Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The Golden Age - a study in melancholy

Kenneth Graheme's Wind in the Willows has been a part of my literary world for just about as long as I can remember. It's a profoundly charming and memorable book. So when I realized he wrote the Golden Age, a book I had vaguely heard of, it went to the top of my reading list.

The Golden Age is a collection of childhood reminisces. I don't think there's any better way of describing it. It's an anthology of short stories about a childhood spent in the English countryside that clearly was influenced by Graheme's own childhood.

I spent part of last year reading A. E. Nesbit's Bastable books and it's hard for me not to compare the two works. On the surface, they seem pretty similar. A group of English siblings having misadventures. But the Golden Age is from the viewpoint of a wistful adult looking back while the Bastable books as from a child's viewpoint.

I have been fairly harsh on the Bastable books. Those crazy kids don't seem to ever learn from their mistakes. But I have to say they are the better books. Oswald Bastable's narration, full of brashness and totally clueless, is a great literary invention. And the scrapes the Bastables get into are several levels higher than the scrapes in the Golden Age.

The Golden Age does do what it sets out to do. It perfectly captures an adult looking back at dreamy memories of childhood with a profound sense of distance and loss. It becomes downright mythic when he compares the distant adults to Olympic gods and muses how he may have become an Olympian himself. The Golden Age is ultimately a very melancholy book.

The Bastable books are written from the view point of a child for children. The Golden Age is about childhood but it isn't written for children. I may very well read the Story of the Treasure Hunters to my son when he's older but I don't see myself reading him The Golden Age.

My old friend, the deck of cards

We will be going on a trip soon, one where I know we won't be having much (or any) downtime for gaming and not a lot of space in our luggage for games anyway.

But just like it is against my principles to not go on a trip without a physical book, I don't want to travel without a game. Even if there's barely a chance at then getting played.

Over the last year, my travel game library of choice has been the first set of the Pack O Games. Seriously, eight very different games that fit in a plastic case that I can easily carry in a coat pocket. But I can do even better than that.

A deck of playing cards

Seriously, a deck of cards is the ultimate travel game. Pick up any copy of Hoyle's and you will see a wealth of games that you can play. It doesn't hurt the playing cards of been around for centuries, which is given people plenty of opportunity to develop games with them.

If we do end up playing any games with them, it will probably be some sort of rummy or maybe Lamarckian Poker. But, really, the sky's the limit.

And if we don't end up playing any games and I'm just bringing a game along as some kind of charm or totem, a deck of cards will barely take up any space.

Of course, knowing me, I might also toss in Proton or Pico 2 :D 

Friday, January 27, 2017

Of Ricocheting Robots and Pyramids

OK, since I have been thinking about real-time, turnless games, let us look at Ricochet Robots, which I feel pretty safe saying is one of the classics of the genre.

Ricochet Robots is a speed puzzle game. One of those games where there are no turns. People just compete to solve the puzzle on the board the fastest.

You create a board out of four double-sided pieces. The boards both have both the goals on them and righty of different walls. It's not an actual maze but there are still enough walls to give the robots plenty of things to bounce off of.

There are four different colored robots, in the form of sturdy plastic pawns, that you randomly put on the board. Each turn, the goal is randomly drawn and players compete to find the shortest number of moods to make the robot that matches the color reach the goal.

Each move is moving any given robot. They move in a straight line, never a diagonal one, until they hit a wall or the side of the board for another robot. That ends the move. 

So, the game doesn't come with built in perfect solutions. Depending on the position of the robots in the gold it's chosen, different solutions will be available.

Ricochet robots was designed by Alexander Randolph, who was one of the earliest designers for modern game designs. He also gave us Ghosts and  Twixt, among other games. He was friends with said Saxon and I have heard that the two of them help organize the freelancers who designed 3M's game line. (They had a network of game designing friends)

I have also read that ricochet robots was a extensive redesign of one of his earlier games, Moonstar. Now, I have played Moonstar and so I can see the resemblance. At the same time, if he did redesign Moonstar into ricochet robots, is a serious improvement on almost every level. It's both much more intuitive and much more flexible.

But I really have to admit that I admire Ricochet Robots more than I enjoy it. It is a brilliant design, combining both a speed game with a very thought-provoking system of puzzles. It is like a party game met a brain building exercise.

