Saturday, May 5, 2018

Homo Ludens: why should we play?

Some years ago I watched six Dutch philosophers discuss play (like in games) on television. Apart from the fact that this was one of those curious TV programmes that wouldn't have needed TV imaging to be interesting (it was all dialogue with hardly any supporting visuals) it jarred something in me. What was my fundamental motive for playing?

Some classics were touched upon. German philosopher Schiller wrote  that "man only plays when he is in the fullest sense of the word a human being, and he is only fully a human being when he plays”. Schiller certainly took his playing seriously. He stated that only in play Man could unite his normally paradoxal aspects, like reason and nature, formal and sensual drive, freedom and necessity, passion and duty, sense and form. Only in play Man could be unfragmented and truly whole.

The Dutch historian and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga identified play as having 5 essential characteristics:
  1. Play is freedom.
  2. Play is not “ordinary” or “real” life.
  3. Play is distinct from “ordinary” life both as to locality and duration.
  4. Play creates order, is order. Play demands order absolute and supreme.
  5. Play is connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained from it.
While this is perhaps a bit too profound for me, I can acknowledge that play enables you to exercise your personality in its purest form, minimally inhibited by reality, practical considerations and social conventions. It is, after all, only play. Playing is indeed freedom supreme.

This is probably why we usually associate play with children and childhood. The inhibitions mentioned above weigh probably least for children who have not yet learned that a lot of things are impossible and fantasy is not real, like most adults know and believe. This is, we were told, why children play instinctively, imitating adult life as they view it, learning to be adults on the way, by stepping outside the real world into a fantasy that can exist anywhere at any time.

This seems to conflict with Huizinga's 4th characteristic as I tend to see freedom and order as opposite phenomena. Nevertheless I cannot deny we often encounter rules during play for the first time in our lives, when at a young age it is explained to us that we cannot pick up a football, kick a hockey ball or move 20 squares on the game board if we only rolled a 2. Not even when we would like to. That is not how the game is played, dear.

Still, even within the confines of these, often simple, rules we can still pretend to be merciless achievers, crush our enemies, see them driven before us and hear the lamentations of their... wait, where was I ?

Oh yes, living out fantasies. We can live out our fantasies outside the real, ordinary world and be the personae we would probably like to be if we could get away with it in real life. It would not surprise me if we would develop our character while playing as well. Making alliances, learning tactical and strategic skills and -last but certainly not least-  discovering the possibility of cheating are all very useful things to take with you on life's twisting, winding roads.

Adults usually do not play anymore. They do sports. Completely different as I am sure you will see. I had a dispute with a collegue of mine once who considered my wargaming hobby childish but thought nothing of running around on a field dressed in shorts hitting a ball with a stick. The same difference as fas as I am concerned. He really did not see sports as a form of playing, nor did he play hockey to become "unfragmented". He needed it to unwind and work on his condition. What's in a name, after all? And surely his sportsgame is as separated from ordinary life as is a cowboy-and-indian game played by 8-year olds.

No profit may be gained from it, states Huizinga. I struggled with that one. Nevertheless, losing a game may not gain you anything, it usually does not risk anything either.  So perhaps Huizinga means that victory may be a winner's only gain.

In any case, we do learn our children the importance of winning through play. While happiness, health and material well-being are important things in life, it does not hurt to be a winner to get to these prizes. So it is a useful trick to teach to your kids. However, since every game needs a winner, the other players will inevitably be losers. But that is allright dear, since it is only a game. Wait a minute: it is important to win during play, but when the game is over, winning is a trifle? This paradox is a concept most children find frustrating and bewildering.  Most counter it by not playing anymore, throwing the gameboard through the room or start again to win next time. Even while knowing that every game will have at least one loser and this might well be you. Adults in this situation tend to rationalize.

Still here is where I think the most fundamental lesson to be learned from playing is hidden. And that is that effort enables success, but only bears a relative relation to it. It is certainly no guarantee. Not a very modern way of looking at things I think. Some like to believe that success is a choice, failure a fault and every achievement - or lack thereof- a personal responsibilty one is immediately accountable for. But no matter what the skills, luck or capabilities of the player are, he will eventually lose at some point.

Playing teaches us that failure, learning from failure and improving oneself is an essential and unavoidable part of life and actually conditional for achieving anything at all. The essential and crucial attraction of playing is that this can occur without any serious consequences to yourself. Unlike real-life "games" where people get hurt by failures...

