We have spent two days road-tripping to the sparsely settled northern end of Vancouver Island. A logging road leads us west across the coast range to an inlet on the rugged, lonely western coast where we pack up our kayaks and launch. Two days later we are building a small driftwood fire on a tiny islet in the Barrier Islands a mile out into the open North Pacific. Kicking back in our Therma-rests with a can of O'Keefes in one hand and a Frisbee full of salmon bones in the other, we watch the interminable lap of waves on the rocky shore of our little slice of paradise... and argue again about who was going to play Germany. Next afternoon a squall out of the southeast is kicking up and our tent shudders against the strong gusts. I stash my half-eaten Clif Bar in my vest pocket, unzip the front door of our huge North Face 2 Meter Dome and peek outside. Kayaks are pulled safely up on huge driftwood logs surrounding camp; beyond them the ocean is a sea of white horses. The outer coast of Vancouver Island is getting hammered and civilization is a long, long way away. No problem. "Shut the door," Scottie yells out. "Stuff's blowing around."
Thick in the middle of the World Wars, segueing at the moment from the First to the Second, we have a week with nothing better to do but paddle out to catch dinner, keep the sand fleas out of the tent... and game. Paths of Glory had left Europe a shambles. Then dies were cast and nations rose up, yet again, in arms. Totaler Krieg picks up where the Treaty of Versailles left off—politics are under consideration, cards divvied up... meanwhile our player aid sheets are fluttering around inside the tent like a flock of wounded seagulls. "Nice day," I mutter with a grin and zip up the flap. Crawling back into my corner of the tent, I pick up the sheet of paper with Axis printed at the top and scrutinize the board. If I could convince the Brits I have eyes only for the east, they might ship some of their precious troops to the Mediterranean and leave the island ripe for the plucking. First thing on the agenda though is to placate Russia with the spoils of Poland. "Russia," I say looking over at the rumpled haired guy across from me, "we have to talk."
If you've sea kayaked to any extent at all, no doubt you've been kept ashore on occasion waiting out a storm. Traditional remedies for multi-day lay-overs range from a good book to a bottle of booze, meditation to sampling the first aid kit. Unlike the guys with everything on their backs, sea kayakers have options beyond a deck of cards. You can't tell me there's no room for a box the size of a square football in an 18 foot boat. Now before you think Monopoly or Clue let me bring you up to speed with board gaming in the new millennium.
The New Breed
There has been a renaissance in gaming in the last decade. There was the Magic phenomena, of course, and the plethora of collectible card games it spawned. Role playing, originating as Dungeons and Dragons, has expanded to include settings and game systems in every imaginable sphere, and then some. And, of course, video games, the great black hole of social interaction, are increasingly seductive, commensurate with advancements in computer technology. And within the last hand full of years, board games have experienced a revival as well, kindled by some of the best game design minds in Europe.
While indoor recreation in the U.S. has revolved around the ubiquitous plastic box, the Germans and the French have been in the den playing games. Many innovative new designs have been introduced to the American market in recent years. Chief among the U.S. companies engaged in cooperative development with the Europeans is Rio Grande Games out of New Mexico. Talking with Jay Tummelson, Headman at Rio Grande, he told me that no less than 125 hand-picked, well-designed and flat-out gorgeous looking games have passed through Rio Grande's portals in recent years. More amazing is that they're walking off with many U.S. industry design awards; roughly one in four of the Euro titles is taking home a ribbon. And talking with Mark Kaufmann at Days of Wonder Games the other day, he had this to say about the difference in Euro versus US game style:
"The Euro style game—which is best typified by the German games is based on two things. First is higher production values. Germans laugh at how cheap the components are of American games. The boards are better—they're thicker, with better printing and they have special machines that cut game boards so they lay flat, without having a 'channel' in the middle. Also they tend to use wooden or resin materials rather than cheap plastic. That's why we do our production in Germany (along with the fact that we sell half our games in Europe).
In game play the Euro style tends to lean towards more abstract and strategic games. Even if there is a theme, it tends to be laid on top of a fairly abstract game mechanic. They don't like luck, and want strategy and tactics to determine the winners. Typically game designers use mathematics to analyze and balance their games. There is very little dice rolling and a lot more resource management. The prototypical German game night doesn't have as much laughing, but more thought and analysis. Also, war games and direct combat games tend not to do as well in Europe—particularly in Germany. The culture after WWII, just like in Japan, has become very pacificist and there is real societal pressure not to have anything to do with war-related things."
