Wednesday, June 29, 2022

Cape Punk and blowing up the moon

Earlier this year, I read Please Don’t Tell My Parents I’m A Supervillain, a fun romp about a middle schooler who also happens to be a mad scientist in a Cape Punk world.

(Cape Punk is a very loosely defined genre about superhero stuff done ‘realistic’ It seems to get slapped on any work when it’s convenient. Frankly, I can see an argument for the original treatments of Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four counting as Cape Punk :D)

The books definitely falls on the lighter side of Cape Punk. At least in Los Angeles, the super-human community is very self-policing. Murder and mass destruction isn’t tolerated by villains OR heroes. So it’s a pretty safe environment for a junior high metahumans to figure things out.

And I just got around to reading the second book, Please Don’t Tell My Parents I Blew Up the Moon.  The title gives away a major event and the book is actually a bit of a genre shift. And I don’t think the genre shift really works for the series favor.





The first book is not just about Penny becoming a super-powered person. It is all about her relationships. With her two best friends who gain powers either influenced by Penny or flat out from her. With her schoolmates. With the adult superhero community. With the adult supervillain community. And, of course, with her parents.

And it was good stuff. And none of it was resolved.

Book 2? Penny and Ray and Claire fly off into space and have steampunk, clockwork punk adventures. Away from basically all the conflict which drove the first book.

It’s actually worse than that. 

The plot was disjointed to the point that I couldn’t figure out what the characters were trying to accomplish. They were constantly shifting to new locations and I kept feeling like I was missing the connecting pieces.

It felt like Richard Roberts had come up with this neat setting with at least three different alien groups and two human factions from the first and second World Wars and was just using Penny and company as a way to show it off.

The best part of the book was Remmy Fawkes. She’s an eleven-year-old mad scientist who is constantly being used as a pawn in other people’s plans. She has a genuine character arc as she takes control of her life, albeit with a lot of conflict with Penny. 

Honestly, a stand-alone book with Remmy as the protagonist would have made a lot more sense.

The next book looks like it’s back to middle school and family. So I’ll read it and hope it catches the magic of the first book.

Monday, June 27, 2022

On the limits and influence of Palm Island

As I’ve mentioned before, I have been playing a lot of In Hand games lately. And that means I’ve been revisiting Palm Island, which is the poster child of In Hand games.

Palm Island definitely didn’t invent In Hand games. But it did give the idea a kick in the pants. I honestly would say that a third of the In Hand games I’ve seen post Palm Island were clearly Influenced by it.

Something I want to do this summer is get the color files printed so I have the ‘full’ games and get the ‘full’ Palm Island experience. I’ve spent years with the low ink demo and I’ve wanted to see how much deeper the game gets.

However, when I actually looked at the files, I realized that most of the cards are for the two-player version of the game. As a solitaire player, the only new element are feats. Which turn the game essentially into a campaign but doesn’t seem like a major mechanical shift.

And I know that the basic framework can be tweaked just a little to get significant changes. In Battle for the Carolinas (which I have started replaying and really enjoying), you need different cards at different points in the game. You need maps and compasses to find the battlefields but then they need to become men and weapons. It creates a different tempo than Palm Island.

While Palm Island has a very solid structure of resource management and infrastructure development, it is ultimately very simple. The individual actions are very simple. This is not a bad thing.

Between the random shuffle of the cards and the limit of only being able to store four cards, Palm Island does has variabily and tough choices. But it’s presented in such an accessible way so that the initial learning curve is just about keeping the deck in your hand the whole time. It’s great for casual gaming.

But now I’ve been seeing that the si one structure is one that can be built on. And, while games like Battle for the Carolinas shows that other folks are doing this, the fact that Portal Dragon will be publishing Palm Laboratory and have mentioned Palm Galaxy shows that this was intended.

And even as I become more and more aware of the limitations of Palm Island, I am playing it more often. I keep on going back to it and having fun. There is a good game there.

