Those that don't already know may be surprised to hear that I had a pretty rough patch in the early Summer where I just went off games completely, and enjoyed a self-imposed sabbatical for five months or so. In truth, I was really jaded and probably doing far too much related to the hobby and the magazine. Now, I'm back but am trying to keep things at a much lower level to try to avoid a relapse. And just to disprove the jaded feeling, I am very much looking forward to Avalon Hill's Geronimo, Hartland's 1825 (two hours playlength -- great!), TimJim's 2038 and Wizards of the Coast's Middle Earth card game, now slated for Summer 1995. Anyone know what happened to the promised new Sherlock Holmes cases from Chessex?
I waited all year for TimJim's Age of Exploration, annoying game shops with weekly calls to check on its arrival, and when it finally appeared I'd gone off games! Whatever, partly cured, I had the chance to play it recently. In essence, it follows all the earlier games of this genre (Conquistador, Viceroys, New World etc) in theme and in failings -- it is long, perhaps too detailed in the wrong areas and very low on interaction between players. In fact the only action that involves anyone else is the decision to turn back for Europe to publish your findings (unpublished explorations being worthless) and thus causing the others to do the same. The net result, like so many games, is a solitaire exercise with three other people along for the ride. With very few exceptions (such as Liftoff, Arabian Nights, Star Trek: The Adventure Game) I don't rate this style of game unless they have formidably strong systems and atmosphere. Fortunately, Timjim's curiously impenetrable rules aside, Age of Exploration does cut it in this respect. You spend a bit too long at sea, but it is quite enjoyable for all that, the interesting sites and paths are known in advance, but you still feel as if you are finding a gold mine, and the rush to publish works well. What is less appealing is sinking in one of the frequent storms and having to start over or, worse, having your crew's morale crack and having to sail them back first -- ``Throw the damned yellow bellies overboard!''. Steady, Mike. Another real pain is to trek deep into the jungle, have bearers drop like flies and lose your marines to rampaging cannibals, only to return to the beach, laden with gold, to find the crew have hopped it with your ship. In fact, it is true to say that almost everything in this game is tough -- the random encounters often put you in dire straits, there always seem to be more natives than you can ship marines and good results are few and far between. As a result, I think the game may be distinctly biased towards these cruel twists of fate, but I'd need to play again to be sure it is a purely masochistic exercise. We found the basic game took around two hours with 4, but that was very much a learning exercise (I still don't know what some of the marker counters mean) and would undoubtedly speed up. Given the heavy caveats above, recommended, and a sign that Timjim are finally emerging from the planned tedium of their Outpost phase.
Domark have finally brought out their promised Formula One game, gracing it with an impressive moniker, `The Williams Renault Grand Prix Championship Game'. Having heard the puff for this one at the Toy Fair in January, I was keenly awaiting this one. The chance to build a team up from scratch and then race all 16 GP's was very tempting. What we get is a curious mix of systems that ends up firmly pointed at the family market while offering some ideas to ponder for the gamer, but little repeat play value. Basically, your aim is to organise a GP team, set up the car specifically for each race and to race and score points in all sixteen locations. To play every Grand Prix would take quite a time but, for once, it is at least feasible. In practice, we played three or four races to get the feel and then consigned it to the sale list. That is not to say it is bad, it simply doesn't have much in the way of decision making or depth. What it does have is some nice ideas.
The game starts on a good old Monopoly board that you whizz around four times, landing on sponsorship deals, collecting cash and buying the component parts of your team. You'll need a driver (statutory daft names here), car, engine and a team of engineers. These are of varying quality and as you would expect, Williams is top in all categories. When you have enough money, usually after a race or two, you can expand to a second car. After the first race, you are allowed to circuit the roundy-roundy board again to earn some more money and to try and upgrade drivers -- you seem to be stuck with the cars and engines. My complaint is basically that this pre-game is a little slow and boring, and I wonder if an auction or random deal system might have been better and quicker?
