Sunday, April 5, 2020

Some Print and Play suggestions for folks on lockdown

I recently wrote about how PnP has helped me decompress and deal with the stress of being on lockdown. Both in the act of actual of making stuff and looking for things that I can get on the table. And there’s actually a lot less spare time under these circumstances. 

And then I was asked for some suggestions.

With so many of us not able to leave the home and so many game shops not open, print and play is an option really worth discussing. I know that other folks have been discussing this and I also know that I’ll suggest is stuff I’ve discussed before. Still, if I help even one person, I should.

30 Rails - if I was told to suggest only one game for folks stuck in their homes, 30 Rails is the game I’d suggest. It is so easy to build that even folks without access to a printer can make a copy. It can play any number of players, including solitaire. And it’s really good. The love child of Take It Easy and Metro, 30 Rails is a connections Roll and Write game where you draw out paths on a grid. It uses familiar ideas and has plenty of tough decisions.

Outlaw - A dice game that just requires you to print out a couple pieces of paper with no cutting, Outlaw is a Pikomino-style game. I like Pikomino better but not everyone has access to Pikomino. Not everyone has a big game collection at home. For some people, someone else owns the games they play and they may be cut off from those games. 

Okay. Moving onto to a little bit on construction.

Autumn - An eighteen-card tile-laying game, Autumn is very simple but very solid. Between using the pie rule and requiring cards to overlap, Autumn offers some real choices and some real variety in its play. Plus, it has a nice solitaire option. It a game that I’ve kept coming back to for more than two years.

The Decktet - The Decktet is a deck of cards with six suites BUT the cards are multi-suited. It offers a real twist on the deck of cards. More importantly, the Decktet has some very solid games. Games like Emu Ranchers, Jacynth and Magnate. I made my first copy years ago by printing it out on card stock and cutting them out with scissors. And I’ve never looked back.

This is not my final word on the subject. Heck, this is barely scratching the surface of the subject. But I think these four games a good start.

Saturday, April 4, 2020

We Are All Just Fine creates a world that isn’t fine

We Are All Just Fine by Daryl Gregory is a book that teeters between being clever and being predictable. The elevator pitch of the book is that it’s about a support group for survivors of horror movies.

It’s not quite as pedantic as that. The actual story is how a therapist brings together five survivors of supernatural violence in a world where most people don’t believe in the supernatural. As they explore their interlocking secrets, they discover a new danger they have to deal with.

Honestly, describing it any further than that would involve lots of spoilers.  

I will say that there were a lot of elements that were supposed to be twists that were easy to see coming. One character had to have a specific secret and, given the limited cast, the process of elimination made it obvious who it was. At the same time, if the author decided to drop that story element, it would have been a glaring absence. In many ways, it was the literary equivalent of a thriller movie where the plot doesn’t challenge you at all.

At the same time, there are some very nice touches that do make it better interesting. None of the character fit neatly into a cliche. The character who would be the alpha male in most works is arguably the least effective person in the crisis, for instance. And, unlike Big Trouble in Little China, he knows it. The book creates a horrifying world.

But the strong point of the book is the tone and setting. The eldritch horrors that are out there are no humanized at all, even the ones that are part human. They are alien with goals that are never fully explained or realized. The characters are never in any real control and they remain vulnerable and scared to the end. 

And that made me glad I read the book.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Animal Crossing is the art of the Zen

I didn’t used to be much of a video game person, although I have to confess that I have always played them now and then. However, with the Coronavirus lockdown, video games have become a lot more important for me and the rest of the family for decompression, relaxing and just staying sane.

In particular, Animal Crossing: New Horizons has been huge for us. 

Now, I was already a fan of the Nintendo Switch. It combines the best aspects of the wII and the DS into one really amazing package. (My wife got me a DS early in our courtship which is why Professor Layton is one of my heroes) But Animal Crossing is the perfect escapism when everyone needs some escapism.

In case you didn’t know (and I didn’t, really, before New Horizons), you come to a small community of funny animal people and help develop the community in the Animal Crossing games. In the process, you also catch a lot of fish and bugs and renovate your home with the help of massive but interest-free loans. It’s a resource management, infrastructure development and dollhouse all wrapped up in one. In New Horizons, the community is a deserted island and you start out in a tent.

