Thanks to some scheduling mistakes in an automated system, this went up and down a few times when it shouldn’t. Thanks for your patience.
Every year, some of our friends visit from Melbourne to come play D&D. Every year, Fox and I pitch games, and we decide which one people want to do the most. This year, this is my pitch, which I wrote all the way back in December.
Now, I’m making this blog post now, but it’s a bit of a hedge. See, there’s a really good chance this pitch won’t get used at all, in which case, I’ll just brush it up a little bit and add an explantion for any twists in this three-day campaign that were coming. But for now, here, check out the Bloodborne inspired game pitch for a game I’m probably not running next weekend.
The Pale Moon Rises
The lamps are lit, the doors are barred, and the hunt begins. The hunters of Cainwicht have been training and hunting, listening at the doors and windows, and as the night of the hunt begins, stepped out onto the streets to take to the grim and bloody task of slaying the predators upon humanity.
People are not to be about on the night of the Pale Moon.
But in the Cathedral Of The Ministration in Finhbrigg, something has gone awry. Finhbrigg’s hunters have gone out – but the clocktower light that signals the Hunt has begun is out. Thick fog clings to the ground, and without the light, Hunters from Cainwicht are not going to come – leaving Finhbrigg to fend for itself.
But the Cathedral is not without defenses – and you, whether hunters in training, older veterans of the hunt, or travellers in the wrong place at the wrong time, have a chance to fix it.
This game is designed to be run in Heroic level, currently at level 7. This can be negotiated upwards, but I want the game to run smooth and quick.
Hello, Wizards of the Coast employees. This blog post is going to feature custom cards and I know you’re not allowed to look at those. So, please, go elsewhere, sorry!
Magic The Gathering? In Smooch month? is this going to be about shipping? Is this going to be about Nissa and Chandra, and the War Of the Spark: Forsaken?
Because I don’t really care about that.
I mean I don’t have the book; I don’t plan on buying the book; the book was handled so badly that Wizards of the Coast apologised for it, and there are rundowns on how the writing is bad (even setting aside the subject matter) and ways that the Nissa/Chandra romance was specifically handled, and really, you don’t need someone who hasn’t got the book, and has no interest in reading it, to go over it.
Instead, I want to talk about a shipping pair I learned about from Twitter, and has basically no basis in actual canon but I don’t care.
With the cleansing ritual of excusing a number of physical games from my Game Pile, I decided it was also time to make a ritual of making it clear a number of 2019 digital games that had definitely, definitely left my Game Pile. Presented here is a lightning round of Games that I tried in 2019 and didn’t feel I had anything to say about them. These games largely went unfinished, unless something provokes me to give ’em a second look – which can include you specifically asking me about it!
The origin of the game pile, which I’ve explained a few times lately, was to be a sort of documentation as I worked through a large pile of games I’d gotten in part because of the generosity of a kind friend, and my own rarer purchases. It also focused heavily on my digital game collection at first, and way back when I even had the idea of starting a subseries of game pile, called cheap thrills which was about finding games that had twenty or more hours of reasonable playtime for only $5, and was going to feature a lot of older DOS and Abandonware games that still had their charms.
The original purpose behind Game Pile was, to an extent, a sort of documentation of the process of working my way through mypresents. There’s guilt and all sorts of other feelings there, and ambitions for a life writing for some source like Polygon or Waypoint that has since dissolved in a mist since August 2014. Not only has its original purpose changed, though, It has since grown to incorporate board games, and board games are different to my steam library because board games are physical objects.
The physicality of these games means that when I’m done with a game there’s something I can do with them – it means that I can package that game up, and, assuming I haven’t broken it, I can let it go. I am not bound to the game, nor is it bound to me. A steam game is a little string of numbers next to my name in a directory that I access with a password that let me put a copy of a program on a computer. From the people who made it’s perspective, there’s no reasonable value to letting me treat that code like a physical object, but with a tabletop game… they can’t stop me. That’s kind of the default of how most products worked, up until we got used to this other normal.
It’s CanCon this weekend! I’m going to be running a stall down there, selling the latest and greatest of Invincible Ink indie card games, art and bricabrac. It’s the hottest weekend of the year, traditionally, and I’m going to be in a city that has air quality comparable to Beijing, because the country is probably still on fire as I write this.
I’m a superhero fan, which is to say I’m someone with a lot of very firm opinions the way the superhero media industry is just ruining everything, and completely messing up. This is a natural part of the progression as you get older, but I at least am at the point where I can bring myself to acknowledge it’s much more I don’t like this rather than this is good or bad storytelling.
Comics love weirdo aliens that are human-mindset compatible (like M’gann M’orzz). Comics love alternate dimension characters that come from a different universe that’s somehow meaningfully mostly like ours (like Power Girl). And despite loving M’gann and Peej, I really dislike these two ideas. In a shared roleplaying space like City of Heroes, you don’t get the leeway to just tell people hey stop making characters I don’t like, though, and I’ve come to terms with that.
