Friday, April 26, 2019

Some thoughts on what modules really were

When I was younger (and we are talking first edition younger), I read a lot of modules/adventures. You know, the fact that TSR even used the term module says a lot about the war gaming roots of Dungeons and Dragons.

Looking back, I am amazed at how much I read of them, although back in the day, that was so much of what was out there for us to read. I feel like, these days, people remember old school modules being railroad tracks but that’s not actually my memory of them.

This is my memory of those old adventures: that they were maps and area descriptions. That they gave you a bare bones story at best and really acted as a place you could interact with. Potential sandboxes and some of the earliest setting information.

I’m pretty sure that, if I were to go back and actually look at them, I’d find they are a mixture of railroads and sandboxes.

In many ways, setting books, be they straightforward settings or play books for games like Fiasco, have taken the place of modules, at least as far as my recreational reading is concerned. 

That said, adventures are still around and have a lot of uses. Not everyone has the time to make a home brew campaign. They’re kind of essential for any kind of league play. And, hey, what Gm can’t use more maps?

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

In Ranks of Bronze, the most outlandish war is still Hell

I hadn’t planned on reading a lot of David Drake in 2019 but I’m on my way to doing that. It wasn’t intentional and its certainly not structured (I’m not planning, for example, on reading all the Hammers Slammers works) and it’s probably better than way.

And the book that sent me on this trajectory was Ranks of Bronze, which I reread on a whim. It’s the one where Roman Legionnaires fight aliens.

Lost Roman Legions is a surprisingly common theme, although, to be fair, there really are some legions (particularly the 9th) that we have no idea what happened to them. Being kidnapped by aliens to fight their wars for them isn’t even the most outlandish explanation.

The explanation that the alien trade guild requires people to fight at the technological level of the planet the fighting is going on so they need pet ‘primitive’ armies is a cute one that exists purely to justify the story. And, frankly, who cares that it’s a little silly. (Historically, colonialism does _not_ work that way) We here for Romans fighting aliens.

But Ranks of Bronze isn’t as escapist as all that might make it sound. The plot is simple and straightforward to the point where I would say there weren’t any plot twists.

The real story is the character arc of Tribune Gaius Vibulenus. He grows from a boy to a man, to a seasoned soldier and kind of psychotic. But it’s also clear that becoming kind of insane is the only rational response to never-ending war.

In short, David Drake took a wonderfully fun and silly premise that could have been nothing but schlock fun and gave it some real teeth.

Monday, April 22, 2019

A mediocre game can be a fun PnP project

As comes as no surprise since I am interested in Print and Play and a fan of Cheapass Games, I’ve acquired a lot of files from them over the years. With the Black and White Kickstarter going on, I’ve been looking through some of my older files.

Which is how I found myself looking at Gold Digger again. The one designed by James Ernest and illustrated by Phil Phoglio, not the one designed by Reiner Knizia and illustrated by John Kovalic. 

Honestly, I’m not sure why I impulsively printed it, cut it, laminated it and trimmed it. I mean, apart from the fact that it was really easy to do, even though it’s a ‘larger’ project by my standards.

It’s a forty-card deck. Ten one nuggets, ten two nuggets, ten three nuggets and ten booms. It’s a push-your-luck game. Shuffle the deck. Flip a card. If it’s a nugget, you set it aside. Then you can choose to bank it and end your turn or draw another card. Draw a boom and you bust, losing any nuggets you drew on that turn. Go through the deck and whoever has the most points in nuggets wins.

Let’s be honest. It’s easy to see why Gold Diggers never got published. It’s a really simple game. Not the simplest push-your-luck game I’ve ever seen (I’ve played Pass the Pigs) but the luck in Gold Diggers is flattened. Some simple card counting to track the ten booms might be enough to break the game. The odds are very simple to figure out and whoever has the turn after the last boom card has a big advantage.

Randomly discarding five or so cards might be a way of solving that problem. But even then, there’s not much there. And there’s enough light games out there, even in the world of print and play, that Gold Diggers has serious competition.

