Archive for October, 2011

Guest Post from David Farland: The Role of Enhanced Books in the Future of Publishing

Friday, October 28th, 2011

David Farland, bestselling author of the Runelords series and others, is a good friend and a brilliant business-minded writer. He has a new book coming soon called Nightingale, and I’m happy to help promote it with a guest post today. Take it away, Dave!

Right now, the publishing world is in turmoil. People are buying electronic books in huge numbers. In fact, it appears that as of today, more than fifty percent of all sales are electronic. This puts traditional paper book publishers in a bind. You see, most books earn only a modest profit. But if paper books are shipped to bookstores and then returned, they get destroyed, and thus don’t make any money at all. In fact, the publisher then goes into the hole on every book he publishes.

The losses right now are so large in the industry, that as one agent put it, “Nobody in New York wants to be in this business right now.” That’s why bookstore chains like Borders and major distributors like Anderson News have gone bankrupt.

So where do the publishers make up for those losses? By selling electronic books for the Kindle, Nook, iPad and similar devices. The problem is, so many electronic books will come out in the next year, according to Bowker’s Identifier Services (the guys who make the ISBNs that you see on the back of a book), that the market will be flooded with over three million new books.

Why? Because authors who couldn’t find agents or publishers last year are self-publishing their novels this year. I was talking to a bestseller last night who groused that in the past week, he’d run into three different “authors,” none of whom had sold more than fifty books, all of whom were self-published.

That creates a problem for readers. It means that we now have to try to figure out which of those novels are worth buying and reading and which should never have been published in the first place.

Some of those novels may look good on the outside. They might have cover quotes from the author’s friends. They might have gorgeous illustrations. But inside, maybe halfway through a book, you might find that the story falls apart.

In fact, a lot of criminals are out there right now trying to sell e-books which Tracy Hickman has labeled “Frankensteins.” These are novels stolen from bits of other novels and cobbled together in a way to look like a legitimate book. The “author” hopes to steal a couple of dollars from unwary readers. Sure, it’s not a lot of money, but in some countries, like Nigeria, a few dollars goes a long way. If there are no laws against it (and in some countries there aren’t), the thief doesn’t even have to worry about getting punished.

How are we going to combat crummy novels? How are we going to get past the Frankensteins? Ten years ago we had gatekeepers in the industry—literary agents and editors—who made sure that only the best novels got published. It’s true that the system was flawed, but at least there was a system.

So who are our new gatekeepers going to be?

The truth is that there will be new kinds of publishers. Right now, I’m starting a company with my partner Mile Romney, called East India Press. We’re going to published “enhanced novels.”

Enhanced books are text files, like regular books, but they also combine elements like film clips, music, video games, author interviews, audio files, illustrations, and animations. They’re part book, part movie, part game, perhaps. These books are then then sold electronically to be read on your iPad, phone, computer, and so on.

Are enhanced books the real future of publishing? There is good reason to think so. You see, making a beautiful book in this market will cost tens of thousands of dollars. That’s a bar to most wannabe authors. So money alone will limit the competition.

These new publishers will still have to establish their own credibility. They’ll have to select great books, create superior products, and develop a “brand” presence. In other words, you’ll want to read the books because of who the publisher is and what they represent.

A hundred years ago, that’s the way that books were bought in the first place. If you went to the bookstore, the books were ordered by publisher. You might pick through the piles and find that a certain editor liked the same kind of “science fictional stories” that you did, and that became the place that you visited over and over again.

There will be other ways to judge a book. It might come from an author with a long list of awards, or great cover quotes from independent review agencies, or maybe the fact that the book is a bestseller will give it a lot of credibility.

So I expect enhanced books to become the dominant art form for novels in the next two years, replacing and outselling simple e-books on the bestseller lists, and even outselling hardbacks and paperbacks within a couple of years. As my agent, Russell Galen put it, “Enhanced books are the entire future of publishing.”

