Thursday, December 31, 2020


 I don’t think there has been a year that will have more retrospectives than 2020 for maybe a generation. That is a huge sentence but I think it’s still true. This has been a grueling, devastating, damaging year. People all around the world will be feeling 2020 for years to come. 2020’s going to get its own Dewey Decimal number.

We have been luckier than so many people we know, let alone the wider world. And this has still been the most exhausting, stressful year of our lives. 

Quarantine led to remote schooling and having to be the entertainment center meant a lot less R&R time. Short stories became incredibly valuable for me. And gaming has helped keep me a little saner.

Print and Play, solitaire micro-games have been a big deal for me in 2020. I already enjoyed them a lot but 2020 made them a focal point of my gaming. PNPArcade was a really solid source for them. When I had a stack of print-outs sitting I front of me to be cut and I felt like I had just walked into the exhibit hall of GenCon, I knew how confined quarantine had made us and how much we needed the little things.

Digital and online gaming has always been a big part of my gaming hobby so it didn’t feel particularly significant for me as far as 2020 was concerned. But I did play a lot of board games, thanks to the power of computers. In particular, I attended a coupe of virtual conventions. Which wasn’t as good as in-person but was incredibly important for fostering a sense of connection and community.

Finally, my positive, warm, fuzzy feelings towards Roll and Write games got a huge boost. While it goes back into how valuable Print and Play has been for me, Roll and Write still deserves a special mention. When time and space are limited, Roll and Writes offer some of the meatiest options for me. More than that, they are the best options when someone has asked me for a game they can make and play when they can’t get out.

2020 has been a devastating year all around. I think I speak for everyone when let us hope that 2021 is better.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

The hard boiled side of Nero Wolfe

 I have been reading a lot of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe this year. It has been an insane, stressful year for the entire world. Sometimes, it’s been hard to focus enough to read but Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin have been reliably able to decompress me. Even so, I have focused much more on the novellas than the book-length works. 

Trouble in Triplicate, a collection of the novellas, particularly struck me. Maybe because I’ve read so many this year. However, it was one of the most hard boiled Nero Wolfe pieces I’ve read.

Mind you, Nero Wolfe always has one foot firmly in the hard boiled detective genre. Archie Goodwin serves as a relentlessly snarky narrator who is good with his fists and the ladies. If he wasn’t working for Wolfe, he’d be a one-room, walk-up office, scraping the name Archer off the glass. And they have the traditional, tumultuous relationship with the cops.

However, their comfortable, luxurious lifestyle is definitely at odds with hard-boiled flavor. Archie is a failure at being a raging alcoholic. And they almost always end in a parlor scene because Heaven forbid Nero Wolfe leave his office. Nero Wolfe is an elitist. Really, so is Archie, who is a gourmet and botanical expert by association.

The genteel elements are as much a part of the mysterious chemistry of Nero Wolfe as the hard-boiled elements. But the hard-boiled elements are on particularly strong display in this book. Particularly in the first story, Before I Die which features  a mobster getting blackmailed and folks getting gunned down in the street and Archie stuck dodging bullets.

And it works. It’s still Nero Wolfe. Like I said, it’s not much of a stretch. 

I found myself thinking of The Big Four by Agatha Christie, the one where Hercule Poirot takes on Fu Manchu. It’s pulp fiction and bad enough that I like to pretend the whole thing is a nightmare Hastings is having after eating too much Welsh rarebit. 

It’s not a fair comparison. Trouble in Triplicate sticks it’s pinky toe in slightly different water. The Big Four, thrown together when Christie desperately needed money, hops into a spaceship and takes off into the stratosphere of another genre.

Of course, even in these more action field stories, Nero Wolfe continues to be a arrogant, obstinant genius who desperately needs his snarky assistant to get anything done. Fundamental elements haven’t changed.

(By the way, after a year of constant reading, I’ve come to think of Nero Wolfe as being less misogynistic than chauvinistic, womanizing Archie. Wolfe may not like being around women but seems to respect them more. And there are plenty of men he doesn’t want to be around either)

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Squire for Hire is Inventory the Game

 Squire for Hire is a tile-laying game disguised as an inventory management game disguises as a dungeon crawl.

Oh, it’s also an 18-card micro game that is available as a PnP and offers a solitaire option that’s pretty effective. Those last two items are why I ended up trying Squire for Hire out :D

In the game, you are a cute little anthropomorphized animal person who is serving as the squire for an adventurer, which pretty amounts to being their caddy.  You have to make sure they have the right weapons, magic, armor and such at the right time, not to mention make sure the inventory bag is properly sorted.

Really, it’s Nodwick without the horrible injuries.

Enough other folks have given detailed descriptions of the rules so here’s the thumbnail. The cards are double-sided. There’s a story side, which requires you to use specific items in your pack to be able to get loot. The other side is the loot side. That’s the tile laying side, three by four grid with random items taking up different numbers of squares. There’s some empty spots too.

Points are earned by having good stuff,  duplicate items next to each other and special bonuses from your squire card. And you lose points for garbage.

It’s a pretty simple game, which is good because the rules definitely need some work. It’s a problem I’ve seen in a lot of micro games that are designed to fit into a tiny box or folder. There are number of points that could use some clarity. And, because of that, I thought Squire for Hire was easier than I thought. As I worked through some plays, I realized rules I had gotten wrong and the game became more interesting. 