Another factor in the board game bloom is the takeover of several of the less well known gaming companies by mega-corporations. In particular, the buy out of Avalon Hill by Hasbro. While Avalon Hill was a huge player in the gaming market you did not find many of their titles in conventional toy stores like Toys R Us. There was little market crossover between a more or less arcane gaming subculture and the public at large. Avalon Hill titles were to board games as good literature is to pulp fiction. Primarily military/political simulations, Avalon Hill also produced a good number of historically based multi-player titles with a far ranging subject base. Games, for example, that explored the fabric of cultural evolution and exploration: the development of early civilization, the exploration of turn of the century Africa, the infamous Colonial Era, the Renaissance, and the Age of Discovery. When the company was gobbled up by industry giant Hasbro, Avalon Hill fans held their breath. With the re-release of several classic Avalon Hill titles, among them the hugely popular Diplomacy and History of the World, the net effect of the Avalon Hill affiliation may be to help mainstream the acceptance of a sophisticated board game as a refreshing, stimulating and, yes... dare I say it... respectable way to spend a sodden afternoon.
On a related note, Hasbro produces Risk, the old standby megalomaniacal game of global conquest that most boomers teethed on. I don't know what it is about the game, but Risk brings up emotions in me that don't ordinarily surface short of a response to attacks on my person or disparagements to my sweet mother's name. We now have Risk: Lord of the Rings which uses the same game system; Hasbro has effectively laid a brooding Tolkien-esque mood onto the board. With solid fantasy graphics, plenty of miniatures and a ring that could sub at a wedding, it is the favorite of preteens in my neighborhood, and frankly, one I don't mind joining in myself.
Speaking of global conquest, Hasbro and Avalon Hill in the same breath, the WWII game that may have started it all: Axis & Allies, has had a face lift. Units now reflect the national materiel used at the time, so instead of clone like tanks and infantrymen in different colors, you can distinguish Tigers from Shermans, Stukas from Spitfires. The 32 page rulebook expands and clarifies, including my favorite, Research and Development rules. With a fine tuned system and graphics, Axis & Allies serves as an extremely playable treatment of the global campaign of the era. From Battlecards (a game in a pocket), to Axis & Allies, to Blitzkrieg General to the heady A World at War, with many others in between, there is a game system of the "great conflict" at every level to suit every temperament and time frame.
Most serious treatment of a particular period or conflict, are the product of quality "war game" companies. That most of them focus on war is good for the grognards but a little tough on the rest of us who would love to see more in-depth, quality treatment of other aspects of cultural history. Europe does have its share of grognards: SimTac, out of Spain produces some of the most elegant games imaginable, with maps like paintings and counters of troops in full dress regalia; have a look at Rivoli 1797 when you have a chance. Ludopress, also from Spain, is a wargamer's company; their Iberos, chronicling the Iberian wars, is a handsome package depicting a fascinating period. Many of the dedicated wargame companies are domestic though, for the most part producing high quality, in-depth studies of just about every battle or war initiated on earth by man. For a gamer looking for a well designed, tested and crafted game system, it's hard to top the work of this dedicate genre. A game of A World at War, for example, can be extraordinarily immersive and satisfying (like you had Churchill's job in '43). There is no denying the fact that war lends itself well to gaming simulation, perhaps better than anything else humans do. Systems are systems, I often remind myself, be they based on peaceful or aggressive models. And it is system I am looking to immerse myself with in the end, and it can be nearly incidental if it's the war in Europe or balancing intra-cultural political and economic factors in the early iron age, as long as it's good.
Am I supporting a romantic view of war (my wife often accuses me of this)? I don't honestly know. There is nothing truly war-like, after all, in the study of an abstract simulation of war. Holding the reins of economic, diplomatic, research, political, construction, and yes, military concerns while acting as Chief Bottle Washer of one country or another, is about as close as most of us will ever get to the ultimate executive challenge, and that I think, is what many gamers are really after.
One grand strategic style of game (dealing with something other than WWII) is Empires in Arms of the Napoleonic era, another old Avalon Hill chestnut. Immersed in a game one day I dropped so far into the mood that I felt like I was in the tent with the Little Emperor and his generals studying situation maps by candlelight and encamped with an army of 14 year olds and depot troops and a few old soldiers from Spain arrayed against the combined might of Prussia, Russia and Austria. A guy should get college credit for this stuff. While this particular title is out of print and was little known outside the gaming subculture, a refined version, entitled Empires in Harm is under development by an amateur historian (a 10 year labor of love) and can be downloaded for free off the net. Another epic treatment in print this summer is the old SPI classic: Empires of the Middle Ages. Soon to be reborn under Decision Games reliable production standards, the original game will be expanded and improved while the salient features will be preserved. This one is a transmigrated soul that looks to have improved its lot in life, given its upcoming incarnation. The map will be roughly double the scale of the original and have many more cards and counters. Empires of the Middle Ages is considered a true classic and will be eagerly anticipated by SPI fans. Europa Universalis, a French title, is about as boggling and comprehensive a treatment of history as is imaginable. Boulder Games said of this one: "If you have just one game to take with you when they come to take you away, this is it".
