Category Archives: Board Games

There’s a rule for that: the customer is always right (when it comes to things crashing and exploding)

It’s always fun to try and identify game rules that came into existence not because they were part of the designers’ vision, but because players insisted on them.

When you’re a game designer faced with player demands for a rule you don’t particularly want to include in the game, you have a few choices. You can simply ignore the requests. Alternately, you could include a passive-aggressive note in the rulebook:

No need to get snippy about it!

That’s from the Star Fleet Battles Master Rulebook, and it makes me smile every time I read it. In defense of the players crying out to the heavens for such a rule, ships ramming into each other does sometimes happen in Star Trek, most memorably in Star Trek: Nemesis; and besides, who wouldn’t want a chance to melodramatically shout “RAMMING SPEED!!!” during the ever-suspenseful SPEED DETERMINATION PHASE of a Star Fleet Battles match?

Nevertheless I can sympathize with the designers’ annoyance here: if it were possible to ram other ships in Star Fleet Battles, every single battle would end with the losing player attempting to ram the other player out of spite, and players would start fielding ships not for their tactical value, but to use as kamikazes. That might be fun for a match or two, but would quickly get old, and doesn’t really seem like the kind of thing the Federation would do.

But there’s another way designers can react to unreasonable player requests: just roll with it. From Tactical Operations, a book of optional advanced rules for Battletech:

Bless you, Battletech rule designers.

In a regular Battletech game, landing hits on a ‘Mech’s nuclear-powered engine can quickly disable the ‘Mech, but won’t result in the Hollywood-style atomic explosion that players have long pined for. But this is the best way to do it: make it an optional rule.

(In this case, the Battletech designers must accept some blame for this rule, because ‘Mech fusion engines exploding is a thing that has happened from time to time in Battletech novels. And the intro videos to the third and fifth installments of the Mechwarrior videogames feature ‘Mechs detonating in big nuclear fireballs when their engines take critical damage. There’s just something about ‘Mech reactors going critical that we can’t get enough of!)

I am sure that most complex games that aim for quasi-realism run into this sort of thing a lot: the tension between sticking to the purity of your vision for the game, and giving players what they want. Know of any other good examples?

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Why is this ‘Mech so terrible?

Die result (1d6) It’s terrible because of… Example
1 Ideology The ‘Mech’s poor design is intentional, designed to encourage or discourage certain types of behavior on the battlefield. “It’s shameful the way our Mechwarriors keep their distance from the enemy, sniping at long range, when everyone knows the true spirit of bushido is manifested in face-to-face battle. Well, without any ranged weapons, this ‘Mech will force its pilots to fight with honor.”
2 This is What Was Available The ‘Mech was cobbled together using the only resources and equipment available to its designers. Nobody’s under the illusion that it’s a good design, but it’s better than nothing. “We’ve got a warehouse full of heavy ‘Mech chasses, and a big pile of small lasers. Might as well put ’em to use… better than letting them sit around gathering dust.”
3 Lobbying A weapons manufacturer bribed its way into a sweet contract with the government, despite the uselessness of the product. “Hey, don’t shoot the messenger—it says here we’re required by our contract to equip every ‘Mech we make with no less than five TrueAim Plus(tm) brand small lasers….”
4 Untouchable Designer However ridiculous the end result, the ‘Mech was designed by somebody that nobody dared criticize or contradict. “Why, this ‘Mech was designed by the Crown Prince himself. Surely you’re not implying that His Imperial Majesty knows nothing of battlefield strategy and technology, are you?”
5 Production Line Screw-up An error on the manufacturing floor resulted in a badly mis-configured ‘Mech, but by the time anybody noticed, the cost of fixing the mistake had become prohibitive. “Oh dear, we’ve just equipped 500 assault ‘Mechs with armaments meant for light ‘Mechs. But they’ve already started shipping to the frontlines….”
6 It Wasn’t Supposed to Be This Way The ‘Mech was an experimental test platform (or maybe a practical joke by an over-tired engineer) that was never intended for mass production. But key emails were skimmed instead of carefully read, and you can guess what happened next. “Don’t worry, nobody would possibly be stupid enough to mistake this for a serious production design… right?”