When presented with a problem like this, though, a good impulse is to work out why things are different, work out what you’d do to make the thing you don’t like work in a way you do. Which is why I wondered how I could make a Suspiciously Human Alien or Extradimensional Person in a way that didn’t make my brain flip sumersaults at the math involved.
What I got out of it is Rift Girl.
First up, here’s her in-game bio:
“But what are we doing here, at home, to fight the dreadful menace of The German Imperialism? Why, there’s some, like the top-secret RIFT project, storing away examples of the finest cities of the 20th century, in alternate dimensions where the people can grow and thrive, and become brilliant bosch-bashers! And as long as there’s funding, there’s no way to lose track of them, or see them fall to the work of the Hun! Stay tuned, for partial excitement!”
– Project RIFT explained, unreleased educational film, 1939
Madison Max came from a place that’s a bit retro, a bit far away, and plenty, plenty weird. But that doesn’t matter – what matters more, to her, is that she’s here, in Paragon, to be a hero, and contribute to the fight against fascism!
Alternate dimensions and alien cultures are great if you want to give a character a kind of contained metaphysics. You don’t have to explain how they relate to the things in our world or why they may have missed something or other, you can just say that those things don’t exist where they’re from. These are societies you have complete control over, and it means if you want a character to come from a place where things work differently and people just have to accept it, you can. Consider a lot of our societal ideas we have that can be just different in a different society. Ideas like marriage, gender, violence, heroics, education or capitalism can be wildly different if you control a different space.
Alternate dimensions bug me though when they’re just one of a million options because it opens up too many questions for me. After all, why this and not that. Why are these changes able to have such wild transformations? Alternate dimension are written in between the space where they’re not realistically similar (in this world, one flower evolved to be peach instead of purple, and everything else is the same) or realistically different (if the mass of earth’s trajectory was off by a meter a billion years ago, literally none of anything would be ‘there’ when you went to reach into the other dimension). How do I get an alternate dimension that’s meaningfully like what we have here?
My idea was to make the alternate dimension a dimension built out of this one, and that gave me the idea I wanted: Nonsense Wartime Propoganda Super Science!
Rift Girl’s world is a pocket dimension made in the 1940s as part of the War Effort against the Super Science Nazis of the superhero universe. We blame so much stuff on this era of science (just look up the weird stuff people believe about the Philadelphia Experiment), and that gave me an aesthetic to start from. Bonus, it let me talk about the natural followup to a good thing (fighting Nazis) and the way our cultures managed that project (not preventing more Nazis later).
Rift Girl is from a city that was built as a self-sustaining environment in the desert in the United States, then super-science blinked into its own little parallel dimension where they could set the rules enough to make sure that entropy wasn’t going to be a big problem. The idea was that these cities would work as both safeguards against Nazi invasions of countries, and places to recruit and train the best possible Nazi-fighters ever. Then, because of funding cuts, these entire cities were lost to paperwork and time, and the Rift Cities fell out of contact with the Primal Earth. Some were decommissioned properly after only a few years, and one, Maddie’s home, was forgotten, lost in the shuffle, or deemed ‘too hard’ to recover.
Fast forward Some Years, and Rift City contacts Primal Earth, opening a portal they developed on their own with their limited materials, and send through messages and an Emissary – Madison Max. Thanks to a delay on broadcasts arriving in Rift City, she thinks it’s Prime Material Year 1999, and party for the millenium, even made herself some of those party glasses, and oh yes, to beat the shit out of Nazis.
Madison was chosen for her task because she was basically a super over-achiever student, someone who was both obsessed with the Primal Earth broadcasts they were able to decipher and well-trained and disciplined. Smart, educated, extremely strong in a super-sciencey way, and given special, strange, rift-warping powers by having broken the ‘seal’ on the Rift City tunnel to Prime Earth, she’s ready to be a full blown superhero, punching Nazis and Saving the Day, just like all the TV shows she’s been bootlegging from Primal Earth have shown her.
Also, thanks to the way light worked in Rift City, she – and the rest of the Rift City people – have no idea that the time spent in the Rift has made them all green, or rather, that anyone is any colour other than green. She thought everyone she was on TV was green, just like her, and now she’s having to adjust to that. Also the twenty year time gap. Also discovering that contrary to how she was raised, Americans think Communists are bad, even though they fought Nazis so well. That’s weird.
Mechanically, Maddie is a Radiation Armour/Street Justice Tanker. In a way, she’s a pastiche together of Superboy and Miss Martian from Young Justice, a super-strong but visibly strange person from another world. The City of Heroes universe has four clear examples of actual honest-to-god fascists to fight and you know, that’s on my mind lately.
