Tuesday, June 30, 2020

Yeah, now I let authors finish writing

As I have grown older, I become more and more reluctant to start a series if all the books haven’t been written yet.

I’m still young enough that it’s not because I’m worried about me dying before a series is completed. And it’s mostly not because I’m afraid the author will die before they can finish. (I do want George RR Martin to keep writing for many more years, though)

Yes, Robert Jordan and the Wheel of Time series actually doesn’t have a role in this realization. I dropped the Wheel of Time three for four books in, the first couple books were engaging but then I felt like the story began dragging for the sake of making every book capable to reinforcing the supporting beam of a house. Padding for the sake of world building I can get behind but it just felt it was padding for page count. (Feel free to disagree with me)

No, the biggest reason I decided to try and only read series that have been completed is that if I wait years in between books, I can’t remember who was who or what was going on. 

At least with TV shows, I theoretically have to wait less than a year in between seasons.

Serial heroes, like Harry Dresden, also don’t count because each story is reasonably standalone. I’m not looking at one story spread out over two to eight books but different stories that just happen to have the same setting and cast. (And, yes, past events affect later books but the stance remains the same. I don’t have to read every issue that Peter Parker appears in to understand a Spider-Man story)

I read the first few A Series of Unfortunate Events books as they came out and I got distracted by life and other events and fell away just when the author got a contract and could create a larger story arc. Sitting down and reading the whole series from scratch over eight months worked so much better.

So, basically, I now want to read any given series within a year’s time so I don’t forget too much.

Monday, June 29, 2020

Does a Nero Wolfe RPG already exist?

He’s an agoraphobic genius and gourmet who can solve any mystery without leaving his desk. He’s a wiseacre hardboiled detective who actually goes out and gets the clues. Together, they fight crime... for a fee.

I am a big fan of the Nero Wolfe stories and I’ve been falling back on them for comfort reading while the world has been upside down. (And fine, quality comfort reading it is!) Let’s face it. Nero Wolfe is serious escapist reading. Nero Wolfe lives in a luxurious brownstone, eats over-the-top gourmet meals, never has to leave the house, has a greenhouse that rivals most botanical gardens and always gets the murderer.

I feel like there must be a solid two-person Nero Wolfe RPG out there with one person taking the Wolfe role and someone else taking the Archie Goodwin role.

In my mind’s eye, I picture the players taking turns being the GM. The Archie player creates a client and the Nero player has to interview them. The Nero player has to create investigation scenes that the Archie player has to deal with suspects and clues. A final scene back in the brownstone office where the two players work together to put everything into an explanation.  Maybe players have clue tokens they exchange in order to keep the tempo going.

The thing is, I’m sure this system exists. I’m not saying someone who is much better than I am at game design should go out and make it. I’m saying I think it is already out there, minus the Nero Wolfe theme, and I just can’t place it.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

PnP reminds me I haven’t read Orlando Furioso

I decided to make a copy of Astolfo on the Moon almost entirely based on the theme, which is the bit from Orlando Furioso where Astolfo, a knight who rides a (borrowed?) hippogriff, flies Elijah’s flaming chariot to moon to bring back Orlando’s sanity back in a bottle.

I haven’t actually read Orlando Furioso but I have seen it referenced so many times over the years. It’s one of those poems that influenced literature for centuries. Frankly, it has always struck me as a weird mashup between King Arthur and Baron Munchausen. As a modern reader of modern fantasy, it feels like it breaks so many rules because those rules didn’t exist when it was written. Which is totally unfair since it _wasn’t_ written as a fantasy. (If anyone wants to correct my views on Orlando Furioso, feel free. As I said, I _really_ don’t know it)

The game is a nine-card game from this year’s nine-card PnP contest. Each card has an image and quote from the poem and the corner of each double-sided card has a number on it, one to six. It’s a tile-laying game where you connect the cards via their corners and the numbers have to add up to seven to be a legal connection.

You win if the last card, which is always the Ampoule card (the bottle holding Orlando’s sanity), is connected to one of the two Astolfo cards. (While the Ampoule card is always the last card, you still shuffle it in to determine which side you use in the game) If you don’t get it in the first go, you get a second go but using the same cards in the same order. Then it really becomes a puzzle to solve, often snaking the cards around to create that final connection.

