The Best Board Games I Played At SHUX 2018

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I had the pleasure of attending my first board game convention this October, in the form of the Shut Up & Sit Down Expo, pleasantly shortened to SHUX. If you’re unfamiliar with Shut Up & Sit Down, suffice it to say, if you’re at all interested in board games, you should be. I’ll sing their praises all day (and, in fact, did, in my post on my travel blog about attending the convention), but, long story short, they’re passionate, insightful, and dedicated to spreading the lovely hobby of board gaming to everyone.

SHUX was an opportunity for board gamers across North America and beyond to come together and play some games, and that’s exactly what I did. The fantastic thing about SHUX was, thanks to the size and diverse interests of the community there, I was able to play a wide variety of board games, games that would be a Herculean effort to put a group together for back home. As a result, I got to check out some extremely cool games, some of which I’m gonna talk about here!

Fog of Love

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Original image from kalchio on BoardGameGeek

Perhaps the single most interesting game I played in all of SHUX, Fog of Love is a two player game about relationships. In it, each player at the table constructs a fictional character, one with their own personalities and drives and careers and histories, and over the course of the game the two players watch these two characters attempt to undergo a relationship.

The meat of the game plays out through a series of scene cards, in which the two characters enter a fictional scenario, and the two players need to work out the resolution together, almost always in the form of a multiple choice question. Some of the scenarios are pleasantly mundane (“How should we pose in this picture!”), but as the game progresses they get more and more serious (“If the cops ask, I was with you last Thursday”). How you answer these questions will not only affect your raw affection for one another, but also define the characteristics of your relationship. Are you as a couple focused and organized, or chaotic and spontaneous? Are you saccharine, or are you constantly at each others’ throats? Each player wants the relationship to fit their personality, but without knowing each others’ goals, the two players will have try to intuit where their partner is trying to steer, and if that’s a direction they want to follow.

The most interesting part of Fog of Love, in my opinion, are the Destinies. A hard of cards basically representing each players’ victory conditions, the Destinies are the end-states for the relationship. At the start of the game, each player has all of their Destinies available, representing a young relationship where anything could happen! However, as the game progresses, this hand is slowly, and secretly, shaved down to perhaps a few scant cards, meaning players will have to focus in on what exactly they want this relationship to be. Since these hands of cards are secret, neither player is really sure what the other is going for.

This mismatch is extremely interesting. If one player is accomplishing all of their hidden goals, they might think the relationship is going great, and go for the Unconditional Love ending. However, the other player might be secretly failing all of their goals and, knowing they’ll be ultimately unhappy with this relationship, is instead moving towards a graceful breakup. This need to read the state of the board, and trying to intuit what your partner wants, and more importantly, if you can provide that while being happy yourself, is an example of mechanics beautifully mirroring theme.

If I had one complaint about the game, it’s when this beautiful theme falls away, leaving players staring at a coldly mechanical, and ultimately simple game. In one game I played, near the end, my partner and I were fairly confident that we were going for the same Destiny, and fairly confident that each others’ secret desires were satisfied. With that knowledge in tow, the rest of the game’s storytelling fell apart, as every choice became “well, I know we need to be within 5 affection of each other, and this choice brings us in that range, so we’re just both gonna pick that one”. On a purely mechanical level Fog of Love is a multiple choice test, so when the hidden information becomes less hidden, and the quiet drama of a relationship turns into confidence, the game underneath is forced to stand on its own, and I don’t know that it can?

Nevertheless, Fog of Love is a testament to the way a truly great designer can see the game in anything in life, and better yet, how a great designer can take a moment, a feeling, a train of thought and distill its essence into a game, such that anyone who opens that box and plays that game is transported to the exact moment the designer wants, whether its a far-off battlefield, a tense hospital, or an awkward first date.

Imperial 2030

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Original image from ZetaZeta on BoardGameGeek

All the way on the other end of the emotional spectrum from Fog of Love is a classic, if somewhat austere, game: Imperial 2030. In Imperial 2030, much like in the classic game Risk, players look over a world map divided into territories, one where global powers can amass armies and sweep them across the globe, claiming territory and wiping one another from the globe. Where Imperial 2030 really lives though is in the twist: there are all of these global powers, and you don’t play any of them.

Instead, you play a shadowy cabal of manipulative puppetmasters, vying to see who can make the most money by shrewdly investing into the powers on the board. The act of purchasing bonds is useful on two levels. On a long-term scale, owning shares of successful countries nets you a bounty of victory points at the end of the game, depending on how many shares you bought and just how successful they are. On a short-term scale, however, the player with the most shares of a country is the one who gets to take that country’s turn. I immediately found the idea of a board game that takes place on a sort of abstracted layer above the obvious premise immediately fascinating.

For an example of the kinds of amazing moments this premise can bring to the table, allow me to describe to you one of my favorite plays from my game. I was at the peak of my power for the game, with controlling stakes in three of the game’s six powers: Europe, Russia, and America. I had been using Europe and Russia as cash cows for most of the game, while America was my primary military force, with an oppressive fleet that was shutting out the player in control of Brazil. However, I knew that there was another player at the table who was within striking distance of buying America out from under me. Worse yet, that player also held shares of Brazil, so while he didn’t control Brazil, when he took control of America, it would have been in his best interest to unite the two powers, probably turning the two powers’ massive armies against the next biggest threat: Europe (which, remember, is also me).

