Robin Williams (1951-2014) – Comedian, Actor, Gamer

williamstoysAmerican comedian and actor Robin Williams died yesterday from an apparent suicide after battling years of depression and addiction. While his award-winning acting, frenetic comedy performances and activism are what he will no doubt be best remembered for, to a certain set of fans like myself, his lifetime interest in gaming and toy soldiers likewise leaves a mark.

As a lonely, oddball child of wealthy parents, Williams developed an early escape valve through play with toy soldiers. In a 1993 New York Magazine profile, Williams’s mother recounted his boyhood obsession with toy soldiers:

“Robin had the entire third floor,” his mother, Laurie Williams, says. “He put his toy soldiers — he had thousands of them — in those rooms, carefully divided according to period.” Williams not only staged intricate battles between soldiers of different eras, he created dialogue for them in what was, essentially, a childhood version of his performance style.”

Not only was Williams a toy soldier fan from an early age, but gaming was a lifelong passion. He was an avowed Warhammer 40K player (apparently favoring Eldar forces), even posing for photos with staff and other players during stops at local gaming stores. He is also listed among celebrity players of Dungeons & Dragons, going so far as to participate in major gaming events up until a few years ago. His passion for gaming also extended to online and video gaming, and his daughter Zelda is rumored to have been named for the popular adventure fantasy video game series from Nintendo.

morkboardgame1979’s Mork & Mindy board game from Parker Brothers

Like a lot of kids growing up in the 1970s and 1980s, Williams’s starring role in Mork & Mindy from 1978 to 1982 was a fixture in my weekly TV viewing. Starring as Mork, a zany alien from the planet Ork, Williams’s catchphrases, mannerisms and signature look became firmly imbedded in my young mind. There was definitely Mork madness in my life and in the culture for a bit, extending to toys, games and even rainbow suspenders (yes, I had a pair).

Williams certainly went on to much bigger and often more serious professional work, but that period in my youth where I was becoming an impassioned gamer myself definitely informed some of my own willingness to stretch into characters outside the bounds of reality. Williams’s life of playing characters, switching roles and acting out wild fantasies brought so much joy to audiences around the world, but for me, I like to imagine him as that little boy crouching over his little soldiers and creating a universe that was just his for a moment.

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Pinball, Pixels and Play In Rochester, New York

StrongMuseumIt’s been a couple years since I visited The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, NY, but I took advantage of a recent week visiting my family in Western New York to pay the place a visit. The museum was founded in the early 1980s with the massive hoard of dolls, toys, games, household items and other objects collected over the lifetime of Rochester heiress Margaret Woodbury Strong. Since then the museum has evolved and expanded to encompass the more recent history of play, as evidenced in some of the wonderful exhibits I had a chance to see this past month.

Pinball Playfields

2014-07-08 11.59.24Running through September 7, 2014, Pinball Playfields offers up a tight overview of the American history of coin-operated pinball machines from their earliest appearance in the 1930s through today. A number of early games from the museum’s permanent collection kick off the small exhibit showing the first rudimentary gravity-fed games where balls plunked and clinked their way through a series of “pins” which would give the game its name.

2014-07-08 12.00.10Early 1930s and 1940s pinball machines

By the 1940s, electrified games were on the rise and the introduction of flippers late in the decade added enormous playability and control for anyone willing to feed the growing craze a coin at a time. As explained on the brief wall text, it was this coin-fed frenzy that caused many cultural killjoys throughout the country to advocate for laws banning pinball as a frightening tool of gambling in the 1940s through 1970s (just this past summer, Oakland, California finally repealed an 80-year ban on pinball).

2014-07-08 12.02.40Superman pinball (1979)

Despite its opponents, pinball fandom grew into the 1960s and 1970s, crossing over into rock music with The Who’s iconic “Pinball Wizard” from 1969’s Tommy. In my 70s childhood I can easily recall many pinball machines tucked into pizza parlor corners or inhabiting the basements of some of my lucky friends with their constant glow of light and pinging sounds. The exhibit includes a number of playable machines from the 60s and 70s, including superhero tie-ins with Superman and the Incredible Hulk which demonstrate intersecting pop culture influences on games.

