Friday, March 29, 2024

Season Two of One Card Mazes builds on core ideas

Earlier this year, I wrote about the first season of One Card Mazes. And I now I’ve been asked to review the second season, which will end up on Kickstarter pretty soon. Okay, disclosure taken care of.

Short version if you don’t want to read any further, the second season builds on the ideas that made the first bunch of mazes fun. If you like puzzles, good stuff.

One Card Mazes are a collection of mazes where each of one fits on both sides of a card. Name’s totally self explanatory.

Here are the two clever bits mechanically speaking. There are paths that lead off the edge of the card. You flip the card over to continue that path. More interestingly, there are also spins, spots on the board that let you change the orientation. And you need those because there are doors in the maze shaped like arrows, and you can only pass through them when the arrow is pointing up.

Now, you don’t actually draw on the maps. Well, I guess you could, but the really not designed that way. As you re-orient the maze, you are going to be backtracking a lot. Maybe actually drawing on the maze would help but it also might make it a lot more confusing. I play with the mind’s eye. Or mind’s pencil.

When I first tried the original demos, I was concerned that the mechanics weren’t strong enough to support a bigger series of mazes. After I bit the bullet and bought season one, which brought the total number of mazes up to twenty-two, I realized that the rules might be simple but they have a broad enough scope to create a variety of engaging mazes. And that’s where I had a new concern. The fact that I was terrible at them lol

The season two preview I’ve looked at actually addresses both those concerns. Season Two includes two new types of mazes: Fledgling and Boss.

Fledgling mazes are simply mazes are easier. The two prototypes that were in the preview had instructions as part of the mazes but I don’t know if that will be the case for all of them.

In addition to being steppingstones to help me wor, my way up to more difficult mazes, like, you know, the ones in the first release, I can see these being good gifts to introduce other people to the system. I can even imagine handing them out in the classroom.

Boss mazes, on the other hand, are literal game changers. Because, they, like, change the rules. Instead of just getting your way through a maze, you have to defeat some kind of antagonist. 

On one side of the card, there is a central area with some kind of opponent on it. The preview has a gelatinous cube, a boxer and Cthulhu to give you an idea of what I’m talking about. The examples have three to four hit points that are displayed as numbered arrows.

You defeat a boss by entering that area in the correction orientation and number order. If you skip a number, you lose. Which just means you start over, or at least backtrack from where you came from.

Boss mazes don’t just add a dash of theme. They are longer, less forgiving mazes that have you will be exploring more of the entire board. Without removing the core elements of flipping, and re-orienting the card, they take the system to the next level. They don’t replace the core mechanics, they elevate them.

So, with these two different types of mazes, the guys who make One Card Mazes are bookending the entire system. They have something for folks like me who need some help and they have something for those jerks who need more challenge.

And One Card Mazes aren’t just cute and/or clever. They have real value. I keep a few in my wallet (they take up a lot less space than a full card game) When, all too recently, I was stuck on the side of road in the middle of nowhere with a flat tire, I was very glad for that. During the four and a half hours of waiting, with a phone that was nearly dead and needed to be saved for being used as an actual phone, One Card Mazes helped me keep a little sanity. Not all of it, oh no. But more than I would have had otherwise.

I am much more of a gamer than a puzzle person but One Card Mazes have done well for me. When that Kickstarter goes live, I’m on board.

Monday, March 25, 2024

Thoughts on the original Blokus Junior

 My son and I recently sat down and tried out Blokus Junior. His real love is video games but we do get in the odd board game now and then. 

Having already played Blokus, Blokus Duo and Blokus Trigon (I don’t count Blokus 3D since it’s a rethemed Rumis by a different designer. Great game but not the same umbrella), I can honestly say that I feel that every game since the first one is better than the original Blokus. Yup, Blokus Junior has kept that trend.