Astolfo on the Moon has grown on me more than I expected. I really expected it to be ‘well, I didn’t pay for the files so it’s okay’. But the mechanics create an interesting enough puzzle for me to come back to it. I don’t think it will have long legs for me but I was expecting to be done after a couple plays. 

Still, the theme does all the heavy lifting as far as my engagement goes. The use of imagery and poetry and even incorporating the theme into the mechanics with Astolfo  needing to find the Ampoule basically creates my interest in the game. If it was a pure abstract with numbered cards and shapes for symbols, I’d have forgotten about it already.

I freely admit that I hold PnP games that are free and fan-made to a different standard. Among other things, I view them as being prototypes, albeit possibly perpetual prototypes. Astolfo on the Moon honestly doesn’t pass the threshold for a ‘published’ PnP for me but I appreciate how it got me to think about Orlando Furioso.

Monday, June 22, 2020

PnP Arcade’s prototype zone enhances its PnP experience

PnP Arcade has recently introduced a new section to their catalog, the prototype zone. It’s where you can download free prototypes of games with the option of giving the designers some feedback.

I like PnP Arcade and, more and more, it feels like a model of my print and play experiences. Many of the publishers that I have explored for PnP files are there. The guy who runs it is also in charge of Button Shy so naturally that’s there but there’s also Jelly Bean and Good Little Games and Metal Snail and many others in the catalog.

I’ve also seen older games ‘reprinted’, which is actually very nice. Yes, I already have the files but I have spent a silly amount of time on Boardgame Geek and other sites looking for PnP games. Actually being able to easily find some of these games is big help to the hobby. The most surprising story older game I found is Gro, which I bought in a hard copy form in a gallon baggy at Gen Con back when it was still in Milwaukee. (It was a different time)

But, as I have gotten more and more into PnP as a hobby, I have come to view games that are not from publishers as prototypes. That creates a very different criteria for what I’m looking for. I don’t approach them as a polished and highly play-tested game. Instead, they are a source of new ideas and questions. They are part of a process and it’s fun to be part of the process.

So PnP Arcade having a prototype section is one more way that I think it lets people explore the PnP experiences.

Thursday, June 18, 2020

Word Chain is tiny but you create the replay value

I just learned that Word Chain has had an official, extended version released. (Thank you for the weekly emails, PnP Arcade) And I do intend to take a look at it but I decided that this was a good excuse to look back at the original version from the 2019 9-Card contest.

Word Chain is a word game that consists of one score track card and eight double-sided rule cards. It can be played as a competitive game, a cooperative game or as a solitaire game. Word Chain exists in  that nebulous world between word games and party games.

As you might have gathered, there’s a variety of ways to play the game but here’s the core concept. Each card face has two rules on it (handily marked one and two) Starting with a two-syllable word that the active player picks, you draw two cards and you have to come up with a new word that follows the two rules. All of the rules relate to the active word, like starting or ending with the same letter and so on. The new word becomes the active word and you draw two more cards. And so on. Thus, the words chain together.

What makes Word Chain work is that the game just gives you a framework and you provide the content. Between the arbitrariness of the word selection and the sufficient randomly selection of the rules, it would be hard to create a formula to ‘solve’ the game, which gives it a lot of replay value, particularly for nine cards. 

Of course, you’re not into words or vocabulary, Word Chain is a non-starter. I’d say even more so than Scrabble or Boggle which at least give you specific letters to work with. But word is in the name so you have been warned.

I have looked at a lot of PnP micro games and some of them have fit into the world of party games, one way or another. Sometimes, the value of those games is primarily that they are tiny and portable. A party game that fits into a wallet is genuinely useful.

But Word Chain is actually a clever enough game that I am prepared to argue that the gameplay itself overshadows the fact that it’s tiny. It’s an interesting challenge. It’s not amazing or the best word/party game I’ve ever played but it feels bigger than nine cards with legitimate replay value. Word Play is a game I enjoy enough to suggest and share.

