Tag Archives: board games

Cardboard Carpenter – City of Remnants

Image courtesy of Plaid Hat Games, by kind permission. Art by John Ariosa. All rights remain his.

It wasn’t the most dramatic or interesting moment of the game, but it was arresting.

A gang of hulking, violent heavies breaks into a stronghold held by a police patrol, directly in the centre of the city. A few cards on the table and a roll of the die. The right cards meant it was almost a certainty, but dice don’t often deal in certainty. It was an aggressive move, rude even. It wasn’t their stronghold. Unoccupied until the police moved in, presumably putting off the gang who built it. A fruit for picking, for the prestige as much as anything.

Three Iggaret scrappers checked their guns, ran round the corner and climbed the walls of the stronghold. They rolled the dice, and set the police on fire.

I realised after I succeeded that I’d basically just done an Assault on Precinct 13.

City of Remnants is a game that deserves a John Carpenter soundtrack. It is threatening, it is tense, it is lean and beautiful. It is just a little scary.

I won’t go deep into the rules, you can find plenty of reviews that do that. The short version is that you are a gang of refugees, dividing along racial lines and fighting for renown in a bleak wasteland of a city.

The game has a backstory only slightly more detailed than that single sentence. The manual provides a paragraph, and a short story at the back. But this is a game full of stories. It makes stories with its mechanics, and it tells stories in little flashes of detail.

Each card in the game has at least a line of backstory, something someone said, a little slice of insight. These fragments build a world. You could miss that world if you didn’t read it, but I don’t think there’s any way you can avoid what’s going on in this game.

You are hard up. You are building yourself up, but you are building by treading on other people’s faces. Not even just the other gangs. There is slavery. There are drugs. There are fight clubs and gambling dens. The game is fundamentally about gangs divided on racial lines, and some aliens don’t play nicely with others. At the end of every round, you will get stomped on by the police. If you fight back, there’s a real chance that they’ll just stomp back harder. Bribery often feels like the safest option.

So much of this comes directly from the rules. The story is clear. Every decision is a fight. Every fight is for your life.

Each turn is a single choice. You can only do one action. There aren’t that many actions.

Each fight is a gamble. You don’t know what your opponent has, and if you have to fight a second round, you may find you’re playing blind. If you lose, you could lose an important linchpin of your strategy. Every item, gang member and ability is a card. If you only put one gang member into a fight and you lose, that gang member is gone. Even if it’s your leader.

Put it in the box. You’re dead.

There’s weight to actions. Choosing what to do is a little agonising, but you’ll almost always get some benefit, so it doesn’t slow down the game. There’s a lot of ways to get ahead. It’s just deciding which one might work. Making a plan. Making it work.

And then it’s gambling, pushing your luck, and playing cool when things get desperate.

Desperate is the word. This world is desperate, and you will be too. You have not got much time, and you can lose momentum quickly.

The game is the theme is the story is the world is everything.

This is a game with a lot of moving parts. Set up takes a while, and once you get there you’re left with a lot of piles of tokens and stacks of cards and a small army of little plastic miniatures. Each person has a gang pool, a draw deck, a discard pile and a hand. You can recruit gang members, buy contraband or build developments. You have to position your people, and your buildings; a rude combination of tetris and chess. Make sure everyone is protected. Make sure everywhere is efficient. You build an economy. You build a gang. You get angry when you die, or you lose ground. You get revenge.

I think this is a lean, taut and brutal game. It is immediately engaging, despite the initially intimidating appearance. It’s straightforward to teach (although probably not enough for boardgame beginners), and it quickly becomes clear how much possibility there is.

It looks complicated. And in a way it is.

But at the same time, each element is simple. You can play these cards any time during your turn. These cards are for battles. Everything does what it says on the card. Positioning is important and clear. Having neighbours makes you stronger.

It’s all a series of simple choices, simple mechanics, combining in a well thought out, solidly balanced way.

And more than all of that. It feels right. It feels like you’re scraping by with very little. It feels like you’re building a precious, precarious empire. It feels like every time you expand you just make it more likely the police are going to knock down your door. It feels like you have a gang. A gang made of remnants. A gang you could lose.

