Thursday, July 18, 2019

I hope Lantern is the first spark of what is to come

Lantern was the winner of the Best Game category in Boardgame Geek’s 2019 Roll and Write contest. So, of course I had to print it out and try it out. In fact, I laminated the play sheet because I figured it would see multiple play.

Lantern is, for all intents and purposes, a one-page dungeon crawl. It’s far from the first one-page dungeon crawl I’ve ever seen but it definitely has some touches I like. It’s a solitaire, which actually means I’ll play it more :D

At the start of the game, you roll six dice to create your adventurer. You assign the die to numbers to critical hit, counter attack, magic spell, constitution, and experience, as well as the special campfire area in the middle of the adventure. The first four let you manipulate the dice while experience and the campfire give you a limited way to recharge the abilities.

The sheet has been eight zones. Seven of them are encounters that require a specific combination of dice to defeat, ending in a dragon that requires six of a kind to kill. The other one is the campfire that I already mentioned.

As I mentioned before, there are a surprising number of one-page dungeon crawls out there and there’s some that I haven’t tried yet but I should. But the game that Lantern really reminds me of is Delve. Both games are just sets of encounters that you roll dice to resolve.

Delve is literally Yahtzee with dice combinations as special powers. Lantern, on the other hand, is all about dice manipulation. Of the two, I think I like Lantern better. You have both more control and more difficult choices since you can only use each manipulation a limited number of times and they are also your life points.

Not that I want to disparage Delve. It’s aged pretty well and still gives you a decent dungeon crawl experience in five, ten minutes. Not to mention that I’m pretty sure it’s been an influence on the genre and I’d be surprised if Lantern’s designer never heard of it. However, it’s biggest advantage in a comparison is a lot of extra material has been designed for it, including a scenario generator.

However, from what I’ve read, the current version of Lantern is still a work in progress. It sounds like there are plans to add restrictions and conditions to zones and possibly create whole new adventures. Which is great because I think Lantern has a lot of potential.

So, at the moment, Lantern is a fun little Roll and Write and I can see why it placed so well in the contest. But I am hoping that the best is yet to come.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Take a couple minutes to fence in some sheep

My latest foray into Roll and Write, as well as Print and Play, has been 13 Sheep, which is one of the more minimalist Roll and Write I have found. And, yes, with games like Criss Cross or 30 Rails, there is some competition for that. (Not Another One still holds the title though)

13 Sheep is played on a seven by eight grid. There are thirteen sheep which are inside squares and eight or nine bushes in the ‘lines’. You are going to be drawing fences in the grid, trying to enclose groups of sheep. However, the fence shapes you can draw are determined by a die roll, you can’t draw over bushes and you have a limited number of turns before the wolves show up and it’s all over.

Here’s how it goes. Get a sheet. If there’s more than one person playing, make sure everyone has the same sheet. Then roll the die. Each number has a three segment line shape assigned to it and you have to draw that one on your sheet. You can rotate them but you can’t flip them. And, on top of those pesky bushes, you can not cross over an already built fence or draw on a space where a line already is.

You’ve got a timer, the wolf track. You cross off a box with every roll and the first seven rolls are free. However, the last four boxes have numbers in them (6,5,4,1) If you roll that number or higher, the game immediately ends. (Why the row doesn’t just end with the four, I can’t tell you) You then score up each enclosure.  More sheep means more points. Most points wins, unless you’re playing solitaire. In which case, you are your own competition.

13 Sheep is an odd beast for me. The game is, at most, going to last ten die rolls. Maybe just seven. And the dice are going to really control what your options are. At the same time, the game doesn’t play itself. You have to actually make decisions and make the best with what that die gives you. But the die can stomp your plans into the dust and laugh at your tears.

One of the biggest virtues of the game is also its biggest drawback. It is so gosh darn short. It’s only a few minutes so it’s easy for casual play. With just one die, you can fit in a play or two while waiting for your coffee or appetizers. And you can teach it to just about anyone in that time.

But it is also so short. Seven to ten die rolls isn’t enough for luck to flatten itself out. The potential to make clever choices isn’t nearly as great as the power of the random number gods. The power of choice fights against the illusion of choice.

Still, it’s a free PnP game that doesn’t require any kind of cutting or folding. And it is so short that being thrashed by the die doesn’t sting that much. In fact, I've found it has a strong ‘one more time’ effect. So if you’re willing to go in on the game, I don’t think it’ll be a game breaker. It won’t be your new forever game but you’ll have fun with it for a bit.

One concern I had, that the game initially had just two boards, has been assuaged by the designer creating a random board generator. Which can make some weird boards but offers a lot more variety.

At the end of the day, 13 Sheep isn’t a perfect Roll and Write. Ada Lovelace or BentoBlocks do dice-based shape forming better and deeper. And luck beats planning every time. However, I am having fun with it and it might be a game that I include when I send out greeting cards.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

What is an abstract anyway?

