Friday, September 23, 2022

Random, possibly insane, ramblings about Cheap Ass Games

I’ve been looking back at my past blogs about Cheap Ass games. And I am fascinated by how much my opinion of the work of James Ernst has shifted.

Cheap Ass Games was one of the first game companies I discovered when I transitioned from a RPG-only guy to a board gamer too. In fact, I first came across Cheap Ass Games in a rural comic boom shop I only went to once.  (They were sitting in a wicker basket. I didn’t get any for a few more years but I remember them)

However, during my game snob phase, my opinion seriously dropped. Then, after I became a parent and didn’t have hours to devote to gaming, I found myself impressed at how accessible and fun a lot of the Cheapass Games are. Now, I think they are nifty.

That said, even when my opinion of Cheapasss Games was at its lowest ebb, the Very Clever Pipe Game, Light Speed, Button Men and Lamarckian Poker were still in regular rotation.

I have king held that James Ernest is one of the most authentically punk game designers. The man wants you to use the man’s components? James Ernest says you can dump out the contents of your closet and , bang, there’s your game system!

One of the reasons Cheapass Games has been on my mind is that a family member recently came back from working for years in a third world country. They aren’t a gamer but I found myself thinking of how Cheapass Games would be a way to have accessible designer games when shipping or even printing wouldn’t be viable.

Obviously, not every game in their catalog is going fit those parameters. Not being able to easily make cards would make Kill Doctor Lucky for instance. 

Hiwever, assuming you can get a hold of playing cards and dice (which I know might not be a safe assumption), games like Devil Bunny Needs A Ham or Spree or the Chief Herman collections seem within reach. You can make a Pairs Deck with three decks of cards that have the same backs.

Okay, I am probably romanticizing the potential for Cheapass Games. Seriously, if you have access to a deck of cards, you have a vast library of games that doesn’t need any help from James Ernest.

Post Script: and I just learned that James Ernest has spent the last few years publishing game files, including works in progress, at a site called Crab Fragments. I thought he retired and here he goes and gives me a whole new catalog to look at! L

Wednesday, September 21, 2022

Very early impressions of Death Valley

I printed out the demo of Death Valley and cut the cards last year. And now I I’ve finally actually laminated and trimmed the cards. My expectation were a fairly rudimentary push-your-luck game with pretty art and a good theme. And damned if it didn’t surprise me by being better than that.

Death Valley is an 18-card game that can be played by one to two people. In it, you are traveling through Death Valley National Park, occasionally pausing to journal about your experiences. I’ve never have actually been to Death Valley National Park but I have family that has.

And the cards are not just beautiful but also informative. Each one describes locations or other features of the park. Since I haven’t been  there, I don’t know how accurate it is but I appreciate the effort if they’re fooling me.

Mechanically, there are three elements on the cards. Hazard symbols, along with a number of how many of that symbols are in the deck. Stars. And special powers.

In the game, you’re building up two lines of cards. The top line is the journey and the bottom line is the journal, made from cards moved down from the journey. If a hazard shows up three times between the two, you bust and your journey gets scrapped. 
And, trust me, I’m leaving out a lot. Still, a core concept is choosing between drawing the face-up card or a blind draw from the deck. 

And that’s what I thought the game was about. But when I actually tried it out, the special powers became a much, much bigger deal than I’d expected. The powers either give you ways to score points or special abilities. Their uses and interactions add a lot to the game.

Oh, and those stars? At the end of the game, you get points for them but ONLY if they are in your journey. The cards in your journal, the ones that won’t go away if you bust? Those stars are just pretty and worth nothing.

So, don’t underestimate the push your luck either.

I have barely started to try out the demo version of Death Valley but I’ve already printed out the finished version and the Panamint City expansion and cut the cards. I won’t wait nearly as long to finish the cards and give the game a proper write up.

Death Valley is an eighteen-card microgame. That is a niche that has become quite packed with games. (Buttonshy has helped that happen) I expected a decent game but Death Valley instead promises to be top notch.

Monday, September 19, 2022

I couldn’t wait until October for Zombie in my Pocket

I’d been planning on making a copy of the original Zombie in my Pocket in October to celebrate Halloween. But I got impatient to actually play the game again so I made it a month early lol

Zombie in my Pocket was an important milestone in my gaming life. It wasn’t my first foray in Print and Play (or solitaire for that matter) nor was it the game that launched me into making a lot of print and play games. But it was the first print and play game I played over and over again.

Finished the game and tried it out. Still crazy thematic, still random enough that bad luck can kill your plans and still a lot of fun.

In case you haven’t played it, Zombie in my Pocket is a tile-laying game driven by a development deck that is really an encounter deck. You first have to find a hidden shrine in a house and get the evil totem. Then you have to find your way outside and find the graveyard where you need to bury the totem.

