Friday, September 29, 2023

Catan, the internet and the marketplace of ideas

When I first got into gaming about twenty years ago, there were three games that seemed to be in every group’s collective game closet: Settlers of Catan, Puerto Rico and Carcassonne. Very quickly, Ticket to Ride got added to that list. (It had to actually get published before anyone was willing to play it)

I’ve found myself thinking about these four games and wondering where to ramble with them. I could write about how the hobby has changed and there isn’t a unifying game like these were anymore.

But honestly, that’s a delusionally nostalgic viewpoint. It’s picturing a world where BGG was the center of the gaming world. Plenty of folks were playing Axis and Allies or Battletech or Titan and didn’t know Catan existed. (And that’s not even getting into Chess or Rummy or Scrabble or Poker or Go or- you get the idea)

Yes, the gaming world has become bigger and more mainstream and more varied. But it’s not like it was a magical Smurf village twenty years ago.

I also don’t think they represent a golden era of gaming and game design. We are talking about a ten-year span. That’s pretty short compared to Mancala or Chess but that’s a long time in the modern market. And it’s not like there haven’t been a ton of great games since then.

My next thought was that the game that actually mattered was Catan because, love it or hate it (I love it), no one can deny that it changed the landscape. But I don’t think that’s quite what I’m looking at either.

Then an idea occurred to me. We are looking at games that came out as the internet was becoming more and more mainstream. It is now so ubiquitous we carry the internet in our pockets but the internet changed so much. (Wow, there are grownups who have always lived in a world with the internet. )

I firmly believe that Carson, Puerto Rico, Carcassonne and Ticket to Ride are all great games that will still getting played twenty years from now. I also think they were in the right place at the right time to take advantage of an algorithm we didn’t even know existed.

Thursday, September 28, 2023

Battletech + Stackpole = beach read with giant mech

Michael Stackpole is the only reason I have any interest in Battletech’s fiction. Heck, he’s practically the only reason I know the fiction even exists. And having finished his first Battletech work, the Warrior trilogy (En Garde, Riposte, Coupe), I can say that Mr. Stackpole has not failed me.

Intellectual Properties are always this weird potluck of quality, even though I am pretty sure most of the media in the world falls into that category. And gaming fiction in particular can really be all over the place, even different works from the same company.

And while I am aware there have been successful cartoons about Battletech, I still wouldn’t think it lends itself to novels. As a tactical level war game, the focus is on fighting, not storytelling. (Yes. I know I love WH40K fiction and the original game is just about beating each other up too)

Stackpole makes the Warrior trilogy work by not writing about a game with giant robots. Instead, he wrote a political thriller that just happens to have giant robots in it.

Honestly, for all intents and purposes, the series is a summer beach read. It’s not driven by character or theme but by plot. The books aren’t deep and nor are they trying to be. They focus on being entertaining and telling an engaging story. And that is something Stackpole pulls off.

The  books aren’t without their flaws. By virtue of having to work with the setting lore, there are some plot elements that don’t contribute to the larger narrative and really go nowhere. And you can figure out some of the major plot twists just by who Stackpole concentrates on as major characters.

But those are flaws that come as part of the package, particularly the second one. Stackpole made telling a good story his priority and it shows. These were some of his earliest fiction but the promise is already there.

The Warrior trilogy isn’t high art. It’s airport reading.  But they aren’t  just airport reading. They are the kind of books you are happy to find before a six-hour flight.

Monday, September 25, 2023

Nakama ties Netflix’s One Piece together

Netflix’s One Piece has let me revisit One Piece in an honestly convenient and comfortable way. Many years ago, I read through the East Blue Saga, the Baroque Works Saga and the Skypiea Saga before I wanted to read more than just One Piece. So I’m not a serious fan but I am familiar with the series.

The outrageous success of One Piece is built on three things: over the top world building, unrestrained goofiness and the fact that Eiichiro Oda is an insane genius. I remember he wrote that he make Luffy a rubber man so that there would always be some silliness even when the story got dark. (And One Piece can get pretty intense) One Piece carries such a strong sense of fun even when it makes you cry.

One Piece is set in a world of seemingly endless strange and unique islands and its hero is Monkey D. Luffy who has stretchy powers and whose dream is to become the king of the pirates. It has been going weekly since 1997 and has a cast of over 1,100 named characters so trying to summarize it in any more detail is more than I want to tackle.

It’s a lot.

And that’s why this live-action version was easy for me to approach. It condensed the East Blue Saga while still hitting the major story and emotional beats. More than that, it captures emotional vibe of One Piece. That is  the value of friendship and dreams, the idea of nakama (a word I only know due to One Piece).

