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Subject: Android, and the horrors and joys of thematic games rss

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Moss Scheurkogel
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I write reviews for the Australian retailer The Games Shop, and Android is one of my favorite games that I can never get anyone to play. The theme is so rich it totally overcomes how clunky the actual gameplay is, but not everyone sees it that way. This is an article I wrote about game theme using Android as a prime example.
To see this article with pretty pictures you can go to: http://gameshop.com.au/blog/thegamesshopper/2012/06/01/andro...

When people ask about guilty pleasures, they tend to expect answers that involve trashy reality television or secret crushes on fictional characters. For me, my guilty pleasure is a game; and no, it’s not a game about raising ponies or about seeing the world as an impetuous young elf (although I do like that game, too.)

It’s Android. And at a surface glance, Android might not seem that embarrassing. It’s just a strategy game about solving mysteries. In the future. While portraying a conflicted archetype of a hard-boiled detective or a crooked cop. Or a robot. Who will either sink into despair or rise above their demons. A game in which you attempt to solve a crime not by determining who did it, but by pinning evidence on the patsy you want to go down. While you’re dealing with your estranged ex-wife. Or your daddy issues. Or racial tensions surrounding artificial intelligence and the nature of the soul.

You can see the slippery slope here. Android is a game that revels so much in its theme and pulls so few punches that it has spiralled into depths that would terrify a casual gamer. The game demands so much character development that if you play while wearing a pair of sunglasses, you’re practically LARPing.


But I love Android for this. For standing its ground without compromise to make a game that is more myth than mechanics. But after fifteen minutes of setting up the conspiracy board, arranging the totalitarian corporations on the board, and learning your character’s backstory, it does make you wonder about the role of theme in board games, and how far it should be followed.

For every game, the developers will be faced with a decision at some point. A series of decisions, really. About when to make gameplay concessions for the sake of theme or vice-versa, and about what methods they should use to express a game’s theme. You can typically spot a game that was built from the theme up as well as you can spot one that was built from the mechanics down. Reiner Knizia games, for example, tend to hold their place at the opposite end of the spectrum from Android. These are games that have few, if any, concessions to theme. They are designed mechanically to achieve a certain purpose, and then have a theme rolled across them like a coat of paint. Lost Cities, a game of numerical chicken, could easily be played with a deck of playing cards, but has been made into an archaeological epic through the addition of a few pretty pictures.

Another example is the card game classic Bohnanza. Although it is known almost universally as “the bean game” (at least by my parents) and seems to be inextricable from its theme, the game really has nothing to do with bean farming. Are garden beans really that much rarer than wax beans? The beans are arbitrary in the game. They are a coat of paint. In fact, in some of the expansions the designers tuck into bean varieties that don’t even exist, like cognac beans. This is a game that was designed for mechanical tightness, and then lent an outlandish theme and enough amusing art that at this point nobody could imagine Bohnanza without the beans.

So what is preferable? Although it’s hardly a rule, mechanically founded games tend to be faster to play and easier to learn than thematic goliaths. They tend to have fewer loopholes and to be more balanced. But there is something special that you get from a heady thematic game.

It’s atmosphere.

I feel more satisfaction as a farmer after a game of Agricola than after a game of Bohnanza. And while Robo Rally may be faster to play, Android does a far superior job of filling you with the haunting loneliness of the synthetic lifeform.

The feel of a game is not something that is mechanically crucial to its enjoyment. But if you’ve ever thought back to the hobbies of your childhood, of endless hours where you played with toys that would be incapable of entertaining you now, you can appreciate the value of imagination. A frustrating or poorly designed game can still be given endless replay value if it has a theme that is capable of engaging a player’s creativity. And even the most mechanically sound game will falter if it leaves nothing to the imagination.

Think about chess, a game that is as old as the hills and that benefits from no glossy artwork or detailed backstory. Although it is commonly held as the pinnacle of the purely technical game, unmuddied by the grotesque concessions to theme that a game like Android makes, chess still has an imaginative concept. The world of chess is a world of battle, where kings and queens take to the field, aided by their religious advisors and cavaliers. There is enough spark in chess to capture the imagination.
And this spark is not a concession to theme that hurts the game, either. It’s just the same as the pictures in Lost Cities or the beans in Bohnanza. It’s the coat of paint that makes that game so satisfying to look at again and again.

