Impulse: It’s Called Impulse For a Reason

Impulse is a new game by Carl Chudyk (Glory to Rome, Innovation, Uchronia) published by Asmadi Games. Chudyk is known for thinky, stripped-down designs that focus on intricate mechanisms. In the past, Chudyk’s games have not had dazzling artwork, focusing instead on just what needs to be there to play the game, and this one is no exception. The look of the game is cold and sparse (see image below). Impulse came into this world, then, with a pedigree that preceded it. It was also billed as a “4X game” reduced to its bare essentials. It’s been done a great disservice, and I’d like to help rectify that.

First, a little about the game. Briefly, Each card in the game is a planet with three pieces of information on it: the ability it confers, its color, and its size (number of icons, from one to three.)

In this image, this is a size 3 (the third icon on the left in the photo has been cut off but you can see a bit of it) blue planet with a “Refine” action. The map is made up of these cards, face-down, which are revealed as players move on them. Players have two kinds of spaceships: cruisers and transports (actually the same tokens, but if it’s standing up, as in the above photo, it’s a transport. Lying down it’s a cruiser.) Transports activate planets, cruisers are for combat. A turn consists of adding a card to the Impulse (more on this in a moment), using a tech, executing the Impulse, using a plan (a sort of personal Impulse a player can have), and drawing cards. You’re trying to be the first to get to 20 points. The cards are the heart of the game and each contains one of ten different actions. They aren’t important here; but they are things such as moving, mining, building, research, and so forth. They’re what you’ll use to get points and expand your reach. The Impulse is the neat thing here: it’s a row of actions that each player executes in order. At the beginning of your turn you add a card to it, and at the end you trim the oldest card off of it. It’s a conveyer belt of actions, and you have to make sure you’re adding cards that help you out without helping your opponents, since they’ll get a chance to use them as well. That’s the basics of the game. It sounds a lot more complicated than it is.

I have to admit, I was a little intimidated by the game. When I saw it at GenCon I really wanted to try it, but I just was not sure how good it would be, and it looked really tough. I thought about just buying it a few times but was all, “Well, I don’t know.” My pal Matt got it and taught it to me and I’m sorry I was put off at first, because I really like it. So I’m here to tell you to not be afraid and to not go into it the wrong way. I believe there are two things keeping Impulse back and I want to set the record straight.

First, I the comparison to a 4X game is inevitable, but incorrect. (For those who need to know, a 4X game means “eXplore, eXploit, eXpand, and eXterminate.” It’s a genre of game in which you start out small but gradually increase the size of your faction through gathering resources, developing technology, and warring.) There’s a lot on the surface that makes it seem like a 4X game, but the way in which it isn’t like one trumps those. The point of a 4X game is that it’s a long game; not just in actual, physical length, but in the inherent strategy. You’re not looking for what works now, you look at what is going to work later. Impulse is called “Impulse”. It’s not geared for the gradual buildup of an empire. It’s a shorter game with a steep arc; the action will come quickly in both speed and acceleration. You can not start out thinking, “I’m going to do mining this time” because there are a lot of cards and you don’t know what you’re going to get. Once you see what you’re working with you can develop a strategy, but you’re at the mercy of the draw until then. And once you decide on a direction, things are going to move quickly. 4X games can be a tug-of-war, with one faction rising in power, then being eclipsed by another, and so forth; Impulse games can be decided in a moment, when one player’s machine kicks into gear. If you are looking for an epic, sprawling game, which is what most people think of when they think “4X”, you will be disappointed, because Impulse isn’t that game and doesn’t want to be.

Yes, it’s true that the technologies available are 4X ones: Build, Refine, Research, etc. But there are ten different ones and you won’t necessarily use or even see all of them. “Trade” isn’t automatically something you’ll occasionally do as part of your plan; “Trade” more probably IS your plan, and if it is, you’re not going to be focusing on much else because you’ll want to trade early and often. So although you have what seems like a bewildering array of options, the trick is to focus only on what is going to get you points and do so quickly without helping your opponent. If Mine + Refine is your thing this time, then get rid of the orders that aren’t contributing to that. This is part of why I like it, as opposed to most 4X games. I’m not a “long game” kind of person, and I don’t have the patience or skill to make plans for eight turns down the road.

The second problem is that I think the “bare-bones” look of the cards is causing even those who are reviewing it favorably to approach it as an industrial affair, as though it’s a collection of cold metal parts and not a game. There seems to be a lot of, “one certainly has to admire the craft of the construction”, making it sound like a tech demo than a game. But here’s the thing; it’s fun. It’s full of cool combos, sneaky plays, moments where you cheer or curse. The design is minimal, sure, but it’s not cold and impersonal. In fact, having played Glory to Rome and Innovation, I prefer Impulse the most because I find it more straight-up fun and less of a mechanical exercise. (I personally like the sort of retro look of the cards and plastic spaceships, and I love that a cruiser is just a transport on its side.) Impulse games are short, as they should be, and each one of them is a little story of building tension until that snowball moment when everything falls into place. You only play to 20 points, and you can often score six or seven in a single turn. It’s all forward momentum, and the action is fast and steep.

