Saturday, April 28, 2007

There's a game design in every gamer. Not necessarily a good game design, you understand ...

Regular readers of my personal blog (yes, all three of you ...) will be familiar with the ongoing saga of the mystery smell in my house over the past couple of weeks.

A late night conversation on BSW led to the suggestion that there could be a game there.

We'd start with the gameboard. A simple grid, with a plan of (where else?) my living room. Mark in the fireplace, the window and walls - the furniture is added later.

Now, this is a game where one player takes the role of the mysterious odour, and the rest of the players are the householders, trying to track down and eliminate the stench.

The smelly player (Let's call them Pong) draws a set of cards from the deck of Locations where the stink could be hiding. They have four things to hide: The stink itself, and up to three Red Herrings. (Yes, one of them might be a Herring. Another, as we discovered, might be an old carton of strawberry milk, lovingly hidden by a resident 4 year old). Pong chooses where to hide the items, pairing Location with Stink card.

Locations include
- furniture (toy box, under/in sofa, behind TV, etc)
- wall cavities
- under floor near outer wall
- in the chimney

Now Pong sets up the board. First, the coloured cubes (representing toys) are scattered randomly across the board. In my prototype, I think I will use camels. The best way to imitate a house with children is simply to up-end the box and tip them out, then spread them round a little.

Next, the furniture is placed. I can't decide whether Pong should do this alone or whether the householders should have a turn here. There's a sofa, a coffee table, a TV, an armchair or two ... these were going to be cardboard cutouts, but in retrospect I think they should be raised somehow, so the toys can fit underneath. It seems more realistic, somehow.

Finally, Pong spreads the smell. Smell tiles can be anywhere within, umm, 4 spaces of a Red Herring or 8 spaces of the Stink.

The play of the game alternates between the householders and Pong. So in a 4-player game, Pong has 3 turns in each round.

Householders have a number of actions (action cards?) available to them.

They can:
- Clear space by Tidying Toys (this allows them to search a wider area)
- Move Furniture
- Search an area (2x2 grid?) for a smelly item
- Battle the smell with essential oils and incense
- Spread the cover-up smell
- Open the window to air the room (note that this may give a wind bonus to Pong in spreading the smell)
- Call the Chimney Sweep to check the chimney
- Call the pest remover guy to check a particular area
- Apply odour-retarding gel to a suspected problem area (this only has a 50% chance of working though)

On Pong's turn, the smell is spread.

The householders win when they eliminate the main smell (minor victory) or ALL the smells (major victory).

Pong wins when more than a percentage of the room is covered in smell tiles.

I have it all planned. We release the game, watch it do well. The next year, we produce the deluxe scratch-n-sniff edition for release at Essen (thanks William Attia for this suggestion - clearly a man who understands marketing. When he releases Caylus: The Ratcatchers next year, remember you read it here first).

And the name? I tried Possum Panic, Rats' Revenge, Mouse in the Wall - even Odours: An Odyssey. But the one I like best describes the players' role to a tee: Stink Detectives.



Friday, April 27, 2007

Pillars of the Earth and Distillation Games

Of all the games of 2007, I can’t think of one that has been talked about more than Pillars of the Earth. Favorable buzz began as soon as the game showed up at conventions, and continued after the game was released. The game even created a first-time situation with the Appalachian Gamers: one night we had two separate Pillars of the Earth games going at different tables. I’d never seen that before.

But not all the comments have been positive. Along with those who favorably described the game as “Caylus Lite” were gamers who thought Pillars of the Earth was too derivative and unoriginal to be worthy of such extravagant praise. Been there, done that seems to me to be the attitude of these gamers.

Michael Barnes of Fortress Ameritrash has been openly contemptuous of the game. He seems to think Pillars sums up everything he hates in Euro-games, and is incredibly derivative to boot. While I don’t share Mr. Barnes sneering tone, I think he has a point.

But he has also missed the point. I don’t think Pillars of the Earth was mean to be a very original game. Its very derivativeness is the whole point. To me Pillars of the Earth is a distillation game.

What do I mean by distillation game? I mean that it tries to capture the essence of its genre while eliminating superfluous complexity and trimming game length. In other words, Pillars of the Earth tries to be to the Caylus-and-Goa resource-churning genre what Railroad Tycoon is to the Age of Steam cube-shuttling railroad genre. This means that you could describe Pillars of the Earth as Caylus-for-Morons or as Caylus-made-Accessible-to-the-Masses, and both descriptions would be accurate depending on your point of view.

Whether you have a positive reaction to Pillars or Railroad Tycoon largely depends on how much you value simplicity and short playing time. And on whether you had played the similar games that preceded Pillars and Tycoon before you played Pillars and Tycoon themselves. For instance, I played Railroad Tycoon long before I ever played Age of Steam or any of the other Martin Wallace train games. This meant that Tycoon seemed fresh and original to me, and it instantly became one of my favorite games. When I finally got around to playing Age of Steam, I found it to be a brutally-competitive brain-burner without any of the charming toys or over-sized board that I loved in Tycoon. I have a strong suspicion that my reaction to Age of Steam might have been very different if it had been the first Martin Wallace train game I played.

Even though Pillars seems derivative to me (because I played Caylus first), I will be keeping it as a gateway game to play with non-gamers. I have a suspicion that it will be a good game to bring out for non-gamer friends who have already mastered simpler fare like Ticket to Ride and Settlers of Catan. Once these truly introductory games have been played, I can whip out Pillars and say: “This is a moderate-complexity Euro-game. There are a whole lot of games like this.” And if they can play and enjoy Pillars, I will know that they can handle a wide variety of the games I own.

And the hard-core gamers can always play Pillars if we don’t have time for Caylus.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Elegant Games, Elegant Components

Remember back to days of playing Monopoly? Did you ever actually read the rules? For myself I'm pretty sure the answer is, "No", because in more recent years when I have gone back and looked at the venerable Monopoly rules, they looked entirely unfamiliar to me.

There's a reason for that.

Now, I would never be one to call Monopoly an elegant game, but the Parker brothers did know how to do one thing right: they made good use of their components. In Monopoly's case, practically everything you need to know about playing the game is right there on the board and the cards.

"Collect $200.00 Salary as You Pass Go" the Start space says boldly. "Community Chest," another space states. "Follow Instruction on Top Card." Sets of property are color coded, and the cost of each property is clearly state on the board. The ownership card for each property displays all possible rents, a mortgage value and the cost of houses and hotels.

Now some game designers (and publishers) think that the primary purpose of components is beauty, so if they want to impress you they use quality materials and plaster artwork wherever possible. The results of this can be very positive. I've found that French games in particular, including Asmodee and Days of Wonder, often wow me with their artistic sensibility.

However any publisher that stops there has only gone halfway, and is omitting the other great advantage that components can offer, the one that the Parker brothers knew: elegance.

A Wargaming Interlude

In 1953 a man named Charle Roberts designed a game called Tactics. It was the first commercial wargame and it is an ancestor of any gamer's game that you might play today. It allowed for the creation of games with more strategy and thoughtfulness than the luckfests that dominated the game scene in the hundred years prior.

However in their quests for simulation and strategy the many designers that followed Roberts at Avalon Hill, SPI, and elsewhere lost track of the idea of elegance. I actually suspect that the problem was that many wargamers didn't really understand game design that well, and thus they were reinventing the wheel. Instead of encoding rules in components--as Monopoly does--wargame designers insteaded filled books with complex charts, requiring constant referencing and re-referencing. When a superb graphic designer like Redmond Simonsen came along, standardized a lot of wargame design, and innovated a lot of practices it really was a notable change ... but it probably shouldn't have been.

Now Eurogames don't exactly come from the wellspring of wargaming, but it's clearly one of several ancestors, particularly in French designs and in new Anglo-American games being published based on German ideals. As such an increasing number of those games we play face a dilemma, as they try and mix more simulative American gameplay with German elegance ... and sometimes they fail, with the result being that charts, tables, and calculations occasionally slip into These Games of Ours.

Catan & Component Elegance

Fortunately Eurogames enjoy another ancestor which moved in the exact opposite direction as those chart-filled, inelegant wargames: The Settlers of Catan. I have long thought that one of the primary reasons for Catan's success has been its superb component design.

The Settlers of Catan could have felt like a complex game with the constant need to reference rules. After all, you have a number of different land types, each of which produces a specific resource, and a number of different potential buildings, each of which requires different resources to build.

What Catan did well--perhaps even brilliantly--was that it linked together all of this information in simple pictorial form via the components that were constantly in front of all the players. This isn't just about the player aids--though those are clearly a crucial part of the game's success. Equally important, however, was the decision to largely color-code the land types and match those up to the resources they produce. That simple fact made it so blatantly obvious that, for example, a forest produces wood, that you'd never even consider looking it up. However, it would be very easy to imagine a game where that wasn't the case.

