Camp Grizzly

Camp Grizzly finally hits the sweet spot between cooperative games and storytelling games

CampGrizzly_Otis
At KublaCon this weekend, I got to play through a demo and then a full game of Camp Grizzly by Ameritrash Games. I wanted to spread the word about it here, partly because the designer Jason Topolski is a former co-worker and a super-nice guy, but mostly because I really love the game.

The premise sells itself: it’s a semi-cooperative game in which you’re playing a camp counselor (in 1979, easily the most dangerous era for camp counselors) being stalked by a homicidal maniac named “Otis,” who wears a bear mask and wields a bloody gardening claw. You and the other players are trying to evade Otis while gathering the items you need to trigger one of the game’s four finales. As you play, you encounter campers, side characters in “cameo” roles, and special events that cover just about every single trope from early 80s slasher movies.

I’ve been wanting to try it for at least a year, but not without a little bit of trepidation. No matter how solid the idea, and no matter how talented the people involved, what if it ends up feeling flat in the execution? As it turns out, I didn’t need to worry. It’s a hell of a lot of fun, and it’s already become my favorite cooperative game.

CampGrizzly_Lunchbox

Ameritrash

The Kickstarter for Camp Grizzly was hugely successful, tripling the amount of money they were asking for and spawning all kinds of expansions for stretch goals. If you missed the Kickstarter like I did, and you don’t see it at a convention, you can get a copy directly from their site. I picked up a copy right after the demo, and I immediately sprung for the miniatures. I never do that. Now all I have to do is wait for the expansions.

The art by Austin Madison (and others) is phenomenal, as you can see here used completely without permission. Not surprising considering the pedigrees of the people involved, but each card looks like polished storyboard/character concept/pitch art for a project from The Studio That Makes the Best 3D Animated Movies. And even better — and more difficult — it nails the tone exactly right between horror and black comedy, from a time when slasher movies were as interested in being exhilarating and fun as they were in going for the biggest gross-out.

Choosing “Ameritrash Games” as their name wasn’t just a self-deprecating gag, either; Camp Grizzly nails that part, too. The board is designed — from the fairly simple layout to the big red “Camp Grizzly” logo just above the “Body Count” tracker — to remind players of board games of the 70s and 80s. Without any context, you could assume it was a marketing tie-in game to some obscure 80s slasher movie.

Once you get into the game, though, it quickly becomes apparent that it could only exist in the “post-BoardGameGeek” era. It includes a lot of familiar elements from games like Betrayal at House on the Hill, Pandemic, and the dungeon-crawl Dungeons and Dragons-themed board games. Then it streamlines them and combines them with fantastic artwork to throw all the emphasis back on storytelling.

CampGrizzly_SplitUp

“Let’s Split Up”

I’m a fan of “pure” cooperative games like Pandemic, Forbidden Island, and Forbidden Desert, even though I always take it as a given from the start that I’m probably not going to win. (I still have never won a game of Forbidden Desert). But they tend to suffer from the same three problems:

  • One or two players can take over, becoming so fixated on a particular strategy that everyone else is basically squeezed out and left just moving pieces around a board.
  • Getting the right balance means making it feel like you’re always on the brink of disaster, which can result in spending two hours on a game and then everyone loses.
  • No matter how strong the theme is, or how well the theme is integrated into the mechanics, it usually ends up feeling like a purely mechanical abstraction.

Cooperative games have been popular enough for long enough that there’s already a sub-genre dedicated to fixing those problems: games with a traitor mechanic, like Battlestar Galactica and now Dead of Winter. The traitor mechanic not only guarantees a winner, but builds in an incentive to keep any one player from running away with the game: you’re never exactly sure if she’s just being bossy, or if she’s deliberately working against everyone else. (From what I’ve read, one of the expansions for Camp Grizzly introduces a traitor mechanic, too, with the intriguingly-named card “So It Was You All Along!”).

As it turns out, there’s another way to fix those problems: go all in on theme.

The tone of a slasher movie is a perfect fit for a modern cooperative game: it’s supposed to feel like the odds are overwhelmingly against you, and there is a “force of nature” appearing completely unexpectedly out of nowhere to make things worse.

One of the many decisions in Camp Grizzly that seems straightforward on the surface, but is actually an elegantly perfect solution to a ton of problems: making the antagonist a character. A forum post on the BoardGameGeek page for Camp Grizzly points out that Otis has a lot more personality than some generic slasher movie villain. He’s obviously a pastiche of Jason Voorhies and Michael Meyers, but he’s still a distinct creation. And it doesn’t just help the theme; it helps the game. You’re not fighting some abstraction like “disease” or “time” or “flood waters” or “zombies” or even “Sauron,” but another character.

The Tabletop episode of Forbidden Desert, for instance, demonstrates one of the aspects of “pure” cooperative games that I hate: the inevitable point when players start counting cards to figure out what’s left in the deck. It breaks whatever minimal theme has been established and makes it completely obvious your antagonist is a deck of cards. When you draw an “Otis Attacks!” card in Camp Grizzly, it feels more like a story moment than the result of a card draw.

