Monday, July 31, 2017

My Tiny Epic Experiences at RinCon's July fundraiser

Two or three times a year, RinCon has fundraisers. Which basically means that, in addition to having a friendly local gaming convention in Tucson, we get a couple micro conventions. It's pretty awesome.

I hadn't been able to make the April or June fundraiser so I made sure that I went to the July one.

The guy in front of me in the registration line didn't come with a group either so I introduced myself and I ended up gaming with him for the rest of the morning and the afternoon. Luckily, he turned out to be a great guy. (Thanks, Craig)

He had both Tiny Epic Galaxy and Tiny Epic Quest. I had been very eager to try out Galaxies and I was willing to give Quest a try. Those two games ended up being the highlight of the fundraiser for me. Other folks sat down with us and played. I basically got my chair and everything else fell into place.

I got to play Tiny Epic Galaxies both with and without the expansion. I backed both and I'm glad I did. It is a slick design and the tiny part barely impacts function. I can understand why it is the best regarded of the Tiny Epic series.

In between Tiny Epic experiences, we got in a couple games of HUE. Every time I go to one of these events, I take the Pack O Games with me and I always seem to at least get HUE on the table.

At this point, I have played HUE with five or six different groups. And it keeps on getting better every time. The first time, I thought it was okay. Now, I think it's really good. This was the first group that really started using the poison cards and they worked better than I expected.

I didn't back Tiny Epic Quest since adventure games haven't been my style. (Although I have been coming to like them more, partially because the difference between them and RPGs has been shrinking for me) It was described to me as Zelda as a board game.

And boy, was it ever. I'm not much of a video game player but I could see enough at parallels with the Nintendo franchise that Tiny Epic Quest totally felt like Zelda to me. You travel across the map to explore temples and learn magic and fight goblins. Minimal for an adventure game but that minimalism actually created a lot of tension. So much to do with so little.

While I was leaving, I somehow got in a quick game of Cunning Folk which I did a _terrible_ job teaching. But I'd like to think the other players at least pretended to have fun.

It wasn't the start of RinCon for 2017 but it was the start for me and a jolly fun start it was.

Surprising games at Walgreen

When we were shopping for something completely game unrelated at our local Walgreens, we took a look at the toy half aisle and we ended up being pretty impressed by the selection of games they had there.

Forbidden Island, The Resistance, the Catan Dice Game, Qwixx, Timeline and Coup.

Of course, they also had games like Dominoes and Checkers and Skip Bo and Pass the Pig and a couple flavors of Uno. And most of the 'gamer' games they had were on clearance.

So this wasn't a sign that we live in a world where folks want to pick up a copy of Coup with their cough drops and aspirin. This is a sign that this was a noble experiment that really wasn't working.

Still, it was fun to see and I'm glad that our Walgreens at least tried to sell these games.

Friday, July 28, 2017

The disappointment of Stonehenge the Game Anthology

As I will tell anyone at the drop of a hat, I am a big fan of game systems. I think a deck of cards is one of the most essential things to have in a game library and the bare minimum of what I'll pack for a trip. (You know, after my toothbrush) The Looney Pyramids were a big part of my start in gaming. I think the Decktet is brilliant.

And then there was Stonehenge.

When it was first announced, I knew that I had to get Stonehenge. It was billed as a board game anthology. Both the original game in the expansion head top-notch designers create games with the components. 

Those components, at least for the time, were pretty decent. There was a big board, a deck of cards, druid figurines, plastic trilithons, discs and bars. That wouldn't be that impressive know but it was pretty good for 2007.

I had to get it. A game system that came with games by Richard Borg, James Ernst, Bruno Faidutti, Richard Garfield, and Mike Selinker? With more games promised from other well known designers like Andrew Looney and Bruno Cathala and Klaus-Jurgen Wrede? What could go wrong?

Well, my friends and I started trying out the different games and they just kept falling flat. It has been about 10 years so time has mercifully blocked out the details but I still remember the profound sense of disappointment. It isn't my biggest board game disappointment (Hi, Thunderstone!) but it's up there. The fact that it ultimately wasn't even that memorable doesn't help it's cause.

It is probably telling that every game only got a two-page spread in the rulebook. And some of them clearly needed more. Even for folks who were experienced reading rules and playing different board games, it was kind of vague.

And, as much as I enjoy other things that all the designers are done, it really felt like they phoned the Stonehenge games in. There wasn't a single killer app in the lot. Would I buy a standalone version of Zendo, for instance? Oh yes. Any of the Stonehenge games? Wouldn't even cross my mind.

And I don't accept the argument that the five games are just examples and the real goal is for you to come up with your own games. The examples still have to hold up on their own.

I think part of the problem is that the pieces don't really work as a toolbox. The need to tie everything back to Stonehenge made too many of the pieces too specific. That took away from the flexibility of using them as general tools for games.

