Proposing Future War: SCOUR and SCYTHE

Wolf vs. Blake

Roughly five years ago, and two years after pushing out the Masters and Minions compilation and sorting out material for Jihad Hot Spots: Terra, a random email conversation with a fellow contractor spawned an idea. What if we could detail one of the biggest operations of BattleTech‘s Jihad Era and possibly kickstart a dormant series?

Operations SCOUR and SCYTHE were two major campaigns that I helped orchestrate within our massive canon timeline. They were officially Stone’s biggest combined campaigns of the war, culminating in the emancipation of Terra from the Word of Blake’s choking grasp.

I went so far as to work up a detailed outline and discussed the possibilities with a couple of writers who were free and whom I trusted most.

Alas, the project didn’t gain much traction because shortly afterwards, the Total Chaos idea came up and was chosen instead. At that point, I just folded over into it pieces of what I had conceived in this project.

Since there’s no chance this will ever be done, I’m posting it here as a ‘what if’ possibility for those interested in such things. It’s also a good example of how to build a project pitch for a plot book – if you happen to be involved in development of a venerable game line someday that actually has money to spend.

Proposal: Historical SCOUR-SCYTHE

Three Things I Like About: Illuminati

Illuminati cards

In trying to get back into the swing of things, this latest installment of Three Things focuses on one of my favorite card games from my college era. Illuminati, from Steve Jackson Games (SJG), was a favorite midnight pastime in my dorm and quickly became the go-to game whenever a bunch of us needed a study break. It was common for a resident to wander into the commons room at any hour and find a group of players attempting to rule the world through a network of conspiracy.

Illuminati has each player taking the role of an ominous secret society, often based on a true/urban legend organization. The game is completely tongue-in-cheek, seen in its cards that parodied real world organizations such as the Society for Creative Anachronism, the Congressional Wives, and the Semiconscious Liberation Army.

Conspiracy-inspired

As stated, the game takes a lot of its inspiration from the rampant mythology of civilization about secret societies and organizations. The conspiracy theory angle proved to be popular and the game won an Origins Award in 1982. Future revisions and incarnations garnered additional Origins Awards through the nineties.

The entire object of the game is to take over the world through the use of various shadowy organizations, ultimately controlled by the player’s Illuminatus.

Tools of the Illuminati

The cards themselves were a major hit. Each had a power, resistance, and income value; some had particular alignments. The descriptions were often conspiracy theory in-jokes using typical SJG humor. Groups, when networked together, exerted their influence to absorb or attack other groups not aligned with the Illuminati.

Favorite cards of mine included the American Autoduel Association (an in-joke for SJG’s Car Wars), the Fiendish Flouridators, Robot Sea Monsters, and the Evil Genuises for a Better Tomorrow. Announcing the network chain in play was often hilarious, just from the oddball combinations. “The Gnomes of Zurich, using the Hackers with assistance from the Democrats, Loan Sharks, and Madison Avenue, are attempting to neutralize the CFL-AIO.” And so it went.

Ease of Play

Playing a game was quick to set up and execute. Though you could have a minimum of two players and a maximum of ten, five or six seemed ideal. Each Illuminati had their own characteristics and abilities; maximizing each one while staving off your competitors in order to fulfill the special victory goal took a little practice, but you could do well aiming just at the total power structure goal. Random special cards added a nice level of randomness to the game, enough to disrupt but not destroy your game plan, and of course the luck of the dice could derail your attempts to achieve world dominance.

While not really in production any more The game has morphed with the times, with a few other expansions released over the years. The rules are available via a PDF download, and boxed sets can be found at game dealers and online.

Fnord!

Guest Hosting Spot with STG

I recently did a podcast with the guys at Saving the Game (you may remember them from the two-parter we did back in spring of this year) and the new episode posted today.

I apologize in advance for the weird feedback echo that apparently follows my voice around in this ep…

Thanks much to Grant, Peter, and Brandon for the fun and putting up with my chatterbox self.

Three Things I Like About: Adventure

Adventure Cartridge

One of the first Atari games I played on my Sears knockoff system was Adventure. Created as a graphic game based loosely on a computer text game, it was Atari’s seventh best-selling 2600 cartridge.

[begin shameless plug] (I do mention Adventure and other Atari 2600 cartridge games in my book, Games’ Most Wanted. Go buy it.) [end shameless plug]

IMG_4293

Visual RPG

Adventure is the first real graphical roleplaying game I remember playing. It allowed you to have a stash of items, which you had to select one to use at any given moment. You could drop and pick up items without using a text command. And it even managed a ‘fog of war’ effect where much of the catacombs you explored were obscured except what was immediately around you.