When you actually get the rules right, the puzzle element of the game is solid. You have lots of options and every decision will turn out to be wrong :P But it’s the theme that honestly sells the game. There are _lots_ of micro tile laying games out there. Invoking the grid inventory system that even I, who don’t play many video fakes, am familiar with, that’s the hook. And the mechanics make sense with managing that inventory.

At the end of the day, Squire for Hire is better than my first impressions and an amusing solitaire.

Friday, December 25, 2020

How we had a Harry Potter Christmas

 Without actually intending it, getting a LEGO Advent calendar every year has become a family tradition. Which is beyond fine in my eyes because LEGO is the world’s best toy system :)

For the last two or three years (yes, I’ve honestly lost count), we have done the LEGO City calendar. This year, we decided to switch to the Harry Potter one. Which proved to be a fun choice but not for the reason I expected.

A lot of the tiny little kits are very evocative of Victorian England. And that’s an ‘old fashioned’ Christmas feel because there is no way to overstate the impact that Charles Dickens has had on the modern Christmas. LEGO City is more evocative of a retro fifties Christmas so it was a fun change.

I’m glad we didn’t get Star Wars Advent calendar, which some of our friends did do. Our son isn’t (yet?) interested in Star Wars and, out of context, the spaceships look like abstract sculptures.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Kurt Edward Wagner’s Kane is a jerk!

 After I finished Rick Riordan’s Kane Chronicles, I decided that it was time I finally looked at Kurt Edward Wagner’s Kane stories. So, from a young adult series to an immortal, amoral mass murderer. Quite a jump.

I first read about Kane in the 80s in an article in an old Dragon Magazine. However, at the time and for quite a while after that, all of the books were out of print or at least hard to find. Now they are all available as ebooks :D 

What I had read about Kane made me assume he was a punk rock Elric. However, after reading Death Angel’s Shadow, I would also describe him as an erudite Conan with absolutely no moral compass. He does have Elric’s brooding self-pity but it isn’t nearly as moving because all of his issues come directly from his own bad decisions.

Kane is a very weird and fascinating protagonist, in no small part because he is not even remotely heroic. He may be the biblical Caine (he certainly claims to be) He has been cursed to only die through violence and he is not going to give the mad god who cursed him or the world the satisfaction of dying. He is also a master warrior, an expert sorcerer, a polyglot and good at just about everything. Which is admittedly justified since he’s spent thousands of years doing stuff but does make him ridiculously powerful. Oh and apparently his goal in life is to be an evil overlord.

Interestingly, all three stories in Death Angel’s Shadow have Kane on the defense and running away from his bad decisions. Which does create conflict but still doesn’t make him sympathetic. At one point, someone accuses a crusader who has pledged to kill Kane to make the world a better place of doing more evil than Kane. The crusader is a total monster but, come on, Kane’s centuries of doing horrible stuff still makes him worse.

If Elric was written to be the anti-Conan, Kane manages to be the anti-Elric while still being an anti-Conan at the same time. He feels like an experiment of bringing pain and sorrow to misanthropic, misogynistic world. I have heard that the later books are better so I will try them. However, after years of wondering about Kane, I did expect more.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Ugly Gryphon Inn: a nightmare of customer service

 Earlier this year, Buttonshy started a new subsection of their wallet line called Simply Solitaire with Food Chain Island by Scott Almes. Now they’ve announced the next one, Ugly Gryphon Inn. Also by Scott Almes. He’s making all of them? I’m OK with that.

In a kitchen sink fantasy world, you are the proprietor of the Ugly Gryphon Inn. It’s the only inn for hundreds of miles and apparently you’d have to be crazy to go there since all your potential patrons are crazy. Still, you have bills to pay so you are trying to have at least seven paying guests by the end of the night.

The game consists of eighteen cards and nothing else. That’s kind of the idea of the Simply Solitaire line. Minimal components with accessible, solid rules. It’s a tableau management game and I feel like it’s aimed at a more ‘gamer’ audience than Food Chain Island.

Each card is a patron. Along with some art, every card comes with some tidbits of information. There are one to three traits, one of which is always food or beer and the rest are things that annoy people. Then there are one or two things that will irk them when they are in the inn and what happens when they get irked.

There are two areas in the game. The bar, which is a horizontal line of four cards, and the inn which is a vertical line. Each turn, you move someone from the bar to the inn and then see if you’ve irked anyone in the inn. Usually, irked patrons leave but most of them will also do something else to mess with your tableau. If you have at least seven cards in the inn when the draw pile runs out, you win!

The worst thing I can say about the game is that there are a lot of fiddly details to keep track of. I’ve been having fun with the puzzle elements of the game and the mechanics work with the theme nicely. 

I do wonder if the game will be solveable. At the start of the game, you know where close to 25% of the cards are and your knowledge of the deck just increases from there. I feel like you’ll be able to figure out combos and the game will become increasingly easy.

Still, I think that Ugly Gryphon Inn is a strong second step in the Simply Solitaire line. I think Food Chain Island is great for everyone but I would recommend Ugly Gryphon Inn to my more ‘serious’ gamer friends.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Why the Kane Chronicles made me a Riordan fan

 Every year or so, I reread one of Rick Riordan’s young adult series. This year, I reread his Egyptian mythology trilogy,  The Kane Chonicles. (Now that it’s all published, I’ll read the Trials of Apollo sometime soonish) 

Rick Riordan has become one of my favorite young adult authors and I really hope our son likes his works when he gets old enough to read them. And the Kane Chronicles was the series that turned me into a fan. 

