Thursday, June 30, 2016

Aquarius - a simple, cute game that I've been playing for over ten years

While Fluxx is the flagship of Looney Labs and the Looney Pyramid system is their signature item, Aquarius is the little card game that has kept on trucking along since 1998. 

I picked up my first copy of Aquarius before I even started collecting games seriously. And I've been playing Aquarius off and on ever since then.

Aquarius is a game of hidden goals, laying out cards like dominos and a certain amount of chaos.

The original artwork of Aquarius  is a colorful series of retro art images of the four different elements, plus outer space. It looks like something out of the Yellow Submarine. There is also a dragon themed version of the art but I like the extra groovy original artwork. 
The deck is made up of goal cards, action cards and element cards. Even the later addition, which adds a number of cards, is easily small enough to fit into a coat pocket.

At the start of the game, everyone is dealt a random goal card. The card shows one of the five elements. You win the game by connecting seven symbols of the element on your goal card.

Everyone gets a handle of three and a turn consists of drawing a card and playing a card.

The element cards make up most of the game. You lay them out in the grid, as if they were dominoes. When you place an element card, at least one symbol on the card has to touch another symbol that's already in play. Only edges, diagonals don't count.

The action cards are where things get really crazy. The action cards let you move cards, swap hands with another player, or change the goal cards around. That last part is particularly important, since that means your goal might change during the game.

As I already mentioned, when you can trace the path of seven symbols that match your goal card, you win.

Aquarius is a very colorful game, as well as a game plays pretty quick. However, it's virtue that has proved the most important for me is that it is very accessible.

While I do like Fluxx, it's ever changing rules can be hard for some folks to enjoy or even grasp. By playing with some of the basic paradigms of games, Fluxx can be a hard sell.

In comparison, it's really easy for me to teach Aquarius. Just about anyone can grasp it. The fact that it is colorful and pretty only helps.

That is why Aquarius has often ended up in my game bag when I've been to going to conventions or such. It isn't always there, like Pico 2 or Slide 5, but it often gets packed and regularly gets played.

I know that Aquarius is going to stay in my collection. I also know that it will be a race between Aquarius and Treehouse to see what Looney Lab game my son plays first.

The Master Key, L. Frank Baum's science fiction

The Master Key is the closest thing the L. Frank Baum ever came to writing science fiction. While the devices in the book are as magical as anything you would find in Oz, they are at least presented as possible inventions using the power of electricity.

It was also the first non-Oz book that I ever came across by Baum. It wasn't exactly a surprise that he had written other things but it was important for me to find that out. For what it's worth, that also means that I first read the Master Key more than 20 years before I read a lot of his other books. 

Here goes a quick summary with plenty of spoilers: 

A boy named Rob, who is absolutely crazy about electricity and electronics, accidentally makes the right combination of wires and connections to touch the Master Key of Electricity and summons the Demon of Electricity, although the genii of electricity is probably a better description.

The demon, who is one arrogant being and totally dismissive of humanity, decides to give Rob three devices a week for three weeks in order to spread the wonder a knowledge of electricity.

In the first week, Rob is given a bracelet that lets him fly at transatlantic speeds, a wireless taser and pills that replace food. He goes off on some fairly reckless adventures, getting lost and barely making it home. 

On the second week, Rob gets a garment that is basically a force field, a screen that will show events around the world and a pair of glasses that will reveal someone's character. He shows more foresight than he did last time, although he still ends up globetrotting and even helping out some foreign governments.

Come the third week, Rob has had enough. He's come to the conclusion that all these devices are alienating him from his family and that people really are ready for this kind of stuff yet. He rejects the future gifts of the demon and gives the other gifts back. The book ends with a depressed demon hoping to someday humanity will be ready for him and Rob happy to be done with the whole mess.

The Master Key has probably aged more poorly than a lot of Baum's books. While I will agree that things like computers and TV sure seem like magic, the inventions are just too fantastical. In particular, the glasses that basically amount to limited telepathy is straight up magic.

On the other hand, Rob does show more character development than most of Baum's heroes. He goes from a reckless idiot to a mature young man. The book is more about his growth as a person than his adventures with the demon's devices. He's still pretty flat as a character but he does mature.

The Master Key is a cross between an Edison fantasy and a tale from the Arabian Nights, making it unique if noting else.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

A Courteous Night - Romance in two pages of RPG

A Courteous Night, from the Indie RPG Megamix Tape, is an eety, bitty little role playing game for two players. No prep, no GM, requires just a deck of playing cards and should play out in just an hour. 
In a Courteous Night, the players play two lovers and they play out three events in the development of their relationship. The game is couched in fantastical terms with one player being the Enchanted and the other the Sotted with both characters being under curses. However, the roles really just dictate play order and a curse can be something mundane like crippling shyness, overprotective parents or heroin addiction.

The game has a simple but very defined structure. An introduction, where you meet the characters, three scenes that define the relationship, and an epilogue.

The scenes are played out in a call and response fashion, with the active player describing things and the reactive player responding to them. The active player will be playing cards face up and the reactive player will be playing them face down.

