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.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Clearinghouse of zombie thoughts

I’m about through reminiscing about zombie games but I still have some closing thoughts.

The two zombie games I’ve played the most over the last few years are Zombie Dice and Zombie Fluxx. But, let’s be honest. They are are really ‘zombie’ games with the quotes firmly in place. They both invoke zombie survival tropes, particularly Zombie Fluxx, but they don’t really play out the narrative. They are fun but they aren’t what you really look for when you want zombie.

The single worst zombie game I’ve experienced was ZombieTown (not to be confused with Zombie Town with a space in the middle) A huge part of the problem was that the rules were horribly written. A table of experienced gamers and we could not figure out the rule book. After an hour of attempting to play at GenCon, we gave up, returned it to the game library and thanked our lucky stars none of us had bought it.

Two Print-and-Play Zombie games I’ve played more than a few times are Zombie in My Pocket and Escape of the Dead. Escape of the Dead (Was Escape FROM the Dead taken?) is a cute little exercise in dice placement and minimalism. Zombie in My Pocket, though, tells a complete story and has a really driving timer. Still a fun game and boy, have I played it a lot.

However, in my last limited experience, the hands-down-best game that made me feel like I was playing out a zombie story was Last Night on Earth. It’s been long enough that I only vaguely remember the mechanics.

But the three things I do remember is that it had a timer that kept pushing the game along, that it told a good narrative and that everyone at the table had a lot of fun. I’d play it again if I had the time and the chance.

I am sure there are other zombie games I’ve played. However, those are the ones that have really stuck in my head, for one reason or another.

Monday, November 13, 2017

My bad memories of Zombies!!!

In my unintentional and very incomplete exploration of Zombie board games, Zombies!!! was the first. Believe it or not, it isn’t the worst Zombie game I’ve ever played but I still don’t have much in the way of happy memories of the game.

Zombies!!! wasn’t the first zombie game. Dawn of the Dead came out in 1978, more than twenty years before and I don't even know if it was the first. But Zombies!!! managed to make a splash before zombie games became so ubiquitous. (Frankly, I blame the Walking Dead)

Zombies!!! combines map building by drawing tiles, rolling dice to move zombies and shoot zombies and using cards to get equipment and mess with the other players. Someone wins by either reaching the helipad (the last time in the second) or killing twenty-five zombies. (I guess at that point, you have successfully terrified the zombies)

I remember the GenCon when Zombies!!! was released. I hadn’t gotten into board games really. At the time, the game coming with a hundred little plastic zombies was pretty amazing. It’s astonishing how far the game industry has come as far as production values have come.

And the first game or two was a lot of fun. Thematic and pretty much never ending conflict.

But... The more we played Zombies!!!, the more disenchanted we got with it. It had what I think of as the Munchkin problem (although, to be fair, Munchkin isn’t the first game to have this issue or even the worst) A big part of the game is dragging other players down, which doesn’t actually help you out beyond them not winning. Which can make the game drag on and on and on.

A big part of the zombie genre is that the real monsters are other people. And boy does Zombies!!! deliver that in spades. However, that ultimately detracts from the game.

The absolutely killer was playing an eight-player game of it one New Year’s Eve. It took at least four hours and, by the end, we were actively helping each other out, just to see the game end. None of the eight of us involved wanted to ever play the game again.

To be fair, Zombies!!! is not without its charms. And I do believe it was innovative back in the day. However, it is a genuinely flawed game that really calls for some serious house rules. And as time has gone on, better games in almost every regard have come out.

It’s been a long time since I’ve played it and I don’t have much desire to play it again. However, it did leave an impression.

Random thoughts about the Zombie Apocalypse

Reading the Walking Dead comic for the first time made me think about the now vast variety of Zombie Apocalypse games that are out there, both role playing games and board games.

(One thing that I also wonder about is how the Zombie Apocalypse took out civilization in the Walking Dead. As both the original Night of the Living Dead and Sean of the Dead point out, after the initial crisis, humans equipped with regular speed, modern technology and the ability to think get zombies under control)

You know, without even trying that hard, I’ve played a number of Zombie-themed games. Although the only specifically Zombie Apocalypse RPG I’ve played has been Zombie Cinema. 