So… we are talking evil curse origins of the zombie apocalypse, not disease or science gone wrong no explanation whatsoever.

The development deck/event cards are the best part of them game. Not only because they add a lot of flavor and not only because they are how things happen. It’s because they are also the timer.

Each card has an event for nine o’clock, ten o’clock and eleven o’clock. And the later it gets; the worse the events get. Every time you reshuffle the deck, you move down to the next hour. And if you hit midnight, it’s game over. Zombie party until the end of time.

The tile-laying is actually the part of the game where luck will really get you. There are ways you can mitigate the luck of the deck. Fleeing zombie hordes, finding items, cowering for health. But if the evil temple is at the bottom of the house tiles or the grave yard is at the bottom of the outdoor tiles, you will burn a lot of precious time to find them and you only have twenty-one rounds until midnight.

Since I last played Zombie in my Pocket, I have played a lot of PnP solitaire games. Including some other In My Pocket games inspired by Zombie.

And it has held up. Better than I expected, really. It hits that sweet spot where simple and accessible meet. It is silly, sloppy fun, dripping with zombie theme. Holy Cthulhu in Space Marine Arnor, it’s Ameritrash in my pocket.

Zombie in my Pocket isn’t perfect or deep but it is a lot of fun. It tells an story and the constant ticking of the clock makes that story compelling. I have definitely played better solitaire games but playing it again made me want to immediately start another game.

Friday, September 16, 2022

A game for people who are actually good at trick taking

 It has been a long time since I last played Die Sieben Siegel, also known as Wizard Extreme and Zing and Sluff Off. (It’s not as bad as Knizia’s Wildlife Safari but that’s still a lot of names) I don’t know if I’ve ever owned a copy but I knew at least a couple folks who had a copy.

Die Sieben Siegel did leave an impression on me, though. Part of it is because the German name sounds like you want a former action star to bite the dust. But it’s because it was one of my first experiences of how you can take an age-old card game, add a couple tweaks, and get a modern game.

(I have since come to understand that that is just a basic tenet of game design. It isn’t all about innovation but synthesis as well. It’s not about inventing a new wheel all the time. It’s about finding interesting uses for all the wheels that lying around)

That said, DSS is a trick taking game that actually makes a lot of changes from games like Spades or Hearts or Oh Hell. You not only bid on how many tricks you will win, you also bid on what suite you will win them with as well. There are five suites in the deck. Red is _always_ trump.

Oh, each hand, one player can choose to be the saboteur. The saboteur doesn’t try and win tricks. Their goal is to mess with other players and force them to win tricks they didn’t bid on.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Euchre and I basically said it was great because it is a traditional card game that refines the elements of trick taking , a game that is nothing but the fundamentals of trick taking. DSS is a game that, if you understand trick taking games like Euchre or Spades, you almost immediately understand how to play.

But exactly predicting not only how many tricks you are going to win but what suite they will be? That takes some thinking. That takes some planning. That takes some skill.

And, honestly, I’m terrible at it. My favorite trick taking game is, and has been for years, Sticheln. Which is really a deconstruction of trick taking games lol

However, looking back at Die Sieben Siegel, I think it’s designed to really push the skills of people who are actually good at trick taking games. And the role of the saboteur creates a whole new flavor of interaction without changing the nature of the game.

In Die Sieben Siegel, Stefan Dora made a new shape with wheels that everyone already knows.

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Henry Kuttner’s Hogbens stories leave me conflicted

I first heard about Henry Kuttner’s Hogbens stories in comparison to Manly Wade Wellman’s Silver John/John the Balladeer stories. I have finally read the Hogben stories and, man, is that comparison superficial.

Manly Wade Wellman was an active folklorist and his work was steeped in authentic culture and lore. The Hogben stories are over-the-top stereotypes even before mad science gets thrown in. One reviewer described the Hogbens as The Adams Family crossed with the Beverly Hillbillies and I don’t think I can do better than that.

I was also surprised by how few stories there were. Kuttner only wrote five stories and one of them doesn’t remotely count. (The first story, The Old Army Game, uses the same names but no fantastic elements, utterly contradicting the later stories. In fact, I think it has been left off some collections. Since I actually have read it, I can safely say you can skip it)

Oh, just to make it clear if it wasn’t obvious, the Hogben stories are comedies. 

The Hogben are mutant survivors from Atlantis who have settled in the Appalachian hollers and gone seriously native. Well, Grandpa may be the only one who was around when Atlantis was above water but Pa was doing stuff in Ancient Greece.

The Hogbens have crazy psychic powers, access to building serious mad science tech and centuries of living experience but there wouldn’t be any stories if they actually had any good judgement. Maybe the moonshine they are constantly guzzling explains them making an atomic pile in a wood shed or giving reality altering tech to mere mortals. Since the Hogbens are the only fantastic element in the stories, they have to be the ones who create the problems they need to solve.

