Thursday, January 19, 2006

My Life in Gaming

The first game that I can remember ever wanting was Dungeons & Dragons. I was 8 or 10 at the time, and I asked for it as a birthday present. My father not only got me the game, but he also ran an adventure for me a few weeks later, after he'd figured out the rules.

He carefully plotted out a dungeon on graph paper, and filled every room with encounters. It was more an adventure-style game than D&D proper. I remember that he didn't want to use the combat system, and so instead you could kill the skeletons in one room if you thought to throw rocks at them. But it was a wonderful introduction to roleplaying games. My dad's spent a lifetime doing cool things for me, but that one still stands out. (Thanks, dad.)

During my teenage years, my gaming life centered on roleplaying. One of the best Christmas presents I ever got was Traveller, from my step-dad's sister, Meg. It was totally spontaneous, and I have no idea how she sussed out so well something that I'd like. I spent ages rolling up characters using the Traveller character generation system, only to have them die in character generation accidents.

There was also Stormbringer and Hawkmoon and a game or two of a weird system called RuneQuest. I ran Top Secret/S.I. quite a lot, and its well-worn boxes and books still adorn my shelves. My Champions books are contrariwise gone, though that got played a lot too. D&D was the big one though. We played that obsessively, often on a daily basis throughout my high school years. I still have a full shelf of D&D books. Even back in those days I was a collector; as I look at my piles of D&D adventures now, I know that most of them were never played, and indeed never read.

My board gaming before I went to college wasn't very memorable. I can barely recall playing my mom's copy of Twixt, which I should really get a copy of some day. I played quite a lot of Sirocco, another game that arrived under my Christmas tree one year. We also played a couple of wargames in high school, among them Dune and Dragons of War (the latter a wargame based on the Dragonlance series of roleplaying adventures). I had a big bedroom as a kid, and at some point I set up an old dining room table there, for gaming. I can still remember how the two large paper maps for Dragons of War looked, spread out on that table, with the piles of cardboard chits stacked high, and I can still remember the thrill of playing that game, marching my armies against my friends' in an attempt to gain ascendency over Krynn.

With my families I played more traditional games. My dad was never much of a game player, but sometimes he'd give in to myself and my Chinese step-mom, and we'd play either three-handed Bridge or Mah Jongg (two games that my step-mom liked). My step-dad came from a card-playing family, and so I came to adore his family gatherings, because they'd inevitably include Hearts, Euchre, or Golf. Fictionary, a game of making up definitions for dictionary words, also came into my life through my step-dad's parents, and eventually his sister (either Jane or Meg) brought Win, Lose or Draw into our family get-togethers as well.

One of my strongest memories of card playing as a kid was tricking my step-dad into misdealing a hand of Euchre by shuffling in one of my score cards, thus costing him the deal. I was sent to my room while everyone else who was playing laughed and laughed.

So that was my life in gaming as a kid: lots of roleplaying games, lots of casual card games, some war games, and very few actual board games.

College Daze & After

I was vaguely aware of American beer & pretzels games before college. I can even remember staring jealously at Steve Jackson's mini-games, and later his Illuminati Deluxe at various game stores. It wasn't until college that I was truly introduced to them, however. Over my first couple of years in Berkeley I came to play Illuminati, Cosmic Encounter, and Wiz-War, a mighty triumvirate of American beer & pretzels if I ever heard of one.

I really enjoyed those b&p games when I played them then, but every one I've tried in the last six years or so (including Illuminati, Spammers, and a tabletop game of Cosmic Encounter) has largely disappointed me. I feel like Eurogames have corrupted me to a certain extent, that after enjoying their faster gameplay and tighter mechanics, I just can't go back.

Between 1989 and 1999 I'd certainly have said my favorite game was Wiz-War. I've still got the 4th, 5th, and 6th editions all in my closet, the former being a curio that I should really eBay and the latter two allowing for massive ten-player games. I've also got tons of self-created cards. We used to write one up every time we brought the game out. However, I'm afraid to play Wiz-War now, afraid that it can't stand up to the nolstalgia that it invokes and that I'll just be poisoning good memories.

I started really collecting games during my college years. I kicked off a small collection of Avalon Hill games, originally centering around copies of Dune and Freedom in the Galaxy that I'd gotten in high school. Source of the Nile, Wizards, Wizard's Quest, Elric, and others still sit in my closet.

In 1994 the Origins gaming convention came to San Jose, and that's when I became very excited about another American gaming company, TimJim Games. I'd eventually buy five of their games: Outpost, Mystic War, Suzerein, 2038, and Age of Exploration.

My other big boardgaming interest in that time period was Lord of the Rings-based games. ICE fed most of this hunger, with releases like The Fellowship of the Ring, Riddle of the Ring, The Battle of Five Armies, The Lonely Mountain and (much later) The Hobbit. I also revelled in discovering SPI's old War of the Rings at a new and used game store in San Francisco.

