Predator

SH S3E06: Best Sci-Fi Movies

SH S3E06: Best Sci-Fi Movies
Screen Heroes

 
 
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Science fiction is a genre we truly love. From Star Wars to Star Trek, from Terminator and Alien to iRobot and Armageddon. The sci-fi genre has given us some amazing movies, some we love to laugh at, and others that probably should just stay locked away. This week, we bring what we believe to be the Top 5 Best Sci-Fi movies. That’s right, three different Top 5 Sci-Fi movie lists. We try to be objective and keep emotions out of the decisions.

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Top 5 Sci-Fi Movies Podcast Credits

Hosts
Derreck Mayer
Rachel Stewart
Ryan Couture

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Derreck Mayer

Editor
Derreck Mayer

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Michael Wallace (Flying Killer Robots)

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SH S3E06: Best Sci-Fi Movies

Top 10 Board Games of 2015: Part 2

Welcome back to my review of the Top 10 Board Games of 2015.  In this article, I’ll be presenting my Top 5 games released during 2015.  You can read the first part of this article covering Games 6-10 and a few honorable mentions here.

That said, let’s pick back up with the:

Top 10 Best Board Games of 2015

5.  Baseball Highlights: 2045 by Eagle-Gryphon Games

BaseballHighlightsBaseball Highlights: 2045 is a game for two or more players that is supposed to play like watching the SportsCenter highlights of a series of baseball games. You start out with a generic team made up of rookies and a few veteran players of three types: naturals, cyborgs, and robots. Each type of character has a set of strengths, for instance robots tend to generate a lot of hits, naturals are better defensively and draw more fan support, and cyborgs tend to make the best pitchers. Each team has a deck of fifteen cards representing their roster, and only six players will play in each particular outing. Players score a certain amount of revenue based on who played that game which they use to draft new players from the market. In order to place a new player card in your deck, you demote one of the current players from your roster to the minor leagues, ensuring you never exceed your 15-card roster. Single games take maybe five minutes, and most plays typically have you playing several games to start customizing your roster, then playing out a championship series.

I’m not a huge fan of baseball, but this game is just fantastic. The back and forth between players is really exciting, and even though you only get six players per game, the timing of when to play them is really important. Where this game really shines is in it’s ability to stage tournaments. The base game comes with the ability to play four different teams, but new expansion team decks were released that allow you to expand the tournament out and accommodate a lot of players (up to 16 teams) that would make for an incredible larger bracket. There’s so many different strategies you can take as you build out your team: You can sign a bunch of robots to generate runs, but not a lot of fan support; you can build a heavy defensive team to shut down other players; you can try to build a team that generates a lot of fan support to try and recruit a few really powerful hitters; or you can try and sign a bunch of players that try to combo off each other. I love playing this game, and have to say it’s probably the best sports-themed game I’ve ever played.

4.  Specter Ops by Plaid Hat Games

SpecterOpsSpecter Ops is a 1-vs-All game where one player takes on the role of a secret agent trying to infiltrate and sabotage a Raxxon Corporation facility, while the other players play Raxxon Hunters dispatched to chase the agent down and take him out before he can complete his mission and escape. This is a hidden movement game, where the Agent records his movement secretly on a sheet of paper and is only visible to the Hunters when he enters their direct line of sight on the board. The Agent has to sabotage three key mission objectives and escape before either the Hunters can do enough damage to him or reinforcements arrive to pin him in after 40 turns. Each Hunter has a couple of abilities that allow them to narrow in on the location of the Agent, while the Agent is given a couple of limited use pieces of equipment to help them against the Hunters. It makes for a tense game of cat and mouse that’s fast paced and exciting the entire time.

I love this game. I believe this is the best hidden-movement game out there (though I concede there’s a case to be made for Fury of Dracula, which takes twice as long to play as Specter Ops). The variety of Hunters and Agents allows for a lot of replayability. With all the movement recorded on paper, there’s this great moment when the game ends, win or lose, when you can replay the entire mission and relive exactly where the agent was the entire time. There is an additional play mode when you play with five players (Four Hunters and the Agent), where one of the Hunters is secretly a traitor working with the Agent. The rules for this mode are a little clumsy, and I would strongly recommend not attempting this unless every Hunter has played before, but it definitely creates a different experience when you can no longer trust that the information coming from the other Hunters is truthful. I think I prefer playing the ‘standard’ play mode to this variant, but the way it takes a 1-vs-All game and makes it more of a team game is very interesting. All in all, this is a fantastic game, great design, great theme, and one I’m always excited to play.