I am curious to see what the expanded game is like. It doesn’t look like it’s that much bigger. I’m curious to see if a little more is better or if nine cards was the right size after all.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Did I just read Tiger King for fifth graders?

I actually hadn’t planned on writing about Belly Up and the Fun Jungle series but the horrible Artemis Fowl movie made me realize how it avoids several of the pitfalls I’ve seen in kids books. So here I go. You can stop reading now if you feel like it.

I had very low expectations when I decided to read Belly Up, the first book the the Fun Jungle series by Stuart Gibbs. A young adult book about a kid who lives in ‘the world’s largest safari park’ and solves mysteries? Dear lord, the elevator pitch sounds hokey.  I expected a wish-fulfillment, too-good-too-be-true-setting and adults who were too dumb to chew bubblegum, let alone walk at the same time.

While the titular Fun Jungle is still too good to be true, there was more cynical realism than I was expecting. There is animal abuse, smuggling, corruption, greed and just plain stupidity. Other than the main character’s parents, every adult is flawed, often with ugly secrets. It’d be false advertising but you could call it Tiger King for sixth graders.

In the first book, Teddy has to deal with the murder of the park’s mascot hippo, which causes a lot of other nastiness to come to the surface. I’m not spoiling anything since the hippo dies in the first chapter and is a rather mean beast anyway (possibly to make it easier for a younger audience to accept an animal’s death but it also adds a lot of possible motives)

Along the way, we get some discussions about conservation, some interesting animal facts and some healthy cynicism. All done in a conversational tone so it doesn’t feel too forced or obvious. It still is forced and obvious but what  else would you expect from educational entertainment for middle schoolers?

More than that, many young adult books I’ve read have the grown-ups act like incompetent fools in order to make the kids look smart and get anything done and not get killed. If I went into examples, it would be enough to write another blog. But while the adults in Belly Up can be greedy, arrogant or corrupt, only the security guard Marge is actually incompetent. Functional adults made the book more believable and tense.

Belly Up isn’t the best young adult I’ve ever read. Things ends up far too nicely and neatly resolved to be believable. (If the next book starts with Teddy being named in a ton of lawsuits for what happened during the hippo’s funeral, I retract that statement) But I went in expecting garbage and I left planning on reading the next book.

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Artemis Fowl fails several fundamental requirements of being a movie

We recently watched the Artemis Fowl movie to vet it for our six-year-old. We didn’t think it would be inappropriate. We just weren’t sure if it would be something he’d enjoy. And we are glad we did because it is a really awful movie.

I am a reader first and foremost but I try very hard not to be one of those people who automatically say the book is better. Movies can be better. (The 1939 film version of the Wizard of Oz is not just better than the book, it is the definitive version of the work. Fight me.) Movies are allowed to be completely different than the book. A ‘name only’ movie version is just fine AS LONG AS IT STILL WORKS AS ENTERTAINMENT!

I’m actually not that big a fan of the Artemis Fowl books. I read the first couple when they came out (Wow, almost twenty years ago!?) and thought they were okay. Honestly, they struck me as kind of juvenile in the sense that the adults and adult-equivalents seemed dumb and incompetent and merciful so Artemis could seem smart and not get killed before halfway through the first book. (I recently read the first book in the Fun Jungle series and was surprised that that was not the case) They were amusing fluff but no Harry Potter.

So I wouldn’t have minded that the powers that be changed Artemis from an amoral and genuine criminal who slowly develops a moral compass to a bland hero if the movie would have made any sense. But the plot does not make any sense.

I don’t want to give away spoilers (beyond DON’T WATCH THIS MOVIE) but the framing device doesn’t make any sense, either from a story or a world building structure. Among other things, Artemis’s master plan hinges on LEPRECHAUN doing several incredibly specific things and someone very specific walking down just the right hall, when not even Artemis knows which hall that is. The fairy technology acts completely differently depending on what the drama needs. (I refuse to sully the word plot using it) And the end resolution that is supposed to solve most of the ongoing problems shouldn’t solve most of them.

And that’s not going into character development which is relentlessly told, never shown.