While it is largely the major wars throughout history that garner the most studied and through exploration of a particular subject, there are exceptions. Fantasy is a not an altogether overlooked genre for serious board game design. While a popular game like Talisman by Games Workshop can bridge the gender gap and keep the pretzels moving, it is light fare compared to a handful of more sophisticated titles. The grand fantasy realm is represented by Divine Right, a redo of Glenn Rahman's 25 year old game. This is a personal favorite with a rich tapestry of a world; the depth of advanced optional rules is truly impressive. Magic Realm is a role playing style of fantasy game with even greater complexity. While Magic Realm is out of print, there is a devoted community dedicated to the game (as with all popular titles, no matter how ancient) on the net. Other less complex fantasy games, but gems nevertheless, are Dragon Pass, Barbarian Kings, and Dark Emperor.
"Quality endures" applies to board games as well as everything else in life. Classic games of 20 and 30 year vintage are finding their way back to a fresh incarnation, either in commercial form or done as a labor of love by dedicated groups and offered for download on the net. Divine Right, Kings & Things and Empires of the Middle Ages, for example, will all have a second coming. Surely there are many others I am unaware of, but the reader could do worse than search out one of these for an enjoyable evening's play.
The net has facilitated the development and networking of many things, board games, not in the least. Consimworld, Boardgamegeek and Webgrognard are three of the chief repositories for archived information, news and gaming friends. I've found these sites to be a trove of information about most any game that has ever seen print. The more popular the title, the more material and activity you will find.
On the beach, a quality board game helps to pass the down time when you're kept off the water by the vagaries of coastal travel or base-camped at a destination, but there's something else, something subtle and really quite extraordinary about gaming in such conditions. It's an extension of the age old phenomena of leaving the Hydra that is your regular, workaday life behind, and heading somewhere quiet. Other than the exigencies of the trip, we are carefree; no phones and nothing at all we can do about all the stuff going on at home. This in itself, the sudden circumcision of the familiar morass of daily concerns, is, of course, extremely refreshing. But, in corollary, our mind, the imaginative function at least, acts like it is suddenly refurbished, rejuvenated, reborn, and a good book or a good game, has the capacity to transport like never before.
Energetically, the difference between a good book and a good game is essentially the degree of participation it affords. While a book is a passive activity (although nothing compared to the telly), a good board game is a proactive affair. Not exactly a story with plot and characters per se, but it is essentially the same abstract act of immersion to enter either book or game, the difference being what you do once inside. Don't get me wrong, I carry a mini-library on kayak expeditions but there's always a select game or two packed in a water-tight box and tucked into a corner of the boat somewhere.
You're on a month long kayak tour of Alaska's Inside Passage and pinned to the beach by a summer gale. You have nothing at all to do, to remember, or to worry about except keeping your boats pulled up above the storm-tide line, the toilet paper dry and that insidious wet sand out of the tent. The opportunity is a veritable blank canvas, a tabula rasa, for the abstract, imaginative act. Well into a game of GMT's Reds, swimming in chaos during the wild and wooly Russian civil war, you enter into a deep intuitive awareness of the ebb and flow of Red and White across the breast of Mother Russia, so much so that you are startled into reality by a sudden blast of wind. Or you're immersed, maybe, in a five player game of The Napoleonic Wars when via sudden epiphany you have some small inkling of the consuming addiction to power that Bonaparte was victim to.
Games are developed on a complexity continuum. At one end of the spectrum is playability; at the other, realism. Avalon Hill had a rating system for their work, ranging from low to very high. Sometimes you want something that starts up at the turn of the key and takes you along on an easy, exhilarating, ride; other days you may want a game that is little less than a Doctoral thesis in history in a box.
Most of us alternate between the antipodes on any given rainy afternoon. When I want cruise control, I'll pick up a deck of cards. Instead of Up Front, Avalon Hill's old tactical chestnut, I might shuffle a stack of Battlecards, newly released by DGA. While most card games excel at portraying the give and take of tactical battle, Battlecards add a pinch of strategy to the mix. Well designed and developed, this nifty WWII title will have you weighing the value of individual battles against that old saw about winning the damned war! Jonathan Bjork, the game's designer, has added additional card sets to round out a global theater of war.
