The Slow Drip
In the wake of my orgiastic unplugged gaming at Gen Con, I've gone into withdrawal. Gaming can be a trance, leaving me with an altered way of approaching the world. Sometimes, the return from a deep period of escapism leaves a sense of detachment. The world is seen through a glass darkly. Objects in the mirror are closer then they appear. But the inverse is also possible -- each item that makes up my universe becomes a saline-clear access point. People become meeples -- little wooden objects that exist only to be manipulated. The world becomes cold and sharp. These contradictory states of detachment and world-too-much-with-me peak in a paroxysm of withdrawal. A delirium tremens only remediated by a trickle of escape.
I fall back on the obvious: ways of reconnecting with the virtual world, while the all too real forces its way back in. A quick game of Half Life 2 Deathmatch would normally help, but when the withdrawl is from the slow pace and cerebral state of Gen Con, I need better methadone. And thus, I present a simple list: my seven opiates for a slow-burn gamer in a fast-twitch world.
The first place I would normally turn is Magic. Oh Magic, you whore of Babylon. You call to me as a harpy. But you aren't a paliative drip -- you're the mainlined junk. You are perfect. You are better than the "real thing." Your virtual pleasures crafted to make the high easier than the cardboard world you re-create. Oh, how I have poured money down into your festering pit. Not this time, my love. Of course, I won't sell my cards. I won't cancel my subscription to StarCity, that oracular force that guides me back in, each and every time. But this time, I will resist.
Here's the real thing. Only the Germans really understand the pull of the slow game. They buy more games per house than anywhere else in the world. Their conventions make Gen Con look like a sad showing at the University Anime Club's weekend-of-small-eyes. The big game companies pay Brettspielwelt to make online versions of their games, which anyone can play free. This forward thinking approach to the marketing is very un-American, and wonderful. The site itself, like all great insider communities, is so arcane as to be nearly unusable. But once you get beneath the painfully crunchy exterior, the caramel on the inside is worth it. While knowing a little German helps, that English flag on the front page makes it at least a little better. A little.
The games available change over time, but nearly always feature the winners and runner-ups of Germany's Spiel des Jahres (game of the year) awards such as Settlers of Catan and Puerto Rico. The implementations are masterpieces of design -- each game runs perfectly in a 640 x 480 window, and often play vastly faster then their cardboard counterparts. Unlike Magic Online, BSW (as it's known by the cool kids) runs on Java, so pretty much anyone can play.
Running on a different model, Game Table Online charges a few bucks a month to play their games (you can get two weeks for free). If their selection of games was better, it would be a no-brainer to drop $50 bucks a year, but the list is eclectic. While if features some classics like Cosmic Wimpout, Nuclear War, and Kill Dr. Lucky, it's short on the recent, hot games that set BSW appart. It's too bad, because the graphic implementation of Game Table Online is superior. My hope is that the site grows to the point where there are SO many games it's irresistible.
Working on more of an open-source model, Volity provides an free engine, and any game designer can publish a game. The engine -- called Gamut -- is well designed, intuitive, and purports to be easily programmed. The open nature of the platform has drawn the self described hippie games of Looney Labs more than any other company. That's fine, because the games featured -- Fluxx, Aquarius, Treehouse, and Barsoomite Go -- are all great. The business model lets the developers charge whatever they like. So far, that's nothing, and I hopes for that continues. Like Game Table Online, it's young, it's growing, and with luck, will achieve critical mass.
Days of Wonder produces and distributes some of the best games printed. The current hot sellers are the Memoir '44 series (an excellent set of simple war games by Richard Borg), and Ticket to Ride, the "big thing" from last year. Their model for the online versions is the opposite of all the other game companies: they let you play for free online, but only if you've bought something from them already. Each Days of Wonder game comes with a special code you can use to establish an online account. Currently Ticket to Ride is the only top tier game they offer, but it's insanely great. They don't seem to have figured out how to bring the highly customizable Memoir series online yet, but when they do, I'll be wasting countless hours.
AsoBrain is a newcomer to the world of online board games, and alas, I don't think it's long for the world. Their games are -- ahem -- tributes to top board games like Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne, but renamed and tweaked just enough to not be completely identical. By being knockoffs, they're able to take the existing rules and systems and add new twists. Xplorer, their Settlers knockoff, allows for huge customizable maps, making the game very different than the dozen or so other online versions of Settlers. Even better, they've done solid work making AI players -- something missing from virtually all of the above. The reason I think they might be doomed is simple: copyright. As far as I can tell, the site is designed and written by two college kids in the Netherlands, and I don't imagine they'd survive a well written angry letter. But while it lasts, AsoBrain has developed into a very active community for online board gamers, and it's a good paliative for my aches.
Last, least, and obscure, I must offer VASL onto the altar of gaming obsession. Virtual Advanced Squad Leader is just that -- a way to play the single most complicated (and arguably the best) tactical war game of all time, from the comfort of your desk. ASLis dense: the rulebook alone weighs 157 pounds and costs $1400. Well, OK, its maybe 3 pounds and $80, but once you read the rules, you won't be able to judge weights, values, or even speak English for a month. To truly play the game requires an investment of several hundred dollars (as much of the components are only available on eBay), at least two weeks of your life in hard study, and an endless quest to find an opponent. It's fans are so loyal that when the franchise was in danger of dying, Curt Schilling (yes, the Red Sox pitcher) personally bought the rights and reprinted the materials he needed.
VASL solves this quest-for-players problem. It implements no logic, provides no rules, and can't teach you anything, but it does replicate all of the various boards, chits, dice and bits perfectly, and provides a way to connect with and play games against other insane people. With VASL, you too can spend 2 hours moving your multi-man counter 45 feet. The likelihood that any but the most die-hard grognard will use my little epistle here as the instigator to hop on VASL, shouting with joy, is infinitesimal. Yet there is no greater symbol of the depths to which I, and others, will go, in search of a blessed lenitive for the soul.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. I can hop into Second Life and play a dozen games of Tringo. There are a thousand slow-playing and intellectual flash games on the web. Microsoft's Zone anchors an entire industry based on casual games like Hearts and Backgammon. Virtually any game you can imagine can be played by email, with a dedicated tinyculture sure to be found with a Google search. BoardGameGeek users maintain detailed lists of obscure programs which can fill your every computerized cardboard need.
But these are my drugs of choice. The slow drip that will help me slide back into the basement, and the blue screen, and the 9 to 5.