As an idea, Stonehenge was great. As an execution, it was terrible. In the end, it proves how difficult intentionally designing a game system really is. I honestly believe that an important component is having an active and committed community. If Stonehenge ended up developing one, it was after we gave up on it.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

First thoughts on the Spiel Press

I've been interested to see what The Spiel Press would turn out to be ever since I first read about the up-and-coming imprint/company on the Button Shy blog. Well, they have their first kick starter going on so I've had a chance to take a look.

Short version, their product is creating roll-and-write books. That's when you have a pencil-and-paper games that are dice driven and you bind the individual sheets in a book. Perforated, of course, so it's easy to rip them out. You know, like you bound a bunch of Yahtzee score sheets together.

It's not a new idea. Sid Saxon designed a bunch of pencil and paper books back in the day and they're pretty awesome. And, of course, these days you can also create PDF versions, which is what I am interested in. I mean, print and pull out some pencils and dice. Now that is an easy print and play project.

OK, so their first Kickstarter is two different books. The first one is called Star Maps and involves a Take It Easy style bingo mechanic and constellations. The other is Blood Royals, a two-player area of control game with special powers.

While they have included print-and-play prototypes of both games, there is also quite a bit that hasn't been included in the prototypes. Quite frankly, I'm kind of curious to see what the final product looks like.

Of the two, I am more interested in Blood Royals. Star Maps uses a core mechanic that I have seen before, albeit one that I've had a lot of fun with. Blood Royals seems more ambitious and pushes the envelope for the medium more.

Of course, I don't know what tweaks they have planned for the final versions. And, yes, it might ultimately be disappointing. But I am backing the Kickstarter and signing on for the ride.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Every style has a game master

I was interested to learn, when I read the first volume of Dungeons and Designers, that game masters in the earliest RPGs were flat out competing against the players. That wasn't a surprise since D&D did come out of miniatures games so we're just talking a team of one versus a team of many.

Obviously the role of the game master has broadened since then. Sometimes the game master is simply a referee, someone to make sure all the rules are followed by both the heroes and the monsters. Other times they narrators of the story which the players gets to participate in. Sometimes they are collaborators with the players. And sometimes the role and responsibilities are divided up among everyone.

Originally, I had been thinking about how the role of the game master has evolved but I realized that that wasn't the best word. I think that developed or expanded or broadened it a better term. Because while everyone has their favorite method of running a game, you can't really say one method is better than the other.

In fact, a very good argument can be made that the original idea that the game master was actively trying to kill the players' characters is still alive and well. And, no, I don't mean killer DMs who keep folders of all the characters that they've killed.

Games like Descent are both examples of a game master who is directly competing against the players and games that blur the line between board games and role playing games so much that I easily consider them both.

Back when Descent first came out, a friend of mine was extremely interested in it because he didn't have time to be in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign but he still wanted a D&D experience. At the time,  I was in a weekly campaign and I couldn't see the appeal.

Now, since I don't have the time for a weekly game, I can see the appeal. More than that, since I first played Descent, my personal definition of RPGs has broadened with games like The Quiet Year and Microscope. To my mind, a Descent campaign is definitely an RPG. 

Ahem. Back to my original point. Over the last few decades, the role of game master has broadened. There's a lot more philosophies out there. However, the old ways have not become obsolete. 

What has changed is that we now have more and more games whose rules are tailored for specific kinds of game mastering.

There are some games that are broad enough to cover almost every style of GM. In my years of D&D, I've had GMs out to kill the party, GMs who had the whole game mapped out, GMs who created a sandbox for us to play in, wonderful GMs who actively wanted the players to help build the world and no GM just players just rotating who controlled the monsters.

However, choosing a game it's not just choosing a genre or a setting. Choosing a game it's choosing what kind of story you want to tell and how to tell it.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Catchup: classic abstract feel

When I read up about Catchup, I decided that I needed to try it out. As it turned out, my account at Little Golem is still active so I wen there for a short visit so I could get in a game of Catchup.

Catchup has a classic abstract feel. Perfect information, two players and no theme. Catchup is played on a hexagonal grid with players taking turns setting down stones. The goal is to have the single largest group of stones when you've filled up the board.

The twist is whoever has the largest group on the board (not total, just largest single group) can only place two stones. The other player can place three stones.

It's an interesting touch and definitely makes the game. Since I was playing online, Little Golem kindly kept track of that for us and I didn't think about keeping track. However, looking at Russ Williams review of the game, I realized that could be an issue in a face-to-face game. You'll need some kind of system to keep it from being a pain.

I had fun with Catchup. I like abstract placement games. Every move develops the board and keeps pushing the game forward. Catchup took that basic and effective formula and just added a couple tweaks. Between the short playing time in the quickly developing board, Catchup stays interesting through the whole game.

In my one play, I found myself focusing on making as many cutting moves as I could. It's definitely a very conflict centered game, quickly becoming a knife fight in a telephone booth. And I'm sure that further plays will reveal greater depth.

Catchup isn't my favorite new abstract. I wouldn't put it in the top tier of abstracts. It's good but it's not brilliant. That said, I have played some boring and broken and just plain bad abstracts. The fact that Catchup is dynamic and interesting is a major win for the designer.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Twin Stars: giving Solitaire another spin

I'm a little late writing about the Twin Stars kickstarter since it's almost over. On the plus side, it is well past its funding goals so it is going to get made.

