Thursday Night Deathmatch
The days of Lincoln Logs and Matchbox cars have been replaced by video games complete with screams of pain that are enough to give adults nightmares.
Senator Herb Kohl
There is nothing new in the concept of publishing board or card games with a theme originally developed for another medium. For decades popular movies, television shows and books have been the inspiration for gaming themes. Everything from The Dukes of Hazzard to Harry Potter has been tapped. Another frequently followed path is to re-theme an existing publication with the "flavor of the day" such as X-men Monopoly, Lord of the Rings Stratego or Star Wars Risk. Obviously the publishers are expecting increased returns on these titles resulting from the familiarity of the themes. (If there is any doubt concerning the potential of this practice, consider the sales of Hera and Zeus had it been released in its original form: The Stratego Card Game.) Unfortunately, the translation from another medium to the boardgame arena has met with inconsistent success. Very often the themes are slapped on with little or no relationship or feel for the original idea. For example both The War of the Ring and Knizia's Lord of the Rings (the cooperative game) have successfully captured some of the flavor of the book/movie franchise while Lord of the Rings: the Confrontation and Lord of the Rings: Risk, though both acceptable games on their own, fail miserably in translating the theme.
The 1970's saw the birth of a completely new area of gaming, the computer and console game. In order to placate the game starved consumer, programmers rushed to translate a substantial number of traditional board and card games for these new machines. In many instances there was absolutely no purpose for purchasing the game as nothing different was offered from the "hard copy" versions; no additional units, scenarios, alternate rules or even artificial intelligence. These were simply video copies of existing games. Since that time, the industry has matured and today on-line or disc versions of many popular board and card games are available with these extras.
In recent years there have been several attempts to translate popular electronic games into a board or card game format. These experiments include Age of Empires II, Civilization, Age of Mythology, Warcraft, (the soon-to-be-released) Pirates and last year's release of Doom III. Some of these games have made a successful transition while others withered away soon after the plastic was removed from the box. It is very difficult for any game to successfully cross mediums as there is a dual burden: it not only needs to be a good game, to be accepted it needs to convey the spirit, the feel of the original. This is exacerbated by the expectations derived from the popularity of the original in its native medium. To port some obscure video game is certainly less demanding than to attempt to translate the experience of an extremely popular (read sales of one million plus) game into a new and significantly limited format. Many of these popular video games entertain a substantial and loyal following. The potential customer may have spent several hundred hours discovering every Easter Egg, tweaking the system to improve frame rates and engaging in a lengthily discussion of bits (not the wooden ones). Translating (porting a game to an alternate medium invites critiques from hard core players of the original, source game. Kudos should be awarded to any game company that seriously attempts this feat. The same is true of the reverse situation. Witness the flak Microsoft has taken on their recent implementation of Settlers of Catan on-line.
It is within this framework that I propose to examine Fantasy Flight's new release: Doom: the Boardgame. It would be dishonest if I failed to reveal a certain bias prior to proceeding. In addition to my "drug of choice", board games, I regularly enter the electronic gaming arena. (Hell, I'll even play Craps to satisfy the craving.) First Person Shooters (FPS) have long been a staple including on-line deathmatching. The Dooms, the Quakes, the Unreals and Halos have all contributed to the addiction. My Thursday night gaming group tends to be more attune to the benefits of electronic gaming and while awaiting the arrival of additional players, we spend the time deathmatching in Halo; when the balance of the group arrives, it is Hansa, Euphrat & Tigris, Settlers, etc for the remainder of the evening. None have difficulty switching from electronic to hard copy games. The release of Doom the Boardgame encouraged somewhat heated discussions as to the viability of porting the original to a board game format. Admittedly, I was apprehensive as I was generally convinced that it would be impossible to convey the intensity, the total immersion afforded by the electronic experience.
I wish we could ban them.