2014-07-08 12.12.03Hercules (1979) — the largest pinball machine ever made

By the late 1970s video games were creeping into territory dominated by pinball machines. Gimmicky games like 1979’s enormous Hercules machine attempted to maintain the hold on fistfuls of coins which would soon be increasingly making their way to video arcades. With video games dominating coin-fed play throughout the 1980s, it was not until the 1990s and the 2000s that pinball rebounded by incorporating increasingly-complex mechanical animations, advanced LED and video screen elements into games. The more recent Wizard of Oz, Monster Bash, Star Trek and Lord of the Rings games on display — and all playable — show how the old-time pinball fun has truly been integrated with a modern thirst for visual effects overload.

Aside from the dozen or so playable machines, Pinball Playfields gives a good deal of historical information with descriptive text, early photos and advertisements, news articles and modern design schematics. All this is certainly fine stuff for the museum context, but anytime I found myself lingering a bit too long over some of the historical material I had to look around to find my wife and kids feeding another token and pulling back the plunger to start another play.

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2014-07-08 13.01.51The last time I was at the Museum of Play, the museum had just launched its important International Center for the History of Electronic Games. The collection now contains tens-of-thousands of video game artifacts, making it one of the most important repositories and research resources for the dominant mode of play of the past forty years. The debut exhibit a few years back presented an overview of  video game history and dozens of playable arcade and home games from the 1960s through the present. My latest visit allowed me time to see the full permanent exhibit, eGameRevolution.

2014-07-08 13.20.36Early home video game systems from the 1960s and 1970s

2014-07-08 13.20.26The Atari 2600 and Apple II computer — two machines that changed my world in 1977

The exhibit traces the development of the now-ubiquitous video game from its science lab beginnings of the early 60s through early console and home computer games in the 70s and 80s to the modern games which now inhabit so many living rooms worldwide. Changes in the sophisticated technology, graphics and marketing of video games are well-traced along with traditional curated displays behind glass. And, of course, there are plenty of playable games throughout the exhibit.

2014-07-08 13.22.23The video arcade in the eGameRevolution exhibit at the International Museum of Play

Pinball machines, an air hockey table, arcade cabinet classics, interactive dance and music games and a half-dozen home console games of different eras are set throughout the exhibit. A dark, low-ceilinged room reminiscent of the video arcades inhabited by many first generation video gamers like myself in the 1980s is set in the middle of the more traditional displays. At five plays for a buck, a visitor to eGameRevolution can easily lose themselves in decades of electronic gaming history.

 Game Time!

2014-07-08 13.09.07Museum goers willing to take a few steps further back in time will also find a dizzying and deep story of traditional games in the Game Time! permanent exhibit nearby. Three centuries of American board, card, puzzle and electronic games with brief, well-researched text offers a tremendous overview for those who wonder how gaming culture has evolved since the 19th-century.

2014-07-08 13.04.51An early 1970s Dungeons & Dragons set and the famed Dark Tower game from 1981

Games are arranged both in a historic timeline and also along themes such as economic games, chase games, strategy games and puzzle games. Along the way, a story unfolds where games provide a view into the American values and politics of each era, as well as the rise of the big business of games and the importance licensing particularly in the late 20th-century through the present.

2014-07-08 13.10.29War games, including classics like Risk (1959), Stratego (1961) and Battleship (1967)

2014-07-08 13.11.05Role-playing games, including 1970s and 1980s Dungeons & Dragons books

Wargames and role-playing games each receive their equal due with an early copy of Little Wars by H.G. Wells and some classic Dungeons & Dragons books from its genesis in the early 1970s. Seeing these games side-by-side with other games, like the extensive exhibit on Monopoly, is incredibly validating for someone like myself who has spent my life engaged in games which once dwelt only at the edges of our culture.

