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Saturday, January 29, 2011

The 40K Dilemma, Part Two

I've already discussed my struggles with deciding whether or not to jump into the Warhammer 40,000 hobby.  One of the issues is which army to get into.  I skipped over that problem in my last post because I knew it was the stickiest of all the issues.  With this post, I would like to discuss the issue.

There are fourteen supported armies in the 40k universe.  Most of those are quite customizable, which means there are a LOT of options.  (The Necron army is the one exception.  There are so few options that there is really only one way to build the army.  Supposedly, they will be getting a new codex next winter.  Hopefully that will expand the options for all the Necron players out there.)

I've thoroughly read the main Warhammer 40,000 rulebook, and have decided that close combat armies that focus on assault are not for me.  That rules out several armies, namely:  Blood Angels, Space Wolves, Tyranids, and the most popular builds of Chaos Daemons and Orks.  The last two can be built to focus on longer-range shooting attacks, although they rarely are, which I can only assume means that they're not actually that good at it.

I like the idea of an army that utilizes a lot of long-range shooting, taking out enemy units from a distance.  It seems, though, that a lot of the traditionally "shooty" armies are paper tigers.  They can hit hard, but they're really fragile.  I'm not sure I like that.  I think I'd prefer something with a bit more durability.  Although Tau, Necrons, Dark Eldar, and Eldar are all supposedly good at ranged warfare, they are also all relatively fragile.  (Again, the Necrons are an exception.  They're actually fairly tough to kill, but they have a special rule that nerfs them pretty badly.  If you kill a high enough percentage of the army, they "phase out," vanishing into the vapor, which is cool and flavorful, but not so good for the Necron player who wants to play an interesting game.  Most Necron opponents ignore the game objectives and just go for phase out.  BORING.)

That leaves five potential armies:  Space Marines, Chaos Space Marines, Daemon Hunters, Witch Hunters, and Imperial Guard. 

Space Marines represent the most basic army.  They're fairly durable, decent at shooting, decent at close combat, versatile, customizable, and have multiple vehicle options for tanks and transports that are all very good.

Chaos Space Marines are very similar to Space Marines, but they serve the Chaos gods.  I'm okay with playing an evil army, especially since they have some interesting customization options when devoting units to a particular Chaos god.

Daemon Hunters are a branch of the Inquisition of the Empire of Man that defends humanity against the Chaos gods and their daemonic minions.  They have access to all the branches of the Imperial armed forces to aid them in their war against the Warp spawn.  Their elite Grey Knight space marines use powerful psychic attacks alongside conventional weapons, and Imperial Stormtroopers, with their powerful Rhino and Chimera troop transports, are feared across the universe.

Witch Hunters are devoted to weeding out heretics and the Warp-tainted enemies of the Empire of Man.  Their laws prohibit them from having "men at arms," so the Witch Hunters of the Inquisition recruit loyal women of the Imperium.  The "nuns with guns" are some of the most loyal and zealous soldiers in the universe, "purifying" the wicked with their blessed flamethrowers. 

I could have dismissed the Imperial Guard for being yet another paper tiger.  They are good at shooting, yet very fragile.  However, they make up for this with numbers.  The Imperial Guard conscripts and recruits billions of soldiers from across the Imperium.  An individual Guardsman is completely expendable, because there are plenty more as replacements.  Guardsman have access to some of the most fearsome tanks in the game, and their foot soldiers can lay down an devastating amount of firepower each round.  I haven't dismissed them as a possibility because, although individually they are very easy to kill, whole units survive because of sheer numbers, giving them a surprising amount of durability.

Now, there are also a slew of interesting fan-made codices as well, such as the Soul Drinkers, the Adeptus Astartes, or the Iron Fists.  But they do not have their own models, which would mean I'd have to convert the models from other armies, and that's just more work than I am really interested in putting into the game at this point. 

So, I can narrow down my options to five armies.  If I look at ideology, I can narrow it further.  Space Marines are, quite frankly, really boring.  Their fluff is just kind of blah.  Tactically, they may be interesting, but for generating a storyline, they fall flat.  Then there's the Witch Hunters, with their Sisters of Battle.  While the models are surprisingly interesting (a lot more cool armor and a lot less cleavage than you would expect), they're a little insane and zealous for my taste.  They kind of scare me.