The value of the cards sadly doesn't have a direct correlation to the story. Instead, the face up cards will determine who controls the third act and all the cards will determine who is the 'winner'.

I have to note that the third act is a consensual seduction. Unlike Emily Karen Boss's romance RPGs, there aren't any guidelines for respecting people's comfort levels (to be fair, A Courteous Night is only two pages so there is size constraints) but including the word consensual goes a long way to keep things from getting creepy.

The 'winner' gets to narrate the epilogue, which describes how they break the _other_ player's curse. So really, everyone gets to be a winner. Yay!

To my mind, A Courteous Night has a couple strikes against it. First of all, I'm not terribly interested in romance RPGs. Second of all, if I did want to play a two-player romance RPG, the first game I would reach for would be Emily Care Boss's very excellent Breaking the Ice.

I also wish the mechanics of the card play were a little more tightly tied to the narrative. They do serve as a place keeper and help determine who controls certain elements. However, you can play towards winning or losing without that reflecting on how you tell the story.

However, there are some things I do like about the game. First off, an hour running time. As I have grown older and life has grown busier and more complex, shorter playing times have became more valuable.

Second, it has a tight structure. I have found that with narrative games, particularly short form ones, having a tight structure helps keep the game focused, which can be very important with the free form mechanics of many narrative game systems.

Third, I like how the player with the higher point total breaks the _other_ player's curse. It creates a cooperative, collaborative atmosphere.

A Courteous Night is by no means a perfect game. But an hour playing time and a structure that should keep the game moving along  does help it have a definite place in a very specific niche.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Lamarckian Poker - a true diamond in the rough

Lamarckian Poker, occasionally published as Darwinian Poker, is one of my favorite games from Cheapass Games. And it isn't one of their 'official' games, just a rule set that's been on their website and other places.

All you need is a deck of cards. You don't even need a pencil and paper to keep track of scoring. Since a deck of cards is my minimal game kit, it's a perfect travel game.

In a nutshell, Lamarckian Poker is a fishing game that uses poker hands and simultaneous play. Truth to tell, I didn't know what a fishing game was before I played Lamarckian Poker, although I then realized I had already played some!

The goal of Lamarckian Poker is to 'evolve' your starting hand into the best poker hand you can make. Yeah, what it really is all about collecting cards :D (The first time I read the rules, all the evolution terminology completely baffled me. Jargon can be the enemy of communication, particularly when you're talking about a pretty simple game)

Everyone gets dealt out a hand of four cards and then four cards on the table. Then, everyone chooses a card from their hand that they will use to try and grab cards.

Starting with the high card, everyone takes turns claiming cards from the table. You get every card that matches the rank and suit of the card you played but the card you played goes on the table, up for grabs. 

The cards you claim go into your hand for future turns but it is possible to claim no cards, just adding a card for other folks to have a chance at getting. If you run out of cards, you've gone extinct and are out of the game.

After everyone has gone, the table is wiped and four more cards get laid out. When the deck runs out, whoever has the best poker hand wins.

I have played Lamarckian Poker at restaurants, gaming conventions, waiting for D&D sessions to start and while just hanging out. I've played it old friends and complete strangers. And, every time, everyone has had fun.

Easy to teach, quick to set up and dynamic to play, Lamarckian Poker ticks off a lot of things. It takes a deck of cards and gives me a game that feels like a designer game without feeling busy or forced. Instead, it gives me a light, quick game that folks want to play again immediately.

I think the key is the simultaneous play. That makes Lamarckian Poker feel fresh and it definitely keeps the game exciting. It keeps everyone active in the game and make the decisions a lot more interesting.

Lamarckian Poker mashes together three different ideas (fishing, simultaneous play and poker hands) with a rule set that takes up one page and uses a regular deck of cards that everyone has. And the results are genuinely brilliant.

Monday, June 27, 2016

If I play solitaire game, I probably crafted it myself

I have been working on making print-and-play copies of Elevenses-For-One and the chit version of Bowling Solitaire when I realized that most of the solitaire games I've played have been ones that I've made myself. In fact, with the exceptions of Onirim and  Friday, I can't think of any that I've bought.

As a rule, I'm not a solitaire player. I'm not even that into playing against AIs. However, over the years, I have ended up playing a number of solitaire games. And, like I said, most of them have been ones I've made in the name of print-and-play.

Looking back, I'm pretty sure the first one I made and played was Malta Convoy. And by made, I mean printed and and got out some dice. The game simulates the WW II American convoy to deliver supplies to Malta. However, you really just roll the dice to see what happens. It tells a story but it doesn't really offer much in the way of choices. It's biggest virtue is that you just need to print one page.

Of course, there are a lot of solitaire games out there that fit that criteria now.

The solitaire Print-and-Play I've gotten the most play out of, beating out even Onirim, is easily Zombie In My Pocket. Tile laying, resource and time management, and a very strong theme. It is a fun little game.

A solitaire card or board game is a combination of puzzle solving, imagination and wool gathering. It's a mixture of meditation and killing time. The process of actually making it just adds to both of those aspects. 

