Thursday, May 31, 2007

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

Poker Lessons with James Ernest

This past weekend in Missoula we had a science fiction convention called MisCon, organized by our very own CthulhuBob. (If you attend Origins, you will sometimes see Bob manning one section of that mile-long desk.) CthulhuBob invites guests from various sectors, usually an array of writers, artists, and game designers.

This year, the game designer was James Ernest. Several weeks ago, we were excited about the prospect of gaming with Mr. Ernest and his latest work, the Stonehenge Anthology Board Game (I should mention that this was a group project in which James Ernest, Richard Garfield, Bruno Faidutti, Richard Borg, and Mike Selinker designed very different games using the same components). Unfortunately, Stonehenge reached distributors during the MisCon weekend and not even James Ernest had a copy. Bad timing for us, but I'm glad it's now out.

We invited Mr. Ernest to do a signing at our vendor booth, which he accepted. At the appointed time, he showed up, and we all sat down around a table to play a game.

What game did we play, you ask? Kill Doctor Lucky? Gloria Mundi? Give Me the Brain!? In fact, we played perhaps the single favorite game of James Ernest, a game he did not invent: Texas Hold 'Em Poker.

This experience was brutally painful for me. Don't get me wrong; I had a ton of fun. But I became aware of just how little I can control myself while looking at small amounts of information.

Before I go on, I should say that we weren't playing for money. The game was stripped of a key component, like taking the doubling cube away from backgammon. I in no way am comparing this to a normal poker game in which monetary stakes matter. It was a game of information and control, and perhaps there was a little pride on the line.

Given all that, I learned some key lessons that apply to all of my gaming. The following are social lessons, easily forgotten in the realm of friendly gaming, but which became quite obvious to me in the poker game.

Lesson #1: There is a personality unique to the stresses of every game which comes to the surface.

In a game, you're on stage. How well you act can sometimes affect the outcome of the game. With everything stripped away in a poker game, I became aware of how uncomfortable I am with casual banter. I saw in myself a simple pattern: if I'm in a good position, I can relax and talk, and if I'm in a bad position, I tend to clam up. Breaking patterns like this can be a strategic edge.

Lesson #2: Hands can betray a wealth of information.

This was terrible. I did not know what to do with my hands. Sometimes I would throw in a chip even though I had put up the single blind we were playing with. Sometimes I would throw in another chip when the bet had come back to me, even though I hadn't intended to raise. This could be chalked up to beginner stuff, but I honestly think that it can be reduced to the fact that I couldn't control my hands. Before I knew it, I had betrayed my card hand with my actual hands.

This hand control made me think of other games. How many euros use cards? How often had I done similar things in all of my favorite games? And what am I doing with my hands in euros that use other mechanics?

Lesson #3: If I'm not watching other players, I'm depriving myself of valuable information.

Usually, I try to take account of other people, not just their actions. During the poker game, I just wasn't picking up on anything, and all the relevant tells fell below my radar. I suppose this can be rectified by folding and watching. Not so in most euros during which you participate most of the time, though I don't rule out watching people. Sometimes I get bogged down with my own plans that I don't set aside a bit of time to watch other players.

The above lessons are simple to be sure, made painfully obvious by a simple no-stakes game. I just wonder what would happen if I improved my poker game. Would my other gaming improve as well? So much control is necessary for an effective gaming presence. Calculations have their place, but what would one be without the other? Maybe you can get away with a lack of personal control in a game of open information, but it sure couldn't hurt.

James Ernest was in Missoula for the duration of MisCon. During that time, he came to the World Games of Montana booth a couple of times to play poker. He clearly knew what he was doing in the game while most of us blundered away. We all ended up with a couple of big wins, but how much of that did we deserve?

I have always been curious about poker and the skills necessary to play it. I am also curious about my fellow gamers who play poker. Does playing poker well help you in other games? Or do you take a solid approach to all gaming? How do you practice control at the gaming table (regardless of the game)? Have you ever lost a euro-game because of an unconscious disclosure of information?

Signing out.


Old Puzzler Q & A

Q: If my name SMATT were a cryptogram, how many different games could you spell?

A: Here are a few: CHESS, DVONN, FLUXX, CADOO.


New Fortnightly Puzzler

This is a personal story about a magician which will lead into the puzzler.

A friend once took me to see his uncle. His uncle loved magic tricks and jumped at the opportunity to show them off, especially to new people.

When I met him, it seemed we were opposites of sorts. I was a kid in high school; he was a husband and father of two. I wore a baseball cap to block the Texas sun; he wore nothing. I had baggy jeans; he wore shorts and a T-shirt. Somehow, he knew I was the perfect mark.

He had me sit down in a chair on the living room carpet. He then took a roll of paper towels and ripped off one sheet. He showed me both sides of his arms to demonstrate that he wasn't using any machine or apparatus.

He then started swinging his arms in front of me like a person mimicking a giant alligator. One arm would go high, and the other would go low. As he made this movement, he crumpled the paper towel and switched hands. Up and down the paper towel would travel, and smaller and smaller it became as he crumpled it. Finally, poof! It disappeared.

"Do you know where it went?" he asked. I shook my head. "Ok," he said, "I'll do it again." He repeated the trick. Again, the paper towel disappeared. Again, I didn't know what happened.

"Ok," he said, "This time, I'll make it easy on you." He then took the entire paper towel roll, a pretty hefty full roll, and did the same thing. Up and down it went in his alligator jaw pattern. Finally, and I kid you not, it disappeared right before my very eyes.

Can you guess how he was doing it?*

* I appreciate all guesses, but please don't post them. If you think you have the answer, write Thanks!

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Cities, Curses, and Churches

Last weekend I had the chance to participate at a friend’s “Game-a-thon”, a day of open gaming at his house where folks drop in when they can. I was able to stay for a few hours and had my choice of playing in a game of Shogun (the new version of Wallenstein) or playing several shorter games. I chose to play some shorter games, as I thought I would have more fun, and it would give me an opportunity to play with some folks I don’t get to play with as often.

First up was Saint Petersburg (Rio Grande Games). I enjoy this game immensely, although have been a tad burned out on it as I get to play it against the computer frequently using the freeware computer program (check out the WestPark Gamers web site to download it). The computer AI is not too bad, and I only win four player games about 1/3 of the time. I got lucky in the first Noble round, picking up the 18-cost noble that provided a steady income of 6 rubles and 3 victory points from then on out. Things continued to fall into place for me and I outpaced the rest of the group by about 20 or so points. The game ended very quickly with all the blue buildings coming out before people had very many nobles. I took advantage of the observatory to pick up a couple of extra nobles during the blue building rounds, and made sure to hold a noble upgrade or two in my hand even though I knew I wouldn’t be able to put them down until late in the game. All in all, I think my computer playing experience served me well, although I will also admit that I had some nice opportunities fall in my lap. If you haven’t played the game, I highly recommend it. It contains a strong “build-up” element requiring players to initially focus on income and then transition to victory points later in the game. At the same time it also offers a few distinct ways of obtaining victory points (focusing on buildings or nobles or a mixture of both). All this is combined in a quick-playing (roughly an hour) game that is simple to explain to new players (takes about 10minutes or less to get up and playing.) I highly recommend St. Petersburg to help casual boardgamers make the leap into the build-up or “snowball” style of boardgames.

The second game we played is a new one by Asmodee, Wicked Witches Way. It is a very lightweight game where players are all witches and are trying to win a race. The first player to finish the race earns a few bonus points while all the other witches gain points proportional to how close they are to the finish. However, winning the race is only part of the points, players can gain special cards that give bonus points at the end of the game (for having performed acrobatics during the race.) The game revolves around rolling a set of 9 dice in a cool little book-shaped box. Players examine the dice rolled which display various orange or black symbols. When a player is ready, they shut the box and then lay down their spell cards. Players have spell cards that match the symbols on the dice. The object is to play either one or more symbols that match the orange symbols showing on the dice or one or more symbols that match the black symbols on the dice. If a symbol appears as both an orange and a black, it should not be played. Once the book is shut (hiding the dice), players can take their time playing their cards. The book is then opened and players check their spell cards. Players move their witches forward one space for each correct symbol they match. If they make a mistake (by playing symbols that appeared as both orange and black, or a symbol that didn’t appear at all) then they don’t get to move. The player who closed the book gets to score their turn first, but if they make a mistake, they go back 2 spaces. To add some spice into the game, if a player manages to play ALL the correct orange or ALL the correct black dice, it is a “perfect spell” and a bonus is earned (as long as you are not the first-place witch). Matching all the orange dice gets you bonus 2 spaces on the track, and matching all the black dice lets you draw a special card for each die matched. These special cards give players one-time abilities such as replacing a card just before scoring them, earning additional time to reopen the book before having to lay down cards. These cards also contain the acrobatics bonus point cards, which earn a player points at the end of the game. As mentioned, the witch in first place does not get the bonus. At the end of each round, the witch(es) leading the race have a curse token placed next to them. They are then ineligible to earn any bonuses for matching all the orange or black dice. This is a handy little “hold back the leader” aspect of the game, but it is so strong that trying to always be in second place is often an important strategy.