To be fair, Impulse has hurt itself with its rulebook, which is not written that well and which is laid out in an irritating way, making it difficult to look up questions. To fit in its small box the book is smaller, but thicker, both giving it more pages to have to flip through to find something and making it look more fearsome.

I’ve mostly played it two players, for which it’s good, but it was great with three and probably four as well. I think if you go above that then the random element will take over and the Impulse itself will change too quickly and make it less fun and interesting (I’d like to try it, though). Three might be the sweet spot for it. In the first game I played, ship combat ruled the day and we never even saw some of the actions. In another, it was all about the Sabotage action (though we were playing it wrong.) I made good use of Plan cards in one game, even though we’d gone other games without them coming up. The variety is great.

Don’t let the well-intentioned but ultimately incorrect hype fool you. Impulse is a short, sharp shock, not a slow build. It’s more akin to Race for the Galaxy than Twilight Imperium. And it’s a lot of quick, exciting fun.

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I Thought Maybe My Lego was Lousy But It’s SNOT

I was a little disappointed when my “SNOT Rocket” didn’t get a whole lot of traction on Flickr. I thought it was a pretty neat idea, and one I hadn’t seen before.

Looking back at the images, though, I realized they weren’t very good, didn’t really illustrate what was going on (especially at small sizes), and weren’t named that well, so this past weekend I took some better photos and uploaded them with a better description (“Upside-Down Classic Space Cruiser 826 77″).

And lo, my hard work paid off! I got blogged on The Brothers Brick yesterday!

I really feel like I’m starting to get my Lego mojo back!

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Shoot and Loot on the MOOOOOOOOOON!

Why yes, I have been playing a lot of Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel (see, it comes between Borderlands and Borderlands 2). In fact, last night I was so much playing it that I forgot to stop and watch Sleepy Hollow!

This game takes place on Elpis, the moon of Pandora. Elpis has no atmosphere and low gravity, so you have to have an oxygen supply but also you get to do all kinds of great jumps! And they have platforms that will jump you even higher! If you’re a fan of jumping — and I’ve made it clear I am — then this is the game for you!

I’m playing as Nisha, the Lawbringer. My take on her is that she has no interested in two-handed weapons, so I’m only using pistols and SMGs (and, okay, I’m carrying around a rocket launcher because sometimes that’s what you need.) I’ve also been playing some with the new laser guns, but I haven’t found one I like enough yet to dump my pistols for. Nisha’s special ability is the Showdown, which gives you a little sting of “western” music and then turns you into an amazing gun machine for a few seconds. The skill tree I’m working on has me getting bonuses on shooting from the hip (not aiming) so that’s a fun change of pace as well.

I’ve joked in the past that Pandora, the planet the other games are set on, has a harsh climate, insane and vicious wildlife, and a population of criminals and savages. In other words, Australia. Well, Borderlands TPS was done by the legitimately Australian division of 2K, so that joke of mine is now being repaid in full. The citizens of Elpis all have Australian accents (except the few ported in from previous games and Nurse Nina) and speak in Australian slang (or at least the Australian slang they use for things like Outback steakhouse.) I’m not that far in yet, despite hours of play, so I haven’t met too many major characters yet.

Someone commented to me that it looked like “just more Borderlands” which is not entirely wrong. There are some new ideas here. The oxygen thing requires oxygen tanks, a new type of gear that doesn’t just store O2 (or “Oz”) but also allows venting some to boost or change jumps in the low gravity. You can even suddenly slam down from being airborne for an area attack. Laser guns are also new. The character classes seem to not be retreads of previous ones. There’s a new machine that can turn junk equipment into less junky equipment, a la a Horadric Cube. But a lot of it is very much more of the same. If you’re me, though, that’s exactly what you want and therefore not a problem. (I will say that the lack of variety in landscapes throws back a little too much to the original Borderlands, which some folks might not like.)

Oh, but the biggest difference? So far you’re working with a hero named Handsome Jack.

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I’m Finally Getting Around to Trying That Gum You Like

It changed the shape of dramatic (and non-dramatic) television, its influence reverberates through pop culture to this day, and people still make references to it. Yet, I’ve never actually seen Twin Peaks.

When it was in its heyday, I wasn’t really watching TV. I was at LSU, the only TV I had was a little black-and-white thing, and I wasn’t really following much about television at the time. I knew of it, sure, but I didn’t pay much attention. By the time my situation had changed, it had ended, some folks were disappointed, and it ended up just passing me by.

The recent announcement of a return to Twin Peaks got people talking, and I realized that I’d seen so many things that were influenced by it but not actually seen the show itself. And it’s on Netflix, so why not?

Thus, Saturday night, Agent Dale Cooper and I entered the town of Twin Peaks, population 51,201.

Of course, I know how the whole thing goes, more or less. I know a lot of the plot points, I know about BOB, I know that it fizzles more than ends, and I know that the movie doesn’t really help anything. I know what I’m getting into, story-wise. Even so, I wasn’t really prepared for just how weird the show is. We’ve only watched three episodes and already it’s fat-packed with characters and intrigue and high strangeness. I also didn’t realize how laugh-out-loud funny it is, especially Kyle MacLachlan, who is one of my favorite people in the world. His bizarre enthusiasm for everything is a great take, as he’s supposed to be the “outsider” who we view all this oddness through, but he’s just as weird.

