The New Campaigners
by Moss Scheurkogel
*THE GAME SHOPPER HAS MOVED!*
The new link for this article is: http://gameshop.com.au/blog/thegameshopper/2012/08/09/the-new-campaigners/
Thanks for your patience.
I like serial games, by which I mean games that have a connected arc across several playthroughs and not the games that come on the back of a corn flakes box (that joke works better when you say it aloud.)
Alas, consistency between playthroughs is not something that board games are set up for. It’s simply not part of the established industry. By the end of Settlers of Catan, you may control a burgeoning industrial nation undergoing a cultural renaissance, but the next time you sit down to play you’ll once again just be a silly little man in a lean-to rubbing two sheep together to stay warm. And this is how it needs to be. If one tyrant continued to rule over the other players solely on the strength of past victories, it wouldn’t be much better than the Olympics, now would it? (Ahah!) For the sake of preserving balance, most games need to reset.
Now, rare as they are, there are a few games that do rail against this temporal loop in an attempt to keep consistency between playthroughs. Risk Legacy, also known as “Consumable Risk,” offers one
particularly bizarre take on long-scale gaming. During each game you permanently change the board with stickers and rip up rule cards that can never be used again based on your decisions. Since most gamers don’t like to destroy the components they just purchased, Risk is taking a real… chance, here. It’s likely that most people are going to laminate the stickers, saran-wrap the board, or do something similarly obsessive in order to avoid the whole “play me 15 times and then buy a new one” business model. Although having a Christmas gift that you can always ask your parents for does have its merits.
Since games like Risk Legacy are so infrequent, most of my experience with ‘campaigning’ have been handcrafted, like a fine artisanal bread. I had a group of friends who committed to an Arkham Horror campaign in which they kept the same characters between playthroughs and retained not just their accumulated gear from each game, but also their injuries, their shattered pelvises, stubbed toes, and rapidly progressing mental instabilities. I thought it was a commendable effort, since Arkham Horror is a scavenging game where you never really want to end it and lose the goodies you worked so hard for. The flaw with their plan is that they were playing Arkham Horror. At the end of each three hour session, every character is hobbling on two broken legs and entertaining a delusional fear of lemon trees. Bringing these shattered heroes back for one more round against the forces of darkness may be appealing and even a little moving, but when you want to set them up against the complete Lovecraftian pantheon it’s going to take more than a magic-Batman-leg-brace to keep them standing.
The problem with homebrew campaigning is that most games follow a method of power escalation that is aimed for one playthrough. Most games will leave you too powerful at the end to keep playing, and games like Arkham Horror balance that power creep with crippling disabilities that will severely hinder any later activity. My girlfriend and I once played a lengthy game of Ticket to Ride in which we each controlled two colours of train cars. By the end of the game we were just sitting there drawing train tickets since we had already encompassed the board and we wanted to see how many points we could blow through. When the deck ran out we just sort of called it.
But now, the Girl and I are playing a new type of campaign that doesn’t carry the same burdens as these previous examples. It’s safe from power creep because there’s nothing to carry over from previous playthroughs. It’s Forbidden Island, back for a second showing here on the Game Shopper, and it’s been keeping me entertained all week.
When Forbidden Island was released, there were a few minor differences between the German version and the English version (as there is with many games.) Namely, the German version contained a page of variant islands that could be set up in place of the traditional board. These variants are more conceptual and less balanced, which means that the challenge flies through the roof on a few of them (the biggest decision in the Atoll is when to flip the table and go watch Mythbusters instead of playing.) Forbidden Island already has a lot of replay value with the adjustable difficulty scale, the unique character types, and the randomly created board. But these extra islands transform that replay value into something greater: the opportunity for a super-nerdy story campaign.
The Girl and I have been doing the following:
- We are playing each island in order, starting with the Island of Shadows.
- We use new characters each time until we have used all six, at which point we reshuffle the roles and start again with new team combinations.
- If we ever lose a game, those characters have drowned and cannot participate in the rest of the campaign.
- If all the characters drown, then we just bring them all back to life as the plucky apprentices of the late experts and keep playing. But we feel very bad about ourselves, like someone who adopts the same breed of dog after their old one dies and gives it the same name.
It’s a campaign that doesn’t skew the balance, but does impose a glorious sense of tension onto each playthrough. Every time I draw the Explorer at the beginning of a game I cringe, because I love the Explorer so dearly and just can’t bear to lose him. Let the Diver be sacrificed to the fell gods of the sea, I proclaim, he loves it down there in the murky blackness! Just leave me my precious Explorer with his clever diagonal mechanics!
For anyone who is looking for a way to revitalize a game that has become stale, adding an overarching continuity between games is an interesting way to raise the stakes. Just be careful to avoid carrying too much over between runs. After all, nobody wants to face down Yog-Sothoth from a MEDIchair.