Friday, November 15, 2019

Thoughts about RPGs in small spaces

I have been looking at Ring Tales from this year’s nine-card PnP contest and, at some point, I’m actually going to write about the game. However, the game made me ponder some random thoughts that didn’t fit neatly into discussing the game itself.

First, the game was designed to be played in the car. Which is an idea that I love, an RPG that you could play during a long, boring trip. It’s also an idea that I’ve never been able to pull off :P I think there is inevitably too much to distract you, particularly if you’re the one driving.

But the idea of a game that can work under those restrictions, minimal rules let you forgo dice or maps or miniatures or other randomizers, that seems like a kind of platonic ideal to me. Mind you, I am already aware of games that already fit that bill, like Baron Munchausen or Puppetland. But it seems like a design space worth exploring.

Second, the designer’s notes describe the ‘no and’ to ‘yes and’ mechanic as old. To someone who got started with first edition D&D, that mechanic still feels fresh and innovative. And as someone who has gamed with a lot of improvisers, I think it is such a great mechanic.

Third, Tales of the Ring is a micro RPG, a concept that I am still trying to wrap my mind around. A micro game, in the board game sense, is easy to understand. It’s a game with only a few components. (Often, that also means a small footprint and easy to teach rules and a short playing time but not necessarily) 

But it doesn’t take much space or stuff to play most RPGs, as long as you’re using theater of the mind instead of miniatures. A handful of dice and some play sheets plus some pencils doesn’t count as a lot of components.

And a short playing time or being rules light doesn’t qualify a game as a micro rpg. I’ve never heard anyone ever call Baron Munchausen a micro RPG even though it has practically no rules and is designed to be played in one short sitting.

I think there are two things that can make a RPG a micro RPG. One is small volume of total printed material. If the total game, rules and background and fluff and all, is only one or two pages, it might be a micro RPG. The other is narrowness of focus. Not just limiting a game to a specific genre or even a specific narrative but a very narrowly defined scenario. 

The Name of God _might_ be a micro RPG. The original rules take up less than a page and you have a very specific structure and goal. Even then, the game is open enough that I’m not sure it qualifies as a micro RPG. 

Game poems as a genre fit the bill but I never hear them being called micro RPG. They have their own goal of evoking an emotion or experience.

Really, while there is a need and a design space for rules light RPGs and short form RPGs, micro RPGs might be too limiting an idea.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

Abstracts and kids

Some board games make good art activities for younger kids. And, at least for me, abstracts are the games that seem to do the best job at it.

Two occurrences in about a week’s span really brought that home for me,

First of all, I learned that our son’s kindergarten teacher uses both Blokus and Blokus Trigon in the classroom. Not as the games but as cooperative activities. I found out about this by our son pulling out my copy of Blokus Trigon and saying that they had a copy at school :D

The second was when our son decided he wanted to have a board game night with daddy and started pulling out my stack of GIPF games. (TAMSK is stored elsewhere due to its size and I don’t have LYNGK, in case your curious) And gosh darn it, didn’t he find the games interesting to manipulate and make patterns with, ZERTZ and DVONN in particular. He actually paid attention to the rules of DVONN but wasn’t interested in actually playing it :D

It makes sense that abstracts are good for this kind of play. Games with tiles and chits and cards and such don’t have the same ‘artifact’ appeal. Glass beads and stones and balls and pyramids and such are actual physical objects with all the dimensional and tactile elements that go into being just that.

I am hoping that this eventually turns into actually playing the games :D

Monday, November 11, 2019

Hisss: not great but great with five-year-olds

I recently bashed Rivers, Roads and Rails for being a children’s game that really doesn’t work well as either game or an activity for kids to enjoy. The next kids game that I tried out was Hisss, a game that is mechanically similar but worked much better for us.

The short explanation for Hisss is that it’s a tile laying game where you are building snakes.  The heads and tails are all either one color or wild but each segment are two colors. Colors need to match when placing tiles, just like in games like Carcassonne. If you complete a snake, you get that snake and its tiles count as points. Most points wins.

There are three things that made Hisss a more enjoyable experience than Rivers, Roads and Rails, most of them being the game being simpler. There are less than half as many tiles. The connections are simpler, one snake segment as opposed to three kinds of possible  paths. And the rules are _much_ better written.

In short, Hisss is a lot more accessible for little minds who don’t have that much patience. Hisss takes the concepts of tile laying and makes them manageable for the young.  Which isn’t as easy as it sounds. And having a tighter rule set is so much better.