But it isn't the kind of game I normally go for. I do think is one of the best of its kind but it rarely saw play and not everyone enjoyed it. So it ended up getting purged from my collection.

More recently, I discovered that Russ Williams (Hi Russ!) had made a Looney Pyramid variation on Ricochet Robots. All you needed was three monochrome stashes and a chessboard. Well, I keep a chessboard bandana in my Looney Pyramid tool kit so it took me two minutes to set up a game.

If you already know how to play Ricochet Robots, Ricochet Pyramids is beyond easy to learn. Put the chessboard down where everyone can see it. Randomly placed a small pyramid in each color as the robots. Randomly place nine towers made out of a big pyramid and a medium pyramid (one for every color combination with three colors) to serve as goals and terrain. With the remaining pyramids from the three stashes, draw one of each size to determine which robot has to reach which tower.

The real question is, does it feel anything like playing Ricochet Robots? The answer is it feels almost exactly like that.

The most significant difference, at least for me is that Ricochet Pyramids is played on an 8 x 8 board while memory serves me that Ricochet Robots is on a 16 x 16 board. The smaller board creates a  more tighter environment.

That being said, you could easily make the board bigger, even putting for checkerboards together if you felt like it. You could also add more colors in more robots and towers without changing any of the rules.

In all honesty, at least for me, the biggest question is would it be harder to get people to play this than Ricochet Robots? Let's be honest, homemade games don't have the same chrome appeal as fully manufactured games. 

But, the pyramids are awfully nice looking and chessboards can be as nice as you want them to. Really, a glass or mirror chessboard with the pyramids and you'd have something really nifty looking going on.

Ricochet Robots is a really fascinating design. However, it was not a game that I enjoyed for many of my friends enjoyed enough to keep. But, thanks to Russ, I can still experience it when I feel like it. Shucks, I probably will playing Ricochet Pyramids more than I would play Ricochet Robots.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Ricochet - not a great game but I keep it around

Ricochet or Leonardo or Picus isn't a particularly good game. However, it fits enough niches that it has stayed in my collection.

I first came across it as Ricochet so that's what I'm going to call it, although I have also played the Leonardo version as well. Frankly, the pinball theme of Ricochet probably fits it best but the theme doesn't really matter.

Regardless of its theme, Ricochet is a real time, turn-less puzzle game. Which means everyone is trying to solve the puzzle at the same time. There are other games out there that do the exact same thing, like Ricochet Robots or Set or Spot It.

The whole thing is just a deck of cards, which is why it's still in my collection. Each card, in the pinball version, shows four pinball bumpers, along with a pinball. The bumpers are red, blue, yellow and green (and contrast well enough my color blind eyes can tell them apart) and have numbers on them. The pinball is either big or small in one of the four colors.

Here's the game. Lay down five cards in a cross formation. The starting point is the center card. The color and the size of the pinball will tell you the next card in the sequence. The color tells you what bumper to look at and the size tells you if you are looking for the largest or smallest number. You then look at that card's pinball for to figure out the next card.

Every card can only be used once in a sequence and turn. There are no duplicate numbers so any given layout can have only one sequence. Whoever figures out what the last card in the sequence is wins that turn.

As I mentioned earlier, there other games that same trick of being puzzles that everyone is trying to figure out the same time. And, quite frankly, many of the ones that I have played have been better. Ricochet Robots offers up some very fascinating puzzles. Spot It is an ingenious design as well as a crowd pleaser. Jungle Speed is a raucous party. (Set, by the way, is very unfriendly to my color blind eyes and so I cannot physically put it.)

Still, it's stuck around on the shelf.

Well, the fact that it's just a deck of cards and takes up almost no storage space goes a long way to why It's still here. Ricochet Robots is a better game but a much bigger box so it ended up being purged. (There is a Looney Pyramids variation I've been meaning to try, though)

Games like Ricochet have an unusual learning curve compared to most board games. They reward reaction time and pattern recognition. And the only way to get better is raw practice. So different skill levels tend to be pretty significant. People who are better will constantly beat weaker players.

