Essen Spiel '15: Day Two

Viticulture

After reflecting on day one’s lack of purchase success, we stumbled upon a free table for Viticulture and solved all my woes. This game is beautiful in every direction and feels deep and intense and well thought out. I want it. The edition on sale was 65 euro, however, so I decided to hold off. I’m not sure I’d ever get to play it, anyway, I don’t have much time for long games like this these days. Still, I was delighted to find a game that felt really, really good.

Kumo Hogosha

Another hit. Kumo plays like chess and looks gorgeous. The game is about pushing dice around a rotating board and attempting to push a “stone of balance” off the opponent’s side of the board, the catch being that when you rotate the board, it might not be their side any more at all. It’s a nice idea and it works really well. Again, I didn’t buy it because I’d never get it on the table, but I really enjoyed it.

Between Two Cities

Our third game from the same stand, Between Two Cities combines drafting, tile laying, and co-operation to create a rather different kind of city builder. On your left, you’re building a city with the player on your left, and on the right, you’re building a city with the player on your right. Your final score is the worse of the two, so you can’t deliberately neglect one, but the constant two-way communication means that something will go wrong sooner or later. It’s a great concept, easy to teach and learn, hard to get right.

Big Book Of Madness

Big Book of Madness had a lot of hype surrounding it. You’re a group of schoolkids who’ve opened a big, bad book full of monsters, and have to defeat the monsters together in order to close it. It’s pretty simple to learn considering the number of moving parts, and I think it’s probably a “good” game, but I didn’t think it was a very “fun” game. I think Dave put it very well when he said it was a deckbuilder in which your deck just doesn’t get very exciting.

The Game

Pretty much everyone I knew only heard about The Game when it got nominated for Spiel des Jahres this year, and didn’t really understand what it was all about. About 3 turns in we were hooked and all bought a copy immediately. It feels like Uno - a great game for killing time.

Liguria

Oh, Euro games, how I love you. In Liguria you run a boat that floats about collecting coloured paint to decorate your cathedral and you can also conquer islands and send diplomats to other harbours and oh gosh little boats did I mention the boats? Liguria is beautifully put together and feels really fun right from the start as your boats start circling the board itself. The most ingenious thing about Liguria is that it doesn’t even touch on scoring until the very end of the game and does it all in one go, which removes all of my most disliked euro tropes. Gorgeous. Instant purchase.

Steampunk Rally

I’ve never seen a game that turns theme into mechanics as accurately and elegantly as Steampunk Rally. You feel like an inventor as you bolt extra bits onto your vehicle mid-race, replacing bits that explode as often as you can to keep the damn thing running. At the end of the game we played, Emma’s car lost its wheels but immediately sprouted robotic spider legs to carry her across the finish line.

Cthulhu Realms

Cthulhu Realms is a reskin of Star Realms with tongue in cheek artwork and a nice vibe. A fun little deck builder, easily worth the meagre sum they charge for it.

Day two was perfect. Intense games, a few good purchases, loads of fun. I managed to find a good variety of deep thinky games and light fun games, and managed to find games that I wanted to own.

Essen Spiel '15: Day One

Last weekend Spiel ‘15, an absolutely huge board game fair, took place in its long standing home of Essen in Germany. After years of wanting to go to Spiel but never quite being organised enough, I finally made it. It was a good year for it, as something like 14 of my friends managed to go this year: it was a great crowd and I had an awesome time. Here are the games I played on day one.

Abraca...what?

After a long journey to Essen I rolled up into the halls to find a group of my friends just finishing up a game of Skyliners and we headed to the first empty table we found. It turned out to be Abraca… What?, a game of trying to cast spells when you don’t know what spells are available. You deduce what must be in your hand by looking at what your opponents are holding and what’s already been played. It’s cute, and it’s a great filler game.

Octodice

Aquasphere looked cool, and Octodice is set in the same world, so I was keen to try it out. It’s sort of push-your-luck dice rolling and sort of optimisation and it plays quite quickly. I enjoyed it. I might buy it, actually, but I’m just not sure when I’d get it to the table.

Potion Explosion

Potion Explosion looks gorgeous and feels nice and is great fun to play: it uses marbles to make a sort of physical bejewelled experience. It requires a lot of thought but it plays out quite quickly. I was torn about this when we played it, because I wasn’t sure if it was all gimmick and no trousers, but the more I think about it the more I wish I’d bought a copy.

