Star Wars: Spiritual Successor – Part 2

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This is a fantastic piece of writing, but you should really read Part 1 before going any further. And yes, this is about Star Wars. What do you mean, “confusing header image”?

Descent is essentially a board game translation of D&D that gets as close as possible to being an RPG without truly being an RPG. I was still in the midst of my gaming hiatus when first edition Descent was having its heyday, and I never got a chance to play it. I picked up the second edition at a discount about two years after its initial release. My wife and I played a few scenarios, but the experience ultimately left us feeling unsatisfied, and I eventually sold it.

Occupying a hybrid space is a delicate balancing act. Descent is an engaging boardgame with tons of components and mechanics, including campaign play, that reaches the furthest boundaries of what can still be called a board game. It cleaves very close to being an RPG without including all of the rules and mechanics that would allow it to really be classified as an RPG. It’s certainly an impressive package, with great miniatures, sturdy map tiles, and cards upon cards and more cards (and did I mention cards?). But after taking all of it in, and then taking a step back to reflect on how much work is required to set up, organize, and play, it begs the question: with all of the effort required to play a boardgame version of D&D that doesn’t offer the advantages of actually playing D&D (collaborative storytelling, more freedom of choice and player agency outside of what’s pre-written into the scenario), why not just play D&D? (Or Pathfinder? Or 13th Age? Or Savage Worlds? Or any of the other myriad RPGs that exist?)

Descent has its fans and detractors, and I think the game can serve as a boardgame equivalent of a Rorschach: how you respond to it depends on what you bring to the table, as it were. For those who are more comfortable sticking with the board game milieu instead of taking the leap over to full-fledged RPGs, or for veteran RPG players who just want something different, Descent fills those niches quite well. For the record, as much as I really didn’t care for the game, I don’t consider myself a detractor; I’d certainly be willing to join a group of experienced players looking for another adventurer to join their party. I just don’t want to invest the time to learn the game well enough to teach it to other people, and if I were going be an Overlord, I’d much rather be a Dungeon Master instead.

So, it should be abundantly clear by now that this post is about Star Wars. [/extreme dry sarcasm] When Fantasy Flight announced another Star Wars game in the summer of 2014, my interest was certainly piqued. I’m not quite at the rabid fanboy level of either FFG or Star Wars, but I am definitely a fan and I enjoy both of them, both individually and from their collaborative efforts in the form of X-Wing Miniatures and Armada, so I was eager to see what this new game would be like. There was certainly the potential for it to be a lot of fun, and of course it included all of the borderline decadent components that have become FFG’s trademark. However, I had been curious about Descent 2.0 since its release, and when I learned that Imperial Assault was going to be using a slightly modified version of the Descent 2.0 rules, a decision needed to be made over which of which of these games to get. For some people, the obvious solution would be to circumvent the decision and get both, but I try to keep my boardgame collection at a manageable level, and it’s hard for me to justify owning what is basically two versions of the same game. In terms of IP, I’ll choose Star Wars almost every time over FFG’s fairly generic fantasy setting, but a Black Friday sale on Descent 2.0 a few months later decided it for me.

Fast forward to several months after selling Descent 2.0: this time, there was a big sale on Imperial Assault, so I picked up a copy. Although there are officially two different ways to play the game, the one that seems to be get the most attention is the campaign mode, so despite my lackluster experience with Descent 2.0, this is what I was focused on. I thought that perhaps the Star Wars setting might make the pseudo-RPG gameplay more appealing. It didn’t really help, but I didn’t sell the game this time either.

It’s unfortunate that there isn’t more focus on skirmish play. It wasn’t until a few months later that I realized what was sitting on my shelf: a possible way to recreate the fun and excitement that I had experienced with Epic Duels all those years ago! And this time, there were more characters to choose from, deeper and more refined gameplay mechanics, higher-quality components, and I could even choose the units I wanted to use! I might eventually go back and play the campaign mode at some point, but right now, when it comes to Imperial Assault, skirmish is where my attention is.

Is Imperial Assault the spiritual successor to Epic Duels? I don’t know if I can really answer that question – at least not on a subjective level, which is the more interesting one. You can compare the two games objectively, looking at how they’re both essentially skirmish-level miniatures games in board game trappings, comparing physical components, mechanics and so forth.

Skirmish mode of Imperial Assault certainly fills a similar niche to Epic Duels, and they share several similar aspects — the big one being the theme of taking characters from that universe (both named ones as well as anonymous mooks) and pitting them in battles against one another. Movement is conducted using a grid rather than a tape measure, characters have their own distinct stats and abilities, and players use cards for added tactical flexibility. However, even in their similarities, their differences set them miles apart. At the time of Epic Duel’s release, Episode II was still in theaters. Characters were drawn exclusively from the five movies that had been released up to that point. Imperial Assault reaches deeper into the Expanded Universe, but doesn’t go back farther than the original movie. Epic Duels contained everything in one box and felt like a board game. Characters and supporting units came bundled with their deck, allowing for no customization. Imperial Assault feels more like a true miniatures game, with tons of expansions available and the ability to customize your force. The cards are the driving mechanic in Epic Duels. In Imperial Assault, as in a true miniatures game, customizing your force to create unit synergies and to mitigate the randomness of the dice have is how you win.

