Brandon and I once went over to the house of a NSA employee and played Erik's Lee's Civil War for two days straight without sleep while I recovered from a shredded ankle had in a lost boxing match. He was the Union and I the Confederacy in a savage game in which Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant were both killed. In the end I won by a point I think, for no other reason than when 2 a.m. hit on the second day I was better at staying awake for half a week and suffered less from sleep deprivation, prompting him to make an ill-fated river crossing against Nathan Bedford Forest! This was the game that ultimately inspired me to write the novel Hurt Stoker.
Brandon and I had met during an Empires in Arms game in which he was Spain and I was drunk—and suitably playing Austria. I was a boxing coach and he a graduate student in a game played in a Silver Spring Maryland house full of war gaming pros—real federal level egg heads, including an actual rocket scientist. The guy playing Russia was a real dick, and for that reason alone Brandon and I allied in Northern Italy, patched an expeditionary force together over an entire day of real time, and sailed it by stages into the Baltic until we were poised before Saint Petersburg one month before the seas froze over and a half hour before we had to drive back to Harm City. We launched an invasion that had a five in six chance of being totally annihilated before the gates of Peter the Great's imperial window on the West. Brandon rolled a six and I howled—as the meat head at the table—as the uber nerd Czar threw his dice cup across the room and quit! Yes! That was like putting Mike Tyson in a headlock in the men's room of an Atlanta strip club and getting him to say 'uncle' in front of the guy holding the hand towels!
I give you my friend Brandon Hoost...
As I look over the 30 years of my involvement in the hobby of tabletop board and wargaming, I have noticed a few trends that have emerged in the past half-decade or so. I’d like to share my thoughts in no particular order and for no particular reason, which I believe fits right in with the overarching philosophy here at Jameslafond.com. Before I begin, however, it should be noted that I cut my gaming teeth on such classics as Tactics II, Blitzkrieg, Panzer Leader and Richthofen’s War, though I doubt I’d ever be caught dead playing such monumentally old-school shit today. I still own copies, though, because, well…why the fuck not? Never know if one of those old card-mounted boards might stop a bullet meant for my heart someday, especially once the shit hits the fan and everything goes haywire. In any case, I own probably 70+ games, mostly Ameritrash, of various subjects and time periods. In short, I’m qualified. On Fox News I might even be considered an “expert,” which upon reflection is no compliment. Anyways, moving on:
1) In my youth I loved buying, and attempting to play, behemoth monster games from Victory Games, Avalon Hill, SPI, GMT and others. Games like “Pacific War” – seriously, who the fuck plays a game of the Japanese Theater of World War Two that has counters representing individual ships, plane squadrons, and battalions of troops? Hexes 60 miles across? Really? Do you KNOW how big the freaking Pacific is?!?! – and “The Longest Day.” Now, I almost never got out of the starting gate with most monster games, but I loved reading the complex, you-need-a-PhD-for-this manuals and setting up the games. But when I realized that Pacific War, by way of example, was on the scale where each turn was a DAY, I usually chose the France 1940 tactic and gave up. Nowadays I look back and wonder what I could have done with the lost hundreds (thousands, really) of dollars I shelled out for games that looked nice on a shelf, raised my Geek cred, and sounded cool, but which never saw the light of day on my game table. So…
2) These days I prefer games that have a lower counter density than the stars in the night sky. Games where I can easily see the entire macro situation, and plan out strategies, but which still have enough counters to make micro-level tactics viable and meaningful. Games where examining a stack of counters wasn’t an exercise in the childhood game of “Operation,” where a single wrong twitch could send counters flying, stacks tumbling, and unrealistically allow the Finns to enter Istanbul in ’43.
3) These days, I don’t have time to read 60 page manuals written in 8-point font and double margins with no illustrations. (I’m looking at YOU, Third Reich!) I like full-page illustrations, colorful examples of play, and actual pictures of the counters I’m going to be playing with. If I can’t tell the difference between the Hessians and the Hanoverians, we have a problem. I ain’t got time for that kind of crap anymore. I need to be out hunting aliens, not READING about how to hunt aliens.
4) Many games I play nowadays are the kind that have a relatively simple set of rules on how to play the game, but where the cards, tables, choices, etc introduce the complexity of the system. Good examples are games like “Sentinels of the Multiverse,” “Legendary Encounters,” the “Lord of the Rings” living card game, “Band of Brothers” and other games where the system is crisp and fluid but the gameplay is more complex and nuanced. It’s a rare breed, but game designers are really getting savvy these days. Gone is the era of “I-go-U-go.”
5) I’m also increasingly fed up with competitive games that pit one person (usually me, as the only person capable of reading rulebooks, apparently) against all of your friends. Where your job is to screw them over and BEAT THEM TO PULP. Games where friendships are strained. Games that pretty much sum up all that I experience in my daily life: some, with the power, fucking over everyone else in an unfair match of Social Darwinism. I don’t mind a good head-to-head game, especially with people like Mr. Lafond - whose skill level in gaming is about the same as mine and has produced some mighty epic encounters that will live in my memory until I die – but the problem is that it is hard to find the time to play those kinds of games regularly, and I often play games in groups these days rather than one-on-one.
6) I’m trending therefore more and more to cooperative games, where the team works together against the system, and where we all rise or fall together. Why? Besides being a pinko-leftist-commie-hippie, I find it easier to bring a crowd to the table if they know they will have fun, be able to play the game, and NOT engage in the kinds of behavior they encounter every day in the real world: some, with the power, fucking over everyone else in an unfair match of Social Darwinism. There’s just something to be said about struggling collectively, helping out the group, and high-fiving everyone at the table when victory is snatched from the jaws of defeat. Games like “Pathfinder the Card Game,” “Eldritch Horror,” and “Shadows of Brimstone” just to name a few.
7) No more do I play games that take an entire year of dedicated weekends to play, like Empires in Arms, because frankly I don’t know how many more years I’ve got until my ticker gives out, and there are so many better games to play. Time’s short, and I’ll be dying soon.
With all this being said, I have to say that unlike recent assertions by our fearless President that the state of our economy is Awesome, the State of Gaming really is better now than it has ever been. We gamers are getting higher quality, more re-playable, higher production value games than ever before. So if you took a few years away from the hobby, take a gander over at Boardgamegeek.com and check out some of the higher-rated games. You’ll find something you like!
And with that, I’m going to conclude with a potent wisdom you can carry with you all the days of your life: When playing a strategic game on the U.S. Civil War, never, and I mean NEVER send the Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E. Lee up into the hills of West Virginia to chase after Burnside and his meager troops. You’ll never live it down.
Sorry, I’ve never been good with conclusions, so fuck off.