Thursday, 26 January 2017

A Gaming Life

I've always been a gamer.

I was never really given much of a chance to be anything else in life.  My Dad had been a founding member of the local Historical Wargames Society 20 years earlier and, as those of you which children of your own will know, the decision to have kids is basically just a long term plan for ensuring you'll always have somebody to play games with.

By 4 or 5 years of age my creche on a Sunday would be in the corner of the church hall where the Wargames Society met to play, and by 6 or 7 I was fully engaged in gaming.  My Dad and I fought across the millenia, pitching ancient Byzantine armies against the Han Chinese in 15mm scale, launching epic charges with Polish winged hussars, fighting skirmishes in the ruins of WWII Europe, right up to duelling out the opening exchanges of WWIII with ultra-modern micro armour as my Soviets would attempt to subdue France.

Each year we would eagerly await our city's annual wargaming convention and one year. in one of the gaming demo tables, somebody showed my ten year old self one of these.


Life would never be the same again.


SPACE WOMBLES

You can measure when somebody was first caught in the event horizon of the Games Workshop financial black hole by the first White Dwarf magazine they bought, and for my brother and me that was White Dwarf 105.  I'm actually proud to look back on 105 as my starting point as it featured the first ever Space Marines army list, rules for Chaos in Blood Bowl, Land Raiders, and introduced the incredible Eldar Harlequins (the full Harlequins army list arrived in 106)!

A lot of Warhammer history began with White Dwarf 105, and not just in the Sutcliffe household.


My brother and I went on to buy pretty much everything Games Workshop put out for the next 10 years or so, good or bad.  Every rulebook, every big box game, and (almost) every army - neither of us liked Squats or Dwarves much.  We basically did the lot, and you can write off pretty much my whole teenage years of gaming to this timeline of following the Warhammer universe.





While we spent most of our time amassing armies to duke it out in Warhammer Fantasy Battle and Warhammer 40k I'd like to give a big shout out to what I think were the three best Games Workshop products, each a big box game of its own:
  • Blood Bowl - recently re-released, Blood Bowl is probably Games Workshop's best ever game but also their biggest mistake.  How can it be both?  Because Blood Bowl is such a great game that you don't need to keep buying figures for it.  The box, a team, a star player or two... you're set.  I'm sure that's the reason they kept it out of stores for all those years, because players who are happily playing Blood Bowl are players not collecting another 1,000pts of Imperial Guard hardware.

  • Advanced Heroquest - I've never played Warhammer Quest so I can't attest to whether that recaptured the glory of Advanced Heroquest or not, but I'm going to assume it doesn't and that my rose-tinted glasses remain intact.  Advanced Heroquest was decades ahead of its time, as it's basically Descent/Imperial Assault.  Awesome components, great adventures, hugely customisable if the GM has even an ounce of desire to do so.  It's a shame it's gone.

  • Space Hulk - I always loved Space Hulk's 'Warhammer 40k meets Chess' approach and some of the missions were insanely finely balanced.  Even the very first game that you play, the first mission in the first Space Hulk rulebook, is right on a knife edge for who wins it.  I could never justify springing for the lovely re-release that came out a few years back, because I knew I'd have nobody to play it with.  At the time though, my brother and I loved Space Hulk a ton.

Should I recount to you my dreaded Harlequin army?  The many Blood Bowl seasons we played through, with my glorious Praag Dragon's trapped in a perpetual duel for the title with my best friend's Undead team?  The massed ranks of Chaos I fielded in epic games, or the many daring dungeon crawls in the fantastic (and outrageously forgotten) Advanced Heroquest?


Games Workshop was every Saturday trip to the shops.  It was every Christmas list, every birthday present, every little bit of pocket money scraped together.  

But while I was growing up Games Workshop was expanding and changing rapidly as well.  At first I had been the youngest person in the store, surrounded by beer guts and beards, but by the time I was finished with Games Workshop five or six years later I was more likely to be the oldest.  The last time I played a game in-store at Games Workshop a player on the table next to mine threw a tantrum when his Eldar Farseer was assassinated on the first turn.

It was looking a lot like time to leave.


THE LURE OF CARDBOARD

One day a schoolfriend of mine, who had played Warhammer with us, spent a lunch break showing me a revolutionary new card game.  Before you ask it wasn't Magic: the Gathering, no it was something far far worse...


Let me be entirely clear: Spellfire is garbage of the highest order.

