Monday, August 31, 2020

When Chess meets Calvin Ball

 Our six-year-old son recently got out one of our Chess sets. Before I knew it, the pieces were having adventures with Ludo pawns all over the furniture with their movements ‘determined’ by dice rolls.

Am I ever going to get him interested in the actual rules of Chess or will it be Calvin Ball Chess forever? When will we sit down and have a game of Catan all the way through?

Okay, I’d much rather he figure out Zertz or Blokus or Rumus before worrying about Chess And we have come closer actually playing those games.

Honestly, it’s not like I have myself as example to follow. I really didn’t play tabletop games until halfway through high school. I really didn’t really start rolling until college and that was specifically role playing games. My time with board games didn’t even start until years after college. 

Calvin Ball board games can be infuriating but I’m pretty sure they are important as well. Play is how kids work through things and figure the world out. That’s more important than figuring out how farmer scoring works in Carcassonne.

A good friend had success with No Thank You, Evil with their child whose just around a year older. Maybe I should think about trying that out or find my old copies of Once Upon A Time or Rory’s Story Cubes. Some games, they really are just an excuse to play Calvin Ball.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Spellcraft Academy: not my cup of tea but still interesting

 I’ve gone back to the Legends of Dsyx, a series of one-page Roll and Writes from Buttonshy. It’s been a while since I played one. Part of the reason I chose to try Spellcraft Academy next is because it only uses one die so it was easy for me to play in a limited space.

In Spellcraft Academy, you are a student trying to create a magic scroll in order to pass your wizardry exams. Stripped of its theme, it is really a word game, the only one in the Legend of Dsyx series. 

The game consists of a letter grid and a blank grid that you write letters in, plus a checklist of Latin words that you are trying to write and a space to track rerolls.

The gameplay is actually pretty simple. You start in the blank center of the letter grid. Roll that one single die and then you count that many spaces in any direction and circle that letter. Write that letter anywhere in your blank scroll grid. Put a slash through that circle, roll the die again and repeat the process from your new location on the letter grid. The game ends when you either decide you’ve done as well as your going to do or you can’t make a legal move. (No going back to a letter you’ve been to)

You are trying to form interlocking words, crossword style. The more words you manage to connect together, the more points that it’s worth. There are three category of words and you get bonus points if you use every word in a category. 

There are two bonus symbols on the letter grid, stars and swirls. Swirls let you add a reroll to your reroll count. You don’t start with any rerolls. You have to earn them. Stars let you write any letter on your scroll grid.

I only have one rules question. I don’t know if you can only make orthogonal moves with your die roll or if diagonal moves are allowed.

I honestly don’t know if I like Spellcraft Academy or not. On the one hand, while I respect word games and I’m willing to play them, they aren’t my favorite genre of game. In short, I’m not the audience for this game. 

Spellcraft Academy also has probably the least theme out of all the games in the series. For me, one of the strong points for the Legend of Dsyx series is how thematic the games are and how much narrative they create. A couple of the games cross the line to being full adventure games. Spellcraft Academy is pretty abstract. I love abstract games but that’s not why I play the Legends of Dsyx games.

On the other hand, the game play seems pretty solid. I’m not sure there’s one optimal strategy. Linking a bunch of short words is one path but trying to get the bonus for using the longer words also seems viable. And it is easily the most complex Roll and Write I’ve seen that just uses one die, even having some manipulation with the stars and swirls.

And honestly, making the letter grid balanced had to be interesting.

In the end, Spellcraft Academy isn’t a game I had a lot of fun with but I found the design interesting. And I am sure I’ll play it some more to explore how balanced the game is.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Crowded bus games?

I accidentally came up a new term for myself, a crowded bus game.

Originally, I was just talking about Roll and Write games that I could play with a clip board and a dice app on my phone. However, really that includes any In-Hand games like Palm Island or the Zed Deck. Okay, a lot of travel games can qualify but I am really takin about something that works even when your arms are squashed together.

