Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Dungeon Command - Lolth Stings Your Wallet Due To A Lack Of Heart?

The key to every successful miniatures game ever made has been that it has the innate ability to create tension, to excite the players, and to draw them, as generals into the flames of the battle they are engaging in. It's not only tactics that count, although a sound system will reward good tactical players, it's something more. The game needs to invite players into its world, commanding its denizens to battle to the death for their banner. In short, a good skirmish game makes you feel like the battle matters.

Enter Dungeon Command, a new product line from Wizards of the Coast that arrived unannounced on my doorstep last week. Now, I had heard a lot about it from a friend who was on the design team, and I was pleasantly surprised to hear that this new miniatures game would be sold in sets rather than the blind boosters that have been plaguing gaming for the last however many years. On top of that, these were rumored to be shipping with cards that allow all the figures to be integrated into the delightfully fun Dungeons and Dragons Adventure Board Game System family. To top it off, we're talking about a game with an MSRP of forty bones! What could possibly go wrong?

Well, for starters, you can't really play the game with just one set. You have to have two sets to play the game properly, which means that you're investing in an eighty dollar experience, not the forty dollars that I was initially looking at. Now, you get twelve miniatures per pack, two big tiles and two smaller tiles, a sheet of counters, and a bunch of cards for that forty dollar pack. Note that as far as I cold tell, these aren't new minis, either; these are rehashes of old DDM models. In fact, I already own some that have once been re-purposed from DDM and were in the last waves of Heroscape, and some are even in the Dungeons and Dragons Adventure Board Game sets.

Now, as far as production value, this is wicked. The box is a really great design, with a flap that seals shut for travel to your local house of gaming. The art is, as always, spectacular and oozes the aura of Dungeons and Dragons mythos. The minis are pre-painted, which is always awesome, and the tiles are bright, engaging, and beautiful. Everything in the box screams quality. The problem is that you can buy a single DDM starter pack for 20 bucks and be able to play DDM. With this, the minimum buy in is $40, and you're going to need 2 sets to really play it as designed, so you're really at four times the initial buy price to play the game when comparing it with DDM. That's a lot to ask of a consumer, in my opinion, if they've invested heavily in DDM. If not, though, it's not bad at all, because if you don't have DDM, this is all new stuff to you. I fall into the latter category, sort of, because I have many of these figures under the Heroscape brand, which is a whole different sport.

But, if the game is ridiculously awesome, then it's a small price to pay, right? I mean, Earth Reborn was in that higher-up price range, right? Well, here's the issue: remember when I said that a successful miniatures game drew you into its world, made you part of it, and makes you feel like the battle matters? Yeah, this game doesn't really do that for me. It does a lot of really smart, novel things for a miniatures game, such as borrowing some slick mechanics from Magic The Gathering, adding some new ones to the mix like card-based interrupts that stack, and the game does a lot of new, really smart stuff that I think makes this one of the most unique systems I've ever played. It's like a mash-up of MTG, Necromunda, Dungeon Twister, and Dungeons and Dragons Miniatures, with some new goodies in the box. But the one thing this game really needed that was sorely lacking is the luck factor.

You see, there's not a single die in the box. No D20, no D12, no D10, not even the stalwart D6. Everything is done by talking, or by playing a card. Casting spells or using abilities is done by card play. I mean, there is randomness in how you get the spells, and which creatures come up in which order for deployment, but really, it's not a game of doing things, it's a game about announcements. You announce that you're attacking, you ask if the opponent wishes to play a card, and if not, well, then you announce that your opponent's critter takes some damage. It's almost as if the other guy isn't playing.

Now, I'm not that guy who has to have dice in the game to enjoy it. I love me some Dungeon Twister, with a passion, and I even like Chess quite a bit. Each game provides a tension that is unique to it, which is what makes them great games. But in Dungeon Command, the fact is that the entire time I was playing each game, I felt as though I was an unwanted passenger on the ride, that everything really was based on tactical advantages inherent in the character cards you drew, which trickles down to being able to play spell cards, since they are tied to abilities and the level of the character you wish to cast it. It's just a really weird game in that it feels as though the only things that truly matter is which figures you get to play, and position.

As far as the system itself goes, the skirmish rules regarding line of sight, blocking and hindering terrain, and the usual fare for this kind of game all work really well and you can literally learn the entire game in maybe 20 minutes. The basics are pretty simple, and like all minis games, you need to really go through the cards and see what everyone does, and what spells you have. That said, even as basic as it is, it takes a bit of time to really understand the nature the game, to understand the fundamental strategies that will really help make the game into the best it can be. I'd put the complexity on par with Battleship Galaxies, for instance, or maybe just a hair deeper. The long and short is that it's very accessible.

It's clear that the design is positional-heavy because there are quite a few cards that allow you to move through enemy zones of control, for lack of a better term, and there are cards that allow you to slide in, strike, and slide out again. But unless a player plays a card to stop a hit, every single attack automatically hits. I think the rubber hits the road at that very point, at least for me. Nothing in life is guaranteed, but in this game, if I close my eyes and swing at you, you're going to not only not try to avoid it, if I swing wide to the left, you're going to step into it.

Now back to dice for a minute, what makes games memorable, to me, is the "hallelujah" moments where you, despite all odds, dodge an almost certain death blow and overcome your attacker, or manage to find the one chink in the enemy's armor and thrust through to his heart, killing him dead as Elvis. This is the "All Skulls, Bitch" moment that we all pine for. And, honestly, the lack of anything really emulating that in this game just kind of turns me off to the whole shebang. I mean, sure, I might pull that one order card and have exactly the right skills to use it or be in just the right place to pull off something resembling one of the aforementioned feats of bravery and might, but it just doesn't feel like it. I still feel like a sick, fat, middle aged douchebag playing with toys, not a God Emperor of the Underdark, sending forth my glorious legions of doom to crush the Dwarven alliance's incursion in my rough hewn caverns.

Now that you have heard what I don't like, let's talk about what I think you might find awesome, because there is a dosage of awesome sauce in the box. Now, the objective of this skirmish is to kill enough enemy forces to drop the enemy's Morale to zero, or kill every last enemy dude on the map. They go hand in hand, as Morale points are essentially the life points in the game, and you lose them by having an opponent smoke your critter. The higher the critter level killed, the more you lose. But there's also Leadership points, which raise by one point every turn, which is how many levels' worth of critters you can field. Although there is a creature card hand limit based on your leader card, if you want to wait until an opportune time to field a bunch of your baddies, well, go for it, because ambushes are cool when you can pull them off.

A really unique aspect of the game is a mechanic called "cowering" which allows you to block ten points of damage, which is the minimum amount that can be inflicted, and converting that damage into lost Morale points. Now, it's limited in your use, such as when you have a powerful figure that is on the verge of killing an enemy figure that is behind enemy lines. The downside is that when your critter does get killed, you lost Morale damage when you used "cower", and then you lose it again when he's dead. So, it's very risky, but it is a neat tactical choice to be given. I used it once to great effect when I was able to avoid the death of my dragon by cowering, who went on to kill four enemy figures.

Another interesting thing is that there's a deck building mechanic, of a sort. In order to have a legal "warband", you have to have at least 12 miniatures. So, if you had all of the sets, you have a good selection so you can tune the army to your liking, using whichever leader you wish from any of the sets. Further, you can create your own order deck, limited only by having a minimum of 30 cards. Now, this isn't really unique as every miniatures game requires you to draft an army. But the card mechanic is pretty unique because it essentially acts as your grimoire of spells, which isn't really anything I've seen in the frame of a fantasy miniatures game. It's very Battleship Galaxies-esque in that regard, which I thought was a clever way to handle spells. What I will say is that the decks and creatures seem well tuned to one another as provided, but there were some cards I wished I could've had when playing Lolth and some cards I wished I'd have had playing Cormyr, so there is an opportunity to really get a finely tuned warband going.

Now, regarding the order cards, these are the star of the show, so to speak. You draw one every turn, and there's no limit to how many you can have or play in a round. In a way, it feels a bit like old-school D&D when you'd have to wait to charge up your spells. These do all kinds of things, such as spitting webs, allowing you to dodge attacks, or allowing you to break movement rules in one way or another. The slick mechanic here is that for every card someone plays at you, you can stack a blocking card on top of theirs, or even a parry where you do something back to them, potentially. The clever thing here is that it plays out like plotted orders, where each order on top of the last overrides the previous one, and when all the stacking is done, you start resolving them from the top of the stack down. It's damned brilliant, if you ask me, and if there was one thing I had to point to in all of this as the single shining example of how good design ideas should emerge, this is it. It's remarkable.

