Monday, July 30, 2007

Hated Questions

Ah, retail. Everyone has horror stories, or glory stories, or something. I have my hated questions. Questions that I hate to hear. They aren't bad questions - in fact, they are good questions, but they're asked by the wrong people, or at the wrong time.

Let's tackle the first one. Person walks into the store, looks around a bit, perhaps a bit of initial banter betwixt me and they confirming that yes, indeed this is a game store and we sell games. Perhaps a bit of clarification about the lack of video games. Then it comes.

"What's the hot game?"

ah. If only there was a proper answer to this1. An honest answer that I could feel good about. But let's run through the real problems with this question. You refers to the person mentioned above. Not you, the Gone Gaming Reader.

1. There are about 4-8 major categories of games in this shop2. Different people shop for different games. Do you want the Hot Roleplaying game? Probably not. So which type of game do you care about?

2. The "Hot" game isn't necessarily the game you (the asker) want to be shown. Case in point - Spring of 2006. Caylus hit US shores in December of 2005. Supply was short and wouldn't even out until May of 2006. It was in demand. No one could deny that Caylus was the "Hot" Strategy game. And I would never mention it to anyone who didn't already understand the words "Settlers" "Ticket to Ride" and "Puerto Rico". So you probably don't want to know the hawt newness.

3. Really, you are probably asking what the newest FAD is. You've heard about Pokemon and Yugioh. You remember Trivial Pursuit and Pictionary. Perhaps you want to be ahead of the curve with "What the Kids are playing these days". Unfortunately, most of the time, the newest fad isn't a game. Games made great fads when manufactured party games broke into the mainstream, but that was twenty years ago. Sadly. And the days of fad CCGs are over3. Thankfully.

So really, there's no answer that is satisfactory. I can make a couple snap judgments and talk about Pokemon making a comeback, or talk up Ticket or Carc or Settlers, or mention that Dungeons and Dragons is still around. Toss around the big names. But ultimately, there's no really good answer. Maybe you leave impressed with the variety and ingenuity of games these days. Often you leave wondering why there isn't a new Trivial Pursuit4. So I'm left to rant.

Another question.
This one is situational, and mostly down to my own preferences, because it is:

"What's your favorite game?"

Oh how I cringe. First, see item one above. I'm blessed and cursed to have played and enjoyed multiple games in many genres. Can I really compare a role-playing game to a board game to toy soliders?

Second, I'm not usually asked this by a seasoned gamer. It's usually someone to whom I'm currently explaining Ticket to Ride or Warhammer or Settlers. Segueing from Ticket into an 18xx game isn't really the best idea. Not only will I probably lose all chance of 'making a sale', but I'll probably also lose any chance of 'making a gamer'. All from a perfectly reasonable question5

Finally, I personally fail royally at naming a 'favorite game'. I'm constantly amazed that 'geeks can make Top 10 lists without major qualifications. Oddly enough, this is related to my inability to rate games. This year I took myself to task and have managed to start rating games under the special aaron scale - Great, Good, Okay, and Horrible. Even that is hard for me. My list of great games is long. My list of Horrible games is short. So even when qualified properly - i.e. "What's your favorite Ticket to Ride game?" I wind up dithering between Marklin and America+1910. Sigh. I'm such a failure.

Of course these questions follow me outside the store as well. I'll be at a party and when the inevitable query about jobs cycles to me6, these are the two most common follow-up questions. Even harder to answer when you are sitting outside and trying to not think about selling games. Probably just as hard to answer if I didn't sell games! To continue beating my analogy to death, it's much faster to explain my 'favorite' game Ticket to Ride than my 'favorite' game 1830. At least there's no chance of 1830 being the 'hot' game.

Ah. Ranting.


1Don't get the wrong idea about this - I've got nice pat answers to these questions, developed through extensive testing (uh, yeah). Sometimes they work, sometimes they don't. So in some respect, I've found the proper answer. But I still like to rant about it.

2Depending how much you want to break "board games" down. I usually break it into Kids, Strategy, Party, and Classic, which sort of covers the different type of people that might be looking for a game. (Miniatures, RPG, Collectibles, and Puzzles are the others).

3Except for some foolish insanity about the World of Warcraft CCG last fall. But thankfully it went away quickly. Very quickly. Barely even counted as a fad.

4A side note. This year has been the year of suck for trivial pursuit. Hasbro usually issues a new edition every 2-3 years. We've been stuck with 6 for a couple years (plus all the mostly-bad decade editions). This year, Hasbro not only did not release a new basic set, they discontinued shipping on Edition 6 and have announced the release of "The Best of Trivial Pursuit". Wow. What a lame edition. "We couldn't come up with any new Trivia, so we're recycling old questions"! And the retailer is left with no Trivial Pursuit to sell for most of 2007.

5At this point I usually rephrase the question into "oh, between Settlers and Ticket I like Ticket better!"

6And it's clear that these same questions would pop up if asked what my hobby was, or some other way. But it's far more frequent to be asked what your job is than what you do in your spare time.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

An abecedary of alliteration

One device that always gets my attention is alliteration. Also making up nouns from adjectives (well abecedarian is a word, so ...)

Here are some alliterative clues - which of these games sound familiar? No prizes, only bragging rights.

Assorted acrobatic animals achieving altitude (on an alligator)
Bulls and their buddies bumping buckets
Crocodiles chewing on clueless characters
Desert-dwelling dromedaries dying in the dunes
Elephants entering empty enclosures
Fragments of France, in formation (with farmers!)
Greedy gentleman gobbles and glugs
Hospitals help health - handicap harbour's habitants
Inuits in igloos? Inconceivable!
Jousters jump in jeopardy
Knight keeps king safe
Lordly landlords leverage lakes and libraries
Monster menaces many - moves, moans, munches
Naughty neighbours nick, never negotiate
Office obviates "only" obligation
Prince's prone paramour pained by pea!
Queens' quiescent quietude
Reckless rabble receive recessed riches.
Start: select, stack, select, stack, select, stack, smash! select, stack, smash! select, stack, select, stack ... score.
Travel to towns! Take tickets - take train.
Unholy undertakers unearth unsavoury undead
Vulch vanquishes vacuum
Which witch is which?
Zoological zealots zig-zag zones

There may, obviously, be multiple answers to some questions.



Friday, July 27, 2007

Three Middle-Weight Games. Light on Theme

At this week’s meeting of the Appalachian Gamers, we played three games that I had never played before. They were Notre Dame, Rheinlander, and Maya. All three are decent games, each can be played in about an hour and a half, and I would not hesitate to play any of them again. But each was a little light on theme, and I’m not going to go out of my way to acquire any of them.

If you’re a gamer, you’ve probably heard of Notre Dame (from designer Stefan Feld), and there’s a good chance you have played it already, so I’m not going to describe the mechanics in detail. Suffice it to say that it is a game about playing cards to take actions that either earn players victory points, or earn players resources (cash and wooden cubes) that can be used to later get victory points. Complicating the game is the arrival each turn of plague-bearing rats. Players must also take actions to fend off the rat invasion or they risk forfeiting victory points and cubes that have already been placed on the board.

