Friday, July 31, 2020

My first virtual convention of the year turns out to be for Pokémon Go :D

The one virtual convention that I have actually attended so far in 2020 wasn’t for either board games or role playing games but for a casual video game, Pokémon Go. Pokémon GoFest 2020. Mind you, part of the reason it worked for me was because it was a casual game that I didn’t need to set aside a designated time to participate. I could also do it with my wife, which was a big plus.

Lockdown parenthood doesn’t allow for extended downtime, which is why I have yet to play a game of Scythe online despite meaning to for months. (Plus trying time remember how to play and use the interface :P) But a casual video game that is designed to be played in tiny bursts, that’s a lot easier to do.

That said, it was really the fact that I could do it with my wife and it was a family activity that really made it work for us.

While we had fun finding shiny Pokémon and fighting Team Rocket as they flew around in balloons (Niantic has worked hard on making a game based on geo caching still work when you can’t go anywhere), the real highlight was using the invite function of remote raid passes so we could play with folks we haven’t seen in months.

The last message of the event was about playing under the same sky. Virtual conventions are a shadow of in-person conventions but they are all about community.

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Why did nobody tell me about McAuslan?

How have I spent decades actively reading and only found out about the McAuslan stories a month or so ago? A famous series by George MacDonald Fraser, it apparently influenced later authors like Terry Pratchett. The stories consist of Fraser tweaking his experiences as an officer just after World War II just enough to make them fictional and funny. 

As I have often written, since 2020 has been such a stressful year (for everyone!) and I‘ve been on the lookout for decompressing reading. Which, curiously enough doesn’t necessarily mean fluff. I’ve been reading heaps of L. Sprague de Camp who certainly has a lot of joy in his writing but there’s meaning there too.

(Oddly enough, Wodehouse, one of my favorite authors and a master of frothy writing, has not worked for me. Maybe I’ve read so much of him that my tolerance is too high?)

Back to George McDonald Fraser. So I read The General Danced at Dawn, the first McAuslan collection. The stories are actually about the narrator, Lieutenant Dand MacNeill, who is in a Scottish Battalion that manages to live up to most of stereotypes of Scotland. McAuslan, the dirtiest soldier in the world, isn’t even featured in half the stories but, boy, is he memorable when he dies show up.

The stories are an undeniably biased view of the British army in the 1950s with each story being about another misadventure that have to be muddled though. And that might be why the stories worked so well for me right now. They are grounded in reality, in Fraser’s actual experiences. But things do work out and problems do get solved. It’s a view of an imperfect world but a hopeful one. It actually takes me back to stories I heard from veterans as a child.

From what I’ve read, Fraser had an old fashioned view of the world, particularly in regards to woman and minorities and some people of that bleeds through. I do keep that in mind as I read his works. It’s not flawless but he has a great voice and there’s some stuff to ponder.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Wow, Howard Tayler finished Schlock Mercenary

On July 24, 2020, Howard Tayler wrapped up Schlock Mercenary, after slightly more than twenty years of daily webcomics. And it really was daily, without any gaps. And Sundays were extra big comic strips on top of that.

Beyond saying that Schlock Mercenary was a satirical dramedy about an intergalactic mercenary corp in a dystopian (or at least cynical) future, it’s hard for me to really describe the series. There is just too much. Too many plot elements and twists, too many characters, too many tears, too many jokes.

As near as I can tell, I read it regularly for thirteen years, although I did go back and read the story up to that point. I may very well may try and go back and reread the entire run, one volume at a time to make it manageable. Maybe after that, it won’t make my head spin trying to keep all the details straight :P

Reading Schlock Mercenary every morning has been part of my daily wake up routine. It does feel weird not having it there but, boy does Howard Tayler deserve a break. He has said he has more stories to tell in the setting and I do look forward to them. But if he needs to take a five-year break, the man has definitely earned it!

