Thursday, September 27, 2018

Sometimes the point is to NOT nuke Atlantis

Well, I have to eat my words about Stoke-Birmingham 0-0. When I first read it, I couldn’t ever imagine playing it. The whole concept of game poems, which it coined the phrase, was one that I questioned.

Thanks to the power of forums, I have now played it. To be sure, playing via forum definitely takes away from immediacy that is clearly a key part of the game poem concept. On the other hand, gathering folks together to play a fifteen minute game is a tough sell and playing via forum definitely helps mitigate that.

And not only am I glad that I finally played Stoke-Birmingham, I would play it again.

Stoke-Birmingham 0-0 has you simulate being some Stoke supporters who are drinking after a really boring game. The game lasts fifteen minutes when you play it live and one of the most important rules is that you are not to say or do anything interesting. The point of the game is to embrace the banal.

At this point, I have played a variety of narrative games. There is a term that is actually in the rules of Microscope, one of my favorite narrative games, Nuking Atlantis. Microscope has a global scope so the term can be literal in a game. That’s doing something extreme, a story changer that permanently affects things.

And I love doing that or seeing it happen. Well, most of the time. I was in a Fiasco game set in the Wild West where a weaselly gambler at the very end decided that he was secretly a mystic kung fu guy, summoned up a giant golden dragon and flew through a magical portal to join in the battle of Helm’s Deep. (Yes, he had a ton of white dice)

There was something amazing in the audacity of that but that’s not what you play Fiasco for. We will never forget that game but that derailed the game so hard that the proverbial train not only left the tracks but flew straight into the sun. We all agreed we had witnessed some kind of spontaneous magic and we never wanted it to happen again in a game of Fiasco.

Nuking Atlantis can be an exhilarating choice but a key element of Stoke-Birmingham is that it is the non-Nuking Atlantis RPG. The rules explicitly state that you can’t do anything interesting. You are embodying dull people doing dull things. (I wonder what real life Stoke supporters would think of it)

And you know what? That’s a legitimate challenge and trying to no be interesting becomes interesting in its own way. It’s an unusual space to explore, bored sports fans drinking, but as you explore it, you find there is something to explore. Looking back at our game, I felt like we were embracing our inner Raymond Carver and inner Breece D’J Pancake.

Stokes-Birmingham 0-0 was the first game to use the term Game Poem, although I bet you can find earlier games that can retroactively fit the bill. For me, a game poem should ideally try to evoke one specific idea/emotion. It is such a short form that it can only be a snapshot, only has one bullet to fire.

Exploring the banal and the dull seems like an odd place for what became its own RPG form to start. However, by taking us there and showing us how it could be interesting and engaging, Stokes-Birmingham proves how much we can do with game poems.

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

Parents breaks with print and play

Looking at the Print and Play solitaire games I have played over the last several months, I’ve noticed that some of them not only play in a few minutes, they require minimal decisions. They are more like momentary activities than games :)

The designer of Down used the term parent break, which is probably the perfect description of them for me. They are a way for me to take a quick breath when I don’t have time or space for even a five-minute game that requires any real thought. Games like Down or Muses or Ambagibus fill that niche.

For me at least, brevity is only part of the equation. Not having to think hard is also part of it. Very short games like Murderer’s Row or Orchard, which I enjoy a lot, feel too much like ‘real’ games. There has to be a zen ritual quality to parent break games :D

And here’s the thing. If it were not for PnP, I would not have any games that fit this description. Sorry but I wouldn’t pay money for them. The cost of time and materials is small enough that they really are next to nothing.

I did buy Onirim when it came out, which is a purchase well worth making. But not only does it take longer to play, it has a _lot_ more decisions.

My explorations of PnP over the last couple years have been interesting. Exploring this little niche of Parent Breaks is not one I expected.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Taking another look at Target shelves

I periodically check out the game shelves at Target. While I have grown used to seeing designer games at Barnes and Nobel, it is fascinating for me to see what Target will take a chance on.

The last time I looked, I was surprised by some of the things I saw. Century:Spice Road was pretty surprising. We are looking at family weight games but I view those as one of the bedrocks of the gaming industry. And they are also what got me into designer board games.

However, here’s a few things that really struck me on my last look.