Notre Dame includes a choose-one-card-and-pass-the-rest mechanism that I enjoy. And there are multiple paths to victory which is always a good sign. And the rat mechanism adds some tension to a game that otherwise lacks it.

But the overall impression of the game is underwhelming. Part of the problem is that there is little interaction between the players. As Ted Cheatham said more than once: “This is multiplayer solitaire.”

Also, I am getting a little weary of these resource-churning games. Every action yields points, cash, cubes, or kills a rat. Or some combination of these. Haven’t we played a dozen different versions of this game already?

I got the same feeling from Maya. Maya (from designer Bernd Eisenstein) is a game about building Mayan pyramids. Players score victory points for having the most building cubes in the various levels of four pyramids. But first players must acquire cubes and special action tokens by blind bidding on resource spaces. Each player has an identical deck of cards, and each player takes turns placing these cards face down below the resource spaces. The player whose total combination of cards scores the highest gets the most cubes from the space as well as the special action token. Players who come in second or third only get cubes, and fewer of them.

Then players take turns placing cubes into the levels of the four pyramids. Most of the special action tokens are used in this phase to place or move tokens in some unique manner. The player who has the most cubes in a level gets the most points for that level. Other players score less.

Again, Maya is a perfectly decent game that doesn’t seem very special because I’ve played lots of these kind of games before. For me, the problem with both Notre Dame and Maya is the thinness of the theme. Notre Dame could have been about any city at any time, or even about some non-city experience (say, running a shopping mall). Maya could have been about almost any kind of building project at any time. Because of the wafer-thin theme in these games, it’s hard not to be aware of the unoriginal mechanics.

I found Reiner Knizia’s Rhienlander to be a little more appealing. It’s not that this game of knights and castles oozes theme, but at least I found it conceivable that he came up with the theme first, and then invented the mechanics, and not the other way around. Other things that made the game attractive are the fast pace (play a card, place a knight, and draw card; on to the next player), and the high toy factor. Rheinlander has a high luck factor (the cards largely determine where you can place your knights), but I don’t mind that in a game that moves so fast. If a game can't be deep, it should at least be quick.

Playing three of these lightly-themed middle-weight games in one night has me yearning for a heavy-weight game with lots of strategy and theme. Or maybe a wargame. But there are still some new games to try in the Appalachian Gamer library so I suppose that craving won’t be satisfied for a while.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

News in Reviews / Old Puzzler Continuation / New Fortnightly Puzzler

A Settlers Expansion Night

(or A Decidedly Uneven Settlers Experience)

While studying for the bar exam, a friend of mine stumbled upon the on-line Settlers of Catan expansions, the Jungle and the Volcano. He had decided to go Settlers-free during the studying and subsequent bar, but clearly it was on his mind. This discovery stuck with him throughout his studying and into his test days. When he finally finished the last day of testing yesterday, all he could think about was playing with the two expansions as a way of celebrating. So we did.

The Jungle and Volcano are meant to cover up the otherwise useless Desert. Just like the other tiles, you put a non-6/8/2/12 number on these expansion tiles. If you build alongside them, you get their benefit when the number hits.

With the Jungle, you receive a Discovery Token per Settlement (or two per City) which can only be used for the purchase of a Development Card. That is, the Discovery Token can substitute for the ore, wheat, or sheep when buying a DC. There are no drawbacks.

With the Volcano, any Settlement or City built alongside the volcano has a chance of being destroyed. Each of the corners of the Volcano hex has a number, 1 through 6. Whenever the Volcano's number is rolled, it erupts, and an additional die is rolled. When this third die matches one of the numbers on the Volcano, the Volcano destroys whatever is built there. A City is reduced to a Settlement, and a Settlement is taken off the board. The Robber does not prevent the Volcano from activating. An additional rule that we played with is the Gold Production. Before the Volcano erupts, you may take a resource of your choice for your Settlement (or any two if you have a City).

In a normal 3 to 4 player game, we would've been able to more accurately determine the worth of these expansion tiles. As it happened, we had six players and played a 6 player game with two deserts. With a what-the-heck philosophy, we played with both the Jungle and the Volcano.

As it turns out, we messed up our initial placement. While no one played next to the Jungle, two players (me included) played right next to the Volcano. Only my law school friend had read the instructions and rules, and he neglected to tell us that we can play against the Jungle but not against the Volcano with our initial two Settlements. Oops. What happened next is probably due in large part to this botch-up.

The players decided on random numbers for the Jungle and Volcano. The Jungle ended up with an 11 and the Volcano ended up with a 5. You probably know where this is going.

Another player and I both played on the Volcano. No one played on the Forest. The rest of the development was pretty standard. The red numbers got played on, and we were pretty spread out. No one played on the ports, but several of us were very close, which became a factor.

In the first few turns, the Volcano hit. We rolled the die. Neither player was affected, so we got the resource card of our choice. (It should be noted that a Volcano would have destroyed me at this stage in the game. My heartbeat actually increased!) In the next five turns or so, another Volcano hit. We rolled the die and again were unaffected. The Volcano didn't hit for the remainder of the game, but the damage had been done.

I was able to build exactly what I needed in the beginning of the game (a couple of more Settlements and a City), and all of it relatively quickly. I jumped to 5 points before a few other players even got 3. Then all weirdness broke out.

All Settlers players have had games where one number hits far more than any others. Usually multiple people benefit from this. Not this time.

I had a Settlement and a City alongside an 8 Ore. I also had a City on an 8 Wheat. I think two other players were touching 8s on the board, but their production was minimal. At this early set-up in the game, 8 started hitting a lot. Every time it came to me, I was upgrading to a City. All of a sudden I had two Cities next to a 10 Wheat, and 10 started breaking up the 8 rolls. 7s were nowhere to be found.

On my last turn, I had 20 cards in my hand, most of them wheat, on a wheat port. I had two Ores and four Bricks. I built the rest of the way to 10 points with cards left over. My closest competitor had 4 points. Some still had 2. The entire game took 40 minutes.

This game is void because of our rules violation, but the violation illustrates the power of the Volcano. It hit twice, but that was enough. The other players seemed to think that the major point was how many times the 8s and 10s hit, but that was secondary to getting precisely what you needed early in the game. When you don't have to trade with other players to get what you need that early in the game, there's going to be a big development disparity.

As per the Jungle, one player built alongside it and an 11 never rolled. We didn't get to see the benefits of it.

Both the Jungle and Volcano rules allow for the players to decide on a number and put it on, and I think this is fair. Personally, I would vote for a lower number on the Volcano and a higher number on the Jungle. The Jungle seems inherently weak, and the Volcano seems amazingly strong. The negative side-effect of the Volcano seems small in comparison to the possible positive results which if they occur early enough result in a sort of positive snowball effect.

