Sand in my squee

>> Sunday, April 22, 2012

I am happy, and have to share this though I suspect it won't be particularly interesting to most of the readership, such as it is. But still: even though it's unlikely I'll be able to come up with five people who all have the same five hours to kill in the same room, my copy of Rex is here.

Let me explain, let me go back a little as to why this is made of three-hundred-proof awesomeness for me. Way back when, long ago and not that far away, in the 1970s a bunch of game designers came together in a clutch to form a company called Future Pastimes, which sort of had a mission in mind of making games that weren't your mother's Monopoly set (not that there's anything specifically wrong with Monopoly, mind you; it's a cromulent enough game in its way).

Two particular things about FP: one, they had a fine obsession with asymmetrical game designs. You can go to the link for a nutshell or I can offer you the definition/distinction here: in a heavily symmetrical game, like chess or Monopoly, all players start in more-or-less the same place and have essentially interchangeable positions as play progresses. E.g. everybody has the same amount of money and starts in the same square at the beginning of a Monopoly game, and for the remainder of the game has the same fundamental choices: roll the dice and move unless in Jail, follow the directions if one lands on a special space, if the space is an unowned property purchase it or allow it to go on auction, if the space is an owned property pay the rent due unless the property has been mortgaged. There's a small asymmetry in Monopoly in that the first player to roll the dice at the start of a game has a slight advantage over the next, who has a slight advantage over subsequent players, etc., but it's an almost negligible (and inescapable) asymmetry for most purposes.

In a more asymmetrical game, players don't all start with the same position and aren't essentially interchangeable. A good, basic illustration is the checkers variant Fox And Hounds, a two-player game in which one player has four pieces capable of only moving forward on the checkerboard's diagonals while the other player has one piece which may move in any diagonal direction (forward or backward) (the game ends when the "fox" is trapped by the four "hounds" or when it becomes impossible for the "hounds" to take the "fox"). One player has numbers where the other has mobility, each follows a slightly different ruleset and must apply a different strategy to have any hope of winning.

Future Pastimes, as I wrote, had an obsession with heavily asymmetric games. In probably their best-known game, the legendary Cosmic Encounter, each player chooses a different faction with specialized powers that allow them to "cheat" the basic rules in unique ways not duplicated by any other faction in play: one player might be allowed to count each of his tokens at double-value while another player doesn't lose tokens in battle (instead redeploying them or returning them to his reserve), yet another player might win if his final total in a battle is less than his opponent's (as opposed to the normal rule that the higher total wins) or might be able to force other players to help him. Strategy in a game like this becomes not just a matter of understanding one's own abilities in a game, but also being able to figure out how other players' abilities will interact.1

Which is awesome.

The second really cool thing about Future Pastimes that didn't always quite translate from the drawing board/test version to a final shelf version was that FP really believed a game ought to be something tactile and interesting to look at and play with. The exigencies of game production and the fine margins and holding things together with shoestrings that goes on in a game company's offices and warehouse meant that a lot of times FP's really cool monster design with lotsa brightly-colored fiddly bits and doohickeys often got reduced to four-color processed die-cut flat cardboard bits, and so it goes but is still worth mentioning because, y'know, these dudes were really cool game designers designing really cool games.

At one point in time, FP came up with a game with a Fall-Of-The-Roman-Empire theme that had some neat little gimmicks to it. First, in keeping with the asymmetry thing, everybody in the game would have a different route to winning and different "cheats" they could pull during the game. Second, they had a brutally novel combat system with a nifty tactile component: any time players had a confrontation in the game, they would use a little number dial to secretly commit their forces: the loser would lose everything, but the winner would still lose whatever he committed to the fight. So you had this interesting dynamic where it's not like Risk where you can just move in overwhelming forces and attrit the enemy, but you have to try to read the situation and commit only the barest number you think will overpower your opponent but leave you with something on the board even if you win. Add in mechanics to give different bonuses to the number dialed--including a mechanic where an opponent could use treachery to win without losses regardless of the numbers dialed, and you end up with something really, really clever.

Now, the original concept was a Roman theme2, but the company FP was working with to get the game into print, the late and lamented Avalon Hill (now merely a brand subsidiary of Hasbro, the real company having gone out of business more than a decade ago), happened to have the licensing rights to the Frank Herbert novel Dune, and it didn't take much to see that the mechanics FP were working on could easily be adapted and fitted to Herbert's universe of secrecy, betrayal and war.

The result was one of the best games of all time, and one of my personal favorites of all time. In Dune, each player took the role of the major factions from Herbert's universe--the Atreides, the Harkonnens, the Bene Gesserit, the Spacing Guild, the Emperor, or the Fremen--and wrestled to dominate the most important planet in the universe, Arrakis or Dune (on a map representing the planet's inhabited-but-inhospitable northern hemisphere). If you were the Atreides player, let's say, you had special rules-bending abilities related to the family's precognitive psychic powers--looking at cards before they were drawn, looking at part of an opponent's battle plan before it was revealed, etc. But then if you were the Harkonnens, you could draw (and keep) extra Treachery cards and extra traitors, while the Emperor had a lot of money and military threat but crippled mobility and the Spacing Guild easy movement but little power. Etc. The only real weakness to the game was that a really, really cracking session required six players, each faction represented and hacking it out.

Avalon Hill eventually lost the license and their company, and (except for a French edition that remained in print through the 1990s) the game was largely a lost treasure for a long, long time. If you go to BoardGameGeek (see the link in the preceding paragraph), a lot of players resorted to making increasingly elaborate hand-crafted replicas to satisfy their obsession.