I don’t know what to think of the Hogben stories. Stereotypes are a way of dehumanizing people and the Hogbens are pushed to the point of literally not human.  But they do have fun, twisty plots. There’s some good writing. I can see an argument that the stories are actually a satire of stereotypes but I think that is in danger of being an apologist argument. 

Henry Kuttner died young but left a surprisingly large and varied body of work. (His wife C. L. Moore had a big hand in that. Scholars argue to this day who wrote what) I do wonder what his legacy would be like if he’d lived longer. 

Monday, September 12, 2022

I Spy beats the games I packed

On a recent camping trip, I packed A Fistful of Penguins and a deck of cards for surface friendly and weather friendly games. (The cute penguin theme of a Fistful of Penguins and all the components being waterproof made it beat out  Pickomino and Easy Come, Easy Go. The latter still tempted me because you don’t need a score pad. And, really, you should just take a deck of cards on any trip)

So what did we end up playing? I Spy. Admittedly, the wilderness did give us a whole new variety of things to spy and it kept our eight-year-old engaged for a surprisingly long time.

I usually describe Charades as as minimal as you can get but I Spy doesn’t even require movement or forming teams.  And it’s educational between giving limited spelling lessons and making observations about the immediate environment.

So, it may have been a loss for my packing but it was still a win for gaming.

(I did log my hundredth play of Sagrada on my phone while in the mountains. Which really only is a fun tidbit because I did it while camping)

Friday, September 9, 2022

Bolets: old school video game feel in nine cards

Bolets is a maze-building game for one that uses Ricochet Robots mechanics and NES aesthetic. 

That’s a fun sentence to write.

Bolets was originally part of this year’s nine-card contest. You use one card to track your health, enemy crows and your points. One card is the goal card that ends the maze/board. And the other seven cards are what you use to create the

Short and sweet version: you are building a maze with overlapping cards and tracing a line through it. The line follows the same rules as Ricochet Robots. Move in a straight line until you hit a wall or a rock. Than, you make a 90 degree turn. Oh and you can’t cross your own path. (Which isn’t the case in Ricochet Robots but Bolets is a smaller space so it needs that restriction)

(And I found out that Ricochet Robots was indeed an influence on Bolets. But Alexander Randolph was a major influence on modern board game design in general so that’s like saying the Beatles were an influence on a song)

But, oh, there’s more. Bolets isn’t just about navigating the board. You get points for crossing over and collecting mushrooms. There are also flowers that give you health back.

But what gives Bolets some teeth are the crows. Three or more visible crows will cost you health points. Five will automatically lose you the game. You can defeat a crow before moving over them but it costs you a health point. You can also cover them up with cards and stones.

(And you can earn stones by either earning points or sacrificing health)

Bolets is simple enough that it doesn’t need a theme. But the theme of picking mushrooms in the forest on the way to Granny’s house makes the game intuitive. The old school video game aesthetic really helps create the narrative.

I feel that Bolets has brutally simple core mechanics but managed to juggle more elements than I’d expect in a game that’s basically seven cards. The game is simple but that simplicity was paired with very intuitive gameplay.

I have been enjoying Bolets. I do wonder about the long term replay value but that’s forgivable in a free nine-card game. I think Bolets real success is on being so accessible.

Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Rick Riordan + Jules Verne proves disappointing

When I read that Richard Riordan had written a book that was set in the world of Jules Verne instead of mythology, I had to read it. So I got Daughters of the Deep out of the library.

And in order to discuss it, I am going to spoil every plot twist and the ending. So, if you don’t want the book spoiled, I will say that I thought it had a good premise but fell short. 







Hey, I’m going to talk about the ending




Here’s the elevator summary: Anna Dakar is a freshman at school that is basically Hogwarts as a marine science center. (The resemblance is even lampshaded in the book) She ends up in the middle of a conflict to get the legendary submarine, the Nautilus. Which turns out to be real.

I felt there were three major plot twists in the book and, quite frankly, I felt each one was progressively less effective.

In the fourth chapter, after we have a school story setup of the freshman class having to go through rigorous trial, the rival school literally blows their school off the face of the Earth, leaving the freshman the only known survivors.

And, damn, that was a hook. I did not see that coming. The plot was dramatically heightened and we went from a school story to a war story. And the resemblance to Hogwarts was done.

Second plot twist: Anna turns out to be the great, great granddaughter of Captain Nemo. Which was mentioned in every review and even the introduction. I don’t know it would have been surprising anyway but giving it away in the introduction just made it falls flat.

Third: her brother who she thought died in the big attack is alive and actually behind the attack on the school. Riordan already pulled a reveal like this with Luke in the Lightning Thief and it was just too predictable. It fell flat for me.

And, in the end, the heroes decide that they will rebuild the school with the vast wealth left behind by Nemo. AFTER letting the rival school’s senior class, who were the ones who killed pretty much their school, go.

