Friday, September 30, 2022

Maybe Ugly Gryphon Inn tries too hard

Learning Fishing Lessons has made me decide to revisit the other other games in Scott Almes’ Simply Solo series.

Food Chain Island is a game I can play over and over, one I’d recommend to anyone. Unsurmountable has more clever choices than is remembered and I like it even more than before.

Ugly Gryphon Inn… Well… 

I may have a worse impression of it than my original one. I do think it is a good game but not as good as Food Chain Island or Unsurmountable (or Fishing Lessons)

The two factors that mess with the  Ugly Gryphon Inn experience are randomness and fidliness. 

In Ugly Gryphon Inn, you are juggling five symbols and their interactions with all of the cards. That’s actually the core mechanic of the game. However, the third action of each round is randomly adding a new card to the inn, which adds two to three more symbols. Which can distrust all your plans lol

Honestly, if this was the worst problem with Ugly Gryphon Inn, it wouldn’t be a big deal at all. After you get to know the cards, you can make calculated risks. At that point, it’s really just push-your-luck and can be viewed as a feature. (Still, in the other three games, you can plan at least couple moves ahead which I do like)

My real actual issue is the constant bookkeeping. After every time you add a card to the inn and every time you add a card to the bar, you check every card for interactions. These interactions are the core of the game but doing it twice every turn feels like a grind.  And, at least at my level of deck mastery, it’s easy to make mistakes, particularly when you’re doing it over and over.

Now, I do think Ugly Gryphon Inn is a clever game with really good theming. And I think repeat play will help ease some of my issues. Ugly Gryphon Inn reminds me a bit of TAJ from the Pack O Game series. Not bad but fiddly for its length and depth. And at some point, quite possibly before the end of the year, I do want to make copies of all current expansions.

Still, Ugly Gryphon Inn is proving to be a once in a while game, while Food Chain Island and Unsurmountable (and possibly Fishing Lessons) are anytime games.

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Is Lizard Music still relevant?

Since I hadn’t read Lizard Music by Daniel Pinkwater in a  couple decades, I decided give it a reread.

Lizard Music is one of Pinkwater’s first books, certainly one of the first for a Youjg Adult audience as opposed to a childrens audience. In some ways, it’s more grounded than a lot of his later works but goes just as off the rails when Pinkwater really gets going.






Eleven-year-old Victor’s parents go on a planned vacation to help their marriage,  leaving him with  his teenage sister. When she goes on a camping trip in the first chapter, he’s left in his own for the rest of the book. From there, Victor discovers late night TV, the nearby city and a secret island of human-sized, intelligent lizards. 

(And, just as a I typed that, I realized that Pinkwater was spoofing the concept of the reptilian conspiracy theory. Not only are the lizards friendly, they have the long term goal of saving the human race from becoming pod people) 

Pinkwater’s work (at least the first twenty years or so of it) has a very low key fantastic element to it. The characters don’t discover a vast hidden conspiracy. They discover that the world they already live im and will continue to live in is just a little more fanatastix than they knew. Discovering a new neighborhood in a city is just as life changing as an enlightened lizard society.

Lizard Music certainly has that in spades. In fact, it might even be more earnest than later books. Victor is a very serious narrator.

There are elements that I wonder how well they’ve aged. The idea of television stations signing for the night is a foreign one to young whipper snappers but that’s the time Victor gets to see the lizards’ tv shows and start his adventures.

More than that, Victor’s extreme latchkey kid experience of being left alone for weeks would probably seem a lot more extreme to a modern audience. Or maybe not. But it does seem more fantastic than it did forty years ago.

I also find myself asking if someone could find the depiction of the Chicken Man, the old black man who serves as Victor’s guide (literally, he’s a licensed guide), as racist. A black spiritual guide is a cliche after all.

That said., I think you can argue against that. The Chicken Man is on his own journey. In fact, the actual ‘adventure’ part of the book (as opposed to Victor’s character arc) is really the Chicken Man’s adventure. Victor is just along  for the ride. Heck, at one point, the Chicken Man has to drag him kicking and screaming along.

Regardless of changing social mores or technology, Daniel Pinkwater did a good job capturing how adolescents think and feel. That’s something that hasn’t changed. Victor and the characters that followed him are quirky but readily identifiable.

Lizard Music is 20% cultural artifact and 80% still relevant today.

Monday, September 26, 2022

My journey thus far with Sagrada

My first exposure to Sagrada was a demo at a convention a few years back. At the time, I was charmed by both the mechanics and the theme. I liked creating your own stain-glass window out of dice. 

So when I saw Sagrada had been turned into a app and there was an approved solitaire mode. (I generally don’t like to play against AIs but solitaire variants are just dandy. That way, the game feels ‘real’ to me) So I had to have it.

And the solitaire variant kicked me so hard that I wondered if I had played a different game at that convention.

After I took a break, I went back planning on making a proper job of getting to know Sagrada. And I got some revelations.

Each round in the solitaire variant, you roll four dice and you do your best to place two of them. The unused dice (and if luck and bad planning are on your side, that could be all four) get discarded. The sum of the unused dice is the target score you’re trying to beat. 

First of all, I did try some multiplayer games with AIs, even though Im not big on that. And I found out that trying to beat other players’ scores can be easier than hitting the target score in solitaire. Sometimes a lot easier.

And I also found out that the dice you spend to use tools in the solitaire game are removed from the game. That means they don’t go into the discards and don’t get added to the score you’re trying to beat. (Boy, do I feel stupid not realizing this sooner) That is a game changer. And, if you are like me and playing at the super easy level with five tools, you are potentially cutting out a quarter of the dice.

Since these revelations, the app and I have been best friends. I will say that bad luck can destroy any plans you have but you need good plans to make good luck work.

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.