Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Heart of Ashes - RPG, coloring book and whimsy

I make a point of reading everything I can by Avery Alder McDaldno. I just came across Heart of Ashes, which I hadn't heard of. I don't know if that means it just came out or it is obscure or if I just am a bad researcher.

Heart of Ashes is a combination RPG and coloring book. The players are children who have somehow entered another world, one that is fantastical and whimsical and dark and faerie tale-like. In the past, the great sundering removed the magic from most the people of the land.

But the kids weren't there for that so they still have access to magic. Now, they have power in a world of have and have-nots, a world where the lost heart of ashes might remove all of the remaining magic.

The mechanics are beautifully simple. Roll two six-sided dice. One will determine if you succeed and the other other will determine if there are bad consequences. You decide which die is which after you roll.

There's an economy of darkness where the game master can use darkness tokens to further the bad things that are happening in the world. But they only get those tokens when the players make poor or desperate decisions. The spread of darkness comes entirely from the players choices. Which is really cool.

What really impresses me about Heart of Ashes is how clearly it is designed to be a game that you pick up and play. The rules are laid out as an instruction process and you only read the rules to the players when they come up. 

One of Alder's great skills as a designer is the ability to communicate. With the exception of Perfect:Unrevised, which I think was an early work, their games do an amazing job at helping you understand the process of the game. Even by those standards, Heart of Ashes does a great job.

Where Heart of Ashes falls short for me is that there really just isn't much there. Fifteen pages of setting and mechanics with ten more of player characters and nonplayer characters. To be fair, you can download it for free at Buried Without Ceremony and the small size does help with the whole sit down and play with no prep.

While I know the idea behind minimal settings is the be a bare bones canvass that you can paint however you want to. However, the details that we do see clearly indicate that there is more to the original vision.

I want to see the setting fully fleshed out, to really feel the world of Heart of Ashes. I want to see pages of setting and magic and pictures to color.

Basically, as it stands, I think Heart of Ashes is neat for what it does in a few pages and I would play it. But if I saw a full-sized version as a Kickstarter, I'd back it immediately and tell everyone about it.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Starting at Web of Power and going so much further

While Michael Schacht has designed a lot of games I like, the Web of Power/China family is my favorite. One the the purest area of control games, very tight conflicts and it plays out in under an hour.

It's had at least three different published forms: Web of Power, China and Han. On top of that, Michael Schacht has offered additional maps on his website. Personally, I found the subway map to be strangely hard to process :D

Elevator pitch: the different maps show various regions that have spaces connected by paths. Players play cards to place either forts on the spaces or diplomats on region markers, then draw cards Ticket to Ride style. (Although it predates Ticket to Ride) You get points by fort majorities, forts in a row and the diplomats score by majorities BETWEEN regions. 

Trust me, that elevator pitch glosses over tons of stuff. Basically, you play cards to place pieces and try take over areas. 

What makes the system really tick is scarcity. You have a limited number of pieces. There are a very limited number of spaces on the board for those pieces. And since most of the cards are for two regions (every map I've seen has one big regions with its own cards), cards are scarce as well. The economy of the game is very tight. Every card you play can be played in many different ways but you only get to do one of them and it's never enough.

While there is a strong tactical element to the game, since you cant control what cards come up and other players are going to do their best to mess up your plans, there's a strong strategic element to Web of Power/China. You need to go in with a plan or you'll get crushed, just make it a flexible one. 

I first discovered Web of Power on BSW back in 2003 or 2004, including some speed games that played out in less than five minutes. I picked up China as soon as it came out. And I get in online games on Schacht's own site. I've had years of fun with this family of games and that doesn't sound like it will end anytime soon.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Milestones in character's lives

As I grow older, I have found that I have become more and more of a fan of milestone advancement in RPGs. It makes more narrative sense and makes for much easier bookkeeping. And, frankly, I would rather save bookkeeping for real life and board games like Le Havre :P

This came up twice recently. Once with the mutual agreement to use
milestones in our fifth edition campaign on Roll20 and second when discussing Shadow of the Demon Lord that some other friends are thinking of running as a summer campaign. As I understand it, Shadow has the group, not individual characters, have levels with every session as an adventure and leveling at the end each one. (If I'm wrong, sorry) 

One of the things that I didn't care for in first and second addition Dungeons and Dragons was that every class had its own experience chart. It made the bookkeeping more confusing and it also created a real disparity between classes. Yeah, becoming a high level wizard really was an impressive thing to pull off but, considering the years of frustration that it took to do it, small wonder so many high-level wizards in any given setting were insane and evil.

One of the many things that I really liked about third edition was how everyone just shared the same experience chart. In part of how they did that was by also leveling the power disparity of classes. And while I did have a lot of fun with fourth edition, I do think that they went too far leveling the playing field there. 

However, the real appeal in milestone advancement is narrative. Gaining a level becomes a natural part of the story. You don't learn new spells or new sword techniques in the middle of a fight, not unless you're in something like Dragonball Z. Gaining a level becomes a reward for accomplishing something, as oppose to a reward for grinding.

And, as I have grown older, the narrative part of role playing games has become more important to me. You can blame those indie games.