Even though it was my first play of the game (we were all trying it for the first time), I managed to get out front and stay out front for most of the race. Unfortunately, that meant I earned very few of the perfect spell bonuses – especially the cool spell card ones for black dice. The race was a tight one with three of the four of us crossing the finish line in the last turn. Surprisingly, the only player to NOT finish the race had a stack of nice bonus point cards and won the game, presumably having performed very cool acrobatics on his broomstick along the way. Despite my loss, I enjoyed the game immensely and we clearly laughed much more at this game than any other played that day. It is a fun, lighthearted game fun for those who like games with quick-pattern matching and a tad bit of memorization. There is even room for a bit of strategy (like trying to mess with other player’s plans by closing the book early, etc…) I didn’t like the pick-on-the-leader aspect of the curse token. I felt it was too strong a penalty, but it was probably my own fault for remaining in the lead for so long… I fear it might lead to extreme “game-y” style of play where players purposely lose points in order to try to stay behind the leader and pick up extra black cards…

My third and final game (while the other players were still on their first game of Shogun…) was Pillars of the Earth (Mayfair Games). I had not played it before but had heard good things (as well as bad). I won’t describe the game in detail here, but I managed to take second place in my first play of the game (two of the other three players had played before). I would have taken first place, but the last turn I drew the “give all players one metal cube” event card and the first place player still had a need for another metal cube while I already had all I wanted. I made a mistake or two early in the game in buying too many masons early, but eventually did OK with purchases and pawn placement. We all started out very gold heavy and then three of us quickly ran low, while the fourth player had plenty of gold to spend, but never got a pawn drawn in the early rounds of bag-drawing. I have heard people complain about the vagrancies of the bag-drawing, but I think the whole idea of gold hoarding is designed to counter just sort a situation. If you save up some gold you can then pay when your pawn is drawn early to get some good things and/or craftsmen. If you have gold but aren’t drawn in the early pawn draws, then you can afford to spend gold to purchase one of the craftsmen available in the worker assignment phase. Sure, you may need to maneuver to go first in a round to get a chance at buying a craftsman, but that shouldn’t be too hard to recognize in advance in the mid-game. All in all, I felt the pawn-drawing mechanism was fairly balanced and didn’t need too many more tweaks. I felt the pawn-drawing pain in the last round, holding a “free pawn placement” card but not getting drawn until late in the round. However, it didn’t set me back much, as I mentioned before. I’m looking forward to trying this game again some day to work on further evaluations.

All in all, I had a good day of gaming, 3 games in about 4 hours. Meanwhile, my other friends managed to finish their game of Shogun in just under 4 hours. While I’d love to try a game of Shogun some time, I think I made the right choice.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

Family Game Night preparation

This Friday, we're holding our second "annual" Family Game Night at Biggie's school.

We're aiming to take fewer games this year, to try to reduce the game explaining and to get people playing the same games a few times, so they can talk about them later. We've also co-ordinated a game drive with a friendly internet game shop with a specialisation in children's and family games, with a percentage of all sales to be credited to the school to buy some games (probably to use in the out-of-school-hours-care room).

We have a few changes from the session we ran last year.

Based on advice from a friend, we're trying an earlier start. Last year, we ran 6-8pm or so; this year, we are running 4.30-7.30. That way, we hope to get the after-school crowd as well as parents collecting their children after work, and people who prefer to go home first. I'm a little dubious about how this will work, but we'll give it a go. We may get more teachers coming along to check the games out, which would be great.

This year, too, we have no "grown-up helpers" - just me, Fraser and the kids. This will definitely make things difficult, but Fraser and I have had long discussions about the ethics of taking adults who we only know through playing games every so often into the school. He thinks I'm paranoid, I agree but think school will be too. And there's not time to get working-with-children police checks processed, although that might not be a bad idea if we are going to do any other events. It's not that I mistrust people, just that I think it's wise to be seen to follow protocols.

This year, too, we will be taking Otto. That's probably the biggest risk as far as time and availability, but with my mother's health that's really our only option. She'll be happy to play Blink or Make 'n' Break, though she may be less happy to share those games with others.

Games we're definitely taking (these are also on the fundraiser list, so people can try them out and then fill in an order form if they want them) are listed below. I chose them based on availability, price (to a small extent) and age range - we want to make sure we have all primary school age groups covered, as well as adults.

  • Animal upon Animal

  • Apples to Apples Jr

  • Blink

  • Bohnanza

  • Carcassonne

  • Cartagena

  • Dancing Eggs

  • Halli Galli

  • Hey! That's My Fish!

  • Incan Gold

  • M is for Mouse

  • Make 'n' Break

  • Marrakesh

  • O Zoo le Mio

  • Pick Picknic

  • Sherlock

  • Spooky Stairs

  • Ticket to Ride

I'm also tempted to take a couple of others - Formula De was a big hit last year, but it really requires an adult volunteer. Pirates' Cove is another great one to demonstrate as it is so easy to pick up. Otto always enjoys playing Catch the Match, even by herself, so that should come along. And a family actually asked me, "Will you be able to bring the Settlers of Catan?" (of course!)

So what is left to be done this week?

  • Work with Biggie to write a 'speech' for morning assembly on Tuesday. I won't be able to go, so she will have to advertise the event herself.

  • Confirm the fundraiser order form with the game vendor

  • Pack all games securely and make sure they are all there

  • Re-play a couple that I've not played recently

  • Work out which games Biggie can teach by herself, and practise her 'patter'

  • Resist the urge to add more & more games to the pile!!!

When we set up, this time, the priority will be to set up some self-sustaining games on the tables. Once we get those started, our job becomes a whole lot simpler.

Have a great week!

Friday, May 25, 2007

A Game That Should Be Reprinted: Lowenherz

There were only four of us at the Appalachian Gamers meeting this week, and so we decided to play some games that seldom get to the table because they don’t play more than four. I requested Lowenherz, the 1997 Klaus Teuber game that was printed in the USA by Rio Grande Games. I had not played Lowernherz before and Ted Cheatham has raved about it.

I now agree with Ted. This is a great game. In fact, I hope that someday it gets reprinted.

Now, many of you probably know that a variant version of Lowenherz is still available. I am referring to Domaine, a Mayfair game that may actually have prettier pieces than the original Lowenherz. And after looking at Boardgamegeek, I can safely say that there are people who prefer Domaine to Lowenherz. And that’s fine. Maybe someday I will get a chance to play Domaine. But for now, Lowenherz has captured my imagination.

Let’s talk about what the games have in common. Both games are semi-abstract games of medieval conquest. Players try to enclose areas of the board with walls, and then score points for every square they’ve captured. Cities enclosed in your areas yield big bonus points.

Control of each area is indicated by the colored castles and knights inside it. Additional knights can be placed next to your castles and knights that are already on the board. But once placed, knights don’t move; this isn’t a true wargame.

Instead, a player can expand one of his enclosed kingdoms if his kingdom has more knights than an adjacent kingdom. This creeping expansion can slowly rob adjacent kingdoms of valuable victory points.

What are the differences between Lowenherz and Domaine? The biggest difference is how actions are taken. In Domaine, each player has a hand of action cards and can play one on his turn. A simple, clean mechanism with no conflict.

In Lowenherz, one card with three actions on it is drawn every turn. Players then try to claim one of the three actions, and conflicts arise when two or more players try to claim the same action on the card. These conflicts can be settled either with negotiation, or by an auction if players can’t reach an agreement. These conflicts and negotiations are often the most interesting part of the game. The one-card mechanism generates a lot of in-your-face confrontations.

The continuing process of building walls also generates conflict on the gameboard. At the start of the game, there are lots of wide open spaces, and players need not expand at someone else’s expense. But as the walls come up and kingdoms are formed, conflicts with your neighbors can no longer be avoided. Late-game expansion usually comes at someone’s expense.

There can be element of smack-the-leader to the game, but there are also some strategy cards that can make this syndrome counter-productive. When players are allowed to take a card, they get to search the deck for the card that they think will help them the most. Among these cards are ones that generate extra victory points at the end of the game. You can try to smack the leader, but if one player is squirreling away several victory point cards, you may not know the real leader is. In our game, I won because of hidden victory points.

Lowenherz is a smart strategy game for people who don’t mind tense struggles for power. Whenever we only have only four gamers at the table, I may ask to play Lowenherz.

And I hope someday to see it in print again.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror, Part One: A History and Ten Top Games

In my real life I work for Skotos Tech, an online gaming company that's increasingly becoming an online entertainment company. Our newest site, which I launched last week, is Xenagia, a community site all about fantasy, science fiction, and horror. Thus far we've got a forum and a book index, with plans to add reviews in a couple of weeks.

