Monday, February 25, 2013

Not a Disney Princess

Hiero's Journey, Chapter Four:

For a chapter-by-chapter index to this series, click here.
(For the previous installment in this series, look no further than here.)

Hiero and his companions finally reach the Inland Sea, whose waters are plied by merchants and pirates, and whose shores are adorned, here and there, with the radioactive ruins of old "First Strike targets" (75), still deadly 5,000 years after the final war. The sea is also, Hiero observes, home to a variety of mutant critters: huge four-footed amphibious grazers that resemble hippopotami; huge flying fish big enough to eat the grazers; and giant gulls with 30-foot wingspans, perhaps large enough to eat the flying fish.  The giant gulls may explain why the Unclean Evil Mutants don't use gliders in this area.  Or maybe Lanier thought we'd had enough of evil gliders for now.

Hiero is looking rather unheroic when he reaches the sea: matted hair and beard, "now stiff with filth" (76), and dirty clothes.  The party stops to wash; Gorm goes whuffling into the water, while Hiero helps Klootz clean his antlers.  In an aside, Lanier tells us the two have been together since "the great annual calf roundup six years ago" (81).  If there's ever a TV show called "Cute Overload: Post-Apocalyptic Mutant Edition," we know what's going to be on the first episode.

In addition to pirates and merchants, the Inland Sea is apparently also home to primitive screwheads (to borrow a term from Army of Darkness), for shortly after reaching the lakes Hiero foils the attempted sacrifice of a captive princess by barbarian savages.  The sacrificial victim was bound by a long cord to a stake, and was being savaged by the giant gulls (whom she was trying to fend off) while the barbarians and their kilted, drum-beating priests looked on.  We later discover that the woman's name is Luchare, and that she is in fact a teenage princess, a runaway from a far-off kingdom called D'alwah (likely near the old river or state) whose inhabitants live in walled cities, keep slaves of their own, and make war on one another.  Hiero finds this rather barbaric at the time, but he expresses no regrets about having rode in and rescued Luchare from the savages who have tied her up.

Did I mention that Luchare is African-American, and that the savages who were in the process of sacrificing her have white skin and blonde hair – an "archaic human stock," the biracial Hiero calls them (85)?  I suspect Lanier initially devised the rescue scene while recalling Conan stories or bad old movies, then decided to subvert the inherent racial stereotypes by inverting the captors' and captives' races.  It also appears that Hiero doesn't really care about racial differences, except to note that blonde white people are rare in his experience, and to indicate (by carefully describing Luchare's hair, skin, and facial features, rather than simply giving her a racial label) that he's never seen someone of African descent before but thinks that Luchare is more "normal"-looking than her captors.  I suppose, though, that if you've just been interacting with humanoid animal mutants and evil psychic specters who dissolve into putrid slime, human differences seem rather minor.

We might also note another authorial deviation from stereotype: Luchare, while very young, isn't a vaporous fainting damsel, but rather a fairly competent fighter, well-muscled and able to defend herself.  She takes a spear to help defend the party when then run into a canoe full of Blonde Barbarians some distance down the shore – apparently, the kilted priests had a mild case of telepathy and were able to summon reinforcements – though she doesn't get a chance to use it.  Instead, Hiero orders Klootz to submerge and swim under the canoe, then re-emerge from beneath and smash the vessel (and its passengers) to pieces.  Take that, honkies!

Coming next: Luchare recounts her own journey, from the walled medieval cities of future Delaware to the mutant-infested ports of future Indiana.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Games That Don't Suck: Dominion

(For a list of games in this series, click here and scroll down.)

Dominion, the first recommendation in this series, is a quick card game with a medieval theme, but no overtly fantastic elements. There are no dragons or sparkly unicorns here (there is a Witch, but that's all). The players are land-owning nobility in an unspecified kingdom, trying to amass the largest number of valuable lands before the game ends. Lands are green cards that give a specified number of points (from 1 to 5) but have no other real value. One buys lands with money cards, which one acquires during the game by purchasing them with smaller money cards. (Buying money is one of Dominion's only counter-intuitive features.) The game also provides action cards, which allow players to increase their number of purchases per turn, draw new cards, discard less useful cards in their hand, or make life difficult for (i.e., attack) other players. Action cards are illustrated with and named after a person or place – a Village, a Throne Room, a Militia company – which sometimes relates to their game function and sometimes merely adds character to the game.

Dominion's central mechanic is called deck-building, which is not unique to this game, although it's one of the first non-collectible card games (as opposed to collectible card games, like It's Tragic, This Gathering) to do it well. Each player starts with a deck of ten fairly weak cards (Copper coins and 1-point Estates), from which s/he draws a hand of five cards. Each turn players play some or all of the cards from their hand, using the played cards to activate actions and buy new cards. They then discard any unused cards and draw five new cards from their deck. When they exhaust their individual decks, players shuffle their used cards together with anything they've purchased (action cards, new money cards, new lands) to form a new deck, from which they draw subsequent hands. Gradually the players build up larger decks - hence, "deck-building game" - with more action cards, more valuable money cards, and more valuable lands. The game ends when all of the most valuable land cards (Provinces) have been purchased, or when the players have bought all of three other kinds of cards (excluding money cards, which rarely run out). This takes anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes; experienced players can breeze through a couple of games in an hour.