Now, I can get behind Daemon Hunters, Chaos Space Marines, or Imperial Guard.  I just can't figure out which one most appeals to me!  I can't even decide if I want to commit to the whole Warhammer 40k hobby.  My life is so difficult.

Friday, January 21, 2011

The 40K Dilemma, Part One

I am a huge fan of science fiction. I don't think I could explain why; science fiction just somehow fascinates me. There are a wide variety of science fiction universes out there to choose from. Star Wars. Star Trek. Halo. Alien vs. Predator. Terminator. Asimov's Foundation series. Dozens of intellectual properties (or IPs, for those who want to save their breathe) to feed my hunger.

One IP that has particularly intrigued me for the past year is Warhammer 40,000, commonly referred to as Warhammer 40K, or just 40K. It is a grim depiction of humanity in the 41st Millenium. (That's roughly 39,000 years in the future, for those who haven't been paying attention.) The Empire of Man is vast, spreading across many thousands of solar systems, connected by the Warp, an alternate dimension that can only be safely navigated by psychic "astropaths." Mankind zealously worships the Emperor, dead for millenia, and rigorously pursues all perceived threats to humankind--daemons, heretics, and xenos.

Daemons are sadistic creatures of the Warp who enter our universe to serve the will of the Chaos Gods. Heretics are humans who have succumbed to the seductive power of the Warp and turned their back on the Emperor's Will. Xenos are the many alien races that inhabit the universe: orks, eldar, tau, necrons, dark eldar, and tyranids.

The champions of the war against these threats are the space marines. Although divided into thousands of different chapters, with storied pasts and varied tactics, all space marines are devote in their defense of the righteous, and zealous in their punishment of the guilty.

One of the things I find fascinating about this IP is that it is not a hopeful view of the future. Technologically and culturally, humankind is in shambles. Techpriests worship the Machine Spirit, an embodiment of the Emperor, and are the last threads linking humanity to their once-powerful technological achievements. Despite their love and devotion to the technology of the past, however, techpriests are forbidden to innovate and create new, "dangerous" or "heretical" technologies. Technology, thus, is not merely stagnant, but in decay.

The Empire of Man is constantly at war. That's largely their own fault, since they refuse to get along with any of the xenos that share the galaxy with them, not even the ones who would likely be willing to play nice, like the eldar or the tau. It makes for some exciting story-telling, but it also drains economies and forms an incredibly paranoid society.

For the past year or so, I have been immersing myself further and further into the Warhammer 40K universe. I have listened to podcasts, read blogs, read novels, dabbled in computer games, and recently acquired a card game based in the IP called Space Hulk: Death Angel. (That game is definitely the geekiest thing I own. It's based on a popular miniatures-based board game from the 80s called Space Hulk. The minis game requires several hours of assembly before it can be played, so Fantasy Flight Games developed a cheaper, card-based version that can be played right out of the box.)

One step I have yet to take is the tabletop war game. Like Space Hulk, it is played with miniature figurines, which must be assembled and, typically, painted. The game takes place on a 4' by 4' or 4' by 6' table with sculpted terrain that can be moved around or replaced to make for varied gameplay. The two-inch-tall army men get to march around the table in six-inch chunks, attempting to kill each other by rolling lots of dice and hoping for very high numbers. It's super-duper geeky, but actually seems really fun.

There are several issues keeping me from diving into this game, and it's nerdplosion isn't one of them. Looking like a nerd doesn't scare me. I used to play Magic: The Gathering.

There is, however, the issue of cost, both in time and money. To play a single game requires the purchase of a minimum of a dozen miniatures, which is something along the lines of a hundred dollar investment. Then, there's the matter of having to glue together the figures and paint them. On top of all that work, one has to purchase at least one codex--a guide book that details how a particular army functions. Purchasing the codex of every army is recommended, though, just to be prepared. You're playing a wargame, after all; you should know your enemy.