If I want the operational equivalent of Up Front though, I'll pick a couple decks of Battlelines, by Lost Battalion Games, from the shelf. Battlelines is a card game focusing on battles in the eastern European theatre. Titles in the series focus on the approach and fighting around Stalingrad. The complexity of Battlelines games is higher than Battlecards while both employ vintage photos and accurate historical designations on the cards. A largish play area is required for the operational level layout of Battlelines and the rule book is frustrating. A revised edition is due out before long and in the interim, there are plenty of replays available off the site and a forum to network as well. I especially like this game and look forward to future releases. The card stock cards are packed with data and the use of color is wonderful. They are UV coated for water-resistance.
Card Driven Games
If cards are too light a fare to satisfy and yet I haven't the time, space or inclination to take on a monster simulation, I'll pick one of GMT's card driven games off my shelf: The face on the card was haggard and scared, a Prussian soldier on the way to the trenches of the First World War. I held the card a moment, locking eyes with the image of the long dead young man and felt a disturbing empathy. Card Driven Games, or CDGs, are an exciting development in board gaming. In effect, a game system that effectively tackles Fate, wrestling it down into its essential working elements via a clever collection of multi-purpose cards—a quality card driven game can juice up your relation to a favorite, if time worn, theater of play. Several progenitors by Avalon Hill paved the way for the development of full blown card driven systems in today's productions. Drawing from the wild success of CCGs like Magic: The Gathering, game designers, GMT foremost among them, realized the potential of utilizing cards to streamline a game engine as well as to cycle in related events and otherwise create vitality in a typically predictable pattern of Igo-Ugo linearity. Made from high quality card stock and designed to fit neatly in an Ultra-Pro sleeve for a life time of play, GMT cards are multifunctional and feature an historical event, personage, strategy or tactic pertinent to the era or crisis the game is treating. A variety of coded numbers and colors key up operation mechanics such as movement, strategic deployment, response, combat, builds, reinforcements and diplomatic maneuverings, and historical horses are cleverly scheduled to precede historical carts and thus prevent chaos. A card is played as the event it portrays, a tactical or strategic angle, or deferred till later... if ever. What's coolest of all is how this elegant system effectively round ups and hands you, literally, your gaming options via a counter-thin stack of cards.
Players, like people, can be divided into two groups—those who like to cook from scratch, and those who would just as soon be handed a menu—which is exactly what the cards provides. Instead of a strict litany of pushing cardboard back and forth for an afternoon, one has a hand full of colorful, potent ciphers to deliberate over. Deliberation over which card to play, how to play it, and which needy corner of the board to bless it with, is frankly, masochistic. All the GMT card driven titles, and there are currently half a dozen of them, are rated on the playable end of the scale, typically 4 on a scale of 1 to10. Playability is foremost, but the inevitable compromises are well deliberated. The old saw about: easy to learn/hard to master applies and playability is sky high.
Ted Raicer, an oft decorated game designer, practiced his magic on a pair of titles: Paths of Glory and WWII Barbarossa to Berlin. Paths of Glory was a huge hit and is back on GMT's P500 list for another printing. A Player's Guide was offered as well (also on the reprint list), providing food for thought: tips, variants and strategy angles, as well as bonus cards and a mini-counter sheet. Oddly enough, I find Barbarossa to Berlin the most engaging, even with a rulebook that could have used another half hour in the oven. When it comes to two person designs for solo application, the card concept lends itself nicely, creating a situation where responding to events, or choosing between the options in your hand, is ideal for the solo player. You can stack your "opponent's" hand at random face down, or alternately browse both sides. While it's true you will miss much of the potential of this type of game game without a partner, there is just so darn much potential in a quality CDG that even solo play gets a full cup.
Embarrassment of Riches
This is not meant to be a treatise on game theory. Suffice it to touch on some of fundamental distinctions between genre. Games are as different as socks. While certain game designs absorb you in strategic or tactical challenge, some encourage a high level of player interaction, yet others immerse you in great depth in a particular slice of history or subject matter. A good game will often contain aspects of all three, with an emphasis on one facet or another. The board game is broken down into three basic configurations: multi-player, two player, and solitaire. For sheer social dynamic, nothing beats a highly interactive multi-player game. Games that require bargaining and negotiating are excellent for this. With Diplomacy, for example, one projects into an historical setting representing one of several world powers in a Pre-World War I Europe: Russia, Turkey, France, Austria, England, Italy or Germany. There are no dice and no luck involved. One must attempt to nourish and ultimately advance one's empire in the highly charged world of international statecraft. This one is guaranteed to transcend any coastal storm or mountain blizzard. Games commonly take 2 or 3 years to complete when played by post or e-mail, whereas 5 or 6 hours face to face in the tent will suffice.
