Friday, May 29, 2020

Was Erik Frank Russell deconstructing space operas in the 1940s?

Men, Martians and Machines by Erik Frank Russell becomes an odder read the more you look at it. A collection of interlocking stories, it was published in 1955  but most of the book was originally published in the early 40s. 

On the surface, it’s the rollicking adventures of the solar system’s first interstellar spaceship as they explore one death world after another. A machine world, a plant world, a brain control world. It’s all very by the numbers, even back when it was written.

The next level, at least for me, is that Men, Martians and Machines is a definitive period piece. It felt that way back when I first picked it up back in the late 80s and it really feels that way now. Some critics say that every science fiction novel is about the time it was written, not the future. Russell was definitely writing about the navy and merchant marines of the 40s. (The lack of exterior weapons so they have to open the airlock to shoot back is so bizarre to me)

But it was when we dig even deeper that Men, Martians and Machines becomes really interesting. I thought the book was multicultural when I thought it had been written in 1955. But when I learned that part of it had been written over a decade before that, I was really impressed. I thought Voyage of the Space Beagle was the prototype of Star Trek but Men, Martians and Machines feels like Star Trek the prototype. The black surgeon is the most competent and mature human on the ship. Not only are the octopod Martians and the token robot treated as buddies by the humans, they are clearly more with it than the humans.

In every single story, the Martians and/or the robot have to save the humans. The humans would be dead every time if it wasn’t for the non-humans. The fact that Russell has this happen in every story turns the book into a deconstruction of the genre at a time when the standard trope was having humans always win, at least if John Campbell was editing. On top of that, the constant stream to death planets is clearly wearing the humans down by the end of the book. The book went from a yarn and period piece to something that made me think.

The other highlight of the book is the Martians. Not their cephalopod forms or limited telepathy but their laconic, easy going personalities. They never get worried or stop obsessing about chess even while dealing with fantastic threats. At one point, we learn that they can think in two threads at the same time so they are always playing mental chess. 

They never have to stop playing board games? I’m jealous!

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Thoughts about meetups

Board Game Meetups have never been a huge part of my gaming life but they did have a huge impact on my actual life. I met the woman who would eventually become my wife at one. And I only stopped in to say hi to the organizer!

I am sure that meet-ups like the ones that I used to go to in Chicago have taken a real hit during the Covid-19 crisis. Even with restaurants and other such public places slowly opening back up, meetups will be difficult to hold. Not impossible but many board games don’t lend themselves to social distancing. (Are there folks holding Take It Easy nights?)

A lot of places in our area are still only doing take out for the foreseeable future and some are closing for good. Our son’s favorite chain (Sweet Tomatoes/Souplantation) has closed for good. The landscape has changed.

That said, they will come back. Public eating and drinking places have been around for centuries. We have whole genres of games dedicated to them. They don’t call them pub games for nothing.

And, while it is different, there is the virtual world for gaming. Online gatherings and even conventions are an increasingly easy and common things. 

 But I wouldn’t have met my wife at an online convention.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Classic Knizia is perfect for trying times

During a recent conversation, a friend described how, with lockdown shrinking his gaming group to his wife, his love for classic Knizia games has exploded. And, let me tell you, it’s not like he didn’t seriously love Knizia before.

Discussing games like Samurai, Through the Desert, Lost Cities, Ra, Modern Art, Ingenious, High Society.... These are all very fundamentally simple games, games that are easy to non-gamers or at least casual gamers. At the same time, they have enough teeth for ‘serious’ gamers. The sample rule structures contain complex decision trees.

(The seven games I listed are certainly not all the  classic Knizia designs that fit the description I gave. I have to admit I haven’t seen his newer designs, although my friend’s description of My City sounds fascinating. And Tigress and Euphrates was intentionally left off because it is such a head cracker. I feel that the initial learning curve is much harder than the other games. Or I’m an idiot)

Look, you are locked in and have a limited collection of games to work with, Knizia is a treasure trove. There is a vast amount of replay value in these games. I think there are different kinds of mental processes and stresses between games that have complex rules and ones that simply have complex decisions. His rules sets are intuitive enough that they can slip into your subconscious.