For adults, it’s not a great game. I’m not even going to call it a good game. Hisss is not one of those kids games that adults can get into. However, it is a game that can keep a child engaged until the end. That might be be damning with faint praise but it’s also true.

The Last Kids on Earth was too awesome for me

After I learned that the cartoon The Last Kids on Earth, which my son didn’t care for, was based on a series of books, I read the first one. Which I didn’t care for :D

The Last Kids on Earth is about a group of middle-schoolers/high schoolers in an apocolypse that includes both zombies and kaiju.

And that was kind of my problem with the book. It was a mashup of zombie apocalypse and giant monster disaster and superheroes. (Seriously, superheroes. The kids fight giant monsters in hand-to-hand combat and win. They are totally superheroes.) Now, all three of those genres can mesh but I didn’t think they did that very well here.

The books have a goofy, lighthearted tone that I found very jarring. and much of that centered around the protagonist. An orphan and a social outcast, Jack uses the end of the world to live his best life. Any elements of angst are lost in him treating the disaster  like a video game.

Which could still work if it came across as a coping mechanism. But the world really does act like a video game for him. He is living the dream of the end of the world letting you do whatever you want. 

In fact, every other character in the book comes across as more nuanced and relatable :D Which is actually fascinating for me. That means making Jack so one-note was an intentional choice. He is a video game protagonist, like Mario or Link, a blank slate for the players or readers to fill in.

One of the core elements of zombie apocalypse fiction is being grounded. Adding giant monsters and the characters somehow gaining the fighting skills of Daredevil or Batman is far from grounded.

(I actually do wonder if ordinary middle schoolers becoming basically superhuman gets addressed in the later books, if that is a side effect of whatever the disaster really is. If that is the case, that would really help my suspension of disbelief.)

All of that said, these books have been very successful and I can see why. Take your average thirteen-year-old and ask them to describe a zombie apocalypse and this is what you get. It might make Warm Bodies look like Garth Ennis's Crossed but it is clearly the most fun apocalypse you could hope for. The rule of cool is always in place. Common sense or rational thought take a second seat to things being neat.

The Last Kids on Earth has a lot of problems but, man, it knows its audience. Which, from a publisher’s viewpoint, is the most important thing.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

Dunsany Dreams 7

Finding Memory

I found myself walking in a field that I had never been in but I knew from dreams. It ended in a hill that was green with grass and seemed to rise up into the sky.

The hill seemed too steep to climb yet climb it I did. Up and up, the hill carried me and I knew that it was the place that I needed to be.

And at the top of the hill, I saw Pan before me, shaggy and hooved and horned. All I could do is fall face down with my face in the green grass.

And he said ‘I need neither reverence or fear. But remembrance is good.’

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Italo Calvino makes me want to play impossible games

Reading Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, I have a craving to design a game about creating cities in a few paragraphs, developing a map of urban worlds. Which means I’m completely missing the point of the book :P

The book has Marco Polo describing fifty-five cities to a bemused Kublai Kahn. He breaks the cities down into eleven categories and they all have women’s names. Beneath this poetic atlas structure is a deconstruction of language and geography.

Or so reviews and analysis of Invisible Cities tells me. I don’t grok that yet. In fact, I feel like I should be rereading the book again in six months and see how much it’s changed for me over that time.

So my desire to make a game out of it is based on the most superficial reading of it. But it’s still there.

I picture a set of tables. On your turn, roll to see what category the city is. Roll to see what name it is. Roll to see what details you are allowed to describe, like architecture or trade goods or monuments or such. From those rolls, you create a city in a few words.

Perhaps there might be two tables of categories and you must find where the city you are dreaming up fits on the matrix, turning a spreadsheet grid into a map of imagination.

Or perhaps the city that you dream of must fit onto a postcard. And after you have written your city into existence on your postcard, you must put a stamp on it and send it to the next player, letting them know it is their turn to bring a city to life on a postcard. And at the end, everyone has a physical artifact of a city that has only come to be due to the game.

Aaaaand I’ve just crossed the line from game to performance art. Probably the kind of performance art that would end up annoying everyone involved.

I’m actually not even halfway through Invisible Cities and I know it’s not a book about world building but more of world unbuilding. My feeble understanding makes it feel more about how you describe a place says more about you than the place.

But it still makes me want to build dreamy worlds.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

A five-year-old’s experience with Go

I recently took a crack at introducing our five-year to the basics of Go. 

And while I have heard Go described as having five rules with one of those rules being that you play it on a board, quite a bit of it didn’t sink in. Go is theoretically simple in theory but it is ridiculously complex to understand in practice.