Considering that they have proven themselves to be ruthless murderers who a lot of reasons to keep on going after the heroes, this is crazy. I’m not saying the heroes needed to kill then but stranding them on a Pacific island with no radio would have made sense and fit the genre. 

I can buy Percy and Annabelle fighting their way through Hell because that makes sense in the context of that story. Letting the guys who murdered friends and family just go home, that didn’t make sense.

(I also found Captain Nemo’s mad science from the 19th century went too far into the fantastic. Cold fusion? No problem. Fully sentient and emotional AI? Much harder to buy, particularly because there’s nothing in Verne to set that up.)

All of the complaints to one side, Anna is a well developed, interesting character. The fact that she spends part of the story with PTSD due her school’s destruction really helps ground her and make her believable.

I can’t believe that this isn’t the start of a series. And I can see how some of my objections could be ironed out. So, if there’s another book, I will read it. But it will have some work to do.

Monday, September 5, 2022

Round one of FlipWord in the classroom

With the school year having started, that means substitute teaching has started again. And, although the opportunities are few and far between, I don’t mind seeing how I can add games to learning and critical thinking.

So, when looking at a bored class of middle school humanities, I decided it was time to try out FlipWord in the classroom. 

I cherry picked some categories and put them up on the white board. And proceeded to confuse most of the kids.

So, for every class after that, I just assigned them to do an essay after they were done with their regular work.

I am still convinced that FlipWord can work in the classroom. I just have to get the presentation right.

Friday, September 2, 2022

My August Gaming

 August wasn’t a game heavy month but I feel like I managed to learn a variety of games if not a lot of games.

I got my goal of learning at least one Roll and Write out of the way with Winnie the Pooh in the Honey Heist. It is a cute side roller that makes really good use of its theme. It’s not my new game to play every day but it is sweet.

The highlight of my game learning was Fishing Lessons by Scott Almes. A year after the death of the family patriarch, the Williams family is going on a fishing trip in his memory. The programmable action cards are themed as memories of lessons he taught.

The lake cards form a line that the boat card moves over and whose location dictates what lake cards you can manipulate. By having a one-dimensional area to play in (Lineland in a reference to Abbot’s Flatland), Almes lets minimalism define the game’s limits in a way that doesn’t seem arbitrary.

I need to play Fishing Lessons more but the initial plays are very promising and the theme clicks for me.

After years of reading about Micro Space Empire, I finally played it, albeit in the form of a set of tables instead of cards. Frankly, It shows its age with how limited the decision tree really is. I did enjoy it for how it used its theme with brevity.

Finally, I played Bolets, a tiny puzzle game that started out as a contest entry. It feels like a mashup of Ricochet Robots and an NES game. I felt like it’s very simple mechanics hid a decent number of decisions and design elements. Really, the opposite of my reaction to Micro Space Empire.

As I said at the start, August wasn’t a crazy month for gaming. But I can see both Fishing Lessons and Bolets ending up in regular rotation. 

Thursday, September 1, 2022

My August PnP

After having done almost no PnP crafting in July, I was busier in August.

Project list:


What Lies Beneath

The Great micro Game

Wheat & Ale

Winnie-the-Pooh in the Honey Heist 

Fishing Lessons (demo)

Autumn (two and three player)

Food Chain Island (demo)

My ‘big’ project for August was the demo for Fishing Lessons, the fourth and latest game in Scott Almes Simply Sollo series. It’s very solid and might even knock Food Chain Island from its position of my favorite game in the series.

I made extra copies of Autumn and Food Chain Island so I could have travel copies that could live permanently in my work bag. Both games have proven worth being handy. (Making a copy of the final version of Food Chain Island and the expansions that have come out is on the short list)

I also spent a fair bit of time getting other projects started, printing and cutting and laminating. I have a feeling that free time is going to be even  tighter for the rest of the year so I wanted to be able to set things up so I could still get projects done each month.

Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Demon Slayer was worth finishing

Earlier this year, after watching enough students reading Demon Slayer, I started reading it. And I’ve now finished it.

Twenty-three volumes isn’t super long, particularly by manga standards, but it is long enough to let a story ruminate and develop. At the same time, it turned out to not be monster-of-the-week, Spider-Man-endlessly-fighting-bad-guys. At a certain point, I realized that a single story arc was emerging.

Here’s the elevator pitch:  After almost his entire family is slaughtered and his sole surviving sister becoming a demon, Tanjiro Kamado joins the Demon Slayer Corps. From there, he and his true companions slay demons.

But Demon Slayer subverts many of my expectations.







First off, Tanjiro is a grade A, all-loving hero. I’ve said that before and I’ll keep on saying it. I think that’s become more common than it used but I’m used to hot-hotted idiots or arrogant anti-heroes. Tanjiro as a sweetie is fun to me. 

