Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Wishbringer: nothing but words and whimsy

 Honestly, if I were to say which Infocom game has the biggest impact on me, other than the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy which also I formed my choice of authors to read even up to the point, it would be Wishbringer.

It was one of their few beginner games, which meant that I was actually able to finish it :D And if it was aimed a younger audience, well, that’s what I was at the time :P

But it also was seriously charming and told a solid narrative. The puzzles were real but so was the story.

You are the postman of the island village of Festeron. Delivering a last minute letter ends up with you having to rescue an old lady’s kidnapped cat. Oh and thwart the Evil One who has changed quiet little Festeron into the dystopian Witchville. Save the cat, save the world.

The titular Wishbringer, which also came as a glow-in-the-dark plastic rock with the game, was an artifact that could cast seven different spells. But, here’s the clever bit which I didn’t really appreciate as a kid. Most of the spells could be used to solve puzzles but you could complete the whole game without using any of the spells. It’s a way of organically helping inexperienced players without changing the story. 

For me, Wishbringer bridges the worlds of Zork and Hitchhiker. Zork is just a map full of puzzles while Hitchiker is a series of scenes telling a rather convoluted story. Wishbringer is a map full of puzzles but they come together as a coherent story.

Wishbringer is a whimsical, slightly fractured fairy tale. As an adult, I might find it less challenging as a game (maybe?) but I would still enjoy it as a story.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Infocom make me read Douglas Adams

 My introduction to both Infocom and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy franchise was the interactive fiction game back in 1984.

You know, it wasn’t the best introduction to either of those things :D 

While I’m prepared to listen to an argument that the books or the radio plays or the BBC TV series    is the best way to  first learn about the Hitchhiker world, the game doesn’t have the narrative strength of any of them. As for Infocom, the Hitchiker game pretty much trolls the player :D.

Despite that fact, I came to love both the Hitchhikers franchise and Infocom. So everything worked out in the end.

Really, though, the interactive fiction game is ridiculous. Not only is it surprisingly nonlinear, it is relentlessly unintuitive. The thing breaks tons of written and unwritten rules of both fiction and gaming.

The babelfish puzzle (which happens early enough that I don’t feel like I’m spoiling anything) which requires you to jury rig a Rube Goldberg device that hinges on a quirk in the way the parser works. Namely, that you can only fit one object on a satchel but a pile of mail counts as one object and a bunch of objects. So the solution plays the meta nature of how the game works. 

Honestly, not only have I never come close to winning the game fairly, I don’t think I’ve made it through the game cheating with a full set of hints!

But the game is a beloved classic for a couple good reasons. Most obviously, it is really funny reading. I played the game over and over not to win but to read it. Infocom knew how to put the fiction in interactive fiction, which I would go on to learn in many of their other games.

More than that, by being so ridiculously iconoclastic, it’s a fascinating exploration of what you can do with fiction, interactive or otherwise. Not that I appreciated that back in the early 80s. But it is a weird experiment in how computer games and fiction works.

As of the time writing, the BBC will let you play the game online. I might do that and see if I can get to the end.

Friday, September 24, 2021

I am convinced that Puerto Rico is NOT broken

 When I’ll first seriously got into board games, it was generally accepted that Puerto Rico was the greatest game ever made.

Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration but back when woolly mammoths and sabre tooth tigers could be found in most backyards, Puerto Rico had a lot of prestige. As large and diverse as the gaming community has become (which is a good thing!), I don’t know if a game could hold such a central position again.

(Actually, that may be more of a statement of how provincial Boardgame Geek may have been, as opposed to any kind of statement on the actual real world of gaming)

Looking back, there are two things that strike me about my experiences with Puerto Rico. One is that there was allegedly an ideal strategy to play and that an inexperienced player would break the game, giving whoever sat to their left the win.

And I don’t actually think either of those things is really true.

