Archive for December, 2011

Game Review: Gears of War (the boardgame)

Thursday, December 8th, 2011

I’m not a Gears of War fan in general–I’ve never played the video game, and my knowledge of it was mostly limited to “wasn’t that the shooter game that used ‘Mad World’ in a TV commercial once?” I may be thinking of a youtube video, I’m actually not sure. I knew it was an FPS, and that it used a cover system, and it had aliens, but I haven’t really played an FPS since Battlefield 2, so my knowledge ended there.

What I did know, on the other hand, was that the board game version was designed by Corey Konieczka, who is pretty much my very favorite game designer working today. He’s worked on some of the best games in my collection–Battlestar Galactica, Mansions of Madness, and Rune Age–and he’s had a hand in some other great games that are a lot of fun (Runewars and the World of Warcraft Adventure Game, to name a couple). His designs show an amazing ability to combine mechanics and flavor; my gaming tastes, as you may have noticed, lean very heavily toward the “thematic” end of the scale, focusing on games about monsters and space ships and wizards and so on, and Konieczka does that better than anybody, hands down. The Galactica game, for example, manages to replicate not only the many different elements of the show (politics, military command, fleet management, spaceship combat, paranoia, treachery, and so on), but also the feel of the show. While playing the game the mechanics almost melt away, leaving nothing but a tense, desperate atmosphere that pulls you through to the end. The rules and the flavor blend together almost seamlessly. Corey Koniezcka does that in all of his games, and I’ll follow that kind of talent anywhere.

So when Gears of War came out, I picked up a copy.

First things first: the models in this game are so amazing they got me back into miniatures painting after a ten year hiatus. The aliens/monsters are cool, both in design and in sculpt, and the four hero figures are appropriately tough-looking. The hero figures are also, unfortunately, very hard to distinguish, which is what led me to the mini-painting–I figure if I paint them I’ll be able to tell them apart without picking them up to see which one has the tiny goggles on his forehead. The other components are cool as well, with sturdy plastic, nice cards, etc. They also all fit in the box pretty neatly, which is a nice bonus considering how tightly a lot of other games get crammed together.

In play, the game is very much like a fantasy dungeon crawl, a la Descent or Castle Ravenloft. Each player takes a hero, who has special powers and equipment, and together they explore a maze/building/cave full of monsters and loot. The main difference between this and a traditional fantasy game are the guns, and I love the way the game handles ammo; it’s a driving concern without being an onerous chore. The bad guys are fully automated by a couple of decks of cards, so there’s no Overlord or Dungeonmaster; the players are all on the same team.

What separates Gears of War from the many, many other dungeon crawls I own is the card system, which governs not only moving and attacking but wounds and healing as well. See, your hand of cards is also your life points, which has a massive web of fascinating and delicate interconnections. You play one card on your turn to act, and you can play several cards out-of-turn to react to enemies and other players, but every time you do you get closer to death. Even more interesting, when an enemy hurts you it doesn’t just tick a few hit points off a list, it directly affects your ability to act and react. A hero caught in a hail of fire will find himself with only one or two cards left, which might not be the right ones to help him escape; conversely, a hero who over-extends himself moving around and playing actions might find himself with too few cards left to survive the next monster attack. On the one hand this is a smooth and strategic system of resource management; on the other hand, true to form for Corey Konieczka, it’s a hugely thematic storytelling device that creates, without any extra effort, a lot of great character moments. Taking too much enemy fire, for example, causes you to instinctively dive for cover, retreating from the battle for a few seconds while you draw more cards and get your health back up. The first time this happened to my friend Steve, a big fan of the source material, he nodded and said “wow, just like in the video game.” The rules and the flavor go together perfectly.

My only major complaint about the game, which has made our playgroup skip over it more than once when deciding what to play, is the huge variance in difficulty. Sometimes the game is way too easy, and sometimes (though less often) it’s way too hard. Worse yet, it doesn’t seem to have any knobs you can adjust to tweak the difficulty, so there’s nothing you can do about it–it all depends on which enemy cards you draw and when. When the game randomly decides to be challenging, it’s incredibly fun and I recommend it highly. When it just rolls over and lets you win without a fight, the playing time is still just long enough to feel disappointing.