I’m not going to spoil it because it’s worth seeing. I do understand that Oda has a big role in it (How did he find the time?!) which may be why the series did such a good job condensing the story and pulling later elements in to make a more solid narrative.

Of course, when you transition from art to live action, that has to be some adjustments. Having human beings somehow humanizes things. It brings an extra layer of nuance. And One Piece somehow balances having the characters be believably human while still being true to the source material well. And that, more than anything else, makes this One Piece a joy.

Inaki Godoy’s Luffy is wiser and much more empathic than his manga counterpoint. Which actually works well because you can believe that this Luffy can bring a band of misfit toys together to form the Avengers. (Does that analogy work?) I could write about every character but that would double the length of this blog.

Every medium has its own tools and requirements. This version of One Piece has adjusted to the medium of television while still being One Piece. Which is dumbfounding and amazing.

Friday, September 22, 2023

Again, why Roll and Write?

When we lived across the country a couple months ago, I didn’t know how it would affect my gaming habits. Would I still keep on playing games and learning new games?

Well, it seems the answer is yes to both but with an even heavier focus on Roll and Writes lol

Admittedly, there are a number of reasons why Roll and Writes work well for me, particularly under more constrained circumstances.

Many (but certainly not all) are extremely solitaire friendly. Many are played as multi-player solitaires, like Take It Easy, so there’s no mechanical difference between one person playing or a lecture hall playing. It’s increasingly common for any kind of game to have a solitaire option and some are just plain solitaires.

In other words, there’s a lot of Roll and Writes I can easily play on my own while still having the actual experience of the game. 

Roll and Writes also tend to be easy to make via Print and Play. (Again, plenty of exceptions are out there) More than that, the quality of a PnP R&W sheet is a lot closer to publishing standards than, say, my homemade cards.

Roll and Writes also can take up minimal space, particularly if you use a clipboard. I have a little half-size clip board that I can use for smaller game sheets. That ends up taking up just a little more space than playing a game on my phone.

And, frankly, while Roll and Write as a game media doesn’t have doesn’t have as much potential depth as ones with moving parts, there’s a surprising amount of depth in some of them. (Not necessarily the one I casually play, of course)

I recently learned three different publushed games via Print and Play pretty much back to back: Splitter, Knaster and Trek 12. I made copies of Splitter and Knaster because, frankly, it wasn’t likely I’d find published copies. On the other hand, everything I needed to make the basic version of Trek 12 on the publisher’s website. 

Which I think was actually quite canny on their part. Because, having a chance to play the basic game of Trek 12, I am now seriously thinking about getting the full game so I can play the expedition version of the game. Demos can be very powerful tools if the games can deliver.

I found Splitter and Knaster to be solid, workmanlike games and I was happy to try them out. However, Tech 12 was next level. I really liked the different ways to manipulate numbers in it.

There are a lot of decent R&Ws out there, particularly if you’re actively looking for them. Which I obviously am. And they can definitely keep you entertained.

But then there are games that make me feel like I’ve just found a hidden gem at a convention. Trek 12 isn’t the best R&W ever but it is good enough to have that sparkle. And it’s really fun to have find that.

Roll and Writes can deliver under conditions that limit time and space and materials. And sometimes they can just plain deliver.

Tuesday, September 19, 2023

Stating the obvious about Railroad Ink

 As someone who enjoys both railway games and Roll and Writes, I’ve had Railroad Ink on my radar for a while. I finally bought the app so o could try it out. 

In Railway Ink, you draw paths on a grid to make connections! 

Yeah, I’ve lost track of the Roll and Writes I’ve played that have that basic framework. To be fair, one of the first games I ever picked up was Metro, which is the same exact idea with tiles.

So, what makes Railway Ink special? 

Well, quite frankly, the actual dice make a big difference. 

Most, if not all, the connection R&W games I’ve seen use a single chart to determine paths. By having multiple types of dice, Railroad Ink increases the number of path options. Well, you could have multiple tables but having specialized dice makes it a lot easier.

And almost every other connection game that I can think of has you fill in one square at a time. Railroad Ink has you fill in four at a time. Heck, five if you use one of the bonus ‘faces’.

So, by using multiple specialized dice, Railroad Ink becomes more accessible with a greater decision tree.

Oh and before you even add in any expansions, you have two different types of paths to manage. Which isn’t breaking any new ground (Rivers, Roads & Rails did it with three kinds of paths in a very simple way back in the 1960s) but it does help make the decisions interesting. (I haven’t tried any expansions yet but I am curious.)

What makes people like the Railroad Ink family? What makes it any good? Railroad Ink works by being very accessible without dumbing down the choices a connection game has you make. 