I think we probably needed either two Jungles or two Volcanos for the game to be totally equal. This game started off unequal, and that coupled with a rules violation and crazy dice rolling made for a strange, bizarre, and completely unsatisfying game. I'd still try them out again, but I'm hesitant to believe that they won't throw the game out of whack.


New Fortnightly Puzzler

I'm thinking of a famous chess master whose three-letter name is also the initials for a famous radio program and a kid's boardgame, if you were to abbreviate either. Can you list all three in full?*

* Please refrain from posting Puzzler Answers. If you've figured it out, email me at and I'll post the first correct solver's name. Thanks!


Old Puzzler Q & A

In an unfortunate two-week period, I had a couple of odd things happen: 1) our landlady who also provides wireless internet service to us started remodeling her home, thus killing our internet connection, and 2) our friend (mentioned above) needed our computer for three days to take his bar exam. For the majority of this two-week period, we had little internet service at home and that made this 20Q puzzler quite difficult.

Thank you to everyone who contributed. We got up to 12 questions. The questions and answers are on the comments of the following link:

I'll let this one go another two weeks. With just eight questions left and a ton of info, you guys should knock this one out without much difficulty. Additional questions can be posted here. Good luck!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Harry Potter (spoiler free) and some new games

If you are a fan of Wimbledon Tennis or Test Match cricket and live in Australia, the timezone difference between the UK and Australia can work against you unless you are an insomniac, as these events are usually on in the middle of the night Australian time. One of the few times that events in the UK work for us is with the release of the Harry Potter books. One minute past midnight on Friday night in the UK is a quite pleasant one minute past nine o'clock in the morning here (on the East Coast) of Australia. Melissa got up and went out in the fog to get it, came home and read it. By early afternoon she had finished so then it was my turn. I am not quite as quick a reader as Melissa, but with interruptions for things like dinner and children I had finished it by a little after midnight. Now it is safe to look at the internet again, we cannot be spoiled! For the record, I liked it and will say no more as I am sure there are plenty of people who haven't read it.

This has nothing to do with gaming of course, other than that all of Saturday suddenly vanished due to Harry Potter, so no games got played and nothing got written. Oh and also I don't think there are any decent games based on Harry Potter.

On Friday I picked up three surplus games from a friend. O Zoo le Mio and Quo Vadis? were played and for some reason he had managed to end up with two copies of Funny Friends so it was still in shrink. Melissa and I had played Funny Friends once before and though it was worth it and the discounted price.

We had three friends over that night for games, so broke Funny Friends out of its shrink and punched it out. Melissa went through the rules. Most of it was reasonably straightforward based on the rules and our one previous play, although relationships and "friends" and the mobile phone (cell phone) markers had us a little confused and required a revisit of the rules on a few occasions. We think we have it all sorted except for the mobile phone markers and we will revisit the rules and BGG before playing it again.

One of my memories from our first game that if you have a life goal that includes smoking as a prerequisite, then it is a good idea to take up smoking during puberty because it can be somewhat more difficult to pick it up later in life. It certainly was in that game, smoking result cards were few and far between and other players always wanted them with the result that I didn't pick up at all and thus couldn't complete one of my goals. I didn't make that mistake this time.

This can be a fun game to play with old friends, trying to encourage them to marry you or have babies with you. The chit chat and cajoling between players is definitely more boisterous when you are playing with people you know well.

Before puberty was over I was already a cult leader and my cult consisted of short haired women. As life progressed there were more short haired women, quite a few of whom I married and then divorced. One of them was determined to have babies with me, although this was not in my plans. It was then time to cash in and write my memoirs and become an Elvis imitator. Ah a cult leading Elvis impersonator with the cash rolling in from my memoirs. At this stage I already had two ex-wives, but to become a relationship cripple I needed one more broken relationship and to put out a revised edition of my memoirs where it didn't mention drinking because I had to finally start drinking. I also needed to be single again which meant breaking off my current relationship and thus I could start drinking and become a relationship cripple at the same time, or at the very least on consecutive turns. I picked up the card I needed which stopped me drinking, and then another that ended the current relationship, I was now set to Finally Start Drinking and become a Relationship Cripple. Unfortunately for me, the person who wanted my babies played her fifth goal before I could do so. In retrospect I probably should have tried to play the Finally Start Drinking earlier, but people just didn't want to seem to break it off with a young vibrant cult leader :-)

We will probably try O Zoo le Mio out with Daughter the Elder in the near future. Quo Vadis? may have to stay on the unplayed games list for a while, but I am certain that when it does come out there will be an I Clavdivs mention or three.

Mmm meeples taste like...

Friday, July 20, 2007

Font Wisdom

A concern has been growing in my mind over the past few months. This is something that could threaten the enjoyment of gaming for a large percentage of the gaming community. I am, of course, talking about font size.

I guess there is no way to convince anyone that this is not a geezer issue so I’m not going to try. I’m getting older, and so are my eyes, and I don’t like squinting at small print on cards and game boards. And I suspect that there are quite a few gamers with me in this boat. Hobby gaming may be a relatively young hobby, but gamers are not an especially young population. Some sub-groups within the gaming community (I’m thinking of wargamers) seem to have more than their fair share of gamers that I will call experienced and mature. Out of a regular group of Appalachian Gamers of six or seven members, there are at least three of us who are near or past fifty years of age.

At first, I thought that font size wasn’t an issue worth worrying about. There was only one famous font-size issue that I was aware of. I’m talking about the notoriously small print on the cards in War of the Ring.

But lately I’ve hearing other gamers voice similar concerns. At Origins, I even overheard two gamers complaining about hard-to-read details of a game whose name I did not catch (I realize that this vague description is not the most concrete evidence ever mustered, but I’m trying to be honest here about what I’ve actually heard).

I also noticed that font size was an issue with the game board of Galactic Destiny. The game board is very pretty, and seems to be made of quality heavy cardboard, but the names of the regions and the symbols within each region are needlessly small. There is no excuse for this; there is plenty of empty space within each region, and font sizes could be increased dramatically without making the regions seem crowded. Galactic Destiny is the first game from Golden Laurel Entertainment, and I am inclined to cut them some slack. If I become convinced that Galactic Destiny is a quality space empire game, I will not let small font size stop me from buying a copy. But font size is something they should consider when they work on the graphic design of their next game.

So this essay is basically a shout-out to graphic designers and game producers. Think about your target audience. A lot of us are aging baby boomers, and our eyes are not improving. It may cost a little more to have standard size cards in your games, rather than those mini-cards. But if you’re planning to put text on your cards, consider spending the extra dough. We may not want to play your game if we have to squint at it.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Parlaying Success

A couple of months ago I played several hands of Parlay. This is a Poker/word-game that I reviewed last year. I thought it was excellent then, and even though I couldn't put together a decent word to save my life in this recent game, I still enjoyed it quite a bit.

Parlay has a unique mechanism whereby you collect a hand of 7 cards from a normal 52-card deck, with each card also featuring a letter. Then you try and simultaneously put together a top-rate 5-card Poker hand and a good word of up to 7 letters.

