Thursday, April 27, 2017

Am I asking for the wrong things from dry erace markers?

I've been looking at my PnP copy of Akua, contemplating at how it hasn't seen any play yet. Frankly, we've found it a convoluted and not very intuitive.

I think that that is a side effect of its very nature. It is a game that is designed to be played with nothing but dry erase markers and the dryer erase board. At the same time, it is a game that is designed to be a full game with action selection and infrastructure development.

The format means no cards or hidden information or any random elements. The board and the pen marks have to handle everything and that can be a tall order.

It is kind of funny to think of developing what is basically a travel Euro, when the actual functional solution that we have used has been tablets. But I have to admire the desire to make a physical and mechanical game with such minimal components.

However, a game that I can play with a clipboard and some dry erase markers on a car trip or standing in line or on a plane needs to be one that I can play with a divided attention. I don't think Akua passes that particular test.

So I got to thinking, what kind of game would I want to play via dry a race that would both have the feel of a Euro or German Family Game? In the first thing that came to mind was something like Transamerica, where you would be drawing lines along a map to make connections.

Of course, you wouldn't be able to easily replicate the destination cards of Transamerica on the board. So then I thought it would need to be some kind of action selection game, where you choose to do things like draw track or make deliveries or other train actions. Since I'm clearly thinking about a train game.

Then I realized that might already exist with the pencil-and-paper adaptation of Stephenson's Rocket, another PnP project that I haven't played and really should. While it was designed for each player to have their own board, I think one board with different colored makers for each player should work.

Of course, Stephenson's Rocket, while I'm pretty sure it is more intuitive than Akua, also probably won't pass that test of being easily played with lots of distractions.

And, the truth of the matter is I really need to play both Akua and Stephenson's Rocket, not to judge them as how they work as dry erase games but how they work as games. Akua seems like it would be a good game with the right players. I know a couple guys back in Chicago who would love it but even more who wouldn't like it. And Stephenson's Rocket is a classic but will this adaptations do it justice?

At the same time, does this ideal dry erase game exist? I know there are games that use dry erase well (Some of my friends have raved about Captain Sonar) but one that would work on a plane?

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Another stab at elegance

When I look at the school of German Family Games, a word I see a lot is elegant. But elegance is a word that can mean a lot of things to different people. But in this particular case, I'm pretty sure that what elegance means simplicity. Not that the rules or the play is necessarily simple but that everything is stripped down to just what it needed to play the games.

(On the other hand, in Euros, elegance means that the game is complex but all the moving parts all fit together like clockwork. Which could mean the same thing, since you usually don't have extra gears in your pocket watch. But it doesn't feel simple so I'm calling it a different flavor of elegant.)

This is one case where the philosophy of German Family Games and Abstract Games overlaps. That simplicity is a key element to so many abstracts. Go is one of the complex games I have ever played, perhaps the most complex. But the ruleset is very minimal. Other genuine classics, like Checkers or Mancala or Hex are even more minimal. Seriously, Hex is so minimal but it is still a challenging and interesting game. But it is clearly not a German Family Game.

Part of my old definition of an abstract used to include no random elements and no hidden information. However, as I've heard many games I love Qwirkle or Ingenious described as abstracts, I've come to accept that that's too rigid a definition. However, I feel that games like Ingenious, originally introduced to me as a German Family Game, show how blurry the line between the schools can be.

One designer who I feel embraced that blurry line, probably helped create that blurry line, is Alexander Randolph. He and Sid Sackson helped guide the 3M game line back in the 1960s and 1970s, which helped develop the modern designer game. The 3M line definitely pushed the idea of games that weren't for children or for gambling but for intellectual stimulation. Oh lord, that sounded so snobby and elitist.

Many of his designs like Ghosts or Ricochet Robots or Bison or Twixt are fundamentally abstracts. Man, there is no other way to describe Twixt but as an abstract. But they were aimed at the audience that would define German Family Games. I wonder what he would make after he saw what has been designed today. (Of course, I wonder even more what Sid Sackson would design)

I do believe that these two schools of philosophy use simplicity for different reasons. The Abstract school, not always intentionally, uses minimalism to refine the game. The German Family Game school uses simplicity to make games accessible. 

Abstract Games as philosophy is probably one of the most nebulous ones. After all, it includes centuries upon centuries of games that were independently developed all over the globe. So much of it comes from the natural organic development that took place over time. Minimalism necessity for games to be passed down by word-of-mouth over generations. German Family Games, on the other hand, are intentionally designed for a targeted audience.

So, when I just use the word elegant to describe a German Family Game, I guess I mean easy to teach and fun to play.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Memories of Yaz

I remember when I first saw the Baton Races of Yaz in 1984 as an insert in Dragon Magazine #82. It wasn't the first board game I'd seen in Dragon but the silly theme and simple rules really appealed to me. In fact, since I didn't want to cut up the magazine, I made my copy via xerox, making it my first print-and-play project.

