Friday, October 23, 2020

Yes, I had to make my own Alone Among the Stars hack

 I have been looking through the various hacks of Alone Among the Stars, designed by Takuma Okada. I realized I wanted to play a hack that would let me tell a Tom Hanks in Castaway story but I couldn’t find one that fit what I wanted to play. 

So I decided to make one.

Again, I made this for my own personal enjoyment and all the hard work was done by Takuma Okada. So here it is:

Alone as a Castaway

You are a castaway, the lone survivor of a shipwreck who has washed up on the shore of a tropical island. You need to island and do what you need to to survive. This island may be your home for the rest of your life.

Look, this is a blatant hack of Alone Among the Stars by Takuma Okada. Not going to pretend otherwise. It follows almost the exact same rules except for one. You don’t roll for multiple cards for each scene. A Robinson Crusoe island is small enough in scope that I think one card is enough for each scene. Essentially, the island is treated like one planet in Alone Among the Stars but you can use more than six cards.

Okay. Alone as a Castaway is writing/journaling game. Each scene/journal entry, you will draw a card to determine what discovery the scene/journal entry is about and roll a die to establish how you came across that discovery. The suit of the card will establish the nature of what you have discovered and he rank will establish where the discovery was made.

While I created this with a Tom Hanks in Castaway story in mind, you can bend it however you’d like. It can be modern day or set in the 16th century. It can be extremely realistic or full of magic and fantasy. There is no wrong.

Okay, here go the rules:

Roll a die to determine how you came across the discovery.

1-2: it took a lot of work to find it
3-4: you came upon it suddenly
5-6: you were on break.

Now draw a card to get some details about what you discovered.

Diamonds - Some essential resource you need to survive, be it a natural one to the island or sometuing washed up 

Clubs -  a danger that you need to be wary of

Hearts - wildlife

Spades - a natural, breath taking  beauty

A - in the waters of the natural bay the reefs form

2 - on the beach 

3 - on the cliffs

4 - in a shallow cave 

5 - on the mountains

6 - in the grassy fields

7 - in deep caverns

8 - deep in the jungle

9 - in the swamps 

10 - by a stream

J - at the volcano

Q - in an isolated pool

K - ruins

Have fun!

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

So Star Trek is Octonauts in space?

 Octonauts is underwater, old school Star Trek with funny anthropomorphic animals but no red shirts or prime directive.

While we tried having our son watch it two, three years ago, he wasn’t really interested in it. Now that we are delving into all the potentially educational kids TV that Netflix has, Octonauts has gotten some viewing.

The show, aimed at the five to seven bracket, is about a group of animals who have undersea adventures with the mission statement of ‘Explore! Rescue! Protect!’ Each segment features a different and very specific form of marine life and includes a few interesting factoids about them.

But man, does it have a Star Trek vibe like no one’s business. 

While Star Trek didn’t create the paradigms that have become synonymous with it(I keep waiting for someone to tell me The Voyage of the Space Beagle ripped off Star Trek), it did run away with them like a house on fire. And, speaking as a dedicated Doctor Who fan, I think Star Trek has done quite well by them. (To be fair, I haven’t seen a single episode of at least half the versions of Star Ttek out there)

What really screams original Star Trek to me about Octonauts is that the main characters form a aid-Ego-SuperEgo trio like McCoy-Kirk-Spock. This time, though, the medical officer is the Spock figure while the Id is a kiddie-friendly version of Wolverine.

I do wonder If the light-hearted action-adventure or the cartoonish anthropomorphism gets in the way of actual scientific facts. Still, I figure our son will at least remember the names of some sea life. And if he ends up liking Star Trek more than Doctor Whi, I’ll blame Octonauts :D

Monday, October 19, 2020

Alone Among the Stars actually works

 I recently stumbled upon Alone Among the Stars and its myriad of hacks completely by accident. I’d been looking into more conventional solitaire card games. In fact, I’m still wading through all the variations and pondering the whole matter. You use a deck of cards and a die to come up with the inspiration to describe planets that you are exploring.

Alone Among the Stars is on the seriously soft end of the solitaire RPG spectrum. On the hard side, you have the tightl structure of game books that strictly restrict your choices. On the soft side, you have basically guidelines to write fiction or a meditation exercise. The solitaire version of De Profundis consists of keeping a diary of Lovecraftian horror that hopefully isn’t actually happening to you.

Alone Among the Stars Has you take the role of a solitaire explorer in outer space. For each planet you choose to explore, you role a die to see how many cards you lie down. You then use the dice and charts to give you some rough inspiration on what you find. And thus you create a journal of exploration.

Okay. The games consists of three tables that you use to create writing guidelines. That’s it. Which is probably why there have been so many hacks of it. That’s a really, really simple framework to work with.

