I'm wondering where the last two hours went and how I didn't notice we now have an audience of a new visitor and a cat. I realise, suddenly, that on this cool spring evening I'm bathed in sweat. This is the aftermath of Millennium Blades.
We've spent the time pretending to be players of a fictional collectible card game in an anime universe. Millennium Blades is, then, a game about playing games. This sounds like a recipe for a design that disappears up its own backside. Instead, this game is interesting, intense and ingenious. Stuffed with self-referential satire, it sits, winking at its players from the comfort of its oversize box. If you can unpick all the parodies from a card called “I’ll Form the Head” from the “Obari as Hell” card set, you’re a higher voltage gamer than me.
Thrower: Well hello there! Nice of you to stop by. Hope you had a good journey. It's rare we get the chance to entertain adult visitors, with all the space the children take up. So, please, let me show you round the house.
The first thing you learn as a parent is that every other parent lives in a pristine house. Even when chasing after kids has left them looking like exhausted pandas, their houses are still clean and tidy. Naturally, ours has to be the same. We'd all be happier if everyone could drop this charade and wallow in their familial filth. Anyway, it's nice to have someone here who might appreciate the results.
Hang your coat up over there...
After looking in the box, I pulled the sheath off my craft knife for the first time in a decade and immediately slit a digit open. It didn't bode well for the three-hour assembly time I'd heard boasted of on the internet.
What you get in this box is a literal plastic kit with assembly instructions, like scale models of tanks and planes. There is even a dwarf with a multi-part beard to glue together. But I was swayed by the fond memory of twisting whole plastics off sprues in my Warhammer days, so I figured I could handle it. Plaster on finger, I dusted off my other modelling tools and set to work with one simple question in my mind. Could this board game be worth it?
WELL, I've got a game for you with none of that! It's called Conflict of Heroes: Awakening the Bear (a series you might remember from my primer on wargames or my article on the best introductory wargames) and Academy Games made it just for you. Yes, you. The publisher even said so on its sister game, Storms of Steel. "The historical wargame that Eurogamers love to play," was the actual marketing copy!
You can smell the difference between CoH and typical wargames the second you open the lid. It's the faint scent of solvents from the decadent, multi-coloured printing used on the mounted boards and fat counters. Oddly-named German tanks rumble around in the box. You can even see a flamethrower doing what flamethrowers do in slightly more detail than you probably want. Alas, in spite of the name, there are no actual bears.
Thrower: Deckbuilding is the dampest squib in board gaming. Riding the crest of a hype wave, it promised to change the hobby forever, yet lead to only a bunch of mediocre efficiency engine titles. The only games in the genre to stand the test of time were Arctic Scavengers, which was truly excellent, and then Trains, which worked because it supplemented the cards with a board. But you know this, because Paul and Quinns already told you it was sexy enough to make them want to have babies.
Maybe that's why Paul went to Canada.
Now, from the same publisher, we have the even sexier Automobiles. You know it's sexier because you've seen all the sexy race cars in sexy film franchises like The Fast and the Furious. A film so sexy you can use its title as a double entendre. And when you flip through the cards in Automobiles, you'll see they have sexy names like "Boost" and "Supercharged" instead of "Normal Train" or "Limited Train".
Designers, however, understand this, and more. They welcome it, glory in it, roll in it like pigs in mathematical mud. Because it's what they use to build the foundations of something fun, yet something real.
Take Volko Ruhnke, designer of contemporary wargames Labyrinth and the Counter-Insurgency (or COIN) series. "Most board games and video games that are about something are models," he told me. "Trading games, railroad building games, shooting games, strategic war games. They all communicate the game designers’ model of certain aspects of human affairs."
Thrower: Amongst the carrion on the field of Waterloo lay the body of Major Cholet. He was a favourite of Napoleon, having helped uncover a plot to assassinate the Emperor, but through ill luck, and an unfortunate penchant for duelling, he never managed to translate that favour into promotion to the highest echelons of the French army. Had things been different he might have been remembered as the hero of a famous French victory at Mont St Jean. Instead, his entrails are a feast for the crows.
Still, at least this way he never had to suffer the ignominy of the world realising that he was named after a womble.
This is Legion of Honor, the card game of career soldiering in Napoleon's Grand Armee. Except that really it's more of a competitive role-playing, story-telling game with cards. Think Tales of the Arabian Nights, if you took away the Rocs and Sorcerers and replaced them with garrison duty and overbearing Sergeant-Majors.
Like a garlic and gunpowder-smelling Arabian Nights, it's also a game in which decision making plays a limited part in determining the winner. If your character survives all the way to Waterloo with nary a medal or a franc to his name, he can still win an instant victory by drawing one lucky card from the battle deck. And unlike Arabian Nights, this can happen after nine hours of play, instead of three. So if you dislike the idea of a nine-hour game that can be won by a lucky card in the final turn, walk away now.
Thrower: You're a platoon sergeant, patrolling the Normandy hedgerows in 1944. Suddenly, a burst of automatic fire opens up from the treeline. You don't know what it is: it could be a machine gun, or a tank. It could be a lone rifleman, or the forward elements of an enemy brigade. Each demands a different course of action, and your life, and those of your men, depend on your picking the right one. What do you do?
Replicating this is the central problem faced by tactical wargame designers. Good tactics start with determining who your enemy is and where they are. Yet for all the effort they put in to simulating weapons and doctrine, tactical board games fail to take this into account. Most of the time you can see exactly what you're facing.
Two new designers have decided to tackle this intractable issue with their first release, War Stories. It comes in two flavours, Liberty Road for the Western front and Red Storm for the east. As if implementing hidden movement wasn't ambition enough, it also seeks to be realistic, quick-playing and easily learned. That's two of the wildest dragons in wargaming, slain by the same title. No wonder people flocked to support the kickstarter.
This was my generation's World War 2, the conflict from which 80's society forged martial myths of heroism. Yet, hard as it tried, pop culture couldn't quite scrub the filth away. Always there were undertones of dirty warfare, of eventual failure. It wasn't ideal hero material, but it was all we had. For me, that complexity made it all the more compelling.
Then I read Dispatches. This account of a journalist's experience in the conflict is the finest book on war I have ever read. As well as the history, there is an important lesson. Dispatches taught me that war can be both beautiful and terrible at the same time. That it was okay to hate war and love militaria. To be a pacifist and to play wargames. Reading it made a piece of distant history into a personal thing, a hot piece of literary shrapnel lodged close to my heart.
Thrower: General Patton chewed his cigar and look East, over the Rhine, into Germany. He'd done it. By loading his divisions down with fuel, he'd stolen a coup on the other Allied commanders and made it to the river first.
Now, only the 155th Panzer Brigade stood between him and the history books. Disorganised and demoralised, they were no match for his crack US corps.
Suddenly the field telephone crackled into life. "Sir? Sir! We can't action that advance order. The troops have no ammunition. Montgomery requisitioned the lot."
"WHAT?" bellowed Patton, spraying out a mouthful of cheesy wotsits. "That British f*** took EVERYTHING? Jesus!"