Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Print, Motrin and Play

How cool is it to find a game you like that is free? All it wants is a few common household items and a couple hours of your time.

One of the first print and play games I found was Kardinal & Konig: Das Kartenspiel. The printing turned out to be the hardest part since the download was for the European paper size called A4 rather than our American 8 X 11. Once I twisted my printer’s brain to speak European, I found the cutting out of the cards rather relaxing—don’t forget to round the corners.

Then I discovered Dschunke: Das Legespiel, the original version of Rat Hot. We enjoyed this game so much that I printed up a second copy of the tiles and put them on a thin piece of masonite and cut them out with the band saw. My dear husband then built a small box to hold them, complete with a sliding lid.

Before Himalaya, there was Marchands d’Empire. Yep, I put that one together, too. Now we’re talking quite a few pieces to cut out but I still enjoyed it and I think the board is much nicer looking than the Himalaya version.

So on Monday when I checked out Rick Thornquist’s new site and found a print and play game that is a triangle-based version of Blokus called Tricky Tiles, I fired up the printer and got out my “common household items.” Card stock, poster board, sticker paper, old cutting board, metal yardstick, scissors and a hobby knife.

I wanted the pieces to be thick enough to pick up easily so just printing on both sides of card stock wouldn’t do. No, I decided to print them on 2 pieces of card stock and use spray-on glue to put them on a piece of poster board, one on each side. This took some time but they came out almost perfectly aligned.

For a board, I’m usually satisfied to use sticker paper and make the board one big piece which I store standing up in a closet but this time I wanted to try to make a folded board. This actually turned out pretty well for a first, cheap effort using just poster board and sticker paper. My board now folds into quarters and is compact enough to fit in a box the size of the Kosmos 2-player line.

Most of the day was spent cutting out 88 small, strange-shaped pieces with a hobby knife. This is where the Motrin comes in. My back hurts from bending over the table (I’m short so sitting and leverage don’t go together); my left hand, wrist, elbow and shoulder ache from keeping pressure on the yardstick to keep it from slipping out of place; and the tip of my index finger on my right hand is numb from pushing on the knife.

Was it worth it? Yeah. I coerced Richard into trying it after supper and found it to be both tougher and easier than Blokus. The first thing that makes Tricky Tiles tougher is the strange shaped pieces with their odd angles. We spent more time placing pieces as we had to fiddle with several to get them to go where we wanted to go. Another aspect that makes it tougher is a wider choice of places you can place pieces because you can match not only outside corners but any triangle point within the piece, even along a straight edge. The many and varied pieces seem to make it easier to fill the in-between spaces but as with Blokus, get those big pieces out there early. I like that the playing area on the board changes with the number of players, reminding me of Einfach Genial (Ingenious).

I think if you’re a fan of Blokus, this would be worth your time. If we’re lucky, it’ll be picked up by a publisher so everyone can enjoy it. Until then, warm up the printer and bring out the Motrin.

I haven’t played a full game of anything this week (you may post your condolences here). By the time we sat down for Thanksgiving dinner, I was getting a headache so passed on the chance to twist arms but Richard was kind enough to play Ingenious with Chris, Jessica and her father. After that, the turkey kicked in and we all sat around watching either football or Garfield’s Thanksgiving on DVD followed by one of our favorite Christmas movies, Christmas Vacation.

I received Kreta this week, which Cori, Richard and I tried out on Sunday evening but it had been a long day and after 9 provinces, we agreed the game should be called on account of yawning. None of us were playing our best so I’ll withhold any comment until I can play it with a working brain.
Until next time, buy stock in Ziploc.


Tuesday, November 29, 2005

The Designer's Rules

In the beginning there was darkness over the land and all the world was Candyland.

And God said, "Let there be choice!" And there was choice, and each player now had two pawns, such that when they flipped a card, that player had to choose which pawn to move. And God saw that Candyland was now suitable for creatures with greater than low-grade intelligence.

And God saw that the change was simple and elegant, and was pleased. But the people were still bored.

So God said, "Give each player a hand of three cards. And each turn, the player must choose which card to play and then draw back up to three. And furthermore, the player can choose two cards of the same type to use as a wild. And the double cards will function as a double wild when combined with a single card of the same color." And the people asked God "What is this, Web of Power?" And God shuffled his feet, for the people complained so.

And God had a grand hangover from the people's complaints, yet still the people told him, "Not good enough, oh Big Fat One." And God was cranky (and I blame him not, for so would you be having to deal with such people), so God answered thus, "Let each player start his three pawns on any space of the board that they so desire, such that there be at least six spaces between each of his own pawns. Furthermore, let the last space of the board be a transporter space that can move your piece to any space on the board, except one that is occupied already by another piece of any color. Otherwise, if the pawn would continue past the end of the track not landing on this transporter space, let it continue again from the beginning. The object of the game is now to land on your opponent's pieces. Each player still has a hand of three cards, as I said before. The double cards, in contradiction to what I said before, may now be used to move backwards or forwards a single length, but two cards of the same color are still wild. The last person with a piece remaining wins. Oh, and you can play a card on your opponent's piece to make him land on a lose a turn square." And the people scratched their head and got to work figuring this mess out.

But God had not finished, because something was in his morning brownie other than chocolate. "Whenever a player lands on his own color, he may draw four more cards and discard four. And each piece color will have a name, ... uh: Grinchly Green, Baby Blue, Radical Red, and Yippeeyi Yellow. Yes. And each color will furthermore have special abilities. GG always draws back up to four cards instead of three. BB can discard his hand at the end of his turn and get a new one. RR eliminates your pawn if it lands next to your piece, not just on it. And YY can discard a card to run away if you land upon his piece if he discards a card of the same color upon which his piece is standing. Choose your color at the start of the game, or pick at random, I don't care."

And God slumped in his chair and called for a beer. And the people pushed their pawns around and so forth. Yet still they were not satisfied. And God told them to put on a tutu and work on that come-hither look. "Not that kind of dissatisfied!" they said. "This game is still half-baked!"

And God rolled up his sleeves, with an angry look in his eye. And then the people were afraid, lest they had gone too far.

"Tryest thou this," he snarled, with a mad gleam in his eye. "Further to the game as I have already described, divide the cards equally before the game starts among each player, such that each player has an equal number of each type of card. Cards played go into your discard pile. Whenever you land on a space of the same color as another player, you engage in battle with that player. If a piece is also on that space, that piece's player is automatically an ally of the defender. If that piece is the same color as the defender, that player will lose his piece if he loses the battle. Each player may invite allies. After allies have been declared, each player and ally places a card on the table face down. Flip all cards. An orange card counts as red+yellow, a purple as red+blue, and a green as blue+yellow. Colors that are duplicated an even number of times are removed from the challenge. For instance, if blue, green, and orange cards have been played, the blue cancels out the blue from the green leaving yellow. The yellow cancels out the yellow from the orange, leaving red. For another example, if three blues are played, two would cancel, leaving a blue.

"If the result is no color, the defender wins. If the result is a color, the player whose color it is wins. If no color of any player in the battle is represented, the attacker wins. If the attacker wins, the attacker and all of his allies gain a point (keep a scorepad), and the defender loses a point, if he has any. The defender's allies lose nothing. If the defender wins, the attacker loses a point and the attacker's allies lose nothing, but the defender and all allies gain two cards from the deck.

"Pink cards may only be played by the attacker or defender. If only one of them plays a pink card, that player loses, but gets the other player's hand. If both play a pink card, the allies get nothing, each of them gets a point, may move one of their pieces to any location on the board, and may discard their hands and pick back up to three cards.

"When a player needs to pick from his deck and there are no cards, shuffle his discard pile to make a new deck.

"Also, instead of either moving and/or attacking during his turn, a player may instead place a combination of two cards down in front of him. A player may only have two combinations of such cards in front of him at any time in such a manner. During a player's turn, they may play this card combination at the appropriate time, in addition to taking their turn. Once played, the cards are discarded. The combinations are as follows:

RR - Add a red to the attack after cards are revealed.
RB - Play another card this turn.
RY - Switch two pieces on the board.
RG - Switch hands with any player.
RO - Nuke. Drop one of these cards from a height of at least two feet off the board. Any pieces hit are eliminated from the game. Leave the card on the table. Spaces covered are out of the game.
RP - Return one of your pieces eliminated from the game to play.
RPi - Change your opponent's card to a pink before cards are revealed.

