Wednesday, May 31, 2023

John Bellairs: gothic horror for kids

Every time I reread The Face in the Frost, I mourn the fact that John Bellairs gave up writing adult fiction for young adult fiction. (Not that there’s anything inappropriate in the Face in the Frost. In fact, I read it as a kid)

However, when I actually read his young adult works, I have to admit I’m also grateful they exist.  And, while I think the House With A Clock In It’s Walls is wonderful, I think his Johnny Dixon stories could be his most gothically horrifying. In particular, the first one, The Curse of the Blie Figurine. 

(This comes with the caveat that I’ve never read any of his Anthony Monday books. Which I only know exist thanks to Wikipedia. Say what you will but it does help you find more books than a card catalog drawer. Oddly enough, I remember hearing a description of The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn but had no idea it was by Bellairs until earlier today)

And it comes down to this. The characters in The House et al and its sequels start off knowing magic is real. Indeed, some of them have one foot in the door from the get go. Frankly, that makes things less mysterious and scary.

Johnny, on the other hand, is just an ordinary little boy. He’s a lot more defenseless against the forces of darkness. His chief ally, the wonderfully grumpy Professor Childermass, may be learned and brave and cranky but is no wizard.

Indeed, in the Curse of the Blue Figurine, the characters struggle to even believe that they really are beset by the forces of darkness and magic. Even accepting that ghosts and curses are real is part of their journey. There is a profound sense of helplessness.

Of course, in later books, with the characters gaining more experience, the sense of horror receded. I remember finishing the Eyes of the Killer Robit as a child as deciding that I was done with the books. A murderous golem who also plays baseball is a neat idea but it’s no Castle of Otfanto.

Rereading The Curse of the Blue Figurine for the first time in decades, I was impressed by the slow burn creepiness. When o first read it, I missed the humor of the House et al but I can kw see how it does its own thing.

(And, yes, I know Edward Gorey illustrated many of Bellairs books. And that’s just awesome )

Monday, May 29, 2023

Some tiny PnP dungeons

When I saw Crumbling Dungeon by Alexander Sheen, I thought it looked familiar. A little bit of looking through the old records and I found that it was because I had tried a later iteration of the concept called Dungeon Dailies.

So, I found a demo of Crumbling Dungeon and got out the demo of Dungeon Dailies so I could compare them. While I was at it, I also printed out Solo Tower Hack so I’d be playing three quick little dungeons in a row, just for the beauty of the number three.

Okay, let’s get Solo Tower Hack out of the way. Every five or ten years, I try it out. And I think it gets worse every time. Really, the only choices are which stairs to take. Beyond that, roll a die and do what it tells you to do.

So, both Crumbling Dungeon and Dungeon Dailies are collections of mazes that have things like monsters and treasure chests in them. So they are at least as much puzzles as they are games.

Crumbling is the simpler one. From what I can tell from the demo, the symbols are on the same areas of the grid and a maze is procedurally created around them. The full game consists of 365 of these mazes.

The only random element is combat. Beyond that, Crumbling is just a set of mazes with special scoring conditions. To be honest, the combat isn’t enough to make this a game to me. It’s a puzzle. 

Dailies changes things up with each page having four different mazes. The combat is a hair more complicated, there is a little resource management (you need keys to unlock doors) and you level up. 

Dailies is still almost entirely a puzzle but it feels like it has a hint of a gaming experience in it. Like it’s 95% puzzle and 5% game. I didn’t enjoy my first play but this second time was fun.

Actually looking at what Alexander Shen has done, I find that I’ve tried more of their games and puzzles than I thought. (Still need to try Quests Over Coffee but I do plan on doing that) And a lot of their product are puzzles and games that are explicitly designed to be played during a coffee break. It’s a niche but it’s a niche I regularly visit.

I’m not sure if either Crumbling or Dailies are good puzzles. I do find them relaxing though.

Friday, May 26, 2023

Roll and Writes and the art of staying sane

 LAs folks who read this blog know, when I got into Roll and Writes, I really got into them. I became one of these folks who will bore anyone who will listen to me about my obsession . So you can guess what this is going to be about lol

This is the basic realization that I had that made all the difference. Roll and Write isn’t a genre or a game mechanic. It’s a medium that can accommodate a wide variety of genres and mechanics.

Yes, card games and board games can potentially have more (a lot more) moving parts. Which means they can be potentially more (a lot more) complexity and depth. Roll and Write games don’t make other formats obsolete lol

But Roll and Writes are surprisingly versatile.a lot more than just variants in Yahtzee. They are also tend to be very economical in space and material. They also tend to be very easy to make as print and plays and a lot of them can be played solitaire.

