Saturday, April 29, 2006

Gaming with the Infantry

The 3 year old infant, that is.

Fraser's taking a break this week so I have a bonus turn at the picspam blog.

We've just this week really started gaming with Otto, who turned 3 in March - and my goodness, was she ready for it!

The first game we dug out was Colour Clowns - you can read about our second session at BoardGameGeek. This is an old game, which is still available in very limited quantities, where each player has a mat with a picture of three colourful clowns. Players roll dice (one shows colour - purple/orange/green - and the other shows shapes - triangle/circle/square) to see which part of which clown they need to make - the hat (triangle), face (circle) or tummy (square). If you roll a purple circle, you need to make the purple clown's face (which is blue) purple - by placing a pink perspex circle on top of it. There's not much game there, and it gets bogged down at the end as people roll three or four purple circles in a row when what they need is a green triangle ... but for a three year old who is just learning about mixing colours, it is fantastic. It's still her first choice off the shelf, although these days she prefers to play with the shapes rather than bother with the dice:

Otto lining up the shapes

Otto dealing cards for I have...The second game we tried was "I have ..." - we picked this up for about $7.50 from our FLGS last Double Discount Day ... and I have to say, we overpaid. This is billed as a game for 5 year olds and up - it's a simple card game, where each card has a picture of an animal with the statement, "I have ..." on the front - and a picture of a DIFFERENT animal with the question, "Who has ...?" on the reverse.

One player starts by playing one of their cards into the centre of the table: "I have an elephant." They then flip the card and ask, "Who has a snake?"

Any player with a snake card can then play their snake, flip it and ask, "Who has a giraffe?" - etc etc

Again, not much of a game. It's billed as great for early readers/pre-readers - and, to its credit, it is well designed enough that Otto, at three, can play it quite competently. She's learning to deal cards and is learning about trick taking and game responses.

And practising animal noises.

I recorded part of our game this evening. (107 KB, 27 seconds, MP3)

Piggies!The third game we tried was more of a success from our perspective. Piggyback, or Rüsselbande, is a simple roll-and-move game with two things that make it stand out. The first is the pig meeples (peeples?) which you can use to make all sorts of shapes. The second is the fact that pigs can take rides on each other - if your pig lands on the same dot as another pig, it takes a ride on that pig's back until your next go.

This is a delightful game, and a good introduction to the use of dice, without the intense yawnfest of many roll-and-move games. Also, it's short.

Preparing for our Family Boardgame Night at Biggie's school, we've broken out some other new kids' games this week - Catch the Match, Frog Juice and Gopher It. They're all good games for kids around 5-8 years, but they're not games I'd get out to play with adults.

Lastly, since a couple of people asked for these, here are the photos of the completed Tikal game from last week.

many gingerbread tilesI realised on Monday morning that I didn't actually need a set of 10 nesting square cookie cutters to make the tiles, I could just cut squares of gingerbread - so another batch was baked, and we went for full playability.

just one tile on there nowAs you can see, the '3' square fits nicely on this '2' temple hex ... it's when we add more tiles that it turns into a dexterity game...


That's ten ... but for how long?

Biggie and I had fun counting out sweets for the pieces - small jelly babies for explorers and big ones for leaders, 'squirts' for tents and snakes for temple guards.

Here are the final photos of the game all packed up for presentation:

Until next time, happy gaming!


Friday, April 28, 2006

Odds and Ends/Here I Stand

I was contemplating my circle of game friends. Except for my wife they are all single. A couple are single due to divorces. I made a list. I included everyone who I would be likely to play with at least once in the next year. Came up with about fifteen names. There is only one local couple and another couple in Anchorage on the list.
Been organizing DenaliCon II. This is an RSVP boardgame event held over the Fourth of July Weekend in Denali Park. Last year there were about two dozen people who attended over the weekend. We had a frickin' blast, even went whitewater rafting. This year the fourth is on a Tuesday. It's more difficult for people to attend this year. Many won't be able to take a four day weekend or even a three day weekend. If you are from Alaska or northern Canada or will be visiting Alaska over the Fourth of July weekend and are interested in a camping/boardgame event drop me a line. There is a fee.

I'd love to hold the event closer to Anchorage in the future. If we can get more participation from that area it might happen. If you can't come this year, but would consider participating next year drop me a line.
My daughter is now old enough to attend the Boys and Girls Club, so I brought her for Thursday evening games. The physics of weight and balance involved in Villa Paletti eluded her, but she kicked butt on Pirate's Cove. She picked it up much quicker than the older kids who had never played. I was quite proud. She was pondering which opponent was likely to go to which island and who she could beat in a battle. She was deciding if she needed money or if her hull could even carry the treasure she would earn at an island. I was quite proud. Did I say that twice? Oh well. If not for needing help with the Tavern Cards (and the game could be played without them) she could have played by herself. Six years old, by the way.
Die Macher has been sitting unplayed for a couple years now. I dug out my English translation of the rules and started reading. I fell asleep about the time I got to the components list. I usually make it to page 7 before I give up. Those are some dry rules, and there are twenty-odd pages of them. Every time I try to figure the game out it becomes clear that I need someone to teach me. This is one game I need to play at BGG.CON.
Keythedral, Antiquity, Anno 1503, Mallworld, Tongiaki, Rommel in the Desert, Taj Mahal, Silverton, 2038, Siena, Ricochet Robots, Beowulf, 7 Ages, Punct, among several others also sit unplayed. Wallenstein, Wilderness War, Age of Steam, Railroad Tycoon, Tower of Babel, Command and Colors, Descent and a couple others have been played once or twice and I'm chomping at the bit to play again.

Played Here I Stand for 10 hours on Saturday. Took a lunch break for about an hour, spent another couple hours looking up rules. With experience I think we could whittle down the playing time to about 5 or 6 hours If you can get six gamers together for an entire day I would recommend Here I Stand. Further play might reveal some flaws, but we had a blast. Here I Stand is a card-driven game set in the early 16th century. It is based upon the wars of the Reformation era. It is a wargame by any definition, but it is not like any wargame you have ever played. All six players have different goals and abilities. It is not your typical conquer-territory-to-win wargame. In many instances players can't directly affect the victory points earned by their opponents.


Ottomans: The Ottoman player mainly earns victory points (VPs) by conquering territory, but can also earn VPs by engaging in piracy in the Mediterranean.

English: Henry VIII wants a male heir. The English player can spend one turn each round advancing to the next wife and rolling a die to see if a male heir was conceived. If Edward is born the English gain 5 VP. Otherwise the English gain VP by exploring the New World, having home spaces converted to Protestantism, and by conquering territory in Europe.

The English player is further encouraged to produce a male heir, because if Mary assumes the throne upon Henry's death the Pope (Catholic player) has a 50/50 chance of being able to use the card played by the English instead of the English player. (Mary was staunchly Catholic).

French: The French earn VP by building Chateaus. One turn each round the French can build a Chateau, otherwise the French can earn victory points by conquering territory and exploring the New World.

Hapsburgs: The Hapsburgs begin the game in control of much of Europe. The Protestants are gradually taking control of Germany, but the Hapsburg player cannot affect the religious status of his territory. The Hapsburgs can fight Protestant troops, but not in the early rounds of the game. Killing troops makes it harder for the Protestant movement to spread, but can only slow the spread. The Hapsburgs gain VP by conquering territory and by exploring the New World.

Catholic: The Pope has a small army and can earn VP by occupying territory, but mainly earns points by building St. Peter's Basilica and by maintaining religious control of Europe. The Pope can call debates against reformers (and vice versa). If a debate goes badly for the reformers they can be burned at the stake for Catholic victory points, or the Protestants can earn VP for disgracing the Catholic debater. The Pope can excommunicate European leaders, causing them to lose a card each round they are excommunicated. To get back into the good graces of the Church the Monarch gives up a card and the value of the card is committed to the building of St. Peter's Basilica.

Protestants: The reformers earn victory points by changing the religious affiliation of European cities, by translating the Bible into English, German and French, and by winning debates with the Catholics. There are six electorate spaces in Germany that provide extra VP if they are controlled by the Protestants.

Although the rulebook is thick, each player only needs to concern himself with a portion of the rules. For example, the Ottomans, Catholics and Protestants can't explore the New World, only the Catholics and Protestants have to know the religious debate rules, every player has nation specific victory point considerations, etc.

Your first game will go much more smoothly if nation assignments are made prior to the game and each player has a chance to study the rules that are nation specific.

Here I Stand could be my favorite game of 2006. There is a ton of room for each game to develop very differently.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Last Season's Hot Games: A Top Ten from Essen 2005, Part One

Last year I worked up a list of the top ten games to be released at Essen 2005. Now that several months have gone by, I've actually had the time to play through all of them (other than no-show Tempus). As a result, this week and next I'm going to offer up a summary of my opinions about the best (and worst) games from my list.

This week, the top five games, which I grade between an "A" and a "B+", all well above average.

#1: Caylus (A)

My Thoughts: first impression (12/05), comparison to R.E. (2/06), 2nd comparison (2/06)
Authors: William Attia
Synopsis: resource management & city development
Background: France, 1289
U.S. Publisher: Rio Grande Games

Caylus entered life on BGG with people claiming that early playtesters were artificially inflating the ratings. Several months later, on 2/18/06, two of the top threads at BGG concerned Caylus. One contained a scholary discussion of whether to use your own production buildings, while the other breathlessly asked, which is deeper, 2-player Caylus or Chess?. What a difference a half-a-year makes.