Twin Stars is a solitaire game system, one that Button Shy has slowly been releasing as bonus items. Each play consists of two characters and one scenario. However, you can mix and match the characters, as well as adjust the difficulty so there is a lot variety going on. 

I've only played the first one, Escape from the Brig, which I am sure is also the simplest one. It's essentially a race against time. Can you get your pawn to end of its track before the guard pawn gets to the end of its track? 

At the end of the day, the game is all about dice manipulation. Each character has a space for each pip, with either symbols or an effect. Roll the die and assign one to each character. If they form a combination  of symbols listed on the scenario card, perform that action and start over. Otherwise, drop one die by one pip and reroll the other then check for combinations.

I'll be honest. The game system is more complex than you'd really expect for three cards, two dice and some tokens. The process of completing a turn can take several steps. I'm not actually saying Twin Stars is complex. Just that I was expecting a a very simple roll-and-react game and there's an actual procedure with choices, although bad rolls can still sink you.

I am going to continue to be honest. I'm really not one for solitaire games, although I realize I have played quite a few over the years. When I do play one, I wanted to be something that is easy to set up and that will play fairly quickly. Because, quite frankly, it tends to be an act of fidgeting for me.

So, three cards, some tokens and a couple of dice works for me. Heck, if I feel like it, I can randomly deal out the characters in the scenarios.

I will have to see the other scenarios in the other characters and see how truly flexible the system is, as well as how interesting it is in the long run. But, for three dollars to get the PDF files, it's an investment that I feel comfortable with.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Sadly, Las Vegas doesn't excite me

Okay. I have to admit that I don't find Rudiger Dorn's Las Vegas very interesting. 

I've put off writing about it because it's the darling of so many gamers and was a Spiel de Jahres finalist and I've given it much plays to try and find the magic. 

Which really seems kind of odd. I like dice games. I like dice placement games in particular. I like casual games and family weight games. Las Vegas ticks all of those boxes. And I think it is very well designed.

There are six casino tiles, one for every pip on the die. Players have color-coded dice pools. Money is dealt out to each casino each round. On your turn, you roll your pool and assign all the dice of one pip to the matching casino. When everyone is out of dice, you cash out the casinos with the money going to whoever has the most dice on each casino. If there's more one bill, someone gets to be second place. But if there on ties, those dice don't count.

Honestly, I don't think you could make a simpler dice placement game. And the theme is accessible to the wider audience. 

And Las Vegas has actual choices. The different casinos are worth different points, er, money. Some might reward second or even third place. And since you have to go all in with every die of a pip, you can drain your dice pool quickly. And the rule about ties negating themselves, that adds a real twist. 

Plus, there is a variant where everyone gets some neutral dice in their pool. It adds another layer of decisions and turns ties into a serious weapon.

At the end of the day, Las Vegas is a very simple game that is very balanced with real choices and heavy interaction. I understand why people like it. I understand why there is now a mass market version coming out.

And it just doesn't interest me. And I'm a guy who enjoys abstracts and has played plenty of dice game with no theme. 

It may be because I've exclusively played it on Yucata. The game may get a lot more tension face-to-face.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Yeah, I had fun with fourth edition

When reminiscing about Dungeons and Dragons and loophole abuse, I found myself musing about the red-headed stepchild of the system, fourth edition.

I'm not sure you can say which edition was the most radical overhaul of the system. Well, unless you count first edition as overhauling the Chainmail miniature game :D But fourth edition was a big change from 3 and 3.5.

I don't know how fair it is to say this but, speaking as someone who never played World of Warcraft or any other MMRPG, fourth edition felt like trying to create as close to a World of Warcraft experience as a pen-and-paper game without getting sued. Classes got broken down into specific roles in combat and special abilities were painstakingly precisely defined.

Now I'm willing to bet there is a community out there that loved and still loves and still plays fourth edition but, in my circles, feeling ranged from fair to outright hatred. Part of the problem was that it really didn't _feel_ like Dungeons and Dragons. Spell casting was completely different, the baseline concepts of the setting were different than Gygax quirky wheel-shaped cosmoverse, and combat actions were like pushing a button.

And from a gaming philosophy point of view, it seems silly to focus on what an MMRPG can do better rather than focus in what is special and unique about both table top role playing games and D&D specifically.

But, to tell you the truth, I have a lot of found memories of my time playing fourth edition. It didn't really feel like Dungeons and Dragons and, in many ways, it had as much in common with a board game as a role playing game. But I still had fun.

A lot of that had to do with the group I played with. We would could have played (fill in the blank with whatever game you think stinks) and had a good time. Okay, those of you who chose F.A.T.A.L., you're right. We wouldn't enjoy that.

HOWEVER, fourth edition was also very user friendly with a very easy learning curve. You couldn't, simply couldn't, get as creative as you could with every earlier and later version of Dungeons and Dragons. The actions were spelled out so exactly that there wasn't any wiggle room. Which was both a plus and a minus. On the one hand, not being able to be creative is not a plus. On the other hand, that did make it easy to teach and play. 

