Tuesday, March 2, 2021

My February R&W

 Every solitaire game I taught myself how to play in February was a Roll and Write. It’s definitely not the first time I’ve done that but I feel like unpacking my thoughts about the experience this time.

Santa’s Sourhern Cross is a variation on tracing a pattern without lifting your pencil. The twist is that you randomly create the pattern on dots on a map of New Zealand. It ultimately is an exercise in creating a puzzle that doesn’t have a solution and it was very unsatisfying.

I am willing to try oddball experimental PnP games because that’s the best place to see concepts and ideas that you won’t see anywhere else. Its the legit punk world of gaming. But sometimes, that means playing something that doesn’t work on a fundamental level.

On the other hand, that’s kind of what I expected when I tried out Clockmaster from the fifth Roll and Write contest. You use four dice to draw a clock face before you fill in the timer. Which sounds super dull but I found myself playing it four times in a row.  There are some design choices I question but the game went from forgettable to justifying more discussion at a latter blog.

On the third hand, I went into Bargain Basement Bathysphere with high expectations and it hasn’t disappointed yet. I am going to get a lot of blogs out of it. I have looked ahead to chapter one but I’m trying not to spoil the game by reading through it. 

One conclusion I’ve come to is that I need to stop trying to go to the end of the track every time since that kills me every time. I need to prioritize staying alive, particularly with the long game in mind. 

I also want to mention my further play of Handful o Hazards. I had predicted that the second set of cards, which turn the game from random scenarios to a campaign game would dramatically improve it and I was right. It boosts the game from a cute little dice game (which is nice but easy to find) to something more interesting.

So much of my gaming time are tiny bits of free time as opposed to sitting down for a longer, more formal playing time. Hence all that little Roll and Writes. Print and Play is my hobby focus right now but I’m pretty sure it won’t always be. However, I have a feeling PnP R&Ws will remain a mainstay for me.

Monday, March 1, 2021

My February PnP

February is a short month to begin with and it ended up being a busy month as well. Which isn’t a bad thing but it meant that most of my crafting was just laminating Roll and Writes I wanted to try. 

This is what I made:

Paper Pinball: Sherwood 2146 second edition
Paper Pinball: Chromastadon
Paper Pinball: Championship Boogerball
Paper Pinball: Wave Wizard 
Santa’s Sourhern Cross
Rolling Realms v9
Foothold Enterprises 

The only ‘big’ project was Foothold Enterprises. Although, as basically a full deck of cards, it’s definitely a step up from a micro game. And, as an in-hand solitaire, it should be easy to try out.

When I first started seriously crafting, I’d mark Roll and Writes that just involved laminating a sheet with an asterisk in my notes. They didn’t seem as ‘real’ to me. However, I’ve come to view the fun I get from a game as the final measure, not the crafting effort.

March looks to be busy as well, which is fine. If I only get an hour or so of crafting in, I’ll make it count.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Let me grumble about Rolemaster some more

 Rolemaster reared it’s head again in a conversation with old buddies. One of the group used to love Rolemaster and the rest of group ranges from apathy to deep loathing.

To be fair, it has been more than twenty-five years since the only time I played Rolemaster. These are my hazy memories: it took at least two hours to create our characters. We only had time to play for maybe a half hour.  And one of my friends lost his character in the first round of the only combat.

That was enough to put a lot of us of Rolemaster for life.

Now, I firmly believe that we have a biased view of Rolemaster and I don’t claim it’s a fair one. I also think that it wasn’t just the high fatality and brutality that alienated us but how muddy and unclear the experience was. It wasn’t just the horrible deaths but the fact that we didn’t really understand why we died horribly.

On the other hand, we had some good times playing Dungeons and Dragons in the Dark Sun setting where everything is trying to kill you. More than that, we all spent years playing Call of Cthulhu where you are a squishy as wet cardboard... wet cardboard going through a wood chipper.

It’s not the deadliness. It’s the ease and transparency of play.

A lot of things have changed in RPGs, RPG design and RPG philosophy. And one of them is accessibility. I think games have become easier to understand. I like that.

I keep a copy of the original version of Name of God in my travel bag. It is the complete opposite end of the spectrum from Rolemaster. The whole thing takes just up four double-sided cards and probably takes less than five minutes to create characters and get going. Now, it’s just designed as a one-shot (albeit with a lot of replay value) not a campaign. But it’s accessible and good for time management. And that’s what works for me right now.

If you are able to get enough game mastery of Rolemaster to get something out of it, you either have a lot more time than me or you are smarter than me. Good for you and I’m jealous.

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Oh, that is a good reason for a list!

When I wrote about how I can’t seem to write lists of favorite games, someone pointed out that it was a useful exercise in figuring out what games you would try to get again in case of fire or flood or such. Yeah, that is a very good reason.

About ten years ago, I went through a reverse process. I did a massive purge of my game collection that I really needed to do between moving and becoming a parent. Games were taking up space that was needed for more basic life stuff. Seeing as how I was a game hoarder, it was also very good for my mental health.

But looking at it from that viewpoint of rebuilding a lose game collection, it’s a good question. And it shifts the question from what is my ideal game or my favorite game to the much more concrete question of ‘What actually gets played?’ That shoves a whole ton of games out the door.  