The weird thing was that I never played most of these games. My Outpost and 2038 were still unpunched a decade after I bought them. I know I've never played War of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, or The Hobbit. And for the rest, most got one or two plays at most. If I listed the board games that we actually did play more than once or twice over this ten-year period, the list would be pretty short: Mystic War, Monster Derby (my copy of which mysteriously disappeared at some point), Wiz-War, Titan: The Arena, and Riddle of the Ring. Yeah, there was one Eurogame in there, but it was an Avalon Hill release; I didn't know any better.

Really, I was more interested in other types of gaming during that period. In 1989 I discovered the Internet and for a couple of years my time was taken up by online MUDs and a 16-player space combat game called Netrek. I left these behind in 1991 or so, but they'd end up informing my future career choice, and my work at Skotos almost a decade later.

I also quickly found a roleplaying club on the Berkeley campus and was swept into a series of new games. During those first days at Cal I played my first serious game of RuneQuest and my first game ever of a little magician-based RPG called Ars Magica. They'd be mainstays of gaming for the next fifteen years, later joined by Pendragon to form my own favorite trinity of RPGs.

Chaosium & My Life in Role-Playing & CCGs

At the same time I became involved in the business side of the roleplaying industry. Around 1990 or 1991 I sold a Dragon magazine index to TSR and ended up with a check for about $1000 for my troubles, an immense amount of money for me at the time, and an amazing start to a very occasional career writing for roleplaying companies. I later revised the spell rules for the third edition of Ars Magica and wrote my own Ars Magica supplement, Tribunals of Hermes: Rome.

That was the biggest scale work that I did in roleplaying for quite a few years, but by the end of college I was becoming more interested in Chaosium, who'd been the authors of both and RuneQuest and Pendragon, as well as a few games I didn't play, foremost among them Call of Cthulhu. I started an online magazine dedicated to their games called "The Chaosium Digest". Since they were locally located, as I finished up college in 1993 I asked if they were hiring. After hearing "no" from them I went on to my expected career in computer science, first continuing for a few years at NASA, where I'd done work as an undergrad, then moving on for a year of work at Sun Microsystems as a consultant (during the ramp up to the dot-com boom).

When I was working at NASA, Magic: The Gathering was released. I was one of those people dropping a hundred bucks a box for the newest expansions as they came out. I still distinctively remember standing in line at Games of Berkeley on the first day as the staff wheeled out the cases for one of the supplements--possibly "The Dark".

A few of my fellow staff members shared my addiction, and I clearly recollect that at one point my work whiteboard was filled with a statistical analysis of Magic: The Gathering's card distribution. One of my coworkers foolishly thought that he could get a full set of something out of a box, and so I'd done the analysis to describe how many boxes he actually needed to purchase in order to have an expected value of a full set.

Over the next couple of years, I tried out many of the early CCGs, including Illuminati: New World Order, Shadowfist, Jyhad, Wyvern, and Redemption. Most were Magic ripoffs, sucked, or both. I think Jyhad was the only upstart that got much playtime. However, during this time period, from 1994-1996 or so, most of the time my local group had spent on our three or four favorite board games instead went to five-color Magic.

Around 1996 Chaosium released their own CCG, called Mythos, and it brought an immense amount of new cash into their business. They started hiring like mad, since their former RPG developers were suddenly CCG developers, and that's how I ended up on-board with what I then considered my dream job. I took a huge, 75% paycut to do so, but I was suddenly working where I wanted to be.

I spent two years at Chaosium. I mostly laid out, developed, and edited books for the Call of Cthulhu line, though I got the pleasure of doing one Pendragon reprint as well. In addition I was a developer for all the later Mythos expansions, and the Internet FAQ-guy for the game. I knew the CCG system intimately, along with every half-assed rules decision that we came up with, as the system became more and more warped as we tried to react to more and more unorthodox play. I saw it in the Magic rulings too, over the years; I suspect it's the fate of any popular CCG.

Unfortunately Chaosium wasn't able to maintain their momentum and like so many game companies in the mid-to-late 1990s, their CCG success inevitably led to a CCG crash. Chaosium's mistake was putting out a fixed, non-collectible deck, which not only dramatically undersold, but also made retailers and distributors less confident in future collectible editions.

The staff at Chaosium shrank, until my boss and I were the entire RPG department. Much of the rest of the company had been laid off. My paychecks, which actually weren't quite enough to cover all my expenses, started coming in late. I started having nightmares about the company going under. After a dozen or so of those I decided I really needed to get a new job.

That's life in the game industry.

These Last Years

1998-1999 were pivot years for me. I left Chaosium but through an unlikely set of occurrences ended up in the online game industry as a result. I met my future wife. And I ended up on the route to Eurogames.

In short sequence from 1998-2000 I worked first at a cryptography company, then at a venture capital company, and finally at Skotos, the online game company were I still work today. We were doing professional MUDs, but as we got our first few products out, we decided that we could really benefit from expanding into more types of games, and thus we purchased an online strategy game that we'd enjoyed called Space Empires (which we'd later rename Galactic Empire: Hegemony for trademark reasons).