But where that really sang was for our game master. After years of running 3.5 and dealing with all of us turning into rules students who dreamed up clever character builds, running fourth edition was a breath of fresh air and relaxing. Fourth edition biggest plus as a sword and sorcery role playing game was how easy it was to run.

In fact, if someone were to ask me to run a fantasy RPG, fourth edition is one I'd consider. Dungeon World would probably win but fourth edition would be in the running.

Look, it is good when a game gives you a lot of flexibility and the ability to get clever and creative. That's awesome. But it's also good when a game is simple to play. Those two ideals don't cancel each other out. It just means that they have different goals and different audiences or situations. The real question is if they do what they set out to do well. On of fourth editions goals was to be D&D and it didn't do that well. Another goal was to be a balanced, playable, fun game and it did achieve that.

Fourth edition didn't feel like Dungeons and Dragons and I am very glad to finally be in a fifth edition game, which I like as a system much more and feels like Dungeons and Dragons again. However, fourth edition wasn't a bad game.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

How about degenerate play in RPGs?

While I have already thought about the concept of degenerate play in boardgames, I actually think that it can be more prevalent in role-playing games. 

I honestly think that most examples of degenerate play in board games are either examples of broken games or player and experience. It takes games like Magic the Gathering that have a lot of intricate interactions with rules that can sometimes contradict each other to really create 

Roleplaying Games, designed to cover a much broader variety of situations than a given board game, have a lot more rules and, consequently, a lot more potential loopholes to abuse. You know, things that are technically legal but shouldn't be.

And it's clearly been a problem for a long time. Gary Gygax created the demon lord Fraz-Urb'luu for the specific purpose of dealing with two problem players. I remember that since the name is pronounced Frazer Blue, which sounds like a sour candy.

Personally, I knew a guy who, back in first or second edition, combined tower shield with cestus (which is an ancient Greek boxing glove) to try and minimize weapon speed and maximize armor class. Yeah, I know that works for Captain America but it still doesn't make a lot of sense.

And, yes, I also know that that is barely a ripple on the kind of rule abuse that took place back in the day. It's just one that stands out in my brain because of the absurd image and the fact that it doesn't involve any magic or rules from different supplements.

And, as much as I loved and still love Dungeons and Dragons 3.0 and 3.5, third edition has some of the worst degenerate play. Personally, I think the Open Gaming License had a lot to do with it. An avalanche of third party supplements that were all 'legal' created an unbalanced environment. The classic example was Pun Pun the Kobold who was a thought experiment to create a low level kobold that had infinite stats, access to all spells and a divine rank (which actually just used official Wizards of the Coast rules, if I'm not mistaken)

Of course, that did involve stretching some rules to allow players to use an NPC-class and assume both divine and diabolic entities are just going to let it happen. Any game master who is actually awake should make sure that it never happens.

And let's face it, judicial use of Rule Zero, the GM gets the final word, is actually why most of these issues usually get taken care of. Of course, that opens up the other side of the table, the subject of either overly permissive or vicious GMs. Mind you, a lot of that can get filed under we were all 14 once.

I had originally been thinking that degenerate play is more common in old-school style games. However, while I don't actually have any proof of this, after some thought I changed my opinion. Old-school games are much better at surviving degenerate play. It is beyond easy to use loopholes to abuse narrative games but then those games are going to fall apart.

(I realize that all my examples are from D&D. That's really because I played so much of it over most of my RPG experiences)

There is also this about degenerate play in RPGs. It does not seem to leave as many hurt feelings as it does in boardgames. Often, there is a more rewarding sense that someone was really clever and the experiences end up being anecdotes that you bore people with over the years.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

This is getting to be a regular thing

We had our seventh session in my first Roll20 campaign. It's hard to believe that we have actually played that many sessions. Despite playing twice a month at best, it feels like the game is just flying along.

Part of that is because the DM, Bart, has had decades of experience running games so he's able to streamline things. For instance, I've noticed that he follows the Order of the Stick's rule for random encounters. You only have one per journey because it gets repetitive otherwise :D Not that Bart's encounters are actually random. 

He also frames the game like a movie, going from important scene to important scene and skipping the transitions in between. While I love the Fellowship of the Ring, I think that Tolkien's detailed, step-by-step description of leaving the Shire has done a world of damage to DMs.

We determined the best person to consult for a cure for our druid's lycanthropy was a dwarven wizard in a city under the mountains south of our jarl's land. We fought a giant spider and some centipedes on the way there.

While our time in the dwarven city included overhearing a heist getting planned and getting set on a fetch quest by the wizard, the real highlight was Shad really getting into character. And by character, I mean being hysterically obnoxious to all the NPCs by acting clueless about all social norms. In his own society.

To cure Ilva's lycanthropy, we would need the jawbone of a horse killed in battle, the corpse of a giant rat and a hundred gold. The wizard was a little vague about the gold being a component or a fee.

