Robert Frost hates unstructured play

Actually, the relevant quote is “I’d sooner write free verse as play tennis with the net down.”
In the most recent episode (15) of their Magic podcast DeckConstruct, hosts Alex and Dan go to a local Magic scene and ask people what they think of casual play, as well as how they’d define it. The consensus understanding of “casual” is “not tournament play,” as embodied in the phrase “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose.”
There is, of course, nothing wrong with this. If every game were about qualifying for a Pro Tour and a $25 entry fee, I’d be a pretty grumpy camper.
But even in casual play, there must be structure. A lot of the interviewees said that they liked how they could bring “any old deck” to a casual game, no problem. But there is a problem, inasmuch as without any particular rules, it’s hard to say what you can bring. Or, to put it another way, “Sure I can make a deck that sucks, but how do I make sure mine sucks as much as yours?”
In competitive Magic, this is easy. Format? Standard. What can I play? Anything in Standard. Put in the best cards, optimize your deck, try to win. Everyone’s on the same page.
In default casual, it’s unclear. This is social contract territory, because the “rule” really is “try to win, sort of, but not too hard.” If you go into the “tournament practice” area in Magic Online, you will occasionally run into people who haven’t made the best possible deck. You will run over them, and that’s okay. If you go into the “casual play” area, it’s entirely rockier. Hit someone up with a Stone Rain and you may find them complaining publicly that you suck for playing land destruction. Or perhaps not. Who knows? There are no hard-and-fast rules, and this kind of casual play often amounts to “whatever I don’t feel put off by.”
That’s a vague, vague rule to follow.
My preference is for structured play. Rather than the fuzzy implied social contract, set an actual contract. Play Standard. Play Extended. Play Highlander, Pauper, or anything else with defined rules. I want to be on the same page with my friends, whatever that page happens to be. The fundamental problem with the implied contract is that you’re trying to play suboptimally, and there’s no good way for everyone to accurately be equally bad. Someone may well accidentally bring an overly good card to the dance, and then they just keep winning over and over again, which isn’t fun for anyone.
Back when I played Mechwarrior a great deal, we had an explicit agreement across the tournament players to play “faction pure” forces (that is, forces derived all from one faction within the game, a situation not required by the game rules). We did this because pure forces looked better, and because pure forces came with inherent strengths and weakness that mixed-faction forces smoothed out. Had we not formalized this, the one person who didn’t care as much and showed up with a mixed force might well have walked all over the others — whether they really wanted to or not!
In gaming, as in the rest of life, I like my social contracts to be explicit. When everyone’s on the same page, it’s just that much easier to have a good time.

With my infinite time and money…

One thing I have to watch is my tendency to assign myself more projects than I have time for. Be it at work or otherwise, there’s always more interesting stuff to do than time in which to do it.
The corollary to watching how time is spent is making sure I don’t spend money on things I won’t have the time to actually work on. That said, there are some outstanding projects I’d really like to find both time and money for.
The first miniatures game I ever played was Warhammer 40,000 – Rogue Trader, a quirky little game that spawned a vast empire of miniatures gaming and derivative IP in the form of computer games and a burgeoning online world. I’ve held onto my Rogue Trader book, as well as other jewels like Chapter Approved and the Compendium, but I sold the bulk of my miniatures, keeping just the Space Marines:
(Picture found at The Stuff of Legends, a really handy miniatures website.)
Since then, the game world has advanced and grown. The most recent edition of Warhammer 40,000, the fourth edition, features cleaned-up rules but the same rich world, with twenty years of additional material. Among the “new” additions since I last played are the “young” race of the setting, the Tau:
The Tau fascinate me, and a 40K Tau force is one of the ways I’d spend time and money, if I somehow acquired a surplus of both. However, there’s an option even cooler than a 40K Tau force. Far more than Warhammer 40K, my game of choice in the day was Space Marine, a game geared toward larger-scale battles, using smaller-scale minis. Instead of being 28mm tall, a person is 6mm tall — roughly 1:300 scale. I was first drawn to Space Marine — later rechristened “Epic” — by a friend’s copy of the very first epic game, Adeptus Titanicus. AT featured giant war machines from the world of Warhammer 40K, like this Warlord Titan:
Sometime in college, I acquired nine or so Warlord Titans in a trade (I traded away some 40K stuff I was never going to use). Fixing these up is one of those projects that requires no additional money, just time. However, if I once again had that inifnite money and time, I’d also pick up these:
Yup, those are epic-scale Tau, available (at a price) from Forge World. Sadly, as a niche product in a niche category, they’re not cheap. That squad of infantry (called “Fire Warriors,” by the way), would run me about $24, or about $1 for each 6mm-tall soldier. Ouch. That’s way more expensive than my old epic minis cost me, even adjusting for inflation.
Okay, enough of that. Now back to writing a paper.

