Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Taking flight with Lady Blackbird

Lady Blackbird is the story of a noble woman searching for true love in an endless blue sky of shattered worlds. It's also a role playing game system built around a single scenario with a strong narrative focus.
On top of all that, it is also an example of a role playing game designed so that everyone, including the game master, can sit down and play with minimal preparation. 

Lady Blackbird pulls off a pretty amazing trick. It uses pregenerated characters and a synopsis of the general storyline BUT manages to be opened-ended enough that the players have immense freedom to make their choices and develop the story. That's a pretty amazing balance.

Lady Blackbird is set in a world that in one part steam punk and one part swashbuckling adventure and one part fairy tale. Sky pirates and sorcerers fly spaceships through the breathable aether. The players portray Lady Blackbird, her bodyguard and the scruffy but good-hearted band of rogues helping her escape her arranged marriage and reach her secret lover, the pirate king Uriah Flint.

Each player character sheet also includes the rules, which should give you an idea how simple the rules are. Every time you try to do something tough, you build a dice pool and roll, 4,5 and 6 being successes. Characters break down into traits to add dice to rolls, keys to get experience points and secrets that are really special abilities.

I particularly like keys. When you hit a key, you either get an experience point or a die in your personal dice pool. And you can buy them out for extra experience or dice by acting against the key and getting rid of it. Keys help guide roleplaying but also gives you so much freedom that you can subvert them.

The game master section is really what makes Lady Blackbird work. The game master is encouraged, above all else, to ask questions. They then use the answers to build the situations and story. That's collaborative story telling!

While I sadly have not played Lady Blackbird, I have a number of friends who have and who really loved it. And, because it is so open in its structure, it has a lot of replay value. The same group of players can play it again and come up with a completely different story.

Lady Blackbird pulls off the very difficult trick of being mechanically very simple and accessible but allowing for some very involved character development and story telling. If you're looking for a game that'll last two to four sessions that requires minimal prep time, Lady Blackbird is a strong choice.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Baron Munchausen - no prep, no GM, all fun!

The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a game that has cast a long shadow over my gaming life and it's also had a heck of an impact on role playing games in general.

You see, Baron Munchausen was one of the first games you could really call an indie RPG, coming out in 1998, before indie had become  an idea or a movement. 

Of course, at the time, not too many folks considered it a role playing game. Heck, when I first played it in 1999, I didn't think of it as a role playing game, just a fun party game. But, these days, after a lot of exposure to indie games, I think of it as both :D

Baron Munchausen is a GM-free minimalist system that requires no preparation and it can easily be run in just an hour or two. In it, the players reenacting mud.   the life of the actual historical Baron Munchausen. That is, sitting around a bar and telling outrageous lies.  :P

While the actual mechanical rules to the game take up only two pages in what's over a hundred pages in the latest version (and only consist of how to interrupt another player in the middle of their story), the book is a lot of fun to read. It gives you a good grounding on what kind of stories to come up with and, just as important, the tone of those stories.

It's worth noting that the designer, James Wallis, was also one of the designers of Once Upon A Time, a collaborative and/or competitive fairy tale telling game, which even further blurs the line of RPG and party game. 

In fact, while I now do consider Once Upon A Time an RPG, even when I didn't, I considered it a useful way to teach new role players how to play pretend and work together to tell stories.

While Baron Munchausen was innovative in the way that it took parlor games and improvisational exercises and turned into a role playing game, it's not the end all, be all of indie gaming. You're not going to get a deep or introspective game. You're going to get light, silly fluff. Of course, Baron Munchausen isn't promising you anything but that.

Baron Muchausen still holds up as a fun game, after all these years. It's a role playing game that you can literally just sit down, make up funny titles for yourselves and start playing.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Sandman: Map of Halaal - a weird art project of an RPG

I remember seeing advertisements for Sandman: Map of Halaal back in 1985 but it wasn't until I got a PDF copy of the game last year that I really got to figure out what it was all about. (And, just to get this out of the way, it has nothing to do with the comic book that would come out a few years later and be really awesome) 

You see, the gimmick of the game was that it was a role playing game that didn't require any prep work. The idea was that you could just sit down with the game and get playing right off the bat.

Sandman did this by using pregenerated characters, pregenerated adventures, a very simple rule system and by having the game master do every last bit of heavy lifting. Seriously, the players don't even get to see the character sheets. That's all being handled by the game master.

Part of the gimmick is that everyone is an amnesiac. You don't know who you are or what you're good at. The game master gets to reveal that to you if the opportunity comes up. Oh, you're firing a gun? Guess what, you might turn out to have the gun skill. The game master is even stuck keeping track of everyone's hit points.

So, Sandman was set up so that everyone BUT the game master could sit down and play without any kind of preparation. I'd hate to think of how Sandman would go if the game master went in cold without looking at the game. And, frankly, game masters are the ones who really have to do all the prep work in the first place.

And the adventures were all serious railroads, with instructions to kill the characters if they don't make the right choices. Honestly, there's no flexibility for either the players or the game master.

All of that negativity said, I do have to say that the actual storyline of Sandman was pretty interesting, if not to say completely trippy.

