Monday, November 21, 2016

My journey with Attika continues

Attika came into my gaming experience after I had solidly gotten into gaming. I had played plenty of Catan and Carcassonne and Puerto Rico and the like. However, it was before I helped start a group that played at least once a week and before I really started seriously collecting games.

While I've seen every single element in Attika plenty of times, I have yet to see another game that puts them together in the same way. I've played literally hundreds of different games since I learned Attika and it still feels pretty distinct.

Here's the thumbnail sketch: In Attika, each player is playing a Greek city state, either trying to build every last one of its buildings or connect two different temples with their buildings.

The board is made up of modular hexagonal jigsaw pieces that have a hex grid on them. The nifty bit is, as the game goes on, you'll be able to add more jigsaw pieces to the board.

On your turn, you have a certain number action points you get to use. You can use them to draw building tiles, build building tiles and draw cards.

Every building has a resource cost. Resources are both printed on the board and on the cards. However, the different groups of buildings come in chains. If you build next to a previous link in a chain, it's free. Of course, you are randomly drawing the buildings.

Seriously, we have action points from games like Tikal. We got connections like games like Hex. We got randomly drawing tiles like you get in Samurai. We got a modular board like games like Catan. We got building stuff with resources like a ton of different games. There's a lot of familiar pieces but Attika uses them in its own way.

However, here's the first twist in my story. A couple years ago, I was purging my collection and I came across my own copy of Attika, which I picked up shortly after I first learned the game. And it was still in the shrinkwrap.

Was it a game that I had good memories of? Yeah. Was it a game I could remember the last time I played? Nope. Did it take up more space than a deck of cards? Yes. When push came to shove, I ended up selling Attika. 

And, to be honest, I have never regretted that decision. I never played my own copy and I hadn't played anyone else's in years. There's only so much time for playing games and only so much to store them.

Ah,  but there's a second twist. Attika has been added to Yucata, the online game site. It's amusing how I got excited to be able to play a game online that I got rid of. But sites like Yucata let me play games without needing storage space or a designated playing time. I just need a couple minutes a day to make a move or two. 

Although, to be brutally honest, I've found Attika isn't as good as I remembered. Everything works well but there is a lot of mechanics going on for what is a relatively simple game. It feels a little busy for its depth.

But it is still a fun game and a good game and one I'm going to be playing regularly at Yucata.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Sign - language without sound

Sign is supposed to be a LARP but it reads more like one third social experiment and one third history lesson and one third group therapy. I don't think it is part of the Norwegian School of LARP but it sure seems to hit similar notes of evoking emotion and communication.

I didn't know this before I read Sign but Nicaraguan Sign Language was developed when fifty deaf children were brought together with an intended focus on lip reading and alphabet signing. Instead, the kids came up with their own language.

Seriously, this blew linguists minds. The actual history and the discussions about how this worked and what it means is beyond fascinating.

Sign is less of a recreation of the development of Nicaraguan Sign Language and more of a tribute to it. It puts the players in the role of the children with one moderator as the teacher. It alternates between classroom scenes, where there is defined steps about communication and free form recess. Incidentally, the free form interactions at recess and out of class were crucial for the actual children to learn to communicate with each other. 

One of the crucial mechanics, to my mind, is the compromise marker. If you feel you haven't been understood or you haven't understood, you take the marker and mark your hand. You will probably end the game with really hash tagged hands. This really forces you to acknowledge the difficulty in communication.

I also found it fascinating that the characters that were created for the game are more privileged than the actual Nicaraguan children who were part of the real initial class. The developers made that choice so that they would be more approachable.

Having people sit down and try to communicate with each other without using words is a far cry from what I usually think about when I think about LARP. As I said, it seems more like a form of therapy. It has to be a memorable experience.

I may well never play Sign but I'm glad I read it. It's an interesting exercise in communication and it made me start looking into the origins of Nicaraguan Sign Language.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

The long journey to simplicity

Looking at Time Lord twenty years later, I find myself thinking that simpler RPG mechanics have both become more common and more accepted. 

Of course, the truth might be that I have just become more aware of them and I am more accepting. After all, you can find examples of simple RPG mechanics from back in the 1980s. Toon, which is pretty darn intuitive and simple, was first published in 1984, to give one very clear example.

At the same time, it really does feel like there has been a move for game mechanics to be more user friendly. Which does mean more intuitive, more consistent and, yes, more simple.