Palm Island is not the definitive In Hand game. It didn’t create the genre. But I think it is an important milestone and has helped there he better games ahead.

Friday, June 24, 2022

Another look at Roll and Move

Babhan is a game from the third Roll and Write Contest, one of the three Roll ans Writes contests BGG held that year. (Seriously, for a number of actually legitimate reasons, it’s a contest type that happens a lot)

I’d have tried Babhan ages ago but, for some reason, it’s simple black and white graphics baffled our printer. But I finally made a copy.

Stripped of its theme of going to offer tribute to a king, Babhan is a roll and move game. That’s right, it’s a Roll and Move Roll and Write. (Not the first time I’ve played one either)

I’m not sure there is a game mechanic more reviled than Roll and Move, not even then optional fisticuffs conflict resolution system from Panzer Pranks. (To be fair, Dungeons and Dragons is the only game I can personally verify that has resulted in fist fights. Poker and hockey players have seen more, I’m sure) 

I find it fascinating that one of the oldest examples of Roll and Move, Backgammon, uses several methods to add depth to the mechanic. Multiple pieces, the order you use dice being meaningful, the doubling cube. And while Backgammon took centuries to be codified, Wikipedia indicates many of these elements have been a part of the game since ancient times.

Of course, it is the Candy Land, Denny’s dining mat school of Roll and Move that makes the mechanic so hated. When you have one pawn and the dice/card draw/spinner determines where it goes then you either have minimal choices (in the case of multiple paths) or no choices whatsoever. It is an example of very lazy game design. And, no, the fact that it teaches very little kids how to take turns and count doesn’t help it much.

The earliest example that I am aware offhand is the Royal Game of Goose, although its history clearly indicates it wasn’t the first game that just used one pawn. That said, one the thing makes a difference in the Game of Goose versus Candy Land is that it was a gambling game. That changes why people would play it as a game of chance.

Why we play games is not the same as how we play games.

Yeah, Babhan was just an excuse for me to discuss Roll ans Write.

Babhan effective has just one pawn (if you are using a pencil, you mark off boxes) but has some mechanics to create choices. It uses a dice pool. You need sets of three or more 2s, 3s, 4s and 6s to move while 1s and 5s allow rerolls. There are branching paths, each with special rules. And you only have seven turns to complete the track, which doesn’t add choices but does add tension.

And, to be honest, it’s still not that interesting. I’ll play it some more to try out all the branches but I’m pretty sure luck more than clever play will still determine how I do. It might be better with modifications as a multi-player game.

I do like it as an experiment and an excuse to ruminate about Roll and Move.

Wednesday, June 22, 2022

Does anyone else remember Mulberry?

Every once in a blue moon, I remember an obscure little British show called Mulberry. It was never finished (and it clearly has an ending built in) and may have been underrated. It did have a beautiful sad, sweet theme song and a killer concept.

Miss Farnaby is a sour, sullen old lady living with her equally elderly maid and gardener. Into their lives comes Mulberry, her new manservant, who is blessed with humor, vibrance and an astonishing area of vests. Mulberry breathes new life into their home.

Ah, but there is a twist! Mulberry is actually the son of the Grim Reaper. He has come to take Miss Farnaby away. However, he has a sweet and tender side from his mother, Spring, and he wants to give Miss Farnaby a chance to enjoy life before she had to give it up.

Damn, but that’s a hook!

It has been probably decades since I last watched Mulberry. And, at best, I watched it intermittently even through there were only thirteen episodes. But if my memories of it are true, it often fell into sitcom shenanigan and didn’t really live up to its high concept.

I think that Mulberry could be rebooted very effectively. Not darker or edgier but with more drama. Lean into the melancholy and sweetness and you’d get an unwritten Peter Beagle masterpiece.

