Saturday, May 5, 2018

Homo Ludens: why should we play?

Some years ago I watched six Dutch philosophers discuss play (like in games) on television. Apart from the fact that this was one of those curious TV programmes that wouldn't have needed TV imaging to be interesting (it was all dialogue with hardly any supporting visuals) it jarred something in me. What was my fundamental motive for playing?



Some classics were touched upon. German philosopher Schiller wrote  that "man only plays when he is in the fullest sense of the word a human being, and he is only fully a human being when he plays”. Schiller certainly took his playing seriously. He stated that only in play Man could unite his normally paradoxal aspects, like reason and nature, formal and sensual drive, freedom and necessity, passion and duty, sense and form. Only in play Man could be unfragmented and truly whole.

The Dutch historian and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga identified play as having 5 essential characteristics:
  1. Play is freedom.
  2. Play is not “ordinary” or “real” life.
  3. Play is distinct from “ordinary” life both as to locality and duration.
  4. Play creates order, is order. Play demands order absolute and supreme.
  5. Play is connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained from it.
While this is perhaps a bit too profound for me, I can acknowledge that play enables you to exercise your personality in its purest form, minimally inhibited by reality, practical considerations and social conventions. It is, after all, only play. Playing is indeed freedom supreme.

This is probably why we usually associate play with children and childhood. The inhibitions mentioned above weigh probably least for children who have not yet learned that a lot of things are impossible and fantasy is not real, like most adults know and believe. This is, we were told, why children play instinctively, imitating adult life as they view it, learning to be adults on the way, by stepping outside the real world into a fantasy that can exist anywhere at any time.

This seems to conflict with Huizinga's 4th characteristic as I tend to see freedom and order as opposite phenomena. Nevertheless I cannot deny we often encounter rules during play for the first time in our lives, when at a young age it is explained to us that we cannot pick up a football, kick a hockey ball or move 20 squares on the game board if we only rolled a 2. Not even when we would like to. That is not how the game is played, dear.

Still, even within the confines of these, often simple, rules we can still pretend to be merciless achievers, crush our enemies, see them driven before us and hear the lamentations of their... wait, where was I ?

Oh yes, living out fantasies. We can live out our fantasies outside the real, ordinary world and be the personae we would probably like to be if we could get away with it in real life. It would not surprise me if we would develop our character while playing as well. Making alliances, learning tactical and strategic skills and -last but certainly not least-  discovering the possibility of cheating are all very useful things to take with you on life's twisting, winding roads.

Adults usually do not play anymore. They do sports. Completely different as I am sure you will see. I had a dispute with a collegue of mine once who considered my wargaming hobby childish but thought nothing of running around on a field dressed in shorts hitting a ball with a stick. The same difference as fas as I am concerned. He really did not see sports as a form of playing, nor did he play hockey to become "unfragmented". He needed it to unwind and work on his condition. What's in a name, after all? And surely his sportsgame is as separated from ordinary life as is a cowboy-and-indian game played by 8-year olds.

No profit may be gained from it, states Huizinga. I struggled with that one. Nevertheless, losing a game may not gain you anything, it usually does not risk anything either.  So perhaps Huizinga means that victory may be a winner's only gain.

In any case, we do learn our children the importance of winning through play. While happiness, health and material well-being are important things in life, it does not hurt to be a winner to get to these prizes. So it is a useful trick to teach to your kids. However, since every game needs a winner, the other players will inevitably be losers. But that is allright dear, since it is only a game. Wait a minute: it is important to win during play, but when the game is over, winning is a trifle? This paradox is a concept most children find frustrating and bewildering.  Most counter it by not playing anymore, throwing the gameboard through the room or start again to win next time. Even while knowing that every game will have at least one loser and this might well be you. Adults in this situation tend to rationalize.

Still here is where I think the most fundamental lesson to be learned from playing is hidden. And that is that effort enables success, but only bears a relative relation to it. It is certainly no guarantee. Not a very modern way of looking at things I think. Some like to believe that success is a choice, failure a fault and every achievement - or lack thereof- a personal responsibilty one is immediately accountable for. But no matter what the skills, luck or capabilities of the player are, he will eventually lose at some point.

Playing teaches us that failure, learning from failure and improving oneself is an essential and unavoidable part of life and actually conditional for achieving anything at all. The essential and crucial attraction of playing is that this can occur without any serious consequences to yourself. Unlike real-life "games" where people get hurt by failures...

So people, let's play.

As often as we can.








