Friday, December 29, 2017

Alhambra, quietly great

Ah, Alhambra.

While I was already exploring and playing designer games by the time I got to Alhambra, I have still been playing it for many years. It combines a couple of layers of simples decisions (What tiles do I buy and where can I place them are the fundamental ones) and I don’t think I’d turn down an offer to play. And I’ve yet to actually play with any of the expansions :D

The thumbnail sketch is that you are in charge of the restoration of the Alhambra palace in Granada, Spain. Each player is building their own palace. You have to buy the tiles, which have a set price, but they are randomly placed in the market which determines which of the four currencies is needed to buy it. You can choose to buy tiles, draw money cards or do some limited rearranging of your tiles. Three tiles during the game, you score points based on having the majority of tile types, as well as the length of your largest outer wall.

As you can imagine (and probably know full well since I bet most of the people reading this have played even more Alhambra than me), I’ve glossed over a lot, like placement restrictions or the value of paying with exact change. But the basic idea is everyone is building their own castle and buying the tiles to do it.

Alhambra won the Spiel des Jahres in 2003 and I’m pretty sure it has never been out of print. It has had numerous expansions and spinoffs. It’s one of Dirk Jenn’s biggest successes, although my friends who are fans of Shogun would threaten me with bodily harm if I said it was his greatest :D And Shogun is pretty awesome.

You would think that Alhambra would be one of the cornerstones of family-weight gaming like Ticket to Ride or Puerto Rico. And, in reality, I’m pretty sure it is. And yet, I never seem to hear it come up in discussions about family gaming.

My two theories on that are that I’m just not hearing the right discussions and Carcassonne. Frankly, apart from being tile laying games, I don’t see any real resemblance. But Carcassonne casts one big shadow. 

And, like I said, the differences are huge. Everyone has their own tableau in Alhambra, unlike the shared one in Carcassonne. You flat out buy the tiles, making money management a huge deal and meaning you know just what tiles you’re getting. The tiles have an orientation, adding a layer of difficulty in placement. And the scoring is also directly compositing for majorities.

I really love Carcassonne and think it has earned its place of being successful enough that it’s hip to diss it but, man, Alhambra is also a great game with a lot going for it.

Again, I’m not saying that Alhambra deserves to be a cornerstone of family-weight games. I’m pretty sure it already is. In an industry full of flash-in-the-pan, gone-the-next-year games, it has kept on going. At the end of the day, dollars do mean something and Alhambra is doing okay.

Pausing in the middle of Sin de Jour

I just finished Idle Ingredients, the fourth book in the Sin de Jour series.

I would have never even heard of the series, let alone started reading it, if Howard Tayler hadn’t recommended it on his Schlock Mercenary site. His recommendations get some extra grains of salt.

The elevator pitch is that the series is about a catering company that specializes in events for the supernatural community. However, the books are not nearly as wacky or as whimsical as that might imply.

The catering company works for the government and we are definitely looking at a Cancer Man-style government. One of their primary clients are literally demons from Hell and damnation is definitely a driving theme of the series.




I bought the first three books as a bundle so I knew I was getting into to at least read those books. The first book felt a little strained but it had a fair bit of world building to do. The second book involved a wedding party turning into rape lizards being treated as a spot of good fun, which I found distasteful. At that point, I was not sold on the series.

Until the epilogue of the second book, which I hadn’t cared for. The government liaison slices the head chef’s throat and sends his soul to Hell to show him that the government isn’t happy with him. In hat one scene, I felt like the series finally found its voice. It’s dark voice but it’s a clear voice. And with that, I was sold on reading the rest of the Sin de Jour books.

I have learned that there will be seven books, one for every deadly sin. And I’m not surprised after the third and fourth book, that this isn’t an ongoing series but a story with a definite end. Indeed, I won’t be surprised if not every character lives to the end. Actually, I won’t be surprised if it ends in a blood bath.

I’m lucky I bought the first three books as a bundle. That committed me long enough to get to the good stuff.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Been a while since my boots touched Elfenland

It’s been many years since I last played Elfenland. It won the Spiel des Jahres and was Alan Moon’s first major success. And it saw frequent play at one of my gaming groups of the past.

But it’s a game I’ve never really gotten into. I picked up a copy many years ago and ended up giving it away with that copy unplayed. Although I have hung onto the card version, King of the Elves. Which also hasn’t been played :P

Elfenland is a gorgeous game. The artwork is whimsical and detailed, depicting a world of elves and dragons that makes Harry Potter look like death metal. And the player pawns are these chunky wooden boots that are still some of the cutest pawns I’ve ever seen. The game still hold up well visually by modern standards and has to have been beyond amazing when it came out in 1998.

The game is basically one big traveling salesman puzzle. There are twenty cities or towns on the map and your goal is to visit as many of them as possible. You also have a secret town card that you want to end up at at the end of the game. (I’ve been told that that is a variant but it’s the only way I’ve ever played)

The board is a network of roads between all these cities but, here’s the thing. You need some kind of transportation on those roads, be it an elf-cycle or a magical cloud or a troll pulling a cart or a dragon. Oh and you have to pay for them with matching cards.

