A True Monster Game

box cover

No joke, I think the box weighs like six pounds.

Sometimes the best game experiences come from trying something new. If I hadn’t taken the plunge and bought Battlestar Galactica, I wouldn’t have gotten into the Ameritrash scene. If I had never agreed to try out a full-night game of Descent, I never would have learned that long games can actually be more engrossing than little 60-minute goof-offs. And if I had never agreed to try some crazy game called Settlers of Catan my senior year in college, I probably wouldn’t have any real hobby to speak of in the first place. It seems trivial to call those events “risks,” but in a hobby that requires as much commitment as this one an unenjoyable experience can feel like a huge waste of your time. Trying something new therefore becomes a big deal, because you might be sitting down to something you’ll hate.

So it was with apprehension that I placed Titan on my wantlist in a recent math trade. When I ended up receiving the game, I wasn’t completely sure what I was going to do with it. I’m not usually one to keep games on my shelf if they won’t be played, and that was probably going to be the case with Titan. Originally released by Gorgonstar in 1980, Titan is best known for it’s later release from Avalon Hill. Each player controls little stacks of units on the board, called “legions.” These legions go around the board and do battle with the legions of the other players, while recruiting new creatures to their ranks. Battles are done in a sort of zoomed-in battleboard, with terrain modifiers and everything. A player’s most powerful unit is their titan. If your titan is destroyed in battle you are out of the game, and the last player in wins the game. Because of the last-man-standing winning condition, Titan can take a long time, usually several hours.

Now’s probably a good time to confess this: I am in no way qualified to review Titan in any meaningful way. This is a game that people play for 40-50 times before they even begin to consider themselves better than a novice. I know that I’ve never played anything where there’s such a huge disparity between playing it and playing it well. The biggest culprit is the movement at the zoomed-out level, called the masterboard. It looks sort of like a very complex game of Catan. Depending on where you are on the board, you are forced to move in certain directions. It’s sort of like a bunch of train tracks. There are only so many places where you can jump off and get on a new track. I am sure that there is a way to learn to use this movement in a strategic way, but I sure don’t know what it is. The only proof I have is that I’ve actually been trapped by other players. When you combine the strange board with a die roll for movement, it becomes obvious that the movement in Titan is something that must be bent to the player’s will.

In fact, more than any other game I’ve played Titan feels like it must be tamed before it works for you. It cannot just be picked up. It requires a commitment before it begins to yeild its secrets. I’ve barely scratched the surface in this regard. Each successive game I play reveals just a little bit more of the game, a little tantalizing clue that there’s still more to discover. It’s not helped by the fact that a game this long and this intense is very difficult to get played. I’ve only managed to play one game face-to-face, and it couldn’t even be finished. We played for six hours before the first player was eliminated, at which point we declared a winner and had to go home. There is thankfully a module on the ACTS website that allows play between players via e-mail. My only full game has been played there, although I was eliminated from the game recently. There’s also a snappy little Jave client called Colossus that just plays on your desktop against various levels of AI. I’ve played about six games of that, and lost all of them badly. This past winter also saw the release of a version for iPad. I’ve heard good things about that version, but I have no experience with it myself.

It sounds strange, but the impenetrability of Titan actually makes the game more appealing to me. Games today are usually quick to reveal their secrets. Designs today are meant to be digested quickly, even when the game is more complex. They push you in a certain direction and give you obvious clues as to how you should be playing. Titan has no such niceties. It makes sense that games with new players should take a while, because there’s a great deal to internalize. When you roll your movement die, it will take new players time to calculate where to go and what to do. It takes experience to learn when to jump into a battle and when to just let it slide by. And as previously stated, the movement itself must be grasped before any kind of meaningful strategy can be implemented. That means that new players will often just ramble around the board blindly, randomly bumping into each other and fighting any and all battles. More experienced players assure me that games can be finished in 3-4 hours without breaking a sweat if everyone knows what their doing. As with everything else in Titan, I have to defer to their experience. Mine isn’t worth a hill of beans.

But I want to get to that point. I want to learn to swim in the ocean that is Titan. I like that it doesn’t just reveal its mysteries up front. I am fascinated at how such an arcane game could ever be created. Everything feels so in-place and intentional. I would never dream of house-ruling the game, because that would be like editing Lawrence of Arabia for time. It almost feels like an insult. In that respect, the game feels like something that wasn’t even designed. I sense a timelessness here that is lacking in any modern game, and in most games that are contemporaries. It’s beyond concepts like “fun” or “good.” Titan simply is.

And it’s that uncompromising nature that really calls out to me most of all. Titan connects with a past before we were obsessed with buying a new game every week or so. It harkens back to the days when you bought a game and played it to death. And on a personal level, it connects me to the days of high school and college when an eight-hour game could actually be played without feeling a little guilty. I wish I had discovered the game when I was younger, because maybe then I’d feel more qualified to actually discuss it.

And it’s comforting to know that there is still a place for Titan, even today. Valley Games reprinted this beast a few years ago, in a very nice edition that brings to bear a lot of newer graphical trends. This is the version I have, and I think it mostly looks terrific. However, the reprint was hardly a smash hit. It is frequently found on sites like Tanga, and it’s not hard to trade for. I’m not very surprised at this. It’d be a little like releasing Fritz Lang’s Metropolis into modern multiplexes. It’s still a masterpiece, but not the kind of masterpiece we’re used to.

I’m not totally sure I like Titan. I still have yet to see many of its rewards for myself, and in most cases I’m taking all of the good things I hear on faith. But there’s something there worth exploring. Every step further reveals just a little more that will keep me coming back. I may not love Titan, but I am endlessly fascinated by it. I have a suspicion that might be the same thing.

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One thought on “A True Monster Game

  1. The iPad version is great now. Good tutorial, nice rules, good presentation. I can play a game in 20 minutes it so typically, but that’s at least partially because I’m still in the noobish “go where I get a unit” stage. The AI commits their Titan too fast, but is quite good apart from that (to me at least)

    I imagine the iPad to be what you use to get your first 100 plays in to figure out what’s going on then you find humans….

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