Because Catan has been so successful, many Eurogames have followed in its footsteps, and tried to make their gameplay simple and elegant through good component design. Some have been successful, while some think the answer is simply to print muddled icons on everything and hope that players will eventually figure everything out. Clearly, one approach works and the other really doesn't. Memorizing a set of unintuitive icons is really not much better than memorizing a set of specific rules in the first place.

Extending the Envelope

The possibilities of improving gameplay through component design are many and varied, and sometimes you don't even realize their usefulness until you play a game without.

For example, many a game has the good sense to place the cost of purchasing a good right on the good. If a card costs a gold coin, you put a picture of a gold coin on the card. It's simple and obvious ... and not done nearly enough. When you have to instead look up that price on a chart, in a rulebook, or even on the gameboard you're slowing down the game for no particularly good reason.

Any game designer should be thinking about every one of his components, from board to cards to playing aids, figuring out how the information about each individual item could be encoded on it--or at the very least nearby.

Some of the most innovative work that I've seen in this regard has been by Kevin Wilson of Fantasy Flight Games and has centered on dice.

Dice Design

Fantasy Flight Games are unabashedly Anglo-American designs, with lots of randomness. Most recently I've been playing Descent a straight-up board-game dungeon crawl, with one player trying to foil the rest. In that game the random pedigree is obvious: an attack can randomly hit or miss, can randomly do a little or a lot of damage, and can randomly be boosted or not.

Now a traditional roleplaying design--even closer to wargaming origins than any modern board game--would encode these possibilities in charts. For example to make an attack in Dungeon & Dragons I'd first look up a to-hit chance (on a chart), then throw a 20-sided die. Then if I did hit I might roll again (using the same chart) to determine if the hit was a "boosted" critical hit. Finally I'd look up my weapon's damage (on a chart) and roll that. That's all the same possibilities as Descent offers, on two or three different charts.

Descent instead includes dice which show all this information. One specific die determines hit or miss for each attack. Beyond that, every die includes symbols which show damage and boosts. You just add up all the appropriate symbols, sometimes deciding whether to use one result or another, and you get your total. Granted, the dice are a bit ugly looking with their cacophony of symbols, but they're easy to read one you get used to them ... and surprisingly elegant.

My favorite thing about Descent's dice is the way that it deals with ranged combat, which is perhaps better than any actual roleplaying game I've ever played. Besides all the other info, each die also has a range number. When you roll your dice, you add up the ranges, and if they equal or exceed the actual range to your target, you hit, otherwise you miss. This means that the further away something is, the harder it is to hit, using a very clean formula that increases the difficulty space by space. Likewise as you gain in experience you'll throw more dice, and thus gradually be able to hit things further away.

Compare that to a standard roleplaying game's model of ranged combat. You usually have range bands which only allow stepped differences in difficulty at a few specific thresholds. When you use a ranged weapon you have to look up those range bands, typically cross-referencing them to penalties to hit. Descent instead encodes that all in the dice, showing off just one of several ways that the game keeps players out of the rulebook and focused on the game instead.


Fantasy Flight's dice work is, of course, not the end-all and be-all of component design, but it definitely shows off how easily this particular corner of game design can still be expanded.

In what other ways can components be used, to keep players playing the games rather than reading the rules? I hope more designers like Klaus Teuber and Kevin Wilson are thinking about that very question.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

New Gamers: Don't Worry; That's Normal

Occasionally, I’ll see a post on BGG saying something like, “Help, I’m addicted!”, or “I can’t stop buying games”; or at the other end of the spectrum, “What’s wrong with me? I don’t feel like buying a new game”, “This hasn’t been a good year for new games” or “Just need a couple games to round out my collection”. The last one often includes a list of 15-20 games they own and induces fits of laughter from the knowledgeable. Actually, the last type of gamer is seriously deluded and will, hopefully, return to normal at some point in the future.

For the new gamer who has just discovered that there’s a smorgasbord of choices out there instead of the short-order menu at McDonald’s, these are just part of the normal life-cycle of the board game geek. Well, not that last one, of course. You should seek help from your local Board Game Psychiatrist.

I think most of us find that first year of geekdom to be excruciatingly expensive, with the whirlwind of new tastes and textures driving us ever onward. The dangerous GeekLists point out a constant stream of unheard-of games with unique ideas, wonderful themes and previously unimaginable mechanics. Area control, auction, hand management, trading, building, tile-laying, cooperative, action points, modular boards, pickup-and-deliver, variable player power. If you’re a true board game fanatic, how can you not want to try them all; to experience that which others are praising so highly; to immerse yourself in this world you’ve just discovered? Don’t worry; that’s normal.

Of course, your friends and family might disagree with me. Your game-buying spree (up to a dozen a month) will puzzle them, worry them, and possibly force them to call for outside help. They’ll ask you if you don’t have enough games now, could you stop talking about games, could you not read BGG by the hour, could you put together just one sentence without the word meeple in it? Don’t worry; that’s normal.

After a year of frantically trying to catch up with all that you’ve missed, you will have gained the valuable knowledge and experience to weed out the merely interesting from the totally awesome. In the second year of your geekdom, your game buying will drop off to a more manageable 4-6 games a month and you will have made some wonderful GeekBuddies to help you in your decision-making. Your friends and family will have learned to accept your…oddity. Of course, many of the games in your collection will remain barely touched or totally unplayed. Don’t worry; that’s normal.

By the third year, you will still be excited to read about the newest games coming out at Essen, but few of them will attract your serious interest. You will buy only 2 or 3 games a month and concentrate more on delving into the depths of some of the wonderful games you already own. You may have converted some of your friends and/or family to the addiction, so they’re off your back finally. Don’t worry; that’s normal.

By your fourth year, you are an accomplished gamer and it’s becoming harder to impress you with the new and shiny. You compare the newest releases to games you know, and find them wanting. You look for something different but all you see are shadows of the games you know. You rarely feel compelled to buy a new game; choosing to wait awhile and see if the game has staying power with other gamers. You’re starting to worry that there might be something wrong with you. Don’t. That’s normal.


Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Two Thoughts from the past week.

Riffing on other writers

I feel forced to announce my own membership in the Effete Euro-gamer Game-Balance Wimps Association, despite never playing a game of War of the Ring1. I was driven by Kris founding the Association to go look over the arguments against game balance and was suitably unimpressed.

Like Kris, I came to the current crop of boardgames from a Avalon Hill, SPI wargame background2. Historical games are often replicating some of the most unbalanced situations ever. While I have never had the desire to play out the Zulu wars, there are plenty of games that allow one player to throw hordes of native africans against the guns of colonials in a vain attempt to not be completely destroyed. Eastern Front World War two is also a good example of unbalanced situations - The sheer power of the Germans in the initial invasion, and eventually the sheer numbers of Russians as they pushed back the German front lines.

But games representing unbalanced situations are poor games if the -game- is imbalanced. Historic games often deal with this by setting victory conditions with the expectations that one side will get crushed (i.e. the Zulus win if they have more than 2 warriors survive, etc. etc.) By doing this, the game designer creates a balanced game while retaining all the flavor of an unbalanced situation. The contention that a game must reflect an imbalance via win/loss ratio to be true to the source material strikes me as an excuse for poor game design. And poor game design should not be excused.

The Forgotten.

I sell games3. Once a year we hold an auction where gamers bring in games that are then sold via auction. It's a fun event for me and most people concerned. One of the side benefits is getting to see the truly wide range of games ever produced, both the exciting, rare, lame, or overly common4. This year, what struck me most was the beloved failures...5

Merlin's Maze
This was a strange 2D Backgammon-style game that was printed on a vinyl mat with wooden laminated pieces. Not listed on BGG. The method of play involved matching mediocre screen printed designs between the pieces and the board.

Clever Endeavor
A Party Game with Clever Clues (and other capitalized terms)

Both these games were obviously well-loved by their creators. Clever Endeavor even held long-term submission contests for game content. Clue creators had their signatures on every card. A massive effort was obviously involved in assembling the clues from hundreds of sources and publishing the game. Only to fall into obscurity, and like Merlin's Maze, perhaps not even listed in the largest database of boardgames.

It's always hard to see products that were loved bomb or trickle away into nothingness. It's easy for me to ignore bad art, or bad writing, but a bad game always draws my attention. Perhaps it's because I've seen so many, or perhaps it is some intellectual desire to figure out what is wrong - as if that could be quantified6.