I understand that there has been a lot discussion over whether or not Animal Crossing is an RPG series. By my lights, it is. But the real character you are leveling up isn’t the funny little person you have running around. It is the town you are creating. But that funny little person is an essential part of of the immersion (as opposed to a game like FarmVille)

Right now, so much of the world is spending a lot of time within four walls. And leaving those four walls can be pretty stressful for those who have to. The ability to go to a peaceful island where you can do whatever you want, everyone is friendly, and the worst thing that can happen is a wasp nest falling on your head is pretty good wonderful.

It also helps that, by video game standards, Animal Crossing moves at a glacial place. There are seasonal changes and I don’t even know if the Switch lets you play with the calendar to hurry the year along. Things take time. Mario is about split second timing. Animal Crossing is about being chill.

Nintendo hit the ball out of the park by creating such an immersive zen experience.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

My March PnP

March has been a month. Looking at this list, it’s hard for me to believe that it was only four weeks ago I made some of these. Since then, we have started homeschooling and been on lockdown due to the Coronavirus. There have been some times when print and play has helped keep me relatively sane.

This is what I’ve made:

Autumn Tree (2018 R&W Jam)
Autumn Leaves (2018 R&W Jam)
Wolfe & Co
Raging Bulls
White Chapel Cultist (2019 R&W contest)
Robots of Eternity (2019 One Page Contest)
Wurfel Bingo
My Little Castle
Stand Up Bakery (prototype 2020 9-Card Contest)
Roll Estate
Night Class part 1
Spellcraft Academy (Legends of Dsyx)
Arabica (2017 GenCan’t Contest)
Captain’s Curse (2017 GenCan’t Contest)
Halloween Movie Marathon (2018 R&W Jam)
Brad Nordeng’s Hepthalon (2019 R&W Contest)

I am still making a ‘big’ project each month. This month was Wolfe & Co. I have no idea when I printed it out but I decided it was time to make it, even though I’m now focused on solitaire games.

However, I spent a lot of little moments, laminating Roll and Writes. Since I’ve had to become a home school teacher, I have a lot less free time but I have time for that. And being able to do that has been calming and satisfying. And I have found that if I only had a little time for games, Roll and Write are the easiest games to get in.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Did Lauren Faust read the Firebringer trilogy?

That’s actually not a very fair question. Meredith Ann Pierce’s unicorn culture is very different than the world of Friendship Is Magic. For one thing, the Firebringer Unicorns are basically Stone Age tribes while the fourth generation of My Little Pony is modified modern day. Still, both works are set around an equine-based culture in a world with many intelligent species. So, it did come to mind when reading the trilogy.

While fantasy and science fiction often deals with non-human cultures, non-humanoid is still a big next step. Still, it happens often enough. Pierce’s world is nicely realized but what makes it memorable is how much she demystifies unicorns of all things. Their mystics can have prophetic dreams and they are very athletic but by making them the baseline ordinary people, they are less fantastic, more mundane.

Which by no means is a bad thing. It’s just interesting.

I don’t know how to discuss these books without major spoilers. At the same time, I don’t know how much really counts as a spoiler. Jan, the protagonist of the first book (and duagonist of the second two books ) turns out to be the fire bringer of prophecy? Wow, that’s going to be pretty obvious to every reader.

At the start of the series, the unicorns have been in diaspora for forty generations. Their homeland was taken over by the venomous wyverns. They are also have bad relations with the neighboring gryphon and pan (faun) tribes. Over the course of the three books, Jan the prince of the unicorns both learns the secrets of fire and unites pretty much all the disparate peoples through diplomacy. Meanwhile, in her own story arc, his mate Tek kicks butt and takes names. 

Plot wise, the books are very formulaic. Without exaggeration, Jan goes through Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey in _every_ _single_ book. There aren’t a lot of surprises about what happens. Will the unicorns regain their last homelands from the wyverns? Would I spoil anything telling you?

