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.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

My January PnP

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

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

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

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

A good start to the year.