Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Techniques to Recruit The Non-gamer in Your Home

1-Withholding sustenance. "Supper will be served after a quick game of ______." Note that this only works if you are the chef. This can also backfire when the target non-gamer has access to the checkbook and the car keys.

2-Hide the TV remote. This is a good choice if your target is a couch potato. Better yet, secretly unplug the TV and say it's broken. If TV isn't your only technological competition, you could put in a supply of candles and flashlight batteries and throw the main circuit breaker.

Note that the last suggestion only applies to people who live in secluded areas otherwise the target non-gamer might look out the window and marvel at the lights in all the other houses.

3-The Trade. In exchange for a specified amount of time playing a game with you, you promise to do a chore of equal duration such as wash the dishes, vacuum, or watch that horrid movie you promised yourself you'd NEVER watch again.

4-The Gift Exchange. "Instead of buying me that Makita 18 volt, cordless drill with an extra battery and carrying case, how about spending the day playing games with me?" This is a desperate measure since you're giving up the chance for a nice present on your birthday or other gift-related holiday in exchange for playing games. This technique is not recommended unless you already own all the power tools, kitchen gadgets and useless crap that you want at this time.

5-Pouting/Moping combination. This is often effective but takes time, especially for women since men will immediately assume it's just "that time of the month". You must use a delicate balance of heavy sighs, sitting motionless with a faraway look in your eyes, and wandering around the house aimlessly with an occassional stop at your game collection to touch a game or two, wistfully.

6-The Demonstration. If you have a few friends that would agree to gather at your house to play, this is a great chance to demonstrate what fun games are, what stimulating conversation can ensue, how much those friends can eat.

7-The Solo Demonstration. If you have no friends, you can still use the demonstration technique. Set up a game and play by yourself, laughing loudly, congratulating yourself on brilliant moves and jokingly berating yourself for stupid moves.

Note: This should only be attempted if you already have a history of odd behavior, otherwise you could find yourself in a very small room in need of a game where hand mobility is not required.

8-Ask for Advice. This is a variation of #6 which takes less acting ability but more mental agility. While playing a solo game, ask your target non-gamer their opinion of a strategy you're thinking of or a rule clarification. If you can keep the discussion going, this will draw them unwittingly into a game and before you can say, "Meeples Rule!", you'll be congratulating them on a game well-played.

9-Blackmail. This is a last resort and should not be used lightly. "I know what you did with the body" is subtle yet effective in getting their attention, while at the same time reminding them that Junior would be emotionally scarred if he knew the truth about his long-lived hamster.

10-Begging. Let's not even go there; it's too undignified for a Gamer.

I recently got Architekton and have played it 10 or 12 times, mostly trying to figure it out. Not that it's a difficult game, in fact it's extremely easy; but in trying to figure out why there doesn't seem to be much of a game here. There seems to be very little strategy required beyond the obvious--forcing your opponent to pay when he hasn't enough points--and a great deal of luck in the draw of the tiles is required for that.

You can try to squeeze your opponent by playing on both sides of him in hopes of forcing him to
remove houses, but the luck can turn this tactic against you and leave you with nothing but a split force. You can try the end run but this becomes boring as you play on your side of the board and he plays on his, trading points back and forth. Again, luck must be your partner.

The last few turns don't even require luck as you're usually playing to protect any buildings that have only 2 tiles adjacent to them. If you do get lucky, you could score another house. The final plays, rather than being full of tension, are anticlimactic.

Luck can also favor the beginning player if he's able to place 2 "clean" houses on the first turn, so we tried a variant where the first player can only play 1 tile, which helped with that problem but I still find the game to be not much more entertaining than playing a good game of solitaire.

It's not a totally mindless game, since you always have to check the available tiles for your best move and take into account what you're leaving for your opponent, it just doesn't feel like much of a competition because you're at the mercy of the tiles.

The leaves are starting to turn yellow on the walnut trees and the nights are dropping into the 50's here in the foothills of the Black Hills. You know what that means...we've wasted a summer and have a lot of work to do before winter gets here. Those home improvements that kept getting put off and the cords of wood to cut, split and stack are higher on the list of things to do than playing games. Damn, I hate when life interferes with having fun!

Until next time, remember: Half of being clever is making certain you're not being stupid.


Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Meet Gilad Yarnitzky

I'm still working on chapter 4 of Encounter. In the meantime, here is an interview I did with Gilad Yarnitzky.

Gilad is the creator of and the founder of board gaming groups in Modiin and Tel Aviv. In addition, he is trying to create a country-wide board gaming organization in order to promote board games in Israel.

Tell us a little about yourself, apart from gaming.

I'm 37 and married with three kids. I'm an engineer, with everything that implies :-). I work as a software engineer, having just finished my masters in biomedical eng, and hoping to find a job in that field (maybe start my own startup company). Every ~4 years I get bored at the job I'm doing and I switch fields (but sometimes in the same area). I have too many hobbies and too little time for all of them: bridge, model wooden ship building (these first two I hardly do anymore owing to the lack of time), origami, woodworking, and, of course, board games.

Tell us about your involvement with gaming.

I have a relative long history with games. I started in the third grade when my older brother showed me AH Kriegspiel. It took me a year or two to realize it was so different from all the other games I played with my friends. After that, D&D came to Israel and I was in one of the first groups that started here. Many AH games followed. After the army I started a gaming company with my friend that did the first and only Hebrew PBEM and some other things that didn't get published in the end (some really bad luck, I might say). After that, I took a few years off from gaming (I was too disappointed with my failure). The trigger back into gaming was the Eurostyle games that got me started again.

After working in the computers field for so long and seeing how my kids are getting addicted to them, I saw in board games a way out of this situation, and I’m happy to say my kids are game. In order to increase the exposure of board games I started a board game forum in the largest forums community in Israel, which got some exposure, but not enough. I’m now trying to create the Israeli board game association and join forces with companies who are importing games, and with shops that sell the games. It takes time and patience to educate people, but I believe board games in Israel will catch up.

My kids get a large dose of gaming at home, and I'm also teaching their friends whom I sometime invite especially to teach them a game. I can see some success when their friends come over and prefer to play a board game rather than watch TV or play on the computer. One last but not least thing: I must admit that all this effort would not be possible without my number one gaming partner: my wife. I'm a very lucky guy - my wife will play any game that is not a full fledged war game.

Tell me more about your gaming company. What was the business model? Did you create your own games? Did any of the ideas survive?

We had two types of income generating activities:

1: PBM game that combined both roleplaying and war games. At that time, there was a rising hype about roleplaying and we thought it would be a nice addition to the options for players in Israel to have. We examined the market size in the U.S. according to publications by different companies, both free games and pay-per-turn games. Our goal was to reach 200 players on a regular basis. At our peak, we only reached ~60-70 players - that is still nice. I’m sure that nowadays we could have reached more.