Now, I’ve published some fifty books in science fiction and fantasy. I’ve won a number of awards and my books have been translated into thirty languages. I worked for years as the lead judge for one of the largest writing contest in the world. I’ve trained authors like Brandon Mull, Brandon Sanderson, and Stephenie Meyer who have gone on to become #1 international bestsellers.

So I know books. I know a good story when I see one, and I know how to fix a story when it needs fixing. Given this, and my own background as a novelist, videogame designer, and movie producer, it seemed like starting a new type of publishing company was a must.

In fact, I believe in this new medium so much, I’m even putting out my next novel through this publishing company. It’s called Nightingale, and tells the story of Bron Jones, a young man abandoned at birth and raised in foster care. He discovers that he’s not quite human, and suddenly finds himself at the center of international intrigue.

This is a model for the new publishing industry. I think it’s a great book, and I could have sold it through normal channels. But this is the best way to go. So we’re offering the book on our site at You can buy it on November 4 in hard cover, for your e-reader, or in enhanced mode for the more advanced e-readers, or we even have an emulator so that you can run it in enhanced mode on any computer. It also has a forty-five minute soundtrack, lots of art, optional notes from the author and other features. In the future we may add a game or trailers. I believe this is the way books–good books–will be done in the future. I invite you to check it out, and check out our new company, East India Press.
If you’re a writer, look into our short story writing contest while you’re there. You could win $1000. You can find out about more about the East India Press or the writing contest at

I’ve been getting into Warmachine

Wednesday, October 26th, 2011

Yes, I know, two game-related posts in one the same week. I’ll make it up to you on Friday with a guest post from David Farland, featuring: doom and gloom about the publishing world. It’s actually a really fascinating experiment he’s starting, and I’m interested to see how it plays out. If anyone knows enough about publishing to make it work, it’s Dave.

So anyway, remember a few weeks ago when I posted about cutting back on the number of games I buy? That same effing night Howard Tayler invited me over to try Warmachine, a tabletop miniatures game similar to Warhammer and…other tabletop miniatures games. There’s honestly not much sense comparing it to something, because you either know what I’m talking about or you don’t. If you do, good, we’ll get to you in a minute. If you don’t, here’s the basics: you have a bunch of toy soldiers that act as game pieces, and instead of playing on a board you play on a table dressed up to look like a battlefield, stretching anywhere from “pieces of cardboard that say ‘forest’ on them” to “fully-pimped model train-style scenery.” Your soldiers can move a certain number of inches, shoot a certain number of inches, and so on. It’s arguably one of the oldest forms of boardgaming–it’s like Chess without all the layers of abstraction–and I used to be really big into it. As I sit here in my office, not six feet from me are two huge plastic bins full of all the old models and terrain I used to play with all the time; specifically, if you’re interested, Space Wolves, Dark Eldar, and Warhammer Fantasy Dark Elves. I’ve got a lot of stuff. And pretty much the day my oldest child learned to walk, I put it all away and left it. I’ve moved it three times as we’ve changed houses, but I’ve never actually used it. I don’t know what that says about me.

That’s actually the reason I got into HeroClix, which happened to debut right about the same time my daughter’s mobility did. Expensive metal models that I had painstakingly assembled and painted–and the paints that accompanied them–were too dangerous to have lying around where my daughter could break them, but HeroClix models are pliable, pre-painted plastic. Heroclix also had the benefit of using smaller armies and shorter games, which made the time investment much easier for a new father to deal with. In light of all that, it seems kind of weird that now, ten years and four kids later, I’d be getting back into the modelling aspect of the hobby, but what can I say? By the time you have five kids you either know what you’re doing or you’re wanted for murder–five kids are WAY easier than one, because you’re going into it with four kids’ worth of practice. Add in the fact that I’m self-employed in a job I love, so I have more time and less stress and a more established routine over which I have more control, and there you go. I started to feel the tabletop wargaming itch on my book tour last Spring, and Howard dealt the killing blow to my reticence with a quick game in his living room two weeks ago. I bought an army just a few days later and began putting it together.