You can say that about any game. But lost a game of Go to a stronger player often teaches you something. Losing a game of Ricochet or other games like it is just practice. When they have a twist like Jungle Speed or Spot It, it adds that extra bit of fun. Still, I don't tend to play games like this. (Sorry, Ricochet Robots)

Most of the time Ricochet has come out, it has been as something for folks to do in other games with player elimination. It works well for that sort of thing, particularly since it is so relatively simple, even compared to other speed puzzles.

And, when the toddler is just a little bit older, it might be the quiet thoughtful activity to keep them occupied at restaurants or waiting rooms or the like. Make him think without getting him too excited. It might end up seeing some decent play then.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Memories of Bang, fun but imperfect

I have had a copy of Bang in my game collection for a long time. In fact, I wasn't even collecting games the first time I got to play it.

Bang is a little card game about living out a Spaghetti Western. Everyone gets a character with a special power that gives them some kind of special advantage. Different cards gave you access to guns and horses and beer and the ever popular barrel of dynamite.

But, the real heart of the game is the secret roles. Everyone gets a role card which gives them different winning conditions. The sheriff and the deputies want to kill the bandits and the renegade. The bandits want to kill the sheriff. And the renegade wants to be the last person standing, having killed everyone else.

I had played secret role games before, Mafia and Werewolf. Bang, however, gave me a much more meaningful way to interact with the other players, as well as more than just pointing at people to figure out who was what.

And the western theme of Bang made it an easy sell to get people interested in playing and for them to really get into the game.

But Bang has some major issues as well. The biggest one being that the game can really drag and it has player elimination. I have seen folks get killed before they even got a turn and then have to wait at least a half an hour for a new game to start.

Really, I can see setting up a game of Ricochet Robots on the side for all the folks who get eliminated.

There are other fiddly issues with Bang. While the cards aren't complicated, particularly for experience gamers, you do need to consult the rules on what they do. That can be an issue with people who don't play games, one of my target audience is for Bang. And there are balance issues for both the character powers and the roles. Winning as the renegade is an impressive feat.

Some of my earliest exposures to designer games like Settlers of Catan or Puerto Rico or Carcassonne or even Fluxx have continued to hold up over the years, Bang really hasn't. The issues that it has overshadow the positives.

However, it has survived purge after purge.

Frankly, the biggest reason is because it is so small. The box is the size of two deck of cards and that he gets it a lot of leeway when it comes to clearing out shelf space.

Nostalgia also plays a part. I do have a lot of good memories of playing it. Heck, when I was first exposed to it they were a couple of times we played it for hours.

And, when the game does go well, it is fun. But part of the problem is that the more experienced people are playing it, the longer the game can drag. (I've found it it's the opposite case with Fluxx. People who understand the basic strategy of deck milling and know the goals make that game go a lot faster.)

I haven't played Bang the Dice game yet. From what I have read, it solves a lot of the problems. I hope I have a chance to play it and make up my mind for myself.

For now, though, when I am reaching for a light card game that has conflict and theme, I reach for Guillotine and leave bang with the happy memories.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Resolving not to buy games in 2017

I think this is the year that I am finally going to make the New Year's resolution not to buy any new games.

Honestly, even after making some heavy purges, I not only have plenty of games. I also have games that I still have never played. This isn't swearing off gaming or having shelves that are sad and empty and gathering dust. I have more than enough games to play.

Of course, with every such resolution, there has to come clauses. Exceptions. Things that don't count. The honest Mister I'm not cheating.

One, Kickstarter. Let's get the white elephant in the room acknowledged. Kickstarter is not going to count in this resolution. Either for things that I am going to receive or pay for in 2017. However, I do try to keep a strict Kickstarter budget and I am planning on cutting it this year.

Two, games for our three-year-old. Not that I'm expecting us to go crazy but those don't count. That falls under parenting, not being a gamer. And, no, thinking that maybe my three-year-old would really like Scythe is breaking the rules.

Three, buying used games with store credit. Hey, some of those purged games did turn into a store credit. Frankly, I don't have a history of doing this but it's going to be an exception. Store credit usually turns into things like stuff for the toddler.

Four, print and play. If I am making it myself, it doesn't count.

Last year, I gave myself a limit of six new games in 2016. I only ended up buying two, although one of them, Machi Koro, prove to be a great game for us.

