New Versions Of Old Games

by Moritz Eggert

Transcript of our podcast from 7 Feb 2007

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Last time I promised to talk a little about new versions of games, by special request from Raphael Tehan, with whom I currently reminisce about old classic boardgames like Magic Realm.

New versions of games are a relatively new phenomenon, comparable to post-modernism in the arts. If one follows the many discussions on the geek there are many who complain about that the golden age of gaming is over and that we are currently only rehashing what has been created by others.

People like Tom and Sam from the Dice Tower on the other hand usually argue that the golden age has just begun, as board gaming is now experiencing a new renaissance in general interest and acceptance, and also because of increasingly streamlined designs that cater for the impatient gamer who doesn't want to wade through thousands of rule pages but still wants an intellectual challenge. The Eurogame or German school of game design is usually on the forefront of that opinion, whereas the lamenters of the bygone golden age usually prefer the classic adventure type or wargame type games of ye olden times.

The new version of an old game trend basically caters to the "the golden age is gone" people. One cannot tell exactly when it has begun, as new editions of already existing games have been with the hobby from the beginning on.

Most more successful Avalon Hill titles usually got a makeover in their second edition, sometimes changing the rules to a great extent. One should only compare the 1st and 2nd edition of Magic Realm for example - the components were the same, but the rules were set-up in a totally different way and brought many changes. The same could be said about wargames like Panzer Leader, Squad Leader, Third Reich which were constantly revised for their new editions. In fact the same can be said about practically any thematic AngloAmerican game, even roleplaying games (think of BASIC and ADVANCED Dungeons & Dragons and it's many editions). Also collectible card games are known for their huge errata the longer they exist, and cards are constantly kicked out of the game because they change the game balance too much.

What is new about the "new version" of an old game trend is that these games try to recreate games that have not been available for quite a while. Classic games like "Conquest of the Empire" or "Fury of Dracula" or most recently "Hannibal" are the prime examples of this trend - they make new versions of games that have been out of print for quite a while, but which are classic enough to gather some nostalgia.

What all these new versions have in common though is one thing: they practically always change the rules, bringing them to the "current standard" as perceived by the company that publishes the game. This sometimes makes for completely different games. The new Eagle Games "Conquest of the Empire" - and I mean the new version not the "classic" version that is also included in the game, although even that contains many changes - has little resemblance to the original game.

"Fury of Dracula" - in it's original form a pretty perfect game - has nevertheless been completely revamped by Fantasy Flight, as has been "Arkham Horror". The changes are often major - introducing completely new rule concepts, new artwork of course etc. so that in fact it becomes more like an expansion or variant to the old game than the game itself.

I don't want to criticize the new versions per se, I like the work that Fantasy Flight has done for example, but it is strange that one will be hard pressed to name one American classic boardgame that has NOT gone through changes in its new editions. It seems like these games are constantly imperfect, constantly unbalanced and have to be constantly revised to keep with the times.

In contrast look at the classic Eurogames that saw many reprints. Look at the most famous example: "Settlers of Catan". If you play a basic game of "Settlers" that you buy today you absolutely play the same game as the first version of the game. The components might be different, the rules have been rewritten in prose but not content, but the game is the same. You can visit any country in the world, walk up to foreign people and play Settlers of Catan without even one rule discussion, simply because the rules are practically set in stone.

This also means that reprints of old classic German games - something that also happens in Germany - practically are indistinguishable from their early versions. Sometimes even the artwork is kept exactly like in the old game.

Don't worry, I don't want to start a discussion about how superior German games are - I like Eurogames, but I also like thematic American style games with lots of flavour.

But I wonder why that is - even a complicated German game like "Die Macher" won't be changed in a big way in its new American edition, there is no need to. But absolutely no out-of-print wargame or fantasy board game I know of has been ever reprinted in exactly the same form as it was originally.

And I think I know what it is: the biggest advantage of American style games is their biggest internal enemy.

I only say two words: theme and simulation. All the games I talked about either try to be realistic or unrealistic simulations. Either of real-life events like in a wargame, or in a fantasy context. I know it is hard to believe, but "War of the Ring" is a simulation, for example. It tries to put the ideas of Tolkien in a simulation context, giving a Balrog a bigger strength than a hobbit, for example. In a wargame a tank has to be more powerful than an infantry soldier, but exactly HOW powerful, I wonder? And that is simply impossible to exactly pinpoint. It is very easy to make the tank TOO powerful and the soldier a little TOO weak. Somebody will point that out and complain, and, voilà, we have a new version. Every attempt to create flavour, chrome or even creative chaos like in "Cosmic Encounter" creates a huge host of imperfections and problems. The moment you introduce ANY special ability like "Gandalf can shoot fireballs at +1 if he uses his staff on the 7th day of the week when in Fangorn forest" it creates something that can eternally be argued about - forever. There never will be a perfect version of such a game. Even worse are the so called "take that" cards or "random events", which give a player a powerful special ability or horrible punishment out of the blue.

In short: the introduction of theme itself brings imbalance, because theme is simply that: theme. It is not a mathematical set of different parameters which work like a clockwork Knizia game.

But you know what - this is especially why I love the American style games. Because they tell a story - and a story , as any role playing game designer knows, can never be completely set in a never-changing set of rules, it is impossible.

With this short essay I have only slightly touched this huge theme which has not been discussed a lot yet, so if you like me to continue rambling on about this, please tell me. Until then I bet my money on the Kimchi Sauerkraut man from outer space that he can beat the crap out of Rocky Balboa - any time!

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2007, Westpark Gamers