So let's say I take the plunge and commit to purchasing and assembling a miniature army, and to purchasing and studying several codices. Now I have a second hurdle: finding an opponent. I already know that a local game store holds a 40K night every Thursday night, so that's an option. But I don't really know anyone who plays the game. At least some of my friends play Magic, or Dominion, or Munchkin. Warhammer 40K? Not a single acquaintance. With other games, I can usually get my wife to happily participate. I really don't think she'll want to clear a table-sized area in our tiny apartment to set up two plastic and/or metal armies and roll a bunch of dice. She is willing to help me paint the figurines, which is kind of her. I have the best wife ever. But actually moving theme around with a tiny tape measure and declaring what I want to shoot at? I can see the exact expression on her face at the suggestion, and it involves rolling eyes.

The third part of the dilemma involves the big decision of which army to build. The hobby is expensive enough that supporting multiple armies is infeasible. I could go on for quite a long time about THAT issue, so I'll write another blog post later details my struggles.

So, as much as I enjoy the 40K universe, I'm still undecided. The miniatures game. Is it worth it? I don't know. I can't decide.

Friday, January 14, 2011

The Death of the Game Store

The explosion of Internet services had changed the way America shops.  Merely a decade ago, nobody had hear of Cyber Monday.  Now, the Thanksgiving holiday doesn't JUST mean awesome in-store deals on Black Friday.  It also means that there will be numerous sales online.  I'd bet dollars to donuts that you, dear reader, purchased at least one of your Christmas gifts online, and received at least one Christmas gift that was purchased online.

I can't really blame you.  After all, shopping online tends to be cheaper.  Physical, brick-and-mortar stores have to raise prices in order to accommodate their overhead costs--insurance, electricity, employee paychecks, leasing or buying property.... Depending on their size, most online stores either don't have to deal with such things, or only have to worry about them in a limited sense, such as paying for storage space or paying for server upkeep.  Because of the lower upfront cost, online stores can afford to offer discounts with which brick-and-mortar stores can rarely compete.

There's also the convenience of sitting at home watching reruns of The Office while shopping on your computer. If you're willing to wait up to four weeks to receive the product your bought, that's hard to compete with.  Brick-and-mortar stores win when it comes to speed--if you need a crescent wrench to fix that broken pipe, or an emergency birthday gift, or fresh batteries for your wireless mouse, you aren't going to wait for an online store to ship it to you.

But if you're willing to wait, online stores are hard to beat.  And that's the problem.

Game stores sell (surprise!) games.  Most people are not desperate to get the next expansion of Dominion or Munchkin the day it's released.  Gamers are willing to wait a couple weeks.  They've got plenty of other games, after all, with which to occupy themselves while they wait.  This works out well for online stores.  But brick-and-mortar game stores are really hurting.

In the recession economy, board games and card games did and continue to do surprisingly well.  Yet game stores have struggled to capitalize off this.  They struggle to get gamers into the store, spending money.  Too many gamers are like my wife and I:  We enjoy games, but don't really do the tournament thing.  If we want a good multiplayer game, we just invite some friends over.  Subsequently, we don't hang out at the local game stores.  There's a game shop within easy walking distance, Dragon's Keep.  I have been there perhaps five times over the past year.  Let me tell ya, as much as I enjoy games, I don't like going to this store.  There are too many stereotypical smelly gamers that hang out there.  It makes for an unpleasant environment for those of us who shower and eat the occasional vegetable.

Game stores can't really do much about their parasitic customers--you know, the D&D freaks and the fat Magic: The Gathering players who lack the ability to interact with females.  If you have games and a few tables, such players will be in your establishment.  It just comes with the territory.

Here are some suggestions that game stores can use to make visits by less-frequent customers more frequent:

1.  Be personable.  When new faces walk into your store, smile and make pleasantries.  I loved going to a small game shop not far from my hometown in Illinois called Just for Fun.  The owner was in the store all the time, and he clearly loved his job.  He always greeted customers, asked to help them out, and was quick with suggestions and advice.  He was just a pleasant person to be around, which made shopping in his store a treat.

2.  Know your products.  When I go into a game shop, I am either browsing and looking for a new game, in which case I will find games on the shelf about which I will ask generic questions; or, I have done research and want to know more about a specific game.  In each case, I expect the employee with whom I am speaking to be able to answer my questions.

