Five Things You Should Know About V:TES

cardbackVampire: The Eternal Struggle (or V:TES) is a compelling customisable card game with an interesting history that remains one of my favourite games of its type. Conceived in the 1990s during the ‘golden era’ of collectible games, V:TES has accrued and maintained a loyal fan base that has supported it all the way through to the game’s 20th anniversary last year and beyond.

1) It is Based Upon an Award-Winning RPG

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V:TES is based on the Vampire: The Masquerade role-playing game, originally first published by White Wolf in 1991. In the RPG players typically begin as newly-made vampires who must not only deal with the horrors of their new undead condition, but who must also contend with the intrigue and the politics of vampire society, which is concealed from the mortal world. Essentially, all vampires generally agree to work in the shadows and keep the knowledge of their existence a secret – a tradition commonly called ‘The Masquerade’.

A popular myth among vampires is that they are descended in a number of generations from the Biblical figure Caine, who may have been the first vampire. Hence the lower your generation, the closer you are to your origin (and the more potent your blood). Also hence the belief that all vampires are related, leading to the term ‘Kindred’. While the majority of the eldest vampires have been destroyed by the ravages of both mortal and vampire history, many fear that some survive on, slumbering in hidden crypts, and will one day rise up again to enslave or feed upon their undead descendants. A few more paranoid Kindred fear that their own actions in modern nights are supernaturally influenced by these sleeping, warring Methuselahs.

V:TES extends this premise, with each player becoming one of these Methuselahs. Each player has access to a number of cards representing his or her minions and pawns in his or her struggle against the other Methuselahs around the table. Many more cards represent locations, equipment and vampiric powers called Disciplines, all of which are tools in this great struggle. The game frames the conflict between these great vampires, and the last player standing is normally declared the winner.

Both of these Vampire games came before Buffy the Vampire the Slayer and the Twilight Saga, their creators instead citing literary references such as Bram Stoker, Anne Rice and Poppy Z. Brite. The RPG went on to become a big influence within the gaming industry, breaking the mould in the way stories were told, and the way new characters were designed to be fully grounded in the setting. It also spawned a new gaming subculture of social, live-action games using White Wolf’s Mind’s Eye Theatre rules.

2) It is the Only Multi-Player-Only Customisable Card Game

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Unlike many other games of its type, V:TES is positioned as a multi-player-only game. You can attempt to play it with 2 players 1-on-1 but it doesn’t work very well that way. The optimum number of players is actually 5, with official events and tournaments comprised of 4- and 5-player tables.

The game however is not a free-for-all. Instead each table is carefully structured so that you can only attack the player on your left – known as your ‘prey’ – and can only be attacked by the player on your right – known as your ‘predator’. The only way to advance is to kill your first prey, so that you can sit next to the following player, who becomes your new prey. And so on – ideally – until you are the last player left standing.

This dynamic means that the players across the table from you are allies, in that you share common enemies between you on each side. The game encourages table-talk, deal-making and back-stabbing. Often if one player becomes very strong, all of the other players at the table will discuss a common strategy for taking them down. No agreements made during the game are binding, and ultimately a player must fall back on the ‘play to win’ strategy of ousting his or her prey.

Although the predator-prey order is fixed, there is a ‘voting’ strategy which counters that dynamic. Each vote will have specific terms and specific targets – once the terms have been set every player will for or against using the number of titled vampire minions at their disposal. The more titles you have, the more votes you can cast, effectively locking out players with few votes from the decision-making process. Hence when building a deck you need to consider your approach to voting.

It follows that the game becomes as much about playing the cards as it is about playing the players, in many ways like a game of poker. Mind games, intimidation, bluffing and feigning positions of weakness are all viable options in the V:TES playbook. Hence the game attracts an interesting selection of fans that are arguably more social and more self-aware than the average gamer.

I’ve remained a fan of the game myself partly because of the great people I get to meet through playing national and international events. Over the last 10 years I’ve travelled to Spain, Sweden, Italy, Poland, Hungary, Germany and even the USA for the opportunity to meet and hang out with some awesome players. (We normally end up playing a number of other games too on top of V:TES.)

Other customisable games such as A Game of Thrones, Babylon 5 and Doomtown (Reloaded) have all promoted multi-player formats, but in official play these formats have always been secondary activities to the primary focus of head-to-head play. V:TES is the only customisable game ever (that I know of) to promote multi-player as the primary competitive format.

3) It is by the Guy Who Designed Magic: The Gathering

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The game mechanics of V:TES were devised by Richard Garfield, the same man behind the collectible card game and global phenomenon Magic: The Gathering. In fact, V:TES was published originally by Wizards of the Coast in 1994 as their second game after the original editions of Magic. (Of course, I should point out that the game was originally called ‘Jyhad’ but this was deemed to be politically sensitive and changed after the first printing to Vampire: The Eternal Struggle.)

There were some similarities between these two Deckmaster games, such as ‘tapping’ a card to indicate its activation, and defending a finite number of player resources (‘life’ in Magic, but ‘pool’ in V:TES). There are however many more differences – e.g. a deck in V:TES is actually split into two components called the ‘library’ and the ‘crypt’.

Contrary to Magic, in V:TES there is no mana resource and instead you must purchase cards using the same pool of counters s which you are trying to defend – resource management is hence much more important. In V:TES you may take new cards into your hand only by playing or discarding the cards you currently have, also making hand- and deck-management much more important.

To capture the flavour of the RPG on which it was based, in V:TES many library cards can only be played by vampire minions that have the required Discipline. The requirement is done by icon-matching – i.e. the symbol on the card must match a symbol on the vampire minion. Most Discipline cards also have two levels – the same icon as a square (inferior) and a diamond (superior).

The dynamic between players is also very clever, in that when a minion takes an action there is usually an opportunity for other players to block. Playing ‘stealth’ cards on your action allows you to sneak past an opponent’s block attempt, but if your opponent then plays ‘intercept’ this cancels out the stealth. Hence when building a V:TES you need to balance how effective it is at doing its thing against your ability to counter the play of the other players around you.

4) The Game Has Been Brought Back From the Dead

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Following the original success of V:TES (originally Jyhad) Wizards of the Coast produced 3 expansion sets for the game – Dark Sovreigns, Ancient Hearts and Sabbat. However in 1996 after the release of the last set they announced that they would not produce any further material for the game.