It feels like proper sci-fi. Grim, dirty, desperate and intriguing. Not a story, but a world.

And then you make your own story.

This would not be my game to win people over to boardgames. It’s a bit too complicated (but actually it doesn’t waste a drop of anything), it’s a bit too grimdark cliché (but actually the world is much richer than first glance) and it’s a bit long and slow (but actually it’s tense and pacey and ends just at the right amount of a little bit too soon).

But once someone has taken their first paddle into the cardboard waters, and started to see that there’s more going on than they thought, I think this is the game to show them just how deep the water is.

I can’t stop thinking about it. About the mechanics, about the tactics, about the world. It doesn’t ever feel like just a game. It feels like a City. A place where people live, somehow, and die.

I can’t wait to put that City back on my table, and tell some more stories in it.

Further reading:

I’ve already linked to the Shut Up show video review, which might get you almost as excited as me. I’d also recommend the Cardboard Republic review. I particularly like their explanation of why it is good for different ‘gamer archetypes‘. Not entirely sure I agree with their definitions, but I like the idea, and it’s a good critical tool.

Much of my boardgame enthusiasm and knowhow comes from the chaps at Shut Up & Sit Down, so here’s an obligatory link. They’re great, fun, and informative.

Obviously check out Plaid Hat Games to see the developer, they have great how to play videos, and I think they are genuinely lovely people. The SU&SD interview confirms some of that loveliness. Also, check out Plaid, although they have nothing to do with Plaid hat, and some people even say they pronounce it differently.

Thanks to Plaid Hat for permission to use John Ariosa’s picture for the header. Ace customer service, I’ve had two email responses directly from Isaac Vega, the maker of this game. Which makes me feel cool.

 Oh, and the Escape from New York and Assault from Precinct 13 soundtracks are awesome.

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This is Cardboard – Plastic Pieces and Cardboard Worlds

Cardboard Worlds

A few nights ago, a friend almost had a panic attack because she couldn’t work out if she could trust her husband.

A few years ago, I played a game about undercover robots with a group of people who had recently discovered an old friend had been an undercover cop.

A few decades ago, I spent all my spare moments reading through the rules of a game I could never play. I wanted to know what every dice roll could lead to. I didn’t have the dice, I didn’t have the pieces, I didn’t even have the right rule book, but I read that book from cover to cover.

I’ve been obsessed with boardgames for as long as I can remember, but it feels like it has only recently become a hobby that I actually have.

I want to try and get across some of that passion, because as happy as I am to have a broad group of lovely people to play games with, I feel like I want more. It’s not even just that I want to play more boardgames, it’s that I want more boardgames to be played. I think people are missing out on something genuinely special by not playing boardgames together.

It’s a hard sell, I know. ‘Boardgames’ mean Monopoly to most people. I hate Monopoly. I want some way to scour it from the collective consciousness, so that people stop associating the word boardgame with endless spirals of estate agency capitalism. As I understand it, the game started out as a parody of capitalism. That boredom? That futility? That’s the point. It actually does it’s job fairly well, so I shouldn’t criticise. It is the perfect simulator of economic alienation. But the problem with capitalism is that it’s only fun for one person, and then only if they’re a sociopath.

Cluedo isn’t much better, just a banal logic game with randomised dice friction. I’ve spent days with Risk, but I recognise it’s problems.

I don’t want to talk about these games any more. I want you to stop thinking about them. I want you to think about what games could be. What games actually are.

There’s a lot of them out there. You can do everything from wage interstellar war to building countryside in medieval France. You can be a gladiator or a treasure hunter. You can get eaten by sharks or murdered by Lannisters.

But that’s not the magic bit. The magic bit is that you are doing this with your friends. Sometimes your best friends.

I read a game theory book once, and it talked about the idea of the magic circle. When you start playing a game, you get together with a group of people, and agree to ignore common sense. If golf was really about putting a ball in that hole over there, you’d pick it up and walk over there. But it isn’t, it’s about putting a ball in that hole over there with a grand scheme of arbitrary limitations to make it interesting.

