Lost Humanity 13: Top Hats and Candlesticks

Rab Florence wishes he saw the same innovation in video games that he sees in his cardboard children.

These days, I write about board games as much as I write about video games. In truth, I probably play board games more. But to me, a game is a game. And so I can't help but compare what's on offer in the board and card game world to what's on offer on the video game scene.

Board games are beautiful, wonderful things. Just in the last few years, there have been many board games that have challenged gamers' expectations. New mechanics have been introduced. New angles have been taken on old mechanics. Designers are constantly trying to find new ways for players to co-operate, compete and commit terrible acts of betrayal. If you're into board games, you will get used to hearing people say, "Wow, wait until you play this thing. I haven't played anything like it befor0065." You will hear something like that every month. Board game designers understand that players want to be challenged with fresh ideas.

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There are video game versions of tabletop games, but I'm not talking about that. I'm talking about... Oh, just read the column.

When the card game Dominion came along not too long ago, a shockwave went through tabletop gaming, and we're still feeling it today. Many of us were familiar with the notion of "deckbuilding" through games like Magic: The Gathering, but Dominion allowed us to enjoy a form of deckbuilding while playing the game itself. The game was the deckbuilding. One of the most popular parts of one of the most popular genres, the deckbuilding element of a collectable card game, had spawned something that was its own thing and felt completely new. And yet it almost felt like just a timing tweak. Instead of building your perfect deck from a fixed pool of cards away from the game, you do it right now. You do it competitively, here and now, while playing, while your opponent sits by you. It was a real wow moment, and the game has spawned many other deckbuilders, a few of them better than Dominion itself.

And then there is the innovation that is a combination of different mechanics from different genres. The game Catacombs has players flicking little wooden discs that represent adventurers around boards representing dungeons. Players with characters who have bows can flick little arrow discs at enemy monsters, and wizard characters can generate chunky wooden disc barrier spells that provide obstacles for the enemy player's monster-flicking attacks. Suddenly we have a dungeon exploration and combat game that is also a dexterity action game, and it is superb. In a similar vein, the amazing Ascending Empires is a space conquest game that has a great deal of civ-building depth, but your ships travel across the universe by being flicked across the board. You could spend 20 minutes planning a brutal betrayal and have your advance into enemy territory thwarted by a poor flick that sends your battleship flying onto the living room carpet. It's hilarious.

And it's not all about innovation either. Little clever touches that spice up a well-used mechanic can make worlds of difference too. In the board game Fury of Dracula, where hunter players are pursuing a fleeing Count Dracula across the globe, players can choose to draw a card from an event deck. About a third of the event deck aids Dracula, and the rest aid the hunters. When the hunters choose to draw an event, they have to draw from the bottom of the deck. The tension introduced by that blind draw is amazing. It's a tiny thing, but it's a thing completely in the players' control. They can choose not to seek aid and be sure that Dracula doesn't get a lucky boost, or they can play the odds, reach under that deck, and hope for the best. It sounds like nothing, but in play it really flies. Voices are raised and hopes are often dashed.

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Dark Souls takes familiar mechanics and presents them differently, then you die.

I think one of the reasons why Demon's Souls and Dark Souls made so much of an impact with video gamers is that they felt like a true exploration of how to present video game mechanics. Certainly, for me, there was some of that feel I get from my favourite board games. There was a setting that I understood, and a form that seemed familiar, but the approach was entirely new. I felt a bit like I was relearning how to play a video game when I first played Demon's Souls. Those games turned dying, usually a speed bump in other games, into a core element of the game experience. Recovery of souls after death replaced the notion of grinding for experience. And that was just the start of its many subtle twists on common fantasy gaming conventions. It was like settling down with the rulebook of a new board game, and getting my head around how all the gameplay parts fit together. And I love that.

I'd love to see more of it. I'd love to see a fighting game where you draft your moveset before each match. I'd love to see an RPG where each dungeon you enter plays like a pinball game. When an RPG like the brilliant Nier comes along, and I realise a boss battle has turned into a bullet-hell shooter, that just drives me wild. Those are the moments I play games for.

Indie games do it all the time. Free from the pressures of the mass market, designers can toy with new ideas, and subvert all our preconceptions about how games should play. The mainstream video games, the ones we see all over shop shelves, must play safe. They need to pull in as many blind buyers as possible. They need to seem like good, safe gift ideas for the holiday season. That's their role.

We need to recognise that they serve the same role as all those hundreds of ridiculously themed Monopoly games and those constant updates of Cluedo. The Call of Duty automatic weapons are our little metal dogs and the guy from Assassins Creed is our Colonel Mustard.

That's all they are. And I suppose that's okay. Who doesn't like Monopoly?

The Weekly Mini-Review

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Hard Reset lets you go glassy-eyed and inwards on a journey of self-discovery as you dismantle robots with a bomb-gun.

Games I've received - NONE.

So, let me talk briefly about something you might have missed. It's a PC FPS called Hard Reset. And when you've had a hard day dealing with the million indignities that the universe likes to throw at you, it's nice to be able to load up an uncomplicated and gorgeous futuristic shooter and see some sparks fly. Sure, I just blabbed on about how I love to see innovation, but I'm always happy to have a quick game of Blow Things Up, and Hard Reset lets you blow up robots in a shower of ridiculous fireworks. It's important to have games like that in your life. If Van Gogh had access to something like Hard Reset, it's possible that he might not have topped himself. Or he might have stuffed some firecrackers up his arse and set himself on fire. Hard to tell.

I promise I'll mini-review something new next week.

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