I really don't know if I'd ever run Sandman and I can't really play it because I've already read all four adventures. But I did get a kick out of reading it. As far as weirdness is concerned, Sandman: Map of Halaal is in a class all its own.

In the first of the interlocking adventures, you end up in Casablanca. No, not the city. The characters end up in the movie. They will have encounters with Humphrey  Bogart and Ingrid Bergman and so on. From there, you end up in a traditional Arabian Nights adventure. With Nazis.

That is the normal adventure.

Things good increasingly bizarre in the later adventures. Planes flying out of 1940s and landing in the Middle Ages. Tinker Bell helping the players flee from Chicago gangsters to Never Never Land. Psycho drama versions of fairy tales hosted by thinly disguised versions of Disney's seven dwarves. Albert Einstein flying a spaceship out of Ancient Greece with a robot Dionysus.

Sandman reads less like an adventure game and more like an experimental student film. Which, undeniably, did make for some fun reading.

You'll commit punchline is that we never get to find out what this is all about. Sandman was the first in a series of boxed adventures. However, they were never able to publish the rest. What is going on, who the characters are really, The mysterious Sandman that is trying to kill them is, none of that ever gets answered.

My personal theory is that the entire adventure is taking place in the mind of a schizophrenic in a coma, which explains all the pulp culture elements and why time and space don't matter. But it could just as easily be that everyone is dead and in purgatory or its all a computer simulation or maybe the gods are just crazy.

As genuinely fascinating as Sandman is, I have to say that I ultimately viewed as a failure, particularly for at goals. The idea of it being a role-playing game with no preparation needed is frankly a lie. The game master really needs to be familiar with the adventures.

And, these days, the idea isn't nearly so unusual and it is a lot easier to find no preparation games done well. For instance, Lady Blackbird is a game that uses a simple mechanical system and the plot written out in broad strokes. However, unlike Sandman, the game isn't a script with a player somehow need to follow almost perfectly. Instead, it is wide open outline that everyone gets to develop.

Sandman: Map of Halaal is a fascinating experiment. It has some very bizarre but fascinating writing and a laudable objective. Unfortunately, it is far too restrictive.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Pico 2 - eleven cards of awesome

While I've said that Love Letter is the ruler that all other micro games are now getting measured by, for me, Pico 2 is the game that defines micro games.

Of course, it doesn't hurt that it came out in 1997 and I've had a copy living in whatever bag I have on me since 2006. :D it's had a good six, seven years for me to have fun with it before Love Letter came along.

(In case you're wondering, the reason that it's Pico _2_ is that Pico was published in 1996, made out of excess cards from another Doris & Frank game. Pico 2 is a revision with a more balanced card distribution)

Pico 2 is a streamlined and more refined version of the old card game GOPS. It consists of just eleven cards, four to thirteen, plus sixteen. Every card has a set of pips on it, ranging from one pip on the four to four on the sixteen.

You deal out five cards to each player and set the last card face up, so you both know exactly what's in each other's hand. On each turn, you each secretly pick out a card and then simultaneously reveal them.

The high card wins UNLESS it is more than double the value of the low card. In that case, the low card wins. So the five will lose to six, seven, eight, nine, and ten but beat eleven on up. Whoever won that turn puts their own card face up in front of them in their scoring pile. 

The round ends when someone is down to one card. You count up the pips in your scoring pile. THEN (and this is the really clever bit), you trade hands and do the whole thing over again. Highest cumulative score wins.

A game of Pico 2 honestly takes only about five minutes. If it took a half hour, that would be way to long and get tedious. But, for five minutes, it offers a lot of interesting bluffing and second guessing. I've played it with a lot of different people and it's always been a hit.

Part of what makes it so engaging is that it's so simple but it's also downright elegant. It takes the older game of GOPS and makes much tighter, honing the decisions down to a razor's edge. It packs a lot of tough decisions into five minutes with eleven cards.

A lot of tiny games have spent time in my pocket or game bag, ready to be played at the drop of a hat at restaurants or bars or coffee shops. Pico 2 is the one that has never stopped being part of my traveling bag of tricks. Yes, it takes up almost no space but it also is such an easy game to teach while still being challenging and fun.

Some micro games are like dancing bears. It isn't that the dancing is good but the fact that the bear can dance at all. Pico 2 is not a dancing bear. The trick isn't that it is only eleven cards. The trick is that it's a good game.


Thursday, May 19, 2016

Coup - who am I really?

While Love Letter is the poster child for the modern micro game, Coup is a strong runner up for that position. It came out in the same year as love with him and helped establish that Love Letter wasn't just lightning striking once, that tiny little games had a lot to offer. 

Each character represents a faction or household in a corrupt city state. Using your influence in the form of hidden rolls, your goal is to wipe out everyone else who is contending for control of the city, leaving you as the only one in power. 

