Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Trying out the whimsy of Goblins Drool, Fairies Rule

I’ve been vaguely aware of Goblins Drool, Fairies Rule pretty much since it was kickstarted. I noticed more due to the theme and the artwork than the mechanics. However, the black and white demo is still available so I decided to make myself a copy.

What I found was a whimsical, dare I even say charming, game that I think would work really well with gradeschool kids. However, I don’t think it has legs to interest adults for very long.

The game consists of twenty double-sided cards. One side is goblins and the other is fairies. Each card face has a name and a symbol (sun, moon, toad, toadstool) The story is that the goblins escaped and you are trying to return to the fairy circle.

Mechanically, Goblins Drool, Fairies Rule is a fishing game like Scopa. That’s where you play a card into a pool of cards in the middle to try and get other cards.

Depending on the number of players, you deal out X cards to each player and to the table. The players cards are all on the goblin side and the table’s are all fairy side. The goal is to either empty your hand of goblins or get six fairies.

The basic turn is to play a card to the middle. Every card in the pool that rhymes with the card you played flips. You then take every card whose symbol matches the card you played. 

The symbols are paired so the moon is always opposite the sun and toadstools are always opposite toads. Plus, some cards are star cards and flip over all the cards. (You always get one in your starting hand)

Okay, full confession time. While I’ve played this a number of times, they’ve all been solitaire. And that’s clearly not the game’s strong point, although it is a good way to try out the mechanics. And, as near as I can tell, the PnP version is only different by not having color. Although the artwork is nice enough for that that be a genuine selling point, particularly for kids.

I like how there are two distinct mechanisms; the rhyming for flipping and the symbols for taking. It gives some oomph to your decisions. I think the artwork is cute, not quite Brian Froud but there’s a hint of him there.

However, I think there’s not enough meat for older players. I think you’d end up memorizing the cards, which would probably make the game boring (or incredibly cutthroat but I think boring is more likely) Every turn is a puzzle and I don’t think they are that complicated a puzzle. 

But I have a feeling that for kids between, say six and eleven, the game will really work. And I’ll have a kid that old before long. So I’m glad I’ve looked into Goblins Drool, Fairies Rule.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Pentaquark just doesn’t click for me

I want to like Pentaquark. It’s a quirky solitaire game based on particle physics with almost no set up and a short playing time. That’s the kind of game I’ve been exploring lately.

But... I’ve finally it weirdly fiddly and very counterintuitive. I feel like all the pieces should click together if I look at it hard enough and, when I see how all the gears fit together, I’ll be able to fluidly play it and enjoy it.

Mechanically, it’s simple. You’re sorting the cards into three piles, trying to get a specific assortment of cards into a specific pile. It has the added twist that every card has an anti side on the back and, every time you shuffle the deck, you flip the deck over.

However, you have to sort the cards into groups based on color and facing, which has different effects depending on what pile they’re in. And somehow, it doesn’t click when I’m playing and I struggle to make sure I’m playing this simple game right. 

I feel like there are too many moving parts for a game that is this short. Like I’m too busy making sure I’m following the rules to actually play the game.

I like the tiny little company of Button Shy. They make neat little games of all sorts and they offer PnP as an option and they really seem to try and push the envelope on what you can do with a handful of cards. 

But Pentaquark feels like an experiment that didn’t work. I’m not entirely giving up yet. I am still hoping it clicks and flows. But, for now, it’s just a grind.

Friday, February 23, 2018

Ambagibus: should I be having this much fun?

Ambagibus kind of annoys me. It’s a very simple, brutally simple game. And I’m convinced that luck plays a possibly overwhelming role. And not just to sometimes make it too hard but sometimes to make it too easy. And after a game or two, you get a sense of what the best decisions are. 

And yet I keep having fun with Ambagibus and keep on playing it :D

Ambagibus consists of a simple set of tiles that show paths and your goal is to try and create a closed network of paths. The whole thing is just forty tiles you make yourself and takes up two sheets of tiles. And the game is draw a tile and place a tile.

(Did I mention it’s a solitaire game? It’s a solitaire game)

It’s not _quite_ that simple. Each opening has a number, one to four, and those numbers are priorities. You have to extend ones before twos and so on. Plus, there are two bombs that clear a square and cave ins that fill in a square. 

Still, it’s pretty simple. Even the most advanced rules, which have you start a new network if you finish one, are simple. This isn’t a brain burning puzzle. It’s a way to amuse yourself for a few minutes.

And for me, it works. I pause. I shuffle the tiles. I play a quick game. I’m done. I’m more relaxed and I had a good time. I go back to the rest of my life.