3.  Legendary Encounters: A Predator Deck Building Game by Upper Deck Entertainment

LegendaryPredatorIf you’ve read some of my earlier articles, you’ll know I’m a huge fan of this game, the Predator franchise, and the Legendary game system. Previous entries in this system, which are set in the Marvel and Aliens universes, are cooperative deck-building games where players recruit heroes or important characters from their respective universes to struggle together to accomplish a get of goals while overcoming wave after wave of enemies along the way. The Predator version of this game allows players to recreate the events of the first two Predator films, which would be enjoyable by itself, assuming you are also a fan of that franchise. Mechanically, I think this is the best implementation of the cooperative Legendary system. Where this game really shines is in the alternate play mode as Predators. The Marvel version attempted to do a semi-cooperative experience where everyone works together but one player does the most good and wins, and that didn’t work at all for me. In this version, they created a truly competitive mode where each Predator is trying to hunt the biggest game, and can scrap with each other along the way, trying to collect the most trophies gathered by killing human characters from the first two Predator films. There’s additionally some expansion cards that allow the Predators to try and hunt Aliens if you also own the Legendary Encounters: Aliens game, which was a major draw for me as well.

This game has everything I want from a good cooperative game. It’s challenging, and forces the players to work together to be successful. It really does a great job of incorporating the story elements from the Predator films. The deck-building aspect of the game is interesting and allows players to specialize and even work together to help other players recruit great cards to their decks. Then you take all those mechanics and flip it around to be a purely competitive game, and it still works perfectly. It should go without saying that the theme of the game is violent, and that theme is reflected in the game art. If that’s something you have a problem with, then I would stick with the Legendary Marvel line, but if you’re a fan of the franchise, or if you enjoy tough cooperative games with strong theme, this gets a solid recommendation from me.

2.  Codenames by CGE

CodenamesCodenames is a party game designed for two teams that draws inspiration from other word games like Taboo or Password. Unlike those games, which typically use time limits to create tension, Codenames places a five by five grid of random words out in front of all the players, then has one member from each team try to give clues to guess which of those 25 words belong to their team. Both clue givers are working off the same grid of words using a clue card that identifies which words within the grid belong to the red team and which belong to the blue team. Some words are ‘unaffiliated’, meaning they just fill up the grid with additional words to be avoided, and one word is the bomb. If any team accidentally guesses the bomb word, they instantly lose that round. Teams alternate giving clues by saying a single word and a number, for example “Fish Three.” This would indicate to my team that I believe three words in the grid of 25 have something to do with fish. They guess a word, one at a time. If they’re correct, you place a card with your team’s color over the word, and they can continue guessing up to the number given in the clue plus one additional guess. This allows you to potentially go back and take another stab at a previous clue you didn’t get right. If the word they guess is unaffiliated or belongs to the other team, you place the appropriate color card, and have to yield play to the other team. And if you guess the bomb word, you lose. The first team to correctly guess all of their words first wins the round.

There’s just nothing quite like Codenames, which feels initially intimidating, but the challenge becomes really rewarding. It works great in just about any group of six or more, though in theory you could play with just four players. This was by far the most requested game by my family this Thanksgiving, appealing to both the gamer and non-gamer. The challenge in the game comes from trying to link as many words as possible in a single clue, as opposed to trying to guess the most words in a minute. You can give clues for a single word, but if you limit yourself too much you can allow the other team to race ahead of you. It’s challenging, but in a good way that leaves you always feeling like you could do better and wanting to try again. This was easily my favorite party game of the year, and for the shear approachability was almost my favorite game released this year.

 1.  Pandemic: Legacy by Z-Man Games

PandemicLegacyThe distinction of favorite game of the year has to belong to Pandemic: Legacy. I’ve been writing a series of playthough articles about my experience with this game, but the short version of my review is that this game is brilliant. It takes the core engine of an already fantastic cooperative game, Pandemic, and adds on top of it a layer of narrative and customization that allows a story to evolve as you play. Pandemic: Legacy tells a story about major disease outbreaks threatening the world that takes place over one calendar year, beginning in January. Each game still operates under the framework of being a standard game of Pandemic, which I won’t try to explain in full here, but is one of the most groundbreaking cooperative games ever designed. Starting with this core system, it then adds unique events and decisions that are revealed piecemeal from a secret deck of cards and multiple hidden compartments, cards, and stickers, that allows (and sometimes forces) players to interact with the game rules and modify elements of the game permanently. This allows a narrative to play out over the course of the year that includes twists and turns, and more than a few surprises. My group at the time of writing this article is currently in the month of November, and the story arc is about to reach its climax. I won’t spoil that here, but every time we sit down to play this game, we’re blown away by how invested in the story we’ve become and always wanting to push farther to see how it will end.

