Wednesday, February 19, 2020

Mythos don’t need no continuity

I decided to read Ubbo-Sathla by Clark Ashton Smith, whose one of those authors I feel like always need to read more of.   I know the story has been co-opted into the Cthulhu Mythos because Smith was part of the Lovecraft circle and why not? The short story certainly deals with cosmic horror and nightmarish secrets man will always regret poking at.

So I then decided to look at how Ubbo-Sathla, the primordial slime that spawned all life and guards the tablets of dark gods, has been jury-rigged into the greater Mythos. The phrase proto-shoggoth came up more than once, with the idea of the Elder Things harvesting samples of Ubbo-Sathla to create those teddy bears of the Mythos, the shoggoth. 

That seemed a little odd with Smith’s story having Ubbo-Sathla kick off life on this fragile globe in a more wild and natural fashion. (Not that I think Smith had any desire to have the story fit neatly into a carefully organized cosmology)

That’s when I realized that I was going about the whole matter all wrong. A key element of Lovecraft’s flavor of cosmic horror is that the universe, in addition to being 100% uncaring, is inexplicable, beyond the comprehension of the soft, squishy human mind. Trying to categorize and organize it just isn’t playing the game, by Jeeves. 

(No offense to you, Mr. August Derleth. You know I still love you. Okay, mostly for Solar Pons but you did keep the Mythos alive)

Yes, there is value and justification in having some kind of cosmology and taxonomy for the Mythos if you’re going to have a game like Call of Cthulhu. A game like that does get a lot of help from a system and I do love me some Call of Cthulhu. 

However, that madman Clark Ashton Smith has reminded me that you can’t cling to that structure too much. Sometimes, you have to remember that the continuity of the Mythos has a lot in common with the continuity of Red Dwarf. It doesn’t make sense and that’s just fine.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Encore is better than not bad

Keeping up with me learning Roll and Writes, I made 2020 the year I learned Noch Mal/Encore. And, yes, I learned it via app and now play it all the time on my phone.

As I’ve already mentioned, NM/E is a Roll and Write. That means you roll some dice and jot something down on a piece of paper. It’s a genre that has exploded over the last few years (While more ‘gamer’ Roll and Writes have around for a while, I’ve read more than one person state Qwixx got the wave going so I guess 2012 was a watershed year?)

The playing sheet in NM/E is a rectangular grid of colored squares and with some stars sprinkled about. There is more than one pattern of sheets which adds a _lot_ or replay value. Every turn, you draft a number die and a color die and scratch off that many squares of that color, as long as they are either attached to another scratched off square or in the middle column.

And, for such a small game, there are plenty of ways to get points. Filling in columns. Filling in all of a color. Scratching off stars.  Not using wilds. You can’t do it all so you will have to prioritize.

NM/E does two things that really make it shine as a Roll and Write, as well as a game. First of all, not only are you making real decisions, you have to plan ahead. You are creating an organically growing mass of checked off boxes and you have to give it room to grow, along with figuring out what points you’re going for. Second, by drafting dice, there is honest to goodness player interaction. In a Roll and Write, that is a big deal in my opinion.

I have seen a number of Roll and Writes that involve drawing shapes. NM/E has you trying to cope with someone else’s shapes, which is a different spin. And it’s a spin that makes sense and is fun. It’s a good little game.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Rollands is like an old friend

The designer of Rollands described the game as a cross between Knizia’s Criss Cross and Kingdomino and I don’t think I can do a better job than that.

It is a Print and Play Roll and Write, which means it’s a dice and pencil game that you can print out yourself. The actual play sheet itself consists of a six by six grid with notations to remind you how the game works. 

You are drawing a map and trying to get the most points you can. You start off by drawing a castle in one of the squares. Then, you roll two dice each turn. Depending on what you roll, you can do a q variety of things.

Each number from one to six has a different kind of landscape associated with it. You can either draw two landscapes (one for each die) next to each other or add them together to draw one landscape. However, at least one landscape type needs to be next to one of the same type. (The castle counts as a wild so you can actually play the game)

If you roll a nine or eleven, you can add a coin to a group of the odd-numbered landscapes. Eight or ten, you can add a coin to a a group of even-numbered landscapes. Twelve let’s you add a coin anywhere. At the start of the game, you can only add one coin to a grouping but a roll of seven lets you increase the number.

Oh. And if you can’t do anything else, you add a scarecrow, which are worth negative points at the end.

When the map is full, you figure out your score. Every grouping with at least one coin is worth the number of squares by the number of coins. Just like Kingdomino.  Groups with no coins are worthless and scarecrows are negative one each.

