Tuesday, October 27, 2020

I find out Clock Golf is a thing

 I just discovered that there is a thing called Clock Golf. It was a 19th century lawn game. I found out it existed because George MacDonald Fraser mentioned it in passing but apparently Agatha Christie and Wodehouse mention it as well, if Wikipedia is to be believed.

The basic idea is setting twelve metal numbers in a circle ten to thirty feet in diameter and taking turns putting a golf ball into a hole somewhere in the circle from each of the numbers. The hole doesn’t have to be in middle so there can be some variety. Some rules say it’s okay to have shrubs and other obstacles to make things interesting.

My first thought on finding out that Clock Golf is a thing was that it was like a precursor to miniature golf.  My second thought was that it was kind of the opposite of miniature golf since everything happens in one tiny space. 

I guess if you love golf enough that you still want to play it when you only have ten feet to work with, this is what you come up with. On the other hand, I kind of thought space was kind of the idea when you play golf, even miniature golf.

I can see how Clock Golf is a clever idea and I can also see why I never heard of it.

Friday, October 23, 2020

Yes, I had to make my own Alone Among the Stars hack

 I have been looking through the various hacks of Alone Among the Stars, designed by Takuma Okada. I realized I wanted to play a hack that would let me tell a Tom Hanks in Castaway story but I couldn’t find one that fit what I wanted to play. 

So I decided to make one.

Again, I made this for my own personal enjoyment and all the hard work was done by Takuma Okada. So here it is:

Alone as a Castaway

You are a castaway, the lone survivor of a shipwreck who has washed up on the shore of a tropical island. You need to island and do what you need to to survive. This island may be your home for the rest of your life.

Look, this is a blatant hack of Alone Among the Stars by Takuma Okada. Not going to pretend otherwise. It follows almost the exact same rules except for one. You don’t roll for multiple cards for each scene. A Robinson Crusoe island is small enough in scope that I think one card is enough for each scene. Essentially, the island is treated like one planet in Alone Among the Stars but you can use more than six cards.

Okay. Alone as a Castaway is writing/journaling game. Each scene/journal entry, you will draw a card to determine what discovery the scene/journal entry is about and roll a die to establish how you came across that discovery. The suit of the card will establish the nature of what you have discovered and he rank will establish where the discovery was made.

While I created this with a Tom Hanks in Castaway story in mind, you can bend it however you’d like. It can be modern day or set in the 16th century. It can be extremely realistic or full of magic and fantasy. There is no wrong.

Okay, here go the rules:

Roll a die to determine how you came across the discovery.

1-2: it took a lot of work to find it
3-4: you came upon it suddenly
5-6: you were on break.

Now draw a card to get some details about what you discovered.

Diamonds - Some essential resource you need to survive, be it a natural one to the island or sometuing washed up 

Clubs -  a danger that you need to be wary of

Hearts - wildlife

Spades - a natural, breath taking  beauty

A - in the waters of the natural bay the reefs form

2 - on the beach 

3 - on the cliffs

4 - in a shallow cave 

5 - on the mountains

6 - in the grassy fields

7 - in deep caverns

8 - deep in the jungle

9 - in the swamps 

10 - by a stream

J - at the volcano

Q - in an isolated pool

K - ruins

Have fun!

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

So Star Trek is Octonauts in space?

 Octonauts is underwater, old school Star Trek with funny anthropomorphic animals but no red shirts or prime directive.

While we tried having our son watch it two, three years ago, he wasn’t really interested in it. Now that we are delving into all the potentially educational kids TV that Netflix has, Octonauts has gotten some viewing.

The show, aimed at the five to seven bracket, is about a group of animals who have undersea adventures with the mission statement of ‘Explore! Rescue! Protect!’ Each segment features a different and very specific form of marine life and includes a few interesting factoids about them.

But man, does it have a Star Trek vibe like no one’s business. 

While Star Trek didn’t create the paradigms that have become synonymous with it(I keep waiting for someone to tell me The Voyage of the Space Beagle ripped off Star Trek), it did run away with them like a house on fire. And, speaking as a dedicated Doctor Who fan, I think Star Trek has done quite well by them. (To be fair, I haven’t seen a single episode of at least half the versions of Star Ttek out there)

What really screams original Star Trek to me about Octonauts is that the main characters form a aid-Ego-SuperEgo trio like McCoy-Kirk-Spock. This time, though, the medical officer is the Spock figure while the Id is a kiddie-friendly version of Wolverine.

