Photos and terrain courtesy of Adam Isherwood at Iron Forest Games, models my own.
The much-delayed Kickstarter-funded wargame Robotech RPG Tactics has finally begun to be delivered within Europe, and as my copy has arrived I have had the opportunity to play two limited-scale games of it. These are sufficient to form general opinions about the rules design – although more detailed examination of unit selection and faction play-style is currently impossible as many of the more interesting and different units are not currently available. Overall, as a wargame attempting to recreate the combat style of Robotech/SDF Macross – a translation of theme into mechanics – it works well. Using a system of named pilots adding thematic abilities to stock units like X-Wing forces can be given more flavour, while the weapon system rules emphasising mass missile attacks and divided, inaccurate fire versus enemies concentrating to bring one hero down creates a strong aesthetic element to mechanical design.
It has taken quite some time for me to properly work out why I dislike Gundam Build Fighters Try in comparison to the original first series; for much of the series’ run time I was unsure if the weaknesses I was identifying within it were based on misremembering the merits of the original. After all, both series embodied similar tropes – that of a naturally talented character helping out technically proficient but less skilful teammates in pursuit of the grand prize of a wargaming tournament. Both protagonists fielded powerful units with over-the-top weapons to face dramatic opponents, so complaining about the way in which fights were resolved by means of a finishing-move judiciously deployed seemed inaccurate. Eventually though I realised the problems with Try were as much with its ethos – its whole attitude behind the game-selling message front and centre – and its characterisation as anything else.
Today, at Iron Forest Games in Benfleet, I played a game using the playtest rules of Beyond the Gates of Antares by Warlord games, using two starter forces (Algoryn and C3) against each other.
Antares is based on the Bolt Action rules, with a number of changes to reflect its science-fiction theme.
Recently, the newest Call of Duty game has been receiving significant online criticism for its apparently crass and ridiculous story; this, per se, is not interesting to me. The games have historically, since no longer being set during WW2, had exploitative and poorly-written stories which began as functional, genre-typical backdrops to a first-person shooter game but over time became even lower-quality and overreliant on shock value to try and recapture the success of Modern Warfare‘s nuclear bomb mission and execution sequence. Those were very good pieces of action storytelling for a computer game; the former was unexpected and brief enough to retain its impact, and the latter was a strong homage to things such as Half-Life‘s introductory sequence. The criticism of Advanced Warfare, though, is interesting because it shows, to me, that there are two very distinct approaches to criticising storytelling in video games. Having not played the game I can only discuss the critical debate around it, but that is the interesting part.
It has been a significant time since I last wrote a narrative battle report based on a wargame I have played, so here is one. As I mentioned in my recent article on “Forging the Narrative” in wargames, Wyrd Miniatures’ Malifaux is an excellent game for marrying narrative and mechanics, meaning that even a fairly straightforward game suggests an exciting story.
For reference, the forces used in this game were:
Mei Feng (Imbued Protection, Price of Progress, Seismic Claws)
Kang (Imbued Protection, People’s Challenge)
2x Rail Worker
2x Metal Gamin
Rasputina (Child of December, December’s Pawn, The Philosopher’s Stone)
Ice Golem (Imbued Protection)
3x Ice Gamin
The schemes and strategy were Turf War, Bodyguard, Breakthrough, Protect Territory and Vendetta. The final score was 7-4 to Mei Feng (4 points from Turf War + 3 from Protect Territory vs 2 points from Turf War + 2 points from Bodyguard). The game was played at Iron Forest Games in Benfleet, with scenery provided by the club.
In a previous article about the card game Netrunner, among other topics, I discussed how board games can combine thematic design with mechanical synergy – and how it is something which counteracts the lack of a narrative in something designed to be played over and over again. Board games, and to a similar extent miniatures-based wargames, need to be repeatable, almost non-narrative experiences because they involve large amounts of direct, unpredictable player interaction. Video games, on the other hand, have the scope in offering single-player experiences to tell a story – there may be different routes through that story, or different scenes to be selected, but there is still a story being told and the aim of the game is to experience it. This is ultimately the crux of the story versus theme dichotomy; the level of variance in the experience, and whether the narrative is crafted as part of the entire work, or emergent from interaction with it.
Kickbeat is marketed as an “innovative rhythm game with a Kung Fu theme,” but its level of innovation, when games like Final Fantasy Theatrhythm have explored adding combat and RPG elements to rhythm games in well-developed ways that closely tie licensed music to game theming, seems quite limited. Kickbeat is a straightforward rhythm game dressed up in theming that impedes play to an extent, and with a selection of music that is small compared to most competitors (Theatrhythm Curtain Call, which came out on handhelds around the same time, has a significantly larger and more varied song library – and even free-to-play rhythm games on mobile like Cytus and Love Live School Idol Festival have comparably sized or larger track lists.)
Kapsula is a puzzle game combining the reflex-testing of an endless runner with the block-matching of a game like Columns; the end result is something a little like Audiosurf but without the soundtrack element. It is well-suited to mobile formats, requiring only minimal inputs and – with a simple failure state and an interface designed to make repeat play as efficient as possible – being built from the ground up for intermittent play sessions. The mobile puzzle and skill game market is gaining a well-established set of ground-rules for designing a good mobile game – it should be as minimalist in terms of getting to play the game as possible, and as easy as possible to try again after a session, since mobile games are often played for short periods of time to fill a break. In this respect, Kapsula works well.
Choice of Games offer a wide selection of choose-your-own-adventure stories in a variety of genres, and were among the first to embrace the genre’s popularity on mobile. While the package on offer in their titles is significantly less polished than a title like Eighty Days or the Fighting Fantasy titles available, the variety of topics covered is refreshing. Mecha Ace represents a foray into animé pastiche, and arguably succeeds.
The rise of mobile gaming and the re-popularisation of the visual novel/management simulator via games such as Sunrider and Long Live the Queen has brought with it a number of solid entries in the genre, but few really capitalise on what computer games can offer the genre. Simply reproducing a gamebook is one thing, but what a piece of software can do is add vastly more options and statistic-tracking while keeping the player’s experience unchanged. Recent mobile release Eighty Days is a good example of this; it is a very pure choose-your-own-adventure experience but one which has depth and variety beyond many examples that add significant depth and interest to keep the player returning.