The Baton Races of Yaz is a hex-and-chit game where, instead of trying to kill each other, the two sides are trying to be the first to break all the big glass balls in their color.

When I first saw it, I thought that it was really neat. I mean, I was seven or eight and here was in adult style hex-and-chit game that I could easily understand. Different types terrain, different types of units with multiple stats on them. (Basically speed, types of terrain it could move on) and if a unit could paralyze another unit.

Incidentally, this is how I learned what the word throttle meant as far as grabbing someone around the throat. The slow Lugants, who are the only unit who can't hold the baton, are the only combat unit, throttling opponents.

At the time I was told by older gamers that the Baton Races of Yaz  was a flawed game, too simple. In fact, I felt kind of embarrassed being so enthusiastic  about it.

However, so many years later with a lot of game experience during those years, I have come to some different opinions about the Baton Races of Yaz.

First of all, it was a very good introduction to hex-and-chit games. Heck, it even taught me how a lot of information could be one little square of cardboard. The most significant absence is a CRT (combat results table) since there aren't actually any random elements.   

Second, I would now say that the Baton Races of Yaz is a combination of hex-and-chit and family game. Which is really a weird beast now that I've actually written that down. But the family aspect isn't just the goofy theme but the philosophy of the game as well. It's a race where you don't lose pieces. Interaction but, despite the throttling, not violent conflict. I mean, compared to an Ogre's Hellbore cannons :P In real life, if someone kicked me to the ground and started to strangle me, I'd call that violent.

That being said, The Baton Races of Yaz is neither a perfect game nor the perfect blend between those two genres. While the luck free element and the ability to pass the baton as a free action means a skilled player can set up some amazing plays, it also means unskilled play can really drag. And the better player will crush the weaker player, which is not a virtue in a family game.

(On the other hand, Ogre gives you the option of giving the six-year-old the Ogre tank and you don't take any howitzers as a way of evening the playing field)

The Baton Races of Yaz is not a hidden gem that was stapled in the middle of a magazine. It is, though, a decent little game with some interesting room for thoughtful play, as well as a really amusing theme. In some ways, I think it was ahead of its time while never intending to be.

The idea of a cross between a hex-and-chit game and a family game is an interesting one, albeit one that probably didn't occur to the Dragon staff. I wonder what other games are out there that could fill that niche. I wonder if there are undesigned games that could be built from the idea.

One of my old gaming groups bought the Dragon archive some years ago so I've had the files to make another copy for a while now. And that wouldn't be hard because the whole thing is two pages long, including the counters. And I think it would be worth making another copy, one a lot nicer my long lost xerox version.

Does this mean my PnP habit is getting out of hand?

Does this ever happen to anyone else? I was looking through my PnP files and realized I had not yet downloaded some of the files I had bought through Kickstarter.

I'd say that more than nine out of ten of the Kickstarters I back are at the PnP/PDF level. There's a very good chance that I will only make PnP pledges in 2017 as part of my goal to not buy any new games this year. PnP doesn't count :P

And there are plenty of good reasons I stick to the print and play level. Easy on the wallet and storage space. I like crafting games. And, frankly, I'm more confident on getting electronic files.

But sometimes, I lose track of them :D

Buttonshy turned out to be the one I was the worst offender on. You see, they offer black-and-white demo copies and we have a black-and-white printer. So I use those for the initial beater copies. 

So I'll already have a copy of a game made but I forgot to get the final files :D

Anyway, I just went back and downloaded five or six files that I hadn't downloaded earlier. Often because I had already made the free version :D

Friday, April 21, 2017

Okay, there is value in not thinking. Just not that much

I have often written about how there are a lot of games the take a half hour or less to play but are still rich, even deep, gaming experiences. That you can have a meaningful gaming life even with a small time budget. There are even games like the tiny auction game GEM that take about 15 minutes that for still feel like playing a middle of a game night game.

But, let's be fair, a lot of shorter games are honestly light with simple decision trees. I like games like HUE or Love Letter or Burgoo but I wouldn't choose playing them four or five times over a game of Carcassonne or Ingenious or Qwirkle. They are good games and have their place but they don't have that deep level of engagement. 

And then there are those games that really live up to the pejorative filler. Games that have super simple decision trees, sometimes practically not having a decision tree at all. Cthulhu Dice, whose sole virtue is having a neat die, or RLC, which doesn't even have that going for it, are examples of games with no decisions. Frankly, I'm not even sure if I can call them games.

But I guess those super light games do have their place. I recently read about how someone used Dragon Slayer for breaks during D&D.

Now, I found Dragon Slayer to be a meh dice game since your decisions were limited to choosing which dragon to fight since every fight was to the death. The challenge mechanic to force other players to fight one more dragon was the most interesting part. It stayed in my collection because the dice are neat and it is actually pretty thematic.

I can see how it would work well would you want something quick and, frankly, mindless. The fact that it has a fairly strong theme for such a thin game is also a plus.

