Tag Archives: Tales from the Fireside

Tales from the Fireside – Roll a Six

No huge build up this time around, just this: Campfire Burning returns for a final Tale. 

——————–

It began with an adventure.

And Junior Scrabble, Steeplechase, Mouse Trap, Screwball Scramble, Kong Man and Monopoly.

Monopoly! Little Metal Dog Monopoly. The whole family arguing Monopoly. Board-flipping Monopoly.

No game ever finished Monopoly.

When I was a kid I played a game called Frustration. Stephen, the boy down the street had it, along with light-up Electronic Battleships and a Rubik’s Cube and Simon and many other games I’ve probably forgotten. Frustration was pretty much Ludo: it was a basic roll-and-move game where a player’s only choice was which of his four pieces to move along the track–except there was one crucial difference that made Frustration so much more exciting than Ludo ever was.

You didn’t roll the die in Frustration: you popped it.

Frustration was a Pop-O-Matic game. The die resided in a snow globe hemisphere at the centre of the board, and on your turn you pressed it down–clunk–and released it–pop! The die tumbled and you moved your piece.

Pop-O-Matic dice-rolling. That was exciting as board games were for me.

To begin a game of Frustration you needed to roll a six. You could be stuck on the starting line indefinitely, popping the centre sphere over and over without ever rolling the six you needed to get your first piece onto the board; after that, you still needed to roll three more sixes to get each of your four pieces moving, so you pressed the sphere–clunk, pop, clunk, pop– until your hand was a concave claw where the Pop-O-Matic roller had impressed itself upon your palm.

On your way around the track, if one of Stephen’s pieces landed on the same square as yours you’d be sent back to the beginning, to wait for another six.

When they named this game Frustration they weren’t fooling around.

Even once you’d finished circling the track you still had to roll the perfect number to get your pieces into their finishing positions: four perfect numbers, one for each piece, and all the while if they weren’t home and safe there was the constant danger Stephen would land on one of them and force you through the whole rigmarole all over again. It was an awful game, a cruel game, a game where fickle chance was both friend and enemy, and if it didn’t end with you and Stephen giving each other Whizzer & Chips shiners in an end-of-game brawl, that was only because you’d given up on Frustration in favour of well, something less frustrating.

I hated board games for the longest time. I didn’t get on with Mini Car Wars and could never afford one of those Games Workshop behemoths the other kids in class had. My entire Warhammer 40,000 army was two lead Orks and a Rhino painted Blood Angel red–even Belgium had a better army than that. I tried getting into role-playing games but lunchtimes were never long enough for Dungeons & Dragons, Rifts, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness. One by one these games were put away, to eventually be sold off or thrown out.

I played video games instead. A lot of us did.

Earlier this year video games designer Doug Church caused a stir in gaming circles by joining Valve Software. Both Church and Valve have an enviable back catalogue of video games: between them they were responsible for Half-Life, Thief, System Shock, Portal, Deus Ex, Ultima Underworld, Team Fortress 2. Church joining Valve was the video game equivalent of John Lennon joining the Rolling Stones.

PC gaming blog Rock Paper Shotgun announced this news with a picture of Church playing Arkham Horror. Valve hadn’t acquired the Arkham franchise; this was simply a library picture, the first they had to hand, that showed incidentally–like many other video games developers–that Doug Church plays board games.

Rather than talk about video games, more and more video game developers are talking about their RPG sessions and the board games they’ve played at the weekend. Irrational’s Ken Levine has posted pictures of his board game collection on Twitter. Ex-games journalist and current Marvel comics writer Kieron Gillen has tweeted about buying armies of miniatures from Mantic Games. Everywhere people who were once evangelical about video games now can’t keep their big geek mouths shut when it comes to tabletop gaming.

In a 2004 interview Church said video games were increasingly being marketed on story and character at the cost of what makes video games unique: their interactivity. He predicted in time games would become less interactive, so they might be marketed to an audience more used to non-interactive media. Trailers would convey a game’s story and characters rather than game mechanics too difficult to explain–after all, how can you show what it’s like to hide in shadows, sculpt a new world, and take part in a fifty man dungeon raid in a two minute trailer?

This shift away from interactivity accompanies the rise of the video games console. Console gaming, said Church, is about sitting on the sofa, twiddling a control pad and being entertained. In a lot of modern games, interactive sections of gameplay are something to be overcome in order to see the next set piece or the next part of the story. With these kinds of games so prevalent, gamers of a certain age have started going elsewhere for their interactivity fix.

You might think there’s nothing particularly interactive about board games–that they’re inert pieces of board and plastic. But when a player starts moving pieces and playing cards, that’s when the magic happens.