This did not deter the V:TES player community however, who had by this point grown into a fan organisation called the Vampire Elder Kindred Network (VEKN). The VEKN had volunteer ‘Princes’ in many cities in USA, Europe and the rest of the world that were organising regular friendly games and tournaments in their local areas. Championship events at national and international level were drawing hundreds of players. With a certain degree of love – and a certain degree of stubbornness – the VEKN simply carried on, ensuring that interest in the game continued to thrive.

In response to this dedicated but informal support from the community White Wolf – the publisher of the Vampire RPG – decided to acquire the rights from the game from WotC to publish the game themselves. The relaunch began in 2000 with Sabbat War (a reworking of the previous Sabbat set with some new cards and starter decks) which proved to be popular enough to secure a new lease of life for the game. White Wolf published many more sets on an approximately annual schedule all the way though their own acquisition by CCP up until the last set Heirs to the Blood released in 2010.

Currently V:TES is out of print, but the fact that the game has been here before gives the player community hope that it will be published again in time. We also take heart from the success that Fantasy Flight Games has recently had in rebooting other classic customisable card games such as A Game of Thrones and Netrunner in a fixed, non-collectible format (which they call a Living Card Game).

The tabletop gaming industry itself has changed massively in the last few years, largely due to the pioneering format of crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter. It is now theoretically possible for the player community itself to fund a new printing of VTES – the only hurdles being the licensing of the appropriate intellectual properties and artwork.

5) New Cards are Still Being Designed and Published

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It is of course difficult to maintain interest and discussion in a customisable card game when there are no new cards to play with. Acknowledging this, 3 years ago the VEKN set up a project to start producing new, fan-originated cards that would be ‘officially’ approved for competitive play.

This Design Team took up the mantle from the game’s former designer L. Scott Johnson with a mandate to further explore the game’s design space, addressing potential balance issues, presenting new strategic choices and finding ways to increase the utility of existing older cards. I was fortunate enough to be invited to be part of this team.

After a few minor setbacks we were able in 2013 to publish the first VEKN sponsored set called Danse Macabre, which focused on adding more vampires and strategic options for the Sabbat sect. This was followed by a second set in 2014 entitled The Unaligned which focused on the Independent clans of the Assamites, Gangrel, Giovanni, Ravnos and Setites. Both sets were warmly received by the player community and we are currently working on a third, Anarch-themed set which we hope to release later in 2015.

Obviously we have no license to sell any gaming materials in any commercial capacity. We have settled for the time being on a compromise where the cards are freely available for download from www.vekn.net and for tournament play they should be printed and inserted inside card sleeves.

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I should say that our new cards would not be complete without the amazing work of our volunteer artists, who have submitted a number of works for us to use entirely free of charge. The overall quality has quite frankly blown us away. We are incredibly lucky to have such support, and we are very conscious that this situation may not last. If you are an artist, or know anyone who would like to help us create new cards that will be played worldwide, then please get in touch to let me know.

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Five Things I Learned at Essen Spiele

2 weeks ago I made the trip to Germany to attend Essen Spiele, the world’s largest board games fair. This is actually the second time I’ve been, but the first time was a long time ago and my memories of it are rather hazy.

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This time it was primarily to promote my new game Waggle Dance with Grublin Games, but it was also great to chat to people, see what else is being released, and to buy a lot of cool stuff. I made some awesome new friends and had the most amazing schnitzel ever.

1. Spiele is huge!

It’s difficult to articulate just how big Essen is. This year it occupied over 3 entirely halls of the Messe convention centre off Essen town centre. Apparently it was over 58,000 square meters – that’s about 5 football (soccer) pitches. For comparison, if you went to UK Games Expo this year, the combined size of the trade areas would fit in about a quarter of one of these halls. Or an area larger than Salute or MCM Expo at London Excel (with the traders much more tightly packed).

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All of this space is dedicated to buying and selling games. Every games publisher and distributor in Europe (and many beyond Europe) have a strong presence here demoing and selling their games. The range of games is vast – from hard core hobby strategy games to educational, party and children’s games. Some brands – such as Ravensburger and Pegasus – are much bigger in their native Germany and have stands to rival more internationally ‘known’ names like Mayfair and Days of Wonder. Of course there are also refreshment stands, and more ‘fringe’ stalls selling LRP gear, party costumes, artwork, collectibles and interesting forms of alcohol.

The event is popular as the majority of the players in the industry offer preview or just-released copies of new games that have never been seen anywhere else (except maybe by press, play testers and/or Kickstarter backers). As a result the place is heaving with attendees, many with pre-prepared lists (or even indexed folders) of the games they want to try and maybe buy. Apparently the count this year was approximately 158,000 turnstile visits (uniques not quoted but maybe 50-60K?)

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2. Spiele is exclusively a trade fair

One thing I discovered about Spiele is that it is primarily a trade fair for the industry. Unlike many local and national games conventions I’ve been to around the world at Spiele there are no communal areas to chill out or play the games you have bought. You queue up for a demo, and/or to buy your game, and then move on. Also, the show shuts down and kicks all the public out at 7pm.

If you want to play in your free time you have to do that back at your hotel. There are plenty of bars and restaurants in the area of course, but not all of them are accommodating of gamers wanting to cover their tables with games. Sadly this meant I didn’t get to play as many games as I wanted to while I was there.

3. Spiele has a broad demographic (and a great atmosphere)

At Spiele I saw a much wider demographic of people than I have at any other kind of games convention. In the UK and the US hobby events seems to be dominated by (single?) white males but at Spiele there were many families, couples, children, women in groups or exploring on their own. It was heartening to see and it gives me hope that I’ll see more of this back home.

There was also a wide variety of nationalities and ethnicities – people had travelled literally from all across the world to attend the show. I spoke to Russians, Estonians, Japanese, Americans, Australians, and many, many more.

Importantly, there was no judgement or finger-pointing anywhere to be seen. Everyone was just there to enjoy the hobby and have a good time. Even though the event was packed and mega busy, everyone I encountered were very patient and super nice. If people had to wait a little bit for a demo then that was ok. If you asked them about their time at the show or what they have played/bought they’d be happy to chat to you without reservation as a fellow gamer.

