It was good to see the voice of reason in the shape of Mr Thomashow last issue. His thoughts on Magic are almost certainly spot on, which, together with input from other hobby luminaries, helped me adjust my admittedly warped view of the subject. I am not fully cured, and you'll certainly not catch me playing it, but suffice to say I was getting all bitter and twisted about Mr Garfield's creation. You noticed! Why? Not sure really. Perhaps years of seeing very good to excellent games go unnoticed and largely unpurchased, trying to push them for all I was worth and then seeing a barely average game come along and enjoy astonishing success was way too much for my depleted enthusiasm. Overreaction probably, but it just got to me for some reason. But that is not all. I think the collecting aspect, which as Mike Clifford rightly said is the key survival element, was clearly too close to home. Further, withholding rares was just too cynical a marketing device for my conscience. Add in the clusters of card swap nerds (what is the collective noun? a narrative? a sadness? a slobbering? And why do they all have eyes like Ray Liotta?) and you have a phenomenon, combined with Avalon Hill's retrenchment and a generally duff year for games, that was quite depressing. It has actually got to the point where my favourite game shops have to be checked out before entering in case the anals are there, droning on about bleedin' Ice Age and absurd card prices. Boy would I love to see a market crash. Enough, the blood pressure is rising again.
While consciously avoiding coverage of Magic in Sumo, it is now hard to get away from its influence. As mentioned, most game shops have become Magic trading posts, at least four of the big conventions (Eindhoven, Essen, Origins and Gencon) have been tainted in varying degrees (and it will get worse in the short term -- even the roleplayers are moaning) and magazine content has been affected (including Sumo!). And in the background, Wizards of the Coast are spreading their surplus funds around in what could easily be a sinister fashion. Allegedly. We have already lost the quality of Ars Magica, we are foisted with boardgame bilge like Robo Rally and Dalmuti, doubtless with more to come, and the organisers of Origins have fallen to the mighty mana dollar. Whether it is possible to buy talent and market share or not, we shall have to wait and see.
The counter argument is that, with their profligate advertising, support of cons, free tournaments and high profile, they are indirectly helping the rest of the hobby -- certainly the sorely pressed gameshops, riding their much boosted revenues, have little to say against them. This is, as they say, a view. I just have this nagging doubt that all this is not selfless philanthropy. I also wonder why WotC are seemingly treated with adoration and commercial respect, while Games Workshop, a hugely impressive and far more talented organisation, are given nothing but grief. At least Workshop have established a business track record and don't have rare categories for anything (though in fairness, their games' `rarity' may be retail price determined).
I am frankly amazed (watch out chaps, he's still moaning) at the positive reaction to the bulk of the new collectible card games -- are we in computer game territory again, where for some reason they are judged by different criteria? Let's take the painful example of Wyvern, from US Games Systems (but there are many others: Star of the Guardians, Dragon's Wrath, Rage, Galactic Empires and Echelons of Fury). Apparently months (hours surely?) in preparation, rated very highly by the magazines and its designer (well, yes it would be), the game has reportedly sold very well. Having seen the rules I charitably assumed there was more to it when you played it. Having played it, my opinion of this game is that it closely approximates Pelmanism in strategic options and is about as exciting. Yes, the dragon artwork is pleasant and the game is different from Magic, but it is still unadorned snot. Quite why gamers have been enthusing over this I have no real idea. I can perhaps understand unscrupulous dealers saying, and I quote, `Oh yes, it's another great card game, probably better than Magic' to the poor saps who listen to them for advice, but let's get this in perspective. Without the artwork and the collectability, this would hardly raise a gamer's interest. It is on a par with those card games one is obliged to play with young children. Avoid, and when your favourite dealer sells you crap like this (as a game, not as an investment), let him know you aren't happy.
Sim City -- The Card Game has staggered out at last. On the upside it is surprisingly true to the original computer game and relatively inexpensive. On the downside, it lacks any discernable strategy, is overlong, boring, remarkably fiddly, you get railroads that go into lakes, the poor photos don't work for overall impact, the colour coding is bad enough to cause eyestrain, the rules are among the worst I've seen, there is no explanation of how to actually start play, the card mix is barmy, the overall feel is poor and only a moron would want to collect all 500 cards. Finally, you get a picture of cuddly Darwin Bromley as the mayor. Not to put too fine a point on it, Sim City is an awful game. I suspect only familiarity with the original PC title will encourage sales once word gets out, but this in itself should be enough to prevent a commercial disaster for Mayfair. And as producers and promoters of the 18xx series, I guess we are grateful for small mercies.
I think the general problem is that Mayfair were on a loser from the start. The difficult task of reverse engineering a computer program has not come off and the failure has been compounded by losing the spirit and unique strengths of Sim City 2000. What they have designed is a card/board game that retains the `toy' element of Maxis' design philosophy (ie you play with the city, it's not really a game) but removes all the non-competitive, and most of the creative, appeal of that concept. Worse, it has vestigial computer elements in the shape of the constant calculations and the myriad bonus checks. A computer can do this in milliseconds, we mortals take a while. And computers don't get bored. I have sympathy with this design flaw, as I for one have found it is only too easy to drift off into overly fiddly math models to crack a design, only to realise that no-one is actually going to want to play them.
