Greetings readers! Today will be the first of hopefully many reviews of tabletop role playing games. Some of them more mainstream, and others somewhat obscure. Today’s review is going to be about one of the more obscure titles. The game is Dialect and it is made by Thorny Games. Dialect is about language. Specifically, how languages are born, can grow, change your way of thinking, and how they can die. The team working on it has quite a pedigree, and includes people like David Peterson, who created the fictional languages on Game of Thrones.
Now, full disclosure: This game was on Kickstarter, and I did back it. My review will be based on the initial digital copy of the game I was given after the crowd-funding campaign was successful. I played Dialect with three other people: M, T, and V, none of whom backed the crowd-funding campaign.
Dialect itself is different then a lot of “traditional” tabletop RPGs in that there are no dice, and no GM running the game. All you need are index cards, the five different decks of language cards that come with it, and the rules. Dialect requires three to five players as well, counting yourself.
The first thing the players do when they begin a game of Dialect is picking a backdrop for the game. The backdrop (called an “Isolation” in-game) is what separates this group from the wider world. These Isolations range from the physical (A new colony on Mars) to the cultural (A thieves guild). The Isolation is what lets them develop their language. The language also changes with the Isolation as well, as the next step is to define three different “aspects” about the Isolation. These shape the language, and will vary from game to game. In one example from the book, an aspect for a colony on Mars might be the ever present dust storms. After that the players have to answer questions about their community. These are smaller than the aspects, but still can define how the language will grow and change.
Once the players have answered all the questions, they draw three “archetype” cards, choosing one of them to use. These cards define a role in the isolation, and range from Innocent to Zealot. Leader to Jester. Each archetype has a different relationship with the different aspects. Some relate to only one aspect, some relate to them all. After selecting an aspect, giving a bit of backstory to the character, and determining their name and what others call them, the meat of Dialect can begin.
Each player starts with three cards from the first language deck in their hand. These cards have different word ideas on them. They range from ‘Greeting’ to ‘Bad Omen’ to ‘Filler World’. The player then ties this word to one of the aspects, explaining how the aspect gave rise to this word. It’s at this point that the players can discuss what word fit the best. In the end though, only the person who played the card can decide what the word is. After that, the final step is to have an in-character conversation either using or conspicuously not using the word. The final step has the player draws a card from the second language deck, and play passes to the next person.
After each player has had a turn, the “Era” changes. Now the isolation will have to deal with hints that their way of life is ending. There are three eras. By the end of the third, the Isolation has ended, and the language (Or at least the culture that spoke it) dies.
One of the goals of Dialect is to create a language based on what the players want. And in this, it succeeds spectacularly. The language cards are clear and concise. The round table nature of the game also makes sure that every player has a say. As ‘V’ puts it: ”The floor is pretty much always open for discussion, but it prods every player into the spotlight so nobody gets unintentionally left out. The ‘this is 100% your choice’ questions make you feel more attached to that element of the game.”
Another, smaller aspect of Dialect I particularly enjoyed was how the book (and by extension, the writers) were concerned about player’s comfort levels. They stress repeatedly how the group should know it’s limits, and to avoid situations or scenarios that might be triggering to other players. A lot of games do this nowadays, but few do it as frequently or as early as Dialect does.
Dialect is also open ended enough that it can be useful when used with other settings to define specific cultures. ‘M’ agreed with that sentiment, and added: “I feel like it was less a game in and of itself than one of those generators I see every now and then, to help build a setting or a space marine chapter or whatever else.”
One of the strongest aspects of Dialect is the re-playability. With the randomness of the cards, the different selections of Isolations, and even the contrasting moods of the players, you will have a totally different experience each time. ‘T’ put it best, saying: ”A lot of the games will be different each time. Between the scenarios and the players and the cards, everyone will have a different perspective.”
Dialect is not without its faults. The most prominent of which is the very thrust of it’s premise. A game about how languages die can be very high concept, and that can scare some players away. Another thing that can scare players away is the group role-playing and decision process. Some players are just naturally more timid than others. In ‘T’’s words: “as it stands someone who isn’t comfortable at the sort of ‘rping’ it out probably wouldn’t get the same enjoyment’
Another fault with Dialect that stems from its focus on language is that nearly all it’s focus is on the language. There is very little to help new players get used to roleplaying. There is also very little that helps distinguish between the language creation and the roleplaying aspect. ‘V’ had a bit to say on this: “I think the game’s biggest weakness, from what I played, was the actual roleplaying part. It’s 90% meta, OOC [Out of character] discussion of your language, then you suddenly have to scramble into character and improv on the spot.”
