Knockout City: Pong is back

The joy of pegging someone with a dodgeball is captured in this game.

Some of the first video games were rudimentary versions of pong. Many different companies made stand alien boxes who’s sole purpose was to play this one game where players bounce a ball back and forth using paddles on each side that were controlled with a wheel like paddle. No buttons, barely any frills, just the joy of a simple volley and trying to out-maneuver your opponent. 

These days video games can be a whole lifestyle, and some folks just play one game endlessly. Fortnite, a game about being the last person standing on an island like the movie Battle Royale has become a universe unto itself, used for promotion of recent Star Wars and Marvel movies, as the stage for virtual concerts and containing an evolving storyline of its own that is told in seasons, with real consequences to its virtual landscape. It is difficult to imagine how we got here from the humble days of pong. This week there is a game that was released that bridges the gap, capturing the simple joys of pong but with all of the cultural, visual and business model baggage of the modern era. But in my mind, that connection to the original simple ludological joy of play makes Knockout City worth checking out.

Pong controllers were simple compared to modern day button fests.

Knockout City at the time of this writing is totally free, and on everything under the sun. Here the business model trappings immediately rear their head as the game fights for a critical mass of players right from the start so that there are always people to play with. A multiplayer game without an audience is the video game equivalent of a ghost town, so the game is free till May 30th, the first ten days of it’s release. If you catch this blog the weekend it goes up, I encourage you to try it out, but if not I’d like to describe why it’s worth the investment regardless.

The game is essentially 3 vs 3 competitive dodgeball. You know, that sport everyone but the bullies dreaded in high school gym class that many states or school associations tried to make illegal. Still, despite the bullying baggage it is a refreshing change from games where you try to shoot someone no matter how cartoony the assassination attempt may be. The game is the most fun I’ve had since the other strange alternative sport of Rocket League a few years ago, where players drive cars to… play soccer. The gist of Knockout City is that each player has two health, and every time they are hit by a ball twice, that counts as a knockout for the other team. First team to ten knockouts wins. Players throw the ball using the right trigger, and just like in real dodgeball they can attempt to catch the ball with the left trigger, and consequently throw it back at their assailant. Players can charge their throw to zip the ball faster and there is a great timing element to catching the ball; too early or too late and you end up getting pegged in the face, just like real life. There is a red border that goes up on screen anytime you are being target with a helpful directional indicator to give you a chance to react before getting thwacked from behind. 

Catching a ball keeps up its momentum so that your return throw will be even faster

This is where the pong comes into play, as every volley back and forth increases the speed of the interaction. A game of chicken ensues as players test their reaction time and positioning just like the game of yore, except with a lot more zazz. But the simple joy of the volley is there in spades. Every time I get hit by a ball in this game I feel like there was a chance I could have saved myself, and equally every time I land a hit I feel the joy of outsmarting or outmaneuvering an opponent.

I mostly lose but the game is fun enough to keep trying.

This is the shining core of the whole thing. A modernized physics filled game of pong. Everything else layered on top is either to add diversity or nuance to the experience or to monetize it, like so many modern competitive games. Let’s touch on the fun stuff first since the team has built some fun system to add to this core of pong. First there is always a special dodgeball in play to mix up a given match. This could be a sniper ball, that take a moment extra to target but if aimed correctly zips in twice as fast, a cage ball that puts the player who is hit in a ball shaped cage which can then be deviously thrown off a cliff, or the delightful multi-ball that evokes it’s pinball namesake in allowing players to throw three balls rapid fire, right alongside the satisfying pinball sounds. In fact, all of the sound in this game deserves to be commended, from the strange disembodied announcer who apparently emcees these matches from the moon, to the perfect sounds of nailing someone with a dodgeball, which sounds exactly like it should. If these unique dodgeballs aren’t enough to mix it up there is always the ability to turn yourself into a ball and be used by a teammate to take out your enemy. This has the risk reward of being a one hit knockout, if you’re not caught and used to take out your own team. 

The result of all of this flavor is the joyous shouts of success or groans of defeat that make a game like this shine. The game is silly, and it knows it, and this comes through in all aspects. There are different arenas with their own geography to capitalize on, as well as some more nuanced play hidden in the movement mechanics of the players, with the ability to dodge balls completely, tackle the ball out of an opponent’s hands or even lob or curve the ball like in a tennis volley. But time and again it comes back to the heart of pong.