It’s true that I may be quicker to pull Lost Cities from the shelf for a quick game with my girlfriend, since it’s hard to undervalue a game that is quick, clean, and concise. But when I have a lazy Sunday afternoon on hand, and I feel like just wrapping myself in an experience and getting lost, nothing can beat a good round of my own guilty pleasure.
I tend to leave the sunglasses off, mind you.
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John McKendrick
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A wonderful review, just wonderful. I've tried to engage many friends with Android and it is difficult, I think you have to really love the dystopic in SF and the genre of Noir Movies from Hollywood, to first engage with the game. But, It is a work of imagination and passion that anyone - willing to suspend 'reality' for a while - could enjoy

But that is not the sum total of the game, there is the anguish of the individual characters, are these pawns as in chess? Does the detective trump the android? The mercenary the clone? Clearly I think not ...

But then

Android is also my guilty pleasure and a soaring 10 out 10 in my collection

despite it's flaws ...

and somehow, that's the point

-JohnMcK
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Chris
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Android is my white whale - it's the one game I've always wanted to play, it's sitting in my closet, punched, and ready to go. The cyber-noir theme is squarely in my wheelhouse, the production is high-quality, and even the artwork just sings to me.

And yet.

Every time I go back to the rulebook, I spend 30 minutes firing up my imagination, getting amped for a rich thematic game, and then realize... I have no one in my gaming group that will ever sit still long enough to learn these rules or enjoy the theme enough to want to do repeated plays to learn.

And so, without solo rules or a new group of friends, Android will remain in the closet gathering dust, an ideal rather than a dream come true.

(Sorry for the flowery language, but your review was excellently written and I've been wanting to experience Android for SO long.)
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Merric Blackman
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The problem with Android for me is with the disconnect between the theme and the mechanics. Lots of it works fine, but having to "plant" clues when you're meant to be detecting clues just breaks the immersion for me.
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Balint Weisz
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MerricB wrote:
The problem with Android for me is with the disconnect between the theme and the mechanics. Lots of it works fine, but having to "plant" clues when you're meant to be detecting clues just breaks the immersion for me.


There is no disconnect. It's not a whodunnit story, it's a noir. In noir, nobody is really innocent, and there's usually no justice in the end. Also, in Android you are not really your character: you are one of the several writers of the same story, who try to turn it in a specific direction.
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Balint Weisz
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Marlowespade wrote:
Android is my white whale - it's the one game I've always wanted to play, it's sitting in my closet, punched, and ready to go. The cyber-noir theme is squarely in my wheelhouse, the production is high-quality, and even the artwork just sings to me.

And yet.

Every time I go back to the rulebook, I spend 30 minutes firing up my imagination, getting amped for a rich thematic game, and then realize... I have no one in my gaming group that will ever sit still long enough to learn these rules or enjoy the theme enough to want to do repeated plays to learn.

And so, without solo rules or a new group of friends, Android will remain in the closet gathering dust, an ideal rather than a dream come true.

(Sorry for the flowery language, but your review was excellently written and I've been wanting to experience Android for SO long.)


Check out Universal Head's rules summary in the Files section. All the rules fit on two pages, that's not that much.

BTW, if you eventually give it a try: for a good first experience, keep in mind your character's strengths and weaknesses (they are written on their strategy sheets). (For example, one character is vulnerable at seedy locations, meaning, that many of his dark cards can be played on him, when he is in a seedy location.) Without it, you will find yourself screwed by your dark cards too often, and it may leave the impression, that it's a totally random "take that!" game. It's not.
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Cracky McCracken
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Android needs an expansion. With the release of two more Android games (Android: Infiltration and Android: Netrunner) plus novels (Free Fall, Golem) FFG is slowly developing a sci-fi world far more interesting than the generic fantasy staple Terrinoth. Maybe FFG will consider POD releases for it someday?