Friday, May 4, 2018

Mythic Battles: Pantheon Review ****

As the regular readers of this blog may know I have gifted myself a big Kickstarter each year for the last few years. After Conan: The Boardgame and Zombicide Black Plague in 2017 this turned out to be Mythic Battles: Pantheon. Made by the same company as Conan and born from a cooperation between Monolith and Mythic Games this game looked especially promising. Last January I received it and could finally start painting and playing!



The Theme
The game is based on the Greek Myths and starts right after a raging war between the Titans (recently freed by a jealous Hera) and the Gods. Monsters and Heroes have participated on both sides and the war tore down Mount Olympus and ravaged the Earth.

Poseidon


In the game, which takes the form of an opposed boardgame, players play teams of Heroes, Minions and Monsters, led by a God or Titan, that score the Earth for Omphalos; the rare pockets of divine energy that are the remains of dead Gods and Titans. Winning a game is usually about winning the most Omphalos.

The Components
As I had come to expect of a Monolith product the game is exquisitely styled. The boards are comparable in function and style with the Conan boards and look at least as good, if not better. Heavy four-part folding cardboard with a gorgeous two-sided print give you two playing boards for the price of one. Since I bought the core game and two of the large expansions this gave me a total of 8 playing boards.

Game in progress. Note the 3D cardboard terrain


Dice, cards, Figure dashboards are all from durable plastic or high quality cardboard or card. The game came with specifically designed 6-sided dice but can be played with normal dice as well.

The game contains a number of scenarios for 2 to 4 players, although the game can simply be played on any board as an opposed battle between teams.

The game comes complete with 3D cardboard terrain features. These look quite good in their own right but can be easily replaced by "real" terrain from any wargamers collection.

Replacing cardboard terrain with real stuff is easy

The figures were my real reason for entering the Kickstarter. They were numerous and gorgeous and worth the money for the figure collection alone. They come in several categories and truly deserve their own spot in this review. The pictures speak for themselves, but I will detail their role in the game for each category.

Zeus
The Gods
Each team is led by one God or Titan that is immediately recognisable because of his, her or its size. At about 80mm or 1:25 scale the Gods tower over the rest of the figures. The Titans (as their name befits) are even larger. Detail is exponentially better and it is a joy (and a rare experience, since I rarely paint figures so large) to paint them. All the well-known members of the Olympus Club are there: Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Athena, Poseidon et cetera down to some lesser known players like Hecate en Helios.

Mighty Aphrodite
Each God has specific strengths and weaknesses in the game so the choice of God determines your strategy and the rest of your team up to a point (literally, but see below).

Gods are easily the most powerful pieces in a game, although some Monsters and Heroes come close. Gods are legendarily hard to kill, but can die in this game. The God or Titan of your team is the only one who can absorb Omphalos. Lose your team leader and you lose the game.

Hecate, She Of The Crossroads

Gods are controlled through a dashboard where their Life Points and abilities are recorded.

Heroes and Monsters
The Gods are reinforced by (more or less) human Heroes and Monsters. These are powerful game pieces in their own right and some may even stand up to a God or Titan. Heroes and monsters are individual pieces of varying size, from puny (28mm scaled) humans like Achilles or Circe to huge monsters like Hydra or Scylla.


Scylla will really grab your attention. And everything else! 


All Heroes and Monsters have specific strengths and weaknesses that may combine with other figures to reinforce or weaken them. So choose wisely!


Pegasus and Bellerophon
Heroes and Monsters are controlled through a dashboard where their Life Points and abilities are recorded, just like Gods are. When a Hero or Monster dies, he, she or it is removed from the game.


Minions
Last in line are the hosts of Minions that may support the Gods and Heroes. Here we find 28mm figures of the Argonauts, the Myrmidons, Hellhounds, Skeletons, Stymphalic Birds and many, many more. Buying MB: P gives you an instant Greek Fantasy collection!

Minions come in units (although all game pieces are called units) of more than one figure. This may result in (for example) 2 Centaurs or 6 Skeletons.

Hoplite Minions

Minion units are controlled through a simple card that records their abilities and lose Life Points by removing figures. Once all figures of a Minion unit have died, the unit is destroyed.

Minion units are recyclable however. Gods may Recall minions to their side, completely restoring all losses and moving the Minion unit to their space on the board.

Skeleton Minions

Like Heroes and Monsters, Minion units have specific strengths and weaknesses that may combine with other figures to reinforce or weaken them.

The Game
So MB:P got form spot on, but does it have substance?