As a hobbyist, I buy a lot of games. This means that I will typically play through a new game a few times, and if it’s a truly great game, it’ll come up in the rotation every couple of months maybe, depending on the mood of my gaming group. The idea of sitting down to play the same game so many times (it takes anywhere from 12-24 plays of Pandemic: Legacy to complete the story line, though I’ve yet to hear of anyone who did it in less than 17) was a little intimidating. My group is sitting currently at 15 games played, and we play two rounds of the game each Friday over lunch. It’s become one of the highlights of my week. Pandemic is a great game, and I would say experience with Pandemic is probably required from at least one player you will be playing with should you decide to try this for yourself, but this just takes that experience to a whole new level. It feels like we’re playing through our own Hollywood blockbuster like Outbreak or Contagion. We’ve spent so much time with our characters that we’ve really become attached. Areas of the world have taken on a life of their own. The experience you have playing this game is only really comparable to playing a great Role Playing Game. The core mechanics of the game start to fade into the background and you find yourself just participating in the story, and trying as hard as you can to succeed in that story. There are moments that have occurred while playing this game that I will never forget. This is the best game released in 2015.

So that’s my list. Did I leave off one of your favorites? Let me know what you think down in the comments below.

Top 10 Board Games of 2015: Part 2

Top 10 Board Games of 2015: Part 1

During 2015, there were thousands of new Hobby Board Games released (just shy of 3000 according to boardgamegeek.com, the largest index of board games), which doesn’t count expansions to existing games. It’s impossible to keep up with so many board games coming out all the time, either from the ever increasing number of small publishers or the surge of Kickstarter projects, so you have to make something either truly great or truly singular to capture people’s attention today. Some have great names (Assassinorum: Execution Force, I’m looking at you), some make big splashes on Kickstarter (Exploding Kittens, which was better than it has any right to be), and some try to ride the coattails of great IP licences (like the new Star Wars Risk Edition, which is actually nothing like Risk and a surprisingly decent board game).

Each year, there are a handful of board games that stand out from the crowd. With Christmas nearing, I’ve put together a list of what I consider to be the Top 10 best board games released in 2015. I’ve had a chance to play each of these games multiple times, and they’re all games I intend to keep in my collection for a long time. With each board game, I’ll give an explanation of the game itself, and why I like it.

Before I do that, however, I want to start with a few honorable mentions. These are games I don’t own and haven’t had a chance to play (though I certainly want to), but each of them possesses something unique that I think makes them stand out from the crowd. In no particular order, here are my honorable mentions:

Honorable Mention:  Elysium by Space Cowboys

ElysiumIn Elysium, two to four players take on the role of a demigod trying to curry the most favor with the Gods on Olympus. Each player is given a set of four colored columns, which form the basic currency of the game. Each of the five game rounds, or epochs, involves recruiting cards and quests, which are separated between a players Domain area that represents the land of the Living, and their Elysium, the land of the Dead. Most of your points are earned based on the cards you are able to move into Elysium. Players compete for the favor of eight gods, though only five are used in any given game, which gives a fair amount of replayability.

If you like games like Seasons or Abyss, you should also enjoy Elysium. The game plays in about 60 minutes, which feels about the right length to get a challenging experience without taking too long to play, though it can be prone to Analysis Paralysis. It’s definitely one to check out if you enjoy Euro-style games.

Honorable Mention:  XCOM: The Board Game by Fantasy Flight Games

XCOMThe XCOM Board Game doesn’t have the frenetic, first-person shooter elements featured in a number of the video game implementations, but does capture the feeling of having to defend the world against an unknown hostile alien force. This is a cooperative game that features a digital companion application that is required to play the game. Lest that put you off, this is probably the best digital element incorporated into any board game to date. The app is more than just narration or instructions, but actually serves to randomize the game and give the aliens an unpredictable A.I. that responds to what the players are doing and how the game is progressing. While the game is capable of being played with one to four players, I would really only consider playing it with a full group of four. This allows each player to take on one of several important roles responsible for making certain key decisions.

