Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Game Design

Some people make a menu for a shabbat meal by sitting down at the table with a pad and paper and a bunch of cookbooks. I make a menu by looking in the fridge.

My first rule is to use up what's already there. Half a can of tomato sauce. Dill. Mint. Two grapefruits. A half bottle of white wine. Open can of mushrooms. Half an onion. Carrots. Broccoli. These ingredients are just sitting around and will spoil if they are not used.

The next rule: every week I make at least one thing that I've never made before. It could be a new recipe, or just something I make up. True, a half a can of something means that the other half was already used this week. My job is to use it in a way that whoever used the first half didn't.

I made chicken with mushrooms and wine a few weeks ago. What else can I do with the wine?

This week's idea: wine and grapefruit sections. Section the grapefruits, soak in wine, add sugar, mint, and cinnamon. Yum. It sounds good on paper, but how will it work out?

My first problem is trying to separate the grapefruit sections and take them out of their membranes. Apparently this is not one of my skills. About half of them I manage to get out two thirds of the way. The remaining half fall into pieces or crumble into their individual pulp sections.

The rest of it is easy enough, and it turns out to be tasty. Only, I think it could be better by having the grapefruits served in a more viscous syrup rather than just a liquid. I'll have to try again.

OK, what's next?

I have a bunch of potatoes to use up. I make potato kugel too often; what should I do with these? And that onion? My onions often dry out when I cook them with the chicken. And my chicken often sticks to the bottom of the pan. I decided to solve all of this at once by cooking the chicken on top of the onions in water, and then adding the onions to the potatoes.

The remainder of the meal is simple inspiration, but the timing has to work. Cook carrots in water, remove, mix with Moroccan spices. Barely cook broccoli in the same water, remove, rinse until cool, mix with Chinese seasoning. Cook "soup" noodles in same water, remove, rinse, toss with oil and set aside. Use veggie water as soup stock, add some salt, tomato sauce, dill, kohlrabi, chicken pieces and celery.

Brew an iced tea.

Shabbat Menu for 6

Tomato chicken soup with kohlrabi and celery, topped with noodles.
Chicken and mushrooms
Moroccan carrots
Chinese broccoli
Potatoes and onions
Grapefruit in white wine
Ice tea

The above was created ad hoc, so we have to rewrite the directions in order to streamline the preparations:

Ingredients: tomato sauce, mushrooms (fresh is best), chicken, onions, kohlrabi, celery, carrots, broccoli, cumin, tumeric, paprika, salt, pepper, soy sauce, sesame oil, olive oil, veg oil, garlic, potatoes, teabags, grapefruit, mint, white wine, sugar, dill, short thin noodles, cinnamon, oregano.

1 - Add enough chopped onions to cover greased pan
2 - Add chicken pieces (save some for soup) and mushrooms, salt, pepper (opt: brown sugar)
3 - Cover pan and begin baking
4 - Add carrots chopped to 1 inch pieces into boiling water
5 - When carrots are half done, add broccoli chopped to 2 inch pieces
6 - Remove carrots and broccoli from water and rinse until cool
7 - Add potatoes to water and continue boiling
8 - Separate broccoli to bowl and add soy sauce, salt, sesame oil, and sugar to broccoli.
9 - Add garlic, cumin, tumeric, salt, and olive oil to carrots
10 - Remove potatoes when done and chop into chunks
11 - Add noodles to water for a few minutes; remove and toss with veg oil
12 - Place potatoes in greased pan and cover with paprika, oregano, salt, pepper
13 - Add salt, tomato sauce, dill, kohlrabi, chicken pieces and celery to soup and cook
14 - Brew teabags in 2 quart pitcher
15 - Separate grapefruit sections and place in bowl with wine, cinnamon, mint and sugar
16 - Remove chicken from oven when done
17 - Remove onions from chicken and place on potatoes
18 - Toss and fry potatoes and onions a bit
19 - Remove teabags, add sugar


Of course, all shabbat meals also include: challah and wine/grape juice. In Israel, they also include "salatim", such as hummus, red eggplant, and so on. And my wife always makes a green salad. Your own family may have different ideas of what makes a meal.

The timing is important. You don't want to cook the broccoli in the potato water. You want to cook the broccoli first. That way you don't have to rinse the starch off of the broccoli. You need to cook the potatoes before mixing with the cooked onions. And so on. It works together pretty well in the right order. If you change one thing, you have to consider the balance, timing and flavor combinations of the entire menu.

Another thing about timing is to ensure that the whole process doesn't take all day. By combining the elements in a staggered way and using various cooking techniques, I can have three things going at once. The whole process takes about two hours, not including cleanup, which is about right for a shabbat meal. That same amount of time would be too long for a weekday meal.

Of course, a menu can't be a success until it is tested. You will find that what you like doesn't always correspond to the likes of your family. You also have to be prepared to deal with leftovers, as a dish that is tasty right after it is cooked may not be as appetizing the next day. In the same vein, a menu that worked one day can become stale when repeated too often. Some people like to eat the same foods day after day. Some like to try something different all the time.

It is definitely possible to make changes. From my experience, every menu is really just the jumping point to the next one. After all, I came up with this one by accident. It is not the exact outcome that matters, but the basic ideas. All it takes is some style and a willingness to experiment knowing that you may have to throw away some mistakes.


Monday, February 27, 2006


It's hardly unique to dislike suprises... most of us fear them.

Do you agree or disagree with that statement?

If you disagreed then you're obviously a bonehead who tends not to think things through, acting instead on the faint currents of intelligence that drift lazily through your mind stirring up only the happy, cheerful childhood memories of Christmas mornings, birthdays and playing doctor with the cute chick next door.

Those of you who agreed have tapped into the ugly reality of life... which really is -- at least as described by me -- a never-ending series of chaotic and terrifying events inexorably thundering towards an uncertain future dragging you along kicking and screaming and allowing precious little time for anything but struggling to exert enough tenuous control over the headlong rush that you don't have too many suprises along the way.

Seem harsh? Perhaps. But how many suprises are really that good? Some seem that way at first but rarely turn out as expected. For you men out there, how about what seemed like a nice suprise that night when you, thouroughly drunk and properly attired in fresh beer-goggles, asked what seemed like the hottest chick in the nightclub to come see your (pick one) etchings/game collection/stereo/Halo set-up and she accepted. Nice suprise you thought. Until 6:45 AM rolled around and you looked over at her in the bright morning sunlight and realized that Coyote Ugly isn't a joke after all... you really were going to have to chew your arm off and then move to a new place... before she woke up.

Or this: have you ever accepted a certified letter? You have? What the hell were you thinking? Certified letters are suprises and suprises, when you pass the age of about 7, are almost never good. Someone once noticed I never accepted certified mail and they asked me why? So I asked them, "Have you ever received anything good in a letter you had to sign for?"

"Well, no, not that I can recall."

"Right. Who sends certified mail?"

"Hmmm... I got one once from a lawyer. I was being sued. Then the tax commission sent me several when I was late paying them."

"Yes, yes, but answer me this; have you ever received a certified letter that had a good suprise?"

"No. But if someone was sending you money wouldn't they send it certified? If you didn't accept the letter, you'd miss the good suprise."

"Ah. So... who is going to send you money and not tell you? In fact, just answer the first part of that question."

"Right. I see your point."

What does this have to do with games?

I'm getting there, I had to do the intro and background so the Euro-gamers who read this article aren't left in school while the rest of us go out and play.

Suprise, which we all now understand sucks, is one of the main foundations of a good game. If you think about it, and some of you have done that for sure, the fewer mechanics in a game design that allow for unexpected events, the dryer and less fun the game becomes. Certainly there are some gamers who resist the notion that a true perfect information game, like chess, isn't fun. Okay, for you it's fun. But let's get real here, how highly does chess rate on BGG? For that matter, except for the few of you who actually play chess well, how often is it the game of choice?

Let's take another example, closer to the Game Geek's heart - Puerto Rico. It's nearly a perfect information game, all the elements are there to be seen except for the stacks of plantation tiles. And if you've ever bothered to do a tile count and then kept track of things during the game, those stacks hold very little mystery. The element of suprise in Puerto Rico really boils down to one thing - which player is going to grow so incredibly bored and irritated with the game that they finally snap and take the Craftsman just to get the damned thing over with?

I just described my last five games of Puerto Rico. Which is why every time I think about it and happen to be logged onto BGG I lower my rating another half a point.