Which isn’t an experience that any of us should be having right now in Covid season and, honestly, I’d probably be just looking at my phone under those conditions. But they are the kind of games I like to play so I can sit in the living room with the family, possibly with a cat or two on my lap. (possibly the two cats fighting on my lap) 

So for me, a crowded bus game is actually a casual, cozy game at home.

In fact, the only game I can see playing on a bus is Warchon, a war game where the map is a book and the pieces are book marks, because that’s the only place I can see playing it.

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Roll and Write games with just one die?

 Good grief but I have played a lot of Roll and Writes this year. 

There are a lot of solitaire options within the Roll and Write world. There are tons of print and play options and they are just about the easiest Print and Play game to make. Roll and Write games have the potential to have a high complexity to component ratio (sometimes depth as well but really not as often) And, related to that last bit, it can be more emotionally and mentally satisfying to spend fifteen minutes on a Roll and Write than a solitaire card game. I feel like I’m doing more.

But, at the moment, between time and space, I am more often playing Roll and Write games with a clipboard and a dice rolling app on my phone. Basically, games you can play on a crowded bus :D

That does limit me from games that use cards or color-based dice pools or a lot of dice manipulation. And it has me explore some games I might otherwise skip over.

I am currently examining Spellcraft Academy, which the crowded bus requirements and lets me get back to trying out the Legends of Dsyx, a series of games that I started looking at earlier this year. What is particularly striking about the game, which I will properly review at some point, is that you just use one six-sided die.

A Roll and Write (or really any game) that uses just a single die is a choice that honestly rings alarm bells for me. (Which is hysterical because I have played Dungeons and Dragons for decades. That said, I have often said your goal is to get enough modifiers that the actual die roll is the least important part) A single die both limits your choices and your ability to bank on the odds. Two dice create a bell-shaped curve. One die, if it’s fair, gives every number the same chance. Random chance takes over choices and control.

So every Roll and Write that I have seen that just uses one die struggles to give the player real choices. And, honestly, they often don’t very well. Not Another One and Blankout are two that fall short for me. I play them periodically because they work as crowded bus games (I just came up with that term but I am falling in love with it) 

Really, the one game that I’ve found that works with one die is 13 Sheep, largely because you have far more space than your potential fencing can handle.  That and the ability to rotate fence pieces creates bough choices that the game works as a game and not just a curiosity. It’s one that recommend, particularly for folks who don’t have a lot of PnP supplies or experience.

But it’s the exception that proves the rule. Dice pools and dice manipulation and the ability to work with the odds are where Roll and Write games find their meat.

Friday, August 21, 2020

Tanuki Matsuri has been good for my frazzled brain

 Okay, here’s the basic idea: Superlude Editions has released Tanuki Matsuri, a Roll and Write game set in the same world as their card game Tanuki Market, as a free print-and-play for Covid relief. It’s not the best PnP I’ve seen that’s been released as Covid relief nor the best Roll and Write I’ve ever seen. But it’s a very accessible family game at a time when that’s what is really needed.

Tanuki Matsuri is about mischievous Tanuki spirits stealing fruit from Granny’s fruit stand and also hosting a party for Granny. Which sounds like a pretty raw deal for Granny but it does work as an excuse for cute pictures of Tanuki so I’ll let it pass.

The rules are just a page long and the whole thing is free (at least for right now) so I won’t get too detailed about the rules. It’s one of those Roll-and-Writes where the die you pick let’s you check off a box on the sheet, in this case either a fruit or part of the flower trail that leads to Granny’s party. Okay, you circle them but the principle is the same. The game ends when you either circle the last flower or temple gate(whose sole purpose is to be a timer)

Ah but there’s a clever bit. Every single thing you circle has some kind of bonus. Circle a fruit. Circle a flower. Circle a score multiplier. Cross out a score multiplier. Circle a temple gate. And it’s pretty easy to chain bonuses and get multiple actions out of each turn. Without the bonus actions, there would be nothing to the game. For all interesting purposes, the bonuses are the game.