4. Spiele is harmful to your wallet

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I know a number of veterans that attend the show every year and they always go with a plan and a budget. Most of these guys usually end of going over budget, and I can see why. To a gamer Spiele is like Aladdin’s cave, with new (and potentially unexpected) treasures around the corner.

I am quite a tactile person so there’s no substitute to actually seeing the contents of a game up close. Getting to see the rules is not quite mandatory, but certainly very helpful. Better yet, getting to play a demo (or often in my case, watching other people playing a demo) is great for determining whether a game is for you or not. The trouble is, this leads to you being impressed by games that you hadn’t considered (or budgeted for). A few purchases in it almost comes as a relief when you find a game that after close contact you don’t actually need to buy.

The biggest upset to the best laid plans comes in the form of recommendations. If you get to know people who give you a strong opinion about a game, that’s much more likely to sway your own feelings about it. If they scorn something as rubbish you will likely give it a wide berth. And if they praise something as totally awesome, that will make you hunt for a copy for your very own.

This exact thing happened to me on the last night of the show. I thought I was done buying stuff but then someone gave a glowing review of Dienko’s Patchistory that led me hungering to get hold of it. And so I did (even though it pushed me way over budget).

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5. Spiele is not actually that far away

When I was first offered the prospect of a lift to Essen in Germany (courtesy of The Games Hunter) I wasn’t really sure how that was going to work out. I was however surprised by how quick and how pain-free the journey actually turned out to be.

In particular, the return trip made record time. We left the Messe car park at about 1.30pm and with only 1 road stop in the Netherlands we made it to the Calais terminal in time for the 6pm ferry. (Well done guys!)

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And although the ferry seems a bit old-fashioned these days it was fine. It gave us a chance to chill out, have some dinner and play a few games – most notably iPad games of Ticket to Ride over Bluetooth.

The journey also gave me an opportunity to try out the new app version of Galaxy Trucker, which I have to say is the best board-to-app adaptation I have seen to date – any tablet-owning gamers out there should definitely check it out!

Hence if you’re thinking about taking the trip next year I can assure you it’s easy and totally worthwhile!

My Top 5 Vampire Films

It’s no secret that I am big fan of the old World of Darkness RPG series published by White Wolf, and my gaming buddies know I’ve long been a Storyteller of Vampire: The Masquerade in particular. I was a fan of the genre long before Buffy and Twilight – I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula and the Lestat series of books by Anne Rice multiple times a teenager. Vampires were just damn cool.

When White Wolf published their first RPG in 1991 I was instantly hooked – not only did it blend everything about the genre that I loved, but it also broke new ground in terms of the way RPGs were written and executed. The rest, as they say, is history.

5) Shadow the Vampire

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This film makes my list as it really appeals to my sense of humour. A complete re-telling of the making of the seminal 1922 film Nosferatu by F. W. Murnau, the film presents the conceit that the actor Max Schreck playing the titular role is actually a real vampire. Actor Willem Dafoe inhabits the role of Schrek with real pathos, and it’s a real shame he did not receive any awards nominations for his work here.

This is not a horror though – if anything it is more like a farce. At the beginning of the film nobody suspects Schrek’s true nature but slowly more and more of the crew become suspicious. In the final act they realise they have no choice but to co-operate with the vampire to finish the film and escape with their lives. It turns out Schrek is only participating in the production as he has been promised the life of the leading actress Greta in payment by the director.

My favourite moment is when the crew ask Schrek about his life as a vampire (believing at the time that he is simply still ‘in character’). They ask him if he has read Bram Stoker’s novel and he replies ‘It made me sad’ and when they ask him why he says ‘Because Dracula had no servants’. He laments the fact that the vampire in the novel had fallen on hard times. And then by surprise he snatches a bat out of the air which he devours with gusto while the others look on in amazement.

4) The Lost Boys

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This Joel Schumaker film from 1987 made a big impression not just on me, but on the vampire genre as a whole. Dracula may have seemed hip and cool in the Victorian era, but The Lost Boys made vampires sexy for the modern era.

The story follows two brothers Michael and Sam, who move to a seaside town that happens to full of vampires – most notably the gang run by Kiefer Sutherland’s character David. Michael meets Star, who introduces him to her boyfriend David. David lets Michael hang out with his gang, with a view towards making him a vampire. Meanwhile Michael’s younger brother Sam meets the Frog Brothers – two kids who run a comic shop by day, but are vampire hunters by night. They open his eyes to what is really going on in the town, and what is really happening to his brother Michael.

Full of zinging one-liners and attitude there was a lot to love about The Lost Boys. While the film hasn’t necessarily dated well, the outfits and the soundtrack are still pretty cool even now. And it’s not just all glitz – there are deeper, more serious themes to do with abandonment, growing up and the loss of innocence (the film’s title itself is a nod to Peter Pan).

My favourite part is the showdown at the family home at the end, which finds a number of inventive ways to dispatch the vampires – in particular ‘Death by Stereo!’. This never gets old.

3) Blade

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The current Renaissance of Marvel superhero films started right here in 1998 with this surprise hit scripted by David Goyer and directed by Stephen Norrington. Slick, well-paced and unflinchingly violent, the film was perfect vehicle for actor Wesley Snipes, for whom the role of Blade himself fits like a glove.

Blade is a taciturn, no-nonsense guy who is actually a half-vampire, born to a human woman who was bitten and who died after giving birth to him. Bitter at the demise of his mother, and disgusted by his own nature, Blade dedicates his life to one thing: the extermination of other vampires. The film scores points for the myriad of ways in which Blade and his friend and mentor Whistler dispatch their vampire foes. Ultimately though Blade’s weapon of choice is a custom-made katana, which leads to some great sword-fighting sequences.

Blade shares a lot of DNA with The Lost Boys. The visual style is incredibly ‘cool’, the pace is fast, and the script is peppered with glib one-liners. The contemporary soundtrack using rock and techno music gives the whole film a distinct, modern tone. Like The Lost Boys, Blade is less concerned with the plot than it is about just having fun with the genre.

My favourite moment is the opening sequence in the basement nightclub that introduces Blade for the first time. Using the sprinkler system to distribute human blood is a creative and yet disturbing spin on vampire culture. And in walks Blade, alone but armed to the teeth, who systematically annihilates waves upon waves of vampire thugs using a set of awesome weapons. Part-Batman, part-Shaft, in that scene Blade is easily the coolest, badass dude you ever saw.

