#RPGaDay XVI: Game you wish you owned - Mouse Guard Box Set
We live in an age where, in terms of roleplaying games at least, you can get virtually anything, virtually, one way or another. Thanks to sites such as DriveThru, games that have been out of print for decades can still be bought in PDF format. As someone with indie proclivities, many of my games are either free to download, pay-what-you-want or have only ever been available in electronic format. So in one sense this is an odd question: if you want a game so much, you should be able to just get it.
There is something about physicality though. This weekend is GenCon, and I’ve been eagerly watching my Twitter feed and Facebook for news about new releases - for the most part in the case of miniature, card and board games. Gaming is enjoying a renaissance at the moment. For RPGs, this has mostly been because of the opening up of design. For other tabletop games however, it has also been technological in nature. Simply put, it is cheaper to produce beautiful game components than ever before, and that has lead to the production of games that are as much a delight to the eyes and fingers as they are to the mind. When I look at the games I played obsessively in the 80s, it’s clear that we forgave them a lot for their drab components.
The physicality of games matters. I have not played Splendor with a single person who didn’t remark on the satisfaction of playing with its thick, heavy poker chips. X-Wing has managed to excite people in a way that previous Star Wars tactical ship games failed to do so because of great game design, but that has gone hand in hand with great components (not just the models; the movement templates are an amazing innovation).
Technology has helped RPGs as well, but mostly in the case of distribution. When I first got into roleplaying, no self-respecting game would be released without a box core set. Those sets - particularly the Games Workshop reprints that I devoured as a kid - contained almost everything you needed to get started: dice, floorplans, paper minis. Somewhere along the road, roleplaying divided between those games and publishers that clung onto the physicality and those games that became increasingly abstract, although it would still take decades before roleplaying games managed to slough off their wargame origins (contrast a game like Vampire: The Masquerade, which ultimately is just D&D with different stats and dice, with a game like Archipelago). Increasingly it became the fashion that the only physical things you needed to play a game were the character sheet, the dice and the books. In the case of the latter, instead of trying to flog you floorplans or miniatures, you were encouraged to buy ever more books of ever more obscure subjects. For me, at least, that slowly drained my enthusiasm as the hobby became less about playing games and more about managing shelf space.
I’ve heard it said before that a good RPG should be able to be compressed into a 20 page rulebook; everything else is just fluff that gets in the way. I might not entirely agree with that as accessibility is key, but I certainly agree that if your business model is based on selling dozens of supplements for your game then I probably won’t like it. Your game will probably be telling me that I need to dedicate years and possibly even a decade to get the full experience out of it and be focused around a setting with very little emphasis on telling a great story, let alone collaboratively with people who haven’t necessarily read all the books first.
On the other hand, if you can fit your entire game into a small drawstring bag, as Avery Mcdaldno managed with The Quiet Year, then I’m yours. What Avery managed with that game was more than simplification and condensing; the genius of that game is basing it around a deck of cards. And of course it is a map drawing game, meaning that everyone playing is sitting around a table focused on a single central element; it has that sense of playing like a board game.
More mainstream publishers have experimented with using different elements for their games, not entirely successfully. Fantasy Flight’s Star Wars RPGs use custom dice and encourage you to invest in decks of cards to represent your character’s special abilities, but they’re really just an optional add on that don’t have any role in the game itself; you can equally well list your abilities on the character sheet provided (I think FFG were slightly stung by their failure to excite people with a similar system in their Warhammer FRP 3rd edition a few years before).
It isn’t just a problem limited to mainstream publishers either. While my eyes have been opened to the potential of the humble index card, I sometimes wish indie game designers were as keen as I am to break free from it’s papyral tyranny. I have this instinct that it must be possible to introduce the tactile and design elements of the best board and card games and combine them with an open world RPG, but I haven’t seen it yet.
Or have I? Because if there’s one game I wish I owned, its the Mouse Guard RPG Box Set. I already have a PDF of the rules and so I have a pretty good idea about how it plays, but the box set introduced several elements to make the game less cumbersome: custom dice, equipment cards and conflict resolution cards.
The latter are the most exciting component. Mouse Guard is based on the Burning Wheel system which has an innovative system of conflict resolution in which all conflicts - from fights to attempts at oratory - are abstracted to a system in which the participants opt to either attack, parry or feint over a series of rounds. It’s a clever system, but its one that really needs cards to prevent it from being quite cumbersome.
The other thing about this set is that it looks beautiful. Mouse Guard comic creator Dave Peterson was intimately involved in the production of the game and produced a lot of original art for both the book and the cards. For a game based on a comic, it just seems wrong to play it without the art and that’s a large reason why I haven’t tried playing it without a copy of the physical edition.
Fortunately for me, there’s a new edition coming out so hopefully I won’t have to wait too long before I get my hands on a copy. I’m keen to discover for myself how smooth it is to play.