As I mentioned, it was canceled before it could end and I wondered if the plan had been for Mulberry to somehow extend Miss Farnaby’s life. However, I found an interview with Bob Larbey, one of the writers. In it, he said Miss Farnaby would die in her sleep and Mulberry would meet her in the garden to guide her awayZ

Which makes sense since that’s the ending that’s baked into the core concept.

Monday, June 20, 2022

The fluff and flaws of Goblins Guns and Grog

It’s been a while since I have learned a Legends of Dsyx title but I felt like it was time to revisit the series.  I’d been planning on trying Goblins, Guns and Grog for a while so that’s what got picked.

In Goblins, Guns and Grog, you control the destiny of five stranded goblin pirates as they try to float on a raft home, trying not to die and trying to loot as many ships as possible.

The game really revolves around two things:
Making sure you have enough fish to not starve and building up the raft so you have cannons to attack ships and chests to store loot from defeated ships.

I’m of two minds about G to the third power.

On the one hand, I feel comfortable saying that it’s the mechanically weakest of the Legends of Dsyx games I’ve tried (which is ten of the twelve  at this point) The dice control enough that you sometimes have very little decisions. In my first game, my goblins starved to death on the fourth turn. 

If you can build up a big enough raft and outfit it, you do get more options. However it takes some luck to get to that point.

With a little bit of luck, your goblin pirates will survive their sea voyage. With a lot of luck, they will be able to bring home loot and score any points.

On the other hand, Goblins et al may have the strongest narrative structure in the entire series. You might not have much control over the story but a story is getting told. It easily has the most fluff of any of the games. Depending on what you want, that can be something.

The weakest element of the game, particularly from a story-telling element, is that the ships you are firing cannons at don’t fight back. Enemy shops are just boxes of hit points.

The Legends of Dsyx series are a bunch of one-page PnP R&Ws. Some of them, like Hall of the Dwarven King, are quite good. Goblins, Guns and Grog, though, feels more like an experiment that doesn’t quite work. It was interesting to try but, out of the series, it is the one I’m least likely to replay.

Friday, June 17, 2022

Falling off the No-Buying wagon

I’ve been out of the habit of buying physical copies of games that it’s no longer a resolution or anything. I’ve either gotten out of the habit of buying games or gotten into the habit of not buying them.

So I surprised myself by picking up copies of Forbidden Desert and Choose Your Own Adventure: War With the Evil Power Master. Both were on clearance or it wouldn’t have happened.

Two things both games have in common is that that they are cooperatives that can be played solitaire and I have experience with both of them. So I’m still not willing to buy a game unless I already have some investment in it.

(PnP files clearly do not play by those rules for me)

And clearly, these two games are not in the same league. Forbidden Desert is a classic and  considered by many  to be the best of the Forbidden series. I’ve played it at conventions and liked it. Forbidden Island (which I have played a lot) can be compared to Pandemic (same designer as I’m sure you know) but Forbidden Desert is more it’s own beast.

The Choose Your Own Adventure games are really just game books broken down into decks of cards. And the mechanics that weren’t in the Choose Your Own Adventure books can be found in other game book series :D

But I had fun with the demo of House of Danger and I understand this one has more replay value. I think I will enjoy it as a RPG/adventure gaming. It’s not deep but I already know that.

I don’t think this is going to change my not-buying habits but o do think these two games will be well-used additions to our library.

Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Magical tree houses and child endangerment

For the past several months, The Magic Tree House book series has been my go for reading to our son and occasionally having him read back. I’ve written about the series before but I’ve got some more thoughts.

The series describes the adventures of a brother and sister who discover a treehouse that can travel through time and space (but it is _smaller_ on the inside than on the outside)

The books are formulaic as all get out, down to the dialogue. That said, I have read Stratemeyer Syndicate from the start of the 20th century so I have read much more formulaic and much worse children's literature.





The series is broken down into four book story arcs. At the end of the first arc, they learn that the treehouse is owned by Morgan Le Fay, the librarian of Camelot.