From the second I start playing a game, I bring it to life. Every decision I make–good or bad–moves the game forward; I’m constantly strategizing, looking at the board, looking at my cards and gauging my opponent’s reactions. If I’m playing a co-op game we talk tactics and work towards our shared goal. If not, I’m trying to get inside her head, hazarding guesses as to what she’ll do next, trying to outmaneuver her while she’s doing exactly the same thing to me.

Most non-gamers seem unaware that this is what board games are, now. They think our every decision is still made by dice. They must think we’re idiots; if every board game we played boiled down to the mechanics of Frustration, why the hell would we play them?

My gateway game was Dominion. I’d played Forbidden Island before it and loved it, but with Dominion, I fell in love with these games. Even thinking about it now makes me itch: combining cards together, building a deck, buying cards to amass greater wealth to buy more cards to–eventually–buy victory. Realising I could strike coppers and single victory points from my deck in order to make it leaner, faster, more powerful was a revelation. Playing a final hand to grab the last two provinces and win the game made me feel like a god.

It’s a feeling at odds with modern multiplayer video games. Playing Modern Warfare makes me feel weak, old. When I’m sniped from a distance or otherwise killed without knowing what’s going on, I don’t feel outmaneuvered: the game feels unfair. An elegant hand in Dominion is something to be appreciated and learned from, while a foul-mouthed kid with stealth perks is–once the game’s ended–just a foul-mouthed kid.

As split-screen multiplayer has dried up in favour of faceless online warfare, so people who might once have sat side by side on the settee playing GoldenEye now sit around a table playing board games. Public board game nights like those run by London On Board are becoming so popular they’re filling to capacity. People want to play games with each other, face to face. They want the challenge of learning something new, of interacting both with the game and with one another, where a win isn’t down to visual acuity and deftness of youth but cleverness, strategy and–sometimes–a lucky dice roll.

But I think there’s more to it than that. As mainstream video games become more like movies these cards, figurines and dice remind us of times spent playing, rather than simply being entertained. They exercise imagination, stimulate our sense of wonder: they’re toys we bring to life as surely as we once held epic space battles on the duvet or teddy bear picnics in the back garden. We think as we play, and play as we think, and we do it with our friends, as we used to, as we should.

These stupid bits of card have kept me writing about them for, God, more hours than I care to think of. I’ve enjoyed every second of it.

This is the last Tales from the Fireside column for The Little Metal Dog Show. I honestly don’t know how many of you there are reading this–if anyone is–but if you’ve accompanied me through dungeons, across battlefields and past innumerable flipped Monopoly boards on our journey through tabletop gaming, I thank you, I’m grateful.

There are, of course, more Tales to be told, and I expect–I hope–this column will be reborn again in the future.

The game comes to an end. Your pieces are nearly home–but so are Stephen’s. All either of you needs is the perfect number to move your final piece and win.

You touch the Pop-O-Matic hemisphere at the board’s centre. It’s cool and smooth; it looks like a snow globe but all it really is a fancy way of rolling dice.

You press it–clunk–and release it–pop!–and the die tumbles within its confines.

Slowly–so slowly it seems to take years–the die rolls to a stop.

——————–

I want to take a moment to publicly thank Campfire for his fantastic contribution to the site over the last months. His Tales from the Fireside have entertained the bejesus out of me and I’m sad to see them come to a close. However, his fine writing can always be found at his excellent blog – http://campfireburning.wordpress.com/ – and I’m sure that all readers will join me in thanking him too. Good luck to him – may he keep rolling those sixes!

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Tales from the Fireside – A Warrior’s Wisdom

The door opens and Campfire’s lodger, Gordon Bloodthirster, comes in. “There’s some fella out front,” he says. “Says you wanted to talk about Japan? I’m off to the gym.” 

——————–

You’ve got to love a game that takes its theme seriously. Take Netrunner, for instance: a game where your deck, the cards you play and even your discard pile are different partitions on the same hard drive–and can all be hacked into by your opponent. Or what about Lord of the Rings: The Card Game–which is so dripping in theme it’s easy to forget you’re playing cards and not off on some adventure in a spider-infested forest.

Or what about bowing in Legend of the Five Rings? You know, bowing? When you tip the card over exhaust its powers?

“Oh, you mean tapping.

No, I mean bowing. Legend of the Five Rings is set in a sort of alternative feudal Japan where honour means everything; characters in L5R would never do anything as uncouth as tapping.

L5R is one of the old boys of the collectable card game world. Released two years after Magic: The Gathering, it’s the only other game that weathered the early CCG gold rush to still be with us today. Subtler than Magic, L5R took the emphasis off direct combat and placed it on political, cultural and spiritual machinations. While warfare still erupted between players, they could also vie for honour, enlightenment or drag their opponent’s names through the mud for a dishonourable victory.

