Category Archives: Games

I Talk Games and Conflict at Blogs of War

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I appeared on Blogs of War’s Covert Contact Podcast to talk about games and warfare.

Discussion topics include:

  • How games (often erroneously) portray warfare
  • Call of Duty‘s strange evolution as the premier military series
  • The merging of video game tech and military hardware
  • How VR and gamification will change how we live–and how we fight

This was a great chat, and it looks like I’ll be returning to comment on games there from time-to-time, so keep watching my Twitter feed!


I’ve Got Some Assassin’s Creed Ghost Stories at Playboy

AC Dickens

There’ll be scary ghost stories and tales of the glories of Christmases long, long ago…

Man, ghost stories at Christmas. Can I live at your house, Andy Williams?

The only holiday ghost story at my house is A Christmas Carol–but then again, it’s pretty great. Victorianism and Christmas go together like eggnog and brandy, and what did Victorians love more than anything?

Ghosts.

Don’t believe me? Well guess what: Dickens himself was a paranormal investigator-I’m dead serious, it’s a documented fact.

And you can read all about it in my new Playboy article “The Truths Behind Assassin’s Creed Syndicate’s Ghost Stories.”

I can’t emphasize how much historical weirdness is in this article. It has:

  • Queen Victoria Being Creepy
  • Lincoln Attending a Séance
  • Mourning Warehouses
  • Spring-Heeled Jack
  • The London Monster
  • Trance Mediums Making Out With Clients
  • Spirits From Beyond Calling for Women’s Suffrage

Check it out–or I’ll haunt you.


Three Great Halloween Board Games

I’m already getting amped for Halloween.  It’s hard not to be in Hong Kong, where the Ghost Festival and Mid-Autumn Festival mean that the season’s already steeped in specters and harvest imagery before October even arrives.

And once the season of the witch officially starts, I’m ready to go berserk on everything Halloween — including Halloween board games.

Board games  are perfect Halloween accompaniments. They bring friends together, away from the night chill (or stifling heat, if you’re in Asia like me).  A good game pairs well with popcorn, tiny candy and hot chocolate, and the role-playing elements speak to the season’s masks and costumes.

So here’s three Halloween board games to get you into the season.

 

Betrayal at the House on the Hill (3-6 Players, $38.60 Avalon Hill)

There is a house that sprawls in every direction. A handful of investigators enter, exploring the tumbledown rooms to find the house’s secrets. But the mansion is alive and watching, and will soon turn one of the investigators against the others.

Betrayal at the House on the Hill is a strategy board game with a brilliant gimmick—the board is never the same twice. As the players move through the house, they pull each room tile at random, building the house as they go. The solarium might be next to the crypt. A wine cellar could hide a secret entrance to a pentagram chamber. The mystic elevator can deliver you to any door in the house. The players poke through the ruins, gaining items and activating “omens” until enough cards get dealt to trigger the “Haunt”—one of fifty scenarios from an included booklet. Once the Haunt begins, a random player gets labeled the “traitor” and controls whatever nasty creatures appear, trying to fulfill some dark plan. The other players use teamwork to stop the traitor’s dark ends.

Betrayal brings B-movie horror to life. The tone is creepy without being ghoulish and the scenarios have sufficient variation to play several times in a row without getting bored. One game might have the players fleeing from a mummy while the next sees the entire house being pulled into hell piece-by-piece.

 

Witch Trial (3-7 Players, Free Download from Cheapass Games)

It’s an age of superstition and social tension, when accusations fly and social deviation can bring a charge a charge of witchcraft. You’re not a witch though, and neither is anyone else, really – you’re a lawyer in the middle of this madness.

This lucrative, lucrative madness. Because you don’t really care who’s guilty or innocent, just like in real life, what matters is who makes the most money.

Of course there’s a problem – witchcraft isn’t exactly illegal per se, at least not in the small-town Edwardian times depicted on the cards. So instead you’ll have to charge people with lesser crimes like golfing, swearing or tampering with the mail.

In Witch Trial, you’re a legal mercenary, defending or prosecuting suspects on a whim depending on how much they’ll pay in fees. The guiltier the client looks, the more they’re worth if you win – but the harder it is to convince a jury.

Each turn, players buy evidence cards and match charges with suspects in order to bring a case to trial, with another player opting in as defense council. Depending on the client’s guilt rating, they jury level’s set at a number between one and twelve. After players put down evidence cards to move the jury level up and down, the defense attorney rolls two dice – if it’s less than or equal to the jury score, the client gets off scot free and the defense gets the money. If not, the prosecution gets the cash. And the client… well, who really cares about that guy anyway?

Witch Trial is exactly the kind of zany fun you expect from the folks at Cheapass Games. It’s fast, fun, easy and leads to an incredible amount of deal-making and wagering. It’s also free at the Cheapass website.

 

Werewolf (9-17 Players, Free)

Lie. Misdirect. Maul and lynch your friends! Werewolf is the ultimate social game of deception and mob rule. A moderator deals out a single card to each player, which they keep face down. Most players are Villagers, but two are hiding something—they’re secretly Werewolves, bent on devouring the Villagers in their sleep. Each turn has a day and a night phase.

