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.

Friday, January 1, 2021

My December PnP

 December 2020. The last month of what was one son-of-gun of a year. At one point, I thought I’d be lucky to make one PnP project with everything that happened during the month. But I had a couple of crafting sessions of making tiny projects to relax.

This is what I made:

Squire for Hire

Ugly Gryphon Inn

Railways (2019 9-Card Contest)

Petals (2020 2-Player PnP Contest)

Handful of Hazards (little cards)

One-Minute War

Gator (2020 Solitaire PnP Contest)

Pohutukawa Christmas

The Great Races

Dice Baseball


Mombatuk the Adventurer (2020 R&W Contest)

Dolphins and Dinosaurs - solo edition (2020 Solitaire Contest)

Griphold Tower (2020 Solitaire Contest)

Squire for Hire was my ‘big’ project for the month. As ever, my definition of big still isn’t that. More than two pages of components :D Basically, enough to be published. And Squire for Hire proven to be a game I keep playing and trying to do better at.

As I mentioned, I made a bunch of tiny games, micro games and laminating Roll and Write sheets. Itty bitty things that will still be fun to explore and making them definitely helped my peace of mind.

Print and Play was helpful in a lot of ways this year.