Oh hey, look at this! You’ve noticed the pictures to start with, because humans are visual learners, and you’ve probably heard this name before, and it doesn’t have a number after it so that suggests it’s either a 2020 reboot (and do you see me doing that?) or a super old DOS game (and hey, guess what). You may have put it all together and thought: Hey, Talen’s about to talk about an old DOS game, that started a famous franchise, and we’re going to get all sorts of talk about how videogames back in the day were so good and the pixel is the natural storage unit of fun, because he’s old and that means he’s going to speak to the value of retro games right?
I wanted to do that, because I have fond memories of, when I was a child, playing the demo of this game, a 1993 DOS strategy game by Blue Byte entertainment, a game company that has since been acquired by and made part of the Ubisoft coalition. It was for the time, technically impressive, and commerically, wildly successful.
And going back to play it again, this game is wildly unapproachable.
You know for all that D&D is seen as a story of heroic fantasy it’s awfully bitsy. I don’t just mean the way that D&D is a game that encourages a truly remarkable amount of special acquisition of items for play – how many people do you know who have a miniature for their characters? – I mean that the story that plays out in the game winds up being about stuff. Lots and lots of stuff.
I’ve been writing about ‘stuff’ in games lately, reading about how we treat material objects, and while there’s definitely a different kind of materiality when you talk about a playing card, a dice and a meeple versus the text on a page that reads +3 longsword, there’s still something to be said about the way that D&D, 3.5 and 4e especially (because those are the editions I know) focus characters over an inevitable wardrobe full of stuff.
Now, there’s a reason for this, and it gets at one of the basic assumptions of the game that D&D wants to be. D&D ostensibly is a game about heroic fantasy, but connected to the idea of this heroic fantasy is a need for adventurers to be mostly, heroically empowered but still fundamentally scaled heroes that can be compared to normal people. It’s not the X-Men, it’s a place where your hero who swings a sword can’t be expected to cut through the bars of a prison, but if that sword was magical, then they could.
Now, this isn’t a bad thing per se, but it does tell you something of the basic assumptions of a world like Dungeons & Dragons and it’s a basic assumption that I’m used to seeing in a lot of, of all things, first person shooters. Yes, I’m probably going to talk about DOOM again, maybe.
When you start to talk about what stuff is used for in D&D, it’s pretty easy to see that stuff can do a lot more than people can do. People are limited, they’re made of meat, and they’re not capable of long-lasting, permanent effects. Even the wizard has to spend spell slots to fly, but a pair of winged boots will take you into the air as long as you like. The boots are expensive, and that’s another element (the relentless roll of capitalism).
One other thing is that items can be systematised, because objects, we believe, behave consistently and repeatedly. Despite the fact that the D&D world is typically represented as pre-industrial (except the good ones), these items are made and represented as if they are in their own ways kind of mass-produced; a jagged fullblade from one continent will work the same as a jagged fullblade from another.
This is another funny detail about this worldview: The items you’re building and examining are being treated as if they’re just making a thing that can exist; it’s not a matter of someone choosing to create something to overcome a task or have an effect (and indeed, if you approach a DM with a specific request for an item function that isn’t from the existing ruleset, that can be seen as asking for something ‘too specific’). It’s not that you made a weapon that does more damage when it hits an opponent in a vulnerable moment – it’s that you made a jagged or vorpal weapon, and those existing elements have math to them.
Stuff gets to be consistent! Stuff gets to work, and keep on working! We live in a world full of machines that work consistently until broken, and it seems that that plays into how we want magical devices to work in D&D. We don’t find that unrealistic, that a character can wander around in a small town’s economy’s worth of super-specialised consumer goods that literally nobody non-Adventurey could afford to meaningfully buy, we don’t find it unrealistic that these objects can be somehow mass produced and we don’t find it odd that these things can do much more than a person can do, because we accept that it’s okay for objects to do these things…
… and that it’s not acceptable for people.
This plays into the way that the worlds of D&D are made, by the way. Not only are places like the Realms and Eberron full of underground caches full of fantastically expensive and yet still practically useful antique hardware, they’re also places that mysteriously have investors and traders who can be bothered making these goods and trying to sell them on despite their fantastically obvious market problems.
This relationship to stuff is one of the things that breaks easily when you start trying to use D&D for other stuff. Infamously, the game D20 Modern tries to dispense with the relationship to stuff, making mose equipment mundane and focusing the game instead around the ‘wealth check’ that gave you a general idea of what you were capable of buying. The result was that your stuff suddenly didn’t feel like it mattered, but your character never mattered as much as their stuff – so you mostly spent your time piloting around a pair of guns and a skill list.
In How To Be we’re going to look at a variety of characters from Not D&D and conceptualise how you might go about making a version of that character in the form of D&D that matters on this blog, D&D 4th Edition. Our guidelines for this kind of project are as follows:
This is going to be a brief rundown of ways to make a character that ‘feels’ like the source character
This isn’t meant to be comprehensive or authoritive but as a creative exercise
While not every character can work immediately out of the box, the aim is to make sure they have a character ‘feel’ as soon as possible
The character has to have the ‘feeling’ of the character by at least midway through Heroic
When building characters in 4th Edition it’s worth remembering that there are a lot of different ways to do the same basic thing. This isn’t going to be comprehensive, or even particularly fleshed out, and instead give you some places to start when you want to make something.
