Friday, June 30, 2006

New Epidemic Sweeps the Nation

Leaves Families Broken and Scarred

Saw this in my local newspaper. I thought I would reprint it here. There are two references to Gone Gaming:

AP (Newark, NJ) The Newark chapter of Board Gamers Anonymous (BGA) meets in the dank basement of an ancient public library on Thursday nights. Homes in the neighborhood have barred windows and the streets are littered with paper, bottles and other debris. There is a building across the street with a neon sign flashing "arry's L q or Sto e" in ancient red letters. The Board Gamers Anonymous have been meeting in these cramped quarters every week for the last 18 months. There are a dozen hard core board gamers who form the core of the group and another two dozen who are family members and friends of addicts.

“Most people are shocked when they hear about our group,” states David, the founding member of the Newark chapter of BGA, “most people have never heard of board game addiction, but I can assure you it is a very real problem.”

There are two chapters of BGA in the Newark area. David says, “There's a meeting on Monday night near the University, but I prefer the Thursday group here at the library. It just feels more real. The Thursday night people aren't just going because they have to answer to a probation officer or divorce attorney. Most of us in the Thursday night group have hit bottom and are struggling to better ourselves.”

Standing outside the library smoking cigarettes and waiting for the meeting to begin the board game addicts speak in hushed tones amongst themselves. They do their best to ignore library patrons who walk by and cast side long glances. Working mothers see the addicts and yell at their children to "Wait!", as the children run for the library entrance. The moms scurry to catch up, then hold their children under a protective wing and stare intently at the sidewalk as they pass by.

To be fair the board gamers form a rather odd looking group.

Joe has as scar that runs from the bridge of his nose to his right ear. He says that scar is the end result of a late-night, unlicensed, El Grande game.

Hank has the # 1 sword from Samurai Swords protruding from his left eye. The doctors decided it would be more dangerous to remove the sword than to leave it. Hank says it serves as a constant reminder not to mix excessive amounts of Jolt Cola and board games.

John's left arm is in a cast from shoulder to wrist. He broke it making a particularly difficult chess move. This is the third time he has broken it playing chess. The doctor tells him he'll never play chess with that arm again.

Except for the nervous twitch under his right eye Bob looks normal until you talk to him. You then realize that his jaw is wired shut and his teeth are cracked and broken. Bob explains in writing, “I found a couple recipes on the internet for board game salads. They looked pretty good, so I tried them. I have to say that Dame Coldfoot is a much better cook than Joe Gola. Gola’s recipe had way too many dice. It took all of a week to pass those dice, not to mention my teeth.”

The meeting I attended was a real tear jerker. Sherry (not her real name) told how she awoke in the gutter clutching her Scrabble board and hallucinating that her ex-husband was standing over her yelling at her for spending all their money on antique Scrabble boards, again. "How many times do I have to tell you woman? There are no Scrabble games from 1870! It's a scam."

Hank, the man with the sword protruding from his eye, states that he grew up in a gaming household. He confesses that he thought all adults argued over zones-of-control and leading a heart before one had been sluffed. It has only been since the sword accident, which caused him to enter the health care system, that Hank has learned that arguing over who gets the blue tokens was not normal behavior. "In a way this sword saved my life," states Hank, "I would have probably never gotten the help I need to break this addiction. I was playing games constantly, rarely even taking time to bathe."

The meetings last one hour and are always emotional, several of the participants confided to me.

The root cause of board game addiction is not completely understood, but researchers at Rio Grande University have linked board game addiction syndrome (BAS) to a particular gene that is thought responsible for geekiness, although environmental causes are also suspected to play a role.

Professor Tummelson of Rio Grande University says, “Research into this area has only been under way for a few months, we really don’t know much about the condition. There appears to be a genetic component, but only ten percent of the people with goA (the gene thought responsible) will turn into board game addicts.” Tummelson adds, “For comparison, less than 1/10 of one percent of the general population will become addicted to board games.”

When asked what he would warn parents to watch for in children suspected to suffer from BAS Tummelson says, "That's a tough question. I would definitely tell them to watch for a marked disinterest in cleanliness and spending an inordinate amount of time on board game sites such as Gone Gaming and Boardgamegeek."

Although the root cause of board game addiction still isn’t well understood the network of shady suppliers and dealers who feed this addiction are well understood. A Federal official who spoke under the condition of anonymity says, “The majority of the games causing the trouble are brought into this country by ships originating in Europe, primarily Germany. Many of the games are produced in China and brought into Germany in giant containers that are rarely inspected. Once they enter the States they are then resold through internet sites with innocuous sounding names like Funagain and Gamefest."

Thursday, June 29, 2006

Upcoming Companies, Part One: Atlas, Cafe, Cheapass

Early this month I talked about Hasbro, the megagoliath that has eaten the gaming world, sucking up an amazing 80% of the tabletop game trade. As I said in that article, they have the ability to do a lot of damage to our industry. But, for now at least, there's room for the smaller guys to get into the biz.

This week I want to turn that around, and talk about some of the up-and-coming game companies. These guys aren't necessarily small (though none are huge), and they aren't necessarily new (though some are). Instead, they're companies that are working on publishing new sorts of games, be that because they're just getting into the biz or because they're dramatically changing their focus.

Together these companies offer an insight into trends at the opposite side of the gaming industry from Hasbro: the companies who may be on the list of notable publishers in our niche in a few years.

I've got six companies scheduled for this series. They're all publishing at least a few interesting games this year, and they're all people that I haven't really talked about in this column before. This week I have up Atlas, Cafe, and Cheapass, and next week I have Face 2 Face, Jolly Rogers, and Your Move. In each case I've tried to get some personal insight from the publishers and owners as well.

Atlas Games
http://www.atlas-games.com/

Traditionally Atlas is primarily a roleplaying publisher. It was founded by John Nephew in 1990. Their first publications, from 1990-1993, were all licensed RPG supplements, including a single Vampire adventure, a series of adventures and campaigns for Ars Magica, and some Cyberpunk 2020 supplements, which were their most successful of the period. Nowadays they own Ars Magica (and Feng Shui and Unknown Armies and a few others, but Ars Magica seems to be the one getting support).

Atlas experimented with card games pretty early on. One of their earlier releases was Once Upon a Time (1993), a card-based storytelling game that reflected Atlas' roleplaying origins. In 1994 they jumped on the collectible bandwagon and produced On the Edge, a CCG based on their innovative Over the Edge RPG. It changed things at Atlas. John Nephew says, "It was a fast and furious boom-and-bust period, but involvement in CCG publication gave us a lot of experience in the card medium (and a great working relationship with a specialty playing card printer), which paved the way for the new (1995) edition of Once Upon A Time, then Lunch Money in '96, and then the other card games leading up to today."

Lunch Money (1996), a schoolyard-brawl card game that's best known for its disturbing artwork, was another hit. Cults Across America (1998), Spammers (1998), and Corruption (1999) are a few other Atlas games from this period that still grace my own shelves. For the most part, Atlas was producing very American games. Cults was a humorous wargame while Spammers was a typical take-that card game that could easily have been published by Steve Jackson. However, Corruption, a clever card game by Bruno Faidutti, was an early move toward Eurogames.

Despite the successes of On the Edge and Lunch Money, Atlas averaged less than one card or board game from 1990-2002.

In the last few years this has changed, and Atlas has really been pushing card games in particular. Nephew says that there are sound business reasons for this new direction: "The simple reality is that an RPG book's sales drop very sharply soon after it is released (and if anything this has gotten worse in recent years), but card and board games have much better prospects for continuing sales over a long period of time. Also, card games have more potential sales outlets -- we have picked up an increasing number of new distributors in recent years who don't carry RPGs at all. It makes sense that board games and card games are more accessible to a wider audience than RPGs, and that means more commercial potential, especially in a market where more people in retail and distribution have become aware of that potential thanks to the big board game successes of recent years."

Atlas' new focus began with the acquisition of Dungeoneer (2003), a fantasy adventure card game, from the now-defunct Citizen Games. The game has (rightfully) been followed by a half-dozen expansions. They very successfully followed that up with Gloom (2004), a thematic take-that card game with transparent cards. These last few years have also seen expansions for Once Upon a Time, Gloom, and Lunch Money, as well as a few rereleases. What's even more impressive is Atlas' 2006 schedule. There's more Dungeoneer, but also an expansion into less card-oriented board games, including Recess (another school-yard brawl), Grand Tribunal (a card/board game based on Ars Magica), and Seismic (a tile-laying game).

For the future, Nephew says, "If anything, I expect the card and board games (and similar but harder to classify things, like the Pieces of Eight coin game that should be appearing at GenCon) will be an even bigger part of our future. We have numerous projects in the pipeline, and we're on the lookout for more -- whether original games or existing games to buy and re-issue (like Dungeoneer and Let's Kill!)."

My Reviews: Corruption (B-), Cthulhu 500 (B+), Dungeoneer: Tomb of the Lich Lord (C+, the Citzen Games edition), Gloom (B)

Cafe Games
http://www.cafegames.com/

Cafe Games is a bit more of a mystery to me because they have somewhat limited Internet presence. They've been around since 1998 and in that time they've mainly been a jobber, a distributor of other peoples' games. Currently they represent a lot of very small presses, including Pro Ludo (until recently a jobber itself, for the German market), lui-meme and Martin Wallace's Warfrog. In 2005 they also briefly held the rights to the Descartes Games (now owned by Asmodee) and appear to have been involved in the publication of the Mare Nostrum Mythology Expansion.

