The Daily Worker Placement

Saturday, October 21, 2017

First Martians and This War of Mine: Blurring the Line Between Video and Tabletop Games 

by | published Tuesday, October 10, 2017

As I’ve argued before, we live in the Age of Peak Tabletop, with an unprecedented number of excellent boardgames being released virtually every week and $1.19 billion in sales in Canada and the US according to ICv2. That’s a lot of meeples. But compare this to video games, which accrued $30.2 billion in revenue in the same year in the US alone (source). Profit margins for digital games are also larger, not only because of digital delivery, but also because consumers have been trained to expect to pay $60-70 for a AAA new release on Steam. 

You can thus forgive board game publishers for trying to ride the coattails of their digital rivals. There are two ways to do this: (1) tabletop versions of popular video games; (2) incorporate technology. Publishers know that people drift towards the familiar and comfortable, both in terms of IP and gameplay mechanics. Plus, apps and devices can keep track of fiddly minutiae and inject “wow” factor. 

There’s nothing new about either of these ideas; back in the 70s games like Stop Thief and Dark Tower incorporated electronics pretty well as soon as it became cheap and feasible enough to do so. Hands up if you ever played Clue: DVD Game. And the list of boardgames with videogame themes is a long one: Monopoly: Legend of Zelda, anyone? How about Jenga: Donkey Kong Collector’s Edition 

With the rise of tablet culture there have been more and more tabletop games incorporating digital tech into their gameplay (XCOM, Golem Arcana, and Mansions of Madness, to name but three). This week I’m looking at two tabletop games with very different themes which have a surprising amount in common. One is a port of a popular video game; the other is a sequel of sorts which incorporates a companion app.  

* * * 

First Martians: Adventures on the Red Planet is the long-anticipated followup to Ignacy Trzewiczek’s 2012’s Robinson Crusoe. Using the same basic rules framework, Trzewiczek has moved the action up to Mars. As in Crusoe, each player takes one of four diverse roles with special abilities (astronauts instead of castaways) and a choice of backstories–the latter provide some nice flavour, but I have yet to discover how they affect gameplay (maybe they figure in the campaigns). Each character gets two actions to spend each day, and instead of Friday and a doggie, you get robot helpers to give you more actions. But there are never enough actions to get everything done. 

Inside the HUB (Habitable Units Block–your base), there’s always work to be done repairing, researching, and resting (usually in that priority); or you can take a rover to explore the surface, uncovering “interesting” (ie hazardous) terrain, supplies, samples, and other “interesting objects” depending on the scenarios. 

In the introductory mission, you set up your base’s backup systems and expand the farm; it will probably take a couple of plays to beat at the medium level. The other standalone missions have you unloading the landing capsule, recapturing a runaway probe, gathering nutrients to get plants to grow, and so on. Keeping your dudes oxygenated, fed, and chill is essential–did I mention that managing stress is actually part of the game? Unless you let characters spend time blowing off steam, every once in a while there’ll be a punch-up, wounding everybody.  

There are always situations requiring your attention. The clock is always ticking. And things are always breaking down. At first that’s not a big deal, but leave things too long and soon too many of your systems will be down and no one is sending a supply ship to rescue you this time, Watney. At least it’s not playing out in real time (if that is more your bag, check out Space Alert). 

Everything is coordinated by a free app (available for both iOS and Android), which takes the place of the Event Decks in Crusoe and allows for ongoing and cascading events, making each play different and providing lots of tension. Interestingly, it doesn’t keep track of food and oxygen levels, which it could easily do; I wonder why they decided not to incorporate that into the app? 

The rules, though better-written than Trzewiczek’s previous, still require a lot of flipping around as you’re learning (and be sure to download the latest FAQ/Almanac). The cubes are fiddly, and there really should be more green ones. If you’re easily frustrated by random events and bad dice rolls, you might want to play at Easy level. Since all info is available to everyone, the game is potentially susceptible to the “Pandemic effect” where one player just bosses everyone else around. And of course reliance on an app means that the game has a potentially-limited lifespan. 

I haven’t even begun to plumb the depths of what First Martians has to offer, but from what I can see it has everything I love about Crusoe with a theme so immersive that I feel halfway between Matt Damon in The Martian and a character in a Heinlein novel. 

And yet I was pulled away from it by the second game I’m going to talk about. 