Many years ago (oh, Lordy, I feel old), I used to play Ingenious all the time. I reached the point where I saw the board as a pattern as opposed to a serious of individual moves. It was a very zen place to be. 

You can make a compelling argument that all games can be seen as patterns. Go is the platonic ideal of board games in my world and Go is all about developing patterns. However, I am going to argue that so many of Knizia’s designs make the pattern easy to see.

Believe it or not, I’m not arguing that Knizia is the greatest game designer of all time. There’s too many different kinds of games and audiences for anyone to be that. But his designs are great for a family audience, even if that family has serious gamers in it. 

And family games are perfect when family is the center of your gaming.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Irrational decisions in Print and Play

You know you have a Print and Play problem when you find yourself trying to come up with a justification for making something and none of the reasons hold water :P

I realized this one more time when I found myself seriously tempted to make the demo copy of Carcassonne. I looked at it and found myself thinking that it might be a nifty travel game, something to play at restaurants while waiting for our food.

That’s ignoring that I have gotten rid of both Carcassonne and the actual Travel Carcassonne over the years. (I have kept the Castle and Hunters and Gatherers) 

First of all, I don’t know when the next time I’ll be sitting down at a restaurant as opposed to getting take out. And, second, our son hasn’t shown any interest in playing a board game at a restaurant and that’s who’d I’d be playing against.

But, most importantly of all, a demo version of Carcassonne doesn’t actually fill any niche or need for me that other games don’t fill better. I have published copies of HUE and This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The 2-4 of Us, for example. Those are tile-laying games that are designed to be a small package in the first place and I wouldn’t need to worry about meeples or meeple substitutes. 

I’ll still probably make a copy.

I’m also tempted to make a copy of the demo version of Citadels, particularly since if you double up some sheets, you can make a very close approximation of the first edition of the game. (The current edition has over twenty roles?!) But then I’m ignoring that every game of Citadels  I’ve been in has lasted over two hours (usually over three hours) thanks to analysis paralysis and it stops being fun after the first hour.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Getting reminded how far PnP has come

I recently tried out an PnP game called Lost Artifact, which I found going through the entries for the 2018 Solitaire Contest. I played it five or six time in a row and found it pretty much a null experience. It wasn’t even a bad experience. I wasn’t offended by the game but I basically got nothing out of it. 

This isn’t a review and, in fact, I’m not sure I’d have anything to say about the experience if it was for my experiences with Bandido Covid-19 and Nytelyfe Solitaire earlier in May. Our son had a lot of fun with Bandido and Nytelyfe Solitaire was surprisingly engaging. I wouldn’t describe either of those games as the high end of my PnP experiences and they were worth making and playing.

But even five years ago, I’d have been more impressed by Lost Artifact. Even ignoring PnP projects that are offered by publishers as either demos or products you pay for, the last few years have raised the bar for PnP projects, as well as my expectations for them. I will honestly argue that you could have a functional and enjoyable game collection through nothing but PnP.

That said, I am not bashing Pasko Zhelev and his Lost Artifact. Dude, you set out some specific design goals of making a simple, accessible game that would be easy to craft and you succeeded. That’s no small thing. I have a similar attitude towards Alex Kremer. I don’t honestly want to play his games now but he put out a lot of content back before it was cool.  And that is cool.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Bandido proves a good game for lockdown

I had no interest in Bandido until the free, Covid-19 version was offered as a PnP for folks stuck in lockdown. You know, a whole lot of people right now.

Bandido is a very simple cooperative tile-laying game with every tile showing tunnel paths. The game begins with the bandido tile as the starter tile with eight tunnels leaving it. Everyone has a hand of three tiles and you are trying to lay down tiles to block the bandido from escaping with loops and dead-ends so that the whole tunnel system is closed.