There are a couple of reasons I’ve not played this one yet. First, I don’t know someone who owns it. Second, as someone who is not all that well acquainted with the video game franchise, I don’t feel the connection to the franchise to lead me to want to rush out and buy it. Third, the game has a reputation for being very difficult. Some of you might enjoy that, and I certainly don’t mind challenging games, especially cooperative games, but there’s a real-time element that makes the game hard because you will inevitably make bad rushed decisions that add to the difficulty of the game. It’s a game that really requires you to play it multiple times to understand how the game plays before you have a change to be successful. If you’re a fan of the series and willing to run though a few plays that will end badly before you feel like you get it, this one is definitely worth a look.

Honorable Mention:  Mysterium by Asmodee

MysteriumThe easiest way to describe Mysterium is to say that someone took a deck of Dixit cards and made an actual game out of it. That may seem a bit harsh to Dixit fans (I’m not a big Dixit fan myself), but it’s probably more accurate to say that Mysterium is Dixit with theme. In Mysterium, one person plays a murder victim, and the other players are psychic mediums or paranormal investigators who have come to help solve this murder. The victim has a deck of cards much like a standard Dixit deck, and ‘communicates’ with the other players by presenting them cards that represent their dreams. Without any other verbal clues from the victim, the rest of the players are trying to use the clues given to identify the particulars of how the victim died.

I think the main reason I include this board game as an honorable mention is the fact that I don’t really know any other game like this. It’s different and strange, which is usually a selling point for me. The reason I haven’t bought this yet is that this game, more than most others, is very dependent on the group. In the right group, with some ambiance and willingness to dive in, this game can be incredible. In the wrong group, this game can be an exercise in controlled frustration, especially for the victim, who often has to play cards that may not actually have anything to do with the clue he needs them to guess, and has to sit silently and watch while the other plays overanalyze all the wrong details from the card.

So, without further ado, here’s my:

Top 10 Best Board Games of 2015

10.  Apex Theropod Deck-Building Game by Die-Hard Games

ApexThis board game is my sentimental pick, despite it being a relatively obscure game. This game was a Kickstarter project launched by a military veteran that lives in my area, and the artwork to this game drew me in immediately. I would have been happy if all I got was a mediocre game with beautiful art, but I was surprised by how great this game actually is. It’s a deck-building game (similar to games like Dominion and Core Worlds), where you are playing as the brood mother of a particular dinosaur species. You hunt prey that comes out along a cycling game trail, use that prey to feed your babies, and recruit those grown up dinosaurs into your deck. Occasionally a Boss will show up in the game trail that has to be fought off or killed, and the game ends when a giant meteor strikes earth and everyone is rendered extinct.

This game is chocked full of theme, and may be the game I’ve played the most this year. It can play up to 8, though I would never want to play with more than 4 as the playing time increases linearly per player (at about 30 minutes per player), and has a surprising robust single-player mode. It’s tough, but each dinosaur clan has a distinct style of play that takes several plays to figure out and master. There is a chance with some bad card draws early for an incredibly thematic but frustrating ‘death-spiral’ to take place, where your dinosaur gets so messed up and sick from early hunting mistakes that there’s no recovering. I love this game, flaws and all, and when the designer announced he was taking all the feedback and releasing a second edition with refined game play, more player interaction, and more playable dinosaur species, it was a Day 1 Kickstarter purchase from me, as well as several of the people I’ve introduced the game to. I even funded high enough to be allowed to design a card for the new version, which should tell you how much I enjoy this game. It’s really one of the best deck-builders I’ve ever played, and the second edition will be releasing in January/February of next year, so keep an eye out for that one if it sounds interesting to you.

9.  Flick ‘Em Up by Pretzel Games

FlickEmUpI’m not typically a fan of Dexterity Games. For those not familiar with the term, the standard bearer of this genre is Jenga, though the term broadly means any game that has an element of physical interaction (dexterity) required, such as pushing blocks, flicking disks, or throwing pieces. For many of these games, the dexterity element is the game, and the concept of theme doesn’t really apply or is loosely pasted on. This is where Flick ‘Em Up is such an interesting departure.