Another thing to remember is that 4e characters tend to be more about collected interactions of groups of things – it’s not that you get a build with specific rules about what you have to take, and when, and why, like you’re lockpicking your way through a design in the hopes of getting an overlap eventually. Character building is about packages, not programs, and we’ll talk about some packages and reference them going forwards.
This time, we’re going to try and capture the feeling of Edward Elric from Fullmetal Alchemist: A Lot Of Different Things.
With the dawn of 2020, the first wave of Millenials, born in 1980, have to take a break from killing the Fabric Softener industry and deal with now being in their 40s and starting the chunk of time that gets called ‘middle age,’ and with that comes the obligatory desire to complain about kids these days. I’m not there yet, but I’m getting there.
Overwhelm is a 2018 action-horror exploration platform game that uses a palette that feels gameboyish except instead of green and dark green its palette ranges between white and ohdear red. It’s not a specific hardware style I recognise – you wouldn’t call it ‘1-bit’ or ‘4-bit’ graphics as if that answers questions easily, but it does have that same crisp few- colours-deployed-sparingly of other indie classics like Downwell and Minit.
White in the Throne of Eldraine standard period, isn’t great! It’s not very strong and uh, also in Commander, white’s not very strong, and so the Content Creation mill has kicked in and presented the brilliant idea of White Bad. The Magic community, being the reasonable well-rounded and thoughtful group of people they are have immediately leapt face-first into a wall.
We’re not good with handling conversations that need words.
One of the places that people have decided this needs addressing is by saying that white (which is the WORST COLOUR and ALWAYS SUCKS) needs to have CARD DRAW and RAMP and COUNTERSPELLS. Now, I’ve some sympathy to the problems presented before (and I’ve written about it), but the last one bothers me, because it’s the same, simple, looping argument. It’s very catastrophised and gets to involve things like ‘Maro doesn’t know what he’s talking about’ and ‘Maro hates white,’ which… yeah. Do I bust out the statistics and the historical context to address these arguments? Sometimes – it’s just it’s work, and because it’s social media, that argument drifts away and I have to go re-make it an hour later. I want it all centralised and convenient.
Here, then is my thoughts on why we should stop designing custom white counterspells. If you’re a Wizards employee, current or former, rejoice, because I’m not going to show any custom designs here or even talk about them in depth. I’m just going to go over the idea of white getting counterspells at all.
This is going to be mechanical, by the way, not narrative – I have lots of views about how to build a character in a shared roleplaying space. This is about how I prioritise stats when I’m building characters in this game.
For those not familiar, City of Heroes characters get a number of abilities that let you do things, and then they get ways to improve those things. This is typically divided into ‘powers’ and ‘slots.’ Slots can hold things that improve things the power do – accuracy, damage, the time it takes to recharge, the duration of effects like stuns or holds – and so powers you want to do lots of things, you’ll give them lots of slots. You can’t just fill them with the same effect because there’s diminishing returns after the first two, which means powers tend to get a little bit of one thing, a little bit of another.
Now, that’s probably all that you’re going to get out of this unless you’ve played the game, because this is a big, complex system. If you really have no idea about it, the rest of what’s coming is going to be gibberish, so I’ve put the useful conclusion to all that here up front:
What we can see then is that – perhaps accidentally – this great big confusing mess of a game, that when you have a lot of systems at work, even if you have a fairly simple, linear method of progression (defeating baddies), there’s still a lot you can do to make the individual choices of a player expressive. Players can build towards their priorities.
Now, you might not be making an MMO, but you might be making a tabletop RPG. If you’re building in the modded space of games like Pathfinder or 13th Age, you’re in a similar space, and that’s when the time comes to look at your own creative efforts rather than necessary in terms of perfect balance, as instead about competing balance. See if you’re presenting players with enough choices that character building is full of interesting choices.
Also, if there’s something players should just have, then just… give it to them.
Throne of Eldraine really has a mark on its name as being a set that led to one of the shortened banning spans. It’s really rough, because as bad as Oko is as both a character presence and the impact he had on standard, there are some cards in Throne of Eldraine I didn’t expect to like, and even missed wholesale that have crept up to be some of my favourite kinds of card.
I do like playing around with uncommon engine cards, and one of the sadder things to me about small sets or sets that do poorly is how uncommon engines often have to make do with only the cards in their set and that’s it. This isn’t engines like you see in Innistrad where we’re absolutely going to see more werewolves if we go back there, it’s the sets that failed to catch an audience. Sometimes an engine gets support outside of its block and still isn’t good enough (hi there, Earthshaker), and sometimes the engine card is great but there isn’t adequate support for it in the format (hi there, Sylvan Echoes).
And yes, I have tried making all of these work.
