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.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Is there a connection between PnP and solitaire games?

I’ve noticed that my interest in Print-and-Play and in solitaire gaming dovetailed together over the last couple years.

And part of that is because that way no one but me has to see the quality of my crafting :P And a variety of factors have me in between gaming groups so it’s a great time for solitaire gaming. And, when I spend money on games, I’d rather spend it on games I play with other folks.

However, it seems to me (and I could be totally wrong since I cannot claim to have made any kind of methodical study of the matter) that there’s a higher percentage of solitaire PnPs than published games.

Now, I’m not counting PnP demos of Kickstarter games or games that just have a solitaire option. I’m talking dedicated solitaire games. (And I could be totally wrong, of course)

I have two theories.

The first one is that Print and Play, the actual act of making the stuff, is kind of an insular activity. If there are groups of folks getting together to make print and play projects, I haven’t heard of it. Although I’d be interested in hearing more if there are groups like that out there. So I wonder the solitaire nature of making games appeals to folks who want to play solitaire games.

The second theory is that, while you just need one person to make or buy a game, you need the whole gaming table to buy into the idea of playing the game. Convincing one person to play a game is easier than convincing a larger group.

Do Print and Play games somehow appeal more to solitaire gamers? Are there really that many solitaire PnP games out there? I really have no idea, although it’s fun to wonder.

Really, the answer matters most to the folks who design print and play games.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Was Eco Fluxx the shape of things to come?

It’s been a while since I’ve bought a version of Fluxx. Since I have at least six different versions, I already have more than enough ways of playing Fluxx, barring special occasions. However, in a couple years, I know I’ll hopefully be buying some more versions of Fluxx, the educational ones.

Out there, threatening to combine education and entertainment and chaos are Math Fluxx, Chemistry Fluxx and Anatomy Fluxx. If our now-in-Kindergarten son shows the slightest interest in Fluxx when he’s older, I am so getting them. In particular, I am quite curious about Math Fluxx since the Fluxx format seems ripe for fooling around with arithmetic.

However, a good twelve years before any of those games came out, Looney Labs put out what was a precursor for the other educational versions of Fluxx, Eco Fluxx. Which is now known as Nature Fluxx. And I feel like I should revisit it.

I have the original 2005 version. As I understand it, there was a second edition of Eco Fluxx which became Nature Fluxx that added more cards, including creepers which hadn’t been released when the original version came out. Which sounds really cool but I have the original version so that’s the one I’m going to try and get back on the table.

At the time, one of the defining traits of Fluxx was the retro art. While I will argue that Fluxx isn’t about funny cards but funny processes, that art gave the game a definite feel. Eco Fluxx broke away from with more realistic art of plants and animals. And that realistic art of Eco Fluxx gave a more serious feel.

And the goals also reflected that more serious tone, using food chains and weather and other natural processes to provide examples of nature at work, albeit in a very simple way.

And you know what? The game still worked. It had a different mood and the few times I played it were more serious but it was still a good experience. 

I expect that if and when I try the later educational Fluxx games, I’ll find them a bit more educational and focused. However, looking back, Eco Fluxx showed that the format could do more that just be goofy (but fun) pop art.

Monday, September 23, 2019

Through the Desert is great... but it’s weird

When I first heard of Through the Desert (by my personal hero Reiner Knizia), I read that it was Go for multiple players. That was before I learned what little I know of Go but I can now say that that’s horse feathers. Putting down stones, even stones in the shape of cute little camels, does not make a game Go.

That said, Through the Desert is a great game, one of those games that I wish I played more. I never found a table where people didn’t enjoy it. The biggest ding I can give to it is that it’s has serious color issues for someone who is colorblind like me.

The object of the game is to get the most points. But there are a variety of ways to get those points.

Thumbnail: The game is played on an asymmetrical hex grid that has spaces for water tiles and palm trees, along with lots of empty spaces. There are six different colors of camels and every player gets a camel rider for each of those colors. (So there are eleven pastel colors on the board in a five-player game) Each turn, you pick two camels and place them on the board. The game ends when you’ve used up one color of camel.

Couple of restrictions: You must be able to trace back a camel to your rider of the same color. And you cannot merge into someone else’s group of the same color.

There’s a lot of ways to get points. If you place a camel on top of a water tile, you get it and the points that come with it. If you place next to a palm tree, you get points. If you enclose an area, you get points. And, finally, if you have the most camels of a color, you get points.

Through the Desert isn’t Go but it is definitely an abstract. Camels and palm trees make the game pretty but they don’t actually create a real theme. Another theme or no theme at all could just as easily be used. And the only random element in the game is the distribution of the water tiles. Beyond that, there is no hidden information and everything is under the players’ control.