The last straw is that the game may just have worked as a straight card game, like Express say, but once the spectre of collectability was introduced, it was all up. Basically, there are too many cards to get a decent game out of two boxes (£12) as there are too few seed cards and too many `multiples'. Either way, it is hard to believe this one was 18 months or more in development, has Tom Wham on the design team, and actually involved the Mayfair boys (and wives and kids) trooping round Chicago with their Box Brownies. I for one was crushingly disappointed, but most of all I feel sorry for Maxis who have had their huge achievement somewhat discredited (but then they should have watched where they sold the licence). Where does the blame lie? As publisher, part-designer and developer, it is the big accusatory finger for Darwin Bromley, though others will doubtless be called to account. Which is all a bit sad really, when you think about it.
As you know, I did have great hopes for the card games avalanche, but all we have, with three or four exceptions, are games that even I could conceive in a lunchtime. I'm sure we'll get some benefit from the second generation stuff (perhaps Star Trek expansions, Star Wars, One on One Hockey, Shiloh (just available from ARDA), Eagles:Waterloo, or the new WotC titles) but is it worth the pain? Just as depressing, given the thousands of card game players, is the lack of original ideas and variants. Where are the workable multi-player rules? The new cards? The radical designs? Nothing. All that seems to happen is the players buy like idiots, think like sheep and play one on one, not actually demanding any innovation or departure from the One True Path. As an example, WotC's new release, Ice Age, is essentially Snow Frosted Magic -- that is the extent of the prevailing creativity. Meanwhile other companies and magazines line up to feed the addiction with products that beggar belief. Believe me, the games yet to come are growing by the week and, ominously but predictably, look like rank upon rank of clones, with perhaps the odd exception here and there. We even have a fascinating title on Good vs Evil to cater to the Bible Belters, which smacks of hypocrisy to me. I suspect this is the way it will be until market saturation is reached and the whole thing collapses in on itself. I promise to stop moaning every issue about all this, but I think it needs to be said. Good card games or developments only reviewed from now on then. Okay? And for goodness sake don't spend too much money on these little packs of cards.
The Spiel des Jahres nominations for 1995 are: Buzzle (Franjos), Condottierri (Eurogames), Maulwerf Company (Ravensburger), Die Siedler von Catan (Franckh), Galopp Royale (Gold Sieber), Kaleidof (EG), Linie 1 (Gold Sieber), LaTrel (ASS) and Medici (Amigo). As ever, this selection runs the gamut from amazement through grudging acceptance to immense pleasure. One assumes Gold Sieber are permitted two nominations for showing up. And sadly, no High Society or Phantoms of the Ice -- small boxes, so not enough hot air, I guess. Out of interest, I am told that Buzzle, a word game I think, is designed by the old Eon team who are back on the case -- can we have some information on this one please? I'd like to find out where they went for fifteen years.
Okay, so I was wrong. I had distinct trouble with the Sumos last year, and if I'd been thinking straight I should have gone not for ten games, but settled instead for the number I thought deserved it. The game I am now 99% sure didn't warrant the acclaim is 6 Nimmt. I'll admit I was duped by the designer, other gamers and hype into thinking this one was a good game that I couldn't work out how to win. Understandably (?), I have confused this with there being precious little game to tackle and loads of luck. And I am not alone!
Housekeeping Matters: The back issue situation remains largely unchanged, with 19 completely sold out. 20/21 and 22 are in stock but all others are out of print and staying that way, unfortunately. Having had a clear out I have tracked some older issues down, but only a few. If you need any let me have a cheque soonest, bearing in mind all past requests have been dealt with, but by surface mail where appropriate -- a mistake, sorry. On Retros, I am now very low on issue 1 and have around ten of issue 2 left so the same advice applies. As a result of the worrying depletion, I am considering a PC disk(s?) of all the text files for issues 1 to 18, perhaps 1 to 23, in the major WP formats. This would include everything I have, including Inside Pitch, general waffle and lettercolumns, but sadly not everything as some contributions came in on paper. I will also be considering uploading the whole lot to Ken Tidwell's Game Cabinet (by this I mean I will be sending a disk to Ken who will do the hard work). Please let me know if either of these is of interest and if the demand is there I'll add it to the To Do list.
Index: There are a couple of subscribers working on a comprehensive index for Sumo (this would have been made easier if I'd numbered pages early on -- sorry) which if they come to anything I will try to make available. I already have Paul Jefferies' sterling effort for issues 1-8, but these should bring it all up to date.
Rules Bank: An excellent response on the recent titles from those of you who do, much appreciated by those who don't. Mike Schloth, Ken Tidwell, Bob Scherer-Hoock and others are now hard at it with the computer translation programs and Chris Mellor/Merfyn Lewis, John Webley and the rest still crank them out manually. As ever, I don't know where we'd all be without them. Thankfully, the rules do seem to be appearing much more efficiently than before -- perhaps the increased commercial interests of some US subscribers are having an effect? We still need rules for the list that is hidden somewhere abouts, and I need some help on the Rules Bank because it remains a giant pain, yet one I still consider important enough to continue.
Phase 1 of the general plan, which has worked so far, has been to divert some of the demand onto the Internet and other outlets. As a result, there are now Rules Bank branches at Ken Tidwell's Game Cabinet, at the good offices of the SFCP press and even from Just Games. You have no idea how helpful this is, and I am very grateful to them. Each of these fine gentlemen (and Jocelyn & Naomi) should have a good electronic selection of the more popular rules and you should feel free to approach them to establish terms and conditions -- either way they will not charge anything more than a nominal sum to cover costs. If they can help, great (Ken for one presently has more rules than I on disk), if not come to me. Or come to me anyway if that is easier.