I do realize that there are some systems milestones won't work with. The original TSR Marvel system uses karma for advancement and for bennies. It's a game where you spend those points in the middle of a fight to do something new. But that system has incremental advances as oppose to a big level.

When I first heard of milestone advancement, it completely through me off. It wasn't what I was used to, it wasn't the paradigm I had grown accustomed to. However, in practice, it makes perfect sense.P

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

My Print and Play May

I had high hopes for PnP projects in May but I didn't end up going as crazy as I thought I would. Really, it's for one major reason. Printer ink :P While switching to laser instead of ink jet has made our ink dollar go a lot farther, I still don't want to make art heavy projects will nilly.

Despite that, I still have a few games that are either made or in the process of getting made.

After not looking at it for years, I have been looking at the website Good Little Games again. (It's at by the way) It's a collection of free prints and play games that are by publish designers, although some of the games have gone on to actually get  published.

I started with Combo, since it was just two pages of cards with no extra components and I figured the toddler could mess around with it, even if he wasn't ready to get all the rules yet. Frankly, it has the feel of a pre-Love Letter micro game. Which is to say, very simple without challenging ideas or mechanics.

But that has led me to start working on Good Little Trains, which looks to be a much more interesting game. It's not really a train game. Instead it's a salesman dilemma game where you are rearranging a maze to visit different spots. But it looks promising.

And it is a compromise with myself over another game PnP project I keep looking at, Country Trains. The idea of combining Carcassonne with pick-up-and-deliver is very appealing. (I don't count South Seas as pick-up-and-deliver although I do like it) But, despite being around for years, Country Trains has had very little commentary and a lot of that has been meh. Heck, I don't think the files are on BGG anymore, although I have them downloaded.

And, really, between games like the Great Heartland Moving Co and BUS and DIG, I already have light pick-up-and-deliver games. I'm sure I'll eventually cave and make Country Trains but I think that Good Little Trains will prove a better game.

Outside of Good Little Games, I'm planning on making a laminated board for Village Run, a tiny little race game whose biggest claim to fame is that you just have to print out one piece of paper to make it. It's pretty much a random first but I do like the random power up element, giving it a faint hint of Mario Kart. The toddler is getting close to be old enough for it, which is the real reason to try it.

And, part of my recent spike in interest about Michael Schacht let me learn that there are some PnP versions of Don and I'm making one. Don't know when I will get it played, since it requires at least three players, but it seems well worth making.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Patricians: Building towers and memories

Patrician is not one of my favorite Michael Schacht games. However, it was a watershed game for me as far as his designs are concerns. And, even though I don't consider it to be one of his greats, it is still a pretty fun game and one that has stayed in my collection.

In Patrician, you are competing to build towers in Renaissance Italy. The theme is pretty thin. You could just as easily be building sky scrapers in US cities or rockets in the moon or just abstract symbols. 

The two-to-four player board shows nine cities while the five-player board has ten. Each city has a distinctive crest of arms, two spots for towers, two spots for scoring tokens and a space for a card. Every card had a city crest on it, showing which city it will let you build in. In addition, every card has another symbol, giving some of a bonus. These include a second crest of the same city for another build, the power to draw a card from any city, the power to move the top piece of a tower and patrician heads which are worth points at the end. Everyone gets tower blocks in their own color, which are slotted so they can stack up without slipping.

Game play is very simple. Play a card. Place a tower block in one of the spaces in the matching city and take the face-up card from that city. Each city has a number over the city crest to show how many tower blocks can be in it, which is also the number of its higher score token. Going through the deck will complete every city.

When a city is full, you score it. Whoever controls the higher tower gets the higher score token and the shorter tower gets the lower token. There's an odd number of blocks allowed in each city so there will always be a higher tower. Whoever has more blocks in a tower controls it with the top block being the tie breaker.

At the end of the game, when every city is full, players also get points for having sets of heads from the cards they played. And, of course, whoever has the most points wins.

I was initially interested in Patricians because of the stacking towers. So I picked it up and tried it as a two-player where it fell flat. Not enough tension, too easy to do what you wanted to do. So Patricians went to the back of the closet to gather dust.

Months later, Patricians was one of the games Mayfair was running as part of their ribbon quest at Origins so I played it with five players. And it was so much better. With five people, the board was so much smaller and there was so much more struggle to control the board and get any points. Since then, I've played it with three and four as well and it was good at those numbers too.

So, they should have just put three-to-five players on the box.

As it turns out, stacking towers up isn't really what makes Patrician interesting. It is the very simple decision tree that ends up being intriguing when your simple decisions collide with everyone else's. Patricians has a simple but almost hypnotic rhythm, playing a card while knowing what card you will be taking, plotting out your moves to the entire table.

Patrician sits in a weird place for me. It's a bit too long and set up is a bit too involved to be a game I just plunk down at the drop of a hat. At the same time, its not as long or as heavy as, say, Ticket to Ride or Carcassonne, a game that could be the centerpiece of a quiet game night. So it never came out that much back with the old game group, although everyone liked it when it did.

However, what Patricians really did for me was have me look up who made it. And then I looked up what else this Michael Schacht guy had done. That's when I realized I had been playing his games for years.