FileTR3025_Front_CoverOne of the most-read books in my game library when I was in junior high and high school was Technical Readout 3025, a collection of ‘Mechs that you could use in your Battletech games. They were designed using the construction rules in the rulebook, but were also the “official” ‘Mechs used by the different factions within the Battletech setting.

What surprised me at the time was that the Technical Readout contained a number of ‘Mechs that were terribly designed.

By that, I mean that there were numerous ‘Mech designs in the book that were obviously inefficient or just generally ineffective. At the time, I was spending my evenings and weekends poring over the ‘Mech construction rules figuring out how to most efficiently balance weapons, armor, and speed in ‘Mech designs. When “official” ‘Mechs appeared that were subpar, I was surprised and almost offended.

Nowadays, I realize that poorly-designed ‘Mechs are a feature of the setting, not a bug. They add verisimilitude to the Battletech universe. Just as in our modern militaries there are plenty of examples of poorly conceived, ineffective boondoggles, so the militaries of the Battletech world would have been plagued by such things. But at the time, I was mostly just annoyed that I had paid money for a book that contained ‘Mech designs no competent player would ever want to be stuck with.

It looks cool, but trust me... you don't want to be stuck piloting one. And you know, it doesn't even look that cool.

It looks cool, but trust me… you don’t want to be stuck piloting one. And you know, it doesn't even look that cool.

The worst offender, by far, was the CGR-1A1 Charger, an assault-class ‘Mech (at 80 tons, one of the heaviest ‘Mechs in the setting) that had almost no effective weaponry and mediocre armor. With an armament of just five small lasers—the wimpiest, shortest-ranged weapons in the game—it was completely outclassed by ‘Mechs half its weight. It was slightly faster than other heavy ‘Mechs, but not faster than the light and medium ‘Mechs that outgunned it. Its only conceivable battlefield advantage was its weight; if it could close to melee range, it could (in theory) deliver a pretty hefty punch or kick. But trust me: while your 80-ton clunker is making its own personal Charge of the Light Brigade at an enemy unit, you can bet that it’s getting showered with missiles, lasers, and autocannon fire every step of the way. Because your enemy is not stupid enough to be piloting a Charger.

At the time, the presence of the Charger was an inexplicable annoyance. These days, it’s a charming part of the setting. And it makes for a fun excercise to imagine how such a poorly-conceived ‘Mech would make it from the planning stages to the actual battlefield. Above is a quick chart I put together to answer the question. When you’re handed a terrible ‘Mech to play with, just roll a six-sided die on the chart above to see how it came to be.

Obviously, this’d work with any military or sci-fi game, with slight tweaking. What other reasons should be added to this table?

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Always be careful when destroying the Enterprise

The Enterprise blows up.You’ll forgive me, I hope, if I yammer about a board game for a few minutes. It’s been a while since I’ve subjected you to such trivia.

As I have no doubt mentioned, I am a fan of the Star Fleet Battles board/wargame. Now, this is a game with a lot of rules. The “master rulebook” runs over 400 pages, and a second master rulebook covering a different quadrant of the galaxy recently came out at an additional 340 pages. While it’s a very fun game, those rules do not make for a riveting read-through (not that that’s stopped me, of course). But every now and then you hit something quirky in the midst of all the rules legalese that makes you grin.

For example, here’s one of my favorite little rules in the entire game. It’s something that will probably never happen in a typical game. It describes what happens when a starship captained by a “legendary captain” (think Kirk or Picard) is destroyed:

[G22.223] If his ship is destroyed, he has a 1% chance of doing something that results in his being aboard and in control of the nearest enemy ship of the same or smaller size class…. All legendary officers and remaining crew arrive with him. (Don’t ask how he did it; that’s what legends are made of!)