With victory conditions so thematic there’s more to L5R than a simple Magic clone. Played from two decks–Fate and Dynasty–players generate gold, throw spells and assemble armies–but there are greater wheels at work here: deceits and trickery that can catch an unwary player off guard. L5R isn’t so much a card game as it is a simulation: it’s the fantasy world of Rokugan brought to life on the tabletop, where every card represents a military tactic, a rumour in the palace courts, a hero leading forces to victory, a new legend.

Even players are drawn from the real world into Rokugani politics, to become part of the empire’s grand history. The Emerald Empire is split between the Great Clans, each of which has its own culture and preferred style of warfare. As L5R’s senior brand manager Todd Rowland puts it: “Knowing them is knowing how things work.” Players join these Clans and by playing at L5R tournaments, shape Rokugan’s destiny.

Artwork throughout the world of Rokugan is beautifully realised.

“Most decent sized tournaments have a story element that can affect the plot, characters and future cards,” says Rowland. “The Jimen/Noritoshi blood feud was brought about at the finals of a Gen Con tournament, ‘Test of the Emerald Champion’. The two players knew each other and actually worked out the game they wanted before they started playing. Jimen won, and became Emerald Champion, but only by blackmailing Kakita Noritoshi. Their actions started a blood feud that’s threatening the safety of the whole empire.”

As well as the card game, the L5R franchise also encompasses role-playing games and novels. “The characters and locations appearing in the RPG and CCG are constantly crossing over,” says Rowland. “There is a free-flow back and forth. Most of the locations in the location chapter of the RPG’s Book of Void have appeared as Regions, Strongholds or other cards in the CCG. Spells in the Book of Air have often found their way onto CCG spell cards.”

Now in its fourth edition the Legend of the Five Rings role-playing game paints Rokugan as a lush and lively world–something only hinted at in the CCG’s cards’ flavour text. Whether playing as a samurai or peasant, the core manual and source books go into minute detail concerning Rokugani life–life that’s evolved in surprising directions over the last sixteen years, as victorious tournament players have left their stamp on the world.

With the fate of the world in their hands it’s unsurprising players become so vested in their Clans: at conventions Todd says it’s common to hear players say “I’m a Crab” or “I’m a Spider” rather than talking about which Clan they play as.

Each of the Clans has a certain set of morals and behaviours; choosing which Clan to join is almost like taking a personality test. Me, I’m a Dragon: strange, reclusive, distant, an enigma. The L5R RPG says of the Dragon Clan: “There is little they do that is considered normal to the other Clans”–that sounds about right, wouldn’t you say?

These character traits carry over into the way you play the card game, and are further augmented by the kinds of card you fill your deck with. Following the card game’s story-lines, the families at the heart of each Clan rise and fall in prominence, offering players new tactical options with each new cycle of cards. A Crab player might be attracted by the Clan’s loyalty and brute strength; at the game table they could play the Hida family for defensive force, Hiruma for recon units or Kuni for spell-casters–Shigenja, in the game’s terminology. They can add Personalities from each family to their deck and potentially change the course of Rokugan history in the process.

Will you take the path of force or diplomacy? L5R offers both and more besides.

In the last couple of years publishers Alderac Entertainment Group struck gold with Thunderstone, the hugely popular deck-building game and its many expansions. Following in Thunderstone’s footsteps L5R is aiming at the board gaming market with War of Honour and Ninja: Legend of the Scorpion Clan.

War of Honour, released earlier this year, is a new twist on the L5R card game designed to revitalise its existing multiplayer and be a gateway to Rokugan for new players and older, lapsed players alike.

“The existing multiplayer was pretty much a king-making contest,” says Rowland. “If an honor player was able to construct a deck that gained 20 honor in a turn, they became an instant target for everyone and rarely survived another round. One-on-one that’s not so bad, as the opponent is going to be attacking anyway–but in multiplayer it hurt.”

With the focus on fair, fun multiplayer gaming, War of Honour recreates an area of Rokugan on the tabletop using tiles similar to those found in The Settlers of Catan that change the set-up of the game every time you play it. As well as giving each player access to special actions, the positions of the tiles determine who you may attack or ally with, forcing you to seriously consider your options before bundling armies together for a ruckus at the centre of the table. In addition, new victory conditions and well-constructed decks make the game as fair as you could hope for. The basic L5R gameplay might still be at the heart of the game, but this is a CCG as balanced for board gamers.

Due out in October, Ninja: Legend of the Scorpion Clan is a stealth board game that pits a single Scorpion ninja against an entire castle full of samurai. There is a twist, however: one of the samurai is a traitor working in cahoots with the Scorpion to complete his goals. Working in secret–on a private map separate to the game’s board–the Ninja and his accomplice must sneak, find secret passages and drug their way past guards while the guard player stays ever vigilant for sight or sound of the intruders. As well as being a new direction for the L5R franchise, Ninja marks quite a departure for fantasy action board games, which have traditionally leaned toward a more confrontational nature.

