Thursday, May 29, 2008

Sort of Miniatures Game Review - Frontiers

Usually, my reviews are funny (or I like to think so, but I may just be conceited. I mean, I know I'm conceited, but maybe I'm not that funny. But I don't care, and I like pretending I'm funny, so I'm not going to quit). Sometimes I mix in a semi-angry rant, but I still make jokes (usually at the expense of people I don't know). But today, I'm going to go a different direction. Today, I'm just going to be a little pissed off.

The game I'm reviewing - Frontiers, by Asmodee US - is not the reason I'm pissed. The game is awesome. I love it, and I'll tell you all about it and do my best to persuade you to buy a copy, because it's one of the coolest games I've played in a while.

I'm pissed today, and have been for a while, because I'm disgusted with Americans who feel a need to insult the French. The entire anti-French sentiment comes out of a political ploy perpetrated against the American people by the people who led us into what has become a mired mess of a war effort, and that national hatred was started because the French refused to stand idly by and allow what many people feel is an illegal war. The French stood up to the greatest military power in the world and said, 'no, that's not right, and it's a bad idea, to boot,' and in return, we renamed all our food. Freedom Fries? Who is the dumb sack of cow droppings who came up with that idea? I wouldn't mind punching that guy right in the testicles.

This is relevant to the game review, I swear. On the surface, Frontiers is a military simulation tactical game - basically, it's a miniatures game with no miniatures. But the theme is a lot deeper than that. It tells the story of an arrogant military force that invades a planet to harvest its natural resources, and is made more poignant by the way that the invaders (the Legion) paint the aliens (the Zirls) as peace-hating terrorists, and justify their aggression by hiding behind a maxim that 'all these enemies hate freedom and want you dead'. Sound familiar?

And it's more relevant because the creators of Frontiers are French. It is pretty easy to see that the creators of the game have a beef with anyone who would invade a country... er, planet for its resources and kill the people who lived there to grab whatever they want.

So right off the bat, I've lost half of you. You're not going to support anything that doesn't wave a big red, white and blue flag and shout, 'hurrah for the conquering heroes (as long as those heroes are Americans)!' And you know what? I can do without you. You laugh right along with me when I make fun of retarded people, philanderers, foreigners and pimps. You chortle and giggle at the poop jokes, the fart jokes, and the copious references to drugs and hookers. But it strikes a little too close to home when I point out that we made a huge mistake in starting the war that we're all suffering through now, and Heaven itself strike me dead if I suggest that the government officials who wanted this war were less than honest in presenting the facts to the American people.

And that's why we make jokes about French surrender monkeys. We point out that they surrendered to Hitler in World War II, but conveniently ignore the fact that the Allies in that war nearly ended up with our asses in a bag ourselves. The Germans beat the crap out of us more than once. And the French Resistance saved hundreds of soldiers during that time, and were some of the bravest soldiers in the entire war.

Well, the French aren't a lot more fond of us than we are of them, and if you ask me, they're a great deal more justified in their righteous indignation. The Legion (the invaders in Frontiers) are a seriously powerful military force taking whatever they want at gunpoint, and the Zirl are fierce freedom-fighter alien insurgents. That should make Americans uncomfortable, because it's not a point of view we like to consider. We're the heroes, right? They're the bad guys, right? It's that easy, right? We have to kill them all, or they'll follow us home, right?

Happily for those of you who still worship at the altar of Bill O'Reilly, Frontiers is a wicked cool game with or without the admittedly obvious political bone-picking. It's essentially a miniatures game, but instead of miniatures, the units are printed on cardstock discs. The tanks are big ovals, and all the infantry units are smaller circles, and there are buildings and craters and bombed-out ruins. You measure your movement with the little rulers that come in the box, and you roll attacks with the die that comes in the box.

Most of the infantry units drop dead the first time you wound them, but a lot of them are double-sided, and when they take a hit, you flip them over. The back side of the bulk of the infantry units has either a weaker unit (like one guy where there were three) or special abilities (like activated energy shields or transformed attack modes). The game requires no unit cards, no pen-and-paper accounting, and is really easy to learn, especially for a miniatures game.

The turn order mechanic is brilliant. At the beginning of every round, you each have a number of order markers based on the composition of your army - leaders grant extra markers, and you lose them when they die. You reveal simultaneously, so two units shooting at each other could both be destroyed. The game moves very quickly once you get the hang of it, and it's an absolute blast.

And it looks great. No, it doesn't cover a table with little plastic people and HO-scale bombed ruins, but the art on all the pieces is painstakingly illustrated and flat-out awesome. The graphic designers who did the card and the rules should earn an award. Even the rulers are incredibly cool. Any nerd worth his underarm body odor would be delighted at the skill with which the science-fiction battle is rendered.

But regardless of whether the game is great or not, I am sure there will be some people who won't buy it because of the political overtones. Too many people still want to mock the French and call them cowards. I'm flat-out sick of it, and the next time you want to say, 'ha, the French are chickens', I'll point out to you that without the French backing our play against the British, there would be no United States. The French were, at one point in time, the greatest military power in the world, and they have had more than a thousand years more history than we have in order to figure out that just because you can shoot something doesn't mean you can own it. Being hesitant to enter in the quagmire that costs us billions of dollars every year does not make them cowards. It makes them smarter than us.

And one more thing - Rush Limbaugh fanboys who hate me for not hating the French can kiss my fat ass.


Great art
Slick miniatures rules that work great
Tons of cool special abilities
Kick-ass body count with bodies everywhere
Provocative theme

Provocative theme

If you're not too disgusted with my political ranting, go here and get a copy of this game. It's awesome. You should own it:

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Board Game Review - Indiana Jones Life

When the average person on the street hears 'board game', one of the first games he thinks of is The Game of Life. It's one of those games that is mostly played by kids, occasionally joined by the parents, when they think an evening of games will make the family bond. You know, just for one night, Little Billy won't try to burn the curtains, Little Jane will decide not to get that tattoo, Dad will actually care more about his family than strippers and Mom won't drink all the cooking wine.

But when actual gamers hear 'Life,' they cringe. The original Game of Life is boring, random and dull. The guy who plays Runebound is not going to enjoy a game of going to college and trying to get rich and breed. I mean, there aren't even any bodies. How can a game be fun if there's no body count?

But then Hasbro up and releases The Game of Life: Indiana Jones. Now gamer Dad is remembering how, when he was 12, he had a bullwhip and a fedora. Mom is thinking about how, when she was in high school, she would have killed a puppy to have Harrison Ford's babies. And the kids see this younger version of the old geezer who just made a movie. And maybe, just maybe, combining Indiana Jones with The Game of Life will be enough to try that bonding family night one more time. Maybe tonight, Dad won't pretend to have a business dinner so he can shag his secretary.

The basic idea of Life has been completely overhauled. Many of the elements are still there - the board is all 3-D, with a cool plastic spinner. But you don't go to college any more. Now you start off at the museum, and that's as close to academia as you're likely to get. You don't get a car, or kids, or a wife, or a job. You're all Indiana Jones - you already have a degree (you call him Doctor Jones, Doll!) and you're not going to get married any time soon. Adventure calls, and you're the man to answer.

There are three different tracks to follow as you play the game, each representing one of the first three movies. Three little plastic relics are located on those paths - the grail, the ark and the burny stones. You want to recover artifacts, recruit partners and avoid traps. You still spin the spinner and then move, but you can choose which path you want, and instead of having exciting cards that read, 'your boss thinks you suck at golf - lose $500', you've got cards that say things like 'steal a relic back from that penis Belloq - draw an artifact.'