In 2006 Cafe Games seems to be spreading its wings and becoming a publisher in their own right. They have three games lined up for publication, the original Spectral Rails (by Morgan Dontanville, who also designed Recess for Atlas), a reprint of Ave Caesar, and the much-delayed Tempus. I have some concerns about their releases because their price-points seem about $10 high, and the publication of Tempus has been a multi-year marathon, but beyond that Cafe's first three games look like a strong start, and if they're able to follow it up, Cafe could be a strong contender as a new game publisher in the coming years.

I tried to get a quote from Cafe for this article, but owner Ron Magin is very busy. I kind of get the impression that Cafe is a sidelight, which may limit its eventually growth. On the other hand word from Europe says that Tempus is finally appearing. I guess we'll see where Cafe Games goes in the next couple of years.

Although Cafe Games was listed as a copublisher on some games prior to this new set of three, they were a pretty scattered set that I doubt has much bearing on their new, original publications.

Cheapass Games
http://www.cheapass.com
http://www.lonesharkgames.com

Cheapass Games is in no way new or untried. James Ernest founded the company in 1996 based on the ideas that games were too expensive and that they tended to reuse the same pieces. So he started putting out black and white games in plain white envelopes, with minimal components. Players got to supply dice, pawns, and other necessities. Since then Cheapass has published about 100 titles.

The core line of Cheapass Games is pretty American in style. They've heavily thematic, and often that theming is pretty silly. The mechanics tend to be mostly simulationistic and often pretty forgetable besides. In more recent years some of Cheapass' core games have been published in color rather than black & white.

Besides their core lines, Cheapass has also put out a few smaller lines that I've found more notable. Their "hip pocket" games have been fairly elegant abstracts. They're purely card based, and they use many European mechanics, including majority control and tile laying. The Diceland line, meanwhile, is a fun system where you throw huge dice around a table in a head-to-head combat. My only complaint is that it's a pain in the neck to store because it's so big. Fightball and Brawl are a few real-time card games that James Ernest put out, the first with Mike Selinker, to generally good response.

Cheapass seems poised to continue putting out more of the same.

Cheapass' interesting growth is coming through Lone Shark Games, a design studio formed by James Ernest and Mike Selinker in 2003. Since then they've been collaborating on games that tend to be deeper than Cheapass' core offerings. In addition the styling of the games spans from American to European. Pirates of the Spanish Main (2004) and Dungeonville (2005) are a few of their games that have been released thus far, from WizKids and Z-Man Games, respectively. Upcoming are Cowpoker (2006) from Steve Jackson, which is just hitting stores now, and Gloria Mundi (2006) from Rio Grande, which made my ten-games-to-watch-for from Nurnberg list. They've got more coming out from Rio Grandes and from Titanic Games in the future.

Titanic Games is another up-and-coming game company with close ties to Cheapass. It was founded by James Ernest, Mike Selinker, Lisa Stevens, and Bob Watts. Stevens is offering the publication and distribution know-how from her position as CEO of Paizo Publishing, while Ernest and Selinker are offering the design know-how of Lone Shark Games. Titanic's first publication was a high-end version of Kill Doctor Lucky, a popular Cheapass title. One of the followups is Stonehenge, a very interesting "anthology" game design. There's one set of components in the box, but five different games. Two of them are, of course, designed by Selinker and Ernest. The other three come from Richard Borg, Richard Garfield, and Bruno Faidutti.

James Ernest sees Stonehenge as part of a strategy for the future. He says, "This industry is always changing, and our biggest challenge is always to invent something new. The anthology board game is our latest experiment, and I'm excited to see whether Stonehenge will be a success. In a sense, it's a continuation of the Cheapass model, because it uses the same components for several different games. On the other hand, the components will be excellent (and included), and the games will be designed by a collection of gifted designers. And me."

My Reviews: Agora (A-), Diceland: Deep White Sea (A-), Diceland: Ogre (B), Diceland: Space (A-), Dungeonville (C), Light Speed (A-), Nexus (C), Safari Jack (C), Steam Tunnel (C), TimeLine (B-)

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Is It Just a Phase Or Do We Evolve?


When I first got into strategy games, I tried everything I could and liked them all to one degree or another. It was all exciting and new and my family was not yet tired of trying all the new games I bought. This seems perfectly logical for someone discovering something new. Phase 1.

With the experience of many different games behind us, I could discern a pattern to the types of games my family enjoyed. I looked for games that played well with 3 players, had simple rules while offering several meaningful choices, and conflict was not an issue, in fact, we like conflict. Phase 2.

Now my daughter has less time and inclination to play games so I am forced to look mainly for games that play well with 2. There are many good 2-player games to choose from and several multi-player games that work nicely with only two players. My husband is not a gamer so sitting down to a 3 hour game isn’t an option; it needs to be short and sweet. Phase 3.

I find myself now at a phase that is a little disconcerting to me—the 2-player abstract phase. This seems a natural progression to some but I have never been one to enjoy a pure abstract game. In the past they usually fell into 2 categories, neither of which I enjoyed or was good at.

Advance Planning. Games like Chess and Go where you must be able to project many, or at least several, moves into the future are difficult for me. I cannot hold the picture of my move in my mind, add the possible moves of my opponent, and my next move to counter that. Most often, my opponent’s move will leave me amazed as well as in a mess. This same problem transfers to the 2nd category.

Major Board Reconfiguration. Othello was a game we had long before I discovered BoardGameGeek and was totally pathetic at playing. I could never keep the picture of the board as it would be after my turn and still see the result of all my opponent’s possible moves. The portion of my brain allocated to that kind of thinking has never been activated—I think I lost the password.

With my entry into the world of BGG, I found many abstracts that aren’t in your local department stores and many do not fit firmly into these two categories. I think DVONN was the first one I tried and although advance planning is a good skill to have, it isn’t absolutely necessary. I can enjoy playing it without feeling overwhelmed and hopeless.

Blokus is another abstract that I like and I’m actually very good at it. YINSH, Hive, Santorini, Tsuro and my homemade copy of Easter Island are all pure abstracts that I can play with my limited brain capabilities. Now I find that I’m actually looking for simple abstract games to play with 2 players and that’s a little strange to me, the hater of abstract games.

I’ve discovered that I enjoy the head-to-head, luck-free environment of the abstract as long as it doesn’t fall into my hated categories. There’s a large dose of satisfaction to be felt when you win a game knowing that luck played absolutely no part in it.