(Yes, if drawing lines on a grid is a deal breaker, Railroad Ink will never work for you)

Yes, I’m having fun with Railroad Ink. Yes, I’m thinking of getting a physical copy. Yes, I’m thinking of getting expansions.

Friday, September 15, 2023

As a campaign, Star Maps falls flat

While I first picked up the PDF version of Star Maps five or six years ago, I’ve only now decided to do some printing and try it out. At that time, I was a little confused by the rules but, after years after playing Roll and Writes, it now seems simple lol (I still had to look at rules forums to clarify a few things so the rules really do need some editing)

Star Maps was part of a line of games from Spiel Press. The idea behind Spiel Press was to make campaign Roll and Write books. Since their third product never got published, I am guessing it didn’t quite work out. (However, since it came from the guy who’s behind Button Shy and PnP Arcade, I think the big picture is doing all right)

Here’s the basic idea: each player sheet shows curving loops of stars with boxes in between the stars. There are six different stars shapes. Roll two dice and assign one to pick a star shape and write the other number in a box next to a star of that shape. When the boxes on both sides of a star are filed in, write the difference of the two numbers on the star.

There are also connections. You can forgo writing down a number and check off a connection spot. Stars in more distant lines, even if you fill them in, aren’t worth anything unless they’re connected. More than that, connections are great for dealing with horrible rolls. 

Some connections are locked. Their star has a number written in and you have to fill in the boxes with the right numbers to make that number to unlock it.

When someone can’t make a move, game ends. Star points (plus bonus points which are different on different maps) get totaled and most points wins. 

I am of two minds about Star Maps. One is about it as a game and the other is about it as a campaign.

I do like it as a game, treating each map as its own thing. You don’t have a way to manipulate dice in this format (I’ll get to that) but a game has around thirty rolls, including connections. That’s enough for luck to average out and you can make intelligent decisions.

There are special bonuses that let you manipulate dice but those are part of the campaign version of the game. You earn them for later games.

Which is my clever way of seguewaying into writing about the campaign.

The game has four different maps and I think it’s safe to say they do increase in complexity and difficulty. However, from what I can tell from the rules (which, as I mentioned, can be vague), there isn’t a step-by-step structure to the campaign. With multi-players, you track who wins and the losers get access to bonus powers. In solitaire, you have to pass a point threshold to get bonuses.

More than that, it looks like you can play the maps in any order and as often as you like. If I’m wrong, a campaign is four games with the only ongoing element being three chances to get bonus powers. I think Star Maps would have been stronger with a greater variety of maps and in-game ways to earn bonuses as you go.

I can’t help but compare Star Maps to Bargain Basement Bathysphere which came out around the same time. A free, soliatire Roll and Write campaign game with at least thirty different play sheets (I haven’t peeked ahead so I’m not sure) that keeps building on itself. Bargain Basement Bathysphere has an interconnected, developing narrative, something Star Maps lacks.

And I can’t help but wonder if the Spiel Press business model played a part in that. I have the PDF version of the book. Which contains 22 copies of each map. Which is completely unnecessary for a PDF but makes perfect sense for a physical book where you’d tear it the pages like Sid Sackson’s Beyond series from the 1970s.

The Star Maps sheets are labeled 1.1 to 1.4, indicating that more Star Maps was planned. And I do wonder if it has been produced as a PnP if it might have done better and we might have seen more of an actual campaign.

Star Maps, as a game, has enough going on to be interesting. However, I think it also fights against its publishing format to its detriment.

Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Lockwood & Co - a different kind of undead apocalypse

I went into Lockwood & Co by having heard of a tv series I never ended up watching and having forgotten reading the Bartimeaus Trilogy also by Jonathan Stroud. (To be fair, I read those books as they came out so it was about twenty years ago) 

The series set in an alternate England that has had a twist on the zombie apocalypse. Instead, it’s a ghost dystopia, where ghosts have become so common and dangerous that society barely able to function.

Fortunately, ghosts do have some fundamental vulnerabilities, like iron or silver or fire. And, since this is a young adult series, only children have the psychic ability to detect ghost. Thus setting up a world where child labor laws have been completely thrown out the window.

It’s some nice world building, although it does make you wonder about the world outside England and why hasn't ghost-ridden England collapsed back into the Stone Age.

Lockwood & Co is a tiny, independent agency of ghostbusters (no, they don’t use that term in the books) and every member, particularly the initial three are all extraordinary. Lockwood is a charismatic leader and a brilliant tactician. George is so brilliant he’s able to figure out the complex nature of ghost problems despite the obfuscation of the authorities. And Lucy, the narrator, has a once in maybe a generation psychic talent that is so strong she can talk to ghosts.

