Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Nothing Much to Report

I know you all tune in each day looking for something interesting to read but I’ve had a couple of very slow weeks. No games bought (sigh), no games played (double sigh). Oh, wait, I did play a couple games of Taluva. Yeah, o.k., now I’ve got something to work with!

I played this with 2, 3 and 4 players and enjoyed it every time and the reason is that it has the 2 things that keep me coming back to a game: meaningful choices on my turn, and ways to manipulate my standing in the game. It doesn’t hurt that it has, in my opinion, beautiful components. That leads me to think about a podcast that I listened to yesterday.

Now I should probably keep my mouth shut but since I don’t have anything else to write, I’ll persevere. I’ve listened to 3 episodes of Steve Weeks’ The Ultimate Podcast including the latest one where Masterpiece (a Parker Brothers game) is compared to Knizia’s Modern Art. I have to admit that I don’t remember every playing Masterpiece and it’s been a long time since I played Modern Art but I'm not convinced it was a fair comparison.

The box art was compared and I agree that the Modern Art is pretty ugly, though the pictures of the Masterpiece box on BGG aren’t that hot, either. The rules were compared for simplicity. Hmmm, well, that doesn’t tell me an awful lot since I’m pretty sure the rules to Snakes and Ladders are probably short and simple, too, but that doesn’t mean I want to play it. The games were also rated for accessibility and there I’m a little at a loss. Sure, Masterpiece is going to be easy for everyone to grasp since it’s target audience is 8-10 year olds and their families but Modern Art is made for adults to enjoy and it probably wouldn’t be your first choice if you’re introducing someone to Eurogames. Is Modern Art accessible to someone familiar with more complex games? Absolutely.

What Steve doesn’t mention is whether these games give you have any meaningful choices on your turn. Is there anything you can choose to do that will most likely improve your game situation? These are the questions that I need answered for me to decide if a game is good or not.

A beautiful picture on the box, and on the board/cards/tiles/whatever is nice. Just look at the beautiful work done by Mike Doyle; beautiful, artistic and contemporary. But I’m neither sold nor put off by the look of a game.

The length of the rules shouldn’t be in question so much as how well they’re organized. Well-written rules are essential as the games become more complex and give you more choices, but a short set of rules can give you either a Candy Land or a YINSH.

Steve also mentioned that both games have luck. A little luck doesn’t bother me but when that luck totally determines my action for that turn, I feel deprived. I want to be able to make my own decision as to what I choose to do on my turn. I want to feel I have some control over my fate. And I want to put my brain to good use. Otherwise, why not just sit in front of the television and veg?

So if you’re looking for a neat little game with some meaningful choices, take a look at Taluva. Nice box art, too. In fact, my husband accused me of liking the game solely because of the artful use of skulls.


Sunday, February 25, 2007

Trains, Math, Computers

I’ve been fighting computer-aided Boardgames for years, ever since I started playing the 18xx series. Numerous 18xx players advocate using one of the various ‘moderator’ programs for the game, which handle any number of aspects of the game, from tracking money, share prices, income, or all of the above. After my first game of Silverton last month, I began to think about computers again, as I looked at the excel sheet someone has put together to calculate goods price changes.

I keep asking myself “Do I really want a computer at my game table?”

It’s not like I oppose the infernal machines, or even that I dislike gaming on computers. Instead it just feels wrong. Like bringing Doritos to a dinner party, a computer next to a board game feels out of place(1) . But my conviction is shattering, broken down by fun, intricate games that suffer from an excess of tracking and math.

I would blame it entirely on the 18xx series, which is a brilliant game series that includes route management, business finance, stock simulation, and lots and lots of math, but Silverton and Indonesia also involve time consuming tracking and calculating. Even Empire Builder(2) can devolve into counting and recounting how much was just spent. Ultimately, these games suffer because the math draws the players away from the real decisions and gameplay (3) .

So I’m almost convinced to bring a computer to the table. It’s actually not 18xx that has brought me there – it’s Silverton. Silverton, for those of you without an immediate working knowledge of every rail game ever, uses a mathematical formula to calculate price changes at the end of each turn. Each formula (4) uses a die roll, and there are up to 13 prices changes. So that’s 13 die rolls and formulas. Automation is starting to appeal to me…

At least with Silverton, the tools are simple and straightforward. The 18xx automation programs are more cryptic than trying to look up a rule in the Return of the Heroes rulebook (5) . This is partially the problem of fan creation, and mostly the result of the documentation being written in German. I’ve been told several times that you can’t learn the 18xx programs on your own and need to be taught. A little experimentation has proven that mostly correct. I think the first time I tried to use the moderator, I’d add an extra hour to the game. And when the game is already four hours long…

None of which address the principal question – “What is that computer doing in my board game?” and I still don’t have an answer. I feel like I shouldn’t oppose it, but I’m not convinced that it won’t be a distraction and do more harm than good to the game.

Anyone have any experiences with computers at your game table (6) ?


(1) For those who also RPG, I feel the same way about the current trend of laptops in games, for the gamemaster or the players. I’ll never forget the first time I saw a table getting set up for a roleplaying game, and all four players plus the GM had a laptop out on the table. I’ll admit, I was crying inside.

(2) Why do they all seem to be train games? What is it about the idea of trains that inspires counting out lots of stops or points that provide or cost money? Even stock and finance games tend to not cause as much counting and math, or at least it doesn’t bog the game down…

(3) Gratuitious Example: Scrabble. Nobody has written a computer program to calculate the score of your scrabble word. (or maybe they have. Don’t tell me about it). Scoring your word is part of the –fun- of scrabble. You get to count how many points you just got and crow about it. Or quickly say “C-A-T, Four points. Your turn.”

(4) Like “2d6 + (Goods Sold / 2) - IDN” I did that from memory. I’ve only played the game twice.

(5) Usually people just give up. Get the rules from the ‘geek. It makes a nigh-unplayable game into a good one.

(6) And what happened when someone spilled beer on the keyboard?

Saturday, February 24, 2007

An old book we found

One of the things we found recently when clearing up at Melissa’s father’s Bridge club was the 1954 title Theory of Games and Statistical Decisions by David Blackwell and M.A. Girshick.

It has some interesting definitions about games.

“A game is characterized by a set of rules having a certain formal structure, governing the behaviour of certain individuals or groups, the players.”

“Broadly speaking, the rules provide that the game shall consist of a finite sequence of moves in a specified order and the nature of each move is prescribed. Moves are one of two kinds, personal moves and chance moves. A personal move is a choice by one of the players of one of the specified, possibly infinite, set of alternatives; for instance, each move in chess is a personal move; the first move is a choice by White of 1 of 20 specified alternatives. The actual decision made in a particular play of a game at a given personal move is called the choice at that move. A chance move also results in the choice of one of a specified set of alternatives; here the alternative is selected not by one of the players, but by a chance mechanism, with the probabilities with which the mechanism selects the various alternatives specified by the rules of the game.”

“The rules specify, as a function of the choices and outcomes at the successive moves, when the game shall terminate and the score, not necessarily numerical, that is to be assigned to each player.”

The example games given are chess and bridge and there are various coin tossing games devised for the statistical work. It was a probably a fair selection of games for the intended audience back in the early fifties.

The “finite sequence of moves” part of the definition probably caters for the difference between games like chess and bridge where a player’s turn consists of a sequence of one move and that of many games today where a player’s turn may consist of a number of moves or actions.

In a wargame a player's turn generally consists of a number of personal moves, usually moving a unit and/or instigating combat. In the case of moving a unit the outcome is known upfront (to excuse the pun). However, if the move is, or includes, instigating combat then a chance move is often required to determine the resolution of the combat and thus the outcome of the move. This may be the rolling of a die or the playing of cards. It could be argued that your playing of a card is a personal move, but if you do not know what card your opponent is going to play, or your orbital mind control lasers are down for maintenance, then the overall resolution falls more into the category of chance.

In many games a chance mechanic has determined the set of alternatives that you may choose from, e.g. the deal in a standard trick taking game, the plantation draw in Puerto Rico or the face up cards that available for selection in Ticket to Ride or Around the World in 80 Days. You are making a personal move, but your selection is restricted by the game’s prior chance move.