Friday, July 24, 2020

Yeah, I still love Ingenious

Okay. I decided to participate in a recent geek list about favorite games:

It is actually a really tough question because, frankly, the answer can change depending on my mood and the situation. Catan and Go are in the running because both are games that were instrumental in getting me into the hobby. Dominion and Race for the Galaxy provided hours upon hours of play in my most regular gaming group. Six and Qwirkle were a big part of my wife and me getting to know each other.  I play Onirim almost daily these days.

But I ended up going with Ingenious, although I dearly love and would cheerfully play all of the games I mentioned in the last paragraph. There was a time in my life when I was playing it almost constantly, thanks to the BSW website. I do really like the game.  But that’s not why I still think of it as my favorite.

I really like abstract games and Ingenious gives me a really top notch abstract experience in a very manageable time frame. While the board is small enough to make the game a knife fight in a phone booth, there’s a lot of interesting choices. When you have Tigris and Euphrates scoring, that can either mean trying for balanced play or crushing your opponents’ chances in just one color. You can choose to be make the game unbalanced and try to control that imbalance.

But here’s the thing. Ingenious is the game that broke me out of the idea that abstracts had to be perfect information. You randomly draw a hand of tiles but you can discard and draw a new hand if you don’t have any tiles in your lowest color. The random element is very manageable but still adds a lot of uncertainty and replay value to the game.

It has honestly been a while since I last played Ingenious and I know it would take a few plays for me to find the groove again. However, I know it’s a game I could get back into playing all the time and it definitely changed how I see abstracts and games in general.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

A comic book whose point was going off the rails

I recently bought a bundle of Graphic Novels which includes the complete Ghost Fleet, which I had never heard of. And it was so much like reading someone’s fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants RPG campaign that I have to comment on it.

(Since I really only read comic books by buying the odd bundle of graphic novels now and then, I don’t really blog about comic books since I’m always years behind on them. That said, is there any reason for Bruce Wayne to hide his identity other than avoiding endless civil and criminal lawsuits that would accrue every issue?)

Lots of spoilers ahead... lots of them.

The book starts off explaining how Andrew Jackson and Jean Lafitte set up a black ops smuggling infrastructure called The Ghost Fleet, which has continued to operate into present day. I mention this only because this demented bit of world building never comes up again, which is a shame because there’s some definite potential there.

Anyway, Trace and Robert are two operatives of the Ghost Fleet until Robert betrays Trace but leaves him alive. So Trace goes on a roaring rampage of revenge that basically involves stealing a semi-truck carrying a McGuffin. It’s an action adventure involving explosions, master assassins, crazy shoot-outs and big trucks slamming into things.


And in the last issue, the McGuffin turns out to the Death, the fourth horseman of the apocalypse, who possesses Trace so Death can Kung Fu battle the devil for the fate of the world. Death wins and the world becomes a post-apocalyptic world of mutants, robots and demons.


Okay. There was some foreshadowing and it turned out what the McGuffin actually was mattered to the story (sorry, Alfred Hitchcock) But the book jumped from cheesy summer action flick to gonzo crazy over the course a few panels. 

And, yes, I have a specific GM I know in mind who would run a game like this :D I don’t know if he ever ran an octaNe campaign but it probably would have looked like the end of The Ghost Fleet.

I’m not saying the Ghost Fleet is good. There are some bizarre plot holes, including that the guy who Robert sold Trace out to was also their employer, making the betrayal actually make very little sense. The need for either the betrayal or Trace not being a part of it just isn’t there. Basically, cool overrules common sense every time.

And I’m not saying the Ghost Fleet wasn’t fun. But, despite what I hear some critics say, fun isn’t that hard to find in comic books. 

But if it had had a less fantastic ending (Like: ‘we were hauling illegal nuclear weapons the whole time? Time to shoot everyone and drive off into the sunset’), I’d have forgotten the book already. And I’m going to remember the Ghost Fleet.

