Monday, November 30, 2020

Clans - this simplicity couldn’t have been easy

 Leo Colovini has been a mixed bag for me. Alexandros spent a long time in one of my groups as the standard for a terrible game. I may never life down bringing it to the table. And Cartagena never clicked for me no matter how hard I tried it. However, Clans still stands out for me as a really solid game. 

Oh and it was also my introduction to Colovini.

Here’s the review I wrote 14 years ago: My opinion of Leo Colovini has gone down since I wrote this but my opinion of Clans hasn’t changed.

The concept of the game is so simple. Everyone can move about collections of huts and create isolated villages that score points for their participating colors BUT everyone’s color is secret. Very easy to grok hidden information and bluffing. 

But, as I get older and more exposed to more and more games, I have to say that the simplicity of Clans had to have had a LOT of work out into it. The board alone is designed to create both balanced set-up and play. There’s a lot of little touches in the game that look obvious but couldn’t have been simple to develop.

With a younger audience, I might actually try Quicksand before Clans. (Back when our son was into Paw Patrol, I pondered making a Paw Patrol retheme) It’s a quick and easy introduction to the concepts and easy to teach in a loud room. But I think Clans has greater depth and I would use it to secretly introduce negative space.

Back before Covid put a hold on in-person conventions, I had gotten into the habit of taking older games to little cons. I’ve done this with TransAmerica, Money, For Sale and Through the Desert. And they’ve held up for new (okay, younger) players. Clans would fit in to that group and do at least as well.

Friday, November 27, 2020

Lifeguard is not bad but that might not be enough

 I’ll be honest. While I look at every entry in PnP contests and download them, the low ink, low construction games are the ones that get made right off the bat. (Larger games require consideration) Which is why I’ve already tried out Lifeguard: Surf and Rescue. It’s a Roll and Write that consists of one page of play sheet and one page of rules. I duplexed it and laminated and was done in one sheet of paper.

Lifeguard is all about rescuing drownings surfers. In addition to the play sheet, you will need something to write with and a couple of dice. Yes, this game has a really low buy-in requirements. 

The actual board is a grid. You set up the game by rolling the dice and then spending the pips on resources (which consist of three different ways to manipulate dice, ranging from +/- 1 to refills) After that you roll the dice and place drowning surfers on those coordinates. You can adjust the difficulty by adding or subtracting and drowning people.

Okay, here’s how you play. Roll two dice. Choose one of them and draw a line straight up from the X axis until you hit the other number on the Y axis. Then drawn a straight line to the left. If you touch any drowning surfers, you save them. If you can’t, use resources to adjust the dice until you can. Save all the surfers and you win. Use up all your resources and you lose. Scores are based on how efficiently you rescue drowning surfers.

I have to admit that I read the rules wrong the first time I tried to play. Based purely on my own preconceptions, I assumed you were drawing a diagonal line, not a right angle. And that made the game literally impossible. Getting the rules right made quite a difference.

Honestly, the game was better than I expected but I went in with very low expectations and a misunderstanding that broke the game. My favorite part of the game is the dice manipulation, which is clear and cleanly laid out.

But the big problem the game has is that it’s too easy. After a decent handful of games, the only time I lost was when I rolled a four to buy resources. I feel pretty sure that rolling a six or better (and you do get a mulligan) will give you enough resources to win the game. And a d6 is small enough that a little dice manipulation can go a long way.

Too easy isn’t an absolute deathknell for a game. I still periodically play Solitaire Spellbook Swapping from last year’s solitaire contest still comes out. It’s easy to solve but it’s an amusing  puzzle. But it’s the exception to the rule.

Being easy to pull together can be an underrated virtue in PnP games and one I keep in mind when recommending games to folks who don’t normally PnP. However when it’s a game’s strongest point, it’s not the best.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

So Kim Newman really does write fan fiction with his own characters?

 I hadn’t planned on blogging about Kim Newman and his Diogenes Club stories again or at least not for a while. And then I read Cold Snap.

Now, I’m not going to go into the plot, beyond the fact that I did enjoy the story and I was happy to see Richard Jeperson again. But the novella has loads and loads of characters, many of which have basically just cameos for all intents and purposes. Honestly, you could have stripped most of them out and the story would have both been the same and strong.