But it was his idea so I ran with it.

The one thing that he really clicked on was the concept of eyes and that having two eyes makes a group of stones safe. Which, to be fair, is a very important idea.

I wonder if he will ask for Go again and what he will learn if he does.

Monday, November 4, 2019

2019 holiday card planning

Ah, it’s that time of year. The Boardgame Geek Holiday Card exchange.

And, yes, I’m going to participate. While I bowed out of the Secret Santa awhile back because, frankly, I’ve cut my my game budget to the point  that I rarely buy games for myself, let alone other folks, making homemade cards to send out to strangers is a lot of fun.

However, while I’ve participated in the Mini PnP Secret Santa for the last two years, I’m bowing out of that as well. And that’s due to budget as well.  While actually crafting the games I sent out didn’t take long and cost next to nothing, I always drew international recipients and the shipping was prohibitively expensive :(

Still, I’m thinking of including a one-card game in the cards I send. That way, I’m still sending out some PnP love. And there are options out there other than Coin-Age, which everyone already has, or Bonsai Samurai, which isn’t very good.

It’s not quite the same but it’s a hint of Secret Santa.

Dunsany Dreams 6

The Business Man and the June Bug

The business man regarded the June bug that buzzed around his head.

‘What have you done to fly around me and bother me so?’ he asked the June bug. ‘I am a man of means and wealth. I have leveraged trades and bought and sold companies. My decisions can be the ruin of thousands. I can make the markets dance at my command. What have you done?’

‘Me?’ asked the June bug. ‘I have lived.’

Friday, November 1, 2019

My October PnP

Okay, here’s my October list:

Loot Boxer 

October was a crazy busy month and I wasn’t sure that I was going to get any Print and Play crafting done. In fact, I printed out one of the play sheets for Loot Boxer and laminated it just to make sure I made something in October.

However, at pretty much the last minute, I threw together a copy of Xscape, which had been on my list to make sometime or another. i had already printed and cut the pieces so it was a quick and dirty project to get done at the eleventh hour.

And I have to admit that the biggest drive to make Xscape was so that I continued my plan of making one ‘big’ project a month. Sometimes that been at least one a month but as life has gotten more hectic, it’s really bee making just one.

I made the black and white ashcan version (It takes a lot more for me to decide not to make the simplest version of a game. Toner is precious) At three pages of components with fifteen tiles and four cards, Xscape is pretty much the bare minimum for what I’d consider a ‘big’ project. Still, it just barely squeaks in.

Frankly, I’m more likely to  play Loot Boxer than I am Xscape. But I am glad that I made it. Sometimes, just the act of making something is good.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Dunsany Dreams 5

The Business Men and the Cat

In their stuffy board room with their overstuffed bodies sitting in overstuffed chairs, the great men of business looked over their plans for the markets and the stocks and all of the other things that they could control with their money.

And they nodded, very pleased with their wisdom, and said to one another ‘The future is ours.’

At the same time, in the alley behind the building, a mother cat gave birth to a litter of kittens. As she gazed at her feral children, the cat knew the future.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

A kid’s game can just be an activity but it can’t be boring

Okay. I’m sitting down to do something that I really don’t like to do. Bash a children’s game. Because, in so many ways, it’s unfair and too easy to do that. You should not hold a game for someone under eight under the same scrutiny you’d give to a game for an adult. A kid’s game has different requirements but expectations.

But not only did Rivers, Roads and Rails from Ravensburger not work for us, I’m not sure how it would work for almost anyone.

R3 is a tile-laying game made up of 144 tiles that have segments of rivers, roads and railroads. The object of the game is make a continuous line of them with all the edges matching, just like just about any tile-laying game you care to mention.

But part of the problem is that on almost every tile, the paths are straight lines. So you’re building a single line of tiles and either a tile fits or it doesn’t fit on one of the two ends. There’s no room for choices or decisions.

A problem with the game is the rules. At least in the copy we got, the rules are printed on the back of the box and actually contradict themselves. If they were a little longer, they would actually being describing variations and not be contrary. The rules describe the game as cooperative and as competitive. You either all work together with all the tiles available or you compete with your own pools of tiles.

The problem with the game as a cooperative is that it’s really just a boring jigsaw puzzle with a definite picture. There isn’t the joy of discovery you get with an actual jigsaw puzzle. And the problem with the game as a competitive game is the lack of choices. You might have no choices, which is even worse in a kid’s game than having the game play itself with only one choice per turn.

