Friday, September 30, 2016

Groo the Game: was it a hidden gem?

I spent years looking for a copy of Groo the Game before I finally got a copy of it. Then, of course, I have barely gotten any play out of it. Despite that, I am definitely hanging onto it.

Groo the Wanderer is a comic book by Sergio Aragones (who has been drawing for Mad Magazine longer than I've been alive) about a walking catastrophe who is an amalgamation of Conan the Barbarian and the Three Stooges. I read it for years, never ceasing to amazed at how funny Sergio Aragones managed to make Groo accidentally racking up more kills than the American Civil War.

The game came out in 1997, years before not only I got interested in designer games but before other folks in the US were really starting to notice them. Settlers of Catan was out but that juggernaut had barely started rolling. I'm not even sure it was available in English.

As much as I enjoyed the comic book, my interest in the the game has been from the mechanics. Years before it was really a concept to get batted around, Groo the Game was a mashup of German Family Game resource management and infrastructure building and nasty Ameritrash take that.

The game consists of a deck of cards and a set of resource dice which is where get the resources that let you play cards. The cards include buildings which will give you special powers and victory points, soldiers that used to attack and defend buildings, and Groo cards which are horrible disasters.

What really struck me about the game at the time when I first discovered it and I still think is really neat is how the resource dice work. The active player rolls the dice and uses however many they can or want to. The unused dice get passed to the next player who has a chance to use them and so on down the line. In theory, everyone might get a chance to play a card every turn, which definitely keeps the game interesting and ticking along.

There are some elements that I don't care for. Groo cards, which are horrible but require a special Groo resource, can only be played on the player who has the wandering Groo card in front of them. Which makes perfect the thematic sense but it adds an additional level of randomness to attacking players. 

It has been more than 10 years since the last time I played Groo the Game. I really wonder, not only how well will it hold up the next time I play it, but how balanced it really is.

At the same time, I feel like so many elements of the game were well ahead of the pack. Building a tableau of cards that represent buildings with special powers? While the first card version of Catan covered those ideas, Groo was ahead of a lot of other games like Citadels or San Juan. And I still think that the dice passing mechanic still has a lot of room to be explored.

Well I would have to go back and actually replay it, I do suspect that Groo the Game has some issues. At the same time, I think that it had a lot of neat, even innovative ideas. I am going to bet that if it had a bigger print run and wider distribution, it would be considered a milestone in game design.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Going back to Shangri-La

When I was in high school, I probably read Lost Horizon by James Hilton at least once a year. Even at the time, I couldn't tell you why. There was just something very relaxing and calming about the book.

Lost Horizon didn't create the idea of the mystical monastery in Tibet. Apparently the idea had been around for literally centuries. However, Hilton definitely helped popularize and codify the idea. People who have never heard of the book know what Shangri-La is.

My memories of it as a teenager was that Hilton's Shangri-La was a more low-key, realistic mystic monastery. Basically, what made it special was that everyone got along and some people got to live to a really old age. Which, when you think about it, it's still pretty fantastical. However, thanks to comic books and movies, I was used to the idea that people got taught mystical martial arts and magical powers at these monasteries. Compared to that, Shangri-La seemed pretty realistic.

Re-reading the book after twenty years made me a little bit more critical of the book. For one thing, the high lama talks about developing telepathy, which seems pretty fantastic to me.

I also couldn't help but notice how European this perfect Tibetan Valley is. The guy in charge is European. It has all kinds of modern, western amenities. The musical focus, particularly strong in Mozart and Chopin, is western. And, it turns out that Europeans are the ones who responds best to this extended life treatment.

It wasn't enough to bother me. Despite all that, the book doesn't come across as being particular racist or imperialist. Still, I am surprised that I missed it when I was younger.

The last thing that struck me on this rereading was how Hilton managed to create a chain of unreliable narrators. The primary narrator learns Conway's story from a friend who claims to have met Conway after the world declared him dead and who claims to be telling Conway's story without any embellishment. On top of that, even with in Conway's own narrative, there is no actual proof ever given that any of this extended life or telepathy business is real.

I really like that. Hilton does it in such a smooth way that I didn't realize how unreliable the narrative was until the very end. When one of the characters points it out! What this really does is help bring back the realism that I remembered from when I was a teenager.

Earlier this year, I reread Hilton's other classic, Goodbye Mister Chips. I found that I got a lot more out of it reading it as an adult. Lost Horizon didn't have as strong an effect. But both books really impressed me with Hilton's craft as a writer. His ability to undersell themes and situations to make them more powerful is amazing.

Lost Horizon might not be as deep and meaningful as I thought it was a couple of decades ago. At the same time, I have a deeper appreciation for the craft and skill that went into writing it. It's a best seller and classic for good reason.


Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Going to almost the start of Pokémon

Over the last couple months, I have gone from a vague awareness of Pokémon to a definite interest in the franchise.

It all started with Pokémon Go. No, I haven't been playing it. My wife has. And our two-year old became fascinated with Mommy's game. She played Pokémon Snap for him because it was a cinematic game that showed him lots of Pokémon. 

Then we showed him the cartoon, episodes from the first season. I have to say that neither Ash nor Pikachu come across as being very sympathetic in the first episode. However, they both proved to be not the jerks they seemed to be and grew on me. 

(What is with Shonen heroes so often being idiots? That ended up souring me Son Goku in the original Dragon Ball although Monkey D Luffy in One Piece has grown on me)

So that is when I took the big jump. I downloaded Pokémon Yellow and started to play. That's the revamp of the original games only with elements of the cartoon thrown in.

So, I'm only twenty years late to the party but I'd still shown up. And I have to say that it is an interesting world that I have found myself in.

For one thing, it seems like all of the fauna in this setting are Pokémon but only a little bit of the flora. Is everyone a vegetarian? How does meat even work? And why are humans the exception to the rule? Or can you catch someone in a ball?

Still, as someone who has played a lot of role-playing games, many of the ideas do makes sense. And the balance of each pocket monster only being able to have for moves does make for some interesting choices. I do have to admit that the game seems to be built around and grinding for levels.

I will never play every game in the series. Not even close. But I do plan on finishing Pokémon Yellow and I might very well try the new version coming out at the end of the year.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

San Juan opened doors for me

San Juan was my first real experience with a card game adaptation of a board game.

It certainly wasn't the first one out there. I knew that Monopoly's Free Parking game came out back in 1988. And Settlers of Catan and Starfarers of Catan had their two-player card versions out as well.

Still, San Juan was ahead of the pack of turning board games into card or dice games.

And San Juan definitely has its own identity outside of its parent Puerto Rico. It shares a theme and the mechanic of role selection with Puerto Rico but it also helped create the genre tableu builders as well as multi-use cards. San Juan has its own legacy.

I first played it very early in my gaming experiences. I'm not sure I had even started collecting games at the time. It was after I had been introduced to Puerto Rico and was playing it with a small circle of friends at least once a week.

Since we already knew Puerto Rico so well, we were able to pick it up almost immediately. At the same time, cards being buildings, money and goods was amazing. (Truth to tell, still is)

In fact, I ended buying San Juan years before I bought Puerto Rico, because it was portable and played down to two and everyone else had a copy of Puerto Rico.

San Juan led the way for other tableu building games with multi-use cards, Race for the Galaxy and Glory to Rome being two of the highlights. I've played a lot of both of those games and I would not only describe them as deeper and more complex but actually better than San Juan.

Not because San Juan is simpler and lighter. Neither of those two traits makes a game worse, although I have friends who would tell me I'm wrong. No, it's because I've found San Juan has really one fundamental, overriding strategy. Getting big buildings out. And luck
of the draw plays a big part in who gets a chance to play them. (Both Race for the Galaxy and Glory to Rome avoid this by having multiple ways to get points)

Despite what I do think is legitimate flaw, I have gotten a lot of play out of San Juan and I have had a lot of fun with it. It is still in my collection and it is a game that still calls out to us to get played.

Frankly, that's because it is lighter and shorter. Between the different roles and the different powers of the buildings, it offers a lot of choices and different experiences in that short playing time. In addition to being a great game to help teach other games like Race for the Galaxy, San Juan gives me the experience of playing a big game in a short amount of time.

San Juan isn't a perfect game. However, the richness and fun of its play vastly exceeds the flaws. I have had over a decade of fun with it. It was one of the first games that opened my eyes to the possibility of how a boardgame could be adapted to a card game. At the same time, San Juan is not Puerto Rico the card game. It is its own fascinating beast.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Yeah, I prefer these versions

Going on 15 years ago, Hasbro about a bunch of card games that were based on their popular board games. I think the sort of thing comes in cycles because they had done it before and they've done it since. I am pretty sure there are at least three distinct card games based on Monopoly.

Out of this particular lot, there were two that stood out to me. In fact, they stood up so much that they are still a part of my collection and I happen to like them better than the games they were based on.

Those two games were Battleship and the Game of Life.

I know that Battleship is a venerable old game that teaches deductive reasoning. It helps young minds learn how to analyze situations. However, ever since I have been young, I've always found it pretty boring.

The 2002 card version had next to nothing to do with the original board game. Instead, it resembled a mash up of Reiner Knizia's Battle Line and Stratego. The players take turns placing cards facedown on their side of five placeholder cards which represent the five oceans of the world.