But... Alone Among the Stars gives you just enough structure to work with that you really do have a framework to work with. And it is open enough that the replay value is just limited to your creativity and imagination. 

I honestly wasn’t sure how well it would work. Alone Among the Stars didn’t seem like much of a step beyond just telling you to go write a story, have fun. But when I actually tried it, I found it did give me enough guidance to work as a structured writing game.

I then recommended it to some friends... and they quickly began playing it as well.

I honestly think Alone Among the Stars gives enough guidance AND flexibility that it can work for a lot of people. You can spend pages on one card or just a couple sentences and both are perfectly valid. 

I didn’t think Alone Among the Stars would be good but it is.

Friday, October 16, 2020

Scoundrel: random and abstract yet intuitive

 Scoundrel had been on the top of my list of games for the next time I tried a thematic solitaire with a regular deck of cards. It’s not something I do that much but it is nice to add to the library of games that you can play with just a deck of cards in your bag.

Scoundrel is a dungeon crawl that just needs a deck of cards and some way of keeping track of your  hit points. The game consists of you going from room to room and trying to not die. 

Each turn, you create a room by drawing four cards and resolving three of them. Spades and clubs are monsters. Hearts are healing potions. Spades are weapons. Combat consists of subtracting the value of the monsters from your hit points. Weapons subtract from the value of monsters BUT they get blunted. Every monster you fight with a specific weapon has to be lower value than the last. The fourth card remains and is part of the next room. 

You also have the option of running and putting the room at the bottom of the draw pile. If you go through the deck and survive, your hit points are your score. If you die, the remaining monsters in the deck are negative points so you have a way of measuring how badly you did :D

I have very mixed impressions of Scoundrel. 

On the minus side, even though you have choices, luck of the draw is by far the most powerful force in the game. I’ve lost games in two rooms, having run from the first room and then getting overwhelmed in the second since you can’t run twice in a row. The random factor is high and stacked against you. And the game is sufficiently abstract that I never had a narrative sense of being in a dungeon crawl.

On the plus side, the theme does do the very important of making the rules intuitive. I didn’t feel like I was dealing with weapons and monsters and potions but the rules made the interactions between the cards easy to understand. And while chance frequently overrode my choices, I did like the fact that the order I chose to resolve cards mattered and that I could run.

And Scoundrel does benefit in my eyes by being a minimalist game that I can set up just by shuffling the cards (after I’ve taken certain cards out but replay is super quick and easy) It succeeds at being what I am the most interested in a game like this being: a super portable game I can play anywhere with a deck of cards. 

Ultimately, the net positives outweigh the negatives for me. I have had fun with Scoundrel and I’ll play it occasionally. That said, I’d still recommend games like The Bogey or The  Blackjack River over it.

PS I found you can play Scoundrel online at but actually playing with cards is part of the appeal for me.

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Project Superpowers : epic obscurity

 Thanks to Humble Bundle, I got to read a hefty chunk of the graphic novels that make up Project Superpowers. I’ve been interested in reading it for years. It isn’t quite a tribute or a deconstruction of super heroes but it has elements of both.

Alex Ross, the comic book artist famous for basically creating near-photo realistic artwork of superheroes, took a bunch of public domain super heroes from the 40s and weaved a story that almost literally recasts them as mythic heroes. Ross already had written the Earth X series for Marvel so the fact that the guy could write wasn’t a surprise.

Here’s the basic concept: after World War II, the Fighting Yank’s dead ancestor convinces him to trap all the world’s other heroes in Pandora’s Box. The idea being if hope is locked away, all the other evils will be too. Decades later, when the ghost of the US Flag points out that the world is now a dystopia, he sets out to free them. Then things get wild.

I’m not going to go into much more detail for the sake of spoilers. However, I found the story arc to be pretty good with tons of moral ambiguity and nifty twists. The ending was a little pat and upbeat compared to the rest of work but I was still glad that read it.

But even without spoilers, there is a lot to unpack. 

Earth X  clearly showed that Alex Ross is really, really into comic book history. Small wonder that he and Kurt Busiek have collaborated a lot. In many ways, Project Superheroes is a love letter to the forgotten heroes of the 40s, a time when publishers were churning out superheroes like crazy. But... these characters are so obscure that Ross effectively completely reinvented all of them and just kept the costumes. 

This means that any interest and emotional connection I have with the characters comes from what Ross has done with them. He could have created whole new characters and it would have been the same for me. And I’ve read enough encyclopedias of comic books that I’d actually heard of a lot of them. I think this would be even more so for more casual readers.

This had the side effect that I kept thinking that some events should have more weight than they did. Captain Future’s story arc, for instance, would have had a lot more impact if I had known there was another character from the 1940s called Captain Future who wasn’t the Buck Rogers-style guy. 