But that seems to be L5R’s remit: do the unexpected. When CCGs were dropping like flies L5R stood its ground; today it’s more popular than ever, and with these new additions expanding the franchise I asked Todd: what’s next for Rokugan?

“We have a lot in the works, but not a great deal we can talk about right now. Our primary focus at the moment is on Emperor Edition, which is our next major arc for the CCG. The nice thing is that all the starters are fully pre-constructed–save for two random rares–so they’re a great addition to War of Honor and an easy way to try out the Clans that never made it to the box.

“I wish I could say more, but almost everything is deep in the development process and not allowed into sunlight just yet.”

Words, I think you’ll agree, that are very befitting of a ninja.

——————–

Email Campfire – he’s ready to hear from you via campfire@littlemetaldog.com. And for more information about the rather fabulous L5R, visit the official site: http://www.l5r.com/

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Tales from the Fireside – Separation Anxiety

Mr Campfire has another Tale, filled with woe. That’s what happens when you’re separated from what you love.

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There’s a game I want to play.

But there’s always a game, isn’t there? Right now, the hottest game in gamerland is Quarriors, a deck-builder that comes with 130 custom dice in the box. It’s so coveted, otherwise staid game reviewers with all the flexibility of corrugated card have used flowery similes like ‘jewels in a treasure chest’ to convey their awe of it. I mean, the game has 130 dice in all the colours of the rainbow–how could you not want it? As far as gamers are concerned it’s Christmas come early: a box of baubles removed from the loft, a stocking of sweeties that, okay, present a serious choking hazard, but come on! When was the last time you encountered a game so visually enticing, so wonderfully tactile? To heck with how it plays, don’t you just want to grab those dice and roll them ‘til arthritis kicks in? You’d wear your dice-rolling chicken claw with pride, boasting Quarriors did this to you.

In Europe Quarriors has encountered a couple of distribution issues, meaning it’s rather difficult to get hold of over here. If you pre-ordered it, you’re laughing while you’re rolling. If you didn’t you might be stuck until Christmas or the New Year before you can get your future chicken claws on a copy.

But doesn’t that add to the allure of it? Doesn’t the game being rare–if only temporarily–make it special? How many of you have bought a game simply because it’s gone out of print or was the last copy in the store? Prompted by game boxes holding all manner of treasures gamers are hoarders, and the one thing we hate more than anything else is the thought of the game that got away.

Tell me, what did you do when you heard Fantasy Flight were releasing Descent: Second Edition? Did you wonder if the price would come down for the re-release or how the game would change for its second iteration? Did you put it on your Amazon wish list or did you hurry to your Friendly Local Game Shop to grab the original Descent just in case the second edition didn’t match up to it? All those pieces, all those figures: less of a treasure trove than an unearthed tomb filled with riches. Dare you breach its cardboard chambers to return with magic and gold?

These end of line products are often accompanied by a bit of a kerfuffle: they’re the Harrod’s sales of the gaming world. This week I discovered online retailer IGUK.co.uk was down to its last copy of the discontinued Memoir ‘44 campaign book, and were selling it for a reasonable price. I don’t own Memoir ‘44, but with this rare artifact before me for a moment I felt rather dizzy. Sure, I don’t have Memoir ‘44 now but who’s to say I won’t in the future? Wouldn’t the campaign book come in handy then, at some hypothetical point down the time-stream?

Fortunately common sense prevailed and I pointed a friend who already had a copy of the game in its direction, but for a second I nearly forked over money I can’t afford for a game I couldn’t play. Considering how quickly IGUK’s stock disappeared once they cut its price, I wonder how many people in the same situation thought “To heck with it” and bought the book anyway.

The game I most want to play right now is Warhammer: Invasion–a game for which long-term readers will already know I have a simpering, drooling weak spot. Unlike Memoir ‘44 I already own a copy of Warhammer: Invasion, so you’d think I’d just pull it from my game shelves to play whenever I wish.

I can’t: circumstance has separated me from it.

Board gamers don’t do well with separation, which is why travel editions exist of every popular game from Carcassonne to Hungry Hippos. Last week, briefly threatened with separation from his collection another friend boldly listed the board games he’d be taking with him to Wales, to force his wife to play while trapped in a chalet on holiday; his reading material during this time would be the Lord of the Rings: The Card Game rulebook, downloaded in anticipation of buying the game in weeks to come. iOS and Android devices offer the opportunity to play some of our favourite games while on the move; I can just imagine a hardened gamer climbing hills in the Peak District, trying to get a signal in middle of nowhere so they can send their next move for Ascension.

