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I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!

by on July 19, 2017

Alright, i’m going to go off on one. So before I get into a complete state and have to wipe the slaver off my chin, let’s get some context in here so stick with me there is a point to all of this. If you’re sitting comfortably then I’ll begin.

The video games industry has been blighted for many years with hotly anticipated titles rushed to meet a release date arriving seriously compromised or bug riddled. 2013’s Aliens Colonial Marines is a fine example it was so terrible that it actually resulted in a lawsuit from disgruntled players.

OK, so what the hell has this got to do with board games, well that’s a bloody good point.

Over the last couple of days, copies of Portal Games highly anticipated First Martians from the pre-order campaign have been landing with satisfying thumps on doormats across the globe.

And if you are a follower of twitter or any social media then you’d by now be probably thinking damn I wish I’d pre-ordered that. It’s riding at No.1 on the BGG hotness sizzling away quite happily like a sausage on a griddle. Which makes what I’m about to say a good chance I’ll be blasted as public enemy no.1.

First Martians for those unaware is a re-implementation/re-theme/ sequel? to Portals massively successful and brilliant Robinson Crusoe. In Martians, players are tasked with surviving on the red planet and keeping their colony going as it slowly fails around them. Just the idea of the unforgiving but enthralling adventure of Robinson combined with the current hot theme Mars is a slam dunk. I mean who wouldn’t want some of that?

For clarity, I didn’t pre-order First Martians which saw over 2,500 copies purchased in that limited first run. My reasons were simply a concern, you see as great as Robinson is and it is, it’s also a game that has a tumultuous history in actually reaching a playable state.
Released in 2012 it was Portals big breakthrough game but not without teething problems the rule book was beset by numerous issues some lost in translation others by omissions or a lack of clarity. It’s a fairly complex game so you’d expect some questions but the errata/FAQ on BGG extended to biblical proportions. In 2016 Portal released a game of the year edition that included a significantly revised and corrected rule book overseen by esteemed rules lawyer Mr Paul Grogan that fixed and clarified virtually all of the original and subsequent released versions and finally all was well in the world.

So the reason I held off on that pre-order was a concern, concern that this was essentially Robinson Crusoe on Mars and much as that enthralled me the baggage attached to that original games release still hung heavy upon me.

Now before we get too deep into this a disclaimer. While it may appear that I’m gouging chunks out of everyone’s favourite Polish games designer for shits and giggles it just happens that this current situation highlights an issue that has and no doubt will continue to blight our hobby. Rule books. This is not my hating on one designer or publisher merely its convenient for me and unfortunate for them that fate has delivered a timely opportunity to use them as an example.

Ignacy’s recent post on his Board Games that tell stories blog threw up some interesting points and some well rounded and not so sensible discussion followed in its wake.
This one hit quite a few nails on the head, most of which I had to agree with. But here’s the thing what if your bike doesn’t come with wheels? Dumping the analogy for a moment to be blunt if your game is so unplayable on the first attempt and I don’t mean broken I mean those rules that tightly packed 25 pages of text and illustration does just such an inadequate job or explaining the nuances or answering questions of how to go about just playing the game are you justified to throw your hands in the air admit defeat and open eBay?

It’s often lauded that we are in that golden age of board gaming and you know we might be, I also think that our hobby is reflecting some video games industry trends and not always the good ones, and the one that I don’t want, the one that we can do without is the beta game release as exemplified above.

The rules for Martians are at first glance really well slung together. They look pretty damn comprehensive, I’ve read them. But from the conversations I’ve had with some early adopters, all’s well until you come to that first ambiguity and then you look for an answer and look and look some more and it’s not there, rinse and repeat. The problem with the rules is not so much whats written but the other two volumes of whats not.

The game underwent rigorous play-testing, it was pulled from its original Essen 2016 date because it wasn’t ready. Read Ignacy’s blog or books and it’s clear its a part of the design process that he relentlessly pursues. So surely part of any play-testing is blind testing, you put the game and the rules in front of a group and walk away. Watching impotently, getting gut punched over and over again, infuriated at the one fucking idiot player who’s getting it wrong each round, but learning as much as the players.
So what went wrong? I do feel for Ignacy because the man’s probably not slept in the last two days feverishly answering questions on the numerous BGG threads sprouting up surrounding the game, but part of me also feels you might want to have a strong word with your QA department. There’s a 50-minute Watch it played video (50 minutes!) that just released with rules that the errata and FAQ have yet to catch up on. If rules are being rewritten days following release then something has gone cataclysmically wrong should we as consumers accept that?

The general consensus from my conversations are that they can’t play the game, and most are wavering whether to even try (that secondary market is always hungry for that new hotness, and the best time to sell a Turkey is after all Thanksgiving. ouch… sorry). This is not a failing of balance or tactics but of the rules an absolutely essential part of any board game. For some I’ve spoken to this is their first experience of Portals product, this situation is damaging not just to today’s game but next weeks or next years releases.

Writing this has given me no pleasure, I’m not trolling (at least intentionally) this is a frustration and concern. I don’t want my beloved board game hobby to go the route that the video game industry has found itself in with releases so broken that they require patching multiple times day 1.
What compounded this particular situation and fuelled my frustrations is, we’d been down this road with Robinson why let history repeat itself.

I’m sure at some point I’ll get to play the game. If or when I do then I’ll follow up with my honest thoughts and feelings following that experience. For the time being, I know some people are very much enjoying their martian adventure and my intent of this piece was never to detract from that.

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