Monday, July 31, 2023

What about the games that survived the purge

 I’ve written a fair bit about purging games when we prepared to move across the country. But I forgot to write about what I didn’t sell or donate. So let’s look at what I’m actually keeping. 

Plenty of factors that I had to ask myself. Do I want to play it?  Can I get other folks to play it? How much storage space does it take up? How hard would it be to ever get again?
When I switched my thinking from what to get rid of to what the keep (which made getting rid of games a lot easier), the first thing I thought was that we were going to keep every Ticket to Ride map we have. Since I first got the US map in 2004, that franchise has been possibly my most consistent gaming experience. I can count on playing Ticket to Ride.

(And, no I don’t have all the maps. Far from it. But I have enough to keep us happy)

Ticket to Ride helped define my criteria. Family weight games that take less than an hour that I know folks like to play. Not every game checks every box but that was the basic idea. Generally, games for a family game night where bedtime is enforced.

(And smaller size did go a long way towards being a tie breaker. Storage space was the biggest drive towards this purge after all)

One criteria that didn’t get much traction was getting rid of games with the idea I could get them again. I had thought about getting rid of Take It Easy and Settlers of Catan’s and getting them again when I wasn’t worried about packing space. But I realized that was silly and wasteful. And my wife wouldn’t let me get rid of Catan.

What I did find myself asking was ‘would this game be impossible to get again?’ Which didn’t save a lot of games but that did save Discworld: Ankh-Morpork and Take It To The Limit.

At the end of the day, I still have a couple hundred games. It’s not like I stopped having a game closet. I’m just trying to have one that I’ll actually use.

Friday, July 28, 2023

Next Station: Tokyo is dot to dot brilliance

Last month, while waiting for some brake work to be done, I taught myself some games on Board Game Arena. Out of the four games I tried out, Next Station: Tokyo was the clear winner.

The core idea of the game is drawing lines between symbols. Which isn’t anything new and was frankly old hat long before Roll and Writes became a thing that thrilled publishers. (Dot to dot, anyone?) Next Station: Tokyo, though, has a really solid and interesting decision tree built into the idea.

The theoretical theme of the Next Station games is building subway systems in cities. In practice, the theming makes the Rolling Japan/America look like an 18XX game. The theme could have been about interstellar travel or computer hacking or neurological surgery or quilt design without changing a thing.

Not that I care but Next Station is more abstract than Chess.

The player sheet show a play area that consists of thirteen districts. The symbols are aren’t in a grid or even particular symmetrical but they are connected together a network of dotted lines. There are four starting symbols, each one tied to a specific color.

Next Station is a Flip-and-Write game. I’ve played literally dozens of Roll and Write games. Unsurprisingly, I found it controlled the randomness more than dice would have. There’s an eleven card deck that you go through four times with four different colored pencils/markers/etc. In addition to symbols (marking what you have to connect to), there are jokers and railroad switch cards (that let you connect from any point, not just the end points)

There are four different ways to get points. Routes are worth the number of districts they go through times the number of stations in the district where they have the greatest number of stations. (It makes sense when you have to do it) There are eight points on a green loop. You lose three points for every one you don’t connect to so they are really worth three points each. You get increasing points for having interchanges with three to five connections. And you get points for any interchanges in the outer districts (tourist stamps)

So… what makes this dot-to-dot game great? The answer is as simple as the game. You have to do your best to maximize the different ways of scoring with a reasonable ability to estimate your chances. Chasing after one way of scoring points will mean having to ignore another one. You can’t do everything. And the small deck gives a good idea of the odds of getting a symbol but it’s not a guarantee.

In short, Next Station: Tokyo takes a very simple and familiar mechanic and creates a deliciously tangled decision tree out of it. There are a lot more interesting choices and replay value than I was expecting.

I do want to try the London map and I hope more maps are coming.

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Why do publishers hate Anthony Monday?

Until earlier this year, I hadn’t realized that John Bellairs had written three series of books for kids.  I’ve known about the Lewis Barnavelt and Johnjy Dixon books since I was their target demographic age but Anthony Monday was new to me.

