Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Final Girl, your own schlock horror movie

While I have yet to play The Final Girl, it's been a game that has been discussed in my circles for years. And, while its focus isn't something I am deeply interested or invested in, rereading it has made me appreciate it more.

You see, The Final Girl is another GM-free system, something I spend a lot of time writing about. I promise that I'm going to write about games that actually involve using a game master one of these days. Since I've been looking at so many systems based around that idea and The Final Girl makes some very smart voices for making it work.

First off, The Final Girl is an RPG about creating a B horror movie. While the title implies that you will be pulling out a slasher of some sort, the system will work with zombie apocalypses or alien invasions or even giant radioactive dinosaurs from under the sea. 

It uses a Troupe System, which is honestly how most GM-free systems work. In a lot of Troupe Systems, the players take turn being the focus of the scene while everyone else acts as a collective game master. In The Final Girl, players take turns playing the slasher (or monstrous killing force of some kind or another) and directing the scene. So you take turns being the game master for everyone else.

And no one actually owns character. Characters are just names down on index cards and put in the middle of the table as a pool for everyone to draw from. Characters will develop relationships with each other, which can be friendship or rivalry or screwing, which counts as both friendship and rivalry. (Horror movie, remember?)

These relationships can influence a character's chance of surviving an encounter with the slasher, one way or the other. When the slasher decides to kill someone or everyone, you basically play War with a deck of cards to see who dies.

Of course, you reach endgame when you're down to X number of characters, which depends on the number of players. You can only have so many characters in the final showdown, after all. Which could result in everyone dying, by the way.

There are a number of things that I like about the design of The Final Girl. I like the variation on Troupe Play. The player playing the slasher could end up being game master entirely for that scene or the group could come together to create the scene with the slasher just picking who to kill.

I also like the fact that it has a playing time of under two hours. Part of the reason why I even started looking into games like this is because I don't have time to play in a campaign.

While I do enjoy the occasional horror movie, it isn't a genre that I'm really focused on. Really, I tend to go in more for cosmic horror, like good old Lovecraft. So that's something I'm pretty indifferent about when it comes to the system. I do realize that, with the right group of people, it can really inspire.

The fact that the system is designed to create your own horror movie  without a lot of flexibility beyond that doesn't bother me. Seriously, a lot of these games are tightly focused and I'm not going to knock an intentional design choice like that. Not every game can be a sandbox.

Truth to tell, the focus of The Final Girl is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, you're using a genre that most people understand. It won't be too hard to get a game going. On the other hand, between the horror genre and that no characters belonging to anyone, you're not going to get a lot of serious depth. 

In comparison, while Fiasco also embraces movie genres, it's a lot more set up for character development. And other GM-free systems like Polaris or Ribbon Drive really make character development the primary focus.

That isn't necessarily a weakness of The Final Girl. It's just something that you have to know going in.

The Final Girl isn't a deep game that will change your life or redefine how you see role playing games. It should be good for a couple hours of silly fun with horror movies, though.

The Road to Oz, a road movie before they existed

Okay, moving on to the fifth Oz book.

While it is far from the worst book in the Oz canon, the Road to Oz might have the most banal plot out of all of them. Dorothy, Toto and assorted companions end up on a magic road so they can go to Ozma's birthday party, with Ozma keeping an eye on them the whole time.

Don't be me wrong. The book is a fun read. It introduces several important characters to the series. And, for me personally, inspired me to read other books by Baum. But every other book has some kind of crisis going on while the Road to Oz is just an invitation to a party.

Let me spoil the plot for you.

After meeting the Shaggy Man, who is basically a slightly insane homeless man with a magical artifact, Dorothy and Toto find themselves somehow warped from Kansas to a road that passes through various magical kingdoms. Quite a change from a cyclone!

I have to say, reading this book as an adult and as a parent, the Shaggy Man actually starts off pretty creepy. He shoved Toto in his pocket when the dog growls at him before he meets Dorothy. Then, he insists Dorothy go off alone with him to show him which way to go. Seriously, if this wasn't a happy, innocent Oz book, we'd be talking hardcore stranger danger material. Fortunately, it is an Oz book and the Shaggy Man turns out it to be a capital fellow.

They basically just run into Button Bright, a simple boy from Philadelphia, and Polychrome, the rainbow's daughter, who round out the group. To be fair, Dorothy usually does just randomly run into people who will become staunch friends.

They pass through a town of talking foxes and then one of talking donkeys. Unlike Dorothy and the Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy can't find a place where people aren't trying to kill her, the talking animals are all friendly. Button Bright does get cursed with a fox's head and the Shaggy Man with a donkey's head but the animals thought they were doing them a favor!

