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“So are you the author of this article?” –

“So are you the author of this article?”

Monday , 22, December 2014 18 Comments

Okay, just one question: does this game have space marines and grav armor in it…? Yes…? Well, I think it’s settled, then!

I was really curious how things would go when my reviews of Space Empires: 4X and its Close Encounters expansion went up on Board Game Geek. It’s been a while since I was over there much and while it’s cool that the game’s designer hangs out over there, I admit I kind of dreaded seeing all the standard gaming arguments dredged up again for the occasion.

Oh sure, the first comment is a brief endorsement, “great review, exactly how I feel”! Given that biggest fans of Space Empires subscribe to everything related to it over there, it’s no surprise to see that show up on a rave review, really. And this one remark by Oliver Upshaw I thought  just really captured the awesomeness of the game:

This right there is what drew me to the game most of all. Enough of a tech variation so that the combat would not all feel the same and the lack of resources to field everything. I am a huge Honor Harrington fan, but a playable strategic game in that universe is not something that I think will ever be done. Too much of what happens in the books cannot be replicated in a game without a lot of “idiot” rules to limit the players ability to react to what they know is coming. Then you are not playing a game so much as following a script. That is one of the reasons that I stopped playing Federation & Empire. I think that SE:4X gives the players a lot of chances to experience one of my favorite Honor Harrington moments. The scene in Flag in Exile where Thomas Theisman’s tells his political officer that the only way to make sure he is correct that Harrington’s remaining ships are too damaged to defeat him is too close to weapons range and find out.

You know that you have three fully loaded CVs about to engage that unknown stack of enemy ships and you will be potentially throwing 9 B rated dice so you should be okay. But what if the enemy has a Mine or Two or they might have stopped researching Ship Size so that their SCs mount PD! Only way to know is to move to engage them.

(Man, that guy really gets it!) But posts like this one are just not the norm, unfortunately. It might come as a shock to people outside of the game scene, but the fact is… forums like Board Game Geek are not where gamers go to congregate and discuss their favorite things about their favorite games. No, it’s mostly where people go to engage in some kind of crazy nerd turf war. It never stops, either.

Check out the second comment, though: it’s some guy comparing the best space game on the market to Risk! Holy cow! If anyone has ever thrown down the gauntlet, it’s this guy. (Risk is probably the most hated game in the hobby just after Monopoly!) Now, he does try to soften the blow somewhat by couching it in terms of, you know, his personal feelings and taste and preferences and stuff. After his first encounter with resistance, he tries to make light of it: “have fun pushing your fleets around!” Ha freakin’ ha. Not everyone was laughing. (Maybe it was the note of condescension there?) Someone actually took the time to explain why his comparison was just plain dumb, but from there… he retreats into the “calm down, you don’t agree with my opinion and that is fine” defense.

You know, I could point out how… I dunno… schizophrenic that guy sounds when he seems real intent on attacking my argument when he doesn’t even have the backbone to defend his own… but just think about his behavior for a second. What’s actually going to happen to him when he plays in any complicated multi-hour direct conflict game? He’s going to get creamed, that’s what! Does he act like someone you’d fear in even a simulated battle? More importantly, do you want someone like him on your side? The way he crumples at the first sign of pressure, would you actually trust him to hold up his end of a deal when the action began to heat up? Is it really that big of a surprise that he doesn’t like direct conflict… given, you know, how he actually behaves…?

(Pro tip: if you see someone like this at the table, ignore them even if they are slightly in the lead. You identify the shark and you wear him down whether he is in last place or not. Those guys are dangerous killers that  you cannot afford to ignore! And you can always mop up the cream puffs once the mortal threat is dealt with.)

Taking this a bit further, imagine how a “real” wargame would play out with a whole table full of guys like that. It would be a disaster and none of them would have any fun! There would be no decisive action. No risky power plays. Just one ineffectual wussy punch after another as everyone turtles up in their respective corners. The only way to give people like that the impression of playing something moderately close to a real game is to slather some sort of card muckery on top of it so that someone could be handed the game due to “diplomacy” or something. Sorta like, I dunno… Twilight Imperium maybe. (I hear that’s how it works, anyway.) I mean, no one at that table is going to be able to win on the basis of pure, undiluted terror and ruthlessness. There has to be some external pressure bringing about the game’s conclusion, because that’s just not liable to happen unless one of these guys blunders into by accident…!

This is the point where I chide them. “Hey, y’all, don’t get too serious about all this. It’s just games, after all. Oh… and have fun pushing your chintzy plastic spaceships around!” I bet that would go over real well! Guys…? Guys…?!

