When we talk about “roll-and-writes,” the genre that’s going through a minor renaissance, we’re really talking about two slightly different things. Roll-and-writes, in which you roll dice, and flip-and-writes, in which you flip a card. Generally, both see everybody at the table using those identical inputs on their own board. It’s easy to see the appeal. The action is simultaneous, fast-playing, and highlights why “input luck” doesn’t feel unfair the way “output luck” does. Here’s a random number: put it to good use. (Unlike output luck, which says, Take your action: now here’s the roll to determine its outcome.) As a bonus, everybody gets the same number.
The biggest distinction between the two has everything to do with how that random input is curated. In a roll-and-write, you’re using dice. There’s more wiggle room to its randomness. In theory, an entire game could pass without a certain roll ever appearing. In a flip-and-write, drawing from a deck means you’ll eventually see a selection of possibilities. That’s less randomness, but more predictability. Yes, that can be a weakness. Neither system is inherently better than the other; they just have different ideas about how to best generate their inputs.
James Kniffen’s Twilight Inscription is both a roll-and-write and a flip-and-write. On one level, that isn’t surprising; it’s an adaptation of Twilight Imperium, that famously gargantuan game of stellar conquest. On another, it creatures a leviathan of its own, one that’s spread across four interconnected games.
There was never a chance that Unfathomable would sweep me off my feet. From its very announcement, when news broke that Tony Fanchi would be recasting Cory Konieczka’s Battlestar Galactica: The Board Game as yet another volume in Fantasy Flight’s loosely connected Arkham Horror Files, a single unexpected, uncharacteristic thought barged into my head:
This month on Two Minds About…, Brock Poulsen and Dan Thurot are talking about a title from Fantasy Flight Games that’s different with every purchase. No, not Discover: Lands Unknown. We suffered through that one already. This time it’s KeyForge.
Brock: Once in a generation, a game comes along that changes everything. A game so groundbreaking and revolutionary that its light eclipses all competitors, like the sun blinding us to the stars.
Dan: Wow, we’re starting with some real serious business.
Brock: That game was Magic: The Gathering.
I mean, you aren’t wrong.
It’s that time again, when Dan Thurot and Brock Poulsen merge as one — mentally merge, don’t be gross — for Two Minds About…, the only series on the web in which two board game critics named Dan and Brock discuss how they felt about a board game. Today’s topic, the computer-assembled Discover: Lands Unknown. It’s the computer-generated future. And it’s a grim one.
Brock: Hear me out: spreadsheets.
Dan: Oh no.
Half a decade ago, I pronounced A Game of Thrones: The Board Game to be the good version of Diplomacy. All the intrigue, shorter playtime. The ability to outwit your friends without losing your friends. Dragons in place of Prussians.
Battle for Rokugan is proof that history repeats itself, because after some hefty miniaturization, this is the good version of A Game of Thrones. Plenty of intrigue, takes a third as long. You’ll still piss off your friends, but at least that knife you’ve lodged between their thoracic vertebrae doesn’t take five hours to still their wiggling. And in place of dragons, this one has, I don’t know, shadowy barbarian lands or something.
Look, I’m not sure what a Rokugan is. All I know is that this scorpion has got some sting to it.
My first memory of Fallout was the guy cashiering the tech section of my local supermarket refusing to let me purchase Fallout 2 on the grounds that it was “for adults.” My moral fortitude lasted all of two weeks before I nabbed a copied disc from a buddy. The rest of my affection for the series — right down to my snobbish adherence to the Fallout 1, 2, and New Vegas canon — is history.
Some games need room to breathe. There, I’ve said it, and you can probably infer many of my feelings on Civilization: A New Dawn from that one statement alone. Not every game requires streamlining, especially when that game’s goal — or at least that game’s genre’s traditional goal — is to capture the sweep of something epic. Cutting Twilight Imperium from eight hours to five is one thing; pruning it down to sixty minutes would kill everything that makes it special.
Broadly speaking, the same goes for Civilization games. As one of the principal granddads of the 4X genre (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate), Sid Meier’s Civilization carries certain expectations. Foremost among them is the notion that it will capture a hearty slice of the breadth of human history, perhaps all the way from mud huts to rocket ships. Rome wasn’t built in a day and all that.
Civilization: A New Dawn certainly accomplishes this, more or less. Emphasis on the less, since A New Dawn is more interested in wrapping up as quickly as possible than providing a satisfying play arc. The result is two-thirds of an utterly excellent game.
When it comes to Twilight Imperium — which has now been around in one form or another for twenty years — I’m an absolute newcomer. Whether it was the game’s intimidating play length, my soft fingers’ inability to punch out the third edition’s bazillion plastic sprues, or my nagging ailurophobia setting my hair on end whenever I glance at the cover, it wasn’t until the last couple weeks that the brand new fourth edition caught my fancy.
But hoo boy, has it. Caught my fancy, I mean. And while I’m certainly not qualified to deliver a review on this sprawling monstrosity, what follows are a few of the things I’m delighted to have learned after only a short time in Twilight Imperium’s presence.
First of all, the thing about id Software’s New Doom — which shall henceforth and forever be portmanteau’d as Noom, because it makes me giggle — is that it was actually, against all odds, an incredible shooter. It was frantic and controlled in equal measures. It boasted a tempo that shrieked between exploration and violence. It was good. Which was a tremendous surprise, considering how uninterested id seemed to be in making good games anymore.
Perhaps even more improbably, Fantasy Flight’s new board game rendering of Noom is also good, and largely for the same reasons.
I think maybe the reason the Android universe of Netrunner and Infiltration functions so well as a setting is because it’s pretty much just a dim mirror of ourselves. Strip away the last few filaments of privacy, make corporations even more faceless, empower hackers to be even weirder and more frightening, and there you have it: the future. The space elevators and robots hardly even register.
Then again, my day-to-day doesn’t include negotiating with people who might want to foster deadly diseases in the beachside district in order to up their bottom line with their shareholders. More’s the pity. Hopefully we catch up to the future sooner rather than later.