And, yes, if Ambagibus had any real set or clean up time, if it took even ten minutes to play, I wouldn’t be playing it as much as I have and I wouldn’t be enjoying it so much. It is literally just a way of pausing for me.

But that’s something I can use, at least at the moment. And I’m sure I’ll get bored or burnt out with it but Ambagibus has already vastly exceeded the value of the time and materials it took for me to make it.

I do have to compare it to Cheese Chasers, a very similar PnP game that came out around the same time and has a similar level of ease of construction and play. Cheese Chasers is a little more complicated but I think has even less depth. Not only are the decisions in Cheese Chasers simple, the patterns you create are very repetitive. I got bored with Cheese Chasers quickly but Ambagibus is still fun.

I wasn’t surprised when I saw that the designer, P. D. Magnus, is the same person who developed the Decktet. I think the Decktet is a brilliant piece of work. Ambagibus isn’t nearly as good but I can see how it didn’t come out of a vacuum.

I can’t say that Ambagibus is a PnP that everyone has to go out and make. It’s not a perfect or amazing game. But I’ve had a lot more fun with it than I expected.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Another thing that makes me feel old

I recently saw a list of games from 2012 and realized that that was the last year I was really paying attention to what was coming out. Oh, I have played games that were published since then and I have some idea of what’s hot but that’s the last time I really was trying to keep track and play a lot of new games.

Becoming a Dad, moving across the country and other such real life stuff had a lot to do with that. But, as I have said before, there are so many games coming out these days, I don’t think anyone can keep up with it all :D

Yeah, that makes me feel old but I’m okay with that.

When all those life changes were taking place, I told myself that I would get caught up later and that I would get back to having my finger on the pulse of the gaming world. Now, I’m pretty sure that won’t happen and, unless it was how I made my living, I don’t think it would be worth it.

Plus, I’ve become more interested in lighter, casual games. I either don’t have the time or don’t want to make the time to learn lots of longer games. Oh, I’m not writing them all off. I’d like to someday get Scythe or whatever it’s successor is and I’m not getting rid of Reef Encounter. I’ve just become a lot fussier about my longer games. I’d rather find a few longer games I want to play over and over.

And I’ll keep look at ‘best of’ lists. I figure if a game is still in print and still beloved after a year, it will be worth seriously looking into. I’ll let someone else do the hard work for me :D

I guess I’d rather play games rather than constantly find new games. Even though I’m sure I’ll miss some gems, I’ll still be rolling in gems.

GenCon reminds me that I’m old :D

While I haven’t been to GenCon since 2014, I’m still on the mailing lists and recently got an email about how hotels in the city are full up but there was still vacancies in the suburbs. Now, I know this is because GenCon’s housing department pretty much buys out the city and there’s some kind of lottery to get rooms but that’s still a far cry from my GenCon 2000 experience, where I drove up to Milwaukee for the day and had no problems getting in or getting into events.

Over the sixteen or so GenCons that I attended, things sure changed a lot. Some of that may have been my own perceptions but the convention definitely is different than it was almost twenty years ago. It’s much bigger, more family-oriented and more commercial.

This may be rose-tinted glasses speaking but I am convinced that, back in those olden days, when we had to chase triceratops out of the exhibit hall, events tended to be volunteer/amateur/works-of-love based. I ended up in my longest-running campaign because a group that turned out to be close to me ran an event that was a one-shot set in their campaign.

Frankly, in those ancient times, GenCon was really more of a local event. And the crust of the Earth was still cooling.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying things were better back then. The pterodactyl drumsticks were bigger, sure, but high speed internet is the bomb. I’m not the “you kids get off my lawn” guy. I’m more the “wait, I have a lawn?” guy.

Truth to tell, GenCon has to change and evolve. The world has changed. Gaming, the game market and the gaming community has changed. If it didn’t change, it’d be dinosaur bones in Milwaukee. I hope to take my son someday to the modern GenCon but I don’t know if I’d take him to the old one. And if you want that local feel, there are a lot more local cons these days.

But man have things changed. You’re not going to get a chance to game with the Piltdown Man in today’s GenCon.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Further adventures in purging

My latest round of purging had the most prosaic of reasons. We needed storage space for our son’s new tricycle and some of his other stuff. You know, when I have to get rid of games for that kind of reason, I feel like I am doing something right.

I remember hearing about a dad who had to turn his man cave into nursery. Eventually, he had just three pendants on the wall. It was told as a tragedy but I decided it was a story about how kids and families and hobbies work. When we were expecting our doodle, I knew that I’d have my own version of that story.