Of course, one of the significant things about the Walking Dead is that it takes the long view. What happens over the long haul after the whole human race gets upset by the dead not only coming back but coming back mean.

Almost all the board games I’ve seen or read about take place right after the apocalypse started. Civilization has been kicked to the curb but we still can scavenge all the fun toys. The human race hasn’t either been wiped out or, more likely, picked itself back up. The framework of an RPG is where you play out the long term result of the apocalypse.

To be fair, the initial outbreak is where a Zombie Apocalypse is the most distinct aspect of it. If we’ve got the zombies under control, there isn’t much mechanical difference between that and, say, medieval Europe. 

And the initial outbreak is where all the fun, wish fulfillment stuff happens. That’s when you get to be free from all your responsibilities and do whatever you want. (Remember, one of the big points of the Zombie Apocalypse is that human beings are the real monsters) 

Frankly, I think that we’d all end up serfs and slaves in the cruel new world. 

I know that there are a bunch of card games and board games based on the Walking Dead but I think that the actual work, from what I’ve seen, really is more like a RPG. The characters slowly learn how to survive and deal with different threats. In other words, level up or die.

While I doubt I’ll be ever be a big zombie fan, I do have to give them this. They make great terrain and they force character development.

Only fourteen years late to Walking Dead

I am unbelievably late in getting on this train. I just read the first volume of the Walking Dead. I’ll probably never watch the TV show since watching TV frankly takes so much more time.

I’m only fourteen years late taking a look at this franchise, which has influenced the whole zombie genre. So we now live in a post-Walking Dead world. It’s kind of like watching Casablanca for the first time in your forties. (I first watched it as a teenager, in case your curious)

What really struck me was how mild the first volume was. Mind you, I’ve read part of Garth Ennis’s Crossed, which was his take on the Walking Dead and makes the original Walking Dead look like the smurfs.

Of course, the climax of the first volume, ten-year-old Carl shooting Shane, much more effective due to this mildness. The reader’s journey with these characters is a slow one.

I’ll be honest. What collections the library has is going to determine how far I go with the Walking Dead. I am not planning on becoming a dedicated reader. 

And I also know that if you have a long story planned and the characters will be falling, you need to start off high enough to give them a place to fall.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Pocket Landship - It’s fun!

When I was recently doing my once-or-twice-a-month search for new-to-me PnP files, I came across Pocket Landship. It went from ‘hey, this has been well received’ to ‘let’s start printing’ in the same sitting.

Pocket Landship is about controlling an English tank in World War I in a skirmish against six enemy forces that are controlled by dice rolls (seeing as how this is a solitaire game). The whole thing takes up nine cards, plus some tokens and dice.

Each card, no matter whose side they are on, has a health meter and a table of die results. You create two lines of three for the enemy cards, a front line and a back line.

The core mechanic is assigning dice. On the enemy turn, you roll three dice and assign them lowest to highest from left to right and then consult the charts. You roll three dice on your own turn and assign them where you want to on your own cards.

Part of what makes the game actually were playing is that the die rolls determine more than just hitting and missing. The enemy can shift around, making it harder to hit specific targets. Some of your options include modifying other die rules. And damage can also be repaired.

And I’ve just been playing with the base cards. The current files let you make double-sided cards with different options for both sides on the back. And there is an expansion (which is just one more sheet of cards) that I know I’ll be making soon. It’s an awful lot of game for just two pages of cards.

That said, I can’t help but wonder how much control I really have. I have some control over my actions but the dice are powerful. Strong rolls on the enemy side can be devastating. The options of potentially modifying dice give me hope that it’s not too random.

At the same time the game is short enough and interesting enough that the random factor has yet to bother me. It will be interesting to see if it either does come to bother me or if I figure out how to get more and more control the more I play. And this is a game that I plan to keep playing.

One game that really went through my mind as I played it was Ogre. Part of that was because it’s a tank game and part of it is because, with the base cards, you are controlling different parts of the tank separately. 

And I do really wonder what else you can do with this system. How much modification would it take to make it a two-plays game and would it be fun? Could you use this system to make an economic game?