The Children’s Story

Thursday, December 1st, 2011

Last week I had the opportunity to write a blog for another website about dystopian fiction, so I wrote one and realized that it was way too big. I wrote a shorter one and sent it in, and you’ll see it soon, but here’s the first one in all it’s glory. (It’s actually not super long, but the other place was a short venue.)

I grew up in the Cold War, so I was surrounded by dystopian fearmongering for most of my formative years: stay vigilant, or the evil communists will get you and the world will turn into Animal Farm. We concocted, and continue to concoct, elaborate and terrifying scenarios of how horrible the world would be if the wrong people got into power, and how our freedoms would be curtailed and our rights would be stomped on, and we used those scenarios to develop a culture of fear. If you’re scared to death of The Enemy, you’ll never let The Enemy take control of you. And yet it doesn’t take a genius to jump on the Internet and see a million images and videos of curtailed freedoms and stomped-on rights, right here in our own allegedly non-dystopian country. What happened? How did these dystopian scenarios come true? Why didn’t our fear protect us?

Because fear breeds ignorance, and ignorance is the worst protection in the world.

My favorite dystopian novel is actually just a novella, practically a short story, by one of my favorite writers: The Children’s Story, by James Clavell. One day Clavell’s 6-year-old daughter came home from school to announce that she had memorized the entire Pledge of Allegiance–or as she called it (and as my children call it) “The Pledge Allegiance.” She parroted the entire thing from memory, pleased and punch, and then Clavell asked her what it meant…and she had no idea. The school had taught her what to say, but not why. Clavell walked around the rest of the day asking everyone he met about the Pledge of Allegiance, and all of them said it–usually with the same words slurred together in the same way–but none of them could tell him what it meant. Most of you can probably recite it as well, and odds are that you’re all pausing in the same places as you do so, but how many of you have ever really thought about the words themselves? How many 6-year-olds even know what “indivisible” means–or how many 30-year-olds, for that matter?

Based on this experience, Clavell wrote a novella about a generic American classroom in which the teacher is replaced by a New Teacher, a trained propagandist from what we assume is a conquering foreign power, though this is never explained in any detail. The story isn’t about who’s in charge or why, it’s about how easy it is to use words to create ideas, to change attitudes, and to form entire ways of thinking. Bit by bit, word by word, the New Teacher deconstructs the Pledge of Allegiance as a stream of nonsense: what does allegiance mean? Why would you show allegiance to a flag? Can a flag give you anything? Ask it for candy–did you get any? Now ask me for candy. See? Now you have candy. Isn’t this pledge thing kind of ridiculous? The New Teacher’s arguments are subtle and convincing and shot through with dramatic irony: a wise reader will see every ideological trap she sets for the children, and yet will also see exactly why and how those children will fall straight into them. We boo and hiss at the New Teacher for creating a new dystopia where children are told exactly what to think without knowing any of the reasoning behind it, or being given a chance to make up their own minds, and yet we can’t lay all the blame at her feet: the Old Teacher, the one they dismissed at the beginning of the story, did exactly the same thing. She told the children what to think and what to say without ever telling them why it was important. She failed to prepare them for the challenge they’re facing and the very important decisions they now have no idea how to make. The leadership has changed, but the dystopia of ignorance and miseducation was there all along.

Why is our society collapsing into a new dystopia? Because we’ve trained our children to fear a certain form of control, without ever teaching them how to recognize the real threat behind the form–the control itself, and the power that makes it possible. We’ve created a culture where ignorance is applauded, literacy is for losers, and being cool means not caring about anything. Somehow, despite all our fears and safeguards and precautions, we’ve stumbled backwards into a world that looks more and more like 1984, or Fahrenheit 451, or the rest of the dystopias that used to haunt our nightmares–and we’ve done it not because an evil overlord was creating such a world on purpose, but because we’ve been too lazy/short-sighted/misinformed/comfortable to either notice it or do anything about it.

You want dystopia? Look around. You want to do something about it? Read.