Friday, March 31, 2017

Just got the second set of Pack O Games

My copy of the second set of Pack O Games came in the mail yesterday. And it should surprise absolutely no one that I have been looking forward to getting these. I have been a shameless fan of the first set. It has been a great travel library with a solid variety of games. 

The second set has ten games, compared to the eight games of the original set. One of them was a mystery Kickstarter exclusive so that was a fun surprise. Backers have been asked not to spoil that game so all I will say is that it is the game that probably has interested my wife the most out of the new set.

While it's going to take us a while to work our way through the second set, I would say that Chris Handy has upped his game with these games. On their in-house game of complexity, only one of these games is listed as casual. And that game, DIG, looks like it would've been considered intermediate in the original set.

This isn't necessarily a good thing. I personally thought that TAJ from the original set, rated challenging, ended up being fiddly due to the relative complexity of the rules for the length of play. Oh, I thought that it was innovative and ambitious but it was near the bottom of my enjoyment level.

In general, I would say that the second set really looks like it's aimed more of a gamer audience. The first has a wealth of games that are really good for a casual play and for non-gamers. It will really be interesting exploring this new set, which I truly believe was designed with a different set of goals.

I also want to note that this set has more two-player only games. Which is great by me, since a lot of my face-to-face gaming is with my wife after the toddler has gone to bed.

While I had high hopes for the original set, it exceeded my expectations. Heck, while it is not my favorite game from the series, I think SHH could break out with the mainstream audience. So the bar is set pretty high for the second set. But my hopes are still high. It's not like lightning struck once with the first set. It has five different games I know I will be playing for years to come. That's a really promising batting average. 

Introducing a three-year-old to Beauty and the Beast

We have been on a quest to find alternative to Frozen. Not that we dislike Frozen. I think it's a brilliant film on many levels but we sometimes watch it four times a week. We are just looking for something to break up the viewings.

Our first attempt was Beauty and the Beast, which our son calls the Belle movie.

Beauty and the Beast is a fairly important movie for me, at least as far as my relationship with Disney movies go. It was the first movie that I saw in the theater after the Black Cauldron made me pretty much give up on Disney movies.

(Not only was the Black Cauldron a pretty bad movie in another itself, it also made a complete shambles out of the children series that is important to me. The Chronicles of Prydian is wonderful series, although not my favorite series by Lloyd Alexander. That'd be the Westmark trilogy. Which is completely unsuitable for Disney animation. Then again, so was the hunchback of Notre Dame.)

Part of the reason why Beauty and the Beast made such a big difference for me was that it was the first time I felt like Disney showed a relationship develop rather than love at first sight. It's a topic that they'd explore more in later movies and I now realize they covered it before in Lady and the Tramp (seriously, think what that movie would be like if the characters were human) Still, it made an impression on me.

I have to admit, revisiting the movie again after so many years, did make me notice some things I didn't notice before. For one thing, if you were just a character in the background, you kind of had a body built like a bowl of jelly. You have to love how much animation keeps on developing.

We were also both struck by how short the movie felt and how fast everything seem to go by. But, it is a children's film and our memories probably stretched out the development of the plot.

It's the timeline that really doesn't make any sense. It certainly seems like Belle is a captive in the Beast's castle for several weeks and more likely months. Meanwhile, judging by the actions of the village and Maurice, it was really just a long weekend. It seriously doesn't make any sense.

Despite those issues, which are really testimonies to how Disney has risen their own standards, Beauty and the Beast still holds up for me. The music is top notch and the relationship of the main characters is compelling.

Of course, the real question is how did the three-year-old take the movie? 

I would say that we had slightly mixed results. He definitely enjoyed the music, particularly Be Our Guest. He had seen pictures of the ballroom dress and was thrilled to see yellow-dress Belle. So, he had fun watching it and it held his attention to the end.

However, he will still always pick Frozen over Beauty and the Beast. So, it didn't pass that crucial test for us :D

No, we wouldn't achieve that goal until our next attempt. Trolls.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Tiny board games versus tiny RPGs

As I have often written, I am fascinated by micro games for a wide variety of reasons. There has never been any real doubt that word games that are micro games are radically different than role-playing games that are micro games. However, since I've been talking about micro RPG's with some of my friends, the stark contrast between the two has been bouncing around my head.

Micro games, which pretty much always refers to the board or card games, have relatively few pieces, take a little storage space, have a relatively small footprint and A relatively short playing time. In other words, games that are easy to transport and play on the fly.

For instance, I have carried around Pico 2 for years because it takes up almost no space, takes no time to teach and can be played at the drop of a hat. 

On the other hand, micro RPG simply means that it is a very short rulebook. Often, only a couple pages. However, they usually take up about as much space as any other role playing game, unless you are using a mat and miniatures. In which case, you're definitely not in the market for a micro RPG, anyway.

While micro RPG's tend to be for one shots, as opposed to campaigns, there are plenty of one rule books that are designed for one shot games. Fiasco, just to name one that does a really good job at it. Frankly, I could go on for a while.