I saw the writing on the wall, so instead of enjoying one last cashout from the American coffers, I took the reins of the American army and absolutely crashed it into the Brazilian forces. The results were catastrophic (military units eliminate each other at a 1:1 rate), and the American and Brazilian armies were obliterated, leaving both powers defenseless. The next turn, America was bought out from under me, but I didn’t care. Neither America nor Brazil had armies strong enough to cross the Atlantic, and as a result my combined Russian and European forces were strong enough to keep them at bay for the rest of the game. Even better, since armies end up costing the controlling powers upkeep, America’s newly svelte army meant that American investors made a boatload of money next time the country paid out, and, while I was no longer controlling stakeholder, I was a stakeholder, so I managed to make a killing on a country I drove into the ground.

Imperial 2030 requires a bit of time to wrap your head around, but the idea of players operating on a level separate from that of the board itself was insanely interesting. I already have some designs floating around in my head about how to implement this idea in different games, because it seems a great way to create that “diplomatic puppetmaster” fantasy for the players.

Great Western Trail

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Original image from maeddes on BoardGameGeek

The “sad cowboy game” was high on my to-play list for the convention, for the combined fact that my group doesn’t tend to play much that runs longer than an hour in playtime, and my group (and myself) don’t really tend towards Euros, which is ultimately what Great Western Trail kind of is?

Great Western Trail is a sort of stew of game design, with big, hearty portions of game mechanics mixed together to create a single, hearty game, while every piece still remains individually recognizable. The meat and potatoes of this dish are deckbuilding and worker placement: every player has a deck of cows that they draw a hand from, representing the cows that they’ll eventually bring to market at the end of the board, at Kansas City. To get to Kansas City, they’ll choose which spaces on the board to bring their meeple cowboy to, with each space offering the chance to tune and refine that hand for maximum profit, or perhaps to modify the layout of the trail itself, hire some help, or manipulate the player’s train (we’ll get back to that in a second).

On top of this tried-and-true base is a menagerie of other ingredients. Since players’ movement across the board is measured in number of building spaces passed, constructing buildings on the trail, thus giving yourself more options on where to land, actually extends its length. Players collect a series of objective cards, giving them auxiliary tasks like clearing a certain number of obstacles from the trail, or collecting a certain set of cows from the market. However, the most interesting concept in Great Western Trail is the trains.

You see, lining the board is a railroad, one that follows an increasingly distant series of stops, starting from Kansas City and ending all the way at sunny San Francisco. When you arrive at Kansas City to sell your cows, you total the value of the cards in your hand, and can sell to any station whose scoring value is less than or equal to that value, with nearer stations having lower thresholds. If the station is further along the trail than your train (a token that, as I mentioned, is moved throughout the game), you may have to pay a little extra to reach it to cover travel fees. There are two interesting wrinkles to this, though.

  1. The stations that are closest to Kansas City (including, you know, Kansas City) are actually worth negative victory points.
  2. You can only visit any given station once.

Plenty of board games are interested in maximizing a system, be it a deck in a deckbuilding game or a route across a board, to produce a maximal result every turn, but what’s interesting about Great Western Trail is that it’s equally about maximization and precision. Pushing your deck to produce the most valuable hand it can every lap around the trail is only worthwhile if that maximum value increases every turn, otherwise you’ll end up wasting value as you sell your fantastic cows at some garbage backwater for no, or perhaps less, points. And, frankly, some turns you just won’t be able to raise the maximum value of your hand as much as you need to, if only because there are so many other systems you need to pour resources into.

As a result, Great Western Trail is a game about planning and fine-tuning. There aren’t a great many surprises in Great Western Trail (it’s a game of near-perfect information), and every turn you typically only need to choose between three or four spaces to move to, making moment-to-moment decision-making easily done. The joy of the game, then, is similar to the joy of a perfect game of darts or pool, or even a perfectly-done parallel park: a celebration of careful, well-considered precision.

The game isn’t without its flaws, though. The learning in the game is heavily frontloaded, as the game relies on a symbolic language on its components to communicate most of its rules, which takes a while to wrap your head around. Interactivity also isn’t really the name of the game here: other than clogging up the trail with one anothers’ buildings, many of which double as tollbooths for the controlling player, there isn’t going to be a lot of interplay between players in Great Western Trail.

Despite both of these, I had a blast playing Great Western Trail. While there are no shortage of games out there about building and refining engines, many of them feel like they’re about blasting forward as fast as your scrap-built strategy can muster, whereas Great Western Trail feels more like playing an instrument, where you’re trying to play the precise note you need in the moment. That note might be a soft, quiet one, not terribly effective on its own, but designed to build up and emphasize a bombastic, booming blast on the next turn.

Hanamikoji

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The word “elegant” is thrown around a lot when it comes to board games, but frankly I haven’t played a game as elegant as Hanamikoji in a long time. The premise is simple: two players vie for the favor of seven geisha, each of whom wants a specific present, represented by a set of cards in a deck. Whoever gives the most presents to a given geisha in a turn gains her favor, and whoever gains the favor of either the most geisha, or the strongest (?) geisha, wins the game.

While the theme obviously plays off of the elegance of the geisha, and the beautiful artwork that adorns the cards, the game also features a strong sense of mathematical elegance. You see, in every round of Hanamijoki, each player takes turns performing one of four actions. Each action affects between one and four cards in your hand, and each of the four actions must be performed exactly once in a round, meaning that the true skill of the game is determining at what point in a round to use each of the four actions. Beautifully, no matter how quickly you churn through your hand of cards, the math of the game works out that you always have exactly as many cards as you need to perform any of your remaining actions.