Instead, the setting, the use of language and the character development are reason to read these books and those are three very good reasons. As I already mentioned, the world building is great and Pierce has a wonderful, lyrical voice that carries through the series.

And the character development is very strong. Jan doesn’t just go through dramatic experiences. He also goes through dramatic changes. The Jan at the start of third book is a far cry from the Jan at the start of the first book and we got to see how he got there.

And the other main character, Tek, might not change as much as Jan but is still a fully realized character. And she has to overcome more dire obstacles than Jan does once she gets to be a POV character. In the second book, her plot about surviving the unicorn king going insane is the strongest part of the whole series.

From what I have read, this series has spent a lot of time out of print. Which is a shame because it should be a classic.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Okay, let’s try again to sneak gaming into education

The dream of all gamer parents is using games as educational tools. Of course, kids being kids, this usually turns out to be a pipe dream but I am still clinging to my copies of 10 Days for dear life :D

With homeschooling currently a part of our daily lives, trying to find educational games that actually work has become more important. Of course, there’s less time for looking for such games since that’s how the world works. 

My next project along those lines is FourSight Word Game. I learned that the publishers were at least temporarily allowing it to be downloaded as a print and play so I downloaded it. The next step is is to actually make it. I’m hoping to do that this weekend. 

It is made up of two types of tiles: tiles with three-letter words and tiles with one letter. The actual game is a speed game where you are trying to make four-letter words as fast as you can. Which sounds so much worse when I actually type it out. 

But I’m not actually planning on playing by the actual rules with our six-year-old. That would just frustrate him to no end, seeing is how he is still learning to read. Instead, I want to have all the single letters out and available and flip over the three-letter words and explore how he can expand them.

I’m still not expecting him to be into it but I think it’s worth trying.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

We are all living in a world turned upside down

I will be honest. I didn’t want to write corona virus. I’m not an expert or an authority on any aspect of it and, quite frankly, one of the reasons I blog is to decompress. But the corona virus is something that’s affecting all of us. And gaming and reading are part of how I get through stress and that’s kind of what this blog is about. 

Interestingly, since online gaming in one form or another has been a party of my gaming life for so long that it hasn’t been a part of my decompression from stress and being insular. That will probably change if more people I know start doing it and it becomes a broader social outlet. Animal Crossing: New Horizons already promises to do that.

Print and Play has been a big part of my decompression. More crafting than playing right now but it definitely helps put me in a zen place. I don’t have a lot of time for crafting or playing with the new world of home schooling but even a little project is good. 

I hope everyone is doing well. The world has turned upside down for all of us.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Intellectual properties work best when I don’t care about the source material

I recently got almost the complete run of IDW’s Star Trek comic books set in the 2009 movie universe, the one by J. I. Abrams. And I’ve been quite enjoying them.

Here’s the thing. I have a great appreciation for Star Trek but it’s not a franchise I’m really into. (I have been told that would change if I binged DS9) That’s particularly true for the Abrams movies, of which I’ve only seen the first one. 

I have also found comic book adaptations of intellectual properties feel ‘off’ to me. I don’t have this problem with book adaptations. I think part of it is that comic book panels create a very specific form of pacing, as discussed by Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics. I think the change in pacing just changes the way stories are told enough to feel weird to me, on top of other issues from adaptations.

So why I am enjoying these comic books so much?

Well, I think it’s because I have almost no investment in this version of Star Trek. There isn’t any is ‘the Doctor wouldn’t do that’ or ‘Applejack wouldn’t take off her hat!’ or even ‘that’s not Picard!’ So if these books aren’t true to the movies, I don’t care! For me, it’s fun science fiction comic books with familiar costumes.

So, my theory is the more divorced I am from a source material, the happier I can be with adaptations.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

The tiniest things can make tiny games interesting

One of my hobbies is reading indie RPGs. I don’t know how strange that is but I do come across some strange things. Sometimes I find gems that I would like to really play. Other times, I find games that I’m pretty sure will be duds. And sometimes, I just find madness like A Flask Full of Gasoline that has actually drinking gasoline in the rules.

I just read two: Operation: Caveman and King of Slimes. I couldn’t find enough to write about either of them to make for an entertaining blog but I thought I might be fun to compare them just because I had very opposite reactions to them.

