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I was recently having a discussion with a friend of mine who is not, by nature, a ‘gamer’ and he made an interesting comment: “Why do you need to have more games than just the ‘classics’ like Chess?” This is actually a reasonable question. After all, Chess has been around in one form or another since about 600AD, a lot longer than SETTLERS OF CATAN. Chess exemplifies the maxim of, “simple to learn, a lifetime to master”; Chess has a long history of organized and competitive play around the world; Chess has an organized system for players to rate and match themselves against any other player; Chess is strategic and tactically complex in a way few other games approach; and most of all Chess is fun!

But even listing all those elements, why do you never see gamers playing Chess? Why does everybody own a Chess set and so few people play it regularly in their hobby game time?  I believe the reason is tied into being a ‘gamer’ and what that means.  First though I want to revisit that conversation with my friend, because I think it highlights the key difference between ‘gamers’ as a type and other people and it helped me to clarify why gaming is such an important hobby to me.

I believe the fundamental difference is that ‘gamers’ view game-playing as a skill or an activity unto itself, while non-gamers see game playing only as a skill of playing that particular game, like Chess. Gamers might play Chess to enjoy the interplay of strategy and tactics, of planning, of the social pleasure of victory or defeat, but a non-gamer might only see playing Chess as a way to practice and improve your ability to play Chess.

My friend actually espoused this viewpoint in our conversation, “there are so many things to know about Chess that I don’t see how I’d have time for other games, if I got into it.” I think that this is the attitude of an athlete, not of a gamer.  An athlete usually picks a sport or a skill and practices it, and trains their body and their mind to the performance of that skill, and, at a very high level tends to not practice other skills in other sports choosing to focus on achieving excellence in one area rather than in every sport. Similarly for high level Chess players, there are reams of books written about strategy, and lists of moves to memorize for efficient play, and an endless lifetime of the pursuit of excellence in that skill, but to what extent does being excellent at Chess help you win at CARCASSONNE?

A gamer, in contrast, is practicing a different set of skills, not the skills of soccer, or of Chess, but the skill of ‘game-playing’ which is, I believe, as valid and valuable as the ability to kick a ball, or know the opening to Kasparov vs. Deep Blue.

What is the skill of ‘game-playing’? What are you learning when you pick up a new game, and more importantly why is it valuable, fun and for some gamers, so compelling a hobby?

A short list: the ability to socialize in a confrontational environment; the ability to prioritize actions in response to novel situations; the ability to develop strategies in a new environment; the ability to adjust those strategies as the environment changes; the ability to process new instructions; the ability to be a gracious loser and a humble winner.

In short, you’re practicing and learning valuable skills for LIFE, not for games, when you pick up a copy of Dominion and I strongly believe that in doing so you’re putting yourself ahead of non-gamers. Take a look at that list again. Every one of those skills is valuable in a work or professional environments, some of them are critical to successfully navigating the modern world. They’re valuable in relationships, negotiations, novel problem solving. I’m pretty sure I’ve used the decision-making skills I learned playing Magic when I was fixing my sink, not because I knew how to play Magic, but because I knew how take a situation and say, “okay, I’ll try this…that didn’t work, now I’ll try this other thing…hmm, that was better, what if I change it a little and try this last thing.”

There are studies indicating that game players do in fact see benefits of the kind described above. The work of James Paul Gee and Jan Mcgonigal are good places to start for further reading. Additionally, there is anecdotal evidence that employers are using game playing as a litmus test for certain kinds of skills in the workplace, and more to the point, as evidence of a particular worldview.

The only way I know to develop this viewpoint, and to grow those skills is to play games. Certainly it’s the most fun way! But not to play the same game exclusively, because then you’re not learning to play games, but to play a game, and that’s less useful than developing the wider toolbox of skills described above.

The gamer is ultimately a highly trained, engaged, curious problem solver, whether the problem is defeating your friend in WARHAMMER, scoring points in LOST CITIES or yes, even checkmating your opponent in Chess. You’re developing your ‘gaming-brain’ or your ‘decision-making muscles’ every time you pick up a game, and more importantly every time you pick up a new game. You learn these skills, which are inextricably about coping with novelty and change, best when you face new situations, new rules and new games.

The skills of gaming, and subsequently the hobby of gaming for many, are the skills of breadth, of taking a large number of experiences and a wide body of knowledge and applying it to new situations, rather than taking one domain, or one situation and studying it completely. Both are valuable, and both can be fun, but as I think more about raising my new son I know I’ll be leaving a copy of SETTLERS in his room, and hoping someday he can beat me at Chess.

Michael Pokorny is an avid miniatures and board gamer, and a fan of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire. His current project is an extensive conversion of a Warmachine Cygnar Storm Strider involving a live plasma sphere.  (Article coming soon!)

Deck of Many Things: Hollow Earth RPG Spotlight

hex_cover“First we discovered that the Earth is round.  Then we discovered that it’s hollow.  Now we must keep its secrets from falling into the wrong hands.”