The Blokus family is a set of abstract strategy games that are part of what I think of as ‘stones on the board’ design strategy. (Yes, Go had a big impact on my life, thanks for asking) Every game in the family is built around the idea of trying to cover more of the board than your opponents with different shaped pieces. You always have to touch the corners of your own pieces, but you can never touch the sides.

From what I have read, newer additions of Blokus Junior are actually the same as Blokus Duo just with larger pieces. We have one of the older additions, where each player has two sets of twelve pieces. so, I have gotten to experience the actual different game.

And having a simplified set of pieces does create a different game. Heck, just having two singe-square pieces makes a big difference in your strategy. Blokus Junior is honestly a simpler game with simpler patterns.

To be honest, one of the virtues of the Blokus family is how simple the basic rules are. You can explain the game to just about anyone in a minute or two. At the same time, the family offers a rich decision tree. Just because the rules are simple doesn’t make the choices you make simple.

So I don’t know how necessary it was to make an even simpler version of the game. I will honestly say that I think Blokus duo is stronger than the original Blokus Junior. (Blokus Trigon remains the best and one of the strongest three-player abstracts I have ever found) 

Having said that, we still enjoyed Blokus Junior, and we would happily play it again. Personally, I found it interesting to play with such a different set of pieces. I first played Blokus… decades ago? Eeep! I enjoy the change up. And I like how Blokus Junior continues to have the starting positions in the middle of the board. The starting corners in original Blokus is one of its biggest weaknesses.

Just because there are better games doesn’t mean Blokus Junior isn’t a good game. Indeed, there are all too many worse games. Frankly, the simple game of Blokus Junior isn’t a bad choice for a school night after homework when thinking isn’t the sharpest.

If you are dealing with a very limited storage, space, or if you only want a collection that is the best of the best, I would recommend just picking up Blokus Trigon. But if you like abstracts and have room for variety in your collection (and can find a used copy), Blokus Junior will be rewarding.

Saturday, March 23, 2024

I finally go on the chaotic journey that is the 13th season of Doctor Who

 Very recently, I sat down and got caught up on Doctor Who. I almost never binge TV shows but Doctor Who has long been my favorite TV show and I had fallen far behind.

Honestly, after the 12th season, I was burnt out. While I thought that Jodie Wittaker was a great Doctor, I felt that Chris Chibnall was not a good show runner.

In fact, I felt like the tone indicated that Chibnall was ashamed to be producing a science fiction show. Looking at his history, I learned he has a long history of working with Doctor Who and a longer history of being a fan so that wasn’t the case. Instead, it just felt like he struggled with focus and resolution.

I actually thought that the Endless Child idea could lead to some great stories if used well. However, it felt like it was being dropped in that season’s holiday special and not getting used at all.

At that point, I took an unintended break because it felt like Chibnall, at best, couldn’t resolve the plot and character elements he introduced. I just didn’t feel like watching anymore.

But I can’t stay away from Doctor Who. And I wanted to see what Russel T. Davies was up to when he came back to the show.

Season 13, the Flux storyline, was the best Chibnall season for me. While I still felt like the resolution was very weak at best, it took longer to get there so I enjoyed the journey more. 






I found Dan Lewis, Karvanista, Vinder, Bel, Claire Brown and Professor Jericho all more interesting than pretty much any other characters from Chibnall’s run, sadly including Graham and Ryan (although I think those two suffered from uneven writing) Bel in particular was great. A pregnant badass in a decaying universe full of desperate Daleks, Cybermen and Sontarans in search of her child’s father, she could have carried a series all by herself. 

There were also some wonderful moments. The Doctor being transformed into a Weeping Angel at the end of the fourth episode is honestly one of the most striking visuals in Doctor Who on a whole.

However, the actual story doesn’t make much sense. More than that, the resolutions with Tecteun, Swarm and Azure (the different bad guys of the overall story) all fall flat. Literally, someone else kills each of them with the Doctor not having any engagement. 

The payoff just isn’t there but the journey had some nice bits.