So, on each of the four turns that make up the game, you take turns placing transportation tiles down on roads (each one can only hold one) and then paying with your cards to travel as far as you can.

There’s some interesting additional stuff. You also get one tree down tile that will block a road for one turn. Not every transportation works on every terrain. And some cost two cards to use, making them more expensive.

Honestly, looking back at Elfenland, I’m not sure why I’m so meh about it. It’s definitely an interesting design and I honestly can’t think of another game that’s really like it. And it certainly has a lot of player interaction, in the classic German Family Game (the school of game design, not the country, Alan Moon is English) style.

It might well be that the one group that I played it with (quite a few times in fact) treated it as a negotiation game with a strong sense of cooperation and efficiency. (Which is off because they’d play most games as vicious as can be, bless their blood thirsty hearts) I know that there are groups out there that play Elfenland as an aggressive, mean game, making routes more difficult and more expensive. 

And, as I have mentioned before, I have kept King of the Elves, the card adaptation of it. After all, I could break it down to a much smaller box :D

I can see why Elfenland is brilliant. Maybe sometime, I will experience it.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Spot It: the matching game even for folks who hate matching games

As near as I can tell, I haven’t written about Spot It or Dobble. That surprises me and I really have to wonder if I just can’t find that blog entry for some reason.

Spot It comes in a vast number of editions but, with a couple exceptions, the only difference is the art work. It consists of a deck of circular cards with a whole bunch of images on each card. Every two cards share one picture.

The game actually comes with at least four different rule sets and I bet there are even more by now. However, they all share the common mechanic of being the first to spot the two matching pictures on two cards.

Spot It features an interesting dichotomy. All of the games you can play with a Spot It deck are simple. But the math that it took to actually design the deck is definitely complex. Simple idea but it took a lot of work to pull it off.

I’m not big on speed and reaction games (although in their defense, a lot of them are color-based and being color blind makes that a big problem) However, Spot It is one of the best ones I’ve tried. It’s also one of the most accessible ones I’ve tried.

Well, okay, it’s not like most of them are hard to teach (Fightball might be an exception) but I’ve never seen anyone not have fun with Spot It. Spot It is a game that you can play with just about everyone.

Judging by all the places I’ve seen it sold, Spot It has definitely broken into the mainstream. Which makes sense to me. It’s simple and fun to play. It’s not going to be a game that you can use a stepping stone to get folks to play Twilight Imperium but you will have no problems getting folks to play it. 

I don’t have many real time, reacting speed games in my collection, particularly after quite a bit of purging. Spot It would be the last one to go if I were to do another purge.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Bitin’ Off Hedz - not a good game but maybe a good learning curve

Bitin’ Off Hedz is definitely in the running  for the worst Cheapass Game I’ve experienced. 

It came out in 1996 and I think that James Earnst was still  finding his bearings. We had already gotten Kill Doctor Lucky, so there was the  promise of things to come.

The theme of the game is that you are all dinosaurs who are all so bored that you’ve decided to race to the volcano to throw yourself in. By Cheapass standards, that’s pretty normal.

Anyway, at the end of the day, it’s a roll and move game where you can sometimes throw rocks at other pawns that makes them go back to start and optional powers depending on what kind of plastic dinosaur you’re using for your pawn. When one of the main twists in the rules is getting forced back to start, that isn’t a good rule in my book.

The selling point (?) of the game is that the board is huge. It’s made of sixteen sections that you have to hold together (post it notes on the underside are recommended) and is close to three feet long. The completed board shows a winding path that forms the shape of a dinosaur skull.

Back in 1996, Bitin’ Off Hedz was an ambitious physical design, particularly for a self-publisher. Time has not been kind. Sixteen black and white pages of illustration on poor quality paper falls short of even PnP standards, particularly paired with a subpar rules.

However, these days, I am more forgiving of Bitin’ Off Hedz. Not in and of itself but for its place in the history of Cheapass Games. I knew it was an early game but I hadn’t realized how early it was when I first tried it.

From that standpoint, I view the game as an experiment, James Ernst still figuring out what would work with the Cheapass format. I find it telling that the next time he made a roll-and-move game, Devil Bunny Needs A Ham, it was smaller, quirkier and a much tighter design. Multiple pawns and a claustrophobic board, that game offers more choices on top of a really silly theme.

Bitin’ Off Hedz isn’t a good game. But it may have been a necessary step to figuring out what makes Cheapass work.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

All it required was one email so I played it

During a bout of mild insomnia, I came across Animal Professionals of Place Place Number: A Solo Writing Game. When I woke up the next morning, I realized that it was a game that I could just go ahead and play it since all it took was me writing one letter.

Animal Professionals of Place Place Number is basically just writing a gag letter to a game designer about a game that they didn’t design and doesn’t actually exist. There’s a basic layout for the letter but all the details are up to you.

For my first time trying out the game, I chose Steve Townshend because we’ve been friends ever since we met at pre-college many, many years ago. So I knew he’d either enjoy the experience or eventually forgive me :D 

Dear Mister Steven Townshend, 

Thank you for sending me a copy of the prototype of Walrus Zamboni Drivers of Canada Municipal Field 55 to review. I don’t think I have ever seen an RPG like it.