And so begins the promise of the HOLLOW EARTH EXPEDITION RPG (HEX) from Exile Game Studio, a largely overlooked RPG originally released in 2006. Like many of the folks who haven’t given a serious look at this RPG until now, I am truly impressed by the incredible production quality and depth of content that this exciting pulp treat has to offer.
First, let me start by saying this game is not the multi-purpose pulp adventure do-it-all system of your dreams. What HEX does manage to be is something far more interesting than what most of those games have to offer. Whereas pulp games like White Wolf’s ADVENTURE! and Evil Hat’s SPIRIT OF THE CENTURY provide a rationale for party cohesion and just enough setting to have one at all, HEX goes all in on isetting and, in this reader’s humble opinion, scores maximum marks. Set against the backdrop of the tumultuous 1930s, the Hollow Earth is a massive (how massive, the Gamemaster must determine) underground series of interlocking worlds where nearly any pulp situation could occur. Dinosaur-hunting on the ridge of an active volcano? Deciphering Atlantean scrolls inside an ancient Viking tomb? Derring-do and treasure hunting while being chased by monocled Nazis cruising the underworld in giant mole-machines? Yes. All that and more can be set within HEX’s historically rich and fantastically fecund setting.
So, rather than sit here pitching this thing, let me now serve you the heaping platter of meat…

The setting of HEX is a glorious one. In addition to the color I’ve provided above, the setting has other strengths in both its presentation and content that should mean a lot to aspiring gamemasters and players alike. The core book chapter entitled “Setting” is actually a tease to some degree. In this early chapter we are given a wonderfully fast-paced yet detail-oriented tour of the 1930s. In addition to listing the usual world-changing events, the chapter is treated in such a fashion as to denote specifically what a character living in that era would actually know. Certainly mad scientists and scholars of the arcane will have their secrets, but what about the private eye who lives a relatively isolated day-to-day punctuated by back alley murders and empty bottles of gin? What would that guy know? The setting chapter of HEX does a really could job of answering exactly these kinds of questions.

Before we get to the truly crazy stuff, I’d like to add that reading the sample characters (provided on full color pages a la Shadowrun) give a really good sketch of the game’s tone as well as the setting itself. These are the types of characters that pursue the Hollow Earth’s mysteries. These brave, mad, and obsessed individuals give great clues and inspiration for both the character creation process as well as providing some nice hooks for potential HEX sessions or even entire campaigns.
Now for the awesome. Chapters seven, eight, and nine of the core book cover the Hollow Earth itself; these are the enemies and organizations with whom the PCs may have dealings, as well as a catalogue of subterranean fauna and flora filled with evocative descriptions and rules for using them in your games. I am not going to go heavily into the Hollow Earth chapter because it is a minefield of setting spoilers. All I’ll say is that getting into the Hollow Earth is not always as easy as finding a big hole at the North Pole and sailing your air balloon into its whirling, pterodactyl-laden heart. Sometimes it’s a riddle, a piece of unimaginable weird science tech, and sometimes it is something altogether beyond the ken of normal men and women. A la Shangri-la!

Although I spend most of my time as the Gamemaster, I love picking up a new gaming book, flipping through the character generation system and then trying to think of all the badass things that a character in that game would allow me to experience. After only a few peeks at HEX’s character options my brain exploded with ideas and I found myself immediately desiring to start up a game . On the way home from Origins 2012 (where I took my first serious look at HEX), I’m quite sure I must’ve said “I must own Hollow Earth” at least half a dozen times.

The core book offers a variety of style-rich human archetypes that the pulp player is sure to embrace. The dying moneyman, the fortune hunter, the occult investigator, the mad scientist, and the jungle missionary all bring about images of flickering black and white film clips of Johnny Weissmuller beating up pirates on a massive tree branch suspended over a rushing waterfall; or Buster Crabbe blasting Ming’s lackeys on some psychedelic space-scape crawling with giant lizards. In addition to these versatile concepts, HEX’s designers provide some very cool talents and flaws (often called merits or disadvantages in other systems) for customizing your player character and developing a solid backstory and personal pulp style.