And, unlike micro games where simple rules make it easier to learn and play the game, sometimes too simple, the sandbox nature of role-playing games makes a super short rulebook actually an impediment. Too much ambiguity and not enough explanation.

When I look at a micro game, I ask myself if it would be any good to play and if I am likely to ever get it on the table. When I look at a micro RPG, I ask myself if it's fun to read. 

Monday, March 27, 2017

The false illusion of racing games

Thinking about Lines of Action reminded me of Ramses, another game where movement is determined by the number of pieces. And, thinking about Ramses made think of China Moon, another game where you move your opponents pieces.

And thinking about China Moon has not only made me think about the game itself but the origins of the game.

China Moon was one of the first Bruno Faidutti's designs and it was designed to be a race game where there wasn't any luck, onlfy skill. He has cited Hare and Tortoise as a major influence and inspiration.

I have to admit that I have never played Hare and Tortoise, which I do consider a gap in my gaming life. It won the first Spiele de Jahres and  it is still considered groundbreaking for how it handled creating a race game that didn't involve rolling dice or any other random mechanic.

I have come close to buying Hare and Tortoise a couple times over the years. But, I never ended up pulling the trigger and, at this point, I would have to play it a few times before I would get it.

But this did get me thinking about how racing, as a genre, often feels like the poor cousin in the board gaming hobby. It's obviously a false feeling since there are tons of beloved and successful racing games out there. Formula D, Snow Tails, Thunder Alley, Winner's Circle, et cetera, et cetera. And it's a theme that is super easy to engage non-gamers. 

However, while racing is clearly a successful and beloved genre, it still doesn't seem to get the love other genres. I have regularly heard people introduce Formula D or Detroit-Cleveland Grand Prix as a different, fun race game.

Frankly, I blame The Royal Game of Goose, which also wrecked the reputation of Roll and Move as a mechanic. Even if you haven't seen the Royal Game of Goose, you know what I'm talking about. A single track where each player has one pawn and roll a die to see how far they move, along with special spaces that give bonuses or penalties. What has become the generic game for the back of cereal boxes or children's place mats. A game with absolutely no choices.

I do have to note that the Royal Game of Goose started out as a gambling game for adults. Which does explain why it is so random. After all, the Nevada Board of Gaming doesn't allow games of skill to be used in casinos. Poker got grandfathered in and it's openly admitted it would never make it as a new game.

But it does kind of amaze me what an impact the Royal Game of Goose has had on the perception of both racing games and roll-and-move. Both Ludo and in particular Backgammon are far older and better games that offer real choices and interaction. But people don't think of them as the fundamental representation of those genres.

I guess this is an example about perception doesn't really have anything to do with reality. I don't think I've met anyone who actually dislikes racing games or genuinely pooh-poohs them. It's like there is a false majority of there.

And I know that I am going to keep on playing racing games and good role-and-move games. Games like China Moon or Winner's Circle or That's Life are all good games to teach people who don't play a lot of games but are still fun and rewarding for those of us who do.

Ramses - an abstract that the world forgot

Ramses is a game that has bounced back on my radar. I think it's a game that falls under a lot of folks' radar. For one thing, it's an abstract which isn't everyone's thing. For another, it had a very limited publication, although making your own copy is super easy. 

The board, which is small enough to fit on one page, consists of three rows of spaces. The middle row has twelve pieces while the top and the bottom have five, the last space long and stretched out. Plus, five of the spaces have Egyptian hieroglyphs on them.

Both players get four pawns. On your turn, you first move one of your
pawns and THEN one of your opponent's pawns. A pawn must move the number of spaces as the number of pawns in either its column or row, which ever one is greater. You can zigzag but you can't move diagonally or backtrack.

The game ends when either someone has pieces on three of the hieroglyphs and wins or when someone can't complete a move and loses. 

Trust me, if you have the board and pieces in front of you and can show examples, Ramses is super easy to teach and learn. My explanation may have been too complicated.

And Ramses is a head cracker.

The real brain burning part of the game is having to move one of your opponent's pieces and it always has to be after you move your own. Ramses isn't the first game I've played where you move your opponent's pieces. China Moon burned that bridge long ago.

But China Moon has a simpler board (since it's basically a track), simpler movement rules and allows you to move your opponent first, letting you set up moves for yourself. It's still a shockingly deep game for its rules, Ramses is just deeper. 

You have a claustrophobic board that is very dynamic. Every move dramatically changes what moves can be made. And it's all open information so you can see exactly how every move will affect the board. 

I have had a lot of fun with Ramses. It's definitely an interesting game and I have not played it nearly enough to get good at it or figure out some of its tricks. It's a game that keeps me wanting to come back for more.

And, while it's hard to get a manufactured copy, making your own is easy. Heck, you could draw the board freehand and use pocket change for the pieces. I have seen pictures of people making boards out of Carcassonne tiles with meeples for pawns.