Flick ‘Em Up is a game that strives to recreate an old-fashioned western shoot out. Players split into two teams of sheriffs and bandits then position their figures in their town ready to go. Players exchange fire by flicking disks at their opponents, with hits registering if you can knock the target figure over. You can also move for better positioning by flicking a rounded disk to maneuver between buildings and behind hay bales or other props. You can move into buildings which grants you cover, but if another person enters that building with you, you engage in a duel, flicking at each other over increasingly shorter distances until one of you emerges victorious and the other is thrown out into the street. It’s brilliant, hilarious fun that works well for a wide variety of age ranges, since flicking is a skill we all suck at.

8.  7 Wonders: Duel by Repos Production

7WondersDuel7 Wonders is a great board game about civilization building that uses card drafting as the primary mechanic. It’s a game that can play anywhere from three to eight players, though I always prefer to play it with the higher player counts. There are two-player rules included with the game, but they’re pretty terrible. Enter 7 Wonders: Duel. This game, designed only for two players, takes the basic concepts of 7 Wonders, and instead of card drafting inserts a game of pyramid solitaire. Unless you’re a big solitaire fan, that probably doesn’t sound very appealing, but they use the mechanic well. Instead of choosing a card from your hand, you can choose from any card uncovered in the pyramid. Some cards start each round face down so you can’t completely predict what cards will be revealed, but there’s a surprising amount of tactical decisions to be made. Add to that major changes to the military and science systems, a changed system for building wonders, and several other system tweaks, and what you have is a really great version of 7 Wonders that feels like the original game, but plays a little faster.

7.  Blood Rage by Cool Mini Or Not

BloodRageThe only board game on this list I don’t own (*yet), Blood Rage was one of the most hyped games coming out of GenCon this year. Thematically, it’s a game about Vikings pillaging the nine Norse realms as Ragnarok begins to destroy the world one realm at a time. Mechanically, this game is a Frankenstein of some of the best elements of other games that works so much better than it has any right to. Take a little card drafting from 7 Wonders, sprinkle in an energy system from Core Worlds, a combat system that’s part Area Control and part Cosmic Encounter, and an empire upgrade system like Eclipse and you get this game that feels familiar and strange at the same time. Oh, and the miniatures. This game features some of the best miniatures of any game I’ve ever seen, which is what you expect from Cool Mini or Not.

I’ve had a chance to play this game a few times now. The theme is strong, and really shines through all the game systems at work here. Blood Rage is unsurprisingly not for the faint of heart. It’s strategic, and brutally punishing of mistakes. Almost every game I’ve played has left someone feeling hard done by. Miscalculations or combat surprises early in a round can severely cripple you for the rest of that round. With only nine territories to compete over, you’ll be fighting multiple times each age, but unlike many direct combat games, winning isn’t everything. In fact, sometimes you’ll send your units deliberately into a fight just so they’ll die and go to Valhalla, since there are several ways to make a glorious death profitable, sometimes even more profitable than winning a fight outright. Then there’s Ragnarok. Each turn, one area on the board is destroyed, and any units in that territory at the time earn glory for their clan simply for having died in Ragnarok. I still don’t feel like I’ve been get my mind around how to win, and I love that.

6.  Tiny Epic Galaxies by Gamelyn Games

TinyEpicGalaxiesThe Tiny Epic series of games has been mostly a dud for me, until Tiny Epic Galaxies, the third in this line of pocket games created by Scott Almes. Tiny Epic Galaxies is a game for one to four players where each player controls a small system of planets and uses ships to try and colonize new systems or raid systems for resources. Actions are determined by dice rolls, and the game rules include a few ways to manipulate dice if you get stuck with an unfavorable roll. There’s two main currencies in the game, energy and culture. Both can be spent in increasing increments to upgrade your empire, but energy can also be spent to take additional rerolls, and culture can be used to copy the actions other players are taking. This leaves you constantly invested while other players are taking their turns, if you have culture to spend. Colonizing new systems earns you points and gives you access to new special powers, and the game ends when the first player reaches 21 points worth of new colonies. Additionally, the game includes rules for an incredibly challenging single player mode, and all of this comes in a box slightly larger than two decks of cards.

The game is surprisingly strategic, and competition over available systems can be incredibly tight, especially when playing with four. There are difficult choices to be made throughout the game, weighing whether to improve your empire, stock up on resources, or push to colonize a system before someone else can steal it. There are also really interesting combos that can be achieved by chaining together actions between systems you control and uncolonized planets. The ability to spend culture to duplicate the actions of other players can be a huge, effectively either giving you additional actions or forcing other players to avoid taking an action they know will benefit you more. The size of the game makes it easy to carry with you just about anywhere, which is awesome for a game with so much depth and replayability. There’s just so much variety in such a small package that I highly recommend it.