I have gotten rid of a lot of ‘someday’ games, unplayed games that I am convinced will.l be wonderful when I eventually play them someday. (Someday!) Those games wouldn’t make the ‘buy again’ list. Ruthless practicality will be the rule of the day.

The other day, as I watched our son tell an elaborate story of wind spirits fighting fire demons with pieces from different GIPF project games, I realized that if I lost all the GIPF games, I’d really be intent on getting ZERTZ and YINSH again. I like the project on a whole but those two games are the ones that really see play. That was a bit of a revelation.

When you look with a cold, hard eye at what actually hits the table, you realize what actually sees use and what is worth having in the closet. Which isn’t always fun since that kind of breaks up some comfortable illusions.

I certainly don’t want to lose my collection due to a fire. For one thing, that would put us in danger. But my rebuilt game collection would be a lot smaller.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Why I can’t write lists

 I sometimes think that one of the great hobbies within the hobby is coming up with Top Ten or Top One Hundred lists. Given that the internet is awash with lists of all sorts and minds, either lists are an innately human way of thinking or David Letterman is one of the most influential people whoever lived.

However, whenever I have thought about coming up with a top ten list, I’m stymied. Such a list would change dramatically depending on the context. I think I would have to have a regular group and a years worth of play with them before I might try to write a list. At the moment, I’m focused on solitaire and print-and-play and I don’t know if what I’m currently playing would make such a list. Well, Onirim would but beyond that, it gets nebulous.

And there’s always the practical versus the ideal. I think of Go as one of the most beautiful games ever made and it was a big part of me getting into gaming. But with over a decade since my last play, would I include it as a top ten? Would my list be a list of games that I’d play if time didn’t matter or a list of games that actually sees regular play?

Truth to tell, I spend more time looking at the hobby as art gallery or experimental lab than refining my tastes. I like to look at lists to see if I see something new and unknown but I don’t see myself writing one.

Of course, such lists say more about the person who wrote then than the games on them. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! After all, one of the things you might glean is if they are someone you’d want to play with!

Friday, February 19, 2021

Oh, that’s where my D&D minis were hiding

 While looking for our wedding China (which I did find, thank you very much for asking), I found my old D&D minis from back when I played the skirmish game. Now that was a walk down memory lane.

D&D minis is as close as I ever have come to playing Magic the Gathering or any other collectible card game. It probably will remain that way unless our kid decides that he needs to embrace the Pokémon card game. Opening blind box products is fun. Buying blind box products is not :P

Looking back and knowing that a lot of folks wanted prepainted plastic miniatures for, you know, actually playing Dungeons and Dragons, having them as randomized blind boxes was really evil. And, at the time, your main choices were buying these blind boxes or buying lead miniatures and painting them yourself.

Hey, I remember when Zombies!!! first came out and getting a hundred zombie miniatures that bent if you looked at them funny was AMAZING.

While I didn’t get in on ground floor and the first wave of miniatures (it took friends being into the skirmish game for me to get into the game), I did start early enough to live through a change in the game that now seems amazing to me.

The original maps where blank grids and players would take turns placing large tiles down on the board. You’d still have a decent amount of empty space left on the map when you were done. Then they switched to fully preprinted maps. Those were thematic enough that I knew DM’s that used them for D&D games.

On the one hand, the fully printed maps drastically sped up setup time and guaranteed a balanced map. But setting up the terrain definitely added a layer of gamesmanship to the game. I had a friend who had an opening that required a two specific figures and a promotional tile that let him fireball his opponent’s starting space. A good setup was as important as your warband composition.

At the time, I thought removing a step that could effectively have you lose the game before you actually started playing was a good idea. These days, I think that’s even more true. The D&D minis game was really aimed for more casual play and automatically balanced maps just supported that.

Looking back, I am amazed at how, at least for a while, I spent a lot of time playing this game, including going to tournaments. (Where I did terribly at) I spent a lot of time designing war bands. Occasionally they’d even do well. But I’m okay no longer playing a game where I had to keep track of the special rules for hundreds of different pieces. That’s what actual D&D is for.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Forest Guardians is a beautiful game about fighting to the death

 In this particular case, I’m writing about Forest Guardians, the entry in last year’s nine card contest, not the tile-laying game about being a forest ranger in Taiwan. That does look like a nice family game, though.

In this Forest Guardians, you control a party of three mouse knights who are fighting five enemy cats. The game consists of nine cards and some way to keep track of health. (I used paper clips, which worked well)

Every single card in the game has a special power and most of the game is making the best use you can of your mice’s powers and trying to cope with the cats’ powers.

A key mechanic is what I think of as a doom clock (which doesn’t make any sense as a name but I’m using it anyway) Five of the cats (one is randomly left out of the game) are laid out in arc. Each mouse has an arc on their cards which shows which positions they attack (and for how much damage) and which positions attack them.

A skirmish solitaire game, you win if you kill all the enemy, even if you die in the process. (Yes, it’s quite possible) 

Before I talk about the mechanics, I do want to mention the art. It’s gorgeous. Seriously, I have paid good money for games that didn’t have nearly as nice art.

