Blog Archives

Fly Me to the Moon

astraltestes.jpg

I’m not a math guy. This isn’t to say I can’t do math, just that I probably won’t, not voluntarily. If I’m waiting in a long line I might calculate my sales tax in advance, but that’s just because I’d rather not continue standing in a long line. Other than that, I’ll cheerfully cop to being terrible at knowing the odds.

Leaving Earth bills itself as “a tabletop game of the conquest of space,” but that’s a little bit like calling Columbus washing up in the Caribbean “the conquest of the New World.” This isn’t a game of conquest. It’s a game about the first tentative steps of discovery. Probes, surveys, launching a man into orbit, bringing him home. Most of all, though, it’s a game about the grace and sophistication of solving complicated math problems.

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Schwarze Kapelle

Lots of people like playing jetplane, I guess. A jetplane-playing convention, maybe? Vroom zoom!

“There remains an experience of incomparable value. We have for once learned to see the great events of world history from below, from the perspective of the outcasts, the suspects, the maltreated — in short, from the perspective of those who suffer. Mere waiting and looking on is not Christian behavior. Christians are called to compassion and to action.”
_____—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1906-1945, Letters and Papers from Prison

Black Orchestra is one of those rare games that revels in the hopelessness of its situation. Wallows in it, more like. As one of the conspirators bent on overthrowing Adolf Hitler — whether you’re a civilian businessman or politician, Abwehr or Wehrmacht officer — your chances are, as was the case in the real-life Schwarze Kapelle, nearly hopeless. It’s less an exercise in excitement and explosions, and more a game of waiting, of chewing your fingernails until they’re raw, of walking the line between playing it cool under pressure and taking foolhardy risks the instant an opening presents itself.

By way of example, let me tell you about three plots to assassinate Hitler.

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Stuck in An Infamous Traffic

I didn't even notice that the boat was the I until now, but now that I've seen it, it just looks silly to me.

Every time I’ve taught a group of friends how to play An Infamous Traffic, Cole Wehrle’s sophomore design and a sort of thematic follow-up to his astounding Pax Pamir, we reach a point where someone lets a nervous chuckle slip out. After explaining our role as British opium sellers, forcing our product on a nation whose authorities would very much rather we leave them alone, I begin describing the game’s take on supply and demand. We’re the supply, crates of dried poppy latex from India bumping around the holds of our ships. And the demand? Well, we’re that too. By inserting smugglers and missionaries into the workings of the Qing Dynasty, we spread the word and create an enthusiastic population of buyers.

It’s the missionaries that do it. Where I live in the heart of Zion — Mormon country to outsiders — a large quantity of young men and women serve eighteen-month to two-year church missions. For the most part, these are well-meaning acts of service and devotion. Those obnoxious pairs who knock on your door and smile a little too wide? That’s them. They’re also the ones mending fences, working in care centers, and going caroling in August. To that service-oriented mindset, the idea of peddling an addictive substance — other than the opiate of the masses, depending on your perspective on the matter — is nothing short of appalling.

An Infamous Traffic is a game with a lot on its mind. And one of those things is that certain trades pollute everything they touch, no matter how well-intentioned the people engaged in it.

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Mud, Smoke, and Friendship

When I was younger, the task of transcribing my great uncle's war diaries from WW1 fell, improbably and briefly, to me. The part I recall best was his description of an artillery attack. He had climbed a hill overlooking the trenches, and sat and watched as shells burst in the air and on the ground around the lines. He said it was beautiful.

They wrote in the old days that it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country. But in modern war there is nothing sweet nor fitting in your dying. You will die like a dog for no good reason.
_____—Ernest Hemingway

In general, I’ve heard two broad complaints about The Grizzled — which, as I wrote last year, I consider an important title. This is probably overselling the matter; after all, it has been accepted rather warmly considering it’s a crab-apple of a game, tough and sour all the way to the core, with only the tiniest seeds of hope at the center. Still, there’s a new expansion available, called At Your Orders!, and it seeks to ameliorate some of the complaints with the base game. So let’s talk.

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Waiting for Goulash

If someone comments that goulash is Hungarian, so help me...

For those of us who haven’t lived it, it’s almost impossible to imagine what life was like under Soviet rule. In Poland, once the last political opposition was eliminated in 1947, once the last resistance fighters were killed in 1963, once private entrepreneurs were ousted from the economy in favor of state administrators who emphasized military preparedness and national industries over individual comfort, times got lean. And when I say “lean,” I’m not talking about a shortage here or there. I’m talking about the long hunger of the 1970s and ’80s, when the demand for everything from meat to soap wasn’t even close to being met. These were the years of the endless queues lining Polish streets, when families would buy up whatever was available when they finally reached the front of the line. Even if it wasn’t something they could use themselves, at least they could barter it at one of many semi-legal outdoor markets.