Operation: Caveman is about being prehistoric folks who are trying to get a leg up on other tribes. It uses a very simple mechanic of a single die roll with modifiers to resolve stuff. Which I do appreciate. A beer and pretzel RPG should be simple and intuitive.

However, my reaction to Operation: Caveman was ‘Why would I like play this rather than the Land of Og?’ Which is not a question I ever thought I’d ever find myself typing. Not because Og is bad. It’s a hoot. But it’s such a niche product that I thought it remain unique. Og is a touch more complex but much more richly developed. 

King of Slimes has you play a JRPG slime that’s trying to become the biggest slime while avoiding getting squished by newb adventurers who want quick xp. The whole game consists of grabbing colorful candy blindly out of a bowl to determine both an adventurer and the reward for beating the encounter. When the bowl is empty, whoever has the most candy wins and becomes King of Slimes.

Honestly, King of Slimes doesn’t cross my notoriously low threshold of being an RPG. It’s a party game (by its own admission) with a push-your-luck mechanic that looks like a combat mechanic if you squint really hard. (Okay. Every combat mechanic is a push-your-luck mechanic if you want to be honest) If you wanted to, you could add a narrative element but there’s nothing in the rules about that.

But I can see playing it, particularly with kids, and I can see easily house ruling some narrative in so it does have some legitimate RPG elements. King of Slimes isn’t going to change my life but I can see trying it at least once, which more than justifies adding it to my files.

Tiny, short form indie RPGs are odd beasts. I don’t look for my next D&D, just an interesting event. And sometimes it is the smallest details that can make the difference between interesting and not.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

What can you do with one sheet of paper?

My rough measure of, well, how much work a PnP is going to be is the number of pages I print out. But, wow, can that be a wide range in reality. After making a copy of Raging Bulls (printing out and laminating a sheet of paper) and Robots of Creation (forty-two itty bitty cards, plus a couple of tiles) almost back-to-back, I really found myself wondering how useful a measure was :D

That said, I think those two examples represent the two extremes of how much cutting you can expect to do on one page.

I almost don’t count just laminating a sheet of paper. Ironically, I have had a lot of great experiences with Roll and Writes so the return on some of those builds has been great.

The real middle ground for me are sheets of eight or nine cards or boards with a couple columns of counters. Basically, if I can cut it in five minutes with a paper cutter, it is still an easy build.

However, when I have to get out the scissors and fussy cut for an half an hour, that’s when i cross over the threshold to it being ‘work’.

The first time I really experienced a fussy-cut build was Raiders in My Pocket. At first I was thrilled at a Zombie in My Pocket that fit on one page. However, I spent more time making it than I did making Tiny Epic Zombies :P And the bits were so tiny that I actually had real problems physically playing the game.

The last two fussy-cut builds I’ve made have been Robots of Creation and My Little Castle. It helped that I had a good idea what I was getting into, build-wise. I think these small bits will work better than Raiders.

Ironically, the actual intellectual-size of the game isn’t determined by the number of cuts. Utopia Engine, for instance, is fairly deep and cat fit on one page with no cuts.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Zero Kelvin falls short of classic

In what sometimes feels like a never-ending journey through Roll and Writes (Pretty sure I haven’t crossed the line into obsessive compulsion), I have found that some games whole point is to be an alternative to Yahtzee. In fact, I think Gaiko no Saikoro actually has that in its design statement.

Zero Kelvin certainly seems to fit that bill. Despite the name, it’s a themeless collection of dice games. The name only comes into play because you are ‘freezing’ die rolls.

As I mentioned before, it’s a collection of micro dice games. Five of them, in fact. Each one uses six dice and each one involves rolling those dice and freezing at least one of them after each roll. The games are (inhale): HiLo has you roll two sets of three dice and subtract the smaller one from the big one; Threes has you aiming for a low number with threes equaling zero; 1,4 requires you to freeze a one and four to score the other dice; Knockout has you roll each die one at a time but ones knock out the highest die; Odds has you just score odd but if you ever roll all evens you get zero points. (Whew!)