BB - Add a blue to the attack after cards are revealed.
BY - Skip your turn. Take two turns next time it is your turn.
BG - Place the green card on the board next to any one space, under any pieces. Pieces in this area are in a safe zone until it is your turn again.
BO - Look at any player's hand before starting your turn.
BP - Force an alliance.
BPi - Change your own card to a pink before cards are revealed.

YY - Add a yellow to the attack after cards are revealed.
YG - Mix together everyone's hands and return to each player the same number of cards.
YO - Return a player's pawn to the start square.
YP - Switch the card you played with one from your hand after cards are revealed.
YPi - Change both player's cards to pink before cards are revealed.

GG - Add a green to the attack after cards are revealed.
GO - Place both of the cards across the path in two different locations without distrubing any pieces. No player may cross this point until any one player discards a card of the same color.
GP - Force a player to change his played card after cards have been revealed with another card from his hand.
GPi - All players must discard all pink cards.

OO - Add an orange to the attack after cards are revealed.
OP - Return all pieces eliminated from the game to the start location.
OPi - All players must play pink cards, if they are able.

PP - Add a purple to the attack after cards are revealed.
PPi - Search through every player's discard pile, take a pink card into your hand, replacing it with the purple.

PiPi - Gain a point."

And God looked at what he had done, laughed evilly, and went off to his game group. And thus it was proved that every game can be improved [some versions say: mangled] to look like Cosmic Encounter.


Monday, November 28, 2005


Seeing as how I'm in the throes of moving from a largish house on a fair sized piece of land to a way downsized rental house with only a single car garage for storage, I've been a bit pressed for both gaming time as well as writing time over the last 7 days.

Add to that the bonus of a cranky ex-girlfriend who's so used to having it her own way that she is once again proving my philosophy of both gaming and life... which is:

No good deed goes unpunished

Perhaps I shouldn't have knocked off that extra $25K on the sale price of Mosquito Acres to her and her parents. Oh well, I never claimed to be particularly smart, just straightforward.

But onwards to something game oriented that I have taken note of over the last 25 or 30 years and which has been highlighted, proven and polished to excess on I call it The Highlander Effect.

Basically, The Highlander Effect goes like this; Gamer plays game. Gamer has fun with game. Gamer gets excited about game. Gamer's intellect, ego, self-image, id, libido, worldview and everything else that can be added is defined (in his or her view) by the game, mainly because Gamer seems to do well at the game. Effectively, said game becomes "The One." As in, "There can be only one", from the really terrible, and therefore highly fan-driven, Highlander movies and TV series.

Boardgamegeek is a boiling cauldron of arguments, threads, flames, mathematical formulas, assaults and onslaughts that take The Highlander Effect to dizzying heights. The previous genres I noticed this in back in the 80's and 90's were D&D and MTG. But since there is no site I'm aware of that does for CCG's and RPG's what BGG does for board games... which is throw several thousand over-active egos into the electronic dimension and give them a forum for rating games and then defending their ratings... the Geeks of board games have taken The Highlander Effect into uncharted territory.

For proof I give you Puerto Rico, and now it's equally ugly step-sister, Caylus. I would be willing to bet you a date with my recently ex'd girlfriend that when Caylus reaches the #1 spot on BGG that major Highlander warfare will erupt. And why not? If a gamer has spent hundreds of hours playing a game and then hundreds of additional hours defending the game online, it's unlikely that gamer will suddenly cede his or her contention that Puerto Rico is THE ONE to any other game... ever.

But there are many other games that suffer from this effect, I wrote about one last week. Age of Steam versus Railroad Tycoon has sparked numerous threads and the AOS defenders are thicker than flies on horseshit, staunchly defending AOS with what I consider fairly dense and even laughable points. Such as: AOS doesn't have as much chance as RRT. Huh? Fer Chrissakes! You roll the dice, six of them, every round. Bad roll? No product. No product? No income increase. No income, bad for victory conditions. And then there's the boring auction defense of AOS vs. RRT which proclaims that AOS auctions -- which are a snooze-fest to start with -- are better than the the equally unexciting RRT auctions. Well I'm sorry to bust anyone's bubble, but auctions in any game that is played by unexciting, fearful, cheap and terrified players are boring.

In a recent game, attended by a fellow BGG'er Jon and his son, I claimed a vital route from Raliegh to Atlanta for 8 points (roughly the margin I won that game by) one turn before Jon could claim the route. He was kicking himself for "letting me have it easily". Yeah, sure. When we were BS'ing about the game afterwards I pointed out that there were five players in the game and only two of use were actually bidding for starting player the first 7 or 8 rounds. I further pointed out that had he been bidding at all, he could have claimed that route one action before me. Jon is certainly no dummy and he pretty much said that he saw that Shaun and I were much more aggressive bidders and he wasn't.

The point? AOS and RRT both have auctions. AOS is more restrictive, RRT is more open-ended. Winning either game's auction can be what determines your final tally. So if you want to win, you ought to think about bidding. Anything else is too passive a gaming style to be competitive in games with auction mechanics.

Have I digressed?

Right. Back on point. I personally feel that RRT is an evolution and also an improvement on an excellent game. By my reckoning, it's better in almost every regard. It's deeper, it allows more freedoms -- and therefore requires much finer control as a player -- it's got hidden elements and a flexibility in track-building and product delivery that it's older brother doesn't have. It's so much more attractive that only people who think Hillary Clinton is a "hot number" would choose AOS over it for presentation. And, it's much easier on novice players due to it's more open architecture and switchable strategies. Not to mention, it's less prone to "take that" moves that are all too cheap and easy to employ in AOS.

So, I pronounce RRT a better, deeper and more flexible game than it's predecessor. Which will likely cause a number of gamers suffering from The Highlander Effect to shake their heads and wonder what it is I missed.

Back when I role-played, about 20 years or so ago, I found other systems superior to D&D. Many gamers tried to correct me. Just as the 1st Edition fans correct the 2nd Editon fans who correct the 3rd Edition fans. Same goes with MTG. There are definitely better CCG's out there than MTG, but the defenders will defend no matter what. Most won't even try many other CCG's and some will try them only to discover why they aren't as good as MTG.

Wanna know what I think?

I think lots of games are good. MTG is a good game, so is D&D. No doubt Caylus is too. AOS is good and I also like 7-card Stud better than Texas Hold 'Em and I like Formula De better than Speed Circuit. But I'll play them all and most likely I'll lose a few and win a few. Just like in Puerto Rico or in my somewhat questionable choices in female companions.

Hmmmm.... I'll get back to you on the "win a few" part when it comes to romance. Perhaps "There is only One" in that department and I just barely missed her 32 years ago when I arrived at a party 20 minutes late. Well, whatever, she probably hasn't aged well and has now added 200 pounds and 5 unruly kids to her life, along with a husband that makes Homer Simpson look cultured and urbane. Or maybe I'm thinking of one of my ex's, there was that one who did add 200 pounds and a clutch of squawking brats not 5 years after we parted company.

Anyway, back to games.

My whole point here is that there really isn't "Only One". There are just too many good games out there to ever truly determine that any specific game is somehow better than another game if both are really, really good to begin with. Games are all about who you play them with and the mechanics and clarity of play, along with other elitist traits like "weight" and "elegance" only matter if the group you're playing the game with is somehow focused on those traits above other positives aspects of the game. I've played several thousand games in my lifetime and hope to play that many others before the Great Pale offers up it's door to me. Looking back at the images, sounds and emotions of thousands of game sessions with as many different people, I personally could never be so frickin' self-centered as to declare any particular game as THE ONE.

I will offer this though, to those who are utterly convinced that such a thing as THE ONE exists... there are what I think should be called defining moments in gaming. Specific sessions, people, interaction and environment that all combine just the right mixture and the perfect qualities and generate a memorable experience. And if you can sustain those elements, keeping them all in play over a series of game sessions, then you could easily be convinced that it's the game that made the experience. And you might mistakenly think that that game is truly The Highlander of all games.

Of course if you did that, you'd have immediately reduced yourself to a slobbering fanboy and I wouldn't trust your lousy judgement on a printed bus schedule, much less a game.

If Caylus never reaches #1, or if it does get there but fails to inspire lively defense from the Puerto Rico Cult, I'll be happy to set you up with that date I offered earlier. My recent ex is very attractive and I would only suggest that you bring a suitcase full of money, some tie-downs and WD-40 for her brood, a set of jumper cables for her vehicles, earplugs, manure rake and possibly a bottle of anti-depressants. That last item will be for you.

