Thursday, June 07, 2007

Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, Part Two: Three Mini Reviews

Over at Skotos I'm continuing my work on Xenagia, our new science-fiction, fantasy, and horror community. Thus these three genres remain foremost in my mind, and I'm continuing my series here discussing them. If you missed it, you should read my first article on this topic, which covered history and ten top games in the genres.

(I've got one more article planned, for two weeks from now.)

The interesting thing about the fantasy, science-fiction, and horror genres is how completely they describe hobbyist game production in the United States from the early 1970s to the late 1990s. Aside from historical military conflicts, if a hobbyist game came out in the United States, the odds were at least 50/50 that it was a genre game. I still have about half a bookshelf full of Dragon Pass, The Riddle of the Ring, Dune, Kings & Things, Hacker, and other similar games from this period.

However there were always three games that really stood out to me as the definitive American hobbyist games, and which got much love and play over the years until I discovered Eurogames: Cosmic Encounter, Illuminati, and Wiz-war. I played all three for the first time in college and they largely defined my gameplaying for a decade. They've now all fallen out of favor, especially by crowds won over by Eurogames, but they're still worth a look, so here's my thoughts on them:

Cosmic Encounter (B)

Cosmic Encounter is, at heart, a simple wargame. Each turn you are randomly told what player to attack, you load up some attackers, you and the defender each get a chance to gather allies, and then you blind bid attack cards which are added to your force numbers. Simple.

The joy of the game comes in two elements: the social interaction and the powers.

The social interaction, embodied by that option to gather allies, is well done because there's always a reason to join in a fight. As an attacker you get a presence on the planet--which ultimately means victory points--while as a defender you get valuable new cards added to your hand. Few games manage to give players real reasons to get involved in other conflicts, and thus stay involved in the game, but Cosmic Encounter does it effortlessly.

The powers are what give the game color and appeal. Each player has an individual and unique ability which gives him an advantage over his peers. One power makes a player's troops four times as powerful, another lets the player choose his bidding card after he sees his opponent's, and another can choose whether "high" or "low" bin wins. The game also gains additional color through "flares" and "edicts", which you can draw amidst the blind-bidding number cards.

Cosmic Encounter is by no means a perfect game. As with many wargames it can drag on if there's too much back and forth between the players. I love the game when it lasts 30 minutes to an hour, but at 3 or 4 hours I'm ready to claw my eyes out. Thus, it's a bit of crapshoot sometimes.

Cosmic Encounter was released in four different versions over the years. Eon Publishing put out the original game and supplemented it with many expansions which added to the color and thus interest of the game. It's the best respected version of the game, but also the most expensive on secondary markets. West End Games and Hasbro each put out an unsupplemented version of the game, neither of which old-time players care for that much. The advantages of the Hasbro version are that it has great pieces--the only edition where that's true--and that it's in print. The best compromise may be the Mayfair version, where you can get a pretty expansive version of the game by buying Mayfair's original Cosmic Encounters and the expansion More Cosmic Encounters (though they're a little pricey on the secondary market too).

However in the modern world I think Cosmic Encounter Online may be an even better choice. It's by the original Eon folks, it's got a set of alien powers that has gradually increased, and it plays fast, thus never running into the main flaw of the game.

Overall I give Cosmic Encounter a B. It's got solid mechanics, with some fear of long-play, and it's got colorful theming.

Illuminati (C+)

Illuminati is just barely a genre game since it's mostly about silly conspiracies. However, it is one of my triad of classic American games, and it does include Servants of Cthulhu, UFOs, and other fanastic elements, so I've included it here.

The basic idea behind Illuminati is that you're trying to take over the world. You do this through webs of power. Each web of power begins with your Illuminati, which is who you're playing. You might get some special powers and/or special victory conditions from that group. You then use your Illuminati to take over other groups. Each group has a name, a power, an income, and "control arrows", which help define how many groups it can take over.

The gameplay is pretty basic: you collect income, and either steal other players' groups, take over neutral groups, or destroy groups. You can spend money to help these activities, and you can encourage other players to do the same, sort of like the alliances in Cosmic Encounter (but without the rewards). However the true enjoyment in the game comes through its pure silliness, which is generally the case in Steve Jackson Games. Basically, Illuminati is the game where you can say "My Cattle Mutilators try and take over Animal Testing Labs".

Of my classic American games, Illuminati is the one I'm the least forgiving of, because it can drag on and on much more than any others for pretty much the same reasons: back-and-forth, a general flaw in a lot of American game designs. Nonetheless, it's a classic.

Illuminati has been released in a number of forms, all by Steve Jackson Games, including some mini-game editions and a Deluxe edition released back in 1987. The best version to get is probably the Deluxe edition that was released in 1999, as that one's the only one in full-color (with older editions having plain black and white cards). There was a CCG using some of the same ideas called Illumanti: New World Order, but it doesn't have quite the same gameplay. (In fact, it's fatally flawed in some ways, as I've had games where I never got a second turn because someone had already won).

Wiz-War (A)

Tom Jolly's game of warring wizards is one of my all-time favorites because it encapsulates so many of the good things in American game design. You have very freeform play, a huge variety of cards that introduce lots of fun chaos into the game, and really nice theming.

The basic idea is that you're a wizard, with a maze-like home base which is a 5x5 grid that contains your two treasures. Every other wizard has a similar base, and they're all connected together in a big tesserect-like shape. Your object is to get two other treasures back to the center of your home tile.

Each turn you move three spaces and play one or more cards. You have lots of number cards, which can be used to move faster or to power some spells, and you have spells, items, and other objects too, all randomly drawn as cards. As players wander back and forth trying to get treasures much interaction, combat, and fun occurs.

There are all the usual problems, from players getting eliminated to widely variable game length, but this one has enough variability and color to keep me interested anyway--unless I'm that unfortunate early eliminee.

There are seven editions of Wiz-War. I've never seen the earlier one, but all the recent ones have been published by Chessex. Sixth edition and "Classic" edition both used bigger board and generally nicer components, and thus are the ones to get. Sixth and Classic are actually entirely interchangeable and can actually be mixed together with a sixth edition expansion to allow for play by up to ten players. Chessex has been promising an eighth edition for something like a decade. The latest claim is that it'll be out this July, which I'll believe when I see. Since it's full color it would be well-worth waiting for the new game ... if you actually believed that Chessex was ever going to put it out.

1 comment:

Dr. Matt J. Carlson said...

Ah, Cosmic Encounter. I can agree about the love-hate thing. Short games are hilariously fun. Long ones horrible. Unfortunately, I haven't played one shorter than 90 minutes in awhile so am pretty gunshy at this point. (The online game is pretty fun, but then I'm not playing with people I know - which is one of the best parts of silly/fun games of this nature.)

I love Illuminati as well. I agree it can get fairly long. One of the greatest parts of the game comes in with the total open free-form wheeling and dealing available. You haven't played the game unless you've tried cutting a 3-way deal that is concluded over the course of 2 or more turns, etc... With cash on your main card available to spend at any time, die rolls get to be quite a push-your-luck affair. The player interaction there is just priceless with the right group. Similar to, but I find far more satisfying than, "I'm the Boss".