Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Capsule Review Cavalcade: VCR Board Games

I commandeer a collection of nearly 250 board games. I scour the thrift stores regularly and pick up almost every half-baked concoction the toy companies put out over the years if it has the slightest chance of being played among my friends. For some reason I own the “Oreo Cookie Factory Game,” “The MAD Magazine Game,” “Entertainment Tonight: The Game,” five editions of “Wheel of Fortune,” about a dozen “Trivial Pursuit” games, yet no Parchesi. One type of game that has always caught my eye is the genre referred to simply as VCR games.

For a short time in the 80s, around the point where VCRs were becoming more accessible and affordable, a number of companies cashed in with some games based around the new and popular format. The fact I’m able to get so many from the depths of thrift store back corners should let you know how good any of them were. With rare exception, most VCR games feature all the regular hardware – y’know, a board, a dice/spinner, some cards – with a heavy dose of the choices in any of these medium reading “VCR.” Whenever a player achieves this – and it’s often in these games – somebody unpauses the tape, plays the next scene, and determines the fate of the guy or gal in control.

What follows is a review of several VCR games that are in my rotation. Unplayed, but owned as of this writing: “Rich Little’s VCR Charades,” “America’s Funniest Home Videos: The Game,” “Clue VCR Mystery Game,” “Honeymooners: the VCR Game”...

VCR Quarterback Game (1986)
An upstart company called Interactive VCR Games put out a small fleet of titles in the mid-80s based around popular sports. In “Quarterback,” two players or teams go against each other as “red” and “blue,” although one could take that to mean NFC and AFC. The team that wins the coin toss chooses to kick or receive, and a kickoff card is drawn, determining placement of the ball. Then, using an ultra-cool mini down marker, you start to play football on the board.

Teams choose to run the ball, pass, punt, or kick a field goal. Before the play is executed, teams can use penalty cards that may cost distance later on. These rarely are useful, but I thought it warranted mentioning. Some run or pass cards will simply say “2 yard gain” or “interception” – about 65% of them will say “VCR.” When that happens, you unpause from the “TIME OUT!” screen and view a classic play featuring the likes of Joe Montana, Terry Bradshaw, Larry Czonka, and others making the rounds as “analysts” today. Whatever the tape says is the result. Punts and field goals are simply determined by the die (higher number = more distance). Whichever team scores 22 points first wins.

If there were one sport tailor made for VCR gaming, it would be football. We always have fun rooting the teams on in the tape. I know nothing of 70s and 80s football, but if they had as many interceptions and turnovers as this game has, it would be a wildly different sport than the one I know. And it seems every running play on the tape is around 8 to 20 yards. Unbelievable. What’s funny: if you choose a running card and get a VCR scene where a pass occurs (or vice versa), the rules state that your quarterback has “called an audible.” Bwahahaha.

They tried for depth here when they really didn't need it. They had the participation of NFL Films, so they could've just picked a tape of the best plays of all time and had people on their side. Not the best overall board game, but of VCR games, it's a pretty perfect use of the format. **¾

VCR Hockey Game (1987)
And from that we go...to this. Reading the rules, I thought it could be a contender. The rink is laid out so each player controls two defensemen, a center and two wingers. You simply deal the respective cards on these blank spots, replacing them when the puck gets there. Each side also has a little plastic goalie in front of a little plastic net. Upon winning the face-off, which is simply a dice roll, the offense can pass the little plastic puck to a defenseman, which means turning over that defenseman's designated card. Cards will result in a pass/shoot situation, or far too often in “puck stolen” or “penalty.” When the puck gets stolen, the other team’s defense picks it up. When you draw a penalty card, that position is left without a card and you move a pawn into the penalty box, where time served is simply two shots on goal.

Most of the game plays itself. It’s ridiculous. I “played” against my dad once and found myself just manipulating the plastic puck around and flipping and replacing cards over and over because the penalties and “puck stolen” cards made it all automatic. The VCR tie-in is one of the worst. How exciting is it, after minutes of rolling dice and turning cards, to start the tape and see...ICING!?!? What the hell? And in what I thought would be a campy, fun feature but really wasn’t: when a team on the tape attempts to shoot, the clip sometimes cuts off and says “player shoot.” You clear the cards from the board and attempt to flick the puck into the goal of your opponent. I’ve never seen so much wayward plastic.