Putting all these games — from pinball and video games to board and role-playing games — which so shaped my youth and those of countless others within a broader context of American history is something one can experience in few places like you can at the Strong Museum of Play. If you can get yourself to Rochester, stealing away a few hours to play through time will be time (and maybe some game tokens) well-spent.

Retro Gaming The 70s & 80s: Crossbows and Catapults

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In 1983, I was 15 years old and living in a heyday of gaming. I already had a few years of Dungeons & Dragons under my belt and I was starting to stretch into some other fantasy role-playing, board and miniatures games. Video games had also become a big part of my social life, both in my friends’ living rooms and in the arcades popping up in the malls and main streets near where I grew up.

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Crossbows and Catapults as featured in a 1983 Sears catalog (only $12.99!)

Out of this early 80s mix of increasingly sophisticated RPG and video gaming came the decidedly low-tech Crossbows and Catapults from Lakeside Games. The basic play set came with a bunch of wonderful plastic toys representing enemy kingdoms of vikings and barbarians. Each side had a simple castle-like tower and loosely fitting bricks to construct a stronghold on a square mat depicting a moated island.

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Crossbows and Catapults “Battle Set” components from basic instruction book

But the name of the game wasn’t Crossbows and Catapults for nothing, and that’s where the real fun of the game came in. The opposing sides were each armed with rubber band powered catapults and crossbows (really more like ballistas, but the alliterative name certainly looked better on the box). In alternating turns, players would fling and fire round carom discs at the opposing player’s stronghold and troops. Knocking over figures were scored as casualties and landing caroms in enemy territory allowed advances in raiding forces. The game was won when a player revealed and seized the treasure buried beneath the other player’s castle.

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Components from the Crossbows and Catapults “Battle Set”

I’m fortunate to have a massive archive of well-kept childhood toys stored at my boyhood home, and I was recently able to dig through my surviving Crossbows and Catapults sets. All the rubber bands needed to be replaced, but everything else survives in near-perfect working order. Pieces from my decades old collection are shown in the pictures throughout this post.

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Game set-up instructions from the Crossbows and Catapults “Battle Set”

I also managed to preserve all the original instruction books from the “Battle Set” base game and the various expansions which were subsequently released (some scans included here). The “Castle Outpost” contains larger towers with a rubber banded platform that pops figures and flags into the air if the door is hit by an incoming carom. In the “Trojan Horse” set, the catapult-tailed horse “explodes” from the sides when hit on the base of its front feet, and the accompanying crossbow-armed “battle shield” pops open when struck at the front. My favorite expansion, the “Battling Giants” set, came with 8-inch tall minotaur and cyclops models which fling caroms at the enemy by pushing a button at their backs.

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Crossbows and Catapults “Castle Outpost” expansion  set

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Crossbows and Catapults “Trojan Horse” expansion set

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Crossbows and Catapults “Battling Giants” expansion set

Every Crossbows and Catapults expansion came with new rules and components for each side, allowing for a lot of additional play options on the floor battlefield. The expanded rules for each set allowed for standalone games or for incorporating the new pieces into the base “Battle Set” game. All the instructions also encouraged players to make up their own rules, something my brothers, friends and I did endlessly in our brief period of Crossbows and Catapults obsession.