The races themselves are conducted on a six part, dual sided jigsaw affair that combines to make each of the tracks appear unique. They look nothing like the real thing (a shame this) but the tracks feel different enough, with varying emphasis on straights or bends, to give some flavour. Your next task is to set your car up for the coming race. Each car and engine is rated numerically and these points can be secretly split between several categories such as straight, bend, gearbox, power and aerodynamics. It is your job to ensure your car is set up to take advantage of the driver's and the track's quirks and also to allow for possible wet weather -- there is a separate card system for this. Another set of ratings are added up to see who gets pole position (my house rule is that you add a d6 to this), and we are off to the most innovative part of the game.
As discussed in issue 18, most GP games consist of hurtling round a track, overtaking virtually at your discretion. Anyone who follows the sport will know that, in fact, overtaking is uncommon. Pleasingly, this game tries to simulate this by allowing each driver only half a dozen attempts at passing and even then only at designated overtaking points. Otherwise, the cars move round the track in the same order as they start -- only when someone decides to take advantage of his straight or bend speed, or to take a gamble, does a challenge occur and a card is drawn. Typically, this might be automatic or require comparison of three ratings of the overtaker and overtakee such as Straight, Gearbox and Driver Courage. If the leading car is lower, he loses his position and must try to regain it later. This leads to a clever series of crisis points where you have to time your passing manoeuvre, only to lose it again on the next corner. Races are close, exciting and over in about ten minutes with a real feel for having had the right car for the occasion and going away muttering, `I knew I should have had more Gearbox points'.. I thought this entire mechanism was novel and flavoursome, the sole drawback being the repetitiveness of the result cards. Most involved oil slicks for some reason and they circled pretty rapidly. Overall, it is unlikely to offer much play extended value to gamers, but it is tolerable, well thought out and with a few new ideas. About £20 or less from most suppliers and not a bad effort for a computer company -- I wonder if Messrs Livingstone and Walker were involved?
The UK gameshops continue to report profitable business from Magic and its spin offs, which is an entirely good thing if it keeps them afloat and selling other, far better games to us. At least two well-known trade names put their continued survival down to the game while others, surviving quite nicely, are profiteering manfully. Now I've done a bit of profiteering in my time (and may yet do more with my hermetically sealed factory set and Antiquities cards) but £18 for a Legends booster pack, spotted at the recent Basildon show, is stretching credibility somewhat. By way of explanation, if it seems I am rather over the top on deriding this collecting mania, it is only because I've been there myself and come through the other side. Not exactly the stuff of the Betty Ford Clinic I'll grant you, but it was a problem which I needed pointing out to me. Thankfully, I weaned myself off and have been able to recover most of my outlay. I am not proud of this aberration (can you have a three year aberration?), but I do feel better for leaving it behind. It is now much easier to regard it as all pretty sad (as a defence mechanism for starters) but while card trading and the odd purchase is largely harmless (I am not going to deny that buying these card games is exciting), people laying down £3,000+ on cards (whether they can afford it or not) worries the hell out of me. I seem to have run out of nested brackets, there. I also have this nagging feeling that the bubble will burst anytime now and there will be tears before bedtime (these classics and others are available on Sumo's 2,000 Golden Cliches, CD Rom only, £149.99). So, my rantings will reflect the zeal of the converted until normality is resumed.
Does anyone else share my interest in these new card game systems or am I preaching to myself? If so, let me know and I'll shut up. Aside from the fact that when (if) my game designs appear, mostly based on card systems, they are going to look old hat (my fault for not getting my finger out), the way I see it, there might just be someone out there who has the commercial sense, savvy and guts to forego the Magic system and come up with something new and worthwhile. The first signs of this happening are present in Galactic Empires, designed by Companion Games who take the higher complexity route for their Star Fleet Battles style game (but employ their five year old as graphic designer), and Star Trek from Decipher, which really is a good game. Graphically superb (with clarity too), with stills from the series, this one has a number of interesting developments. Themed to the series, each hand consists of a series of missions corresponding to an episode and you can stack your deck to be Federation, Klingon or Romulan. The era is Next Generation, so no Spock and Kirk, just the new crowd (and yes, they've grown on me a bit). This is exactly what Star Fleet Missions set out to do, yet failed horribly. (Full review a few pages further on.)