So now suddenly Mom isn't thinking about screwing the pool boy, because now Mom is Indiana Jones, and Mom is hooked up with Marion, only Mom is really kind of wishing she was Marion hooked up with Indiana Jones. Little Billy, on the other hand, just keeps hitting the traps to see if he can kill Willie, but at least he's not shoving firecrackers in a frog's butt (in all fairness, I think everyone wants to kill Willie).

The adventure cards tell you when the game is over - there are five special event cards at the bottom of the deck, which somehow make an already totally random game even more random. When you pull the 'game's over!' card, everyone sells their partners and relics (no, Indiana Jones would not do that, but Little Jane sure as hell would) and the person with the most cash wins.

Normally, I'm not going to say nice things about any version of Life. I hate that game. It's one I don't have to play now that my kids are out of third grade, which is nice, because MAN I hate that game. But Indiana Jones Life is a lot more fun than I thought it would be. Sure, it's still pretty random, but now you're not trying to get a corner office, you're trying to cross rickety bridges before Mola Ram can rip out your heart. And since the traps make you lose partners, you even almost have a body count. The game is fun, mostly because of the theme, but also because it's actually a pretty cool contest.

Hardcore gamers are not about to whip this out at game night. You're not going to say, 'hey, fellas, how about we cancel our Road to Legend group and play Indiana Jones Life instead!' But when the family wants to bond to keep Billy from failing algebra, and keep Jane from getting pregnant, and keep Mom and Dad from screaming at each other and threatening to move out, this might be the perfect game for family fun night.


Incredibly cool-looking game
One of the best themes a game could have
Less random than old Life
Way more fun than the original
The spinner is shaped like a fedora

Still not remotely a hobby game
Winning has more to do with spinning and drawing than making the right call

You can only get this one at Target. Here's a link:

Monday, May 26, 2008

Board Game Review - Grand Tribunal

You know how there are all these games that brag that they're endorsed by Mensa? Most of the time, they're crappy abstracts where you stack a circle on another circle, or make some jigsaw piece block all the other jigsaw pieces. And most of the time the rules are really simple, like they were designed for Mensa members with learning disabilities.

Well, I've found a game that definitely should be endorsed by Mensa, because you have to be friggin smart as hell to play it. Grand Tribunal, from Atlas Games, has the capacity to be a fun game, but it will help if everyone around the table already has their doctorate degrees.

The premise doesn't seem that tough - you're making magic items. You research spells and items, put the spells on the items, and then there's a tribunal where they decide who has the best items. Make the best items and you win the game. Piece of cake, right?

Wrong. Dead wrong. Stinking-corpse-in-the-sun-being-eaten-by-crows-and-worms wrong. I can't remember when I played a game that was this convoluted, complicated, and difficult to understand. I'll take a stab at explaining how it works, but I'll be shocked if you can follow along at home.

There are two kinds of cards, items and spells. Well, there are also resource cards, so technically there are three, but you don't get graded for resource cards, so they don't really count, except that they can help you get better scores, so I guess I should say there are three kinds of cards - items, spells and resources.

You have to research the spells and items to combine them. Every turn you can place magic research tokens on your cards (but not the research cards) to try to advance them. Once you've got enough tokens on a card, it becomes active. Before that, it's inactive. But it might not be installed - that doesn't happen until you place an active spell on an active item. And different items can accept different spells, and there are only so many spells that can be placed on an active item, and then you can cast them from the active item, but if you do, that might cost points when it comes to voting, and it will also reduce the total score you get after the tribunal that determines who gets the most points for their items, though you may add a resource card that will increase the votes, thereby increasing your multiplier, and also increasing your score. Still with me? Because I'm mostly lost.

Three times during the game, tribunals occur. These tribunals use voting tokens placed in previous turns to determine what types of items and spells are the most popular. You don't get points just for having popular items, though. What you get is a multiplier. Then you add the base score for the item to the number of spells, plus maybe a resource card, then multiply that number by your multiplier, then do it again for each of your active items. Then you take a Xanax so you can try to relax after having done math usually reserved for high-school seniors taking their SATs.

As if the game wasn't complex enough already, the rules are the least intuitive clusterhump I've ever read. I had to read the rules four times, then play the game and read them again, before I figured out all the things we did wrong the first time we played. Then the second time, half the players still didn't understand how to compute their scores, and some people were aggravated when they didn't understand why they got fourth place and not second.

To make matters worse, I think the authors of the rules put in extra rules as a practical joke. There's a paragraph about discarding your hand, but since all cards are played as soon as you get them, you never actually have a hand, so I still don't know what that part of the rules was talking about. That's not an exaggeration or a joke - even after playing a few times and reading the rules five times, I still don't know what that paragraph tells me to do. We pretended it wasn't there, and were much happier for it.

And don't get me started on the physical design of the game. The voting tokens and research tokens are little plastic tiddly-winks, and they routinely go flying around the room because they actually launch when you accidentally press down on one side. You're supposed to keep the cards organized in a very specific way, to keep from forgetting which items are active and which spells are being researched, but we really could have used a little play mat with these areas clearly marked. All those tiddly-winks are supposed to stack in various spots on the board, but they're so messy that they end up wandering all over the place and confusing everyone so that they keep asking, 'was this supposed to be here?' Little plastic buckets would have been a godsend.

But there's good news - if you can wade through the rules and learn them, there's actually a really fun game in there. It's complicated, sure, but after a few plays, we were all having a really good time. We'll play Grand Tribunal again, and with the number of games I have, that means something. The game is flat-out gorgeous - the art and color and everything else is some of the best graphic design I've seen in board games. The theme is fun and competition can be very intense. It's just a shame that you'll need Stephen Hawking to do your scoring for you, especially because he's so hard to understand.

I can offer a hesitant recommendation for Grand Tribunal. It's not for stupid people, and God help you if you break it out at a casual party. But if you're a seriously hardcore gamer and want a challenge that will exercise your mind and have you planning three moves ahead, Grand Tribunal should be right up your Mensa-card-wielding alley.


Gorgeous graphic design
Intense mental challenge
Lots of planning and scheming and hosing your friends

Unnecessarily complex
Unclear rules
Poor physical design

I like Grand Tribunal, but the learning curve isn't steep, it's a 90 degree incline. If I haven't scared you off, you can get one here:

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Board Game Review - Dirge: Carnage in Crimson

I like games with some killing. That's no secret. So when a game comes right out and says in the title that there's going to be some body count, it gets positive points right off the bat. Dirge: Carnage in Crimson, from Small Box Games, sounds like it ought to be announced by the guy who does commercials for monster truck rallies. You can hear that gravelly, fake-excited voice saying, 'Friday! Friday! Friday! Dirge: Carnage in Crimson!'

And the game delivers on the body count. There are twelve figures in the box, representing mythical creatures from a variety of nationalities. The war priest and the mummy are probably Egyptian. The cyclops is pretty Greek. The giga is... well, honestly, I've got no idea what a giga is. But the point is, all these different critters have a mad love for violence, and they mete out some hardcore ass-whuppin', just like you'll see at a motorcross show, but with wacky monsters instead of dirt bikes.