The game also plays a lot with the idea of hidden information. You see, two of the four actions which you must perform each turn are done secretly, either in the form of secretly playing one gift, or secretly discarding two. Your opponent might be investing heavily in a geisha whose gifts you discarded long ago, or perhaps they’re hoping you’ve ignored a geisha, whose gift you have secretly stashed to be revealed in the eleventh hour to swipe their favor out from under your opponent.

The other two moves are even more interesting, because each involves allowing your opponent to choose some cards from your hand to play themselves. Ultimately, some of the cards you play every round are out of your opponent’s hand, and there’s a fantastic layer of reading strategy that this creates, where you are trying to offer someone cards that aren’t actually very useful to them, or even trying to guide their strategy by offering them the exact cards you want them to have. For example, the 4 action involves creating two stacks of two cards. Your opponent gets one, and you get the other. At a crucial moment in my game, I laid out two stacks, each with two gifts for the extremely valuable five gift grey geisha. With no option, my opponent and I each got two, locking us in a tie for that geisha. However, he didn’t know that I had secretly played the fifth gift earlier, meaning the two cards I had given him were functionally useless: my majority was guaranteed.

Hanamikoji was a wonderfully tight game, but not for reasons I can eloquently describe? The numbers of the game just sort of work, in such a way that trying to predict your opponent’s moves, and develop a strategy of your own is a process of looking at the elegant math behind the game and unfurling it, a sort of dance in which need to know your opponent’s moves and respond with a mathematically perfect move of your own. It’s extremely good, doesn’t take that long, and costs twenty bucks, I highly recommend it if you’re the kind of person who sees beauty in numbers.

Pantone

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Pantone is a uniquely visual game, one that relies on ability to recognize the fundamental features of visual design. The premise is simple: you as players have access to a collection of monochromatic cards, and must combine them in an attempt to visually communicate the idea, usually a pop culture reference, of a card in your hand. The challenge of the game is to try and get the other people at the table to intuit that the collection of colored rectangles in front of you is Bart Simpson, The Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man, Lara Croft, or whatever it is you’re trying to communicate.

I think Pantone‘s interesting, insofar as I feel like the game’s genius isn’t it’s own, but instead is an appreciation of the cleverness of the last 50 years of animators, costume designers, prop designers, and visual artists. It’s impressive that I can instantly get a table of strangers to guess “Bart Simpson” using only a yellow, red, and brown rectangle, but I don’t think that’s me being clever, nor do I think that’s Pantone being clever, I think that’s Matt Groening being clever. The game is, at its best, a celebration of some of the best visual design in pop culture.

The problem is the game is, at its worst, a somewhat cynical and commercial regurgitation of brands? Parts of me feel this game is in the same vein as those “Guess The Brand Logo” apps, a thinly-veiled manifestation of the hooks corporate branding has on us. The game is also heavily biased towards those in the loop on modern American pop culture. A British player at our table ended up bowing out, as the Ameri-centric cards simply went over his head, and people at our table who hadn’t seen Rick and Morty (lucky bastards), had a disadvantage as several cards appeared referencing a show that doesn’t seem old enough to be a “classic”.

Nevertheless, while I have some disagreements with the implementation, the idea of a game that exists to draw attention and appreciation to another designer’s work is extremely interesting to me. This is a stretch of a comparison, but it’s sort of like how Pokemon Go as a game really emphasizes and draws attention to the work of the civil engineers and planners who laid out the public spaces in which the game prospered, or how something like Rock Band or Guitar Hero directly plays on the work of 50 years of rock musicians. Neither these games nor Pantone could exist without the great design and art that came before them, and yet I think all three of these games allow the player to go back and appreciate their source material, be it visual design, civil planning, or rock music, that much more.

Playtests!

As a game design nerd, if there’s one thing I love more than playing finished games, it’s playing unfinished games, and SHUX was a flocking point for many designers who were demoing their playtests for the greater gaming audience.

If you’re interested in game design, I highly recommend playing in some playtests. Designers will love you for it (the more playtesters, the better), and its a unique opportunity to delve into the mechanics and intentions of design, like ripping the faceplate off a watch and seeing the gears beneath tick. A lot of this is due to the simple fact that the designer is there, playing with you (or perhaps standing awkwardly behind you, scrunching their face in frustration). It brings about a level of metadiscussion about a game: how it’s making you feel, the sorts of strategies you feel compelled towards, the value you’re assigning to the game’s various components and mechanics. If you were the kind of kid who liked taking apart electronics to see how they worked, optionally putting them together again, playtesting is like that for games.

I should also note that playtesting other designers’ games is profoundly inspiring for me as a designer. It’s easy to get sort of stuck in your own design space, getting bored of staring at the same designs day-in and day-out, and that sense of boredom is what usually leads to me abandoning a project and pursuing a new one, turning my Google Drive into a doldrum of design. Interacting with other designers, however, alleviates that sense, as you surround yourself with new and interesting designs which, like a positive feedback loop, energize you to work on your own projects, if only to share them with other designers like they did with you. Seeing clever designs makes me go “Shit, that’s clever, wanna make something that clever”, and always reignites the spark in me to go and make games.

