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Category: Games

Car Wars: A Retrospective Review (with Heroscape!)

In the 1980s, while I was in school (what do you mean by “old”? That was only 20 years ago!), my friends and I became interested in tabletop games. I think it all kind of started with Milton Bradley’s Axis & Allies. That led, over time, to more and more complex and involving games, from Squad Leader to Battletech to Star Fleet Battles. And then one day, one friend brought a little box called “Car Wars.” Sure, that sounded fun. So we tried it out.

In virtually no time, we were searching out everything related to Car Wars we could find – expansions to the base game, role-playing supplements, even a video game (Autoduel). We spent hours and hours making car designs and… what? Oh. The game itself.

Put simply, Car Wars is exactly what you would expect from the name. Players have cars, with weapons and armor strapped on them, and have wars. Simple concept, borrowing from things like Mad Max and other post apocalyptic and sci-fi concepts. Cars could range from something as simple as a subcompact with a little bit of armor and a machine gun on the front to fully decked-out 18-wheelers with multiple turreted lasers, advanced electronics, concealed mine droppers, and so much more. Each game depended on what you wanted to play: a chase through the streets of a small town? A freeway encounter with a sinister biker gang? Or, the most common, an arena duel to gain fame and money? Lots of dice were thrown, lots of charts were consulted, and hours and hours ticked by…

We grew older. Tabletop gaming changed. We changed. The days of checking various charts for everything became… old hat. Newer games, inspired by designers from that other continent across the ocean there, became big hits. We wanted games that played faster, with more streamlined and elegant rules.

In 2004, I ran across an odd game at Toys R Us. It caught my attention, because, at the time, TRU never had any interesting games (Monopoly Variants R Us!). The game was called Heroscape, and promised all sorts of mayhem with dozens of different units and… lots of dice. I decided to give it a try… and got sucked in. It swiftly became (and still is) one of my all-time favorite games. It satisfied a desire from my Car Wars days: “designing” something (in this case, selecting various unit cards to combine together) and then moving about on a map and rolling dice for combat.

Both games, Car Wars and Heroscape, also offered huge arenas for my writer’s imagination to play within. I wrote stories set in both universes at different times in my life. With Car Wars, we even role-played, to some extent, developing our drivers over a succession of duels, etc.

And now… now we have a new edition of Car Wars. The original makers, Steve Jackson Games, have spent many, many years trying to take the best of 1980s Car Wars and bring it to today’s tabletop gamers, who demand something much different in a game. The result is a new edition (technically the 6th, because of how things get counted. No, I don’t get it, either.) with sculpted miniatures, streamlined rules, and… lots of dice.

Car Wars 6th Edition takes virtually everything I loved about the 1980s game and puts it all together in an attractive and exciting package. Forget the charts. Forget the pencil-and-paper checklists. Everything here is spelled out simply on cards. How much damage does that machine gun do? Check the chart!—No! It’s written right there on the card. You roll these particular dice to find out. Can I make a 90-degree turn so my front-facing flamethrower can hit that other guy’s car? Sure, you can try, by using this turning key (a great concept from the old game brought into the new). How do I know if I succeeded without losing control? Check the chart on page—No! You roll dice, which are designated right there on the turning key itself. Simple. Fast. Fun.

In the old days, we would design cars by calculating how much weight the chassis could bear, what kind of suspension the car needed, how much money we had to spend, and then balance out what we wanted in armor, weapons, and accessories. This required a lot of math, and a lot of scribbling on paper. Today, we can agree on “build points” like, say, 12, and then choose cards that add up to that number. It still allows for tons of variation (if you combine all of the cards from all of the expansions right now, I think the total is 330), but is so much simpler.

And yet it preserves what we all loved about Car Wars. The “feel” is there, for lack of a better word. But more than that, it feels like Heroscape! In both games, we choose cards adding up to a certain point value. We “build” the map we want to use. And then we move our playing pieces, roll attack dice, and roll defense dice. (Plus a myriad of special abilities!)

Many Euro gamers will probably still sneer at a “dice chucker.” But you know what? Some will try it out and discover… it’s fun! And regardless of what some people will say, that’s the most important factor for a game (to me, anyway). It is fun. Lots and lots of fun.

In short, Car Wars 6th Edition takes my most beloved game from the 1980s and combines it with my most beloved game from the early 2000s… to create what may very well become my most beloved game from the 2020s. Only time and the dice will tell.