The final, mechanic I want to talk about is the "Assist" mechanic. For some reason, if two level one humans are adjacent, they can join forces and magically use a power that they normally wouldn't be able to use. So, if you have a level two web spell, two level one guys can join hands and magically create a webbing gland in the active character's ass cheeks. This really made no sense in the D&D universe, at least to me, but it just further reinforces that this is a game of positional jockeying more than actual fighting.

So, if I had to boil the whole game down, noting why I didn't like it, it really comes down to the fact that most of the time, you're not playing cards. Most of the time, you're moving around, using a standard attack, which amounts to telling the other player what's happening and him either doing nothing or maybe trying to spend a card to defend. It's a lot of positional jockeying, which is very good in a minis game, but not a lot of fireworks, which is very bad. While playing Heroscape, there's times when you involuntarily stand up as if doing so will somehow imbue your figures with some magic or will make your dice roll skulls.

That is what makes minis games shine, that inherent ability to get you worked up. Unfortunately, this game is simply too dry for my tastes, and the tastes of my group. We've played Earth Reborn, Tannhauser, Necromunda, Heroscape, Star Wars Miniatures, Heroclix, Mage Knight Dungeons, and a wide, wide array of minis games with different scopes, and this game was the first one (at least that I recall) that received a "meh" response universally.

I think a lot of that boiled down to the fact that when one player is taking their turn, there is often times no interaction. It's not multiplayer solitaire, but we've been programmed for decades that you need to be tossing a die to defend yourself or something, and this might account for our lack of enthusiasm. Some have started hinting comparisons to Epic Duels, but it would be a truly bad comparison. This game doesn't do the same thing that Epic Duels does, and the only real similarities end in the fact that you play cards to do some things, and you move miniatures around a map. Epic Duels created tension by constantly creating a shortage of resources. If you had no cards, you couldn't do anything. Hell, in many cases you couldn't even move. But in Dungeon Command, you can always attack, move, and perform actions. You can literally play the entire game by doing nothing other than declaring attacks and deploying your figures. So, again, I think that the utter lack of tension in the game is what really makes this game less than the sum of its parts.

Now, on the flipside, I'm pleased as could be to have new enemies and outdoor terrain for Ravenloft, and that alone would justify the price in my eyes. I guess the way I look at it, I got a couple of 40 dollar expansions for my D&D Series games, and as a bonus it comes with a mostly forgettable skirmish game included for free. From that perspective, I'm a happy camper. But I would, personally, never have considered the game on its own merits alone.
The minis look good, which is nice, and I really like the fact that they can be used for this game or used in Ravenloft. I mean, the Sting of Lolth set adds 12 baddies to the mix with The Legend of Drizzt Underdark theme, which totally rocks. And the tiles are double sided, and the big ones are like four times the size of a standard cavern tile, so it's really a shoo in for double use. Tie that in with the fact that the obverse is an outdoor terrain tile, and now you can really pump up your campaigns with battles through the forests surrounding the vile Count Strahd's castle before climbing the sheer cliffs, battling Ashardalon, and finally reaching the vile one's crypt. That alone is awesome sauce, distilled. I mean, I cannot emphasize enough how excited I am to be able to create rich, engaging campaigns with town mechanics and whatnot now that this is available.

The Heart of Cormyr pack is essentially straight out of Wrath of Ashardalon, thematically, and so you can integrate that into the Adventure System games as well, and they really do look brilliant. I'd argue that of all of the DDMs I've seen, which I'll admit is limited, these are the best looking of them all. Now there is only one major flaw in all of this regarding the integration into the other game system, which is that these are painted, and the others are not. Now, in these two sets, some of the miniatures are painted copies of the ones in the Adventure System games, which might actually work out in your favor. The only downside is that some will be unpainted and some will be painted, but if you decide to paint your unpainted ones, you run the risk of them being released later in the Dungeon Command series.

It's your call, and I see no reason why you can't simply use only the painted ones, which act as an upgrade kit. In any case, I think Wizards really did a great thing by building in dual-use into these battle packs. Really a brilliant idea. I'm pleased as could be to have new enemies and outdoor terrain for Ravenloft, and that alone would justify the price in my eyes. I guess the way I look at it, I got a couple of 40 dollar expansions for my D&D Series games, and as a bonus it comes with a mostly forgettable skirmish game included for free. From that perspective, I'm a happy camper. But I would, personally, never have considered the game on its own merits alone.

As a standalone skirmisher, it simply didn't capture my imagination, it used rehashed miniatures, and doesn't provide a favorable fun-to-price ratio, all things considered. I like randomness in my war games, and this was far more of a structured, tight design that really rewards critical thinking and good timing of card use. I guess the upshot is that this is really one of the first German-inspired miniatures skirmish games that I've ever seen, and if you like games that have little randomness but want a high-confrontation tactical miniatures game, this might well be what you've been waiting for.

The thing that really scares me, though, in my heart of hearts, is that Wizards seems to be moving more toward the MTG and European-style gaming. This, to me, is a travesty. Back when TSR Hobbies was producing games like Dungeons and Dragons, and spawning countless knockoffs like HeroQuest, Warhammer Quest, and DungeonQuest, nobody could've envisioned a sword-and-sorcery game that didn't involve skill checks via dice. Gary Gygax would never have considered, in my opinion, making combat card-based with no real chance of failure unless someone intervened with an opposing card.

The Magic-ization and Euro-ization of Wizards is most certainly intriguing to watch, but I believe it's a mistake. People associate the Dungeons and Dragons brand with the D20, D12, D4, and most of the hobby dice ever made. To abandon them really stings a bit, at least for me. But that's just me, and apparently someone at Wizards who knows the game business thinks it's a great idea based on the last two games released by them, Lords of Waterdeep and Dungeon Command, and as long as I get my annual dosage of Dungeons and Dragons Adventure system product, I guess I will have to be content with that alone, which is not a bad thing, I suppose, because I really like those games a lot.

Why I Applied For Another Tourist Visa For My Return To Cormyr:
- Tremendous quality is seen in the art, the bits, and even the box design
- It was a stroke of genius to include D&D Adventure Game integration
- There's a lot of "new stuff" about this game, from a miniatures perspective
- If you like Euro games and also like skirmish games, surrender your wallet now

Why I Felt The Sting Of The Travel Agent, Lolth, Who Sent Me To Cormyr:
- There is nothing in this game that really engages you
- An eighty dollar buy in to get the full experience is very steep
- These are all re-issues of miniatures from Heroscape/DDM/Adventure System games
- The lack of tension and excitement contributes to the "dry as toasted rye" disposition

This game was a lot different than any other miniature game that I've played, and it was a refreshing change from the usual cookie cutter "move a guy, roll a die" formula that has been around forever. Unfortunately, while it was a refreshing change, the game itself fell quite flat for us. It lacked any tension whatsoever, and while the mechanics are spectacular, the game itself ends up far less than the sum of its parts. Somewhere along the way, the design lost its soul, and I'd argue that it happened when the dice were kept out of the box.

From what I've read, people seem to really be digging the game, but not a single one of us here wants to play Dungeon Command again, as delivered. The price of $80 to play this game via buying two faction packs seems egregious for what the game is, but the one truly saving grace which, in my humble opinion, justifies the price, is that the integration into Ravenloft/Ashardalon/Drizzt is simply perfect. In fact, it's so overwhelmingly well devised that I can recommend this to you based solely on that, if you are inclined to expand that series of games, as I am. Seeing as I will not be getting more review copies anymore, I'm fully prepared to state that I will be buying more expansions for Ravenloft...even if it is packaged with a bland skirmish game.

3.25/5 Stars

You can learn more about this series of games here:http://www.wizards.com/dnd/product.aspx?x=dnd/products/dndmin/398050000

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Banditos - If Quentin Tarantino Made A Board Game, This Would Be It

Michael Barnes called this game "fun first", which I took to mean that the game is essentially a mess, but somehow manages to force players overlook the rudimentary design because they are enjoying themselves so much. I was intrigued, so I hit up Baksha Games for a review copy, and amazingly, they not only were courteous enough to comply, but sent me a couple others too! Now, like I said, Mike seems to have said that it's a mess of a design, while I, on the other hand, don't think the design is messy at all, but I also don't really think that it's universally as much fun as he does, to be honest, although I think it's fun with the right mind set and the right people. I think we agree on the fact that you have to have the right kind of people to really get the most out of it. The game does suffer from one substantial flaw, but that flaw is overridden by the rest of the game, which is a very engaging design for people who like pushing their luck and screwing over their friends, framed by a pick up and deliver system.