It is not a usual thing for me to jump up and down about the elegance of rules. Rules have always been a sort of irritating tether for my imagination, feeling like a quantitative stage hook that pulls me out of immersive role-playing and turns my attention to some crappy, mathy bits. For as long as I have gamed, I’ve favored ultra rules-light systems that dissolve into the background of the narrative, only being present as a passing permission for me and my friends to create stories and worlds we can run around in.
The UBIQUITY system used in HEX is a pretty simple little machine with some really cool, freeing features and options.
Perhaps the most flamboyant aspect of the system is the style point mechanic. Style points are a means by which the GM can provide individual rewards without disrupting the pacing provided by general advancement and experience points. With style points, player characters can augment skills, cause talents to flare to truly cinematic levels, and even soak or avoid damage in situations where it would otherwise be impossible. These style points generally flow in tight little cycles between scenes and encourage players to do things in accordance with their motivation.
Motivation is another cool bit, similar to the drive statistic in Pelgrane Press’s TRAIL OF CTHULHU.  It is that which moves your character to action, something that he or she seeks that will actively get her into trouble.  It’s the sound in the dark that the campers must investigate and the song in the night that draws pirates to wreck their vessel upon the jagged rocks. Is your character so motivated by truth that she’s willing to sneak past a gauntlet of heavily armed Thule Society super soldiers?  Or is your character so consumed with greed that they’ll omit the fact that acquiring the Atlantean weather control device will endanger the entire expedition, forcing them to traverse a well-known Tyrannosaurus feeding ground?
Beyond these bits the game unfolds in a fashion very similar to White Wolf’s current version of STORYTELLER, working with small dice pools formed by combining attribute, skill, and occasionally a funky talent bonus (similar to the way feats augment skills in the last two and a half editions of Dungeons & Dragons). The types of dice used are entirely up to the players and GM, as successes are not a target number, but any even face of any sized die. As long as the die has an even number of sides, you can use it in HEX. In addition to fast die-reading, the game is sped up by a cool little system of using averages for routine and routine-for-the-freakishly-competent actions. They make some special UBIQUITY dice that apparently speed things up even more but I haven’t really looked into these as I was entirely happy with plain old six-siders.
Combat is fast and narrative with a quick resolution system for determining conditions and wound penalties. None of it is particularly crunchy but, taken as a whole system, HEX provides a robust basis with enough granularity that it feels like traditional RPG combat, neither bogged down by heavy scripting, cluttered by weird narrative novelties, nor diluted by an awkward and removed directorial perspective that makes the game feel like you are discussing it rather than actually playing it.

What I’ve covered above is pretty well covered in the core book, a well-produced hardcover coming in at about forty dollars. The core book, with a negotiable amount of elbow grease, will provide a ridiculous number of play hours. In fact, the material that your brain starts spitting after casual contact with this fine game may very well persist for years. Nonetheless, there are three supplements thus far…

First there’s the Hollow Earth Expedition Gamemaster Screen. Made from a similar stock as the sturdy cover of the HEX core itself, the screen provides a good selection of reference rules for the GM. Weapon damage charts, condition summaries, and various sorts of modifiers are printed in easily readable font and organized for maximum content. In addition, there are some extra GM-oriented bits in a thin booklet that fits neatly within the screen.
Next, there’s Hollow Earth Expedition: Secrets of the Surface World – a guide to what’s going on up top while you are running around down below. It’s filled with a bunch of new character options including the types of folks that’d be involved in surface based capers but could just as easily end up in the belly of your subterranean HEX campaign. This is also where you find the full psychic and magic rules, as well as expanded material on weird science and surface world adventure locations.
Finally there’s Hollow Earth Expedition: Mysteries of the Hollow Earth. This book provides rules for making your own creatures as well as systems for shamanism and alchemy. Beyond this, Mysteries of the Hollow Earth offers guidelines for playing those characters that are native to the Hollow Earth. Beastmen of several varieties, titan berserkers, and crazy humans who call the Hollow Earth home all become totally viable player options with the inclusion of this sourcebook. In addition more setting details are given about some of HEX’s best known underground locations as well as some of its most mysterious.
And as if that weren’t enough to keep you neck-deep in pulp craziness, the next announced supplement is Hollow Earth Expedition: Revelations of Mars. Although I’ve only seen the teaser, the book promises Martian locations, alien tech, and character options tied to the Mars setting. Yeah. I’ll pre-order mine yesterday, please.
Sound appealing? Feeling a little daffy? Want the skinny on this entire Hollow Earth rumpus? Well, strap on your bullwhip, get on your stegosaurus, and prepare to fight those Nazi-controlled molemen like you never have before!



BrunoFaiduttiUnicorn“I hope there’s no god, since the very idea of Creation seems deeply obscene.”  -Bruno Faidutti

I am in love with a Frenchman named Bruno.

You see, some people have a favorite film director.  Some people have a favorite band.  Or maybe a favorite dessert.  Yeah, I’ve got those things, but I’ve also got a favorite board game designer.  Yeah, I know.  You wish you were as cool as me.  But if you’re reading this column, you’ve got at the very least, a passing interest in board games, so if you’re not familiar with Mr. Bruno Faidutti, allow me to make introductions.

Bruno Faidutti was born in 1961 and is a sociologist and historian.  He lists Blade Runner among his favorite films and Gogol Bordello as one of his favorite bands.  Kurt Vonnegut, Neil Gaiman and James Joyce are but a few of his favorite authors.  He prefers Jerzebiak brand vodka.  He wrote his thesis for his History PhD on unicorns!  In fact, you can download it directly from his fabulous website… provided you’re willing to read it in French, that is.   Said fabulous website (www.Faidutti.com) also includes his “Ideal Game Library” which is a comprehensive list of every game Mr. Faidutti thinks should be in the distinguishing board gamer’s collection.  (For any of you out there who are fans of horned mythical beasts, but are not francophones, allow me to instead recommend Chris Lavers’ enlightening book The Natural History of Unicorns.  No, it’s got nothing to do with gaming.  Screw you, it’s my column!  Just read the damn book.)