At some level you can have all the information about a game but no information about what random elements will cause nasty little suprises for you when the game is actually underway. Poker is a good example. There is a perfect information level of Poker... the 13 cards of four suits. Everybody has that knowledge. But the hidden nature of card distribution and the rules of play, betting, raising, bluffing and so forth make Poker a very tense and highly exciting game to play for money. Or for articles of clothing, whatever your situation dictates.

Random is fun

In DW's little world of gaming I prefer games with random elements that create tension through unexpected occurances. I like suprises in my games much more than I like them in life.

Jumbo-Tron dropped by Saturday and I taught him how to play the excellent Command & Colors: Ancients. He'd played Memoir '44 so it was really just a quick tour of the units, cards and slick new rules additions.

After the first scenario or so I suggested that we play the Lake Trasimenus scenario. This heavily favors the Carthagians who, led by Hannibal, cannily suprised the foppish Roman general Flaminius in a narrow defile near the lake's shore. I've played Rome several times and never won that scenario.

Jumbo started right off by, suprise, bringing his entire cavalry down from the hills on my left flank. Then he rolled like crap. The net result after the first couple of turns was that I had 3 of the victory points out of the 6 needed to win and Jumbo had zip. I had punished Hannibal's light cavalry in the Battle Back phase. Then Jumbo made a poor decision and chose not to evade my infantry when he could.

The battle waxed and waned the next couple of turns as Flaminius struggled to move his forces off the shore. But Jumbo, a worthy Geek to act in Hannibal's stead, had saved up two cards that would suprise the hell out of me and yet again, send Flaming Flammy packing. What Jumbo had was both "line command" cards. These cards allow an entire linked block of foot units to move and attack. He played them back to back and won the game 6 VP's to my 5 VP's.

The whole thing took 45 minutes and was engrossing, fun, suprising and left both of us smiling. The bad rolls, good rolls, unexpected card plays. choice of formation and who to move and where to move them made the 45 minutes seem like a real battle. The game is full of suprises.

In the 5 minutes of post game discussion I looked at my 4 cards and realized something. Jumbo had left a Warrior unit unprotected down on my left flank as he aggressively pursued the victory in the center and right. I was so on the defensive and in a react mode to his onslaught that I lost focus on a single card I had that could have made Flaming Flammy a hero. I had a "move 3 left flank" card. And I had two medium foot and an Auxilia unit along with Flammy himself there. I could easily have blocked all hope of retreat and probably killed that one unit and secured the victory.

But I didn't. Jumbo kept the pressure on and kept me pointed in the direction that he wanted me to point. He suprised me and Flaminius was his bitch in the end.

A good design generates suprise

At least that's how I view board games. In real life I prefer to not be suprised. In gaming, I'm bored and disenchanted if the game is too structured and relegates all potential for suprise to an opponent's suprising choices. That's why I dislike chess and love backgammon. It's why I screen my calls and never sign for mail. Competition of any sort that is designed for fun rather than sheer survival has to have unexpected results or it gets boring.

It's true in sports as well

Yesterday was the first race of the World Superbike 2006 series. During the first race two Japanese riders, Haga and Kagayama, battled for the lead until the last lap. Shadowing them was 2004 Champion, Englishman James Toseland. He was too far back, perhaps half a second, to mount an assault and it looked like Haga would make the final pass on Katayama and win. When Haga went for the pass, several turns from the finish line, his front tire, worn from heavy braking and the heat of the Middle Eastern desert, gave way and he went down hard, sweeping Kagayama's Suzuki along with him and they both crashed out of the race. Toseland rushed to victory. A total suprise.

Using that race to counter my theory you might say: "But that suprise was good for Toseland."

You'd be right. But it was bad for just about everyone else in the Superbike series. Haga crashes a lot and is no threat. Kagayama only does well when his equipment is perfect and he isn't rattled. The second race he drove off the track and finally retired. So for every other contender - primarily two Aussies, both former World Champs themselves - Troy Courser and Troy Bayliss, this was a bad suprise. It meant that Toseland is already a threat.

That's what games are all about to me. Unexpected turns, suprises good and bad. If the design allows for some level of perfect information then it should have elements that shroud what's happening in each player's little universe. I want to come out from behind a wall and suprise you. I want you to think my effort is over here when it's really over there. It doesn't matter if the game is a war game or a trading game, a Euro or something totally American. if it allows for players to generate suprises, then it's a great game.

And please remember, if you're sending that money you owe me, just drop it in an envelope, no need to make me sign for it.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

to fondly bid adieu

It is with our collective "regrets" that we pay homage to our fellow 'blog`r' "Joe Gola" as he makes his departure here, while we ALL wish him and his the very best regards then. Getting the "word" out upon this matter is foremost the BEST 'means' of obtaining leads for those who have to contend with such. I am constantly reminded upon this fact whenever I happen to 'see' some "commercial" about one of them many "Drug Companies" on "T V", while those tend to also bring up some discrepancies that I recollect as well. From when I first 'viewed' an episode from the "T V" series of "Barney Miller"-(probably in "rerun"), then the "issue" of the "Drug Companies" being in 'business' JUST for that 'aspect', while neglecting to create "cures"/'drugs' for the mostly RARE or even extreme 'cases' of maladies, was being 'discussed' within this. I really couldn't tell YOU how this has 'progressed' since then either, so should someone ELSE 'know', then by all means inform the rest of 'us' about that. The gist of the matter was that 'they' wanted to pursue the MOST "profitable" of these, so anything "affecting" people under a certain 'number' wasn't given as much "considerations" for their "R & D" staffs. What a "corporate policy" eh? Well, I'd also advocate "infecting" ALL of the "celebs" with a "disease du jeur" in order to bring much more "attentions" upon the little known 'kinds' that don't have some "official" backings for those. Hey, they don't 'seem' to matter much UNTIL they have 'affected' someone better 'known' than YOU or ME even!

So what IS "my problem" about this? I'll hereby 'declare' the ongoing "War on Ignorance" and it's an un-ending 'sort' of 'Conflict' with too many "casualties" and the 'bodies' piling up just about everywhere. NOBODY is 'safe' and we should have an "Alert Indicator" for this with such as the likes of a "lit lightbulb" at the TOP to indicate "Safest" down to the lowly and much maligned "dunce cap" announcing the "State of Decryance" and of which even the 'dumbest' can "relate" to as well. Of course, we'd even HAVE our very 'own' spokesperson in none other than the personage OF the "PREZ" of the 'dis-United States' here, so we's GOT 'that' going for 'us'! In addition, then there's the "policies" of 'his'n' in which "selling off" of whatever can 'be' SOLD, has reached NEW 'lows' that ought to "shame" the previous administration for decades & many to 'see'. Just HOW 'low' could they 'stoop'? Well, I wouldn't put it past 'them' to be able to "pickpocket" a 'midget'-("little person") with the greatest of ease, while I'd "rate" THEM as being between a "snake fart" and "earthworm droppings" on a 'scale' of LOWEST "forms", so that you get the general 'idea' for this.

There's an ongoing "topic of discussion" at the "Geek" upon 'designers' having some form of "expressing" themselves while "under the radar" of the BIG 'Companies'. Let's face it folks, 'they' will ONLY become "enamored" with some innovative 'design' ONCE that has "proven" to be 'profitable', and you can't really blame them for this! Even WHEN these have "appeared" to become ever the MORE "profitable" sorts, then what is WITH their 'attitudes' regarding this "reluctance" for providing those yet again? I'm specifically talking upon the likes of "We the People" or even "Hannibal: Rome VS Carthage" and many others that folks are clamoring FOR! Oh sure, someone will bring 'up' that perhaps some other "company" will be making a few of these available once again, just as soon as the "pigs emerging from posterior orifices" are a common & "everyday" 'occurance'.

Here's a "shout out" to "The Vintage Gamer" podcast, while with the most "au courant" 'episode' has to 'do' with the OLD "Diplomacy" game itself:
"The Vintage Gamer"
We certainly expect to 'see' and "give a listen" to many more of these as well, and "Good JORB!" too.