Okay. Since I am in an abstract set of mind, on to the next topic I’m musing. What actually is an abstract?

When I first started being interested in abstract games, I had a brutally strict definition. A two-player, perfect information game that has no random elements.

Almost immediately, that definition ran into problems. Stratego, for instance, has hidden information. And a game like Blokus can play up to four players. Okay, so we are going to take away perfect information and no random elements and using Total Determination with no player count. That should take care of it.

Then I saw people writing about how games like Ingenious and Qwirkle are abstracts because they have no theme. But wait! You draw a random hand of tiles! It has a definite random element! But having no theme trumps that? Is the definition of abstract just mean no theme? 

Okay. I see the reasoning behind that argument. I mean, that is kind of the actual definition of abstract. But that means that Poker and Rummy are abstracts and, while that can be argued, that’s not really the way that anyone’s mind works. 

We have reached the point where I’m saying ‘I don’t know what an abstract is but I know one when I see one’ And really, every game has some element of abstraction going on. So, it’s more of a degree than a binary yes-no. 

The game that actually really got me thinking about this is Hey, That’s My Fish. It does have a random setup but after that, it’s perfect information all the way. And it has cute little penguins and fish but those could be replaced by plain pawns and numbers. It doesn’t fit the pure definition I had at the beginning but I don’t think anyone would argue it’s an abstract.

So what have we learned? That vague and arbitrarily definitions lead to nebulous answers. Plus, abstracts apparently require a board, have either no or minimal theme, and favor choices over luck.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Looks like I’ll be rolling and writing

In 2017, my understanding of Roll and Write as a concept and as a genre took a huge leap with the GenCan’t Roll and Write contest. Considering the fact that I had already seen that the genre could go past Yahtzee with games like Roll Through the Ages and Zooleretto the Dice Game, I shouldn’t have needed that kick in the bum but apparently I did.

And Boardgame Geek has just finished up a Roll and Write contest. And I just learned that this year’s GenCan’t design contest is another Roll and Write one. The first one released all the entries they got permission to release and I’m hoping that they do the same again this year. In other words, there’s at least one new treasure trove of Roll and Write games to explore. And even if GenCan’t just releases the winner of their contest, it is bound to be a humdinger.

From what I can tell, Roll and Write games have basically exploded over the last few years. Which makes sense from a publishing standpoint. A pad of sheets has to be cheaper than a mounted board, let alone a host of wooden and plastic pieces.

But that same argument applies for me as well. Roll and Write games can be the simplest Print and Play to make. There are a many solid Roll and Writes that I can make myself, either because they are free or get the files for a low price. 

Yes, there are now some Roll and Writes that use cards, not just a play sheet. (Welcome To looks fascinating) And sometimes there are speciality dice that can’t be substituted by a six-sided and a character or sharpie. So it’s not like I’m saying there is no point or value to buying a published version of a Roll and Write.

But there are so many PnP options that, particularly with the option of lamination and dry erase markers, that I am hard pressed to buy published copies. I’m not saying I won’t buy games like Welcome To or such but Roll and Write is an amazing design space to explore within PnP.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

First game purchases of 2019

We made out first game purchases for 2019, not counting thrift purchases and PnP files. In past years, I’ve tried to not buy any games. I didn’t make that pledge this year but I still try not to buy much since I have a closet full of games, even after heavy purging.

We bought one of the Gigamic editions of Difference for our five-year-old and a copy of Kingdomino for ourselves. 

Many years ago, I bought a ding-and-dent copy of the Z-Man of Difference and I still like the idea. Take a picture and make one change for each card, so every two cards have two differences. Simple but effective.

I like the Gigamic edition much more. The cards are more than twice as big and the artwork(which is different) is much sharper. The Z-Man edition had 27 cards with two images. The Gigamic has 50 cards with four images. It’s just better in every way.

Kingdomino is a game I’ve been on the cusp of getting for a while. Truth to tell, I’ve been hoping I’d find a thrift copy but I decided to take the plunge. I don’t know for sure yet but I think it has the potential to be _the_ game for work nights after the kiddo is asleep.

So, fairly quiet as far as purchases go. Instead of going wild, we made careful choices that should serve us well.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

A tiny RPG about mad relationships

Living Vie de Loca, from the Indie Mega Mixtape, combines the idea of a two-player RPG with pocket mods. One player plays the Wild One, who is trying to play the other player, the Mark. There’s room in the system for it to go from Manic Pixie Girl romance to a cynical total con job.

The game is made up of two pocket mods, little eight-page booklets that you make by folding and cutting a single piece of paper. There’s one for the Mark and one for the Wild One. And you will be writing in the game pocket mode and tearing off strips over the course of the game so you’ll need to make a new pair every time you play. 