Senator Joseph Lieberman
Doom: the Boardgame was designed by Kevin Wilson and to appreciate the challenge he faced, it is critical that you understand how Doom (the computer game) changed the industry. In the gaming industry there are celebrities; persons recognized for their particular contributions. (If you should doubt this then see if you recognize any of the following: Dunnigan, Berg, Knizia, Kramer, Moon, Borg, Greenwood, Sackson and Faidutti.) The equivalent in the computer industry would be Shelly, Meyers, Carmack and Romero. These last two are responsible for Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, Quake and literally revolutionizing the computer game industry.
The two John's (Carmack and Romero) were gamers that entered the computer gaming field with a proclaimed desire to make games that were both good (as games) and challenging. They founded a company named id and it was id that brought the FPS to the forefront of electronic gaming relegating the Pac Mans and PitFalls to the proverbial dustbin. Their releases were extremely challenging to both players and their equipment. Each game pressed further than anyone had thought possible and gamers noticed. Based solely on their previous products, the pre-release hype for Doom was exceptional. This was in the very early stages of the internet when "the web" consisted of little more than chains of networked bulletin boards.
id employed a shareware system for distributing games; players received a portion of the game for free or at a nominal fee and paid for the complete version if you desired; a try before you buy method. At midnight on 10 December 1993, Doom was uploaded to the mainframe at the University of Wisconsin - Parkside. Within minutes, more than 10,000 gamers swamped the site. (Coincidentally, Lieberman and Kohl had begun their anti-video crusade the day before.) October of the following year saw the release of Doom II to an even larger audience. In the first 30 days more than 600,000 copies were sold. By 1995 Doom II (the sequel) had sold $80 million worth of games in the United States and enjoyed $20 million in European sales. ($6 million was sold to customers in Germany where the game had been banned!) Doom had become a phenomenon, so popular that when Romero attended a convention he wore a T-shirt that simply stated: "Wrote It". Recognizing the potential, Bill Gates pursued id to port the game to the newly introduced Windows 95.
What was so special about this game? Why the hype, the frenzy? There were three factors that, when combined, resulted in a unique gaming experience.
- The game was intense competition that played very similar to a sporting event.
- Doom offered multiplayer competition—a battle royale.
- id opened the source code allowing players to modify certain portions of the game and produce their own "mods".
The #1 cause of decreased productivity in businesses around the world.
id press release for Doom
Fantasy Flight and Kevin Wilson accepted an extraordinarily difficult challenge when they decided to port Doom. Before proceeding it is necessary that we approach this from the proper perspective. When porting from one medium to another there are certain expectations that cannot ever be met; it is simply impossible. Reading 1000 plus articles on Beethoven's Ninth Symphony will never relate the experience of listening to the piece itself. With a 3-D map and miniatures painted by Picasso himself, War of the Ring will never be able to convey the experience of the Lord of the Rings movies. This does not render War of the Ring a bad or broken game; we must simply acknowledge that there are going to be limitations enforced by the medium itself. Doom the Boardgame suffers in three specific areas and all are the result of the limitations of the board game medium. Since people move and think slower than the CPU, the speed and intensity of the original are diminished. Additionally, the visuals in the board game, though of superior quality simply cannot compete with mega pixels of special effects and 3-D rendering. To have expected success in these areas is to establish unrealistic parameters; the medium does not present the opportunity.
Basically Doom: the Boardgame is a mix of a Doom RPG and a Doom themed dungeon crawl. In many aspects it is similar to Knizia's (co-op) Lord of the Rings with all of the expansions. In Knizia's Lord of the Rings, one player reprises the role of Sauron while the rest of the players attempt to surmount his challenge and destroy the ring. The Invaders reprise the Sauron role in Doom and the Hobbits are now Marines. (Actually it is not quite that simple but it will serve to demonstrate the general concept of play.) The Invader acts as a game master controlling the flow of the game as he can refrain from introducing additional challenges if the game is too difficult or release hordes of additional problems if the players are romping through unfettered. The Marines must play as a team or forego any possibility of defeating the Invaders.