Rivers, Roads and Rails is very pretty. I really liked the art. And I’d have really liked a fun activity, not even necessarily a game, attached to that set. Unfortunately, it just bored all of us.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Dunsany Dreams 4

The Perfect Rose

Old Man Memory took down a heavy book from a shelf in his library. Both the book and the shelf are covered in dust. The light of a single candle on his desk cast dancing shadows about the windowless chamber, making it seem darker than it would have been with no light at all.

Opening it up, Old Man Memory took a perfect rose, cut from the garden, and placed it between two pages. He firmly shut the book, pressing the flower as flat as the pages it lay between.

Old Man Memory put the book back up on the shelf with its new treasure. He knew that the perfect rose, now pressed, would dry and remain for many years before becoming dust.

Meanwhile, Youth danced outside in the sunlight in a field filled with hundreds of dandelions.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

How did the world forget the Mad Scientists Club?

On a whim, I revisited The Mad Scientists Club, a children’s series by Bertrand R Brinley. It’s probably been at least twenty-five years since I last read it. I’d pretty much forgotten about the stories and, after rereading the first book, I have no idea how.

Hoo boy, rereading the first volume was a trip. It was like seeing a car wreck involving Mark Twain, Danny Dunn and a Boy Scout Manual. The books follow the misadventure and hijinks of a group of boys who are, in no particular order, explorer scouts, master engineers, and inveterate pranksters. All told by a narrator who has all the folksiness and self-awareness and snark of a modern day Huck Finn.

And the boys get themselves into some crazy messes, including making a fake lake monster and competing in a hot-air balloon race and saving a crashed Air Force pilot. The boys’ adventures are just a little larger than life. Almost all of them are grounded in reality and while their technology is cutting edge for the 1960s, it’s still in the ‘big trip to RadioShack’ range.

I have to note that, while the boys aren’t scoundrels and will help those in need, they’re more likely to pull pranks than save folks. I’m not saying that their moral compass is worse than my cats (and cats are born opportunists without a moral bone in their fuzzy bodies) but I find it surprising how non-preachy these stories that were written in the 1960s and for Boy Scouts are.

The books are far from perfect. They are dated, not just in technology but by the fact that if the club pulled half the tricks they pull anytime in the last thirty years, they’d be looking at serious time in juvenile hall. And while there are seven members of the club, I could only tell four of them apart. The other three could have been rolled into one character without losing anything.

That said, the voice of the narrator, being folksy and snarky and self-aware, is a lot more rounded and rich than a lot of stories I’ve read from the same time period. The setting may be dated but the tone is fresh.

I’m amazed that these books seem to be lost gems of children’s literature. The plots are fun and clever and the voice of the books is genius. There is some serious charm going on here. The quality of the writing definitely holds up and I’d recommend anyone even slightly interested to hunt them down.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Dunsany Dreams 3

Beneath the Tree

The poet sits beneath the cherry tree. In his hand is his manuscript and his eyes are shut.

From behind his eyes, there are dreams of the everlasting word. The power of the word to continue to dance in the minds and imagination of generations even after the bones become dust. Words that inspire until they are written in a dozen different languages for those would listen or those who read on every continent.

As the poet lies dreaming, he cannot see the rainwater dripping off of the leaves, dissolving the paper of his manuscript and turning the ink into black rivers.

What does tone do?

Websters defines tone as ‘general character, quality, or trend’, as well as ‘style or manner of expression in speaking or writing’. Okay, it also defines it in terms of pitch and musical quality but I’m not worrying about that.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that every game has a tone, regardless of what kind of game it is. Which was includes abstracts, RPGs and video games.

And while tone is an essential part of theme, tone is not theme. Every  element of a game, theme and components and the rules and the language of the rules contribute to overall character of a game.

Go clearly has a tone even though it has no theme and consists of a wooden board and two colors of stones. The austerity of its rules and its components let you understand what the experience of Go is going to be like. Quiet and calm until someone grabs the board and starts swinging. Go also has the weight of history behind it, which becomes another element of tone.

While I don’t think there has ever been a time when tone hasn’t been an important part of game design and game experience (I refuse to believe the unnamed monk or scholar who developed Rithmomachy didn’t want it to be more erudite than human endurance could handle), I think it has become more laser-focused as modern gaming has developed. As more games are developed at a greater and greater amount, every element ought to be seriously considered.

What got me seriously thinking down this path was the now venerable-by-modern-standards Guillotine, the jovial, silly game of competitive decapitation. With just a little tweaking and no rule changes, it could easily go to much darker black comedy or straight up horror. The light-heartedness was not a happy mistake but intentional.