Patricians did not make me a Michael Schacht fan. It made me realize I was one.

Thanks for the fun movies, Sir Roger Moore

Sir Roger Moore died today. Wow. I know he was 89, which, as I get older, I don't like to think of as that old, but that still counts as a full life.

I know Moore did a lot of acting, including becoming famous as The Saint but, for me, James Bond was his defining role. I think Roger Moore, I think James Bond.

He was not my favorite Bond. That's a toss up between Moore and Craig. They played more visceral Bonds, James Bond the Assassin. Roger Moore had the lighter, happier James Bond. He was James Bond the Super Hero.

I know it's fun to belittle the Roger Moore era because it was more silly with more wacky quips and over-the-top gadgets. But, come on. Seven films over twelve years. Moore helped define not just James Bond but the whole pop culture concept of a secret agent.

Sir Roger Moore's time as James Bond was just plain fun.

And he wasn't that much of a goody two-shoes. He still had a small war's body count :D

I am not even close to being an expert or aficionado of James Bond. Other folks are going to do a much better job looking at Roger Moore's time as Bond, let alone the rest of his life and career. But I just had to say thanks for those fun movies. 

Monday, May 22, 2017

The clicking of a campaign

Over the last couple months, I've been part of an online D&D (Fifth Edition) campaign, one that has the specific aim that everyone who is involved has a life full of adult responsibilities. Which means we only play for a couple hours and we have an irregular schedule. We're also spread out over three different time zones.

The other night, we had our fourth session, counting the introduction session where the DM introduced us all. (All of the players are from different campaigns he ran in the past. I'd like to think this is a greatest hits campaign :D) And that session is where things really clicked. 

Clicked as far as the game is concerned. As far as everyone getting along and having fun, we had that down from day one. But the first couple sessions were basically spent trying to get to grips with the Roll20 interface and each one was basically a minor combat apiece.

Session number four, we finally had a working knowledge of how to use the interface. We also started to do the basic D&D 101 experience, a dungeon crawl. The familiarity and simplicity of that helped us move things along. And the characters' personalities started to come out.

I now know the core concept of my fighter's personality, which is sacrifice. He is always first in battle and will do his best to define the front but not for glory or valor. His whole schtick is to protect everyone else, no matter the cost. Now that that has solidified as a motivation, I know what to do in any given situation. And I think everyone else is in a similar position.

Campaign are fragile creatures. They can break or fizzle out so easily. But now, we have a sense of ourselves as a group, which is a big step.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Visiting Michael Schacht's site

Back when we became parents and moved across the country at the same time, I made a decision to cut my online gaming sites down to Yucatá. I didn't have the time or focus to play games on a bunch of different sites. Yucatá, between having a wide selection of games and a great community that includes some of my face-to-face friends, was the perfect choice for me.

Since then, the only site that has slipped back into regular rotation for me is Super Duper Games, home of obscure and curious abstracts. Seriously, between its perpetual beta status and unique selection of games you've never heard of, it is like nothing else on the web or face-to-face life.

However, I will go to other sites for the purpose of trying specific games. For instance, I went back to SpielbyWeb to try out Reef Encounter in order to find out if I should keep my hard copy. (The answer was a giant yes)

My recent musing about Michael Schacht made me decide to go back to boardgames-online, his personal site to play his games. After all, so many of his games really need at least three players to either shine or just play.

It is actually quite a nice site. It has good interfaces that are easy to use and it has a surprisingly wide selection of his games. The only thing I can knock about it is that it doesn't have the largest community, which I think is of the most important thing for an online gaming site and the most difficult thing for one to achieve.

Although Michael Schacht himself will show up and play games, which is pretty darn awesome.

Keeping to my original plan of not spending too much time playing board games online, I'm planning on playing only one or two games at a time at the site. My need to make sure that I have a good time management hasn't gone away.

Although my original plan of just playing a couple games and then leaving the site might get adjusted because there are games there I don't know and it would be fun to learn them.

This is just one more of the many examples in my experience of Michael Schacht being a ninja game designer. Despite winning awards, he doesn't seem to have his own call to personality. However, he makes really good games.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Tenure or an eldritch roach in my head?

I am pretty sure that my experiences with Jason Morningstar's designs started with Shab-al-Hiri Roach. He's designed Fiasco, which I consider to be one of the most important indie RPGs, and Gray Ranks, which is an amazing and disturbing design. But before that, in his career and my exposure to his career, there was Shab-al-Hiri Roach.

Shab-al-Hiri Roach is narrative-based and GM-free RPG, which puts it squarely in what has increasingly become my interests. Although I played it before I got into those kind of games :D

In the game, the players are all faculty in a New England university in 1919. Underneath the genteel veneer of polite society is a seething pit of jealousy and rivalry. Over the course of several scenes, the players will engage in social conflicts, risking their reputations in order to increase those same reputation. 

Oh, and there's a Lovecraftian roach from ancient Sumeria who can empower and damn the players in its own quest to spawn and spread its malignant influence.

If you accept the roach or are possessed by it, you get some big bonuses. That little Cthulhu cockroach will give you some considerable mechanical advantages. BUT you can't win the game no matter high your reputation is if you are still possessed by the roach. And getting rid of that little eldritch abomination will require luck and sacrifice.