I do wonder If the light-hearted action-adventure or the cartoonish anthropomorphism gets in the way of actual scientific facts. Still, I figure our son will at least remember the names of some sea life. And if he ends up liking Star Trek more than Doctor Whi, I’ll blame Octonauts :D

Monday, October 19, 2020

Alone Among the Stars actually works

 I recently stumbled upon Alone Among the Stars and its myriad of hacks completely by accident. I’d been looking into more conventional solitaire card games. In fact, I’m still wading through all the variations and pondering the whole matter. You use a deck of cards and a die to come up with the inspiration to describe planets that you are exploring.

Alone Among the Stars is on the seriously soft end of the solitaire RPG spectrum. On the hard side, you have the tightl structure of game books that strictly restrict your choices. On the soft side, you have basically guidelines to write fiction or a meditation exercise. The solitaire version of De Profundis consists of keeping a diary of Lovecraftian horror that hopefully isn’t actually happening to you.

Alone Among the Stars Has you take the role of a solitaire explorer in outer space. For each planet you choose to explore, you role a die to see how many cards you lie down. You then use the dice and charts to give you some rough inspiration on what you find. And thus you create a journal of exploration.

Okay. The games consists of three tables that you use to create writing guidelines. That’s it. Which is probably why there have been so many hacks of it. That’s a really, really simple framework to work with.

But... Alone Among the Stars gives you just enough structure to work with that you really do have a framework to work with. And it is open enough that the replay value is just limited to your creativity and imagination. 

I honestly wasn’t sure how well it would work. Alone Among the Stars didn’t seem like much of a step beyond just telling you to go write a story, have fun. But when I actually tried it, I found it did give me enough guidance to work as a structured writing game.

I then recommended it to some friends... and they quickly began playing it as well.

I honestly think Alone Among the Stars gives enough guidance AND flexibility that it can work for a lot of people. You can spend pages on one card or just a couple sentences and both are perfectly valid. 

I didn’t think Alone Among the Stars would be good but it is.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Scoundrel: random and abstract yet intuitive

 Scoundrel had been on the top of my list of games for the next time I tried a thematic solitaire with a regular deck of cards. It’s not something I do that much but it is nice to add to the library of games that you can play with just a deck of cards in your bag.

Scoundrel is a dungeon crawl that just needs a deck of cards and some way of keeping track of your  hit points. The game consists of you going from room to room and trying to not die. 

Each turn, you create a room by drawing four cards and resolving three of them. Spades and clubs are monsters. Hearts are healing potions. Spades are weapons. Combat consists of subtracting the value of the monsters from your hit points. Weapons subtract from the value of monsters BUT they get blunted. Every monster you fight with a specific weapon has to be lower value than the last. The fourth card remains and is part of the next room. 

You also have the option of running and putting the room at the bottom of the draw pile. If you go through the deck and survive, your hit points are your score. If you die, the remaining monsters in the deck are negative points so you have a way of measuring how badly you did :D

I have very mixed impressions of Scoundrel. 

On the minus side, even though you have choices, luck of the draw is by far the most powerful force in the game. I’ve lost games in two rooms, having run from the first room and then getting overwhelmed in the second since you can’t run twice in a row. The random factor is high and stacked against you. And the game is sufficiently abstract that I never had a narrative sense of being in a dungeon crawl.

On the plus side, the theme does do the very important of making the rules intuitive. I didn’t feel like I was dealing with weapons and monsters and potions but the rules made the interactions between the cards easy to understand. And while chance frequently overrode my choices, I did like the fact that the order I chose to resolve cards mattered and that I could run.

And Scoundrel does benefit in my eyes by being a minimalist game that I can set up just by shuffling the cards (after I’ve taken certain cards out but replay is super quick and easy) It succeeds at being what I am the most interested in a game like this being: a super portable game I can play anywhere with a deck of cards. 

Ultimately, the net positives outweigh the negatives for me. I have had fun with Scoundrel and I’ll play it occasionally. That said, I’d still recommend games like The Bogey or The  Blackjack River over it.

PS I found you can play Scoundrel online at  https://elementalcode.itch.io/scoundrel but actually playing with cards is part of the appeal for me.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Project Superpowers : epic obscurity

 Thanks to Humble Bundle, I got to read a hefty chunk of the graphic novels that make up Project Superpowers. I’ve been interested in reading it for years. It isn’t quite a tribute or a deconstruction of super heroes but it has elements of both.