After each player has assembled his final hand of cards, he then decides whether to stay (betting that he has a better total hand value than anyone else) or fold.

If a player folds he earns points equal to the value of the letters he used to form his word, and then he's out. If you have a decent ability to form words you can get 50 points a hand just by doing this.

If a player stays he must add up the total value of his hand. This is the value of the letters in his word, plus a length bonus for words of 5 or more letters. Then the players compare their Poker hands, and whoever had the best Poker hand gets to add the value of his letters again. But, this is an all or nothing affair: whoever stayed and had the highest total value gets all his points, while everyone else who stayed doesn't get anything, not even his letter points.

My review includes a picture of a nice example. One player formed the word "quirt", which is worth 55 points for its letter, plus another 15 for its length. He also had three 2s which won the Poker hand, giving him 55 more points for a total of 125. The other player formed the word "deposit", which earned 50 points for its letter, plus 100 for its length. His Poker hand was just a pair of Queens, so he didn't get the Poker bonus, but his 150 points still beat the other players 125.

Chaos, Risk, and Reward

In talking about our recent game, a few players opined that it was too "chaotic" or too "lucky". They felt like they couldn't accurately assess whether their hand was good enough to win or not, and thus whenever you decided to stay it was a crap shoot.

I disagreed. I don't find Parlay chaotic or lucky; I find it heavily dependent upon risk/reward. Players can stay in with a half-good hand because they hope it's good enough to win, but the lower the point value they stay in with, the higher the chance they lose out.

The "deposit" player that I mentioned above probably didn't have much doubt he was going to win. He could have hoped that his pair of Queens might win the Poker hand too, bringing him to a total of 200 points, but really he shouldn't have been counting on more than 150. Though the three 2s was a better hand, it wasn't necessarily a better winner. That player should have probably counted on earning 70 (word + length), with some probability of the full 125 (word + length + poker).

Continued experience could tell you which of these values was likely a winner and which not, just like it could tell you which of the Poker hands were likely to be a winner. Using that information is then exactly what turns a game of this sort into risk/reward and not a crapshoot.

Gotta Know When to Fold 'Em

Ironically I say that having "fold"ed every hand except my last-round-I-had-to-go-home-Hail-Mary. In other words, I never though the risk was low enough or the reward was high enough, so I just kept earning my 50 points a turn. Not being able to form a word of more than 4 letters helped keep me from being greedy (because it meant there was never a "word length bonus" that I'd only win if I stayed). Before that last round I was in second place out of five, suggesting my slow plodding way was winning out--mostly.

As I was packing up that night having finished up Parlay I came to realize that the game's play was actually very much like the gameplay of Texas Hold'em--whose success it was clearly meant to build upon.

In Texas Hold'em your standard turn is to look at your cards, assess their value, determine their value isn't high enough, then immediately fold. In a typical 10-player hand of Texas Hold'em the vast majority of people usually fold out, and an even higher number would if two players weren't forced to ante up, just to keep the game from breaking.

I suspect Parlay would seem less chaotic to some if they took the Texas Hold'em mindset: Assess the value, then fold, unless you've got a great hand.

(It should be noted that Parlay is a lot more fun, even when folding, since you still get to make a word, and thus earn points based on your cleverness.)

Alternative Bids

Part of the reason Parlay can seem chaotic is because of the blind-bidding. Sure, you might have an atrocious hand, but what if everyone else drops out? In that case your atrocious hand could win, and you effectively double your points thanks to the Poker bonus. Especially if people were moaning and groaning about their hands, shouldn't you take that chance?

The difference between sequential bids and blind bids can make huge differences in games of any sort, and I think this displays it well. So, I offer the following alternative:

Try Parlay with open selection of stay or fold sometime. Make sure you rotate the dealer, then when players are ready have them choose stay or fold clockwise from the dealer. I expect it'll make players a less likely to hope for a big win on nothing, and thus more likely to only stay in when they assess their hand as good.

Keeping players from taking a less viable strategy can often be a great way to reduce the apparent chaos of a game.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

: The Card Game

Settlers of Catan.
Puerto Rico.
Tigris and Euphrates.

Four giants of the euro explosion. Tied together by all being twisted into a card game form, which is exciting, since four games is almost a genre.1

What is most interesting to me is how each game justifies it's existence. Why was it developed? Simply to make great wads of cash for the manufacturer? Perhaps. But there must be some reason for existence that will spur consumers to part from their carefully horded monies.

When I think of 'card games' versus 'board games' I usually come up with Portability and Speed. That is - a card game is smaller physically than a board game, and it takes less time2 to play. Secondly, card games have a slight tendency to be simpler and easier to explain3.

So i'll mimic Shannon for a day, and do my own meager analysis of these card games.

Catan: the Card Game
Two Players.
That explains almost everything about Catan: The Card Game. Since Settlers just doesn't work with fewer than three people, there was definitely a need to develop a game that provided the Settlers experience for two people. The game does a good job of migrating the core features of Settlers into two players. The game stands on its own, and even earned expansions that don't connect to the original game at all4.
Overall, I think Catan: The Card Game succeeds. It's a fine two player game that evokes all the core building and development of Settlers. But it completely fails all of my initial impressions of Card vs. Board. It's not shorter than Settlers, it's not simpler, and while it does pack into a smaller box, it takes up just as much space on the table as Settlers.
Ultimately, Catan: the Card Game is a new game in the Catan series.

San Juan
I'm not quite sure what the thought process was behind the development of San Juan. The need for a two player game for Puerto Rico fans is the obvious choice, but I rarely see San Juan played as a two player game5. Perhaps Alea wanted to bring the success of Puerto Rico to a wider audience and wanted a simpler game.
Like Catan:CG, San Juan takes the core concepts from the parent game and develops into a new game. It certainly feels different yet similar (probably due to the input of several different designers throughout the process). San Juan does fill most of my initial expectations for a card game - it's a bit simpler than Puerto Rico, it plays faster, and takes up less space on the table and gamebag.

Tigris and Euphrates: The Card Game
The most poorly regarded of the lot, T&E:CG seems to me to be hampered by being almost exactly like the board game. It succeeds at being more portable than the original, but it almost all other factors it plays so closely to the original that I think it's garnered alot of scorn because it seems to lack a reason for existence. Why was this game made if not just to cash in on a brand? It doesn't play much faster, it doesn't play much simpler, and it doesn't twist the core concepts of T&E in a new way. I actually find the game fine - I certainly don't dislike it - but it really doesn't succeed in proving it's need to exist.

Caylus: Magna Carta

Finally we come to the newest one on the list, that on first appearance seems to suffer from the same faults as T&E. But following my first play, I found that the subtle changes that were made to the game have resulted in a game that is different from the original in many subtle ways. While San Juan and Catan:CG require players to learn a new game, Caylus:MG is more about learning the new strategies that a bunch of small changes have created.
I'm not sure if it's actually easier to teach the card game than the board game. I've only taught it to one person who hasn't played Caylus, and he tends to catch on to new games quickly. It's definitely more portable, though it still takes a bit of table space. Game time has been reduced, but not to the extent of San Juan. Caylus:MG is still a mid-to-heavy game, but overall a shorter one than the original

I think there are a couple more board-to-card conversions out there. I'm told Great Wall of China is Samurai the Card game, but I haven't played it myself, so I didn't comment on it.