(And, if you're interested in the topics, please stop on by, as we're working hard to create a community, particularly on the forums.)

Because of my work on Xenagia, I've been largely immersed in these three genres over the last couple of weeks, and that's what led to this article, talking about science-fiction and fantasy (and to a lesser extent, horror) in gaming.

A Brief History

Fantasy and science-fiction have, of course, been around for quite some time. Frankenstein (1818) is often referenced as one of the earliest entrants to the genre, but it took until the 20th century for more regular publication to occur. H.P. Lovecraft was writing great pulp science-fiction/horror stories in the 1920s and 1930s, then Robert E. Howard's Conan appeared in 1932 and Fritz Leiber's Fafhrd and Gray Mouser appeared in 1940.

However it wasn't until the 1960s that genre fiction burst into the mass market, and that was thanks to J.R.R. Tolkien. His famous Lord of the Rings first appeared in Britain in 1954 and 1955 and received some slight attention. Then in the 1960s it appeared in the United States, first in an illegal edition from Ace Books, then in an authorized Ballantine Books edition.

It was that later Ballantine edition that was discovered en masse by the Baby Boomers. Suddenly "Frodo Lives!" pins popped up at anti-war demonstrations and at love-ins. Tolkien's books became a touchstone for the generation, and they were just a part of a burgeoning flock of science-fiction and fantasy publications that achieved wider success than their niche predecessors. Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land (1961) and the Lancer/Ace Conan books (1966-1977) were others that thus escaped into the mainstream.

The gaming field reacted to this in the 1970s when young designers brought up on these post-war science fiction and fantasy stories started creating games in their image. To that date all hobbyist game design in the United States had been centered on wargames. Now, however, a new game appeared that was more focused on individual characters and continuing games. That was Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson's Dungeons & Dragons (1973).

Gygax and Arneson weren't the only wargame publishers that had been moving toward fantasy and science-fiction publication. Newcomers like Metagaming Concepts and GDW, all influenced by the new cultural landscape of the 1960s, were edging into this area as well. Even older stalwart SPI was trying out genre games. However it was the success of D&D that would turn the whole hobbyist gaming industry on its ear, leading everyone to start publishing genre games in increasing numbers.

And that is what ultimately leads us today's gaming landscape, and its peculiar relationship to fantasy and science-fiction.

The Genres Today

In today's hobbyist gaming market there are broadly two types of games.

The Anglo-American designs ultimately derive from those wargaming and roleplaying origins. Today most Anglo-American board game publishers--including names such as Steve Jackson Games, Atlas Games, Fantasy Flight Games, and Wizards of the Coast (through Hasbro's Avalon Hill imprint)--were originally RPG publishers. The designers' ideas about game design are thus usually based on decades of American hobbyist publications. Because of those origins, they also tend toward the science-fiction and fantasy themes. As I've written elsewhere Anglo-America games are usually theme-heavy and mechanics-light. The games often lean toward the simulationistic, giving up simplicity for realism.

The German designs, meanwhile, derive ultimately (I think) from the SdJ, Germany's game of the year award. Thanks to powerful economic incentives the SdJ has encouraged a very specific type of game design which is generally lighter and more casual--and which typically has better designed and more carefully considered mechanics but less theming. And, the German games have typically avoided science-fiction and fantasy themes, partially because of their orientation toward the mass (German) market and partially because they don't have the historical origins in those genres than the Anglo-American hobbyist market does.

And from those two core types of games spawn a third: the hybrids. These are games published in countries other than the United States, Britain, or Germany. Without the institutional rules set by historical precedent, they're more able to pick and choose among the two major design schools. Thus games coming out of France and Italy in particular have been more free to use fantasy and science-fiction themes, but with abstract and polished Germanic mechanics. Increasingly American companies are also moving in this direction, with games from Atlas and Fantasy Flight in particular showing German design influence matched with more American themes.

And with that overview out of the way, let me briefly mention my top ten fantasy, science-fiction, and horror games, with some attention paid to where they came from.

Fantasy Games

I expected to have troubles coming up with top-rate fantasy games, but as it turns out there are a number that I was able to name without regrets. Fantasy Flight's superb wargame A Game of Thrones probably belongs here too, but I've instead given the space over to the more fantastical offerings. Fairy Tale and Dragon's Gold are two games that just barely missed my cut off for this list.

Descent. Anglo-American design, Fantasy Flight Games. A member of the "adventure game" genre, which has traditionally presented board games that are very similar to roleplaying games, thanks to the play of individual characters. Descent is quite simply the best of class. Each game you push your characters through a dungeon while the gamemaster throws monsters at you. If you can accomplish the goals, you win. It's a bit on the long-side, but has superb mechanics and ever better theming.

Dungeon Twister. Hybrid French design, Asmodee Editions. My favorite game from its year of publication, and one I'd play a lot more if I had more 2-player game opportunities. An excellent tactical game that's based on the careful allocation of resources as you try and kill your opponents' characters and get your own through the dungeon. On the other hand also wonderfully themed, thanks to the colorful characters and great art that you can expect from Asmodee. Really shows off the benefits of hybridized game design. [ Reviews ]

Grand Tribunal. Hybrid Anglo-American design, Atlas Games. I include this game primarily because you probably haven't heard of it, and it's worth some attention. Based on Atlas' superb Ars Magica RPG, Grand Tribunal is a Princes of Florence-like resource-management game where you're constantly trying to create the best magic items. It's got some American take-that play, but also some solid core mechanics. [ Review ]

Lord of the Rings. German design, Fantasy Flight. The smartest move Sophisticated Games made after getting the Lord of the Rings license was signing up Reiner Knizia to design some of their games. I'm talking here primarily about Knizia's superb cooperative board game which is probably the best game of its sort on the market, and which is always tight, tough, and heartbreaking. Every one of its three supplements is good too. [ Reviews ]

Wiz-War. Anglo-American design, Chessex. This is an entirely old school design which is fun because it's chaotic and surprising, not because the mechanics are particularly good. You're a wizard in a dungeon. You have two treasures. So does every other player/wizard. If you can get two other treasures to your home base, you win. The game can last for hours or minutes, which is another deficit, but there's still nothing like playing a double-double-strength sudden death on an opponent without defenses. Long, long out of print but Chessex swears they're going to have their full-color new edition out any day now; they've been saying that for about a decade, however. (Perhaps stupidly, I'm pretty sure they're really close this time.)

Science-Fiction Games

Though high-quality fantasy games are well-represented, I can't say the same of science-fiction. The following games are all good, but none of them reach the heights of Descent, Dungeon Twister, and Lord of the Rings, which are all superb exemplars of the fantasy genre. I know some people would include Starship Catan and Spacefarers of Catan in this listing, but they've generally struck me as too long and some of the weaker members of the Catan franchise, and don't rate as high for me as anything included below.

Blue Moon & Blue Moon City. German design, Fantasy Flight Games. Are they really science fiction? Probably not, but given the good science-fiction games are pretty slim pickings, I've included them here. At the least they're science fantasy, that amorphous blend of genre that lies somewhere between the one and the other. Though distinct games, Blue Moon and Blue Moon City share a setting, and Reiner Knizia did a great job on both designs, really highlighting the alien races and making them unique and interesting. Blue Moon is a good 2-player CCG-like game, while Blue Moon City is a great resource-management game. [ Reviews ]

Diceland. Anglo-American design, Cheapass Games. Here's another one that I'm betting not many people have seen. This is a game played with huge 12-sided cardboard dice that you toss around the table in an effort to destroy your opponents' pieces. It's largely dexterity based and has some very clever mechanisms. [ Reviews ]

Light Speed. Anglo-American design, Cheapass Games. There's almost nothing to this 5-10 minute game of rapid card placement. You try and play your cards in such a way as to blow up enemy ships and keep yourself protected. However, it's fast and original, and it has spaceships on the cards. [ Review ]

Mission: Red Planet.
Hybrid French design, Asmodee Editions. Another good design from Asmodee, clearly showing that they're willing to put out lots of genre games, where German companies haven't been. This is majority-control with a few twists and goes into my "one-hour El Grande" category. Terrific design, and fun steampunk theming. [ Review ]

Horror Games

Just as there was a step-down from fantasy to science-fiction in number and quality of games, I think the same is true from science-fiction to horror. I almost left this category blank entirely. I know some people would include Betrayal at House on the Hill (which I find entirely random and poorly produced) and Fury of Dracula (which I've never played due to length). Beyond that, there isn't a lot exciting in horror, though I've played some cute themed card games, and any number of amusing (but not well-designed) Lovecraftian games.