It also made me ponder why these characters for languished in obscurity. Some of them were in print for ten or more years, which isn’t bad. I suspect that legal issues actually have a lot to do with it. Companies are going to spend their time developing properties they actually definitively own. The most well known character is in probably the 1940s Daredevil (renamed the Death Defying Devil to avoid confusion) and that’s probably because he had a really cool costume design. (I have heard it touted him being mute adds to his significance but multiple sources say that lasted one issue before being dropped)

I have to note that Alex Ross’s interpretation of the Black Terror, who got his own title, is particularly entertaining. Superman as a pirate, the character combines an unshakable moral compass with poor impulse control and anger management issues. Flawed and scary (I wouldn’t want to be near him!) but means well.

Project Superpowers was fun to read and Alex Ross does manage to create a mythic, epic feel but I feel like I came in halfway through the story and missed all the introductions.

Monday, October 12, 2020

The different pieces of Lost Cities

 This is a weird thing to be thinking about but I have found myself thinking about the compass on the reverse side of the card in at least some editions of Lost Cities. Not the actual artwork on the faces of the cards but the art on the boring sides of the cards.

This has led my rambling brain down three different paths. Memories of first getting the game; wondering how it would hold up now; and the power of effective artwork.

Lost Cities was an early acquisition for me. A watershed game. I read the rules and was totally underwhelmed. I played a hand against myself and my opinion did a 180. I ended up playing the game regularly for the next few years. Which, for someone who was trying as many different games as they could, is impressive.

And I think Lost Cities would still hold up if or when I go back to it. Because it is so gosh darn simple. Doctor Knizia loves playing with math and Lost Cities is one of the most fundamental examples of that. There are variants on the idea like Celtis or Emu Rangers that I enjoyed a lot because they were more flexible but I can’t help but wonder if the remorseless  and unforgiving simplicity of Lost Cities is one of its strengths.

As for theme and artwork... mechanically, Lost Cities is 100% abstract. You can and people have played it with regular playing cards by dropping a suit. But the theme does make sense for the mechanics and I know that the theme and pretty artwork helped the game have traction for me. Theme is more than just pretty pictures and it more than even creating stories. Theme creates a context for mechanics. It helps our brains put all the pieces of a game together. Lost Cities doesn’t need a theme but the theme makes it that much easier to get engaged with it.

Two games I find myself comparing Lost Cities in this ramble (I can’t really call it an analysis) are Take It Easy and the 10 Days series. I have seen a lot of ‘Bingo with Strategy’ games that use Take It Easy’s paradigm but few are as unforgiving. One mistake can ruin your whole game. And that brutal simplicity keeps me going back to it. And while many people have said that the 10 Days series is Racko with a map, that map makes the game so much more interesting and engaging (and educational).

On paper, Lost Cities doesn’t seem like much.  It in practice, it’s addictive.

Friday, October 9, 2020

The Revolutionary War in the palm of your hand

 Battle for the Carolinas is a solitaire war-themed game that is designed to be played with a deck of cards that you hold in your hands the entire game.

Okay, it’s not even an elephant in the room because the designers openly admit that Palm Island was a huge influence on the game but Battle for the Carolinas is so much like Palm Island that if you’ve played Palm Island, you can pretty much pick up Battle for the Carolinas cold. Which is not saying it’s the same game with different pictures.

As someone who has played some Apocalypse World hacks, I would instead say that Battle for Carolinas is a Palm Island hack. It uses the same basic framework to do its own thing. It’s like comparing Dominion to Thunderstone.

Here’s the basic gist. You are going through the deck. You can turn up to four cards into resources by turning them on their side. You spend resources to upgrades cards, which either flips or turns over cards and makes them better. In Battle for Carolinas, your goal is win three skirmishes and two battles which means completely upgrading those cards.

Now, I have a very generous definition of war game. I do consider Memoir 44 a war game and some days I even consider the Battle for Hill 218 a war game. Battle for the Carolinas doesn’t pass even my loose definition though, simply because it has no conflict. You can’t actually lose a battle. You just haven’t won it yet. 

That doesn’t mean I dislike the game at all. Quite the contrary, I’ve enjoyed my intitial plays. However, it is entirely a resource management game.

Here’s the real question: do I like it better than Palm Island? Which one would I rather play and which one would I recommend? The answer is: I don’t know. I have not yet tried playing Battle for the Carolinas with either the variant rule sets or the expansion cards. I also have only played the black and white demo version of Palm Island. I haven’t made a copy of the full game (yet).

I will make this observation: there are more paths to victory in Palm Island, different avenues to gain points and the initial shuffle will help you figure out what is your best option. In Battle for Carolinas, whether you are playing for points or achievements, your end goal is the two battle cards and that is what you are working towards.

Another significant difference is that Battle for Carolinas has spoils. When you completely upgrade a skirmish or battle, it becomes a potent set of resources. In Palm Island, that doesn’t happen. In fact, some cards stop being potential resources.