At any rate, Mr. Bruno Faidutti also designs board games.  And in my opinion, Bruno Faidutti designs excellent board games.  Many designers have a design signature that is apparent in most of their work, and Faidutti is no exception.  Social games are his trademark, and his games tend to highlight bluffing or even intimidation over raw tactical thought.  Being able to out-maneuver your opponents is rarely as valuable as being able to out-guess them.  Faidutti’s games are not usually the sort of affairs where one can analyze every possible outcome to maximize your position; too much is left to the whim of your opponent.  Figuring out the odds means nothing when your opponent can find success by making the most ridiculous move possible just to screw with you.  Knowing exactly how any turn is going to play out is an impossibility.

CitadelsNowhere is this design strategy in better evidence than in Faidutti’s best selling game, CITADELS.  First printed in 2000 and later published in no less than 16 different languages, this was the game that introduced me to Bruno Faidutti, and it might just be my favorite game of all time.  It’s certainly my favorite in its weight class.

In a nutshell, the game is played like this:  you’re playing cards from your hand to the table in front of you, the cards representing districts in a medieval city.  You can only play one card per turn, and you must pay the gold value of the card to add it to your city.  Once a player has eight districts in front of him, the current round is played out and then game ends, the player with the most valuable city winning the game.  That’s basically it.  The trick is that each round, every player secretly picks a character from a shared deck of eight special character cards.  The character that you choose determines not only when in the game round you get to play, but gives you one special ability that enables you to somehow manipulate the cards, the other players, or your income.  Not all the characters are always available, but because the remaining character cards are passed to the player on your left after you choose yours, you will always have a few good hunches as to which characters the players before you have chosen.  This last tidbit is the heart of the game.  Can you guess which player has chosen which character?  Are you certain that Jeff has chosen to be the King again this round, or has the rat bastard picked the Thief, thinking to rob you of your lawfully gotten gold?  (My apologies to Jeff for using his name as an example once again.  Play enough games with me over the years and that’s what happens.  That, and I write a ludicrously lengthy Shadowrun campaign which culminates with your beloved character having a mental breakdown and effectively choosing to kill himself.  What?  Oh, right.  Board Games.  *ahem*)

I have introduced CITADELS to countless people over the years, gamer and non-gamer alike, and it’s always a crowd pleaser (crowd indeed: it plays well with up to eight!)  Within the gaming realm, for me there’s nothing quite as satisfying as successfully pegging which character a CITADELS opponent has chosen so that you can get the desired result.  Whether it’s assassinating the King to keep him from gaining the Noble district gold bonus and winning the game, or stealing from the Architect because man, you just knew that guy was gonna pick the Architect ‘cause he had that big old pile of gold sitting in front of him.


Over the years, Mr. Faidutti has implemented the basic idea of choosing special characters (each with a special power) into a number of different variations for different games.  Designed with Michael Schacht (he of Zooloretto fame), FIST OF DRAGONSTONES, though now criminally out of print and unavailable, was the follow up to CITADELS, and combined the “special power” mechanic with a blind bidding system and a rotating cast of special characters.  There are no hands of cards to be managed, just some lovely wooden coins and glass “Dragon Stones”.  It’s a much faster and more confrontational game.  Deciphering the “group think” is more important here than in CITADELS, as one must attempt to predict how the entire group will respond to any given character’s availability.  Adding to the tension is the fact that a player’s resources are hidden behind a cardboard screen.

MissionRedPlanetIn the same broad family is the more recent MISSION: RED PLANET, which Faidutti designed with Bruno Cathala (CYCLADES).  The same core mechanic of character cards, each with a special power is utilized here, but every player has their own deck, and there’s an actual board used in this game, bringing a simple area control mechanic into the fold.  It’s almost like what would happen if CITADELS and EL GRANDE had an illegitimate love child that was raised on Jules Verne novels.  It’s got rocket ships; mining accidents on the surface of Mars; secret agents in space; off world bombing… but really, all you need to know about this game is:  steampunk-themed board game.  The market is starting to see quite a few games with this theme, but Red Planet remains the best.  Why this game never took off I can’t understand.  (Took off?  Ha!  Get it?  Took…   off?   Rockets?  Never mind.)  Easy to learn, and with a short playing time, it’s become a favorite of a few of my gaming groups.  MISSION: RED PLANET is also out of print, but there are still quite a few copies floating out there in the distribution channels as of this writing, so it should be available from most shops.


Finally, one could argue that MYSTERY OF THE ABBEY (designed with Serge Laget) is part of the same board game family tree, but instead of special character cards, the special abilities come from the locations that you occupy on the board.  One part The Name of the Rose and one part CLUE for adults, MYSTERY OF THE ABBEY takes the whodunit idea of CLUE and makes it a much more social affair, requiring you to ask very carefully worded questions of your opponents.  By the midway point of the game, one is forced to make three and four step deductions based off not only your opponent’s answers, but the kinds of questions they themselves are asking.  So I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me! A few event cards thrown into the mix keeps every game fresh and can even add some party game style silliness.

