Saturday, February 9, 2019

"Dark and Terrible": What Killed Two of the Best Games You've Never Heard Of?

Part I: Two Games, Alike In Dignity

In back-to-back years, 2005 and 2006, gaming juggernaut Wizards of the Coast (the company behind probably the biggest tabletop game on earth, Magic: The Gathering) unleashed two new and innovative games on the gaming public. Both followed the Magic model. Both had unique features that set them apart from anything else on the market. Both seemed to be well-received by the gaming audience.
And both would be gone from the tabletop landscape by the fall of 2007.
The games, Hecatomb and Dreamblade, ended up being footnotes in the history of tabletop gaming, and in the history of Wizards of the Coast - just two game lines, remarkable though they were, that were here and gone too soon. That’s not too unusual in the toy and game business.
But they could have been a lot more. And they just... weren't.
And, despite a lot of fans, a lot of speculation and a lot of disparate information floating out in the aether of the information superhighway, there’s never been anything definitive discussing these games and what made them fall from grace.
If you follow me on Twitter, or know me in real life, you know I have an attachment to games like these, games that - for all their possibility, their ingenuity, and the care and craft behind them - just didn’t make it, for whatever reason. I’m drawn to the obscure, to the stories behind them, to the hunt for clues and details. Especially when the games are as special, as evocative (and, let's put it out there, as fun!) as Hecatomb and Dreamblade were.
In this series of posts, I’d like to take a look at these games, and the forces around them, and try to come up with some concrete reasons for what ended up taking them down.
I should start off by clarifying that I’m not an industry insider but any means; I don’t have access to sales charts, balance sheets, memos, emails, or “smoking gun” documents that point to clear, definitive answers. What I’ve got is a lot of research into the fan communities that supported these games, and the information, the theories, and the emotions that they had. I hope by the end of this I won’t so much have THE answers as to why Hecatomb and Dreamblade aren’t continuing to wow gamers now (while, for instance, Magic has survived 26 years with no end in sight), but maybe more of an folk history about how the gaming community viewed and theorized about their demise - and whether any of those theories hold any water.
And, since very little has been written about either game, hopefully that might just be good enough.
So in this first installment, I want to give you some background into the two games we’ll be talking about. In forthcoming posts I’ll go more in depth into the games themselves, their lives… and what forces may have killed them.

The Games


Boxes of the base set of Hecatomb and its
two expansions.

Hecatomb (the name, from the Greek, means a public sacrifice to a particular god, usually of 100 animals), was a collectible card game (now called a trading card game) which premiered at GenCon in August of 2005. If I needed a snappy description for it, Hecatomb could perhaps be summed up with this phase: It was Magic: The Gathering’s “goth cousin.”
Hecatomb had a particularly grim concept behind it: Unlike in Magic, where the players portray “Planeswalkers” who summon creatures and cast spells in a magician's duel, in Hecatomb each player portrays an “Endbringer,” whose goal is, simply, to end the world. Unlike the asymmetrical gameplay of Dungeons & Dragons, where the players are the heroes and the dungeon master portrays the evil mastermind, in Hecatomb, there are no heroes. Each player is essentially vying for the right to end the world their own way, trying to secure 20 souls, which symbolize a certain number of followers.
Thematically, the game drew on a number of sources, from the Mythos tales of H. P. Lovecraft (Cthulhu, Yog-Sothoth, Hastur, Nyarlathotep, Gugs and other beasts of the Lovecraftian menagerie have a major presence), to various world cultures and mythologies (Aztec, Egyptian, Greek, and so on), with a healthy dose of science fiction and gritty urban fantasy thrown in as well.
Each card - Minions, Relics, Fates and Gods - belonged to one of four particular “Dooms”, roughly coordinating with the mana colors in Magic: Deceit was blue, Greed was green, Destruction was red, and Corruption was gray.
Hecatomb’s gameplay and mechanics owed a great deal to Magic. Players summoned “minions,” the casting costs of which they paid for by “tapping” mana, just like in Magic. Unlike Magic, where there are dedicated land cards to use as mana sources, in Hecatomb any card could be played in your mana zone as a mana card. In combat, minions that have been combined into “abominations” of two minions or more are “tapped” and can either be blocked by other abominations or, if not, they can reap souls from the enemy endbringer.
What made the game innovative is that, unlike other TCGs at the time, Hecatomb was played with plastic, pentagonal cards of which four of the five sides are transparent. When “stitching” minions together to create abominations, the cards are stacked on top of one another in such a way that the top text of each card appears through a transparent side, creating a creature (no more than 5 cards high) with specific abilities and statistics. Many of the cards had abilities that triggered when they were played on a card of another color. Thus, the timing of the cards and the order in which they were played was paramount.
Originally, the game was played with a 40-card deck, but that was later altered to make 60-card decks the norm. The rules booklet advised that players make decks using cards from two of the dooms instead of more or fewer to give the best play options.