Tanuki Matsuri is a very light and simple game . Maybe _too_ light and simple even for a family weight game. I’m also pretty sure there is an optimal path to getting points (maxing out the flower path and the strawberry column), which is mildly mitigated by the bonuses allowing multiple ways to pursue that.

_But_ here’s the thing. As a game aimed at people who are under some level or another of lockdown, Tanuki Matsuri is golden. It’s got a cute theme that will appeal to a wide audience range, including youngish kids. It is very easy to build: one page per two players plus a writing tool and any three six-sided dice (no color combinations required) And it’s very easy to learn and play, which is very helpful in a casual, family game in these strained times.

I have to admit, between lockdown parenthood and remote school, my brain is fried. A year ago, Tanuki Matsuri would have been a blip on my radar. Now, the simplicity of it really clicked for me and I was engaged by it when I sometimes haven’t had the brain power for more intricate games. And our six-year-old liked to chain bonuses, even if he wasn’t interested the scoring system.

I don’t know if Tanuki Matsuri has the legs for a lot of replay or to be a game that is in regular play rotation for months or years to come. But it has been a very good game me for where I am at right here and now and I have recommended it to friends, particularly those with small children.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

A tiny taste of L. Sprague de Camp

 You know, it’s been over a week since I talked about literature. And folks seem to enjoy those blogs so let’s do another one.

L. Sprague de Camp has been one of my fallback authors during Covid. While I read some of his actual novels (namely The Reluctant King trilogy but I’ll probably reread the Incompleat Enchanter at this rate) but I’ve also been picking through anthologies of classic science fiction for his short stories.

I decided that The Blue Giraffe was the perfect short story to talk about. If you don’t want any spoilers, just go and read it now.




No, seriously, go and read it. It’s really good.




The Blue Giraffe answers the question ‘What if the Island of Doctor Moreau was a comedy?’ I didn’t know that was a question that even needed to be asked but de Camp did a marvelous job answering it.

The protagonist finds in darkest Africa the effects of a mad scientist’s machine that creates radiation that causes somehow safe mutations in all the surrounding wildlife. After some misadventures, he turns the darn thing off.

The first thing that is notable about the story is the tribe of intelligent baboon people, who are also the source of a lot of the hijinks, including the main character dealing with a potential forced marriage. As opposed to be being crude primitives, they are pretty much regular folks, complete with snark and jealousy and such.  For 1939, that is nifty.

The other bit that stayed with me was the framing story, with the protagonist years later exposing to his son why he’s adopted. I was expecting his adopted son to not be human. No, the most ordinary explanation instead. After being exposed to all that radiation, it wasn’t safe for him to have kids. And that’s part of de Camp’s magic. There’s a practical, grounded element that makes the fantastic even more fantastic.

The Blue Giraffe isn’t my favorite de Camp work but it is what I’d recommend to someone to help them decide if they want to read more of his stories.

Monday, August 17, 2020

6 nimmt! has not grown stale

 Ah, 6 nimmt! Also known as Category 5, Slide 5 and a whole host of other names. 

While I’m not taking a copy to any conventions this year, since I’m not going to any conventions in person, some version of this game has gone with me to conventions for many years. Basically because it’s easy to teach, plays up to a whopping ten players and everyone always has fun.

I’m prettty sure that anyone reading this far already knows how to play 6 nimmt!  but here’s the overview: Like golf, the object of the game is to get the fewest points. In the original version, that meant getting the fewest cow heads. (If the theme makes any sense, no one’s told me) The game consists of cards numbered from 1 to 104. Every card has some amount of cow heads with multiples of five and eleven having the most.