With that said, Through the Desert is a very unusual abstract. Playing up to five players alone would be noteworthy but abstracts that handle more than two have been around and become more common. (The Blokus family, Ingenious, Martian Chess, Focus, etc.) 

Abstracts, as a rule, usually have one way to get points or a defined game ending/winning condition. It’s not a hard and fast rule. Checkers, for instance, can end either when you capture all your opponent’s’ pieces or block them from being able to make a move. However, I think it’s not unfair to say that the multiple game winning statuses tends to be X or Y or Z. (Geister by Alexander Randolph or Atlanteon by Reiner Knizia are examples of that)

With four different ways of getting points that are distinct, Through the Desert is X + Y + Z + AA :D There are multiple paths to points and, more than that, you definitely can’t pursue all of them. It is an abstract that feels like a Euro. Which is weird and cool and something that feels so Knizia.

I have a long list of abstracts for people that hate abstracts. But Through the Desert is on a whole different level since it’s an abstract that doesn’t feel like an abstract. 

Thursday, September 19, 2019

The love in Archibald’s Next Big Thing is pretty big

I really didn’t have any interest in Archibald’s Next Big Thing. There are way too many kids shows out there to keep track of all of them and it didn’t look like anything special. However, my wife tried it out with our son. When they reached the point where a mole is crooning about stealing stuff to plug a drain pipe, she knew it was a show for  ur family.

It’s kind of hard to describe Archibald’s Next Big Thing. Archibald is an anthropomorphic chicken who gets into wild and silly antics. And that is the show in a nut shell but it doesn’t explain why we’ve enjoyed it so much.

The show has a lot of frenetic action and craziness, which is fun but far, far from unique in cartoons. And the show demonstrates a certain awareness of how silly it all is without being cynical about it, which is fun. But that’s still not it.

What Archibald’s Next Big Thing has in spades is sweetness without being saccharine. Archibald’s three siblings are aware of how much wackiness that Archibald can get into that they can easily predict what mess he’s in now. However, while they sometimes demonstrate resignation and even annoyance, they also never demonstrate anything less than total love for him.

I like how everyone, including Archibald himself, acknowledges that, even in a world of rock and roll whales and maybe unicorns, he’s pretty odd. He’s the Pinkie Pie of his world. However, like Pinkie Pie, he is accepted and even cherished. 

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Clever is cool but not enough

I recently tried playing Heaven & Ale for the first time. It might not be the only time but it’s not a game I see myself getting my own copy.

This isn’t actually a review but here’s the thumbnail of it. Which might have terrible errors in it, seeing as how I’ve only played the game one time. You control the lives of medieval monks trying to make beer. Everyone has their own mat where you place tiles that will either give you money or brewing components.

And here’s how you get those hexes. There’s a track with different types of tiles of on it. You take turns going around, going as many spaces as you want to. And some of the spaces let you get bonus tiles and  discs that let you activate tiles. 

Your game end score is the lowest supply multiplied by the level of your brewmaster after you use your brewmaster to rearrange your supplies, plus bonus points.

I figured that it was going to be just one paragraph and I still left out so much that you could never play the game from my description.

Okay, here’s the thing about the game. It’s very clever. It’s terribly, terribly clever. But I’m not sure if it’s fun. Oh, I had fun trying to parse the game but I can’t help but really think I’d get bored with Heaven & Ale fairly quick.

And, looking back, I know this feeling from other games I’ve played back in my game binging days. Neuland and Toledo are two such games that come to mind. Exploring the process was more interesting than the game part of the game.

Heaven & Ale is a game that I’m glad to have played and I wouldn't mind a couple more plays. But I don’t see myself feeling the need to go beyond that. Which is fine since I didn’t buy the game and don’t have to store it. But I used to be that guy and having a game like this was a bit itchy. It wasn’t a good investment but it was an interesting learning experience.

A friend who lived through my binging said that it was like getting an education in game design. We went through a lot of games and some of them were so clever but didn’t draw us back. 

But what I learned was that wanting to play a game over and over again was more important than how clever it was.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Encyclopedia Brown is trapped in the past

The new children’s show  The InBestigstors has made me decide to revisit the Encyclopedia Brown books. Encyclopedia Brown didn’t invent the kid detective genre (that happened at least fifty years before that and probably much older than that) but it did promote a new level of ‘fair play puzzle’ to the genre.

