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Dipping My Toes Into the Thematic and Other News

Jesse Dean
United States
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Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
American Style Games
As part of my continued exploration into all things board game, I have been pushing into what is probably the last great frontier for me: the great, modern, and not so modern, American-style games. Of course, the fact that I am only just now getting to them, leads to the question of why I ignored them up to this point in favor of war games, card games, and the great undefined mass that is described as eurogames. The biggest reason is probably fatigue. After years of playing RPGs and CMGs, the last thing I wanted to do was dip my toes into what I saw as being the same old tired fantasy themes. Similarly I was not that interested in adventure games after years of playing D&D as they seemed to be a pale shadow of a real RPG and was disinterested in tactical miniatures games for the same reason. The few Ameritrash games that I did end up getting dragged into ended up being both light and dreary or so laden with chrome that they seemed to collapse under their own weight. I did like Arkham Horror, but that seemed to be an exception to my general preferences, based on my love of the Lovecraftian theme, rather than a true indication of my tastes.

This changed in 2010, as my general love for 4X games, drew me back in the direction of Ameritrash. I tried out both Sid Meier’s Civilization the Board Game and Runewars and found them both to be lacking for various reasons. That was almost enough to put me off of them again, and I went through a brief phase where I played almost nothing but 18XX, but the seed was planted and I have been looking at AT games with a renewed interest. The sheer quality of AT games released in 2011 only cemented that interested, resulting in my current inclination to explore some of the great AT titles of the past and in the last week I have ordered a copy of Magic Realm, played Twilight Imperium 3 (TI3), and bought and played Earth Reborn.

Magic Realm
My interest in Magic Realm probably sprung from my love for Mage Knight, and the comparisons between them were enough to spark my interest and track down a copy. Whether it remains in my collection will be determined by if it is interesting and offers a unique enough experience, which is what everything else I have read about the game indicates, than it will probably be worth keeping. Of course, soon after my purchase I learned that Stronghold Games was probably going to be reprinting the game, but that does not bother me much, as it will allow me to provide more context for any review I do of the new edition. Of course there is always the possibility that I will end up hating it, but that is a risk I am willing to take, particularly considering the amount of context that playing this will provide me for adventure games that have been published since its release.

Twilight Imperium 3
TI3 is a hulking brute of a 4X game, with such a reputation that most released 4X board games are directly compared to it. This influence alone would be enough to make me want to try it out, but bits and pieces that I have read about it over the years were entertaining enough to make me want to play it on top of that, but were not enough to push me over the edge into purchasing it. Luckily, a local owns the game and its expansions and we were able to play it on Sunday. Playing a game once is typically not effective in identifying the total worth of a game, but what I saw impressed me in a way that I was beginning to think was no longer possible for a 4X board game. Despite this curiosity, I was slightly concerned that based on TI3’s length and my experience with previous big Fantasy Flight games, that it would be some awkward ungainly monstrosity. Happily I was wrong. Instead of the additional game length being due to rules bulk, instead it appears to largely be based on additional texture and nuance that really bring the game’s flavor to the forefront. Granted, we were all experienced board gamers, but after the first hour it felt like the game’s mechanics quickly receded from view, and we became wholly absorbed in the game.

From my perspective, TI3’s primary competition as preeminent 4X board game is Eclipse, Runewars, and Space Empires 4X. Since its strengths are different in comparison to each of these games, I am going to focus on talking about it in relation to these games, in order to provide greater context to why I think it is a superior 4X experience. These comparisons might not be completely fair, as I was able to play TI3 with the benefit of some enjoyable expansion material, while I have only played the base game for each of the others, and from all accounts the base game for each of the alternatives is much more balanced than the base game of TI3, however, I consider the possibilities present in the TI3 expansion as part of its strengths.