In my one experience with Shab-al-Hiri Roach, just about every last one of us caved in and gave in to the roach. The winner ended up being humiliated and forced to leave the university in shame and disgrace but, by golly, he won because he didn't give in to the temptation of the roach. 

It was a hoot.

Shab-al-Hiri Roach Is not one of the great indie games. Fiasco, which is an obvious comparison since it's also by Jason Morningstar, has slightly simpler rules, tighter relationship rules and the flexibility to be used with any setting. Shab-al-Hiri Roach doesn't just tell a specific type of story but a specific story. I'd play it again cheerfully but I wouldn't form a group to play it over and over again.

But it's still a fun game, in huge part due to the theme. For me, it's like a mashup of Lovecraft and Wodehouse (which, I know, has been done plenty of times) The concept, while it could be straight up horror, really lends itself to hysterical black comedy.

I view Shab-al-Hiri Roach as the promise of greater games to come in Morningstar's work but it's still fun on its own.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

From Coloretto to Zooloretto and beyond

The Coloretto family will probably be Michael Schacht longest lasting legacy. And I don't just say that because it includes at least six standalone games and more expansions than I can keep track of. I believe that because Schacht took the simple framework of the original Coloretto game and added a super family-friendly theme and a couple more mechanics to create Zooloretto and all the games and expansions that followed. When he did that, he developed a game perfect for the wider family audience.

The core mechanic of the family is a variation of I cut and you choose. You can either draw a card or tile to add it to a group or take a group to make sets with. Your three best sets are worth happy, positive points. All the rest give you negative, sad face points.

I got Coloretto when it first came out, as you might guess from all the gray in my beard and the fact that I sometimes have to use a cane. And my initial experiences were terrible. I played with a group that focused on spite. The goal wasn't to get the most points but to bring the pain to everyone else.

After that, I did play games where people focused more on points than pain but Coloretto still didn't have that sing for me. Which was a real shame since it was and still is one of the most colorblind friendly color-based games ever.

When Zooloretto came out, it added a theme, slightly more complicated choices and an extra kind of action, the coin actions. It's still easily the lightest of the Schacht board games that won't be leaving my collection but those changes added charm and diversity to the game and those things made a huge difference.

As far as I know, Zooloretto has never been out of print and I've seen it in stores like Target aimed at the mainstream audience. I know it has been the real source of expansions and spinoffs and that my life would be better if I played Aquaretto. It is a game that has had success with both the broader audience and the serious gamer audience.

Zooloretto isn't my favorite Schacht game. (Hi, Web of Power family) However, I think it is the one that will go the farthest in the world.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

An American on Paris Paris

Paris Paris is a fairly simple game that took me a strangely long time to wrap my brain around. I'm going to use the excuse that learning it online at BSW and being colorblind made it harder. On the other hand, once I got my own copy, it made a lot more sense. (I bought it during my compulsive game buying phase but it has stayed in my collection)

Michael Schacht seems to have a knack for themes (Seriously, running your own zoo would seem a lot more unusual if Zooleretto and its family wasn't such a staple. And, yes, I know O Zoo Le Mio did it first) Paris Paris is up there, being all about setting up tourist shops along tour bus routes.

Which is kind of funny since that's a pretty reasonable idea. Just not one that you think of with board games.

The board shows a map of Paris with different colored bus routes, each one with several stops along it. Through out the game, there will be small tours, where one stop will be scored, and grand tour's where every stop on the route will be scored. At the start of the game, everyone gets a secret color. That route will get a grand tour at the end of the game.

Each round, tiles with stops on them are set out, one more than the number of players. You take turns taking tiles and placing shops at that stop. There's a small tour at the leftover stop and the tile gets put to one side. When you get two tiles of the same color, you discard them and that route has a grand tour.

You can kick someone off of a spot and put your own shop up but whoever loses the most shops will get points for them at the end.

When you score a stop in either kind of tour, the shops at the stop or, if there aren't any, at the closest stop get a point. When you run out of tiles, you have those secret grand tours. Most points wins.

While Paris Paris is not a complex game, I think I had to really play it face to face to see how the process really worked. Moving the physical pieces let me understand the flow of the game. Playing it live made everything click. The game has a natural cadence that playing it live really brings out.

And while the game is simple, there is some nuances to the decisions. While you will always take a stop that is on the intersection of two routes, you also have to consider blocking your opponent's from getting stops. And what you don't take influences what will end up getting scored and that's a big deal.

That said, Paris Paris is not a game for everyone. It is definitely a game for families, not for serious gamers. (Of course, serious gamers are allowed to have families too :P) If you are looking for complex systems and point salads, Paris Paris will not fit that bill. It's an old school German Family Game. It will play out in an under an hour with plenty of interaction and light decisions. Great for family play.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Reminded again why I like Michael Schacht

Since my lifestyle has made shorter games, half an hour to an hour, a lot more desirable, I've found myself thinking that Michael Schacht has become one of my ideal game designers.

Seriously, Web of Power/China, Hansa, Paris Paris, Hansa, Zooloretto, Patrician and California are all standbys in my collection and fit that time bill. While I know Schacht has made heavier games, for me, he is a master of quirky, medium light games that are engaging and thought provoking.