Funny enough, I had actually heard of the first book, The Treasure of Alpheus Winterborn, back in those days. But I hadn’t realized it was by Bellairs  or that it was the start of a series. (I also hadn’t read it)

Unlike Bellairs’ other series, the Anthony Monday books don’t start out as gothic horror (although apparently they switch over to fantasy and gothic horror by the second book) Instead, Treasure is a straight up mystery, with the characters on a hunt for the eponymous treasure.

Brad Strickland, who has been empowered by either Bellairs’ estate or publisher to continue his work, has said that publishers don’t like Anthony Monday and aren’t interested in having him continue the series. So I went into Treasure with an eye for figuring out why that was the case.

Unlike either Johnny or Lewis, Anthony actually has living parents, plus a brother. Which just reminds me that, in fiction, orphans have more freedom to do whatever they want, the Batman factor. 

And Anthony’s relationship with his family is a big part of the book, particularly his relationship with his mother. Who is emotionally damaged and is emotionally abusive, although there is no doubt she loves all her family. Still, it’s understandable that Anthony’s elderly mentor, Miss Eells, openly serves as a surrogate mother figure for him.

The strong focus on Anthony’s emotional life makes him more nuanced and more layered than either Lewis or Johnny. It also makes him more flawed and more immature than either of them. This just helps the reader appreciate his growth and struggles.

Likewise, the villain in Treasure, as opposed to an evil ghost (You know, a _lot_ of evil ghosts show up in Bellairs’ books) Instead, he’s a nasty narcissist whose perfectly willing to hurt Anthony and his family for the treasure. I found him more emotionally striking than the evil ghosts.

I did find the actual mystery plot to be thin. The actual location of the treasure was so glaringly obvious that the protagonists should have checked it out early in the book, just on general principle. But the weight of the book was on Anthony growing so it doesn’t ruin the book.

So, why do publishers shy away from Anthony Monday? Is it because at least the first book is more emotionally challenging and less escapism? Were the mysteries just that meh? 

I do want to at least read the second book to see if Gothic Horror changes Anthony’s characterization.

Monday, July 24, 2023

Where I damn Streets with faint praise

Learning Streets on BGA felt a little like stepping backwards in time for me. It doesn’t feel like a game that is influenced by games designed fifteen, twenty years ago. It feels like one of those games.

Streets is a tile-laying game where players are building up a growing town by creating streets.  Each tile earns points when a street is enclosed (ending on both sides) based on the number of meeples it has and scoring  conditions based on the other building on the street.

There are touches that I like and add to the gameplay experience. You get a hand of tiles so you have choices. You are limited to five property markers (which is really the same as Carcassonne giving you limited meeples) The meeple redistribution rule is called the FOMO rule. 

If I had played Streets in 2004, I think I would have been more engaged with it. I wouldn’t have fallen in love with it but I’m sure I would have made an effort to get a physical copy. (To be fair, that was my reaction at the time to any game I thought was good)

I have asked myself why I’m so indifferent to Streets. I’ve certainly played lots of games that bring nothing new to the table and enjoyed them.  I think it’s because Streets limits how much you can pull off a big move by limiting the size of the streets and it limits the degree of conflict. Other people can get in on a street you’re working on but they won’t take points away from you. The most aggressive move you can make is ending a street to limit someone else’s points and using the FOMO rule to hog meeples.

And I asked myself, how does this compare to Carcassonne (from 2000, which is actually younger than I thought) because all tile-laying games need to be compared to Carcassonne. (Because Scrabble, which started the genre, gets no love) And I realized that Carcassonne does both the things I felt Streets doesn’t. Lets you go big and lets you have direct conflict. Seriously, for one of the major poster children of European family games, Carcassonne gives you room to be vicious.

Streets falling meh to me wasn’t because I’d seen it all before. I have gotten into lots of games that didn’t reinvent the wheel. Streets doesn’t bring enough stakes to the table. There’s absolutely nothing broken but the tension just isn’t there.