Something else you may have noticed is that Bruno Faidutti really likes to collaborate with other designers.  I find that this keeps his works fresh while still maintaining that certain Je ne sais Bruno.   (Mr. Faidutti himself would probably be appalled at my attempt at French humor.  What can I say?  After taking four years of the language in High School all those many years ago, I find myself in my thirties and more capable of speaking Indonesian.  I’m not joking.  My cousin can speak Russian fluently.  In fact, he once traveled to Russia to study for a semester but decided half way through to quit and take a train across Mongolia instead.  He returned home only to move to Los Angeles.  None of which has any bearing on anything, really.)

Among his other designs are INCAN GOLD (designed with Alan R. Moon of TICKET TO RIDE fame) a press-your-luck style mining themed game; the recent BUGS & CO, a fantastically manic real time set collection game that plays in about 90 seconds for up to eight players (designed with Tom and Yako, the crew behind JUNGLE SPEED); RED NOVEMBER (designed together with Jef Gontier) a cooperative game of drunken Russian gnomes aboard a doomed submarine (revised edition due out soon!); and DOUBLE AGENT, a two player spy-themed game which only came out a couple weeks ago.  It reminds me of Richard Garfield’s underappreciated PECKING ORDER, but with an extra layer of bluffing.

Finally, I would like to shine a light on some of Bruno’s releases from the last couple years that didn’t quite get the attention they deserved.

PONY EXPRESS, on which Faidutti shares design credits with Antoine Bauza, is silly fun in a box.  Players race to be the first to reach Sacramento while being forced to deal with hostile Indians and gunfights with the other players.  Utilizing poker dice (familiar to anyone who’s played DICE TOWN) players move their pawns based not on the poker hand that they roll on the dice, but the poker hand that they claim to have rolled on the dice, provided no other player calls their bluff.  If that weren’t enough, when dueling with other players or fighting off injuns, players literally throw the dice at the pawns on the board in an attempt to hit their targets.  But be careful not to shoot any innocent bystanders or you’ll go to jail.  A silly, silly game which hides a surprising amount of depth.   Even better with some adult beverages thrown into the mix, especially considering there’s a Saloon mechanic that would facilitate said beverages nicely.  This is now on my short list of favorite party games.  Alas, it too has gone the way of the dodo bird, and it is getting rather hard to find.  If you manage to find a second-hand copy of this riding around somewhere, I would highly recommend scooping it up. Is it basically poker-fied LIAR’S DICE but with a board game racing element thrown in?  Sure, but it’s got a lot more character.  (What’s LIAR’S DICE you say?  “So any crew member can be challenged?”  “Aye, anyone.”   “I challenge Davey Jones!”)

LetterOfMarqueLETTER OF MARQUE, from 2009, is taught in a couple of minutes and played in half an hour or less. It’s a quick little time filler of a game wherein Bruno’s trademark bluffing and guessing style is at the forefront.  In fact, bluffing and guessing is about all there is to this simple game.  Well, that and cute little brightly colored sailing ships.  A player sends merchant ships out to sea, each of varying treasure value, but must secretly decide if you’ll utilize one of only two available cannons to arm the ship. Of course, like most things Bruno has his hand in, all is not as it seems.  At first play, one might even be prepared to dismiss this game as too lightweight or even for children, but it quickly becomes apparent that there are multiple layers of bluffing to delve into.  Do you defend the most valuable merchant ships?  The ones of mid-worth?  Or do you arm the lowest value ones, which should be the easy targets?  With only three attacks possible per player, and limited options each turn, it is easy to lose track of which ships are unguarded, particularly in a five player game (which is where this title really shines.)  Specific information about your opponent’s game has already been revealed, but in the chaos, you’ve forgotten the details.

IslaDoradaArtLastly is ISLA DORADA, which was released last year through an arrangement between Fantasy Flight Games and Fun Forge.  This game actually has a really strange history, having originally been designed as an expansion board for Alan Moon’s ELFENROADS, but morphing into something much bigger over the course of the decade.  Faidutti himself does a much better job of covering the history himself, so I won’t attempt to do so here. (But you can click here to check it out.  Yes, it’s in French, scroll down for English.)
The game has absolutely gorgeous art, and manages to feel rather unlike anything else, despite being based on previous game designs.  A crashed airship on a tropical island leads to the survivors arguing over directions as they bicker over hidden treasures and curses.  In fact, all the players share a single pawn and there is a heated struggle each turn over where to move it.  The trick is to get your opponents to move the thing where you want it to go, but make them spend the resources to do so.  Don’t let its simplicity fool you, once your gaming group gets a session or two under your belts, the wacky randomness will give way to some serious bluffing and maneuvering.
Bruno Faidutti’s designs manage to split the difference between raw strategy and the social mechanics more common to party games or poker, and I find that his games manage to appeal to hardcore strategists and more casual gamers alike. It was no surprise to me that Nexus Games picked Bruno Faidutti and Serge Laget to launch their Nexus Design Series with AD ASTRA, one of my favorite games released in 2009, which I discussed briefly in the Best Of list I compiled for that year.
With most of Faidutti’s designs, your brain will burn as you try your best to outwit your opponents, but you’ll be laughing the entire time.  It’s this lovely dichotomy that makes Bruno Faidutti my favorite game designer, and every new release bearing his name becomes a priority for me to investigate.  With CITADELS alone, he would have left his mark on the gaming world, but lucky for us, he continues to be amazingly prolific.