2: Advice to technology companies that want to develop games. Many companies here had some nice technology, internet was on the rise, as well as graphical engines, etc. We got in touch with a few companies offering to develop a game that would benefit most from their technology. Our idea was to sell the computer game rights to the company and keep the board game rights to ourselves (for games, this was possible). Only one company said that they understand their limitation in developing games and wanted us to do it. All the rest said: “How hard can it be?” One even showed us after a few months a game they developed. Great graphics, great user interface, lousy game. We gave them a few pointers on why their game was bad. They said “Graphics will cover for every thing.” Needless to say, 6 months after this they canceled developing the game any further since there was no interest in it. With the one company with which we did work together, everything went great. We created a great diplomacy-like game (I still have the prototype at home). We even got in touch with AH and my partner went there and they had a few sessions playing the game. But the game did not go commercial (the computer version) since the company was bought and the new owner decided that he did not want to promote games with their new technology.

We did not lose money, and even made some, but not enough to make a living out of it so we stopped after 2-2.5 years.

Bottom line: We had a great time, developing our own games, met interesting people, and hopefully I'll do it again some day.

How did you decide to start the board game forum, and what has been your experience with it so far? How did that lead to ?

I was thinking of a way that people can get information in an "interactive way" by asking for information and reading articles. The forum is one way to do it that did not require any resources on my part except for time. It started slow, with about 4-5 regular people and slowly grew to about 15. Then I decided to hold a forum meeting where people could meet each other and play together. The number grew until it reached ~30-40 people interested in the subject. Sadly, slowly people left the forum. I'm still in touch with lot of them, and they are still into board games more then ever, but the activity in the forum has declined over the past year. This is partially my fault since I did not publish as much as I had previously done.

Some of the people who came into the forum helped me with opening the game club (that didn't work well, but that is another story) and also with opening as a center of activities for the board games in Israel. I need to invest more time in increasing the amount of data available at the site and hopefully I'll have more time in the coming year.

OK, I'll bite: tell me about the game club. While we're at it, tell me about your contacts in the gaming world (Grognads seems to like you a lot!)

The idea of the gaming club was to have a place where many people can come and play games and play in tournaments format. There are two problems:

1: A place for all the people (and usually a place means paying money).

2: Games. Since these games are not very well known, I couldn't expect that people will bring their own games. After all, I wanted to create an exposure to games so I needed to supply the games.

We found a very nice bridge club with a nice cafeteria that agreed to host us for a very acceptable price. I bought lots of games, both for tournaments and free play, and decided to charge a bit more in order to cover the costs of the games. And still the cost was less then a movie ticket for a ~4 hour gaming session. The problem was that we tried to do it on a weekly basis, and there are not enough people here to support such a format. We had an average of 12-15 people per night which was not enough for the bridge club owner so we had to stop the activities. We are now trying to start again with a game shop and do it once a month and see how things go.

Unfortunately, I do not know enough people from the gaming world. I had some letter exchange with Jeremy Young from Uberplay who was very helpful with my large game order from them for the club. Some letter exchange with Greg Aleknevicus, author of “The Games Journal”. I have also been in touch with Greg J. Schloesser, and I made some connections with people from the BGG, mostly Grognads and some other nice fellows from the chat. I’m not even sure how many of those people will recognize my name, but it doesn’t really matter; they were always very nice, very helpful and I’m happy to be part of this great community. I do hope that as time passes, I will be more known, but as I said, this is not the issue for me. Creating a large board gaming organization here in Israel is more important at the moment.

Do you envision the board gaming organization to include traditional board games, like backgammon, chess, go, bridge, Scrabble, etc., that are already established in Israel? What is the possibility of overlap with these groups?

This is a bit tricky. Most well established organizations will probably prefer not joining another organization, especially well organized and large groups such as chess and bridge. On the other hand, I wouldn't mind people who are just interested in these fields in joining, but I fear the board games organization will provide less specific services compared to those large organizations. Maybe in the very far future, if the IBGA (Israel Board Gaming Association) will become very large, we can do joint activities.

Where do you buy your games?

I usually buy the games online from different shops. Usually I do a price check, unless I'm looking for a specific game that can only be found in a single shop (or two) and order. My last two orders were from, but I also bought games from Funagain, Gamefest, and Cardhaus. Occasionally, I do step into a store and buy a game. Here in Israel it is rare, but on vacations abroad I try to buy several games.

What games do you buy?

Most game I buy are Eurogames for 2-5 players, with playing time 1-2 hours. The games have to be interesting according to what I read on the net, and it is best if I can read the rules before buying. I also like to gamble about once every order. Last time, it was Tyros by Wallace, and it turned out to be fine.

What games do you play?

Due to the nature of people I can get into playing games, and the time limit I have, I currently do not play any heavy war games. Anything else goes.

What are your favorite games?

This is a hard one, simply because in most games I can find something interesting. It is very rare that I will encounter a game I will not play again. This is also due to the fact that since we (me and gaming partners) have so many games, they cycle; until a game returns can be a long time, and then everyone is willing to have a go at it.

But games I do like and will play any chance I get are:

King Maker, AH Civilization , Taj Mahal, Vinci, Citadels, Puerto Rico, Traders of Genoa, and there are many more.

What are your wife's favorite games?

My wife will play about any game that is not a core war game. So most of the games on my list will also be on hers, including King Maker and Civilization (even AH Britannia).

What are your kids'/kids' friends' favorite games?

Since they are still relatively young, they have not had a chance to be exposed to the heavier games. So most of the time they prefer: Cartagena, Carcassonne, Carcassonne: the Castle, Zoosim.

What are the favorite games of the people you play with?

Most of the people enjoy Bohnanza, Citadels, Taj Mahal, Samurai, and Settlers of Catan. These are the games I usually introduce to new players and usually they work great in luring people into the gaming world.

Do you have any comments about gaming and your country and/or religion (interpret this as you will)?

Personally I don’t have problems playing games that include the Arab-Israeli wars, games with fantasy gods and things like that, although I did meet some people who had problems with these kind of games, some because of religious problems and some because they didn’t like the fact that Israel can lose in the game.

Are there any games that you wouldn't play based on moral or ethical considerations?

Yes, games that encourage law breaking, killing, and abuse of other people. I think some computer games are on that thin line, but I’m happy to say that personally I haven’t encounter a board game with those “features”.

What do table top games have to contribute that people can't get from some other social hobby, such as sports, knitting, reading groups, etc...?

I think it is the combination of things: it is a very social activity where during the gaming session you can also have a nice discussion about things other than the game while waiting for your turn (try doing that in a group sport activity and your group buddies will tear you apart). It is a good activity to give the brain a good workout, which is also very important. One last important thing: it is very dynamic, in the sense that there are so many good games that every meeting can be so different than any other, so people who start gaming, do not get bored by it.

Do you go to general Israeli game conventions?