P.S.-I had to "update" this with a bit of "News" that I had discovered regarding a legendary 'figure' of which many are quite familiar with and this just happens to be "Pappy" Boyington of "Baa Baa Blacksheep" fame. Not too long ago at the "University of Washington" in Seattle, then a 'monument' to HIM was "voted down" by the majority of the "Ass. Stud.Un.Wash. Council Members"-(emphasis ON phallic 'members'), while a 'form letter' of DENIAL about the incident had also been 'issued' from none other than the "University President's" office as a followup! Here's the LINK to read further upon the matter:

"ruleof reason.blogspot"

Well, they ALL should 'make' excellent "Politicians" one day, as they're just following in the footsteps of many others who have trampled underfoot the select few who have made an ultimate 'sacrifice'-(in vain, no less it appears), just so that THESE 'people'-for lack of a "print friendly" description upon their "despicablenessiveitiousivity"-can preserve their 'decorum' of "pussyfied" existances! Sorry about some of my "FRANCELAND"-'speak' here. Yes, let us NOT "look up" to anyone who served their 'Nation' and the rest of the "freedom loving peoples" of the WORLD! Why everyone just 'knows' that had "Ghandi" or these 'people' been 'running' events, then those mean ole "Nazis" & "Fascisti" & "Japs" would have just gone HOME sad & dejected instead of trying to "take over" the 'World' eh? NOT in yours or theirs or our "lifetimes" quite yet right? Man, I'd say "sterilizations" are TOO 'good' for the likes of 'these'! They ought to become "instant organ donors" for anyone ELSE with a better "mindset" than these possess, as they're wasting their "precious existance" like a bunch of 'truffle-stuffed-shirts' that they are. Better still, have these folks 'perform' some "mine clearing duties" as a 'lesson' that they'll "learn", but just won't "learn from" such 'experiences' eh?
"Have a 'nice' life. . .that others 'bought & paid FOR' with their 'own'!"

Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Door to the Outside

It is with some sadness that I must announce that this will be my last regular post to Gone Gaming. I have enjoyed contributing to the site and being a part of this excellent group of people, but at the same time I have always been aware that my table time has never been sufficient to provide material for a biweekly column. My desire to write is fueled by the enthusiasm generated by gaming, and without this spark the exercise feels less like a stroll through a pleasure garden and more like a forced march through a desert. During these months that I have been part of "the staff" here I have always hoped that this situation would improve, but, in the end, life is what it is.

It occurs to me, though, that I am in the fortunate position of (theoretically) having an audience, and so there is an opportunity in my hands to send out a message about something which I think is important. It doesn't have much to do with gaming, unfortunately, but I hope you'll bear with me anyway; while it may turn out to be meaningless to some readers, for one or two it may be the word of warning which helps them to brace themselves before a storm.

The easiest way to begin is to talk about my son. My son is now six years old and is an active, happy and loving boy, one who likes to go on hikes, play with his cars and trains, mess around on the computer, go to the movies, jump on top of his Dad, and lots of other little kid stuff. He is learning to read, he likes to play music, and he recently surprised me by counting to one hundred and ten. However, in the time leading up to his second birthday, we began noticing that something was different about our child. He still only had a few words, and was unusually uncommunicative for his age; he often did not respond to his name or look up when someone entered the room, and he seemed to not have very much interest in the people around him; when excited he would arch his back and flap his arms in a repetitive way; he did not "pretend play" with toys but would instead sort them or line them up; and when in a high-stimulus environment, he could not settle down and play but would run around wildly in circles. We took him to see a developmental pediatrician, and she diagnosed him with Autistic Spectrum Disorder, or ASD.

Every year, an increasing percentage of children are being diagnosed with ASD, a permanent disability which affects sensory input, language development and social relatedness, and which is also often associated with over- or undersensitivity to stimuli, rigid routines, and repetitive behaviors. In some cases the effects are mild, and in truth there is no clear boundary between the mild end of ASD and the shy or quirky end of normalcy. In other cases the effects are devastatingly severe, with individuals who cannot care for themselves independently, individuals unable to communicate by speaking or even pointing, and individuals who can become panicked by the ordinary sights and sounds of the everyday world. I hesitate to speak of statistics, as they tend to elicit as much suspicion as alarm, but according to the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, ten years ago the rate of children being diagnosed with autism was 1 in 2,500; today, that number is now 1 in 166, making it more common than pediatric cancer, diabetes, and AIDS combined. In California, the number of people treated for autism by the State Department of Developmental Services in 1993 was 5,000. That number is more than 26,000 today.

Some have contended that this sharp increase in the statistics has more to do with the frequency of diagnosis than an actual increase of symptoms, and it is true that physicians have begun casting a wider net as they have gained more understanding of the disorder. Previously the definitions of Autism and Asperger's Syndrome* were rather narrow and only included those individuals affected most severely; now doctors are coming to view the umbrella as being a much broader one. The 'spectrum' in Autism Spectrum Disorder refers to the fact that, unlike other developmental syndromes, not all individuals share precisely the same symptoms to precisely the same degree, but rather will have a sigificant number of common symptoms from a cluster that has been recognzied as being autism-related. One child might be non-verbal while another might talk a blue streak, but both might have difficulty with social relations, have sensory defensiveness, and engage in repetitive behaviors. Regardless of the change in definitions, however, the fact that the problem is growing, and quickly, is very real. Talk to the parents, educators, and pediatricians in your life about their experiences; things are quickly reaching the point where everyone knows someone who knows someone who has a child receiving services for developmental delays associated with ASD. Compare that to your own memories of childhood. Certainly I had never heard of autism as a youngster, and speech therapy was for kids who stuttered. And now? I can tell you this: not only is my son not the only kid in town with ASD, and he's not even the only kid in his grade.

What This Means to You

The reason that I am writing about all this today is that a great deal can be done to help kids with Autistic Spectrum Disorder if it is recognized early and if they receive early intervention through therapy. Children are in development-hyperdrive in the first years of their life, and for them to be missing pieces to the puzzle early on has a snowballing effect as time advances, leaving them further and furher behind their peers with each passing month. A lack of relatedness at one and a half leads to or exacerbates their difficulty with language at two and a half, and their difficulty with language at two and a half leads to a lack of real-world knowledge at four that further widens the chasm between themselves and those around them. Furthermore, obsessiveness and rigidity of habits can become a serious problem for individuals with ASD, and the sooner parents nudge these kids down the road to becoming flexible, the better. The refusal of the character of Raymond to buy his underwear anyhwere but K-Mart in the movie Rain Man is not an exaggerated picture of a person with autism; if anything, this character adapted perhaps a little too quickly for someone who had been institutionalized for his entire adult life.

As emotionally difficult as it may be—it's hard for us parents to consider that anything might be awry with our children's development—it is very important for new parents and parents-to-be to be aware of the early signs of autism in children. Typically these start manifesting at some point between eighteen months and two years of age—though some say they can be caught as early as twelve months—and they include such various things as a failure to respond to their name, lack of attention to other people's faces, difficulty transitioning from one activity to the next, lack of ability to engage in shared play, and lack of or loss of words. Much more detailed information can be found here and here.

For those who already do have a diagnosis, I recommend investigating Relationship Development Intervention. This approach is based on the theory that people with Autistic Spectrum Disorder are missing key, low-level, but teachable skills that involve interpersonal relatendess and dynamic thinking. I feel strongly that this is a worthwhile approach and that it has helped bring out the great potential in our son; in the early days he was so disengaged that my wife and I feared that he would never be able to share looks, smiles and laughter with us; now he leaps into our arms, gazes lovingly into our eyes and giggles hysterically as he tells us one of his idiosyncratic jokes. Traditional thinking about autism is that these individuals are incapable of complex social interactions or else simply abhor them; RDI's approach is that these things can be taught, and that once the individuals get started down this path, they want to learn.

In addition, I also suggest that parents investigate the biomedical routes that are available, specifically with a physician who is involved with DAN. Research is finding that children on the Autistic Spectrum tend to have issues with digestion, nutrion, allergies, inflammation and detoxification, and while there is no magic bullet that will cure autism, we have learned some very surprising things about our son while investigating this side of the problem, including his allergies to many common foods and a propensity towards severe systemic yeast infections. It is important, however, to use a consumer's discretion when investigating this route, as there are likely to be a certain number of care providers whose enthusiam or salesmanship outstrips their qualifications and who are only kept in business by the desperation of parents.

On the subject of the biomedical aspect, I should mention that there is a vocal contingency of people who believe that there is no evironmental influence at play in autism whatsoever and that the condition is genetic, end of story. The Wall Street Journal in particular has been very careful to always take a dismissive tone towards the idea that this is a situation that could have been avoided. If one were sufficiently paranoid, one might wonder what interest a financial daily has in editorializing about autism. All I can say is that parents should listen to both sides of the argument before they decide what course they will take in treating their children.