This ends Part 1 of my Top 10 Best Board Games of 2015. What did you think of picks 6-10 and my Honorable Mentions? Comment below with your thoughts!

Also, stay tuned for the Top 5 Best Board Games of 2015, coming soon!

Top 10 Board Games of 2015: Part 1

The Magic Circle and the Rise of Modern Board Gaming

Board gaming as a hobby is on the rise, and not just in the United States. Perhaps you’ve barely noticed, wondering why Target or Walmart now has a lot more shelf space devoted to (mostly terrible mass market) games. Perhaps you only play video games and don’t get what all the fuss is about. Perhaps you’ve seen the Wil Wheaton Table Top show on YouTube and wonder how on Earth there can be so many games they play week after week. Perhaps you know someone like me who has a whole closet full of board games of their own and is always proselytizing the hobby. Or perhaps you are already like me, and you don’t wonder why anymore.

Today I want to talk about why we play games and how that relates to why board gaming is on the rise. That’s a pretty abstract concept and one with a lot of room for personal approaches and opinions. We’re going to get a little theoretical and while many of the things I’ll be talking about don’t apply exclusively to board games, my hope is to convince you why so many people are putting down controllers and playing with dice and cardboard instead.

We need to start with some background. When I talk about Modern Board Gaming, I am not referring to many of the games that used to (and in many people’s minds still do) define this hobby. I’m not talking about Monopoly or Scrabble or Sorry or most of the games that many of us played when we were kids. While there’s nothing wrong with those games (except Monopoly, which is a terrible game, but that’s another topic), they just lack something. Playing Scrabble isn’t an experience, it’s a pastime. When my family sat down to play Uno, which we did a lot, it was fun to be together, but aside from the occasional stories of when someone got stuck having to draw a ridiculous amount of cards, playing always felt more like a way to just enjoy spending time together as opposed to playing a great game.

Playing Chun-Li is bad, and you should feel bad...

Playing Chun-Li is bad, and you should feel bad…

As I got older, two games dominated much of my teenage years: RISK and Street Fighter II (for Super Nintendo; it just wasn’t the same experience on Genesis). I had a circle of friends that got together weekly or bi-weekly to play RISK. The games were cutthroat. We had our own set of house rules that had evolved over time, and we loved it. Similarly, many of us really got into playing the Tournament mode in Street Fighter II. Everyone got to pick a character, and we would run through tournaments or call next any chance we could get. That experience also developed it’s own set of house rules (like using Chun-Li was cheap and always a sign of desperation). Trash talking was a requirement at both games.  It occasionally got heated, but we enjoyed playing together and when we weren’t playing, we were talking about things that had happened last time or planning the next time.

The Magic Circle and Gaming

These gaming experiences first introduced me to the game theory concept of the Magic Circle. Johan Huizinga is credited as the originator of this theory. In his work “Home Ludens” in 1955, he describes it like this:

“All play moves and has its being within a playground marked off beforehand materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course… The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc., are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e., forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules [apply]. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.”

A much better description of the Magic Circle can be found on the Extra Credits YouTube channel, a fantastic channel focused primarily on video game design.

The key thing to understand about the Magic Circle is the way it enables experiences. We define a space in which we can change the way we act, change who we are, accept that things behave differently than reality, and as long as we agree to commit to that change in reality and are surrounded by others who also agree to that change, we can actually experience what that world is like. It’s what allows us to act like jerks to our friends in a game, then walk away from it without holding on to that anger (which is usually what happens… usually) because those actions took place within the context of a game where such behavior is expected.

This is not an experience you can get playing Monopoly or The Game of Life; you never actually felt like you were going to college or building hotels, those were just actions you took. In my mind, this experience was perfected by video games with the introduction of split-screen multiplayer. When I try to recall the best experiences I’ve ever had playing video games, it’s been when several friends and I have sat down to play Goldeneye 007 for the Nintendo 64, or Perfect Dark, or Halo 2 on xBox, or Time Splitters 2 on the PS2 (from which I still have a slightly irrational fear of monkeys). We’re all there, sitting in the same physical space, fighting either against each other or against a horde of Bots (or just one DarkSim in Perfect Dark), peeking at each others screens, laughing, trash-talking and playing round after round after round until my fingers hurt.