It’s a cute looking set, sure, but it plays like absolute crap. Shots that aren’t taken via your flicked finger are simply dice rolls. What constitutes a goal is determined by a really confusing chart in the back of the rules. Passing also has a similar set of weird guidelines. If you miss a shot, you call out odd or even and roll again to see if you picked up the puck on the rebound or lost it to the defense. You play until somebody reaches an agreed-to score. I’d suggest 0. ½* And yes, that’s half a star out of five.

VCR California Games (1988)
Anybody remember “World Games” for the PC? How about the title this board game is based on, “California Games?” In the PC game, you are some “dude” who competes in events like skateboarding, BMX and hacky sack, and you’re sponsored by Ocean Pacific and other “way cool” companies. In the board game, you and up to three opponents try to traverse California by competing in similar events and winning money to keep on truckin’.

The board is a colorful, cartoony representation of the state with many winding paths and penalty squares. Players roll and move trying to land on a contest, which triggers the VCR clip. In it, your surfer might hang ten perfectly, your BMXer might do a wicked flip...or your parasailer might crash in burn. Sometimes there’s not even a contest – just gratuitous shots of women in bikinis. At the end of one of these contests, you either collect cash and pick up a card or forfeit money and pick up a card. The cards let you force “lose a turns” on players, get free money, or move a foe into an undesirable locale on the board. Once you collect a certain amount of money, you can proceed to the next section of California, and then to the third in similar fashion. Once you reach the end with enough money for a plane ticket, you’re the winner.

Me and my buddies go nuts with this one, using all the stupid surfer language in the game material. “You’re nails, collect $50!” “Competition time – don’t biff it!” What?? With the incremental gaining of money and ample chances to screw each other over, it’s a decent-enough game that made SOME attempt to put something with the VCR clips. Not cerebral, pretty one-dimensional, but not a horrible time either. ***

VCR Wrestle Mania (1988)
I found this one for $16 at a trade show and it’s become one of the greater lores in my circle of friends. Released shortly after Wrestle Mania IV, I can tell you right now that you should have this if you’re a WWE fan. Learning to play it...that’s a different story. The rules are some of the most confusing dreck you’ll ever read.

Put as simply as I can, it goes like this. Each player gets three offense cards and two counter move cards to start each fall, plus two referee cards to use against illegal maneuvers for the entirety of the match. After reading lines from the interview cards and rolling the die to see who goes first, play begins. Rolls of the dice determine how far you’ll move, or alternately what card you have to pick up before playing one yourself. Spaces on the board can advance you further, send you back, trigger a VCR clip, or cost you turns. Others allow you to advance further with a leap off the turnbuckle. Any offensive card can be countered by an appropriate counter card.

For example, if somebody played an offense card that said “head butt, +3” the opponent could lay down “must move the roll of the dice” or “this card counters any move 8 or lower.” The first person to reach the end of the board who also owns a card with a star on it wins the fall. Two falls out of three makes you VCR Wrestle Mania champion.

The VCR clips here are...funky. They’ll start by assigning each of the two colored pawns to a wrestler. When you’re blue and it says “blue-Butch Reed, red-Hulk Hogan” you know you’re screwed. But basically, the tape will play out, and throw up some appropriate scores at the end. So, if Harley Race missed a top rope dive on Randy Savage and caught some stomps, Harley’s player might lose 3 spaces and Randy’s might gain 8. Most of time, there’s no telling when your guy might counter a move just before the clip ends and give you spaces on the board.

The interview cards are a perfect way to get into the campyness of this game. They include such gems as “I’m going to teach you a WWF™ wrestling lesson you’ll never forget.” Or “It's time to shuffle the cards, and I'll be the one holding the ace of spades.” The whole thing’s silly, but it’s also not a bad game...ONCE you learn it. ***½


There we have it. To view my whole collection, follow this link to my Board Game Geek profile. It shows less than I actually have since some games have yet to be added, and the database (for the most part) doesn’t account for multiple editions.

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