Morgan or Morgana Le Fay is often portrayed as one of the big bads of King Arthur stories, although she’s apparently okay in the very earliest stories. Still, it’s a little surprising to see her as the benevolent patron of a eight and seven year old.

Except, as we hit the fourth arc, I’m starting to question how benevolent she really is. 

In the third arc, Jack and Annie go through the process of becoming Master Librarians. Which doesn’t involve much in the way of literacy or archival studies or the Dewey Decimal system but does seem to feature a willingness to risk life and limb across time and space. They become Morgan Le Fay’s gofers in the fourth arc.

First thing Morgan Le Fay does? Send them to Pompeii to get a book the day Mount Vesuvius erupts. 

While there are time travel story arguments for why that was the only way (the book had to be taken from the time stream right before it was destroyed,  you can only travel to specific points in history, etc), those aren’t presented. And they don’t excuse the fact that she sends young children into mortal danger and the only warning she gives them is a book about Ancient Rome.

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius is a high point but she keeps sending the kids into serious danger. Yeah, it’s in the name of education and entertainment (readers learn stuff by it happening rather than lecutures) but it’s still hard to swallow as a grown up. 

Kids in danger is a genre staple but there’s usually some attempt at justification. Adults are out of the equation or the kids are trapped or they are the only ones who can pilot the Eva units. After the Jack and Annie get home safely, Morgan just sends them out again.

Of course, what really matters is that our son loves the series and just eats it up like popcorn. He might even be learning some facts from it (but I count on Mystery Science videos more for his random facts) When I first wrote about the Magic Tree House, it was wondering if he’d like them. That question has been definitively answered.

Post Script: I won’t  be surprised if the kids are actually Morgan’s descendants. Annie displays supernatural intuition on a regular basis. That doesn’t make sending them into danger any better, of course.

Tuesday, June 14, 2022

Farewell to a friend

Well, it’s time for me write one of these blogs.

Yesterday, as of my writing this, I got a phone call that Erik, one of my gaming buddies, passed on.

We met at the 1999 GenCon, which was also my first GenCon. It was at one of the last scheduled games on Saturday, one that I got in by going through the catalog of games until I found one with an opening.

Erik was one of three people at that table who belonged to the same Dungeons and Dragon campaign. I somehow found out that they were close to me in Chicago and got an invite to come over and play. That led to me playing at least once a week with them for the rest of my time in Chicago.

Most of my gaming experiences with Erik involved Dungeons and Dragons, although he did play a mean game of Puerto Rico. Both as a player and a dungeon master, Erik inevitably went Lawful Evil, no matter what was written on the sheet.

In real life, though, Erik was a big sweetie. He liked to act like the token adult, rolling his eyes at everyone else’s shenanigans but he could caught up in the silly just like the rest of us. He’d call you out on your hypocrisy but always own up to his own.

I hadn’t seen him in person since I moved away from Chicago and now I know I’m not going to. I miss Erik and I’m really glad I got to know him.

Monday, June 13, 2022

The bookmark is the game

Brave the Book is a design contest entry that isn’t a great game but has a big ‘Hey, look at this!’ factor.

The elevator pitch is that Brave the Book turns any book into a dungeon crawl! The reality is that it turns any book into a solitaire word puzzle. 

The game is actually a bookmark that you put at the back of a book. The bookmark shows tiers of monsters that you work your way down but pulling the bookmark up. The lower the monster, the more letters it takes to spell its name.

Choose a number. Go that many pages further into the book and look at the first of that number of words on that page. Can you spell the name of the monster with the letters in those words? You beat that level. Otherwise, try again. Get though the book before you defeat each tier, you lose.

There are other flourishes but that’s the core idea. One game element I like is that you have balance using a big number to increase your chances of spelling a monster with running out of pages. That creates balance and tension. Unless you are using War and Peace.