It would have been hysterical to just have intelligent, time lost walruses become zamboni drivers but making them Vikings too was just brilliant. That really helped Rob sink his teeth into playing Tuskrrr. And it was really amazing how Greg used the optional mascot costume instead of a zamboni. Having only one good quality but no bad qualities ended up being a good balance.

I do have to ask if the aliens are supposed to be the ones opening up the time-space portals? Also, do you think it would be better to have a different player write in a new quality when a player has to cross one out?

Again, I have to thank for the chance to play Walrus Zamboni Drivers of Canada Municipal Field 55. You have always created games where the goals of the players drive the story and this was no exception.


Lowell Kempf 

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Mix index cards and sorrow to make game

Sad Things on Index Cards is a tiny RPG/Storytelling Game/social activity by Ben Wray and Marshall Miller. The closest thing I can classify it as is a Game Poem but it has less context than I’m used to seeing in a Game Poem, which seem to have some kind of narrative involved.

The game consists of either writing down sad things on blank index cards or editing sad things written down on index cards to make them sadder. At the end of the game, you give cards to other players for them to read later.

I have to admit, when I first read Sad Things on Index Cards, my first reaction was ‘Man, why didn’t I write this?’

While my initial opinion of Game Poems was pretty meh, they have really grown on me. To my mind, the object of a Game Poem is evoke a specific emotional response. Which could be sorrow or wonder or humor or even boredom. 

Sad Things on Index Cards strips away any kind of story and goes straight to the emotion. In fact, it seems less like a Game Poem than the skeleton of a Game Poem, like a model that you can slap any set of clothes on. It’s like a protoplasm Game Poem :D

I can see a lot of fun and value in both using the game as a framework to create a narrative and to just play it as is. It is such a simple idea but I think has a lot of potential and replay value, as well as being an easy entry for folks who aren’t used to unconventional game designs. 

Sad Things on Index Cards is a super simple game that fits on one piece of paper and takes just a few pilfered office supplies to play. However, there’s brilliance in that simple little design.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Doing a good job reinventing the wheel is hard

While almost everyone who we’re going to see on our holiday travels are folks who don’t play board games, I knew that I’d get one good chance to game when an old buddy brought his son to see us.

As I’ve written before, I packed a tiny game library of four Pack O Game games. And that was enough for us to get a couple hours of gaming in.

We got in two games of Hue, a game of SHH, a game of DIG and three or four games of GEM. The consensus was that HUE was fun, SHH was okay (good word game but no one felt like playing a word game) and DIG was really interesting.

And they both really liked GEM. GEM was the big winner by far.

To be fair to DIG, it was the last game that I taught so that might have lessened its impact. And I do think that more plays of DIG would have made them like it more. But GEM was a hit from the first play. Replays were demanded and it’s the longest game of the four (still pretty short) My gaming buddy said that the others were fun, small games but GEM felt like a ‘full’ game.

In fact, while my friend’s son has played a lot of board games, this may have been his first auction game. If it really was, it was a good introduction to auctions. (For Sale would have been better but GEM was still good) I forwarded them the black-and-white demo so they could make a copy but I bet they will be ordering their own copy before long.

This is far from the first time I’ve taken games from the Pack O Game series out. They’ve seen plenty of play at home and at conventions. However, this is the first time they’ve had to stand on their own as the entire game library and they did well.

My holiday gaming session (so far)

While almost everyone who we’re going to see on our holiday travels are folks who don’t play board games, I knew that I’d get one good chance to game when an old buddy brought his son to see us.

As I’ve written before, I packed a tiny game library of four Pack O Game games. And that was enough for us to get a couple hours of gaming in.

We got in two games of Hue, a game of SHH, a game of DIG and three or four games of GEM. The consensus was that HUE was fun, SHH was okay (good word game but no one felt like playing a word game) and DIG was really interesting.

And they both really liked GEM. GEM was the big winner by far.

To be fair to DIG, it was the last game that I taught so that might have lessened its impact. And I do think that more plays of DIG would have made them like it more. But GEM was a hit from the first play. Replays were demanded and it’s the longest game of the four (still pretty short) My gaming buddy said that the others were fun, small games but GEM felt like a ‘full’ game.

In fact, while my friend’s son has played a lot of board games, this may have been his first auction game. If it really was, it was a good introduction to auctions. (For Sale would have been better but GEM was still good) I forwarded them the black-and-white demo so they could make a copy but I bet they will be ordering their own copy before long.

This is far from the first time I’ve taken games from the Pack O Game series out. They’ve seen plenty of play at home and at conventions. However, this is the first time they’ve had to stand on their own as the entire game library and they did well.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Minimalist game packing

December is proving to be a busy month, full of traveling. More than that, I’m not going to be around any gamers during the weeks I’ll be away from home and luggage space is particularly tight.

So I am going super light as far as games are concerned. 

In addition to a deck of cards, which is pretty a default for me, I’m taking a tiny, hard plastic case that is just big enough to fit four games from the Pack O Games line. Yeah, I’m going that small.

