Wednesday, November 01, 2006

The Quality of Fantasies

I’m happy to have another great article by Mikko Karvonen for you today. Clap if you believe in Orcs and Dwarves.

I love fantasy as a genre. I enjoy it in books, comics, movies and tv-series and, of course, in games. I have to admit that fantasy-theming alone is often enough to get me to take a closer look at any given boardgame. However, partly because I am so strongly attached to the genre, I also tend to be rather critical towards it. A bland generic fantasy with your average orcs and elves does very little to impress me, while an original take on the subject can be enjoyable in itself. So I thought I'd take a look at some of the latest fantasy boardgames, the way the genre is implemented into them and how it affects the playing experience.

To narrow my scope, I'll focus on selected games of different types published after the year 2000 with fantasy worlds developed solely with non-computerised gaming in mind. This excludes games like Warhammer Fantasy Battle, HeroQuest, World of Warcraft: the Boardgame, Game of Thrones and War of the Ring. Some of them I like, some of the I don't, but I want to make sure I'll actually be able to finish this piece at some point. So, on to the games. Please note that I focus only on the fantasy elements of the games, not the quality of the game otherwise.

I'll start with Wizard Kings, even though it's a bit older game than my other examples, as it offers the most generic and bland implementation of fantasy I could find. This is mostly due to the way the game is put together: no background information, no personalities, no special powers. Nothing to add the meat to the bones. Just a bunch of units with fantasy-themed names and pictures. There are some interesting elements in various different armies, like the boarmen, but they are not utilised at all. Even the maps consist of your average environments, with only the stone circles to add a touch of otherness to them. Rating (1-10): 2

Battleground: Fantasy Warfare does not fare much better. The developers have, perhaps wisely, declared that they have intentionally avoided publishing any information about their game world to give themselves room to develop it more, but they have also given the players a little motivation beyond traditional fantasy clichés to create their own scenarios and vendettas. This hasn't exactly been helped by the selection of the first armies: humans, orcs, undeads and, as the first expansion pack, elves. The last have a bit of unique twist to them thanks to elk-riding cavalries and animal-commanding wolfkin and bearkin, but other races have just copied the regular strengths and weaknesses of their equivalents from other miniature games. Rating: 3

Another example of badly developed fantasy world can be found in HeroScape. It does have a vague background story about angelic beings recruiting warriors from various times and spaces to fight for them, but frankly, it's just an excuse to include all sorts of fantasy and science fiction characters in one game. Luckily, the developers have had the courage to go all the way and really come up with lots of different flavored units and even get a bit of personal touch into the miniatures here and there. This helps to save HeroScape's face a bit, but still I would have loved a bit stronger environment to encourage certain kind of combinations instead of throwing practically anything into the battlefield together. Rating: 4

Magic: the Gathering is a bit trickier customer in this analysis. In first glance, it does seem to have the same problem as HeroScape: you can throw almost anything together if you wish. However, MtG has a couple things to support its cause. First, various theme-decks are actually a fun, and sometimes even viable, way to play the game. Second, the colour-scheme makes sure that usually most cards in any given deck are at least thematically linked. Third, there is actually some interesting story-information in the art and the flavour text of the cards. Fourth, the developers have not been shy about making unusual twists to old fantasy favorites or creating new ideas of their own. Some cards have actually made me say 'Wow' when I've seen their art or flavour details. Rating: 7

So far I've been quite critical about old, familiar fantasy clichés, but sometimes they actually work. All you have to do is give them a touch of personality, a game where they fit the basic idea really well, and be really honest and sincere about it. A good example of this is Runebound (and Descent, which takes place in the same world). It's got all the traditional elements you can think of: big heroes, treasures, magical items, nasty monsters, evil necromancers and powerful dragons. But since the idea is to create the ultimate, quintessential fantasy adventure, it's all good and workable. There is enough originality and details to make them work. The magical sword is not just a magical sword, but the mighty Sword of Light! The enemies are not just average zombies but a temple of evil necromancers! And the heroes are not quite your usual fantasy types (despite the Red Scorpion and Her Amazing Levitating Boobs! -act), but wizards are a bit crazy and warriors either not-so-pretty non-humans or suspicious looking über-males. Various expansions help the cause as well by adding different spices to the usual fantasy mix: Island of Dread a touch of Cthulhian monsters, Midnight (based on FFG's own RPG) a world where the ultimate evil has won the great war and the upcoming Sands of Al-Kalim a shade of Arabian nights. Rating: 7

Yet the most impressive fantasy worlds are filled with unique or unusually well-developed ideas. One of my personal favorites is found in the miniature game Warmachine and further developed in it's RPG-version, Iron Kingdoms. It mixes an original take on many fantasy races with a world going through it's industrial revolution that is fueled not only by coal and iron but also magic, allowing the creation of huge machines of war, steampowered robots called steamjacks. It's an impressive vision filled with lots of background detail, rich and well-thought versions of old favorites like elves, religion and undead, and heaps of very, very cool opportunities for gaming. The only small problem with Warmachine (if you don't mind the ridiculously large shoulder pads many characters choose to wear) is that it actually fails to utilise the potential of the world as so much extra has been developed for the purposes of Iron Kingdoms RPG. But I know several people who own the core rules and some miniatures of Warmachine just because steamjacks and other unique aspects of the world are so awesome, so it's clearly doing many, many things right. Rating: 9