Anyone who has played this game remembers that sound and the moment of panic when you try to figure out if you're in first place

Anyone who has played this game remembers that moment of panic when you hear the monkeys coming and scramble to figure out if you’re in first place.

Somewhere this experience went away, replaced with online multiplayer.  There are plenty of reasons for this, and plenty of new experiences to be had, but I don’t think it ever spoke to me the way it has others.  Trash talking with strangers through a headset just isn’t the same as trash talking with my friends in the same room.  For me, the Magic Circle broke. MMOs try to recreate that feeling to an extent with guilds and raids, building player communities and relying on graphics and sounds and animations to create the feeling of immersion.  These types of games can create a great single player experience, but I have never felt like that’s a great shared experience, though I will admit that MMOs in general have never been my thing. I found that what I was missing, and what I was really looking for, was that same sense of shared fun I had while playing those great split-screen games.

That’s when I was introduced to the world of modern board games. Games like Monopoly and RISK dominated the gaming world until the 1990s, which saw the release of two huge games that still resonate strongly: Magic: The Gathering in 1993 and Settlers of Catan (now rebranded to be just Catan) in 1995. These two games would bring a massive influx of new gamers into the hobby, and though it began slowly, the hobby has been growing steadily year after year since. Now, there are thousands of games being released annually, and cultural awareness is beginning to seep into the mainstream. But why? Why is it surging the way that it does?

The chief reason I believe they are surging is because of the experiences modern games create. Gone are the days of having to settle for games that just an OK way to kill a few hours on a rainy day. The last five to ten years have seen a wave of games created that are not just fun to play, but which also create vivid, compelling experiences during play. Game designers today understand the power of the Magic Circle and encourage players to commit to the experience of playing their game and embrace the setting and theme. When you do, you get the emotional payoff you get from truly great entertainment. You get stories that endure, and experiences you are eager to repeat. To demonstrate this, I’m going to give three examples of games released recently that I think really excel in this regard and that I’m always looking forward to playing.

Specter Ops by Plaid Hat Games (2015)

specterops

Specter Ops is a One-vs-All style of game where one player plays an agent trying to infiltrate and sabotage an evil corporation’s facility. The other players at the table play hunters trying to track the agent down and eliminate him before he can complete his mission. The agent’s location is secret as long as he remains out of the direct line of sight of any hunter player, and he records all his moves on a pad of paper with a representation of the board map on it. The agent also has a limited supply of equipment he can use to confuse or escape the hunters while attempting to complete his task. The hunters in turn all have special abilities that help them narrow in on where the agent might be hiding or where he wants to go next.  The agent wins if he can destroy three of the four key objectives spread across the board and escape off the board in 40 turns.  Anything short is a victory for the hunters.

This is basically Metal Gear Solid: the Board Game, except the soldiers hunting you are your best friends. Unlike other hidden movement board games, the hunters from the beginning have a rough idea where the agent is hiding. Games feel incredibly tense, with the agent player always sure he’s about to get caught and the hunter players always afraid they’ve been given the slip. During the hunters turn, they all get to scheme together, out loud, to try and figure out how best to track you down while the agent does his best to keep a poker face on, hoping not to be discovered. When the game is over, regardless of which team wins, you have the ability to replay the agent’s turn and relive the match again, discussing where you made clever moves and just how close the hunters were at various points in the game.  I have yet to introduce anyone to this game that hasn’t immediately wanted to play it again.

Legendary Encounters: Predator by Upper Deck Entertainment (2015)

legendary

The Legendary system is a deck-building system, similar to earlier games like Dominion. Players start with a small deck of cards that gives them a limited amount of combat strength and recruiting power that they will use to buy additional, more powerful cards to add to their deck, which grows in power over time. This game recreates the events of the first two Predator films, allowing players to recruit characters from the movies and try to survive, either as humans trying to outlast the Predators, or as Predators tying to hunt the best game and have the largest trophy collection before the end of the game.  Mechanically, this is one of the strongest deck-building games in print right now.  It should be noted this game is for mature players only. The artwork and theme is definitely inline with the movie in terms of violence portrayed.