As in most of these games the prize for your success is the ability to make your player character look positively ridiculous. Players unlock different outfits, dances, emotes etc. to customize their visual flair. This part of the game is monetized so players can shell out real money to buy whatever suits their fancy, but it’s entirely optional. Most games of this kind are free and entirely supported through this model, but given that the game will cost $20 after this initial free period, I’m not 100% clear on the eventual business model here. Still, I would argue that the core back and forth game of chicken is worth that $20. There’s plenty of depth here to explore and if it is anything like the other lifestyle games vying for folk’s time I imagine they will add more special dodgeballs, stages, and mechanics to keep the experience fresh. 

I generally avoid these types of games as I don’t find the core loop of many of them to be terribly much fun, but I give this one a try because of all of the buzz I had heard online. I am here to amplify that buzz and encourage you to try it out as well. There is something that is pure and simple fun here like the games of yore. It will certainly leave less of a mark than a traditional rubber dodgeball and I assure you it’s fun for everyone this time, not just the bullies.

Spiel Des Jahres: Game of the Year part 1

It’s that time of year again as nominees for the Spiel des Jahres or German Board Game of the Year were announced on Monday May 17th. A good portion of my collection is made up of winners or nominees for this prestigious award, so I always like to research the current slate of nominees. In a more normal year where I have been out gaming with friends it is also fun to guess at what will be nominated as the award often reflects a game that is hitting the table a lot on board game night. But every once in a while the nominees reveal a game that I hadn’t even heard of, either because it passed under my radar or because it hasn’t hit the U.S. market yet, this being a German award. This year is a little bit different of course as game groups haven’t been meeting with the pandemic, so I am certainly not tuned into what is popular on public game nights. Not only that, but I haven’t played most of these games so I don’t have a super concrete opinion on them, but instead have more of a reaction to what I’ve heard about them. Today I will cover the Spiel des Jahres award which is for lighter family focused games and I will cover the Kennerspiel or expert game award next week. Since I have only played one out of the three nominees I will cover that one in the most depth, and touch on the other two in brief in case they peak your interest.

Micromacro: Crime City is a game that was immediately appealing when I heard the premise. There have been several detective games over the last few years and before. Games like Sherlock Holmes, Detective: a Modern Crime Board Game, and Chronicles of Crime all lean heavily on a narrative structure combined with clues and puzzles to recreate the experience of solving a case like your favorite episode of CSI. Micromacro does away with all of that and just gives you an ENORMOUS map of a city full of devious acts and asks you to solve the crime by reviewing the map. There are some cards for each of the fifteen cases included in the game which will point you to a starting place and help confirm if you found the right thing or what the next step might be. But even using these is optional if you used the advanced rules. The game is just you and your friends, looking over a map and feeling really really clever.

There is some debate as to whether it is even a game. There aren’t really turns or actions or player pieces. It is in some ways a very dark Where’s Waldo. Except unlike Where’s Waldo, which is a static picture in time, Micromacro is a map that is in motion. If a card points you to the beginning of a bank heist you can find the criminal act on the map, but you also find the getaway, and anything that happened after the crime. In this way each crime is a story arc told in the language static image that contains multiple points in time. It is difficult to talk about the game without spoiling it, and like the best mysteries it’s the most fun to discover things on your own. It does have some wonderful moments when played as a group where one person spots something, calls it out and everyone else rushes to see the clue they have found. I personally play it with some clear plastic bingo tokens to track the different steps in the crime and the map looks a little bit like those conspiracy theory peg board by the time we’re done with a case. In a brilliant move the company put a test version of the game right on the box’s cover. If you click on the image alongside this blog you can follow along and solve a case. The full game’s map is positively massive and takes up the whole table, but this mini version of the game is an excellent example of what it feels like to play. The game’s success has already spawned plans for three sequels which will eventually have you solving cases across all the different maps, along with an app, and a more kid friendly version. It’s worth noting, this is not a game for kids, despite the cartoony drawings this city is full of adult themes and would spawn lots of tricky real world conversations.

The cardboard cutaway reveals a building on fire. Robinhood’s board can evolve and change without any stickers.