Guillotine is a pretty heavy-handed example. I have a pretty good feeling if you did a more exhaustive study than I’m up for, you’d see a lot more subtle examples. You could probably write a dissertation about tone and Kickstarter projects, if that hasn’t already been done.

Theme is what a game is about. Mechanics are how you do stuff. Maybe one way to describe tone is what a game is trying to say.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Is SHOBU a newborn classic?

While I was at RinCon 2019, I passed by a table that had a bunch of boards on it that were clearly for an abstract. I asked some questions, got a sample game and found myself a substitute for the tournament when someone else had to drop out. I lost but I had a great time.

SHOBU is a two-player, perfect information, 100% determinist abstract, just to get that part out of the way. The game consists of four 4x4 boards, two dark and two light. In the official version, they are made out of wood and it comes with a thick rope so you can separate them into a light-dark pair for each player. On each board, you place four stones for each player on either side.

And, yes, it would be laughingly easy to make your own copy. But I’d still like to get a legit copy eventually. Partially because it is nice but also because I’d like to see more games like this out there and supporting designers and companies is how you see that happen.

Every turn has two steps. A passive move, where you move a stone on one of the two boards closest to you one to two spaces in any straight line. Then an aggressive move, where you move a stone the exact same direction and number of spaces on a board of the opposite color. And with the aggressive move, you can push an enemy stone off the board. 

Push all the enemy stones off of any one of the four boards and you win.

SHOBU is a knife fight in four separate phone booths and that’s part of what makes it so good. While smaller boards theoretically limit the number of moves and make a game solve-able, it also means that you’re in direct conflict by your second move.

And I freely admit that I generally prefer abstracts that are more about each move being a big, board changing move than a whole bunch of small, discrete moves. (Go is amazing but I also don’t get the chance to play Go very much anymore) SHOBU definitely has that.

At the same time, with four boards to keep track of and the restrictions on how you make your moves, SHOBU definitely has layers of consideration to out into each move. The game is definitely not impossible or even terribly hard to read but you have to think about it differently than you do in so many games.

It’s a definite example of a game where your first game will take five minutes and your tenth game will take an hour. But it will be an hour that will make you think and stimulate the little gray cells. Okay, maybe a half hour but the game steadily got deeper the more I played and I know there’s plenty more to explore.

SHOBU combines several ideas I’ve seen before and, in principle, is a simple game. But it uses those ideas to create something new (to me at least) and really makes me think. I don’t _know_ that it’s a newborn classic. BUT, it could be!

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Bang the Dice Game: making Bang fun again

After years of hearing how much better Bang the Dice Game is that the original card game, I finally had a chance to play it. And, short version, it sure seems better than the original game.

My history with Bang goes back a ways, before I was really serious about board games. At most, it had only been out for a couple years. And, at the time, it was really cool. At least for the first few sessions.

But Bang has some definite issues. A lot of which comes down to being too busy for what you get out of it. The theme helps it out a lot but it doesn’t do enough, at least not for me.

Okay. Thumbnail of Bang the Dice Game: At the start of the game, everyone gets a hidden role. The Sheriff, who gets revealed at the start, has to kill the outlaws and the renegade. The Deputy wins if the Sheriff wins. The outlaws win if they kill the sheriff. The renegade wins if they kill everyone else. You also get a character card that gives you a special power.

On your turn, you roll five dice that let you shoot other people, heal up, and possibly blow up dynamite in your face. That sort of thing. You get two rerolls, although dynamite faces are locked. One element I really like are arrows. You draw an arrow token every time you rolls one. When the tokens run out, everyone takes damage equal to the number of their tokens and they turn their arrow tokens back in.

The obvious advantage that the dice game has it is that is a lot easier to teach. The card game, while simple once you know the cards, is surprisingly fiddle. Teaching Bang the Dice Game to non-gamers from scratch is clearly much easier.

However, I also think that, mechanically Bang the Dice Game is stronger. Yes, it uses dice but the game is juggling six different possible faces. There are a lot more than six card possibilities in the original Bang, before even adding in expansions. I think the dice flattens the luck out and makes the luck much more manageable.

I would definitely play Bang the Dice Game again, particularly to find out of it’s as good as it seems to be. It’s not the best dice game I’ve ever played but it does a good job making its theme work and being fun.

Monday, October 7, 2019

My RinCon of 2019 report

The first weekend in October was also RinCon, Tucson’s own gaming convention. I went for Saturday and it was a pretty amazing time. When I wasn’t gaming, I was kibitzing with a lot of fun folks.