I'm rather glib about these games during the auction, because it's hard not to laugh at how many games have pirates in them, or why anyone would think that publishing another backgammon variant is the best, most original idea ever. But I always take the time to actually notice those games. Someone should remember them. If only to not repeat their mistakes. But I don't think I'll play them. 7



1 Not because I don't want to. It looks like a great game. But those times when it is just me and one other person looking for a game are often monopolized by games published by GMT, or Multiman, or -gasp- games that feature collectible cardboard. There are a large number of very interesting looking longer 2 player hybrid games that remain unplayed by me. It saddens me. And speaks volumes about my priorities.

2 Well, okay, also plenty of Roleplaying. And the influx of 80's party games (pictionary, trivial pursuit) and Ravensburger. But also wargames.

3 I've owned a retail game store for about 6 years now. Maybe I'll write about it again. Maybe not.

4 Only four Harry Potter games this year! Woot!

5 I should now contradict the impression that our 2007 auction was full of lame games nobody wanted. We had one of the best sets of games we've seen. I got to practically give away a copy of Advance Civilization. We had numerous releases from the past five years, several mid-level rarities, and a big stack of all the early Eagle games releases, which I haven't seen for quite awhile. Good stuff was had cheap.

6 Can 'good' games be quantified? With artwork or writing, there isn't much to evaluate outside subjectivity. But is that true of games? I feel like I differentiate between games that are not fun for me (but have some merit), and games that should never have been published.

7 But I did play Clever Endeavor. At least the clues part. We didn't use the board. It betrayed the true problem of taking submissions from hundreds of people. Some of the clues were great, most of them were pretty bad.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

International Gamers

Or should that title be International Gamers of Mystery? Perhaps not.

Anyway, thanks to places like BGG, BSW and SBW (and others) gamers who travel have a much better chance of getting in some games as they travel or relocate around the world.

This is particularly true when our International Gamers are visiting places that have established clubs or groups with some sort of web presence, either via BGG or elsewhere.

Let us take Melbourne, Australia, as an example – since that is where I live. There are two weekly groups (Billabong and Gamers@Dockers) as well as one monthly group (EuroGamesFest Melbourne), not counting the occasional convention. Take note, most groups are usually more active than their websites may imply. There are also plenty of private groups and maybe other groups that are just not advertising themselves out on the world wide web.

Apart from a number of expats from various places living in Melbourne we have a number of international, interstate and out of town visitors:
o Backpackers who are spending any from a week to a few months in town
o Travellers passing through
o Business travellers (just this week we had a guy who was in Melbourne for a little over three days who managed to fit in sessions at both Billabong and Dockers)
o People who are working here for a while on contracts or temporary transfers

If you are travelling and are likely to have a bit of spare time I would suggest checking the BGG forums for local groups in the area(s) you are going to. These are often infrequently updated, so you shouldn’t assume that they have lapsed into inactivity. Contact someone who posted to the thread or contact someone who posts regularly on BGG and ask them. Another way is just to post a message to BGG or the Spielfrieks mailing list saying something along the lines of "I will be visiting X between the dates of Y and Z, any chance of a game?" As far as I can tell that approach works remarkably well too.

I know we have had English, French, German and American visitors drop into one or many of our sessions and there have probably been others I don’t even know about.

If you are travelling and are likely to have some spare time, do yourself a favour and checkout the gaming scene in your destination cities before you leave, it will probably be better than the local TV!

We finally got to play Tikal last night. A two player with Melissa. I concentrated on treasures early in the game which protected me from Melissa’s aggressive pyramid strategy. She thought it was a little abstract for her, maybe she just doesn’t see the little Indiana Jones’s running around the jungle like I do! Given that this is an open information game I will have to start or join a few at SBW.

Home delivered games
We had a message on Friday that one of the games that Melissa had ordered at our FLGS had come in. Melissa rang them back at about 8:00 pm to check which one. It was Pillars of the Earth, Melissa discussed sending me in to pick it up straight away or Saturday morning, but Pete offered to drop it in on his way home. Sure enough he did, COD and Gamers@Dockers discount included. Now, we do shop there quite a bit and do know Pete socially, but still home delivered games is good!

Mmm meeples taste like…

Friday, April 20, 2007

Fire and Axe: A Game-Balance Wimp's Perspective

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a guest essay for Boardgame News in which I discussed game balance in War of the Ring, and my hope that the designers address this issue when they produce the War of the Ring Collector’s Edition. To my surprise, my essay generated a rebuttal essay from Michael Barnes, the leading light of the Fortress Ameritrash website. Mr. Barnes saw no need for a balanced War of the Ring and implied that only effete Euro-gamer game-balance wimps would whine about such a thing.

As the founding member of the Effete Euro-gamer Game-Balance Wimps Association, let me discuss another game with an interesting game balance issue. I’m talking about Fire and Axe.

I played my first game of Fire and Axe, the game of Viking raiding and trading, last night with the Appalachian Gamers. Fire and Axe has gotten a lot of praise, and I can see why people like it. It is a very pretty game with a big fat colorful mounted game board and lots of fine plastic pieces (the Viking warriors look macho enough to appeal to guys who aren’t happy seeing the words “game” and “pretty” in the same sentence). The rules are fairly simple and easily grasped, and we had very few questions as the game went on.

The best thing about the game may be the elaborate scoring system which seems to have been designed by a Knizia apprentice. Players get points for trading, raiding, and settling the various cities, and there are always clear objectives to focus on. This is not a game filled with Goa-like subtleties; you pick a city and try to squeeze points out of it. Adding to the fun are various bonus-point opportunities. The player who sacks the most cities gets a big bonus. Other bonuses await those players who can complete various missions—called sagas—and who can then claim the cards associated with them.

Usually when playing a game for the first time, I do not win, and last night was no exception. While the other players were sailing west, I went east and pursued an aggressive settlement strategy. I may have scored more points for settling than any other player, but I did not capture a single saga card. Brent went after the saga cards with highly-focused discipline and he won the game with a top score of 207. My own score was only about 120.

But the player who came in last (with a pathetic score of 70) was Dave, the owner of the game and the person who had played it the most. Is Dave simply a lousy strategist? Not at all, there have been nights when he has won every game we played. But last night the dice gods were against him, and Dave lost Viking after Viking assaulting the kind of small towns that the rest of us captured with ease. I don’t know what Dave did to get on Lady Luck’s hit list, but she slapped him up, down, and sideways, and then kicked him as he crawled away.

I might have regarded Dave’s problems last night as just an example of freakish luck, except that Tony had a similar problem the week before. A few truly bad die rolls can cause players to waste valuable turns. A little bad luck and winning the game becomes impossible.

Michael Barnes and his Ameritrash cult members would doubtlessly suggest that a real American gamer should suck up the pain and then get back on the horse that threw ya at the first opportunity. And there is certainly something to be said for fortitude, and the knowledge that the laws of averages pick on somebody every once in a while, but that they change victims regularly.

On the other hand, there is a simple fix that doesn’t seem too unreasonable. Have the players conduct raids and settlement attempts the same way. The player rolls his dice in sequence, and every failed die roll not only kills a Viking, but adds “1” to the player’s next die roll. Lady Luck can still pick on somebody, the extremes of luck that we saw in last night’s game are less likely to occur.

I haven’t checked on the Geek to see if anyone has made this suggestion already, so it’s possible that I’m not being very original here. My suggestion certainly seems like an obvious fix that would occur to lots of people simultaneously.

Regardless of how you feel about luck and the desirability of mitigating it, you might want to check out Fire and Axe. It’s a fine game, and one that I would be happy to play again.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

The News in Views / Old Puzzler / New Biweekly Puzzler

More Luck?

I just can't get this out of my mind. I've been thinking about the luck issue for a few weeks now. I would like to change my earlier statements as to the amount of luck in chess and other games.

I recently posted a silly Geeklist on BGG called the Ladder of Luck in which I rated several games by the amount of luck found in them. With the exception of one, they were all highly personal opinions.

I made the list because of a terrible Settlers game I had played in, and in a teeth-grinding rage, I wrote a list of games in which Settlers ranked between Fluxx and Candyland. I guess the humor of it didn't come across too well, but the exercise got me thinking and questioning everything I believed on the luck issue.

For many years, it bothered me to win a game in which either my opponent blundered or in which I made a move that was better than I had previously thought. The first was out of my control; the second couldn't be counted on. So I refused to take credit for them. If I won a game due to the unforeseeable, I would question my skill or lack of skill. Somehow, the idea that a game was either full of skill or luck persisted in me until now.

No more! I no longer think the adjectives skillful and lucky can be applied to a game. Claims like "this game is all luck" or "this game is pure skill" are missing their targets. Games are just bits and pieces with a set of rules and are neither inherently skillful or lucky (they can be random though; more later). Players, however, can claim to be skillful or lucky or any combination thereof.