During the night phase, the players close their eyes. The Werewolves open their eyes and silently decide who they’re going to kill. After they let the moderator know, they close their eyes and a special villager, the Seer, opens her eyes. The Seer can peek at one person’s card per turn, exposing their true nature to her.

During the day phase, everyone opens their eyes, and the moderator reveals who the Werewolves killed. Then everyone—Villagers, Seer, and secret Werewolves—start arguing about who they want to lynch that day. It’s a classic exercise in social misdirection. Werewolves try and direct suspicion away from themselves. The Seer tries to influence the decision without giving herself away to the Werewolves. When the players universally decide whom to lynch, they flip that player’s card and find out whether they’ve killed a shape-shifting murderer, an innocent townsperson, or even their Seer. Alcohol and grudges building up over multiple rounds things a lot more fun.

Werewolf works best when you play with ten or more people, and tops out at about seventeen. You can play it with an ordinary deck of cards or even post-it notes with the free online rules, but there are also professional versions available. Ultimate Werewolf ($17.99) is the most expansive set, with a dozen optional character cards. The Werewolves of Millers Hollow ($10.76) has several extra characters and the most attractive card art. Are You a Werewolf? ($7.99) is a budget version with lighter card stock and a few blanks to create your own special characters.


The Hidden Power of EPIC FAIL

I came across a couple pieces this week that synched up nicely, clarifying a point that’s been bouncing around my skull for awhile.

Item One: an episode of Extra Credits titled “Fail Faster,” about the power of doing and correcting rather than trying to build a perfect foundation.  EC’s actually a show about game design, but this episode’s broadly applicable to any creative endeavor.

Item Two: an editorial from New York Times Magazine called “Be Wrong as Fast as You Can,” detailing the author’s experience as a failed writer – and his ultimate realization that failure is a natural and powerful part of the creative process.

Though by no means a summary of the full article, here’s a great pull quote:

I recently saw a Charlie Rose interview with John Lasseter, a founder of Pixar, about the creative process behind his movies. Pixar’s in-house theory is: Be wrong as fast as you can. Mistakes are an inevitable part of the creative process, so get right down to it and start making them. Even great ideas are wrecked on the road to fruition and then have to be painstakingly reconstructed. “Every Pixar film was the worst motion picture ever made at one time or another,” Lasseter said. “People don’t believe that, but it’s true. But we don’t give up on the films.”

Both of these hit on a point I’ve been revisiting lately: that while it’s important to outline and develop ideas, you can’t get bogged down in thinking about a story rather than writing it.  It’s a common trap writers fall into – even professional ones – and it’s often driven by the fear that we won’t do our story justice, that we’ll get it wrong and make mistakes.  That it won’t be as good as something else already out there.

Fun story: In the early drafts of Frozen, Elsa was a straight-up villain like Hans Christian Andersen’s original Snow Queen.

Yeah, not so great. The movie was fun, but didn’t have much heart. Then Robert Lopez and Krisen-Anderson Lopez wrote “Let it Go,” and the team thought, Hey, maybe Elsa’s a tragic figure.  So they had an interesting villain and a show-stopper, but something was still missing.  That is, until an early read-through of the script spat up so much chemistry between Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell that the team thought, Check it – what if these two are sisters and the story’s about family dynamics.

BOOM. Hit movie.

As Extra Credits says, every great game course-corrected for success.  To scatologize John Lasseter’s classy quote, every Pixar film was, at one point, a giant turd.

Popular wisdom states that you can’t polish a turd, but that phrase ignores something more important – poop makes excellent fertilizer.  In the same way, bad ideas aren’t worthless or hopeless if you take the time and patience to grow a good idea from their nutrients.

But to do that, you have to have some crap to work with.

So go forth and fail today.  Make crap – a giant mountain of it – then use that fertilizer to grow a tree, a field an entire orchard of tasty fruit.  All you need is time and patience.

And shoveling.  Crap requires a lot of shoveling.


One Year of Critical Intel

 

Order the cake and dust off your party hat, because it’s Critical Intel‘s first birthday!

Well okay, not exactly.  CritIntel’s first anniversary was actually back on October 12th, but it escaped my notice because of some stuff that’s gone down recently.  Regardless, I’m happy to see how my slick little newborn idea’s grown up over the last year.

I started Critical Intel to talk about how games and the real world are bleeding together, and I feel good about how much ground we’ve covered over the last year.  In one trip around the sun we’ve taken on the false realism of military FPS games, compared Dishonored to real-life 18th century dueling rituals and explored how Star Wars: The Old Republic became an unlikely battleground for LGBT rights.  We’ve explored politics, history and contemporary social issues without resorting to name-calling and hate mail – something people thought impossible when the column started.  The prestigious Games Journalism Prizes were even nice enough to longlist two columns for its annual prize.

You might notice that I’ve been saying “we” a lot.  Despite appearances, Critical Intel is very much a team effort.  A lot of people, from editors to artists, to the back-office folks who keep the lights on, have a hand in bringing CritIntel’s hot analytical goodness direct to your eyeballs every Thursday.  Those people have my deepest thanks, but so does everyone who’s ever passed me a news tip, shared the column or even made it a subject of your podcast or blog post.