Banditos is a light complexity game that has you crossing the border from the United States of America to Los Estados Unidos De Mexico and back again circa 1982, solely for the purpose of robbing banks of freshly minted Nuevo Pesos. The rules have a blurb that tells the back story of the game and proclaims "this much is true", although Nuevo Peso didn't come into use until 1993. Either way, the theme totally rocks my taco, because I have a lifelong love affair with Mexico, while I abhor their national bank. I once tried to get money from an ATM in Ciudad Juarez and they not only screwed me on the exchange rate, they screwed me harder on the ATM fees. Back then I smoked, so I figure I made it all back on 18$ cartons of Rojos Marlboros, so both Banco de Mexico and RJR can suck it!

Drop the chips, bitch! This is about stealing Pesos, not Pitas!
As far as the game product, it's really quite good, especially for under thirty bones. At the price point, though, they clearly couldn't afford the nice plastic miniatures that I know they'd have preferred, so your bank robber is represented by a colored, wooden cube. It's a little bit of a let down because the game has such colorful characters as a luchadore named Mucho Carne,  Honey Bunny and Pumpkin, straight out of Pulp Fiction, and a pirate named Redbeard who made me ask,  "What the hell is a pirate doing in Texas?" There's a lot of characters, and they're all unique in their special abilities that change the game, as well as in their weaknesses, and no one character seemed all that much stronger than others aside from a pair of hooligans who are immune to being messed with by other players. The character deck, which also has some special items and some fuel gauges, is one set of cards, and there's another, larger deck that is made up entirely of Nuevo Pesos, which as I noted are the target of your robbery attempts.

The last deck, and this deck has got to have around 250 cards, is an all-purpose deck that contains seed money to buy stuff, cards to screw with other people, cars, motorcycles, weapons, "Get out of jail free" cards, and cards that give you an edge in robbing places. It is in this deck that the vast majority of the game is played, literally, and they did a spectacular job of having so many unique cards, although the sheer volume of them may be overkill. One thing I really want to mention is that I love the art. It's grimy in an "A Scanner Darkly" sort of rotoscoped way, and it screams "1980's Southwest" in a very real way. Just a truly wicked looking game, I guess, is how I'd characterize it.

Not for the color blind!
The only real complaint to be had is that the card backs are very similar looking, with only a slight degree of color contrast between them. Other reviews have made a bigger deal out of it that it is, though, because I accidentally shuffled them all together when doing the initial shuffle which consisted of me putting them all on the table and smooshing them around for a few minutes, but we were able to very easily segregate them again. It's more a matter that you need to know what to look for, and when you do, it's no biggie, unless you're color blind, in which case you will need a Sharpie.

On top of that are cubes, as noted, a bunch of red bingo chips, and rulebook, which while very easy to read and only 4 pages long, under explains or omits a couple of concepts that may cause you to play the game wrong the first time you play, or house rule, which is what we did. Luckily, our house rules actually were the right way, for once, so we did actually play right. Anyhow, the board itself is comprised of the border between the first and third wealthiest nations in North America, complete with actual cities and borders to cross. It has a little quick reference guide that is printed on the board, but that omitted one thing that you can do on your turn, which we noticed quickly and wasn't an issue. In a post-Risk Legacy world, I am not afraid of the Sharpie. The biggest complaint was that it really didn't adequately explain quite a few specifics, like what "speeding away" from a robbery meant, in practice. Luckily, Baksha Games put a great set of three tutorial videos up. I'm serious, EVERY GAME COMPANY SHOULD DO THIS.

So anyhow, as I alluded to, the game system is, on the surface, a fairly simple pick up and deliver game. You go to towns, you rob their banks, and then you try to get to your home base to stash the goods. In and of itself, that would probably be boring as hell, and really, is boring as hell if that's all that you do. But the real core of the game, that which makes it deliciously evil, is that the game is really a tremendous "take that" game, to paraphrase the great Frank Branham. For every action someone takes, you can screw with them in one way or another. My only complaint with this is that there are a few cards which are so outlandishly devastating that once played, you effectively set back the target player by at least a few turns, or at most, five to seven. These cards destroy a player's car, which is the most valuable asset that they have.

Now, I originally thought that it was a balance issue, but there are other cards in the game that act as a sort of insurance against that, such as having a panel van which can hold a motorcycle, so if they blow up your van, you can ride off on your Suzuki, both middle fingers extended at the offending player. Still, getting nailed like that really sucks, and sets you back unless you have that insurance or have a car card and some seed money handy. But, since seed money is openly played, people know you are loaded and will likely wait until you're broke to crush your hopes and dreams with the really nasty cards.

But even more than the pick up and deliver and "take that" mechanics, the whole game is bound together with "push your luck" mechanic going on. Every time you do anything illegal, be it steal gas, steal cards from the discard pile, or rob a bank, you get the local constabulary riled up. They know your face, your ride, and the Federales are keeping an eye out at the city you robbed. This means that you, your car, and the city get a heat token, represented by the little heat markers, which make doing anything harder as they act as a dice modifier for every roll you take. Luckily, you can get rid of them over time, or quickly if you have the money and a car available to buy, or a paint shop card that takes all the heat off of your ride. As the endgame nears, you will have some heat on you unless you were pretty careful, and the endgame really becomes a mad dash to the finish. We've had very close games, thus far, which tells me that the game balance is far better than I'd have imagined at first glance.

Another aspect of the game worth mentioning is that there are negotiations involved between players. If you want to get a card but don't want to wait to draw it, or have an extra card that you think someone would want, you can ask around, then buy or sell the cards for seed money. You can even buy and sell items that are in play, but you have to actually be in the same space as the tradee to do that. There's all kinds of negotiation opportunity, and we found this to be one of the more fun things going on in the game because if you're clever, you wait until someone has gotten all kinds of heat from robbing the discard pile for money, and then you tempt them with your card, essentially saving yourself the hassle of getting too much heat on you. Unfortunately, there weren't any rules to help with, even in the video, so we weren't initially sure whether the heat stays with a traded car or not, but it kind-of made sense that it would stay with the car. I asked Sean, the designer, and he told me that the heat does, indeed, stay with the car, if you care to know.

Now, all this said, it's not all melocotones y crema, because there is a huge problem spot in the game.  The fact that you start with nothing, essentially, means that the beginning of the game can be really dry. You get some cards, but what you need to really get going is a weapon and a car, and the money to put them into play, so unless you drew amazingly well, you're not doing anything for a while. Sadly, money is not easy to come by at first, and the largest denomination is $100, thus there is a lag between when you begin the game and when you can actually do anything. There's a lot of drawing and discarding going on until you get what you need, since there's a a hand limit of five cards, not counting cards already played to the table. I like that there's a hand limit, in fact, but with so many cards of various kinds, you may end up with five cars in hand and not a dollar to play them to the table with.

Luckily, once someone buys anything, the money goes into the discard pile, and the following player will generally steal that money right back out of the pile, spend it again, and then the following player will follow suit. Thus, at the "real" beginning of the game, when people are funded, most players will have between three and five heat, and a car, weapon, or both, while the first to buy will be sitting pretty with no heat. So, it's not really the fact that there's a lag on the front end that is a problem, it's more that the first player to have enough seed money to do anything can really have an advantage early if the other players don't hold back some screwage cards to hobble that player until they can dissipate some heat.

The group rated the game in a bit of a polarized way, from "mediocre" to "awesome", and that describes how I felt about it. One time I played, there were not many more painful experiences that I could endure short of a "Marathon Man" style interrogation, but that was because we were playing with our resident "non-interaction" player who would get irate when you played a card of any kind against her. The other times, she wasn't playing, and the people involved were all about hosing one another over, without mercy, which made the game truly exceptional, especially since we were all the proper age to appreciate the theme. It was clear to us that Ms. Whinyass D. Funmurderer should've never even been invited to play the game, since she never could've liked it to begin with, and really, we "shoulda betta known betta" than to invite her to play it.