It’s a long path we’ve walked to get here, but well, you don’t come to my blog if you’re not willing to follow a trail of crumbs.
I don’t doubt we’ll see Eldraine again, but I suspect it’ll be a while and I suspect that while means that for now, Trail of Crumbs has to do all the work it can with what it’s got. Jund and Golgari Food has been tearing up standard for a while now, and it’s also a deck where you can make a meaningfully cheap version and don’t lose out on how the deck works. I even lashed out and bought myself some Lilianas and Vraskas and have a neat little standard two-coloured version of this deck (thank you Patrons).
When I talked about Century: Golem last year, I referred to mastery depth, where the way that experience playing a game makes you better at playing the game – and that meant that for some types of game, playing with new players was an experience of watching them lose because they hadn’t yet learned to play at your level of mastery.
I also talked about how much I wanted to have more cooperative games, and how I also need some games that are kid-approachable for my niblings to play, because games without winners and losers are important for managing times when everyone is all a bit stressed and it’s a bit much.
Forbidden Island was a late addition to my collection last year, and I think it’s worth bringing up as an excellent game for a game collection, even if the game itself isn’t that big a deal, especially if your collection has games that maybe, to you, look a bit ‘better.’
I launched my Patreon early in 2018, after arguing myself around on it over and over again. There were some ideas I had for it, which did not pan out well, and this year I committed to a much simpler schedule: Micropodcasts for people who paid for them, my blog schedule as normal, one video every month, a major game each year, and as many minor games as I could make.
Largely, it’s seen as polite to keep Patreon stuff ‘in Patreon’ and behind the scenes, and I think I fall into that because it involves money. Also, I don’t ever want to be the kind of person who monitors who is and isn’t my patrons, and just accept at the most base level that anyone who is my patron on patreon is doing it because they like what I’m doing and they’re not doing it as part of a benefits package, and maybe because they want to be part of conversations about my commercial production and being included in the games I’m making as I make them.
That’s it, though, and I think this is important to mention: My patreon patrons are extremely, extremely hands off. I have never had anyone contact me to tell me they’re upset with the money they paid, I have never had anyone tell me ‘as a patreon supporter, I-‘ and I’ve never had the conversation space of my patreon turn into a serious fight over anything, ever.
Largely, the people who are supporting me on patreon, it seems, are doing it because they want to, and their doing so has allowed me to do some things this year I would not have been able to bring myself to do.
What kind of things?
Well, being able to purchase a large number of my own shirts for a gimmick at work where I wore a different Loss Shirt every day, which I’ve already covered. It’s not that I couldn’t afford that, but that I could not bring myself to spend ‘important’ money for what was basically a goofy joke only the internet could appreciate.
I spent over two hundred USD on other people’s creative efforts this year, and some of that did not result in anything getting made. I basically sent some people some stuff, and because my patreon patrons were supporting me, that was able to promote the creativity of others with a safety pad. Some vulnerable people who are shy and did not have a lot money were able to try out creative endeavours without the ability to fail, because my supporters were willing to trust me to distribute some money for that purpose.
Also I got to speak to a lot more artists with the confidence that I could drop some money right there on them, so the conversation didn’t feel like I was wasting their time. That was all really valuable.
My patrons have given me freedom and comfort, even if this project isn’t paying all my bills and I appreciate the way they aren’t making the things I do into this sort of tense, ‘monetise everything I do’ kind of heckscape.
Hey, do you remember, a few years ago, a really good article on Kotaku about how the absence of women from the core group of Final Fantasy XV was a way that the story could show men’s relationships with men rather than presenting them as relationships compared to or in reflection of their relationships with women? Well, Jeb wrote that, and it was really good.
And Jeb’s writing again!
Jeb’s been writing on their patreon, long form examinations of games, but not videogames but hands-on, look-at-the-pieces examinations of board games. And no, this isn’t the latest Board Game Review Channel that’s going to talk about Charterstone and Reiner Knizier, but rather Jeb’s fascinating deep examinations of the world of vintage board games from the side of board games that’s normally treated as ‘junk.’
Licensed game, gimmick games, the tie-ins and spinoffs and knockoffs, and games that are all built for a market that we don’t understand in anything like the same way as the modern Euro landscape. It’s a fascinating study, and you should go check them out on Patreon and maybe help give them some money!
2019 has not been a kind year to a Jeb, but they have perservered, and done some writing, which is really good and I recommend it.
I sometimes am cautious of putting something on my blog that feels like it’s basically one big tweet. This is especially so since we got 280 character tweets, which means it’s very possible to give a very clear, positive or negative impression very conveniently, especially with a single picture attached.
Also this is one of those games with such a beautifully ridiculous premise that if I just show it to you and tell you what you’re playing for, you will almost certainly know whether you want it or not.
I participate on the Custom Magic Subreddit, a place where amateur designers come together to make cards for Magic: The Gathering, and it is a place where, overall, people get the colour pie wrong. But that’s okay, because we’re all amateurs and we’re all having fun.
