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.