After a brief encounter with the Musicker, who is an annoying living accordion, Dorothy and her friends the Scoodlers, the one dangerous thing in the entire book. They can take their heads off to throw them at people and they intend to eat the party. The Shaggy Man ultimately thwarts them by catching their heads baseball style and throwing them down a gulley.

At last, Dorothy and her friends reach the deadly desert that surrounds Oz, whose sand will kill you with a touch. So the Shaggy Man summons up his friend, Johnny Doit, who has to be the godfather of steam punk, who builds them a sand boat to cross the desert and get to Oz.

Once there, a magical pool restores the heads of Button Bright and the Shaggy Man. Then, they go to Ozma's fabulous birthday party, which includes guests from several of Baum's other books. At the end, everyone gets to go safely home, except for the Shaggy Man who stays in Oz.
The Shaggy Man is an interesting character to me in many ways. In addition to the whole stranger danger bit in the first chapter, he's a homeless American with a magical artifact, the love magnet, who can summon up a powerful buddy in the form of Johnny Doit. For a guy whose schtick is ragged clothing, he's pretty powerful.

The Shaggy Man was apparently one of Baum's favorite characters and he does show up a lot in later books. He's never quite as powerful but he never loses his optimistic outlook.

Both Button Bright and Polychrome also show up in a lot of later books. In fact, they are at their most helpless in the Road to Oz. They are both allowed to grow up a bit and have character development. In fact, I'd say the Road to Oz doesn't even hint to how cool they get to become.

The next time they show up, it's in a non-Oz book, Sky Island. Which is one of my favorite Baum books. In it, Button Bright is a much more capable adventurer and Polychrome is practically a walking deux ex machina. Fun times.

In addition, there are appearances from a bunch of Baum's non-Oz books at Ozma's birthday party. Characters from Dot and Trot of Merryland, the Life and Times of Santa Claus, John Dough and the Cherub, and Queen Zixi of Ix all show up.

This is significant for me personally since I decided that I needed to actually read all those books, plus the rest of Baum's fantasy books. 

The Road to Oz isn't the most dramatic or significant book but it does seem like Baum had fun writing it and I did have fun reading it.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Dominion - so much emergent gameplay!

Oh boy. When I started discussing emergent gameplay, I forgot about one of the poster children for it in modern board games, Dominion.

Okay. That's not actually true. Magic the Gathering (TM) THAT is really the poster child for both getting complex results from simple rules and players coming up with some crazy stuff. 

The thing is, while I admire the design of Magic and I respect Wizards of the Coast's business model for getting players' money out of their wallets, I've never been into Magic. The pay to play model has never really worked for me.

Dominion let those of who didn't want to invest in Magic a chance to try out deck building and see how card interaction works. I mean, not counting Blue Moon, Scarab Lords and Minotaur Lords, all by Reiner Knizia :D

(Jeez, I'm setting myself up for not just other games to discuss but other games by Reiner Knizia!)

But a key part of what made Dominion work was the low entry point. (Plus the ability to play with more than two, a wide variety of distinct cards, fascinating interaction of cards, etc) It is really easy to teach folks how to play Dominion.

The basic formula of A: play an action card B: buy a card and C: cleanup by putting your hand in your discard pile and drawing a new hand means you literally have an ABC  to teach people. And all twenty-five of the cards that come in the first box are pretty easy to understand.

However, after you get passed the big money strategy, where you just buy coins to buy points, you start exploring how the cards interact with each other. You discover different combinations and learn how cards have different values, depending on what other cards are available.

Dominion embraces both sides of emergent gameplay, complex situations out of simple rules and players coming up with novel, surprising, or even shocking card combinations.

And that is just with the original twenty-five kingdom cards. Every expansion has just add more combinations to explore and discover! 

I am also going to argue that Dominion offers a greater degree of emergent gameplay than deck builders likes Ascension that use a random center row. Since you know which ten cards you have to work with in any given game of Dominion, you're able to make more deliberate, specific choices.

Magic the Gathering really helped refine synergy between a wide variety of cards but Dominion helped a different audience explore it.

Monday, March 28, 2016

A Kickstarter that should play well with children

Another Kickstarter which interests me has relaunched, Dice Bazaar. While it is a game, which is what I generally look at when I look at, Dice Bazaar is for a completely different audience than my usual fare.

Dice Bazaar is a very simple, family game with very intuitive rules. There's nothing hard to understand or particularly deep about it. It definitely isn't the kind of game that I would introduce to my old gaming group, who love games like Terra Mystica and La Havre.

However, I think it will be perfect as a stepping stone in between games like Candy Land and Catan while still being fun for adults, even those of us who are a little crazy about the hobby.

Dice Bazaar takes place at a middle eastern bazaar where the players are trying to buy various items, ranging from low value spices to expensive diamonds, all of which will be worth points at the end.

Each item has a stack of cards which are placed on the main board. Below each item are spots for the merchants dice, ranging from two dice for spices to five dice for diamonds. Dice get rolled for each spot, setting the price of each good.