Phase 2 is to make the more obscure rulesets the subject of a slower rules service, perhaps once a quarter until natural phase-out occurs, while vastly improving turnround on the recent, much more popular, rules. I intend to achieve this by getting as many of the recent rule translations as possible onto PC disk, either by scanning, typing or converting from existing files. This should enable me to circulate the above branches and also to print off rule requests and send them back much more easily. If you request both new and old rules, I will try to send new first and follow up with the rest. I hope this helps with the speed problem and gives you all a better service.
But I need some help. Partly on contributions -- keep them coming -- but primarily on typing, and for that I need some volunteers. Basically, I would need sets (usually a few A4 pages) of hand written or poorly printed rules typed verbatim into a word processor (almost anything will do, though WordPerfect 5.1 or ASCII files are preferable, but it must be IBM PC Dos or Windows compatible). You would then send a disk to me, I will do some layout and incorporate the file into the Rules Bank. I do not expect a flood of applicants, but if you are willing to help, and have the odd spare lunch hour with a PC or underutilised audio secretary in front of you, I'd be more than happy to hear from you.
Phase 3 is going to cause some raised eyebrows, but I feel it needs tackling. In the early days, there were large numbers of contributors to The Rules Bank, largely balanced by the withdrawals, and it all seemed quite equitable. Now, it is supported almost entirely by half a dozen individuals who give up time, and in several cases, large amounts of money to produce rulesets. These rules are circulated at cost to users of the bank, including commercial ventures who then sell the games, and without this effort we would all doubtless be in difficulties. While I have no intention of affecting the market by withholding rules, I would like to redress the balance. I would welcome thoughts from shop owners and rules bank users as to how we might reward the rule providers (not me, I hasten to add). It might be as simple as the odd free game, or a one-off cash collection, or perhaps a regular payment that I would pass on as fairly as possible. I'd be interested in your views.
Cor! What a crop of games we've had! There have been at least half a dozen rather good games this Spring. Pick any one of High Society, Medici, Siedler von Catan, Condottiere, Linie 1, Paparazzo or Lords of the Renaissance, and you'll have a game that would make anyone happy.
Jeez! What a load of rubbish we've had! There have been at least half a dozen rather poor games this Spring. Pick any one of Billabong, Galopp Royale, Canaletto, Sim City, Wyvern, Kilimanjaro or Edge City, and you'll have a game that would make anyone depressed.
Sorry about that, the new releases seem to have polarized into those for which one has admiration and those that might have conceivably been knocked off on a wet afternoon. They also neatly set me up for yet another, `Why pay out over £100 and get this pile of rubbish' introspective. I except Kilimanjaro from the general abuse as it is marketed as a kid's game, and is apparently somewhat bastardized from the Knizia original, even if the graphics by Doris are a front runner for best of the year. The result is a game so heavily based on luck and memory that one almost forgets how good the movement system is. Either way, one has to wonder how games like this still emerge from the German market, especially from Hans im Glück who, with Waldmeister as the turning point, seem to have nosedived recently. Given how hard it is to sell even a good game and bring it to market, how on earth do these duffers get through? And don't get the impression I am complaining about complexity or weight, the German family deserves better, as do we.
I commented last time, rather favourably, on Herr Knizia's High Society. Having played it ten times or so more since then, I'd like to upgrade the excellent rating to, umm, a Sumo award in May. Now there's an honour. As far as a light game goes, and in the sense of having no flaws, this one is perfect. Different every time, very difficult to win, quick to play, a variable and sudden finish and chock full of decisions. This is a really clever slant on bidding systems and Hols der Geier (where would several games be without that basic idea?). Brilliant. Go and buy one now.
You'll note I used the P word up there, denoting perfection, flawlessness, excellence (and no doubt definitude and virtue if my thesaurus is to be believed). The Great Adjective Purge of 1991 removed my arsenal of excellents, brilliants, wonderfuls, superbs, greats etc for all but deserving cases. Since then, I haven't used the P word very often, if at all, in relation to games. This links neatly with my ongoing thoughts on great games and a discussion, with the human namecheck himself (Mike Clifford), who was a little surprised that I consider that there is no ideal, perfect game out there for me. I'm sure Chess, Go, Draughts and other abstracts are close, or even there already, but I am deprived that pleasure due to a mismatched brain. Within their remit, as examples only, Hols der Geier (eight years old already) and High Society are perfect in the sense of having no flaws, but I am looking for the computer/middle/heavyweight game that isn't currently available: perhaps the Despot of Iain Bank's Complicity, the Siedler or the Britannia that works perfectly (so that every gamer playing them smiles like a cherub), SimCity 2000 or Transport Tycoon without the restrictions, 1830 without the time drain and the shortcomings.
Alan How listed his requirements for a good game last time and I found them rather interesting. I was also privately impressed that he had sat down and actually thought them through. As with art, I know what games I like but I have never attempted to empirically assess exactly why. In many ways, I am not sure it can even be done as I've always seen boardgame design as more artistic than scientific. Certainly both the systems and aesthetics are usually subjective. Also, every game is different and tackles the same problem in different ways. For instance, I obviously wouldn't rule out a two player or a non-interactive system for that reason alone, but it would need to be good. Anyway, ever one to rise to a challenge, particularly one from an accountant, here are my guidelines (in no real order): 1) Multi-player. 2) Interactive. 3) Max 2 hour playlength. 4) Atmospheric systems. 5) Largely Rationalisable. 6) No Perfect Plans. 7) Good Graphics/Components. 8) Lots of Decisions. 9) Lots of Events. 10) A dollop of chaos. 11) Challenging long and short term aims and strategies. 12) Depth and variety.