Twilight Imperium and Eclipse
Eclipse has been one of the hottest games on BGG over the last few months and has been touted as a TI3 killer in part due to providing a similar experience in a much shorter time frame. While I do not have much to say about their relative time frames, as I have only played TI3 once and that play only took a little bit longer than our plays of Eclipse, I found that the experience offered by Eclipse to be both different and ultimately inferior to the experience offered by TI3. Both games present the players as one of several galactic civilizations, humans or alien, whom are trying to take over planets in the galaxy, with a particular bonus available from acquiring the core system in the galaxy and its available resources, and an exception-based technology tree. However, from there they largely diverge in ways that for me make Eclipse an inferior experience.

There is an area where Eclipse offers additional level of depth over TI3: ship customization. Where TI3 has a slightly larger variety of differentiated ships, Eclipse offers a smaller set of ships, each of which can be interchangeably customized based on researched technologies. This does add a nice level of additional strategic breadth, but I found that a lot of the initial intrigue that this customization offers fades as players become more familiar with particularly optimal configurations. It also prevents any extensive distinctiveness to come to the fore, like is possible with Twilight Imperium.

Eclipse and TI3 are roughly equivalent in the complexity of their economic systems. Eclipse features three different styles of resources, for which specialization is its own reward. However, the system supports a style of economic snowball that, when combined with the random draws of sector tiles through exploration can result in someone being forced out of the game through the quality of tile draws. TI3’s economic system is more interactive. Planets produce a combination of two different resources, three if you count technology discounts, but also adds a trade system that allows for the production of a general-purpose expendable resource based on establishing trade relationships with other players. .

Eclipse’s political system is pretty basic, with politics essentially being limited to either player’s exhortations to attack each other or limited agreements that serve both as non-aggression pacts, and the games limited execution of trade. TI3’s diplomatic systems offers the potential to establish laws that can actually be used as weapons against the other players, but frequently these will only occur if you can convince other involved players to vote on them, forcing players into a position where they can attempt to evaluate and manipulate the overall balance of power.

I could continue, but essentially it seems that what Eclipse has done has provided a streamlined 4X experience that, while interesting in its own right, fails to live up to the fullness and richness provided by TI3. This is probably an acceptable trade off for many people, who are unable to get TI3 to the table due to its sheer scope or because of a simple preference for more streamlined games, but it is not acceptable for me. I would rather play a game that gives me a complete and rich experience, no matter what the time frame, rather than one that leaves me wishing I could have something more.

Twilight Imperium 3 and Runewars
I got Runewars for Christmas with 2010 and it lasted six plays before I lost interest in it. I thought a great deal about whether I wanted Runewars or Twilight Imperium 3 more before I eventually settled on Runewars. Its game length seemed slightly more manageable, I had a slight preference for the fantasy setting, and it seemed that the integration of an adventurer system into a larger 4X game might be interesting and could potentially be amazing. Unfortunately, over time it seemed to largely be an over-chromed mess, with a large number of the subsystems and rules details that had minimal impact on the game as it was played. The adventuring system was kind of neat, and did provide an additional avenue of conflict, but their essential invisibility to your available forces was somewhat unfortunate, and lead to a level of disconnect that I found to be unpleasant. Conflicts between armies were infrequent and frequently seemed irrelevant. It was very difficult to be able to push and grab the victory point tokens from a canny player, and in many instances the game was essentially won during map set-up. TI3 seems like it might also share some of the weaknesses in how military forces are used or not used, but even if that ends up being the case, and I suspect it is not, there are enough other weapons that can be effectively used against other players to make up for this.

Twilight Imperium 3 and Space Empires 4X
Space Empires 4X suffers in comparison to TI3 for much the same reason that Eclipse does: the streamlining of the system leaves a lot to be desired. Fortunately, it makes up for this by its extensive and extreme focus on the combat system, such that it works more effectively as a war game with an economic undercurrent than as a more expansive 4X game. The surprises of fleet composition and technology configurations, plus the kill or be killed victory condition, allows Space Empires 4X to carve a particular niche such that I still think it is worth owning, if only as a two player game. Space Empires 4x’s extremely immature diplomatic system unfortunately leads to awkward “Lets have you and him fight” situations and makes me disinterested in trying it again with more players.