Bomarzo

Worker placement is a tricky business. It’s hard to know, on the first play, if a deep worker placement game is nicely complicated or overly complicated, but unfortunately I suspect Bomarzo falls into the latter category. I had a good time with it, but I couldn’t help but feel that there are better examples of the genre out there. After playing this I was itching for a good euro.

T.I.M.E. Stories

Winner of the “I can really see what you tried to do” award, T.I.M.E. Stories had an amazing looking booth with a great premise (you signed up as teams and were sent “back in time” into a private area away from the noise of the fair) and the game itself looks great. You’re a team sent back in time to fix a “time anomaly” of some sort in each scenario, which you do by playing through time until you run out of time units and then going back to the start of the scenario to have another go with all your new-found knowledge. It’s a great introduction to roleplay for someone who’s never played pencil and paper before, but if you’ve played a few campaigns of anything like DnD, I feel like you’ll find this a bit too lightweight. It also comes with one, non-replayable scenario in the £40 box, which I think is a bit steep.

Love Letter

There’s always time for Love Letter when you’re waiting for dinner. It’s a cute game and I’m always happy to play it.

Day one left me feeling a little odd: I’d played a lot of games and enjoyed them, but I hadn’t found anything I actually wanted to own. I wanted to find something to bring home, something I wanted to play 30 games of in a row, and I hadn’t found that at all. I decided to head out looking for just that on day two.

Batman: Arkham Knight

Arkham Asylum is probably on my all-time top 10 games list. It features no filler, no nonsense, no missed opportunity for comic book brilliance. It set a trend for combat in games. It managed to feel like a complete world without being so open that you get lost, and it managed to maintain a sense of “levels” that made it feel somehow arcadey. It was a wonderful mix of everything that makes a game good. Arkham City threw a lot of that out the window, and, in spite of itself, managed to be a pretty good game, but it never managed to make me care about the side plots: there was absolutely no way I was collecting all those Riddler trophies. The central plot was outstanding in itself though, so I was willing to forgive the sprawling open world aspect that added nothing to the game and only detracted from the beautiful setup it was granted by Asylum. I skipped the next in the series, Arkham Origins, based on its poor reviews, but that didn’t stop me getting all excited for its sequel, Arkham Knight.

I don’t, as a general rule, pre-order games, mainly because I have too many old games to play to be excited about something new, but a new game in the Arkham series is one of very few things that will make me pay attention. I didn’t want to pre-order this either, as it happens, but the Amazon PS4 and Batman bundle was too cheap to ignore. Unfortunately, my console was damaged in transit and didn’t even arrive on my doorstep, so I had to get a refund and go and buy the same bundle at Argos for £20 more, meaning that I didn’t actually get it on release day. Oh well. I still got it more or less at release, which is a bit of a big deal for me. I think the last game I bought on release day was LA Noire.

The plot of Arkham Knight is movie-worthy, for sure: it could be a comic book movie, slightly cheesy, slightly more focused on the action than the characters, but it would hold up. It twists and turns like a comic movie should, characters do a reasonable job of developing over the course of the game, and a few slightly shocking things happen. They do brave things with the licence: I’m not sure if this is considered canon to the Batman franchise, but it plays like it is. It feels like some of the story beats here should be reserved for the big screen, and it’s refreshing to see them take place in a game.

Rocksteady have also managed to tie the side quests into the main story in a way that made sense and made me want to do them: I had done all but 3 or 4 before I reached the end of the main storyline without really going out of my way. It helps that there are only around 15: some are very short, some are long, but the low number of them and the big, friendly display of every available quest in the game made it very easy to get my head around them and somehow stopped me from suffering from the open world game ennui that means I’ve never played more than a few hours of any GTA.

There are, unfortunately, several side quests that are repetitive and empty. That said, they involve driving the Batmobile, which is mostly pretty fun, and hitting people in the face, which is what the Batman games have been doing best since the very start. Mastering the combat system is enjoyable in itself, and I was never too upset about the opportunity to fight some more bad guys. The quests that involved finding things in the open world were absolutely not my style, but the constant radio broadcasts picked up from thugs around you made the majority of them quite easy to find and I managed to get very close to the end before I sighed and looked up a map online. I hate cheating, but in my mind, virtual hide and seek with no clues is not an interesting way to spend my time. Putting over 200 Riddler trophies in the game and requiring their collection in order to see the “true” ending of the game seems like a total joke, too: I watched it on YouTube, and I’m glad I did - if I’d worked through 200 trophies just for that I’d have been furious.

