my knowledge. In a gaming sense at least. I want to try and play as many of these classics as possible and when I do I intend to write about it. These pieces won’t be reviews. I’m old fashioned in the sense that I feel if someone takes it upon themselves to pontificate on a subject (at least in a public sphere) that they should be somewhat expert in it. These pieces will simply be a litany of my failures and rare, modest successes. This is the first one. There are no cats.

I bought a game a few months ago. I bought it because it was a classic and the internet seemed to be completely obsessed with it. It arrived, I unwrapped it and slid it onto my shelf and there it stayed emitting some sort of diabolical radiation, because whenever anyone came over to play games one of them would inevitably say,

‘Ooh, what do you think of this?’

To which I would have to sheepishly reply ‘I don’t know. I haven’t played it.’

People do incredulous well. It’s a thing we do. It’s what separates us from the beasts of the field.

“Incredulity: It’s a thing we do.”

Then I would see incredulity sweep across their faces like brown sauce over a filet mignon. Then they always said thing like: ‘Really? but it’s a classic.’

My attention would then be drawn to my slippers (we don’t wear shoes in the house in Europe) and I’d mumble something about time then their expression would change and they would pipe up with: ‘We should definitely play this sometime.’

At which point I would run away screaming and throw myself into a bath full of gin. Why?

It’s a simple story of intimidation. It’s true. A grown man at the peak of his powers intimidated by a cardboard box filled with cardboard pieces. The question is, why did this game intimidate me so?

It shouldn’t have. It’s a classic, it’s been around for over fifty years and doesn’t seem to have lost any of its popularity. It’s a game that so many people say so many good things about. Also, I’d clearly been enthusiastic enough to buy the thing (alcohol can do that to a man) so why was I so reticent to play it?

There were two reasons.

Firstly was time. This game takes a long time to play. The kind of long time where you elongate the vowels in the word ‘long’. The kind of long that requires you to have a shave mid-game. The kind of long that makes the Hobbit movie seem only insanely long. The game takes that long to play. That’s a major commitment. I haven’t committed that long to any relationship in my life so to commit that long to a game was rather intimidating.

The second reason is that I opened the rule book.

I’m not a war gamer. I feel squeamish about turning real battles into games. Especially those that are closer to us in time. I have no issue with people wanting to play war games but it’s not for me. This is why I haven’t played Memoir 44, but I can’t wait for Battlelore Second Edition.

I was told that this wasn’t a war game. It was more of a negotiation game and I love (elongated vowel sound) negotiation games. The rule book didn’t make this clear.

I have subsequently learned that the majority of the rule book is simply examples of play and how to resolve certain situations. But at first glance it looked like high-caste ancient Greek that had been put through the enigma machine.

I closed the rule book and slowly backed out of the room.

Recently though, partly because I wanted something to write about and partly because I’d been asked so many times by so many different people when we were going to play that I girded my loins (you cannot play this game with ungirded loins), winched my waistband up to my chin and arranged a meeetup. What follows it a battle report of sorts about my first ever game of (exaunt, divers):

Diplomacy.

Spring 1901.

After the winter comes the thaw. The world awakes and takes stock of how it looks now that the snow has gone. I am summoned to a meeting of the heads of the greatest lands in fair Europa. We sit almost in each others laps. Our forces, bristling for conflict after years of craven peace, sharpen swords and rub unfired rifles in mineral oil. Waiting. Watching. Sinew taught and muscle flexed. Waiting for the utterance of a simple exhortation to ‘fire’,

That simple breathless syllable that will tear fair Europe apart and fertilise its fields with iron and blood.

I travel from Vienna. The most beautiful city in the world. The city where every street echoes with sounds of glory. Of Mozart, Beethoven and our recently departed J.S. Der Walzerkönig whose glittering river snakes through buildings that look that they were created, not built. This is what I have to protect and protect it I shall.

I like Turkey. At our meeting he approached me first. He shook my hand with a steady grip, he looked straight into my eyes. He neither prevaricated nor dithered. He told me exactly what he wished to do and was interested if his plans were in accordance with mine. They were.