There is no question in my mind that Caylus is grossly overhyped and that the alternatively worshipping and over-intellectualized discussions concerning it are excessive. There's also no doubt in my mind that Caylus is a good game. I doubt it deserves to be credited as the #2 game of all time, but I suspect it will stay in the top 3 at BGG, contradicting my stance of last year. I don't know what rating it actually should have, because the length of the game puts it outside of my own enjoyment zone most of the time, much as happened with the previous year's Power Grid, which I'd also acknowledge as a good game.

Caylus' success comes through excellent design of a resource-management mechanic. You are constantly forced to balance spending actions to earn resources and spending actions to spend resources; this is a mechanic that is also used to excellent effect in Union Pacific and Ticket to Ride, and gets the design going from the start. Even once you have a resource, you must also decide in which of multiple ways to use it, and each of those answers can have very different results.

Another real advantage of Caylus is its variability. The game can develop quite differently from play-to-play, and there's also the option for different styles of play to really throw things up in the air. This will help to keep the game fresh.

Caylus' greatest challenge will be its length. It runs too long for casual play. The provost/bailiff mechanic can either shorten or telescope the length (depending on how you look at it), so there's a lot of variability, and I think that's generally to the game's detriment when it goes to the longer side. The amount of strategy in the game is also deceptive. Other than the royal favors, most of the game is pure tactical, with little or no ability to plan more than a turn ahead at best, and that again clashes with the length.

The real reason that I don't think that Caylus deserves to be at a #2 is that it's not a well-developed game. It's pretty good, but there are some sharp edges. I think a good developer would have pulled down the game length, figured out a way for players to have more strategic basis in the buildings that they'd created, without undercutting the basic idea of renting buildings, and would have done something with the provost and bailiff to ensure that they couldn't crack the game length up or down by an hour or more at the players' whim. And that would have made Caylus a top-3 deserving game.

As it is, however, I still rate Caylus as the best of show for Essen 2005, beating the new ed of Reef Encounter by a nose. If you like serious, heavy-strategy games, if you don't mind a 2+ hour game length that can vary wildly, and if you enjoy indie games, sharp edges and all, Caylus was the must-buy from the show.

And let me finish up by offering kudos to Rio Grande who are now making the coins & the new tile from 2nd edition Caylus available to 1st edition purchasers for just $4 sent their way via Paypal. I got my new pieces just a few days after I made my order. Yay for remembering the early purchasers.

#2: Reef Encounter (A)

My Thoughts: Comparison to Caylus (2/06), 2nd Comparison (2/06), Review (2/06)
Authors: Richard Breese
Synopsis: resource management, tile laying & set collection
Background: A Coral Reef
U.S. Publisher: Z-Man Games

Reef Encounter was first released back in 2004, but in a limited 1000-copy run. It didn't hit the mass market until late 2005 with the Z-Man Games edition. That's a shame because I think it lost a lot of momentum in the meantime, and that it hasn't really received the attention it's deserved since the new release. Reef Encounter was my second Richard Breese game, and after being very disappointed with Keythedral I was very impressed with Reef Encounter.

The solid heart of Reef Encounter is a superb tile-laying game. You have to carefully manage two resources needed to lay tiles (larva cubes and polyp tiles) and you also have to pay a lot of attention to the board(s), figuring out where to lay tiles, and how to do so in such a way as to keep your tiles safe, to generate more resources that you need (in the form of consumed tiles), and to take advanctage of current coral dominance. Reef Encounter's intricate ecology of tiles, cubes, and cylinders really keeps you on your toes.

Reef Encounter also works because it hits two emotional centers that I think are crucial for the best games. The first emotion is anxiety. You're constantly worrying about other players taking your brilliant moves or else attacking your coral--and you can never keep it all safe. The second emotion is joy. You can make the sort of brilliant single-turn moves that you find at the heart of the best tactical games, and really feel like you improved your position notably and meaningfully.

Though Reef Encounter is another indie game, like Caylus, I find it very well polished. Richard Breese knows his art even without an external developer. Still, it does have faults. I have some concerns over the variability of strategy possible. It feels like you always need to move in the same broad directions. I also think that the game could have been much more fruitfully started several turns into the current gameplay without any loss of strategy. And that would have also resolved another problem, which is once again length, though Reef Encounter seems a little shorter than Caylus, and can't telescope to the same extent based solely on player play.

I've gone back & forth on whether I think Caylus or Reef Encounter is actually a better game. Like Caylus I think that Reef Encounter is almost a must-buy for the most serious gamers who don't mind longer fare, with my only concern being eventual replayability.

#3: Il Principe (B+)

My Thoughts: Review (4/06)
Authors: Emanuele Ornella
Synopsis: auction, logistics, majority control
Background: Renaissance Italy
U.S. Publisher: Z-Man Games

I've had a weird relationship with Italian games these last few years. The more I play games published by daVinci, Mind the Move, ZuGames, and Venice Connection, the more I think that Italian game designers have minds that work in weird ways. I have an increasingly long list of Italian games that just didn't click in my head when I read the rules, and which sometimes befuddled me with their multilayered strategies. It includes Go West, Lucca Citta, Oriente, Ostrakon, Palatinus, and Tuchulcha. And now it includes Il Principe too.

Don't get me wrong, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. The Italians are doing things that other designers aren't, and because they're so unusual that sometimes throws me when I try and grasp the games. I also suspect these Italian designers are overloading mechanics more than their modern German brethren, so that a single decision can have many more results, and thus you have to think harder to arrive at a good strategy. I've noted that German games seem to be getting simpler in recent years; perhaps we should be looking to Italy for the next surge of designer games.

But more on all of this in a future article about "The Italian Design Scene"; for now let's talk about Il Principe specifically.

Il Principe has a little bit of everything in it. There are simple auctions which give you resources and those resources can be used to build cities or just to increase you resource majorities. Both building and resource majorities can give you board-based majority control tokens at various times--or even straight-up victory points. The resource majorities actually give their various benefits through an intermediary: a set of 10 roles. You gain majority in a resource, you win a role, then you get a benefit as a result. The systems all work together quite well, but trying to figure out all the various effects and make good look-ahead moves is tough.

In fact overall, I'd say Il Principe is a very tough game: high on the complexity scale--not necessarily in its rules, but instead in its strategy. But, for a complex, logistical game it does great. After a first play I found it fascinating, interesting, and deep and after a second play I felt much less overwhelmed and I was able to play better. It's the same trajectory I followed on the aforementioned Reef Encounter, and I think they both fit the same category of building simple mechanics into complex and meaningful strategy.

#4: Elasund: The First City of Catan (B+)

My Thoughts: Review (11/05)
Authors: Klaus Teuber
Synopsis: city development & conflict
Background: Catan
U.S. Publisher: Mayfair Games

I think a lot of us were kind of expecting another Settlers before we played Elasund and were surprised that it was an original and innovative game, probably Teuber's best new work since ... I'm not sure what.

Elasund is a game of city building where you pay gold to lay down building permits and build building, and sometimes get into conflicts with other players as a result. In many ways Elasund simplifies Teuber's standard idea of random resource creation & management by cutting it down to just those two elements: gold and building permits. But, that's not where the game really is. Instead it's in the potential for interpersonal conflict--the way in which you can steal other people's on-board resources (the building permits) and even destroy their buildings. It's an original conflict style, and ends up creating a game that will probably appeal more to players of Domaine (which also had an original conflict style) than to players of The Settlers of Catan.

However after three games I continue to have the same feeling I had after my first play: it's very dry. I also find the back-and-forth of the Victory Points a little frustrating. As a result of the particular method of conflict, you can almost get to the end of the game, then the winner's top building can get knocked down, adding 30 minutes to the game.

Nonetheless, if you don't mind your games a little dry, and you like some in-your-face conflict, Elasund is a good game. Fans of the original Settlers of Catan need not necessarily apply.

#5: Railroad Tycoon (B+)

My Thoughts: Review (12/05)
Authors: Martin Wallace, Glenn Drover
Synopsis: economic, resource management, connections
Background: United States, The Age of Steam
U.S. Publisher: Mayfair Games

Railroad Tycoon is a fun boardgame that meets many of my criteria for creativity & strategy, but which I will almost never play. The main problem is length, because Railroad Tycoon takes 30-45 minutes to play per player, and the ideal player number is somewhere in the 4-6 range. If I could guarantee a 2-hour game every time, it'd be OK, but when it easily runs 3-4 hours, that's just more than my personal gaming can support.

That's a pity because Railroad Tycoon does a great job of making Wallace's Age of Steam more accessible, and thus more enjoyable for a more casual player like myself. The biggest problem that I have with Age of Steam is its unforgiving nature. If you come up a dollar short you just can't do what you want to it, and this results in intense logistical calculations at the start of every turn. Railroad Tycoon turns that around by the simple act of allowing you to raise money at any time; the core economic system is still there (albeit in a modified form) but now you don't have to plan as far in advance, and there's no opportunity to get shut down by a simple mathematical mistake.

Despite the long game length, I think that downtime is mostly resolved by the use of threaded turns, with each player taking one action at a time. Beyond that you have the essence of Wallace's refined railroading system: construction with tiles, tactical pickup and delivery, and tough economics.