That said, the game that has been my choice for quick, brainless dice game for the last few years is still Zombie Dice. More tension and, I'm not kidding, more actual decisions. It's more of a legitimate push-your-luck game. 

It's a shame that our toddler has scattered the dice all over the house :D

I will probably never stop looking for short but deeper games. Even lighter ones that  have interesting decisions are something that I will be keeping my eye out for. But I'm not really going to go looking for thought free games. But I will admit that there is value in having a few around.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

The best thing that came out of the Sorry franchise

While I have nothing against dexterity games, they aren't what I got into board games for. However, I do have some in my collection since they can be fun and you never know when someone might want to play one.

Sorry Sliders is one that has stayed in my collection by virtue of being fun, relatively easy to store and offering a variety of set ups.

The basic pieces of the game are four card board ramps, two double-sided center boards that give different scoring options, some plastic bumpers to modify the layouts and four sets of pawns to flick. The pawns are shaped like Sorry pawns but have rolling ball bearings on the bottom so they can really move.

Sorry Sliders has a number of variations but they all come down to flicking your pawns down the ramps to land on scoring sections and knock out your opponents' pawns. But, seriously, what else does it need to be?

Pretty much all you need to do to teach the game is set it up. Folks can take one look at it and understand exactly how to play. And people will want to play. Sorry Sliders there's definitely a lot of fun. I have never seen it failed to make a hit. And, like I said, I am not that into dexterity games but this is one that will never leave my collection.

It might have the Sorry theme but it really is a direct descendent of the wide family of table games that involve flicking things. 

Sorry Sliders in many ways fills the same niche as games like Crokinole or Carrom. It practically counts as a variant of Table Shuffleboard. And, let's be brutally honest, Sorry Sliders is definitely not as good as those games. Plastic sliders and cardboard just don't compare to wooden or even graphite components. Dexterity games are a category where quality components directly affect gameplay, as opposed to just making things pretty :P

But Sorry Sliders, which I am pretty sure it is still in print, costs literally a fraction of what a decent Crokinole board would cost. Let alone what a really good board cost. And that really goes for any table game that involves a big wooden frame and board.

For a gamer with a budget (and isn't that every gamer?), Sorry Sliders is a really good choice. It might not be perfect but it is a really good return for its price. It would be cool to own a hand-crafted Crokinole board but Sorry Sliders will work for me.

Wallimoppi is all about the timer

Wallamoppi is a game that has left my collection for a number of reasons but, I have to say, it did what it set out to do very well.

It is a dexterity game for two players, where you are stacking disks that are part of a pyramid wall onto the top, making the wall grow skinnier and skinnier while the tower on top grows higher and higher.

The clever bit is that the wooden box that it comes in is also a marble ramp. At the start of the game, the marble is dropped down and the first player must make their move and catch the ball before it reaches the bottom. Then they drop it back in the top and the next player must make their move and catch the marble.

And believe me, that clever bit totally makes the game. Without the marble ramp, Wallimoppi would be a rather uninspired stacking game. With it, it has a great tension that makes playing it fun and exciting.

And every time I played Wallimoppi, a good time was had by all. A couple times, I took it to parties and it saw constant play.

So why'd I get rid of it?

Space was a factor. It's not a particularly large game but the wooden shoe box shape of it made it tough to stack on the shelf. And the marble ramp could be fiddly. You had to make sure it was set up right.

But the real reason is because it's just not a game that I will play very often. And when storage is an ongoing concern, sometimes you have to make those calls. I don't play a lot of dexterity games and one for precisely two-players is even more limiting. Elk Fest scrapes in by being small and flexible (and super cute) Wallimoppi doesn't have those same advantages,

Still, as I said before, Wallimoppi does what it does very well. I wouldn't turn down a game and I'd recommend to folks who like two-player dexterity games.

Monday, April 17, 2017

What if Asimov had written Tom Swift?

Then he'd have been called Lucky Starr, Space Ranger.

I have to admit that my favorite Stratemeyer Syndicate property is Tom Swift, even though it's, at best, a distant third compared to either Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys. And that is because of the third iteration of the series, which came out in the 80s, which was clearly influenced by the works of Asimov and Heinlein.

It definitely isn't because of the original series!

One of the things that both Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys had going for them from the get go was that their ghost writers honestly tried to do better than the boilerplate formula method that was pretty much the hallmark of the series put out by the Stratemeyer Syndicate.

Not so the original Tom Swift books. The original Tom Swift fit into the flat-as-cardboard, all white, all American model that got churned out by the syndicate mill. Even worse, the plucky comic relief character of Rad Sampson is easily the most offensive racial stereotype I've seen in a Stratemeyer Syndicate. And there is competition for that tittle.

More than that, the core concept of Tom Swift does not age as well as well as teenage detectives. An all American boy and his gee whiz use of new fangled technology gets dated and obsolete fast. How fast did his first gadget, a motorcycle, get old fashioned?