We shall crush Russia.

Autumn 1901.

All goes well with fair Turkey. We have divided the Balkans and the Eastern Mediterranean with my friend moving forces into Bulgaria and Greece and us Austrians planting our K and K standard in the fertile fields of the Serbs and the wild Romanians.

I have agreed to leave Bohemia and Tyrolia as a buffer between me and the Germans in the north. He keeps asserting our filial obligation and I smile and placate him. He will be next after myself and brother Turkey have made the bear in the east dance.

Spring 1903

Who would have thought that the land of Katherine the Great and Ivan the Terrible would show such little backbone?

It seems that they are resigned to the superiority of this fine Austro-Turk coalition. It seems that the Eagle and the Crescent Moon fly in the same heavens. That the Great Nations of Christ and Allah have found common cause in rending the moth-eaten woolen brocade of the Orthodox East.

What sport it has been!

I have offered my Turkish brother the lands of the frozen east if he will allow me the true heart lands of the Austrian people. The fields and mountains of Bavaria. The flat plains of Prussia and the gentle, rugged Harz. The whole of Germany shall be mine.

Na dann? Prost!

Autumn 1905.

To see the face of the German deceiver as Berlin fell into Austrian hands was truly a sight I shall never forget! It shall warm me in my dotage and I shall regale my grandchildren with the tale again and again as we enjoy wine and sweetmeats in the gardens of Sanssouci.

I now have Bavaria and Prussia and soon all of Germany will be mine.

Those foolish Italians we duped into aiding me and fair Turkey and perforce distracted the Germans, allowing me to take what I wished. Soon, I from the north and Turkey from the south will have Italy too. I wish to sweeten my palate with a taste of Frangelico.

Brother Turkey has requested a part of Germany for himself but I have quieted his lusty Southern spirit with the promise of holding Russia in perpetuity. He is quieted. He is my brother.

Autumn 1907.

Ach! Nein! Mein Bruder, was hast du gemacht! Betrüger! Hässlicher Betrüger!

How stupid was I to believe that I could trust that pig from the south? We had the whole world in the palm of our hands and like a greedy dog he wishes to have it all for himself!

My folly was Germany. That I wanted it all for myself and so spread my forces thin. That is when that traitorous animal attacked me from the rear and took fair Serbia, Rumania and Budapest. He has crippled me! When we could have had so much together he has broken the bond that links man and man, and now my country bleeds!

Unser armes Österreich! Wir leiden so!

This isn’t a review. It’s deliberately not a review but I have to recommend that everyone play this game at least once. It is pure above the table gaming. It is a design of such simplicity and beauty that becomes one of the most ugly, underhand activities I have ever been involved in, (and I’ve worked with advertising people) and it was fantastic.

Play this game.

Be diplomatic.

Trust no one.

-Ben

The Classics Episode 1 – Diplomacy

In a valiant attempt to fight back the allure of the ever-present cult of the new, Ben Maddox reaches back to relive one of gaming’s classic games: Diplomacy. Famously touted as “destroying friendships since 1959”, it can now be experienced vicariously through Ben’s gripping rendition of a game of Diplomacy as seen through the eyes of Austria.

Oh, du schönes Österreich!

A review of Hoax (2nd ed)

Hoax (2nd edition) is a card-based social bluffing game, that took a mere 30-odd years to return to our shelves after its first edition. Designed by Bill Eberle, Edward Horn Jr, Jack Kittridge and Peter Olotka. Names that might be familiar to you, as some of them are the same people who gave the gaming world the gift of Cosmic Encounter and Dune (currently only available as its retheme called Rex – Last Days of an Empire). In Hoax you will deduce other player’s secret identity and unmask them or lie about who you are so outrageously, that the rest of the table can’t help but challenge. If it then turns out you have actually told the truth, you will have won the game. Hoax is a fast-paced, deduction-heavy bluffing game that’s over in anything from 1-20 minutes.