And there are plenty of files online that you can use to print off your own board. When I first discovered Ramses, I printed off a board and used glass beads for pieces. When i recently remembered it, I printed off a nice board and laminated it for longevity.

Really, if you're interested in abstracts, there's no excuse not to try Ramses and you owe it to yourself to try it. Of course, if you decided to read this, you probably already have.

Friday, March 24, 2017

The issues of Micro RPGs

OfOver the last few years, I have looked at a decent number of micro RPGs. Those aren't just RPGs that are designed for one-shots but ones that take up only a few pages. I often discuss them with friends, including some who are really only interested in longer, deeper games.

One of those recent conversations really hammered home to me how micro RPG's are odd genre, one that is more defined about format than anything else.

Seriously, while micro RPGs are all minimal rule systems, minimal rule systems don't mean micro RPG. Baron Munchausen has two pages of rules but it has very a hundred pages on setting, theme and tone. It is designed for light, short one-shots with minimal preparation but it's not a micro RPG.

Let's be honest, when a role playing game is only a few pages long, it is impossible for it to really discuss setting or gaming philosophy or anything more than the bare bones. And sometimes... okay, most of the time, that's really not enough.

The ultimate goal of a micro RPG is that you should be able to pull it out if your picket, slap it down in front of people who have never seen it before and have a game going in five minutes. 

I have seen some that do pull that off. The Name of God, which is even laid on a set of cards for easy transport, is one. But most just don't have enough meat. To be painfully honest, I have read two or three dozen of them in the last three years and there are only three or four that I seriously want to get on the table. And I am obviously part of their target audience.

But, I don't think that's entirely a bad thing. Even if I don't view them as games to play, that doesn't mean they aren't interesting thought exercises. I get a lot of fun out of looking at them in experiments in game mechanics. And it is really easy to and one to a friend, see 'here, read this', and have a conversation going in five minutes.

A great example is A Flask Full of Gasoline. It is an absolute hoot to read and I have shared it with a lot of my friends. Really, anyone who might even be slightly interested. And I would never, ever play the game since it includes rules for drinking gasoline. Not the characters. The players. But, man, have I had some fun conversations about it.

Let's be honest. I am going to keep on reading micro RPGs and I am going to keep on commenting on them. Because it is fun and they give me a quick RPG fix and because they do bring up ideas worth discussing.

Heck, how many full-size RPG's am I going to play? :D Really, when you think about what a micro RPG has to pull off, I am lucky to have found ones like the Name of God or Keeton's Journey that I think would be really good to play.

It is nice when the computer keeps me from cheating

I keep on telling myself I am going to teach someone Lines of Action and play a game of it face-to-face.

However, for years now, I've just kept playing it online at Super Duper Games. In fact, even when I am taking a break from all the other games on that site, I usually have a game of Lines of Actions going.

And part of the reason is that Super Duper Games will keep me from accidentally cheating. (To be fair, another part is I can _always_ find a game of Lines of Action there)

You see, while Lines of Actions' rules are so simple I can explain them in the three sentences (1. You win by connecting all your pieces. 2. A piece can move in any direction but only the exact number of spaces as the pieces in that line. 3. You can only jump over your own pieces but landing on an opponents piece captures it.), it is still easy to mess up moves. While I am much better at it, I still occasionally miscount moves.

Hey, I said that the rules were simple. The play can get pretty complex. :P

While there are a number of drawbacks to playing online, one benefit is that it can keep you from accidentally cheating. And with some games, abstracts in particular it seems, it can be easy to make an illegal move without realizing it.

I remember getting Quads, a pre-GIPF game by Kris Burm, and playing in a series of games with a friend. It's a super simple game but we kept on realizing that we were making illegal plays without either of us noticing. I eventually got rid of the game because, well, it wasn't GIPF quality and it was too easy not to catch mistakes.

Having said that, I am probably being lazy and unfair to Lines of Action. After all, the whole count the number of pieces rule is also in Ramses and I have had no problems teaching or playing that. Heck, now that I've said it, I know I want to make a new set of Ramses via print and play.

Fender Lizards reminds me Joe Lansdale is real

I recently picked up a collection of e-books from Subterranean Press, which included Fender Lizards by Joe Lansdale. It's about a poor Texas girl who gets a grip on her life through roller derby. I hadn't planned on reading it but I looked at the first chapter and, after that, I was in for the whole ride, all the way to the end. 

I found myself with two questions. Why did Subterranean publish it and why was it so good? Then I realized the answer to both those questions was Joe Lansdale.

Looking him up went like 'Oh yeah, he wrote Bubba Ho Tep. And the Vertigo revival of Jonah Hex. And the Hap and Leonard books. And that disturbing version of Jack the Ripper who wore decapitated  heads for shoes... How did I forget who Joe Lansdale is?'

I swear, for more than twenty years, I have found myself constantly rediscovering Joe Lansdale. I pick up one of works. Read it. Think it's some amazing writing. Look him up and discover I've already ready a bunch of stuff by him. It's like I have some kind of mental block.