(And, yes, there are exceptions to all of that. Which actually just adds weight to the versatility argument) 

At a time in my life in which real life stuff has limited gaming time, Roll and Writes have been wonderful.

And, as we get ready to move, the games that I don’t purge will be going to get packed up. But, a folder of laminated Roll and Write pages will give me a decent library of games that take up no space. (I know it will feature some games by Radoslaw Ignatov and Dark Imp games) 

I am not saying a folder of Roll and Writes  is the ultimate minimalist game library. That would be a deck of cards (and you’d better believe I’m keeping a couple of those close at hand) However, it is a nice way to have variety with minimal space.

When we last moved, I had limited interest in Roll and Write games… or print and play… or solitaire games. If it wasn’t for Yucata, I would have had to go cold turkey. And I am grateful for online gaming but it’s nice to have physical options.

Wednesday, May 24, 2023

Aging and Super Heroes

In Michael Stackpole’s afterward to I’m Hero Years… I’m Dead, he wrote about how he had to publish the book electronically because publishers didn’t l know what to do with a superhero novel. My, how the world has changed. I credit the MCU movies with making superhero novels and Cape Punk viable.

I do think that In Hero Years is an important milestone in Cape Punk (the book labels itself Super Hero Noire) but that might just because I think Stackpole is a fun author. It does represent an example of what was to come.

(That said, it is _far_ from the first example. Even if you argue that 1930 Gladiator, which allegedly inspired Superman, doesn’t count since it predates the genre, there are works like 1977’s Superfollks. Now that is a weird read, exploring what if Superman was a sexual and neurotic being. And it’s even stranger than that sounds)

The protagonist (who has many aliases but we never learn his actual name) returns to Capital City after two decades of exile. While he was gone, super powered shenanigans  in Capital City have become literal extreme sports events. Villains post heists and heroes bid on thwarting them. There’s betting and fantasy team leagues.

I was going to say that the city has monetized crime but that’s literally the point of crime in the first place. The city has legitimized violent super crime so it’s like white collar crime. And if that sounds like an intrinsically unstable and fragile setup, Stackpole agrees with you :)

The book bounces between the hero trying to sort himself out and having to deal with the greater situation of the city. To be honest, the ending turned into a more conventional comic book ending, which felt flat for me after so much deconstruction.

However, the voice and development of the protagonist is amazing. He’s an acrobat/martial artist/detective/gadgeteer (think Batman) Having him ruminate about the nature of being a crime fighter and being a crime fighter who’s growing old is riveting. I could read a whole book of his monologues.

I read In Hero Years when it first came out and reread it recently. On the one hand, I found the plot flatter than I remembered. On the other hand, I found the protagonist even more compelling than I remember. On a whole, a win for Mr. Stackpole.

I honestly wouldn’t say that deconstruction is the point of a lot of Cape Punk. I think it’s a love for comic books and super heroes disguised as deconstruction.

Monday, May 22, 2023

If everyone uses the same spell, it’s probably broken

Many years ago, when Wizards of the Coast tweaked Dungeons and Dragons and gave us 3.5, a friend of mine said that ‘when everyone is using the same spell, you know it’s broken’

In this case, he was talking about the 3.0 version of haste. His argument was that it broke the action economy of the game. He felt that it was the only actual reason WotC needed to make 3.5

I don’t know if he was right but I do know that just about everyone I knew who played a wizard relied on haste.

As I’ve watched my wife play The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom, I have been remembering that conversation.

Tears is simultaneously very similar to Breath of the Wild and very different. The basic paradigm of an open world where there are lots of different ways of doing things, that’s there. Taking the third option and cutting the Goddian knot, those are core concepts in both games.

But the minitia, that’s a whole different story. 

In Breath, players had access to some crazy powers. Making ice cubes, magnetically manipulation, creating bombs and stopping time. And from what I’ve seen (as a guy who hasn’t played either game but has family who has), being able to stop time in particular was key to a lot of techniques.

Feel free to tell me I’m ignorant, naive and wrong.

So, when Tears took away all those powers and gave the players new ones from more obscure X-Men, that shook things up. (I haven’t read the X-Men in a very long time but I have to believe there’s one who can glue two things together) It took away the comfort zone.

And taking away the power to stop did that more than anything else. As my wife put it ‘Great. Now I have to learn how to fight lynels’ More than any other power, stasis defined a whole playing style.