I am of two minds when it comes to Rollands. On the one hand, wow but it can be swingy. Depending on the dice, I have seen scores more than fifty points apart. I think that was an extreme example but it’s still possible. The dice can make a huge difference, particularly when it comes to adding coins to the map. Every Roll and Write has an element of chance since you’re rolling dice but I have to wonder if Rollands has the illusion of choice.

On the other hand, I keep on having fun with Rollands. It uses a lot of familiar ideas and feels very intuitive. It’s just a very comfortable game. I’m glad I found it and I know I’ll keep playing it.

Friday, February 14, 2020

I find myself liking Robin Gibson's designs

I realized that I've spent a lot of February playing games by Robin Gibson.

That is fundamentally because they have designed a lot of solitaire Roll and Writes that take less than fifteen minutes to play. I’ve been playing a lot of shorter solitaire games over the last few years so that is totally within my wheelhouse. That and the fact that I have spent a lot of time looking at Buttonshy and PnP Arcade.

I’ve already written about Gibson’s Paper Pinball series, which honestly borders on a mindless diversion (although I do like how each pinball table has its own little twist and there is definitely a place for mindless diversions) However, what has really impressed me and made me decide I need to pay attention to Gibson is The Legend of Dsyx series.

Dsyx is apparently a steampunk, fantasy kitchen sink universe. Banks hire dragons to take care of their vaults. Gnomes build dirigibles. Gryphons work as couriers and wear goggles. If you’ve played D&D, there’s a good chance you’ve been to a place like Dsyx.

There are twelve games in the series. I don’t know if there will be more but twelve is still pretty good. Each one tells about a different little chunk of Dsyx and, from what I can tell, vary their mechanics a decent amount.

What I really like about them is they make me feel like I am playing a larger game. Between the theme and the relatively involved mechanics (involved for a single sheet of paper and five, ten minutes), the games in the Legend of Dsyx feel surprisingly meaty.

To be honest, I am pretty sure some of the depth is an illusion. I am sure that each game does have a single optimal strategy that will reliably do better than other choices. A ten-minute Roll and Write can’t complete with a two-hour game that has a lot more moving parts.

However, I am okay with that. The return I get from the minimal investment in time and resources still makes the Legend of Dsyx series a very good return for me. It’s not perfect but it is engaging and interesting.

I’ve only tried three of the games but I am hoping to eventually try them all. I’m in no real hurry since I also don’t want to get burned out on them either.

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Paper Pinball might just be rolling dice

Since I seem to be focusing on Roll and Write games, I decided that it was time I finally tried out Robin Gibson’s Paper Pinball series. 

Every game in the series is a stand-alone Roll and Write, themed around pinball. They all have a nice picture of a pinball table and the rules on the side. The different pinball scoring elements have boxes for you to fill in with 2d6 and they all have different rules and restrictions. Ramps require ascending numbers, for instance. If you can’t fill in a box, you cross off a ball. The game ends when you either cross off the third ball or you fill in the entire table. Every element has its own scoring rules, some of which are a little fuzzy.

I got the first three pinball games when they first came out, printed and laminated them, and promptly filed them. As I understand it, Gibson revised them when they got released on PnP Arcade so I wonder if the later editions might resolve some of my quibbles about scoring.

I would describe the series as ‘okay’ It’s definitely swingy and the best place to write a number is usually pretty obvious. Opening the multi-ball option so you get to roll a third die and get more choices is probably the most essential thing to go for in any of the games. On the plus side, it’s an inoffensive little distraction that I don’t mind playing. It’s fun in moderation.

That said, its theme screams for a comparison to Sid Sackson’s Pinball from Beyond Solitaire. And that Roll and Write game from 1976 honestly offers more decisions. Not nearly as pretty but better overall gameplay. 

I also feel compelled to compare Paper Pinball to the Legends of Dsyx, another series of Roll and Writes by Robin Gibson. The Legends of Dsyx are also one page each, including rules. And they are very thematic with diverse and  interesting mechanics. They aren’t perfect but they are ambitious. Paper Pinball is me rolling dice. The Legends of Dsyx feels like a board game in a sheet of a paper.

Robin Gibson has become a designer that I’m interested in but Paper Pinball is not one of their strongest works. That said, I have just seen the first draft of the system. I might pick up one of the later games and see how it developed.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

Goko no Saikoro - not every R&W is going to be a winner

I am an accumulator of PnP files. I have managed to stop hoarding games but I still digitally hoarde files. So when I found Goko no Saikoro in my files, I had no memory of ever seeing it before. But, because I have been more and more interested in R&W and it is a super easy build, I decided to check it out.