Micromacro is definitely my pick to win the award, but there are some other innovative games that have been nominated. The Adventures of Robinhood is one of those titles like I mentioned above that hasn’t made it out in English. It will be available in June, but all of the preview information I could find was based on the German version. The game is from a well known designer of another family friendly co-op game The Legend of Andor, Michael Menzel. Players are Robinhood and his band of merry men, and they use unique movement pawns to track their path around and through the town, avoiding guards and other hazards while trying to pass skill checks by drawing tokens from a bag. The odds of success are always changing as players add or remove tokens from the bag depending on their actions. The most unique aspect of the game however is the board. All over the board there are cardboard cutouts where players can flip that portion of the board to its other side. So by the castle for example there may be a circle cut out which, when flipped, reveals a guard. In this way the board itself is reactive depending on the scenario and what the players do. It is kind of like some legacy games where stickers would permanently change the board but with this cut-out method the board can evolve or change back, giving it the exciting changes of a legacy game without the permanence. The game also includes a story book that contains the narrative for each scenario and it provides alternate narrative paths if players fail a mission the first time. I’m curious to check it out when it hits the U.S. market.

Zombie Teenz is colorful fun but I can’t forgive the Z in the name…

The last title is a kid friendly legacy game called Zombie Teenz Evolution. I have to admit to being put off by this title, both because it uses the word “Teenz” with a Z and because of the Disney Channel art style. However if you have kids or teens this seems like an excellent way to try out legacy games. The story of the game plays out via a comic book included in the box and each new chapter has additional panels to add to the comic book as well as new rules and gameplay to keep the game fresh. While I am not a fan of the art style I must admit the game looks like a toy set and is well produced so it will definitely keep a kids attention better than some of the more dry looking games in the hobby. Still, it seems to be the least innovative of the three, despite how well made it is. This is one I will observe from a distance but likely won’t make it into my collection unless I am playing it with my niece and nephew.

That covers the Spiel Des Jahres nominees, I am doing some more digging on the Kennerspiel nominees and will report back with opinions on those in the coming days. The winner or the awards will be announced in just under two months on July 19th. 

Under Falling Skies first impressions

I was first drawn to Under Falling Skies during the beginning of lockdown. Board games with friends looked increasingly unlikely given the circumstances, so I looked into a few solo games to try to pass the time, and maybe get away from the screen a bit. One that caught my eye was the original version of Under Falling Skies. Designed from a sort of minimalist solo design competition where entrants were challenged to create a game that only required nine printed cards, Under Falling skies was designed to do a lot with very little. It was created to be printed on one double-sided sheet of paper, with a few dice and some tokens to round out the experience. The game was nominated for the best print and play award at in 2019, and won a lot of accolades, but then by chance the designer Tomáš Uhlíř was hired by CGE (Czech Games Edition) and the company took a chance on making this little design into a full blown commercial game. The end production is stunning and tries to make an argument for why you might want to drop $30.00 for a purely solo game. I wanted to share my first impressions as I started to dig into the game.

I narrowly escape defeat getting twelve research points (bottom) to complete the weapon just before the mothership (top) reaches the red skull for game over.
Managing you dice actions is a tricky puzzle

I must admit there is something very Zen about solo gaming. On a lovely Spring day with the birds chirping and the work day over it’s nice to set up a game and not worry about when other players are arriving, how to teach the game, or whether everyone at the table will have a good time. Solo board games are very much like solving a puzzle mano a mano vs the logic of the game itself, as I’ve written about when I first looked into the trend a few years ago. Under Falling Skies is essentially Space Invaders in board game form. There is a mothership sending attack ships towards your city in five columns and you must roll and place dice to defeat the incoming forces, excavate and create new defensive measures, and ultimately research a weapon to take out the mothership before it blows you up ala Independence Day. 

In more detail, you roll five dice on a turn and place them on a room in one of the five columns. The rooms do one of three things: Research the weapon to destroy the mothership, send air strikes to destroy incoming attackers,  or generate power to do either of these things. The brilliant push and pull here is that while higher dice rolls are always better for any of these actions, any alien ship in the corresponding column moves that many spaces towards your city. So if you want to place that six you rolled you have to also accept that the attackers that much closer to landing a hit on your city. Too many of these hits and it’s game over. To counteract this you can place dice in a column as anti-air defense, which subtracts one from how many spaces the enemy ships move. This can be a bit of a war of attrition but plays into another puzzle-y aspect of the game. Incoming ships can only be destroyed by your airstrikes if they land on attack spaces in the sky. So often die placement is a calculation not only of how it benefits you on the ground, but where the enemies end up in the skies. A perfectly timed anti-air die can position that pesky invader just in the right spot to kill multiple ships at once which is incredibly satisfying. Finally you can place a die further underground to move an excavator and unlock new and better rooms for your defense. It is all a giant balancing act and one heck of a brain burner.

