Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The Bone Key unlocks very human horror

 Sarah Monette wrote that both Lovecraft and M.R. James were major influences on The Bone Key: The Necromantic Mysteries of Kyle Murchison Booth and it shows. Although to be fair, both of those authors cast very, very long shadows. 

In a nutshell, Monette took the standard Antiquarian protagonist of either of those authors and fleshed them out into a deeper and possibly more realistic figure. Booth is a brilliant and talented archivist at the creepy Parrington Museum. He is also awkward, painfully socially-isolated and severely emotionally damaged.

This actually plays very well into Booth being the protagonist of horror stories. He is very vulnerable and often overwhelmed by his nightmarish circumstances. He is constantly aware of the danger and uncertainty around him and barely has the courage to do anything.

Of course, that only works if the stories are at all scary. Fortunately, Monette does an excellent job combing the visceral and the unknown. We almost never get a full picture of what is going on and, sometimes, we get a lot less. The world of the supernatural is much bigger than Booth and he is unable to forget that.

And it tends to be very personal. As opposed to cosmic horror that doesn’t care about humanity, these horrors are very close and seem to really want human suffering. A hateful spirit guarding a necklace, a demon that feeds on the life force of exactly one person at a time, a hotel that seems to kill very selectively. It’s all very intimate.

What truly makes the anthology work (and I do think it works) is that it is a character study of Booth. He is the last of a cursed line. The first story has him weak enough to dabble in necromancy which has marked him so the restless dead and such are drawn to him. Bad things happen around him and to him. How he copes or fails to cope is the driving force.

The end result is a dark but engaging journey. I liked it.

Monday, September 28, 2020

Monopoly Junior - roll and pay rent

 One of the grandparents sent us Monopoly Junior. It was on the table and getting played within five minutes of opening the package. It was a four-player game with one seat being filled by a teddy bear and we were worried the teddy bear might win at some points.

There’s a track of 29 spaces with eight pairs of properties, along with the usual suspects like Go and Free Parking and Chance and Jail. You roll the die. If you land on an unoccupied property, you have to buy it. If someone else already has it, you pay them rent and pay double if they have a monopoly. The game ends when someone runs out of money and whoever has the most money wins. 

I’m of three minds of the game. On the one hand, I think it does a good job compressing and simplifying Monopoly while still keeping it completely recognizable as Monopoly. On the other hand, it manages to tip what I actually like about Monopoly into bin. On the mutant third hand, it definitely works as a kid’s game.

Two conversations from many years ago came back to me while playing it. One was from someone telling me that they almost cried when someone descibed Monopoly as ‘that’s the one where you roll the dice and go round and round, right?’ Another was a long conversation with
a friend who felt the problem with Monopoly was that kids are taught it too young so they never learned to negotiate or trade.

And Monopoly Junior is definitely roll the dice and go round and round. The game removes all the choices and trading and negotiation  from Monopoly.

But... our first-grader immediately grokked how property ownership and rent and monopolies worked. And he definitely got into the game. As a way for our child to have fun and hopefully serve as a stepping stone to Catan, Monopoly Junior has promise.

So I will encourage him to keep on playing it. It is not a game I’d recommend for adults or teenagers or even older kids, like third graders. For any of those groups, I’d reach for Owner’s Choice for a super quick economic game.

Friday, September 25, 2020

You know, there can be just character interaction

 One of the questions I recently found myself pondering yet again is the difference between character interaction and player interaction. 

More precisely, I was thinking about GM-free games where everyone chips in to provide the content and the conflict. Games like Fiasco or The Name of God or Microscope or The Quiet Year. In those games, it’s possible that characters might never be in the same scene but everyone works together and gets their hands dirty.

On the other hand, games where characters can be treated like playing pieces and the game master is basically a referee, you don’t have to actually interact with the other players. Your piece or pieces can interact with the other pieces. I have been in RPG sessions where some players were just taking up space on chairs. (And apparently having fun doing that so more power to them)

Of course, any game can have a strong level of cooperative interaction. But some games absolutely require it and some game can take or leave it.