And I’ll admit that I also am only taking four so it won’t be as expensive if something happens and I have to replace them :D

So, here’s what I’ve packed:

HUE: It’s not my favorite of the games in the series nor one of the best but it is _the_ most accessible. Teach it and play it in ten minutes while still having interesting choices.

GEM: On the other hand, I do think GEM is one of the best games. It manages to pack a solid auction game in a tiny package. By having both the money and auctioned gems tight, the game is definitely tense and one bad choice can sink you.

SHH: I’m not big into either word games or cooperative games but I think SHH, which is both, is a game that will really click for non-gamers. The fact that it is the prettiest game in the series also makes it an easy sell.

DIG: Slot number four was a tough call. I almost went with BUS since I think it is a very clever and ambitious pick-up-and-deliver game. However, DIG is cuter (non-gamers, remember) and easier to teach. And still a good pick-up-and-deliver game.

In other words, when I knew I would have to go super minimal, I chose games that I knew would work.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Why I am keeping Through the Desert

Many years ago, a friend told me that he considered me the Through the Desert guy. For three years running, when he’d run into me at GenCon, Through the Desert would be in my bag and he’d somehow be there when I’d pull it out for a group game.

It has been a surprisingly long time since my last play of Through the Desert. However, it is a game that I have absolutely no intention of getting rid of my collection. I both really enjoy it and I think it’s a great example of a multi-player abstract.

Not that I thought of it as an abstract when I first got it. No, not because it had a theme but because it had a random set up. For the me of ten or so years ago, an abstract meant no hidden information and no random elements. Games like Qwirkle or Ingenious need not apply.

I’ve lightened up on the subject. Being told over and over that Ingenious is an abstract will have the effect :P

Back in the day, I read that Through the Desert was Go for multiple players. Since then, I spent three or four years trying to play Go seriously (which isn’t nearly long enough and I hope to revisit it again someday) and that’s pretty ridiculous. Other than placing stones (or camels) on the board, the games don’t resemble each other. And it’s not even useful as a teaching tool. I can make an argument for Monopoly being like Catan to convince someone to try Catan. I don’t see myself getting a serious Go player to try Through the Desert with this argument :D

Which isn’t some kind of flaw in Through the Desert. Go is like a fundamental building block of the concept of board game. I’ve heard serious Go players scorn Chess as a serious game. Through the Desert is a strong, fun, accessible game. Just because it doesn’t recreate the hydrogen atom doesn’t make it bad.

What is a major problem in for me is that I am quite color blind and it uses eleven different colors if you have a five-player game. Good lord, that’s rough. And I somehow still managed to learn and teach and play the game. That’s how good it is. I did that despite the color issue!

Still, that makes it harder for me to get on the table. And when that table might have cats with batty paws, that’s an additional issue. But I know I will play it again!

Thursday, December 14, 2017

MASHed: much better than I expected... and maybe too real

I hadn’t planned on reading MASHed. Because, well, I assumed it was based on the TV show. And I really liked the TV show when it was first being aired (and would probably still like it now) but I’m not interested in playing a game based on it.

However, what I discovered when I started looking at MASHed was that it was focused on being a historical recreation. Mind you, I don’t think it would have been developed without the tv show. I mean, I don’t know if I’d have any clue that MASH units even existed without the show.

So... this is a game that has a focus on a real historical event, a war that was recent enough that people who experienced it are still around to remember it. And it doesn’t focus on combat but what happens after the combat is over... at least for the folks who have to go under the knife.

I’ll be honest. MASHed has some of the highest bleed potential I have seen in an RPG. (Bleed: when people start getting feels from the game) The only game I have looked at that is more extreme is the Grey Ranks, which is listed as an inspiration. And I think MASHed might be more extreme for American audiences since it is easier for us to relate to. I know I’m being super self-centered but MASHed is about Americans. 

And I’m now curious about Korean MASH units. Was there something about that war (The front moving back and forth a lot? Having a larger number of civilian doctors? Was there a larger number?) that made its medical units unusual? Or is it just that Richard Hooker wrote a popular book?

(My son’s grandpa (hi dad!) has made the argument helicopters made rapid transportation easier than WW II. And Vietnam was much more defuse and probably had faster helicopters. But neither of us know much details about those wars so those are just guesses)

So I went from having no interest in MASHed and only owning it thanks to Bundle or Holding to actively reading it and cross referencing parts of it. That said, I don’t know if I’d _play_ MASHed. To play it without trivializing the subject might be too traumatic.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Collaborative world building, it’s a thing

I was listening to Matt Colville, who I listen to very erratically, and he commented on how world building is a DM’s thing and how the players investment in how they have drama in that world.

However, I have been in campaigns where the DM assigned world building to the players. You, you’re playing an elf? Okay, you get decide what elves are like in our world. It shares the work and lets players get more invested in the world.

Oh, in the game did end up having an over arcing story. The DM just tailored it to the players’ interests after he learned what they were.

However, what really came to my mind was the games where the whole point is for everyone to work together to create the world. Games are where everyone gets to take part in the world building.

