Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The wayward genius of Phil Eklund

I've just been playing Pax Renaissance, the latest masterwork from Phil Eklund at Sierra Madre games, playing it through solo to get the hang of the rules, and what an experience it has been! Deeply immersive, intriguing, satisfying, full of historical interest. Best of all, like all Phil's games, it is a game of ideas, the polar opposite to the idea-free mechanic-driven designs that dominate Euro-gaming, or indeed the high-fantasy miniature-bloated big boxes that regularly emanate from Kickstarter-world.

As you can see, I'm a bit of a fan of Phil Eklund games. And this isn't even my whole collection. I've just said that a big part of their appeal for me is that his games are games of ideas. They give you something to think about. That doesn't mean that his ideas are necessarily very palatable. For example, Phil seems to be some sort of American libertarian. I'm all in favour of personal liberty, but the Ayn Rand style libertarianism that Phil seems to espouse is more about liberty for corporations. The entrepreneurial spirit of capitalism operating in free markets is the great driver of human progress. At least that is what the rule booklet for Pax Renaissance tells me. My response to that is – tell that to the people in Bhopal. Pax Porfiriana, Phil's epic game of the Mexican revolution, teaches us that the world is divided into makers and takers, in other words taxation is simply extracting money with menaces. I prefer to think of taxation as a (very imperfect) common purse, to which we all contribute for the common good. Bios Megafauna, Phil's simply magnificent game about the last 250 million years of evolution, has a throwaway line in the rules about mankind's heroic efforts to avoid the next "snowball earth" by digging up and burning as much fossil fuel as possible. So much for the scientific consensus on climate change.

But I don't really mind all that. The great thing is that Phil Eklund reads widely and deeply, and builds his often heterodox conclusions into the structure of his truly excellent games. Giving me not only something great to play, but some truly interesting ideas to chew over and disagree with. Give me that over the latest idea-free Euro-deckbuilder any day.

Tuesday, May 02, 2017

A couple more thoughts on X-Wing fatigue

My gaming background is in board wargames, I was a teenager back in the heyday of Avalon Hill and SPI, and more recently I've played a lot of GMT or Columbia ar MMP wargames. In a typical board wargame you will get, as well as the main event, a handful of usually smaller scenarios. These specify starting positions and order of battle – a list of exactly which units each side gets to play with – and victory conditons, special rules etc. In a good quality game each scenario will have been carefully playtested to make sure it is more or less balanced, so that given players of equal ability victory will go to either side roughly the same number of times. So for example Up Front, one of the the finest wargames I have ever come across, has a dozen or so scenarios printed on the back page of the rule book. Each one is a little gem of compression, specifying the exact composition of your squad and their weapons, the setup conditions, the kind of terrain you are likely to encounter, and the victory conditions. Each one (remember this was back in the golden age of Avalon Hill when they had big print runs and plenty of resources) was thoroughly polished and playtested, so you could be sure you were getting into a fair fight with your opponent.

Star Wars: X-Wing in contrast went for a points-based build-your-own-squad approach. I can understand why, after all many people thoroughly enjoy the meta-game of squad building, the obsessive poring over lists which can fill the fan's leisure hours (and some of his working hours too!) But the price of this is a certain rock-paper-scissors flavour to one's encounters down at the local club. Your obsessed-over squad is quite likely to meet an opposing squad which simply steamrollers yours, with no possibility of playing skill or luck rescuing what is from the start a hopeless situation.

Interestingly, even Up Front, which I am holding up as a shining example of balanced scenario design, gives every personnel and weapon card a points value, so points-based DIY scenarios are very much possible, and were a lot of fun whenever I tried it, back in the nineties when I was playing a lot of Up Front.

Stll, it would be nice to see FFG produce some proper balanced and playtested scenarios. I think it's unlikely, the current structure of the game with numerous upgrade packs marketed as single (or sometimes pairs of) ships, would make it difficult.  The missions are a step in that direction, but you are still choosing your forces on points value, so the meta-game intrudes even here.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

X-Wing Fatigue

I think I need a break from Star Wars: X-Wing.

I've been playing for about 15 months now, benefitting from the regular group that meets every Wednesday at Thirsty Meeples in Oxford. Great group of friendly guys ( and yes it is 95% guys), I've really enjoyed learning the game, building up my collection of rebel space ships (including 2 yes 2 Millenium Falcons!), reading the blogs, watching the matches on YouTube, listening to the podcasts, and even going to a few tournaments.

But... the last 3 weeks, taking a beating in every single game, from squads with such complicated shenanigans that I have no idea why you get to reroll that attack a third time! OK so I need to fly better and perhaps I'm not putting the hours into understanding this game and the multitude of upgrades and pilots available, but I dunno... I think I just need a break. Maybe only a short break, I'll probably be back with my tail wagging in a week or two. But for now, I think I want to think about something else. Maybe StarFarers of Catan.