CampGrizzly_SkinnyDipping

“Foolin’ Around”

One of the reasons I’ve been over-thinking Camp Grizzly is that I think slasher movies are fascinating to pick apart. They started becoming self-referential while they were still popular, and they somehow continue to work even when you’re completely aware of all their tricks. When Scream came out and explicitly made a list of all the standard slasher movie tropes, it wasn’t a last death rattle of irony; it actually revitalized the entire genre.

When you have a genre of movie that comes with a built-in set of rules, it obviously lends itself to adapting that to a game. Camp Grizzly isn’t the first to do it; one of the most popular is Last Night on Earth: The Zombie Game. It’s very similar in structure and theme to Camp Grizzly: you move characters around a board to fight zombies, drawing event and character cards based on the familiar cinematic cliches.

I like the ideas behind Last Night on Earth a lot, but I just didn’t enjoy the game. It felt self-aware about its theme, but didn’t really do anything with that self-awareness. To make a tortured analogy: if Last Night on Earth is like Shaun of the Dead, then Camp Grizzly is like The Cabin in the Woods.

In Scream and Shaun of the Dead, the central gag is that they telegraph what they’re going to do, and then do it anyway. And it still works: they have great moments, even though you know exactly what’s going to happen. In some cases, because you know what’s going to happen. (And a big part of why they work, when so many other attempts at self-aware horror movies just collapse into an insufferable mess, is because they’re self-aware out of affection. It’s not just we all know how these things work by now, but also …and that’s why we love them).

Not to pick on TableTop, but their playthrough of Last Night on Earth demonstrates why the game never really worked for me. For one thing, having some players as zombies introduces a disconnect before the game even starts. Zombies with agency is just weird. Only some of the players are controlling characters, while the rest are controlling game mechanics whose entire purpose in fiction is to be without any agenda except killing and eating. And obviously those episodes are exaggerated for the sake of making an entertaining video, but you can see the problem with Felicia Day’s repeated attempts to create a backstory for one of her zombies. It’s a struggle to impose a story onto the game mechanics.

One of the clever ideas that first attracted me to Last Night on Earth was a card called “This Could Be Our Last Night on Earth.” Two hero characters (they have to male and female, which I’ve got to point out is a minor disappointment) in the same space lose a turn. On the surface, it seems like a really clever way to incorporate theme into the game. In practice, though, it’s just a “lose turn” card with a picture and text.

A bunch of other mechanics subtly throw off the balance as well. Combat isn’t hugely complex, but it’s still more complicated than it needs to be. Certain locations have specific benefits, which seems like it’d reinforce the storytelling but in practice just becomes another mechanic to remember. All the elements combine to keep the focus on the game and leave the story lurking in the background.

It’s not “about” zombie movies and B-movies. It’s ultimately a game “about” fighting zombies — and a solid one, by most accounts! — that’s aware that zombie movies and B-movies exist.

CampGrizzly_Dont

“Don’t”

If the gag in Scream and Shaun of the Dead was to acknowledge the cliches and then execute on them, the gag in The Cabin in the Woods is to come up with imaginative ways to explain why the cliches exist. (And then in the third act, why they need to exist).

I’m not saying that Camp Grizzly is some arch or cerebral deconstruction of the slasher genre — all the stuff I’m over-explaining here, it says with artwork, a few lines of text, and some game mechanics. But I do think it works the same way. The reason you need characters opening doors that are clearly hiding a monster, or sneaking into the woods to have sex when there’s obviously a killer on the loose, is because smart characters making good decisions makes for lousy storytelling.

Camp Grizzly isn’t a game about careful coordination and planning four moves ahead. Whether it was intentional or not, it feels as if they took a “pure” co-op game mechanic and streamlined or removed outright anything that made for a bad story.

One example: Otis. I already said that he’s a more interesting character than some abstraction. Even more important, though, is the fact that no player controls him. He’s got a simple agenda: stalk everyone and kill them, one by one. If he ever goes off the board, he reappears unexpectedly on a random wooded path. And after every player has taken a turn, Otis moves according to a simple set of rules:

  1. Go after whoever’s closest.
  2. If there’s a tie, go after the solitary characters, the ones who have nobody else in the same cabin.
  3. If there’s a tie, go after the character who’s most horrified.
  4. If there’s a tie, go after the one with the most wounds.
  5. If there’s still a tie, choose randomly.

All the standard slasher movie rules are covered except for “go after the black characters first.”

That impresses me as much as a movie nerd as a board game nerd: it’s not just an elegant deconstruction of slasher movie “rules,” it’s an elegant incorporation of them into an easily-understandable game mechanic.

All the other rules surrounding Otis are just complicated enough to make the decisions interesting. As the body count goes up, Otis gets stronger. “Combat” is a simple dice roll, with stronger weapons getting better dice. Characters can even “panic” thoughtfully: if you’re attacked, you can panic and run away from Otis a set number of spaces.

Another example: the cabin cards. Players start the game with a clear and simple objective: find a set of items. In a lot of similar games, you’d have to spend an action to “search” a location for something useful. In Camp Grizzly, you just move your character, and then do one of two things:

  1. Turn over a visible item token in your space, to see if it’s one of the things necessary to start the finale; or
  2. Draw a card from the cabin deck.