Honestly, I could write a lot more about it (and I’m pretty sure anyone reading this has already watched it and won’t be spoiled) but this isn’t a Doctor Who blog.

And the specials running from Eve of the Daleks to the Church on Ruby Road were their own experience, particularly watching all of them in a row like I did. (I will say I did _not_ expect to see Davies pull a character from the Doctor Who comic books)

Doctor Who is a long, insane tapestry of multi-media science fiction. And some bumps along that road are less fun than others. But both it and I survived the 1996 TV movie and that makes Chibnall look like Philip Hinchcliffe.

Friday, March 22, 2024

Golem Needs Pie: whimsical theme, loads of content, critical flaw

 I’ve made it a point to look at every new (or new to me) game or puzzle from Alexander Shen. Their games just do a good job on mental coffee break niche. 

Golem Needs Pie is a puzzle that has Roll and Write elements. To be honest, the Roll and Write part really just adds a random factor that will determine if you can finish the puzzle.

The theme is particularly whimsical. You’ve mixed up your scroll of evil instructions with your shopping list when making a golem. The golem now exists to collect slices of pie and you must help it do so before it runs out of steam.

The actual game is a grid that has eight pie slices and brick walls scattered about it. Your golem has twelve steam to work with. You spend steam to roll a six-sided die for movement and to break through walls. Your goal is to get the whole pie. You get bonus points for ending a move on a slice and for any steam left over if you get all the pie.

You know, I do like solitaire games that have definite losing conditions, not just beat your own score. 

So, here’s the problem. You can figure out the optimal path but if you roll too low, you’ll lose. There’s a best solution but bad die rolls will prevent you from completing it.

Anytime a Roll and Write uses only one die, it’s a red flag for me. I very recently learned Waypoints which also only uses one die. However, that game takes many steps to assuage my fears. Unfortunately, Golem Needs Pie does not. It sadly comes down to roll high or lose.

With that said, I also have to admit that it is going to see some play from me. Part of that comes from its extremely short playing time. The other part comes from the fact that there are literally hundreds of maps so there’s a lot of optimal paths for me to consider.

I like the ideas and themes behind Golem Needs Pie. Alas, the actual game honestly falls short.

Monday, March 18, 2024

Outdoor Survival wishes it was Waypoints

 Ah, Waypoints. The third game that Matthew Dunstan and Rory Muldoon designed for Postmark Games. I really liked their other two games, Voyages and Aquamarine, so I was curious to see how Waypoints would go.

Waypoints is a game about hiking in a park. The boards are topographical maps with a grid overlay. Each turn, you get a certain number of action points. You draw your path freehand and it costs an action point to cross any line. Which means both topographical lines and grid lines.

The map has a variety of waypoints, which are actually just dots with different symbols by them. They are also where you have to end each leg of a hike. (If you can’t reach one, you have to rest, which gets you a water but what you really want is to hike) Collecting symbols is how you get points and bonus powers.

So here’s where it goes interesting. You roll one six-sided die to determine how many action points you get each turn. Now, you don’t get the number you roll. Instead, you move that many spaces on the weather track. The space you end on tells you how many action points you’ll be getting.

Now, anytime a Roll and Write has me use just one die, that’s a red flag. Only one die flattens the odds and limits the outcome. Even two dice, just one more die, makes a big difference in decision tree. I’m not saying there aren’t good Roll and Writes that use just one die but I definitely view it as a design obstacle.

That said, Waypoints has a number of ways of letting you deal with random luck. Water lets you get additional action points. Jackets give you bonus action points on cold weather (which is when you get only one or two points) Kayaks and hang gliders give you special movements. Later maps add more stuff.

The only actual problem that I have found, and this has happened to me, is that I have had hiking days that only lasted three turns. The number of turns you get can be pretty variable.

I have only played the game solitaire, which requires you to end each day at a campfire, a requirement that you don’t have in multi-player games. I lost my first game because I couldn’t do that. I don’t view that as a bug but a feature. The soliatire game would be too easy without that extra challenge. That said, I have had to hustle on some hikes.