3.  Take lessons from chain retailers.  Barnes and Noble gets customers into the store (or onto their website) by tempting them with coupons and discounts.  "Sign up for a membership!" they say.  "You'll get ten percent off of everything you purchase!  It's just twenty-five dollars a year."  As a consumer, I think, "Heck, I only need to spend $250 to get that money back.  I spend at least that much on books and DVDs in a year."  Which is true, but I wouldn't necessarily spend that money at Barnes and Noble if they hadn't offered some incentive to do so.  In addition to the member's discount, they also offer coupons.  "Fifteen percent off your next in-store purchase."  It's brilliant.  It gets customers into the store.  And as every store knows, if you can get customers into the store, they will spend money.

I would recommend that game stores attempt the same thing.  Obviously, you can't be as ambitious as a huge chain like Barnes and Noble, but you could still attempt some sort of interesting membership.  "Become a member for fifteen dollars!  For every one-hundred dollars you spend at the store, you will receive a coupon for ten dollars off your next purchase."  The consumer thinks, "Heck, I only need to spend two-hundred dollars to get the membership fee back.  I spend way more than that on games in a year."  Which is true, but now this consumer has a reason to spend that money at your store.

In this hyper-connected world, brick-and-mortar stores no longer just have to compete with other brick-and-mortar stores, but with online stores, which steepens the competition significantly.  Presenting a pleasant atmosphere, being knowledgeable about the games, and creating customer loyalty would help generate revenue for stores that really ought to be doing better than they are.

Also, I wouldn't mind a better snack selection.  Having spent eight hours in a game store for weekend tournaments before, it would be nice to have something better than chips, chocolate bars and soda.  Just a thought.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Silly FPS, that's not how you hold a gun!

I don't tend to enjoy first-person shooters very often.  This is partially because killing lots of people/zombies/aliens/robots/whatever is not inherently enjoyable to me, and partially because FPS games tend to be unintentionally ridiculous.

Now, in many ways it's not their fault.  There is an inherent problem with FPS games:  user interface.  The player's field of view is limited to a flat computer screen, sound is not necessarily correlated with location (unless you get to play with surround sound speaker, you lucky bastard), there is no sense of touch or smell, and the players feet are not actually touching the ground.  These are all sources of information we use to orient ourselves.  Without them, first-person shooters can be a little ridiculous.

Let me give you an example.  I am playing through Deus Ex right now.  Hopefully this time I will be able to finish it, unlike when I played it in high school nearly a decade ago.  The story line and themes of the game intrigue me, and I appreciate the fact that I can play through the game pacifisticly--I rarely have to actually kill anyone, if I am patient, sneak around a lot, and use non-lethal weapons.  In one area, terrorists had seized a subway station and were holding several hostages.  I found a convenient ventilation duct (why do architects make the ducts so large?) and was able to sneak down to the station undetected.  Unfortunately, the ductwork was unlit. (Duh.  Why would anyone put lights in a ventilation duct?)  I lacked night-vision, and would occasionally find myself surrounded by darkness.  I could not orient myself by feeling the sides of the duct and crawling forward, like I would be able to in real life.  Instead, I had to pop a flare every so often to see where I was going, which lead to the occasional confrontation with a gun-wielding badguy, who otherwise would not have known I was there.  I can't fault the game for being this way, but I still find the situation a bit ridiculous.

Aiming is also an issue with FPS games.  For some reason, you always have to be able to see your target in order to shoot at it.  This does not mimic battlefield conditions, where shooting around corners or over a trench without actually peeking are commonplace.  Sometimes you just need to lay down unaimed suppressing fire to make the enemy combatants keep their heads down.  First-person shooters, however, are not designed to allow--or even really capable of allowing--you to move your hands independent of your head.  You can't run for cover while shooting sideways at the enemy, like every action movie hero does.  Your face, torso, and legs must always point the same direction in these games, and your gun must always be oriented to coincide with what your face is doing.  Who actually does that?

Here is an image from a standard first-person shooter.  Now, say you just saw a combatant enter the building and want to keep your gun trained on that entrance in case violence ensues.  Makes sense.  However, you also want to check to your sides and behind you to make sure you're not getting flanked.  Can you do both?  Nope.  You either keep your gun forward, or you look around for enemies to the sides and rear.  If you do the latter, then you have to look with your gun, not just your eyes.

Here is an image from another popular FPS.  The player is in combat, and thus has his or her battlerifle at the ready.  The stock is pressed firmly into the shoulder to deaden the recoil and allow for accurate firing.  That is a very good way to hold a gun when firing.