One other thing I'd like to mention is that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children under age two watch zero television. Now, there is no proof that TV, computers or other electronics play a role in autism, but infants are freaky little sponges, sucking up information at an impossible-to-conceive rate, and I often wonder if the inexorable logic of electronic toys and computer programs (and their recent tendency to focus on abstractions such as numbers, patterns and shapes, even when targeted at children of an age for which that content is not appropriate) and the precise, unnatural repetition of experience via DVD or CD exacerbate autistic children's overdependence on static systems (predictable, mathematical, unchanging) versus dynamic systems (relative, indefinite, human).**

Good Things

We've had a tough road, no doubt, but our boy has surprised us by his readiness to rise to every challenge. Once he was a child closed up inside his own world, distant, aloof, shut off and disconnected. My wife and I worried that he would never open up, never be able to share a smile or a laugh with us, never reciprocate the love that we felt for him. However, with a lot of hard work on our part, and even harder work on his, we have a happy, laughing boy who rushes into our arms for hugs and kisses, who tells us his thoughts and feelings when he has the words to express them, and who will take my hand, drag me away from the computer, and say "Daddy, come and play." Many challenges remain: his language skills and social skills still need a lot of work, he continues to be challenged by sensory issues, some rigidities and obsessions still linger, and he is only taking the first tenuous steps towards interacting with his peers. I have found, out, however, that there is one social activity of which he is extremely fond, evidenced by a photograph sent home from school; in the picture my son can be seen relaxed and one of the gang, lying on his belly in among a tight circle of little kindergarten kiddies all centered around...Candyland.

Thanks to everyone who has read and commented on my stuff here at Gone Gaming. Hopefully I'll be able to contribute an article now and then. So, until next time, be sure to keep the door to the outside open.


* Aspberger's Syndrome is a name for a particular manifestation of ASD, once thought to be a separate pathology from Autism but now considered part of the spectrum. It is characterized by high I.Q. and strong verbal skills, though the other deficits of autism, such as underdeveloped interpersonal skills and difficulties with dynamic systems, remain.

** The difference between a static and a dynamic system in this context is that the rules of a dynamic system can evolve whereas in a static system they do not. A casual conversation is a dynamic system because, among other things, topics can change, there is no set ending point, and even the roster of participants can change mid-stream. It is still a system and not a random phenomenon, however, because, even if it is not predictable, it is guided by a collective train of thought, social cues and the judgment of the participants. For example, in the middle of the conversation one of the group may notice that others are behaving in a distracted and listless fashion while a topic is being discussed and so, even though that person might have more to say on the topic, he will allow the flow of conversation to go off on a tangent to keep the entire group engaged. Another person may adopt a tone of levity on a subject, and, depending on whether the group reacts with smiles or uncomfortable fidgeting, will either continue with the jest or drop it. In contrast, games are generally static systems, as players typically cannot decide to change rules mid-game, they cannot walk away and then rejoin the game twenty minutes later, and they are not supposed to change their goals halfway through (for example giving up on gathering victory points and instead trying to make a pleasing pattern on the board with their pieces). However, there are often dynamic systems associated with games, for example negotiation, psychology, metagame, and of course whatever tangential social interactions are going on during the gaming.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Caylus, the new Addiction!

Hi again everyone.

Brian asked me if I could do an article again, so I am going to post about Caylus.

As everyone knows, lots of people think Caylus is an excellent game. I am obviously among them. I also, in my tradition of preferring 2 player (or 2 sided) games to games with 3 or more separate parties, love 2 player Caylus.

I was talking with the game's designer on BSW, and he mentioned that he designed the game for multiplayer, and 2 player was kindof added on. I was amazed by this, because the 2 player game works so well!

In multiplayer games, with reasonable players, the provost is rarely used to screw someone, unless it is very low cost (the last guy paying $1 to screw him out of an important space, or whatever). This is especially true in 3 player, where there isnt the gangup potential, of someone passing, and then three players after him agreeing to move it back 1 each, or something like that.

In multiplayer, playing at the edge of town adds this vague risk. You have to pass late, and there is a chance that some random other guy might pay money to try and screw you. Or maybe they might be reasonable and not spend their money hurting one opponent.

But in 2 player, the provost creates tremendous tactical opportunities, as now, hurting your only opponent is a direct gain for yourself!

I was talking to a local player in our Saturday game group, Sean McCarthy, who is SevenSpirits on BGG, about 2 player Caylus. Previously, he had played mostly 3-4 player, and was very good at it, while I had played mostly 2 player. We played two games of 3 player in our Saturday game group, and he beat me by 4 and by 1, each time teaching me critical things that were different about 2 player and multiplayer. For example, in 2 player, you will have enough favors to go strong in two favor tracks, and should go Build and Points or Build and Money. In multiplayer, you have enough favors to go strong in only one, with a few favors in another. Thus, you should probably go strong in Build with a bit in Money, or strong in Points with a bit in Money. (Because the Build track and Points track have the big rewards in the middle/end, and thus need concentration to be good, while Money is fairly good even if you only dabble).

Anyway, he mentioned that he had started playing 2 player games. I asked what he thought. He said they were awesome, and they were even more fun!

There you have it! Both of us had the same reaction to 2 player. It's more fun than with more players, though certainly the game is great for multiplayer as well. Of course, we both tend to prefer 2 player games anyway, so if you dislike all 2 player games, it probably isn't for you. Personally, I like partnership games, team games, 1 vs X games, and 2 player games best.

Now on to the strategy! I've analyzed the 2 player opening strategy a fair amount, so here is what I posted on BGG, about the 2 player Caylus Opening:

The Basics:

First of all, you need to know the strengths of the different favor tracks. Of the three non-points tracks, the build track is best, followed by money, then cubes. The points track is great in longer games that aren't highly resource short. It is only bad if the game goes very short, or its very resource light due to almost no production buildings. (More on that later).

You generally have enough favors in the game to go heavily on two tracks. Build + Points is usually best, and Build + Money is second best.

You use the build track to make buildings, mostly stone buildings and some residences. You make one wood building early, and you might use a later favor or two on prestige buildings, or more wood buildings for points if the stone buildings run out. But mostly its stone buildings and residences.

The first time you have the opportunity to make these buildings is once the second phase of the game begins. Thus, you want to end the opening phase with 2 favors placed in the building track, to be ready asap. You don't need more than this in the building track, because the extra wood building for the cost of a favor plus a cube isn't really worth it, and harms your ability to make stone buildings fast at the start of the middle phase of the game.

Thus you need 2 early favors to go to the build track.

The best way to get these early favors is castle builds, when you go first to the castle, and the bonus favor for making 2 batches. Ideally, you want to make 2 batches in the castle, getting a favor each time, plus a bonus favor. This is three favors. The excess third favor should be spent on either the money track or points track. Money if you are hurting on money at any time, points otherwise.

Alternately, if you build 2 batches at once on a turn your opponent build one first, that is ok as well, but it results in one less favor per person. You still need 2 build favors in this case, so be careful. Building another batch in the castle is ok, and get you a 4th total favor, which can be the second money or points track favor, however, this is only worth it if you still have some cubes to start the second game phase, so that you are not harmed in your ability to score favors and make stone buildings there.

Thus your goal in the opening:

Make 2 castle batches, each at a time when the opponent isn't in the castle (or maybe 2 at once when he is there before you). Take two build track favors and spend excess in money or points.

Additionally, end the opening with as much excess money and cubes as possible, hopefully more than your opponent. The best excess cubes to have are food and cloth, to be able to buy favors in joust, and build production buildings (and residences with cloth).

The opportunity cost of placing a worker in the opening

I did an opening analysis with SevenSpirits where we played the first couple turns several times, talked about every move, and then restarted.

We found several things:

The opportunity cost of a cube is $3. That is, when you play to a cube square, you are giving up a net $3 to do so.

This comes from: You either could've played to the $3 space if it is available, which would give you +$2 net. While playing to the cube yields -$1, for a change of -$3. Alternately, you could've passed. If so, you get $1, you don't pay $1, and your opponent doesn't get $1 for passing, for a net change of $3.

So it 'costs' $3 to make a placement.

Another example of this, is that once your opponent has passed, you can safely go to a space by paying $3. Again, you're paying $3 for a cube.

Thus, if you go to the gain $3 space, you are effectively saving yourself the opportunity to buy a cube on a future turn. Say, the cloth space is unsafe (near the provost). But one turn you take the $3 and get plenty of money, the next after your opponent passes you pay $3 to go onto it.

The expected gain of the person going first in the turn

Early in the game, the player going first in a turn should get a net gain of $1 over the other player. (Or a cube and -$2). This is because you can do an equivalent number of things as your opponent and then pass for a buck. Thus, if you gain more than this in a turn you go first, its good, if less, it was not good. The person going first on turn 1 gets this gain first, but then the opponent gets it next. I find the first player to have a small advantage in the game, but I think it is worth less than $1.

