Cardboard Children: The Fairgrounds

By Robert Florence on April 15th, 2013 at 6:00 pm.


Hello youse.

It’s difficult to explain why board gaming is so great. You can talk about clever mechanics and pretty pictures all you want, but the magic of board gaming is always held within the experience of play. The challenge we face when trying to encourage new people to play board games is in how we relate those experiences.

Today, we visit the Fairgrounds.

THE FAIRGROUNDS

I had one of the most amazing board gaming experiences of my life on Saturday night. I will be talking about it for years. It happened during a two-player game of the brilliant Conquest of Planet Earth. I still cannot believe it.

(I told you a little bit about Conquest of Planet Earth in this column – feel free to have a look. I’ve been here for so long now it’s getting a bit like a board game encyclopaedia. The tl;dr is that it’s a game where each player is an alien race trying to take over Earth. You beat down the human resistance and take as much territory as possible, while messing with the plans of the other aliens.)

This past week, the expansion for the game was released. It’s called Apocalypse, and it introduces new coastal locations, coastal human resistance, new alien races and all sorts of new cool shit. It’s one of those expansions – a big box full of shiny cool stuff. It even comes with an amazing ally for the aliens – THE APOCALYPSE CUBE. A big, black, shiny cube, like a cross between a Borg ship and the Monolith from 2001.

Right at the start of our game, I got control of the Apocalypse Cube. I can’t really imagine a better possible start. It’s a big 10 Strength monster, and combat resolution in this game is all about big numbers. (However, in any battle, any side that rolls a 6 wins automatically – more about that later.) I started to move out my spaceships and my CUBE OF FRIGHT, scouting Earth’s locations, and conquering areas easily to generate Terror Points.

My opponent (my girlfriend) was playing the game for the first time. She had the unluckiest start possible, with her spaceships’ landing location surrounded by worthless woodland and mountain areas. It’s difficult to generate much terror when there aren’t any people around.

By the time half an hour had gone by, I was at FIVE terror points. Three points from victory. My girlfriend had ZERO points. This game was in the bag, and early too. I pulled a new location from the Location Deck.

And then…

The Fair Grounds. It was a Resistance 1, Population 3 location. That means that you only have to win one fight there to create three Terror Points. It would win me the game. How lucky! HOW LUCKY!

HOW LUCKY!

Sometimes, in the best board games, something amazing happens. It’s often something you haven’t predicted, and it’s rarely anything as simple as a run of bad luck. It’s usually a combination of factors, some of them emotional, and the best games allow for it. Games heavy with theme can immerse the players in a personal story, and that personal story can sometimes consume the player, causing the whole game to zoom in on one specific place. In this case – the FAIR GROUNDS claimed me. I got lost in a hall of mirrors, a crazy house, a carny game that I could never win.

I sent one spaceship into my first fight at the fairground. Those carny folk were an unpredictable bunch, adding a D6 in strength to any resistance in the area. It was a 6. This, added to the Resistance card that was drawn (some soldiers) sent my ship crashing to the ground. But, you know, that’s cool. Now I knew what I was facing, I would send two ships next time.

Those next two ships also fell at the Fairground.

I laughed. My girlfriend laughed. She still had zero points. I had plenty of time. I spent action points on landing new ships on Earth, and moved them out towards the Fairgrounds.

My two ships met some weak Resistance. I had a total of 6 strength across my two ships playing 3 strength at the Fairgrounds. I rolled a five. My girlfriend rolled a 6 for the humans – an auto-win. One of my ships crashed down. No panic. It couldn’t happen twice.

It did. Both ships gone. The Fairground still stood. My girlfriend, meanwhile, scored her first points over on her section of the planet. I started to move my Apocalypse Cube over to the Fairground. It was time to get serious.

In Conquest of Planet Earth, there’s always a possibility your alien race will encounter the planet’s Superhero. His name is Captain Fantastic. He’s strong, and he gets stronger the more aliens are in the fight with him. Can you guess who I met next?

Picture it. A fairground – a small band of human resistance fighters holed up there, being cared for by the travellers. The travellers won’t move on – not yet. They’ve forged a bond with the locals. They’ve survived wave after wave of alien attack. The aliens, initially amused, have now become seriously fucking PISSED off. A massive black cube fills the sky. An impossibly huge, smooth, black horror. It hovers above them. And then – Captain FUCKING Fantastic appears and smashes it with one punch.