So in an objective sense, yes, I think Imperial Assault could validly be considered a worthy spiritual successor of Epic Duels: a different game, but one that captures the essence of the original and improves on it in significant ways. But determining the status of “spiritual successor” is more than a cold, detached examination of empirical evidence; it’s about the experience you have when playing the game, a question that requires you, in the words of an  infamous Sith Lord, to “search your feelings” in order to truly answer.

On the subjective level, I really don’t know. Based on what I can remember of playing Epic Duels, I think I would say that it is, but I can’t be certain. The reason I don’t know is that the last time I played Epic Duels was a long time ago in a place far, far away from where I am now, both in a literal sense and in who I am as a person. I wasn’t as deep into tabletop gaming back then as I am now, but even beyond that, I’ve gone through several significant life experiences since then: getting married, having a daughter, suffering the loss of two miscarriages, and in just a little over the past year alone, losing my father, launching a business, and buying a house (experts say you should always definitely do those last two at the same time, by the way). All of these things change a person, and if I were to play Epic Duels today, the way that I would experience it now would be different than how I did in 2002. Would it really make sense to try to compare my experience of Imperial Assault now to my experience of Epic Duels back then?

Maybe the best answer is to let them each be their own game, their own experience. I’ll always have fond memories of Epic Duels, but like a relationship that comes to an end for one reason or another, it’s probably best to leave it in the past; I probably won’t spend much more time trying to chase down a copy of Epic Duels or comparing the two games. Epic Duels was a good game. I’m playing Imperial Assault now, and it’s good too.

Oh yeah, and I eventually got back together with that girl that I mentioned earlier and married her, so it’s all good!

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Some Thoughts on X-Men: Apocalypse

So I finally decided to write this essay, eight months after this movie was in theaters. Why now? Mainly for two reasons: (1) It’s my blog, so I write on my own schedule, when I feel like writing about a particular topic; (2) I finally watched my copy this past Friday night, nearly two months to the day that I picked it up from Best Buy on Black Friday.

The fact that it was still sealed in shrink-wrap up until the other night tells you all you need to know about my level of excitement to see this movie again (contrast this to Days of Future Past, the movie that made me decide to finally get a Blu-ray player). Or I can let a gag line by a teenage Jean Grey pretty much sum it up:

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Ouch. Unfortunately, this cleaves too close to the truth to be really funny. Image courtesy of John Kenri (@johnkenri)

Ok, let’s do this. Oh yeah, spoilers ahead, but if you’d really wanted to see this movie, you would have by now, right?

Apocalypse feels bloated. It’s a long movie, but a movie can be lengthy as long as it’s good. It feels bloated because as cool as it is to see so many characters from the comic books brought to the big screen, cramming in too many is a disservice. The more characters there are, the less opportunity there is for character development. Besides their physical appearance and abilities, did Storm, Angel, and Psylocke have any defining characteristics or personality traits (you know, the things that make characters feel like actual CHARACTERS)? Did anyone even call Storm by name?

Of the characters who’ve had significant roles in the First Class Trilogy, which ones experienced significant change in Apocalypse? Are Charles and Hank any different by the end than they were at the beginning? Erik loses his wife and daughter, but the fact that he was married and had a kid comes as a complete surprise¹, and they barely have any time on screen before being killed off. Does this devastating experience do much to change Erik, make him different somehow? Raven experiences the most interesting character development in this movie, struggling to reconcile her role model status in the eyes of younger mutants with the way she perceives herself — definitely an interesting development for a character who was solidly in the villain category in the original X-Men movies.

Several times, it felt like Apocalypse was retreading themes and story elements from the last movie. Charles explicitly does this when he recalls a pivotal experience from the most emotionally powerful scene in DoFP . There’s nothing wrong with this, except that the reference just kind of sits there and isn’t used to build on for something else.

Quicksilver’s standout scene, despite being fairly awesome, is the worst offender here. His breakout scene in DoFP was was perfect. However, once you achieve perfection, any attempt to outdo it, no matter how well done, is a dangerous road to tread. Here, the scene is bigger, the stakes are higher, and everything about it tries to be even more spectacular, but it ends up mostly just feeling overdone.

Worse than rehashing familiar material though, is introducing new material that creates problems for the overall storyline of the franchise. DoFP remedied the worst missteps of the previous movies, particularly The Last Stand, and managed to plausibly merge the continuity of the original X-Men trilogy with the First Class TrilogyApocalypse, while not undoing this, creates new problems. Apocalypse includes the first encounter between the X-Men and Angel, Nightcrawler, and Wolverine — characters whose introductions and first meetings with the X-Men have already been established in the first three films. The worst thing about this is that none of this continuity-shredding was necessary — none of these characters had pivotal roles that required them to be in this film. Perhaps the intention behind this was to establish that the X-Men universe of the original trilogy and the universe of the First Class Trilogy are in fact separate, but that then begs the question: why?