I’d love to review Warhammer: Invasion here, but I can’t. I’ve only played it once and as much fun as I had with it, once is hardly enough to write a solid, detailed description without bluffing and making stuff up, and I refuse to do so because I take my journalistic duties seriously–that’s why I wear a fedora with a bit of card tucked into the hatband that says ‘Press’ on it. Wearing a press hat isn’t a matter to be taken lightly, you know. It’s not the kind of thing you can remove and forget about.

My wife sums up her feelings about board games with the word ‘Eh’ which is really more of a sound than a word–the kind of sound a disgruntled mother bird would make upon discovering one of her unhatched brood was, in fact, a golf ball. It’s not that she doesn’t like board games; she just doesn’t see what’s so exciting about them.

It’s okay–she’s a physicist and I feel much the same way about gluons. I mean, I’m sure they’re important to the way matter functions or whatever, but you can’t roll them, or punch them from cardboard sheets, Whatever good they might do in the world of particle physics, for board gaming purposes gluons are pretty much useless.

For all her indifference, she’s made the mistake of playing Warhammer: Invasion against me and thrashing me at it. During our first and only time playing she constructed a brilliant scheme in which she built her resources over a number of turns, played a Bloodthirster onto the table, turned my attack damage back upon me, and stomped over my capital like a toddler run amok in Duplo Town. In an exhilarating moment of post-game deconstruction she told me how she’d held onto certain cards just in case while building her own fortifications, and how she’d turned my own headstrong nature against me. She’d played traditional card games with her family years before; all those bluffs and antes were good training for sending Chaos demons into battle and putting her husband into traction.

As much as I was impressed with the game I was far more impressed with my wife, the master tactician.

That’s one of the reasons why I miss Warhammer so, and a reason I’m sure all of us can get behind. When a game comes alive like that, it’s magical: the click of a light-bulb flaring as your opponent–who’d not known the game existed minutes before; who’d thought board games were ‘Eh’–chains a combo or hops a piece or hatches a tactical plan, and wins.

And they don’t have to win: that’s the beauty of these games. Things can get a little cutthroat, and I can’t deny I want a rematch to see if I can even the score but–and please forgive me the tree-hugging sentiment–so long as we’re both having fun, doesn’t that make us both winners?

I do miss the game, though. I scour Fantasy Flight’s website for card previews and send them to her over Google chat. “Look!” I say, like a kid showing a parent an unusually shaped leaf. “This one turns your corrupted units into uber-powerful ass-kicking machines! You’re a Chaos player: what do you think?”

And she, resolutely not geeking out, mutters only “Eh” and goes back to sitting on her oddly shaped egg.

I’ll play it again one day, I know. It shall be mine, as Wayne Campbell once said.

For the moment, all other games have become meaningless: their boxes gather dust and the very thought of playing them disgusts me. Greedy, oh so greedy, I eschew games I can play in favour of the one I want.

There’s a game I want to play, you see.

But there’s always a game, isn’t there?

——————–

Speak with Campfire Burning yourself – his email is, of course, campfire@littlemetaldog.com

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Tales from the Fireside – TCG, LCG, WTF?!

This week Campfire decides to lay his cards on the table.

———————

Recently I found myself in an altercation with a friend over which were better: Living Card Games or Trading Card Games. Being tabletop gaming fellows and therefore somewhat civilised we resolved the matter by agreeing to disagree, but even as we shook hands our jaws were set and our handshakes just a few pascals short of turning into a thumb war. Obviously there was still some resentment between us and, equally obviously, for all their similarities Living Card Games and Trading Card Games were two very different beasts.

“Living Card Whats? Trading Card Whos?

Okay–and bear with me on this, because despite having my own column on The Little Dog Show website I’m no gaming expert–they work kind of like this:

Trading Card Games or TCGs are sprawling games in which players build decks from a vast and ever-increasing pool of cards. The cards are generally sold as starter decks containing everything you need to play the game, and booster packs, which contain a random assortment of cards you can swap with those from your starter deck; doing this changed its composition and accordingly the way you play the game.

Let’s say you and a friend are playing with a starter deck each. You both have the same cards, so whoever wins the game is down to a) your skill at playing and b) the luck of the draw.

You win a couple rounds each and decide you’re one as good as the other.

But what if I gave you a booster of, say, fifteen new cards, some of which are more powerful than those you already have in your deck? You swap them out, play another round and lo, you win! In any other game this would be cheating; in a TCG, it’s the way the game’s supposed to be played.

Your mate now buys a booster of his own–in fact he buys four, increasing his chances of finding cards better than yours. He wins the next round and you buy a whole box of boosters to put his deck to shame.

As you both build bigger card pools you realise there aren’t many cards left from your initial starter still in your deck; you have enough cards now to build multiple decks, each of which you fine-tune to counter anything your opponent might be building.