(Amusingly, you get a new time manipulation power that I’m sure will turn out to have plenty of ways to break the game. You just can’t directly use it on monsters)

And I am not saying stopping time was broken. Breath and Tears are all about figuring out your own way to do things. Tears just needs to have its own tool box to stand on its own.

I’m sure there’s already videos online of players building Mad Max death cars and  mowing through crowds of hynox.

Friday, May 19, 2023

The Grand Opening is good, gentle fun

I went into Dark Imp’s Placemat games with some reluctance. For one thing, some of them are ink heavy and I’m stingy with ink lol

I honestly expected the first one I tried, Beach Life, to be terrible. Instead, I found that its collection of mini games came together to be a series of interesting decisions.

So I went into The Grand Opening with higher expectations and it lived up to them.

The theme of the game is that you are running the grand opening of a restaurant. You have to see your way through breakfast, brunch and lunch, doing your best to not have unfed guests or wasted food.

Every turn, two dice are rolled and everyone uses the same rolls however they want to. You can use each roll for one of three different actions: seat guests, make food and serve food to the guests. Each element makes sense and ties together well.

Thee are other some other bits and bobs like VIP guests who can earn extra points and assistants that give you a little dice manipulation. However, the core is getting bums in seats and food on plates. If that doesn’t make sense, stay away from restaurants.

Now, every time I go back to Dark Imp, I talk about how accessible their games are,  how easy they are to learn, teach and play. The tablet games are designed for settings like classrooms and it shows. Low ink line art and very simple. Not bad but very simple.

The placemat games takes it up a notch in art and complexity. We are still talking Coloretto-level complexity. But the tablet games are ones I would use with a non-gaming audience or situation. I would use the placemat games for casual gaming situations.

While I have been enjoying Beach Life and The Grand Opening, I also have to say that they aren’t innovative. I can’t say they are top tier but they are reliable. They are pleasant, relaxed fun. And sometimes, that’s what you need.

We will be moving soon. Having games that are this space-mindful is really useful.

Wednesday, May 17, 2023

Time to move across the country

Yes, it’s that time again. Time to move across the country again.

And, honestly, games and gaming are the least of my concerns as far as that is concerned. Last time, our son was two months old. This time, he’s nine years old. Big difference.

But there’s two things game-related that apply to this blog: purging my game collection and packing.

Over the last ten years, I’ve purged hundreds of games out of my collection. But we have a whole other human being’s worth of the stuff to pack this time so I think it’s time to go scorched earth ruthless. At this point, I don’t think I have really any bad games on the shelf. So I am gojng to be getting rid of stuff I like… but know I won’t play. And, if I’m being realistic, won’t actually miss.

Yeah, I’ll be writing more about that.

(I might also purge my PnP project collection, even though it takes up a lot less space. Still, I could probably get rid of a bunch of them without noticing. And always make them again if I wanted to)

And while I will pack what remains, I’m also thinking about what to take for traveling. I’ve had experience of waiting for the furniture to show up.

I’m thinking a smal case of in-hand games, a slender folder of laminated Roll and Writes (ones that I can use a dice roller with) And a deck of cards. If you have a deck of cards, you have a universe of gaming in your pocket.

Oh, I’ll be writing more about all this.

Monday, May 15, 2023

Silver age idealism and Cape Punk

Around a year ago, I wrote about how I had started reading the ‘Please Don’t Tell My Parents I’m a Supervillain’ series. (Man, I’m not sure how to shorten that. Please Don’t just sounds creepy)

It is a Cape Punk storyline (I love the term Cape Punk but find it hilariously vague) about a middle school mad scientist who wants to be a hero like her parents. But, on top of teen emotions leading to bad choices, the things her powers do when she goes to the madness place make Penny become a villain. (Girl Genius as a superhero?)

I have to note that the series falls _very_ much on the optimistic side of Cape Punk. Super activities are more like extreme sports than extreme actions of crime and/or politics. (I’m sorry. The Red Skull trying to take over the world is a very political thing) Which does make the books a lot of fun to read.

It also makes the case that mad science is the most powerful power without ever saying it out loud. The ability to make endless devices that are all like a super power is more potent than having one power. It’s cute Reed Richards can stretch. It is devastating that his brain treats physical laws as optional.

Five of the books form Penny’s arc, her struggling to figure out the different relationships in her life. While the one with her parents gets a lot of focus, the series ends up being about her relationship with herself and her power.

After I finished the main arc, I set the series aside for a while but knew I’d get around to the 
ancillary books. And the first one I’ve read is I Did Not Give That Spider Super-Human Intelligence, which is an origin story for the setting.