Warmachine, specifically, is kind of a steampunk skirmish game; you have fewer models than in a Warhammer army, and they have more special powers. It actually plays kind of like Herocix in that sense, but with the focus shifted from action economy to action planning. If that makes any sense. Your team is centered around a warcaster, who channels magic into both spells and warjacks, which are giant, steam-powered robots. You can add in other little units as well, like infantry and cavalry and monsters and so on. Having spent copious amounts of time poring over the different kingdoms and factions, I eventually settled on my first instinct, which was the empire of Khador, a kind of czarist Russian-inspired army full of stern Kommanders and grizzled woodsmen and big, burly warjacks heavily reminiscent of early Soviet tanks. In case you’re curious, my starting army box (the new two-player starter, which I split with my brother) included:

Kommander Sorscha, who can cast some cool freezing spells.
A warjack called a Juggernaught, which is kind of like a walking brick with an axe.
A warjack called a Destroyer, which is like a Juggernaught with a cannon.
A heavy infantry unit called Man-o-War Shocktroopers, who are kind of like men wearing mini-warjack suits. They also have the most ridiculous weapon I’ve ever seen, which is a snub-nosed cannon mounted on the front of a shield. I can suspend my disbelief for steam-powered magic robots, but a shield-mounted cannon aproximately as long as it is wide just makes me laugh and laugh and laugh.

This force I supplemented with a few extra units designed to fill out the “grizzled woodsmen” element of the army:

Widowmakers, a small, mobile unit of expert snipers.
Kossite Woodsmen, a unit of extremely light infantry with almost makeshift weapons, but with the ability to sneak in from any edge of the map and ambush the enemy from behind. They’re the ultimate example of “this is our spooky, inhospitable forest, and we want you out of it.”
Yuri the Axe, a solo character who’s like a Kossite Woodsman amped up on “living alone in the wilderness and fighting bears for food.”
A Wardog, which is just a heavily armored mastiff who tries to murder anyone who gets too close to your warcaster. I got him mostly because he looks like my dog, an English Bulldog named Charlie, and the thought of Charlie tearing up my enemies on the battlefield was too awesome to pass up.

So that’s what I’ve got. I put them all together, added some texture to the bases, and am now slowly priming them in preparation for painting. I also modified the Destroyer model a bit, lengthening the stubby little barrel into something more approaching a traditional tank gun. I’ll probably keep you updated on my progress, including pictures once I have something worth showing.

Game Review: Conquest of Nerath

Tuesday, October 25th, 2011

Short version: This the game I’ve been waiting for all my life, and it’s awesome.

Long version: I grew up playing wargames, starting with the classics of Risk and Axis & Allies. I played them every chance I got, and devoured each new mutation of the concept; Castle Risk, Fortress America, Samurai Swords, and more. Anything that had a sprawling map, little plastic soldiers, cool powers, and endless strategy would eventually end up on my kitchen table. The pinnacle of this gaming genre, for me, was Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, a massive game with hordes of pieces and reams of special rules spanning the entire inner solar system. The board mapped out not only each planet but their orbits, and part of the strategy was to time your space fleets such that you could attack easily from one planet to another; attack too late, and instead of raining fiery death upon your enemies you’d end up chasing them desperately while their planet rotated harmlessly away from you.

As I grew older I searched for more games that could capture this thrill I felt as a kid. I wanted a game where you could raise an army, control territory, and balance different units’ strengths and weaknesses to create a brilliant strategy. The endless variants of Risk inevitably wore out their welcome–it’s a fun “entry level” wargame, but you can only play it so many times before it’s flaws become too glaring to handle. The trickle of Axis & Allies variants were better, and in some cases brilliant, but their dedication to historical recreation made them too focused for my purposes. I wanted something endlessly variable, not scenario-based. I tried Twilight Imperium and liked a lot of what it did, but I always felt like the game ended right when it got interesting. Runewars is an improvement, but suffers from the same problem. Age of Conan is great, but doesn’t have nearly as much combat as a true wargames should have; I still play it, but it sates other interests, and my search for a perfect wargame continues. War of the Ring has the best combination of flavor and game of anyone the wargames I tried, but it’s only two players (or four, if teams share armies) and I wanted something bigger.

