Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Hiero's Journey Afterword: Sources and Influences

We have finished our read-through of Sterling Lanier’s minor SF classic, Hiero’s Journey, but in assessing the book’s impact on the larger field of Geek-dom I have found the following sites helpful:

The author, EarthKnight, provides some background detail on Sterling Lanier himself, who had a wide range of eccentric interests. Lanier was trained as an anthropologist, which probably explains his decision to make his protagonist Native American and his female romantic lead African-American, though it doesn’t seem to have made him very inquisitive about the cultures and motivations of his humanoid antagonists. Lanier was in his spare time a “fan of cryptozoology” and a sculptor of “Ice Age animals,” which explains the giant mutant beasties that tromp or swim or slither through almost every chapter of Hiero’s Journey.

Tim Callahan praises HJ for the intensifying pace of its plot, and observes that Lanier intended it as the first volume of a trilogy, though he only completed one sequel, The Unforsaken Hiero, before calling it quits. Hiero’s Journey itself had a significant and largely unacknowledged impact on the early role-playing games of the 1970s. It was an obvious source for the 1978 game Gamma World, which was full of vicious humanoids, mutant animals, and “cities with names like primitive spellings of our own.” It also, however, seems to have influenced Dungeons and Dragons, which includes psychic powers – something not found in Tolkien or Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories or many of the other main influences on D&D – and whose early adventures were often set in ruins and tombs belonging to lost empires. D&D, Callahan concludes, was “a more ambitious genre mashup than just Gandalf meets Conan."

Raven Crowking, who read Hiero’s Journey specifically because of its appearance in the bibliography of the first D&D Dungeon Master’s Guide, observes that Dungeons and Dragons’s love of “weird creatures that defy natural explanation,” fungus and slime monsters, intelligent giant lynxes (inspired by Klootz and Gorm), evil humanoids, powerful artifacts (some of them bearing curses), “clerics in leading roles [and] psionics” almost certainly come from HJ. The novel, Mssr. Crowking notes, takes an “episodic” form like a series of D&D adventures, and it even includes an actual, interior-voice depiction of a character “leveling up:” “The two battles Hiero had won…had given the hidden forces of his already strong mind a dimension and power he would not himself have believed possible. And the oddest thing was, he knew it.” Because of the giant “LEVEL 5” icon hovering above his head, no doubt.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Games That Don't Suck: Citadels

Guillotine remains my beau-ideal of an introductory game: easy to learn, quick to play, and light-hearted in tone. As an evangelist of designer board and ard games, I am aware, of course, of the importance of variety, and Guillotine can grow a bit stale if one plays it too many times. Strategy becomes less important than the luck of the draw as one adds more players, the jokes grow old, and the game's French Revolutionary “skin” loses its appeal. To players seeking an equally simple-but-challenging game, one with a different core mechanic (card-drafting, a la 7 Wonders), a different setting, and a different tone – and one which also improves with more players – I can, fortunately, offer an alternative: Citadels.

Published a few years after Guillotine, Citadels takes players to an imaginary (and slightly eldritch) kingdom where they compete to build the most vibrant and valuable medieval city. At the beginning of each round, players select a role from a deck of character cards, using a card-drafting protocol (discard, pick, and pass) that gives early selectors a look at the other roles still available to their rivals. Each role has a particular power: the Assassin can cancel another character's turn, the King gets to pick his/her character first on subsequent turns, the Architect can build more than one city district per turn, and so on.

Having chosen roles, the players take their turns in the numeric order of their role card, from 1 (Assassin) to 8 (Warlord). On his/her turn, a player may either collect three gold (used to buy districts) or draw two new district cards and keep one of them. S/he may also build one district card. These cost gold to build, are worth a variable number of victory points, and come in five colors: red (military), yellow (noble), green (mercantile), blue (clerical), and purple. Purple districts have special abilities the builder can use; the other colors give additional gold to particular roles (green gives money to the Merchant, for example). Some roles, like the Warlord (who can destroy other players' districts by spending gold), have special powers a player may use on his/her turn. These are all the actions a player may take.

Once a player builds his/her eighth district, the other players complete the round, and everyone counts victory points. Players receives a number of points equal to the total gold cost of their city districts, plus a bonus for building eight or more districts, and another bonus for having a set of all five colors. The player with the most points wins, though perhaps that's stating the obvious.

Citadel is a visually appealing game, whose cards feature excellent artwork: sharp lines, subdued but varied colors, deep shadows, and ample detail. The game places emphasis on building one's own city by playing one's role and hand well, but there are opportunities in the game to mess with other players, if one chooses the Thief or Assassin or Warlord roles. The game can be played, with a few modifications, with 2-3 players, but works best with 4-6. Like Guillotine, Citadels takes about 45 minutes to play, ideal for an evening session after dinner or for recovering from a long and exhausting game of Descent or Twilight Imperium.