Frankly, I blame The Drive In, which was the first thing I read by him back when I was in middle school. A Texas drive in gets trapped in some kind of black void. Murder, rape, infanticide, cannibalism follow. By the time an actual supernatural monster shows up, it's a relief from all the horrible stuff ordinary people are doing to each other.

It is a well written book but it kind of traumatized my brain. 

Joe Lansdale is an artist with words seriously. I don't agree with either everything he writes (although I am honestly not sure he does either) but there is no denying the craft that the man has. He's a profoundly great writer and Fender Lizards turned out to be a fun ride.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

When do the choices become the same thing over and over again?

I had been planning on continuing my musings on rondels with Province, which uses perhaps the smallest and simplest version of what might qualify as a rondel. However, replaying it against the AI to refresh myself on it made my brain go in a different direction. 

I like Province. It is neat how it fits resource management and special powers into such a small package. When a small deck of cards is the basic format of micro games, it was cool seeing one that breaks out of that mold.

But... Province has some issues. I can get around the fact that it sure seems to have a first player bias by saying play the game twice and add up the scores. However, there are some serious replay issues.

Games of Province tend to play out the same, despite random bonus goals. And part of that is because of the intrinsic design of the game. Three of the eight buildings require prerequisite buildings. Which means things are going to get built in order. With only eight buildings total, that leads to predictable play.

And, let's be honest, any building which gives you an extra worker is particularly desirable so the three buildings that let you do that are going to be prime. If the first player doesn't build the camp on the first turn and get an extra worker right off the bat, that seems like cutting your own hamstrings.

And, in general, replay value and formulaic play is a big concern when it comes to micro games. A small number of components with a short playing time means games are going to have fewer choices and can mean fewer options with those choices.

Which doesn't mean being a micro game is a death sentence for long-term play. I have owned Pico Two for close to a decade and it has regular play while being just eleven cards. Games that have a string metagame elements, where the play each other, like Love Letter or Coup, also seem to have strong replay value.

(And, since I am an unabashed fan of Pack O Game, I'd say the variable set up most of the games has continued to give them new life in my experience. Not all of them (sorry, TKO) but enough that I think I will keep on getting serious value from those tiny games. I'll have to keep in playing them to be sure but I do want to keep on playing them)

Which opens up another question. How many times do you have to an a game for it to be worthwhile? How many times does it have to challenge you or entertain you? I admit that, since I've gotten into print-and-play more, it's easier for me to take a chance at a micro game since there's less investment. But it is still a big question. It is fun to dabble but you also want a foundation of strong games in your library.

I am still enjoying Province and I've definitely gotten my investment's worth out of it. I fear, in the long run, it may turn out to be more of a brave experiment than a diamond in the rough. But, no regrets.

A game I might play with D&D

I have said that all you need (or sometimes should) to create your D&D character's personality is two quirks and one motivation. The idea is to have enough of a framework to play the character but have it open enough to adjust to how the campaign goes.

In many ways, the micro-RPG Spirits in the Night feels like taking only that and seeing where it goes.

Part of the Indie Megamix Mixtape, SiN is about a group of friends meeting one last time around a campfire before all going their own ways. It isn't explicitly about graduating from high school but you'd have to modify the game to make it about something else.

The players create a group of five characters, picking Who (their role in the group), Wish (motivation) and Future (what they plan to do after this last night) from lists. You draw cards from a regular deck of cards to determine relationship strengths between characters, which can be negative.
During the game itself, players take turns choosing a character and having them interact with another character. You play out the scene by playing blackjack
 with the end result changing their relationship. Other players can step into to play characters. Jokers mean an outside party has disrupted the campfire. Play through the deck twice and then give everyone an epilogue.

The one mechanical thing I like about Spirits in the Night is that it is a GM-free system that is an ensemble all the way through. Not only does no one own any of the characters, no one ever takes on the role of temporary game master. That doesn't necessarily make it a brilliant design but I do admire how thoroughly it breaks the paradigm of RPGs.

At first, Spirits of the Night didn't interest me as more than an intellectual exercise. Then I realized that it describes the basic origin of the heroes of the lance from the Dragonlance Chronicles. 

At that point, I thought that if you adjusted the lists for Who, Wish and Future a little, I can see playing a game of Spirits of the Night to set up a campaign (D&D or otherwise). Play the game, have people choose characters, roll them up, and start the campaign ten years later. Everyone starts off with a shared background and connections.

I'm not interested in playing Spirits of the Night as a standalone game. However, I think it would be a really great tool to set up a D&D campaign.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Around the windmill with Finca

One of my first exposures to a game that uses a rondel was Finca. At least I think it uses a rondel. At any rate, it's a game that I have continued to play over the years and I doubt I'd ever let it leave my collection.

