With so many great games out there to play, it’s a sad fact that sometimes an excellent game can somehow slip through the cracks and not get as much attention as really deserved. There are lots of reasons for this—for example, bad marketing, an unfortunate clash in release dates with a more anticipated title, or a glitch in customer service or production quality that is quickly resolved but leaves a bad impression. However a problem I see cropping up time and time again is that of rushed rules translations. It’s particularly unfortunate, since it should be so easy to get a quality translation done; but for any number of reasons, sometimes great games get short shift because gamers have problems understanding and interpreting the rules.
Since I spend a lot of personal time creating rules summaries for games, I’m particularly frustrated by this problem. Luckily however, I’ve done the hard work for you! For the games that follow I’ve created summaries that end the entire problem of bad translations—often after hours of trawling BoardgameGeek and other game forums, FAQs and sometimes even the designers themselves (in fact it’s often the game designers who are most frustrated by their creation being sidelined due to a problem they have no control over).
So let’s have a look at a few games that, in my opinion, really deserve more good press than they may have got on release, and were hobbled a bit because of a poor quality rules translation. Armed with one of my rules summaries, you can now enjoy these games without having to struggle through dodgy English, missed rules points and confusing formatting.
The inspiration for this article came after playing a game of Age of Conan (2009) from Fantasy Flight Games. This interesting and involving strategy game J. P. Targete (the creators of by Fabio Maiorana and War of the Ring) has rules translated from the Italian, and while it’s certainly the most minor offender in this article, the rules can still be quite confusing and off-putting at first read. This is probably partly why, after high levels of pre-release expectation, it never really seemed to take off. However it’s definitely worth persisting, as this game is very satisfying and strategic once you get to know all its little rules quirks. Eschewing a standard turn sequence, the game is divided into three Ages, each of which is further divided into four of Conan’s adventures. While Conan completes his adventures (tracked by adventure cards), the player engage in conquering neighbouring provinces via military might and ambassadorial intrigue. Additionally, a bidding round decides who gets to control Conan during each adventure, and it can be greatly advantageous to have him on your side in both war and diplomacy.
Age of Conan really is a must for War of the Ring fans. The games share a similar mechanic in the use of fate dice, with icons which allow players to choose from various actions, but they have quite a very different feel. Their main similarity is the way these game designers manage to seamlessly blend the macro actions of army movement and conquest with the micro actions of characters and their adventures. They’re quite unique in this respect.
I highly recommend another look at Age of Conan—save yourself some grief by downloading my rules summary and reference sheet and you’ll find the rules quite easy to get your head around. It’s also a stunning looking game that comes with 168 very nice plastic figures—including Conan himself of course.
Now it’s on to more egregious breaches of the translation art—for example Rackham’s much-maligned skirmish-level miniatures combat game Hybrid, released in 2003, with an expansion called Nemesis the following year. The terrible English translation of these rules is almost legendary, which is a great shame, as once you work it out Hybrid is a truly unique take on the combat game genre. Certainly my rules summary proved to be one of most difficult to do, involving lots of research on various game forums. The game is set in the Rackham fantasy world of Aarklash (which is the setting for Confrontation, their tabletop miniatures game, Arcana, and the upcoming game City of Thieves) and simulates combat scenarios between the Griffons of Akkylannie faction (the good guys) and the frightening Alchemists of Dirz (the bad guys) in the latter’s abandoned underground laboratories. Unusually, the game comes with thirteen extremely high-quality metal miniatures that required assembly and painting, including a spectacular ‘Aberration’ miniature, a mutated experimental creature. The artwork on the game tiles is also exceptional, if a little confusing, and fully painted and setup the game is a sight to behold. Unfortunately the text on the action cards is also amazingly tiny and hard to read, and the activation counters were strangely printed on ridiculously thin card.
Without doubt, however, the rules book is a nightmare, and it’s hard enough working out who is who and what is going on, let alone piecing together how the game works. But once you do—and I recommend you use my summary, which several gamers have called ‘essential’—you’ll find Hybrid to be a fast, furious and vicious combat game with a wide range of tactical options. Warriors can choose from a number of action modes, and up to six actions within each mode; not to mention use cards with extra abilities or modifiers. Throw in a set of varied and interesting scenarios, and for those of you who are ready to take the plunge, it’s an amazing game once it all ‘clicks’. Hybrid is out of print now, but it’s well worth tracking down a copy if you’re looking for something unique that rewards a bit of effort.
My next target is a game that is set in the same Rackham fantasy world, but released by another publisher. Cadwallon is a major city on the world of Aarklash and was the setting for a short-lived combat/role-playing game of the same name. The card game Arcana (Alderac Entertainment Group, 2009) is also set in Cadwallon, and players represent to various guilds—the guild of Blades, the guild of Ferrymen, the guild of Thieves, and the guild of Usurers—trying to grab power in the city. It’s a game of bluffing, plays well with two players, and the artwork is fantastic. The rules, while short, can be a little confusing however. Like all games in this list, persist or download my summary, and you’ll discover a gem of a card game.
Tannhäuser (2007) gets a place in this article only because of its first edition rulebook, but it’s also a classic example of how a new publisher can revamp a game and really bring something out of the shadows. Fantasy Flight Games bought the game from the original French publisher, and has recently released a totally reworked rulebook (which you can buy as a printed book or download as a PDF) that not only is very clear and well written—in marked contrast to the original—but also completely rewrites the rules! The original game was fun but definitely had some issues and confusing aspects, but the new game really makes the most of the spectacular game components. Have another look at Tannhäuser—proof that well-written rules really do make a difference!
Finally, another game I’ve mentioned before that can get very hard to wrap your head around is Duel in the Dark (Z-Man Games, 2007). This extremely innovative game from German designer Friedemann de Pedro might turn off some players with its unusual victory point systems and dense rules—especially if you came to it expecting a more ‘traditional’ wargame simulation of the Battle of Britain. But this is a game that really rewards persistence, and there are a number of expansions that increase the fun factor even more. There’s quite a lot to keep track of however, and I must admit it took me quite a while to puzzle things out so I had a clear and concise summary for the game.
So to sum up this article, if you’ve struggled a bit with a poor rules translation in the past, or even passed over a game that didn’t seem to be getting as much hype as you expected on its release, give it another go. It may just be the fault of a dodgy rules translation. Don’t let them get between you and a great game!
For more information about the games mentioned in this article, visit the publisher sites or BoardgameGeek (www.boardgamegeek.com). You can also find rules summaries and reference sheets for many of these games at Headless Hollow (www.headlesshollow.com/freebies_games.html).
by Universal Head
Universal Head (www.universalhead.com), has been designing for clients across the globe for more than twenty years, and playing games for much longer than that. He’s responsible for the graphic design of several boardgames, notably ‘Tales of the Arabian Nights’ by Z-Man Games, and once spent an entire year recreating the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza in 3D for a computer game. In between he’s designed just about every form of visual communication: corporate identities, websites, packaging, brochures, even postage stamps. He also created the game websites www.tekumel.com and www.battleloremaster.com. His blog site www.headlesshollow.com is an obsessive repository of professionally designed rules summaries and reference sheets for popular boardgames.