I would like to elaborate on the issue of multiple gameplay modes. On the one hand, I adore it when a game can successfully parlay its engine to accommodate different genres of game–in this case, Grimslingers can be a 1-on-1 dueling game, a mulyiplayer battle game, and a narrative co-op campaign. That’s great, added value based on who happens to be sitting around your table.
When the design gets a bit unfocused in terms of sheer options, though, that be to a game’s detriment. I think Grimslingers does a reasonably good job of informing the player how to manage the chaos–it says items are a tad unbalancing but add spice, quickdraw is helpful in multiplayer, etc.–but there’s still room for more clarity. I personally would have said base duels are primarily for learning, use advanced duels with 1 spell a turn thereafter, quickdraw for multiplayer with teams preferred, etc. Perhaps someone with different tastes would say differently, but when there’s a little editorial guidance you can at least be confident that you’re more likely to avoid disappointing (and unrepresentative) first plays.
I love Level 99 Games, but they have routinely let me down in this area. The recommended “first play” setups for both Millennium Blades and Argent: The Consortium seem terribly subpar, and they serve mainly to show the games at their near-worst. Random setups have served me far better in Millennium Blades, and as for Argent there are equally (or more) accessible setups for new players that show the game’s strengths far better. I mean, how likely is it that a gamer wants a heavyish game like Argent but can’t handle a teeny bit of grit in the room setup? Or a game like Millennium Blades but is scared away by card interactions?
One of the best games ever designed, Imperial (and its sequel, Imperial 2030), shows a little of this problem as well. Whether to play with the Investor card (and, relatedly, whether and when to play with the advanced setup rules) is a matter of near-doctrinal dispute. Sometimes it seems as though people are talking about entirely different games merely because they favour different sets of options.
And that’s even before we get into the issue of house rules…
There was a lot more I would have liked to address in depth, but I have been rightly accused of trying to turn every review into a survey of an entire subgenre. I did that a bit, but the general idea of what I call “openness” in conflict games is far broader.
One issue is when the fights actually take place. I have developed a strong preference for games that allow for a more flexible take on battle resolution. For example, in a game like Cry Havoc, the region is locked once a fight starts and is resolved later. A little more open is something like Eclipse, where there is some notion of pinning to limit your mobility, but you can still move into or out of the area before the battle starts. Honestly the fixed nature of combat timing and how closed the map can get are the things I dislike the most about Eclipse, despite the fact that I love the game (I always have to warn new players: don’t ally with all your neighbors, or you’ll end up entirely trapped by the game’s topography).
In a game like Chaos in the Old World, there is no pinning but the battle still happens at a fixed time. One of the ways in which I feel Cthulhu Wars improves on its obvious inspiration is that starting the fight is a player action, allowing for more freedom to nudge fights to your advantage as well as freeing up the tempo. This approach is also seen in Blood Rage; the quantity and frequency of battles is entirely up to the players, rather than fixed at a set number of rounds.
Relatedly, there’s a similar way in which I felt Eldritch Horror improved on Arkham Horror; rather than having a movement phase, you just make movement an action. This is a comparable design advance, turning what could be a fixed turn structure into a more fluid and choice-driven menu of actions.
All that said, sometimes there’s nothing wrong–or it might even be preferable–to have fights start the instant two hostile forces are in the same space. Kemet and Successors, as example, work precisely that way. There’s plenty of dynamism to be had in that model, too. It’s not always feasible, though–it depends a lot on how movement works, how control is understood, and other considerations of tempo.
And if you can’t have fights resolved the instant they start, all things being equal I’d rather the players be able to choose, rather than turn structure.
I was fortunate enough to emerge from GenCon with a copy of SeaFall.
The review is free of the justifiably-loathed spoilers–I don’t think they are necessary to critique the game.
There are some issues I didn’t have time to address. Most pointedly, I think, is what I will call the “Babylon 5 Problem”–namely, how much time will you allow something to be bad before it gets good? Most everyone acknowledges the unfortunate truth that B5’s first season is very weak, but there are those–like myself–that think that subsequent seasons more than make up for it. Part of the reason why we’re willing to forgive the initial tedium of the early episodes is that some of them pay off in later (better) episodes. The other part is that, personally, 20% weak for 80% excellent is a price I’m willing to pay in television.
This isn’t a spoiler for SeaFall, but it is a spoiler for my review–SeaFall is far, far short of a reasonable ratio of weak to excellent. For one, I felt that the payoff was uninspired and far too brief when compared to the very long setup. Besides, once the good stuff gets going it’s just a drop in the now bloated bucket of tacked-on mechanisms and modifiers.
Will some people feel that their investment of time and energy was worth it? I’m certain. Putting aside their wrongess, though, even at the end I would much rather have played something else.