My first experience doing that was... man, 1997. If there were any world building games out at the time, we didn’t know it. We just each took a piece and developed it. We ended up with a world of islands floating in the volcano with renaissance duelers and steampunk monks who didn’t wear goggles. We never ended until doing anything with it but it was pretty.

However, there are now a number of options for collaborative world building. The first one I heard of was Universalis, which I still haven’t really looked at. Downfall is another one I want to look into. I have actually played the Quiet Year, which explores building a community but also has a definitely helping of collaborative world building.

The world building game that I have, by far, had the most experience with is Microscope. If someone asked me to recommend a world building game, which has never happened and probably never will, I’d recommend Microscope. In fact, that the first Microscope game I was ever in had the goal of creating a campaign world for D&D and the player who was the DM used it for more than one campaign.

World building hasn’t been on my mind lately. However, after my mind was poked, I not only remembered that I enjoy it, there are systems that really explore it.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Thanks, Secret Santa!

Holy cow! I already got my Mini-PnP Secret Santa package and it exceeded my wildest expectations.

Inside the mysterious box, I found full color copies of Strawberry Ninja and Pleasant Prospect Farm. They are in boxes, the cards look like they have linen finish and there’s a nice cat figure for Strawberry Ninja.

Man, I thought I was doing well with B&W laser printer, a laminator and a good paper cutter. But, to quote Prince of Tennis, I still have lots to work on :D

(Haven’t read it in years but I had fun reading Prince of Tennis. I liked how Ryoma isn’t some mysteriously gifted novice but rigorously trained the start. And how middle school tennis matches were  treated like Dragon Ball Z fights on steroids.)

This definitely exceeding my expectations and I know I won’t be sending such a spiffy gift. Still, I will do my best!

Friday, December 1, 2017

octaNe: the FUN apocalypse

octaNe is an RPG about the fun side of the apocalypse. Don’t worry about starvation, radiation poisoning and the collapse of civilization. Just crank up the eight track and get ready to party with mutant truckers, Elvis impersonators and masked luchadores. 

One of the ways I personally measure RPGs is how much fun they are to read and octaNe score high on that category. It is a total hoot to read. 

The game is a campy love letter to wacky science fiction movies of the 70s and 80s. In a world where anything east of the Mississippi doesn’t exist, where road warriors cruise the desert, masked Mexican wrestlers fight for justice and dinosaurs are back in South America, you know it’s going to be crazy. This is a rules-light system where the rule of cool trumps any worries about physics and realism. 

Okay, I’m going to write one paragraph about the play mode section, one paragraph on mechanics and maybe one or two  paragraphs about settings. Then I’m going to say what I like and dislike about the game.

The game has five suggested plays modes. From out-and-out wacky to serious they are: psychotronic, grindhouse, arthouse, and Cinema Verite. Honestly, I don’t see any reason to play anything but psychotronic. But having the modes laid out helps everyone understand what kind of story you are telling.

The game uses a simple dice pool mechanic to resolve conflict. You roll three dice and use the highest die to determine who controls the resolution. You can spend plot points to add more dice and the GM can use hazards to reduce die rolls. Your styles, the equivalent of stats, don’t add dice. They help you earn plot points. It’s a little more complicated than that but that’s the thumbnail.

Okay, let’s do another paragraph. High rolls and low rolls don’t determine success or failure. They determine who narrates the rest of the scene. Which does help break up the role of GM and player but there are other games that do that better.

The setting. Oh man, the setting. Take everything silly and cool and wacky from the cheap science fiction movies from the 70s, jam them into a cocktail shaker, shake them up and pour out a tall drink of crazy. This is the real selling point of octaNe. If you don’t want to embrace free-wheeling honky tonk kitsch and coolness, you don’t want to play this game.

I have heard it said that the setting is what you fall in love with in RPGs. And octaNe is a love letter to this setting. You’re not going to play octaNe to explore narrative dynamics. You play it to get funky.

However, I do have some concerns about the system. As simple as it is, there seem to be some potential issues. One roll can potentially resolve a scene, which is fine if there’s just one player is making the call. But if several players are vying for control, things could get awkward. There’s a hierarchy of styles (Indiana Jones gets preference over Doctor Strange :P) but it could still be an real issue.

I also have specific concerns for the two special styles players can take, Might (basically super powers) and Magic. They have a bonus effect to reduce hazards and let players do the impossible. But they are fueled by plot points, making them expensive, less mathematically effective and able to be burned out. Which wouldn’t be so unreasonable, given the whole do the impossible bit. Except that, given the flexibility of the system and the rule of cool, any of the styles can kind of do that.

I also think there are systems that do some of what octaNe does better. As far as sharing the GM’s narrative role with the players, I think games like Trollbabe and InSpectres do it much better. And if I want an apocalypse game that is anything other than whole hog honky tonk, I’d reach for Apocalypse World.

All that said, I wouldn’t pass up a chance to try octaNe. Because, mechanical quibbles to one side, playing in this setting sounds like it would be a total blast.

Abstracts for a teenager

I was included in a request to suggest games for a smart teenager who likes chess and strategy games. While other folks handled the strategy end, I decided to focus on the abstract end for my suggestions. 