It splits the difference between all the move-and-explore games I’ve ever played, where you have a clear goal in mind and are deliberately looking for something; and all the cooperative games I’ve ever played, where at the end of every turn there’s the chance of something unexpected horrible happening. But what’s key for a story is that something interesting happens every turn. What’s key for a story game is that it’s not the player’s fault.

In the full game I played, we’d found all the necessary items, and we were all limping injured towards the barn to trigger the game finale. On his way there, one of the characters turned up the “Skinny Dipping” card shown above. He had to choose another character to take to the boat house and “tempt fate.”

This was a very stupid thing for him to do. Not only did it take two characters completely out of the way of our agreed-upon meeting place, but it invited Otis to attack and kill both of them. It’s exactly the kind of thing that has movie audiences shouting at the screen, “What are you doing? Don’t do that! Don’t open that door! Get out of the water! Put your clothes back on!” These moments are necessary to drive the story forward, but they’d be frustrating if they invalidated or supplanted the player’s decisions. Players still make decisions in Camp Grizzly, but they’re almost always reactionary.

There’s a lot of value in forcing the player’s hand. Another game we played this weekend was Cosmic Encounter. After years of seeing it top lists of “best board game ever made,” I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. My conclusion was that it’s apparent how well-designed it is, and it may very well be the best possible implementation of a bluffing/negotiation/character interaction game. I just don’t enjoy that type of game.

But as a game that is striving for negotiation, bluffing, and interaction above all else, it’s crucial that Cosmic Encounter forces an interaction every turn. Encounters aren’t optional, you often don’t get to choose which player you attack, and you often don’t get to choose whether you’re going to be hostile or try to negotiate. It doesn’t just guarantee that something is going to happen every turn, but it ensures that there’s a very good chance it won’t be what you expect. It may violate every carefully-planned strategy and intensely-negotiated alliance up to that point.

In Camp Grizzly, “Tempt fate” is a simple mechanic that encompasses 90% of the plot development of a slasher movie: those moments when a supposedly sympathetic character does something unforgivably stupid. You follow the setup on the card, and then draw some number of cards from the top of the cabin deck. If any of the cards is a red “Otis Attacks!” card, then surprise: Otis attacks. It’s an annoyingly elegant distillation of the cliche. You get the complication, the suspense, and then either the “Whew! It must’ve just been the cat” resolution, or another slasher movie moment.

And most importantly: you can’t avoid it. (Unless you happen to have a card like “Don’t,” pictured above). Camp Grizzly has the appearance of a standard co-op game, but it will happily throw out all of your careful planning and coordination for the sake of making a better slasher movie.

CampGrizzly_Desensitized

“Desensitized”

That’s exactly the kind of thing that infuriates some players. There are players who love the type of game where they can plan for three moves in advance, carefully counting up points and considering available moves and calculating card frequency to figure out which of their options will result in 5 victory points as opposed to 4.

For me, the only thing that sounds less fun is doing my taxes while having dental work done. I tend to be on the more “reactionary” end of the spectrum, where I can just try stuff out and see what happens. Even with that mindset, though, it took me a while to wrap my head around the interesting disconnect that’s inherent to Camp Grizzly.

Even as someone who hates having to plan too far ahead, and as someone who’s gotten so comfortable with losing games that I barely even consider it an objective anymore, I still approached Camp Grizzly as if it were a standard co-op game with a horror movie theme baked into it. Our objective was to pick up three items, go to this location, and then win the finale.

But after a few turns, I started to realize that I’d made the wrong assumption. The objective of the game isn’t to find three items and have my character survive the final showdown. The objective of the game is to make a slasher movie.

That’s when I realized we’d spent the bulk of the last hour doing exactly that. Because the art is so vivid, I could picture every scene as if it’d been animated. And because the mechanics themselves are relatively simple, I was remembering them as scenes instead of turns. It had the opposite effect of the flavor text in most board games: I wasn’t thinking “cancel an attack card” and then trying to impose some kind of story moment on top of that. Instead, I remembered lighting a flare in the middle of a dark cabin, or Mike’s character escaping into a crawlspace, and I couldn’t remember exactly what the description of the rule was.

And then I realized that a larger “plot” had pieced itself together. A couple, one of them badly wounded, had snuck into the barn to set a trap for Otis. But she slipped out to the boat house with another guy, and they were both punished for it when Otis attacked! After they narrowly escaped, the other counselors changed plans and decided to regroup at the boat house, with a last-minute and completely unhelpful appearance from Donald Pleasance’s character from Halloween. All the teenagers were panicking on the dock, screaming for the art teacher Karen to hurry up and make it to the boat.

Then we all got on the boat and things got wacky.

As soon as I saw what the setup for the finale was, I laughed out loud. I still think it’s brilliant, even though the character I was controlling was one of the first to die. The finale we got was unapologetically goofy way to end the game and the story. And it seemed like the game was finally explicitly asserting itself as a storytelling engine instead of a co-op game. (I’ve looked through most of the game cards by this point, but I’m carefully avoiding seeing any of the finale cards until they come up in game. I want to be surprised each time).

