Friday, May 29, 2020

Was Erik Frank Russell deconstructing space operas in the 1940s?

Men, Martians and Machines by Erik Frank Russell becomes an odder read the more you look at it. A collection of interlocking stories, it was published in 1955  but most of the book was originally published in the early 40s. 

On the surface, it’s the rollicking adventures of the solar system’s first interstellar spaceship as they explore one death world after another. A machine world, a plant world, a brain control world. It’s all very by the numbers, even back when it was written.

The next level, at least for me, is that Men, Martians and Machines is a definitive period piece. It felt that way back when I first picked it up back in the late 80s and it really feels that way now. Some critics say that every science fiction novel is about the time it was written, not the future. Russell was definitely writing about the navy and merchant marines of the 40s. (The lack of exterior weapons so they have to open the airlock to shoot back is so bizarre to me)

But it was when we dig even deeper that Men, Martians and Machines becomes really interesting. I thought the book was multicultural when I thought it had been written in 1955. But when I learned that part of it had been written over a decade before that, I was really impressed. I thought Voyage of the Space Beagle was the prototype of Star Trek but Men, Martians and Machines feels like Star Trek the prototype. The black surgeon is the most competent and mature human on the ship. Not only are the octopod Martians and the token robot treated as buddies by the humans, they are clearly more with it than the humans.

In every single story, the Martians and/or the robot have to save the humans. The humans would be dead every time if it wasn’t for the non-humans. The fact that Russell has this happen in every story turns the book into a deconstruction of the genre at a time when the standard trope was having humans always win, at least if John Campbell was editing. On top of that, the constant stream to death planets is clearly wearing the humans down by the end of the book. The book went from a yarn and period piece to something that made me think.

The other highlight of the book is the Martians. Not their cephalopod forms or limited telepathy but their laconic, easy going personalities. They never get worried or stop obsessing about chess even while dealing with fantastic threats. At one point, we learn that they can think in two threads at the same time so they are always playing mental chess. 

They never have to stop playing board games? I’m jealous!

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Thoughts about meetups

Board Game Meetups have never been a huge part of my gaming life but they did have a huge impact on my actual life. I met the woman who would eventually become my wife at one. And I only stopped in to say hi to the organizer!

I am sure that meet-ups like the ones that I used to go to in Chicago have taken a real hit during the Covid-19 crisis. Even with restaurants and other such public places slowly opening back up, meetups will be difficult to hold. Not impossible but many board games don’t lend themselves to social distancing. (Are there folks holding Take It Easy nights?)

A lot of places in our area are still only doing take out for the foreseeable future and some are closing for good. Our son’s favorite chain (Sweet Tomatoes/Souplantation) has closed for good. The landscape has changed.

That said, they will come back. Public eating and drinking places have been around for centuries. We have whole genres of games dedicated to them. They don’t call them pub games for nothing.

And, while it is different, there is the virtual world for gaming. Online gatherings and even conventions are an increasingly easy and common things. 

 But I wouldn’t have met my wife at an online convention.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Classic Knizia is perfect for trying times

During a recent conversation, a friend described how, with lockdown shrinking his gaming group to his wife, his love for classic Knizia games has exploded. And, let me tell you, it’s not like he didn’t seriously love Knizia before.

Discussing games like Samurai, Through the Desert, Lost Cities, Ra, Modern Art, Ingenious, High Society.... These are all very fundamentally simple games, games that are easy to non-gamers or at least casual gamers. At the same time, they have enough teeth for ‘serious’ gamers. The sample rule structures contain complex decision trees.

(The seven games I listed are certainly not all the  classic Knizia designs that fit the description I gave. I have to admit I haven’t seen his newer designs, although my friend’s description of My City sounds fascinating. And Tigress and Euphrates was intentionally left off because it is such a head cracker. I feel that the initial learning curve is much harder than the other games. Or I’m an idiot)

Look, you are locked in and have a limited collection of games to work with, Knizia is a treasure trove. There is a vast amount of replay value in these games. I think there are different kinds of mental processes and stresses between games that have complex rules and ones that simply have complex decisions. His rules sets are intuitive enough that they can slip into your subconscious.

Many years ago (oh, Lordy, I feel old), I used to play Ingenious all the time. I reached the point where I saw the board as a pattern as opposed to a serious of individual moves. It was a very zen place to be. 

You can make a compelling argument that all games can be seen as patterns. Go is the platonic ideal of board games in my world and Go is all about developing patterns. However, I am going to argue that so many of Knizia’s designs make the pattern easy to see.