The regular game session that began so innocently now has the raging ferocity of a pit-bull spitting bees; things go further downhill when the game’s publisher releases a new set of cards to play with. Some of your most powerful cards are made obsolete–you’re no longer allowed to use them in professional competition–while the best cards in the new set sell for high prices online, where players have already found them and now auction them off individually. Perhaps you’ve heard of people paying £50+ for a TCG card on eBay; perhaps you thought this was a joke.

All the while you’re further refining your deck–in TCG lingo, making it ‘tighter’. As most TCGs involve drawing cards from a randomly shuffled deck it pays to have multiple copies of the same few cards, increasing the odds the you draw something useful on any given turn. Of course, if you want multiple copies of that £50+ card in your deck, you’re going to have to pay a hefty price for them.

Warhammer Invasion box art depicting friend of the show Gordon Bloodthirster on holiday in Skegness.

TCGs are big business. Loads of them have been released over the years, and while only a few have stuck around since then those that have spawned tournaments that offer big money prizes. Players spend a fortune piecing decks together card by card, and while their collections can cost hundreds, even thousands of pounds, it’s possible to travel the world winning high level tournaments and living off the prize money–just look at Justin Gary, creator of Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer and guest on Episode 27 of The Little Metal Dog Show.

At first, Living Card Games (LCGs) seem very similar. They’re packaged in starter deck ‘Core Sets’ and have cards pools from which players build their deck, but rather than rooting for rare cards in random boosters, when you want a particular card you need only buy the expansion pack that contains it. You see, LCG expansions aren’t random at all: each expansion has a set number of cards which are all catalogued online. There are no surprises in LCGs and no super-expensive cards to chase down.

(Here I should mention that ‘Living Card Game’ is actually a registered trademark of Fantasy Flight Games–who currently produce four LCGs and have a fifth on its way–but there are other games like Blue Moon and Killer Bunnies that follow or have followed the same kind of expansion distribution as Fantasy Flight’s LCG titles)

As much as I like the gameplay mechanics of TCGs I could never play them properly. I hate buying booster packs filled with chaff in the hope I might get a card I want. I know this is where the ‘Trading’ part of ‘Trading Card Game’ comes in but let’s face it: us tabletop gamers are pack-rats. We build towers from game boxes, take over entire cupboards and never let a charity shop bargain pass us by. Some of us even have multiple copies of beloved games–Tichu, anyone?–stored just in case we wear out copies already in use. We don’t like getting rid of our old games so why trade away our precious cards when they’ll probably end up being used for coasters?

But there’s something almost narcotic about opening boosters. It’s a small-scale gamble, a cheap thrill that becomes expensive as you need more boosters to get yourself off. If you’ve never opened a booster pack, think of the satisfaction you get from punching board game tokens and imagine that one in every fifty punched will randomly reward you with chocolate.

LCG expansions don’t contain that thrill of the unknown; neither do LCGs have the same grand tournament prizes as Magic: The Gathering, World of Warcraft or Pokémon–if you get down to brass tacks they don’t even come with everything you need to play the game packaged in the starter decks. The Core Sets and some of the early expansions have between one and three cards of each kind inside them, meaning if you want a ‘tight’ deck made from three of each card, you’ll need to buy three sets containing the card you want.

Which sounds horrible when you put it like that. Having to buy three copies of a game in order play it? You’d have to be out of your tree.

2009 WoW TCG World Champion William 'Billy P' Postlethwait holds aloft the
grand prize of all the glass he can eat.

This is where my pal Jonny and I approached the games from two different perspectives. He’s a TCG fan who likes the idea of LCGs but finds their advertising blurb rather dubious: he thinks when it says you get ‘everything you need for a complete and self-contained game experience’ in a Core Set you should get everything you need.

Which I say you do. Forget all that nonsense about buying three of each set; buy a single LCG Core Set and you and your friends can play ‘til your hearts’ content, not realising there’s anything missing because as far as you’re concerned, there isn’t.

Jonny’s card-gaming needs are different to mine. Coming from the World of Warcraft tournament scene–where a deck that isn’t tight enough can cost you the match–these LCG sets and expansions seemed to be missing a third of their cards. With only one or two of copies of each card they were too random for high level play and therefore useless: they certainly weren’t ‘a complete and self-contained game experience’.

He also took umbrage with Fantasy Flight’s insistence that LCGs had ‘no rare or promo cards’ when, if you need to buy three of an expansion set to collect enough cards for a tight deck, the cards that only come only one per pack are considerably rarer than those that come in threes. Even though this is another thing inexperienced players won’t be concerned about, in this case he has a point.

But there’s a wide gulf between the rarity of cards in these early LCG expansions and those in a typical TCG. Buy three sets containing one of these rare cards and you’re done–by TCG terms these cards are common.