(I do want to note that while Gold Diggers is a weak game, it’s not the worst game Phil Phoglio has illustrated. In my experience, that was SPANC from Steve Jackson Games which was a horrible game that they wanted me to pay money for)

However, crafting the game was definitely fun for me. I printed it out on impulse and then kept on going until I was done. Small cards with wide margins meant that it was quick work with the paper cutter. While, for a lazy crafter like me, forty cards is a large project, this still ended up being in easy one and probably took me an hour from printing to finishing trimming.

Now that I actually made Gold Digger, maybe it will get played. If I were into drinking, it’d be a good game to play while drunk.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Does this count as PnP?

I’m a lazy Print and Play guy but I’ve still made a number of projects over the last couple years. And I’m willing to count laminating a roll and write that I printed off as a project.

But I’m not sure how to count these two little projects :P

A couple years ago, I picked up both Qwixx and Rolling America. And somehow it took me this long to say ‘You know, I should really laminate some of these score sheets. Make them reusable and all.” So, I laminated and trimmed four sheets each from the two games. Took me maybe five minutes.

I didn’t print anything off and I didn’t cut anything. I didn’t put stickers on any dice. I just put some plastic on some game sheets that I bought. Maybe this really is just blinging those two games :D

But I wouldn’t have done it if I wasn’t already making print and play projects.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Yahtzee is best as a solitaire

I recently downloaded a bare bones, no frills Yahtzee app to my phone for those times when I want to play a solitaire game without getting out physical components. I’m sure I’ll add some other, better dice games at some point but for now, this does trick for me.

Playing Yahtzee this way solves what I consider to be its biggest flaw. It’s multi-player solitaire where you have to sit through everyone else taking their turns. Just playing it actually solitaire solves that problem very nicely.

Yahtzee does have other issues. Speaking as a guy who loves abstracts, I think it’s pretty dry and abstract. And it’s ultimately a pretty shallow game, despite having real choices and being a fundamental class in understanding dice and odds.

But it is pretty good for a mass market, everyone-has-played-it game. Which might be damning Yahtzee with faint praise but considering that there’s some really bad mass market games out there, that’s actually saying something.

And that’s ignoring the real big deal of Yahtzee. It has inspired and influenced a ton of other games. Albeit many of them are better, sometimes much better, than Yahtzee.

Frankly, I have a meh-meh relationship with Yahtzee. I don’t think it deserves the hate that it seems to get from a lot of gamers. And I know as a five-minute, brain-checking-out exercise, it will see plenty of play on my phone.

However, I would never suggest it as a game to play with actual other people. For all the good things I can say about Yahtzee (influential, has actual strategy and challenges, portable, easy to teach), it’s not a game I would suggest and I’d only play it if someone was really, really set on playing it. Even if we are just talking about short games that have no theme and are just dice, I can think of better games. (Cinq-O comes immediately to mind)

Even though I know it will get some love on my phone, that doesn’t change the fact that Yahtzee is better as an inspiration than as an experience.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

Like a boomerang, Devil Bunny comes back

It will come as no surprise to anyone evenly vaguely aware of my strange and possibly unhealthy obsession with Cheapass Games that I’ve been following their promotional release of PnP versions of some of their old games with a fevered eye. (It’s part of their kickstarter campaign for a history book)

I’d been wondering if they’d include Devil Bunny Needs A Ham since it’s probably right after Doctor Lucky as one of their most iconic games. In part because it’s is a decent little game and one of the cheapest things they ever sold but mostly due to the deranged name.

Then they surprised and delighted me by bundling it with its sequel Devil Bunny Hates the Earth, a game where you play sentient and suicidal taffy making machines trying to lure squirrels into your works to keep Devil Bunny (TM) from  destroying western civilization by manufacturing a particularly unsatisfying kind of saltwater taffy. There’s a reason I used to call it James Ernest Mixes Up His Medication. Again.