I pulled my hat off my head and flung it to the floor. My girlfriend said “This game is a hat-hurler” and went on to score more points. I was livid.

I spent the next two turns restoring my fleet. ANOTHER cube. MORE ships. I filled my hand with useful Event cards, so that I could force re-rolls. The game was no longer about the invasion of Earth. It was about killing each and every one of those fucking cockroaches down at that Fairground.

My girlfriend: “You’re not seriously going back to that Fairground?”

Me: “You better fucking believe it.”

I moved out. A GIANT fleet, heading towards the Fairground. I was raving by this point, talking about how ready I was to DESTROY EVERY HUMAN COM-

My girlfriend played a “Sabotage” card. My Apocalypse Cube didn’t even reach the Fairground. It crashed and burned on approach. Somehow, I saw no evil in HER actions. I saw this as Fairground sabotage. THEY had done it, somehow. I moved the rest of my ships in…

Captain Fantastic? Well, here’s why the humans think he’s so fucking fantastic. When he gets drawn, and used, he doesn’t go into the discard pile. He gets shuffled back into the deck, so that he can come out again if you’re really really having a bad day. When I went to draw the Resistance card, I remember saying exactly this: “If this is Captain Fantastic I’m going to go insane.”

Captain Fantastic then punched every one of my ships out of the sky. We were now about an hour past the point I had thought I’d won the game.

I went on full tilt. As my girlfriend scored more and more points, approaching a victory herself, I built another fleet. Another cube. I recruited a NEW ally, another big bad special alien. As I was boasting about my new alien ally’s Fairground-Crushing special abilities, my girlfriend played a card that sent him back to space. Was he scared of the Fairground? WAS THAT IT?

Did I get angry at my girlfriend for playing that card? No. This wasn’t her story. This story was about ME. The GOD OF GAMES. My destiny – to win one fight at the Fairground. To win ONE fight, and then stand tall and scream “I AM THE GOD OF GAMES AND I AM A MARTIAN AND NO FAIRGROUND CAN RESIST MY WILL!” I moved out again, yes, again. I would move out until I could move no more.

As I did, my girlfriend dropped an ATOMIC FUCKING BOMB on another one of my territories. I now had ONE point. I need you to understand that the Fairground couldn’t even win me the game by this point. It had become my board game Moby Dick, and I was mad old Captain Ahab, flinging dice at it, dice that kept bouncing off its thick skin.

My final battle at the Fairground was brutal. Tanks emerged to resist my four spaceships and one Apocalypse Cube. They fired off an early barrage, and the cube and two spaceships fell. I flung my hat at the floor again and honestly felt like I was going to burst into tears. We moved into conventional battle, and each six that the humans rolled was like a knife into my heart. Rarely have I felt a surge of emotion like it in any game, anywhere.

The game ended with a victory for my girlfriend, while I had no aliens on Earth at all, and not one point to my name. The Fairground still stood. The fairground hadn’t fallen. I was livid, exhausted and delighted.

Just completely delighted.

When games come alive like Conquest did the other night, you remember it forever. When fortune and ego and emotion and the deviousness of your opponent combine, that’s a rich soup with a taste that lingers a long, long time. On a night like that, a game instantly becomes a classic.

Chatting about it only today, my girlfriend noted that she was doing a lot of stuff to hamper my attacks on the Fairground, and yet I never got angry at her. I think that’s the mark of a special game – one that can make you forget the whole “game” and “competition” part of things, and leave you embroiled in a very personal narrative that you simply have to see through to its conclusion, even if it’s likely that the conclusion will be a tragic ending for you.

I had a very real feeling that something special was happening at that table the other night, and I was glad to be a part of it. I think that’s why I never put my logic hat on and tried to find the optimal play. The game had cast me in a role, and I loved playing it.

You would love playing this game too, I think. See you next time.

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28 Comments »

  1. Runty McTall says:

    I think that’s the mark of a special game – one that can make you forget the whole “game” and “competition” part of things, and leave you embroiled in a very personal narrative that you simply have to see through to its conclusion, even if it’s likely that the conclusion will be a tragic ending for you.