I'll freely admit that I tend to make ones with minimal components. And certainly not all of them are winners. Sometimes, they're just interesting ideas to look at, even if they weren't actually interesting to play.

However, crafting a solitaire game adds to the entire experience. It is a game that you play on your own. Making it yourself brings the experience full circle, making it self-contained and entirely your own.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Demonic hares, climbing chefs, oh my!

For my old gaming group, Devil Bunny Needs a Ham was the mascot for Cheapass Games. 

Yeah, that position is actually filled by the Doctor Lucky series with the Friedays Zombies in close competition. But, for us, nothing captured the minimalism and the absurdity of James Earnst's designs like Devil Bunny Needs a Ham.

The medically, the game is about doing teams of sous chefs who are trying to climb to the top of a sky scraper on the outside. You know, rather than take an elevator. Why? I guess regular parkour was too easy. However, Devil Bunny is trying to knock you off the sky scraper because he thinks that will get him a ham. Why? Because he's _INSANE_

Devil Bunny Needs a Ham goes a long way towards justifying the theory that Escape of Elba, a game by James Earnst about escaping from an insane asylum, is autobiographical.

In the original game, you got a paper envelope that had a two-piece board forming the skyscraper in the rules. In the printing play version that is available now, you get the exact same thing. You just need to provide some pawns, some dice and an extra special pawn to serve as Devil Bunny. 

At its heart, Devil Bunny Needs a Ham is really just a roll-and-move game (surprise!) It uses the standard methods of making roll-and-move interesting: each player gets multiple pawns to move and you get choices about what direction to move them. You see, the board is really a grid with some blocked off spaces. Pawns can move horizontally and diagonally but not vertically, you know, the way you really want to move. The number of pawns that you get, along with how many dice you to get roll, depends on the number of players.

Of course, the game wouldn't be complete without Devil Bunny. When a six is rolled, Devil Bunny hops on the highest pawn and knocks them down. If you are too high up, you don't get to survive the fall. Other pawns can catch you but, if they belong to another player, they have the option of letting you keep on falling.

The game ends when the roof of the skyscraper is filled up. Scoring is based on the order that the pawns arrive there. Whoever has the highest score wins and presumably actually gets to use the elevator to get back down.

By no means is Devil Bunny Needs a Ham a brilliant game. However, it's a game that is super easy to teach (seeing as how the core concepts are ones just about everyone is familiar with) At the same time, it offers some interesting choices as you jockey your climbers up the sky scraper, trying to block and make sure you can catch your highest climber if Devil Bunny comes out to play.

For years, I kept a copy of Devil Bunny Needs a Ham in my Dungeons and Dragons folder, because three pages took up new room and we could pull out and play if we needed a quick board game.

Devil Bunny Needs a Ham's biggest claim to fame is the absurd theme. It's not like there aren't other genuinely interesting roll-and-move games out there. Backgammon alone has fit that bill for centuries. However, it is super easy to get while still being a decent game. It will make folks laugh when you pull it out and I do like the wide open board, just waiting for players to turn it into a tight maze.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Chief Herman's Next Big Thing, a superior sequel

In 2000, Cheapass Games put out Chief Herman's Holiday Fun Pack. It was a booklet of rules of quirky little games. Then, in 2003, they gave the world a sequel, Chief Herman's Next Big Thing.

And, for my money, Chief Herman's Next Big Thing is the better collection.

In both cases, Cheapass took games that originally were in advertisements and convention and on their website and then made a collection of them.  

However, James Ernest had more practice making games by the time the second collection came out. And it shows. There is definitely more variety in Chief Herman's Next Big Thing. 

And, for me, these collections are as much, if not more, about reading for enjoyment. I'm interested in game design, both mechanics and theory. More variety is more interesting for me.

However, what really makes Chief Herman's Next Big Thing shine for me is that it includes Darwinian Poker, also published as Lamarckian Poker. It's a really good game that I have played a lot with a wide variety of people. I bought the collection to read but including a game that I will suggest and look forward to playing is a big bonus.

I think it's safe to say that there won't be a third Chief Herman collection. For one thing, it doesn't fit into their current business model. For another thing, the Internet has changed a lot since 2003.

Cheapass's website has a free game section that serves as the successor for the Chief Herman collections. And, quite frankly, has a higher quality of games on a whole. The Poker Suite, a collection of fourteen card games, is quite literally a miniature Chief Herman collection. 

The Chief Herman collections are not a bunch of brilliant games destined to become classics. However, they are testament to the ingenuity and determination of a quirky little company.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Chief Herman's Holiday Fun Pack - years of casual reading

Chief Herman's Holiday Fun Pack has given me years of enjoyment. Even to the point where I've had to get a spare copy. Oh, but not to play but as bathroom reading :D

Chief Herman's Holiday Fun Pack may be the ultimate expression of Cheapass Game's game philosophy. Cheapass's argument is that you already have dice and cards and chips and pawns so they don't need to package them. They just gave you the bare minimum to play their games, often just rules and the boards. (These days, they seem to be more focused on Kickstarter, btw)

This philosophy resulted in a bunch of half-baked, cheaply produced (but cheaply sold) games for a good ten years in their original incarnation, which isn't bad. I bought a good chunk of those games and they have survived numerous purges. Partially because they're small but also because they are wonky and some are honestly good games.