Although just because he empathizes with everyone doesn’t keep him from chopping demon heads without hesitation.

However, Demon Slayer’s exploration of character development isn’t limited to just Tanjiro and his nakame. (And, yes, I only know that word thanks to One Piece) Other demon slayers and even demons get their backgrounds and motivations fleshed out. Usually when they are dying.

There’s lots of dying in Demon Slayer. And, near the end, I decided that Tanjiro, whose father died young, poverty stricken family was almost entirely slaughtered by demons and only remaining family is a demon, had one of the happiest backgrounds.

And the entire giant ensemble approach really plays in the plot and the overall theme of Demon Slayer. The demon slayer corp isn’t just about slaying random demons. They have the long term goal of killing Muzan, father of demons, which will end demon kind.

And, spoilers, they do. And while Tanjiro plays a crucial role, it takes everyone working together to do it. I was expecting a series focused on one character and got a giant, interconnected cast instead.

Demon Slayer, fun series.

Monday, August 29, 2022

Duplex, fold or glue

Here’s a boring gaming topic that’s been on my mind. Duplex versus folding versus gluing. lol

It’s a print and play topic. When I’m printing out pages of double-sided cards or tiles, I have three options, which vary depending on the layout of the page: Duplex, printing on both sides. Folding, folding the component into proper shape. Gluing two pieces together.

Honestly, gluing, if done properly, can have the best results. That allows you to have a core in between the two pieces, creating something sturdy and closer to published components.

As I’ve mentioned many times, I use a laminator for most of my projects. Which is definitely a lazy option. In some ways, it even feels like a cheat. I get a decent amount of sturdiness and quite a bit of durability with a method that is cheap and quick. 

My results aren’t as nice as homemade linen-finished cards. However, they are very functional for a lot less effort. 

I’m not a big fan of folding cards. Partially because that’s one more step but mostly because the double layer increases the amount of bubbling in the lamination process.

So, Duplex is really cool for me. Print, cut, laminate and trim. Done.

And none of this is that interesting, even for me, until I go to the local library to print stuff off via their color printer/copiers. Because, if a page is landscape, the backside gets flipped and messes up the duplex.

When that happens with our black and white printer, I can just print one side, flip the paper and do it again. They don’t let me do that at the library for some reason. So I have to sometimes glue stuff if I want it in color. 

Yeah, not an exciting topic but one that I need to remember when I’m at the library.

Friday, August 26, 2022

The imperfect world of Micro Space Empire

When I saw that someone had recreated Micro Space Empire as a set of tables, effectively making it a Roll and Write, that was when I decided I needed to try it.

Which is a fascinating statement about me. On the one hand, it speaks to my laziness. Absolutely no construction. I printed off the page and put it into a page protector so I could use a dry erase marker. So I was too lazy to print it off twice. And, on the other hand, I’m also okay with a set of tables instead of illustrated cards. Presentation is a big deal and means a lot but I can accept rough and ready minimalism.

At any rate, it’s a science fiction game about conquering worlds and adding them to your tax base. Or empire. 

Each turn consists of 1. Exploration/Conquest 2. Get resources 3. Use them resources 4. Get hit by a random event.

And, here’s what really struck me. The mechanics are very simple, very minimal. Every conflict revolves around rolling one six-sided die. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, particularly if you’re looking for a coffee break game.

Every meaningful decision that you, the player, make is in the third stage. Building up military. Developing technology. Those are the only way to modify die rolls. In fact, you can pass on exploring and I think a basic strategy is passing early in the game so you can bulk up your military. Losing battles reduces your military so it’s important to bolster your military.

And I love me a tech tree. However, the tech tree in Micro Space Empire is very easy to prioritize. I honestly would say that the decisions you have to make with the tech tree are easy, even obvious.

All of those negatives aside, I enjoyed Micro Space Empire more than I expected to. And, yes, I am more forgiving of free PnP games but that’s not the only reason.

Micro Space Empire is a five-minute coffee break of a game. The simplicity in both its mechanics and its decision tree (which are very different things) becomes acceptable, even beneficial, when you only have five minutes to get the job done. I know what I want to do. Now, can I work with the one six-sided die and make it happen?

Yeah, there are a ton of five-minute coffee break games out there. I woke up one day and found I was collecting them. And there are better ones than Micro Space Empire but it does have its own way of being a 3.25X game. (The conquest really isn’t extermination) And I’d probably think even higher of it if I’d actually tried it back in 2011 when it first came out.

(Seriously, solitaire and PnP have really made strides in the last ten years)

I wouldn’t rule out actually make the playmat and the cards someday but I have at least fourteen projects already in the queue.

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Fjords makes me feel old :D

Okay, Fjords has been not only reprinted but expanded? Got to admit that I did not expect that.

