Friday, November 15, 2019

Thoughts about RPGs in small spaces

I have been looking at Ring Tales from this year’s nine-card PnP contest and, at some point, I’m actually going to write about the game. However, the game made me ponder some random thoughts that didn’t fit neatly into discussing the game itself.

First, the game was designed to be played in the car. Which is an idea that I love, an RPG that you could play during a long, boring trip. It’s also an idea that I’ve never been able to pull off :P I think there is inevitably too much to distract you, particularly if you’re the one driving.

But the idea of a game that can work under those restrictions, minimal rules let you forgo dice or maps or miniatures or other randomizers, that seems like a kind of platonic ideal to me. Mind you, I am already aware of games that already fit that bill, like Baron Munchausen or Puppetland. But it seems like a design space worth exploring.

Second, the designer’s notes describe the ‘no and’ to ‘yes and’ mechanic as old. To someone who got started with first edition D&D, that mechanic still feels fresh and innovative. And as someone who has gamed with a lot of improvisers, I think it is such a great mechanic.

Third, Tales of the Ring is a micro RPG, a concept that I am still trying to wrap my mind around. A micro game, in the board game sense, is easy to understand. It’s a game with only a few components. (Often, that also means a small footprint and easy to teach rules and a short playing time but not necessarily) 

But it doesn’t take much space or stuff to play most RPGs, as long as you’re using theater of the mind instead of miniatures. A handful of dice and some play sheets plus some pencils doesn’t count as a lot of components.

And a short playing time or being rules light doesn’t qualify a game as a micro rpg. I’ve never heard anyone ever call Baron Munchausen a micro RPG even though it has practically no rules and is designed to be played in one short sitting.

I think there are two things that can make a RPG a micro RPG. One is small volume of total printed material. If the total game, rules and background and fluff and all, is only one or two pages, it might be a micro RPG. The other is narrowness of focus. Not just limiting a game to a specific genre or even a specific narrative but a very narrowly defined scenario. 

The Name of God _might_ be a micro RPG. The original rules take up less than a page and you have a very specific structure and goal. Even then, the game is open enough that I’m not sure it qualifies as a micro RPG. 

Game poems as a genre fit the bill but I never hear them being called micro RPG. They have their own goal of evoking an emotion or experience.

Really, while there is a need and a design space for rules light RPGs and short form RPGs, micro RPGs might be too limiting an idea.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Abstracts and kids

Some board games make good art activities for younger kids. And, at least for me, abstracts are the games that seem to do the best job at it.

Two occurrences in about a week’s span really brought that home for me,

First of all, I learned that our son’s kindergarten teacher uses both Blokus and Blokus Trigon in the classroom. Not as the games but as cooperative activities. I found out about this by our son pulling out my copy of Blokus Trigon and saying that they had a copy at school :D

The second was when our son decided he wanted to have a board game night with daddy and started pulling out my stack of GIPF games. (TAMSK is stored elsewhere due to its size and I don’t have LYNGK, in case your curious) And gosh darn it, didn’t he find the games interesting to manipulate and make patterns with, ZERTZ and DVONN in particular. He actually paid attention to the rules of DVONN but wasn’t interested in actually playing it :D

It makes sense that abstracts are good for this kind of play. Games with tiles and chits and cards and such don’t have the same ‘artifact’ appeal. Glass beads and stones and balls and pyramids and such are actual physical objects with all the dimensional and tactile elements that go into being just that.

I am hoping that this eventually turns into actually playing the games :D

Monday, November 11, 2019

Hisss: not great but great with five-year-olds

I recently bashed Rivers, Roads and Rails for being a children’s game that really doesn’t work well as either game or an activity for kids to enjoy. The next kids game that I tried out was Hisss, a game that is mechanically similar but worked much better for us.

The short explanation for Hisss is that it’s a tile laying game where you are building snakes.  The heads and tails are all either one color or wild but each segment are two colors. Colors need to match when placing tiles, just like in games like Carcassonne. If you complete a snake, you get that snake and its tiles count as points. Most points wins.

There are three things that made Hisss a more enjoyable experience than Rivers, Roads and Rails, most of them being the game being simpler. There are less than half as many tiles. The connections are simpler, one snake segment as opposed to three kinds of possible  paths. And the rules are _much_ better written.

In short, Hisss is a lot more accessible for little minds who don’t have that much patience. Hisss takes the concepts of tile laying and makes them manageable for the young.  Which isn’t as easy as it sounds. And having a tighter rule set is so much better.

For adults, it’s not a great game. I’m not even going to call it a good game. Hisss is not one of those kids games that adults can get into. However, it is a game that can keep a child engaged until the end. That might be be damning with faint praise but it’s also true.