Both players have identical decks and the cards include ships and special commands. Almost all of the ships, except for the title battleship, also have special abilities. After the cards get revealed and the special abilities get resolved, the highest numerical value wins that ocean. First person to three oceans is the winner.

Battleship the Card Game has bluffing, special powers and a dynamic playing field. And it plays out in about ten minutes. It may not be as educational or as analytical as the original game but I find it a lot more enjoyable.

The Game of Life is basically a spin and move game with a couple branches in the board to add choices. Let's face it, it wouldn't take much to make it more interesting game for an older gamer.

In the card version of the game, you are creating a tableau of cards that show various accomplishments of your life. Your occupation will give you two forms of denomination, time and money, that you can spend on these cards.

In other words, it uses the exact same formula as Chez Geek. And not only do I like it more then the board version of the Game of Life, I like it more than Chez Geek as well.

While I think that Chez Geek has a more interesting and, quite frankly, more realistic theme, it also has the game ending when someone achieves a certain number of slack points. And there are plenty of ways of dragging players down, which means dragging the game out. 

In the card version of the Game of Life, four letter cards which will spell out LIFE are shuffled into the last part of the deck. When LIFE is finished, so is the game. Having a built in timer like that makes the game a much more enjoyable experience for me.

Mind you, the card game still has the theme of creating the most conservative and traditional family model ever. I know plenty of happy families that don't fit that mold. Friedemann Friese's irreverent game Funny Friends was pitched to me as the Game of Life as people actually live it and I think that's a fair call.

Still, I I think that the game did a really good job with its mechanics, creating a game that is enjoyable to play and offers a lot more choices than the spin and move forward game.

I might be accused of taking aim at low hanging fruit for saying that I enjoy the card versions of these games more than the original board games. However, I do and they have themes that make it easier for me to introduce them to folks who aren't into gaming.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

When boards and pawns get replaced by dice and cards

ReAs I have grown older, card and dice adaptations of board games have become more of a focus for me. Part of this is because they've become more and more common. They are also an interesting exploration of game mechanics. How do you change and distill a game to adapt it? And, plus, they're handy when you have less gaming time and storage space :D

There are three questions I usually ask myself when I look at a card or dice adaptation.

1. Is it any good as a game?

Seriously, that's the basic question you have to ask about any game. There's plenty of criteria to apply. Is the game fun to play? Does it offer an interesting experience? Does it offer interesting decisions?

I can't tell you what makes a game good. We wouldn't have such a variety of games out there if there was a single answer. But a game has to be good for me and the folks I play with to get played more than once.

2. Does it take up less space or take less time to play?

If the card or dice version takes up less storage space, that's a plus for me. If it has a smaller footprint on the table or takes less time to set up or breakdown, that's good too. And these days, when life has me busy in a lot of other ways, a shorter playing time is also a big selling point.

Of course, as our son gets older, some of those things might not be quite so big a deal. On the other hand, having shorter, simpler versions of games to reach him will become handy.

3. Does it capture the feeling of its parent game?

Truth to tell, this isn't a deal breaker. If we enjoy playing the game and the shared name is just branding slapped over the top, I don't care. Still, it is nice when it happens. And, in some rare cases, makes me feel okay about having the card or dice version and not the board version.

A good example of a game that has stayed in my collection is Euphrates and Tigris: Clash of Kings. It is not as good a game as it's boardgame parent, Tigris and Euphrates. It also takes about as much space on the table. However, it is still a good game and it takes up a fraction of the storage space. For as often as I have ever played Tigris and Euphrates, the card version is an acceptable alternative in my collection.

Back in 2002, Hasbro put out card versions of several classic games.
These versions of Battleship and The Game of Life are still in my collection and I'd much rather play them than the originals.

In most cases, there is a tradeoff when a game or at least the theme is taken into a new medium. Sometimes, you lose more than you gain. However, at least for me, it's at least worth looking into.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Something Global: is it gaming via tweeting or just tweeting?

In Something Global, you play an ape rising up against humanity in rebellion in pretend and tweet about it in real life. Your success as an ape rebel depends on how many favorites you get.

This officially blows my mind. Mostly because I don't tweet and I don't understand that environment very well. I'm assuming that favorite works the same way as likes do in Facebook and I barely even use that.

Seriously, I've pretty much described the game it's entirety in the first paragraph.

I have looked at and played some odd games. Microscope is about building a timeline and I've played it via email. Lexicon is a writing game about building your own fictional wiki. Happy Birthday, Robot has you tell a story literally one sentence at a time.

But Something Global feels like it crosses a I line for me. After all, isn't the idea of tweeting to get people to read whatever you posted and to give you some kind of thumbs up for it? Something Global sounds like doing normal tweeting behavior and coaches it in the terms of a bunch of apes doing it.