It is an opposed game between 2 to 5 players. That took some getting used to, given that cooperative play is usually en vogue among game designers these days. That should not be a problem however.

Some Heroes: Achilles, Odysseus, Hercules and Leonidas

You assemble your team through a point system. Each figure or unit costs points and you may buy figures up to your max pool of points. You must take one God and one God only (or a Titan) but are free to combine figures for the rest of the team. Players choose Gods and units alternately, so beggars can't be choosers :)

Centaurs and Chiron

Players activate their figures through Activation cards. Each God, Hero, Monster or Minon unit has a given number of Activation cards that are combined into the Deck. Added are Art of War cards, that can be used to recall units, Activate more than one unit or Recall Minions and such. The number of AoW cards depends on the points you did not spend on buying figures. So you can choose between a large team or more AoW cards to give you options with the team you have.


One of the Gorgons

You may draw cards every turn (more if you pass) and may use AoW cards to pick or select even more. Activation cards are crucial, since you usually cannot Activate anything without the right card. Once your Deck has been used up, reshuffle and start again. All the other players receive all their remaining cards in their hand at that point in the game and reshuffle as well. Calling on the Gods for the right cards will be a common occurrence :)

Figures may perform one complex action (Absorbing Omphalos) or two simple one (like move, pick up an Omphalos or fight). You may not usually Activate the same figure twice in a turn but may Activate a second figure if and when you have the cards for it.

Helios

Absorbing Omphalos gives you points, but also Omphalos cards that can be used as AoW cards or to restore Life Points to your God. In the latter case they are discarded.

Fighting includes an ingenious sequence of dice rolling which gives you a choice between many dice scoring small hits or few dice scoring big ones. This choice gives you the option to inflict wounds on Gods with even the lowliest Minion (but you have to roll REALLY well then!).

The Great God Pan

The verdict
The rules mechanics give you an interesting game where team members must and can cooperate to grab the Omphalos and pass them to your God to Absorb and score a point. It kind of resembles an American Football; game in that way. Figures carrying an Omphalos can even be tackled and made to drop them.

Absorbing Omphalos is usually the best way to win a game, since killing all opposing Gods and Titans is quite hard. Gods do not tend to die easily and Titans even less so.

Finding the right combos for a team is THE challenge. There are many. many possible choices, especially when you have some expansions at your disposal. Pitting your combos against those of other players is really the gist of the game. And can make for some interesting and challenging choices and plans.

Getting the right card depends partly on luck, partly on choice as you can influence luck with AoW cards and an choose to have more of those in exchange of figures. Fighting is mostly a matter of dice luck, although the "Big Hit Option" does give you some influence there.

It is a turn based, opposed game in which only the acting player of the moment does things. This means the other player(s) must wait until their turn and can't really do anything. This I found an unexpectedly classic flaw in the game. One that is especially prominent in a multi player game where you might have to wait for three other players until you get your turn.

The Titan Atlas
While perhaps not being entirely reasonable I could not help myself comparing MB:P to Conan: The Boardgame. CTB is of course cooperative and requires all players to participate in every phase of a turn. Even inactive players can and must defend against attacks and still have decisions to make regarding resource management. Player immersion in CTB is significantly better in my eyes than in MB:P.

MB:P also depends more on chance. In CTB the only chance is in the roll of the dice when Fighting or performing Actions. Whether you do Fight or perform an Action is entirely up to you (as long as you have the energy to do so). In MB:P Lady Fortune's influence is enhanced because of the use of Activation cards. While you do have some influence on those, you still need to depend on luck more than in CTB. Being a great fan of choice and tactical dilemma over plain bad luck I think that is a shame.

So all in all I found MB:P a nice game, beautifully executed and well worth the cost for the figures alone, but not exceptional as a game in itself, despite some innovative aspects like the two-tier Fighting Dice rolling. The dependence on luck and the long waiting periods  between turns compare poorly to that other Monolith game, Conan The Boardgame.


Four out of five stars from me in this case, in which the fourth star is awarded for looks.


Persephone heralding Spring


Saturday, March 24, 2018

Conan 3D the Board- pardon the tabletop wargame

As a tabletop wargamer I have been toying with the idea to translate Conan to the tabletop with as little change as possible. I suspected it might yield a quite decent skirmish game that way. And it would look even better on a 3D tabletop! 


When replacing the board with a 3D environment one needs to replace the board’s funcionalities with environmental rules. Here's what I have thought up:

Speed & Movement
The figures’ speed is their Movement factor combined with the board’s areas. I don’t want to change anything in the use of the dashboards so the changes must happen in the translation from board to tabletop.


