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.
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.
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!
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.