Provost Wars:

A provost war is where both players don't want to pass, because at least one player has placed in a 'risky' position, and the players want to move the provost last to control its final position. A 'risky' space is one that is less than 3 spaces behind the provost. The closer it is to the provost, the riskier.

Getting into provost wars is good for the player with more money and not the player with less money. (Counting who will be getting the $3 as part of their money). Once a provost war is initiated, if players wish to follow it to the end, then they find themselves (early on), with no good spaces left, and they start wasting money. Going to the castle is very good (if you will be able to guarantee you can do it), since thats a hard thing to fit in. Making a building is ok (if safe), if you have plenty of cubes. Trading a cube for $4 is breakeven, since a cube is worth 3 and the worker is 1 for a total of 4, but this sale of a cube for its purchase price might be important due to the provost war money drain. The inn is good if you are going to break your opponent in the war but still have some money.

I find that the person who has less money (unless both have a ton) should not continue the provost war. However, initiating a provost war is a great way to enable yourself to get an action in the castle or on the builder square if you want to.

For example, I have a reasonable amount of money, as does my opponent. I can build in the castle, but my opponent wont be able to. So after we take the safe cubes and $3, I take a riskier cube. My opponent takes provost mover (so as not to allow me to pass and get the safe cube without him being able to take the mover). Now I go to the castle. Normally, going to the castle has a cost of $3, since its 1 to go, loss of 1 for not passing, opponent gain of 1 for passing (because you did an extra thing). However, now my opponent cant pass without handing me back my cube placement. So he goes somewhere else. Now I pass.

Net: I spent $1 on the unsafe cube spot, $1 on the castle, I got a $ for passing, cost of $1. I get to go to the castle.

Opponent spent $1 on the provost mover, and $1 on the 'waste of time space'. He spends $2! I had a loss of $1 and get into the castle. Realistically, his waste of time play is probably valued at $1, so it's a net loss of $1 each, so we break even there. This was a way to get into the castle for free! (i.e. without the standard opportunity cost of $3).

Because the opportunity cost of getting the opportunity to build in the castle is generally $3, you want to look for chances to get in more cheaply.

My general valuation of things in the opening is:

Cloth or Stone: better than $3.

Other cube: probably worse than $3, but if you are getting no cubes you are screwed. So once you have plenty of money, you need to do this trade. You don't want to let your opponent get all the cubes, because then he easily gets castle favors and its hard for you. So often the cube is actually better than $3, if you have plenty of money. So if you would be starting the next turn at $6-8, the cube is probably not better, but if you would be starting with $10+, if probably is. (Note that if your opponent is really poor, its still better to take the money gaining opportunity, just to screw him).

Getting into the castle: In a normal circumstance, it costs $3 to be able to go build there. But what you want is to find opportunities to get in cheaper.

Opportunity to build with the Carpenter: In a normal circumstance, it costs $3, plus the two cubes for the build, and is not worth it. However, in a provost war, if the carpenter is safe, and thus your opportunity cost is $0 (just the two cubes), it is good if you have enough cubes to do this and still end up with 2 castle builds in the first scoring section. Put another way, if I could pay two early cubes for a building, with no loss of money or tempo, I would probably do it once. But its not usually worth it because you also give up money and tempo (the ability to get more money via passing first), to get the opportunity.

Inn: You would only go here if it was during a provost war, and your opponent was going to break or nearly break themself in the war.

Sell cube for $4: Its really a break even trade. Only go here in a provost war, if safe, where it is better than simply wasting $1.

Note that the existence of a 2 cube production building devalues the single cube spaces and makes money better. It suddenly makes the $3 better than the cube, in most cases (though the rare cube still could be better). This is because there is now a space that costs the standard $3 to go to, but yields 2 cubes not 1. However, it will be unsafe throughout the first scoring section. This means that if you have a money lead, but not a cube lead, you want to build a production building. Then you can convert money into cubes at a better rate, and devalue your opponents cubes. So if you passed up a cube earlier to take the $3, and you have $3 more than your opponent and he has +1 cube, it's great to build a production building. Conversely, the player with the cube lead and money disadvantage wants to build the sell cube for 6 building, as it allows a reverse sale back into money at a good gain.

Specific Opening Moves:

Since cloth and stone are better than $3 very early, if you can, place your worker on the safest cloth or stone space which is at least 3 back from the provost (i.e. it is safe).

If this is not available, place on the $3 space. (This is actually better than getting a food or wood cube, if those are the only safe cubes, because you can convert the $3 into a better cloth or stone cube later, in a turn the opponent passes first, by paying $3 to play to the space (and they move the provost first).

If all safe cubes and $3 space are taken, your options are to pass and gain money, or initiate a provost war. (If you are getting desperate, you can play to the castle, but you prefer to find a time when this doesn't cost you $3 to do)

The reason to initiate a provost war is because you want to make plays like castle or builder, at a time when your opponent is wasting moves, so you don't have to give up a $3 swing to do it.

Also, a provost war is good if you have more money than the opponent, because it can break him and amplify the money disadvantage. (Don't get into provost wars with less money, unless you still have plenty and your goal is to get into the castle cheap).

Once the provost war has begun, it now no longer is a $2 gain for your opponent to pass (they get $1 and you don't), and thus you can play to things like the castle or carpenter for a lower opportunity cost.

To initiate a provost war, play a worker to the unsafe cube that is the most safe. If you do this, you do not want to also be on the second most unsafe cube, because then you risk both cubes. For example, if you are on the safest and 3rd safest cubes, with your opponent on the 2nd safest, you are fine. They can only screw you out of the 3rd safest, without hurting themself. But if you are on the 2nd and 3rd safest both, you risk losing both in a war, so you don't want to do this unless you have more money and will win the war and that is your goal.

Now, your opponent can accept the war or decline. They decline by passing, thus gaining $1, denying you the $1 for passing, and you spent $1 on the cube. Thus, they get a net gain of $3 while you get a cube. They should do this if they are lower on money, but many won't. Another thing they can do is play on a cube more unsafe than you. Now, they are putting it back in your court, to make a provost war or decline.

They accept the war by going onto the provost-mover, threatening to deny you your space by pushing it back past your space, and then passing later than you to guarantee they can screw you.

Now you can go to the castle. If your opponent passes, then you gain a cube on them by winning the war, they get some money, but you get into the castle cheap. If they keep fighting, by making a 'wasted' (or mildly beneficial) move, then you pass. You lose the war, lose the cube, but don't break yourself, and you got into the castle cheap. If you have a money lead, you can keep fighting the war to drain their cash.

Look to initiate a provost war to get cheap entrance to the castle. Weaker opponents won't figure out what you are really doing, and will feel good that they 'screwed' you out of a cube, when in reality you gained on them. Also be on the watch for your opponent doing this tactic against you. If the war allows them cheap entrance into the castle, you should probably just pass, let them get a cube lead but get a corresponding money lead, and then look to convert the money to a cube later.

If a provost war drags on, the next best spaces after the castle are the carpenter (if safe, i.e. behind the cubes in question), the inn (if the war will break your opponent), and the sell cube for 4 space (if safe).

There is another way the war can go. Say that you and your opponent start by going on the two safest cubes. Next, you go on an unsafe cube, which is 2 back from the provost. Your opponent goes on the $3 square. You could now pass. Now, during the turn you spend $2, get $1 and will get 2 cubes, net $-1 and 2 cubes. Your opponent spends $2, gets $3 and a cube, net $1 and a cube.

You: -$1 and 2 cubes.
Opp: +$1 and 1 cube.

Total: You: 1 cube, Opp: $2. (Your cube is $1 better than his $2 gain, but you went first, so a $1 gain is expected)

Now, it comes to moving the provost. If you move it out 1 space, to ensure your cube, your net gain becomes -$2 and a cube, to his $1. Now, you are at breakeven for the turn, which is BAD when you went first!

If you don't move out the provost, your opponent can leave it as is, or spend $3 to deny the cube. If they spend $3, then the next result is a gain of $1 for you over them, the expected result.

Thus, you should NOT move out the provost in this case. The only time when you should is if you really need that cube, and/or you want the opening to move faster. But remember, that you are essentially losing $1 to your opponent in doing this.


Playing to a cube square 2 back from the provost is fine, provided that you do not also have the second most risky cube. If you play right, it is at worst breakeven for you. It also might initiate a provost war which could benefit you.