In Finca, you are competing fruit farmers Mallorca. (By the way, is never heard of Mallorca before this game. It's a Spanish island in the Mediterranean) I thought Finca meant windmill but it actually means a plot of land. You will be using a windmill though, moving your workers on it in order together fruit and donkey carts to deliver that friend.

The windmill is the absolute centerpiece of the game. Every blade (which are randomly placed at the start of the game so every time is different) has a specific fruit on it. Players have farmers on the blades, moving along the windmill to harvest fruit, just like no agricultural system in history ever.

On a turn, you can move one of your farmers clockwise on the windmill. The farmer moves exactly many spaces as farmers on that blade. Then they collect as many of the fruit on the blade they land on as the number of farmers were there. It's all very Mancala. And not the first time I've seen Mancala used in more modern games (Emerald by Steffan Dora comes to mind) but it works really well here. Passing the 'equator' of the windmill will earn you donkey carts which you use to complete fruit orders, which are how you get points.

Oh, and if a particular fruit or a cart isn't available in supply, everyone returns that item to supply before the player who would earn any gets some. I think that rule is awesome. I've played with too many people who hoard as a strategy so it's nice to see it punished.

I am leaving out different bonus tiles and special actions. But you get the basic gist of the game, which is moving your farmers Mancala style in order to get produce.

Finca is a nice looking game with pretty wooden fruit. It has some interesting mechanics and it plays out in under an hour. And it's also remarkably brutal.

Yeah, this colorful and family weight game hides under its friendly exterior a stiletto just waiting to slide in between your opponents' ribs. The set up is random but the only hidden information is the stacks of fruit orders. The movement of the farmers and the collection of the fruit can be calculated out.

And I have seen it happen. The first time it happened to me and got me skinned alive, it was a revelation. While Finca doesn't have any direct conflict, it's easy to undercut sales as well decimate folks holdings with the hoarding rule.

Yeah, any economic game should give you the chance to outcompete the other players but Finca's market is particularly tight between the power of carts to instantly deliver and the tight restrictions on supply.

And the combination of simple rules, the potential for serious strategic play and razor sharp markets is why Finca has stayed a part of my collection and gotten regular play. I keep finding new depths of play. 

Gaming with the grandparents

My parents came to visit us for a week. Well, they really came to see their grandson but they had to see the parents as well :P And, while they aren't gamers, my mom and dad know they can't visit me without playing some games.

Dad and I got into a series of games of Pentago one night and all of us got in a couple games of Marrakech when the grandson went to bed early.
After all these years, I have a pretty good idea of what kind of games my parents will enjoy. Abstracts with relatively simple rules but room for depth. Marrakech was bending the rules a bit but I knew it would work well.

I was late to the party with Pentago. A five-in-a-row game where you rotate a quarter of the board each turn, I don't consider it to be as good as the GIPF series or Hive (Pentago just isn't as deep) Which isn't to say it isn't good. Pentago is very good and super accessible. It always been a hit when I've taught it.

I bought Marrakech in a whim and everyone in the group I was in was surprised by how good it is. You move a shared pawn across the board and place carpets down. You have to pay if you land on someone else's carpet. Simple rules with surprisingly nasty play.

It's not a revelation that games that are good for non-gamers can be fun and fulfilling games for those of us in the hobby. Ticket to Ride would hardly be such a hit if that wasn't true. But it is good to always have some on hand.

Friday, March 17, 2017

Confession: I don't get rondels

EOne of my failings as a gamer is that I've never really "gotten" rondels as a concept. I don't mean I've never played a game with. rondel because I've played a number of them. And I understand how each individual rondel works in the games I've played. I just have never grokked the rondel as a unified concept.

A rondel is a circular track where each space represents a different option. Players choices are restricted by having to move around the rondel, which means players are restricted from making the same choice over and over again. A key element to a rondel, as I understand it, is that it is a cycle. The choices are in a specific order. So a game like Puerto Rico or Alfred's Wyke where you simply can't take the action that the last player did doesn't count.

With some games that are considered rondel games, the rondel seems to be about gaining resources like Finca while others are choosing actions like Santiago de Cuba. One game that I'm not sure counts as a rondel game, Vikings, the circle is just price control for the market.

My problem might come the fact that there seem to be two definitions for rondel. One is for games that use cycles of actions or resources. The other definition is for games that are part of a specific series by the designer Mac Gerdts. (I don't know if he coined the term or if he set out to make a series of games using rondels or if the series was declared after he made a bunch of game using them)

Which might be part of my problem in a couple different ways. I haven't played any of those games. In fact, the only Gerdts game I played was one play of Princes of Macho Picchu. Although Antike Duellum is on Yucat√° so this might give me the push to learn it.

So, on the one hand, I haven't played the games that helped define the concept of rondels. And on the other hand, the term have been overused too broadly.