2) 30 Days of Night

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This film from 2007 directed by David Slade was based on an original comic of the same name written by Steve Niles and published by IDW. The story focuses on the Alaskan town of Barrow, which is so far north that it experiences extended periods of day and night. The next time the long night falls, a cadre of vampires descend upon the town to wreak havoc upon the inhabitants. A number of residents hold out against the vampires, praying for day to come.

30 Days of Night makes my list for being the most brutal and unpleasant portrayal of vampires I’ve ever seen. There is nothing romantic or appealing about these bloodsuckers – they are alien, inhuman and unfathomable. In fact, they even have their own language, which is translated in subtitles in the film. They consume blood like locusts, and have no desire to maintain a human pretence. They are truly monstrous creations.

The film does nevertheless have a certain amount of style. Although the film is shot in colour, the dominant colour is the white of the snow. And hence when the blood starts flying there is a stark and striking contrast – a sensibility which is well preserved from the original art of the comic by Ben Templesmith.

There are plenty of standout moments, most of which are pretty horrifying. One of my favourite scenes lies early on in the film where the main characters are holed up in the sheriff station with The Stranger, who informs them all that ‘they are coming’. This is great, sinister delivery by actor Ben Foster that really ramps up the tension.

1) Let the Right One In

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Based on the novel of the same title by John Ajvide Lindqvist, this Swedish language film adaptation directed by Tomas Alfredson was released in 2008. Largely faithful to the original story, the film is a character piece focused on the meeting of 12-year old boy Oskar with the mysterious Eli, who appears to be a young girl, but who is in fact neither young, nor a girl. An English language remake followed by Matt Reeves but I prefer the authenticity of the Swedish original.

Set in a concrete suburb of Stockholm the film explores feelings of isolation in multiple ways. Oskar is bullied at school and is estranged from his father, who lives apart from him and his mother. Eli hides from from the world out of necessity and relies on the paedophile Hakan to find her the blood she needs to survive. A cast of supporting characters fill the apartment blocks but there is little warmth here, and little sense of community.

Although the mood of the film is quite bleak, there is an underlying message which is positive – this is really a love story. A messed up, convention-defying love story. The fact that both kids seem underage, and are really quite callous to everyone but each other is rather beside the point. Oskar and Eli find a real connection with each other, and you as the viewer feel it with them. This shows great skill and great subtlety on the part of the director Alfredson – in another’s hands the film could easily have become too twee, too laboured or too repellent.

My favourite moment is when Oskar challenges Eli to explain what happens if he does not formally invite her into his apartment. Rather than attempt to explain Eli simply pushes into the room and you watch as she starts shaking and bleeding black blood from her mouth, ears, eyes and nose. Eli quickly invites her and she returns to normal. It is not discussed or dwelt upon, but the horrifying reality of what Eli really is hangs over them for the rest of the story.

Honourable Mentions

Of course there are plenty more vampire films out there and there are many more that I rate, I just couldn’t place them in my top 5. Near Dark, Underworld, Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula, Daybreakers, Stakeland, Byzantium, Fright Night (the original), From Dusk Till Dawn, The Hunger, Interview With a Vampire, The Forsaken, and the original 1922 Nosferatu are all worth a look.

Five Things You Need to Know About Waggle Dance

Waggle Dance is a new strategy board game designed by me, and being published by Grublin Games which is currently live and funding on Kickstarter. I’m glad to tell you more about it.

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Art by Mateusz Szulik

Worker Bees, Worker Placement

Waggle Dance is a worker placement type game where you roll 6-sided dice to represent your worker bees. After rolling you place the bees on the board to trigger a variety of different actions. The value rolled on each die dictates exactly where it can be placed – but as many placements on the board are unique you need to think about the best order to place your bees.

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Photo by Mike Nudd

When I first conceived of the game 4 years ago, it was as a result of playing many of the worker placement style games that were available at the time – e.g. Stone Age, Agricola, Age of Empires, Pillars of the Earth, Kingsburg. While they were all fine games I noticed that the narrow range of choices presented led to the placement mechanic blocking off players very quickly – it was difficult to develop a good strategy because you were forced to tactically respond to the choices the other players left you with.

With Waggle Dance I wanted to open up the degree of choice, give players more control and hence reduce that sense of frustration. In my game blocking can still occur, but only at the end of the round when most of the placement spaces are filled. If you play optimally you should never have any wasted bees, nor any difficulties in finding places to put them.

My Second Published Game

Waggle Dance is actually the second game I have designed to go into publication. My first project was Vampire: Prince of the City, a board game to complement the Vampire:The Requiem RPG produced by White Wolf Publishing in 2006.

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Prince of the City is essentially an area control game, but the key to the game is about positioning and player interaction. The game encourages negotiation, temporary alliances and backstabbing, very much in-theme with the RPG it is based on. In fact I am very proud of the way it simulates the Vampire experience.

Now out of print, but still available in secondary marketplaces, I understand that Prince of the City did well enough to warrant White Wolf approaching me to draft an expansion. Sadly when CCP took over White Wolf at the end of 2006 their business focus moved away from tabletop games, and so expansion was never actually produced.

I have thought more than once it would be good to do a new edition based on the anniversary version of Vampire: The Masquerade (aka V20) but I have yet to find a suitable publishing partner to pursue it.

It’s All About Bees!

Waggle Dance is a game about bees making honey. This theme was with me at the game’s first inception. I knew I wanted to use 6-sided dice, and it seemed natural to have them represent a 6-legged insect. With bees I could have 6 actions, 6 flowers, 6-sided shapes for the honeycomb – the game almost designed itself!

The theme appears to be quite unique for a strategy game within the hobby. While on Board Game Geek you might find various games aimed at a younger audience, there aren’t many that would appeal to the serious hobbyist.

Making a game about bees also helps raise awareness about the creatures, and the various political and environmental issues they are faced with. Colony Collapse Disorder is a very serious problem for both the agriculture industry and for the environment in general. If I can play some small part helping the cause then so much the better.

http://www.helpsavebees.co.uk/
http://www.saveourbees.org.uk/
https://www.foe.co.uk/what_we_do/bee_cause_campaign_42035.html
http://bumblebeeconservation.org/

Grublin Games are Awesome

I’ve known Henry socially from before Grublin was founded. I followed his first campaign last year for Cornish Smuggler with interest, and was pleased to see the game funded and printed. The final product was a beautiful thing to behold – great production values and gorgeous artwork. And the music is brilliant too!