Arkham Horror. Anglo-American design, Fantasy Flight Games. And my sole entrant in horror is actually Lovecraftian too, specifically Fantasy Flight's second edition of Richard Launius' Call of Cthulhu board game. Kevin Wilson did a great job in this new edition of making the game more evocative and colorful and generally improved the design as well. Though the game is loooong my RPG group has always enjoyed playing it. [ Reviews, including some other Cthulhu games ]


If you disagree or think I missed the best f/sf/h game ever, the comment link should be right below ...

Monday, May 21, 2007

Heads down, heads up.

I finished a game of Through the Ages recently, and in the post-game debriefing, one of the players said that they thought that they were done with the game because TtA was too much of a 'heads down' game. Where time seems to spin and warp, resulting in a feeling of disconnection - not only with the outside world, but also with the other players.1

At first I was taken aback - you mean that's a bad thing? But the longer 2 I thought about it, the more I can see where he was coming from. If a game draws you into your personal planning too much - it can cease being a game and become more like a puzzle - at which point the non-puzzle inclined will enjoy the game less.

A common complaint about some of the longer, more detailed games is the propensity for solitare play. Not outright solitare, but an odd mutated form of solitare where interaction with the other players occurs, but ultimately doesn't have as much an impact on your play as your own strategy and long-term planning.

A game I highly enjoy - Roads and Boats, epitomizes part of this complaint. There is plenty of interaction in Roads and Boats 3, but ultimately your own optimization of routes, deliveries, and production will have a greater effect on the final standings than interplayer decisions and contests.

Back over to TtA 4, this game also relies on personal optimization and decisionmaking - with a small bit of player-smacking to keep players honest. Ultimately this reliance on personal optimization does create a game that encourages 'heads down' play.

So we have 'heads down' play.

At the other extreme is 'heads up' play - perhaps epitomized by Modern Art - where every playing is constantly engaged with the other players. 5

Heads up play often isn't very contemplative. You don't have time to puzzle out a tricky valuation, or internally debate the relative merits of a temple placed in hex A or hex B. You might think you have time to decide, but often the game, or players won't allow it.

Of course, like life, most games fall halfway in-between the heads up and heads down spectrum. Wolfgang Kramer's action point games reward both personal planning as well as reactionary defense and attack moves against other player's pieces.

Mostly, I think it's important not to confuse the concept of heads up/down with game weight.

Heads down appeals more to puzzlers, and Heads up to players who find the optimization distracting enough to stop them from watching what the other players are doing. This is probably the biggest complaint about a 'solitare' game - that the game causes players to miss what the other players are doing, which takes away from the group dynamic.

I've used heads down and heads up because that's what started me thinking about this spectrum of games. Perhaps a better set of terms would be internal/external.

That is all.


1 I am actually paraphrasing here.

2 Days, almost a week, not seconds. Sometimes I'm not a quick thinker.

3 Enough interaction to foster long term grudges, and frantic wall building and blockading. Roads and Boats must not only undergo labels such as "multi-player solitare", but also can fall squarely into the "let's you and him fight so that I win" camp.

4 Where player interaction is entirely focused on smacking the player with the least military. Which is often the player who is doing best in non-military, point-generating, game winning stuff, but not always.

5 In modern art, tracking not only the current painting up for auction, bidding on said painting, tracking who is bidding on said painting, what people are willing to pay for said painting, and what players have purchased so far this round. Personal strategy loses to groupthink and interplayer reactivity every single time. except for the 'I'm not buying anything strategy'. Which just loses.

Recently played: Himalaya, Drive, Tichu, Starship Troopers, Hansa

Saturday, May 19, 2007

An autumn evening at Gamers@Dockers

Gamers@Dockers is the gaming group that dacoutts, Reggy and myself founded around two years ago, handily situated at the building where we worked at the time. Two of us are still with the organisation, but only one of us still works in the building. We started fortnightly (that’s once every two weeks for those places unused to the f word) and moved weekly a few months later. We were up to about twenty a fortnight and after the initial move to weekly numbers dropped to about a dozen or so a week, but are now back to above twenty each week.

I should point out that the website is rarely updated anymore, but it still holds the important location and contact details. Discussion of what is likely to be played and by whom is usually done at Melbourne Gamers or via our mailing group.

Originally games played at Gamers@Dockers where primarily Euros, but as people realised that they had anything upto seven or more hours if they started on time, or didn’t need to be at work early on Friday morning, longer and more varied games were played.

I could say that this was an ordinary night at Gamers@Dockers, but that is not entirely true. The Tichu tournament was coming to a close and the Combat Commander: Europe tournament was still in full swing.

In between my games that night (Thursday 10-May-2007) I went around attempting to record everything that was played. Unlike some clubs we have no uberstats person who keeps a record of everything played.

I logged a total of twenty-four people present for the evening, well over half of whom have have BGG accounts.

The games played, in no particular order, were:

Expedition. I played this at Dockers ages ago and quite liked it.

Combat Commander: Europe As mentioned above the tournament was in progress and I counted four different games of this played over the evening.

San Juan A couple of the Tichu tournament players were waiting for another game to finish so played this with a couple of other people as a filler.

Carcassonne Possibly being played as a warm up for the tournament in Albury next month.

Polarity Unfortunately I didn’t get to see this played. I saw a bit of a game previously and it was fun to watch.

Fire and Axe. I thought this was new game, but it has a date of 2004! Perhaps that’s the date of the original version. I do believe that Mr Skeletor wrote this session up over at F:AT

Tichu, the last three games of the tournament plus one just for fun.

Reef Encounter, a learning game as I don’t think any of the players had played it before. Using the Z-Man games edition.

Robo Rally Played twice. The first game was with six or seven players and went quite a while. The second game was with only four.

Guildford, the Eutaw Springs map or scenario. I only saw the name Eutaw Springs on the map, so it actually took a bit of investigation to track down the real name for this game.

Texas Holdem, about four hands waiting for the last Tichu tournament game to start. We used Tichu cards (the spare deck) and the Dealer button and chips from my copy of Vegas Showdown.

Settlers of Catan Remember people decide if you are going to play the rules as written in the set you have on the table or the more modern tournament rules before you start playing.

Tutankhamen I haven’t seen a copy of this for about a year or more.

Bug Bluff Mr Skeletor seems to be a fan of, and quite good at, this. I haven’t played it myself.

Under the Lilly Banners Ben insisted that this was really called Musket and Pike, but that’s not what is written on the box is it Ben?

There was quite a range of games on the tables, slightly influenced by the two tournaments running, but it would not be unusual to see either of the tournament games hitting the table once or twice on a normal evening at Gamers@Dockers anyway. Looking back over the list I would say the surprise omission would be Power Grid

Mmm meeples taste like…

Friday, May 18, 2007

Future Family Games and Lord of the Rings Battlefields

I can always find an excuse for buying a game, even if it is a game that I might not be playing anytime soon. I can justify buying monster war games that I won’t be playing with the Appalachian Gamers by telling myself that these are retirement games I will play when I have a room where I can leave a game set up for weeks.

But I’ve noticed another excuse creeping into my head recently. I’ve been telling myself that certain games are ones that I will be playing with my daughters when they are older. I have daydreams about dull rainy weekend afternoons suddenly enlivened when I pull some board games off the shelf.

Although I can steer my daguhters’ interest toward games, I have no idea what kind of games they will like five or six years from now when they are old enough to play the simpler adult games. They like dinosaurs now, but I find it difficult to believe that they will be clamoring for dinosaur games half a decade from now.

My best guess is that they are most likely to enjoy the same novice-friendly Euro-games that I show to my non-gamer friends. Games like Ticket to Ride, Settlers of Catan, Alhambra, Around the World in 80 Days, or Pillars of the Earth. I tend to enjoy games a little heavier than these, but I’ve had success bringing some of these games out when non-gamers are around.

My most recent purchase that prompted my gaming-with-daughters excuse was Reiner Knizia’s latest expansion of his Lord of the Rings game. That is, Lord of the Rings Battlefields. In case you’ve missed it, Lord of the Rings is a cooperative game in which the players operate as a team of hobbits trying to make it to Mordor to destroy the evil ring. The cooperative aspect of the game appeals to me because I suspect that winning or losing as a group might prove more enjoyable than having a winning daughter lording it over a losing one.

Lord of the Rings now has three separate expansions that make the game more difficult and more complicated. I can easily imagine playing the basic game with my daughters when they are twelve or thirteen, and then adding the expansions after they master the basic game.

I did get to play one game using the Battlefields expansion with the Appalachian Gamers. As others have noted, the expansion could justly have been titled Lord the Rings Flowcharts because of the way the expansion gameboards channel the movement of the forces of evil. But that didn’t bother me; the rest of the game is also a fairly abstract version of the toils of Frodo.

As I suspected, Battlefields increased the difficulty of the game. Substantially. Our party of four hobbits lost two members before arriving in Mordor. We stopped playing at that point because it was clear that the surviving members would only travel a few feet toward Mount Doom before being corrupted and killed.