Ah, an interesting diversion. Back to the plot. However much you think about it, there is no game, anywhere, that is perfect. If you push me for those that come close, I'd have to say pick any one out of this lot: Modern Art, Metric Mile, Daytona, Railway Rivals, Sechs Tage Rennen, Heimlich & Co, Wildlife Adventure, Elfenroads, Liar's Dice, Bausack or Acquire. You'll note a preponderance of short, light games there -- clearly easier to get right than their bigger cousins. Oddly, I presently have faith in less than half a dozen designers to come up with The Big One, but there is always the guy from left field to pin my hopes on. Perhaps Courtney Allen, Merk Herman, Richard Berg, Sid Meier or Joe Balkoski will design a game on potato farming or, more likely, Hartmut Witt or Klaus Teuber will finally produce that killer game that we all know is lurking in there.
If you think I'm mistaken, I'd be pleased to hear why and which game (s?) you will nominate as your champion. And I say this not as a transparent Siggins patent `Get the lazy sods to write in' controversy, but as something I believe in and have been consciously holding back from these last five years. One of the things currently keeping me going in the hobby is that nebulous, and probably futile, search for the Holy Grail of gaming. It doesn't exist, but I'd like to think it will eventually, and then I can retire just like Indiana Jones did. Well, for a while anyway.
Medici was also reviewed last time by Dave and I have to agree with him entirely. It is easily the best of the year so far, and unless we get a bumper crop from Essen, likely to remain there. Again one wonders how Reiner Knizia manages to design these clever games, seemingly one after the other, with such originality, tough play criteria and strong themes. We may well be talking genius here. They are also characteristically achieved with the minimum of components and fuss -- but if Medici has an imperfection, and the same applies to some of the other New Games of Old Rome (Medici is a tweak of Mercator), it may be related to this sparse, over-too-quickly, feel. It can also be a little dry, and perhaps slightly prone to `Do nothing and trust to luck' -- I doubt however whether this is a winning strategy. My feeling is that as good as this one is (and don't get me wrong, Medici is a strong contender for top honours everywhere), it is a little too much a sub-system looking for some weight, not entirely comfortable with its `stand alone' status, and, to me, a missed opportunity. By this I mean if the mechanism were combined with a wider system, thinking out loud -- something like Fugger -- we might have a two hour trading game that would knock most rivals for six. However, while Reiner designs only games at less than an hour and in the slightly abstract mould, this is what we can expect to get. What a terrible hardship, eh?
Paparazzo is another good, if slightly derivative, game. Like Medici and Modern Art, it requires you to place value upon items without a price tag. I happen to rather enjoy that pursuit, and feel that, in the right company, it is one of the more testing and rewarding game mechanisms. Perhaps this is why Herr Knizia returns to it so often. I am not sure that this one carries it off as well as, say, Medici or Falsche Fuffzigger, and it is undoubtedly far weaker than Modern Art, but for a little game it packs a big aftershock. By this I mean the first game will probably not impress. There is too much to learn and quantify for you to do well, and more to the point you don't enjoy it much. The feeling was that the game only nearly works and the theme, selling photographs to magazines and agencies, could have been a lot better. Nevertheless, the second game is a revelation. You are acting on heuristic information, can grasp the second level strategy and at least have a pop at a winning gambit. The payout mechanics could be clearer and the game is too fiddly and ambitious for a small box item, but it is worth a try. If I were being hard, I would ask why bother to closely emulate and tweak successful systems unless your version is better? The answer is, I presume, that the designer and publisher think Paparazzo is an improvement on the games already on the market and so is worth doing. I am not so sure. On a soft day, I'd say this is one to explore as long as you remember it comes in a small box and you can have two for the price of one big one.
Bakschisch is the first of four games from Gold Sieber that will be commented on immediately below. In truth, while the four matched boxes look impressive stacked on the shelf, I doubt any of them will stay there for long. All of them contain a lot of air, and sadly there is no outstanding game amongst them. That said, with one notable exception, they really aren't too bad either. Bakschisch is one of the nearly theres but it fails badly on depth, replayability and price. An amusing little movement and bidding system, that reminded me a little of Ravensburger's Karawane, is spoilt by a slight `so what' quality and a one shot system that you really aren't going to want to play again. It is basically a variant on the old `In the Fist' bid system merged with a Hols der Geier positive/negative auction to determine movement. It is quick, fine for late night duties, but hardly sparkles with invention. If Bakschisch had been in a small box with a £10 price tag, we'd have all been quite pleased. As it is, I think it offers far too little for a big game and a big price.
While on Bakschisch, I suppose we should be getting all intrigued as to who the mysterious Kara Ben Hering is. The painter (Vernissage), erstwhile pugilist (Knockout) and pseudonymous designer of Bakschisch would no doubt wish to have us all eagerly discussing the conundrum over meals, at the bar or round the gaming table. However, I really can't be bothered. I assume it is Teuber, or perhaps Panning, but what a dismally tedious stunt this is.
