Tuesday, June 05, 2012

The Games that Define Us

An interesting tide is sweeping our small section of the blogosphere.  I refuse to use the M word (meme, there I did it, but only this once).  It started with the Frontline Gamer, whose blog I've pimped out before.  Several others have done it as well.  The topic has been bubbling around in my mind for a couple of weeks now, and it's finally germinated into something.

The idea is to talk about ten games that define you as a gamer.  Some interesting things have come out of it.  More North American gamers seem to have gotten in through RPGs, whereas the UK gamers seem to have come into it through GW.

In my case, I definitely follow the trend, coming to GW late in my gaming life.  There are some on my list that I have not seen anywhere else.  Others seem to be on every list.

The first pivotal game for me was a D&D game.  Someone, I have no idea who, gave me the red box set one summer.  I was staying with my Grandparents on a mountain.  There was no one else to play with and I had read everything of interest in their library.  I read the rules, memorized them, rolled up a character and started playing, solo.  It was fun and it got me through the summer, but it wasn't life changing.

The next summer I got to go to summer camp.  Some of the other kids there were talking about D&D and I wanted to play with them.  We didn't play at camp, but when we got home I rode my bike across town to their house for a game.  I still remember my Magic Missile exploding in the yard of a house in Homlet and killing everything in the yard.  They were a little unclear on the rules.

I got two things out of that game.  First, I loved it.  The game let me be creative, it was only limited by my imagination.  Secondly, I really didn't like these kids.  For the next few years I played solo (an ongoing theme) and searched for people to play with who I liked.

The second game, which set me on the path to today, was a game with no name and no formal rules.  I didn't have a lot of friends, but I had a lot of Legos.  I knew that I wanted to play big battles but I couldn't find any toy soldiers that were medievil.  Legos took care of that, but I didn't have enough for what I wanted to do.  I couldn't afford Little Britains and I didn't know about Airfix.

 I got all of the single dot legos together and sorted them by color.  The square ones were infantry.  The round were cavalry, mounted on the three long x 1 wide pieces as horses.  The ones with an opening in the front were archers.  I formed all of the units into blocks of six, lined them up and started fighting.  Dice rolls were pretty simple, the results bloody.  I had a couple of hundred "men" on the field and the game lasted a good couple of hours.  It scratched the itch.  From that day forward, whenever I wanted a large battle, I pulled the little pieces, sorted them (a game in itself, I still enjoy a good sorting) and fought epic battles.

The next game that pulled me along the path was Axis and Allies.  I bought this with my lawn mowing money and loved it.  I bought all five of the games in the stable at the time.  My best friend and I never tired of playing this game and played up to college.  I still have that original game, in its box.

The game was revolutionary to me because it was a board game with little soldiers instead of cardboard cutouts.  A whole genre of boardgames lost their appeal to me the day I opened that box and twisted off all of those little plastic dudes.

I played several games solo but the game that hooked me was the first one with Cam.  I wasn't just pushing cardboard around on a board, I was playing with little soldiers.  I had found things that worked, playing by myself.  Cam played differently.  We both surprised each other.  This was gaming!  After that first game we played, at least, weekly for years.

In sixth grade I made a new friend and he invited me over to his house to play.  Sam's parents had money and he had any toy he wanted.  What he pulled out for us to play with wasn't the Star Wars action figures I was used to.  He dropped a piece of plywood on the floor and set up Crossbows and Catapults.

I assume someone is unfamiliar with this game, so...  You have blocks, like big legos but they don't lock together.  You stack them to build a wall.  You also have a tower, some flags and little dudes.  The great part of the game is the catapult and ballista (crossbow), powered by rubberbands and firing "carroms".  The goal was to knock over your enemy's flag and kill his dudes.  There were expansions to give you more options, I remember the dragon in particular.