Am I looking at a game or social commentary? Is Something Global a game or an experiment or satire? (Okay, it can easily be all three but which one was the designer's primary goal?)

Something Global is part of the Indie Mixtape Megamix, a big collection of tiny little RPGs. The vast majority of them, while minimalist, are clearly designed to be played. I have to wonder if Something Global was designed simply to be observed.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

A clearinghouse of closing thoughts on auctions

I hadn't planned on spending about six blogs almost in a row writing about auction games. Still, it was fun and I decided to make a clearinghouse of closing thoughts.

Games I Missed

While making an exhaustive exploration of auction games would have been beyond the scope of my blog (and would have gotten boring and tedious, quite frankly), there are some kind of glaring omissions.

I focused  a lot in Reiner Knizia's auction games but I skipped both Dream Factory and Amun-Re. That's because my couple plays of Amun-Re were over ten years ago and I don't remember if well and I've never played Dream Factory. I do really want to play it some day.

I also haven't played High Bid, which was 3M's entry into the auction world back in the 60s. I don't know how well it would hold up but I view 3M as a big part of the development of modern board games so I feel like I should try it.

I know it has the interesting element of selling back items to raise capital but there's a good chance you might not get the full value. Realistic but potentially frustrating.

One auction game I do want to examine in the future is Vegas Showdown. It didn't get nearly enough love from its first published but it is a really good game that combines auctions, resource management and tile laying.

War of the Fillers

One of the things that got me started on the whole auction kick was a desire to compare For Sale and High Society. They are both auction games that take about fifteen minutes to play, which means fill a similar slot in gaming.

For Sale has often been called the king of the fillers but I have actually gotten more use out of High Society. 

A key difference is that For Sale is an unusually forgiving auction game while High Society is as forgiving as the Mafia. So I think that High Society is better for 'hardcore', 'serious' gamers while For Sale is ideal for a more general, family audience.

So, I got a lot of play out of High Society with my old crew but, when our son gets older, For Sale will probably become the new champion.

The Future of Pure Auction Games

There are a lot of games that use auctions as one element, like Power Grid. However, it feels the heyday of games that had auctions as their one big thing was back in the 90s and early 00s. Auction games still come out, the Speicherstadt came out in 2010 and GEM came out in 2015, but it feels like they're no longer a going concern.

I would love to be proven wrong. I would love to find out that I just don't know about them and that there are a whole bunch of good auction games that of come out in the last five years that I'm just ignorant of.

Even if that's not the case (really, prove me wrong), I don't think that auctions are a dead genre. I bet there are some amazing innovations that haven't been created yet, primary auction games that will be really amazing after they get invented.

Monday, September 19, 2016

I always read Kevin and Kell with my morning coffee

I've been reading webcomics on a regular basis for more than fifteen years now. Kevin and Kell was one of the first ones I started reading and one that I still read on a daily basis. 

Which only makes sense. Having started back in 1995, it is probably the oldest running daily web comic out there. 

The world of Kevin and Kell is one of talking animals who walk on two legs and wear clothing but who still observe the food chain. So carnivores eat other people but it's never anything personal. That's just how the world works.

The title couple are a mixed marriage.  She's a wolf snd he's a rabbit built like a linebacker. 

The comic strip was originally designed for newspaper syndication (and is now actually in at least one major newspaper) and it shows. It is sized for a newspaper and, even during storylines, has a gag-a-day format.

Oddly enough, despite being a setting where people eat each other and a series that deals with racism, prejudice and even having a thinly veiled transgender character years before that became a mainstream issue, Kevin and Kell is probably the least edgy and least challenging webcomic I read. 

In fact, I would even go so far as saying it's downright banal. The main characters are always morally in the right and every problem will get worked out nice and easily within a week or so. It's the closest thing I read to Family Circus, not that Family Circus would ever come within a hundred miles within the issues Kevin and Kell discusses on a regular basis.

If it is so banal, why do I keep reading it? Well, Bill Hollbrook is one of the consummate professionals of the web comic world. He puts up a new comic every day without fail. He is consistently amusing, even if he isn't laugh out loud hysterical.

And, while he is sometimes cloying in his theme of acceptance (which is undeniably the overriding point of Kevin and Kell and one I have absolutely no problem with), he does a really good job not being preachy or offensive.

Even his antagonists are almost never straw men or monsters. They are either predators doing their job or folks who need to be educated. Even R.L., who eats his own employees, is a loving dad and respects Kell as a business owner.

I do wonder if Kevin and Kell, able to tackle such divisive issues with such inoffensive charm, is a model for 21st comic strips in general.