Each round, you deal out ten cards to each player then lay out four cards to start four rows. (So, in a ten player game, every card is in play) Everyone simultaneously selects and reveals a card. Then the cards are added to sequential order to the rows. Cards MUST be placed after the card that they are the numerically closest to.

If you chose a card that is a lower number than any card at the end of the four rows, you must take a row and your card starts the new row. If your card would be the sixth card in a row, you take that row and your card starts the new row. And those row cards don’t go in your hand, they go into your ugly score pile. Play all the cards in your hand and the game ends when someone passes a threshold of points, which varies depending on the edition. Fewest points wins.

Oh and there’s a strategic version where you only use cards numbered the player-count-times-ten-plus-four so everyone knows exactly what cards are being used in the game.

That was supposed to be one paragraph and I just paraphrased the entire rule book.

6 nimmit! came out over twenty years ago. I haven’t just been personally playing it for more than ten years, it’s been part of my basic game tool box for that time as well. The game is a bonafide classic.

Part of what makes it a classic is that the actually gameplay is very good. On the one hand, it is very simple to explain and understand and play. At the same time, there is enough room for making calculated risks. You can definitely play smart despite the random factor, although things get more random with higher player counts.

But it’s that up-to-ten-players with simultaneous play that pushes 6 nimmt! into the always pack it in the con bag territory. The ability to handle a large group with everyone engaged and playing at the same time, that is gold when combined with actual good gameplay.

6 nimmt! is a game that is fun even when playing smaller numbers like four or five, although there’s plenty of competition in its weight range for that number. But the flexibility to handle larger player counts without tons of downtime? That’s something that I have barely seen.

There’s a lot of competition for games that only take fifteen, twenty minutes. The fact that 6 nimmit! is still such a contender is strong praise.

Friday, August 14, 2020

Memories of convention first impressions

 Time for more con memories...

I have found that, with board games, first impressions can be completely wrong. It often takes multiple plays to figure out the hidden depths and flaws of a game. I think you can generally get a sense of those aspects but it takes some actual play time to make sure.

And conventions? Oh, they can make for the worst first impressions :P

To be fair, that’s kind of the idea. You are in a strange place that is designed for sensory overload. It’s an overwhelming experience. If someone handed you a brick and told you that throwing bricks through windows was the awesome new game of the year, you’d believe it for a moment. Hopefully a moment that doesn’t involve property damage.

Demos in the exhibit hall are probably the most extreme example. There’s a time limit since more potential customers need to see the game and the salesfolks just want to show you the highlights. Lots of pressure and as many awkward bits filed off as possible. I don’t blame the folks selling you stuff. That’s their job.

But two games that I now actively dislike were really amazing experiences for me the first time I played them. Grave Robbers from Outer Space (which I now dislike more Munchkin which is saying something) and Zombies!!! were games I played at some of my first conventions and they thrilled and chilled me.

In someone’s living, though, they fell apart.

Fortunately, somehow, despite being a game bigger who had a tendency to buy everything in sight, I never actually got a copy of either of those games. I did end up with a lot of bologna that wasn’t that great during my first few cons, though. 

I do wonder how game sales are doing this year with no live conventions. I have a feeling that Kickstarter is helping make upheaval difference.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Why That’s Pretty Clever works for me

 When I first played Qwixx, I decided that it was the game to fire Yahtzee for non-gamers. When I first played That’s Pretty Clever, I decided that it was the game to fire Yahtzee for gamers.

That’s Pretty Clever is a dice-drafting, roll-and-write game. There are five, color-coded sets of boxes on each player’s sheet and you roll six dice matching those colors, plus a white die that’s wild. Every set of boxes has a different criteria for checking one of those boxes.

Ah, but here’s the clever bit. When you achieve certain milestones, you get bonuses. They can be rerolls, extra die grabs, fox heads that actually score multipliers, and checking off boxes in other sections. With planning and luck, you can set off a cascade of bonuses.

