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Column: The Gentleman Nerd

COLUMN: 'The Gentleman Nerd' - Why I’m kind of “meh” about… Twilight Imperium

September 1, 2006 5:30 AM |

[The Gentleman Nerd is a weekly column written by Jason McMaster and is dedicated to the more discerning tastes of the refined dork. Due to Jason's extreme nature, most of his columns will be subtitled 'Why I Love...' or 'Why I Hate...' - in case you were wondering.]

Twilight ImperiumSo there I am, standing in my foyer with a glass of Everclear and Pepsi in my hand, speaking to a giant. It was one of those moments where you’re not sure if it’s the alcohol that’s making you see things or if you’re actually talking to a man who had to stoop to enter your house. Luckily for me, this one didn’t want to grind my bones to make his bread. Well, not in a literal sense.

After taking in this frankly bizarre sight, I noticed that he carried two things in his hands: a cooler full of Smirnoff Ice and a copy of Twilight Imperium. This giant was here to drink malt liquors and engage in intergalactic combat with me and my friends. My vision quickly becoming muddled by my drink, I mustered an enthusiastic “Tally ho!” before heading to the dining room.

What happens next is what Brian and I both agree is the best part of any new board game: setting up the board. I don’t know what’s so entertaining about placing cardboard, cards and plastic markers in a certain order on a table, but it always make me smile. Maybe it has something to do with my Culinary degree. Every chef instructor’s mantra is “mis en place,” which means “setting in place,” and it’s the action of placing all of your ingredients where they belong for quick access and efficient use. After a few years of hearing that statement, being made to define that statement and working in a restaurant named after that statement, you start living that statement.

As a side note, there are several types of board gamers, and you’re never really sure which one you’ve got until you can observe their habits in their natural setting. The new guy was a fidgeter. That means that whenever someone sets down a drink within a certain radius of the game, the fidgeter must move it. This can lead to a little unintentional ballet of sorts. I set down a drink, he picks it up and moves it and then I drink from it and set it down again. Round and round they go.

Twilight ImperiumOnce the game was set up and the square dance was over, our large friend started to explain the rules. Now, you’d think that drinking would inhibit my ability to understand the complex workings of Twilight Imperium, and maybe it would were I a lesser man, but luckily I’m a master of inebriated gaming. After listening to the rules for a few minutes I piped up and made the comparison to Master of Orion 2, and I think that rings true. This is basically Master of Orion 2 in the form of a board game. I’ll demonstrate by a quick explanation of the rules.

The game is set up so that the objective planet, Mecatol Rex, is in the center. After that planet is set up, each player takes turns placing the hexes around it in a circular manner. Once all the hexes are placed you begin the game. The game basically consists of conquering planets, which give you bonuses to research and money. Sound familiar? Even better, there’s a tech tree and the tech has requirements that must be fulfilled before you can buy other techs. These techs allow you to build bigger and better ships and improve your planets. This will help you along your way towards getting the most victory points and achieving your secret objectives.

Once the parallel to Master of Orion 2 was drawn, I completely grasped the game. The problem, however, is that I was the only new player who had ever played Master of Orion 2. Without a frame of reference, or some background in this basic style of game, the rules for Twilight Imperium are extremely daunting. That’s not to say that it isn’t good or fun, but it’s just quite a bit to take in all at once. In fact, it was so much to take in that our first game only made it to turn three and that took about six hours. Not exactly what we were expecting where we started at 8.

Twilight ImperiumSo, at around 2 A.M., we had to call it quits. Who knew that giants had bed times? Everyone helped pack up the game and I bid them all good night. Sarah had already gone to bed for the night and the house was quiet. It was just me and the cats.

After everyone left, I sat in my dining room table, reading over the rules for Runebound and thinking about that night’s gaming. Other than the fact that I really like the board and the pieces, I wasn’t too sure if I really enjoyed the experience. Most things are subjective, of course, and under different circumstances I think I would have enjoyed myself more. The rules and inner-workings of the game are pretty intriguing, if not dense. I know for a fact that we’ll play the game again, and I hope to have a better time then.

As I turned off all the lights in our house and headed up to bed, a thought kept coming back to me. “Who had driven to my house? Was it the giant or was it Brian?” I couldn’t imagine what it would have been like if it had been Brian. He has a small car.

[Jason McMaster is a freelance writer who has written for Gamasutra, GameSpy and several other publications. He’s currently working on a few small projects and updating his blog, Lamethrower, as often as he can.]

COLUMN: 'The Gentleman Nerd' - Why I Love... Puerto Rico

August 25, 2006 4:11 AM |

[The Gentleman Nerd is a weekly column written by Jason McMaster and is dedicated to the more discerning tastes of the refined dork. Due to Jason's extreme nature, most of his columns will be subtitled 'Why I Love...' or 'Why I Hate...' - in case you were wondering.]