The game is played on a six-by-seven grid, with clearly-marked starting spaces and little skulls showing where your resurrected critters can come back. You have limited actions on your turn, and to make matters more complicated, some actions leave these mythical hard-ons a little winded. Move and attack with the uat (which, as far as I know, is short for 'uat the hell is that?'), and he won't move again for a couple turns. Use the mummy to bring back a slaughtered ally, and he'll sit around for a few turns, trying to catch his breath. Apparently raising the dead is hard, even for the risen dead.

Every figure has different stats - some are tough as nails, but slow as molasses. Some shield their allies. Some heal. Some hit harder or better. The trick to building your team is to make sure you get a good mix - it doesn't matter if you've got both of the huge brawlers if the other guy has all the guys who can bring back the dead. And since you're vulnerable from the sides, you need to make sure you have a little maneuverability to go with all that WWE-style beatdown ability, or your cyclops will wade into a fight, take one swing and then stand around breathing heavy while all of your opponent's guys carve him up like a Christmas ham.

What with all the careful movement, planning ahead, and strategic positioning, Dirge feels a lot like chess, but with more blood. Yeah, a pawn can knock off a king, but can the pawn fly and shoot a bow? I think not. Bishops don't get to poison their enemies. You never see a rook make a straight run and then push aside the figures in his way. So it may feel a little like chess, but chess was never this exciting.

The bloodthirsty gamer in me is drawn to Dirge like a redneck to NASCAR. The game doesn't have a scoring track, or victory points, or scenarios. You play until one team is pushing up daisies, and the last man standing is the victor. Just like ultimate fighting, you don't let up until the other guy is crying for mercy.

I flat-out love Dirge. It's a kick-ass cross between chess and a miniatures game, it's beautiful, it's hand-assembled brilliance, and it's a blast. It's brilliantly tactical with a great gore-soaked theme. If I could ask for anything else, it would be expansions - I want more monsters. And a little birdie (we'll call him 'the game designer', because that's who he is) told me he's got one in the works.

But you want to know the downside? Small Box Games made 50 copies. That's right, there are 50 of these, and they're so much trouble to assemble that there won't be another 50. If you don't haul ass and pick up this game right now, you'll have to quench your thirst for blood by watching reruns of Indy 500 crashes.


Tactical and strategic maneuvering
Very little luck
Great theme
Easy to learn
Looks amazing
Tons of fun

There are only 50

Dirge: Carnage in Crimson is easily my favorite Small Box game. If you want to get it before it's gone, go here:

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Party Game Review - Party Pooper

It should come as no surprise to regular readers of this site that I intend to mercilessly mock the subject of this review. In case you're new, though, I'll let you in on a little secret - I'm a big fan of crude humor. And when the title of the game I'm reviewing actually contains the word 'poop', all bets are off.

What makes it even easier to make toilet jokes about Party Pooper is the fact that is a completely mediocre party game with almost nothing of interest to offer. This is a case of truth in advertising - the game will truly take a steaming crap all over any party at which it makes an appearance.

The game is pretty simple - there are a bunch of cards describing situations, and a die that says either 'party pooper' or 'party animal.' One person rolls the die, reads the situation, and decides which person at the party best fits the description. Everyone else guesses who that person chose. Guess the same as the host for that round, and you get points.

A few examples might help. A card might say, 'your teenage daughter wants to get her navel pierced, and needs your consent.' Then the host for the round rolls, and is picking out the party animal who would let his teenager get a chunk of metal pushed through her belly button. Everyone guesses, and points are given out for matching the host. Then the next person takes the cards and becomes the host for a turn.

How about another example? A card might say, 'your cousin with the head injury wants to ruin your party by taking a dump in the living room and then playing Party Pooper.' Then the die says, 'party pooper', and you have to guess which of your sane family members or friends would be smart enough to say, 'the turd on the carpet might be funny, but for God's sake don't let us play Party Pooper.'

I don't know what Out of the Box was thinking when they named this game. I've rarely seen a game whose title was more appropriate. This is a boring, run-of-the-mill, unimaginative party game. If it was literally poop, its literal odor would match its figurative stink.

A lot of people took issue with me disliking Apples to Apples (though I still think that's a dumb game). Well, compared to Party Pooper, Apples to Apples is party game genius. I just cannot believe anyone continues to churn out these crappy, mundane, boring party games. I suppose they must sell pretty well, or sooner or later some executive would say, 'hey, our last five crappy party games went into the toilet. Maybe we should try making games that don't suck.'

I don't hate party games, I swear. There are several that I love to break out from time to time. They're easy and fun and can lighten up a room and make a party come to life. In fact, just so that I can prove I don't hate party games (in case anyone thinks I'm a liar, which is possible, since I very well might be) here are a few I highly recommend:

Controversy (which I need to review, because it's awesome)
Good Question! (reviewed here)
Mad Scientist University (reviewed right here)
Ca$h N Gun$ (right here) (debatably not a party game, but still requires a big group)

So don't waste your ducats on Party Pooper. If you really think you need poop at your party, just invite that brain-damaged cousin to crap in your living room. That's got to be more entertaining.


A few interesting questions

Mediocre at best

If you really want to play Party Pooper, you might enjoy playing with this guy:

Monday, May 19, 2008

Computer Game Review - Avernum V

I can hear it now - more than half of my readers just groaned inside. 'Oh crap, another stupid video game review.' Yeah, but this is different, I swear. This is not a console game, or a hard-to-find computer game you'll have to buy off eBay, or some two-bit quick download. It's Avernum, and if you know anything about independent video games, you know this is a big deal.

Spiderweb Software is a really small computer game developer that makes games for Windows and Mac platforms. Their games are thoroughly turn-based, with sprite-based graphics instead of those fancy-schmancy 3D renderings, and limited animations. They're also brilliant, with stories so involved and tactics so deep that you'll find yourself thinking about your next move on your drive to work. And board game fans don't have to run away, either - the tactics you use in Heroscape or Descent will translate to Avernum V. This is just about as good as turn-based computer RPGs get, with or without spiffy graphics.

Now, I'm not going to gloss over the graphics issue. Compared to anything made by a major studio in the last fifteen years, Avernum V is just this side of butt-ugly. There's no flickering light, no dramatic spell effects, no elaborate combat animations. The character models are simple and every swamp space looks like every other swamp space. It's not pretty. It's kind of like a stripper in a dive bar where they can't afford to hire really hot women, and settle for chunky girls who are willing to get naked in public.

But once you get past the graphics, Avernum V is all hot girls who could dance on the hoods of cars in Whitesnake videos. It's one of the slickest, smoothest, most entertaining computer games you're likely to play. The controls are simple (mostly point-and-click), with tons of options for every turn. There are caverns to explore, people to meet, monsters to battle and villains to sneer at you. This girl may not be smokin', but she's amazing in the sack.

The premise of Avernum V is that there's an entire sub-realm underneath the surface empire, a gigantic cave complex called Avernum. Criminals used to get exiled there, and it's still a rather rough-and-tumble place. People are tough down in these caves, and they work hard, and they don't tend to have very high opinions of the empire above them.

Enter the villain Dorikas, who makes a very-nearly-successful attempt to kill the empress. She's poisoned, and as a scout for the empire, you have to find that dastardly do-badder before he succeeds in killing her and overthrowing the entire empire. The problem is, that bastard Dorikas has run to Avernum, and he's going to be damned hard to find.