The books guide you through a series of scenes that describe how the two characters become more and more involved with each other, one way or another. At its heart, it’s about revealing more and more details about the characters and a power struggle.

A power struggle because this is a competitive game. There will be a winner and a loser with the winner able to control the situation and the narrative. It seems like the Wild One has an edge but I’m not convinced of that.

One thing that really struck me and I liked about Living de Vie Loca is that between the amount of information the players create and the vagueness of the scenes, there’s a surprising amount of flexibility and replay potential in a game that is in a such a small space, physically and design wise. 

That said, one of the questions I always ask myself when looking at a two-player relationship game is ‘Why would I play this rather than Breaking the Ice?’ For me, that game remains the gold standard for a game about two people.

The initial answer this time is ‘To see if it actually works.’ 

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen pocket mods used as a gimmick nor is the best use I’ve seen. (Assault on Goblin Hall more fully embraces the form) And I do think it’s a gimmick in this case. It could work without the form.

The competitive aspect of the game is actually what makes Living de Vie Loca interesting. Story telling games are about collaboration so adding competition is a risk and definitely not boring.

More so than usual without playing a game, I don’t know if Living De Vie Loca is actually any good. But I admire how experimental is honestly is.

Monday, July 8, 2019

I fail at Abstract classification

I have this really silly tendency to divide abstracts up into putting pieces on the board and moving pieces on the board. 

Which is nonsense as a taxonomy. Not only are there abstracts where you do both, like Hive (or ZERTZ or Amazons or Six or YINSH or...), there are games where neither term really fits. The Mancala family really doesn’t fit the concept of moving pieces on a board, for instance. It’s its own thing. And an abstract like Zendo is completely off the grid.

I think the reason I tend to do this is because I have found that I like putting stones down more than moving stones. I admire Chess but I don’t really have any desire to play it. I admire Go and I do want to play it more. There’s a number of reasons but putting stones down is just more satisfying for me.

I don’t think it’s the biggest reason anymore but this tendency started for me because putting stones down also acts as a timer. You know the maximum number of moves in a game. Someone once wrote Othello was a great game for kids before bedtime since it had a predictable time frame.

However, stones on the board also lets you see the history of the game at a glance. For me at least, it’s a lot easier to read. It also makes it easier, at least for me, to feel the tempo of a game and to have a strong sense of what stage the game is at. 

And for me, it feels less likely for a stones on the board game to stall out. Stale mates in Chess just make me feel depressed. 

Atlantean, one of Knizia’s more minor games, has stayed in my collection in part because there’s a maximum of eleven moves per player. (Variable opening set-up that’s under the player’s control also helps) When I want a quiet, thoughtful abstract that will take ten, fifteen minutes, it’s one I consider. 

And, while I consider it to be one of the weaker Pyramid games, I still occasionally play Branches and Twigs and Thorns because being a stones on the board game on a very small board turns it into a knife fight in a telephone booth very quickly. Mind you, the first few moves tend to determine the game but it’s so fast that the rest of the moves don’t take very long.

But I’m not just saying I like stones on the board because I can play some quick games. Go, the ur-example, is a longer game but you get to see the board develop and it becomes so wonderfully complex. The history of the play is there for you to see, even at my pathetically limited understanding of Go. It’s a living tapestry, which is a great turn of phrase even if it is too pretentious for words.

For me, I find myself using stones on the board as a category because I find that mechanic an act of meditation and creation as well as competition.

A literal second look at King of Tokyo

The first time I played King of Tokyo was a two-player game in January, 2013. The second time was a five-player game in June, 2019. Yeah, those were two very different experiences. And, to no one’s surprise, the five-player game was the much better experience.

Calling King of Tokyo Yahtzee with giant monsters is a fair description but it is more than Yahtzee with some giant monster pictures added. Very importantly, you get to beat each other up!

This was the first time I got to try the Power Up expansion, which I liked. I liked the original power cards (random but goofy fun) and the expansion gives you another, even more thematic way to get them.

Years ago, a friend said King of Tokyo was what Monsters Menace America should have been. When I pointed out they were not even remotely alike apart from being about giant monsters, he said he really meant that he’d rather play King of Tokyo. Which I can understand. I do like Monsters Menace America but King of a Tokyo is a lot more accessible and I can see it being a lot easier to get on the table.

And not only have I not played King of New York, I’m not sure if I want to. Part of the appeal of King of Tokyo is how simple it really is. I’m not sure if making it more complex is a selling point. If I want a more complex dice game, I have Alea Iacta Est or Kingsburg or To Court the King or others. Just like I don’t want to try any of the later versions of Tsuro. The simplicity is part of the selling point.

King of Tokyo remains a game that I don’t mind playing but wouldn’t particularly seek out and would only buy if our son ended up really liking it. It’s two main selling points for me are simplicity and going all in its goofy theme. 

