Monday, 22 February 2016 14:34

Favorite Games

Herewith a list of games that have particularly intrigued me over the years, some remain in print, some you can find easily on the net, others remain personal creations or in development. Games have made a considerable contribution to my thinking since an early age, not perhaps as much as books, yet interesting games function a bit like a books, and not only do they have a stories to tell in their structures but you can evolve stories as you play them or adapt them.

Careers. I came across this at about age 12. I knew little about the world in those unsophisticated times and attended a grammar school where the English Master (a wily and provocative old cove) would occasionally announce ‘You are here to be educated as clerks, like your fathers’. Fortunately the school also had a science department, although nobody had a clue what you could do with a science education except become a science teacher. The school gave no career advice, it assumed you would either take one of the plentiful clerical jobs available at the time, or go to university and think of something whilst there. The game of Careers thus seemed an astonishing eye opener. Choose Wealth, Happiness, or Fame, join a whole series of professions, buy a yacht, in short; choose an Identity! All this seemed to sit in my subconscious till the mid-1970s, an era of plenty when career-anxiety seemed to give way to the search for personal identity in my peer group. I guess that I have always looked at life as a sort of board game. A lot of the assumptions built into the Careers game now seem simplistic but eventually it would perhaps have some influence over what I wrote in EPOCH, but more of that in a following article.

The Game of Nations. This came out in the 1970’s to model the then current oil crisis. Players control abstract Middle –Eastern oil producing territories and vie to get wealth that they can spend on oil extraction, tankers, and pipelines, or on taking over adjoining territories. The game system does not involve dice but it does have uncertainties built in with event cards. Players can buy Politicians, Secret Agents, Monarchs, Dictators, and Guerrillas in an attempt to subvert or conquer additional territories. Today we should perhaps consider adding Theocrats as well, and making the map less abstract and updating the events cards.

The Russians currently seem to play a strong hand in Syria. The West has perhaps made a mistake in supporting the ‘moderate’ rebels. Both sides need Iranian cooperation and support but if the Iranians come out of this on top then all hell may break loose if they go head to head with the Saudis.

 Diplomacy. This classic game of early 20th Century European alliances represents one of the few games which model WW1 in an interesting way. Apart from the naval battle of Jutland the battles of WW1 mainly got settled by terrible attrition rather than by interesting tactics and manoeuvres. In Diplomacy we see the bigger picture as nations make secret alliances and agreements off board and then simultaneously reveal their strategies to see what results. Historians argue constantly about the causes of WW1, but in this model scenario, war seems virtually inevitable if the game represents the actual diplomatic system of the time. The game however does really need 5 or more players, but you can play it over many days with perhaps a move a day, and with secret diplomatic notes passed around at tea and lunch breaks.

Axis & Allies. The basic Axis & Allies game models WW2 from after it has started and Japan has attacked Hawaii and the Germans have attacked Russia. It can accommodate five players but it works well with just two. Basically it works a bit like the simple strategy game of ‘Risk!’ where you get extra forces for conquering more territory, however the forces consist of various types of land, sea, and air units which makes it far more detailed and engaging. Subsequent versions have striven for yet more detail and realism. The initial game suffered from the structural quirk that Japanese commanders with any sense should disengage quickly from the pacific and attack Russia in the east, thus virtually ensuring an Axis economic victory. However for historical reasons, notably the Nomonhan Incident, the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact and an Oil Embargo, they adopted a Pacific strategy. The critical role of oil supply in WW2 does not seem well reflected in the basic rules.

Buck Rogers – Battle for the 25th Century. This quirky game never became very popular but you can get second-hand versions quite easily. It has an Axis and Allies type strategic structure but set in the inner solar system with spaceships and spacefaring troops disputing the control of Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, the Asteroids and various orbital facilities. It has the extraordinary feature of a variable geometry board. The Planets move around the Sun and you need to plan spacecraft trips accordingly. The basic game has some complications that I don’t find worthwhile; I have preferred to adapt the rules to make it more like Axis & Allies and also to use the Risk 2210 sci-fi pieces to provide more choices of troop type. 

Discworld. Ankh-Morepork. Something extraordinary happened here and then a tragedy occurred. Perhaps by some happy chance a really good game got cobbled together in Ankh-Morepork, (two attempts to make sequels to it fell badly flat) but then after the death of Sir Terry Pratchett something went wrong with the rights and the publishers had to stop making it. Sets can now fetch several hundred pounds. The game has a bit of everything, it seems a bit like turbo-monopoly with assassination and magic, although amassing property may not necessarily win you the game because you don’t know which characters your opponents play. It works best with four players and it contains enough randomness and pageantry from the books to make it surprising and enjoyable for aficionados and beginners.

Space Raid.  Interstellar board game design presents two major problems, firstly how to represent 3D space on a 2D board, and secondly how to allow for the vast distances and speeds involved. The designer needs to invoke or invent some reasonably credible but as yet undiscovered physics.

In designing Space Raid, I opted for sheets of black board with numbered or named stars on them joined by pale green lines representing possible jump routes between them of lengths of up to a few parsecs, to produce a sort of spider web or network of jump routes with the stars at the nodes and with most stars connected to between 2 and 4 others by jump routes. On the board the jump routes have different apparent lengths to represent the reality of the stars not all lying in exactly the same plane, but perhaps lying in the thickness of the plane of a spiral galaxy.

The starships move using (hypothetical) gravity focussing devices. By focussing the gravity drive exclusively on a nearby star, a ship accelerates towards it and achieve an immense velocity fairly quickly.  It then performs a slingshot manoeuvre around the star and as it hurtles away it uses the gravity focussing drive to brake against the star to eventually bring itself more or less to rest around another nearby star. Thus each time a ship makes a jump it leaves one star system, hurtles through another without stopping, and ends up in a third. Two further quirks of relativistically dubious speculative physics also occur in this scenario, initiating a jump sends out a non-local gravitational hyperwake through the system so all ships know when another has jumped, but not to where, plus all jumps take a very similar amount of time, irrespective of differing distances.

Rather conveniently this leads to the situation where all ships on both sides can jump simultaneously but commanders don’t know the destinations of their opponent’s ships. So both sides secretly write down the next destinations of their ships and then both reveal them and move their ships and see if any have arrived at the same star systems, in which case combat begins. Plus ships passing through a star system in the middle part of their two star jump have such an enormous velocity that interception and combat remain impossible, however they can deploy kinetic energy weapons in passing, basically dropping rocks on very large targets like planets to create massive devastation. No defence exists against this except to intercept them well before they get within jump range of a star system with a base or colony on one of its planets. This does not seem unreasonable, the capacity for flight soon brought with it the capacity to wreck entire cities; the capacity of interstellar travel would probably bring with it the capacity to wreck entire planets. Players may agree to a treaty forbidding such tactics, or a severe loss of victory points if they break it.

When opposing starships end up in the same system they can attempt to engage or evade each other using a variety of sensors, cloaking devices, and evasive tactics, force shields, particle beam weapons, and missiles. Each ship has a variety of factors for these and duelling proceeds through the use of asymmetric combat polygons. Ships can also exchange fire with orbital bases or with planetary bases.

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