I usually go not as a player but as a board game moderator. Many conventions have limited sessions of board gaming and I want to increase the exposure to games, so I volunteer to host some board game sessions.

What do you think is possible in Israel with respect to board games in the next few years?

I’m quite optimistic about the possibilities here in Israel. When I look backwards at the last 3-4 years and I see the advances that were made (2 companies import games, 5+ shops sell board games, one even quite large now, larger exposure in media, larger number of gaming groups), I believe that we are at the beginning of an increase in board game activities, just as happened with roleplaying in the last 10 years.

Will we ever have an international board game convention in Israel?

Sadly, I’d have to say that there is a small chance for that. Not only do we have to increase the activities here to a much higher level, but the costs of most people to come to Israel is so high (the flight price alone can kill you), that I don’t believe people will come to Israel just for that.

Any last words?

Join the force, eh, game players. It is good for you. No harm will come to you, join us… (diabolic laughter)

OK…Thanks for answering!

Sunday, August 28, 2005


n addition to the usual 'fare', I'll drop something in here that is currently unavailable online for anyone else-except for one 'lucky' GEEK -YOU! There's a fairly 'local' guy I know who's into making his OWN 'line' of products and these are just a few of them, from probably HUNDREDS! They run the gamut from Historical to Fantasy & Sci-Fi, while they are 'metal-cast' and hefty for the bigger ones, and that adds to the COST for these as well. He has them in various 'scales' for the MINIS involved, such as even ''Micro Armor'' types of 'futuristic' proportions! The larger kinds could be used for close to 15mm gaming purposes, while the majority are scaled at 1/72nd with even some 'periods' not currently being covered by ANY company. That, in my 'book', makes it ever the sweeter to actually have met, and bought some of his 'stuff'. I noticed that on my last 'visit' to his site-before it became 'unavailable'-that even a few of the MINIS that I had gotten before, were NO longer being produced, of which I'd have liked to gotten more of these. I can't wait until this is online once again since I can't do HIM 'justice' with my descriptions for the fine details that he puts into each and every subject and topics that he has managed to create. For the most part, he's even slightly cheaper on price per 'pack' of them than the more 'esteemed' makers, while none of 'them' have anything akin to many of his OWN 'designs'! I will pay him homage in this and hope the best for his swift recovery on the betterment of gaming with MINIS for anyone who so desires.

Just past Friday I got to see up close of a British Armoured Car called the ''Ferret'' at a local junkyard! It was fully restored by the owner of the place while he keeps it 'on display' inside his lobby, and he even had it 'delivered' from merrye ole England himself. I couldn't believe this myself, and I got to 'turn the turret' and 'fire the Machine Gun' with my OWN 'noises' for such. I imagined battlin' the 'Arab Legion' in this, while I wonder how many would 'get that'? Back in the day, there was even Stugs still going to 'Battle' during these conflicts, as well as T34-85s, Shermans, etc. with many of them getting 'upgrades' as well. I was always 'fond' of the AMX-13 Tank just for its 'uniqueness' factor, which was one of our ''firing targets'' for practices on our 'Guns', when I was in the Army. If I could have my OWN ''Army Vehicle'', then what would I want?

One thing that I believe should be addressed at sites such as BGG, is that there become 'selective' kinds for ALL types of games. I know that there are many around as it is, but they're not even complete as they could evolve into. They ought to be getting the folks who can 'handle' the *specialty* sites to assist in this, while if they don't then who's to 'say' that WE just do 'such' on our OWN? The FRP/RPG people desire this within the confines of the BGG, or more likely to just 'be' associated for some reason. I mean, it IS ''Boardgame Geek'', so why not ''CCG Freak Geek'' or ''Euro-Freak Geek''? and ''Fantasy Freak Geek''? no, you're ONE! Then we could have our ''People's VOTE!'' from the various sites for their categories instead of however this is supposedly 'determined', of which of course then there's ALWAYS a 'much better' game that SHOULD have 'won'd!

Saturday, August 27, 2005

The Problem with Game Boxes

A few weeks ago I inherited a bookshelf. This led to a general cleaning & reorganizing of one of my storage closets, and allowed me to pull a lot of my older games out of storage containers and put them back on shelves.

These included tons of classic American titles from my High School and College years. Dune, Source of the Nile, and Wizard's Quest from Avalon Hill. 2038, Mystic War, and Suzerein from TimJim Games. Arkham Horror and Elric from Chaosium. The Lonely Mountain, The Riddle of the Ring, and The Battle of Five Armies from I.C.E. King Arthur and Excalibur from Wotan Games. And a number of others from these publishers, Steve Jackson Games, TSR, White Wolf, and others. About five feet worth of games, all said and done, neatly arrayed on two shelves.

And that was what struck me, as I was juggling things in and out of the closet, dodging empty storage containers, piles of books, and curious cats. The games all fit. On the bookshelves. Perhaps we took it for granted at the time. But ...

We don't know how good we had it.

This might seem a pretty minor issue to kibitz about, but I suspect that storage issues affect just about anyone who has any size of game collection. And it's because, for all that we might belly ache about old American game design now, there's one thing they definitely got right, at least in the hobby industry: the boxes. They were relatively small, they were relatively consistent even when published by different companies and with different printers, and they were easy to store.

Woe is us that the same isn't true for the German invasion.

Boxes Today

My German boxes are, conversely, a mess.

A few companies get it "right". Alea and Hans im Gluck are my favorites, because they publish classic "bookcase games", just the right size to stand on their end and place on a shelf. Sure, I've learned that I have to baggy all of the pieces to keep my victory points, corn, and buildings from turning into a gooey mash in the bottom of my Puerto Rico box, but that's a small price to pay. I mean, back in the American bookcase days, we just accepted that was what happened, because we didn't have trays inside the boxes, and so everything was going to get mixed together no matter what orientation you put things in. The Carcassonne boxes are pretty good too, and it's been nice to see a few other companies pick them up in recent years.

However the big square boxes used by Days of Wonder, Kosmos, and some others are one of my least favorite. They do have one huge virtue: consistency. A lot of companies use that exact same box size (though there are a few that are just different enough to be annoying: my copies of Pueblo and Rumis almost fit this size, but are enough different to cause some problems). On the downside, those boxes are definitively not bookshelf games. The bookshelves in my house all tend to be 8-10 inches deep. Those square boxes are about 12"x12", just large enough that even when you put them on the top of a bookshelf they tend to hang off. I'm not even sure where I could store these rationally.

I'm slightly more fond of the longer boxes used for games like Samurai, Primordial Soup, and Santiago, and others. They're about 11"x15", which is still too big for the average bookshelf, but at least they only hang off by a little, rather than a lot. Some companies abuse this size box, by putting way too few components, in way too big of a box, but that's another topic.