In auction games I see bidding as a personal move. You are choosing what to bid based on what you think the item being auctioned is worth, both to yourself and to other players. There may well be imperfect information involved, e.g. do you know how much money the other players actually have, or is your estimate of the item’s worth accurate? I find, at least in the first few plays of a game, my estimate is often incorrect, or at least at odds to that of other player’s estimates.

Your standard draw a card, play a card game is a sequence of chance move then personal move. Corollary play a card, draw a card would be personal move, chance move.

A roll and move game like Snakes & Ladders is chance move game. Once you have your number there is only one alternative available to you. In a game like Formula Dé there is also the chance move with the roll of the die, but there is a personal aspect both in the choosing of which gear you are in and thus which die is rolled and exactly where the car will move as there is usually more than one alternative as to where to move the car.

The mathematics involved in the statistics in this book was enough to give me a nose bleed, it is aimed at “graduate students” in statistics, or post graduates as we would call them in Australia. For “an excellent treatment of numerous aspects of game theory” the authors recommend J.C.C. McKinsey’s Introduction to the Theory of Games, McGraw-Hill, 1952.

Possibly there may be some more recent and slightly more accessible to the layperson books around too :-)

Mmm meeples taste like…

Friday, February 23, 2007

Coping with Mean Games

In retrospect, I should have known that Tyranno Ex would be brutal. It is, after all, a game about evolution. It’s only appropriate that the competition be fierce and Darwinian.

Tyranno Ex is an old Avalon Hill game designed by Karl-Heinz Schmiel. A few weeks ago the Appalachian Gamers were impressed by Mr. Schmiel’s Die Macher. We soon wondered what else Mr. Schmiel had designed, and we were happy to see that Ted Cheatham owned a copy of Tyranno Ex. Wednesday night three of us decided to try it.

In Tyranno Ex players try to shepherd various species of prehistoric creatures down through time by influencing the environments that supports them. Each species has three symbols on its card indicating what environments it likes. Players place environment tokens on the board in four different sectors in an effort to make the world better for their species. At the end of a turn, species that don’t have any friendly environment sectors available become extinct.

And if that isn’t brutal enough, players then get to send their species to fight other species in the hope of wiping them out. Species which survive the combat round then move down the time track to a higher scoring region.

As you have probably surmised by now, Mother Nature and Father Darwin chew up lots of species and spit out the bones. The game could have been advertised with the catch-phrase Tyranno Ex: Two different ways to lose! More than one player ended a turn with no species at all left on the board.

Please note that I am not saying that Tyranno Ex is a bad game. I actually think it is fairly clever. And I’m not griping because I came in last. I won the game--although my victory had more to do with my opponents destroying each other than any cunning strategies on my part.

What I am saying is that Tyranno Ex is a mean game. I hadn’t played one of those in a while, and my emotions took a hit as I watched my high-scoring shovel-jawed elephant bite the dust early in the game in spite of my best efforts.

What do I mean by the phrase mean game? I suggest that a mean game is one in which even minimal amounts of player progress can’t be taken for granted. A mean game is one in which players are encouraged—or even forced—by the game design to pound on one another. A mean game is one in which lots of precious progress can be wiped out by a combination of bad luck or enemy action. And a mean game is often unforgiving—make a mistake early and you may never recover.

Most euro-games aren’t mean games. Players can screw with other players in Caylus and Puerto Rico, but usually you’re retarding the opponent’s progress more than wiping out his achievements. Even last place players in Railroad Tycoon see their rail networks expand, their incomes increase, and their train runs becoming longer as the game goes on. Sure, there is competition. But you can’t destroy all of the other guy’s assets.

Expectations are different in wargames, or even pseudo-wargames. If you sit down to play Risk, you can expect to lose armies and territories on every other player’s turn. If I play Hammer of the Scots, I expect to get hammered on some turns, and do some hammering myself on others.

Mean games look like euro-games, but have the fierceness of wargames. And so it’s a good idea to adjust your expectations before playing. I found Tyranno Ex frustrating because I’ve been living on a fairly steady diet of easily-digestible euro-games for quite a while. Turning to Tyranno Ex after playing games like Yspahan seemed like taking a bite out of a lemon after feasting on a banquet of sweet apples and pears.

I had a similar experience playing Age of Steam for my one and only time. By turn two I knew I had made a mistake on turn one and that it was going to be impossible for me to recover. I’m usually a reasonably good sport about losing, but I admit that night I pouted. Being out of the game by turn two was just too frustrating.

I’m smart enough to know that my frustration was more a sign that I played poorly than an indication that there was anything wrong with the game. Age of Steam is on lots of folks’ top ten lists. Obviously, there are hordes of gamers who don’t find any meanness in the game to be a drawback.

And I’d be willing to play Age of Steam again and hope that I could be smarter. But I would fasten my emotional seat belt first. I’d remind myself before playing to beware. This is one mean game.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The News in Thongs / Old Puzzler Answer / New Fortnightly Puzzler

You might recall me mentioning something about possibly freelancing to Games Quarterly magazine in my first Gone Gaming blog post. Well, that has come to fruition, though not in a way I'm happy about.

Before going on, I'd like to make it clear that I'm not asking for pity, sympathy, or a group hug. I am a lazy freelancer in the sense that I write first and ask questions later, and I therefore take full responsibility for the following freelancing tale of woe. I'd simply like to share it as a cautionary tale to others.

This story begins at Origins 2006 in Columbus, OH. I met a first time game inventor and publisher Doug Cook of FunMaker Games. I played his game Mimic, bought it, and liked it enough to write a newspaper review about it when Annie and I got back home to Missoula. I forwarded the review onto Doug, and he was pleased. (Mimic, by the way, is a neat card game in which you make sets of four animal cards scrunched in to a 7x7 grid).

Some time passed, and I got an email from Doug asking if he could put me in contact with someone from Games Quarterly magazine, a fellow named Jonathan Albin. Jonathan and I wrote back and forth a few times, and he asked for three reviews of Mimic. I wrote the reviews and sent them off. After the last review was sent, I never heard from Jonathan again (still haven't, incidentally).

It wasn't for lack of trying. I sent Jonathan several emails asking about the fees, contracts, the normal stuff. Nothing. I finally made it clear in one email that I owned the work and that we needed to work something out before moving forward. Nothing. I gave up after a month or so, figuring my work had been trashed.

Imagine my surprise when Doug wrote me with a digital copy of a review from Games Quarterly Magazine. My name was on the review. I immediately resumed my emails to the company.

Having already established a history with Jonathan, I started emailing others. After a week or so (Toy Fair was going on), I received an email from the publisher Mark Simmons explaining that what I did is not usually a paying freelancing job. I appreciated the email and Mark's frankness, but I'm not quite sure he understood what I was saying. I reiterated my stance in another email, this time a bit more firm. The heart of it went like this:

I am the author and copyright holder of the text being printed in your magazine. Your publication of it, regardless of what you normally do, is a violation of those rights.

I haven't heard from him since.

Experienced freelancers, especially those who make a living from it, won't fall into this sort of trap. I just happen to be extremely trusting. I have encountered countless wonderful people in the gaming industry and gaming hobby, so it's no wonder it's taken so long for anything like the above to happen.

The moral? One could be "Don't be a fool," but the main one - for all you aspiring freelancers - is "Get it in writing."

And that's the News in Thongs!


The News in Thongs is real. I have carefully inspected the above work and found it to be devoid of explicit judgment on anyone but myself. Should concerned parties find the above facts to be offensive, I suggest they contact me at


Old Puzzler

Multiple Choice Question:

In his autobiography, Mohandas K. Gandhi professes to have played several games of _____ on his voyage between India and South Africa.

a) chess
b) draughts
c) shut-the-box
d) all of the above


From "Autobiography: The Story of My experiences with Truth" by Mohandas K. Gandhi," page 90:

"The Captain and I had become great friends by this time. He was fond of playing chess, but as he was quite a novice, he wanted one still more of a beginner for his partner, and so he invited me. I had heard a lot about the game but had never tried my hand at it. Players used to say that this was a game in which there was plenty of scope for exercise of one's intelligence. The Captain offered to give me lessons, and he found me a good pupil as I had unlimited patience. Every time I was the loser, and that made him all the more eager to teach me. I liked the game, but never carried my liking beyond the boat or my knowledge beyond the moves of the pieces."