Touching in again on the ontogeny of Third Reich development, I would be remiss not to include John Prados' redo of the old Avalon Hill classic, proprietarily entitled John Prados' Third Reich. With the idea of making the game playable in the course of a weekend, the game has only 16 pages of rules, three hard-mounted, colorful (if busy) gameboards and is touted for ages 10 and up. Like its sister game, The Great Pacific War, the system uses a popular chit method for determining initiative. The original rules had me pulling hair, but a revised version is currently available as a download from the Avalanche Press website. In addition, a Player's Guide is soon forthcoming to support both Pacific and European theater games with strategy tips, new scenarios, variants and a bunch of new counters. I love a well developed guide; they've certainly enriched my appreciation of games like Advanced Civilization, Paths of Glory and Totaler Krieg.
A majority of Euro titles are in the multi-player vein. Some good examples with average complexity are Colony, Vinci, Dune, and Mystery of the Abbey. Colony is a English/German collaboration that is a fun treatment of the old colonization theme with a twist; it factors in the angst of the native peoples subdued in the spirit of Imperialism. Vinci is a French title that is much more playable (time-wise) version of the old Avalon Hill chestnut, Civilization (which, in its fullest ontogeny, is alive and well on the net as: The Advanced Civilization Expansion Project). Dune is an old Avalon Hill title that had a cult following and there is currently a French version with English rules. Mystery of the Abbey is a French title brought into the States via Mark Kaufmann's California game company, Days of Wonder. It is refreshing take on the old game of Clue with excellent graphics and represents a compromise between the old world/new world approach to board games.
For a beer and pretzel night, there are plenty of Euro games to choose from. One is a remake of the old Tom Wham classic: Kings & Things. Wacky is a big part of the style, as is Duel of Ages, a US product with Euro-tones. If Genghis Khan driving a Humvee qualifies as wacky, Duel of Ages is that. Mixed in with the zany, though is a credible combat system and enough variety of expansions to keep the short attention span types busy. Classic beer and pretzel titles include the old Games Workshop, Talisman game and its newer incarnation by Pegasus Games: Return of the Heroes. For those who found Talisman a bit of a no-brainer, but who appreciated the classic quest game, this is a good choice. Here at home, Twilight Creations produces wonderful role-playing board games with a dose of horror. Extremely well done, these come in elegant little boxes; these guys are definitely on to something.
The best multiplayer games are not simply board games with contingency for multiple players, but game designs developed with the intention of drawing a handful of players into a highly cooperative or competitive experience, some emphasizing one more than the other. A good example of a highly cooperative game is Wizards of the Coast's Lord of the Rings game, wherein a group of adventurers (not unlike the group of adventurers hunkered around you) set out together to dunk the infamous ring. Most games, however, hang on the competitive end of the scale. Games like Risk and Lowenherz, Wadjet and Settlers of Catan are good examples. Settlers in particular being an excellent choice for easy interaction. Circus Minimus is a nifty game of chariot racing in ancient Rome. Highly competitive, with top flight graphics, warm colors and a fair price, Circus stands as a paradigm of what most games strive to be—serious fun.
For a good blend of working together and duking it out, the Diplomacy style of game is hard to beat. Frankly, I don't like this genre much because of the climate of deceit they tend to encourage, but Diplomacy fans are about as enthusiastic a bunch as you'll find sitting together around a flat surface. Examples include Colonial Diplomacy, The Republic of Rome & Kingmaker. Diplomacy has spawned a thousand variants, with different settings and rule variations. Colonial Diplomacy, mentioned above, was the only true variant developed by Avalon Hill. Games covering the Napoleonic era generally have a high diplomatic element, as nations of the time banded together to meet the great French threat as well as looking to advance their own political agendas. In the spirit of an easy to play Napoleonic experience, like GMT's The Napoleonic Wars, and incorporating cards to augment play, Avalanche Press produced Soldier Emperor. Like a walk through the Tuileres Gardens on a fine spring morning, the rich visual and tactile texture of the game seduces the eyes. I have a strict visual relation to games; my wife is a visual artist and I've learned much from her world. Fundamental to a game's visual appeal is its graphic style; a game is essentially lush, balanced or spare in its graphic presentation and Soldier Emperor, like most of the Avalanche line, falls easily into the first camp. The game has a truly playable scope, a fairly simple set of rules and a heritage based on the popular Soldier King game system. A nice touch is the winter turn. Throughout spring, summer and fall armies travel the countryside and fight. Come winter they regroup and plan, take diplomatic initiative and build up their armies, or hunker down in drafty forts and fight the bitter ravage of attrition. The winter phase in Soldier Emperor nicely mirrors that one step back taken during the often brutal European winters, and, as players, makes for a nice break in the action as well. Instead of having to pick up a clip board or fuss with player aids every turn, now you can do it all at once, along with diplomatic and refrigerator errands. The sixty four cards in Soldier Emperor, unlike GMT's CDGs, do not drive the game; cards are simply tactical or strategic assets, and combat involves the same bucket of dice found in The Napoleonic Wars or Europe Engulfed.