So the question I have is this: is this just a phase I’ve been forced into or do our gaming preferences evolve? In the end, it really doesn’t matter as long as I can find someone to play with. Oh, there’s someone now. Hey, you! Yeah, you; come here, I want to show you this game.
~~~~~~~~
A meeple in the hand is worth two on the floor.

Mary

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Board Game Violence Special Report

Good evening and welcome to our special report on board games and violence.

Tonight we review the dramatic events of this past week in the violent world of board gamers; people not like you or me, or even little Johnny or Suzy. We begin our report with a clip from Sunday's news story about the follow up to the school shootings in Localtown, MY.

-Clip 1-

"In Localtown, MY, authorities are continuing their investigation into possible links between last week's brutal school shooting and the board game 'Settlers of Catan'. Local chief commissioner Samuel Jackson had this to say:"

SJ: Both of the perpetrators of the shooting were known to play the game, ... uh ... Settlers of Cuhtahn. We are investigating as to how this was a contributing factor to the carnage and violence of last week.

"Opponents of board games say that games like Settlers of Catan promote violence and Satanism, which makes the players and the publishers directly responsible for all acts of violence, everywhere. Here's Anne Fangthorne, chairman of Direness Underscored: Make Boardgames Always Silly and Sweet:"

AF: It says 'Catan' on the cover, but I heard from my colleagues that it really reads 'Satan' inside the box. Players who play this game are known to violently steal cards from each other, destroy their opponent's chances of winning, and ultimately subjugate the losing players in some sort of pagan ritual by declaring themselves to be 'Lord of Satan'. I think that says it all.

"When asked, Anne admitted that she hasn't seen the game personally."

AF: I wouldn't let such filth in my house.

"This is Bunny Boo Boo in Localtown, MY."

-End Clip 1-

Later in the week on Wednesday, the senate held emergency committee hearings on the subject of violence in board games. These meetings were held in Washington amid violent protests. Here was the scene outside the hearings:

-Clip 2-

Protester: Keep those ******* board games out of our ******* neighborhoods, you ******** ******! You ******* ****** make ****** ***** and our ******** children become ******** violent as a ****** result. **** you!

-End Clip 2-

This particular protester was later taken into custody for throwing a chair at a news anchor and trying to gouge out her eyes with a peace sign.

We go now to a clip of Rep Dean Dwindle, and his remarks in the committee:

-Clip 3-

DD: In 1935, a woman killed her husband after a fight about a bridge game. Last week there was a school shooting by someone who played a board game. When will we wake up? Soon even our computer games may inspire violence.

[Gasps of horror from other committee members]

-End Clip 3-

Rep Dwindle concluded his remarks by saying that board game players should be shot and killed in order to ensure that violence does not permeate further into our society. This proposal was unanimously and immediately voted into law. And I, for one, thank them; we certainly don't need any violence in our society.

On Thursday, local militia, national guard, ROTC, secret service, coast guard, army, navy, marines, air force, border patrol, FBI agents, CIA agents, and SWAT teams were out scouring the countryside, shooting to kill board game players. In some areas, the board gamer population has already been virtually eliminated.

A video tape eyewitness to a board gamer kill has been made available to us. Please be advised that the quality of this tape is rather crude and grainy.

-Clip 4-

BGP: ... I'm ... I can't run any more ... I haven't had any exercise in twenty years ... bzzzt ... all the others ... they're all dead ... bzzzt ... My meeples! My meeples! ... bzzzt ... It was only a game! For the love of god, we were only playing a game! [breaks down crying]

[Off screen] A game? That's what you call it? [board gamer looks around and gasps in fear] A game? And I suppose it was just a game when my little boy came home running to me crying that someone 'stole his longest road', eh? I don't know what that means, but I'm going to put an end to it, now!

BGP: No wait! I was just following the rules! Please! Wood for sheep? Two wood for two sheep?!

*CRACK* [There is a flash]

-End Clip 4-

Today's board game players may soon to be a thing of the past. The World Wildlife Fund could not be reached for direct comment, but a notice on their website expressed their neutrality regarding the government's killing program. "Just so long as it's not panda bears, or boll weevils, or something important," the note reads.

That's it for this week. Next week we will bring you a news study that correlates drug use with the consumption of Dihydrogen Monoxide. Authorities are now considering banning this dangerous substance, which has been known to cause the deaths of thousands of children around the world each year. [1]

Thank you, and good night.

Yehuda

[1] This is true! And it's in your drinking water!

Monday, June 26, 2006

GAME STORE CONFIDENTIAL ~ Who's at your table?

My creative juices just aren't flowing lately. Probably because the bulk of my human contact in the last week has been my 3 year old boy. And he has a very limited vocabulary. Wyatt does have a marked interest in my games though and I'm certain that if I ever let him get into any of them he'd gleefully throw the pieces everywhere. Throwing is his thing, And I mean really, really throwing... hard, fast and so accurate it is slightly scary.

I'll consider letting him have my copy of Puerto Rico though, there's always the threat that someone will ask to play it again and if Wyatt has tossed all the little colonist/slaves into the next county then the risk will be nullified.

Throwing things got me thinking... lots of gamers really have annoying table habits. Not you specifically... at least that I'm aware of, but you know...them. We sure put up with a lot from people we'd otherwise not know and possibly not associate with in order to play these games of ours. For example:

The Chip Clacker

Whether using the clay poker chips that have now replaced all the paper money in my games that have money or the plastic ones that come with some games, poker chips can be annoying. Especially if anyone at the table is a chip clacker. They sit there like they're in Vegas, one-handedly clacking and re-clacking their chips. It gets louder and louder until everybody else at the table has to almost yell in order to be heard above the ear-shattering clacking of the offender's chips.

The SBD Assassin

My dad is 80 years old. I have known him all my life. He lived with me for 16 years up until 2003. I lived with him for 16 years, up until 1967. That's 36 years. In all that time my dad never once farted in public. Not once. He never even asked me to "pull his finger" when I was little. That ought to give you a heads up about how I view public farting. Especially at a game table. And more especially at MY game table. Yes, farts are funny when you're a tyke. Farts are not funny when a grown man who has eaten nothing but chipotle burgers and broccoli for the last 7 years keeps passing silent gas. Disgusting. Rude.

BRAAAAP!!!

Who's that drunken guy on the Simpsons? I forget his name, but he always burps so loud and forcefully his lips flap like sheets blowing in the wind. To me, loud and horrible burps are not okay because they aren't farts. They're basically mouth farts and I don't think they are one bit funny. Repeated table-burping ought to be dealt with severly. I've sat through some game sessions where the burping was so frequent and disgusting that I considered pulling my hazmat suit out of storage and wearing it so I'd stay clean.

The Whiner

Then there's the people who whine and whine and whine. I discussed them somewhat last week but I felt clarification was called for. I want to delineate actual whining from politicking at the game table. Whining is incessant and annoying complaining. Politicking is targeted whining intended to change the mindset of your opponents. Warrior Knights is a game I recently played where the politicking style of whining is useful. Just sitting around bitching about how you hate dice (Lyle) is pointless and eventually makes me want to grab the offender and shake all the whines right out of them. But if I did that, they'd just whine about it.

The Analyzer

We all know this guy/gal as the one stricken with Analysis Paralysis. Every group has one or two. What I don't understand about people suffering from AP is how they figure that consuming huge chunks of time thinking about the fix they're in will change the outcome? In my little gaming universe, the one inside my head, if I'm in a position where I feel myself heading into AP then I've already screwed up and will most likely lose unless I do something unexpected. So, as I have already suggested in an earlier blog entry, I choose the first thing that comes to mind and hope that the Shock & Awe tactic works. Why some people consistently delude themselves into believeing that consuming time will make it better is beyond me. I become annoying myself when there is an AP player in my group. On purpose.

The Stage Manager

This is the guy who feels it's his obligation (and his right) to direct the activities of all the other players in the game. He is constantly telling the others what they should do and why they should do it. I'm not talking about savvy politicking here either. As in the above example, politicking is acceptable and even expected in many games. But the Stage Manager can't keep his mouth shut... he has the innate need to tell everybody what to do, why they should do it and to fill them in on the consequences of not doing as he says. I've learned over the years that constant ridicule of every suggestion this guy makes can help to shut him up. Other than that, it's a permanent and recurring condition.

The Kamakaze Pilot

Realizing that he is either to far behind to have any chance for victory or even that he'd have to really make a supreme effort to pull the victory out, this player just tips his wings forward, applies full throttle and augers into the ground at top speed. The results of the Kamakaze Pilot giving up and self-destructing in the board game are usually beneficial to certain players and not others. Depending upon table or board position, the Kamakaze skews the game, skews the results and frankly, once I've seen this as a trait in a gamer I will go the extra mile to NOT have them at any table I game at. Why play if all you're going to do is make stupid mistakes and then give up? Sheesh... stay home, watch TV.

The Early Riser

Look, we all have jobs. We all need sleep. But please, don't even bother showing up for a 4 hour game that starts at 7pm if you have to leave at 10pm. How rude. I've had the displeasure of meeting quite a few Early Risers over the years and if they accept an invitation I never confirm it unless we clarify when their bedtime is first. Otherwise, just invite them when all you're going to play is short games... or ones that you know they suck at and that have player elimination as a mechanic.

The Litterbug

There's something about the anal and finicky nature of Euro Gamers that makes me think most of them are tidy people. But frankly, even in the Euro arena there are slobs. Those who open pack after pack of Ding-Dongs and strew the wrappers all over the table and floor. Or can't seem to eat a tortilla chip without spewing crumbs in a 5 foot radius of their chair. Or they topple empty soda cans on the table and drip salsa on their seat. This type of gamer isn't as annoying as some and they are often humorous. But they have caused me to have rules about open top glasses and pop cans at my table. I try and have side tables for Litterbugs to set their drinking containers on and even though it's slightly annoying, I don't mind running the vacuum under their seat several times throughout a game.

The Depression Case

Oh Gawd! Woe is me! I never win. Bleh, bleh, blech, moan..... this is what you hear from this downer person. A constant and grating undercurrent of self-loathing, self-pity and unending negativity. Man! It's amazing how people like this make me want to just slap them and slap them and slap them until they either laugh, fight or run away. Anything! Give me anything but some self-indulgent carper who cannot see beyond his own sad little world and understand that he loses because he is not a good player and that in order to become a good player he ought to pay frickin' attention to the game rather than his downer and dour inner fears.

The Glad-Handing Sales Guy

This is me. My attitude is, I'm certain, fairly annoying to some people. I'm always perky and full of commentary. I make jokes and drop the F-bomb in as many locations as I deem appropriate for the situation. I tease, cajole and smile while emanating an undercurrent of threat. My goal is to sell, distract and keep the other gamers laughing. Sometimes it helps me win games, that I know for sure. Mostly though, the table is populated by gamers who are too experienced and too wily to be fooled by my superb marketing skills. But, like many others, it's my trademark and even if it only works in the meta-game sporadically, it's a lot better than trying fart my way to victory.