There are so many great thematic elements woven into the core mechanics of this game. Having the option to play cooperatively against an increasingly difficult assault of mercenaries and Predator attacks feels very tense. When you win, if you do, it’s incredibly satisfying. The game rewards you for working together as a group, so you feel invested the entire time. Where Legendary Encounters: Predator shines compared to its peers is the option to flip the table and play competitively as Predators. Very few of the rules change, but the feeling of the game shifts dramatically. All the mechanics fit the Predator mythology perfectly. And, in a tidbit I feel was designed to make me personally happy, you can combine this version with the Legendary Encounters: Aliens game to play Predators vs. Aliens. I’ve done it, and while I don’t think it’s actually possible to complete the entire scenario, it’s action-packed and brutally unforgiving, which may sound like a bad thing, but not for this franchise. I found it incredibly enjoyable and thematic, and couldn’t wait to play it again.

Dead of Winter: A Crossroads Game by Plaid Hat Games (2014)

deadofwinter

Plaid Hat Games does a tremendous job designing games with great theming. The easiest way to describe Dead of Winter is to say it’s The Walking Dead set in the arctic north. Dead of Winter is a cooperative game for three to five players with a traitor mechanic, similar to games like the Battlestar Galactica Board Game. This means that while all players are working together to attempt to accomplish a common goal, each player also has a personal goal to achieve that may include betraying the rest of the group to their death and your victory. Each player controls a group of survivors who either perform tasks inside the Colony, the survivor’s arctic headquarters, or venture out to various locations in this abandoned town looking for resources. Each game is scenario-driven, meaning there is a specific objective that has to be met to end the game before a certain time limit has been reached and before the colony’s morale is eradicated. A player only wins if both the story objective was satisfied AND if they completed their own personal objective. This creates situations where even non-betrayer players are forced to sometimes make decisions that benefit themselves at the cost of the colony, and suspicion at the table is ever present.

This game is the clearest example to me of a game that really creates and relies on the Magic Circle to be successful. There are survivor-specific events contained in a Crossroads deck of cards which are assigned each turn that help reinforce the narrative immersion in the setting. The game does such a fantastic job of creating suspicion – even without the presence of a betrayer in the game – that really reflects the game setting well. This element perhaps more than any other is what makes this the most successful zombie game (among the many undead hordes of terrible zombie games) ever made in my opinion.  It’s much more concerned with the interactions between characters and players than with the need to continually fight off the undead, though that threat is always there. This game encourages you to be cagy, to distrust your best friends, to know, in your heart of hearts, that one of your friends has been lying to you the whole game, waiting to betray you at just the right moment and win. And when they pull it off, it’s amazing, and all the mistrust evaporates once the Magic Circle is complete. Even having been betrayed on the cusp of victory, the experience you create stays with you.

This is just a very small sampling of the kinds of games being made today. The world of Modern Board Games is growing all the time and the quality is getting better and better. It costs $13, give or take these days, to go see a great movie. For $50, I can buy a great board game, have the experience of living out my own movie with my friends, and can do it over and over again until I get sick of it, with each experience being unique and memorable.

What games do you like to play with your friends?  Which games help you create the best stories?  Let me know in the comments below.

The Magic Circle and the Rise of Modern Board Gaming

Schwarzenegger Supercut

This week, Arnold Schwarzenegger released a supercut of EVERY explosion in EVERY one of his films. That’s right, you’ll see explosions from the original Terminator up through Total Recall, Last Action Hero, Batman & Robin, The Last Stand, and the newest one on the list, Sabotage. Sorry, no Terminator: Genisys explosions in this video… but I’m sure he’ll be back. See… see what I did there?

So why did Schwarzenegger release this supercut? Well, he’s been promoting his new Omaze for “Blow Sh*t Up With Arnold”, which is literally a series of him blowing stuff up in amazing, spectacular ways. The Omaze campaign was a way for you to support the effort and even become a part of it with perks including throwing grenades, firing a rocket launcher, or even working out with Mr. Universe himself! For more information, check out Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Facebook page. He’s quite active on it and definitely worth a follow.

 

OVERKILL – The Schwarzenegger Explosion Supercut Film List

  • Hercules in New York
  • The Villain
  • Conan the Destroyer
  • The Terminator
  • Commando
  • Raw Deal
  • Predator
  • The Running Man
  • Twins
  • Total Recall
  • Terminator 2
  • Last Action Hero
  • True Lies
  • Eraser
  • Jingle All The Way
  • Batman and Robin
  • End of Days
  • The 6th Day
  • Collateral Damage
  • Terminator 3
  • The Last Stand
  • Escape Plan
  • Sabotage

Alright, are you pumped? I know I am! Check out “OVERKILL – The Schwarzenegger Explosion Supercut” below and then let us know what your favorite Arnold explosion is in the comments.

Schwarzenegger Supercut