In the meantime, I think I'll go home and mix a drink, see what Tivo has for me and savor my recent Railroad Tycoon victory... thanks to that Raleigh/Atlanta route card.

Sunday, November 27, 2005

NEWS of the Day

There have been several developments that have transpired since I commenced to begin writing this today, such as the creation of the "BoardGameNews" site with Rick Thornquist as the managing editor on that! For many, then this is a welcome 'relief' as it keeps the ole 'Rickster' upon the ''gaming scene'' for their reading fulfillment requirements. I'll place the LINK to that here as well, while we should be soon adding that upon our ''site LINKs'' here too:

You may have to 'copy & paste' that for the time being as I'm not certain if this LINK will show up for 'clicky' response once I've 'published' this entry. I wish the folks over there on the 'site' the very BEST regards for this, as I'm certain that others join with me in this sentiment. If I'm not mistaken, then they may even be taking 'content' contributions from plenty of other 'authors', with considerations given for those who have a decided 'preference' by others.

The next 'item' on this subject is a ''call-out'' for some 'Playtesters' to aid the folks at the ''Deer Valley Game Company'' with their upcoming release of ''The Gettysburg Campaign'' game! It is based upon the BLOCK-style of games and looks very impressive for this 'effort', while not too many 'Battle Campaign' games in this genre are currently available. This appears to be akin to the ''Napoleon'' game in its presentation, with a few NEW 'twists' provided in it that will distinguish itself from any others. Here's the LINK to their site then:

As I mentioned before, then you may have to 'copy & paste' that IF it doesn't become 'clicky' here. It'll certainly be a welcomed 'addition' to these sorts of GAMEs, while providing yet another ''feather in their cap'' for those folks as well. These are the 'guys' who also created their ''SQUARES-the Civil War Battle Game'', and if you check into them further, then you'd also take note that there are some VARIANT articles and 'addendum' for other games that they've done too.

Now, on to my 'own' announcement about the creation of the ''GLOGs''!
While this will mean: ''a Gaming Log'' and is a 'means' for doing just that! I've created the first of these on its seperate 'locale' with several 'items' in that for the time being. I expect other GAME additions for this when I can provide them, and it is a great method to 'display' YOUR own 'playings' in this fashion! Here's the LINK then, with the same 'precaution' about its 'clickyness':

Those shown on the 'site' provide just about ALL that you'll need to know about them, IF you're already familiar with the basic GAME that they are based upon. There could even become actual ''Boardgames'' created from THIS, with the 'right' amount of motivation from many others who'd care for such. The GAME 'bits' are even STILL being produced by ''XENO'' of Canada, while with enough persuasion, then maybe they'll put together an entire SET of theirs for others to use in these shown so far. I have several other 'notions' that I'm entertaining, as well as what I've created thus far, and when I believe those to be ready in ''consummation'' for 'display' purposes, then I'll provide them as well.

Friday, November 25, 2005

The View from the Fifth Floor

I've found myself drawn to Knizia's Palazzo lately, and have been studying the rules, playing solo games, and trying to figure out what makes the game tick. Naturally there's something to see on a superficial level, namely the little puzzle of how best to go about constructing buildings given a specific situation and the trade-off between shooting for many easy buildings or fewer hard building with more bonus VPs, but is that what the game is really about? Certainly that alone is nothing to catapult a jaded gamer out of his armchair and into his FLGS. I've found, however, that there is a slightly deeper, more subtle level to the game, and I'm hoping that I'll be able to express what that is here.

What is interesting about Palazzo from a design standpoint is that it turns most of the familiar qualities of the auction mechanism on their head. The current trend in auction games is that of tighter and tighter finances, even to the extreme case of a game like Industria where shortness of funds essentially prevents players from being able to execute any long-term strategy. In most of these games the trick is to correctly evaluate the worth of an item or items up for sale, gauge the interest of the other players, and try to either secure the item at or below fair market value or make another player pay more for the item than it is worth. Palazzo, on the other hand, gives us the opposite situation: money is quite easy to come by; in fact it falls right into your lap when another player chooses to take cash, and in certain funny circumstances your finances might improve more than the active player if he leaves you a card that allows you to meld into a fifteen-point group.

One might imagine, then, that the pressure is instead to have sufficient money to acquire particularly valuable lots as they come up for auction, and certainly this is the case to some degree; a fifth matching floor for a palazzo made up of one material is no small amount of points. However, it is the players themselves who choose when the auctions happen; as some have correctly pointed out, all the players in the game could decide to do nothing but take money until the pile was gone, and the tiles currently up for grabs would patiently sit and wait for them. Moreover, the three-gold certificate is not such an overwhelming advantage to the auctioneer that there is a significant trade-off between calling the auction yourself and letting others do it for you.

In order to understand what's really going on in Palazzo, one has to make note of three things: first, there's only so many tiles that a player can buy in one turn (three is the maximum, in fact); second, it is important to acquire both the early tiles and the late ones; and third, it is possible for players to sidestep the auctions entirley. What this means is that a certain nebulous opportunity cost must be factored into every purchase, and also that the game is not about precise evaluation but rather staying ahead of the pace of acquisitions in the game.

Up to this point I've been talking about Palazzo in terms of an auction game, as this is how it is usually described by the drive-by reviewers (as they seem to take a certain pleasure in writing "do we really need another auction game from Herr Knizia?"), but actually it's not quite so, for players can simply buy tiles from the building supply instead. Certainly one is also populating the quarries for the hoarders in doing so, but only up to a point. What is important here is one particular rule, presented in the rulebook as if it were a bit of fiddliness to take care of aberrant situations, and one which I confess didn't fully sink in until the third read-through. Here it is: "Exception: if there are four or more building tiles on the quarry with the master builder, these are not auctioned. Instead, the players do the following: the player whose turn it is takes one of the tiles and builds it. Then the others follow in clockwise order, each taking one of these tiles and building with it. After each player has taken one building tile, the players place any remaining tiles on that quarry face down in the box." What this means is that if the players are being threatened by one or more opponents collecting money and waiting for the auctioning to start, they can dodge the auctions, and the quarries will eventually fill up to the point where all the tiles will just be handed out evenly when an auction finally is called.

Tiles being handed out to opponents or being chucked back into the box is particularly devastating to hoarders because one cannot make up for buying nothing in the early game by buying double one's share in the late game. The building tiles are distributed among the three stacks in such a way that lower floors come first and higher floors come later, and this is done not just to make it easier for players to build valid structures but to ensure that players pace themselves, because in order to get the juicy bonuses a player's palazzo needs both a penthouse and a lobby.

With all this in mind, it seems to me that what Palazzo is really about is not so much commodity evaluation as outpacing your opponents in acquisition, which means always knowing where you are in relation to your opponents in terms of money and points. Finding opportunities to get ahead, noticing when your competition is unusually rich or unusually poor and then acting accordingly, keeping the pressure on in terms of pace, holding a cash reserve so that no one else can get too good of a deal in the auctions, and even being aware of what tiles are likely to come down the pike next are the subtleties of game play that elevate Palazzo above the luckfest that some have taken it for.

I'll also mention that the comments that the game's mechanisms are unoriginal are off the mark. I've never heard of another game which has a rondelle mechanism for populating and auctioning lots in the way that Palazzo does, though of course I haven't played everything. The three suits plus limited melding also creates an interesting effect where one's finances have a fun and unpredictable fluctuation about them.

The only problem with all this is that Palazzo is a game that is so subtle—in some way the anti-gamer's gamer's game in that it is not quite a luckfest yet it is unsolvable to the degree that it may require more intuition than analysis—that it has a complex, epicurean feel to it which is not what necessarily leaps to mind when someone thinks about what it means to play a game. If High Society is a buffalo wing and Taj Mahal a filet mignon, Palazzo is a really kick-ass risotto.

Still, I'm not quite sure what to make of it overall. I'd need more actual playings to really come to a decision on where it stands within the Knizia canon. However, while I might understand why someone may feel that it doesn't grab one by the collar and give one a good shaking, I still think that those who are dismissing the outing with a wave of their hand are letting their haste get the better of them.

Black Friday/Advanced Civ

Here's hoping all of you had a good Thanksgiving. Even you foreigners who aren't familiar with Thanksgiving, and Canadians, who celebrate it on the wrong day.