Chief Herman's Holiday Fun Pack was a booklet with the rules for twenty-four games and six poker variants, plus a couple of game boards. Many of the games had been previously published as ads in convention flyers and such.

Let's be honest. While Cheapass and James Ernest has put out some surprisingly good games, particularly given their rush-it-out-the-door philosophy, this is not a highlights reel. In fact, it might qualify as scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Despite that fact, it has paid for itself over and over again for me in sheer entertainment value, as well as intellectual curiosity.

Published in 2000, Chief Herman's Holiday Fun Pack is an interesting snapshot of Cheapass's early years. It includes  lot of their early freebies, as well as a board game that have been slated as a standalone publication. 

Pennywise, Spots and Flip, all variations of the same game for coins, cards or dice, had their ruleset included in card game collection Change, as well as being refined for the online version of Pennywise. Hey Bartender was also part of Change. Dogfight is the prototype for Diceland, as well as helped in the development of Buttonmen, which is a brilliant game.

And, if you are like me and have an interest in game mechanics and design, Chief Herman's Holiday Fun Pack is a fun read. They are all bare bones designs and some of them were clearly actually prototypes of later games still being worked on. Plus, the snarky, egotistical comments by the fictional Chief Herman are funny.

I might even reach for the collection if I ever need to host a youth group or other kiddy gathering. It would definitely offer some different activities for that.

Chief Herman's Holiday Fun Pack isn't a brilliant collection of games. Frankly, I've only ended up playing a couple of them. However, it has been one entertaining read.

Monday, June 20, 2016

How Call of Cthulhu helped shape my life... okay, my tastes and gaming

I am a big fan of both H. P. Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos in general. I've read most of Lovecraft's original works and a lot of work inspired by him. I've played a number of board games inspired by the Cthulhu Mythos and there are a lot of role playing games inspired by the Mythos as well.

Okay, it really helps that the original works are public domain now :D

But no game based on the works of Lovecraft and the Cthulhu Mythos have had a bigger impact on me and my gaming life than Call of Cthulhu. To be fair, Call of Cthulhu has had a huge impact on Mythos games, horror games and even role playing games in general.

Everyone knows the old joke about how every character in Call of Cthulhu ends up dead, insane or both. Which, to be fair, if you play like it was D&D set in the 1920s, is pretty much how things will end. If you try to hack and slash your way through, you'll go through a lot of characters.

Call of Cthulhu came out way back in 1981, which makes it one of an old, hoary game. At the time, it broke a lot of paradigms about role-playing. It was set in the 1920s, not really a prime time for adventures. Most of the monsters were vastly more powerful than the characters, meaning any direct confrontation would end in >squish<

And, of course, Call of Cthulhu introduced sanity as a stat. You didn't just have to worry about getting squished. You have to worry about going insane, complete with phobias and difficult recuperation. It both brings home the inherent theme and gives you one more way to feel fragile.

Mind you, I don't think anyone who's going to be reading this blog isn't going to be familiar with Call of Cthulhu and its influence. If you are interested in role-playing games and have heard anything outside of Dungeons & Dragons or Vampire, you're going to know about Call of Cthulhu.

So let me ruminate about how the game has affected me on a personal level.

First of all, it got me interested in Lovecraft. I doubt I am the first person who was interested in the game first and then got into the literature. To be honest, I have spent a lot more time and certainly more years reading various Mythos stories than I have spent playing Call of Cthulhu.

Oh, I am sure that I would have ended up reading Lovecraft even if I hadn't discovered Call of Cthulhu. But it definitely got me reading his works years earlier than I would have. Not a year goes by without me rereading some of his stories and looking for more mythos work to read.

Second, Call of Cthulhu pretty huge part in teaching me to role-play a character as opposed to having a character be a mobile Orc slaying machine. Seriously, when even the lesser Mythos monsters can pretty much take out a character without a problem (and even fighting cultists can be tough work), spending time with character development (and, of course, looking for clues) just became a good idea.

Call of Cthulhu wasn't the only game that taught me to do that. Heck, Dungeons and Dragons did that too. But it became the best choice in Call of Cthulhu  After all, in any game of Call of Cthulhu, you always had to ask yourself why your character is even staying involved. You have to actually explore why someone would go through with this kind of adventure.

Third, I spent a couple years in college playing in a regular campaign. We had a lot of fun and I've hold that it is one of my great role-playing experiences. I got a lot of lasting friendships from that campaign and it is still one of my touchtone experiences in role-playing in general.

I will admit, that if I was going to be in a traditional, investigation based Mythos game, I'd go for Trail of Cthulhu. I have been in games where bad rolls have lost clues and thrown the story completely out of wack. The Gumshoe system helps keep the story moving. Mind you, Call of Cthulhu came out more than twenty-five years before Trail of Cthulhu. There's a lot of time and development to reach Trail. And I'd cheerfully use Call of Cthulhu for a Delta Green game.