Everyone gets six dice of their own and a player board that has spaces for each type of good. You buy goods by matching the dice with the merchant. If the tea kettle stack has a two, four and five under it, you need to lock a two, four and five on your tea kettle space to get a tea kettle card.

And you don't have to do it all at once. You work up to the price of a good. However, when someone buys a good, the merchant dice get rerolled and any of your locked dice that doesn't match the new rolls get wiped.

On top of all that, you can trade in good cards to place a die on the next highest good without rolling. (Except for the diamond, since it's the highest) There is a cobra card in each deck worth a random number of points at the end. And there is what I consider an essential expansion that awards bonus points at the end of the game for collecting sets of goods.

It's not a complex game by far. But it includes push-your-luck elements with set collection and simple special powers. Its a cute little trading game where you trade with the game.

It's not going to replace Sid Sackson's Bazaar in my collection for my gaming. But I think it will be a good choice for my son and family gatherings in a few years.

This is the second time Dice Bazaar has been on Kickstarter. It didn't make it last time but I hope it does this time. 

Art and auctions opening up emergent gameplay

Auction games are one of the things that put Reiner Knizia on the map. He has made a lot of auction games that have helped define the genre. Ra, Medici, Amon-Re, and High Society, all great auction games.

However, I want to talk about his first major auction game, not to mention his first big hit. Modern Art.

Modern Art is an auction game's game. It uses no less then four different types of auctions, not counting the double auctions. More than that, the auctions influence every part of the game. When you buy somebody else's painting, your money goes into their pocket. And the number of paintings that each artist sells determines how much they are worth at the end of each season.

Since I've already gone through the rules in a review back in 2005, I'll just include a link to that than go over the rules in detail here:

Because I don't want to do another review of the game. I want to discuss how Modern Art is an excellent example of emergent gameplay.

Modern Art isn't hard to teach people. Even if you haven't been to a real auction or spent way too much money on eBay, you've still seen auctions on TV or the movies. And each individual type of auction in Modern Art isn't hard to explain or understand. And the idea that popular artists are worth more money is also pretty easy to explain to folks. 

But we are talking about four or five different types of auctions, plus another mechanic determining the ultimate value of every painting sold, which can be zero. That's a whole lot of intersecting systems. Sure, they are all linked and dependent on each other but that's still a lot of interaction.

On top of that, there is the human factor. Sometimes people bid too high because they get caught up in the action or because they're backing an artist who ends up busting. Sometimes people have a personal preference for an artist. Sometimes, people find themselves collaborating at getting a specific artist on top. Sometimes, they push an artist to sabotage someone else's play.

Money is how you win and you get money only through interacting with the other players, one way or another. And people dealing with people always opens up the door for surprises.

Modern Art isn't my favorite auction game by Knizia. (That'd be Ra) But it is a brilliant game that explores auctions and values with the players being the center of it all.

Friday, March 25, 2016

Emergent Gameplay, Divine Moves, and other surprises

A concept that is central to my fascination with games, both boardgames and role-playing games, is emergent gameplay.

The core concept behind that is when simple systems come together to create complex decisions. In other words, the rules aren't that hard but they allow for tough choices. You know, a minute to learn but a lifetime to master.

Go is the poster child for this. The rules to go are very simple. I once heard someone summarize them in about six sentences, with two of the sentences being there is a 19 x 19 board and the players use black and white stones. However, Go creates amazingly complex situations. A 19 x 19 board is actually a huge playing area and allows for elaborate patterns to form.

However, there is another side to emerging gameplay. That is when the interaction of the players with the rules creates unusual or even unexpected results. This is something that video game community has become fascinated by. Heck, I would even go so far as to say invested in.

But this aspect of the emergent gameplay is also very important to role-playing games and even board games. Honestly, the sandbox nature that is intrinsic to role-playing games actually makes this pretty much what role-playing games are about. They also play an important part in boardgames, although the tighter framework of boardgames makes this kind of a emergent play a little more restricted.

But it's still definitely exists. Back to my example of Go above. Over the many centuries that Go has been around, a lot of formula has been developed. There is a term called Joseki, which means an established pattern of play that that would work well for both players. As a sidenote, even though I did Go for a few years pretty heavily, I was never anywhere near understanding Joseki.

But there is another concept called the Divine Move. That is when a single move, one that is inspired and anything but obvious, can turn the game around. They are said to be so rare that a professional Go player may play one only once in her or his life.

But they exist. Or, a lot of Go authorities say they exist and they know a lot more than I do.

And when games allow for more flexible interactions between the players, this kind of emergent gameplay becomes more possible.

Both of these aspects of emergent gameplay fascinate me. They define the depth and the surprise of playing games.