On our way to a battlefield to find that jawbone, we were ambushed by four corrupted human thugs and a rabid blink dog. I honestly think that Bart underestimated how deadly the fight would be. Our bard wasn't there that night and the thugs had two attacks and pack tactics that gave them bonuses to hit. It came surprisingly close to a total part kill.

For me, I had gone over some of my specific powers as a fighter, the nuances of playing fifth edition. In particular, I realized I had misunderstood the Protect fighting style. So, I went into this session prepared to handle the fights like they were board games.
In this fight, I used every trick I could pull, including heavy use of terrain to hold our right flank. I eventually got dropped to zero (so did the Druid) but by then, it was enough to for the two standing party members to win the fight and save us.

So, for me at least, the sessions was less about developing some game skills as opposed to Roll20 skills. On the other hand, we (particularly Bart) are getting used to Roll20 enough that we can have a smooth fight without thinking about it.

Monday, July 17, 2017

My two cents on degenerate play

The subject of degenerate play has reared its ugly head again. To be fair, I'm not sure if it ever actually puts its head down.

As usual, no one really seems able to agree on exactly what degenerate play is. For me, it generally means playing against the spirit of the game or good sportsmanship. If I want to smack you, it might mean that you are engaging in degenerate play. Or, it might mean you are just playing better than me :P

If it's an intrinsic flaw in the game, that falls under a game being broken or solved. I don't think many people would call putting an X in the middle of the Tic Tac Tor board degenerate play. 

I'll be honest, many examples of degenerate play, like only buying silver in Dominion, really seems like a learning curve. As players gain more experience, they learn overcome the low plateau strategies.

In all honesty, the games with actual degenerate play that doesn't either involve people needing more experience or the game actually being genuinely broken are games like Magic the Gathering. When every card adds or changes rules and there are literally thousands of cards, there end up being combinations and loopholes beyond what the designers anticipated.

Often, I think the goal of degenerate play is to 'prove' you are smarter than everyone else at the table, including the designer who is there by proxy. Oh, and to rub everyone's face in it. 

Really, the bad sportsmanship part feels important to me. If someone's gets upset or their feelings get hurt, I think that's significant. Particularly when someone is doing it for their own entertainment. 

For me, that is the real problem with degenerate play. When someone's intentionally subverting someone else's fun. If a group of friends want to sit down and have fun with loopholes, I'm not going to find fault with that.

Although all that gets turned on its head when there's money involved.

Tournaments, when there's a purse involved, aren't about fun. Is degenerate play ruining the environment or is it educating the developers or is it just playing smart so you can win? Is there a line where it counts as cheating?

There's definitely a line but I don't know where it is. I don't fault playing smart. I don't fault playing vicious. I don't fault playing to win. But somewhere beyond all of those, there is playing to hurt. Maybe that can be degenerate play. Maybe that's just being a jerk.

Friday, July 14, 2017

A belated good-bye to Out of the Box

I just learned that Out of the Box went out of business back in 2015. Man, am I behind the times.

I'm sad to see that they're gone. When I first started collecting and playing designer games, they were a company that I paid attention to. Along with Playroom and Gamewright, Out of the Box seemed to approach family games and kids games with a designer touch. (To the best of my knowledge, both of those companies are alive and well)

Part of their mission statement was that their games would take five minutes or less to learn and a half an hour at most to play. Which certainly doesn't work for a lot of games but it isn't a bad rule of thumb for casual family games. And there's no denying that, even compared to Playroom or Gamewright, that was their intended audience.

While I think that the best thing they did was publish the 10 Days lines of games, which combine good game design with high educational value, I don't think I can get around their most significant contribution to gaming was Apples to Apples. 

It's not my favorite party game and I know folks who utterly despise it but there's no denying it changed the face of party games. Admittedly, by being so accessible/accessible that you don't have to be creative to play. No need to know trivia or be able to improv or draw. For better or for worse, it was an ideal family reunion game. And it went to influence other game designs, Cards Against Humanity being the most obvious.

Heck, when they sold it to Mattel, I seriously had doubts for Out of the Box's future. And they did hang out for another seven years but they never had another hit like that. Still, twenty years from now, Out of the Box is going to be remembered for letting Apples to Apples loose on the world.

Looking over their catalog, they actually released fewer games than I remembered. And many of them frankly never interested me. But there were some gems in addition to 10 Days. Basari bridged the line between casual family and euro pretty well while I have had a lot of fun with Cloud 9 and Easy Come, Easy Go.

Yeah, the fact they've been out of business for close to two years and I didn't notice means Out of the Box stopped being important to me. And the games from them that have stayed in my collection are some of their older ones. But they did put out some fun games.

Okay, I don't like the term RPG Filler

Looking back at Tau, a short form RPG that I played a couple years ago, I came across the term RPG filler. It's an idea I'd never heard of and I'm not sure what I think of it.

While I'll use the term filler for convenience sake, I'm not found of the term. I play shorter games when that's what I have time for, not just to fill time. And I think shorter games should not get held to lower standards just because they're shorter.