That brings us to my least favorite day of the year, the day after Thanksgiving. In America today is the biggest, busiest shopping day of the year, the oldies channel switches to non-stop Christmas music, and I start arguing with Dame Coldfoot about when to put up the Christmas tree.


The only bright spot is the annual Advanced Civilization game. The plan is to start today at 10:00 a.m. and play until it is over. If the game gets over before midnight we will play a couple other games. Those of you familiar with Advanced Civ are shaking your head, but it is a possibility. The last game of Advanced Civ lasted less than 8 hours. With no timers, I might add.

The winning strategy in our group is well known, but hard to implement. The key to winning is to start with a civilization far from Walt and Bruno (Bruno Sinigaglio to those of you grognards who might know him). About 1/2 way into the game Walt and Bruno get bored and start attacking their neighbors. If those two start adjacent to each other it is much easier on everyone else, but when the game is 3/4 done they both realize they are losing and team up with no purpose other than to cause havoc.

Good times. I can hardly wait.

I have been waiting 18 months to try it, but today I will implement Cavedog's card buying strategy, and report back. I do note that Nate Sandall (Cavedog) doesn't allow for the possibility of sitting next to Walt or Bruno. I may need to modify the strategy to allow for defense against repeated, pointless attacks. Road Building and the Religious advances may play a more important role when facing an opponent who has lost all interest in winning the game.

I also think Nate underestimates the Architecture advance. Being able to pay to build cities out of the treasury is an important advance if you are one of the leaders, and I plan on leading. It also makes calamities much easier to deal with. With Architecture you can easily recover from most calamities, even multiple calamities, in the next round. The Civil War calamity is still a problem, but Civil War is a problem whether or not you have Architecture.

To effectively implement the strategy I suspect I will need to bring a cheat-sheet. Notes are allowed in Civ, aren't they? Doesn't matter. No one playing the game will read this blog until after the game. Most of the people who will be there aren't blog readers anyway.

I've heard of another Civilization strategy that I have never had the opportunity to use for various reasons. It will only work with certain civilizations, and I suspect it is a strategy better suited to regular Civilization due to the limit on number of cards you can hold. But, it goes something like this;

Do not build any cities until you can comfortably build three cities. This may mean not progressing on the progress track for a turn. The next turn build 2 more cities.

This will leave you with a 1, 2, and 3 commodity from the first turn and a 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5 commodity from the second turn. That leaves you with a total of eight commodities, the maximum hand size going into the next round. You can trade if you like, there is little chance of drawing a calamity so early in the game.

You will theoretically get 5 more commodities in the next round, and you may be able to found another city or two giving you a couple more commodities. You will have a good hand of at least 13 cards with which to trade and relatively few of those cards will be 1s and 2s. With so many cards to trade early on, you should be able to snag a couple higher value advances early in the game.

This strategy can be adapted to certain civilizations in desert areas (such as Africa) as follows;

Do not build any cities until you can build two. Build one more city on the next turn. Build nothing on the next turn. You will now have the maximum of eight cards, and have (probably) not missed a chance to move up the progress chart. On the next turn build two more cities or even 3 if you can. You will have a lot of 1 and 2 commodities, but you will probably be able to trade off your 4 and 5 commodities for two or three low cards each. With good trades you can end up with a pile of low cards. The exponential value of cards will lead to a good payoff, and, like I said, you shouldn't get held up on the progress chart.

I am more skeptical of that strategy than Cavedog's, but I suppose it sounds alright on its face. It does seem like it is a strategy better suited to regular Civilization, no?

And way down here. Way at the bottom. I will add a small contest to this blog. One geek gold to the person who posts a comment correctly answering this question: How is the value of commodity sets calculated in Civilization?

For example, one "1" value card is worth one point. If you have six "1" cards they are worth thirty-some-odd points. One "2" card is worth two points, six "2" cards are worth seventy-some-odd points.

Happy Thanksgiving Weekend,

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Five Games I'm Thankful For: '05

Happy Thanksgiving to all you Americans. Since I have the misfortune to post on Thanksgiving Day proper, I figure there's only a few dozen of you reading, max (and that only thanks to the International nature of the Internet), and so I've decided to go with a pretty light & fluffy topic this week: five games I'm thankful for.

They're not necessarily the best games I've played, nor even the games that I've played most, but in various ways they've made me happy over the years. When I've reviewed the game in question, I also included a link to my review over at RPGnet. Go check that out for some more thoughts on the game in question.

#1: The Settlers of Catan

The Settlers of Catan gets a lot of respect as a gateway game, and guess what, it was my gateway into the Euro-gaming field. I'd known about Settlers for years. Heck, I even had a copy of the original Mayfair edition, but it didn't get played nearly as much as Wiz-War, Titan: The Arena (another fine American release as far as I knew), or Mystic War. It was an odd and quaint amusement. I'm not even sure when or why I bought it!

Then 2002 came around, and I started making plans at work to design a new online strategy game using an underlying code base that we'd already developed for a game called Galactic Emperor: Hegemony. It was to be a real-time science-fiction game of trade & commodities.

"You should play some trade games", my boss said, and he suggested The Settlers of Catan as an obvious first step. What followed was several months of fighting with our poorly run local game store (a topic for next week), trying to get them to stock the various Settlers supplements. Most I got piece-by-piece, but the historical supplements I had to purchase from Mayfair direct, at GenCon. My group and I played through Settlers, then Seafarers, then Cities & Knights. We even tried out Canaan and of course the official historical supplements. Afterward I moved into other trade games like Res Publica and Bohnanza and by that point I was fully invested in the German scene.

I've been recording my games played at BGG since October, 2003. In that time I've played almost a thousand games, and only about half-a-dozen of them were Settlers. Nonetheless I remain thankful for it getting me into the hobby which has given me many hours of enjoyment over the last few years.

#2: Scrabble

On March 12, 1999, my not-yet-wife and I went out on first date. We'd been working out together for a few weeks due to a friend-in-common, but this time our friend-inc-commo had been busy, but we decided to work out anyway. Afterward we figured, hey, why not hang out some more. We wandered to a very distant Thai restaurant, and afterward went to the Albatross, a cute little bar that's renowned for the fact that it has board games that you can borrow while drinking.

So we got a couple of ciders and a game of Scrabble. We played hard and in the end I beat her by a single point. That was clearly kismet, and a sure sign of our compatible interests and intelligences.

In the weeks and months that followed, Scrabble was a serious part of our courtship, played quite regularly. By the time we moved in together, at the end of the summer, we had three copies of the game, one regular copy that had been at my house, one that had been at hers, and a deluxe copy that we'd bought at some time, with larger pieces and a lazy susan. All three copies are still about the house that we now live in.

Scrabble is another game that has fallen off over the years. When we want to play a word game, we usually play her favorite, which is Boggle, because if we end up playing one of my favorites instead ... well that isn't Scrabble anymore (nolstalgia aside).

#3: Mystery Rummy

By the end of 2003, Kimberly and I did still play games of various types. Scrabble, Boggle, The Ungame, Loaded Questions, Scattergories, and A to Z were the ones that got pulled out with the most frequency. However in late 2003 I was also delving even further into These Games of Ours. In October I received an order from funagain (having by now given up on that poorly run local game store) and it contained Mystery Rummy #1: Jack the Ripper.

It was the first of several packages that I received over the next several months which contained games that I thought Kimberly would like, and it was also the first success. We played the bejeezus out of Jack the Ripper and later the other games in that series. This is yet another game that we don't play much any more, though I bet we do again when #5 comes out.

It was also yet another gateway game, but this one opened up my wife to share in at least some fraction of the deeper, more strategic games that I'd discovered.

#4: Memoir '44

Though my wife enjoys playing games, and though she's grown quite fond of Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne, Mystery Rummy, Alhambra, and a few others, she's often quite resistant to learning new games. I, meanwhile, have a constant desire for newness.

Enter Memoir '44. It's a two-player war-game, and I never would have bought it on my own, because I couldn't have imagined Kimberly enjoying it. But I got it as a review copy from Days of Wonder, and Kimberly was even kind enough to agree to play it, because she knew I needed to write a review. Much to my surprise, she liked it quite a bit.

To date we've played 32 games over the last year and a half. It satisfies Kimberly's desire to keep playing the same old thing and it satisfies my desire to keep playing something new (as I wrote about in a previous article).

We've played Ticket to Ride more, ditto Carcassonne if you count up all the variants, but it's this one that continues to be the most fun.