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H.G. Wells, author of “Little Wars,” and his friends wargaming on a parlor floor

In revisiting my teen delight over Crossbows and Catapults my mind went straight to the descriptions of early 20th-century gaming laid out in Little Wars by H.G. Wells. The tiny 1913 book is seen today as the formative basis for what would become miniatures wargaming in the coming decades. Building on the more abstract Kriegsspiel tradition of the early 1800s, the genesis moment for using toys in wargaming is described in the book as an idea of one of Wells’s friends:

“I believe that if one set up a few obstacles on the floor, volumes of the British Encyclopedia and so forth, to make a Country, and moved these soldiers and guns about, one could have rather a good game…”

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Early 20th-century die-cast Britains spring-loaded 4.7 naval gun

As you read through the game descriptions and rules set forth by Wells, quite a number of similarities to Crossbows and Catapults arise. Rudimentary buildings or forts are placed on small boards, much like the plastic mats provided in Crossbows and Catapults. Resolving combat in the games played by Wells and his gentlemanly friends was commonly achieved through the firing of wooden pegs with the spring-loaded Britains 4.7 naval gun at opponent’s infantry, calvary, buildings and walls constructed of wooden blocks.

Seventy years after Little Wars, Crossbows and Catapults presented a very similar floor game. The rubber-band catapults and ballistas firing caroms at the soldiers, castles and plastic brick walls. In both games, proximity of infantry to artillery — a naval gun of Wells’s day or a catapult in the modern game — determines whether that piece may fire. The measurement of the play area as set forth by Wells and outlined in the Crossbows and Catapults basic rules are uncannily similar.

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“Battleground: Crossbows and Catapults” re-release from 2007

The Crossbows and Catapults license passed through a number of game publishers over the years and was re-released as “Battleground: Crossbows and Catapults” in 2007. The game was modified and updated with orcs versus knights plus some redesigned components and additional expansion sets.

I had a chance to play with my Crossbows and Catapults sets again this past week, some 30 years after I first I bent down on my teenaged knees to do battle between barbarians and vikings. Playing with my nine-year-old son, all the fun of launching plastic discs at opposing armies came back. The game is largely a shoot-out of skill and aim wrapped around some still-nifty game pieces. In the early 1980s I didn’t know about Wells and his Little Wars floor games, but a hundred years on now I can see the connection, tradition and joy in commanding armies on the floor and flinging attacks with Crossbows and Catapults.

Collector’s Note: You can find the 1983 “Crossbows and Catapults Battle Set” in the original box for $50-200 on eBay, and many of the expansions can be picked up for around $20. The re-released “Battleground: Crossbows and Catapults” set from 2007 can also be had for about $50.

Downloading: Valiant Hearts: The Great War

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World War I has quickly moved from news to memory to history in the past 100 years, especially in the United States. While there are certainly plenty of grand remembrances being made of the lingering historical and political ripples of the Great War, the best parts of historical memory often continue to ring truest to us through personal stories. This is the reason why a classic book like All Quiet On The Western Front or the more recent graphic novel The Harlem Hellfighters resonate still in telling the story of WWI.

So, in this centenary year it’s a pleasure to have the distant memory of WWI retold in a vivid modern way with Valiant Hearts: The Great War from Ubisoft. Like any good war story, Valiant Hearts isn’t really about guns and glory, but more about love, friendship, connection and dedication humans strive to maintain when faced with the most hugely catastrophic events.

ValiantHeartsCharactersMain cast of characters from Valiant Hearts: Ana, Walt (dog), Karl, Emile, Freddie and George

The cast of characters presented in Valiant Hearts represents a cross-section of nationalities swept up in the European conflict. The main character is Emile, a French farmer who is pressed into service at the outbreak of the war. His daughter is in a relationship with Karl, a German who is exiled from France at the beginning of the war and subsequently compelled into service with the German army. Just after completing basic training, Emile meets Freddie, an American ex-patriot living in Paris and volunteer in the fight against Germany. Once in the trenches, Emile befriends a military service dog named Walt. A fast-driving Belgian nurse named Ana completes the main cast of characters, although a British pilot named George does make a cameo later on in the game.

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Emile completing basic training in Valiant Hearts

With a minimal amount of introductory back story of the outbreak of WWI, the game begins with Emile marching off to some quick basic training which introduces a player to the basic climbing, attacking, picking-up and throwing actions. Once at the front, the game quickly moves into the more familiar trench warfare settings which were the hallmark of the war.