I suspect that the full version of Palm Island will be the better experience but I also think I will have fun exploring the variations and expansions in Battle for the Carolinas.

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

October is a good month for MR James

I hadn’t been planning it intentionally but I started October by rereading MR James’ Ghost Stories of an Antiquarian for the third or fourth time.

The Victorian period featured a ridiculous amount of authors writing ghost stories and I have read that MR James was one of the last great ones. I don’t know nearly enough to know how much hyperbole was packed into that statement but I will say that he wrote some really fun ghost stories.

While I’m sure I read some of his stories in random collections and I watched Night of the Demon when I was quite young, I became aware of MR James as a specific author when I read that his stories ‘The Mezzotint’ and ‘Martin’s Close’ helped inspire the Japanese horror franchise The Ring. I’m still not sure if that’s true but I did find the stories on Project Gutenberg and read them.

And then I read everything else I could find by MR James.

His stories tend to follow a basic structure. Person who is into old stuff discovers some sort of terrible secret. Bad stuff happens. Man, is anyone surprised that Lovecraft was a fan of this guy? And, yes, not every story follows that formula but at least half of them do.

If you were to read the outline of one of his stories, it wouldn’t seem that interesting. Someone buys a picture that shows a murder from beyond the grave and then they put it in a museum. Not a lot of action or complex plot.

But James does three things very well. He has a very conversational tone, no purple prose in sight. He is at good at including just enough details to make thing visceral without being graphic. And he makes it seem like it could happen to you. That all adds up to making his writing very engaging and accessible. His work has aged very well.

I think that MR James is a good read. And he’s also public domain and the individual stories are short so he’s easy to check out. 

Monday, October 5, 2020

It’s no 30 Rails

 I will be honest. I tried out Anty Establishment because I knew that it was going to super quick to make, teach myself and play. It’s from this year’s Roll and Write contest. The whole thing, rules and all, is one sheet of paper. Just add two dice and something to write with and your done.

The core of the game is easy to understand. You’re drawing lines on a grid that represents an anthill and you get points by making long paths, going over symbols that are on the grid and by making chambers where ant queen crowns are.

You determine what shape path with die rolls. You roll two dice and so you get two choices to pick from. You have some limited dice manipulation, including the option of rerolls or using both dice, but you also need to use the dice manipulation to create chambers, which can a the only way to score ant queen crowns.

Twenty turns and see how many points you get.

Anty Establishment is amusing but the big question it has to answer is ‘Would I recommend it over 30 Rails?’  And the answer to that is no.

30 Rails, which I view as a gem of both PnP and R&W, offers variable set ups, tighter game play and more painful choices. Anty Establishment is more forgiving and has a preset layout. It doesn’t have the depth or replay value.

I will give Anty Establishment credit for having the dice manipulation being even more of a resource management exercise. And you can pick up and get a game in with zero preparation, which is honestly a huge plus for me.

I had fun but I’d recommend 30 Rails or other games first.

Friday, October 2, 2020

Social deduction in three cards?

 I recently made a copy of the basic three cards of Wild Cats, which is all you need to play the basic three player game. I did it just because I wanted to use some extra space on a laminating pouch. Really, I have no idea when I’ll be playing a social deduction game for three players.

I don’t see Wild Cats existing if it wasn’t for Win, Lose, Banana. Wild Cats screams someone looking at Win, Lose, Banana and asking themselves how they could make a real game out of it.

Win, Lose, Banana is an odd beast and part of what is odd about it is the fact that it has had some traction in the gaming world. Mind you, I think of it less as a game and more like a three-card business card for Asmadi (not to be confused with Asmodee) 

Feel free to argue with me but I also view Win, Lose, Banana as a commentary about games like Werewolf. The actual mechanics are arbitrary but the gameplay could be fun and there does have to be interaction. Win, Lose, Banana just peels everything down to most most basic idea.

I also have to admit that my one play of the game did not endear me to it. It was at a con and I was eating breakfast with a friend. A possibly drunk guy we didn’t know sat down at our table and insisted we play. It was faster to do that than argue with him.

Wild Cats, compared to Win, Lose, Banana, has much stricter guidelines about your behavior and gives everyone a vote, as opposed to just Win in Win, et al. That makes Wild Cats more of a game for me and more interesting to me. However, I don’t know if that makes it a better experience.

On top of that, I might have better success introducing Win, Lose, Banana to our first-grader than Wild Cats. But my wife might not forgive me if I did that :D

Thursday, October 1, 2020

My September PnP

 September wasn’t a super crazy month for making print and play games for me but I am happy with what I got done:

Here’s what I made:

Puerto Miau
Any Establishment (2020 R&W contest)
6 Steps
Why I Otter
Wild Cats (basic three cards)
Istanbul or Constantinople?
Quarantine Haircuts
Sid Sackson’s Pinball

This was one of those months where I spent more time printing and cutting and laminating than actually finishing projects. Sometimes, it’s more decompressing to work on PnP than to finish it. And when I need to finish projects for decompression, I have plenty to work with.