The final criticism I have with Dialect is that there are places in the rules where there is ambiguity. Some rules errata will fix that issue though.
Before I give my opinion on the game itself, there are a few things I would like to mention. The first is that the Isolation does not have to be literal. It can be as simple as a boarding school, or even a website where people go to congregate. I even noticed some parallels to a few of the Isolations and the early LGBT movement. Not that the LGBT movement is dead, but that the language of it has changed since the early days.
The second thing I want to tell you about is a story from the test game I ran before writing this review. The players were members of a thieves guild in early 19th century London. They were con-men, swindling rich aristocrats out of their money by selling them ‘Mummy dust’ that was actually just dirt scraped up off the side of the road. One of the words the came up with was the word ‘Stone’ to refer to a bad omen. Named after the newly discovered Rosetta Stone, the word took on new meaning in a few turns, and began to be a term for anyone who wouldn’t fall for their tricks. It became one of my personal favorite words that session. When the game ended, I realized that the word was dead. Only a game like Dialect could make me feel that way about a simple word.
Dialect is an amazing game. I highly recommend it for people curious about language, those who are looking for a tool to help flesh out their own worlds, or for anyone just looking for a unique, fun game that doesn’t require a lot of set-up. Everything from the art design to the rules to the cards all helps bring the main focus of Dialect into perspective: What is lost when a language dies? Are dying languages worth saving?
Having played Dialect, I can tell you the answer to the second question. Yes.
Images courtesy of Thorny Games
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Spider-Man Does Whatever a Spider Can
Over the long decades of Spider-Man games that have come and gone, the quality has varied wildly. Some have been really good games for their time. Some had a great idea carrying poor gameplay. More often they were plain bad. No matter the quality, though, one thing they all struggled with was the fundamental issue of capturing the feeling of Spider-Man.
The first Spider-Man on the Playstation was an excellent game. It was also limited in how much it could put Spidey’s real power in the hands of gamers. Maximum Carnage has many nostalgic fans, but it was just a side-scrolling beat-em up. The Spider-Man 2 movie game had terrific web-swinging, but was average or bad at everything else. Often the problems were technological. Other times they were an issue with developer skill or budget. Whatever the case no game really made you feel like the guy you read in comics.
And even more than the actual mechanics of being Spider-Man, games struggled to craft stories of the type that made Peter Parker and his crime-fighting alter-ego so iconic. Ultimately it is the relationships between Peter and his friends and foes that make him so popular. You feel an earnest connection to the conflicts driving his stories. Again, some of the failure here for his gaming adventures involves technology. Spider-Man gaming fell off significantly early in the Playstation 2 lifecycle, and gaming storytelling made significant leaps in that time. More often, though, those games just didn’t try particularly hard.
So how fares Insomniac’s attempt to finally give games a true Spider-Man game? How did they approach these problems? Were they ultimately successful? As an Insomniac Games fan since Spyro the Dragon some 20 years ago, I’m happy to say they made the best attempt yet.
Does Whatever a Spider Can
I’ll start with a pretty definitive statement here; no game has ever, ever had Spidey gameplay coming close to what Insomniac managed with this game. Not only that (and I admit this is purely opinion), Spider-Man has taken the Batman: Arkham formula and completely outdone it.
I won’t pretend the game doesn’t blatantly take the Batman formula. The combat certainly does. It’s the same directional, combo-focused, dodge-and-counter style I enjoyed across four Batman games. Thing is, it also addresses many of the problems in those games. Spider-Man’s enemies do not patiently wait as he beats down their friends. They jump in to stop you. They don’t point their guns forever like they forgot how to fire them. Those suckers get unloaded constantly. Spidey doesn’t gravitate from enemy to enemy like his fists have Bat-magnets pulled towards baddie faces. If you’re caught out of position, you’ll flail stupidly and someone will probably smack you for it.
While certainly inspired by Arkham, Spider-Man has a much more aggressive feel that perfectly suits the more agile, frantic, and plain capable nature of its superhero. Spider-Man isn’t a normal human being with crazy ninja training like Batman. He’s a true superhuman. You dodge bullets and rockets flying all over the place. You web people up, throw stuff at them, or even throw them if they’re properly restrained. Spidey flies around combat zones taking advantage of huge amounts of gadgets and suit abilities. His enemies have armor, sniper rifles, rocket launchers, whips, swords, shock gloves, and sometimes even support vehicles.