I assume that rule is inspired by Star Trek III, which features Kirk self-destructing the Enterprise yet shortly thereafter taking control of the Klingon Bird-of-prey through various bits of trickery. Who could forget this classic scene (thank you imdb):

Torg: [the Klingons have boarded the Enterprise only to find it is deserted] My Lord, the ship appears to be deserted.
Kruge: How can that be? They’re hiding.
Torg: Yes, sir. The ship appears to be run by computer. It is the only thing that is speaking.
Kruge: Speaking? Let me hear it.
Enterprise computer: [Torg walks over to a console, placing his communicator towards it] 9-8-7-6-5…
Kruge: [shouts] Get out! Get out of there! Get out!
Enterprise computer: 2-1…
[the Enterprise bridge explodes]

Other fun rules cover similarly rare but cool game events, like crew mutiny on Klingon ships whose security officers have been killed (in the game universe, Klingon ships are crewed largely by slaves) and what happens when you tractor an enemy ship and then drag it at high speed into a planet. They’re situations that rarely if ever come up in your average gameā€”but you know that when they do, they fuel Gamer Stories for years to come.

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Nostalgic gaming: a look at Iron Crown's 1983 Fellowship of the Ring

The hall closet in our apartment is, much to my wife’s dismay, stacked high with boardgames I’ve acquired throughout my sordid life as a gamer. Both of the adults in the family have degrees in archaeology, so perhaps it makes sense to view the tall stack of games in the closet as a sort of stratigraphy of my gaming life: the uppermost strata contain such recent artifacts as Arkham Horror and a few of the latest Axis and Allies releases; moving down the stack and back through time, one comes across Civilization, Gulf Strike, and Squad Leader; and buried in the bottommost layers are relics from my junior high and high school gaming days: B-17: Queen of the Skies, Battletroops, and other classics of yesteryear.

Today I want to reminisce about one of the games from the very earliest strata of that gaming pile–a curious and nearly-forgotten boardgame with which I was obsessed throughout junior high, and which eventually served as an entrypoint for me to the world of roleplaying games. The game is The Fellowship of the Ring, published in 1983 by Iron Crown Enterprises, and–like some of the Iron Crown RPGs I would later play–I loved it, although I didn’t always completely understand it.

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A history of capitalism

Who knew that the boardgame Monopoly had such an interesting history?

I haven’t played Monopoly–or any other “normal” boardgames–in a long while. (“Normal” here meaning “can be purchased in a mainstream toy store.”) I do believe, however, that there is a copy of Star Wars Monopoly in the closet (next to Star Wars Trivial Pursuit, of course). Suddenly I’m in the mood for some capitalistic excess.

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Free strategy games from the dark depths of the 80s

Ever heard of Dwarfstar Games? I hadn’t either, but it turns out they released eight rather quirky little strategy games in the early 1980s, all most of which are now available for free download. Most of them look like fairly short and straightforward strategy games, with an obvious wargame influence–the hexgrid maps and cardboard chits are a dead giveaway.

Downloading digital scans of the game maps and playing pieces isn’t quite as cool as actually owning the physical thing, of course, but for $10 or so at your local copy shop, you could probably recreate a fashionably old-school physical copy of the games. Might be a fun change of pace from all those new-fangled, high-production-quality games you kids are playing these days.

(More info and reviews of each game are available here. Spotted at Game It Yourself, which lists many, many other freely downloadable games.)

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Don't take away my turn!

Over the holidays I played a number of different boardgames with friends and relatives, and in the course of doing so I had a personal revelation of sorts:

I really don’t like it when a game makes you “lose a turn” as a gameplay penalty or obstacle.

This realization came to me after I played in several games where being forced to lose a turn was a routine penalty for unlucky dice rolls or falling afoul of other players. Used sparingly, it’s not a big deal to skip a turn every now and then (and in some games it is a logical gameplay element), but in one game I lost four turns in a row due entirely to bad luck–that’s about twenty minutes of sitting and watching other people play the game you showed up to participate in.

So yes, I’m bitter about that experience, but I would prefer that games try to find some other way of penalizing you than basically making you sit in the corner for a turn. An in-game penalty should make winning more difficult; it doesn’t need to take away the fun of actually playing the game. Take away my game tokens, make me go back to Start, lower my score, make me lose a few cards… but please, don’t make me stop playing!