Unlike Knizia or Kramer or Teuber, I didn't have a sense of Schacht as a designer for a while. However, thanks to Paris Paris and Web of Power being on BSW, he was part of my initial gaming experiences.

His games kept finding their way into my gaming experiences and collections (and I don't think I have ever culled one of his games out of my collection) but it wasn't until Patrician that I put together how many games I liked were by him. Which is kind of ironic because I would say that it's the weakest of my personal Schacht collection.

Unfortunately for me at the moment, pretty much all of his games in my collection either play better with three or more or flat out need three or more. And we're currently a gaming group of two :D

Still, one way or another, be it the toddler getting old enough or finding other parents who game, we will be three or more again. And then, these games will shine.

Friday, May 12, 2017

My slow crawl with King of Siam

The King of Siam has interested me ever since it first came out. A brain burning game of area control that only has eight actions? That appeals to me on so many levels.

But, one way or another, I never did get a hold of a copy. To be honest, I'm not sure it was available for that long in the US. But when I had a chance to play it on Yucatá, I jumped at the chance.

Here's the elevator pitch: In 1847, three different factions tried to take control of Siam with the danger Britain taking over the whole country if things got too chaotic. The board shows the eight provinces of Siam. At the start of the game, you randomly add followers (in the form of cubes) to the provinces, as well as determine what order the provinces will be determined. Each one will go to the faction who has the most cubes in it but fall to Britain if there's a tie.

Each player has eight cards that allow them to do some kind of action, like add cubes, rearrange cubes or change the province card order. After you take the action, you get to grab one cube from the board. So, yes that means that you are weakening the faction you are backing. You can also pass. If everyone passes in a row, the next province in a row gets determined.

The game ends when either every province is determined or Britain takes over four of them. In the former case, whoever holds the most cubes of the faction that has the most provinces wins. If Britain has taken over, whoever has the most sets of all three colors wins.

That might sound pretty simple but the game is shockingly complex in practice. There's a lot going on and you are basically fighting on eight different fronts at once. And if you neglect the provinces that later in the row, it will come back and bite you. Even passing at the right time can be a powerful action.

I particularly like how no faction belongs to anyone. Everyone is using them to try and support their own play. Some situations that you set up may help someone else more.

I first tried to play it in Yucatá back in 2012. And I did not understand the game at all. Oh, I knew what each action did but how to put it all together so that I can actually play or compete, no idea.

Now and then over the next few years, I would dabble with the King of Siam but I never put enough at one time to really get it. I do suspect that I would've had lot less of a learning curve if I had been playing it face-to-face.

But this year, I decided to make the King of Siam one of the games that I would try and get at least ten plays in. And now, at long last, things are starting to click. I'm not saying that I know how to win yet but I do finally see the big picture.

And wow. I sort of knew all along that the game was brilliant but now I know it's brilliant. I am going to keep on striving with it and it is totally worth that effort.

I also just learned that the King is Dead is actually a retheme of the King of Siam and it is cheaper than the King of Siam ever was. The new theme doesn't interest me nearly as much but it seriously tempts me to break my pledge of not being games this year.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Can't outrun the hippos

We knew that Hungry Hungry Hippos was inevitable. We knew that there was no way for it to not end up in our house. Every time we saw in a store, the doodle wanted it and we couldn't tear him away the time he got to play a demo copy. So, when we saw a copy at Goodwill, we gritted our teeth and bought it, telling ourselves that at least we weren't buying it at brand new prices.

Hungry Hungry Hippos, for that one guy in the back who has come out of the cave they've spent the last few decades in, is a toy or game where you use lever activated hippo heads to scoop in marbles from a shallow bowl. Whoever gets the most marbles wins. There's a variant where getting the one yellow marble wins the game.

In all honesty, I have problems thinking of Hungry Hungry Hippos as a dexterity game or even a game. The only decision in it is timing and even that might not make a difference in your gameplay. 

And, of course, the toddler loves the silly thing. He will literally bang out game after game with it. And he does play it by the rules, although there's really only one and it's a simple one. Hit them levers.  Mind you, he could follow that one rule when he was exposed to the game back when he was two.

What really drives my 'meh' factor with Hungry Hungry Hippos is that there is no learning factor in it. With games like Don't Spill the Beans or Animal Upon Animal, kids get to practice hand eye coordination. Matching games teach memory and deduction. Heck, even Tic Tac Toe teachers analytical thinking and Candyland teaches counting in colors. Hungry Hungry Hippos really gives a kid nothing to think about.

Still, the doodle does have fun with it, it is something to occupy him when he gets manic, and it teaches the all important lesson that games are fun and a great activity :P

P. S. We both had Hungry Hungry Hippos when we were tiny kids and we both agree that the newer version with the thicker but softer plastic is both more durable and quieter. So that's a real plus with this version.

Our latest thrift

While I have pledged not to buy any new games this year (other than PnP files, which includes Kickstarter) for myself, games for the toddler don't count. And, over the last few days, we've ended up taking some home from Goodwill for him.