Not grokking rondels hasn't hurt my experiences as a gamer but it does sometimes make me feel like I've missed something crucial. At the same time, Boardgame Geek doesn't list it as an official mechanic so I might not be alone.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Bridges to a crafting project

So far, 2017 has been busy enough that I really haven't gotten around to making many print-and-play projects. However, when I saw Bridges to Nowhere, I knew I was going to be making it. Preferable before April :P

In theory, Bridges to Nowhere fits into a niche that I really enjoy, a quiet, low conflict two-player game that would be mellow and relaxing. Morels or Lost Cities are examples of these kinds of games. 

Bridges to Nowhere is a micro game for two players where you draft cards that show bridge sections to build your own bridges. The artwork, both minimal and atmospheric, is lovely. Makes me want to reread Johnathan Livingstone Seagull.

And on paper, it looks like the kind of game we would have fun with. But I have concerns that the pool of cards will prove to be too small. That getting the right cards or even card might swing the game.

But guess what? The game is four sheets of cards. Between printing, laminating and cutting, it will take me less than a half hour to make it, even with a three-year-old's help. It will cost me next to nothing to find out if it's any good so I am going to find out.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Okay, I will rank the Hip Pocket line

I had been planning on making this just a response to someone asking me about ranking the individual games in Cheapass's Hip Pocket Game line. But my response ended up getting so long that I decided to just make it a separate blog entry.

So, here's a ranking and commentary on the Hip Pocket Game Line.

1. Light Speed - it's a real time game of slapping down cards that represent space ships with shields and lasers that you trace to see if they hit anything. It's not the first or only game of its kind but it's the best I've found so far. In large part because it is so stripped down and simple while still feeling like a space battle. When I first played it, it felt like cheating to be so easy but so thematic.

I didn't realize there was a revised version called Stellar Conflict, which adds faction powers, until someone commented on it in my last blog post. I'd be willing to try it but part of the appeal of Light Speed is it's raw simplicity. Adding complexity and time to the scoring part of the game might be a game breaker for me.

2. The Very Clever Pipe Game - a tile laying game of connecting pipes and collecting the cards that make closed pipelines. This is easily the game I played the most, because it is so solid and requires nothing but the cards. It works well because it tosses out everything but the fundamentals. It misses being number one because it's in a more crowded field of tile laying, connection games. These days, HUE takes its place in my bag. Still, I'd never turn down a game.

3. Agora/Camden - creating a Roman market place with special events to spice things up until someone wins by earning enough money. This has some really weird placement rules that restrict how cards can connect to form larger stands but there isn't restrictions on how you place stands. I've never seen another game quite like it and it does a good job being different and and unique.

4. Nexus - you place cards in a basket weave pattern and claim intersections to control paths. When I first played Nexus, I really liked it. It was one of my first area of control games. But time hasn't been as kind to it as some the games earlier on the ranking. Not a bad game but not sparkly any more.

5. The Big Cheese - the token auction game in the line, themed around corporate rats completing projects. The biggest twist in the game is that the value of the completed project is determined by a die roll. While GEM is my choice of quick auction games, the Big Cheese would be interesting to revisit. I've played a lot of auction games since the Big Cheese and it would be interesting to revisit.

6. Steam Tunnels - you lay down tiles to create a maze of tunnels with players claiming tunnels whose value will be determined by their end caps. Okay, it's been so long since I've played it and it left so little an impression, I can't remember what I thought. Which is not a recommendation.

7. Cube Farm - a tile laying game where you build a map of an office floor where you try to get the good stuff like the copier and the exit close to you and the bad stuff like the Vice President far away. I did not have a great impression of it but, you know, I remember it. And I've been in a lot more cubicles since then. I'd revisit it to see what I think now.

Games that got left out:

I swear the Big Idea had a Hip Pocket edition but I can't seem to find any proof of that. Right group, decent party game.

And, as I've mentioned elsewhere, I haven't played Safari Jack or Timeline. And, revisiting the Hip Pocket Game line, I really need to play Timeline. A time travel game where the maze of time lines constantly shifts sounds like a lot of fun.

I personally own all these games but a good chunk of them of them are available as free print and plays on Cheapass's website and I'm sure can be printed on demand at sites like Drive By Cards.

Friday, March 10, 2017

My stepping stone of Hip Pocket games

Wandering down memory lane has brought me to the Hip Pocket line of games, a line of games that Cheapass produced that were smaller than their usual games but better than a lot of them.

I played them quite a bit in between getting back into board games with Settlers of Catan and Puerto Rico and Fluxx and getting serious about building a library of games. They were a big part me testing the water with my toe before diving headfirst into the deep end.

Every single game is a little deck of cards in a plastic baggy and most of them are tile laying games. At the time, they cost between four to six dollars so it was easy to get a little library going. The games in the Hip Pocket line were simpler and more solid than most of the other games in the Cheapass catalog at the time.

Over the last few years, as I've become less of a game snob, I've come to appreciate Cheapass's designs more and more. Some of the games that have come out in the last few years have been good and well aimed at the 'causual' audience. But I really believe the Hip Pocket line are some of the best games they made.