#5: El Grande

We offer talk about "gateway" games, which help players get into the hobby, but we don't pay nearly as much attention to another category of games, those which help open up the hobby for us, to show us the depths of possibility, the real tactics and real strategy that can be found here. These are transformative games, which change the way we play.

"Stairway" games, "mineshaft" games, I'm not really sure what to call them. For many people, I suspect this game is Puerto Rico. For me it was El Grande. It offered up much more intricate, rich, and strategic gameplay than I'd seen before in games like Settlers (which is light) and Res Publica (which is short), and thus it became one of my models for what I wanted to see in new games.

I've only played it face-to-face a half-dozen times. It's too long & too big to get dragged down to my local game store very often. If I looked now I could see some cracks in the game's facade, like how easy it is for an early leader to get absolutely pummelled. But it still remains one of my must-plays, a game that I won't turn down unless time constraints disallow its play.

Your Turn

What's your Settlers? What's your El Grande?

What games are you thankful for?

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The Teacher Gets and "F"

Friday my son, Chris, and his girlfriend, Jessica, came over and after a game of Ingenious, I brought out Hansa to teach them. Jessica doesn’t really enjoy games and has said a couple of times that she likes Trivial Pursuit, a game I find dead boring and a waste of way too much time, so my goal has been to find simple yet challenging games that she will enjoy playing. She liked Ingenious enough to request it on this night but it isn’t a game that I want to play and play and play, hence the shot at Hansa.

Once I’d laid out the pieces and started explaining the relationship between buying goods/selling goods and the markets I realized that it doesn’t actually sound that simple and this thought was echoed by Jessica who said, “You said this was going to be simple.”

“I know it sounds complicated now but it’ll be clearer when you see how it works,” I replied with my fingers crossed.

Now I know from experience that just because you gave all the rules, doesn’t mean they all sank in, especially with non-gamers, because there’s nothing to relate the rules to until you’ve seen it in action. My solution for this is to point out how the game works while it’s in progress.

“If you move there, you can pick up the good for free since you have the majority of markets.”

“If you move there, you can sell those goods which means Richard loses his good—it’s out of the game.”

“You can only sell goods where you have a market so it’s good to have them spread out around the board.”

This is how the teacher’s mind is focused: help Jessica “get it” so she enjoys it and won’t mind playing again. Add to this the fact that Chris has a tendency to analyze each move to within an inch of its life so we were doing a lot of talking and laughing and maybe you’ll understand why, in the middle of the game on Jessica’s turn, I look over and see that she has NINE gold to spend this turn. Danger, danger, Will Robinson! Now I finally look at the big picture and do an assessment of the board and realize that she has the majority in 5 cities while Chris has 2 and Richard and I have 1 each. We’ve been buying goods from her the whole round and she’s going to kill us if we can’t get some markets out there. Unfortunately, she has 4 or 5 markets in a couple of cities which is hard to beat and at this point the board has a scattering of chits, mostly 1 and 2 barrel which isn’t very helpful because it’s going to cost me all my gold just to pick one up. Can you say, “Deep doo-doo”?

Desperation set in and I found myself spending a pair of goods with 2 and 3 barrels on them to build markets (oh, the pain, the pain) and even skipping a couple of turns since the only thing I could do was pick up a 1 goods chit which I would have to buy from Jessica. In the end it was just too late and we had let Jessica get the upper hand. The final scores were Me-30, Richard-35, Chris-38 and Jessica with an impressive 50.

On the plus side, I don’t think it will be too hard to convince Jessica to play it again. Then the teacher will stay home and the gamer will sit in her place.

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving Day here in America—a day we gather with our family and friends, taking time from our hectic lives to relax and remember all that we have to be thankful for. We watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with it’s giant balloons in the shapes of cartoon characters; singers and dancers, marching bands and finally Santa Claus. We eat turkey and stuffing, yams and cranberry sauce, potatoes and gravy and maybe that green bean casserole with the crunchy deep-fried onions on the top, and finish up with a piece of pumpkin pie. We watch football games, and talk and laugh with the ones we love.

Both of my children will be here, which is an unusual occurrence, along with Jessica and her father and Chris’ little dog, Bart—a Pomeranian-Dachshund mix who loves playing with our Corgi, Tucker. The cats will be in hiding, wondering why all these people have invaded their quiet and why that little dog keeps showing up and wanting to play with them. Whether we play a game or not isn’t important. It’s the time together, sharing the day, that’s important.

I wish you all a wonderful, noisy, laughing, loving Thanksgiving.


Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Gaming Risks

This thread discusses the hazards of trying to import a game with nazi symbols on it into Germany. Can't say that I blame the guy for feeling frustrated, but I can't say that I blame the custom officials or German laws, either.

My own group refused to play a game (Origins of World War II) simply because it had a picture of Hitler on the cover.

This leads to the deeper yet gingerly ignored issue of violent games in general. Games about killing, especially games depicting symbology of real-world evils and horrors, are not fun to some people. In fact, they are highly offensive to some people. Like violent video games, they don't lead to violent behavior (necessarily), but they do desensitize us to violence.

Isn't it possible that when we play games about raping, pimping, beating up women and children, slaughtering innocent bystanders, shooting cops, etc. that we don't work as hard to solve these problems in the real world, because we have gotten blase about them?

Is anything sacrilige? Is everything relative? Is censorship the only evil? Is it possible to make critical decisions without generalizing about slippery slopes?


Monday, November 21, 2005

GAME STORE CONFIDENTIAL ~ Why Railroad Tycoon is Like a Topless Dancer

It's late Sunday evening and I'm feeling pretty tired from two back-to-back games of Railroad Tycoon. Since RRT hit the streets I've played it about seven times. At least 12 or so locals have learned the rules, the store is sold out of copies and it currently occupies the majority of the headspace I've allotted to thinking about games.

When RRT came out for the pc I had the same experience. Also when RRT 2 came out. RRT 3 didn't create that same inner need for compulsively gaming, so I removed it from my pc, reloaded RRT 2 and played it some more.

I'm beginning to see a pattern here. I latch on to a game and then play it until I'm done playing it. Then I put it away, sometimes for a year or two and sometimes never to open it again. I did this with Settlers of Catan, I did it with Bang!, I did it with Empire Builder, I did it with Magic: The Gathering, with Dungeons & Dragons, with Wolfpack, with Fortress America and so forth and so on, ad nasuem.

I'd almost say I'm exhibiting addictive behaviour, except that I know that almost every man, woman and child who counts "board games" as one of their hobbies does the same thing. So we're not addicted, we're fans. If there were less of us and people looked at us with disdain, crossed the street when they saw us coming and muttered under their breath about street crime and wasted youth, then we would be addicts. We're not addicts. We're fans.

So what is it about a game like Railroad Tycoon that instills the desire to play again and again and again? And why didn't I get that feeling after finally completing a game of World In Flames? And why did I totally burn out on Puerto Rico after 6 or 7 plays and was only able to open the game up without feeling queasy and sick until at least a year after my quick romance with it? Why are most war games so frickin' unapproachable? And while they are often high quality experiences, most of us need to do something else for a while, gamewise, before we crack open War in the Pacific for a repeat play.

To answer my own questions, I think games like RRT and Ticket to Ride and many other popular games have several things going for them that hit a sweet spot in most gamers.

* Accessibility

Most of the games I've developed this sort of behaviour towards are relatively easy to learn and teach. They require very little in the way of arcane thought processes to a novice or brand new gamer. This quality gives the game a much wider audience.

* Speed of play

Most of these games play fast with very little down-time between your turns.

* Attractive

For the most part, and you have to allow for some leeway here in terms of personal tastes and the era of the game, the games are visually appealing before and during play. Railroad Tycoon is no slouch in this department. And even the humble little $10 Bang! feels good and has a presentation that suits the subject matter.

* Hope

Usually a game that inpires this level of willingness to play repeatedly doesn't leave the player feeling like they can't win. Typically you can always post-mortem a session and see how to approach the game even better next time. Which means you want to play again right now and try your plan out.

* Chance

Almost every game that has gotten into my gut this way has a chaotic side to it. You don't feel programmed and that strikes a chord in the majority of human beings. Having a sense that unseen events, a turn of the cards or a risk taken might just be exploited and fall into cadence with your march to victory is very alluring.

Looking these five qualities over it's apparent these may not be the qualities of the top ten or even top twenty-five rated games on websites like, but they certainly are the qualities of many games that sell extremely well and that appeal to the vast majority of people who are inclined to spend time and money playing board games.