Shadows in the Forest... is that a remake of Waldschattenspiel? A game that was a grail game when I first started collecting because open flame was a major component. And it’s in Target with an electric candle? (Well, I guess I can add my own live candle if I wanted to)

 Voltage is a game I bought when it first came out almost ten years ago. It was one of a couple games that Mattel (!) put out, presumably feelers to see if their market was ready for designer games. It’s still in my collection and I think it’s a nice, almost Balloon Cup game. I just never thought I would ever see it in print again, let alone in a place like Target.

Ticket to Ride:New York is something I didn’t even know existed until I saw it at Target... and I still don’t know how I feel about it. I love short games but Ticket to Ride condensed down to fifteen minutes might be cutting out too many choices.

That said, I’d have bought in an instant in my hording days but I’d get more out of it now either as a ‘the kid’s asleep, let’s game’ or introducing a preschooler to Ticket to Ride. I’d rather have New York than First Journey.

I’m not sure how I feel that three of my top ‘really need to buy’ games  are available at Target (Kingdomino, Santorini (which a friend bought for me), and Azul, by the way) are all available at Target. That really dings my gamer rep :P However, I think that it also says a lot about designer games becoming more and more mainstream in the United States.

Which isn’t the first time this has happened to me. When I started watching Doctor Who in the mid-80s, it was an eccentric thing to do :D

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

House guests means gaming (or at least it should)

Our friend Nate visited four a couple days, which always means gaming. This was a relatively quick visit but we still got in a couple games of our usual Race for the Galaxy and he taught me Santorini and Terraforming Mars.

I’d heard a lot about Terraforming Mars, how it combines engine building like Race for the Galaxy with a board and enough depth to really get your engine going. And part of me feels like it should have been the star of the visit.

But... a two-and-half hour game with a curious four-year-old was tough. I liked what I saw but I didn’t fall in love with it. I’d like to play Terraforming Mars more to get a better idea with the overall structure of the game and how it plays out. But that chunk of time is very hard for me to carve out, even if I wanted to try exploring it solitaire.

(Funny now at one point, being a grown up meant I could play longer games and now it means I really shouldn’t :D)

Santorini, on the other hand, hit a serious sweet spot for me. I am really into short, dynamic abstracts where each turn can dramatically change the board. Santorini does that in spades. And with the god cards, every game becomes a different nut to crack.

Santorini was the star of the gaming part of the visit for me. And he bought a copy for us so I think it is something we will really enjoy exploring.

The Zed Deck: a one deck zombie experience

I got interested in the Zed Deck when I started looking into games that you just play in your hands with no table or any other surface. It’s a solitaire game about scavenging for supplies in a zombie apocalypse while trying not to die horribly. 

It’s a print and play, consisting of a deck of fifty-four cards. That puts it out of the realm of the micro games I usually craft but it still isn’t a super hard build. In the interests of saving ink, I did make the no-art version (but I may eventually make a version with art)

Here’s the basic idea of the game. Every card shows an event, values in run and fight and a piece of equipment. Each turn, you flip over a card and try to resolve the event. Most give you a test in either or run or fight. You then choose to flip over one to three cards to get a fight or run value. Beat the test, get some supplies and maybe a piece of equipment. Fail and lose some health. Get through the deck, you survive and you get to measure how well you survived by the number of supplies you scavenged.

I’ve played the game both using a table and keeping all the cards in my hands. It’s not hard to play just in my hands, holding the one piece of equipment I’m allowed to carry sideways and putting discarded cards facing the other way in the back of the deck. It would be even easier if I hadn’t laminated the cards so they’re slippery :D I’ve used dice to track my health and supplies but I’ve also just kept track of them in my head, which isn’t hard in a five minute game.

On a whole, I like the Zed Deck. It isn’t perfect but the mechanics hold up. I would say the biggest issue is that health is so much more valuable than supplies. The tension of the game is trying not to burn through the deck too quickly so you can find supplies but you still win if you don’t die. Maybe if there was just a target number to count as a minimum win, like Micro Rome. As it is, if I’m getting low on health, I will burn through the deck to stay alive.

I understand folks have worked on variations to address that issue and I’m planning on looking into them. I feel like the Zed Deck is just a few tweaks from being a a game I’d play a lot more.

One thing that really works for me is the theme. I’m not a big zombie guy but the deck ends up telling a story. Even without art, the names and natures of events, along with the flavor text, really succeeds at invoking the tropes of the zombie genre. The theme successfully makes the Zed Deck engaging.

