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Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Again, the toasters' offensive

No, not some Philip K. Dick story; nor even another glorious Cylon victory for yours truly; but a return to the topic of my last post, in which I'd wanted to tease out the implications of the issues that've come up across the table during our games of Battlestar Galactica. Arriving later that same Sunday Donald convinced me that I'd been too allusive altogether, because he'd come away with the impression that I don't like the game. I couldn't let this misconception lie.

All carping aside Battlestar Galactica is my #1 multiplayer pick of 2008. It's a long time since a multiplayer game has hit so many high notes in so few plays (7, to be precise). Regular readers should remember that those 'procedural limitation' caveats I've maintained these past 9 months stemmed in the first instance from my experience of Arkham Horror, FFG's shiny new edition of the cult Call of Cthulhu boardgame. This had palled very quickly for me when, during a break from my Ashes of Middenheim campaign, and after a couple of plays whose inevitable clunks and fumbles almost span out of control under the weight of 6 players, Gav and I cakewalked a 2-player teamup against Cthulhu.

Shallow gamespace souring a game in which I was otherwise willing to invest time and/or money wasn't a new experience to me: GW's Chainsaw Warrior and AH's Patton's Best- both 1987, are two noteworthy examples. Like Arkham Horror, both games enjoyed some mechanics slick enough to be briefly atmospheric; in fact, losing half my crew when my Sherman was shot out from under me in my lone game of Patton's Best stands out as an incident as utterly shocking as any in my gaming career. Nonetheless these solitaires barely qualified as puzzles. Willing suspension was therefore rapidly suspended and the games were put aside never to be revisited.

Uninteresting save as historical curiosities these games might be, but more pointless even is a children's cardgame I learned as Strip Jack Naked, more commonly known as Beggar-My-Neighbour. This is the only game I know which is decided by the setup, in this case the deal. Check the rules and you'll see: the players simply carry out a process in which they neither make decisions nor change the order of the cards (grab a deck of cards and run through a few penalties if you don't believe me); ergo a fixed outcome derived from a single event- the deal (we stopped playing this game once we'd figured this out, naturally enough).

Simple as they are, even Noughts and Crosses or Snap allow players' decisions to determine outcomes; and exercises in random generation Chainsaw Warrior and Patton's Best might be, but their gameplay consists of an authentic plurality of events, not the singularity that reduces Beggar-My-Neighbour's gamespace to an effective null, less even than a simple coin toss by virtue of the overbearing weight of the system of a game mathematicians believe is capable of playing forever once begun.

The inherent limitations of its solitaire engine notwithstanding, Arkham Horror did bring something new to the table with that cooperative gameplay- a genuine puzzle:
  • In the form of cooperative problem solving.
  • And with the content of the friction as players negotiate their way to their solution, or not; friction which, it must be remembered, can be as much sheer whim and fancy as it can be simple poor judgement or bad luck.
Unfortunately, this new dimension Arkham Horror brings to the solitaire engine's gamespace can't save the game from its poor expression of the quintessential Lovecraftian themes of cosmic horror and irresistible ruination. Why? Because no one is ever turned, whether by possession, greed or madness; and no matter what happens everyone stays in the game until the final encounter. Not much jeopardy in Arkham Horror's Cthulhuverse in other words; and even less paranoia.

All of this is why I've been holding out on Battlestar Galactica for so long: disappointed more than once down the years as I have explained, I was afraid that BSG's variant on the solitaire engine represented by the Crisis deck would ultimately prove similarly limiting to the promising Loyalty rules, so again scuppering the game's thematic expression.

Those recent games which had fallen rather flat had begun to convince me that this was already happening. Moreover Gav had pronounced his hardening dislike, which fed that conviction. I feared that gameplay was threatening to become utterly stereotyped thus proving BSG no better in the end than Arkham Horror. But, as I said last time: Gav still hasn't played a Cylon; I'd really like to think that he'll see that BSG is a whole different kettle of fish once he's had a taste of that. ;)

Related@RD/KA!
Battlestar Galactica boardgame:
- My 2009 gaming wishlist #2
- Done down by dastardly Donald's devious duplicity!
- The fickle finger of fate
- Toasters, toasters, everywhere!
- A moment to marvel at...
- The end is nigh?
- What price survival?
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