That’s Pretty Clever offers a steady stream of interesting choices. Every die you take means there are other dice and opportunities you aren’t taking. And because these are dice we are taking about, there is enough randomness that you can’t map out the decision tree. You have to hedge your bets as best you can. All those factors help make the game engaging.

The biggest flaw that I have found is that there seem to be a couple of patterns or strategies that seem stronger. There is the potential for monotonous play.  But the dice make following an overarching strategy more of a pipe dream  than a plan. 

There is clearly a design space for abstract dice games. They have been around centuries and people are still clearly drawn to them. But, in my exploration of Roll and Writes, I have come to the conclusion that they have to be very good to have any staying power. A theme can add structure and narrative to a game that can help shore up mechanical weak spots.

Now, I don’t think that That’s Pretty Clever is the end all, be all of abstract dice games. And there are themed dice-centric games like Alea est Aecta or Kingsburg or Alien Frontiers that I like more. But it is one of the best abstract dice games that I have found. And, without a regular gaming group at the moment, this is the kind of game that sees more play for me. I am very happy to have tried it and I regularly go back to it.

Monday, August 10, 2020

I’m not old. I’m just managing time :P

 There was a point in my life where, between D&D campaigns and board gaming groups, I was sometimes gaming four days a week. This was also when I was compulsively buying new games and trying out new games so fast that I ended up playing a lot of games only once before moving on.

In the mists of my memories, it seems like that period of my life went on a for a long time but, looking back with a more honest eye, it was actually only a few years. It was an education in games and gaming but I’d only game like that again if someone were paying me.

I play a lot fewer games than I did during that period of my life but I replay games a lot more. I’ve also shifted from thinking that two hours was a good time range for a game to finding forty-five minutes is really what I’m looking for. (To say nothing of a six or more hour D&D session, which was exhausting at the time, let alone now)

On the one hand, a lot of my sense of being a gamer came from that point of my life. On the other hand, I don’t miss it either. I have too many memories of gaming being an obligation instead of fun. The last few times I played a game that lasted several hours, I didn’t enjoy it.

Is this because I have grown older? Has my mind grown weaker? Or is this just what happens because everything changes and we have to change with it to stay healthy? Is this just part of adulthood I put off when I was younger?

<going back to this entry after a few days> After writing all that, I realize that what this is really about is time management. 

I have known only a one or two GMs that actually didn’t run over. Instead, in most of my role playing groups, running over by over an hour was the norm. And I also remember how many two-hour board games would often end up being three or more hours.

And that kind of thing doesn’t work when you’ve got other obligations, when you have to be somewhere at specific time. That actually takes most of the fun out of it. Gaming becomes stressful at that point. 

This ain’t about getting older. It’s about figuring out what makes you happy when life changes. 

Friday, August 7, 2020

Will I ever actually _play_ Sword and Sail?

 I am really thinking of making a copy of Sword and Sail. For the third time. Even though I have yet to actually ever play the game :D

Sword and Sail is an old-school, old-world war game where you are trying to have a token  in every space of one of the eight different regions on the map. You use action cards to place tokens on empty spaces and you attack an opponent by moving two tokens onto one of their spaces (leaving only one of your tokens behind) 

It makes me think of what you might get if you tried to miniaturize and simplify one of Milton Bradley’s Game Master series.

I first started looking at the game many years before I started seriously looking at Print and Play. At the time, it was one of the prettiest Print and Play games I’d seen (and I’ve seen uglier professionally published games) I wondered at the time if, between the theme, attractive components and accessible rules, Sword and Sail was a ‘free’ game that I could get other people to play. 

I do understand that the game has some flaws, requiring some house rules. The original map had Germania in the corner with only four spaces so going for Germania was a degenerate strategy. There are also concerns with two-players of having perpetual stalemate moves. Sword and Sail may be limited in enough different ways to be actually be a good game.

Still, it’s an easy build and a pretty build. It might be good as our son is getting to the age where more complicated games might interest him. And it is an interesting artifact from the past. So, yeah, let’s try making it again.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Golux Ex Mechina!