Believe it or not, I’m not arguing that Knizia is the greatest game designer of all time. There’s too many different kinds of games and audiences for anyone to be that. But his designs are great for a family audience, even if that family has serious gamers in it. 

And family games are perfect when family is the center of your gaming.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Irrational decisions in Print and Play

You know you have a Print and Play problem when you find yourself trying to come up with a justification for making something and none of the reasons hold water :P

I realized this one more time when I found myself seriously tempted to make the demo copy of Carcassonne. I looked at it and found myself thinking that it might be a nifty travel game, something to play at restaurants while waiting for our food.

That’s ignoring that I have gotten rid of both Carcassonne and the actual Travel Carcassonne over the years. (I have kept the Castle and Hunters and Gatherers) 

First of all, I don’t know when the next time I’ll be sitting down at a restaurant as opposed to getting take out. And, second, our son hasn’t shown any interest in playing a board game at a restaurant and that’s who’d I’d be playing against.

But, most importantly of all, a demo version of Carcassonne doesn’t actually fill any niche or need for me that other games don’t fill better. I have published copies of HUE and This Town Ain’t Big Enough For The 2-4 of Us, for example. Those are tile-laying games that are designed to be a small package in the first place and I wouldn’t need to worry about meeples or meeple substitutes. 

I’ll still probably make a copy.

I’m also tempted to make a copy of the demo version of Citadels, particularly since if you double up some sheets, you can make a very close approximation of the first edition of the game. (The current edition has over twenty roles?!) But then I’m ignoring that every game of Citadels  I’ve been in has lasted over two hours (usually over three hours) thanks to analysis paralysis and it stops being fun after the first hour.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Getting reminded how far PnP has come

I recently tried out an PnP game called Lost Artifact, which I found going through the entries for the 2018 Solitaire Contest. I played it five or six time in a row and found it pretty much a null experience. It wasn’t even a bad experience. I wasn’t offended by the game but I basically got nothing out of it. 

This isn’t a review and, in fact, I’m not sure I’d have anything to say about the experience if it was for my experiences with Bandido Covid-19 and Nytelyfe Solitaire earlier in May. Our son had a lot of fun with Bandido and Nytelyfe Solitaire was surprisingly engaging. I wouldn’t describe either of those games as the high end of my PnP experiences and they were worth making and playing.

But even five years ago, I’d have been more impressed by Lost Artifact. Even ignoring PnP projects that are offered by publishers as either demos or products you pay for, the last few years have raised the bar for PnP projects, as well as my expectations for them. I will honestly argue that you could have a functional and enjoyable game collection through nothing but PnP.

That said, I am not bashing Pasko Zhelev and his Lost Artifact. Dude, you set out some specific design goals of making a simple, accessible game that would be easy to craft and you succeeded. That’s no small thing. I have a similar attitude towards Alex Kremer. I don’t honestly want to play his games now but he put out a lot of content back before it was cool.  And that is cool.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Bandido proves a good game for lockdown

I had no interest in Bandido until the free, Covid-19 version was offered as a PnP for folks stuck in lockdown. You know, a whole lot of people right now.

Bandido is a very simple cooperative tile-laying game with every tile showing tunnel paths. The game begins with the bandido tile as the starter tile with eight tunnels leaving it. Everyone has a hand of three tiles and you are trying to lay down tiles to block the bandido from escaping with loops and dead-ends so that the whole tunnel system is closed.

The PnP retheme has half the cards of the original version and is themed around Covid-19 prevention. Instead of a bandido, the start tile has the corona virus and the dead ends are healthy habits like washing your hands and social distancing.

While Bandido reminds me of a _lot_ of different tile-laying games, the game it really makes me think of is a very simplified Ambagibus. And Ambagibus is already a really simple game so that’s saying something. I am pretty sure that Bandido, with the half-size deck of the PnP version, is more difficult than Ambagibus because fewer cards makes luck of the draw stronger. (I wonder if making two sets and combining them would offset luck of the draw.)

But here’s the kicker. Our six-year-old does enjoy occasionally playing Ambagibus but find the placement restrictions annoying. So I thought that Bandido would be a good fit, particularly with a Covid-19 awareness theme. That was enough to make me make it.

I tried it out as a solitaire first and found it to be about what I expected. A very simple tile-laying game that really didn’t have much to set it apart from any of the many tile-laying games I’ve played.

However, when I showed  it to our son, he was quickly interested. Thanks to his interest in Ambagibus, he already knew how to play and he wanted to identify and discuss the healthy habits. We played three or four times in a row, counting him eventually going through the deck to find the perfect card.