It is possible that the next time I play this game will be with my daughters many years from now. But one thing bothers me. My eldest daughter runs and hides whenever I play the movie version of Lord of the Rings on TV and Gollum makes an appearance.

But if her love of dinosaurs is likely to fade, won’t her fear of Smeagol likewise disappear?

I won’t know for years.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

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

A Filler for Fillers?

I just recently learned the Thumbs Up game. Originating in Japan, it's something akin to Rock-Paper-Scissors. Both use simultaneous revelation as the main driving force, but there's something else going on in the Thumbs Up game that I think gamers will enjoy.

Two to three people form a circle (you could add more but it gets a little out of control), and one is elected leader. Like in many Euros, the leader will switch in clockwise fashion.

All players stick out two closed fists in front of them. The goal is to get both hands behind your back during the course of the game.

On a count of "one, two, three," all players, including the leader, stick up two, one, or zero thumbs. The leader, instead of saying "three" will instead guess out loud how many total thumbs will be showing. If the leader is correct, he or she puts one hand behind his or her back. If incorrect, the role of leader goes to the next person clockwise.

One more important rule: if the leader guesses zero and is correct, the leader wins outright.

I've really enjoyed the Thumbs Up game. It usually takes less than a minute to play, and by the end, we're usually chuckling and congratulating the winner. I've tried four players, and that seemed like more than the game could handle. Two and three player games are fun, fast, and harmless. Could this be a filler between fillers?

All players choose between the same three options, so as leader, you're trying to figure out who is more likely to go for all, none, or half of their thumbs. Usually this depends on what moves the other players did last. What kind of player would change? What kind of player will stay the same? You'll never really know when you make your guess, but it's still fun to try.

Usually, simultaneous revelation is so hit-or-miss for me. The choose-your-island mechanic of Pirate's Cove is tiresome, yet the Castillo scoring in El Grande is really exciting. There's got to be some leverage or enough relevant information for the mechanic to work well.

Though simple, I think the Thumbs Up game does a good job with simultaneous revelation. Because you know your own input, it's not quite as random as Rock-Paper-Scissors, but every game is still "anybody's game." While still a fan of a quick "best of five" game of Rock-Paper-Scissors, I think the Thumbs Up game makes for a nice change.


Old Puzzler Q & A

Q: I'm thinking of a game. Drop every double letter (touching or not) from the game's title. You're left with the following letters R, O, and E (in that order). What's the game?


I made a reference to a line of asterisks which equaled the number of letters in the game's name (11). I separated the two in case anyone wanted to try and solve the puzzler without the aid of knowing how many letters.


New Fortnightly Puzzler

Imagine my name SMATT was a cryptogram for the name of a game. Standard rules apply: each letter in my name equals another in the English alphabet.

I can name three different solutions. Can you name more?*

*I appreciate all responses, but please do not post your answers on the blog. If you'd like to respond, please feel free to email Thanks!

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Taking it like a Viking

I got a chance to play Fire and Axe (by Asmodee) the other day and had a good time. Now, I’m not one to eschew a luck factor in my shorter-length games, but I had heard that this one might have a bit too much luck for some folks’ taste. Some have gone as far as suggesting a few house rules to help mitigate poor rolls. In particular, when trying to raid a village a die is rolled up to 3 times in succession in order to loot the village or town. Rolling pooly and losing three crewmembers by failing all three rolls can be a frustrating situation, especially if the probability of success was high. One suggestion to correct this is to add a +1 for each successive roll. Since it was my first game, I wasn’t ready to adjust the rules quite so much, but thought perhaps the last roll (of 3) could get a +1 just as a thank-you-for-playing parting gift…

We got into the game and started playing and one of my opponent’s proceeded to begin failing a raid. After two missed rolls, I pointed out the house rule that I thought might help his situation (adding +1 to the last roll). He quickly pointed out that this is a game about Vikings and no stinking Viking worth his pelts would be caught dead with a wimpy sort of rule like that. He was going to “take it like a Viking” and didn’t need any special accommodations. He rolled (and failed if you’re curious – adding +1 wouldn’t have helped anyway) and that was the end of that possible house rule.

The game proceeded on and good and bad luck was had by all. While some people had things roll their way more than others, I decided this was by no means a luck-fest. There was plenty of room in the game for solid strategy and planning. Once it has been played through a few times and people get to know the cards, there might even be occasions for lying low and waiting for particular things to show up. I may be slightly clouded in my judgment, since I ended up winning, but I felt the game was quite fun. I did have my fair share of poor die rolls near the beginning, but had fewer near the end when it was perhaps more important. Rolls I missed early and thought were crucial weren’t as important as ones I rolled well on near the end of the game. This also helped me as I was a smaller threat at the start of the game and was able to catch up rather than trying to continue to fight for the lead.

The game took over two hours to play with four players but should go under two now that we all know the rules. While a tad long, that is an acceptable length for a game that has one’s fortunes tied to the vagaries of dice. Now that I have had a chance to reflect on the game, I have to acknowledge that I don’t mind the luck-factor at all, even without the house rules. One reason is the theme of the game. Sea voyages and plundering villages are risky propositions (as is creating new settlements or trading – all actions that can be performed within the game). Vikings were no strangers to risk, and if I’m going to play a game about Vikings, I don’t mind taking a few chances myself.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Road Tripping

I haven't played any games this week. I'm madly busy with work, and this weekend we took my dad away for his cousin's fortieth wedding anniversary.

A road trip is fun.
A road trip with two children can be fun, you just have to work harder.
A road trip with five people - including two children - in one Subaru Outback is more of a challenge. Especially when the first 30 km or so go really, really slowly, and you don't arrive until after 10pm, so the 4 hour road trip takes 5 1/2 hours.

We hadn't visited the Swan Hill region before. It's north-west of Melbourne, on the border of New South Wales, and is primarily a fruit-growing region.

But fruit wasn't the main point of interest. There was a big family event on Saturday night, and during the days we visited both local museums - the Pioneer Settlement was a great recreation of life in the 1830s through 1930s, with absolutely picturesque scenery as well as a 105-year-old paddlesteamer that we took a ride on.

The highlight, though, because it was so different to anything I had seen before, was our visit this morning to the Catalina Flying Boat Museum (No. 1 Flying Boat Repair Depot) at Lake Boga.

To anyone who knows that part of Australia, the idea of putting a flying boat repair depot in the middle of that rural area seems insane - but the idea was to hide the boats and keep them and the depot safe from enemy bombing.

Anyway, games. That's what I'm meant to be blogging about.

I've done some research, but my extensive googling has only thrown up two games that involve flying boats/catalinas:

Are there others?

More game content next time, I promise.



Friday, May 11, 2007

Minimal Luck, Maximum Strategy

Last night I played only two games at our weekly Appalachian Gamers meeting, but it was a satisfying evening none the less. This was because both games were ones that I had never experienced before, and both were minimal-luck games that rewarded smart play. The games were Medina and End of the Triumvirate.

I would call Medina a tile-laying game except that the game uses wooden pieces instead of tiles. In this four-player game, players place colored building pieces on the board in the hope of constructing and claiming clusters of adjacent building pieces. Each player can only place two pieces per turn, and colored building pieces can only be placed next to pieces of the same color until after any particular group of buildings of the same color is claimed. Once a building is claimed, no more pieces of that color can be added to it.

When to claim the buildings is key. If you claim one too early, it will likely be a low scoring building. If you wait too long, then someone else will likely claim it. Because each player can only claim one building of each color, one possible strategy is to wait until all the other players have buildings of one color, and then build up your own building of that color knowing that no one else can claim it. But that strategy has its own risks; buildings that get a late start may get hemmed in by other buildings and be unable to grow.

Adding to the strategy are various victory point tiles that can be claimed. The largest building of each color generates a victory point tile for the owner of that building. And there are extra victory tiles for players who use walls to connect their buildings to the towers in the corner of the board.

I am not a big fan of tile-laying games, but Medina is an exception. It is smart, plays in about an hour or so, and is completely luckless. Medina was designed by Stefan Dorra and was published in the USA by Rio Grande Games. I believe Medina is out of print, but I will be keeping my eye out for a copy.

End of the Triumvirate was designed by Max Gabian and Johannes Ackva, and was published in the USA by Z-Man Games. This is a light wargame based on the rivalry between Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus in the final years of the Roman Republic. The game rewrites history a good deal, because Crassus was actually dead when the Roman Civil War heated up between Caesar and Pompey, but this is a minor quibble. The game was designed to be a smart and easy-playing contest, not a detailed history simulation.

Each turn players collect gold and legions in their various provinces. Gold is only placed in a player’s treasury if he has his leader piece in the region producing the gold. Gold in other regions is placed on the board—which means that players usually spend at least part of their movement allowance moving their leaders to pick up any spare change that happens to be resting in odd corners of the Roman empire.

