Three Things I Like About: Lego Star Wars

Let's play Lego Star Wars

Lego. Star Wars. Individually, these are great brands. Together? A phenomenal experience. And when you blend them together into a video game, you get the introduction of Lego as a game series and a revitalization of the company.

As such, the series hits this month’s Three Things… It’s one of the first games I bought when I finally purchased an Xbox console, and I’ve enjoyed all three iterations. The game is so fun and enjoyable, I’ve purchased and played Lego’s Batman and Marvel Super Heroes series as well. It was also the catalyst for starting my renewed love for Legos in general.

So. Three things I like about the Lego Star Wars video game series:

It’s Lego

Let’s face it: part of the charm of Lego Star Wars is that it involves Lego. These colorful bricks have a charm all their own, and when used to build Lego versions of iconic and classic Star Wars vehicles and vistas, that charm skyrockets. Wandering through the L:SW universe is not just about diving into the known setpieces from the venerable sci-fi universe, it’s seeing how Lego re-interprets them. Many of the vehicles and sets that came out later as kits saw their initial creation as part of the game.

Indeed, one of the many things you can do in-game is acquire the hard-to-find components to build mini-kits that you can then use to tool around with on the main staging level or even in some free play areas.

It’s Star Wars

Because yeah, it’s Star Wars. This iconic science fiction phenomena remains an indelible part of modern geek culture. The L:SW series gives you the opportunity to play through each movie storyline – with the classic Lego humorous takes – and even the first two seasons of Cartoon Network’s Clone Wars show.

The games have minifigure interpretations for a few hundred characters, even the bit-part background ones. They are all useable in-game – usually in the free play zones after you unlock a chapter – and each has a special ability of a sort to make them useful.

The light-hearted take on the universe through the minifigs and the humor also makes the game less dependant on Star Wars lore, so even those only casually aware of the universe (like my wife) can play and understand the references in passing. Unlike some hardcore fans, the game never takes itself seriously but still honors the vast universe and its lore.

Disco Inferno

It’s Playability

One of the great things about the Lego video games in all their forms is the playability factor. Yes, it’s aimed at kids, but there’s enough puzzles and critical thinking elements that brings appeal to adult gamers as well. By making each chapter available first as a storyline and then as a free play zone, it encourages replayability.

The first playthrough uses a small selection of characters, with enough skillsets to accomplish the basic puzzles and situations to solve the level. Once completed, the level can then be re-entered as a free play zone, which has additional puzzles to solve through the use of additional character skills not previously available.

There are enough achievement goals for each game that can occupy a player for months. One of the more difficult is the one requiring a complete playthrough of either Episodes 1-3 or 4-6 within a strict time frame. It’s not a goal I ever came close to attaining, but it’s one of the more interesting among the usual fare.

The Lego Star Wars series really captured my attention because it was so different than other video games I typically play. The whimsy of the setting through using the Lego blocks intrigued me to the point that it factored into my eventual dive back into the brand. Other Lego games have found their way onto my console, but the L:SW games remain high on my all-time favorite games list.

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!

Interregnum

Sorry about not posting anything for about a month; this is a busy time of year at my ‘regular’ job, which reaches its peak this week. I ended up jotting down a lot of notes on stuff I want to cover, especially more “Three Things” items. I’ll have new posts, shortly.

In the meantime, you could fill in the gaps by reading some Games’ Most Wanted. Please? And then hit Amazon and B&N and drop a review for us.

Coming soon:

  • I’m a guest on a couple of upcoming podcasts, so watch for those
  • Three Things articles, covering Illuminati, Batman: Arkham, Lego games, Uno, and more
  • General article(s) on Thanksgiving history

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: XCOM Enemy Unknown

XCOM Enemy Unknown

Mentioned in Games’ Most Wanted as a great futuristic game, I thought I’d elaborate on why I really love this alien-invasion squad-based simulation.

Squaddies

A turn-based game, which uses actions rather than continuous movement a la a Real Time Strategy sim, XCOM has great appeal with its in-game team members. You start with four squaddies right in the midst of an operation and the goal from the start is to complete the mission without losing a team member. Recruiting new members is a snap – as long as you have the money – and it becomes a fun challenge to see who of your original four can survive through the game. (I had a sniper maxed to the nines who died in the penultimate turn of the game. Fortunately, he gave his life for the cause, as it opened up the killing shot by my support specialist who was ghosting.)

The customizing of each squad member is pretty cool, right down to their names and countries of origin. It’s more customizable than the original XCOM game from the mid-90s. I tend to customize their armor and look based on their skillset, so I can quickly determine at a glance what their specialties are without having to constantly look at their info. I usually have several “backups” of certain skillsets, such as Assault and Medic, as they often get wiped out by tricky aliens at times.

Col. Luke "Whiskey" Crane

Environment

XCOM’s battle maps contain a lot of terrain and features you can blow up or damage. It may not seem like a big deal to many, but to me it adds to the visceral feel of each mission. Trying to minimize collateral damage, especially when conducting a rescue or relief mission, is something I strive for. And then there are times when you’re on the filling station map and just decide to lay waste to everything because the Chryssalids are closing in…and you just lost your sniper…

While some complain that the maps are too repetitive or that there aren’t enough, I find them to be just the right mix. With multiple angles and object placement, the familiarity can be helpful at times when plotting a strategy or an approach. It speeds up game time, in a way, without really taking away from the game.

XCOM- Enemy Unknown

Difficulty

I’ll say this: XCOM makes you work for your victories. Even on the ‘normal’ level of difficulty, it’s a tough road to push through until near the very end. I’ve had to restart several Hard and Ironman versions because of finding myself outnumbered, outflanked, and outgunned a few times. Small, simple mistakes can be amplified in higher levels of difficulty, making wins more rare – but also that much sweeter.

The original XCOM was the same way; every mission was harrowing, every shadow held an unknown enemy. Nothing spooks you more than sending a scout around a hanger corner and finding two Cyberdisks waiting for you, dropping their grenades right on top of your position and wiping out your scout, the wall, and the medic behind the wall. (Yes, this happened. Yes, I was in awe and infuriated at the same time.)

I’ve been pleased with the console remake of XCOM ever since I first heard of it. The graphics, gameplay, array of tech and weapons, and the DLC that since came out have been fun, and it’s definitely a game I’ll continue to play for as long as my 360 holds out.