And then I found Conquest of Nerath. Wizards of the Coast, the company that makes D&D and Magic: The Gathering, decided a year or two ago to branch the D&D license into board games, starting with dungeon games like Castle Ravenloft, which I love. That gave me high hopes for Conquest of Nerath, and somehow the game managed to exceed these expectations. Here’s a brief description: the board is a big map of a fantasy world, split into two continents with a central sea and a large island in the middle. There are four kingdoms, each with a variety of cool units (soldiers, wizards, dragons, monsters, etc.) and a deck of personalized cards to help each kingdom feel and play different from the others.

Simply put, this game has everything I’ve ever wanted in a wargame. Starting placement is fixed, so you get thrown into the action immediately–no “five turns to build up your army before you start fighting” like in Twilight Imperium–and yet the actual gameplay can branch off in any number of directions from there, so you don’t feel locked into a scenario like in Axis & Allies. As you conquer you earn money, which you can spend on new units and castles, and the units all have different strengths and weaknesses so you can customize your forces for different situations and strategies. There are air and naval battles, and simple yet effective ways (and tactically important reasons) to transport troops across the water. The decks of cards make each faction unique, and offer a lot of flavor and replayability. There are even heroes and quests and dungeons, which a lot of other wargames have attempted (most notably Runewars and Age of Conan), but Conquest of Nerath manages to integrate them effortlessly into the battle system, bringing new strategies (and cool treasure) into the game. It succeeds through brilliant simplicity where most other games have failed by trying too hard.

There are even multiple ways to win, based on your preferences and how much time you want to spend; the basic game gives you a victory point each time you conquer a territory, allowing you to play a short, medium, or long game simply by adjusting the victory point goal. My group’s preferred method is to win by conquering enemy capitals, which takes longer but encourages a more solid balance of attack and defense. You can play a satisfying short game in about 90 minutes–a miracle in the wargame world–or you can fill an evening with hearty long game if that’s your preference.

My one and only complaint about the game is its 4-player cap; the game is so fun that I’d love to be able to play it with more of my friends at once, but there’s simply no way to add more, even with an expansion. If the worst I can say about a game is that I wish I could play it with more people, that should tell you something. I’ll take my recommendation one step further: Conquest of Nerath is the single best addition to my game collection in years. It’s simple yet deep, exciting and flavorful, and the culmination of a lifelong quest to scratch exactly the right gaming itch. If you like this style of game, you will love Conquest of

Writing the Future

Wednesday, October 19th, 2011

I invented CDs when I was 12.

To be fair, CD technology already existed before that, even if it wasn’t very common, and it’s not like I invented a working prototype or anything. What I did do was play a lot of roleplaying games.

Stay with me here.

I played a ton of roleplaying games as a kid (and still do). I didn’t get into Dungeons & Dragons until college, but I played other, similar games with all sorts of themes and settings, mostly science fiction. In one of them, there was an adventure supplement detailing a force of self-replicating killer robots, which I loved because I’d just read Fred Saberhagen’s Berserker series, so I dove in and started making up all kinds of stories about them.

In one such story I wanted the heroes to find a message that one robot had left for another, and I knew it couldn’t just be a piece of paper–these were robots, they needed appropriately robotic forms of writing. Never mind that the more practical way for robots to communicate would be wireless transmission; I needed a physical note, so I started to think about what kind of a note a robot would leave. They had incredible sensors and optical magnifiers, so they could see letters that were very small, and they had powerful lasers so they could write on anything, and with incredible precision. What if, instead of paper, they wrote on sheets of metal or plastic, and in letters so small that they couldn’t be discerned with the naked eye–so small, in fact, that they would be perceived not as individual letters but as a reflective sheen on the surface of the metal? A human would see it as just a shiny disk, but a machine could read entire libraries stored on it.