Linie 1 is something of a mongrel. A sort of Railway Rivals/Drunter & Drüber cross breed, it has a character all its own yet no discernable pedigree to make it a class winner. But enough canine analogies, you'll be thinking this one is a dog, which it isn't. The basic idea is that you build a tramway network using tiles (like 18xx pieces, but square and with tasty graphics) connecting your two termini with three prescribed locations in the city. Once you have connected everything, you declare yourself ready to race your tram from A to B, visiting all three destinations. The first one to do this is the winner. The kicker is that your terminii and destinations are initially known only to yourself, so there is an element of bluff while laying tiles (but not a lot). The main problem is, perhaps obviously, with varying degrees of bluff, route difficulty, luck and available tiles, you are all going to finish the laying phase at different times. And yes, the player who finishes his network first has a major advantage in the race.
I have played Linie 1 four or five times now and while it clearly isn't the greatest game ever construed, it has much merit as a fun filler. For some obscure reason it had a friend of mine nearly popping his hernia with laughter (true!), largely due to my tram entering an unspotted endless loop with no prospect of escape. On several occasions I have seen a confident player set off, only to find his track incomplete or including a `lobster pot'. It certainly works well with older kids and stands on its hind legs begging (sorry, dogs again) for a game end tweak to make it just that little bit better. Mr Dagger, you're on. My only thought was that you might get a dice or point bonus for declaring first, but the race start would not be staggered -- shifting the emphasis to a tidy network rather than speed building, while retaining the bluff. The problem is, essentially, that while the tile laying is interesting, the `secret' player identities can never be all that secret, the luck of your stipulated route is a little heavy handed (half the time someone else builds your track for you) and, worst, the game ending race is a complete anti-climax. Only once has there been any doubt over who might win once the track has been declared, and only once did a player declaring second actually win. Nevertheless, the best of the four (and the proper way to pronounce this one seems to be Linea Eins, not Liney One as we yobbos would have it).
Sternen Himmel reminds me of Boomtown with a dose of Mystic Meg: a game of placement, calculation, bluff, gambling and a modicum of memory management themed to the heavens. In play, it neither appealed greatly nor disappointed and is rather dry and studious in feel -- too much poring and not enough chat. Which is, I suppose, pretty damning on balance. But it isn't horrible, is certainly worth a try and has some clever ideas in there. Steve Owen will have run through the mechanics elsewhere, but what I liked was the extremely strong theming. The constellations all play an important part, the mechanics relate to galactic events such as black holes absorbing stars and themselves, binaries doubling your score and even time shift in the form of the face down counters. Very nicely done, shame it wasn't a bit more exciting. By the way, it is much better with three than five -- more players means less control and an unacceptably slower game. A take it or leave it game, but do try to play it. On balance, much less fun than Boomtown but of the same light school.
Galopp Royale is the last of the four Gold Siebers and, when it is all boiled down, really pretty poor. A marginally original but imperfect bidding system and a `come first or, if not, last' race does not, and should not, justify a £30 price tag or a Spiel des Jahres nomination. This is embarrassing stuff, more so coming as it does from Klaus Teuber (who should have stuck the nom de jeu on this one and gone with Bakschisch for glory). A fellow reviewer once told me that he sometimes came across games that were so lacking in merit he found it impossible to write anything about them. This game triggers much the same reaction in me and I will not be drawn into wasting much time on describing its mechanism. Why? Because the auction system is badly flawed (too little information available to preclude luck) and roll a dice and move doesn't constitute anything that should be bought, let alone be up for perhaps the most prestigious award in boardgaming. As you know, I have nothing against light games, but they have to be good. This isn't and if you buy it, you only have yourself to blame. What on earth were Teuber, Gold Sieber and the Spiel des Jahres jury thinking of?
Franjos's Billabong is, even to a man who has long since given up reviewing abstract games, a bit of a disaster. Boring, totally obvious and I can only conclude with completely hidden depths, this is another one that bagged a Spiel des Jahres nomination last year. What is going on? How can the likes of Airlines, High Society and Phantoms be left off, while games of this standard make the list? Is there an element of tokenism on behalf of the smaller companies? All you clever dicks can now write in and tell me what I've missed.
Maulwerf Company is the lightest game under review this time, but unlike Galopp Royale which is very light but duff, this is very light, clever and original. Each player is given a team of moles (and you will see no cuter dobbers this year) with which you have to try to win the annual golden shovel competition. The moles are placed at random on a triangular grid interspersed with several mole holes. Each turn you flip a card that shows you how far one of your moles may move -- in a straight line. If this enables him to drop into one of the vacant holes, that is ideal because once all the holes are full, the entire first layer of the gameboard is lifted up and those moles sans holes are eliminated. The next level is thus revealed with a random deployment of our short sighted friends, but less holes this time and only enough for roughly half to make it to the next level. And so the game progresses. The first mole down the solitary hole on the fourth layer wins the golden spade. The game is quick, fun and amusing when your surface moles cannot move, requiring a comfortably holed mole to vacate, while avoiding the rush from rival moles ready to take his place. If you are considering purchase I'll stress that this is VERY light, with minimal strategy, suitable only for 3am rounding off duties, or ideal for kids I would guess. A definite no-brainer, but a fun no-brainer nevertheless. Again though, Spiel des Jahres material? And a better representative for Ravensburger than High Society?