I think I can do it.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

My awe at the Grey Ranks

The Grey Ranks is the emotional equivalent of getting a sock full of bricks to the back of the head while simultaneously getting hockey punched. Which is kind of the point. This is a role-playing game about playing child soldiers during the disastrous Warsaw uprising in World War II.

In the introduction to Slaughterhouse Five, there is a discussion about how there isn't any such thing as an antiwar story, that movies and stories always make war seem heroic and exciting. The Grey Ranks is about as anti-war as you're going to get, this side of Grave of Fireflies.

Part of what makes The Grey Ranks so strong is the respect and seriousness that it treats the subject matter. This is very heavy stuff, war and love and desperation and depression and death. If Jason Morningstar made light of it, the game would be an offensive abomination.

Particularly since this isn't just about the idea of child soldiers. The Grey Ranks is about a very specific event that actually happened. The book does not only give an overview of the Nazi occupation of Poland and Warsaw in particular, it also gives a number of brief biographies of real teenagers who were part of the Szare Szregi, the Grey Ranks of the title.

What is also very powerful is that the characters are only defined by their emotional growth and journeys. They have reputations which _will_ change over the course of the game and a place on a grid that depicts where they are in an axis of love, hate, enthusiasm and exhaustion.

And madness and death can be the very likely, almost certain, end points on that grid.

When your character dies or otherwise cannot be played, you don't create a new character. Instead, you play the absence of your character and how it affects everyone who remains.

The designer is Jason Morningstar and the mechanics have a lot of the touches I have come to expect from him. No game master, strong focus on narrative, and relatively simple rules but still create a tight framework. The centerpiece of the mechanics is the grid I mentioned, showing the emotional state of the characters.

I read a lot of role playing games. It's kind of become a separate hobby of mine. And there is a very good chance that I will never play a lot of the games I read. I am in between groups at the moment and, frankly, I'm more in the market to find a new board gaming group.

However, I do want to eventually play The Grey Ranks, even if it's just one of the modified, one session versions.

Button Shy, Avignon and micro games

And This is a little bit late, since the Kickstarter is almost over, but Button shy Games is kicking off the year with the standalone expansion to the game that they kicked off last year with, Avignon.

Button Shy has been on my radar since they're 2015 kick starter for Cunning Folk but Avignon is what really made me check on what they were doing on a regular basis.

You see, their wallet game line ticks off two of my board game interests. One, they are micro games, hence the full idea of being able to stick one in your wallet. Second, you can get them as PDFs and I like to dabble with Print and Play.

Micro games have long been part of  the hobby. Heck, if you count games that you just need a couple of dice to play, for a very, very long time. However, there has been a definite surge in interest in them after Love Letter.

And not all of them have been that great. I'm not a huge fan of every game in Button Shy's wallet line, even as I'm praising it right now. 

However, one of the things that I like about a lot of their wallet line is they push the line what you can do with just a handful of cards.

Seriously, there are games out there that are just one card. The test for how small you can make a game is a moot point. And Charades beat that test into the ground ages ago anyway. The real test is how much fun a game can be and how deep a game can be. 

Cunning Folk gave me a game that I had been looking for. Something that gave me the feel of playing Coup but I could play with two people. Avignon, on the other hand, give me something that I didn't know I was looking for.

Avignon, at its heart, is a game of tug-of-war. You are trying to pool three of the cards on the board over to your side in order to win. It is themed around the historical schism in the Catholic Church when they had two popes (okay, one of the times)and the theme does work but the mechanics are the real center of the game.

One of the things that I like is how the cards create a board for the game and how playing in dimensions is a definite part of the game. That isn't anything new or innovative. Games like Verrator and Meuterer did that and did that well. Soccer 17, a game I think needs more love, did it with just two cards. Still, when you have that  dimensional space as part of a game, it adds an extra layer of depth and engagement.

Avignon also adds special powers to the mix. There are two copies of six different characters (without only a random five on the board at any time) and they all have a special power to help mix things up.

By far and away the most interesting is the Noble, which doesn't have a special action. Instead, the Noble adds two more game ending conditions. Which adds a lot to the game in general.