Maybe my son will end up really into board games and we will end up with a closet or a room devoted to games. Maybe he won’t. But, right now, he will get the storage space he needs!

(When he’s a teenager, we may have very different views on storage space)

Oh, so that’s what the Graveyard Book is about!

I didn’t realize that the Graveyard Book was Neil Gaiman’s version of the Jungle Book (only in a graveyard!) until the afterwards. Which is particularly funny since I found myself thinking that The Witch’s Headstone followed the structure of The King’s Ankus. (Yes, I’ve read the Second Jungle Book)

The Graveyard Book won lots of awards, even by Neil Gaiman standards. However, it somehow went over my head when it came out. Life has a way back of being complicated that way :P

I just finished the book up and I have a feeling that, as time goes by, I’m going to like and appreciate the book more and more. Rereading it knowing that it is a tribute to Kipling will probably really help. I might reread the two Jungle Books and then reread the Graveyard Book.

At the end of the book, I really wanted and didn’t want a sequel. (Although I understand The Ocean At The End Of the Lane shares a setting so that might count in some ways :P) Part of me wanted to know what happens next to Nob and more about all the mysterious and apparently epic stuff that happened off-screen. On the other hand, I think that would weaken the work a lot. Sometimes, what we don’t know makes us treasure what we do know.

When I was actually reading the book, I amused and I enjoyed myself. However, I didn’t find myself thinking that it was one of Gaiman’s greats. But, looking back, looking at the ways he subverted my expectations and restrained himself to keep the mystery alive, I think it is.

Yeah, this will get reread.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

I wish there had been five Chase Magnus books

I hadn’t actually planned on reading the Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard trilogy right off the bat this year but I ended up doing it anyway.

I’ve now read four of Rick Riordan’s mythology series (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, The Kane Chronicles, The Heroes of Olympus and now Magnus Chase, plus some of the supplemental works) and I have to say that, if our son likes fantasy, he’s growing up at a great time. (Harry Potter is going to come first, though. Priorities)

And, yes, I clearly am having a lot of fun reading his books :D 

Magnus Chase was fun, although I still feel that the Heroes of Olympus is the strongest series (to be fair, it had a whole other series to help develop it before hand) It definitely isn’t a good place to start reading Riordan, since it has a lot of references to the Greek/Roman books, Annabeth from those books is Magnus’s cousin (which we learn right off the bat so I’m not spoiling anything)

I’m not going to go into the plot or spoil anything. The books fit Riordan’s formula of mixing the silly and dramatic with a road trip plot. (What is nice about his road trip plots is that everything ties together. There are no scene just thrown in and never referenced again) You know, it works and it works well.

Instead, I want to commit on how Riordan handles power creep and what I felt was the biggest flaw with the Magnus Chase books.

In Riordan’s universe, Percy Jackson is established as just about the most powerful demigod. But as new books come out and new protagonists are introduced... Percy is still the top of the heap. I found that interesting. I feel like Riordan makes a real point of creating contrasting characters.

Magnus, part of the dark and brutal Norse pantheon, is technically the wimpiest protagonist so far. In that he’s a worse fighter than Percy or Carter or Sadie or Jason etc. However, he has his own strengths with healing and insight and being just darn cunning. He’s a trickster hero.

(Also, to be fair, while Percy is the most powerful as far as beating stuff up, he’s also the densest of the heroes. Which is kind of necessary plot wise, since it means people have to explain stuff to him and the audience. It also makes him work well as a tool to Annabeth. He’s the Superman to her Batman)

While I really had a lot of fun with Magnus Chase, it has this major issue for me. Too many characters. By my count, there are eight characters who have meaningful character arcs and that’s just too many for three books. Some of those arcs just felt crammed in, leaving me wanting more. 

Admittedly, Riordan really left a lot of sequel hooks dangling so I won’t be surprised if we see these characters in future novels. There’s definitely more room the characters to grow.

Of course, he is also working on a third Greek/Roman series. And I would like to see more about Egypt and the Kanes. And, you know, an Aztec series would be fun...

Riordan is just a lot of fun to read. And I appreciate how he respectfully included LGBT characters (slight spoiler, very much so in the Magnus Chase books) since he knows he has young LGBT readers.

Actually, I have to comment on this. He has Magnus familiar with LGBT kids because he was homeless for two years. And that is truth is fiction. There’s a lot of homeless LGBT kids out there in real life.

Ultimately, my problem with Magnus Chase is I wanted more. So, I'm glad Riordan is still pretty young.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Muddled memories of Mayfair ribbons

I thought long and hard about what else I wanted to write about Mayfair Games closing up shop while that was still fresh and on my mind. I mean, when I started really playing and collecting games, Mayfair and Rio Grande were the two major ways to get European-style games in the US (Boy, has that ever changed) I’ve played a lot of different games that I got from them. 