Now, if you play to a cube space only one back from your opponent, it costs him only $2 to screw you if you pass first (if the provost war is declined). Thus, you result in a loss of $1, and thus this is bad.

Therefore, to successfully initiate a provost war without penalty to yourself, place a worker on a cube space 2 back from the provost, when you do not also have a worker on the second most risky cube.

You can also initiate a provost war against your opponent to try to deny his worker.

When not to initiate a provost war:

1) When you are significantly ($2 or more) poorer, and it might threaten to put you below a decent amount of money (below $7 to start a turn).

2) When your opponent has guaranteed cubes to build in the castle, and can use the war to get in there cheaply.

When to initiate a provost war:

1) When you wish to go to the castle cheaply, and have guaranteed cubes.

2) When you are richer (counting money to be gained this turn)

Best ways to initiate a provost war:

1) Place a worker on a cube space 2 back from the provost, while you do not also have the second most risky cube. 3 back is good also. 1 back probably isn't.

2) Take the provost mover when your opponent has placed onto a risky square, ESPECIALLY if he has the two riskiest workers.

What building to build:

When building an early building, build the one whose presence gives the most value to your current resources and the least value to your opponent's resources.

Factors of who will use the building aren't as relevant in 2er. You want the building whose EXISTENCE is better for you than them.

If you have more buildings, you'll end up getting more points off them than the other guy.

It's also important to have buildings you want, because a significant factor in their advantage is that you can pay $1 to go there if your opponent passes, so it makes it so your opponent cant pass and needs to keep doing things and then you pass and get $1 and they don't get $1, leading to advantage. Alternately, they can play to your (usually unsafe) building to deny this, and then you fight a provost battle (usually with even costs to each party) and get an advantage of 1 point.

Examples of what to build, to maximize the value of your resources and minimize your opponents:

You are ahead on cubes, but not ahead on money (or behind on money):
Build the sell a cube for 6 building. This increases the value of cubes and decreases the value of money.

You are behind on cubes of type X, and possibly behind on cubes in general, and are ahead on money: Build production building of type X. You want to be up on money because the existence of better production buildings changes the 'it costs $3 for a cube' dynamic. Also, this very good space in an unsafe space generates provost wars, which benefit whoever is richer.
Alternately, its good if you are behind on cubes, not ahead on money, but you both have plenty of money: you need the opportunity to regain the cubes you are down.

You are WAY ahead on money, but not way ahead on cubes: Build the buy 2 cubes of your choice for $2. Here you just make a space that is unusable to your opponent, but not to you. This is often worse than just a production building, however it has the advantage of taking any cube to build (that can matter, and is often the reason you do this), and it generates 2 more points initially.

You are way ahead on stone (at least 2, and they have 0), and not behind on cubes overall, and you are not behind on money, and your opponent has committed favors to the build track (you might have also) : Build the stone mason. Though in this case, sell cube for 6 may still be better. If you for some reason are failing to get 2 favors on the build track in the opening, while your opponent is getting them, then this becomes better.

You are way ahead on cloth (at least 2, and they have 0), not behind on cubes, and you have a reasonable amount of money to be able to pay extra for this and to get into provost battles for it: Build the lawyer. However, sell a cube for $6 may still be better. If you for some reason are failing to get 2 favors on the build track in the opening, while your opponent is getting them, then this becomes better.

Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoy it and improve your 2 player Caylus play!

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Anatomy of a Game: Blue Moon

Two weeks ago, Joe Gola published a review of Blue Moon, Reiner Knizia's customizable card game. It's been a game that's been on my mind lately too. This week I 'd like to take a step beyond Joe's introduction (for which, see his article, or else my own review of the game), and instead dig a little deeper to discover what really makes Blue Moon tick, starting with a look at how it really is a customizable auction game, not a CCG.

Blue Moon as an Auction

In my overview of Reiner Knizia I made the contention that most of his games are actually auction games, but from the comments on that article I could tell that my point wasn't entirely clear. Fortunately, Blue Moon offers a terrific example of how an otherwise unique-looking game can be based on pure auction mechanics.

Most CCGs are "conflict" games. As it happens, I think that conflict-based games and auction-based games have a lot in common. Thus, it's not too surprising to me that many people look at Blue Moon and see the fighting rather than the bidding. However when you actually dissect the game design elements, I think it becomes a lot more obvious that Blue Moon falls onto the "auction" side of the equation.

To be precise, Blue Moon is a constrained English auction with open turn-based bids, and all payers. In English: the players take turns bidding, back-and-forth, and there are very specific rules for how their bids work. No matter who wins, each player has to discard then entire bid. Many of the bidding restrictions and other rules designed for the Blue Moon auction are somewhat outside of the norm for auction design, but nonetheless most of them can be found in at least a few other auction games.

The constraints of Blue Moon are very tight, and are the core of the gameplay. As in High Society and Beowulf (both Knizia designs), bids are made with discrete cards, and once you've put a card down you can't get it back. Unlike those games, there are even more constraints on your play: you're only allowed to play up to two cards to make your total bid, one general card which must always be played ("character") and one specific card which may be optionally played ("support" or "booster"). Here we can make comparisons to another Knizian auction with tight constraints, Taj Mahal, which likewise only lets you play up to two cards a turn, one "colored", which is required, and one "white", which is optional.

The bidding dynamics of Blue Moon allow for a gradual, but slowly racheting up method of bidding. As in Beowulf and the original For Sale you have two options: to call (bid the same amount) and to raise (bid a higher amount). Most auction games instead require constantly raising bids.

The payment method of Blue Moon, where everyone pays their bids, is slightly unusual, but seen frequently enough that it's got its own name, "the Poker auction". This refers to the fact that players keeping putting bids into a pot, then they all lose what they put in, not that Poker hands are being played. Knizia has used the design in Taj Mahal and (once more) Beowulf, while other notable auctions with very similar payment designs are Condotierre, Havoc: The Hundred Year's War, and the closed bid Fist of Dragonstones.

Finally we come to the truly unique element of the Blue Moon auction system: the turn-based bidding interactions. Effectively, Blue Moon's bidding constantly require geometric increases in bid value, even when you're "calling". This is because you have to constantly replace two of your bidding card types ("charcter" and "booster"), with only the third type ("support") remaining available throughout an entire auction. Thus, bidding exclusively with character cards, if you bid a "2", then a "2", then a "3", you'll have expended a total of 7 resources, rather than the 3 that would have been the case in just about every other auction game.

One other small variation in the Blue Moon auction system is the victory threshold. This is a brinkmanship gameplay element, where the value of victory in an auction doubles when a player has bid sufficient resources. In some ways it offsets the normal Rule of Gambling: that each bid is independent, and that you always have to bid based upon your current chances of victory, not what you've already comitted to the pot.

Overall, Blue Moon has tons that's uncommon or unique in the world of auction design, but when you break it down point-by-point, the ancestry still is fairly obvious. In particular, Blue Moon is similar in many ways to the design of Knizia's later Beowulf, with their shared constrained cards, call-or-raise auctions, and Pokeresque, everyone-pays results. They could easily be the same system, other than Blue Moon's constant, required rebids, and its unique, special-powered cards which draw it closer to the CCG world.

Playing Blue Moon as an Auction

By correctly understanding Blue Moon as an auction, you think about its strategy in some different ways.

I already mentioned the "Rule of Gambling", that you shouldn't stay in an auction if you can't win. There are, however, a number of elements that make this credo more complex in Blue Moon. First, as noted, the stake doubles if a player stays in long enough. Second, you're constantly drawing cards, and thus there's an opportunity to notably better your hand at any time. Third, if you can't do well in the current auction, you might not be able to do well in the next auction either (unless you're more powerful in the opposite "currency"--earth or fire--from what's being used at the current time).

Generally, you shouldn't stay in an auction if you can't win it, and this is especially true if you think you might have a better chance at winning the next auction, either through flipping the element or through discarding and drawing. This should stay foremost in your thoughts in Blue Moon, much as it would in any other auction game.

A second auction-related element that you need to think about in Blue Moon is whether you play low or play high. There are a few purposes to playing low in Blue Moon: to try and get a dragon for a lower expenditure of cards; to cycle low cards out of your hand; to bluff that you have a stronger hand than you actually do; and to build up enough cards to double the stakes. However, playing low also has its disadvantages: you may be giving your opponent a chance to cycle low cards too, which might be particularly useful to him if he just expended high cards in a victorious duel.