Admittedly, dice assignment is now a well established mechanic with games like Kingsburg or High Frontiers. But Pocket Landship does well in such a small package. I really wonder what more could be done.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

A Blorg in the Midwest - oh, it’s quirky

I made a copy of A Blorg in the Midwest because it was a quick project of just nine cards and I was having fun crafting cards. However, once it was done, I decided to give it a try since it’s a solitaire game and doesn’t require any other components.

What I discovered was a remarkably quirky little game.

In the game, you are a juvenile alien who borrowed the family flying saucer and crashed it at a farm in South Dakota. Now you have to figure out how to get back to outer space before the FBI show up and vivisect you. 

The cards are all double-sided and come in two flavors: objects and locations. In addition, every card also has an event, most of which make your life a lot more difficult. 

There are basically three areas for cards. Your hand, which can hold one area and up to four objects. The draw pile. Aaaaand the time line which is four cards that you interact with and where events go off.  

Each turn, you can either move to a new location by either flipping your location card or swapping it with one on the timeline or pick up an object from the timeline if it matches your location. Then, resolve any events and move the timeline along.

There are a number of ways to escape but they all involve getting the right items and either taking them to your crashed ship or having them when the right event goes off. 

While I read that A Blorg in the Midwest was a nine-card deck builder, what it really is is a nine-card deck manager. What cards you have in your hand, which side cards are up in the draw pile, what cards are in the timeline. There’s a lot of interaction between all the cards and you have to manage all that to avoid vivisection.

What the game really reminds me of is one of Infocom’s text games from the 80s. You know, where you had to juggle inventory while going to different areas to solve puzzles. While there isn’t anything like getting the Babel fish from Hitchhiker’s Guide, the whole thing is a moving puzzle with the time line bearing down on you.

A Blorg in the Midwest isn’t a flawless game, although I’m pretty sure some of the quirky loopholes are intentional. And I think I will end up played out with the game pretty quickly. But it has been more engaging than I expected with the silly theme and art helping. I am glad I made it and tried it.

A geezer’s take on Looking for Alaska

I like to hit the random media button on TV Tropes, which is how I found out about Looking for Alaska, John Green’s first young adult book. Which was easy to find at the library and short so I paused my other reading and read it.

I’m going to do my best not spoil the book and the plot of the book definitely pivots on a spoiler. 

The basic idea of the book is that a geeky, shy guy goes off to school where he meets a beautiful girl who gets him to smoke and drink and just loosen up. You know the plot of more movies and books and such than you can shake a stick at.

What makes Looking for Alaska interesting and genuinely good book is that the girl is ultimately shown to not be some kind of wild savior. Instead, she’s a complete, self-destructive mess. AND the main character’s obsession with her isn’t just unhealthy for him but it’s also not any good for her.
 
The growth of the main character doesn’t come from out of his shell. It comes from him realizing that he wasn’t in love with a person but obsessing over the idealized dream of a person.

Reading the book a couple decades older than the target audience was an interesting experience because both characters reminded me of people I knew when I was younger. Heck, I wonder if I have played both roles to different people.

And the two lessons that the book teaches ring true. One, the promise of the manic pixie girl is a false one and it’s usually not even one that the manic pixie girl really made. Two, you grow out of it. Honest.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Now that I’ve seen the last Star Wars films...

Before we had our son, I read a comic strip that stated having a young child meant that you would see movies months after their release after they hit the secondary market. I took that to heart and waiting until movies were on Netflix or other streaming services was an easy adjustment.

And that means that I just saw Rogue One for the first time and I only got to see The Force Awakens earlier this year. Frankly, flat screen TVs and modern sound systems make the difference between seeing a movie at home versus the theater not as big a deal compared to when I was growing up.

While I liked Rogue One better, I also liked The Force Awakens a lot too. Despite a couple odd bits (really, just why is Han Solo smuggling Cthulhoid monsters and not caring about losing crew?), I felt it was a fun film that did the very essential job introducing Star Wars to a new generation.

What I found interesting is that my friends who were hardcore Star Wars fans hated the Force Awakens while folks who were just science fiction fans in general loved it. In particular, my friends who had kids and The Force Awakens was the real introduction to Star Wars for those kids really had a positive reaction to it.