I went into the game with lowish expectations. I figured that with a pool of six opponents, it would be easy to figure out a formula to win. However, the positions of the enemies makes such a huge difference that the game is much trickier than I thought. 

And the enemy effects are rough. I’m not convinced that you can have an unwinnable layout but it may be possible. Regardless, you actually have to think when you play. It’s a much better puzzle than I expected and more thematic as well.

The decision tree is front loaded. The early moves, when all five enemies are alive and can cause you problems are where you make the crucial decisions. The later rounds are where you find out if those decisions will pan out. However, since the game is pretty short, I don’t view that as a problem. And the brevity makes playing another round both easy and enticing.

In short, Forest Guardians is good enough that I’m hoping it gets expanded.

Friday, February 12, 2021

Nintendo’s Clubhouse Games... is actually really good

 As a Christmas gift for ourselves, we got Clubhouse Games for the Nintendo Switch.

I can already tell that it will be a great source of play and blogging material.

Back in the days of yore, you could find game collections on floppy disks for ridiculously low prices. And they were always hot messes that, despite the bargain basement prices, you still overpaid for. Well, Clubhouse Games provides an answer for ‘what if one of those collections was good?’ Of course, it costs more than ‘fifty games for five dollars’ tag but that’s the price you pay for quality and actually working.

Of course, there’s a lot you WON’T get. Anything that is a licensed product is not going to be a part of Clubhouse. No Euros, no War Games, no Ameritrash. If there’s a copyright attached, it’s not there. Abstract strategy games and card games and party games. If those aren’t your jam, this isn’t your clubhouse.

What you do get is an eccentric, eclectic collection of games, ranging from century old classics to things like tank fights and toy boxing. There are even games like darts and bowling that are callbacks to wII sports. 

It would be fascinating to see the process Nintendo had of selecting the games. I’m surprised there isn’t a form of Poker, let alone Go (Even a 9x9 board would have been something). Euchre would have been nice too. But you still get a wide selection of family games for a variety of occasions. 

But the real star is the interface. There has been an endless history of game collections in the digital world and most of them have ranged from meh to terrible. Clubhouse Games works because it has an exceedingly clean and user-friendly interface. You can actually learn how to play and then actually play the games. It’s easy and it’s not easy to achieve that kind of easy.

Clubhouse Games is not what I think of when it comes to gaming on the Switch or gaming online. But... it’s good.

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Wow, the Monster at the End of This Book is turning fifty!

 Last week, a friend told me that 2021 is the fiftieth anniversary of The Monster at the End of This Book. My reply to that was that we wouldn’t have Deadpool if it wasn’t for that book. 

While I was just trying to sound clever, that might be true.

The Monster at the End of This Book has been a best-selling classic for generations so I probably don’t have to describe it. But, just like in case, it is a Sesame Street book where Grover sees the title of the book and desperately tries to keep the reader from finishing the book. He’s scared of monsters, you see. Of course, since loveable old Grover is a monster, he is the monster in the title.

According to Wikipedia, the book was designed to encourage kids to finish books. Since that idea terrifies Grover, the author is clearly relying on children’s innate sadism. However, the book’s significance is how much it explores the meta space.

The Monster et al is the not the first work to break the fourth wall and play with the meta. However, it is baby”s first metafictional book and it is a darn tooting good example of metafiction. Reread it now, I realize that it is not just a book about being a book. It also perfectly captures Grover’s voice. The different elements create a dynamic between two characters and one of them is you, the reader.

There is literally nothing that I can’t say about The Monster et al that hasn’t already been said. I have seen learned papers written about this book. The book is so profoundly about being a book.

I have had We Are In A Book! by Mo Willlems recommended to me as an even more meta children’s book. Which it is. And I know a sequel was written to The Monster et al that adds Elmo to the mix. (I don’t think it’s as good, by the way) However, none of that could have existed without The Monster et al and the legacy that it created fifty years ago.

Monday, February 8, 2021

Assessing Asmodee’s freebies

 In January, I went through Asmodee’s free PnP page again. 

A lot of publishers offered a lot of free PnP stuff last year since so much of the world had to live in some level of lockdown. Asmodee is interesting because a) they have bought their way to a huge catalog of games and b) they showed a fascinating variety of ways of showcasing their ways.

Their demos range from just enough to get a taste of a game to expansions to pretty much the whole game. The fact that the latter existed at all was quite a surprise to me and what interested me the most.

On the lightest end of the spectrum, the demo for Rory’s Story Cubes amounted to a few worksheets. I guess the alternative would be having the faces as chits you pull out a cup. I can see the worksheet model working in a classroom (I like how they included a origami die so kids make their own story die) and it got me to dig my own set. (There are now _38_ Rory’s Story Cube products!? There’s an RPG?!)

On the other side of the spectrum, Amsodee is offering Pandemic: Hotzone - North America in its entirety. I hadn’t actually realized there was a published version (or did that come out after the PnP version?) It also looks like they have complete scenarios for their escape room system, Unlock. Since the one-use-only aspect of escape room board games doesn’t appeal to me, that might be the only way I’d play one.

The demos in the middle range from just enough to get a handle on the mechanics to as much as I’d realistically play. While the later editions have added a lot, the demo of Citadels is pretty close to the first edition. Which may be more than I need :D On the other hand, there are demos I want to try to see if I’d want the full game. Which is kind of their whole point, isn’t it?