Legions can only be moved with a leader piece. This limitation keeps the game simple; each turn a player only needs to figure out what to do with the four movement points that his leader is allowed. At the end of the turn, players can try to influence the politics of the empire by spending gold. Players can improve their leadership on the political and military tracks, or try to win citizens to their faction by spending money.

One game-balancing mechanism is the multiple ways of achieving victory. A player wins if he is elected Consul twice, or if he can bring his markers to the last space of the political and military competency tracks, or if he can capture nine regions and place all of his nine governors on the board. The multiple victory conditions means that one player may be leading in one area while other players are superior in others. In our game, I controlled more regions than other players for much of the game, but Ted and Travis were each elected consul once, and Travis built up the largest horde of armies. This superiority in legions eventually won Travis the game. On my last turn, I attacked Ted to knock him back on the competency tracks, but Travis then blitzed enough weakened regions to achieve military victory.

End of the Triumvirate is not entirely a luckless game, but it contains so many balancing mechanisms that luck plays a minor role. During battles, the attacker draws colored cubes from a draw bag, and each colored cube can indicate the loss of a legion for the opposing player. But when players lose a battle, they get to place a new cube in the bag, and this makes future victories in battle more likely.

End of the Triumvirate will appeal to wargamers, but it is simple and fast-playing enough to be enjoyed by Euro-gamers as well. Ted Cheatham (who owns the copy we played) is not a wargamer, but he finds the game enjoyable.

If you have the opportunity to try either Medina or End of the Triumvirate, I would advise you to do so. Both are quality games.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Burning Freeways and Blind Bids! (Or: Real Life Auctions)

A week and a half ago a major interchange in the California Bay Area literally melted in a hellish inferno. Following a single-vehicle tanker truck crash, over eight thousand gallons of gasoline lit on fire, resulting in temperatures in excess of 2750° bathing the freeway. The metal frames holding the I-580 overpass together began to warp, and then one segment of the overpass came down in a thundering crash.

As part of the infamous MacArthur Maze (which I pass through every week on a BART train on my way to EndGame and back), the I-580 overpass was a central part of the road system which moved traffic between the East Bay and San Francisco, and suddenly it was gone. Dire predictions were made on the effects on traffic. Thus far, it's apparently been bad, but not terrible thanks to Bay Area companies' willingness to allow employees to telecommute and our decent public transit system.

Nonetheless, the I-580 overpass needs to rebuild and quickly. How can you find the company that could do it the quickest and cheapest? The answer was ... an auction.

Last week Caltrans gave nine construction companies the opportunity to bid on the reconstruction. A bid contract of this type used to be pretty common for government projects in the days before the Bush Administration, and thus isn't really that unusual in itself. As does any good auctioneer, Caltrans also set an expectation: that the total cost should be about $5.2 million dollars.

However, Caltrans also did something unusual: they introduced a very notable time-based kicker. They set the deadline for the work to be June 29, and offered a $200,000 bonus for every day the work finished early, else a $200,000 penalty for every day it finished late.

This Monday the bids came in and the winner was a bid for ... $867,075, which is to say an amazing 17% of Caltrans' cost estimate. The difference was, of course, in that $200,000 a day bonus.

Gaming Caltrans

As a major auction, played out on the local stage, the entire I-580 bid is interesting in itself. We may regularly play games that have auctions at their heart, but they're an important mechanic in real life too ... and sometimes by looking at those real life auctions we can come right back to game design.

To be precise, Caltrans offered a simple sealed auction, with the winner being the low bidder because it was a cost. This in itself is a wide difference from most board game auctions, which tend to use auctions to value goods (high) rather than to cost services (low). The outcome is probably the same, involving a comparison of outlay to return, but I'm surprised more games don't go in this contrary direction just to be different than the Joneses.

As I noted Caltrans cleverly put the expectation out there for what the project should cost. This is a trick also often used by real estate agents, who not only having "asking" prices for the homes they sell, but also tend to quietly mention to buyers how many other people are bidding (and thus "10 other buyers" might be code for "asking price plus $100,000", at least here in the Bay Area).

You tend to see it in games as a minimum bid. Wolfgang Kramer's new Colosseum, which I just played for the first time last week, is an example of a game featuring such a minimum. These minimums tend to tighten up auctions by getting rid of all of the irrelevent bidding at the start, but they also make sure that everyone is bidding in the right ballpark, and thus you don't tend to have quite as lucky of a buyer or a seller--which could otherwise entirely offbalance a game.

And finally we come back to that kicker of $200,000 a day. This is something that I definitely haven't seen in games, and I think it's the thing that could be more interestingly introduced to a game.

Whenever you're playing a good auction game there tends to be some element of risk. You're usually trying to make an adroit guess at the future value of merchandise. Modern Art is one of the most prototypical examples, with people constantly counting possibilities.

("Well, this is the third piece of art out for this painter, so it'll probably place first, but could place second. At first it's worth $50 and at second it's worth $40. Since the next person is also collecting the same artist, they may want to push it to closure, so I'll bet on the $50 valuation, and thus I'll offer an overly generous $40 for it.")

However the I-580 auction game takes things a step further and instead forces the bidders to bet against not future returns, but instead future resource allocation:

("Well, I don't have sufficient workers now, but if I win a worker auction next turn, I'll be able to get them into place just as the steel arrives, though that also requires me to make sure the steel pipelines are open, but given those two elements, we might be able to bring it in a full 30 days under schedule which would give us a $6 million bonus.)

One of the reasons that I find this mechanic interesting is that it could notably define a player's strategy as a game progresses, giving him real goals: benchmarks for success and possibilities for failure.

And it's those successes and failures that make games fun.

So how about someone go and design a kicker-services-auction game?

Monday, May 07, 2007

Current trends

I spent half of last night playing the 1830's PA map of age of steam. I solidered on to the end, but some early decisions left me clinging valiently to solvency, only to drop negative in the final turn. A crushing defeat, but the map was interesting enough to pique my interest in another go1. But certainly not right away.

This is in stark contrast to another recent game, Rutger Dorn's Arkadia, which we finished after a little over an hour and immediately jumped back in for a second game. This brings me around to what I wanted to point out - The current trend towards shorter heavy games. 2007 domestic2 releases have highlighted a number of strong 60 minuteish games that pack a fair amount of weight into their shorter game length. Compared directly to the heavier releases of the past couple of years, there are more options for heavy 60 minute games than there were last year at this time.

I'm not one to shy away from game length. I like 2-3 hour games. Caylus was only too long the first time played3. Age of steam remains a favorite, with a plethora of map options, most weighing in under 3 hours. But the fact remains that the majority of games that allow for strong development and long-term planning are 90+ minutes.

Arkadia, tasting somewhat reminiscent of Acquire, excited me because of the quick decision to "play it again". That hasn't happened for quite awhile in any of my gaming circles4, so it's nice to see a game that not only inspires immediate interest, but also *allows* for immediate replay without overstaying its welcome. Taluva and Ur are two other recent releases that have a similar time/strategy feel. Ticket to Ride5 can also sometimes muster up the challenge and enjoyment for "just one more game"...

I like the mighty awe that epic games6 inspire, but the fevered desire to try a game again - immediately - is also inspiring. Here's hoping that these games continue to crop up...



1 Something that isn't as true for the other side of the map, Northern California, which is also a harsh tight map, which left me panting and not actually wanting to play the map again for a long long time. I appreciated it, especially since it represents my home environs, but it wasn't inspiring.

2 By domestic, I mean the US, in my very US-centric fashion. Sorry Australia.

3 Though Caylus quickly went from a 2-4 hour game to a 1-2 hour game, which makes a big difference.

4 Ah, years of gaming bring on the jaded gamers. We all remember early on, when we first found a game we really loved - be it Settlers, or Tigris, or Acquire, or Talisman, or Cosmic, or... and you just had to play it again, and again. It's been a reoccurring theme for me over the past 12 months - the lack of group drive to really dive deeply into a complex game, play it repeatedly, and make it give up all its secrets.

5 Which certainly doesn't qualify as an old game in my book. It's barely three years old. A newbie! But it established itself so completely and so strongly, that now it qualifies as a classic. But it's really still a youngster. Barely into it's twenties. er. fours.

6Whatever your definition of Epic. Choose one that fits.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Game things I learnt playing games yesterday

Some people can push their luck much more than others

In Gopher It! there are three sorts of food cards you can draw. Each one has one, two or three food items. You can draw up to four cards, however if you draw two of the same type of food consecutively you turn is immediately over and you have to discard any cards you picked up that turn. If you get no repeats, or stop before you do, you can put the food in your larder. If you get exactly six of items of one sort of food, you empty your larder for a Gopher Trophy. The first person to three trophies is the winner.