But when I started looking through the lengthy list of games Mayfair has published or distributed over the decades, I realized it was too wide a range to really pin down. I’ve already written about Catan and I’ve never cared for the crayon train games (For me, they've always been hours of tiny, incremental moves) Too many games to generalize.

However, what has been uniquely Mayfair for me has been my experiences with the company at Origins and GenCon.

Yeah, I’m talking about the ribbons.

I’m not sure when Mayfair started the ribbon program. I want to say that it was around 2005 or 2006 but I am convinced I went to a few years before the ribbons came along. If I’m wrong, I’m sure someone will correct me.

Here’s how it worked. You could earn different ribbons named for the different resources in Catan by demoing various Mayfair games. When you had a set of the five resources, Mayfair marked the ribbons (since you got to keep them) Then you got some tchotchke, a raffle ticket and (most importantly) a 50% off almost anything Mayfair coupon.

You could trade ribbons with other folks or trade in three of a kind for another. Since, at least initially, train games were the only way to get Ore, that encouraged a lot trading of one kind or another. Almost all the train games took place in the Puffin Billy room and were longer than the other games.

Now, I might be completely wrong about these next two memories and I’m sure someone will call me out about it if I am. But I believe Mayfair didn’t add the resources from Cities and Knights until a least a year later, those let you get a Knight of Catan ribbon, along with another raffle ticket and another tchotchke.

And, I would swear that GenCon didn’t have a lot of Essen style demo tables when I first started going in 1999. (I’d also swear it was mostly war games and RPGs) I _think_ Mayfair was one of the first companies to do that at GenCon. The last time I went to GenCon in 2014, companies had demo tables everywhere.

There are two games that I got to really enjoy, entirely due to the ribbon program. Station Master, because it was the shortest game to get Ore so we played it every year, and Patrician, which was one of the handful of games at the Knight level. I had previously tried out both games at minimal player levels and not liked them. Thanks to the ribbons, I played them in larger player counts and found they were really good then.

The ribbon program was a big part of our convention experiences. Me and my friends, we’d look forward to playing those games and getting rewarded for it :D It changed the way we experienced the exhibit hall.

Grave Robbing, I mean, archeologist in my pocket

Raiders in My Pocket was an interesting PnP project for me. While I’ve played the original Zombie in My Pocket literally dozens of times, I’ve never actually made or played any of the variants. I also found it interesting that the entire game fit on one double-sided page of counters.

If you’re not familiar with the family of games, you build a map of of tiles while playing event cards as you move your pawn from tile to tile. Part of what makes it clever is the event deck serves as a timer. Every time you reshuffle, time passes. And if you don’t complete your objective, time _will_ run out.

The main difference between Raiders and Zombie is that you have one more stage of time. However, you also have to get back to the start tile. And, when you grab the idol that is your goal (BECAUSE IT BELONGS IN A MUSEUM!), you automatically start the last time stage. 

If you’re like me and ended up using all the tiles to find the idol (more than once), that’s pretty much a death sentence, even using the ‘free’ flee action. The original Zombie in My Pocket was a luckfest but Raider in My Pocket is even more of a one.

Buuut... that doesn’t bother me. While there is some strategy to how you build the map and use resting and fleeing, luck was always a huge part of Zombie in My Pocket experience. What really sold the game was the theme and how it told a story.

And Raiders continues that tradition. It is very thematic in how it uses art and how it tells the story of being a grave-robbing bandit, er, I mean an archeologist. And it definitely keeps the tension high.

Is it more fun than Zombie? Eh. However, I don’t have a set of Zombie made right now and I’m just as happy to spend a few minutes playing Raiders in My Pocket.

Truth to tell, my biggest take away from the experience was from the crafting. While it was neat to only have one sheet of components, the tiny bits made it a real pain to cut and laminate. I definitely learned some lessons about PnP crafting.

If I were to craft it again, I’d definitely do things differently. But the next time I craft a In My Pocket game, it will probably be something else, something new to explore.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Sometimes, there’s just a flat out better game that does the same thing

While I am trying to get more ambitious about my PnP builds, I’m still perfectly willing to print out a one-page Roll and Write game and give it a whirl. When I found ‘Not Another One’ in my regular combing for PnP files, I decided to give it a shot. (Yes, the quotes are part of them name)

You play the game by filling out a three by three grid with die rolls, one die roll at a time. Each row and column has a target number, one that you are trying to get the three numbers you write in to add up to.  You score points equal to the difference between the number. If you get the number right, you get -5 points for that row or column. Low score is the goal.