Other than these several very standard sizes, the rest of my game collection falls into complete chaos. Medium and small boxes are a cacophony of sizes and styles. I find 7 different box sizes on my Reiner Knizia shelf alone (excluding those aforementioned large square and long boxes, which I can't even keep with my main Reiner Knizia collection). Queen Games seems to be generally accepted as the worst offender in weird gamebox sizes; who thought a shoebox was a good size for a game? Smaller square boxes, which should be somewhat consistent, instead come in infinite variations, from teeny (Saga, 6.5"x6.5"), to small (the Kosmos 2-player series, 8"x8"), to medium (Cartagena, 9"x9"), to medium-large (La Strada, 10"x10", the only game I own in this size). New England is another of my least favorites: at a whopping 13.5" tall and 10.5" deep, it looks like a bookshelf game, but won't fit on most shelves--in either the height or the depth department. I believe it's a standard Goldsieber size, but again I don't own any other games at this particular size. The fact that some of my games were alternatively produced in Germany, America, Canada, and China probably doesn't help this confusion of box sizes any.

But, darnit, at least publishers could stop insisting on using every box size under the sun among their own lines. Look at Fantasy Flight, see how consistent their Silver Line is? They've even kept the same size through games published in different countries! Look at Days of Wonder. See how they keep cranking out that same square box, and how their smaller games were pretty consistent too, with the exception of Terra? That's a good thing!

Yes, this is largely an aesthetic issue, but aesthetics are important. I want my games to look good, and I want them to fit on the shelves. Those old American games did!

The Economics of Size

For a while I was hosting all my game nights at my house. That was easy: I took a game off my shelf, tossed it on the table, and played.

Last year, however, I started attending a game night at a local game store, EndGame. And I had to walk to the local train station, then catch Rapid Transit down to Oakland to attend. The whole economy of my gameplaying changed.

Because I had to carry my games to the store.

Suddenly Modern Art became prized greatly above Samurai. I liked the latter better, but I could fit three or four Modern Art-sized games into the same space. I began to curse El Grande, with the vast empty spaces inherent in its box, and when the gaming goliath did come with me it was inevitably stuffed full of Relationship Tightrope, Coloretto, Razzia!, and other small games.

Within this new context I began to worship the small and the compact. Hansa and China, in their wafer-thin boxes, became two of my favorites, and one day I just barely stopped myself from buying Paris! Paris! I'd heard so many bad things about the game, but it was in such a cute, thin box. How could I resist? (I did, but mainly through a lack of funds.)

If you just toss your games into your car, or else do no more than haul them off your shelves, as I did in my lazy days, this won't impact you. But as someone who has to carry his games in his shoulder-bag, schlupping a mile to BART and back, I've grown to love those companies who make my bag lighter and more gameful.

The point of all this?

Boxes. They impact our lives as gamers, and kudos to those companies who actually do think about issues of storage, consistency, and weight.

Friday, August 26, 2005

Bloglines gave me my life back. ASL threatens to take it away.

Many thanks to Yehuda, who suggested I try Bloglines last week. What a great service. Thanks to others who made suggestions, too. Bloglines was the first recommendation, hence it was the first I tried. I was pleased enough that I didn't explore any of the other suggestions.

Back when I was only monitoring a dozen blogs it was easy to just click through them two or three times each week. But that was a while ago. I plugged 55 blogs into Bloglines the other day. Iain Cheyne just sent me a list of even more RSS feeds, including a few websites I had assumed had no feeds. Bloglines notifies me when any of them have new content. I now have time for another part-time job, or for two additional games of Puerto Rico each week. Why, oh why, didn't I look into RSS feeds months ago?

The first week this blog was up I saw numerous references to RSS feeds, and I was intrigued. A fellow BGGer, Scott Nicholson, requested that I link to the Live Journal feed he created, which is right here, btw as well as the feed for my blog, which is right here Thanks, Scott.

I had heard of RSS feeds, but when I did my research I only found pay services. I wasn't enthused enough with the idea to pay for it. After I got Scott's message I looked at Live Journal and found they had a free service. Unfortunately, I got no where with their free service, but I did more research and found other sites that provided a free service. That is what prompted my inquiry last week. I'm glad I asked.

Bloglines = Good Stuff.


My last few game sessions have been Advanced Squad Leader sessions. There is a local tournament scheduled for mid-September and my friends want to brush up on the rules. What a game. What a surprise. I kinda like it. Don't expect me to read the rules, though. My friend has two 5-pound rule books and dozens of cheat sheets lying around. Fortunately, each scenario only requires 2-3 pounds of rules, one does not need to know all 10 pounds of rules for each game.

Note: For those of you unfamiliar with ASL, I am not joking about two 5 lb. rule books. He has two 3" binders stuffed full of hundreds of pages of rules. In addition to the basic rules, which are massive, each scenario (and there are dozens, possibly hundreds of scenarios) has numerous rule modifications to keep the scenario historically accurate.

ASL is a wargame of squad-level combat. Players control individual squads, leaders, individual vehicles, machine guns, and other individual pieces of equipment. Detail is voluminous. The height of the bamboo in Pacific-theater scenarios varies from hex to hex. Men cower, break and rally if conditions are appropriate, and rules are modified to reflect a squad's actual morale at the time the scenario takes place in order to keep things historically accurate. Equipment can break. Snipers take pot shots independent of your command. Turning the turret on a tank takes precious movement points, and every vehicle was laboriously studied to insure its stats reflected real life capabilities. Squads armed with certain weapons are more likely to suffer equipment malfunction. Certain weapons are heavier to carry, so squads armed with those weapons move slightly slower each round. You don't just move squads around either, you have to state how they are moving; assault move, dash, CX, and low crawl are some of the more common types of movement. Even smoke from damaged vehicles is figured into the game.

The detail is insane.

I actually had a half-track blow up because my crew didn't use precious movement points to check the oil level before going into battle. I lost another squad because they were listening to BBC-1 instead of BBC-2 when the firing started. Every good ASL player knows that BBC-1 is 17% more likely to put soldiers to sleep than BBC-2. Or... were those post-ASL-game nightmares? It is so hard to separate the two.

I believe most ASL material was published in the 80s and 90s under the original Avalon Hill name. When AH went broke, new ASL material vanished. Die-hard fans kept the game alive, E-bay prices for old modules are confiscatory. The game has been resurrected and is now being published by MultiMan Publishing, including a beginner's module.

ASL is not a party game. It is not a game to be played casually then discarded. It is not even a heavy game. It is a lifestyle. It's not my lifestyle, but I could vacation there for a week or two each year if I was with a friend who spoke the language and he sprang for all the expenses.

Watch for a guest blog next Friday.

Good gaming,

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Say Hello to:

Gerald McDaniel, aka gamesgrandpa, who lives in Lakewood, Colorado. He retired in 1997 after 32 years working in human resources and automated systems. His current game group consists of his wife of 41 years, his son and daughter, son-in-law, grandson and granddaughter, with whom he plays almost every Saturday.