Now, PnP Arcade remains my biggest resource for PnP projects. After all, that’s their job and I’m their demographic. I also recommend Cheapass Games PnP catalog before Asmodee since that includes a huge chunk of their library and you get the whole game. And it is ink friendly. (But I have most of their games back from the original print run :D) HOWEVER, Amsodee’s site is still neat and it’s fun to sample stuff I’ve seen at the stores.

Friday, February 5, 2021

Paper Pinball has become a guilty pleasure

 My third go around with the Paper Pinball series from Metal Snail has let the series slide into becoming a guilty pleasure for me.

With that said, my earlier issues with the games still stand. They represent the lightest end of the Roll and Write spectrum. While the artwork reflects the theme, the mechanics really don’t. It is easy to choose what moves to make and I do feel that there is a dominant strategy. And, even by the standards of light roll and write games, luck can play an overwhelming part.

However, in the year since I first looked at the games, a number of things have caused me to reevaluate them.

The biggest one being quarantine and quarantine parenting. Over the last year, having a solitaire game that I can play in less than five minutes and then get back to adulting has been a very big deal. More than that, one that is analog, not digital, is quite nice.

I also have to note that my first exposure to Paper Pinball was to the three earliest boards that predated PnP Arcade. Later developed boards are, quite frankly, better. Better art, better balance and cuter little individual tweaks. 

Finally, I have played so much worse light Roll and Write games as I’ve looked for mental coffee breaks over the last year :P

Now, I don’t think they are prefect. I think there are tons of deeper and more fascinating Roll and Write games out there. Metal Snail’s other Roll and Write line, the Legends of Dsyx, is more interesting in my arrogant opinion. And I think when I revisit Sid Sackson’s Solitaire Pinball or finally try WhizKids’ Super-Skill Pinball, I will find mechanics closer to a metal ball bouncing around a machine.

But, as I said at the start, Paper Pinball is a guilty pleasure. It’s not perfect. There are plenty of flaws. But it does a good job amusing me. And that’s what a guilty pleasure should do.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Is Lord Peter Wimsey too perfect?

 Every time I read a Lord Peter Wimsy  story (which happens reasonably often), I find myself thinking what an odd character he is. He’s like Doctor Frankenstein stitched Sherlock Holmes and Bertie Wooster together and threw in James Bond’s pancreas for good measure.

The protagonist, no, the hero, of a good number of mystery novels and stories by Dorothy Sayers, Lord Peter is insanely wealthy, really quite brilliant and a dapper hand at just about any skill he puts his hand at. And anything he can’t do, his manservant Bunter can. (Thus answering the question of what if Bertie was as smart as Jeeves. We’d still get fun stories but they’d be about murder) There’s a lot of Mary Sue elements and wish fulfillment to Lord Peter.

But... the shadow of World War I and the changing world of England in between the wars helps counter those elements. The works aren’t just set in that time period. They were written then too and Dorothy Sayers had a keen eye for what was going on in society. Lord Peter served in the trenches and occasionally has bouts of PTSD. He also has guilt over thre number of folks he’s sent to death row, particularly because he isn’t driven to solve crime by justice but by his curiosity and amusement.

For all of his crazy money and amazing talent and silly last name, Lord Peter is damaged.

My introduction to the series was Gaudy Nights, which was a terrible introduction to Lord Peter Whimsy but an amazing one to Dorothy Sayers. The book is really about Harriet Vane, Lord Peter’s love interest, and the state of feminism and women’s rights in England at the time. (And if the common theory that Harriet is an author insert, then Lord Peter is definitely a work of wish fulfillment)

I haven’t actually read all the books. That’s because every time I try, I start over from the first book. Maybe I’ll try reading them in reverse order this year. But they are good reading.

As I said at the start, Lord Peter is strange. He’s practically perfect in so many ways and many of his stories are downright pulpy when actually looking at the crimes. However, Sayers ability to capture the turbulence of a changing England saves him and his stories from being silly and forgettable.

Monday, February 1, 2021

My January PnP

 January. The start of a new year. A new year of Print and Play crafting. So, what did I make?

Good Little Gardens
Maztec Duel
Castles of Burgundy the Dice Game
Artisans of the Taj Mahal
Forest Guardians (2020 9-Card Contest)
Sunrise in Moloka’i (2019 9-Card Contest)
Sabotage the Raj

I actually completed more projects than I planned to. I actually spent most of my crafting time doing prep work for games to make later down the line. I have a literal stack of projects one step from completion. 

Last year was so very chaotic and stressful in many ways. Print and play was very helpful in keeping things together. Craft therapy. Finishing a project is fun and emotionally satisfying. I don’t know how 2021 will go so I want a big stock prepped in case I don’t have a lot of crafting time in the months to come. 

Good Little Gardens was both my ‘big’ project for January and the first thing I made in 2021. While I am going to play it, I really wanted to make it so that my first project was a happy theme after what 2020 was like.

I admit, I made Castles of Burgundy the Dice Game really just to try it out. If I like it, getting an actual copy of the game will be the plan. And Forest Guardians turned out to be a happy surprise.