Which only makes sense. Role playing games were developed out of miniature war games. The oldest systems were really designed to let you role play with miniature rules. I can pound in a nail with a screwdriver but I'll do a better job when I get a hammer.

For me, there was even a certain level of shame in playing a simple system. I spent years having tons of fun with the Original Marvel RPG with its one chart for everything. But now, looking at it as a system that was streamlined and just let us focus on over-the-top, super hero action, I think it's great.

A huge turning point for me was the third edition of D&D. Which really wasn't simple and, after endless supplements, got downright convoluted and even contradictory. However, having the system built around rolling high on a D20 is good made it much more intuitive and consistent then earlier versions. Having a single, underlining principle made the whole game hang together.

Another important game for me was Once Upon A Time, which I didn't consider an RPG when I first played it but I do now. Even then, though, I viewed it as a great tool for teaching RPG basics.

A game about collectively and competitively creating a Fairy Tale while using cards to add specific elements, Once Upon A Time uses simple rules to let folks explore the complex freedom of creating your own narrative. 

Learning to let go of complexity and learning to have story telling be the main focus of a game was a valuable lesson for me.

Now, I'm don't knock games that are mechanically driven and are simulations. They can be very immersive and engaging, as well as rewarding for using the system well. I still think that may be the best way to play an open-ended campaign that could last years.

However, it is okay to have a game that lasts only a handful or even one session. It's okay to have a system that uses broad strokes for simplicity's sake. It's okay to have a rule set that takes five minutes to explain.

And the success of games like Fiasco, as one good example, indicate that I am not alone in changing the way I used to think. This is something that a definite segment of the hobby wants and is prepared to support.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Time Lord, a game time forgot

I just stumbled down a rabbit hole and a blast from the past when I rediscovered the role playing game Time Lord. It was the second role playing game about Doctor Who. I actually picked it up back in 1991 and even tried playing it. However, it faded from my memory.

Time Lord was a very rules light game for the time. It will also wasn't published by a gaming company but by Virgin Publishing who marketed as a regular mass-market book. In other words, a good chunk of its potential audience never even heard of it. The game pretty much sank and is now just a footnote in the vast history of Doctor Who.

Heck, even though I am a role-playing enthusiast and a big Doctor Who fan, I totally forgot about it.

Going back and looking at it now, Time Lord is a curious mix of very traditional role playing concepts and remarkably streamlined mechanics. On the one hand, the characters are made up of eight stats and you are going to need someone to be the game master. 

On the other hand, the mechanics break down to subtracting the value of the appropriate statistic and any skill from the difficulty of the task. If that value is higher than the difficult the, you automatically succeed. Otherwise, you roll to six sided dice and subtract the lower from the higher. If you beat the difference, you succeed.

You know, that actually sounds complicated when I try to write it out but it's really super simple. You figure out what the difference is between your total ability and the difficulty and you need to roll higher than that. OK, the only reason that you don't just roll one die is because you need to be able to get a zero result.

Anyway, having such a simple resolution system creates a framework that can easily resolve just about anything quickly. It does lead to a lot of things being generalized. At the time when I first read it, I found it strange that the Auton blasters were just as deadly as the Dakek ones.

From a more much more experienced standpoint, this just makes sense to me. Powerful alien blaster kills people. Period. That's really all you need to know to make the game work.

Actually, the biggest legitimate weakness of the game, other than some serious marketing issues, is that it doesn't have character generation. Instead, it just gave you the stats for all the Doctors up to that point and a bunch of companions.

To be fair, this is still better then the Indiana Jones game from TSR. One person got to be Indy and everyone else had to pick someone like Short Round or Willie. (Oddly enough, the rules did not begin with 'there will be a fistfight to see who gets to be Indiana Jones'.) In Time Lord, folks could be different Doctors meeting through special circumstances or have everyone be a companion with no one being the Doctor. And there are plenty of companions to pick from.

That said, it wouldn't be hard to make a character with house rules and rules for character generation have been added in the later, online only rule set as well as some of the fan-based supplements.

These days, when I have been playing extremely streamlined games, ones that often don't even involve having game master, Time Lord doesn't quite fit what I'm looking for. However, I really wonder what it would have been like with wider distribution.

Simpler, more intuitive systems have become more and more common and accepted. I would even go so far as to say there has even risen a minimalist school of thought for role-playing game design. From that standpoint, Time Lord was ahead of its time.

The designer made a revised edition available for free online back in 1996 so I'm going to revisit Time Lord, see what it looks like now.