Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Rewards and Perils of Consistent Campaigns

When I had a lot more time for gaming, I played in a number of what I call consistent RPG campaigns (although it's likely that there could be a better term), by which I mean campaigns where we played regularly (at least once a week) for a solid block of time (at least 6 months). This is my preferred way of gaming because you really get to know the characters (your own and the others) and the setting, and you get to really care about the game.

In many ways, this is the best way to roleplay--you can really build up great relationships with other characters and the setting, and it gets very easy to slip into playing your character. The best RPG campaign I ever played did exactly this. I played Vampire: the Masquerade for the first time in Chicago staring in '94, and we played that game at least once a week for nearly a year. I've never gotten so into a character, understood him so well. I've never had such great in-character relationships--hostile and friendly. No matter what its flaws, I'll always love Vampire in part because of this campaign.

This type of campaign can have a downside, though. A few years after the Vampire game, we started a Fading Suns game. All the ingredients for a repeat of the Vampire game was there--same group (for the most part), same GM, and even a game created by former White Wolf guys. After a good start, though, the game degenerated--it turned out that, despite being told by the GM to make a group of characters who would want to work together, two characters from the outset hated my character and/or lied to him (one decided during character creation that his character blamed mine for his father's death; the other decided to cheat me and several other PCs from the start). The hostility bubbled over fairly early and eventually the game became a grind--it was a weekly session of my character constantly arguing with everyone else, and eventually several PCs were actively plotting the deaths of others. The game ended ignominiously when half the party died on a lost world.

In case it's not obvious, this campaign still pisses me off after many years. I'm annoyed as hell that the GM let the others make these characters, given that he told us to make compatible characters. And I'm pissed at the other players for making such characters. It's incredibly petty for me to hold on to this, but I'm a petty man.

I suppose I can't blame the failings of the FS game on the consistent nature of the campaign--but the consistent nature of the campaign exacerbated the problems in the game. I guess the real point is that a consistent campaign makes a good game better, but a bad game worse.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Musical Association

Probably lots of people associate songs or musicians with certain games and memories of gaming. Even though I haven't played much Over the Edge, I always associate the King Crimson song "Neurotica" with it--it just reminds me of Al Amarja and the tone of the game. I was listening to "Beat" on the way to work this morning, and "Neurotica" came on. And I found myself thinking of Al Amarja.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Classic Empire and Its Wargaming Legacy

Recently I rediscovered Classic Empire, a computer wargame from the '70s (apparently the earliest version was finished in 1971). Dubbed "the wargame of the century," Empire uses ridiculously simple graphics (letters designate terrain and units) in a game of world conquest. In the earliest versions, one player waged unrelenting war against the computer until one side was annihilated. The game included armies, fighters, and variety of naval units. The game was in many ways simple, but surprisingly sophisticated (especially given when it was programmed). For example, it includes a simple yet compelling economic engine at its core.

I first played Empire in roughly 1988, and immediately fell in love with it. It's an incredibly fun and addictive game. I go through phases where I play it extensively for a few weeks, then don't play it again for a year or two. Thankfully it is freely and readily available. If you haven't played it, you should.

If you play it, don't expect sophisticated graphics. Even the current version has very simple graphics. And the original didn't even have real graphics. But it's *fun* and addictive.

So how does this connect to wargaming? Well, the obvious answer is that it is a wargame, and one with staying power--it's been around for closing in on 40 years. But it also has a connection to board wargaming. It starts with a game that Empire exerted a huge influence on--Sid Meier's Civilization. In the early days of its publication, before the lawsuits started flying, Meier freely admitted that the two major influences on his game were Avalon Hill's Civilization and Empire. You can see this clearly in Meier's game--the economy is based on cities, each of which can produce something different. In fact, if you approach Empire after playing Civ, it would seem to be Civ focused solely on conquest, and with no technological advancement.

Unless you've been living in a cave, you know that Civ has been massively successful (the 5th edition recently came out, so it is still popular). Avalon Hill, trying to capitalize on computer gaming in general (and probably on the success of Civ in particular) created a computer version of Advanced Civilization in 1995. This led to lawsuits. In 1997, AH sued MicroProse, the makers of Civ, claiming that the computer game was a derivative of the board game. Then things got ugly. It turns out that AH didn't own the Civilization board game--instead, they had licensed it from Hartland Trefoil back in 1981. So MicroProse bought Hartland Trefoil, revoked AH's license, and promptly counter sued AH and its computer company partner. AH was forced to relinquish the computer version entirely and pay several hundred thousand dollars to MicroProse. Shortly after the settlement, AH was acquired by Hasbro, ending Avalon Hill as it had existed for decades. The largest wargame maker basically no longer made wargames.

So the battle between Civilization and Civ contributed to AH's downfall, a huge blow to the wargaming community. The lawsuit certainly wasn't the only factor in AH's demise, but it contributed to it significantly, and may have been the final straw. And Empire influenced Civ.

So what we clearly see, with impeccable logic, is that if Empire had never been written, AH would still be around today making wargames. QED.