The Fractured Void Review

Outside of reading and writing, my favorite pastime is tabletop board games. And my favorite game is Twilight Imperium. It’s a massive epic of negotiation, trade, politics, and space ships shooting at each other. A four player game will probably last five hours minimum. A six player game can go all day (or night)… Some people complain about this. I see it as a feature.

Why? Because like all my favorite games, Twilight Imperium tells a story. And when we’re loving a story, we don’t want it to end.

Recently, Fantasy Flight Games, creators of Twilight Imperium (and many, many other games), started a new push to expand their own brands. They do a lot of licensed material with Star Wars and Marvel, etc., but some of their best stuff comes from these universes they’ve invented on their own. Like Twilight Imperium. So they’ve been launching new expansions to the games, working on role-playing modules set in those universes, and even commissioning novels.

Licensed novels written about an existing universe are nothing new. You can easily find dozens of novels based on Star Trek, Star Wars, Dungeons & Dragons, and just about any other fantasy or science fiction property you’ve heard of. Novels based on Twilight Imperium are interesting, though, in that there are no movies, TV shows, or cartoons in existence already (but we can hope).

The game itself is chock-full of lore (or world-building, or whatever you wish to call it). Players choose between seventeen different alien civilizations to start a game (seven more in the expansion). Each one of those civilizations has various in-game special abilities, starting units, and so on, but on the flip side of those large game placards is an extensive history of that civilization.

Consequently, when FFG hired Hugo-award-winning novelist Tim Pratt to write the first novel in the Twilight Imperium universe, he had a lot to work with. So… how did he do?

The Fractured Void is a space opera (it even says so on the cover!). In other words, it’s closer to Star Wars than Star Trek. Less “if we reverse the polarity on the tachyon beams…” and more “fire everything!” In other words, not a lot of really detailed explanation of the “science” in the science fiction. And that’s just fine.

It’s a fast-paced adventure that pauses every so often for a bit of an info dump. Those info dumps, while somewhat necessary, are sometimes delivered a little bit too blatantly. “Well, I did hear from a cousin’s friend once that…” On the other hand, for fans of the game itself, those info dumps are some of the most entertaining bits, because we get to read more about these alien civilizations that we enjoy playing in the game.

The story includes all sorts of space hijinks, like you might expect. Prison breaks, heists, and so on. There’s surprisingly very little actual space combat (which could also be said for the game itself). The plot line consists of a lot of “Oh, we need to rush over here for this reason,” and “Oh, wait, now we must rush to this place for this other reason.” Yeah, you’ve seen it in the Star Wars movies and similar fiction.

That doesn’t mean it’s bad. It’s just… all right. The most enjoyment I got from it was comparing it with what I know of Twilight Imperium. For anyone who’s never played the game, it would be… all right, I guess. 

My biggest nitpick is one I have with a lot of modern speculative fiction: why would people (aliens, for the most part) in a distant galaxy or our galaxy thousands and thousands of years in the future… use the exact same curse words we do today? It makes no logical sense and yanks me out of the story every single time. It’s a pet peeve. Maybe it won’t bother you. In addition, a common trope used with the primary antagonist was a bit annoying.

My biggest thrill was seeing how the finale of the novel ties in with the story of the new expansion to the game, Prophecy of Kings. Yep, I’m a nerd.

Whispered Stories of Manipulation

Not long ago, I received a copy of A War of Whispers, the new board game from Starling Games. As always, when I review games on this blog, I do so as a writer, and how this game inspires or motivates my writing.

When an average gamer sees A War of Whispers set up on a table, the first questions are something like, “Oh, it’s a war game? Which one are you playing?” The answers are: “No, not really,” and “None of them.”

In this game, five nations are on the verge of war. However, the two-to-four players involved are not controlling any of the specific nations. Instead, each player controls a secret society that is manipulating ALL FIVE nations. Through the use of your agents, you decide where a nation recruits its troops, and its attacks – who, when, and where.

The point of this manipulation is that each society is rooting for different nations to succeed or fail. At the beginning of the game, you randomly place five tokens to determine how allied (or not) your society is with each nation. This determines point values and the winner at the end of the game. For the nation you most support, you’ll get 4 points per city they control at the end. For the nation you’re most against, you’ll get -1 point per city. And so on.

It doesn’t take long for players to realize that it’s just as important to manipulate the nations you oppose as it is the ones you support. That often leads to hilarious results. “We need to recruit new troops… in the mountains over here away from everyone else. It’s safer that way.” Or “Yes, let’s attack six armies with two. I’m sure it will work out for the best.”