I had read Percy Jackson and the Olympians when it came out. I felt like it was better than a lot of the books that flooded the shelves post-Harry Potter (Indeed, I described The Lightning Thief as Harry Potter as an American jock to friends) However, I felt like it was also pretty uneven. There were a lot of silly, even juvenile touches. And I don’t mind silly. I love silly. But it felt out of place with the more serious stuff.

In the Kane Chronicles, Riordan had a much more consistent tone. He did a much better job with character development. And there was a stronger sense of mythic, vastness of the setting. Riordan had ironed out how to write for middle schoolers and showed his chops as a writer.

I can’t honestly say that the Kane Chronicles are darker and edgier than the earlier series. The serious elements are just as serious. The funny elements are just blended in better. And that also lets Riordan write about more serious topics more effectively. 

And that tendency carried on to the Heroes of Olympus and Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard series. The latter is actually a strangely effective blend of grim and absurd. Riordan grew into a young adult writer. A bit like comparing The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe with The Magician’s Nephew.

It’s been six or seven years since I first read the Kane Chronicles. Rereading it reaffirmed my faith in Riordan. His books are action movies but they are kind where you care about the characters so the stakes work.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

The world is full of tinier games!

I messed up making a copy of Petals from this year’s two-player contest. I made it just to blow off steam with a quick project and  I made it as six cards because I didn’t realize it was three folded cards.

 I’m not the only one this happens to right?

Honest, anything more than nine cards I actually pay attention to. But sometimes I like to make one-sheet projects just so I can make something. 

However, now I’m actually interested in Petals as more than just a crafting distraction. Condensing the idea of Tussie Mussie to three cards is more of a legitimate nano-game than six cards :D

But now I had four cards (one card of instructions) to laminate after I cut and fold them. So I asked myself, what can I do with the rest of a 9 x 11.5 sleeve? So it became a game of making use of space :D

I had already printed out Gator from this year’s Solitaire contest because, frankly, I thought it was hysterical. I also printed off a One Minute War because I have been wanting to make thinner laminating plastic because business card laminating pouches made the tabs too stiff. Finally, I decided to fill in the rest of the space  with Handful of Hazard cards since each one in the base set is a stand-alone game. 

When I first dabbled in PnP, Bonsai Samurai was an interesting little experiment because it was a game that consisted of one card. It’s not actually a good game but it was just one card! Well, there are now enough nano games out there that I can actually find ones that I’m interested in trying :D


Monday, December 14, 2020

Solitaire RPG or writing exercise? Does it matter?

Dungeon Hero is a name that’s been used for a few different games. In this case, I’m talking about a solitaire RPG that comes in the form of a paper mod. The link to it is over here:

My interest in pocket mods and solitaire RPGs helped me stumble across this game. Each adventure consists of a pocket mod. You just add dice, a pencil and _LOTS_ of imagination.

If you strip the game down to its mechanics, each adventure is nothing but a column of die rolls. Make it through the end of the column and you win. So many rules-lite RPGs live or die on the fluff and that’s definitely the case with Dungeon Hero.  The favor text is the meat of the game.

Your character consists of 30 resolution points (health points) and 15 stamina points (which are used to lay for rerolls) You then come up with eight traits and assign a die to each trait. You have a d12, 2d10, 2d8 and 3d6 to work with. And the traits can be anything. 

The adventures consist of a list of environmental elements, including monsters, that have dice assigned to each one. You roll a d6 to go down the column. Each encounter uses the die you land on and the die from the last one you were at. You have a roll off for each encounter using two of your traits.

You win if you make it to the end of the list still alive and you score points based on treasure. Which you earn by beating monsters. So it’s really how many monsters you beat.

You could play Dungeon Hero as a straight dice game and it would be incredibly boring. In fact, I would say that it only works as a story prompt. The best way I have found to play the game is as a journal game, writing one paragraph to describe each encounter and a second paragraph to describe the dice resolution. 

As a writing exercise, Dungeon Hero does work. I firmly think that Alone Among the Stars is a better solitaire story-telling game but I am glad to have Dungeon Hero to mix things up. 

Friday, December 11, 2020

Okay, PnP gift ideas

 Holy cow, Christmas is barreling down on us like a runaway toboggan. As a lazy PnP guy, I feel like I should make suggestions for PnP games for gifts.

Which I realize is exactly the kind of gift that can fall really flat.

Soooo... instead of an exhaustive list or games that I _think_ would work, I am just going to list the two games that I’ve used on more than one occasion that seem to have done well.

I’ve used Elevenses for One in multiple PnP Secret Santas and it’s been well received each time. It’s actually been published. (Which doesn’t prove anything really but it does mean some folks had faith in the game)

I used to consider Elevenses for One the gold standard for light PnP solitaire games. I have come to feel that it’s a bit simple and formulaic to get that high a mark. But it’s a fun game that is accessible, easy to make and still looks good if you don’t have a color printer.

The other game I’m going to suggest is 13 Sheep. I’ve included it in Christmas cards in the past and I didn’t get any complaints. 