Monday, July 20, 2020

Another gathering that won’t happen this year :’(

Eight years ago, a friend of ours started having their own private convention. They’d rent a large meeting room at a hotel and set up a block of rooms so everyone would have a place to sleep when they weren’t playing games. And between the thirty-odd friends that would show up, the game library was always huge. There was even  a weekend long tournament of different games for bragging rights.

I haven’t gone in years, seeing as how we moved to the other side of the country. However, I have stayed on the mailing list and I’ve even visited through the power or video conferencing/

And, yes, it has been postponed and finally canceled in 2020.

In the grand scheme of everything that COVID-19 has done to the world, I admit that this is pretty small potatoes. I mean, this isn’t even the end of the event. Unlike events that folks have to pay for and turn a profit that are probably facing bankruptcy right now, all this needs is one person’s persistence and determination and, trust me, it has that.

Still, it’s kind of sad.

Friday, July 17, 2020

Bickering on the job as an RPG

It’s been a bit since I looked at a quirky little RPG. Dungeon Janitor’s Apprentice is definitely quirky and little but I don’t know if even my very lax definition of RPG can be stretched enough to cover it. Even calling it a story-telling game is a stretch. It’s a discussion game for two people.

The concept of the game is bigger than the game itself. One player is the Dungeon Janitor, a grumpy old bastard who knows exactly how the dungeon’s supposed to be. The other player is the Dungeon Janitor’s Apprentice, a slacker who wants to just get drunk and laid. The janitor wants to get the job done and retire. The apprentice wants to get fired.

Here’s all the game mechanics and all: the janitor tells the apprentice to go do something. The apprentice gives some kind of excuse. The janitor tries to come up with a solution for the excuse. The apprentice comes up with a new excuse. You keep going until someone chokes and the other person wins that argument. Whoever wins five arguments first wins the game.

It’s ‘There’s a hole in the bucket’ as an improv routine/RPG.

Was this game designed for long car rides? While the real appeal of the Dungeon Janitor’s Assistant is the theme and the humor potential you can get out of that theme , it is seriously minimalist in what you physically need to actually play it. The rules have you use tokens to track who wins the arguments but even that is superfluous.

What the Dungeon Janitor’s Apprentice really reminds me of is Kazekami Kyoko Kills Kublai Khan, a story-telling game that was designed to be played via instant messaging. Both games very much built around call-and-response dialogue. In fact, I suspect the most likely way I will ever play The Dungeon Janitor’s Apprentice would be via forum or some form of instant messaging. I can even see having more than two players and just going around, alternating janitor and apprentice and not worrying who wins.

The Dungeon Janitor’s Apprentice is a silly, slight game. But it’s a fun idea and it’s ridiculously assessable. It has the potential to be a lot of fun.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

What did Enid Blyton just do to my brain?

I decided to read The Enchanted Forest by Enid Blyton just because Noel Fielding and a home baker mentioned it in the Great British Bake-Off.

Enid Blyton is an interesting author. She was a one-woman writing machine who wrote literally hundreds of children’s books that have been cultural touchstones in England and other countries for generations. She has also been accused of being classist, sexist, racist to the point of xenophobic and having a writing style that is simplistic drivel. 

I’ve only read a couple of her books but, from the tiny representation I’ve read, yeah, that sounds about right.

Her work honestly reads like Victorian kiddy books but they were written and published in a post-Edwardian world. Heck, most of it was written after World War II so it doesn’t have the ‘fair for its day’ excuse. As for the writing style, I have read far more than any healthy human should of the Stratemeyer Syndicate’s books. They are the epitome of literary extruded matter and the writing is still better. (I don’t have a problem believing Blyton did all the writing herself without any ghost writers, though)

And, yes, I understand that a big part of her appeal is a yearning for a simpler, more innocent time that never actually existed. She’s also easy to read for very young readers. But those aren’t necessarily good things.

Okay. Enough bashing Enid Blyton in general. The Enchanted Forest.

