Gearheads

At a recent board game night, I had a chance to try a game called Quantum that used dice to represent spaceships with different capabilities. The box credited its creation to Eric Zimmerman. “That’s a familiar name”, said I, and looking it up online afterwards, I found that, sure enough, it was the same Eric Zimmerman that co-founded Gamelab, the company that developed Diner Dash, among other things. This is a person who is partially responsible for creating a genre. But also listed in his ludography was something I didn’t expect to see: Gearheads, a 1996 game about wind-up toy battles, co-created with Frank Lantz of Universal Paperclips fame. Apparently it was Zimmerman’s first published game. And it just happens to be on the Stack.

So, obviously I had to dig out the CD and give it a play. Windows gave me some guff about that, complaining simply “This app can’t run on your pc” when I tried to run either the executable or its installer, even in Windows 95 Compatibility Mode. This was a new one on me, but apparently it’s how 64-bit Windows 10 reacts to 16-bit Windows programs. Apparently there are ways to enable 16-bit support in Windows 10, but I opted to play it safe and instead run it under the copy of Windows 3.1 that I had installed in DOSBox back in 2010, which I still have around thanks to file-sync apps. This worked with no problems.

The game is essentially two-player, with both players using different parts of the same keyboard simultaneously, but the computer can fill in for one player, and it has a “One Player Tournament” mode, a sequence of 36 increasingly-difficult levels that I’m taking as the basis for completion. Gameplay consists of letting loose wind-up toys on one end of the playfield in an attempt to get them across to your opponent’s end, while your opponent does the same to you. You get to choose where to set each toy down and how much to wind it up, but you don’t control them after they’re placed. Each level gives you access to a different subset of 12 toy types, each with its own virtues and special powers. For example, there’s a wind-up cockroach, which moves very quickly but erratically, and tends to get flipped over on its back; a bulldozer, slow-moving but capable of easily pushing other toys backward; a chattering skull that scares other toys and makes them reverse direction. There’s an element of extended rock-paper-scissors to it, but also some opportunity for combos, like using boxing kangaroos to punch depleted cockroaches over the finish line.

I hadn’t thought about this before, but it’s a lot like Magic: the Gathering – Battlegrounds. Both games are all about summoning creatures that automatically march across the screen to score points and/or block your opponent’s creatures from doing likewise. And a lot of the same tactical considerations apply to both, like choosing whether to try for a mainly defensive summon to keep the opponent away or just try to outscore them with a horde of small quick things. I think the gameplay is more chaotic here, though. Nothing is entirely predictable, and there’s a lot of it going on at once.

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