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  The First-Person Shooter Goes Retro  
Posted 2002-03-22 by Tony Walsh
There was once a time when we didn't have videogames. You remember that, right? Well, maybe you don't, but that's okay -- I can help. Rewind a few decades, and the twitchiest games around were probably Hungry Hungry Hippos and Mousetrap. Board games were pretty much it for a quick, sit-on-your-ass game fix.

In the eighties, the whole board game industry got shaken up due to the sudden popularity of arcades and the primordial videogame consoles. If makers of tabletop games were lucky, a kid might stop playing her Atari or Colecovision long enough to sit down for some Pop-O-Matic Trouble. But, if you can't beat 'em, join 'em: So traditional game manufacturers like Parker Brothers and Milton Bradley cashed in on the arcade frenzy, coming out with board game versions of Pac-Man, Donkey Kong, and Zaxxon. It wasn't long though before videogames started getting more and more complicated, busting out in a 3D stylee, ending the love affair between traditional games and videogames.

Until now. Steve Jackson Games kicked off this century by reuniting the board game and videogame. Appropriately located in Texas, home to the world's itchiest trigger-fingers, Steve Jackson Games brings us Frag, a tabletop take on the First-Person Shooter computer game genre.

"I'm a huge FPS fan but don't have the skills to design mods or my own maps, so I went with what I knew," explains Frag designer Phil Reed. In addition to Deathmatch, the first Frag expansion pack, a new Frag variant Deadlands recently shipped. "Playtesting is now taking place for Fire Zone, the second expansion to the basic game," writes Phil from the Steve Jackson Games offices. "I can hear the screams of joy (or is that dying?) from here."

The Frag box looks deceptively like any of its videogame cousins, except that when shaken, one can hear the clunky rattling of goodies inside -- clearly no mere CD-ROM is hidden within. The game comes armed with a four-page rulebook -- fewer pages than most videogame manuals -- some sheets of illustrated cut-out counters, and a stack of sweet-looking game cards. Cards include such real-life videogame quirks as "Lag," where network latency causes you to miss a turn; "Last Year's Model," where your obsolete computer reduces your fighter's vital stats; and "System Upgrade: 3D Graphics Card," which gives you higher shooting accuracy.

I gathered a gaggle of geeks to give Frag a workout. Our combatants represented a cross-section of gamers: Nirox is a professional videogamer with Toronto-based Clan Xeno; Danny Dantos is a hardcore D&D player and occasional videogamer; Tim O'Neil is an old-school tabletop gamer with little videogaming experience; and lastly, your friendly narrator is a former tabletop gamer and current videogamer.

So how does Frag play? As with most board games, Frag is a turn-based system. Each player in turn has an opportunity to pick up and play cards, move their fighters into ideal tactical positions, and shoot the crap out of each other.

"It's too slow and there's not enough death," complains twenty-one-year old Nirox, who found his first Frag frenzy frustrating. "If they're trying to go for what a game feels like online, it's not like that at all. Even games like Monopoly have an ending, instead of this, where you just have to get a certain number of frags."

Veteran tabletop gamer O'Neil is more optimistic. "Frag is fun. It's definitely a board game -- I wouldn't compare it to a videogame. The cards are pretty cool, and the options are interesting."

Our merry band of playtesters conceded that everything we thought about videogamers is true. Die-hards of desktop destruction probably won't have the attention span required for Frag's turn-based mayhem, even if fans of the tabletop genre enjoy it. Apparently, even young kids have more patience than serious Quakeheads. Frag designer Phil Reed says lots of different people play the board game, "but especially kids about 8 to 10. The game is complex enough for them to be challenged but not so difficult that they get frustrated."

To disenchanted videogamers, Phil offers this consolation: "Just relax and have fun. Playing Frag (and any board game) is a lot more of a social activity than any online deathmatch. Grab some snacks and drinks, grab some dice, and spend the evening fragging your buddies!"

Originally printed at, Mark Moyes, editor.
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