Thursday, December 31, 2020


 I don’t think there has been a year that will have more retrospectives than 2020 for maybe a generation. That is a huge sentence but I think it’s still true. This has been a grueling, devastating, damaging year. People all around the world will be feeling 2020 for years to come. 2020’s going to get its own Dewey Decimal number.

We have been luckier than so many people we know, let alone the wider world. And this has still been the most exhausting, stressful year of our lives. 

Quarantine led to remote schooling and having to be the entertainment center meant a lot less R&R time. Short stories became incredibly valuable for me. And gaming has helped keep me a little saner.

Print and Play, solitaire micro-games have been a big deal for me in 2020. I already enjoyed them a lot but 2020 made them a focal point of my gaming. PNPArcade was a really solid source for them. When I had a stack of print-outs sitting I front of me to be cut and I felt like I had just walked into the exhibit hall of GenCon, I knew how confined quarantine had made us and how much we needed the little things.

Digital and online gaming has always been a big part of my gaming hobby so it didn’t feel particularly significant for me as far as 2020 was concerned. But I did play a lot of board games, thanks to the power of computers. In particular, I attended a coupe of virtual conventions. Which wasn’t as good as in-person but was incredibly important for fostering a sense of connection and community.

Finally, my positive, warm, fuzzy feelings towards Roll and Write games got a huge boost. While it goes back into how valuable Print and Play has been for me, Roll and Write still deserves a special mention. When time and space are limited, Roll and Writes offer some of the meatiest options for me. More than that, they are the best options when someone has asked me for a game they can make and play when they can’t get out.

2020 has been a devastating year all around. I think I speak for everyone when let us hope that 2021 is better.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

The hard boiled side of Nero Wolfe

 I have been reading a lot of Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe this year. It has been an insane, stressful year for the entire world. Sometimes, it’s been hard to focus enough to read but Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin have been reliably able to decompress me. Even so, I have focused much more on the novellas than the book-length works. 

Trouble in Triplicate, a collection of the novellas, particularly struck me. Maybe because I’ve read so many this year. However, it was one of the most hard boiled Nero Wolfe pieces I’ve read.

Mind you, Nero Wolfe always has one foot firmly in the hard boiled detective genre. Archie Goodwin serves as a relentlessly snarky narrator who is good with his fists and the ladies. If he wasn’t working for Wolfe, he’d be a one-room, walk-up office, scraping the name Archer off the glass. And they have the traditional, tumultuous relationship with the cops.

However, their comfortable, luxurious lifestyle is definitely at odds with hard-boiled flavor. Archie is a failure at being a raging alcoholic. And they almost always end in a parlor scene because Heaven forbid Nero Wolfe leave his office. Nero Wolfe is an elitist. Really, so is Archie, who is a gourmet and botanical expert by association.

The genteel elements are as much a part of the mysterious chemistry of Nero Wolfe as the hard-boiled elements. But the hard-boiled elements are on particularly strong display in this book. Particularly in the first story, Before I Die which features  a mobster getting blackmailed and folks getting gunned down in the street and Archie stuck dodging bullets.

And it works. It’s still Nero Wolfe. Like I said, it’s not much of a stretch. 

I found myself thinking of The Big Four by Agatha Christie, the one where Hercule Poirot takes on Fu Manchu. It’s pulp fiction and bad enough that I like to pretend the whole thing is a nightmare Hastings is having after eating too much Welsh rarebit. 

It’s not a fair comparison. Trouble in Triplicate sticks it’s pinky toe in slightly different water. The Big Four, thrown together when Christie desperately needed money, hops into a spaceship and takes off into the stratosphere of another genre.

Of course, even in these more action field stories, Nero Wolfe continues to be a arrogant, obstinant genius who desperately needs his snarky assistant to get anything done. Fundamental elements haven’t changed.

(By the way, after a year of constant reading, I’ve come to think of Nero Wolfe as being less misogynistic than chauvinistic, womanizing Archie. Wolfe may not like being around women but seems to respect them more. And there are plenty of men he doesn’t want to be around either)

Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Squire for Hire is Inventory the Game

 Squire for Hire is a tile-laying game disguised as an inventory management game disguises as a dungeon crawl.

Oh, it’s also an 18-card micro game that is available as a PnP and offers a solitaire option that’s pretty effective. Those last two items are why I ended up trying Squire for Hire out :D

In the game, you are a cute little anthropomorphized animal person who is serving as the squire for an adventurer, which pretty amounts to being their caddy.  You have to make sure they have the right weapons, magic, armor and such at the right time, not to mention make sure the inventory bag is properly sorted.

Really, it’s Nodwick without the horrible injuries.

