I am a lot of things but never that original. A blog about lockdown gaming puts me at least ten thousandth in line. I have a few things to say and I will keep them short.
I started by having a break. I didn’t feel like gaming and our local minicon (starting the exact week we shutdown) had to be cancelled; a decision I didn’t enjoy, but with hindsight was blindingly obvious. So I told everyone I wasn’t gaming online. Strict observance. I worked on my designs, did some prototype graphics, made some models, did some DIY and cleaned the house until there was nothing left to clean. April 1st arrived and I was weakening. Invites were coming in. The catalyst was Yucata.de which I have to say is almost perfect. I cracked. I have been playing since.
Unlike Vassal, which can seem like a massive puzzle and offers little guidance, Yucata offers a fixed list of custom coded, hand holding games. Mainly Euros, mainly multi player. The selection is eclectic and is partly dependent on which games can be licenced and/or approved. The game then gets the treatment. A dedicated programmer works their magic (and it is very impressive magic) and transfers the analogue to digital. There are two problems. Sometimes, those big old boards and cards don’t fit on the screen so the interfaces can demand hi-res and/or a second monitor. But always, if you start a three+ player game, you have to finish it or the system nags you. I don’t get this. I moaned. They ain’t budging.
Everything else is wonderful – you can even chose your colour and everyone else can as well. The game modules know the rules, do all the maths, check for correct play and suggest what you can do every turn. When you get down to the interaction of two edge case cards, or a curious end game position, the logic is impeccable. They are ‘on it’. So clever and it has not failed us yet. Over fifty sessions so far.
Roll forward two months and the gaming had to stop. I was up to six nights per week and I was starting to feel burned out – I did not want to go there again. I also have so much else to do, having been at work throughout. So I have cut back to two or perhaps three sessions per week. These sessions are characteristically much shorter than the analogue equivalent and max out at two or three hours, usually with three to five gamers. They are greatly enjoyed apart from the silences, which are odd when you have no faces to read.
The tech is simple. We have stayed away from Boardgames Arena, Tabletop Simulator and anything else out there. While Yucata.de has a limited range of games, and even fewer that I enjoy playing, it serves us well. At the same time we are using Vassal more and more. For sound (and screen sharing, but not video) we have used Messenger, Skype and mainly Zoom. Google Meet is now coming on stream. It is at least as good as Zoom, but free. It does real time subtitles and it does these much better than the TV. And today, Instagram have thrown their hat into the ring.
Pax for the Win
Games wise, it has been almost all Pax Porfiriana. A game I liked a lot, I have racked up another 20 plays online. I feel we have found hidden depths to the game tactics and have reached the point of ‘knowing it’. While different to my beloved Pax Pamir 2e, it is in the same class. I still buy the Rail Gun every time. Phil Eklund will be happy to know I have given him his first 10.
Hidden depths are not present in all the games we have tried, most noticeably among the light to midweight Euros. Some say that these games are designed for a couple of plays tops. I think not, and expansions prove this to my mind. Some are fine, others just survive five plays, others flounder. Some games work better online – notably Transatlantic, others perform much worse – La Granja.
We have also been enjoying SteamRollers. A quantum style game (but done well), this one is a roll and write of sorts but is about railways so survives the first play. It is a great little two player and we have finished in 20 minutes. With more it is still good but slows up somewhat, and if a rival player emulates your network you probably won’t be winning. Other games enjoying repeat play include Just One, First Class, El Grande, Navegador and Rajas of the Ganges. On Vassal, Pax Pamir, ASL-SK and Mark Herman’s Gettysburg stand out but there are hundreds more to try.
Middle Earth… online
The highlight of the lockdown was also online, but completely unexpected. My favourite game of all time, ICE’s Middle Earth CCG, has, in truth, not been played here for a decade. At least. In fairness, it is regularly looked at and admired. But I have reached that point, as with Flat Top and Squad Leader, that I fear it will be a disappointment if I do play again. I have keen opponents, I have ready built decks and I have few concerns about remembering those rules. Now, because of a random post on Facebook, I have discovered something so good that I have run out of suitable adjectives. That is a first.
Cardnum.net sounds like a poker site. In fact it is a platform for online play of ME:CCG. It is actively supported. There are many players, even if one detects a strongly competitive vibe. I would say Germany seems to be the focal point. One browses this modern wonder and something doesn’t quite add up. The card lists are familiar. Buttons are pressed, checkboxes selected. More card lists appear. Bay of Ormal? Morgoth? Northern Wastes? These are new to me. Have I missed something?
It slowly dawns. This band of loyal fans has done what I did and made some new custom cards. The difference would be that I made about twenty. Here, there are hundreds. Probably over a thousand. All new, all themed, classy artwork, lovingly imagined and, when my print bod returns, hi-res printable. This is off-the-chart fandom at its very best. A treasure.
I don’t really know what else to say. I know what gamers can do when enthused, I know that Tolkien demands a special class of devotion and if you are a Photoshop user it will be trivial to do. The design of the cards, and play value, will be evaluated in the near future. But I will not make light of this achievement. It is a monumental effort and I am seriously impressed. I hear that every piece of artwork has been cleared with the artist, and that the sets have all been playtested. Some have been published, but not officially. New card sets are still emerging. I am even more scared to play now…
Let me confirm my curmudgeonly nature. I have some very slight issues. Some of the art is a bit ropey – but that was also true of the original. Some of the cards are clearly aimed at competition gamers rather than atmosphere/narrative freaks like me. Some of the combos look a bit niche. Many of the cards are very text heavy and complicate the already dense rules, which is a route I would not have taken. I assume that some, or indeed most, of the characters, settings and monsters are made up rather than canon.
But, and it is a substantial but, even if you read, selected and printed just the new characters, or the magic items, or the sites, or indeed any one category of cards, you would be excited to the point of hypertension. I was. If there were nothing else it would not matter because they give you a module called The Sun Lands (love my Haradrim) and… quests. Sufficient! There is probably an awful lot more stuff because I haven’t even scratched the surface.
Cardnum is amazing. A staggering amount of work and enthusiasm by many talented people, somehow distilled into a final product that salutes and perpetuates the original genius of Coleman Charlton. And that Tolkien chap. The sort of thing that I would instantly support, even as someone who supports very little. I am so engaged that even if the new cards or the game no longer work for me, I will re-design it until it does.