Friday, January 28, 2011

The Digital Game Board

Early on in the iPad’s life, there was a game released called Scrabble. You may have heard of it. In addition to its expected lexicographic features was the ability to use iPhones and iPods as letter racks. A comic was made about this fact.

There’s a kneejerk reflex to appeal to irony when discussing board games remade into video games, but the iPad might be the strongest case yet for doing so. Much of the appeal of board games is the fiddly bits — the tokens, pawns, and pieces that make board games what they are. When you bring a computer or a game console into the picture, it invariably brings about a disconnect. A controller divides you from the game's components. Even with all the Wiimotes, Moves, and Kinects being touted this recent holiday, each promising more immersion than ever before, there's still a real and tangible distance between you and the screen. Even the DS requires a stylus for practical playing.

The iPad is different. It’s physical. The large screen feels like a game board, with pieces that can be touched and slid around like checkers. Holochess it’s not, but it is a pleasant, intuitive experience, one with the advantages of both a real game and those of a computer. I think we can agree that having the game check the rules and score the moves for you is a good thing, and there’s no fighting over who has to return over-cramped components back to the box.

Classic games, the kind everyone has tucked away as part of a 5-in-one box and buried in the cavernous reaches of some closet or another, are a dime a dozen in the Apple App Store. Many Parker Bros. mainstays, like the aforementioned Scrabble, appear courtesy of EA, too. But as it is for other genres, the App Store is a robust habitat for indie board games, the sort with the designer’s name on the box and maybe a wooden person or two.

Mana HD is one of those. Created by French designer Claude Leroy, it’s a capture-your-opponent's-pieces game with a complexity somewhere between Checkers and Chess.

Each player gets six pieces: a daimyo, the game’s king that you must protect, and 5 ronin, pawns to protect the daimyo. Anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of Japanese history will see a problem here, what with ronin being masterless samurai. But we’re talking about an abstract board game, so I guess holding it to a historical standard is unfair. It’s not like bishops rushed to the defense of their kings, either.

I digress. In short, the goal of the game is to capture your opponent’s daimyo while preventing the same.

Both players get to place their pieces within the closest two rows, but the red player always goes first and gets to rotate the board as seen fit. Whether this really provides any tactical advantage is up for debate, but there is a vague difference in the distribution of the game's three squares.

These squares form the crux of what makes the game unique. Instead of all pieces behaving the same way, as in checkers, or each uniquely, as in chess, the way your pieces move depends on two outside factors. The first is the space they rest on. Each square has anywhere from one to three hatch-marks on it. These marks equate to the number of spaces that piece can move — in a horizontal or vertical direction, never diagonally or passing over the same space twice.

The second factor is the eponymous mana, and it's even more interesting. Once the red player moves a piece, that piece gets the mana. What does this mean? The black player may only move pieces that rest on a square with the same number of hatch-marks as that of the piece with mana. In turn, that black piece gets mana, and the red player is faced with the same limitation of choices. If ever the situation arises that a player has no pieces that match, they can move any one as they please or replace a fallen ronin.

While enticing your opponent into making certain moves is a mainstay of these sorts of games, the ability to actually decide which pieces are at the other player's disposal adds a layer of strategy that's novel and fun.

The presentation itself suits the elegant nature of the game, with graphics and sounds that are simple but beautifully evocative. The whole game hits those sort of notes. In a way, it’s much like the iPad itself.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Nom Nom Nom!


If there’s one website you must visit, it has to be this one. doesn’t update often — the backlog isn't very extensive either — but it’s worth every chelonian chomp while it lasts.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Thinking Inside the Box

The role-playing game has changed a lot in the past decades. It’s had its waxes and wanes in popularity, its trends in game design, and more than a few really funny looking dice along the way. But if you were to look at the industry from the outside — as someone who barely knew what an RPG was, much less concerned with the evolution of rules and design — one of the single most obvious changes is the abandonment of the boxed game.

That’s not to say there aren’t boxed games anymore. Wizards of the Coast’s new homage to the iconic Red Box can attest to that much. Nor am I saying that heavy hardbound tomes weren’t around ages ago, what with Gary Gygax’s approach for the original Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. But at the same time, game makers’ expectation of who their gamers are has drastically changed. A game's largest body of fans are the same grognards that have been buying RPGs for decades, a group that has little need for yet another set of dice.

It’s an expectation that makes sense. It doesn’t hurt that RPG fans host a disproportionately large gathering of bibliophiles that appreciate the beauty in a well-designed book. Abandoning the box allows a greater attention to creating such things and trims the fat out of a gaming collection.

Yet there just is something downright magical about a box. It’s more than a vessel for carrying contents; it’s a promise of the unknown. Beneath its cardboard exterior lay all the materials you need to embark on countless adventures — and probably a few things you don’t. But even if the back features a itemized list of every last punch-out token that hides inside, there’s still some glorious sense of surprise when you lift the lid off for the first time.

Boxes are inclusive. Modern rulebooks tend to be the domain of the Game Master, or a requisite purchase for all Players to invest in and make use of to create the awesomest hero. But when you whip out the box, there’s everything everyone needs. Hand over the introductory rulebook, pass out the character sheets! It makes trying a new RPG as easy as popping open Monopoly.

I think that feeling of open invitation is a grand factor in why board games are doing so well now. Even if there’s a high price sticker stuck to the front, there’s comfort in the idea you can just buy just that one thing and be ready to roll right out of the box. It doesn’t make the assumption you’ve played an RPG before, or that you have fellow geeks to explain it to you. It’s a gate all by itself, with a view of the world beyond and a set of keys hung neatly to its side, waiting for you and whoever else you want to bring along to unlock it.

And I think that’s a mistake much of the RPG industry is making. Despite being an entirely social activity, RPGs have become more and more a private place. The gate has been replaced with iron doors and the activities beyond like a clandestine secret society, their charter an endless collection of rules, addendum, and errata. There are players out there who don’t even know they love RPGs — the expansive realm of freeform message board role-plays are proof enough of that. I think our little niche of the world could be a slightly bigger one if we didn’t always wave around 10 pound books and instead proffered a little promise, sealed away in a box.