I have been in Fourth Edition Dungeons and Dragons campaigns that were extremely collaborative where the players actively molded the story and developed the world with the dungeon master. And I have been in others where we moved from monster group B to monster group C and the other players could have been my cats with automatic die rollers as far as the actual game went. Still had a marvelous time.

Honestly, I think that fourth edition was designed so that it could be played as detached as possible and I think that’s a feature not a bug. It is definitively not a bad option. Sometimes, depending on the group and the need, it is the right option.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Thank you, Jeugo Roll & Write

 I finished doing an archive binge of Juegos Roll & Write ( ), specifically looking for Print and Play games that I hadn’t heard of yet. And, yes, a hefty chunk of what I found were ones I had already looked into but it was still a good experience.

It’s one of the blogs I regularly look at, both for PnP information and just out of curiosity. And I think that Roll and Write games are more valuable than ever in quarantine times. They are the easiest form of PnP to make and a huge chunk of them have solitaire options or are just plain solitaires. When your options for gaming or game partners are limited and restricted, that is awesome.

Jueglos Roll & Write actually has had several entries specifically addressing that, featuring collections that are particularly quarantine friendly.

Over the last few years, my opinion of Roll and Writes has changed and, frankly, gotten better. First of all, I have been impressed by the depth and variety of what’s out there, even just in the free category. Mind you, I have still had the best experiences with games that I have actually had to actually spend money on :D

Second, while I recommended in the past that if you wanted to get into PnP to go for cards or tiles games since actually having to craft components meant you had some skin in the game, I now think an only-R&W-PnP experience is viable. Part of that comes from the variety that is out there (and there are plenty that actually require you make cards or such :D) 

However, it also comes back to the quarantine conditions. You may not be able to get the materials to make cards or dice or such. But you are more likely to be able to print off a R&W sheet or hand copy one. It may be what is possible. And gaming is great way of dealing with stress.

And if that is what you need, Jueglos Roll & Write is really nifty.

PS I was really happy when I learned through the blog that someone has made a nice PnP version of Sid Sackson’s solitaire pinball game. Woo-hoo!

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The Complete Cosmicomics - inexplicable and wonderful

 One of my reading goals for 2020 was to read The Complete Cosmicomics, consisting of Cosmicomics, t zero/Time and Hunter and World Memory and Other Cosmicomics, along with a few miscellaneous bits. And I have finished the last story.

And, wow, is it weird to look back at starting this literary journey that started in February. The world has changed so much that is bewildering to remember reading the first section. (Yes, I like to wait months in between reading books in a series. Lets things sink in.)

Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomic stories involves taking a scientific theory (sometimes disproven and sometimes contradicting the theories used in other stories) and weaving some sort of domestic story around it. Most of the stories are narrated by Qfwfq, who has been around since before the universe began and who has been a mollusk, a dinosaur and possibly the god Pluto among other things. The stories are peppered with anachronisms to the point where even individual stories fail to have a coherent settings. 

You really have to just read them. It’s that kind of literature where words fail to do it justice.

I don’t think it’s unfair to say that the stories are Calvino using the whole of the universe to comment on human nature but I don’t think that’s quite it. I think that Calvino explores the way that human nature and the cosmos reflect each other. He is definitely saying _something_, not just being silly.

I will say that World Memory and Other Cosmicomic Stories was weakest section of the series. The original Cosmicomics is whimsical and endlessly thought provoking. t zero/Time and the Hunter is darker but challenging. World Memory, on the other hand, didn’t feel like it was pushing me as much. I didn’t find myself thinking as hard. Still fun but I can see why it is the least republished book.

After years of meaning to give Calvino a chance, Invisible Cities really impressed me last year. The Cosmicomics stories continued that impression. The petty, whiny, occasionally mysogynisric voice of Qfwfq created a fascinating view of the universe or humanity or maybe both. I am not going to pretend that I understand what the books are ultimately about but they make me want to understannd.