The best part of that ignition is that it isn’t limited to meeting designers at cons. Designer and playtesting groups can be found across the world, and even if there isn’t one close to you geographically, you can find tons of communities on the internet about game design. There are a few game design Discord servers you can find with minimal digging, and Seattle-based game designer Emma Larkins introduced me to #gamedesigndaily, a Twitter hashtag that game designers can use to share their progress, no matter how atomic, and constantly get that hit of design conversation that can be what you need to be motivated to open that document up and get designing.

Conclusion

SHUX was real good, y’all. I’m definitely going to be going back next year, if I can swing it. Everyone I met there, be it player or designer, exhibitor or organizer, was nothing short of impossibly pleasant, and having the chance to try such a variety of board games over the week, including plenty of stuff my normal group would never try, was a breath of fresh board game air. Which, actually, probably isn’t that fresh, it’s been sitting in a cellophane-wrapped box for months. Nevertheless, my point stands. As far as getting a blistering rush of good board game ideas for three straight days goes, as well as getting a chance to visit Vancouver, SHUX was a wonderful, energizing experience.

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E3 2017 Analysis: Not Very Surprising, Except For The Insane Surprises

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I emerge, eyes red and tear-stained, from my E3 bunker. I have watched every presser. I watched every reveal. I even saw that panda dab. I gazed into the Great Abyss and drew the attention of Gods New and Old, and with my very sanity stretched thin by knowledge most Eldritch, I have peered into the future. The future of video games.

So yeah, E3 this year is weird. I feel like last year and the year prior were real strong for the show, with lots of great announcements. Last year we got Death StrandingResident Evil 7God of WarPrey, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, and Quake Champions. The year prior was even bigger, with Fallout 4Dishonored 2The Last Guardian, the Final Fantasy 7 remaster, Shenmue 3Nier: Automata….it was really almost a cacophany of announcements.

And this year was…well, it was mostly a bunch of trailers for games we already knew about, wasn’t it? To be fair, some of that was due to significant leaks (notably for Assassin’s Creed Origins and Mario + Rabbids), but another major part of that is developers’ increasing nonreliance on E3 to make announcements. Following a path that I think was lead by Nintendo, many studios are just announcing things on their own terms, instead of trying to compete in the Major League Headline playoffs of mid-June. Like I said, it was kind of a cacophany. Now, especially if you’re not announcing some-AAA game that already has a massive following, it’s probably best just to announce it on, like, some Tuesday in March and not even worry about competing headlines.

So, with no real rhyme or reason to the ordering, here are my thoughts on the more interesting things I saw from E3 2017.

Bioware Presents Destiny

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Anthem was the only thing out of EA’s otherwise usually boring presser that I found remotely interesting, and even then I have reservations.

On one hand, I do really like Bioware, even still, and knowing that this is, presumably, the Bioware A-team working on it (since we know that core Bioware wasn’t working on Mass Effect Andromeda) gives me hope. I’m also a sucker for games with really good traversal mechanics, and being able to fly around in a sick robot suit could be really fun, especially if you get to use that in combat as well as simply for traversal. Customizing those suits sounds really cool too, like having Tony Stark’s collection of Iron Man suits. If those suits feel distinct (which, certainly, that big tanky one felt distinct in the trailer), having that playstyle variety could be fun.

But, on the flip side, this trailer was a little light on story and seemed to pretty heavily infer a Destiny-esqe, MMO-inspired sort of minimalist story structure. While it’s kind of ridiculous to infer a whole game’s structure from an E3 stage demo, there was a lot of talk of “finding your own adventures” and “making stories with your friends”, and not a lot of mention of characters, which are kind of what I go to Bioware games for. That’s not to mention the prominent display of loot, mic chatter reminiscent of raiding, and what appeared to be a raid, giving me sort of a sour feeling about the structure of this game.

After A Year, We Finally Have An Assassin’s Creed Game That’s Totally The Same

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I miss being excited for Assassin’s Creed. The first game had a really cool premise and unique gameplay mechanics for stealth and parkour. The second gave you a really full open world full of stuff to do, added mission variety and stronger characters, and refined the combat. Brotherhood stitched the world together into a more cohesive whole and even added some surprisingly good multiplayer. The third, which a lot of people poop on but I like, added even greater variety to the missions, naval combat, a wilderness, ranged combat, and the most fluid combat in the series.

And then after Assassin’s Creed 3, my interest in the series waned severely. Black Flag just doubled down on the naval combat without adding anything significantly new, and Unity was a buggy mess. I’ve heard Syndicate is actually pretty good, although the introduction of a heavy focus on gear and XP by this point in the series, I felt, was a band-aid on a severed leg. The Assassin’s Creed gameplay needs an injection of creative life, something new, a step equal in scope to the difference between the first and Assassin’s Creed 2, or 2 and 3.

Origins does not look like that leap. Instead, it looks like, well, some more Assassin’s Creed. You jump off of buildings and stab dudes, you hide in bushes, you strafe around dudes and parry them. There are cool additions, like being able to control arrows mid-flight (???) and the eagle, which allows you spot enemies and cool stuff in advance, but nothing revolutionary. In fact, the most different thing I noticed was the fact that you have to manually aim the bow instead of locking on.

