Sunday, October 30, 2016

Playing games during Halloween

Really, as long as you count toward horror, there are more games suitable for playing in Halloween than any other. Seriously, the idea of trying to make a definitive list of games to play on Halloween got way too overwhelming years ago.

And if zombies are your particular kettle of fish, then the world is your rotting, undead oyster. Seriously, I don't even think you can do a definitive zombie list that isn't overwhelming anymore.

Come to think of it, the most likely game for me to pull out this Halloween is a zombie game, Zombie Fluxx. I'm really not that into zombies but we do like Fluxx in it is a good way to get in some Halloween gaming even when our time is taken up with trick-or-treating and the like.

And that's not even getting started on role-playing games. Games like Chill or Call of Cthulhu who have been around for over 25 years. Years before Whitewolf made an empire based on horror. 

Heck, dungeons and dragons had its first taste of Ravenloft back in 1983. Although, to be fair a setting that is full of hordes of and was varieties of monsters is kind of a horror movie in the first place.

You know, it seems like that most of my experiences in Ravenloft have usually resulted in the player characters becoming the over-the-top psychotic monsters. When the undead say hey you've got a little too far you might want to pull back, you know something is happening.

In a couple years, maybe even as soon as next year, I have a feeling most of my Halloween gaming will be party games. But not bobbing for apples. I think that has gone the way of unwrapped candy in the name of hygiene.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Ocean as a game and a discussion

I recently reread Ocean, partly to get myself back into reading RPGs for fun. I first read it when I was just starting to explore indie games on my own. And I found that it not only held up well, I appreciated it even more.

Ocean is a story-telling RPG that is built on a very simple premise. You are all amnesiacs who wake up in a deserted underwater that has monsters in the shadows. You have to figure out who you are, what the base is and what those darn monsters are.

The game is a GM-free system, something I have come to be fascinated by. It uses a dice-based economy where your dice pool is also your health points and you trade in dice to solve the mysteries. However, you can't directly trade dice in to solve mysteries. Other players have to take risks for you to get the bonus dice you need to solve mysteries.

While it is a rules light system, I have skipped over tons of details of how the game works. One of the important factors is that in order to solve the mysteries, you have to take risks and take damage. The economy is tight enough up that everyone should be hurting by the time it ends. And there is a high level of interaction because you can't earn dice on your own.

But what really made me appreciate ocean was the lengthy section about the philosophy of playing the game.

Narrative  games, by their virtue of being mechanically light, can sometimes be opaque in the way to play them. The players have to do a lot of the work themselves. 

Which is not only fine, it's kind of the point. Particularly in games that don't have game masters, the players have to take on a lot of creative control. And when done well, it is an amazingly rewarding experience.

However, I know that that's not the easiest thing for some players. Including players that have spent years playing mechanically heavy systems, where do you have a very defined framework to work with.

Having a chunk of the book made up of a discussion on how these games work and how you need to embrace the freedom that comes with the narrative game is really nice and really handy.

The framework of Ocean, both the mechanics and the theme, would be enough to interest me. However, the real treasure in the book is the discussion on play. 

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Settings: are they the real hook?

I was recently told something to the effect that players will appreciate good mechanics but they will fall in love with a setting.

My own personal philosophy is that a good group or at least a good game master will be able to make sure that everyone has fun with all but the worst of systems. That being said, that isn't a far cry from the settings trump mechanic philophy.

For me, one of the most telling arguments about the power of settings is that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of books that are set in the Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance's Krynn and Ravenloft. And I have to believe that a lot of the people who buy and read those books don't actually play in those settings. If people who have no investment in the mechanics like the settings, that says something.

One of the two campaigns that I was in that lasted for over a decade ended up going through five different sets of mechanics. Obviously, the story was more important than what we use the dice for.

Mind you, my personal example works at least as well for the argument that the group itself determines how good a game is. And mechanics are important. They define how you interact with the setting.

But I do see how settings can be the hook to grab players and how they help define the stories that you will tell.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Tak: the reality behind what was fiction

Tak belongs to that curious family of games that were fictional and someone decided to make real. The game was mentioned in Patrick Rothfuss's The Wise Man's Fear and James Ernst made the game real.

The object of the game is to build a road across the board. You can place your stones on the board either flat as flagstones or on their sides as walls. You can move an already placed flagstone one space, including on top of another flagstone. You cannot move onto a wall but walls cannot move and do not count as part of the road.