Monday, September 21, 2020

A R&W from 1965... don’t get excited

 When I saw 6 Steps, a roll and write game from 1965, I had to make a copy and try it out.

Spoiler: it’s... meh.

The game consists of six rows, each one marked one to six, staggered so they form a set of six steps. You will also need two six-sided dice and something to write with.

On your turn, you roll the dice and use them as coordinates. One die has to be the row and the other die is the number in the row. If you can, circle a number. If the possibilities have already been circled or crossed off, you have to cross off an unmarked number.

The game ends when you either fill up the board or circle all of a row, number or the one column that has six spaces. Scores are based on completing diagonals or rows or that one column.

Clearly, this game scared Reiner Knizia at a young age.

Okay, 6 Steps mechanically works as a game but it has some issues.

First of all, it is so dry. And that’s coming from me! I like abstract games but 6 Steps is so dry that even I think it’s boring. Playing with numbers can be interesting but this is so basic that there’s just not enough to engage me.

And the actual ‘interesting’ choices are what numbers to cross out. Any given combination of dice rolls gives you a choice of two circles at best. Doubles just give you one option. As the game goes on, it quickly becomes crossing numbers out. You hope for points but you’re really doing damage control most of the game.

What 6 Steps really does is make me appreciate other games :D It fails the Yahtzee test. I would rather be playing Yahtzee. I could easily draw a 6 Steps board freehand but I can draw a 30 Rails board free hand and I’d much rather play that. 

Since you have variance in what numbers you can cross out, you could play it Take It Easy style with everyone using the same rolls, which would at least speed the game up. (Yes, it’s dry enough that I want to speed up a ten-minute game) But why would I not play Take It Easy instead? Or Wurfel Bingo or 30 Rails or Criss Cross or 13 Sheep or Karuba or... 

You get the idea.

Okay, I’ll give it this. In a multiplayer game, the game ends when one player fulfills one of the endgame conditions. That can add some tension to the game. That’s still not enough to make me recommend the game.

6 Steps is an interesting historical footnote of a game. It was actually published and decades before Roll and Writes were a ‘thing’. But the fact that someone like me who is into games like this had spent years never hearing about it speaks of how much it deserves its obscurity.

Friday, September 18, 2020

Thanks for all the Print and Play Game News memories

I literally just learned that Chris Hanson put their PnP blog ( on indefinite hiatus. Back in June.

Well, I feel embarrassed.

In my defense, every update was a massive info dump and I couldn’t rest until I’d sifted through it all.

Seriously, since the blog was a comprehensive look at whatever was going on in the PnP world, the amount of work that had to go into it was massive. And the rate that PnP stuff has been coming out has just gotten faster and faster.

It’s really amazing that the blog kept going as long as it did.

I found a lot of PnP game through the blog. And, as an archive it is still amazing. I know I’ll go back to look for gems I missed. 

Thanks for the ridiculous amount of work, Chris Hansen.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Letting friends find their inner goblin

 During a recent meeting of friends over Zoom, we played one of my game poems, Wainscot Goblin. This was actually the first time I played one of the game poems I’ve written, which was pretty interesting all by itself. It also wasn’t a group of gaming friends, which may have made them the ideal audience for a game poem.

I’ve written about an earlier draft of the game poem in this blog. The basic idea is to create a little goblin that lives within the walls of a house by answering a series of questions. I got the idea of using the word wainscot from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy which uses the word to refer to a hidden society. Incidentally, I used the word wrong as far as the encyclopedia is concerned. It uses the term to mean a hidden society that still interacts with the larger society, like Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere or Vampire: the Masquerade. My goblins are entirely hidden.

Everyone had fun and there were plenty of whimsical ideas all around the virtual table and plenty of laughter besides. From the most fundamental stand point of ‘did the game poem work’ and ‘did everyone have fun’, the answer is yes. 

One of the things that I think helped was that basic concept was easy to understand, along with the format as well. 

One thing I realized afterwards was that one element of game play that I didn’t give the group was a way to interact with each other. If I have a chance to give them another game poem, I will give them that will let them interact with each other, not just respond to questions.