The Last Kids on Earth was too awesome for me

After I learned that the cartoon The Last Kids on Earth, which my son didn’t care for, was based on a series of books, I read the first one. Which I didn’t care for :D

The Last Kids on Earth is about a group of middle-schoolers/high schoolers in an apocolypse that includes both zombies and kaiju.

And that was kind of my problem with the book. It was a mashup of zombie apocalypse and giant monster disaster and superheroes. (Seriously, superheroes. The kids fight giant monsters in hand-to-hand combat and win. They are totally superheroes.) Now, all three of those genres can mesh but I didn’t think they did that very well here.

The books have a goofy, lighthearted tone that I found very jarring. and much of that centered around the protagonist. An orphan and a social outcast, Jack uses the end of the world to live his best life. Any elements of angst are lost in him treating the disaster  like a video game.

Which could still work if it came across as a coping mechanism. But the world really does act like a video game for him. He is living the dream of the end of the world letting you do whatever you want. 

In fact, every other character in the book comes across as more nuanced and relatable :D Which is actually fascinating for me. That means making Jack so one-note was an intentional choice. He is a video game protagonist, like Mario or Link, a blank slate for the players or readers to fill in.

One of the core elements of zombie apocalypse fiction is being grounded. Adding giant monsters and the characters somehow gaining the fighting skills of Daredevil or Batman is far from grounded.

(I actually do wonder if ordinary middle schoolers becoming basically superhuman gets addressed in the later books, if that is a side effect of whatever the disaster really is. If that is the case, that would really help my suspension of disbelief.)

All of that said, these books have been very successful and I can see why. Take your average thirteen-year-old and ask them to describe a zombie apocalypse and this is what you get. It might make Warm Bodies look like Garth Ennis's Crossed but it is clearly the most fun apocalypse you could hope for. The rule of cool is always in place. Common sense or rational thought take a second seat to things being neat.

The Last Kids on Earth has a lot of problems but, man, it knows its audience. Which, from a publisher’s viewpoint, is the most important thing.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Dunsany Dreams 7

Finding Memory

I found myself walking in a field that I had never been in but I knew from dreams. It ended in a hill that was green with grass and seemed to rise up into the sky.

The hill seemed too steep to climb yet climb it I did. Up and up, the hill carried me and I knew that it was the place that I needed to be.

And at the top of the hill, I saw Pan before me, shaggy and hooved and horned. All I could do is fall face down with my face in the green grass.

And he said ‘I need neither reverence or fear. But remembrance is good.’

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Italo Calvino makes me want to play impossible games

Reading Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, I have a craving to design a game about creating cities in a few paragraphs, developing a map of urban worlds. Which means I’m completely missing the point of the book :P

The book has Marco Polo describing fifty-five cities to a bemused Kublai Kahn. He breaks the cities down into eleven categories and they all have women’s names. Beneath this poetic atlas structure is a deconstruction of language and geography.

Or so reviews and analysis of Invisible Cities tells me. I don’t grok that yet. In fact, I feel like I should be rereading the book again in six months and see how much it’s changed for me over that time.

So my desire to make a game out of it is based on the most superficial reading of it. But it’s still there.

I picture a set of tables. On your turn, roll to see what category the city is. Roll to see what name it is. Roll to see what details you are allowed to describe, like architecture or trade goods or monuments or such. From those rolls, you create a city in a few words.

Perhaps there might be two tables of categories and you must find where the city you are dreaming up fits on the matrix, turning a spreadsheet grid into a map of imagination.

Or perhaps the city that you dream of must fit onto a postcard. And after you have written your city into existence on your postcard, you must put a stamp on it and send it to the next player, letting them know it is their turn to bring a city to life on a postcard. And at the end, everyone has a physical artifact of a city that has only come to be due to the game.

Aaaaand I’ve just crossed the line from game to performance art. Probably the kind of performance art that would end up annoying everyone involved.

I’m actually not even halfway through Invisible Cities and I know it’s not a book about world building but more of world unbuilding. My feeble understanding makes it feel more about how you describe a place says more about you than the place.

But it still makes me want to build dreamy worlds.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

A five-year-old’s experience with Go

I recently took a crack at introducing our five-year to the basics of Go. 

And while I have heard Go described as having five rules with one of those rules being that you play it on a board, quite a bit of it didn’t sink in. Go is theoretically simple in theory but it is ridiculously complex to understand in practice.

But it was his idea so I ran with it.

The one thing that he really clicked on was the concept of eyes and that having two eyes makes a group of stones safe. Which, to be fair, is a very important idea.

I wonder if he will ask for Go again and what he will learn if he does.