As Magic: the Gathering exploded in popularity ever other games manufacturer wanted to jump onto the CCG bandwagon and Spellfire was the Advanced Dungeon's & Dragons entry.  Random cards varying in rarity, glossy artwork and high production values, whole universes of fan-favourite characters from the AD&D worlds to call on, such as Drizzt, Elminster, or Count Stahl of Drakenloft.  Everything was set for Spellfire to be a massive hit.  

They were missing just one vital ingredient: a game worth a damn.


In most games there is a cost/power balance to be struck.  In X-Wing Han Solo is better than an Outer Rim Smuggler, but he also costs more points.  In Magic the Gathering some creatures were more powerful than others but they were harder to summon into the game - you could lose to a lot of cheap/weak creatures before you big/powerful creature ever saw play.  It makes so much sense even Pokemon and Yu Gi Oh do it!

Spellfire saw this system and thought "let's not bother with that and just make everything cost 0 instead".  So the card that gave you +1 attack was just as easy to play as the card that gave you +8 attack, the only difference being that the card that was +8 was rarer than the card that was +1.

It was pure Pay To Win.  You opened enough packs to only have +4 as your weakest buff, then your friend would buy more packs and get to only +5 being their weakest so they'd beat you.  Then you'd open a bunch more packs.... etc etc.  

Imagine if every TIE Interceptor cost 18pts and the only difference between Alpha Squadron Pilot and Soontir Fel was that Soontir was extremely rare and the Alpha Squadron Pilot was common.  My brother and I went a long, long way down that particular rabbit hole before we saw the light.

Unfortunately the light turned out to be an oncoming truck.  A truck with the Magic: The Gathering logo on the side.



A MAGICAL  UPBRINGING

I'm not going to recount my years with Magic: The Gathering blow-for-blow, don't worry, but it wouldn't be doing the subject any justice not to spend time saying how much it changed me.

The short version is that for my best friend Neil, and I, Magic became an obsession.  At our peak we probably played for up to a dozen hours a day, repeating matchups endlessly to find the best strategies and approaches.  I went away to university and got my Magic education there, hooking into websites like The Dojo and the nascent internet via the unversity's shiny 56k modem.  I learned to cut my decks down from 120 cards, although by the time of my first ever tournament I couldn't quite get it below 70 as I knew I couldn't live without the third Prodigal Sorceror.  I would buy copies of The Duellist and leave them ruined forever with highlighters and frantic text in the margins - card advantage, tempo advantage, Necroptence, Forgotten Orb, Orcish Squatters... I remember each of these articles today as though they were fresh off the printing press.

I breathed in Magic: the Gathering and I breathed out mana symbols as I exhaled.

Neil was the first of us to make it onto the Pro Tour and play Magic on the big tables for serious money, though.  While I was away at university learning the theory of Magic he was putting it all into practice and playing in much bigger tournaments much more regularly.  When my degree ended and I came home we teamed up, smashing our way through the 1998 tournament season of Rath Block constructed tournaments.  We both qualified for the Pro Tour that time, with a friend of ours borrowing my Sligh deck to become the first UK player to win a premier-level Magic tournament.  At Grand Prix Birmingham the world's best players came to play us, and we sent them packing.  Neil and I had made it, and as I prepared to take on the Pro Tour the doors to us becoming the greatest players in the world swung open...



...then slammed shut.  It took a few years for the bomb to fully detonate, but I think making it onto the Pro Tour in the way that I did was the poison pill that killed Magic for me.  I never replicated the dominance that Neil and I had managed through the summer of 1998 and the continual striving for that glory ultimately chewed me up inside.  By almost any measure I had a lot of success in those next two years, both as a player and a deck designer, but by the measures I was judging myself by I was a miserable failure.   Alongside playing success had coming writing success as well and I got a slot writing for Starcitygames.  Thankfully none of my old writing still exists because it would read like the slow descent into self-absorbed mania and ranting self-justification that I'm sure it was.

I walked away in 2001, the UK Nationals that year remaining my last big Magic tournament for the best part of a decade.

In 2006 Magic came back into my life when Richard Hagon decided to set up one of the first Magic podcasts, called Moxradio, with Neil and I joining others as regular panelists.  Moxradio's business plan might have been critically flawed (Rich understood perfectly well how to make a great podcast, but didn't quite grasp just how few people would be willing to pay for one!) but it opened some incredibly important doors while it existed.  Moxradio travelled to Gran Prix Turin to provide podcast coverage shows alongside the established text coverage, and a star was born.