Friday, July 5, 2019

Sometimes, a game is smaller than its five cards

2019 9 Card Game Print and Play Design Contest - Animal Fight

I am a big fan of the 9 Card Design contests. I’m a lazy PnP crafter so one sheet of cards is something that I can get behind. That’s something I can get done even when Iife is complicated. And if it turns out to be trash, I’m not too put out. And sometimes, you can find some real gems.

Animal Fight is not one of those gems. In fact, it’s more of an oddity than an activity or a game. Despite that fact, it is a complete thought and isn’t broken. It’s one or two moving parts definitely work. Yes, I’m damning with faint praise.

In a sentence, it’s two-player Rock-Paper-Scissors with no draws. One player gets the wolf and mouse cards, which are also vertical pictures. The other player gets the cat and elephant cards, which have horizontal images. 

Pick a card. Reveal it simultaneously. Elephant beats wolf. Wolf beats cat. Cat beats mouse. Mouse beats elephant. First person to win three rounds wins the game.

Before I say anything else, the game is five cards including the instruction card. Isn’t this a nine card contest? Bravo for minimalism but this feels like it goes against the spirit of the contest.

Okay, let’s be brutally honest. There’s just about nothing there. The only thing it adds to Rock-Paper-Scissors is guaranteed no draws but at the price of limiting it to two players. There aren’t any holes or issues with the rules but that’s because there’s no place for there to be any. You can use Rock-Paper-Scissors as a good starting point but it’s also the ending point here.

I wouldn’t play Animal Fight as a game. I love me a good micro-game and I think that a five-minute game can be a fun experience. But there has to be something interesting going on and that’s not the case here.

I can see using it as some kind of decision maker, literally just like Rock-Paper-Scissors, but that’s the extent of it. Still, it’s cute and only five cards so I couldn’t resist making it.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

A quiet convention experience

This last weekend was the first fundraiser for RinCon, Tucson’s own gaming convention. Since the fundraiser consists of two rooms, one for board games and one for RPGs, and twelve hours of non-stop gaming, every fundraiser counts as a micro convention in my book.

Some folks go to conventions for the spectacle and experience. Some folks go to find great deals. And some folks just want to game non-stop. One dear friend of ours loved GenCon for being the one time of the year he could get in full games of Advanced Civilization. The RinCon events are great for just sitting down and gaming :)

I have gotten into the habit of picking out one older game that I have a hankering to play and taking it to an event. At this point, my collection has a lot of older games since time keeps on going by :P This time, I took Winner’s Circle.

I got in two different plays with two different groups. The second group really got into the game with plenty of spite. And Winner’s Circle is a game that really improves with spite :D

(So far, I’ve tried this with For Sale, Money, TransAmerica/TransEuropa and now Winner’s Circle. Family style European games work well for this since they tend to be easy to teach. Now I’m wondering what to try next. Modern Art? Hoity Toity?)

I also got in a five-player game of King of Tokyo and a game of Bang with someone’s homebrew deck. I’d only played King with two players and five-players was a lot better. And it was fun to see someone else’s PnP work.

Oh, and I won a copy of the RPG World of Dew in a raffle. It’s story telling game about the Tokugawa Shogunate with a noir feel. Never heard of it but it sounds right up my alley.

All in all, I may not have learned any new games but it was a good event.

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

A parent’s thoughts on Legoland

We’ve finished up our summer vacation, which was going to Carlsbad, California, to enjoy Legoland California and the beach.

Legoland represents a middle ground in our theme park experiences. We’ve been to Disney World, which is basically an entire county with multiple parks where Mickey is able to control just about everything but the weather. And we’ve been to roller coaster parks like Cedar Point where it’s pretty much a day trip to go on rides. 

Legoland really feels like something in between. It has rides, including some small roller coasters. It also has an attached aquarium and water park. And, of course, it has legos, including characters, movies, displays and activities.

We had low expectations before we first went. Not going to lie. We were half expecting it to be like a fly-by-night carnival with Lego logos plastered on everything. However, it is actually has nice rather landscaping and actually puts you in a bubble of lego-theming. And there’s no denying that our five-year-old loves the place.

If you’re invested in any way to Lego characters, the character interactions are fun. Our son was thrilled to meet Lloyd Garmadon. And some of the rides, like the Ninjago ride and the Submarine ride were top notch. I’d be willing to ride them without a kid along :D

But here’s the thing. Lego is an all-age hobby. I’m sure eight-year-olds aren’t the target demographic for those great buildings of history kits, although I’m sure there are some who buy them. But Legoland is really aimed at ages six to eight.

Disney World or Disneyland, adults can go there without kids and have a fine time. I’m not even sure Epcot was designed with kids in mind. (I think it has more bars than the Wrigglyville neighborhood in Chicago) We haven’t been the Universal but I’m sure the same can be said for it. Legoland really is just for younger kids. Which was fine for us with our son but it’s not a place I’d recommend to anyone without a younger kid.

