Saturday, July 30, 2016

If you want to play with Pentominos, you need to look at Katamino

At its heart, Katamino is a set of Pentominos. 

A Pentomino is a geometric shape that is made of of combining five squares. There are twelve possible shapes you can make this way. They even have a naming convention after the letters each one resembles the most closely.

To be honest, I actually learned a lot of what I know about Pentominos from the kid mystery book Chasing Vermeer. One of the two kids carries a set around and uses them as a thinking aid. I had seen them in games like Blokus before that but that book got me thinking of them as their own idea.

For all intents and purposes, Katamino is a tool box of activities you can do with the Pentominos. It comes with a tray with a spacer so you can make different sized areas to work with. There's a book of puzzles that you can solve with the Pentominos, as well as some smaller blocks to fill in spaces for certain games.

The games include a speed puzzler, like Ubongo, and a tile-laying game kind of like Blokus. But, so far for us, where it really shines is just as a puzzle. Neither Carrie or I are that into puzzles but we've definitely enjoyed the Katamino puzzles and there's a ton we haven't done yet.

On the one hand, I have to admit that I don't think that Katamino does anything in particular special. The actual games cover ground I've seen before (and, at least in the case of Blokus, done better) The puzzles are fun but Katamino didn't invent Pentomino puzzles.

BUT, where Katamino shines is in the quality of the components. This is not the first set of Pentominos I've owned but it is by far the best made. I've had ones made put of cardboard or plastic. Katamino's are made out of chunky, thick wood. These are solid blocks.

They are easily the most durable Pentominos I've ever used by far. And, since they are so thick, you can make three-dimensional structures out of them, which is actually one of the kinds of puzzles. Our two-year-old is still too young to do the puzzles or play the games but he loves building with them.

Katamino would not be my first choice of abstract games to buy. However, as a casual solitaire puzzle and as a family activity, it really sings. It's not something I'd pull out for hardcore gamers but it's something I can see us as a family enjoying for years to come.

DISCLOSURE: I was sent a review copy of Katamino (Thanks!) but I don't have any official connections with Gigamic.

Finding deeper meaning in the Story of the Treasure Seekers

I'm a big fan of A. E. Nesbit's Psammead trilogy. It's one of the cornerstones of modern children's fantasy, even if I have to always look up how to spell Psammead. So I decided I needed to read more Nesbit. After all, so much of what she wrote is now public domain so I really have no excuse.

So I decided to read her first children's book, The Story of the Treasure Seekers.

To be honest, I found it fairly tough going at first.

The Story of the Treasure Seekers doesn't have any fantastic elements. Instead, it describes how the six Bastable children look for pocket money after their mother dies and their father's business is almost defrauded out of existence. Through a combination of having too much imagination and less common sense than the average brick, their various plans, which include selling wine, making patent medicines and becoming bandits, result in wacky hijinks. 

And here's where I started having problems. The family is in serious shape. Their mother is dead and their dad is clearly on the verge of bankruptcy but the kids seemed to never stop being jolly and silly. And with six of them, the oldest ones, at least, should have some kind of clue.

Looking back at the first chapter, the youngest Bastable is eight. Yeah, these kids are definitely too old to not to realize how serious their family situation is.

However, two things made me end up making an alternate interpretation to their silliness. One is that the narrator, Oswald, is a hysterically blatant unreliable narrator. That puts their whole jolly attitude in question.

And, here and there, there are little comments that make it clear that the Bastables don't want to talk about or even think about their dead mother. It also becomes clear that many of the adults who they encounter deeply pity them.

I found myself reading the Treasure Hunters not as the misadventures of six somewhat dim and possibly deranged kids but as six kids who are deeply traumatized and desperately trying to cope with the way their entire world has fallen apart. Not nearly as funny. Actually kind of dark, really. However, it made the kids a lot more sympathetic for me. 

Seriously, I slogged through the first three and a half chapters. Found it dreadful and put the book down for months. Picked the book up again, came to my alternate interpretation and blazed through the rest of the book in a sitting. Heck, it's really not an alternate interpretation. It's all clearly there.

With that in mind, the theme that now comes through the book is family. Through all of their trials and tribulations, the Bastables hold together as family. In the end, they resolve their problems by bringing their uncle into their family.

The Story of the Treasure Hunters is not going to be one of my favorite Nesbit books but it did have more layers and depth than I was prepared to credit it at first.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Prince Valiant the RPG might return?

While I usually just look through Kickstarter for boardgames, I do look at the role playing games and was surprised to see that a revised edition of the Prince Valiant Storytelling Game from 1989 is getting Kickstarted.