Friday, July 21, 2023

Spots is more than just rolling dice

I will be honest, I don’t feel I’ve explored or played Spots enough to really give it a decent commentary. I’m doing it because it lets me compare it to Alfred’s Wyke, a kooky and underrated abstract lol

Spots is a family dice game themed arijnd Dalmatians. You are trying to place dice  on cards that show cartoony Dalmatian dogs whose spots are different dice pips. And if that’s all there was to Spots, it would be instantly forgettable.

But, as you can tell by my foreshadowing, there is more to it than that. Spots is an action selection game. Players pick actions, which can be draw a dog card or roll two dice, then choose to roll one die. Not every action actually involves rolling dice!

Dice you can’t roll go in your yard (buried because we are talking about dogs here) If their value goes over seven, your yard and incomplete dogs get wiped.

First player to finish six dogs wins.

There’s more going on in Spots than I expected. While the direct dice manipulation is limited to bones that let you reroll, the different actions make the game a lot more interesting than I expected and I think a face-to-face play would be fun.

And, as I mentioned, it made me think of Alfred’s Wyke because both have action selection that only resets when you’re down to one action. Other than that, they have absolutely nothing in common lol

Alfred’s Wyke is an abstract that was originally published in Games magazine but got a second chance at life via Super Duper Games. It’s never been published and I bet that the game was designed using upside down Scrabble tiles. It’s a unique design that deserves more life.

I should see if Super Duper Games is still online.

And back to Spots and my actual issue with it.

However, I learned Spots via solitaire mode which has you play against an automata opponent. While not my favorite way to play, a good automata can be a lot of fun. In Spots, it’s roll a die, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for making informed choices. 

Some games just don’t work as solitaires. I know that having a solitaire mode has become a major selling point but sometime, the answer is just no.

Wednesday, July 19, 2023

John Kovalic is the Charles Schulz of gamer comics

Bundle of Holding (not to be confused with Humble Bundle lol) recently had a Dork Tower bundle. Which, of course, encourages me to contemplate John Kovalic’s Dork Tower. Because I am nothing if not predictable lol

Man, Dork Tower got started back into 1997. The world of gaming and the world of geek culture and the world in general were a different place back then.
Yes, I feel old.

(When did Knights of the Dinner Table get started? 1990? Now I feel really old)

As you probably know just as well as me, Dork Tower is a comic strip about a group of gamers and their friends. That describes a frightening number of comic strips due to the ‘write what you know’ philosophy. That said, between longevity and overall quality, Dork Tower stands out.

In fact, while there was a gap between me falling away from gaming magazines (and gaming magazines even existing) and discovering Dork Tower’s presence as a web comic, I’ve actually been steadily reading it for a big chunk of its existence. Which hasn’t been the case for Knights of the Dinner Table.

And I think the reason I have stuck with Dork Tower, sometimes without even realizing it, is that it is fundamentally sweet and charming. Knights of the Dinner Table reminds me of gamers I have known. I don’t think I’ve met anyone as nice as as the Dork Tower cast, although I have shared some of Igor’s bad habits. (It must be mine!)

That said, I have always found Dork Tower’s earlier portrayal of gamers and such as a marginalized group uncomfortable, even as an obvious satire. There’s too many actually marginalized groups out there for that to work as an ongoing joke. But Dork Tower seems to be moving away from that. In fact, my favorite character has become Stell, whose gaming life is her source of affirmation and acceptance.

While Dork Tower does feature power gaming and players completely detailing campaigns (I think that’s required in gamer comics), I will argue it isn’t as cynical as many gamer comics. I think there is more of a sense of hope and escapism in it. The characters’ angst doesn’t come from not getting what they want but wanting the world to be better.

Kovalic has frequently sited Charles Schulz as an important influence and it shows. Peanuts may a bleak world of suffering but Charlie Brown never stops hoping and striving. Matt is clearly a tribute to Charlie Brown but all of the characters reflect the aesthetic of Peanuts.

Dork Tower isn’t perfect. Not every joke lands and sometimes it can be schmaltzy. But its strengths outweighs its flaws.