Every element of the game is very simple. But when they are all combined, they definitely become greater then their parts. It is a simple game. It is a quick game. But it has a lot of variety and replay value and it keeps you engaged for the duration of play.

The expansion, Avignon: Pilgrimage, adds six more roles so you can play it on its own or mix it in. Come to think of it, there are also expansions for both versions that add a few more cards.

I do like these kind of expansions. They don't make the game longer or make it a different game. They just add variety. (Hence my love of Dominion)

For me, Avignon represents what I like most about Button Shy. Taking the concept of the micro game and pushing it further. Exploring what you can do with 18 cards.

Friday, January 13, 2017

What did Yucata give me in 2016?

One of the things that I decided to do as part of my looking at 2016 was see what games were added to Yucatá  last year.

Let's see:

7 Steps
Carcassonne: South Seas
Lords of War
Castles of Burgundy: The Card Game
Packet Row
Las Vegas
Pax Porfiriana

I think that is all of them and I gave all of them at least one run through, except for Pax Porfiriana. Actually, thanks to the international dateline, it was the first one in 2017 anyway. I am keeping it on the list, even though it doesn't really count.

On the one hand, 2016 didn't have a lot of 'bigger' games, at least to my mind. 2014 gave us Castles of Burgundy and Carson City while 2015, a relatively light year, included the Voyages of Marco Polo.

On the other hand, as someone who has been more of a casual game player since the birth of our son, there are a lot of games that are great for me. If I can log on once a day, make a reasonable assessment of my board position and make a move that I am happy with, and have the endgame in sight, I am a happy camper.

I had been wanting to try out Carcassonne: South Seas, Las Vegas and Guildhall so I was really happy that they got added. And those are games that I am going to keep on my regular rotation with Yucatá. 

And, really, while heavy games, they are all well regarded games. From that angle, those three games along with Castles of Burgundy the Card Game and Attika are the 'big' games of the year. From that perspective, 2016 was pretty darn awesome actually.

The surprise hit for my small little circle of Midwest friends who play with me on Yucutta was Automobiles. That has become a game that we go back to again and again. And I am still no good at it whatsoever :D

There are definitely some games that I need to revisit because I haven't played them enough to know what I really think about them. (Castles and Lords of War, I'm looking at you) But, honestly, when I look at all of the 2016 games in one list, there's a lot of games that I'm going to be playing on a regular basis.

Ancient Committee is an odd beast

I read Ancient Committee is an Emo Band! (I'll just call it Ancient after this) because I needed a distraction while trying to write a blog about the Grey Ranks that does it any kind of justice. And I only found out about Ancient because Jason Morningstar mentions it in Drowning and Falling.

Ancient is a game about being in an emo rock band. It probably says a lot about me and how old I am that I automatically edited it in my brain to a garage band. That being said, the band is doing well enough to get regular gigs and sell T-shirts so you must be doing something right.

The mechanics are very very simple. After everyone decides what they're playing in the band and you create a set list, it's time for your gig. You play out how the audience handles each song and your efforts at making them like you more by drawing cards from regular deck of cards. Afterwards, also using a regular deck of cards, band members determine if they are giving up or burning out or actually staying with the band.

Beyond having a name and what you do in the band, character creation only consists of drawing merit and flaw cards that will give you bonuses in audience reaction. Amusingly enough, merits and flaws work the same way in gigs. Their only difference is how they affect your chances of giving up or burning out.

Not only is the game a GM-free system, it is a particularly GM-free system. Nobody takes on the role of temporarily being the game master, except maybe the random draw from the deck of cards.

Beyond the fact that Ancient Committee has to be in the named of the band, because you have all those T-shirts, there are two choices in the game design that I do find rather interesting.

First of all, while the game is set up for ten sessions, which is how long it'll take sell all of those T-shirts, you don't need the consistent group. Whoever shows up, they're the ones who are in the band. While I can see some serious issues trying to run a game like that, I still find it funny and appropriate for the theme.

Second, every session should take about an hour. And Ancient draws a firm line on that. The more time you spend fighting about who plays what instrument or the set list, the less time you have to actually play music. And the gig has to end early enough to figure out if anyone is giving up or burning out.