Two of the rare "God" cards from the final Hecatomb expansion

During its brief 8-month life, Hecatomb produced three sets - the base set and a second set, Last All Hallow’s Eve, and a second expansion, Blanket of Lies. The base set was available in 40-card “starter decks” as well as 13-card booster packs. Last All Hallow’s Eve was available only in boosters; it and the bast set each contained 144 cards. Blanket of Lies, however, took on the theme of a world ending via alien invasion, and so included a lot of the mythology related to Roswell, government conspiracies, cover-ups, and so on. That expansion had only 72 cards, and was also only available in booster packs; each Blanket of Lies booster included a cardboard insert which explained two new additions to the game’s mechanics introduced in the set, as well as the Endbringer’s League, an organized competitive play component of the game, supported by Wizards.
The announcement to cancel the game was made on the Hecatomb website in May of 2006 - less than three short months before Dreamblade would make its own premier at that year’s GenCon.


A selection of miniatures from the Dreamblade
expansion Chrysotic Plague

Dreamblade was not the first foray by Wizards of the Coast into the Collectible Miniatures Game (CMG) market (about which I’ll have more to say in later posts), nor would it be the last. But it was probably their most ambitious.
Like Hecatomb, Dreamblade drew heavily on elements that had already proved successful in Magic, as well as in WotC’s previous CMGs, and you could also draw a fairly strong comparative line to Hecatomb in other ways.
The concept behind Dreamblade involved the players taking on the personas of “Dream Lords”, specially-trained psychics who are battling for supremacy over the Dreamscape, a realm where humanity’s consciousness journeys while they sleep, but actually goes deeper and darker than anyone ever suspected. The Dream Lords used their abilities to spawn, and battle each other with, creatures culled from nightmares and archetypes of the collective unconscious. This is a fairly sophisticated concept, drawn in part from Jungian psychology, which was likely lost on the vast majority of players.
Unlike Hecatomb and Magic, Dreamblade was a game played two-dimensionally, with the pieces moving around a board, instead of cards being played in a static space. Instead of a standard miniatures game of the day, which used a paper battle mat divided into 1-inch squares for movement and copied many elements of popular tabletop wargames like Warhammer 40,000, the Dreamscape (which, yes, was a large, colorful paper mat) was separated into a grid of 25 large squares. Certain squares were worth points to each player if they controlled them at the end of a round; players also received points for destroying opposing miniatures. Whoever scored the most points in a particular round claimed that round, and the first player to win six rounds won the game.
Unlike Magic and Hecatomb, there was no “mana” used by players to “spawn” their creatures into the Dreamscape. At the start of a round the players rolled simple D6s and the combination of those numbers (excluding 1s rolled) was was the amount of “spawn points” available to each player.
However, that wasn’t all. In addition to a spawn cost, each piece had an “Aspect Cost.” Like Hecatomb, which featured four factions called “Dooms,” Dreamblade had four factions called “Aspects,” which represented fundamental forces in the dreamscape, each with a corresponding color which appeared on the creature’s base. They were Valor (Blue, with an icon of Crossed Swords), Passion (Red, with a fireball), Fear (Green, with a skull) and Madness (Gray, with a tentacle). Each piece had a certain number of aspect icons, representing an additional cost. Any miniatures a player had play of that aspect could satisfy that cost.
Gameplay was pretty dynamic. Combat was prosecuted via the rolling of proprietary dice, which had three sides denoting 1, 2 or 3 points of damage, two sides which were blank, and one side with a “blade” icon on it. The blade icons would activate abilities possessed by a certain creature. Each creature had two damage numbers - one which would be enough to “displace” the creature, meaning to send it to another place in the dreamscape, or to outright destroy it. Destroying the creature of course got it off the board, but it also gave the players who owned it additional spawn points next turn. So there were strategic choices to be made.
As a game focused on area control, creatures with special rules and abilities that provided additional movement were prized (a player had only two “action” phases per turn, and could only either move all of their pieces or attack with them, no mixing and matching allowed). The rarest and most sought-after piece in the game, Scarab Warcharm, had abilities that could allow movement for a number of allied pieces, provided you rolled enough blades.
The miniatures drew from a wide range of imagery and were, in my opinion, some of the most diverse and interesting tabletop miniatures every produced. The miniature designs reached across world cultures, genres (sci-fi, horror, fantasy), and also into the realm of the outright bizarre and surreal. Drawing on WotC’s usage of transparent colored plastics as "special effects" in their previous minis lines, Dreamblade ended up with a number of evocative, unique miniatures.
Dreamblade, in addition to the base set, produced four expansions - Baxar’s War, Chrysotic Plague, Anvilborn, and Night Fusion. There was a starter set which was the only way to get the necessary dice and playmats and included 16 minis; booster packs were sold in packs of seven minis, and each also included a sheet of paper which was a combination set checklist and introduction to any new rules elements in a respective set.
Dreamblade lasted 14 months, with the announcement that it would be cancelled coming on Oct. 9, 2007.
But why did these two games, with so much going for them, end up being consigned to the dustbin of the game room?
We’ll get into that next time.

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