This seems too simple to be fun, but Dominion has just enough randomness, a fair amount of strategy, and a lot of replay value.  The randomness comes from the reshuffling of each player's deck every time it runs out of cards.  The strategy derives from the five-card limit imposed on each player's hand every turn; players generally want either to limit their acquisitions of, or eliminate, less valuable cards, or buy action cards (like the Cellar) that let them discard useless cards. Players can play attack cards, forcing their adversaries to discard cards or give them to the attacker (among other possibilities). The game's high replay value stems from the large number of action cards available: 25 of them, of which only ten can be used in a given game. Some games will therefore have lots of attack cards and player conflict, some will require players to focus on building up their money supply, some will allow players to draw and play larger hands.

To sum up: Dominion is easy to learn, has only a few mildly counter-intuitive rules, can be played in under an hour, mixes a lot of luck with a fair amount of strategy, and is different every time you play it. What's not to like?

1.      This is not a game for those who despise medieval settings, though there are virtually no “fantasy” elements in the game, and the setting doesn't affect game play. (No one has to say “Huzzah!”)
2.      One can play the basic game with as few as two people, but only four at most can play.
3.      It's expensive: $45, as opposed to $20 for Monopoly. However, Dominion has more replay value than The Thing From Parker Brothers, and a lot less Associated Bitterness.

Finally, here, via, is a short account of a Dominion game I played a couple of years ago.

 (Thanks to Able Gamer First Class Susi Livingston for assistance with this piece.)

Addendum, 20 April 2016: CPO Gamer Ben McFarlane notes that land cards are actually worth 1-6 points (Provinces are 6-point cards). Much obliged for the clarification. And in my note on MTG I should have noted that Magic isn't a deck-building game. Indeed, it isn't a game at all. It is, in fact, an opioid.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

For the Most Part, Your Board Games Suck

Among the reasons why few American adults play board games or non-conventional card games (card games using something other than the usual 52-card-deck, that is), the most important* is that nearly all of the most famous tabletop games are no fun to play. Monopoly takes a long time to finish and gives a large advantage to whomever takes an early lead. Risk, while it involves slightly more strategy, has essentially the same problems as Monopoly; moreover, there is a fairly surefire way for a knowledgeable player to win. Clue and Battleship are guessing games enlivened, if that is the right word, by crossing possibilities off a list. Life gives the players too few choices (buy stock, buy insurance – that's about it), Candyland and Chutes & Ladders are entirely random (their purpose is to teach small children about games), chess leads to paranoid schizophrenia, Operation merely tests a rather trivial skill, Mousetrap is only fun for 8-year-olds and stoners, and The Bride Game, while accurately modeling early 20th-century American weddings, was out-of-date even at the time of its publication. (The “Get Drunk and Hurt One Another”** expansion for TBG never came out.)
            Geek-Americans have long known of the flaws of American board and card games, and given their own characteristics – a childlike demeanor, a need for constant intellectual stimulation, and contempt for social conventions – they have spent considerable time seeking board and card games that are actually fun for adults, rather than simply abandoning this pastime altogether in favor of No Limit Texas Hold'Em, or professional drinking. As a Geek-American operating a geeky website, and someone who has played entirely too many weird games over the past thirty years, I recognize that I can help non-Geek-Americans, or at least non-gamer Americans, by introducing my readers to some of the better introductory tabletop games for adults. By “tabletop,” I mean board and non-standard card games, rather than video games or outdoor games or games requiring a special table (like pool or ping-pong). My criteria for a “good” game are: 1) It must involve some thought on the part of players, 2) it has little “dead time” - players can usually perform some kind of significant action on each turn, 3) it has enough variety to allow one to replay it multiple times without becoming bored, and 4) it provides trailing players with opportunities to overtake the current leader by pursuing different strategies.
            In forthcoming entries, I will review several tabletop games that, in my opinion, do not suck, and are suitable for neophyte players, and will provide brief summaries of their structure, strengths, and shortcomings. If there's anything a geek likes more than infecting other people with his or her enthusiasms, it's rescuing them from activities that are allegedly fun (like playing Monopoly) but are actually more dreary than the mundane life one is trying to escape.


And for those who would like links to those "upcoming entries," here they are (to date):

Seven Wonders 
Small World
Ticket to Ride

Here's why a famous designer game, Settlers of Catan, isn't on this list.
And here's why one old classic should only be played with people you don't like.

* An equally-important reason why many adults won't play board or card games: they hate to lose. I don't think this is a good reason to avoid gaming; one does get better with practice, and losing gracefully is an important life skill. As Kurt Vonnegut observed, "Life is so hard most people are losers, or feel like losers, so that a skill essential to most of us, if we are to retain some shred of dignity, is to show grace in defeat."

** Also known as "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"