What’s next for him?  Be on the lookout for THE DWARF KING from Iello, coming soon.  It’s a new spin on the classic French trick-taking game BARBU, and I will be buying it without knowing much else about it.  It’s a Faidutti design.  I am at the point where I just blindly buy anything with his name on it.
Paul Alexander Butler is the Store Manager of Games and Stuff and organizes Board Game Night every Tuesday at 6pm.  [CARD.BOARD.BOX.] is his semi-regular gaming column.  Prior to 2008, Paul had never lost a game of Citadels.  These days, he loses all the time.


“Do not meddle in the affairs of Wizards, for they are subtle and quick to anger.”  -Meriadoc Brandybuck

It is often said about the classic 1959 board game DIPLOMACY that it’s a great way to destroy friendships, or at least a great way to temporarily turn your friends into bitter enemies.  I believe the same can be said about 1983’s WIZ-WAR, except in the latter case, you’ll be laughing the entire time.
First produced independently and later printed and distributed by Chessex, Wiz-War was printed in at least seven editions over the years – probably more, I can’t keep track.  Creator Tom Jolly has gone on to design such notable games as CAVE TROLL and DRAKON, as well as the innovative DISK WARS, arguably Fantasy Flight Games’ first gigantic success.  WIZ-WAR, meanwhile, despite being a cult classic, and having been successful enough for two expansions, has languished out of print for some time.  Published sporadically by Chessex over the years, most editions were simple little cardboard and paper affairs, with only the most recent iterations even being in color.  For whatever reason, Chessex has allowed the game to stay unavailable, despite frequent rumblings that a new edition was on the way.

Yet the influence of this tiny little game is widespread.  DUNGEON TWISTER is obviously a cousin of WIZ-WAR.  Celebrated RPG writer John Wick (LEGEND OF THE FIVE RINGS; HOUSES OF THE BLOODED) wrote an essay on WIZ-WAR for Green Ronin’s Hobby Games: The 100 Best book and it puts this little rant of mine to shame. (Every self respecting gamer should own that book, by the way)   No less than Richard Garfield has said that WIZ-WAR was an influence on the design of MAGIC: THE GATHERING. 

It’s easy to see how that happened.  WIZ-WAR is a game of dueling wizards, played on a maze-like board of dungeon corridors.  The more players, the bigger the dungeon.  Every player has two treasures in their home corner of the board.  The goal of the game is to capture any two treasures (other than your own) and return them to your home base.  You can also achieve victory by simply killing all of your opponents.  A simple hit point system is used and every player has a hand of cards that represent spells that can do a wide variety of things – such as throwing fireballs or summoning monsters to attack your rivals.  Finding the right combination of cards for any given attack can sometimes be devastating to an opponent.  There are also counter-attack cards that can be played as interrupts.  And counter-counter-attack cards.  Any of this sounding familiar?   Some of the spells that result in the most fun are the ones that can change the very nature of the maze by creating pits, destroying walls, or rotating entire sections of the board.  When all else fails, one can simply punch an adjacent wizard.  And let me tell you, there’s something sickly satisfying about a game of dueling wizards that can end with one well timed punch to the face.

And talk of face-punching leads me to the real joy of this game.  It’s not so much about strategy and planning as it is about trash talk and scheming.  How close any player is to winning is right there in front of you at all times.  I think I have yet to play a session of Wiz-War without something like this occurring:
Mike: “Dude!  Why are you attacking me?  Joe is like two turns away from winning?”
Phil: “Yeah, but you locked me behind that door.”
Mike: “That was twenty minutes ago!  You’re gonna hand the game to Joe!”
Phil: “Yeah, maybe you’re right.  OK, I hit Joe with the fireball instead.”
Joe: “Idiot!  Don’t you see what he’s doing to you?   Who do you think Mike’s Wraith is gonna attack next turn if you kill me now?”

Yeah, it’s a great game.  I imagine certain MAGIC: THE GATHERING COMMANDER players might really get into this.

Wiz-War was one of the first games I bought at a convention (Origins 1991, right here in Baltimore) and it proved to be so much more than just Con Trash.  (Con Trash, for the uninitiated, is any of a number of low-budget, dumb-fun little games that specifically appeal to the gamer demographic.  You play it at a convention and have a ball with it, mainly because you’re all hopped up on nerdy con goodness.  Then you buy it and it goes home with you to sit on your shelf where it will never be played again.  But I digress.)  Wiz-War hit the table again and again and again.  And years later, when I saw a new edition, I bought it all over again, as my original copy was so worn by that point.  Not that that stopped a buyer in Sweden from paying $90 plus shipping for my old copy just a few years ago.  Clearly, this is a game that is well loved by many.