(To be fair, the original series, by not pushing the envelope, did a decent job predicting future technology)

The third series was set in the definite future with colonies in space, intelligent robots and even aliens eventually. Which definitely solves that whole dated problem.

And, when I got older and actually started reading Asimov and Heinlein, I realized that whoever ghostwrote the third Tom Swift series had clearly mined Asimov and Heinlein (and probably Clarke and Niven and who knows who else) And maybe if I had been reading them before, the third Tom Swift wouldn't have the impact.

I'm pretty sure the series didn't get reprinted and it's not available as e-books so I haven't gone back and reread any of them. So I have no idea if they are actually any good or if they're actually dreadful.

But they did make an impact on me. 

Nancy Drew and Penny Parker: Separated at birth

I've been meaning to read some of the Penny Parker mysteries for
something like five years now. And I finally got around to it, reading the first one, Tale of the Witch Doll. 

My interest in Penny Parker comes from the fact that the series was written by Mildred Beson, who also wrote the first several Nancy Drew books. So, after I read Tale of the Witch Doll, I immediately read The Secret of the Old Clock, the first Nancy Drew book so I could compare the two.

This wasn't just to compare one of Benson's later works with her most famous one. You see, Nancy Drew was a product of the Stratemeyer Syndicate. That was one the earliest book packagers for children's books. 

Now, I didn't know what a book packager was until I found out about the Stratemeyer Syndicate. That isn't a publisher but an organization that supplies books for publishers. In fact, as I understand, the existence of syndicate was a a secret to the public until some lawsuits in the 70s.

Since many of their early books are now public domain, I have read a number of them, including the first series they produced, the Rover Boys. And, let me tell you, these are some of the most formulaic books you have ever seen with some of the flattest characters ever to see print.

Edward Stratemeyer and his daughters after him had very strict guidelines that their authors had to follow and they kept very tight control over the books. While I have heard their series very accurately described as extruded book product but I will say this for them. You know exactly what you get when you pick one of them up.

Honestly, I've pretty much only read them when I want to turn my brain off.

And, I will say that the Penny Parker of 1939 is a slightly deeper character than the Nancy Drew of 1930. The plot was more complex and I would even say that the book was a shade darker, not that that's saying much.

BUT I have two caveats.

One: The Secret of the Old Clock was just the start of Nancy Drew. Benson wrote over a dozen more Penny Parker mysteries but Nancy Drew would go on to be a multi-media phenomena that continuing on to this day. That's definitely something.

Two: The Secret of the Old Clock is easily the best Stratemeyer Syndicate book by a long ways. Now, I haven't read a Hardy Boys book since I was ten, so I can't compare Nancy Drew to their other big hit. Seriously, it is light years ahead of The Rover Boys at School. 

While I am sure I will read more Penny Parker, I also will read more of Benson's Nancy Drew.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Exploring the lost continent via forum

At the end of last year, I got in another game of Microscope, the quirky RPG of building a timeline. I've been meaning to do a write up about it for a while.

While this was the fifth Microscope game I've been in (two successful and two fizzled out), this was the first one I played that wasn't with my old Indie crew from back in Chicago and this was the first time I played via the Boardgame Geek Forum. Although I have corresponded with Avri, the organizer, so it's not like I was playing with complete strangers.

The theme for the game was the Lost Continent, beginning with it rising out of the ocean and ending with it being discovered.

The game also had one of the toughest restrictions I have ever had in the game of Microscope. No fantasy or science fiction elements, although dinosaurs and other extinct creatures were acceptable. The only tougher one I've played with was no colors.

In all of my previous games, we push those elements to the hilt. Heck, in one of the ones that fizzled, I was pushing to have to human/human-equivalent, instead having the dominant race basically be the Mi-Go from Lovecraft's Whisperer In the Dark.

However, unlike that crazy color restriction, no fantasy or science fiction elements was a challenge to step up to. During the course of the game, I spent a lot of time reading about paleontology and archeology in order to try to make it realistic. I even got to introduce a version of the Beaker Culture, who I always thought were neat.

There were a couple hiccups at the start, one of which was me missing that it was my turn at the start and we did have one player disappear (which is happened in other games I've played) However, once we got rolling, the game blazed along.

Seriously, I have never played in a game of Microscope that went so fast. It was awesome.

We were a little under the gun. One of the other players was expecting their first child. Which was one of the reasons (but far from the only!) another of the games I was in fizzled. But in Avri's game, the expecting father TOLD us. You know, as well as actively participating.

In my experience, if everyone gets a chance to be the lens, that is a full game of Microscope. By the time we were done, not only have we done that but we got halfway around the table again. That was awesome.

For my first experience playing an RPG by forum, exploring the history of the lost continent via Microscope was great. I would play another game organized by Avri at the drop of a hat.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Programmed Actions and the magnificence that is Shogun

I've written about how RoboRally really turned me off from the programmed action mechanic. And I have discussed Piranha Pedro redeemed the mechanic for me. But Piranha Pedro is a very light game. Is it a mechanic that heavier game could sustain for me?