If that sounds vaguely similar to games like Mascarade or Coup, there is a reason for it. Hoax was possibly one of the first games that introduced the idea of bald-faced lying as a rules mechanic – as opposed to a reason not to get invited to game night again – and admittedly merged it with a bunch of clunky, somewhat needlessly complicated rules and exceptions. It was the 80s; people thought roll-and-move and player attrition were unwavering columns of game design.

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Hoax – the gamebox in most of its glory

 

But then a meager 30 years later, Coup came along, took the game’s core idea, scrubbed off any excess components and broke the game down to its quintessential elements. Quick and dirty player elimination by way of verbal Russian roulette. You get caught in a lie, you’re half-dead. You throw around a wrong accusation, you’re half-dead. You let somebody collect too much money as the game goes on, you’re half-dead. It played fast, the reprint by Indie Board and Cards was shiny and stylish… and the game went over in my gaming group like a wet fart during mass. After a dozen plays, I finally gave up and traded it away.

You will notice that I never wrote a review about Coup, but I am writing a review about Hoax. The reason for this is fairly simple:

HOAX IS DA BOMB, YO! (NOT JUST IN PHANTOMS.)

In Hoax you are dealt a secret identity at the start of the game, and will claim to be any one of the seven available during your turn in order to get the benefit of the role’s associated privilege. If you’re challenged the entire table will deliberate over whether you’re telling the truth or not. If you’re caught in a lie, you may not re-claim that role for the rest of the game. If you’re called out but actually did tell the truth, you win the game. The psychological effect of this shouldn’t be underestimated. Calling out another player always risks giving them the game. It’s silly and funny the first few times, but then the mind games begin. The delicious little mind games.

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The faces of the seven conniving, under-handed, truth-bending con-artists you will play.

To be fair, if you like and enjoy Coup, chances are its strengths are right up your alley and its weaknesses do little to diminish your enjoyment of the game. If that is the case, Hoax might just be a slightly different, a little gamier flavour of the Coup’s main idea. I’d agree with that assessment as well. The two games clearly share some DNA – and in a feat of cross-fertilization – some ideas about streamlining and interplay between roles seem to have helped this new edition of Hoax immensely.

Hoax succeeds in part because the game’s setting. Greedy, two-faced “relatives” competing to be the benefactor of late Hector Vargas’ last will. It invites silly roleplay and improvisation. This aids the experience in two ways. First – it takes a lot of the sting out of being eliminated, as people are laughing and making silly jokes about their own greed and untrustworthiness all the time. But second and more importantly, it gets people talking. Any bluffing game, any social deduction game is only as good as the group’s ability to chatter, chit-chat and babble during play.

In an inclusion that feels gamier, but actually just makes the game far more robust, deduction is not entirely based on reading people and social manipulation. There’s that as well, obviously, but the game also provides you with ways to gather information about the other players’ secret identity. You use role privileges to collect resources, and if you have one of each type you can spend it to investigate a player. They must then give you four identity cards (one corresponding to their own, three randomly chosen) and hand them to you. In addition to specific roles that they might have already be barred from claiming, this can easily and quickly lead to you finding out who that player really is. Then it’s only a question of sliding over the right identity card to eliminate that player from the game. If you end up being wrong, though, you’ll spend the rest of the game watching from the sidelines.

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Money, prestige and evidence – they seem insignificant little resources, that can pack quite a punch

Hoax succeeds as a game, because at any given moment the optimal move is not obvious. Tell the truth or tell a lie. It almost always comes down to the state of the meta-game and every claim that has been made before your turn. Everything you do will betray something about who you really are. The key to playing this game well lies in controlling what people learn about you. What ultimately brings this cauldron of psychological warfare to boil is the ever-present danger of being found out or giving somebody the game due to making the wrong accusation.

Hoax is a game of subterfuge wrapped in misdirection, which is itself couched in mind games and double-bluffs. Telling the truth can both win you the game, as well as paints a giant bullseye on your back. It comes in a tiny, explosive package and just as one game suddenly comes to an end, I find myself re-shuffling and dealing out cards again. This time I know exactly how to lie.