So why am I talking about a 27 year old game that’s been out of print since the nineties?  A forum post by Tom Jolly in August of 2008 states the following:
“Hi, all.  The good news is, with some negotiation, in a few weeks I should have a contract in hand canceling the Chessex contract and replacing it with one from a much prompter company which shall, for the moment, remain nameless. But, WW will be out in less than 2 years once the contract is signed, and it’ll look *nice*.”

Over a year later (Nov. ’09) he posted this:
“Well, the contract with The Company Who Shall Not Be Named is all signed as of a few months ago (I’m slow in the “delivering news” department). So now it’s just “wait for publication” in 2011. As for expansions, I have no idea how much of anything they’re going to incorporate from the basic game and the 3 expansion sets (one never published). They’ve got an awful lot of material to choose from, but publication is far enough off that they haven’t started pinging me yet for comments and suggestions.”

And now (June ’11) Jolly is soliciting gamers’ opinions on cards for the new edition (http://wizwar.com/wizboard/viewtopic.php?t=1857).  Also, after months of speculation, it is now commonly believed that the publisher will be Fantasy Flight Games, although it has not been officially announced.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is worthy of a naked happy dance.

Additional information seems to indicate that the “mystery publisher” required exclusive computer rights, and that the organization is also one known for making very well produced and good looking games.  Additionally, Jolly suggested that it’s possible that instead of typical expansions, the company might look into releasing new cards in a staggered CCG type format, though he’s admitted that he’s gotten no direct intel from the company on this, but it’s merely conjecture on his part.  All of this has the internet abuzz with guesses about WIZ-WAR’s future publisher.  Although again, current scuttlebutt is that the mystery publisher is in fact Fantasy Flight.  Ooh.. does this mean we’ll see some sort of weird board game/LCG hybrid thingie?

At any rate, according to my calendar, we are now just about halfway through 2011.  Is a new Wiz-War on the horizon?

Paul Alexander Butler is the Store Manager of Games and Stuff and organizes the shop’s Board Game Night every Tuesday Night at 6pm.  [Card.Board.Box.] is his montly gaming column.  At last count, he had over 200 board game titles crammed into the tiny bedroom of his tiny apartment.  Nothing says “Den of Love” like a floor-to-ceiling wall of board games, eh?



The following article was originally published on our old, crappy website in November of 2009.  It is presented here on our new gloriously shiny website as a way to relaunch our re-tooled Board Gaming column:


1. Why Do We Play Board Games?

“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.”
– George Bernard Shaw

Four Hundred Dollars.  I just bought a four hundred dollar board game.  Go ahead.  Read that again.  I’ll wait…

Yes, four hundred dollars.  No, I’m not kidding.  I just paid $400 to pre-order my copy of the limited, Collector’s Edition of WAR OF THE RING from Nexus Games and Fantasy Flight Games.  I’m not entirely sure that I don’t regret it.

One should note, however, that this sort of behavior from gamers and game publishers is nothing new.  Four years ago, to celebrate the game’s 10th anniversary, Mayfair Games unveiled the $500 SETTLERS OF CATAN 3D Special Edition Treasure Chest set.  What is relatively new is the high price point that some non-special edition games are now sporting as their regular selling price.  Games Workshop released a $100 SPACE HULK earlier this year, and this winter, Fantasy Flight is unleashing RUNEWARS upon the unsuspecting masses, also with a $100 price tag.  And countless gamers of all stripes have gladly offered up the $90 it requires to take home that gigantic box with the word DESCENT written upon it.  It’s only too expensive if nobody buys it, right?  But why?  Why do we spend such silly amounts of money on what amounts to bits of paper, plastic and cardboard?  To ask a far broader question, why are board games so important to us?

I’ve got some ideas, two actually, but to properly explain them, you’re going to have to get into the WayBackMachinetm.  Go ahead, get on in, but watch your step.  Yeah, strap on that helmet and connect those little electrode things.  Careful, not too tight!  OK, flip the switch.  *click!*  What do you see?  Huh?  Becky Jenkins saying that she’d never go to the prom with anybody who’s on the chess team?  Oops, we’re not back far enough.  Here, try it again.  *click!*

Now what do you see?  You’re sitting at the coffee table with Dad as he brings out a large, flat box.  It makes a telltale shuffling, rattling, shook-shook noise as he carries it over and sets it on the table.  He lifts the box lid off and begins to set up the board, a barely perceptible crackling noise reaching your ears as it unfolds.  MONOPOLY!  Dad sets up the plastic banker’s rack of brightly colored paper money, and he starts to shuffle the “Chance” and “Community Chest” cards but you’re already two steps ahead of him.  You’re on to the next part.  The best part!  Picking which of the little metal pawns will be your piece to move around the board.  The proper selection of a pawn is tantamount to winning the game outright!  And you clearly know which pawn is the best!  (It’s the horse by the way.)  Sure there are hotels to build and opponents to bankrupt, but you’ve got your little metal horse and the sight of your pewtery equine avatar galloping around that circuit of squares, surrounded by all those tiny plastic buildings just fills you with a sort of joy.