And those same kids didn’t like Rogue One and found it too depressing. Which makes sense. It is a darker movie with a lot of unhappy themes. While the diehard Star Wars fans absolutely loved it. 

One of the problems that the friends who hated The Force Awakens is that they felt it was a retread of the original movie. That it reinvented the wheel.

But... that was kind of the point. Since that wheel was invented, that wheel has had Harry Potter added to it and the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Marvel Ciniverse and much more. Star Wars changed the way movies told stories but it kept evolving after that. If Star Wars was to continue and bring new people on board, particularly children, it needed a new jumping on point. 

And while Rogue One is second only to the Empire Strikes Back in my arrogant opinion, it is not that jumping on point and it really isn’t for kids. And I honestly believe that kids are a crucial audience component to Star Wars. I mean, I was a kid and I really liked it before I discovered the Tomorrow People and then Doctor Who. (Okay, I may have been a weird kid)

These are the conclusions that I have come to. The original Star Wars is the most important film out of all of them but it is not an immutable, perfect movie. There is clearly room for improvements.

And those of us who saw Stars originally in the theater are no longer the target demographic :D

Roger Zelanzy’s Alien Speedway, a series that went off the track

I just finished Roger Zelazny’s Alien Speedway Trillogy, which wasn’t actually written by Roger Zelazny. He wrote the same introductions but I don’t know how much he had to do with the setting or plots.! It’s sort of been on my radar for years since, well, Roger Zelazny. But I never really heard anything about it, one way or the other. It apparently made that little an impact. But I finally got around to reading it.

And, to be honest, what I read justified their non-impact.

In short, it’s about how Mike, an orphan from Earth, breaks into the space racing world. 

The whole racing setup is kind of weird. The racers fly around in spaceships but not in space. Instead, they race in what are basically  hyperspace tubes built around a solar system at near light speeds. 

It feels too small and too big at the same time. On the one hand, spaceships flying in tubes seems so confining. I mean, they’re spaceships. On the other hand, the speeds they are going at are kind of insane. Particularly since the ships sometimes scrape against each other without destroying each other instantly.

I know the whole point of the exercise is to have car racing in space with all the fighting over lanes and drifting in turns and such. But the extent the writers had to go to justify that messes with my suspension of disbelief. And that’s kind of impressive.

The first book was written by Jeffrey A. Carver and the second two books were written by Thomas Wylde. And there’s a serious disconnect between their styles. The first book is basically your underdog sports story where the unknown rookie manages to prove that he has the hidden talent to be a star. The second two books are practically noir, with the characters suddenly flawed and desperate with lots of crime and corruption. 

I got the impression that the series was supposed to last longer than three books but got canceled. The last book feels like they crammed at least two books worth of plot into it. One supporting character drops into self-destruction without any warning. Alien artifacts almost unmentioned become major plot points and revise the setting. A dead character comes back, albeit in a well-justified way. A big bad in the form of a crime boss is suddenly introduced. If nothing else, it was a wild ride to end the series.

I found myself comparing the series to another series that came out around the same time, Isaac Asimov’s Robot City. Another series that wasn’t written by the guy who’s name was the biggest on the cover. Those books had clunky writing but the overall plot held together. In comparison, Alien Speedway had better writing but the plot was all over the place. The Robot City books ran their whole course and even got a sequel, basically because they were much better edited.

There were good parts in the books. However, even the two books written by Thomas Wilde felt they were written for different series. Add to that the fact that the space ship racing seemed so contrived and you end up with a series of books where the most memorable thing is Roger Zelanzy’s name on the cover.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Do limits create inspiration?

I’ve been thinking a lot about how the limitations of the medium and how they can inspire and refine creativity.

What got me started down this road was a relatively recent thread about Japanese board game culture. According to the thread, many Japanese designers self-publish small print runs. Which has lent itself to both card games and micro games.

Financial and other practical limits resulting in refining game mechanics is nothing new. Andrew Looney came up with Fluxx because Looney Labs needed a product they could make cheaper than their pyramids. I like the pyramids more but Fluxx is their flagship property. Pico, the predecessor of Pico 2, was the result of a printing overrun and I’d argue it set the gold standard for micro games for over ten years.