Vast and Starlit helps you develop your very own cold and uncaring universe

Imagine, if you will, that you are an escaped convict from an intergalactic prison. You and your fellow escaped convicts have managed to take control of a spaceship of mysterious origins. You are now wandering alone in the vast universe with no one but with other conflicts you might not trust, searching for a place where you can be safe, a place you can call home.

That is the basic premise of Vast and Starlit, a role-playing game that basically takes up four large business cards if you include all the expansions. No game master is required to play, which is something of a theme for the games that I have been looking at lately, but you will need plenty of imagination and the ability to collaborate.

Vast and Starlit uses a Troupe  System, which was first described in Ars Magica. It means players take turns being the focal character in a scene while everyone else handles the setting and all the other characters. So, you could call in GM by committee. It still means that one of the biggest reasons to use a GM-free system still applies, no one has to spend hours outside of the game setting everything up.

Like Astrorobbers by the same designer and The Name of God which Vast and Starlit helped influence, a scene ends when there's some kind of tough decision that needs to be made, particularly when someone could get hurt. One of the players sets up the consequences of that choice and you move on to a new focal player and a new scene.

Which isn't a bad core mechanic. It keeps everyone involved and encourages creativity. It also, interestingly enough, doesn't involve any random elements, like rolling a die or drawing a card. I've gotten to the point in looking at quirky RPGs where I take that in stride.

But that's not what makes Vast and Starlit interesting. Oh, no. The system has a whole bunch of smaller systems to help you develop alien races and worlds and technology, as well as handling long term conflict and relationships.

Which is kind of impressive, considering how short the whole thing is.

The various world building mechanics are really what is interesting for me about the game. It takes a very round robin approach. For instance, when creating aliens, players will take turns choosing animals and cultures while other players choose aspects of other players' choices. Not design by committee but refinement by assembly line. It's a system that shouldn't get bogged down and should come up with something interesting.

I really like the idea of world building like that. There is a definite process, so you're not just all sitting around, hoping to start brainstorming. It gets everyone involved but no one gets to veto anyone else. That last bit is big. Ideas keep getting built up, not torn down.

Vast and Starlit definitely has some potential. I can even picture being able to play it as a campaign rather than as a one shot, even though I'm not looking for campaign play right now. The theme reminds me of the start of Blake's 7 or the first couple seasons of Farscape but there's a lot you can do within it. When the universe is your cold and uncaring playground, the stars are the limit.

That said, I'm more interested in trying out The Name of God. I think it has a tighter structure and more tightly interlocking systems. When so much of a game is free for, what structures you do have are very important. But that's just me.

Vast and Starlit opens up a lot of creative doors in just a few pages.

Would I print and play more if I lived in Australia?

I've been interested in print and play for years. For me, it's been a niche in my personal hobby. It's become more of a focus over the last couple years but I don't think it will be ever central to my gaming life.

However, I also live in the US. That's not quite the center of the gaming universe but it's pretty darn close. We have a lot of homegrown companies and a good chunk of the European releases make it over here within a year via local distributors.

But over the years, I've read about how expensive if it is to get games in some regions. (Yes, Australia, I'm looking at you) 

if I lived in Australia, which is not going to happen, even though I do have family there and I think the Wiggles are some of the greatest children's entertainers in the world, would print and play be a much bigger part of my hobby?

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Choose Your Own Adventure is not GM-free

In my researching GM-free systems, I came across the idea that gamebooks, like Choose Your Own Adventure books, are GM-free systems. 

While I am willing to accept the idea that gamebooks can be considered RPGs, although they occupy the design space that interests me the least in RPGs since there's no collaborative story telling.

And some gamebooks do have built in mechanics, for combat and such, which definitely gives them an RPG feel. In fact, Tunnel and Trolls has a long history of solitaire gamebooks, for lonely gamers. 

Seriously, back in the days before computer RPGs (or, more importantly, portable computers like, say, smart phones), gamebooks  were the best option if you couldn't find anyone to play with. Although I remember a friend recommending Role Master for gamers without friends so you could spend hours making a character without  the heartbreak of of the critical hit table killing them in five minutes.

I do have some found memories of gamebooks. When I reread the Cave of Time, I felt like I was reading a map made of pages since there wasn't a plot per se. It was pure exploration, which was kind of neat.

However, i cannot consider them GM-free system. The book is the game master. Or, if you want to get pedantic, the author and editors combined forces to become the game master.

In fact, due to the extreme limits to your choices, I would consider gamebooks to be more game master than most game masters!

I do understand that the Fabled Lands series that came back in the 90s tried to create a sandbox environment in a gamebook format. I've picked up the first book so I can take a look.

A few simple print and play projects to dabble in

Since I just wrote about Print and Play games, I figured I'd should write about a few very simple projects, ones that don't require more than a printer and a pencil or some dice. Projects with a really low entry point.