The original game consisted of 15 cards and a bunch of money chips. Since then, there have been enough expansions that I almost have to question if we can still consider who to be a micro game :D The deck breaks down to five different role cards that are repeated three times.
Everyone starts out the game with two hidden role cards, representing your influence. If you ever lose both of those cards, you are out and your opponents are one step closer to taking control of the city state. Each role has a different power, allowing you to do things like gather up money or assassinate other people's role cards or do some hand management with the unused cards.

Here is the twist that makes the game. Your role cards always remain hidden. You can claim to have any of the five roles and as long as no one challenges you, you get to use that power. Of course, when there is a challenge, someone is going to lose a card.

So, on your turn you have five different actions that you can take, plus three neutral actions as well. The game is about constantly bluffing, sometimes bluffing by telling the truth. And while I'm not a huge fan of player elimination, Coup does a good job of making it interesting. 

Personally, I really like Coup. I like how it has such a complex set of decisions while playing in 15 minutes or less. The game is full of player interaction and definitely rewards good play. 

Honestly, I like Coup more than Love Letter with one caveat. Coup is strongest with five to six players while Love Letter plays better with three to four players (and doesn't play any higher than that) So Love Letter is better for just pulling out and playing, particularly when the fifth player hasn't arrived yet.

Coup is a fun game that had a lot of meat in its short playing time.


Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Love Letter, the tiny game that started a revolution

If there is one game that I have to thank for having a lot more micro games to look at, it is Love Letter.

Love Letter didn't create the genre and I don't know if it's the best one out there. But it has breathed new life and new interest into micro games and has become the new yard stick to measure them by.

Love Letter consists of sixteen cards, plus some little red cubes that are just a handy way of keeping score. You could replace them with a pencil and paper or a good memory of you want the game to be just pure cards.

The idea behind the game is that everyone is trying to get their own love letter to the princess, passing through various people who are close to the princess. It's a pretty thin theme but I think it manages to work pretty well for just 16 cards.

The game is very simple. After everyone is dealt out one card, you draw a card on your return so you have a hand of two. After you play one of those two cards, it's the next players turn. After the deck runs out, whoever has the highest card in their hand wins that hand. Or the game, if you're playing by the original rules which just has a single hand be the game.

But you knew there had to be a twist. Every card has some kind of special power. They range from the guard who lets you guess another player's card and knock them out of the hand if you get it right to the princess who can win you the hand if you have her at the end but if you ever reveal her before then you automatically lose.

The game is all about bluffing and the interaction of the different cards. Honestly, there is only so much bluffing that you can do in the game because you are limited to two cards. However, Love Letter play so quick that I don't see how that's a problem. And only having the choice of two cards isn't that restrictive, again when the game is so short. It practically becomes a feature.

For us, Love Letter hasn't been that great as a two player game. However, I have had a lot more fun with it as a four player game. Which has made me come to this conclusion about it. One of its great strengths is that it plays well as a three to four player game. In fact, I think that is key why the game has gained so much popularity.

You see, there are plenty of two player micro games out there. I think that is one of the natural spaces for the genre. Pico 2, R, Tides of Time, Coin Age, all well regarded micro games that are designed for two. After that, we start looking at social deduction games for large groups, like Werewolf.

Love Letter plays like a Euro with a Euro theme and is for a Euro-sized group. I do think it's a pretty good game but I think it did an amazing job finding an audience.


Monday, May 16, 2016

Keeton's Journey is a pressure cooker for role playing

Keeton's Journey is my favorite game that came out of the Free RPG Blog's 2013 Harder Than Granite competition. The contest inspired me to write about different entries for a week and I saved what I think is the best for last. While it does make some interesting use of dice, it is the structure of the game that makes me appreciate Keeton's Journey.

In Keeton's Journey, one player plays a wandering medicine man named Keeton who travels from village to villages, helping them deal with mysterious supernatural life forms called yokai. One player plays Keeton while everyone plays villagers. While Keeton is there to deal with the yokai, the problems will always be intertwined with the secrets and lies of the villagers.

It's based on Mushishi, a manga I've never read. However, Keeton's Journey does remind me of Dogs in the Vineyard, Princes' Kingdom or Kagematsu. In each case, an outsider has come to solve an isolated population's problems with a strong focus on character development and story.

Setup for the game is quick and straightforward. You'll need a regular pip die for every villager and some paper and pencils. At the start of the game, the villagers come up with a rough description of the village and their roles in the village. They also need to each come up with an important secret they keep.

Gameplay has a fairly strict structure. Keeton has an introductory scene with each villager. Other villagers can appear in that scene but it is that player's spotlight scene. There is then a second round of scenes, heightening and escalating there situation. The outcome of these scenes will determine if the village can be saved, with the game ending on an appropriate epilogue.

So, here's the mechanics. At the start of each round, all the dice will get rolled. At the end of each scene, a die will be used to determine a dramatic revelation or action that will end the scene.

It gets even more interesting that that. It doesn't matter what the number is, per se, but what kind of picture the pips form. Two and three represent the Path, pushing people forward. Four and six represent the Box, when people close themselves off. Five is the Crossroads, tough decisions. Lastly, one is the Loner, isolation.

In the second round, choosing the Path or the Crossroads means you reveal your secret. Choosing the Box or the Loner means you keep your secret. At the end of the game, if more people reveal their secret, Keeton is able to deal with the yokai and save the village. 

