Engage the Flick Drives!
There’s this game I’ve owned for a long time, Ascending Empires from Z-Man Games. It’s a great game, and I’ve known that since the day I bought it, but it only made it to the table twice. This summer we started having friends over for game nights a lot more often, and as a result, I’ve been playing it regularly—and it’s rocketed onto my Best Board Games Ever list. Why? Not only because it’s a good game (I already said it is), but because it makes me feel pathetically fantastically hilariously inept.
How inept? Let me tell you.
It’s hypothetical-2001, and hypothetical-me is trying to persuade my hypothetical-friends to play an awesome board game named Ascending Empires. I found it sitting in a forest clearing, in the middle of a ring of charred grass, as though left behind by a party of well-meaning but absent-minded space adventurers. I’ve taken this as a sign, and I’m about as fired up as a fifteen-year-old can be. Unfortunately, my hypothetical-friends are preoccupied, sitting in a hot tub and pounding back some Dews. Their minds are on the party and its ladyfolk guests, not what I’m saying.
“It only takes about two hours,” I say.
“That’s what she said,” giggles Mickey. I hate Mickey, but there’s nothing I can do—I’m the dude everyone in the group assumes is someone else’s friend. So I ignore him.
“It’s got tech-trees, and, get this—it takes actual, you know, dexterity.” I pause for effect, letting it sink in. Chad belches. It smells sour, and he earns some laughs and a fist-bump. Not to be outdone, I press my point: “I mean, can you think of any other game that requires dexterity?”
“Twister,” says Brooks immediately.
“Um, okay, yes. But dexterity and tech trees?”
Brooks grins. “Sure, Dan, you know—” He does a tawdry eyebrow dance in the direction of the womenfolk. Everyone is laughing. Some of them at me.
“Yeah,” I chuckle, and duck my head back into the rulebook that I’m now regretting bringing into the hot tub. It goes without saying that I do not “know.” Man, I think, trying to laugh along and hide my shame all at once, I’d like to have sex.
And that is how Ascending Empires makes me feel: like the smartest guy at the party, but still too fumbling to pull off my master plan. When that game hits the table, I’m no gaming god, no card contender, no board baron. I am uncoordinated. I am uncertain. I am afraid. And it all comes down to how you navigate your ships.
See, to navigate your ships, you flick them. That’s right—you pull back your finger, probably lock it in place with your thumb, and then blast a colored wooden disc across the board.
At this point, if you were sort of a jerk and well-versed in board games, you might say, “Well, that’s not so original.” I’d say, “Why not?” and you’d reply, “Well, it’s a ripoff of Crokinole. And Catacombs. And countless Tabletop Sports games—football, hockey, bowling, the other type of football, you name it. There’s Flicochet, which is named better (and I’d nod concession that “Ascending Empires” is woeful when they could have called it Engage the Flick Drives!). There’s that American Gladiators game made by Taco Bell. There’s Paleo, Space Assault, Space Pirates, Subbuteo, Taktika…” At this point I’d stop you—not only because you’re just reading games alphabetically off of BoardGameGeek, but also because I know what you’re really saying:
But it’s not! The flicking in Ascending Empires isn’t just a novel system tacked onto a theme to add a bullet point to the box and move units. It’s right at the pounding heart of the game.
Think about space flight—not that stuff from Star Wars or that awesome Battlefield Earth movie, but like Apollo 13 and Challenger. It’s dangerous—something breaks, or you fly into a mote of space-dust, and you’re biffed—and we only take it for granted now that we’ve basically given up trying to do anything cool with it. Now, imagine that instead of space shuttles bumming around to fix satellites or holiday at the International Space Station, they’re jumping into hyperdrive and shooting lasers and missiles at each other. This is pretty high-order stuff, and imagining that it’s easy is like thinking that sailing an aircraft carrier sounds pretty easy when you aren’t even very good with your canoe. So the first thing that Ascending Empires gets right is that it’s possibly the most accurate space travel to ever appear in a board game: space is big and vacuous, and just the act of piloting a ship is pretty serious business. Hence, you get around by either giving your ships wimpy taps, edging them on to their destinations by the most dull and safe route possible; or you really flick the hell out of ‘em, taking serious risks but spanning the galaxy in mere minutes. In all probability they’ll end up rolling off the board and under the fridge (at which point you get to take a similarly frightening adventure), or far from where you were hoping, or smashing straight through a friendly dreadnought—but sometimes it works. When it does, it’s gaming Nirvana.
So back to my original point: I’m usually a pretty able gamer. Years of playing games means that I can figure out rules quickly. But this flicking stuff I cannot do, at least not easily. It’s a tremendous equalizer—I’ve seen inexperienced gamers win handily, just because they had stable hands and pure hearts. Well, mostly the hands. And that makes this one of the only games I’ve ever played where even when someone catches sight of the path to victory, the contest is still on.
And the flicking really does work wonders. Safe players can guarantee that their ships arrive at empty worlds and populate them with colonies and research stations, but they’ll be taking their sweet time to do so. And daring players can make staggering jumps, ending up plopping their first cities down near their opponent’s homeworld—but you can bet they’ll be losing critical ships to the board’s edge (lost in space!) now and then.
Sometimes, the flicking results in narrative twists, because, of course, the tactile nature of the game means that everyone is invested, and is thinking of the game as the story of their own little space empire. So everyone is begging for help and bargaining for ceasefires and putting together alliances and trading planets and leveraging threats.