The chief virtues of the Zed Deck is the theme and the table-free Play. Which is enough that I know it will see periodic play for me but it won’t become a game I’m playing every week. Palm Island is currently my gold standard for table-free gaming and the Zed Deck can’t compete. However, I really wonder what I would have thought if I’d found it when it came out in 2011.

Friday, September 14, 2018

Orchard is nine cards of brilliance

Orchard: A Nine Card Solitaire Game (which will be called just Orchard from here on out) won the best overall game award in this year’s Nine Card PnP Contest. I haven’t played enough of the runner ups to judge but Orchard has entered into my stable of regularly played solitaire games.

Orchard is a nine-card tile laying game, something that I’d have thought of as ridiculous a few years ago. And here’s the thing: it not only works but it’s actually good. As far as I’m concerned, that’s an amazing accomplishment.

Mind you, it’s not just nine cards. You also have to use fifteen dice and a couple of markers. That said, you have to use meeples to play Carcassonne. It’s not like it’s a cheat. And I have tried playing without the dice and markers, just using mental bookkeeping. But that’s a pain and makes figuring out your score take a lot longer. Just use the dice.

Each card is double sided and shows a six fruit trees that come in three different types: lemons, apples and plums. You place cards by overlapping cards. Like trees have to go over like trees, using the dice to track the number of layers using the one, three and six pips with four layers and six points bring the maximum. You have two spoiled fruit tokens that let you stack different types of trees but each one costs you three points and you can’t cover that tree. You also have only five dice per type of tree and if you out of dice, you can’t stack that type. After you place all nine cards, count up pips and subtract spoiled fruit for your score.

Having eighteen card faces (you could make eighteen single-face cards and deal out nine per game), the overlapping and the restriction of five dice per type of tree creates a lot of variability in the play and thus a lot of replay. 

My scores have been all over the place. Which probably means I’m not very good at Orchard but I think that also means there’s a lot of decisions and that there isn’t a formula that solves the game. The game only takes five minutes but I will argue that every card placement is a real decision.

The developer has come up with a multi-player variant: assigning a number to each card (I don’t know if he has adjusted faces in any way) and one player drawing a card and calling out it’s number. Everyone has their own set and builds their own orchard using the same cards in the same order. You know, exactly like Take It Easy. Which is clearly a very functional way to do it but I was hoping for fighting over one big orchard :P Still, I can picture Orchard getting published as a one to four player game with this change.

My baseline for PnP games is getting five or ten plays out of a project. It doesn’t hurt that I’m a lazy crafter so a lot of my projects are only a couple pages big. I rarely spend hours on a project and I usually get a decent return for what I put in.

Orchard blows that standard out of the water. Some games I’ll recommend if you like exploring PnP or unusual ideas or solitaire games. Orchard is a game that I would seriously suggest crafting or even ordering from a print on demand if you like short solitaire games. It’s one of the best PnPs I’ve tried and it’s only nine cards and works even in black and white. 

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Muses is amusing but flawed

Muses is a nine-card PnP solitaire from 2013, back before nine-card games were cool :P

In Muses, you try to win cards worth one to five points with die rolls using two six-sided dice. Every card is based on a classic Muse and uses what looks like Renaissance artwork (so its surprisingly ink heavy for nine cards :P)

There are several little twists. All but the three and four points cards have one-shot powers to adjust die rolls and you get three one-shot tokens to add or subtract one pip. It’s kind of like a very simplified To Court the King, really. And if you don’t get a card, you rotate it and it becomes more difficult (but not impossible) to win.

And, after you’ve gone through all nine cards, you win if you’ve earned twenty or more points.

Ooookay. There are some definite issues with this game.

As other folks have pointed out, there’s a total of twenty-three points in the game. So losing either the four or five point cards means you automatically lose. You need them both.

The game also has two strong luck elements: rolling dice and luck of the draw. Combined, they can sometimes make the game unwinnable or too easy to win. Having the aforementioned four or five card come out in the first turn or two can sink a game at the start. On the other hand, being able to get lower cards with their special one-shot powers out early can make winning much easier. 

Honestly, Muses seems to border on being an activity rather than a game. Sometimes you have no decisions or you must make such an obvious decision that it’s still not a real decisions.

Muses comes from a web site called Good Little Games, home of a wide variety of PnP Microgames. And, as time has gone on (I believe they had a hiatus), they had posted some very promising games. I keep an eye on the site and many of their game interest me. Muses is an earlier game and, frankly, not as good as what was to come. 