I had fun making the list and I thought it would be fun to share what I wrote:

I’m going to tackle the abstract side of the question, since I like abstracts. Most modern abstracts tend to play faster than Chess or Go, by the way.

Hive - This is a chess-like game of insects trying to surround the enemy Queen. The pieces are thick, chunky tiles and they create the board as you add them. It’s been around for years and still have a strong following.

The GIPF Project - A collection of pure abstracts by Kris Burm. I’ve played all but LYNGK (which came out this year) and I enjoyed all of them (although I didn’t care for the first one GIPF, as much) I’d recommend YINSH and ZERTZ in particular. And, to the best of my knowledge, the names don’t mean anything.

Pyramid Arcade - This is a tool kit of games from Looney Labs, the folks who made Fluxx. They all use nifty plastic, space-age looking pyramids. I’ve been having fun with the pyramids since 2004.

Ingenious- A domino game that uses hexagonal dominoes and the same scoring system as Tigris and Euphrates. It does have a random luck of the draw but it was my favorite game for a while.

Qwirkle - Scrabble without a board and using colors and symbols instead of letters. This is Carrie and my favorite game to play together and we have played it a lot over the years.

I’ve also heard very good things about Santorini, which involves building towers with special powers but I haven’t played it yet. I also have to give a nod to Puerto Rico for family gaming.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Jumping into Lemminge

Lemminge is a game that I never would have heard of, let alone played, if it wasn’t for Yucata.

It’s a race game based on the disproven myth that lemmings are a bunch of suicidal rodents who have an urge to throw themselves off cliffs. You are trying to be the first person to get both your lemmings over the cliff.

The board is a wide, u-shaped track of hexes that are either blank or a terrain type, which are grouped together. 

On your turn, you can either draw cards or play cards. Playing cards is the interesting bit. The cards show the different terrain types and a number. Over the course the game, you make rows of each terrain type, counting down. If you play a higher card, you clear the row and start over with your card.

So here’s how movement works: you move one of your lemmings the sum Of the room that you just put a card in. They can move on blank spaces or the matching terrain. You can also push other lemmings but that takes movement points.

One of my favorite touches is that if you clear a card row and start a new one (which usually means less movement), you get the consolation of a tile that matches that terrain that you can use to fill an empty space on the board. Definitely gives options for nasty plays.

And, the game ends when someone flings their two lemmings over the cliff and wins.

On a whole, I’m pretty meh to the game. While you sometimes get to make some really cool moves, luck of the draw seems really powerful. And if you get blocked in or have bad card draws, even a move that gives you a lot of moves doesn’t seem like it would save you. Particularly because you only get one terrain type per move.

In the case of Lemminge, that fact that it is a very light game is kind of its saving grace. Because it is easy to understand and quick to play, I’m willing to keep on trying it. It could be that practicing hand management might mitigate the luck. Or it could be that each turn really only does have one good move.

It reminds me a lot of Odin’s Ravens, the whole playing cards to matching terrain for movement. However, Odin’s Ravens is a much tighter, more interactive game. Lemminge just doesn’t have the tension.

I won’t deny the fact that getting to learn a new game is  fun. So I am glad that I have gotten to experience Lemminge. However, I can’t say that it’s a game that I would actually think about getting a hardcopy or even try and get a play face-to-face.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

A bumbling side trek

Session 12 of the Late Lurkers

It had been close to two months since the last time we had played. Of course, part of the whole deal of this campaign was that adult responsibilities had to come first so that wasn’t a big deal.

Thanks to Thanksgiving, half the folks who planned on making it weren’t able to play. Playing via Roll20 and the power of the internet makes things very flexible but you can only bend so much.

So we ended up with only three players. The GM toned things down so he didn’t wipe us out and he made it a short session.

The three party members who were there split off from the rest as we followed two different trails of the cult members we were dealing with. We ended up finding a tiny hamlet where one of the residents was a secret cult member, complete with zombies and a living rug. The GM has a real tendency to use living furniture.

I’ll be honest. It was tough to get into character this time. Between the gap between plays and being down so many players, I think it was tough to find our footing and I think we let the NPCs bamboozle us more than we should have. I just became a spell caster and I didn’t use any of my new spells.

That said, our biggest goal, hanging out with long distance friends, went off without a hitch. We had fun and, once we realized that there were a smokehouse full of zombies, it all fell into place. And setting the place on fire and maybe starting a forest fire, that felt good.

I try to think about how Roll20 affect our experiences. At its best, we forget about it and just play. Even though this was a relatively weak session (and, honestly, this campaign is strong enough that a ‘weak’ session is still a pleasure), it still was fluid and moved well.

And I have a feeling we will be a lot quicker to judge potential cultists.

Monday, November 27, 2017

A game combining tattoos and bad choices

There are time when I read and study role playing game systems borderline manically. And then there are times when I might go for weeks or months without picking one up. I’ve been going through a dry spell lately so I’m trying to jumpstart myself a bit.

So I reread a tiny little RPG called Tramp Stamp. It was from a 24-Hour design contest from 2009. I had honestly don’t remember where I originally downloaded it and googling Tramp Stamp RPG gets a lot of weird results.