A player's skill/luck is applied across a game's topography. The topography of a game is its information, and this can be known (chess, go), partly known (cribbage, Settlers), or not known at all (Candyland). Nothing in the topography of a game is different from one player to the next. How well a person traverses this topography is a combination of skill and luck.

What about the randomness of dice and cards? Isn't that luck? Randomness is not luck. Randomness exists in games in the form of dice, cards and many other yet-to-be-disclosed information generators. You can't count on specific information or instructions, but you can still count on its coming your way.

Skill and luck still reside in the players. It's too easy to peg a game as lucky if the random info generators don't swing the "right" way. If it's random for both players, that's just a part of the game's topography and does not change the potential control or skill of a player.

What it comes down to is accountability. There is luck or skill in the playing of a game, not in the game itself. A player must learn to accept the topography of a game. If there's skill to be had, he or she must earn it within the confines of the game's topography. If there's luck to be found, he or she will find it in the imperfections of all the players' moves. In both cases, the player must learn to judge the merit of the players and pay especially close attention to his or herself.


Old Puzzler Q & A

Last time was a dry time for puzzles. I apologize for the multi-answer puzzler. Here is what a few solvers sent in to me.

Q: Which of the following does not belong?

Balloon Cup, Coloretto, Scrabble, Shadows over Camelot

A: Scrabble doesn't belong because it is the only game listed without cards as a component. (J. Wandke, Dave "Daw65")

Scrabble doesn't belong because it's a word game. (Dave "Daw65")

Scrabble doesn't belong because it wasn't created in the 21st century. (J. Wandke)

Shadows over Camelot doesn't belong because it does not have double letters in its name. (J. Wandke)

Balloon Cup doesn't belong because it has an even number of words in its title. (J. Wandke)

Balloon Cup doesn't belong because it doesn't have an 'e' in its title. (Dave "Daw65")

Shadows over Camelot doesn't belong because it is collaborative, with multiple winners. (J. Wandke, Dave "Daw65")

Shadows over Camelot doesn't belong because it's the only game without a double letter in its title.

Balloon Cup doesn't fit because it is for exactly two players. The others all allow both flexible qty of players, and more than two. (J. Wandke)

Coloretto doesn't belong because there are two games named Coloretto. The others are unique. (J. Wandke)

The original answer I had in mind is laughable. This has been a good lesson for me. Thanks to those for writing in. Without further ado, the bogus answer!

Coloretto doesn't belong because it's the only game without an animal hidden in its title ("loon" in Balloon Cup, "crab" in Scrabble, and "camel" in Shadows over Camelot; if you read backwards, you can get "otter" from Coloretto, though).


New Biweekly Puzzler

Being a simple puzzle, this one's based on speed. Time yourselves!

I'm thinking of a boardgame and a sitcom. One's a question, and the other's an answer to that question. What are they?

0-5 seconds = Mighty Mouse (intelligent, fast, flying, speaks)
6-15 seconds = Speedy Gonzales (intelligent, fast, speaks)
16-60 seconds = Roadrunner (intelligent, fast)
61-120 seconds = Yogi Bear (intelligent, fast in special instances)
121+ seconds = Eeyore (intelligent, slow)

*Thank you for not posting the answer. If you'd like to take a guess, write

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

A Eurogame Review

Everything on the Internet seems to come in waves. Even before reading Shannon’s recent post about reawakening his interest in role playing games, I had been preparing this post on a game I have that I have become reacquainted with in the past month or two. While it has a lot of American boardgame tendencies, there are a few strong Euro attributes that contribute to making it a gripping title that has eaten into gaming time I might have spent on other boardgames. What game am I referring to? None other than the new edition of that classic Euro-American hybrid game, Dungeons and Dragons (referred to as D&D for the rest of this article.) For those unfamiliar with the game (and there isn’t an entry for it over on BoardGameGeek), it is like a longer, more complex version of Dungeoneer, Return of the Heroes, or Descent. While different than many Eurogames that it predates, there are still a number of mechanics found in popular Euro titles, making it a game that many gamers just might want to check out. If that piques your interest, read on to find a more thorough review.

The Bits
The first thing a boardgamer will see when opening up a new game are all the fun little bits to play with. Unfortunately, this game has none. What, you say? NO BITS? That’s right, no little wooden cubes, no meeples, nothing is included in the basic package, just three thick rulebooks. THREE! And you thought paging through the rules for BattleLore was a bit much – at least in that case it was a rulebook and a scenario booklet. The last game I played with three rulebooks was Avalon Hill’s Horror at House on the Hill. With no bits to play with, one might expect the game to score a nice fat zero for its components. Thankfully, there are options to solve the component problem. There are so many options, that players are typically expected to provide their own components (similar to the pawns and dice in some of the Cheapass Games productions…) For those willing to spend a little bit of money, players can obtain nice plastic figurines, expandable cardboard maps, and even little cubes to roll. I’ve seen photos of players going all out on designing their own game boards, making model terrain to rival the Deluxe Chest Version of Settlers of Catan. So while the lack of components is initially a big strike against the game, players who like to tinker and customize their own gameboard and pieces will find plenty of things to play with. Die hard Eurogamers can even use little colored wooden cubes along with Meeples to represent the various creatures and figures within the game. Some players use hand painted metal figurines – talk about dedicated game component fans! The last game I played with metal playing pieces was an old game of Monopoly. While many Eurogamers eschew dice, this game has plenty of them. Taking a cue from the French Formula De, there are even many nonstandard dice available. However, in this particular game (unlike Formula De) the dice have a different number on each side. This does make the results more random than a typical Formula De game, but it also easier for new players to estimate the expected outcomes since only one series of numbers have to be averaged. In fact, a good portion of the strategy of this game involves making the decisions so that you can modify die rolls in your favor.

Bits Score: 0 out of 10(there aren’t any in the standard game), however, there is a Basic Game available that provides you with several plastic figures, shortened rules, and a set of funny dice like you might find in Formula De. Using these bits (or your own acquired elsewhere) increases the score dramatically.

Gameplay: 7 out of 10 (primarily due to game length)
Even a quick glance through the rules shows how this game is similar to other popular Euro titles. Like many wargames, there are two sides to the game. All but one player create an alternate persona to represent themselves within the game. These alternate personas are called Player Characters (or PCs). There is a lot of flexibility here, but players should take care not to overlap their specialties too much, because the remaining player (referred to as the “Dungeon Master”) gets to control almost everything else within the game. At first glance, this seems very unfair for the PCs. There is very little within the game to make up for the DM’s strong initial starting position. However, after much play testing it seems that the PCs win the game more often than not, so perhaps their superior numbers are enough to win the day. In some respects it is like Shadows over Camelot, where most of the players conspire to defeat the game while one player works against them. However, in D&D, the “traitor” (the DM) is known at the outset, and is given a number of advantages to make up for that fact.

The theme of the game revolves around a fantasy setting (like Lord of the Rings) with the players typically playing the forces of good and the DM playing the bad guys. The DM plays a sort of “defense”, setting up traps and obstacles for the players while the players go on “offense” trying to find and overcome these challenges. Over time, the players get more powerful, providing a nice sense of accomplishment. Unfortunately, so do the obstacles used by the DM player. In fact, in a glaring oversight, not only do the rules fail to provide proper victory conditions, they don’t even provide game-ending conditions! As a result, many games of D&D can drag on and on. Players typically agree to a set time limit and play until it is reached. Often, a group will then meet again a week or two later and pick up where they left off, making sure the game length of D&D easily exceeds even a highly negotiated game of Die Macher. With such a long playing time, the game severely limits other games making it to the table. As a result, it gets a solid couple of strikes against it in the scoring.

To help Eurogamers decide if it might be something they want to try, I thought I’d make a short list of all the pros and cons of the game.

The Bad
The rulebook(s) – when was the last time you had three hardbound rulebooks for a single game? In an interesting twist, only the DM player has to read up on two of them, so gamers who don’t like to read rules should stick to the PC team.
The bits – as mentioned, there are no bits included in the standard game. There isn’t even a game board! The general availability of quality substitutes (even metal bits!) keeps the game from flopping.
No Auctions! – can you even have a boardgame without some form of an auction in it? (There aren’t any trains either, but PCs can simulate them by starting up trading caravans)
Analysis paralysis – typically, each player gets two action points in a turn keeping things very constrained. However, there are a plethora of options to spend your action points on (like moving, fighting, casting spells, etc…), causing some AP prone players to simply shut down.
Unbalanced Teams – Despite the very good record of the PC team, the GM team simply has too many advantages to make a fair game.
The Traitor Factor – In addition to the DM team, sometimes there is a secret traitor within the PC team as well. While that works great in Shadows over Camelot, as there is already an opposing team in D&D, adding in a secret traitor creates a third team in the mix and can quickly complicate the entire situation.