But just taking a stroll?

This is another shot wherein the rifle is being held in the exact same fashion.  My question is:  why?  The player seems to just be having a conversation with another soldier, possibly about the giant ostrich egg the blue soldier discovered.  There is no reason to hold the gun at-the-ready.  But it is.  All the time.  No matter what game, no matter what gun, it is always held ready-to-fire.  If I went around like that all the time, my arms, back, and neck would ache after just a few minutes.  Yet these super-soldier characters we play as seem to be able to do it for days.

Now, I can't blame video game companies for this.  There are flaws within the FPS interface that are not their fault.  However, these minor inconsistencies with reality make it difficult for me to completely suspend my disbelief.  It makes the game slightly more difficult to get into.  That is not an issue when the game has a plot, character, or setting that intrigues me.  But I can only shake my head at all the various iterations of Tom Clancy's Medal of Battlefield Warfare II:  Call of Recon Duty.  They all just seem the same to me.

(Seriously, can you tell which World War II shooter this is from?)

Wednesday, January 5, 2011


I played Warcraft II. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I played Warcraft III. It was... okay. I played World of Warcraft. I didn't get it.

Why do people play that game?!

Okay, okay, I can understand the psychology behind the addiction. The game is designed to lure players in and keep them there for as long as possible. The longer they keep playing, the more money Blizzard makes off them, thanks to subscription fees. Players are sent off on hundreds of little quests, collecting items and performing various menial tasks in the hope of gaining experience/items/notoriety. It's like those lab rats who learn that pushing the red lever will dispense food. Except in WoW, the red lever only SOMETIMES dispenses food. Sometimes, it does nothing. So the rats frantically push the lever, day after day, and every so often they get a randomized reward that makes their little hearts go pitter-pat.

I understand how the design of the game works to keep players coming back. What I don't understand is how anyone finds the game amusing at all. Where's the appeal?

I played the game for a while, years ago. I achieved level 12 before giving up. Understand, it takes a while to reach level twelve. We're talking maybe fifteen or twenty game hours. After all that time, I realized something. I had not yet had enjoyed myself while playing.

Now, it's possible that the game becomes more interesting at higher levels. But I doubt it. From what I've seen and heard, it continues to be formulaic and uninteresting. You talk with someone with a question mark, roam around killing stuff and collecting stuff, talk with the person again, get something from the little adventure. Wash, rinse, repeat. And people will do this FOR MONTHS. Some people have been doing it for years!

I don't get it. When does the game get fun? Someone has to explain this one to me.

Here is one of several problems I have with the game: It doesn't end! Granted, it's a game whose primary goal is to keep players paying the monthly subscription fee, so it's in the companies best interest to keep the storyline, such as it is, going for a long time. This is a great money-making scheme that has worked for television shows, comic books, and horror movie franchises for decades. But it rarely makes for good story-telling.

One of the reasons I prefer Japanese manga to American comic books is because manga writers are much more willing to finish the story. Trigun has a beginning, middle, and end. Once the story finishes, that's it. There is no more. Hope you enjoyed the ride, because that's all you get out of these characters and this universe. But my GOD, it's a fun ride. Batman, on the other hand, has been going for decades, with the occasional gritty reboot. Don't get me wrong; I love Batman. But I could never read the comics. I like my stories to eventually get wrapped up nicely.

World of Warcraft ostensibly is telling a story about a young adventurer who rises to power/fame/glory/whatever. This adventurer apparently makes his or her rise by collecting wolf pelts and fishing at every opportunity, including while raiding enemy cities. This adventurer's story never ends, though. He or she just keeps getting wealthier and more powerful, and probably has to wander around as a ghost every once in a while, looking for his or her body.

I play video games because I am interested in the story. The Zelda games, despite being quite formulaic, tell a fun and engaging story, as well as provide interesting and enjoyable gameplay. Dante's Inferno, a video game released last year, had many flaws, including shoddy cinematography which made combat and platforming unnecessarily difficult, some truly obnoxious puzzles, and an incoherent combat system that was fine when battling bosses and mini-bosses, but made fighting hoards of minions ridiculously easy, albeit somewhat time-consuming and repetitive. Despite all that, I enjoyed the game, because I was engrossed in the storyline.

