Friday, February 14, 2020

I find myself liking Robin Gibson's designs

I realized that I've spent a lot of February playing games by Robin Gibson.

That is fundamentally because they have designed a lot of solitaire Roll and Writes that take less than fifteen minutes to play. I’ve been playing a lot of shorter solitaire games over the last few years so that is totally within my wheelhouse. That and the fact that I have spent a lot of time looking at Buttonshy and PnP Arcade.

I’ve already written about Gibson’s Paper Pinball series, which honestly borders on a mindless diversion (although I do like how each pinball table has its own little twist and there is definitely a place for mindless diversions) However, what has really impressed me and made me decide I need to pay attention to Gibson is The Legend of Dsyx series.

Dsyx is apparently a steampunk, fantasy kitchen sink universe. Banks hire dragons to take care of their vaults. Gnomes build dirigibles. Gryphons work as couriers and wear goggles. If you’ve played D&D, there’s a good chance you’ve been to a place like Dsyx.

There are twelve games in the series. I don’t know if there will be more but twelve is still pretty good. Each one tells about a different little chunk of Dsyx and, from what I can tell, vary their mechanics a decent amount.

What I really like about them is they make me feel like I am playing a larger game. Between the theme and the relatively involved mechanics (involved for a single sheet of paper and five, ten minutes), the games in the Legend of Dsyx feel surprisingly meaty.

To be honest, I am pretty sure some of the depth is an illusion. I am sure that each game does have a single optimal strategy that will reliably do better than other choices. A ten-minute Roll and Write can’t complete with a two-hour game that has a lot more moving parts.

However, I am okay with that. The return I get from the minimal investment in time and resources still makes the Legend of Dsyx series a very good return for me. It’s not perfect but it is engaging and interesting.

I’ve only tried three of the games but I am hoping to eventually try them all. I’m in no real hurry since I also don’t want to get burned out on them either.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Paper Pinball might just be rolling dice

Since I seem to be focusing on Roll and Write games, I decided that it was time I finally tried out Robin Gibson’s Paper Pinball series. 

Every game in the series is a stand-alone Roll and Write, themed around pinball. They all have a nice picture of a pinball table and the rules on the side. The different pinball scoring elements have boxes for you to fill in with 2d6 and they all have different rules and restrictions. Ramps require ascending numbers, for instance. If you can’t fill in a box, you cross off a ball. The game ends when you either cross off the third ball or you fill in the entire table. Every element has its own scoring rules, some of which are a little fuzzy.

I got the first three pinball games when they first came out, printed and laminated them, and promptly filed them. As I understand it, Gibson revised them when they got released on PnP Arcade so I wonder if the later editions might resolve some of my quibbles about scoring.

I would describe the series as ‘okay’ It’s definitely swingy and the best place to write a number is usually pretty obvious. Opening the multi-ball option so you get to roll a third die and get more choices is probably the most essential thing to go for in any of the games. On the plus side, it’s an inoffensive little distraction that I don’t mind playing. It’s fun in moderation.

That said, its theme screams for a comparison to Sid Sackson’s Pinball from Beyond Solitaire. And that Roll and Write game from 1976 honestly offers more decisions. Not nearly as pretty but better overall gameplay. 

I also feel compelled to compare Paper Pinball to the Legends of Dsyx, another series of Roll and Writes by Robin Gibson. The Legends of Dsyx are also one page each, including rules. And they are very thematic with diverse and  interesting mechanics. They aren’t perfect but they are ambitious. Paper Pinball is me rolling dice. The Legends of Dsyx feels like a board game in a sheet of a paper.

Robin Gibson has become a designer that I’m interested in but Paper Pinball is not one of their strongest works. That said, I have just seen the first draft of the system. I might pick up one of the later games and see how it developed.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Goko no Saikoro - not every R&W is going to be a winner

I am an accumulator of PnP files. I have managed to stop hoarding games but I still digitally hoarde files. So when I found Goko no Saikoro in my files, I had no memory of ever seeing it before. But, because I have been more and more interested in R&W and it is a super easy build, I decided to check it out.

In a nutshell, it’s a completely abstract Roll and Write. Each turn, you roll five dice. You can use the dice to earn a development, score points or take a penalty. And earning a development or scoring points means rolling high (higher than average, actually) The game ends after someone fills in all ten scoring boxes (although every other player gets one more turn)

Developments, by the way, are different ways to manipulate dice. They range from rerolling dice to multiplying the third and fourth highest dice and subtracting the second lowest die. I love dice manipulation and developments are the most interesting part of the game. Unfortunately, other than rerolls, they are a excessively arcane, particularly for such a light game. The idea is great (just look what if it did for Roll Through the Ages) but it feels like it needed a lot more play testing and refinement.

Another issue with the game is that, even for a dice game, the luck factor is high. The game basically punishes anything short of very high rolls, which offsets the decisions that you can make. In fact, I would say that Yahtzee offers a lot more control and ways to offset bad luck. Even a game like Zombie Dice lets you play with odds but GnS has you just hoping you beat the odds.

The game was released in 2008, before Roll and Writes really started picking up steam as a genre. Roll and Write games have gone through a lot of development so I feel like I’m judging a game that was developed before a crucial crunch point. Still, I wonder what I would have thought of it in 2008. At the same time, I had almost no interest in Roll and Writes in 2008.