The other thing that grates is how tightly this game holds your hand - it wouldn’t allow me to be stuck for even a second. I never got a chance to really think through a problem: one moment’s hesitation and I’d be told exactly what I should be doing. I was led through an experience rather than presented with a challenge. Perhaps I’ve just been spoilt by years of indie games and brutal Souls-style battles.

I may sound down on Arkham Knight, but I’m really just being critical of something I love and want to see reach the perfection of the start of the series. Arkham Knight was a joy from start to finish and I’m so, so happy to dip my toe into the AAA games world and see that it’s come so far while I’ve been mucking about with obscure stuff and esports. I look forward to the next one.

Steaming: Dark Souls

My steam library is comparatively small, but it still contains a fairly substantial pile of shame. The only way out is through. In alphabetical order.

I never thought I’d get to write this. I started playing Dark Souls years ago, but due to one thing or another, I’d never been able to put much time into it. Dark Souls is, to the beginner, punishing and frustrating. It doesn’t hold your hand at all and does little to guide you through any part of the experience. It’s hard to bring yourself to spend time on it when you don’t know what you’re doing. I decided, foolishly, to play through it blind. This was a terrible mistake.

A while back I decided that I was too casual a gamer to do this kind of thing: the hardest difficulty setting is not for me. I’m there for the experience more than the challenge, and the lowest difficulty setting is usually quite tough enough for me, thank you. Dark Souls doesn’t have a difficulty option though: it just has the option of googling for answers, or not. If you do, you’ll find a reasonably pleasant game that will push you but is ultimately a fair, consistent system which is a pleasure to pick apart and learn. If you don’t, you will die a lot. Over and over again. In the same spot.

My first Dark Souls attempts are something that I’m quite proud of because they demonstrate that I am, if nothing else, persistent. I made it to Anor Londo in 50 hours. I fought bosses 20, 30, 50 times, who knows? I spent over 2 hours on the Anor Londo archers. I was terrible at the game. I decided to give up on the blind thing, start fresh, and learn about the game. I wanted to be good at it.

I learned which weapons were the most practical (to its credit, there is no “best” weapon in Dark Souls, only different ones), how to upgrade them effectively, and which armour to get hold of first. I looked up maps of the areas. Suddenly, the game became not just playable, but incredibly fun: I stomped through to the same spot I’d reached in my previous game in around 12 hours, I think. It’s still not fast, but perfectly acceptable for me. Most importantly, I really, really enjoyed it. I took time to appreciate the game’s world and level design and found that when you can see the map, each level is actually quite short, and the time between bonfires is no longer hours but minutes. Those save points went from being far too far apart to almost too close together for a game with this reputation. I felt like I was finally seeing the game that the world fell in love with.

Dark Souls is a poster child for the idea that games are all about environmental storytelling. Almost none of the plot is explained to you outright, there are few cutscenes, and you’ll only interact with the handful of characters in the world on rare occasions. Instead, the plot is all around you. The world tells the story, the environments you work through provide clever hints at something bigger. The game doesn’t give you any clues as to the ways that you can change the storyline, but it’s actually wide open: your actions have real effects on the world.

A part of me wants to write that Dark Souls would be better if it had more of a tutorial, or just a few more guidelines. I don’t know if that’s true. It’s certainly true that learning more about the game enabled me to enjoy it, and the game didn’t provide a way to learn that suited me. Is that ok? Is it part of the game to uncover those mysteries? It was refreshing to play something so opaque and deep and weird, but I’m glad that someone else is out there making the guides that allowed me to enjoy the game. I hope they had as much fun making them as I had using them.

Hotline Miami 2

I’ve struggled for a while with what’s worth saying about Hotline Miami 2. The reviews out there cover it quite well, and if you’re trying to figure out whether or not you want to buy it or not, I’d recommend you read Andi Hamilton’s words over at Midnight Resistance - I think he covers a lot of it very well, and I almost canned the whole idea of writing anything about it because anything else feels redundant. I can’t quite let it go, though: I feel like the great bits of this game have been missed by the masses.

Hotline Miami’s soundtrack is the icing on the cake to an incredible game that elevates it from being great to being one of the best games ever made. The audio design as a whole is simple, elegant and brutal. Hotline Miami 2, unbelievably, improves on this. The more varied levels lend themselves to a more varied musical background, allowing the developers and composers to work out something truly imaginative and special. The build-up of Carpenter Brut’s Roller Mobster is a wonderful example of how this game uses quieter moments in an otherwise unrelenting soundtrack to emphasise the tension that’s present in the game.