But it was really good for our family right now.

Monday, July 1, 2019

Alas, some abstracts won’t convert non-lovers

I have been spending perhaps an unhealthy amount of time dwelling on abstracts and abstracts I that folks who get hives from abstracts will still enjoy. Well, at least in my own arrogant opinion. Nine times out of ten, my reasoning probably breaks down to ‘I like it so you should too!’

However, there are some abstracts that I like that I’m absolutely convinced that only abstract lovers would enjoy. None of ‘Hive is the abstract for abstract haters’. Some games are ‘you don’t like abstracts? Yeah, you won’t like this’.

There doesn’t seem to be a formula to this. If simple and accessible were what it takes, Edward de Bono’s L-Game would be the gift for converting folks to abstracts. Each player gets one piece and there are two neutral pieces. Block your opponent from making a move and you get to win. But the game is so dry with the potential for the endless stalemates, I consider it more of an intellectual exercise in minimalism than a game.

Amazons, on the other hand, is a game that I think is cracking good. (I don’t actually know where that phrase comes from. I just stole the adverb from Bertie Wooster.) You move your queens on a ten by ten board, blocking off squares with every move. The board grows smaller and smaller and if you can’t move, the other guy wins. 

Amazons is a head cracker of a game and a really smart design. But it seems to be only the darling of abstract lovers. I can’t put my finger on exactly why I know but I can’t see myself trying to convert someone to abstract games with Amazons.

(Okay, maybe the fact that it is such a brain burner is a reason)

Then, there is the likes of games like Alfred’s Wyke, which is a weird abstract lover’s weird abstract. You either remove or add tiles in order to control a grid and there are five different types of moves. And you can’t use a move that’s been used in the last two turns.

Honestly, I have never found a game even remotely like it. It’s never been published outside of a magazine article and the website Super Duper Games has probably given it any exposure it’s had. It’s brilliant and almost unheard of and just plain weird. This is a game I’d struggle to get other abstract lovers to like.

A lot of the abstracts I’m interested in are games that I think folks who aren’t into abstracts can still enjoy. I’m an Everyman of abstracts for the most part. But apparently there are some exceptions.

My June PnP

June has come and gone. As I knew, June was not going to be much of a Print and Play month for me. In addition to summer starting, it was also the month that we took our vacation.

I just made one project last month but it was a ‘full-sized’ game, Red7. I actually made more sheets of components by making this one game than I made in January.

I actually printed out the sheets when they first became available. However, at that time, my PnP experience was so limited that I was scared I would ruin them and color printing doesn’t grow on trees. But I have been working on actually getting some of my ‘someday’ printing become ‘today’ games. I’ve also been working on trying to regularly make games that are more than nine or eighteen cards.

With Red7, I did both.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019

Looking back at Hive and Blokus

When contemplating modern abstracts, two games that were huge for me and games I’m no longer that interested in are Hive and Blokus. Both of which I consider to be poster children for “You don’t like abstracts? Try this one’

Mind you, I still think both games are top notch and, more than that, still very important. Hive continues to be held up as the game that people who hate abstracts love. Blokus has had and I’m pretty sure continues to have mainstream success. I think they’ll both be around and getting played twenty years from now.

Hive faded for me because the folks I regularly play with are meh about it and prefer other light abstracts. I’d certainly play it again and it’s not leaving my collection. And it is definitely a modern classic.

As a rule, I’m more of a fan of putting stones on a board than moving stones around the board. However, Hive does both. It isn’t the only build-the-board-as-go game but it is the best I’ve seen. Tile Chess seems to force the game to fit that idea while it feels organic and intuitive in Hive.

On the other hand, Blokus has left my collection. I do think it’s a very good design and an abstract that works brilliantly for four players, which isn’t the usual count for a perfect information abstract. However, I found meh as a two-player (at least once a game, it seemed like someone would forget which color they were on) and it’s downright dreadful as a three-player game.

To be fair, Blokus Dual and Blokus Trigon are what have replaced it. So, it’s not like I went that far away. However, Blokus Dual is so much stronger as a two-player game and Trigon is great at both four-player and three-player. To be even more fair, neither of those two games I like more would exist if it wasn’t for the original Blokus!

(Note number one: Blokus 3D started out life as Rumis and really isn’t part of the same design process. I do like Rumis quite a bit, though)

(Point number two, in case anyone is wondering about Cathedral, I’ve never been able to get into it. Which is odd since it really seems right up my alley)

While my interest in both these games has faded (although I can see Hive getting rekindled), they both were big deals for me in the past. And I think they are still big deals for abstracts and the hobby.

Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Thoughts on abstracts you can get in while adulting

I wanted to write about abstracts that I like since being an adult doesn’t give me the time to pursue Go. (To be fair, having hobbies other than Go also didn’t give me time to pursue Go) Games that I think would click with folks who don’t normally play abstracts. But when the list hit the double digits, I realized I was never going to come to an end.