It makes for a very fast game with more challenge than I expected. The random baddies you find on patrol are perfectly capable of stomping Spidey into the ground. While nothing close to unforgiving, the game does demand the player get a handle on the combat and understand it. Even when you have your trusty standby style and gadgets, optional challenges encourage you to try the many options in ground and aerial combat. You’ll need to in order to acquire the combat tokens used to upgrade the suits and gadgets you like.
Thankfully, this challenge has nothing to do with poor controls. Spider-Man plays like a dream. The controls are smooth, responsive, intuitive, and quickly become second-nature. This allows the player to effortlessly transition between all the tactics needed for late-game encounters. It’s no problem at all to unleash a combo, dodge someone, counter, duck through a shielded opponent’s legs, web up to an aerial enemy, and unleash a special suit move restraining them all with your web.
In fact, the random baddies can be so surprisingly tough that the boss fights feel almost disappointing. Don’t get me wrong; they play well and usually have properly sizable scope. After hours of beating on upwards of like 50 thugs at a time, though, focusing on only one or two supervillains feels almost tame. Especially when few of them try anything particularly innovative in the combat system.
(The highlights are definitely the 2 fights involving Spidey going solo against 2 supervillains. One keeps the Spidey in the air at all times, while the other involves extensive use of the environment.)
But what about the method of traveling between all these fights? How exactly did Spider-Man manage the always important web-swinging mechanic? We all remember Spider-Man 2 and want something matching it, I know. And I won’t say the physics behind Insomniac’s Spider-Man matches its PS2 predecessor.
You know what? I don’t care. Rather than go for something “realistic,” Insomniac went for fun. Give me this any day.
The most important part of the web-swinging, in my humble opinion, is to make you feel like Spider-Man as he zips around New York City. This game manages that and then some. Besides the obvious swinging from building to building, Spidey can zip to ledges and points, vault off them, dive-bomb to pick up speed, and shoot quick webs to propel him forward and maintain speed around corners. He can run up and along buildings with ease. Transitioning from one move to another really lets players keep the speed up with ease.
Insomniac definitely went for accessibility over depth. The right-trigger button puts the player in something of an automatic parkour mode, and you can basically hold it down as you go and pull off what looks like complicated web-swinging and city traversal. However, this won’t make the most of the web-swinging. There’s a learning curve before you find the groove making the most of the speed and flow the web-swinging is capable of.
While the physics may not match what Spider-Man 2 did, don’t listen to anyone who says physics play no role. You can’t swing if there’s nothing your webs can attach to. Where your webs do attach determines the speed and momentum of your swing. Combined with the zip-lines and quick webs and wall running skills, you’ll need to make the most of all these mechanics and physics to become a truly gifted web-swinger. Especially if you want to complete the various challenges and missions.
Within the story missions, Insomniac blends these gameplay elements with well-placed quick time event button presses to create impressive spectacles. Spidey swings from helicopters and stops falling cranes and smashes through glass ceilings while beating on villains. The scale of these events makes for highly memorable moments after the various side content available between them.
Spider-Man’s open world certainly tries nothing new. You stop random crimes, pick up collectibles, activate towers that fill in the map, and take photos of various landmarks. Nothing about it breaks the mold formed by dozens of open-world games before. Where Spider-Man tends to avoid monotony, though, comes from the speed of these tasks. In the time it takes to scale to a viewpoint in Assassin’s Creed, Spider-Man lets you stop a crime, collect a backpack, activate a tower, and be on your way to the next objective. None of these typically mundane tasks feel mundane because of how quickly you complete them. None of these tasks feel lazy or boring when it’s so easy to check multiple items off the list in like 3 minutes. Thus, Spider-Man’s web-swinging adds a fresh new dynamic to the familiar open-world formula.
Like with the combat, it is this speed that defines the game. If you have an aversion to this kind of open-world repetitiveness, I can’t promise this game will overcome it. If one can, though, this may be it. Besides the brisk nature of these tasks, the game also does a good job pacing them. Right when you might be sick of picking up collectibles, enemy strongholds are revealed. You get sick of that and the challenge missions show up. You get sick of random thugs and the research stations unlock.