Whether Railroad Tycoon is the epitome of Wallace's railroad games is up for negotiation, but I'll stand by the belief that it's the apex of the system for more casual gamers, particularly more casual Anglo-American gamers, raised on History of the World and Axis & Allies, who are much more used to games of this length than the average Eurogamer.

I find it interesting that I've written in recent times about German games getting lighter and shorter. However, three of my top games here are anything but short. Caylus, Reef Encounter, and Railroad Tycoon all crack the two-hour barrier, which has always been unusual for German games, while Elasund and Il Principe run more in the 1-2 hour range.

Are German games getting more challenging again, or are these games anomalies? I suspect the latter, given that four of the five are originally indie designs (by Ystari, R&D, Warfrog, and Mind the Move), and indie designers haven't been subjected to the same market pressures which are affecting Hans, Kosmos, Alea, and others. Simply put, I bet big profits aren't as big a concern for an indie designer as a corporation.

And as for Klaus Teuber, I bet he gets to publish whatever he wants.

I wouldn't be surprised if, as the next few years progress, the only real gamer's games are coming out indie workshops on the continent, or else from publishers in Italy and America, who seem to have different gaming priorities. But, it'll be a trend to watch for in the future.

Next week I'm going to finish up my Essen list, with a few more games I really like and a number that disappointed me.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Getting Literal, in More Ways Than One

I read somewhere about an upcoming game from Asmodée called Iliade. Apparently this is based on the poem by Homer, as cards representing Achilles and Hector and the rest of their posses were mentioned in the post; however, also mentioned were cards representing elephants and catapults. Now, here's the thing: there aren't any elephants or catapults in Homer. No mention of any siege engines are made, and according to Wikipedia catapults did not come even into use until 400-300 BC, whereas the events in the Iliad are supposed to have taken place some 900 years earlier. Meanwhile elephants are pretty much out of the question. One can conceivably imagine Homer forgetting to discuss ballistas and whatnot, as the walls of Troy are not actually stormed in the time frame of the poem, but one would have to think that an elephant was worth a mention. Three entire pages are devoted to an argument about whether or not charge the Trojan lines before or after breakfast; you'd have to think that an elephant stomping around the place would rate an entire chapter. Moreover, even assuming the bronze-age Greeks knew where to get their their hands on an elephant, how would they bring it to Troy? Surely the sleek, black-hulled ships were far too small for that sort of thing. You could maybe bring some baby elephants over, but I'm guessing that the military applications of a baby elephant are rather few in number.

So here's the question: what was Asmodée thinking? How did they manage to know enough about the Iliad to include all the major characters and yet not know that there were no pachyderm charges? On the other hand, maybe they just figured no one would ever know the difference? It may even be that that degree of faithfulness to the source is beside the point. It is just a game, after all. "We've got Achilles, we've got Hector, good enough." Hell, why not have Agamemnon driving a tank? Athena would have been all over that.

What started it all: Paris must choose between the three hottest chicks in Ancient Greece. Ring a ding ding! Note the conspicuous lack of catapults.

Speaking of random weirdness on the web, I just read a very good article about the history of gaming, but it includes the phrase "the immortal Sid Sackson." Now, I certainly hope that the legacy of Sid Sackson will live on throughout the ages, but isn't "immortal" going a little too far? I mean, the man is dead, after all. As long as the guy still had a pulse you could hold onto a glimmer of hope that he would be the one human being to somehow manage to elude the grim reaper, but when he hasn't been breathing for this long a time you have to start facing facts.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Game Koans

An aspiring game designer came to see Knizia to learn how to design games. Knizia brought out a blank deck of cards, some plain wooden cubes, and a pair of faceless dice. The designer waited, but nothing else happened. "Why are you not teaching me how to design a game?" asked the designer. Answered Knizia, "I have given you everything you need to design the game. I cannot also give you the game."

Andreas was playing Puerto Rico with two students. One student took the Craftsman. "Why did you do that?" asked Andreas. "If he takes Trader, I will trade my coffee," answered the student. Andreas went to the games closet and took out a wheat card from a game of Settlers of Catan. "Why did you get that wheat card?" asked the student. "If he takes Trader, I will trade my wheat," answered Andreas. The student was then enlightened.

Knizia and Kramer were playing Tigris and Euphrates. Kramer removed his leader from one kingdom and moved it to another kingdom. "That is no longer my kingdom," said Kramer. Knizia slapped Kramer on his face. "That is no longer my face," said Knizia.

Richard Garfield came upon a student who was looking through all of her magic cards. "What are you looking for?" asked Richard. "I am looking for the best card," answered the student. Richard's eyes began darting around the room. "What are you looking for?" asked the student. "I am looking for the best air," answered Richard.

Several students were playing El Grande with Kramer. One student was agonizing over which card to take. "How shall I know what is the right thing to do?" asked the student. "I can tell you what is the right thing to do," answered Kramer. "Please do," begged the student. Kramer answered, "You must take a card."

Moon was setting up a game of Ticket to Ride in order to teach some disciples how to play. "You start the game with no claimed routes on the board," said Moon. "In order to have no claimed routes on the board, you must give to me all of your claimed routes." "But you haven't yet given us any trains," said one of the disciples. "Then you must give to me all of the claimed routes from your mind," answered Moon. "How can we give you claimed routes from our mind?" asked the disciple. "Very well, you may throw them out, if you prefer."

Sheinwold was once playing bridge when he made a risky finesse. The finesse worked, and Sheinwold made his contract. His partner remained silent. Later in the evening his partner scolded him for making the play. Sheinwold answered, "I played the finesse several hours ago. Are you still playing it?"

Olotka was once singing to himself in a field when it began to rain. One his students ran up to him and said that he should come inside before he got wet. Olotka looked at the water dripping off of the head of his student and replied, "I am not wet. I am playing Cosmic Encounter. You are wet."

Teuber was laying out the board for a game of Settlers of Catan with his students. The first student said, "I hope I get to place my first settlement first." The second student said, "I hope I get to place my settlements in good locations." The third student said, "I hope I win." Teuber said "I hope I play."


Monday, April 24, 2006


Blogger was not functioning for DW today, and Grog has been having trouble with it for the last couple weeks.

The problem has been ongoing and seems to affect each of the contributors to this blog on different days.

Note: The Blogger spellchecker doesn't recognize the word blog or Blogger.


Saturday, April 22, 2006

In the kitchen

It's been a kitchen kind of day today.

Every month or so, Biggie and I go to the Queen Victoria Market on a Saturday morning and buy a ridiculous amount of meat, fruit and veggies. Then Fraser takes the girls out in the afternoon while I chop, marinade and otherwise prepare all the food and load it into the freezer. Fresh food is nicer, true, but this way there's always something good to eat at home, however tired we feel.

Today was that day - I think I have 20 family meals plus assorted in the freezer now.

You'd think I would have given up on cooking for the day (I did make Fraser cook dinner tonight), but I still had a way to go.

You see, on Tuesday we're going to our game pimp's house to celebrate (somewhat belatedly) her birthday. And what do you get the gamer who has everything (and then some)? *Stefanie, if you are reading this, stop now. Or at least soon.*

Last year, inspiration struck. Biggie and I sat down and made a batch of gaming-inspired cupcakes. They were a big hit, and mostly recognisable. I think this one was probably my favourite:

This year, we're trying something more comprehensive. A friend taught me to play Tikal recently (thanks Jon), so it's on my radar. And on Monday, I found a hexagonal cookie cutter. The final factor was the Tikal tile breakdown that someone uploaded to the Geek ... you can see where this is heading, can't you.

My goal for the evening has been to create a full, playable copy of Tikal - in gingerbread.

My mum has probably the yummiest recipe ever for gingerbread in the world. It's a soft, honey gingerbread that is great for kids (especially if you ice/frost it) - but adults love it too. The mother of one of Biggie's friends confessed recently that she looks forward to the Bigster's birthday parties because of Nanna's gingerbread.

Because I'm writing this while I wait for the gingerbread to cool enough to add some decorations, I'll fill this in by giving you the recipe - still in Imperial measures, it's so old.


Judy's Gingerbread

12oz plain flour
Pinch salt
Level tblspn ground ginger
4 oz butter
6 oz soft brown sugar
4-5 tablespoons honey

Sift flour, salt and ginger into a bowl. Rub in butter with fingertips (I cheat and do this bit in the food processor), mix in brown sugar.

Bind together with honey and knead on a floured benchtop until smooth.

Rollout onto a floured surface and cut into shapes.

Bake @ 400F, 2nd shelf down, for 5-10 minutes.

(I bake them for 5-6 minutes @ 180 in my metric oven)

Makes lots.


It didn't take long to make a batch of gingerbread - although longer than it need have, since Otto decided to help too. The hex cutter is a great size, too.

The goal of exact playability was lost when I thought about the need to cut ten different sizes of square gingerbreads, each slightly smaller than the last. We'll find a work-around -- and it will probably involve SMARTIES.

Of course, there had to be a Meeple (isn't there one in every game box, whether it belongs there or not)

Volcanoes ready to ice:

Mixing the orange icing was another game tie-in -- Fraser and I have been playing a lot of Colour Clowns with Otto, who is just learning how to mix colours to make orange, green and purple. She remembered enough to tell me to make the orange icing by mixing yellow and red, so clearly although it's a very ordinary game, it has some educational merit.

That's what I'm using for Treasures, and I think there will be jelly babies for the playing pieces. (Intriguingly, in the FOUR BOXES of smarties I bought, there were exactly 21 yellow pieces ... and a Tikal set has 22 treasures. Cutting smarties in half is hard work!