Kind of like this.

Sure, I got some details wrong–my disks didn’t spin, and they stored the information differently–but that’s not the point. The point is that science fiction presaged real technology. This is not a rare thing: science fiction writers have been creating the future since the beginning of the genre. Remember Captain Kirk’s communicator? Early cell phone engineers have essentially admitted to basing the flip phone on that design; science fiction created it, and the real world copied it. In this case, the real world has progressed so far that our cool science fiction ideas now seem outdated–flip phones are practically quaint these days.

How about our vocabulary? The website io9 recently did a short post on common scientific terms that originated in science fiction, and a lot of them are downright shocking. Have you ever had a computer virus? You can thank Dave Gerrold for the term, coined in a short story in 1972. How about robotics? Isaac Asimov, 1941. Genetic engineering? Jack Williamson, also 1941. It was a good year for speculative fiction.

We live in a time where the real world is catching up to science fiction, making the imaginary real at an ever-increasing rate. In Dick Tracy, 80 years ago, Chester Gould posited the two-way wrist radio, eventually followed by full visual communication in the two-way wrist TV; today we have pocket computers so powerful, and so connected, we can do all of this and more. In Ender’s Game, 26 years ago, Orson Scott Card predicted a world where politics and social change were played out in a vast web of computer-based essays; today we have blogs and websites so vital to our culture they’ve basically replaced traditional newspapers. In The Social Network, a mere one year ago, Aaron Sorkin wrote about a world where millions of people connect in a virtual space–and it was nonfiction. We’re catching up to our science fictional future, and we’re surpassing it.

Entire books could be written, and many have been, on the impact our science fiction has on our reality. I’m more interested in the process than the effect–the creation of new ideas, new fields of study, and new fictional concepts that will become tomorrow’s science. Isaac Asimov was thinking so far ahead of his time, he named an entire branch of now-common engineering. Who’s doing that now? Who’s extrapolating our current technology so ambitiously that they’re presaging and inspiring tomorrow’s greatest discoveries? Science fiction is the surest and clearest proof that art not only portrays but creates truth; it blazes new trails for the real world to follow. Who’s going to take up that challenge and fire our imaginations?

The first space shuttle was called the Enterprise, explicitly because the engineers who made it and the astronauts who flew it were inspired by Star Trek to a lifelong love of science, discovery, and wonder. That was decades ago; today we are dismantling our space program altogether. We need writers and artists to remind us once more how amazing the future is–to reach out and beckon us onward.

Game Review: Battleship Galaxies

Thursday, October 13th, 2011

I picked up this game because it was designed by Craig Van Ness, the man who designed Heroscape and Heroquest: two excellent games that combined tabletop wargaming and RPG-style dungeon-crawling (respectively) with an easy set of rules. His games are quick, thematic, and easy to learn and play, while still having a surprising amount of depth. Heroscape, for example, is simple enough and “toy-ish” enough to be sold in Walmart and Toys’R’Us, yet strategic and deep enough that I still enjoy it as an adult. Van Ness is a great designer with a solid track record, and I when I found out he was doing a tactical space combat game I was hugely excited.

Space combat games are a weird case, at least for me: I grew up watching Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, so I want to love space combat games, but I’ve never actually loved one. Space combat games suffer from a number of sever handicaps, most notably the massive variance of scale (how do you run a Star Destroyer and a TIE fighter in the same rules system?) and the complete lack of terrain in space. This is the biggest problem, in my experience. Tactical combat games are primarily about positioning: you need to get into the right position to have the greatest impact on the battle. In a standard wargame you maneuver around buildings, hide on forests, gain high ground on hills, and so on, but in space you just…shoot the other guy. No position is better or worse than any other position, because you will always have an identical line of sight to your target. Naval wargames have the same problem, which they solve not by adding terrain but by differentiating the specific positioning of the ships: you can come alongside an enemy ship to hit it with more cannons, you can try to get behind a ship to hit its least armored locations, and so on. Some space games do the same, but some try to be so simple (in the interest of easy gameplay) that the game becomes ridiculously boring. There was a Star Wars space combat game a few years ago in which ships had a huge range and nothing blocked line of sight–there was literally no reason to ever move your ship, you just sat there and rolled dice until something blew up.

