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80s Redux

RANDOM MUSINGS on the fin-de-millénaire games scene . . .

31 January 2009 . . .

The decade of the 1980s was not a great one for good games. First of all, there was not much on offer and of it, what is still widely played be counted on about two hands. Here's a sampling. Maybe a few more fit on the list, but not many:

  1. Dune
  2. Titan
  3. Empires of the Middle Ages
  4. Tales of the Arabian Nights
  5. Britannia
  6. Arkham Horror
  7. Auf Achse
  8. Republic of Rome
  9. History of the World
  10. Silverton
A few technically spill outside the boundary, but in style and spirit they fit. Some other games, such as Empire Builder, 1830 or Kremlin could be added, but as they or their descendants have essentially never truly gone out of print, are not of interest for purposes of this discussion. And yet others such as Civilization, Cosmic Encounter and Die Macher have been re-done already, but long enough ago to not count. And with some such as The Fury of Dracula, Blackbeard or Advanced Squad Leader, I simply don't have experience with the original, the reprint, or both.

Now that we are three decades from the start of the period, most, if not all of these are being reprinted, if they have not already been, that is. The question is, what is the proper approach to take when re-issuing such a classic? Should everything be left alone and simply print new copies using the original rules and art (call this approach 1)? Or is it just the instructions that should remain pristine while getting the benefit of the latest graphics and pawns technologies (2)? (Side note: we keep seeing more and more impressive wooden and plastic figures, but why has it been so long since any new developments in dice?) Or maybe not only the bits should be made more spiffy, but the rules given a sprucing up too, including fixing the errors and rewriting for clarity (3)? Or perhaps this is not enough and actually some further play modifications should be made, including changing some subsystems so long as the original core remains (4)? Finally is it possible that the title and theme are all that really need to remain, the rest being up for grabs (5)?

Before reaching any conclusions, let's see what has been going on so far:
Dune Well, here's a stunner right at the start! What's happening here doesn't even fit one of the several re-development possibilities mentioned above. Not only are the rules going to be changed, but so will the entire topic! Unable to reach agreement with the heirs to Frank Herbert's estate, the publisher is planning to change the topic entirely. Now it will be set, somehow, in the Twilight Imperium universe. With this departure will probably also go my interest, but we shall see.
Titan This recently appeared with all new artwork, fancy plastic bits and hard back battle boards replacing the previously made-of-paper ones. Despite some serious system issues, apparently none of the rules have been changed.
Empires of the Middle Ages A re-issue appeared a few years ago. The most noticeable change – after the $100 price tag, that is – was that the map of Europe, previously represented with lines and boxes, was replaced by one showing geographical borders. As far as the rules go, the originals were re-printed pretty much as is with only very minor clean-up. Added to the end were a few pages of additional rules. Another large set of rules were added in the form of hundreds of extra cards which really did nothing to improve the problems in the system, but in some cases worsened them.
Tales of the Arabian Nights While a re-issue is in the works, it's difficult to discern what is being done. Apparently some rules paragraphs are being fixed. There were some significant problems in the original such as possible long periods of downtime when lost or imprisoned and the quandary of multiple statuses – disallow which is unrealistic or permit which is difficult to track? Whether these will be addressed remains to be seen.
Britannia A new edition appeared a few years ago with slightly changed graphics that included changing the color of the Romans from purple to yellow. As to the rules, not only were they not changed, they primarily went backward to the designer's original intent, i.e. before the publishers got their hands on them. Not only were problems left unadressed, some of the game's few strategic options, such as what to do with the Romano-British, were removed.
Arkham Horror In 2005 there appeared a new edition. Dark, foreboding graphics more appropriate to the feeling of the novels replaced the light, cartoonish original. More characters were added and their differences made more stark. The concept of changing attributes was introduced, as were the clue tokens, which give players more things to do. Cards replaced tiresome table lookups. Movement rates were lowered to save tiresome counting exercises and the entire map was re-architected. Unfortunately, the problems of downtime and length were not addressed and probably worsened. A friend of mine, let's call him Jeff since that's his name, reported recently playing a six hour game, only the last half hour of which really made any difference. When problems like this are still outstanding, certainly something ought to have been done.
Auf Achse The 2007 kept mostly the same map connections and made everything slightly nicer-looking. But in terms of instructions the creative team were fearless about addressing past sins. No fewer than nine significant rules alterations were instituted, all of them contributing to remove frustrations, streamline, and make play more exciting.
Republic of Rome This one is said to be appearing soon with brand new Mike Doyle artwork. There are four issues in the original that routinely turn off many players: (a) either the recipient of the Cornelius card tends to win or else everybody loses; (b) it's possible to easily persuade away another's senator if one has the help of a player to the right; (c) mortality chits arbitrarily take out important holdings and can knock a player out of contention long before it's over (and other rules that have similar effects) and (d) overall length tends to be prohibitive. If the creative team can solve at least three of these they will probably have a hit on their hands, but it appears they are only going for approach (3), merely cleaning up the instructions and not daring to make more than one or two significant changes.
History of the World The Hasbro re-issue dramatically altered the physical appearance with the addition of plastic figures, which may have been overkill. This site is wont to criticize this publisher, but in terms of rules some good things were done. A change to the empire choosing order helps keep all players in contention. Providing an immediately resolution to tied dice rolls rescues a lot of the original's time wasted in endless re-rolling.
Silverton The re-issue of a few years ago looked much better and greatly improved the communication design, though the board was a bit too small and so becomes overly crowded. The rules were largely unchanged, though some new ones permitting more simultaneous activity were definitely in order. It also did nothing for overall length and actually increased the chance that a single luck strike like Cripple Creek would be the decisive event of a playing.
What is the proper approach to take when re-issuing a classic?

To get insight perhaps we might step away from games for a moment. Let's take cars.

Suppose you were re-doing a 1980s Oldsmobile. Would you just grab the same AutoCAD plans and make the same thing, maybe adding some cup holders? Or would you take advantage of all the technological advances made in the past three decades? Would you redo the structure to make it with better materials? Would you add a more efficient engine, perhaps even a hybrid system? Would you add the latest in streamling technology? And a GPS and all the other digital technologies?

Of course you would!

The thing is, games aren't any different. Fitfully, and in starts, but consistently, new advances in board game technology are made every year or two. By a process of careful replacement and re-structuring, putting in better, stronger, more efficient virtual components without destroying the overall, an 80s game can brought up to date while still retaining its classic appeal. This, I believe, is the right, careful, admittedly slow, but ultimately most rewarding in terms of both commercial and critical success, way to re-make a classic.

Based then on such criteria it is possible to issue a "report card" on how much the re-issue improves on the original. A letter grade of A is a wonderful result and F a miserable one with varying indications falling in between:

Dune too early to tell, but guessing D, though purely on theme
Titan F
Empires of the Middle Ages D
Tales of the Arabian Nights incomplete data
Britannia D
Arkham Horror C
Auf Achse A
Republic of Rome looking like D
History of the World B
Silverton C


by Rick Heli