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An alternate gaming reality

Steve Berger
United Kingdom
Sevenoaks
Kent
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There have been many changes over the past few years in the gaming world that I’m not sure have improved where this hobby is at the moment. Some changes are positive, but others are not, and seem to me at least to be a step in the wrong direction. So, what happened in the alternative reality, where we all saw sense? Well, I see it like this…..

*

7 Wonders was released at Essen, where the publisher only fulfilled pre-orders, so therefore driving the desire to play. The publishers thought this was a really clever move, having seen the interest in this pre-spiel, the latest must have in the boardgaming world. During the first day, with most of the pre-orders collected, they were rushed off their feet collecting a long list of names for people who decided that yes, they needed to have the game, it must be theirs.

That evening, in the Hotels around Essen, games rooms were full of a small group of gamers smiling and looking generally very pleased with themselves as they unwrapped the shrink from their pre-ordered copies of 7 Wonders. ‘Look’ they said, ‘doesn’t this look fantastic. Look at the cover art. Can’t you feel my thrill and general smugness?’. The rules were quickly read and understood – in fact most of them had read the rules online already, and were all primed to play. Because the game took 7 players, and this was seen to be a good thing, and played really quickly, which again was understood to be a great idea, it wasn’t long before almost everybody who wanted to try this managed to give it a play. As the evening rolled on, the numbers wanting to give it a go were dwindling, and those owning it were, with slightly embarrassed looks on their faces, tucking it back into the box from whence it came, and going off to play something interesting instead.

The following day, there was a long queue of people cancelling the order they had placed the previous day. As a result, the publishers had to re-consider their decision to create a load of expansions. You can now pick up a copy of 7 Wonders on eBay for a few pounds, and it sits in the rankings between Connect 4 and Cities And Knights Of Catan.

And the gaming world is a better place for it.

*

A bright spark designed a particularly average game. He enjoyed it, and his friends and family liked it enough to play it a couple of times, mostly because he was important to them, and they loved that he had created something, even if it wasn’t really that good. When he sent off the idea to the games publishers, nobody would bite. He received a letter back saying that it was an ok game, but really, with better games like Vinhos, which had just entered the top ten on BGG, there wasn’t a market for it, and none of the publishers had any intention of just flooding the market with any old tat.

Our hero was determined not to be downcast though – his family and friends all liked it after all, so surely there would be gamers out there who would also enjoy it. What to do? Then, the light came on in his mind. ‘I know’ he thought, ‘I’ll get the gamers to pay up front for it. If I can get a bunch of orders in advance, before the game is even printed, then that will pay for it.’ The more he thought about it, the more ideas he had, and he created a website for the game, telling everybody enough information to make the game look exciting, but ignoring some of the problems he had in the design that he never quite got over, and which, well, weren’t that important, surely? Why does it matter that one of the cards was overpowered? That one of the races in the game was actually better than all the others, and always seemed to win? Surely roll and move was still a worthwhile mechanic, and a little bit of luck in a game was a good thing. Even he had to admit that the game looked and sounded fantastic.

He woke up one night and leapt out of bed, racing out to the spare room where the laptop was charging in a quiet corner. He switched it on, and started making changes to the web page. $50 gets you the game. $60 gets you the game, and a signed photo of me. $75 gets you the game, the photo, and an extra race! All I need to do, he thought is take 1 of the 5 out of the game! So easy, he couldn’t believe he hadn’t thought of this earlier. He was on a roll now. $100 gets you the photo, the additional race, and a bigger box! For $150, I’ll give you all of this, and I’ll hand it to you (if you come to my house to collect it) but he typed that bit in a small box on a different page. For $250, I’ll do all of that, and you can have dinner with us when you come to my house. For $500 I’ll even teach you the game after dinner. He was getting really excited now. For $1,000, you can marry my cousin. He later deleted that one, even though he’d got a backer for it.

So where does this story end? Well, the money came flooding in. Eventually, he found a really cheap printer in China, and the games duly arrived. The colours on the board weren’t anything as lively as they had looked on the files he had sent them, and all the playing pieces were varying shades of brown, and they had used something akin to Izal toilet paper for the cards. The board was warped, and it all smelt a bit odd, but that was ok, wasn’t it? At least the rulebook looked fine, and Google translate had done a really good job of creating the rules in German, French and Italian. Just to be on the safe side, he had translated the English version into German, then from the German into French, and then the French into Italian. This just seemed to make sense at the time, even if the rules did now contain a word, which when translated back into English, meant ‘rhubarb’.

OK, try again – where did the story end? I can tell you it had a happy ending. The full print run was sold, he signed a few thousand photos, just left the additional race in the game anyway (who would know) and had 217 people around for dinner one night. 94 of them stayed to play the game, and when they opened their boxes, our hero faced death at the pointy end of 47,000 small wooden pieces in various shades of brown. The police were called, but no formal charges were made – using this method to sell crappy games was outlawed though, but that wasn’t the happy ending I was thinking of. The happy ending is that one of the people that stayed for dinner did, in fact, marry his cousin, and they went on to have a happy life.

And the gaming world is a better place for it.