Tension is a theme in this game. Where Hotline Miami’s story was vague and meandering, Hotline Miami 2’s is always working towards something, and it’s always something horrible. Every character is searching for an answer, but it always feels like it’s going to be a Seven-style head-in-a-box answer that no character really wants to reach. We watch as The Soldier desperately seeks a way out of the war, but we feel like it will never really end for him. We watch The Writer give up everything in pursuit of understanding the events of Hotline Miami. The world is falling apart for every character we play as, one way or another, whether it’s the corrupt cop who abuses his position to kill for fun, or The Fans, morally bankrupt kids who emulate murders for kicks. It’s left a little unclear whether people are deliberately corrupting the world, or the organisations we see are merely symptoms of the human condition.

The ending didn’t satisfy me, but that felt ok. I don’t think that every story has to be what you want it to be, and these stories, these lives, feel like unsatisfying ones. The characters are all missing something vital, something that makes them whole human beings, and they end their time broken and lost.

Is it any good? As a game? Well, that’s more complicated. What everyone else has said is right: the levels are so big and open that it becomes more of a stealth shooter than a combo-busting brawler at times. The AI is frustrating and broken in places, and the random seeding of levels can make them laughably easy or maddeningly hard: one level I tried was nearly impossible because I couldn’t get my hands on anything other than a 2-cartridge shotgun. I quit the game, tried again the next day, and every enemy was boasting a fully-automatic machine gun, meaning that I was able to breeze through the level first try. That all said, I finished it, and I enjoyed it. It tries too hard and does too many new things, but anything less and it might have been branded as “more of the same” and “unimaginative” - it’s a fine line and I think they did the best they could. This is not a bad game, by any means - it’s just not going to sit in the hall of fame alongside Hotline Miami.

Watch The Skies: Actual things that happened

This is the third in a set of three articles about a megagame I ran this weekend. I’ve split it into these parts:

Finally, a few notes about actually playing the game and the things that happened from the controller’s end. This is rather fragmented and quite possibly out of order, and assumes some knowledge of the game: if you don’t know what Watch The Skies is, you may find some of this rather difficult to follow. Sorry!

The first big event, for me, was that one of our scientists ran up to the stage before the game started to announce that the kitchen end of the hall reeked of gas. In a flurry of panic I ran to the kitchen to find that there was no gas in the building: everything was electric. That did nothing to calm me down: I thought I’d just have to turn the oven off, but now I don’t even have controls to work with. Would I have to evacuate the hall? Just then, from across the room, someone yelled “don’t panic! It’s just China!” and they were right: the Chinese team had brought an array of unusual imported sweets, some of which smelt strongly enough to gas out an entire building.

After that was all resolved, the game started and we got underway. The mess of rules confusion was hard to muddle through: everyone was feeling out the edges of the game all at once, and every controller had to work very hard for the first few turns. Earth presented a united front against the aliens and knocked them out of orbit fairly consistently: in fact, the humans as a whole were working together as a single team, more or less. Even the UN was in agreement on most things. As control, we worried about this: Earth working together turns the game into a team of 32 versus a team of 9. The rules are kind of set up that way, though: when the game starts, no team has any technology and no pressing commitments, so the only thing to do is send out units to beat up UFOs. Hitting them gives you tech cards, so why wouldn’t you? Only a year in did it start to sink in that they were, in fact, destroying living things, and, in fact, maybe they shouldn’t let the other Earth nations get their hands on all that juicy tech.

Towards the end of the first year, Brazil were due to hold the Olympics. This was something we messed about with as a roleplay idea and we weren’t quite sure how it’d play out: we granted Brazil the power to give out Olympic success (no questions asked about how that was actually achieved) and gave successful countries bonuses. Russia started discussions with control about paying to plant a bomb on the Olympic grounds and frame another country for it, and we had our first hint of some real in-fighting. At this point, I was feeling pretty nervous about Russia: this was a really bloodthirsty action and if it came off, the game would surely take a darker turn. Eventually they deemed it too costly and risky and canned the idea. This might actually be the first mention of it outside the control meetings.