Because key elements of the setting, that heroes and villains private lives are forbidden to be interfered with and wanton acts of murder and such are successfully outlawed, are a bit too idealistic to be easily swallowed.

And, honestly, seeing how the rules of the agreement came to be, it still feels pretty idealistic and built on the basis that most people with super powers are basically decent people. It’s also built on the idea that the zombie-vampire-cyborg who enforces the agreement will be able to take out the ones who break it and only the ones who break it.

Frankly, it’s pretty silver age.

That said, the Bad Doctor, the monstrous villain who pushes the need to have a zombie-vampire-cyborg to police the super powered society, is pure nightmare fuel. He only appears once but his crimes pervade the book. I Did Not Give et al is one of the weaker books in the series that I’ve read but the Bad Doctor lifts it up.

I enjoyed the book and it’s heroine Goodnight (she likes to drop heavy objects on enemy’s heads) but I hope the other spinoff books are better.

Friday, May 12, 2023

Rules that makes sense shouldn’t be optimal

I decided to try out two different Roll and Write games that I had gotten from PnP Arcade, City of Muziris and Grand Opening. And the experiences ended up being a fascinating contrast in coherency.

Conceptually, City of Muziris is very simple. Roll a single die to generate resources. Trade those resources to get a single type of good. Get as much of that good within a time/turn limit.

However, I had way too many questions about the rules. Does buying goods tick off a space on the countdown? On the shops where you can buy two goods at a time, does that count as one or two uses of the shop? Is there a bonus to filling a ship before you run out of time?  (The second question completely changes how you play the game in particular)

Now, City of Muziris is simple enough that I should be able to infer what rule interpretations work the best, particularly through trial and error. I admit that. But there isn’t any indication it’s worth the effort.

The Grand Opening, on the other hand, had clear rules that showed how the three actions interacted with each other. I had no problems learning and playing the game.

It’s also the sixth game I’ve learned from Dark Imp Games. The more games from them I play, the more appreciate the company. The games are decent but the presentation is really solid. And that isn’t damning them with faint praise. Being able to make games playable is a big deal. You’d think that would be the minimum entry requirement but it sadly isn’t.

I do play a lot of prototypes and design contest entries. Issues with rules, I expect them from those. Not from something I paid money for.

Wednesday, May 10, 2023

Hey, thanks for Hoity Toity too!

As we learn how to live in a world without Klaus Teuber in it, a number of folks have pointed out that he made more than the 194 gaming products that have the word Catan in them.

But I have to admit that most of those didn’t click for me. I wanted to be really engaged by Barbarossa or Drunt und Druber (yes, I played it as Wacky West) or Entdecker or Domaine but none of them are games that I have any hankering to play again.

(And, yes, I still love Catan and many of its children. I think that Elasund: First City of Catan is an underrated, deliciously nasty game)

However, I continue to like Adel Verpflichet or, as my copy is called, Hoity Toity.

I’ve raved about it before and I will stand by my ravings. (  So I won’t go over the rules again. Suffice it to say, it’s a game about buying, displaying and stealing antiques.

And I still absolutely hold that the simultaneous action selection, which is lovingly balanced, creates a lot of interaction and engagement. It keeps everyone at the table on board. Honestly, I think that was something Teuber excelled at, keeping everyone interested the whole time.

I also have to admit that having the score track and the pawn track/race track be one and the same feels both extremely effective and oddly dated at the same time. It makes the game feel like an evolutionarily link between older mainstream games and designer boutique games.

Of course, Go proves that feeling old doesn’t get in the way of a game being awesome lol

Hoity Toity may be a game that looks old but its play is timeless. More than that, it’s something that a family audience can get into while having depth for a ‘serious’ audience to appreciate. All the moving pieces fit together so well.

Winning the Spiel des Jahres doesn’t automatically mean quality but Hoity Toity does have one and it is quality. The theme and the mechanics make sense together. I have seen other antique-themed games and other Rock-Paper-Scissors games but it still feels unique.

Monday, May 8, 2023

A blurry snapshot of Operation Market Garden

First off, I am not a war gamer. I have played war-themed games and I have played a few games that actually cross the line into what I think can honestly be called a war game but I don’t have the drive or interest to be what I could call a war gamer.

( would say that the definition of a true war game is realism. I mean, military colleges use war games to train folks about fighting actual battles. War games, at their ideal, are simulation. They may be asking what would happen if chaos marines were real but it really feels like the details are what define war games. Feel free to disagree)

But the brevity of Batrle Card: Market Garden has kept my eye on it. There are four locations and the game lasts six turns. (So, there really aren’t any details.)  it’s a postcard sided game with six markers so crafting it takes minimal work.