Enough other folks have given detailed descriptions of the rules so here’s the thumbnail. The cards are double-sided. There’s a story side, which requires you to use specific items in your pack to be able to get loot. The other side is the loot side. That’s the tile laying side, three by four grid with random items taking up different numbers of squares. There’s some empty spots too.

Points are earned by having good stuff,  duplicate items next to each other and special bonuses from your squire card. And you lose points for garbage.

It’s a pretty simple game, which is good because the rules definitely need some work. It’s a problem I’ve seen in a lot of micro games that are designed to fit into a tiny box or folder. There are number of points that could use some clarity. And, because of that, I thought Squire for Hire was easier than I thought. As I worked through some plays, I realized rules I had gotten wrong and the game became more interesting. 

When you actually get the rules right, the puzzle element of the game is solid. You have lots of options and every decision will turn out to be wrong :P But it’s the theme that honestly sells the game. There are _lots_ of micro tile laying games out there. Invoking the grid inventory system that even I, who don’t play many video fakes, am familiar with, that’s the hook. And the mechanics make sense with managing that inventory.

At the end of the day, Squire for Hire is better than my first impressions and an amusing solitaire.

Friday, December 25, 2020

How we had a Harry Potter Christmas

 Without actually intending it, getting a LEGO Advent calendar every year has become a family tradition. Which is beyond fine in my eyes because LEGO is the world’s best toy system :)

For the last two or three years (yes, I’ve honestly lost count), we have done the LEGO City calendar. This year, we decided to switch to the Harry Potter one. Which proved to be a fun choice but not for the reason I expected.

A lot of the tiny little kits are very evocative of Victorian England. And that’s an ‘old fashioned’ Christmas feel because there is no way to overstate the impact that Charles Dickens has had on the modern Christmas. LEGO City is more evocative of a retro fifties Christmas so it was a fun change.

I’m glad we didn’t get Star Wars Advent calendar, which some of our friends did do. Our son isn’t (yet?) interested in Star Wars and, out of context, the spaceships look like abstract sculptures.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Kurt Edward Wagner’s Kane is a jerk!

 After I finished Rick Riordan’s Kane Chronicles, I decided that it was time I finally looked at Kurt Edward Wagner’s Kane stories. So, from a young adult series to an immortal, amoral mass murderer. Quite a jump.

I first read about Kane in the 80s in an article in an old Dragon Magazine. However, at the time and for quite a while after that, all of the books were out of print or at least hard to find. Now they are all available as ebooks :D 

What I had read about Kane made me assume he was a punk rock Elric. However, after reading Death Angel’s Shadow, I would also describe him as an erudite Conan with absolutely no moral compass. He does have Elric’s brooding self-pity but it isn’t nearly as moving because all of his issues come directly from his own bad decisions.

Kane is a very weird and fascinating protagonist, in no small part because he is not even remotely heroic. He may be the biblical Caine (he certainly claims to be) He has been cursed to only die through violence and he is not going to give the mad god who cursed him or the world the satisfaction of dying. He is also a master warrior, an expert sorcerer, a polyglot and good at just about everything. Which is admittedly justified since he’s spent thousands of years doing stuff but does make him ridiculously powerful. Oh and apparently his goal in life is to be an evil overlord.

Interestingly, all three stories in Death Angel’s Shadow have Kane on the defense and running away from his bad decisions. Which does create conflict but still doesn’t make him sympathetic. At one point, someone accuses a crusader who has pledged to kill Kane to make the world a better place of doing more evil than Kane. The crusader is a total monster but, come on, Kane’s centuries of doing horrible stuff still makes him worse.

If Elric was written to be the anti-Conan, Kane manages to be the anti-Elric while still being an anti-Conan at the same time. He feels like an experiment of bringing pain and sorrow to misanthropic, misogynistic world. I have heard that the later books are better so I will try them. However, after years of wondering about Kane, I did expect more.

Monday, December 21, 2020

Ugly Gryphon Inn: a nightmare of customer service

 Earlier this year, Buttonshy started a new subsection of their wallet line called Simply Solitaire with Food Chain Island by Scott Almes. Now they’ve announced the next one, Ugly Gryphon Inn. Also by Scott Almes. He’s making all of them? I’m OK with that.

In a kitchen sink fantasy world, you are the proprietor of the Ugly Gryphon Inn. It’s the only inn for hundreds of miles and apparently you’d have to be crazy to go there since all your potential patrons are crazy. Still, you have bills to pay so you are trying to have at least seven paying guests by the end of the night.