You've raised your children with games and now you're introducing your grandchildren to games. Did you grow up in a household of gamers?

Gerald: My parents were not really game-players. I had no siblings, and my earliest years were spent on a farm with no nearby neighbors with children. I do recall, however, that the first (and only) game my parents taught me to play was Crazy Eights, with a regular deck of cards, at about age 4 or 5. My next memory of gaming was with my cousins, uncles, and grandmother. Only one cousin was near my age; the others were adults. So, I began gaming (mostly playing cards) with adults. My grandmother taught me to play (and played often with me) checkers and dominoes. My uncles and cousins loved to play Pitch, and that is still my favorite card game. I learned the value of adults playing games with children from first-hand experience.

What games do you recommend for children in their early school years?

Gerald: My recommendations are certainly different today than they would have been about thirty years ago, when we were teaching our children to play games. With our grandchildren, we first went through the usual gamut of Candyland, Chutes and Ladders, My First Board Games, and The Wizard of Oz Yellow Brick Road Game, among others. They also learned early to play Uno and a memory game of matching cards turned face-down (Rainbow Fish cards, but not the games listed on BGG under that name).

We suddenly became aware of Euro games about that time, and began playing Frank’s Zoo, Pick Picknic, Trumpet, Vampire, and Zirkus Flohcati. The grandkids learned these games quickly, and we all enjoyed playing them together. I highly recommend these Euro games for pre-school and early school-age children. I also think Uno is a good early-age card game that requires no reading or math knowledge; matching colors and numbers is a good skill to learn very young.

Our seven-year-old grandson consistently wins or scores highly in games with adults, such as Hunters and Gatherers, Settlers of Catan, Mississippi Queen, and Canyon. He also fares very well against his dad when they play their three-set games of HeroScape. These are good games for children. Our nine-year-old granddaughter has not caught the gaming bug to the extent the rest of the family has, but she and her brother recently learned Nertz, and that has become the game she wants to play every weekend (and she is very good at it). Note: Seven-hand Nertz is a wild and chaotic game!

Games may help children with social skills and academic skills such as reading, math and even geography. Do you think the Euro-games are better at this than the typical games we grew up with like Monopoly, Life, Sorry, Clue and Yahtzee?

Gerald: Almost all games teach something worthwhile to children, even if it’s just learning to take turns or the fact that life can and will throw surprises at them. However, I do believe the Euro games are more interesting and challenging, and they help children learn a wider variety of skills and knowledge. Most (or maybe all) Euro games offer more control by the players, in my opinion, and this eliminates a lot of the “run of bad luck” found with primarily random dice-rolling, spinner-flicking, and card-turning games. These newer games require more thinking, more planning, more analysis, and more deduction and induction, and they are more satisfying. Many of them also require extensive social interaction, such as negotiating with other players (example: Settlers of Catan), trying to convince others to do something that will help you as well as them (examples: Hunters & Gatherers and Royal Turf), or learning to play cooperatively (example: Lord of the Rings). [Our grandson enjoys all of those games.] These are important skills for children to learn.

Our grandson is well ahead of his grade level in math. I think it is because of a combination of some innate ability he has and his experiences with games. He has amazed us from about age four with his ability to add and subtract double-digit numbers, usually to add up game scores. We used to quiz him to tell us how many points one player was behind another, and he could do the math in his head (he didn’t know how to write the numbers at that time). Our grandchildren learned to total their scores in Pick Picknic by grouping their cubes into sets of ten points. So, they were combining different-valued colored cubes into mathematical combinations (and counting by five’s and ten’s) before they were being taught math in school.

Both grandchildren are excellent readers, and we know their reading skills have been enhanced by games. Our grandson learned to play Magic: The Gathering before he could read, and he wanted to learn to read the cards himself as soon as possible, which he did. As I said, our granddaughter does not have the strong interest in gaming that we do, but she is an outstanding reader, writer, and illustrator, and I believe her language skills were increased to a great extent by her experiences in reading cards, game boards, and rules.

Many social skills are introduced or developed by playing games. One of the most difficult to deal with is the situation of losing. We taught our kids and grandkids to congratulate the winner of every game, and we still do “high-five’s” when they win and sometimes when we win. We observe other children their ages who just cannot gracefully accept losing in any type of competition, and we are grateful that playing games with the right attitude has helped our grandchildren deal with that situation at an early age. It does not teach them to “be losers,” but it does teach them to properly handle the inevitable competitive losses when they occur.

When I was growing up (in the 60's), the kids played games together while the adults were in the dining room playing cards. Do you think it's important for kids to play games with adults?

Gerald: I did play a few board games and card games with some neighborhood kids when I was in elementary school (and learned to play chess with a friend in high school), but most of my early gaming experiences were with adults. I believe gaming in mixed-age groups is an excellent way to teach children how to relate to adults; I believe it helps children mature. Of course, this is assuming the adults are “mature” and are good role models. Children can learn much more about interacting with people by playing games with adults than by being “set aside” to play only among themselves. They see how adults handle good fortune and “bad luck,” and how they communicate and negotiate with each other, and those examples can become models for their later lives. The experience gives them a good feeling about themselves -- that they are seen as “people,” not just as children, and that they can interact and compete with adults in a safe and fun environment. Finally, I believe playing games as a family (or with relatives or friend’s families) can instill worthwhile ethics and life values in younger generations.

You used to be a war gamer and still enjoy them but you haven't found a war gamer in your children or grandchildren. Do you think there's something that makes a person a war gamer?

Gerald: I wish I knew what makes one person enjoy wargames and another to have no interest in them at all. I know many wargamers are also interested in history and military history, but many are not. Many people who are fans of the Lord of the Rings books love to play the conflict games based on them, but many certainly do not. Many people who are history buffs have no interest in wargames. I do not see a direct connection there. The few wargame players I have known personally were intelligent and competitive. To be a successful wargamer, a person must have those characteristics, as well as others, such as dedication to learning about the conflicts and/or historical periods modeled by the games, the ability to analyze a significant amount of data and select the best alternative moves from a wide choice, and a lot of stamina. It also helps to have a good income to support the addiction.

I believe the nearest I came to playing wargames with my children was the game Battleship (not exactly the same category). Although I was really into collecting and playing Avalon Hill wargames when my kids were in elementary, middle, and high school, they never developed any interest in them (nor did my wife, who dislikes the idea of attacking other people, even in a game setting). My son-in-law does have some interest in wargames. He and I got out my old Wooden Ships & Iron Men and my Ace of Aces a couple of weeks ago (he learned, and I re-learned, how to play them). We hope to find some time to do so again.