While they almost don’t qualify, I consider Why I Otter and Istanbul or Constantinople? my big builds for September. They are both only eighteen cards but the size of the cards made me use more laminating pouches :D And I think they will be fun to play. 

On the other hand, I made Wild Cats just to fill in extra space on a laminating pouch. I don’t know when or if I will need a three-player social deduction game. I fear our first-grader would enjoy Win, Lose, Banana more anyway.

The project I’m most excited about from this month is one of the simplest, Sid Sackson’s Pinball. It has been years since I played it (my copies of the Beyond Books are _precious_) and I want see how it holds up compared to my very happy but distant memories.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The Bone Key unlocks very human horror

 Sarah Monette wrote that both Lovecraft and M.R. James were major influences on The Bone Key: The Necromantic Mysteries of Kyle Murchison Booth and it shows. Although to be fair, both of those authors cast very, very long shadows. 

In a nutshell, Monette took the standard Antiquarian protagonist of either of those authors and fleshed them out into a deeper and possibly more realistic figure. Booth is a brilliant and talented archivist at the creepy Parrington Museum. He is also awkward, painfully socially-isolated and severely emotionally damaged.

This actually plays very well into Booth being the protagonist of horror stories. He is very vulnerable and often overwhelmed by his nightmarish circumstances. He is constantly aware of the danger and uncertainty around him and barely has the courage to do anything.

Of course, that only works if the stories are at all scary. Fortunately, Monette does an excellent job combing the visceral and the unknown. We almost never get a full picture of what is going on and, sometimes, we get a lot less. The world of the supernatural is much bigger than Booth and he is unable to forget that.

And it tends to be very personal. As opposed to cosmic horror that doesn’t care about humanity, these horrors are very close and seem to really want human suffering. A hateful spirit guarding a necklace, a demon that feeds on the life force of exactly one person at a time, a hotel that seems to kill very selectively. It’s all very intimate.

What truly makes the anthology work (and I do think it works) is that it is a character study of Booth. He is the last of a cursed line. The first story has him weak enough to dabble in necromancy which has marked him so the restless dead and such are drawn to him. Bad things happen around him and to him. How he copes or fails to cope is the driving force.

The end result is a dark but engaging journey. I liked it.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Monopoly Junior - roll and pay rent

 One of the grandparents sent us Monopoly Junior. It was on the table and getting played within five minutes of opening the package. It was a four-player game with one seat being filled by a teddy bear and we were worried the teddy bear might win at some points.

There’s a track of 29 spaces with eight pairs of properties, along with the usual suspects like Go and Free Parking and Chance and Jail. You roll the die. If you land on an unoccupied property, you have to buy it. If someone else already has it, you pay them rent and pay double if they have a monopoly. The game ends when someone runs out of money and whoever has the most money wins. 

I’m of three minds of the game. On the one hand, I think it does a good job compressing and simplifying Monopoly while still keeping it completely recognizable as Monopoly. On the other hand, it manages to tip what I actually like about Monopoly into bin. On the mutant third hand, it definitely works as a kid’s game.

Two conversations from many years ago came back to me while playing it. One was from someone telling me that they almost cried when someone descibed Monopoly as ‘that’s the one where you roll the dice and go round and round, right?’ Another was a long conversation with
a friend who felt the problem with Monopoly was that kids are taught it too young so they never learned to negotiate or trade.

And Monopoly Junior is definitely roll the dice and go round and round. The game removes all the choices and trading and negotiation  from Monopoly.

But... our first-grader immediately grokked how property ownership and rent and monopolies worked. And he definitely got into the game. As a way for our child to have fun and hopefully serve as a stepping stone to Catan, Monopoly Junior has promise.

So I will encourage him to keep on playing it. It is not a game I’d recommend for adults or teenagers or even older kids, like third graders. For any of those groups, I’d reach for Owner’s Choice for a super quick economic game.

Friday, September 25, 2020

You know, there can be just character interaction

 One of the questions I recently found myself pondering yet again is the difference between character interaction and player interaction. 

More precisely, I was thinking about GM-free games where everyone chips in to provide the content and the conflict. Games like Fiasco or The Name of God or Microscope or The Quiet Year. In those games, it’s possible that characters might never be in the same scene but everyone works together and gets their hands dirty.

On the other hand, games where characters can be treated like playing pieces and the game master is basically a referee, you don’t have to actually interact with the other players. Your piece or pieces can interact with the other pieces. I have been in RPG sessions where some players were just taking up space on chairs. (And apparently having fun doing that so more power to them)

Of course, any game can have a strong level of cooperative interaction. But some games absolutely require it and some game can take or leave it.