The game went through some interesting variations, including having a second bookmark that is a player character, each one with a special power. (Which does add some theme to the experience) While the final contest version went back to one bookmark (and streamlined other elements), I imagine the designer will go back to player character book marks if they develop the game further.

What Brave The Book really makes me think of is the book-based cypher that Sherlock Holmes cracks at the start of The Valley of Fear. (Indeed, that’s all I remember of that book. The Valley of Fear is no Hound of the Baskervilles) That goes a long way toward making me enjoy the game :D

Brave the Book is more of an exercise in novelty than a game. I doubt I’ll get a lot of replay out of it but the sheer oddity is appealing. And makes me want to revisit Warchon.

Friday, June 10, 2022

Pros and Cons in Hand games

 Lately, I’ve been playing a lot of In Hand games. And by that, I mean even more than usual. For one reason or another, I just haven’t  had a table handy.

(And yes, I can play a vast number of games, solitaire and otherwise, on devices. But it is a different experiences and I am convinced that manually playing an analog game brings other parts of the brain on deck)

This has led me to the twin revelations of 1) There’s a lot you can do with the In Hand format and 2) Wow, is it limited.

The Zed Deck is a zombie horror survival game that even has a rudimentary combat system. Flipword is a honestly solid word/party game. Palm Island is a good  resource management game. Elevenses for One, um, is sorting cards but it’s good.

That’s just the first four In Hand games that came to my mind and each one is a pretty distinct experience. And I will argue each is a genuine game experience, not just an exercising in fidgeting. (I enjoy Down and Labyrinth Runner but I also think they are fidgeting activities)

But, while the Zed Deck does have a combat system, most zombie horror games have more developed, frankly better combat systems. And much more developed and immersive exploration systems. If I had the time and space and other players and a copy, I’d rather play Last Night On Earth, just as one example.

Palm Island is actually an impressively full Euro Game experience. You need to manage resources and improve your infrastructure to do even marginally well. But it pales in comparison to larger games that require a table.

One more example, just because it’s so crazy. The 2022 In Hand Contest has a tile-laying game called Little Dingy. But, apart from novelty, you can’t compare it to Carcassonne or Isle of Skye. Even if I am more fair and compare it to other micro tile laying games, Orchard or Sprawlopolis blow Little Dingy out of the water.

On the one hand, In Hand games have been developing a surprising range of gaming experiences. On the other hand, In Hand games are definitively not a replacement or substitute for games that use surfaces.

Post Script: While this doesn’t change the ultimate conclusion, if I used a clip board, pencil and some way of rolling dice, I could greatly increase the range of my table-free gaming. However, playing an In Hand game of Elevenses for One is a lot more discrete than playing a game of Yahtzee :D

Wednesday, June 8, 2022

Autumn has gone away

 I was sad to see that that the files for Autumn are no longer available on any site that I could find. Particularly since I was thinking of making a fresh copy for family and I apparently never saved the files.

(Which really says how long again I made my copy. Thanks to contests where files often get taken down ASAP, I’ve gotten into the habit of copying files)

It’s not really a surprise since nothing lasts forever and it’s really no different than a published gaming going out of print. Still, Autumn was a watershed event for me in PnP so it stings.

Autumn was the game that made me look at PnP as a venue for solitaire play. It has also served as my way of introducing other people to PnP. Autumn  is a very simple tile laying game but it has that kind of simplicity that becomes purity. (Although that word has way too much baggage) Each action is easy and simple to understand but they lead to a wide variety of lay outs. The game has a lot of possibilities for 18 cards.

It’s perfectly natural for Autumn to no longer be available. And there’s still a rich treasure of PnP games out there. I’m glad I got to find Autumn when I could.

Monday, June 6, 2022

Kiwi Blitz is deeper than it seems

When I was bingeing Sleepless Domain for the third time, I decided that I should really try Kiwi Blitz since it’s from the same creator.