Battleship Galaxies kind of solves these problems, mostly. That sounds like a weak endorsement, and it is: it’s a better space game than any of the others I’ve tried, but something about it just doesn’t do it for me. I don’t know what to say. I like it, but I don’t love it.

The game has two sides, each with a good mix of big ships, small ships, and fighter squadrons. You build your fleet with a point total, and each ship comes in three different ranks, each with different powers and worth different points, so you have a lot of variety in putting together a team. It even has cards you can play, adding more strategy and an element of deck building. Most of the ships have relatively short ranges, meaning that positioning will be important; I find that I tend to move most of my ships every turn, which is a good sign that something interesting is going on. The exception are the two big capital ships, which have a tendency to just plow down the center of the board and start hammering on people. Even that, though is interesting: some of your ships are blunt instruments, and some are scalpels you need to use more carefully.

Best of all, the game includes terrain tiles and scenarios, giving you something more interesting to do than just sit back and roll dice. Some of the terrain tiles are simple things like asteroids and space junk that you need to maneuver around (or can, in some cases, risk passing through). Other bits of terrain are more complex, providing bonuses for ships that can take and hold them–one, for example, is a shield regenerator, which helps make whatever ship is sitting on it much more survivable. Things like this help make the battlefield dynamic, and offer some cool tactical choices–is it worth heading to the shield generator, or should I just try to kill the other guy before he gets to it? And being a Craig Van Ness game, it accomplishes this measure of strategy in a way that is simple and thematic and fun.

And yet…. I don’t know. It’s fun without being awesome. If you love space games, or have a kid to play with (my 8yo loves it) it might be worth picking up. I suppose the simplest thing I can say about this game is that I enjoy pulling it out every now and then, but given the opportunity I’d trade it away and not miss it.

Deep Space Nine is the best Star Trek series

Monday, October 10th, 2011

Over the summer, Netflix added all of the Star Trek series to it’s instant service–well, all but one: Deep Space Nine. This made me sad, because DS9 was my favorite, but I figured it would be a good opportunity to catch up on Voyager and Enterprise, which I watched some of (two seasons and one season, respectively) but never really got into. I tried, and quickly remembered why I’d stopped watching those shows (Neelix and implausibility, respectively). I was already in a Star Trek mood, though, so I went back and started watching The Next Generation. I really enjoyed this series while it was on TV–it’s final season ended my senior year of high school, and my friends and I were all Star Trek nerds–and in rewatching some of the old episodes I was delighted to see that they held up over time. It wasn’t just nostalgia that made me like them in high school, and in fact many of the episodes I remember as kind of boring turned out to be pretty great once I watched them with a more discerning eye.

Last night, having just watched “Pen Pals” from season two (specifically because it was recently covered in’s TNG rewatch), I decided on a whim to do a search for DS9, just in case Netflix had added it to the Instant Streaming options. TNG is great and all, but the episodic nature of it was really starting to get to me. I wanted the depth of an ongoing story, and the darkness and tension of DS9’s murky political minefield. What could it hurt? I pulled up the search window and…it was there! My sweet, precious Deep Space Nine! I went straight toward the end of season two, when the long-form story just starts to get going (a two-parter about the formation of the Maquis, a resistance/terrorist organization) and started watching.

I love this show so much. We start that episode by watching someone plant a bomb, and then instead of watching it explode, we jump to the control room and listen to Dax and Kira have a snarky, half-friendly-half antagonistic conversation about dating. Not only does this serve as a perfect example of the Hitchcock Principle (“Suspense is when you know there’s a bomb but it doesn’t go off”), its wonderful character development, and nicely humorous. Then the bomb goes off and a ship explodes, and the entire sequence is a perfect, representative slice of DS9: darkness, conspiracy, humor, character, and mundane life. These characters didn’t have time to catalog anomalies and dork around with the Prime Directive, because people were setting bombs on their ships. It was all they could do to keep their heads above water while the darker forces of the universe did everything it could to destroy them. And in the midst of it all they do their best to live a normal life.