It seemed to present the same question that The Cabin in the Woods did, although in a less accusatory way: why are you pretending to be so emotionally invested in this cartoon teenager? I finally had to come to terms with the fact that I’m not actually a sexually promiscuous teenage girl, any more than I’m a pirate or a merchant or a Lord of Waterdeep or a kaiju attacking Manhattan. My goal isn’t to gather a bunch of items and escape a homicidal maniac; my goal is to take an interesting situation and see what happens as a result.

After getting burned out on euro games, it was nice to be reminded of a game that’s not super light but still just wants to be fun. And after spending so much time thinking about agency and the various ways that interactive media tell stories, it was nice to see a successful example of favoring storytelling over control that didn’t feel too abstract or too passive.

So much of the talk about player agency, especially in video game storytelling, makes the implicit assumption that the ideal is a “perfect avatar.” The player’s goals and the character’s goals are perfectly aligned. Story moments only happen as a direct result of the player’s actions. But again, horror and suspense movies have been chugging along for decades with the obvious “dissonance” of an audience aware of a monster lurking around every corner, and a bunch of characters doing frustratingly stupid things because of their own obliviousness. Why can’t a game do the same thing? Acknowledge that the player isn’t her character, and it’s not as important to control the experience as it is to enjoy it?

If you spend an hour playing a game and then “lose” at the end, what’s more important? That you didn’t win, or that you spent an hour having fun?

Dogpile on that thing you like

Piggy-backing on a blog post to explain all the various reasons I dislike the game Cards Against Humanity

Andrew Dice Clay
Considering that Grand Theft Auto, Family Guy, and The Big Bang Theory have all received their public nerd backlashes, I’m a little surprised that I haven’t seen one against the game Cards Against Humanity yet. It’s super popular, it sells itself on being transgressive and breaking barriers of good taste; what’s the hold up?

In fact, the only indication of whether it was safe for me to say publicly how much I hate Cards Against Humanity came at the end of a Shut Up & Sit Down video review of something else a while back (which is impossible for me to find a link to at the moment, so just take my word for it). They were talking about gateway games and introducing people to the hobby, and in regards to CAH, just gave the diplomatic and tactful “a rising tide lifts all boats.”

That’s the healthiest and most mature response. Usually, whenever something I hate becomes popular, my natural tendency is to combine the endings of both Invasion of the Body Snatchers movies, running through the streets screaming about a world gone mad, pointing in accusatory horror at anyone who would dare enjoy something that I don’t. But that simple acknowledgement in a review video was enough to calm me down and pull me back into the land of the well-adjusted. It’s a filler game that doesn’t affect me in the slightest. What’s the problem?

The problem is that it does affect me, because I keep finding myself in situations where I’m in a group that wants to play Cards Against Humanity, and I end up having to grit my teeth and play along, or decline and end up looking like an over-sensitive wet blanket, or even worse, looking like I’m casting judgment on the people who want to play. I can’t think of any other game — at least one that doesn’t involve drinking or stripping — that has so much defensive social awkwardness baked in.

So I was relieved when Shut Up and Sit Down posted a three-part review of Cards Against Humanity, finally lifting the embargo and giving me permission to announce how much I hate the game and never want to play it.

For the record, I agree 99% with Matt Lees’s take, especially this:

I despise the implication that those who complain about the tone of Cards Against Humanity are approaching the topic with the mindset of a prude… I don’t need a card game to grant me permission, but I also don’t need one to absolve me from guilt.

It’s a system designed to reliably dose players with an intoxicating sense of naughtiness. Breaking social rules gives people a buzz, but frankly there are better rules to be breaking. One of the great pleasures of games is allowing yourself to briefly play a role that’s different to your own, but I can’t help but cringe when faced with the glee of people using a deck of cards to pretend they’re the square root of Jeremy Clarkson.

But there’s more to it than that, as there always is whenever something that’s frankly lazy tries to pass itself off as transgressive satire. It pulls in all these layers of defensiveness and offensiveness which isn’t actual depth, but just the typical Hipster Spiral of Irony. So here’s my attempt to unpack everything wrong with it, in convenient list form:

The makers of the game actually seem kind of cool.
For as long as I’ve been aware, the game was released in the Creative Commons, which includes an option to print your own copy. And they still have managed to make millions and millions of dollars from it. On top of that, they seem to be genuinely interested in supporting and promoting board and card games as a hobby and a “community,” instead of just swooping in for a sudden cash grab.

There shouldn’t be any resentment over how much money the game has made.
Although I’ve never watched an actual episode, I’m especially impressed with the premise of Tabletop Deathmatch, which borrows the reality show format for a series that supports and promotes aspiring game designers. Of course, it promotes Cards Against Humanity as well, which is a perfect example of the combination of marketing and “giving back” that is understood by the kind of people who make lots and lots of money.

A ton of the backlash against Penny Arcade, for instance, was obviously motivated not just by anything they were actually saying, but because they’d become wealthy enough that they became a safe target. It’s a stupid and self-destructive tendency that we (meaning nerd fans) have to try and tear down anyone who becomes successful doing something they love. We should cut it out.