I have been in Fourth Edition Dungeons and Dragons campaigns that were extremely collaborative where the players actively molded the story and developed the world with the dungeon master. And I have been in others where we moved from monster group B to monster group C and the other players could have been my cats with automatic die rollers as far as the actual game went. Still had a marvelous time.

Honestly, I think that fourth edition was designed so that it could be played as detached as possible and I think that’s a feature not a bug. It is definitively not a bad option. Sometimes, depending on the group and the need, it is the right option.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Thank you, Jeugo Roll & Write

 I finished doing an archive binge of Juegos Roll & Write ( ), specifically looking for Print and Play games that I hadn’t heard of yet. And, yes, a hefty chunk of what I found were ones I had already looked into but it was still a good experience.

It’s one of the blogs I regularly look at, both for PnP information and just out of curiosity. And I think that Roll and Write games are more valuable than ever in quarantine times. They are the easiest form of PnP to make and a huge chunk of them have solitaire options or are just plain solitaires. When your options for gaming or game partners are limited and restricted, that is awesome.

Jueglos Roll & Write actually has had several entries specifically addressing that, featuring collections that are particularly quarantine friendly.

Over the last few years, my opinion of Roll and Writes has changed and, frankly, gotten better. First of all, I have been impressed by the depth and variety of what’s out there, even just in the free category. Mind you, I have still had the best experiences with games that I have actually had to actually spend money on :D

Second, while I recommended in the past that if you wanted to get into PnP to go for cards or tiles games since actually having to craft components meant you had some skin in the game, I now think an only-R&W-PnP experience is viable. Part of that comes from the variety that is out there (and there are plenty that actually require you make cards or such :D) 

However, it also comes back to the quarantine conditions. You may not be able to get the materials to make cards or dice or such. But you are more likely to be able to print off a R&W sheet or hand copy one. It may be what is possible. And gaming is great way of dealing with stress.

And if that is what you need, Jueglos Roll & Write is really nifty.

PS I was really happy when I learned through the blog that someone has made a nice PnP version of Sid Sackson’s solitaire pinball game. Woo-hoo!

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The Complete Cosmicomics - inexplicable and wonderful

 One of my reading goals for 2020 was to read The Complete Cosmicomics, consisting of Cosmicomics, t zero/Time and Hunter and World Memory and Other Cosmicomics, along with a few miscellaneous bits. And I have finished the last story.

And, wow, is it weird to look back at starting this literary journey that started in February. The world has changed so much that is bewildering to remember reading the first section. (Yes, I like to wait months in between reading books in a series. Lets things sink in.)

Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomic stories involves taking a scientific theory (sometimes disproven and sometimes contradicting the theories used in other stories) and weaving some sort of domestic story around it. Most of the stories are narrated by Qfwfq, who has been around since before the universe began and who has been a mollusk, a dinosaur and possibly the god Pluto among other things. The stories are peppered with anachronisms to the point where even individual stories fail to have a coherent settings. 

You really have to just read them. It’s that kind of literature where words fail to do it justice.

I don’t think it’s unfair to say that the stories are Calvino using the whole of the universe to comment on human nature but I don’t think that’s quite it. I think that Calvino explores the way that human nature and the cosmos reflect each other. He is definitely saying _something_, not just being silly.

I will say that World Memory and Other Cosmicomic Stories was weakest section of the series. The original Cosmicomics is whimsical and endlessly thought provoking. t zero/Time and the Hunter is darker but challenging. World Memory, on the other hand, didn’t feel like it was pushing me as much. I didn’t find myself thinking as hard. Still fun but I can see why it is the least republished book.

After years of meaning to give Calvino a chance, Invisible Cities really impressed me last year. The Cosmicomics stories continued that impression. The petty, whiny, occasionally mysogynisric voice of Qfwfq created a fascinating view of the universe or humanity or maybe both. I am not going to pretend that I understand what the books are ultimately about but they make me want to understannd.

Monday, September 21, 2020

A R&W from 1965... don’t get excited

 When I saw 6 Steps, a roll and write game from 1965, I had to make a copy and try it out.

Spoiler: it’s... meh.

The game consists of six rows, each one marked one to six, staggered so they form a set of six steps. You will also need two six-sided dice and something to write with.

On your turn, you roll the dice and use them as coordinates. One die has to be the row and the other die is the number in the row. If you can, circle a number. If the possibilities have already been circled or crossed off, you have to cross off an unmarked number.

The game ends when you either fill up the board or circle all of a row, number or the one column that has six spaces. Scores are based on completing diagonals or rows or that one column.

Clearly, this game scared Reiner Knizia at a young age.

Okay, 6 Steps mechanically works as a game but it has some issues.