I don’t know what the year will be like. It could be that January is my most productive month. If it is, I feel I’ve set myself up well.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Hasbro and Happy Meals

 Our kid is still small enough that we still get Happy Meals so we have had  a chance to see the current Hasbro toys. Each one is a simplified, miniaturized version of a classic game and is functional. Well, for a certain measure of functional. (Happy Meal memories blur together but I swear not all past board game promotions were playable)

Some of the games, like Battleship or Connect 4, are the regular games with flimsier components like card-stock checkers or just using graph paper. Although there is something a bit funny about playing Battleship the way it was played before it became a marketed product.

We’ve gotten Connect 4, the Game of Life and Monopoly because there’s a real limit of how many Happy Meals you are going to let your child eat. And, yes, a simplified Game of Life is a marvel that is only forgivable by a nifty spinner.

I was the most curious about Monopoly since it is the most complex base-game that is being offered. And it did not disappoint :P

There is no money. Just roll the origami die and move. If you land on an property that hasn’t been claimed, you get it. Whoever ends the game with the most properties wins. Yes, it manages to make Monopoly Jr feel like Catan.

On the one hand, I can’t say that any of these games are ones I’d play. Even Connect 4 which I think is a decent game,  I’d want sturdier pieces. On the other hand, I have to give them credit for making games that can functionally be played. That is something.

And this is a step up from a roll and move track printed on a place mat.

Friday, January 29, 2021

a phone is a poor substitute for a gaming table but it is a substitute

While digital board gaming has been a part of my gaming life almost from the get-go (thanks to sites like BSW, Yutica, Super Duper Games and such), viewing my phone as a gaming medium took longer. 

There are two reasons for that. One, the smaller screen of a phone is annoying for me when it comes to either pass-and-play or most online sites. Second, playing against AIs doesn’t feel ‘real’ to me. Solitaire games have to actually have solitaire options.

The apps for Onirim and Friday helped break the ice for me. They are games I already owned and liked  and are legit solitaires. 

However, last year marked a major change in me using my phone as a board game medium for two reasons. First, at the start of year, I picked up a number of apps for a roll and write games, giving me enough games to count as a tiny library for my phone.

Second, we spent a chunk of last year under lockdown. So playing lots of solitaire games really helped my state of mind.

By no means am I saying that playing Roll and Writes on my phone has made me revise my opinion about in-person games. Compared to playing with other folks, either in person or online, it isn’t as engaging or fun. Instead, I think it says that gaming will always find a way.

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

The bizarre but gentle world of Daniel Pinkwater

 Daniel Pinkwater was one of my favorite childhood authors, if not my flat out favorite. While I sometimes wonder if the world has forgotten him but he’s not just still kicking but writing so maybe I just hang out with the wrong crowd. 

I’ve found his books to be gently bizarre with insights into isolation and figuring out who you are. Which is pretty important when you’re writing books for kids and young adults. He also has the weirdest titles. His books are strange but the titles are even crazier. 

Case in point, I decided to reread The Snarkoit Boys and the Avocado of Death. While the book features a mad scientist who specializes in avocados, a master criminal obsessed with orangutans and the triumphant return of the chicken man from Lizard Music, the story is still more grounded than the title would suggest. Pinkwater’s fantastic elements have a dingy quality, like Star Wars’ used future look.

Mind you, reading the book as an adult is a different experience. For one thing, I now realize the title is a tribute to the b-movies the characters watch :D

There are some elements that wouldn’t do too well these days. An anti-Semite English teacher being played for laughs definitely stands out. (Although I understand that Pinkwater, himself Jewish, revisits the idea in a more serious book, making me wonder if it’s autobiographical) Not to mention the core concept of teenagers sneaking out of the house to go to an all night movie house. That isn’t as cool as it was in the early 80s.

The other thing that struck me is how urban the book is. While that isn’t uncommon now, it seems like we had decades of children’s books that were set in the country-side during the first chunk of the 20th century. I blame Mark Twain, personally. But a big theme of the book is the characters learning about the eccentric parts of their city, which is based on Chicago.

It is obvious is retrospect but just about every book Daniel Pinkwater wrote that I can think of is about self-discovery. He’s very gentle and exceedingly bizarre in how he goes about it so I’m not surprised I did t always get it when I was young.

Revisiting Daniel Pinkwater with his insight into being a social outcast and how to learn to belong, not to mention the quirkiness of people in general, I can’t help but wonder if he’s always been ahead of his time.

As I mentioned at the start, I’m not sure how much Daniel Pinkwater is still read. (Probably a lot more than I know) However, I think he was and still is very relevant.

Monday, January 25, 2021

King of the Gauntlet - not great but admirable

 King of the Gauntlet is an in-hand game, a genre that I’m currently fascinated by. It takes a race game and transfers it to nine cards and two paper clips. The theme is a parkour obstacle course but it is really just a race.

One card serves as the board, which is a simple sixteen space track. The paper clips serve as pawns on either side of the card. The rest of the deck is for movement and actions.

The abilities of the cards are on opposite corners so the active one will be on the upper left. That way, you can easily fan the cards and see all of the actions. On your turn, you perform two actions, choosing from the first three cards. Used cards are flipped and sent to the back of the deck. 

Whoever makes it to the finish line first wins.