For gamers looking for WWI first-person combat wielding a bayonetted rifle or driving a clattering tank through No Man’s Land, there will be disappointment. Although death and destruction surrounds the game, there is surprisingly little direct combat experienced by the player. The entire WWI setting and all its trappings of planes, tanks, artillery and machine guns become tools to propel the characters to action, more like a violent ghostly hand lurking in the background than the main focus of the action.

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A typical puzzle challenge in Valiant Hearts

As a game, the main focus of Valiant Hearts is at its core a platform, puzzle and adventure game. It is a game set within the war, but the playable characters are not working on racking-up body counts. More typically, a character will work their way through completing a series of tasks to progress to the next level– break down a wall, crouch in a trench, dig a tunnel, climb a ladder, crank a wheel, set a charge and blow up a bridge.

Different characters in the game also work in combination to get puzzles solved and sometimes work with non-player characters. For instance, the burly Freddie is good at smashing down walls, doors and barriers with his bare fists while Emile is handy at digging and Ana provides care to wounded soldiers on and off the field. Characters can also order commands to Walt to move and fetch objects from areas unreachable by the other human characters, such as crawling under clouds of poisonous gas.

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Richly accurate artwork of the Western Front and equipment such as tanks and biplanes set the scene in Valiant Hearts

Beyond the entertainment of the puzzle adventure gameplay, Valiant Hearts is rich in historic detail. A number of short behind-the-scenes developer videos on the game’s website show the depths to which the team at Ubisoft went to paint a vivid picture of WWI using primary documents. Even within the cartoonish game animation, there’s a ton of detail in the flags, uniforms, weapons, vehicles and settings throughout the game. The diversity of nations participating in the war is well-represented, so we not only see the typical British, German, United States and French soldiers but also those from countries like India. To keep the nationalities with their mix of languages consistent, dialogue among characters is limited to emotive symbols and vaguely accented but recognizable foreign mumbles.

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Historical photos and background fill out the detail in Valiant Hearts

As Valiant Hearts progresses, gamers and would-be historians will find a wealth history laced within the action. Brief cut-scenes do well to set chapters within regional maps and shifting events throughout the war. Pop-up screens provide historical facts and beautifully color-tinted period photographs of life, equipment and stories from WWI. Players who complete puzzles within the game also collect historic artifacts such as identification tags, a whistle, a helmet or actual letters from soldiers of multiple nations. Again, additional pop-up windows takes a player back to the primary sources from which each object is drawn.

Both my 14-year-old son and I have spent time playing through Valiant Hearts this week. As a hardcore gamer, my son found the play pretty rudimentary by modern standards but my greener fingers did find at least some initial challenge to the puzzles. What we both equally delighted in was the art and historical documentation which was wrapped up around the simple human story unfolding throughout the game.

Far away from the politics, grand plans and horrors of combat, every war throughout history has come down to humans and relationships torn asunder or brought together in wartime. This is the journey of the characters in Valiant Hearts: The Great War and one well worth the trip back a century in time.

Valiant Hearts: The Great War is available for PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One and Windows PC.

New Game Weekend: Civilization & Advanced Civilization

CivAdvCivBoxesEarlier in the week I posted about the elegantly quick board game Eight-Minute Empire: Legends I first had a chance to play last weekend at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY. After a brief, engaging 20 minutes with Legends, I joined four other players in another game that was also new to me and a completely different experience — Advanced Civilization.

CivMapCivilization game board with Western expansion map to the left

Civilization by UK game designer Francis Tresham was published by Avalon Hill in 1981 and introduced a number of now-standard gaming elements found in many board and video games today. Ten years later, Advanced Civilization offered some refinements, additions and simplifications to the game. Playing with 2-8 players and running to 8, 10, 12 or more rivetingly-complex hours, Civilization has become one of the signature games of the past 40 years.