A lot of the characters I recognized from other Diogenes stories. Then, I found myself thinking ‘Isn’t that the vampire lady from those Warhammer Fantasy books?’ Yes, it was and Newman wrote those stories. And doesn’t this concept seem a lot like something I read in a Doctor Who book during the hiatus? Newman wrote that too?!

As I started digging, it rapidly became clear that Cold Snap was a massive cross-continuity crossover of Kim Newman’s writing with many of the characters alternate versions so they could be crammed into the Diogenes Club setting. Kim Newman totally beat fanfic writers to the punch. 

This led to some interesting further revelations. One, a lot of books and stories referenced in Cold Snap are out of print. And some of them were written in different genres so the versions of the characters that twigged my interest wouldn’t be what I’d find in their original works. Actually finding the books might not be that rewarding. 

Really, in one story, Kim Newman out Michael Moorecocked Michael Moorecock and really did write his own fan fiction. 

Sadly, uncovering the meta elements of Cold Snap has probably decreased my enjoyment of the work.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Osmo tricks our son into measuring stuff

 Like just about everyone else in the quarantine world who has a child under 18, we have been inundated with ads for educational stuff for kids. I remember thinking back in the spring that the problem wasn’t finding stuff but figuring out what would actually help.

My personal theory is that consistency is the most important thing. Find something and stick to it. (EMPHASIS: I AM NOT A CHILDHOOD EDUCATION EXPERT) But the most striking thing we found (thanks to one of my sister-in-laws) is Osmo.

The idea behind Osmo is you tilt a tablet upright and put a mirror down on the camera so the tablet can watch the kid (or anyone else) draw or do stuff with different paraphernalia. Letter tiles, number tiles, tanagram pieces.

Part of me wonders if actually having the kids do stuff as opppsed to tapping on a screen or typing makes it more educational. Of course, I have absolutely no idea if that’s correct and there’s enough school-assigned stuff going on that I have no way to measure Oslo’s effect.

The latest one that we have tried out is Math Wizard and the Secets of the Dragons. It has kids measure pictures of dragons and then feed them with different length tiles of food.

So in other words, it tricks kids into learning how to eyeball measurements? That’s actually pretty cool, although I have Habitat for Humanity horror stories about measuring once and cutting twice. And that’s something I really haven’t seen taught in edutainment.

It’s actually caught our child’s interests, at least a little. And it teaches a skill that’s actually quite practical. After months of exploring educational tools, it’s nice to know there are still surprises.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Sometimes, a little bit of random is what makes the difference

 For a while, Leo Colovini’s Alexandros was considered the epitome of a bad (or at least disappointing game) While it wasn’t really the worst game any if had ever played, it was a very frustrating and disappointing experience and our opinion of Leo Colovini never really recovered.

The problem was that you could basically either set off a scoring round (where everyone had a chance to score points) or build up your hand of cards to take advantage of a scoring round. Simply put, we always for it disadvantageous to set off a scoring round. It had all the disadvantages of crafting in Puerto Rico with none of the possible benefits.

(And, yes, I’m sure that if we had taken the time to play a lot more, we would have found out how the game is supposed to played. However, the experience was so not fun we never wanted to go back)

Colovini has another, similar game, Masons. Likewise, you divide a board up into closed areas and set off scoring rounds where everyone has a chance to score points. However, unlike Alexandros, scoring happens automatically after a closed region is formed and everyone has secret scoring conditions. There is a random factor that makes scoring a risk worth taking.

A friend who is more of a gaming purist considers Alexandros to be the more elegant, better designed game. However, he will also admit that Masons is more fun and more playable. And while Alexandros was banished, Masons has seen some decent play for me.

Alexandros is a more precise, calculating game. You can have a pretty decent idea what people will get out of a scoring round. Masons is looser, more random. But that random factor makes the game more playable, more enjoyable.

I had a similar experience with Sid Sackson’s Bazaar and Monad. Well, except that I think Monad is a good game, other than being really hard to play when you’re as colorblind as I am. But that random factor of the die roll in Bazaar made the game looser but more fun and easier for me to get folks to play the game.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Bleed in RPGs needs purpose

 Every once in a while, I go back to the Indie Megamix Mixtape. It’s a rather large collection of tiny indie RPGs inspired by songs and created to raise money for creators in need. I have intentionally treated every game as a single entity and taken my time to look at them. In fact, I think this is the first time I’ve looked at the collection this year.