To contrast, a mythic rare card from Magic: The Gathering appears on average once in every eight boosters. There are ten mythic rare cards in the current block of releases–New Phyrexia–meaning in every eight boosters you open you’ll find one of these ten cards. I’m no bookie, so I’m not going to work out the odds of finding three copies of any one of these mythic rare cards in three consecutively opened booster packs, but by my calculations you’d have to buy two hundred and forty boosters to ensure getting the three cards you need–and as the cards are randomly distributed, there’s always a possibility you’d still not get the cards you were after.

A fat pack of Phyrexia boosters: nine down, two hundred and thirty-one to go...

I doubt even the hardiest Magic player would buy that many boosters in a single block; fortunately he doesn’t have to. There’s a healthy online market for individual card from the most popular TCGs–but there’s also the option not to chase rare cards, and only play with the cards you already have at your disposal.

Which is exactly how LCGs work.

But in case this isn’t good enough for you, in the past couple years Fantasy Flight have eliminated those few ‘rare’ cards from their expansions: every recent LCG expansion now contains three copies of each card, making it both cheap and easy to build a tight deck to play with, if that’s your bag.

There are other differences between LCGs and TCGs, such as the vastly different number of available cards and the frequency with which older cards are moved out of play as the game pushes players towards new product. LCGs have a much smaller card pool than established TCGs, and have a rotation much less volatile, with older expansions still in print, available for both purchase and play.

The thing that separates the two most, however, is you, the player: What do you want from a game? Personally I’m not interested in tournament play; I’d be far happier at home building decks from cards I already have and kicking back with friends while the world passes us by. If I want to get an expansion, I’d rather know what I was buying, and pick up only those expansions that sound interesting, that contain cards I think will be fun to play.

Maybe you feel the same way.

Or maybe you’re a gambler chasing prizes and thrills alike. Maybe you want to spend the last couple quid of your paycheck on a booster that might just contain a mythic rare, or spend the wee small hours sniping bids on eBay. You might want a card pool so large you have almost infinite strategic options at your command. You might want that.

Which are better: Living Card Games or Trading Card Games? There’s no objective answer; there’s only what’s right for you. I hope now you know the differences between the two, you’ll be able to decide for yourself.

You can’t, you say? You want me to choose for you? What, do you want me to tie your shoes as well–clear off!

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Tell Campfire Burning what you reckon. Who knows, he may even respond! Email: campfire@littlemetaldog.com

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Tales from the Fireside – Rival Turf

Settle down, settle down (do you see what I did there?) – Campfire has a Rival for his (and your) attention.

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In my nascent board gaming days I played gateway games on Xbox Live. This was new turf and there were a lot of games out there, some looking surly, some flipping coins in a menacing manner and I had to affiliate myself with one of them if I was going to survive gaming’s mean streets.

I played Ticket to Ride. It was okay! I thought it wouldn’t be because, you know, trains, but I was happy to be wrong. I played Carcassonne. That was even better! I joined its gang in an initiation rite that involved a song and dance number and a meeple tattoo in an intimate area, and for a while we had fun.

Then I played The Settlers of Catan, and it’s here things became difficult. Settlers is all about human interaction, about trading resources with other players, saying you have wood for sheep and then tittering when you realise how rude it sounds but I was playing it against artificially intelligent adversaries and not a one of them of whom understood knob gags.

I didn’t enjoy it, and they ended up hounding me from the game yelling “GET THE HUMANOID” as they did so.

I’d wanted to like it, this godfather of modern gaming, because without it all of this would be fields and sheep and stones and desert. But I couldn’t because it was dry, like desert sand. I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating and it gets everywhere. But I was willing to reconsider it. In 2009 Wired called Settlers ‘The Monopoly killer!’ and if anything would make me change my mind about a game it’s the possibility that, with enough encouragement it might one day stab Monopoly in its stupid, ugly face. So I picked up a copy of Rivals for CatanSettlers’ younger, pocket-sized, two-player iteration: the Jedward of the franchise, if you prefer — and hoping to Vasel it wouldn’t be dull I got wood for sheep and got stuck in.

Rivals for Catan isn’t a dry game: it’s a game of tears, of blood and of sweat. It’s a game of cruel winters and even crueler dice throws, and then, just as you’re about to cut up Uncle Morris for food to survive the snows, it’s a game about winter festivals, lights in the darkness and community in the face of certain starvation.

 Most of all, it’s a game about trading. You begin with two settlements connected by a road, end with a 17th century Milton Keynes, and develop the former into the latter by trading resources found in the surrounding countryside. At the start of each turn you roll two dice, one of which is the event die (more on that later) while the other determines which of these regions provides you with gold, wool, stone and all the other resources familiar from Settlers. Ingeniously the resources stored in each region are indicated by symbols around the card’s edge; you keep the edge with the correct number of symbols turned toward you, and when you acquire more or trade them away, you turn the card 90 degrees to indicate the new amount. In practise it’s rather like tapping cards in Magic: The Gathering only as you keep tilting the cards this way and that it’s more like tapping – TO THE EXTREME!