CivASTAdvanced Civilization’s innovative  Archaeological Succession Table (AST)

At its core, Civilization is an area control game played in the Mediterranean region in an 8000-year period spanning the Stone Age through the Iron Age. Each player picks a civilization and places a single population marker in a territory in their color-coded beginning edge of the board. Territories each support varying numbers of population, indicated in each area. Population doubles each turn, so one marker grows to two. If the space cannot sustain more than the noted number of population markers, players must move and expand their population to new territories or “starve” population down to the maximum load for the territory. A population census grid on the Archaeology Succession Track (AST) notes population growth of each civilization and determines the order of play the following turn.

Moving six population markers to a space with a black square allows the settlement of a city, and twelve may settle a city in a blank space. Establishing cities allows the harvesting of goods the likes of Hides & Ochre, Salt & Timber or Gems & Dye. Drawn in turn order, the stacks of commodities cards also hide calamity cards which have adverse effect on a civilization through such things as Famine, Civil War, Flood or Volcano. Each round includes trading where players must keep certain untradeable calamities while trading away certain goods and other calamities in the quest to collect sets of cards which may then be turned into technologies. The technologies build upon each other through the building of a Technology Tree (“Tech Tree”) which advances with additional abilities and protections for the civilization. Simple beginning  technologies like Pottery, Mythology and Music aid early societies but lose importance over time. Philosophy, Democracy, Law, Trade Empire, Advanced Military and Golden Age technologies score the greatest points and advance a society through the  Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages to eventual victory.

IMG_2859Advanced Civilization at Metropolitan Wargamers

The AST and Tech Tree become the major machines in propelling the game forward, and evolutions of these elements have been incorporated into countless board and video games since their introduction with Civilization. These two innovations make Civilization and other subsequent games like Clash of Cultures focused more largely on elements of managing resources and cultural advancement than traditional combat-focused area control games like Risk. Resource management and building based on collection of resources shows up in so many games, prominently so in the widely-popular  Settlers of Catan. Somewhat controversially, the video and board game versions of the Sid Meir’s Civilization franchise owes a great deal both in its mechanics to the Avalon Hill game which preceded it in theme and name.

Civilization is incredibly compelling and eerily historic in how it plays and forces the hand of history. Players who begin with small civilizations are forced into territorial expansion through population growth or risk starvation of their people. Once cities thrive, feeding those cities becomes another concern and reason for more expansion. Soon, players find themselves in a loop where development begets expansion begets development. Isolated societies have to begin moving farther afield over land of through developing shipbuilding and sailing technologies. Resources become important to build technologies to further enhance and protect their civilization. By building more cities, more valuable goods are obtained and more advanced technologies may be developed. With all players expanding their societies by mid-game, civilizations eventually must compete for room in the region. War becomes somewhat inevitable, but diplomacy and mutual-beneficial trade also gain special importance as the game moves on and civilization begin to settle into specific paths to winning the game.

Of the hundreds of games I’ve played, I now understand why Civilization holds a special place in the hearts of gamers. Committing to hours upon hours of play becomes a game mechanic unto itself as players of Civilization must maintain focused attention on mentally-exhausting detail. Yes, Civilization is a game, but a marvelously intriguing one to play in the context of our own world where population, space, resources and technologies play out with increasingly dire importance as human civilization marches toward our own eventual historical endgame.

Retro Gaming The 70s & 80s: The Internet Archive Console Living Room

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As another 21st-century new year approached, the endlessly-fascinating Internet Archive took a big backward look into video games past with the launch of their Console Living Room in late December.