The only thing I can say for the movie is Josh Gad and Dame Judi Dench were fun to watch and that should go without saying so it doesn’t really count.

The movie I found myself comparing Artemis Fowl to was, of all things, Constantine. I felt that Keanu Reeves did not resemble to John Constantine that Jamie Delaney and Garth Ennis introduces me to (I bought issues 40 and 41 at the same time, boy was that the start of a wild ride) and the movie is meh. But it makes enough sense to make it watchable! (Mostly by using Garth Ennis’s Dangerous Habits storyline wholesale)

Like I said, I try not to be a purist. A movie can change things. Sometimes, it should change things. But, first and foremost, it has to be a good movie.

Saturday, June 13, 2020

Thank you for the great comics, Denny O’Neil

Dennis O’Neil passed away on June 11, 2020.

The guy contributed more to the world of comic books as a writer and editor than I can summarize without making this blog entry way too long. He wrote the classic socially-conscious Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories, gave Frank Miller how break on Daredevil, completely overhauled the Question into a great character and came up with the name Optimus Prime.

But the single biggest thing he did was make Batman serious. In the early 1970s, he removed the more light-hearted and fantastic elements from Batman, making the stories more grim and gritty, as well as more street level. He redefined Batman into the damaged, obsessed character that he has been for going on fifty years.

His work on Batman has informed literally every single version of the character since then.

So, yeah, Denny O’Neil was a big deal.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Scott Almes gave the world a nifty solitaire game

Food Chain Island was one of those games that I learned about, printed out and made a copy and played within the same twenty-four hour period.  Yes, it helped that it was only eighteen cards without any other components and had a simple rule set but that’s still faster than my usual process.

It’s a Scott Almes design (quite possibly the simplest design I’ve seen from him by a fair margin) and the first of a new subsection of Button Shy’s Wallet line, Simply Solo. The idea behind the Simply Solo line is to make solitaire games that are easy to learn and have lots of replay value. Spoiler: Food Chain Island is a good start as far as that mission statement goes.

The base game consists of eighteen cards and no other components: sixteen numbered animal cards and two special action cards. The announced expansions will add more special action cards. The core concept of the game is that you lay out the numbered cards in a grid and bigger animals can move onto animals 1-3 numbers smaller than them and eat them. Your goal is to down to one to three stacks of cards, the fewer the better.

Of course, there’s a clever bit. Every animal has some kind of special effect that goes off after it eats something. It can be moving other cards, making the next move be diagonal and such. Sometimes it can be helpful and sometimes it can be a restriction. The polar bear, for instance, requires the next move NOT be with the polar bear. Honestly, in most cases, it’s up to you to arrange the board to make the special move an advantage. The extra cards let you do some kind of extra move.

Okay. First things first. No, there is absolutely nothing original in Food Chain Island. The basic structure of the game is Peg Solitaire, which is over three hundred years old. And probably thousands of games have special powers at this point. Food Chain Island isn’t going to be remembered as Scott Almes greatest game. (Tiny Epic Galaxies is AWESOME)

None of that matters because Food Chain Island delivers on the mission statement of being an accessible and enjoyable solitaire game that has plenty of replay value. The fact that you’ve seen all the mechanics before is actually a point in its favor. It’s easy to pick up AND it’s easy to keep on playing. 

Food Chain Island reminds me a lot of one my favorite fidget games, Murderer’s Row, which has a very similar idea of reducing cards with special powers only in a straight line. Food Chain Island uses a two-dimensional space to work with.

Scott Almes didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. He took tried and true mechanics and applied them to make a game that I can’t play just once in a sitting. It’s not a deep or heavy game but it is explicitly not meant to be. If you like having little solitaire games to fidget with, Food Chain Island is a game to look at.

Monday, June 8, 2020

What Douglas Adams and Klaus Teuber have in common

Rereading the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for the upteenth time, I realized that I have pretty much the same relationship with that book as I have with Settlers of Catan.

