Time Flippers: Doctor Who Pinball Table

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Some three years after Doctor Who’s ignominious cancellation in 1989, a pinball machine based on the series appeared in arcades and bars, a time-bending feat only this redoubtable series could achieve. Thanks to a recent Kickstarter project (well, not all that recent, but only recently fulfilled, in the way of most Kickstarter projects these days), a faithful digital recreation of this 1992 Bally/Midway table has surfaced as part of the Pinball Arcade collection (on most major computer/mobile/console platforms), bringing the sullen face of the Master, the pepperpot pastels of the Daleks, and, of all things, the Whomobile to life once more.

Doctor Who Pinball Table in Pinball Arcade

With a whopping 7,752 units produced, according to the Internet Pinball Database, the Doctor Who table was not some niche product in the pinball world but a substantial investment in a licensed property that, though no longer airing new episodes, still held significant cultural cachet. I’m not sure how long a pinball machine gestates in design and production before being introduced to market, so it’s unclear whether the table was approved for production/design prior to the show going off the air or not, but the enduring draw of the Doctor has to account for the pinball machine being introduced three years after the show no longer aired regularly in Britain. With PBS being the primary driver of Doctor Who in the United States at that time, this might be the only pinball machine to ever be based off of a show from the public broadcaster (unless I never paid attention to a Sesame Street table in my youth).

I’m no pinball wizard, being a mere plebeian flipper, so I can’t comment much on the gameplay as represented in the Pinball Arcade version of the table. The iconography, however, is striking for its use of all of the Doctors to date. The display of the Doctors on the back glass focuses on the most recent iterations first, with Sylvester McCoy’s Seventh Doctor getting top billing, rather than putting Tom Baker front and center. Davros and the Daleks round out the rogue’s gallery behind the Doctors on the back glass.

On the table itself, each Doctor features along with a representative companion or companions: Susan and the First Doctor; Jamie and Zoe with the Second Doctor; Jo (and Bessie!) with the Third Doctor; Leela with the Fourth Doctor; Adric, Nyssa, and Tegan; Peri and the Sixth Doctor; and Ace with the Seventh Doctor. It’s an exhausting litany of detail, and the table designers didn’t merely rest on recent iterations—they went all the way back to the beginnings and worked from there. There’s quite a bit of understanding of the show’s history in this table, even if it’s all drawn in broad strokes.

The Doctor may have been gone from the screen during the lean years of the ‘90s, but his adventures were only a quarter away and are now playable again.

Compu-Krushchev: Twilight Struggle Digital Edition (GMT Games/Playdek)

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If you think it’s hard to get your friends to play your complicated wargames with you, try getting a computer to do it. Playdek and GMT Games have given it a try with their digital edition of Twilight Struggle, a card-driven conflict simulation of the Cold War, originally released in 2005, that just happens to be one of GMT’s very best sellers of all time and a cross-over hit with non-wargamers.

I’ve had a chance to spend some time with the early access version of the game, which I received by virtue of backing the game during its 2014 Kickstarter campaign. I’m certainly no pro at Twilight Struggle, but while I was able to win my first two games (via Final Scoring, once each as the USA and USSR), I was pleased with the amount of resistance the Artificial Intelligence put up. The designers have provided a nice look at their efforts to teach the game to the AI, and I found the AI’s unpredictability to be its greatest asset.

Usually, against my regular Twilight Struggle opponents, I have a rough sense of their thinking process and can broadly figure out what’s coming next. Against the AI, I had zero idea why, for instance, there were influence plays into Central and South America in Turn One. (They are regions that do not score until Turn Four at the earliest, making them low priorities.) That unpredictability nicely encapsulates the experience both governments had of not entirely understanding their opponent’s intentions during the Cold War, I suppose, and I needed to play, quite happily, a much different game than usual because of it. Further iterations of the AI can only increase its strength and gameplay.

The interface gave me more of a challenge than the AI, I must admit.

Early Access Twilight Struggle Digital Edition Interface

Twilight Struggle involves quite a bit of information for the player to keep track of, and to its credit, the interface keeps most of it accessible to the player at all times. The top row of information feels cramped, though, and for a player not familiar with all of the cards, the lack of immediate information about their powers could be off-putting. There’s a real mishmash of fonts as well that can be a bit jarring. I’d have preferred a cleaner, more consistent aesthetic, using the font from the cards themselves as often as possible. The interface feel is of a tablet/phone game—understandable, as that’s the target market here. The Mac/PC port plays well enough, particularly when taking advantage of the larger screen space allowed. Too, this is still early access software, so hopefully changes will be made to clean up the interface a bit.

Not a bad scoring play

Overall, my qualms about the presentation aside, it’s nice to have a version of Twilight Struggle playable on computer and against a computer opponent. Throw in the ability for online play and there’s the real possibility that, thanks to this digital edition, Twilight Struggle will remain one of my most played games of all time.

SuperSpaceDungeonDelve: StarCrawlers Early Access

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I’ve more or less kicked (slight pun intended) my crowdfunding habit, particularly when it comes to computer games. The eager excitement of the campaign leads to ennui as update after update tells a sad story of delays and curtailed features, and by and large, you wind up paying more (and far earlier) for the finished product than the person who buys it when it releases. Sure, you’re supporting projects you ostensibly believe in, but the economics don’t always make sense.