Kevin and Kell doesn't move me or challenge me. However, it has been a reliable and comfortable way to start my morning for over a decade.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Adventure via the mail

The Mysterious Package Company is having itself another Kickstarter.

I have never been a customer of the Mysterious Package Company. Instead, I got to be something far better. I got to be a recipient!

One of my favorite stories by Gilbert K. Chesterton that doesn't involve Father Brown is the Tremendous Adventures of Major Brown (who isn't related to the good priest, as far as I know) The title character finds himself in the middle of a pulp plot and it turns out he was mixed up with the subscriber of an adventure service that hires actors and such to let people live a story.

The Mysterious Package Company performs this service via post. Which is a heck of a lot more reasonable a business model than renting houses and filling them with actors and props.

My experience with them started when I got a crumpled letter in the mail marked up like it had been in the dead letters office for years. I noticed immediately that it made several references to the works of Robert W. Chambers.

My immediate conclusion was that one of my friends from the Midwest had started a game of De Profundis, the Lovecraftian RPG of letter writing horror. Yes, that's a real thing. So I fired off a crumpled and stained letter to the person who I thought most likely to have started the game, using a lot of elements from Chambers' works. Confusion ensued.

When an actual package arrived, I felt like things had gone above and beyond with people could easily get away with with the desktop publishing. A little bit of research later, I found out about the Mysterious Package Company. 

I intentionally did not find out what else I might expect in the story that I found myself in. But now I knew what kind of ride I was in for. And being the dark until that point had been a lot of fun.

Telling a story through letters and newspaper clippings and the like is an age old method. It makes senses, piecing together events through different artifacts. It might not be as visceral as actually walking into a haunted house but looking at real photographs and yellowed news clippings is still more of a gut-level experience than reading a book or watching a movie.

And the Mysterious Package Company does a dandy job delivering that. And the last package is always guaranteed to be a doozy. 

Getting packages from the Mysterious Package Company was quite an experience. And the journey of finding out not only what the story was but what the heck was going on was an adventure. I'm glad they're apparently doing well and stretching their wings with another Kickstarter.

A highly uninformed view of Medici

Since I've already written about Modern Art and Ra, I really feel like I should cover Medici. After all, it is the third game in Reiner Knizia's auction trilogy. 

My problem is I've only played the game twice face to face. Almost all of my experience with the game is on the iPad against the AIs, which really doesn't give me a good sense of the game. 

(I am not big on playing against computers but I think they are particularly weak in auction games or negotiation games. I am just a human elitist in that regard.)

However, there is no denying that Medici is an important part of Knizia's auction games and auction games in general. And since I have had at least a little bit of experience with it, I am prepared to say something. Just take it with an even smaller grain of salt than usual :P

Modern Art is defined by having a wide variety of auctions and dynamic market values. Ra is defined by having a push-your-luck element and an intricate network of scoring elements. Medici is defined by being a pure as the driven snow auctions. Even High Society, with its special tiles and poorest loses rule, is more watered down than Medici.

You could argue that Medici does have elements of push-your-luck and set collection. But, unlike Ra where those are their own chunk of the gameplay, Medici just uses those  elements to facilitate auctions and evaluate them.

The story in Medici is that you are all Renaissance merchants trying to earn the most cash through buying low and selling high on your shipments. But even by the standards of Euro games, the theme in Medici is pretty thin. You strip away all the art and replace the goods with colors and you'd barely affect the gameplay experience.

Medici is played out in three rounds where each player will be collecting five tiles or shipping five lots of goods. The tiles come with two different pieces of information on them. There will be one of five different goods and have a number ranging from zero to five, not counting a gold tile that has a ten on it.

On your turn, you choose one to three tiles to flip over for auction. You can't flip over more than you have empty spots for. Then, there's a once around auction with the person who flipped the tiles going last. You bid straight up points. When everyone has five tiles, it's time to score them up.

You earn points based on two things. The total value of your tiles, er, shipment, and the number of each type of good you've shipped throughout the entire game. There's a first place, second place, etc. And each place is a set amount of points, with ties dividing the points. You also get a bonus if you get to the top of the goods track.

And, of course, who ever has the most points at the end wins.

I have to make a special note about player counts. You blindly discard tiles with the fewer the players meaning the more tiles go bye bye. And more scoring positions get added for more players.

Medici has been around since 1995, over twenty years. It's gone out of print in a regular basis but it always swings back around and comes back into print. Folks keep on loving it. It might not be a juggernaut Catan but it's no flash in the pan.

So, this is my uneducated, haven't-played-Medici-enough guess as to why: the economy of the game is so brutally tight. The return on your investments is set and that's the only way you have to get points. 