The rest of the game has you roaming from town to town in the sprawling caves of Avernum, past monstrous lairs and ruined lands and dark caverns full of monsters. You'll take on jobs for the locals, hunt down creatures of the darkness and go questing for magical weapons. As you travel, you'll get more involved in the story - agents of Dorikas will come to you, offering you the opportunity to change sides. And you actually can change sides, in which case the entire game becomes drastically different.

The real shining star of Avernum V (and honestly, the entire Avernum series) is the combat. Other games may be all Hollywood glamor, but compared to the Avernum games, they're just going to lie there, while Avernum V can shake her ass like it had a motor. You may have thought Final Fantasy Tactics was good, but that's because you haven't played Avernum. Every action counts. Every move is crucial. Every hit is noteworthy. Every spell must be carefully cast to maximize its effectiveness. You'll practice more complex tactics than you ever put into a game of Squad Leader.

If you really need more persuading (and there are probably some skeptics out there still), I'll say this - I'm going to review anything Spiderweb Games ever offers to let me play, because they're awesome. I wouldn't do that for any other video game company (except maybe Rockstar, because the sacrifice would be worth a copy of GTA4). And I most certainly wouldn't do that for any other indie developer - 90% of those guys suck. If Avernum V is like a homely girl who's great in bed, those other games are your over-perfumed aunt with the saggy boobs and a huge nose wart who always smells of gin and dried sweat.

There are two groups of people I want to really press with this review - board gamers and graphics junkies, because everyone else ought to be persuaded by now. If you turn your nose up to any game that doesn't include plastic, you're missing out, because Avernum V has everything you ever loved in a tactical board game (not counting a human opponent). And if you're so hung up on a pretty face and a stacked rack that you never give the ugly game a chance, you're missing some of the best gaming you'll ever get into bed (how's that for a questionable adult metaphor?).


Amazing story
Great character development
Fantastic combat mechanics
Enormous possibilities for customization and exploration
Incredibly fun game

Not pretty

If you're still not sure you'll like Avernum V, go to the Spiderweb Software site and download the free demo:

Friday, May 16, 2008

Board Game Review - Runebound

Fantasy games aren't that tough to find. It seems there may be some nerd-related interest in the area of hitting things with sharp metal objects and occasionally lighting something on fire. The neat thing is, chicks often dig fantasy, too - at least, it's a heck of a lot easier to get a female to play a game with dragons in it than it would to get one playing a recreation of D-Day.

But even though there are plenty of games with a fantasy theme, it seems a few big players rise to the top, like cream on a bowl of fresh milk. And one of the best and biggest fantasy games out there is Runebound.

Runebound is not a squad-based military simulation. It's not a dungeon game. It's an adventure game, where you wander around a big countryside and get into trouble. Everyone picks a character, and this is one awesome part of the game, because it's really funny. The characters are cool, but some are really absurd.

Take Varikas the Dead - he's funny because he really is dead, and for some reason, is really good at jumping. Or Bogran the Shadow, a very creepy orc guy who wields a poisoned blade, and for some reason, wears a red S&M mask. And my personal favorite, Red Scorpion, who has boobs like watermelons and wears only a thong and some metal cereal bowls (and a cape, but it flows out behind her, and thus covers absolutely nothing, but will probably get her sucked into a jet engine one day).

If you play Descent and you're thinking, 'hey, that sounds familiar', it's because Descent and Runebound are placed in the same fake world with the same fake people. In fact, the similarity doesn't stop there. While Descent has a lot more stats on the cards, Runebound still shows health, fatigue, melee, range and magic. High stats in melee make you a meat shield, and high magic makes you a spellcaster. Easy enough.

So you get your plastic dude that vaguely resembles the picture on your character card, and take turns rolling movement dice and wandering around the countryside, looking to pick fights. There are all these locations, and you go there and draw a bad guy card and get in a rumble.

Fights are simple dice-off challenges. There's no maneuvering, though there is strategy because you have to choose the right phases to defend or attack, and you might have helpers who can pitch in here and there. If you win, you'll get experience and maybe treasure, and if you lose, you get dead, which sucks for you.

After a while, you'll trade in experience to get better stats, and you'll trade gold for better gear, and you'll hire helpers, and otherwise get tougher. The game gets tougher, too - the higher-level adventures are clearly marked, and you can really get your ass kicked by the real baddies. But you have to try, because the first person to take down the super-bad red dragon wins the game.

Runebound is really more about the theme than it is about the game, though the game is still a blast. Wandering the countryside, winning magic weapons, recruiting allies, saving the world from darkness - that's why you're here. It's not like you're going, 'wow, these play mechanics are astoundingly brilliant!' Instead, you'll say, 'take that, demonic whore! Ha! I rule!' (unless you die, and then you might say something completely different, and slightly less printable).

Runebound lacks one of the elements that Ameritrashers seem to love - player interaction. Yeah, you can ambush your fellow players and steal their crap, but the fact is, there's so little going on between the players that you can play it solo. That's not really a bad thing for me, because my wife and daughter vastly prefer games where we don't repeatedly try to whack each other, though when we make the pre-game agreement not to stab each other, my son always scowls. I think he just likes to hurt things. I may have to keep an eye on our pets.

But then, it's not like someone is going to mistake Runebound for a Euro. It's all about the story, the rules are kind of long for what it is, and there's a body count like a civil war. Euro games with fantasy themes tend to abstract all the blood-letting with bidding gimmicks and math. Runebound breaks out the pointy sticks and makes with the gore. And if that sex-mask orc meets up with the top-heavy gymnast chick, there may be more reasons you shouldn't let your kids watch you play this game.

Runebound is a hoot. It's a little long - like two or three hours, sometimes more - but the whole family can play, as long as the violence doesn't give you fits. And since there's a retarded amount of luck, there's even a chance the inattentive child might win, though those odds aren't good, because you still have to have the sense to know when to hold 'em and when to fold 'em, among other important decisions.

Plus there are expansions. Lots and lots of expansions. In fact, I can't think of another board game that has as many expansions. There are replacement decks of cards to make you have completely different adventures, different boards, different treasures and more. You can play the bejeezus out of this game, and enjoy it for a really long time. This is one game that is a really great investment, because if you like fantasy games, you'll get a lot of play for your pay.


Cool miniatures
Great theme
Kickin' art
Heavy-chested dames in metal bikinis
Fun, story-based rules that let you have fun without tricks or gimmicks

A whole hell of a lot of luck
Not a lot of player interaction - almost like playing a solo game at the same time as everyone else

My family plays a lot of Runebound. It's one of our favorites. You can get it here:

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Kids' Game Review - Akator Temple Race Game

Admittedly, I am not a child (despite my wife's protestations to the contrary). Furthermore, most of my readers are not kids. However, many of my readers have kids, and may be looking for something to play with them. And many of my readers (if not all) enjoy Indiana Jones movies. If you're reading this and thinking, 'I don't really like Indiana Jones', then all I can tell you is shut up. Indiana Jones RULES.

Enter the new line of Indiana Jones board games. Not all of them are for kids - Indiana Jones Monopoly, for instance, is not really for young kids, unless they like Monopoly. But the one I'm reviewing tonight - Akator Temple Race Game - is definitely a game for young children. Or just really dumb teenagers. Come to think of it, if your kid smokes a lot of weed, he could probably turn the tower into a bong. Not that I recommend it, and it probably wouldn't work as well as a plastic honey bottle shaped like a bear, but I suppose that it would be kind of cool to get stoned playing the game... using the game. Then it might be an awesome game, too. Like Wizard of Oz with Pink Floyd.