Everyone already knows the Encyclopedia Brown formula works but here’s how it goes: Every story is actually a puzzle where there’s one or two clues that contradict the criminal’s explanation and show that they are guilty. Sometimes it’s an honest to goodness logic puzzle and other times it’s just someone contradicting themselves. The answers are in the back so the reader has a chance to figure it out before looking. 

(And, no, Encyclopedia Brown wasn’t the first time that was used but it sure helped popularize it)

My memories of the stories were that the characterization was very flat and that most of the explanations worked as the flimsiest of circumstantial evidence. (Of course, Encyclopedia Brown had the winning card of his dad being the police chief so he had that backing him up)

What I forgot was how corny the books were. Everyone, including the narrator, is constantly making groan-worthy jokes. And all of the local kids have one quirk or odd hobby that makes them stand out. Mind you, which each case being only a few pages long, that’s only way to make the kids stand out.

As literature, Encyclopedia Brown is really nothing. As I already mentioned, the stories aren’t actually stories. They are really just puzzles. Theme, character, even plot are minimal. But they’ve encouraged generations of kids to read and maybe even think so that’s a good thing.

What I found interesting, though, is that the books are like a time capsule. The first book was written in 1963. So, of course it’s dated. If it wasn’t dated, something would be disturbing and wrong. And I don’t think the books are an accurate picture of childhood in the 1960s any more than Norman Rockwell is an accurate picture of America in the 1940s. But it does give me an idea what an idealized, sanitized image of childhood was like.

After rereading the first three books (published in 1963, 1965 and 1966), I decided to read the last book which was published in 2012. I wanted to see if the author included cell phones or at least personal computers and microwave ovens.

The title story of Encyclopedia Brown and the Case of the Soccer Scheme did feature, well, soccer, which is a sport I don’t think would be discussed in 1963. So Donald Sobol at least managed to get to the 1980’s. Beyond that, time seemed to be frozen and Encyclopedia Brown was still charging a quarter per day (plus expenses)

Looking at Encyclopedia Brown as an adult in 2019, part of me wonders how and why I read so much the stuff when I was little. But, if it makes my son read more and think about puzzles, I won’t mind if he reads it too.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Taran Wanderer ties the whole series together

I think of the Chronicles of Prydain as the Lord of the Rings for middle schoolers. And I don’t mean that as an insult but as serious praise. Both are heroic fantasies in a functional low-magic setting where there’s high magic in the wings. And both have ‘normal’ folks on the frontline against a greater scope evil.

However, the Chronicles of Prydain are much shorter and more accessible. Basically, they’re easier to read :P

One of the great strengths of the Chronicles is character development. In addition to fighting against the evil that is Arawn, the books are the story of Taran growing from a young idiot to a sadder, wiser adult. And part of the reason when that works is because Lloyd Alexander takes his time. It’s a gradual coming of age story.

It really doesn’t get kicked into high gear until the fourth book, Taran Wanderer. It’s doesn’t fit the structure of the other four books, being episodic as opposed to revolving around one event. However, as distinct as each episode is, they definitely build on each other.

We start off with a fairly jolly adventure with King Smoit (My fantasy casting for him is BRIAN BLESSED) We then have a sword and sorcery adventure against the evil sorcerer Morda. Next is Taran’s heartbreaking experiences in Craddoc’s valley. Finally, Taran ends up in the Free Commots, where he gets some experience in smithing and  weaving and pottery.

In other words, the action and adventure, including one of the more high fantasy sequences in the whole series, is at the front of the book and the mundane world of growing up is at the back. It works because Alexander eases us into it and it’s a process that takes Taran months to live through.

Taran Wanderer is the book which really pushes the Chronicles to the next level in my arrogant opinion. Because it takes the subtext of coming of age and makes it the text without being didactic. (Okay, too didactic)

I sometimes wonder if the Chronicles of Prydain has been left behind in the sands of time. (Probably not since they’re still in print) If they are, I blame the terrible 1985 movie. But they are really good, particularly when you’re in middle school.

Monday, September 9, 2019

You know, the InBestigators is jolly good fun

Our son recently discovered the children’s show The InBestigators on Netflix. Frankly, his parents might be getting more out of it than he is. 

Imagine if Encyclopedia Brown If it was a comedy and Australian and possibly directed by Christopher Guest. Four fifth-grade kids solve problems around their school and neighborhood with frequent cuts of them narrating the events as a vlog.

The show embraces the mockumentory format a lot more than I was expecting. We watch the kids usually doing something else (like failing at origami or not repairing a printer) while they describe the latest case to the camera. Instead of just being an occasional confession cam, the vlog is a subplot.