Yes, that means that the dice rolls will determine if the village is saved or not. And guess what, that doesn't matter. That isn't why you play a narrative-driven game like this. The reward of a game like Keeton's Journey is how you tell the story and a well-told tragic ending can be immensely satisfying.

Part of this is because, outside of the restrictions of the dice, there is immense freedom in what kind of story you want to tell. There is only the illusion of restriction. Instead, the structure in a narrative game helps guide you and keep you focused. The structure is a tool for you to use.

In other words, Keeton's Journey is the kind of game I've come to really enjoy after discovering and exploring the world of indie RPGs.

I like how Keeton's Journey is well designed for a low prep one-shot that still has room for deep and meaningful role playing. With just two rounds of scenes an experienced group of players could finish a game in three to four hours. Less experienced players, I'm guessing two to three hours. (Less experienced narrative players will probably have shorter scenes) I can even see breaking it down into two little sessions with ease.

Keeton's Journey isn't brilliant, although the dice symbolism is a really good idea. It is a game with a structure that I know works and creates some really great story telling. It takes many of the lessons I've learned about indie game design and story telling and puts them in a tiny, pocket-sized pamphlet, perfect for a one-off night of gaming and story telling.



Saturday, May 14, 2016

A Flask Full of Gasoline is also full of crazy awesome

A Flask Full of Gasoline is one part genius, two parts machismo and eight parts unbridled lunacy. If you ever wanted the perfect RPG based on movies like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or Snatch with a chance at folks ending up in the hospital, this is your game. On the surface, it's a really funny spoof of RPGs. However, beneath that is some interesting design choices.

Before you play, you're going to need to get a bunch of shot glasses, some matches, a bottle of 190 proof grain liquor, a pile of bullets and a hip flask full of gasoline. Character sheets consist of writing down five things that make your character a badass hard case.

Dealer sits everyone down at the table in any order they choose. Sitting farther away from the dealer is a disadvantage so this is blatant favoritism time. Everyone gets a shot of grain liquor and sets a bullet face up in front of them.

Here's the mechanics. If you want to do something or you don't like a decision the dealer made, you flick your bullet at the dealer's bullet. You make it, cool. You get your way. Miss, lose one of your badass traits, which are also your hit points.

Don't want to lose a trait? Fine. Take a hit from the flask of gasoline to show you really are that tough. In case you didn't know it, ask any idiot who tried to syphon their neighbor's gas tank and is now at the hospital, this is a REALLY dumb idea. Put you in the ER or the grave dumb idea.

PVP is handled by flicking your bullet into the other guy's shot glass. Miss, you drink your shot. Make it, you get your way and they have to drink their shot, bullet and all. Beats chugging gasoline but not by that much. 

Dealer hands out match sticks for doing awesome cool stuff. End of the game, whoever has the most matches gets to burn down whatever they feel like. Whoever has the least has to burn down whatever the group votes on. Better hope it's not your ma's caravan with her in it.

A Flask Full of Gasoline consists of three little pamphlets. Main book, dealer's guide (which is mostly how to play head games and mess with people but does include NPC rules), and a sample adventure. Taken as a whole, it's a hysterical read and amazingly over the top madness crammed into 24 little pages.

However, The last page of the adventure includes alternate rules to make the game something you could play without people dying. And that turns the whole thing on its head.

Fill the flask with grain liquor. Fill the shot glasses with vodka. Swap out the bullets with candy. Boom. Instead of a parody that could kill someone, you have a functional game based on pub games.

Yeah, I'm actually looking at a Flask Full of Gasoline as playable game. Deal with it.

Here's the thing. Over the years, I've played a decent number of games of Dread, the one with the Jenga tower. Swapping out dice or cards for dexterity games does work and it adds a completely kind of tension and excitement to a game.

Don't get me wrong, even with the alternate rules, we're looking at a fast and silly game where everyone is going to get hammered. Seriously, how good do you think your candy flicking skills really are?

At the very least, A Flask Full of Gasoline is definitely worth a read. You could stand up on the stage and just read the rules and have everyone rolling in the aisles. However, with the alternate rules, I can see the right crew of people having a lot of fun with it. It would be a light, silly, sloppy game that would require designated drivers but people would have fun. 



Thursday, May 12, 2016

Heist Aces lets you live out your heist movie dreams

Heist Aces is not only a card-driven roleplaying game where the players are a team of crooks planning out an Ocean's 11 style heist, it's one where the players help the GM design the adventure. 

It also happens to be the winner of the 2013 Harder Than Granite contest at the Free RPG Blog. And, I can see why. It is a well-designed game that has also has a solid layout. While I do have a few questions about some of the rules, it's a pretty impressive job for an eight-page pamphlet.

The core of the game is built around a deck of regular playing cards, with each suit reflecting a different plot element. Spades represent sneakiness, diamonds represent braininess, clubs represent skills and hearts represent force. Each character gets one plot device for each suit, plus another random one from a random draw.

The game is broken down into two parts, planning and the job. 