(I want to take a step out here and remind my more conservative readers that most of these are jokes. I don't smoke anything stronger than a cigar, though I did have a friend when I was in college who had a bong made out of a plastic honey bear. He also worked the same job for ten years and never made more than ten bucks an hour, and only had an apartment because his parents paid the rent. Take that for what you think it might be worth.)

Um, anyway, the game. The thing is actually really cool. It's not a board game, really. It's more like a toy with rules. There's a pillar with all these steps coming off it, and when you push the button on top of the pillar, some of the steps tip down. All the players pick their favorite color of Indiana, and they race to the bottom, trying to find the crystal skull and enter the throne room. Sooner or later, though, someone will fall off. That's actually half the fun. Oh, who am I kidding - that's almost all the fun. Your kids will be pushing your hand out of the way when it's your turn to push the button, just so they can be the ones to make the stairs drop Indiana Jones to his death.

Some of the steps have little hooks at the end that will fit your Indiana Jones figure, and if you're parked on one, you'll stay on the step when it tips. There are also little holes next to some of the steps, and if you hook your little figure's whip into the hole, that also lets you stay on. The entirety of the strategy for this game involves spending as little time as possible on steps that won't let you fall, which reminds me of college, when I had a second-story apartment and a tendency to drink all my wages.

(This review is becoming increasingly adult-oriented. Not that I mind, but I would like to reinforce again that I am neither a stoner nor a drunk. I can't afford either one. I have to write a review site to get free games. If I can't afford board games, I certainly can't afford weed and liquor.)

The game play is where Akator Temple fails. See, I maintain that kids are not dumb. They can play Heroscape. They can play the D&D Adventure Game. They understand tactics, maneuvering, planning and strategy - just not as well as an adult. By taking away every bit of decision-making available, the Akator Temple game is a little patronizing. You roll dice to move, then draw a card, and that's about it. About half the cards tell you to push the button on the temple to see if you can send someone to the bottom, which is the entertaining part. If you can pick up a crystal skull card and be the first person to the throne room, you win. If you're a smart parent, or at least a compassionate parent, you would let your child win. But it's kind of hard to let the kid win when you don't really have any control over the game.

As toys go, the Akator Temple Race Game is awesome. Kids will drool over it, beg to own it, then when you get it for them, break it inside an hour. That's what kids do. It is a seriously cool toy, with moving parts and a really clever design for your figure that makes the whip more than decorative. If I was just reviewing toys for kids, this would be a glowing review.

But I'm not just reviewing toys - this site is about games. And as a game, Akator Temple really doesn't have much going on. It's got about as much strategy as Chutes and Ladders. For very young kids (like under 9), this is probably a blast (though I've known kids that young who could beat me at chess). For kids older than that, once they get tired of making Indy take a header, they'll forget it until the next time you go through their room looking for stuff to take to Goodwill. Then, because they're kids, they'll tell you how it's one of their favorite toys ever, even if it has lost eight steps, half the cards, two of the figures and both of the dice.

This isn't the only Indiana Jones game I'm reviewing. I've also got a copy of Indiana Jones Life, which sounds odd, but looks like fun, so you can look forward to that review. I know I will. I'm hoping to wheedle a copy of Indiana Jones Monopoly and the DVD game out of my contact at Hasbro, and if I do, I'll tell you all about those, too.


Super-cool toy
Really neat figures
Engages kids until they get tired of seeing plastic people die

Almost all luck
Too dumb for smart kids

If you've got young kids, or just really dumb teenagers, you can entertain them for a while with the Akator Temple Race Game. You can get one here, once it comes out:

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Board Game Review - Mystery of the Abbey

The fundamental logical flaw in the game of Clue is that the murderer may not know he or she committed the crime. It always seemed to me to make more sense that the players should be investigators, not suspects. I mean, if you actually did conk the old geezer with a pipe wrench in the bidet, wouldn't you tend to remember that? But no, you apparently suffer complete amnesia whenever you take a life. And then you're stupid enough to wander around the mansion looking for evidence to incriminate yourself. What an idiot.

Mystery of the Abbey solves that little inconsistency by having you investigate a murder without having to worry about being a suspect. A lot of people say the game is like Clue (and since I started out comparing it to Clue, I guess they could be right), but there are some very big differences. In fact, the biggest resemblance is that both games involve finding the murderer by deducing which card has been hidden, and after that, all similarities are pretty much gone.

Fans of the Umberto Eco novel 'Name of the Rose' should find the entire theme quite familiar. You're the outside investigator, come to figure out which of the visiting priests at the abbey has been bumping off the other clergymen. There are dozens of suspects, from three different orders, and you must explore the abbey to hunt for clues as to the identity of the killer. You don't get to burn down a secret library or bone the scullery maid, but otherwise there's a lot of reasons for you to pretend to be Sean Connery in a cassock (a reference that about three people alive would actually get. I'm hoping one of them reads this site).

The abbey contains lots of different rooms, from the chapel and parlor to the scriptorium and library. Different rooms have different abilities - the confessional lets you swipe a suspect card from another player, while the crypt lets you draw a chance at an extra turn. The library and scriptorium are the most powerful rooms, because the cards you get there can decide the game. So you wander around, bumping into your fellow investigative monks (actual clergy members, not Tony Shaloub with OCD) and asking them questions.

The question-and-answer part is the most hilarious thing about this game. When you are questioned by a fellow Brother Cadfael, you can either answer, in which case you get to ask a question back, or you can take a vow of silence, in which case everyone will hate you (which is way more fun, but far less informative for yourself).

The questions are a little like that old game where you tried to figure out who was the secret guest by asking questions like, 'do you have a beard?', or 'are you wearing a hat?', or 'do you have genital warts?' (that last one doesn't crop up very often when kids play the game, but trust me, it makes it a lot more interesting). So you'll ask 'how many monks with beards have you marked off?' or 'do you have the Father Ted card?' (there isn't actually a Father Ted, I'm making another obscure pop culture reference. Next thing you know, Dennis Miller is going to show up on this site shaking his head and going 'ba ba ba!' And nobody will get that one, either.)

One irritating thing about this abbey is that these people pray, like, all the time. I mean, you basically have time to run to your room and change your hair undershirt before the bells ring and it's time for Mass again. Then all the monks have to haul ass back to the church. And every time you go to Mass, you pass cards around the table. As the game progresses, you'll have seen most of the cards, and there's usually one turn when two or three people know who the killer is at the same time, and then it's a race for the capitulum (chapter hall, for those of us who didn't take Latin in high school), where the first person there can tell the head abbot who has been whacking people and get a great big gold star.

The theme in Mystery of the Abbey is great. It fires up the imagination and puts you in mind of the Dark Ages. All that's missing is a burning witch. And you can burn your mother-in-law, if it will get you into the theme, though then you might hear from some investigators who aren't wearing floor-length robes.

The game, on the other hand, is a mixed bag. We've played it a lot, because it is fun, but all the deduction skills in the world won't save you if Brother Douchebag has spent the whole game hoarding special cards that let him look at your answer sheet and then teleport to the chapter hall. You spend the whole game trying to figure out one card, then all of a sudden it turns into a foot race. It's still a hoot, but the ending feels cheap sometimes.

I'm afraid I'm out of off-the-wall pop culture references, so I'll have to close with an overall recommendation. I can't give a particularly resounding positive review to Mystery of the Abbey, but I can tell you that it's a good time, especially if you question your fellow investigators using your primary weapons such as surprise, fear, and a fanatical devotion to the pope.