Which lets us have the skull, a powerful but captive ghost who is a bonus member of the crew. The skull is relentlessly snarky, deflating every situation it’s a part of. Needless to say, the skull is pure comedy gold.

Wish fulfillment can be a big part of young adult literature. (Harry Potter is a wizard. Percy Jackson is a demi-god. Holden Caulfield doesn’t belong on this list) And Lockwood & Co has plenty of it. 

Stroud balances that with the nightmarish horror of the ghost plague and a theme that carries over from the Bartimeaus Trilogy, that power, authority and money corrupt. Adults aren’t just useless but actively malicious a lot of the time.

I’m not going to go into the plot but I will say that the series isn’t a Ghost of the Week setup. There is an overarching plot that each book builds on and the fifth book is clearly the last one. 

Lockwood & Co is a good read, a fun example of world building and I’m sure it’s already an RPG system without even looking.

Monday, September 11, 2023

Is Wurfel Bingo with more stuff worth it?


I’m surprised that I’d only first heard of Knaster a few weeks ago. It seems to be an intentional sequel to Wurfel Bingo/High Score/Knister. Finding Wurfel Bingo was a watershed moment for me as a gamer. 

Like Wurfel Bingo, Knaster is a Roll and Write that follows the Take It Easy paradigm. Everyone has their own play sheet and uses the same die rolls. Which has become a pretty common design, to be fair.

Take a five-by-five grid. Roll two dice each turn. You can either write their sum in a blank square or, if you already have that number on your grid, you can circle it. The game ends when the grid is full. You get points for each circle and for having complete rows, columns and diagonals of circles.

And if that was all there was, Knaster would be boring, even tedious. However, if you complete a line with numbers and form a poker had like a straight or five of a kind, you get bonus circles you can use anywhere on the grid.

And the poker hands are what make Knaster work as a game. That mechanic gives players a little bit of control and makes number placement actually have some meaning. That mechanic is what actually creates choices.

I went into Knaster with very, very low expectations. I was expecting a Wurfel Bingo with more randomness and twice as many turns. Instead, I found a decent little game. That poker mechanic I keep harping on makes the play entertaining.

In fact, I like Knaster more than Wurfel Bingo. Which isn’t as big a component as it might sound. Wurfel Bingo was pretty cool when I first played it (Take It Easy in two dice!?) but it hasn’t aged well. Mostly because there’s so many games that have explored and expanded that design space in the last several years.

Which brings me to the real question: is Knaster actually any good?

This gives me an excuse to pull out an analogy. I’ve been wanting to use. It is a fast food hamburger of a game. You know what you’re getting, it delivers that, you enjoy it, but it’s not special. There are a lot of Roll and Writes out there. Knaster does its thing pretty well but there’s plenty of better games out there.

I am happy I’ve learned Knaster. It is going to go into rotation for me. And if you play it, it will be a pleasant little diversion. But, yeah, there’s better Roll and Writes out there, even if you just want a coffee break.

Friday, September 8, 2023

Splitter rises above mediocrity but not into greatness

 The title is pretty much the summary.

I think that it’s fairly obvious if you look at my blog, I really enjoy Roll and Writes. That’s in no small part due to they are both very PnP friendly and very solitaire friendly as a rule.

I also realized that I divide them into two basic categories: coffee break games and bigger, crunchier games. I play a lot more coffee break games but I also realize that they aren’t what I normally would pull out if I actually had an opponent.

Splitter is definitely in the coffee break category.

As a concept, Splitter is very, very, very simple. You are filling out a symmetrical shape of blocks. Each turn, you roll two dice. You fill in each number on the shape but the two numbers have to be mirrored on the shape/symmetrical to the center lines. (Same difference but pick the one that makes the most sense to you)

You score groups of numbers but _only_ is the group is the same number as its number. Five fives are worth five points for example. Four or six fives are worth nothing. There are a couple different bonuses but that’s basically the game.

There are two different boards, one of which is more complex and has a whopping two different kinds of bonuses. They both have forty-four boxes so games will always be twenty-two turns.

I think that Reiner Knizia’s Criss Cross might be simpler but Splitter is definitely incredibly minimalist.

You have more agency in Splitter than I was worried you would have. I have expected there to be none and the dice would entirely dictate the game. But building up sets and then protecting sets actually takes some work, along with luck.

That said, I don’t know if twenty-two rounds is enough for the dice to average out so you can make informed choices. There are also isn’t any way to manipulate dice to mitigate bad rolls. And one or two bad rolls can sink a game.

