Wednesday, April 29, 2009

A parcel of rogues...

Rogue Trooper
Donald, Gav, Tony and I made 4 for boardgames on Sunday. Casting around for the main event as you do I spied, tucked away almost out of reach on a high shelf, my as yet unplayed second hand copy of GW's Rogue Trooper boardgame from 1987.

I confess I was never a big fan of the Rogue Trooper story, which made its debut in the galaxy's greatest comic - 2000 AD, in 1981. To paraphrase a friend at the time, there are only so many ways to ring the changes with "Eat chemcloud Norter scum!" The story was very popular though, so it was hardly surprising that a Rogue Trooper game was added to the series of licenced 2000 AD products which came out of the young design studio's halycon days.

The game passed me by on its initial publication. I'd not even seen a copy of it until last year, when it was one of my earliest successful ebay bids, an impulse buy when I was still flush with the thrill of internet shopping. Tony's a fan of the comic strip, and he's often talked about how much he used to enjoy playing the game, so it was a cinch that the game would appear on the table sooner or later. No one objected when this came about on Sunday.

Twenty-two years ago, in dingy student Edinburgh
In these days of megaboxes like FFG's Descent: 6 times the size of Rogue Trooper's standard bookcase box; and stuffed to bursting with dozens of plastic minis, big thick counters and poker deck quality cards; it's worth bearing in mind exactly how revolutionary was a box full of bits like those seen in the pictures above.

The Rogue Trader boardgame was a product of the halcyon days of the youthful Nottingham design studio, days which left their enduring mark on the adventure gaming world with:
  • Judge Dredd (1982): a game whose cardplay-driven finkery - a landmark in multiplayer game design - underpinned Ian Livingstone's masterly interpretation of a British pop-cultural icon; and which is a reminder that GW was a something of a pathfinder in what became the Eurogames revolution.
  • Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay (1986): GW's Warhammer Old World is the quintessential postmodern spawn of Tolkein's Middle Earth in the same way that Lawrence Block's Scudder walks in Marlowe's shoes. Unparalleled in its day and still unique, WFRP remains an exemplar of the devil-may-care syncretism of our culture of the fantastic.
  • Warhammer 40K (1987): the ne plus ultra of that which WFRP exemplfies; 40K isn't so much a game as an entire new subgenre of the hobby, which marks it out as probably the single most influential product in the history of GW. It also bring us conveniently back to our starting point, since the most casual scan of the 40K wiki shows Rogue Trooper's influence on the Dark Millenium's emblematic Space Marines.
Conceptual chutzpah, design innovation and peerless production standards aside, what made these products (and so many others) utterly brilliant at the time was that they were ours; that is to say: British. To reassure readers who might be shocked at the notion of petty flag waving, let me explain further.

Each and every cultural artifact embodies and expresses a distillation of space and time: the moment and locale of its creation; and the history of that place. These give the artifacts their referents, which will be more or less opaque to those for whom the creators' situation is somehow alien. What marks out modern culture in general - and postmodern culture in particular, from all preceding cultural epochs is this: advancing globalisation similarly drives forward a universalisation of culture which renders the artifacts of each locality increasingly less opaque to those of others.

All that said, each locality remains distinct (even when geographically dispersed), so that its denizens crave the particular products which will embody and express their own lives. And so, GW's achievements in the 80's - in respect of the exciting new horizons opened to geeks everywhere by the late, lamented Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson; these achievements closely paralleled those of Britain's rock and pop musicians of the 60's and 70's: they took another landmark cultural innovation of the postwar era, and gave it a British expression, a twist in which we were able to recognise ourselves as if for the very first time.

To quote the poet Wordsworth: "Bliss it was in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven."

Last Sunday, at a table in Glasgow
We all enjoyed the game. Its elements are all close to our gaming hearts:
  • Mission objectives.
  • Exploration.
  • Tooling up.
  • Combat.
  • Treachery.
  • Card-driven finkage (here: Rogue cards).
This last is intriguingly handled. It's done in sequence ending with the active player, and only the last card played takes effect. The most obvious conseqence of this is that the active player always has the opportunity to trump his opponent's finkage with a card of their own, but I suspect that the tactical nuances of this mechanic will prove deeper than that.

The game features player elimination, which many people dislike for very good reasons. I was the first and only player whose G.I. died on Sunday, and I have to say that it's both thematically appropriate in a Rogue Trooper boardgame (although I can see that it could easily be designed otherwise), and that's it's really well handled, because:
  • You become a biochip, rapidly to be plugged into another player's G.I. and so becoming their Bagman or their Helm (they'll have their own Gunnar already, believe me!); and then you play as a team, with 2nd place as your own prize if the player carrying your biochip wins.
  • You'll be fighting the battles of the opponents of the player to your right, so you get to try to kill his G.I. as compensation for losing access to the routine finkage of the Rogue cards.
I'll stick my neck out here: player elimination is utterly essential to the game's magnificent interpretation of the comic strip. Rogue Trooper has these possible outcomes:
  • Everyone loses: the Traitor kills all the G.I.s.
  • No one loses: all except 1 G.I. die; the survivor wins, and everyone else is second-equal.
  • Some lose: more than 1 G.I. survive the game; 1 will win, and there might be runners up too.
I leave it to my readers to work through the tactical-strategic implications of this unique array of outcomes; but you've got to admit, as a dynamic dramatic potentiality embodying the underlying epic themes of its source material, this is a thing of beauty. That is to say: it's art Jim, but not as they know it.

