Thursday, October 13, 2016

A Legacy Apology

Destroying boardgame components is a stunning new trend adopted by thousands of enthusiasts who, not that long ago, frowned over a dog-eared card and scowled at a Pepsi-stained board.
How the hell did this happen?
Boardgames have a come a long way since the turn of the millennium. Where they mainly used to exist as unsophisticated wargames (like Risk or Axis & Allies) or variations on the roll-and-move model (such as Candyland, Chutes & Ladders or Monopoly), they are now so varied in concept and execution that it’s getting difficult to keep track of it all.
Nowadays, boardgames cover a myriad of themes and employ a dazzling array of mechanisms to create fun and excitement at the gaming table. Some of the best-selling titles of the past decade involve establishing railroad networks in various parts of the world (the Ticket to Ride series), running a 17th-century farm and trying not to starve (Agricola), working together to stop deadly viruses from spreading all over the globe (Pandemic), and producing and shipping goods during colonial times in the Caribbean (Puerto Rico).
(For the uninitiated, it’s worth mentioning that none of the above games use dice in any way, shape or form. New boardgames definitely don’t play the way they did 20 years ago—but that’s a topic for a different blog post…)

However, for all their newfangled twists and original backdrops, today’s games share one crucial characteristic with their ancestors: they reset at the end of each and every session. You set up the game, play it to its conclusion, and then break it down and put it back in the box, where it’ll wait in that inert state until someone begins the cycle anew. Sessions will unfold differently depending on random set up elements and decisions taken by the players, but the game always starts with an empty board, in a sort of virginal state. Unsoiled.
But all that is slowly changing, thanks to an unassuming game released in 2011.

Ironically, the game that shook up the established order came from Hasbro, a toy maker not known for innovative gameplay (thanks to tired games—Clue, Risk, Operation, etc.—endlessly refitted with the hot intellectual property of the moment). But that is where designer Rob Daviau conceived of a game that would NOT reset at the end of every session. A world that would evolve with each run-through and offer players an ever-changing landscape.
Of course, the idea of “campaigns” wasn’t a new one in the boardgame world. You would play one session and the results of said session would influence the next one, and so on (usually through changes in set up to reflect, for instance, lost combat units or gained resources). But what Daviau was proposing went way beyond some inter-session bookkeeping: he wanted to physically alter the components of the game. Forever.

And so was born Risk Legacy, another entry in an ocean of Risk variations. But that one was different; that one was crazy. Sure, the game used the basic Risk mechanisms and offered yet another setting (sci-fi warlords vie for Earth domination) but it came in a box with sealed packages and envelopes, together with strict instructions as to when to open them. Players were invited to select a faction that they would play throughout the entire 15-session campaign, and then write their names on the faction cards. Using a permanent marker.

That first act of desecration was already too much for many gamers, who simply refused to take part in such atrocities. But the madness was only getting started. The game, among other things, allowed for cities to be conquered, burned to the ground or fortified. And so the conquering, burning or fortifying player was required to use one of the many stickers provided with the game, and apply it to the board to denote the city’s new status. We’re not talking Post-It notes, here: those are stickers that never, ever come off. That city got destroyed? Well it’s destroyed. For all eternity.
… in your copy of the game, that is. Because the group next door, who’s also playing its own campaign of Risk Legacy, will most probably not go through the same motions your group did. So different cities will get different treatments. Different factions will acquire different technologies (note it on your faction card!). Sealed events will happen at different moments and affect different elements of the game, and so on. In the end, each group winds up with a completely personalized copy of the game, an extreme level of customization achieved through 15 sessions of pure exploration. Not only do you not have access to the full roster of game components when you first start out, but even the rules evolve over time, with holes in the rulebook being filled with stickers that modify the way the game is played.

