I think it’s fair to say that Star Trek never really understood games or why people play them. Watching Starfleet officers spit nonsense rhymes while playing hopscotch wasn’t exactly the high point of Deep Space Nine. Another time, The Next Generation introduced a free-to-play app game to the crew of the Enterprise. After the adults displayed all the willpower of a kid with a Fortnite addiction and unfettered access to his mom’s credit card, Wesley Crusher saved the day. Probably because he was the only youngster. Desensitized little goblin.
For the first time ever,* game designer, instructor, writer, and overall wizard Geoff Engelstein appears on a podcast to discuss a trio of his games, along with some insider baseball. Join us as we discuss getting an author’s permission to treat a protagonist like a doofus, what it’s like to gamify a peace conference, and why “gravity” is one of the greatest gaming metaphors of the decade.
(*Not the first time ever.)
In Nathan Woll’s Free Radicals, the free radicals are not the sexy cyberpunk characters frolicking on the cover. A free radical is apparently what we’ve decided to name the hovering alien spacecraft that have settled over the surface of our planet. These artifacts are fonts of limitless knowledge. But where Denis Villeneuve’s film Arrival, based on Ted Chiang’s short story “Story of Your Life,” posited that first contact was an exercise in linguistics, these free radicals are more interested in helping us do capitalism better.
In game terms, that translates to ten different factions each playing their own game. Keep those rules sheets handy. You’re going to need them.
Only a big damn nerd would know that the Kardashev Scale is a hypothetical measurement of a spacegoing civilization’s energy potential. Theorized by Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev in 1964, it posits that a civilization might fall into one of three levels, either harnessing the energy output of their entire planet (type-I), planetary system (type-II), or host galaxy (type-III). The concept plays a minor but pivotal role in Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem. If you don’t remember that part, it’s when Ye Wenjie figures out she can bounce a signal off the sun, effectively granting our sub-type-I species the communications potential of a type-II civilization. Spoiler alert.
Like I said: big damn nerds.
Stephen Avery and Eugene Bryant’s Kardashev Scale might also appeal to big damn nerds. But probably more because they’re hopping up and down at the sight of a board game entitled Kardashev Scale than because it’s any good.
I think we’re all mature enough to share a secret. Here it is: I don’t like dungeon crawlers. Not in their purest form. Between the discarded bones and mats of moss, the ground is far too dirty for these old knees. I’d prefer a dungeon stroll.
Last year’s Super-Skill Pinball: 4-Cade by math nerd Geoff Engelstein was a probabilities superstructure. What first seemed simple — picking which of two random numbers your pinball would hit next — was in fact a long con of ever-deepening regrets. But in a good way. It was a take-backer’s nightmare, a niggling reminder that the human brain has proved inferior to a rodent’s at assessing basic likelihoods. It also felt weirdly like real pinball.
Engelstein’s second stab at the system, Ramp It Up!, is better than the original in every regard. So instead of describing Super-Skill Pinball at its most elemental, let’s take a look at those four new tables.
Christian Marcussen is a name I associate with Sid Meier, and not only because both of his published games, Merchants & Marauders and Clash of Cultures, could be described as adaptations of Sid Meier’s Pirates! and Sid Meier’s Civilization. More than that, it’s because Marcussen has a way of taking big ideas and making them… well, still big, since both games are long-winded, but more compressed, more digestible. More distilled.
Clash of Cultures in particular is one of the finest portrayals of the rise, rise, rise, and earthquakes that beset ancient civilizations. It now has a Monumental Edition from WizKids that preserves all the highs the lows of the original game and its impossible-to-find expansion — and, in some cases, smooths out the original’s rougher corners.
Imagine with me, if you will, a game about gnomes wrestling atop a redcap mushroom, in which the gnomes are discs that push each other across said mushroom. Like a dexterity game, but without any dexterity. Not flicking, just… lightly nudging. Not even shoving. Like the world’s lowest-contact contact sport.
That’s the pitch for Redcap Ruckus. Apparently somebody at WizKids heard it and exclaimed, “I dreamed of this exact moment! Sign this contract right now, before I think better of this decision.”
My favorite moment of our most recent play of Sidereal Confluence arose from one of the game’s weaknesses. Namely, that TauCeti Deichmann’s game of haggling aliens operates best when played with the right sort of person. What sort is that? The sort who embraces asymmetry while still calling the resource cubes by their colors instead of using setting-appropriate titles like “culture” and “life support.” The sort who doesn’t mind parsing large quantities of information while on the clock. The sort who’s willing to negotiate.
Of those three, you’d think the last would present the lowest barrier. Doubly so when playing a negotiation game. That isn’t how it was shaking out. One of us wasn’t interested in trading away his yellows — pardon me, his energy cubes — no matter how favorable the bargain. We offered him everything. Colonies, stacks of cubes, even a rule-breaking couple of victory points, just to see if he would bite. Offer after offer was rejected.
At last, Geoff broke. With all the pent-up fury of a spurned capitalist, he roared through his mask, “Haven’t you read The Wealth of Nations?” By way of reply, our energy hoarder stared at him with glassy eyes. The realization came to everyone at the table in an instant. Not only had he not read Geoff’s Holy Bible, but he also had no idea what sort of game we were playing.
You’ve got to admire the confidence of anyone who slaps “episode one” on their box. That isn’t even the most confident thing about Serge Macasdar’s Seeders from Sereis: Episode I: Exodus. Set in a sci-fi universe that will apparently warrant a total of ten episodes, an impending disaster has forced your people to construct arks to escape to the stars. Each ark is represented by a tableau of cards. Not too unusual. How those cards are acquired, however, is more of a twist.