So I’m pleased when games I backed, back in the day, come to fruition more or less on time and more or less feature complete. Take, for instance, StarCrawlers, by Juggernaut Games, a first-person, party-based space dungeon crawl game that just entered the Early Access phase on Steam. Some features are missing, the story is barely there, and there are balance issues, but I have to say it looks quite promising for an Early Access game.

Robots stand between you and loot.

You control a party of up to four space scavengers, chosen from a wide array of classes, all of whom level up and gear up through missions. You maneuver in first person, with a real-time interactive environment, but once foes are encountered (and there are a lot of them), you switch to a turn-based combat system not unlike the computer role playing games of yore. There’s no positioning to speak of; combatants take turns attacking, with each action costing an amount of time that places the combatant in a turn order. One powerful action could see your combatant placed at the far end of the turn order, with combatants who take faster actions attacking several times in the interim. The classes all have different passive and active abilities, and finding synergies between the classes plays an important role. The Solider, for instance, can taunt enemies, taking blows that would otherwise affect characters who can dish out the damage but can’t take it.

More robots stand between you and more loot. There are a lot of robots in this game.

The gameplay isn’t absurdly deep, being mostly a move/fight/loot loop, but it’s fulfilling in short bursts and ticks off the appropriately addictive loot acquisition and character development boxes. Too, it’s rare to see the dungeon crawl model applied to a futuristic setting, making StarCrawlers all the more appealing. Once Juggernaut Games fills out the storyline—for the most part, the missions seem to be procedurally generated—and adds a bit more polish, the game is going to be a keeper. For what I paid (and it wasn’t much), StarCrawlers gleams as a gem in the sea of crowdfunded dross.

The Eleven Pound Railroad: 18OE

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Many games place the player in a particular role—grizzled space pilot, bouncing bird, dungeon keeper, omniscient general—from which the gameplay more or less follows. The 18XX series of games puts players in the role of a railroad tycoon, building track, buying trains, manipulating stock, and running routes. It seems rather sedate, but the gameplay in these rail games verges on the cutthroat, with players driving others into bankruptcy, forcing their tracks into convoluted curves and unprofitable runs to whistle-stop towns. Apparently, rail barons weren’t the nicest people on the planet. I’ve played my share of mean, backstabbing games, but the 18XX games are the worst (or best, if you will) of the bunch.

The newest entry in the 18XX series (all of which derive from Francis Tresham’s 1829) is 18OE: On the Rails of the Orient Express, a two-map monster game recently released by Designs in Creative Entertainment, designed by Ed Sindelar and developed by Mark Frazier. The game covers railroad construction and operation in late nineteenth century Europe, centered on the Orient Express run. Funded on Kickstarter in the summer of 2013, 18OE proves that crowd-funding can be wildly successful if handled in a professional manner, and DICE really came through on that front. The game is, to put it mildly, stunning, not to mention the heaviest game in my collection at eleven pounds shipping weight.

18OE Component Close-Up

The bulk of the weight comes from the two mounted maps, covering Europe and European Russia, plus a mounted info/stock market board. The maps have a satin-like finish, and they look to be a treat to game on. It’s not an exaggeration to state that they’re the nicest mounted maps I’ve ever owned. The other components—stock and train cards, railroad charters, track tile counters—are similarly top notch, though the die cut tile markers are a bit thinner than I would have liked. I’m sure they’ll play well in practice, but as a wargamer, I’m used to slightly thicker counters. Perhaps it’s just as well, because I’m worrying about finding a shelf sturdy enough to support the box as it is. (And, sadly, the hexagonal track counters don’t fit in my new counter corner rounder, as the counters come out of the tree with just a bit of a nib.)

Rules-wise, there’s tons of chrome, with ferry crossings, national border transit rights to buy and sell, and multiple railroads to operate. Any game that lets me run both a Norwegian and a Romanian railroad is a winner in my book.

Multiple short scenarios (on single maps) give me much hope that I’ll actually manage to play this game, but even as a shelf queen, 18OE cuts a fine figure.

Rolling the Dice on Kickstarter

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I’ve backed enough Kickstarter projects by now to fully understand that it’s not really a “pre-order” site. You’re supporting a concept, a product, or an idea, and hopefully said concept, product, or idea comes to fruition. As a wiser person than I once said, “You pays your money and you takes your chances.”

Indeed, of all the Kickstarter projects I’ve backed, only two have, thus far, delivered, though I’m not worried quite yet. I knew the lead times would be long, and my investment is hardly large. I received my most recent Kickstarter backer rewards just last week, a set of four Precision Machined Dice, and the results are quite stunning.

Precision Machined Dice

These anodized aluminum dice were machined from solid blocks of aluminum and have significant heft (and sharp corners). They’re not really practical for actually rolling, but they make lovely display pieces. I consider them propitiations to whatever forces control the flow of luck in the universe.

Thankfully, though, the creator of these dice, Amber Rix, has launched another Kickstarter project for Precision Machined Metal Gaming Dice, a little smaller (at either 16mm or ½”) than the casino sized dice from the original project and with rounded edges. As with the original project, they will be available in a variety of metals and, for the aluminum, a variety of colors. Plus, looks like you could roll them without damaging a table, though you’d still likely put your glass dice cup at risk. The creator of these projects has also mooted the possibility of metal polyhedrons as a future Kickstarter project. Yes, please!

Because at a certain point in every gamer’s life, you have to ask: Why roll plastic?