The 13 Clocks by James Thurber is what happens when you just take the clever bits of a story and chuck the rest in the dust bin.

It’s hard to truly describe the book. The plot is a fairy tale plot of a prince having to win the hand of a princess by doing an impossible task. But that not only doesn’t do the book justice, it completely  fails to actually describe the book as well. Full of not just word play but rhythm play, the 13 Clocks doesn’t just play with the nature of fairy tales but language as well. The fairy tale is just the framework for Thurber’s wit and whimsy.

A friend of mine will tell Traveling Salesman jokes by skipping to the punch line since ‘you already know what happens up to that point’ Thurber relentlessly leaves out gobs of details about the setting and the characters because he knows we already understand them because we know how fairy tales work. And he does it so cleverly that he is letting us, the readers, behind the scenes with him.

I have to make special mention of the Golux (the only one in the world and not a mere device!) who serves as the device that resolves every problem in the book. He takes the role of a Puss in Boots magical problem solver but he is relentlessly eccentric and charming. And the villain of the story calls him out as a blatant Deus Ex Machina (Golux Ex Machina!)

I first heard of the book in Middle School or High School in an essay about Fantasy literature. And I put off reading it for literally decades in part because I didn’t think it could live up to the zany impression I had of it. And, you know, it turns out that it doesn’t. But it is still a very fun and amusing book. There’s not an ounce of cynicism in the book but a ton of whimsy.

I wouldn’t describe the 13 Clocks as a satire or a deconstruction of fairy tales. Instead, it is a playful celebration of the English language.

Monday, August 3, 2020

I didn’t do anything at virtual GenCon and why that’s okay

I registered for both GenCan’t and GenCon since, well, they were both free. And all I ended up doing with them was watch a couple of feeds and a little Mega Karuba through GenCan’t.

Now, this is not me whining. This is the last weekend before school starts remotely for our son and I will be darned if that isn’t a lot more important for me. For crying out loud, I play games remotely almost constantly. I look at game news all the time. Neither Gen Con 2020 or Gen Can’t 2020 were going to be major, once-in-a-lifetime experiences for me.

No, instead, I got to participate for nothing. I got to have some fun and be a part of the greater community and feel connected. And if you don’t think those things are meaningful, social media would be nothing more than an alternative to a phonebook if folks didn’t find some value in them. (I leave it up to you to decide what that value is)

But, this does drive home that one of the most powerful aspects of a convention in person is that it is an escape from the rest of the world. I close my eyes and I think about the carpet in the convention center in Indianapolis and I have a strong memory of being removed from so many responsibilities and distractions. (Which is not necessarily a healthy thing. It’s a good thing conventions don’t happen all the time!)

A friend of mine used to ask what the difference was between going to a convention and spending a weekend at a friends house playing games? The difference is that separation.

Which is not to say that the virtual cons are worthless. With school starting the first week of August, actually trying to go to a convention in person would be a nightmare at best. 

More than that, with so many of us in some level of lockdown and isolation, the value of a virtual convention is enormous. Honestly, this year, the power and importance of a virtual Gen Con May be greater than an in-person one on another year.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

My July PnP

Like too many months in 2020, July was a crazy one. Still, I managed to get some print and play crafting in. This is what I made last month:

Blankout (double-sides play sheets for convenience)
Word Chain (the extended version)

My two ‘big’ projects of the month were Word Chain and Corinth, since they both involved three sheets of materials each but neither one was much work at all. The two pages of tiles for 5x15 were a lot more work, further proving how arbitrary my definition of ‘big’ is. Still, I’ll stick to it since it gives me some kind of goal.

(I am planning on making more player boards and the fan expansion for Corinth at some time soon)

I actually spent more time prepping future projects than I did completing them. I do like to complete something each month and sometimes that’s the way to make sure it happens.