On the one hand, I don’t think of Fjords as being a profoundly great game. On the other hand, I would never turn down a game of Fjords :D

(If I’m reading this correctly, the major changes are raising the player count to four and the ability to shift a house once during the first part of the game. Not dramatic changes but Fjords is a simple game. Small things can be big)

My first response to seeing this was ‘Damn, I’m old.’ Because, when it came out and we were playing it, Fjords was a solid B game. And apparently, as well as being published by Grail Games, it has become a grail game.

Apparently, if you stay in a hobby long enough, you get to see regular things become classic.

Second, man, the late Franz-Benno Delonge made some great games. TransAmerica alone would be an amazing legacy. But he also made Dos Rios and Hellas and Manila. (I still haven’t played Container and I’m folding TransEuropa into TransAmerica)

He doesn’t have a huge catalog of games but there is a healthy percentage of evergreens in that catalog. As I’ve said, Fjords is a solid, even meditative game but it doesn’t even make my top three of his designs. 

Happy his work is still getting attention.

Now, when is Hellas going to get a reprint?

Monday, August 22, 2022

Is Spree Ameritrash?

Looking at James Ernst’s Spree (a game I have owned forever but never played), I found myself asking where Cheapass Games fall in the world of Ameritrash as a genre. Well, at least this Chrapass game.

I mean, Spree is thematic. It’s about burgling a mall. It’s got conflict. You are shooting at each other for crying out loud. There is take-that. You’re grabbing each other’s stuff. And it’s random.

That sure sounds like Ameritrash to me!

But if Fantasy Flight has taught me anything, it’s that chrome matters. And, even by the standards of Cheapass Games, Spree comes with less chrome than a garden rock.

(Of course, you could bling it out like no one’s business. So it’s no one’s fault but yours if there isn’t any chrome so stop blaming James Ernst!)

But I think that arguing production values define a game, rather than define its price, seems like a bad argument. The Grand Guignal experience may be a part of many Ameritrash games but I’m going to argue it’s not a requirement. Theme and interaction are more important. And Spree clearly has that going on.

I’m certainly not arguing that all Cheap Ass games are Ameritrash. James Ernst’s games fall into a lot of different categories. I suspect his design goals were fun and sales. However, some, like Spree do fit.

From what I’ve read, if you actually play Spree and can see past the production values, it’s a solid beer and pretzels game. And I’m pretty sure that the board is free to download so actually making a copy would be easy.

I still think I’d need some bling to get people to play.

Friday, August 19, 2022

Euchre is fun-damental

There’s an anecdote that, in the 1890, an Englishman wrote to an editor, asking for a game simple enough that he could teach it to his young son that would give him a taste of Whist. The editor replied he had the perfect game, Whist.

You can tell that the anecdote happened in England because if it had happened in the American Midwest, he’d have said Euchre.

I have no business being as bad at Euchre as I am. I certainly played it often enough in high school and college. But, no, I’m terrible at it. I do think it’s brilliant though.

(I also know there are a lot of flavors of Euchre floating around out there. But the only one I have really experienced is the four-player, 24-card version)

I understand that Euchre is decried as being too simple… but I’ve never actually met anyone who has said that. I would actually say that a more fair description of Euchre is not that it’s simple but bloody straightforward.

Euchre doesn’t have any funny twists or turns that modern, designer trick taking games require. And only having 24 cards makes keeping track of cards and figuring out odds not too difficult. The game has a reputation for being a game that you can play while arguing, drinking or watching TV.

At the same time, Euchre has partners. Euchre has trumps. Euchre has bidding. And, yes, I have seen trick taking games that haven’t had those elements. 

I will argue that Euchre will teach you the fundamentals of the trick taking genre, that it will build a bedrock of understanding the genre. And it is good enough for you to keep coming back to it. I have a friend who swears his grandfather was buried with a Euchre hand.

Euchre is a cultural institution. Which doesn’t guarantee a game is good but Euchre does happen to be a good game. Euchre teaches you to be a better gamer.

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

What if Rick Riordan and Eddie Campbell met in a bar?

I recently read Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods and Bacchus Volume Three: Doing the Islands with Bacchus. Rick Riordan and Eddie Campbell ended up in very similar places by going in completely opposite directions.

Percy Jackson’s Greek Gods is a retelling of classic mythology in the voice of Rick Riordan’s most prominent character. So, lots of postmodern comments and teenage snark.

One touch that I found amusing is that Riordan glosses over the rape and sexual violence that is so prominent in Greek mythology by having Percy openly admit that he’s glossing over it. Percy actively  describes Zeus as a creepy sexual stalker. 

Eddie Camobell’s Bacchus/Deadface graphic novels are a bit tough to summarize. They are set in modern times about the ragged, seedy remnants of the Greek gods and legends. They are much darker and grittier than Rick Riordan, particularly when Joe Theseus shows up. (The guy is literally a walking tragedy)

Volume Three may be the lightest volume of the lot, having Bacchus who is now an ancient, one-eyed barfly bum around the Greek islands and tell stories. And many of those stories are retellings of myths. With lots of postmodern commentary and snark.