Definitely not a gamer…


New Fortnightly Puzzler

What festive drink can be spelled from the letters of GONE GAMING? Not all the letters will be used, and none may be used more than they are listed in the title.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

San Juan? - No Thanks!

I had the pleasure of spending a good portion of the past week, hanging out with old college buddies in sunny Puerto Rico. Not one to miss a gaming opportunity, I brought along a few games to show off.

San Juan – How could I pass this one up? Puerto Rico is too big to bring on a plane, and would have been a bit much to spring on my non-gaming friends.

No Thanks – This is my go-to game for non-gamers, its small size makes it nice and portable.

Bang! - I brought Bang! and its expansion, Dodge City as I thought the theme would work well with our group of five.

In the end, No Thanks was the big winner, being played at least seven or more times, stirring up much discussion. We got in one play of San Juan which went over “OK”, and Bang! never made it to the table.

I’ll start with San Juan, as I have less to say about it. While I find it a fun little game, I think it doesn’t do the great game of Puerto Rico justice. There is still a significant luck of the draw on how the cards are distributed. While an experienced player can sometimes overcome it, it is harder for newer players to know how to compensate. For example, I had no production buildings in hand, even after choosing the councilor phase twice (well the second time I got a second indigo plant). However, I did manage to get the aqueduct and market stall early in the game so was able to eventually sell both indigo plants on a regular basis. I find the aqueduct and market cards to be far too powerful. Players that get both, can always earn two good and sell them both, without having to even choose either role. This adds up over the course of the game, making it difficult for any player who does not have one. This is probably mitigated in a two player game, as more cards are available, but in a four player game one player is guaranteed to not have each card. In our game, I started behind due to a lack of production buildings but was able to catch up in the late game. One of the biggest surprises of the game for me was that the only other gamer present often hit minor bouts of analysis paralysis. I think it may have been BECAUSE he had played Puerto Rico before, and he was reading more into San Juan than was actually there. I realized after I had won, I perhaps should have tried to play so as to give someone else the win (and increase the chance it would be played again) but I rarely see these guys so it probably doesn’t matter in the long run.

No Thanks!, however, was fairly successful. After a minor amount of foot-dragging everyone started playing and caught on quick. It is always interesting to watch people learn the game and develop strategies for playing. As all these players were college chums, they are very smart (I went to a nerd college) and were quickly analyzing the relevant aspects of the game to try to develop a winning strategy.

The development of play went through stages that I now consider quite common in people learning the game. Initially, the playing chips were undervalued and everyone tended to let the cards load up on chips. A twenty five card might get ten chips on it and still be considered nearly equivalent to a fifteen. After just a single play, everyone saw the value of chips and began to plan out their needs for the whole game. A significant portion of good-natured threats to screw each other over was also present, preventing anyone from running an unwanted card (to all but one player) too many times around the table. One player was fascinated by the value of chips and was trying to assign value to them, hoping to be able to assign an optimal expected value for a given situation. If chips have a certain value, then a chip/card combination could be set that would always be a good decision – similar to betting tables for Video Poker or Blackjack that show the optimal decision for each situation. As everyone soon learns, however, in No Thanks! the value of a chip fluctuates during a game. At the start of the game, they are more valuable, as they can prevent one from taking a bad card later. At the end of the game, they simply have the negative one point value and that’s it. If nothing else, I was surprised at how quickly everyone developed from beginning players to very good strategists. What typically takes many plays to develop was found and adopted within just a few. By the end of the first night, everyone was balancing card and chip values fairly well, and the cards were almost always picked up off the table right when everyone else was “about to pick them up”. Even the endgame was vicious as we all kept track of our chip needs, devaluing them as the deck wore down. (One of the biggest faults I see in somewhat experienced players is how they fail to devalue chips in the last few rounds. Putting a chip on a 5 card is a totally valid move if there aren’t many cards left in the deck.)

With everyone playing in such an efficient manner, I was once again struck by the elegance of the game mechanics. Sure, there is a huge amount of luck involved due to the 9 cards removed from the game, but there are also some very nice balancing mechanics to prevent one player’s strategy from dominating. One good strategy is to take a reasonably high card early, and then hope for more to come up in the sequence, sending them around each time they appear to glean even more chips from one’s opponents. However, this strategy is self-limiting as players will eventually run out of chips – you can’t milk a dry cow. This can be even more significant, if players are valuing the chips differently. If you have only a few chips, it may just be worth it to take a fairly high valued card to be back in chip-flush territory again. This can be even more worthwhile if by taking the card you break another player’s sequence. Thus, if there are a few chip-scarce players around, sending a sequence-joining card around the table can be a risky proposition. I even came across a new strategy to consider. While the idea of “not running out of chips” is fairly straightforward, I did observer the power of having a single chip left. If you have no chips, you have to take whatever comes up. Having even a single chip, can mean you cycle a bad card one more time around, making sure that you aren’t forced to take a card several times in a row. While it may be obvious to some, I realized that the difference between one chip and no chips is significant enough to modify some of my choices as I get close to running out of chips. Being the great universal game that it is, No Thanks played an even larger role in our evening relaxations… since it comes with a small baggie of chips we conveniently used them in several games of poker.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Games, Games, Games


I’m putting together a list of games that will be suitable to take into Biggie’s Year 3-4 classroom (girls and boys aged 8-10). It’s surprisingly easy to find games that are good for that age – and surprisingly difficult to whittle the list down. I’m trying to offer a range of games for the teachers to select from, and look at what game skills they promote as well as any ways in which they directly support the curriculum.

My list of recs:

Obviously, not all those games will go in on the day, but I wanted to give the teachers a good range to choose from. I've suggested I go in & give them a private demo before I go to school one day.


It’s been a week for acquiring new games.

From the ever-lovely Fraser came a set of three:

  • Caylus is a game we have played both in person and online. We both enjoy it very much, and are looking forward to some good 2 player games as well as games with friends.
  • Tikal is one that I played and enjoyed online. I’ve been wanting a copy for a while.
  • Mykerinos is one that I have never played at all, but which sounds intriguing. The rules weren’t terribly approachable on my first quick read-through, but what I have heard about the game makes me think I will enjoy it.

We went to the game store today, and I couldn’t resist two more:

  • I have been wanting to find another good dexterity game for a while. Bamboleo seemed to fit the bill, so I bought it, untried. We had a quick game tonight – lots of laughter, but quickly decided that it was too noisy to play when the kids are asleep.
  • I’ve played The Bucket King on BSW and thought it was great. I hope Fraser and Biggie will enjoy playing it with me.

I also have a copy of Incan Gold reserved for me (just waiting for a payment from a client!)


Conversation of the day:

Biggie: “I don’t like one of those games you bought today, mummy.”

Me: “Which one? Why?”

Biggie: “It has a naked man on the front of it.”

Me: (checks box for Bamboleo) “Wow, you mean I get a game AND free porn?”

Fraser: “You know those things you shouldn’t say in front of the children …”

Biggie: “What does porn mean?”

Happy gaming!


Friday, February 16, 2007

Let's Redesign Cults Across America

In December there was a comment on Boardgamegeek that Cults Across America (from Atlas Games) might someday get a reprint. I have no idea if there is any solid evidence behind this rumor, but it started me thinking about how to redesign the game. I’ve taken the time to describe these ideas because I thought it might be interesting to demonstrate how abstract design ideas can be incorporated into concrete game design.

Cults Across America is not one of my favorite games. Frankly, I can’t remember anyone saying much positive about it. Probably the biggest thing it has going for it is that it is the only strategic Cthulhu Mythos game around.

What exactly is wrong with Cults Across America? Leaving aside the less-than-inspired artwork and production values (I realize that Atlas Games doesn’t have the resources of Hasbro or Fantasy Flight), the game is a huge luck-fest. Players get most resources, monsters, and Great Old Ones by drawing cards. The only way to get Cthulhu is blind luck.