This is best accomplished by translating the Move factors to fixed Move distances on the tabletop. An average board area is about 5” across so this seems a good standard distance. I use CDs cut in half as pre-made rulers during play to avoid measuring tapes and such.

1 Movement Point equals a CDs diameter. 

Proximity
In the board game this is facilitated by the board areas. Figures can interact with all figures and objects in the same area and are Hindered by them.


Using similar distances as in Movement figures may interact with and are Hindered by all figures and objects within 5”/can be covered by a CD’s disk.

Measurements are taken from base edge to base edge. This gives large creatures a longer Range, which does not seem unreasonable or undesirable. When using very large creatures measurements are taken from the right front limb or edge, whatever is present.

Line of sight


This seems easy, as physical terrain pieces will block line of sight instead of the LOS dots. In the boardgame terrain is either Blocking or not. Not wanting to add any fundamental changes to the game this means that no rules are necessary regarding partial cover and such.


Since the dots are now replaced by the figures’ relative position to each other, LOS will become more complex and influential. 

Test games

We used The Amazon's Dragon from the Mythic Battles/Conan crossover set as a test scenario because the terrain could be easily represented with my own collection. It played perfectly and retained the exact same feel as the boardgame but with more freedom of movement. The scenario is a real cliffhanger so it went undecided in both test games up until the last turn. 

Care needs to be taken that the table doesn't get too big as Conan games need to be finished in a set number of turns and distances need to be covered in about the same time on the tabletop as on the board. Apart from that (and building copious amounts of terrain) it all went smoothly. 

So in building more terrain for this game there is even more fun to be had from this great game! 


Sunday, March 18, 2018

*****Stars Review! Pedal to the metal to get Gaslands!


Not for the first time on this blog will I sing the praise of the Osprey rulesets. One of their latest publications once more proves that, in the immortal words of Goethe: "Limitation shows us the master".



Despite their diminutive format, limited 64 pages and Not-Always-50+-Friendly fonts their choice for Gaslands is an excellent one!

Readers of this blog will know that I collect rulesets and am always on the prowl for that elusive combinaton of innovative rules, fast play and fun games. This is such a combination.





























Gaslands is about racing in postapocalyptic cars. Think Mad Max meets Death Race 2000. The fluff is minimal (capitalistic Martian plutocrats enforce their dictatorial rule over Earth's population through racing games) but let's be frank: postapocalyptic car racing is its own fluff and doesn't need any other. The game's theme is actually the only thing that isn't innovative, since postapocalyptic car racing has been a love interest for a growing number of people ever since Roger Zelazny wrote Damnation Alley in 1967.






























Enough about fluff. Let's get to the rules!


Gaslands is built up in turns which are in turn built up in 6 Gear phases. Players take turns (the First Player or player in Pole Position usually changing each turn) to move their vehicles. The higher the gear you drive in, the faster you go since you must move a vehicle in the Gear Phase that is equal or lower than your current Gear. So a vehicle in Gear 3 moves in Gear Phases 1 through 3 and a vehicle in Gear 6 moves in all of them. Once you complete the move of the vehicle, the vehicle may fire its weapons if it has any.



Shifting gears
A vehicle may roll 1 or more Gear Dice up to its Handling Factor. These dice give you either maneuvers or the opportunity to change Gear. The more Gear Dice you roll, the more options you will have and the more maneuverable you become. Or... the more risks you take to skid, slip & spin... Since you can cancel unwanted maneuvers with Shifts, but also need Shifts to accelerate and stay in the higher Gear Phases and never know how many Shifts you will roll, there are all sorts of choices to make.
























Maneuvers
The vehicles move along movement templates that differ with the gear you drive in. Your maneuvers can be spoiled in all kind of interesting ways with Slides and Spins, although these not always yield unwanted results. It's just a matter of whether that collision is desirable now, or a bit later....

Depending on the maneuver and the current Gear you get either bonus Shifts to enhance your maneuverability, or Hazard counters. Hazard Counters can be discarded with Shifts, but when not, stack up and as soon as you collect 6 your car will "Wipeout" as you lose control and the vehicle comes to a standstill in a cloud of swirling dust (when you are lucky) or a ball of flames (when you are not!).

You need higher Gears to stay in the turn, but also to acquire some maneuvers that are only allowed in higher Gears
























Models and scale
Gaslands is essentially scalefree. However the author encourages to use Hotwheel scale (if there is such a thing) cars to play with. The advantage is that these are roughly 1/67 scale which can be combined with 20mm figures and terrain. As you can see you can really go to town building all kind of terrain.
