There have been times when I wonder if both their approaches are more authentic than Thomas Bullfinch. They approach the mythology as living works and the ancient Greeks are the ones who had to live with them.

Both are worth reading, although I won’t be recommending Eddie Campbell to any students. Both are also terribly well researched.

I do wonder if Rick Riordan read any Eddie Campbell.

Monday, August 15, 2022

My earliest Sandman memories

 With The Sandman having been turned into a TV series, that’s taken me down memory lane. Probably enough for two or three blogs lol

I have heard a number of folks say that there was nothing like Sandman before it came out and there hasn’t been anything like it since. Which seems pretty extreme but, at least as far as comic books are concerned, I’m not sure they are wrong.

But, I have to say, I didn’t get that impression with my first experience with it.

It was issue 7, Sound and Fury, the issue that wrapped up Morpheus’s quest for his tools and his duel with Doctor Destiny, an old Justice League villain of all things. Without any context, it didn’t make much sense. Why did the pale guy turn into some kind of God at the end?

If I had the issue before, the nightmare 24 Hours, or the issue after, the charming Sound of Her Wings, I’d have been sold. But issue 7, possibly the worse issue to start with out of the entire series.

No, I wouldn’t get interested in Sandman until I found and read the Doll’s House graphic novel. And this was back before graphic novels and collected editions became an industry standard. And this was also when they still included the Sound of Her Wings. 

Then I was hooked. I started getting every issue with #19.

And I still recommend friends who haven’t read Sandman start with Doll’s House. If they like it, they will be good for the whole ride. And if they don’t, they can be done.

Friday, August 12, 2022

A bear of very little brain rolls some dice

Winnie-the-Pooh in the Honey Heist (which I’m just going to call The Honey Heist from now on) is a Print and Play Roll and Write, one of those ones that any number of people can play as long as they have their own play sheet.

And, yes, it’s themed around the Winnie the Pooh with artwork that definitely evokes E. H. Shepherd’s art. Because a certain major corporation  has a pack of lawyers that will rip out your throat and leave your pockets empty if you use their trade marked version :D

The actual board consists of four seven-hex ‘circles’ (is there a proper term for that? Seven hex grid?) The center hex in each grid already has a number in it. You will be filling in numbers in all the other hexes over the course of the game. Also, each grid comes with one honey drop and one bee that can be worth points.

So, here’s the idea: each turn you roll two dice. One of them is Pooh’s die and you just write in that number. But, although he is a bear of very small brains, he is also a bear of huge heart, he gives the other die to one of his friends. 

Each pip is a different character from the books and has a different effect. For example, Piglet, the one pip, either copies Pooh’s die or gives you a three. Christopher Robbins , the six pip, let’s you either use a 0 or a 7.

Twelve turns. Twenty-four numbers. And you’re done.

There are four ways of scoring points. You get points for making sets of numbers or runs of numbers. And individual numbers can be part of more than one grouping. You get points for covering honey drops with low numbers and bees with high numbers. And you get points for using the same friend multiple times.

Let me get this out of the way first. The implementation of the theme is half the value of the game. Not only is the idea and art adorable, the mechanics work with the theme. Of course Pooh shares his dice. And some of the pip powers reflect their characters. Eyore subtracts value from dice, for instance.

The mechanics are interesting. Each friend power gives you two options so there are choices. There’s more going on than just rolling two dice and using those numbers. At the same time, the friend powers are specific enough that I do find them limiting.

I do wonder if luck is what really decides any given game of Honey Heist. At the same time, I also don’t think there are obvious choices. The game puzzles with you, not plays itself.

Honestly, at the end of the day, I feel like Honey Heist has decent mechanics. (How much can you really expect from 12 rounds?) But, it doesn’t just have a cute theme, it embraces it. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2022

The fascination of Initial D

 LBack when TokyoPop was first releasing translated Manga (which was a golden age of Manga reading for me), I latched onto Initial D. I bought and read volume after volume of it. And I never could quite figure out why I enjoyed it so much.

I recently had the chance to read the first third of the series again. And I really enjoyed it a lot. And I still can’t figure out why it’s so enthralling.

Initial D is a sports manga about street racing. The cars are beautifully drawn but the people are kind of ugly. And static images of cars racing shouldn’t be exciting. It would make more sense if I was into the anime. That would bring the cars ignoring physics to life and the sound track is legendary.

I know that I’m showing my age when I say that my default  Shonen standard is Dragon Ball. (And I’m sure it says something about me that by the time it became Dragon Ball Z, I was getting bored )  The formula of the underdog coming out on top by a combination of character and last minute tricks is a familiar one. And, to be sure, with Takumi being an unbeatable underdog,  Initial D holds to that formula.