Overall, I think that a card game edition has to fundamentally change something from the board game6 to really succeed. I'm surprised by Caylus:Magna Carta, because it manages to change the game via strategic choices without messing with the core mechanics of the game. San Juan and Catan both change by putting new mechanics around old concepts.

I'll close by saying that back in the day, Avalon Hill suckered me in and I bought Titan: The Arena thinking that it was the card game version of Titan. Completely not true, and a name alone cannot cause a game to be related to another... but I never regretted buying Titan: the Arena, so I guess I'm glad they named it such.

1Three more games and Zooleretto will have a genre. Card games developed into board games!

2This is obviously a false assumption. I've played 'games' of Tichu that lasted longer than 3 hours. But since each hand is relatively quick, the impression of speed and ease of completion is still present. After all, we can always stop after any hand. But not this one. The next. or the next?

3Again, an unfounded belief. Perhaps this should be a blog on the myths of card games...

4 Wizards of Catan!

5But it works with two, so that goal was met...

6Other than getting rid of the board.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Day tripping - with games

A friend recently told me my posts here (and elsewhere) were very 'suburban'. Here's another one for you, Jon :)

Winter School holidays are here and that meant it was time for me and Biggie to have a Big Outing somewhere. This week, it was Sovereign Hill - a recreation of an 1850s central Victorian goldfields town, and a favourite place for us all to visit.

Unbeknownst to the Bigster, though, the attraction these holidays was not the opportunity to go down t'pit and into the mines, but SNOW! The operators trucked in snow from Mount Buller, some 200 kms away, to create a giant snow slide and to give some snow play opportunities. In addition, snow machines created "snowfalls" every hour or so up and down Main Street. (This wasn't 'real' fake snow though - it looked like teeny tiny bubbles).

The drive up was peaceful - Biggie speculating on how many mine tours we could squeeze in, while I listened to the most recent Metagamers podcast - featuring Gerald and Jim (Linnaeus and ekted) discussing my favourite game ever, The Princes of Florence. Biggie would intervene every so often to ask why they said something, or to complain (sorry guys) that it was boring and she wanted to listen to the Winx Club soundtrack songs instead. Now there's intellectual stimulation for you.

Biggie in the snow
We arrived just in time for Biggie's first snowfall, followed by a visit to the "snowfields". Cold white and fluffy was definitely the order of the day, and we didn't get down the mines at all.

Biggie's favourite moment? The Giant Snowslide.
My favourite moment? Hot chocolate - inside :)

The volunteers were advertising a show of "parlour games" - 19th century boardgames - in the Mechanics' Institute, so we hurried to get there. Now I'm a big fan of Sovereign Hill, and I'm a big supporter of volunteer effort - but I think this little exhibition could have had a bit more thought put into it. The volunteers were able to describe how to play two of the five or so games that were laid out, although their knowledge of knucklebones (which we called jacks when I was a little girl) was a tad shaky. The other games? No idea - and they looked strangely at Biggie when she wanted to fiddle with the pieces and try to work out how to play.

No matter though - one of the games was dynamite. I cannot imagine why no-one is (as far as I know) producing a commercial version of Shove Ha'penny - it's one of the more interesting dexterity games I have played.

Shove Ha'penny board
The wooden board features a barrier/built-up section at one end, and a series of (9?) sections along the board, each just a little wider than the eponymous penny/ha'penny.

To play, players hang three pennies (or ha'pennies) off the end of the board and then give them a shove. The object is to get your penny to stop between two of the lines - that is, completely within one of the sections and not overlapping at all. There is a blackboard/slate section along each side, and the goal appears to be to get a mark in each of the 9 delineated sections along the blackboard.

Biggie and I played this until we felt we were expected to stop, and we had a great time. I was trying to bounce my pennies off the backboard and back onto the rows, while she was trying to score some of the earlier rows.
Biggie - and volunteers - at Shove ha'penny
I would love to get my own copy of this game - and I think my mum still has a tin of old pennies at home, if we get tired of playing with 20 cent pieces.

Back home at the end of the day, we headed out to the local malaysian restaurant for dinner. Otto coloured in, while Biggie entertained me and Fraser with a description of what she knew about Princes of Florence.

Here's what she had to say today when I asked her to recap:

There are three main strategies. I can only remember two.
  • Cheap – he or she always buys cheap things. The cheap player may also get Jesters, but cheaply.

  • Mad Jester – loves to get Jesters, to get works and from that he gets points that you can transform into money. The Mad Jester player would willingly give up at least 1000 Fluoros, so that they can get a Jester. The player that is using the strategy of “Mad Jester” has an advantage in the game.

Three types of landscapes:
  • Forest is the cheapest but more people tend to use forests. The two smallest buildings in the game have forests.

  • Park has the most value though not many people tend to use that landscape
  • And lake is in the middle.

Buildings may not touch each other.

In your hand, you have types of personalities. When you choose artists, you try to get an artist with those kinds of personalities.

There are seven rounds in the game. In the first round, there is the number 7 involved. In number 5, it’s 15 and in round 7 it’s 17.

The least you can get anything for is 200 Fluoros.

Usually it would take at least one round to get money out of the works.

Mum was mentioned because she plays Princes of Florence a lot on BSW.

Each player has one courtyard to build in.

You try and get as many people into your hand as possible.

Mum, do you get GeekGold for blogs? Because if you did, that wouldn’t be fair, it should come to me if I wrote it.

In fairness, she did call them Florins on Thursday night. I just used Fluoros cos she said it today and it was cute. And her BGG ID is - apparently - DaughterTheElder (Fraser set it up, and Biggie was already taken).

Do you think I should tip her?


Happy gaming!

- Melissa

Friday, July 13, 2007

Mechanics Trumps Theme

I am a theme guy. I once wrote a Gone Gaming essay on games as theme delivery systems. But recently I had a lesson on how mechanics can trump theme. This came about because within the span of a week I played both Age of Discovery and Before the Wind.

Both Age of Discovery (designed by Alfred Viktor Schulz and published by Phalanx Games and Mayfair Games) and Before the Wind (designed by Torsten Landsvogt and also published by Phalanx and Mayfair) are cards games that deal with the Age of Sail. Age of Discovery is about the great voyages of exploration that sent Europeans to every corner of the globe. Before the Wind is a game of warehouse management. Obviously, Age of Discovery wins the interesting-theme contest hands down.

The difference in appeal is due to the games’ mechanics. Age of Discovery is primarily about buying colored ship cards and matching them to same-color contract cards and same-color voyage of discovery cards. The primary strategic decision is about when to use your ship cards to fulfill contract cards (which generate cash) and when to use them to complete the voyages of discovery cards (which generate victory points). There is relatively little interaction between the players; they may be racing to grab certain ships, contracts, or voyages before other players can snag them, but there is little that any player can do to hinder an opponent.