The GM draws random card and that is going to be the job. The rules don't actually state that the suit of the card determines the nature of the job but I'm taking that as a given. The GM writes down the nature of the job on a Post-it note and sticks it on the card.

The team now does the legwork, investigating the job. You do that by drawing a card and adding an element to the job based on the suit. Write it down on a Post-it and add it to the job card. There is a time limit to this, though. For every 15 minutes of real time that the team is investigating, the GM gets to draw a card that they can use as an obstacle against the team.

Players start out with no cards in their hand. You get to draw cards by using your aspects or plot devices during the job. I'm pretty sure that you get draw cards for using aspects of the job that was developed in the planning stage. The rules don't explicitly mention that but it makes sense as a way of rewarding the players for developing the job and penalizing them for taking too long.

The GM puts obstacles in the teams way by discarding a card and using that suit to define the obstacle. If a player can discard a card matching that suit, they completely handled the obstacle. If they discard a card that doesn't match the suit that matches the color, they get a yes but result. Something still goes wrong and the GM gets to draw a card. If you can't even do that, the whole job falls apart.

You can also resolve the obstacle by discarding your entire hand. Of course, that's not only going to leave you in a bad state but it's going to make you work harder on building up your hand. But every time you have to reshuffle the deck, the GM gets draw a card for every player.

There is a lot that I like about Heist Aces. I really like all the players work together to put together the adventure. That means that you can just sit down and play because the set up is an active part of the game. I also like how the narration and the mechanics or so tightly tied together. The players have to actively create a story in order to get cards to handle their problems.

However, there are some gaping holes in the rules. I know that part of that is because the contest restricted the layout to an eight-page pamphlet and 24 hours to design the whole thing. Still, I had to make some assumptions on how some elements worked, as you probably noticed.

One of the biggest holes is what kind of hand does the GM start out with? Do they get a starting hand, like one card per player? Do they start out with an empty hand and build it using aspects of the job? The rules do describe how they get bonus cards but they need some kind of hand in order to get the obstacles rolling.

The list of obstacles also look like they're supposed to relate to specific suits, which I assume they do. However it was not explicitly clear, although me being colorblind might not of helped. (Like, were they in black and red?)

That being said, these gaps in the rules can be addressed with some fairly simple fixes. The structure of the game is clear enough that it just requires a few Band-Aids, as opposed to a major overhaul or heavy house rules.

And I do think that the structure of the game is sound. More than that, I really like how everyone gets to design the adventure and how tightly the role-playing is tied to the mechanics.

Heist Aces has a lot of potential in one tiny little pamphlet. I've already recommended it to the number of my old gaming buddies back east.



Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Looking forward to someday getting lost in The House of Unusual Size

The House of Unusual Size is not my favorite entry in the Free RPG's Harder Than Granite contest from back in 2013. (That's a toss up between Keeton's Journey and A Flask Full of Gasoline) It is, however, the game I think I'm most likely to play.

The game is set in the ancient mansion of Ezra Keeton that was built atop a mountain and undoubtably built into the mountain. In a twist that feels like it's straight out of Lovecraft's Lurking Fear, the Keeton family vanished long ago, perhaps into the mansion.

The players wake up alone and without any memory in the mansion. As the game progresses, they must explore not only the mansion but who they really are. In the end, they must find each other and escape from the tangled labyrinth that is the mansion of Ezra Keeton.

The players start off with a blank character sheet. As the game progresses, the story will let them define a positive quality, a flaw and their connection to the Keeton family.

The House of Unusual Size is a GM-Free system, something that I have come to really enjoy. The player to the left of the active player serves as the GM for that player. They flip a coin, with heads being a positive scene and tails being a negative scene. The scenes can include self-discovery and challenges and fantastic encounters. The other players help fill in details and play other characters or creatures who might be in the scene. You just flip a coin if you have to figure out if a character fails or not at doing something.

After everyone is figured out who they are and what they have to do with the Keeton family, there will be a climactic scene where everyone escapes from the mansion together. There is really no mechanic for everyone dying or catastrophic failure but, if the group wants to play a game like this, they should have no problem filling in those details.

Oh, make no mistake. The House of Unusual Size is far from a perfect system. The rules and the structure are so vague that I don't think it's new player friendly at all. I think it would would only work with a crew of players who are experienced with narrative games.

Frankly, the rules being so vague and requiring interpretation would normally be a game breaker for me. However, the sheer ease of pick-up-and-play and the degree that the theme lends itself to easy story telling makes the game appealing to me anyway.

If I am going to have a role-playing game that I can print out on one page, fold up, and put my pocket, I wanted to be one that can be pulled out and played at the drop of a hat. A House of Unusual Size pulls off the trick. 

After all, all you need are the rules, a coin, and a way to write things down. Spooky houses are a genre that is easy to run with. Heck, in a pinch, you could use rock paper scissors instead of the coin and memory if you don't have anything to write things down with.

I can see it being an easy game to play during a road trip, at a cafe, or Skype. I can even see playing it via conference call, although probably just to prove that you can. It would be easy to hack to make shorter, like having every scene add an element to the character sheet with the last round of play being the escape.