I honestly feel Waypoints is a very close third behind Voyages and Aquamarine. The theme is very strong and well connected to the mechanics. The action points make the freehand drawing work well.  Waypoints is engaging and interesting. It feels both innovative and intuitive, at least to me.

However, the variable turn factor is a ding for me. I can see how it might be a plus for some folks, since it definitely adds tension to the game. And I think it might be less of a problem with multi-player games where you don’t have to end on a camp fire.

Waypoints is gojng to see regular play from me. It is what people who actually wanted to play Outdoor Survival wanted Outdoor Survival to be.

Saturday, March 16, 2024

Barely scratching the surface of Island Alone

After months of really planning on learning Island Alone, I have finally sat down and played a game. It’s been on my list for what feels like forever and I’m glad to finally cracked the ice.

And I knew it wouldn’t be a hard game to learn. The basics are quite simple. However, the simple actions of movement, collecting resources, and building stuff unfold into a heck of a decision tree.

Island Alone is one of Radoslaw Ignatow’s designs. I have become a big fan of his work and Island Alone feels like a watershed game for his work. It is a step into creating a system that can sustain a wide variety of scenarios and content, something he has kept on doing.

The idea behind the game is you’re on a desert island and you have to do stuff to survive and accomplish other goals. Let’s be honest, the basic idea is not anything new, but it’s also very easy to understand and a classic. Hey, I still love games about trains and trading in the Mediterranean.

Island Alone is a Roll and Write since it’s dice powered and you annotate the player sheet constantly. You do have a pawn that you’re moving around so I can see an argument that it’s not a ‘pure’ Roll and Write. But when nobody wins when it comes to purity tests so that doesn’t matter to me.

Where the game kind of explodes is the amount of content. The base game comes with more than thirty different scenarios and seven different maps. And then there are three expansions that are campaigns.

I have played what is clearly an introductory scenario and I haven’t even scratched the surface of Island Alone. You could spend some serious time with this game system before getting bored.

Wednesday, March 13, 2024

Why the Sun and the Star matter

 The Sun and the Star was actually the first book I read this year. However, I had just blogged about the Heroes of Olympus and the Chalice of Gods so I wanted a break from blogging about Rick Riordan’s books.

That said, The Sun and the Star is one heck of a read.









The Sun and the Star was co-written by Mark Oshiro because Riordan wanted to make sure that relationship between Will and Nico’s relationship was done right. And, possibly because of another author, I have to say that this book has the most unique tone of all of Riordan’s young adult books. 

The actual plot is about Nico (son of Hades, goth boy and beloved of fans) and his boyfriend Will (son of Apollo, nature boy and generally cool guy) going to Tartarus to save their friend Bob the Titan. Bob the Titan might sound like a Deadpool joke but he’s a well established character with depth and pathos.

(Oh, and additional spoiler, Little Bob the Sabre tooth kitten ghost comes back as well. I really like Little Bob)

However, the focus of the book is on the boys’ relationship. Their connections, their insecurities, their hopes, their issues, their love. And they are a cute couple. One of my favorite lines was, after Will agreed something with no negotiation, Nico telling himself that he will do all the talking when they buy a car. It’s snarky but sweet because it reinforces how Nico sees them having a future together.

The Sun and the Star is chock full of Riordan’s signature fun but faithful takes on mythology. (Really, I grew up with the cleaned up versions of the myths through the D’Aulaires. Is Riordan's way of cleaning them up any less honest?) But, more than any of Riordan’s previous work, the Sun and the Star feels like a young adult novel. It focuses on growing up, coming to terms with your flaws but also what’s good about you.

There are two Riordan books that I cannot help but compare the Sun and Star to: The Gates of Hades and The Chalice of the Gods.

The Gates of Hades is, honestly, possibly Riordan’s strongest book and the Sun and the Star is very much a sequel. They both deal with journeys through Tartarus and the earlier book is better. It is so very desperate and dire. However, the Sun and the Star doesn’t try and compete with the earlier book on that level. It succeeds on its own merits.