So how would I go about redesigning this game? I would start by considering some of my favorite game mechanisms and design principles. Two of these mechanisms I have written about here on Gone Gaming: multiple currencies and multiple arenas. The design principle I am thinking about comes from Jonathan Degann’s Journal of Boardgame Design. The principle I’m thinking about is story arc.

Multiple Currencies

In the standard Cults Across America rules, players collect cash at the beginning of each turn depending on how many cities they control. They then use this cash to buy new units.

Let’s give the new game design three currencies: money, political points, and magic points. Money will be used to buy standard cult units, weapons, and equipment. Political points will be used to take control of police and army units and the President, and maybe ward off certain attacks by conventional law enforcement forces. Magic points can be saved up to summon various monsters and Great Old Ones, or to cast spells. Every turn, a player will collect a base salary of three points. He can divide these points up any way he wants among the three currencies. Extra points can be earned by control of certain areas.

Certain rare cards or units will allow players to convert one currency to another, but for the most part players will be stuck with the currency choices they make at the beginning of their turn.

Of course, multiple currencies won’t do much to mitigate the luck factor if players still draw cards randomly. I’d give the game five or six face-up cards that players can draw from every turn—provided they can pay for them. These cards would each have a cost that would have to be paid in the appropriate currency before the card could be picked up. This could create some interesting choices. Do I buy that Gug for three magic points this turn, or do I hoard my points in the hope that a Great Old One appears soon?

Multiple Arenas

While cities in CAA have varying values, there is little variation between the rewards players collect for controlling various pieces of real estate. I’d make things more interesting by creating multiple arenas on the map.

I’d divide the country into five to seven regions. Control or domination of each region would generate different kinds of rewards. For example, the region that contains Washington DC would generate extra political points for the player who controlled it. Control of the New York-New England region might generate extra cash. Control the Pacific coast might generate free cult members for the player who rules there. Of course, control of the Dreamlands will generate extra magic points.

It occurs to me that the game could treat the Great Old Ones as individual arenas, too. All we’d have to do is limit how many magic points can be spent each turn to summon one. For example, let’s say that Cthulhu takes twelve magic points to summon, but that a player is not allowed to place more than four magic points on him per turn. This would stop players from simply hoarding their points and grabbing the first GOO that shows up. The game would treat each GOO as an area-majority contest. Although players who placed their magic points first might have an advantage, there might be cards and units that could disrupt the placing of magic points and give later players a chance.

I hope you can see that multiple currencies and multiple arenas would force choices upon the players, but also offer new opportunities. One player might hoard political points in the hope of gaining control of a government armored division that dominates the Southwest region. Another might save magic points and wait for a Great Old One to appear in the draw line of cards. Another player might use cash to create the largest and most well-armed army of cultists which she will use to capture California and gain the area bonus which will generate even more cultists.

Story Arc

There don’t seem to be stages in CAA. The end of the game plays much like the beginning. As Jonathan Degann points out in his article in the Journal of Boardgame Design, games are more interesting when they have a story arc.

I’d give the game a Mythos track. Every time a Great Old One is summoned to the board, the track advances by one. Maybe other weird events (use of nuclear weapons or mega-spells) would do the same thing. The idea is that the world is coming close to collapse as the fabric of reality wears thin. At a certain point on the track the cost decreases to summon all creatures and Great Old Ones. At the same time, the political cost to gain control of army units goes down (as society becomes desperate to stop the extra-dimensional invasion). Once the Mythos track advances far enough, a die is rolled every turn to see if the world has ended. Players will have a rough idea of when the game is ending without being able to exactly pin point it. And players themselves will influence when the game will end.

This decline in cost would increase the number of powerful units running around in the endgame, and hopefully give it a different flavor from the beginning.


This little thought experiment isn’t complete. For example, I’m not sure how I’d make combat more interesting. And I think that each Great Old One should have special powers and not simply be a more powerful version of a conventional military unit—but I haven’t given much thought to what those powers should be.

And even if the game were re-designed along the lines I’ve indicated, there is no guarantee that it would be a great game. But I suspect that it would more interesting than the current design.

What are your thoughts on how to redesign the game?

Thursday, February 15, 2007

IP, Morality, and the Gaming Industry, Part Two: Developers

Over the last few weeks there's been a bit of a ruckus about Martin Wallace's Age of Steam. It started when Mayfair Games announced that they'd be publishing a new, third edition of the game. There was some confusion over why Winsome Games, who helped bring Age of Steam to market, wasn't involved in the new edition. Eventually it was revealed that Martin Wallace and John Bohrer (of Winsome) had decided to go their own ways, and that Wallace was thus reclaiming his premiere game for publication as he saw fit.

The most disturbing--and for the purposes of this article, thought-provoking--element of the whole split was John Bohrer's post to BoardGameGeek, discussing what would be included in Mayfair's third edition of Age of Steam:
It will not have the original Winsome ruleset, nor any other Winsome development work, like the Rust Belt map, point-to-point links, selected actions, etc. Essentially, it will be a different game, just as Railroad Tycoon was a different game. But I am sure that it will sell well with nice bits, just as Railroad Tycoon did.

About Developers

I should take a step back, and talk about developers. They're the folks at publishing houses who take a designer's game and polish it up until it's ready for publication. My general belief and experience is that developers are the great unsung heroes of the gaming world. They usually receive minimal credit, but they're also often the folks that turn good games into great games.

Designers, you see, can often end up too close to their games. Unless they're really experienced in the field (and sometimes even then) they might not be able to let go of ideas which looked really good to them at first, but which are now dragging a game down. Developers, on the other hand, don't have that same emotional attachment and so they can ruthlessly prune a game down to its solid core. (I wrote more about the power of development in my first GG article, The Problem with Indie Games.)

So basically it sounds like Bohrer is claiming the legal right over the development work that he did, and refusing Wallace the right to use it elsewhere.

This all falls into a broad topic that I've covered before, which is IP, Morality, and the Gaming Industry. Like that topic, this one is about intellectual property (IP), who owns it, and the morality of its use. Like that topic, I don't think there are easy answers here, but it's nonetheless something that bears discussion. (Though, to be honest, by the time I finished writing this piece, I definitely had my own kneejerk feelings on the topic.)

Generally I think the ownership problems that arise from the cooperative work done by a designer and a developer can be looked at in three ways: legal, moral, and logistical.

Legal Issues of Development

Development work is ultimately about designing (or changing) game mechanics, and as I mentioned in my previous IP article, game mechanics are not protected by anything but patents, and generally no experienced designer in the industry is going to get a patent. (Seeing the phrase "patent pending" on a board or card game is usually a sure sign to me that the designer is a crackpot.)

So, legally I doubt that Bohrer or any other developer has a leg to stand on when he claims that his work can't be used elsewhere. Unless, of course, the topic of development is covered in a contract.

I've only seen a couple of game design licensing contracts, and I've been pretty surprised that the ones I've seen don't cover the issue of development. I'd think that you'd generally want a contract to state that the rights to any development work go to the designer when he takes the license back, just to clarify the general underlying legalities. Likewise if a developer strongly feels like he should be compensated for his development work, he can make sure that the contract says so.

Bar contract specifics you're stuck with the law, and traditionally the law gives no protection for "ideas", which is what most game design is.

Moral Issues of Development

However, as I stated in my last article on this topic, the legal issues often aren't enough, because if the law isn't right then we should take a moral stand, and I think this is the stickiest part of this whole topic.

Generally there are two common features of development work which (perhaps unintentionally) usually prevent later questions about who controls development.

First, a developer usually works for a larger company. He's taking a salary to do "work-for-hire", and so he doesn't feel that he should be personally recompensed for the work he's doing (beyond his salary).

Second, a designer usually recovers the rights to a game because the publishing company is done with them. Thus, the company no longer needs recompense for the work they've done. They've published the game as much as they wanted to (or as much as their contract allowed them to), and they should feel satisfied that they got the expected value out of the development work they did.

I suspect the problems over Age of Steam arise mainly because it doesn't meet this criteria. First, Bohrer isn't working for some other company; Winsome is his. Second, it's clear that Wallace bringing Age of Steam to another publisher wasn't Bohrer's choice.