* * * 

The 1992-5 battle for Sarajevo was the longest siege in modern times. Polish developers 11-bit studios drew on those events to ask a simple question: “What about the civilians?” This War of Mine was the result. Released near the end of 2014 on PC and early 2016 on console, the game’s characters were simply trying to survive against cold, hunger, roving militias, and everything else a war-torn urban environment could throw at them. 

The game made its money back two days after release, and currently has a 95% approval rating on Steam. Even before the video game was released, the developers were also thinking of a tabletop version of the game. I know this because the pitch on the game’s Kickstarter page (which launched in May, 2016) mentions that 11-bit had set the ball rolling for the analog version a year previously, meeting with Michal Oracz and Jakub Wisniewski. Oracz is best known for his game Neuroshima Hex, a tactical puzzle of a game set in a post-apocalyptic future. 

The KS for the boardgame funded in three hours–no big surprise, really, given the success of the screen version. Now that the game has reached stores I finally (having missed the KS) got a chance to try it out. 

TWoM:TBG plays out very much like the digital version. The ultimate object is to have at least one character survive, but there are randomly-drawn mini-goals you are aiming to achieve in each of three “Chapters”. 

Characters get up to three actions to search their base, craft stuff, or catch a nap. I say “up to three” because usually they will have fewer due to fatigue, wounds, misery, hunger, or any combination thereof. When night falls, some have to go on guard duty, others go out to scavenge, and maybe one gets a full night’s sleep. Scavenging is a mini-game by itself, handled very elegantly with a deck of Exploration cards. It’s possible to amass quite a bunch of swag–but unfortunately, you can only carry so much, so there’s always an agonizing triage at the end of the night as you decide what you bring back to base. 

Meanwhile, it’s possible that folks have come a-callin’ during the Night Raids phase. You better hope you’ve boarded up those holes and armed your guards with some decent weapons. Finally, the scavengers get back with new supplies, bandages and meds are handed out, and yet more random events happen in the form of Fate cards and “Narrative Actions”. By then it’s dawn again. 

The meat of the game is the “Journal”–a book of numbered paragraphs familiar to those who have played Tales of the Arabian NightsSherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective, or Ambush! It is where you go to look up what happens when a random event happens–and, in this case, also serves as the almanac for the rules. The game promises you can literally play the game out of the box, and the way they do this is provide a small booklet of setup instructions and take you through a sample turn, directing you to the Journal for more detail as you reach each phase of the day. 

As they explain in their notes at the back of the Journal, the designers did this to try to reduce the cognitive load of learning a new game. I think it works well enough–but it does make it a pain to look up something you’ve forgotten because there’s no index or glossary. You have to start with what part of the turn the rule you’re looking for applies to and start from there–but for things like Boarding Up Holes you have to sift through the BGG Rules forums because the damn thing is on the back of one of the Shelter Cards… 

Despite this, I think the game succeeds both on its own and as a port of the video game (which I’ve played a bit). It achieves in tabletop form what the digital version did: portraying the struggle and suffering of non-combatants in a modern war zone. 

* * * 

FM and TWoM have a lot in common. Turns play out in much the same way, beginning with random events, moving on to planning and resolving actions, then caring and feeding for your avatars. Both games are cooperative: in FM, each player runs one character but to succeed you have to work things out as a group, while in TWoM players make decisions as a group for all the Survivors. Both games come with standalone scenarios and campaigns, so people can choose the length of their commitment. The basic goal in each is the same: survival. 

What is interesting is that the game which is a port of a video game chose not to incorporate technology (although there is an optional but not-yet-fully-functional companion app to take the place of the Journal). So TWoM is the “purer” game, more elegant from a game-design point of view–but does that matter to the experience of the game? It will, to some. To me, not so much.  

Both games are by top designers, have high-quality components and art direction, and I believe both will be popular. They’re both games that allow players build and tell a story together, which help to make games more emotionally involving and therefore memorable. 

But of the two I suspect TWoM will sell more on the strength of its tie-in to the video game, and the fact that it’s a bit easier. It’s also easier to cheat at, because you can always shuffle a bad card back into a deck, but you can’t do that with an app.  

On the other hand, FM is published by Portal Games, a well-established company, whereas TWoM is from Galakta Games, a small Polish publisher, and is being distributed by different companies around the world, so they may have more trouble getting copies into stores. 

I think much depends on which theme you find more compelling. TWoM is more immediate and more realistic; FM has a more hopeful “can-do” feel but feels a little more remote. Try both and see what you think.


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