The best of the Hip Pocket line, which I'm saying are The Very Clever Pipe Game and Light Speed, I have played more times than I can count, particularly since I wasn't keeping track of my plays back then. I'd honestly play any of the ones I've played again without a problem, even Cube Farm, which I thought was just okay.

Confession time: I have not yet played either Safari Jack or Timeline. I may never play Safari Jack but I do want to eventually play Timeline. It is probably the heaviest game in the lot, which was heavy when Fluxx was one of primary games, but it's probably light to me now. Plus, it looks like pretty good.

Small and short but punchy and well designed. The Hip Pocket line was a good way for me to edge into collecting games. And, while I have other games I now carry everywhere, they still hold up really well.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Second try writing about Cosmic Wimpout

Okay, let's try this again.

Cosmic Wimpout. The last time I tried to write about Cosmic Wimpout, I ended up talking about how dice games have their own cultural spot in games but this time, I'm going to try and really focus on Cosmic Wimpout. 

Cosmic Wimpout is a game and experience that is bigger than its parts. Because, fundamentally, it's just a variant of the old dice game Ten Thousand. But the visually distinct dice, the tweaks in the rules and it's place in Grateful Dead culture has given Cosmic Wimpout a unique identity.

The game consists of five dice. Four white dice and one black did that has a wild face instead of a three. Two thirds of the numbers have been replaced with astrological symbols but they are still really just the numbers. You know, two moons for two and six stars for six, that sort of thing. You could easily play the game with regular dice, just marking up one of the threes. But why would you want to? The dice are neat looking and fun.

The game itself is basically a variant on Ten Thousand. You roll the dice and lock scoring combinations. Keep rolling until you can stop and keep the points or not have any dice you can work and lose all the points from your turn.

One of the major differences between Cosmic Wimpout and Ten Thousand is that there are multiple rules that force you to keep on rolling. This can lead do to really high scoring turns or really big blowouts.

Normally, the game playing me would be a big mark against it. But the roller coaster ride Cosmic Wimpout can take you wan and the speed that you play it is enough for me to somehow not mind. 

Another major difference is that one wild side. Just having one out of the thirty-six sides being wild is enough to make a real difference in how the probabilities crunch out. Even if you are just playing with your gut, which is how most of us would anyway, it makes a difference.

Cosmic Wimpout also has the Guiding Light, which is basically just permission to use House rules. Seriously, you don't need official permission to use house rules but the fact that the game gives you it indicates the kind of philosophy the designers had.

The last and possibly most interesting part of Cosmic Wimpout is its
place in Grateful Dead fandom and other counter cultures. The funny thing is that I've never actually seen it in that environment. I don't know how much it hype and how much is legitimate.

But it is definitely part of its identity and its reputation. That is going to affect who you are going to get to play and what the experience of the game is going to be like. And frankly, I can't think of another game with this identity. 

Cosmic Wimpout isn't one of my favorite games, not even among light dice games. But it was a very acquisition, before I really started collecting games. And, there is no denying that it is fun and it's own experience.

Dice games in my pocket

It is hardly a secret that I am a big fan of games that you can fit in your pocket. When I was first getting into gaming and hadn't gotten serious about having a game closet, those were the first kind of games that were in my collection. A big part of my reentry into playing board games were games at coffee shops or restaurants or waiting for everyone to show up for the D&D game.

(For a very brief time, a lot of my gaming was done with Cheapass's Hip Pocket line at a coffee shop across from the Music Box in Chicago that I'm pretty sure is gone. I don't think it was for more than a month but it was so early in my gaming experience that it stands out)

While there is now a ridiculous vast wealth of small games, it wasn't like there was shortage back when I got started. Heck, there would have been plenty of options if I'd gotten started twenty years before I did.

And simple dice games are one of the fundamental forms of travel games. 

Seriously, they are their own beast. No one is going to call Cthulhu Dice  micro game, even though it consists of one die and some beads. (On the other hand, since it's basically a LCR variant, I'm not sure I personally consider it a _game_)

Of course, dice have their own profoundly ancient history and cultural significance. They have their own space in the world of gaming, one that has a much wider audience than the kind of games I normally play. I know there are events called Bunko parties and I've passed my share of back alley craps games when I lived in Chicago. I once worked with a guy, decidedly not into games, who still carried six dice around in a cigar case so he could play Ten Thousand at bars.

If you are carting around games in your coat pocket to play anywhere with anyone, games that will appeal to a wide audience are a good thing. And dice games can often fill that bill nicely.

In my experience, particularly with an older audience, more abstract games are often easier sells. Zombie Dice surprised me by being a solid push your luck game with some interesting play with probability. However, if you can sell someone on Zombie Dice, they might be up for a more complicated, thematic game.

For many years, my most reliable simple dice game has been Cinq-O,  a Yahtzee variant that offers a decent number of choices and control. It used to be super easy to find but it's been out of print long enough to be rare. Which is a shame and I hope it gets reprinted. Good for adults and great for parents. Future generations of parents could use this game and I'm glad I have it for my kid.