In Before the Wind, players try to acquire goods cards of four different types (apples, cheese, spices, and silk) and then try to place these goods on ships in order to snag victory points. Each ship card has a specific number and type of goods that it requires in order to be captured by players. A small ship card may need one apples and one silk card to be acquired, and will generate 5 victory points. A large ship might require two spice cards and a cheese and an apple card to be acquired, but this ship will generate 18 victory points.

There are two complications to this basic game model. First, players can’t just acquire goods and stick them on ships. Goods first go into a player’s hand, and then must be transferred to a warehouse before they can be placed on a ship. Second, players must choose among a selection of action cards in order to perform any action on a turn. Players are in direct competition for action cards; it is possible that each player may get the exact card he needs on a turn, but not likely. Often, more than one player will want the same card and an auction will be required to decide who gets it.

It is this player inter-action that I believe makes Before the Wind the superior game. If Travis picks his action card first in the turn, and he picks the card that I need, then I have the option of making a cash offer for the card. This triggers an auction, and the other players get the option of making a one-time offer on the card. Travis may sell the card to whomever he chooses based on their offer. But if he wants to keep the card, Travis must pay the guy who triggered the auction the same amount of gold that he offered.

You can see the possibilities. Sometimes when no desirable card turned up in the draw line, I would make an offer on another player’s card just to blackmail them into giving me some cash. Judging when to make an offer and how much to ask is always an interesting challenge.

I am reminded of the fact that although the auction mechanism may be the most over-used mechanism in modern boardgames, it seldom fails to make a game more interesting.

And I have become increasingly fond of the competition-for-an-action mechanism that can be found in Lowenherz, Edel, Stein & Reich, and Basari as well as in Before the Wind.

And I am forced to conclude that mechanics can sometimes trump theme. In the future, if other gamers want to lure me into a game of exploring the world, I will have to reply that I would rather stay home and manage a warehouse.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Old Puzzler Answer / The News in Reviews / New Fortnightly Puzzler (for everyone!)

Thank you to everyone who tried out the "Backwards Brainteaser." If you're interested in more, write to I've got a variety of mazes/brainteasers using the same movement rules.

The winner is Terry Donahue who solved the puzzle correctly with the following 19 move sequence: A6, A5, A6, B6, B5, A5, A4, A5, B5, B6, A6, A5, A4, A5, B5, B4, A4, A3, A2 (also W, W, E, N, W, S, W, E, N, E, S, W, W, E, N, W, S, W, W). Congratulations!

As a side note, Terry referred me to Robert Abbott's website about mazes: As it happens, I read Abbott's book Mad Mazes when I was kid! If you like interesting mazes, give this website a try. Truly fascinating stuff.

Let's switch gears.

For a couple of years, I've been writing game reviews for our local paper, the Missoulian. Over time, I've developed a format for writing the reviews: 1) I tell a personal anecdote, 2) I lead into the actual game and write a short overview with a few impressions, and 3) sum up the article by reaching some reflective conclusion about the personal story. Sometimes this formula works great, and sometimes it's a little forced. Overall though, I've gotten a ton of feedback from folks who presumably wouldn't read a game review article without the human element.

It dawned on me that I hadn't posted any of those articles here. Gone Gaming and BGG are for the True Gaming Fan, and I think I convinced myself that there wouldn't be any interest due to the lack of an in depth review. Perhaps, I thought wrong.

Here's my recent article. Enjoy!


Every July when I was a kid, my parents would drive to the outskirts of town and buy fireworks for the family. Of course, we'd turn right around and drive home. Fireworks were technically illegal within the Corpus Christi city limits, but on the 4th, there wasn't a whole lot the law could do.

My dad was very strict about the use of fireworks: Lay the firecracker on the ground. Light the fuse. Run. We did this with everything, from Black Cats to Roman Candles. From his intensity you might have guessed we were lighting dynamite or pulling the pin from a grenade. My dad was a firecracker drill sergeant, and in time, I came to know the reason why.

Popping firecrackers in our backyard started long before I was born. In those early years, it was usually just my dad and my two brothers, Nick and Charlie.

As the story goes, my dad lit a firecracker and then regrouped with my brothers a safe distance away. The fuse went all the way down, and nothing happened. My dad and Nick started yelling, "It's a dud! It's a dud!" Charlie, not wise in the ways of the world, approached and picked up the firecracker.

It exploded.

Other than a couple of red fingers, Charlie didn't get hurt. But his ego had been severely bruised, and he was furious at both my dad and Nick.

This firecracking season brings to mind an appropriate game, if for nothing else but its name. The game is Bang!

Created by Emiliano Sciarra and produced by Mayfair Games, Bang! is a simple card game recreating the classic spaghetti western with good guys, bad guys, and a healthy dose of bullets.

Four to seven players are each dealt an identity card. The possible identities are the sheriff, a deputy, an outlaw, or a renegade. Each identity comes with a different goal. The sheriff and deputy want to kill all the outlaws; the outlaws want to kill both the sheriff and the deputy; the renegade wants to be the last man standing.

It's a simple enough premise, but at the beginning of every game, only the sheriff's identity is known. Through trial and error and a whole lot of bullets, each player tries to figure out the identities of the other players and ultimately who's with him and who's against him.

The cards in the deck have a variety of purposes. There are "miss" cards that allow you to dodge bullets, beer cards which give you energy (of course!), and gun cards which ramp up how far you can shoot or how much. Most simply let you "bang" another player.

And therein lies the fun. Bang! is a game that allows you to step into the boots of a gunslinger, hand on the holster and trigger finger itching for a chance. It's a great game for fans of the Old West genre and a fun, lighthearted approach to that dusty, familiar showdown scene. Best of all, no one is immune from a quick, explosive "BANG!"

This brings me back to Charlie and his unfortunate mishap. He supposedly held a grudge against my dad and Nick for several years.

When he was in high school, Charlie once again recounted the story to my mom, who was by then well-versed in the details. This time, however, Charlie's tone had changed. According to my mom, he said, "You know, when I picked up that firecracker and it blew up in my hand, it wasn't dad's or Nick's fault. It was mine."

I would like to have been there in that moment. I would like to have heard my brother say those words, to have felt their weight in the air. The moment was so short as to be unnoticeable, but my mother remembers after all these years. It wasn't the football games Charlie won nor the grades he made that made an impression, though I'm sure they had their place. In a moment, my brother grew up, and it's hard to imagine a more spectacular event than that.

New Fortnightly Puzzler

This time, I'd like to play 20 questions. You'll have to work as a team for this one.

Let me first state that I played that electronic 20 Questions toy, and it actually got my thought which was "lemur." The first question is a four-in-one, so it actually asked 23 questions (if you include the asking of what I was thinking, then it's 24 questions). I think we can do better.