If you get a little buzz on, or not, and just take the game at face value and just roll with the fact that it's a game about stealing shit, drinking beer, and eating burritos, you're going to love it. The art is really great both thematically and technically, and if you let it and the flavor text slap you in the ass and ride you to Mexico, you're in the right frame of mind. If you're a fun murdering whiner who can't accept that people might have the audacity to play a card that causes you to speed, and ultimately, get all of your loot taken on account of a shitty die roll, well, go play something else. If you don't like pressing your luck and having the entire game hinge on a die roll, then this is not your huckleberry.

Now, personally, my only real beef is that the rules had a couple of sketchy spots, but only a few, and the early part of the game can be a real pisser if your luck is on the fritz or in a six-player game where seed money can be buried by discards pretty damn quick, making it a long wait until you actually get to rob something. While this never happened in the one six-player marathon game we played, I could totally see it happening to one unlucky bastard because, as I noted, there are just so many cards in the deck. I really think three through five players is the sweet spot, and this is actually a game that plays really nicely with three, which is a pleasant surprise as there are so few confrontational games where three players don't end up having a third wheel troublemaker spoiling the game. I think everyone who likes games like this should give it a whirl, because the theme is simply outstanding and integral to game play, and for people who like to pick on others, this will be a good game for you.

Why I Want To Be A Bandito:
- The art is wonderful for the theme, and the theme is refreshing and compelling
- Banditos' theme and mechanics dovetail perfectly
- Don't underestimate the decision points; this is not a "simple" game
- A great "Beer & Pretzels Plus" caper game for clever lads and lasses
- There's a lot of game here for the 26$ that CoolStuffInc is asking for it

Why You Should NOT Drink The Water:
- While it's a funny game, the humor will wear fairly thin after the third play
- The rules could've been clearer on some of "finer points"
- There are simply way, way too many cards in the item deck
- If you can't take the heat of getting hosed unexpectedly, well, go play something else

This game is either very awesome or very mediocre, depending on who you ask. If you ask me, I'm saying it's somewhere in the middle, but far closer to the awesome side. The game has deceiving depth, since there are so many choices to make, and there's an emphasis on mitigating bad luck by making smart decisions. There's also so much interaction, and by interaction I mean bastinado, that you're always a little afraid of what's coming next. Don't underestimate the fact that it's an Ameritrash game about bank robbers, beer, and burritos, because it's really a lot more clever than you might first think.

3.5/5 Stars

Check out Baksha's site here:http://bakshagames.net

And check out the tutorial videos here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EeWqCfsxnhc (Setup/Overview)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pJ6_xRbsGOQ (Breakin' the LAW!!!)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JhtH4hK2Z4U (Slow Ride....Take it EE-Zay)

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Pete's Personal Philosophy On Game Ratings

One of my former (or current, maybe) readers had an issue with some statements I made regarding ratings at the Circus: http://gamerchris.com/2012/07/05/impartiality-in-writing-reviews.aspx

Anyhow, he noted that it's ridiculous that I should think a game that we rated a 7.5 is not shit hot. He said, in short, that if we were to give a 7.5 on a game, people should think it's pretty good. Well, yeah, it's pretty good, in the same sort of way that a Whopper is pretty good. It's just good enough to make you wish you were eating a better fucking burger. Me, I'd rather have a fat, juicy Carl's Jr. Double Western Bacon Cheeseburger. The kind of burger that can only be described as a mouthgasm, that leaves you satisfied all day. I mean, I eat one of them, I don't even want a burger for a couple of weeks, because it's just that awesome. And if I could have one of them or the Whopper, I'm going with Carl 100 times out of 100.

But, let's get back to the Circus for a second, because you see, first and foremost, I don't actually release my personal ratings, because they're irrelevant to the Circus. The final Circus rating is, in essence, the average of all the scores taken over the three review plays that are required before I write a review. So, for a five player game, played with 5 each time, that would be the average of those 15 unique scores, minus the single highest and lowest vote. So, really, I don't score shit myself, except the three votes that I always get, since I have to play it three times...after all, in almost all cases the game is mine.

Now this is how I, personally, characterize scores, in the frame of the ubiquitous "1-10" scale:

0-5: Don't play this. Don't look at this. For fuck's sake, DO NOT BUY THIS.This should be sent to a recycler and made into a cereal box, since cereal boxes are often entertaining, and sometimes, if you're lucky, come with something that someone will want to play with. If I bought it, it's probably because it was on clearance somewhere and I wanted the bits for a real game. Or, perhaps I was just fucking stupid.

5-6.75: Something went very, very wrong. It might be kind of fun or maybe has some merit, but there's a significant problem or problems with this. Maybe it's kind of fun but fugly, maybe it's fun only due to one facet or another, but in either case, it somehow fails to make the cut.

6.75-8: This had potential, but either failed in a substantial way, or had lots of little small issues that added up. Or maybe it's a niche game that serves a sole purpose and does it pretty well. It's definitely fun for some people. If I have this, it's because it's got a really bad ass theme that allows me to look past the flaws or maybe it just appealed to me for a unique reason.

8-9: This is an undoubtedly fun game. It's got some problems, but they're generally minor. In short, this is a game you should definitely seek out to play, because it's likely that all of the Circus really enjoyed a lot about this game. It's very possible that I own this, used to own this and replaced it with a game that does the same thing, but better.

9-10: This is the real cream of the crop. There is almost no reason not to own this game, unless you have some predisposition to not liking the setting or theme, or you simply don't like the style of game (ie. Euro V. Ameritrash) or some such thing. And really, if you don't like this game, there's probably some serious deficiency with you. I definitely own this game, or owned it and played it in excess of 20 times and can't get anyone to play with anymore. Short version: This is an epic game and you're a fun murdering sucker-ass if you don't have it, or want to have it.


My analogy is this: If you walk into the local whorehouse and there's ten women there, all eager to serve you, you're not going to even bother with any woman that doesn't rate at least a seven or eight. I mean, why the fuck would you even waste your time with anything less? To see if their personality will somehow make you overlook the fact that she's got an eye with a half-inch thick cataract on it or has a thick, black goatee on her face? You get one shot to take this chick in the back room, and there's no refunds, so are you going to grab the fugly ones or the ones who sound like Fran Drescher?

No, you're going to look at the eights through the dimes. And really, if they're all about the same price, why the hell are you not going to just shoot for the dimes? Sure, that "seven" girl with the stellar body could possibly be able to tie a cherry stem with her tongue, but you know for SURE that the dime can. I mean, that's her job, and that's why she's the dime. So, unless the seven does something for you so different than the other girls can, like perhaps Ms. Seven is black, and you really dig black chicks, well, you can overlook the pock marks that populate her ass and thighs because she has that extra "thing" that turns you on.

But me, I'm shooting for the dimes pretty much every time. Why settle for less than the total package? If you think I'm an idiot for rating something a seven and then saying that I'd probably never buy it, well, I guess I just have higher standards than you. That doesn't make me snooty or an elitist, it means that I have a limited amount of space and I'm really not trying to spend a shitload of my hard-earned money on a bunch of games that will never again see a table. I generally buy only the best in a genre or the game that best uses a certain mechanic, and if a better one comes along, well, the previous top dog is relegated to the trade pile. I mean, I'm NOT a collector, unless you owe me money, in which case I'll most certainly make house calls. I'm a player; a gamer. I want to play games, not just own them and read the rules on the shitter, or wax poetic on the elegance of the design. And I'm not saying it's wrong to do that if that's your thing...if you want to have a room with 500 games in it that never get played, hey, whatever floats your boat. It's just not my thing.

So, that's how I, personally, rate things, if you believe that it's important to know. Each person who plays a game with me, whether they know it's for review purposes or not, is asked the famous question that I always ask, "So, what'd ya think, scale of 1-10?" I have zero influence on how they vote, and therefore I can't control if someone believes a 7 to be a stunningly good game with some minor niggles that kept it from greatness. But, remember that none of my regulars know anything about BGG, anything about the "game culture", or have ever read a game review. Only one of all of them, my master-at-arms, has any interest in games above playing them, and I took him to GenCon just before he started cancer treatment. So, the ratings that we generate are all relative to the other games that we've played, since they have no experience whatsoever outside of the games that we've played together.