So ask yourself... who are you at the game table? I've probably missed about 20 "types", some equally as annoying as the ones I have here and some maybe worse. One thing for sure, I did not begin my gaming days as the type of gamer I am now. I made the effort to review my own behaviour and did some modification over the years. We all have to be some type, even if we don't have to tools to see ourselves in another's eyes. But if you can see how you appear to others... and find you don't like it, then be a man! Do something about it. So much of what goes on in gaming happens off the table and in the social interaction that it's easy to overlook that board games are as much about the people you spend time with as they are about the game spread out on the table.

And who likes to spend time with someone who farts, burps, whines, is a control freak, annoys you by slapping his chips all the time, drops garbage on the floor, over-analyzes every move, gets depressed because of all his mistakes, decides to self-destruct and ruin everyone elses fun, gets depressed about it and then claims he has to get up early and bails out on you?

I'll take the Glad-Hander any day... not that I have much choice, he's me.






* Yes, I know 16 + 16 = 32
** Yes, I know that Barney is the drunk guy in the Simpsons.

These are part of the mechanics of marketing, selling and keeping people interested. They're a lot like Easter Eggs that programmers hide in software for fun. They allow the sharp reader or listener to congratulate themselves on how sharp they are and they open the mind as the astute observer has now keyed himself up to find even more mistakes in the presentation. Purposeful errors or little inconsistent tricks like this are themselves part of what makes human interaction fun. It's a game within a game. Try it sometime... it's the first step towards being a happier person.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Taking a "Risk" to Teach Strategy

Today’s guest speaker…uh, blogger is Sagrilarus. I enjoyed his article on Board Game Geek and asked him to spruce it up a bit to post for our readers. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

This past spring I had the opportunity to volunteer at my daughter's elementary school in a "Strategic Thinking" after-school activity that used board games to introduce students to the basics of tactics, strategy, and long-range planning. The brochure that came home in her backpack included pictures of hot games like Ticket to Ride and Age of Mythology and when I saw it I got very excited. My daughter playing board games! She’s just getting to the age where she can give me a good run! And she lives in the SAME HOUSE with me! She won’t be able to escape until she’s sixteen! “This is perfect!” I said out loud. “Kaylin! This is a great opportunity for me to . . . uh, YOU to learn new things and to think out of the box! Girl! Don’t pass this up! I’ll take care of everything. I’ll get you all signed up and ready to go.”

The next day Kaylin was signed up for the course, designed for 12 kids, along with 34 others. The following week an email with the faint aroma of desperation on it arrived in my inbox from the instructor asking for parent volunteers to help with the oversized class and I signed on for the next eight weeks along with three other men and one woman. I’m going to try to summarize what happened here so that anyone na├»ve enough to wander into the same situation will know what to expect and perhaps learn from our experience. Let’s start with a rundown of the course at hand:

The class was aimed at the elementary school level, grades 1-5.

The course itinerary consisted of three games -- Battleship to start showing basic game rules, placement, and simple geographic awareness; Stratego to show information hiding and strategic placement of resources; and then Risk last, which showed long term management of resources, consideration of goals and threats, and political maneuvering. Risk would consume more than half of the entire course time.

A quick aside here. I know what you’re thinking. Where was Ticket to Ride? Where was Age of Mythology or the other hot games on the little sheet the instructor had sent home? I dug into my bag and reviewed – damn! The flyer did indeed have Battleship Stratego and Risk on it, although sort of on the edges instead of in the middle. We had been Technicalitied. The course would be fun, but I . . . uh, Kaylin would have to settle for 1960s game technology. So be it – all I needed this course to do was set the hook in this girl and I would be able to game six nights a week.

Each session started with a brief description of the gaming for the day, and then broke out the boxes. Since the instructor had let so many kids into the class it was necessary to create teams of players, as there were not enough boards to go around. For Battleship and Stratego, this proved to be nearly disastrous. Virtually every team could not resist the urge to cheat. Since both games are so heavily focused on hiding information about your layout from your opponents, and since the kids were playing two or three to a team, it was just too easy for someone to quietly walk around behind the other team’s board, “gather intelligence” (something the instructor had told them was a good thing, although I doubt he meant it quite that way) and report back home. Remarkable how quickly games would turn. “Hey! We sunk your PT boat with two shots. It’s uncanny how lucky we got! again!” With the rampant cheating the class began to unravel and my daughter very much considered quitting out of frustration. I told her to give it one more week and sent off an email that evening to the instructor indicating that he had a real problem on his hands. The cheating issue essentially evaporated with Risk as there is little or no information hidden from other players in the game.

For Risk, the instructor broke off the younger grades into their own Risk game playing one-on-one with a full time instructor. The remaining older students played in teams on one Risk board. We adults were given the job of advising the teams on what their options were.

Ok, now to get down to serious game playing. At the beginning of the team Risk game, the instructor spent some time telling the players the basics, indicating that the capture of countries and continents and finally the entire board was the goal. However when it came time to select countries to start the game, many of the students had not fully internalized the goals he had set out for them – they did not think of a long term strategy and instead chose countries based on personal rivalries with other students or in one notable case preferences for culture. It’s unreasonable to expect young kids to play a game well the first time, but even with that level of expectation it is worth noting that more preparation was needed so that the kids could make better decisions about troop placement.

Emperor #1 became enraptured with the notion of his troops being Vikings, selected Iceland and placed all of his extra pieces there. In all the breadth of history no one has attempted to conquer the world starting in Iceland. Indeed not many Risk players have tried it either. This decision placed “Leif the Unlucky” in a squeeze between three other players, who quickly armed-up to counter his threat. Because of this less-than-wise decision his team was severely hamstrung at the beginning of the game. The curious issue here was that his four teammates continuously advised against this action as the pieces were being placed -- they had excellent position in Africa and were in a position to be the first team to solidify a continent. But this team leader simply overwhelmed them with persuasion and they capitulated to the Iceland position. Once the game began Iceland was disassembled in short order and the team started dedicating what piddly resources they had left to Africa out of desperation to stay in the game. Lesson learned -- occasionally Emperors don't listen to their advisors and take a beating for it (feel free to insert the despot of your choice as an example here).

Emperor #2 ended up with a strong position in Europe and western Asia. Although this is generally a hard place to start in Risk, he was uniquely set up to land Europe (once Iceland was decimated) and hold Siberia. The remainder of Asia was a mishmash of pieces and fortification, so the threats to his position were not as bad as others on the board.

Emperor #3 may have been a ringer – he selected all of Australia on startup, and no one chose to block his initial domination of the continent.
Here’s a curious thing about kids – as the countries were being selected, us three adult advisors who had probably played a total of 150 games of Risk between us walked around and gently recommended to the other team leaders that they not let this player take all of Australia without a fight. When he took the third country in Australia without anyone interceding we got a shade less gentle, with statements such as “You absolutely positively under no circumstances in any way whatsoever want to even remotely consider letting this guy get all of Australia without a fight.” The kids would give us that kind of look you get from your dog when he tries to understand English, and then go right back to what they were doing. All five other teams showed no interest in mixing it up with this team in Australia and even let him have Siam.
The obvious winner, yes? Well, sometimes things don't go as smoothly as planned.

Emperors #4 and #5 seemed to have a bit of history between them and decided to have their own personal war in North America and part of South America. Neither had a commanding position and both deployed the vast majority of their armies in a fairly even fashion, with the exception of NW Territory and Quebec, which were heavily built to counter Iceland.

Emperor #6 was about as evenly spread over the board as is possible, resulting in a role as a spoiler or even a nuisance more than anything else.

At this point the pieces were placed and it was time for blood to spill. And was it spilled. The largest deficit in the play of the six teams was any consideration of defense. The instructor had warned of overextending. We advisors kept telling the teams not to overreach. But all but one team felt obligated to conquer vast swaths of territory on every turn -- a standard rookie error. The one exception was Emperor #2, the guy in Europe and western Asia. On his first couple of turns he took territory cautiously and was able to land all of Europe after the boys in the New World chewed up Iceland for him. Defended, he became the player to beat and had an ace in the hole -- he had eight units in Siberia detached from the remainder of his forces. We'll get to that.

Australia Emperor received two additional armies for the first few turns which can make quite a difference early on, especially when everyone is depleting themselves. He wisely sensed danger in the guy in Europe, and chose to take southern Asia and go after the Ukraine, depleting his defenses in the process. Falling short, he had a reasonable force in Afghanistan, but his rear was all single-army. I pulled Mr. Europe aside and explained to him that Siberia had a unique opportunity to route all of Asia's backfield and maybe even reach Australia with a few breaks. I said, “you can pulp him in Asia and Australia behind Afghanistan’s back and he’ll have to fight back home instead of attacking the Ukraine. There’s no risk here.” I got that blank look again. I gave it one last try, but made it short and sweet: “Asia is weak. Attack it and you can win the game.” Kids don’t like to take recommendations from adults and can be a bit short-sighted on taking advice in general. I think one of the things I learned most from this course is that you need to establish a pretty solid relationship with kids before they start trusting you enough to consider your advice. We beat “don’t trust strangers” into their heads for most of childhood so I suppose this shouldn’t be a surprise. Anyway, he chose not to go after Asia and Australia in spite of getting eight armies to distribute, and the opportunity was lost.

North America became a sink for armies, South America was finally held by Emperor #6, and Africa became a battleground for 2 on 1 fights and the like, resulting in little progress. At times the player holding South America would reach across and sting Europe, just enough to deplete the European Emperor's strength. As the course progressed the team from Australia was largely ignored by everyone except Europe and had the opportunity to build force and slowly make headway. By the end of the course there were two teams knocked out, one team in its last throes, and two that were waning (including the Europe team). All in all a well fought match by the players once they had three or four turns under their belt and began to understand the game mechanics.

Recommendations for Doing a Similar Course

1- I think one of the major issues that escaped the students was a full assessment of their positions prior to the beginning of each turn. Granted, the kids were nine and ten years old and should not be expected to play well their first time, especially on their first few turns. But were I involved in the course again I would try to emphasize three concepts prior to each turn: where am I threatened; where am I trying to go; and where has an opportunity appeared? I would put those questions on a sheet of paper and have the players actually write answers to all three questions prior to starting each turn. I would also have them write a short statement regarding how the turn went after it was finished. This would be an excellent task for the second or third in command as it would give them a good opportunity to be heard.