Great theme
Fun art
Entertaining investigation mechanic

No matter how much better you play, someone else can whip you just by having the right super card

Mystery of the Abbery is a good family game, and it can be lots of fun. You can get one here:

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Xbox 360 Game Review - Quake 4

OK, so I still don't have GTA 4. I can hardly stand it. Instead of playing as a lowlife bad guy, I've been playing as a soldier in the never-ending battle against the Strogg (never-ending, that is, as long as the series continues to be profitable). So here's a little review of Quake 4. And in case you hate suspense, I'll spill the beans - it sucks.

At first glance, Quake 4 seems to be a near-perfect shooter. The controls are tight, there are lots of good weapons, and the graphics are magnificent. The bad guys look scary and the marines look tough. But then you notice that there's no melee attack, and after years of playing Halo, I love me some melee. And then you go to turn off that annoying walking camera wobble that game designers seem to think makes their games more authentic, but that really makes you want to throw up, and you find out you're stuck with it. And then you get in a crazy firefight in a hallway and find out some halfwit contractor put a bottomless pit in the corner, which you find because you dodge behind a pillar and wind up falling to your death.

And I know we're not supposed to get maps in shooters any more, but if you're not going to give me a map, how about you don't make every hallway the same? Yeah, they're all pretty, but they're all too similar. There's no way to say, 'wait, I've been here.' And sometimes you get missions, but you have no idea where to go, and there are no hints. This is a shooter, not a damned puzzle game - and the puzzle really sucks if the answer to 'open the door' is 'hop on these three boxes so you can fall through the roof.' I spent as much time wandering around empty corridors as I did shooting the bad guys who were there in the first place.

The real problem with the game - the one that broke it for me - is the holes I mentioned before. Apparently, OSHA has no authority on Strogg World. The buildings must be made by some of the worst contractors in the universe, because these stupid aliens build their entire complexes on top of yawning chasms, and then don't put up railings. The Department of Labor would prosecute these retards into bankruptcy - there are holes in completely illogical places that are completely unsafe for working Strogg. I would end up falling into holes where there was no reason to expect them. Here's a hint, id guys - if you're going to riddle the entire game with holes that are completely fatal, let me see my feet. I'm not playing a platformer, and this asinine hole thing ruined my day so many times, it's a miracle I finished the game.

In fact, I think I only finished the game because I played on easy. I wanted a game where I could just blow stuff up. You know how you get that urge to just blast the ever-lovin' crap out of everything you see? That's what I had in mind. What I hadn't counted on finding was a scattered handful of weak-ass Strogg who thought that the best defense was a hell of a lot of holes in dumb places. I should have just run down a copy of Serious Sam.

Easy mode was, as the name suggests, very easy. I may have died five times in the whole game... from bullets. I died a lot more than that overall, though, because I routinely fell in holes. There were not very many bad guys in the bad guy buildings, which can be explained by my decision to play easy mode - but I still think it's dumb. When I play easy mode (and this is just me, other people may disagree), I want the same number of bad guys, but I want them to all be pansies. When I play on hard, I want the same number of bad guys, but I want them to be steel-plated hard-ons.

It seems sad to me that the people who basically pioneered the first-person shooter made Quake 4. Hell in a bag, man, these guys made Doom! I still love to play Doom! They made Quake, and practically invented LAN parties! They're the old-school kings of the shooter, and now they've resorted to making crappy platformers with no option for punching bad guys in the eye. I don't know if Carmack retired or what, but after Doom 3 and Quake 4, I think maybe these cats need a new gimmick. They obviously still have the technical know-how to make good games - the controls in Quake 4 are fantastic - but they've apparently kept their head in the ground for so long that they don't realize what it takes to compete with modern games. Sorry, id, but Halo 3 is way, way better for a very good reason. Hell, it's good for lots of reasons - duel wielding, melee, weapon variety, awesome multiplayer, great (and intuitive) vehicles, and a solid story, just for starters.

To address a few of those points as they relate to Quake 4, here's a little summary. There are lots of cool weapons, but I never did figure out why too many Strogg would shoot at me, and then die, and then there's no gun on the ground. Were they just spitting at me? And I tried to find some multiplayer, but was, as far as I could tell, the only person in the world playing Quake 4. The vehicles sucked. They were clunky and slow and hard to drive. The story has one interesting part, and then the rest of the time, it's just 'now go kill some stuff.'

I'm not sorry I played Quake 4. I had a reasonably good time. But I'm not sad that it's over, either. I won't be putting that one back in the 360. I'm still holding out for GTA 4.


Extremely tight controls
Good weapon selection
Beautiful graphics

Lack of direction leads to hours spent wandering aimlessly
Lame story
Nobody on multiplayer (probably because the game sucked)
Lots and lots and lots of really stupid holes

Don't buy Quake 4, even if it's on sale. There are better shooters out there that cost less. There's no link. Just don't get it.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Board Game Review - Skullduggery

I need to clean out my office. It's a disaster. There are games everywhere - on four bookshelves, in the closet, in the hutch, and scattered all across the floor in stacks as tall as I am. And the real problem is that I don't like most of them. So I've decided on a solution - I'll review them, then I'll get rid of them.

Skullduggery is definitely one I'll be donating. It sucks. As games go, it's a complete failure. It's boring and tedious and irritating, and will make you hate anyone who gets you to play it.

As a toy, though, it's pretty damned cool. There are little glass beads for treasure, really gorgeous cardboard tiles, and fantastic painted pirates. Well, maybe fantastic is the wrong word - they're definitely pirates, and they're definitely painted, but they're actually pretty laughable.

There are eight bad guys pirates in the box. They're all identical, with brown shirt, brown pants, brown shoes, brown hair and a brown beard. Only the brown beard is so poorly sculpted and painted, that they actually look more like ninjas. Which would be cool, except that they look like ninjas that take the short bus and drink from sippy cups.

Then you've got hero pirates. There are four of these, and they're so politically correct it would get the seal of approval from any human resources department in the country. There's a white pirate, a black pirate, a girl pirate, and a gay pirate. I don't know for sure why the manufacturers of this game thought it would be a selling point to have a gay pirate. Maybe they were just trying to prove that they were equal opportunity employers.

To play the game you place these beautiful, fully-illustrated tiles out in a grid, with the four starting boats at the middle. Then you put treasure all over the board, then you put out the ninja pirates. Everyone gets treasure map pieces, and they have to find their way to the tiles indicated on their maps. But those pesky ninja pirates keep trying to stop you, and then you have to pay them off with your treasure.

You move your pirate around the board, and you move ninja pirates to block other hero pirates. And then, since you're apparently on a magic pirate island, you move one of the tiles to somewhere else, so that the little over-crowded (but politically acceptable) island shifts around all the time.

There is some strategy to this game. You move the ninja pirates, but do you move them out of your way or into another pirate's path? You roll a gigantic die and plot careful paths. You shift the island so that your opponents are far from their goals and you're close to yours.

The problem is, the strategy is purely turn-by-turn. It doesn't really pay to plan ahead, because there's not much to plan. There aren't very many decisions to make, which would be fine for a kid's game, but then the game takes so long that kids are going to wander off and play Connect Four. And that's a shame - the game is obviously trying to teach children about diversity, but they're going to get bored before they decide to become worthless HR office drones so that they can enforce equal opportunities for all.