Canaletto is an oddity. One, quite rightly, expects a lot from Hans im Glück these days, and Canaletto isn't much at all. It isn't a disaster, but it is so plain and unassuming, and has so little new to offer, that one wonders if they are struggling to find the next big success. The game is basically Knizia's Tutanchamun core `collecting' idea with a bidding system and price mechanism grafted on. And the graft was conducted inexpertly and unnecessarily. Add in a needlessly involved mechanism to decide the next auction and graphics so poor as to be confusing, and we have a game that is really going nowhere fast. I like the idea of being able to decide the next auction and the known future sale values are interesting, if highly gamey.
More generally, it strikes me that we see a bit too much of this `take a bit from here, a sub-system from there, add a bidding system and a new theme, tweak it up a bit and stick it in a big box' approach. Sometimes Derivative Design Technique works (High Society, Asterix, Razzia, Daytona, Grand Prix Manager (!)) and sometimes it doesn't (Canaletto, Bakschisch, Linie 1, Dalmuti, Musketiere, almost any Mille Bornes rip off, and most of my designs) The deciding factor here, in a game that would otherwise be almost purchasable, are those graphics. By any standards, they are muddled, unappealing and amateurish. Probably by the same chap who `designed' the Sunday league cricket gear.
You don't tend to find much out of the ordinary these days. So when I recently spotted an oddly shaped box containing a Canadian cyberpunk boardgame with hex tiles and lots of enticing box blurb, the long dormant `Obscure Boardgame = Immediate Purchase For Sumo' circuits came back on, blinding my `Don't Impulse Buy Again' program, and I was £30 worse off in fairly short order. Which is a shame, because the game isn't that good. It's hard to believe this theme is overdone already, but once again it is roaming around an urban sprawl and hacking into computers. Perhaps the most faithful non-RPG rendition of cyberspacy type pursuits so far, it is nevertheless lacking in decision making and is not a patch on Steve Jackson's Hacker as far as systems go. Again, not an entirely horrible production, but so swamped with modifiers, clumsy rules and inelegant systems that I quickly realised why £30 spent on almost any German game is going to be a better bet than a science-fiction title designed by some bozos with ideas above their station. The title is Edge City, the company is Imagineering Design, and you will be buying my copy if you have any decency left in your body.
There has been a deathly silence on the four new Gibson's sports games which have been spotted in various shops recently. At £12 each and, like that dire earlier boxed series, full of air, they can't have been exactly racking up thousands of sales. Has anyone played them, because I'm certainly not buying them. On the contrary, the `buzz' game of recent weeks (ignoring Siedler, Linie 1 and Medici for a moment) has been Ransom. As Yogi Berra said, ``It's that déjà vu thing all over again''. You'll excuse a hint of incredulity here as not only did I alert you all to this one ages ago, but there was also a short review in Sumo 14. There is no smugness in my comment, just surprise that it has taken so long to permeate the gaming community. Is it the second edition artwork? Or the fact that it now has wider distribution? Either way, well worth your time as a short filler or opener (but it still doesn't fit back in the box).
Avalon Hill are inadvertently causing some merriment around the hobby, partly through the once great General (which I will no longer buy because it is so embarrassing) but mainly through their corporate strategy, as we leaders of industry say. It seems they don't know where to `focus' their talents. PC games, card games, boardgames, family games, wargames, ASL, Pog; the world is their lobster, but no-one knows which way to turn. Either way, most of the design staff we know and love seem to have itchy feet, so all this is probably academic anyway. Whatever their focus this week, they have a number of new boardgames coming along, most of which were reported last time by Stuart. The only new arrival, apart from Solitaire ASL, is Empire of the Rising Sun; basically Advanced Third Reich in the Pacific. Those of you who have been reading The General since, what, the late 70's?, will wonder if this is the same one that has been mouldering away in the AH dungeons. It will no doubt go down a storm with the 271 people who still play the system worldwide. Geronimo has sadly slipped again and it is unlikely we will see it here till late Summer -- I genuinely hope this one gets out before something nasty happens, as it inevitably will. Meanwhile, to keep the Monarch Avalon stockholders happy, you can buy the ASL Annual at a whopping $26 (my Captain Scarlet annuals never cost this much) or a crate of 1830 Snap Caps, ``12 Historical Caps for Railroad Buffs''. I have no wish to describe what Milk Caps are, or indeed Pogs -- if you don't know, you unquestionably don't need to. I can see these, `Look at the Schmuck on That Camel' (I kid you not) and `Watch for Falling Rock' just flying off the shelves into grateful consumers' arms. With stuff like this, some would argue it's a good thing AH are re-focusing away from boardgames.
While browsing around at a miniatures show in Newark, my mate pointed out a stand selling a variety of small metal cars. There were not only 1990's racing magnets but also proper cars like Maserati 250s, Blower Bentleys, D Types and sharknose Ferraris. The mouldings are good enough for the scale, but not top quality, suffering most in the thin tyre department (which look a bit wobbly) and the bodywork is rather pitted -- just like those Isopon Escorts driven by 17 year olds. Anyway, with a bit of work they paint up nicely, make a pleasant change from the modern stuff and are ideal for game design bits. The cars come on bases which measure 25mm x 12mm, almost spot on for Grand Prix Manager among others, and there is a good range from the 30's, 50's, 60's and 90's already with more coming. Both F1 and sportscar subjects are covered. They cost 70p each, less in volume I would imagine. If you are interested, I suggest you give SDD a call on 01902 654164 or write to 40 Coalway Rd, Wolverhampton, WV3 7LZ.