Stripped of their deranged names and themes, the two games are a decent little roll-and-move game (better than a lot of roll-and-move games that are out there) and a quirky mancala variant. And I’d cheerfully play either game again, for what it’s worth.

They are also the easiest games in the promotion to make, at least for far. (They could release the Chief Herman Funpacks, which are just rule sets) All you need to do is print the boards. Then add tokens, pawns and dice.

If you only make one game from Cheapass’s Classic Black and White Collection (TM), you might as well make these since they’re fun and easy. Which sounds wrong but you should still do it. Frankly, I will because I think they will be great for kids.

That said, I am really hoping that James Ernest and the gang release Enemy Chocolatier by the end of this Kickstarter. Never actually got to play it but it looked so brilliant.


P.S. I also have to note that the rules explicitly note that if Devil Bunny finds squirrels in his taffy machines, he releases them back into the wild so they’re clearly aren’t hurt by the experience.

P.P.S. I kind of hope this project inspires James Ernest to make more Devil Bunny games! Let Devil Bunny ride again!

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

The Hip Pocket Line and the path it paved

Back when I was first starting my tottering steps into board gaming, Cheapass’s Hip Pocket line served as a starting point for me. Cheap and portable and many of them had more game to them than some of Cheapass’s larger games.

They might also mark my fascination and love of micro games. They might be a bit high in the component count for the modern definition of micro game (particularly the several that need extra components) but the idea is still clearly the same. Small, short, portable, affordable.

While micro games have long been with us (Hi, Ogre!), Love Letter really marked the start of the golden age of micro games. And looking back at the Hip Pocket line, I think that doesn’t just mean commercially viable but innovative as well. 

I look at Love Letter or Buttonshy’s Wallet Games or Perplext’s Pack O Game line, there’s a lot of variety and even innovation. In comparison, all but one of the Hip Pocket Line was some kind of tile laying game. To be fair, they really explored that design space but later micro games went so much farther.

I’m not trying to bash the Hip Pocket line. Some of them still hold up very well today. I think they mark a watershed for James Ernst’s game designs with more refined mechanics. I think they an important step in micro game design and development. And, someday I will finally play Time Line, which has to be the deepest game in the line!

And to be even more fair, while I think the best of the new generation of micro games are amazing, Sturgeon’s Law is still very much in effect. There’s a lot of bad ones out there. By that standard, the Hip Pocket line is a statistical wonder :D

When I look at the Hip Pocket line now, I appreciate how much fun they gave me years ago and how they helped pave the way for more games down the line.

Why the Wheels of If still works

The Wheels of If by L. Sprague de Camp is a little novella from 1940 that is full of gigantic ideas. de Camp didn’t invent the idea of alternate history but The Wheels of If expanded the concept to a level that completely changed the genre. On top of that, it’s a cracking good story, albeit one with an interesting level of a value dissonance. 

I’m not actually sure what the first alternate history was. Some argue Livy wrote one in 9 BC.  However, the earliest ones dealt with the immediate result of something different happening in history. Usually, what if the other side won a war.

The Wheels of If, from what I can tell, was one of the first that explored the idea of long term, global effect. While set in the 1940s, the key changes took place centuries earlier and we see much more massive changes. Since then, literally hundreds of works have taken a similar tact. 

The Wheels of If also uses the ideas of multi-verses with everyone having variations of themselves in other universes although not in most of them. The title comes from the idea of all of them going over one click, their minds ending up in their bodies in the next universe over.


Spoilers... 
Spoilers...
Spoilers...

Allister Park, a New York lawyer, gets pulled out of his own body into a series of alternate versions of himself, until he ends in the body of a Bishop in a world where the Roman Catholic Church is much weaker, Southern Europe is held by Muslims and the Americas were settled much earlier so the native population was able to fight back better.

Oh and the body swapping was all done as political machinations by one of the political opponents of the bishop. Which seems like a crazy amount of work when less metaphysical methods are out there.

