By Robert Florence on July 16th, 2011 at 4:50 pm.
Hands up who remembers Subbuteo. Hands up!
Put your hand down, for fuck’s sake, I can’t see you.
I had Subbuteo back in the day. We all did. American readers might not be aware of it. It was a tabletop football game where you flicked the players at a plastic ball, in an attempt to score goals. A football match, in plastic. I didn’t have a table large enough to take the large green sheet that served as the game’s pitch, so I would lay it out on the living room floor behind my da’s chair. Night after night, my da would play Subbuteo with the 10 year old me – I’d be Glasgow Celtic and he’d be Aberdeen, purely because the other team was a red colour.
Neither of us really knew the proper rules, and we were both terrible at the game. The matches were usually ghastly 0-0 grinds, because the playing surface was so poor. Folds and creases everywhere and lumps and bumps where the patterned carpet under the pitch undulated. A wee boy and his da, on their knees, flicking plastic men while Strike it Lucky blasted from the living room telly. My ma at the bingo. My whole life ahead of me. My da still alive.
I don’t know if Subbuteo is a great game. I’m sure it is. It just wasn’t really a game to me. It was just one of many things I shared with my da. Like Star Trek and in-depth conversations about the nature of the universe. Now, as a father myself, I realise what was actually happening when we were playing that game we didn’t know the rules of. We were just being with each other. Flicking plastic. Shooting the shit. Playing.
What’s the point of all this?
Being with each other – for me, that’s the key element of board gaming. When you get that occasional person who openly tells you they see board games as “sad”, I feel a bit sad that they don’t get it. If I want to play a board game with you, it really just means I want to sit with you a while. That’s not a bad thing, is it?
But, yeah, there’s a reason why I was thinking about flicking. I want to tell you about a brilliant board game this week. A brilliant board game. It’s called Ascending Empires.
Picture this. You’re in space.
You’re sitting in a starship, waiting for the word to attack. Your Commander is overseeing the invasion of an enemy planet, and you’re ready to launch. He has been preparing for this assault for months. You’ve watched as he recruited civilians from conquered planets and made them starship pilots like yourself. You’ve watched as he researched spectacular new technologies for your race. So much preparation. And now, here you are, the starship’s engines thrumming somewhere below you, as your Commander gets set to send you across the galaxy into your enemy’s orbit.
And he rises above you. He bends over you. His giant finger comes down to the rear of your starship.
He says – “Look! My finger’s shaking like fuck!”
Other people laugh. You shift a little in your seat. You check your harness. You’re sweating a little. There’s a photo of your wife and daughter above the imaging panel. You touch it, for luck. It’s not you who needs that luck.
You see the Commander move a giant cup of coffee.
“Right. Here we go. COME ON.” The Commander’s finger flicks, striking the rear of your ship. You rocket through space, the force pushing you back in your seat. Your life flashes before your eyes. Those walks with Jennifer. Your first day at pilot school, and your first introduction to finger propulsion technology. Saying goodbye to the girls on the-
“HERE NOO!” from the Commander.
Your ship hits an asteroid, and hurtles off course. Worse, you feel the ship tilt, tilt, onto its side. Spinning through space now, you can’t tell up from down. You can’t think. You can hear, barely–
You reach to touch that photograph again, but your gloved fingers can’t make contact. And then you’re out of known space, into a world of brown, then further down (down?) crashing onto some unknown surface, but still spinning.
Rolling and spinning. Until you go under a brown bridge into a blackness, where you find peace.
The last words you hear are “Where’d it go?”
And “Under the sideboard”.
Oh man, is this a great game.
Ascending Empires is a space conquest game for 4 players. It all takes place on a large star map board that splits space into quadrants. On this board, holes are cut. And into these holes you put wooden discs that represent planets and asteroids.
On each turn you can do one thing, just one, which means turns fly round the table like crazy. You take your turn, and then sit down and have a sip of a coffee, and then you go “What? Me again?” For a space conquest game, this is AN UNCOMMON THING.
On your tun you can recruit troops, placing new wee men onto a planet or planets you control. You can build colonies and cities and research stations. Research stations let you RESEARCH, which improves the technologies of your race and awards you victory points and better abilities. You can Mine, which lets you drill into occupied planets for quick and easy victory points.