Shogan showed me that the answer is a definite yes.

Here's the elevator pitch. Everyone is playing a Japanese lord (okay, a Daimyo, if you want to be specific) during the Sengoku period. (History buffs I've played with love that period in Japanese history) Over the course of the game, you strive to expand your lands, crush your enemies, and build up your infrastructure. 

I'm not even going to try to go into detail about how Shogun works. Each turn, the twelve actions you can perform are randomly shuffled and dealt out to show the order they will happen. The players chose which provinces under their control will perform an action, which could be none of their provinces.

Special note has to go to combat, which takes place via the famous cube tower. That's a tower that has baffles in it to catch cubes that get poured into it. When there is a battle, you collect all the cubes (troops) involved and pour them into the tower. The cubes that come out determine who wins the battle. It's fast and simple and really acts as the summary of rolling a whole bunch of dice.

But there's a lot more going on that just combat. You have to juggle money and food, with the peasants potentially revolting when you tax them. You have to keep expanding your lands in the name of supplies and options and points. You have to build castles and temples and theaters to strengthen your hold (and get more points)

Really, Shogun had three four of the four X's in 4X. You need to expand and exploit and exterminate. Sorry, really no exploring. And if you play Shogun like it was a Risk, you are going to lose. Just like in the real world, fighting is only one piece of what makes up war.

I'm normally an advocate for shorter games because, well, time is precious and I don't have a lot of gaming time. Shogun, at around two hours, counts as a long game for me. However, it fills that time with so many rich and difficult decisions. It has a sweeping, epic feel that makes it seem greater (not longer) than two hours.

I've been playing Shogun off and on again for years. (Basically, when I'm visiting friends who own it) Every time, I learn more twists and turns and I am still pretty much a beginner at it. Shogun took programmed actions and showed me how they could be magnificent.

Programmed Actions and how Piranha Pedro redeemed them

Piranha Pedro is the game that taught me that I could have a lot of fun with programmed actions.

My earliest experiences with programmed actions as a game mechanic were with RoboRally and that was a game that I really didn't enjoy. However, the simpler, much faster but just as unforgiving world of Piranha Pedro turned out to be a blast.

Everyone in the game is collectively moving a single pawn, Pedro, about the board. And most of the board is empty water, so Pedro needs to be able to put a stepping stone down or drown. And if he moves onto a piranha, well, that's that.

Everyone has a deck of 12 cards, showing one, two, three steps in each of the cardinal directions. On each turn, everyone secretly selects a card. Then you go around the table and see what happens. If Pedro dies horribly when you are moving him, you have to take a piranha as a penalty chip. Whoever gets two piranha first loses and everyone else celebrates their collective victory.

As an additional twist, after Pedro dies everyone's collection of stepping stones resets. But the number of stones you get is based on the cards left in your hand. The lower movement cards are worth more stones. So the more cautiously you play, the fewer stones you get to keep Pedro from drowning.

Piranha Pedro is very simple to teach and understand and plays really fast. Even with canny players, it's probably a half hour at best. And with unlucky players, it can go by a lot faster.

While it can be chaotic, it's not a luck fest. Actually, there's nothing random in the game. Everything happens because of someone's choice. So it is really a game of playing the other players. Setting up traps and trying to dodge other people's traps. Taking chances and hoping they pay off. Remember, you are not trying to keep Pedro alive. You're making sure that somebody else kills him.

I think one of the most important differences between RoboRally  and Piranha Pedro is that Piranha Pedro keeps pushing the game towards an inevitable end. The board develops as more stones get added but at the same time, as the decks run out, someone is going to slip up and send Pedro to feed the Piranha.

I will admit that I am not a huge fan of games that have only have one loser. Because it's a real bummer to be that loser :P However, Piranha Pedro it's fast and breezy enough that it doesn't really sting. But, at the same time, every decision matters.

I was quite lucky to manage to get a first edition copy of this game. And let me tell you, I'm not letting it go.

Programmed actions and how RoboRally was a bad start for me

ForI first played RoboRally during the very short time that I was living in Colorado. Just one game at a cute little game shop and this was years before I even discovered Catan or Puerto Rico. At the time, it was a strange and downright fascinating experience.

That one play was pretty much the high watermark for my experiences with RoboRally. Pretty much every game of it I've played of it since then has been unpleasant.

OK, here's the elevator pitch for RoboRally. Each player is running a robot through an obstacle course. For each turn, everyone programs the movement of their robot using cards that have different actions on them. When, not if, other people's programs mess up your plans and  damage your robot, your hand size of cards gets reduced. Whoever makes it through the course first, wins.

My problems with RoboRally comes down to this. The game never ends. Every time your robot gets destroyed, you have to start over. I have been in games in which it's been called after two hours because the end was nowhere in sight.

In particular, I dislike a rule that states that when your hand size gets smaller than the number of actions you have to perform, cards get locked into your program. So, you basically lose control of what your robot is doing. In the game this long, that is terrible. I would much rather see the number of actions you get reduced. That'd still be brutal and potentially lethal but you'd have more control.