Both players get a special piece called the capstone. It is the only piece that can flatten a wall and nothing can be put on top of the capstone.

There is also a special rule for moving a stack of pieces. The person on top, controlling the stack, can move the stack more than one space but they have to leave the bottom piece behind after the first move. It's rather like sowing in Mancala. 

I will be honest. I wasn't terribly interested in Tak when I first heard about it. I do love me some abstracts something fierce but I didn't feel like it offered me anything I hadn't seen before. I have played some really good modern abstracts but I've also played some pretty bad ones too.

But there was a giant set of Tak at Rincon 2016 and I saw in steady use so I ended up giving it a go. And then ended up playing the game three more times.

I know Tak is supposed to feel like a game that's been around for generations and it has a bit of that feel. However, what really
stood out for me was how intuitive it felt. I was able to pick it up and make more experienced players sweat for their wins.

There are some very interesting choices. Using a stone as a wall is a good blocking move but it doesn't help you build your road. The capstone is a strong piece but it has to enter the game on an empty space, like any other space. And getting it out telegraphs how you will use it.

One part of the game that I still have a long ways to really get a good handle on is the sowing move. Building up a stack and being able to effectively make a whole bunch of move is very strong and great stepped into to make that big, dramatic move. But you have to work your way there.

And there is also a strong alternate game ending condition. If you place all your stones first, you lose. That adds tension to the game as well as a timer. If your opponent forces you to place stones, it puts you on the defensive on a couple levels.

Tak doesn't quite make the top tier of modern abstracts for me. Games like the GIPF Project or the Blokus Family or Hive have set a very high standard for me. However, it is definitely a second tier game. It is easy to pick up and understand but it has enough depth to reward continued play and exploring the game. 

The game hasn't actually come out yet but everything I need to know about making my own copy is available. And I am planning on doing that.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Reflections after a Carcassonne tournament

While I have played Carcassonne for many years, I recently played in what I'm pretty sure was my first Carcassonne tournament. (Not sure what it says about me that I can't remember all the tournaments I've played in. And, compared to some of my friends, I'm not a tournament player) It was also the first time in ages I played basic, no expansion, vanilla Carcassonne. 

Some thoughts 

1) Brevity. With four players and just the basic set, everyone gets fifteen to sixteen turns, depending on their seating. That makes for a pretty quick game, which is handy for a tournament where time is a definite limiter.

2) Small Foot Print. With only 72 tiles, including the starting tile, you have a fairly small board. I would even go so far as to say claustrophobic. Again, handy for tournament purposes.

3) Luck. Since each player only drones at most 16 tiles, lock can be a Euge facture. If you are looking for the perfect tile, the odds are against you. Luck will play a big part in who wins. That isn't so handy.

4) Cloisters. By the time I started playing Carcassonne, back in the mist of time, the first two expansions were already out and I usually played with those. With a bigger tile mix and more ways to score points, cloisters didn't seem that extraordinary. However, with just the original set, cloisters suddenly become strikingly powerful. Drawing a cloister in vanilla Carcassonne can be big.

(Yeah, I know that that's just a subsection of point number three, walk. However, it was still striking) 

I don't know if Carcassonne is suitable for high stakes tournament. However, it was fun for a light, casual tournament. After all of these years, even the vanilla version holds up well.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Pairs proves to be a more interesting game system than I thought

Since I subscribe to the Cheapass Games newsletter, I have been aware of Pairs pretty much since it was ever mentioned. However, it didn't really interest me very much.

However, I did sign up for what amounted to a Pairs seminar with James Ernst at this year's Rincon. He ran through four different games that you can play with the Pairs deck as well as some variants. And by the time he was done, I had a much better opinion of the Pairs deck as a game system.

The Pairs deck is a triangular deck. It doesn't have suits, only ranks one to ten. And each rank has as many cards in it as its rank. So there is only one one card but ten ten cards.

All the Pairs games I played were light, quick games. Pub games that would be good for figuring out who pays for the next round. The games I learned included elements push-your-luck and bluffing. And I know you can use the deck to play climbing and trick taking games since Cheapass has all but admitted that they started with a Great Dalmutti deck to create the Pairs deck.

The actual Pairs game was one of the ones I learned, which is a very simple push-your-luck game. In fact, I'd say it was the weakest game I learned. So instead of being a deck of cards that you can theoretically play other games with, I would buy the deck specifically to play the other games. It really is a legit game system.