The House of Unusual Size definitely needs a group that's prepared for a strong narrative focus and one that can handle minimal rules. Despite that, I can see myself packing this tiny little RPG in my convention bag, just in case. It makes a great use of its theme, strong enough to carry the minimal rules.



Alpha UNIX where uncertainty is the only mechanic

Alpha UNIX is a tiny little RPG with rules that are so simple they are barely even there. And it has a very strong theme that not just justifies those simple rules but uses them to elevate the theme.

Alpha UNIX was an entry in the Free RPG Blog's 2013 24 Hour contest. One of the requirements was that the designers couldn't include numbers in their game. Alpha UNIX takes that to a whole new level.

Take the Matrix and mix in a healthy amount of Groundhog Day. Then season to taste with Paranoia. Everyone is now inside the machine, the all powerful computer, forced to relive the day the computer was turned on over and over again. The players are rebels, trying to escape from the machine. They do that by introducing uncertain and doubt. 

There are no random number generators in the game like dice or cards. After all, numbers are the province of computers. Instead, players can do anything they want to, as long as they say it in an uncertain manner.

If they say anything as a certainty, they reaffirm the reality that the computer is creating. They give power back to the computer and the computer can use that power to punish or delete them. 

Basically, Alpha UNIX is an advanced version of the party game where you're not allowed to say the word 'I' or 'the'.

I'd be interested in trying Alpha UNIX to see how well this approach to minimal mechanics works. I have played systems that were this light but not like this. If it works, I can see it being a handy game for car trips or playing via Skype. 

I'm sure it won't work for some groups and, frankly, I don't know how well it would work in general. But I do think it's a brave design that is cleverly linked to its theme. 



Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Blind bidding and the Prisoner's Dilema as the basis for an RPG

The kingdom is at war and the king lies dying. A power struggle has begun between the rightful prince, the supreme general and the the resourceful bastard son of the king. One of them will rise to the throne but war might destroy the kingdom before them.

Make the King is a tiny RPG designed to be played with exactly three-players. It was part of the Free RPG Blog's 2013 24 Hour contest. What makes it interesting for me is that the mechanics use blind bidding and a variant on the prisoners' dilemma.

Each player starts off with two mugs, one full of black chips and the other full of white chips. Two empty mugs sit in the middle of the table, one for each color.

The players will take turns playing the king, calling the other two characters to the king's deathbed. The king will ask questions, asking the two of them of the wars going.

After they give their versions of the situation, which will probably be completely conflicting with each other, the two players bid on who's version of the truth is real.

Each player can bid up to half of either their remaining white or black chips. If they both been wanting to, the larger bid wins. The winner gets the losers bid and their bid goes into the mug on the table designated for white chips. Black chips always beat white chips and both bids going to the mugs on the table. If both players good with black chips, the higher bid wins with both bids going into the mugs on the table.

Well there are rules to make sure that everyone gets to play the king twice, the game ends when one of the mugs on the table is full. If the white mug is full, whoever has the most white chips left in their personal stock, they become the new king and describe how they win the war. But if the black mug is the one that is full, the kingdom has lost the war and been conquered. Everyone loses but whoever has the most white chips is the scapegoat.

On the one hand, the board gamer in me likes the simple but tight auction mechanic with the twist with the end. It's simple but it works from a mechanical standpoint. It reminds me a lot of games like Terra and High Society. It isn't a proper prisoners' dilemma but it reminds me of it.

On the other hand, what I don't like is that the role playing isn't really tied to the mechanics. It doesn't matter what you do in your interviews with the king or what kind of story you create. This is a game with a real winner and loser and that is solely determined by how well someone works the auctions. That really isn't a winning point for a role playing game for me.

I've seen mechanics that make more sense in board games used in RPGs before. Mars Colony and Dread come to mind. But in those cases, they were married to the story and helped drive it.

Still, to be fair, Make the King is an entry in 24 hour contest. It had some interesting ideas. I don't see myself every playing it but I did have fun reading it.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Discovering a new blog and reading about an RPG contest

I recently stumbled across www.thefreerpgblog.com. Honestly, being someone who is interested in quirky RPGs, it's amazing it took me this long. And the first post I really poured over were the entries for the 2013 Harder Than Granite 24-Hour RPG competition.

Rob Lang, who writes the blog, set some pretty tough additional requirements. The games had to not include numbers and they had to fit in pocketmods. For them that don't know, a pocketmod is folding and cutting a regular sheet of paper into a little eight-page pamphlet.

No numbers was an interesting idea, since that meant so many basic RPG concepts get ruled out. Pocketmod seemed a bit more odd to me, since PDFs and ebooks and mobile devices have made me stop caring about the size of rule books :P

Oh, and he also wanted designers to include an NPC named after the guy who runs one thousand monkeys one thousand typewriters since 1KM1KT is the biggest online collection of free RPGs.

The contest gave me nineteen tiny, odd little RPGs to read through and I did that in over the course of twenty-four hours. Not that impressive when you remember that that was just reading nineteen single-sided sheets of paper.