(I have to note that I found the rules annoyingly vague, which is bad such a simple game. They are formatted to fit on the back of the player sheet, which is the size of a two index cards. Still, they really could be better)

I’ve seen most of these ideas before in other games (Cinq-O, Fistful of Penguins, etc) And I’d have e to say that every game that is built around just one or two of these ideas usually does a better job of it. That said, I don’t dislike any of the micro games except Knockout (and that’s because you don’t actually make any decisions) On a whole, Zero Kelvin is a perfectly serviceable dice game.

Would I rather play Zero Kelvin than Yahtzee? Actually, yes.  But a better question is: would I rather play it  than Knizia’s Decathlon? No, I like the Decathlon a lot much more.  Comparing those two games is a much fairer comparison and Knizia’s little gem is the clear winner.

I think that making a game that is basically just bog standard dice is a noble goal and there are some genuinely brilliant games that do just that. I’ve already mentioned Knizia’s Decathlon and I’d also add in Qwixx and That’s Pretty Clever, just off the top of my head. The list can definitely keep going. Zero Kelvin is _far_ from the worst I’ve tried but it doesn’t reach those hights.

Monday, March 9, 2020

Raging Bulls makes simplicity work

Raging Bulls is a game that has been on my radar for a while. It’s gotten decent buzz and making it consists of printing out one page, maybe laminating it. So, seeing as how I’ve been playing lots of Roll and Writes lately, I decided it was time.

Raging Bulls has you drawing lines on a grid to fence in bulls with die rolls determining which points you can draw from. Honestly, that’s a pretty good description of the game in one  sentence.

The simplicity of Raging Bulls is both the best part of it and why you’d probably burn out on it relatively easily. A couple years ago, I tried out another Roll and Write called the Captain’s Curse which also involved carving up an area with straight lines. Raging Bulls is a much simpler design but, at the same time, I felt like I had more legitimate choices in Raging Bulls. It’s simplicity also makes it very intuitive.

At the same time, it’s not flawless. The random placement of bulls could place them on the edge, making them much more difficult to fence in. The difficulty can be way all over the place, depending on the dice. I’ve been having fun with the game but I can see how it won’t be a winner for everyone.

The site Happy Meeple has added Raging Bulls to the list of games you can play online there. And it’s added elements like sheep, ponds and other mechanics. I do intend to explore that. I am curious to see if making Raging Bulls more complicated makes it better or spoils it.

Raging Bulls epitomizes for me the potential of a PnP R&W experience. Not perfect but very accessible on almost every level.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Dunsany Dreams 16

The Architect and the Spider

The architect looked out his window, where a spider was spinning her web. In the distance, the architect could see a great bridge of steel that spanned a mighty river with long cables.

‘And this is why we have inherited the Earth,’ he said.

But the spider whispered to him ‘My people spun out webs lit before there was a human race and we will spin them long after you all are gone.’

Thursday, March 5, 2020

How Theodore Sturgeon created the muck monster

For decades, I always assumed the ur-example of a muck monster a la the Swamp Thing and the Man-Thing was the Heap from Airboy comics. (Which is pretty much all I know about the Heap, by the way)  However, I somehow heard the argument that Theodore Sturgeon created the concept in his early story It.

So, of course, I had to track that story down. Way to give a specific title to a work, Ted!

I don’t want to give away too many spoilers. To an 80-year-old story :P But I will because the last line of the story just took the story to a different level.

The titular It really is an ur-example of beings like the Heap or the original versions of the Swamp Thing or the Man-Thing. Basically an undead monster with swamp plants over a human skeleton. (Yes, I know Alan Moore ditched that idea to beautiful effect but the Swamp Thing started out that way) 

Not that that is spelled out in detail. No, the true nature of It is slowly revealed over the course of the story. It is a mystery to us and everyone in the story, including It itself.

And one of the things that makes Theodore Sturgeon’s work sparkle is the sections written from the It’s point of view. It is not a mindless monster but a will that is driven by insatiable curiosity, flawed logic and absolutely no moral compass. Sturgeon succesfully created an inhuman but comprehensible point of view.