Over the years, I've regularly heard about the Prince Valiant RPG and been interested in looking at it. At the time, it was a revolutionary design. Unfortunately, it's been really hard to get a hold of a copy so I've never actually read it.

(I also have to admit that I've never been a fan of Prince Valiant, largely because it's never been carried in a newspaper I or my parents have gotten. I have always thought the artwork is pretty, though)

The two goals of the Prince Valiant RPG were to be a simple system that was extremely novice friendly and to still give a rich, thematic experience that reflected the comic strip the game was based on.

Did it do a good job? Since I've never read the book and I don't know anyone who's played the game, I can't tell you. However, the game is still remembered. It may not have gotten reprinted but it hasn't disappeared into obscurity.

Prince Valiant didn't invent the idea of simple rules that would be easy for non-gamers to pick up. The Ghostbusters RPG did that in 1986 and Toon did it even earlier in 1984. Still, in 1989, the idea was still an outlier as opposed to an accepted school of design.

The actual mechanics are dead simple. Characters have two statistics (one for physical stuff and one for social stuff) and access to a fairly small and focused skill list. Add up the numbers between stats and skills and flip that many coins with heads being successes.

But that's not what interests me. How was it presented? What was the GM section like? How was Prince Valiant the story integrated with the game?

The fact that it was designed by Greg Stafford, who also was a major designer of Pendragon, the definitive King Arthur game, as well as a lot of other stuff (including that newbie friendly Ghostbusters RPG I mentioned earlier) is a major interest point. It was made by someone with serious RPG chops.

How well has it aged? I don't know. But I am curious enough that the Kickstarter tempts me.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Do I like older games better?

Looking at the way I purge my game collection, it sometimes feels like I'm keeping a lot more older games. It makes me wonder if I'm letting nostalgia be a major factor in what I'm keeping.

And nostalgia has helped some games hang on. My box of most Cheapass Games catalog speaks to that. It doesn't hurt that they take up less space than my Ticket to Ride collection :D

But older games like Catan or Ticket to Ride or Through the Desert or Ra or Bohnanza all have a firm place in my collection, not going anywhere, and my oldest cat is younger than the youngest of them. (To be fair, neither of the two tabbies who came from the same litter are that old)

However, to be fair again, I've also gotten rid of a couple hundred games that are that old. I think that what I'm really looking at are games that have really proven their staying power. They're games I've played lots of times and want to keep on playing.

I used to be part of the Cult of the New, trying every new game I could. However, these days, I'm part of the social club of the tried and true. (It's a fair bit less formal, really)

At the same time, I have to admit that I do prefer what some folks call German Family games, as opposed to Euros. And sometimes it feels like there was a golden age for German Family game about ten, fifteen years ago and it's more of a golden age for Euros. I bet there are brilliant German Family games being made right now and I just don't know where they are. Like Bigfoot, only with meeples and cards.

In the end, I'm keeping games that I want to keep on playing. And if I've kept on wanting to play them for years, I've kept them.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

An outsider's look at Pokemon Go

Unless you count playing boardgames online, I'm not much of a video gamer. However, I did marry a video gamer, which helps round out our household nicely.

So I am actually aware of Pokemon Go. Otherwise, I would just think I was seeing a lot of people reading deeply meaningful texts all at the same time.

As a non-video gamer and a dad, I have a lot of appreciation for Nintendo. As a company, they seem to really encourage family friendly fun and activities, including encouraging kids to get some exercise. And they gave me Professor Layton. That's a franchise I can really sink my teeth into.

For everyone who is like me, Pokemon Go is a game that combines hunting and live trapping cute little monsters with GPS. You actually have to get out of the house and hunt the Pokemon down on foot. 

I've been calling it Pokemon the LARP.

I actually consider this to be pretty brilliant. I understand that the game eats battery power like it was going out of style and probably isn't that good for data plans. I know folks have wandered into bad neighborhoods looking for Pokemons and a Wyoming girl found a dead body (which sounds like the start of a weird crime drama - They collect Pokeman and Evidence!)

However, I like that it encourages kids to get off the couch, go outside and explore their environment, along with getting some exercise. Plus, the idea of creating a mashup of the real world and virtual reality is still new and exciting, even if other games like Ingress have already done it. 

The other night, I saw a group of people standing outside a closed library, staring at their phones. I wanted to pull over and ask them what faction they were in.

I don't know if Pokemon Go will be a two-week phenomena or a lasting game or a sign of games to come. If nothing else, it's a fascinating social experiment and an infesting idea for a game.