Most of all, I’d like to thank you, the reader, for supporting the column.  There was never any guarantee that Critical Intel would find an audience or sustain itself for this long, and I appreciate you lending me your brain for ten minutes a week.

But don’t leave the theater yet –  it’s just intermission.  There’s some exciting stuff coming up, and you won’t want to miss it.

Because if you liked my last trick, I can’t wait to show you what I’ve got up my sleeve for next year.


Welcome to the Pitch Jam

Hey there, guess what?  I’ve got a rare opportunity for you.  No, it’s not discount snake oil –  those bottles are in my attic pending FDA approval – it’s a way to help you improve your pitching skills.

So you’ve tried to get into game journalism for awhile.  You’ve read a few blogs, pitched some stories, racked up a few polite rejections and a handful of clippings – the usual.  What if I told you that as soon as next weekend you could get substantive feedback on not one, but two pitches, along with a series of blog posts and Google Hangouts focused toward polishing your skills?

Welcome to the Pitch Jam, brought to you by the fine folks at Good Games Writing.  You can find all the nitty gritty details here, but here’s the main rub:

  1. Follow @GoodWritingVG and the hashtag #PitchJam on Twitter for updates.  (Or if you’re allergic to Twitter, keep checking GoodGamesWriting.com)
  2. Read blog posts about improving your pitch skills written by established editors and game journalists.
  3. Watch the judging panel and expert guests discuss pitching and ask them questions during a forthcoming Google Hangout.
  4. Submit up to two polished pitches between September 20th — 22nd (submission details forthcoming).
  5. Get substantive, tailored feedback from the expert panel.

That’s it!  Get advice, submit pitches and get feedback, all from the comfort of your own home.

Who’s on the expert panel, you may ask?  Well I am, for one.  So is Brian Shea of Videogamewriters.com, Susan Arendt of Joystiq, Andrew Groen of Penny Arcade Report and Richard Moss, content editor for Archive.vg.  In other words, people who can give you good advice and who directly benefit from seeing better pitches.  GGW will announce more panelists soon, too.

But we need one thing to make the Pitch Jam a success – your pitches!  So follow the event on Twitter, ask questions, and send us your best article pitch you can write.

If you do all that, who knows?  You may have a viable, editor-ready pitch before the end of the month.

Watch this space for further updates and “how to” blog posts.  Got questions or need advice about pitching?  Feel free to ask me in the comment section or on Twitter @RobWritesPulp.

Good luck, PitchJammers.


My Five Favorite Critical Intel Columns of 2012

Critical Intel is off and running.  Originally, I’d thought the column would provide an interesting side note with niche appeal, but instead I’m seeing comments from regular readers and getting appreciative messages in my inbox.  (That’s always humbling, wonderful, and weird.)  It seems CritIntel‘s audience is larger than I anticipated.

Given that, I really want to thank everyone who’s read, commented, tweeted, and shared in support of the column. At the risk of sounding biased, CritIntel readers are my favorite audience on The Escapist.  You’re overwhelmingly positive and engaged, and when you disagree with me, that dissent is (with only a few exceptions) well-reasoned and polite.  Moreover, you’re all pretty kind to each other even when discussing controversial topics.  I think it says a lot that I wrote a column on the Mexican Cartel War the comments didn’t explode into xenophobic tirades. Despite writing about contentious political topics like conflict minerals, drone warfare, gay rights, and BioWare, I haven’t received a single piece of hate mail to date.  You guys are amazing.

So here’s to another year of thoughtful analysis and clean comment threads.  To celebrate, here’s my favorite columns of 2012:

1) King Washington the Wicked

This column was the essence of why I stared doing Critical Intel – I wanted to bring players smart, detailed analyses of the real-world content in games that include the perspectives of subject experts.  I’m still on pins and needles waiting to see if my predictions for The Tyranny of King Washington come to pass.

2) Desperate Housewives of Skyrim

Skyrim is one of my all-time favorite games.  That being said, Skyrim‘s stilted social relationships are an endless source of unintentional hilarity.  I love writing humor pieces, and I’d like to do more in the future.

3) Killer Robots and Collateral Damage

Articles that post on or near a holiday tend to get a lot less traffic – which is unfortunate, since this piece on the portral of drones in video games was one of the better things I’ve done this year.

4) Conflict Minerals in the Game Industry: A Two-Part Series

Yes, it’s cheating to post two as one.  Conflict minerals haven’t gotten a lot of traction in the games media, and it’s a topic I’ve wanted to address for years.  I still have a lot of unresolved feelings regarding Part II, since I’m honestly not sure where I stand on what we should do to address the problem.  Still, I’m proud that I took it on.

5) Cuddly Pokemon and the Demons That Spawned Them

Confession: I don’t like Pokemon.  I’ve never played it because I can’t stand turn-based games.  On the other hand, I love Japanese folklore, especially stories of violent spirits and creatures.  Originally, this was going to be a two part column, but it dragged so I cut it down to one.  There are lots more bizarre spirits that influenced Pokemon, and I highly suggest you check them out if you’re interested.