But, as i mentioned earlier, what really sold the story for me, what really gave it that punch, was the very last sentence in the story. “And Babe screams at night and has grown very thin” With that direct little sentence and with no details, Sturgeon sold me on the lasting trauma and horror of It.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Sometimes, the process is the reward of the game

As I’d written earlier, I just discovered that there was a Roll and Write contest in 2018. Fortunately for me, the files for all the entries that wanted to share their files are still around so I’ve been sifting through them. 

Some of the more interesting items don’t have solitaire options so they are on the back burner for me. (For many reasons that i’ve discussed before and will discuss again, it’s always easier to get a solitaire PnP on the table, regardless of its format) I printed off a couple of the quicker and more ink-light of the solitaire options.

As it happened, they had the exact same theme, coloring in autumn leaves. But one of them left me meh and the other one I enjoyed enough that I can see it part of my regular rotation.

Autumn Tree is a game where you are coloring on circles on a stick tree, with restrictions on the order you color in branches and how often you can use each color. You also have to deal with black leaves that worth negative points.

Man, I feel bad slamming someone else’s work. (I haven’t ever tried to design a R&W so I don’t know if I could do better) Autumn Tree is an example of a game that isn’t broken. All the parts work. But it’s sadly boring. (Sorry, sorry!) The decision tree is very simple and kind of obvious. It doesn’t engage me with either its decisions or its use of its theme.

Autumn Leaves is a game where you color in six different leaves, each one divided up into sections. You get points for completing leaves and using the same color. You also have to deal with a decay track, the dreaded color brown and a table of bad things happening to your leaves.

I’m honestly not sure that the decision tree in Autumn Leaves is actually any deeper than Autumn Tree. However, the process is more engaging. Each decision is binary but still involves sacrificing one leaf in the hopes of doing well with another. The decay track and the table of bad stuff helps keep the tension up.

And, while the art is just clip art that looks like it is from a free coloring book you might pick up for your kid at a local park, it does add that extra bit of visual pop. Really, you are pretty much coloring a picture as you go.

I have a theory that short, simple solitaire games can be as much about the process as the actual game. Last year, I made a copy of a game called Mariner from the Nine Card Contest. The game borders on being solved but I like the process of cycling through the deck. Autumn Leaves may not actually be a good game. The dice do control a lot of what goes on. But the procedure is fun.

On the one hand, I think there is value in exploring the PnP games that are out there. You can learn a lot of mechanics and the application of theme. In that sense, every game is worth trying. However, I also like finding a game that is fun.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Another PnP contest I hadn't heard of

I learned near the end of February that there was a Roll-and-Write Global Jam back in 2018, which actually meant a design contest with the theme of Autumn. And, for me, meant there were 40 games that I could freely download. Most of which I hadn’t seen before :D

I think I may actually be burning out on Roll and Writes. Not burned out on playing them but maybe getting burned out on learning new ones and burned out on looking for PnP Roll and Writes. It’s cool that there is so much out there but there is also so much out there.

And Theodore Sturgeon was so right. Love is one of the most essential human conditions but love requires patience and understanding and hard work. Oh, and 90% of anything is crud. (It’s a great quote but I wish Sturgeon was  more remembered for his writing. Ask the next question!)

Although, I have come across a lot more mediocrity than I have train wrecks. I have had more boring experiences than awful ones. Boring seems like a more common sin than broken. Maybe I’ve just been lucky.

And if you view it as a learning experience, PnP R&W is a pretty reasonable way to explore game ideas.  I’ll still probably take a break soon.

Monday, March 2, 2020

No one told me Winnie the Pooh was an owlbear

I don’t know if there had to be a Winnie the Pooh RPG but, if there had to be one, Winnie-the-Owl-Pooh does the job remarkably well.

The game was created waaay back in 2006 as part of a design contest from Bully Pulpit about owlbears. Yup, this is about Winnie the Pooh as an owlbear. A two-foot tall, child friendly owlbear who lives in the d100 Acre Wood with other child friendly version first edition Dungeons and Dragons monsters.

