Solitary Soundings

Musings of a solitary gamer. "The advantage of conversation is such that, for want of company, a man had better talk to a post than let his thoughts lie smoking and smothering." (Jeremy Collier) Comments welcome.
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The Intricate Realm

p55carroll
United States
Minnesota
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Games are like songs: you never get tired of playing the best ones over and over, and you can enjoy them all by yourself.
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"Fun I love, but too much fun is of all things the most loathsome. Mirth is better than fun, and happiness is better than mirth." (William Blake)
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As noted in my last couple blog posts, I'm delving into Magic Realm. Figured that after owning the game all these years, I might as well learn to play it.

Years ago, I used to enjoy the process of learning complex games. Just learning relatively simple board wargames (e.g., Waterloo) was hard enough when I was thirteen. But within a couple of years, I had started tackling the tougher ones, like 1914 and Anzio. A decade later, I was into Squad Leader and then ASL. Along the way, I dabbled at big games like The Next War as well.

Today, I still enjoy the process. But it's different now.

Back then, I felt I pretty much had my whole life ahead of me, so there'd be plenty of time to play whatever game I had set out to learn. The problem was sticking to a given game long enough to learn it and then play it; I kept getting distracted by other shiny new games.

Now I still have the rest of my life ahead of me, but the future's not as big. No matter, though, because I've learned to be more content with what I'm into at the moment. As long as I'm getting joy out of something, I just go with it. I'm not as easily distracted as I used to be--maybe because I've seen so many games that nothing is completely new to me anymore.

But if something were going to be new and unique to me, it might be Magic Realm. So far, it's really looking quite unlike anything else I've seen.

Oh, I could break it down into "mechanics" (or "mechanisms," as some people are starting to say). Then I might say--as someone recently said to me--it's basically a pick-up-and-deliver game. After all, games all boil down to mathematics, and the same basic structures are probably reused all the time. But speaking subjectively, as a player, I'd say Magic Realm makes a whole different impression on me than any other game ever has. That is, I can't think of another much like it.

At any rate, it doesn't fit neatly into either of the two gaming genres that had become well established by the time of its release (in 1979): wargames and role-playing games (RPGs). It more or less straddles the two, but it defies inclusion in either genre.

Wargames are basically conflict simulations. Players move units on a map the way generals move troops on the battlefield, and the game mechanically plays out along the same lines as an actual battle or campaign or war. If it's a good design, it models warfare; and by playing the game, you can learn something about how war works (at least on the level of strategy and tactics). But Magic Realm can only be said to simulate (on a mostly ultra-tactical level) the pseudo-medieval warfare featured in such works as Lord of the Rings. Furthermore, magic spells play a huge part in MR's combat system. And to top it off, the game isn't really about warfare; it's about storybook heroes pursuing the reward of adventure.

RPGs are basically storytelling systems. Players assume the roles of characters and travel together along a preconceived plot line (maybe a branching plot line with alternate endings, but a plot line nevertheless). As the game develops, a story is told; and if the scenario is well designed, the story is interesting and satisfying, whether or not there's clear-cut victory for any side. Magic Realm is based on storytelling and has an unmistakable fantasy-fiction theme, but in no way is it a story with game elements; rather, it's entirely a game--in the old-fashioned sense that chess is a game. It's a contest with clearly defined victory conditions, and pursuit of victory is more central to the player's experience than are all the storytelling details. If you get distracted and caught up in the storytelling aspect of MR, you'll die and have to start over. If you want to survive and learn how to win, you have to pay attention and think things through.

That said, it's possible to play MR cooperatively, just the way RPGs are often played. At the other extreme, it can be a ruthless player-versus-player game. Moreover, it can by played solitaire; there's a built-in solitaire system which fits seamlessly with the multiplayer version of the game (i.e., you're not playing some other version of the game just because you're playing solo). Or it can be played head-to-head or with up to sixteen players (even more, with expansions).

So far, I'm just an enthusiastic beginner. Even though I've completed a number of games, I'm still piecing together how the whole system works. There are fan-created documents and flowcharts to help with that, and I've read or referred to some of them. But a lot of it involves practice. You die a lot until you learn which areas are safer and which are more dangerous, when to fight and when to run away, how to make the most of each character's abilities, and so forth. I'm just starting to work all that out, and it's often a "two steps forward, one step back" sort of process.

Then there are all the treasures and spells, with their various uses and values. I've done very little with those things yet.

I've hired natives and used them in combat sometimes. That, by itself, is a tricky thing to do. I still have to learn the skills and vulnerabilities of all those natives too.

Behind it all is the critical element of timing. You normally have only twenty-eight days (turns) to achieve your goals, so you're always having to make decisions about whether to rest or press on, which route to take, and when to head back to base and cash in. Only experience with the game can give you a feel for all those timing issues.

Right now I'm in a PBEM game with three other players (one of them a noob like me). It's good experience, since we can help explain things to each other as we meander through the Realm. Also, it's good just to chat with others who enjoy this old, unique game. It's not something that everybody will want to tackle; so if you play at all, you're automatically in a pretty exclusive club.

Is it worth the effort? Time will tell. From 1985 to about 1995, I put a lot of time and effort into learning ASL--and then I sold it and never played again. Years later, I missed it a bit, but I wasn't about to get back into it; instead I got into Lock 'n Load. But even that didn't stick; I almost never play it anymore, and some of my LnL boxes are still in shrinkwrap.

My experience with Magic Realm might be different. We'll see. One thing that's different already is that I'm playing MR with other people. I never did that with ASL or LnL; I just locked myself into solitaire. With MR, I'm being more flexible. I play solo games as well, but I don't limit myself to that.

Another difference is RealmSpeak. I'm very grateful for that! It speeds setup and enforces the rules, making it convenient for someone like me to learn MR. Having used it awhile, I now want to set up the board game again, just so I can remind myself how to do that and how to operate the game manually. But being able to play on the computer is certainly a nice bonus.

The Book of Learning (a tutorial available on the MR page of BGG) has also been immensely helpful. I've read most of it and am up to where the rest is still a bit over my head. I might save that part for later. What I wish I had now is a book of practical exercises to go with the tutorial. Maybe also a quiz book on the rules so I could test myself and see how much I really know. As it is, though, I've benefited from just starting a character in RealmSpeak and doing what's described for that character in The Book of Learning (as closely as I can manage).

* * *
So, last night I loaded up RealmSpeak and played another game. I chose the White Knight, to stick with what little I know, but it turned out it wasn't enough.

I traded for the morning star, then headed out through the woods to the Cliff tile, where the Lost City and all its treasures turned up. A tremendous giant appeared in my clearing, and I handily killed it. Next turn, two heavy giants, and I killed them too. I discovered the secret pathway to the Lair, where I looked forward to fighting a tremendous dragon and discovering loot. So far, so good.

But my armor had been damaged, and there were bats in my hex tile. So I got nervous and decided to backtrack to the Chapel and use my Make Whole spell to repair my armor. I seemed to recall that white magic is always available at the Chapel, and that's what I'd need. But I went there and was unable to figure out how to cast the spell. I wasted several turns, but I wasn't in the mood to read the rules, so I finally gave up and returned to the Cliff, damaged armor and all. I figured I could hide from the bats and just grab some treasure.

Alas, in the first clearing I failed a Hide roll and was blocked by half a dozen bats. I managed to swat a couple of them down, but it was the end for me. Bats are too fast, and the White Knight fatigues easily.

Had I just sold my armor and weapon at the Chapel, I'd have ended up with a positive score. Guess greed got the best of me. That and the lust for adventure.

Lots more to learn and experience.
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