I have looked at role-playing games that are designed to be played in a very short time, like game poems that are meant to be played in only fifteen minutes. However, they are designed to provoke very strong emotional responses. To my mind, that is the opposite of what a filler means.

More than that, if we accept the idea of an RPG filler, where do we draw the line? Some folks I know prefer multi-year campaigns. For them, a one-shot might be a filler. However, that seems extreme. What is the time limit? Two hours? An hour? And what about weight? If a game is emotionally heavy or distressing, is it still a filler?

When I actually think of the word filler for a game and mean it, I mean something like a game I'd pull out while waiting at a restaurant. The Looney Pyramid game Treehouse is a good example of just such a game, with the added bonus that is waterproof.

For me, even a one-shot or short form RPG is something you plan out ahead of time. Someone suggested the Parsely system as an RPG filler. And I can see why. Heck, it is a game I've thought of having at the ready if the GM is late. But for me, it is really a party game, and experience to be judged on its own merits.

RPGs already use the term short form. Filler just seem unnecessary on several levels. Since apparently Tau's use of it didn't catch on, I am not alone in thinking that.

What I do think is a concept that I have seen and is worth exploring is pick-up-and-play RPGs, games that don't require preparation. It's an idea that's been around since the 80s with games like Sandman and Ghostbusters. I've seen designs for rules light one-shots and ones for campaign play. But I can't say I think of any of them as fillers.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Quality fidgeting with online games

Somewhat to my surprise, instead of playing just a couple games on and leaving the site, I have found myself having a few of the lighter games almost constantly going. 

There's  actually a very simple reason for this. Unlike Yucata, which is my go-to place to play board games online, it is really easy to use on my phone. Well, at least for the more casual games like Patrician and the members of the Coloretto family. Hansa might not be so easy.

Of course, if I am pausing and making a move in a game while I'm doIng something like standing in line or waiting for water to boil, I don't want a brain burning game. A casual game like Coloretto fits the bill perfectly.

Now that we live in a world where smart phones are pretty common, they offer no end of ways for us to distract ourselves. Too many ways, really. However, playing games against other folks is probably my favorite way to occupy myself on the internet so this works out well. 

This also reminds me that good casual games, even if they are simpler in design, are not that simple to design. You see a lot of them but you don't see a lot of them with staying power. Off and on, I've been playing Coloretto since 2005, which isn't bad. Particularly when my first plays weren't that good :P 

I know that boardgames-online is not going to become my primary game site. There will come a time when I will finish the current games and not start new ones. And letting me fidget isn't the biggest compliment I can give a site. But I am fidgeting with some good games.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Why is 10 Days important?

RI have never played Racko and, thanks to the 10 Days series, I probably never will. The 10 Days games takes the sorting mechanic of Racko and marries it to geography. This change makes a game that is more visually interesting, educational and engaging.

In every game in the series, you are trying to create a sequence of contiguous countries/states/provinces while different vehicles like planes or cars  can help make connections. There have been seven games in the series, although some of them weren't in English. I think. And, actually, it doesn't matter since place names are the only words in the games :D

About twelve years ago, I wrote a review of 10 Days in Africa: Rereading it, I'll still stand by that review.

The 10 Days series is not Alan Moon's best game design. (Or Aaron Weisbaum's, for that matter) BUT I do think it's one of their more important designs.

Rule wise, the 10 Days series is very, very simple. They are games that you can teach to just about anyone, children and teens and adults. They are accessible enough that non-gamers can be competitive while tense enough that seasoned gamers can enjoy them.

If that's all the 10 Days series had to offer, that'd still be pretty good. However, in addition to teaching cognitive reasoning skills (which hopefully most games will teach), the 10 Days series also legitimately teaches geography. Pulling that off while being fun is a pretty impressive feat.

While Edutainment has come a long ways in the last few decades (What can I say? Bubble Guppies impressed me when our son went through a Bubble Guppies phase) but a game that really works as a game that is very educational is still no mean thing. The 10 Days series can work as a standby in most game libraries and classrooms.

At the moment, it looks like the US map is the only one available in the US. Which is a shame and I hope that changes. I am glad, though, the series is still out there.

An RPG filler?

The 18 Card RPG has underwhelmed me but I'm still seriously planning on making a copy of it.

I stumbled upon the game in boardgame geek's PnP files, which is where I find potential board games to make. RPGs, that's a bit more unusual. 

The game consists of eight attribute cards, eight goal cards, one double-sided rules card and one double-sided scenario card. And that's it. No dice need apply.

You choose one of the two scenarios and then deal out two attribute cards and two goal cards to everyone. Each attribute card has two attributes and you choose one on each card. The goal cards also have two goals but one is white and the other is gray. The gray ones all deal with interacting with other players. Pick a white goal and a gray goal. All of your choices are public knowledge.

You take turns being the active player. On your turn, the other players use one of your goals and one of your attributes to frame a scene where that attribute gets you in trouble. You use the other attribute to try and solve the problem. The group decides if your solution works. If it does, you fulfill that goal.