However, to be fair, what has probably been the biggest problem has been that I have inevitably played with people who want to create the largest board possible. All of the problems that I have with the game get vastly compounded when you have a huge obstacle course to get through. 

And I've also heard that newer additions have added timers and reduced the penalty for getting destroyed.

But as it stands, my experiences with RoboRally exemplify what I don't want to see in a game. Overly long with relatively few meaningful choices. While I am always on the lookout for a shorter games that are chock-full of interesting decisions.

Would I ever give RoboRally another chance? Actually, yes. With a smaller course (maybe even just one board) and maybe a completely different group of players, I would try it. If it only took an hour, it wouldn't be such agony and maybe even fun.

Truth to tell, RoboRally kind of put me off from programmed actions for a while. However, games like Piranha Pedro and Shogun made me realize that programmed actions could be great. You just need those actions to be, well, meaningful. Particularly regarding length of the game. Piranha Pedro's actions are relatively light but it's a quick game. Shogun is longer but there is a lot more weight and meaning to your decisions.

One of these days, I should try RAMbots, the Looney Pyramid reimagine of RoboRally. Playing it out on an 8 x 8 board might be the real way for me to reassess RoboRally.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Fillers can be filled with fun

WIthOne term that I don't care for and I'm pretty sure I'll never get away from is filler, meaning a game that is shorter than X amount of time.

The reason I don't like it is that it implies that a shorter game is only good for filling time. Not everyone has shown up yet for Dungeons and Dragons? Get a filler. There's only a little bit of time left in game right? Get a filler. Waiting for your food to arrive at a restaurant? Get a filler.

Okay, I have used games for all of those things. But the term still implies scorn for shorter games. I have heard it applied to games that are shorter than fifteen minutes or shorter than two hours. Personally, if you have two hours to fill, you might want to question your lifestyle.

For me personally, a half an hour is the cut off work. If the game reasonably lasts 45 minutes, it is on its way to being the centerpiece of a short game night. Over two hours, we are on our way to a long game. And, with a busier life, those are the kind of games do you need to get scheduled ahead of time.

And, as life has gotten busier and more complicated, the amount of time that I am for gaming has shrunk. A friend of mine calls this adult responsibilities and we both agree that if you have them, you are doing something right.

Particularly with a small child, a half hour is sometimes the most that we can hope for on a game night, that is a night where Carrie and I decide to play a game after he goes to sleep.

And while there are short little games out there that are basically mindless, there are increasing number of short games the do offer a satisfying decisions in depth. And I am constantly on the hunt for more :)

So, games like that aren't games used just to make the time go by. These are the games that you help me make the best use of my time and still enjoy gaming. At least one person has suggested that the name Interlude would be a better term than Filler. And I do like that more and it describes me experiences better. But filler has proven to have strong staying power :(

Fluxx goes to school

While I appreciate Fluxx and I continue to play Fluxx, I haven't been inclined to buy a new version in quite a few years. It is interesting when they throw in some new mechanics but lets be honest. The structure and the system of Fluxx pretty much remains the same.

In fact, the two versions I've played the most, other than the original deck which I bought and played until it practically fell apart are Family Fluxx and Zombie Fluxx. Family Fluxx is the simplest version with the smallest deck so it's the easiest way to make sure you get in a quick game. Zombie Fluxx, which introduced Creepers, was the first one that really felt thematic for me.

But two of the upcoming versions of Fluxx really interest me. Math Fluxx and Chemistry Fluxx. Versions of Fluxx that are specifically designed to be educational.

(Looney Labs is also reprinting Stoner Fluxx and coming out with Drinking Fluxx under their new imprint that is specifically for older players. While neither of those topics offend me, I do like that they are under this new Fully Baked line. That seems very responsible to me and respectful of their audience)

I am very curious to see how this plays out and how well it does teaching either of these topics. Chemistry in particular. Any time you look at a game that's supposed to be educational, the two questions that you have to ask are "Is this a game I would ever want to play?" and "Does it really teach anything?"

And, yes, I'm going to wait and read reviews before I get either of those games. Although I was planning on buying no new games in 2017 so I'd be waiting until 2018 anyway.

I really am curious. While it had a reputation about being random, Fluxx really isn't a random game per se. It's not a game where you are making up rules. It is definitely not Nomic, which is _the_ game of creating rules. Instead, Fluxx has a very distinct framework and playing the game is using that framework. So it definitely has the potential to be educational.

Mind you, Nature Fluxx already tackled being educational back in 2005. I found it interesting but it didn't challenge Family or Zombie Fluxx for plays. But I think Math or Chemistry might be more suitable for Fluxx's framework.

Of course, I'm a dad now. My son is still a toddler, which means he's not ready for Fluxx. After all, you have to be able to read :P But will games like Math Fluxx or Chemistry Fluxx be educational and fun to him in the future?