As far as Daddy is concerned, the real prize is a copy of Junior Labyrinth. Thick, chunky tiles, including the treasure discs, it will put up with some abuse. And while the board is smaller than the original version, it still has all the same great mechanics.o

And, of course, the doodle hasn't been interested in it :P Mind you, he has several years before he officially outgrows it.

We also got some Frozen (tm) dominoes, which I thought would be a good way to start teaching him basic domino skills. But it's missing one and he decided he'd rather play with Mommy and Daddy's Mexican Train set. 

Eh, it's still a step :D

No, the third and last game, Hungry Hungry Hippos is the massive success :P I'm not even sure I can call it a dexterity game. The one plus I'll say for it is that he has no problems playing it by the rules. Or
Maybe that should just be rule.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Toddlers and the tablets of Babylon

As I have slowly been letting go enough to let our toddler play with some of Daddy's games, Bruno Faidutti's Babylon has come out to play. Since it consists of twelve sturdy plastic tablets and nothing else, it'll take some serious effort for him to break any of it.

I picked Babylon up about five years ago, in large part because it had come across my radar so much as a minimalist game. Back in 2003, having only twelve total pieces was a selling point (although I can think of other games with less that predated it) In fact, most of for Faidutti's comments about it seem to be about how small it was. When the guy who designed it focuses on the novelty element, you know the gameplay isn't that strong.

The tablets come in four different colors and the game starts out with them all just sitting out. On your turn, you combine two stacks tablets. They either have to be the same height or be the same color on top. First person who can't make a move loses.

Babylon is a ridiculously quick game, even by the standards of fillers. The official playing time is five minutes and two minutes is  more accurate. More than that, although I have gone out of my way to not find out how, the game has been solved. 

So basically, Faidutti invented an alternative to Tic Tac Toe.

I got the game when I saw it at the GenCon auction hall all those years ago for the gee whiz factor and intellectual curiosity. Even though I knew I could cobble together a functional version of the game with poker chips or Looney Pyramids in fifteen seconds, I knew that the presentation factor of the authentic tablets was the only way I'd get the Babylon played.

Heck, not only did I know I needed the tablets to interest other people, I knew I'd be a lot more interested myself.

While Babylon isn't a great game and might even be a flawed and broken game, it still has some interest for me. I am amused by how it has a syntax built on two terms, hence the whole Babel connection. There is a variation where it is a move to add tablets to the playing field, which allegedly unsolves it. Plus, it's a quick and easy time filler that isn't dice or cards.

But it's the toy factor that really got it into my collection, kept in my collection (along with the tiny size) and has it seen regular use since the toddler likes playing with them and stacking them up.

And, while he's still not clear about the rules (being able to stack stacks of the same size still alludes him), I am working on teaching him the actual game of Babylon to him. It is looking like it will be part of his introduction to abstracts. And, given its tactile nature, it might be perfect as one of a toddler's first abstracts.

I don't think Bruno Faidutti intended to make Babylon as a toddler game. I'm pretty sure it was just an exercise in minimalism. However, I think it's real value in my gaming life with be alongside Tic Tac Toe and Connect 4 and whatever I decide to first teach the kid with Looney Pyramids.


Monday, May 8, 2017

An unspoiled game about building a community

Our Life by the Ocean is both a sweet and interesting little narrative RPG and one that I have a lot of trouble commenting on.

That is because it is a GM-free game with hidden information from all the players until a turning point in the game. Yes, I cheated and looked ahead. Frankly, I'm not sure how anyone 'hosting' the game can avoid doing that. 

Having said that, I think that the game can still be effective if the host still commits to the game. I do think that the game will have the maximum impact if as few as people as possible have cheated though.

It is a super simple storytelling game, where you use a tiny deck of relationship cards to establish a community. Who everyone is and how they relate to each other.

Then, you use story cards to develop the community. With every card, you vote on who was the most entertaining and they get the card.

And that is about all I can really say about the mechanics of Our Life by the Ocean.

The game has a definite Norwegian feel for me. The goal is to create a realistic, not fantastic community, grounded in the emotions of the players. While I already know some folks who wouldn't handle this game well, one way or another, I also know that it would work really well for some folks.

And I think that there are some very interesting details in the mechanics that are subtle but would play out very well. In fact, while I think the game would have the most impact on its first playing, when folks no all the mechanics, I think it still would actually be rewarding to replay. As long as folks are willing to commit, the game should work.

So much to my amazement, it's listed as having a 15 to 30 minute playing time. Man, with people who I would want to play with back in the Midwest, even with the incredibly light rules, I can't imagine playing this in 15 minutes.

I have looked at a ton of tiny role-playing games, ones that are only a couple pages long. Our Life by the Ocean, with only two pages of rules and a few pages of cards, is a remarkably complete game. I am very seriously considering how hard it would be to play a game of it on Google hangouts.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Oh, is that how an official rondel works?

A little while back, I wrote about rondel games. In particular, I wrote about how I really had no idea what they really were. Then the official series of rondel games, there did not seem to be a consensus about what a rondel really was.

That was when I decided that I needed to try one of the official roundel games out. Since Antike Duellum is on Yucatá, that was how I decided to find out how they really work.