Upon closer inspection, they also fit right in with the things I look for in a woman.

Hmmm... they also seem to be the qualities I look for in my personal choice of cars and motorcycles.

I'm sensing a pattern here.

My old buddy Mike Johnson, who, while working at my store, was awarded the coveted Employee of the Month status for three weeks running, often comments on this blog and challenges me to a round of Renegade Legion. Sorry Mike, Renegade Legion is like an old girlfriend, she was fun when I was young, but now I know way too much about her laundry, her psychiatrist, her family and why she holds me forever in contempt. I could no more get a thrill out of kicking your ass again in that game than I could in dating my 9th grade sweetheart now that she's fifty.

Which leads me to the firm belief that the games that have these five qualities tend to be short term fixations. And that may answer the question as to why Puerto Rico and a few other unalterably boring, scripted and visually unappealing games remain so highly rated. They usually require way too much cerebral activity and not enough Yee-ha! activity. They aren't sexy. But they are durable, reliable and satisfying when brought out in the right company.

What I'm suggesting here is that games that don't have these five qualities require too much work to extract the same level of uninterrupted enjoyment from. They're good, of that you can be sure, but they're not really that much fun.

Which, now that I look closely at it, my choices in games, women and vehicles usually has a lot more to do with Yee-Ha! than it does sensible spending and quiet evenings sipping chai tea with a couple of IT goobers who don't like to be interrupted by conversation while they're selecting a building in a boring game depicting the enslavement and abuse of half the population of Africa and the eventual exploitation of them on a fetid little island off the coast of Florida that had little more to offer than commodities, cockroaches and really good baseball players.

Yes, I will play Puerto Rico and yes, I will play Europe Engulfed (to mention two different types of games that rate highly), but no, I won't play them instead of Railroad Tycoon. At least not right now anyway. Why would I willingly drive a 1987 Buick when I can choose to drive a new Corvette? Why would I date someone's spinster sister when I am getting fluttering eyelash semaphore from the former topless dancer and massage therapist swaying drunkenly at the end of the bar?

Wow. I think I just figured it out. Now I know why I get this almost irrepressible desire to repeatedly play the "hot" new game. It's because Railroad Tycoon in very much like a former topless dancer and massage therapist who in her half-drunken state tosses me the keys to her new Porsche and says, "Okay Darlin', let's you and me go for a ride."

Whereas Puerto Rico is akin to being forced to double-date with your best friend's cousin who's visiting from Duluth and the only car available is his great aunt's 1986 Chevy Celebrity with the fuel efficient four-cylinder engine.

And the more I think about it, the less important it is to waste precious time playing the dry and themeless offerings that so many tout as superior. You have to take advantage of the situation at hand when a new Yee-Ha! game appears, enjoy the ride while it's still being offered. A fast and exciting game with twists, turns, unforseen events, wild suprises, shock, elation and adrenaline needs to be saddled and rode while it's still willing to hang out in your pasture. The bloom comes of that particular rose a lot quicker than some and I want to sniff it while it's a rose, not when it's all shrivelled and dried up.

Your buddy's cousin in Duluth? Yeah, yeah, she'll still be there next year and the Chevy Celebrity will still be snootily using less gas than the fast car. So what's the big rush? Besides which, like Puerto Rico, she started out kind of dry and shrivelled up and was never particularly exciting anyway. So I'll call her if I'm in town sometime with nothing better to do.


I also want to comment, in a half serious manner, about how excellent I think the production quality of many of the new games is. Games Like Railroad Tycoon, Descent and many other recent releases have really upped the bar on board game quality in general. Even some of the card games and lower priced games from the likes of Rio Grande Games and many others have a look, feel, smell and heft that is pleasing to those that find themselves pleased by such things.

I suspect the fact that more and more, the publishers are adding a lot of eye-candy and curb appeal to their games, but not because they think they need it to attract you to the game. I think it's because they have figured out that these factors really do expand the desirabilty of board games and that on a gut level, that's how they'll draw new players into the market.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

The latest in GAME expounding & expanding!

For some of YOU that may have taken the time and looked over a little 'workings' of mine elsewhere, then I present this HERE now, and fully available for anyone's 'purposes'. Yes, I'd finally finished THIS little 'project' and so I bring it up for ALL to partake of and use(if you want), once they've printed out and/or 'created' the necessary components for such. Just WHAT I'm going 'on' about is the "Expanded Order of Battle" for "the Russian Campaign" 2nd/3rd editions game! This was derived from many others 'efforts' in enhancing the 'game' with their ways & means for it, while I've done the 'stuff' that you do see here on that! Here they are then and you can decide for yourself what you think of it.

I tried to cover ALL of what was 'desired' and from what I'd gleaned concerning this matter over the decades, with some other considerations of my own. In case you're wondering about the duplicate "Soviet" Units, then I've provided BOTH 'sets', with one of these having 'white' SET UP numbers, and another with 'black' ones to distinguish them from ''regular'' GAME counters. There's even some ''Weather'' notation markers to help keep track of that aspect, as well as some 'extra' RAIL markers in case anyone needs them. For the most part, then it IS a ''labor of love'' for such a venerable 'gaming partner' and excellent GAME overall, of mine, and for others too I'd believe. Everything regarding THIS should be 'covered' or explained enough upon the CHARTS, while you'd follow the ''regular'' game's RULES as well. I've been wanting to try this out myself and since I don't mind what little time and materials it would take to create this, then I hope others will enjoy it as much as I expect to. I'm sure there'll be some folks who need a bit more 'prodding' to convince them to give it a 'go', while I already have been 'convinced' with the notions presented here, and especially as it should provide additional 'playings' thusly.

There are many another's 'leanings' upon their ''favorite'' games, and we ALL should welcome their efforts in these regards. It doesn't necessarily mean that you HAVE to like them, but at least someone is displaying their 'devotion' for that-or some such-while providing additional musings for our collective 'amusements'.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Boardgamers - The Next Generation

This week's guest blogger is another gaming mom from America's heartland. She has been one of the premier female voices on Boardgamegeek for some time now.

Denise Patterson-Monroe's, aka Denise on BGG, comments are always worth the read. She was an easy choice for me to extend an invitation to write an article for Gone Gaming. Denise is perhaps best known for her article on writing a good game review. Those of you who have ever written a game review on Boardgamegeek may have noticed "Click here for help on writing game reviews" on the review page. Clicking will bring up Denise's timeless advice on writing a game review. I consider the fact that I wrote the first comment on that particular article to be one of my brushes-with-greatness. Of course I have no life.

BTW, I still haven't figured out how to roll the dice so they stay on the table, or to otherwise not cause a calamity with the game pieces, so if you don't want your kids to turn out like me take notes while you read this.


Survey the boardgamers you know and I bet all of them played boardgames as children. Survey all the non-gamers you know and, well, not so much, you'll find a lot more people who never played as kids. (And the people who DID play games as a kid but don't anymore are often good candidates to lure back into the fold with Ticket to Ride, but that's another topic altogether.)

But the kids! If you are interested in keeping boardgaming going for the next generation and not just relegating Settlers to being an obscure fad of the '90s, the kids are where you have to go. Drag 'em away from the X-Box and show them there is A Better Way.

Sounds easy enough - if you are a parent. And I expect most of the non-parents have skipped to the next blog by now anyway. But hang in there, non-parents! Some of you may yet become parents, and others may have nieces or nephews, some of you may be (or know) teachers, Sunday school teachers - even for non-parents, there are lot of ways we can reach out to the Youth of Today. Dare to be the fun grownup at the next inter-generational gathering you attend!!

Now there are lots of articles that list good games to play with kids. That's not where I'm going with this. Kid games come and go, as do regular Euros, so anything I list could be out of print next year. This is a strategy article. I'll list some specific examples, sure, but only for illustration - you can apply these basic principles to a great number of games.

Where to begin? Depends on the age of the child. Once they are seven or eight or so, you really have no problems. Pull out your standard gateway games, get 'em into Carcassonne and you can go from there pretty easily. But honestly, an eight year old who has never played games, or only played roll and move games, may not 'get it'. Hopefully they will, but ideally you want to lay the foundation at an earlier age.