I found that some of them were really just conflict resolution systems, which honestly didn't interest me that much. Some of those were really interesting ideas for mechanics but they didn't give me a game I wanted to play.

But others had much tighter focuses. They gave me settings and told me what kind of story I was going to get out of the game. They had serious structures. Which is actually really impressive for such a small space. They also usually had actually simpler rule sets but I'm cool with that.

You see, if I'm going to carry around a RPG in my pocket, I want to be able to play it at the drop of my hat with five minutes or less of teaching. Simplicity married to a structure/story is what I want.

Truth to tell, I came away with five or so games I think would be fun to play, a couple more than I want revisit and examine and one that is the product of an insane mind that I had to share with a bunch of friends. (The core rules of A Flask Full of Gasoline will put you in the emergency room.)

I am really happy that I found the Free RPG Blog and the 2013 contest was such a fun introduction.


Friday, May 6, 2016

Pyramid Arcade funded with flying colors

It isn't a surprise that the Arcade Pyramid got funded, seeing as how it matched its funding goal on day one. Additional stretch goals, like reprinting the Looney Labs chess board bandana and thirty extra pyramids (so you can play games like Zendo or Pikeman) were reached. So, it was a smashing success and Looney Labs has a good history as a company so I'm confident in the project getting fulfilled.

I do have to admit that I backed it at a lower level, in part to get the special green pyramids and in part to simply show my support and be a part of the project. I already have well over two hundred pyramids and pretty much every additional accessory for them that had been already produced, including the bandana. :D

In fact, I bought the boxed sets of Ice Towers and Zendo back when they were being produced. Zendo, in particular, has served as a great tool box for the pyramids. (The color contrast in that color set is better for my color-blindness) The Pyramid Arcade is the super-sized version of that.

Honestly, while I have always been a big fan of the pyramid system, the Pyramid Arcade project has reminded me just how much you can do with it. The part of me that loves researching print and play projects loves the system because it lets me explore new games all the time. And I am sure the Pyramid Arcade only encourage more development.

It has even made me end my hiatus on Superduper Games, since there are pyramid games on that site. (I have no issues with the site. I think it's amazing place to play some very unusual abstracts. I just periodically take breaks from it.)

I have had many years of good play from the pyramid system. I think that the Pyramid Arcade is only going to spark more interest in the system and encourage more games to be developed.



Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Magical Monarch of Mo, the start of Baum's fantasies

The Magical Monarch of Mo, originally published as A New Wonderland, was L. Frank Baum's first fantasy book, published right before the Wizard of Oz. 

And it has more whimsy and nonsense than any of the Oz books. Living jigsaw puzzles or people who carry their brains around in cans pale before how silly Mo is. Everything, from clothes to baked goods, grows from trees in Mo so no one has to work. No one ever dies in Mo. Getting chopped up or flattened is just an inconvenience.

Unlike most of Baum's fantasies, the Magical Monarch of Mo is a collection of short stories, connected by either about the monarch himself or one of his innumerable relatives. There is also a loose arc about the purple dragon, the greatest foe of the Monarch because the dragon is a candy hog. Oh, and likes to bite off people heads.

I found the Magical Monarch of Mo to be surprisingly fun. Not only is it lighter than almost anything else he wrote, it embraces the silliness without restraint, like how the monarch escapes from a  pit by turning it upside down so he's on top. Not having an outsider like Dorothy actually helps because it lets the natives of Moe just romp about.

Many of the ideas in the book reappear in later books, like the idea of food growing on trees or no one ever dying in Oz. However, they get  scaled back from the craziness that you find in Mo.

While the Monarch does not reappear in later books, moon is referred to in both the Oz books and the Life and Times of Santa Claus (Santa gets his candy from Mo).

The Magical Monarch of Mo is not one of Baum's greatest books. It definitely lacks dramatic tension when someone can get their head bitten off and be just fine. It also lacks a strong central protagonist like Dorothy for the readers to relate to and cheer on. However, it is still silly fun and if a child can handle someone getting squished flat and pumped back up, they will enjoy it.


Wednesday, May 4, 2016

How Button Men demonstrates a good rule of thumb for quick games

Particularly when it comes to micro games, I have a simple formula that I tend to judge them by. Effectively, how many meaningful decisions do I get to make per minute?

This is really something that applies more to micro games then larger games. After all, a micro game is not going to be more complicated or deeper than a larger game. Well, at least it really shouldn't be! If that's the case, you're probably picking the wrong larger game to compare it to!

Really, with larger games, the time factor isn't as stringent. I'd go with how many interesting decisions I get to make during a turn. Even that isn't that good a formula. After all, some games, like Macau or Le Havre, are really about building up to making those big decisions.
But it still a decent rule for judging micro games.

There are any number of games that I could use as an example for the rule. Pico 2 or Love Letter are both examples but I'm going to go with Button Men, a quirky little dice game designed by James Ernst.

Button Men is one of those games that is much better in play than it sounds like it has any right to be. Stripping all of the chrome away from the game, which really doesn't serve any purpose other than to give them an excuse to add a picture to the buttons are cards, Button Men is a game about capturing dice.

