Games don't just magically appear on store shelves. Before arriving in its shrinkwrapped package, each game must undertake an arduous journey. The first step is the mystical moment of "Eureka!" when a designer conceives of the game's idea. This germ of a concept must then be fleshed out, developed, and given room to grow. Components get designed, rules are playtested, elements come and go until, at last, the game is ready to go to market. Sometimes, despite all the effort that went into its creation, a superlative game fails to catch on. All too soon it disappears from the market, its space happily filled by the next hopeful contender for your dollars.
In this column, we'll take a look at the best of these lost treasures. Out of print and usually unavailable at retail outlets, these games are nevertheless worth hunting down at thrift shops, garage sales, and convention auctions. You've probably already let some great games slip through your fingers just because you didn't know how good they were. Here, we'll rhapsodize about games no longer in print but with special places in our hearts.
Even sadder than the disappearance of a favorite game is the demise of a superlative game company. This issue, we'll take a look at one of the brightest stars of the late 1970s, a star which flared and burned up far too soon. I'm talking about Eon Games. Eon's games were a diverse lot ranging from a word game (Runes) to adaptations of popular genre novels like Darkover. Their games were offbeat, distinctive, and a hell of a lot of fun to play.
The game that started it all, and the one for which they are best remembered, was Cosmic Encounter. When asked to describe Cosmic Encounter, I usually say that it's a game with a couple dozen rules and a few hundred different ways to break them. In Cosmic Encounter, up to four players vied for control of the galaxy. Each player received his own planetary hex with five planets, on which he distributed his twenty tokens. The object of the game was to establish bases (ie, land your tokens) on five planets other than those in your own hex. To aid in this quest, each player was given a unique Alien Power-- his own way to break the rules. Since a different combination of powers would be in play each game, each game unfolded in a dramatically different way. These Alien Powers were the heart of the game, and sixteen of them were included in the basic game.
Eon quickly realized they had a hot item on their hands, and so they started to release expansion sets. The first two expansions added a fifth and six player to the game, as well as a bunch of new Alien Powers. Later expansions added still more Powers (ultimately there were 75 in all), special planetary hexes, Moons (producing strange effects when landed on), Lucre (money), and a lot of new cards to add to the game's deck. Easily the most popular expansions were numbers four and eight, which added Flares to the game. These special cards bore the same names as the Alien Powers, and produced unusual effects when played. Moreover, a Flare yielded an entirely different effect when used by a player with the matching Alien Power. And unlike all other cards, Flares weren't discarded when played-- you could keep reusing them. The expansion sets added so much material to the game that Eon sold players a new, larger box to keep it in!
Cosmic Encounter was so popular among gamers that it has been republished twice since Eon's demise. West End Games reissued only the basic set, a decision which ultimately doomed it to failure. Mayfair Games recently released two packages-- Cosmic Encounter and More Cosmic Encounter-- which together contain everything from the Eon set plus a bunch of original material. Mayfair also edited the game somewhat, changing some rules and Alien Powers in an attempt to improve the game. Some of these changes proved highly controversial, most notably making Flares get discarded after one use (and the accompanying changes to many of the Flares to make the new rule work). The Mayfair components are also inferior to the original Eon pieces, making a fully-expanded Eon Cosmic Encounter set a highly prized item amongst players and collectors. Most people will have to settle for Mayfair's version-- and if they haven't played the Eon edition, they'll be quite content.
Which Alien Power you use in a game plays a large role in determining your strategy and chances of winning. Devising new ways to distribute Powers is part of the fun of the game. Our favorite method is simply dealing everyone five Powers and choosing two each to play with. We sometimes play with rotating Power stacks, with stacks of 3-5 Powers with only the top one being in play. At the start of your own turn, you rotate the top power to the bottom of the stack. Sometimes we toss unused star discs (Destiny cards) into the Destiny pile, which when flipped cause all players to discard a Power and draw a new one at random. And for a really wild game, we use the Boggle method where players write lists of five Powers. Any Powers on multiple lists are crossed off. Players get all Powers remaining on their own list (drawing a Power at random if none remain).