On the same stand, and complementing the cars, was Winner's Eye View, a gamekit production of a motor racing system which the designer believes is, `the most enjoyable multi-player board game ever produced'. Well that's as may be, but at £20, even with metal bits and six period cars, it is £5-£10 overpriced (thus offering a healthy, no doubt thoroughly deserved, profit to the modest designer), but looked interesting enough for me to sample. On opening the package, my heart sank as everything pointed to a Formula One clone and SDD having re-invented the wheel. This is partly understandable as, despite being active in a related hobby, the designer had not come across Formule Dé, Daytona or even Speed Circuit. I haven't yet had a chance to play this one, but will report back next time.
The new Virgin Games Centre is now well established in the main megastore at the East end of Oxford Street. The range of games isn't bad, but there are far less overall than the old shop and precious few fluffies and magazines. The worrying thing is the section given over to collectible cards, which seems to grow by the week, and the old problem, a lack of knowledgeable staff. Ask them how many rare cards there are in Jyhad and you're in luck. Ask them about a quick multi-player boardgame for beginners and they recommend Third Reich or Empires in Arms. For both range and advice, I know you'd be far better served spending a quid on a tube ticket and heading up to Leisure Games on the Northern Line or walking to Just Games.
There have been a number of recent conversations identifying `old favourites' that, however well treated in the bullpen, are not quite as we remember when summoned to pitch on the rocky mound that is the gaming table. [Sorry, I appear to have `Verbosity' turned up to 11 today.] A very good example is Drunter & Drüber that was recently pulled out as a closer and, well, it disappointed much as Bruce Sutter did in his latter days. [And `American Sports Elitism' too, apparently] It was clearly not the same game as when most everyone raved and it won Game of the Year. Similar cases are legion: Kuhhandel, Jockey, Elefantenparade, Holiday AG, Deal Me In, Ausbrecher, Banana Republic, Elixir, Totopoly, Speculate, Armchair Cricket, Moviemaker, Colditz etc. This is not a general malaise as for every `good' game that subsequently disappoints, there is one that stands the test of time: Wildlife Adventure, Favoriten, Election, Flying Carpet, Heimlich, Indiscretion, Shocks & Scares, Seaside Frolics, Alaska -- all of these have been out after a long vacation and worked fine, some even better than the memories indicated.
It is difficult to say why this is. Probably the initial appraisal of some games is completely wrong, or at least mistaken, but I feel it is more a function of time and the effusive nature of the fluffy hobby, for which I admit I am partly responsible. It is of course possible that the first few playings (but not always the first), seasoned with a heavy sprinkling of novelty, are always better. It may also be that many of these games are neither designed to cope with extended play nor the rigours of game groups rather than families. However, the real danger is in pre-hyping and over-estimating titles. Take Dicke Kartoffeln, Extrablatt and Full Metal Planete. Three games that received hugely positive receptions and seemed to ride on their initial enthusiasm towards classicness, classichood, even classicosity. Now look at them. I doubt any of the three has been out of the box in the last two years and if they did emerge, I'm pretty sure they'd disappoint (though this should really be tested!). Add to that a steady forward movement in game design standards and exposure to quality new work, and you start to form a picture.
In a flurry of belated activity, Avalon Hill's 1830 has been played seventeen times since Easter and I have enjoyed every one. I am only now starting to realise how the stock market should be played and it is also, by the hour, dawning on me why you lot seem to rate it so highly. I now know it isn't my cup of tea, but I can see exactly why it is yours. At heart it is far more gamey (excuse the pun) than I'd imagined, and bears even less relation to railways and real life than I knew before I came out with my cavalier 18xx: A Case for Redesign? piece all those years ago. I had been sitting there thinking it was a semi-realistic railway game and have always played and experienced it as such. Of course now I see it isn't at all, and this is why I have always subconsciously railed against it. When you see some of those ludicrous late-game track layouts my delusion is so obvious as to be painful. In case you think I have finally cracked and handed in my Impeach Marathon Gamers button, this is in fact the Computer Bit. Full review of Avalon Hill's milestone this issue. Elsewhere in silicon land it is a bit quiet. We await some mouthwatering titles from Microprose, Bullfrog, Avalon Hill and Maxis (these four are shaping up as the major quality players to my mind), but the big draws have slipped further and further back on the release schedules. We still await all the promised new Sim games, Blackbeard, Beyond Squad Leader, Advanced Civilisation, Little People, Command & Conquer, Quake and Star Trek, and while Syndicate Wars and Links 486 are trouser wetting stuff, they won't be around till early '96. Meanwhile I have had to make do with XCOM 2, Pizza Tycoon, Arcade Pool, Microsoft's Complete Baseball CD (which neatly replaces about a yard of stat books) and several repeat plays of Transport Tycoon -- did I mention how good this one is? Not exactly the end of the world, all things considered. End of Computer Bit.
Last year I waxed lyrical about Het Spel, a wondrous Dutch gaming publication that bit the dust after just three issues. Somehow, I had the feeling it was just too good to last. I am about to accord the same rave review to Vae Victis, a recently launched French magazine, which I hope has rather more longevity. Unfortunately for most of you reading, it is slanted mostly towards the wargame and figure gaming hobbies but I mention it in case any of you, like me, enjoy the odd crossover read. The benefits are many: superb layout and graphics, fascinating articles and rules, page after page of gorgeous colour pictures and even a game in each issue. The drawbacks are language, availability and price -- around £5 an issue in France, but worth every centime.
May I just mention Interactive Fantasy magazine again? Thank you. Completely ignoring the fact that issue 3 sees me warbling on uncontrollably about narrative and atmosphere, this really is a good read and you are likely to find more of interest about game systems in general than anywhere else. Try it.