Call of Cthulhu keeps on casting a long, unspeakable, shambling shadow.

Friday, June 17, 2016

When Footloose isn't a movie from the 80s

Recently, after I realized that now that I am a father, Kevin Bacon is actually the bad guy in Footloose, I discovered the webcomic Footloose, which has absolutely nothing to do with the movie. 
Footloose follows Keti Jones, who starts off in a version of the modern world where magic and werewolves and such are known to be real. She quickly ends up in a dojo in Fey, where things are a lot more complicated and magical. Picture Hogwartz in a Dungeons and Dragons campaign being run by a very laid back dungeon master.

One of the things that kept me interested in the comic is that, in Fey, the laws of genre are actual natural laws. Things will happen because like they would in the movies. More than that, Keti suffers from Primary Protagonist Syndrome, which means she is always going to be pulled into the middle of situations.

At first, this is played purely for laughs and the series reads like a teen comedy with half-werewolves and grumpy mech. However, as the first story arc develops, things get very series and grim. We later learn that things were so goofy and silly at the start because her guardians were trying to keep her in the comedy genre to keep her safe.

The web comic also does very good job having a large cast of characters and spending time with character development and pretty much all of them. Even though some of the developments are very predictable, after all genre is natural law, it's still a lot of fun.

Unfortunately, I can't talk about a lot of the things that I've really enjoyed in Footloose because that would be spoiling too much. I will say that I had no problems archive binging my way through the series and the spinoff about Cherry, the transvestite magic 'girl'. 

Footloose has not become my new favorite web comic. However, it adds its way onto my regular meeting with and that's not as easy as it used to be.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The bigger picture of Sarah and Duck

We were looking through the children's programming on Neflix to find a show that we could use to wind down our toddler with. We saw that the British show Sarah and Duck was now on Neflix so we decided to try it out.

We has already been exposed to Sarah and Duck when we going through the programming on Sprout. (I am still sad that the Wiggles are no longer on Sprout) However, we hadn't really sat down and watched it, particularly not the way you do when you watch a block of episodes on Netflix.

Sarah and Duck is the quiet, dreamy adventures of a quirky little girl, her pet duck, a narrator who might be her dad and a neighborhood of eccentrics. It is more British than Doctor Who.

While we always found it charming, watching the episodes in order revealed to us that Sarah and Duck has an definite continuity with a focus on world building. Individual characters have introduction stories and later stories show Sarah's developing friendships with them. Locations are introduced and revisited.

Taken as one big arc, Sarah and Duck is the story of a little girl exploring the world around her and developing relationships with the people she meets. It is the story of her growing understanding and maturity.

Of course, at the same time, it is a cute little show for toddlers and preschoolers :)

We have had a pretty good run with Sarah and Duck. When dealing with a two-year-old, we know that his interest will wane and we will move on to a new show to relax and decompress him. But his parents are glad to have discovered how much creativity and imagination is really in Sarah and Duck.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

American Fairy Tales - not bad but not brilliant

A collection of unrelated stories, American Fairy Tales is a bit of an oddball book in L. Frank Baum's fantasies.

First off, the fact that it is a collection of stories that have nothing to do with each other makes it unusual. The Magical Monarch of Mo, while technically a bunch of short stories, is more of an episodic novel while Little Wizard Stories of Oz are all Oz stories.

Second of all, the scope of each story is much smaller. Baum doesn't create any fantastic lands or vast adventures. The stories are more like quirky little incidences. With the Wizard of Oz, Baum said 'Look at this amazing world!' With American Fairy Tales, it's more of 'Hey, look what I found in the cupboard.'

Third, the tone is more snide and sarcastic, as opposed to whimsical and wondrous. Some of the morals are downright subversive. American Fairy Tales borders on being deconstructions of children's stories. 

When I learned that the stories were originally serialized in newspapers, things fell into place. Of course, the stories would be more stand alone and more aimed at an older audience under those circumstances. 

And compared to the other newspaper serial I read by Baum, the Queer Visitors from the Marvelous Land of Oz, American Fairy Tales is a lot more enjoyable and better written. I found the Queer Visitors a dreadful read but I enjoyed American Fairy Tales all right.

The truth is, American Fairy Tales is one of Baum's weaker pieces. Which doesn't mean that it's bad. The man wrote some really good children's books. 

However, it is actually pretty low on the list of his books that I'm planning on reading to my son. It's just a little too sarcastic, not enough whimsy. It really seems to be more suited for an adult audience that wants to laugh at the structure of children stories.

And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Deconstructing fairytales can be great. However, Baum is not the guy who I reach for when I am looking for that.

TAJ is a remarkably complicated Rug of War

TAJ is possibly the most complicated and intricate game of the first series of pack of games. Note that I didn't say it was one of the best games or the deepest game.

A Rug of War, TAJ is about moving oriental rugs about in order to manipulate their prices. Everyone has a secret goal card, letting them know which colors on the rugs will earn them points. 