-Georgios

 

Perfect Information Podcast Episode 16 – It’s a hard knock life

To have or to hold.

Life is full of choices, decisions if you will. It is filled with questions that we ask ourselves and that we seldom find an answer to. Questions such as:

What does the perfect game collection consist of? – Ben & Georgios know the answer to this one.

Why should I care about binary decision making? – TC Petty III. has a few words to say on the matter.

Where is the guild section? – It’s complicated.

Come to think of it… where’s Nick Mariner? – Enough with the questions! We weren’t expecting the Spanish Inquisition! These are the show note for crying out loud!

We also review Burgle Bros – and end up digressing oh so slightly on the topic of game distribution. Is the game any good? The answers await you in this very episode.

The only question you have to ask yourself now is… do you feel lucky, punk?

(Note to editor: please make sure we haven’t screwed up our pop culture references this time.)

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Georgios Draws First Blood – Star Wars: Rebellion

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.

Today I, Georgios, open with….. Star Wars: Rebellion

The first and lasting impression Star Wars: Rebellion leaves you with is that it’s definitely a game.

That you can play on a table.

Provided it’s large enough.

Its defining feature seems to be that it feels like a long game, which shouldn’t come as a surprise, since it is a long game. You just happen to feel every minute of it. Arguably it’s the reason why FFG decided to slap the word “epic” on the box, but I think the game’s length is mostly due to some of the fairly clever mind tricks it plays on its players to get them to think along setting-appropriate lines. So the Empire will be an ever-expanding behemoth that doesn’t know which way to turn to squash the annoying gnat that’s constantly nagging at it. Whereas the Rebels will be sweating bullets, trying to stave off despair and hopelessness as the Empire inches closer and closer to their secret base and are getting ready to blow them to bits.


Take the turn number track for example. The Rebels’ marker starts at one end and the “game” starts at the other, pushing forward with each turn. If the turn order marker ever reaches the Rebel marker, the Rebels win. Naturally they can work towards fulfilling objectives, to push their marker further down the track, thus shortening the time it takes for them to win the game. But it’s small, incremental steps and the distance of 14 spaces makes it seem like a long and ultimately pointless struggle. Star Wars: Rebellion wants you to feel like you’re valiantly carrying shopping bags to stop a line of tanks, but it’s more like using a spoon to dig through a mountain. Admittedly, it’s a toffee mountain… but a mountain none the less.

It also doesn’t help that your deck of objectives is stacked to slow the Rebel player(s) down at first, by placing high-risk objectives into your hand, before you even have the resources to attempt them. Completing objectives is the only way to push the Rebel marker down the turn order track. So these become your priority, but actually aligning missions, leaders and the dice in such a way as to actually gain those coveted points is a highly risky endeavour. If the Empire catches wind of what you’re up to, it might not take much to foil your fragile little plans. And in another way in which fidelity to the source material dictates rules design, the death star remains invincible until turn 4-5 when an objective allows you access to the Death Star plans and give you a small chance to blow up that misshapen suppository.


On the other side, the Empire can quickly take control of a system and its resources by simply landing a ground unit on it, while Rebels need to devote a leader and a successful mission to turn a system to their side. This just hammers home the feeling of futility as the Empire gets to quickly and repeatedly churn out new units every other turn and comb through the galaxy, looking for the Rebels’ hideout.

All this does accurately evoke the general feel of the movies. Add in the remixing of certain pivotal moments of the original trilogy (“Han blows up the death star!”, “Leia gets frozen in carbonite!”, etc.), and you’ve got a game that competently evokes a same-but-different Star Wars flavour. Yet the game’s fidelity to its source might just be both its biggest strength and weakness. While it’s remarkable in how it invokes player behaviour that matches the films’ two biggest factions; it also focusses on things that the films thankfully skipped over. While it’s fun and exciting to see the Rebels’ last ditch effort to destroy the death star; it’s decidedly less exciting to see those characters first make their way through a dozen side missions that you know are just tiny steps towards a distant climactic battle.