It will take me some more plays before my thoughts on Antike Duellum are settled enough for me to write about the game. However, if this is what a rondel is really supposed to be a like, then none of the games I have played that have been labeled as rondel really count. :D

Which is not to say that they were bad games. Finca, for instance, is a game I really love and I hope it comes back in print so more people get to play it. What it really means is that people throw the term rondel around too much. :P

Anyhow, the rondel in the only game I've tried so far is a series of different actions on a circular track, looking like a pie graph where everything is worth the same. You can move it up to three spaces for free and then you pay for every space after that.

What really surprised me is that the other players position on the rondel affect you in anyway. It is really just a way of limiting choices and making sure you don't do the same thing over and over again.

At least for Antike Duellum, this was actually a good system. While the individual moves are simple, they add up to complicated gameplay. The rondel helps keep things organized.

Anyway, you don't need a rondel to be a good game and not every circle track is a rondel. So far, I'm having fun with Antike Duellum but I don't need to run out and play every rondel game.

Toddler steps with games

The Sneaky, Snacky Squirrel Games have become a staple in our house. The box has a simple dexterity game and what basically amounts to a simplified Slap Jack but our toddler has not only enjoyed the games but played them by the rules.

The Snacky Squirrel Game just involves moving rubber acorns around plastic tree stumps using squirrel-shaped forceps and following the instructions of a spinner. The only interaction in the game comes from getting to steal from other players. 

Frankly, other than giving the toddler some hand eye coordination practice, the best thing that I can say about it is that it is really cute. It's no Don't Spill the Beans, let alone Animal Upon Animal. But the doodle has fun with it.

I'm more pleased with the Sneaky Squirrel Game, which is basically a very simplified Slap Jack. Yes, I really just wrote that. You set out separate stacks of acorn cards, organized by color. Then you goal cards, showing specific colors or any color or the option of stealing someone else's card. Whoever slaps the appropriate stack gets a card and a point.

It is still a really simple game but I think it does a good job introducing pattern recognition and reaction time as game mechanics. It isn't a challenging game but it gives our toddler the experience and tools to play more challenging games in the future.

While there are some kids games that are interesting and even challenging for adults as well, I can't say that for either of these games. I have a feeling that he will be bored with them in a couple years at the longest. But for now, they are good for him.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Okay, you can play with Daddy's Looney Pyramids

Our son has often wanted to play with Daddy's games, even though it makes Daddy turn pale and shake. At first, I just let him play with some of my dice games, although I may never find all the dice from Zombie Dice :'(

But I have been trying to expand what games I'm exposing him to as he grows older, not counting the actual games that we bought specifically for him and he can actually kind of play by the rules. (The snails only moving one space at a time in Snail's Pace Race still alludes him. Those are some rocket snails)

And I finally took the scary (for me) plunge of letting him play with some Looney Pyramids. He's never been one to put thing other than food in his mouth and, at three, I can trust him to play with the moderately pointy bits under supervision.

Of course, I am not going to let him play with my Zendo set or Ice Towers for that matter. I have too many extra pieces in those, along with the fact that I want to make sure that I keep all those pyramids together.

Ice Dice proved to be a good compromise. Soft cloth bag, five different colors of pyramids. (I forgot I also added a Treehouse set in matching colors so the bag lets me play a wide variety of light games. I can see this little bag coming in even more handy with our son in a few years), as long as you can count on the toddler not to try to swallow a pyramid or throw them behind furniture, they are very interactive. You can discuss colors. You can discuss sizes. You can stack them in a variety of ways.

The pyramids have long been my favorite product from Loony Labs. Right now, with our three-year-old, they are really just toys. But we will be able to work up to simple games like Thin Ice or Tic Tac Doh, with Treehouse or Ice Dice waiting in the wings. And, farther down, I can see deeper games like Zendo or Volcano waiting for us.

The Looney Pyramids can make a toddler think but they have the potential to burn the brains of 40-year-olds.

Lost Cities as a reference point

I can't seem to escape Lost Cities :D I was recently talking with an old gaming buddy and we began discussing low key, easy to teach two-player games. And Lost Cities inevitably came up.

While we both agreed that Lost Cities has been superseded in our own experiences, it's place as the go-to couples game/girlfriend game/ room mate game/ etc seems to be still going strong.

Personally, I would rather reach for Morels or Jaipur or Battle Line, just to name a few. Lost Cities no longer interests me but boy did I play a ton of it in years past. I can't think of a lot of games that got as much play for me.

While it is now the poster child for the style of game, Lost Cities certainly didn't create the niche. I have absolutely no idea what game you could give credit for doing that. I can see arguments for games like checkers, which means that casual two-player games go back to the dawn of time.

The worlds of two player games is a different than multi-player ones.  The games that you play with only one other person are different than the ones you play with a group. 

And it is such a diverse world as well. Classic abstracts like Go or Chess, not to mention the vast majority of modern abstracts. Two player war games are the rule, not the exception. And that's not counting casual games like Lost Cities.

My own world of gaming has been increasingly focus on two player games. I may not be playing Lost Cities right now, but in many ways, it has become my guiding light.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

How do I measure print and play

Years ago, I remember hearing Kevin Smith say that superhero films were no longer allowed to be B grade pictures or two hour commercials. That we could reach the point where they had to live up to the standards of other genres. That idea has stayed with me.

