Monday, March 26, 2012

Ode to a Grecian Game

Greek mythology: A tried and true lore of ancient heroes, incomparable threats, and completely baffling logic that is the mainstay of our educational culture. But even if Zeus was found wanting of aspirin and birthed goddesses from his forehead in the driest way a textbook knew how, there’s still an ancient power to these myths, a strength derived from thousands of storytellers, each imparting a bit of their own life, and a bit of their own imperfections, as the tales found their way to the modern day. This is truer of nothing than the Greek's epic poetry, and no one has captured the rhythm and lifeblood of an ancient people as Robert Fagles.

I still remember his translation of the Iliad, an old hardback tome, perhaps then new, resting on the coffee table. The cover black, the top of the leaves painted red, if not for all those sturdy souls sent to House of Death, then for a really swell looking book. It was my mother’s, and where Mythology 101 might not have had any love for the Greek gods and goddesses of yore, she imparted a fascination with swift-footed Achilles and his unquellable rage, Lord of Men Agamemnon, Hector, Paris, Helen, and all the tragedies of the war on Troy.

Rage— Goddess, sing of the rage of Perseus son Achilles! Lines like this reverberated with me, and it inspired a adoration not just for Greek myth, but of all old epic poetry, from the alliterative Beowolf to the often very redundant Gilgamesh.

But for all its enduring imagery and epic tales, the world of Greek myth feels seldom acknowledged in the world of gaming. Sure, one could dig up that GURPS sourcebook or an aging board game of some nature, but for a mythology ripe with all the tropes we associate with the omnipresent medieval fantasy, it’s a missed opportunity for games both new and familiar.

So when Minion Games head honcho James Mathe first showed me Venture Forth, I was pretty enthusiastic. The bones were there for a game rife with the kind of magic I felt reading the epics, and maybe even such irreverent romps as the 1980s Clash of the Titans. But the prototype itself was bare of theme, a blank slate that could as easily been Tolkien as Homer. Time to crack those knuckles!

As I said, the game symbols used in the prototype given to me were all very generic affairs, with medieval chevron shields and golden trophies. I replaced them with Greek equivalents, sturdy round shields, gleaming gladii, and ancient urns. With proper icons in place, it seemed only fitting to use the most iconic of Greek contributions, the architecture of the period, as my inspiration for the card borders.

After completing the frames, I started to place the work by James Denton into my card sheets. The art was big and bold, maybe even a little over-the-top at times, which felt perfect for the sort of Greek high-adventure we were talking about. But inside my frames they felt encroached upon, constrained. One does not contain such gods of men and creatures of myth! It was then I decided to make the artwork “pop over” the edges. It made the monsters more daunting, the heroes more adventuresome, and all in all just seemed more exciting. Unfortunately, most of the artwork was provided without layers, so this effect took quite a bit of love and care. Zooming in at 600% helps as you're carefully trimming the art away from its original background. The end “coming out at you” result was worth the time. The tiny cards feel that much bigger for it.

For the card backs, I decided to make it stand out from the front art by using traditional “black-figure” imagery from Grecian urns. I drew it myself based on a particular urn featuring god of war Ares and surrounded it with the ornamental details that seemed fitting.

Venture Forth itself is a great game that takes the things you love about an adventure board game, leaves out the trite, trying stuff you don’t, and wraps it in a golden fleece of Euro-gaming standbys that together feels fresh and new. Helping your party of adventurers meet their fated ambitions instead of just killing monsters leads to a very Greek feeling tale, and the amount of depth provided by cultivating paths, hiring new heroes, and overcoming obstacles just makes for a very complete and satisfying package.

If that sounds like the kind of game for you, and you lack the ability to pop it fully-formed from your forehead, make Hermes-like haste to and score yourself a copy. Ordering directly from us means more of your dollar goes to support the people who made the game possible! That, and you'll get this special Treasure Card, not available anywhere else!

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

A Game of the Game of the Generals

I was speaking to a friend, the very talented Honoel, about board games when he brought up Game of the Generals. It was one he remembered fondly from his childhood, and the game was noteworthy for being native to his home in the Philippines. Both players had an army of plastic pieces, each unit labeled with a different rank. Each rank could capture any piece of those ranked under it, except the lowest rank, which could only capture the highest ranked piece in the game. This in itself could be a fun diversion, but the twist lay in that these ranks were only labeled on one side, keeping your troops a complete mystery to your opponent. The goal: protect your flag and capture the enemy’s! The game itself is over 40 years old, but I still managed to find a picture of it.

Okay, yes, as it turns out Game of the Generals is a thinly veiled copy of the classic Stratego. It’s not devoid of differences: The lakes that serve as a choke point are absent, the spy occupies the top rank instead of the bottom, and there are no mines or units to defuse them. The game also explicitly calls for an arbiter to decide conflicts instead of revealing both pieces after a capturing attempt. While the idea of sitting through a game doing nothing but comparing pieces for your friends sounds like a great way to spend an evening, I’d be surprised how often this actually happened. The most interesting change, though, is that your flag can move. Instead of being stuck in the space it started, forcing you to protect it and devise a red herring or two, it can navigate the board like any other unit. Moreover, if you manage to reach the farthest row with your flag, as one would promote a pawn in chess, you win the game. It’s not enough to regard Generals as much more than the Stratego-clone it is, yet I find it an interesting variation just the same.