Risk Legacy quickly found its audience, and it was only a matter of time before other legacy-style games saw the light of day. Daviau himself designed a sequel of sorts, once again picking up an existing design—the aforementioned Pandemic—and giving it the legacy treatment. In Pandemic Legacy, Season 1 (which strongly hints at a possible continuation of the storyline), two to four players get together to fight the spread of deadly viruses. And it feels pretty much like your good old Pandemic—well, perhaps apart from naming the characters you decide to play and logging the date of each session on their cards—until the shit hits the fan. Things spiral out of control, characters die (yes, rip that card to shreds and throw it away), heroes emerge from the wreckage (new characters to choose from!), a new, deadly virus makes a dramatic entrance (time to alter that rulebook), special missions become priorities (it almost feels like we’re playing a different game!) and so on, for a campaign experience that spans 12 to 24 sessions, depending on your level of success at the end of each run.

Was it fun? You bet. The experience ranks among the highlights of my long and distinguished career as a boardgaming geek, and it showed me that boardgames can tell gripping, edge-of-your-seat interactive stories to rival movies, videogames and those page-turners that keep you awake all night.
(Come on: I remember my group finishing a session of Pandemic Legacy past midnight and immediately launching into the next one, even though we all had to get up and go to work just a few hours down the line.)
Will we play with our Season 1 box again? No. While the game does permit further sessions—you just keep playing with your customized game, even though your actions no longer contribute to an ongoing storyline—it has essentially run its course. We keep it archived and look at the resulting board from time to time, like a worn out diary that speaks to turbulent times and obstacles now overcome.
Will we buy Season 2 if it ever comes out? Only death would prevent us from doing so. Maybe.

Many of my gamer friends have shied away from the legacy experience. They can’t begin to imagine altering and even destroying game components, nor can they accept the fact that after the campaign is over, you don’t really want to play the game again, and you can’t sell it or trade it. It’s done.
But it’s all worth it. Not a single doubt about that.

Your typical, serious boardgamer will have a collection numbering in the hundreds, and will play each game in that collection, on average, a dozen times over their lifetime. (And I’m being generous here. A handful of titles will get played to death—I have racked up more than 300 sessions of Combat Commander—while others will sit on the shelf, unplayed for years.)
That’s fine: say you paid $50 for a new boardgame and play it 10 times with two of your friends before you move on to other, shinier titles. Assuming that each session lasts about an hour, the cost of the game breaks down to $5 an hour. For each person, that becomes $1.67 per hour, which is about as cheap as you can possibly get when it comes to entertainment.
So what if you play Pandemic Legacy only 12 times? (That’s the bare minimum of sessions required to finish the story, if you and your friends are the best players in the universe.) The game will still compare favorably to the rest of your collection. (My trio—composed or hardened boardgamers already very familiar with Pandemic—had to struggle through 17 sessions to get to the end, loving every second of it.)

I understand the initial aversion to physically altering game components. But trust me, it’s part of the fun. Knowing you can’t go back and use that character again no matter what the rules say (because he’s in the trash now!) really ratchets up the tension and makes the experience all the more tasty.
And memorable.

Of course, more legacy games are coming out now, but not as quickly as one might imagine. They are massively complex to design, especially if they’re not adapted from an existing game: you first have to design a fun and solid game, and then throw in a story arc that offers exciting twists and turns without derailing the gameplay you spent so much time fine-tuning.
And once again, Rob Daviau is leading the way, with his completely original Seafall releasing this month. No need to ask the question: yes, I’ll be tearing cards and putting stickers in my rulebook and writing stuff on my board like a maniac as soon as I can get my hands on a copy.

I wouldn’t want all of my games to be legacy contraptions. But going through one of those babies each year?
I could live with that.

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Monday, October 3, 2016

Boardgame review — Grand Prix

This One Goes to Eleven

Designers: Jeff Horger, Carla Horger
Player count: 2 to 11
Publisher: GMT Games

After the enthusiastic reception of their first racing game, Thunder Alley, designers Jeff and Carla Horger announced that the next title in the series would be Grand Prix. Whereas the original had tackled NASCAR, the encore would take on Formula One racing. And although the first title had taken years to attain publication, its successor would cross the finish line in record time.
Clearly, fans were hungry for more.