The basic actions are just moving back and forth on the track but the advanced rules have actions that  let you rearrange the deck.  And, honestly, the basic actions are way too basic to keep the game from being monotonous too quickly.

I’m of two minds of King of the Gauntlet. On the one hand, it’s a game that is more about messing without your opponent than focusing on getting ahead. I feel like the game is a lot of countermoves and little progress. That can hurt the fun.

On the other hand, King of the Gauntlet takes a completely ludicrous concept for a game and made it functional. Part of my Print-and-Play hobby is looking for good games but another part is looking for weird, experimental projects. King of the Gauntlet, a reinvention of roll-and-move as an in-hand game, definitely qualifies.

I have to also note that I’ve come to be leery of in-hand games being too intricate. When I have to try and juggle cards in four different orientations and angles. Just having to fan the cards goes a long way to making King of the Gauntlet.

While Looney Lab’s Proton remains the best game I’ve found for standing in line, King of the Gauntlet is a nice addition to the mix. I’ve been playing an earlier prototype of the game but I’m planning on making the latest version. I’m not convinced it’s a good game but it is an interesting experiment.

Friday, January 22, 2021

The Clever dice games are a system

 While I consider Clever Hoch Drei the first game I’ve taught myself this year (after 2020, I decided to start with a game I felt confident would be good), I have come to think of the Clever games as a system as opposed to a series of games.

Between That’s Pretty Clever, Twice As Clever, Clever Hoch Drei (which I’m sure will be published as Clever Cubed if it hasn’t already been), the bonus boards for Pretty and Twice, AND at least one fan-made board, there’s a bunch of distinct boards that still use the same dice-drafting core. Once you have the basic concept done, you can play any of the games. However, learning how to play each board well does take some work.

One of the things I look at when it comes to dice driven games is the idea that there are no intrinsically bad rolls. Oh, there can be situationally nightmarishly horrible rolls but I don’t want a game where you have to roll all sixes all the time. Castles of Burgundy is a great example of that but it is more complicated than most Roll and Writes. (I am planning on trying the roll and write version this year)

The Clever system  doesn’t quite hit the threshold of every roll can be good but it has taken stupid plays for me not to be able to use every roll. As a basic rule of thumb, I feel I can safely say that the Clever system makes every roll viable. 

When I first tried That’s Pretty Clever last year, I wrote that it killed Yahtzee for gamers. (Qwixx kills Yahtzee for everyone else) And that seems more true than ever. While I love abstract games, they have a bigger hurdle to be accessible and the Clever system makes that hurdle.

The worst thing I can say is that the Clever system can get to be formulaic, particularly if you are playing it solitaire the way I do. But that’s a sin most solitaire or roll and write games can have. And having so many variations helps keep it fresh.

This started out as a review of Clever Hoch Drei (I am having more fum with it than Twice but not as much as Pretty) but turned into an overview of the series. And the Clever games are ones that I can play over and over again.

Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians sounds like Daniel Pinkwater came up with the name

The only reason I found out that the Alcatraz books by Brandon Sanderson even existed was because I was researching snarky narrators on TVTropes. (TVTropes: we will make your time binging Wikipedia seem productive)

A young orphan named Alcatraz Smedry learns that he is actually part of a powerful, magical family that is part of a sort of secret war against the vast evil empire that is also all the librarians. I say sort of because there are three whole continents whose existence the librarians have hidden that know all about the librarian war.

One of the things that is very striking about the series is how goofy many of the innate concepts are (libraries are dens of Illuminati-style evil overlords, the Smedries have super powers that would be a stretch in the Legion of Substitute Heroes, magic glasses are the ultimate tools,  the main character is named Alcatraz) but how deadly serious they are taken.

In a lot of books about a kid or kids who are dealing with some sort of hidden conflict, the bad guys don’t really seem to be out to hurt anyone and the conflicts are almost cozy in their scope. In the Alcatraz series, the bad guys are perfectly willing to torture and kill the protagonists and the scope of the overall plot is global.

I came across the series because I was looking for examples of Lemony Snicket narrators. The Alcatraz series doesn’t actually use one. Instead, it is first person narrator who is unreliable, rambling and very snarky. (From spoilers, I learned he has a good reason for his attitude. Still, I wouldn’t have read the books if the spoilers hadn’t interested me) 

I haven’t really discussed the plot. The plot is fun but doesn’t have any real surprises. For me, the voice and the world building are what make me want to read the Alcatraz series and they are enough to make me want to keep on going and finish the series.

Monday, January 18, 2021

Sometimes, fidgeting is enough

 I’ve been meaning to write about Labyrinth Runner for... gee, over a year now. Labyrinth Runner is a solitaire game from the 2019 9-Card PnP Contest. Part of its hook is that it’s an in-hand game, you play the whole game with the entire deck in your hand.

The backstory is you were on vacation and missed doing your morning maze run. Happily, you found a labyrinth. Unhappily, there’s a Minotaur who wants to eat you. You need to find the three doors out of the labyrinth before the Minotaur catches you. 

The core idea of the game is that each card, held landscape-ways, represents a forking path. You slide the cards to the left or to the right and the active card goes back into the deck flipped or revolved. You also have a little  control over where in the deck it goes.