That's right, start 'em young! As soon as they are old enough to not eat the pieces is the right age. For the youngest, look for games that are extremely simple. In fact, don't think of gaming with this age as gaming at all - think of it as introducing basic game mechanics. I've played Snail's Pace Race with kids as young as two (watch them closely to make sure they don't eat the dice!). Keep in mind toddlers have to be taught EVERYTHING, including how to shake and roll the dice, and how to move the pieces one space at a time. This is actually a good opportunity - we've all played with people who can't roll dice without rolling at least one of them off the table, teach them how to roll properly at age two or three and it won't be an issue later.

A couple other things to look for in the very first game you introduce to a very young child. Colorful, high quality bits are good. Not only are they more attractive for the little 'un, (always keeping in mind you don't want the kid to eat the pieces!), but you'll be competing with the video games sooner than you think. Length of game is important too - no more than fifteen minutes for the youngest set when you are first introducing game, and even shorter is better. Candyland is a HORRIBLE game in this regard, goes on WAY too long for what it is.

Non-competitive or less competitive games are good too - yes, we need to teach the budding gamer to be a good sport, but that can come after you show them how FUN games are. Remember, at this age you aren't really teaching them to game, you are teaching them pre-gaming skills. Sportsmanship isn't going to happen at age three. You can (and MUST) demonstrate it yourself, but don't expect it of them yet. If you start demonstrating sportsmanship to a very young child, you are giving them a model that they can draw on later when they are a little more mature. They will need MANY reminders and kindly reinforcements for several years yet - you must be very patient. Don't tolerate outrageous behavior, no tantrums allowed, but you can still be kind about it.

For a slightly older child of four, five, or six, start considering outside factors. Unless you know the child is a precocious reader, all games should have no reading, maybe a few symbols to remember. Although an interested child can rise above this - my daughter at age 4 memorized all the spaces on Monopoly Jr because she loved the game SO much. But when you are first starting, don't assume they will be that interested - if it happens, great, but don't bank on it.

Consider who the child is most likely to get to play with. If you give a game like Coloretto that requires three players to the only child of a single parent, you are setting that child up for a poor experience, as they may never even get to play the game before they forget about it. If the child has multiple siblings that might be enticed to play, look for games that support more players than something from the Kosmos 2-player line. A shy child should get a game that plays well with two so they can be comfortable with the social interaction, and a social butterfly should get a game that allows them to invite all the friends along.

Theme is important to this age group. Unfortunately. There are a lot of crappy games that are marketed to kids this age based on being tied-in with some popular show or movie or character. There are some good themed games too, of course, but mostly they are not so much. At this age, the adult picking the game needs to be responsible for getting past this potential pitfall. Look for good games that are related to things the kid likes without being an actual tie-in. Don't pick that horrible Quidditch game for the Harry Potter fan, get them Frog Juice instead.

If you want to play up the educational value of a game, tell the parents, not the kid. Yes, King's Breakfast uses some multiplication in the scoring, but let's not turn the kid off by making them think they are in school, ok? Tell the parents - they will be impressed, the kid will just be turned off.

Last, and most important, have fun. The BEST way to get a kid excited about a game is have a blast with it. This is the time to pull out your sound effects, tell stories about your meeple, make pyramids with the bits, all that fun stuff. Change the rules if need be - if you insist on getting all hung up on some obscure scoring rule like the farmers in Carcassonne that the kids don't quite get and therefore the kids are just confused at the end, it's not fun. Ditch the farmers and play with the other rules until the kid is ready for it. If the kids are having a good time, then they are much more likely to want to play the next game with you, and then you have them hooked.


Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Problem with Luck

I am sick to death of people complaining about luck in their board games.

OK, fine, if you can't stand luck at all, and you spend your life playing Chess in a hermetically sealed bubble, I won't complain. That's your call.

But this article is for the rest of you, who happily draw cards, pick tiles, and maybe even (heaven forbid) roll dice in your favorite games--who do all these things, but then complain about the newest Beowulf, Settlers, or Louis XIV, because it's trendy to do so, and all the cool kids are. I'm sick to death of people complaining about luck in their board games because, simply enough, most people don't understand how randomness actually works and don't understand how moderating luck is an important game skill.

The Truly Lucky Game

Yes, there is such a thing as a truly lucky game. Candyland is one of the most simple and obvious example. You draw a card and you move forward to the appropriately colored space.

What's notable about Candyland, however, isn't the fact that there's a random draw of the cards. Instead it's that there is no option for choice. You can't do a darned thing to make your next draw of the cards more or less useful.

That's a truly lucky game.

Controlling Luck

Let's move on to These Games of Ours, which aren't truly lucky in nearly the same way. I think many people would admit that one of the "luckiest" games around is The Settlers of Catan. Don't roll your numbers and you don't produce goods, period. This is lucky, but probably not as much as most people think.

Part of the feeling of luck in The Settlers of Catan is human psychology. We always remember the unusual, not the usual, so that string of no "8"s for half the game stands out, while the other three games where "8" came up an average amount of time aren't remembered. That's Fortune Telling 101.

However another reason that people feel that Settlers of Catan is luckier than it actually is is that they do a bad job of controlling their luck in the game.

Consider the following situation: you have a wheat production on an "8" and you're given an opportunity to build a second wheat production either on an "8" or a "10". Which do you do? Statistically "8" is a better choice, because you're 5.5% more likely to produce there (13.8% v. 8.3%). However that presumes that an arbitrarily large number of rolls will be made, sufficient that all numbers produce according to their probabilities, and that's just not the case in The Settlers of Catan, particularly not as the game goes on. Instead the "10" can often be a better choice because it insures you against a slightly (but not very) unlikely event where "8" doesn't get rolled enough in a single game.

If you complain about the luck in Settlers, but you greedily grabbed up only the most likely production numbers, even if it meant clustering on the same numbers, then it's your own fault that you did poorly, because you didn't attempt to control the randomness of the game.

Risk v. Reward

Another way to look at how to control luck is by measuring risk vs. reward. This is actually a central basis of many games that people call "lucky". In my Settlers example you took a bigger risk (clustering on fewer production numbers) in the hope of a bigger reward (more production). That's fine. It's a meaningful choice, but step up and admit your own culpability in your loss.

Be a man. (Or woman. Or meeple.)

Beowulf is the game that really got me started on this article, and it has the exact same structure. If you take more risks, you're likely to earn more rewards, but you're also likely to be punished more if you fail at the risk. Figuring out when your level of risk is greater than the potential reward and when your level of reward is greater than the potential risk is the heart of those games, and if you're not able to do that well, 3 games out of 4, that's why you lost, not because Joe or Fred got particularly lucky.

Risk/reward's less probabilistic cousin, which you might be more familiar with, is the cost/benefit analysis.

Consider Age of Steam where you might say, "If I defer a move action to upgrade my locomotive from 4 to 5, instead of doing two 3-value moves, I can instead do one 5-value move. Therefore I have a cost of 1 point, plus the cost of using a better cube, all paying for the benefit of upgrading my locomotive." And then you figure out if the cost or the benefit is greater. If the cost is greater you don't take the considered action, if the benefit is, you do.

You can make a similar analysis in Beowulf where you say "I have a 25% chance of failing this risk, which results in my gaining a second scratch and having to defer a draw of two cards down the line to heal myself, but I have a 50% chance of getting one card from the risk and a 25% chance of getting two." And then you figure out if the risk or reward is greater. In this case I can even thumbnail that caculation: the risk = 25% * 2 cards, or a loss of half a card, while the reward = 25% * 2 cards + 50% * 1 card, of a gain of a full card. I take the risk because it has a sum half-a-card benefit.

If you're doing these types of thumbnail calculations, and when you're familiar enough with a game they'll come naturally, then you're playing a risk/reward game right, and if you're just taking chances as they strike you, that's why you're losing.

Perceiving Luck

The thing that really drives me crazy about complaints about luck in games is that it's all about perception. First off, if someone does well in a "lucky" game, more often than not it's attributed to luck. If someone played brilliantly, but was also a little more lucky than average, we see the luck but not the skill.

More importantly, though, people seem to have major knee-jerk reactions to "luck" in a game if it's easier to see. Take Louis XIV an analytical gamer's game released this year. Everyone and their brother complains and complains about the fact that some points are distributed at the end of the game based upon which shields players (randomly) collected.

The thing is, it's just a few percent swing on the points. A player is very unlikely to get more than 1 or 2 points other than his expected value. And, I've never seen those one or two points actually make a difference in a game. I'm sure if I played enough I would, but I consider that a pretty minor cost to the benefit of the game not breaking down with end-game paralysis and king-making.