Monday, July 17, 2023

Where I am mean to Draft Cider

I’ve been teaching myself some new games via Board Game Arena. I’ve been quite happy with some of what I’ve learned. But this won’t be about any of those games. 

Draft Cider.  I find downright it fascinating due to some of the innate problems in the design.

It’s a card drafting game that is played out over four rounds. You draft apple cards that have three traits: color, height and sweetness. (If you are working on collecting apples to make cider, I’m not sure what height has to do with it. But I don’t actually make cider so I have to plead ignorance.)  Depending on the number of players, you will draft eight or twelve cards over the course of the game. And, as you draft cards, you place them in eight different possible scoring areas.

And that’s the first core problem with the game. There are too many ways to score points and too few cards to explore or exploit them. Another serious problem is that the areas are wildly uneven.

The areas range from a maximum of twenty points to a hundred and forty four points. While it’s neigh impossible to get the latter, even the former takes luck to max out. More than that, there are enough placement restrictions that playing it without a computer enforcing the rules that I can’t see mistakes not happening. In general, the score in the areas are overly complex and kludgy, particularly for a game that is lighter than Sushi Go.

And you see such a small chunk of the deck, you are taking a blind bet on anything you do at the start of the game. You don’t have an effective way of assessing risk and knowing what is a good choice. And I enjoy lots of different luckfests and this is still too much for me. I don’t feel like I’m trying for box cars, I feel like I’m going over bad bookkeeping.

I’ve enjoyed a lot of drafting games and I think Draft Cider would benefit from half the scoring areas and a smaller deck. As it stands, it feels like the designer put complexity over meaningful decisions and fun.

All that said, it plays so quickly on BGA that I know I’ll play it occasionally, just to see if luck will let me shoot the moon. But, even that said, BGA also has Bandada which is just as short but actually rewards decision making.

Friday, July 14, 2023

Jump Drive’s campaigns won me over

While I hadn’t actually done a lot of consideration about what the first game I learned in Florida would be, it ended up being Jump Drive via Board Game Arena. (Yes, I’ve been spending a lot of time there with so much stuff boxed up.)

I am of three minds when it comes to Jump Drive. On the one hand, I am predisposed to liking it because it reminds me of Race for the Galaxy. On the other hand, it is also a pale shadow of Race for the Galaxy. On the third hand, the solitaire campaigns proved to be a game changer for me.

(I haven’t played Roll for the Galaxy. I do expect I would love it but the opportunity just hasn’t come up)

Just about every element of Race for the Galaxy has been simplified. There is no role/action selection. Everyone just decided to either add to their tableau or draw more cards. The consume and produce phase automatically happen every time. Race for the Galaxy didn’t have tons of interaction but Jump Drive removes almost all of it.

And when I played through my first couple games, I thought it was cute and forgettable.

And I’m a proponent of ‘smaller’ versions of games, admittedly due to storage issues. I have King of the Elves and Euphrates and Tigris: Contest of Kings still in my collection rather than Elfenland and Tigris and Euphrates because they take up a fraction of the space in the closet. (Hilariously, Euphrates and Tigris takes up more table space than its parent game) 

But a physics copy of Jump Drive wouldn’t save space and if I need a lighter version of Race for the Galaxy, San Juan does the job much better. 

Then I found the solitaire campaigns.

As I understand it, they started out as a fan expansion but were so well received they were added to the expansion. There are five campaigns which have four end goals each. A campaign consists of four games (seven turns each) The goals are things like end a goal with sixty points or end a game with fifty points and a mix of four blue and brown worlds. If you can’t check a goal off, you lose the campaign.

The campaigns took my biggest issue with Jump Drive, the lack of interaction, and made it superfluous. And while I don’t mind ‘beat your own score’ solitaire games, I really like actual winning conditions. The solitaire campaigns took Jump Ship from a forgettable game for me to a game that I really enjoying and one I keep playing.

If I want a game that I’m going to play with someone else, online or in person, I’m going to find another game. But for a solitaire challenge, Jump Ship surprised me.