Mechanically, it’s a very rules light, narrative game. Folks take turns playing the titular owlbear and come up with innocent fun that always ends in troubles. The only die rolls in the game (and they favor the player who is playing Winnie the Owl Pooh) are to determine who gets to narrate how each kerfuffle ends up going. 

But what really struck me about Winnie-the-Owl-Pooh was how charming it is. I was expecting a  brutal deconstruction of Winnie the Pooh. Instead, it captures the whimsy and gentle satire of original Milne stories. If anything, it’s a reconstruction of old D&D monsters. I wasn’t quite as charmed by the Batman expansion for the game but even that has a similar feel.

As with any game, particularly a rules light narrative RPG, Winnie-the-Owl-Pooh depends on the group. Everyone has to be on board to tell a charming little children’s story or it will all fall apart like wet cardboard. But if you do want to tell such a story, I think this is a good system to use.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

My February PnP

I pretty much just made Roll and Writes in February:

Pencil Park, including the 2020  year version
Gryphon Delivery Service
Grazing Sheep

The original version of Pencil Park actually qualifies as a larger project by my meager standards. Three pages of cards. Not much but that was more than just laminating a sheet of paper after I printed it out :D

I only realized it when writing this blog that, for once, I actually tried out almost all the games I made this month. (Okay, it doesn’t hurt that the longest one is ten minutes and they all were just rolling dice and writing stuff down) I skipped Grazing Sheep because I want to explore one of the designers’ earlier works, Raging Bulls, first.

Honestly, when you consider that I probably spent an hour tops on print and play crafting in February, the return has been really great.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Cosmicomics takes unique to new levels

The best description of that I’ve read of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics is ‘You really just got to read them yourself’

But that’s not helpful for discussing them so here goes. Cosmicomics is a series of short stories that start with a scientific theory and then build a domestic story around it. They take giant concepts and make them small and personal. It doesn’t necessarily make them easier to understand but it just might make them easier to relate. 

Qfwfq is the narrator of most of the stories. He may be the ultimate example of the ‘been everywhere man’ in literature, having been there for the Big Bang and observed the development of the universe since then. He can also be petty, small minded, and jealous. He helps make the universe small :D

Some of the different theories that are used completely contradict each other. Qfwfq’s personal time line contradicts itself to the point of making absolutely no sense whatsoever.  The stories are also filled with ludicrous anachronisms. And, yet, the stories aren’t slapdash or sloppy. They finely balance the cosmic with the human with gentle absurdity with a constant tone. There is some definite brilliance going on here

I first came across the book sometime in either middle school or high school. Read the first few stories and couldn’t make heads or tails of then. They stuck with me but I just didn’t know what to make of them. But after reading Calvino’s Invisible Cities, I knew I had to revisit the book. I’m glad that I did, even though I’m still not sure what Calvino is trying to do.

And I found out in rereading Cosmicomics that Calvino kept writing this stuff and someone kindly published the lot in The Complete Cosmicomics. I am definitely reading that, probably bemused the whole time.

Monday, February 24, 2020

Zendo with magnetic tiles?

While watching our son play with Picasso Tiles (which are colorful, plastic magnetic tiles), I keep thinking how perfect they would be to play Zendo with.

Now, I am well aware that you can play Zendo with anything. There are tales from the olden days of people playing Zendo with pocket change. I could take all the different bottles of cleaner from under the kitchen sink and use them to play Zendo. The question isn’t what is possible but what is reasonable.

Even someone as DIY as me is not going to be thrilled with the idea of dumping out a waste paper basket to play a deduction game. Just because you _can_ do something doesn’t mean it’s a good idea. You have to sell the idea of playing a game to an audience of potential players. Nifty retro plastic pieces, they can sell the idea of playing Zendo. Crumpled paper, used up pens and empty chip bags, they don’t.

I like to think of myself as a purist who could play a game with rubbish but I’d be lying about if I said I want to. There is no escaping presentation.

At the same time, I’m not saying you have to only play Zendo or similar games with the official components. With a set of tools with a good aesthetic, the game can be engaging. And with tools like Picasso Tiles, you have something functional and aesthetically pleasing to make Zendo koans with. 

It might be a while before I can ‘borrow’ his Picasso Tiles for Zendo though.

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.