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I asked Henry what his plans were for 2014 and he said he hadn’t made any. Although he’d received some game submissions from other parties he hadn’t made any commitments. I offered to send him one of my bee themed game and that seemed to push all the right buttons.

As with Cornish Smuggler, Grublin have really pushed the bar with the art and the look of the game – I couldn’t have anticipated that everything would look this good. We were really lucky getting to work with Mateusz Szulik, who I hope goes onto great things!

It’s also been great working with Henry – we both agreed at the beginning on total transparency regarding our process, and to be as honest as possible. We e-mail and text each other regularly and follow up every week on Skype. Hanging out together at UK Games Expo was also a lot of fun.

It’s on Kickstarter Now!

I’ve backed many games on Kickstarter before, but this is the first time I’ve been part of a project. One of the reasons for working with Grublin is because they have been through this before, and they have demonstrated that they can deliver successfully.

I think it’s fair to say however that we’re all still learning. Crowdfunding is in a very different place from where it was a year ago – I’ve lost track of the number of other gaming projects that have started since we first launched and hence it’s been more of struggle to capture everyone’s attention.

We’re doing our best to stand out, and to offer a game that people will love, but we do need your help. Please back us, and tell everyone you can about us. If you can think of someone who might appreciate a copy then you can always back us for a second copy as a gift.

If you’d like to try the game first then there is a print and play available on Board Game Geek that you can download. If you have any other questions for us, or you think there is something more we can do that would appeal to you then please do let us know – the game is for you and we’d love to engage with you.

Also, if you happen to know anyone who might know how to contact the famous actor Liam Neeson then please get in touch – we have something special planned just for him!

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Five UK Game Conventions – A Retrospective

Conventions are an important part of the gaming hobby. Bringing a lot of people together in one place leads not just to socialising (and drinking!) but it also gives the industry a chance to showcase and demonstrate their latest games and game accessories.

Being involved in the hobby since my teenage years I’ve been to quite a few events, and since this last weekend I just attended another one it seems appropriate to talk a little bit about my game convention history.

GenCon UK

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In the USA GenCon is the daddy of all game conventions. Founded originally by TSR – the original publisher of Dungeons & Dragons – it quickly swelled into a behemoth taking place over four days, occupying multiple city blocks – first in Milwaukee, and then Indianapolis.

The UK version was a less ambitious affair but nevertheless constituted the biggest show in the year in the UK. The original site was the Pontins holiday camp in Camber Sands, but in its later years it migrated to Manchester University, Loughborough University, Kensington Olympia, two different Butlins sites and then finally Reading University.

Gaming veterans will always reminisce about the show’s high point when it was at Pontins. Effectively subsidised by TSR (and usually run at a loss from their marketing budget) the entire complex was thrown open to every possible type of game. There were Battletech and Star Fleet Battles tournaments, 100+ person live role-play events, hundreds of tabletop RPGs organised by the RPGA, plus a lively trade hall.

When Wizards of the Coast absorbed TSR in 1997 the philosophy was changed to start running the show at a profit. With the advent of collectible games like Magic: The Gathering and Heroclix, the focus of the event moved towards tournaments and organised play. Role-playing was given short-shrift by comparison (although key games such as D&D were still represented).

Although I first went to GenCon UK as a punter (which resulted in some hilarious stories – including GMing while asleep, and winning a 50-person Paranoia LRP that closed with a drunken parade through the bar) I was lucky enough to get an insider’s view on many of the subsequent shows. Working with the Vampire Elder Kindred Network and White Wolf I maintained a presence running tournaments for Vampire: The Eternal Struggle. Then working with my friend at WotC I ran demos of M:TG and Star Wars Miniatures. Subsequently joining the demo team for Esdevium Games I got to present all kinds of different games – a particular highlight being one of the final Reading events where we ran non-stop games of the just-released Battlestar Galactica board game for four days.

Although GenCon has not taken place for a while in many people’s memories it is still missed. The lively, convivial atmosphere has been difficult to replicate since. The show’s absence in the gaming calendar felt like a hole that needed to be filled. Thankfully in recent years UK Games Expo has stepped in to fill in the void in more ways than one (more on which see below).

Salute

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Salute is a show aimed specifically at wargamers and miniatures enthusiasts. Organised every spring by South East London Warlords Games (SELWG) it is a massive affair, these days occupying several adjoining units at the Excel exhibition centre in London Docklands.

The hall is normally split between trade stands (selling miniatures, scenery, and/or accessories) and club stands (offering display, demo & participation games). For many years there was also a bring-and-buy stall, but this year for the first time it was abandoned to make more space for other games instead.

As a hobby miniatures wargaming has traditionally been dominated by historical genres and minimalist, ‘simulationist’ style games. However in recent years fantasy and science fiction genres have trended higher. Another recent trend are ‘prestige’ miniatures produced in exquisite detail and in unusual scale, offered not as gaming pieces but purely for painting and display.

In addition to all the gaming, SELWG run an annual painting competition and dish out awards at the end of the show. There are also additional awards for the best display and participation games. All punters get a limited edition miniature in their ‘freebie’ bad upon entrance, and all exhibitors also normally get a show-branded mug for their efforts.

For many years I’ve been attending Salute with my club Frothers Unite! UK, helping to run participation games for the unsuspecting public. Some years our efforts have been quite grandiose – e.g. Frothertown (with a lovely board built by Ian Brumby or Fenris Games) or the amazing Planet of the Apes and Dune dioramas by Matt Parlour.

Some of our offerings have been more esoteric, but have led to us winning SELWG’s ‘Most Innovative Game’ award at the show. Our first win was for a Tron Lightcycle game I designed myself and built out of luminous plastic (quite gruelling, but very rewarding).

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Unlike GenCon UK, Salute is still going strong and is likely to be a fixture in the UK gaming calendar for many years to come.

GW Games Day

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The annual Games Day run by Games Workshop is a less popular slot in the calendar as it focuses exclusively on the promotion and sale of Games Workshop products. If you’re after the latest hot Citadel miniatures or a quick Warhammer game with a stranger then this is the place to be.