First of all, it is so dry. And that’s coming from me! I like abstract games but 6 Steps is so dry that even I think it’s boring. Playing with numbers can be interesting but this is so basic that there’s just not enough to engage me.

And the actual ‘interesting’ choices are what numbers to cross out. Any given combination of dice rolls gives you a choice of two circles at best. Doubles just give you one option. As the game goes on, it quickly becomes crossing numbers out. You hope for points but you’re really doing damage control most of the game.

What 6 Steps really does is make me appreciate other games :D It fails the Yahtzee test. I would rather be playing Yahtzee. I could easily draw a 6 Steps board freehand but I can draw a 30 Rails board free hand and I’d much rather play that. 

Since you have variance in what numbers you can cross out, you could play it Take It Easy style with everyone using the same rolls, which would at least speed the game up. (Yes, it’s dry enough that I want to speed up a ten-minute game) But why would I not play Take It Easy instead? Or Wurfel Bingo or 30 Rails or Criss Cross or 13 Sheep or Karuba or... 

You get the idea.

Okay, I’ll give it this. In a multiplayer game, the game ends when one player fulfills one of the endgame conditions. That can add some tension to the game. That’s still not enough to make me recommend the game.

6 Steps is an interesting historical footnote of a game. It was actually published and decades before Roll and Writes were a ‘thing’. But the fact that someone like me who is into games like this had spent years never hearing about it speaks of how much it deserves its obscurity.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Thanks for all the Print and Play Game News memories

I literally just learned that Chris Hanson put their PnP blog ( on indefinite hiatus. Back in June.

Well, I feel embarrassed.

In my defense, every update was a massive info dump and I couldn’t rest until I’d sifted through it all.

Seriously, since the blog was a comprehensive look at whatever was going on in the PnP world, the amount of work that had to go into it was massive. And the rate that PnP stuff has been coming out has just gotten faster and faster.

It’s really amazing that the blog kept going as long as it did.

I found a lot of PnP game through the blog. And, as an archive it is still amazing. I know I’ll go back to look for gems I missed. 

Thanks for the ridiculous amount of work, Chris Hansen.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Letting friends find their inner goblin

 During a recent meeting of friends over Zoom, we played one of my game poems, Wainscot Goblin. This was actually the first time I played one of the game poems I’ve written, which was pretty interesting all by itself. It also wasn’t a group of gaming friends, which may have made them the ideal audience for a game poem.

I’ve written about an earlier draft of the game poem in this blog. The basic idea is to create a little goblin that lives within the walls of a house by answering a series of questions. I got the idea of using the word wainscot from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy which uses the word to refer to a hidden society. Incidentally, I used the word wrong as far as the encyclopedia is concerned. It uses the term to mean a hidden society that still interacts with the larger society, like Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere or Vampire: the Masquerade. My goblins are entirely hidden.

Everyone had fun and there were plenty of whimsical ideas all around the virtual table and plenty of laughter besides. From the most fundamental stand point of ‘did the game poem work’ and ‘did everyone have fun’, the answer is yes. 

One of the things that I think helped was that basic concept was easy to understand, along with the format as well. 

One thing I realized afterwards was that one element of game play that I didn’t give the group was a way to interact with each other. If I have a chance to give them another game poem, I will give them that will let them interact with each other, not just respond to questions.

For instance, each goblin has four intrinsic qualities (magic, craft, wisdom and sacrifice) I could have had a player offer a problem to the next player and that player would explain how they would use one of their qualities to solve the problem.

Game poems are a quirky form but, more and more, I can’t help but wonder if they may be the most accessible form of RPGs. This was easy to introduce to folks who didn’t necessarily have a lot of RPG experience and for them to get into the game poem.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Changing without realizing it

 I feel like one’s sense of being a gamer is something that changes, sometimes so subtly that we only notice it when we look back. I don’t think of it as a constant upward climb but an ebb and flow. Trying to find a sense of balance as the rest of our lives change.

I’ve always been aware of this but you get reminders now and then.

I recently pulled out Elevenses for One.  About three years ago, when I started seriously looking into both print-and-play games and solitaire games, it was a fairly important to me. Elevenses for One felt like a ‘real’ game to me. Despite all the changes my gaming habits had gone through, it reminded me I was still a gamer.

Now, having explored a lot more solitaire games and print-and-play games, going back to it, I was surprised at how light Elevenses for One felt to me. I mean, I always knew it was a super light game. And I still think of it as a gold standard PnP game and one I always recommend and one I have used as a gift.

I know that I have been playing tiny little PnP solitaire games that I can fit in the minutes. That’s been a big part of my hobby as of late. That’s what has really kept me in the hobby at times. 

I just had’t realized the range and depth that I had been finding even in that tiny world. While it might work only be a minute fraction, I would say that games like Orchard or Food Chain Island are meaningfully deeper than Elevenses for One. 

