Thursday, August 14, 2008

Race for the Piggy

Blog regulars will be familiar with my attitude towards the New Hotness in games (of any sort). I hear about something cool, wonder vaguely if I should try it, hear about it some more, get told in strenuous voice that I must play it, avoid spoilers, hear spoilers anyway, procrastinate, and eventually -- after several months, perhaps -- I try it.

It's a secret blogging strategy. By the time I post about something, all the obvious things have been said by everyone else, so I am forced to come up with clever and original observations. (Witness my post about Portal. Hint: I am lying about the secret blogging strategy.)

There are of course exceptions; I have my fanboy obsessions. You will hear Myst news here still sizzling off the griddle. Text adventure technology, I'm pretty good about. (Text adventure games, I'm years behind on.)

Nonetheless, I sat around for weeks while all my friends learned Race for the Galaxy, a card game designed by Thomas Lehmann. By the time I went looking for it, it was out of print. Then it reappeared, and all my friends bought it (except the ones who fanboy-obsessively had bought it on day one). But I still didn't play it with my friends. Why? Because I was on vacation at Worldcon, where, as it happens, my other friends all showed up with Race for the Galaxy, and so I played it a bunch.

Clever and original observation: it's good!

Okay, skip that. How about this: Race for the Galaxy is better than any other game I know at being Interstellar Pig.

Interstellar Pig is, of course, the imaginary game in William Sleator's eponymous science fiction novel. If you spent your teenage years having the crap scared out of you by Sleator novels, you know it. If not, go read it. (Although House of Stairs is more brutal and The Green Futures of Tycho is better.)

The game is described pretty well in the book. Each player is a member of a different alien race, travelling around the galaxy. Each player has the advantages and weaknesses of his species, plus an array of tools, technologies, and weapons -- some in hand, most hidden on various planets. One player owns (or has hidden) the goal object: the Piggy. Whoever holds the Piggy when the timer goes off is the winner. The hunt is on; duke it out.

As given, Interstellar Pig is a lousy game. (No criticism; it serves its role in the story, and Sleator is a writer, not a game designer.) One player starts out ahead, knowing where the Piggy is hidden. Or one player starts with the Piggy, which should be a good strategy -- all you have to do is run away from everyone else. Several card combinations, and at least one single card, are described as unbeatable: if you have the deadly virus and its antidote, you can sit on the Piggy and watch everyone else die.

The use of a timer is all wrong for a strategy board game. Even if you convert it to a more reasonable mechanism -- a fixed number of turns, or some sequence of game events -- the games described are too short. The most a player can do is run to one or two planets to retrieve tools, and then try to get to where another player is heading (if you can guess who knows where the Piggy is). You may not get there in time -- unless you hit a wormhole, which is pure luck, or unless you have the (rare, overpowered) teleport card. If you do get there, you may find the environment unsurvivable with the tools you've got. If the factors do not align, all your play and planning are irrelevant. You just lose.

On the other hand, it's a great fictional game. And it has elements which are undeniably awesome. You get to be an alien, with powers and vulnerabilities which influence your strategy, and make each game a distinct experience. The game has lots of Stuff -- poisons, antidotes, weapons, protective gear, teleporters. The Stuff and the alien powers interact in interesting ways. Also, of course, it's set in outer space.

So if Interstellar Pig, itself, is not the ideal real Interstellar Pig game, what is?

Cosmic Encounter is an excellent choice. You are an alien race with an alien power! You're trying to conquer the universe! There's -- well, there isn't any Stuff per se, unless you count Flares. But I remember wandering through game stores when I was ten or twelve, staring with enormous eyes at the wonderful expansion sets full of alien powers and planets and moons. Now that was Stuff, in real life.

It's a wargame with rule quirks, but the rule quirks -- the alien powers -- are so pervasive that you are constantly thinking in their terms. Your game identity determines how you see every move and skirmish. That's the heart of Cosmic; that's why I played it every weekend during college.

This doesn't mean that other games can't be Interstellar Pig too. The Awful Green Things from Outer Space (as seen on The Gameshelf) is set in outer space; it has alien races; it has Stuff. (Pool cues and fire extinguishers!) It's a wargame clobberfest, rather than a hunt-the-prize game; but then Cosmic is clobbertastic as well.

The Awful Green Things from Outer Space is, most importantly, awesome. Particularly when you're twelve. It's not a particularly awesome game -- lots of room-by-room fighting; I could reasonably describe it as Risk with Stuff. But the theme is so delightfully done, with little cartoon aliens and critters and a three-eyed blue chicken. It glows with personality. It's impossible to pick it up without imagining you're there, pelting aliens in the Ward Room with canisters of zgwortz. It has a comic-book prologue and a CYOA epilogue! Nothing about this is less than awesome, and that's why it is Interstellar Pig.

And that brings me around to Race for the Galaxy. (Which I keep mispronouncing as "Rails Across the Galaxy", because Analog magazine was awesome too when I was twelve. But never mind.)

It's quick. It's in space. There are alien planets; there are technologies to develop, which are Stuff, close enough. It's neither an egg-hunt nor a wargame, but a civ-building resource race, the favoritest genre of discerning modern strategy gamers. And Race is a discerning modern game, designed with a careful eye to balance and strategy. Which makes it entirely unlike Cosmic or Green Things, those gleeful triumphs of the "heave your every idea at the wall and insist they stuck evenly" school of game design.

Why is it Interstellar Pig?

For all the care and finickiness of Race's rules, they all support the theme. Take an bonus card for your brown planets. Reduce the cost of yellow planets by two. Keep an extra card when you draw. Each of these, as you combine them with other powers, evolves into a game strategy. And as you play, each game strategy evokes a story: you are the mining combine, you are the interstellar explorer fleet, you are the technological hothouse, you are the fearless archaeologists amid the Forerunner ruins.

These roles aren't just labels for various suits of cards. Each has a different set of mechanics, and takes advantage of different rules. Theme emerging from gameplay, rather than painted on as "color", do you see? Nor are the roles assigned to you -- you figure them out. Select one, or part of one, or a mix of several; whichever fits your hand and your luck. That has always been the real root of interactive fiction: complicity. You care most about what you do.

Which is why, as someone who hasn't been twelve for a few years now, I think Race for the Galaxy is awesome. Just like Interstellar Pig.

(Although, I admit, not quite. To really be Interstellar Pig, you'd have to imagine that if you don't wind up with the most victory points, then all your planets explode at the end of the game. Now that's awesome.)

Comments imported from Gameshelf

Jason McIntosh (Aug 14, 2008 at 6:13 PM):

The two times I have won this game, I ended up playing the ruthlessly efficient military empire. SOLIDIER, ASK NOT

I kind of want to write something drawing parallels between the runaway success of this game in the tabletop world with Braid's winning the day in its own sphere. But I'd want its conclusion to be something other than "And yet, everyone has heard of Braid and nobody has heard of this game. How depressing."

Andrew Plotkin (Jan 2, 2014 at 6:46 PM):

Five years later...

There's a new Kickstarter for a board game which is unabashedly based on Interstellar Pig:

I haven't played Chaosmos, but the designers have posted the rules, and it looks playable. All the reasons I posted above as to why Interstellar Pig can't be a good game -- they seem to have been addressed. (Hyperspace is available to all players, a limited number of times. Only one planet is toxic to each player, and there are multiple ways to either protect yourself or access a planet remotely. Stealing cards is relatively easy, so hiding cards and bluffing are more important than weapons. And the board is small enough that you can neither avoid other players nor hide things where they will never be found.)

Good luck to the designers; I hope to be able to play this soon.

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