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Play a card, take a chip, watch everyone else react

Flinke Pinke or Quandary or Loco or Thor or Botswana or Wildlife Safari might hold the record for most names for one Reiner Knizia game. And other than Thor, I'm pretty sure they have practically  identical rules.

I had been going to say it was also in the running for his simplest game but the super tiny dice game Katego holds that title pretty tightly. Maybe the Flinke Pinke family is his simplest game that still has solid replay value and interesting decisions :P

The game consist of five suits of cards, ranked zero through five, and sense of chips which match each suit. Most versions of the game have colors for the suits. You play by dealing out the cards. On your turn, you play a card and you take a chip which doesn't have to match the suit of the card. The game or around ends when the sixth card of a suit is played. 

At that point, each chip is worth as many points as the last card played in its suit. So, for instance, a blue chip could be worth as much as five points or as little as zero. Whoever has the most points, that would be the winner.

Finke Pinke et al has hand management, bluffing and timing. You aren't just playing your hand, you're playing the other players. Both the cards you play and the chips you take can speak volumes. Sometimes you're working with another player. Sometimes you are working to fold them.

Don't get me wrong. This is not a super deep game, hiding intricate decisions beneath it simple components. But, at the same time, it offers some interesting and even tough choices during its short playing time. I have even heard some people call it the simplest stock market game ever, although I cannot consider it the stock market game by any stretch of my imagination. (No buying and selling as part of the value adjustment)

I own both ends of the spectrum of this game. Loco with flimsy cards and plain chips (that don't even fit properly the box :D) and Quandary  that has a board and all the other pieces are Bakelite. (Really, its over the top) Oh, and I have Thor, which ends action cards. My copies is in German :P 

Finke Pinke et al is a tried and true example of how simple rules and short playing time can still lead to a full and satisfying game experience. Don't give me wrong, there's plenty of examples of that. But this game has been doing it since 1994.

The expanding meaning of family games

I don't like the terms filler or gateway game but I use them anyway. Mostly because everyone knows what they mean. (I feel the same way about Ameritrash but that seems to going nowhere and seems to becoming more of a term of endearment)

While filler doesn't seem to be going anywhere, I do feel like family game or casual game seems to be used as an alternative to gateway game. I don't think gateway game is going away but it doesn't seem to be as prominent as it used to be.

I think this is because there's been a shift in the board game audience, at least here in the US. (Meanwhile, over on the other side of the Atlantic, all this board game love is old hat)

Ten years ago in this country, I think there was more of a sense that games like Carcassonne or Catan or Ticket to Ride were steps towards getting into the hobby. A rite of passage, almost. However, as games like that have gotten more and more mainstream acceptance, games like those have become their own endpoint.

Mind you, this is clearly an evolution and expansion of the hobby, not the industry or culture on a whole. After all, there have been companies that have been targeting this market for a long time, like Out of the Box or Gamewright or, you know Hasbro or Mattel :P

I honestly think that part of what has happened is that the folks who discovered this broader world of boardgames ten, fifteen, twenty years ago are starting to have families of their own, kids are old enough to play these games. The hobby is creating this increasingly broader part of itself.

Heck, I just think about who was attending the first GenCon I ever went to and how many more kids and families I saw at the last one. The hobby is definitely changing, which is good. Extinction is what happens if you don't evolve. Unless you're a beetle. Beetles got it worked out millennia ago.

Now, if only there was another word for filler.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Campaigns versus Legacy

While I have been playing board games for years, I've been playing role playing games for decades. So, when I hear legacy game, I think campaign. You know, pushing on through a story and everything can change entirely.

And campaigns can exist in board games as well as RPGs. You can play seasons in Bloodbowl or have league play in Formula De. You can have campaigns in Descent or Memoir 44. And aren't some war games like World in Flames just one massive campaign?

But I have been told in no uncertain terms terms that a legacy game is distinct from a campaign. A legacy game requires you to actually physically change the game. Write on the pieces, rip up cards, add stickers, etc. You literally can never play the same physical copy of the same way twice.

I honestly don't know what I think about that idea. Turning a game into a disposable item doesn't appeal to me from a money management standpoint. 

Despite that, Carrie and I have discussed getting Pandemic Legacy, since we both really like Pandemic. If we're going to try out a legacy game, that'd be our best choice and it could be a fun family activity.

The only legacy game I've actually bought is We Didn't Playtest This: Legacies, which is both a parody of the idea as well as a fully functional application of the idea. (Although since Playtest was originally inspired by 1000 Blank White Cards, Legacies is really just returning to its roots... Holy cow! 1000 Blank Cards was a legacy game years before Risk Legacy was even thought of!)

Some friends of mine rent out a meeting room at a hotel every year and invite everyone they can to game there for the weekend. I've long thought that's the perfect environment for Playtest Legacies. Have a convention copy that keeps growing and changing every year.

Still, in my heart, I am a campaigner.