While we’re hashing this stuff out on the forum thread, there’s this other guy that metaphorically taps me on the shoulder and asks, “so are you the author of this article?” This is not the sort of interrogative that precedes someone asking for your autograph. No, sir, it isn’t! When I revealed my true identity, this what he has to ask me: “How can you rate this as the top space game when you have only really played this according to your ratings?” He points out several other games that don’t show up in my ratings. “I just think that having such a limited gaming reference makes the opening statement a little more like a genuine sweeping statement that has little standing.”

Okay, how am I supposed to take this, really. Is this a friendly discussion or not? If it is friendly, then why the rebuke? (Seasoned with salt, ’cause that’s how we’re taught.) The tone here is almost that of an elder gently pulling someone aside to warn them of potential church discipline. What’s the precise infraction here…? What is it that sets people like this on edge…? Gosh, I dunno. It looks like they just have this knee-jerk reaction to someone that thinks they can speak with authority. (Where have I seen that before…? Oh yeah, up thread! It’s a recurring theme!)

I really don’t know where to start with this, though. I mean, it should be obvious that different pieces of writing have different target audiences. And maybe my definition of “space game” is just different than his. I can’t really just start listing all my qualifications for making that sweeping endorsement. (I’m too humble to do that…. No, really I am…!) And do I really want to just drop everything and go hash out the details of half a dozen more games just because some dude’s asking what are perhaps some disingenuous questions…? Eh, maybe later.

What I can say right off the cuff here is that if we were about to sit down to a game of Space Empires: 4X, I ‘d make it clear to everyone at the table that I was coming for this guy. If you get in my way, you’ll have just earned the distinction of becoming my #2 target. If you assist me… you not only go to the bottom of my list, but I will also fold to you after my foe is eliminated. (Note: those of you who insist on having diplomacy in their space games… that is how it’s done in Space Empires: 4X.)

Isn’t that just glorious…? I mean objectively, wonderfully glorious? A game like that… it’s like an arena. There’s no little guard rail or social convention preventing me from going after you personally. Oh yeah… and just like Risk, you can be eliminated completely and then have to sit in the corner while everyone else plays to the end without you. Isn’t that just deliciously stinky? In this guy’s case, though, I hope he’d use the time wisely to contemplate the true extent of his douchebaggery.

(Wait, did I just say that…?)

You see, it’s the veneer of niceness that rankles so much. It makes me think that “nice” is just about being a total jerk, but with just enough plausible deniability that you can garner some sympathy when other people answer back with any degree of forcefulness.

I enjoyed your review. I don’t want you to think that I didn’t. It has actually put this game back on my radar so to speak. Keep up the good work (bar the sweeping statements).

[Boy, it just kind of echos in my mind as I reread that now. Like I’m about to have some sort of Magnum P.I. Vietnam flashback or something….]

Why does this rub me the wrong way? Is this just a misunderstanding caused by the lack of inflection in a textual medium…? Or is it the case that this guy doesn’t actually know the true origin of the euro game? Wait… wait… yes; that has to be it. I think that’s the problem here. Besides, he did come right out and say that he really doesn’t like anyone tossing around sweeping generalizations on the basis of “a limited gaming reference.” So let’s deal with that. Let’s put all this into a broader perspective.

[Cue chimes and fade to flashback sequence…. It’s really happening…!]

Once upon a time, there just weren’t a lot of games. I mean, there was chess and checkers… backgammon… and scads and scads of card games. Some sort of crusading do-gooder looked upon this and thought… something else could be done here. Instead of all this cut-throat competition that routinely created mass quantities of bad feelings, all of these people goofing off with these awful games… why, they could instead be learning about how EVIL the land lords are. I mean, why should the people blow off steam when they could be stoking the flames of their resentments? “A simple joy like that which can be had through a board game,” this person must have reasoned, “must actually be a great social evil!” They then dedicated all of their game design prowess to addressing this “problem.”

Well, The Landlords Game was born and it was a hit. But for a time it seemed that the gamers would have the last laugh. You see, “hackers” took the game and started making modifications to it to suit their tastes. What they discovered was that it was actually more fun to pretend to be the landlord than than just about anything else. They didn’t get the intended message! People loved this game, too. Everyone wanted to amass huge stacks of play money and run all of their opponents out of business. This variant game garnered a cult following as its predecessor faded into obscurity. Somehow it ended up getting picked up by Parker Brothers. It sold like hotcakes, and soon the game was pretty much ubiquitous.

Ground zero in the war on gamers. Never forgive, never forget!