Three kids move to the countryside and just happen to end up next to a magical forest. The highlight of the forest is the Faraway Tree, which is an interdimensional portal. Basically, the top of the tree pokes into other worlds. So the kids wander into other worlds and have silly adventures. That’s pretty much the book in a nutshell.

All right. A few years ago, I decided to read every fantasy work that L. Frank Baum wrote. Which mean that I read Dot and Tot of Merryland, which was one of the most twee things I had ever read. At that time. It made The Waterbabies look like Paradise Lost. I could literally write an essay making a point by point comparison how Dot and Tot has better characterization, plot structure and world building than The Enchanted Forest.

I don’t expect deep characters in a book for the young but not only are the three kids virtually interchangeable, they have a disturbing lack of any sense of self-preservation even for free-range kids in a nursery tale fantasy land. But the mom letting them go off with an inhabitant of the tree, even though he’s a stranger who she openly doesn’t trust, takes the cake. That crossed the line from ‘it was a different time’ to ‘wow, that’s horrible parenting.’

If there was a story arc, I couldn’t find it. After the kids find the Faraway Tree and understand how it works, it’s like Enid Blyton used a random encounter chart to write the rest of the book. If the book had been published in installments, I wouldn’t be surprised at all.

The one-note magical lands don’t actually bother me as far as world building is coming concerned. The answer to any questions I have is ‘magic did it’ and that works perfectly fine. They still push the one-note element father than I think I have ever seen. Each world is literally one thing, as well as apparently only a few acres big.

The Enchanted Forest is so vapid that I actually wondered if that was the point, that the book was a parody of the genre. Unfortunately, from what I can tell, that wasn’t the case. I was hoping for light distraction but got morbid fascination instead. 

And, yes, I will probably read the next book.

Monday, July 13, 2020

My first two reactions to online conventions

From what I can tell, in-person conventions across the board have been canceled for the year. Some, like GenCon and Pax are going to be free, online experiences instead.

While I fully support this, I don’t know how interested I am in attending a virtual convention. I already play games online, shop for games online and watch videos and vlogs about gaming online. I’m not sure how an online convention would be really different than what I already do on a regular basis.

That said, I still remember when I first found out about BSW (a site where you could play mostly European board games. It’s still around but I’m pretty sure it’s not nearly as big as it was back when dinosaurs roamed the earth when I first discovered it. Virtual gaming has come a long, long way.) I felt like I was at a convention while sitting in front of my computer and that was _amazing_

And in 2017, I discovered GenCan’t, the virtual convention for those who couldn’t make it to GenCon. It was a scrappy little event that felt like more like a movement than an event. The 2017 design contest alone forever changed how I look at Roll and Write games and dragged me even deeper into the world Print and Play. 

Both BSW and GenCan’t changed gaming for me. Both were fantastic experiences for me.

There is definitely a real effect of being part of something that isn’t just me and three other people playing Carcassonne online but something that involves a community that stretches around the world. My first, gut reaction forgot that.

I don’t know how much or if at all I’ll participate in online conventions but I have realized that I shouldn’t rule them out.

Friday, July 10, 2020

L. Sprague de Camp’s Reluctant King isn’t perfect but it is soothing

I have definitely been reaching for decompressing books during the COVID-19 lockdown and continued partial lockdown. And L. Sprauge de Camp (along with Rex Stout) has been someone who has been one of my main fallbacks.

While it is true that de Camp wrote a lot of light hearted and funny stuff, the best word that I found myself coming back to, again and again, is charming. He creates worlds that might be strange and dangerous but somehow are still all right in the end. 

After reading several of his short stories, I decided that this was due time to finally read his Reluctant King trilogy, which I remember almost picking up at the library when I was young. 

The books chronicle the misadventures of Jorian of Xylar. He accidentally became the king of Xylar by catching the decapitated head of the last king. You see, Xylar only keeps kings for five years before cutting their heads off and chucking the head into the crowd to choose the next one. The very first chapter describes how Jorian escapes when it’s his turn to lose his head.