In more recent years the show has broadened its appeal slightly to include licenced products by third parties – e.g. computers games, and the board games created by Fantasy Flight. There is also a significant presence from Black Library and Forge World.

In the height of GW’s popularity in the 90s they actually ran two shows every year – Games Day and a separate event for the Golden Demon painting awards. Things however have now been slimmed down to one show, which last year saw it occupy the smaller Birmingham Arena instead of the NEC.

My first time at one of these events was in the 90s as an employee. All the staff from our Southend store were shipped up (along with a coach load of fans) to help work the stands at the show. I had the rather unpalatable job of flogging copies of Epic Battles – a large colour softback of pictures and campaign ideas that added very little to their 6mm Space Marine game. We were frisked for cash in our pockets on our way in and our way out, such was the concern about employees stealing from the company. Fun times.

Lately I’ve been back at the show with Esdevium to demo board games, and it’s a pretty captive audience, with kids often queuing at the tables to have a go. The first time Fantasy Flight Games got involved it was actually just me, an FFG guy and a printout of the intro scenario for Dark Heresy (which I had to run over considerable background noise) . Now of course FFG have over a dozen great licensed board games, card games and RPGs (a favourite being Chaos in the Old World) and the presence is much better organised. The last couple of years at the show I’ve mastered my patter for Horus Heresy, which is a beast of a game (but pretty good fun if it’s your sort of thing).

Dragonmeet

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Dragonmeet is another regular fixture in the calendar, and is London’s only dedicated games convention, normally taking place just for one day at Kensington Town Hall. Strong on role-playing there is usually a queue at the door before it opens so people can sign up for the delegate-run games.

Unfortunately the event is quite small so if you miss the signups, then after browsing the trade hall for an hour and trying a couple of demos it can be a struggle to find things left to do. The event is strongly supported by the industry however and there are also usually a few talks/panels/seminars which can be of interest to hardcore gamers.

Over the years I’ve been there to run V:TES and EVE CCG tournaments, and as well as running board games demos for Esdevium I’ve also run intro sessions of the Rogue Trade, Hunter and Changeling RPGs as part of the team.

With myself and many of my friends based in and around London Dragonmeet is a great focal point and a good excuse to meet up, play games, and afterwards to head to a local pub for dinner and drinks.

This year I hear they are extending the opening hours of the show to stop people wandering off. We’ll have to see how that goes, but I’ll definitely be there.

UK Games Expo

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Conceived originally as the more local Birmingham Games Expo, this event has quickly outgrown its roots (and original site) to become a national, headline affair. Deemed by many as the spiritual heir to the old GenCon UK (see above) UKGE is now the nation’s biggest general hobby gaming event.

Last year in 2013 it moved to the new venue of the Birmingham Hilton Metropole by the NEC, allowing punters to take accommodation on the same site for the first time, and this year it returned (and expanded on) the same site. This year it was crazy busy, with an incredible, buzzing (bzz!) atmosphere.

UKGE supports all kinds of games, with areas dedicated to miniatures and game tournaments, and huge industry presence with many companies showcasing their latest games. There are also panels and talks, plus usually a dearth of bloggers and journalists taking interviews and reviewing the wares on show.

Esdevium, as a the major games distributor in the UK has a strong presence here and normally pulls out all the stops – putting on giant versions of Pandemic, Ticket to Ride and Castle Panic. Last year they had a special Death Star trench board shipped over by Fantasy Flight especially from the USA, and this year they had a show stopping giant Star Trek Attack Wing lent by Wizkids, again from the USA.

The event is definitely the place to be, and the place to be ‘seen’ if you have any interest in working within the industry or publishing your own games. Two years running there has been a ‘game resdesign’ competition, inviting new game designers to try their hand and get published. This year there was also be a ‘Dragon’s Den’ type event for people bringing their own prototype games for consideration.

Not only does the show normally fall on my birthday, but this year was particularly special: I was there to showcase my game Waggle Dance, which is currently on Kickstarter. It was very well received at the show, and we’re hoping everyone who saw it will back it and spread the word. If you weren’t at the show, and you haven’t checked it out already then please do!

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Five Collectible Card Games to Re-Publish

In the 1990s following the release of Magic: The Gathering a plethora of different collectible card games (CCGs) hit the marketplace hoping to cash in on the new craze. The scene quickly become crowded with some publishers joining the ‘bandwagon’ without giving much thought to the quality of their products.

Some games were simply terrible, while others floundered because the publisher did not provide the level of support needed to find the right audience. More folded when faced with the patent challenges presented by Wizards of the Coast (the publisher of M:TG).

With hindsight, it is possible to see that the more successful CCGs were the ones which built tournament scenes and loyal player communities. It simply wasn’t enough to just sell the game – you needed to sponsor competitive play and give reasons for your customers to keep coming back for more.

It’s also now clear to see that the market did not have pockets deep enough to support the sheer number of different games in circulation. In fact, many prospective players balked at the monetary investment required to remain competitive in many CCGs.

For this reason we’re now starting to see the re-emergence of games from that era re-published and re-packaged in more modest, non-collectible formats. Fantasy Flight Games in particular has led the way, first by rebooting their own Call of Cthulhu and Game of Thrones card games, and subsequently by re-issuing the classic game Netrunner (originally published by Wizards of the Coast, their third original game after M:TG).

This gives hope to fans of other CCGs which – since the 90s heyday – have sadly fallen out of print. Below is my own shortlist of games that I’d like to see published and played once again.

Babylon 5

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In 1997 Precedence Publishing produced a CCG based on the Babylon 5 and Crusade television show. OThe cards were of minimalist production design with artwork using stills taken from the TV shows themselves. The game could be played with 2 or more players, with the multi-player variant designed to encourage bartering, negotiation and deal-making between players.

To play, each player needed to select one of the sentient races of the B5 universe – to begin with Human, Minbari, Narn or Centauri, although later sets introduced Psi Corps, the League of Non-Aligned World and the Drakh. Babylon 5 itself, along with the Vorlons and Shadows remained non-player factions, although it was possible to benefit from aligning with those factions.

The goal of the game was to be the first player to achieve a certain level of influence points, and often it was not possible to advance your Agendas without the assistance of other players. The game was for the most part well-balanced, with plenty of different strategies to choose from. Like many CCGs there was a trade-off between building an efficient influence engine with few defences, and building a ‘toolbox’ designed to counter a wider range of opposing strategies.