However, Park’s New York chutzpah and political savvy let him turn the tables and take control of the situation, even creating a second identity as his old name Allister Park. His efforts to get back to his own timeline upset the political landscape enough that a three-front war ends up starting in North America. 

That particular escalation is a little abrupt but de Camp handles it well enough that you can buy into it, which is an impressive bit of writing.

By modern standards, Park is an anti-hero. He is downright Machiavellian in his actions, which are pretty much completely self-serving. He uses women pretty much like disposable playthings. (In fact, there are no female characters of note in the story) And he admires the racist, corrupt political boss who got him into the mess because he knows how to party.

However, de Camp keeps us on Park’s side because he’s so gosh darn clever, his enemies are worse and he ultimately makes the world a better place, even if it’s unintentional, although Park is happy with the results.

Still, I suspect Park was more conventionally heroic when the story first was written.

What is fascinating about the Wheels of If is that is a seminal work that changed the way folks approached alternate history but de Camp uses it to serve the story. Park’s adventures are the point. Alternate history is just the backdrop. de Camp changed the genre but it was a side effect of telling the story.

And maybe that’s why the Wheels of If still holds up so well. A little dated but still engaging.

Monday, April 8, 2019

An RPG where poker isn’t just the mechanic but the whole thing

It’s been a while but I decided it was time to go back to the Indie Mega Mixtape to read some more wacky RPG goodness with I Bet My Life.

Here’s the one sentence summary: Play poker with your skills and dreams and memories as stakes.

Seriously. That’s really what the game is all about. You define three overwhelming problems, crushing issues that are destroying your lives. Then symbols that represent skills and memories and dreams. Then, deal the cards.

As is often the case with games this short, there are some ambiguities. It sounds like there should be a dummy hand for The Smiling Man but that isn’t actually mentioned.

It’s also doesn’t say if you are supposed to play as yourself. If you are, I Bet My Life has a ridiculous amount of bleed and borders on being an exercise in psychoanalysis, which is going too far for my tastes.

But if you don’t go with that, I Bet My Life actually crosses the line into being a RPG. The rules state you should describe how you should role play out bidding your dreams and memories. And the idea of basically stealing other people’s dreams and skills to solve your own messed life of just a fascinating story telling method.

When I first read I Bet My Life, I was underwhelmed. But the more I’ve thought about, the more I’ve found myself thinking it could really work as a story telling and roleplaying exercise. Poker is the gimmick but it’s one that can turn around and enhance the story telling.

Clarification on my PnP hobby

I just learned that, in the Urban Dictionary, PnP stands for Party and Play, which apparently taking lots of drugs and engaging in risky sexual behavior.

I PRINT OUT BOARD GAMES AND I PLAY THEM! _PRINT_ AND _PLAY_

Oh, I’m also not a Pediatric Nurse Practitioner, just for the record.

Friday, April 5, 2019

James Ernest is totally punk

I’m sorely tempted to back the latest Kickstarter from Cheapass Games: Cheapass Games In Black and White. It’s a retrospective by James Ernest about the company. It looks to be one third stories about how he designed games and two thirds rules and components sheets.

Which means that the ebook version amounts to a PnP workshop :D

Actually I don’t know if it will be formatted in a way to make PnP easy. In fact, I’m sure it’s not. Which isn’t that big a detractor. They’re releasing thirty of their titles as free PnP files and they’ve released a bunch earlier. And some games, like Lamarckian Poker, are just rules anyway.

On top of that, since I’ve been collecting Cheapass Games for over ten years, I’m not sure if there will be much I don’t already have :D

So it’s actually the reminiscing that really, really interests me.

But that’s not what this Kickstarter made me feel like blogging. I mean, anyone who’d be interested in the book already knows about it :P It was a quote from one of the prerelease blurbs. Cory Doctorow (who I’m pretty sure I’ve never heard of) describes the company as ‘a punk genius of the gaming world’

The idea of Cheapass Games as a punk concept, possibly accidentally (the book might make me change my mind), is a great way for me to explain Cheapass Games. Not Mohawks and safety pins kind of punk but the ideology of rejecting the mainstream corporate. 