And probably one of the biggest examples is that legend and Wizards of the Coast PR has it that Magic the Gathering was developed by Richard Garfield to help finance RoboRally. Which to my mind is like inventing the car engine so you can have power windows. You can tell I don’t like RoboRally. :D

And there certainly seems to be a thriving micro game interest on Kickstarter. Which makes sense to start small if you are new to publishing.

But I wonder if the Japanese game designer culture, if it’s actually like that thread suggests , super encourages this kind of creativity. Seiji Kanai kind of single-handedly changed the world of micro games with Love Letter. Not just because it is popular but because it proved that a micro game could have an actual depth of play.

Of course, I could be a 100% wrong. The idea is just an idea that struck me, unsupported by any research. But I do like the idea that restrictions lead to greater creativity and higher quality.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Not every PnP can be a gem

GenCan’t Roll and Write Library - Dungeon Map 4d6

While the theme of Dungeon Map 4d6 is designing your own dungeon, it’s really about using dice to form patterns on a grid. It’s a solitaire game where you just have to print off the grid and add some dice.

You start off with eight by six grid with each square being a three by three grid. Each turn, you roll the four dice and put them into a contiguous four-square shape. You then fill in squares to match the pips. Like a one being the center of a three by three square. The mapping ends when you run out of playable space.

You then score points for different patterns, like corridors or isolated boxes of four smaller squares. Since it’s a solitaire game with a very variable scoring, you just try and beat your high score.

Okay. I found Dungeon Map 4d6 to be a mediocre game. The mechanics work and you do have actual decisions to make but it doesn’t do anything interesting or innovative. 

The disconnect between the game and the theme is actually one of my biggest problems. You don’t end up with a map of a dungeon. You end up with what looks like a rummage sale of dungeon parts. I honestly might like the game more if it was purely an abstract symbol maker.

While I was playing, I kept thinking of other games like How to Host a Dungeon or Mosaix and, quite frankly, how those games addressed individual elements better. Host will let you create an organically grown dungeon and Mosaix does a much better job creating patterns with dice.

Over the last few years, I’ve made and  played a decent number of Print and Play games and Roll and Write ones in particular this year. And, I have to say that the quality in both graphics and mechanics has really grown since I first started looking into PnP. Which means the bar has really gotten higher.

Dungeon Map 4d6’s biggest virtue is its minimalism but there are games that do that better. And using pips to draw is an interesting idea that is worth exploring. However, if the game had come up much earlier in my personal PnP experiences, I think it would hold up better.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

So how did Bubblee Pop strike me?

Every once in a while, I log onto Boardgame Arena to see what games they’ve added and maybe learn a new game. In my latest wandering over to that site, I tried out Bubblee Pop, mostly because their internal news blurb said it had been really successful on the site.

Okay. Here’s Bubblee Pop in a sentence. A board game Bejeweled where you get to mess with the other player.

In the two-player game (there’s also a solo option), each player has their own area with a sky section in the middle. The sky is where all the action is. You fill in empty spots with stones, swap stones and then drop them down into your own area, trying to get three of a color in a row to clear spaces and get points.

Honestly, I’m glossing over the rules a lot but it’s one of those games that you play one turn and the mechanics all click. If you’ve played a three-in-a-row video game, it all makes sense.

The most interesting element of the game is that each color of stone has a special power. Make a set and you get to use that power. And over half of them involve messing with your opponent. 

Seriously, for a game that looked like a multi-player solitaire game where you were working on your own puzzle, Bubblee Pop really involves a lot of interaction and direct confrontation. My first couple games were real eye-openers in how much pain my opponent could bring to me.

While I will probably play the game again, I have to admit that I am more impressed with the designer making a game that is a legitimate game that feels like a computer game than I am with Bubblee Pop. It is a very light game that has room for tactical play but is too random to make any plans more than a couple moves ahead. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing but it’s not something to look for either.

I also haven’t played Potion Explosion, which came out earlier and also explored three-a-row game style. From what I’ve read, it is a much better game. I have a feeling I would be less impressed by Bubblee Pop if I had played Potion Explosion.

While learning the game was interesting, my real take away is being reminded that Boardgame Arena is a place that’s good to pop into every once in a while.