Even though I don't ever want to play Skullduggery again, I kind of feel bad parting with it. It's just so damned pretty. Even the goofy-looking ninja pirates are neat toys. If you throw away the rules, a kid could get a real kick out of playing with the game. The black pirate and the girl pirate could team up to beat up the ninja pirates, and the gay pirate could follow the white pirate around making inappropriate jokes about holding his jewels.

But my kids are too old to play with toys like this, and too smart to want to play the game again, so off it goes to the stack of games I want to lose. It appears the game is going to have to get the hell out of my office before I start using it to prop open doors.


Components so gorgeous, they work better as toys than as game pieces
Really neat art on the box and rules
Some small modicum of strategy
Teaches tolerance and acceptance of other genders, ethnicities and sexual proclivities
Unintentional ninjas

Crappy game
Too long to be an adequate kid's game, and too dull to be an adult game

Not everyone hates the game. Here's a balanced review from someone else:

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Board Game Review - Wicked Witches Way

I don't understand why all witches can't be hot. I know, tradition gives them warty noses and stringy hair and bad crotch hygiene, but I want them all to wear fishnets and plunging necklines and saucy little pointed hats. When I see a witch, I want to be all 'hubba hubba, she can cast a spell on me anytime!'

There's only one hot witch in Wicked Witches Way. Worse, there are no dude witches (I think the correct term is 'warlock,' but I don't care, because there are none of those, either). There are five broom-mounted witches having a race, and one is a hottie in a red dress, three are gross old hags, and the last one is actually one crazy old bird who got turned into four different, hideous goblins.

Now, in all fairness, that witch in the red is pretty smokin'. She doesn't get an advantage, or anything, except maybe she would be better at seduction. But this is a broom race, not a beauty contest, and just like everyone else, she has to power her flying broom with magic spells, not curvy legs and a great ass.

Wicked Witches Way is a competition pitting these five witches (or however many players there are) against each other in a broom-flying race. To power those brooms, the witches have to whip up spells. It doesn't hurt if they do a little fancy flying, too - the judges love to see you do a barrel roll on a broom.

So every turn, the witches collectively take a peek at the magic book, to see what elements they can use to bust out those flying spells. The book is represented by nine wooden dice, each with different red or orange spell pictures on them. One player rolls the dice into the box and then lets everyone have a look. Witches have to memorize the pictures in a hurry, because when one person thinks he can build a formula, he slams the box closed and everyone has to play cards to show how well they remembered the various components in the box.

This is actually trickier than it sounds, too - your formula can't have both orange and black symbols, and if there are symbols that appear in both colors, they're not allowed. You have to build your formula in your head before that box closes, and it's not hard to make mistakes. Mistakes mean your witch falls off her broom. Since there's only one attractive witch, the odds are a little scary that you might get a glimpse of some really heinous varicose veins as the old bag takes a digger.

Getting a few elements right lets you move forward, but a perfect formula lets you either draw a magic card or jump ahead a couple extra spaces. Those magic cards are the real spoilers, too - they let you get more time looking at the dice, or make two formulae, or move the lead player backward, or lots of other stuff. You can also use the cards to do aerial maneuvers, which the judges think are great. I would only think they are great if the witch doing them is the hot one - would you want to see Beatrice Arthur in Olympic figure skating? Not any more than I want to see a geriatric witch flip upside down while wearing a dress and riding a broom, thanks.

Crossing the finish line first gives you a good shot at the win, but it's not a sure thing. That prune-faced old bag behind you might have a few tricks up her sleeve, and if she's pulled off some aerial acrobatics without making the judges hurl, they might just give her the win. Then all you'll have left to do is go home and soak your bunions. Unless you're the hot witch, and then you've probably got a date.

Quick aside - the box for Wicked Witches Way is about the coolest you'll ever see. It opens up like a book, and half of it is a box for rolling the dice. The dice are sweet, the board is cool, the little witch standups are hilariously illustrated, and the cards are great. The whole package is just plain fun.

Wicked Witches Way is one of my favorite games from Asmodee US. My family breaks it out and plays all the time. My wife always picks the hot witch, and that's fine by me, because then I choose the freak goblin witch so I don't get stuck with the one with really frightening nose hair and boobs that hang down to her navel. It's basically a memory game, but one that requires some strategy, some attention, and the desire to completely hose your friends.

But I don't know about those ugly witches. There ought to be a law that says that if you're so dangerous you could turn me into a toad, you have to be hot to make it worth my time.


Great dice-based memory game
Incredibly cool box
Brilliantly illustrated
Easy to learn and teach

Ugly witches in dresses have no business flipping upside down

Wicked Witches Way is a great game for some light gaming. You can get one here:

Friday, May 2, 2008

Console Game Review - Grand Theft Auto 3 Trilogy

Let's get this out of the way first thing - I haven't bought GTA 4. I want to get it so bad my teeth hurt, but sadly, I had to choose between that and cigars. And since I'm hopelessly addicted to nicotine, the cigars won. Again.

So instead of telling you how cool the new Grand Theft Auto is, I'm going to regale you with my views of the three games that came before. I've been thinking a lot about how much I loved those games, and what made them so fantastic, and so I thought I would pontificate about them a little, despite the fact that not only will it not get me any free games, but it will probably not actually persuade one single person to buy them. If you don't know if you'll like the GTA games by now, you probably never will.

For the completely uninitiated, GTA 3 was the second sequel to what was actually a pretty crappy game. I don't know how Rockstar managed to make the third after the first two - I really didn't like them. The top-down view was boring, the graphics blew chunks, and driving the cars got really irritating, really fast.

The same basic theory applied to all three games, though - you're a bad guy looking to work your way through various local criminal organizations. You sell drugs, knock off banks, blackmail city officials and (more often than not) kill a lot of people. The games are incredibly violent, to the point that that became a central argument for the anti-video game jackoffs who have nothing better to do than make sure people don't have fun.

GTA 3 was the first in the series to do a good third-person view. You actually saw your character, complete with leather jacket and hands like crab claws. When you drove cars, you looked over the back so you could see where you were going. When you aimed guns, you saw your guy (you didn't find out his name is Claude until San Andreas, so people took to calling him Fido), pull the weapon up and draw a bead. And you saw lots of people die, and when you felt like it, you could pick up a streetwalker, drive to a remote location, and watch the windows steam up and the car bounce. Then you lost some money, unless you decided to shoot the poor hooker and steal your money back. (In case you're wondering, yes, I did that. Not every time, but more than once.)

GTA: Vice City improved on the basic GTA 3 model in so many ways it would make your head spin. There were more vehicles - motorcycles, for instance, not to mention helicopters and an extraordinarily difficult plane. The city was bigger. The location was way more interesting, especially if you grew up watching Crockett and Tubbs wear pink suits and no socks while they battled crime from a sports car. Your character had a name now - Tommy Vercetti, voiced by Ray Liotta. But the best improvement, in my opinion, was the map.

The Grand Theft Auto games are HUGE. And what's more, they're not just a bunch of similar buildings. The alley where you first stay in GTA 3 is instantly recognizable at a glance, as are the bus station, the crappy office where you first start working for the mob, the airport and lots of other locations. The city crawls with action, so that you always feel like you're only the most important person in your own story, and all those other people have their own stories (which tend to end, more often than not, under the wheels of your latest stolen vehicle). But all that room means it's not hard to get lost, and I admit to getting frustrated with how hard it was sometimes to complete missions in GTA 3, just because I couldn't figure out where I was going. The map fixed all that, and made me love Vice City about a hundred times more than GTA 3.