Galactic Empire: Hegemony was my baby once we got it over to Skotos. I did my first real programming work in about ten years when I integrated it onto our site, then later began to expand it. At some point I decided that we could benefit from a sister game using the same basic mechanics but with a totally different core game system. Instead of a wargame it'd be a trading game, one which I dubbed Galactic Empire: Merchant Kings, no doubt remembering the "Merchant Princes" supplement I'd bought many years ago for the Traveller RPG. My boss suggested that if I was going to design a trading game I should try out a few tabletop trading games, and thus we began moving our way through all the iterations of The Settlers of Catan.

I'd actually owned the game previously, and played it a time or two. It was one of my three first Eurogames, along with the aforementioned Titan: The Arena and its sibling Galaxy: The Dark Ages. But, I'd never even been aware of their categorization. As far as I was aware they were good old American games, from three American strongholds of gaming: Mayfair, Avalon Hill, and GMT. And only Titan: The Arena had gotten played much out of the three.

In any case, I bought a new copy of The Settlers of Catan. I'm not sure I even remembered that I owned a copy at the time, and if I had I'd still have bought a new copy because I had one of the early editions which didn't match the current productions. After that I got and played Seafarers and Cities & Knights. And the historical supplements. And eventually all the rest, including the licenses and variant games. And, they travelled with me. I distinctly remember playing The Settlers of Canaan for the first time on a rainy day when we'd been holding a big sale at the Skotos house and The Settlers of the Stone Age at a big warehouse while we were waiting for a friend's moving van.

Perhaps more notably, besides just playing all these Catan games, I also reviewed them. If the object was to learn about trading games, then reviews seemed like a useful way to quickly analyze and disect the games.

That was late 2002. People who had been coming to my house in 2001 to play Poker once or twice a month were now doing so to play Catan games. Eventually I expanded out to more Euro-trading games, and then more Eurogames of all sorts, and my Catan group ne Poker group became my Thursday review group, which I now offer up a new game to just about every week.

I've now got 107 card game reviews and 132 board game reviews under my belt at RPGnet. They've become an end in and of themselves, and feed my desire for novelty in my gaming experience. As I saw them slowly spiralling out of control in 2003 or 2004 I decided I was going to stop writing them after I'd done a hundred. That was over a hundred reviews ago. I'm sure at some point I'll decide I've had enough, but there are no current plans for ending them.

I've never finished a design for Galactic Emperor: Merchant Kings, but I do have several notebook pages full of notes. I've also rewritten about 75% of the original Hegemony game as a much more stable database-driven game. Sometime I hope to finish the latter, then push on the former. Maybe this year, as I've got some marketing ideas to help push it more through Skotos.

I'd really like to think that my analysis and reviews will lead to some game design, and I do have three unsold game designs sitting around. The first is called Doom of the Old Ones, and it's a Cthulhu-based wargame design that a friend and I put together 10 years ago. We tabled it when the somewhat similar Cults Across America came out, and now I find it pales a little, just like those older beer & pretzel American games did. The second was a CCG design that I put together last summer for a Stargate CCG, which was subsequently turned down by the publisher because they didn't agree with the theming. The last is another Cthulhu-based design, with many more Euro-characteristics, which I'm certain is going to get worked on more this year.

I vaguely feel like I'm nearing another pivot point in life, because Eurogames have taken up a lot of my gaming attention over the last three years, to the point where I tend to play them most Wednesdays and most Thursdays, but I still maintain my RPG habits too, albeit at a much reduced five or six hours a week, rather than the all-day Saturday, plus Friday evenings that I used to do while in college.

We'll see what the next few years bring.

My Reviews

And if you're using this description of who I am to measure my game reviews, as Greg Scholesser suggested last month, let me offer the following addenda:

I like light games if they're well-designed. I continue to think that Carcassonne and Ticket to Ride are great designs, and continue to eagerly await their newest releases, though my Carcassonne-ardor was tamed a bit due to their off-system The Count, their off-topic Princess & The Dragon, and their exclusive Discovery. But I'm pretty sure I'm going to be buying The Tower if it isn't dramatically expensive.

I really enjoy tactical games with puzzle-like elements. Dungeon Twister and Torres both became quick favorites because of this design.

I can and do enjoy heavier games like El Grande as long as they meet a few other criteria.

I don't like my games to run two hours or more, and thus otherwise good games like Primordial Soup and Struggle of Empires and Age of Steam get slightly more lukewarm responses from me.

I don't like my games to be heavily analytical. If I can do some math and figure out which of several possibilities is the best or if I have to do math to avoid making a really bad move, then I probably won't play the game.

And that's the thumbnail of my gaming tastes and my life in gaming.

1 comment:

GrillTech said...

Great review of a reviewer. Sounds like we're about the same age as a lot of your games/ages seem to mesh with mine. I remember many a teenage night spent gaming either AD&D or Cosmic Encounter. And yes it's so very true its hard to go back to the classics. I've tried to get my current group as hooked on Cosmic Encounter as I was. Just never worked.