The Sound of Silence is a game for two-players.
You define a relationship between the two characters and a fight. Then you privately decide how you feel about the fight. Then you sit back to back and try to resolve things.

There’s a fine line in a lot of indie games between RPG/Storytelling and therapy techniques, particularly in short forms like game poems. The Sound of Silence might actually completely cross that line. And I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

A concept I have spent too much time thinking about is bleed. That’s when real feelings bleed over into game play.

When I first came across the idea (which was in a discussion about Wraith: the Oblivion, by the way), I didn’t like it. It struck me as both emotionally dangerous and getting in the way of the whole escapist point of RPGs.

Since then, I have quite changed my tune. Bleed can be not just powerful but useful. Games like Polaris and My Life With Master are two good examples of that. Although I say that with the caveat of Emily Care Boss’s guideline that everyone needs to be safe and protected.

But I can’t help but feel that The Sound of Silence is bleed for the sake of bleed and that just seems unnecessary.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Kim Newman is a strange flavor of brilliant

 I decided that I needed to read more of Kim Newman’s Diogenes Club stories. I’m not going to try and read them all since I’m not sure what books and stories by Newman count and which don’t  :D (I also have to note that only Moriarty and Irene Adler get pinched from the Holmes cannon more often than the Diogenes Club)

Kim Newman’s version of the Diogenes Club has them be the semi-official paranormal investigators of the British government in a slightly quirky alternative history. The first stories I read long ago were about Richard Jeperson, a mod psychic in the 70s with a wardrobe that cannot be believed. However, my interest was renewed when I learned that Newman lovingly deconstructed other eras.

And that’s what makes these stories so fascinating. Newman either clearly loves the genres he’s exploring and skewering or fakes loving them very well. At the same time, he’s deconstructing them, peeling back the edges to show some of the dark implications.




And, man, the most extreme example that I’ve read so far is ‘Richard Riddle, Boy Detective in “The Case of the French Spy” ‘. It’s a sendup of Enid Blyton’s works, only the free range kid adventurers stumble across a deep one straight out of Lovecraft.

I have a morbid fascination with Blyton. Her work is beloved in England but it’s also mindless dribble that is xenophobic, sexist, classist and obsessed with food. Between Richard Riddle and Five Go Mad in Dorset (thank you, Dawn French), I sometimes think the best side effect of her work is the parodies. (To be fair, I think Chuck Jones’ Dover Boys cartoon is the best thing that came out of of the Rover Boys books)

Admittedly, what makes the Richard Riddle story work (and, as far I know, Newman only wrote this one story in this style, although Richard appears in other works) is that it’s just on the edge of absurdity. That said, the kids are seriously dedicated to being genre savy about the wrong genre, still acting like they’re in a jolly romp while the deep one they freed tears some admittedly naughty men apart.

Although Violet calmly deciding to burn the priory down to prevent any unfortunate questions about the dead people also indicates that these are some pretty cold-blooded kids.

Newman’s use of genre and tropes is fascinating. He doesn’t fully deconstructs them. The rules still apply. But we see enough of the backstage to turn those tropes disturbing. I may be wrong but I am left thinking that he is both a brilliant fan and a brilliant writer. 

Monday, November 16, 2020

My changing opinion of Handful o Hazards

 Handful o’ Hazards is the first (but not the last!) game I’ve tried from the 2020 PnP Solitaire Contest. It’s a set of tiny little scenarios for a tiny little dice system. Each scenario is on a wallet-sized card and I’m a big fan of games that you can take anywhere.

Each card is its own little game and scenario with each one is a generic scene from an action movie. An unnamed archeologist with a fedora who clearly not a reference to any Harrison Ford running through a hall of traps. Escaping a biker gang or a giant shark. That sort of thing.

The actual mechanics are roll five dice. Check off two pairs on rows with the fifth die getting checked off on the side. You need to complete all the rows with Ws (for win) before you complete any area that has an L (for lose)

Sooooo... the game lifts Sid Sackson’s Solitaire Dice/Can’t Stop Express/a-bunch-of-other-names entirely and adds a tiny veneer of theme and some restrictions. The end result is very playable but doesn’t have the more flexible open structure of Sid Sackson’s game.