A third auction-related element in Blue Moon is the question of whether to call or raise. Much of this goes to the same points as the low-or-high question, but there are also times when it's particularly foolish to call, such as when an opponent is retrieving a character card that he could instantly replay. On the other hand, the higher your "jump bid", the more likely that a savvy opponent will simple bow out, under the theory that you just wasted a lot more money than he did--as if you massively overbid for a check in For Sale.

Playing Blue Moon as an auction game requires a few strategies that might not be immediately obvious, as raised by these various points. You may want to drop out of an auction even if you might be able to win, if you think your opponent bid a lot more than he needed to. You might want to bluff, and imply you have more power than you think you do (though because many players play this as a play-cards-till-I-can't exercise, the usefulness of this could be limited). And, you'll need to seriously think about dilemmas such as bidding-high-or-low or calling-or-raising, as a financial decision, not just a knee-jerk reaction based on what cards you have in your hand.

Blue Moon as Resource Management

At its core mechanical level, I'm pretty confident that Blue Moon is an auction game. However there's another way to look at it: as resource management. Instead of looking at the 6 auction cards that a player has in his hand at any one time, instead consider that each player starts off with identical resources: 30 potential cards. Thus, the ultimate goal is to manage your cost-benefit ratio better than your opponent. If you can gain more dragons than he does by expending the same amount of cards, then you win.

With this in mind, it's worthwhile to consider the composition of the first two Blue Moon decks:

Hoax Vulca
Characters 18 18
Boosters 3 4
Support 6 5
Leadership 3 3
Fire Value 57 69
Earth Value 44 45

The balance of currency cards (meaning the characters, support, and boosters) between the two decks, really lays out its basis as a resource-management game. The differentiation in currency values is a bit more surprising, but the Hoax deck more than makes up for this with retrievable cards and a few other surprises.

In understanding Blue Moon as a resouce-management game, you can address its strategy from a few different angles, not immediately obvious when thinking about auctions. Namely: are your actions forcing your opponent to spend more resources than you, and if so is that worth losing a dragon (perhaps temporarily)?

Blue Moon as a Card Game

Blue Moon has gotten most of its buzz as a customizable card game. I've saved the discussion of that part of its anatomy last, not because it's not notable, but rather because it's not necessarily the most notable element of the game.

Collectible Card Games of course first appeared with the release of Magic: The Gathering in 1993. There were built on the old trading card model, where cards had different rarities, and you bought a random assortment of cards, then starting building playable decks from those random assortments.

After the initial release of CCGs, two similar card-game types appeared. First were the card-games-that-played-like-CCGs, which were games with special-power heavy cards which were sold as singular entities rather than collectible games. These are mostly American beer & pretzels style games, like Den of Thieves or Portable Adventures, but also have appeared in Euro-designs, such as Jambo.

Slightly more notable is the sub-genre called "customizable card games", which tend also to be games sold in singular, non-collectible units, but which have multiple units that you can combine to form unique, customizable decks. Reiner Knizia has done two of these, Scarab Lords (2002), with sequel Minotaur Lords (2004), and Blue Moon (2004).

Much of the CCG aspect of Blue Moon is pretty standard. You can combine cards in a somewhat arbitrary manner to create a deck that you think will be better than your opponents'. You try and set up good combinations of powers when you do so. However what's really notable about the design of Blue Moon as a CCG is that Reiner Knizia correctly recognizes deck building as a metagame.

Traditional CCGs have used the Magic: The Gathering model, which absolutely balances all cards within the game, so that a player has no better or worse reason to include any card in his deck, other than how it might interact with his deck as a whole. This is typically done through resource costs. In Magic: The Gathering all cards have a casting cost; as cards grow more powerful this cost increases in absolute value, and also might increase in playing difficulty, by requiring multiples of a specific color of mana or multiple specific types of mana. Chaosium's former CCG, Mythos, also used a resource balance. Each card had a sanity value, that tended to run from -3 to +1. Cards with more sanity cost tended to more valuable, and those with sanity gains tended to be fairly weak.

Instead Blue Moon labels cards with a value, from 0 to 4 moons, which is not an in-game resource cost. These moons are used when deck constructing. There are limits on including higher value cards. Thus, there's no longer a need to balance every single card in-game, and deck construction elements are correctly moved from game to metagame, smoothing out the gameplay.

As an aside, Knizia further considered deck building as metagame in his previous CCG release, Scarab Lords. There deck reconstructions happened in between rounds of play from a set deck. It ultimately failed, however, due to a lesser variety in the deck, and the fact that the deck construction was entirely absent if you choose to play only one round of the game.

Concerns & Qualms

Overall, Blue Moon is an elegant, interesting game that combines elements of auction, conflict, resource-management, and (if you want) deck construction. I do ultimately have a few (minor) concerns with it, however.

First and foremost, the endgame is messy. Being forced out of a conflict due to running out of character cards, and then having to discard to end the game is very inelegant, and confusing for first-time players. I'm not sure why the game doesn't end when one player has drawn his deck and is out of character cards, which would be the same thing 90% of the time, and a more elegant, Knizian solution.

Beyond that, I ultimately have some concerns about how the deck construction for Blue Moon works, because I haven't actually done it yet. When the game was originally conceived, it was the decks of cards that were balanced, not the cards themselves. Thus when you move onto deck construction you're left wondering, "Why would I ever include Vetraskedas the Skeptic (Hoax/3/1/no powers) rather than Ledinemras the Monk (Hoax/4/1/no powers)." Clearly, you wouldn't.

My general assumption is that the power level of a Blue Moon deck will increase when you deck construct, but perhaps that's as it should be, because you want to reward good metagaming in a deck-construction environment. I'm planning to try it out later this year, and when I'm done I plan to return here with a few decks that you can use to try and crush your friends.

Until then, watch out for the Buka.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The Game Psychiatrist--The Substitute

Dr: Hello, you must be Mary.

M: Hi, where’s Dr. Meepolous?

Dr: He had to be away for the week. I’m Dr. Boardbent. How are you doing today, Mary?

M: Well, Doctor, I think I’m losing my love for gaming.

Dr: Uh-huh, that’s good. Dr. Meepolous will be very happy to hear that.

M: ?? You don’t understand; I’m here because that’s a BAD thing. For the last 3 years, gaming has been a big part of my life. What will I do if I lose interest in it?

Dr: You will spend all that wasted money on something worthwhile. Gambling is a terrible addiction which takes your money and leaves you with nothing.

M: !! Gambling! I don’t gamble, I play board games! Are you sure Dr. Meepolous isn’t in the other room? Maybe this is just a test of some sort. Maybe I’m on TV!

Dr: Oh, board games. Yes. I see. Well, you could read a book or take a class in painting.

M: Doc, I hate to say this, but you’re really beginning to piss me off. Have you ever played any Euro-games?

Dr: Euro-games….hmmm…I played Monopoly once as a child and I used to play Risk in college.

M: That’s it?! THAT’S your idea of board games?! Oh, for the love of Knizia!! (heavy sigh) O.k., Doc, there are other games now; games that don’t take hours and hours to play and leave you feeling like the 9th puppy of an 8-teat dog. (Starting to pace the floor) These games give you decisions to make, get your brain working, give you strategic choices.

Dr: Risk has all those things, Mary.

M: You’re just messing with me, aren’t you? And how many games of Risk did you lose because the dice were siding with the other guy just when you REALLY needed them to come up with a lot of happy little pips on them?

Dr: Mm-hmmm. I see your point.

M: Here’s what I’m going to do for you, Doc, I’m going to bring in a couple of my games to show you. Are you going to be here tomorrow?

Dr: Yes. I have a free hour at 2:00.

M: Great. I’ll see you then.

{M to self: I can’t believe Dr. Meepolous had THAT guy sub for him.}

{Dr. to self: That was TOO easy. I hope she brings in Torres; I’ll play that with any number of players.}
Flandern 1302—A Stagnant Game

I’ve played Flandern 1302 twice, once with 3 players and once with 4, the maximum number of players, and both times I’ve been less than impressed with it; it was, in a word, flat. I was left with the feeling that there should be a good game there but I couldn’t find it.

The board is set up with 6 areas depicting cities, each with 13 spaces to place your tiles in trying to get the majority in the city. Each player has the same hand of cards which include one card for each city that lets you build in that city, a card that lets you build in any city but doesn’t let that tile count until you play in that city again and remove the “under construction” marker, a card that lets you pick up your played cards, and three one-time-use “influence” cards which can give you the chance to play first.

Each player has a set of tiles that match the color of one of the cities but there are also tiles which match the remaining 2 cities. The gray tiles represent another guild vying for superiority in the cities and can be played by anyone. The church tiles can also be played by anyone and add points to the city’s worth when it’s scored.