A full game is three boards. If you’re playing multi-player, everyone uses the same boards so you’re working with the same target numbers. The PnP comes with six sets of three so, as long as everyone has a sheet, you can play six games before you have to print more or start erasing.

Well, I printed ‘Not Another One’ out and dashed off a bunch of solitaire games. I will say my scores got steadily better after the first game and getting even one -5 on a board really helped.

Okay, it was impossible for me to play ‘Not Another One’ and not compare to It to Wurfel Bingo/High Score and that was not a comparison that did ‘Not Another One’ any favors. Wurfel Bingo is another Bingo-with-strategy/Take It Easy style game. You fill out a five-by-five grid with the results of two dice and score columns, rows and diagonals with poker-like combinations. And it is frankly better in every way.

Wurfel Bingo gives you more choices by having sixteen more spaces and wider options by not having the target numbers effectively restricting your choices. More importantly, it gives you the bell-shaped curve of two six-sided dice. You can make decisions based on those probabilities while ‘Not Another One’ gives every number an equal chance of being rolled.

In isolation, ‘Not Another One’ is an okay, maybe even cute little time filler. However, the just-as-accessible Wurfel Bingo definitely hurts it as a choice. And if I was playing with other people, Wurfel Bingo would be my choice every time.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Why Mayfair Games mattered to me

On Friday, February 9, Mayfair Game’s announced that they were closing up shop.

Let’s be honest. It wasn’t a giant surprise. When Mayfair sold Asmodee the US rights to the Catan franchise a couple years ago, it was obvious that things were winding down or at least changes were in the air.

For me and a lot of my friends, it’s the end of an era. Although, to avoid being too melodramatic, I got to admit I’m sure most of the games are still going to keep on getting printed, just without a Mayfair logo. But Mayfair was a big part of our lives.

And all that can really be explained by Catan. 

First of all, Mayfair, of course, brought Settlers of Catan over to the US. And Settlers of Catan was a major entry point for me and many of my friends into the world of games outside war games and mass market games. I first played it in 2002 or 2003 when visiting a friend in another state and it took me a little while to really get up to speed. But it was a big deal.

Second, the Catan tournament scene. While I have played in the tournaments over the years, I was never that serious about it. But a lot of my friends were very serious. (I’ll be honest, part of my participating in the tournaments was so I could hang out with them)

But, over the years, playing over the years, even I got to know and become friends with the folks with regularly played in the tournaments. I also got to know a number of the people who worked for or with Mayfair. I’m certainly not claiming to be any kind of insider but I was at least part of the extended family of the serious tournament players.

What I’m not doing a great job saying is that Mayfair didn’t just introduce to games but the way they ran their tournaments introduced me to a lot of people and friends. They didn’t just help me  develop my hobby but honestly changed my life.

When I started writing this, I thought about talking about some of the other games Mayfair has produced or my GenCon experiences with Mayfair. And I might still write about those. I mean, I could write a couple blogs just about train games and I never even got into crayon train games. And I still might. 

But this is the most important thing I have to say about Mayfair.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Spoiler: I’m planning on getting Kingdomino

I’ve been writing a lot about PnP lately since I’ve been spending so much time both making and playing PnP games lately. However, I haven’t completely forgotten about actual published copies of games or maybe even buying some.

What’s been on my mind lately is if I should buy Kingdomino or just skip to Queendomino. 

Amusingly enough, neither one is on my short list of games to buy. And, of course, I haven’t played either one.  However, they keep on coming up in my online reading and so they are on my mind a lot.

And, even though I am both very space conscious and budget conscious, Kingdomino is both small enough and priced low enough that getting both isn’t an issue. Which is probably what I’ll end up doing.

That said, I’ve regularly read that Queendomino is the deeper, more interesting game and more suited for gamers, which is how I still see myself :P And I already have a lot of short, simple tile-laying games. Is Kingdomino going to be that different than the ones I already have?

Going around and around in my head, I think the answer is really go get Kingdomino now and almost assuredly end up picking up Queendomino later.

Basically because of all the reasons it won the Spiel des Jahres. The tile drafting adds a layer that pushes it over other simple tile-laying games. It’s also going to be more accessible for non-gamers. 

Frankly, I’m hoping that Kingdomino will fill that magic spot of being a game we want to play regularly on work nights when we are tired and frazzled. Not too short and not too conflict heavy. And it will probably be more our four-year-old’s speed than Queendomino.