That being said, I don’t regret making a copy of Muses. I had a pretty good idea of its limitations going in. It’s real virtues are the short playing time and the small footprint. It has some interesting ideas but I think that nine cards are too few to really explore it. But it is still an  amusing process. It won’t be a new standard but it will see occasional play.

Okay, would I recommend it? Well, half-heartedly. It’s easy to craft and I like the dice manipulation. However, even if we’re talking just about nine card solitaires, there are definitely better ones. Orchard is an obvious example. So make it if you’re willing to accept that Muses is flawed but enjoyable.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The TransAmerica family: still evergreen

I recently took the chance to visit TransAmerica and TransEuropa. I used to call TransAmerica the navy blue blazer of my collection, a game suitable for just about any group or occasion. And I found them even better than I’d remembered.

TransAmerica was a standby in two of the groups I played with when I first seriously started playing board games. More importantly, it was the first game I played on breitspielwelt, which was my introduction to online gaming. The game and the interface was both simple enough that a complete newbie like myself could easily handle it. So I have a long and happy history with TransAmerica.

For them that haven’t played it, TransAmerica and TransEuropa are connection games where you try to connect five randomly selected cities before anyone else. The board is a map of the United States or Europe with a triangular grid on it. You take turns laying down track (little wooden sticks) on the grid. The clever bit is that the tracks are universal.  Connect to someone else’s tracks and they are yours too.

TransAmerica is a very simple game and I sometimes questioned that simplicity. After all, it’s easy to idolize complexity. However, while you don’t make a meaningful choice every turn, every round has three or four meaningful choices and the rounds are quick. You then have to see how those choices pan out. And TransAmerica really ramps up the tension fast. When folks are closing in on their last city, the table goes dead silent.

I always have known that TransAmerica is fun but, revisiting it, I am realizing how well designed it is. I commented on how I hadn’t seen any fan maps for the system, while I have for Ticket to Ride or Steam or such. A wiser person than me pointed out to me that other systems have ways of fudging the maps. Adjusting the value of tickets in Ticket to Ride or the freights in a crayon game or such. 

In the case of the TransAmerica system, every possible combination of cards has to be balanced and there’s no way to fudge that. I’m surprised that I never really thought about it but the very simplicity makes designing the maps very difficult.

With that in mind, I wonder if the Europe map is actually the more balanced map, having played the two back to back. I am very fond of the US map and I think that it is very accessible to new players and teaching. However, the choke point of the Rockies might weigh the west coast too heavily. I also wonder if the expansion, Vexation, which adds colored rails which count only for their player, actually hurts the tension of the game since the shared network are central to the game.

Regardless, the TransAmerica family has reaffirmed itself to me as a great game. Accessible to casual players while still fun for experienced players, they are evergreen and games I need to play more often.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Another round of mechanics versus chrome

When I first started really getting into games, mechanics were all I cared about. Theme and components were just window dressing that didn’t actually matter.

Since then, I have changed my mind, sometimes unwillingly. Chrome and theme can help convince people to actually play a game. They can help people learn and understand a game. And they can add a real level of aesthetic and tactile enjoyment to a game.

On the one hand, I’ve found a lack of theme can hurt game play and bad components can make a game literally unplayable. On the other hand, great components cannot save bad mechanics.

Let’s take Executive Decision for an example of how a lack of theme honestly hurt gameplay. Executive Decision is a Sid Sackson design from back in the day and the players create an economy where their decisions are entirely drive supply and demand. Mechanically, it’s simple but brilliant and the two or three guys I convinced to try it really liked it too.

But it has literally no theme. It’s all about buying raw materials to make finished goods to sell but they are all identified as letters. If you added some kind of details (having the game be about making cars or lamps or enchanted swords or mysterious robots or weird colored goo), it would make the game so much more accessible. (Has someone already done that?)

On the other hand, the best components in the world won’t save bad game mechanics. Anyone remember the Ology games from about ten years back (Dragonology, Pirateology, etc)?  They were famed for great components (at least for the time) and terrible gameplay. 

What can really be a problem is when components have so many issues that you struggle to physically play the game. The second edition of Robotology had such a flimsy board and tiny pieces, a deep sigh could blow everything off the table. Zombiegeddon has such color issues and muddy art that even my friends who could see colors had big problems.