First off, lets look at an abstract game that doesn't require anything more than the printed board and a pencil or pen. Hex.

Hex was independently invented by two different mathematicians in the 1940s, Piet Hein and John Nash (yeah, the Beautiful Mind guy) It has one of the simplest rule sets you're ever going to find for boardgame. You play on a hexagonal grid, placing stones or drawing your mark on the individual hexes. Each player is assigned to parallel sides of the board and the goal is to connect your sides.

In other words, take the basic idea of Tic-Tac-Foe and scale it up by a thousand.

A few interesting facts about Hex. One, while 11 x 11 seems to have become the standard board size, there's no restriction on how big or how small the board can be. Two, it has been conclusively proven that it is impossible for there never to be a draw in Hex. Third, Hex popularized the pie rule. That's when the second player on their first turn can either make a move or switch colors.

Out of the three games that I'm going to talk about, Hex is oldest and really the best. However, it is also a very unforgiving abstract. The better player will always win unless someone is hitting them over the head with a hammer.

Quite frankly, if you don't like abstracts and you want at least a little bit of luck in your games, then you're better off giving Hex is a miss.

The next game that I want to recommend is Reiner Knizia'' Decathlon. Yes, I don't seem to be able to write about or games without mentioning Reiner Knizia. It will happen someday though, I promise.

The Decathlon is a series of little dice game, each one for a different event. While they all can be compared to Yahtzee, each one has its own twists and has at least a little to do with the actual athletic event.

Different folks have formatted in ways over the years. Still, all you need is a print out or two of the rules and scoring sheets, plus eight dice and a pencil to keep track of the score.

It's not Knizia's best game but it is his best free game and a fun little dice chucked. If you're even a little interested, it's super easy to try out and you can even play it solitaire.

The last game I want to mention is Pagoda, which is an abstract that uses dice for the pawns, with a little dice rolling thrown in for good measure. It was originally a published game but the publishers have now released it as a free game that you can make yourself.

You play Pagoda on a circular board that shows the bird's eye view of a mountain with a pagoda on the top. Your goal is to have your five dice trace of line from the bottom of the mountain up to the top and back down again.

What makes the game interesting is that the pips on the dice determine if the dice is a worm, a goat, a human or Buddha. You start off with one worm, two goats and two humans. However, every time a pawn dies, you reroll it to reincarnate it.

(The six is the Buddha, by the way, who you can only achieve by reincarnation. The Buddha is not placed on the board but is considered to be on any one space. So, if you somehow ended up with five sixes, you would automatically win.)

While I would not consider Pagoda to be as strong as either Hex or Reiner Knizia's Decathlon, since it can end up bogged down, I do really like the reincarnation mechanic. It gives the game very unique feel. Plus, it's pretty good for a game that you just have to print out one page for the board and add ten dice.

As I mentioned before, print and play is very much a niche in the gaming hobby. Some projects can end up being quite a bit of work and many projects can end up not being worth playing. However, there is enough out there that can be fun, even without a lot of work.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Some introductory thoughts on Print and Play

One of the many areas of gaming, dare I even say fringe groups, that interest me is print and play.

Print and Play is when you make your own copy of the game. Now, I don't mean you designed the game yourself. I mean that you simply craft your own copy of the game that somebody else designed.

And nor do I mean that you pirate a copy of a game in order to avoid making sure that people don't get royalties. Many games exist only in print and play form and many companies will cheerfully sell you PDFs so that you can make your own copy. On top of that, there are hobby designers who will happily post files of their games so that people can make them.

There are literally hundreds of games out there that are free for you to make.

Of course, when I say free, I mean you don't have to pay the designer or the publisher anything. You still have to go through the time and the effort and material costs of making the game. And, while there are some PnP that are well worth all that, there are also some that are just junk.

(To be fair, you can also spend good money on games that are junk)

Despite that, it's something that I have been interested in for a good many years. And, since I have been working on breaking my bad habit of binge buying games, it's become more of a focus for the collector side of my hobby.

Mind you, I don't make a lot of the games that I look into. Although, if I actually bought the game, then I'm a whole lot more likely to actually make it. Kind of amusing, when you consider one of the initial draws PnP was that it was technically free. Still, there is the desire to get value out of something that you have actually paid for and there's a stronger likelihood that the game has been more heavily play tested.

Still, having electronic folders of print and play designs definitely has helped keep me from finding a bunch of new games. It satisfies my collecting itch.

While it is still a niche part of the gaming hobby, I suspect that print and play is becoming more and more common. The reason for that is simple. Technology.

With a black-and-white laser jet printer, a laminator from Amazon basics, and a paper cutter, it is fairly easy for me to make cards and boards and tokens and tiles. In other words, with some not unreasonable tools that we bought for non-game related purposes, I can make things fairly easily.