That said, the game still sucks.
When they released Cards Against Humanity, they chose the tagline “A Party Game for Horrible People” as opposed to the more accurate “We Took Apples to Apples and Added AIDS Jokes.” But really, by adding cards about the Holocaust and sharts, they removed the only element of Apples to Apples that’s at all interesting. Opportunities to make any kind of interesting connection or observation in CAH is an accident at best; 99% of the game is just picking whichever card is going to result in the biggest shock value. It’s pretty much entirely passive.

A couple of times I’ve been lucky enough to play, we included my friend’s toddler as one of the players. Each round, she’d randomly pick a card to get added into the mix. She “scored” as well as anyone else did. That’s a clear sign of a terrible non-game.

I think the game sucks, not the people who play it.
A surprising number of my friends still like using it as a filler game or a time-waster, and in fact a couple of them are some of the funniest and most clever people I’ve ever met. But because of the tagline and the premise, there’s an element of defensiveness baked in: you’re saying I should feel bad for enjoying this. Or even worse: I’m playing this with a level of ironic detachment that you clearly don’t understand because you have a simplistic sense of humor.

Believe me: we get it. There are certainly people who play Cards Against Humanity the same way my friends and I tittered over a copy of Truly Tasteless Jokes when we were in middle school. You don’t sell millions of dollars worth of something without catering to everyone. But I’m fortunate enough never to have to play with those people. The groups I’ve ever had to play with are all approaching it as SF Bay Area Liberals: it’s a kind of meta-commentary on the type of asshole who thinks jokes about AIDS, child abuse, and Michael Jackson are genuinely funny.

It’s not a subtle game; the premise is right there on the box. It presents a kind of “safe space” where you can say stuff you’d never say otherwise.

I might still be silently judging you, but that’s okay.
Again, though, if you can charitably describe it as a role-playing game, the role you’re choosing to play is Jeremy Clarkson or Andrew Dice Clay. I’m the guy who’s saying things that other people can’t. It’s all juvenile stuff that just depends on trying to shock the easily offended and then passing it off as transgressive humor.

What annoys me the most when playing it isn’t when someone picks a card that hits one of my hot-button topics. It’s when somebody, before revealing their cards, gives that half-groan and says something like, “Oh, this is sooo bad,” or “Sorry about this!” with a nervous giggle. It takes all of my willpower not to just shout out Yes that’s the entire point of the game we all get that you score points by being offensive you don’t need to qualify it every single turn!

Which ends up making me feel bad, and it’s the kind of hassle I’d rather not have to deal with. I don’t have to feel bad whenever I say I don’t want to play Notre Dame or Smash Up or various other games that I don’t enjoy, so why’s there all this extra baggage around a stupid card game?

I’ve got a juvenile, “there’s no such thing as too lowbrow” sense of humor, and I still giggle when I hear the word “duty.” There have been billions of times I’ve made a joke and gotten a reaction from friends as if I’d just farted directly onto their face. I don’t take it personally, so nobody should take it personally when I announce that their game is stupid and I hate it.

It’s not about genuine offense, or political correctness.
Part of the reason I think my objection to a simple filler card game warrants a blog post is because there are so many different interpretations of why it sucks. There are three in that Shut Up & Sit Down review, all of which I agree (and disagree) with to some degree. There’s also this brief write-up on Offworld, which I don’t agree with.

I’m not particularly concerned with the type of player who’d start talking about political correctness or free speech or being “edgy” with this game, because as I said, I’m lucky enough never to have to play with that type of person. The problem isn’t that it’s offensive, the problem is that it’s lazy. There’s nothing there.

It’s not about “punching down.”
I’ve already seen plenty of condemnations of the game and apologia for the game that both talk about “punching up” and “punching down.” I’ve got zero patience for this; I think it’s some of the worst fallout from the modern trend towards pop-progressivism on the Internet. Simply because if you’re talking about treating people well and fairly, it shouldn’t involve any talk of “punching.” If you’re truly interested in equality, diversity, and all the other things that progressives are supposed to concern about, then acceptable treatment of people should have nothing to do with their race, gender, sexuality, or wealth.

Removing cards is kind of gross.
The only thing that I do find genuinely offensive about Cards Against Humanity is when I hear about people who remove certain cards before they play. To each his own, of course, but I think this is just downright horrible.

It introduces a kind of ghoulish Calculus of Appropriate Speech. It defies the whole premise of the game (flimsy as it is), which insists that everything is fair game because none of this is real. As soon as you start removing cards because they hit on taboo subjects, then you’re saying that some of it is real. That you are actually making jokes at someone’s expense, instead of mocking the horribleness of the whole concept. Which raises the question of where these players are drawing the line. How can it be unacceptable to make light of child abuse and sexual assault, but acceptable to keep cracks about AIDS or the Holocaust?

I do understand the concept of triggers and post-traumatic stress, and how something that seems perfectly innocuous to me can cause an actual physiological reaction in people who’ve had to go through with it. And believe it or not, I’m sympathetic to that. But I insist that it’s not at all crass or insensitive to suggest that if someone is harmed by the content of a card game that’s designed to be offensive, you’d be better off playing Dixit. Otherwise, you’re suggesting that some of the content is to be taken seriously, and you really are engaged in the activity of making fun of other people’s horror or misfortune for fun.