Game storage solutions

In addition to flat out getting rid of games as part of making room in my son's closet, I've also gotten into the habit of just getting the boxes. That does kill the resale value so I try to stick to games that I'm not planning on getting rid of.

Let's face it, some game boxes hold a lot more air than game. One of the more extreme examples for me is Augustus. Definitely a game that I want to keep but it took up a fraction of its Ticket to Ride-sized box. It now shares a box with Blue Moon City and Paris Connections. Three games I know I want to keep on playing that take up a third the storage space.

The downside is that I have to consult a chart to find some game :D

The single biggest boon was buying a couple of cases of photo boxes. Carrie  originally for me as a storage solution for Dominion but Dominion spread out over a whole bunch of little boxes proved to be a logistical pain. However, each individual box works just fine for individual games. You know, as long as they can fit.

Which is a surprising number of games, quite frankly. I've filled two cases with games, which has made for a dandy storage solution, not to mention a fairly portable game library. Although, at the moment, my plastic case of Pack O Game games has been my traveling library, since it'll fit in a large pocket.

Of course, a side effect of this is I have to be careful where I store these games. Condensing makes the boxes a lot heavier!

Monday, July 25, 2016

4X and its shifting meanings

I feel like I'm seeing the term 4X used a lot more often than I used to, like its the new thing.

Which seems kind of odd. After all, while the term got started in video games, it's been around in practice in board games since at least the 70s.

The term refers to Explore, Expand, Exploit and Exterminate. Exploring means finding out what the map is. Expand means creating some kind of infrastructure, usually settlements and the like. Exploit means using the resources you find, almost always involving a tech tree. Technically, Exterminate means fighting and eliminating other players but it seems to just mean fighting these days.

As a genre, 4X really seems to have taken hold in the video game arena, which is where the term was coined in the first place. Basically, we're talking about in depth empire building. The term usually implies a big scope and a high complexity.

Over the last few years, what seems to have become a goal is create shorter and more accessible 4X board games. The first time I really heard the idea bandied about was with Eclipse, which described to me as Twilight Imperium for people who only want to play Euro games.

When it really struck me was when Tiny Epic Kingdoms, a 4X game that can fit into a really big pocket and take about a half hour to play. And now there's even a travel version that will fit into just about any pocket. 

And when I got a chance to play Scythe, it was described to me as a 4X game that combined the sensibilities of Ameritrash and Euro. It sure seemed to live up to that description.

It seems to me that the term 4X might be changing or shifting, making it harder and harder to definitively pin down what is and what is not a 4X game. In particular, the Explore and the Exterminate aspects seem more nebulous to me. 

With computers, the ability to create new maps and ones that are filled the fog and the unknown is a lot bigger than what you can do with a board game. Heck, in Scythe, a major component to the exploration experience are encounter tokens, which are one-shot multiple choice benefits.

And, as I already commented, Exterminate originally meant just that. Wiping someone off the map. Now, it seems to just mean fighting. With a loose enough definition of fighting to include siccing the robber on someone, someone could argue that Catan is a 4X. Not that I think anyone could actually get away with that argument.

I got curious and looked up if Nexus Ops was considered a 4X game. And I found that it was not. While it does have exploration and exploitation and even extermination, it does not have expansion. Which makes sense. Your forces really just squat on mines. You don't build any infrastructure.

Ultimately, what I'm getting out of 4X becoming a more common term is that the term has gotten more vague and not everyone is going to agree on what qualifies.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Nexus was one of my introductions to area of control

Nexus is a game that has stuck in my head for a good long time. Part of Cheapass Game's hip pocket line and _not_ to be confused with Nexus Ops, I don't know if it deserves the fascination I have with it but it's staying in my collection.

It's a very simple tile laying, area of control game. It's made up of forty-eight cards showing white paths and intersections over a pale blue background. Very plain and simple but still aesthetically pleasing.

The rules are also really easy. Every side has one path so there's no possible illegal plays. However, the intersections range from dead ends to four-ways. In your turn, you place a card and place a marker you supple yourself (Cheapass Games, remember) on any open intersection on the board.

When a chain of paths is closed, you score it. And that's where the clever bit comes in. The value of each token is the value of the intersection it's on. So dead ends are worth one and four ways are worth four. Whoever has the highest value in tokens gets the points. But a chain is only worth the value of the unclaimed intersections. So a good fight over a chain can really tank the score.

By the way, you score closed chains and then place a token so you can't zero out a chain.

When someone gets to ten points, they get to be declared the winner.