Now, if you look through my history you’ll see that largely, I am pretty negative, but I have seen cards that I liked and wanted people to see, and so, that’s what this post is about. I thought I’d get all the cards I liked in a year and put them in one master post, but uhhh, so that was a bad idea for a number of reasons. First, Reddit doesn’t archive your personal upvoting history that far (it only shows the most recent 1,000, it seems), and second, I have liked way more than ten or twenty cards this year, and third, some of the people who made those cards have deleted their accounts, which makes it really hard to properly credit them.
Hey, Wizards employees! Stop reading! This is going to start showing custom magic cards, as unsolicited designs! Thank you! I don’t want you or me getting in trouble!
If you read this blog, you know I talk about a lot of general stuff, usually through the lens of games. This blog is a Talen Lee blog, where I write about videogames, board games, sometimes my study, historical tabletop roleplaying games, occasional media studies insights like I actually studied that or something, phd angst, and the life of a former fundamentalist abuse victim. It is a big ole pile of jelly in the jam.
One thing I do on this blog is get old games that didnt’ get a lot of critical prestige or were from platforms that you, my mostly-not-PC-playing audience that is younger than me, did not play, and talk about them, showing you things you might not have thought about while introducing you to things. There’s a tension at the heart of this kind of process, because on the one hand I have to introduce you to something, then show you something deeper in that thing.
But I control that discussion. You don’t necessarily know anything about the game until I introduce it, and then you just kind of have to nod along to me as to whether or not what I’m talking about is even present in the artwork in question. Part of this is the space involved in videogames, and part of it is the sheer volume of content in this space that you can’t track it all. I could tell you the last third of Assassins Creed 3 features a speedboat and odds are good you’d probably have to believe me.
Spare a thought then for Vincent Kinian’s Game Exhibition, which in november addressed this very question: how do people who’ve never played the game engage with critical reflection on that game? How does deep game examinations that want to put the genuinely obscure in a meaningful context handle the fact that the art they’re presenting cannot possibly give the audience the same access to art that say, a sculpture or painting has. It’s a really interesting quandrary, gone in depth in part in the article about Cave Noire.
If you like the kind of stuff I do on this blog in general, you should check out Vincent’s stuff for much more specific consideration of just games. It’s good stuff; I don’t read weekly, but I do from time to time (every few weeks) trundle in and have a read of a few articles.
Look, I try to be friends with a lot of people. If you know me via twitter, you know that I am generally pretty nice to people I talk to (and rude about things). This is not however to say that I am good at being friends. There are plenty of people around me that I feel or think very positively of that I am just not prone to socialising with. I come across as smug, or meanspirited a lot more often than I mean to be, and that’s on me, but it also can mean that sometimes, the best option I have for being a friend is to check in sometimes, see if someone’s okay, and try my best to be there when they need to reach out.
Anyway, in an unrelated topic, here’s my friend Char doing a Let’s Play of Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow. Char’s great! Char likes superheroes. Char and I have reconnected to an extent from playing City of Heroes together, and I am a real fan of Char.
Check it out! The Raptor Squad does long form, slow playthroughs, they have dialogue back and forth about the game to explain it, and it’s a game I haven’t seen. Also there aren’t a lot of people following this channel at the moment, so your comments and feedback get to have an outsized effect!
Oink games are one of those companies I deeply appreciate in the same way most people appreciate art. They make beautiful, tightly integrated little games with a lovely visual aesthetic and a variety of play scales of difficulty, from a different cultural perspective than I’m from and they satisfy a variety of different play types.
But they’re also extremely pricey to get my hands on here, because I don’t know, we have a nice beaches tax, whatever. Attempts to buy Oink games tend to be kind of happenstance – you either see them for sale on a shelf and snap them up, or if you can’t, you deal with them being randomly unavailable. The internet, normal place I go to for this kind of thing, isn’t much help – shipping fees for Oink games can sometimes be as high as seventy dollars.
Still, these games are great and if you live in Europe, Japan, or America, they’re a lot more obtainable, and statistically you do, so I want to share with you a game of theirs that you can play yourself with just the bits and pieces you already have access to, and hopefully it’ll encourage you to check out their other stuff and give you something you can do at a family party this holiday season that doesn’t involve again, monopoly.
Wait a second.
Monopoly joke, family reference, talk about other games to pad the word space, talk about using components you already have…
… is this going to be another drawing game?
Okay, unfortunately, yes, but I promise it’s not the same thing and it’s really good! A Fake Artist Goes To New York is a drawing game where rather than everyone needing their own pad of paper, you instead need one pad of paper, and some scraps of paper and markers.
What’s going on in this game is that each player is part of a collaborative art asset to create an artwork together, except one of the players doesn’t know what you’re drawing. You draw one line of whatever you’re drawing and you hand it to the next player. They then do their line, and pass it on and on. And again: Some of the players know what you’re drawing, one of them doesn’t.