Each of the detectives has a distinct and quirky personality. Ezra is earnest and obsessed with science. Ava is hyper and super social to a silly degree. Sporty Kyle has a heart as big as a hot air balloon and his brain is about as empty as one well. Maudie, who is the one who actually does the detective work, is also withdrawn and socially awkward. It’s not the best child acting I’ve ever seen but it’s several cuts above very nice young men and women doing their best.

The writing is beautifully, wonderfully snarky. I don’t think our five-year-old gets half of the jokes. I love it when a children’s series includes bonuses for the parents but does so by being witty instead of ‘hidden’ raunchy. The show is actually funny.

As wacky as the show is, there are some surprisingly serious topics discussed. In addition to cases about cheating in class or vandalism, the show delves into parents getting divorced and bullying and losing a parent. And the InBestigators doesn’t give pat, easy answers to those subjects.

The InBestigators isn’t our new favorite show but it is funny and discusses things kids need to deal with in a non-preachy way. Our family is glad we found it and another season or two would be nice.

My September RinCon time

Saturday was the last RinCon fundraiser. I’d missed the ones in July and August so I wanted to make sure that I got this one in. I was there for four, five hours and every game I played was new to me.

I started off with Wingspan, which I’ve been wanting to try because I quite like Tussie Mussie. And the promise of Elizabeth Hargrave’s earlier design did not disappoint. Wingspan is the better game of her so-far two and there’s a lot more game. You build up a tableau of birds but you get fewer actions every round,

While Wingspan wasn’t billed to me as an engine builder, that’s what it really made me think of. There are enough random elements, particularly the bird food dice tower, that made me wonder if the random elements could be too swingy but I really enjoyed the game. I definitely want to play it again.

The heaviest game I played was Heaven & Ale, which is a game about Medieval beer brewing. It was almost insistently counter-intuitive. You don’t build up points but various supplies that get crunched into a simple formula to create points at the end of the game. It was a very interesting process but I’m not sure if the game was fun or if trying to parse the system was fun. Heaven & Ale is a game where I know it’s clever but clever can fool you into thinking clever is good.

The last and simplest game I learned was Reef, which has absolutely nothing to do Reef Encounter. It is really an abstract themed around building a coral reef with chunky, stackable pieces. You either draw a card or play a cards. Cards let you place two of those chunky pieces and score points if you match a pattern on the card. It was jolly good fun and I can see it as a game my family would enjoy.

Sometimes, I end up playing lots of little games. This was more playing a few middle-sized games and it worked out well.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Thanks for so much Doctor Who fun, Terrance Dicks

On August 29, 2019, Terrance Dicks passed away. He wasn’t a household name for a lot of folks but his work had a big impact on me. And, okay, he was kind of a household name in my childhood house.

While he did a lot of work writing and editing for television, Terrance Dicks was significant for me because he did a lot of work on Doctor Who. Between editing scripts and writing some too, he was part of the creative team from the Patrick Troughton era through Peter Davidson’s time. His scripts included co-writing The War Games and writing Robot, The Brain of Morbius and The Five Doctors among others.

So, some fairly significant stories.

However, where he really hit me was was all the novelizations he wrote. Back in the 80s, my access to the actual show was whatever re-runs PBS showed. The skinny little Target novelizations were a big part of my formative Doctor Who experience. Terrance Dicks wrote dozens of them. I later learned he got a lot of the original script writers to write novelizations as well.

Now, I have to admit, we aren’t talking about high art here. Most of Dicks’ own novelizations were practically just the scripts. And there is a big difference between reading what Tom Baker said and watching him chew the scenery with gusto. But, by golly, it let me get into Doctor Who in a way I never could have otherwise.

Thank you, Terrance Dicks.

My August PnP

August has gone by so quickly that I find myself already behind now that we’re in September :D Still, I did do some Print and Play crafting during August and here’s what I made:

Tempus Imperium
Catan Coop

Eventually, I am going to miss my goal of making a ‘big’ project each month but I haven’t yet. I’m quite happy to have finally made a copy of Bali, which was my big project for August. The fact that I’m pretty sure it’s been out of print for decades doesn’t bode super well but I think it will prove worth at least making a home made copy.

Tempus Imperium and Catan Coop both just involved laminating a single page. Still, I am quite curious about them both. Tempus Imperium will be the first time I’ve tried a Roll and Write where you replace dice with the date and time. I don’t know how well that will work but I think it’s something worth looking at. Catan Coop is something I’d never heard of (not a great sign) so I’m curious to see if it’s any good. Having a version of Catan (even a simplified one and a cooperative one) that I can carry anywhere would be nifty.

September looks to be another busy month but I’m hoping to crank out at least one ‘big’ project if nothing else.