I know that one of the reasons Nexus has stuck in my head is that you lay the cards long end to short end to create a basket weave. I know that's because they're rectangular cards, not square, but it still creates an interesting visual.

I also know it made an impression because it was a game I picked up before I really got started collecting games. That definitely gives it a leg up in the old memory department.

I honestly don't know how it would hold up now. Truth to tell, given my limited time to play games, other small area of control games, like This Town Ain't Big Enough For the 2-4 of us, are much more likely to end up on the table. 

However, since it's smaller than a regular deck of cards, it gets to stay in the collection. Devaluing chains in order to claim them does make the game interesting. Maybe it will help me introduce my son to area of control.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

My favorite Blokuses

In earlier blog, I wrote that I consider Blokus to be an important game. It's a simple abstract with deep choices that's had real mainstream success. I think it's a game that will still be played twenty years from now. However, I also wrote that I prefer Blokus Trigon and Travel Blokus to the original. So much that they are still in my collection and the original is not.

In the original game, each color starts out in the corners and work their way towards the center. It takes a few turns for any kind of conflict to get going. And you have to use all four colors. Otherwise, there will be too much open space. In two players games, each player uses two colors. With three players, you take turns playing with the neutral color. Or, better yet, don't play three players.

Travel Blokus or Blokus Duo solves these issues by being strictly for two players and having the starting positions near the center of the board. Instead of a leisurely series of opening moves, you get a knife fight from the start. And the smaller board makes that knife fight happen in the proverbial phone booth. It's a much tighter, more ruthless game than its parent.

When I first saw Blokus Trigon with its hexagonal board and pieces made of triangles instead of squares, I thought it was just a gimick. It took me literally one play to completely revise that opinion.

Like Travel Blokus, the starting positions are close to the center, allowing conflict right at the start. And there are multiple starting positions, adding to replay values. 

The triangular shapes create more porous barriers than the square shapes in the other Blokus games. This makes blocking harder but it also makes for more interesting plays.

But the real treat of Blokus Trigon is that it is a really strong three-player game. With three players, you don't use the outer ring of spaces. That's all it takes to create a claustrophobic playing area. Blokus Trigon doesn't just play three players. It is the one of the strongest three-player abstracts I have found.

I think that, for the world in general, Blokus is important for being a modern classic. But for folks like me who already liked a abstracts, it's important for being creating a model that helped create even better games.

Friday, July 22, 2016

Our son's first movie

When my in-laws visited, we decided to be braver and try somethings we'd never dared try before. We decided to take our toddler to a movie, with the backing of Grandma. 

The movie that we chose for this momentous event was Finding Dory. We figured that it was our best bet, between the bright colors and the knowledge that it didn't have too many scary moments. (Sorry, Don Bluth. We will save cartoons with nightmare fuel for when he's older)

We figured that the best thing that could happen would be he would be enraptured by the colorful adventures of the Pixar fish and sit in awe throughout the film. The worst thing that would happen is that he would freak out when the lights went out or from the crowd or something startling him in the movie.

Instead, we ended up with a middle ground. After ten minutes of trailers and twenty minutes of actual movie, he got bored and tugged on Mommy to take him out into the mall that cinema is attached to. No screaming or crying or temper tantrums. Just 'All done'

Mommy took one for the team and let Daddy and Grandma watch the rest of the movie. Which I was appreciated, since I've enjoyed most of Pixar's work. (The one comment I'll make about the movie is that the way they cashed the check they wrote with the trail of shells was beyond heart warming)

I've decided to take this as coming out ahead. He didn't make it the of most of the movie. However, it wasn't a trauma or negative experience for him. He enjoyed the time  he had in the cinema. It's something to build on.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

The Masque of the Red Death gave me nightmares

Dungeons and Dragons has had a wide variety of official settings, which only makes sense for how long it's been around. Some of those settings have really made some extreme changes in the basic concepts of Dungeons and Dragons. In my experience, the one that made the biggest changes was Masque of the Red Death.

Red Death was a subsection of another setting, Ravenloft, the world of Gothic horror. Ravenloft, all by itself, tends to be deadlier than your general Dungeons and Dragons experience. Magic, particularly happy divine healing magic, tends to be weaker.

Red Death moves the play out of out-and-out fantasy and to a Gothic Earth in the 1890s. You know, just like a regular historical Earth, other than some eldritch miasma that causes horrible abominations to arise.

On the one hand, this more mundane setting makes magic even more limited than Ravenloft. Magic items are scarce to the point of non-existence. There really isn't any armor to speak of. 

On the other hand, there are guns. Which might be ineffective against some monsters and opponents with opposable thumbs have access to guns too. At least there aren't misfire rules. 