And here's what they look like with Treasure:

Iced and ready to decorate (check out the Volcanoes):

Otto had to make her own shapes too. Now you you or me, this shape is a sideways pig - but to Otto, it is Jack-Jack from The Incredibles.

That's as far as I have got. I have four colours of smarties for playing pieces, and plan to buy some giant smarties to be the Leaders. I still need to find tents for base camps (maybe mini toblerone pieces?) and draw the stepping stones and pyramid bases.

I have no idea how to do the pyramids, though. I think perhaps I will just pile on brown smarties.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Al Grande: Private Eye

It had been a hectic week. Somehow word got out that I was posting boardgame reviews on a blog under the name Catanfan. Even Patrick the Wino who begs for change in front of my office had heard about my hobby.

“Evenin’ Al.”

“Evenin’ Pat,” I said as I handed him a buck.

“I hear that you been dissin’ Caylus, Al.”

“What?! Caylus? You know Caylus?!”

“Yeah, it’s a great game. Best game to come out of France since Civilization.”

“Well… I don’t kn-“

“Ya ought not be dissin’ Caylus, Al. It’s got some subtle strategy.”

It doesn’t happen often, but I was speechless. Patrick had been a fixture outside the strip mall since I moved my office 5 years ago. Now he was giving me grief about my internet reviews? This week just needed to end.

“How… how do you… um… know a... about my… ummm… Caylus review?” I said after I picked my jaw back off the pavement.

“The bookstore next to the mission has wireless internet. One-Leg-Frankie has a laptop. He let that crackhead Isaac use his laptop to order the Puerto Rico Expansion. Ya see, Arnie down at the Comic Shop can’t get the Puerto Rico Expansion into stock. He says his supplier doesn’t carry it. Anyhow, Isaac was looking to buy the Puerto Rico Expansion and somehow he stumbled across the Catanfan blog.”

“Oh.” I was still speechless.

What could I say?



I shook my head, turned and walked to my car. It was Friday. It had already been a long week and after talking to Patrick I needed a stiff shot of something made from a single-malt. “Humffff." Subtle strategy. What does he know? Two words Patrick, Royal Favors.

I headed over to O'Malley’s. When I got there the happy hour crowd was just starting to arrive. I wanted to be alone. Luckily everyone was seated near the table with the happy hour hors d'oeuvres. I found a stool at the far end of the bar.

“What can I get for you tonight, CF?”

I looked around, “CF?”


“Oh stop it! Not you too Jimmy.”

Jimmy chuckled and said, “Yeah, I read what you had to say about Chinatown. I’m disappointed Al.”

“Disappointed? What’s to disappoint? If anything you should be disappointed in the game Jimmy. It’s a good attempt at a pure negotiation game, but it’s just not fun.”

“Not fun? You just need to play with the Westbank Gamers variation, Al. The Westbank Gamers variation is becoming the default version of the game, in the States anyway.”

“I make my judgments based upon the rules as written Jimmy, and what do you know about the Westbank Gamers anyway?”

“The rules are written in German Al, and you don't read German." He had me on that point, not that I saw it made a difference. "And," he continued, "as for the Westbank Gamers, I used to belong to that group.”

It was a good thing Jimmy hadn’t given me my drink yet or I might have choked. As it was I almost swallowed my teeth, and the teeth that I do have aren’t fake.

He must have seen the astonishment on my face. “Yeah, before I moved up here I used to live in New Orleans across the street from... from... what was his name? Oh yeah, Gregnard. Played boardgames every week at his house.”

“Gregnard? You mean Greg Schloesser?”

“Yeah, that’s him. We called him Gregnard back then. That was a few years ago. Nice guy. Heck of a gamer.” I was stunned. I had known Jimmy for at least 3 years. He was the only bartender in town who didn’t know how to play cribbage or euchre, yet he was a boardgamer? And he used to game with the Grand-Pooh-Bah of boardgaming? For the second time in less than an hour I was speechless.

Jimmy looked down his glasses at me. “So what can I get you, Al?”

“The usual, Jimmy,” then added, “just the usual, and let me be alone for a while.”

I had my glass in hand slowly swirling the ice cubes as I stared at them. I was lost in my thoughts and didn’t notice that the bar was gradually filling up.

“Is this seat taken?” Her voice startled me.

I looked up. All I saw was cleavage.

It took a few seconds to focus on her face, but only because I couldn’t take my eyes off her shirt. It said, “Boardgamers do it on the kitchen table”. It took a while to read it all, what with all the distractions.

“Sure. Sit down. Let me buy you a drink.”

“Are you Al? Al Grande?” This time I noticed a slight German accent. Bavarian probably.

“I might be. Depends on who’s asking.”

"You can call me M. O."

"In that case you can call me Al, Al Grande. At your service ma'am. And if I might enquire, what does M. O. stand for?"

"Not M. O., Mr. Grande, Mem-mo." She spoke slowly and enunciated each syllable, "my name is Busen Memmo."

To Be Continued... Maybe...

Thursday, April 20, 2006

Anatomy of a Game: Carcassonne, Part Three: Cooperation & Competition

This is my third article on the game system of Carcassonne. In case you missed the others, the first article looked at the game design of the core game and the second article look at how the early supplements affected balance and tile distribution.

With that out of the way, onward!

I picked up a copy of Carcassonne: The River II in March, and it was the first Carcassonne supplement that I'd bought in some time, due to a variety of factors.

One factor, that's beyond the scope of this series of articles, was that The Cathars was released exclusively through a German magazine. Because I didn't want to spend outrageous amounts of money for four tiles I ended up with a gap in my Carcassonne collection, and thus some of the symptoms of The Collector Bug abated.

A second factor was that I'd had an entirely bad experience with The Count of Carcassonne. I bought it immediately upon release, as I had every Carcassonne supplement to that point, and then when I read the rules I was boggled by the damage it did to the basic non-confrontational Carcassonne gameplay. To this day it's never been played.

The third factor was that I actually ended up removing the previous supplement King & Scout from my mega-Carcassonne box because the additional complexity of the two majority-control tiles from that set (the King and the Robber) were enough to make my eyes roll back in my head, and generally decreased my Carcassonne enjoyment.

This article is the first of two in this series where I'm going to talk about this "dark evolution" of Carcassonne in recent years. Some people might like Carcassonne's new post-2003 direction, but it's definitely very different from what we saw in 2000-2003. This week's article is going to cover that issue cooperation v. competition which first popped up in The Count of Carcassonne and in the next article in this series I'll hit the issue of complexity that started to be an issue for me with King & Scout.

Cooperation & Competition

The original Carcassonne treaded a fine a line between cooperation and competition. Clearly, you wanted to win the game, but at the same time you could form temporary and informal alliances with other players in order to jointly gain points in relation to other opponents. This is one of the aspects that I think really works in Carcassonne, and it's also one of the reasons that I think Carcassonne works best as a three-player game. (That provides enough players for these dynamic alliances to work, but few enough to keep the chaos out of the game that ramps up as does the player number.)

Classic Carcassonne: I think that Klaus-Jurgen Wrede agrees with the value of cooperation, because the classic Carcassonne supplements (Inns & Cathedrals, Traders & Builders, and King & Scout) notably increased the reasons for cooperation.

Traders & Builders did this most dramatically by giving reasons to close other people's cities. You got goods & those could be used to score bonus points at end-game. So suddenly you weren't just cooperating to share points with someone, but you were also doing the good deed of finishing up a city, just for the possibility of an end-game reward. King & Scout repeated the exact same trick. Now you could get points for having completed the biggest road and the biggest city.

Granted, these cooperative methods all introduced a longer-term competition, for the goods markers and the king and robber tiles, but that was perfectly staying in tune with the mixture of cooperation and competition enjoyed by the original game: cooperation in the short-term for the hope of long-term gain.

Along the way there were some minor competitive elements added. The big meeples of Inns & Cathedrals which you could use to entirely steal someone's terrain was definitely the biggest. In addition, as noted in my last article, the cathedrals (and less frequently the inns) or Inns & Cathedrals can be used for blocking purposes, to deny people points in the end-game.

But on the whole those first supplements made Carcassonne feel more friendly and cohesive.

The Later Exansions: The more recent supplements have dramatically changed this, and each new expansion just seems to add to the aggressive nature of noveau-Carcassonne, a nature that I generally find antithetical to the original game's design.

The Count of Carcassonne starts off safely enough, with your getting to place meeples in the 12-tile city of Carcassonne if you close someone else's terrain without scoring points yourself. That's the same cooperative method used for each of the earlier supplements. However whenever a terrain is closed, players can move their meeples to that closing terrain to try and take it over, creating the most direct token conflict yet seen in the game.

The Cathars allows placement of siege tiles simply to spoil other peoples' cities.

The Princess & The Dragon allows you to directly attack (and remove) other players' meeples with princess tiles and the dragon token.

And The Tower provides yet another method to remove meeples, here with towers.

On BoardGameGeek recently I saw the suggestion that people should buy two copies of Carcassonne, placing Inns & Cathedrals and Traders & Builders in one, and The Princess & The Dragon and The Tower in another. Spice with the appropriate mini-supplements as you see fit. King & Scout would clearly go in the first set, The Count of Carcassonne and The Cathars in the second, and The River(s) in whichever you prefer.