The invaders are moving ever closer

To add another wrinkle to this, of your five dice three are grey and two are white. Whenever you place a white die you reroll all remaining dice. This gives flexibility but also adds a timing puzzle on top of the rest. This makes it an excellent solo game, plenty of tension from the impending doom of  attackers and the mothership, the push and pull of powerful dice hurtling enemies ever closer toward your city, and knowing when to use your re-rolls. Additionally the “turn” of the mothership is simple to follow making it not feel like you are playing two different games at once. The advanced game even offers robot dice which will continue activating a room but degrading by one each turn. A four or five die robot is great for a few turns but once it degrades to a one or two it almost becomes a liability as it occupies the space. It is yet another wrinkle to puzzle through in each play of the game.

There’s a whole campaign taking up two third of the box, including comics to set up each story twist.

For additional variability there are four levels of difficulty, and various different cities to play as, each with a unique power. That alone would be plenty but CGE has gone out of their way to pack the box full of replayability. There is a whole campaign with new boards, new gameplay and comics to tell a branching story. As a game launched during the peak of COVID lockdown Winter, Under Falling Skies was primed to be a puzzle that could take months to explore. Ok, so they definitely give you enough game in the box to justify the price, but what do I think?

Well… that’s tricky. I have recently been playing a lot of thematic games like Stationfall which I wrote about last week. I also played my copy of Pax Renaissance solo the other week to test it out, literally playing two hands at once to test out the rules. Under Falling Skies is a more elegant design than either of these games. But with all the puzzling, it did feel a bit like a game of pure calculation. Don’t get me wrong, when you pull of a turn where you blow up three enemy ships in the sky it is an incredible feeling, but it is still not a game that generates stories quite like the games I’ve been playing recently. There is sure to me more story in the box as I dig into the campaign, but a campaign framing the core game can sometimes feel like narrative scaffolding versus the emergent stories that come from some of my favorite games. With that said, I am happy to explore Under Falling Skies more, and I do want to dig into all of the content they’ve put in the box. Part of that is to get my thirty dollar investment back, but otherwise if I am feeling like playing something particularly puzzle-y and Zen I might pull this game out. It’s certainly a beautiful production with gorgeous art, neat plastic ships and tons of variability. But as the world opens up and there are hints of lockdown ending, I am honestly more eager to get to gaming in person again. Perhaps solo gaming is just not for me, but I admire what Under Falling Skies is trying to do.

Stationfall Preview

Our ticket off this doomed space station had just walked out the airlock. For some reason the escape pods on this ship require an NDA to activate, most likely because of the sensitive experiments that happen aboard. Some of those sensitive experiments can be heard in the metal containment cell near the bio lab. Meanwhile the head engineer just triggered self destruct meaning that in another 5 minutes everyone on board will be an antimatter explosion firework for his environmental cause. But the joke is on him because one of the maintenance clones just enacted sweet revenge, knocking the engineer out and dragging his body to the only escape pod that doesn’t require an NDA; the one for medical emergencies.

These are the stories generated by just one game of Stationfall  Ion Game Designs latest Kickstarter project. I had the privilege to playtest the game twice in one evening and couldn’t wait to write about my experience. This is by far Ion’s most approachable game yet. For one, it doesn’t have the deep historical or scientific themes that are the Hallmark of their other games. While these games are also great for generating stories as I’ve written about before, the themes can certainly feel dry to some.  But here Ion has a brilliant pitch calling this the party game for serious gamers. What could that possibly mean? After playing it, I have seen the light. Just like a party game, you might not really care who ultimately wins, just that everyone has a good time. But the tools to build stories like the ones above seem nearly limitless. So while it is a game about having a laugh, there is some amazing depth to the mechanics here.