The first two seasons of Deep Space Nine were still trying, albeit half-heartedly, to mimic a normal Star Trek show; you still got a lot of political stuff (I can’t even count the number of people I’ve talked to who hate the show based solely on its early preoccupation with Bajoran politics), but there was a lot of “Anomaly of the Week” type stuff. I’m not saying that the other Trek shows were frivolous–they’re well-known and well-loved precisely because they deal with weighty issues like ethics and responsibility. The difference with DS9 came in its tone, which was dark and tense and far more bleak than the others. Every Trek show has tricky questions, but DS9 has questions with no good answers–and, more importantly, consequences that come back to haunt the characters for years.

The TNG episode “Pen Pals” is a great example. Data accidentally contacts a young girl on a dying planet, resulting in a fascinating quandary over the Prime Directive: do they save her? Do they save her planet? If saving her will irrevocably destroy her culture, is it still worth it? If the only other option is death, does the Prime Directive even matter? They wrestle with this back and forth for an hour, and it’s great science fiction, and then in the end they choose to save her planet and–here’s the kicker–wipe the girl’s memory. They broke the Prime Directive by directly interfering with a developing culture, and then there were zero consequences, and then they flew away and never thought about it again. All of their deep, philosophical theorizing was interesting, but ultimately meaningless.

Deep Space Nine doesn’t have that kind of crap. If they mess with something and cause a problem, they’ll have to deal with it, probably several times. They’re a space station, so they can’t just fly away to a part of space they haven’t ruined yet. The Maquis I mentioned earlier were a resistance group forged by the events of a TNG episode: the Federation came to a political agreement with the Cardassians, resulting in a demilitarized zone that displaced a lot of people. Colonists in Federation territory suddenly found themselves, and the homes they’d given so much to build, under enemy control. TNG never really dealt with this, but DS9 used it all the time. The colonists felt betrayed, and when the Cardassians exercised what the colonists considered to be unfair control, they formed a resistance movement and/or terrorist organization. They blew stuff up and killed people, and the DS9 characters couldn’t just wipe anyone’s memorizes or reroute power to the deflector array, they had to hang around and deal with it and try to make peace in an impossible situation.

In season three, Deep Space Nine embraced its long-form nature and went whole hog, starting a massive war that consumed not only the Federation and the Cardassians, but the Klingons, Romulans, and a new alien nation called the Dominion. The one where the Romulans join the war is one of the best episodes ever: the Federation is losing the war and needs more help, so they order DS9’s captain to enlist the Romulan’s help as allies through “any means necessary”. If he doesn’t get their help, the Federation will be destroyed–but the only way to get their help is to break his own set of ethics in a profound and terrifying way. There are no easy answers on DS9, and the implications of his decisions in that episode haunt him forever.

I don’t know why I’m telling you all of this–I can’t convince you, objectively, that a piece of art is “good.” It’s on Netflix now, so watch it for yourself. Perhaps it would be simpler to say that DS9 has my favorite characters of any Star Trek show and leave it at that. Perhaps it’s enough to point out that DS9 was run, in part, but Ronald Fracking Moore, who also ran the reimagined Battlestar Galactica. Whatever convinces you totry it, try it. It’s my favorite Star Trek show ever.

(And that makes it the best.)