I'd have to agree, because the most recent expansions betray the cooperative nature of the original game, while contrariwise, players weaned on the aggressive clashing of the more recent sets would probably be disappointed by the kinder, gentler earlier releases.

Beyond that I have to question the wiseness of such a drastic change in the feel of the gameplay a few years in. I'm sure I'm not the only disappointed player who's going to carefully question every release from here on out (though as I'll discuss in the next article, I've come up with a potential method to this apparent madness).

The following chart summarizes the competive & cooperative nature of the Carcassonne supplements.

A Question of Theme

Though The Cathars and The Count of Carcassonne played around with the idea, The Princess & The Dragon was the first major Carcassonne supplement to upset the cooperation-competition balance of the original game. It also made another major change: it dramatically shifted the theme of the game.

To that date every supplement for Carcassonne has been lightly historical. In 2004 the franchise seemed to embrace its historical background even more, by putting out the very authentic Cathar supplement. Then 2005 came out and we suddenly had a supplement full of fairies, dragons, and magic gates.

I said at the start of this article that there were three things that contributed to my not buying any Carcassonne for a few years: the exclusivity of The Cathars, the competition of The Count, and the combined complexity that appeared when King & Scout came out. But, I'm actually quite weak when it comes to collecting, and even though I'd been disappointed three supplements in a row, for various reasons, I would still have bought The Princess & The Dragon ... if it weren't for the theme.

I don't think talking about the theming of the Carcassonne supplements is nearly as interesting as some of the other topics I've been discussing in this series, but it's still worth this brief note: changing your theme can turn some customers off.


With the advent of The Count of Carcassonne, the Carcassonne franchise saw a sea change. We already saw last week that tile distributions started to devolve and that balance starting to wildly skew. Perhaps more important, however, was the fact that Carcassonne was turned into a very confrontational game, quite far from its original family roots.

In my next article in this series I'm going to finish up my survey of the Carcassonne expansions by asking, "What have we wrought?", and looking at the multiplicative complexity of the Carcassonne expansion system. I'll also end on a positive note by talking about how nice the new River II is and how well it shows off the evolutionary process of a game.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Gaming with Parents, Uncles, Aunts, Cousins

One key to happiness – GAMES

By far, most of my gaming experience has been with family members, throughout my life. Certainly, I have played games with friends, co-workers, and strangers, but the majority of the time I have spent gaming has been with family.

The first game I can recall playing was Crazy Eights, which my parents taught me to play with a regular deck of cards when I was about 4 or 5 years old. That is also the only game I can recall playing with my parents, until after I was married, and I only remember playing it occasionally with them for a couple of years. My dad enjoyed playing Canasta in those days and joined a neighborhood group that played on a regular (weekly? monthly?) basis. I do not believe my mother cared much for playing games.

When I was about 7 years old, I was visiting, with my mother, with an aunt and uncle. They had two children who were several years older than me, but they were not at home at that time. Another aunt and her son, my cousin, who was two years younger than me, were also visiting there. My younger cousin and I noticed some games our aunt and uncle had, and we asked whether we could play with one of them. They got out Uncle Wiggly for us, and I embarked upon my first adventure with a boardgame. My cousin could not yet read the cards, but I was more than happy to do so for both of us. Because it was the first commercial boardgame I had ever seen, I was fascinated with it. What fun we had, teaching ourselves that game. I know that several times after that, when we both were visiting that aunt and uncle, we were allowed to play that game.

Not long after discovering Uncle Wiggly, my cousin and I were present when four of our older cousins were engaged in playing what appeared to be a much more interesting boardgame. It was Monopoly. We asked to join them, but were told we were too young to play with them. Of course, that just whetted my appetite to play it. Unfortunately, I had to wait until a neighborhood friend of mine showed me his family’s Monopoly game several years later, and he taught me how to play it.

I had three sets of aunts and uncles (my mother’s sisters) who loved to play games. I do not know why my mother seemed to be the only sister who did not enjoy games. The others always played games when we were at family gatherings. I had six cousins in those three families, two younger than me, and four older. There were a few games almost all of us enjoyed playing – croquet, horseshoes, and cards. There were two card games that were the mainstays of these gatherings – Pitch and Rook. I seldom played Rook, but Pitch became my life-long favorite card game. One of my uncles would play Pitch at the drop of a hat, and he was hard to beat. I learned a lot about that game from playing against him. He and another uncle would always split up and be partners with me and one of my cousins; sometimes, we played three-member teams, so six of us could play at the same time. They taught me many variations of Pitch, and I learned to like virtually all of them. I suspect that one reason I enjoyed learning Pitch was because my uncles were great to play with. They always played to win. They were tough competitors, but they always played fairly and had fun doing it. After a hand, they might explain what we had done wrong or could have done better, but they never blamed us for making a mistake – it was always a learning experience. It was always a positive experience, even in losing.

After my family moved away from the old hometown, I only played games with aunts, uncles, and cousins at family reunions or special holiday gatherings. I always looked forward to those opportunities. Since I had no siblings, and my parents were not interested in games, most of my gaming through high school was with friends, and even that was very limited.

Several years after Sue and I married, and my parents had retired and moved back to their hometown, they got more involved in playing games. I was quite surprised. Interestingly, my parents and the two uncles (and aunts) with whom I had played so much Pitch moved onto the same street, within a few houses of each other. They were all retired at that time, and they got together very frequently. Many of those visits involved playing one of two games – Yahtzee or Wa-Hoo (marbles, they called it – a form of Pachisi or Parcheesi). Here’s a photo of our Wa-Hoo board from those days. One of my uncles was so into game-playing that he made his own Wa-Hoo board, which they all played on. Whenever we visited my parents, we almost always played one or both of those games. That was the first time I realized that my dad actually enjoyed games very much. I don’t know whether he didn’t show so much interest earlier because he knew my mother did not enjoy it, or whether he felt he finally had the free time to play, after he retired. I believe he and I could have enjoyed many hours of games together, as I was growing up, but it just didn’t happen. Perhaps that realization contributed to my interest in playing games with our children frequently.

The uncle who was such a game-player even purchased an early electronic baseball game that connected to his TV, some time before we bought our Atari 2600 at home, for us and our kids. He was a major influence on my love of games. He managed a grain elevator, after many years of farming, and I’ve seen him work long hours at the elevator during wheat harvest, and then come home and be willing to play horseshoes or Pitch for a couple of more hours. I think his desire to play games was insatiable.

With three uncles, three aunts, and six cousins who loved to play games, it was natural that I would grow up to be a game-player. It was a most enjoyable way to grow up.

--- Gerald … near Denver, Colorado; February 2006
aka gamesgrandpa -- A grandpa who is a mile high on gaming

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Topic Du Jour: Game Burnout

Everyone is talking about game burnout: Mary, Alfred, Jason, Greg, Spielfrieks, and even The Dice Tower and Board Games to Go mentioned it.

What is burnout?

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition defines it as "Physical or emotional exhaustion, especially as a result of long-term stress or dissipation."

For our purposes, games burnout is a state where you feel less or no desire to play games for an indeterminate period.

Burnout implies that the state prior to burnout is tolerable as worst, or desirable at best. Before you were burned out, you were happily going about your life as you wanted to. On the way to burnout, you became more and more dissatisfied with something. Probably, you ignored these warning signs, continued doing just what you were doing, until something that used to be tolerable suddenly and very quickly became intolerable.

What causes burnout?

There are two possible seeds that lead to game burnout: the person or the games. In either case, the rewards you now gain from playing games has now diminished versus the effort involved.

When I speak of reward, I am referring to why you play games. When I speak of effort, I am referring to mental effort to think through the games, the social effort to tolerate your game companions, and physical effort to attend, set up and clean up after the games.

Burnout: the person

People burnout on games as a result of normal, healthy personal growth or due to leading an unhealthy lifestyle.

People who lead happy lives playing games may simply move on to other activities. They may move houses. They may feel that they once gained something from playing games but no longer feel that it represents a challenge to them or that it is helping them with their personal growth.

They may have found some new interest which is more absorbing, or simply be spending more time with a new group of friends or partner.

I'm not sure if this would be considered "burnout" per se. "Real Gamers" may disparage people for abandoning games to pursue other things, but, hopefully, most of us realize how silly that is.

Mind you, I believe that playing games even occasionally is an important and healthy part of everyone's life. When friends tell me that they don't play games at all, I think they are sadly missing out.

On the other hand, people who were "real gamers", and by this I mean devoted to the hobby of gaming as a whole, as opposed to simply willing to play a game as the occasion arises, may burnout for unhealthy reasons.

Often this will be as a result of realizing that they have spent a lot of money or a lot of time while ignoring other important aspects of their life: intellectual growth, emotional well-being, physical exercise, or connecting with real friends and family. Greg's article, to which I linked above, discusses that aspect of burnout.

Burnout: the games

For this I refer you first to an earlier article that I wrote on this blog: The Game Hordes.

Assuming a healthy lifestyle, and no particular changes in circumstances or dissatisfaction with the idea of playing games, I think that players who play less games to more depth are far less likely to burnout on games than those who buy and/or play new games continuously.

For one thing, there are simply too many bad games. Even good games, which you may rate 6 or 7 on the BGG scale, chip away at your enjoyment of games if you play continuously. You are constantly settling for inadequacy, an imperfection that you can feel on either a conscious or unconscious level, in order to participate in the gaming experience. Play after play, this feeling is going to build up into resentment. Why are you doing this?