I am interested in playing TI3 again in the near future. It is possible that some of the supposed ponderousness of TI3 will push me back away from it again, but as it currently stands it is perhaps tied with Space Empires 4X as my favorite board game of the genre, and I can see a lot of potential in getting more extensive play out of it. I am not quite ready to purchase it, and thanks to the fact that one of my regular board game opponents owns it I will not need to do so, but I could see it being a purchase at some point, if that particular situation changes.

Earth Reborn
As discussed previously, I was formerly a tactical miniatures gamer. D&D Miniatures, then Dreamblade, were essentially my lifestyle games, and I played them exhaustively racking up thousands of total plays. I did not explore the board game side of tactical miniatures games, and my investment into DDM and Dreamblade was such that I did not have a high degree of interest in branching out. In my earlier exploration of board games, I found C&C: Ancients to be an interesting replacement for DDM in a way that was a bit more approachable to a wider range of people. This proved to be effective and I ended up playing a rather large number of games of it against my girlfriend. (She was quite good). Playing Summoner Wars is what really reinvigorated my interested in the genre, and playing Cave Evil, which has some strong similarities to the genre, reminded me of my love for these sorts of games while also reinvigorating my general interest in Ameritrash.

Earth Reborn came to my attention for three primary reasons. The first was the simple fact that Coolstuff Games (the store front for Coolstuff, Inc.) has a ding and dent section where they sell games with damage boxes at an additional discount. My lack of familiarity, its rank, and the $40 price tag were all very alluring to me. What pushed me over the edge was the great esteem that my friend Kurt has in the [blog=1431]game[/blogpost] and the fact that I was able to convince a local to go through the scenarios with me, with the overall goal being that this would end up being a two player game we could play that I would not have a strong play experience advantage in.

I had Wednesday off, so Will and I had some lunch, went to Coolstuff cracked open the box and ended up playing the first four scenarios until everyone else started showing up for board game night. I was impressed enough that I ended up arranging for us to get together to play the next scenario last night and am looking forward to my future plays. I also found that another local is also interested in Earth Reborn (and tactical miniature games in general) so there is a good chance that Will and I can start working through some of the scenarios with him in the near future too.

So what do I like about Earth Reborn? For one the action point system is effective and fun. Each turn a player draws five action tiles, each of which has four symbols on it, each of which can represent one of five different actions. This provides a limitation on how you can spend your available action points, and with the ability to draw further tiles by spending action points it leads to interesting decisions about whether to draw more tiles or to spend more points on the tiles you already have. The fact that the action points can also be used for blind bidding to control initiative or to interrupt actions simply adds to the tough decisions that need to be made.

Secondly, I appreciate how well the games thematic underpinnings intertwine with the action point system. Actions as different as activating a missile silo, to shooting a gun, to rifling through an officer’s stash for secret files, to convincing an enemy to switch sides, to fleeing from rabid zombie with a saw arm are all neatly contained in the system while still leaving loads of room for additional expandability. Because of this intertwining, it is fairly easy to create rather in-depth, cinematic scenarios that match something you would see in an RPG or an action movie.

It is this potential for expansiveness that really excites me, and I have really only gotten about half way through the game’s scenarios and have yet to encounter character abilities, radio jamming, torture, or the much-vaunted Scenario Auto-Generation System. That being said, I already feel a bit hungry for an expansion. I have no doubt that the base set will keep my occupied for a while, but I cannot help but imagine how awesome the game would be with a few more characters (or another faction) and a scenario book with a few more pre-constructed scenarios.

So if you are interested in a deep, thematic tactical miniatures game, and do not mind putting some effort into learning it, then Earth Reborn seems to be an excellent choice. I am definitely looking forward to playing it a great deal more in the near future.

Other News

Review Contest
I am the judge for a review contest, entitled the Voices of Experience and have donated my copies of Hawaii, Rex: Final Days of the Empire, and Sekigahara for prizes. In the words of the contest organizer,
qwertymartin wrote:
The Voice of Experience Review Contest is open for submissions until May 28th 2012. It aims to encourage critical analysis of board games that goes beyond a summary of the rules, and in-depth exploration in a community that tends to be dominated by first impressions.