But each nation has different land, different borders, different starting positions (one starts with NO armies on the board!), and different ways of recruiting and fighting. It sounds complicated, but the actual gameplay is fairly simple. The complexity comes from determining the best course of action and trying to react or block your opponents’ actions.

In my writer’s mind, this game spawns all kinds of stories. What kind of manipulation did it take to convince the Chancellor of the Lion Nation to march its armies into a complete disaster? What of the soldiers themselves? What does that do to the morale of the nation? Every game produces more ideas, more concepts.

I love board games. I love stories. When one inspires the other, I love it even more. A War of Whispers is a solid addition to my collection and will be played many more times.

The Forging of a Hero (Vindication review)

Vindication can be about the cubes or about the story.

If you move these wooden cubes over here, they become more important. Then you can use these cubes to trade for different cubes that give you more points, or else a card that gives you points. Sounds like a basic Euro-style game, right? And if that’s your thing, you can play the game of Vindication that way. But it’s so much more, especially for fans of storytelling.

The story behind Vindication is a hero’s journey. You start the game as a wretched guilt-ridden scumbag. Seriously, that’s what your game piece calls you. Under the premise, you’ve been tossed overboard by shipmates who grew disgusted with you. You wash up on the shore of a mysterious island full of magic and strange creatures (no smoke monster, though). A helpful stranger finds you and sets you a journey of… vindication.

Actually, it’s not so much vindication as redemption, I suppose, but there’s a lengthy debate over the name choice, if you really want to get into that.

You. Yes, you. You’re wretched. I thought you should know.

Anyway, in the course of the game, you can find ancient relics, fight monsters, recruit companions, and more, all in a quest to score the most points… er… become a real hero!

What makes this game shine is that it appeals to multiple game player styles. For those who greatly enjoy moving little wooden cubes around to trade for more little wooden cubes, etc., (i.e., a Eurogamer), this game is right up your alley. You can happily ignore all of the beautiful art and flavor text, and manipulate cubes to your heart’s content. But if, like me, you like stories and games that tell a story, you can immerse yourself in it all and explore a new tale every time you play. Perhaps you’ll recruit Beast Mistress Veroa to help you venture into the Gaping Maw and face Drogas, the Living Darkness. Maybe you’ll find the ancient relic Taker of Stars and use it to give yourself more time to search for more. Who knows?

While it’s not a pure storytelling game, Vindication opens up so many story possibilities for someone who likes to see them. As a writer, I see many hero’s journey tropes scattered throughout every one of this game’s plays. Even the companions you can recruit are divided up into mighty warriors, magic-wielders, and wise counselors (or just red, blue and yellow cards).

The lore of Vindication is deep and beautiful.

Vindication is not one of my favorite games. Yet. I’ve only played a handful of times. But it has potential to climb my rankings very fast, especially since there’s so much variety available with multiple expansions included with the base game. I haven’t even tried most of them yet!

Tabletop boardgames can be a great source of inspiration for writers, especially when they’re as rich as Vindication.

The Hero of Destiny heeds the Call to Adventure (a tabletop game review)

My life truly began the day I took my vows as a squire. I worked hard, and my bravery was noted by all those around me. When the invaders came, I stood alone to defend my homestead. This act of valor won the loyalty of my bitterest rival, who from that day on followed me. He became my sidekick, if you will.

I knew, long before anyone else, that my destiny would be a great one. For I was pure of heart, enlightened even, resisting the darkness wherever I found it. That darkness is everywhere, even within corrupt officials who tried to frame me out of jealousy. I resisted their arrest and fled into the wilderness, where I encountered the monstrous wolf that had tormented our region for years.

After slaying the beast, I returned in triumph to my home, wearing the wolf’s pelt as my trophy. In time, I became a leader of men, charging into battle ahead of them all.

And then the Warlord came, with his dark forces, his innumerable minions swarming across our land. In my darkest moment, I saw our king slain and I resorted to the only means I saw of obtaining victory. I sacrificed my own troops in battle so that I could get close enough to the Warlord himself. We dueled at the very gates of the city, back and forth for over an hour as the battle stilled about us. 

I emerged victorious, slaying the man who had wreaked such havoc across our land. As his dispirited armies fled, I took my place in the palace and claimed the crown. For was I not… the Hero of Destiny?

IMG_1788.jpegThis is but one of thousands of possible stories you can create with the game Call to Adventure. It’s a simple game, but full of excitement and delight. As in the story above, you can soar to the heights of glory as a Hero of Destiny, or be driven to despair as you take the dark path of the anti-hero, perhaps even becoming a Cunning Villain yourself. Or weave a course somewhere in between.

