Friday, June 1, 2012

To Infinity!

So, I didn't manage to make up all those missing posts yesterday. Darn. I'll have to do a bunch posts today to make it up. Let's start with a post I've been meaning to make - and for Lizard's sake, not another drabble - a review of my newest obsession, Corvus Belli's miniatures game Infinity.

I first encountered Infinity through its minis. Gamescape SF has a healthy display of Infinity boxes and blisters, and a few painted models in their glass cabinet. The minis designed for use with Infinity are truly excellent: sleek and sometimes sexy, with evidence of a strong design bible. Unlike many other modern science fiction and fantasy wargames, Infinity is sculpted in true-scale (or "tru-scale," as some companies name it), which means that everything is perfectly proportioned, or as near to perfectly proportioned as Corvus Belli's sculptors can manage. By contrast, minis designed in "heroic scale" have squat bodies and exaggerated hands and faces, which also allows the sculptor to give them exaggerated weapons and gear. Although there's nothing wrong with heroic scale - thanks to their diminutive size, the models don't look weird until you actually put them alongside something in true-scale - heroic scale is a nice change of pace.

As they say, a picture is worth a thousand words, so here's a short story:

You can find a couple more minis here, and of course on Corvus Belli's website, linked above.

There's a certain bias here towards factions played by myself and my friends, but I think you get the point. These minis are sleek and professional. They are exciting in a sci-fi action movie sort of way, but not absurd or over-the-top. These minis could be the art for a roleplaying game I would find stirring and take seriously.

From the miniatures themselves, I delved into the background - or "fluff" in gamer-speak - of Infinity.

Infinity is set in the not-so-distant future (about 200 years). This is a posthuman future, with cortical stacks cubes that allow individuals to be downloaded into new bodies after the death or infirmity of their original. With the discovery of stable wormholes, mankind has been rocketed into an interplanetary age. New powers have risen out of the ashes of the old nations. These new powers include:

  • Pan-Oceania, the technological and economic leader, descended from former oceanic states including Australia, New Zealand, as well as most of Europe. They are also one of the forces behind the O-12, which is basically the space UN.
  • Yu-Jing, a China-dominated combination of all the Asian states (and possibly parts of Russia) including Japan, which still attempts to resist total assimilation. Yu-Jing and Pan-O are trapped in an eternal rivalry.
  • The Nomads, a loose affiliation of nomadic space-ship-dwelling societies formerly composed of exiled criminals, political prisoners, malcontents, rebels, and weirdos. The Nomad economy is based almost entirely on selling things that are illegal everywhere else, whether it's information, technology, or "services."
  • Haqqislam, literally "The New Islam," a new liberal and humanist interpretation of Islam that has usurped the former (Muslim) middle eastern powers. Much like the Muslim countries of medieval Earth, they have a tradition of excellent medical science.
  • Ariadna; are you wondering what happened to the good old US of A? Wonder no longer. Their first colony ship - a joint effort with Russia, France, and Canada - went awry and wound up lost behind a collapsed wormhole. They survived, but their long isolation has cost them all of their once-vaunted technological superiority. These days, Ariadna has the worst tech, but they make up for it with a rugged independence.
  • Running everyone else's economy and transportation network (well, except the Nomads, who hate them) is ALEPH, humanity's one and only true AI. In times of danger, ALEPH can download aspects of itself into cloned or robotic bodies, which it uses to protect humanity's best interests, even when that means frustrating the ambitions of nations and individuals.
  • Lurking at the fringes is the Combined Army, an alien consortium intent on conquering human space, enslaving the humans, and chopping up ALEPH to feed it to their own Evolved Intelligence, an AI charged with unraveling the mystery of entropy.

As you can probably already see, this game trips several of my switches, including robots, transhumanism, and optimistic - or at least not completely bleak - science fiction.

Now, let's get onto the rules.

From a mechanical standpoint, Infinity is probably one of the best games I've ever played. This is largely thanks to attention to the fun factor, attention to balance, and a unique system called "ARO."

As I wrote of 4th Edition D&D some time ago, the fun factor is an important piece of game design, something too many designers ignore. The question is, how can we maximize the number of players having the most fun at any given time? This is hard in cooperative games, like RPGs, and even harder in competitive games. It's easy to write a game where one player has tons of fun on his or her turn. It's harder to write a game where I'm having fun on your turn, when it's my ass getting kicked.

Privateer Press's Warmachine and Hordes - which I also play and enjoy - are great examples of excellent games that don't do a super effective job of maximizing the fun factor. On your opponent's turn, you're going to get your teeth kicked in. He's going to activate his feat, boost his attacks, and tear your giant robots/monsters apart, or make his own dudes nigh-invulnerable, so you have to spend a turn maneuvering and hope it doesn't cost you too much. There are lots of powers that lock down, incapacitate, obviate, and otherwise screw all to hell an enemy's capabilities, which is lots of fun when you use them, not so much fun when they're used on you.

Although there's a strong hacking and infowar component in Infinity, this doesn't seem to be the place here. For one thing, you always get a defense. Your opponent might be able to hack your Tactical Armored Gear (TAG for short - basically a giant robot) and immobilize it, or even turn it against you, but you have a chance to resist. This can make all the difference to a gamer's mood and experience of gameplay. Infinity also lacks global shutdown abilities - which Warmachine and Hordes are altogether too fond of - nothing that renders your entire army all but useless for a turn. These are all deliberate and powerful choices.

Secondly, there is the matter of balance. Unlike some companies (whose games I also play...), Corvus Belli has no illusions about their place. They are a game design company and a miniatures company, and they put a lot of work into making sure that their game is balanced. This is not a game where a quirk of a new edition will put your entire army in the "lose" list until further notice, and should that happen, Corvus Belli will update the rules within months, rather than years.

Finally, the Automatic Reaction Order, or ARO for short, is a revolution in wargames. The principal behind the ARO is that models can react to things that are happening around them. When an enemy soldier saunters up and start shooting, your own soldiers don't sit their waiting for their turn. They shout warnings to their buddies, dive for cover, or shoot back. Although Infinity still follows the basic "I go you go" pattern, AROs, make playing Infinity a singularly engaging experience. I can't go around the corner for a soda on my opponent's turn, because I'm still playing, still making tactical choices, no matter whose turn it is.

The last thing I want to say about Infinity takes me back to my (brief) days in Internet marketing. This is a game about the information future, marketed for the information present. The rules, army lists, templates, and tokens are all available for free online. Everything you need to play, except the actual minis, you can get for free. Of course, you can also also buy the beautifully crafted, illustrated, an generally created products, but you don't have to.

This means you can try the game out with your other figures. You can email the rules to a friend to entice her. You can create a bookmarked pdf rewrite of the rules, incredibly useful in play, and then host it on your website.

In other words, instant community - just add people.

Which Corvus Belli has.

And I'm glad of it, because this is an excellent game that I enjoy, and will hopefully get to enjoy for a long time.

Anyway, I've got to go and dress up like a vegetable. The long and the short of it, though, is that this is an excellent game and I'm happy to be playing it. Hit me up in San Francisco if you want a demo game, or say hi to me on Corvus Belli's forums (I'm ElectricPaladin, as usual) if that's not necessary anymore.

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