Features// Michael Fox's Table Top Gaming Column

Posted 8 May 2013 16:37 by
Wooo! Games! They're great, aren't they? Admittedly reading about them isn't as good as playing them, but tough, you're here now. I'm Michael and this is another Column About Boardgames. Welcome!

You know when you're watching something on television or reading a book and you get that thought in your head that it'd make a great video game? Us boardgamers get that too, admittedly in a slightly more cardboard related format.

Our dreams see shows and stories transformed into miniatures and boards rather than yet another bog-standard FPS, but that's not to say that licensed properties are always perfect when they end up on the tabletop.

In fact, there's probably as much boardgame shovelware out there as there are crappy videogames. Whether it's a cheap cash-in on the latest kids cartoon or the home version of whatever quiz show you may find yourself watching of an afternoon, so many of the games associated with stuff from other media are so terrible they're barely worth the paper they're printed on. Believe me, I've had plenty sent to me to review, and each time I open one up a little part of me dies inside.

Not to say that they're all terrible ? just most of them. Take something like Doctor Who: The Time Wars, a perfect example of what could be a brilliant game. A trivia game is never the best format but it's often the road publishers go down because it's cheap.

With 50 years of history to select from, you'd expect that there'd be a bit of depth to it but no ? this is actually one of the worst games ever made. Rolling and move? Check. Poorly written questions, packed with mistakes and spelling errors? You got it. Barely tested game mechanisms? Fucking loads of them.

If it feels like the kind of game that someone threw together in a couple of hours following an afternoon down the pub... well, if it walks like a duck and sounds like a duck, it's probably a duck, isn't it? It's the worst example of a cheap, lazy, shoddily produced cash-grab.

Compare it to the solidly constructed, beautifully made Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space RPG from Cubicle 7... it's a world away, but which one sold more? Yeah, you guessed it.

Mercifully, there are a few shining examples out there of licenses being developed not just into something good, but actually something great.

The gold standard from the past few years is undoubtedly Fantasy Flight Games' take on the recent(ish) series of Battlestar Galactica, an incredible effort that manages to capture the spirit of the TV show but still offer an entertaining experience.

Roles are chosen at the start of play, all characters from the programme who have their own strengths and weaknesses, followed by cards that say whether you're a noble Human or an evil Cylon, bent on eliminating the good guys from the universe forever.

Play descends into paranoia almost immediately as everyone attempts to convince everyone else that they're as human as can be. Of course, not everybody can be trusted, so you must work out who you can place your faith in.

Choose wisely and the human race survives. Fail and... well, you know the deal. It's the perfect interpretation of the series, managing to convey the desperation and misery of humanity's last stand. Resources run low, time grows short, and all the while there are traitors in your midst attempting to destroy you with smiles on their faces. It's perfect.

Another more recent release, but equally entertaining, is Gale Force Nine's take on the Spartacus show produced in the US by the Starz Network. Looking at the box you may first thing that Spartacus: A Game of Blood and Treachery would be bloody awful.

But, on cracking it open you'll find a very entertaining affair that again manages to take the source material and transform it into more than just a workable game. In fact, it's way more than that ? it brings together so many parts of the show that it's frankly surprising that they managed to pull it off.

With game turns split into different phases, it's a race to gain the most influence. Intrigue sees players forming and breaking alliances while playing schemes in an attempt take down everyone else while pushing themselves to the fore.

Money is vital for the next phase where slaves, gladiators and equipment are auctioned, as well as the honour of hosting the final section of each round: the Arena battle. Here, two players take part in a battle represented through a frenzy of dice rolling... and it's brilliant. The whole thing is wonderful, a festival of sneakiness and lies, agression and luck, where only the most devious player will end up victorious ? just like back in Ancient Rome.

I know why most companies don't bother to make the effort to create games that barely represent the original license. It's an easy way to get some cash coming in, but at what cost? It's such an irregular occurrence that when something decent comes along it's a huge surprise, but I know that I'd sooner be delighted once in a while than have to break out The Only Way Is Essex Trivia Game again.

That piece of crap was the biggest selling release over Christmas 2012 and that is one heartbreaking fucking thing to see. I don't think most companies will ever admit that they're going for the bottom line over substance in a game, but as long as folks like you and I are buying things like Battlestar and Spartacus, there's at least some who realise that we want quality, not crap.

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