And I realize that I have held that standard for the past several years to micro games. Being small and having a short playing time isn't enough. A game needs to be a good game and being a micro game isn't an excuse.

But as I have been crafting a lot of print and play games, I find myself wondering if I hold them to that same standard.

Now, a lot of the files that actually make the cut of actually being made are ones I paid for and are from actual companies, which hopefully means that they have gone through rigorous development and play testing. And I do hold those games to the same standard that I would hold any other.

But what about the free stuff?

Well, if making games is your hobby and part of that is putting them out there as free PnP, you know what? I'm not going to be as rough on you. That might be part of the development process and I might be part of the play testing process. 

China Moon and Zombie in My Pocket started out this way. I have seen some Kickstarters start off as free prints and plays to both gauge interest and refine the game. 

What I am really saying is that these games do you end up getting treated differently because they are coming from a different place and, in fact, might be part of the process of developing a game that I am going to be much more rigorous in judging.

Although, having said that, I also have to admit that I am much less likely to make one of these games, although there are some gems, like Micropul, the super easy to make tile laying game that really could.

Which in turn, is a big step in my print and play experience. It started off as an amusing a little diversion but now I am looking for games that I will seriously play.

Pondering Universal Rule before I even play

I recently finished making a copy of Universal Rule from ButtonShy. Since it doesn't play down to two, it will be a while before I play it but I am quite curious about it.

It bills itself as a 4X game, which works if you're willing to count combat as extermination. If you house rule wiping out all of a player's planets, then exterminate would be more realized. (Really, classic 4X exterminate means colonial style genocide) But that would turn the game into pile on the first person to show weakness so maybe we don't need that much extermination.

Mechanically, it's a skinny deck Race for the Galaxy with Cosmic Encounter's combat. And that's where the rub might well be. Race for the Galaxy is one of the best games I've played and Cosmic Encounter is a multi-generational classic. 

In particular, Universal Rule and Race for the Galaxy take about the same amount of time. And if you leave the box behind, Race won't take up much space in a courier bag or backpack or the like. So Universal Rule's size advantage really just makes a difference if you're limited to your coat pocket. (Which to be fair, I sometimes have been)

I suspect that, if Universal Rule is to break into regular game rotation, the selling point will be in the combat. Since it is resource heavy, you're going to have to work your way up to attacking someone but everyone at the table gets involved and it can be worth a hefty six points. So when combat happens, it's going to be a big deal.

Universal Rule actually runs into an issue that I don't often to see in micro games, which is that the small size of the game might interfere with the complexity of the game. Adding another card as a player aide, that would solve that though and the instructions include that.

It also runs into the issue of being a micro game you'd play instead of a larger game. You wouldn't play HUE or This Town Ain't Big Enough for the 2-4 of Us instead of Carcassonne. They take about a fifth the time or less. I have to choose to play Universal Rule instead of Race and that wouldn't happen with my old Chicago crew.

At some point I need to play Universal Rule. It is a micro game that fills a non-micro game space. Can it step up?

Monday, May 1, 2017

Making a game for road trips

Many of my print-and-play projects over the last few weeks have been ButtonShy games. I've taken advantage of them offering their wallet games as PDF files and I'm curious how much business they get from folks like me. 

Cow Tiger Santa Claus was a file that I picked up but I really didn't think I would ever really use. But as our son has gotten older and we've talked about road trips, I decided that it was time to make a copy to live in the glove compartment.

Basically, it's Road Trip bingo as a small deck of cards. Really, that's it. On the down side, you have a smaller pool of things to look for. On the plus side, it's easier to physically juggle and each game is going to be more different.

Cow Tiger Santa Claus consists of fifteen cards that have images of things you might see while you're on the road. Cows, helicopters, Santa Claus, etc. It's also broken down into easy, moderate and hard categories. 

When you start the trip, draw a card from each category. Whoever spots that item first gets the card as a point. Whoever ends the trip with the most cards is the winner. And it'd be easier to house rule the game with more cards for longer trips or only letting the little ones claim the easy cards.

Look, this is a super slight game. And it has some clear disadvantages for us, since most of the road trips we have planned for the near future are on the same stretch, meaning we will get to know the advertisements and shops and such. This might not be the best game for the Arizona desert, although it does bring back memories of Midwest family vacations.

But, to be fair, it does what it sets out to do perfectly well. It's a way to keep folks occupied on road trips. Simpler than even tic tac toe, Cow Tiger Santa Claus isn't even what I would call a filler. I wouldn't play it while waiting for food to arrive. But I can see it played on a road trip.

Our favorite road trip game has been the license plate game. (And isn't it sweet to be the one who sees a Hawaii plate?) And I will say that it's dependent on who's on the road as oppose to where you're driving.

But Cow Tiger Santa Claus will make for a change of pace, be easier for younger players and we could always play both games at the time. And it has you admire the scenery.

Cow Tiger Santa Claus isn't really like any of my other crafting projects. I mean, this isn't the kind of game I seek out or really play. But it has a place in our glove box.