As a side note, I could not help but think of Jorian as a bard whose player had cheated and rolled straight 18s for stats. He’s a dabbler in absolutely every craft and will tell stories at the drop of a hat.

Throughout the three books, Jorian does his best to evade Xylar forces who want to drag him back for the beheading, try and get his favorite wife out of Xylar and just deal with the never ending adventures that inevitably fall in his lap. The books are one half rollicking fantasy adventure And one half political satire. The balance isn’t always even. The first book leans more towards adventure while the last one leans more towards satire. I was afraid halfway through the last book that the book would get bogged down about lawsuits. 

Frankly, the trilogy is kind of an odd read and not de Camp’s best. At the same time, I’d say this is also the ambitious thing I've read by him. At the end of the day, the moral is just ‘there is no good idea that greed and corruption can’t mess up’ but de Camp definitely explores that idea. And, seeing how this is de Camp, things ultimately do work out for Jorian. Which as much spoiler as I’ll give.

The Reluctant King trilogy was actually a great read as far as stress-coping was concerned. On the one hand, yes, it was relentlessly cynical. On the other hand, optimism ran through the books as well. The second moral was: ‘Yeah, people can be jerks but, eh, they’re basically okay too’

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

A free solitaire from Friedemann Friese?

The biggest value of 5x15 might be that it let me find out that Friedemann Friese has been keeping a lockdown blog :D

Anyway, 5x15 is a free solitaire game that the good Mister Friese has given to the world during this time when Covid-19 has us all spending a lot more time inside and away from gaming groups.

The game consists of 75 tiles, fifteen tiles in in five different colors. You lay them out in a five by fifteen grid and then pull out the ones and place them on the ends, creating five gaps in the grid. The goal of the game is to sort the tiles by color and into ascending order. You have two types of moves. You can move a tile into a gap if it is either one more than the tile to its left or one less than the tile to its right AND the same color. You can also shift three or more tiles to the right if they are the same color, in numeric order and 15 is at the end.

5x15 is a solid example of a solitaire puzzle game that feels like it’s been around forever. Getting numbers sorted and filling in gaps and sliding the tiles around, all the elements are comfortable and familiar. The good Mister Friese didn’t create something innovative. Instead, he made something a little bit new with ideas that have been lying around for generations. If you enjoy this sort of puzzle game, mechanically it works just dandy.

But there are implementation issues.

Some of these might be my issues but the fact that you are setting up and dealing with 75 tiles creates some physical issues. While it fortunately takes longer to play than to set up, the setup feels time consuming for the amount of play you get. And it takes up what can be a prohibitively large amount of space. I made one inch square tiles. Any smaller than I’d have issues moving the tiles around.

For me, when I play a quick, little solitaire game, convenience is a premium. Which is why I look into so many in-hand solitaire card games. The physical issues make 5x15 inconvenient for what I get out of the game. Friese mentioned that the game might make a good app and that would actually solve all my issues with the game.

5x15 isn’t a great game. It’s an activity to zone out with, like Klondike or Mine Sweeper, and it does a decent job at that. It doesn’t hold a candle to Friese’s earlier solitaire game Friday but I don’t think it is meant to and it is free. Free can make a lot forgivable :D 

Monday, July 6, 2020

Should a preschool cartoon make me feel this cynical?

Our six-year-old spent a couple days binging on the Rainbow Rangers cartoon, even though he’s a little old for it.

It’s basically a preschool version of Captain Planet and the Planeteers with that CGI that makes all the characters look like they are made of plastic. It does have a theme song that has the ear worm of any three given Eurovision entries combined. Honestly, neither of his parents think much of it.

However, there is one thing about the show that I find striking. The closest thing the show has to a villain is morally dubious businessman Preston Praxton, who makes Mayor Humdinger from Paw Patrol look like Doctor Doom. Quite a bit of the time, the heroes thwart him by giving him a financially viable alternative to his environmentally devastating ways.