The Good
Expansions – some players love to have options in their games (witness the variety of ways to play Settlers of Catan). There are multiple ways to expand the D&D game including new rulebooks as well as many new game boards. For game tinkerers, it is probably the game best able to handle additional house rules. In fact, most gamers have at least one or two house rules they prefer to play by…
Cooperation – the game screams for good cooperation with the PC team. As the DM team has most of the advantages, the PC team has to work hard together to make sure they survive
Heavy Player InteractionGoa haters take note, there aren’t any auctions and player interaction is high. Despite a high degree of cooperation, players are also competing for limited resources, constantly being forced to find ways to evenly distribute advantages and rewards so that they can improve their teams effectiveness.
Role Selection – As in Cosmic Encounter (or to a lesser extent, Puerto Rico) players each take on a role selection that will tend to dictate their strengths and weaknesses. This makes the game different every time and can often keep players interested as they can all focus on their strengths without getting in each other’s way.
No Player Elimination – While player elimination can occur, the rules have provisions to reverse said elimination, or the player who lost their character can simply take on a new position within the team and keep on playing.
Snowball Effect – as in some of the best Eurogames, D&D has a snowball effect so that players gain more and more power and abilities as the game progresses. Fans of empire building and snowball effect games (like Puerto Rico, Settlers of Catan, Through the Ages, and the like) will find many similarities here.
Multiple Victory Conditions – Actually, there are no set victory conditions, players are free to decide for themselves what victory conditions they want to strive for. Players can try to gain the most influence in the palace (like Succession or El Grande), try to rack up the most money (like Modern Art) or even try their hand at more unique victory conditions like building their own castle (a la Caylus).

Final Analysis:
Overall, I can only recommend the game to fans of more American style boardgames, or at least Euro-American hybrids rather than straight up Eurogamers. With their love of a 90 minute cap on a game, D&D just won’t be brought to the table that often. Sure, there are a lot of popular Euro mechanisms present (money management, role selection, cooperative team play, multiple victory paths, a modified action point system, I’ve even seen goods delivery occur) but those are probably not enough to pull in the Euro-snoot crowd. For those who welcome a little variety in their gaming and are not adverse to trying something a bit more detailed and long-term, the rewards can be great. After all, it is the only kingdom-building game that I’ve seen that starts a player out with a single, unskilled worker.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Gaming and the mass media

As gamers, many of us are evangelists. We love our games, and we want to share them with others.

Gamers organise school games groups; they run clubs; they organise family game nights at schools, libraries or churches; they give games as gifts; they regularly demonstrate games for free. We do this because we love the games - and when you love something, it's natural to want to share it.

Gaming is a fantastic hobby. It promotes social interaction, it accommodates different-sized groups of people, it can be played in mixed gender and age groups. There's a growing body of evidence that shows that families that share a hobby like gaming are more resilient than those that lead largely separate lives.

Gaming can foster a range of interests, encourage logical and rational thinking, promote the development and understanding of key skills. It's cheap, you can do it almost anywhere and, best (and most important) of all - it's fun!

When it comes to promoting games, we have mixed success. It takes a lot of perseverance to get a good-news story into the mainstream media or into public places for people to explore. It's considered "normal" for adults to coach a football or cricket team, or to drink beer in front of sports TV, but it's not considered normal for adults to get together to explore a more intellectual/cerebral interest like playing games.

As far as promoting our hobby of gaming, there has been success in a range of places. I know I will have missed people and activities - this is by no means an exhaustive list - but please add to it in the comments for this post.

  • The Spiel des Jahres award is credited with bringing gaming into the mainstream in Germany.

  • BoardGameGeek provides a central 'home' for gamers and also a contact point for journalists seeking informed comment or information.

  • Ben Baldanza coined the Beyond Monopoly name and was the first, as far as I am aware, of many people to run games classes at adult education centres.

  • His wife Marcia has brought games into the mainstream in the elementary schools where she has taught; other teachers and parents have picked this up, including Giles Pritchard, who has worked to bring games into schools and has even established a games library for a local school. Chris Brooks often blogs about the game classes he runs at a local school.

  • Neil Thomson, the president of Border Gamers Albury-Wodonga, has a regular column on gaming in the regional newspaper. Some years ago, the Melbourne's Child (Sydney's child etc) group of newspapers ran regular reviews of games. Ward Batty runs (ran?) a weekly syndicated column on gaming for several newspapers.

  • Greg Schlosser has written about his experiences with church family game nights.

  • Many, many games clubs run open-to-the-public events and work to promote gaming in their local community. Here's a coming-soon listing that leverages an existing activity.

  • Fraser and I try to do our bit, with a family games night at Biggie's school, consultation with teachers on games for use in the classroom and in the out of school hours care program, and of course the month-long display of games at the Melbourne Museum last September, complete with accompanying demonstrations.

  • Phil Davies, of Mind Games Albury, has worked hard to bring Eurogames to local schools and to promote them, even founding the Australian Games Expo to promote gaming to the wider community.

One of the people who, to my mind, has done the most effective promotion of gaming over the past few years is Jon Power. Jon is the founder of Beyond Monopoly! - a games club in York, in the UK. From its beginnings as a once-a-month event in 2005, the club has gone from strength to strength, helped in no small measure by Jon's enthusiasm and commitment. Anyone who has ever been involved with running any non-profit organisation knows how much effort is involved, how hard you sometimes have to work to find the drive and commitment to keep things running smoothly, but Beyond Monopoly! doesn't seem to falter.

As well as running the now twice-monthly game club, Beyond Monopoly! has run demonstrations at public events and venues including York's National Railway Museum. They've featured in newspaper articles, radio spots, even had a mention in the BBC's Mind Games Magazine. Jon himself is widely recognised and respected by gamers around the world, and he has been very successful in securing donations of boardgames for the club's library as well as marketing material and posters from publishers to use in his demonstrations (trust me, after the demos we ran last year, I know just how hard it is even to get a response from a publisher, let alone some actual product). He's always happy to lend an ear and help out others, in their promotion of gaming and also on a personal level, as a good friend and listener.

Jon is also known to BoardGameGeek readers as the font of all knowledge on the Essen Spiel fair. I remember introducing Jon to a friend on BSW late one night, where recognition was immediately followed by "I followed your Guide to Essen word for word last year. It's great!"

This week, Jon hit the holy grail. Daily newspaper the Yorkshire Post ran a fantastic article about Jon and his games collection, with column space for Beyond Monopoly! and also BoardGameGeek. You can't buy publicity like this in a national newspaper - this sort of promotion of our hobby is a boon to publishers and distributors as well as to games clubs around the country. And of course to Beyond Monopoly! as well.

That's why it was so disappointing to see Jon's story picked up and damaged by the tabloids. In yet another example of shoddy tabloid journalism, they perverted the truth of the original article, invented quotes, and ran a story about yet another lonely loser with a sad and sorry hobby. Jon - and, by extension, all gamers - was turned into a laughing stock. Worse, a similar bastardised and disrespectful "story" was run in his local paper for his neighbours, friends and colleagues to read.

Responses on BGG have been mixed - there's been some sympathy, but mostly there's shared amusement - a feeling that being mocked by a tabloid is somehow a badge of honour. I think that's shortsighted.

Articles like the tabloids ran undermine our credibility. They invite people to sneer at us and our hobby, and they suggest that there is something wrong with those who share it. They ignore the proven and readily demonstrated benefits that playing games brings in favour of that laziest of devices, mockery.

Meanwhile, these same papers that sneer at us continue to promote inferior and dull product like Mousetrap and its ilk as the best gifts every Christmas.

So where is the common ground? How can we build a credible and reasonable media profile for games and gamers without opening ourselves up to mockery and vicious slurs? How do we sell gaming to a wider audience?

Or is it all a mistake? Maybe we should stop our evangelising and figure that people who WANT to play games will find us, and forget the rest.

Meanwhile, there's a train spotter I want to get to know a little better.


Friday, April 13, 2007

Confessions of a Vengeful Gamer

In my very first blog for Gone Gaming I wrote about the role of spite and vengeance in gaming. In spite of my habit of seeking revenge on those who did me wrong while playing, I wrote: “I am not normally any more vengeful than the average guy.”

I was fooling myself. I am more vengeful than the average guy. You block my route in a train game, you take control of my area in an area control game, and suddenly my goal is not winning the game but stabbing you in the heart. Suddenly, a peaceful Euro game becomes a struggle to the death. Suddenly, the personal philosophy of Sweeney Todd seems moderate and reasonable.