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is a fine work but it’s impact on my life was heavily compounded by first reading it when I was still in the single digits and at a time when science fiction was still struggling to break into the mainstream. We now live in an age where fantasy and science fiction are routinely in the best seller lists, there have been multiple Star Trek TV shows, super heroes are an actual movie genre and my fellow US citizens have actually heard of Doctor Who. None of that was true when I first read the Hitchhiker’s et al. I’d never seen anything like it before, in part because there really wasn’t anything like it for me to see.*

Settlers of Catan was my introduction to the broader world of designer board games. My experiences before it were abstracts and war games. A modular board? Everyone gets to do something every turn? It takes less than two hours to play? It was a revelation.

While there were other games coming in from Europe, it was still very much a super niche world. At the time, I only found games like Settlers of Catan on a table in the back of the nearest gaming shop behind shelves of unpainted lead figures. It was a new world. If not for the internet, it would have been nearly impossible to explore.

I still think that Settlers of Catan is a fine game and still one of the best trading mechanics I’ve played. But if I hadn’t tried it back then and Puerto Rico or Carcassonne has been my gateway and played Catan for the first time last week, I don’t think it would have close to the same impact. If I read Hitchhiker’s et al now for the first time, it’d be fun but not a game changer.

A work can be great and even age very well. However, it will be still be living in the new world it created.

*A very debatable statement but earlier science fiction comedy seems to fall more into satire.

Thursday, June 4, 2020

Italo Calvino and dungeon crawls

I have been crafting a couple of micro crawls (MiniSkull Caverns and 8-Bit Dungeon, in case you are curious) while reading Time and the Hunter by Italo Calvino, which has been a weird combination of head spaces. 

Time and the Hunter is sort of, kind of the second volume of Cosmicomics. It definitely contains some Cosmicomic stories but other parts deconstruct life and space and time in a little less whimsical way. Does DNA’s programming mean there is no present or future or free will but only a constant repackaging of the past? Is a traffic jam one contiguous entity that offers no options for any part or is there a way to create your own piece of time and space within its confines? Did Calvino read the same Count of Monte Cristo that my Classic Comics edition was based on?

Dungeon crawls have been a part of board games, video games and role playing games for decades. (I remember an early edition of Tunnels and Trolls outright describing the setting as a world of dungeons) You would think of the dungeon crawl as a dead horse at this point but it’s clearly not.

And that’s because it is so effective and simple as a narrative structure. Dungeons crawls are a way of setting one challenge after another in a way that makes sense. There’s a lot of room for nuance, don’t get me wrong. I have some friends who argue that Keep on the Borderlands (one of the ur-adventures of D&D) should be played as a diplomatic adventure.

That said, I remember more than one D&D campaign where we all relaxed when we hit a dungeon. No more political intrigue or wilderness journeys. Just a good, old fashioned dungeon crawl full of combat and treasure.

But with Calvino in my mind, I find myself thinking of a dungeon as a microcosm, as a tiny universe that ends with the dungeon walls. And with some dungeon crawls, like the ones I just finished making copies of, the dungeon is indeed all the real estate and the universe that exists for he game.

More than that, with so many dungeon crawls, each area is its own encounter. Each room is its own event, unrelated to any of the other rooms. You only take the treasure and the damage from room to room. (And,yes, any game master worth their salt isn’t going to run a dungeon like that. I remember dungeons where the first fight managed to draw most of the inhabitants out as waves of reinforcements)

But if a game is ‘programmed’ without a game master, which can be the case in board or video or even role playing game, having each encounter be a singular entity is a mechanically sound choice. It makes play manageable.

So now, I am not just seeing a dungeon as entire tiny universe unrelated to anything beyond itself, each area is its own singular moment in time. Time doesn’t become one event after another, not a continuity of events. Instead, time is determined by geography.

I am currently seeing a dungeon crawl as a deconstruction of time and space, thanks to Italo Calvino. The when is not important. The where might not be important either. All that is significant is that an event occurs.

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

Fishing on the Blackjack River

Many themed card-games are really just twists on traditional cards, particularly ones that actually use traditional cards. (I’m looking at the you Lamarkian Poker ;D) The Blackjack River doesn’t even try to hide that fact. It’s a solitaire Blackjack variant.