I'm thinking of a specific game. In 20 questions, can you figure out what it is? I'll respond to all posts as often as I can during the next two weeks. Post carefully! I'll be counting…

Good luck!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

A couple of new ones...

Well, not much to say this week, I've got vacation hanging over my head so am rushing around to put that together.

I'll be seeing some nieces and nephews, they're all still fairly young so I think I'll just bring along Igloo Pop and No Thanks! as they can fit quite a range of players as well as a decent range of numbers of players.

I've manage to game quite a bit in the past two weeks, just a little above normal and that is mostly due to my recent aquisition of Age of Empires III: The Age of Discovery by Tropical Games. That is a long name, but the game deserves it. As I'm sure other people might have mentioned elsewhere, there aren't a lot of new mechanics to be seen here, but they are all well-oiled and work together to make a very nice game. My favorite style of game, in fact. Lots of agonizing choices where there are several good things you want to do but not enough resources to pull them all off. It seems like a fairly quick game but does tend to pull in at around two hours, and not the one hour I keep thinking it takes... To top it off, the game has a nice snowball (or engine building or "garden-tending") style to it so everyone's strategies tend to pay off in greater and greater amounts as the game goes on... I've played it 3 or 4 times in the past week and will be playing it some more in the future, I'm sure.

The other game I've been playing is the Stonehenge game anthology put out by Titanic Games. This is a set of pieces for five players consisting of a deck of cards, a circular track on a playing board, some round colored tokens, and some colored bar-shaped tokens. Then five "big-name" designers all developed a game for this set of pieces. Purchasers are, of course, also encouraged to try to design their own games - something I'm glad to see encouraged as I think it will help foster some nice creativity in younger minds and possibly swell the ranks of game designers in general. (More games for me to play, possibly.) In any case, I enjoyed most of the games I tried in Stonehenge. They all tended to take about 45 minutes to an hour to play and had a nice amount of gameplay contained in that short period of time. I wouldn't have wanted the games to go much longer as they weren't as deep as most games that aren't "anthologies", but for 60 minutes they were a very nice treat. In fact, in one evening I played five games of Stonehenge. Two games each of the first and third game in the instruction manual (each game takes up 2 pages of instructions so they aren't that complex) and then one game of the set.

We (the four, then five of us) all liked the first game a sort of area control game, and enjoyed the third - based around bidding for stones to collect sets of like colors. The last game we played, was supposed to be a wargame but was more like another area control. It was interesting but I think it was limited by the small deck size. I think that struck the heart of the limiting factor of this sort of anthology. Since all the parts are set out ahead of time, you can't customize things to "fix" problems as they arise. I wonder if the wargame would play better if it had just a bit more time to develop - thus needing slightly more cards. Then again, I guess our group could tinker with it ourselves, that's what the anthology is trying to promote in the first place.

Bottom line: I've got to finish vacation preparations so that's all for today. But if you're looking for a "bottom line" on the Stonehenge anthology, I give it a pretty big thumbs up. There are at least 2 if not 3 quality games there that can be played in a medium-short period of time and be quite enjoyable (strategic/not just a time waster). That is a somewhat rare category and with a couple varieties of game to choose from in one box, that's a pretty good deal.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Some games with the kids

Recently Melissa was sick and spent the day in bed, during the day amongst time spent in the cubby house, meals, reading (for Daughter the Elder) and the occasional DVD both the girls wanted to play games. Although there are some games that we all play together, this day was a day of two player games.

First up was the Stock Market Game. Daughter the Elder has been quite a fan of this for a while, I was when I was young too. She tends to hoard her cash a little too much instead of buying and selling, but still does quite well. For some reason she was getting bored after a while and called this game early, she was worth twice as much as me. Every game of this I have logged has been with her, we are rated #2 in plays for this game at about half the #1 player.

Daughter the Younger had been watching us play and she now wanted a turn, Color Clowns was her game of choice. To avoid the end game tedium of trying to roll a combination that you didn't already have, e.g. a purple triangle, we allowed three rolls to try and get something that allowed you to place a tile. This speeds the game up nicely. A win to Daughter the Younger.

We then played Marrakesh. As I have mentioned before Daughter the Younger pretty much learnt this by osmosis, just watching the rest of us play. She is now fully versant with the rules and plays it very well.

In our first time through the bag, all four sandstorms came out in a row which meant one camel lost to the sandstorms for me. Daughter the Younger still likes to take green and yellow goods from the market (the generally poor scoring ones), so she is also given a red or blue as appropriate for real scoring. She managed to get her fourth camel off the board whilst I still had two camels within reach of the end. Unfortunately two of the three tiles I drew were sandstorms so I only managed to get one of them to the market in time. A 22-15 win for Daughter the Youngeer.

Next was Daughter the Elder and Spy Alley. I have mainly only played this two player and occasionally three player and it may play a bit differently with more players but it really does feel under-developed. There seem to quite a few more Move cards than you are ever going to use and many many more times Free Gift cards than are ever going to be picked up. The quality of the components varies from excellent to mediocre. We have found that the lure of the possible $20 for going into Spy Alley and the likely hood of being hit with a $5 fine for avoiding Spy Alley means that it used around 90-95% of the time. Those comments aside, it is still a reasonable kids game and Daughter the Elder and I have logged more games than anyone else on BGG. We played three games and unlike any of the times we had ever played before a wild card was drawn from the Free Gift deck. No wonder they are worth $50 to "acquire" from another player, in each game that they were drawn that player won. In our other game Daughter the Elder guessed who I was. 2-1 victories in favour of Daughter the Elder.

After dinner and before Daughter the Elder's bed time it was time for Balloon Cup. We have been playing this since she was five. It was a closely contested game, but I grabbed my third third trophy the card before she would have picked up the other two trophies and probably the third as well.

After Daughter the Elder went to bed, Daughter the Younger requested one more game. This time it was Space Race. A simple roll and move game, but the spaces are well colour coordinated and you can learn the planets in the solar system as you play, although I am not entirely sure why the space ships are racing to reach the sun. A house rule we have implemented is that you do not have to roll the exact number to reach the sun, it can lengthen the game hideously. This was another win to Daughter the Younger.

There ended the day of games with Daughter the Elder and Daughter the Younger.

Friday, July 06, 2007

It's Alive!

Who would have thought that re-animating a corpse could be so simple?

Last night, the Appalachian Gamers played It’s Alive!, a quick card game designed by Yehuda Berlinger and published by Reiver Games. It’s Alive! is an auction game with a Frankenstein theme.

Each turn, a player draws a card from the deck. Most of the cards are parts of corpses with various numerical values ranging from 2 to 8 (if I remember correctly). The player can purchase the card by paying the card’s value in gold. Or he can cash in the card to his graveyard and collect half of the card’s value in gold. Or he can auction off the card in the hope of collecting more than half of the card’s value from other players, or of winning the card without paying the full cost.

The goal is to collect the eight body parts needed to complete your monster. Once one person has all his necessary body parts, he calls out “It’s alive!” Players then total the value of their body parts and gold. The player with the highest total wins.