Everyone gets four turns to fulfill their two goals. If you succeed, you win (and there can be more than one winner, of course) If you fail, you get to narrate your own death scene.

The 18 Card RPG is not the most minimal RPG I've ever seen. The original version of The Name of God is less than half its length and that is a surprisingly rich and engaging game. Although the fact that all you need are the cards, no dice or tokens or pencils or paper is nice, although, again, 18 Cards isn't unique in that.

And a major ding against it is the lack of any real theme. Mechanics can be interesting but a RPG lives and dies on the stories you tell with it. Theme and setting are what you fall in love with in an RPG.

The tone of the game is a bit off. The two scenarios, both of which are about being some kind of lab experiment are at odds with some of the light-heartedness of the attributes and goals.

However, what I do like about 18 Cards and what keeps me looking at it is the structure. The actual structure of the game, how each scene is framed and only going four times around the table, is very tight and strong. While there is a lot of freeform, how the group forms a scene around attributes and goals gives a lot of guidance. It reminds me a of Epidiah Ravachol's Astro Robbers from What Is A Roleplaying Game.

A few years ago, I played another RPG that was clearly designed to be pulled out and played, Tau. Come to think of it, I think the designers billed it as an RPG filler. But the game play was cluttered and unfocused. Compared to that, 18 Cards seems much simpler but also much cleaner and accessible.

The gray goals get a bonus mention because they force your character to interact with at least one other character, so the game isn't just completely separate narratives.

I can't help but wonder how much better 18 Cards would be with more focused theme. It could be focusing on a specific genre or even setting. (This is at least the third time I've seriously wondered if a game could be improved by turning it into a Star Wars game. Ironically, Doctor Who is my franchise of choice. I still haven't recovered from the Phantom Menace. To say nothing of the scars from finally seeing the holiday special)

The 18 Card RPG feels like it's 3/4 of the way to being a solid and fun game. Despite looking at so many one-shot RPG systems and micro RPGs, I've never really thought of the idea of an RPG filler. However, with some work, I can see 18 Cards being one.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Making a short list for non-gamers

I was recently asked to suggest a game as a gift for a family whose gaming experience was primarily Trivial Pursuit. 

Here's a spoiler: there aren't going to be any surprises on the list I gave them.

I went with the idea of games that were accessible and fun and relatively easy to find. I also wanted to make it a fairly short list, to keep myself from getting out of hand.

Here's what I came up with:

Ticket to Ride
Can't Stop
Take It Easy

Out of that lot, not knowing the folks involved, Take It Easy would be my top pick. I've had a lot of success with it with folks who have no interest in games to the point of getting repeat plays in the same sitting.

They went with Catan.

Which was my real introduction to designer games and I do think is a great game, as well as revolutionary one. However, I have also taught to non-gamers who found it too heavy. I love it but I have to wonder if it's too big a step from Trivial Pursuit. 

If they had said Monopoly, though, my list would have started and ended with Catan :D

My takeaway from this is that I might be too conservative and too safe in my choices of games for non-gamers. After all, I know someone who used Puerto Rico as their game to break in new gamers. Although, they were dealing with folks asking for games. And I've seen folks who thought 7 Wonders would be the perfect introduction and that went up in flames.

I do sincerely think that people who play lots of games all the time often underestimate the complexity of games. (Teaching Race for the Galaxy with three expansions comes to mind. Seriously?)

At the same time, am I being too conservative? If folks have a regular game night with Trivial Pursuit, maybe they will want something longer and with more teeth. Maybe my bad luck with Catan just means I'm a bad teacher. 

It is a good question. Yes, an overwhelming game can spoil someone from wanting to play another game but it isn't helpful if they aren't engaged or challenged.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

InSpectres: where you're the one the call

InSpectres has been around for many years and I've owned my copy for a while. It was one of the 'earlier' Indie games and I've been meaning to get around to reading it for some time.

Jared Sorenson makes no bones that the basic theme is Ghostbusters with the serial number filed off. In fact, the four basic four stat character sheets remind me of the official Ghostbusters RPG from the 80s. The characters are part of a franchise that specializes in supernatural problems. In fact, the franchise has its own stats and upkeep and going bankrupt is definitely an ongoing concern.

In theory, every session would be one particular job. The GM chooses how many franchise dice need to be earned to complete the job. The core mechanic is using small dice pools for conflict resolution/did you actually do it using six-sided dice with the high roll being the one that counts. On a five or six, you earn franchise dice.

Okay, let's talk about what actually makes InSpectres interesting. One of the driving forces behind Sorenson's goal design was to create a system where missing clues wouldn't drive the game off the rails. How did he do that? By having the players add clues and have some narrative control!

If a player succeeds, they get to narrate the success. Which doesn't just mean explaining how they hit a mummy with a folding chair but the results of things like research or gathering equipment. That gives them a lot of control steering where the story goes.

But the really interesting mechanic is the confession camera. Once per scene, one character can step through the fourth wall and give a confession camera monologue. Which can include talking about events that haven't even happened yet!