Part of the reason I’ve been mulling this over again is because of my old friend PnP. Because publishers _should_ be able to make better components than I can.

While I have gotten better (maybe even much better) at making components, I still have some big limitations. For instance, our printer is black and white and I’m hard pressed to imagine buying a color printer when black and white works for just about any need we have.

I’ve been having a lot of fun with PnP games but it’s not for nothing that I’ve been focusing on solitaire games where the only person who has to be satisfied with the quality of the components. 

Still, I have reached the point where I can pretty much be sure that my PnP are functional. And many choices still look good in black and white (and some are flat out designed in black and white)

So I guess the question comes down to would these games be more fun with professional quality components. And I’m prepared to admit that the answer is probably yes. However, how much more fun :P

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Live out an Edwardian comedy with just a deck of cards

 is a solitaire game from a 2016 solitaire design contest. In it, you play a cad who is trying to seduce other men’s wives and steal their jewels. While the designer created an appropriately themed Edwardian deck, you can also just use a regular deck of cards to play, which is just what I did.

I’m not going to go over the rules in detail because they are free to download. The basic idea of the game is hand management, trying to discard cards until you just have a lone queen, which you set aside in your score pile. Aces, acting as their jewels, are never in your hand and can be scored if you score the matching queen.

The rules for discarding cards follow some prissy rules of manners. Cards of like suits or ranks are of similar social status and can be persuaded to go to another part of the country manor together. However, two queens can’t be together and a king will always take a queen of the same suit away. For a game that is so abstract and can be easily played with conventional cards, it’s ridiculously thematic. Playing it is like being in a risqué Wodehouse novel.

Shooting Party is a cute, decent little game. Being able to play with basically no construction is a nice from a PnP standpoint. After ten or so games, I’m pretty sure you can mitigate luck somewhat, even if luck of the draw can really nail you at times.

For me, the real pluses are a theme that I find really amusing and a five minute playing time. I have to admit, most of my solitaire plays are really short games and Shooting Party fits into that category nicely.

However, the highest score you can get is eight. I’ve only hit that once but I’ve had a decent number of sixes and sevens. I’m honestly not sure about the long term replay value of the game.

Mind you, particularly if you’re just using a regular deck of cards, that’s not a fatal flaw. You certainly can get more out of The Shooting Party than you have to put into it. However, there are some solitaire PnP games that have some really staying power, like Elevenses for One, and I don’t think the Shooting Party is one of them.

That said, I might eventually make the theme deck because I just find the theme so charming.

So, if you are into exploring solitaire games, check the Shooting Party out. But if you are mean and lean about solitaire games, it’s probably not for you.

Last RinCon fundraiser of the year

Over the weekend, I went to the third and last RinCon Fundraiser of 2018. The convention itself will be at the end of the month but every fundraiser is literally a micro convention. I never get tired of saying how amazing it is that I basically get three or four conventions a year ten minutes from our house.

I was there for about half the time. Found two guys who is famed with last time, grabbed a fourth and we were set for the next several hours. We ended up playing Favor of the Pharaoh, TransEuropa, TransAmerica, For Sale, Azul, Century: Spice Road and HUE. And this was my first time trying play Favor of the Pharaoh, Azul and Century: Spice Road, all games I’ve been wanting to try. (For the record, I think Favor is a superior successor to To Court the King and I really like To Court the King)


I’ve been wanting to revisit the TransAmerica family, which I’ve been playing off and on since 2003. And it did not disappoint. It’s been some years since I last played and I am actually more impressed with the design now. The rules are famously simple but that simplicity still creates brutal decisions and high tension. And the board design is amazing, to support drawing any combination of cards and reliably make them a pain.

I have been very interested in trying Azul. We are a house that loves Qwirkle and Ingenious and Azul seems right up our alley. Now I’ve played it and it is very high on my buy list. And these days, that’s not an easy list to get on.

My first impression of Century: Spice Road is that it’s the love child of Splendor and Sid Sackson’s Bazaar. (Second impression: Love child of _Dominion_ and Bazaar) I don’t view it as a Splendor killer but a splendid game of its own. It’s not on my buy list but definitely on my play again list.

I went into the fund raiser with high expectations and they were exceeded. I got in a lot of solid gaming, games that might be shorter and have ‘simple’ rule sets but games that also had really interesting decisions. After five years of going to their events, RinCon keeps on delivering.