Saturday, July 2, 2011

A Journey Of Self Realization In Gaming, Or, "Sick Of The Same Old Shit"

Well, I've had ample time to reflect on games this month, and it was primarily because I'm in the process of cleaning up my Man Cave (...or Dude Dungeon if you prefer) for the purposes of having a huge 6 player Heroscape game. In the process, I was reorganizing my games, and it hit me that there are certain games that I simply don't have. That being said, I'd almost rather have my scrotum crushed by an air conditioner that fell from a skyscraper than have them.

The reason I say this is that no matter how compelling the gameplay, how clever the mechanics, and how highly rated the game may be by those who enjoy, above all else, such amazing feats as moving a quarter-inch brown cube from a pile (arguably the slave pens) onto a map representing Puerto Rico, if the theme is garbage I'm going to have a hell of a time wanting to play it repeatedly. Where's the fun in that? It seems to me that these games generally end up as dick-measuring contests by potentially unimaginative people who yearn to prove to their slide-rule using peers that they are, indeed, the smartest Mensa member in the room.

To those who think these games have compelling themes, I loudly proclaim: "Fuck That Shit." I'm sorry, but if you think that managing the power grid of Germany or scheduling shipping containers is fun, chances are that you and I will never see eye to eye. In my world, being a merchant of the middle ages, hustling corn husks between the farm and the market is about as compelling to me as having every single ass hair ripped from the root by an Epilady. Sure, I loved "The Darjeeling Limited" and "Lady In The Water", but if I had my druthers, I'm watching "Aliens" or "Conan The Barbarian" instead nine times out of ten.

So, seeing as I'm here, let's talk about theme a bit.

First, what the fuck is going on with games these days? Most of the drivel that is being produced for the Board Game Geek crowd of late seems to come in two flavors: games that involve farming or production of some kind, or games that are total knock-offs of someone else's work. Seriously, you think Hollywood has plumb run out of new ideas, take a look at our hobby. It's the same old shit, redone over and over, ad infinitum. If I see another damned Zombie game where a small group of survivors have to escape peril through swarms of the undead, I may slice my fucking balls off and sing showtunes in front of city hall until I bleed out.

Same with production games where the pinnacle achievement is growing and selling shit (oh, wait, let's not forget the shipping the shit you grew variant! BRILLIANT!). Or, wow, set collection games. There's a new one. If I wanted to play an Old Maid or Go Fish variant, I'd just play Old Maid or Go Fish. Worker placement is another pet peeve, because I can't think of many things less interesting than putting a little cube somewhere that represents a person in some manner of indentured servitude, be it serf, slave, or subject.  Where's all the new stuff?

Back to theme, though, in my little tirade here, what the hell is going on with the damned Renaissance? Why is that so compelling to so many people? Do we really want to relive plague, death by dysentary and cholera, and wars that lasted 30 years? Or how about tripe like Fresco, where the object is to mix paints? Fuck that, if I want to mix paints, I'll do it, and I'll go even further by actually painting something. Like maybe a ultra bad-ass pewter miniature resembling some nightmare creature eating the white meat off of a damsel in distress!

I just don't get it. Maybe people are just boring these days, or maybe the advent of the internet visual media has completely dumbed down peoples' ability to use their imagination. How many shipping games do we need? How many Pillars of the Earth building games does the world really need? Why on God's green Earth do we need another game about farming or medieval life? I mean, seriously....WHAT THE FUCK?

Theme matters to a lot of people. Games like Ascending Empires, where varied interstellar races beat the piss (or whatever liquid non-humans excrete) out of each other, are compelling. They make you WANT to play the game. Games like Road Kill Rally, where the racing aspect is less important than running over grandmothers pushing strollers, are irreverant and fun, and although the theme is a bit dispicable, at least they're compelling. It's not enough anymore to simply pick a theme out of the old playbook, tack on some mechanics that may or may not work well together, and then hire an artist to make it all look fancypants. If you do, you'll do it at your own peril because I'm not fucking buying it. God forbid I do get a hold of it, because your ears will be on fire from the review I'm going to write and whose wrath I'll personally deliver to 10,000 readers in the first month of publication.

I'm not saying that some of the new "thematic games" ( which incidentally, I refer to as "games that may actually be fun" ) have to be completely original themes to be good. I really like Battleship Galaxies, and I think it may well become a fan favorite, but it really is just another "space dudes in space shooting space weapons at other dudes in space" when you boil it down to the base. The difference, my dear friends, is that Hasbro took the time to flesh out the story, build some characters in, and then explain the whole thing to players so that they had a reference point. As I noted in another article, the imagining of a universe or setting, and then building the game, from bottom to top, around that setting, is the hallmark of a great game.

Games like the new Chaostle, while I don't know that much about it, are compelling because there's something new there. I want to know more about it, and that's saying something because there's so few games these days that actually make me want to click on a couple of links to learn more about them. I'm not saying Chaostle is a great game, because I don't know yet, but I will tell you that it has an integral theme, great visuals, and a backstory, and all of this adds up to something that has the potential to be fun.

To be great, as I've said before, requires a rare crossroads of integral, interesting theme, great mechanics, good pacing, and most of all, an assload of fun gameplay. There are very, very few games that I consider to be truly great, but I can point to all of them and they have precisely that rare mix of elements, hence my reasoning that these games have risen above the chaff to become legendary, in my mind, at least.