In a nutshell, it’s a completely abstract Roll and Write. Each turn, you roll five dice. You can use the dice to earn a development, score points or take a penalty. And earning a development or scoring points means rolling high (higher than average, actually) The game ends after someone fills in all ten scoring boxes (although every other player gets one more turn)

Developments, by the way, are different ways to manipulate dice. They range from rerolling dice to multiplying the third and fourth highest dice and subtracting the second lowest die. I love dice manipulation and developments are the most interesting part of the game. Unfortunately, other than rerolls, they are a excessively arcane, particularly for such a light game. The idea is great (just look what if it did for Roll Through the Ages) but it feels like it needed a lot more play testing and refinement.

Another issue with the game is that, even for a dice game, the luck factor is high. The game basically punishes anything short of very high rolls, which offsets the decisions that you can make. In fact, I would say that Yahtzee offers a lot more control and ways to offset bad luck. Even a game like Zombie Dice lets you play with odds but GnS has you just hoping you beat the odds.

The game was released in 2008, before Roll and Writes really started picking up steam as a genre. Roll and Write games have gone through a lot of development so I feel like I’m judging a game that was developed before a crucial crunch point. Still, I wonder what I would have thought of it in 2008. At the same time, I had almost no interest in Roll and Writes in 2008.

Ultimately, Goko no Saikoro has some interesting ideas but fails to pull them off.

The range of Roll and Writes

The other day, I learned Goko no Sakoro and Gryphon Delivery Service back to back. While I already knew that there was a striking difference between an abstract Roll and Write and a thematic Roll and Write, I was struck by how I view them on completely different terms.

Naturally enough, I view abstract W&Rs through a completely mechanical standpoint. And it tends to be a very stringent standpoint. An abstract game in general has no place to hide its flaws. (And, yes, a rule being a certain way because it’s thematic is a valid reason for a rule to be that way.’) A pure abstract R&W, simply put, has to completely work.

One of the big questions every abstract R&W has to answer for me is ‘Would I rather be playing Yahtzee?’ For better or worse, Yahtzee is the measuring stick for nothing but dice and numbers. It’s a common touchstone for just about everyone, particularly for non-gamers. Yahtzee is a better than game than it often gets credit for being but there’s a lot of R&W games I’d rather go play.

Thematic R&Ws are an interesting beast. They can be more complicated because a theme can help us process for complicated rules easier. Gryphon Delivery Service, which is a pretty simple game, has you track three separate inventories and has two different sets of special powers. For me, they  are a bridge between the world of R&Ws and, well, other games.

And, for me, one of the questions a thematic R&W really has to answer is ‘How does this compare to a game with the same theme but isn’t a R&W?’ Roll and Write games literally don’t have a lot of moving parts which creates limitations. (Note: I’m specifically talking about R&W, not all dice games. Games like Kingsburg or Castles of Burgundy have a lot going on)

Of course, you also have to balance the benefits of the R&W format as well. Set up being grab dice and writing utensils, smaller footprint, shorter play time, those can all be major pluses. I don’t expect a Roll and Write to replace a larger game but it is nice for the trade offs to balance out.

It isn’t that Roll and Write games have come this far that interests me. It’s what the next stage will be.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

My January PnP

It’s already a few days into February and I’m running behind on this blog. Quite frankly, I’ve been more interested in crafting PnP games than I have been in writing. I didn’t have a bad start of the year in January. This is what I made:

Name of God, full version
High Score
12 Patrols
Agent of Smush
Switchboard (2019 9 Card Contest)
9-Bit Dungeon
Micro City

January I am trying to continue my goal of making a ‘larger’ project. Making a copy of the second edition of The Name of God is something I have been wanting to make for a while. It’s a short form, GM-free RPG (and someday, SOMEDAY, I will play it!) 

Beyond that, I made some small games but some of them look better pretty interesting.

A good start to the year.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Can a gamer live on PnP alone?

I think one of the questions that you have to ask about PnP games is ‘Can you have a fulfilling game closet with nothing but PnP games?’ I have no intention of getting rid of my actually published games but if I washed up on a desert island with nothing but an internet connection, a laser printer and a ton of crafting supplies, could I be happy?

Wow, I have just come up with the least marketable sequel to Castaway. Particularly since a gaming group apparently washed up on the other side of the island for me to play with. The analogy might be getting a little carried away.

