Friday, January 15, 2010

Buckets of Blood and Showers of... Other... Bodily... Fluids

WARNING: This review contains concepts of a graphic nature which may be unsuitable for younger readers. It also contains unfettered waxing philosophical. Reader discretion advised.

Chaos in the Old World
, far from being a game about monkeys running the European Union (*rimshot*), is a area-influence / mild wargame with variable player powers, card-based spells / effects and an action point (in this case "power point") mechanic. Underneath the blood-spattered chrome, this is actually a pretty clever little game.

I don't have time for a thorough review of mechanics and play - I'll leave that to the esteemed Agent Easy should he so wish, but I did want to record for posterity my thoughts on the theme and feel of this thing.

I'm not a squeamish person - I've attended (and remained entirely lucid through) two drug-free births and treated a few pretty bloody wounds in my time. I've watched my share of Tarantino films and various splatter-filled gorefests of movies. One would think I'd be "desensitized" by this point. Be that as it may, Chaos in the Old World makes me feel like I should be handling it with latex gloves and a haz-mat suit to avoid the ichor dripping out of its suppurating infectious wounds.

Once again, the game itself is not bad - I want to be clear - but the idea of drenching an entire continent in blood, pestilence, dark magics and perverted sexual frenzy as a game theme somehow turns my stomach in a way that playing wargames (which, to be quite honest, depict similar, if not quite as exaggerated, forms and degrees of pain and suffering) doesn't.

Board games and video games are, for me, ways of exploring alternate realities and possibilities of existence which (for a multitude of reasons) are impractical, impossible, undesirable, unachievable or sometimes just inconvenient. Quite aside from their mental challenge (and their sense of competition) - the theme of games allow me to stretch my imagination and play with perception and reality.

It's fun to imagine oneself a fighter pilot, business tycoon or even a lowly pre-industrial German farmer. To play at being a god dedicated to chaos and destruction... well, it just feels... wrong to me.

To simultaneously invoke Godwin's Law (yes, yes, I automatically lose) and use gobs of mega-hyperbole, I have a icky sense about this game that I'd imagine I'd feel playing a game about rounding up hidden Jews in France, playing a serial killer in1977 New York, scheduling various sexual escapades in a Caligula-esque court, or distributing smallpox-infected blankets to Native Americans.

This is a game where the theme specifically invokes (and revels in) rape, murder, disease, torture, slaughter of peasants, blood sacrifice, insanity, corruption and a host of other unpleasant concepts.

"But it's just a game," you say.

True. Completely true.

Playing Devil's Advocate (almost literally, in this case), I've often felt that understanding what is attractive about evil helps one to know how to combat it. The concept of unbridled lust, wrath, violence, manipulation, random change and the like, represents for me a kind of personal freedom which is incredibly seductive. The idea of giving into all of these impulses of a carnal nature - to kill and torture without remorse, to have frequent and consequence-free sex, to scheme to give oneself power by trickery lies and deceit - appeals to the primeval urges of the amygdala and the crocodile-brain cerebellum and medulla oblongata.

To live as a god - without sin or fear of retribution - is attractive. It's certainly one of the appeals of Existentialism. I'm sure Shemp and I could have all sorts of interesting debate on its ramifications for society and individuals given his and my opposing views on religion and selflessness. In any case, I can see why some people might enjoy the sense of power and freedom that one might derive from playing this game (theme-wise)... I guess I just want to say that I'm a wee bit uncomfortable with it.

We're being evil in this game, kids, and it's not the usual hand-wringing, mad-scientist cackling cartoony-evil. We are trying to literally corrupt and reduce to ruin an entire continent. Capital "E" evil. Is that different that being a cutesy imp-commanding overlord in Dungeon Lords or corrupt government officials keeping down the populace in Junta? Or playing SS troops in Squad Leader? (I love those games, by the way).

Yeah, it's a game. No, I'm not asking that it be banned or people run screaming for the hills or shout "for Heaven's sakem won't someone think of the children?!". I'm not thumping a Bible and saying this offends God.

I do think that people should occasionally stop and think about what's going on in this game, what it says about the fictional world it represents and the real world it... parodies? satirizes?

What we think about good and evil, in short.

Heaven knows there's enough suffering in this world - in Haiti, Afghanistan, Sudan, the Phillipines - to want to invent more in our fantasies.

Play this game, if you're interested in it. It's pretty good. But like reading Lolita, The Story of O or Blood Meridian, there are imagined acts and events contained within which are pretty unsettling and world-view challenging.

To quote the internet meme "What is seen cannot be unseen."

Or you can just shrug it off and say "It's just a game."


  1. Well, Kozure, looks like you really opened up a can of worms!

    I'm actually a little surprised at your reaction. I bought the game despite my misgivings about the theme because it was billed as a successful blend of euro-mechanics and ameritrash elements (sorry for using the term). The funny thing is that MY misgivings about the theme had a lot more to do with the fact that I find the theme hard to take seriously, not because it makes me feel "icky inside". I find the explicit use of over the top references to blood, pus and orgiastic behaviour silly in the same way that I find most attempts to make goth and vampire stuff seem cool. It just tries so hard and in the end it's just hard to take seriously.

    To put it another way, I would be embarrassed to present the theme of this game to anybody who isn't already a game geek, or potentially a teenager who is in this type of thing. And even then.

    Luckily, I quite enjoyed the game despite the REALLY IMPORTANT mistakes in the rules and components which make the game massively imbalanced until you find out about the errata. We'll see if the potential is realized once balance is restored.

  2. [q="Kozure"]Serial killings. Confinement and sexual exploitation of children. Genocide. You can talk until the cows come home about biological programming or environmental conditioning but at some point our society has to say, "this is where you are responsible for your actions, and what you are doing is wrong"

    Where and how we draw the line of evil has shifted dramatically over the course of human history. Homosexuality used to be evil; still is, for some.

    Ruining countrysides, slaughtering peasants, corrupting heroes, blood sacrifices, intentionally spreading lies and disease. Evil, in my book.[/q]

    Thought I'd add my two cents...

    I don't really buy into the concept of evil so much. Not in the real world, anyway. I think "evil" is more a useful concept for categorizing characters in stories than anything else.

    In my mind, there are two main types of "evil": Evil forces and evil intentions.

    Evil forces are usually ascribed to the effects of some "outside" influence on events, or on a fictional being that is evil in the same way that a person is "tall" or "blonde". It's a characteristic of the being, and it just is. No explanation necessary. Many gods, super-villains, etc have are this way. Sauron is a god example. He is evil. No one knows why, and for the purpose of the LOTR books, he could do absolutely nothing and we would be happy to accept that he is an "evil" character. The Persian army in 300 was evil in the eyes of the Spartans, but does anyone seriously believe that it was the case in history?

    Evil intentions are interpreted in the actions of certain human beings. A single act can be described as evil, and a person might be described as evil if they do several of these evil things (or a few singularly massive evil things). The problem is that in most cases, it's hard to actually support the argument. Just like the fact that homosexuality has been previously described as evil in some people's eyes, the label is mostly a matter of perspective and opinion. The mad evil scientist or evil warlord is caricature. I just don't buy it. In the eyes of the person doing evil, they are probably doing something right.