For instance, each goblin has four intrinsic qualities (magic, craft, wisdom and sacrifice) I could have had a player offer a problem to the next player and that player would explain how they would use one of their qualities to solve the problem.

Game poems are a quirky form but, more and more, I can’t help but wonder if they may be the most accessible form of RPGs. This was easy to introduce to folks who didn’t necessarily have a lot of RPG experience and for them to get into the game poem.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Changing without realizing it

 I feel like one’s sense of being a gamer is something that changes, sometimes so subtly that we only notice it when we look back. I don’t think of it as a constant upward climb but an ebb and flow. Trying to find a sense of balance as the rest of our lives change.

I’ve always been aware of this but you get reminders now and then.

I recently pulled out Elevenses for One.  About three years ago, when I started seriously looking into both print-and-play games and solitaire games, it was a fairly important to me. Elevenses for One felt like a ‘real’ game to me. Despite all the changes my gaming habits had gone through, it reminded me I was still a gamer.

Now, having explored a lot more solitaire games and print-and-play games, going back to it, I was surprised at how light Elevenses for One felt to me. I mean, I always knew it was a super light game. And I still think of it as a gold standard PnP game and one I always recommend and one I have used as a gift.

I know that I have been playing tiny little PnP solitaire games that I can fit in the minutes. That’s been a big part of my hobby as of late. That’s what has really kept me in the hobby at times. 

I just had’t realized the range and depth that I had been finding even in that tiny world. While it might work only be a minute fraction, I would say that games like Orchard or Food Chain Island are meaningfully deeper than Elevenses for One. 

I didn’t think I had been growing at all but I guess I have been.

(I should dig Micro Rome back out and see how it feels now)

Friday, September 11, 2020

Did I just accidentally start making an RPG?

 Have you ever been trying to make a narrative exercise and realized that you came up with a character generator instead? Actually, I bet that happens a lot since creating a character is one of the basic concepts of playing with story telling.

Anyway, without meaning to, that’s what I ended up doing while trying to come up with something that could be easily played with video conferencing.

A couple design notes:

While I know that wainscot is a real word, the only way I have ever seen it used is in the Encyclopedia of Fantasy ( and so I associated the word with secrets and the fantastic.

And I chose to go with tactile for the first question because I wanted the players to have some sense of description for their goblin but I also wanted to avoid visual. I thought going with touch would be more visceral and stretch the imagination more.

Incidentally, this is a first draft. I have already started to revise the game poem to set up possible conflict resolution mechanics in a larger game.

Wainscot Goblin - a game poem

You will need:
A pencil
The following list of questions
A hidden nature
A quiet truth

You are a wainscot goblin, one of those mysterious supernatural creatures that dwell just behind the walls. However, wainscot goblins are not just very peculiar, they are also very particular as well. The point of this little poem is kto figure out your exact nature.

Kindly answer the following questions:

  1.  If a human were to ever touch your skin, which, of course, would never happen, what would they say it felt like?
  2. Politely describe three details of the house that you dwell in?
  3. Just as politely, describe three details of your own cozy nook inside the walls?
  4. What craving or need makes you live so close to humans, to live inside their walls?
  5. What would drive you from your nook, the house where you dwell, into the cold outside?
  6. What is your grave vulnerability, the thing that any human kill you with, if they only knew?
  7. What is your secret craft, the hidden art form that you are devoted to?
  8. If you ever needed to, how would you kill?
  9. What is the single truest thing you can say of yourself?

Now, stand up and say your wainscot goblin name.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Okay, every card in the deck is the same?

 Drive Like Hell was part of a contest that Button Shy held to design an eighteen-card game where all the cards are identical. Drive Like Hell isn’t that complicated a game but, given that requirement, man, the double-sided card is complex.

You have just rescued your girlfriend from the devil. Now you have to drive your hot rod as fast as you can to get to St Joe’s Cathedral while the devil is hot on your tail... I have so many questions! What was my girlfriend doing with the devil in the first place?!