Alex Ross, the comic book artist famous for basically creating near-photo realistic artwork of superheroes, took a bunch of public domain super heroes from the 40s and weaved a story that almost literally recasts them as mythic heroes. Ross already had written the Earth X series for Marvel so the fact that the guy could write wasn’t a surprise.

Here’s the basic concept: after World War II, the Fighting Yank’s dead ancestor convinces him to trap all the world’s other heroes in Pandora’s Box. The idea being if hope is locked away, all the other evils will be too. Decades later, when the ghost of the US Flag points out that the world is now a dystopia, he sets out to free them. Then things get wild.

I’m not going to go into much more detail for the sake of spoilers. However, I found the story arc to be pretty good with tons of moral ambiguity and nifty twists. The ending was a little pat and upbeat compared to the rest of work but I was still glad that read it.

But even without spoilers, there is a lot to unpack. 

Earth X  clearly showed that Alex Ross is really, really into comic book history. Small wonder that he and Kurt Busiek have collaborated a lot. In many ways, Project Superheroes is a love letter to the forgotten heroes of the 40s, a time when publishers were churning out superheroes like crazy. But... these characters are so obscure that Ross effectively completely reinvented all of them and just kept the costumes. 

This means that any interest and emotional connection I have with the characters comes from what Ross has done with them. He could have created whole new characters and it would have been the same for me. And I’ve read enough encyclopedias of comic books that I’d actually heard of a lot of them. I think this would be even more so for more casual readers.

This had the side effect that I kept thinking that some events should have more weight than they did. Captain Future’s story arc, for instance, would have had a lot more impact if I had known there was another character from the 1940s called Captain Future who wasn’t the Buck Rogers-style guy. 

It also made me ponder why these characters for languished in obscurity. Some of them were in print for ten or more years, which isn’t bad. I suspect that legal issues actually have a lot to do with it. Companies are going to spend their time developing properties they actually definitively own. The most well known character is in probably the 1940s Daredevil (renamed the Death Defying Devil to avoid confusion) and that’s probably because he had a really cool costume design. (I have heard it touted him being mute adds to his significance but multiple sources say that lasted one issue before being dropped)

I have to note that Alex Ross’s interpretation of the Black Terror, who got his own title, is particularly entertaining. Superman as a pirate, the character combines an unshakable moral compass with poor impulse control and anger management issues. Flawed and scary (I wouldn’t want to be near him!) but means well.

Project Superpowers was fun to read and Alex Ross does manage to create a mythic, epic feel but I feel like I came in halfway through the story and missed all the introductions.

Monday, October 12, 2020

The different pieces of Lost Cities

 This is a weird thing to be thinking about but I have found myself thinking about the compass on the reverse side of the card in at least some editions of Lost Cities. Not the actual artwork on the faces of the cards but the art on the boring sides of the cards.

This has led my rambling brain down three different paths. Memories of first getting the game; wondering how it would hold up now; and the power of effective artwork.

Lost Cities was an early acquisition for me. A watershed game. I read the rules and was totally underwhelmed. I played a hand against myself and my opinion did a 180. I ended up playing the game regularly for the next few years. Which, for someone who was trying as many different games as they could, is impressive.

And I think Lost Cities would still hold up if or when I go back to it. Because it is so gosh darn simple. Doctor Knizia loves playing with math and Lost Cities is one of the most fundamental examples of that. There are variants on the idea like Celtis or Emu Rangers that I enjoyed a lot because they were more flexible but I can’t help but wonder if the remorseless  and unforgiving simplicity of Lost Cities is one of its strengths.

As for theme and artwork... mechanically, Lost Cities is 100% abstract. You can and people have played it with regular playing cards by dropping a suit. But the theme does make sense for the mechanics and I know that the theme and pretty artwork helped the game have traction for me. Theme is more than just pretty pictures and it more than even creating stories. Theme creates a context for mechanics. It helps our brains put all the pieces of a game together. Lost Cities doesn’t need a theme but the theme makes it that much easier to get engaged with it.

Two games I find myself comparing Lost Cities in this ramble (I can’t really call it an analysis) are Take It Easy and the 10 Days series. I have seen a lot of ‘Bingo with Strategy’ games that use Take It Easy’s paradigm but few are as unforgiving. One mistake can ruin your whole game. And that brutal simplicity keeps me going back to it. And while many people have said that the 10 Days series is Racko with a map, that map makes the game so much more interesting and engaging (and educational).

On paper, Lost Cities doesn’t seem like much.  It in practice, it’s addictive.