It’s a one-session, GM-free game built around under the idea that everyone is a tattoo artist at a shop that is gong to close down. You are all trying to make that one great tattoo that will help you stay in the business. Otherwise, you might have to get a haircut and a real job or completely self-destruct. You run through three rounds of personal scenes and tattoo scenes to determine how everyone turns out.

Characters have three stats: Sex, Drugs and Rock and Roll. You use these traits to be able to create awesome tattoos but they also fuel your self-destruction. 

While the ostensible goal of the game is to be the one who makes the most awesome tattoo, it is really about exploring self-destructive behaviors and habits. That’s the real point of the game.

I have read a lot of micro RPGs over the last few years. And, there’s only a couple I really see myself having much chance of playing. Tramp Stamp isn’t one of them. But it is one that has stayed in my head. The theme is unusual and it has sex, drugs and rock and roll for stats. Still, if I want a one-shot about self destruction, I’d go with Fiasco.

Friday, November 24, 2017

The trap of labels with game design schools

It’s been too long since I played Delonge’s Hellas (as opposed to Dorra’s Hellas or any other game named Hellas) However, it’s a game that really sticks in my brain because of how it straddles design schools.

It’s an area of control game where you build a map of islands out of tiles, occupy those tiles with ships and soldiers and openly attacking each other. Plus you have God cards that let you break the rules in different ways.

While Hellas is a fun game in general, the reason that it stood out to me when I first found out about it was that it was a German Family game that had direct conflict, literally combat. At the time, merging the sensibilities of war games and German Family games was pretty unusual. 

Of course, that also depends on what you’re willing to consider a war game. When folks are willing to argue about whether or not Memoir 44 or Twilight Struggle are war games, Hellas is on super thin ice as far as being considered a war game. (Is chess a war game?)

I spend a lot of time thinking about the different design schools of games. And I do think they are important because they help explain what the goal of the design is, what the intended audience is. To be fair, I think it’s much more important for publishers than for consumers.

BUT games like Hellas (and Memoir 44 and Twilight Struggle and many more) are examples about how porous these labels are. 

I do believe that there is real value in defining games via design school, in particular from a marketing standpoint. However, there is a definite danger in letting that be the defining characteristic of a game. That is far from the end all, be all of games. If you (or I or Bryan down the street) let that be what makes your decision on a game, you might be in a game cult.

And more and more, game designers take inspiration from different schools for one game. Designs schools are tool boxes, not limitations. Hellas is an example of that from 2002.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

German Family Games? Yeah, they are still relevant

When I first started playing designer board games, what I now think of as German Family Games seemed like one of the dominant genres. These days, it sometimes feels like the genre has been forgotten and replaced by Euros, although I am actually sure that it’s the case.

To be sure, both genres are often lumped together as Euros and it’s easy to see why. Out of all the different design schools out there, they are probably the most closely linked. Certainly, war games and abstracts and Ameritrash and party games don’t have have as much in common as German Family Games and Euros. And there are definitely games that it’s hard to pin down which school they belong to.

While I am sure that folks who aren’t into designer games would be the first to say ‘What’s the difference? Why does it matter?’, I think that the wider audience is the very reason it matters. Because German Family Games, while appreciated and enjoyed by the hobby, are games that are aimed at the folks outside the hobby. While Euros are defined as intricate puzzles and systems, German Family Games are defined by simplicity and accessibility. 

While it’s obvious that Euros came out of the German Family Game school, I don’t think they either replaced or improved German Family Games. I believe they created their own niche and have proved that it has a legitimate audience.

I also don’t think that German Family Games are something you grow out of. I sort of used to and I know folks who still think that way. And while it is true that German Family Games have the best ‘gateway’ games, I don’t care for the trim gateway because the games you end up using that way for the games you want to put yourself. Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne, For Sale, TransAmerica, they may be games that are easy to explain but they are games that are fun for everyone.

And I also don’t think that German Family Games are actually going away. They are still coming out with games like Imhotep (to name one I’ve recently played) It’s just a much more crowded market. And non-gaming families that are buying them don’t need a closet full of them :D

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Missing Franz-Benno Delonge

It’s been about ten years now but I still get bummed when I think about Franz-Benno Delonge passing away.

It’s not just because he designed a number of games that have really done well for me. It’s because he was only fifty so I really have to wonder what else he could have made. It’s very sad when a creator dies at an old age and you have a sense of completed body of work but it’s a different sad when they die young. (I feel the same way about Roger Zelazny)

I honestly don’t know much about the man but interviews make him sound pretty friendly. Plus, he was a daddy which gives him points in my book and makes his passing even more sad.

I have not played all of his games, even though he didn’t make that many of them. Of the ones that he played, they pretty much break down to either games that I want to play again and games that I haven’t quite enough of.

I’ve played TransAmerica, TransEuropa, Fjords, Dos Rios, Manila and Hellas, which is actually about a third of his game catalog. And I do admire designers who manage to create huge numbers of good games. Reiner Knizia and Sid Sackson are two of my heroes. But every game I’ve played from Delonge has been just super solid. 