Back in 2002, this mechanic would have confused me all to heck. But by now, even I know what a confession camera is, which means probably everyone else in the world does too. It's a wacky mechanic that I've never seen anywhere else but, at least today, is one people would have no problems understanding.

InSpectres was one the earlier games that broke up the narrative structure of RPGs, although it wasn't the first. I'm pretty sure Trollbabe came out before it. Ars Magica had the option for troupe play. Baron Munchassen was already out.

Frankly, not only do I have no idea what game first gave players control over the greater narrative, I bet you could find examples from the 70s. I've found that many Indie ideas have seeds from the roots of RPGs, seeds that just needed refinement.

I have no idea what I would have thought of InSpectres if I had played in back in 2002. At the time, I was firmly entrenched in traditional RPGs with D&D being my main focus. (Come to think of it, since I'm in a D&D campaign on Roll20, it's back to being my main focus :D) It would have been very strange to me.

But, having played a bunch of Indie games now, including some with no GMs, InSpectres seems really accessible to me now. It comes closer to the traditional RPG structure than even some of its contemporaries like Trollbabe. Even the confession camera rule uses an idea that is now firmly a part of pop culture. This would be a great game to introduce people to non-traditional RPGs or even RPGs period.

More than that, given its light-hearted feel (seriously, you don't have confession cameras in dark, serious games) and minimal setup requirements (since the players help write the story as it goes along), InSpectres would be great for a casual summer campaign. Since the game is about the franchise, missing players would just be on other jobs and you could even rotate GMs.

I don't know when I'll next be in a position to be in a campaign. But InSpectres is definitely on the list of games I'd like to try as a campaign.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Die rolls and becoming a wererat

My online Fifth edition game has had its sixth session. I'll be honest.
While we still have a ways to go before we master the Roll20 interface, we have reached the point where it just feels like we're playing Dungeons and Dragons.

The jarl who we serve (and I'm sure there will eventually be some kind of breaking point if we play long enough) sent the party to investigate the near murder of the son of a noble. So, crime investigation. 

In my experience, those can be rough. If players miss clues or misconstrue them, it can throw everything in a tailspin. There's a reason the Gumshoe System was designed, where you will always get the clues, or InSpectre, where the players help add the clues.

In one short-lived but hilarious campaign I was in, the players got drafted to solve a murder mystery. Instead, they just burned the house down to solve the problem.

Fortunately, some of the other players who are smarter than me figured out that a wererat infected the noble's younger son and then tricked the older son into trying to kill him.

It probably didn't hurt that it was blatantly evil person turned out to be the wererat.

In another campaign I was in, one player was incredibly successful at dealing with intrigue by using genre instead of proof. He'd just go gunning for the NPC most likely to be secretly evil. Kind of turned the campaign about the characters being the real villains, though.

Story wise, two things happened that I am pretty sure will have future ramifications. First, we ran into a 'random' ghoul who had distinctive jewelry. And this is a low fantasy world so the walking dead are very unusual. Second, our druid got infected with lycanthropy.

Mechanically, the most interesting thing that happened is that our dwarf cleric kept on rolling ones when he used the macros. Literally at least six times and I want to say ten times but memory is probably building up the story. Next year the story will be that it was twenty rolls.

And, of course, when he finally just used the die roll tool, he rolled a twenty and critted the wererat out of any chance of becoming a reoccurring villain.

Right now, I would say the two coolest things about Roll20 for me are still getting to play with distant friends and making short sessions feel satisfying. If I had to drive somewhere for two hours of D&D, that'd feel like a waste of time. Doing it at home feels like a good use of time.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Zooloretto for the very young

Earlier this year, I decided to learn Coloretto Amazonas at So, since I have never played Zooloretto Mini/Zooloretto Junior, I decided to learn that game too.

Compared to Amazonas, Mini was much less of a stretch :D It uses the same cut or choose mechanic that every game in the family uses, except Amazonas. It is basically the bridge between Coloretto and Zooloretto. Seeing as how those two games aren't very different, it's a very short bridge :P

In all brutal honesty, Mini is a simplified Coloretto with tiles instead of cards and the zoo theme. No coin actions like Zooloretto and a smaller variety of types than either of the parent games. For me, the most interesting element are landscape features. Those are effectively wilds for filing enclosures but don't count towards making sets.

The real question is if there is a reason to choose Mini over either the razor simplicity of the original Coloretto or the more nuanced choices of Zooloretto. Particularly if you are like me and already own both of those games. And that is some tough competition. While I have had some bad experiences with Coloretto, it's a standard for light card games for good reason. And Zooloretto is one of those games that is the perfect centerpiece for a family game night.

Frankly, at the moment, the only reasons I'd think of picking up Mini is the small size of the box and the relatively sturdy components and it is more forgiving than its parent games. Storage space and playing it with a small child.

And yet, if you look at Mini as a children's game, it is a very good game. If I see it for a good price in the next couple years, I'd pick it up for just that reason. The parent games I think are better fold older kids and teens and adults but I think Mini is super younger child friendly.