2- I would also try to get team size down to two so that there would be a more reasonable opportunity for everyone's voice to be heard. The range of ages made it difficult to place command in the hands of all players. Given the number that showed up for the course I think this was more a matter of being caught by surprise without sufficient resources to manage four or five games simultaneously. As in all things, student-teacher ratio is important, as is the physical resources -- we needed three more game boards. The instructor was a good sport and accepted all comers into the course and, quite frankly, did a remarkable job of managing what could have been a very chaotic situation.

3- I would segregate games by age if possible, given the human resources available. Younger kids (including my daughter Kaylin) were too easily sidelined by the older male players who seemed to dominate their teams too easily.

4- If there are two or more players on each team I would have the players take turns being the emperor. This would make sure that a situation such as Iceland would not occur. The members of the Iceland team learned a valuable lesson -- project management can be derailed by one person in a position of authority or with sufficient charisma to fly everyone into the side of a mountain in formation. But this lesson played out quickly and the team did not get to enjoy the remainder of the course as much as the other teams.

5- Elementary kids are like gremlins -- don't feed them if you know what's good for you. Snacks should be small and completely devoid of the evil white granular substance. The woman helping with the course was providing snacks to eight-year-olds. Pain and suffering ensued.

6- Assign the adult volunteers to specific teams instead of having them advise all. Split them as necessary given the numbers -- if you only have one volunteer then he gets all six teams. Introduce the volunteer to the team, establish a relationship between them and get some level of rapport going. By the time most of the teams started considering our advice they were already in the soup. But take care -- I think it is equally important for the adult volunteer to not run the game. It is useful in this situation to limit the adult advisor to only asking questions. "You should go after Africa" is inappropriate. "Have you considered Africa?" puts the students in charge of the answer.

7- The sessions included a volunteer to run the mechanics of the board. This person needs to take care of a couple of things up front, most important was deciding on what the official rules for the session will be. Each adult volunteer that participated had played as a kid, and none of us played by the same set of rules. I appeared to have played by the most strict interpretation of the rules, but the current game rules include official variants that were in play and there were other homemade rules that came up that required a decision mid-turn for some moves, slowing the game and resulting in a couple of fairly important changes for players who had been advised differently by us adults. This issue needed to be cleared up front. Each volunteer (and perhaps each player) should have a set of rules with the appropriate variants highlighted to show exactly how things would play.
The other change I’d make for the "board master" is his role as advisor. If enough volunteers are available, I would limit his advising to the rules. This puts him in a much clearer role and limits his otherwise formidable position.

8- Generate inter-session interest in the game by getting a minor web page up with photos of the board. Likely a photo of each continent would be sufficient to fully describe the board. A scorecard would likely interest players as well – number of countries owned, number of armies on the board, etc. The instructor issued a newsletter each week with a summary of the session’s events which was excellent. It kept the players and their parents informed, but was not as informative on the current status of the game. With appropriate information the students could consider moves through the week.

9- Consider a less bloody game for the girls that decide to participate. If two instructors are available the two games could be run in parallel. This will require an additional level of dedication however, so step lightly into this suggestion.

Hindsight

Considering this was a first-time attempt at the course and the size of the student response was so high, all went quite well. The students learned the games with ease. Battleship and Stratego turned out to be less useful choices as it was exceptionally easy to cheat given the size of the class and the open room environment being used. Risk proved more effective and there was little ability to get an unfair advantage on your opponents.

If you decide to tackle something such as this be prepared for a big turnout, and don’t get my . . . uh, the kids’ hopes up by showing cool new games like Ticket to Ride and Age of Mythology on the flyer.

Working with the kids was a lot of fun, and let's face it, if you're reading this you love games. This was an excellent opportunity for me to have a lot of fun helping out and my daughter appreciated my volunteering at her school. Well worth the time I put in.

Oh, and as for Kaylin, what does she think of board games now that she’s gone a few rounds with them at school? Thumbs up baby! It’s Carcassonne tonight!

Sag.

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Another report on the Australian Games Expo

I finally finished jotting down my thoughts about the recent Australian Games Expo and sending them off to the organisers, so I thought I would also post a version for the extra reader here :-)

A lot of this has already been said by Melissa already last week, but this is my take on events. I had never spurned Bob, so there won't be a lot of talking about him.

My gaming convention background – I have attended role playing conventions in around the country for many years and was one of the organisers of one of the largest ones in Melbourne (peaked at about 650 players) for many years too. With the exception of one convention (now defunct), the standard venue for Australian gaming conventions is at schools or universities. The one large gaming area does not suit role playing tournaments at all. It's OK for miniatures and table top gaming which are often run at the gym in a school. Since the arrival of Daughter the Elder our attendance at gaming conventions has reduced somewhat. There are still quite a few role-playing conventions, one wargaming one that I know of, quite a few Warhammer 40K events and CCG stuff. A few of the role playing conventions and the war gaming one have Euros in attendance but this is the first Euro only event that I know of.

The Venue
The building, the Albury Convention Centre, was very good. The general gaming area was close to full or full most of the times I looked at it and on Sunday had begun to spill over into the tournament area – that in itself speaks volumes about the success of the event.

It is probably worth remembering that the games expo has two main types of attendees. Short stay people who drop in for anything up to a couple of hours (e.g. families, teachers etc) and long stay (tournament players and gamers). The latter group are a sort of captive audience, possibly having two meals a day on site and thus create a lot of rubbish that the short stay people don’t. I noticed on the first day that the tournament area was drastically short of suitable sized rubbish bins but this was quickly remedied. It brought back memories of role playing conventions where we had
to ensure that bins were emptied at least three or four times a day.

The toilet facilities were always clean and well stocked which is an important thing.

It was very cold outside, but the venue was heated. It is winter in Australia at the moment and unlike Coldie I am looking forward to the return of Summer.

The mobile coffee truck was great, I just wish that they had stuck around into the afternoon! There are those of us who enjoy a post lunch coffee on occasions.

The organiser mentioned that the main vendor and general gaming area could be expanded next year. Given that the area was basically full and feedback has been very positive I would definitely say that they will need the room and a lot more general gaming tables and chairs to go with the extra space. I have a gut feeling that less people will play multiple tournaments next year and that combined with the extra patronage that is bound to occur will escalate the demand for general gaming tables.

Tournaments
The initial draw. I’m not sure exactly what information was available for scheduling purposes but in an initial draw I believe an effort should be made to place people with people that they do not know. Thus rule 1) no family members in the same group. Rule 2) Try and go for people from different geographical locations. It may not avoid the issue but is probably better than putting four people from the same city in a group together. I accept that this may be difficult to arrange and is by no means foolproof but it is worth trying.

It became evident towards the end of the initial Carcassonne rounds that scoring system which was based purely on points scored was problematic. A tight competitive game could easily see all players scoring under 80 points. A cooperative game could easily see all players scoring over 100 points, leading to the situation that the loser of the one games scores 25% more points than the winner of another game in the tournament standings. I believe a weighting needs to be given to winning and/or placing in the game as was done in Settlers. Otherwise some players will identify an
opportunity to maximise their placing in the tournament scoring as opposed to winning the games. This was not a problem in the finals, but was in the initial games leading up to the finals.

It would probably be worth reviewing any proposed scoring system in this light. Look at it from the point of view of players who want to maximise their position by playing the scoring system as opposed to playing to win. Possibly float it to a few games groups or the geek for review.

I also found that the restriction of only using the base set of Carcassonne made the game much more luck dependant than if The Expansion (Inns and Cathedrals) had been included. In each game that I saw one player draw three or more monasteries, that player won the game. In my opinion, including the expansion would make it more balanced. This may be one of the occasions where the expo was dictated to by the governing body though.

The Settlers of Catan tournament was great (with the possible exception of my results!). I thought it was a good idea to have the random map each time. I noticed that in the Malaysian competition they used the beginner’s map from the Almanac, which does not seem like a good idea to me.

Whilst playing both tournaments was theoretically two chances at a trip to Essen, realistically it just took up too much of my time. My opportunities to spend time perusing and talking to vendors, tying out new games or old favourites in the general gaming area was severely curtailed. I freely admit that this was my choice, but next year I doubt that I would enter more than one tournament so that I could guarantee my self more 'free' time.

Personally I am not a big fan of Eurogames being played as tournaments if there are more than two competing players. The possibility of collusion or king making, accidental or otherwise, always exists. Two player games, or games where there are two teams reduce or eliminate this possibility, but lack the more social aspect of your average multiplayer Euro. It’s all swings and roundabouts isn’t it? My background is role playing tournaments where it is the players against the game, so it is not an issue.

I’ve heard that the intention is to have at least one different tournament game next year. That could be interesting, although I still think I will limit myself to a maximum of one tournament game so I can have time to enjoy the other aspects of the expo at my leisure.

Other thoughts
Speaking as a gamer, the more general gaming space and times the better. Role playing conventions generally run three days and some run four. They usually run games 12-14 hours a day. I accept that the vendors will not wish to keep those hours and their area should be able to be isolated. The gamers however would like to game on, preferably at the same venue, or otherwise at a suitable heated nearby venue. I would guess a fair percentage of the gamers at the Expo have travelled quite a way and have nothing better to do with their evenings. I noticed that Borders (the local game club and supplier of many volunteers at the expo) was full to the seams on Saturday night. This will be even more so next year as the evening gaming sessions will not be competing with the World Cup as they were this year.

Another option would be to extend to include the Monday public holiday as well. The little voice in my head mentions that venue cost would probably be the decider on this point.

The support that the Expo got from the council was great. From the reception on Friday and we saw the Mayor and quite a few staff at the expo over the weekend.

Since most gamers from Melbourne or Sydney can probably get retail –10% back at home, the lack of discounting means that gamers probably didn’t buy many games. Gamers generally expect some discounting and/or new stock at conventions. It will be interesting to see if there is any movement on this front next year.