Games: Tinker and build list

I always have some ideas for games (board, miniature) or modifications to games running around in my head. Here’s at least part of my current idea/tinker list:
Salient – Salient is the name I’ve assigned to each of my successive attempts at rules for my old 6mm Epic line minis from Games Workshop, or anything else living at roughly that scale. In many drafts over the past couple years, I’ve repeatedly carved off big, meaty chunks of complexity. I like the latest version — it’s simple, and it should let me model “people versus cold, heartless aliens” pretty well with minimal fiddliness.
Commands & Colors: Star Wars – Commands & Colors is the basic engine that powers Battle Cry, BattleLore, Commands & Colors: Ancients, and Memoir ’44. As fun and straightforward as it is, I think it would work well with some of the land battles in Star Wars. The assault on Hoth, the battle on Endor, a host of battles from the Clone Wars — it would all work well within this engine. I’d just need to put together some playing pieces and, you know, a full deck of command cards.
Tunable Axis & Allies – The current incarnation of Axis & Allies starts the game roughly in the winter of 1941, just after the American entry into the war. I’d like to have versions “tuned” to different starting times, such as 1939 or even 1936. To do this, you’d need a “war entry” mechanic in the manner of the progress track from War of the Ring that shows how close the various nations are to going on a wartime footing.
MOSPEADA – The ‘human insurgency in alien-occupied Earth’ story told in MOSPEADA would work well, I think, as a card-driven wargame. I imagine that some of the CDGs on the American revolutionary war could be adapted with the most success, although even that has more out-and-out military actions than the MOSPEADA series tended to. A full treatment would model each of the successive attempts by the humans to retake Earth. As the human player, you know the assaults are doomed, but the goal is to cause as much immediate harm as possible and to get motivated troops to the ground, where they can continue to cause problems. I imagine there being a “frustration” track for the Inbit (Invid), showing the Queen’s progressive annoyance with Earth and humans in general. The human goal would be to push this frustration track to some level before all the proactive humans are captured or killed.
Shadows over Couruscant – This adaptation of Shadows over Camelot was suggested in a comment on BGG, forwarded to me by SSO (go acronymns!). The basic idea of the original Shadows is that players play the knights of King Arthur’s round table, going on quests and such — but one of them may be a traitor, secretly trying to destroy the knights. Porting this over to Star Wars, the story would be set during the prequels. Players could play different political figures, or perhaps members of the Jedi council, with one secretly serving the side of the Sith.

Photon torpedos and phasers

Back in the day, FASA released the Star Trek: Starship Tactical Combat Simulator, a wargame depicting ship-to-ship combat in the Star Trek universe. Cataptromancer owned a copy, which I coveted purely for the cool counters. As it happens, it seems to have been a decent, if record-intensive game.
Fortunately, Jason Robinson has converted ST:STCS into a free, downloadable computer game. Now, all the calculations are done “under the hood,” leaving you to allocate power and then maneuver your ship and fire your weapons. It’s a sweet little game, even if I can’t manage to beat an L42B with a Chandley.
It should not shock anyone I know that a computer game that appeals to me is a port of a board game.

The price of old things

As I wrote earlier, I was selling some old minis and other stuff off on ebay last week. Here are the final selling prices:
The Last Starfighter Tunnel Chase game came in the lowest, at $1.25. I guess that 1984 bad-SF-movie nostalgia isn’t strong enough.
Random Eldar came in at $3.50, and the Space Marine diorama at $4.28.
The Chaos Space Marine collection hit $42.75, while the now-rare Melniboneans came in at $52.00.
The Imperial Space Marine boxed set that I bought way back when for $20 sold for $88.78. What’s sad about this is that it would run a person about $110 to field an equivalent number of plastic Space Marines these days, so even though I made a massive profit, it’s still a great deal for the buyer.
Finally, my old Harlequins sold for $97.77, which surprised me until I realized I was offering a complete set — unlike the little groups of Harlequins I’d seen sold on ebay previously.
I hope everyone enjoys their new toys.

Selling nostalgia

Last year, I sold off some Magic: the Gathering “power cards” that were (1) worth a lot of money and (2) not so fun for friendly play, which is all I’m likely to ever do again with my Magic collection. Recently, I did a survey of some of my other game-related items to decide which ones are likely to never, ever be used. Decisions I made:
1) I’m keeping Space Hulk. It’s a great game that I will introduce to y’all who haven’t played it at some point in the future.
2) I’m keeping the Space Marines I’ve put together, pretty much for use with Space Hulk (there’s an issue of White Dwarf Magazine with rules for normal Marines in Space Hulk).
3) I’m keeping all my Epic stuff. I will put together the things I have not yet assembled, Krylon coat all the metal pieces to keep them from oxidizing away, and try playing with the new Epic Armageddon rules set.
4) I’m really not going to do anything with other unused or partially used miniatures, so a whole chunk of nostalgia is going on the ebay auction block. We have:
The old Space Marines boxed set, fit to produce three squads (30 marines). This is a second one that I never assembled.
A bunch of old Chaos Space marines.
32 Eldar Harlequins. These actually saw a reasonable amount of play time, back in the day.
Some other random Eldar.
Marneus Calgar, a Space Marine diorama. So far, this is the only one not selling.
36 Melniboneans, including one or maybe two Elrics. Bought when I thought I was going to participate in a fantasy wargame campaign — they were packaged as Elves, but they’re Melniboneans.
The Last Starfighter Tunnel Chase game. Seriously.

Card planes advance into a new generation

Wings of War, my favorite little card-based “miniature” game of air combat is moving ahead to World War II with the upcoming Dawn of War set, which promises to “support a simulation which must encompass planes with very different flight capabilities and firepower, while still keeping the flow of the combat simple as it is in the WW1 series.”

Axis & Allies Miniatures game

Base Set, featuring 48 soldiers and vehicles from WWII plus detailed hex maps of terrain representing the battlefields of Europe, will be first shown to the public at the Gencon game convention in Indianapolis this August and is set to hit store shelves the following week. A 48-figure expansion, bringing additional vehicles and troops into combat, will follow in December. More expansions are planned through 2006.”