I signed up for Bang the Dice Game at the start of the day since I’ve never played it and I’d heard it was better than the original card game. And my initial impression after two games is that is quite true. More streamlined and, despite the dice, seemingly less random. I think five dice levels out the luck more than a deck of so many different cards. It seems to cut through many of the issues the original game has for me.

After that, I ended up in a pickup game of Titan Dice after that. We may have gotten the rules wrong but I was far from impressed by it. Unclear rules and drawn out rounds.

I stumbled over a tournament for an abstract called ShoBu. Then I got to sub in because someone had to leave. I have to say that it was the highlight of the con for me. ShoBu, on first blush, seems like a really solid abstract. A few years ago, I learned and was very impressed by Tak at RinCon and this was a similar experience.

I got to try Ice Cool 2, a game about flicking bottom heavy penguins through a maze. It was delightful and I was happy to catch all the other penguins when it was my turn to be hall monitor. Dexterity games aren’t my cup of tea but it was fun.

I ended the con with a five-player game of Tzolk’In so I did get in a heavier game while I was there.

So, a very good convention.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Dunsany Dreams 2

Gravestone Whispers

As I sat in the cemetery, I heard a gravestone speak.

‘Flesh and even bone, all will melt away and become only dust. Only I am forever. Only I last. I am the only memory that matters. Forget the soul. I am the eternal part of man.’

When I looked over, I saw that the wind and rain had erased the words on the stone. 

Friday, October 4, 2019

The start of random thoughts on tone

I’ve been revisiting some books that I either read as a child or could have read as a child, including four or five Encyclopedia Brown books. So far, my journey has also included The Rover Boys, the Three Investigators, the Famous Five and the Mad Scientists Club among others.

Almost all of these books are very, very plot driven with minimal characterization and theme. Harsh, I know but I think fair.

What I didn’t think about until looking at Mad Scientists Club was tone. 

It’s not really fair to pull the Rover Boys out since it’s well over a hundred years old and the start of the Stratemeyer Syndicate which is defined by being extruded literary product. But, man, the tone is so wooden that the engineering-style of early Avalon Hill rule books seem F. Scott Fitzgerald. Really, the only reason to read the books is as some sort of history study. I’d avoid them if I were you.

In comparison, while I truly think three of the seven members of the Mad Scientists Club could have been merged into one without losing anything, the tone of the stories is wonderful. It’s casual and colloquial and slyly witty. The series has a great voice and really deserves to be more widely known. (Yeah, I’ll blog about the books sometime. STEM meets Boy Scouts meets shenanigans) 

And, yes, looking at Encyclopedia Brown, I have to give that series props for tone. It’s corny as all get out with a narrator who pulls out the stops with dad jokes but it adds a lot to making logic puzzles actual stories. (Yeah, the whole point of this is really that I sold Encyclopedia Brown a bit short. But it was a fun journey)

Frankly, tone adds a lot to a wide variety of game experiences as well. I mean, just look at _anything_ in the Warhammer 40K, where the whole grim dark can run from painfully earnest to satirical to completely hysterical. Tone transforms every WH40K experience, which is cool.

But tone in gaming really deserves its own blog entry or three.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

My absolute failure to define a game system

When talking about game systems (and I feel like talking about game systems), you have to ask yourself “Where do you draw the line?” I don’t think there’s a definitive answer but I do think there are murkier cases.

A game system, for those are curious, is a set of components that you can use to play a variety of different games. A deck conventional playing cards is my absolutely favorite example because everyone gets it. There are books upon books of different games you can play with just a deck of cards. There isn’t a game called Cards. There are families of games that you can play with those 52 little pieces of cardboard.

There’s a few places that it gets murky for me. One is when you have to add additional things to make the game work. I adore the Looney Pyramids but I also have to admit that a lot of the games involve adding more than just pyramids. Dice, playing cards, tokens, boards, Tarot cards, a Piece Pak set, etc. Although Looney Labs kind of killed that line of questioning by publishing the Pyramid Arcade and including all of that other stuff in the same box. And there are times when this kind of argument gets a little silly anyway. Poker needs poker chips or some equivalent  (like actual money) to work so Poker doesn’t count SAID NO ONE EVER.

Yes, it is really nice when a game system is entirely  encapsulated in one set of components. I mean, you have a game library in your pocket by putting a deck of cards in said pocket. But it is clearly too limiting to insist on that.