Wednesday, July 12, 2023

From cosmic horror to twee escapism?!

Last year, I read The Burrowers Beneath and The Taint and Other Novellas by Brian Lumley. I decided it was time to go back to him and read the second Titus Crow book, The Transition of Titus Crow.

Lumley, like Ramsey Campbell, is one of the authors who helped keep the Cthulhu Mythos alive before it became a pop culture phenomenon. He has a reputation for writing Lovecraft Lite, meaning that humans can win. To be fair, it’s not like Lovecraft himself didn’t write some stories like that. That said, some of what I had read definitely veered away from cosmic horror, embracing the idea that humanity could understand all the eldritch stuff out there.

Then I read The Transition of Titus Crow. Ooooh boy. Not what I expected.





Seriously, I’m going to talk about the entire book here.




At the end of the Burrowers Beneath, Titus and his best buddy Henri de Marigny just barely escape death and worse at the hands of the Great Old Ones via an artifact called the Time Clock, which is a space-time ship that is intelligent and bigger on the inside and Lumley has sworn is in no way based on the TARDIS. 

de Marigney falls off and Titus goes off of his own to have his own crazy adventures while de Marigney recovers ten years in his own future.

And those adventures feel like they came out of a Victorian work. Obviously the Time Machine by Wells is a clear influence. In fact, the first chunk of Crow’s part of the narrative feels like a pastiche of the Time Machine.

But the book gets weirder and cozier with less and less of any trace of cosmic horror. While Crow has adventures with dinosaurs and ancient Romans and gets changed into a cyborg by a helpful robot (that’s the transition in the title), he is also dealing with the Hounds of Tindalos (who are far more escapable than in Frank Belknap Long’s story)

This culminates in a confrontation with Yog-Sothoth. Where Crow realizes he can use the power of the Time Clock to terrify Yog-Sothoth into submission and that it can fire energy beams that will will drive the elder god off. Crow then goes to a magical fairy tale paradise ruled by Cthulhu’s friendly older brother to live with a magic girlfriend.

What did I just read?

We’ve gone from ‘humans can win’ to ‘Great Old Ones are wimps’ Instead of cosmic horror, this is twee escapism. Even if you interpret it as Titis Crow actually died and went to Heaven, that’s still a far cry from cosmic horror.

The epilogue, after both Crow and de Marigney have gone to Elysia, brings us full circle though. We learn that Cthulhu has brought down natural disasters on New England and Miskatonic University has been completely destroyed.

So, the adventure continues and there is still the promise of horror to come.

All the same, that was one weird read.

Monday, July 10, 2023

Cow Tiger Santa Claus strikes out for me again

As I’ve mentioned, I made a copy of Cow, Tiger, Santa Claus in preparation for driving across the country. And I actually remembered the deck and dealt out a three-card hand on a couple days of the trip.

And I have to say I wasn’t able to actually score any cards during our trip!

To be fair, I did see things that were on cards I hadn’t drawn. Like the cows that are in the actual name of the game. I would have thought highway driving, with all the billboards involved, would have worked well but it didn’t.

Cow, Tiger, Santa Claus takes the idea of Road Bingo and turns it into a deck of fifteen cards. There are three levels of difficulty with fife cards each. Randomly draw a card from each level and get to looking.

My initial plays of it were in desert scrubland so I wasn’t surprised it didn’t go well. I had been hoping to pass interesting trucks since I knew that would be the only way I’d see any of the cards.

I’m playing the game in the United States and I wonder how well it would work in other countries. I also wonder where the game was developed. (Part of me imagines it was in the Wisconsin Dells lol)

Despite having had every game I’ve played of Cow, Tiger, Santa Claus fizzle, I do like it and tje idea of it. I don’t really think of it as a game but a reason to look around and pay attention.

Wednesday, July 5, 2023

Firsts after a move

 It feels quite ritualistic but I felt like making sure that I made some ‘firsts’ in Florida were good ones. Starting off a new home with good choices.