And someday, when I have both the opportunity and the time (oh boy, the time), I want to play Container at least once.

I think that Delonge’s legacy will be TransAmerica. That is a game that will be still be getting played twenty years from now. I don’t know if it his best game from a ‘game’ standpoint but it is so simple and accessible while still being so fun and interesting. You can teach it to just about everyone but even seasoned gamers still enjoy it.

Delonge definitely belonged to the German Family school of game design. Simple rules, complex decisions, lots of interaction, no player elimination and relatively short playing times. It doesn’t seem to be as trendy as it used be but I still think it has a lot of staying power for a wide audience. And, as I already said, I think Delonge will be a great example for decades to come.

Finding the space to play games

Lately, I have been spending a lot of time thinking about time and space. Finding the time to play games and finding the space to play games.

That’s the great thing about conventions. Not only are they a span of time that you have dedicated to playing games, you also have the dedicated table space. 

Time has been a part of my game equation for a long time. And, truth to tell, so has space. Not just storage space but also playing space. Storage space has been a long consideration for me but I’ve also found myself thinking about the footprint of a game.

When I first started playing board game, a lot of my plays were in coffee shops and restaurants so small footprints were a big deal. However, I soon began playing with folks who made it a point to have the largest room in their homes centered around big tables for gaming. (Come to think of it, none of them had kids...)

However, since I no longer live around those folks, I’ve been thinking about how it can sometimes take a lot of care and planning to figure out where you can play a game. 

I mean, I don’t think of Ticket to Ride as a particularly big game but it is still going to take up most of a normal sized table. And that table has to be pretty much cleared off :D (With kids, tables are a living space)

Frankly, this is probably I’ve played more card games lately.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Secret Santas on Boardgame Geek

Ah, it is getting to be Secret Santa time again and Boardgame Geek has a wide variety of Secret Santa events to choose from.

Many years ago, I participated in the main one, sending games off to strangers. However, I stopped when I began really tightening up my game budget. It’s sounds terrible and Scrooge-like but if I’m not buying games for myself, I’m not going to buy them for strangers.

However, when the card exchange started, I jumped on that. Not only was that much easier to budget, making homemade cards has become a tradition in our family, thanks to the Cricut. AND we send out multiple cards so we get to be  more social.

This year, I saw that there was a Print and Play Secret Santa. Which got me really excited until I saw that was for major builds. While I have made a couple larger builds, I have to admit that I really find the time and energy for smaller builds. Add a time limit and that is a guarantee that I wouldn’t get it out.

However, at literally the last minute before the deadline, I found out that there is a Mini Print and Play Secret Santa. Now that is more my speed. Heck, I might be able to send something that I have already made and make my own copy again on my own time. At the very least, I would be sending something that I knew I have enjoyed.

I was already excited to do the card exchange. The mini print and play, that just makes me even more excited.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Going back to the hidden depths of the Paradoxes of Mr. Pond

When I first decided to start reading Gilbert K. Chesterton in college, the first book I found in the college library was the Paradoxes of Mr. Pond. Ironically, that was also the last mystery book he wrote. And, while not it’s one of Chesterton’s greats, it is still a fun, enjoyable read.

(Although, to be fair, Chesterton’s fiction seems to be break down to the Father Brown stories, the Man Who Was Thursday, and then everything else. I have no idea how to rank his writing past those two works. Frankly, if you like his quaint and quirky style, you will like any given book.)

The Paradoxes of Mr. Pond is a collection of mystery stories about a bureaucrat who is able to figure out what’s really going on in seemingly nonsensical situations. Sometimes, he actually solves the crime and other times he just explains it. 

I recently reread the collection because I wanted to reread just one of the stories, the Ring of Lovers. The title is a pun because the story has both a ring sent by a lover and a group of men gathered together because a husband knows one of them is having an affair with his wife.

Rereading the story after I was older made much more of an impression on me when I had a better idea of what it was really about. The point of the story isn’t about the crime, it’s the realization of Mr Pond’s friend Captain Gahagan that getting invited to this party meant people thought he was that kind of guy and that didn’t sit well with him. 

Having read a lot of Chesterton since I first read the Paradoxes of Mr Pond, it’s not hard to see parallels between the book and his other works. The quiet but vastly observant Mr Pond can’t help but remind me of Father Brown. Captain Galahan feels like a more flawed version of Flambeau.

But the work I really found myself thinking of was The Man Who Knew Too Much. Horne Fisher and Mr Pond are both characters who know quite a bit about the underside of politics and human nature. However, Fisher ends up jaded and fatalistic by his experiences while Mr Pond uses his understanding and knowledge. It feels Chesterton explored the disillusioned idealist with a Fisher and the practical humanitarian with Pond.

I went back to the Paradoxes of Mr Pond because of one story but I knew I would get the most out of it by reading the whole book. While it is a collection of short stories and they were originally published in magazines (Heck, the collection wasn’t published until after Chesterton’s death), there is still an overall larger story in it. Captain Gahagan has a definite character arc. And there is a definitive message about being responsible, even when the world doesn’t seem to encourage it.