Board gaming, even more so back in the 90s, is a niche culture and a boutique business. But chrome and pretty bits and production are still a big deal. I’ve known folks who will judge a board game on its production level before anything else. Chrome is a such a selling point. Chrome is how the man gets you to buy games.

And, while sometimes I feel like people who demand chrome should go to a museum rather than play games if pretty things are that big a deal, there is real value to chrome. It can make a game easier to play and understand.

But Cheapass Games definitely proved that low production, (sometimes) hi concept could really work. It rejected the idea of needing a pile of plastic for a game to be good. And, in a world where having miniatures sometimes seems like a requirement for a Kickstarter to be funded, that is an important idea.

Sometimes, I feel like the main reason a game needs colorful art and plastic figures is to convince other people to play the game.

So pitching Cheapass Games as a way to reject being a corporate sell-out and sticking it to the man might be the way to get people into their games. Slightly more seriously, Cheapass Games did show a different way to approach both publishing and playing games. 

Instead of saying this is a game about bartering over chopped up body parts, let’s say this was part of a revolution.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Criss Cross boils down R&W to the absolute basics

I’m going to be upfront. I made a PnP copy of Criss Cross instead of buying it. For many reasons, I am hesitant to make copies of published games but, in defense of this particular situation, I downloaded the board from the publisher themselves. If the publishers give me the files, I have no problems.

Criss Cross is an incredibly simple roll and write game from Reiner Knizia but, amazingly enough, not the simplest one he’s made. That’d be Katego.

Okay. Description time. Criss Cross belongs in the same school as Take It Easy. Everyone has their own board and fills it out with the same information. It’s literally multi-player solitaire. 

In this case, everyone is filling out a five-by-five grid with the rolls of two dice that have six different symbols on them. At the start, everyone puts a different symbol in the corner. (If you have more than six players, there’s going to be some duplicates)

Then, roll those dice. Everyone has to mark down those two symbols on their grid and they have to be adjacent to each other. Diagonal doesn’t count. And if you accidentally make a square impossible to fill, that’s just too bad for you.

After you’ve filled in your grid, time to figure out points. You score each row and column. Set of symbols (and they have to be next to each other) are what earn you points. A set of two is worth two points but a set of five is worth ten points. Most points win.

There are two advanced rules. One is that you score one of the diagonal lines but you score it twice. The other is that if a row or column doesn’t score any points, you get negative five points for it. I would never play without these rules. Even if I was teaching Criss Cross to a non-gamer, I’d still teach the game with the advanced rules. There’s not much to the game so a little more adds a lot.

Criss Cross reminds me of a lot of games, even within the Take It Easy family. Mountains and Valleys from Sid Sackson’s Beyond Solitaire, Mosaix, Not Another One. However, the game I find myself really comparing it to is W├╝rfel Bingo/High Score. 

I like High Score more. Since you are using the sum of two dice, you can use probability to make decisions. However, there’s going to be more variance in Criss Cross on different players boards, which is  a good thing.

Okay. What do I actually think about Criss Cross? I’m going to damn it with faint praise by saying I like it just fine. All the parts work, it doesn’t overstay it’s welcome and I’m pretty sure any group I’d show it to would have fun with it. Criss Cross does just what it’s supposed to. It is pretty random but that’s a given when the whole game is twelve dice throws.

However, I have played a lot of games like Criss Cross. And some of the are definitely better, although others are definitely worse. It’s biggest sin isn’t how random it is (that’s both expected and that randomness hits everyone equally) but there’s nothing about it that makes it really stand out in the pack.

The most interesting thing about it when looking at it in a global perspective is that it is so stripped down and basic. Knizia boiled down the idea of Roll and Write to its fundamentals with Criss Cross.