This could be because Winsome had a non-exclusive license, in which case Bohrer should have accepted that risk, and that he's now complaining is a mark of unprofessionalism. However it also could be that Bohrer's license was terminated because of some disagreement, in which case the situation is somewhat more understandable. Here, I begin to see a situation where a developer might have moral rights to not have his own work exploited.

Logistical Issues of Development

Unfortunately that runs straight afoul of logistics. Though it's easy to say that Bohrer (or any developer) made contributions to a game, it's much harder to say what they were. Did a developer directly create a system? Did he suggest a change that the designer then implemented? Did he make a suggestion that might already have been part of an earlier design? I would contend that there's literally no good way to say what a developer actually added to a game.

This was pretty obvious when Bohrer made his list of contributions. Among them was the idea of "point-to-point links". Now maybe Bohrer has a different idea of what that means than the rest of the community, but Age of Steam fans were quick to comment that point-to-point links existed in many Age of Steam predecessors, and thus were clearly a part of the AoS gestalt before Bohrer started developing Wallace's most popular railroad game. Now that's just a single point, but it offers a clear example of how hard it is to figure out the logistics of who did what.

And there's another logistical element that makes dividing design and development really hard. If you'll pardon my French, it screws the fans. It means that they can no longer trust how one edition of a game will vary from another. As a Knizia fan I know I'd be pissed as hell if the new Uberplay version of Ra wasn't allowed to have all the features of the Alea version, or if the new Taj Mahal had to be cut back and rebuilt from scratch.

Putting It Together

As I said earlier in this article, I don't think there are easy answers to this topic. I can definitely see reasonable people coming to a lot of different conclusions. However, I've also come to some very definite kneejerk conclusions.

I can see where Bohrer is coming from. As a creator you don't like to see your work used in a way you don't support. So if the dissolution of the partnership between him and Wallace wasn't friendly, I can see why he'd be mad. However, I'm also fairly sure that almost any other developer in the industry would politely hand off their development work at this point, understanding the logistical issues that make it too hard not to. And, I don't think the stand Bohrer is taking makes him look very good to either fans or to future designers considering working with him.

Much more importantly, though, I think this issue points out a big weakness in the industry. A standard gaming contract should make it entirely clear what happens to development work, and properly I think it should go back to the designer--except in the case when the developer's work was never actually published. Conversely I think developers should be getting a lot more credit than they are, because the best developers not only know how to pick good games, but also how to polish them to a fine finish. I'd like to know when a good developer was involved with a project, and when a bad developer was, and I'd like them to get the proper recognition for that good or bad work.

So that's my more-opinionated-than-I'd-intended opinion. Feel free to tell me how I'm wrong.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Daniel's Strategy

So far, Daniel’s plans had gone smoothly; so smoothly, he began to wonder what bit of bad luck was going to rear its head to ruin the day.

His opening move was unexpected, the teddy bear and balloons he had delivered to her office, and couldn’t have been better. The timing was flawless—she wasn’t on the phone or in a meeting—and her counter-move was anticipated—her call to thank him and tell him that she loved him.

She looked beautiful when he arrived at her house this evening with a dozen red roses and a small gift-wrapped box. The roses are a traditional gambit but the box caught her by surprise. It contained a music box that plays Fur Elise, proof that he’d been paying attention on that day two months ago when they’d gone window shopping. It was a brilliantly subtle move.

They’d gone to their favorite restaurant for supper; it was perfect, as usual. They’d talked and laughed and held hands. Then he’d taken her back to his place and made love to her tenderly, showing her with each touch that she was the most important thing in his world. She thought the game was over but Daniel was planning one last move and he was beginning to worry. Chance was fickle and this was a chancy move.

“It’s still early. Why don’t we put on some music and snuggle up on the couch? I’ve set up Carcassonne on the coffee table.” They often ended an evening with a quiet game but tonight she might say no. Please, Fate, don’t be cruel now.

“Welll….only if you open a bottle of wine and I get to be blue!” She smiles a dazzling smile and slips out of the bed.

The tiles were set up as usual, two stacks on her side of the table and two on his. Nothing suspicious or out of place. But this time one of the tiles is special and Daniel can barely concentrate as he waits for her to choose the 10th tile in the second stack. His tension increases every time she reaches for a new tile and he keeps count of the times she draws from the second stack.

Seven…Eight. He’s paying almost no attention to his moves and his score shows it.

“I’m kicking your butt, Daniel. You don’t seem to be paying much attention to the game tonight. Should we call it quits?”

“NO! I mean, no, I’m just overcome by your presence tonight.”

“Uh-huh. If you think sweet-talkin’ me is going to save you, you’re seriously wrong. This is going to be the one game of Carcassonne you’ll never forget.”

You don’t know how right you are, Baby, he thinks to himself.

Nine…Ten! Daniel unconsciously holds his breath as she pulls the tile and turns it over. A small square of post-it note has been stuck to the tile face and on it is written: Will you marry me?

Daniel watches her face, reading the emotions that chase each other across those lovely features. Time seems to stop. He’s satisfied that he’s played his best but it’s her move now.
Happy Valentine’s Day


Monday, February 12, 2007

First Posts, Dice, Rambling

First Posts

I feel like I’m supposed to introduce myself and let you know what I’ll be writing about, but unfortunately I don’t quite know what I’ll be saying four weeks from now, and the first option doesn't appeal.

So: Hello, my name is Aaron. Gone Gaming for many years.

I suppose I’ll just ramble on for a bit.


I’ve run into dice a lot the past week. For me, they are like old friends and hated enemies, and I find them comfortable, but there are at least three or four people I play games with that pick the dice up cautiously: tentatively reaching out for the dice and then flinging them away as if they are a poisonous snake that is threatening to bite deeply.

Which is just a fancy way of saying that they don’t like dice in their strategy board game.

Some games foster straight dice competitions [ Rum and Pirates comes to mind], while others use the dice in a fancy allocation-of-resources type way [Yspahan, which shows up later], and still others have a target number that you’re trying to beat. All told, there are lots of ways to use dice, and Shannon could probably write a long article listing the different ways games have used dice, but I don’t think I can do that, certainly not for my first post.

Ultimately, dice require the players accept that each action they take might fail. So not only do you [the player] have to worry about crushing the other players, you must worry about being betrayed by the dice, and having your cunning plans nullified by a failure that is out of your control.

Some players can’t quite accept that additional wrinkle. This fact continually surprises me, probably because I’ve spent most of my life rolling dice, and I expect them to betray me. Growing up on Avalon Hill and Dungeons and Dragons must have taught me early on that the best-laid plans always have a chance of failure.

In a wargame (miniatures, or hex-and-counter), every move you make towards victory will probably require a roll of the dice, so each decision must balance strategic placement with probabilities, ultimately trusting the dice to not thwart your plans. It's an important part of this style of game - maneuvering your resources not to overcome, but for a chance to overcome. I think that this results in practice with little frequent failures, and ultimately makes a stronger player, since you aren't as likely to sink into despondancy and despair when a strategy is set back.

I think my only other thought is that most games that heavily feature dice are meant to be played multiple times. When traditional dice mechanics find themselves in the average eurogame they are often demonized because the game is either too short, or not played as frequently as the designers intended. This circumvents the laws of probabilities with a small sample size, and since the game won’t get played again for months, if at all…

So I've been pleased to see the recent increase of positive reviews/ratings on games that feature dice. I feel that there is a lot of uncovered ground between dice and Euro mechanics, so I hope to see more games utilize dice in various ways. Case in point:


which is apparently the only game that causes me to not roll lots of “1”s. I can’t seem to pick up more than one camel in the game. That certainly doesn’t mean that I can’t do well on my turn, but it does give me freedom to complain constantly.

Yspahan is such an interesting game, and has enjoyed not only strong positive notes online, but a bit of time in the sun in one of my game groups. Unfortunately, I think it is fading away locally under the pretense of ‘too random’. Which is too bad, not just because I enjoy the game, but because I don’t think it deserves that label. It has a wide range of paths to victory, and sometimes having your path dictated to you by dice is just as satisfying as choosing freely.