At the beginning of the game, you choose three base cards for your story: your Origin, your Motivation, and your final Destiny. You are dealt two of each of these, so you can choose which you would like to pursue, and find interesting combos. For example, for Origin, you might be dealt Acolyte and Hunter; for Motivation, you might choose between Bound by Honor or Lone Wanderer; and your Destiny could be Paragon of Light or Hand of Vengeance. Which will you choose? That’s entirely up to you. You could note that the Hunter Origin works well with Hand of Vengeance in mechanics and will help you pursue a points victory. Or you might just decide that Bound by Honor makes so much sense, story-wise, to become a Paragon of Light, regardless of the whole “points” thing.

Because that’s part of the beauty of this game. Yes, you can “win the game” by scoring more points than your opponents. Points are awarded based on triumph and tragedy cards, experience, hero or anti-hero cards, and icon set collections. It’s fairly easy to rack up a good score, especially if you’re actively trying. For players who are all about exploiting card combinations and winning at any cost, the game may fall a little short.
But for those who are playing for the experience, the game is brilliant. Winning is desirable, but secondary to the goal of pursuing an intriguing story.

To create your story, you choose from a tableau of cards arranged in front of the players. These cards consist of either Traits or Challenges. Traits are fairly easy to obtain, but are usually based on abilities you already possess. Those abilities are also what you will use to conquer the Challenges. Dungeons & Dragons players will immediately recognize the abilities – strength, dexterity, constitution, wisdom, intelligence & charisma. Taking on a Challenge to Prepare for War, for example, would require strength and/or dexterity. Dealing with an attacker in a Street Fight, could require constitution and/or charisma (because you might talk your way out instead of just brawling). 

(I won’t get into all the details of the mechanics. You can find those in other reviews, videos, and the updated rulebook available as a download. The original rulebook, sadly, does leave something to be desired.)

In addition to the base game, you can also play solo versus a specific Adversary card, or even team up in cooperation against an Adversary. I’ve tried both, and while I enjoy the solo play, I much prefer the competitive over cooperative for multiplayer.

My gaming group is very eclectic in what kind of games they like. If you map each of us on the Board Games Motivation Profile, we are all very different. It’s amazing we can find games that we all enjoy, more or less. So far, Call to Adventure is one of those games. In the times we’ve played so far, I haven’t heard a single complaint about any aspect of the game. That’s about the highest praise this group can offer. That, and the fact that two of them want their own copies now, since mine won’t always be there for them.

Every game has been different so far. I do, however, concede that eventually I may get too used to these cards and it might get a little old. Fortunately, that seems to be in the distant future right now. Two expansions are on the way. One is based on Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind, and the other on Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive. These will add many new cards and mechanics based on the specific storylines, magic systems, and so on of those books. While I’m excited to see what those have to offer, I must confess that after playing the game, I would actually be happier to have more “generic” cards like those in the base game. These cards are filled with fantasy tropes that are highly familiar to those of us who have read Tolkien, Jordan, and so many more, or have played other fantasy-style games, whether RPGs or tabletop. I would love to have even more of them.

As a writer myself, I love to compare the interplay of these various tropes, watching how the combine and gaining new ideas myself for future stories. It’s educational about the art of storytelling, even while it’s fun!

Maybe this is not the kind of game that appeals to you. It doesn’t have a ton of strategy. It’s definitely no Twilight Imperium (one of my favorite games of all time). But in this case, story/theme trumps strategy for me. I love it. And I can’t wait to play again.