The scientific community came together rather nicely and for the most part worked together to further Earth’s interests. Initially we didn’t let them share research without our consent, worrying that technology might enhance too quickly, but after a few turns very little had happened in the science world so we opened up the floodgates and even gave some bonuses to dice rolls. We also had to be quite generous on the black market because there just weren’t enough tech cards out in the field to go around. In general, I think we overestimated the pace science game, and I underestimated how much the scientists would have to do. I really enjoyed watching the scientists work and found them to be genuinely interesting players who advised their heads of state and opened up communications with the other teams on a completely different level to the UN. This is a total contrast to a lot of reports I’ve read from players of other Watch The Skies games - I have no idea if that’s down to our players or if I’m just perceiving things differently.

Control had a meeting every turn and, I think, operated extremely well. We communicated quickly and mostly efficiently, although we often tried to end the meeting before Mike got to speak - Sorry Mike! Overall, it seems that control is the one bit of perfect communication in this game of poor channels, which makes it a very odd role. Most of the time, I had a hard time keeping up with everything that was going on and found that my role was largely just gathering the other controllers together and getting them to say their parts to each other: I expected to be steering the story a lot more, but that seemed largely to be carried out by the players rather than us.

Lunchtime hit and we took a much needed break: the original rulebooks do not factor lunch into the timetable, but I’m glad that we added it. The controllers took the time to talk through some ideas and we decided on a few things: firstly to boost science a little, and secondly to work through a few plans with the aliens that they had thought up themselves. They had captured a spy and ended up genetically enhancing him and sending him back to Earth, which we thought was a brilliant idea. Brazil would soon receive this spy and open up a full communication channel with the aliens. Here the cracks really started to show on Earth’s side: the game naturally shifted from alien hunting to suspecting other nations and everything started to get a little bogged down in bureaucracy. I think this is a fairly natural path for the game to take.

The aliens sent messages to the humans constantly: some offering peace and trades, others attempting to confuse and disrupt Earth. Sometimes we delivered them to the right people, sometimes we altered them, sometimes we sent them elsewhere. Some were late, some were changed. On one inspired occasion, Charlie delivered a message from the aliens to the PR system of a science conference, offering no explanation. The alien game is very much a roleplaying experience, more about ideas than mechanics.

In the afternoon, things started to flow more smoothly as we got the hang of the rules, but also Earth broke down a little. The USA went public on the existence of aliens, which felt like a big deal but didn’t actually change much for our game at the time. Looking back, everyone injected money into PR at that point to cover for the hit, reducing the money available for operations, and perhaps that gave the aliens the foothold they needed to get back in the game. This moment was an exciting one for control: we knew about it 5 or 10 minutes in advance and there was a lot of whispering back and forth that turn.

At one point, I walked out from the control area to see the Brazilian president up on the alien balcony, with a media representative, meeting with the aliens. This was an incredible moment for me: I really wanted to see something like this take place and here it was. I was hoping, then, that an alien representative would get a seat on the UN, but I hear that was vetoed in the UN meetings. Meanwhile on Earth, the president of France and the foreign minister for Japan gathered the heads of state to attempt to open discussions with the aliens, but they had all they needed from Brazil and no interest in talking to people who wouldn’t stop shooting them down.

Sometime during the afternoon, tech started getting interesting as Russia got their hands on a bio-weapon. I informed them quietly that the aliens wouldn’t know anything about this kind of technology and that they should keep it secret as it would be a powerful weapon against them. They held onto it, in secret, for several turns, before planning a masterpiece final turn: they infected an alien corpse with it and returned it to the aliens, as a “gesture of goodwill”. The aliens took the bait. We discussed the options here and Charlie decided to run the results as a roleplaying exercise, in which 3 of the aliens selflessly sacrificed themselves to save the rest of the colony.

“Could the heads of state for China and the USA head to the war room, please?” Mike’s voice boomed over the PA. Rikki and Mark walked to the stage, pushing through the generals who cried out that heads of state should not be allowed into the war room. “Do you authorise the use of nuclear weapons against Brazil?” Mike asked each of them in turn. They both agreed. The missiles flew. China and the USA had decided to end this alliance with the aliens once and for all. We took word to the UN, and the foreign minister for Japan resigned on the spot. The game was over. The world lay in tatters, and the aliens had lost one whole conclave.

I’ve written over 1500 words about the events of the day here, and I’m sure that I haven’t covered a quarter of what I saw. Each player has their own version of events, their own narrative. The plot arcs that moved across the entire day feel unimportant compared to the individual factors weighing on each person in the game. Overall, the experience was incredible: I love organising events and this one is the best I’ve ever put together. I’m proud of myself and proud of everyone who came for getting into the spirit of things and making it an incredible day. I’ve learned tons from it, and I can’t wait to get on to the next one - after a few months off for recovery.