Then came San Andreas. There are still lots of people who swear this was the best of the batch, but they're wrong. It was not a bad game - the central villain was voiced by Samuel L. Jackson, for one thing - but it had so much wrong with it. It's like the Rockstar guys forgot what made Vice City such an amazing game, and figured that if a little was good, a lot was better. And not only that, but what had been a campy mob game turned into a gritty ghetto punk game. Your character, CJ Johnson, is a lowlife thug, instead of an up-and-coming mobster who got screwed on a coke deal. You're not cruising around in a Ferrari any more, now you're riding a bicycle. You don't turn the station to hear Judas Priest or INXS, now you're listening to Snoop Doggy Dog and Ice-T. You're not staying in a beach-front hotel, you're in a run-down house in the worst part of town. The entire theme of the game had changed, and not for the better.

However, it was still a totally bad-ass game, even if you did end up wasting time trying to get your girlfriends to give you clothing (like the gun-nut country girl who would give you overalls if you won her heart). There were some monstrous improvements over Vice City - CJ can swim, for instance, and you can parachute out of a plane. But there was also way too much real estate for my liking, and for too much of the game you're relegated to battling endless waves of rival gang members to try to secure your gang turf. You did so much killing (often backed up by some of the most incompetent gunmen imaginable) that it actually got boring drilling holes in people who lacked the common sense to stay indoors. You didn't have to do that in Vice City, and that was very much better.

So the common thread in all three games would seem to be the endless violence and total commitment to criminal depravity. If that's all you see in the games, you have completely missed the point. The point is not to wallow in murder and mayhem. The point is complete freedom. Don't want that cop to pull you over? Shoot him. Don't like that guy who just cut you off? Run him off the road. Want to get a better car than the one you're driving? Stop in front of the other guy, get out, punch the driver in the face, and drive away in his ride while he lies on the sidewalk and bleeds out. You can do whatever you want.

Some readers might say, 'yeah, you can do whatever you want, as long as it's bad.' But that's not true. Of course, you weren't going to get the full experience if you never shot anyone, but every one of the three games has a huge amount of stuff going on outside the story. You could race remote control cars in the sand dunes of Vice City, or take a four-wheeler off the side of a mountain and parachute into the lakes of San Andreas. You could drive an ambulance and save lives, or drive a cop car and stop wanted criminals. Sure, you were supposed to be the bad guy, but there's way more to the GTA games than wanting to kill people. Hell, you could deliver pizza - and it was really fun.

Another key to the success of the Grand Theft Auto games was the incredibly believable and enormously explorable cities. You could spend hours just walking the city streets, exploring back alleys, jumping ditches in muscle cars or dodging through gardens. The term 'sandbox game' was invented to describe the way you could seriously do whatever you wanted. You could play for ten hours in a row, never even approach the story, and still have a hell of a good time.

Other games have tried to emulate the model of the GTA games, with varying degrees of success. There are games like Gun, which could have been called Grand Theft Horse, where you were a gunfighter in the Old West. Sadly, it was way too short, and way too small, and the final boss fight was outright retarded. Oblivion and Morrowind also had huge explorable environments (and the Elder Scrolls series predates Grand Theft Auto), but they weren't nearly as interesting, and didn't have all the cool stuff to do on the side. Crackdown was like GTA with the main character as a super-hero cop, but it was also too short and just lacked the brilliance of the Grand Theft Auto games. Yeah, you could jump a car over the whole carnival and land in the ferris wheel, but it wasn't as diverting as trying to win a race with remote-piloted airplanes around the city park.

Some games just wanted to revel in the violence that they perceived as the reason for the success of Rockstar's big winners. Saints Row tries to ratchet the violence up a notch, but only succeeds in being a wannabe stunted step-child of the GTA games, because the creators didn't understand why the GTA trilogy was so great. Violence alone does not make a good game. It just makes a body count.

And that brings me, full circle, to the part so many people condemn about Grand Theft Auto - the celebration of heinous criminal behavior. I won't lie - this game should absolutely not be played by children. It's not just disturbing (OK, I was never disturbed - I mostly laughed until I peed myself as I ran over pedestrians and drove my tank through the shopping mall). The problem is that it glorifies the life of a sociopathic, murderous criminal. I want GTA 4 more than I can say right now, and wish I could give up smoking so I could reward myself with the game. But that doesn't change the fact that the main character has no redeeming virtues, and if he existed in modern society, would deserve nothing more than a swift execution. Possibly in public. Possibly with cattle prods and old Ricki Lake videos.

But at the same time, perhaps Grand Theft Auto is the most honest game you've ever played. Think about games in general, starting with Doom and working up to Halo 3 and the Rainbow Six games. What do they have in common? Incredible amounts of violence. So much death that, after a successful mission, you could carpet the White House with the bodies of your slain enemies. And yet in nearly every game, you're not just the hero, you're usually the savior of humanity.

At least GTA doesn't pretend. You're a killer, and you're good at it, and that's not a good thing. You can revel in the bloodshed, even laugh as you murder hundreds of policemen, FBI agents, and soldiers just to get the tank in your garage, but the fact remains - you're bad, and that's not good. It's fun, but in order to enjoy the game, you have to accept the fact that you're a villain. And in that, the Grand Theft Auto games not only made a huge statement, but they came right out and said, 'I call BS - killing people is what bad guys do.'

Unfortunately, like much of the other brilliance of Grand Theft Auto, this point seems to have been completely missed by Rockstar's opponents. Jack Thompson, possibly the biggest chrome-plated douche nozzle on the planet, whines incessantly about how depraved the games are, never realizing that they are a brilliant parody of nearly every video game ever made. They force their players to face the fact that rampant violence is not the mark of polite society, and that mass murderers are, in fact, bad people.

But the greatest thing about the Grand Theft Auto games that seems to go completely unnoticed by everyone who isn't a fan is that they are ridiculously fun. They're campy, and funny, and hilarious, and action-packed, and suspenseful, and exciting and just plain more fun than I've ever had with any other video game. You can have your Saints Row thug crap and your Hillary-Clinton-wants-me-to-play-Viva-Pinata and your Medal of Honor desecration of the memory of the finest war this nation has ever fought. I'll take Grand Theft Auto any day.


Enormous and detailed environments
Great action
Fantastic developing stories
Amazing supporting characters
Holy fruit salad, Batman, these games are fun

None. If Jack Thompson hates it this much, there can be no cons

You should never let your kids play these games (though way too many parents still do). If you want them for yourself, you can get them at Amazon. If you need a link, you're an idiot.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

So Very Sleepy

The upside to being the only writer at a review site is that I'm able to manage all the content, say whatever I want, and take all the kudos when it goes well. The downside is that if I don't write the review, nobody does.

Take tonight, for instance. Usually, I write my reviews on Sunday night, Tuesday night and Thursday night, so I can have them ready Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. But last night I got three hours of sleep thanks to a case of particularly abusive heartburn, and I'm far too tired to think coherently enough to write an entertaining review. Usually I like to astound you with my scalpel-sharp wit; tonight I feel about as sharp as a rubber chicken.

So to all the people who check in faithfully three times a week, I'm afraid all you get to entertain you this Friday is a crappy note about how you won't be entertained this Friday. But I'll write a review tomorrow night, and I'll make it extra good, just to make up for making you wait.