13 Sheep is a very light, very simple Roll and Write, the kind that any number of people can play as long as everyone has a player sheet. It is one of better Roll and Writes I’ve played that uses just one die. Damning with faint praise, I know but it really is a fun little game.

As I said, PnP games, particularly ones made at the last minute, are an iffy proposition at best but these are fun.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Hey, Neil Patrick Harris wrote a kid’s book!

 The Magical Misfits by Neil Patrick Harris is the third series (at the very least) I’ve read that uses a Lemony Snicket-style narrator. Which seems incredibly fitting since NPH played Count Olaf in the most recent adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events.

The book itself was a light, breezy read and I did enjoy it. A group of kids come together by a mutual interest in magic tricks and generally helping people out. Each kid is fairly distinct and has room for character growth.

All or almost all of the magic in the book is the smoke-and-mirrors, slight-of-hand, stage magician magic. Instructions on magic tricks can be found throughout the book (including one I hadn’t heard of, which says more about NPH’s choices in tricks than my knowledge of stage magic) I’m not authority on Neil Patrick Harris but I have heard he is trained in stage magic so the inclusions made sense.

There is wiggle room for NPH to add more Merlin/Dumbledore magic in later books. A fortune teller gives the kids some remarkably prescient advice so the series could be edging into magical realism. I’m good either way. 

Daniel Handler didn’t create snarky and unreliable narrators with Lemony Snicket. In fact, I have always assumed he was parodying 19th century authors. However, he did create a loopy, over-the-top voice that I’ve seen echoed in works like The Secret Series and The Mysterious Benedict Society. The Magical Misfits fits in with them.  (But none of them touch the Kafkaesque bleakness of Handler)

NPH actually has the most grounded use of this style of narration. I can’t say the book is realistic but it is more realistic than any of the others :D And I enjoyed it enough that I am reserving judgement until I read the second book.

Monday, December 7, 2020

Board games and art criticism

 I recently saw a thread on Board Game Geek about how ugly, functional game boards are better than pretty ones. I’m pretty sure that idea gets batted around at least once a month and I think the original idea misses a crucial point. (Which I’m sure came up if I read every page of the thread)

Problems don’t come up from pretty or ugly. Problems come when form gets in the way of function. A component can be absolutely beautiful and, if it works, no problem. And a component can be uglier than a-really-ugly-thing-since-I-don’t-want-to-offend-anyone but if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work period.

Of course, to add to the discussion, not everyone’s aesthetic tastes are the same. I think Hex is elegant in it’s simplicity but some people might think someone just tried to make a game out of a tile floor. (Yeah, that was a John Nash joke)

Really, the real problem are poor design choices and those can happen on pretty or ugly games. I’ve seen them happen _at least_ as often with ‘ugly’ games. Components, be they pawns or boards or cards or tiles or mysterious statues, are all about communication. Failure to communicate will make a game fail.

In fact, since you can use theme to help convert concepts and ideas, I would say that artwork will help a game out more than a lack of artwork. I love abstract games but abstraction can make it harder to understand something. Really, I would say that erring on the side of ‘pretty’ often means erring on the side of clarity. 

(One of my favorite designs as far as clear communication is concerned is Venture by Sid Sackson. The aesthetic of the 3M cards is definitely from several decades ago but it communicates all the information you need to know amazingly efficiently.)

Pretty versus Ugly is just an opinion unless you had acid splashed thrown in your face and you end up fighting Batman (Wow, were the designers of Two Face shallow or what?) But ‘Does this work?’, now that’s a question!

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Why VHS as a cultural shift makes me feel old :P

 For a lot of people I know, the Disney version of Winnie the Pooh is the definitive version. However, growing up, I was really only exposed to the franchise as a child through Milne and Shepherd. I am sure that I saw the original movie at least once as a child but it was a shock when I saw it as an adult.

(Three shocks: one, what is this gopher business?! Two, hey, other than the gopher, this is pretty close to the stories. Three, this version of Tigger is better :D)

Frankly, despite being something of a recovering literary snob, I have come to the conclusion that if the Disney version with the red shirt is your Winnie the Pooh, that’s just fine. You go, you. But I did wonder why my early exposure was so light even though the movie had come out in 1977. (Oh dear Cthulhu, I’m older than the movie)

Okay, that was part of it and also explains why my parents read When We Were Young and Now We Are Six more than the Pooh books. But I also think that my years of being a primary demographic was before VHS really got rolling while a lot of (sigh, younger) folks I knew grew up with Disney movies on tap, thanks to the power of VCRs. 

Now we live in a streaming world and I am in the science fiction dreams of my childhood. It’s cool. But it takes something like Winnie the Pooh to realize just HOW different the media dissemination has changed and over a relatively short period of history. It was bad enough for me to realize how the internet made Gary Gygax’s N not just obsolete but positively prehistoric. But realizing that my Pooh is Shepherd’s Pooh simply by the limitations of exposure is pretty startling.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

The Sandbox of Zelda

 Our child, and I’m sure he is not alone among young kids in this, loves open world, sandbox video games.

I blame LEGO.

First of all, the first video game that he really got into and could play by himself was LEGO City: Undercover. I have never played Grand Theft Auto but I understand that Undercover is the LEGO version of it. Yes, there’s a story but there a big, organic city to explore where you can do whatever you want.