While it hadn’t been on my list of games to pick up, I’ll probably end up with Kingdomino this year.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Fussy cutting

When I was cutting out Raiders in My Pocket, Carrie told me that I was fussy cutting. Which was a term I had never heard before but I understood what it meant immediately. Well, it didn’t hurt that I was doing it at the time.

Since then, I now break down on my projects into fussy-cut and non-fussy-cut.

One of the most useful tools I’ve found for print-and-play has been the paper cutter. In fact, we’re on our second one and I’m not sure how many times we’ve put a new blade on the one we have now. If a project needs straight cuts, like a sheet of cards for instance, a paper cutter makes it a _lot_ easier.

But if I have a whole bunch of little pieces on one laminating sheets, I’m not able to make this big straight cuts. That’s when I have to get out of the scissors and make a lot of the little cuts, fussy cutting. If you can line up twenty or more tiles or chits in a laminating pouch perfectly and feed it through a laminator without jarring them, you are doing so much better than me.

Earlier this year, I made the demo copy of Tiny Epic Zombies, which was the largest project I’ve made this year and one of my largest projects period. (But I am getting more ambitious) But it’s mostly big tiles and cards. The one page of Raiders in My Pocket took me longer to cut :D

Which isn’t to say that I am going to avoid fussy cut projects. While I have said and continue to support the idea that you can have a healthy PnP hobby with no or minimal construction projects (Welcome to Dino World, Wurfel Bingo, Knizia’s Decathlon, and Utopia Engine, to name a few examples), I have been getting more and more into construction. Mostly because it’s fun, really.

If a project requires fussy cutting, that just means I have to budget more time for the construction.

Mechanique: a dream-filled novel

Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti by Genevieve Valentine manages to take a bunch of themes you and I have both seen plenty of times before (supernatural circus, post-apocalyptic life, streampunk) and still come up with something striking and original.

In large part, this is due to the honestly lovely writing. The book meanders, moving between the past and present as well as the first, third and even second person. And not only did I not mind, I really enjoyed it. It’s a dreamy, uneasy style that did a great job drawing me in.

There’s going to be some spoilers coming up but they won’t be as bad as you’d think.

In post-apocalyptic world where warfare is ever present and governments fall on a regular basis, we follow a circus that is seemingly made-up of clockwork cyborgs. Which quickly but not shockingly turns out to be a lie. The ringleader is effectively a necromancer and the clockwork cyborgs are really undead.

Which sounds like this is a horror story or at least that the circus is some kind of nightmare place. Instead, Boss, the ringleader, is compassionate if stern and cares for the dead under her care. 

And the dead aren’t mindless zombies or evil monsters. They remain who they were, with all of the flaws and complexities they had when they were alive. And they can still grow and change.

In fact, the circus is a fragile oasis of peace in a violent world. And while the old saw that humans are the real monsters definitely is a through line in the book, the people in the circus are still humans and the outer world isn’t shown to be just bad.

The book is really a triumph of mood and characterization over plot. The plot itself wasn’t that interesting. But the moody, broody tone and the flawed characters that moved through this twilight world of war and desperation, that was engaging and what kept me hooked.

I didn’t think I was going to praise Mechanique as much as I’ve ended up doing. But, at the end of the day, it’s a book I enjoyed and am going to remember.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

It’s not a Pharaoh’s Decisions

When I started crafting games this year, I made an informal pledge to try each game at least five times. It doesn’t hurt that I’ve been focusing on quick, solitaire games so that’s not that hard a thing to try and do.

It’s a Pharaoh’s Life is probably going to be an exception to that rule and I’m fine with that.

To be fair, there’s no construction involved. You just print out a couple pages of tables. Then, you roll on the tables to see what happens to your pharaoh until you finally get to an event that kills them. You can also roll to see what happens to their mummy.

I’ve glossed over a few elements. You randomly roll up stats that you need to roll under for some events. But that doesn’t change the fundamental truth about It’s a Pharaoh’s Life: literally all you do is roll a die and see what happens. The only decision you make in the entire game is to decide to play the game.

I actually was amused by the game. I rolled up that my pyramid was a gigantic one so my mental narrative had every problem come up because I was bankrupting the kingdom to build up the tomb. Since the thing is tables on PDF, I could play the game on my phone with a dice app and if you needed to come up with the history of a pharaoh for an RPG, I guess you could use this.

However, there’s no way I can, in good consciousness, recommend It’s a Pharaoh’s Life to anyone. It’s not really a game. It’s just a very simple story engine and not that interesting a one. There’s no decisions and nothing to do. It’s not the worst example of this I’ve seen (RLC, anyone?) but it’s still not good. I feel like the fact that I had fun was a character flaw in me than anything about the game.