Okay, the tv show is for a younger audience so peaceful conflict resolution is part of the package. And, as an educational, environmental show, showing alternatives and not just saying pollution is bad is pretty important.

However, the extent that the heroes help him out is sometimes astonishing to me. In one story, they agreed to actually flat-out manufacture an alternative fishing net that was safer for turtles. Another time, they agreed to let him photograph them instead of wild animals. (I know it wasn’t meant to be creepy but they are nine-year-old girls!)

I honestly feel that the show leans towards teaching that industry and business are at least as important as saving the planet. I’m not sure if that’s a bad thing. I think appealing to enlightened self-interest may result in change, while appealing to altruism might not.

Should a program for preschoolers make me feel so jaded and cynical?

Thursday, July 2, 2020

Trying to make This Town et al ‘work’

I have very mixed feelings about This Town Ain’t Big For the 2-4 of Us. 

I backed the game on Kickstarter back in 2004, right when my interest in micro games was really kicking in. And, in theory, I still think it’s a great idea for a micro game. Twenty-four tiles with the symbols printed on them so you don’t need separate meeples. And I still think think the scoring system is really neat and leads to interesting choices.

In a nutshell, it’s a tile-laying game with fences and symbols printed on the tiles. Everyone has a symbol for their own. When an area is enclosed by fences, you score it. Here’s how that works. Whatever symbol has the greatest number of symbols in the area gets points equal to the number of second greatest symbols. And so on until whoever has the fewest symbols gets no points. 

The scoring system doesn’t just make for interesting decisions. It also means that drawing a tile that doesn’t have your symbol isn’t a useless turn. Instead, any given tile has the potential to be useful to you.

The idea of a Carcassonne experience distilled down to 24 tiles that can fit it in any given pocket is a really compelling one for me. One of the major draws of a micro game is as a travel game. And there are elements of This Town et al that make it its own, distinct experience.

Buuuut... there are problems.

In my experience, there have been runaway leader problems. With only 24 tiles, when someone gets a lead, they have a good chance of fighting to protect it until the tiles run out. The game play doesn’t live up to the potential This Town et al seems to have.

An additional problem I had with the published version is that it came with a bunch of expansions that used itty, bitty tokens, along with a scoring stick that also had itty bitty tokens. The value I got out of not having meeples was taken away by having much more fiddly tokens.

And since I got This Town et al, I’ve found more the one game that fit into the niche of micro tile-laying game. The print-and-play Autumn and HUE from the Pack O Games both address the issues I had with This Town et al.

However, I still want to make it work.

So I have made a beater copy of the PnP version. (Yes, I could just pull the tiles out of the published edition but making a PnP copy just felt cleaner.) Strip the game down to its absolute basics, which also solves the travel problem.  I don’t know if that will make the game ‘work’ for me but I want to give it another try.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

My June PnP

June has gone past. 2020 is halfway done and it’s been a year that will go down in the history books. Print and Play has helped me pretend to be sane. This is what I made in June:

Food Chain Island 
King of the Gauntler (2020 9-Card Contest)
GIA isn’t Abstract (2017 9-Card Contest)
8-Bit Dungeon (2020 9-Card Contest)
MiniSkull Caverns (2016 9-Card Contest)
Charles vs Peter (2020 9-Card Contest)
Battle for the Carolinas
Astolfo on the Moon (2020 9-Card Contest)
Wurfel Bingo
This Town Ain’t Big Enough for the 2-4 of Us

I did some housecleaning in June, finally trimming some nine cards games I had laminated months ago, as well as making more copies of Wurfel Bingo and Rollands to use unused space on laminating sheets.

My monthly ‘big’ project was Battle for the Carolinas. Sadly, I have not yet taken the time to find the fifteen, twenty minutes to learn and play it. I’m hoping to correct that because a war-themed Palm Island sounds really interesting.

So the highlight of my PnP was Food Chain Island. It’s a very promising start to a new line of simple, solitaire games. It is a very rewarding return for five-minutes of game time.

All in all, a good halfway point for my PnP year.