When you play a boardgame, you put aside reality, and you build your own new one for a while. You learn some rules, you work out what you’re trying to do, and then you make it real. You put down pieces of card, and you pick up pieces of plastic, and you turn them into a universe.

Even the most competitive games (and there’s plenty that aren’t competitive) are an act of collaboration. You all agree to not be a dick, whilst agreeing its okay to be a dick. You encourage each other to try and best each other, to try and bear grudges, to lie and betray. All those things you can’t normally do without being horrible? You’re supposed to, and you aren’t even really doing it. You’re doing it with pieces of card and plastic that don’t mean anything apart from all that emotion you’ve invested in them.

The game means nothing. It’s just words and cardboard, bits and pieces. Except it means everything. It’s a world. A world you made, out of someone else’s ideas and rules and art and hard work.

You buy a box, and you can dive into it as often as you can get a group of people together, and the right box, the right game, will have you aching to play again.

I’ve played some gruelling games of Game of Thrones (of thrones), a boardgame that can easily eat a whole day. At the end of each one there’s been a bit of my brain saying ‘I need to do that again, right now’. It’s intense. Superficially, it’s like Risk, a map, some cards and some little plastic pieces representing armies. It isn’t Risk, it’s an engine for betrayal. When you plan your move, you feel like you could know what the best move is, because all the information is right there. The rules and the pieces and the cards. They’re all there in front of you. You could almost forget about the people, trying to make the same calculations as you, second and triple guessing every action. You secretly put down tokens to say what you’re going to do in the turn, and then you all reveal together.

It takes a while to sink in, nothing has happened like you expected, and you might still not notice the knife in your back.

Because you know the game, but you don’t know the people. Even the people you know best.

This weekend we played a game of ‘Avalon’ a follow up/expanded version of a popular game about lying called ‘The Resistance’. Basically, you are going on missions together, choosing who you trust to go, if you pick the wrong people you fail the mission, fail too many missions, and you lose the game. I worried for the health of my friend, as she tried to work out if her husband was being calm in order to reassure her or in order to manipulate her. The game consists largely of talking, there’s a logic puzzle going on, but it’s almost always over-ridden by the more social and more fallible ‘do you trust me’ game. Lies and trust. Look me in the eyes and tell me you’re a good guy. If you’re lying to me, I may never be able to trust you again.

But what happens in boardgame-world stays in boardgame-world. It’s like Vegas, only you’ve got a chance of winning. And you don’t need poppers to have fun.

I love it. I love it so much. I love getting together with real life people, and making something impossible happen, just by following some rules, and bothering to care.

I can spend hours poring over rulebooks, reading reviews and finding out how games work, and I love that too. I love reading about a mechanic and thinking ‘that’s incredible’.

But without people, a clever mechanic is just an unwound clock. Beautiful, intricate, and largely useless.

If I’ve piqued your interest, and you live anywhere near Brighton, give me a shout on twitter. I’ll happily show you into one of the cardboard worlds on the shelf in my living room.

Because as stupid as it may sound, I actually think boardgames are important. I think learning how to play with people could change the world (ever so slowly, ever so slightly). I think it’s a better way of getting to know people than going to the pub and drunkenly shouting. I think it’s infinitely more sociable than going to the cinema.

I think it would make you happier.

Come and play. Or go and play.

Something magic might happen.

—-

Illustration by Emma

I can’t recommend enough watching/reading Shut Up and Sit Down if you want to find out more about games. I have a crush on all of them, and want to be their friends. You can watch them playing Avalon (with the extra bits) or read them talking about Game of Thrones, for example. between them and Rab Florence (now pretending to be a sentient table) at Rock Paper Shotgun, I have been lured whole heartedly into this hobby. Their enthusiasm is infectious, and they’ve taught me a lot about the way games are structured, as well as how emotionally engaging they are. Thanks, them!

The irony of this ramble, is that I came here to write about mechanics, and I talked about people instead. This is okay. I hear there’s time in the future.