I was playing this with Daughter the Younger and she was consistently picking up four cards and very rarely getting a repeat card. It seemed like about half the time I was getting a repeat as my second card, the other half of the time it was usually the third of fourth card that was the repeat.

Thus Daughter the Younger won her first trophy and I still have a completely empty larder. Play continues, she continues to blitz through and I continue to pick up duplicates. Second trophy is awarded and my larder is sill empty. As she starts heading towards her third trophy and game, I actually pick up four cards with out a consecutive pair and for the first time all game, I had something in my larder. This was to be the full extent of it though, the one and only time all game I got to pick up and keep some cards as Daughter the Younger stormed on to get her third trophy and the game.

I didn’t think I was pushing my luck much, certainly not compared to the four year sitting next to me, or maybe my luck was just saving itself for later in the day.

Later on I headed over to EuroGamesFest. I arrived the same time as Jonathan, so we played Battle Line waiting for the seven or eight player game of Diamant to finish. I had a two good two card combos to start with in my initial cards, so decided to play those, hoping for the gaps to be filled as I drew new cards. Hardly what you would call a strategy, but it worked. I ended up completely three straight flushes and two three of kinds for wins compared to Jonathan’s one victory. The strange thing was I was concentrating on getting the three of a kinds and the straight flushes just appeared in my hand.

Don’t assume that an area is closed for scoring (especially on your first game)

Next up was Himalaya. Scoring is by religious influence, political influence and economic influence (how many yaks you have). As you deliver goods to fulfil orders you gain a reward of any two of the three influences. The political influence is an area of control of a region bordered by the settlement or temple where you fulfilled your order. I remember looking at a region, see that orders had been fulfilled at all the surrounding habitations and thinking that the region was now closed and my majority influence was safe. Later in a smack my head against the wall moment, I realised that orders could be fulfilled in the same habitation more than once in the game and thus my closed region was open for competition again.

The end game scoring is interesting. First off, the player with the lowest religious influence is eliminated and all of his or her pieces are removed. Then the remaining player with the lowest political influence is eliminated. Then with the remaining players it is all about the yaks. I survived a tie breaker on the political influence to get through the yak round where I was comfortably ahead.

Maintain your balance and pay attention to pre-requisites

After a break for dinner (Malaysian) we played Vegas Showdown (thank you Secret Santa). This was my second play and a first for everyone else. You need to keep your population and dollars balanced and increasing to maximise revenue to enable you to afford to construct new parts of your casino, but you also need to keep your eye on the fame points which are the victory points at the end of the game. I started early on slots to maximise my dollars, and then later acquiring some catering and lounge areas to increase the population and thus increase my overall revenue. When the biggest and best gaming room feature became available I was all ready to start a bidding war for it when I realised three things. One – I didn’t have the pre-requisite for it, Two – Even if I waited for the pre-requisite and bought that as well, I didn’t have room to place them both without a major renovation and Three – the game would probably end before the pre-requisite was available for me to purchase. I then wisely left gaming room feature to Kim and concentrated on balancing my dollars and population and grabbing some extra fame points.

Mergers help keep the money flowing

We finished off the day with a game of Acquire. I started a little company over in a corner and then a nice expensive company was started in the middle of the board and I managed over the next few turns to wrestle control of it and waited for the merger(s). And waited, and waited and waited and waited. Nobody wanted to merge anything. There were two other companies right next to the middle one but I couldn’t merge them. Everyone else kept expanding my little company to the extent it was soon unmergable and yet still the middle company was there, unmerged. By this stage I had run out of money. I had one tile that could make a merge, but it was two companies that I had no shares at all in, so it hardly seemed worth it. That seemed to be the way of the game, people either didn’t want to merge companies or only had options to merge companies that they had no interest in at all and thus didn’t merge them. We even had a couple of rounds where nobody bought shares because we were all out of money. Eventually the mergers finally started, but not before three companies were too big to be merged. Admittedly I don’t have a lot of games of this under my belt, Melissa claims it doesn’t have enough tanks to be interesting to play, but it did seem a strange game to me. I have the “new” Avalon Hill edition, all the other players normally play with the old bookcase version, so they were a little weirded out by the change of company names and the three dimensional nature of this edition.

Mmm meeples taste like…

Friday, May 04, 2007

Whack the Leader Etiquette

Last night the Appalachian Gamers played one of my favorite longer games: Martin Wallace’s Struggle of Empires. As the game progressed, the intrigue and diplomacy increased as it became clear that Dave was scoring more points than the rest of us. Right before the alliance auction that begins the third and last round, all the non-Dave players discussed the various ways we could whack the leader. Eventually, Dave tired of all the chatter and efforts of the kill-Dave committee and he let his temper get the best of him. He later apologized—after winning the game in spite of the best efforts of the Gang of Four.

The events of last night made me ponder a question of gaming etiquette. How much kill-the-leader discussion is truly polite? In a military-diplomatic game like Struggle of Empires players are certainly free to bargain, wheedle, and make any kind of deal that seems appropriate. But when does prolonged discussion of the disembowelment of another player cross the line into bad taste?

Dave understands that there was nothing personal in our plotting. We would have conspired just as relentlessly against any player who was in the lead. In that sense, Dave was over-reacting.

But I can also understand how he feels. He must have felt like Scrooge in the scene from A Christmas Carol when the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come takes Scrooge to see the joyous petty thieves who robbed bed curtains and other items from the room where Scrooge’s corpse rested. It’s hard not to feel picked on when everyone is picking on you.

We could have asked Dave to step out of the room for a moment, but I suppose that could have been as bad or worse as what actually happened. Dave would have rightly felt that we were plotting against him, and in his imagination our plotting might have seemed more competent than it really was. No, it was probably better that Dave hear all our counter-productive bickering, and some tangential discussions about how to attack the player in second place (me).

I have no hard-and-fast answers to the politeness-of-plotting question. But I suppose it is best to remember that when you play a game of war and diplomacy, don’t be surprised when people conspire and war against you.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

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

Arkadia After One Play

I am a big fan of Rudiger Dorn. I've played Louis XIV, Jambo, Traders of Genoa, Goa, and now Arkadia. He designs games with a pleasing mixture of skill mechanics and randomness, with the emphasis on pleasing. Some of my most enjoyable playing experiences have been with the above games, and even though I've only played it once, I think Arkadia is an good addition to the Dorn's gaming credits.

The Flavor

In Arkadia, you're building a city and castle. Two to four players are each given a divider tent, four banners, five workers, and a hand of four cards. With these modest beginnings, players must figure out a way to gain the most money.

The Rules and Components

Before getting into the game play, I want to review the components: 1) the board and castle, 2) the banners, 3) the workers, 4) the building tiles and cards, 5) the building tokens, 6) the castle parts.

1) The board and castle. The playing area is a large grid of squares. There are villages scattered throughout the board (they are part of the board's art, perhaps twenty in all) which when covered with a tile provide a neutral worker to the active player. The castle, which is a separate mini-board, is placed anywhere on top of the board, though we played with it in the center. The castle features two of each of the building tokens and is a kind of medieval stock market. More on that in a bit.

2) The banners. Each player gets four banners. At the end of your turn, you may "cash in" a banner to receive the following: 1) two additional workers (your color), 2) the right to cash in any of your building tokens for their current market value. The second is optional.

3) The workers. Each player has a pool of personal workers (useable) and a pool of general workers (recruitable but not yet useable). On top of that, all players have a pool of neutral workers that anyone can recruit. You start with five personal workers in your color. The only way to get more is by cashing in a banner. You get neutral workers by placing your building tiles over villages, one per village covered.

4) The building tiles and cards. The building tiles are shaped like Tetris pieces. The two exceptions are two and three unit lines. All the tiles correspond with the cards, of which there is a stack. Three cards are always flipped up. The cards come in four different colors; each color corresponds to a different building token. When you use a card, you take the appropriate shaped tile and building token and place both together anywhere on the board. Then you may draw a face-up replacement or one from the top of the stack (a la Ticket to Ride).

5) The building tokens. There are four different kinds of building tokens. During the course of the game, you will redeem earned tokens for money (victory points). You cash in building tokens with a banner or at the end of the game. No token will ever NOT be cashed in. Players simply try to follow the stock market to get the best value.

6) The castle parts. The Torres parts get used again! The castle (the original flat castle and all of the parts) is essentially the stock market for all of the building tokens. At any given point, a bird's eye view of the castle will reveal how much each token is worth. Each castle part has a building token symbol on it. When the castle is getting built, players may place a new part of the castle over another part of the castle, thus covering the symbol underneath. This in turn changes the value of the building tokens.

There are a few nit-picky rules in Arkadia, but they are pretty intuitive. Each turn, players may perform one of two actions: 1) place any number of personal workers (your color) and/or neutral workers (beige) around a single building or 2) play a card from your hand to be able to place the accompanying tile in the city.