(On a similar note, I’m a big fan of games that make sure that every player gets to “do something,” however minor, during every other player’s turn; even if all you’re doing is drawing a card or rolling a die while the other player takes their turn, it’s more fun than waiting for five minutes for your turn to roll around again. But I’ll save that rant for another day.)

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Starships passing in the night

I had one of those weird “it’s-a-small-world” experiences online this morning. I was meeting up with my friend Jon for a Saturday morning game of Star Fleet Battles. While you’re setting up the game, you can chat with other SFB players in the “lobby” area.
So anyway: one of the people in the lobby, who I recognized as an SFB regular, asked where we lived. Over the next 30 seconds, we established that he lives in the same state as me.
In the same town.
In the same part of town.
In the same apartment complex.
In the building next door.
It was a fun coincidence, although just a tiny bit creepy; I half-expected him to burst out of my closet or growl “Turn around–I’m RIGHT BEHIND YOU!” or something cinematic like that.
But fortunately that did not happen. And who knows–maybe we’ll be matching wits over a boardgame sometime in the near future.

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“Khan!!!” Thoughts on Star Fleet Battles

I’ve been playing a boardgame called Star Fleet Battles with Jon lately. Jon found a nifty program which enables you to play the game over the internet, and so, using Skype to chat during the games, we’ve thus far played out two moderately-epic space battles between a Federation heavy cruiser and its Klingon equivalent.
I’m really enjoying it so far. Star Fleet Battles is a fascinating game. It simulates spaceship combat in the Star Trek (original series–no Next Generation stuff) universe. It’s quite complex–it hails from the same era that gave birth to games like Advanced Squad Leader, but, like many games of this sort, you can play a satisfying game using only about 10% or 20% of the rules. (The rest of the rules cover advanced options and special situations, which you use if and when you feel up for it.) It’s still a difficult learning curve; after each of our games I’ve come across rules that I handled incorrectly. (Jon, I confess: in our last game, I was dipping into my reserve warp power every turn without realizing it… can we just assume that Scotty was coaxing a little extra juice out of the warp engines, or something?)
SFB is basically a game of resource management. Each ship in the game generates a certain amount of energy each turn, which you must allocate to the various systems on the ship. Firing weapons requires the allotment of a certain amount of energy, as does moving, adjusting shields, using a tractor beam, doing fancy maneuvers, etc. The challenge lies in the fact that you never have enough energy to do everything; at the start of every turn, you must make painful decisions about which ship systems are going to receive energy and which won’t. Since you allocate most (if not all) of your energy at the beginning of each turn, you have to think ahead and try to anticipate what your opponent is going to do–is he putting all power to the engines so as to dart out of combat range, or is he putting all his energy into shields and weapons in the hopes of knocking you out with a broadside at point-blank range?
In addition, each ship has its own particular set of advantages and disadvantages. The Federation cruiser is slow-moving, but is very heavily armed and shielded. The Klingon cruiser, on the other hand, is a bit more fragile, but is more maneuverable and can fight at longer ranges. In the two full games we’ve played so far, we haven’t strayed too much beyond very basic tactics, but I’m looking forward to incorporating more advanced rules into the game as we go along.
Thus far, I’m really enjoying SFB. It only downside–and it’s a somewhat big downside–is the sheer complexity of it. Even though you don’t need to pay attention to most of the rules to get started, learning the basic rules is still a bit of a chore, and the rulebook itself is a less-than-thrilling read (filled with things like “Section H7.48: Use of Reserve Warp Power”). I’ve got a soft spot in my heart for complex rules like these, but it’s not something you can pick up and be playing competently in an hour.
Oh, and did I mention it’s the perfect outlet for all those Star Trek II quotes you’ve got stored away in your head? Quotes like this are difficult to work into everyday conversations, but they’re 100% appropriate in the context of SFB:

  • “Scotty, I need warp speed in two minutes or we’re all dead.”
  • “Full. Impulse. Power. Full power, damn you!”
  • “Sir… our shields are dropping!” “Raise them!” “I can’t!”
  • And, of course, “FIRE!!!” and “KHAAAAAN!!!” (both preferably screamed out loud while you shake your clenched fists)

So, then. Star Fleet Battles. It’s fun.

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