It's not the first time I have seen a hard and fast time limit set on the game. Puppetland did it earlier and better, with its emphasis about how you are playing out a children's story. However, I still like how it punishes you, quite logically, when you spend more time fighting about how the band is going to be and less time actually playing music. Punish being a subjective term, since you might just be there for the fighting.

Quite frankly, for a variety of reasons I can't see myself ever playing Ancient. For one thing, I'm not into the theme. For another thing, a campaign model that is built on whoever shows up gets to play doesn't seem like a campaign that will last two sessions.

Honestly, there are enough interesting one shots that I would rather play different game each week if I had such an irregular group.

I would be curious to know what people who actually been in an emo band think of the game.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Going back to the start of Nero Wolfe

I was in the mood for some Nero Wolfe and Fer-de-Lance was one of the only books that was available digitally from the local library. I had read it before years ago but I decided to give it another read.

Fer-de-Lance is the first of the Nero Wolfe books. As such, the formula had not been fully developed. I am a big fan of Rex Stout's Nero Wolfe books and the magic doesn't come from the plots. It is entirely built around the personalities of the characters in how they intersect/clash.

Stout brilliantly blended together the worlds of the classic European detective and the American hard-boiled detective. Nero Wolfe is literally an armchair detective who can't be bothered to do things like with the house or stand up. (OK, that's kind of an exaggeration. He does end up getting hauled out of his house enough that it starts to feel like a cliche) His assistant and partner in all but name, Archie Goodwin, is the snarky hard-boiled detective who near it's the stories and actually has to go out and get all the clues.

The mysteries are pretty good and even tend to be nicely grounded without too many outlandish coincidences or gimmicks. But the real reason I read the books is for Wolfe and Archie's bickering.

Fer-de-Lance is not one of my favorite books in the series. Stout was still developing the characters, although Wolfe starts off as eccentric as he would ever be. 

When I first read the book, not quite twenty years ago, two things in particular struck me about the book that I did not like.

The first was the murder weapon. A poison dart that is shot out of the handle of a golf club when it hits the ball. That seemed pretty far-fetched, particularly in comparison to a lot of the later books. And I'm still not a fan of that.

Second is the climax of the investigation. Which, I'm going to partially spoil, by saying that Wolfe gives the heads up to the murderer, giving them the chance to commit a murder-suicide instead of getting arrested. Archie gave the explanation, which I initially accepted at face value, that he did it to get out of having to be a witness at the trial.

However, rereading the book, I realized that Fer-de-Lance is more
of a noir work than most of the Nero Wolfe books. The ending fits the dark and gritty and cynical sense of justice of a noir work and makes it clear that Wolfe's motivations are far more complex than just wanting to stay at home.

Fer-de-Lance still far from my favorite book in the series. It is also not a book I would recommend for someone who has read the series. However, my realization that it harkens towards a different genre has made me appreciate the book more the second time around.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Laughing while Drowning and Falling

Since I have been going through a bit of a Jason Morningstar phase lately, all thanks to the Grey Ranks which I will write about fairly soon, I got out and read through Drowning and Falling.

Drowning and Falling is made up of two parts. The first one is a loving parody of Dungeons & Dragons. The second is an actual set of functioning mechanics. To be honest, when I started reading the game, I wasn't expecting the second part.

In general, the book is awfully funny to read. The theme of the game is being some kind of generic sword and sorcery hero who goes out to fight monsters and get loot. If you fail in this crucial task, you are either going to drown or fall. If you find yourself on fire or being strangled, you're clearly doing something wrong.

Characters have a whopping 15 different traits. Definitely brings back memories of some of the old-school games I have played. However, since their only mechanical use is to help generate numbers that you have to roll under with two dice, it's not nearly as complex or overwhelming as it might sound.

Since this is a Jason Morningstar game, it's not a surprise that it's a GM-free system. At the start of the game, you deal out playing cards to everyone. They then use those cards to create challenges. If you are really going old-school, each one is basically the next room in the dungeon.

Really, the only mechanical purpose of either the traits or the cards that you use to create challenges is to generate numbers. Individual names and details are just flavor to create the story. Come to think of it, isn't that how most role-playing games work? Using your strength, charisma and clumsiness to overcome a firebreathing dragon is a lot more interesting then just saying roll under a five.