I did notice two things about the games I was choosing. They had short playing times, really under a half an hour as a rule. Second, each move tended to be dynamic and really change the board.

As a comparison, take Checkers. Someone much smarter than me once said that a game of Checkers is slowly working your way to making one big move. I think Checkers is a brilliant game and there’s a reason it has stuck around for centuries. But I don’t enjoy it. Even more so than Chess or Go which I can break down into individual pieces, Checkers is one big picture with lots of tiny pieces that I can’t hold together in my head.

Is Checkers a good game and one with a surprising amount of depth? Yes, particularly when you actually use the the rule that if you can capture, you must capture. But it is not a game I really like or have time to understand. If I had that time, I’d spend it on Go.

In contrast, I’ll use Pentago as a counter example. As a Tic Tac Toe variant, it’s one of the simpler abstracts I enjoy and it takes probably five minutes to play. Place a stone and turn one of the quadrants. Have five stones in a row at the end of your turn and you win.

In Pentago, every move has a dramatic effect on the board, particularly seeing as how you are actually moving the board itself. The board is small enough that the patterns you form aren’t overwhelming. At the same time, there are enough options that the game isn’t a simple formula like actual Tic Tac Toe. It does make your brain work.

Pentago isn’t my favorite abstract (although I’d always be willing to play) but it is one that feels like a classic abstract while still having modern innovation. It exemplifies what I’ve found I’m looking for in an abstract. And it’s one I can get other folks to play.

I know that pure abstracts aren’t for everyone. But I think that there are games out there that are accessible and fun for a large audience. And I love Go but I don’t have the time for it. But there are abstract games that I do have time for. And there are games where those two things come together.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Adulting made Go to hard for me :’(

Go was a huge milestone for me. Not only is it one of the most genuinely brilliant games ever created and incredible training for your brain, one of my major gaming groups started out as a Go group before becoming a more general gaming group. (My decision to bring Blokus Trigon so we could have a three-player game had a lot to do with that transition)

And I haven’t played Go in years and I don’t see that changing any time in the near future. And that’s because GO IS _HARD_

Seriously, a good game of Go is something that you should set aside an afternoon for and try not to go in with your head cluttered by other stuff like responsibilities and exhaustion. Adulting makes Go more difficult!

I realize that if I had played Go long enough and with enough dedication, I’d have started to have some understanding of Joseki, which might have helped some of the strainof play. Joseki are patterns that are considered optimal for both sides. In other words, Joseki can help you with the minutia and focus on what really are the critical moves.

I view Joseki as understanding the game to a subconscious level, although I know that’s not what it really means or is. But being able to use Joseki denotes a deeper understanding of Go, one that I’m in no danger of reaching.

Instead, my abstract journey has led me to more short-form abstracts. My mind still craves patterns and decisions. Just ones that can fit in adult life.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Ninjago has turned around and kicked it’s way into our hearts

Lego has long been a part of our household. Honestly, as a toy that our son could get into when he was three and might be still enjoying when he’s a teenager, Legos are amazing. (And, by the way, trying to follow the instructions of a Lego kit with a small child makes you realize that Lord Business is the real hero of the LEGO Movie)

However, what made Legos really blow up in our home was Ninjago. And the TV show is entirely to blame. Don’t get me wrong. The toys are fun but the TV show is what made our five-year-old’s imagination go up to eleven.

Now, we had seen the Lego Movie and the Batman movie and other Lego cartoons. We had a sense of the snarky humor that defined Lego cartoons. (We later saw the Ninjago movie and everyone in the house thinks it’s much weaker than the TV show, by the way)

But Ninjago was different. It was funny and kid—safe but it had a much stronger sense of drama. In fact, at most, I’d describe it as an action dramedy that sometimes becomes a flat out drama. (Seasons five, eight and nine are particularly dark for me)

(I also have to add we have not watched any Bionicle, which also sounds like a more dramatic Lego cartoon so I can’t compare it)

My original one-sentence description of Ninjago was Lego meets Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But, for many reasons, I would now describe it as Lego meets Avatar the Last Airbender. The show consists of story arcs that last one to two seasons and has a remarkably strong focus on character development. In fact, I’m convinced Avatar was a strong influence on Ninjago.

Indeed, trying to explain it to the grandparents is hard because the show changes so much from season to season. There is no ‘watch this one episode and you’ll get it’ because even the genres can change from season to season. The best I can do is Legos that fight :D

The relative complexity of the story-telling (contrary to what some fans say, this is still a kid’s cartoon first and foremost. Of course, I’m the guy who argues that My Little Pony:Friendship is Magic and Doctor Who are children’s shows (and I love them)) is what I think really hooked our son. He’s been given enough ongoing story to really become invested in it. And that has spilled out into playing with the toys and telling his own stories. 