The thing with this game, and what separates it from Fax Machine, is that it’s a game where you don’t have to be good at drawing to win or lose. You’re adding one line at a time to your drawing, and that means that you don’t really have a luxury of being good or bad. Much like how I spoke of Poker earlier this year, it’s not a game of expressing your skill as an artist as much as it is a game about communicating with the other players. You’re trying to find the fake, and the fake is trying to make sure other players don’t catch them out.
This game is lovely and charming, and I recommend you don’t just check it out, but try playing it. But didn’t I say it costs a bunch? Well, you don’t need to buy it to play it.
You don’t need specialised equipment to play this game, you just need the rules, which I won’t explain in full, because I don’t have to. You can get them here at BoardgameGeek, hosted there with permission by Oink Games. This is a really impressive move, by the way, because the rulebook covers how you pretty much don’t need to buy the game. They’re giving a version of their game away for free, understanding that if you like it, you might buy it. I really respect that, especially in a game that’s so approachable and can serve as a gateway to get people into the games scene.
I started this year pretty burned out on writing about Magic: The Gathering, what with the heavy narrative focus on the importance of Nicol Bolas, and what I saw as at least another half year defined by that story and the ongoing pressure of Teferi. I wasn’t having fun! It wasn’t cool! I found myself getting annoyed at how much work it was to pump out Magic articles that weren’t very shallow, and so, I stopped.
Now, this has not been a good year for Magic: The Gathering, overall, I don’t think. It’s probably sold fine, but it’s just been one of those years with a lot of rake-step moments. Bannings in standard, data breaches, story controversies, another new format being created and handled weirdly, continued problems with Brawl, players just being the worst and oh look, another Teferi planeswalker that we’re all going to be very glad to see rotate out and also, Throne of Eldraine bringing
But while I haven’t been writing about it that much I have been playing Magic quite a bit, and I realised there was a whole fistful of cards from this past year that I really liked and I wanted to shout out about them. Hey, if you’re a casual Magic player, these cards are worth grabbing, especially because they’re really cheap.
Well it’s a type of math structure, which has been for some reason of late been labelled as a game distributed under the general label of picross, where you’re presented with a grid where each row and column has numbers in it expressing how many of those squares are filled in and in what kind of sequence and you get something that looks a little bit like a crossword someone forgot to finish making.
There’s a lot of fun stuff in Picross structures that builds around mathematical principles and grids and boundaries and ranges and the good news is that if you play Picross a bit you’ll start to see ways that these things create inferred information that you may have thought was impossible.
Wait, hang on, someone paid to be funny did a video explaining it, here, go see what he has to say:
I’m not going to try to explain how to play Picross? Because I don’t really know how I learned how to do it beyond having it underscored to me that Picross is fundamentally fair and that if you have to guess, that’s a failure of the design, that everything else is literally just a matter of building techniques and processes that always work.
The thing is, this isn’t really a game to recommend as much as it is a genre of games that I am now imparting to you which you can play on almost every platform and with varying degrees of accomplishment or framing that makes it feel good for you to play. In my case, the Picross I play of choice is this website, because the puzzles it generates are effectively meaningless. This isn’t a perfect site – it seems to me after a lot of play that there are some puzzles that it generates that may have a unique solution but that the final steps of that solution may involve guessing between one of two final options. That’s non ideal, but it also takes literally no time to roll up a new puzzle the second you make a mistake, which I do.
Picross is a nice no-impact game to spend your time on, and there are so many different Picross games out there it’s kind of a game itself to find the one or two Picrosses that work best for you. I really liked finding out about Picross this year and it’s a lot faster than booting up The Swindle when my brain worms start to eat me.
Okay, so around this time each year I and my friends sit around and discuss a weekend game of D&D that we’ll play when they come around. It’s a highlight of my year, even if it lands – typically – smack dab during GDQ, meaning I miss a bunch of the celebration at the end of that event. But that’s not what’s important.
A few years ago, I proposed for this event, to my friends, a game with the short pitch of Robin Hood vs Vampires. The idea got a bit of meat on it, and I served it to my friends, and we wound up playing something else.
But it got a name.
The name it got was Brinkwood: Blood of Tyrants.
I threw this name out there on the internet at one point because I was happy with the logo I made for the game even though nobody was actually super interested in it. And then Leastwise saw it.
My friend Leastwise, aka Erik the Bearik (and he’ll come up again later this month), saw this pitch, and straight up asked if he could have it. Or more specifically, he had his own idea inspired by this idea, and he asked if he could use my logo. What resulted is a game that’s been streamed, played by multiple groups, run at cons and may even get to be a major project from the San Janero Co-Op. It is amazing work, and it has all these great, thoughtful pieces at the root of it, like addressing the philosophical vision of what trauma means in Blades in the Dark. The game seems to have coined the term Castlepunk, the idea of ‘hey, that kind of mish-mash of medieval-seeming things we all associate with general fantasy without getting into a long argument about what really counts as medieval.’ It’s great and it’s cool, and you get to adorn these twisted wooden masks with fae blessings on them as you go out on missions to drink the rich.