But as I read about Game of the Generals and Stratego, I discovered there was yet another game that shared many of the same ideas. Luzhanqi, or The Army Game, features a similar hidden army you use to protect your flag and capture your opponent’s own. It even has the arbiter mechanic from Game of the Generals. But unlike Generals, it features enough differences that it can’t be wholly considered a carbon-copy. For one thing, there are numerous special spaces, like railroads that allow units to travel long distances in straight lines, and campsites, where no unit may be attacked. It also uses a series of circles and radials to place and move pieces instead of a square grid, even though the end effect is much the same.
While The Army Game's exact origin is unclear, copies from the 1950s prove that it’s at least a rough contemporary of the original Netherlands Stratego in 1949. (For the record, Stratego didn't reach America until 1961, and Game of the Generals was first released in 1970.)

So who copied who? With The Army Game’s history being so hopelessly obscure, it’s hard to say for sure. That is, if it weren’t for the fact another game predated them both. Lattaque was first published in France in 1910 with rules largely identical to Stratego. But what’s really interesting about Lattaque is that the creator is Mademoiselle Hermance Edan.

Yes, you saw that right. A lady. Creating a war game. In the early 1900s. When you consider how guy-centric the war-game and RPG industries were in the 70s and 80s, it’s a fun footnote that such an early example was designed by the fairer sex. Unfortunately, I could find little about her beyond the same handful of sentences regarding her patent filing in 1908, quoted pretty much everywhere that discusses the origin of Lattaque and Stratego.

So you’d think that would settle it. Lattaque and by extension Stratego came first, with The Army Game being a loose variant.

But if you continue digging, you’ll find that all of these games bear a striking similarity to another Chinese game, Dou Shou Qi. Known in English as Jungle or Animal Chess, it is a game that features the same piece hierarchy (albeit with animals instead of soldier ranks) and even two bodies of water similar to Stratego’s own. However, the identity of the pieces is public knowledge, and there are Den and Trap spaces (where pieces cannot be captured and any piece can capture any piece respectively) thrown into the mix. Still, it’s undeniable that this could be a clear influence on L’attaque and in turn Stratego, and many histories of the game state as much. In fact, the existence of Jungle makes it entirely plausible that The Army Game is instead an extrapolation of it and not an offshoot of Stratego at all. When you consider how many special areas The Army Game has, it’s not hard to see dens, traps, and animals evolving into the mechanics of its more modern brother.

Unfortunately, like with The Army Game, information on Jungles exact origins and date of inception are not to be found. Due to its fable-y charm with its animal pieces, many people assume it’s an ancient game. However, an exhaustive piece of research on Chinese games, penned by Professor Stewart Culin in the late 1890s, has no reference to Jungle whatsoever. So either the man left a rather glaring hole in his research, or Jungle isn’t nearly as old as it’s often given credit for. If we take for granted Culin didn’t pass out drunk on the fated Chinese Family Game Night where he would have played Jungle, this gives us a period from 1890 to 1910 for Jungle to be created and become popular enough to influence a French game-creator.

While rooting about the web did reveal references here and there to Jungle appearing in 1900, none of these cite any source for such a claim. The earliest concrete date I can find is the 1974 Four Generation's “Games of the World” series of board games. The text there describes Jungle as an “ancient game,” but it’s a statement again with skeptical veracity. While a game would likely exist in China long before showing up around the world, this lack of firm history damages any theory that it formed the basis of Stratego, or possibly even The Army Game.

That is, unless there wasn’t yet another Chinese game to consider. Xianqi, or Chinese Chess, really bears more similarity to traditional chess than Stratego or even Jungle. But, there is a body of water that divides the sides of the board. It only affects a few pieces, but it’s still reasonable to think that this could inspire the twin lakes of Stratego or the rivers of Jungle. But that’s admittedly a stretch —  More likely that Stratego and Jungle have more to do with each other than anything else.

The real answer of the origins of Stratego may be one lost to time. I would love to find hard evidence of a copy of Jungle existing in the early 1900s, but the scope of such research is outside of my ability. For now, I think due credit should be given to Edan and her little game of wars, Lattaque. There is no evidence I can find to support Jungles identity as an ancient Chinese game instead of a mid-twentieth-century knockoff, and I think crediting it as many Stratego histories do is a disservice to this female gaming pioneer.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Monster Hearts

Hey everyone! I’ve been a little under the weather, and as an unfortunate consequence this little corner of the web has been left more unattended than I’d like. But expect that to change as we return to regularly scheduled programming!

While I won’t have an honest update for my work on Golden Sky Stories till next week, I did want to share that Otaku USA has an incredible 4-page piece on the book in its April issue. The issue changes over March 20th, so run (don't walk) to your closest newsstand and pick up a copy. Besides netting yourself a fine overview of GSS, including my translated version of the Hitotsuna Town map, you’ll also be supporting one of the last anime magazines still in production. If that’s not win-win, I’ll eat the magic leaf under my hat.