The Pairs deck isn't the first triangular deck I've played with. I'm pretty sure that was the Great Dalmutti, which goes up to twelve. I didn't realize how much losing those twenty three cards (11+12) tightened up the odds in the Pairs deck until I had a chance to play with it.

The games I got to play were on the serious casual side. They were lighter than what we play when the toddler is in bed and we are exhausted. But they'd be great at restaurants or parties or bars. And great with folks who'd never play something like Love Letter. And I wouldn't be surprised if there are deeper games that I just don't know yet.

Nothing is going to beat the standard deck of cards as a game system. It has had literally centuries of development and refinement and playtesting. And the best alternative I've found is the brilliant Decktet with its multi-suited cards. The Pairs deck is still pretty flexible and fun, though. And, since all three take up less space than some paperbacks, there's no reason not to own all three.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Very early impressions of Isle of Skye

My first game at Rincon was Isle of Skye. I had heard of it before. After all, it won the SdJ for strategy games. But, since I'm not buying new games, I didn't look any further. What I discovered is a game I'd love to play again.

In Isle of Skye, you are all building your own little map of tiles. It reminds me a lot of Alhambra. Which is a compliment. Alhambra is an older German Family-style game that has held up very well for me. (I can see someone also comparing it to Glenn More but I think Isle resembles Alhambra more closely with its tile market)

In Isle of Skye, you create your own market. Everyone draws three tiles and secretly decides to discard one and out prices on the other two. Everyone gets a chance to buy one tile and any tiles that aren't purchased, the person who put them on the market buys them. I definitely like this. It creates a lot of interaction but it's a kind, gentle interact. 

At the every round, there's some scoring. And here's where Isle gets all cute. There are several different scoring tiles, each one showing a different way to get points. And you only use about a quarter of them in any given game. So every game, there's a different way to get points and it will be in a different order for when you use the tiles. That adds a lot of replay value and means that you are always looking for something different in how you build your little map of tiles.

After just one game, I am definitely no kind of expert at either how to play or what the game structure is really like. I do know that I had fun.

Isle of Skye seems to blend the German Family ideas of heavy interactions and intuitive rules with Euro point salad. It feels like the kind of game that should be a good family game but still has enough meat to make more serious gamers respect it and enjoy it.

Frankly, if I had a regular group at the moment, I would seriously think about picking it up. Although, if I did have a regular group, somebody would've already picked it up by now. 

Monday, October 3, 2016

My Rincon 2016 experiences

Every year since we've moved to Tucson, I've attended Rincon, the friendly little gaming convention that is Tucson's own. I think it's actually Arizona's only gaming convention. And every year, it seems to have gotten better, both my personal experiences and in general.

This is the first year at its new location. I'd already attended two fundraisers for Rincon at the new hotel but the actual convention made me like it even more. In particular, the hotel shares its parking lot with two restaurants, which was great.

I won't be surprised if this Rincon had record attendance. My experiences with the volunteers was very positive. They were friendly, always eager to help and, most importantly, seemed to know what they were doing.

The guests included Andrew Looney of Looney Labs and James Ernst of Cheapass Games. Both of those companies were a big part of me getting into board games and I still really appreciate what they do, particularly for casual gamers and family gamers. 

I've gotten into the habit of registering for events instead of looking for pick-up games since we've moved out here and I don't have a posse of friends from nearby states to serve as an automatic gaming group. It doesn't hurt that it's usually free to register for events it's more cons.

In fact, this year, I was afraid that I had signed up for too many events. Instead, it proved to be a great idea. I was able to keep busy and every event was fun.

In addition to learning Isle of Skye right at the start, I attended events hosted by James Ernst and Andy Looney and played in two tournaments. Heck, I placed second in the Carcassonne tournament on Sunday, although lucky draws of cloisters probably had more to do with it then any brilliance on my part. 

In fact, the only pick up games I got in were ones with the giant set of Tak in one of the free play areas. I had kind of followed its development because I get the Cheapass newsletter but it proved to be a much better abstract then I ever expected. Making my own copy is now on the shortlist of games to make.

I have to note that talking with designers at smaller conventions gives you a much bigger chance to have a real conversation with them. I also got to talk with David Short, who designed Automobiles and Skyline and is a Tucson local.

In the past, I've only spend an afternoon at Rincon between the age of our toddler and the further distance of the old location. I was there for most of Saturday and part of Sunday this year and it was bustling and fun the entire time.