Earlier in May, I tried out My Little Castle, another very light PnP tile-laying game and found it meh. Almost all of my criticisms of My Little Castle apply to Bandido. Neither game has anything that really makes it sparkle or stand out as a game. However, between healthy habit theme and ease of accessibility, Bandido Covid-19 really worked for us as a family game. I wouldn’t suggest it for gamers but I’ve already recommended it to friends with small kids.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Corinth may be the Yspahan I need

Corinth is one of my top-of-the-list PnP projects to get done. (I learned that it’s currently free from this list,, where it is also the top of the list) And it will be a super simple project. Print three pages, minimal cutting, laminate, add dice and you have a four-player set.

In fact, the only reason I haven’t done it weeks ago is that I want to do it in color and that means I can’t do in house.

I hadn’t really heard of Corinth before it was released as a free PnP but when I started looking at the rules, I found myself thinking that it really, really sounded a lot like Yspahan. A. Lot.

Actually doing the absolute minimum research and I see it’s by the same designer and, more than that, it’s officially a reimplementation of Yspahan. Okay, that explains everything.

I have a slightly interesting relationship with Yspahan. I did used to own it and I actually like the game. But... I only played my copy once. Almost all my plays were with other people’s copies or on Yucata. I just couldn’t justify the space it took up and I sold it. And, in the years since I did that, I have never had a reason to regret that.

But making adding a copy of Corinth to my binder of Roll and Writes makes me very happy. It’ll cost me virtually nothing and take up no storage space. True, I won’t have a nice-box or wooden camels but price-reward ratio on those doesn’t make that much of a loss.

There are games that I have kept smaller, simpler versions of because, for as much as I’d ever play them, that’s enough for me. I got rid of Elfenland but kept King of the Elves. Skyline 3000 went away but I still have Clocktowers. I never ended up getting Tigress and Euphrates but I am happy to have Euphrates and Tigress : Contest of Kings. I appreciate the larger versions and I know the smaller versions aren’t as rich and detailed. But as games I didn’t even play once a year, having the smaller versions is enough for me.

Corinth might be a profoundly extreme example of that. From what I can see, you lose having a central board to fight over and action cards. But those two losses might balance each other out. I am curious to see if Corinth is close enough to Yspahan that I don’t care at all. (I will make the fan made scoring card expansion since it’s just one more page)

And, quite frankly, it might be easier to get on the table. All we need is dice and minimal table space. That’s a lot easier to handle at the end of a busy day. Corinth might end up seeing much more play than Yspahan ever did.

I don’t miss my copy of Yspahan but I am looking forward to making a copy of Corinth.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Fritz Leiber couldn’t imitate Lovecraft

Near the start of the year, I tried to read Fritz Leiber’s The Terror from the Depths. It was a short story I’d never heard of, even though I’ve been reading Leiber for over thirty years. I tried again and got through it. As an intellectual curiousity , it was interesting but I didn’t think much of it as a work of fiction.

Something I hadn't  known until I read about the story in my second go is that Fritz Leiber and H. P. Lovecraft  corresponded near the end of Lovecraft’s life. I wasn’t surprised since Lovecraft collected pen pals the way some people collect stamps but I hadn’t known Leiber was one of them. 

Leiber started the story in 1937, the same year that Lovecraft died. In fact, Lovecraft’s death is part of the story, which makes me really wonder if Lovecraft’s death was the impetus for the story. Which didn’t get finished until 1975.

The actual plot is easy to describe. A sensitive, artistic type discovers dark secrets of the eldritch universe, which includes his own lineage. Eventually, said revelations lead to his horrible demise. It does include winged, eyeless serpents who swim through the earth and has might actually be the dreams of dread Cthulhu unleashed. That’s a new touch to the mythic, albeit one that hasn’t been reused Tommy knowledge.

 But there are two things that make the story a slog.

Leiber wrote some brilliant works. The Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories, Conjure Wife, Our Lady of Darkness. But one of the things that really marks is work is how grounded his style is. No matter how fantastic the situation is, there is a level tone, almost deflating the wonder. Leiber imitating Lovecraft’s purple prose is working against his strengths.

And there are soooo many references to Lovecraft’s works. An annotated version of The Terror from the Depths would be half again as long. Even Lovecraft himself is referenced. It bogs the story down and actually lessens the mystery and horror.

Frankly, the story behind the story interests me more. What exactly inspired Leiber to write this? Why did it take so long? What did it means to him and what was he trying to say?

If the Terror from the Deeps has been written by someone I’d never heard of, it would have been utterly forgettable. But since it was by Fritz Leiber and ties into his personal relationship with Lovecraft, reading it was a fascinating experience. 