The Chalice of Gods was published after the Sun and the Star and I assume it may have been written at the same time or very close together. And I feel Chalice resembles the Sun and the Star in a very good way. It’s a smaller scale conflict with a much more nuanced emotional arc. And I really wonder how much working with Oshiro influenced Riordan.

While there are some odd touches in the book (part of Nico’s resolution feels much more urban fantasy than mythic, which I don’t want to spoil, but if you’ve read the book you know what I’m talking about), I think the Sun and the Star is both a great book and an important milestone for Riordan.

Monday, March 11, 2024

The worlds Grant Howett builds with one page

I was vaguely aware of Grant Howett as a game designer but it took Bundle of Holding’s 2024 Birthday Bundle for me to view his work as a singular vision.

He’s been pretty active as a designer and one of the things he does is make one-page RPGs. I’d seen some of them before, looking for oddball indie games. The bundle collected sixteen of them, which isn’t even most of them as it turns out.

Isaac Asimov once described the vignette as the dart gun of fiction. You just get one shot and if it doesn’t hit, well, that’s it. One-page RPGs? Same deal.

In my arrogant opinion,a one-page RPG needs two things. Mechanics that actually work and a hook that makes people want to play. Quite frankly, the more ludicrous, the more likely the hook is to work.

One of the best one-page RPGs out there, again in my arrogant opinion, is Lasers and Feelings. It’s got simple but clever and flexible mechanics. And the hook is that it’s really Star Trek so  everyone knows what kind of story you’re telling.

Despite the simplicity that’s baked into just about every one-page RPG, I don’t think they are aimed at non-gamers. There are a lot of unwritten bits to them. How to actually run or play an RPG, that kind of stuff. Things that experienced gamers can fill in without even thinking about it but will confuse non-players.

Since one-page RPGs tend to be one-shots, they really feel like they were designed for convention play. As I read Everyone is Seagulls (which reads like an adult reimaging of Mo Willems’ Pigeon books), it felt like it was designed to annoy the next table over with all the shouting.

I have to admit that I found the bundle to be a mixed if fascinating bag. Some of the games simply have too many of those unwritten elements in them. And yes, that could be overcome, particularly by experienced gamers. However, when you can pick something that doesn’t require that, particularly if it’s for a one-shot, why wouldn’t you?

My favorite game in the collection was Crash Pandas both for the concept and the mechanics. The players are a group of raccoons working together to drive a car in illegal street races. The core mechanic is having everyone decide what they want the car to do and simultaneously revealing it. Look, you know what the game is about and how it can all go crazy.

It might sound like I’ve been harsh to Grant Howett. But damn, now I’m looking for more of his stuff. Because having something that is a good one session experience is really valuable. I can’t imagine being in a never ending campaign again. But occasionally a one shot? Yeah, that would really work. In fact, before I moved away from my old gaming groups, some of us were already moving towards that.

So, yeah, Grant Howett’s game are totally worth looking at.

Friday, March 8, 2024

The Suika Game - a master class in fidgeting

 Lately, our household has been unwinding with the Suika Game, a fruit-themed video game.

It’s certainly an example of a little game that could. It was originally developed by the company Aladdin X for a digital projector. Customers liked it so they released in Japan for the Switch. And exposure via social media led to wider Switch release.

It’s a puzzle game where you are dropping fruit into a container and the game ends when the container overflows. The puzzle bit is that when two fruits of the same touch, they combine to form the next largest fruit, with the watermelon (Suika in Japanese) being the largest.

A big part of the appeal is that the fruits follow physics, at least to a certain degree. Fruit will bounce and roll after they are dropped. I am not convinced that the fruits’ masses are all that realistic but the shifting fruit definitely makes the game more interesting.

I was actually quite shocked that the Suika Game wasn’t designed as a mobile game. It’s exactly the kind of casual game that you can easily waste hours on your phone with. It totally fits that model.