While I realize that the is supposed to be a handful of tiny stand-alone games so you can pull a card out anywhere and have a quick game, I think it would be stronger if it was more of a campaign. That could be just having the scenarios form one story or completing a scenario giving you a tiny bonus  (like a one time +/- to a die) That would make the game stand out more from Sackson’s game.

BIG EDIT: aaand I found out that there is already an expansion set of five scenarios that did exactly what I wanted from Handful O Hazards. Handful of Hoodoo lets you play a campaign of three scenarios. You choose from two level one and two level two scenarios with the final level being the same. And you will get bonuses and penalties depending on if you win or lose scenario.

I actually quite like how the bonuses and penalties are handled. Depending on what you get, you modify the rows as opposed to dice manipulation. Seeing as how I’ll probably be playing the game while waiting in the car with a dice app, this is elegant and functional design choice.

And there’s at least one more expansion on the way.

I have to admit that Handful of Hoodoo completely flipped my opinion of Handful o Hazards. It went from a hack of a game I like that hasn’t had anything interesting done to it to ‘oh, now this is interesting.’ I’ll actually recommend it to folks I know who like the Sackson game.

I look for either two things from a PnP solitaire game, apart from being any good. Either I want to easily be able to get a quick game in or I want a meaty game. Handful o Hazards does a nifty job of the former.

Friday, November 13, 2020

Twice As Clever isn’t bad but it’s not that much more clever

 When I learned that I could play Twice As Clever as a solitaire online, I knew that I was going to be doing just that. ( Yes, I had to actually find the rules but that wasn’t too hard.

Now, Twice As Clever is one of the sequels to That’s Pretty Clever, which has become one of my favorite Roll and Writes, as well as being a game that should fire Yahtzee for dedicated gamers. So I went in both with a predilection towards liking it but with the question ‘would I rather play this rather than That’s Pretty Clever?’

Like it’s parent game, Twice As Clever is a dice drafting game. There are five color-coded zones that you use color coded dice to score in, plus a white die that’s wild. The active player gets three rolls and three picks while everyone else gets to pick through their discards.

Okay, here’s the selling point. Twice As Clever is more intricate. In addition to previous bonuses, there’s an ability to put dice back into the pool before rerolling. And each scoring area is more complex than the older game. For instance, getting points in the green area requires two separate rolls and subtracting the second from the first, even if it’s a negative number.

So, while Twice As Clever has almost the exact same structure as That’s Pretty Clever, the puzzles are completely different.

I have a bunch of interlocking questions to unpack about Twice As Clever. Do I think it’s a better game than That’s Pretty Clever? Would I rather play it? Would I rather own and teach it?

After about a dozen plays, my preliminary answer is ‘probably not’. Especially for the last one.

Twice As Clever is really what you play after you get bored with That’s Pretty Clever. Yeah, I might very well get the app for variety in solitaire play. But for a gaming group, I think you’d move on to a completely different light dice game. I also think that the original game is more intuitive and less swingy and that’s what I’m looking for if I’m going to be teaching it, particularly to a broader audience. 

Twice As Clever is fun and I will play it some more. However, it doesn’t break enough new ground. The changes add more intricacy than depth. If you only play one Clever game, the original is still my recommendation.

And I will try out Clever hoch Drei at some point :D

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

The second season of the Hollow justifies the cartoon’s existence

 Last year, I watched the first season of the Netflix cartoon The Hollow. I just finished the second season. And it is ridiculously better than the first season.






The whole schtick of the first season is that the characters are actually in a video game. And that’s honestly pretty much it. It had nice animation and was a pleasant distraction but it was pure fluff. In fact, since the characters start the game with no memories, there wasn’t even much character development. Everyone but Kai is static.

The twist is the second season, which is actually really easy to see coming, is that the characters in this season are actually digital clones of the characters from the first season, accidentally created by a glitch. But a big part of what makes the story work is not that they aren’t ‘real’ but how they deal with it.