That's the whole shebang, and I'm glad we had this little talk.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Who's Got Game - Pantydroppin' Party Paraphernelia for Pedestrian Pimps And Players

There's this truly brilliant investigative journalist who creates a career out of learning about others' experiences and then writing novels about them, but unlike other journalists, he embraces the subjects of his novels. I sort of liken him to a modern day Studs Terkel, but instead of interviewing people on the street, he became those people and wrote about his varied experiences. One novel was about survivalism, which I've read and found to be entertaining and informative, and another, which is linked directly to this game, is a book about his experiences learning the art of sexual psychology from the underground "seduction community", which fancies itself a bit like the Freemasons, but instead of trying to manipulate world events, they're trying to nail your wife.

I actually read that one as well because, above all, the author in question is an incredibly talented writer that I first learned about while reading an article in Rolling Stone on a plane. Turns out that I was a natural, apparently, because I had been doing that stuff for years, and really, still do, which is why I've been married to a truly hot woman for going on 17 years. Above all, though, I think Neil is a world-class grifter, which is why he is so successful at everything he does and is able to blend himself into his subject matter with such ease. Honestly, if you are a fan of the art of the grind, this guy should be on the top of your list. To hell with Bernie Madoff; he's in prison and took his whole family down, while Neil is walking free, getting celeb trim, and likely has offshore bank accounts loaded with tax-evaded money that he learned about while writing Emergency. Personally, I like the guy, having never met him, to say the least.

So, moving on, a game designer named Adam has been tasked with marketing a new board game, "Who's Got Game: The Game With Benefits", but it appears that in addition to going with mainstream product reviews like the spot on Attack Of The Show, he is passing out review copies to guys who would normally be writing about Dune, or Rise And Decline Of The Third Reich. Apparently he doesn't know our market, since this is really a boutique social game, and if you're playing old Avalon Hill war games, there is a distinct possibility that you may have never seen a vagina in person, except at birth, and that's only if you were looking backwards. But alas, I accepted the copy because I am a fan of the author whose book the game is based upon, and as an added bonus, it gives me something to write about. Plus, the guy who is handing out the review copies actually is really funny, and in my estimation, a guy who knows how to laugh is someone I don't have to worry too much about writing me hate mail or starting a 7 page diatribe about how I am, in essence, Satan, Hitler, and Pol Pot all wrapped up into a fat little sausage.

I cracked open the box which depicts Neil in a terrible "orange sweater over yellow Oxford" look and a woman with a red dress holding a Cosmo glass and hair dryer. Suffice it to say, I was, at best, skeptical about its claim that it is "The Game With Benefits." Since it essentially tries to act as social Astroglide in a party environment, I believe that this assumes that you're single or swinging, looking to hook up, and actually know women who would come over for a party. I think that this game's core audience is really more the Barnes and Noble hipsters who have cocktail parties where vintage LPs play on Naim turntables in the background, not necessarily for hobby gamers, although our demographics are changing, slowly. You see, this game assumes that there will be women at your parties, and men to take advantage of them, or at least try.

I mean, it can be played by traditional couples, but I warn you, if you try to pick a woman other than your girl to play, your ass is absolutely on the line. You will most assuredly not be getting any benefits when you get home if you're not careful. There are segments in the game that have you rubbing on other players various parts, massaging and flirting. While that's great for singles, or if your spouse is playing as your partner, it can be bad if you're a hobby gamer. When I was perusing the cards, reading the footsies card instantly put a scarring image in my mind of a couple of five hundred pound Magic players with two inch long, thickened, yellowing, Harkonnen toe nails rubbing their feet together sensually. No, this may not be for everyone. If your erogenous zones are the drive through at Dairy Queen and the comic book store, this is definitely not for you.

Despite the title, I have seen some forum posts asking if this is appropriate as a family party game. Allow me to elaborate on that: unless you are a stereotypical West Virginian, this is not remotely a family game, and it especially isn't appropriate for kids. I mean, there's a charades mini-game that asks you to demonstrate putting on a condom while the other players guess at what you're doing. If your seven year old knows how to do this, or worse, can correctly identify an adult doing so, you need to seriously reconsider your parenting.

This is a game that, on the surface, lets individuals at a party get to know each other without the annoying small talk, but underneath the surface, in the spirit of Neil Strauss, it's about trying to shoplift the pootie. Make no mistake, when the box says, "The Game With Benefits", they're not talking about altruistic benefits. This is about getting laid. If you're playing with kids, you're a sick, sick bastard, unless you're Jacko, in which case it's the perfect game and this is the perfect icebreaker.

Inside the box are some pencils, score sheets, response sheets, a sand timer, and a cornucopia of cards. Now, most of the cards have all kinds of pickup artist lingo all over them that you'd recognize if you're a pickup aficionado, such as "DHVs", or "Demonstration of Higher Value", which amounts to being able to convince a potential coital target that you are inherently better than the next guy. There's also "Negs", which are backhanded compliments that are used by pickup artists, which amount to proving that the other guys  are douches, for the purposes of this game. The entire game is loaded with techniques that Neil learned during his adventures that he chronicled in his book, with the object of trying to prove you're the better guy in the room for the purposes of getting some action. I'm not entirely sure that the stereotypical GenCon MTG players crowd can overcome the abject lack of personal hygiene by being able to do some basic handwriting analysis, which is also in the game, but perhaps I underestimate Neil's cunning and ability to purvey the fine art of the hookup approach upon players. If he can get "Francis the MTG freak out guy" laid, he's far more powerful than I had first anticipated.

As to the actual game play,  the game is really quite varied as there's several categories of cards in the box, some a little bit on the racier side, and others on the tamer side. The game really seems to attempt to be educational in a really slick way, too; the flavor cards tell you little tidbits about handwriting, about human nature, but they frame them in such a way that they pose the underlying idea as fact so that players will agree with them. So, it's a clever confidence trick: frame things as truth in an environment where someone is relaxed and prone to believe, and suddenly, what is simply a statement becomes fact. Really, the entire game concept is brilliant in that it is clearly targeted at convincing the women in the room that if someone has a specific skill, they're a better match for them, and therefore, "do-able". I guess what I'm saying is that this game is amazing in its effort to get the guys playing some action. I'm not sure it works, but it does seem to break the ice very well and get the giggles going.

Now, for my long time fans, I want to point out that I didn't play this game, personally, because I was not about to put my own junk on the chopping block. What I did do, however,  was bring it over to a friend's house who is not a part of "geek culture", but who is a partier, drinks a little, smokes a little weed, and most importantly, always has people around, especially girls. Now, I'm not going to discuss the quality of the girls as one has a featured spot on "TheDirty.com" as a total skank, but since the scope of the game is to get women to want to rub on your junk, I figured that this was the perfect setup.

The unwitting victims, faces obscured to protect the innocent.
So, we set up a pool party/barbecue session so that there were dudes and girls there, already scantily clad, between the ages of 19 and 25. And we dropped this little bomb in the middle of it. I simply observed it, because quite honestly, I don't need to be involved in macking to a 25 year old girl. Not only would she not stand a chance, but I don't need half of my stuff and both my kids to be in a United Movers truck on its way back to Cali with my would-be ex-wife, had I done so.

The game breezed along and the party people were all very visibly having fun. I also saw how the girls were being manipulated by the game to take, at face value, that a guy who has no job, no education, and really, not a damned thing going for him is somehow a prime target for mating because he simply did well on a couple "Demonstration of Higher Value" cards. I mean, this guy lives with his girlfriend's parents, rent-free, and sits on his ass all day playing Wii games. His high school diploma is a well-made forgery printed on some nice certificate paper from Wal-Mart. I mean, he's not even in good shape. Yet, two girls who initially didn't have any interest were eating his apparent pimp abilities up, thinking he was the dog's bollocks.

It was hilarious to me, but the one person who didn't appreciate it was his girlfriend, who was not one of the two girls, and who was not amused a damned bit. In my heart of hearts, I was really hoping to see a cat fight. I've sparred with this girl, who is an orange belt in Shorin-Ryu, and she'd beat these other girls damn near to death, which would've been absolutely hilarious. Anyhow, she was getting really steamed when there was some "touching" going on, especially since Ms. TheDirty was at one point a stripper. Now, because I am a truly rotten bastard, I should mention that I purposefully chose teams to split up the only couple, without telling them anything about the game's scope. My co-conspirator was all too eager to help convince them, and in retrospect, he noted that it was a bad, bad idea. In other words, we were gaming them all before the game ever began, and it was awesome to watch it unfold. Drama in your own house sucks, but watching drama in someone else's house is epic.