A useful read on the card game front is Scrye, on the surface a journal for the anal retentive about town (page after page of release dates, listings, collecting tips, cod philosophy on buyer mentality, and so-called market prices) but also very useful for the systems fan. Each issue so far has featured complete rule sets (rather cheaper, at £2.50, than buying the games) and some design notes and interviews. Both of the latter are often helpful, but show what exactly is on offer in the wit and design departments -- little enough to realise that my hopes for another Up Front or Courtney Allen/Don Greenwood combo are completely unfounded. Most companies are after the money, pure and simple, and wouldn't recognise a non-bandwagon system if it bit them on the scrotum.
The worst offender here, oddly enough, was Mayfair. They were puffing their Sim City cardgame while displaying a shallowness of games knowledge, and a sense of humour, that were scary. This joints neatly with my view that although Mayfair should be a game company that I enthuse about, in fact I have all but discounted them as a creative force. Checking frantically, I own none of their games which probably is as good an indication as any. That said, there was a time when I had Express airmailed over because I was so excited by their pitch, but now I have no real interest in what they do. Sure, they are strong in railroad games (though not in systems I particularly enjoy) but everything else is consistently average, recycled or bought in. As I said to Alan How in Essen, nothing would please me more than to come out with a killer railroad system and refuse to sell it to them.
And finally (Esther), on the subject of railway games, could one of you 18xx boffins please compile a master list of all the games and gamekits, showing which numbers apply to each? My only obscure contribution is 1881, the Berlin Tramway rendition. I'm sure you will know a few more. Thanks.
Apparently, there are two or three readers experiencing withdrawal symptoms from my book, TV and film comments, but none suffering from lack of CD playlists. Okay, I get the picture. The best films seen since I last wrote have been Pulp Fiction (the best I've seen for ages), La Belle Epoque (a quite brilliant film, just like the French used to make), The Last Seduction, Dazed & Confused and Forrest Gump. A pretty good batch, and even Mask had its odd moments. Haven't yet seen True Lies, Clear & Present Danger, Gettysburg, or Airheads. The worst film was Altman's Short Cuts; a more self-indulgent, artificial and contrived production would be hard to imagine. TV's highlights were Love on a Branch Line (effectively La Belle Epoque in England, and superb for that), The X Files and the Moonlighting re-runs on Sky. I thought Between the Lines a shadow of its former self and rather unbelievable, HIGNFY seems to be getting a bit patchy and Sharpe was the best of the year overall. Best books were Iain Banks' Complicity, Haythornthwaite's The Armies of Wellington, Sister Wendy's Story of Painting, the new Flashman, Woody Allen on Woody Allen and a re-read of Foucault's Pendulum; a more self-indulgent, artificial and contrived production would be hard to imagine (only joshing, it's still dazzling). There you go, Inside Pitch in a paragraph.
The Top Ten Games of the Year 1994
We the People (Avalon Hill)
Manhattan (Hans im Glück)
6 Nimmt (Amigo)
Guerilla (Avalon Hill)
LaTrel (Millenium 2)
Big Boss (Franckh)
Lords of Creation (Warfrog)
Falsche Fuffziger (Friese)
Mush (White Wind)
Special Book Sumos
New Rules for Classic Games (Wiley)
Interactive Fantasy (Hogshead Publishing)
Het Spel (A magazine and no longer published, but too good to go unmourned)
Computer Game Sumos
Little Big Adventure (Adeline)
Sim City 2000 (Maxis)
Syndicate Plus (Bullfrog)
Transport Tycoon (Microprose)
UFO: Enemy Unknown (Microprose)
Big Boss (Franckh), Die Erbraffer (Ravensburger), Formule De Tracks (Ludodelire, yet again), Fugger, Welser, Medici (The Amazing Doris), Guerilla (Avalon Hill), Hobbits (Laurin), Jyhad (WotC), LaTrel (Millenium 2), some Magic cards (WotC), Phantoms of the Ice (Doris again), Plague & Pestilence (Hillary's), Roads to Gettysburg (Avalon Hill), Schlacht der Dinosaurier (Schmidt), Sack (Jefferies), Star Trek Card Game (Decipher) Waldmeister (HiG).