I am, usually, not so fond of economy games. In fact, I’m what most people would call a fan of killing stuff. Unless something is blowing up or I get to remove a piece from the board, then I’m not really into it. That’s why I approached Puerto Rico with a fair bit of skepticism.

Puerto RicoOn the surface, Puerto Rico appears to be a boring, counter-based game. That notion carries on throughout opening up the box for the first time. Oh boy, a ton of cardboard squares and circular counters. I wasn’t particularly excited about playing this game at all. The only thing I knew about the game is that it’s the highest rated game on Board Game Geek, and my friend Brian wouldn’t shut up about it. So, I gave in to the pressure and we set up the board. I must admit that when you set up all the pieces, it looks completely baffling and dense. Then we started playing.

Have you ever had a moment in your life where, after struggling with something, it all makes perfect sense, and that realization happens in a second’s time? It’s happened several times for me throughout my life. The first experience I can remember like that is when I was a kid and my dad bought me the full version of Quick Basic for my birthday.

Puerto RicoMy dad began programming in the seventies and I wanted to follow suit. So, I would sit in my room on my 8086 and try to figure out how to program stuff in BASICA. I eventually lost interest in it, and had forgotten all about programming until I received that gift. I’m not sure if it was just that I was older, or that I had access to more helpful documentation, but it all just started making sense. I completely understood the logic. That’s what happened with Puerto Rico.

My initial shock wore off and the game started making perfect sense. Each of the gameplay mechanics manages to be clever but not too complex, and there’s only one way to interpret any of the rules. The game’s layout is no-frills and concise, but for Puerto Rico, that works. In other words, I’m very pleased to say that all of my initial reactions were dead wrong. Puerto Rico is one of the strongest board games I’ve every played.

Puerto RicoLet’s take a quick look at how the game plays. On each turn, you choose a role card. These role cards decide who is what for the rest of the round. Once the round has ended, the role cards go back into the center and can be chosen again. These different roles allow for different actions, and whoever chooses that role gets a bonus to that action. The actions vary, but mostly have to do with the production of goods, purchasing of buildings and manning of farms. The game continues until all of the victory points have been given out, someone fills up their building spots or all of the workers are gone. Whoever ends the games with the most victory points wins. It’s a very easy game disguised as a complex one.

What the instructions don’t tell you, however, is that the real fun in Puerto Rico is screwing your friends over. There’s nothing better than taking the last farm that your friend needs and not even manning it. There’s this look that people get when they realize that you just took something from them just because you can. It’s like manna from heaven. Who ever thought that human suffering could be so fulfilling?

That’s why I love Puerto Rico.

[Jason McMaster is a freelance writer who has written for GameSpy, Firing Squad and several other publications. He’s currently working on a few small projects and updating his blog, Lamethrower, as often as he can.]

COLUMN: ‘The Gentleman Nerd’ – Why I Love… RoboRally

August 18, 2006 7:05 AM |

[The Gentleman Nerd is a weekly column written by Jason McMaster and is dedicated to the more discerning tastes of the refined dork. Due to Jason's extreme nature, most of his columns will be subtitled 'Why I Love...' or 'Why I Hate...' - in case you were wondering.]

Most people have heard of Magic: the Gathering, the undeniably popular collectible card game from Wizards of the Coast. When it was released in 1993, Magic took the gaming world by storm and hasn’t slowed down since. I must admit that I cashed in on Magic as well by hustling people for cards at one comic shop and selling them at another. Ah, the heady days of youth.

Well, Magic isn’t the only game that its designer, Richard Garfield, made. Mostly he stayed in the CCG arena with games like Star Wars, Jyhad and Netrunner. The only games that he made that didn’t fall into that category were The Great Dalmuti and RoboRally, the latter of which is the subject of today’s column.

Rally UPRoboRally is a fairly simple game. Each player is dealt a certain number of cards with different directions or turns on them and they have to choose five that their robot will execute that turn. The point of the game is to be the first player to touch all the flags. Sounds pretty simple, right? Well, it is.

What makes the game really interesting is when you have several different people competing for the same goal and they don’t know which way anyone is going to move. The real kicker is that once you have all your cards put down in the order you’re going to move, you can’t change them. So, if someone knocks you off course, you could very well fly into a pit instead of making it to your target.

Then, on top of just programming your robot, you have to deal with the built in game mechanics and the board environment. There are walls, lasers and pits as well as conveyor belts that can throw you off track. That’s only part of the danger involved in playing ‘The Rally’.

It takes most people a while to understand the exact series of events required to play RoboRally to its fullest “jackass” potential. Most people, when they first start participating in any competitive activity, avoid direct confrontation. Everyone wants to go for the goal and the overall attitude is fairly light hearted. This all changes the second someone accidentally knocks another player off course and that player dies. Then it becomes a game about revenge. One sure fire way to keep people doing something is to encourage their competitive nature.