Honestly, if Puerto Rico was solved, it would not have been nearly so successful or beloved. And with multiple paths to victory and the plantation supply being random, I don’t believe there can be one ‘perfect’ strategy. Still, I remember players on BSW who would quit games if they felt people weren’t playing ‘properly’

As for the inexperienced player ruining the game,  any game where skill has matters and there’s interaction can be accused of that. I’ve certainly seen inexperienced players throw Knizia’s Modern Art or Sackson’s Executive Decision off more than I’ve ever seen it happen in Puerto Rico. Are poor players a problem or a convenient excuse? Different levels of skill is something you have to adjust for. Complaining about it is more a reflection of the one doing the complaining than the game.

What fascinates me about these complaints is that they didn’t seem to come from haters but from people who really loved Puerto Rico.

But the fact that I don’t think these criticisms hold water just makes me appreciate Puerto Rico more.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Nine Horrors and One Dream is all fun

 I’ve been poking around Horror: The 100 Best Books (mostly because it was edited by Kim Stanley) and one of the books I decided to try from it was Nine Horrors and a Dream by Joseph Payne Brennan.

Brennan was a prolific writer. According to Wikipedia (so, take with as many grains of salt as you choose to) he wrote four to five hundred short stories, two novellas and thousands of poems. And he was apparently a frequent contributor to Weird Tales during the 50s.

And yet, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of his work in print. Do I consider this collection to be some of his best work and the rest isn’t as good? Do I assume there are legal issues that keep a lot of his stuff out of print? 

Judging by how well regarded he is (and I have read his stories in other anthologies) and the fact that what I have read is good stuff, I am leaning on the latter explanation.

Nine Horrors and a Dream is just what it says on the tin. Ten stories, although I don’t know which one is the dream. While, with one noteworthy exception, the actual concepts and ideas on his stories aren’t too original, the actual execution is excellent. Almost all the stories are written in that plain style that looks like it’d be easy but is actually really hard. Otherwise, everyone could be  Hemmingway. 

Okay, time to comment on a few stories.

Slime is the exception to the plain writing. It’s a blob monster story with purple prose that reminds me of P. Schuyler Miller’s Spawn (and that’s one wild ride of purple prose) And it’s a story I’ve read in anthologies more than once.

Slime is a story that has stuck in my head for a few reasons. Part of it is the over-the-top prose. However, it gives a slightly more reasonable version of the blob monster, which was old hat by the time it was written. It’s an adapted deep sea creature that doesn’t have an acid touch. Just crushing strength.

The one story that actually creeped me out was the Calamander Chest, which is oddly the least original concept in the book. A guy buys what turns out to be a haunted chest and bad things happen. If it isn’t an homage to M. R. James, I’d be surprised. But by being very visceral without being graphic, it just worked.

I’d read, more than once, that the best story in the collection was Canavan’s Backyard and it did not disappoint. The title location is a plot of land that warps time, space and anyone who goes into it. The most original and interesting story in the book, it’s a nice use of Genius Loci, the idea of place being aware and intelligent. Brennan also does a good job of hinting more than showing.

As I mentioned, I have read Brennan before but this was the first concentrated amount. It was worth the read.

Monday, September 20, 2021

Funny how Roll Through the Ages didn’t change my life

 Looking back, I’m surprised that Roll Through the Ages didn’t turn me into a Roll and Write fan. It certainly did a lot more to interest me than Catan Dice, which was my first foray into designer Roll and Writes.

To be fair, it did come out around the same time as Hasbro’s Express line, as well as when dice versions of games like Zooleretto or Bohnanza were coming out. So it was at a time when I was looking at more dice games. Just not necessarily Roll and Write games.

What is hilarious is that, when I first tried Roll Through the Ages, I kept on asking myself ‘this is a game that I’m playing with a sheet of paper and  takes less than a half hour. Is this for real?’ Boy, how I and the industry of gaming has changed.

At the time, I really could not consider it not to be a civilization game. And I still can’t. It doesn’t have the scope or breadth that a civilization game requires. I do view it as an engine builder though and that’s prettt cool.

The game is not without its flaws. The basic version (and that’s what I mostly play) has almost no interaction and it can be swingy and there can be runaway leaders.