Monday, May 11, 2020

Claim It - not fancy but gets the job done

Have I really not already written about Claim It? I guess I haven’t. Well, it’s a game that got off to a shaky start for me but it’s one that has been in regular rotation with my Yucata crew.

While it’s themed around looking for good in the American Wild West, Claim It is actually an extremely abstract dice game. The board is a six by six grid and each player has six tokens marked one to six. On your turn, you get to roll three dice. You use two of the dice as coordinates and you place the token that matches the third die. You can roll as much as you like but you lose all the progress you made if you can’t place a token. If you end without busting, you swap out your numbers with tokens in your color.

If you can place where you already have a token, it’s marked with a black token as well and it’s claimed. You can steal other people’s spots but not if they’re claimed. Game ends when a player reaches a critical number of claims and the winner is whoever has the largest contiguous group of tokens. 

If I’ve done a bad job describing Claim It, trust me when I say you’d get it after one round of play.

When we first played Claim It last year, I wondered why it had taken someone so long to create the game. What? It was originally published in 2006? Well, why did it take someone so long to develop it? Claim It is effectively Can’t Stop on a grid and that came out in 1980.

My initial response to Claim It was meh. It seemed, well, so basic. But, as the months went by, we kept on going back to it. Claim It is very intuitive and it’s very ‘structurally’ sound. It has an nice mix of reasonable decisions and risk taking. Truth to tell, this might be an example of abstraction as a strength. Claim It is built entirely on its mechanics and those are good enough to stand on their own.

Claim It doesn’t really sparkle. But two of my Yucata buddies have gotten physical copies and I’d be tempted if I saw one. It isn’t my new favorite dice game or abstract game. But I will keep on playing it.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Very early impressions of Nytelyfe Solitaire

I don’t know what to think of Nytelyfe Solitaire. It is currently free from PnP Arcade so I picked it up and tried it out. Technically, it is a PnP game since there are five placeholder cards (which I did print out and laminate) but it’s almost entirely a game that uses regular cards. I could have just scribbled the names on five scraps of paper.

I honestly haven’t tried as many games that use a regular deck of cards as I probably should have. I do view them as a subcategory of PnP, particularly in the case of games like Nytelyfe Solitaire that, while 100% abstract, still have a theme and rules that reflect that theme.

In Nytelyfe Solitaire, you are trying to survive the night in Las Vegas, dealing with high stake games and high-end clubs and vampires. Okay, what was the last one? Part of me wonders if the Vampire column was originally something a bit more mundane. 

Here’s the gist of the game: there are five areas that will become columns of cards as the game goes on. Each turn, you draw five cards without looking at them and, one at a time, reveal and place them in each area. Each area has a different set of rules and may cause cards to be flipped over. The game ends when you have a certain number of cards face down (depending on the difficulty you choose) or you run through the deck. You score points based on the number of face-up cards in the You and Diamond Club columns with twenty being a perfect score.

I haven’t played the game enough to figure out how much real decision making power you really have. Luck obviously plays a part and a bad turn can really affect your end score. (For instance, the Diamond Club will only score diamond cards so drawing five diamonds in a turn will cost you four points) But I also think that between card counting and a general understanding of probability, there  will he room for good play. I think you have some control.

I also like that it does have a theme and creates a story. That adds a lot to my enjoyment and interest in playing the game. The theme is why I keep playing The Shooting Party and I’m pretty sure Nytelyfe Solitaire is a better game than The Shooting Party. I don’t think it’s as good as The Bogey (or Lamarkian Poker for non-solitaire play) but it’s promising.

I don’t yet know if Nytelyfe Solitaire has the legs for a lot of replay but it was a fun surprise.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

My Little Castle isn’t magic for me

I realized recently that it had been weeks since I taught myself a new game. Which isn’t that extraordinary (years ago it would have been) but I have gotten into the habit of making little solitaire games so I do have a library of games to try out.

So I pulled out My Little Castle and played a handful of games. I’d made it earlier this year and had been meaning to try it.

My Little Castle is a tile-laying game where the tiles are rhombuses where the two acute triangles that form the rhombus are the each specific terrain types. Like side has to go with like side and you are trying to form empty spaces in the shape of triangles and hexagons. 

It can be played solitaire or multi-player. One touch I liked in my solitaire plays is that you use three draw piles and you discard the top tiles of the piles you didn’t pick if they share a terrain type with the tile you did pick.

Okay. Here’s the brutal truth. The two most interesting things about My Little Castle are that it uses rhombuses and the component sheet is just one page. There’s nothing broken or wrong with the game but there’s also nothing that really grabbed me about it either. It didn’t have that spark.