As with any good dungeon crawl the map layout is unknown prior to attaining certain goals. It is the immediate threat that must be considered and this leads to a very tactical game. Each level is populated with a variety of obstacles, aliens and a few goodies for the Marines. As with the electronic version, there is a method for re-spawning if one "bites the dust". This is an important feature as Wilson has maintained the difficulty levels familiar to the twitch version of the game; this is not a game easily beaten. Fantasy Flight has posted methods for altering the difficulty levels coincidentally similar to those found in the original.
It is very common in any FPS that a player must replay a level several times before conquering the Boss. (The Boss is usually some extremely powerful entity found at the end of a segment in video games.) Here too, Doom: the Boardgame retains the flavor of the original. Unfortunately, those unfamiliar with the play of a typical FPS have leveled charges of imbalance in the scenarios. For the designer this is a lose-lose situation. If he creates scenarios that are well balanced, the FPS aficionados will complain; designing difficult scenarios adds realism and follows the traditional design but invites complaints from gamers accustomed to equivalent start positions. Here again, to his credit, Wilson opted for the traditional formula. This balance problem is neither new nor unique. Battle Cry, Blue Moon and Memoir '44 have all suffered these complaints. Whenever a game consists of a base system that then incorporates a variety of decks or scenarios it is inevitable that there will be some mismatch. If this becomes problematic, the player has four options:
- Play it as it stands; play for the fun, the experience—this is not Chess.
- Modify the game with home rules that satisfy your particular gaming requirements.
- Follow the Battle Cry and Memoir '44 suggestion where scenarios are replayed with players alternating positions.
- Just say "frag it" and play an alternate scenario.
One of the revolutionary ideas that appeared with the original Doom was the release of the source code allowing players to create their own scenarios, incorporate alternate or additional graphics and share this information. These modifications to the system became known simply as mods. As the number of available mods grew, so too did the player base. Fantasy Flight is encouraging this same activity, inviting players to create their own mods and even post them on their site. Expanding the game to include minis from other games is fairly easy as the system is relatively open. (Yet another use for all of the components in Heroscape.) The Doom components are first class and will shame some of the components from other games.
I would be remiss if I did not address the "violence issue". The original release of Doom ignited a controversy concerning violence in video games that flourishes even today. (For an example Google Vice City.) As the lines between video and board games blur, it is inevitable that this criticism will spread even further into the board gaming arena. (Note the abuse wargames have taken or even the "politically incorrect" colonists in Puerto Rico.) Doom the Boardgame has invaders and Marines attempting to eliminate (read kill) each other. If this actually offends you, if you are losing sleep because you fear that Risk players are megalomaniacs in training, it is time to pause, to reflect, to regain one's perspective. This is only cardboard and plastic—no one dies—this isn't real; it is only a game. (Honestly the only method for harming someone with this game is to drop it on his foot; the game has a large number of components and is physically very heavy.)
So does the game succeed? Does it replicate the Doom experience? Is the game fun? Yes, yes and yes. Had this game been themed with another topic, it would remain a good, enjoyable game both challenging and fun. Where so many video to board ports have failed, Doom is the exception. Other than the silicon generated visuals and auditory components—this is Doom. Everything is here from the annoying little creatures to the big mama bosses, from the chain saw to the infamous BFG.
Critical to any discussion on a game where playing is solely dependant on scenarios (Battle Cry, Memoir '44, Betrayal at the House on the Hill, etc.) is the viability and consistency of the core system. It is not appropriate evaluate the game on the scenarios. The d20 system is popular because it works well, not because of a few published episodes. The same is true of Battle Cry, Memoir '44 and Heroscape. These games have solid core mechanics that players can manipulate, tinker with at their discretion. So too with Doom; is has a strong frame within which players can work allowing the designer in each to surface. It permits tweaking to the extreme, a gaming sandbox.
Admittedly, boardgame dungeon crawls are not my favorite style of gaming however, Doom is a superior product, one of the best in this genre. It is an entertaining diversion; a real boy toy.
- Dave Shapiro