Short version, each player has a collection of dice that is determined by their button/card/character. You use your dice to capture the other guys dice by either using one die that has a higher number or two or more dice that add up to exactly the number of the die you're capturing. Every die that is used to capture another die is then be rolled, shifting the playing field.

There is always at least one interesting crucial decision to make in a round of Button Men, generally two or three. However, since you can usually knock a three-round game out in five minutes, that's pretty good.

Was I engaged during the game? Do I feel like my decisions were important to whether or not I won or lost? Did I have fun? Did I feel like I played a game? I ask myself those questions for any game but I really feel that if I can say yes to a game that takes five minutes to play, that's a big deal.



Tuesday, May 3, 2016

What is a micro game?

What exactly is a micro game?

Micro games are a concept that has fascinated me pretty much from the start of my interest in boardgames. Before I helped create a regular board gaming group, a lot of my gaming was done at restaurants or coffee shops or the like. Games that didn't take up much space and were easy to teach and quick to play for something that I was looking for.

And, quite frankly, something that has kept on being pretty darn handy.

The concept of micro games has been around since the 1970s, when pocket-size wargames started coming out with Ogre being the first and still one of the most famous. More recently, the tiny card game Love Letter has inspired a wave of little games aimed at hobby gamers.

Frankly, I'm not going to say that size or portability is the distinguishing feature of the micro game. a travel chess set is pretty darn portable but it is not a micro game. It is everything that a regular chess set is, just smaller. A regular deck of cards can fit in your pocket but I don't think anyone would consider that a micro game.

(Of course, I own a travel chess set and decks of regular playing cards and am glad of them. They just don't really fit into this particular discussion)

If you were to play a game of Ogre and a game of Love Letter back to back, they would be completely different experiences. The only thing that would be similar about the two games is that they would be fairly small. Ogre is a more complex game with more pieces and definitely takes longer to play. Since I've already ruled out size, what makes both of them definitively micro games?

This is what I think is the real defining aspect. They both have fewer pieces then you would expect. Ogre is an old-school wargame but it only has one small sheet of counters. Love Letter consists of just sixteen cards, plus some cubes for scoring. For their genres, they just don't have a lot of components.

And it really depends on the genre. You don't need anything to play charades and no one will be calling that a micro game.

Mind you, what is important is that micro games, as a concept, have been around since at least 1977. Probably longer but that's when the name got minted with Ogre. And, over the course of nearly four decades, a lot of micro games have been developed and made. And there are enough of them that are good, even great, to make them worth playing and enjoying.



Our son discovers Don't Spill the Beans

Years ago, I picked up a keychain version of Don't Spill the Beans on a road trip. Technically, it was fully playable but the tiny size made that impossible. (Connect 4 is the only game I've found that still works when shrunk down that small, unless you count playing Yahtzee with teeny dice) So it just became a curio in my junk drawer.

But when our toddler found that keychain, he became obsessed with getting the real game. Since I didn't grow up with Don't Spill the Beans, I wasn't that interested until my wife pointed out that this was a game that a two-year-old would be able handle playing by the rules.

So we picked it up.

For those of you who were like me and had a deprived childhood without any idea that this game existed (I've never played Hi Ho Cherrio either but I'm sure that will change), Don't Spill the Beans consists of a plastic kettle on two pivot arms. Players take turns dropping a bean on the top heavy kettle. When it inevitably tips over, whoever caused the spill gets all the beans. Whoever gets rid of all their beans first wins.

In other words, we're talking about a very simple game. Being a dexterity game, there isn't any reading or math that you have to worry about. And, for a dexterity game, the physical skill requirements are very low.

Which makes it perfect for a two-year-old, who still working on his hand eye coordination. It is a game that he can handle the playing requirements and understand what's going on.

The lesson that I was really hoping that he would take out of Don't Spill the Beans was taking turns. Personally, I've come to the conclusion that that is one of the first important things that the child needs to learn about gaming and one of the first valuable life lessons that gaming can teach a child. Good sportsmanship is a close second, of course. Other rules like this pawn belongs to you, counting spaces, don't over bid in auctions and never start a land war is Asia will follow.

And, much to my delight, our son does understand both how the game works and that Mommy and Daddy get a turn before he gets to put another bean on the kettle. While he has played with stacking Animal Upon Animal pieces and made matches with Spot It and Memory, Don't Spill the Beans is the first game he has actually played by the rules. 

Yes, sometimes he gets too excited about the beans spilling and forgets that not spilling them is the goal. And eventually, the toy factor wins over and the game ends. We do occasionally get through an entire game before that happens, though.

Still, I think that being able to follow the rules and being able to let other people take turns are really big steps.

Father Geek has recommended weighting for the kettle with coins when kids get older and the balancing becomes more of a legitimate skill activity. The number of coins can even let you create different difficult levels. We've already discussed using real dried beans in different sizes.

Don't Spill the Beans is clearly not one of the greatest games ever made. There will be no mistaking it for Agricola, even though they both have agricultural themes. However, the bean game is going to mean Don't Spill the Beans in our household for a while instead of Bohnanza.