At first glance, the two games are so similar that one might reasonably believe that Grand Prix will feel like nothing more than a special scenario for Thunder Alley.
But that assumption would be wrong.

Grand Prix can accommodate up to 11 players (!) around the table, each controlling a team of two cars—which means that those cars add up to 22 rumbling machines on the track. And thanks to neutral cars, that number never goes down: for each missing human player, two neutral cars are thrown into the mix. In some cases, neutral cars can be activated by any player; in others (with 2 to 5 players), a subset of those neutral cars is assigned to each player.

On your turn, you can activate one of your two cars, or a neutral car assigned to you, or one of the neutral cars not assigned to anyone. This is accomplished through the play of a movement card, out of a hand that varies from 12 (in a two-player situation) to just three (when a full complement of 11 players are competing).

Those cards display movement points that range from 4 to 9, in four different varieties. With Solo movement, the activated car moves on its own along the track. With Leader movement, the activated car will take along for the ride all touching cars behind it. With Pursuit movement, the activated car will “push” all touching cards in front of it. And then there’s Line movement, where touching cars both in front and behind the activated car will move together.
Many cards sport a short paragraph of text, where special restrictions—or advantages!—are highlighted. Most cards also indicate what sort of wear the activated car incurs, from tire wear to transmission trouble, and everything in-between. Wear markers influence the condition of each player car (neutral cars ignore wear) and too many of them will slow down even the most tuned of engines. Unattended, they can even lead to the vehicle’s ultimate demise.

Once every car has been activated, the turn is over. An event card is drawn, its effects applied—ranging from a change in weather to a catastrophic crash—and each car is afforded the opportunity to pit, which allows for the removal of wear markers. (A specific subset of neutral cars is always forced to pit, depending on the event drawn.) Then a new turn begins, and so on, until three laps have been completed. Points are assigned to the cars that finish in the top 10 positions, and the team with the higher combined score is declared the winner. 


The game ships with four tracks printed on two double-sided, six-panel mounted boards.
Those are heavy, but a charm to race on. The box also holds two decks of cards (movement and events), administrative markers, wear markers, thick car tokens with rounded corners, and 11 team sheets use to track the condition of player cars.

I have to say that the tracks in Grand Prix look a bit better than their Thunder Alley counterparts. The colors a slightly more vibrant, and there is something naturally more exciting in the snaking subtleties of an F1 track, as opposed to the flat perspective of a NASCAR oval.

The car tokens—with their depiction of the recognizable F1 silhouette—are easy to handle except for one thing. Since a car is flipped over after it’s been activated, each token has a side with a light background, and another with a dark background. That way, it should be easy to figure out at a glance which cars have yet to move. But whereas Thunder Alley went for a white side and a black side (which makes playing options obvious), Grand Prix goes for an arguably more stylized light gray & dark gray option that unfortunately doesn’t introduce enough contrast between the two sides of a car token. Things gets worse with neutral cars, whose background adopts a hachured pattern to set them apart: this further blurs the distinction between the two sides.
You do get used to it, but there’s no excuse for the extra work to which players are subjected while planning their moves. Even under ideal lighting conditions, players often check with their opponents to make sure they’re not overlooking a car they could activate. (“So 22, 1, 14 and 99 have yet to move, right?”) 


While the rulebook in Grand Prix is a little longer than that in Thunder Alley, the game is just as simple to play. (I can typically get newcomers up and driving in 10 minutes.) And if you’re already familiar with Thunder Alley, a few adjustments are all that’s necessary to get you going with Grand Prix.

For instance, the four types of movement work the same way in both games. However, in Grand Prix, when a car that’s displaced laterally would end up going off the track, it moves one space forward instead of backward.

Pitting is different—and simpler—in Grand Prix. Each wear marker sports a number (from 1 to 10) that indicates how many spaces a pitting car has to move back in order to get rid of said marker. Done.