When I want a quick little tile-laying game, I usually play Autumn or Ambagibus. If I want something with a little more meat, I go with Orchard or Micro Rome or the Architect. There’s nothing about My Little Castle that would make me choose it over those games.

(At some point, I read in someone else’s blog about the Autumn test. If a PnP game made folks ask ‘Why aren’t we playing Autumn?’, it failed the test. I don’t see My Little Castle passing the test for most people. It doesn’t for me.)

 As usual, I am glad that I made and tried My Little Castle. Part of my interest in PnP is looking at different ideas and games. From that standpoint, it was rewarding. However, if you were to ask me to recommend a PnP project that uses rhombuses, I’d suggest Cronberg.

Exploring Yucata as a teaching tool

A friend of mine recently asked me about board gaming online. He’s an educator and is hoping to use board games as a one more item in his tool box for teaching online.

I recommended Yucata to him for a number of reasons. It’s free. It has a nice selection of games. And, unlike many sites like Steam or the Apple Game Center, since you don’t have to buy individual games, everyone has access to the same library of games. Plus, some of his students are German so being a German website with a German language option was also a plus for Yucata.

One downside is that Yucata doesn’t have a lot of games for larger groups. Two-to-four players is one of its strengths. Looking for a easy-to-teach game that can handle at least five players led to limited to options. I suggested he and I play a game of Claim It live so he could try the site out.

(In retrospect, I should have suggested Las Vegas. That probably would have suited his needs better and supported one more player. In my defense, I play Claim It a lot more)

So we sat down and logged onto Yucata and Zoom at the same time so we could talk our way through a game. I will say that explaining a game is a lot easier when you can actually pick up pieces and show folks how moves work. That said, we had a good time and he had a much better idea how to use Yucata by the time we were done.

It’s fun to get in a game with a friend but helping them out is a big deal.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Comfort food in the form of books and games

I find comfort food is a good analogy for both my reading and solitaire gaming habits during lockdown. Covid 19 is adding enough stress and complications to life that I don’t feel like adding challenging to my decompression.

Both L. Sprague de Camp and Rex Stout have featured in my casual reading during this time, which goes to show that comfort reading doesn’t have to mean garbage reading. I will say that it’s fascinating to read about Nero Wolfe, who practices extreme social distancing by choice, when the real world has to do that. Of course, his life style does require the rest of the world to be in good working order.

Gaming-wise, particularly since life usually gives me about five minutes for a solitaire  session, my recent interest in Roll and Write has come in handy. Set up consisting of grabbing dice and a dry erase marker is nice. They make for very nice ‘comfort food’ since they can hold a lot in a small amount of components.

And there are some really good Roll and Write games out there. I have gotten a lot of mileage out of That’s Pretty Clever during this time. While I have said Qwixx is the game that fires Yahtzee for non-gamers, That’s Pretty Clever is the game that fires Yahtzee for gamers.

But there’s a lot more Roll and Writes out there,  including tons of free PnP games. Now, I will fully admit that the Roll and Writes I’ve actually paid for are better most of the time than the free ones, the variety is really nice. Right now, they are perfect when we’re limited in where we can go and what we can get. And when comfort foods can be essential.

Friday, May 1, 2020

My April PnP

April was a month. Lockdown. Home schooling. Life through zoom. Despite being home all the time, we didn’t have much actual spare time. However, I did get in some crafting.

This is what I made:

Trekkie in my Pocket
Pont D’Avignon 
Unlocked (demo)
Splat (2019 PnP Contest)

That’s actually even less than I remembered. I did do a lot of downloading and initial printing so I guess I’ve been busier than my actual competition rate would indicate.

My ‘big’ project for April was Trekkie in my Pocket, also known as Star a Trek in my Pocket. It’s a reskin of Zombie in my Pocket that has almost no mechanical changes. It’s themed around the original Star Trek but a little incoherently. The Enterprise has apparently been invaded by Klingons, Romulans, Salt Vampires, Gorn and a whole lot more. Is this the Captain Kirk a revenge Squad as opposed to representatives of their individual governments?

What really sold me on making it, though, was that the tiles as well as the actual cards are full-sized cards. When I made Raider in my Pocket, the components were so small I had trouble actually using them to play. Trekkie in Space solves that problem nicely.

We were going to take our son to a Mystery Room but that all got canceled with the lockdown. So I decided make a copy of Unlock’s demo with the thought of trying it out and seeing if that is a similar enough experience. If it is, we might make more scenarios since Asmode currently has them available.

I have a feeling that I’ll be laminating a bunch of Roll and Write sheets in May because that’s a game genre that I’ve found really handy during lockdown.