Man, I like to carry around games

The idea of having some kind of travel kit of games has pretty much always been a part of my gaming life from the start. Before I found any regular groups, a lot of my games were pickup games at restaurants and coffee shops. I didn’t have a game closet. I had a game bag.

Over the years, the bag has changed, depending on circumstances and depending on what struck my fancy. Going to a convention, for instance, always meant a larger bag with a wide variety of choices.

There have been some distinct moments in how I pack a game bag. One of the more recent ones was the Pack O Game series, which gave me the ability to fit a game library into a large pocket. That’s become my go to for any time I’m going somewhere planning to game.

PnP has, more slowly, been affecting the bag. I hadn’t even really noticed until I realized that I was crafting stuff specifically for my every day bag. 

When I go out, I almost always take a daddy bag of things like wet wipes and snacks and spare clothes and water. It’s a satchel that’s been repurposed from carrying work documents around.

And I’ve almost always had a few games that live in the satchel, for when I don’t have any plans for gaming but just in case. Pico 2 has had years of being carried around like that (and I know it will be back when I’m not worried about it getting damaged) and Cinq-0 and Cosmic Wimpout are a couple other standards. However, I got out of that habit when it became focused on baby stuff.

But the doodle has been getting bigger, which ironically means less stuff in the satchel. I almost absentmindedly made a few things like a copy of Bonsai Samurai to keep in the daddy bag. Potential time killers that were small and I wouldn’t care if they got trashed since I could replace them so easily. 

However, when I realized that I had made a copy of The Name of the God for my bag and was planning on making a 1-3 player version of Autumn and a PnP copy of Hive (I have a full Bakelite copy but laminated tiles will take up almost no space), I realized I was making PnP games to always have on me that were more than just time fillers.

I wouldn’t call them disposable games since, particularly after I laminate them, they should hold up to abuse and plenty of use. However, the fact that it won’t be a big deal if they do get wrecked is part of why I am making them to live in my satchel. 

Oh, when it comes time to go somewhere where I’m expecting to game, stuff like Pack O Games and For Sale and High Society are getting packed in a bigger satchel. But it’s nice to plan out a little ziplocked baggy of fun little games to always have.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Cramming an economic game into nine cards

Farmers Finances is a weird game. It’s a commodity game that’s made up of nine cards. And two of them are basically just score cards! It’s a game where you buy and sell the same six cards over and over.

There are four wheat cards with bread on the other side, plus two cow cards. There are two score/money cards, one for each player or a spare to use as a timer if you play solitaire. And you have a market card which randomly determines basically if there’s a high supply or demand each turn.

On your turn, you can do one of three things: buy one card; flip one or more wheat cards over to their more valuable bread side; sell all of one type of card. If someone buys the last of the six commodity cards, there is an automatic sell phase where every card gets sold back to the market. 

The game ends when someone reaches seventy coins. If it’s the first player, the second player gets one last turn to try and exceed their score.

I went into Farmers Finances with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I found the idea of a minimalist economic game like this fascinating. Seriously, it’s a commodity game with only six commodities! That’s crazy. On the other hand, that’s crazy. I seriously wondered if the game was too bare bones, if it would fall apart from not having enough there.

After playing the solitaire variant several times... I still don’t know.

If Farmers Finances has any legs, the small footprint and short playing time will be a big part of it. The game is small enough you can play it on an airplane tray and still have room for drinks and peanuts. And I don’t think the barebones simplicity could support even a fifteen minute play time. But it might be good for five minutes and most games that short aren’t economic games.

I also have to wonder if the game can be easily solved. There’s an obvious of choice of either going for wheat to sell bread for the best return rate or going for cows which have a faster turn around. Of course, the market die roll will play crucial part in how much you earn or lose.

I suspect that bread is the better general strategy. Even if it costs you an extra turn, that can be the way of dodging a bad market role. But, in the two-player game which I haven’t tried yet, I don’t think anyone will be able to corner the market on wheat.

Farmers Finances has passed the first test of a PnP game for me. It has been worth printing out and laminating nine cards. It gets bonus points for me still interested in playing it. However, I don’t know if it will be a game that will still be interesting after, say, a dozen plays and I still don’t know how it will play with two players.

I don’t think it has the legs to be a part of my regular toolbox but it fascinates me enough that I keep on playing. 

Monday, February 5, 2018

Paper Towns: Perhaps too honest

Last year, I read John Greene’s Looking For Alaska on a whim and found it a strong critique of idealizing someone. It basically was an argument against the idea that the wild and crazy girl who you have a crush on is somehow going to be the key to making your life better. Since it’s a book aimed at teenagers, that’s an important lesson.