Ah, but the gamers did not in fact have the last word. Ordinary families all over the world would get this game out… and then, when the first player got eliminated, a fight would break out when this heartbroken kid flipped the table over or otherwise pitched a fit. Instead of taking the moment to train the child in basic principles of accepting defeat with grace while at the same encouraging the victors to practice a little more noblesse oblige, a great many of the non-gaming moms blamed the board games themselves for bringing strife into their homes!

Now… things got dicey at this point, because these sorts of people are liable to jump on bandwagons of all sorts that eventually lead to mass hysteria. But one of these moms, she was some kind of brilliant manipulator like something out of the Second Foundation. She created this incredible simple house rule that sounded like it had to be part of the “real” game. It just seemed so natural… it made so much sense… and yet, deviously enough, it kept just enough money in play that the weakest player never went bankrupt. The kids could play as long as they wanted now, and none of these terrible fights would break out anymore. Her house rules went viral to the point where hardly anyone even knew what the actual rules were anymore. Generations of people that would have otherwise gained an appreciation of gaming in general were programmed from about third grade on that board games were boring. Very few people found out anything different….

[Cue chimes; fade back in.]

From there things quickly get to the parts of the history of gaming that are much more well known. It was up to a dedicated group of wargamers to carry on in these dark times. A splinter group made the discovery of role-playing games, and from there hobby gaming as we know it really took off. Aside from the occasional witch hunt or scapegoating episode, these guys were largely left alone. Gaming got a lucky break when so many children of the eighties ended up being latchkey kids of some stripe or another. There were some outliers, sure, but really… gaming was well under control of the gamers in those days.

Seen from this vantage point, it’s clear that the euro-game culture has more than a few aspects to it that are troubling to “real” gamers. Problematic you might say. In the first place, euro-gamers are largely ignorant of wargames and role-playing games and have little interest in learning more about them. Not all of them are like that, sure, but they have a tendency to treat wargamers and role-players as second class citizens in the hobby when the reverse is actually the case. I cite the strange sort of passive aggresive attacks on this Board Game Geek thread as exhibit A for this assertion.

Now, I do occasionally enjoy a good euro game, sure. I’m not saying that they don’t have their place. The thing is, though, that most of them only come out when I have to entertain non-gamers, casual gamers, and regular people. “Civilians” as it were. Some of the group-solitaire type games, I really wonder if they’re even truly games sometimes. At the tabletop, they just feel like more of an activity than a “real” game. There’s a reason for that. You see, the when euro game designers take such aggressive measures to remove player elimination while blunting direct conflict, they are following the exact same impetus as that mom that “fixed” Monopoly with that utterly devious viral house rule!

[Cue ominous music.]

Now I know that euro games are really popular and that they are bringing lots of people into the hobby. But what if these people aren’t really “real” gamers…? What if euro games are some kind of crazy plot to set gaming and game design back a decade or two…? What if they create a world where kids are growing up thinking that board games are just kind of boring “activities” that involve little wooden pieces that come out of stale, beige colored boxes with scowling-faced puritanical types on the covers…? What if they never find out that they would have liked “real” games if they had ever been exposed to them…? It’s happened before…! It could be happening again right before our eyes!

I know this probably sounds a little crazy, but frankly this whole euro gaming fad is probably still too new for us to really completely assess just yet. This is going to be a task for the historians maybe fifty years or so from now. But I’ve seen enough to know I need to keep an eye on this crowd– and to hold on to my extensive collection of vintage games. Still… if you take umbrage when somebody holds up Space Epires: 4X as the best space game on the market… I think you better check yourself, bro. Maybe your real problem is that you’re not really a “real” gamer. You might even hate gaming without even realizing it! 

Thanks for playing!

  • Kull says:

    There is so much strangeness on the net for anything related to geek stuff. People tend to write in this bizarre faux lawyer tone that just rankles me.
    “I just think that having such a limited gaming reference makes the opening statement a little more like a genuine sweeping statement that has little standing.”
    Great! Now $%#@ off.
    What do these people want? Its not really trolling. More like some search for geek dominance.

  • Kull says:

    I have posted before as “SH” but that seems too boring now. Reading alot of Howard lately.

  • Darius says:

    I actually like a bunch of the newer hobbyist/boardgames. Love “Power Grid”, and Carcassonne.

    To some extent, the passive-agressive nature in some of the games comes across as more like Go. You seize territory to encompass it and deny it to your opponents.

    Despite that, I prefer games with more user interaction, if not outright conflict. Where there’s an element of DIRECTLY screwing your neighbor for fun and profit. Or – like Command and Colors, Battle Lore, or tactical boardgames like Level 7 – the point is to attack and defend. More ameritrash in other words.