Other games have money equals points but they usually have other ways of earning money. Auctioning off paintings in Modern Art, for instance. In Medici, even a small overbid can be catastrophic. Sometimes, you can get ahead by paying as little as possible but that can sink you if that's all you do, unless you are very lucky and the other players play very badly.

In short, I think Medici works by taking the auction and honing it to a razor's edge. That might be too sharp for some folks. Too sharp for me some of be time, to be honest. But I can see why the gameplay is so strong.

Huh. I see a card game version is coming out. Looks like, just like the Modern Art card game, the auctions have been removed. That worked surprisingly well with Modern Art, with the use of special abilities and the changing values market. With Medici, that leaves a fairly simple push-your-luck element and a fairly simple set collection element. I don't know if that's enough and it definitely seems like it should be a much lighter, less brutal game.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

You knew I had to write about Ra

Ra is one of my favorite Knizia games, as well as my favorite auction game. It has stood the test of time, not just for me, but with the hobby on a whole. I believe it's a game that will still be getting played and published twenty years from now.

While it is primarily an auction game, Ra also incorporates push your luck and set collection as mechanics. Knizia blended those three elements together into a tightly knit whole, with each element supporting the others.

Here's the game in a nutshell: players take turns either pulling tiles out of a bag or calling an auction for the tiles that have been pulled out. The kicker is the Ra tiles. Drawing enough of them will and the round with no one getting any more tiles.

The variety of tiles in Ra is greater than I can easily summarize. And they all score or lost points in different ways. It's easily the most complex part of the game and the hardest part to teach. Of note are the disaster tiles, which will actually make you lose other tiles.

And the last element I want to make sure I mention as the sun tokens, which are what you use for bidding. They limit how much you can bid and you can only use one at a time. This helps prevent people wildly overbidding and also limits how many auctions you can win on each round.

Oh, since I haven't actually bothered mentioning the theme before now, I figure that I should cover it. The game is set in ancient Egypt and each round is supposed to be an epoch. It actually works rather well, since you are developing technologies and fostering Pharaohs and building monuments and things like that. I mean, the game has been re-themed for gangsters but I feel that the theme of the tiles does marry well with the idea of the passing of ages. Plus, cool Egyptian art.

Now that I've given a very brief thumbnail sketch of Ra, leaving out details like automatic auctions when you pull a Ra time, why do I think it is such an awesome game?i

The push-your-luck element is strong enough that Knizia used similar mechanics as entire games, like Cheeky Monkey. It adds a lot of fun and tension to the game. Every that only one person has bidding tokens and is pulling tiles to try and get s great haul, it seems that everyone else starts chanting Ra, Ra, Ra.

But that push your luck element is countered by the diversity and complexity of the tiles. Different tiles will be worth different amounts of points to different players. Understanding both what you will get out of a given lot of tiles and what other people will get is very important.

There's a strong tactical level to Ra, about dealing with what tiles come out. If certain tiles don't come out, you can't plan your game around them. But the game is also very strategic as well. You need to have a good sense of how the tiles will score as well as what's still in the bag. In the long run, a global understanding of the game situation will trump any given lot. 

Ultimately, that's what makes Ra such a strong game. The push-your-luck element creates a lot of constant tension and makes it possible to have a lucky break or an unlucky fall. But the complexity of the tiles makes having a global understanding of the game very strong. The better player should win Ra but they have to work at it.

The diversity of the tiles and the luck of the draw also gives Ra a lot of replay value. You can't play the game on autopilot or try and follow the same formula every time. You have to react to what Ra gives you and build your plans around that.

Ra came out in 1999 and, while it has gone out of print, it seems to reliably always come back into print. The core mechanics of the game are simple to explain but the game has some serious depth, as well as a truckload of fun and replay value. I consider it to be a definite classic.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

I wrap up my time with the Bastables

With New Treasure Seekers, or the Bastable Children In Search of a Fortune, my time with the Bastable kids has come to an end, along with the series of books.

The Story of the Treasure Seekers was A. E. Nesbit's first children's book. Her influence on children's literature really can't be underestimated. She made her child protagonists realistic, full of believable flaws and virtues. She was also a forerunner in what would become urban fantasy, having fantastic elements appear in the contemporary world.

The Bastable books are a beloved part of her work and I decided that I would make 2016 the year I finally read them. I have long loved her Psammead trilogy of Five Children and It, the Phoenix and the Carpet and the Story of the Amulet.

As those of you who have already read my blogs about The Story of the Treasure Seekers and the Wouldbegoods know, I haven't really been taken by the Bastable books.

The formula for the stories is that each chapter has the siblings get into wacky hijinks. Whether it be trying to earn some money or do a good deed or just playing a game, they actively use bad judgment and poor impulse control to get into trouble, although their hearts are always in the right place.