There are three questions I feel like you have to ask in order to determine if a game collection can be nothing but PnP games. Is there enough variety out there? How much trouble is it going to take to make them? Can you get other people to play them?

The answer to the first questions is a blatant yes. There are hundreds of PnP games out there in every genre imaginable. If all you want to play is train games and war games and you don’t mind paying for the files, you will die happy and contented. (Yeah, I should have included food and water in my desert island scenario)

Building them... that’s tougher. Here’s the thing. There’s games where you just print the board and add pawns. There are Roll and Writes that you just need to print out the playing sheets. There are some nine card games that are worth playing. There are easy builds that are still good games. If you really want to, you will work your way your up. If you want to, you will build.

Question number three... I think that’s the really big one. It’s not for nothing that a lot of my PnP builds are either straight solitaire games or can be played solitaire. And I have read that designers will intentionally include solitaire options even if a game isn’t a pure solitaire because that greatly increases the chances of getting play testers.

Let’s be honest. The quality of components can make a real difference in whether or not folks are willing to play a game or not. I have made games by printing them on copy paper with a scissors. (Admittedly, the last one was a game where you rip pieces off of the game) But I don’t think I could get anyone interested in a game that looks like that.

And, no, I’m not unique in my interest in prototypes and experimental games and chrome not being a deal breaker. But I feel a game collection should be accommodating. So you have to up your crafting game.

Yeah, you can have a PnP-alone collection but it will take some elbow grease.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Dunsany Dreams 15

The Happy Laughter of Children 

All the children remembered the puppet man, who would come to the village green every spring with his bag of puppets. There, on the grass and behind the curtain, he would speak with a funny voice and make the puppets come to life.

In some ways, the stories were always the same. Punch was the light-hearted murderer who could outwit even the devil. At the same time, the stories were ever-changing. The broad strokes remained the same but the details changed with every show.

And, oh, how the children would laugh with every swing of the club, laugh at every snap of the alligator’s jaws. As the puppets danced and the silly voices piped through the curtains, the children would laugh.

And oh, how the children still laughed when the puppet man’s body was found floating and rotting in the river. 

Thursday, January 16, 2020

I _finally_ try Qwixx

A few years ago, I made a homemade copy of Qwixx. Then I found an unopened thrift copy and picked that up. So, of course, I don’t actually get around to playing it until I buy the app :P

In a sentence, Qwixx felt to me like Lost Cities the Dice Game. And I know there is actually more than one version of that game officially and unoffically out there. I’ve played some of them. Still, Qwixx captured that idea very well for me, perhaps better than those other games.

Over the last couple years, I’ve started really exploring Roll and Writes. I’ve learned that that can have it’s a form that can have depth and complexity and really embrace theme. A Roll and Write can tell a story and have the oomph of a game with lots of pieces. 

Qwixx so does not fit into that box. This is a simple game with no theme that’s all about the numbers. It’s all about the bell-shaped curve of two six-sided dice.

But that is not me bashing it. Quite the opposite, this is a very good game. It is a very simple game but simple doesn’t mean that the game is either bad or was easy to design. In this case, simple means they pared the decisions down to the absolute basic concept. And it works.

Qwixx is just about the opposite of everything I’ve been exploring in Roll and Writes. It has no theme. It has no dice manipulation. And it’s actually been published :P (Thanks to Kickstarter, a surprisingly high number of designs don’t remain unpublished) You just cross off numbers.

And I like it!

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Starting the year with a Roll and Write

The first game I’ve learned in 2020 has been Blankout, a roll and write that I printed out and laminated. I enjoyed the game but this is going to be one of those yes... but reviews.

Here is Blankout in a nutshell: you’re filling out a grid with polynomials that are determined by rolling a die. In a multiplayer game, you all use the same rolls and whoever is the last person who can fit a shape in wins. If you’re playing the game as a solitaire, then your score is the number of shapes you were able to draw.

I like polynomials. I have ever since I first discovered Blokus at basically the start of my board gaming life or maybe when I discovered Tangrams before that. They let you play with space and patterns. And drawing shapes and Roll and Write go well together. The core concept of Blankout is great.


This is far from the first time I’ve seen the idea used. Discounting non-Roll-and-Write games like FITS, I have still played games like Mosiax or 13 Sheep or Bentoblocks and that’s just scratching the surface of polynomial Roll and Writes I’ve seen or heard of.