While it's true that some games have such novel concepts that they can ride on that alone, they are the rarity. Dominion, for example, has almost no noticable theme and could've been about buying various quantities of dope from Columbian and Afghani dealers, or alternatively could've been about amassing different tiers of out of print board games in a basement. The result would've been the same, because at the time, this style of game didn't exist. Dominion was so novel that many were OK to look past the obviously pasted-on theme and saw it for what they saw it for: a neat new game design.  Personally, I owned it for a month, played the shit out of it, and then realized that it was ultimately a very boring multiplayer solitaire game, and I subsequently gave it away. But that's because it wasn't about Space Marines collecting the ears (or whatever) off of Genestealers, right?

So, in conclusion, I sure wish game designers would focus more on getting cool games out there that have nothing to do with shipping corn to some island I don't give a fuck about, or games that involve having fistfuls of cards that are supposed to make me feel like some sort of land baron. Stop trying to be "Dominion with a theme" because you can't. Ascencion of the Godslayer, Nightfall, Thunderstone.....whatever. They're all trying to trump the original, and you really can't. All you can do is hope to ride the sea of mediocrity and sell as many games as you can until it subsides and sanity kicks back in.

Be original in design, and stop trying to knock off other people's shit. I know that virtually all games are derivative of another game design, but you can certainly mix it up. Talisman does the same thing Prophecy does, essentially, but they are very different game designs. Earth Reborn does what Tannhauser does, but again, very different paths between A and B. Come up with a cool theme that hasn't been done not only to death, but to death, reborn, and to death again. Take that theme, and wrap around its magnificence a great story, some great art, compelling, fun mechanics and gameplay that are absolutely soaked in the pickle juice that is your awesome theme, and then playtest the shit out of it so that it doesn't disappoint. Then, alone, you have a shot at greatness, unless you're very lucky.

There's just not enough "new" games out there that are worth buying, and quite frankly, I was wholeheartedly unimpressed with the big-box offerings at Origins. The highlight with all the buzz was yet another snoozefest Knizia math game that happens to have Captain Kirk in it is a completely epic failure in judgement and execution. So much could've been done with that license, especially with the skill at minis games Wizkids has, yet they found a way to totally fuck it up. Seriously, is this all we, as a colletive group, have to offer the world?

I hope "Wild" Bill Shatner kicks ol Wizkids hard in the balls for that one....whomever decided Star Trek and Knizia in the same sentence would be a good idea really should go back to barber college or whatever the hell they did before signing up at Wizards. What a shame. And things like this are so much more often the story than the story of triumphing over all odds and creating a totally awesome game like Omen: A Reign of War. And guess what: John Clowdus doesn't have Wizkids money, Knizia name recognition, or Star Trek fanbois to work with, either. So stop blaming the market for your failures, bitches, and start sacking up. Make great products that are loaded with fun and stop relying on the same people with the same old ideas. There's a lot of fresh ideas out there, I know it, but they're buried under the weight of the old guard and the marketing giants that get all the press.

Alright, I'm done, go back to your regularly scheduled programming. I'm going back to playing Heroscape and waiting for my Hirst Arts molds to come in so I can pimp out my Epic Duels know...a FUN game?

Because the Blogger interface is pissing me off and won't let me post comments, I'm having to put responses here.
@Kenchan13: Thanks!
@Trent: (shaking head...) Buddy, there's a difference. The brown cubes are nameless, faceless little markers. They're not Paco, Pablo, and Geronimo. There's no personality, and if you're trying to tell me that people actually can not only keep track of who's who on a loaded PR board, I'll be the first to tell you that you're full of shit.
Miniatures have unique looks, and they elicit emotions in people, which is why they're so popular. It's not enough to note that your random legion cube dies in T&E when viewed from the light that you could rather be playing a game that Kaemon Awa, Master Samurai, has fallen to the likes of the sinister robot menace, Major Q9. It's just apples and oranges.
It's hard to give a shit about cube #9, but your imagination runs wild when playing a game like Dungeon Twister when your Paladin falls to the fearsome Dragon. Totally different experience.
I am sure glad you grabbed onto the idea that "Pete is saying people that like cubes are dumb", although it's totally inaccurate. I like Puerto Rico. I like El Grande. I like Tikal. I'm just sick of every God damned game being a copy of something else, with a different but equally boring theme tacked on.
Clay: Totally agree.
July 3, 2011 6:49 AM


kenchan13 said...

*STANDING UP APPLAUDING* Dude i couldnt have said ONE WORD better.

Trent said...

I don't understand how you can say people playing a game with brown cubes lack imagination, while people playing with fully-visualized and highly-detailed figurines HAVE imagination.

If the figurine already has all of the visual part of the work done for you, a good chunk of the imagination is already done for you. With a wooden brown cube, you have to completely conjure the worker out of the recesses of your mind. With a Heroscape figure, you don't need much imagination at all.

Clay Hales said...

I think the point is that the brown cubes represent a game design mentality that is without imagination. It's almost like there is a checklist with cubes at the top, and theme sits at the bottom of the list with optional sitting in parentheses. That mentality seems to sit with a fair amount of gamers. Patch some old mechanics together, throw some cubes in the box, past on a theme right before you send it to the printers. The last step is to put Knizia, or some other established designer's name on the box. It isn't an imaginative process. It almost seems like big name publishers and/or designers have a tried and true formula for pushing units. It's like Michael Bay with board games. It sells tickets, but you're still watching the same old crap.

Team Zambia said...

Thank you for saying what I have been thinking for the past several years. This is the main reason why I own several "great" games like P.Rico but would rather play Colosseum or Heroscape. Similar strategic choices, but a heck of a lot more theme.