And so it came to pass that on the fifth the day of the tenth month of this year, an AMA was to be held.
For /r/boardgames is a gamer’s Irkalla on the foreign shores of the Reddit.
Lo and behold, out of the digital mist stepped a man who was not like the other man. For he was Georgios. And he declared that for all the questions that were brought to him, an answer shall be given in return.
He promised to dismiss no questions. Be they trivial, important, vexing or plain incomprehensible. All shall be answered. As earnest, honest and proportionate as he himself responded to the world around him.
And in one cryptic yet ominous missive we have been given these instructions:
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!