Deus Ex? Cool storyline.

God of War? Cool storyline.

Dead Space? Very cool storyline.

Resident Evil 5? Terrible storyline, which is partially why it sucked so bad. (Although the fact that you were never alone--you always had a partner with you--made it difficult to feel fear and get a nice adrenaline rush during the supposedly scary situations. Solitude is what makes survival horror games frightening. Take away solitude, and your survival horror game isn't going to work. End of rant.)

World of Warcraft? Storyline is... just a disguise. A mask, to help players forget that they are just performing the same task over and over again. So all you WoW fans, you keep pushing that red lever. I hope you find the reward your looking for. As for me, I'm going to read a book.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

Munchkin Gets a Grudging Thumbs Up

My wife was rather displeased with me when I brought home a copy of Munchkin Bites a couple months ago.  Admittedly, she wasn't in the best of moods at the time and perhaps made a snap judgment, but she tends to stand by her initial assessments.  Subsequently, I feared that there would be very little Munchkin fun going on in our household.  Sigh.

Fortunately, we held a game night with some neighbors a few days later, and we decided to start off the evening with my shiny new Munchkin game as a light, fluffy game before moving on to the heavy stuff.  That plan fell flat, though, when the game ended up taking three hours to finish--and in fact, only ended when I decided enough was enough and let Mike win.  We were all rather new to the game, and with six players, we ended up burning through the Treasure deck.  Eventually, the only things in the deck were one-shot items we kept using to prevent people from winning the game.  They kept getting reshuffled and redrawn, until it was clear that winning the game was technically possible, but mathematically unlikely, accept in the event that someone chose to allow someone else to win.  So that's what I did, because the game had been going for far too long.

Still, the game had mostly been fun.  More importantly, it gave my wife a taste of why it could be fun, so she was willing to give it a chance this holiday season as we visited various relatives.

Munchkin, by Steve Jackson Games, is a series of card games and expansions that satirizes traditional role-playing games.  The original Munchkin game (and the one with the most direct expansions) riffs off Dungeons and Dragons.  Players start the game as an equipment-less, item-less human with no powers and no class (har har).  Each turn, a player "kicks open the door" by drawing a Door card and revealing it.  He or she may run afoul a curse or a trap, or encounter a monster to fight, or he or she may find a Race, Class, or Power card that will grant various useful abilities.  By fighting monsters and using certain cards, players may draw from Treasure cards, hopefully finding useful items to play that will give them bonuses in combat. 

The eventual goal is to reach Level 10 before anyone else.  Levels can be gained by selling 1000 gold-worth of items, use Go Up A Level cards (which often have amusing titles such as Invoke Obscure Rules or Bribe GM With Snacks), or by defeating monsters in combat.  The final tenth level can only be acquired through combat, which makes things tricky and amusing, because players have a wide variety of ways to affect another player's battles.  There is subsequently a lot of player interaction, an element that occasionally fails to turn up in some of the games my wife and I play.  (I'm looking at you, Dominion.)

There is also a trading aspect that further encourages player interaction.  Upon encountering a particularly strong monster, one player can say to another, "If you help me defeat this monster, I'll give you two of the Treasure cards straight off the top of the deck."  In other instances, someone may say, "You're a Wizard, right?  I have this Pointy Hat of Power that gives a +3 Bonus in combat.  It's only usable by Wizards.  Can you offer me anything for it?"

There are plenty of different types of Munchkin games, all of which satirize the stereotypes of your favorite things: cowboys, kung fu movies, pirates, sci fi movies.  They even have a Munchkin Impossible game for all you spy movie buffs!
The art and card names tend to be pretty funny, although occasionally a bit obscure.  I think my wife's favorite moment happened when her brother used Magic Missile to attack The Darkness.  (For those unfamiliar with the reference, please watch this amusing video:  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XHdXG2gV01k)

We already owned Munchkin Bites, and were pleased to receive the original Munchkin game for Christmas.  (Thanks, Alex and Sheena!)  I have to admit, though, after playing the game so many times during the past few days, I'm a bit Munchkin-ed out.  Still, at least I was able to convince my wife that the game is fun.  I'll take that as a win.

 Still, I'll be glad to give the game a little rest.  At least until our next game night.