So people, let's play.

As often as we can.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Mythic Battles: Pantheon Review ****

As the regular readers of this blog may know I have gifted myself a big Kickstarter each year for the last few years. After Conan: The Boardgame and Zombicide Black Plague in 2017 this turned out to be Mythic Battles: Pantheon. Made by the same company as Conan and born from a cooperation between Monolith and Mythic Games this game looked especially promising. Last January I received it and could finally start painting and playing!

The Theme
The game is based on the Greek Myths and starts right after a raging war between the Titans (recently freed by a jealous Hera) and the Gods. Monsters and Heroes have participated on both sides and the war tore down Mount Olympus and ravaged the Earth.


In the game, which takes the form of an opposed boardgame, players play teams of Heroes, Minions and Monsters, led by a God or Titan, that score the Earth for Omphalos; the rare pockets of divine energy that are the remains of dead Gods and Titans. Winning a game is usually about winning the most Omphalos.

The Components
As I had come to expect of a Monolith product the game is exquisitely styled. The boards are comparable in function and style with the Conan boards and look at least as good, if not better. Heavy four-part folding cardboard with a gorgeous two-sided print give you two playing boards for the price of one. Since I bought the core game and two of the large expansions this gave me a total of 8 playing boards.

Game in progress. Note the 3D cardboard terrain

Dice, cards, Figure dashboards are all from durable plastic or high quality cardboard or card. The game came with specifically designed 6-sided dice but can be played with normal dice as well.

The game contains a number of scenarios for 2 to 4 players, although the game can simply be played on any board as an opposed battle between teams.

The game comes complete with 3D cardboard terrain features. These look quite good in their own right but can be easily replaced by "real" terrain from any wargamers collection.

Replacing cardboard terrain with real stuff is easy

The figures were my real reason for entering the Kickstarter. They were numerous and gorgeous and worth the money for the figure collection alone. They come in several categories and truly deserve their own spot in this review. The pictures speak for themselves, but I will detail their role in the game for each category.

The Gods
Each team is led by one God or Titan that is immediately recognisable because of his, her or its size. At about 80mm or 1:25 scale the Gods tower over the rest of the figures. The Titans (as their name befits) are even larger. Detail is exponentially better and it is a joy (and a rare experience, since I rarely paint figures so large) to paint them. All the well-known members of the Olympus Club are there: Zeus, Hera, Apollo, Athena, Poseidon et cetera down to some lesser known players like Hecate en Helios.

Mighty Aphrodite
Each God has specific strengths and weaknesses in the game so the choice of God determines your strategy and the rest of your team up to a point (literally, but see below).

Gods are easily the most powerful pieces in a game, although some Monsters and Heroes come close. Gods are legendarily hard to kill, but can die in this game. The God or Titan of your team is the only one who can absorb Omphalos. Lose your team leader and you lose the game.

Hecate, She Of The Crossroads

Gods are controlled through a dashboard where their Life Points and abilities are recorded.

Heroes and Monsters
The Gods are reinforced by (more or less) human Heroes and Monsters. These are powerful game pieces in their own right and some may even stand up to a God or Titan. Heroes and monsters are individual pieces of varying size, from puny (28mm scaled) humans like Achilles or Circe to huge monsters like Hydra or Scylla.

Scylla will really grab your attention. And everything else! 

All Heroes and Monsters have specific strengths and weaknesses that may combine with other figures to reinforce or weaken them. So choose wisely!

Pegasus and Bellerophon
Heroes and Monsters are controlled through a dashboard where their Life Points and abilities are recorded, just like Gods are. When a Hero or Monster dies, he, she or it is removed from the game.

Last in line are the hosts of Minions that may support the Gods and Heroes. Here we find 28mm figures of the Argonauts, the Myrmidons, Hellhounds, Skeletons, Stymphalic Birds and many, many more. Buying MB: P gives you an instant Greek Fantasy collection!

Minions come in units (although all game pieces are called units) of more than one figure. This may result in (for example) 2 Centaurs or 6 Skeletons.

Hoplite Minions

Minion units are controlled through a simple card that records their abilities and lose Life Points by removing figures. Once all figures of a Minion unit have died, the unit is destroyed.