Sunday, February 11, 2007

Tournament Games

I was reminded recently by a thread over at BGG that I am not a big fan of the concept of multi-player Euros as tournaments. I am not against tournaments per se, I am not against competitions or competitive playing of games (in fact some may say quite the opposite), but I believe that the majority of multiplayer (three or more) Eurogames are not suitable for competition play. There are many games and types of games that are, but just not many Euros.

Role-playing Games
For many years before the arrival of Daughter the Elder I was involved in quite a few role-playing games conventions, as an organizer, player or referee or a combination of the above. Almost all of the games at these conventions were run as tournament modules. Players entered as teams and played, in effect, against the module or game and you compared against other teams. Thus all players would play the same game, or at least depending on the decisions that they made could play the same game and started with the same characters and resources (true in the majority of cases until Living Greyhawk events came along). An important point is that is it the team that wins or loses, it is not the individual player competing against other players in the same team.

There will usually be an element of luck and this will vary depending on the specific module or game system being played. For example a D&D based Dungeon Bash is usually going to involve more dice rolling than a Call of Cthulhu based trip across Antarctica or a systemless based offering where you are playing actors involved in producing radio serials and making sure you keep the sponsors happy.

An issue with role playing game tournaments is how the scoring is allocated. It is usually split between achieving particular objectives (e.g. slay the dragon, deliver the mail, travel to Alpha Centauri, write that new jingle to keep the sponsor happy or whatever) and role playing. The scores for the role playing are, of course, entirely subjective and can be victim to clashes of style or personality or differences of opinion. It is possible that two different referees may give the same players two quite different scores for no apparently good reason. On the whole I don’t think this is a widespread problem, but it does exist.

Another advantage of role playing games for tournament play is that they are played in sessions of a fixed length of time. When then session is over you stop playing, if there is another session you can continue where you left off, if it is the last session then you have finished.

Skill differences between players may affect the overall team performance, but will not directly impact other players that you are competing against.

Chess and other two player abstracts that you care to name.
These games are perfect for tournament play. No luck, scoring is straightforward and it is your skill, experience and concentration versus that of your opponent.

Duplicate Bridge
Duplicate Bridge is another game perfectly suited, to excuse the pun, for tournament play. You are playing as one member of a pair sitting either North-South or East-West. The hands are all pre-dealt and you play a minimum of twenty-four hands and your score is compared against the other pairs sitting in the same direction who have played exactly the same hands. The East-West pairs move after each hand so every hand is against different opponents.

Wargames (two player or two sides)
Two player wargames are good for tournament play too, although the length of time to play can be an issue for some of them.

Generally they have very clearly defined victory conditions to determine the winner. For example in game about the German invasion of France in World War II it is highly unlikely that the French/Allied player will repel the German assault, however the victory conditions will be that the Germans need to capture and hold particular locations by the end of the game (which will be a fixed number of turns) and if those conditions are not met then the French/Allied player has won.

There is an element of luck in most, if not all, wargames with dice rolling and or cards depending on the game, but generally this will not be a deciding factor. At least this is the case where you have the option or choice of moving any of your units. I don’t have enough games of Memoir ’44 under my belt to have a firm opinion of whether the card draw could defeat you (i.e. you rarely or never pick up a card that allows you to move your left flank troops). Then again, I just remembered I am from the school of thought that Memoir ’44 is not a simulation game and should probably be considered a Euro :-)

Eurogames – two player
Two player Euros, which includes multi-player Euros that play well as two player games, would all work well as tournament games. Some could be considered as themed abstracts and others would be similar to wargames in that it would player versus player with the luck aspect due to tile or card draws as opposed to a die roll. I believe CCGs would fit here too, although since I was never bitten by the CCG bug I do not consider myself particularly knowledgeable about them.

Most Euros work on total victory points obtained through the game as opposed to victory conditions (e.g. just building a Harbour in Puerto Rico is not an integral part of a potential victory, it is the points obtained for building it plus those obtained in using it).

Points should be awarded for the win, if points are awarded in each round of the tournament for points made in each game then this opens the opportunity for what could be considered unwelcome events. Take Carcassonne for example. In tournament A points are awarded for a win, draw or loss. To get the maximum points over a number of rounds you must play to win in each and every game. In tournament B points are awarded based on the total number of points obtained during the game. In tournament B a player who plays cooperatively in every game will usually end up with a much higher total score than the player who has been playing a different tables and has played to win, even though the cooperative player may not have actually scored a win at all. It is important, for some games in particular, to look closely at any tournament scoring system and approach it from different angles and viewpoints to see how players may approach it. I believe the person who wins a tournament should be the person the played the game the best, not the person who discovered a loophole in the scoring system.

Multi-player Eruos
With the exception of co-operative games like Shadows Over Camelot (sans traitor) multi-player Euros (MPEs) are each player for themselves trying to win against the other players in the same game. Alliances and friendships may be forged and/or broken along the way, but as a rule there will only be one winner.

The problem with three or more players competing against each other in the same game is that the potential for Kingmaking exists, deliberately or otherwise. For the purposes of this discussion Kingmaking is considered to be improving the position of another player whilst not improving your own position. I would argue that if you can improve your own position in a game and as a result this directly or indirectly improves the position of another player then that is their good fortune not Kingmaking.

There are the times, especially near the end of the game where you have nothing to do to materially benefit yourself, but one particular move would give the game to player A and another move would give the game to player B. What to do?

There is also the point of when an alliance becomes collusion. In some games it is beneficial to ally with another player so the two of you can compete against the others. If it is benefiting both of you, then all power to you. However it is possible that the alliance can cross the line of pushing one of the players forward at the expense of the other player in the alliance just to give of the pair the win. That is where I think it has crossed the line into Kingmaking territory. Maybe this never happens, but the point is that it can happen in many multi-player games.

Inexperienced players may impact the game too, for example if an experience player allows their territory to be gobbled up by one of their neighbours then this will have an indirect negative impact on other players in the game, the same thing is not likely to be happening on other tables of the same game. The likelihood of something like this happening will vary immensely with the particular game being played, but it is worth considering.

I really enjoy playing multi-player Euros, but the thought of entering a tournament to play one is not particularly appealing.

One last thing on tournaments – prizes. I don’t believe there should be cash prizes. The prizes should be in the forms of trophies and certificates as a rule. Maybe the odd game or two, but when cash or large value prizes start appearing then it can give impetus to people looking for loopholes.

Hmmm meeples taste like...

Friday, February 09, 2007

Die Macher and the Arenas of Fun

Possibly the most impressive game debut that I’ve seen with the Appalachian Gamers occurred a couple of weeks ago when we got together on a Saturday to play a full game of Die Macher. Everyone was impressed with this Swiss watch of a game. James later commented in an e-mail message how surprised he was that Die Macher actually lived up to its hype.

I’ve been thinking about just what made the game so fun, and I’m not sure that I have all the answers yet. But part of it seems to be that game makes great use of multiple arenas.

What are arenas? My definition: arenas are mini-contests within games that have their own little rewards. A simple example would be Risk. In Risk each continent is an arena because players fight to dominate them, and because control of each generates a specific reward (extra armies). Not every game has multiple arenas, of course. Part of the problem that the Appalachian Gamers had with Britannia a few weeks ago was that the game has just one big arena. Everyone fights over British territories. Certain territories may generate more victory points for one person than another, but there is no sense of discreet arenas in the game.

Die Macher not only has arenas, it has a hierarchy of arenas. Arenas within arenas. First, each of the seven territorial elections is its own arena. While all players may win victory points in each election, only the first place winner gets to place a media cube and a regional issue card on the national board. Second, the national board itself constitutes another arena—one that is contested solely by winning the seven regional elections. Third, party membership constitutes another discreet arena—the player with the highest party membership at the end of the game gets extra victory points.

And the hierarchy of arenas? The media cube competition within each region is a mini-contest. The player who places the most media cubes is allowed to tamper with the issue cards in the region, and this gives that player an advantage in the regional election as a whole.