I didn’t think I had been growing at all but I guess I have been.

(I should dig Micro Rome back out and see how it feels now)

Friday, September 11, 2020

Did I just accidentally start making an RPG?

 Have you ever been trying to make a narrative exercise and realized that you came up with a character generator instead? Actually, I bet that happens a lot since creating a character is one of the basic concepts of playing with story telling.

Anyway, without meaning to, that’s what I ended up doing while trying to come up with something that could be easily played with video conferencing.

A couple design notes:

While I know that wainscot is a real word, the only way I have ever seen it used is in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy ( and so I associated the word with secrets and the fantastic.

And I chose to go with tactile for the first question because I wanted the players to have some sense of description for their goblin but I also wanted to avoid visual. I thought going with touch would be more visceral and stretch the imagination more.

Incidentally, this is a first draft. I have already started to revise the game poem to set up possible conflict resolution mechanics in a larger game.

Wainscot Goblin - a game poem

You will need:
A pencil
The following list of questions
A hidden nature
A quiet truth

You are a wainscot goblin, one of those mysterious supernatural creatures that dwell just behind the walls. However, wainscot goblins are not just very peculiar, they are also very particular as well. The point of this little poem is kto figure out your exact nature.

Kindly answer the following questions:

  1.  If a human were to ever touch your skin, which, of course, would never happen, what would they say it felt like?
  2. Politely describe three details of the house that you dwell in?
  3. Just as politely, describe three details of your own cozy nook inside the walls?
  4. What craving or need makes you live so close to humans, to live inside their walls?
  5. What would drive you from your nook, the house where you dwell, into the cold outside?
  6. What is your grave vulnerability, the thing that any human kill you with, if they only knew?
  7. What is your secret craft, the hidden art form that you are devoted to?
  8. If you ever needed to, how would you kill?
  9. What is the single truest thing you can say of yourself?

Now, stand up and say your wainscot goblin name.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Okay, every card in the deck is the same?

 Drive Like Hell was part of a contest that Button Shy held to design an eighteen-card game where all the cards are identical. Drive Like Hell isn’t that complicated a game but, given that requirement, man, the double-sided card is complex.

You have just rescued your girlfriend from the devil. Now you have to drive your hot rod as fast as you can to get to St Joe’s Cathedral while the devil is hot on your tail... I have so many questions! What was my girlfriend doing with the devil in the first place?!

Two of the cards form the board, which is a track of locations, all with special abilities. Two more cards serve as you and the devil. Four more cards let you track of your gas, damage and items. (It sounds crazy but it makes sense once you have all the cards laid out. You could substitute beads or stones for five of the cards) The last eight cards serve as an event deck. Two start off on the Hell side and the rest start off on the Drive side.

Each turn has two phases. The first is the mojo phase, where you can adjust and possibly use an object. The second is the chase phase. Draw three cards from the bottom of the deck and resolve them. Drive cards let you move and add gas to your car. Hell cards make bad, bad things happen. The devil moves, your car takes damage, Drive cards turn to Hell cards, and a fiend can start coming at you from the opposite direction. It’s bad stuff.

I’ve skipped over a decent amount of content. Every location has some kind of special event go off (some good, some bad) and you have those objects, all of which help you, to juggle. But it all builds around the idea that the devil is after you and the odds keep getting worse.

One thing I’ve learned from my first plays. You can’t just hope the event deck will be nice to you. You have to do your best to make the locations and the objects work for you. And if you let bad things build up, they escalate into a death spiral.

There feels like there’s a lot going on in Drive Like Hell since so much is crammed on the two sides of the card design. However, I’m pretty sure there is an optimal decision tree and that you can ‘solve’ the game. The question then becomes if the process is interesting enough to keep playing after you reach that point. It might be.

Drive Like Hell might turn out the a dancing bear of a game, where the idea of making a cinematic adventure out of eighteen identical cards is better than the actual practice. I still have to say I find it fascinating.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Virtually lighting a candle

Over Labor Day weekend, a group of us got together virtually because we couldn’t do it any other way. 

As I have mentioned before, a couple of my friends like to rent out a meeting room at a hotel that is in the crossroads of enough of their friends and game all weekend. Obviously, that is not possible right now or at least not a good idea. So they combined Discord with Yucata and got as many folks as possible to game for five or six hours.

(As many have discussed, one element of a virtual convention or game night is that you simply can’t put the rest of your life on hold because it’s right there all around you. A few hours worked for this. Trying to virtually game for days wouldn’t have worked for anyone)

I only got in a couple hours myself (enough for one game of Hacienda which I lost horribly at) and the total number of participants may have been around ten, which is far smaller than any of the in-person gatherings.

But we made it happen. It is over-the-top and dramatic to say but it did feel like lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness. And we might make it happen again.