Two Sought Adventure

After literally years of being interested but nothing ever getting off the ground, I finally played a session on Roll20.

Roll20 is an online site that serves as an interface where you can play tabletop RPGs. Dice rolling, maps where you can move icons, dynamic character sheets, etc. All the conveniences of a game table without having to leave the house.

When we moved to Arizona, I looked into a number of options so I could keep on playing with friends back in the Midwest. While Yucatá did just a fine for board games, I've used Skype, FaceTime, email and forums to try and play RPGs. They all work but none of them really shine.

Roll20 was suggested to me but figuring out how to use it was more than I was prepared to handle on my own (particularly with an infant) However, when an old friend decided to get a game going with his disparate friends scattered over the country, I was on board. I openly admitted I was glad to have someone else do the heavy lifting.

Amusingly enough, the campaign has already had one of the problems I've seen in almost every online game I've been in that lasted more than one session. Attrition. Around a dozen people voiced interest. Eight people signed up. Four people showed up for the introduction session. And only two of us showed up for the first actual play session.

Which may very well have been for the best. The three of us (two players and DM) spent most of the session fumbling through the interface. With more people, it might have been a lot more frustrating and we might not have learned as much about how to use Roll20.

(It's a fifth edition D&D campaign and our first session basically consisted of fighting a goblin)

First of all, I had fun playing. I got to hang out virtually and the DM has been a friend for nearly twenty years. It was really good to spend time with him.

Second, actually learning how to use Roll20 is good. I can see how, once you have your macros set up so the system handles all the mechanics for you, this could be faster than face-to-face.

My current end goal with Roll20 is to run some Quiet Year later this year.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Voltage, one of Mattel's experiments

Voltage came out about ten years ago, a strange experiment by Mattel where they put out a couple games that were basically German Family games aimed at the American mass market. Voltage wasn't a bizarre experimental game. It was just in a weird experimental place.

Voltage is a two-player game where you are engineers fighting for control over a power plant that's on its last legs. Players take turns playing cards on either side of a board.  

The game is firmly in the world of Lost Cities-style play. There are four suits or colors of cards and the board has four spaces for players to make columns in each color. Players can play cards on either their side or their side. When there are five cards total, it gets score, with the current position of a plastic fuse token  determining if low or high will get the point. First player to four points wins.

(As usual, I've glossed over a lot of rules. Like players get two actions per turn, which can either be drawing or playing cards, or some cards let you flip the switch token.)

Earlier, I wrote that Voltage was an experiment for Mattel but not as a game. That's practically an understatement.  Voltage is very much a simplified/streamlined version of Balloon Cup/Piñata (yes, known both versions). Voltage has a simpler deck with the random element of the transformers that flip a token immediately. It also has a much simpler scoring system compared to Balloon Cup/Piñata's set collection system.

Between Balloon Cup/Pinata's more deeper decision tree and lower random factor, I think it is fair to say that it is a better game than Voltage. Not that Voltage is bad. It's pretty good. Just not AS good.

However, that simplicity is why I have kept Voltage. In addition to the fact that you know, I really enjoy Lost City-style games. It isn't that it's easier to teach. Frankly, Balloon Cup isn't that big a jump.

No, it is actually the _physical_ simplicity of Voltage that has made me keep it. A tiny board with a score track and four plastic tokens instead of tiles, score cards and a bag of cubes. The end result is a very small footprint with minimal housekeeping.

After all, I enjoy playing the style game to relax and mellow out. The physical elements of Voltage adding to the ease of play are really nice for that purpose. 

I have a feeling that if Voltage was released for the American mass-market audience now, it would be a lot more successful. German family games have been making definite inroads. Unfortunately, I think it came out too soon and sank.

Locke and Key: Totally worth opening

I had really waffled about getting the third tier of the recent IDW Comics bundle on Humble Bundle. But getting it would get me the full run of Locke and Key and I had heard so much good about it. So I got it.

And it was the right choice. I burned through all six volumes of Locke and Key in a few days and it was great. 

Locke and Key is the story of three siblings who move into a mansion that turns out to be full of magical keys. Which might sound like it will be like Five Children and It or Half-Magic. However, the name of the town the mansion is Lovecraft and the comic book really delivers on that promise.

Locke and Key is a blend of psychological and cosmic horror. The cosmic horror is more subdued, more of an intrinsic part of the background than something that the characters constantly confront. But it is what is really driving the plot.

A big part of the appeal and plot comes from character development. Tyler, Kinsey and Bode are all deeply damaged from the horrible incident at the beginning that leaves their father dead and their mother raped. And their healing journey includes plenty of bad choices and backsliding. Which makes their victories all the more powerful.

I was surprised to learn that Joe Hill, the author, is actually Stephen King's son. (And while he really was named after the activist :D) This has gotten me a lot more interested in seeing what else he has written.

I've tried to minimize spoilers. Which is a shame because it would've been really fun to have talked about them. :P But Locke and Key is really good, a coming of age story with magic keys and horrible monsters.