Overall, Spider-Man takes advantage of its namesake’s abilities, along with some excellent design, to avoid a lot of the flaws in open-world gaming design. It’s a fresh, updated fusion of Batman and Assassin’s Creed. Almost everything about it plays fantastically. If you have any interest in Spider-Man or open-world games, I can’t imagine feeling dissatisfied. Even if you don’t, I think you’d enjoy this game.
Now It’s Personal
But what about the underlying story and characters driving all this gameplay? After all, who cares about gameplay if I feel no motivation around anything? If you’re a Spider-Man fan, I think you’ll be more than satisfied. Insomniac has a GREAT grasp on what makes Spidey and Peter Parker so appealing.
The game takes place 8 years after Peter acquired his powers, bypassing a lot of the “learning to use your powers” stuff we’ve seen and played a thousand times. This allowed Insomniac to build a rich history of what Spider-Man has already done, what kind of relationships he has with those in his life, and how exactly he lives his life. Insomniac uses this basis to build a story and world operating as a love letter to Spidey comics new and old.
From the beginning, we see a familiar picture: Peter Parker struggling between his personal life and his superhero responsibilities. He has a tense post-relationship dynamic with Mary Jane Watson. He helps Aunt May at a homeless shelter. His professional life takes place in a lab with Otto Octavius, who feuds with Mayor Norman Osborn. Peter isn’t the unsure kid facing these difficulties for the first time. That doesn’t mean he fails to struggle. Early in the game, he even loses his apartment after failing to pay rent on time. Said apartment is cluttered with late notices and makeshift gadgets.
To be honest, I think this is the best version of Peter Parker anyone has ever managed, even in comics. He’s a perfect blend of the struggling, responsible dork and super-capable superhero veteran. He blends effortlessly between cracking jokes and dramatic moments. One moment he’s stopping masked thugs, the next he’s freaking out over a text message MJ took the wrong way. Spider-Man never shies from leaning into these moments and letting the emotion and drama of a moment speak for itself.
Peter’s personal relationships lay at the center of the story. Both of the major villains are mentor figures to Peter. Aunt May and Mary Jane feature prominently, including in gameplay. Miles Morales is introduced during one of the game’s big twists and becomes a prominent character afterwards. A pre-Wraith Yuri Watanabe plays a Commissioner Gordon role, and the banter between her and Pete make for some of the game’s funniest moments. Even the lesser supervillains have a history with Spidey that come into play when he confronts them.
Everything is so steeped in personal history and Insomniac does a terrific job relaying that history.
One considerably controversial piece of storytelling occurs through the occasional stealth sections putting Mary Jane Watson and eventually Miles Morales in the player’s hands. Some dislike these sections for interrupting the Spider-Man gameplay with comparably weak content. I actually like them. They’re easy, forgiving, and typically do a great job giving MJ and Miles a key role in the story. They also serve as a perfect example of something I mentioned earlier: the excellent pacing keeping the open-world Spidey gameplay from becoming monotonous.
These gameplay segments are also used to great effect in some key story moments, making you really feel the tension or tragedy of the moment. Plus they do great things for player investment in those characters. Investigative journalist MJ is easily my favorite MJ ever.
The same can be said of the lab puzzles you perform for Octavius. All of the puzzles are pretty easy, quick, and give useful rewards. They help immerse the player in the shoes of Peter Parker, not just Spider-Man. Not everyone likes them, and I get it. Insomniac does, too. They let the player skip them completely while also receiving the rewards for them. It’s the storytelling purpose of these segments that matter and are why they exist.
Overall the story doesn’t hit any particularly groundbreaking beats. Does it matter when they hit the familiar beats so well? Seeing the degradation of some relationships alongside the rehabilitation of others makes for some fantastically well-told moments. Insomniac succeeds with storytelling no Spider-Man game would attempt 10-20 years ago. Some of the more dramatic plot points rank among some of my favorite video game moments in recent years.
And when it all finally comes to an end, the game pulls no punches. The final boss has all the emotion you’d expect after hours of build-up, and afterwards, Peter is forced to make one last decision perfectly representing the idea of “with great power, comes great responsibility.” In fact, the ending can be seen as a direct rebuke of an infamous Spider-Man story from the 2000s.
Overall, like with the gameplay, no Spider-Man game has ever captured his life this well. Insomniac chose to create a Spidey game for a reason, and I think their love for the character shines in every second of this experience. I wish I could delve into a more spoiler-y summary of it to make this opinion more clear.