Then there is LEGO the actual toy. Now that I’m a parent, I have come to the conclusion that it is the best toy ever. The only limit is that your imagination and the number of pieces you have. You can do anything with them. Plus the mini figures are great exercises in what Scott McCloud described as the Masking Effect.

So that’s why our family is now exploring The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

By the way, the last time I played a Zelda game was on the Gameboy back in the early 90s. Wow, let’s just say that this is a huge leap.

For those of you who were like me a week ago and have no idea what Breath of the Wild is, it is a video game RPG with a profoundly huge environment. While there is an overarching storyline, there is so much to explore. And the story is quite fun but exploring the world and doing your own thing is what our son loves.

Of course, he needs a lot of help from Mommy. Zelda is a lot less forgiving that Lego City:Undercover. If he got my help, Link would just die constantly.

Also, I might not be understanding this but as I understand the story, Link spent a century in a healing coma while Zelda has spent that entire time fighting Ganon to keep him trapped in Hyrule Castle. Small wonder it’s her legend. Link might be the protagonist but Zelda is clearly the hero.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

My November PnP

 November. After three months of saying I’d do it, I finished Agent Decker. As lazy as my methods are (laminate instead of using modge podge or such), it really says something about 2020 that it took me so long.

So, here’s the list of what I made:

Trico (2019 9-card contest)
Agent Decker
Handful of Hazards with expansion (2020 Solitaire PnP Contest)
Clockmaster ( 2020 R&W Contest)
Patrol Lost (super basic, low ink version)
Lifeguard: Surf and Rescue (2020 Solitaire PnP Contest)
Nine Circles (2020 Solitaire PnP Contest)

Not a bad month. I am looking forward to trying Agent Decker and seeing how Patrol Lost works as a solitaire.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Clans - this simplicity couldn’t have been easy

 Leo Colovini has been a mixed bag for me. Alexandros spent a long time in one of my groups as the standard for a terrible game. I may never life down bringing it to the table. And Cartagena never clicked for me no matter how hard I tried it. However, Clans still stands out for me as a really solid game. 

Oh and it was also my introduction to Colovini.

Here’s the review I wrote 14 years ago: My opinion of Leo Colovini has gone down since I wrote this but my opinion of Clans hasn’t changed.

The concept of the game is so simple. Everyone can move about collections of huts and create isolated villages that score points for their participating colors BUT everyone’s color is secret. Very easy to grok hidden information and bluffing. 

But, as I get older and more exposed to more and more games, I have to say that the simplicity of Clans had to have had a LOT of work out into it. The board alone is designed to create both balanced set-up and play. There’s a lot of little touches in the game that look obvious but couldn’t have been simple to develop.

With a younger audience, I might actually try Quicksand before Clans. (Back when our son was into Paw Patrol, I pondered making a Paw Patrol retheme) It’s a quick and easy introduction to the concepts and easy to teach in a loud room. But I think Clans has greater depth and I would use it to secretly introduce negative space.

Back before Covid put a hold on in-person conventions, I had gotten into the habit of taking older games to little cons. I’ve done this with TransAmerica, Money, For Sale and Through the Desert. And they’ve held up for new (okay, younger) players. Clans would fit in to that group and do at least as well.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Lifeguard is not bad but that might not be enough

 I’ll be honest. While I look at every entry in PnP contests and download them, the low ink, low construction games are the ones that get made right off the bat. (Larger games require consideration) Which is why I’ve already tried out Lifeguard: Surf and Rescue. It’s a Roll and Write that consists of one page of play sheet and one page of rules. I duplexed it and laminated and was done in one sheet of paper.

Lifeguard is all about rescuing drownings surfers. In addition to the play sheet, you will need something to write with and a couple of dice. Yes, this game has a really low buy-in requirements. 

The actual board is a grid. You set up the game by rolling the dice and then spending the pips on resources (which consist of three different ways to manipulate dice, ranging from +/- 1 to refills) After that you roll the dice and place drowning surfers on those coordinates. You can adjust the difficulty by adding or subtracting and drowning people.

Okay, here’s how you play. Roll two dice. Choose one of them and draw a line straight up from the X axis until you hit the other number on the Y axis. Then drawn a straight line to the left. If you touch any drowning surfers, you save them. If you can’t, use resources to adjust the dice until you can. Save all the surfers and you win. Use up all your resources and you lose. Scores are based on how efficiently you rescue drowning surfers.

I have to admit that I read the rules wrong the first time I tried to play. Based purely on my own preconceptions, I assumed you were drawing a diagonal line, not a right angle. And that made the game literally impossible. Getting the rules right made quite a difference.

Honestly, the game was better than I expected but I went in with very low expectations and a misunderstanding that broke the game. My favorite part of the game is the dice manipulation, which is clear and cleanly laid out.

But the big problem the game has is that it’s too easy. After a decent handful of games, the only time I lost was when I rolled a four to buy resources. I feel pretty sure that rolling a six or better (and you do get a mulligan) will give you enough resources to win the game. And a d6 is small enough that a little dice manipulation can go a long way.

Too easy isn’t an absolute deathknell for a game. I still periodically play Solitaire Spellbook Swapping from last year’s solitaire contest still comes out. It’s easy to solve but it’s an amusing  puzzle. But it’s the exception to the rule.