This brings us to our first answer.  Board games are tactile, sensory experiences. There’s a reason that playing chess online is never as much fun as playing in real life, and part of it is that the electronic experience can never match the feel of a heavy marble rook in your hand, felted base gliding across the squares.  Or even that of a cheap, well-worn plastic pawn scratching the surface of a cardboard grid that’s been split nearly in two after years of use.  Fantasy Flight Games knows this.  They’ve practically built an industry onto themselves by creating games that have very high production values and come with lots of pretty bits.  (Indeed, they’re attempting a veritable paradigm shift in role-playing games by applying this philosophy to their new edition of WARHAMMER FANTASY ROLEPLAY.  But I digress.)

I mean really, all things being equal; whose version of SCRABBLE would you rather play?  The ugly old brown boxed thing in mom’s basement, or the 50th anniversary edition that I have, complete with rotating board, electronic timer, mini dictionary, silver and blue letter tiles and an embroidered canvas bag to draw them from?  Yeah, I thought so.  Sure the brown thing gets points for nostalgia, but c’mon, rotating board…so pretty…

Alright.  It’s time to fire up the WayBackMachinetm again.  Quit your whining, it so did not hurt last time.  That is totally not a burn mark on your scalp.  OK, fine, I’ll do it.  Step aside.  Gimme that damn helmet.  *click!*

The year is 1997 and this beautiful woman named Dani has come back to my place after a night at the club, only to find a huge collection of board games, RPG rulebooks and painted miniatures cluttering every available surface in the apartment.  I see the look on her face and suddenly I don’t think my date is going as well as it once was… oops.  Huh, the calibration must still be off.  Hold on a second, let me adjust these dials.  Frakking stupid machine… *click!*

The year is 1942 and the world is at war.  As commander of the German forces, I have sent an insane, anachronistically large force of aircraft to bomb London.  There is no way that the city can withstand such a relentless assault.  It is only a matter of time before England falls to the might of the Third Reich.  Ah, but what I didn’t count on was the man behind the anti-aircraft artillery.  His name?  Jeff Krupsaw.  His leadership and the skill of his gunnery soldiers would soon turn this impressive display of the Luftwaffe into nothing more than falling fireballs and smoldering aircraft skeletons.

You see, never mind that this particular episode in this game of AXIS & ALLIES came down to Jeff repeatedly rolling a “1” on a single six-sided die over and over again.  That it basically all boiled down to luck.  It was Jeff that took out those airplanes and saved the day for England.  This brings me to my second answer.  Board games are social experiences. Despite all these trials and tribulations and little wars that we go through, it’s the people that we’re playing these games with that we remember, not necessarily the game itself.

I remember playing CITADELS and watching as our friend Warren was assassinated turn after turn after turn, the look of distraught on his face only fueling the tears of laughter that the rest of us were crying into our hands.
I remember Brian targeting Larry with that game-changing meteor strike in a game of CONQUEST OF PANGEA, knowing that it would very likely hand the win to the third player, despite a $500 cash prize and an Origins Tournament title on the line.  I also remember the string of calmly delivered threats that came out of Larry’s mouth.  And I wasn’t even playing in that game!
And really, is there anything more gratifying than shutting up your mouthy WIZ-WAR opponent by sealing him into a stone closet, Cask of Amontillado-style?  And his only option is to take 20 turns beating down the wall with his bare hands?  Man, there were a few times I wish I could have sealed up Kyle behind a wall like that in real life.

I know all you young-uns enjoy your World of Warcraft, but it is my opinion that we are many years away from online gaming being remotely close to replicating the kind of social experience that one gets by having a group of living, breathing, human beings sitting around a table playing a board game.  And the fact of the matter is that while it’s unlikely that you’re going to get Grandma or Uncle Joey to join you in a game of WoW, you’ll probably manage to get a board game on the table with the extended family after Thanksgiving dinner next week.  (But then, who am I to say?  Your Grandma could be a Blood Elf Hunter named Slayer1933 for all I know.)
So.  Let’s sum up.
1. Board Games are tactile, sensory experiences and,
2. Board Games are social experiences

Yes, there’s plenty of other things that are appealing about board games, whether it be the strategic stimulation or the capacity to teach deductive reasoning or their use in education, but it’s the two factors listed above, in conjunction, that separate board games from the rest of the hobby.  Put simply, our board games provide us with an engaging activity that lets us spend quality time with friends, and it allows us to do it while playing with pretty bits.  And sometimes those pretty bits step it up a notch and attempt to become physical works of art, worthy of passing down to someone in your freaking will.  Art like one of those really over-the-top carved stone chess sets.  Or a rare hardwood backgammon board.  Or 246 hand painted figures and a giant game board printed in Elvish all packed in a gigantic wooden box made to look like the The Red Book of Westmarch.  Yeah, like that.

Nah, I don’t regret spending that money at all.  Who wants to play?

Paul Alexander Butler is the Store Manager of Games and Stuff and organizes the shop’s Board Game Night every Tuesday.  His earliest hobby gaming memory is sitting on his brother’s lap sometime in the late 1970s perusing the AD&D Monster Manual.  Paul promptly threw up all over the Blink Dog.