So what if the maps were mirror images (thanks to the limited processing power of the 2600). To my eight-year-old mind, it was like playing D&D on the computer screen.

Story

This was also my first true experience with story in a video game. Granted, many arcade games of that time had stories, but Adventure was a game I could play over and over again without burning quarters and on my own time. Plus, the game’s rudimentary use of the game reset switch after you ‘died’ put you back in the gold castle; any objects you had on your person remained where you met your demise.

The story was a quest: find the enchanted chalice and return it to the gold castle. You had to search a myriad of castles, mazes, and other rooms within Adventure‘s world to find the sword, keys, bridge, and magnet you needed in order to succeed in the quest. Oh, and you had to kill three dragons (in the easy version, only two).

Adventure (Atari)

Endless Play

As I mentioned prior, the game allowed you to resurrect your player after death – as long as you didn’t turn off the console or flip the game select switch. Adventure also gave you three play methods: Simple, Standard, and Random. The random version (Game 3 on the select screen) randomized all of the objects in the game, making it a different adventure every time. (This also, on occasion, made it impossible to solve at times.)

Some of my absolute favorite video games – and a feature that weighs heavily in my purchasing and play decisions – are ones with good replayability. I’d like to think Adventure was the genesis of this trait.

So: visual, story, replayability. Three basic and important pillars of how I personally judge video games, and I can trace all three back to Atari’s Adventure console game. It’s not the first video game I ever played, but it certainly is one of the most influential.

Three Things I Like About: Car Wars

Car Wars - Deluxe Edition contents

Back to the Three Things series, done in conjunction with my recently released book, Games’ Most Wanted.

Car Wars, developed and produced by Steve Jackson Games, was a favorite of my high school gaming group. (Yes, all four of us.) We picked up the Deluxe Edition one day during a comic book run; epic city demolition derbys became a common weekend pick-up gaming alternative.

In Car Wars, you took control of a car or other powered vehicle, from motorcycles to semis to tanks and even aircraft. Custom designs allowed you to tweak armor, chassis, weapons, and other equipment so you could survive your opponents’ attacks and dish it right back to them.

Counters, Maps, and Movement

Back in those halcyon days of gaming, cardstock counters were a common sight, rather than precisely detailed metal miniatures. City maps and roads used a grid system; when combined with the Third Edition’s “turning key,” precise maneuvers could be accomplished. Successfully executing a Smuggler’s Turn at 30 mph and then gutting your pursuer with your hidden heavy caliber cannon was hard to pull off but very satisfying.

Later editions adjusted the scale from the 1″=15′ (1:180) to 1″=5′ (1:60), so you could use Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars along with S-gauge scenery.

What my group really liked were ‘chase’ scenarios using the game’s generic highway tiles. Endless ribbons of asphalt allowed a Mad Max style ‘run to the death’ game that was a common staple for us on Saturday afternoons.

Gameplay was relatively simple and ended up being one of my gateways into more hardcore wargaming. Car Wars used a combination of measurements for movement and range, line of sight for weapons fire, and simple dice rolls for resolution. I think getting a grasp on these three basics of tabletop wargaming helped prep me for my college and post-college gaming days. A balance had to be struck using the right number of maneuvers; the harder they were and the more you did, the more difficult the movement and possible success in the result. Failure led to epic crashes…which in all honesty, was half of the fun.

Car Wars: Rouge Arena

Cars, Cars, Cars

The addition of customized rules allowed you to build whatever vehicle suited your style. (My favorites were reverse-trike escorts for a heavily armored semi-truck and trailer combination.) The basic rules built from the standard car chassis and eventual expansions spread the game out to cover virtually every type of vehicle built by man.

You could buy a cardstock version of the counters that were in black and white, giving you the ability to create custom paint jobs for your vehicles.

A typical game was the simple arena-style demolition derby, using a defined area that included buildings, debris, or even an oval track. Tournaments — though I never actually participated in one — were more ladder-style games. These allowed players to upgrade their cars between each round using accumulated in-game cash winnings. The games I saw played at Origins used a detailed scale model set and custom-built car models.

Mad Max

The setting is what initially appealed to my group. Influenced by the Road Warrior movie in the Mad Max series, Car Wars described a post-apocalyptic America suffering from resource shortages and a second Civil War. A new sport called autodueling – armed demolition derbies – arose. Human cloning made driver death irrelevant.

The role-playing aspect of the game had potential but my group never got involved beyond having a few favored drivers and their rides. Our RPG tastes were sated elsewhere, though on occasion I do remember writing short blurbs that summarized some of our arena games, just for fun and amusement.

So there it is. Car Wars, a game predominately from my adolescent years, still holds the nostalgic factor in my game closet. I have a battered copy of the Deluxe Edition I bought two decades ago and it remains in a place of honor on my gaming shelf.