(And, yes, when we got them, we knew that I would be using them to make games. But we did get them for other reasons as well)

And PnP is an easy hobby to dabble in. There are some decent games, like Knizia's Decathlon or Pair of Dice's Pagoda, that just require you to print a page and add dice. If you don't mind using a pair of scissors, there are a lot of games that are just a few pages of cards or tiles.

Print and play is a subject I know I'll come back to a lot. It is a quirky world of gaming just off the main road.

Why Marshall of the Paw Patrol is one of my heroes

With a toddler in the house, we have watched a lot of cartoons, sometimes with him and sometimes to see if we're okay with him watching the show. One program that has become a regular at our home is Paw Patrol, which is about a boy who is apparently a wealthy orphan using talking dogs as an all purpose rescue service. Seriously, it's like Bruce Wayne had more pets and much better therapy.

The show has grown on me as we have watched more and more of it.  And the klutzy but determined Dalmatian Marshall has grown to be my favorite character. And, of course he's the one who drives the miniature fire truck since he's a Dalmatian. He has become my Han Solo to Chase the police dog's Luke.

The show's writers certainly have done a good job making Marshall endearing. His clumsiness gives him the most visible flaw of all the pups and makes his perseverance all the more heroic. However, it was the episode 'Pups Save an Adventure' that cemented him as my favorite.

It's actually one of the least exciting stories in the entire series. Marshall teaches fire safety to little boy Alex when he goes camping with his grandfather. It could easily work as a public safety announcement and it doesn't seem to get as much airtime as many more thrilling episodes.

But the reason why the episode has stuck with me and won Marshall to my heart is that, in his area of expertise, Marshall is 100% competent. It's abundantly clear he didn't get his job just because he has spots. You need someone who is an expert on fire safety and fire prevention who is also a talking dog? First of all, you're really specific in your demands and, second, you're looking for Marshall. 

He doesn't get the job done by being lucky. He gets it done by knowing what to do, even if he is comic relief. Marshall may be a hero because he's determined but he's a good rescue dog because he's got legit skills.

It really feels like cartoons that bridge the gap between education and entertainment are doing a better job at creating interesting role models. Thirty years ago, Marshall would have been a goofball and a load. Now he's a clumsy professional.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Lost Cities continues to be a good game

Since I've found myself reminiscing about Reiner Knizia, I have asked myself where to start. Over the years, I have played a lot of his games and I'm sure I'll play plenty more in the years to come. And he has made so many games I've enjoyed.

So I've decided to start with the first game I ever played by him, which has to be Lost Cities. 

I'm not going to try and summarize how to play Lost Cities. Lots of people have already done that. Come to think of it, I've been one of those people:

Wow. I wrote that over ten years ago.

There are two things I remember about my initial impressions of Lost Cities.

First of all, it was one of the first German Family Games I ever got and I remember how impressed I was by the components. Honestly, it would not be so cool today but a board that had been cut to lie perfectly flat and large cards with detailed, mature artwork in full color that look like they could have come out of an illustrated edition of a Jules Verne novel. That was a step into a whole new world of production values for me.

The other memory is one I mentioned in that old review. I read through the rules and found myself thinking that's it? This is the game I have read people rave about on the Internet? Then I dealt out two hands and tried playing Lost Cities against myself. And even playing the game click for me. I went from underwhelmed to impressed.

That was one of my first lessons in how simple rules can still create tough decisions. How simple rules can create complex situations.

(A few years later, when I spent some time playing Go, I realized that on a whole new level)

Over the years, I have played literally hundreds of hands of Lost Cities. I'll admit that the game doesn't interest me as much now. There are other, similar games that interest me more now. Emu Ranchers, Balloon Cup and Keltis the Card Game are three that come to mind.

But two of those games were openly influenced by Lost Cities and Balloon Cup at least owes some popularity from Lost Cities. Some of these games wouldn't exist without it. More than that, I don't know if I'd have played them without my Lost Cities experiences.

More than that, all three of those games offer more flexible choices. I do wonder if the greater restriction and card placement in Lost Cities creates a more tense game or just a more luck sensitive game.

Lost Cities isn't just a good game to introduce folk to the broader spectrum of games. It's a good game that also happens to be very accessible. After more than ten years, I'd still play it.

A Trip to the Moon creates a safe environment to tell a sweet story

The entire time I was reading A Trip to the Moon by Matthijs Holter, I had 'I'm Your Light in the Night Sky' from the Pajaminals running through my head (I am a parent of a toddler) and when I was done, I found myself thinking that that was the closest I have come so far to reading the Little Prince the RPG.

A Trip to the Moon is a very simple short form RPG. It borders on being a GM free system, although one player will play the moon and that borders on being the game master in some ways. It is also a very sweet game with one of its guiding principles being that you should treat each other well.