You can store a maximum of three resources per region but can trade three of the same kind of resource for one of any of the others in your principality. This comes in even handier after you build trade ships, which let you swap two for one of certain resources.

Turning cards to trade resources has a rather lovely feel to it, like playing combos in Dominion or cranking the gizmo in Mouse Trap. It’s also useful for bamboozling your opponent, fooling them into thinking you’re about to buy an expensive city card with the stone and wheat you’ve saved when really you’re going to play a gold ship and swing the trade advantage in your favour.

 What? You don’t know what any of these things are yet? Oh, well, I suppose I’d better tell you.

 You see, though you only start with a couple of settlements in due course you build new roads, new settlements, new expansions and new cities. Each player begins with a hand of three cards that can action cards, buildings or units to can build and populate your settlements with. Actions are played and discarded, while buildings and units are paid for with resources and placed either above or below your settlements. Settlements can be upgraded by buying city cards, and both cities and settlements are connected by roads. Every time you place a settlement you draw two new region cards which show you which resources can be harvested from the newly discovered countryside.

The buildings and units you place each provide a different advantage, whether it’s a lumber camp doubling the production of neighbouring forests or Harald, a beardy man who hits people with his hammer. Hammering Harald, Candamir the Axe-Happy and all their equally psychotic chums are a useful lot to have on your side, for reasons I’ll explain later.

Now, let’s go back to the event die. It’s another six-sider: two sides tell you to draw an event card, while the remaining four each trigger different events. Based on the event die you might get extra resources, have your opponent steal a resource from you, or be subjected to an attack from a wicked brigand party that steals all your gold and wool, so they might, I don’t know, make pullovers and bling, so they keep warm while looking well expensive in the winter, innit.

Some cards have special points on them, and how the event cards and die affect you depends on which of these you have in your principality; for example, if you have the most skill points in the game and event die rolls a Celebration event, congratulations, you get a resource of your choice while your opponent gets nothing. If you have three or more strength or trade points in your principality and your opponent doesn’t, you get to pop a lovely wooden token on one of your settlements, which gives you an extra victory point at the end of the game.

Now I know some of you hate victory points whatever ridiculous reasons. While you are playing for victory points in Rivals, you’re not playing for many of them. The basic game ends when one player accumulates seven points and considering you start with a point per settlement, you only have to grub five more together to win. You’ll do this by increasing your trade and strength advantages and by expanding your principality, building roads, settlements, and cities, and other buildings, depending on which of the scenarious you’re playing.

Though I’ve been talking about the introductory scenario Rivals comes with extra other sets of cards, each of which adds a new slant on the basic gameplay. If you’d rather hoard gold in caches, mint coins and fend off pirates ‘The Era of Gold’ is the scenario for you. If you’d rather play an aggressive game competing for strength and worrying about riots then ‘The Era of Turmoil’ is right up your street.

Rivals’ tiny box contains a lot of bang for your buck. The cards are a little flimsy but they’re beautifully illustrated to show your settlers going about their everyday lives. The dice are chunky, the manual is clear — alarming so; it reads like a playschool teacher guiding you through gluing together your first macaroni collage — and the wooden strength and trade advantage tokens are so lovely you’ll be fighting over them before you even start playing.

In any game, it’s the ingenuity that wins me over. At first I thought Rivals was just as dry as I’d feared; too often turns would pass by in which I was incapable of making any move bar rolling the dice. I’d wait for resources I needed to turn up and it was as if, uninspired by my lack of gaming skill, my little workers had given up mid-construction.

I was, of course, doing it wrong.

You don’t wait around in Rivals for Catan because while you’re slacking off your opponent is not. Dreamy, meandering excursions into the countryside are all well and good for Jane Austen books but Rivals is about building cities and hoping you’ll survive — and no city was ever built by picking daisies. It’ll take a while to get the hang of this. You’ll run out of room to build more expansions and forget to build roads and settlements beyond. You’ll get caught up on hoarding resources — like I did — only to lose them all in a bandit attack, and by saving resources for one specific purchase you’ll commit the cardinal sin and neglect to trade.

I traded The Settlers of Catan for Rivals and I’m glad I did. It might only be for two players but for the money you won’t find a a better hoarding, trading, building, Monopoly-killing experience.

Just don’t tell your friends you have wood for sheep. I don’t think they’d appreciate it.

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Contact Campfire Burning – as always – via email: campfire@littlemetaldog.com. And don’t forget to check out his splendid blog which can be found at http://campfireburning.wordpress.com/

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