Perhaps myself or someone else will eventually, because I think Spider-Man deserves it.
I won’t say this is the best game of the year. Not with Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey currently receiving hype as the best game the series has put out in years, and definitely not with Red Dead Redemption II releasing this month. You also have to consider God of War, Monster Hunter, Dragon Ball Fighterz, etc….it’s a hard slog to proclaim Spider-Man the best of that bunch.
As a Spidey fan, though, I can’t imagine anything besides Red Dead possibly competing for the title of my favorite game this year. This is the best Spidey game yet.
There’s certainly room to improve. The game kind of bogs down in the final act, with an excessive amount of armed thugs lying around. The open world stuff could be more imaginative. Improvements can be made to the web-swinging. I’d also love to see inspired boss fights taking full advantage of the combat’s depth. Also, no symbiote suit? Really?
Considering the obvious sequel setup this game ends on, I’m sure we will get these improvements and then some. Insomniac knows how to do sequels. Just look at the sequels to Spyro the Dragon or Ratchet and Clank.
For now, though, I prefer to bask in the many, many things Spider-Man does right. I was skeptical this game would be anything more than solid, and feared the worst. Years of Spidey-related disappointments trained to temper my expectations. Instead I got something very, very good, but just short of great. But it was great enough for this Spidey fan.
You can bet that for once, I’ll be ready to pre-order a sequel immediately.
Images Courtesy of Sony Entertainment
Facade’s ‘Tortuga 1667’ Packs A Lot of Piracy Into A Small Package
Piracy comes to your table with Tortuga 1667 from Façade Games. Tortuga is a social bluffing game for 2-9 players, each game lasting between 20 and 40 minutes. Players belong to one of two (or three) sides: The British or the French. In games with an odd number of players, there is a solo Dutch pirate. Players do not know who else is on their team, and they are likely not part of the same crew.
Set up is fairly simple, thanks to Façade’s design: lay out the map, pass out starting vote cards, and set up the event deck. Most importantly, players starting locations, and therefore roles, are chosen randomly by choosing meeples out of a bag. This randomization mechanic is becoming more popular, and I love the way it streamlines set up. Also given out randomly? Your loyalty cards.
Crew members receive their role based on their position on deck. If you are at the front of the line, congratulations, you are now the captain of that ship. The person behind you, assuming there is one, is your first mate. Ideally, you trust them. The person at the back of the line is the cabin boy. This might sound like you’re low on the totem pole, but you are the only one who can move treasure once it’s been placed. It is possible to be the captain or first mate and the cabin boy, if your crew is small enough. The captain of The Flying Dutchmen goes first.
There are five locations players can go to during the game. Two ships (The Flying Dutchmen and The Jolly Roger) two row boats, and Tortuga. The titular Tortuga is where players will find themselves marooned if they are kicked off their ship. The rowboats allow access back on board either ship, but can only carry one player at a time. Similar to the ships, Tortuga also has a track with meeples filling in from top to bottom. Are you the first player on the island? Welcome, Mayor! Everyone behind the mayor has the same role: a voting member on the island.
The victory condition for Tortuga is to get the most treasure for your country by the end of the game. If you are a solo Dutch pirate, your goal is to make sure both the French and the British have the same amount of treasure at the end. The game ends when the Spanish Armada card is revealed to all players. This mechanic allows game time to fluctuate: less cards in the deck means a shorter game. It also means no one knows quite when the end will come, providing tension as the deck grows smaller.
What does play actually look like? For us it was a lot of cooperation at first. We all wanted to get treasure, regardless of which side we were on. The only way to get treasure is to work together—a captain with no crew cannot win a battle. We exchanged vague plans and preferences, hoping to come to an understanding without revealing confidential information. Eventually, people started to decide who to trust. People were kicked off boats. The mayor of Tortuga ruled over quite a few brawls. My captain betrayed me. It was a wild journey, full of cannons and mutiny.
Tortuga is a quick, dynamic, and beautifully historic game with high replayabiltiy. The packaging is stunning, as is a hallmark of Façade Games. If you have always wanted to deal with scurvy, mutineers, and stolen goods, this game is for you. If the idea of lying to your friends, marooning them on an island, and leaving them for broke makes you seasick, seek different waters.
I give Tortuga 1667 5 out of 5 Dubloons.
Images Courtesy of Facade Games
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