Thursday, March 31, 2011

Breaking it Down, Bit by Bit

I have a love affair with game bits, an addiction, a disease. The little plastic ‘Sorry’ pawns and tiny roman numeral Risk “Is” and “Vs” of my youth are dead, as are the 7000 counters in an old Avalon Hill game you had to count and re-sort every time you dropped the box with the crushed, split corner and they went flying around the room, some lost. All these are ancient, outdated garbage stuffed in a landfill under a thousand tons of baby diapers and copies of E.T. for the Atari 2600, lost and gone forever. Even the wooden roads and villages from Catan seem old and plain and boring as publishers go to great lengths making custom components, trying to get their games to stand out.

If I took bits from games in my collection and lined them up in chronological order by release date, you’d see a mock evolutionary ladder that starts somewhere around my Eon edition of Cosmic Encounter and its punched cardboard circles stepping in as the proto-simian and ending somewhere around the Space Hulk 3rd edition Space Marines taking place of modern man.

Not included: pastel camel dung and cleanup crew

I have a copy of Durch die Wüste that came out around the time Mayfair games was importing German editions, slipping a plain, little, white Mayfair sticker on them and inserting poorly photocopied English rules translations. Bought it for the camel pieces, hundreds of them, colored like Easter candy, and I had to have it. Double that for Giganten, another Kosmos big square box I bought around the same time as Durch. It had little oil derricks and jalopy trucks and oil drums. 12 years later it’s getting an English release, finally, with even cooler components. I even forgave Mississippi Queen, which I remember fondly as the first game I ever bought from Rio Grande, for the easy of breaking on the paddlewheel smokestacks.

Not Included: Audio recording of Daniel Day Lewis saying "I drink your milkshake"

There were evolutionary misfires, to be certain. Kosmos made a serious error of judgment with their release of Starfarers of Catan. The plastic spaceship pieces were not only clumsy and kinda pointless but so fragile that an add-on ring was made post-publish because the clips for the booster rockets snapped off pretty much the first time you used them. And the “Avalon Hill” edition of Cosmic Encounter had little plastic ships that were meant to stack nicely and then lay flat in a space-ship style tray, but was just a completely useless and awkward component for a very poor version of the game.

Not Included: a reason for these components to exist

My obsession with components isn’t limited to plastic, it was around this time that I acquired Game of Thrones, the first time I bought a big box game from FFG. Before then I mostly knew them just for light card games like MagBlast and the by-now imploded Diskwars craze, but this had a massive, gorgeous fantasy map, and beautiful CCG quality card art that was only a hint of the quality they would go on to produce. There was also Antiquity, and its stylish design ethic that sets the archeology tone for a cardboard heavy civilization builder.

Not included in world: dragons, beholders or rust monsters

Some games are all bits. My boss was in Germany for the World Cup in 2006 and I found a toy and game shop in walking distance from his hotel and provided him with a list of games that never had US releases. He came back with Nacht der Magier, among others. More of a gimmick game, played in the dark with glow in the dark pieces, but the components sell it well. Wizards gather around a fire in the woods with their cauldrons and engage in magical tug-of-war.

Not included: magic powers to make wizard more appealing to the opposite sex

Lastly would be my love for large, expansive, table space hogging games, for that, I wouldn’t trade my copies of Descent or Space Hulk for their weight in lesser games. For a few years I had a pretty strong addiction to tabletop battle games, and while I don’t miss the painting, or the constant rules expansion and revised editions, I do love a thrilling victory (which I always attribute to skill and strategy) or a humbling defeat (which is always the fault of poor dice rolls). Games like this are a spectacle of massive scope that a pastel colored camel just can’t compete with.

Not included: any hope of survival


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