    See, this is what I look for in all my gaming partners – playing to win, sure, but mainly playing to have fun and enjoy the experience. I don’t win very much but I don’t get that much more pleasure when I do, unless something especially silly or apt happened along the way. I’m there for the journey more than anything.

    That said, we have Conquest of Earth and, meh, it’s nothing to really write home about for us (although the atmospheric CD is fun – more games should have these!). Torn on whether to buy the expansion to try to improve it at the risk of throwing good money after bad.

    • Ushao says:

      This is why I’ve enjoyed every time our copy of Ghost Stories has been brought out. Every game has evolved into a narrative and makes the whole thing feel alive. An out of town friend of ours was visiting for a vacation a couple weeks ago and we brought out Ghost Stories. He’s never been exposed to a more complex board game like this so when he saw all the pieces and was listening to the rules you could just see his eyes glaze over. Then as we went along and things started getting really tense he really got into it. The next day before I got home from work he asked my wife if we could play again that night.

    • Skabooga says:

      I don’t win very much but I don’t get that much more pleasure when I do, unless something especially silly or apt happened along the way. I’m there for the journey more than anything.

      I very much approach games the same way. Whenever my group insists on playing the dull and flavorless ‘Settlers of Catan’, I take drastic steps to bring some life to it, often at the expense of my own victory. I don’t consider it a successful game unless I’ve brought someone to the verge of tears; it’s certainly more challenging that way than playing the game straight.

  2. realmenhuntinpacks says:

    Sounds like a trier. Love you Rab!

  3. Caenorhabditis says:

    Fantastic story Rab. That’s how I play!

  4. Aedrill says:

    This. More of this, less of raven shenanigans please. It was such an enjoyable read, not only because it was a well written AAR, but because it was an extremely well written (and carefully picked) AAR.

  5. Wedge says:

    This is equal parts amazing and everything I hate about dice-based games.

    • 11temporal says:

      Exactly, makes for a nice story but dice based games are pretty fucking horrible.

      • Bhazor says:

        RIMMER: So there we were at 2:30 in the morning; I was beginning to wish I had never come to cadet training school. To the south lay water –
        there was no way we could cross that. To the east and west two armies squeezed us in a pincer. The only way was north; I had to go for it and pray the Gods were smiling on me. I picked up the dice and threw
        two sixes. Caldecott couldn’t believe it. My go again; another two
        sixes!
        LISTER: Rimmer, what’s wrong with you? Don’t you realize that no one is even slightly interested in anything you’re saying? You’ve got this major psychological defect which blinds you to the fact that you’re boring people to death! How come you can’t sense that?
        RIMMER: Anyway I picked up the dice again… Unbelievable! Another two sixes!
        LISTER: Rimmer!
        RIMMER: What?
        LISTER: No one wants to know some stupid story about how you beat your Cadet School Training Officer at Risk.
        RIMMER: Then — disaster! I threw a two and a three; Caldecott picked up
        the dice and threw snake eyes — I was still in it. Anyway, to cut a long story short I threw a five and a four which
        beat his three and a two, another double six followed by a double four and a double five. After he’d thrown a three and a two I threw a six and a three.

        The best stories.

  6. Palehorse says:

    Loved the story, on the hunt for this game now.

    Local game shop says they can order it in for $65, I’m thinking it’s a go.

  7. Easy says:

    More <3 to you, made my evening.

  8. JoeGuy says:

    Is Rab going to be contributing more in the future?

  9. Baines says:

    This can happen in pretty much any game with dice or random card draws. The question is whether bad luck rides out long enough to become a memorable absurdity instead of just an annoyance.

    My friends and I years ago had the story of the Russian Transport From Hell. This was in an Axis & Allies game from a long, long time ago. The Allies weren’t posing a major issue to the Axis, so Germany decided to take the extra time to take out Russia’s tiny navy. Germany failed. It was bad luck. The dice just went the wrong way. Germany tried again, and failed again.

    Transports were a “1″ on defense. That meant that when attacked, a transport could only hit if you rolled a “1″ on a 1D6. There was a weirdness from the start, with Russia realizing that his transport was the vessel that was actually taking out the enemy. So, running against the odds, he tossed his other ship when he took a hit.