The success of Cosmic Encounter made it possible for Eon to produce more games. My favorite among them is Hoax, a nasty little game of bluff and deduction. In Hoax players each assume one of six identities-- the King, the Judge, the Wizard, the Vicar, the Thief, or the Peasant. Exactly which of these six you are is a closely guarded secret, and the goal of the game is to deduce your opponents' identities without them doing the same to you. To muddy the waters a bit, the same character could be assigned to two people-- or to nobody at all.
Each character in Hoax has abilities all its own. For some, such as the lowly Peasant, these are restricted to drawing a single type of token from the storerooms. But the Thief can steal tokens from other players. The Vicar can force all players to pay a tithe. The King, of course, can tax everyone else. He can also declare any game action just taken to be illegal, at which point the Judge can impose a penalty (payable to himself, of course). The Wizard can declare himself immune to taxation, tithes, judgements, and other Wizards. And so on.
Now, here's the catch. Anyone can claim to be any of the six characters at any time (although we play that you can only claim to be one character per turn). So if you don't feel like being taxed by the King, you can claim to be the Wizard and declare yourself immune. But watch out-- if someone thinks you're not really who you claim to be, he can call, "Hoax!" and put it up to a vote. If a majority of the other players agree with him, you have to 'fess up. If you were caught bluffing you may not claim to be that character again for the rest of the game. If you were falsely accused, however, you instantly win. This makes calling a hoax a risky proposition, and one not to be undertaken lightly.
The point of all this maneuvering is to accumulate one of each of the three types of tokens. When someone has such a group, he may trade it in for information. One player must then reveal to him one of the five characters which is not his secret identity. If asked for information by the same player later, he must reveal a different character than shown previously. When you think the information you've accumulated combined with a player's behavior patterns are enough to take a stab at his identity, you may make an accusation by secretly telling the player which character you think he is. If you're right, he's out of the game and you get all of his tokens. But if you're wrong, you're out of the game and he gets all of your tokens.
Hoax seems to be a game people either love or hate. I love it. It's a mindbender from start to finish. Each player develops his own strategies, but the wise player shifts tactics from game to game to avoid being too predictable. The game's major flaw is that the Wizard is far more powerful than other characters in the game, and as such, the player(s) who actually is the Wizard has a psychological, if not necessarily real, advantage because he can claim to be the Wizard with impunity. Unless someone accuses him, of course...
Another nifty little game from Eon is Runes, their stab at a word game. This twist on Hangman breaks all the letters of the alphabet into combinations of four component parts (runesticks)-- a short line, a long line, a short tight curve, and a long wide curve. Players try to guess each others words piece by piece, using logic to determine into which letters the pieces assemble.
All players receive a mat with five spaces for letters and a diagram of the alphabet broken down into component parts. Everyone secretly selects a word which the other players will try to guess. Players then take turns placing runesticks in opponent's mat spaces. If the runestick belongs in that space's letter, the guesser earns a point and may take another turn. An incorrect guess sends the runestick to a spot beneath the mat space to remind everyone that no more of those runesticks are in the corresponding letter. A player may switch between different players' mats on the same turn, as long as he continues guessing runesticks which belong. Instead of placing a runestick, a player may elect to guess at the entire word. If correct, he earns a point for every runestick in the completed word. Of course, an incorrect guess costs the guesser a point for each stick in the word he called out. The player whose word is guessed selects a new word and play continues. The first player to reach a given point total wins.
Runes is a quick, clever game of deduction based on an elegantly simple premise. Nothing earth- shattering here, but a solid game for players of all ages. Indeed, it might be especially well-suited for teaching reasoning skills to children.
Borderlands, Eon's strategy game, is subtitled "a game of the barbaric future" and is notable for involving virtually no random elements. Unfortunately, it also featured a flimsy paper game board instead of one made from more sturdy cardboard. The board is a map of 36 territories, twenty of which receive randomly selected resource tokens at the start of the game. Players then take turns claiming territories by placing one of their warrior tokens in any vacant territory.
Each game turn is divided unto five phases: development, production, trade, shipment, and attack. In the development phase player can trade in their accumulated resources for developed goods: weapons which add to combat, cities which are help a territory's defense and are needed to win, or riverboats which aid in transportation and combat. All resource counters used to create a developed good must come from the same territory.
In the production phase, all territories with resource tokens which don't already have matching resource counters produce a resource counter. However, the production phase doesn't always occur. To determine whether or not it does, a die is rolled and on a five, there is no production phase. On a six, the player who rolled the die chooses whether or not the production phase occurs.