All players choose a card (or cards, if you want to use your influence to go first) and they are revealed at the same time. The player who plays first is the one who played the most cards but most often all players will choose only 1 card so the start player goes first. If you chose a city card, you can place one of your tiles, one from the neutral guild, or one of the church tiles on that city. The only rules for placement of tiles is that it must be adjacent to a tile already placed and it cannot touch another tile of that color along an edge.

That’s the basics of the game. A city is scored when no more tiles can be added to it.

I can be tenacious when something bugs me so I’ve spent some time trying to figure out why this game doesn’t appeal to me or the other gamers I’ve played it with. My conclusion is that I like a game to have “movement”, the ability to change the board or expand it in some way. My favorite games have that: Magna Grecia, Through the Desert, Torres, Trias, Hacienda, Hansa.

So now I have an answer and my brain proceeds to apply it to this stagnant game. Instead of simply placing a tile on a city, let’s offer you the choice of moving a tile to another city. Now you can change the board and it forces another choice on you: where to put the piece to do you no harm and maybe screwing up someone else in the process. That could work.

The influence cards that let you go first are nice but going first isn’t important very often, at least that was the feeling I got. What if playing the influence card let you take a second turn in the city you chose? Now you can remove a piece from a city and replace it with another. Or you can place 2 tiles in a city in one turn and complete it for scoring. Now THAT’S what I call influence!

Would these changes make the game more appealing to us? I don’t know and it may be a while before I can convince the others to give it a try. There are so many very good games that I rarely get to play, do I even care to waste the time fiddling with this one? And would these changes now make the game even slower since you have more decisions to make? If someone decides to give this a try, I’d love to know what you think.

For all of you who like to play games online, there’s a new PBEM site called MaBi Web which offers Hansa and Richelieu. I’ve played several games of Hansa and I’m very impressed with the graphics and implementation of the game. It’s easy to use and has all the features you want in an online game including letting you start your turn over again—almost a requirement in a game where you can play your turn in so many ways. The site is still in Beta testing so there may still be a bug or two but MaBi is very nice and quickly replies to any questions or problems.

I also want to let you know that I have started my own personal blog where I plan to talk about my gaming as well as other things that pop into my head. Come and visit me at Meeple Monologues.
Until next time, keep your penguins on the ice.


Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Session Report

JRR Tolkein:

The game was set in the deep basement of our little friend, Bandyburr. It was not a barren and sandy basement, nor a wet basement filled with all sorts of mildew and rubbish. It was a Bandyburr basement, and that meant comfort.

The basement was once the great basement of the old Miller family, or, as it was called at that time, "Miller's basement". The Miller's called it "The Cellar", or as we say in modern English "down the stairs". But the Miller family moved away when their pipe-weed ran out, and now the basement, and the house above it, was owned by the Bandyburr clan.

One late evening I sat on the steps with young Bandyburr in his eleventeenth year as he ruminated about his house and his basement. I blew my pipe, sending spheres of multicolored bubbles into the later evening air.

"Why, Gandalf? Why has it come to me? How come I have to live in this house with this basement? I wish it was someone else!"

I answered with a warm smile. "So do all who live in such a house, young Bandyburr. But ours is not to choose what house we live in, but to make the best of the house that has been given to us. You may yet be surprised at the role this basement has to play, for good or for ill."

PG Wodehouse:

"Ah yes, now where was I?" I said. My infernal bowtie!

"You were talking about the game, sir!" said Jeeves as he intervened to fix the tie. Dash it, what a chore it was to fix one's own tie!

"Was I? Oh yes I was! Quite clever of me, wasn't it?"

"Yes, sir. Very clever indeed, sir." The aforementioned tie was just about fixed, in the way that ties can be fixed if they so have a mind to be.

"What was I saying?"

"You were saying how the game was set up, sir."

"Oh, yes, I was. Very good. Good thing you reminded me." I smiled squarely at the mirror. What a tie!

"Yes, sir."

"So. Um... so how was it set up?"

Raymond Chandler:

How was the game set up? That was what the dame was asking me. I wanted to answer. But I could see that she wasn't asking about the Settlers game. There was a game being played, but it wasn't Settlers.

"Why should I tell you?" I played. My card hit the table face down, like my partner's body had hit the pavement. I knew by her straight flush that she hadn't been expecting me to keep my cards hidden. My ace in the hole. Some game, I thought. If I'm playing a game, I want to know what the stakes are. And if any of those stakes are aimed at my throat.

She wasn't talking. Well, she was talking, but she wasn't saying much.

She batted her baby blues and took an interest in her shoes. "Is that any way to talk to a lady?" she asked. Hell, no, I thought. But there were no ladies in here.

Ernest Hemingway:

I looked at the board. It was cardboard. Hexes. A good game. Full of lust and vinegar. My father used to play this game with me. We would go hunting. The smell of metal shot would hang in the air. A fresh blood kill, which meant fresh blood meat. I hated the blood, but the meat was juicy in my mouth even before we brought it home and my mother would sear it up. Then we would play as the searing smell of meat wafted in my nostrils.

The meat is gone, but the memory of the blood lingers on. I see it when I place the clay hex on the board with my straight unshaking fingers. The hard Spanish tequila sits near the board, drilling into my head as I remember the night when I last saw my Spanish hard-bodied girl, Maria Catanialla.

A.A. Milne:

"Here's how we play. We put the settlements on the board and then we get points. Did you get that, Pooh?"

"Pooh, are you listening to Rabbit?" asked Piglet.

"Yes, I was listening, but I didn't hear properly, because just as I was listening I got a rail from TransAmerica stuck in my ear. Could you just repeat that last part?"

"From where should I start?" asked Rabbit.

"From the part where I couldn't hear properly," said Pooh.

"And where was that?" asked Rabbit.

"From the time I got the rail stuck in my ear," said Pooh.

Rabbit threw his hands up in disgust. "Oh Pooh, you have very little brain." He huffed out of the room.

Robert Asprin:

"So you put the house on the board and it scores points," I said, not feeling too confident.

"It's a settlement, and yes, and it also gives you more resources," Aahz was smiling. When Aahz smiles, it doesn't make me feel any more confident. In fact, I felt like my confidence had just gone on a full-blown vacation.

"But you said it scores points," I said tentatively.

"Yes, that's right, kid. Now you got it."

"So how does it give you resources?"

"You roll the dice."

"You can roll the dice if you have a house?" I asked.

"No, you roll the dice, anyway." Aahz began to get that look.

"I don't understand." That was the wrong thing to say.

Aahz looked up at the sky and shook his head. "Of all the people in my game group ... " He looked at me. "Look kid, you gonna roll the dice or am I gonna bite your head off?"


Judy Blume

The boys were making fun of me because I didn't understand the game. It wasn't fair!

"Look at her! She put her house on the 11 - 3 - 2. What a loser!" Bobby laughed and laughed.

"Oh, shut up, Bobby!" I was nearly in tears. I stood up and ran out of the room, crying. I was so mortified! I wanted to die! Why did Mom and Dad have to send me to this game group? Why couldn't we stay in New Jersey?

And on top of that, my stomach was causing me pain. Maybe I was getting my period? What was that like? I wondered.

Elsa Holmelund Minarik

Little Bear put a wood down on the table. He put a brick down on the table.

"That's a wood," he said. "See? That's a wood. And that's a brick. That's a wood and a brick. I can play a road. I will play a road on the board. I will play a road right here."

Little Bear put a road down on the board next to his settlement.

"Very good, Little Bear. You played a road. That was very well done." said Cat.

Little Bear was very happy. He did a little dance.

Monty Python

Fetch me hither a development card, if you please.

I'm sorry, we're right out of development cards. Always get them later in the week.

Tush, tush, not my day, is it? Do you have any roads?

No sir.


Y........ no.






Not today, sir.

I got it. How about wheat?

Not much call for it round here.

Not much call ...? It's the single most popular resource in the world!

Not round here, sir.

I see. So, what is the most popular resource 'round here'.

Wood, sir.

Wood, is it?

Yes, sir.

Wood, you say.

Staggeringly popular. It's our number one best seller.

I see. Wood. OK. .... Have you got any he asked expecting the answer no.

I'll have a look, sir. .... nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnn No.

Dylan Thomas

This wood I cut
This wheat I shocked
This heavy brick I built upon
In town at night
So deep and dark
I raged and cried out in the dawn
My father still
So pale and wan
This earthy game was done and gone
His head I held
While whispr'ing I
Sleep now, sleep, for we have won.