Back to Diplomacy per se, you can find upwards of a hundred different Dip variants on the net, as well as numerous clubs and sites devoted exclusively to the game. A small company called Stupendous Games sells three interesting Diplomacy variants that are quite well done, if not actually stupendous. Speaking of the net and small game companies, the desktop publishing phenomena that has turned anyone with sufficient computer skills and software into a neo-Gutenberg has created a new breed of game company.
The DTP or desk top publishing game company is often a one man show. The games are packaged in ziplock bags instead of boxes and sometimes a bit of crafting is required to separate the components, but then, you save much compared to a standard bells and whistle product. The beauty of the DTP opportunity is the potential to manifest a good idea. Any bozo can put out a dog and pony show for public consumption; it's definitely a buyer beware situation. But it is heartening to know that one good game man or woman with a dream can make a living of sorts by bringing it to fruition. Khyber Pass Games focuses on little known corners of history, the company's passion. The Senussi Knights of the Libyan desert circa 1914 in Sand in the Whirlwind, for example, or the battle of Cufra in 1931. For a ten spot they'll send out a well researched game packet that you can not only read about, but hop in and see what it might have been like. Sierra Madre Games is a one man band, and proves that it doesn't take a mega-corporate entity to do produce quality games. Phil Eklund, president and chief bottle washer at Sierra, has produced a pair of games, one set during the Renaissance (Lords of the Renaissance), the other in Mexico at the turn of the 20th century (Lords of the Sierra Madre). Atmosphere, make no mistake, is the substance, the heart, of the transcendental gaming experience. You can't fake real atmosphere, flavor or historicity, although most companies "business first" ideologies do try. Bill Gibbs at Omega Games, another one man show, is a good example of the alignment of vocation and avocation. Bill is a West Point grad and former army officer and produces, you guessed it, military designs. They tell us writers to write what we know and the same applies here. The games I would personally recommend are generally artistic, well researched works with the signature feel of the artist that designed it. The first thing I look for when I thumb through a rule book is the voice of the designer.
Most board games, especially war games, use cardboard counters or chits. Handy to record data, to stack and move easily around on a board and cheap to produce, they lack both the visual dimension and the tactile feel of pieces, blocks, or miniatures. While companies like GMT and Decision Games have truly superb artwork on their counters, for pure visual evocation, miniatures are the ticket. Miniatures are a whole genre unto themselves and are best suited to tactical level simulations. On the other hand, a cool metal miniature cannon, or ship, like the ones that came with Hasbro's Diplomacy make a sweet substitute token. I don't know about this for sure, but it seems to me that players whose link to imagination is primarily visual gravitate toward miniatures, while a more conceptual type will prefer a data-rich counter. Between the two extremes of representation that counters and miniatures provide, are blocks.
Brought to popularity by Columbia Games dedication to block games, blocks provide the tactile advantage of something you can easily pick up between your two fingers. Unlike a miniature, stickers on the face of each one provide a place for play data, and rotating the blocks on end from one side to the next, is a handy way to record step losses. Probably the biggest single advantage they offer, though, is effective simulation of fog of war. Only during battle are blocks revealed to your opponent; the rest of the time you don't know if it's a tank or a militia moving across the board. Columbia has a number of excellent titles, among them a recent award winning treatment of the Scottish-English war, Hammer of the Scots. A recent release by GMT is Europe Engulfed, a block treatment of the Euro theater of operations. Besides having huge, gorgeous map boards, and the industry benchmark setting graphics typical of GMT, it is flat out playable. In fact the boards are so downright handsome that GMT has upgraded boards on the P500 list for Napoleon at War, Paths of Glory and Barbarossa to Berlin.
A good tactical game is often the best choice when time and space are limitations. Mark Walker's recent release of a Vietnam era game, Lock 'N Load, is a remarkably playable title, reminiscent of the excitement level of a game of Ambush. GMT's Prussia's Glory is as gorgeous and playable a treatment of the Seven Year War as is imaginable. Reminiscent of Avalon Hill's old Panzer series, Avalanche Press has a long standing series of tactical combat games covering the breadth of WWII theatres, with new titles (Desert Rats) still appearing. The detailed imagery on the counters is a far cry from the old Avalon Hill titles; I took Panzer Leader off the shelf the other day thinking to maybe give it a spin but, frankly, found the graphics too dull and dated to stimulate much interest. Perhaps a true grognard would gamely press on, but I confess to have made the leap to the exquisite graphic benchmark held by industry leading game companies today.