The first virtual game I played was Onirim, which, thanks to the app, is my most frequently played game. Onirim is just laying down runs of cards but between the expansions, the special powers of the keys, and the negative cards, it offers more replay value than I would have thought.

My first physical play was Palm Island. Although I think its sequel Palm Laboratory will prove to be stronger, Palm Island is still one of the best In Hand games I have played. It has the feel of a Euro with its resource management and infrastructure development in seventeen cards that never leave your hand.

I have laminated sheets of the cards in my travel folder that just need to be trimmed so that Palm Island can be my first print and play project in Florida. I’ve worn out copies and made copies as gifts so it’s far from my first time remaking it.

And the first book I’m reading is The Lost Hero by Rick Riordan. He’s both a comfort food author for me and a good author as well. I read the Heroes of Olympus seven years ago and, at the time, it was my favorite work by him. That said, the character development in both Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard and the Trials of Apollo were very strong. I wonder how the Heroes of Olympus will hold up. 

I think it will hold up as the most sweepingly eoic of his series.

And I hadn’t planned on it but my first game purchase ended up being an impulse purchase of Azul.

Monday, July 3, 2023

My June Gaming

June saw me learning more games than I expected. It was a busy month but learning games is part of how I try to stay sane lol

In addition to learning some of Alexander Shen’s puzzles, I learned their Quests Over Coffee. I went in with doubts. It looked like you’d just roll the dice and hope for the best. Instead, I found it actually some solid gameplay and real choices. I do think the expansions are essential for replay value. But they are currently free so it is more like the game is broken down into several files lol

Dark Inp’s Castaway filled my Roll and Write quota for June. I enjoyed it. It wasn’t amazing or innovative but it was solid and balanced. Honestly, I think if Print and Play was more mainstream, particularly PnP Roll and Writes (which would be the easiest entry point), Dark Imp woiuld get a lot more attention.

And, while waiting for some brake work to get done, I taught myself Next Station: Tokyo, Spots, Draft Cider and Streets on Board Game Arena.

Next Station: Tokyo is an apparently simple flip and write. You are just drawing lines in between  different symbols. However, the decision tree rapidly becomes a lot more interesting. I’m surprised at how bingeable the game is. The big winner of this BGA session.

Spots is dog-themed dice game that’s actually pretty clever. It’s not just about rolling dice but also picking actions.  Playing it in BGA confused me until I realized that there was an AI opponent for solitaire play that really just serves as a timer. So I think it’s a very nifty game but a terrible 
solitaire game.

And Draft Cider felt like a lesson on how not to design games. Non-intuitive and overly complicated scoring systems attached to a very random mechanic. It is fascinatingly bad.

(Since a lot of my hobby over the last few years has been print and play, I sometimes wonder how good some of these indie designers who don’t get a lot of attention really are. Then I play something like Draft Cider and realize they are god damn geniuses)

Streets felt like one of the post-Carcassonne tile-laying games that I feel like were a common design fifteen or twenty years ago. I liked the FOMO mechanic of redistributing meeples and economy of limited property markets but there are plenty of tile laying games I like more. Next Station: Tokyo drew me in with its apparent simplicity but deep choices but Streets didn’t click. I’ll still play it on BGA but I wouldn’t look for a physical copy.

I have a feeling that a lot of my board game exploration for the next few months will be digital but that’s still a wide open field.

Saturday, July 1, 2023

My June PnP

We spent June packing up our home. And purging all the detritus that we let accumulate :) So I didn’t have much time for making Print and play games.

I made: 

Cow, Tiger, Santa Claus
Death Valley with Panamint City expansion 

We will driving across the country so making a copy of Cow, Tiger, Santa Claus just felt natural. I made a copy when it first came out but I’ve gotten better at making PnP stuff. It wasn’t the best while driving through desert scrublans but I’m curious to see how it plays in other biomes.

I enjoyed the demo version of Deatj Valley. Seriously, it’s a game I feel I should play more. So, naturally the final version with the expansion was on the short list.
And while Dearh Valley isn’t in Arizona (it’s in California and Nevada), it does seem fitting for my last project in Arizona.