At the start of the first season, the characters start off with no memories. This time, they have all their memories and we actually get to know who the characters are. More than that, we learn that some of them have known each other for years and that includes people on the other team. The opposing team from the first season were cardboard thin at best but actually get developed into meaningful supporting roles this time.

Major spoiler: I knew that this season would be more interesting when a major supporting character dies for real at the end of the fourth episode. It isn’t just game over or only the glitches. Things were now serious.

In other words, we are given characters who can develop and who we can care about and there are actual stakes involved.

While the resolution for ‘are we real?’ dilemma  was simplistic, it did remind me of Gilbert K. Chesterton’s Manalive. You don’t ponder the meaning of the universe if someone is shooting at you. Simple but it works.

Afterwards, I told my wife that she might enjoy the second season but she could skip the first one. The first season was fluff I had on for background noise while cooked or such. I actually was interested in this season.

I understand that the series has officially been canceled. Which I think is reasonable. Even with the improved second season, the Hollow is still simply good, not a classic. So, I am just happy the second season exists at all.

Monday, November 9, 2020

Lost Cats is terribly clever but not my cup of tea

 If you ever wanted to play Three Card Monte as a solitaire game with an ‘robot’ player moving the cards around, Lost Cats is the game that you’ve been looking for.

And, in all honesty, that one sentence was pretty much sums up the game perfectly. I found the game when looking for different kinds of solitaire games you can play with a regular deck of cards. And it was such a simple and clever idea that I had to try it out.

All you need is a regular deck of cards and a chart to play. And you don’t even use any of the spades or the jokers. The remaining three queens are the cat owners and the remaining three jokers are the missing cats. Missing cats are placed face down, sandwiched between the nine and ten of the same suits with their owners over them.

The rules are not only free but just take up on page so I won’t repeat them. Instead I’ll just cover the clever bit. You create an action deck from the remaking cards, shuffling and dealing out ten of them one at a time. The actions cards rearrange and otherwise mess with the stacks. When you are done, you have to try and find the jacks and match them to right queen. No, you can’t flip them over first :P

The only real mechanical issue I have with the game is that you need the chart to see what the action cards do. I have a feeling that the designers of this game will try and kickstart it with a specialized deck, which would solve that problem.

Lost Cats is an interesting example of a game that I don’t enjoy but I really appreciate the design. I’m not just bad at this kind of game, I also don’t have fun with them. If a shell takes shows up as a mini-game in Mario Party, I’m not having a good time.

But I think the action deck does a really good job of making a functional, replayable solitaire Three Card Monte. More than that, I can see it working as a multi-player game with one person running the action deck, possibly at great speed; while everyone else tries to keep up. It’d be like Ricochet Robots with a regular deck of cards.

In short, I may be done with Lost Cats but people who aren’t me will probably have a lot of fun with it.

Friday, November 6, 2020

Wow, that’s a lot of R&W contests

 I read in the Boardgame Geek newsletter that the sixth Roll and Write Design Contest has started. It won’t be done until the end of January and will be fun to follow it.

... Wait a second. The sixth R&W contest? (Wow, I missed the fifth one!) The first one ran from February to June of 2019. Most design contests are annual but there are going to have been six Roll and Write contests in two years? That’s incredible.

Okay. It can be true that a Roll and Write game can be easier to physically make than a lot of other categories of games. (Emphasize on can. Many designs have you make a deck of cards as well as a game sheet) But I can’t believe that it is magically easier to DESIGN Roll and Write games. Maybe they are easier for play testers to make and then play test but that’s the only part of the process that seems faster.

Not that I’m complaining. Over the last few years, I have come to really appreciate Roll and Write games, particularly Print and Play ones. It’s a remarkably flexible format, as well as being very easy to make. The 2017 GenCan’t R&W Design Contest was a major milestone in my gaming life.

Still, I have to wonder why this contest has happened so often. And I have a theory. I have heard that there’s been some success taking the next step and getting games formally published from the R&W contests. And maybe that’s added bit of inspiration needed.

No matter what, it’s nice that these contests keep happening.

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

Bruce Sterling taught me some history

 All throughout reading Pirate Utopia by Bruce Sterling, who found myself constantly thinking ‘What am I reading!!’ and feeling like I was missing something terribly vital to my understanding of this little book.