Here’s the thing for me. The game has two modes: fidget where you are just flipping cards and advanced where you have to do things like line keys up with doors to get through. And I have only played the game as a fidget game. I have found the advanced game too fiddly for what I get out of it.

Mind you, I pretty much only play Labyrinth Runner while waiting in the car or waiting for the tea water to boil or waiting for the bath to fill. When I want to sit down and actually play an in-hand game, I play Palm Island or the Zed Deck or Battle for the Carolinas or et al.

But as a fidget game, Labyrinth Runner is great. And I do like how it does act as a functional maze. It’s not something everyone is looking for. But with nine cards and an ink-light version, it’s a small investment for an alternative to messing with your phone in the car.

Friday, January 15, 2021

The difference between rail roading and a geas

 I recently had a conversation about a RPG mechanic that I have almost never seen used: the geas.

For those of you lucky enough to have no idea what a geas is, it’s compulsion that forces the victim to do something regardless of their own agency. It might be a magic curse or a chip in the brain or a jewel in the skull. It can fit into many genres but it does the same thing regardless of its name.

(In fact, I don’t know if there’s a specific term for this mechanic. It might well be geas and that word does work awfully well)

Now, I am not entirely against rail roaring. In some mediums, rail roading borders on a necessary evil like game books and certain formats of video RPGs. (Although the ability to have sandbox open worlds is indeed a triumph of the medium) If you know what you’re getting into, you can have fun while being rail roaded. 

But the geas is a different beast. It doesn’t dictate the plot of the game but the actions of the players. And that isn’t fun. I can think of only one game I was where that happened. The GM’s goal was to have everyone try and kill each other. (And, no, we weren’t playing Paranoia. Again, with Paranoia, you know what you’re getting into so it’s cool) 

Honestly, the only way a geas works positively is when players are trying to get around it, subvert it. But that requires the GM willing to let folks be clever.

There’s probably a reason that geas stays almost entirely in fiction, not games.

Wednesday, January 13, 2021

Can you make a tiny Power Grid?

 I’m not sure if I’ll actually play Power Duel but it was too fascinating an idea for me not to make a copy. It’s a two-player distillation of Power Grid that will fit in a mint tin.

I have never actually owned a copy of Power Grid. That’s because, in every gaming group I have ever been in, at least one other person has already owned it. There have been times when I’ve played so much of it, I got burned out on it but I’ve never stopped thinking it was an A++ game. And I bet if I played it now, I’d think it was ever better than I remembered.

I originally found Power Duel via Project Shrinko and it is a good example of the Project Shrinko philosophy. Try to distill a beloved game into a pocket-sized package. I approach every Project Shrinko game with the same two questions: Does it actually feel like playing the game that inspired it AND is it any good as game in and of itself. The second question is really the more important :)

Power Duel is theoretically my Project Shrimko ideal. An easy way to have a portable version of a game I don’t own and really like :D Unfortunately, while I find many of the choices made in shrinking the Power Grid down downright fascinating, I think too much is lost in the process. More than that, I have to wonder if the game is solvable.

Not only are auctions removed (fair enough, two player auctions are a tricky proposition, albeit not impossible), all the power plants are available from the start. And using money tracks instead of paper money condensing the game but makes money public knowledge all the time. Removing all the random elements and hidden information might make it too easy to create an optimal strategy, probably one with a first player bias.

Other choices, players lose unpowered cities and the game lasting a set six turns and upgrading plants to accommodate a small number of cards, do seem like good choices. There are some neat ideas going on here. But the strong possibility of scripted play being too easy to develop makes me feel meh about using my limited game time to try it out.

Power Grid is a really nifty set of interlocking  mechanics. I praise Project Duel for trying to make a smaller, simpler version but some things can’t be simplified without losing too much. But, man, the idea fascinates me enough that I’m writing all this about it and making a copy. Back at the very earliest point in my modern board game life when most of my gaming was at little tables at coffee shops, I bet I’d have played Power Duel if it had existed then.

Monday, January 11, 2021

A Short Hike is a place for healing

 Iyashikei is a genre in Japan that literally means healing. The only reason I know that is because of Animal Crossing. And Animal Crossing has been the video game of choice in our household for the past year.

Which led us to trying out A Short Hike since we had heard it had a similar vibe.

In A Short Hike, you are Claire, an anthropomorphic bird who is spending the summer with her aunt, a park ranger. Claire is waiting for an important phone call but the only place in Hawk Peak Provincial Park is the very top of the highest mountain. 

And climbing that mountain and getting that phone call are rewarding but the park is a pretty big, open sandbox with stuff to find and people to talk to. You can race, play a variation on volleyball, swim, fish and just generally explore. Everyone ranges from pretty nice to really nice and nothing can hurt you. Getting lost is literally the biggest hurdle in the game.

I have to say that the gliding mechanic, which is all about graceful arcs and catching updrafts, is a lot of fun. A decent chunk of my play has been gliding just for the fun of it.

Mechanically, A Short Hike and Animal Crossing are pretty different. A Short Hike is all about stamina management as you earn gold feathers that increases your stamina and complete fetch quests. Animal Crossing is all about gradually developing your environment.