Part of what turned me off from the Bastable books was how clueless the kids are. At the very least, the older pair of Dora and Oswald should have a better idea of how the world works and be better judges of character. Instead, Oswald seems dead set against the idea of maturity.

They do get a pass in the first book, seeing as how their mother is dead and their father's business is in ruins. While Oswald's narrative is allegedly about them trying to restore the family fortunes, it's really about them coping with how the household had fallen apart. The second book has them have a vacation in the countryside (they're wealthy again, by the way) and trying to do good deeds. Frankly, it's a surprise that a petition isn't passed in the neighborhood banning them from good deeds. 

The third book lacks the overarching narrative structure of the first two books. One of the stories even takes place before the first book, the story of their first Christmas without their mother. If someone told me the third book was originally published as standalone stories in magazines, I'd believe them. In fact, them becoming treasure seekers again, trying to raise money for a woman who doesn't need it, doesn't take place until over halfway through the book.

So, while the book does have some of the strongest single adventures of the Bastables, the whole is the weakest of the three books. It also ends abruptly, with Oswald literally writing that he's done with all this writing.

In comparison, in my beloved Psammead trilogy, each book has a strong structure and the overall series forms an arc with plenty of character development. I know Nesbit has written better and more meaningful books.

Still, if you've read the first two Bastable books and enjoyed them at all, you will enjoy this one. If nothing else, you should at least reading the Christmas pudding chapter.

Some thought exercises about worker placement

While discussing Mint Works, a worker placement micro game, the question came up: what game do you use to introduce worker placement as a mechanic?

Realistically, the answer is whatever game you understand well enough to be able to comfortably and comprehensively teach. Your ability to teach the game matters the most.

Agricola wasn't on my short list of entry-level worker placement games yet I and other folks I've known have had great success with it as someone's first worker placement game, even when not using the simpler family-level rules. And Agricola has a reputation for not being an entry-level game. Perhaps falsely. After all, the theme helps make the game accessible since everyone knows what you do on a farm.

But, this mental exercise is about picking games that are what games we think would be easy for folks to pick up. My shortlist ended up being Lords of Waterdeep, Sticky Fingers and Stone Age. Since it's popular mechanic, I am going to bet there are many good candidates that I have never played or even heard of.

Sticky Fingers is one of the simpler worker placement games I've played and I do like it quite a bit. But it doesn't involve engine building per se, which I think is an important part of the worker placement experience. Lords of Waterdeep, a game I've come to appreciate the more I play it, has the opposite problem. The engine building is more subtle and complex than I thought at first.

Stone Age ended up being the game I thought would be the best game to introduce worker placement to people who think that's another name for temp agencies. It is relatively simple but very dynamic. And, while the engine building just invokes adding people, tools and agriculture to your tribe, it's still engine building.

It doesn't hurt that it's a game that I still enjoy playing. My personal introduction to worker placement was Pillars of the Earth, a game that I still think is a strong design but I grew tired enough of that I eventually got rid of it.

Of course, this is all just a mental exercise. When it comes to actually doing introducing people to worker placement, what really matters is what games you actually have access to and enjoy enough that teaching them will be fun for everyone.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

High Society is a quick but brutal little auction game

It took me a number of years to find a copy of Reiner Knizia's High Society. I had read about it almost since I first discovered Boardgame Geek and designer games but it had been out of print in the US when I first started looking for it.

High Society was one of Knizia's earlier games, back when he was primarily known for auction games. At one point, it was even considered part of his 'auction trilogy' with Medici and Modern Art, until Ra kicked it out. Maybe it's part of a second trilogy with Dream Factory and Amen-Re :D Regardless, it's always been well regarded.

When Gryphon Games reprinted it, I immediately snatched it up. And then it sat on the shelf for quite a while. Part of it was that I had so many games at that point it was hard to work it into rotation. Part of it was that it was it was a quick, light game when my gaming group was all about big, heavy games. And part of that was whether or not it could live up to its reputation.

Eventually, I forced my group to play High Society. And it was an instant hit and went into regular rotation. It helped that I was past my try-new-game every session phase and more focused on getting replay value out of the good games.

The elevator pitch for High Society is that you are a bunch of the idle rich, trying to buy more status symbols than everyone else. However, if you spend too much money, you'll lose the status of being rich and the game.

Mechanically, you all start out with the same amount of money and a series of tiles gets flipped over and auctioned off. Most of them are positive points but some of them are special or even negative points. Four of them are red and when the fourth one shows up, the game ends immediately.

Before you figure out who has the most points, you figure out who has the least money. That person is out. If there is a tie, everybody is out.