This was closer to H.G. Wells' miniatures game than anything we do today.  I didn't know that at the time.  I just knew that you could have little toy soldiers in a game, with rules, without a game board.  Axis and Allies had stepped off of the board and onto the table, as it were.  After that first game with Sam I looked at the floors in my parents' house in a new way.

In Junior High we moved and I was back to not having friends to play games with.  One day in the bookstore I found a Battletech book.  I had no idea what it was about, but it was Sci/Fi so I bought it for $5.75.  I still have that book.  It was about the formation of a mercenary regiment piloting Mechs.  I bought the rest of the books, as they came out, and loved them.  The background was great and, well, Mechs.  I mean come on!

I had a tone of cardboard mechs but I had also bought some metal ones and painted them up.  They were shiny black.  No markings, no highlighting, just black.  I didn't know that anyone painted anything but models, which then sat on people's shelves.  Boring, but at least it meant I had some paints to use.

It was a couple of years later that I discovered the game.  I bought it.  I bought the expansions.  I designed my own mechs and vehicles.  I played incessantly, solo.  The game that sticks with me was one in which I had two battalions fighting each other.  That was 36 Mechs, on each side.  I fought it out to the end but realized that I didn't feel satisfied.  It was a lot of work but it just wasn't that much fun.  I wanted another person so I could get that rush of matching wits against them, of having them do unexpected things and having to react to them.

After that game I didn't really play Battletech anymore.  I continued to design Mechs, read the books and buy the latest game stuff, but I didn't play.  This is also about the time when the Clans showed up and everything changed.  I didn't like the direction things went and it was easy to just ease out of it over the next couple of years.

By now I was in High School and two games impacted me.  The first was Talisman.  I have no idea what edition, but probably the first; this was about 1987.  My church youth group went up to the mountains to stay in a condo, ski and get in trouble.  One guy brought Talisman.  I still remember that rush when we started playing.  This game was The.  Coolest.  Thing.  Ever.  I fell in love.  It didn't have miniatures but it re-energized my desire to game.  I was like a drug addict.  I tried dozens of games, looking for that rush again.  I still haven't found it but that one game pulled me back and convinced me that gaming could still be great.

The other game was Twilight 2000.  This was a role playing game set in WWIII.  All organized government is gone and you, a survivor of the US 5th Inf Div have to stay alive.  My father and I played this game together, the only one we ever did.

The game I remember was an attack on a castle in Krackow, Poland, to steal an Mi-17 Hip.  We planned it like a military operation and pulled it off perfectly.  I'm sure my face had the same glow of satisfaction that his did when it was over.  This was my first real taste of how good cooperative gaming could be.

There were other games of TW2000, some almost as memorable.  One year for Christmas, being broke, my father made me a vehicle guide, a poor man's Janes.  He photocopied pictures from the encyclopedia, of military hardware and pasted them all into a book made of printer paper folded in half.  I still have that book in my office.  This was the closest my father and I ever were, and the closest he ever came to understanding my gaming.

The next game was Battlemasters in college.  This was a GW game with miniatures on regimental stands.  It was played on a large vinyl mat.  I bought it, brought it home and laid it out on the garage floor.  (I lived in the garage of the house, my room mates smoked too much dope).  It was not a great game, and again I was playing solo.  What struck me, this first game, was the fact that you didn't get to move every unit whenever you wanted to.  It was my first introduction to command and the fog of battle in a game, and it was a revelation.  I didn't actually play many more games of it, but it had changed how I looked at the gaming battlefield forever.

In 2002 I was living in England for a few months.  We were in a hotel in a town full of restaurants.  SWMBO had gone back to the States and I was running around town on my own.  I got sucked into the GW store and started buying Empire.  There was a guy at work who wanted to start playing but I got sent off to invade Iraq before we got a game in.  I had amassed a large collection though.

When I got home my cousin had moved to town and wanted to know if I was doing any gaming.  He was playing Magic, something I wasn't interested in getting in to.  On his way home that night he stopped and bought a High Elf starter army for Warhammer.  This was 6th Edition.

