I am waiting At the counter For the man To pour the coffee
Mad machinimist David Cage is a divisive figure. Some love his dedication to blending a decidedly ’90s television aesthetic with games, striving for fast-tracked cultural legitimacy in telling quote-unquote serious and emotional stories. Others see his efforts as mawkish, awkward attempts at story-telling profundity that bottom out in the kiddie end of the pool. But I cut my teeth on his ultra-Euro science fiction debut, Omikron: The Nomad Soul and it made me a fan. Omikron suffered from being made well before the technology could do the concepts justice. It strained against the limits of 1999’s 3D rendering technology (and an evident shoestring budget) to bring us a video game starring David Bowie that exuberantly poured in elements from multiple genres: brawling, shooting, adventure gaming, navel-gazing — it was like nothing I’d ever seen before.
So being the David Cage fan that I am, I go into Fahrenheit (sold in America as Indigo Prophecy) excited to see what the French auteur and his studio managed to do with this much better funded 2005 followup to Omikron, which was just released for iOS a couple of weeks ago.
If you’re the kind of sophisticated lady or gentleman who peruses Pocket Tactics [I’m revising this in my bathrobe whilst watching COPS –ed.],there are two probable reasons why you recognise the name of Auro. Firstly, it springs from the mind of idiosyncratic designer Keith Burgun, maker of Empire and 100 Rogues. Secondly, it’s “that-game-with-the-thirty-stage-tutorial” [this is not a joke –ed.] where it is possible, nay–likely–that you will lose. A substantial tutorial has come to be seen, within the environment of mobile gaming, as somewhat uncouth, like showing up at a party with a lengthy list of dietary demands. A sophisticated game, the sages say, should usher the player into the game with a minimum of fuss. Thirty levels of tutorials? You might as well use the Ludovico technique, surely.
But look at Auro. Look at those gorgeous, Toriyama-esque character designs and chunky sprites. That’s not an unfriendly game is it? Auro’s tutorials are indeed, though brief, rather thorough. But it only does it because it cares, reader. Auro wants you to understand. It wants you to have a good time. It wants you to see how clever it is, and to show you how clever you are.
At first glance, XCOM: The Board Game looks like your typical high-spec Fantasy Flight board game. It’s got loads of detailed plastic tokens, a forest worth of heavy stock cardboard chits, and enough ambiguity in the rulebook to turn the forums at Board Game Geek into a particularly rowdy episode of Jerry Springer.
It’s that rulebook that makes this into something quite different from your usual Fantasy Flight Game. XCOM: TBG doesn’t actually ship with a rule book, which is why I’m talking about a cardboard game on Pocket Tactics: there’s an app.
“You go for a man hard enough and fast enough, he don’t have time to think about how many’s with him.”
There’s a plasma-hot streak of can-do spirit and 1950s pizzazz in Space Age, an unwavering optimism that colors every moment of the game’s pulp adventure. Early space race kitsch is the style here, with our cast of cosmic explorers decked out in fishbowl helmets and garish spacesuits (with hoop skirts for the ladies, of course). Out of this crew tasked with investigating the alien world of Kepler-16—a crew which includes a suspenders-wearing, toolbox-carrying engineer and an Obvious Love Interest/chief science officer—we have a most average of Seemingly Average Heroes, a lowly private who can barely manage to communicate with his fellows between rapid-fire gees, goshes, shucks, and painfully naïve quips. (Quick paraphrase: “Is there a special girl back home, Private?” “Of course! My mom! Oh, and the family dog’s a girl too, I think. And maybe my neighb- OH YOU MEAN ROMANTICALLY.”)
Space Age is an odd mash-up of action, adventure, and some light (like, lunar gravity light) squad-based tactics. The game itself, as befits the dream of a push-button future, seems to want it all: a little bit of twee sensibility here, a little bit of stealth-game sneakery there, some timing puzzles off to the side and then a big, earnest slice of American apple pie on top. That is a tough ship to get into orbit.
“I want you to get excited about your life,” says Detective Doctor Phil.
The Detail is a police procedural adventure that wears its influences like a badge. It’s channeling NYPD Blue and The Wire just as hard as it can, but the end result isn’t a tribute as much as earnest, po-faced fan-fiction.
Every character in the game is a care-worn cop show sawhorse. The first of the game’s dual protagonists is a grizzled veteran homicide detective who–wait for it–is getting too old for this shit. The other guy is a criminal who’s gone straight, but once he thinks he’s out — they pull him back in. It gets worse, I’m afraid.
The Battle of Fornovo, depicted as complete chaos.
The Early Modern Period is easy to overlook for the wargamer or amateur military historian. The ancient and medieval worlds have bows and swords and charging horses, Napoleon’s men shoot their muskets in rows before fixing bayonets, and 20th century warfare has sexy, sexy tanks and planes and rifles. The 16th century, though, resists characterisation. The medieval pikeman and lancer give way to the musket and pistol in fits and starts. Even the wars are messy, conflicts like the Thirty Years War fought between a dozen sides all fighting for different reasons and leaving a shattered land in their wake. Pike and Shot, extracted from the rich wargame mines of Slitherine by veteran tabletop designer Richard Bodley Scott, explores this under-utilised period. Covering the Thirty Years’ War, the Italian Wars and the English Civil War, does it run the risk that its broad and chaotic subject matter will overwhelm its attempts to offer a comprehensible strategic experience?
The middle of three levels of difficulty. I was unwilling to insult Pocket Tactics readers by showing you the easiest.
It turns out there’s a niche into which I fit perfectly but never knew existed: fans of Everett Kaser‘s games. My love of logic puzzles as a child grew into eager anticipation of each new Analytical Reasoning (that is, logic games) section of the LSAT back when I taught LSAT prep, and has now matured into almost compulsive Honeycomb Hotel play. It has the usual sorts of clues, A and B are in the same row, C is farther left than D, and so forth, but it does it all on a hexagonal board and adds a path which enters and exists each hex exactly once. The hexagon thing is probably the less significant gameplay innovation, but as the official polygon of Pocket Tactics, it gets top billing.
There’s also no avoiding the fact that the graphics hail from the era in which we chiseled our computers out of granite and Lite Brite was advanced display technology. You can choose from several tile sets, but they’re all basically eye broccoli. Like Dream Quest, the aesthetic sends a message; in this case, it reinforces the nature of the game as an exercise in pure logic. It’s a valuable way of filtering players; I expect many users will see a screenshot and instantly move on to something else. Those who don’t are likely open to a sterile presentation of the purest form of puzzle.
Santiago de Cuba is what the kids call a “cube-pusher”. It’s an exercise in resource management in which you turn cubes of different colors into victory points. The theme of shipping goods and wheeling and dealing in Cuba is pasted on and thin as hell. That’s right, Santiago de Cuba is a pure-blooded eurogame.
If you’re new to euros, Santiago is a pretty great introduction. It distills everything great about euros into a very pretty package, and is easy to learn. If you’re already familiar with other cube-pushing euros on iOS–Stone Age and Lords of Waterdeep come to mind–then Santiago de Cuba will feel like an old friend.