Which, to be fair, I was. I had never heard of either The Regency of Carnaro or the Free State of Fiume. My understanding of the events is still very, very sketchy by I _ think_ it boils down to a tug of war between Italy and Yugoslavia over the control of the port city that is now called Rijeka after WW I. From what I have read, for a short time, the area became an autonomous zone and can be viewed as a socia experiment.

Sterling’s book could be described as ‘what if it had worked?’

Beyond that, it is a very hard to summarize Pirate Utopia. The protagonist is Lorenzo Secondari, who I have not been able to figure if they were a real historical figure. He is a skilled enough engineer that he is able to get Fiume a functioning infrastructure and manufacturing base. And this ruthless bit of practicality enough for Sterling to exposit how the crazy political theories of the dreamers and poets in Fiume could actually get pulled off.

I realized after I finished the book that it isn’t a continuous series of events. Instead, Sterling picks out points in the timeline that he has created. Points that highlight changes in Fiume and in Secondari’s life. The book has an abrupt end but it ends at the point where the political movement and Secondari about ready to go beyond Fiume.

I am having a very difficult time figuring just what I think about Pirate Utopia. Is it a what if adventure? A warning of the different slippery slopes that fascism can take? A history lesson disguised as a science fiction yarn? A thank you note from Sterling for his years living in Italy?

Well, I know that I will be thinking about this short book longer than it took me to read it. And it did make me look at some history I never knew even existed.

Monday, November 2, 2020

I go to read more Frederik Pohl

 The Tunnel Under the World by Frederik Pohl is a short story that I discovered when I was I was trying to find a book that had The Wall Around the World in it. I didn’t find a copy of that anthology but I did find out that Project Gutenberg had the text for the The Tunnel Under the World.

I don’t think the story would have had the impact on me that it did if I hadn’t just read the Wall Around the World which blithely glosses over the horrifying implications of the setting. The Tunnel Under the World dives headlong into them.





Seriously, it’s free on Project Gutenberg 


Guy Burckhardt slowly realizes that something that is off with the world. For one thing, every day is always June 15th. For another thing, he is being constantly bombarded by advertising for products he’s never heard of. 

More spoilers since the twist is a whopper



It turns out that the entire town was killed in a massive plant explosion. An unscrupulous businessman copied the brains of as many of the corpses as he could his hands on and put them in tiny robots in a tiny town on a tabletop so he has a a test market that he can do anything to. At the end of the story, Burkhardt is back to being trapped in the endless cycle while the businessman has moved on to political propaganda.

Yes, it turns out to be a horror story. 

The whole concept of robbing the dead of their minds for the purpose of market research is successfully shocking because, wow, is that devaluing human existence to a horrifying degree. And, yet, you have to admit, you can imagine someone doing it if they actually could get away with it and turn a profit. And the antagonist wins.

The story was first published in 1955 and, wow, is it cynical. I had flashbacks of both Groundhog’s Day and The Truman Show but this was much more disturbing than those movies. The fact that the antagonist isn’t a theatrical Doctor Doom or Red Skull bad guy but a perfectly believable businessman just makes the story work.

I have read Fredrik Pohl before this but, man, I need to read more. If the Tunnel Under the World is anything to go by, he had an interesting view of human nature.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

My October PnP

 Oh, I had plans for October. Our son was going to be going back to school part time with blended learning and I’d have time to get some uninterrupted crafting time in. And then blended learning got pushed back :D Eh, losing print and play time is a small sacrifice to keep everyone as safe as reasonably possible.

Really, what it meant was making a rough copy of Agent Decker so I could try it out got pushed back.

Here’s what I made:

Islands of Microlandia
Everchange Dungeon (2019 9-Card Contest)
Fog Town (2019 9-Card Contest)
Warlock’s Eye
Into Cursed Pit (2018 Solitaire Confest)
Penny Rails

My ‘big’ project for October turned out to be Penny Rails. As I mentioned, I had bigger ambitions but that’s not where I needed to focus my time management. And I have been curious about Penny Rails for ages. A train game that actually feels like a train game in 18 cards and nine coins? And if it has that feel, will there be a single dominant strategy? 

You know, October was a crazy month in a crazy year. I got in some crafting. That is still a real win.