Or, you can MOVE.
You have, at the start, two movement points. These let you launch and land ships from your planets. Launching is as easy as removing a little plastic man from a planet and placing a wooden disc that represents a starfighter beside that planet. Landing is the reverse. Movement points also let you flick one of your ships across the board.
That’s right. To travel in this game, you need to flick the ships across the board. If you want to conquer an enemy planet, you have to reach it first, by flicking.
This single aspect, the flicking, makes this the best space conquest game I’ve ever played. And I’ve played the amazing Starcraft. I love the flicking because it adds an element of “choke” to the game. You can play like a master, and adopt some killer strategy for the development of your race, but when it comes to a vital defensive flick of one of your starships into the orbit of a planet – your finger will shake, my friend. In Ascending Empires, you can never relax. You’re always one bad flick away from a galactic crisis. Or one flick away from a game-changing masterstroke. A die or a card won’t choose your fate. Your bottle will.
Here’s what happened in a recent game I played.
I was in the lead, just. I’d been focusing on building cities in three separate quadrants, which awards the player a victory point bonus at the end of the game. Because of this expansion strategy, I’d left one of my cities far too lightly defended. The yellow player, Kenny, flicked one of his starships into orbit around the planet with the city. Disaster. It was clear he was making a big move on me, and my people were getting ZAPPED. I was way across the other side of the board, but I had a Battleship, thanks to my advanced technology. Battleships are bigger ships, thus bigger discs. And bigger discs are easier to flick. More stable. I weighed things up. Could I get my Battleship back home in one flick? Into orbit, defending my people? If I fucked up, I would be in a worse position. My planet would still be undefended, and my Battleship would be stranded god knows where.
My Battleship slid perfectly between a planet and an asteroid, kept going, and settled perfectly in orbit. I roared. I could VISUALISE it. Kenny’s starship firing up its attack cannons, and then VOOOOOM a big fucking red Battleship jumping in behind him, dwarfing him.
Man, is this a great game.
There was another beautiful moment that had everyone, even Kenny, in hysterics. One of his ships, on a bad flick, ricocheted off two planets then turned on its side and slowly, so slowly, trundled off the board. You wouldn’t believe how slowly it rolled. We were sore from laughing so much. Any ship that goes off the board is “lost in space”, and it was a horrible thing to happen at an important point of the game, but ohmygodsofunny. Trundle, trundle, trundle, rolling past planets and asteroids, trundle, trundle, trundle – roaring with laughter. Amazing.
I can’t recommend this game enough. If you’re looking for a surprisingly deep space conquest game, that would be great even WITHOUT the flicking, but which features this amazing, hilarious dexterity element – BUY IT NOW. You won’t believe how much your finger shakes when the nerves hit.
ONE LITTLE THING
There’s one little thing about Ascending Empires that must be said. There seems to be a problem with the board in many cases. I’ve been lucky enough to have zero problems with my board, but I’ve heard a lot of complaints from other owners of the game. The board has a jigsaw-style fit, and it seems that some people are experiencing issues where the board pieces fit together. Bad fits are interfering with shots, it seems. Again, I haven’t had any problems, but I think it needs to be said that this issue seems to exist. (Here’s a thing, though – I’m making sure to assemble the board as it was cut. What I mean is, maybe other people aren’t doing that. I don’t know.) Regardless of this issue, the game is so good that it’s worth the risk. Seriously. Don’t miss this game.
I was going to talk a little about Battles of Westeros today, but I’m too sickened by a defeat this week to talk about it yet. I’m going to win a battle tomorrow, totally sicken my girlfriend with my amazing strategies, and then tell you about it next week. I will not have you thinking that the God of Games is a loser.
Also, yesterday I was in my local board game shop, and I saw that there’s some new magic expansion thing for Warhammer Fantasy Battle that includes these gorgeous magic spell template things. Anyone know anything about this? It’s not like GAMES WORKSHOP WILL TELL ME ANYTHING.
Finally, the bold Quinns is doing videos about boardgames now – check out http://videosgames.wordpress.com/2011/07/11/shut-up-sit-down/ for details. THE BOARD GAME ADVANCE CONTINUES!
See you next time, my pals!