There have got to be hundreds of games like this. Probably thousands. Human beings love pattern recognition and fidgeting and that’s all these games really are. They tap into something that is hardwired into us.

I know Tetris didn’t create this genre but I do think of it as the definitive example of it. I wouldn’t be surprised if it wasn’t the most successful example. Six shapes. Utter simplicity. Endlessly fascinating. The Suika Game doesn’t have that simplicity but it does inspire that compulsion.

I don’t know why the Suika Game clicks so well, although the uber cute fruit and the physics has to be a part of it. It’s got plenty of competition. But it succeeds in entertaining and relaxing us.

Wednesday, March 6, 2024

The Continental Op is the original bastard

Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op is one of those pieces of literature that I find fascinating. The Maltese Falcon and Sam Spade is what everyone thinks of when they hear Hammet's name with the Thin Man being a close second. With that said, The Continental Op was his most reoccurring character and is widely regarded as an essential piece of the development of the noir genre.

The Continental Op was a nameless agent of the Continental Detective Agency, a thinly disguised Pinkerton Detective Agency. He describes himself as short and fat and demonstrates a perfect willingness to use deceit and corruption to serve his own needs.

Hammett described his later creation Sam Spade as an idealized detective, what real detectives wish they could be. If that's the case, the Continental Op may be what Hammett felt actual detectives were like.

Part of Hammett's street cred came from the fact that he had been a Pinkerton detective. Those experiences clearly influenced the creation of the Continental Op, which makes me often wonder what some of Hammett's experiences in the agency were like.

The Continental Op wasn't the first hardboiled detective in fiction but the character did a lot to help develop the idea. It helps that Hammett was one heck of a writer. His own experiences with the Pinkertons apparently left him jaded and cynical and that bled into the Continental Op. That definitely gives some heft to the Continental Op and his bleak world.

Some folks believe that Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (which influenced plenty of later works) was based on Red Harvest, the first Continental Op novel. Kurosawa, on the utter hand, said it was based on the Glass Key. So Hammett wins no matter what lol.

Compared to Sam Spade, the nameless Continental Op seems faceless and invisible as well. However, he helped create a world where the Maltese Falcon could get written. And, while, lets be honest, the Maltese Falcon is Hammett's masterpiece, his Continental Op stories and novels are still great reads.

Monday, March 4, 2024

My February Gaming

In February, I learned Aquamarine, Tape Jam and Apropos of Board Games.

And, I’m going to be honest, Aquamarine is the big deal for me. Oh, I’ll play the other two games now and then but Aquamarine is the game that I can see myself  regularly playing.

Truth to, while I like Postmark Games Vouages better, I  find Aquamarine easier to play after a long day. It is so simple and intuitive but also has such a good decision tree. It’s very chill.

And my plan in March is to learn Waypoints. After Voyages and Aquamarine, I have very high expectations for it. And even if I hate Waypoijts, Postmark Games has done me well regardless. I feel like I have been an unpaid advertiser for Postmark Gamea this year lol

All that said, I would mind learning a greater number of games in March.

Friday, March 1, 2024

My February PnP

 While February was busy like life tends to be, I was able to plan ahead enough to make some PnP projects. I made:

Tape Jam  
assorted One Card Mazes
Aquamarine (maps 1-4)
Apropos of Boars Games

Tape Jam was my ‘big’ project for the month. It’s a game that feels like the epitome of a traditional solitaire game but, despite an amusing theme, doesn’t rise above that. Which still is enough to get an occasional play. 

Because there are a lot of One Card Mazes and each one is, well, one card, they are good for filling in extra space in a laminating sleeve. I have a feeling I’ll be regularly making one or two, just to make better use of my materials. And they do see use.

However, the definite highlight was Aquamarine. Yes, it just meant laminating some play sheets but the game has really proven to be rewarding. Those sheets will get used.

Not bad for a busy month.