Minion units are recyclable however. Gods may Recall minions to their side, completely restoring all losses and moving the Minion unit to their space on the board.

Skeleton Minions

Like Heroes and Monsters, Minion units have specific strengths and weaknesses that may combine with other figures to reinforce or weaken them.

The Game
So MB:P got form spot on, but does it have substance?

It is an opposed game between 2 to 5 players. That took some getting used to, given that cooperative play is usually en vogue among game designers these days. That should not be a problem however.

Some Heroes: Achilles, Odysseus, Hercules and Leonidas

You assemble your team through a point system. Each figure or unit costs points and you may buy figures up to your max pool of points. You must take one God and one God only (or a Titan) but are free to combine figures for the rest of the team. Players choose Gods and units alternately, so beggars can't be choosers :)

Centaurs and Chiron

Players activate their figures through Activation cards. Each God, Hero, Monster or Minon unit has a given number of Activation cards that are combined into the Deck. Added are Art of War cards, that can be used to recall units, Activate more than one unit or Recall Minions and such. The number of AoW cards depends on the points you did not spend on buying figures. So you can choose between a large team or more AoW cards to give you options with the team you have.

One of the Gorgons

You may draw cards every turn (more if you pass) and may use AoW cards to pick or select even more. Activation cards are crucial, since you usually cannot Activate anything without the right card. Once your Deck has been used up, reshuffle and start again. All the other players receive all their remaining cards in their hand at that point in the game and reshuffle as well. Calling on the Gods for the right cards will be a common occurrence :)

Figures may perform one complex action (Absorbing Omphalos) or two simple one (like move, pick up an Omphalos or fight). You may not usually Activate the same figure twice in a turn but may Activate a second figure if and when you have the cards for it.


Absorbing Omphalos gives you points, but also Omphalos cards that can be used as AoW cards or to restore Life Points to your God. In the latter case they are discarded.

Fighting includes an ingenious sequence of dice rolling which gives you a choice between many dice scoring small hits or few dice scoring big ones. This choice gives you the option to inflict wounds on Gods with even the lowliest Minion (but you have to roll REALLY well then!).

The Great God Pan

The verdict
The rules mechanics give you an interesting game where team members must and can cooperate to grab the Omphalos and pass them to your God to Absorb and score a point. It kind of resembles an American Football; game in that way. Figures carrying an Omphalos can even be tackled and made to drop them.

Absorbing Omphalos is usually the best way to win a game, since killing all opposing Gods and Titans is quite hard. Gods do not tend to die easily and Titans even less so.

Finding the right combos for a team is THE challenge. There are many. many possible choices, especially when you have some expansions at your disposal. Pitting your combos against those of other players is really the gist of the game. And can make for some interesting and challenging choices and plans.

Getting the right card depends partly on luck, partly on choice as you can influence luck with AoW cards and an choose to have more of those in exchange of figures. Fighting is mostly a matter of dice luck, although the "Big Hit Option" does give you some influence there.

It is a turn based, opposed game in which only the acting player of the moment does things. This means the other player(s) must wait until their turn and can't really do anything. This I found an unexpectedly classic flaw in the game. One that is especially prominent in a multi player game where you might have to wait for three other players until you get your turn.

The Titan Atlas
While perhaps not being entirely reasonable I could not help myself comparing MB:P to Conan: The Boardgame. CTB is of course cooperative and requires all players to participate in every phase of a turn. Even inactive players can and must defend against attacks and still have decisions to make regarding resource management. Player immersion in CTB is significantly better in my eyes than in MB:P.

MB:P also depends more on chance. In CTB the only chance is in the roll of the dice when Fighting or performing Actions. Whether you do Fight or perform an Action is entirely up to you (as long as you have the energy to do so). In MB:P Lady Fortune's influence is enhanced because of the use of Activation cards. While you do have some influence on those, you still need to depend on luck more than in CTB. Being a great fan of choice and tactical dilemma over plain bad luck I think that is a shame.

So all in all I found MB:P a nice game, beautifully executed and well worth the cost for the figures alone, but not exceptional as a game in itself, despite some innovative aspects like the two-tier Fighting Dice rolling. The dependence on luck and the long waiting periods  between turns compare poorly to that other Monolith game, Conan The Boardgame.

Four out of five stars from me in this case, in which the fourth star is awarded for looks.

Persephone heralding Spring