Still, if a player has to choose between a gun can take a long time to reload and a fireball, they'll pick a fireball every time. Or, heck, even a magic missile.

Really, in many ways, Red Death had a similar feel to Call of Cthulhu. At least in the games I was in, player mortality was really high and the  sense of vulnerability was also very high. 

That said, Call of Cthulhu focuses on cosmic horrors, vast and uncaring nightmares that don't care if you live in madness or die in agony. Red Death is gothic horror, where the nightmares are more intimate and do care about your suffering. It's personal choice which is worse.

From what I can tell, Masque of the Red Death never really took off. There was practically no supplemental material for it. Outside of the folks who were in the campaign that I was in, I've never heard anyone talk about.

It may have been too niche. In many levels, in theme and setting and concept, it went out of Dungeons and Dragons' comfort zone. Even in more bizarre settings, like Spelljammer, it's still heroic fantasy. Red Death isn't just horror. It's horror where the characters are significantly weaker than any other flavor of Dungeons and Dragons.

At the same time, many years and several editions later, my time with the Red Death still stays with me. That campaign gave me the worst nightmares I've ever gotten from a role playing game. The Masque of the Red Death was an odd beast but it did its job well.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Convention fundraiser lets me try out Scythe

The highlight of the July Rincon fundraiser for me was getting to learn and play Scythe. At one point, while I was there, there were at least three tables playing Scythe and very likely a fourth table.

One of the amazing things about the Tucson gaming scene is Rincon. Not only is it a nice local con, it has fundraisers through out the year, giving me some micro conventions to enjoy as well. Seriously, it's a really amazing community.

While I got warmed with a quick game of HUE (which actually manages to impress me more and more with each play), I spent most of my relatively short time there with Scythe.

Scythe is shaping up to be one of the big games of 2016. It's set in a sort-of steampunk 1920 Europe. When I say sort of steampunk, I mean that it reminds me a lot more of the steam powered agricultural equipment of the late nineteenth century. The players play different powers in this Europe, building up their political and economic power.

Scythe is a 4X game, which means eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXtermimate. Which means move out, build up, get stuff and fight. The actual mechanics of the game is action selection. Every player has a dashboard of actions, basically the same but tweaked for their national faction.

To be honest, I'm willing to bet most folks reading this know more about Scythe and have played it more than I have. Since I knew I wasn't going to buy it, it was off my radar.

The first thing that impressed me about Scythe was the design of the player boards. They are slotted for the wooden pieces, making it easy to know what goes where. And when you reassign them, new costs or powers get revealed. Simple but so clever as far as making house keeping quick and easy.

The other thing that quickly struck me is that Scythe has very intuitive mechanics for anyone who has played Euros. I told Carrie afterwards that Scythe is Le Havre on steroids and with fighting. Which isn't a perfect comparison but it gave her an idea of how it works and that she'd be able to pick it up quickly.

My learning game got me trounced. I didn't focus on popularity track enough, which helped tank my score. And I had a blast. It was so much fun and I hope to play again.

Scythe is a really smart design. It has a lot of things going on, game mechanic wise, but all of the gears fit together really well. It's full of tough, interesting choices built on a tight economy. The fact that it has a playing time of two hours is less is just icing on the cake.

I'm not planning on buying Scythe any time soon. Between a two-year-old and three cats, we won't be playing it. But our son will get older and we can lock the cats in the bedroom. In a few years, I can see myself either picking it up or getting a game that Scythe ends up inspiring.

Getting a chance to play Scythe was really amazing. It's looking to be one of the highlights of the year for me. I hope I got to play it again :)

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Climbing the pyramid of Pylos

I recently tried Pylos out for the first time through Boardgame Arena.

Which is really not the best way to try this game. Pylos is a game of stacking wooden balls in order to form a pyramid so there's clearly a strong tactile element to the Pylos experience. 

The players each have fifteen balls, just enough to make a four-story pyramid. Luckily, you get a grooved board to hold the bottom layer. It's a two-player game, by the way, so there's light and dark colored balls to tell the two players apart.

The goal is to place one of your balls on top of the pyramid. Which, structurally, has to be the last one placed. If that is all there was to the game, the second player would win every single time.

But there's a couple of twists. Instead of placing one of the balls from your reserve, you can move a non-weight-bearing ball to a higher level if there's a space for it. And, if you form a 2x2 square in your own color, you can take back up to two of your non-weight-bearing balls.