    The anomaly became an absurdity when we all realized that for that game, nothing could hit the transport, and the transport killed any force sent against it. Germany tried, a lot. I believe even Japan ended up contributing (and losing) some aircraft to the cause.

    I’d guess the transport landed a hit at worst 3 out of every 4 times. I’m almost certain it wasn’t any worse than that. But it wasn’t just that the transport landed an abnormal amount of hits, it was that nothing could land a hit against it. It sank submarines, destroyers, battleships, fighters, bombers, anything and everything sent against it. We lost count of the forces that were sent against it. It downed an entire fleet of heavy bombers in one battle. Bombers hit on a 1-4, and heavy bombers rolled three attack dice.

    The losses the Axis suffered from trying to take out that transport nearly cost them an easy victory in a runaway game. As it was, the Axis did still win. With the Russian transport sitting there quietly at the end of the game.

    • Shadowcat says:

      That’s hilarious :) It’s true that luck can ruin games, but it unquestionably creates some of the best stories, just like Rab’s and yours. You always remember the times that something completely outrageous happened, and by and large that can’t happen in games which minimise luck.

  10. nitehawk says:

    It sounds more like the game has a crappy random number metric that screw a player to death.

    • YB says:

      let’s be fair a cube + 2 saucers is 3 attempts to kill the captain. And the cap has only S9 vs the cube + the saucers at S16 … so it was extreme bad luck (and at least one six rolled)… and probably funny as hell.

      • Bhazor says:

        I like the system in some RPGs* where you decide your actions then roll all your dice and then have to pick which of those dice you assign to each action. It keeps the unpredictability and chance but adds a healthy layer of strategy and decision making.

        This just sounds like a game where player tactics completely fall apart from sheer bad luck. That’s not itself bad but it just sounds like it would piss me right into the “someones getting german supplexed through the table” mood.

        * I know the original D20 Star Wars game used it, but presumably there are others as well.

  11. running fungus says:

    Love it. That was magic, thanks.

  12. drastic00 says:

    I just love these articles and these kinds of games, with complexity. Trouble is, I can never find anyone to play. I have an AWESOMELY painted 40K army. I am better at painting that playing, however, since I don’t know anyone who cares besides me. I have tried going to the local game shops to play, but the people I end up playing with there are so damned invested in the rules that I can never get into a game about learning how to play the GAME. So I gave up. I tried to get my ex wife into MTG, but we never got beyond the starter set. Maybe she left because I tried to get her to play MTG, dunno. Never got a straight answer on that one… Anyway, I’ll keep reading and maybe sometime I’ll get some friends that like this stuff too. That Star Wars ship combat game sure looked awesome.

    • Bweahns says:

      I recently broke out my Magic the Gathering cards on the off-chance my missus would enjoy it and it turned out she did. It has led to a MTG renaissance. I’ve now got her brother and a bunch of my mates into it and we’ve had drunken all night multiplayer sessions. Good times.

    • Noise says:

      Your comment made me sad :( Keep trying to find some cool people willing to play! You can always try to convert friends that haven’t played any before and try to get them to like it.

  13. Pathetic Phallacy says:

    Seems like Monsters Menace America in its dice-fest and luck feel. I hate Monsters Menace America!

  14. Xyvik says:

    Awesome story, and just moved this game up on my list of things to buy! Thanks for the read!

    On a side note: I was wondering when the dice-haters would show up! Let me clue you guys into a little secret of the universe: life is one giant dice-roll. War is one giant dice-roll. Ever heard the old phrase “the plans of mice of men?” It doesn’t matter how much you plan or how much you think you’ve got things under control in any sort of situation in real life: random crap might just happen and screw up your plans. Someone famous once said that “no plan survives contact with the enemy intact.”

    Instead of raging against the luck and the dice and the fates, a good commander, a good player, and a good -person- simply accepts what bad (or good!) has happened and adjust their plans accordingly.

    /end preaching

  15. Gothnak says:

    This is why i am selling my copy… When luck trumps skill too much (Admittedly you need some luck in a game for it to be varied) it just isn’t much fun for me…

  16. tikey says:

    Next alien invasion I’m going to take refuge in a fairground.

  17. Radiant says:

    Rob, you’re bald, everyone knows this so why are you wearing a hat indoors?

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