Taming the Monster Game

We’ve mentioned on more than one occasion that NSKN Games is working on its own XXL-sized game. It’s my turn to raise the lid and take a look into the pot. The only problem is that I don’t even like monster games.

I have a copy of Twilight Imperium III sitting on my games shelf, and I’ve been at odds with myself on what to do with it. It’s been played exactly once, because my gaming group at the time (and by “the time” I mean 2008) fell in love with this beast so much that three people bought this fabled thief of time (myself included). Now the thought of trading it away creeps on me on a regular basis.

I like longer games, I rate Through the Ages a 10/10, I’ve spent many a session over Exodus, Starcraft, Combat Commander – but an 8-10 hour experience is somewhat above my current endurance level – so you can probably guess how happy I was when Andrei told my one day of his own monster game, and how we should start internal testing immediately.

I put on a smile and nodded politely, quickly scribbling a list of other possible testers on the little white board occupying the inside of my forehead.

The Hook

I studied medieval literature, and although I would be reluctant to call myself a history buff, I find medieval Europe fascinating. That’s probably why a pricked my ears when the name “Dark Ages” came up. And as Andrei proceeded through preliminary work on the actual prototype, I warming up to the idea of actually playing the monster game.

The first thing that grabbed my attention was the playstest map. One of the goals was to create not only a playable patchwork of regions, but to also make them as close to historical facts of the 14th and 15th age Europe as possible. Sure, a handful of regions are a bit bigger than they should be, but that had to be done: otherwise you’d hate us for making them too small to place the pieces there.

The map will look much nicer for the final game, but the objective here is clear: we want it to represent a picture as close to reality as possible, so as to satisfy the historical gamer in all of those who care for this sort of thing. Since I care, I got pulled in.

The Line

Looking at the map I felt a bit torn. It’s large, really large, and even in its playtest form it’s impressive. My fears where not gone, but I felt the pang of gamer excitation while taking a look. More pangs were soon to follow, as I took a first look at the prototype faction mats.

The first thing is that there are many. And they are different. And each of them is filled with technologies and upgrades, ranging from inventing the killer long bow to setting up more effective trade routes. Based on solid research, each featured altered paths to greatness just waiting to be explored. To be used to further my own glory, or to forge them into ruthless weapons against my opponents.

Pangs transformed into full-on excitement. Little did I know that by far the best what yet to come. And came it did.

14th century Europe. Is this the level of detail of the playtest map? Not even close! (Source: Wikimedia)

The Sinker

The large map and the factions did not do much to work towards doing away with my fear of eight hour long play testing sessions. I needed the first game to finally be rid of that fear.

The system itself seems familiar at first glance: an action table allows each player to place one of their pieces on an action, and to perform it with a bonus, while others get to make use of it without the extra bells and whistles. And yet, the fact that each of the actions is represented on a number of spaces (each with its own bonus), that there is a rhythm to using the action markers, that there is a relevant decision in each move, and that each action will allow everyone at the table to act at the same time made Dark Ages unique – and simply fun.

From the moment the heart of this medieval monster started beating, I simply wanted to play more. I was ready to spend the coming hours building farms and cathedrals, mustering archers and medieval knights, and rising to glory. I was ready not to care how much it would take… until it became apparent that it would not have to eat a better part of day. In fact, it would stay on the table precisely as long as you wanted to.

Already based on an engine that makes you be a part of the game all the time, Dark Ages has one more thing going for it: it scales in all directions. Do you want a long duel with one opponent? Set it up in a way that will make you fight for supremacy for the next four hours. Do you want a deep and historical empire builder for six people to play on a weeknight? Set up your objectives in a way that will make you finish in about two hours.

Dark Ages is still a bit far down the road. There is still work for all of us in the development process, but one thing is certain: Andrei managed to find the way to tame a real monster, and to perform tricks, including (but not limited to) making a man who’s already passed on monster games be excited by both working on it now – and setting it up on my table later.


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