Another good thing was to catch up with people who I knew via BGG. There were quite a few. There's some that I met that only afterwards I found out of about their BGG personas.

All in all a bloody good event. Thanks to everyone who made it happen - there were lots of you and I probably only know a few names - so thanks again all of you.

Mmm meeples taste like...

Fraser

Friday, June 23, 2006

Eagerly Awaiting Winter

Just can't seem to play many games during the summer months. Everybody is either working overtime, fishing or taking kids to soccer practice. My stack of recently acquired unplayed games is rather large. Alexander, Antiquity, Britania, Citadels, Il Principe, La Citta, Masons, Medici, PUNCT, Rommel in the Desert, Siena, Silverton, Torres, Warrior Knights, World of Warcraft, Ys, 2038.

These games are in addition to my perpetual list of unplayed games. A Line in the Sand, Anno 1503, Attack and Expansion, Bobby Lee, Borderlands, Cafe International, Chariot Lords, Clash of Gladiators, Conquest of Empire, Die Macher, Divine Right, Doge, Freedom in the Galaxy, Gemquest, Junta, Keythedral, Kings and Things, Mall World, Mare Nostrum Expansion, Medieval, Motley Fool, Mu, Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper, Mystic Wood, Taj Mahal, Quest for the Dragon Lords, Terra, Tichu, Tongiaki, Tyrus, Victory and probably a few others.

I have set one small boardgame goal. I've pretty much made up my mind that I'm playing Die Macher at BGG.con. I've owned the game for 3 years. I've studied the rules on several occasions but cannot find the right moment to break it out. Die Macher definitely seems like a game that would be much easier to learn from an experienced player.

On the bright side, we are coming right up on Independence Day, July 4. We've been ironing out some of the final details for the second annual DenaliCon, June 30 - July 4 in Denali Park, Alaska (aka Mount McKinley Park). I hope to get a couple of these games to the table during that event. Since I will be bringing most of the games I don't foresee a problem. (Wanna play my copy of Settlers? Sure, right after we've played a couple rounds of Antiquity.)

Ahhhhh. Antiquity under the midnight sun. I can hardly wait.

Speaking of which:

To those who missed it, the summer solstice occurred a couple days ago, at least in this hemisphere. Fairbanks puts on a big wing-ding during the solstice, right on Main street.

We are a degree or two south of the Arctic Circle. Contrary to popular belief the sun does set this far north on the solstice, but it does not get dark. Not even a little bit dark. This time of year the sun is up for slightly more than 21 hours and 45 minutes.

The two big highlights of the solstice festival, for a lard butt like me, are kettle corn and elephant ears. Unfortunately Blogger won't let me add pictures of either, had a couple good pictures too, better than either of the pictures it would let me post. The line for elephant ears wrapped around the block, and was only slightly longer than the line for kettle corn. Had to choose one or the other, I deferred to the kids and went without my yearly elephant ear.



The weather was bee-you-tee-full, cloudy but plenty warm. The kind of weather that makes it easy to tell the tourists from the locals at a glance.


You always run into people you haven't seen for a long time at the solstice festival. Unfortunately, this year it was a girl who was my neighbor several years ago. I remember her as an ambitious high school student. She is now carrying an infant on her hip and sporting meth teeth (here also). How sad. She was a nice kid.

Prior to experimenting with methamphetamine, everyone (especially women) should consider the ramifications of meth teeth (also referred to as meth mouth). Meth teeth are gross. If meth teeth aren't a deterrent for you to use methamphetamine, get yourself fixed. Men and women alike. Children should not be subjected to meth households. I say that as a nurse who has worked with drug and alcohol addicts in multiple settings, as a cab driver who is familiar with some of the more notorious drug houses in this area, and as a former resident of Moose Creek, Alaska, which is often referred to as Meth Creek, the community where the two main industries are cooking meth and stealing Sudafed.

Sorry for the rant, but it broke my heart to see a good kid get mixed up with meth. Made it 10 times worse because she has an infant. Spoiled an otherwise good festival.

Now that I got that out of my system: Check back for bona fide boardgame content next week, and genuine, authentic DenaliCon pictures the week after.

And remember: Meth teeth are for real.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

Fantasy Flight's Adventure Games & That Old Time Roleplaying

Last month I chanced into a game of World of Warcraft: The Board Game. It's really not the sort of thing I usually play with my various board game groups, if for no other reason, gamelength, but it's the exact sort of game my roleplaying group likes to play if we're not roleplaying on a particular day. We've actually played a number of Fantasy Flight games in that group. Besides World of Warcraft there's also been Runebound and Arkham Horror.

On my first game of World of Warcraft I was struck not only by its similarities to the other two Fantasy Flight Games we'd recently played, but also its differences. At first I thought that FFG might just be retreading these same ideas, but then I realized that something different was going on ... Fantasy Flight is actually creating a whole new subgenre of board games: adventure games. Granted, we've had these adventure games around for a while. Arkham Horror was originally published in 1984, and it shortly followed on the heels of another adventure game classic, Talisman (1983). The same era would later see Milton Bradley's HeroQuest (1989). However, with one publisher now putting out so many games, there's an opportunity for something new.

Adventure games have always been board-based role-playing games. Each player has a character that he slowly improves through play. Monsters appear either randomly or as part of a predetermined layout and by fighting them players get loot and experience. Most of the games, unlike traditional RPGs, don't require a gamemaster, with HeroQuest being a notable exception.

Fantasy Flight is acting differently than the 1980s adventure-game publishers by putting out a whole line of these games. Each of Arkham Horror, Runebound, and World of Warcraft is a very different game, with different mechanics and different designers, and thus they together form a central spine for Fantasy Flight's entry to this new genre. Arkham Horror is the classic, originally designed by Richard Launius and then revamped by FFG's Kevin Wilson; Runebound is a Martin Wallace design, refined by Darrell Hardy; and World of Warcraft is a Christian T. Petersen original (based, of course, on the MMORPG).

(Doom: the Boardgame and Descent, by Kevin Wilson, meanwhile, push the old gamemaster v. the players design. Since I haven't played them, and they offer a slightly different gameplay methodology, I've kept them out of this article. Really, it's mainly because I haven't played them.)

Fantasy Flight is supporting the heck out of these titles with one World of Warcraft supplement, two Arkham Horror supplements, and four-hundred and eighty-three Runebound supplements scheduled for this year alone. If they work out, I think we may be seeing the blossoming of a whole new subgenre of gaming, which will doubtless be expanded upon by Fantasy Flight and replicated by other publishers.

My Reviews: Arkham Horror (A), Runebound (B+), World of Warcraft (A-)

Difference & Similarities

What I find intriguing about this new wave of Fantasy Flight games is how they're similar and different, together showing some of the possibilities of this potential new genre of gaming.


Arkham HorrorRuneboundWorld of Warcraft
CountersStamina.
Sanity.
Life.
Stamina.
Health.
Energy.
Combat
Stats
Fight.Mind.
Ranged Damage.
Body.
Melee Damage.
Spirit.
Magic Damage.
Ranged (blue).
Melee (red).
Defensive (green).
Reroll.
Attrition.
Other
Stats
Speed.
Sneak.
Will.
Lore.
Luck.
Various skills.
None.
EquipmentLots of types. Can be found, bought, or sold.Lots of types. Can be found, bought, or sold.Lots of types. Can be found, bought, or sold.

Private powers work like individual items.
ExperienceNone other than Clues and very occasional Skill card bonuses.
Gain XP to improve Mindy, Body, Spirit, Stamina, or Life.Gain XP to "level up", improving Health and Energy, granting a new talent, and giving access to new equipment.
Skill
Resolution
Roll a number of 6-sided dice equal to stat. Each 5 or 6 is a success. Usually only one success is required. Clue tokens can give bonus rolls.Roll 2d10, adding Mind, Body, or Spirit, and optionally a skill. Equal or exceed a target number.None except combat.
Monster CreationEvent cards create new monsters in certain spaces each turn--and move them.Adventure counters mark spaces where monsters can be found.Quest cards place monsters on specific spaces on the board.
CombatA Fight skill test, adding in Combat items, and subtracting the monster's difficulty. 1-4 successes may be required, else the monster does damage and combat continues.
A sequence of three skill tests: mind, body, and spirit, some of which are offensive and some of which are defensive. Failures result in the monster doing damage.
A complicated system involving rolling a handful of blue, green, and red 8-sided dice, with successes exceeding a "threat" target number from 4-8. Successful blue dice take effect immediately, and if the opponent isn't dead yet, its "attack" stat faces off against red and green dice, possibly doing damage. Successful red dice and attrition are then moved up into the damage box. If they plus the blue dice exceed a monster's health, it's dead, else they're saved for the next round.
MovementMove your Speed in spaces each turn.Roll dice to move each turn.Move 2 spaces as an action.
EventsEach turn a new event is drawn.Events are mixed into the encounter deck.On some turns a new event is drawn.
TeamsEveryone versus the game. Destroy the Big Bad.Everyone for himself. Destroy the Big Bad first.Two teams compete. Destroy the Big Bad first.
Unique SystemsSanity system allows monsters to drive characters insane.

Stats can be increased or decreased with "focus".
Movement dice show terrains that can be moved into.Wars and bounties encourage interplayer combat.

As an old roleplayer, I'm particularly struck by how close these new adventure games reflect older roleplaying games. They don't have the same depth of original storytelling, clearly, but in mechanical form they match my basic definition of roleplaying games: they feature modeled characters and skill resolution systems. Further, there's some depth and careful design evidenced in both. Given that Fantasy Flight is a roleplaying company that's moving much more toward board and card games, I have to wonder if they see this as an evolutionary step.

However, these new adventure games still miss at least two major aspects of roleplaying game. One, as already mentioned, is the idea of original storytelling. Runebound, Arkham Horror, and World of Warcraft can all show off theming of various depths, but they're still missing stories that can involve you and can touch your heart. However, I doubt an adventure boardgame will ever be able to accomplish this aspect of gaming without either human or computer oversight.

Another missing factor which is within the grasp of adventure gaming is the idea of a campaign, where you can play the same characters from adventure to adventure, improving them as you go. The old Milton Bradley game HeroQuest did this. Atlas Games meanwhile is trying this concept out with their new Epic Dungeoneer, which allows you to transfer your old characters up to the next level.

Whether it'll become a possibility in some future Fantasy Flight adventure game is an open question.

Conclusion

It's always the hardest to see trends when you're still on their leading edge. However, I think we might be seeing a new one with the blossoming of adventure games at Fantasy Flight Games. By looking at their various releases we can see there's a lot of opportunity for variety and thus for growth in this new niche gaming. Whether they can eventually match more of the gameplay of RPGs, with real storytelling and campaigns remains a question for the future.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Join Me On Tranquility Island


Supper is finished and cleared away, the heat of the day slowly slides into the cool of the evening and the tension of another busy day passes from our thoughts. We take a small box out to the back porch and sit at a wrought-iron bistro table, the dog lying at our feet. The sounds of the world are distant and muffled except for an occasional bird calling to its mate. Even the usual South Dakota wind is at rest.

The lid slides quietly off of the box and I pull out the beautiful pieces to set before us. A cat pushes his way through the pet door, stretches and takes a moment to survey the territory before ambling down the steps to take up a watchful position on the patio.

Click, click, click. The pieces make a pleasant, comforting sound when they bump. A blue jay swoops in for a drink at the bird bath so we stop to watch both the bird and the cat. But peace reigns for this moment and the bird flies off to continue his bird life.

Soon the phone may ring or the dog may find something to bark at but for this short while, the back yard is our island where the world does not interfere.
~~~~~~~
Until next time, may you all have a tranquil island to enjoy.