Would I play it if someone suggested it? Sure. Like it said, it does what it is supposed to and it has the added bonus of being super portable. I’m sure I will play it some more. It’s decidedly not bad. It’s just decidedly not special.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Poking the Emperor - too complex for its own good

Over the last few years, I have read a lot of odd, sometimes free, RPGs. Poking the Emperor... well, it struck me as a brilliant idea thematically but kind of clunky mechanically.

Okay, here’s the idea. You know how Conan ends his career as the emperor of a vast and ancient empire, the crown on his troubled brow, etc? Well, the game takes place decades that happened. The unnamed but blatantly Conan emperor is now old, demented and dying. The players are his court, each one trying to take over when he’s dead but also trying to keep the empire from completely collapsing. Unless you side with the enemies of the empire, of course!

I’m not going to go through the rules. The game is free to download and pretty short to boot. The GM controls the emperor and tracks his humors to determine his moods and tastes. The players pick from a very prescribed list of actions to gain power and influence the emperor. And after everyone gets to do something, you find out what bad stuff happens to the empire. The game ends with either the emperor dying or the empire collapsing.

And here’s my issues with Poke The Emperor and why I’m pretty sure it’s languished in obscurity. There is too much focus on book keeping and specific discrete mechanical actions and not enough about creating scenes and actual role playing. I’ve played crunch heavy games and don’t mind lots of rules but the structure of Poking the Emperor might make it easier to not role play.

It’s pretty obvious that My Life With Master was a big influence on Poking the Emperor. However, I feel like it’s missing so much of what made My Life With Master special. My Life With Master is very character-driven, focused on the personal journey of a minion. Poke the Emperor is, well, a lot more general and big picture. Which really needs another kind of approach.

There are elements I like about the game. The overall theme and the way different threats progress. But I don’t see myself actually playing the game.

David Drake hits mediocre with The Sea Hag

David Drake, the guy who gave us Hammer’s Slammers, has written some solid books. The Sea Hag wasn’t one of them. At best, I’d call it fair to middlin’. However, it is free to download from the Baen Free Library and I downloaded it for travel reading so I’m satisfied with what I got from it.

Spoilers... spoilers... spoilers...

Prince Dennis discovers that his dad’s kingship comes from a deal his dad made with an eldritch abomination who is also the name of the book and that part of the deal is that Dennis has to be handed over to the Sea Hag. So Dennis runs away with Chester, a robot octopus who is his nurse maid. And that’s just the opening.

I got to admit, I was really expecting Chester to turn out to be evil until I realized that the story structure was that of a fairy tale. Then I realized he was just Puss in Boots as a robot octopus. 

While there are some fantasy trappings, the setting is definitely science fiction with the monsters really being aliens or some kind of technological wonder. And the story structure is that of a fairy tale pounding on the rule of three so hard it’s a wonder it doesn’t break.

Oddly enough, that’s actually what made the Sea Hag work for me as well as it did. As soon as I realized what the formula was (and the Sea Hag is incredibly formulaic) and knew what I had signed in for, I was fine with the ride even while I saw every ‘twist’ coming. After all, I chose the book for light reading on a road trip and it worked very well for that.

Would I recommend the Sea Hag? Eh, not really. You have to be into fairy tales and looking for fluff reading. This is honestly some of the blandest writing I’ve read by Drake. I got what I wanted out of it and that’s the best I can say for it.

My March PnP

Okay, it’s the start of another month, which means it’s time to look back at what I’ve crafted in the last month. Here’s what I made in March: 

Cat Corral (2019 9-Card contest)
Circuit Breaker (2019 9-Card contest)
Coba (2019 9-Card Contest)
Condense the Code (2019 9-Card Contest)
Palm Island
Marooned 
Haze Islands
One-Minute War

As you can see, a decent chunk of what I made were from a contest that’s still going on and probably aren’t the final version of those games. But it’s the only way that I can give any feedback :)

My biggest build was Haze Islands, which I’ve been meaning to make for a while. And it’s also part of my doomed-to-failure plan to make one big project a month to pace my crafting.

Of course, now I have to actually play Haze Islands :P That’s a goal for April!