And Blankout is probably the most simplistic, most basic one I have seen. Even 13 Sheep, which was the previous placeholder for simplest before Blankout, has a more complex goal (fencing in sheep) and a little more twists (bushes that block fences)

Bentoblocks, which is the game that reminds me the most of Blankout, has dice drafting, two choices of shape per dice and competing to fill in sections of the board. In other words, Bentoblocks has more choices baked into it and is simply more interesting.

So the biggest flaw Blankout has is that there other games that are very similar and, in my opinion, better. In and of itself, it’s definitely serviceable. In a vacuum, there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s a cute and light little game. I will keep it in rotation and I am planning on actually making a nicer copy.

But... here’s the other thing. A lot of the games that are like it aren’t available for free. Bentoblocks isn’t anymore and, as far as I know, Blankout still is. (You can order pads of playing sheets from the designer, though) And that’s honestly no small thing. If someone asked for me a game like this or I needed a game for a youth group of some sort, Blankout would be the top of the list. (It has kicked out the previous placeholder for that, ‘Not Another One’) I can picture running games of Blankout for groups of twenty or thirty people.

Blankout isn’t the best in its class but it is a useful tool to have in your files. Glad I tried it and it will come out on occasion.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Looking back at 2019

Okay. It is time I look back and look at 2019 before I get too far into 2020.

2019 was a quiet year for me, game wise. I got in some events and some face-to-face gaming but it was mostly online board games, PnP and solitaire gaming. 

At the same time, it was an affirming year. 

Over the last few years, I have gotten more and more into Print and Play games, including Roll and Write, and solitaire games. Usually at the same time. There’s a lot of interesting solitaire PnP options out there.

2017 was when I realized both that Roll and Write games could have serious variety and depth. 2018 was when I got really, really got into Print and Play and made a lot more projects, which also included formally storing them all.

I didn’t have a major shift like either of those in 2019. Instead, I honed my PnP activities. I became more choosy about what I made (at least as long as it was more than a page in components) I worked on pacing my crafting  so I didn’t get as burnt out (although sometimes life itself got in the way) And I tried to make one larger project a month.

So, in 2019, I took steps to make PnP an ongoing part of my hobby.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

A game that takes out the Roll and is just Write

Golf! from the 2019 Print and Play Solitaire Contest was one of those print and play projects that took five minutes to print, laminate and play so, of course, I had to. One side of the page is the rules and the other is the play sheet. It doesn’t get much simpler than that.

The board consists of an 18 hole golf course. With each hole, you put your dry erase maker on the tee, close your eyes and try to draw a line to hole. Your score for each hole is the number of lines you had to draw and the number of water fouls and sand pits you hit. Just like real golf, you want a low score.

It’s a slight, silly little concept that has this one redeeming quality. It is actually evocative of golf. I have played golf-themed games that use dice or cards that didn’t actually give any sense of golf. But Golf!’s playing around with physical space actually has a feel of golf. And that’s enough for me to enjoy playing the game.

Here’s the thing. I have played the exact same game only called Par-Out Golf. And, frankly, that version was better with a separate board for each hole. It has richer artwork and more complex holes.

But... I have never even seen a physical copy of Par Out Golf, just played the app which is no longer supported and the three demo pages. And if I ever saw a copy for sale, it would probably cost more than I’d be willing to pay for. Golf!, on the other hand, is readily available in its entirety and that counts for a lot.

Golf! isn’t for everybody, not for a lot folks really.  But it is fun for those who it is for and an easy little project for those folks to make.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

My December PnP

December. Wrapping up my 2019 Print and Play projects. This is what I made in December:

13 Sheep
Criss Cross
Goblin’s Breakfast
Button Men
High North - Cold War (2019 9 Card Contest, withdrawn)
Bad Letters (2019 9 Card Contest)
Word Chain (2019 9 Card Contest)
Goko no Saikoro
No Dice
Solitaire Spellbook Swapping (2019 Solitaire Contest)
Golf! (2019 Solitaire Contest)

I managed to keep up my goal of making a ‘big’ project each month by making Goblin Breakfast, which was also one of the bigger projects I made in 2019. It looks like a pretty decent Beer and Pretzels game. (At some point, I want to think about how reasonable to would be to have a collection made entirely of PnP games)

I actually made copies of 13 Sheep to include in Christmas cards, which is why I made more copies of it. I made more Button Men cards and Criss Cross plays sheets to use empty space in laminating sleeves.

Beyond that, I made a bunch of little projects that just interested me. 

2018 was the year my interest in PnP really exploded. I had made plenty of stuff before then but 2018 saw me actively not just making stuff but playing it. On the other hand, 2019 was all about honing my PnP hobby, doing more planning ahead and focusing on making games I can see getting played.