But the games have similar themes. Yes, there are goals and there is work to be done but there is no pressure. You can take your time and enjoy the worlds that the games create. It’s not just escapist but also decompressing and relaxing. That might not work for everyone but it’s been good for us.

Animal  Crossing is a slow, glacial game and I think it takes a year in real time to see things play out. A Short Hike is more like a weekend. I don’t view A Short Hike as a substitute (and I do like Animal Crossing more) but I think it’s a great way to test the waters of Iyashikei.

Friday, January 8, 2021

The Great Races is really a look at the design process

There are three reasons I decided to make a copy of The Great Races: A) It was there B) it is a Sid Sackson design C) historical curiosity.

To the best of my knowledge, the Great Races has never been published in a box format. I know it was published in a collection of paper and pencil games in 1974. I’ve seen it reprinted in The Greatest Games of All Time by Matthew J. Costello and I’m sure it’s been reprinted in other places as well.

And if the Great Races isn’t a precursor to Can’t Stop, my cats are secretly lemurs with retractable claws. The board is almost the same and the dice mechanics are also very similar. If the Great Races wore a hat that said ‘I’m a prototype for Can’t Stop’ and danced a ‘I’m a prototype for Can’t Stop’ dance,’ it wouldn’t be more obvious.

The game consists of eleven tracks, numbered two to twelve. They sort of form a bell-shaped curve with the two and twelve tracks being the shortest and seven being the longest. You roll four dice, pair them and move up on those two tracks.

And here is where it’s different than Can’t Stop. Your turn ends at that point. There isn’t the same kind of push-your-luck element. The game ends when every track has been completed and there are points for first and second place in every track.

Can’t Stop is an absolute classic of a board game. It’s been around for decades and it is the game that all push-your-luck games are judged by. Between on-line and in-person plays, I’ve been playing Can’t Stop several times a year since I got into playing board games.

And compared to Can’t Stop, the Great Races doesn’t measure up. Not that it’s reasonable to expect it to but it isn’t a lost gem that has been unfairly languishing in the shadow of its more famous offspring. In addition to having a significantly weaker push-your-luck element, I honestly feel the game takes too long for what it gives you. Having to finish all eleven tracks makes the endgame drag. It is incremental where Can’t Stop is dynamic.

That said, I have played plenty of worse dice games. Some of them predate the Great Races and plenty of them came after. I feel like it should have had a bigger moment in the sun. But it led to Can’t Stop. That’s a big deal.

Wednesday, January 6, 2021

Plutonia is a comic book spin on a childhood classic

 Margaret Wise Brown, the same person who wrote Good Night Moon, also wrote a book called the Dead Bird, a picture book about a group of kids who find a dead bird in the wood, bury it and sing a song.

It is actually more of mediation about the acceptance of death than the start of a cult or the origin of a bunch of serial killers. I still find it an unsettling work, although I will grant that it does teach a necessary lesson. 

A few years ago, I came upon a comic book called Plutonia that could honestly be described as some saying ‘What if we rewrote the Dead Bird but made it a dead superhero instead?’

Five kids find the body of local hero Plutonia in the woods after she is apparently killed by one of her many foes. Things go dark from there.

I read the first issue but it was years before I found the rest.





I had heard that the story culminates in one of the kids getting beaten to death by the others so I was all set for a Lord of the Flies scenario. Instead, said kid had gone nuts and was trying to kill the others. The nicest character hits him in the head once with a log to save the other kids. Self defense instead of mob violence. Quite a different scenario and one that actually ties back in with The Dead Bird comparison since they then shamefully bury him in the woods.

The kids, who are in turns petty and scared and completely out of their depth, are believable. That helps sell the story, as well as make it more uncomfortable to read. It’s not a superhero story but a story about kids. Unlike the kids in the Dead Bird, these kids do not come to terms with death but, to be fair, it’s a much more extreme situation.

Plutonia is a meditation about children trying to cope with death. Just not a happy one.

Post Script: Plutonia, who isn’t actually dead, is a fascinating character developed in flashbacks. She has Superman’s powers with Batman’s working arrangement with the police and Spider-Man’s problems. Spider-Man as a single mom isn’t a new concept but Plutonia did a good job using it.

Monday, January 4, 2021

Ah, New Years resolutions

 Ah, time for New Year’s resolutions.

My primary ones don’t play into gaming or reading or writing and are pretty general. Try and eat better and exercise more. (Literally, that’s it. If I try and make specific plans, life is more likely to get in the way)

But I do have a few relating to gaming.

For a while, I have made it a goal to make one ‘larger’ Print and Play project a month. My definition is quite humble. At least three pages of components. I realized that that’s about the size of a printer’s sheet so about the size of a publishable micro game.

However, at least once this year, I want to make at least one game that exceeds the scope of a micro game. Which wouldn’t be new ground for me but still isn’t a monthly thing. I’m not sure what counts. Would a 54-card game count? Do I have to make a board? It’s really all up to me but I don’t know what the answer for me is.

I also want to try and learn a new game at least once a month. Which also isn’t a new thing for me but, during the start of last year’s quarantine, I stopped doing that and realized learning new games really helped keep my sprits up. I don’t want to go crazy but at least one a month is a happy medium.

2021 has an uphill struggle after 2020 but I think things, big and small, will get better.