In the trade phase, the occurance of which is also determined by a die roll, players may trade resources with any other player with whom they share a border. Trades resources may be placed in any of a player's territories. Trading is a vital way of getting needed resources to the locations which can make the best use of them.
The shipment phase is also dependent on a die roll. During this phase, a player may move resource counters and weapons between his territories. Normally resources may only be moved to an adjacent territory, but horses (a kind of resource) and riverboats increase the range over which a shipment may occur. Each player is normally entitled to one shipment, but earns additional shipments for controlling more territories.
The attack phase always occurs, and each player is allowed one attack. If that attack succeeds, they may choose to make a second attack or an additional shipment. The total value of a player's force includes all warriors, horses, riverboats, weapons, and cities adjacent to the target territory. A player occupying boats or territories adjacent to the target territory may choose to add his forces to either side in the attack. An ally receives no rewards, committing to the battle solely for strategic purposes or an exchange of favors. If the attacking force has the higher total value, the defender's warrior counter is removed from the target territory and the attacker gains control of that territory and all counters contained within it.
If any player controls three or more cities at the end of the attack phase, he immediately wins. Although the above is a simplified account of the rules, Borderlands isn't much more complex. The relative lack of random factors combined with a straightforward rule set makes for a fine strategic contest which doesn't take all night to complete. Expansion sets added new elements to the Borderlands, but many feel they only made the game more complicated and added little to gameplay. Borderlands, like many of Eon's products, was ahead of its time. Were it to be rereleased today as a European import, it would likely gain a wider audience than it initially received.
Licensing the world of Marion Zimmer Bradley, Eon produced Darkover-- a game I own, but have never actually played. Darkover represents a new pinnacle in zaniness, even for Eon, as it combines a game of strategy with Rock, Paper, Scissors and Truth or Dare. The rules for Darkover are not easily summarized here, especially since I've never actually played. But I can describe some of the aspects which make it a truly bizarre concoction.
Throughout the game, players "duel" by secretly choosing and simultaneously revealing one of three tokens. Each token is beaten by another, ala Rock, Paper, Scissors. But if both choose the same token, they must engage in "psychic combat"-- a glorified term for (get this) a staring contest. For thirty seconds, the two combatants stare each other in the eye while repeating a mantra of their choice. The first to drop eye contact, laugh, or otherwise break the spell loses the duel.
Goofy enough for you? But wait-- there's more. At the start of the game, each player writes down an activity which all players are capable of performing. This activity doesn't have to be game related, and may be as silly or embarrassing as desired. These are then shuffled together. Periodically one of these "Ghost Winds" is drawn and players must either perform the activity or weaken their game position. A nice touch here is that players reveal their choices simultaneously, and if only one player opts to perform the activity, he is excused from doing so and suffers no game penalty either.
Darkover actually looks like a fun game, although a certain mood is undoubtedly helpful for maximum enjoyment. If any readers have played Darkover, I'd love to see a review.
The last game published under the Eon name was Quirks, and alas this is the only one I've been unable to get my grubby little paws on. All I know is that Quirks is a game of evolution, with players trying to improve their creatures by mixing and matching traits to form bizarre patchwork beasts. Expansion sets added new traits for even more variety. If anyone has a copy of Quirks they're looking to get rid of, drop me a line and I'll take it off your hands.
When the topic of Eon Games came up recently on Usenet's rec.games.board newsgroup, many posters offered the opinion that Eon was simply a company ahead of its time. I'm not so sure. Eon existed at a time when Dungeons and Dragons was singlehandedly creating a new gaming genre-- an era when games that captured the imagination were coming into their own. Few "traditional" games stimulate the imagination as much as Eon's products do. Whimsical, original, and definitely out of the ordinary, perhaps the Eon product line emerged at just the right time. In other circumstances, we might never have had the chance to enjoy Eon's games at all. The continued attempts to keep Cosmic Encounter alive-- and the almost universal disdain for the tampering with Eon's original design-- demonstrate that the Eon team knew what they were doing. With the seventies returning to vogue, perhaps today's publishers will resurrect more of Eon's games to be rediscovered by a new generation.
Are any game companies out there listening?