And that's the wrinkle that turns High Society from an auction game that you would never remember to a tight, brutal, little game that really makes you say 'let's play that again.' It's simple rule but it makes the entire game so much edgier.

High Society is a quick, simple game. It doesn't have the weight or length of most Knizia's other great auction games. However, it lacks a lot of tense, tough auctions into the fifteen minutes it takes to play. It took me a while to find and play it but it turned out to be worth it.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Mint Works - minimalism at work

The Kickstarter for Mint Works is almost at an end and it's been funded well and above the goal. Enough that a number of stretch goals have been met. When a game is that small, even a little bit extra can be a big expansion.

I've kept my eye on Mint Works ever since I first saw it as part of a PnP contest. I've been interested in micro games pretty much since I got into board games but Mint Works manages to be something different from other micro games I've seen.

It does that just by being a worker placement game and a pretty straight foward one at that. The actions are pretty simple. Get more workers, get building plans, building buildings from plans. Whoever gets seven points in buildings first wins.

The original version of the game consisted of two pages of cards, plus whatever tokens you used for workers. I know the Kickstarter version will have more cards but we are still talking tiny. Smaller than any other worker placement game I've come across.

One difference from most worker placement games I've seen is that you don't get your workers back. They as effectively currency and you need to get more through a very limited income or actions or buildings. Still, since everyone is competing for a limited pool of actions so the basic mechanic of worker placement holds true.

The placeholder for simplest worker placement game for me used to be Sticky Fingers. That's a game where you play rival thieves and you have to gather up tools, use those tools to steal stuff and then fence the stuff off for money which is called points in the game.

And I do like Sticky Fingers. While it is simple, it has enough tension and complexity to keep it interesting. However, what it is not is an engine builder. The board is effectively the engine and you are fighting to use it the most efficiently. 

Mint Works is in the running to be my new simplest worker placement game. It is honestly simpler and it is a worker placement game. And, as a micro game, it feels a different role as far as gaming needs are concerned.

And, unlike Sticky Fingers, Mint Works is an engine builder. The powers of the buildings give you are awfully simple but they are there. You definitely have to build up your infrastructure as well as going for points.,What I am uncertain of is how strong it's replay value is. The Kickstarter version, with more cards, does add promise for replay.

Mint Works is definitely a fascinating work of minimalism.

Why For Sale is a classic

For Sale is one of those games that is a definitive classic. It came out in 1997 and it's given the world almost twenty years of solid gaming since then.

For Sale is a game about the gentle art of flipping houses. In the first half of the game, you are buying houses, preferably as cheap as possible. In the second half, you sell those houses, preferably for a lot.

The game consists of two decks of cards, houses and checks, and a stack of coins. The houses have a numeric value from one to thirty while the checks range from zero to fifteen. My copy, at least, has pretty goofy houses, ranging from a cardboard box to a space station. I'm willing to bet there are editions where the coins are cards too. 

Everyone gets a starting pot of coins, which you'll use for bidding in the first phase. You deal out houses equal to the number of players and then the bidding starts. You go round and round the table, with folks either raising or passing. If you pass, you give the bank half your bid (which could be zero) and take the cheapest house that's left. Only the winner pays their full amount but they get the highest value house.

After you run out of houses, you start the second phase. Selling those houses. Deal out checks equal to the number of players. Everyone secretly chooses a house and simultaneously reveals them.  Checks then get handed out in order of house value. You know, highest value gets the highest check. Remember, some of them as worth zero so you can get hosed.

After all the checks get auctioned off, you count up the value of your checks and whatever coins you have left from the first part. Whoever has the most money wins!

Obviously, For Sale is an auction game (and by Dora's, not Knizia! That always surprised me) but it's a gentle one. Every round, everyone gets a card, no matter what. And, if you're lucky and/or patient, even that lousy cardboard box might be worth something.

At the same time, the game rewards good judgement. You have to know when to pass, when to unload your junk houses and when to pull out your high value homes. No one gets buried but good play wins the day.

It's that combination of simple, easy to understand rules with forgiving auctions and meaningful decisions that has made For Sale a classic. 

I have heard For Sale called the king of fillers, meaning it's a game that takes less than a half hour and can be used to fill in the time around longer games. The word filler often gets a lot of flack, although less since Love Letter inspired waves of micro games. Personally, life with a toddler makes games like that a real gift. And For Sale takes the fifteen minutes it takes to play and makes them a real fun gaming experience. 

I haven't played For Sale as much as I have wanted to. It came into my collection when I was trying out new games constantly and it got lost in the shuffle. Despite that, I remember how it was always fun with every group I played it with. A lot of the games I played from that period in my gaming life have left my collection but For Sale is a game I'm going to hang onto.