At our last meeting of the Appalachian Gamers, I found myself in a game of Mexica. Mexica is an area majority game in which the players themselves create the point-scoring areas. In the first half of the game, I built a middling-sized area in a corner of the board and planted some of my buildings there. Travis swooped in from the other side of the board and instantly erected his own Meso-American apartment complexes and took control. Like a mother grizzly seeing a hiker fondling her cub, I roared into action.

The details of the conflict are unimportant. But the final result was that while Travis and I spent too much time playing offense and defense against one another, Charlie seeded the board with his buildings in a calm and rational manner and claimed victory. I don’t know for sure if my conflict with Travis kept him from over-taking Charlie, but it sure didn’t help.

The fact is that all too often playing for vengeance means playing badly. Not only do I end up in too many fights that I can’t win, I waste resources trying to defend my positions against counter-attacks that may not actually come. While I pile too many buildings into low-scoring areas just to insure my control, Charlie plays with the tranquility of a Zen master, seemingly indifferent to the fact that some of his areas may be vulnerable to conquest. He knows that the even distribution of his buildings throughout the board will win him first place in some areas, and second place in others, but that overall he will do just fine.

I could try to control my thirst for vengeance, but I think that might defeat one of the minor psychological benefits of gaming: getting to express impulses in the game that I wouldn’t or couldn’t express in real life. If you cut me off on the highway in real life, I will swallow my anger and slow down and let you drive away. Doing otherwise could have dangerous or even fatal consequences. But if you take my temple in Tikal, I will send my workers swarming over your excavation sites like conquering armies.

My only hope is that a reputation for vengeance-seeking behavior will eventually cause the other gamers to think twice before crossing me. Richard Nixon once said that he wanted other world leaders to think he was a little nuts because they would be less likely to provoke a nuclear-armed maniac. As Shannon Appelcline wrote in response to my first blog:

“…you're making your opponents think harder about trying manipulate you in the future, which in turn will give you advantages in that game. To look at it another way: The spite itself part of the game. You might even consider it a resource that needs to be managed.”

Remember that, if you find yourself across a game board from me. You may have more wood and stone and metal and gold and workers. But I have more spite. Beware.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

My (Secret) Life in Gaming

About 14 months ago I wrote an article called My Life in Gaming. It was a simple piece talking about the many different sorts of gaming that I've been involved in over the last twenty-five years, from D&D to board games to computer games and back to board games again. Much to my surprise the folks over at the British 'zine Flagship liked the piece, and reprinted it in issues #120 and #121.

Since I wrote that article, life has continued changing, as it ever does, and I've been surprised to see the gaming pendulum shift once more. It's ultimately one of the reasons that I'm writing here less than I used to. (I'll get to that shortly, but as you'll see, it's more lack of time than lack of interest).

I should say that I still am playing board games. Almost every Wednesday I go over to EndGame for four hours or so of play, and almost every Thursday I have folks over to my house for my "review nights"--though I've actually been reviewing less too, and as a result we sometimes play something random on Thursday instead.

However, in balance with that, my interest in roleplaying games has increased quite a bit, to almost the levels it enjoyed when it was my prime gaming entertainment back in the 1990s. The reason has ultimately been my job--which is nice, given that working in the industry was part of what burned me out on RPGs about a decade ago.

RPGnet and the Gaming Index

My company owns RPGnet, where you've probably read my reviews, and which is the top independent roleplaying site on the 'net. Last summer I decided to get serious about an RPGnet project that I'd been playing with for a while on my own time: the Gaming Index. In short, it's a BoardGameGeek for roleplaying games, designed my way.

The project itself has been a major undertaking. At this point I've written about 12,500 lines of code, which I'm pretty sure is the biggest coherent set of programming that I've ever done for anything. And, it seems able to suck up any free time I have, with a constant list of new features that I want to add and things I want to modify or fix.

However besides the code, the Gaming Index also required a lot of data entry to get going, which sent me scurrying to my book shelves to input whatever I could. As I paged through my books, entering authors and descriptions, I gradually came to rediscover what interested me in roleplaying in the first place. This came in two parts: the fun stories told in fabulous worlds, and the collectibility aspect of the hobby.

That in turn is precisely what rekindled my interest in the roleplaying hobby.

Writing, Writing, Writing

As you might have guessed from my entries in this blog and my reviews, I'm a writer. I write obsessively and constantly. Before I was blogging here I wrote a few hundred computer game design articles, and before that I carefully chronicled the adventures of my roleplaying group. I suspect you could find millions of words of my writing on the 'net.

I also used to write roleplaying books, with Tribunals of Hermes: Rome (for Ars Magica), The Nephilim Gamemaster Companion (for Nephilim) and Tales of Chivalry and Romance and Tales of Magic and Miracles (for Pendragon) being my largest collections of work in print. However that largely fizzled out about a decade ago when I went to work for Chaosium.

Until now, when my resurgence of interest in roleplaying has led to a resurgence of interest in roleplaying writing too. And that (finally) is one of the reasons that I've been writing less here. Since last September or so I've been working on three different major roleplaying projects.

The first was Elder Races: Aldryami, a 100,000 word sourcebook for the HeroQuest roleplaying game which I hope will see print in 2007, but may not come out until next year. It's a bookthat I've literally been working on for a decade (depending on your definition of working, that is). It's the definitive sourcebook for elfs in the world of Glorantha--unique plant creatures that I think I've given an interesting worldview. I finished this book up last December and sent it to the publisher.

Just when I was finishing up Elder Races: Aldryami I discovered that Mongoose Publishing, who is doing a different Glorantha game called RuneQuest was also planning to release a book about elfs. Terrified that it would contradict my own work which I'd been working on for so long I practically begged them to let me write a book for them. They agreed, and the book, Aldryami: A Guide to the Elfs, is due to them at the end of the month. Fortunately as of last week I've got a complete draft of 62,500 words. I'm going to give it a full edit over the next three weeks.

However my biggest project since last summer has been the "Brief History of Game" project, which is intended to be a history of roleplaying games told one game company at a time. I initially started writing my first history because I was curious about a company that I was then entering into the Gaming Index. Afterward I decided to publish some of these histories at RPGnet as a way of building interest in the Index itself. Except along the way I've learned that people had a lot of interest in the articles in and of themselves. To date I've gotten four queries about publishing a book of these history essays.

I've accepted one, which has forced me to notably speed up my work. The book is going to have a ton more stuff than I've published online to date. (To date I've published 10 histories, have 12 more sitting on my computer in various states of completion, and am writing one a week.) The book should also be a really beautiful artifact, if it comes out the way my publisher envisions it. If all goes well, this book will see print this year too. I'm definitely pushing it.


So that's my secret life in gaming ... all the stuff I'm doing that isn't exactly board game related and thus is outside of the scope of this blog (usually). The first four months of this year have been particularly crazy because I've been simultaneously writing my history book and my second elf book. Last weekend was my craziest weekend of writing ever, with almost 20,000 words of text going down onto electronic paper in first draft form. But I got some good games in too.

I'm looking forward to May, when things will slow down a bit, and perhaps I can take a break to really go gaming.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Morgan Dontanville Returns

Pub Life
By Morgan Dontanville

Here’s Egg in Your Face (Part II)
Or the Continuing Story of How I Fell in Love with Eggert-Spiele.

Flirting with Neuland
When I first read about Neuland I associated it only with the strange creature that was Essen’s Spiel ‘04. I had known that Spiel was a big convention that showcased a bunch of games, but for some reason it wasn’t until I actually went to it that I realized it is just a big trade show. The reason why my initial impression of Spiel is even relevant is that for some reason I thought that there was some sense of exclusivity to it, rather than the reality of what makes it special. It is the polar opposite. There are a ton of people there, many of whom are ‘randoms’ that just wander in on a Saturday because there is nothing else going on locally.

What was confusing for me was that I misunderstood the market. I had heard about rare games coming out at Essen, but as it is a Mecca for the masses, gamers in Europe flock there to buy special things. In my recent experiences with Essen there were multiple times where I’d sit at a table to game with locals. In small talk there is always a discussion about where everyone is from. When I’d tell people that I’m from America, they’d ask if I was working in the area for business. After revealing that I was there for the convention, the general reaction from most people was, “Really? You came all the way from America for this?” The reason that small print runs on games do well at Essen isn’t because there are a bunch of rabid buyers that pick up one of everything, but that there are just so many people there buying that even if you tap into a small percentage of the buying public, you are bound to make some healthy sales. If you print a small enough run you will be able to sell out and not have to worry about any inventory until next year.