Today Rich is the face of the Magic: the Gathering Pro Tour, and oversees a whole video/text coverage crew at events around the world.  I followed Rich through the doors he kicked down and spent six years travelling to Grand Prix and Pro Tours around the world to provide strategy analysis, player interviews, and my fair share of blatant marketing and PR schilling.  An awful lot of what I wrote was only of temporary interest (if you cared how Player X's performance with Deck Y in 2010 then I'm your guy.  No one cares.) but in and amongst the fluff pieces and drudgery of trying to find as many new ways of saying "he summoned a creature and attacked" there were some great things that I'm very proud of having written.

I occasionally stepped out from behind the coverage desk to compete in events, as well.  Rich, Neil and I travelled to Grand Prix Toronto in 2010 and did far better than we had any right to expect (actually, that's unfair as we had made a conscious decision to become the best players in the world at that one format on that one weekend, and essentially achieved that goal).  When the Grand Prix rolled around to my hometown in 2015 I picked up a deck of 75 cards I'd never seen before, in a format I'd never played before, to finish up at the top end in the cash prizes.  I could still play when I had to, but I didn't the time to dedicate myself to Magic in the sort of depth that I'd need in order to compete.  I'm still waiting for my next game of Magic.

And that was Magic.  Roughly 1995-2015, give or take.  Twenty years (on and off) in which I took the full journey from kitchen table to Pro Tour, and then back again to the kitchen table.

Of the three of us I'm the only one who got out.  Rich found his niche both in front of the camera and back in the producers seat (going so far as to be the only one of us to unofficially appear in South Park, when they did their Magic episode), while Neil was always a better natural player than me and has become one of the most successful UK Magic players of all time, still travelling year-round to Grand Prix and Pro Tours.


It's hard to really express fully what Magic did for Neil and I.  It took two kids from a crummy little town in the UK and gave us the world.  Most of the places we've been, we've been because of Magic.  The friends we've made, most of them we've made through Magic.  The people we are  today, absolutely a large part of that came through all that we did while playing Magic.


OTHER GAMING ACTIVITIES

I didn't just play Magic, though.  My time at university was happy meeting point of my being the last intake year to receive student grants instead of loans, just as games manufacturers around the world went into overdrive trying to replicate Magic's card game success.  I pretty much bought them all - Battlemech, Star Trek, Netrunner, Rage, Shadowfist, Babylon 5, Jyhad, Star Wars, Middle Earth, Dune, Legend of the Five Rings.  It seemed like every IP that was just lying around got picked up, dusted off, and shoved onto a CCG game for me to acquire.  It's probably lucky that Magic got its hooks into me enough that I ultimately left all the others behind or I'd be a penniless hobo by now.


When I quit Magic in 2001 a very unusual game & hobby stepped up to replace it out of leftfield - the WWF Smackdown series of video games!  These games featured a 'Create A Wrestler' (CAW) mode where you could add wrestlers into the game who weren't included to begin with.  Randomly I discovered that I was very good at this, and for a couple of years I ran a website showcasing my designs that other players would copy into their game.  I used to turn on my PC and be bombarded by dozens of IMs from people asking for me to create their favourite wrestler in his new tights he wore at the last show - I nearly maxed out two whole MSN Messenger accounts with the people who wanted my help!  It's mental that this sort of thing even exists, let alone that you can become 'famous' for it, and in part I'm only mentioning it now in the hope that somebody reading this will go "Hey, yeah, I used to play those games too and I totally used your CAWs" to prove it even happened.  

So if you remember the name 'Ceilican' from back then, well, The Ceilican was me!

Random aside from a random aside: the guy who very kindly did all the fiddly programming of 'Ceilican's CAW College' was Mark Turpin, who went on to become Turpster and a leading Warcraft/Hearthstone/gaming youtuber.  We gamers move in small circles.

I fell hard into World of Warcraft too, spending a good five years roaming Azeroth in every spare hour.  Years later my combined love of Magic: The Gathering and World of Warcraft made me the perfect person to go on and work for Upper Deck and Cryptozoic on Magic-style strategy coverage for the World of Warcraft Trading Card Game.  The guy running the World of Warcraft organised play in Europe had previously run Magic: The Gathering and knew both Rich and I through that, so when he scraped together budget for a coverage & promotion team he knew where we were.  

We gamers move in very small circles.


INTO FFG'S ORBIT

I'd never heard of FFG.  I played Magic and I played World of Warcrat, and that was basically it.  Fantasy Flight Games?  Never heard of them.

Another Magic friend of mine, Keith, had heard me wax lyrical many times the original 1995 release of Netrunner and took it upon himself to force me to sit at a table and play the FFG re-release with him.  It was like meeting back up with your college sweetheart and finding that you're both single and wouldn't it be nice to go get a drink or two and maybe catch up on old times....?