Then I saw someone made a web implementation of it. And that’s what it took for me to actually try the game lol

After I tried it a couple times, I looked at a review of the game. Jon Ericson wrote that the game was made up of forced decisions. You either decide to defend or attack at contested locations. You can move forward but only into allied controlled locations. And you have to make those movements or lose.

At the same time, Battle Card: Market Garden is still enjoyable. Part of the fun does come from the fact that it’s a five minute distraction. You don’t expect much from a postcard PnP that is six turns long.

But really, what makes Battle Card: Market Garden is interesting is rhe actual subject matter. Operation Market Garden is one of those fascinating pieces of history. If the Allie’s had managed to cross the Rhine and had a foothold n the other side, it would have changed the course of WW II. And this game gives you a snapshot of the event. A blurry, Polaroid snapshot but a snapshot none the less.

I’m not going to play Battle Card: Market Garden over and over. Being able to play it online means I won’t bother cutting out the counters for the physical game. (I do wonder if would work well in the classroom, given how short some students’ attention spans are) And I am glad I’ve finally tried it.

Friday, May 5, 2023

Tents and Battleship

Camping Gaming is always an adventure, particularly with a child who would rather play video games. (No, we don’t take the Switch to the mountains) This time, we discovered that Colorform makes an edition of Battleship.

When we getting art supplies at a dollar store (art, another way to entertain children), we saw it and decided to give it a go. 

In the process, I came to two conclusions.

First, Battleship isn’t as bad as I remembered it. It has been decades since I last played it and I don’t think I’ve played it since I discoered designer games like Catan and Carcassonne.

Battleship isn’t gojng to be my new favorite game. However, it turns out to be a game I don’t hate playing. There’s room for developing a strategy and not just random guessing. Now, you might be thinking that’s a weak compliment and you’d be right. But I had a worse opinion of Battleship before that camping trip.

Second, the Colorform version was really annoying to play. The thin cardboard boards, particularly the vertical board, were annoying. But not as annoying as the tiny discs that take the place of pegs. They were so tiny and fiddly that they made the game an exercise in frustration.

Still, it was a nice break from Apples to Apples.

Wednesday, May 3, 2023

My April Gaming

I have to say that more of my time gaming in April was spent decompressing than learning new games or exploring more complicated games.

The games I learned during April were:

Easter Egg Roll and Write

Turn on the Lamp (14th R&W contest)

Tabletop Arcade: Roll and Snake (14th R&W contest)


My First Castle Panic

One afternoon near the start of April, I sat down with some very simple Roll and Writes because I told myself I needed to deliberately set some time aside if I actually wanted to learn any R&Ws in April. And I was right. 

And I only taught myself My First Castle Panic because I needed some distraction while recovering from a nasty bout of food poisoning.

Really, the only game I learned that I think I will go back to was Numbsters. It adds some variety to the growing world of In Hand games. Honestly, my growing library of In Hand games has been great for both decompression and thinking.

As life gets busier and more complicated, I don’t know what May will be like. At this point, learning one good Roll and Write would make me happy.

Monday, May 1, 2023

My April PnP

I honestly hadn’t thought I had done much PnP crafting in April. Then I looked at my files and had to say ‘Oh, I guess this was in April and not March’

I made:

Möbius Circuit (2023 In Hand Contest)

Power Brawl (2023 In Hand Contest)

Fungi of Phalanges Forest (2023 In Hand Contest)


Agincourt (low ink version)


Opening Night

Tiny Epic Kingdoms (two-page low-art demo version)

Royal Limited (demo version)

I made sure to get a crafting session at the start of the month, which is probably why it’s hard for me to remember it. My ‘big’ planned project was Numbsters.

However, when I saw the demo of a new solitaire game by Scott Almes, I had to make a copy. I borrowed my son’s crayons to add the color elements to Royal Limited. Since I was already doing that, I did the same for the low art version of Tiny Epic Kingdoms.

I own the full version, plus the expansion, of Tiny Epic Kingdoms but have never played it. I wonder if a minimalist version is what will do the trick for me to try it out.

I haven’t played any of the In Hand contest games enough to feel like I have learned them. Still, I couldn’t pass up a game that uses a möbius strip. Power Brawl feels like it covers the same ground as Handy Browl but not as well. Fungus of Phalange Forest feels promising though.

I don’t know what May will be like. April surprised me.