Game Review: Nightfall

Monday, October 3rd, 2011

How many of you have played Dominion? Probably a lot: it’s one of those games that managed to break out of the hobbyist crowd and become a well-known party favorite. I’m amazed at the number of people (and, frankly, the variety of people) who’ve played it. Part of the reason it’s successful is that it created an entirely new genre of game, one that had never existed before in any form: the deck-building game. Just like Magic: The Gathering revolutionized the game industry by creating the “collectible card game,” a card game where you make your own deck before you play, Dominion revolutionized it seventeen years later by turning the very act of deck-building into the game itself. You start with some basic cards and slowly add more to your deck, reshuffling as necessary, building your own custom deck according to your own strategy. It’s a fascinating concept.

Just as with Magic, Dominion has spawned a massive wave of imitators, which is what brings us to Nightfall. Dominion deserves a lot of credit for coming up with the new idea, but Nightfall is the game that finally, for me, made it work. Nightfall’s designers were able to look at the other games of this type and identify some key problems, such as lack of player interaction, and address them head-on. A lot of deck-building games feel like multi-player solitaire, which decks that are efficiently designed to accrue more cards and earn more points, but that never interact with each other in meaningful ways. Yes, you get some interaction here and there with “oh no, he’s buying a lot of X, I’d better buy some before it’s gone,” but be honest with yourselves: that’s the most boring kind of player interaction possible. In Nightfall you are attacking each other with hordes of vicious monsters, scratching and biting and burning your way to victory; the winner is the player who manages to take the least amount of damage.

(Let me preemptively answer the inevitable retorts of the Dominion fans in the audience: yes, you love it, and yes, the expansions solve some of the issues I mention above, and yes, I still like Nightfall better. You’re welcome to play and enjoy any game you want, and me liking Nightfall more doesn’t make Dominion bad. Please give Nightfall a try, though, and I think you’ll really like it.)

The story behind Nightfall is delightfully bloodthirsty: the world is full of secret cabals of vampires, werewolves, zombies, and ghouls, and the paramilitary teams who hunt them. You start with some basic representatives of each, and use your growing influence to hire more to your cause, carving out a position of power in the urban fantasy underworld. These “starter” cards remove themselves from your deck as soon as you use them, ensuring after a few rounds that your deck is all good stuff–and more specifically, that it’s all YOUR stuff, the characters and actions you’ve personally chosen to put into it.

And I haven’t even talked about the best part yet! Half of the player interaction comes from the attack system, and the rest comes from the game’s biggest innovation: the chain system. Each card has three colors: a base color and two chain colors. When you play a card, you–or the next player in order–can play another card if it’s base color matches one of the chain colors on the previous card. You lay out ever card that people want play, resulting in a chain that could have anywhere from one to a couple dozen cards, and then you resolve them in reverse order. This is a pretty simple system, but it allows for a lot of interaction in a lot of unique ways. Let’s say the player on your right is buying a lot of card X–all of a sudden you have a choice to make. Do you buy more of card X for yourself before they’re all gone (Dominion style)? Or do you buy more of card Y, because it will chain off of card X? Maybe the best answer is to buy more of card Z, because it counters card X; you have a ton of options, but the point is that you have to pay attention to what your opponents are doing. Add in kicker effects, which are special abilities than only trigger when chained off of very specific color combinations, and the system gets really interesting.

One of the other things I love about the game is the drafting system. At the beginning of the game, as with most deck-building games, you add a limited number of card types to the center of the table. This helps make each game unique, because the card pool is different everytime, which in turn makes the overall game more replayable. With Nightfall this card pool isn’t random–you draft it, giving each player their own unique card pool, plus a bit of control over what is and isn’t in the overall card pool. It’s a fun mechanic which, honestly, could be adapted just as easily to most other deck-building games, but which has even more impact here thanks to the chain system.

If you like deck-building games, Nightfall is a wonderful refinement of the concept that feels like a breath of fresh air in the genre. If you like games in general, or even if you just like vampires and werewolves tearing each other apart, Nightfall is a great choice. There’s already one expansion, called Martial Law, and there’s another one coming out this fall called Blood Country. And yes, even though it wasn’t on my list from last week, I’m totally buying it–I like the game so much that it never occurred to me to NOT buy it, so I didn’t think about it for my list. Maybe that’s the best recommendation of all.