Star Wars: Rebellion is ultimately a game of attrition. Every turn that the Rebels survive gets them closer to victory, while the Empire needs to first spread out to find the base and then come down hard on the revealed hideout to squash the Rebellion once and for all. But the search can feel long and arduous, even if you take short-cuts like a decisive interrogation of a captured Rebel leader. Knowing where the hideout is, only takes you halfway to victory. The Empire still needs to consolidate its military force to overrun said hideout. In our game, the Rebels ended up winning only because the Empire couldn’t get enough troops into the Rebel base in time. It was oddly anti-climactic after evacuating the original base on Ilum, hiding out on Hoth, afailing to destroy the death star and a late insurrection at Bespin, that slowed down the Empire’s ground troops. All those were enough to simply delay the Empire enough to win.

Despite the ease with which the Empire can spread out and produce new military units, they still have to struggle to get to their victory condition. They are torn between two conflicting objectives: spread out to find the Rebel base and keep your units huddled together to quickly strike at the Rebel base, once revealed. This also leads to such oddly fitting moments, in which the Empire player(s) will leave Rebel units stranded on some distant planet. They can’t be bothered to split their forces to kill them as they need to move their fleets elsewhere. There are great bits of design ingenuity in this game, that effortlessly make you think and act according to your designated role.

But it’s a long game and it feels like it. Completed missions and projects introduce incremental changes to the board state, which feel like tiny steps towards the end. That is until a stroke of luck, lets things spiral out of control and leaves both parties scrambling to put together a response. In our game, a successful interrogation led to the Empire finding our hideout’s system (i.e. they narrowed it down to 1 of 4 planets), and by the end of the same turn they had eliminated half of those possibilities. In the following turn we evacuated and this alone almost set the game back to zero. I can only imagine the frustration of having an hour’s worth of tactical play get wiped away like that.

We played the 2-vs-2 team variant, which allowed for each side to engage in some tactical discussion and chit-chat at least. I can’t imagine the dreary silence and intense concentration that would characterize a regular two-player game. I doubt I’d have the stamina or the interest to sit down to play this game one-on-one. The team variant splits leaders into two camps that each player gets to control. It also includes a needlessly rigid turn order. In our case, my co-player ended up with notably fewer leaders than I did, so he basically only get to participate in the first 1/3 of each turn. Once his leaders had been assigned, he’d watch me assign my leaders all over the map and twiddle his thumbs while I’d play out the round. The team variant feels unfinished and somewhat tacked on, which is a shame. A more robust team variant could have made the game pop.


I don’t think Star Wars: Rebellion is a bad game. There is a very exciting core to it, in which you need to choose between sending leaders on missions in an attempt to complete objectives, or keeping them on standby to make life harder for whatever it is that your opponent is trying to pull off this turn. But this fun part is mixed with a somewhat dull and archaic dice-chucking, plastic minis battle that’s artificially pumped up with card effects. Design-wise it’s an unwanted throw-back to cheap 80s Ameritrash games, and oddly reminiscent of TI3’s combat, actually. While I love Twilight Imperium, its combat is still a pile of rotten monkey doo doo. It’s dumb, dull and too long. I’d love to know who thought it was a good idea to introduce a game mechanic that already felt stodgy when the movies were first released.

After a total of one play, I can safely, definitively and authoritatively say, that Star Wars Rebellion does its setting justice as far as I can tell or care. The team variant, though, is awkward and unpolished. The whole game is something of a long slog towards the finishing line. If the thought of making your way through a dozen of Star-Wars-like plots to get to the Jedi’s Return (or at least somebody dying) sounds like your idea of a good time, this game is worth your moneys. But if you’re like me and have both a limited time on this Earth and even less time set aside to immerse yourself in Star Wars fanfic lore… you can probably walk past this game at your local game store without regretting it.