Three weeks later he had it assembled and we got together to play.  It was a Sunday afternoon.  We started at 1400 and finished up at 0100.  We got everything wrong.  We loved it.  This was my first, true, table top game and it was everything I hadn't realized that I was looking for.  We played every week until he moved away again, but that first game was amazing.  It prompted me to collect six more armies and parts of most of the rest.  It started a love that really only died a couple of months ago.

I'll get a little bit out of sequence here.  The next game to discuss is actually the last of these chronologically.  It was a game of 8th Edition.  I loved 6th.  I was happy with 7th.  I was excited by 8th and played it a lot at first.  Largely this was because I had just run a league at the shop and gotten a whole bunch of new people to start playing.

I saw a lot of the problems with the game, but I didn't want to believe them so I ignored them.  What clenched it for me was a game down at Collectormania.  I had just about tabled my opponent but he got his demonic wizard behind one flank of my army.  He got off a spell and it, literally, killed half of my army and all of my heroes.

After that it wasn't a conscious decision.  I just never played anther game of Warhammer.  I still looked at the models.  I even bought one every now and again.  I didn't play.  It finally crystallized for me when I bought the new Empire book.  I bought it and took it home.  I wanted to read it but I was reluctant to open the book.  When I finally did I felt the GW spark finally die.  I actually felt it.  I was liberated and, distantly, sad.

The last was my first game of Lord of the Rings.  I had been flirting with playing it, but didn't have an opponent and so was reluctant to start collecting.  We had a new guy move to the area and he was a rabid LotR fan.  I arranged to meet him for a demo game.  He provided both armies, taught me the rules and off we went.  I had Uruk Hai, he had Gondor.

I immediately loved the skirmish aspect, the ease of the rules and the tactical complexities.  This didn't feel like a GW game.  It felt new and unique.  (I was still a GW fan at this point, mid way through 7th).  This game not only started me playing LotR, my main game since, but introduced me to the subtle joy that is a skirmish game.

I've come a long way, and I still think about all of these games nostalgically.  I have to thank GW for being where I am.  It not only got me gaming in the way I've always wanted to, it introduced me to the community that educated me and allowed me to move on to greener pastures.  We live in an awesome time to be a gamer and because of GW, I've been set free to explore it.


  1. A very interesting exercise. I may have to give this a shot myself. Thanks for posting!

  2. Thanks for reading. I'd be interested in seeing your list.

  3. We speak a lot of the same language, Lego, Crossbows and Catapults, Axis and Allies, LOTR.....

  4. It's interesting how much of that spanned the Atlantic, even back then.

  5. Good games are good games. I think we sometimes forget that we're all more alike than we think. I've played games in many different countries and what strikes me is how similar my opponents always are, no matter their nationality. We like the same things and we all get pleasure from playing the same games.

    Thanks for posting up your games that defined you. I've enjoyed reading all the ones I've come across (about 60 now). Not all of them realised that my article was the first one to start the ball rolling but that matter not one jot... sorry... but I think it is a meme now. I've seen it so many places on Blog written by Bloggers I don't know that I think it might have gone a bit viral.


  6. I couldn't agree more on how much alike people are. The part that surprises me, though it shouldn't, is how much of our cultural heritage is the same, and how much is different.

    It is a meme, it's just that the word is mis-used so much I hate to call it that. The thing I like about this particular series is that it helps people realize something about them selves as well as about other gamers. Thinking about it, some of the games that I included were not in my list to start with. Part of the reason it took so long to write is that I kept reading other people's lists and saying "oh, crap, I totally forgot that I used to play that".

  7. Axis and Allies !!! One of my favs, until everyone realised that East Germany is the key to winning the game!! And Lego, castles guns and swords!!!! Those were the days!!!

  8. I still love that game, I just never get to play anymore. I'm enjoying watching my boys discover legos. The castles were always my favorites but they like Star Wars best, though the Lord of the Rings have been a big hit, so there's still hope.


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