I think that I didn’t get into a cartoon that was focused on long term story telling and character development until I discovered Robotech and I was about twice our son’s age. And, without rewatching it, I’m pretty sure Robotech is a more mature story, seeing as how it’s a war story that includes death, soap opera romance and near genocide. But I was, you know, ten.

Man, what will our son be watching when he’s ten?

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Winner’s Circle is always a winner to me

Reiner Knizia’s Winner’s Circle is one of those games that I have not played nearly enough. It’s also a game that I don’t see ever leaving my collection. On top of that, it’s a game that has never disappointed any table I’ve had it at.

One look at the cover will make it clear that Winner’s Circle is about spaceships doing battle. No, no I lie and lie badly. It’s about horse racing.

Just like in real life, you are betting on horses. And in Winner’s Circle, each horse is unique and distinct, just like each Doctor on Doctor Who. Each horse has a value in four different symbols. That’s how far it’ll run when you roll that symbol on the die (which is horse head, horse head, horse head, horse shoe, saddlebag and jockey hat) And every horse is different with some pretty steady and some clearly designed for that long-shot chance. (Oh, and there are more than enough different horse tiles for multiple races. Twenty-eight In fact. You get variety in your line up)

Okay. Here’s the even more clever bit. On your turn, you roll the die THEN choose which horse your going to move, flipping over its tile. All the tiles have to be flipped before they flip back over so the favored can’t be picked over and over again in a row.

At the end of each race, the first three horses pay out and the last horse loses money. But, the payouts are based on the number of betters. So you win less money for betting on a favorite and a long shot can really pay off. 

All right. I have a confession to make. I have more fun with Winner’s Circle than Colossal Arena, which is arguably Knizia’s classic betting game. Winner’s Circle is just more streamlined so I can focus on having a good time. Colossal Arena is amazing but it’s a lot less casual.

And Winner’s Circle is a great game for casual gamers or family gamers. It takes that old and much-mocked mechanic, Roll-and-Move and turns it on its head. It’s so easy to explain but Knizia uses it to offer honestly interesting choices. 

And since anyone can move any horse, which can mean staying stock still, everyone is invested in every turn. Cheers and profanity are part and parcel of having Winner’s Circle on the table.

There Is the absolute top tier of Knizia’s ludography. Games like Ra or Tigris and Euphrates that are like the Gods of Olympus that will be played until the sun becomes a dwarf star. But, man, he’s got so many games in the second tier and those games are any designer would be proud to have created. His second tier games are still rock star.

Winner’s Circle or Royal Turf is definitely one of those games. It’s a family weight game that is easy to understand and explain and play under an hour but is just so much fun.

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Old Nathan, seemingly off the beaten path but still pure David Drake

I first read Old Nathan more than ten years ago. At the time, I hadn’t read Manly Wade Wellman’s John the Balladeer stories. At least not more than one or two in random anthologies. Since then, I have both them all and read that David Drake was a friend of Wellman and wrote Old Nathan as a tribute.

Now, I don’t know if there’s a lick of truth to that story but Old Nathan sure reads that way. That being said, Old Nathan is a far cry from being a pastiche of the Silver John stories. It has its own, very distinct voice and tells a very different story.

The book is a collection of five very heavily interlocking stories about a backwoods witch doctor or cunning man or hedge wizard (you get the idea) uses a bit of magic and lot of cleverness to solve crisis. It’s not five stories about the same guy but the story of that guy in five parts.

And since this is David Drake, that guy is a flawed and damaged hero who rise above his own flaws and overwhelming odds to do the right thing. John the Balledeer was a straight up hero. Old Nathan is a broken man who manages to make the world a better place.

Indeed, the last story is downright harrowing,  not just  because of the stakes but because Drake has managed to make us invested in Old Nathan. 

Without giving any spoilers away, I don’t see there ever being any more Old Nathan works. This isn’t an open-ended series. The book ends in a way that is an interesting and final ending.

Old Nathan isn’t one of David Drake’s more well known works, probably because it isn’t his usual genre. But it’s a good one.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Broetry is a book of poems that are bad for the wrong reasons

During a recent bout of insomnia, I picked up Broetry which I had gotten as part of a bundle of electronic books. It is allegedly low brow poetry for people who don’t appreciate ‘real’ poetry. Which really makes me wonder if the author missed decades of the urban poetry movement. I’d have to say that it fails on so many levels that it’s downright fascinating.

Many years ago, back when I still occasionally listed to Smodcast, Kevin Smith found a dictated diary that he made as a teenager. He and his cohost found it hysterical to find out how pretentious he was back then and named his younger self Emo Kev.

If Emo Kev chugged a case of cheap beer and attempted to write poetry, the result would be like Broetry.