Like every game in the Pack O Game series, Taj consists of thirty skinny little cards. The whole game looks like a pack of gum, hence the sales pitch. In TAJ's case, the cards come in a bunch of varieties.

There are two voting cards for every player, a regular yea/nay card and a special, one-time override card. There are ten rug cards. Each one shows three colors with a value of one to three for each color. The rugs also have eyes on one end, to mark that they've been appraised. There are ten secret goal cards, showing three colors. One color will be worth x2, one x1, and one x-1. Finally, there is the Taj Mahal card. It is an image of the Taj Mahal long ways on each side with a plus one on different ends.

All 10 of the rug cards are placed in the eyes facing down. The Taj Mahal card is placed above the row, which means it will be above three rugs. When the game ends, only the rugs below the Taj Majal will score points.

On a player's turn, they will propose to switch two rugs. Everyone then vote on whether or not to swap those two rugs. If the yea's win, the rugs swap. If the nays win the vote, there is no swap and the rug farthest from the Taj Mahal is removed from the game. Yes, even if it wasn't one of the two rugs proposed for swapping. No matter what, the rugs that were proposed get rotated so the eyes are on top.

If the vote is unanimous either way, the active player must either move the Taj Mahal one space or flip it over so the plus one is on the other end. As I've already mentioned, every player gets a one time use override card which forces the vote to be unanimous.

When there are either only five rugs left or every rug has been turned so the eye is on top, the game ends. Only the rugs under the Taj Mahal count for scoring and the value for each color is added up with a plus one for whichever rug is under the plus one and of the Taj Mahal. And the high score wins.

With an estimated playing time of ten minutes.

Honestly, TAJ has a number of strikes against it. For one thing, my primary gaming group is my wife and two is clearly TAJ's weakest number of players. For another thing, teaching it could take as long as playing it, which is not desirable in what is intrinsically a travel game.

However, the biggest problem with TAJ is that it is too intricate for its playing time and for what you get out of it. The rules aren't intuitive and the decisions are opaque, particularly in the early game. Which wouldn't be so bad in a longer game where elements have time to develop but it's frustrating in a game this short. Too much of the game is spent taking care of the moving parts.

You know, I'm someone who is always on the lookout for micro games that offer some real depth and legitimate tough decisions. So it feels weird knocking TAJ for being too complex. However, complex doesn't necessarily translate to depth. I feel that both GEM and BUS, also in Pack of Game, offer some real depth to their play time and they are much easier to teach.

I don't dislike TAJ, although it probably sounds like I do. It's just that it hasn't delivered the way that the other games that I've played in the series have. I do hope to keep on playing it and seeing if it has hidden virtues. It is staying in my travel library.

TAJ is a legitimately ambitious and unusual game. It has some interesting ideas. However, I think the sheer number of moving parts overcomes the gameplay. At the same time, I have seen a lot of micro games that try and get away with being so simple they offer no actual choices. TAJ is brave to err on the other side of that equation.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Arts and Crafts leads to game crafting

In our house, arts and crafts often crosses with gaming. My wife is a crafty woman, whose interests include chainmail and Cricut paperwork. I am a print-and-play dabbler with the paper cutter in the laminator being some of my biggest tools after the printer.

My wife just picked up a punch that will not just punched out pieces of paper in the shape of buttons, the kind that you find on dress shirts, but emboss them as well. You get a raised circle that is the outline of the button.

This doesn't just look neat, although it does do that. The punch allows you to make discs out of any color card stock you happen to have lying around, and we have plenty, that are both much easier to pick up then a flat disc and stack nicely.

In other words, they are ideal for creating playing pieces or tokens for any number of games. Since they are paper, I could also use a small stamp to add symbols to them. You know, like numbers.

Of course, as someone who has been doing print-and-play projects for years, I already have poker chips in different colors and different sizes that do that job nicely. And, for that matter, are a whole lot more durable.

Still, if I want tokens or playing pieces of very specific colors and I don't mind that they will have a very short lifespan, this button punch will come in handy. Oh, whom I kidding? I'm already looking for some project that will give me an excuse to use it.

On the one hand, the lesson that I might be getting from this is that, if you are into print-and-play projects, everything starts looking like something that you can use. On the other hand, the lesson might be that there are some really cool arts and crafts stuff out there.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

How Falling brought me into real time games

Falling was one of the first, probably the very first, designer game that I discovered that used real time as an element. That is to say, a game without turns where everyone can do something at anytime.

James Ernst, the man who gave the world Devil Bunny Needs a Ham, is famous for his absurd themes and Falling does not disappoint. You are all falling and you are trying to be the last person to hit the ground. Not much of a goal but it's not like you have a lot of time to come up with a better one.

The game consists of a deck of cards. One courageous soul must choose to not be my seriously hurtling towards the Earth and be the dealer. (Wait a second? Choose NOT to fall to your doom? Make that one cowardly soul) They remove the five ground cards, shuffle the rest of the deck and put the ground cards on the bottom. Reasonably enough, you don't hit the ground until the end of the game.