I can’t wait to watch more of it. It’s amazing it got on network TV, and we have it to thank for changing the entire landscape.

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I Had That! #35: Merlin and Split Second

My room was where batteries went to die. Nearly everything I owned required tons of them, and since my Dad’s favorite place to get them was Radio Shack, I needed a constant supply. When Merlin came along and required 6 AAs all by itself, I’m sure my parents regretted this Christmas present.

Merlin was innovative in that it played six different games! Since most of these devices were single-purpose, it was a boon except that the games it played weren’t that great. Tic-Tac-Toe is going to get crossed off the list pretty quickly, and the Magic Square game got “solved” before too long as well. Still, it could make music and looked really cool.

But then my eye wandered, and in the display case at the drug store I saw this:

Split Second was a sleeker, sexier version of Merlin, with more LEDs and better games. What’s more, the games were timed, so you could keep trying to beat your own score at them. I had to have this, but of course my folks were not as keen on it. I eventually got it, and I’m pretty sure this was a case of me saving up or spending birthday money or something. Once I got Split Second, Merlin was a distant memory. especially since Split Second ALSO wanted 6 AA batteries.

When did I get it? Merlin came out in 1978. Maybe I got it that Christmas? Split Second is from 1980, but I have no idea when I got it.

Do I still have it? Neither one. I went through a phase where I was “interested in electronics” which consisted of taking apart my electronic toys and then not learning how they worked.

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I Had That! Now Has a Table of Contents!

You can click on the image above to see all the entries to the I Had That! feature, in case you don’t have a 1981 Sears Wishbook handy.

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Sleepy Hollow Needs to Get Back on Point

Season two of Sleepy Hollow started off almost exactly the way I wanted it to: going full-tilt crazy. What I love about the show was how much of it is forward momentum and how little time it spends dithering around. The season premier gave almost no damns about anyone who hadn’t watched before, and even big fans like us were all, “wait, did we somehow miss an episode?” because of how fast and crazy the proceedings were going. Whereas some shows would take the elements in the previous season’s cliffhanger and keep drawing them out, we had pretty much all those plot points wrapped up by the end of the first new episode. And then, to address one of the remaining ones, we built Ben Franklinstein’s Monster.

But in the last couple of episodes things have slowed down and, in my opinion, some missteps have been made. Sure, even at the first season’s breakneck pace there were some clunky, filler-ish episodes, but those at least served the purpose of establishing that Weird Stuff was going on. That’s been well established by now. To have John Noble’s Horseman of War sitting back and doing dumb Mister Mxyzptlk or Ethan Rayne stuff when he has an Apocalypse to usher in is just a waste of talent. And while Spook of the Month isn’t a bad side trip to make, why import in a German one when there’s a lot of old American folklore you can explore?

But the most disconcerting trend is the appearance of two new characters, Leena Reyes and Nick Hawley.


Reyes is the new Sheriff, taking over for Irving, who is still incarcerated. One of the things I liked about Irving’s character was that, although he was The Angry Police Captain, the show didn’t lollygag around in getting him on board with the situation. He saw weird junk, saw that Mills and Crane were handling it, and he was down with it. But now he’s in the clink, and has been replaced by an even Angrier Police Captain, who doesn’t want Crane working with Abbie and doesn’t want Jenny around either. Separating the main characters (Katrina is also away, but not due to Reyes actions) doesn’t do anything except slow the pace way down, which I would argue is the worst mistake this show could make. In addition, so far Reyes doesn’t make up for this in any way. The added complications to the plot haven’t been offset by any kind of new angle or contribution by the character; so far she is simply a speed bump. To have lost Irving (who wasn’t even in the season premier) in favor of Reyes hasn’t paid off at all, even if Irving’s family side junk was the weakest point of the first season.

Then there’s Nick Hawley, a/k/a “Indiana BROnes”. He’s some kind of freelance mystical geegaw finder who’s a bit of a roguish mercenary and also a bit of an obnoxious pain in the ass. He’s only been in two episodes so far and I already hate it when he’s on-screen. Again, we already had a better character who does what he does — Jenny — who has been pushed aside in favor of this dude who adds nothing but “tension” to the proceedings. Here’s the thing: this is the story of a small group of people trying to avert the Apocalypse; I think your tension needs have been taken care of already.

Sleepy Hollow’s first season was a short one, and they had no idea if they’d get renewed or not. This probably contributed to the refreshing feeling of momentum on the show. Having won a following and more time (a second season and a longer one at that) I don’t want to see them plop down into an easy chair and settle in for a long ride. I understand they’re not eager to get to the end any time soon, but I really think the show will lose what makes it fun and special if they drop the pace they established last season. I’ve already seen too many scenes of Katrina overhearing plans and feeling threatened. I want to see her and the others do things. Don’t leave Franklinstein waiting out there too long.

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