Two of the cards form the board, which is a track of locations, all with special abilities. Two more cards serve as you and the devil. Four more cards let you track of your gas, damage and items. (It sounds crazy but it makes sense once you have all the cards laid out. You could substitute beads or stones for five of the cards) The last eight cards serve as an event deck. Two start off on the Hell side and the rest start off on the Drive side.

Each turn has two phases. The first is the mojo phase, where you can adjust and possibly use an object. The second is the chase phase. Draw three cards from the bottom of the deck and resolve them. Drive cards let you move and add gas to your car. Hell cards make bad, bad things happen. The devil moves, your car takes damage, Drive cards turn to Hell cards, and a fiend can start coming at you from the opposite direction. It’s bad stuff.

I’ve skipped over a decent amount of content. Every location has some kind of special event go off (some good, some bad) and you have those objects, all of which help you, to juggle. But it all builds around the idea that the devil is after you and the odds keep getting worse.

One thing I’ve learned from my first plays. You can’t just hope the event deck will be nice to you. You have to do your best to make the locations and the objects work for you. And if you let bad things build up, they escalate into a death spiral.

There feels like there’s a lot going on in Drive Like Hell since so much is crammed on the two sides of the card design. However, I’m pretty sure there is an optimal decision tree and that you can ‘solve’ the game. The question then becomes if the process is interesting enough to keep playing after you reach that point. It might be.

Drive Like Hell might turn out the a dancing bear of a game, where the idea of making a cinematic adventure out of eighteen identical cards is better than the actual practice. I still have to say I find it fascinating.

Monday, September 7, 2020

Virtually lighting a candle

Over Labor Day weekend, a group of us got together virtually because we couldn’t do it any other way. 

As I have mentioned before, a couple of my friends like to rent out a meeting room at a hotel that is in the crossroads of enough of their friends and game all weekend. Obviously, that is not possible right now or at least not a good idea. So they combined Discord with Yucata and got as many folks as possible to game for five or six hours.

(As many have discussed, one element of a virtual convention or game night is that you simply can’t put the rest of your life on hold because it’s right there all around you. A few hours worked for this. Trying to virtually game for days wouldn’t have worked for anyone)

I only got in a couple hours myself (enough for one game of Hacienda which I lost horribly at) and the total number of participants may have been around ten, which is far smaller than any of the in-person gatherings.

But we made it happen. It is over-the-top and dramatic to say but it did feel like lighting a candle rather than cursing the darkness. And we might make it happen again.

Friday, September 4, 2020

Some PnP are just mad experiments

 A Thousand Years of Blood is an odd duck. It’s a solitaire Print and Play game from a 24-Hour contest. Not counting the rules, which aren’t that complex, all you need is the pocket mod booklet that forms the game, a pencil, a six-sided die and an eight-sided die.

The concept of the game is bigger than every other aspect of the game. In A Thousand Years of Blood, you are an escaped biological experiment who is trying to assassinate Kirchner, Hitler’s super-powered successor. In actuality, that consists of solving three mazes that have random elements added for each game.

The pocket mod booklet consists of a title page, a character sheet, and the three stages, which consist of instructions how to randomly place guards and lasers and such and the board for the stage. Your character consists of hit points, a movement rate, an amount of damage you can do and two special powers like speed or strength.

After you create the random set up, the game is deterministic until you reach Kirchner on the last stage who has A random action each turn. Each turn, you can move and attack in either order. Then, if you are in range of enemies, they attack. No rolls to hit. If you or the enemy are in range, damage. 

Like I said, this is a seriously minimalist game. The boards consists of a grid with some lines drawn in and you draw in letters. It brought back memories of ASCII games from the prehistoric ages of computer games like the original Rogue.

And, I have to admit, I found the game pretty easy. Since everything is laid out in the first two stages, they are just puzzles that aren’t too tricky to solve. Kirchner’s random movement and attacks makes the third stage more interesting but there’s a chance his rolls won’t actually affect you.