The game consists of eighteen cards and nothing else. That’s kind of the idea of the Simply Solitaire line. Minimal components with accessible, solid rules. It’s a tableau management game and I feel like it’s aimed at a more ‘gamer’ audience than Food Chain Island.

Each card is a patron. Along with some art, every card comes with some tidbits of information. There are one to three traits, one of which is always food or beer and the rest are things that annoy people. Then there are one or two things that will irk them when they are in the inn and what happens when they get irked.

There are two areas in the game. The bar, which is a horizontal line of four cards, and the inn which is a vertical line. Each turn, you move someone from the bar to the inn and then see if you’ve irked anyone in the inn. Usually, irked patrons leave but most of them will also do something else to mess with your tableau. If you have at least seven cards in the inn when the draw pile runs out, you win!

The worst thing I can say about the game is that there are a lot of fiddly details to keep track of. I’ve been having fun with the puzzle elements of the game and the mechanics work with the theme nicely. 

I do wonder if the game will be solveable. At the start of the game, you know where close to 25% of the cards are and your knowledge of the deck just increases from there. I feel like you’ll be able to figure out combos and the game will become increasingly easy.

Still, I think that Ugly Gryphon Inn is a strong second step in the Simply Solitaire line. I think Food Chain Island is great for everyone but I would recommend Ugly Gryphon Inn to my more ‘serious’ gamer friends.

Friday, December 18, 2020

Why the Kane Chronicles made me a Riordan fan

 Every year or so, I reread one of Rick Riordan’s young adult series. This year, I reread his Egyptian mythology trilogy,  The Kane Chonicles. (Now that it’s all published, I’ll read the Trials of Apollo sometime soonish) 

Rick Riordan has become one of my favorite young adult authors and I really hope our son likes his works when he gets old enough to read them. And the Kane Chronicles was the series that turned me into a fan. 

I had read Percy Jackson and the Olympians when it came out. I felt like it was better than a lot of the books that flooded the shelves post-Harry Potter (Indeed, I described The Lightning Thief as Harry Potter as an American jock to friends) However, I felt like it was also pretty uneven. There were a lot of silly, even juvenile touches. And I don’t mind silly. I love silly. But it felt out of place with the more serious stuff.

In the Kane Chronicles, Riordan had a much more consistent tone. He did a much better job with character development. And there was a stronger sense of mythic, vastness of the setting. Riordan had ironed out how to write for middle schoolers and showed his chops as a writer.

I can’t honestly say that the Kane Chronicles are darker and edgier than the earlier series. The serious elements are just as serious. The funny elements are just blended in better. And that also lets Riordan write about more serious topics more effectively. 

And that tendency carried on to the Heroes of Olympus and Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard series. The latter is actually a strangely effective blend of grim and absurd. Riordan grew into a young adult writer. A bit like comparing The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe with The Magician’s Nephew.

It’s been six or seven years since I first read the Kane Chronicles. Rereading it reaffirmed my faith in Riordan. His books are action movies but they are kind where you care about the characters so the stakes work.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020

The world is full of tinier games!

I messed up making a copy of Petals from this year’s two-player contest. I made it just to blow off steam with a quick project and  I made it as six cards because I didn’t realize it was three folded cards.

 I’m not the only one this happens to right?

Honest, anything more than nine cards I actually pay attention to. But sometimes I like to make one-sheet projects just so I can make something. 

However, now I’m actually interested in Petals as more than just a crafting distraction. Condensing the idea of Tussie Mussie to three cards is more of a legitimate nano-game than six cards :D

But now I had four cards (one card of instructions) to laminate after I cut and fold them. So I asked myself, what can I do with the rest of a 9 x 11.5 sleeve? So it became a game of making use of space :D

I had already printed out Gator from this year’s Solitaire contest because, frankly, I thought it was hysterical. I also printed off a One Minute War because I have been wanting to make thinner laminating plastic because business card laminating pouches made the tabs too stiff. Finally, I decided to fill in the rest of the space  with Handful of Hazard cards since each one in the base set is a stand-alone game. 

When I first dabbled in PnP, Bonsai Samurai was an interesting little experiment because it was a game that consisted of one card. It’s not actually a good game but it was just one card! Well, there are now enough nano games out there that I can actually find ones that I’m interested in trying :D


Monday, December 14, 2020

Solitaire RPG or writing exercise? Does it matter?

Dungeon Hero is a name that’s been used for a few different games. In this case, I’m talking about a solitaire RPG that comes in the form of a paper mod. The link to it is over here:

My interest in pocket mods and solitaire RPGs helped me stumble across this game. Each adventure consists of a pocket mod. You just add dice, a pencil and _LOTS_ of imagination.