In A Trip to the Moon, almost all the players will play children who are somehow magically visiting the moon. The one person who doesn't  play a child is going to play the moon itself. The ultimate goal of the game is to tell the kind of bedtime story that will help a child go to sleep and have sweet dreams.

While each stage of the game has a different set of rules, there are three rules that always apply. Always listen to each other. Accept with the other people have to say and work with it. Always create something that a child would like to hear.

At the start of the game, you dim the lights and everyone sits down on a pillow and snuggles up in a blanket. The game is entirely spent as a conversation, with everyone having a turn to speak. You will use something like a tennis ball or other token so you know whose turn it is to speak. You should use simple, clear sentences with one idea. 

The game gently progresses in stages. The players create children and choose which children they will play. They describe how they go up to the moon and then the moon will interact with them. When the children grow sleepy, the moon will send them home where they can go to bed.

I have looked at a lot of games that don't require game masters and play with storytelling and push the limits of what you can do with role-playing. In many ways, A Trip to the Moon succeeds in doing all of that but by going in the opposite direction then I am used to.

Honestly, I think the biggest hurdle a group will have with this game is that there is not only no conflict, but an active requirement to be nice to each other.

I have also looked at a lot of games with an eye for playing them with children, ignoring the fact that my son will probably only be interested in baseball. While the goal of A Trip to the Moon is to have adults embrace being childlike, I think it would work well with real children.

Part of what makes the game so accessible to my mind is that, despite the amount of free-form it allows, it also has a very tight structure. There are distinct stages that you go through as you play the game. I think that would make it work well with people not used to role-playing games, as well as children.

A Trip to the Moon is a game defies most of what I expect in an indie game and it's even out of the Nordic School. But it's one that I think would be a really good one to play. It's a game about creating a safe environment and I haven't seen many like that. 

How audiences define games

Boardgame hobbyists have a tendency to really break things down into categories. Frankly, it's something that probably every hobby does but since this is my hobby, I'm really aware of that.

When I first started playing hobby board games, everyone called the games that came out of the European family-style German games, mostly because there were a lot of Germans who were designing them. Of course, you could also easily point to Americans and Englishmen and Frenchmen, just to name three other countries. Eventually, people just started calling them Euros.

However, for me, there started to be a disconnect within the category. I was coming across more and more games that didn't have the feel of the 'German' games that I have discovered when I got into the hobby. The games were becoming more intricate and complex, more like puzzles to be solved and less like family activities.

Then I read an article by blogger and game designer Oliver Kiley who broke the category into two distinct groups. German Family Games and Euros. Personally, I found this really helpful for how I chose to wrap my head around games.

As I have grown older and more jaded and more generally accepting, I have found that labels and categories aren't really that helpful. In this case, I do find it helpful. Not as a way to pigeonhole games but understand where the designers are coming from. The crucial difference between these two groups, at least in my arrogant opinion, is that they are aimed at different audiences.

German Family Games are for a more general, mainstream audience, accessibility a key goal. Euros are for more dedicated hobbyists, who are looking for a more intricate design. Mind you, those dedicated hobbyist probably got into the hobby playing German Family Games.

Frankly, I enjoy them both but, now that I am a dad, I see my future involving a lot more German Family Games. And, when I walk through stores like Target and see games like Catan or Carcassonne being sold there, I have a feeling I'm not alone.

I also have a feeling that both categories are very important to the long-term health of the hobby. On the one hand, I think it's important for boardgames to become more developed in the eyes of the mainstream audience. There has to be games that can bring new people into the hobby. On the other hand, it's also important to push the boundaries and to discover new levels of innovation.

I also don't think that it is easier to develop German Family Games.  Being able to communicate complex choices in understandable ways isn't easy. Making a good game, no matter what label you slap on it, is an art form.

You know, I started this whole blog out in order to talk about Reiner Knizia some more. I just got really carried away talking about my idea of the shape of the hobby.

You see, what got me thinking this way in the first place was that, while Knizia does have some designs that could fall under the Euro umbrella and are really brilliant (Tigris and Euphrates comes to mind. I haven't played Taj Mahal or Stephenson's Rocket but I have a feeling that those would qualify as well), I think where his real strength lies is in German Family Games.

(On the other hand, Stephen Feld seems to have a gift for Euros)

Ra, Modern Art, Medici, Lost Cities (and the whole Keltis family), Through the Desert, Samurai, High Society, Battle Line, and Ingenious (and plenty more I can't think of offhand) all fall under the German Family Game umbrella and are games I think folks will still be playing twenty years from now.

I think Knizia is a designer who creates gamers.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Planning on playing Cities when telecommuting to a convention

Every year, a group of my friends get together in Ohio in order to play games. A little, private micro-convention we call Nitro Billy. However, since we moved to Arizona, going to that gathering of friends has really been impossible.