Some of the rules of the game were a little fiddly – for example, the game allowed you gain or lose different types of ‘marks’, but many cards were printed with these marks on them so it was difficult to track when they had been used or not. Nothing however which could not be fixed with a reprint.

Although I’d like to see the game in circulation again I appreciate that basing a game on a 20-year old TV licence that people may not remember or have never seen is a tough sell.

Hecatomb
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One of last new games by Wizards of the Coast, Hecatomb was a high-concept card game where the ‘cards’ were actually made from transparent plastic. Possibly inspired by the small press card game Gloom, the principles of Hecatomb were based around stacking multiple five-sided cards together so that their powers and abilities all showed through the surface of the top-most card of the stack.

The theme was loosely modern gothic horror, with each player summoning various unsavoury entities to collect enough souls to end the world. As in Magic: The Gathering creature activation was representing by ‘tapping’ sideways, and every attack on an opponent to steal souls could potentially be blocked by an opposing creature to trigger a round of creature combat.

Hecatomb was a highly innovative game and it would have fared far better if WotC had not handicapped its chances by releasing every wave of product months later than actually advertised. After three successive times of booking pre-release events and getting no product, most retailers and players simply ran out of patience. Many also found the dark themes of the game much more niche and less suited to a younger audience. With so little goodwill left there WotC simply decided to cut their losses and discontinue the product.

A real gaming tragedy – I am sure that an eco-friendly, non-collectible version would do well in today’s market.

Heresy: Kingdom Come

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Heresy: Kingdom Come was the only attempt by publisher Last Unicorn Games to enter the CCG space. Heresy was also probably the most beautiful CCG ever printed, with gorgeous artwork from the likes of Brom and Bradstreet printed onto full-colour long format (tarot) sized cards.

The world of H:KC was a near-future dystopia where cyberpunk themes collided head-on with a religious armageddon. Wars in heaven and hell had exiled angels and demons to walk the earth side by side with hackers, mega-corporations and cyber-enhanced war machines. Each player would build a deck from a variety of different philosophical factions with the aim of opening a new gate back into heaven. Players could take control of locations both in the real world and in cyberspace and could jack characters in and out of these two worlds. And there was also an angelic council of sorts where the angelic minions of every player could vote.

Needless to say, H:KC was a highly complex game and not for the faint-hearted. It was also a difficult game to master given the number of different mechanics and strategic possibilities. While I’d love to see more people play the game, I appreciate that it was – and will remain – an acquired taste.

Doomtown

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A joint project between Wizards of the Coast, Five Rings Publishing and Pinnacle Entertainment, Doomtown was a card game set in the same ‘weird west’ world as Pinnacle’s Deadlands RPG. The game oozed the theme, with every card serving as a regular poker playing card as well as a special CCG card. And this was not whimsy but an intergral part of the game – many effects required you to ‘pull’ a value from your deck. And in combat between characters you would draw a ‘hand’ of cards to make the best poker hand possible – the different in poker ranks would be the number of wounds that you would deal to or receive from your opponent.

Every player would set up their own ‘street’ of deed cards representing different locations with influence over the town. Each player would then play a number of ‘dude’ character cards who would have the ability to control these locations. If dudes from different factions entered the same deed then a shootout would commence (using the poker mechanic described above). The winner would be the first player to control enough influence to control the town.

Deck construction for Doomtown presented a number of unique challenges. Not only was it mandatory to use 52 cards in your deck (not including jokers) but you had to think very carefully about respective playing card suit and value of every card. You could have multiple 10 of spades cards for example, but that could lead to you playing a ‘cheating’ hand in combat (which could lead to you being punished by your opponents with special cards reserved for the purpose). Spell cards required high pulls to trigger but were typically low-value cards themselves.

The game was originally released in mini-expansions calls ‘episodes’ which advanced the story of the world of the game. Many characters were released again in ‘Experienced’ or ‘Experienced 2’ versions to show evolution over the narrative.

The commercials behind the game were highly complex and ultimately led to the game’s downfall. The mechanics belonged to FRP, who were bought by WoTC, but the world belonged to Pinnacle. When the license between WotC and Pinnacle expired the former chose not to continue the game. AEG picked up the license instead, but made a series of poor decisions – reprinting too many existing cards, failing to properly playtest new cards – which lost a good proportion of the game’s audience. The final set Do Unto Others was issued as a fixed set by mail order only, and was widely considered a ‘farewell gesture’ by the publisher and fans alike.

This entry is actually a little disingenuous as I’m already aware that the game is being rebooted by AEG as Doomtown Reloaded and should be released at GenCon in the USA in August. It’s too early to tell how much the game will differ from the original and whether any old cards will be cross-compatible, but I am certainly looking forwards to see what happens.

Vampire: The Eternal Struggle

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Vampire: The Eternal Struggle (V:TES) was originally reprinted under the title of Jyhad, and was Richard Garfield’s second successful CCG (after Magix and Netrunner) released by Wizards of the Coast in 1994. Based on the gothic-horror Vampire: The Masquerade RPG by White Wolf Publishing, the game had a multi-player–only format which encouraged bluffing, deal-making and back-stabbing to an extent that has rarely ever been seen elsewhere in the hobby. Although the term ‘Jyhad’ had a special context meaning the ages-old war between ancient vampires, the name was changed after the first print run as it was deemed ‘culturally sensitive’.

Each player would build a deck of two parts – a ‘crypt’ of vampire character cards and a ‘library’ of supplementary game cards. Every player would begin with the same starting amount of 30 ‘pool’ and would use that resource to influence out their characters and purchase allies, weapons and locations. Players could only attack the ‘prey’ player to their left, and could only defend against the ‘predator’ player to the right. Originally conceived to give victory to the last player standing, tournament play evolved to award 1 point per player kill, and 1 point for survival – such that in five-player games one did not necessarily have to survive to the end to win the game.

V:TES was carried by WoTC through four different card sets before they discontinued it. It was however a hugely popular game, and the fanbase played it obsessively for years after, to the extent that White Wolf eventually picked up a licence to print the game themselves again in 2000. White Wolf continued to provide support for the game up until their merger with CCP Games in 2006. CCP allowed the game to continue for a few years more but eventually cancelled it in 2010. Although there have been several industry efforts to secure the licence from Wizards of the Coast so far these have come to no avail.