Flying under a murky copyright wire, the Console Living Room archive of over 1000 first-generation home video games allows retrogamers of all ages to play storied favorites through their browsers. The archive is overwhelming and a dream for those of us who coveted the arrival of each then-expensive game cartridge. When the Atari 2600 was released in 1977 the world of indoor play for my generation and every one since was transformed. The archive contains games from the popular Atari systems of the day, as well as those from ColecoVision and the more obscure Bally Astrocade, Magnavox Odyssey and the Sega SG-1000. Anyone with kids can attest to the hold video play continues to hold on today’s children with games that span multiple screens from TVs to handhelds to computers. But for those of us of a certain age, these old home console systems of the stuff of legend.

Aside from the hundreds of sci-fi, fighting, adventure and sports-themed games in the Console Living Room online archive, there are countless games which hold a special place in the memories of those of us who still game to this day.

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Military enthusiasts will enjoy such classics as Tank Attack (1981), Air Sea Attack (1981), Combat (1982), M.A.S.H. (1983), GATO (1987), Choplifter (1987), Front Line (1984) and  Chopper Rescue (1982).

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For the dungeon-crawling crowd, there are old gems like Dungeon (1985), Wizard of Wor (1981), Dark Chambers (1988), Adventure (1978) and The Incredible Wizard (1981).

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Licensed games from movies of my 1980s youth like Star Wars (1981), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1982) and E.T. – The Extraterrestrial (1982) display the nascent power these cinema brands held on young geeks like myself. There are also plenty of my personal favorites like the home versions of arcade faves like Dig Dug (1983) and Centipede (1982).

The Internet Archive Console Living Room joins their existing online collection of over 5000 playable Classic PC Games in documenting the pixelated gaming we Gen-Xers were weaned on. The Internet Archive joins the International Center for the History of Electronic Games at the Strong Museum of Play in Rochester, NY and the Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, NY in the preservation, scholarship and celebration of electronic gaming. Like the afternoons spent hunched on the carpets of the 70s and 80s, there are hours and hours to be spent here trolling what can now safely be called our video game heritage.

Gaming The High Seas

bbpicFor as long as there have been people putting boats to sea, there have probably been pirates close behind. Even though the classic high period of piracy perhaps only spanned a few decades in the 1600 through 1700s, pirates have loomed large in popular culture from Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island all the way through to the Johnny Depp-fuelled blockbuster Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise. Piracy will also be the theme of the latest release in the Assassin’s Creed video game  series next month, and the game is already being lauded as a potential game of the year for its historical high seas combat.

Naturally, pirates find their way to gaming tables. I like checking in on the UK-based blog Shed Wars for a fellow gamer’s incredibly elaborate pirate miniatures gaming. While I’m rather certain pirate miniatures gaming is never going to be my thing, I have played my share of pirate games over the past thirty years.

broadsidesIn the early 1980s, Milton Bradley launched their Gamemaster Series. While Axis and Allies would be the one game to catch on, the series also included other historically-themed wargames packed full of some nifty design, tons of plastic miniatures and varying levels of gameplay. The two player Broadsides & Boarding Parties featured a card-based maneuvering “broadsides” combat phase of the game which then led to a close-quarters “boarding parties” series of turns. During hand-to-hand attacks, each player moved their pirate, canon and captain figures among the two large ship models in an attempt to capture the opposing captain. Like many of the games in the series, Broadsides & Boarding Parties was a great looking game, but the play was a bit simplistic and it wound up collecting dust on my game shelf.

pirateconstJust over 20 years later, WizKids introduced the Pirates of the Spanish Main constructable miniatures game. This still-popular game consists of collectible packs of ships in plastic credit card-sized punch-out packs. Each pack contains a whole game with a couple ships, rules, islands and playing tokens. The system went through a number of expansions with additional ships from varying eras and nations along with special island island fortesses and even sea monsters. Along with the movie series, a Pirates of the Caribbean series was also released with the ships, characters and story pulled right from the films. The ships looked fantastic although proved to be a bit brittle during gameplay which involved trade, combat and double-crossing across an open tabletop board. Although the game was officially shuttered in 2008, a huge secondary market continues for unopened packs of game cards.