That’s why I use RoboRally as my gateway game. I like to get people to try something out that’s fairly simple and isn’t all that bizarre as their first time playing board games. The simple rules coupled with the sheer amount of chaos that can be caused by one collision usually keep people entertained.

Rally DOWNOnce people are playing and generally enjoying themselves, I have to tell them the horrible truth. You are one step closing to becoming a nerd. The second you begin cackling at what you made a little figurine do to another one, you’ve passed over the threshold and are ready for induction. Welcome to Thunder Dome, where Thunder is Nerd and Dome is… Dome. Never mind.

Either way, it’s a good tool to show people that things that are normally considered reprehensibly dorky and pathetic are actually quite fun if you give them a shot. I was once among the washed masses that looked down upon my smelly brethren. I was a football player, for God’s sake.

That all changed, though, and now I stalk through the night with my Ziploc bags full of game pieces, just looking for my next victim. All the cool kids are playing Puerto Rico and Ticket to Ride. Don’t you want to be cool? The first one’s free….

[Jason McMaster is a freelance writer who has written for GameSpy, Firing Squad and several other publications. He’s currently working on a few small projects and updating his blog, Lamethrower, as often as he can.]

COLUMN: 'The Gentleman Nerd' - Why I Hate... Board Games

August 9, 2006 1:23 PM |

[The Gentleman Nerd is a weekly column written by Jason McMaster and is dedicated to the more discerning tastes of the refined dork. Due to Jason's extreme nature, most of his columns will be subtitled 'Why I Love...' or 'Why I Hate...' - in case you were wondering.]

Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. I love board games, but absolutely hate collecting them. Wait, no, it’s not that either because I actually love collecting them. What the hell am I talking about? Maybe I should start from the beginning.

BAMI’ve always been a sucker for games and puzzles, but my obsession with figurines and cardboard didn’t happen until I was in my late teens. I moved out of my home and into an apartment with one of my friends. He worked at a comic book shop that held Warhammer tournaments, and offered to teach me how to play 40k. That’s where it all began.

In my younger days, I had quite a large collection of Games Workshop games. From Tyranid Attack to Talisman, I had them all and their respective expansions. Then ‘The Great Board Game Disaster of 99’ happened. I had moved to another apartment and left my collection at a friends place for safe keeping. While I was getting my place set up, he was evicted and they ‘cleaned’ his apartment. For those of you who don’t know, ‘cleaned’ actually means ‘we threw everything into the dumpster because you are a low life’. I was notably depressed. So much that I didn’t start collecting board games again until a couple of years ago.

I started off slow by purchasing a few social games that everyone knows before ramping up to my old, eccentric ways. I don’t think that I’d even planned on starting up again, but I found my old Space Hulk box and started getting the itch to collect again. There are two places to go when you need your board game fix: eBay and Board Game Geeks. Oddly enough, these are also the two places you go when you want your wife to call you a nerd and get mad at you.

Gloom and doom!So, the first game I look up on eBay is Talisman. That was a mistake. The board game that I had (3rd edition with all the expansions) now costs well over 200 dollars for the base boxed set. I immediately feel that same nausea that I felt back in 1999. Not only had all of my games been thrown away, but most of them are now worth at least five times the amount of money that I bought them for. You see, while I took my hiatus, most of the games I really liked went out of print. Now, we’re getting to the part of board games that I hate: the complete lack of game stability.

That’s not to say that there aren’t other collectibles that are the same way, but with board games it seems worse. If you find a game you like, you had better purchase it and any expansions it has immediately because it may be gone tomorrow. Let’s just take a quick look at Talisman as an example. There were three different versions of Talisman and two had different expansions. Same thing goes for Robo Rally, Cosmic Encounter and any number of other games out there. Even though this is frustrating, it’s not even the worst part.

I recently purchased Cosmic Encounter from a friend’s comic shop in my hometown. After my wife and I got back home, I opened it up to discover that one of the templates is missing. Normally I wouldn’t think this is a problem, but boy was I wrong this time. I began my replacement piece quest by trying to contact Hasbro. Hasbro sent me to Wizards of the Coast who, in turn, sent me to a random board game retailer. The retailer never responded to my inquiries, so I then started emailing enthusiasts and hobby shop owners. No one could help me. I’ve basically come to the conclusion that I’ll have to make my own. What a nightmare for an obsessive like me.

Stupid, stupid green pieceReally, much like all of my other hobbies, it’s a love/hate relationship. I take great pleasure from tracking down and acquiring cool games, but the obsessive nerd in me can never rest because there will always be a game out there that I don’t own. Maybe one day, when I shuffle off this mortal coil, I’ll find sweet repose. Until then, however, if you have the green planet template for the Avalon Hill Cosmic Encounter, drop me a line.

[Jason McMaster is a freelance writer who has written for GameSpy, Firing Squad and several other publications. He’s currently working on a few small projects and updating his blog, Lamethrower, as often as he can.]