*

A Few Acres Of Snow was released by Martin Wallace on to the gaming world, and was received with an almost unanimous love, and appreciation for taking the game mechanics from Dominion, and doing something really smart and interesting with them. Martin Wallace was recognised as an all round clever chap, and given a hearty pat on the back and a knighthood.

However, one morning, a smart lad, Johnny, playing against his Dad realised that there was a particular move you could make that almost guaranteed an English victory. This lad emailed Sir Martin immediately, and was called to the manor house where Sir Martin now lived to sit opposite him on his vast feasting table to explain how this particular strategy worked. ‘My bad’ muttered Sir Martin ‘should have spotted that in the extensive playtesting we undertook.’ The 2 of them spent the next three days working on a fix to keep this excellent game playable for all, and eventually after 70 hours of playing, they figured it out, made a few minor changes which could easily be implemented without any unnecessary nonsense. Gamers worldwide sighed with relief, all agreed that it didn’t have to be perfectly balanced anyway, and got on with enjoying it rather than constantly moaning that a game they had seen played at their games club once was broken just because they had read it on a forum somewhere. Sir Martin was then given a government grant, lottery funding, and 1,000 willing playtesters to work on his next invention, Mythotopia.

And the gaming world is a better place for it.

*

Caylus – what a wonderful and fascinating game, and what a great idea for a mechanic with placing workers on the Board in order to take your actions. It seemed clever, and was enjoyed by many. Caylus climbed high in the rankings, and received praise for the clever ideas it contained. A few other games were then designed off the back of it – Carson City used the idea, and was again well received. Then, Stone Age was released, and people laughed – this was just taking it too far. A love hut? Rolling dice to collect resources? Don’t be silly.

A few games companies started receiving ideas from designers about using worker placement, but generally they were told to stop being so foolish. Caylus was perfectly good enough in its own right, and didn’t need to be redesigned 100 times over. Could we set it in a controversial topic, maybe around the Manhattan Project? No. What about a fantasy theme, and instead of goods, we could call the cubes fighters or thieves or magicians? No, just no. The designers were told firmly to go away and come up with new and interesting ideas instead. Don’t tread where others have walked, go walk somewhere new.

And the gaming world is a better place for it.

*

Fantasy Flight had done well with the Runebound world. Descent and Runebound were perfectly good games, and had given FFG financial success. Opening an FFG box felt something akin to looking into a toybox as a child. FFG recognised this and came up with two more ideas to add to the range, both using very different ideas, but set in the same world. The first was one of their big box series, and was to be called Runewars. It looked fantastic, the pieces were amazing to look at, and the game play had some really exciting ideas behind it, some new, some taken from other excellent games. The second game was a deck builder, taking the dominion principal, but making it different enough to warrant existance by adding scenarios, and different races with varying abilities. This was clever, and would provide variety and enjoyment to all gamers who like this sort of thing.

In development of both of these games, it was realised that there was an awful lot you could add to both games. With this in mind, a meeting was called at FFG head office. A young junior exec was present – think of Pete Campbell. He waited patiently whilst all of these ideas were pushed around the table for his moment to strike, and at the point where his moment came, he stood up, and pulled out his A4 notepad. He grabbed a black marker with determination, and wrote on the pad a single word – one that would strike fear into the hearts of gamers the world over. That word was ‘Expansions’. He practiced writing it at least 100 times the night before, and had decided to go with only one capital letter, but had emphasised with a single flourish of underlining. He looked at it, and was very pleased with himself. Christian pushed himself backwards slightly in his chair, giving him room to cross his legs, and he raised his eyebrows at our Pete. ‘Explain’ he said. ‘Well, what you do is, you take all of this ideas we have knocking around, and even some stuff that you’ve already agreed to put in the base set, and you put it in expansions, and lots of them. You can then charge a fortune to give people all of this excellent content that they probably need to get any replay value out of the game. If each person who buys the game then buys the expansions they need, they’ll have all spent twice the amount they wanted to in the first place. It’s great!’.

Christian put his hands on the table, and stood up, leaning towards our young Pete. He looked him straight in the eye and said ‘what type of company do you think we run here, Pete?’. His fists clenched tighter, anger now coming through in his voice. ‘You want us to deliberately withhold content just so we can charge people more money? No, damn you. This business is what it is because of gamers. They trust us, they buy from us, they respect us. We give them games, complete games, full games with everything they need to play them, and to get full enjoyment from them. I don’t want them playing something twice, and then wanting more content. I want them to buy from us and play the game 100 times before they even think about wanting additional content. Pete, I don’t want to see your face around here again. Go clear your desk, and get out of this building you slimy maggot.’

Silence filled the room. ‘I never want to hear an idea like that in here again.’ A voice from the corner chirped in ‘But Boss, Pete does all the proof reading on our rulebooks. We need him for that.’ ‘Don’t worry’ replied Christian ‘I’ve been on to the phone with some guys from Rio Grande. They do pretty good rulesets, and they’re going to send a couple of their guys over to keep as going until we get somebody who actually knows how to put a decent rulebook together’. They then went on to agree to release all of the Lord Of The Rings card game as a single boxset with all the scenarios in it to play though the entire story from start to finish, which was nice.

And the gaming world is a better place for it.
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