So, let me close with this: this game is a really well made ice breaker game for the twenty-something crowd, even if you're not someone who is part of the hookup culture. There are some more risque parts of the game, but not perverse or crass in how it presents itself. There's not anything that would make anyone put the most prudish Puritan blush, but there are references to sex, and there are "hidden goal" cards where the object is something like attempting to get another player to kiss you and the like. This really just seems to be built as a game for singles or even swingers looking to get to know one another, like I said. If you buy this, you're the kind of person who likes to party, knows women, and is into getting to know the women a little better. It surely will help people open up a little, and most importantly, it tries to teach players a little bit about what it's like to be an effective pickup artist, all while actually picking up girls. Because if you were already a real pickup artist, you wouldn't be playing this game to try to get laid, you'd already be knee deep in jibblies.

Why This Game Has Some Serious Game:
- As a social tool, it's a pretty clever way to go from "alone with your fist in a dark room" to "crew crushing stallion"
- It's quite informative, and I found myself actually interested in some of the subjects
- There's a surprising amount of variety in the cards
- Neil Strauss gets world-class ass and wants to share his secrets with you! #WINNING

Why This Game Will Never Get The Benefits:
- Play this with your single friends, not your in-laws or kids; that's just perverse
- I'm not sure that you can play this more than twice or thrice with the same group
- I can't help the nagging feeling that this isn't somehow a branding thing

This is a clever social activity more than a "game", per se, with the main purposes of both breaking the ice at a gathering and potentially getting someone interested in you. I say that because, although there are winners and losers, the objective isn't actually to win, but to open up a little and put yourself on display. This would be an especially good product for wallflowers as it really does force you to come out of your shell a little. I've never seen anything quite like it, to be honest, and I think that it's not especially great if compared to Say Anything or Taboo on the merits of actually being a traditional "party game", but really, as a social activity for people with a little buzz on to try to get some action, this is a really good time for players and observers both. If you play your cards right, you may well may "get some benefits", and not too many party games can claim that.

Rating: (*)
3.75/5 Stars

You can learn more about the game here:http://neilstrausspartygame.tumblr.com/

And it's available at Barnes and Noble (AKA Hipster Central) and online at Amazon.com if you're looking to start your adventure in jibblietown anytime soon!

*(I have recused myself from the voting on this as I only observed it, but I polled the 6 players afterward. This game also does not fall under the purview of the normal Circus review methods as it was played only once. Further, this was not reviewed by "gamers", but by regular folks outside of the geek world. This was a total ambush, and the folks that played it don't even know that I write for a website!  -SFC Ed.)

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

July 4, 2012 - Independence Day

First, I'd like to thank every person who has ever served this country, be it a  mail carrier, soldier, sailor, policeman, teacher and senator (well, maybe not senators) as all of you have played a part in making the United States a beacon of hope for the world; one of the few places left on the planet where you do not need worry about being tortured by a dictator for dissenting,  not worry about being left to die on the street due to a lack of resources, and a place where, by and large, your children will be safe and have an unrivalled opportunity to become anything that they aspire to be.

And in the spirit of being truly independent, a servant of the public, and a champion of the consumer, Superfly Circus has changed its policies on requesting review copies from publishers.

We will no longer be requesting free copies of review games from publishers, because I have come to believe that the line between the publishers and the unpaid, unlicensed, untrained horde of amateur bloggers and pseudo-journalists has become far too thin. While the Circus has never been influenced by a publisher, and we have safeguards set up so that it is impossible for us to be influenced, it is on principle alone that I have made the decision to end the practice of seeking review copies. This may cut down on the number of my negative reviews because I'll be spending my own money on games for the most part, but that's the price I have to pay.

I have come to believe that with the consolidation of Board Game News and Board Game Geek, there is no substantial outside, neutral source of board game information on the scale and scope that Board Game Geek encompasses. They are the CNN, Fox News, BBC, SKY News, PBS, and MSNBC of board gaming. Unfortunately, they have become so powerful and so intertwined with the publishers that they serve and that serve them, that they are no longer what can be considered a neutral, free, information outlet.

With the board game marketing and review system set up so that people are being compensated to write reviews, either with "GeekGold" or with a constant stream of free product, invitations to publisher luncheons, and being given access to previews, I can no longer tolerate or be a party to the pay-for-play system.

It is my opinion that is that a culture of anti-dissent has been propagated in the gaming community, and can be evidenced by several factors:
  • There is a wide imbalance of positive and negative reviews, even on middling-rated and lower-rated games
  • Most reviews that are positive are overwhelmingly positive
  • Negative reviews are almost universally met with disdain and ridicule
  • Positive reviews are given more acclaim and search position based upon "thumbs" at BGG, which is a popularity gauge, not a gauge of the value of the content
  • Negative reviews are "tipped" less with "GeekGold" on BGG
As I have stated in recent articles, and all across the internet, this imbalance and culture of anti-dissent creates the illusion that almost all products, irrespective of their actual merit, are good purchase choices for virtually everyone. In many cases, products are being reviewed and advertised by third parties before an actual product exists in its final form, such as Kickstarter "previews".  These practices are manipulative and allow mediocrity to flourish while not holding publishers accountable for creating mediocre products. I think that we, as a culture, can do better, and this is why I am unilaterally taking this stand.

My hope is that other review sites will stand with me to attempt to widen the line in the sand between publishers and independent review sites by refusing to ask for review copies. I am fully expectant that this will not happen, though, which I will take to confirm that the agenda of most reviewers, although not all, is solely to gain popularity and get free product. Not act as a champion and protector of the consumer, and not to actually inform, but rather to act as the advertising and marketing arm of publishers. If review copies didn't result in positive reviews and, ultimately, more sales, publishers would not do it.

I'm sure the argument will be made that if there are no review copies being sent, then the information flow will grind to a halt. My response is, "What's the rush?" Why is it imperative that every game be reviewed by the same twenty "reviewers" before ever being released to the public? Is selling the public on a product not the job of the sales team at the publishers rather than the job of a swarm of independent pseudo-journalists?

I cannot remember the last time I've seen a negative or, really, even a "not glowing" preview of a board game product. How often do we see a negative review of a just-released game? If the answer is "never", or "rarely",  then one can only surmise that the deck is stacked mightily against the consumer, and in reality, the truth.

Isn't the whole concept of a free, and independent, press to investigate and report the truth to the public?

Star Trek Heroclix: Tactics - Ship Cards With Powers and Dials!

I said it would be done, it just took longer than I had hoped, primarily because it commands a lot of time on weekends and late evenings. Especially with this family.

So, anyhow, there's 2 full sets of cards in the file. One set has cards that, if you fold them in half, are roughly 2x3, perfect to load into Ultra Pro 2x3 hard toploaders (as I have done).  But since we're all getting older, and I'm used to big SSDs from Star Fleet Battles and whatnot, I also made a larger set with each card being about a quarter sheet. Just print the ones you want, preferably on 80 or 100# cardstock, cut them and launch away!

Single sided printing, because most home printers can't align front to back worth a damn.

Here's an idea of what they look like:

Regular size, Page 1

Large size, Page 1

As you can see, they have both the power text as well as the full printout of the Heroclix dial, effectively allowing you to know how many hits a ship can absorb before death, and when the powers will come into play for strategic purposes.

No more bullshit PAC lookups, and no references to super hero powers, or "characters" anymore. All ships, all the time.


Download here from my ultrafast server, file is PDF and it's about 60 megabytes.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Consumerism, Criticism, And The Bernays Effect On The Board Game Industry

There has been a great deal of hand-wringing about the lack of what people are calling "true criticism" in the board game industry, of late. What the hand-wringers are wringing wildly about is the idea that there aren't enough truly in-depth reviews on games, or games that speak from a level of experience; from the perspective of someone who has either mastered the game or has a trained enough eye to be able to spot the flaws in the gem that is a boardgame without actually having played it to death. I, personally, believe that games do not have this level of scrutiny because, for the most part, consumers don't want to be told anything about a game at that level, but in fact, what they really want is to be told whether a game can be played more than a few times, and is novel enough on some level to hold the attention. But I now believe that without it, we are simply lemmings, following the latest hot blogger or an old standard right off the cliffs of consumerist oblivion.