Solitaire gaming is a fact of life for some people and a common default situation for all gamers on occasion. It is oftentimes a lot easier to take a game off the shelf and begin alone than getting on the horn to try and round up players. Advance notice is necessary for most adults and sometimes you want to play at the spur of the moment. You begin to accept the extra bookkeeping and revolving perspective as a necessary evil.
The pure solo game design is a rare beast. Avalon Hill produced a dozen or so titles to that effect with modest success. Perhaps the most popular game was the old Ambush and Banzai system and their expansion modules. But again, most of the titles I'm aware of were produced in the last quarter of the last century, and are only available through auction houses unless you can find one gathering dust on a game store shelf. Omega Games does solitaire titles, some quite playable. But solitaire games are often really no more than a glorified puzzle and much of the design work of a solitaire game project is spent on response system mechanics. I seldom choose a solo title anymore, but prefer instead to play both sides of a two player game, or even, if the fever is upon me, a monster multiple player title, wading earnestly out toward China until the water gets too deep. But then, what I get out of most gaming opportunities is a feeling of immersion into an exotic state of mental and emotional acuity. At least, that's what I'm shooting for.
What's It All Good For?
I've got to take a minute here and throw this out. What exactly are we doing when we game, anyway? Gaming has this juvenile rap and I for one, am bone tired of it. Depending on the game and the underlying motives, gaming is at least as legitimate an activity as reading a book or watching television, and then some. For a pure exchange of information you can't beat a book or a good documentary but it is the proactivity intrinsic to gaming that is worth recognizing; the thinking, planning, calculating, strategizing, problem solving, developing ethos of fair play and good sportsmanship, the camaraderie and selflessness of alliance. In a word, gaming. Since the experience is abstract and not part of a practical, productive experience like working or remodeling the dog house, it gets the disparaging rap. As most gamers know, there is a lot to gain from the skills and emotional states represent in a quality gaming experience, stuff that we carry with us and that manifests in other spheres of life.
For sheer immersion into a period or a particular event in history, playing both sides of a two player historical simulation is a pretty sweet deal. Frankly, the immersion phenomena, again, much like a novel, is for many gamers, the raison de jouer. A bit of personal theater, of letting go the baggage of our day to day identities and stepping into another role, another place, another time. Alone for months at a time in the wild, I want a game with a high immersion factor, something I can really put myself in. Paddling alone down the outer coast of the Queen Charlotte Archipelago a couple years back, I was in the field for close to two months, camping on empty beaches and about as in the moment as a guy can get. It's hard to take along a monster game when you're on a kayak trek versus paddling to a gaming destination, so I chose a treatment of the battles around Kasserine in Tunisia in '43, by GMT. I was about as into that game as any game before or since, and it was because I had created a rarefied opportunity to play it. You might think paddling the outer coastline of BC to get some time alone to game might be extreme, but hey, it's one component in a pretty sweet package out there at the edge of the world.
The ultimate time warp for a monster game would be a month long bivvy in base camp on a tiny island off the coast, such as described in the opening of the article, whereby some truly galaxy class gaming could be undertaken. Gaming is a bit like sex, after all; the ambience, the privacy, the disconnect from intrusions of the everyday world, improve the performance and enjoyment exponentially. That said, for sheer immersion in a big system, nothing beats a good Grand Strategy game. A World at War is the 14 year old ontogeny of the original Avalon Hill Third Reich game. The system has undergone numerous iterations. Player interaction and play testing is likely the most ever given a modern board game. For the ultimate in comprehensive and in-depth game system, you can't beat A World at War; be forewarned though, it is a consuming undertaking. Totaler Krieg, mentioned earlier, is an excellent grand strategic style of game with an added emphasis on playability. A clever treatment of the European Theater, on what gets my vote as the best mapsheets ever of this genre, Totaler Krieg is the product of extensive thought and networking of ideas and experience. While Totaler Krieg represents the Euro-theater, work is in progress to develop the Pacific campaign in a sister game titled Dai Sensi. Like A World at War, Totaler Krieg was done via free playtest kits off the net, and the interaction and feedback between hundreds of experienced players and the designers was tight. Elegant is a word used to describe many of the game mechanics and probably the system overall. Designer Alan Emrich refers to Totaler Krieg as his Magnum Opus and I, for one, can appreciate that.
Lest I be remiss in mentioning efforts made on behalf of young gamers, some fun products are available for them as well. After all, it is gaming with your eight year old buddies on the bedroom floor that marks, perhaps, the pinnacle of pure imaginative gaming fervor. Games that nourish cooperation in the deepest sense, working together to nourish mutual enjoyment of the gaming experience, is a good thing at that age. Family Pastimes, out of Canada, has a line of fun games that treat cooperation as leit motif. Frankly, my favorite games, just like my interests in expeditions, are about working together with people in a focused endeavor, be it paddling together down two hundred miles of Pacific coastline or launching a mental expedition into Advanced Civilization.