What I think makes Initial D sparkle is that the appearance of being realistic. I am far from an expert but I am sure that the techniques range from terribly impractical to utterly impossible. And, in between, Takuma should be ripping the wheels off his car and dying in a flaming wreck. But he’s not leaping into the sky and lobbing fire balls so it feels realistic.

Initial D is a well packaged piece of wish fulfillment. Takuma is driving a family car and beating street legal race cars. As the series goes on, it becomes modified beyond belief but it’s still the kind of car readers might be able to own. 

And maybe that’s why it works. Because it embraces wish fulfillment without being too obvious about it.

Monday, August 8, 2022

Genesis is a keeper after all

Genesis is relatively obscure Knizia game. I was surprised to find it in deep storage since I thought I had gotten rid of it years ago. And I was glad to see it since it’s remained stuck in my head, despite having not played it very much.

It’s one of his tile laying games. And, while the theme is all about life emerging in the deep past, the theme is completely arbitrary. While I don’t think Knizia is as guilty of paper-thin themes as he is accused of, the paint on this theme is so thin, you can see the wood grain on the other side.

It’s a tile-laying game where you roll two dice to determine what color tiles you can place. But two of the faces are wild and you can choose to ignore the dice and just place one tile of any color. When you only have three empty spaces, groups are scored by size.

It has been many years since I last played Genesis, hence the very vague rules description. I remember before I played going in with two impressions. That the board was wide open and it was going to be random since there were since there were dice.

And I remember in my first play both of those things were very wrong. The board turned into a maze of bottle necks very quickly. And 1/3 of the die rolls being wild and the ability to ignore the dice by dropping a placement really moderated the luck.

The other thing I remembered is that I enjoyed Genesis and wanted to play it more. And now I found out that I can!

Simple doesn’t always means good. But Knizia has a good track record of making simple good and Genesis is one more example.

No, it isn’t Tigris and Euphrates or Samurai or Through the Desert or Ingenious (Knizia has made a lot of games, tile laying or otherwise) I still look forward to playing Genesis again.

Friday, August 5, 2022

Wheat & Ale is an Arcadia building game

What made me pull the trigger of Wheat & Ale was that it was by Robin Jarvis. Between the Legends of Dsyx and Paper Pinball, they have given me hours of Roll and Write fun.

Wheat & Ale is billed as a Tiny Civilization Game. It’s not. Civilization games, no matter what size, have to have a big scope of time and space. I also want a tech tree but I’ll listen to arguments. Wheat & Ale is about creating an agricultural village along a river. 

It’s a Tiny Arcadia Game. And that’s just fine.

It’s one of the draw things on a grid Roll and Writes. The grid is actually a hex grid, the kind where it’s squares in a brickwork pattern. They may not be hexes but it’s a hex grid. And a line serving as that river I mentioned run through it. There’s actually two different maps and the difference is the path of the river.

The game lasts ten turns. Each turn, you roll three dice. You can do two diffeeent types of actions: build buildings or use buildings. You build by using spending a combination of dice that is equal or greater to the bullring value of the building. (Yes, it could be one die if the building is cheap enough) You activate a building by spending a die that is LESS than its activation number.

(One rule question I have is if you just get one action per turn or use all three dice as a pool for multiple actions. I prefer to the latter because it gives you more options. And makes the just build strategy I mention later less optimal)

Anything built on the river gets plus two to its production ability, tripling it. So the river is going to be central to the development of your tiny Arcadia.

And, as the title suggests, you are growing wheat and turning it into ale. That is how you turn an empty river valley into a community.

Okay, I have to admit the game does have a potential degenerate strategy. Ignore wheat and production and just build big buildings since they are worth points. It does depend on you rolling highish numbers but beating the goal of twenty points isn’t unreasonable.

But playing that way isn’t fun or interesting. I know people who will latch onto that strategy to prove the game is ‘broken’ and, more importantly, they are smarter than the designer. But that’s not my idea of fun.

You could just ignore that strategy. (It’s a solitaire game, after all) You could house rule it that you need to build the buildings in order. Houses need farms and so on. (And I’ve kind of just added a tech tree with that suggestion) OR you keep a tally of how much you’d earn in just buildings and try to beat that (I like that one)

Wheat & Ale is a very short and simple game. It’s no Roll Through the Ages and it’s not like that game is any kind of heavy. The strategies are pretty obvious and the entire game is setting yourself up for one, maybe two, big moves. 

All the same, I do like Ale & Wheat. I like that you aren’t just jotting down symbols one a grid but they actually do something. However, what really makes the game click is that it honestly is a coffee break game. Very little time, very little thought and I feel refreshed.

I think that Wheat & Ale is a game that could be built on, room to be developed to be  deeper and more complicated game, possibly even multiplayer. But it works well for a quick coffee break.