However, last year, I was able to pay them a visit through the power of Skype. Ever since we moved across the country and away from almost all of our friends and family, both Skype and FaceTime have been really wonderful ways to keep in touch. Seriously, I don't know how my parents did it back in the day when long-distance calls were expensive and the only other option from writing letters snail mail.

Truth to tell, there are a lot of boardgames that you can play via Skype. Last year, while I was visiting the gathering via Skype, I got in a really good game of Pentago and several rounds of Galloping Pigs. If I really wanted to, I probably could have supplied them with a long list of good games.

However, this year I decided to suggest just one game that I felt would be very easy to play via Skype, even in a crowded room full of people playing lots of different games. Instead of trying to push the bar, I try to set the bar at something that would be the absolute easiest to play.

Sometimes, you need to seek out the challenge. Other times, you have to avoid the challenge in order to make sure that everyone has the best time possible.

So I told them that we should play Cities, a game that I've already mentioned in this blog. Cities is literally multiplayer solitaire, with everyone placing the same tiles on their board in order to build their own city in place their own set of meeples as tourists in the city. 

We don't even have to see each other's boards. In fact, as long as everyone has their own set of tiles and meeples, you could play this game via conference call. :D

And I know the group has at least one set of Cities because I gave it to them. And I, of course, have my own set.

As I said, there are a lot of games that you could potentially play. Really, any game without hidden information and board isn't too big to fit on the camera could work. And if someone wanted to set up a scrabble tile holder for the cards and set them in front of the camera (which we have done), card games can work too.

But, as I've already said, I think it's best if we go with something that is easy and doesn't create additional complications.

And, yeah, we could do something like online games with headsets or the like but it's isn't the same as actually using real cardboard tiles and real wooden meeples.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Astrorobbers is a tiny RPG that might be too minimalist

While I had been looking for Astrorobbers after Alessandro Piroddi referred to it in his design notes for The Name of God, I stumbled upon it completely by accident.

You see, the game is actually in a free pamphlet called 'What is a Roleplaying Game' with no hint that it might be called Astrorobbers. Heck, for all I know, the game might technically not have a name and Astrorobbers is just a knick name. I found it when I was looking for Vast and Starlit, another game by Epidiah Ravachol, and decided to take a look at it.

Astrorobbers uses a stripped down version of Vast and Starlit. The original version of Vast and Starlit was designed to fit onto a large business card and Astrorobbers is a stripped down version of that. Wow.

Astrorobbers is basically a heist movie, a la Oceans Eleven or the Italian Job or Reservoir Dogs. The players are a group of criminals who are planning a big job. The twist is that they are also astronauts since who's going to suspect a bunch of NASA astronauts to be robbing a bank on the day that they are blasting off into space? Of course, since this is a heist movie, there are going to be complications and things are going to go terribly wrong.

Mechanically, Astrorobbers is a GM – free system with the players basically acting as a troupe. You take turns playing the focal character while everyone else fills in the world around them. The scene ends when you reach a critical decision, with the non-focal players offering consequences for the decision.

The theme really only comes into play with mechanics in a couple of ways. One player has to plan the heist while another is the  commander of the space mission and one person has to plan to turn themselves into the authorities. Beyond that, the game ends when everyone is captured or dead or in orbit.

Since the game consists of a cover page and one page of rules, it only took me about a minute to read through it. And I don't regret taking that minute. The theme is certainly kooky but not so kooky that you could use it. And it is always interesting to look at a minimalist system, which Astrorobbers definitely is.

At the same time, Astrorobbers is really more of a thought experiment for me then a game I could never see myself playing. Simply put, I want to see more structure.

Technically, a game like Baron Munchaussen has fewer rules. You're a bunch of nobleman drinking in a bar and telling stories with the only mechanic being away to interrupt each other. However, in one sentence, I've described the framework that the game works around. With Astrorobbers, you pretty much have to build the framework yourself with the theme just being a suggestion. 

And yes, with the right group of players, that won't be a problem. Heck, I have played with that right group of players more than once. However, a framework and a structure gives you the parameters of what you are exploring. Astrorobbers is so free-form that you can do anything with it. The author freely admits that you can use the rules to do something completely different.

A good narrative game should give you a lot of freedom. However, it should also give you the tools that you use to create the story. A good set of rules should not restrict you. A good set of rules should inspire you and guide you, challenge you to find different ways to think outside the box. Unfortunately, I just don't think there's enough to Astrorobbers to really do that.

However, I'm not going to knock it for that. Both the Name of God and the author's own Vast and Starlit build on these rules to make much more interesting and inspiring games.

The ideas in Astrorobbers are fine, they just don't go far enough. But, hey, it's a free giveaway. Asking it to change the world seems a bit much.