I don't blame the game companies any more than I blame the movie industries for putting out vapid movies or the food companies for putting out colorful, expensive sub-nutritious food. That's what they do.

But take a long honest look at the games produced in the last five years, and even your favorite game companies. There are thousands of games produced for one reason, and one reason alone: to take your money. No one is putting out games for the benefit of the game players.

If you are buying a lot of these games, or playing a lot of these games, you are either a) a game reviewer; more power to 'em, or b) victim of the marketing industry that hypes every product as the next best thing.

Do you buy based on publisher? Game designer? Theme? Packaging? Play time? Cost? Don't. All of that is crap. Reiner Knizia's name on a box is just as much marketing smoke as the primary colors and pictures used on the cover of the box. It means nothing. It's a hook to get you to buy the game.

You don't need all of those games. And from the sound of all of you who are suffering burnout, you don't want all of those games. That's not what gaming is about.

You may whine and moan about how much fun it is to open a new box, look at all the pretty components, and learn new rules without having to play people who are already better than you are, but I just shake my head at you with pity. Oh, I believe you; that's what you like. You are addicted to candy, and a whole lot of people are happy to keep you addicted that way.

Playing games is about playing excellent games. Playing new games is about looking for new excellent games. Excellent games are the games that you can replay numerous times without getting bored of them; not ten times, but a hundred times or a thousand times. They have multiple levels of skill and give you a feeling of having accomplished something real after playing them. Or, they are passtimes whose entire purpose is not gaming but socializing, and the game play is irrelevant.

What can you do?

  • Stop denying that you have a problem. Start doing what you really want to do: connect with your family, get outside, play games that you like.
  • Stop spending all of your time with people who you would not ordinarily have conversations with.
  • Have alone time to read or meditate and get comfortable with yourself. Don't define yourself as only happy when you are a cog in a game.
  • Say no to bad games. Don't buy the hype.
  • Stop playing a lot of new games and start replaying the games that you really want to play.


Monday, April 17, 2006

GAME STORE CONFIDENTIAL ~ Why Easter sucks & four miniature game recommendations

I used to own a Commodore 64 home computer. Some of you people owned one of those also, didn't you? It was a terrific little machine that I equipped with a word processer, a basic spreadsheet and a few pc games. Why am I bringing this up in a blog about board games?

Well, because my favorite site on the internet is boardgamegeek. I know, I know... it's a sad testimony that in an era where there is more porn than any normal human being could ever imagine, many of us are sick, twisted individuals and use the power of the net for something other than sexual fantasies. The plus side to me not being a pornoholic is that if I get run over by a bus anytime soon my kids won't be saddened by what they find on my hard drives. They will be pissed about what they find in my bank acounts though.

Anyway, back to the C64 wonder machine and boardgamegeek. I bought a game called Bard's Tale, a popular game in the 80's. Half of the adventure took place in a town and the other half took place in the sewers and underground locations beneath the town. So... let's say you got the needed equipment to kill something that needed killing... now you went down below the town. This action required a very delicate process on the part of the C64, one which would bring tears of frustration to C64 owners as well as beads of perspiration as they sat by their computer willing it to succeed at the intricate task. The task? Bard's Tale required the Commodore to access the disk drive for data every time you went below ground or resurfaced.

The small red disc access light on the C64's floppy drive became an instrument of the most extreme torture for C64 owners. That single light must have been designed by NASA, that's how bulletproof it was. In fact, I think they could build an entire space shuttle out of the material Commodore used for the light... it was unbelievably resiliant. It was a tiny red cyclops that could actually burn a hole in your forehead if you stared at it long enough. And many, many, many of us stared at the disc access light... entranced, mesmerized, hypnotically fixated, focused so single-mindedly on the small red dot that we imagined we could one day control it.

But we couldn't. The disc access light ruled the life of many a pc gamer in the 80's. If I drove down a residential street at 2am I would often see the flicker of televisions behind the drapes of homes... ah, some insomniac watching bad movies eh? But every so often I'd glance at a home and see a small red dot glowing malevolently from deep in the recesses of the house and I'd know that there was some craven geek, hunched on his chair staring at the disc access light mindlessly while spittle ran down his chin and a tipped over Mountain Dew pooled on the floor. Someone in that house was playing Bard's Tale... of that I was certain.

What does all this about 25 year old pc's and disc access time have to do with board games? Plenty. Have any of you tried to use boardgamegeek lately? If so, and if you used to own a C64, does the page load time remind you a little bit of playing Bard's Tale and suffering through the red light trauma?

What's up there? And even when BGG is running a bit faster it's missing a few features. Like avatars or sometimes images altogether. I happen to like my BGG avatar and I miss it. I want it back. I also don't want my BGG experiences to remind me of 1995, my 28.8 modem and the anxious minutes I'd spend listening to the squealing of my modem asking someone elses modem if it could connect.

And then, right in the middle of this whole issue, Aldie and Derk go trapsing off to something called "The Gathering of Friends"... which I understand to be a yearly board game hoedown sponsered by Alan Moon and a bunch of people who wear XXL t-shirts on XXXXL bodies.

Aldie certainly needs to get this problem fixed soon because when I have logged on the last couple of weeks I've noticed that the only people who seem to be posting are the ones who do enormous lists of games they want to buy, games they can get some wretched and shrewish wife to play or ones where they lie about finding shrinkwrapped holy grail games for $1.75 at a thrift store in Carbuncle, Ohio or Sludge-on-Trent, England.

That stuff is boring. Who cares? I like the other geek lists and threads... the ones where people piss and moan and agrue and fight. I like the ones that get people's blood boiling and generate 100 responses in a matter of hours. I'm not sure that BGG could process 100 responses in 24 hours right now. Once they get it fixed I'll probably celebrate by doing another Geek List myself... one designed to annoy as many Canadians and Europeans as possible. Oh, okay, I'll try and annoy some Americans too.

Bye Mary

Sadly, we're temporarily losing our Wednesday writer Mary. I'll miss her. She's so, so, so frickin' normal. I love her stuff. Mary brought this group-mind the balance it needs... a healthy, clean and interesting look into the kitchen table game life of a mentally healthy American family. Hmmmm... now that I think about it, maybe it's the rest of us that are normal and Mary's family that is rare. Whatever. I am saddened that she won't be around for a while and I fear that her replacements will be gamers who are as disturbed and unbalanced as the rest of us.

Easter means no gaming

That's right. No gaming this past week-end. Why? Because it was Easter. What is rideculous about that is my normal game buddies are definitley not Church people. Well, maybe they secretly went to Church, but still, why do religious holidays mean no gaming? It's as if the entire world has to go on hold because of a holiday that everyone other than you celebrates. And even if you are Christian, church is on Sunday. That still leaves Friday and Saturday night. Bah.

I celebrated Easter by buying a copy of a book called The Da Vinci Code and reading it. What a dumb story. I was half way through the book and realized that these people had gone from the Louvre, to a Swiss Bank, to a huge estate outside Paris, onto a private jet, landing in the UK, then to a hidden Templar monastary in downtown London and not once did either of them have to go to the toilet. Total garbage. Any normal person would have crapped down their trousers by the time the hulking albino accosted them in the tombs.

Okay, enough griping for a Monday. The bright side of my life is that in less than two weeks I'll be in my new house. I'll enjoy a brand new dining table, purchased specifically because it can hold games all the way up to the size of Railroad Tycoon and Conquest of the Empire... and the room which will be for my office is just large enough that I can set up a portable table for Europe Engulfed. Since I'll be having my son Wyatt with me more often after I move the need for a seperate room for war games ought to be obvious to any of you with toddlers. And since GMT is apparently serious about producing the Pacific Theater version of Europe Engulfed I'll want to work the kinks out of my new house before that one is published.

Miniature Games

Okay, my last thought for the day. Once I get settled I plan on teaching some of my local boardgamers a few old miniature games. Not Warhammer and not WarMachine. Well, WarMacine is okay, but I burned out on Warhammer years ago. When I find my Undead and Chaos Dwarf armies they're going directly onto eBay. Here are the games I saved:

Legions of Steel
Man O' War
The Great Rail Wars

Of that group only Flintloque is still in production. The others are long gone. Except for Man O' War I suspect you can get copies of the rules and miniatures at a fair price on eBay or via the trade utility on BGG (assuming it's currently working). Each one of these miniature games has unique mechanics, unique settings and offers something that many popular miniature games don't offer... they require only a few miniatures to play. Legions of Steel needs no terrain as it uses a board mechanic that is similar to Space Hulk and Flintloque and Rail Wars are squad level games that can easily be played on a 5x4 or smaller table with a minimum investment in terrain. I saved three Man O' War fleets, a few isalnds and a 4x6 screen printed sea mat and that is all I need to enjoy Games Workshop's best evar table-top game.

I'm done here. The Harley-Davidson dealership over in Boise is having some sort of parts and accessories sale that starts today so I need to run down there and geek out on my other fetish in life. Have a great week.... and if you pray, pray that Aldie and Derk fix their damned website.

See you next week.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

A Tale of Two Cities

So here I am, a Melbourne local sitting in Adelaide, about to write a little something about Formula Dé. A tale of two cities? Why?

DW Tripp could probably tell you. A while back when Formula One racing returned to Australia it was held in Adelaide, but then Melbourne took/stole/won the race from Adelaide and it has been held in Melbourne ever since. Which word is used depends on who you talk to, or more realistically where they come from.