Gamewright is another leading player in the children genre. Highly imaginative and clever games with a mix of classical fantasy and whimsy, the games are well designed and have a large number of cooperative titles. More of a classicist when it comes to fantasy, myself, I prefer my children's themes to tap into existing veins of myth or folklore. Whimsy, the above mention notwithstanding, is not in my dictionary. Some of the finest overall games for kids I have ever seen derive from Germany under the label of Haba Games. Having spent much of my young childhood living in an ancient stone house at the edge of the Black Forest, I can appreciate the Grimm's like artistry on painted wooden and resin figures and on colorful wooden game boards. The Orchard, for example, is a simple game about a raven in a fruit orchard, but wait till you pick up the little painted wooden pears, apples, cherries and plums and put them in those cute woven wooden baskets with your son or daughter. The components reminds me of marzipan. Haba captures fantasy so well that game theme takes a back seat to the pleasing visual, tactile, imaginative qualities of the components and imagery. For me, playing with my grandkids, impersonating Doctor Hedgehog or Daisy Doormouse in alternating soprano, then alto voice, is easily as much of the joy as the game itself. Haba has many cooperative theme titles and a complete line of board games and toys. They have been in business making games for sixty two years.
Some game designs stand completely on their own. Chess, for example, is not prone to variants, evolving from a literal battle staging to an abstract contest. Most of the enduring designs in board gaming and gaming in general, spawn successors. Some are junk, some aren't. A good story idea in an appealing setting begs its own future. Many of the better gaming titles are ideas that just can't fit into one box. Diplomacy, again. Settlers supports multiple expansions, as does El Grande. Empire Builder, an engaging train design, has variant titles for exploring rail commerce on most of the continents, and Wadjet, a classy archaeology game, has a couple of equally high-end sequels. Hey, you may not be able to fit more than one in your boat, but good to know for later.
Other than game expansions per se, are card games based on a board game. Two such exist to my knowledge. Settlers of Catan was the first, with a card game based on the original design marketed not long thereafter. The second such was Puerto Rico and its recent adjunct, San Juan. For people who prefer cards to boards, these pocket titles are a viable idea. Both are small, handsome packages of fast and fun play derived from a proven game design. For sheer portability you can't beat them. And as both Settlers and Puerto Rico are not two player designs, the cards fill an important niche. "Lite" is a moniker that has been attached to both games; in truth, they are that, but comparisons are odious. They are not Scrabble for Juniors by any shake of the stick, but well developed treatments of brilliant, original game designs that stand on their own. Mother lodes yield more than one lusty nugget, remember, be they mineral or concept. And cards, as the author has elucidated above, are a powerful gaming mechanism of their own.
Finally, don't haul the game out for a week in the wild in its cardboard box. Take the components out of the original container and put them in either a big ziplock bag, or better yet, a water-tight Pelicase. As for components, Ultra Pro makes excellent protective sleeves for cards and plastic boxes for components, and C-Line has the goods for laminating paper tables and charts before they're thrashed. Arapaho Trading Company makes a line of utility boxes with rounded bottoms, perfect for dredging out pesky counters. Extra dice required for some of the games mentioned above are best purchased in smaller diameter for ease of use and companies like Chessex and Crystalcaste make them in every imaginable style and color; a true aficionado will get a couple dozen to match each player nation. For map or game board, a sheet of acrylic is the ticket. Not only does it shed the errant beverage, but provides a subtle bit of visual dimension to playing surface. The other option is a small roll of clear plastic, same stuff they use for the back window of a convertible, which fits snugly in a tube case with charts and such. Lastly, for home use, when you need to store a set up game under the bed for another session, there is something called Gatorfoam Board; amazing stuff, light as a feather but rigid. The important thing though, if you're crazy enough to pack a title off into the wild with you for some time warp gaming, is sticking everything in a bomber waterproof case so you can forget about it; you'll have enough things to think about without worrying if the game is getting crushed or soused.
I didn't mention price on these things. $40 to $50 is an average ticket, $70 to $80 not uncommon, A World at War well over $100—not your average Chutes and Ladders productions. At those prices and with availability sometimes an issue, you might want to treat your favorite titles much like the rest of your gear. Many of the in-depth historical simulations represent years, even decades, of research by historians, both amateur and professional, not to mention the art work, lengthy play testing and rule writing by professional developers. Some, like I mentioned earlier, are true life works, or Magnum Opi of a few brilliant, even genius, individuals, and their creation is a rare and extraordinary opportunity for an appreciative audience.
- Rob Lyon