Kolejka — or Queue, in English — is about those years when even the ration cards had ration cards. And that isn’t a joke. To prevent people from using too many ration cards, the communist authorities issued new IDs that tracked how many ration cards you used. That’s how bad things had gotten.

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Doctor Congo, I Presume?

It stands, of course, for the Democratic Republic of Congo. But a part of me wonders if the way the spacing makes

As a medium, board games tend to revolve around tried-and-true topics, uncontroversial subject matter like surviving a zombie apocalypse or building a medieval town. This is hardly surprising; with their focus on social interaction and optimal move-making, there isn’t often much room left over for heady discussion — say, of the obstacles facing a developing African nation. At best, the game will be scrutinized for casting its controversial setting as “play,” or perhaps even more damningly, for not focusing enough on the play. At worst, it could come across as downright ignorant or offensive.

DRCongo, the latest title from Ragnar Brothers, embraces the controversy. Not only is it set within the Democratic Republic of the Congo, casting its players as industrialists who collect diamonds, deploy peacekeepers to suppress insurgents, buy political offices, and get filthy rich extracting oil and minerals from the Congolese countryside, it also posits that its magnates are forces of benevolence, employing their wealth to bring about an era of stability. In essence, you will take part in some extremely spurious activities, but the end goal is surprisingly admirable.

If nothing else, DRCongo is hopelessly optimistic.

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Wreathes and Tombs and Hearses

Dark clouds are smouldering into red
__While down the craters morning burns.
The dying soldier shifts his head
__To watch the glory that returns;
He lifts his fingers toward the skies
__Where holy brightness breaks in flame;
Radiance reflected in his eyes,
__And on his lips a whispered name.

You’d think, to hear some people talk,
__That lads go west with sobs and curses,
And sullen faces white as chalk,
__Hankering for wreaths and tombs and hearses.
But they’ve been taught the way to do it
__Like Christian soldiers; not with haste
And shuddering groans; but passing through it
__With due regard for decent taste.

________— “How to Die,” Siegfried Sassoon, 1917

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The Existential Horror of Dixit

On a magic carpet ride to Agrabah.

There’s something both magical and terrifying about Dixit. And I mean that in a far more literal sense than usual.

Communication is tough, as anyone who’s been in a regular human relationship can attest. Our attempts often fall short. Too much, too little, too vague — even too precise. With effort, you can get better at it. Refine it. Figure out when to use it and what type and how much, maybe even realize that sometimes you shouldn’t use it at all. But even then, you can’t ever quite get there. To the point that everyone will know exactly what you’re talking about, I mean. Sure, they’ll hear the words that are coming out of your mouth, assembled from a limited set of vowels and consonants, but how often will they understand, really understand, what you’re trying to say? Sometimes, maybe. But not as often as we’d like to think.

Well. That’s what Dixit is about.

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COIN Volume III: Afghan Altercation

pictured: a distant plain

It should already be apparent that I’m a huge fan of Volko Ruhnke’s COIN Series. It even led to the formation of my gaming group’s “COIN Collecting Club,” which is our way of code-talking that we’re going to play COIN games all Saturday afternoon. See, the real genius lies in the fact that certain people at our regular game night think it’s a club for the collecting of metal currency, when really we’re betraying each other and occasionally getting pissed about it.

To those certain people, who I’m aware read this site: I apologize. It couldn’t be helped. We just really didn’t want to play with you more than once a week.

Anyway, the COIN Series has already taken us on a tour of drug-war ’90s Colombia and Revolutionary Cuba, and today we’re talking about its headiest subject matter yet: the still-ongoing war in Afghanistan.

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COIN Volume II: Clash of Cubans

My favorite is that smiley revolutionary who appears on both sides. Smile on, you crazy starchild.

As you may remember, I’ve been working my way through Volko Ruhnke’s COIN Series (COIN for “counterinsurgency,” though my little group goes by the “Coin Collector Club” to sound barely less nerdy), beginning with the first volume, Andean Abyss. I liked it quite a lot, but felt it was a tricky entry point to a series that’s known for its complex asymmetrical conflicts.

As though on cue, the second volume of the series bursts through the door, dressed in an army jumpsuit, drab olive field cap, and underwear over the top of the pants. It’s Cuba Libre, here to save the day!

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