The main villain and the overall plot lacked gravitas. Part of this has to do with the difficulty in portraying a character with near-godlike powers. Paradoxically, the closer a villain is to being an all-powerful being, the more difficult it is to portray them in a convincingly menacing way (after all, a villain with super-powers who uses them for world domination is just doing what he’s supposed to do), and the weaker they seem once they are finally defeated. Normal people who become powerful villains through a combination of intellect and force of personality, rather than brute force, are the most terrifying (consider Hannibal Lecter and Gus Fring). With regard to the plot, somehow, witnessing large scale destruction taking place somehow has less of an impact than the threat of global war (the third act of First Class) or seeing its after effects (the post-apocalyptic future depicted in DoFP).

Apocalypse does have its good points and some truly enjoyable moments. For one thing, it’s hard to conceive of a more perfect use for Metallica’s The Four Horsemen as background music. Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7 was also put to excellent use. James McAvoy, as always, is delightful to watch as Professor X. It was especially fun watching him revert to a flustered adolescent state during his meeting with Moira MacTaggert. His character development through the last two films was one of their strongest features, and in this film, he truly feels like a younger version of the Professor X we came to know in the original trilogy.

My overall reaction to Apocalypse is probably the worst possible one that anyone can have to a creative work: I found it boring. The action scenes and visual effects are well-done and have some creativity. But at their core, X-Men movies are about people with special powers. Powers are cool and allow for great action scenes and special effects, but it’s the characters, the people that make the stories and provide a framework for the action. X-Men movies work better when the focus is on characters. Think back to all of the best moments from all of the X-Men movies and I think you’ll find this to be true.

I realize that all of the movie reviews I’ve written so far come off as extremely critical. The truth is, I really do like the X-Men films as a whole, and the only reason I choose to write about them in the first place is because I care about them. As I’ve said in other places, I want every movie in a franchise I care about to be a great movie. Of course, I know this isn’t possible, and I don’t think that anyone who makes movies ever sets out to make a bad, or even a mediocre one (no one motivated at least partially by noble intentions, anyway). As harsh as I’ve been on Apocalypse, I believe that the filmmakers did their best to make the best movie they could, and I’ll give them credit for that. Even a misstep like including too many characters is probably a reflection of their love of the source material and their desire to see more of those characters come to life.

I’m sure I’ll watch Apocalypse again at some point, but probably in the way I tend to watch weaker entries in a movie series: more out of a sense of completion and a desire to experience the entire story, and not so much for its own sake, unfortunately.

  1. It seems more like a clumsy attempt to reconcile fraying continuities resulting from completely different character incarnations existing in different franchises than an effort at advancing Erik’s story arc. In case you’re even less knowledgeable about the X-Men mythology than I am, at some point in the comics, Magneto has two children, also mutants, known as Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch. In the Avengers film universe, both characters appeared in Age of Ultron. Quicksilver is killed, while Scarlet Witch survives and goes on to join the Avengers. Quicksilver is now an established character in the X-Men movies, so I can only presume that the death of Erik’s daughter was a way to balance things out on a cosmic scale, or at least on a franchise level. Side note: if your level of knowledge of the X-Men mythology is the same as mine, you might have assumed, as did I, that his daughter in Apocalypse is a version of the character known as Scarlet Witch, his daughter in the comics. And you’d be wrong. It turns out that Magneto had another daughter before Scarlet Witch, something I found out after writing the paragraph above.

3D-Printed Baby Groot – Pics & Tutorial

This is a Baby Groot model that I printed and painted. It’s sort of a 3D printing meme that’s currently making the rounds, so I thought it would be fun to make one and have him sitting on a terrain piece.

 

Here’s the step-by-step if you want to paint one yourself:

How I Spent Friday Evening

Got some Detolf display cabinets from Ikea recently. They’re relatively affordable and seem sturdy enough once they’re assembled. It took my wife and me a little while to assemble the first one, but we got pretty good at it by the time we got to the third one.

The difference between men and women: my wife wondered if three was going to be too many; I knew that getting three would mean that I’d have to choose what gets put on display and what stays packed up (for now!).

 

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Not pictured: Tyranids, Orks, Blood Angels, and hundreds of other assorted miniatures.

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A literal rogue’s gallery (and fighter’s, and wizard’s, and monster’s, etc.)

State of the Blog: 2017

So I’ve been doing this thing for a little over a year now and it’s starting to pick up a little steam. The blog recently hit 50 posts — certainly not a huge number, but enough to provide a decent amount of variety and enough to require more than 15 minutes to get through the entire thing.

I’m planning on making 2017 a big year. I’m going to try put out a steadier stream of content, both the usual variety, plus some new things. I’m working on a special piece that’ll go live next month that celebrates 25 years of me being a gamer, plus look for a new series starting in April chronicling a D&D campaign that I ran for several years. I’ve also started a YouTube channel called… Gamer Multiclass. Not a whole lot there yet, but stay tuned!

I have tons of ideas for things I want to create, both written content and videos. The limiting factor in all of this is, and always will be, time, but I’ll do my best. Thank you to everyone who has ever read anything here, even just a single entry. Knowing that you’re out there makes it all worthwhile!

-John