Approximately a week later I'd bought every data pack available at the time, and my first Netrunner blog came along very shortly after that.

I plunged into my local playgroup headfirst, bringing the discipline and energy that had pushed Neil and I to success in Magic into a new game that was almost entirely unprepared for that sort dedicated approach.  The local Netrunner guys were great company, and some of them were really good at the game, but I think it's fair to say that none of them quite thought about or approached the game with quite the intensity that I did.  

I pretty rapidly became the local player to beat, then as my first Store Championship season rolled around I set about forming an elite cohort from the best of my local competition and bullying them all into playing the best decks as well they could.  Stronger together, we all made each other better which is the objective of forming a team.  Between us we took down the majority of the tournaments we played in, at least within our part of the UK.  

But the candle that burns twice as bright burns half as long, and I was burning out fast.  My first Netrunner blog was in September 2013 and just six months later my whirlwind tour of Netrunner was coming to an end, with my April 2014 blog entry seeing me signing off out of the game.  I'd accomplished a lot in that time, both as a player and a strategy writer, but I'd simply had enough.  

I still remember the tournament that finished me - a Store Championship - that I made the cut in but ultimately didn't win because I'd just stopped caring about whether I won or not.  I'm somebody who looks through the surface features for deeper trends and patterns, and in Netrunner I saw what I considered fundamental design errors that meant games became very repetitive.  Once I'd seen the pattern I couldn't unsee it - I wasn't engaged by Netrunner any more, I was bored by it. 

In May 2015 I was back, though.  I'd never actually gotten around to selling my Netrunner cards and when I joined a local games club who occasionally played Netrunner I was bitten by the bug again.  Ultimately it proved short-lived, though, and within a few months I did finally sell all of my Netrunner cards.  I realised I wasn't actually enjoying playing Netrunner as much as I was writing about it, and once I'd had a couple of months to explore the new cards that had come out in my absence I was back to being just as bored as I had been first time around.

This time around I finally sold my Netrunner cards and bought into the new A Game of Thrones LCG.  Then shortly after that finally got released (and I mean finally - man did they botch the launch of that game) I sold those cards as well and bought...

...X-Wing!  All those years of looking longingly at the Millenium Falcon expansion pack.  All the times I'd managed to convince myself not to buy it even though I didn't play the game, just for the model.  All the decades of cardboard replacing miniatures, of shuffling replacing dice.  I finally gave in and bought a friend's collection that he wasn't using.  To reuse the meme, mistakes were made.  Rapidly and expensively.

It was Star Wars.  It was spacial awareness and dice probability.  It was mindgames with your maneuver dial.  It was painting miniatures again (which somehow I'd got much better at in 20 years of not practicing).  It was something totally new, but as I crossed back over into miniatures gaming and found myself surrounded by players who had also left Games Workshop behind (just, in most cases, 20 years after I had done so) it was also something quite familiar.



AND NOW...

You know the rest.

Everything has come around full circle.  I'd begun by playing my father's wargames with him, and now thirty-odd years later we're back doing the same thing with the odd game of X-Wing - he loves the system and keeps threatening to come along to one of the local tournaments with me.  Maybe in a few years my kids will share the same memories of gaming with me that I have of playing with my own dad -  the decision to have kids being just a long term plan for ensuring you'll always have somebody to play games with, after all.  

Maybe they'll not be interested in gaming at all.  Maybe I'll disown them.

I've always been a gamer.  I think I always will be.

2 comments:

  1. Well I guess I don't need to buy your book :) I love reading your stuff. My first GW was the Harrow on the Hill store. I have since moved back to Canada and don't have any opportunities to take the tube anywhere. I remember the Harlequin WD issue and the release of the 40k compendium. Like you I was addicted to Blood Bowl and Space Hulk. Advanced Hero Quest was not my thing but Epic certainly was. I left miniature gaming for a while and got back in with Flames of War but as soon as I met X-Wing I switched pretty quick. I now collect the starter sets of the miniature games I think have potential so my kids will have a good selection to choose from. Can't wait for your next article.

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  2. As someone who grew up playing Magic in my later years of higshcool ('95/96, reconnecting with boardgames about 2 years ago (I played a lot as a kid), playing Netrunner and X-Wing casually with friends, I can definitely relate to your story. Thank you for a fantastic history of your gaming experience. It resonates with me even though we played at different levels of intensity.

    P.S. I was sad when you stopped blogging satelliteuplink. I found the content to be very insightful. Though Netrunner ranks higher for me than X-Wing keep up the fantastic content!

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