Three Things I Like About: Borderlands 2

Borderlands 2

New series time! With the release of Games’ Most Wanted, I’ve got to do whatever I can to keep it somewhat relevant. (Tell all your friends! Buy copies!) So I think for the next who-knows-how-long [insert time frame here], I’m going to do some quick blogs about games that I’ve enjoyed over the last…well, more than three decades.

We’ll kick things off with Gearbox’s Borderlands 2.

Borderlands 2

1. Insane Weapon Randomizations

Each weapon you run across within the game has several stats assigned to it, such as Fire Rate, Magazine Size, Damage, Elemental Chance, and so on. Coupled with the various color “rarity” levels, these stats are pretty much randomized within weapon classes (such as Sniper, Pistol, SMG, Rocket Launcher, Grenade, and more). This results in a unique weapon for every discovery, for good or ill. Even the set piece weapons that are dropped after defeating a boss have a little randomization as well, varying them from game to game.

What happens is a feeling that is akin to opening presents on Christmas morning. Because of these uniqueness factors – Gearbox boasts that the total combinations are in the “gazillions” – each weapon is like a new gift in your character’s hands. I cannot count how many hours my co-op partners and I spend test-firing those guns that intrigue us, as the effects can also be somewhat interesting.

Coping with this seemingly overwhelming feature is a matter of picking a couple of weapon classes you enjoy most and focusing on those. For example, my Siren character (Maya) – who is just about ready to hit Level 48 – tends to use pistols, SMGs, and rocket launchers. And my favorite weapon of the moment is a newly-acquired rocket launcher that fires a single rocket…that then unwinds into three separate warheads in a spiral pattern, causing untold damage and mayhem. I say “moment” because each weapon is assigned a level – adding to yet more randomization factors – and the farther the discrepancy from your character’s level to the weapon, the less damage it does. So you’re always on the lookout for more guns.

Lots and lots of guns.

Borderlands 2

2. Storyline

The Borderlands storyline is pretty intense in its simplicity. Bad guy, who’s the head of a weapons corporation, wants to rule Pandora and use it as his own weapons testing range. Your job – after he attempts to kill you in the opening story sequence – is to hunt him down and eliminate him.

There’s a lot more to it than that, once you factor in side plots and tie-ins from the previous Borderlands game and its characters. And it all ties in rather nicely, if a bit convoluted. Toss in some sarcasm, humor, and craziness, and its a story that keeps you driving to the end. Handsome Jack’s characterization is so in-your-face you definitely look forward to eliminating him by the time the end comes.

While there is some outright crass humor, it doesn’t dominate and can be ignored simply by turning down the volume during the exchange.

I have to mention the downloadable content (DLC) here as well. With the four DLC add-on missions, as well as the two new character classes and additional skins (character looks), BL2 increases the enjoyment of replay. The DLCs add some depth to the Pandora universe, providing side quests and stories that involve some of the world’s more colorful characters. Actual playtime is pretty decent as well, and you feel pretty accomplished when you come to the end of each one. While the additional classes and skins aren’t necessary to finish the game, they add more to its versatility.

Before anyone asks, I’ll say that Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep is my favorite DLC by far. And I’ll extend that to any other game’s DLC as well. Gearbox outdid itself with this “game within a game” concept. Using familiar tropes and gamer stereotyping that true RPGers are well aware of – if not experienced first-hand – ADK is an experience like no other that I’ve had to date within video gaming. From accidentally overpowered bosses to a changing environment on a whim, to the awkwardness of naming an NPC on the fly, it hits on chords that ring true for hardcore RPGers like myself.

Borderlands 2

3. Co-operative play

I admit, I did try to play Borderlands 2 in solo campaign mode. And it was horrible. I’m not the best first person shooter (FPS) player out there, as my reaction time isn’t pro level and I’m lucky to get a head shot with a sniper rifle on Easy mode in any game.

But I’d bought BL2 with the co-op in mind. With three other players – all three being good friends of mine from my local gaming group – we attacked the game together. The experience has been a bonding one of sorts; nearly every week, we tackle a portion of the game for a few hours of group escapism. It’s been akin to playing in a well-run RPG at the table, something I remember from days of yore. We’ve had our disagreements and some arguments (who wouldn’t?) but overall, we’ve enjoyed coming across the Pandora landscape and its invariable surprises, a camaraderie that has deepened our appreciation for each other and our gaming time together.

So there it is. Guns, story, and co-op play are my top takeaways from BL2. Arguably there are other great things, such as a raft of zinging one-liners, a few memorable characters, and some of the arena-style combat chaos…but comparatively, it’s the shared journey through an enjoyable story with lots of guns that clinches this game for me.