But... I openly admit that games that are free, as opposed to published, get more leeway from me. And A Thousand Years of Blood was made in a 24-hour contest and apparently never revised after that. From that standpoint, I can forgive a lot of the weaknesses in the game. I mean, the game works. Give me 24-hours to makes a game and I don’t know if there’s much danger of the game being functional.

On the one hand, the game borders on being solved. The art effectively doesn’t exist, which is beyond fine in an abstract game but this is theoretically ending a super Nazi’s reign. On the other hand, it uses almost no ink, takes a minute to make, is a cute use of a pocket mod and is an interesting game experiment. 

I have seen better uses of pocket mods as games. (Assault on Goblin Hold is a good example) And A Thousand Years of Blood is really a dancing bear of a game, more interesting that it exists and works than fun as a game. It’s absolute fluff but it doesn’t pretend to be anything else. It will probably just get one or two more plays out of me and I’ll be done. But it was an interesting little idea to look at.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

The Incredible Hulk as literature

 Hulk: The Last Titan was a graphic novel that I’d never heard of. Marvel has put out a lot of one-shot graphic novels so never hearing about it wasn’t a surprise. However, despite being eighteen years old, I found it quite intriguing. Less about the story itself and more what it said about the Incredible Hulk as a literary concept.

Okay, here’s the story. In a post-apocalyptic world where nuclear holocausts have reduced the world to a barren wasteland, only horrible mutant cockroaches and the Hulk are left. The Hulk sometimes reverts to Bruce Banner, who ruminates about existence. There are no twists and surprises, just an examination of the situation. It’s pretty bleak.

But it’s a story that works very well with the Hulk. I can’t really see it working for a character like Spider-Man or Captain America but it definitely works for the Hulk. That’s because, obviously, the Hulk is a very different archetype than just about any other silver age hero I can think of, both being Jekyll and Hyde as well as a Tragic Monster.

While Stan Lee has said that he considers the Silver Surfer the most literary character he worked on, I would really argue that the Hulk really holds that title. (Although, as long as Steve Ditko was on the job, Peter Parker sure seemed to have escaped from Catcher in the Rye) While certainly not the first anti-hero in superhero comics by a long shot, it’s still a core concept in almost all the vast variations of the Hulk. He is a hero second, unhappy loner first.

In fact, that is the Hulk’s status quo. He can be dumb and green or gray and ruthless or smart and green or an alien barbarian warlord but the Hulk is always a troubled outsider in a world that he cannot fit in with. As a small child, I found Lou Ferrigno’s portrayal both scary and sad. Also as a small child, well before Bill Mantlo or Peter David got their hands on the Hulk and started looking at psychological angles, the Hulk was sad to me. Even the X-Men at least had each other.

And I read the comics for decades and still am very found of the character and his stories. Because it works.

(Someone just pointed out to me that the Hulk can be considered a metaphor nuclear bomb and humanity’s hubris instead of an anti-hero. My response was why can’t he be both? And that just adds to the literary nature of the character.)

Hulk: the Last Titan being the Hulk alone after the world ends and nothing else? It makes perfect sense.

Tuesday, September 1, 2020

My August PnP

 August. I had lots of Print and Play plans for August but I seriously underestimated how much time remote schooling was going to take. It has added structure to all of our lives and our son is actually learning so it’s well worth it but it does mean print and play crafting is not good time management.

Still, I made some stuff:

Good Little Martians
Tanuki Matsuri
Nine Card Siege
Dune Racers (2020 9-Card contest)
Drive Like Hell
A Thousand Years of Blood

Good Little Martians is the token ‘big’ project for August. And, while it is a game that I am definitely interested in trying, it will probably be the last game out of these five that will see play, just due to time and space. 

On the other hand, Tanuki Matsuri, one sheet laminated and very light to play, actually worked very well as far as time management was concerned. 

And I’m just plain curious about Drive Like Hell. It’s made of eighteen identical double-sided cards that act as a track, pawns, and inventory. (Seriously, if the game turns out to be any good, I might replace five of them with beads) I want to see if the thing works.

Not an amazing month for Print and Play but, you know, stuff got done.