    OTOH I can’t stand Cataan. It is the utter frakking epitome of that passive aggressive pull-down-the-leader. “multiplayer solitaire” with a bare minimum of “you took my sheep” while building an engine is NOT my idea of a good time.

    IOW count me out for Agricola and Le Havre. Count me in for Core Worlds. Or Memoir 44.

    And heck yeah for Ogre! (Now I need to finish assembling 5th frontier war, and get my SFB SSD’s printed)

    • Jeffro says:

      I enjoy Powergrid. I love doing my thing in it. What I hate about it is that against a competent euro-gamer, I constantly get into situations where I have to be able to read everyone’s positions, calculate the relative standings, and the figure out what the exact value I need to bid on something that I don’t even want. If I guess wrong, I get accused of playing kingmaker– throwing the game to someone randomly. This of course goes on while the players loudly proclaim how weak their position is and how close their opponent’s position is to winning– and they are giving out deceptive, self-serving advice the whole time.

      I’m sorry, but Guadalcanal was downright civilized in comparison to that!

      (Oh… and Carcassone is brutal if played “mean.” I mean it is an utterly wicked game dressed up in an innocuous euro-game outfit.)

      • Darius says:

        Yeah, I hate those kind of players you talk about in PG in ANY game. Our group plays it more cutthroat/for fun.

        Knew a guy who referred to going into a casino to play blackjack as “making a withdrawal” (he spent $1500 in Halifax, ended up with $1000 in pocket, started with $500. The guy was scary smart, and a bit odd).

        He’d tell me about the same kind of crap in blackjack – where people would throw outright TANTRUMS for screwing up their hand by taking the “wrong” choice.

        I think one of the reasons I’ve long liked the SJ card games (munchkin, illuminati) was how gleefully you could mess with people.

        I’ve never seen a “nice” game of Munchkin.

  • VD says:

    That’s what I love about ASL. With one glaring exception, you will NEVER see people like that playing ASL. Because it’s too hard. Perhaps that’s the secret for dealing with these weenies, just keep the difficulty level sufficiently high.

  • MC says:

    Started with the basics, received D&D for Christmas for my parents the year it came out and have played since. I also started wargaming at the same time and played some monster games before I went to college.

    I play the Euros too. I have all sorts of gaming friends from casual to hardcore win at all costs types. We have games to play with all of them. And we do.


    • Jeffro says:

      Yeah, I have all kinds of games on the shelf. Even the odd one that I think will never get played is often the perfect thing when someone turns up at the house.

  • Archon says:

    Great essay! Out of curiosity, what was the Monopoly house rule? Collecting money on Free Parking?

  • Eric Ashley says:

    The ‘revenge, and i’ll throw the game to another’ was a childish aspect of Risk.

    • Jeffro says:

      Not one that actually happened very often in practice, however. Usually things fell out with one guy holing up in Australia, another taking over Africa, and then a fight playing out between North and South America. An aggressive vendetta would actually shake things up in a good way. I would hesitate to call such a player childish, but it is true that it’s really irritating to see someone play kingmaker under any circumstance. A lot of game design mojo has been expended on circumventing that sort of thing…! But the normal response would be to simply form an opposing alliance and then maybe not play with such a person again. Reckless tactics tend to be their own punishment one way or another.

  • chris mata says:

    “Mean Carcassonne” is the only real way to play. Close to a 50 pt city? No, no. You mean MY 50 pt city?

  • You definitely have a way with words that I admire, Jeffro. You remind me of Michael Barnes, a brilliantly passionate critic of Euros (but he’s occasionally a butthead, unlike you) who was banned from BGG LONG ago because he disturbed the others too much.

    Correction: Hobby gaming grew out of wargaming. RPGs were late to the party, developed by wargamers who focused on individual avatars rather than entire countries.

    Unlike you, I don’t play Euros at all because I despise puzzles, and most Euros are puzzles disguised as games. (Then again, I hardly ever play any game other than my own early prototypes, and a stupid video game.)

    Euros aren’t a fad, Jeffro (fads don’t last 20 years). They’re in many ways an extension of video games: originally as puzzles-disguised-as-games where no one feels like they lost (in single-player video games you literally cannot lose), and now as “games” that reward players for participation, and don’t require the player to *earn* success. Which all fits with the current tendency in schools to remove competition entirely. (Hear of the soccer kid who screwed up? He scored lots of goals when he was only allowed to score 3. Or hear about the lower grades where kids don’t get letter grades any more? We wouldn’t want to make anyone feel bad . . . )

    Carc and Power Grid are two games out of the Euro tradition that transcend it.

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