Another question you have to ask is if something is a game system or a game with a lot of variations. I remember being told that Quarriors was really a tool box because there were a variety of ways to play the game. I don’t think that makes it a game system since you’re still just playing Quarriors. Carcassonne having expansions doesn’t make it a game system. Just a game that can be expanded. On the other hand, Ablaze actually does cross into being a game system since the three rule sets that come in the box are fairly distinct. Ablaze is a very close call, though.

It’s also interesting when a game isn’t known for being made from a game system but clearly is. You can, of course, play checkers with nothing more than a Checkers set. But there are other, very solid games, that you can do that with. Lines of Actions and two-player Focus are my personal favorites.

And you can take the concept to work interesting extremes. You can argue that the early Cheapass Games, having you raid other games for components, turned your entire game collection into a game system :D

How I love game systems

Ah, game systems. A subject I never tire of going back to and a subject that is on my mind because I just made a copy of a game system, a Pairs deck.

A game system is a set of components that you can use to play a variety of different games. And, as far as I’m concerned, the king Of game systems and the greatest game system is the deck of conventional playing cards. I’d be willing to hear arguments for a challenger to that title (You can definitely make an argument for dominoes) but it would have to be a really, really good argument.

I think a game system needs two things: versatility and at least one killer game. A game system needs at least one game that you’d have still bought the thing even if that was the only game you could play with it.

And a deck of cards has both of those traits in spades (and diamonds and clubs and hearts) You can do so much with just one deck. And it doesn’t just have a killer game or just a bunch of them. It has _families_ of killer games. You have the poker family, the rummy family, the climbing family, the trick-taking family, etc.

Still, it’s fun to look for more modern game systems. A deck of cards is one of the basic building blocks of the hobby, part of its primordial DNA but something more modern can be fun and fascinating.

My personal favorite is Ice House/Treehouse/Looney Pyramids/Pyramid Arcade (I’ve been playing with pyramids with a long time) That said, since you might use dice, cards, tokens and boards in addition to the pyramids, I also view it as kind of a cheat :D Still, the pyramids are a gateway to a wide variety of great games.

I have a ways to go before I’ve explored the Pairs system to have a really good idea how versatile it is or what, if any, killer games it might have. But I am glad to have made it. I think there’s fun in there.

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Finding a new home for Mr Bear

When our son was under a year old, on a lark, we bought a five-foot stuffed bear from Costco. It wasn’t the sturdiest of stuffed animals but it was the biggest one we’d ever owned and he was super huggable.

Before our son learned to walk, every day I would turn the living room into a play area for him, putting down a play rug and using Mr Bear as a soft barrier to keep from crawling away. That was honestly the most activity Mr Bear was.

After that, about all Mr Bear did was sit in a corner so our now almost six son decided that Mr Bear was too big to keep around the house so it was off to Goodwill.

I wasn’t going to put Mr Bear in the trunk so I buckled him in on the passenger’s side. When I actually carried him in, there was a smile on everyone at the receiving dock at Goodwill and they all took turns hugging him.

A teddy bear the size of a chair is too big to keep around just as a keepsake. But Mr Bear left us with many happy memories.

Toy Factor

After I finished another game of Pop the Pig with our son, I realized I’ve never actually written about that game.

And to be fair, there’s not much to write about, it’s a game for small children consisting of a plastic pig dressed like a chef. Roll a die to determine what color plastic burger you stuff in his mouth. Every burger has a number on the bottom and you pump his hat that number of times. After about thirty or so pumps, his belt will pop and if you’re that player, you win.

To summarize. Roll a die and do what it tells you. If you’re lucky, you’ll win. The only decision is whether or not to play.

Despite that fact, our five-year-old does like to get it out every once in a while. And at least it’s not Doggie Doo Doo, which has the same number of decisions but is themed around dog poop.

Pop the Pig combines two things that I have seen in a number of little kid games. Toy Factor and No Choices. And clearly, the only reason that it hits the table, at least in our home, is the toy factor.

Toy Factor isn’t great as the solitary virtue of a game but I’ll admit that it can add a lot to a game experience. Connect 4 is a decent little abstract that has a first-player bias but the experience of dropping the checkers, as well as dropping them all out at the end, is what sells it. It’s a game that teaches the basics of abstracts and the tactile experience is a fun one.

The first game that our son really played was Don’t Spill the Beans, which also has plenty of toy factor. There’s a not a lot to the game but it is a dexterity game so there is a skill element to it.

Pop the Pig, I can’t say the same props that I can give either Connect 4 or Don’t Spill the Beans. But he does play it and plays it by the rules so it has that for me.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

My September PnP

September was a busy, busy month. If I hadn’t worked ahead early in the year, printing and cutting, I wouldn’t have gotten in Print and Play work done in September at all.