An interesting aside to the tale is that Formula One racing used to be held in Melbourne a long time ago and back in those days Jack Brabham was a very well known Australian driver, not to mention three times Formula One World Drivers Champion. One of Jack's technical team at the time was one of Melissa's uncles and the reason that we are actually here in Adelaide at the moment is to celebrate the engagement of one of that uncle's daughters, although DW probably didn't know this aside bit.

I mentioned last time that I had been interested in Formula Dé for some time and finally got around to playing it. I bought some tracks a couple of days later, but was unable to obtain the game for another week when a friend picked up a copy from a geographically inconvenient game store for me.

The next day I managed to convince Daughter the Elder to try it out with me.

For our first game we played Zandvoort 1, mainly because it looked like we could go faster than we could at Monaco! I explained the basic rules and we were off and racing - a one lap race with just one car each. The first race was reasonably close most of the way, I did notice that I was much more inclined to take risks like zooming towards corners in 5th gear than Daughter the Elder was. She finished the race with her car in pristine condition, but I had finished first.

We played another game on the same track straight away and she still played fairly conservatively, but this time beat me home.

The next day I introduced her to some of the advanced rules, slip streaming and pit stops. So we had a two lap race with two cars each, playing on the Barcelonatrack. The first lap had a lot of changing of the lead, but there was very little wear and tear on the cars at all and so as we came around the last corner all the cars screamed down the straight ignoring the pitstop. Daughter the Elder actually seemed a bit miffed that there was no reason for her to make a pitstop. The second lap was a little more harsh on the cars, but since we were racing for the finish no pitstops. She actively pursued slipstreaming opportunities whenever she could.

A day or two later I had a happy moment as gamer dad. Daughter the Elder requested that we play a game, she requested Formula Dé and she even chose a track to play on! A two lap race with one car each (as it was getting close to her bed time) on the Hockenheim track.

I'm not sure if it was because she was playing more adventurously or because she was intending to make a pitstop anyway, but she drove faster and burnt a few tire points coming out of corners too fast this time during the first lap. She had the lead and gleefully made a pitstop to get all her tire points back. Unfortunately she had a slow pitstop and was not impressed to come out of the pits in 4th as I zoomed down the straight in 6th and snatched the lead. Needless to say I had to change down gears rather heavily in the corner at the end of the straight, but I managed to keep the car in one piece and on the track much to Daughter the Elder's annoyance.

Unfortunately Formula Dé is a bit too big to take away with us, so it is at home at the moment. However when we get home I will review the advanced rules to see if there are any more worth introducing for our races and we will see if we can get Melissa to join us too. As yet she has not, but if we keep badgering perhaps she will.

We have seven tracks at the moment, so should be able to set up our own little home league with relative ease and when we get home I am looking forward to playing a few more games and working towards that.

Notes for a long car trip
If your seven year old asks to buy a big book of Knock Knock jokes - just say No. Feel free to remind Melissa of this.

Mmm meeples taste like...

Friday, April 14, 2006

Settlers Primer

Being a very successful game, Settlers of Catan has spawned numerous related games, both expansions and stand alone games. I am sure that many of the readers to this blog are tired of Settlers, yet have friends who still like to play. Luckily there are a ton of variations that should spice things up if you are getting bored but still have to play once in a while. Some variations introduce a few new concepts, some introduce a ton of new concepts. Most are good, a couple suck. This is a guide to help those of you who enjoy Settlers of Catan, but are looking to change things up a little.

This guide does not include the 2-player card game nor either of the “Catan Adventure” games, Candamir and Elasund.

Settlers of Catan: The grand daddy of all the Catan games was released 11 years ago and continues to be a best seller. Simple rules, lots of player interaction, different layout every time it is played, and the 60 to 90 minute playing time all serve to make Settlers of Catan a very popular boardgame.

I assume everyone reading this blog is familiar with Settlers of Catan. If you haven’t played it, buy it and play it tonight. I’ve been playing Settlers of Catan for about six years and it still frequently hits the table.

I seem to be in the minority in that I prefer the 3-player game to the 4-player game. The 4-player game gets crowded as soon as you start, and one player always seems to get screwed in the early stages. The player who doesn’t produce very much in the first few rounds and is unable to expand early will frequently get “squeezed out” of expansion opportunities. That player often has no place to expand his empire, except to a couple sparse hexes that produce very poorly, he just plods along with no chance to win, rolling the dice and gritting his teeth waiting for the game to end.

Barring extreme luck in the early stages of the game that scenario just doesn’t happen in the 3-player game. Three player games are usually pretty tight, right up to the end.

Ditto with the five and six player expansion. With the 5-6 player expansion the 5 player game is the better game in my opinion. The 6 player game will almost always have one unlucky player who has little chance to expand in the early stages of the game.

Seafarers of Catan: Seafarers is an expansion for basic Settlers of Catan. Gold fields are added, along with ships for shipping routes. Shipping routes are just roads on the water. Basically, if you like Settlers of Catan you will like Seafarers. It takes the basic system and adds just enough elements to keep the game fresh. Less than one minute of explanation is required to ease someone from the basic game to the Seafarers expansion.

Seafarers comes with a Scenario Book. The book is used to set up the board in a very specific way for each scenario. The number of victory points required to win vary for each scenario.

Cities and Knights of Catan: C&K is another expansion for the base game. It isn’t much of a stretch to say that if you like the basic game you will not like Cities and Knights, and vice versa. Cities and Knights changes basic game play in some very significant ways.

For starters, C&K lengthens the base game considerably. Expect playing time to double or even triple if your group plays basic Settlers quickly. Knights, event cards, city walls, buildings, the Metropolis, an extra dice, 3 different commodities and barbarians are all added to the game.

Every time a barbarian ship icon is rolled on the third dice the barbarians move on the barbarian track. Three of the six sides on the extra dice depict the barbarian ship. On their seventh move the barbarians attack. The strength of the barbarians is equal to the number of cities on Catan. To counter the barbarians the players must have as many or more active nights than there are barbarians. If they can’t match the strength of the barbarians, the weakest player has a city reduced to a settlement. If the players do defeat the barbarians the player who had the most knights gains victory points.

Knights can also be used to chase away the robber, but doing so flips them to their deactivated side (as does fighting barbarians). Knights must be activated in order to fight the barbarians. It costs one grain to activate a knight. It costs one wool and one ore to create a knight.

Every city wall that a player builds allows that player to increase his hand size by two cards. For example, a player with walls around two cities wouldn’t have to lose any cards if a “7” was rolled unless he had 12 cards in his hand.

Cities will often produce a commodity in addition to the normal resource when activated by the dice roll. Commodities are cloth, coins and paper. Cities on a pasture hex produce one wool and a cloth, cities on a mountain hex produce one ore and a coin, cities on a forest produce one wood and a ream of paper. Commodities are used to buy and upgrade buildings.

There are 3 colors of buildings. Remember the barbarian dice? The other three sides of the dice have a blue, green and yellow symbol. Each of those colors corresponds to a building. When a color is rolled it activates all the buildings of that color and may allow players to take an event card of that color. Event cards grant some advantage to the player.

When a player builds the fourth building in a color group he gains a Metropolis. A Metropolis is basically a city worth 4 victory points.

As you can see, Cities and Knights of Catan changes the base game significantly. For brevity I did not cover all the changes. I don’t care for all the changes myself. In my opinion Cities and Knights of Catan is just a bunch of clutter. In a nutshell, you take a very good game (Settlers of Catan), spend another $30 on an expansion and turn it in to an average game.

Settlers of Canaan: This variation of Settlers of Catan is a stand-alone game. Instead of the modular board that is different from game to game, the board is a map of the “Promised Land”, otherwise known as the area in and around present day Israel. Each hex is also numbered for its production value and that number will never change.

Gameplay is nearly identical to the original Settlers. A copper hex is added, which when activated gives the player(s) with an adjacent settlement a good of their choice. Players can also spend one brick and one ore to buy a “stone” to contribute to build the Temple. The player who has contributed the most stones to the Temple gains two victory points. The development deck has some different, interesting cards. Priests have replaced Soldiers although they serve the same function.

In order to contribute a stone to the Temple players must have a settlement at the south end of the board, otherwise they have to link by roads to another player’s settlement and pay that player an additional resource to contribute a stone to the Temple.

Settlers of Canaan has more hexes than standard Settlers and in my opinion is the superior 4-player game.

Settlers of Zarahemla: Settlers of Zarahemla is the only game in the Settlers series that I will discuss that I have not played. The big difference between this and basic Settlers is that the board is comprised of “strips” of hexes instead of individual land and water hexes. The strips are arranged into a hexagonal board, just as in the original game. A center strip, which is five hexes long, is placed in the center of the board, two strips four hexes in length are placed on either side of the center strip, etc.

The strips are placed into a larger frame designed to hold them in a hex pattern. Although there are ports in the game there are no port tiles, instead the ports are depicted along the edge of the frame and will always remain in their same relative positions. Unlike Settlers of Canaan, number chits are placed on the individual land hexes. Like Settlers of Canaan, players can contribute to the building of the Temple for victory points.

Just as Settlers of Canaan has its roots in the Old Testament, the theme of Settlers of Zarahemla is based upon the Book of Mormon. Apart from flavor text on some of the development cards there is little in either game that gives either game a religious feel. I liken the religious theme of both games to the “stated” theme of Ticket to Ride. The Ticket to Ride box states:

“The stakes: $1 million in a winner takes all competition. The objective: to see which of them can travel by rail to the most cities in North America – in just 7 days”.