Pylos is all about managing reserves. Trying to make sure that you keep your reserves up and that your opponent can't do the same. For a game that's about blocking but not capturing, it's surprisingly vicious. Simply put, whoever runs out of balls first loses.

Pylos was interesting and I would play it again. However, it's been part of my exploration of Gigamic games on Boardgame Arena. In particular, I've played a lot of Quoridor. In comparison, Pylos has simpler patterns and choices.

That said, the real reason I don't see myself buying a game made of wooden balls is we have three cats. In a few years, our toddler will be old enough to handle Pylos. But the cats will always be cats. This wouldn't be a game. This would be an invitation to kitty madness.

Pylos delivers an abstract that you can teach in a couple minutes, still has good choices and looks beautiful. You could teach it to anyone. It's biggest failing is not being as good as other Gigamic abstracts.

The changing maze of Quoridor

Quoridor is a game that I've come back to and found out that it is a lot better than I had remembered.

There's a very simple reason for that. I first played Quoridor during my 'so many games, so little time' phase, when I would play a game once or twice and then move on to a new one to try out. Now I'm more inclined to play fewer games but over and over again. Quoridor really benefitted from a more thorough examination.

Quoridor is one of those short, simple abstracts that has a lot more depth than its simplicity or brevity would immediately imply. Played out on a nine by nine grid, your goal is to get your pawn to the other side. Where the clever bit and the name comes in is that each player also has a supply of walls. Each wall is two spaces wide and will fit in between the grooved spaces.

On your turn, you can either move your pawn one space in an orthogonal direction or place a wall. However, you aren't allowed to wall anyone in. There must always be some sort of path for them to get to the far side.

You can play the game with two players or with four players but as far as I'm concerned, Quoridor is really a two-player game. More players feels off and makes the board to cluttered.

The meat of the game is the walls. You're are fighting to give your opponent the most time-consuming path possible while making sure they don't do the same to you. Moving the pawns is just acting out the conclusions that you've come to.

Which isn't to say you build a maze and only then start moving your pawn. No, sometimes you have to move to either force a decision on your opponent or escape the trap they're setting up.

In my earliest exposure to Quoridor, I was just using my walls to try and block my opponent. However, when a friend of mine had me sit down and play game after game with him online, I started to realize that I was missing a lot of important gameplay.

The first thing that clicked in my head and I felt like an idiot for not realizing so much sooner was that I could cut a line my opponent was building by playing a wall along the same line but with a one-space gap that they couldn't fill. 

From there, I realized that cutting was at least as important as blocking and that I would have to figure out how to react to my opponent's cuts. I realized that, like Go, Quoridor is a game of patterns. You need to see what patterns are emerging from the wall placement and how to use them for your own plans.

Of course, nine walls a piece on a nine-by-nine board is a lot simpler than the kind of patterns you're going to see develop on a Go board. On the other hand, a game of Quoridor is also probably only going to take you fifteen minutes to play, as opposed to the hours of a good Go game.

If there is one serious knock I would have to say about Quoridor is that, even by abstract standards, it feels particularly unforgiving. Particularly with players of different skill levels, the game can be decided by the halfway point and the weaker player is stuck being a rat running through the other player's maze. Which isn't that much fun.

However, if I have to be that rat and end up trapped in someone else's maze, at least I am getting to see the surprising depth in this pattern of walls.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Blokus - simple game that's bound to go down in history

While the last twenty years have been boom years for European family games and American adventure games, they've also been good ones for abstract strategy games. There have been a lot of good ones over the last couple decades and some of them seem destined to be classics, games people will play twenty, fifty, three hundred years from now.

Blokus seems like it will be near the top of the list of abstracts any grandkids I have will be playing. In addition to being a very good game, it seems to have broken out of the gamer niche and made it to the mainstream audience.

The original Blokus is a pure abstract for two-to-four players, although it does four the best by far. The games comes with a big, silver 20x20 board of slotted squares and four sets of 21-pieces in different colors. The pieces are every possible combination of shapes made of of squares from one square to five squares and are slotted to fit in the grooves. They're also transparent so they look extra groovy.

The players take turns putting one piece down at a time, starting from the corners. The twist is that every piece after the first one _must_ touch the corner of another piece of the same color _but_ cannot touch the side of a piece of the same color.

The game ends when no one can place any more pieces. Your score is the total number of squares you've covered. What that really comes down to is counting all the squares on the pieces you haven't been able to play with the low count winning.

Blokus is the not the first game that's been all about putting down geometric shapes in a board. Alexander Randolph created Universe in the 60s, which uses two sets of Pentominos (all the combinations of five squares). Cathedral from 1978 is another one that comes to mind and I bet there are tons shape placement games I've never heard of.