Look, I want to like Assassin’s Creed Origins. Real bad, actually. But I need something significant, something new. I know fanboys have been banging this drum for, what, like 7 years now, but maybe if you refocused on the actual assassinations, on gathering intel and scoping out settings, or maybe if you fleshed out the guild leadership elements, maybe I’ll be back in on this series? But for now, I can’t help shaking the feeling that I played this game back in 2012.

However, side note, I’m super genuinely happy for Ashraf Ismail. Dude seems super stoked to be heading this project, and I’m genuinely happy to see people get the reins on a series that they love, and I hope I’m totally wrong and this game is awesome. Also, having an Arabic creative director for a game set in Ancient Egypt is a good thing.

Historically Accurate Russia Simulator 2017

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I…should probably play the Metro games. This looks really cool, although I’m curious to see how it differentiates itself from other open-world survival-themed first-person shooters. Although, since I haven’t played the Metro games, maybe that’s a stupid question. I definitely like the theme and aesthetic, though.

Bethesda’s First Bad Press Conference

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This is Bethesda’s third E3 press conference, and, well, they’re 2 for 3, I guess?

Bethesda came out super strong their first year. A massive Fallout 4 reveal, combined with the Dishonored 2 announcement and the first big public appearance of DOOM generated a lot of hype, and all three of those games ended up extremely strong.

Last year’s presser, while not quite so star-studded, still had a solid line-up. The “surprising new reveals” slots were taken up by Arkane’s excellent Prey reboot and the somewhat controversial Quake: Champions, with a solid back line of Fallout 4 VR and Skyrim: Special Edition announcements. Even if it wasn’t as surprising, they were still showing some games people loved, as well as new stuff.

And this year, we got…Fallout 4 VR again? Which is definitely still happening, I guess, but it’s not all that exciting now. We’ve got another Skyrim rerelease on the way, which is great, I guess. There’s a Dishonored 2 DLC pack expanding on a character I really like from the base game, but it got so little airtime that I had to Google what it actually was. The only real exciting announcements were sequels to The Evil Within and WolfensteinThe New Order, which while interesting, weren’t able to generate the same excitement as older reveals. The New Colossus looks cool, but in the end, it also looks like another MachineGames Wolfenstein game.

So, I guess I’m just sad this presser didn’t have more surprises, more things that left me begging for more details. It was just a lot of stuff that looked like stuff we’ve seen before.

“I Will Never Be Excited For A Fucking Mario/Rabbids Crossover” – Me, Incorrectly, A Week Ago

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Ok, I’m sorry, what? The biggest franchise in video games teams up with Ubisoft’s weird proto-Minions, who haven’t had a game on this console generation other than a basically unnoticed TV show tie in, and they all get guns, which is weird enough. I think all of us saw these leaks a week ago and went “This is totally unnecessary, who cares?”

Then the gameplay comes up on the screen and this thing is a goddamn turn-based strategy game a la XCOM and I literally got on my phone to see if Switches were in stock on Amazon. What? Fucking what? It’s a squad-based tactics game??!?

Sold. Deal. Ignoring the fact that the encapsulated turn-based fights of an XCOM sort of game could be great for taking on the go on the Switch, just the idea of incorporating platformer elements, of incorporating Mario gameplay into one of these sorts of games is super interesting to me. I hope they go super weird with it, and I hope they manage to keep that Mario feel through the genre shift.

The most amazing thing about this game is that it was only the second weirdest Mario reveal this E3.

Far Cry 5 Is Definitely A Far Cry Game

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I’m very interested in the characters, world, and new gameplay mechanics of Far Cry 5, which were completely ignored in its E3 outing in favor of showing some tried and true Far Cry: tagging enemies, stealth, cars, guns. Jeff Gerstmann of Giant Bomb postulated that this trailer was way more focused on the dumb parts of the game to draw attention away from the political controversy this game inspired, which might be the case, but it’s a shame, because that controversial stuff, about the perversion of middle America, is what I was interested in.

This trailer does hint at something reminiscent of the buddy system from Far Cry 2, and if that’s the case, I’ll definitely be paying attention to this game. I’d love an evolution of that system, but I’ll have to wait and see.

The World of Beyond Good and Evil 2 Is Dope

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Ubisoft talked so little about what the actual gameplay of Beyond Good and Evil 2 is, that I don’t really wanna talk about it for long. However, I did want to call out that the art direction for this game, especially the above scene, is fantastic, and I really hope the gameplay is as creative as that cinematic trailer implied. I would love to be a Cockney monkey Bionic Commando.

Please Stop Making Me Uninterested In Marvel vs Capcom Infinite

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The trailer for Marvel vs Capcom Infinite shown at E3, unfortunately, seems to continue to validate the disappointing roster which was supposedly leaked earlier this year, with the inclusion of the predicted Gamora, Thanos, Doctor Strange, and Arthur. Also consistent with the leak is the lack of any X-Men, probably due to the licensing feud between Fox and Marvel’s cinematic division. Although, I will note that the story trailer does include Zero, who is not listed among the leaked characters (albeit the leak does note that a single Capcom character is yet unidentified), and Black Panther, although neither is shown in actual gameplay.

Look, I love this franchise a lot, and I want it to be good, but if the roster is as slim as the leak insinuates, and consists of so many returning characters, I’m going to be much less interested. On top of this, the characters that make me love Marvel vs Capcom are those obscure characters, the weird ones like Phoenix Wright, MODOK, Frank West, and Doctor Strange. Having Infinite serve singularly as an advertising vehicle for the MCU means less of those fun, obscure heroes, and that seriously bums me out.