Being easy to pull together can be an underrated virtue in PnP games and one I keep in mind when recommending games to folks who don’t normally PnP. However when it’s a game’s strongest point, it’s not the best.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

So Kim Newman really does write fan fiction with his own characters?

 I hadn’t planned on blogging about Kim Newman and his Diogenes Club stories again or at least not for a while. And then I read Cold Snap.

Now, I’m not going to go into the plot, beyond the fact that I did enjoy the story and I was happy to see Richard Jeperson again. But the novella has loads and loads of characters, many of which have basically just cameos for all intents and purposes. Honestly, you could have stripped most of them out and the story would have both been the same and strong.

A lot of the characters I recognized from other Diogenes stories. Then, I found myself thinking ‘Isn’t that the vampire lady from those Warhammer Fantasy books?’ Yes, it was and Newman wrote those stories. And doesn’t this concept seem a lot like something I read in a Doctor Who book during the hiatus? Newman wrote that too?!

As I started digging, it rapidly became clear that Cold Snap was a massive cross-continuity crossover of Kim Newman’s writing with many of the characters alternate versions so they could be crammed into the Diogenes Club setting. Kim Newman totally beat fanfic writers to the punch. 

This led to some interesting further revelations. One, a lot of books and stories referenced in Cold Snap are out of print. And some of them were written in different genres so the versions of the characters that twigged my interest wouldn’t be what I’d find in their original works. Actually finding the books might not be that rewarding. 

Really, in one story, Kim Newman out Michael Moorecocked Michael Moorecock and really did write his own fan fiction. 

Sadly, uncovering the meta elements of Cold Snap has probably decreased my enjoyment of the work.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Osmo tricks our son into measuring stuff

 Like just about everyone else in the quarantine world who has a child under 18, we have been inundated with ads for educational stuff for kids. I remember thinking back in the spring that the problem wasn’t finding stuff but figuring out what would actually help.

My personal theory is that consistency is the most important thing. Find something and stick to it. (EMPHASIS: I AM NOT A CHILDHOOD EDUCATION EXPERT) But the most striking thing we found (thanks to one of my sister-in-laws) is Osmo.

The idea behind Osmo is you tilt a tablet upright and put a mirror down on the camera so the tablet can watch the kid (or anyone else) draw or do stuff with different paraphernalia. Letter tiles, number tiles, tanagram pieces.

Part of me wonders if actually having the kids do stuff as opppsed to tapping on a screen or typing makes it more educational. Of course, I have absolutely no idea if that’s correct and there’s enough school-assigned stuff going on that I have no way to measure Oslo’s effect.

The latest one that we have tried out is Math Wizard and the Secets of the Dragons. It has kids measure pictures of dragons and then feed them with different length tiles of food.

So in other words, it tricks kids into learning how to eyeball measurements? That’s actually pretty cool, although I have Habitat for Humanity horror stories about measuring once and cutting twice. And that’s something I really haven’t seen taught in edutainment.

It’s actually caught our child’s interests, at least a little. And it teaches a skill that’s actually quite practical. After months of exploring educational tools, it’s nice to know there are still surprises.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Sometimes, a little bit of random is what makes the difference

 For a while, Leo Colovini’s Alexandros was considered the epitome of a bad (or at least disappointing game) While it wasn’t really the worst game any if had ever played, it was a very frustrating and disappointing experience and our opinion of Leo Colovini never really recovered.

The problem was that you could basically either set off a scoring round (where everyone had a chance to score points) or build up your hand of cards to take advantage of a scoring round. Simply put, we always for it disadvantageous to set off a scoring round. It had all the disadvantages of crafting in Puerto Rico with none of the possible benefits.

(And, yes, I’m sure that if we had taken the time to play a lot more, we would have found out how the game is supposed to played. However, the experience was so not fun we never wanted to go back)

Colovini has another, similar game, Masons. Likewise, you divide a board up into closed areas and set off scoring rounds where everyone has a chance to score points. However, unlike Alexandros, scoring happens automatically after a closed region is formed and everyone has secret scoring conditions. There is a random factor that makes scoring a risk worth taking.

A friend who is more of a gaming purist considers Alexandros to be the more elegant, better designed game. However, he will also admit that Masons is more fun and more playable. And while Alexandros was banished, Masons has seen some decent play for me.

Alexandros is a more precise, calculating game. You can have a pretty decent idea what people will get out of a scoring round. Masons is looser, more random. But that random factor makes the game more playable, more enjoyable.

I had a similar experience with Sid Sackson’s Bazaar and Monad. Well, except that I think Monad is a good game, other than being really hard to play when you’re as colorblind as I am. But that random factor of the die roll in Bazaar made the game looser but more fun and easier for me to get folks to play the game.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Bleed in RPGs needs purpose

 Every once in a while, I go back to the Indie Megamix Mixtape. It’s a rather large collection of tiny indie RPGs inspired by songs and created to raise money for creators in need. I have intentionally treated every game as a single entity and taken my time to look at them. In fact, I think this is the first time I’ve looked at the collection this year.

The Sound of Silence is a game for two-players.
You define a relationship between the two characters and a fight. Then you privately decide how you feel about the fight. Then you sit back to back and try to resolve things.