Ultimately, Goko no Saikoro has some interesting ideas but fails to pull them off.

The range of Roll and Writes

The other day, I learned Goko no Sakoro and Gryphon Delivery Service back to back. While I already knew that there was a striking difference between an abstract Roll and Write and a thematic Roll and Write, I was struck by how I view them on completely different terms.

Naturally enough, I view abstract W&Rs through a completely mechanical standpoint. And it tends to be a very stringent standpoint. An abstract game in general has no place to hide its flaws. (And, yes, a rule being a certain way because it’s thematic is a valid reason for a rule to be that way.’) A pure abstract R&W, simply put, has to completely work.

One of the big questions every abstract R&W has to answer for me is ‘Would I rather be playing Yahtzee?’ For better or worse, Yahtzee is the measuring stick for nothing but dice and numbers. It’s a common touchstone for just about everyone, particularly for non-gamers. Yahtzee is a better than game than it often gets credit for being but there’s a lot of R&W games I’d rather go play.

Thematic R&Ws are an interesting beast. They can be more complicated because a theme can help us process for complicated rules easier. Gryphon Delivery Service, which is a pretty simple game, has you track three separate inventories and has two different sets of special powers. For me, they  are a bridge between the world of R&Ws and, well, other games.

And, for me, one of the questions a thematic R&W really has to answer is ‘How does this compare to a game with the same theme but isn’t a R&W?’ Roll and Write games literally don’t have a lot of moving parts which creates limitations. (Note: I’m specifically talking about R&W, not all dice games. Games like Kingsburg or Castles of Burgundy have a lot going on)

Of course, you also have to balance the benefits of the R&W format as well. Set up being grab dice and writing utensils, smaller footprint, shorter play time, those can all be major pluses. I don’t expect a Roll and Write to replace a larger game but it is nice for the trade offs to balance out.

It isn’t that Roll and Write games have come this far that interests me. It’s what the next stage will be.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

My January PnP

It’s already a few days into February and I’m running behind on this blog. Quite frankly, I’ve been more interested in crafting PnP games than I have been in writing. I didn’t have a bad start of the year in January. This is what I made:

Name of God, full version
High Score
12 Patrols
Agent of Smush
Switchboard (2019 9 Card Contest)
9-Bit Dungeon
Micro City

January I am trying to continue my goal of making a ‘larger’ project. Making a copy of the second edition of The Name of God is something I have been wanting to make for a while. It’s a short form, GM-free RPG (and someday, SOMEDAY, I will play it!) 

Beyond that, I made some small games but some of them look better pretty interesting.

A good start to the year.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Can a gamer live on PnP alone?

I think one of the questions that you have to ask about PnP games is ‘Can you have a fulfilling game closet with nothing but PnP games?’ I have no intention of getting rid of my actually published games but if I washed up on a desert island with nothing but an internet connection, a laser printer and a ton of crafting supplies, could I be happy?

Wow, I have just come up with the least marketable sequel to Castaway. Particularly since a gaming group apparently washed up on the other side of the island for me to play with. The analogy might be getting a little carried away.

There are three questions I feel like you have to ask in order to determine if a game collection can be nothing but PnP games. Is there enough variety out there? How much trouble is it going to take to make them? Can you get other people to play them?

The answer to the first questions is a blatant yes. There are hundreds of PnP games out there in every genre imaginable. If all you want to play is train games and war games and you don’t mind paying for the files, you will die happy and contented. (Yeah, I should have included food and water in my desert island scenario)

Building them... that’s tougher. Here’s the thing. There’s games where you just print the board and add pawns. There are Roll and Writes that you just need to print out the playing sheets. There are some nine card games that are worth playing. There are easy builds that are still good games. If you really want to, you will work your way your up. If you want to, you will build.

Question number three... I think that’s the really big one. It’s not for nothing that a lot of my PnP builds are either straight solitaire games or can be played solitaire. And I have read that designers will intentionally include solitaire options even if a game isn’t a pure solitaire because that greatly increases the chances of getting play testers.

Let’s be honest. The quality of components can make a real difference in whether or not folks are willing to play a game or not. I have made games by printing them on copy paper with a scissors. (Admittedly, the last one was a game where you rip pieces off of the game) But I don’t think I could get anyone interested in a game that looks like that.

And, no, I’m not unique in my interest in prototypes and experimental games and chrome not being a deal breaker. But I feel a game collection should be accommodating. So you have to up your crafting game.

Yeah, you can have a PnP-alone collection but it will take some elbow grease.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Dunsany Dreams 15

The Happy Laughter of Children 

All the children remembered the puppet man, who would come to the village green every spring with his bag of puppets. There, on the grass and behind the curtain, he would speak with a funny voice and make the puppets come to life.

In some ways, the stories were always the same. Punch was the light-hearted murderer who could outwit even the devil. At the same time, the stories were ever-changing. The broad strokes remained the same but the details changed with every show.

And, oh, how the children would laugh with every swing of the club, laugh at every snap of the alligator’s jaws. As the puppets danced and the silly voices piped through the curtains, the children would laugh.

And oh, how the children still laughed when the puppet man’s body was found floating and rotting in the river.