Everyone else will be developing a stack of cards in front of them. The dealer will be dealing out a card to every stack in the game, over and over again, working their way down to the grounds on the bottom. The dealer controls the tempo of the game and they don't have to go too fast for things to be frantic.

The players can play the top card on their stack, using only one hand. If you pick up that card, you have to use it before you can pick up another card.

The cards are either riders or actions. You slap a rider in front of someone, including yourself. They can make the dealer skip someone or deal an extra card or even start a new stack in front of someone. The dealer then sweeps away the rider, leaving an open space for a new one. Actions let you steal or push away riders, as well as the powerful stop card that destroys a rider or causes a ground card to back on the deck.

Because if a ground card lands on your stack, that's it. Game over and you are a pancake. If the dealer somehow runs out of ground cards, they just point and say ground. There's no getting away from gravity.

Like I said, the goal of the game is to be the last person to pancake. You still hit the ground, of course, but you will be the happiest person-shaped hole in the ground.

I have played a number of real time games since I discovered Falling but I have not seen another that uses an objective third party moderator like the dealer, who acts like a dungeon master in this one-way adventure down the gravity well. It gives the game very unique and interesting feel.

And Falling is a unique experience. It is a quirky but fun game, definitely falling on the frantic party game side of the spectrum. I picked it up over 10 years ago and it has remained in my collection.

Falling is far from the final word in real time game if it was a pretty good first word for me.

Games without turns

I don't go out of my way to look for real-time games, games where speed and time are a factor and you usually don't even have turns. My earliest experience with games like that was probably Slapjack. Which was fun but didn't leave me with a lifelong craving for more.

However, whenever I start thinking about real time games, I start coming up with more and more good ones. What about Falling, I ask myself. That was the first real time designer game you tried and that was good. Oh, and what about Light Speed? That's always fun. And what about Jungle Speed and Ligretto and Spot It? Oh, Escape! Escape is brilliant! And there's Pit and Ricochet Robiots and...

You get the idea.

There are two lessons that I feel I really should be learning from this.

One, arbitrarily ruling out a family of games is a bad idea. Just because you don't like one game doesn't mean another one won't take the same ideas and give them to you In a package you will enjoy.

Second, real time is a big concept with a lot of variety. Some real time games are reaction games like Jungle Speed or Spot It. Others are timed games like Space Alert or Escape. Some are free-for-alls like Light Speed or Ice Towers. Still others do unusual things with time like TAMSK or Falling.

While categorizing games is a useful tool, it can sometimes make me blind to the bigger environment. 

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Beginning civilization with Catan

One of the defining games of the hobby is Civilization, the old Avalon Hill game about building up a civilization over epochs. Not to be confused with the computer game series, which is also a defining game. And resulted in Avalon Hill suing Microsoft and losing.

However, one of the downsides of the game is that it takes 6 to 8 hours to play, and tends to fall more under the eight hours. That's the kind of game that you need to schedule and clear an entire day for. So, there has definitely been a push for all of that in a shorter playtime.

Some of the key benchmarks to a game really giving you that civilization building feel are an epic scope, developing technologies, warfare, and an economic system, one that usually involves trading. 

Often, it feels like a game that is trying to achieve this will either end up being a territory/wargame or an engine building game. There is nothing wrong with any of those things. A game can fail to be a Civ Lite game and still be a really great game.

To be honest, I've been kind of out of the loop on Civ Lite games for a while. I am willing to bet that some interesting ones have come out in the last few years that I have no idea about.

However, one game that I have had in my collection for quite a while that would be my Civ Lite game of choice if someone asked me to pull one out is Settlers of the Stone Age.

Yup, a Catan spinoff from 2002.

The two elements that really make it actually feel like a civilization building game for me are the scope and the fact that there are technology trees. 

The scope in particular is what really gets the game that epic feeling. The map is the entire world, which is pretty much as big as you're going to get outside of science fiction settings. However, what really gives a sense of time and space is that, as the time goes on, Africa gets turned into a desert by over cultivation. When something like that happens in the game, I feel like it really evokes the passage of time.

The tech trees are pretty darn simple. However, you need to advance in things like clothing and shelter in order to be able to keep on moving across the map. So they are an important part of the game and they thematically makes sense.

Of course, the fundamental engine behind the game is still Catan. There are some very significant differences, including the fact that you are moving your camps/settlements across the board instead of building a permanent infrastructure. But if you don't like it you're not going to like this game.

I don't view Settlers of the Stone Age as an alternative to Catan or a variant. It's not a game I would play if I were in the mood for a good time. It is a game that I would play if I want to have a sense of the earliest days of civilization as humanity spread across the world.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

They made Advanced Civ even bigger?

A friend of mine from back in the Midwest just picked up Mega Civilization. I didn't even know it existed until he told me about it.

So I looked it up. Five to eighteen players? Up to twelve hours playing time? The number of advances in the tech tree is more than doubled? The box weighs twenty-five pounds? Funagain games is charging $250 for it? 

Holy cow, they weren't kidding when they put the mega in the name!