What purpose is served by arenas in a game? For one thing, they break down victory into smaller chunks that are more easily divided among several players. I may have won the election in Brandenburg, but you may have the advantage in Berlin. Ted may have a higher party membership, but James may have more media cubes on the national board. Games are more fun and more challenging when every player seems to be winning somewhere.

Multiple arenas often allow trailing players to start fresh, or at least give them a selection of ways in which to challenge the first place player. In Shogun, players get victory points for getting the most castles, temples, and Noh theaters within each region. If powerful players are battling to construct and capture the most castles within a region, maybe I will try to corner the market on temples or Noh theaters instead. Or maybe I will just concentrate on a different region altogether. These choices are possible because the game has multiple arenas.

One advantage that wargame-euro hybrids have over pure wargames is that hybrids are more likely to have multiple arenas.

Games don’t have to be huge five-hour heavyweights to use the multiple arena mechanism. Aton, a simple two-player area-majority game that plays in twenty minutes or less, is essentially a game about choosing which arenas to fight for.

Actually, just about every area-majority game is a multiple arena game. I’m talking about such renowned games as El Grande, Louis XIV, and Twilight Struggle.

I am so fond of multiple arenas in games that I now consciously look for the arena mechanism in games that I am considering buying. It’s not that a game can’t be good without multiple arenas. But lots and lots of the best middle and heavy-weight euro games use the multiple arena mechanism. Like the multiple-currency mechanism that I wrote about on December 1, multiple arenas is a mechanism that is infinitely adaptable.

And if you are willing to play five-hour games, and you like heavy-weight euros, then check out Die Macher. Everything you’ve heard is true.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

The News in Reviews / Old Puzzler / New Fortnightly Puzzler

I've been telling customers at the store that I learn about ten new games a month. Games have, in fact, completely eclipsed movies and television in my life. My partner Annie and I watched the Golden Globe awards at a neighbor's home and knew two movies out of the ones listed and none of the television shows. I grew up with movies and television playing a major part of my life. Now I have games, gaming, and all those transitory gamers that Shannon referred to in his last article in my life, and I feel great about it.

My list of January games is as follows: Yspahan, Coloretto, Samurai, Taj Mahal, Citadels, Mykerinos, Ys, Martian Coasters, Anasazi, Figaro, Quelf, Primordial Soup. I have ordered them from my most favorite to my least favorite, though I have really enjoyed myself with everything from Martian Coasters on up. The last four I could probably live without.

Yspahan is at the top of this list for reasons I'm still trying to figure out. It's certainly not the most strategic game in the bunch (neither is Coloretto at #2 for that matter), but it is a middle to light weight strategy game that I really enjoy playing.

In Yspahan, you're in Persia trying to become rich off neighborhoods (souks), caravans, and personal buildings during the course of three weeks.

Each turn, you roll nine dice (there are also three yellow dice which can be purchased per turn at one gold apiece and rolled with the others). Afterwards, these dice are placed on an action mat. There are six levels on the mat. The lowest numbered die (or dice) is placed on the bottom level, followed by the next lowest and so on. The highest die (or dice) is always placed at the top. For example, if you roll a 2, 3, 5, and six 6s, then the 2 goes to the first level, the 3 to the second, the 5 to the third, and the six 6s to the top level.

Each of the action mat levels corresponds to a different main action. The top is for money, and the bottom is for camels (in the game, both are essentially forms of currency). The middle four levels correspond to a different neighborhood that you can play in. The neighborhoods are divided into different colored souks (buildings) that you can play on and claim. Their values depend on which neighborhood and how many souks comprise that particular color. There is also a sidewalk beside each and every souk's edge on which a "provost-like" figure walks. Should this figure touch one of your buildings, you must send your marker to the caravan or pay the price of a camel.

In addition to the normal actions, a player may also move the above mentioned figure the exact number of total pips of the dice on the taken level (altered by gold or a building) or simply take a power card. Power cards are random but add an interesting element to the game. They can be redeemed for their purpose (any of a variety of super powers) or can be a supplement to your dice roll (you discard a card to add an imaginary die).

The caravan is another aspect of the game. There are three levels and four spots per level in the caravan. While you may lose out on points if you are bumped from the souks to the caravan, you also stand to gain points while there. Eight of the twelve caravan spots score immediate points, and at the end of every week, you score again depending on how many spots you occupy in the caravan and at what level.

You also have a playing mat with six buildings on it. Most of the buildings can be purchased with some combination of camels and gold. The building powers range from receiving extra camels to placing an extra marker on the neighborhoods. If you build more than two buildings, you start earning points for your buildings (0,0,5,5,5,10) for a potential of 25 points.

So you basically roll dice and choose whichever option helps you most. I would never have thought that such a cool game could accompany such a description, but it's true.

First of all, you never know what you're going to have for options or and sometimes what you really want is limited. That seems obvious, but when confronted with any of a ton of peculiar rolls, you find yourself really striving to understand the options that are in front of you.

Second, while there are a few main strategies, the instability of the dice rolls makes them all a little shaky. Never has the cliché advice "you gotta be flexible" been more true. Which strategy is optimal with different dice rolls? Who knows? I've only won one game out of three or four. While I'd like to blame my losses on luck, it's probably much more accurate to blame my inflexibility of plans and inability to see decent moves. But I'm working on it, though.

Finally, the board and pieces are great. The art is fantastic, from the cover shot to the neighborhood souks. The little wooden camels are also a nice touch (they could've been cubes). The extra yellow dice are the perfect addition to level out some of the randomness (but at a price!).

Out of the last thirty or so games I've played, Yspahan is in my top 5. Once everyone knows what they're doing, it can be played in as little as 30 minutes (we had a 20 minute 3-player game one time!). The decisions are simple, yet winning is far from a giveaway. And while I normally hate dice games, I feel like Yspahan's dice are the perfect game mechanic (I love rolling nine, sometimes twelve, dice! It's power!).

And then there's that something extra. Each of my favorites from January (and beyond) has something else. There's something more than any description can capture. If I figure it out, I'll let you know.

In the meantime, I'll keep gaming.




I will alternate between The News in Briefs (humor), The News in Thongs

(personal), and The News in Reviews (game reviews). Any comments on

your preferences are much appreciated.




Old Puzzler

Q: Name a pronoun which is also sometimes a feared group. "Pronoun" includes all variations and sub-groupings.



New Fortnightly Puzzler

In his autobiography, Mohandas K. Gandhi professes to have played several games of _____ on his voyage between India and South Africa.

a) chess

b) draughts

c) shut-the-box

d) all of the above

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Gaming by the Numbers

As I write this, I’m reminded of the scene in Dead Poet’s Society where the teacher mocks the analysis of poetry using numbers and a graph to represent a poem’s quality. However, as I played a game of Louis XIV last night, I was struck by the idea of trying to analyze a game using a numerical scale for a number of different axes. I was contemplating that Louis XIV is not confrontational, and thus not of interest to several players in our club as they are very much into confrontation. As I thought about other games I realized I might be able to rank games onto a scale of 1 to 10 (or -5 to +5, whatever) to signify how much direct player confrontation occurs. I use the word confrontation, as cooperative games like Lord of the Rings allow some player interaction, but it isn’t one player trying to take advantage of another. Cooperative games of this nature would surely fall on the far end of the confrontation scale. Zero sum games where anytime one player wins another loses, like wargames, would then be on the high end of the scale (10). I’m sure the topic would be great fodder for gamer discussion on just how confrontational a game might be. I’m sure this is not a new discussion at all, but was got me interested enough to write about it is the idea of looking for additional game properties that might also be laid out on an axis (1 to 10) to further categorize games. If such a system could be constructed, gamers could figure out what their preferences are, and then try to match them to games that closely fit their style. If a player has no preference for a particular axis (say, they think confrontation is fine, but they don’t need it to have fun) then they could just ignore that axis when trying to match a good game in “game space”. Here is a half-hearted attempt to try to quantify independent attributes about a game. This attempt to analyze games is not to weed out the stinker games from the good, but to compare solid designs to each other to match an individual player’s likes and dislikes. Games with rules universally regarded as unplayable should be considered “broken” and not placed on the chart at all.