But the physical game has minimal footprint, it plays fast and you can play it online. The convenience it has outweighs the other issues for me. Thanks to Yucata, it’s a game I’ve been playing almost constantly with long distance friends for years. It isn’t perfect but it keeps on being fun.

But, at the time, I didn’t think oh, a piece of paper is replacing the board, pawns, cards and tokens I’d expect for a game like this. I just thought, hey, neat dice game.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

How I define Roll and Write

 While doing some notes on Roll Through the Agesfor a blog post that I may never bother finishing, I found myself asking what is the line between a Roll and Write and every other side games

And, of course, the answer is that definitions are arbitrary. While there are definitive examples of Roll and Write, like Qwixx, there is plenty of room for people obsessed with semantics to quibble over it. So I’m just worried about my own personal definition.

I found myself asking the question when I realized I had started playing Roll Through the Ages and Monopoly Express (both games I still enjoy) at the same time. While you use a peg board to track resources in Roll Through the Ages, you do track all the stuff you build and develop on a player sheet. And while Monopoly Express makes really nice use of specialty dice, all you write down is your score.

So what do I think is the important part of a Roll and Write? I’m going to say the write. The player sheet has to be an active part of the game and the decisions you make. If you’re just tracking your score, it’s just not the same.

In Yahtzee, you have to choose which scoring how you’re marking each turn. That’s a Roll and Write. In Cosmic Wimpout, you just track points. That’s not a Roll and Write. Not to me at least.

And I’m not picky about the randomizer. Dice, cards, time stamp, some other way of generating random information. It’s all good as far as I’m concerned.

It may not be a perfect definition since Dungeons and Dragons would qualify as a Roll and Write.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Even middling Lord Dunsany is good

I was surprised to realize, when I started reading it, that I hadn’t read Tales of Three Hemispheres before. While there are vast  sections of Lord Dunsany’s writings I haven’t read, I’ve still read a lot of his early short stories. 

There was a period about ten years ago when I was reading collection after collection on Project Gutenberg and I assumed I had read Three Hemispheres then. I’m glad that I didn’t. While it isn’t the best Dunsany wrote, if I had read it amidst a flood of other Dunsany, I’d have missed what nifty elements it does have.

The book actually breaks down into two distinctive parts. Some unrelated stories and three interconnected stories, including the previously published Idle Days on the Yann.

I enjoyed the first part. The stories might not have been extraordinary but even middle of the road Dunsany is good reading. I particularly liked the Old Brown Coat, which would have been at home as a Jorkens story.

But the last three stories, collectively known as Beyond the Fields We Know (a phrase that since been pounded into the ground until it has reached the Earth’s core), that’s the best part of the collection. Although the best story being a reprint from an earlier collection doesn’t Tales of Three Hemispheres any favors as a stand-alone book.

I’m not exaggerating that each of these stores is Lord Dunsany going to the land of dreams… and being a tourist. In particular, Idle Days on the Yann is a flat-out travelogue. It isn’t a narrative. It’s world building. And in Lord Dunsany’s hands, world building is magical.

Between The Gods of Pegana abs Beyond the Fields We Know, Lord Dunsany basically created solar books.

Tales of Three Hemispheres is not one of Lord Dunsany’s greatest hits. However, it isn’t just for the completists either. 

Monday, September 13, 2021

Wow, the Great Pumpkin is BLEAK

 Since stories are already selling Halloween stuff and you can only watch The Nightmare Before Christmas so many times in rapid succession, we let out seven-year-old watch Its The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. It’s a special that neither of us had watched in at least a couple decades.

Wow. Was this actually aimed at kids?

The world of Peanuts is always bleak but there is usually some element of hope somewhere, particularly in the specials. And there are some many that there have to be ones I’ve forgotten or never seen. But the Great Pumpkin seems particularly bleak.

All of the characters are either mean or miserable, with the exception of Snoopy. It’s just a profoundly unhappy setting. In particular, the way that the world treats Charlie Brown is rough. Linus and Sally choose to ignore trick or treating and parties to wait for the Great Pumpkin. Bad things just happen to Charlie Brown. Every adult in his neighborhood singling him out to give him a rock is Kafkaesque.