Stop trying to define what’s acceptable in stuff that’s intended to be offensive.
It goes back, yet again, to one of the worst things I’ve read on the internet, the Jezebel article that tried to delineate exactly how and when it’s acceptable to make light of sexual assault, using discussions of positions of power, CDC statistics, and a counter-example of being horribly mangled by an industrial thresher. It’s a clumsy (no matter how well-intentioned) attempt to codify something for which there’s a simple, straightforward answer: it’s never okay to make light of sexual assault. The reason comedians like Louis CK and Sarah Silverman seem to get away with it isn’t complicated; it’s simply because they’re not making light of it.

And the reason it’s worth pointing out over and over again is because I honestly believe it’s lowering the level of discourse. We keep having cyclical flare-ups when people just fail to get how not to be awful, and the response doesn’t help, but instead perpetuates it. Simple-minded people already talk as if there’s some rulebook somewhere of Arbitrary Rules That The Liberals Have Imposed On Our Society, and they’re not sharing it with the conservatives. Whenever someone suggests that it’s okay for somebody to make offensive jokes because of some arbitrary social status, you’re just perpetuating the idea that it really is arbitrary.

If you think it’s arbitrary, you don’t get it. There’s no simple rulebook or actuarial table of how age or economic background factor into what you’re allowed to say. You’ve got to think about what’s actually being said, not just the words that are being used, or who’s talking. And if you don’t get that, then please, for the love of Pete, stop trying to explain it.

Cards Against Humanity isn’t representative of board and card games.
If I’m being honest: of all the objections raised in that Shut Up & Sit Down review, I think Paul’s are the weakest. CAH has been embraced by the “post-Catan wave” of board and card game enthusiasts, but it remains its own thing. Even the aforementioned Dixit or Apples to Apples are more likely to be “gateway” games for new players, simply because they’re actually games. (However simple they might be). I don’t believe Cards Against Humanity has any real aspirations to “game-ness,” because of all its built-in ironic disclaimers and presenting itself as more of a social activity than an actual game.

Frankly, I think that claiming to be concerned about the impression it gives to new gamers is just a crutch to make it “okay” to say how much you hate it. (And I mention it because I’ve been tempted to do exactly that). I can justify hating on Grand Theft Auto because each release of the series is such a huge event that it becomes shorthand for “This Is What Video Games Are.” Even the people who love Cards Against Humanity would acknowledge that it’s a filler, and that it doesn’t represent the game industry any more than Family Guy represents animation.

And I really do think it’s worth repeating that the makers of Cards Against Humanity are frequently sponsoring gaming events and evangelizing the hobby. I do wish they were doing it with an actual game, but that just brings us back full circle to the “rising tide lifts all boats” philosophy.

For my part, I’m just happy that now that I’ll never again have to explain to anyone why I don’t want to play it.

Non-Gelatinous Cubes

A mini-review of Lords of Waterdeep, the new barely-D&D-themed board game, and an attempt to explain what it is that’s re-ignited my interest in board games in general.

Lowcharsheet
A year ago, I wrote about Castle Ravenloft and Wrath of Ashardalon, and I speculated that they were gateway games intended to get players into the full-on straight-up Dungeons and Dragons experience: purely tactical combat playable in a few hours, with a genuine D20 and without the socially-awkward fear that someone you know is going to suddenly start talking to you in a strange voice. In practice, the games turned out to be shorter-lived; the combat isn’t as open-ended as in a real D&D game, and it’s the storytelling aspect of actual role-playing that keeps the sessions from all feeling the same.

Wizards of the Coast has recently released Lords of Waterdeep, which seems to be the reverse of Ravenloft and Ashardalon: instead of translating the D&D experience into a board game, they’ve translated a Euro-style strategy game into the D&D universe.

It’ll take a while to find out whether it’s able to hold my interest longer than the other games did, but so far after two plays of a two-player game, I absolutely love it.

For anybody not familiar with the term “Euro-style:” it’s become a catch-all term used by board game geeks to refer to the types of board games popular in Germany, one of the only places where “board games” and “popular” can be used together non-ironically. They generally rely heavily on abstracted game mechanics, avoid randomization like dice rolls, and tend to reward players for “solving” the mechanic more than for defeating other players. (The opposite is called “Ameritrash” for whatever reason, and it’s heavy on dice rolls and other randomization, and it encourages player interaction and direct competition, like combat).

Lordsofwaterdeepboard
Lords of Waterdeep fits the Euro definition by being focused on resource management instead of combat, and by depending on a set of complementary mechanics that reward players who figure out how to use them all together. It’s a worker placement game that’s frequently compared to a bunch of games I’ve never played before: Caylus, Stone Age, Agricola, and Le Havre. I’ve seen several reviews from people more experienced in board games that complain LoW is just a simplified mash-up of other games they’ve already played. But since the closest I’ve come to a worker placement game is Puerto Rico, and since I’m not familiar with the Waterdeep setting or characters in D&D, everything in the game is new to me.

In the game, you play as one of the titular Lords of Waterdeep, the people of influence who secretly control everything that goes on within the city. Each player has a number of agents that he or she can send to various locations within the city, to earn money, recruit adventurers to the lord’s chosen house, get new quests, or construct new buildings with greater rewards for the agent assigned there. Most of the locations can only be occupied by one agent at a time, so the players will be competing over the best rewards. Once a player has gathered enough adventurers in his tavern, he can send them off to complete a quest, which earns victory points and, sometimes, ongoing rewards that continue throughout the rest of the game. At the end of the game, each player reveals his identity and earns additional victory points for completing quests of certain types.