I do not know whether my grandson will become a wargamer, but I do know that he has enjoyed Magic: The Gathering (with a somewhat similar theme), Risk, Dark Tower (which my son-in-law owns), Stratego, and now HeroScape (he has most of the character cards memorized and can recite the attack and defense numbers and the value of each of the characters, and he understands the relationship among those numbers). I believe he is on the road that could lead him to true wargaming.

I know you have to buy games to accommodate 5 or more players, but if that restriction was lifted, what games would you like to try?

Gerald: Oh, wow, how much time and space do you have? Where do I start? I’m a game junkie, and there are very few games that have a decent ranking on BGG that I would not like to try. It may be fortunate (for our bank account) that I have finally been able to force myself to not purchase games for fewer than 5 players (and now, with our grandson becoming such an avid player, I am beginning to look only at games that accommodate 6 players). Here are only a few of the games I can think of that interest me, but that I have not played and probably never will have the opportunity (some may accommodate 5 or 6 players, but for other reasons would not appeal to our family group): Acquire; Amun-Re; Betrayal at House on the Hill; Cosmic Encounter; Euphrat & Tigris; A Game of Thrones; the GIPF series; Icehouse; Power Grid; Puerto Rico; Reef Encounter; Roads and Boats; and RoboRally. Oh, the pain in the thought that I very likely will never experience these games!

Games currently on my “plan (hope) to purchase” list: Around the World in 80 Days; Australia; Boomtown; Cartagena; Drakon; For Sale; Goldland; Hare and Tortoise; Mu; Station Master; and Tongaiki. I am eager to see, and hear more about, Railroad Tycoon: The Boardgame, because I’ve enjoyed very much playing Railroad Tycoon on my PC for a number of years.

Is there anything you'd like to add?

Gerald: I believe that for the amount of quality time that is enjoyed, and the quite reasonable cost, playing games with one’s family has got to be considered one of the absolute best activities a person can undertake. It’s not only a current pleasure, but also an important investment in the future, and it creates many wonderful memories for all involved.

I want to thank Gerald for being so wonderful to work with and for answering tough questions so brilliantly that I had to do very little editing.

Until next time, remember:
When you don't know where you're going, every road will take you there.


Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Encounter 3/9


By Yehuda Berlinger. Copyright 2005, Yehuda Berlinger. All rights reserved.

(Chapter 2 is here.)

Chapter 3: Seeker

In her backyard, Sarah lay curled up on the faded tan wooden bench of her parent's backyard deck wrapped in a green and gray tartan blanket. The Millers were deep in conversation with her parents, over and around the gas barbeque, and her brother was playing croquet across the spotlighted lawn with the Miller's two boys.

She watched her brother swing his short wooden mallet. With a loud ‘tok’, the ball went straight toward one of the white hoops, but owing to the angle of the hill on which the hoop was set, the ball curved left and rolled past the hoop. Her brother shouted about the unfairness of the course while the other boys answered that it was his backyard, he was the one who had set the course, and he would have to lie in it, so to speak. The sounds of argument and laughter drifted around her head like the barbeque smoke.

As the smoke shifted, she imagined her head tethered to her other selves with tendrils of glistening spider webs through the smoke. This was the first time she had been physically away from Sarah for more than two days. Her heart went out to her … self in Jerusalem. Herself? Her friend? ‘What must she feel like?’ she thought. Six years since the separation and she had never asked this question; she had always thought she knew what it felt like. Her own separation was different than she had expected. She looked down at her arm and felt her own skin with an awareness she had not experienced since childhood.

Her brother, roaring like Tarzan, chased the other boys with his mallet over his head while they loudly and wildly ran around the yard. Her mother yelled something about stopping before someone gets hurt. Her mother’s eyes surreptitiously glanced at Sarah every once in a while. Sarah knew that she was worried about her being outside.

“I don’t think you’re being fair. Not fair at all,” said Mitchell, smiling towards dark-suited Sarah on his left. His plate was clean, stray smears of meat juice having been soaked up by fresh rounds of Italian bread and consumed. His glass was halfway drained for the second time. “If I am a writer, I should expect to be able to control my writing. That is what copyright is all about. What incentives do I have to publish if I will not be making any money from publishing? As a writer, copying my works damages me. As the public, copying my work damages you, since writers will just lock up their ideas and stay home.”

Across from him sat red-headed Sarah, her hair pulled back in a ponytail. On his left was Queens Sarah, blonde and curly hair highlighted from the lights behind her, her denim backpack draped across the back of the elegant chair. The NetMind on Mitchell’s left ear winked rapidly.

A message. From Mitchell. "When, how, and why did Sarah get started?"

A bemused look passed over all of Sarah's faces.

Sarah was lying in bed with her eyes closed, and her finger paused on the way to thumbing her NetMind to fuzz. Her comp, abandoned earlier in the evening, was nowhere near completion. She vaguely recalled writing something about “Immigrant Madonnas in a Confused System”. Although on her way to sleep, she held her finger, waiting.

Sarah drew back into the corner of the deck, drew her legs up under her blanket, and sent, “I’ll take it.”

“You’re basing your argument on false premises,” said Sarah on his left, taking the Merlot and pouring herself another third of a glass. “The printing press is only five hundred years old. Nobody made a living as a writer back then. The ‘I’ll write a book, publish it, and make money off of the copies’ business model is a relatively new business model, based on the twin difficulties of publishing and distribution. These difficulties don’t exist anymore, and that business model doesn’t exist anymore, except in the minds of conglomerate publishing houses that refuse to admit that their emperor has no clothes. Not that I blame them; that’s a natural reaction when you suddenly have no reason to exist.”

She messaged back: "I … we were six years old going to the same first grade. We were incredibly tight. My father, father of Sarah from West Hempstead, helped develop the real-time messaging system that we use. I apparently had some learning and concentration difficulties, but only when I was away from my friends. So did Sarah (on your right) and Sarah (in Jerusalem). Of course, we all had NetMinds, but that wasn't the same as really being together. My father thought that running this software might help. The other parents didn't see any harm in experimenting, so we tried it out.

On his right, Sarah was eating her third breadstick. She swallowed and added, “Also, what does this business model really give to the public? People who published books were the ones who really needed to express themselves. They produced works that were worth reading. What do we have today? Lots of garbage. And the reason we have all of this garbage is that people buy books with pretty covers without knowing what’s inside of them.” She ended abruptly, seemingly in the middle of a thought, looking at the other two Sarah’s as if seeking to gain support for her statements.

"It helped instantly. I know it sounds like we would be even more distracted - with five brains, five pairs of eyes and ears. But with five pairs of eyes and ears, I always remembered what I was doing and where I was walking. By the time I was seven, we … each of us … began to act as if we were one person. The NetMinds are always on, and so is the software. The least our connection gets is 'fuzzed'.