The most redemptive character is Lucy. While she is cruel and bullying, she also gets extra candy for Linus and brings him home from the pumpkin patch in the middle of the night.

Truth to tell, given sophisticated jokes (needing to have a signed document notarized, denominational differences between Santa Claus versus the Great Pumpkin, demands for restitution) as well as the black comedy (as opposed to the slapstick of, say, the Three Stooges), I honestly wonder if adults were the actual intended audience for real.

Friday, September 10, 2021

The Sound of His Horn is a fever dream of dystopia

 The Sound of His Horn is a novel that I occasionally saw listed as an influential one but not one I heard a lot of conversation about. As if it was a book that mostly read by authors :D It was written by Sarban, which was the pseudonym for the British diplomat John William Wall. And, as I read the book, I couldn’t help but wonder if his professional life influenced his artistic one.

The Sound of His Horn is a ‘What if Hitler won WW II’ stories but it’s one that not like any other I have read. Instead of an authoritarian dystopia, it is a fever dream with touches of primal fear and Brave New World eugenics. 

The story is framed as a story within a story. An unnamed narrator hears the story from a WW II veteran named Alan Querdillon who is clearly suffering from PTSD. During the war, he escaped from a German prison camp. Shocked by a mysterious barrier, he wakes up a hundred years later in a world where Germany had won.

The entire future section of the book takes place at the hunting estate of Reich Master Forester Count Hans Von Hackelnberg. Almost medieval in many respects and science fiction in others, the estate is an absolute horror show where human beings, sometimes genetically modified, are the prey.

There is absolutely no way to talk about The Sound of His Horn without mentioning the complete objectification of women in the bad future. They are hunted, bred to be hunting animals and even used as furniture. Since this is depicted as despicable and nightmarish, I’m choosing to believe that Sarban does not support such a view. The degree of dehumanization is profoundly and effectively disturbing.

And I also have to mention Von Hackelnberg. While he actually shows up in a relatively small portion of what is already a short novel, he looms over everything. A giant of a man who is full of primal rage and violence, I’m not sure if he’s supposed to be supernatural or not. His scorn for his fat, pampered guests emphasizes his other nature.

As I mentioned before, Querdillon is clearly suffering from PTSD in the present time and the future section has a definite fever dream quality. A very possible interpretation is that he went mad and all of his fantastic experiences were in his his head. That possibility makes the already dreamy, nightmarish book even more uncertain.

After reading The Sound of His Horn, I can see why the book is considered so influential and also why it doesn’t seem to be widely read. I don’t know if it is a good book but it is a memorable and disturbing one.

Wednesday, September 8, 2021

What is the real value of stretch goals?

 Magpie Games just finished up a Kickstarter for a licensed RPG about Avatar. (The Last Airbender/Kegend of Korea, not the ‘let’s see how many ideas we can steal from Poul Anderson’ one) As I understand it, they had a $50,000 goal and raised over nine million dollars. Is that a record? I can’t keep track of Kickstarter anymore.

A good friend commented on how tempting the Kickstarter was with all of the stretch goals. Even though he has never watched any version of the show, doesn’t really have much interest in it and doesn’t see himself running the game.

Which led to two us commenting that the extra value of stretch goals only has actual value if you’re actually ever going to use them.

The older and more cynical I get, the more I feel very cautious about stretch goals. All too often, I don’t even get a game on the table more than couple times, let alone enough to make any use of extra stuff. The Fear Of Missing Out that stretch goals creates is often a reality of missing nothing.

To be fair, there have been stretch goals that have turned out to have had value for me. For instance, the stretch goals for the Pack O Games Kickstarters were additional complete games. Which I did play and got value from.

Still, if stretch goals are the deciding factor me me, I probably shouldn’t back the Kickstarter.

Monday, September 6, 2021

Agricola is a game that’s all about labor!

 When thinking about what game to retire about for Labor Day, I thought about Agricola since it’s all about doing manual labor!