Comes along Fantasy Flight Games, a company that does an extraordinary good job putting together mechanics and components in their own right and demonstrates their appreciation of a great classic game by getting the rights to republish it (see also: Fury Of Dracula, Arkham Horror, Cosmic Encounter, et al.). FFG decided they wanted to get Dune back out in print again, but somehow the Herbert estate decided they had better things to do with their intellectual property, such as letting Brian Herbert and Kevin J. Anderson skullfuck the franchise into powder with an infinite succession of prequels, sequels, sidequels and NyQuils (the bastards).

So what FFG eventually did was, thank heavens, say "Fuck it, we have our own imperial space opera franchise we can do this with," and that's how we get to Rex.

Which is where we get back to that long-ago start of this post and my happiness and joy, joy, joy. We get to Rex and we get to me having a copy now.

It is, more-or-less, the same exact game as Dune with some tweaks and changes and maybe even improvements. Some of the changes seem minor and convenient and some of them seem significant and I wonder how they'll play out. The flavor is now FFG's Twilight Imperium universe, a far-future tribute to or pastiche of various interstellar empires in decline and now a galactic civil war happened sagas. Instead of fighting for spice on Arrakis, factions are battling for influence on a map of the collapsing Capitol City on the homeworld planet of the dying galactic empire. Instead of a merciless sandstorm circling round and blowing units off the board, we have a really cool 3D stand-up model of the Human spacefleet that is bombing the hell out of the planet on its peregrinations. The Atreides are now the scientists of the Jol-Nar using their advanced technology to gather intelligence and make predictions, the Bene Gesserit have been replaced by the space-turtle diplomats of the Xxcha. All the weapons have new names and all the pieces have exciting new shapes (and are printed on better stock). But it's the same rules, by and large, to the point where a Dune player can look at the vile Letnev's faction card and coo, "It's the Harkonnens!" or pick up a token and after studying it for a minute, without even looking through the brightly-colored rulebook, blurt, "I know what this is!"

Those admirable bastards at FFG even coyly slipped in a "the water is the life" line in the little background short story at the back of the rulebook. Admirable bastards, magnificent bastards.

I'm excited. My friends and I aren't in high school or college anymore, so those copious amounts of free time when you're supposed to be doing homework or going to class aren't there anymore. But I am filled with squee, squee that echoes the rasp of sand on sand and smells faintly of cinnamon and ozone.

1While checking some things for this post, I stumbled upon this pretty cool old interview with Peter Olotka, one of the original co-designers of Cosmic Encounter and Dune, and this comment on asymmetry and the Future Pastimes approach seemed worth repeating:

Key to the design were a set of principles, like there would be no dice in the game, no one could be kicked out the game before it ended, you could always come from behind, it had to have compromise as well as attack as way of making progress, everyone would have to be different.

One thing that emerged from the design was that it created situations that WERE NOT FAIR. So I have added that to the list. It would not be fair.

NOT FAIR IS FUNNY AND SURPRISING. [emphasis in original]

I think the quote is one of those accurate-but-a-little-misleading sorts of things. "Not fair" sounds like it wouldn't be fun, sounds like it would be the antithesis of good gameplay. (We like the idea of games that are "fair".) But the thing is, a game in which there's an obvious disparity can be more challenging and intriguing and surprising and just plain fun than a game in which everything is a carefully-balanced slog. Cosmic Encounter is a game where you can end up with an unbalanced array of factions, so what you do then is people need to gang up against the overpowered--or join them, or waffle from side to side until they can leak out from the press and declare victory (that seems a horribly failed metaphor, sorry).

I guess another way of putting it are that there are different kinds of "unfair", and "unfairness" in the context Olotka is putting it in is part of a list that includes the other things mentioned in the quote: no player is ever knocked out of the game, any player has a chance to come back, etc.

2A lot of gamers will talk about "crunch"--the actual rules mechanics--versus "flavor"--the theme or idea the game is supposed to convey or model or mimic or whatever. E.g. the core "crunch" of Risk is that players shift pieces to areas of the board occupied by other players' pieces and then have roll-offs, the "attacker" getting an advantage in the number of dice and the "defender" getting an advantage in winning tied rolls; the "flavor" of Risk is world conquest, with the areas of the board representing geographic locations in the world and the pieces representing "armies". But you could have the essentially same game (with similar or different effect) applying the same crunch to a game in which the flavor was viruses invading a body, animal populations struggling for ecological niches, tokens representing ideologies rolling-off against rival ideas, etc.

Indeed, the simplicity of Risk's crunch is perhaps a leading reason the original game has since been cross-branded into all sorts of flavors: Star Wars Risk, Lord Of The Rings Risk, whatever. The basic mechanic doesn't change no matter what kind of board you use for it. A game with more complex mechanics might make less sense with mismatched flavor: you could still play it, but it might not be as fun or make as much sense.


timb111 Monday, April 23, 2012 at 2:29:00 PM EDT  

Since University all my game playing seems to be either card games or group games like Pictionary or games that take even less knowledge or skill. Sometimes the games don't even have winners, you just play them (boring). It's probably been 20 years since I've played Risk.

The games you describe sound really interesting, but I don't know who I'd play them with.

Meanwhile, my five year old Grandson wants me to teach him Chess.

Eric Monday, April 23, 2012 at 2:44:00 PM EDT  

Y'know, the opportunity to teach a little one chess would be pretty damn awesome, and equals or exceeds the value of a five-hours-with-five-friends epic game session.

Now I have a little of the envy.

John the Scientist Tuesday, April 24, 2012 at 8:39:00 PM EDT  

Ahhhh, Avalon Hill. Many an hour of my childhood spent on Eastern Front and Panzer Leader.

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