I had said that most people at major sites like BoardGameGeek are bottom feeders, and that was misconstrued as a criticism of their character. It was wholly misinterpreted as some sort of a condemnation of the site's inhabitants as lesser creatures, which was most certainly not the intent. What I meant is that most of the people on the site are driven solely to consume, and even the chaff that falls to the bottom is good enough because the goal is consumption, not quality. Now, I'm not looking to write a treatise on quality, and how it's subjective, because we all know that the "different strokes for different folks" argument can go on ad infinitum, with no side giving quarter. What I am saying is that the whole board game industry has become one giant smorgasbord of hype, propoganda, and greasy haired pitchmen selling the wide-eyed consumer every single game, irrespective of merit, based on the simple tactics of immersion advertising and the age old tactics of "creating demand" by "engineering consent" in the market.

"If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it? The recent practice of propaganda has proved that it is possible, at least up to a certain point and within certain limits." ~ Edward Bernays

There was once a man named Ed Bernays, who is the true father of modern Public Relations and social engineering. His techniques were unprecedented, and immediately recognized as an incredible methodology to shape public opinion without the public actually realizing they were being manipulated. Some of his techniques were used in advertising, such as his "Torches of Freedom" campaign that manipulated women into equating smoking cigarettes with standing up for equal rights. But, unfortunately, politicians took notice, and one man took his examples so well that he effectively manipulated a society into war and genocide. Dr. Paul Joeseph Goebbels was, in fact,
the man, and the techniques developed back in the 1930s are still in use in politics today by people who wish to manipulate public opinion for their own ends. Now I am not alluding that there is a parallel in the scope of convincing Germans to look the other way while people were being sent to the ovens and what is happening in the board game world other than the same techniques are being used.

"But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought." ~ George Orwell

If you look at the lexicon used by game reviewers, has it not occurred to you that amazingly nebulous and imprecise words such as "elegant", "innovative", "derivative", "immersive", "compelling", and the single worst offender, "interesting", are continually used. But why is that? Is it that these are the only words that are descriptive enough to use in board game reviews? No, it's because it's that people have been conditioned to use the same words repeatedly. In 2001, there were a reported 290,000 words in the English language and a total of almost 700,000 word derivatives, yet the entire board game community can only come up with what amounts to about a dozen adjectives to repeatedly use in their reporting? How is it that such a small handful of meaningless words has developed into what is now, essentially, the primary lexicon with which games are described?

My thoughts on the matter are that when a well known reviewer uses a word, that word slowly burrows into the minds of the group-think that it's a word with power, a word that means something. And to sound more academic or well-rounded, the next guy down the line will start using it. And 10 years later, you can look up virtually any board game review, at random, and will find at least one of these rather imprecise, nebulous words therein. And thus, the continual rattle of meaningless words being used in something written to influence people's behavior, in this case a buying decision, becomes the norm. And these words have come to invoke a conditioned response in the reader, which is the insidious part, since when a person sees a word such as "elegant", which by itself has little meaning, they immediately believe that if they like it, they, too, are smart enough to understand such an elegant product, thus making them elegant as well. Wouldn't you like to be smart and elegant? Of course you would, if you were smart, or elegant. Aren't you smart and elegant enough to understand that?

“It is possible to argue that the really influential book is not that which converts ten millions of casual readers, but rather that which converts the very few who, at any given moment, succeed in seizing power." ~ Aldous Huxley

The latest method in the saddling of humanity with unproven, untested, and otherwise unknown products is the latest Billy Mays of board games, Kickstarter. Gaining  notoriety around a year ago, and originally thought to be a crowdfunding site that allowed outsiders to afford to self-publish products that could compete with the large publishing houses, the publishing houses have taken advantage of the system and now use it as a multi-purpose tool to produce games. Kickstarter campiagns went from a person with an idea pleaing for help with developing a product of their passion to a way to gauge demand, pre-sell product, and get more margin from their initial sales push than going through distribution without pissing off their distributors.

The key technique that is used to shape opinion on a Kickstarter game is threefold. First, the pitchman convinces you that the product is a good idea, and is different and exciting. This is really shown well by Michael Mindes of Tasty Minstrel Games in their campaign for "Kings of Air and Steam". Everything about the video is integral in the pitch and the attempt to convince you that you have to have the game, and without you, they can't make it the way it "deserves" to be made. The words used and the use of the music to set a somber tone indicates that it's a serious matter, and it's crucial that you help them fund the game, because you wouldn't want a sub-par game. But what evidence is there that the game is good, different, or better than the other 100 games you already have?

At an initial buy price of $45.00 USD, is it really a value? The Kickstarter page even adds a note that at $45.00, the game is underpriced by 15%, which is an obvious attempt to use a sales technique called "instilling urgency", which means that if you don't act now, you'll have to pay more later. Note that virtually every Kickstarted game ends up in the hands of distributors, and they almost always are cheaper to buy later then paying a premium to buy in as an early adopter.  In some cases, people actually got Kickstarter-purchased games AFTER those who bought through distribution! So where's the value?

But regarding Air and Steam, it's a wooden cube game that is wholly derivative of other games, has nothing really novel other than the fact that it has a new theme on old mechanics, but is essentially the same as many other wooden cube games. Puerto Rico, Tikal, El Grande, and many others all have similar components, the same mechanics, were priced around the same amount upon release, are selling into the same core market, and none of them required Kickstarter to produce. So, why is it that established publishers use Kickstarter? It's to mitigate the risk to their own pocketbooks in case the game doesn't sell well.

The fact is that publishers want to pass the risk onto the consumer, and by selling you a game that doesn't yet exist and hasn't come under public scrutiny, they don't have to worry about producing a boring or subpar game and not having it sell because in most cases, the pre-sales cover the entire cost of the first edition print run, and since much of that goes direct to consumers, the publishers make far more money per unit sold than they would had they gone the traditional "publisher to distribution to retail" sales channel. For  consumers, it's a terrible deal, but for publishers, it's brilliant.

This is not to pick on TMG or Kings of Air and Steam, because all of the Kickstarters are the same. They plea to the consumer that they require large sums of their cash in order to produce a game that they promise will be spectacular, and they use age-old sales tactics to convince you that you "must act now" or will foolishly piss money away later, when in reality, pissing away money on something that doesn't exist on the promise of a person you've never met is the definition of a "confidence game" in the real world. And every good confidence man has a shill, who benefits in some way from aiding and abetting the confidence man.

The best con men, though, are the ones who can create a shill out of an honest person without the honest person ever knowing they've been used. This is what the internet hype machine lives on; people who attempt to be impartial being wooed into giving positive reviews. Let me ask you this if you doubt me: How many negative previews have you ever seen for a Kickstarted game? Me, I've never seen one, and I go looking. I suspect its because if you're sent a preview copy, you're already predisposed toward liking it as you've asked for it. And if you weren't, why would you be sent a copy in advance? So, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy; there is very, very little hope of getting an impartial game preview of a product that doesn't exist because of these factors.

When you then look to BGG and the internet, you can easily find a legion of reviews, articles about the game, and interviews which all feed into the hype machine that is screaming to you that you have to buy the game. The publishers are willing to take the small risk with spending advert money and marketing time selling the idea to people and raising public awareness, and the avenue which is most widely used these days is through the unregulated and underscrutinized blogisphere.  Bloggers have, largely, not undergone ethics or journalism classes, so you're trusting in the reviewer's good faith alone by taking their word for it.

But, these days, anyone with fingers or a video camera is entering the arena to start doing reviews, and those are the soft targets that are best utilized by the publishers, because they will be the most pliable to the end of selling games by horse trading. Further, the reviewers can always chalk any dissent up to "a matter of taste" or "its an opinion piece, and that's my opinion, " which universally garners them credibility for being so resolute and standing by their opinion even when they're being screamed down by the entire world. It's as if they think that if they simply repeat themselves enough, the people will eventually believe it.

"The most brilliant propagandist technique will yield no success unless one fundamental principle is borne in mind constantly - it must confine itself to a few points and repeat them over and over” ~ Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels

What's worse is that Kickstarter itself has an agenda. This was proven out by the brilliant article by Samantha Murphy who had damning evidence that Kickstarter intentionally hides its failures from public scrutiny (http://mashable.com/2012/06/12/kickstarter-failures/) even in the face of the fact that people could learn what not to do in future campaigns by studying what failed in the past. All of this ties into the propogandism of the game industry, that Kickstarter is a great place to buy into an idea of a game, because there aren't any Kickstarter failures, so therefore they must all be successful products.