So what makes Blokis special? The groovy silver board and transparent pieces? Actually, what I think it comes down to is Blokus actually has the simplest rules. Touch corners, no touch sides, no capturing rules. Everything that goes on the board stays on the board.

At the same time, while 400 spaces is a lot of room to work with. There is a lot of replay value in Blokus, not to mention a lot of patterns to explore. Even with the basic strategy of use your biggest pieces early and move towards the center that the game really requires, there is so much to explore.

Personally, I actually prefer Travel Blokus (redesigned for two players only) and Blokus Trigon (which uses shapes made out of triangles) but neither of those games would have been possible without the original Blokus. It is a simple game but it's found its way out into the world and had impact.

Yup, I'm a Doctor Who fan

I've been a fan of Doctor Who for most of my life, having gotten hooked during the original series. Having gotten on board the Doctor Who train in the 80s, it is nothing short of astonishing to see the franchise, the fandom and media in general have changed. 

In many respects for the better, to be honest. At least as someone who is from the U.S., Doctor Who was fairly obscure and being a Doctor Who fan was sort of unusual. These days, Doctor Who is downright mainstream. Random strangers have some idea what the show is about, as opposed to confused comments about a guy with a long scarf.

For me, what is probably the most striking change is the media itself. These days, we have the ability to watch any given episode of Doctor Who, streaming them on our televisions or tablets or computers or even phones. We have so much access to Doctor Who and a vast number of other television shows and movies and other kinds of programming. 

Seriously, it's mind boggling.

When I first got into Doctor Who, my two sources of it were reruns on PBS and Target Books, which doesn't have anything to with the big box stores to the best of my knowledge.

Which put me in the weird situation of having a near encyclopedic knowledge of almost every serial in the original series but only because I had read the books. My entire understanding and concept of the Hartnell and Troughton Doctors were from the books.

And the vast majority of the books were just transcriptions of the scripts. Some of the earliest written ones were even simplifications of the scripts. We're not talking great literature here.

And they still helped me become a dedicated Doctor Who fan :D The formula of whimsy and horror and fantasy was still there. Doctor Who, by focusing on a single eccentric outsider, manages to combine the intimacy of one person's actions with the vastness of time and space.

These days, Doctor is more accessible and has vastly better special effects. At the same time, it is still the quirky and disturbing adventures of a tragic, comic madman in a box.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Hive - simplicity and brilliance

Hive is a game that helped changed the way I looked at abstracts and what I looked for in abstracts.

A two-player game, your goal in Hive is to completely surround your opponent's queen bee. Each player has a small army of different insects, each with their own kind of movement.

One of the signature elements of Hive is that it's played without a board. Every piece is a hexagon (my set has them made out of chunky Bakelite) and players either place a piece or move a piece that's already out.

Every piece must be placed next to a piece that's already out on the board. More than that, as the pieces form a constantly shifting shape, that shape can never be broken. That's the hive the game is named after.

However, Go-like placement is only one third of the game. The other two thirds are chess-like movement. Each piece moves in a different way. With almost every piece, there needs to be an outside edge for them to work with and move from. Otherwise they will be pinned in, which is game ending if it happens to the queen.

While the game is a pure abstract, there is something in the way that the different insects move. Ants run at lightning speed while grasshoppers jump from one side of the hive to the other and beetles can crawl on top of other insects.

While the board-less play and the neat-looking insects are what makes makes Hive distinctive, what made it so important for me in my growth as a gamer is that it's a fast and dynamic game that's still really good.

When I was in high school and college, I played enough Chess to know that I still wasn't any good at it. I still enjoy the Chess but it was a methodical, drawn-out experience that required setting aside some serious time, unless we were using chess clocks.

Now, Hive is not anywhere nearly as deep as Chess but I could play it in a fraction of the time. Heck, I could teach in a few minutes. And every move changed the board dramatically. Things happen fast in the insect world of Hive.

Hive is not the only abstract that fits this bill. It wasn't the first abstract to be quick and dynamic. In fact, I started playing the GIPF Project around the same time I discovered Hive. But Hive does such a good job at it. Portable enough to play anywhere, no need for a board, neat looking pieces and easy to teach.

And games like Hive and the GIPF Project really did change what I was looking for in abstracts. They became something I could find the time and the opponents to play. Which made me play a lot more of them.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

7 Steps doesn't quite step high enough for me

After several games of 7 Steps on Yucata, I still haven't decided if I like it or not.