What really bugs me is the fact I don't think the shields are even the largest random element in Louis XIV. That would be the mission card draw, where randomly drawing particularly good or bad cards can give you very quick swings of +5 points (or alternatively the loss of the tokens that you need to turn in for those same points).

But because the shield lottery happens at the end of the game, everyone kvetches much more than is warranted, and because the card lottery happens on a turn-by-turn basis, everyone forgets about it.

And before I close out, let me offer an additional note about Louis XIV. As with any good game, there's an opportunity to control your luck, to balance risk versus reward. If you lose a game because you tried to take a medium mission, when you might have been able to complete an easy one, that's your fault, and if you won a game because you against all odds completed a hard mission with a lucky draw, that was a reward for the risk that you took.

Probability as Meta-Game

Perhaps people could deal with luck better if they understood it was a sort of meta-game. Yes, I might win an individual game of Settlers/Louis XIV/Beowulf due to a particularly lucky opportunity, which usually means a long risk that I took. You can similarly sometimes win Poker, Bridge, or almost any classic game due to a risk.

However if you keep taking those long risks, you're going to lose a lot more than you win, and that's the meta-game that you have to keep in mind in any game with any random element in it. Poker makes it easy, because those chips mark how someone is doing, long-term. Similarly Bridge has a clever invention called "points" to mark the same. These Games of Ours are longer, and so we usually can't play multiple rounds of a game to even out the luck, but if it really bugs you, figure out how to do so.

In your secret little game notebook you can keep track of how often you beat Crazy Harvey, and then that one time his long risk comes through will be more obviously the fluke that it actually is.

Understanding Luck

I suspect that a lot of players would be a lot happier with the luck in games if they understood the odds. I mean, you don't hear a lot of whining about how you can win a hand of Poker if you happen to draw a Royal Flush, because the average player understands that a Royal Flush is pretty unlikely, and that the idiot player drawing for the same will lose the other 649,739 times.

So, before you condemn the "luck" in a game, try to at least understand it, and to help with that I offer two simple thumbnails for probability calculation.

First, the odds of an event occurring are the numbers of ways it can occur divided by the total number of possible events. So, take Memoir '44 as an example, where you attack with a die with 6 faces: infantry, infantry, tank, grenade, star, retreat. The odds of hitting an infantry with a die are thus 3/6 (infantry, infantry, grenade), the odds of hitting a tank with a die are thus 2/6 (tank, grenade), and the odds of hitting an artillery with a die are thus 1/6 (grenade)--50%, 33%, and 16%.

Second, the expected value (E.V.) of something occurring is the probability of it occurring, times the number of times you take that chance. So, if you're throwing two dice at infantry in Memoir'44, your expected value of kills = 2 * 50%, or 1. If you hit 0 or 2 times, that was slightly unlikely. I'm amazed how often someone has the expected value for something happen in a game, then curses their luck. ("How could I only get one infantry!?")

Finally, with these two simple statistical ideas, you can even start making some good strategic plans. Take Memoir '44 again. By looking at the expected value of a single die roll and the number of hits required to destroy a unit, we can then quickly calculate how many dice we want to throw to have an average chance of destroying a unit:

UnitSizeHit E.V.
per Die
Avg. Dice

And that's one the clearest examples I can offer of how actually understanding the probability of a game, instead of just complaining about it, can improve not just your game experience, but your gameplay too.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

A Christmas Carol for Gamers

It’s almost Thanksgiving here in America, which marks the beginning of Christmas carol season in my house. From Thanksgiving to New Year’s, I’m allowed to play Christmas music to my heart’s content, then back on the shelf they go. So in keeping with the season, I’ve come up with a gamer’s version of The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire).

M’nop’ly roasting on an open fire,
Choices nipping at your mind,
Many friends and comfortable attire.
Here’s Christmas of a gamer’s kind.

Everybody knows some meeples and some wooden bits
Help to make the season bright.
Grown up tots with their eyes all aglow
Will find it hard to sleep tonight.

They know that Santa’s on his way,
He’s loaded lots of card- and board games on his sleigh.
And every Euro-geek is gonna smile
Because he has enough games now for awhile.

And so I’m offering you this simple phrase
To gamers from 1 to 92.
Although it’s been said in many languages and ways:
Happy Gaming to you.
- - - - - - -
Since I’m thinking about Christmas music, I’d like to recommend the Trans-Siberian Orchestra to anyone who hasn’t already discovered this amazing group. Each album tells a story through the songs which are a mixture of traditional and original compositions with some wonderful arrangements. My favorite is Christmas Eve and Other Stories which tells the story of an angel who is sent to Earth by God to bring back “the one thing that best represents everything good that has been done in the name of this day.”


I’m in the middle of my second game of Amun-Re online at Spielbyweb. I’ve never played before and I’m completely smitten with this game. (Yes, Kane, I should have listened to you long ago!)

For someone who keeps insisting that she doesn’t like auction/bidding games, I keep running into games that have something unique in them that makes the auction/bidding not only acceptable but fun. Now I have to modify my statement to read “I don’t like once-around bidding games.” Unless I’m the last to bid, I find I’m either being outbid or I bid some ridiculous amount just to finally acquire something. I need to work my way up to the point where I have to decide if $X is too much or does Freddie want this enough to bid even more; I can’t determine how much something is worth with any reliability in just one bid.

Amun-Re’s bidding system is very interesting and also allows for some bluff, if you’re willing to take a chance. Besides that, you’re also faced with some information to help you judge the worth of a province to you and to your opponents, so you’re not just taking a blind stab. Now I can ask myself “how much can you afford to bid and still have enough money to build your province into a money-making point-getter?” “Do you have a card that would make a province worth the extra cost to acquire?” “Are your opponents in the same quandary or are they just being belligerent?”

Yes, this game is tough, interesting and fun and I’m very glad I had the chance to try it out online or I most likely would never buy it. Now it’s very high on my want list and I can’t wait to play it face to face.
Until next time, safe sailing on whichever sea you find yourself.


Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Rules, Rules, Rules

One thing that continually astounds me is the reverence people give to playing a game "by the rules".

Recalling many of the earliest Dragon magazines, I can recall issue after issue of Gary Gygax imploring, and then threatening, his readers about the dangers of changing the rules of D&D. "You will not be playing real D&D!" he warned. When it wasn't about D&D, it was about going to the "right" convention. "Origins is not Gen-con!" Each month it was something else.

Maybe it's me. I am just not the sort of person who has even been able to comfortably conform to all of society's expectation. I need to hack. I need to know why rules are the way they are and push them to their inconsistent limits. It could be because I grew up Jewish in a non-Jewish world. Or it could be that I like attention. Maybe both.

Despite a strict belief in reasonably acting civilized and trying not to hurt other people, however, I am a very strong individualist. I don't like arbitrary restrictions imposed on my liberties, and I don't like codes of behavior best handled by etiquette and manners being enforced by law. If for no other reason than that law is going to muck it up pretty badly.

When I buy music, I like to play it how I like it, sing it how I like it, harmonize with it, maybe even change the words while I'm singing it. This doesn't mean that I don't want to know what the original is, or that I will wreck the tune if singing with a group. But once I know the tune, it is mine. My thoughts, my singing, mine to do what I want with. Sometimes I can come up with better lyrics or even a slightly better tune than the original singer. That is, of course, my opinion.

The same thing happens when I buy games. A game is mine when I buy it. OK, the copyright holder can enforce a very limited restriction on my ownership: I can't create carbon copies and sell them, or create derivative works and sell those without compensation.

But that's it. Once I know how the game works, I am free to change the rules, make variations for private use, play it how I like it. And I do.

Why does that frighten so many people? I so often read people saying "But if you change X it will change the entire game!" Yeah, so what? Or "That's not how the game designer made it!" Again, yeah, so what?

I can tell you that several mechanics work together in my Menorah game; disrupting them will create some imbalances. Some of these may be negative, and some may be positive. Other mechanics I chose totally arbitrarily. If you change them, it may have little or no impact on the overall game play. Again, so what? Do what you want. Experiment, try it out. Be creative!

The mechanics and rules of our games are a cultural heritage that we must sieze as our own, like the lyrics and music of old folk songs. Take them and change them to your heart's content. Mind copyrights and so forth, but build something new. Don't let games devolve into stagnation just because the designer or publisher made some arbitrary decision.

Rip it. Mix it. Burn it. Just play fair.