The contest is open to all and is for reviews of a game the writer has played at least ten times. Games and GG are on offer as prizes.

Cult of the Critical
There is a new guild, Cult of the Critical, with the goal to,

”mezmorki” wrote:
The purpose of the Cult of the Critical “guild” is to: (1) provide a place for members to discuss and plan their activities; (2) provide a venue for peer-review of ideas or articles prior to broader distribution on BGG or elsewhere on the web; and (3) provide a place to centralize resources and information pertaining to critical analysis of games and gaming hobbies.

If this interests you please check it out.

Game Sale
In my constant quest to keep my collection at a reasonable size, I have decided to sell some of the games that I like but I do not foresee getting much play in the next year. I have already sold Ascending Empires, German Railways, Key Market, Princes of Machu Picchu, and Summoner Wars to locals, but I still have the following games left for sale:
Puerto Rico
Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization
Bios Megafauna
Dungeon Petz
Neue Heimat
Puzzle Strike
Upon A Salty Ocean
If you are interested in any of these games and want to make an offer let me know. Otherwise I will be putting them up for auction tomorrow morning!

Castles of Burgundy
I played it. It was adequate. I could see plenty of potential replay value in the game, and could even see playing it a couple of more times. I just do not see very much in the game to continue to keep me interested. If I am going to be playing a dice management euro I would rather play Macao or Troyes.

Brink of War Review
Alex Brown has written a quite extensive and very interesting review of Race For the Galaxy: The Brink of War. Even if you are not a fan of The Brink of War it’s worth reading, simply because it is a good, entertaining review of a game that he has played extensively.
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Fri Apr 20, 2012 8:57 pm
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The First Great Galactic War (Eclipse Session Report)

Jesse Dean
United States
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Pound for pound, the amoeba is the most vicious predator on Earth!
The inevitability of the First Great Galactic War seems obvious in hindsight but was anything but in the years leading up to the spark of the conflict. Each of the species involved in the war had legitimate gripes against the others, but in the end the real source of the conflict was simple; each of the aggressor civilizations had determined independently that the current galactic order was no longer acceptable and felt that a rearrangement in it would result in gain for their particular species. The Eridani Empire had exited a period of torpor and wished to reclaim the glories of their past, the Hydran Progress was driven ever-forward by their unquenchable appetite for scientific progress, the Orion Hegemony’s government had been seized by a death cult that sought to bring death and destruction to as much of the galaxy as possible no matter what the cost, the Planta had reached the natural confines of their living space and sought to claim ever more territory for their sporelings, and the Terran Conglomerate sought to establish new sources of resources in order to extend the financial power of their markets.

The early years of the conflict were characterized by tentative steps by the main players out of their home systems and into neighboring, largely inhabited, locations. Each civilization added these territories to their own with little regard to the wishes of the natives, though their ultimate fate varied greatly depending on which civilization integrated them. During this early period of the conflict, first contact was also made with the previously rumored ancient vessels. Each of these was efficiently and effectively destroyed using the particular technological innovations that the civilization had discovered.

The Terran Conglomerate and Hydran Progress were the first civilizations to gain access to wormholes that allowed extensive interaction. Early interactions were tense but it was quickly that both civilizations had more to lose than to gain from a conflict at this stage in the build-up. Both were still dealing with the threat of ancients and had a great deal gain from trade. While the Progress had more powerful ships, and probably would have won any conflict they saw the Terran Conglomerate as the least of their concerns. Tales of the massive expansion of the Planta deep into the farthest reaches of the galaxy and had left them very concerned. Any conflict with the Terrans would weaken them in the face of an eventual conflict with the Planta.

The Planta had indeed expanded fast and efficiently building a vast civilization while also finding stores of ancient knowledge that they used to improve their quality of life, but at a great cost, their scientific advancement ground to a stop and their production capabilities slowed to but a trickle. They became so completely focused on integrating and worshipping the knowledge of the ancients into their civilization that they neglected the need to progress further. This helped them in the short term, as they used ancient technology to great effect in establishing their galactic preeminence, but in the end it proved to endanger the Planta in the face of other civilizations that were worried about the threat the Planta’s expansion represented.

