Geekily Great Game

February 18, 2009

(Creative Commons Licensed image from brookscl’s Flickr stream)

Since Christmas my friends and I have spend an inordinate amount of time playing a wonderful little card based space ‘board’ game.  Race for the Galaxy involves building your little corner of space out of a series of cards that represent planets and social or scientific technologies.  It has a wonderful mechanic that allows players to choose which of five actions (exploring for more cards, developing a technology, settling a planet, and so on) they want to enact that turn, without any knowledge of what the other players are going to choose.

Unlike most other games we play (Settlers of Catan, Alhambra, the terrifyingly complex and wonderful Twilight Imperium), Race for the Galaxy takes a maximum of 45 minutes and can be played with two players. The number of players matters very little because, unlike most other games, RftG is essentially played alone.  Each player settles their section of the galaxy without any interaction with the other players, excepting the selection of actions.  This might appear, on the surface, to make for a fairly lonely game.  But somehow, by the brilliance of Tom Lehmann, it doesn’t feel lonely.

To link back to the title of this post, it might be because of the wonderfully geeky artwork and galactic ‘story.’  The game features a number of different types of worlds, technologies, and other miscellaneously storied cards (such as the Galactic Trendsetters, who appear to be the stereotypical parent’s-basement-geek’s idea of super-hot clubbers, featured in the bottom middle of the six cards linked above) that allow for some semblance of narrative to develop.  In our more boisterous games (generally the first in a series of three or four back-to-back games), we all tell stories of our empires and how they came to be.  And here I’ll stop, as I’ve just revealed the true extent of my geekiness for the whole of the internet to see.

Anyhoo, ignoring the previous paragraph, I highly recommend checking out Race for the Galaxy.  If you can either a. get into the geeky art and world it creates or b. ignore it, it’s a wonderfully put together game that is actually remarkably simple, once you get through the seemingly complicated mechanic of production and consumption, and learn all the cards.

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EVE’s Legends in the Making

February 13, 2009

(CC Licenced image from Psycho Al’s Flickr stream)

The last few days the internet has been all abuzz with news of the big Band of Brothers upset in EVE Online.  I love this kind of thing far more than tales of an elaborate raid in World of Warcraft (even those that inspire some sort of not-so-game related story, such as the famous Leeroy Jenkins incident).

A super brief summary, from my fifth-hand knowledge perspective: huge alliance of players that controls some of the most profitable space in EVE is disbanded by the hand of a single player, and said disbanded alliance now scrabbles for the upper hand as all of their (numerous) enemies rush in to rip them apart.  This is the stuff of legends, in a way that the horribly clichéd fantasy storylines of WoW never could be.  Seriously, grassroots storytelling at its best.

This is why EVE looks awesome, despite my having little to no knowledge of its actual gameplay.

The best writeup of this whole event is over at BoingBoing affiliate Offworld with Jim Rossignol’s latest Ragdoll Metaphysics column: Good Grief, the Victory of Eve’s Space Goons.  Highly worth reading.

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Complexity and User Generated Stories

February 12, 2009

Some months ago I spent an inordinate amount of time playing Sim City 4. This game is a wonder of OCD micromanagement, with every second spent poring over tiny tax increments, the specific funding of your passenger rail station, and exactly how much money to put into each of your twelve hospitals.

I loved it not in spite of this micromanagerial aspect, but because of it.  It absorbs every tiny mote of brainpower that your head produces with a bajillion tasks to constantly consider.  According to the wikipedia entry on SC4, this complexity was a major issue with many – not least EA who published SimCity Societies in 2007 (which was widely reviled for being too simple and generally terrible).

While I think this path of game development is sad and often leads to terrible mistakes, I understand the need to move away from absurdly complex games to attract a broader market.  These companies need to make money, and don’t believe that they will with frighteningly difficult games.  The resounding success of the Wii is a perfect example of the intelligence in pursuing the casual games market.

However, this approach to publishing (whether it be books or games or movies) leads to tragedies like the cancellation of Arrested Development.  Arrested Development was deemed too complex and innaccessible for new viewers (which it often was – when I worked at a video store I refused to let people rent the second season without having seen the first), and was cancelled.  And moved around, and cancelled again.

And now I’m completely off-track.  It’s far too easy to get me on an AD rant – I feel like the survivor of a tragedy, my mind recalled to the shock-inducing horror through any slightly related subject (there I go again, woefully belittling the survivors of tragedies).  I like complex things (sometimes – my recent obsession with Heroes, which really only very surficially pretends to be a complex thing, doesn’t exactly demonstrate this).  This is why I’ve recently become attracted to two games: Dwarf Fortress and EVE Online.

Both of these games are absurdly complex.  I haven’t played EVE yet, but it seems to  have all the complexity of real life human relationships (without the usual dumbed-down MMORPG aspects).  Dwarf Fortress has possibly the most insanely difficult learning curve I’ve ever encountered, but this is possibly mirrored by an inverse and as steep satisfaction curve, eventually joining up with some understanding of the game and an unparalleled level of satisfaction.  One thing that joins these three games, Sim City 4, Dwarf Fortress, and EVE Online, beyond their complexity and learning curves, is the lack of any official, designated story.  The game presents you with a world, and allows you a fairly huge amount of space in which to carve out your own tale.

I saw Will Wright (the creator behind Sim City, the Sims, and the recent Spore) speaking here in Vancouver in the summer about exactly this.  He talked about how he loves seeing the narrative his players create, with elaborate life stories told entirely within The Sims.  I later found out he supports the Republicans, so I was forced to discount everything he said.

Regardless of Will Wright’s political affiliations, these games all do share this broad sense of user-generated narrative.  They avoid one of the chief issues that has plagued games since the dawn of Pong – terrible stories, and worse writing.  Some games have gotten this right and nailed down a great story, or been filled with delightful prose that brings the world to life, but most have fallen atrociously short.  If a game allows its users to create their own stories – whether through the game itself or in interactions with other players, and if it does it right (as Sim City 4 does, at times), it can be the medium for many brilliant things.

Now, as this post has wandered completely off topic several times, I’ll end it.  Next time: more on my attempts to figure what the hell is going on with Dwarf Fortress, and why EVE looks so appealing (regardless of its comparison to a 3D spreadsheet simulator).

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