Kiwi Blitz is a web comic sent in a slightly cyberpunk near future. There’s cybernetics, mecha, and bioengineering. A girl named Steffi decides to become a costumed vigilante with the help of a kiwi-bird shaped mech, her family and friends, and lots and lots of money.

One touch I like is that the cops easily figure out who Kiwi Blitz is but her dad has too much money and too many lawyers for them to do anything. I can easily imagine a version of Batman where the Gotham PD darn well knows it’s Bruce Wayne but can’t do anything about it.

While the series starts off light-hearted and looking like it wll be a serial-style, villain-of-the-week romp, the threats Steffi and company face prove to be interconnected and serious. The webcomic turns out to be an overarching storyline.

And the characters develop as well. Steffi seems to be a bored, rich thrill seeker at the start. However, she really, really doesn’t want anyone to get hurt, even more than, say, Superman. (Captain America shot folks in WW II in multiple continuities so he’s clearly flexible) 

More than that, we learn that one of her formative experiences was losing a leg during an assassination attempt on her father. When she was five. In fact, while avoiding spoilers, I will say that the more we learn about the incident, the darker it gets.

While Steffi is the most extreme example of character development in Kiwi Blitz, the other characters also get deeper.

I do like Sleepless Domain more. It’s a deeper, richer story with deeper characters. It’s also darker, which is saying something since Kiwi Blitz  has a toddler getting maimed as a major plot point. But I still enjoy Kiwi Blitz.

Kiwi Blitz has been hiatus for several months. But, honestly, I’m used to webcomics ending without resolution. I enjoy them for as much as I can get out of them.

Friday, June 3, 2022

My May Gaming

Okay, what interesting gaming things happened to me during May?

I continued my effort at learning at least new one Roll and Write a month with Mini Town from Dark Imp. It belongs to the draw-stuff-on-a-grid school of R&W. The number of Roll and Writes I’ve played like it is in the double digits and that’s just counting published games. Throw in design contest entries and it gets silly.

And, honestly, while I like how the symbols interact, it doesn’t do anything special from a gamer standpoint. However, one of the design goals was to work in the classroom or a similar environment and I think it checks several boxes there. So, mission statement accomplished.

I also learned ROVE, a solitaire game about rearranging cards in a pattern. I haven’t made up my mind about it. I’ve done horribly in my plays so far :D But a solitaire has to be tough to be worth replaying. So I think ROVE will end up being a good experience.

However, the most interesting thing that happened to me gamewise was mentoring a group of fifth graders playing D&D as part of my job as a substitute teacher. 

I went in afraid that it would be a ‘I cast magic missile at the darkness’ but honestly, the kids did a lot better than that. The kids needed a couple nudges to stay on track and to keep it clean but it went well. (And, no, I wasn’t the dungeon master)

It went a lot differently than my experiences playing Dungeons and Dragons when I was in fifth grade. I think video games and other media have given kids a better sense of how RPGs work. More than that, I think that fifth edition is both more user friendly and more balanced than first edition.

It reinforced my opinion that both players and publishers have really changed over the last forty years. And that’s a good thing.

So, May was pretty good.

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

My May PnP

 May was the last month in the school year and most of my crafting ended up being about potential class work.

Here’s what I made:

Cunning Folk (B&W, nine card demo)
Yard Builder
Hello Autumn 
Tanuki Matsuri 

Oh, and the base version of ROVE

I made four copies of Cunning Folk and eight copies of Yard Builder, Hello Autumn and Tanuki Matsuri for classroom use. I printed the rules on the back of the Roll and Writes and laminated them so each one was a self-contained, reusable game. I made enough of each game so that  multiple tables could play each game in the classroom.

And then I ended up monitoring a game of Dungeons and Dragons instead :D Well, there’s always next school year.

The one game I made for my own use was ROVE. I have played it a few times but haven’t decided if I want to make the expansions yet. Probably but not certain. One thing that is for certain. I’m terrible at it :D

Not sure how June will go. It might see more crafting or just a couple projects. I can see it going either way.