April 17, 2015

The Not-So-Quarterly Report

Phew! Spring is getting underway here in Michigan, which means the grill has been dragged out of the dungeon garage and we are all finally able to walk outside without fear of falling ice, jackets, avalanches, and little slippery spots on the sidwalks. But you all have questions: What about the blog?! What about the games?! What are are you doing there behind the curtain? Watch in awe as I interview myself:

Alter Ego: This IS still a blog that talks about boardgames right? 

Oliver: Yes, yes, yes. My boardgaming has, as previously mentioned, taken a bit of a backseat this past year - a situation I hope to remedy soon. That said, it hasn't been all devoid of activity in this arena. My wife and I have been playing an awful lot of Backgammon over a pint throughout these past few months. Backgammon is one of those great pastime games. While no doubt it can be thinky and cut-throat, and brutal, it's also quite relaxing to chuck the dice and move your pieces about the board. 

Backgammon a great risk management game, that works in a sort of paradoxically backward feeling way. Taking risks, which usually means leaving a single (capture-able) piece in its own stack, also affords greater flexibility as the more spread out your pieces are the more potential ways you have to use your die results. "Playing it safe" is often the more risky move because you can work yourself into a corner that requires specific die rolls to get you out. So it's an interesting balance between order and chaos, and I like the unspoken tacit agreements between players about how chaotic or not you are willing to let a particular session go. It's fun.

I've also been playing a fair amount of King of Tokyo with my now 4-year hold. We actually manage to play the mostly correct and to it's conclusion (although usually we only play to 10 victory points because of a thing called bedtime). She has a soft spot in her heart for Mecha-Dragon, and I of course "have" to chose The Kraken every ... single ... time ... but that's okay with me. Everyone loves a good Kraken.

Beyond the above, I've managed a few games of Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers, which is truthfully one of my favorite games. I wrote about it while ago here. Then there's the obligatory evening sessions of Emu Ranchers

Alter Ego: I've heard that you've designed boardgames. Up to any new design projects?

Oliver: As a matter of fact, I have been kicking this ball around a little more. An interesting thread in the Hegemonic forums prompted me to spill the beans that my current secret project is an expansion for Hegemonic. Nothing official has been discussed as far as making this a produced product, and I am in the early stages of prototyping. As things develop and a I get a better draft of materials put together, I'll likely send out a "who wants to PnP-Playtest this thing?!" type of message into the ether. 

As far as what the expansion is trying to accomplish; it's tricky. On one hand, there were a bunch of ideas on the cutting room floor that were pulled out from the original design that would be interesting to see they could be woven back in. For example, the idea of building up "industry" opening up some sort of real trade-opportunities for players. The expansion is also an opportunity to revisit some of the existing mechanics and tweak things based on now a fair amount of feedback from players and critics and alike. There are some balance improvements that I'm tinkering with for example. Last - I've always wanted to add a solo mode to the game design and wrap it around, perhaps, a new victory condition based on the idea of Transcendence. We'll see ...

To give an example of one feature I'm developing is an addition to the exploration mechanics that add a special location token to tiles as they are added to the board, based on the player choosing a type of token to place. These tokens are up for grabs for anyone, and can provide a range of different abilities or effects when used. Sets can be collected and used for VP's (perhaps) as well, but more importantly players' industrial power gives them the ability to make trade requests (or force or block trade deals) of these resources. 

I seems that solo gaming is really taking off in recent times, and I'd love to work out a solo-rule set for Hegemonic. I've always thought the "AI Robot" in Race for the Galaxy was a stroke of genius, and I'd like to follow in those vootsteps and develop something similar. I somewhat obsessed with the idea of making an empire building game where as you build up your empire towards ultimate transcendence, there is some external threat that is growing stronger and stronger. The player is then in a race against the clock to achieve some challenging goal before they get overwhelmed by superior force, and have to constantly chose between investing in the goal versus investing in keeping the threat at bay to buy them time. If I could work this concept into Hegemonic, I think it could be pretty awesome.

Recently, I posted live and open links to the Emissary files (cards with the space theme) in hopes of drumming up more feedback. I'm also trying to decide what to do with the game. I really like it as is, and don't want to mess with it too much beyond smoothing out a few rough parts. But then what? Do I try to pitch it? Minion Games might be interested in it as a spin-off to Hegemonic. Alternatively, I might try to run a very small kickstarter and test the waters there. But that's a lot of work, and I'm not sure if I want to take that plunge.

Alter Ego: What's this I hear about "Explorminate?"

Oliver: Ahh, I was hoping that I would ask myself that question!

Explorminate is a newish website bringing you "4X News from 4X Fans," and of course we're talking about 4X video games now. You know, the Civilizations, Master of Orionses, and Master of Magicses of the world. Anyway, it's a great group and a quickly growing community that is focused in on the 4X game genre.

I've also started doing some writing for them, with the first contribution being a review of Triumph Studio's Age of Wonders III: Eternal Lords expansion. If you don't know, I've raved about Age of Wonders III in the past, and it has remained my most played videogame in the past many years. The new Eternal Lords expansion was just released and is the second expansion for the game. The game really just keeps getting better and better, and I'm completely smitten with it. If you have any interest in 4X games (particularly one focused on warfare and having the best tactical combat system of any 4X game ever) - then you really need to check out Age of Wonders III. It's also on sale on steam right now ... 

Alter Ego: ... Ahh! See! I knew you were trying to turn this blog into a 4X game blog! Seriously, spill the beans. Come out with the truth. How many 4X games have you been playing lately!?

Oliver: Yes, it's true - I'm succumbing to the dark side. Let me lay it out ...

This is a great time be interested in the 4X games, with so many recently or soon to be released titles in the mix. Take a look at this Known 4X-like database I've been putting together from various sources for a gander. Quite a bit going on.

Star Drive 2 and Star Ruler 2 are two of the newest, with the former perhaps best viewed as a modern take on the Master of Orion formula and the latter a more innovative departure from the typical formula. Star Ruler 2 has an interesting "connect the dots" system of empire building, coupled with a clever card driven diplomatic mini-game. I'm really just getting my feet wet with both titles, but the are each compelling in their own way.

That said, I still have a lot of frustrations with the genre. A recent podcast from Three Moves Ahead on 4X games raised a number of issues with the genre and tried to tease apart why so few games seem to be moving the ball forward. On one hand, the audience for 4X games so often clamors "we want an updated Master of Orion!" (see Star Drive 2 or Starbase Orion), and this backwards looking drive keeps the genre in a sort of stasis. 

On the other hand there are some developers trying to push the edge and do something different. The Three Moves Ahead fellows talked about the dominant paradigm of 4X games being on of colonialism - it's all about expanding under the auspice of manifest destiny. Well, what does or could a post-colonialism 4X game look like? What about changing the role of the player from omnipotent overlord to a person with only so much time in the day to get things done (ala King of Dragon Pass)? 

I have my own far more detailed thoughts on the matter, that all points towards a hypothetical game I'd like to make. Look for that soon!

Star Drive 2:

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