On the other side of the table, Sarah met the eyes of her other self on Mitchell’s right and then looked back at Mitchell. “Who really wants to buy books, anyway?” she asked, her pale blue eyes twinkling across the candles. "Except for reference books, we read a book, and then we’re done with it. It is not copying that is destroying the publishing industry; it’s the global marketplace. You used to need a large number of books, say, a million, available for the number of people who wanted to read it. Now fifty thousand copies are enough for everyone, since we can just read them and dump them on eBay. We are a swapping society now, and we are growing to appreciate getting things used, now that the supply is so readily available.” While she spoke, she sliced the remains of her steak into pieces, spearing each piece into her small bowl of chimchuri.

"The voices in my head always encouraged me. They were honest about what I could do, and what I couldn't do. I was never threatened or stifled by what the others could do; each of us has our own talents. Like parts of a whole, but the whole is stronger than any one of us individually. At seven we created an identity called Sarah; it was more natural to think of myself, and identify, as one person. I couldn't really answer to my own names anymore."

Sarah spoke with authority as if she had been speaking at a podium. The three lengthy narratives of her speech contrasted with his own simple statements. If he were the sort of person to be overwhelmed, he would be a little fearful of the brash and sure presence of three women who could casually eat, cogently argue, and skillfully message simultaneously. As it was, he found the entire experience fascinating and amusing.

“Anyway,” resumed Sarah on his left, “There is no way to win the copying argument, so rather then give up in defeat, the big publishers are infringing on our remaining rights.”

“No way to win the copying argument?” Mitchell asked. “What about the constitution?”

Message from Mitchell: "Five girls? Twelve years? No fights? None of you ever got mad at one another? None of you ever wanted to leave and live a ‘normal’ life, to be a whole person just by yourself?"

Sarah was lying in bed with her eyes closed. Sleep was weighing on her, but she sent first, "Mine."

“Look. If you’re talking copying, the defense is first-sale. If I have an eBook, I’m not copying it if I finish reading it and then give it to someone else to read. No copying there. And just like I can send a piece of a book, page by page to someone else, I can send pieces of an eBook page by page to someone else, allowing us both to read at the same time, as long as we are both not reading the same page. Wait … let me finish. Two hundred people can read one copy of a book at the same time if they are all reading different pages. Estimate how many people will be reading the same page or paragraph at one time, buy that many copies, set it up on a server, and you can have a million people reading ten or a hundred copies of a book without any copyright violations. You can’t win. The only way to stop this is by violating my first-sale rights or introducing other new laws that violate my rights. And for what? To protect an industry that doesn’t have a reason to exist.”

She messaged: "Yes, I get mad at myself, sometimes, and sometimes I disagree. Just like you can get mad at yourself and have internal conflicts. But you don't throw your arm away. And as for being a whole person, we are each, and together, a whole person. At this point, separating mentally would be traumatic, to say the least. Imagine losing a fifth, or four-fifths of your thoughts. At the beginning, of course, I had occasional thoughts of leaving. But I haven’t had any thoughts like that for a long time, now."

“Look,” Mitchell added. “Just because copyright originally didn’t treat an author as ‘owner’ of a published work doesn’t mean that in our time, with new relationships to our own intellectual selves, that this new understanding can be casually dismissed. I want to own my own creation, published or not. What is wrong with that?”

Sarah’s looked at her skin, feeling flushed and warm. She got up from the deck and headed for the door. Her mother immediately looked over at her.

“Honey, are you feeling well? Why don’t you go inside and lie down?”

No, she didn’t feel well. Was it her sick body, or her state of mind? Surely if she could live for six years in Jerusalem, hew own separation from Sarah shouldn’t have this sort of effect on her. She opened the doors, walked inside, and sat down at the kitchen table. Her elbows on the table, she lay her head down on her hands. ‘I’m sick,’ she thought, ‘that’s all. It’s a flu.’ After a moment, she got up again, and walked to the staircase, her knees trembling.

“Does anyone really own their own thoughts?” Sarah asked from his right. Mitchell turned his head and regarded her. She seemed to him to be alternating layers of confidence and hesitancy. He couldn’t tell which was at the core.

“Sure, we create,” she continued. “But everything we create is a small part of a reworking of what others have created. Our ideas, our frameworks, our tools, my brushes, this food. Our ideas use other people’s ideas so strongly that you can’t even separate them into parts. All of it is part of the human consciousness. If you want to keep your ideas to yourself, keep them to yourself. You can’t morally expect to be paid by the world for an idea that is interwoven with ideas you got from the world to begin with. Once you express your idea, it belongs to the world. Anyway, it’s the publishers who want to make the money from publishing; artists don’t need publishers.”

Mitchell laughed, his eyes returning to Sarah on his left. “Leaving aside the benefits of selection, editing, and advertising that publishers provide, tell me: how will you provide incentives for authors to give their works to the world instead of keeping them for themselves?” Mitchell asked, leaning back, swirling his wineglass. His eyes remained on his classmate Sarah.

Mitchell: "What about marriage? And … privacy?"

His Sarah looked back at him, seeming not to hear his spoken question. On his right, Sarah blushed and waited, apparently hesitating lest she should say something that would not please the other four.

Four Sarahs paused, their thoughts their own. They all knew who had to answer this question.

Sarah across the table said, "First of all, not having a better solution doesn't invalidate what I’m saying. Let the whole industry collapse. Let them all go on strike. Wait and see what comes out of those ashes. Look at all of the people writing on the net for free. As you said yourself, the real talent is editing and selecting the worthwhile from the crap. Build a business model around that. Or try something else. People are always willing to pay to be the first to receive a book. People used to sponsor art. Sell merchandise based on the book. Who knows?"

Sarah, his classmate, began slowly. "I don’t think that marriage is a problem. I manage fine doing all the usual tasks each day, every day. I prefer to think that I don't bring to the possibility of marriage any more baggage than anyone else; in fact, I hope that my unique perspective gives me a fortitude that could serve me well in a marriage.

Sarah was focused again, and smiling. "We're not going to find out as long as the publishers are trying to create laws to force people into buying what they don't need," she added, taking the napkin off of her lap.

"As for privacy, I spoke of fuzzing. I'm sure that you don't remember much of what you see in a locker room or bathroom. When I am fuzzed, the fuzziness acts like a psychological barrier similar to that sort of experience.

On his right, Sarah stood up and pulled on her coat. "Or maybe we should just forget about making money for writing. Maybe the whole idea is just bad to begin with. Real artists will just have to go back to having day jobs."

"But that is a rather personal question from someone who hasn't told me much about himself, yet. Tell me Alice: who are you?"

Mitchell also stood up with his coat in his hands, followed by the others. "What you say is very interesting. I will have to think about it." He smiled, and added, "Tell me more about this game club."