There’s a fine line in a lot of indie games between RPG/Storytelling and therapy techniques, particularly in short forms like game poems. The Sound of Silence might actually completely cross that line. And I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

A concept I have spent too much time thinking about is bleed. That’s when real feelings bleed over into game play.

When I first came across the idea (which was in a discussion about Wraith: the Oblivion, by the way), I didn’t like it. It struck me as both emotionally dangerous and getting in the way of the whole escapist point of RPGs.

Since then, I have quite changed my tune. Bleed can be not just powerful but useful. Games like Polaris and My Life With Master are two good examples of that. Although I say that with the caveat of Emily Care Boss’s guideline that everyone needs to be safe and protected.

But I can’t help but feel that The Sound of Silence is bleed for the sake of bleed and that just seems unnecessary.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Kim Newman is a strange flavor of brilliant

 I decided that I needed to read more of Kim Newman’s Diogenes Club stories. I’m not going to try and read them all since I’m not sure what books and stories by Newman count and which don’t  :D (I also have to note that only Moriarty and Irene Adler get pinched from the Holmes cannon more often than the Diogenes Club)

Kim Newman’s version of the Diogenes Club has them be the semi-official paranormal investigators of the British government in a slightly quirky alternative history. The first stories I read long ago were about Richard Jeperson, a mod psychic in the 70s with a wardrobe that cannot be believed. However, my interest was renewed when I learned that Newman lovingly deconstructed other eras.

And that’s what makes these stories so fascinating. Newman either clearly loves the genres he’s exploring and skewering or fakes loving them very well. At the same time, he’s deconstructing them, peeling back the edges to show some of the dark implications.




And, man, the most extreme example that I’ve read so far is ‘Richard Riddle, Boy Detective in “The Case of the French Spy” ‘. It’s a sendup of Enid Blyton’s works, only the free range kid adventurers stumble across a deep one straight out of Lovecraft.

I have a morbid fascination with Blyton. Her work is beloved in England but it’s also mindless dribble that is xenophobic, sexist, classist and obsessed with food. Between Richard Riddle and Five Go Mad in Dorset (thank you, Dawn French), I sometimes think the best side effect of her work is the parodies. (To be fair, I think Chuck Jones’ Dover Boys cartoon is the best thing that came out of of the Rover Boys books)

Admittedly, what makes the Richard Riddle story work (and, as far I know, Newman only wrote this one story in this style, although Richard appears in other works) is that it’s just on the edge of absurdity. That said, the kids are seriously dedicated to being genre savy about the wrong genre, still acting like they’re in a jolly romp while the deep one they freed tears some admittedly naughty men apart.

Although Violet calmly deciding to burn the priory down to prevent any unfortunate questions about the dead people also indicates that these are some pretty cold-blooded kids.

Newman’s use of genre and tropes is fascinating. He doesn’t fully deconstructs them. The rules still apply. But we see enough of the backstage to turn those tropes disturbing. I may be wrong but I am left thinking that he is both a brilliant fan and a brilliant writer. 

Monday, November 16, 2020

My changing opinion of Handful o Hazards

 Handful o’ Hazards is the first (but not the last!) game I’ve tried from the 2020 PnP Solitaire Contest. It’s a set of tiny little scenarios for a tiny little dice system. Each scenario is on a wallet-sized card and I’m a big fan of games that you can take anywhere.

Each card is its own little game and scenario with each one is a generic scene from an action movie. An unnamed archeologist with a fedora who clearly not a reference to any Harrison Ford running through a hall of traps. Escaping a biker gang or a giant shark. That sort of thing.

The actual mechanics are roll five dice. Check off two pairs on rows with the fifth die getting checked off on the side. You need to complete all the rows with Ws (for win) before you complete any area that has an L (for lose)

Sooooo... the game lifts Sid Sackson’s Solitaire Dice/Can’t Stop Express/a-bunch-of-other-names entirely and adds a tiny veneer of theme and some restrictions. The end result is very playable but doesn’t have the more flexible open structure of Sid Sackson’s game.

While I realize that the is supposed to be a handful of tiny stand-alone games so you can pull a card out anywhere and have a quick game, I think it would be stronger if it was more of a campaign. That could be just having the scenarios form one story or completing a scenario giving you a tiny bonus  (like a one time +/- to a die) That would make the game stand out more from Sackson’s game.

BIG EDIT: aaand I found out that there is already an expansion set of five scenarios that did exactly what I wanted from Handful O Hazards. Handful of Hoodoo lets you play a campaign of three scenarios. You choose from two level one and two level two scenarios with the final level being the same. And you will get bonuses and penalties depending on if you win or lose scenario.

I actually quite like how the bonuses and penalties are handled. Depending on what you get, you modify the rows as opposed to dice manipulation. Seeing as how I’ll probably be playing the game while waiting in the car with a dice app, this is elegant and functional design choice.

And there’s at least one more expansion on the way.

I have to admit that Handful of Hoodoo completely flipped my opinion of Handful o Hazards. It went from a hack of a game I like that hasn’t had anything interesting done to it to ‘oh, now this is interesting.’ I’ll actually recommend it to folks I know who like the Sackson game.

I look for either two things from a PnP solitaire game, apart from being any good. Either I want to easily be able to get a quick game in or I want a meaty game. Handful o Hazards does a nifty job of the former.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Twice As Clever isn’t bad but it’s not that much more clever

 When I learned that I could play Twice As Clever as a solitaire online, I knew that I was going to be doing just that. ( Yes, I had to actually find the rules but that wasn’t too hard.