There’s a little more to the game than that, but not much more. There are rampaging villager cards that require appeasement in the form of a payment of gold. There are also expensive coffin cards that act like wild cards and can take the place of a body part. But that’s about it; the game has the virtue of simplicity.

The auction is the heart of the game. Knowing when to pay full price for a body part card and when to auction it off is one of the most important decisions in the game. If your opponents have already acquired their feet cards, and you have not, then auctioning a foot card could allow you to nab it for a pittance. On the other hand, auctioning off an expensive head card could be a mistake if one other player is near to completing his monster.

As you might suspect, the ability to remember the cards that other players have bought is a useful skill in this game.

For me, It’s Alive! will always be nothing more than a quick filler game. But it offers plenty of fun with relatively few rules, has appropriately grotesque art work, and gives players a chance to break out their Boris Karloff accents. I think It’s Alive! will stagger toward our gaming table again when a filler game is required.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Economics, Technology, Philosophy, and Law

There's an old joke that goes like this:

"I'm running a store, but I lose money on every product I sell!!"
"So how do you stay in business?"

This article is about gaming and all those things that appear in the header--economics, technology, philosophy, and law. It's more about the roleplaying industry, which is having a tough time in the modern market, but a lot of the discussion could apply to Eurogaming as well--particulaly the niche sort of Eurogaming that we're more likely to enjoy that's less family-oriented, more strategic, and thus less likely to appeal to the mass market.

So accept my caveat that they may not apply 100% to the normal topics of this column, but nonetheless I think it's related.

Economics: The Deep Discounters Appear

In the mid-1990s the Internet was opened up for commercial use. This ultimately created many new industries,from MMORPGs to downloadable movies, but it also created a largely unique business model that hadn't existed before: the deep discounter.

Before that if you wanted to sell things you usually had to open up a brick & mortar storefront. This required lots of costs, like rent, local taxes, and additional staff. But, it also offered unique advantages like visibility, human beings to talk to, and the ability to physically inspect products you were interested in buying.

After the commercialization of the Internet you could now open up a virtual storefront. You no longer needed a physical building in the town square; instead you could get by with an online website. A web of interconnectivity ensured that even with minimal advertising, you could get the word out. And in return you shed all of those extra costs. A deep discounter could now "flip" products, buying them from a distributor, then selling them for just a few percent more.

On the downside, he lost all those cool advantages too, and perhaps that would be OK if they weren't the exact sort of advantages that keep bring people into niche gaming industries.

Technology: It Changes Everything

This is ultimately a story about technology, and how it changes everything.

For years gaming companies--and this is why these topics are definitely more about the roleplaying industry than the Eurogame industry, because it's even less approachable--had depended on a specific economic model for success. In this model they could expect to pay a certain amount for marketing and expect to get a certain amount of free marketing from game stores and through those bring in enough new customers to offset the constant (and expected) outflow of old customers.

Deep discounters changed that model because they didn't bring in new customers in the same way. This essentially broke the old economics of game publishing, and it got worse over the years as online discounters increasingly proliferated and drove brick and mortar stores out of business. In a generally tough time this additional loss of replacement customers hurt the most niche companies the most, but I'd bet by 2007 everyone has seen some result of this, whether it be contraction or just reduced growth.

However you can't really blame the deep discounters. Some of them are fools who literally are losing money on every sale they make and are dragged hobbyist industries down with them in their ignorance. Others, however, are doubtless eking out a living, living a small-scale version of the capitalist dream.

Instead you need to blame technology, and this isn't the only time that technology has screwed up an economic model. Here it's a bit harder to see the cause and effect, but I'd instead point you to a model where what's going on is much more clear: television.

Several years ago the Tivo came out. It allowed you to watch television without watching commercials. The problem: most television is dependent upon commercials for its income. Just as with the advent of deep discounters an improvement in technology broke an old economic model creating a new reality that is totally unsustainable in the long-term, no matter how much consumers might enjoy the short-term benefit.

Philosophy: Dead White Men Predicted It
Though our generation has seen more technological innovation than the rest of history, nonetheless dead white men predicted a lot of these problems that technology is causing.

"The Tragedy of the Commons" derives from an 1833 parable by William Forster Lloyd, though it was actually popularized in the 1960s by Garrett Hardin. It suggests that unrestricted access to a finite resource generally destroys the resource. For example if you have a field where many shepherds graze their flocks, each shepherd gets a notable gain when he adds a single sheep, while any cost in damage to the field is divided among all the shepherds. Thus, no one individual is encouraged to reduce their usage of the resource.

A closely related issue that's even more relevant to the topic at hand is the "Free Rider Problem". This states that when something has a cost, but provides a common good, then some people will enjoy the good without having paid the cost, but that when too many people do so, then the common good won't appear in the first place. This problem is most frequently used in discussions of labor unions, but it equally applies to any social benefit, and is the reason that countries' tax systems aren't voluntary.

So take this back to the world of gaming: those game stores are providing the common good. They're improving the hobby's visibility and bringing new players in. Everyone receives the benefits whether they shop at a brick & mortar store or not. Their favorite manufacturers are able to stay in business, and thus they keep manufacturing new games which everyone can purchase. However some people "free ride" by purchasing instead at deep discounters, and thus don't contribute to the growth of their hobby--or even to its continued existence at a very fundamental level.

Thus: set economic models + new technologies (as understood by old philosophies) = doom + gloom.

Law: A New Option
The big problem here was that manufacturers couldn't do anything about this. They could know that deep discounters were devaluing their product and decreasing their opportunities for replacement customers, but if they tried to cut deep discounters out they could be charged with price fixing.

Some took the route of refusing sales to stores without a storefront, which solved part of the problem, but not for stores which also ran deep discount operations.

Last week the Supreme Court changed this with a 5-4 decision which will probably allow game companies to set minimum prices for their products, saying, for example, that stores couldn't sell their products for less than 80% of MSRP for 90 days after receiving it.

I'm pretty sure the roleplaying industry is going to take advantage of this. I don't know about board game manufacturers. They've had a rosier last several years, but from what I've seen no hobbyist gaming boom ever lasts. It's going to be a big deal in any case. It's also going to cause considerable upset among consumers who could see their spending power go down by 15% or 25% (if they previously bought at deep discounters).

Personally, I went over to buying from brick & mortar-only a few years ago, but I'll be honest: it wasn't because I was making a philosophical statement. I just wanted to support a top-notch local store. If it weren't for them, I'd still be a free rider, destroying the commons.

For whichever hobbyist industries are affected, it'll be a hard time for customers, but it'll also be an entirely required economic change. The old model was broken. It's been broken for at least ten years. A new one had to be created. We benefited from unfairly low prices for ten years, and now it's going to seem unfair when prices return to their normal levels.

But that's change, and in our world of technology, there's always a whole lot of it.

You can read more about the decision, and a lot of comments on it, some very erudite, some totally uninformed at Ryan Dancey's blog.