Hey Games Shopper! Have you played Infiltration yet? It's damn good for a filler and really creates some nice tension (almost like DungeonQuest (third edition), but without bottomless pits)
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Linda Baldwin
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It's odd. Android is almost legendary in my house as the epitome of all things thematic. We discuss it often. List friends that the game seems to made for. All other thematic games are compared to it; it's the gold standard.

But here's the thing. We've played it once. ONCE, shortly after I moved in. about two years ago. In that time, we've played well over a dozen games of Arkham Horror, and a ton of other stuff, all along the mechanical-thematic spectrum. And Android's not come close to the table again.

Inexplicable. And needs to be remedied.
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Moss Scheurkogel
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Cracky wrote:
Hey Games Shopper! Have you played Infiltration yet?


Yeah, I got to play Infiltration at PAX in August, and gave it a segment in my report from the show: http://gameshop.com.au/blog/thegamesshopper/2012/09/07/the-2...
I was really pleased with the game. The countdown to being busted was a fantastic mechanic that built huge suspense throughout the game and turned a bunch of desperate rogues into an uneasy team towards the end of the game, when we all started working together to delay the arrival of the fuzz.

Very tense, and even though the gameplay was simple it managed to dump a lot of theme into a small space. Android through and through.
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gmes r cool
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fantastic, have played android every Thursday for three weeks, it just gets better with a firm understanding of the rules.
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Štěpán Honc
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Definitely, we've played it six times in first two weeks... The design is really great, from my point of view the "planting" of clues is just the way how the murder is solved - almost every clue is able to turn into a different light to blame the suspect you wish Love the game!
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Fedor Ilitchev
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Played it for the first time today with two players. My partner seemed to be having an ok time but I really wasn't into it. Felt boring and repetitive with no clear goals to pursue.

To me, the best thematic games capture the feeling of their subject matter. Android on the otherhand is more focused on simulation or something like it. The result is that its a miss for me.

I even find abstract games more thematic than android:

Tzaar tells a hell of a back and forth story full of reversals of meaning and a sense of history - in that game, a stack can go from being the hunter to the hunted in a few turns and the board itself changes with the battle.

Knizia's Samurai is, to me, also quite thematic - while in no way a simulation, it captures not only the aesthetic but also the reserved spirit of the samurai. That is, when you play, you do so in a reserved way and when you choose to strike, it is quick and decisive - just like the sword master dude from seven samurai.

Another game that I haven't played but which may be relevant to a discussion like this would be the battlestar galactica games - original and print and play. Those games also revolve about recreating a certain feeling - the full game doing it with a whole lot of simulation thrown in and the print and play distilling it to the essence.

If you distilled Android to its essence - I don't think there would be anything left. Maybe they should have gone for something more like TOTAN - at least that game knows what it is and isn't trying to be a game... then they could have focussed more on developping memorable scenes - which was the entertaining part of android for me. Too bad it got lost in all the chrome.
 
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Štěpán Honc
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Fedor, I think I know what you are speaking about. Our first two games were very hard, as we tried to read everything aloud, have checked everything in rulebook and missed the point, which is the most interesting on this game for us - strategy, tactic, bluffing and choosing from countless options we have in every turn. For us the massive story is just "background" (however the best background I've ever met, strongly composed into game mechanics) to tactical orgies during very busy fortnight of the New Angels, so comparing to TOTAN seems a little weird for me... I think there is a lot of possible points of view how to see this game. A lot of my friends and fans of Android says the story is the main goal but even the lover of tactical decisions as I am is simply amazed when see all the potential after couple of sessions...

So I think the term I'm looking for is "layers". The game has so many of them, it's really uneasy to grab them all at once, you should definitely get one or two more shots...
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Michele Esmanech
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A very enjoyable read.

I LOVE Android... I play it solo, just as if I was reading a Phlip K dick book. I don't play to win (against myself...) but to tell a story: I like how the characters evolve, as if I were playing Tale of Arabian nights (but with some logic and less randomness to the events and outcome of my actions.

Though, it takes quite a commitment, so I hardly have the time to play as much as I'd like... but when I finally sit at the table... MAN, IT IS A BLAST!!!

cheers

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