But I had so I did. I only made one project but that was Pairs, the free fruit version, from Cheapass Games. As a deck of 55-cards, Pairs counts as a ‘big’ project for me. (To be fair, I consider anything more than two pages of components big but Pairs definitely doesn’t count as a micro game)

Now, I got to play Pairs and some of the other games you can play with the deck a couple years ago at a convention. Which was a bit of a revelation since Pairs is the epitome of a casual gaming tool. It isn’t designed for game nights. It’s designed for pubs. I wouldn’t have brought a deck for the folks I played Agricola with but I would have brought it for the folks I played pub quiz with,

The fact that I laminated my cards just makes it even more perfect for pub games :D

If a PnP file is only one or two pages, I’m a lot more inclined to try it regardless of potential quality. ‘Big’ projects require being more likely to be good and be played. Pairs meets that requirement.

I’ll be honest. October looks like it will be even more busy than September. It may be a PnP-free month. But I’m glad I did make something in September.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Dunsany Dreams 1

The Voice of the Mountain

As I walked in the wilderness,  I heard a voice. It was the voice of the wilderness.

‘I am mountain. I am the giant of the world. I stand above all things. Even the clouds are below me. My strength is never-ending. I will outlast all things, that even eternity. I am mountain.’

All this I heard from the desert sand.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Abstracts for more than two

As I have written many times, one of the misconceptions I had when I was first rediscovering board games is that one of the key parts of an abstract was two players. You know, like Chess or Checkers or Go or Tic Tac Toe or such. 

But that was one of the first rules that got tossed out the window. (No random elements was the hardest one to give up but the never-ending arguments that Qwirkle and Ingenious are abstracts wore me down)

Good old Blokus was a big factor in that decision. Definitely doesn’t have a theme, no hidden information, totally deterministic. And not only does it play up to four players, it plays best with four players.

And it’s not like it’s that new an idea. Chinese Checkers and it’s predecessor Halma date back to Victorian times and they play more than two players too. If you count Ludo/Parcheesi as abstracts (I mean, Backgammon is considered an abstract), we can talk about multi-player abstracts going back centuries.

Still, making a game for more than two players requires more decision space so everybody has a fair shake. It’s not a coincidence that the original Blokus has all four colors start in the corners where they develop some board space before meeting other colors while Blokus Duo has you in each other’s grill from the start.

Frankly, the more players you add to a game, the harder it can be to make sure everyone has an even playing field. And since abstracts tend to have simpler rule sets, that can make it more difficult. The random or hidden elements that can level the playing field aren’t there as much. It’s clearly not impossible but it makes it rarer.

Sometimes, the question isn’t if an abstract can be played with more than two. Without a special board, three-player Martian Chess is down right dreadful, for instance. So, it’s not enough that multi-player is possible. It also has to be good.

So, yes, multi-player abstracts are out there. And, like all things, not all of them are worth finding. But there are some good ones.

Thursday, September 26, 2019

The Hollow as a weird world building exercise

I recently stumbled across a description of the cartoon the Hollow and ended up watching a bit of it, including the end since the description spoiled it for me :D It was an okay cartoon, good for background noise but not captivating in and of itself. But it did get me thinking.




Okay, the characters are in a video game and they might even still be stuck in it at the end. In actuality, going in already knowing that made the show more enjoyable for me since that justified all the wacky world building. Each area in the game was very much it’s own genre and, taken on a whole, wouldn’t have made any sense except as a video game. Spooky Woods next to Decaying Creepy Amusement Park next to Wild West Ghost Town next to Invaded Space Stations. It’s either really bad or really brilliant world building. 

And it also made me think of older games where the world building was kind of shaky. The original Zork has magical rainbow wands, exorcisms, steam punk dams and the Cyclops explicitly from the Odyssey. While later games tried make it all make more sense, it was a goofy, kitchen sink setting where the only point was to grab all the loot you could.

However, what it _really_ reminded me of was the failed RPG experiment Sandman: Map Of Halaal. ( Man, that was a weird game on almost every level but the setting was the weirdest part. Casablanca mixed with early Disney movies mixed with Arabian Nights mixed with Einstein in a rocket ship topped off with psychodramas.

Okay, when I actually look back at Sandman: Map Of Halaal, it is much, much more deranged than the more mundane kitchen sink of The Hollow. It is literally like someone dumped random pop culture into a blender.

The Hollow, truth to tell, doesn’t have that interesting a plot and the character development is minimal. But the retro, kitchen sink setting did take me back to a different era of gaming.