Mary

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Grog and Mog

Once upon a time, Grog and Mog met in a field. Grog looked at Mog. Mog looked at Grog.

"uh", said Grog.

"uh", said Mog. [1]

"grunt", said Grog.

"grunt, grunt", said Mog.

"grunt, grunt, grunt, I say. grunt", said Grog.

"look, we could be at this all day", said Mog. "how's your family?"

"fine, fine, thank you", said Grog. "they're still sleeping it off from the big party last night. that was something, eh?"

"it sure was, grog. i mean 'grog'. damn, i wish they would invent capital letters already. it's a bit of a mess having to get by without them, isn't it?"

"you've said that rightly, ol' mog. anyway, that was some party."

"what did you do at this party, grog ol boy?"

"we sat around. cooked meat on this glowing hot orange thing and ate it. shot the breeze, you know. the usual."

"ah, yes. the usual. hmmm..."

"hmmm... what?"

"tell me, grog. doesn't it seem to you that there might be something missing? something else that could be done at parties?"

"something else? what else? talking, eating, banging rocks. what else could there be?"

"I'm not sure, grog. you see, hmmm. say, you know how the corners of your mouth go up sometimes, like when you see tog trip over his loincloth, and it rips off while he falls over in front of the ladies? well, i'm thinking we could do that corner of the mouth thing at parties. it makes one feel so good."

"it does, doesn't it? maybe we should try it now. see how it goes."

So Grog and Mog pulled on the corners of their mouths and streched them in different directions, but it didn't feel so good. [2]

"well, mog", said Grog, "i have to say that this doesn't feel so good after all. i wonder why it feels so good when tog does his tripping thing."

"think. think. damn this neanderthal brain! hey. you don't suppose that the feel good has to do with tog tripping, and not with the mouth thing, do you?"

"hmmm.... perhaps. perhaps. you may be on to something there. in fact, i feel a little of that good thing just thinking about Tog tripping and falling over. but say, why does the mouth thing happen?"

"perhaps", answered Mog, "perhaps they happen at the same time, but are not related, vis a vis, to one another. what do you say to that?"

"why, that's possible, yes, entirely possible. say, that's a very smart thing to think, mog, even if i don't know what that last thing you said meant."

"yes, neither did i, seeing as i don't speak french. but anyway, how about we bring tog along to the next party and make him fall and lose his loincloth in front of the ladies a few times. that would give us those good feelings, then, right? and it would be something to do besides eat, talk, and bang rocks."

"capital, my good man, just capital. we shall proceed to do just that."

And so along went Grog and Mog to find Tog.

"hello tog", said Grog.

"hello tog", said Mog.

"Hi, Grog. Hi Mog. Guess WhaT? TheY jUsT inVentEd CapiTAl lEttERS! Isn't tHAT GreaT?" [3]

"SAY tog, THAT IS gReAT!", said Grog.

"OnlY, I don'T ThINK That I aM using TheM just RigHT yet", said Tog.

"OH, nO", said Grog. "SouNDS juSt fiNe tO ME!"

"So anYway, what bringS you fellowS arouND?", asked Tog.

"well, tog, grog and i wanted to know if you would come to tonight's party and do your falling down thing. we think that it makes us have that good feeling thing and the mouth corner thing, and we thought it would be great to do that again at the party a few times." [4]

"Well, that's a great idea, fellows. onlY, it doesn't give me that good feeling thing, more of a hot burning thing. so I don't think that It's my falling down thing that does it. mAybe it's the mouth corner thing that does it?"

"Oh, no, ToG", said Grog. "We thouGht about That. it is definitely the falling thing. well, this is a bit of a pickle, isn't it? WHAT now?"

"let me think", said mog. "hmmmm. you know. when tog does the falling down thing, we get a good feeling. maybe if we did the falling down thing, tog would get a good feeling. and by the way, pickles haven't been invented yet."

"Oh, yeS, That's right aBout the PICKles. thanks aGAIN. but I see what you SAY about the falling thing. Do let'S GIve it a try."

So Grog and Mog fell down and lost their loincloths a few times.

"Oh, yes, I see what you mean", said Tog. "It does sort of give a good feeling thing to see, and the mouth corner thing, too. Only not so much as when I did it, I believe, right?"

"WelL, we aRE MISSing the Ladies. MAYbe ladies have to bE PREsent to see it."

"there will be ladies tonight at the party. let's all do it", said Mog.

It was a big hit. Especially for the ladies. And thus was born the first party game. [5]

Yehuda

[1] Mog was later sued by Grog for misuse of trademark, specifically violating the "look and feel" of a greeting first popularized by Grog. The greeting was also patent pending, a system for the greeting of a person whereby initial recognition is achieved in a non-threatening manner.

[2] It did feel good to the ladies who were secretly observing this, however.

[3] Hacker and early adapter.

[4] Luddite, old generation, refuses to get with the times.

[5] It was called "Whose Loincloth is it, Anyway?" (tm)

Monday, June 19, 2006

GAME STORE CONFIDENTIAL ~ How to grow a set and not be a whiner

I've been jonesing for some two-player board gaming action.

The urge hasn't gotten to an unbearable level yet, but if I attend or host too many more wussified Euro Game sessions I'm going to end up regressing back to the 70's... those were the days many of us remember... when we'd buy a manly two-player, direct confrontation, CRT-laden, dice-happy game and punch the counters, set up the board... and play it solitaire.

Yes. There were sissy gamers back then too, kiddies. So us war gamers had to learn the hard way; alone. The board gaming world has always been plagued by weak-kneed, sensitive types who cringe at the thought of having to pit their wits, intelligence and mental acuity against a single combatant. I will explain to you, in the following paragraphs, why multi-player games (Euro Games in particular) have the deleterious effect of eroding the gaming gene-pool. In short, these plain-vanilla, non-confrontational games reward unmanly cooperation, punish rugged individualism and minimize the very important risk-taking behaviour that builds strong gaming muscles.

First off, lets give the Euros the full measure of credit they're due. Hmmmm... what do they do? Oh yeah! Males who used to be real men are often allowed by thier wives to buy Euro Games. An added benefit of that sickening thought is that BGG has probably gained upwards of 40,000 new members as former men flock to the site to hungrily gobble up every Geek List and thread that's ever been written about "games my mistress/wife/girlfriend/dominatrix will play".

What else? Oh, okay, a bunch of people can use Euro Games as an excuse to socialize, drink beer and have group hug sessions where they applaud each other for being refined and discriminating enough to have risen above the barabaric gaming behavoiur exhibited by real men... like, you know, war gamers.

There was a perfect example of exactly this behaviour Saturday, right here in Idaho. A fellow BGG member lives about 20 miles from me. JonnyBravoh is by all outward appearances a regular guy, and he is nice enough to have hosted a bunch of all-day game sessions at his beautiful home. But to cut right to the chase, Jon only hosts these sessions when his wife allows it. Now Jon has a lovely wife and she likes some Euro Games as well. And me, not currently having a wife I have no room to criticize someone in an area where he is obviosly more successful than me... marraige. Hmmm... now that I think about it, I might actually be more successful than Jon at marraige, I have done it at least four times that I can remember and he's only done it once. So who is he to talk?