The basic idea of the game is that you are making four columns of cards and you get to wipe and score a column if it equals exactly twenty-one. But here’s the clever bit: the face cards don’t add to the total but subtract one, two or three from said total. You also get bonus points from columns having sets or flushes but the face cards subtracting numbers is the actually interesting mechanic.

I am of two minds about The Blackjack River. On the one hand, it didn’t really grab me. On the other hand, I actually found it more mechanically sound and it felt like I had more control over the game than I expected.

Non-traditional games that use traditional decks of cards have a bigger hurtle to overcome than games with specialized components. And that’s coming from a guy who lives game systems and PnP and Cheapass Games. The fishing theme of The Blackjack River works but it doesn’t really create a real hook. The Shooting Party, in comparison, isn’t as good mechanically but the theme does keep get me more engaged.

On the other hand, I was surprised at how much control I felt I had with The Blackjack River. I half expected the game to play itself. But between the multiple  columns and the flexibility the face cards offered, I felt there were meaningful choices. Yes, luck of the draw is king but my score would be much worse if I just randomly tossed down cards. The game did give me something to do.

The Blackjack River is more interesting than I expected. I feel like it is 95% of the way to being an engaging solitaire game.

Tuesday, June 2, 2020

The virtual world for coping and socializing

The virtual realm has always been a part of my gaming life, ever since I basically discovered the bigger world of board games beyond Monopoly and war games. But it has gotten even bigger over the last few months of lockdowns and other restrictions.

Not because my online habits have changed. I have been steady in my Yucata habits for years. No, it is because some of my friends have either become much more active or active at all on Yucata. I’ve interacted with some folks more than I have in years. (They do live in other states so we have geography as an excuse for being out of touch)

And I have other friends who have started online game nights, facilitated by zoom. I have had some games facilitated by zoom as well, for that matter. The options that are open to us are vast compared to when I first logged on to BSW fifteen or more years ago.

That said, it took some time for my circle to start reforming into online patterns. Part of it was all of us just realizing that the world had turned upside down, that it was actually happening. And then, I think we needed to realize the need for it.

Online gaming as an alternative to face-to-face gaming is not the same and, quite frankly, not as good. In addition to losing the tactile element of physical gaming, you also lose a lot of the unspoken communication. And what remains is distorted. Studies have shown that digital conferencing with people’s faces effectively in your face is unsettling on a subconscious level.

Still, it definitely beats having no connections with each other, not to mention no gaming. And I do think it helps us adjust as the rest of the world keeps changing.

Monday, June 1, 2020

My May PnP

May was a month for Print and Play for me. After I didn’t do that much in April, Print and Play crafting became a lot more of a stress reliever for me. While a lot of what I made just involved laminating Roll and Write sheets, May will probably end up being the high water mark for number of games I craft in 2020.

Here’s what I made:

Alien Horde
And Time Passes
Mushroom Ale (Legends of Dsyx)
Super-Skill Pinball: Carniball
Tower of Mages (Legends of Dsyx)
Nytelyfe Solitaire
Bandido Covid-19
Lost Artifact (2018 Solitaire Contest)
Micro Rome w/Aegyptus expansion
ColorCombo demo
Dobbler Demo
Thunder Visitors
Kingdom Maps
Rolling Village
Goblins, Guns and Grog (Legends of Dsyx)
Fairy Fair (Legends of Dsyx)
Derelict Dirigible (Legends of Dsyx)
Lockpicks (Legends of Dsyx)

One of my monthly goals is to make at least one ‘big’ project. Since I am a lazy crafter, my threshold for a larger project is at least three pages worth of components. This month, three projects counted for that: Alien Horde, Bandido Covid-19 and Micro Rome when you include the expansion. (Yes, I remade the base game so I wouldn’t have to sort out the expansion cards if I just wanted to play the base game)

However, what might have been my big accomplishment for the month was laminating all of the Legends fo Dsyx games I hadn’t already laminated. I’d been spacing out laminating them but I decided that I should stop doing that so I can work on actually playing them.

As usual, the next goal is to actually play some of these games :D