Damage
Damage is caused by collisions, less succesfull wipeouts and enemy fire. This uses a simple system of chassis squares. Once they run out, you have been Wrecked!



Suffice to say this game is heartily recommended!




Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Batman Kickstarter. Or How I Caved In Completely....

In case you have missed it so far I will -utterly without any remorse or accountability whatsoever- point you towards the current Monolith Kickstarter for their Batman Boardgame.


Based on their Conan game engine -in itself a fantastic game- this game will usurp a lot of my 2019 painting and gaming time after its release around April 2019.



Needless to say I went all-in.... :) 

Friday, February 16, 2018

Mythic Battles: Pantheon goodness, now with better and more pictures!

A month ago I received my Kickstarter of Mythic Battles: Pantheon. Another game I totally bought into because of the miniatures! And while it is a good game in its own right (I will get back to you on that one!) the miniatures really make it an exceptional one.

So I got to painting the Greek Gods that make up the pantheon. They are hardly miniatures, ranging between 60 and 100mm in height:


Atlas


Athena


Hecate


Helios


Aphrodite


Zeus


Apollo


Artemis


Hermes


Ares


Persephone


Hera


Pan


Hades


Poseidon


 Polyphemos


Charybdis


Creepy Siren


And Scylla! 



Someone on Facebook asked my about my painting methods for the Poseidon figures. I wrote it all down and it seems a shame to just put it up on FB so here is the bit of text for painting the Poseidon figures as well:

Since I use all kind of paints I had to look up all the colours. I wanted to stay as close as possible to natural sea colours so I chose mainly greens and greys that naturally reinforce each other. It has become a bit of a long read I am afraid.

Let’s start with Poseidon since most of his colour schemes return in the other models.

Poseidons lower body was painted Modelcolour Extra Dark green, his upper body with ModelColour Steel Grey and his ornaments with Vallejo Brass. The trident shaft with Vallejo Dark brown Air (I find the consistency perfect even though it is made for airbrush.)

His loincloth is ModelColour Cavalry Brown and the netting GameColour Bonewhite.

His entire body is then washed with Games Workshop Nuln Oil. The ornaments were washed with strongly watered down and wiped off GameColor Jade Green to get that old bronze effect.

Once dry, the tentacles on the lower body are highlighted with a large brush and GameColour Goblin Green and (very lightly) Vallejo Yellow Green. The sucker pads are then highlighted with GameColour Squid Pink.

The light spots on the four main tentacles were inspired by a Moray Eel and are done with GameColour Ghost Grey. The little black spots are done with a 0.05 Micron pen.

The upper body was highlighted with ModelColour Light Sea Grey and once more (lightly) with ModelColour Ghost Grey. The gills in his ribs with some dark skin colour and washed with Vallejo Flesh Tone wash. His loincloth is highlighted with the same Cavalry Brown and lightly with some Red. The netting is highlighted with Bonewhite.

The glass balls (witch balls as they are called here) are Modelcolour Extra Dark green, ModelColour Jade Green “reflections” and a dot of white for light effect.

The ornaments are lightly highlighted with Vallejo Gold but not too much or the bronze effect will disappear.

All that is left then are the beach (some khaki brown undercolour highlighted with Vallejo Brown Sand and ModelColour Bonewhite) and the little details like the starfish and such. I picked them out in simple bright colours to make them stand out and added a piece of wooden coffeestick (black, highlighted grey and bonewhite) as driftwood.

The other figures are mostly done in the same way. With Scylla’s tentacles I used a lighter green for the top side of the tentacles and BoneWhite for the thorns at the side and the claw at the end but otherwise the same. Her hair is Jade green with Yellow Green highlights.

Where brown washes were used I used GW Agrax Earth Shade, which is called different these days I believe but still available.

The water effects on the Scylla base are the same colours as used for Charybdis: GameColour Imperial Blue undercolour for both. A bright blue colour (I don’t remember the name right now) highlight for Charybdis and smears in the same colour for Scylla’s base. Then lighter and smaller highlights and smears with ModelColour Ice Blue and finally White highlight on Charybdis and foam effects (more smears) on Scylla’s base.

As you can see there isn’t much fancy about my methods: applying undercolour, wash and highlight is basically it. I rarely blend any paints and haven’t done it in these figures as far as I remember. Although now I have written it all down it becomes clear why Poseidon took me so long