In one recent game, the galaxy was in a state of blissful peace. Empires were growing, scientific advancements were common, and nobody’s fleet was mobilized; and all of the sudden, a green starship appeared from across the galaxy to orbit a planet owned by the red empire; and the starship instantly vaporized the research station that had been on the verge of a breakthrough. Galaxy-wide peace spiraled into chaos. The red player declared war and launched a bevy of ships straight for the green player’s core worlds, yellow and blue took sides and went to war with each other… and all the while, the green player insisted that it was all a colossal screwup—the flick was a mistake, an Act of God, nothing malicious. The universe went to war (presumably billions died) because one ship was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and things were blown up on accident, and the green player spent the rest of the game begging for peace.
Another hilarious recent side-effect of the flicking mechanic requires a bit of explanation. See, you have very strict limits about how much you can build. You get four colonies, four cities, and eight research stations (plus limited, but larger, numbers of troops and ships), and you cannot ever expand more than those hard limits. Research moves along four colored tracks, and each level requires a corresponding number of research stations on that color of planet. So let’s say that you’re at war and your enemy has more starships than you, but yours have better range. Since it’s hard for him to maneuver his ships into range without putting his fleet in danger, he decides that he’s going to fight a sick war of attrition. This translates to him ramming your starships with his own, blowing up both and thinning both fleets at a rate of 1:1. Well, he can handle these losses, and you cannot, but you have a plan: if you research Purple 2, you’ll get the awesome bonus of picking up two victory points every time one of your starships is rammed (in our games we explain this as the technology of a well-oiled propaganda mill). You already have Purple 1 (which makes your research facilities put up a fight when besieged), but you need a second purple planet with a lab on it in order to get Purple 2. The nearest purple planet is controlled by a friend. Now you have a choice: he’s already at war, so do you take the planet and hope that he can’t wage a two-front war, so he writes off the loss? Or do you offer to trade him for one of your planets, or entry into the war he’s fighting?
My own deal with the devil was borne out of a different need: we’d both reached our limit of research stations, and we weren’t content to stop the influx of technology bonuses. So we agreed to bombard each other’s planets. He would take my orange planet and upgrade to the battleship, which is heavier, larger, more powerful, and easier to gauge flicks with; and I would take his gray planet so I could both move and take an action each turn, effectively doubling my progress. Neither of us batted an eyelash at the fact that honoring this arrangement meant condoning the extermination of millions of our own citizens at the hands of an alien empire. What would they do, file a complaint?
Problem was, I had no fleets in the area, and there were plenty of planets in the way of what few ships I did possess. So I spent a few turns painstakingly navigating my ships until they had a clear vector to the gray planet that I was supposed to wipe out. I needed two ships, and got the first one in place… and then rammed it with the second ship, undoing three turns of moves. The table erupted in laughter, and once again I was that goofy fifteen-year-old without any real friends, fumbling and silly.
The second thing that Ascending Empires gets right is a shocker. Most space games move at a glacial pace—which is sort of fitting, given the magnitude of space, but all too often it’s a genre that often devolves into tedium. Ascending Empires is different. Turns sometimes take two seconds, and it’s common to have people at the table reminding their fellow players that it’s their turn again, to please stop getting up to stretch their legs, to go. When it gets going, it has real momentum. This is in part because most of the moves are pretty simple—at the beginning of the game you can recruit two troops to occupied planets, trade in a troop for a colony, two troops for a research lab, a troop and a colony for a city, research one tech if you have the right labs, mine (remove troops for victory points, which sounds great until you realize that this is an excruciatingly slow way to win the game), or move. Moving takes the longest, since it’s the option that most often sees people moving around to set up a flick. At the start of the game, you get two “points” per move, which let you “launch” (turn troops into ships orbiting their planet), navigate (flick), or land (transform a ship in orbit into a troop on the planet). But that’s it—combat itself requires no resolution, since it just happens when you get enough ships in range of an enemy ship, and most of the options take as much time as you can pick up a wooden piece and set it on a planet.
“Downsides?” you ask. There are none. Okay, strike that, there’s one, but only if you’re a grump. The board is fitful, and needs to be assembled, broken down, and stored carefully; and its jigsaw construction, which sees nine segments interlocked, can lead to ships skipping when they hit the point where the boards meet, or sliding weird when they hit a curve. My solution is so elegant that I’m shocked the designer didn’t stumble on it (the manual is laughably generic. It explains the rationale behind why colored planets help with colored technologies, but not why you navigate by flicking ships). When I explain the rules, I always tell my group that the edges are folds in the space-time continuum or some other mumbo-jumbo (“That’s not how space works,” says the scientist friend. I let him explain it with bigger words and he’s placated), and so when ships skip off a fold, it’s part of the game. Suddenly, those rare instances when the board fails us are funny rather than frustrating—and really, this is not a game that’s meant to be taken seriously.
So yes, sometimes Ascending Empires makes me feel like a gimpy teenager, but it’s a divine frustration. I’m yet to see a game go badly. Like many of the best game designs, there’s rarely an optimal move; and when there is, chances are you’ll screw it up with your sausage fingers and sit with your head in your hands for a bit while your enemies jeer at you. But thirty seconds later you’ll be back up and they’ll have just sent their battleship careening off the table and it will be you who’s laughing cruel, cruel laughter. And somewhere along the way, you’ll realize that this glorious tactile monstrosity is only really possible in a board game, and the story you’re telling is only possible with that combination of board and friends, and you’ll be grateful that you’re you and you’re in this place and your life is awesome.