Time to time when talking about the game, he’ll mention me, as it relates to this idea because I mean it kind of works as an origin story, it’s as good a place to get started. But I need to stamp a stake in the ground right here: This is Erik’s idea. It’s 100% his idea and all of this beautiful, thoughtful, engaging, exciting and creative writing about this idea is his. All I did was make a logo and a name and he went ‘oh, I would do X with it.’ Part of what excites me about this is it’s a kind of fanart? I had an idea, I put it out there and someone else who was inspired by it was able to create with it and make their own thing, and I get to see my little logo become something amazing.
Normally, when I write about games on Game Pile, I’m writing about games you can buy, or maybe games you can have for free. I’m not often talking about games that are more practice than they are objects. For some of you, this time of year is a time when you go visit people you kinda like but don’t like much and there’s inevitably, someone who wants to ‘play games’ so I want to equip you with a really good game so you’re not stuck in an hour long slog of trying to remember how mortgages work in a dusty copy of monopoly nobody likes.
Now, then, our basics. First, a fax machine was a kind of email machine that could send a complicated text message over a phone line to a specialised device. These machines are pretty outmoded now, but for a while there they were fundamental to businesses and even had people doing ‘spam’ calls by randomly sending faxes to different phone numbers in the random hope they’d be picked up by a machine and you’d print something in a stranger’s workplace. They were also slow – a fax could take ten to fifteen minutes to arrive when they were new, which means fax correspondence always had a sort of slow stop-and-start nature to them. They were faster than mail, but they still had a sort of asynchronous communication feel to them. That’s the core of this game: People communicating badly with paper.
Okay, with that in mind: Fax Machine is a drawing game. Some people don’t like drawing games, they don’t like being put on the spot like that. That’s fair. Don’t try and make anyone play if they don’t like this kind of game. In fact don’t try and make anyone play games they don’t like the sound of. It’s just a dick move.
Okay, so, rules.
Give ever player a way to draw (pen, pencil, texta, whatever) and a pad of paper or stack to draw on. They need to be able to turn the page, so whatever is on the previous page is hidden. You can make booklets using staples and typical printer paper.
Every player writes a phrase, word, or name on the first page. People can get hung up on this, so for the first round you may want to ask people to write their favourite movie quote or their favourite vegetable.
Then each player passes their work to the next player.
Each player turns the page of their work and tries to draw what they just read. This will almost always be hard because nobody went into this thinking they’d have to draw that.
Then, players passes their work to the next player.
Players turn the page and try to write what they think that picture was trying to describe.
Continue as long as you want.
Now I don’t mind drawing and I hang around with a family that are all pretty crafty so it’s not a game that goes badly for us. What it means though is that we don’t think of the same turns of phrase or the same ideas expressed by pictures, and so we get steadily more and more silly pictures. I’ve seen ‘All’s well that ends well’ concluding with ‘a microbe travelling through space and time.’
It’s cheap, it’s fast, it can be played with a big group or a small group and you’ll usually get a good laugh out of it, and if you don’t like it, you’re not out an expensive setup fee.
City of Heroes is back and based on these past six months, it might be able to last.
I don’t know how to tell you how unnecessarily happy this makes me.
The game is still a clunky, 2004 content churn of a game. It’s a space full of people who, like me, didn’t get over losing it last time, and have kept their personal roleplaying stories going, or just brought back old ones, and that means I get to see a bunch of people I genuinely hate and never wanted to see again running around and having fun but it’s okay because City of Heroes is back!
As far as free games go, a customisable superhero MMORPG is a pretty sweet one to offer, and here’s the link. I don’t think it’ll be to your taste – it’s a limited appeal kind of work at the best of times – but it’s something I’m so glad to see around, and part of what I love about it is that I get to play this game again and it somehow survived.
There was a lot of anger at the discovery of a secret server this year. It was a big deal, and a lot of people close to me were super pissed about it, because the idea that they didn’t get to play, but someone did was really unpleasant. But what stood out to me was the idea that a population of what, a few hundred people were able to keep this kind of thing a secret, even through breaches on Reddit and multiple attempts to attack it.
I don’t think Corporations are good. I don’t think NCSoft, despite making a thing I love, are a good company. I don’t think that Nexon, the company that owns NCSoft are good, and I don’t think Tencent, the company that wants to buy Nexon are good. Simply put, I do not see a reason to want to defend a corporation in face of people taking things from that corporation. I don’t like the Disney Vault for example, and I don’t feel there’s any shame to be had in making a corporation surrender control over something. Corporations aren’t the heroes. They don’t need us to stand up for them.
We sure don’t want to be their unpaid enforcers.
Instead, for years, years, people kept that secret.