When reading about Looking for Alaska after reading it, I read that his later book Paper Towns addressed the same topic but was more cheerful. So I decided to read it.

And I liked it a whole lot less, probably because John Greene did his job too well.

The book is broken down into three parts: boy has an adventure with a girl; girl disappears and boy investigates; boy goes looking for girl. 

Here was why I didn’t enjoy the book: John Greene depicts teenagers as a self-centered, hypocritical  jerks who have a lot of growing up to do. Which I think is a really accurate depiction. But, unlike Looking for Alaska, I wasn’t given a good reason to sympathize with the narrator, Q. In fact, I didn’t really have a particularly good reason to sympathize with Margo, the girl who he was chasing.

To be fair, I enjoyed the last act much more than the rest of the book. Without giving important spoilers away, it was much more dynamic. However, the character growth of the main character felt like the growth a teenager thinks they’re having, as opposed to serious maturing. Also to be fair, that seems like a realistic depiction of a teenager.

Amusingly enough, I found the beta couple, Ben and Lacey both more interesting and sympathetic. They have an actual relationship and, while much of it takes place off camera, they have learned a lot about each others’ flaws and how to deal with them by the end.

Paper Towns may have succeeded too well for me to enjoy it. That said, The Fault Is In Our Stars is on my list of books to read relatively soon.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Did Cheese Chasers hold up?

It was inevitable that, as I have gone on exploring PnP solitaires, that I would end up revisiting Cheese Chasers. I made a copy and played it a few times back on 2009, around when it first came out. I had been playing Zombie in My Pocket at the time so I was more interested in PnP and solitaire than I usually was. (Obviously that’s changed!)

Cheese Chasers, at least as a solitaire, is a simple game that is made up of two sheets of tiles and nothing else. You lay out one tile randomly drawn at a time. Half of them are mice, which you use to surround cheese tiles and mousetrap tiles. Cheese for points and mousetraps since too many free mousetraps automatically loses the game. Plus there are cats who neutralize mouse tiles.

That rule I found the most interesting is that you either have to place tiles side to side (like every tile laying game known to humanity) or corner to corner. And I still like that. Mind you, the game would fall apart without that rule since surrounding cheese and mousetraps would be vastly harder without it. But it still doubles your options. And, coming back to Cheese Chasers after all these years, I really like the tension the mousetraps add. The game would be deathly dull without them.

Okay. Here goes. What do I think of Cheese Chasers now?

Some of the PnP games that I tried out back in the mists of time, quite frankly before I realized I was any kind of PnP guy, have held up surprisingly well. Micropul is elegant and it’s hand management is downright brilliant. Zombie in My Pocket is a luckfest but it is so tense and thematic.

Cheese Chasers... Well, it hasn’t held up as well. The decisions aren’t hard. You make a point of making a checker pattern of mice so you can fill in the holes with cheese and mousetraps and try and have room to stick cats off to the side. The fundamental tension of the game is if you can set up a pattern of mice before too many mousetraps come out.

Earlier this year, I tried out Autumn, another tile laying PnP. It’s even simpler than Cheese Chasers but it’s tighter in its simplicity and has more interesting decisions through out. I couldn’t help but compare the two games and Autumn was honestly better.

Cheese Chasers isn’t a terribly game. I’m interested in the multi-player variants that have come out since I tried it last and I can see it as a game to play with my son in a year or two. There are much worse free PnP games.

I have to admit that I am more forgiving when in comes to free PnP games. Cheese Chasers is a little dull and predictable but I don’t consider those fatal flaws in a game that took me five minutes to make and five minutes to play. It’s not great but I’ll give it some more plays.

Mastermind and Deck Building with a four-year-old

We’ve had a couple interesting steps in teaching our son games.

The other night, he saw me playing Ascension on the iPad and wanted to know more. I did my best to explain how deck builders work to him and what each pile of cards meant.

It probably would have worked better with actual physical cards :P And Ascension also is kind of beyond a four-year-old’s reading level. Still, I appreciated his interest and he got some of the concepts.

I do wonder what a deck builder designed for folks too young would be like. Maybe a color-based game where the goal is to lay down a rainbow of cards with each color having a simple symbol on it. A card to draw a card, a hand to play another card or a dollar sign to add another card from the stock cards to your discard pile. Actually, I can see a lot of problems but it’s an idea.

We had much better luck teaching him Mastermind for Kids. Mommy helped him put together codes for Daddy to solve and showing how to assess each of Daddy’s answers. He didn’t have it quite down but he was most of the way there. 

Actually, over the last couple months, his interest and understanding of games has been increasing. Dare I hope for Castles of Burgundy by the summer :P