The Problem is Not the Games

Recently, this comic strip popped up in one of my social media threads. The responses ranged from “so true!” to “this is nothing. Try playing Diplomacy.”*
This bothered me for a number of reasons, especially since the posting was in a group dedicated to board games! I pondered it for a while, and why none of this was true for me. You see, I’ve been playing board games my entire life. I have a large collection of games that I love to play. I’d rather play board games than just about any other leisure activity.
And I’ve never experienced the level of anger/problems depicted in this comic strip.
I can recall times that people got mad over the style a game was played. We adjusted the play style for them and kept going. I can recall one game of Diplomacy in which a friend couldn’t believe I betrayed him… and the only reason I recall it is because he brings it up every time the game is mentioned. But we’re still friends. I had a guy get really angry in a game of Terraforming Mars a few weeks ago, but he was a complete stranger I was playing with for the first time.
That’s the key right there. The friends I play games with? Some of them I’ve been playing against for decades. We’re still friends. No one’s ever kicked over the table. No one’s ever held a grudge (except, apparently, that one friend and the Diplomacy game…). I haven’t lost any friendships over any games, most of which are far more cutthroat than Uno or Monopoly (and Scrabble? Seriously, people?).
This leads to a very crucial but controversial conclusion: the problem is not the games; the problem is the people. 
If the people with which you’re playing games are going to take it personally when you play a “Draw 4” on them, perhaps you should be playing with other people. Seriously. Everyone involved needs to accept the nature of the game, how it’s played, and how it’s won. Otherwise, it’s an exercise some people should just avoid.
This principle applies to so much more than just board games. We live in a culture where people are offended by so many different things. Outrage is the new normal. Social media is full of it. Today’s equivalent to flipping the game board, quite often, is tweeting.
Surround yourself with the right people. If your friends, acquaintances, co-workers, etc., are always on the verge of exploding, it’s probably better for your own mental health to not spend a lot of time around them.
As I continue in my process of querying literary agents for my novel, I spend a lot of time on Twitter. I see some agents that fall into this category of perpetually outraged. I don’t think I’d want them working for my book, honestly. I’d be terrified of offending them at any given moment, if I slipped up and said anything whatsoever about politics, religion, or even pop culture (“No, THIS superhero is the greatest ever!”). Needless to say, that makes this process even harder. How do I find someone who loves my book and wants to see it published, but I’m also excited about working together? It’s a minefield out there.
The conclusion? Find people with whom you can enjoy life, even if the process takes a long time. Don’t compromise your beliefs (or your game-playing style).

* Diplomacy, for the uninformed, is a classic board game of negotiation and strategy in which players are forced to make alliances to get ahead… and probably break those alliances in order to win. Betrayal is practically guaranteed.

Board Games & Writing

My favorite hobby involves deep thinking and (usually) a number of dice. I love board games.
By board games, I mean real tabletop games, not the ones that are sold at Walmart and Toys R Us. Imagine if the major video game companies today were still trying to persuade people that Pac-Man and Donkey Kong (the originals) were the only video games worth buying and selling, and that’s all you could find in the major retailers. That’s basically what the major toy companies have done with board games, trying to convince everyone that Yahtzee, Sorry, and forty-seven thousand variations of Monopoly are the only board games. No wonder so many people have the wrong idea about board games! Any time my friends and I are playing games in a place where people can see us, we get the exact same questions: “So… is this like Monopoly?” “Oh, it’s like Risk?” (or if there’s anything fantasy-related) “So basically this is Dungeons & Dragons, right?”
If this is you, go visit boardgamegeek.com and educate yourself. If you’ve actually played something like Settlers of Catan, at the very least, then there are still hundreds more games you might enjoy.
I own over a hundred board games, and my collection pales in comparison to others I know. My absolute favorite games include Twilight Imperium, War of the Ring, Heroscape, and Twilight Struggle. All of them are huge, sprawling epic games that engage my mind and imagination.
And that’s the key. While I enjoy mental exercises, I don’t want to spend my free time solving algebra problems and calling it entertainment. My imagination has to be engaged as well. I want to fall into the theme of the game. Most of all, I want to see the game tell a story, and to be a part of shaping that story.
For example, Twilight Imperium is a sci-fi themed board game where each player takes on the role of a major alien race struggling to gain dominance in a galaxy where the previous empire has collapsed. You have to balance military tactics with diplomacy, economics and exploration. It’s one of the longest games I own, so it doesn’t get played very often, but every time it does… there’s a huge story.
War of the Ring is the closest you can come to actually playing the storyline of The Lord of the Rings… but with changes. What if Boromir doesn’t fall to the Ring’s temptation and goes with Frodo to Mount Doom? What if Gimli leaves the Fellowship and rallies the dwarves of the Lonely Mountain to march forth? What if the Balrog leaves Moria and lays siege to Rivendell itself? All these things can happen, and it’s all awesome.
war of the ring.jpg
All of my favorite activities involve stories and problem-solving. My board game hobby has definitely inspired my writing in numerous ways. A crazy round of Heroscape might be the source for a fantasy story. A tense session of Twilight Struggle might be the source of a Cold War spy story. Stories are everywhere.
As I write this, tomorrow is International Tabletop Day! Play some board games! I have some friends coming over and we’re introducing another friend to some new experiences, starting with the classic Axis & Allies. From there, we’ll try the X-Wing Miniatures game and the who knows? Like stories, the possibilities are endless.

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