Word trickled back from Essen about Neuland. At that time, I was solidly at a point where I understood the value of following designers and their methods but was just beginning to recognize the relevance of following publishers. This became sort of a parallel to my indie rock high school years when I first realized that the people that ran record labels had as much influence on the music that came out as the bands that made the music itself. Because of the lack of buzz on Eggert-Spiele’s Global Powers the year before, I had no context for Neuland. To me, there was no association to make. By 2004 Global Powers was all but forgotten, and Neuland seemed like it was a small indie game coming from an unknown publisher.

One of the great things about being a gamer is that there is a small percentage of people within the community who have deluded themselves into thinking that their opinion matters (as can be seen by the fact that I’m taking the time out to write this - how’s that for breaking the third wall). Because games are for the most part social and in order to play them we need others to participate, knowing what others like is important. So we look to others to tell us what they like. As a result, all the people who feel their voice is important enough to be heard become important.

As usual, I digress. Word got back from a number of these trusted people that this was a good game. Word also got back that the game is too heavy, too much of a brain burner, too prone to A/P, too chaotic, had too much downtime and could lock up. In addition to that, one thing that I knew for sure was that it was beginning to get too expensive, especially considering the feedback it was getting.

After hemming and hawing over whether or not to get the game it rapidly went out of circulation. In a very short time it became near impossible to get. It certainly ranked as a “try before you buy” game but no one I knew had a copy.

At that time, I was going through a backlash phase in gaming that bucked against the cold heartless designs that the euro format of gaming seemed to grind out. I was trying more new games than ever before, so of course stumbling upon games I didn’t like would be more frequent. I had a resource of multiple game collectors to tap into, as a result I played a number of average games that I’d never considered picking up.

I kept seeing an overwhelming amount of duplicated mechanics “with a twist” repasted with a “new” theme. This time it’s in Egypt instead of Renaissance Italy, this time it is in Renaissance Italy instead of Egypt.

One of the biggest pieces of feedback that I got from folks that talked about Neuland was that it was the best example of how heavy you can push a Euro and still remain entirely Euro. What is important for me, though, was hearing that this was pushing design to an extreme level. That meant this wasn’t going to be a bland family game that kowtowed to the masses. This had no desire to be SdJ material. The more negative feedback that I was reading from this, the more fascinated I was becoming with the game.

Doing more research, which at this point meant pressing one button and clicking the publisher link on the boardgamegeek, I realized that both Global Powers and Neuland were from the same company along with some other crazy games that I’d never heard of. The point at which I was resolved to buckle down and just buy the damn thing was the point where the likelihood of even finding it was absurd.

First Date
A friend of mine who is a trading fanatic ended up with a copy of Neuland. Without a doubt he loves to play games, but I think that most of all he loves the act of acquisition. The thrill of trading something rare for something else that he can manhandle far surpasses sitting down and actually playing it. As a grail collector he will often times trade games he’s never played just to get the next one in his possession. One may say that this is the old story of “The Dog and The Bone”, but the joy he gets out of pawing new games is real. Anyway, I knew that as soon as he got this I would have to get it played quickly otherwise it would be traded into the ether.

He didn’t seem all that interested in playing it - he was more concerned with the condition of the box - but he was kind enough to lend it to me with a promise that if I damaged it any more than its split corners I would have to buy it from him at what I considered an ungodly cost. Mortgaging my soul, I ended up walking home with a copy.

I think the level of patience that people have with others when it comes to lending out items is directly related to their memory. From experience we have all lent things out to people and eventually forgotten who we gave them to. I think we have an internal alarm clock that eventual gets set, measuring our own capacity to remember who has our stuff. The shorter our memory, the shorter the patience of the lender for fear they will forget again. Needless to say I was taking too long trying to get this on the table.

Finally, I brought it to a friend’s game day and found some hapless souls to move some pieces around with. If I had thought about it at the time, it was possibly the worst combination of people to try this with: one player, a wargamer that hates perfect information logistics games, a relative newbie who mostly plays Ameridice games (her favorite after playing a number of games still is Monopoly), and an intense eurogamer with an extreme case of A/P. Normally this would be a formula for failure, but they all strangely wanted to play Neuland. Two of the other gamers recognized that this might be their only opportunity, so they wanted to get in while they could and the other just liked hanging out with us (I have to give her props for having good taste).

After muddling through the rules we were off and running. I was surprised at how much conflict this had without anyone’s ability to directly attack each other. It turned out to be a very antagonistic game.

If you can move to strengthen your position and screw someone in the process the game have some really satisfying moments. You have to watch what other people’s goals are and push yourself to get first to the spots where others may block you out. Thematically, I felt it was very strong as the logic of what you are doing makes sense; shearing sheep for wool taking the wool someplace for clothing, etc.

Truly the most exciting thing about the game is the action point system. As usual in innovation, multiple people birth ideas simultaneously; both Neuland and Jenseits von Theben use the concept of taking any number of action points you need (to some limit of course) but then allowing people that take less to get more turns. In JvT actions are measured in time. With Neuland it is more abstract and actions are measured in work. In JvT there is a racing aspect to the game and timing when you will begin the race is where the game is. In Neuland there are workers that you need to maintain, to actually do their jobs you get them to a place and they have no real identity other than what they are currently doing. If you don’t keep them constantly moving they lose their identity, so there is a sense of urgency, as you have to move workers around turning something ephemeral into something concrete. I liken it to those crazy plate spinners who constantly have to run back and forth tending to each pole in order to prevent one of the plates from flying off and crashing to the floor.

By the end of the game the Ameridicer decided that she wasn’t going to win and did everything in her power to stop me from ending the game. She planted all her workers on the spots I needed and left me in the lurch. This essentially allowed another player the win. Call it kingmaker, if you will, but I made some moves earlier on in the game that buried her behind the curve. I have to say that the person who won played a more honest game. In a game that is this interactive… well, there is a saying in the music industry that is often bandied about: “It is important to remember who you are stepping over on the way up because they are the only ones to catch you on the way down.”

So, I think at the end of this I was the only one that really loved it. The eurogamer appreciated it, the wargamer saw its value but would certainly rather play something else and the Ameridicer decided that she was happy to play games with us (so status quo for her). We all agreed, though, that this seemed that it would be better with three players.

The owner of the game got his copy back in hand as “pristine” as he had lent it, and my soul was returned. Later that week he traded it away.

A year later, a friend of mine in Germany found a copy for me and hand delivered it. I skipped around and giggled like a little girl. It had become a holy grail. I had no problems paying the price to recoup his expenses.

Of course, my copy still remains unpunched. I’m trying to do something about that.

This actually wasn’t the first Eggert-Spiele game I’d played, but the second. By the time I’d gotten to Neuland I’d already gotten to first base, but this brutal beauty sealed the deal.

(End of Part II)
This will be the last post from sodaklady. I’ve had a great time being part of this wonderful blog group but my game time has all but disappeared for various reasons so coming up with something to say has become more like work than the fun it should be. I want to publicly thank Brian for including me in his dream of a group blog, and thank all you readers who have taken the time to make comments. It’s been such a lot of fun and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything.


Monday, April 09, 2007

Magic Realm Part Two

First off, let me apologize for doing a two part article with my normal two week delay. It seems like a bit too long to wait to post the second half. Oh well, I'm still figuring these things out. If Part one is missing from your memory jump back two weeks and take a look.

So, with all the interesting parts of Magic Realm demanding that it be played - how does the game fail? I'm going to leave the epic rulebook out of this and presume you have someone to teach you the game or you're willing to undertake the learning of the rules.

Interestingly, many of the biggest drawbacks to Magic Realm are linked to the reasons that I like the game. I've tried to keep them in a similar order.

1) Many people required. Because of the interested cooperative/competitive nature of the game, a two player game simply isn't as interesting as an 8 player game would be1. This isn't to say that the game is unplayable with less people. I've played mostly with two or three players (plus solo play via Realmspeak). It works, but much of the interesting character interactions aren't as possible.

2) Deterministic Combat. Yes, I listed this as a benefit, but it's also a drawback. When combat is predetermined, some decisions becomes rote. The best example is that the two fastest characters in the game can run away from 95% of all monsters. For these characters, the game can turn into an exercise in running away. Obviously, this could be quite unsatisfactory2

3) Magic spells are weak. After learning the intricate and interesting system of casting spells, I looked at the spell lists and immediately thought "Wow, 3/4 of these are lame!". Many of the spells simply don't do very much, or don't last long enough to justify the in-game resources you will have to expend to cast the spell. The other 1/4 are blatantly the best spells in the game. This drawback is actually strongly linked to the next one, and if you change the general theme/goals of the game some of the marginal spells will become much more useful.