It's an abstract placement game with some luck of the draw, not unlike two of my favorite games, Ingenious and Qwirkle. One of the designers is Michael Keisling made history with his collaborations with the great Wolfgang Kramer and Reinhard Staup is no slouch either. So 7 Steps seems like a game I'd go for.

However, I really feel like the luck of the draw is significantly more powerful in 7 Steps and the actual gameplay becomes more and more resticted.

The gameplay is very simple. You get a hand of seven tokens that are in seven different colors. On your turn, you place the tokens on spaces that match the color. You always have to place your first token on the lowest possible space but you can begin stacking tokens up so you can be forming a staircase or tokens on your turn.

You get points equal to the height of the tokens that you put down. If you get less than eight points, and draw a card from one of two decks. One deck gives you scoring bonuses and the other gives you ways to break the placement rules. Then you get to discard discs before drawing up your hand.

The game ends when someone can't draw their hand to seven and whoever has the most points wins.

One thing that makes the game interesting is that it has a modular board. Seven puzzle pieces. The basic side has every piece as one color and the advanced has them all mixed. I also learned that you don't have to put the pieces in a circular pattern but in other shapes. That said, I'm not sure if that's a good thing. Breaking up the puzzle pieces like that seems to increase the random factor.

Okay, let me get one issue I have with the game clear. I'm very colorblind and it is not even remotely colorblind friendly. Three of the colors are virtually identical to my eyes and a fourth one is very close. Using the mixed board side is virtually unplayable for me. (Pictures of the physical version look not as extreme but, seriously, seven different symbols would have been that hard?)

Still, the color issue aside, the placement restrictions have too often left me with moves that only involves placing one or two discs. And the board can change enough between turns that trying to plan ahead often fails. Spaces and even whole colors can become effectively dead.

The bonus placement cards can help overcome that and can help set up big moves. However, I always feel like I am making them up on the turn as opposed to working my way up to them. And the fact that you really need the cards to make the game work indicates how restricted placement can be.

I do enjoy the individual puzzles that every move gives me enough that I'm still playing the game. However, playing on Yucata means I don't have to own the game and it isn't taking up any precious face-to-face gaming time. Ingenious and Qwirkle have proven themselves to be games I can keep playing for years and have a definite place on my game shelf. I don't think 7 Steps will follow in their footsteps.

Monday, July 11, 2016

The Club of Queer Trades is a little taste of Chesterton

Every year or so, I reread Gilbert K. Chesterton’s Club of Queer Trades.

It’s not because it’s one of his masterpieces. In all honesty, The Man Who Was Thursday and any given volume of Father Brown are Chesterton’s truest masterpieces in my eyes. And I can think of other books by him, The Man Who Knew Too Much or the Paradoxes of Mister Pond, that I also think are much stronger.

So why do I keep rereading it? Well, because it’s a quick read but still carries the charm and wit that made Chesterton so brilliant and so much fun. I am always finding new books to read by Chesterton and rereading others but The Club of Queer Trades is a reliable little sip of Chesterton.

A collection of six stories, The Club of Queer Trades is bound together by the idea that the characters are discovering strange situations that turn out to people who have come up with entirely new ways to make a living.

The detective role in the stories is held by Basil Grant, a former judge who is definitely whimsical and who might also be a little insane. Amusingly, a reoccurring character is his brother Rupert, who actually is a detective, although apparently not a very good one. And, at the end, it’s pretty obvious Basil solved most of the mysteries by already knowing what was really going on.

Two of the stories have really stuck with me over the years.

The collection starts with The Tremendous Adventure of Major Brown, which is the strongest story in the book and up there in the Chesterton cannon in general. It elevates the whole book.


Major Brown apparently has stumbled across a conspiracy to kill him. In actuality, he actually got mixed up with someone who subscribes to a service that is basically a LARP. The fact that the queer trade actually exits now just adds to my entertainment.

I also like how the actress involved in LARP ends up falling for Major Brown because she knew lots of men who were brave when they knew it was fake but Major Brown is the only man she knew who went down into a cellar believing a killer was waiting for him.

The other story that remains with me is the Singular Speculation of the House Agent. The twist is that the man sells tree houses, which is also a real profession these days. However, what made it stick with me is how well Chesterton describes the characters dreamy, twilight journey through wilderness to find that tree house.

The Club of Queer Trades isn’t a perfect book. While it’s bound together by an idea, it doesn’t have the thematic through line that Chesterton’s later books have. It isn’t the book I’d use to introduce someone to Chesteron’s fiction (that’d be the Innocence of Father Brown, by the way) But it is a nice Chesterton snack.