Nintendo Makes Me Want To Buy A Switch In Five Minutes

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This year, the theme for Nintendo’s Spotlight event was “Announcing Things You Love At Bewildering Speed”. Disappointed that we didn’t announce a mainline Pokemon for the Switch at our Treehouse last week? Well, we’re doing that! Want more details? Well, fuck you, because we’re already talking about how we’re making a new Metroid game, a Metroid Prime game no less, after you all thought Metroid was dead and gone! That announcement’s going to be twenty seconds long, though, because we need to make room for all of this charming and adorable Kirby and Yoshi footage!

Literally, Nintendo went from having 2 core franchise releases for the Switch to, what, six? Especially considering that Breath of the Wild was such a blockbusting release, this speaks really well to the line-up for the Switch. Oh, and speaking of which…

SUPER MARIO ODYSSEY IS A FUCKING BEAUTIFUL NIGHTMARE

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Mario’s hat is possessed by a magic hat ghost that allows him to possess, via hat, things that he encounters on his journey on his world-hopping airship on his quest to rescue Peach from Bowser and his team of evil wedding planners. On this journey, Mario will journey on worlds ranging from a regular metropolitan city to an icy wonderland to a Latin-inspired desert, and be able to assume the forms of such allies as: a taxi cab, a T-Rex, electricity, and a fucking normally proportioned human, in a magic ritual which bestows upon its target a Mario hat and mustache.  There’s also some sort of fashion mechanic to the game and, just to reiterate, the New York-style metropolis is still called New Donk City.

NONE OF THE WORDS I TYPED ARE JOKES.

….I have to buy a Switch, don’t I?

PAX South: What I Played

I’m currently typing this in the San Antonio hostel I’m staying at, having now concluded the final day of PAX South 2016: my first convention. I have to say, overall, I had a blast. I got to see some good friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen in a while. I got to meet some cool devs and learn a lot from industry experts. Most importantly, though, I got to play a lot of games. I wanted to take a moment to write out what I thought of all of the games I played or saw, grouped by my approximate reaction.

Stuff I Bought/Kickstarted:

OK, so I feel like the top of the list has to be the games I either ended up leaving the convention center with, as well as those whose active Kickstarter campaigns I went to contribute to.

Funemployed

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Funemployed has actually been out a little bit, and while I heard quite a bit about it, I never actually put my hands on the game. That, as it turns out, was a mistake.

Funemployed is a spin on the classic Cards Against Humanity formula, in which one player is designated as the one hiring for a job, determined by a drawn black card. Jobs range from “Astronaut” to “Magician” to “Proctologist”. The other players must take turns delivering short interview pitches as to why they are the best candidate. The catch is that they must use the terms given by the four green cards in their hand, which range from “Erectile Disfunction” to “Sawed-Off Shotgun” to, my favorite, “Russian Accent”.

I actually ended up busting out Funemployed quite a bit whenever I was stuck in line for a panel with my friends, and it was a blast. It was so much fun watching people struggle to try and figure out how an Erotica Collection could be worked into a Nanny job, and the characters we created were often so outlandish that the people by us in line couldn’t help but watch, if not join in. My favorite character I created was Ted, who had an ice cream dungeon, and delivered his sweet treats to children in a burlap sack. I somehow ended up winning.

Funemployed is great because, not only do the permutations of cards allow for probably millions of possible hand-job combinations, but having people have to create an entire interview pitch adds an extra level of uniqueness to every single round of the game.

Billionaire Banshee

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Billionaire Banshee was the other party card game I bought at PAX, after a simply amazing pitch given to me by the game’s designer, Steven Bailey (who signed my box!).

Billionaire Banshee is a simple concept: players taking turns drawing two cards, one Perk, and one Quirk, which are positive and negative character traits, respectively. Each is laid out in surprising detail on the cards. Other players must then guess whether or not the player in question would date a person who had those two character traits, before the person finally reveals what they would do.

What makes Billionaire Banshee brilliant is the specificity of the Perks and Quirks. The pair Bailey laid out before me described a lover who could cure a headache of any severity by fingering my belly button, but one who exclusively wore bread bowls as shoes (which would occasionally be full of soup). As an aside, yeah, that’s totally worth it. Have you ever had a migraine? Do you know how much I’d save on Advil?

All in all, Billionaire Banshee taps into my deep rooted love of Would You Rathers and ridiculous hypothetical questions, so yeah, I’d have to strongly say that this game is brilliant.

Wordwright

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I grew up in a house that relished in word games, specifically Scrabble. Unfortunately, I’m also the worst in my family at Scrabble, and as a result, a word game that I can play alone, especially one where I can really flex my vocabulary, was a nice surprise to find on the show floor.

Wordwright has a variety of games you can play with the deck offered, but the base concept from which all of those game types is simple: the deck is composed of roots, prefixes, and suffixes, and players are rewarded for stringing those together into words.

Wordwright is a simple game, but that’s not a knock against it. Rather, it makes it a fun way to force yourself to think and stretch your vocabulary a little. In fact, the creators at Defined Mind see Wordwright as a great game for teaching English, which I think is awesome.

InnerSpace

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Full disclosure: I know one of the devs on InnerSpace. He’s a cool dude.

Fuller disclosure: I always kinda doubted this project because of its ambition. I don’t doubt it anymore.