Those aren’t fatal flaws for the game. It is short enough that bad luck isn’t intrinsically frustrating. And the mirror placement, well, not unknown, is unusual enough to be interesting.

I’ve found Splitter more engaging than I expected and already gotten more plays out it than I thought I would. That said, I also found it very average for its niche. As someone who learns Roll and Writes to decompress, it’s nice. However, I would recommend other games, like Criss Cross or That’s Pretty Clever or Qwixx, over it.

Wednesday, September 6, 2023

Ya Boy Kongming rocks

Sometimes I’ll read something just based on the pitch. Particularly when it comes to manga.

Ya Boy Kongming isn’t the weirdest manga I’ve ever read. I have no idea what the strangest manga or anime I’ve read or seen. After I watched an army of rabbit-cats transform into a spaceship in Tenchi Muyo!, I decided that I wouldn’t worry about limits.

Okay. Here’s the pitch for Yo Boy Kongming: legendary Chinese statesman and tactician Zhuhai Liang (courtesy name Kongming) find himself in modern Japan after his death and becomes a music agent.

It isn’t that the idea is absurd, which of course it is. It’s that it sounds banal. Like Charlemagne coming to the present and working at a fast food chain or Benjamin Franklin becoming a real estate agent. (Which he might have actually been. He did a lot of stuff) After you giggle about the idea, is there any story, any tension or drama?

In the case of Ya Boy Kongming, there actually is. Shortly after arriving in modern Japan, Kongming is so moved by the duagonist Eiko’s singing that he basically adopts her and plans on making her a world famous singer who can usher in world peace.

Which he does by becoming Batman with a constant stream of insane schemes that always become together. If a music stand wearing ancient Chinese clothes had flown through the window, Bruce would have become Kongming.

I have to confess to feeling very provincial but I have probably learned more about Romance of the Three Kingdoms from Ya Boy Kongming!

So a lot of what makes the manga fun isn’t the absurd idea but the emphasis on how wonderfully awesome Kongming is. More than that, his cunning ng plans, also trying to benefit Eiko’s rivals. Having lived one life of war, Kongming wants to live a life of peace and that means elevating everyone.

I also understand that Ya Boy Kongming actually didn’t take off until it became an anime. Which makes sense because you can’t listen to music in a manga! I am just reading it but I am also making sure to actually listen to the sings. And, speaking as an old dinosaur, if this is what the kids are listening to these days, the kids are all right.

Ya Boy Kongming has a silly concept but but pulls it off for longer stories by being fun and inventive.

Monday, September 4, 2023

My August Gaming

August was a busy month but I helped keep myself calm with Roll and Writes.

I learned:

One Card Maze  0-2 (2023 One Card Contest)
Flyswatter (2023 One Card Contest)
The Flea and the Circus (2023 One Card Contest)
Honeycomb Caverns
Railroad Ink
Star Maps

Five of the seven games are Roll and Writes. Yes, that includes one of the one card games, The Flea and the Circus. And, while Railroad Ink and Star Maps as a whole campaign might be in the hinterlands of the definition, all these games fall into the coffee break camp as opposed to, um, game night games.

This is our first full month after moving across the country and I wasn’t sure how gaming would fit in with our new lives. Well, it looks like Roll and Write games continue to be part of my decompression regiment.

As for the games themselves, Railroad Ink was the best of the lot but I pretty much expected that. It has a pretty solid reputation. The game that surprised me the most was Splitter. I honestly expected it to be terrible but I had fun with it.

I don’t know what the future holds but August indicates it will include Roll and Writes.

Friday, September 1, 2023

My August PnP

August, as predicted and as honestly is usually the case, was a busy month without much time for making PnP projects. Truth to tell, I did all my PnP crafting on August 1 to make sure I got some in and, indeed, that was all I did. Still, it was a good time.

I made:

One Card Maze  0-2 (2023 One Card Contest)
Flyswatter (2023 One Card Contest)
The Flea and the Circus (2023 One Card Contest)
Chrono Caverns (2023 One Card Contest)
Ancient Realms (demo)

My ‘big’ project for August was the demo version of Ancient Realms. I backed it and have the final version with the first expansion but I printed out the demo months ago so I made that.

I made some games from this year’s One Card Contest really so I could make something from start to finish in one sitting. I also tried out most of those games. None of them were memorable but none of them were terrible either. Of course, being terrible can make games memorable lol

I actually spent more time in August printing out roll and writes and putting them in file protectors. (I don’t consider a R&W a PnP project  unless I laminate it m, making it a more permanent artifact)

And if I only craft one day in September, that’s okay if it’s a good day.