I have to admit that since I read this right off of reading the Grey Ranks, which is the emotional equivalent of catching a sledge hammer between the eyes and one of Jason Morningstar's masterpieces, it was a bit of a let down. Compared to that, Drowning and Falling has an impossible act to follow.

These days, I look at role-playing games from two criteria. Was it fun to read and what I want to play it? Drowning and Falling passes the first criteria with flying colors. It is really funny and I can see it getting laughs if it was read out loud on the stage.

However, while it is clearly a functional and playable game, there are other games that fill the same niche of being a silly, funny one shot better. Toon, Kobolds Ate My Baby, Baron Muchaussen. Heck, both the Shan-al-Hiri Roach or Fiasco by Morningstar would be games I reach to before Drowning and Falling.

There is only one time I can see where I would really want to play Drowning and Falling. That would be as the last event on a Saturday night of a convention, when everyone is exhausted and slaphappy and just plain silly. I think it would work really good then.

So, I had fun reading the game. I'm not planning on playing the game. And the proceeds for the game went to charity. On the whole, Drowning and Falling didn't change my life or give meet any amazing insights. But I don't regret reading it.

Chain of thought with Mastermind

Our latest game to introduce our toddler to was Mastermind for Kids. It's a simplified version of Mastermind with only three holes for the code and jungle animals for the tokens.

Okay, he just wanted to play with the animals and play with how he could put them on the board. Still, he's played matching games so some of the mechanics of Mastermind are already percolating in his brain.

But it got me thinking about Mastermind and similar games. 

While I did play it when I was very young (and that cover is a classic), I'm not super found of Mastermind. I think it's because of the roles of code maker and code breaker just seemed...  restricted and uninteresting to me.

What's funny is that there are games that clearly used Mastermind as a starting point or an inspiration that I really like.

Zendo is easily the biggest example, as well as my favorite Looney Lab game. Perhaps because it's a game for a group, not a two-player activity. It also has as wide as the sky options for rules, as opposed to just a series of colors. And the role of the Master isn't that of an opponent but that of a teacher. It's a deductive game with a code maker but the whole philosophy of the game is the opposite end of the spectrum from Mastermind.

Coda, a very simple deduction game using numbers, is one where both players effectively play the role of code breaker and code maker, is another one I like. It's a good, relaxing little game and I think a key element to that is both players getting to play both sides.

Honorary mentions for me have to go to Jotto, which combines words with Mastermind, and Black Box, which is meaningfully themed around shooting rays at atoms. Seriously, what a theme!

Although, now that I'm thinking about it, doesn't the whole deduction game with someone hiding the information date back to at least Battleships in the 1930s? Probably a whole lot older than that. While I haven't played Mysterium or Codenames, don't they operate on the same principle?

So Mastermind didn't start the fire and isn't the the defining deduction game. It is probably as stripped down as you can get. So, even though I'm not a fan, maybe it is a good introduction for young minds. Maybe.





Friday, January 6, 2017

A micro-RPG that covers love and death

Despite my efforts to read through them slowly, I was starting to get burned out by the Indy Megamix Mixtape, that collection of tiny RPG's that was sold to help designers in need. The South Side of the Sky didn't interest me and Shelter left me with so little that I didn't bother writing about it.

Then I read Darlin' Corey and realized I was not so burnt out that I couldn't find something that would spark my interest.

Darlin' Corey is inspired by and quite literally about the folk song by the same name. My parents were survivors of the great folk scare of the sixties so I grew up listening to more folk music than you could shake a banjo pick at. So I will freely admit that the subject matter was one that I could easily get into.

As opposed to being written to have you play out the scenario like you'd find in a folk song, darling Cory is specifically designed to have you roll play out that specific song. It is the story of how a beautiful moonshiner dies.

The twist and the actual game play is that at three specific points, you essentially flip a coin to determine what is really happening. Is Darlin' Corey really in love with the narrator or is he a stalker? Who really killed her? What's going to happen between the government man and the narrator in the end?

It's definitely an interesting take on the old role playing concept of railroading. Generally, railroading means that the players have to do something specific. In this case, something specific happens and the actual choice is how you react to it.

The game also has the profoundly bizarre player account of one to three. Yes, you could play this game as a solitaire exercise. Which is nothing new in the world of role-playing, given options like video game role-playing or game books. But it is kind of unusual for a storytelling game.