The reason I doubted InnerSpace and PolyKnight Games is because InnerSpace sounds like a Mad Lib where you’re only allowed to fill spaces with things I like. It’s an open world, Shadow of the Colossus-inspired exploration game, where players get to fly around in a sweet and responsive aircraft/submarine, discovering secrets, learning about the world, defeating massive bosses, with a heavy focus on player-driven narrative.

The glimpse of InnerSpace I saw at PAX (although, I’d admit that a show floor isn’t maybe the optimal place to experience what I’d consider a low speed, high personal commitment game) was extremely interesting. The flying feels pretty great, especially with the ability to do what I could only call “air drift”, and even in the small demo environment there were tons of puzzles to find, especially ones involving cutting ropes with your craft’s razor-sharp wings. The few relics I did end up finding were interesting, and just made me want to know more about this world.

There are uncertainties about InnerSpace as it makes its way from development to release. The biggest I can think of is the massive standard of boss battles PolyKnight sets up for itself by comparing the game to Shadow of the Colossus. Furthermore, I’m curious to see the variety of puzzles the developers can create, given a relatively small set of ways to interact with the environment. Then again, The Witness certainly proves that extremely interesting puzzle design in a single category of puzzle can carry a game for a while, so I certainly believe InnerSpace is more than capable of the same.

All in all, though, this game looks like it’s shaping up nicely, and I was more than happy to throw down some cash for a pre-order.

Karmaka

Karmaka_title_now_on_KSI had a long, delightful conversation with Dave Burke, the co-designer of Karmaka and the co-designer of Osmos. He was a wonderful person, was willing to indulge a new, starry-eyed designer in his questions of game design, and most importantly, had a sweet game to show off.

Karmaka is a strategy card game in which players begin as lowly dung beetles, hoping to accrue enough Karma to reincarnate into higher and higher forms, until they ascend to Transcendence. The game in itself uses an extremely simple deck of cards, which players can either use for their ability, bank for their Karmic cost, or stash for their “Future Life”, which is to say, the next round.

Several nuances of Karmaka make this simple skeletal structure extremely interesting. For starters, any card which you use for an effect is then passed to one of your opponents, mechanically representing the “what goes around comes around” concept of Karma. Furthermore, at the end of your hand, where you tally up your banked Karma to see if you reincarnate as a higher life form, only the cards of your most numerous color count (That is, if you have 3 Red Karma and 2 Blue Karma banked, you only get the 3 Red Karma). Combine all of this with the fact that higher Karma cards also have better effects, and this game becomes exceptionally interesting.

Karmaka is currently in the last couple weeks of their Kickstarter campaign, but before you feel trepidation, know that if I got the game in its current state, I’d be ecstatic. Most of the work left appears to be for manufacturing. If you’re really not sure if it’s your speed, there’s a print-and-play ripe for the printing and playing.

Also, god damn this game looks beautiful.

Secret Hitler

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I spent a good amount of my last day at PAX playing a pick-up game of Secret Hitler, and I do not regret a single bit of it. Secret Hitler has the potential to become one of my favorite light card games, and that’s a genre of game I hold in high esteem.

The rules to Secret Hitler are relatively simple. There are two teams: Liberals and Fascists. One of those Fascists is Hitler (secretly!). Fascists know who the other Fascists and Hitler are. Hitler and the Liberals don’t know anyone’s affiliation but their own. Every turn, a player is made President, who then gets to appoint a Chancellor. Everyone then votes on the arrangement. If it passes, the President gets to see 3 Agenda cards (which are either Liberal or Fascist), discard one, and pass the remaining two to the Chancellor, who then enacts one into law.

The Liberals win if either 5 Liberal Agendas are passed, or if Hitler is Assassinated (more on that in a second). The Fascists win if 6 Fascist Agendas are passed, or if, in the latter half of the game, Hitler is elected Chancellor.

The game is so simple, and yet, there are so many little design choices that make it a masterpiece. There are very few Liberal Agendas in the deck, meaning that a Liberal President and Liberal Chancellor might very well be forced to pass a Fascist Agenda. That’s OK, though, because as Fascist Agendas are passed, powers are given to the President, like the ability to look at someone’s team affiliation, or the ability to flat out Assassinate someone. With this in mind, Liberal players are tempted to let Fascist Policies slip by, in order to obtain some new powers. After all, a few Fascist Policies won’t hurt, right?

Secret Hitler is extremely easy to teach, great to look at and hold, and leads to hours of fun as your group descends into absolute distrust, wondering how deep into a lie someone who’s passed 3 Liberal Policies could really be. The feeling of panic that sets in when you peek into your private folder and see that you are, in fact, Hitler is all-consuming, and only matched by the feeling of intense glee when the President finally passes the Chancellor card to you, going “I dunno, you seem like a safe bet”. The layers of this game, and the intricate web of behaviors you end up analyzing, trying your best to figure out if someone’s a Fascist, or worse, is enthralling.

On top of that, there’s something so fundamentally gross about playing Secret Hitler that makes it one-of-a-kind. That feeling of creating deep webs of lies, of playing side by side with your best friend every step of the way, only to stab them in the back at the very end, of feeling a Cheshire Cat smile creep across your face as you say “Well, thank you for electing me Chancellor, but I’m afraid I much prefer the title of Fuhrer” made me feel like a monster of a human being.

In case this hasn’t sold you, like KarmakaSecret Hitler also has a print-and-play available.