Finally on the media, you should look out for Steve Jackson's regular Saturday games slot in the Telegraph. While far too short, it is better than nothing and usually features a lead story on something topical (even that underexposed game Magic got a look in) and a couple of reviews. Whether you wish to expose yourself to the delights of Mary Kenney by reading the rest of the paper is up to you -- as my mate once said, ``In The Telegraph, even the children's letters are written by old fogeys'' -- but in fairness, Bloody Mary aside, it is much better than it was.
Finally, two items of late breaking news from Richard Breese and White Wind (bit of a gusting link there -- breeze, wind?), the latter first. The limited edition game for 1995 will definitely be Elfenwizards, a multi-player game concerning the election of senior magician types. All flowing of robes and pointy of hat, no doubt. Alan indicated that there may also be a couple of smaller games as well, but this is still under review. Can't wait! Meanwhile, Richard Breese, like many of us a very busy chappie, spoke to me about the gamekit awards some months ago with a view to filing a late entry due to work pressures. As with most of the other promised designs nothing materialised and I largely forgot all about it. I'm embarrassed to say however, true to his word and putting many others, myself included, to shame, he has now produced Keywood, a multi-player game with a number of interesting systems which you can buy right now. For this act of skill and endurance, we should all be grateful because Keywood is original, well tested, fun and has an excellent, logical rule set. A timely lesson for Mayfair, on balance, considering that Richard is a one-man band.
Keywood has an unual theme. The idea is that your people follow you to a new land, run by the mysterious but benevolent Keywood, wherein you must make a life as a farmer or tradesman. Of course, even Arcadian realms have politics and finance, and it is in the election of councillors, competing for trade licences and struggling for income that the game really starts to motor. As you'll have gathered I have recently played the game, in virtually final form, and it is really rather good. It runs around 90 minutes, supports 3-5 players, is very interactive, full of nicely combined bidding and voting systems, with a hint of light-hearted negotiation, and really works well - a true gamer's game which I think is going to sell out the limited run very quickly, just as History of the World did. All things considered, this is exactly the sort of thing I wanted to see and Richard has almost single handedly made the effort worthwhile. Keywood comes boxed with very presentable components (Richard's annoyingly talented sister has produced the artwork and wooden pieces are included) -- in fact, it is a gamekit only in the sense that it will be a limited run production. I can say no more until next issue, when I hope there will be a full review. Meanwhile, send a cheque to Richard Breese for £16.50 inc UK p&p, £17 (Eur), £19.50 (USA) at 19 Norman Avenue, East Twickenham, Middlesex TW1 2LY.
It has been a trying 1995 so far. The Great Dust Debacle effectively took out three months of the year and I am only now, nearly five months later, returning to normal. For those that asked about the problem, we still don't know for sure what caused it, and probably never will, while I have ended up with re-activated hayfever and damaged `olfactory senses' (as they used to say in D&D) -- the old schnozz is way too sensitive, which the doc says is a permanent condition. Great. This means musty paper and cardboard, aerosols, solvents, exhaust fumes, glossy paper treatments and cigarette smoke cause me considerable discomfort. There are certain games and books that are now off limits, I am having to tread very carefully when painting figures and Essen is going to be interesting with its smoke and dry air. Again, not the end of the world, but I could have done without having large holes made in my main hobbies. Otherwise, work remains a constant worry and the irony of Stuart Dagger taking the reins so that I could have a rest is high in my mind. I am many things, but rested is not one of them.
I have seen no films since last time, but would very much like to see Bullets over Broadway, Judge Dredd, Waterworld and The Madness of King George, and have read but three books, ignoring those instrumental in my reading up on game design ideas. The best of the three, worth it for the pictures alone, was the sumptuous Napoleon (Proctor Jones, Random House). William Boyd's short story collection, Nathalie X, comes a creditable second and Brian Sewell's Reviews that Caused the Rumpus passed a couple of train journeys. TV remains a low-key time consumer, with only HIGNFY, X Files and NYPD Blue remaining must see items and, coincidentally, admirable scores in Scrabble. Mike Clifford raised the inevitable challenge recently, claiming NYPD to be the best ever. Personally, I still have a lot of time for Hill Street, Northern Exposure, Between the Lines, St Elsewhere and LA Law, but the old buffer may just have something here.
I also very much enjoyed Simon Schama's Landscape and Memory, which while somewhat rarefied at times and suffused with flagrantly intellectual references, still offered much to entertain and inform. I especially enjoyed the Arcadia episode, a theme that has been evident, and welcome, in several areas recently. Meanwhile, Absolutely Fabulous was a huge let down, with perhaps one or two laughs per episode, and The Wild West, potentially the best concept of recent months, fell foul of whatever it was (shallowness? lack of analysis? that relentless drawling commentary?) that made The Civil War equally dissatisfying. But the biggest let down of all, after last year's triumph, was Sharpe. I have said before how poor are the underlying books, which fundamental weakness came home to roost with a vengeance. With credibility out the window, lacking decent plots and with no villain as strong as Obadiah, it only took Sean Bean proving beyond doubt he is no Dustin Hoffman to cause deep disappointment. Oh well. Top CDs were Echo & The Bunnymen (surprisingly good after all these years) and Into the Eighties -- Department S, Martha and the Muffins, Jam, M, Smiths, Heaven 17: Wunderbar!