Games I’ll Never Make
If you were never a board game geek, this post isn’t for you. Move on, move on, nothing to read here…
I bought three books for the long weekend, but they’re all disappointing. We have some shows to watch on the PVR, but I’m not in the mood for that either. What I really want is a good game—something that 2-4 people can play in an hour or so, something with enough strategic depth to permit ambushes (I love setting an ambush). I’d settle for Risk, but the server is down, so I find myself thinking once again about the lunch-hour wargames I enjoyed so much in my teens. For years, I’ve toyed with the idea of creating one myself; I’ve accepted that I never will (too many other things are more important), but maybe these ideas will inspire someone else to create them for me. If they do—if there’s ever some cardboard for me to buy, or a VASSAL module for me to download—please give me a shout.
Glass, Steel, and Powder
I must have read Alan Dean Foster’s Icerigger half a dozen times as a teenager. Tall ships: but on ice instead of on water. Michael Moorcock had used the idea years before, and I’ve seen several authors use it since, but Foster’s treatment is still my favorite. His world has pike-and-musket infantry on skates, black-powder artillery, and naval tactics Hornblower would have recognized, all stirred together.
It wouldn’t actually work, though: wild ice is far too rough to skate on. But imagine a world where nanotech ran wild a hundred million years ago and converted the entire surface to diamond. Tectonic activity since then has broken the sheet up into dozens of ocean-sized plates, each as smooth as glass, with habitable regions of “normal” land between them. Colony ship crashes, technology collapses, blah blah blah, and voila: a world where soldiers on rollerblades hitch rides behind sailing ships running on wheels two stories tall. I’ve always wondered how Nelson would have fared against Napoleon himself…
This game could have any of a dozen back stories: interplanetary mining corporations, cut-throat Renaissance mercantile families, or various branches of the mob duking it out somewhere in the post-war Caribbean—anything that would justify the game mechanics. Each player starts with some money, and a small force of loyal troops. The winner is whoever sends the most money home to his or her bosses.
The wrinkle is that each turn, some mercenaries come on the market. Some turns, it’s just a handful of foot soldiers, but other turns, it’s larger units with their own transport and weapons. Players have to bid against each other, auction-style, to hire the troops for a certain number of turns. Whoever wins has less money to send home—but more power to extort revenue and/or defend their takings against other players. And of course, when a contract is up, and their troops go back on the market, there’s every chance that they’ll be exactly where their previous employer doesn’t want them.
The Battle of Halley’s Comet
In 1871, Thomas Edison accidentally invents cold fusion. By 1900, steam-powered spaceships have been to the Moon, Venus (a great disappointment), and Mars, where the Verne Expedition found the remains of a long-dead civilization. When their records are deciphered, mankind discovers that the last of their great interstellar ships is embedded in Halley’s Comet, and the race is on.
This game is basically “big ships in space”, with a back story chosen to fix a couple of problems we always had with games like Star Fleet Battles. First, real space battles are likely to be very brief because opposing forces’ relative velocities will be so great. Give ships something to rendezvous with, and put some dust and debris around them so that the faster they go, the more “ambient damage” they take, and the problem goes away.
Second, this “steampunk in space” setting (similar to that used in the role-playing game Space:1889) doesn’t have electronics, so there are no guided missiles, which I think would also make real space battles very short affairs. The actual movement rules could be borrowed from Hard Vacuum (which are simple and sort of physically-based), and of course, there’d be at least one scenario where the ancient Martian ship woke up…
Floating islands are a staple of both fantasy and science fiction, but the only game I’ve ever seen that used the idea was Metagaming’s Hot Spot. Unlike the boiling-rock world of that game, this one would use something like Polynesia as a setting. Some people live on volcanic islands, where they farm and mine. Others—the nomads of this world—live on mile-wide patches of sargasso-like weed, a kind of woody floating coral. Every few years, the ocean currents sweep some of those floating islands through the fixed ones, which is an opportunity for raiding in both directions.
The basic mechanics would be pretty simple: canoes for transport (with square-rigged sails to make them go faster downwind) and infantry on land. The wrinkle is, some of that “land” is moving, but not under the control of either of the players. The nomads’ home bases would take 10-15 turns to move past the other player’s territory; anyone caught too far from home when they went off the map would be lost.
The Okanagan Valley, in the interior of BC, is rebuilding after [insert apocalyptic scenario here]. One player is the militia commander in Penticton, at the south end of the lake; during the game, s/he can call for reinforcements from Kelowna (the valley’s capital). Reinforcements cost points to bring onto the board, representing both the fuel burned to move them from A to B, and the fact that they’re no longer available elsewhere.
And that’s what makes the game interesting, because the attacking player can pick a small force and a small goal (outlaw bikers raiding for food), a large force and a large goal (an invading army from the Republic of Latter-Day Saints south of the border, and the capture of Penticton), or a small feinting force from the Republic and the goal of drawing reserves away from Kelowna, where the main attack (off board) is about to fall. The defender doesn’t know which it is; the attacker has to write it down before the game starts, but after that, it’s all about bluffing—just like it is in a real war.
There: now that I’ve written them down, perhaps they’ll leave me alone…