But, before I found Cinq-O, my dice game in my pocket of choice was Cosmic Wimpout. In fact, this blog entry was originally just going to be about Cosmic Wimpout before I got sidetracked out the window.

Cosmic Wimpout, while obviously developed from Ten Thousand, has its own quirky identity and place in culture. I mean, it's a favorite of Grateful Dead fans. That gives it a crazy street cred that no money can buy. It also takes away a lot of a player's control, which is usually a total deal breaker for me, but somehow it works with Cosmic Wimpout.

Over the last few years, I have looked and played a lot of micro games, mostly card games but board games as well. Print and play hasn't hurt that exploration. However, I know it's important not to stop looking at the fundamental bedrock of dice.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Empire of the East: sword and sorcery meets the Cold War

I recently finished Fred Saberhagen's Empire of the East trilogy.

I was interested in it because I knew it was the precursor for his Swords books and I also knew that it was an influence on the development of Dungeons & Dragons. Plus, you know, Saberhagen.

And, I'll be honest, I really have to wonder how remembered this series would be if it wasn't for those things.


The core idea of the series, the world building, is very cool. It's a sword and sorcery setting that takes place after the end. Okay, not so original. However, magic was introduced to the world prevent a nuclear holocaust and has caused different technological things to gain God-like sentence and power.

In fact, the ultimate battle is between a NORAD computer and a sentient nuclear bomb blast. Tell me that's not cool.

Here's the problem. While there are hints through out the series about true nature of the setting, most of it reads like a slightly above average 70s fantasy. Heck, the existence and the arrival of the big bad Orcus isn't even hinted at until more than halfway through the third book. The end result is that most of the entire trilogy feels like fluff. 

I do realize that the entire trilogy is a metaphor for the Cold War. And Ardnah the super computer and Orcus the living nuclear bomb blast do make powerful symbols of the superpowers. I also understand that the series was quite popular when it came out. I think those two things are linked.

And it makes sense that the individual lives of our actual heroes become rather small and unimportant compared to the clash of world powers. That definitely fits with the metaphor. However, it doesn't necessarily create the most engaging storytelling.

I am glad that I read the trilogy. I did enjoy the Swords trilogy that followed it and I am sure that I will someday read the Lost Swords series as well. However, if it wasn't for the final fight at the end, I doubt I would remember reading this a year from now.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

The scale of epic adventures

The other night, as I was falling asleep, I found myself thinking about how Trollbabe did have a level mechanic. The characters are basically made up of one number, plus some adjectives and relationships.

But then I realized that scale is actually the equivalent of levels in Trollbabe.

When an adventure is completed in Trollbabe, one of the options players have is to raise the scale of the adventures. Interestingly, if one player chooses to do this, it affects everyone. You also can't raise it more than one increment, by the way.

Scale is literally what it sounds like. The scope of what the players can affect. A starting Trollbabe has a scale of personal. Their direct actions can only affect a couple people. However, as players choose to increase the scale, their actions and therefore the scope of the adventures can become bigger and broader. At the top of the scale ladder, you can affect whole lands, which can mean continents.

This also helps determine what kind of relationships characters can have. With greater scope, villages or armies or whole countries can become allies or adversaries. This isn't quite as power gaming as it sounds. Using relationships to reroll failures can damage or even kill the other party. So, with great scale can come great sacrifice and loss.

Scale, while a very important concept of playing Trollbabe, isn't the most brilliant or innovative idea in the game. No, breaking up the usual responsibilities of game masters so that the players have a hefty part is really what makes Trollbabe so impressive and innovative.

However, as I sat up in bed, thinking about Trollbabe's use of scale, I realized that this was an amazingly simple but effective way to handle epic level adventure and campaigns.

Epic level campaigns can be really tough. I've known dungeon masters who don't like to run Dungeons & Dragons past tenth level. Epic means more power, bigger scope and probably higher complexity. 

Mind you, the Trollbabe method wouldn't work for Dungeons & Dragons system. In D&D, every action is a discrete one. Combat, for instance, tracks every blow and spell and any other kind of action. (Which is why I have seen epic level fights last three several hour sessions) 

Which is a big part of why epic level D&D can be so tough. Even a narratively simple action like slugging it out with a demon lord becomes very complicated mechanically. In a broad strokes system like Trollbabe, it has the same level of mechanical complexity as fighting some goblins. In fact, that is why one of my friends switched a campaign to Dungeon World when the characters got high-level and it worked very well.

Furthermore, using the system that allowed more broad strokes actually about more complicated narratives. In my experience, the more discrete systems ended up getting bogged down by the mechanics. We had to spend so much time on the minutia but it was tough to get around the big picture.

What is nice about Trollbabe and handling those big, earthshaking  storylines is that you set the scale and you have the scale as a guideline. Honestly, I can see using the Trollbabe rules for other genres or at least porting the scale system.