If you strip the game down to its mechanics, each adventure is nothing but a column of die rolls. Make it through the end of the column and you win. So many rules-lite RPGs live or die on the fluff and that’s definitely the case with Dungeon Hero.  The favor text is the meat of the game.

Your character consists of 30 resolution points (health points) and 15 stamina points (which are used to lay for rerolls) You then come up with eight traits and assign a die to each trait. You have a d12, 2d10, 2d8 and 3d6 to work with. And the traits can be anything. 

The adventures consist of a list of environmental elements, including monsters, that have dice assigned to each one. You roll a d6 to go down the column. Each encounter uses the die you land on and the die from the last one you were at. You have a roll off for each encounter using two of your traits.

You win if you make it to the end of the list still alive and you score points based on treasure. Which you earn by beating monsters. So it’s really how many monsters you beat.

You could play Dungeon Hero as a straight dice game and it would be incredibly boring. In fact, I would say that it only works as a story prompt. The best way I have found to play the game is as a journal game, writing one paragraph to describe each encounter and a second paragraph to describe the dice resolution. 

As a writing exercise, Dungeon Hero does work. I firmly think that Alone Among the Stars is a better solitaire story-telling game but I am glad to have Dungeon Hero to mix things up. 

Friday, December 11, 2020

Okay, PnP gift ideas

 Holy cow, Christmas is barreling down on us like a runaway toboggan. As a lazy PnP guy, I feel like I should make suggestions for PnP games for gifts.

Which I realize is exactly the kind of gift that can fall really flat.

Soooo... instead of an exhaustive list or games that I _think_ would work, I am just going to list the two games that I’ve used on more than one occasion that seem to have done well.

I’ve used Elevenses for One in multiple PnP Secret Santas and it’s been well received each time. It’s actually been published. (Which doesn’t prove anything really but it does mean some folks had faith in the game)

I used to consider Elevenses for One the gold standard for light PnP solitaire games. I have come to feel that it’s a bit simple and formulaic to get that high a mark. But it’s a fun game that is accessible, easy to make and still looks good if you don’t have a color printer.

The other game I’m going to suggest is 13 Sheep. I’ve included it in Christmas cards in the past and I didn’t get any complaints. 

13 Sheep is a very light, very simple Roll and Write, the kind that any number of people can play as long as everyone has a player sheet. It is one of better Roll and Writes I’ve played that uses just one die. Damning with faint praise, I know but it really is a fun little game.

As I said, PnP games, particularly ones made at the last minute, are an iffy proposition at best but these are fun.

Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Hey, Neil Patrick Harris wrote a kid’s book!

 The Magical Misfits by Neil Patrick Harris is the third series (at the very least) I’ve read that uses a Lemony Snicket-style narrator. Which seems incredibly fitting since NPH played Count Olaf in the most recent adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events.

The book itself was a light, breezy read and I did enjoy it. A group of kids come together by a mutual interest in magic tricks and generally helping people out. Each kid is fairly distinct and has room for character growth.

All or almost all of the magic in the book is the smoke-and-mirrors, slight-of-hand, stage magician magic. Instructions on magic tricks can be found throughout the book (including one I hadn’t heard of, which says more about NPH’s choices in tricks than my knowledge of stage magic) I’m not authority on Neil Patrick Harris but I have heard he is trained in stage magic so the inclusions made sense.

There is wiggle room for NPH to add more Merlin/Dumbledore magic in later books. A fortune teller gives the kids some remarkably prescient advice so the series could be edging into magical realism. I’m good either way. 

Daniel Handler didn’t create snarky and unreliable narrators with Lemony Snicket. In fact, I have always assumed he was parodying 19th century authors. However, he did create a loopy, over-the-top voice that I’ve seen echoed in works like The Secret Series and The Mysterious Benedict Society. The Magical Misfits fits in with them.  (But none of them touch the Kafkaesque bleakness of Handler)

NPH actually has the most grounded use of this style of narration. I can’t say the book is realistic but it is more realistic than any of the others :D And I enjoyed it enough that I am reserving judgement until I read the second book.

Monday, December 7, 2020

Board games and art criticism

 I recently saw a thread on Board Game Geek about how ugly, functional game boards are better than pretty ones. I’m pretty sure that idea gets batted around at least once a month and I think the original idea misses a crucial point. (Which I’m sure came up if I read every page of the thread)

Problems don’t come up from pretty or ugly. Problems come when form gets in the way of function. A component can be absolutely beautiful and, if it works, no problem. And a component can be uglier than a-really-ugly-thing-since-I-don’t-want-to-offend-anyone but if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work period.