What went down?
Donald picked up my biochip, which was handy for him, since he'd only drawn one at setup. This sent 3 well-equipped G.I.s up against the Traitor when he was revealed (this crucial turning point in the comic strip, and the game, works with artful dramatic tension too, BTW).

The traitor has 4 wounds like the G.I.s. Gav got the 1st hit, then had to leave on an errand.

The next period saw the 3 G.I.s tooling up and figuring the angles on how to manoeuvre the traitor and themselves into positions from which they could deliver that crucial 4th hit. Spelling for Gav, I knew that he was carrying the potentially game-winning Rogue card, the High Ground. I know that I was certainly looking forward to unleashing it when everything'd come together just so... Unfortunately for me Gav returned to enjoy this himself.

Gav won in the end. Atop the Glasshouse dome, he rained down plasma grenade death and destruction on the heavily wounded Traitor General lurking below. Even all us losers were impressed.

Seasoned G.I.
The rest of the squad 0

This game is magnificent! The rules are the confusing wodge of a turn sequence and mechanics that was typical GW fare of the period, although the resulting gameplay does make sense. The graphic design doesn't help, being:
  • In general too busy, ie. the rulebook.
  • Often difficult to interpret because it's too wee, eg. crucial terrain effects on the mapboard.
  • Inconvenient because what each player should have is in just 1 place, eg. the weapon data, which is on the board instead of the players' playsheets.
We had the feeling that the game dragged on a bit, but inevitable first-play clunks and fumbles and the time pressure due to Gav's appointment mean that we're not sure if that was us or the game itself. I'm pretty sure we're going to find out. Soon, I hope.

Nuclear War
"Ivanhoe, or..."

This question: with which filler to conclude the session before we were to dine out in our favourite oriental restaurant (the current mood downswing last week put paid to proper shopping and cooking), confronted us. Tony was talking about heading out to catch up with Di (of Settlers infamy). He was happy to stay when I really preferred some Nuclear War instead.

Shiftily eyeing each other up across the conference tables of the world this time were the representatives of:
  • Libronia: yours truly, natch.
  • Ulanda: Tony's take on his childhood Rhodesian years.
  • The People's Democratic Republic of Govan: Donald, having twigged that his dwarves would just dig themselves too deep to give a damn in this particular game (a.k.a. "F**k this for a game of soldiers!").
  • Gavonia: a name too obvious to avoid coining, but sufficiently irritating that Gav might decide to change it!
War broke out almost immediately, thanks to those PDRG warmongers; perhaps unnerved by the sight of Libronia's cruise missile, which I had launched on my first turn (I no more had Propaganda cards than did Donald). He chose to hit Tony (petty revenge after secrets and lies? - I can't recall) dealing a substantial 21 million.

Tony was the target of the game's first landmark moment: the first ever MX launch, 100 megs, by yours truly. I was the victim of the game's next landmark moment: the first ever MX warhead results in double nuclear clouds so that it landed on Libronia, thankfully costing a mere 3 million. This unforseen setback aside (who was it in the Libronian military that was buying Libronian missile technology?), and forgetting too another from the same missile, I was pleased with the resulting damage inflicted on Tony. Donald finished Tony off shortly thereafter.

In the endgame, Donald's B1 (another new 100 megatonne delivery vehicle) hit Gav for 28 million (nice!); after which Gav hit Donald with the Supergerm for 25 million. I was feeling hopeful at this point, even after I rolled another double nuclear clouds resulting in another wayward strike on my own people. Eventually I nuked Donald. His retaliation forced me to cash in my last card - 25 million natch; so that Gav knew exactly where I stood.

I was nervous as Gav and I faced each other for the final exchanges. All I could hope for was that Gav had poor propaganda, enabling me to exploit the Peace Dividend to my advantage before the bombs inevitably started to fall again. I was unlucky: Gav hit me with a 10 million Propaganda card that finished me off without even the chance to mount a retaliatory strike that would in any case have been ineffectual against Gav's 62 million population.

Genocidal maniac who's lost his rank-and-file roots 2
Everyone else 0

Ha ha! It took me until today to twig that 'debut' is a noun and not a verb, so that I had to use 'make a debut' to construct the past tense I was after. D'oh!
#gurns# ;p


gnome said...

What an excellent and very scholarly write-up. A joy to read good sir!

"A bit political on yer ass!" said...

Thanks matey. It was enjoyable to write too, though not quite so much as it had been collecting the material for it down the years! ;)

gnome said...

I think I'd better start searching through eBay for all these older GW games...

"A bit political on yer ass!" said...

A good plan! ;)

gnome said...

Cunning I dare say...