Broetry is supposed to be funny but it’s a little too earnest to be comedic. And, contrary to claiming to low brow, it’s more whiny and pretentious than low brow. It’s less low brow and more middle class after it got kicked out of the house.

I will give it this. With its obsessions with girls and pop culture, Broetry takes me back to so many conversations in college and the years immediately following college. It’s not low brow. It’s trying to figure out how to be an adult and failing.

I think the poems would be stronger if they were either more raw while not trying to be funny or more silly without trying to be deep. One extreme or the other would have worked much better.

How I learned to love Friday

One of my failures as a casual solitaire gamer is that I had never really gotten into Friedemann Friese’s Friday, not even enough to decide if I didn’t like it. I’d have to say that since it’s been around long enough and remained in print long enough to count as a standby/beloved classic of the genre.

Don’t get me wrong. I had played it. I even bought when it first came out and still own it. But I never played it enough to really get how it worked, not enough to grok it.

So I knew getting it as app would let me play it over and over enough to actually get an idea of it really works. So I did that. (Some games, particularly solitaire card games that require lots of shuffling, are more fun for me on devices)

Okay, now I’ve finally played Friday enough to grok how it works and I like it.

Elevator pitch: you are Friday, whose peaceful island has been accidentally invaded by Robinson Curroso who it turns out has the common sense of Bertie Wooster. You need to keep him alive and help him beat two pirates at the end so you can get him out of your hair and off the island.

Friday is a deck building game but it has a huge difference from just about every other deck builder I can think of. You don’t have a hand. Instead, you draw X number of cards per turn. (It’s more complicated than that but that’s the thumbnail of how it works)

One of the most important things I learned about making the game work is that you are managing two decks, not one. You need to not only manage your own deck but the hazard deck. Every card you don’t take will get cycled around.

The other thing I learned is that Friday makes trashing cards more important than any other deck builder I have ever played. AND IT IS REALLY IMPORTANT IN DECK BUILDERS! I REMEMBER WHEN THE CHAPEL WAS THE MOST IMPORTANT CARD IN DOMINION! But smart trashing of cards in Friday is absolutely essential. The game will beat you like Captain America beating a nameless Hydra mook if you don’t. 

Friday, as I knew it would, joined my reliable collection of solitaire games that I play on a device but feel like I’m really playing a card/board game. Sometimes,’you don’t have the time or space to set up a physical game but, by golly, you have your phone.

Friday isn’t perfect. It can be formulaic but that’s kind of the case for just about any solitaire game. It is very engaging and fun and a game that I’m glad I took the time to figure out how to enjoy.

Friday, June 14, 2019

Pretty Fairy Princess, a game that teaches gaming

I am always on the lookout for RPGs that are aimed at kids or least suitable for them. I do this even though I know our son isn’t going to be interested in table top RPGs :D It’s an interesting subgenre.

The most recent one I’ve looked at is Pretty Fairy Princess. Well, the demo rules at any rate.

To say the name is right in the nose is an understatement. The game is exactly what it says on the tin. Each player plays a princess who is also a fairy and pretty.

In fact, the three main stats are Pretty, Fairy and Princess. Each one has two substats. Pretty has Pep and Sparkle. Fairy has Trickery and Magic/Luck (pick one) Princess has Love and Scrapbooking. I love that last one.

Each primary stat gets assigned a number: 1 or 2 or 3 (Naturally, you use each number once) Then, you assign each substat get a success determination. You see, you use a deck of cards in the game and your success types are things like number cards or red cards or face cards.

Every one gets a hand of cards they lay face down in front of them in a row. When you have to take a chance, you point at one of someone else’s cards with the wand you made at the start of the game. The main stat determines how many cards you can pick and the substat determines what’s a success.

It’s an interesting system because it’s really easy to explain but there’s definitely a layer of number crunching in it. And it’s transparent enough that you can work on crunching the numbers in your favor easily.

The cards that are in each people’s hand are public knowledge. You just don’t know which is is which in the face down row. It’s anrules light narrative system so it’s easy to justify picking a favorable trait. In short, the game lends itself to being able to game the system for success. But it’s a game about happy pretty magical princesses having adventures so I’m cool with that. It’s a game for kids and rewards them understanding how odds work.

However, what I will really take away from the game is the two paragraphs about running the game. Which comes down to adventures are built like scavenger hunts. 

Which I think is great advice for running a game for younger kids. It gives you and the kids a structure that is easy to understand and breaks it down to a series of manageable goals. It’s not such great for running for adults since a series of fetch quests isn’t ideal for older games but it’s one I’ll keep in mind for kids regardless of the system.

Pretty Fairy Princesses wouldn’t be my first choice for an RPG for young kids. There are some really good ones out there like Hero Kids or Mermaid Adventures or No Thank You Evil. But I do like how it has a system which teaches kids to game the system and I think it gives really solid GM advice. I definitely got something out of reading it.