Of course, to add to the discussion, not everyone’s aesthetic tastes are the same. I think Hex is elegant in it’s simplicity but some people might think someone just tried to make a game out of a tile floor. (Yeah, that was a John Nash joke)

Really, the real problem are poor design choices and those can happen on pretty or ugly games. I’ve seen them happen _at least_ as often with ‘ugly’ games. Components, be they pawns or boards or cards or tiles or mysterious statues, are all about communication. Failure to communicate will make a game fail.

In fact, since you can use theme to help convert concepts and ideas, I would say that artwork will help a game out more than a lack of artwork. I love abstract games but abstraction can make it harder to understand something. Really, I would say that erring on the side of ‘pretty’ often means erring on the side of clarity. 

(One of my favorite designs as far as clear communication is concerned is Venture by Sid Sackson. The aesthetic of the 3M cards is definitely from several decades ago but it communicates all the information you need to know amazingly efficiently.)

Pretty versus Ugly is just an opinion unless you had acid splashed thrown in your face and you end up fighting Batman (Wow, were the designers of Two Face shallow or what?) But ‘Does this work?’, now that’s a question!

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Why VHS as a cultural shift makes me feel old :P

 For a lot of people I know, the Disney version of Winnie the Pooh is the definitive version. However, growing up, I was really only exposed to the franchise as a child through Milne and Shepherd. I am sure that I saw the original movie at least once as a child but it was a shock when I saw it as an adult.

(Three shocks: one, what is this gopher business?! Two, hey, other than the gopher, this is pretty close to the stories. Three, this version of Tigger is better :D)

Frankly, despite being something of a recovering literary snob, I have come to the conclusion that if the Disney version with the red shirt is your Winnie the Pooh, that’s just fine. You go, you. But I did wonder why my early exposure was so light even though the movie had come out in 1977. (Oh dear Cthulhu, I’m older than the movie)

Okay, that was part of it and also explains why my parents read When We Were Young and Now We Are Six more than the Pooh books. But I also think that my years of being a primary demographic was before VHS really got rolling while a lot of (sigh, younger) folks I knew grew up with Disney movies on tap, thanks to the power of VCRs. 

Now we live in a streaming world and I am in the science fiction dreams of my childhood. It’s cool. But it takes something like Winnie the Pooh to realize just HOW different the media dissemination has changed and over a relatively short period of history. It was bad enough for me to realize how the internet made Gary Gygax’s N not just obsolete but positively prehistoric. But realizing that my Pooh is Shepherd’s Pooh simply by the limitations of exposure is pretty startling.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

The Sandbox of Zelda

 Our child, and I’m sure he is not alone among young kids in this, loves open world, sandbox video games.

I blame LEGO.

First of all, the first video game that he really got into and could play by himself was LEGO City: Undercover. I have never played Grand Theft Auto but I understand that Undercover is the LEGO version of it. Yes, there’s a story but there a big, organic city to explore where you can do whatever you want.

Then there is LEGO the actual toy. Now that I’m a parent, I have come to the conclusion that it is the best toy ever. The only limit is that your imagination and the number of pieces you have. You can do anything with them. Plus the mini figures are great exercises in what Scott McCloud described as the Masking Effect.

So that’s why our family is now exploring The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild.

By the way, the last time I played a Zelda game was on the Gameboy back in the early 90s. Wow, let’s just say that this is a huge leap.

For those of you who were like me a week ago and have no idea what Breath of the Wild is, it is a video game RPG with a profoundly huge environment. While there is an overarching storyline, there is so much to explore. And the story is quite fun but exploring the world and doing your own thing is what our son loves.

Of course, he needs a lot of help from Mommy. Zelda is a lot less forgiving that Lego City:Undercover. If he got my help, Link would just die constantly.

Also, I might not be understanding this but as I understand the story, Link spent a century in a healing coma while Zelda has spent that entire time fighting Ganon to keep him trapped in Hyrule Castle. Small wonder it’s her legend. Link might be the protagonist but Zelda is clearly the hero.

Tuesday, December 1, 2020

My November PnP

 November. After three months of saying I’d do it, I finished Agent Decker. As lazy as my methods are (laminate instead of using modge podge or such), it really says something about 2020 that it took me so long.

So, here’s the list of what I made:

Trico (2019 9-card contest)
Agent Decker
Handful of Hazards with expansion (2020 Solitaire PnP Contest)
Clockmaster ( 2020 R&W Contest)
Patrol Lost (super basic, low ink version)
Lifeguard: Surf and Rescue (2020 Solitaire PnP Contest)
Nine Circles (2020 Solitaire PnP Contest)

Not a bad month. I am looking forward to trying Agent Decker and seeing how Patrol Lost works as a solitaire.