A special marker makes an appearance in Grand Prix: the close call marker. Each time a car displaces another car laterally, it gains such a marker. A close call marker is not a wear marker and so doesn’t really affect cars… until an event comes up that punishes the car with the most close call markers. Basically, the car that takes the most risks might end up paying for it. By comparison, lateral displacements were the meat and potatoes of Thunder Alley and incurred no penalty at all.

One major change here is the weather, although one might argue that it’s presented in a rather abstracted manner. A race normally begins with dry weather, which can change to rain (and eventually back to dry) through some event cards. Accordingly, different tire types may be employed: soft, hard or rain tires. In accordance with standard F1 rules, each player car is obligated to pit at least once to change tire types; apart from that, players are free to install tires on their two cars as they see fit. But rain and hard tires don’t do anything: only soft tires allow a movement bonus after the play of a card (and then the tire marker is flipped to its used side, and needs to be replaced in order to be used again). Hard tires only exist to force players to use different tires (essentially without a bonus) for part of the race, as per the rule highlighted above. A change in weather urges player cars towards the pit in order to get new tires. Should you refuse, all you get are one or two close call markers (or the occasional tire wear marker), and that's it. Scot-free.
It works well and is easy to explain, but I will admit to missing the tire subtleties present in other racing games.

Another new feature is the concept of the safety zone, which is deployed when a minor incident occurs. The safety zone is a corridor 11 spaces long—five in front of the affected car, five behind—where cars must move in a single lane and cannot pass each other. The safety zone is lifted at the end of the turn.

The rules do a great job of teaching the game and acting as reference material when the action gets underway. Some imprecisions and minor omissions will annoy sticklers such as myself (Are neutral cars affected by a change in weather? Can you simply refresh soft tires or are you forced to switch to a new tire type?) but they are few and far between, and common sense will usually take care of things. 


Grand Prix is a metric ton of fun. If you’re any kind of boardgame racing enthusiast, this one is definitely worth a pit stop.

Safety zones, tires and weather, as well as some of the event cards and the way cars are affected by lateral displacement are all elements that do feel like F1 racing, albeit in a superficial way. Wargamers often refer to some games as being “war-themed games” rather than actual wargames, and I’m tempted to use the same construction here: Grand Prix is an F1-themed racing game, but not really an F1 simulation.

That’s not a bad thing in itself: I think Grand Prix is an astoundingly fun racing game, and one that I’m looking forward to playing again and again. It rewards strategy a little more than its NASCAR brother, and bad stuff seems to happen to those who actually went looking for it (expect perhaps for the Serious Crash event, which will wipe out anyone who just happened to be driving next to the car with the most close call markers).

I also think the game works better as a two-player contest than its predecessor. In Thunder Alley, a two-player game involves only 12 cars (six per player), and really feels like a tug-of-war. My cars against yours.
In Grand Prix, no matter the number of players, you always have 22 cars crowding the track. And the neutral cars—especially those that either player can activate, which is the majority of them in a two-player scenario—can really mess things up. In a good way. They also introduce additional opportunities and risks when it comes to timing: do you make use of that neutral car now, or do keep it in reserve for a super play a couple of moves down the line… if your opponent hasn’t decided to use it for himself?


If you’re not expecting a Formula One simulation and accept the abstractions and simplifications inherent to the system—not a hard thing to do, believe me—Grand Prix offers a racing challenge to rival the best of them. As a Thunder Alley fan (40 sessions as of this writing), I would go so far as to say that Grand Prix sits one position ahead of its big brother on my “to play” list.

And it bears repeating: Grand Prix has a feel all its own, and is not at all just a Thunder Alley clone.

Now, if four tracks aren’t enough asphalt to satisfy your high-octane ambitions, you already have access to more: the four Thunder Alley expansion tracks, released last year, have alternate F1 trajectories already baked into each NASCAR oval. In fact, the tracks of both games (12 in total, counting the expansion pack) are compatible with either system.

Still not enough? The Horgers have stated that the next title in the series would be a Mad Max-style of gladiatorial racing, with armored cars and shrapnel galore.

In the meantime, get driving!

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