If that explanation made little sense to you, the Dice Tower review gives a much better idea of how the game plays out.

Uncanny Undermountain

But if that explanation sounded like a fantastic world of intrigue and adventure, then, well, that’s my first major complaint about the game. The “adventurers” you’re recruiting are actually tiny wooden cubes of a particular color. And the “quests” you’re sending them on are just cards that cost a certain number of cubes and gold, and return a certain number of victory points. The theme is there, but you have to work pretty hard to keep it alive — always say, “I’m sending two rogues and a wizard on a quest to defeat the Drow Uprising” instead of “I’m spending two black cubes and a purple cube to get 10 victory points.”

That’s not to say that the theme is poorly done, or that it’s useless. The designers came up with what I think is an extremely clever way to map the mechanics of a Euro game onto the theme and setting of a D&D campaign. And it’s a perfect example of how much theme makes a difference in board games. Most of the resource management games I’ve played simply translate the resources into real-world equivalents: corn, wood, stone, sheep, or occasionally star fighters. So there are lots and lots and lots of games about farming. And there’s only a certain number of times you can hear the “I’ve got wood for sheep” joke before it gets tiresome. (That number is 1).

Keeping in the mindset of shadowy figures sending adventurers on quests can do a lot to keep the game interesting. But that, indirectly, leads to my second biggest complaint: even though I’ve only played the game twice at this point, I still feel as though I was doing mostly the same things each time. I suspect that there’s something of an “uncanny valley” effect going on — I’ve played Puerto Rico, which has a much less interesting theme, dozens of times without its ever feeling repetitive. But because Lords of Waterdeep‘s quest and intrigue cards suggest stories that are more interesting than collecting cubes to pay for victory points, it just draws attention to the fact that that’s basically all you’re doing.

This is a UNIX System. I Know This!

Those complaints aside, I enjoy the game a lot. Each two-player game finished in about an hour, but felt every bit as “complete” as a much longer game. I felt as if I was making interesting choices with every move, including my first move — there’s little sense of wasting the first few turns trying to build up an engine. Even my current favorites Dominion and Ascension haven’t been able to achieve that.

Even better, the mechanics of the game are simple enough to make it easy to develop a strategy for winning, but not so simple that there’s any one “right way” to play every time. I tend to be very reactionary when I’m playing most board games — I don’t have the patience to try and think several moves ahead, so I’m a lot more likely to try a move, just to see how it plays out. But with Lords of Waterdeep, I can actually formulate a strategy at the beginning of the game (suggested by the randomly-selected Lord card, each with its own secret victory points) and keep it through to the end. It’s like the scene in Little Man Tate, where the boy looks at a pool table and sees each of the balls’ trajectories across the table, calculates the angle and the force of impact, and instantly knows how to play.

For the record: I also got an uncommonly lucky starting draw in my first game, where both of my starting cards and my Lord card all worked together in a self-perpetuating victory point-generating engine, with no effort required on my part. On top of that, I was more willing to play aggressively against my opponent than he was playing against me — one of the aspects of the game that’s unusual for “Euros” is the inclusion of an “Intrigue” deck filled with cards that can make life difficult for your opponent. Even with those advantages, though, the scores stayed pretty close throughout the game. It seems very difficult for a player to just run away with the game, leaving the other players with no chance to catch up.

I got soundly trounced on my second game, and I enjoyed every bit of it. I’m looking forward to playing with more players, where there’s more competition for the available agent positions, and it’s not as easy (or even possible) to accomplish everything you set out to do in a single turn.

It’s extremely well balanced, it has a good mix of strategizing along with player interaction, it’s simple enough to allow for planning ahead but not so simple that the decisions don’t require thought, it’s a very clever combination of theme and game mechanic, and it’s possible to complete a game in an hour and a half. Plus, I didn’t mention it earlier, but the box and the components are extremely well designed — the insert has a place for everything, and the gold coins have holes in them! I think they’ve done an outstanding job with this game, and I’m impressed all around.

Board Games And Me

I’ve had an interest in board games for several years now — a side effect of being friends with an award-winning game designer — but it’s really taken hold over the past few years, as I’ve started to really understand the appeal.

My interest in video games has been, for the most part, focused on how interactivity affects and enhances storytelling. I used to joke that a lot of game developers were failed filmmakers, but I’ve got to admit it’s basically how I got interested in game development in the first place. I get how movies work, essentially, so the question is how can you use that kind of language to resonate with the audience on a more active level? How do you involve them in the process of creating the story, not just watching it?

It’s only recently that I’ve begun to appreciate game mechanics as an art in and of themselves. I’d taken it for granted that video game mechanics had become solidified and codified, with the main question being how to take the preset shooter, platformer, or real-time strategy template and use it to tell more complex stories. But now I’m feeling that that’s not solidification, but stagnation. It’s rare for a video game to introduce something genuinely novel, and even then it’s most often an add-on to something else: a first person shooter plus portals and comedy; a third-person action game plus the ability to rewind time; a series of boss fights but you feel bad for killing the bosses.