While I have spoken about the game in the past tense, in fact even though it is out of print again it is still alive and kicking, with major community events drawing hundreds of players from all around the world. The official fan organisation the Vampire Elder Kindred Network continues to maintain tournament ratings, and has started publishing its own ‘official’ card sets for organised play.

I must admit a little bias in regards to V:TES and I have long been a fan and community representative. In fact I am also a member of the VEKN Design Team and responsible for a number of official new card designs. V:TES has been a big party of my life – not only has it been a lot of fun to play but it has allowed me to travel the world and meet all kinds of interesting and unusual people.

Of all the games in my list this is the one I’d like to see find a new life and a new home the most. I can only hope one day someone can convince Wizards of the Coast to let it go so that it can have that chance.

Five Great Classic Family Board Games

Although the board game hobby has evolved considerably in the last 30-40 years, one thing that has remained fairly consistent is the mentality of some publishers that family board games don’t actually have to be very good. For some weird reason it’s deemed acceptable to churn out any old rubbish.

I suppose in part it’s because the bar of quality was not set very high by the early leaders in the marketplace. Everybody knows the ‘big names’ such as Monopoly, Risk and Cluedo, even though they are all pretty terrible games. More recently I could point to all the family board games based on Harry Potter and Doctor Who – all of which display a shocking lack of originality, creativity or replayability.

However, despite this general lack of innovation in this area of the hobby a few games have over the years managed to stand apart from the crowd. They may have looked like novelties but they have withstood the test of time as genuinely rewarding game experiences.

These games are very close to my heart. If you have any of them on a shelf somewhere then please don’t underestimate their value. And if you see them going as a bargain in a charity shop or on eBay then please don’t miss your chance.

1) Escape from Atlantis

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Escape from Atlantis was a game released by Waddingtons in 1986 for 2-4 players who compete to save the most people from the sinking island of Atlantis. In the process you can control sea monsters which you can use to harass the other players and stop them from rescuing their people.

The game components alone were enough to convince me. The island is composite of 3d hexagonal sections which you remove piece by piece to represent the slow sinking of the island. Each sea monster is also represented in 3d plastic, as are the boats which you can use to rescue your people.

Although it looks quite cute the game is unequivocally cutthroat. There is some strategy to removing island pieces which your opponent’s people are standing on, and you can also use the monsters to eat boats and people, or blockade an opponent’s escape. The game doesn’t care how many people you save – only that you save the most. Hence sacrifices are common in pursuit of victory.

The game is still in circulation now in a revised version by Stronghold Games with card hexes and wooden pieces. The original version had far superior production values although it is increasingly difficult to get hold of.

2) Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs

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Another Waddingtons game with excellent production values and 3d pieces released in 1985, Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs came complete with rubber dinosaurs, lava and a flapping pterodactyl. Honestly, what more do you need?

The aim of the game was to steal coins from the temple at the far corner of the valley and get them to the exit in the opposite corner without getting eaten by dinosaurs. After moving your adventurer you draw and play an event card, which usually means moving one or more dinosaurs to intercept your opponents.

There was a certain frustration level in getting screwed by the other players on every trip, and eventually the lava would come down and block the whole board off. In fact if I’m honest it wasn’t such a great game, but there was a certain fun factor that made you play over and over anyway.

3) Escape from Colditz

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Sold in a typical long-format box and advertised on TV at Christmas, Escape From Colditz hardly qualified as a family game at all. It’s quite difficult to picture sitting down at the holidays with the folks and deciding who is going to play the Nazis.

Published by Gibsons & Sons in 1973 (and subsequently by Parker) with the input of Major P.R. Reid, MBE, a veteran of the Second World War, the game modelled the attempted escape of prisoners from the legendary Colditz prison in Germany. Sort of a semi-co-op game, each Allied player worked together against the Nazi player’s guards, but ultimately whichever Allied team got the most men out was the winner.

The game was not only long, but tough – an enterprising Nazi player could keep all the POWs in the detention block on almost permanent rotation. And while some of the escape routes were quite feasible (tunnels, cut wire fences) you also needed the right documents once you got out or you’d still fail (shot on the border).

I still bring this one out now and then for nostalgia’s sake – every self-respecting board games enthusiast should try it at least once. To keep it short and sweet though I normally house rule that whoever controls the first POW to successfully escape is the winner.

4) Formula 1

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The first edition of this Waddingtons game was released in 1962 and there have been many reprints over the years. This is probably the best car racing game I’ve ever played – no other game even in recent years has come close.

Every player is given a dashboard of dials to track the speed, brake wear and tyre wear of their car. Each move each turn is dictated by the speed on the dial, and you can accelerate or brake before each move up to certain limits. Get blocked in by the car in front and you have to stop and adjust your speed to match. Go too fast around a corner and make a hazard roll. Hazards usually lead to type and brake wear which make it increasingly hard to control the car.

Although the rules are quite simple, the carefully designed track comes with narrow lanes and bottlenecks which make every decision absolutely crucial. The final lap is often nail-bitingly close.

5) Buffy the Vampire Slayer

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Two different board games were released as officially licensed from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show in the year 2000. The first by Susan Prescot Games for the UK market was dreadful. The second released in the USA by Hasbro/MB was actually pretty awesome.

In the Hasbro version 1-4 players take on the role of the good guys – Buffy, Xander, Willow and Oz. Another player is evil and selects one of four big bads – The Master, The Judge, The Mayor or Adam, which are backed up by a number of other minions. Each big bad has a different objective and the good players win if they stop and kill him.

The board is a grid of squares with different buildings marked all the way around the edge. Different coloured spots allow the good guys to pick up weapons and spells. Black spots let the evil player draw evil cards. Fighting is done with special dice, and if the good guys get bitten by a vampire and don’t take precautions they could become vampires to join the evil side. A circular tracker in the middle of the board tracks the phases of the moon (which influences when the werewolves are in human or wolf form) and a day phase (which forces all vampires to hide indoors).

The game is layered with theme and really captures the spirit of the TV show. It’s also surprisingly balanced and the evil player can easily win if they can separate the members of the group and minimise his or her chances of facing Oz in werewolf mode.