I’ve already talked a little about this, but this is simply a ranking on how much players are able to get in each other’s way. Pure cooperative games like Vanished Planet would score a 1, while more vicious games like Diplomacy or a wargame would score a 10. Note that some people may find their preferences to lie on the two extremes. While Settlers isn’t very confrontational (say, a 3 or 4), the few times it occurs (via the Robber), may make the game less fun. Thus, a player might be fine with confrontation, as long as it is the expected norm for the game – they don’t like to feel singled out. Games like Can’t Stop or Goa would also be fairly low on the scale with Puerto Rico scoring middle of the road due to strategic role selection. I’m the Boss would be a fine example of a highly confrontational non-wargame.

A perennial favorite for discussion, clearly the element of chance is anathema to some and a welcome injection of “fun” for others. It is also fairly easy to measure. To judge this, we first have to rule out any effect due to other player’s decisions – just because one opponent plays poorly enough to give a second opponent an advantage doesn’t mean the game contains a chance element. Since this is a “game-y” audience, lets put 1 as a completely random game like CandyLand, while a 10 would be something with no randomness at all – like Caylus. I also want to keep the ranking separate from the player’s ability to mitigate the fickle hand of fate. A game that is pure luck with no way to manage the randomness is probably not a very good game, and could be taken care of with a separate category. For example, Poker is a very random game – if a single hand is played. So, Poker would be a ranked very low on this axis, say a 2, since chance plays a big part of the game moment by moment.

By now all the poker players are up in arms. Hopefully the addition of this category will make you happy. Control represents a player’s ability to control the outcome of events within the game. In the long haul, a poker player can manage their resources, read people’s bluffs and so on… Thus, poker should fall somewhere in the midrange of the control axis. Meanwhile, CandyLand still remains at a measly 1. Other games may score high in the Chance category (having little randomness), but still have very little control. An example would be a multiplayer game where the game situation is always changing so players can only respond tactically to a given situation and it is difficult to plan out any long-term strategy. Citadels may be a good example of a game with only a bit of randomness, as one can’t affect any other player directly but it is still hard for a player to have a high degree of control of the situation.

Theme often comes up in game discussions, and it clearly affects many players’ opinions of a game. This category can also serve as double-duty, since a game with poor components will also tend to have a poorly executed theme. Some gamers may find less theme acceptable and thus be very fond of abstract games or pasted-on themes, while other gamers find they do enjoy a bit more story behind their game. Pure abstracts might score a 1 or 2 simply because they don’t try to advance a theme. Meanwhile a game with even a pasted-on theme may rank as high as a 4 or even a 5 if it is executed in a nice manner. (Again, sort of adding in components to the mix as I feel quality components can sometimes make up for a drier theme as I will help the theme along if I enjoy the components enough.) Games like Tikal would be medium-high possibly a 6 or 7 as it is a fairly abstract game but the components help to carry the theme forward. Around the World in 80 Days has a pretty good theme and would come in at an 8 or 9. Die Macher is a dry game that still seems to pull off gameplay that does feel as if one is negotiating to win elections – I’d give it at least a 7.

Time to Play
Taken by itself, the length of a game is probably not a great measure of a person’s preferences. Sure, some may prefer to avoid particularly long games while others find a game that is too short really won’t have enough time to develop. However, the length of a game is clearly significant to many players, as reviews will often mention a game to be too long for its content or too short to develop. Taken as just one attribute of a game and then compared with others can make it a valuable measure of a person’s preferences. Perhaps one player is willing to play a game with a great deal of chance, as long as it is short. Similarly, one might prefer a game with a longer duration to have more control, and not be a series of independent exercises in optimization.

I’m sure the list of attributes could go on and on – at some point in the future I may attempt to make a somewhat definitive list. However, I think even the few examples I present may provide food for thought. Remember, each category is not a ranking of better or worse, just different. Some may prefer certain ranges while others prefer another. It would be interesting to gather a pile of data, having players score a set of games according to the above criteria, and then compare the results to ranking on the Geek to see if there are definite trends in opinions about games. The results would probably only reveal things that are already conventional wisdom.

How about you? Think there are any defining attributes that I missed? Is the whole concept impossible? There will always be games that come along with a mechanism that some find intolerable, blind bidding for example. That can’t be properly contained in my rickety scoring structure (although it could affect the games overall Control score). However, putting in additional on/off binary flags for a particular game mechanism (or attribute) seems to be moving further from my ideal dream of each gamer having their own preferred n-dimensional game space.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Moving on...

No, I'm not leaving Gone Gaming so soon after joining the writing staff...

I'm just moving to Wednesdays. I will be alternating weeks with Mary (sodaklady).

See you in three days...

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Personal Development? Gaming Development!

It’s been a hectic couple of weeks. Since we got back from Lorne, I’ve been doing some soul-searching about work and life, which is always a little exhausting. But that’s the start of the year for you – and for we Aussies, this is the start of all the different types of year. Well, it is if you took most of January off for school holidays.

Otto went back to daycare last Monday, Fraser went back to work on Tuesday, and Biggie started in grade 3 at school on Wednesday, which was also the day I went back to work. By Thursday evening, I was out at a professional interest group seminar until after Biggie’s bedtime.

There are still a couple of firsts to come – Monday is Otto’s first day back to pre-school (and the day her baby cousin starts at daycare!), and Tuesday will be the Bigster’s first swimming lesson for the year. And somewhere in there we will get to relax and just breathe for a few minutes :)

Anyway, with all that going on, I’ve not had much time at all for games, so it was great to go to Eurogamesfest today and spend four hours or so playing Tichu with Fraser, Anna and Kim. I really love card games, and it was great to have a really long session today; we switched partners, so everyone played with everyone. I’d like to think that I was the winner, but Anna got a Grand Tichu so I think she might have that honour.

The conversation turned, at one point, to playing card games with the kids – there was some discussion about whether we should start Biggie on Tichu, give her a couple of years until she’s ready to start playing Bridge, or just ramp up other card games.

And then we moved on to the slightly weird conversation.

See, I try very hard not to be a pushy parent. If truth be told, I probably err too far in the other direction – leaving my kids to sort things out for themselves, rather than encouraging them to stretch and extend themselves. And I had worried, recently, that Biggie was moving too quickly into ‘adult’ Euros when she has plenty of childhood left. That’s why we’ve been playing more of our kids’ games, and also older ones like Cluedo (Clue) – although, as Fraser noted last week, she still got to play both Puerto Rico and Settlers while we were on holiday.

But today, we were discussing our children’s development as gamers as though that were a normal conversation for parents to have, and as though the types of games they play were a normal indicator of a child’s progress.

The verdict? Otto has learned turn-taking and some simple concepts from playing Marrakesh, Spooky Stairs and Gulo Gulo. Her abstract thinking and pattern recognition is quite good – she’s excellent at Blink and Catch the Match and also at Ingenious, although we don’t usually score that when we play. She is fascinated by numbers and needs to learn more about them by trying Snakes and Ladders and also start with a simple card game like Uno – I saw a Dora the Explorer-themed version the other day that I will look out for.

I’d also like to play some more standard memory games like The Same game and even Sherlock, and a pattern-matching game like Dominoes – and maybe a more random simple game like TummyAche as well. That should keep us busy for a while, and by the end of the year we should have her playing Junior Labyrinth and Halli Galli.

Biggie is harder to place. She loves complex games, and does well at San Juan. She won her second game of Puerto Rico and loves Settlers, but needs to focus on strategy – she’s a very tactical player, but is less effective when it comes to pre-planning what she needs to do. We want to play more abstracts with her, because she is really very good at those (far better than I am!) but also to work on her cardplay.

My goal for her is really to help her to better play the games that she already plays, rather than starting her on new ones willy-nilly, although we have a few lighter games that I think she would enjoy. That’s really a function of her age and maturity levels, and I think that the more formal school curriculum in grade three will help her to settle into the habit of thinking before doing – although that can take years to really learn. The thinking and deduction skills of Cluedo will be a real asset to her, though, with other games, with schoolwork and with life in general.

So, there you have it. Gaming development plans for both of my kids.

Meanwhile, I’ll be working on my Princes of Florence skills.

See you in the Workshop,



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