Board games can be every bit as iterative, of course. But while an uninspired video game with outstanding presentation can still be a good experience, even the best theme imaginable can’t make a weak board or card game fun.

That’s because all the systems are exposed, and that’s exactly what makes them so exciting to a jaded video game developer. A good game design is a system of complementary machines, turning inputs into interesting outputs, fueled and balanced with risks and rewards. The best games combine those mechanics in a way that encourages the player to create his own engine with the available parts, not just once but each time he plays the game. In that sense, complaints that Lords of Waterdeep is “just” a mash-up of existing game mechanics are so irrelevant as to be meaningless. It’d be like complaining that a baker doesn’t grind his own flour.

For years I’ve been trying the think of ways that video games could allow players to not just tick off a list of objectives with a predetermined set of pieces that work well together, but to actually become involved in the process of putting the pieces together themselves. Because if we can do that with resources and victory points, we can should be able to extend that to plot developments and meaningful character interactions.

SimCity lets players build mostly inert variations on Conway’s Life simulator. Minecraft lets players build spaceships and computers, but not stories. Computer RPGs have no actual role-playing. Civilization veers between tedious micromanagement and rote memorization from version to version. And Starcraft has gotten so bogged down with cut-scenes and lists of objectives that there’s little room left for devising new ways for the pieces to work together.

I’d started to think that the problem was so insoluble that maybe it wasn’t even a problem at all. Maybe the current state of big-budget games and derivative, over-simplified indies really was the best we could do. Maybe the publishers were right: players just don’t want to be challenged to come up with something for themselves, since it’s never a case of satisfying problem-solving and always a case of “having to read the designer’s mind.”

But then every few weeks I’d go to Board Game Night, and I’d watch everyone casually coming up with new strategies, getting engaged with the game and with each other, and having fun doing it.

A Throne for Games

A report back from Chuck’s First KublaCon

Round TableLast weekend was three-and-a-half days playing board and card games at KublaCon, an SF Bay Area game convention. I’d heard about the convention before, but this was my first year to bite the bullet and go. It was a hell of a lot of fun, highly recommended to anybody who’s interested in “analog” games.

I’d been skeptical about actually staying at the hotel instead of just driving down each day, but for a game convention, that’s totally the way to do it. It’s more social than any other nerd con I’ve been to; you really get the sense that people aren’t there to buy and sell stuff, but to play. At all hours, you could wander around the common areas of the hotel and find groups of people with a game, inviting strangers to join in. And that’s literally all hours, since I spoke to a few people starting five- or six-hour games at 11 pm.

In addition to the dealer floor and the huge personal collections of dozens of folks obsessively into games, there was a fully-stocked library with just about everything published in the last couple of decades.

I got to try a bunch of games I’d never played before, along with a few that I’d played but didn’t really appreciate. Here’s what I played and what I thought. (Some of these are only after a single play-through, so take that into account when you’re making your buying or playing decisions).

Dominion
Deck-building game: Players “buy” cards from a common pool and add them to their deck. Each has special abilities, designed to let you alter your deck or your hand to buy the more expensive, scoring cards.

I played one game of Dominion not long after it’d been released, and I just didn’t see the appeal. It finally clicked for me this year, and once it did, I was completely hooked. It’s just a brilliant game, so well designed and extensible that it actually makes flaws in other games all the more glaring.

I’d been thinking that the most novel concept of the game was how victory points are handled — the cards that score you points are in the same deck as everything else, but they’re of no use to you until the end of the game. So there’s a strategic balance inherent to the central mechanic of the game: the more point cards you get, the more space they take up in your hand. Some of the most interesting strategies are based on the idea of doing something completely unintuitive, like trashing point cards in the hopes of getting higher-value cards later.

But that’s just one aspect of what’s really appealing about Dominion: it forces you to conceive of and adapt fundamentally different strategies for each game. A while ago I complained that videogames rarely require genuine innovation on the part of the player. I feel that I’m always looking for the one correct solution, or choosing between several clearly-labeled strategies.

Because the available cards in Dominion are randomized each game, the player’s actually forced to invent a new strategy with each game. (Part of that could be because the game is still relatively new for me, and there are cards I haven’t played yet). I can’t help but imagine how much more satisfying videogames would be if they required that same type of player innovation. If, for instance, I had to figure out with each session of Team Fortress 2 which two classes worked well together, instead of just picking Medic and looking for a Heavy to pair up with.

I’ve also got to mention that I entered a Dominion tournament and actually won the first round (but was eliminated in the final). That never happens, so I want it on record with the internet that I have won a game before.

Dungeon Lords
Board game: Compete with other players for resources you’ll use to add rooms and monsters to your dungeon. At the end of four rounds, a team of heroes will try to conquer your dungeon, and you’ll have to use your traps and monsters to fight them off.

This was probably my favorite of the new games I played at the convention. I’d been wandering around, and a friendly group invited me to sit down and join them as they taught me the rules. It’s got some very neat elements, and I had fun playing it, but I’m not sure I’d recommend it to casual players, as there’s a ton of stuff going on.

Continue reading “A Throne for Games”