Agricola came out fourteen years ago… OH MY SWEET CATAN, I’M OLD!  And that’s when Uwe Rosenberg stopped being the Bohnanza guy (a game I still totally love) and being a designer of games that cover medium-sized tables.

It’s been a while since I’ve played Agricola but that’s entirely due to time and opportunity and table space. I’d happily play it again. And from what I can tell, it may have had some revisions but it’s never gone out of print. But what is it that makes Agricola so nifty? 

It uses a solid worker placement system. The different decks of cards give it vast variety and replay value. Later editions had adorable animal meeples. The game is a delightful work of game mechanics.

But I think an additional element helped Agricola go off like a bomb and has helped its long term success. It’s really easy to understand. Which is a more fun way of saying it’s accessible. Everything you do in the game makes sense. You are doing basic agricultural chores. 

When I was more of a gamer snob, I used to have a meh opinion of theme and fluff. I thought it was just a way for Fantasy Flight to justify charging a lot for a bunch of plastic. But I now realize that these things can help you wrap your brain around a game and allow it to be more intricate. Agricola could theoretically be rendered as a total abstract but it would be not only less fun but also harder to understand.

Agricola. Maybe not my favorite Uwe Rosenberg game. Maybe not yours. But it is a good one.

And happy Labor Day!

Saturday, September 4, 2021

My August R&W

August came close to ending what has been my monthly learning new Roll and Writes. Which was never an actual goal of mine. It just kept happening :D August was just a busy month but I did manage to learn a few.
While I was already familiar with Robin Gibson’s Paper Pinball series, I tried a couple boards that I hadn’t tried before.

I’d played an earlier version of Sherwood 2146 but I tried the most recent version this time. I also tried a board from the second season, Squishington Goes to Venus. (Judging by the art, Squishington is a budgie that NASA sent to the planet Venus)

Paper Pinball is a guilty pleasure of mine, a game series that has slowly grown on me. They are very much part of the roll-them-dice-and-fill-in-boxes school of R&W. Which can be brilliant (The Clever family of games, for instance) but I’d call Paper Pinball just okay, if amusing.

I intentionally tried a very early board and a later board. And the differences were definitely there. Sherwood 2146 is so very simple and the decisions border on being mindless. Squishington, while still very simple, actually gave me choices and actual interactions between board elements.

Paper Pinball is still strictly a guilty pleasure but if someone asked me to recommend a board, it would be from season two. I will save season one for when I’m feeling brain dead, which means they will still see play.

The other Roll and Write I tried out for the first time is Stonemaier’s Rolling Realms. Holy cow, that was a completely different experience from Paper Pinball.

The game consists of nine micro-games, each inspired by one of Stonemaier’s larger games. It was developed as a game folks could play together long distance when they are under lockdown.

I’m not going to try to evenly lightly summarize Rolling Realms. It definitely uses the idea of there being way more to do than you can ever get done.

There have been ten different versions of the game, not counting the official version that is coming out. That makes it a little weird for me to access. And I’ll need more plays to really get even a vague handle on how many actual decisions the game has.

The only real issue I’ve had is that fitting all the micro-games and the rules on one sheet of paper leads to rule questions. The published version will have a rule book so that should clear that up.

September looks to be busy too so I don’t know if I’ll get in any new games. Even if I don’t, it’s been a better run than I expected.


Wednesday, September 1, 2021

My August PnP


Okay, here’s what I made in August:

Timeline: Classic - Print and Play Demo

Yup. That’s it. School started for our son at the start of August so that’s where our focus and time and mental stamina was at. My goal is to get one ‘meaningful’ project in a month so I’m content.

I got the files from Asmodee’s website. I’ve looked at the series but never tried it so this will be a chance to sample it. Which is the entire point of a demo :D

The demo consists 30 of the 55 cards, over half the entire game. Would getting the complete game be that much more rewarding than the demo? I do have to wonder that.

September looks to be another month where PnP isn’t a priority. Eh, life gets crazy.  As long as I get a little crafting in, it will help me stay balanced.