4a) Magic Realm is all Loot and Kill. Despite the detail put into the civilized lands, and the point based victory conditions, your goal upon starting a game of Magic Realm is to either a) go kill some monsters/humans or b) Find a treasure site and get all the treasure you can. Optionally, you can do both. For those who know the game, there is a poor Quest/Adventure system that offers some potential, but ultimately fails3. This focus on Loot and Kill (which isn't unique to Magic Realm) is particularly apparent due to all the detail lavished upon the spell lists and the civilized tiles. Magic Realm has a complete set of human dwellings and factions and the most you can do is trade goods and hire them to go kill and loot things with you4.

5) Finally, Too many optional systems. With such a rich and long history behind it, Magic Realm has plenty of official and unofficial options, variants, and more. Most of these are directly related to the drawbacks I've listed prior...
Here's the short list: Official Optional Combat rules (brings more die rolling and less determinism), Alternate Official Optional Combat rules (changes some percentages in the Official Optional Combat rules), Unofficial Book of Quests (changes victory conditions to a quest based system5, Official Optional Character Balance Changes, Unofficial Character Balance changes, Optional Weather rules, Unofficial Expansions6

That's too much. I just want to play the game, I don't want to have to play it six times in order to determine which optional rules are the best ones for me!

For myself, the optional rules are the worst drawback to Magic Realm. I'm forever wondering if I should implement the alternate combat rules, or the alternate character balance changes or what-have-you. It's especially bad because over half of the optional rules are in the main rulebook!

Ultimately, while optional rules are fine, they should be entirely optional modules (the weather system is a good example of this), not outright replacements of core game systems. The combat rules and the character balance changes are the core offenders here. I believe that when the third edition ruleset was put together they should have made the tough decisions to integrate and trim. As Magic Realm stands now, a newcomer faces almost thirty years of variants and options, many of which are present in the core rulebook.

For the record, I haven't used any of the optional rules. I still consider the Official Alternate optional combat rules, but no decision yet.

There you go. Personally, wrapping up the package that is Magic Realm, I'm still impressed. There are reasons that it is still interesting thirty years later, but many drawbacks that will keep it off of high-rotation in most game groups. I'm still committed to playing more games, but with less fervor than I felt three months ago.

I guess that means I'm not obsessed any longer.

I hear Call to Arms is coming out soon, I should break out Battlelore again...



1 No, I haven't played an 8 player game. I'd like to. I think. As always, when you get into a larger game, the chance of adding a very slow player to the game increases, plus, it's very hard to learn a game while playing with so many other people. First I must teach the game to 7 other people. Then I must get them all into one place at the same time.

2 and because this running away is sometimes exactly what a player wants to do, then it's a benefit. It's an odd situation. Sometimes deterministic combat/fleeing is great - at other times it feels boring and staid. I personally lean a little bit towards the "deterministic=benefit" argument, but convincing me otherwise wouldn't be too hard.

3 Some explanation: There are two 'quests' in the game, some people who desperately need some beer (take them to the inn) and some people who desperately need religion (take them to the chapel). These two quests are okay in concept, but provide minimal rewards, and (more importantly) rarely show up in the game. There is less than a one in six chance that they will show up each turn. First you must roll a six on the monster die, and then be located on the correct tile. With a larger game they would appear more often, but I've never had them show up in my smaller games.
The second "Adventures" consist of conflict between civilized groups - where the characters can take sides, earning the friendship of one or two groups of people in return for attacking other groups. These have exactly the same problems as the quests. They rarely appear, the rewards for undertaking the adventure is questionable, and finally, how heroic is it to take part in a war?

4 Or kill them and take their stuff.

5 I thought this had potential, but I was disappointed. While the .pdf of the Book of Quests is very well put together and obviously has a ton of love behind it, it is a sprawling epic of one game group's house rules over many many years. The quests start out interesting, but the later quests add up to three pages of setup, rules, and procedures that are specific to that quest only! And you are supposed to choose a different quest for each player! While the Books of Quests is an interesting jumping off point, it ultimately isn't unified enough to be easy to implement.

6 Whoops, that wasn't very short, was it?

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Our racing games

We have a few racing games (i.e. where you are involved in a race of something, as opposed to just racing to victory by building a civilisation or by filling your sheep station full of sheep). They are, alphabetically, Alan Jones Formula 1 Grand Prix Racing Game, Formula Dé and Um Reifenbreite. I am reasonable certain that I used to have Auto Racing, but that end up being locked in the boot of a car which I could no longer get open and the car ended up being traded for a slab of beer with the game still locked in the boot, so it doesn’t really count.

Alan Jones Formula 1 Grand Prix Racing Game is not terribly well known. Oh who am I kidding? I have registered all the plays, well actually the only play, on the Geek and we have the one and only registered copy. Melissa claims to have played this with me on our honeymoon, but she has to date steadfastly refused to play it again. It is card driven and has beginners and advanced rules. There is a single map, but the different teams have different strengths and slightly different rules apply for different “courses”. Maybe I can get Daughter the Elder interested again, although I think she prefers Formula Dé , if only for the different tracks and the dice.

We picked up Um Reifenbreite in an order from Germany, but haven’t got around to playing it yet. We have heard good things about it and based on our research should enjoy it.

I played an eight player game of Formula Dé as a try before you buy experience and liked it. I managed to then get the game and four expansion tracks 10th Anniversary, Montreal & Long Beach, Hockenheim & Zeltweg and Buenos-Aires & Barcelona. Unfortunately with a couple of exceptions most of the other tracks are very hard to come by these days.

This is another game that I have failed to get Melissa to play, although Daughter the Elder and I have played it quite a bit. She approves that I picked up an extra set of dice from French eBay so that we have our own set of dice each when playing now. She seems to prefer the faster tracks, so I suppose I need to pick up one of the US track packs.

While trawling through the geek a few weeks ago I found this thread talking about the downloadable computer version and the specific post that have linked to refers to a French forum where you can get the links for a version that works properly. There are two downloads, one for the base game and one for expansion tracks. Checking it, there are twenty four tracks available, so it is not the complete game, but quite close.

It has an online connection and single (or hot seat) player options. I haven’t really played around with the on-line stuff as it connects to French servers and to quote a friend’s uncle “I speak French like a Spanish cow”. The single player options are very good though.

You can pick any one of the twenty-four tracks and run one to ten cars in any combination of human or computer controlled. You can select to have a practice qualifying round or a one, two or three lap race. Choose your weather and tyre options, change the configuration of your car, select your pit or just select the defaults and start racing.

If you choose the qualifying round, remember that burning tyres equals penalties, so possibly it is worth downshifting and slowing down to avoid that potential penalty. You even get to watch the computer player doing their qualification round too.

For standard racing you click on the die representing the gear you want to be in and the result is rolled and then the computer shows you all the spots, both good and bad, where you can end up given your roll. Something that I didn’t realise for a while is that it doesn’t take into account using brakes as an option in the display. Brakes are under your control so if you don’t like the offered results you can choose to check off brake points to modify the result – which can certainly save the occasional disastrous overshooting of a corner.

In gear selection you can always go up or down one gear or stay in the same gear as the previous turn, downshifting is available assuming you have fuel and/or brake points to allow it. If you don’t have them then the gear options are restricted, which can be rather depressing as you scream up to a tight corner in sixth gear with no fuel left. When you mouse over the gear options the possible rolls and ending positions for your car are shown on the track as a guide to assist you in your gear choice risk benefit analysis.

The computer takes care of all the collision checks and debris on the track. Something that I have found that as you add extra players the amount of debris (and totalled cars) on the track increases quite drastically. With four or less cars the track usually remains relatively clean, but with a ten car race the track itself can become quite lethal by the second and third laps. I have seen corners where it is impossible to avoid hitting debris on the way through. With corners like that it is just a matter of time before your car itself just adds to the debris on the track :-(

Another nice feature of the computer game is that the longest path through a corner is specially marked on the track. At least I find it nice, others may consider it a cop-out to those who can’t be bother paying attention.

It has sound effects for rolling of the dice, pit stops, engines blow, collisions and shooting through corners. If you want a little Formula Dé fix with just you against the computer it plays very fast and there are lots of tracks available.

I think I have played through all the different available tracks now and updated my wishlist based on being able to play on the different tracks. It would probably also be worth somebody who wished to try before they buy the base game to give this a go if they don’t have a physical copy available in their group.

I have only noticed one bug so far. On one of the tracks, and I can’t remember which one it is now, the first corner is marked as a single stop corner. The computer player approaches as it as a one stop corner, gets into the corner and then suddenly acts as if it is a two stop corner. In practice this means you get ahead whilst the computer play does a lot drastic changing from fourth gear to first or second.

I recommend it. Now I should post this and see if I can convince Daughter the Elder to stop bugging me to use the computer and actually play one of the physical games!

Mmm meeples taste like…