An early turn of the game with the twelve characters on the left and map on the right. The circle sections of the map rotate, important for gravity and how fire spreads…
Legal has left the station

The designer Matt Eklund describes the game as Tactical Intrigue, which… is not a genre that exists, but I can understand the challenge, and why he might have made this label up. Stationfall is a difficult game to categorize. Unlike most Kickstarter projects where it fits into a clean category based on games that came before, this game is a strange animal. The basic setup is this: Players are a character aboard a space station that is going to crash into the atmosphere in 15 minutes. Every minute is one turn in the game, and players are trying to accomplish their characters unique goals before the crash. Some of these are noble, like the Station Chief who wants to go down with the ship and make sure their crewmates escape. Some of these are not so noble, like the engineer who wants to explode the antimatter engine aboard the ship to make an environmental example. Anywhere from one to nine players can join in the chaos and many of the goals are directly counter to each other. There are more than just the player’s characters aboard, however. After all, it takes a whole crew to run a space station. Players also have a secondary objective rescue or doom on of these other characters.

But here’s the rub, no one knows who is what character, and everybody can control ANY given character on their turn. Next to the board all of the characters in a particular game are laid face up and players can place influence cubes on any one of them. Once they have influence over a character they can activate them as long as they have as many or more cubes as everyone else. What ends up happening is that players manipulate many of the different characters in the game to accomplish their goals. After all there’s only fifteen minutes and so much to do!

The space monkey wants all of the shiny things

That secret identity aspect gave me pause, and was one of the reasons I did not initially give the game a closer look. I don’t like the genre of social deduction games where players are either good guys or traitors and a lot of the gameplay involves players arguing and lying to figure out who is on what side. Maybe it’s because people think I am lying no matter what but I often find those kinds of games stressful. But another reason Eklund made up his own genre was seemingly to avoid these comparisons. Stationfall definitely has deduction and you are trying to read the other players actions to determine their real motive. But all of the deduction is in observing their play. There is no detecting lies or community votes or any of the other hallmarks of social deduction. But it DOES have some elements of the genre, like the advantages of obfuscating your real goal, and the joy and power of a well timed reveal. You still have to pay attention to the other players to succeed.

Speaking of a well timed reveal the game rewards players for declaring what character they represent by giving them an additional very powerful ability. This creates a marvelous tug of war. It is often best to be sneaky and not let players realize who you are, but there is always a moment in the game where revealing who you are might give you just enough of an edge to pull off your grand scheme. It also stops other players from using your character and so can protect yourself from someone activating them and putting them in harm’s way. However, once your scheme is out there in the open, you better believe everyone in the game will be actively making sure it doesn’t happen, if they can.

Beware the telepathic rat. It wants to watch the world burn.

There are many other systems to interact with as well, making a rich sandbox to experiment in. In my other game I was playing the astrochimp, an experimental monkey who was born on the space station who just wants to gather all the shiny things and get the heck out of dodge. I had gotten the secret briefcase and the mysterious artifact, but needed to round out my collection of shiny things with a gun. It was possible to print one of these but you needed officer credentials, which an experimental monkey definitely doesn’t have. However if I hacked the main computer and gave myself those credentials I would be all set. The problem was the room with access to the computer was on fire and outside it there was a cryogenically frozen man who had woken up in a bad mood and with a wrench. This is a party game for serious gamers because you are problem solving  your way through complex systems, but laughing all the way there. My monkey never got the gun or got off the ship and I ended the game with zero points. And I had a blast. The computer or digital assistant, by the way, is another character in the game, with possibly devious goals of its own.

Later in the game abandon ship has been triggered the cameras and jammers are off, and the cyborg is knocked out while holding the telepathic rat in the chem lab… which is on fire.

And this is just a snapshot from two games. There are twenty seven different characters of which only a subset are in any given game. Depending on what characters are in the game and what characters players control there are countless ways this story could play out, although all of them end poorly for the space station itself. The best way I can describe it is like a chaotic improvisational episode of Deep Space Nine, minus the license and with quite a bit of added goofiness. The genre of tactical intrigue, although it doesn’t exist, makes perfect sense. Given how chaotic it is, most of your moves are tactical, and it’s difficult to plan with the chaos of the other player’s turns, especially considering that unless you have revealed your identity any other player can control the character you are most invested in. But the intrigue part makes sense as well. You are often trying to be clever or oblique with your actions so that other players don’t figure out your true intentions. The game’s inherent complexity is what gives it enough layers to have these actions remain unclear. But this game is still much more approachable than just about any other game this company has put out. It is much easier to pitch someone on a game where they might be a space chimp than one where they are a Renaissance banker. I am excitedly all in on this new design, and now the challenge will be waiting the six plus months to get a physical copy to play in person. If the stories above intrigue you I highly recommend taking a look.