Anyway, there were between 6 and 9 people there throughout the day and almost every game played was a souless Euro. Not a one of them had any real backbone, not even the ones that were fun. They all fall short because they allow weakness to have a chance at success. They mask poor decision-making. They suppress man's innate desire for single combat. In effect, they turn what ought to be a monumental struggle for domination into a social affair where sloppy play, failure to comprehend rules and heads completely devoid of strategy can schlepp along and have a chance of winning.

Here's an example: A couple of weeks back Jon brought Keythedral to my house. Four of us played and I got slapped... badly. So, when there were five of us at Jon's on Saturday we played Keythedral. I handily won the game. Beating Jon out by a mere point and humiliating the other three. Jon was stunned. What I didn't tell him was how easy it was to beat the game. I watched what the guy who won a few weeks ago did and I did that. Duh. Everyone else played like total spaz gamers, randomly picking tile locations, buying too many house upgrades, getting behind the 8-ball on having the right color of goofy looking little cubes to buy the influence and so on. A bunch of amatuers. If there had been any real war gamers there they'd have given me a run for the money. Jon came close, but hey, it's his game, he's "experienced".

Another game we played was Santiago. I had played this 2-dimensional tile-laying clone once before, at Jon's house, and was beaten soundly. I remembered well what the guy who won did and I did that, winning the game easily. Even 2nd place was over 15 points back. Duh.

We also played Power Grid. Now I happen to like Power Grid because it is confrontational, somewhat. Jumbo won the game, but if the rules had allowed me to act like a renegade third world Religious-Totalitarian Psycho Nation, like Iraq, North Korea or France, I would have kept my nuclear plants, insisted they were for power generation only and secretly stockpiled weapons grade material and nuked the crap outta Jumbo's little East Coast power empire. But hey, it's a Euro, one made by a freakish looking guy with green hair. So I knew what I buying when I bought it and I'm not going to complain when Jumbo actually wins a game... he was sooo happy.

I also won Ticket to Ride Marklin, a bunch of games of For Sale - I rarely lose at For Sale and no one has ever wondered why, they just comment that I'm "lucky at For Sale", okay, whatever, - I won one game of Bang! and something else, I think.The general consensus was that DW had a good day. That comment alone, "DW had a good day", proves my point that Euro's have turned gaming into a pastime where winning is never a clear statement that someone is thinking and applying the results of their cogitation to the game, no matter how cookie-cutter and bland the game is. No, in the EuroSnoot crowd you aren't a "good player" or a "clear winner"... instead you "have a good day."

To be fair again to Jon, as well as Jason, they were both drinking. Jon to excess and Jason simply a steady stream of beer. At one point Jon was blubbering drunk and thankfully nobody wanted to play anything more serious than Liar's Dice until the 12 or 13 scotches he drank wore off. I waited the rest of the day and into the evening for what I knew was coming... that somehow drinking and then slobbering all over the table would be brought up as an excuse. As we were giving the day it's post-mortum and prepping to leave, Jon commented, "I would have done better in Power Grid if I hadn't been so blindingly drunk that my brains melted and gray juice oozed out of my ears and onto the game board."

Okay, what he really said was, "I would have done better in Power Grid if I wasn't drinking."

Well, duh. That's like saying, " I wouldn't have driven over your cow, your ornamental shrubs, your electric fence, through your garage, out into the fields and then knocked down that cell tower, if I hadn't been drinking."

When I look at pictures of various games on BGG what do you think I see? I see lots of pictures of metrosexual-looking guys all grinning like idiots over the various incarnations of the exact same game which sits on a table in an IKEA-stricken dining room and the table is littered with beer bottles, feminine wine glasses, scotch tumblers and puddles of gray liquid that has drained out of their ears.

The point here is simple, Euro Games and most popular multi-player games are weak because they usually can be easily beaten, once you learn the basic design... which is all too frequently a replicate of almost every other Euro Game. They apparancy of competition comes mainly from the fact that most people who play them are either drunk, or they are somebody's "grudging" wife, or the players are so busy discussing their latest iPod downloads, comparing ringtones, making condescending comments about Country Western music and complementing each other on how everybody solved the Game Storage Issue.

For about the 12,395th time Jumbo stated that he loves epic multi-player games and dislikes two-player games. He likes TI3, he likes Descent, he likes big, expansive epic struggles where 5 or 6 people get together and spend 4-7 hours playing. I reminded him that he never gets to play those games. He agreed, that is one of the downsides to epic-scale multi-player games. Yep. You spend $70 on a game and three years later you've played it exactly 1.4 times.... and that was with your cousin's two pre-teen daughters, your moody roomates and RoBee. That same $70 invested in two or three war games would have allowed you to actually play a game... many times.

But! All this leads to one of the more sinister aspects of multi-player games... the Dark Side of gaming... the morally corrosive and character-wrecking seed that virtually every multi-player game has built right into it. And that evil seed is - blaming the poor play of others for your own miserable failures, lack of comprehension and tendency to lose.

Of all the spineless and self-loathing excuses that exist in board gaming, pinning your sorry-ass lack of skill on the errors that other people make is the worst. It trumps everything... including being roaring drunk or having a 2 year old throwing collicky fit in the host's wife's lap...as she sits at the table and stares everyone down. It even trumps cheaters, liars and rules-bending nerd-boys who stare more intently than a Scientologist at anyone who argues their interpretation of a rule. Pissing and moaning about what someone else did wrong and how that was why you lost is so unmanly and so self-hating and it so disgusting that I wonder how board gaming sales have grown these last 10 or 15 years.

Maybe the God-fearing, purgatory-preaching and very well armed Religious Conservatives do have it right - we really have become a culture that has an internal self-loathing for our own despicable behaviour. Hmmmm... that would go a long way towards explaining why there are so many Liberal Weenies on BGG... puking all over themselves in a frenzied rush to blame their most recent Puerto Rico loss on "that idiot who chose the Craftsman at the wrong time".

Fact is, none of this BS happens in 2-player games. You don't lose at a game of chess and then carp away on BGG like a big whining baby that you'd have won except for the mistakes the winner made. Actually, now that I think about it, there are enough college grads and IT people infesting BGG that I suspect even that happens. 5 Geek Gold to the first reader of today's article that can direct me to a thread that shows an example of a loser in a 2-player game whining that he only lost because the winner was a lousy player. Oh yeah, and the thread has to be prior to June 19th, 2006, I'm on to you city boys and university people's wily ways.

I like the people I game with. I even like Jon, despite the fact that when he cooked hamburgers on his grill a few months back we ended up using them for street hockey instead of eating them. Jumbo, RoBee, Shaun, Lyle, Austin the 11 year old wunderkid with ants in his pants, Bode, Tony the RRT Baron, they're all great folks to game with. When we get a chance to have Jason and fellow BBG'er Rickwa play, it's even better. But... I really miss the mano y mano 2-player, single combat, confrontational style of gaming. Out of the current group I'd guess only Jason and Bode (who is about 10 days out from opening a game store with two partners) are the only ones who, like me, have the stones to play head-to-head games and face their losses like a man... or graciously congratulate you for putting up a good fight when they win.

For the most part I actually like multi-player games, despite the fact that so many of the ones from Europe are cookie-cutter rehashes of the same two or three designs with some crappy theme that was pasted loosely on after the designer lost control to the publisher. I also consider myself lucky that the people I game with don't whine too badly... well, Lyle does, but then he whines about everything. Lyle though, has shown more than the normal level of interest for war gaming, so perhaps I can get him to play a few real games and beat the whining right out of him.

Anyway, I really am looking forward to some of the upcoming Euro's and even more so, many of the designs coming from American publishers like GMT, FFG and Eagle. I think it's right here in the Good Ol' USA that theme and gritty competition stills exists in gaming and game design.

If you think about it, America is where War Games first rose up and became popular. As a culture we tend to be more "in your face" and willing to get down in the mud and wrestle for a win. I know that attitude pisses some people off because it's so brazen. But that's how it is folks, and for my money I like games that have those nose-to-nose qualities. I know I'm starting to sound like I don't like Euro Games, European people, college educated Wussy Boys, Canadians, people who drink wine, gamers who humiliate themselves by blaming their crappy play on others, men who allow their women to neuter them, women who gleefully neuter their men, folks who drink so much while gaming that they actually become more entertaining than the game and anyone who uses the word "elegant" when talking about games. Well, you're wrong. Except for the one about the usage of "elegant" and maybe the neutering thing, I can pretty much get along with anyone and get enjoyment from any gaming opportunity.

All I'm saying is this: 2-player games tend to be better designed games. They are much less forgiving. They are usually much more competitive. Good ones are, out of neccessity, of a much tighter design than even good multi-player games. They require a much higher usage of the brain and reward intelligent risk-taking, intuition and bold play. And... most Euro Gamers fear them because there is nothing to hide behind when you get your ass soundly kicked and there is only yourself to blame.

Finally, and I don't mean to pick on Jumbo here, but he is an easy target and he doesn't currently have internet access, the mark of a spinelss Euro-Wuss gamer is how they shun confrontation and seek situations where they can hide their personal gaming flaws. Jumbo did exactly that about a month or so back. We set up and played War of the Ring, a game that defies easy classification because it's designed by Europeans, published by an American company, has a huge board, lots of cheesy and garish platic pieces and is relatively complicated while at the same time being, at heart, a 2-player direct confrontation war game. After the game Jumbo commented, "That's a great game, but it'd be even better with four players."

No. No it wouldn't. It sucks as a 4-player game. Some of you folks need to grow a set and experience what I'm talking about. Heres a great link to get you started - manly gaming link

Enjoy the summer... and for chrissakes, quit yer whining!