This threat was even further highlighted when the Planta invaded the Galactic Center. Only the Hydran fleets were near enough to attempt to aid the Galactic Center Defense System, but even with the aid of some advanced ancient computers, the Hydrans found themselves to be no match for the Planta’s advanced cannons and ancient shields. They were forced to retreat after losing a dreadnought fleet and the Planta made short work of the Galactic Center Defense System. The Hydrans were able to slow the Planta down enough, however, to cause a permanent shift in the character of the conflict.

Immediately after the seizure of the Galactic Center, the Planta forged diplomatic pacts with two of its three neighbors: the Orion Hegemony and the Eridani Empire. This only increased tension with the Hydran Progress as the Hydrans were the only neighbors to the vast Planta Space that lacked diplomatic relations with them. This tension led to a broad build-up of military forces in the Galactic Center on the part of the Planta and led to great leaps of technological innovation on the part of the Hydrans, leading to the development of advances in financial and mining technologies as well as the first orbital stations to appear in Terran and Hydran sectors.

During this same period that the Hydrans and Planta were building for an eventual conflict the Orion Hegemony was watching and plotting. While the Hydrans focused on building up their general technological edge to overwhelm the Planta’s ancient-enhanced military engine, the Orion Hegemony focused its efforts on the most efficient way to bring its monumental military forces to bear on its neighbor. The first advancements to this effect were in using grid technologies to allow for financial refinements and advancements, allowing them to support their burgeoning empire. The second advancement of this kind allowed them to generate wormholes, forever changing the topography of conflict in the galaxy.

What wasn’t obvious to observers at the time was that despite their diplomatic agreements with the Planta, the Orions viewed the Planta as ripe of a target as the Eridani Empire. To this effect they maintained secret negotiations with the Hydrans through the vagaries of small, secret wormhole conduits that went through remote parts of Planta space. This is how knowledge of wormhole generators spread to first the Hydrans and then the Terrans and how this triple alliance eventually brought the collapse of the Planta civilization.

The second stage of the war started when the Orion Hegemony demonstrated the power of this new technology to invade Eridani space. Eridani defenses proved to be insufficient to fight off the aggression and though the Eridani sent out desperate pleas to the Planta for aid, the Planta refused to do so. A war against the Orion Hegemony would weaken their defenses in the face of the Hydrans and they did not want to have to bear the onus of being regarded as traitors for abandoning diplomatic agreements; the Terran Conglomerate, smelling blood, responded by also invading the flailing Eridani Empire, forcing the Eridani to split their forces in the face of the twinned assaults.

The Hydrans launched attacks at the unprotected core of Planta space, easily defeating both the fleets that were raised in response and the forces sent by the Planta in retaliation. The second part of the Hydran-Orion plan was then implemented as the Orions struck into the deepest stretches of Planta space and decimated these distant systems. All attempts by the Planta to fight back simply showed how much the lack of focus on technological innovation had hurt them; they lost every battle while the Hydrans were able to advance with minimal losses. The Planta were more successful at fighting off the Orions, but in the end it looked like it was the beginning of the end for Planta space and perhaps, even the Planta race in general. The Hydran Progress were triumphant, and it was considered to be only a matter of time before they established themselves as the preeminent force in the galaxy, with the Terran Conglomerate as a friendly client state.

This all changed when a small Orion fleet, intent on seizing a valuable core system was destroyed by two fleets of Hydran Dreadnoughts. To this day it is unknown if this conflict was the result of a miscommunication or a deliberate plan by the Hydran government to ensure that the Orions knew there place but it brought a quick end to the First Great Galactic War. The Planta were allowed to exist on in diminished form, the Eridani reclaimed the systems they lost to the Orions and the Terran Conglomerate settled into its position as a client state of the Hydran Progress. The Hydrans and Orions began to eye each other warily from across the galaxy and began the process of building up for what was eventually known as the Second Great Galactic War. However, that is a different story for another time.
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Thu Dec 22, 2011 5:22 pm
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