I spoke, recently, with a up and coming blogger about this, a guy who I feel is smarter than most, about how publishers try to lean on bloggers: "I have actually gotten into some rows with SOME GUY about obligations to the consumer vs. the publisher because back ... when I was writing my perspective on what games were worth buying vs. not buying based on rulebook reads and I trashed a few that he had issue with. He talked about how much it would suck for that poor first-time publisher if my article ended up tanking the sales of the game, and my response was essentially, “My obligation as a reviewer is to the people who are buying these games, not the the publisher.” He did not like that very much, but I got a better understanding of the basis for that dislike after I discovered that most of the games he argued with me about were games SO AND SO was importing."

This is typical, as publishers tend to pal around at conventions and give extra access to those who review their products and give positive reviews. Fantasy Flight, for instance, publicly trashed and excommunicated both Matt Drake and Michael Barnes for bad-mouthing the company's products, and in one case, the company's lack of editorial oversight on production. Now, unless a blogger has independent wealth or a large capital base, he's not going to be able to buy new games all the time. And any person in the board game world knows that it's virtually impossible to break through the glass ceiling into the upper echelons of reviewers where Matt Drake, Matt Thrower, Michael Barnes, Shannon Appelcline, and Dale Yu reside unless you're writing reviews of current or upcoming games, because the cult of the new demands a constant feed of information or they will abandon your site. In our world, depth is secondary to expediency, and the goal of reading a review is more to reinforce the reader's subconscious desire to be right about a game that they want to buy, not to explore the game from the perspective of critical analysis and explore not if they should buy or not, but why they should buy it.

"It is the emergence of mass media which makes possible the use of propaganda techniques on a societal scale." ~ Jacques Ellul

In reality, the hype apparatus that has developed over the past 15 years, driven by information technology and the proliferation of easy to use interfaces on home computers has had the unfortunate effect of creating an illogical mindset when making buying decisions. The constant stream of programming from television, radio, and the internet has convinced people that the only decision they have is to buy a product, because if they don't, it will be a stain upon their character; a mark of Cain, so to speak. The board game hobby is populated with many who are introverts to begin with, and the whole culture has started to turn into a battle for supremacy in the land of the nerds. In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, right?

MC Frontalot is a prime example of how the culture is changing, as the Nerdcore rap scene embraces its nerdiness and doesn't pretend to be anything other than what it is. Nerdcore Hip Hop not a predictor or shaper of culture, it's a response to the changing culture. Nerds want to fit in, even if that means only fitting in with other nerds. And in every society, be it nerds, jocks, or whatever, there's always the Alpha, the apex predator. Since the hobby of board gaming is, at its core, a highly competitive hobby, it stands to reason that someone will always wish to emerge as that Alpha, and if that means being the one to bring the latest game to Tuesday Game Night, then that's precisely what you'll do, and the publishers understand this all too well.

"All over the place, from the popular culture to the propaganda system, there is constant pressure to make people feel that they are helpless, that the only role they can have is to ratify decisions and to consume." ~ Noam Chomsky

Now, due to this phenomenon, which is partially driven by the consumerist Western culture, one way to leap to the forefront of the herd is to have the latest, greatest shiny, precious thing. I proudly coined the term SHINYPRECIOUS to describe the latest product that is at the current eye of the advertising maelstrom. Thus, it is, in board gaming, a mark of distinction to have had the courage to go out and back a Kickstart project, or to be the first to buy a game. The evidence is everywhere, because there are countless internet threads where people are chomping at the bit to proclaim not only what they're backing, but for how much.

All of this reinforces, in my mind, the idea that the decision to buy a game or not has been taken away from the consumer, provided they have the means. And most astonishingly, for such a smart and resourceful group as board game aficionados are, the only questions that they are asking of their media, the blogisphere, and their advertisers is "if I should or should not" buy a game, which only serves to prove them right or wrong when they go out to look at a game that's in the hype zone. That is simply the wrong question to be asking. The question that all board gamers should be asking themselves, more than any other, when making a buying decision is WHYNot if, or if not, but WHY.

Too often people will buy a game based on a single review from a person who gives almost exclusively positive reviews, and they do it primarily without thinking. They do not ask why, because they're not interested in the basic questions that someone buying a car would ask, instead they generally scroll to the bottom, read a couple of "pro's and con's" lines, maybe a summary, and then pat themselves on the back if the review coincides with their intention to buy the game. Also, unsurprisingly, if you look at any given game in the Board Game Geek database, virtually all entries overwhelmingly positive reviews and very few, if any, truly negative reviews.

The reviews that are negative, however, generally are met with a violent backlash of dissent that customarily dissolves into name calling and personal insults. This is because people in our hobby generally cannot stand to be wrong, even in the face of facts, or if the subject is opinion-based and there is no real right or wrong to be found. Yet people have this inherent need to be heard, and even worse, a need to be right, and this fuels a death spiral of shilling, vast inaccuracies, and the quashing of dissent.

At the end of the day, the whole reviewing and rating system is set up as a carrot-first system, where positive reviews are rewarded by free items, larger GeekGold awards, power, influence, celebrity, and negative reviews are generally rewarded with smaller GeekGold rewards, less influence, and being attacked by proponents of the game as well as the publisher. One of the most critical reviews I ever wrote ended up with a pissing match between the publisher and the designer to determine who could passive-aggressively mock me the best. So, the impetus is to only write positive reviews to reinforce the idea that all games are fun for someone, so by extension, all games must have some good qualities and, finally, all games must be good, if you're enlightened, elegant, or smart enough to appreciate their elegant, innovative, and interesting designs.

Thus, there is a neverending parroting of the same overused words, the same praise for mediocre products, the same lack of any real semblance of scrutiny on games for fear of being ostracized, cut out of the loop, banned from internet sites, or the worst possible consequence for a critic, to be made irrelevant. As long as the persistent cornucopia of praise is heaped on mediocrity, the masses will be led to believe that mediocrity is the new "great", and something truly novel, such as deckbuilding, becomes "stellar" and spawns hundreds of mediocre clones, endlessly, until the new "thing" emerges from the ashes of the truly average. Until we, as consumers, stop to ask the important questions of "WHY" and stop believing that your worth or credibility is based solely upon how many Kickstarter projects you've  backed, or how many games on the "Hotness" you own.

So, while we may not want to actually read real criticism, I am forced to submit that we need it now more than ever, as the hype apparatus has been developed to devour any shred of willpower or self control that we might have. The pitchmen have honed their marketing skills, used psychological tricks, have manipulated the willing press, and have developed intricate networks for the sole purpose of selling you mediocre products under the guise of the "next big thing" for years, and the only thing to stop them is the single precious gift that God granted man, the ability to reason. To see through the hype and not ask "if or if not", but why.

Until we, as readers and consumers, stop simply begging to be agreed with so we can feel empowered and righteous in our judgement and start requiring the media to scrutinize the products they peddle by proxy, we will always be slaves to the hype machine. They are simply better at selling than we are at buying, and it's been so since the world at large developed the science of psychology to the point that it could be used to manipulate people into being controlled into mindless consumers. When a game like Earth Reborn is on the Tanga deathwatch along side Hotel Samoa, the gaming world is in a state of crisis.

At the end of the day, the overarching question isn't whether George Orwell or Aldous Huxley was right about our subjugation, because it's clear that both of them were influenced by the same man, Ed Bernays, who ultimately proved that free men can be made willing slaves, provided the right marketing is in place. The fact that CCG games have ever been allowed to exist, and thrive, proves that people have ceded the power of choice to publishers, and will spend money foolishly if you can convince them that they absolutely have to have a whole set, otherwise they're robbing themselves of the full experience. They never demand that the publisher sell complete sets, never ask if the game is even good enough to buy more than a few packs in the first place. Just that they must collect the entire set. Not because you require a Gonk power droid or a useless promo that adds absolutely nothing to the game, simply because it exists.

It's not whether Orwell's bludgeons or Huxley's distractions would be the ultimate tool to manipulate us, rather it's that neither are required since we have been utterly convinced not only to buy a neverending supply of mediocrity, at a premium price, BUT THAT DOING SO WAS OUR IDEA.