Perhaps a bit ironically, the most original and charming fantasy world in the current boardgaming scene comes from the man often blamed for dry and thinly themed games: Reiner Knizia. I am, of course, talking about Blue Moon (and BM City). It's main attraction are it's different races and characters. In Blue Moon, we don't get elves, orcs, centaurs or even minotaurs, but a set of definitely unique, yet still familiar enough to be understood, people. Knowledge-preserving technomages, reckless birdmen, passionate traders, spiritual guardians of different elements and gangs of childlike people that get everywhere. I've never been able to decide which of them I like more. Okay, it has its race of (half)-naked amazons which, admittedly, is a bit cheesy. But even that works, since the women in the cards are portrayed so strong, spiritual and capable that they are much less objects and more emancipated than you'd expect. Which brings us to a very important point, sadly overlooked by some of the other games on this list: the world of Blue Moon is enhanced by stunning art. Impressive visuals go a long way in crafting a truly unique world with a clear sense of wonder, fantasy and otherness. Rating: 9,5

Finally, let's take a little peek at the future and the game that may be the Next Big Thing: BattleLore. Of course, we don't know everything about it yet, so I won't make a final assessment. Based on the current information, it seems to be taking a very traditional approach on fantasy. We get the holy quartet: Warriors, Rogues, Wizards and Clerics. We get very, very traditional races and monsters from dwarves to hill giants. And we get them all mixed up with historical events. Frankly, I'm not very impressed by this. Medieval Europe had a wide range of folk stories, mythologies and legends that would have offered an excellent, yet rarely used background for supernatural and fantasy elements that would fit the history well. Instead they seem to use the bland, D&D-ized version of fantasy with a bit of local colour. It may work, but at this point, I'm quite skeptical.

So, it is obvious that the same theme can be implemented into a boardgame for better or worse. When I look at this list of games, all of which I happen to like, I know I'm far more likely to play the ones that do this thing well. It's an extra layer of dedication put into the development of the game and thus adds it's own bonus to my gaming experience as well. I don't mind playing an abstract game, or one with a thin theme and good mechanics, but when I'm looking for a strongly genre-influenced game, I prefer one that does its theme well.

It's also worth considering: would spending a bit more time on adding extra bits of theme to more German-styled games be worth it's while. After all, there are several good examples of this paying off very well. Havoc: the Hundred Years War is basically a variation of poker, but it has gotten a lot of praise for its medieval art and historical tidbits. Funny Friends owes a lot to its non-politically correct approach, part of Reef Encounter's charm is just its strangely captivating theme and I'm fairly certain that Ticket to Ride wouldn't have been the hit it is on a generic map and cities A, B, C...

5 comments:

markmist said...

How about the Dreamblade CMG? Creatures are divided into 4 major aspects and their are various lineages of minis. WOC did a fantastic job of creating this universe and background and I can see this fantasy/horror world rolling over into other genres (RPG and Boardgames).

Chris Farrell said...
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Chris Farrell said...

Actually, Wizard Kings does have some background material for each of the factions (it's on the back of the army sheet). I wouldn't argue that it's hugely successful, but it does exist. But Wizard Kings' theming is the best kind - the kind that doesn't require rules. Each army has an interesting, distinct feel that is achieved by fiddling values rather than through lots of special rules. I won't argue Wizard Kings is deeply thematic, but the Orcish and Elvish and Undead armies all play in interesting and different ways, and ways that feel reasonable. And each army does have a few special powers, through their spells. Wizard Kings' theming certainly isn't top-tier, but it's reasonably well-done in my opinion.

I am also skeptical about BattleLore's microwaved D&D feel. D&D is already badly generic. We'll see once it ships whether it can deliver or not. They've put a lot of effort into it, but I would have preferred something more imaginative, more evocative, than yet another maybe-medival-european vaguely-Tolkienesque setting. But we'll see on that.

Havoc may be many things, but thematic is not one of them. It's well illustrated, and as a resource management game it's not bad, but the gameplay itself has zero theme. I know they aren't quite on point for the scope of your article, but for me, a game like Knizia's Lord of the Rings or Beowulf is really hitting the jackpot: beautifully-illustrated, with real thematic gameplay elements, as well as a top-shelf actual game. You don't get any better than that. Games like that don't need chrome or special powers to be thematic; they just are. Similar things might be said of Fury of Dracula. On the other hand, games like Arkham Horror and Descent are really trying, but the theme can't be great if the gameplay isn't there to back it up. You need to have both.

Fellonmyhead said...

I tend to agree some originality rather than the homogenised Tolkienesque we've had for the past thrity or so years is the way forward; but this traditional approach is not all that bad.

The audience's familiarity with the elf, the orc and the undead allows the designers to concentrate on the meat of the game rather than working hard to convince the audience that their boggart is something more than another variation on a goblin.

Furthermore, at least in a wargaming or role-playing sense, the fantasy aficianado can essentially get into the game without the need of education as to what kind of troops his orc hordes make, or why they are reviled so by the other races.

Chris - IMO the best theming is as a direct result of the rules, whether you consider them a requirement or not.

Anonymous said...

The more I play Blue Moon, the more I enjoy the theme of the people and the fact that it is an original take on the fantasy universe. The game rocks too.