To be brutally honest, I can't see myself ever buying Mega Civilization. Heck, even back in my days of compulsive game buying, I am pretty sure the price tag would have been too high. 

Frankly, between playing time and storage space and price tag, this is a game for a niche audience. I don't even know if I'll ever even play the game, although having a good friend own a copy means it's at least possible.

However, there was a time in my life when I did try to get a game of Advanced Civilization in once a year. (The same friend owns that too) By the way, playing it only once a year is not nearly enough to get good at it.

That said, while the game play in Advanced Civilization is deep and complex, the actual mechanics are remarkably simple. The most complex part is the trading and that's just a refined form of Pit. (And I don't mean that in a bad way. Pit is a ton of fun and Advanced Civilization and Civilization really elevate it) 

Civilization, along with Advanced Civilization, define so many of the key points of a civilization building game. Epic scope in both time and geography. Some kind of technology tree with advances that give advantages. Trade and economic development. Warfare.

Even playing badly, I'm glad it has been a part of my board gaming experience.

I also learned that Mega Civilization has rules for shorter games, including a beginner game and six-to-eight hour variant. I still don't know if I will ever play it but that does increase the odds.

A shorter Civilization game has long been a goal for designers. I'm surprised to see a _longer_ one come out but I can see how folks who regularly play Civilization or Advanced Civilization can really appreciate that.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Breaking the Ice is about creating your own romantic movie

Breaking the Ice tackles what is one of the most logical and most difficult subjects for a two-player role playing game: romance and relationships.

Seriously, romance can be either uncomfortable or completely unnecessary for someone to play. Do you really want to play a game about developing a romance with a power gamer who insists on always playing a ninja or an elf in every game, even when it's Bunnies and Burrows? Can I see a show of hands for everyone who wants to do that?

(One, two, three, four... I didn't think I had that many readers. Okay, maybe I'm the exception to the rule.) 

And I have to admit, I have seen a number of two-player specific role playing games out there. So there is an audience out there. So, since I'm looking at two-a player games, I figure I should take a peek at the genre.

Breaking the Ice is one of the more respected games in the genre, at least as near as I can tell. Mind you, I may have just set myself up to read the rest of Emily Care Boss's Romance trilogy :D

Breaking the Ice has you create two characters and then explore how their first three dates go, including seeing if there would be any more dates after that or if they should have called it quits after the second date.

Boss does two things with the game that really struck me.

First of all, she frames the game in terms of a movie, using many movie examples and using the movie rating system to help players understand the structure of the game. This is great because it absolutely gives the players a context to understand the story they're creating. And, since this can be a touchy and uncomfortable subject matter, but also creates some comforting distance.

I'll freely admit that Boss won some points with me by making several references to Bringing Up Baby. Not only did it help define the romantic comedy as a genre and is a great movie besides, I'm a cat lover. Who doesn't want to babysit a leopard?

Second, Boss is extremely adamant  about defining limits. In order for both people to have fun, people have to either define what the comfort levels are or how far outside of their comfort levels that willing to go. If both parties want a NC – 17 movie with graphic sex and possibly even graphic violence, that's fine. But both parties have to be willing to go for that.

Honestly, this feels like a reoccurring trait in Boss's work, making sure that everyone feel safe with in the game. And, frankly, I think that's a very important thing to establish.

For me at least, the most interesting part of Breaking the Ice is the character creation.

It starts with the switch. The players define one or two things that are different about each other. Could be gender, age, orientation, ethnicity, etc. You then make the characters different in that way. THEN, you switch! You play the character who is opposite you.

It's a super clever way of mixing things up and making that change meaningful.

Each player picks their character's favorite color. The two players take turns developing word association chains for each color. They then build the characters personalities and lives out of those words, using as much flexibility as they need to keep it fun and interesting.

After that, the dates consist of the players taking turns actively describing the setting and action while the other player responds and awards dice for good choices and complications. Each date consists of four to six scenes. At the end of each scene, the active player rolls dice to see if they can heighten attraction and compatibility.

You earn dice through attractive ratings and compatibility ratings (which, of course, you have to build through earlier dice rolls) but also through bonus dice you get from the other player and compilation dice by throwing in plot twists. At least in the early turns, bonus dice and conflict dice will be most of your pool.

After the third date, you check out what the attraction and compatibility levels are and figure out what the long term chances are for this relationship.

Every role playing game can live and die depending on the people playing it. In the case of Breaking the Ice that seems stronger than most. On the one hand, both players have to be willing to give the relationship a chance. On the other hand, if folks are too quick to give bonus dice or make the conflicts too light, you won't have an interesting story.

Conflict dice are a big enough deal (potentially half your initial dice pool!) that you have to generate conflicts but I really wish there was more mechanics to throw in screwball curves. Fiasco, for instance, has light dice and dark dice, to determine the degree of failure and success.

Breaking the Ice, in all honestly, isn't a game that really interests me but that's just because this isn't a niche I'm into. On the other hand, if I was going to play a game where I was reenacting a screwball romantic comedy, Breaking the Ice does seem like to would do a great job at that.