Heck, I might try playing it as a writing exercise.

Make no mistake, Darlin' Corey is a very simple and limited game, extremely restricted in what it does. It's not a game that you would play over and over again. It's not a game for outliers who are trying to find a way to break the game.

However, it uses the two fundamental themes of love and death in a very strong way. It will only tell one story but it will let you explore it in a variety of ways. And, as I already said, it's not what happens. It is how it effects you.

One of the things that caught my eye about Darlin' Corey from the start was that it was by Jason Morningstar. Without realizing it, I have become quite the fan of his work.

My earliest experiences with his designs was with the Shab-al-Hiri Roach, an experience that was a laugh riot in black comedy. I really hope to at least be able to play the short version of the Grey Ranks some day. And, not only did I have fun playing Fiasco several times, I also think it is an incredibly important game in the overall development of RPGs.

Darlin' Corey is not one of Morningstar's great or important designs. But it does show how his approach to storytelling and GM-free play can be applied in a game that it's only two pages long.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Looking back at an old book of older comics

Pulling A Smithsonian Book of Comic Book Comics off of the shelf, I realize that I'm not sure if I can underestimate the influence that book had on me.

To describe it in one sentence, it is a big book of reprinted comic book stories from 1938 to 1955.

It was first published in 1981. It couldn't have been too long after that when I first found it at the public library.

To put it into perspective, this was years before graphic novels, particularly reprint collections, became a thing, let alone an industry standard. Coming across A Smithsonian Book of Comic Book Comics was a big thing for me at a young age. I'd never seen anything like it.

More than that, it is a fascinating selection of comics, along with some handy introductions. In fact, these days, the choices that the editor made her even more interesting.

While there are some superhero comics in the collection, including the first appearances of Superman and Batman, a hefty chunk of the book is made up of comedy stories and drama. Stuff that you still don't see reprinted all that much.

This was my introduction to the original Red Tornado and Jingle Jangle Tales and Pogo Possum and EC Comics, among other things. Bernie Krigstein's Master Race which ends the book has stuck with me with years. And, yes, I am sure I would've eventually learned about all of those but this gave me one heck of a head start.

What I am really curious about is how many other people did this book effect or influence? I know that it had an impact on me, being, like I said, one of the only examples of reprints at the time. What kind of impact did it have on other people, possibly including people who would go on to make comic books themselves?

Failing to sum up 2016

Ah, 2016 is behind us and now is the time to reflect on it, as well as start planning for the upcoming year.

And I tried a few times to write a year end wrap up but even just trying to limit it to my gaming life proved tough. Even in a quiet year (and it was a quiet year as far as gaming is concerned), it's tough.  

Most of my face-to-face gaming was with our son, playing games like Don't Spill the Beans or Candy Land. Since he just turned three at the end of the year, he usually didn't have the patience to finish games and wasn't the best at following the rules either. Still, it's all part of building up the game knowledge.

My wife and I did get in some games after he went to sleep, including Machi Koro and it's first expansion. It's certainly in the running for the best game I learned this year, particularly for time strapped parents.

My most intense gaming experiences were at Rincon and it's fundraisers. Every year, my experiences with Tucson's own little con get better and better and this year was no exception. Definitely a great con.

And, as ever, I played hundreds of games on Yucatá.

At the start of the year, I set a small budget for how much I was willing to spend on Kickstarter. And, thanks to mostly sticking to just buying print and play files, I've been able to keep to that budget.

I also set myself a limit of only buying six new games, not counting Kickstarter, in 2016. I ended up buying, let's see, two. OK, I did great on that goal. If my son gets into gaming in a few years, that kind of goal will go straight out the window.

I started 2016 with an online game of Microscope and and I ended it in another. Those two games provided bookends to my gaming year, a nice bit of symmetry that I didn't plan but worked out nicely.

2016 was also the year that our son turned three, which means it was a year where all kinds of development exploded. He can now talk  back and argue with us, for instance. It was a year in politics that will get its own chapter in history books. It also seemed to be a year when a bumper crop of celebrities passed away, although it doesn't help that the world has a lot more celebrities these days.

Yes, 2016 was a year.