lootWhen my two sons were younger, we played the heck out of the 1992 card game Loot. This surprisingly engaging and award-winning kid’s game by Gamewright allows for play as a merchant or pirate. Pirate cards come in four colored “suits” with a captain card for each suit. Each pirate card carries an attack value denoted by a number of skull symbols. Pirates compete to attack merchant ships carrying different gold values, and an Admiral card shows up to protect merchant ship. Each player manages their hand through a series of draws, plays and discards as gold is collected and attacks by other pirates are thwarted. While the original Loot features cartoonish graphics, an updated more historically-themed version was introduced in 2010 under the name Korsar. Whichever version you get your hands on, Loot is a pretty simple but engaging card game for crews of all ages.

This past weekend at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brookln, NY, I had the chance to get my sea legs with two more pirate games: Cartagena and Merchants & Marauders.

cartagenaCartagena is a quick game recreating the late-17th-century pirate jailbreak in Cartagena, Colombia. This wordless, diceless, easy-to-play game sets each player with five pirates making their way along a dock game board toward an awaiting getaway boat.

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Each player begins with six cards featuring hats, bottles, swords, keys, pistols and Jolly Roger flags. Playing a card allows a player to move one of their pirates along the board to the next empty space featuring that symbol. Players may double and triple-up placement on a space, and additional cards may be drawn from a face-up row of cards by moving backwards along the dock. Moving back to a space with one other purate gains a player one card, while moving back to a space with two pirates gets a maximum two-card draw. Players move forward and backward, acquiring cards and playing them as they progress toward the boat. Strategy comes in planning out your card moves with available spaces on the board, blocking other pirates and stealing in-demand cards from the draw row. The simplicity of Cartagena makes this a great choice for little pirates in your life while it also holds interest for some aggressive adult play like my first game this past weekend with some club members.

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Merchants & Marauders from ZMan Games is a beefier boardgame akin to the Viking exploration and conquest game Fire & Axe. Set among the islands and seazones of the Caribbean, the game allows players to play as merchant traders or dastardly pirate captains set on acquring gold, completing missions, following rumors and scoring points toward victory.

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Players begin with their ships at a home port island with each port offering varying bonuses to different types of players. In each turn, players may take three actions of movement, scouting or  port activities. While in port, captains may trade or sell goods, repair damaged vessels, acquire special crew and outfit or upgrade their ships with additional weapons and equipment. Each port shows goods that are in demand like tobacco, rum or spices, and trading in-demand goods scores extra victory points and special Glory cards that can add to a players effectiveness in particular situations. Pirates acquire goods agressively at sea but risk becoming wanted by the various nations looking to go to war with seafaring criminals.

There’s a lot of flexibility in the heading to victory a captain charts. Players may focus on trading or seizing goods, completing missions to other ports and attempting to chase down legendary rumors amid the islands. Attacking other ships can gain goods and gold but players run the risk of damaged or sunken ships that can set them back a few turns. Event cards at the top of each round inject additional elements to the game with storms and other sea-bound pitfalls reducing speed or even wrecking ships. Games of Merchants & Marauders typically run a couple of hours, and players must balance their own captain’s focus with what are other players are doing.

Like the legends of piracy, there’s a lot of variety to be found in pirate gaming. Aside from the games I’ve played and the many miniatures systems available, their are dozens of other pirate-themed games to suit an level of interest. The storied history and mythology of pirates yields a bounty of treasure for any gamer looking to raise a crew under the Jolly Roger and set out in quest of adventure, booty and intrigue on the Seven Seas.

Collector’s Note: Broadsides & Boarding Parties is available on eBay and elsewhere starting at around $50, Pirates of the Spanish Main is set to re-launch soon, but older expansion packs are likewise available via eBay in the $5-10 range and even cases of some card sets are available. Scalawags and bucaneers will find plenty of fellow pirate card, boargame and miniature action at most major gaming conventions. Arrrrrgh!