12 September 2005

Playing Gods

A number of interesting things happened over the weekend, the least enjoyable of which was being woken up at 2:30am by the fire brigade putting out the fire that somebody had set in our neighbours' car. How charming of them.

One of the most enjoyable things -- in a vengeful, wrathful, blasting-the-infidels kind of way -- was playing Risk Godstorm with R. and M. on Saturday evening. It's a deeply enjoyable game which follows the basic mechanics of Risk 2210 A.D. -- itself a significant updating of classic Risk with its "Slug it out till you're the last one left alive" ethic -- with some intriguing twists. (Enormous fun though the old-fashioned approach, in a mindlessly macho kind of way, was, Godstorm and the modern variants do seem to be a little more... nuanced[1].)

In Godstorm, five of the ancient polytheistic pantheons -- the Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, Celtic and Norse gods -- do battle alongside armies of their followers, inflicting the lands of Europe and the Mediterranean with plagues and tempests and the like. Pretty much the same dynamic holds as in 2210 A.D., with the gods replacing the various specialist "commander" pieces, but with two glorious departures: firstly, one of the continents it's possible to occupy is Atlantis, which is both more profitable and easier to defend than the other territories but is susceptible, at an undetermined point in the game, to vanishing altogether from the board; and secondly, troops who die are moved onto the separate Underworld board, where they continue to fight for domination and whence they can, potentially, be resurrected. Huzzah for maurauding armies of the dead!

Add to this the fact that some of the "miracle cards" (equivalents of 2210 A.D.'s command cards) can potentially effect enormous changes on the state of play, and Godstorm certainly seems to be the most spectacular of the Risk variants to date.

Unfortunately, the length of time it took us to learn the new rules, together with the necessity of getting R. & M.'s child units into bed before we could start, meant that we only had time to play for three "epochs" (rounds of turns -- a single turn can easily take half an hour), rather than the prescribed five.

We decided that the existence of the afterlife makes things a lot more agreeable for players who are doing badly, as each unit wiped off the face of the Earth is a reinforcement in the battle for the Underworld. There are a few kinks in the gameplay (set out in this rather overcritical review), but the only aspect I found really unsatisfying was the lack of differentiation between the gods. Of course I accept that this would make the game even more complicated, but as things stand there's basically no distinction made apart from the colours of the pieces and the names of the individual gods on each side, and as a huge mythology geek I find this unsatisfying.

It would have been nice if the various gods were more powerful when on their home turf, for instance, which would have been easy enough to build in. I'd also have preferred to have had some acknowledgement of the gods' distinctive personalities, perhaps via pantheon-specific decks of cards. As it is, the game insists on reducing them into a one-size-fits-all formula of Sky God, War God, Death God and Goddess of Magic. This works well enough with the Greek pantheon from which it's evidently derived, with Zeus, Aries, Hades and Hecate fulfilling the roles (although it's odd to consider Hecate on a par with the Olympians), but it falls down badly when applied to the other pantheons.

The Norse, for instance, have Odin, Thor, Loki and Freya in these slots, none of whom fits even remotely. Not only has Loki nothing to do with death and Freya nothing obvious to do with magic, but Odin is, if anything, more of a war god than Thor, who is associated with thunder and thus with the sky. But the formula says that the head of the pantheon is the Sky God, so what can you do? (In fact assigning areas of patronage to the Aesir in the mode of the Olympians is a fundamentally misconceived endeavour, showing the hegemony of Hellenistic thinking in Western mythography, but never mind.)

Still, it would be churlish to be overcritical of any game which allows you to smite your enemies whilst bellowing "Die, heathen scum, for I am Thor!" or chanting The Ride of the Valkyries, even if you do have to do it quietly to avoid waking the children. Very much recommended.

...then on Sunday B. and I discovered that a local pub does a free cheeseboard at Sunday lunchtime. Life is good.

[1] If you are a classic Risk enthusiast, then under no circumstances should you download [link deleted due to lack of self-discipline], a freeware version with substantially speeded-up gameplay which allows you to play against multiple virtual players with distinctive strategies. It's horrifyingly addictive.

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