Now, Twice As Clever is one of the sequels to That’s Pretty Clever, which has become one of my favorite Roll and Writes, as well as being a game that should fire Yahtzee for dedicated gamers. So I went in both with a predilection towards liking it but with the question ‘would I rather play this rather than That’s Pretty Clever?’

Like it’s parent game, Twice As Clever is a dice drafting game. There are five color-coded zones that you use color coded dice to score in, plus a white die that’s wild. The active player gets three rolls and three picks while everyone else gets to pick through their discards.

Okay, here’s the selling point. Twice As Clever is more intricate. In addition to previous bonuses, there’s an ability to put dice back into the pool before rerolling. And each scoring area is more complex than the older game. For instance, getting points in the green area requires two separate rolls and subtracting the second from the first, even if it’s a negative number.

So, while Twice As Clever has almost the exact same structure as That’s Pretty Clever, the puzzles are completely different.

I have a bunch of interlocking questions to unpack about Twice As Clever. Do I think it’s a better game than That’s Pretty Clever? Would I rather play it? Would I rather own and teach it?

After about a dozen plays, my preliminary answer is ‘probably not’. Especially for the last one.

Twice As Clever is really what you play after you get bored with That’s Pretty Clever. Yeah, I might very well get the app for variety in solitaire play. But for a gaming group, I think you’d move on to a completely different light dice game. I also think that the original game is more intuitive and less swingy and that’s what I’m looking for if I’m going to be teaching it, particularly to a broader audience. 

Twice As Clever is fun and I will play it some more. However, it doesn’t break enough new ground. The changes add more intricacy than depth. If you only play one Clever game, the original is still my recommendation.

And I will try out Clever hoch Drei at some point :D

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

The second season of the Hollow justifies the cartoon’s existence

 Last year, I watched the first season of the Netflix cartoon The Hollow. I just finished the second season. And it is ridiculously better than the first season.






The whole schtick of the first season is that the characters are actually in a video game. And that’s honestly pretty much it. It had nice animation and was a pleasant distraction but it was pure fluff. In fact, since the characters start the game with no memories, there wasn’t even much character development. Everyone but Kai is static.

The twist is the second season, which is actually really easy to see coming, is that the characters in this season are actually digital clones of the characters from the first season, accidentally created by a glitch. But a big part of what makes the story work is not that they aren’t ‘real’ but how they deal with it.

At the start of the first season, the characters start off with no memories. This time, they have all their memories and we actually get to know who the characters are. More than that, we learn that some of them have known each other for years and that includes people on the other team. The opposing team from the first season were cardboard thin at best but actually get developed into meaningful supporting roles this time.

Major spoiler: I knew that this season would be more interesting when a major supporting character dies for real at the end of the fourth episode. It isn’t just game over or only the glitches. Things were now serious.

In other words, we are given characters who can develop and who we can care about and there are actual stakes involved.

While the resolution for ‘are we real?’ dilemma  was simplistic, it did remind me of Gilbert K. Chesterton’s Manalive. You don’t ponder the meaning of the universe if someone is shooting at you. Simple but it works.

Afterwards, I told my wife that she might enjoy the second season but she could skip the first one. The first season was fluff I had on for background noise while cooked or such. I actually was interested in this season.

I understand that the series has officially been canceled. Which I think is reasonable. Even with the improved second season, the Hollow is still simply good, not a classic. So, I am just happy the second season exists at all.

Monday, November 9, 2020

Lost Cats is terribly clever but not my cup of tea

 If you ever wanted to play Three Card Monte as a solitaire game with an ‘robot’ player moving the cards around, Lost Cats is the game that you’ve been looking for.

And, in all honesty, that one sentence was pretty much sums up the game perfectly. I found the game when looking for different kinds of solitaire games you can play with a regular deck of cards. And it was such a simple and clever idea that I had to try it out.

All you need is a regular deck of cards and a chart to play. And you don’t even use any of the spades or the jokers. The remaining three queens are the cat owners and the remaining three jokers are the missing cats. Missing cats are placed face down, sandwiched between the nine and ten of the same suits with their owners over them.

The rules are not only free but just take up on page so I won’t repeat them. Instead I’ll just cover the clever bit. You create an action deck from the remaking cards, shuffling and dealing out ten of them one at a time. The actions cards rearrange and otherwise mess with the stacks. When you are done, you have to try and find the jacks and match them to right queen. No, you can’t flip them over first :P

The only real mechanical issue I have with the game is that you need the chart to see what the action cards do. I have a feeling that the designers of this game will try and kickstart it with a specialized deck, which would solve that problem.

Lost Cats is an interesting example of a game that I don’t enjoy but I really appreciate the design. I’m not just bad at this kind of game, I also don’t have fun with them. If a shell takes shows up as a mini-game in Mario Party, I’m not having a good time.

But I think the action deck does a really good job of making a functional, replayable solitaire Three Card Monte. More than that, I can see it working as a multi-player game with one person running the action deck, possibly at great speed; while everyone else tries to keep up. It’d be like Ricochet Robots with a regular deck of cards.

In short, I may be done with Lost Cats but people who aren’t me will probably have a lot of fun with it.