Ticket to Ride? Well, maybe. It might sound nice, but traveling for 7 days for a million dollars has nothing to do with game play, so too is religion not a factor in either of these Settlers variants.

Settlers of the Stone Age: As with Settlers of Canaan and the Historical Scenarios, Settlers of the Stone Age is played on a set map with fixed numbers on each hex. There are only four land types/resources available in this version, in contrast to the usual 5 in the other versions. The four resources are stone, bones, hides and meat.

Players start with three camps and an explorer in Africa. Each camp functions in the same way a settlement does in other versions. Players must expand outward to the rest of the world from these humble beginnings. For a meat and a hide a player can build an explorer, for the cost of one meat he can move him. When an explorer is on an intersection he can be upgraded to a camp for the cost of one stone, hide, and bones.

Each player only has 5 camps at his disposal. If he builds a sixth camp he needs to move an existing camp. This is not usually much of a detriment to the player. When each new camp is established the player earns a victory point chit. As the game progresses Africa slowly turns into a desert. At least one of a player’s three starting camps is likely to be adjacent to multiple deserts even though the camps started out adjacent to productive land.

Near the edge of all the continents there are numerous chits placed face down. The first player to move an explorer to each chit gets to collect it. A few chits are worth victory points, other chits cause portions of Africa to become a desert. The player with the most exploration chits earns victory points, similar to the “Longest Road” in the basic game.

There are also 4 development tracks that each player can improve upon. One track allows explorers to travel further, another allows the movement of the Neanderthal or Saber Tooth Tiger (each the equivalent of a robber). Development on the clothing and shelter tracks is required before a player can move an explorer to various regions to collect exploration chits. For example, a player needs to be on the first or second level of both tracks to explore northern Europe, and on the third and fourth level of both tracks to explore Greenland and the South Pacific.

Advancing to the first level of each track costs a stone. The second level costs a bone. The third and fourth levels each cost a stone and bone. Only one player can reach the fifth level on each track, but the fifth level is worth victory points, it costs a hide, stone and bone to advance to the fifth level.

For some reason there tends to be little trading in this version of the game. Players are free to trade as always, but it just doesn’t seem to happen very often. The game is also longer than standard Settlers. In my opinion it lasts about 45 minutes longer than the fun it provides.

Starfarers of Catan: Settlers in space. How can you go wrong?

In Starfarers each player begins with three colonies, each colony adjacent to two planets. From there they need to send trade ships and colony ships to distant planets to establish more colonies and trade with alien races.

Again this version of Settlers is not played on a modular board, however each planet has a random, hidden production number. When a player is adjacent to a planet with a spaceship he can peek at the value of the planet and decide if he wants to found a colony there. When a colony is founded the numbers on the adjacent planets are revealed.

Some planets are “pirate planets”. Each pirate chit has a strength on it. Before a player can found a colony on a pirate planet he needs to “out-gun” the pirates. This simply mean that if the pirate planet is a “3” the player must have a spaceship with at least 3 guns before he can found a colony. Likewise some planets are “ice planets”. To found a colony on an ice planet the player needs to have more freight rings on his spaceship than the value of the ice planet.

Players can also found trade outposts with alien races. To do so he flies a trade ship to one of the four the alien race areas. The person with the most trade outposts with each alien race earns victory points. Each trade outpost also allows the player to choose a card which imparts some advantage to the holder.

Players have encounters in space. Each time a player moves his spaceships he “shakes” his mothership. The mothership has 4 different colored balls in it. Two of those balls appear, and based upon which two colors appear the player can move that many spaces. If a black ball appears the player has an encounter. An encounter card is drawn, and read. Encounters will state something like, “you encounter pirates who offer to trade with you, do you trade?” If you trade with the pirates they may steal from you, if you don’t trade with them they might attack you, there are many possibilities. If a battle ensues you “roll” against either the player to your left or right, the card will stipulate which. Again, you shake the mothership calculate value of the two balls that appear and add the guns you have added to your mothership.

Players can spend resources to buy guns, freight rings, or booster rockets to add to their mothership, or spend resources to found space colonies, trade posts and space ports.

Again, trading in this game seems to happen much less frequently than in basic Settlers. The game is much longer than standard Settlers. Starfarers is a 4+ hour game and only provides two hours worth of fun. Each colony is only adjacent to 2 resource hexes and no colony will ever produce two goods in the manner of a city in the base game. If the number of the planet is rolled and there is a colony on the planet it will produce only 1 good. Resources are collected very slowly, and unlike other versions of Settlers encounters can cause players to lose stuff that they purchased earlier.

So, how can you go wrong? Suffice it to say you can. This version lasts about 2 hours longer than the fun it provides.

Also note that the motherships are notorious for breaking.

Historical Scenarios I: As far as I know both Historical Scenarios are only available in German. An English translation is included with each.

The first Historical Scenario (as well as the second) is an expansion for the base game. Historical Scenario 1 includes both the Alexander the Great and the Cheops scenarios on a double sided board. The Cheops scenario stays pretty true to the original game. Again, Cheops can be explained to a person familiar with the base game in less than a minute. The Cheops scenario is based in ancient Egypt.

In Cheops if someone has a settlement on a port anyone can use that port if they can trace a road from their settlement to the port. It does cost one gold to do so. There are two hexes that produce gold when activated. Players can also contribute to the building of the Great Pyramid. The player who contributes the most stones to the pyramid gets victory points.

The Alexander scenario is not so simple to explain. Players represent generals in Alexander’s army. Players start with no settlements, no cities, no roads, no nothing on the board. Players do receive resources each turn, for a few rounds. Very soon those resources will run out and players must depend upon settlements and cities to earn resources.

Every turn Alexander moves one space on the map. Alexander simply follows the route markers on the board. When Alexander lands on a settlement it is auctioned to the highest bidder. Players bid a number of resource cards and must return them to the supply if they win. Once players have a settlement they can expand according to the normal rules of Catan.

Some of the spaces Alexander will land on will cause players to bid against each other to build bridges, monuments, do battle, and provide food. The player who wins the most auctions will become Alexander’s “First Advisor” and gains 4 victory points, there will also be a “Second Advisor” and “Third Advisor” who will each gain a lesser number of victory points.

Soldier cards can be played as normal to move the robber, but once they are played a player can use soldier cards as a resource card to bid when Alexander has to battle and only do battle.

Both of these scenarios should appeal to people who like the base game and are just looking to spice things up a little, especially the Cheops scenario. The Alexander version changes the game a little more.

Historical Scenario II: This expansion is also only available in German. Both scenarios in this expansion can be played with up to 6 players. Both scenarios are played on a set map. Again, the board is double sided.

In the Great Wall scenario each player is responsible for one section of the Great Wall of China. As the game progresses players can strengthen their portion of the wall and Huns are gradually added to “assembly areas” north of the Wall. When the number of Huns in an assembly area exceeds the strength of the wall in that section they pour over the wall into China.

The player who was responsible for the area of Wall breached takes negative victory points. Every area the Huns occupy produces nothing. Huns can be removed with soldier cards.

The robber in this version is a pirate. The pirate is placed on ocean hexes and blocks the use of ports until moved.

The Trojan War scenario can either be played with 4 or 6 players. The Trojan War scenario pits players against one another, but no one can be sure who is supporting whom. In this scenario players are secretly dealt a card at the beginning of the game. Each player will secretly support Troy or Mycenae in a war. Once per turn each player can contribute resources to the war. A player can secretly contribute 1, 2, or 3 resources to the war and earns one trade point chip for contributing.

When there are 10 resource cards (13 with 6 players) in the war area the war is resolved. The cards are shuffled so no one can be sure who contributed which resources. Ore and sheep count as support for Troy, wood and grain count as support for Mycenae, brick counts as nothing. The side that wins gets to move the war marker one space in their direction. The further the token gets to one side or the other the more victory points are awarded to the players supporting that side.

Trade point chips which are acquired by contributing to the war are required for the building of ships. Each ship a player builds imparts a trade advantage to the player or victory points.

Settlers of Nurnberg: Diceless Settlers. This is a stand alone game that (as far as I know) is only available in German. The game is played on a set map. The map depicts the usual Settlers hexes and roads to various European cities.

Yes, Settlers of Nurnberg is a diceless game. On his turn each player draws an event card. That card also has a number on it. Settlements produce based upon the number on the event card. The event on the card generally moves the robber or moves the pawn on the timeline. The game is over when the pawn reaches the end of the timeline if no player has yet reached 13 victory points.

Players can build settlements as in the original game as well as toll stations, workshops, city walls and towers. Toll stations are placed to help control trade routes to the various European cities. Workshops produce goods which are then sold to the various European cities for gold. Tolls must be payed to the player who controls the road to the city the goods are sold in.

Building city walls costs gold, but earns players “prestige points”. Prestige points can be used to gain “council cards” (similar to the longest road or largest army”). The player with the most prestige gains 4 victory points, the players with the second and third most prestige earn 3 and 2 points respectively.

Towers can be built for victory points.

I haven’t played this version enough to rate it, but the German text seems to be a significant hurdle to overcome, much more significant than in either of the Historical Scenario versions. I enjoyed Settlers of Nurnberg, but it was a struggle to get through.