You want to earn building tokens, preferably the ones with the highest current value or ones that you think will have a better value later on. You can earn tokens in two ways: 1) just by touching a building with one of your workers, 2) by surrounding a building completely with any combination of workers and/or other buildings.

Many of the buildings will get surrounded, so it's a matter of placing your workers so that they touch many buildings at once. When a building is surrounded, the active player first gets the token on the building (even if he/she doesn't have any workers touching the building). Then players count to see how many player workers are touching the building (this excludes neutral workers). Players score the appropriate token per touching worker.

Whenever a building tile is surrounded and scored, the active player gets to place a castle part on the castle/stock market. Each level of the castle must be filled before moving on to the next level. This keeps players from completely eliminating one color. There are three distinct "pools" of castle parts that are used to make each level, and more parts than are possible to use in each pool.

Once the final scoring takes place and players have cashed in all of their building tokens, the player with the most money (victory points) wins!

Quality of Components

The workers are actually small plastic workers, not wooden cubes. They are pastel colors, like the camels in Through the Desert. They look snapable, so that might be a concern to some.

The building tokens, buildings, and money/victory points are all chits, which suits me fine. I especially like the art for the buildings. Nice and detailed. The cards are nice, too.

I'm totally impressed with the revival of the Torres pieces. It's a simple gesture, using them as the stock market, and probably unnecessary, but I like the look. Unlike games like Ys where the fluctuating market is off to the side, the castle is in the middle of the board somewhere. That is, when you are looking at the board and trying to figure out what to do, you don't have to look elsewhere to get the information you need. This may sound a little silly, but any information you can keep from your opponents (like "Ugh, he just noticed me looking at the stock market") can be an edge.

Personal Thoughts

Arkadia is a good game. We played it with three players, and we all finished within ten points of one another. We all made mistakes, but none so terrible as to have a runaway leader.

The fluctuating stock market really works well here. It's simple, but you still have to watch what's going on. If you don't have a good memory for what people have earned, you can always infer it by watching what they're doing in the castle/stock market.

The dividers and hidden information proved to be a decisive factor in the game. I don't really have the memory for keeping track of who has what, and those dividers make all the difference. They probably won't be a huge factor for the super competitive euro-gamer, but they were enough for me to lose the advantage and ultimately the game.

I had a good time with Arkadia, and though some of the other Rudiger Dorn games seem to have a little more meat on them (specifically Goa and Louis XIV), I'm excited to play it again. I think this game will ultimately be more about fine-tuning your strategies (placement, the timing with workers, choosing cards, etc.) than finding out original ways to win.

As for the Rudiger Dorn fans, I'm pretty sure they'll be satisfied.


Old Puzzler Q & A

Q: I'm thinking of a game and a sitcom. One is a question, and the other is the answer to that question. What are they?

A: Who's the Boss? (sitcom) and I'm the Boss! (game)

I got a lot of responses to this one. Various alternatives included "What's Happenin?" and "Diplomacy." Also, "Who's the Ass?" and "Seinfeld" was given.


New Fortnightly Puzzler

My old boss was named ROE (as in Mike Roe). This sequence of letters coincidentally is what you get when you take a particular game's title, drop every pair of like letters (this includes letters that are adjacent and letters that are not), and group the remaining letters together (without rearranging them). If you want to know how many letters the game has in its title, you may count the number of asterisks in the middle line of the seven-line cluster above. What's the game?

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Luck and Length

It has been a pretty sparce time for boardgames, the only games I've played recently have been a full game of Die Macher and a dozen or so games of Yspahan against the computer. (Using the recently released computer version with an AI opponent, check out . It is designed/programmed by the same folks as the excellent Saint Petersburg PC game, although I feel that the AI is currently a bit weaker than in St. Petersburg... If you go download Yspahan, be sure to also download the English or other appropriate language file as well. It comes in German, English, French, and even Romanian! )

Yspahan looks to be a fun little game. Despite some simple (rather unique) mechanics of rolling dice to determine the number of available actions (of a given type), the game has many options. I immediately gravitated towards the camel-train track towards victory. Buying up that building that gives a card for each token sent to the train is a fun way to earn more cards... and if you can score that train in the 2nd round as well as the 3rd, there are some nice cost-effective points going on... the computer players are clearly going for a build all the buildings route and then compete viciously for filling in the board areas with cubes... both strategies are valid and I like how such a simple game can provide players with such diverse opportunities. My one qualm are the initial two buildings - the one that gives more camels and the one that gives more gold... while I haven't brought myself to try to play without going for them both as early as possible, I suspect ignoring these two buildings early is not a good idea. Hopefully, there might be some strategies that don't include early buildings. I am afraid that there might not be and if that is the case, what is the point of including those buildings in the first place? (ie. if those two buildings were changed somehow there could be an earlier divergence in starting strategies...)

That's all I have to say about Yspahan, time to rant about Die Macher. This is a great game, lots of fun, and piles upon piles of different things one must worry about and try to optimize. Not to mention the whole idea of forming cooperative coalitions... a nice bit of diplomacy thrown in. I'm not even going to rant about the 7 hour playing time... I can afford to put aside most of a day to play a really good game every fewe months or so...

What I'm going to rant on is the huge luck factor in Die Macher. Yes, you heard me right, the luck factor in a 7 hour game... OK, so there isn't a lot of luck in the game, but there is SOME. The biggest luck factor (just about the only one) is in the distribution of position cards among the players and in each region. For example, when the game starts each player has about five (maybe six) position cards and there are ten face-up position cards showing on the game board. Players also have 3 position cards they can use to "swap" out their showing position cards. Well, at the start of the game, I had a match for about two TOTAL showing position cards on the entire board. Meanwhile, there were opponents of mine who had matches with 6 or even more cards showing on the table.

Sure, there are a lot of ways to move one's position cards around, but in a SEVEN HOUR game why oh why is there any reason to START the game with some players with a clear advantage? I understand the fun in having the game be slightly different each time, but if one were willing to give that up, I could imagine making up a starting setup so that each player had the same number of matches of cards showing at the start of the game... I realize that could take a bit longer to set up, but it would ease the problem that I've seen happen in multiple games of Die Macher. (I've been the benefit of a good start as well as hindered... although in this game I did an early gamble that paid off so I actually was in the lead for the first few rounds despite my poor initial matching - this doesn't excuse the game in my opinion as another player might have really messed me up had they tried different strategies...)

My second idea for fixing this intial disparity is to simply set up the game and then let players bid for color selection.... While it adds even more pregame analysis, I think it would even the playing field. Players who like to match things alot can bid highly for certain positions, while others who want to keep their money to spend it on things can bid low and just deal with what they end up with....

OK, that's the first bit of luck-factor I had issue with. Now for the second. That is the long-term manipulation of position cards. There is an extremely limited number of cards (6) to deal with on the national switching board... depending on your house rule, these can get pretty stagnant... I found out that switching out cards early in the game to help my matching was good in the short term, but it meant all the cards left up to trade with were BAD for me in later rounds... I think it is less of a problem of the game, and more of something I have to ponder to take into account in my strategy. What I WILL complain and rant about is the difficulty of changing one's position cards. In the second election, the Anti-social security card was put up on the national election board in the lowest (most points) slot. It appeared in a couple of upcoming elections mid-game but not late in the game. Also there were no pro-social security cards in the exchange pool. As the anti-version was protected by the 3rd or 4th round, there was then no longer any way to remove it. From the second election onward, both myself and one of my opponents cycled our 3-card draw, looking for (among other things) an anti-social security position card. Neither of us ever drew one. If, during the second round (that's about hour 3 of a 7 hour game, mind you) two players decide to try to do something and spend the rest of the game hoping to accomplish it, that's just a bad system...

You may think I hate Die Macher. On the contrary, I like it quite a bit. It is a bit long for my tastes, but I'd still play it. Another point to make is all the above whining really didn't greatly affect my performance. I came in a strong second place after leading for the first half of the game. This shows that the luck factor in Die Macher is not going to overthrow the entire outcome of the game. However, it seems clear to me that there were several variables beyond my control that were significant setbacks I had to overcome. That in itself isn't bad, but other players did not have to overcome those same issues. It makes me wonder how I might have fared if I had (a) finally found an anti-social security card (25 points right there) or (b) had better matches at the start of the game and was able to better conserve resources rather than having to gamble them all on the first round...

I consider my 2nd place finish to come from being distracted by round 6 when I should have worked hard towin round 7 instead. What disappoints me about the game was not the actual effect of the cards, but the feelings of unfairness they generate. Having to start "behind the curve" might be forgivable in a shorter game, but I really don't appreciate feeling a couple steps behind when I'm headed into a nice, long 7 hour game...

I like my idea of an auction for starting position, if I can get folks to try it next time. However, I have yet to find a good house rule (or two) that provides enough flexibility for changing political positions, without dilluting things so much that political positions mean nothing and are changed at the drop of a hat.