Things I Didn’t/Couldn’t Buy But Were Still Pretty Neat

Den vänstra handens stig

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Please please please Greenlight this game. I want this in my home.

Den vänstra handens stig might be my personal game of the show. If it is a game is debatable, but how it is as an experience is indescribable.

In Den vänstra handens stig, you watch a protagonist, guided solely by AI, attempt to make his way through a brutal environment. He struggles as he must maintain everything from his energy to his temperature, as he attempts to climb and leap his way through unforgiving terrain laid out like a 2D platformer. He fails, often, only to reset to a checkpoint, and to have his AI attempt to develop a new strategy for the area, learning as he goes. As someone who has dabbled in AI, the constant learning of Den vänstra handens stig‘s hero, combined with the amount of game elements it has to juggle, is awe-inspiring. You can see the AI attempt to maximize energy whenever possible, sometimes attempting jumps far too early in an effort to determine exactly when it can cut a corner.

Combine all of this with the fantastic pixel animation, which truly captures the heft, weight, and most importantly suffering of the protagonist, and the game is truly enthralling. I watched the entire demo beginning to end, standing there, moaning and cringing as the hero made jumps to early or lost his handhold, falling to his death. When he made a jump he had been struggling on for so long, I screamed cheering.

The most fascinating thing, though, is the way you as a player interact with this game. You interact with a single, custom-made, button. This button, set in a wooden box with complex runes cut out, has a needle sticking out of it. In order to press the button, you must prick yourself with the needle and let your blood seep into the rune.

(Note: due to PAX rules, the needle actually had to be removed, which was a huge bummer)

What does the single button do? Simple. It makes the AI drop to his knees, give up, forget everything he’s learned, and start over from square 1.

You have to understand, after I’d been standing there for thirty minutes, now heavily invested into the plight of this character, the second I saw someone inch near the button, I just about stabbed them. Soon, a ring of people formed around the button, providing a barrier so that no stray kid or jerk would ruin this experience.

There is so much that is fascinating about this game. There are hundreds of environments, which are uniquely configured for every game (the environments themselves are handcrafted, so this game isn’t totally procedural). The background actually shows the silhouette of upcoming levels, increasing your investment in the protagonist’s slog because I need to see what that deer skull tower is, dammit.

The most fascinating part of what I heard at the booth, though, was an ominous promise made by the developer: there is a reason that this character wants to reach the mountaintop far in the distance that serves as the end point of the game, and maybe, when you learn it, you’ll want to press that button.

I loved every second I spent watching Den vänstra handens stig. I’m fascinated by the level design alone, and how it’s perfectly crafted to gut the heart of anyone following this miserable little soul. I love the way it dangles mysteries in the far distance, as just one more way in which you want your sad protagonist to just MAKE THAT JUMP. I love the art style. I love the mood. I love the button. I love how, when I asked the developer if this is a game or not, he responded “I’m an adult, I don’t have to answer that.” This game, or whatever, is truly fascinating.

All I’ll leave you with, then, to whet your curiosity a bit more, is to ask you to maybe try and figure out the significance of the title. I’ll give you a hint: it’s Swedish.

Johann Sebastian Joust

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Dude, how have I not played Johann Sebastian Joust yet?

Johann Sebastian Joust, which came out in 2013 as part of the Sportsfriends bundle for PS3 and PS4, is a game that uses no screen or interface, just a set of Playstation Move Controllers and a soundtrack. The rules are brain-dead: you can only move as fast as the music. Move faster than that, you’re out. Last one standing wins.

What this results in, though, is one of my favorite memories from the convention. A circle of people, all shifty-eyed, slowly scuttling towards one another as Taylor Swift’s Shake It Off played so slowly I genuinely thought it was a vaporwave track at first. Suddenly, the track speeds up, and everyone races to each other. Johann Sebastian Joust is, after all, full contact, and as a result, you can slap, punch, and smack each other to try and jostle your opponent’s controllers in an attempt to knock them out. I saw one round end with a roundhouse kick.

Suddenly, the command “FREEZE” booms over the music, and everyone stops in place. I look around me. Two people are closing in behind me. I see the shadow of someone behind me. We’re all frozen. I’m doomed.

Johann Sebastian Joust does the impossible: it justifies the existence of the Playstation Move. I watched people fiddle about with Moves for a day and a half before I finally walked over and asked what they were playing, and I am so glad I did, because it is a blast.

Western Press

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Somewhere in the middle of the expo floor, I saw a man in a cowboy hat by a booth covered in hay, with two people crushing it on a pair of DDR pads. I was hooked.

I’m noticing a theme here. All three of the games so far in this category are extremely simple, at least in terms of controls. Press a button. Move your arm. In the case of Western Press, the game is simply QTEs. Each player has a column of quicktime prompts, and whoever clears their column the best gets to take a shot. Best of three shots is the winner.

The key lies in what I said earlier: DDR pads. You can play this on a controller like a loser, or you can bust out the dance pad, and dance away your column of prompts instead of just pressing buttons like a controller philistine.

Honestly, I mention this game so highly for one simple observation that Western Press has made, one that I’m amazed it took so long to figure out: dancing on a DDR pad doesn’t look like regular dancing, it looks like square dancing. When this clicked in my brain while playing Western Press, I grabbed my belt, shouted a “YEE HAH”, and enjoyed the beautiful marriage of square dancing and murder.