The PnP retheme has half the cards of the original version and is themed around Covid-19 prevention. Instead of a bandido, the start tile has the corona virus and the dead ends are healthy habits like washing your hands and social distancing.

While Bandido reminds me of a _lot_ of different tile-laying games, the game it really makes me think of is a very simplified Ambagibus. And Ambagibus is already a really simple game so that’s saying something. I am pretty sure that Bandido, with the half-size deck of the PnP version, is more difficult than Ambagibus because fewer cards makes luck of the draw stronger. (I wonder if making two sets and combining them would offset luck of the draw.)

But here’s the kicker. Our six-year-old does enjoy occasionally playing Ambagibus but find the placement restrictions annoying. So I thought that Bandido would be a good fit, particularly with a Covid-19 awareness theme. That was enough to make me make it.

I tried it out as a solitaire first and found it to be about what I expected. A very simple tile-laying game that really didn’t have much to set it apart from any of the many tile-laying games I’ve played.

However, when I showed  it to our son, he was quickly interested. Thanks to his interest in Ambagibus, he already knew how to play and he wanted to identify and discuss the healthy habits. We played three or four times in a row, counting him eventually going through the deck to find the perfect card.

Earlier in May, I tried out My Little Castle, another very light PnP tile-laying game and found it meh. Almost all of my criticisms of My Little Castle apply to Bandido. Neither game has anything that really makes it sparkle or stand out as a game. However, between healthy habit theme and ease of accessibility, Bandido Covid-19 really worked for us as a family game. I wouldn’t suggest it for gamers but I’ve already recommended it to friends with small kids.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Corinth may be the Yspahan I need

Corinth is one of my top-of-the-list PnP projects to get done. (I learned that it’s currently free from this list,, where it is also the top of the list) And it will be a super simple project. Print three pages, minimal cutting, laminate, add dice and you have a four-player set.

In fact, the only reason I haven’t done it weeks ago is that I want to do it in color and that means I can’t do in house.

I hadn’t really heard of Corinth before it was released as a free PnP but when I started looking at the rules, I found myself thinking that it really, really sounded a lot like Yspahan. A. Lot.

Actually doing the absolute minimum research and I see it’s by the same designer and, more than that, it’s officially a reimplementation of Yspahan. Okay, that explains everything.

I have a slightly interesting relationship with Yspahan. I did used to own it and I actually like the game. But... I only played my copy once. Almost all my plays were with other people’s copies or on Yucata. I just couldn’t justify the space it took up and I sold it. And, in the years since I did that, I have never had a reason to regret that.

But making adding a copy of Corinth to my binder of Roll and Writes makes me very happy. It’ll cost me virtually nothing and take up no storage space. True, I won’t have a nice-box or wooden camels but price-reward ratio on those doesn’t make that much of a loss.

There are games that I have kept smaller, simpler versions of because, for as much as I’d ever play them, that’s enough for me. I got rid of Elfenland but kept King of the Elves. Skyline 3000 went away but I still have Clocktowers. I never ended up getting Tigress and Euphrates but I am happy to have Euphrates and Tigress : Contest of Kings. I appreciate the larger versions and I know the smaller versions aren’t as rich and detailed. But as games I didn’t even play once a year, having the smaller versions is enough for me.

Corinth might be a profoundly extreme example of that. From what I can see, you lose having a central board to fight over and action cards. But those two losses might balance each other out. I am curious to see if Corinth is close enough to Yspahan that I don’t care at all. (I will make the fan made scoring card expansion since it’s just one more page)

And, quite frankly, it might be easier to get on the table. All we need is dice and minimal table space. That’s a lot easier to handle at the end of a busy day. Corinth might end up seeing much more play than Yspahan ever did.

I don’t miss my copy of Yspahan but I am looking forward to making a copy of Corinth.