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Shape of things to become

As a result of so many people expecting some MUCH from their "games companies", especially in regards to 'components' and the like, while the commensurate PRICES of them has 'sky-rocketed' as far as I'm concerned! Many are still 'reasonable' on this, while the lavish 'bits' for plenty also factor in on it as well, and comparing any to a ''Computer disc'' is ridiculae-(plural of ''ridiculous''-'my' word) to the extreme. I have waited on a few of the 'P C disc' games to become HEAVILY 'discounted' since I refuse to PAY out the 'wazoo' on ANY of these. YES I could be 'called' CHEAP by some, while I subscribe to the 'frugal' approach myself, as I've found very few ''disc'' games that I will continually 'play' and this is down to a handful now, thanks MOSTLY to this damm M-S 'X P' program. IF only I could 'send' a ''cyber LASER'' 'death'-shot at them 'M-S'-LIARS everytime that I have to 'watch' one of their ''commercials'', while there ought to be some sort of ''deceptive advertising'' counts leveled AT 'them'! Sure, you can go just about anywhere and listen to the complaints, so where's the 'Solutions'? This is also a 'response' about them 'puter folks and 'their' DISMAY(?) about the ''German'' gamers, or LACK of those in 'P-C'-disc games! Well, quit making the ''suXX0rs'' ones huh? They can't EVEN 'get me' to try out their latest since I don't wish to end up with another ''disc-coaster'' as I have plenty now as it is. ''Thanks 'Micro-Shat'!''

On a more positive *note* then, let's take this into another 'realm' and I'm talking 'bout CCGs! ''chut yo mout'' Yes, the 'dreaded curse' of the ''gaming industry''-as 'viewed' BY the rest of the NON-card-CCG 'gamers' and I 'mean' THIS in a 'good way'! I'm going to LEARN and PLAY a game for 'Review' called ''Mystical Empire''! Mainly DUE to my ''anti-CCG'' predisposition, it is a 'Challenge' for EACH of us involved to become 'addicted' to this, while we shall provide 'pointers' as we discover them. Oh yeah, I'll also have to dig out my ''Card CASTLE'' for 'this'! There WILL be photos so many will 'drool' while I shall RULE! In fact, there's been 'playings' of THIS at Gen-Con this weekend, so we'll have to compare our 'results' with many others. I've only 'played' the JYHAD-(Vampyre bla bla) game, and not EVEN some ''WW-2'' based kinds, so you can 'gauge' my particular level on INTEREST, but I would be honest about this. Now some of the other 'Players' that are very well acquainted upon these 'games', and DO have extensive 'experience' with the likes of MYTHOS, that 'M' one, Netrunner, etc. ad nauseum SO we'll have people familiar with the 'scope' of many others for comparisons. Now, if ONLY I could 'combine' this 'Game' WITH the ''Enemy in Sight!'' one...

For the more serious ''grognards'', then ole Joe Steadman of the ''Tom Vasel & that 'other' guy'' show known as ''the Dice Tower'', has declared a 'yen' for a COMBO 'game' with ''A House Divided'' AND ''Battle Cry!'' I'll be working on this in the meanwhile to bring about the 'correct elements' for an easy & simple VARIANT. Now, if ONLY those ''Eagle Games'' folks would get 'right in the HEAD' then I could MAKE 'theirs' ever the better to ALL's 'likings'! I don't have the ''Phalanx'' version of the ''A House Divided'' game, so I'm basing my OWN upon the GDW ones, while I even have some EXTRA articles from others that 'developed' them further! For the most part, there should be some 'print out' friendly components so that just about anyone anywhere could obtain these. While I also intend to keep any 'Battles' within the confines of a single 'gamemapboard' for this, which means that there could be some HUGE-sized 'Units' of 'Armies' for which they can't bring them ALL on at once, so those 'left-overs' are going to become ''Reinforcements''! For the folks with multiple 'Sets', then you could use them BUT don't count on 'it' when you encounter JUST a 'single game SET'.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Old News Department: Rumble in Hekumet

On a whim I visited the F.L.C.B.S. (Friendly Local Comic Book Store) a few weeks ago to see if there was any improvement in their selection of board games. My last visit had been maybe a year or two before, and while I can't remember precisely what was sitting on the shelves then, I do know that it was uninspiring, or at least it was to me: your standard copies of Settlers of Catan, Nuclear War, and Outdoor Survival, a couple of the rare Rio Grande duds, and some dinged and shelfworn Avalanche Press wargames. This sad little huddle was wedged in a corner over to the left of the Great Wall of Warhammer, a gorgeous and dust-free floor-to-ceiling display of little metal whatnots and doodads. Still hopeful, I casually strolled over to the owner and nonchalantly asked him if the side room with the big game table was ever used for playing games other than miniatures. He looked at me as if I had asked if he had any other flavors of air to breathe besides plain. "Like what?!?" he growled.

All things change, though, and so, as I said, a few weeks ago I thought it would do me no serious harm to poke my head into the store once again and see if the tide had turned in favor of Gola. I was in for a big surprise.

Right next to the play area was now a modest but independent and thoroughly successful-looking bookcase that was not merely full but chock-full of games. Fantasy Flight! Avalon Hill! Rio Grande! Days of Wonder! The really big shock was the big honkin' copy of Primordial Soup; for years this had been an obscure German-only title (as Ursuppe, of course), and so seeing those happy little protozoa now floating around the shelf of a comic book store in Newtown, CT was sort of like finding a Ming vase serving as the tip jar at the local Gulp 'n' Blow. Good for Z-Man games—they got some pretty good distribution right out of the gate.

The question hanging before me then was whether or not there was anything that I actually wanted to buy. I scanned the shelves for something inexpensive. King's Gate? Saboteur? S.P.A.N.C.? Certainly I do have a keen interest in catgirl space pirates, thanks to that undergraduate course I took in the dialectical semantics of seminaked felinofemale quantum banditry, but I just wasn't the mood for highbrow. After several minutes of hemming and hawing I gave up and got in the car.

Later when I was back at home flipping through the latest issue of Catgirl Pirate Journal I suddenly remembered one title on the game store's shelf that I didn't really know very much about: Scarab Lords by Reiner Knizia. What was that one again? Sort of a CCG, but not really, right? I remember being turned off by the theme back when it came out (not to mention the reports of the component cheapness of Fantasy Flight's games of the time), but my admiration of Reiner Knizia has grown to the point that I am now willing to suffer dragons and furbies on flimsy cards if RK is the man behind the design. So, a day or two later I drove back to Newtown and grabbed the box.

What I found out is that Scarab Lords is actually a kick-ass little game.

The easiest way to describe the game is to say that it's sort of an advanced Schotten-Totten with a Magic: the Gathering flavor. There is a strip of board featuring seven columns, and there are two separate decks of cards, most of which have a number indicating their strength. In turn the players will lay down their cards in the columns on their side of the board in an attempt to gain supremacy of that column by having a higher total of cards; unlike Schotten-Totten, however, the column is never won once and for all but may change hands back and forth many times. One of the winning conditions is to be in control of two out of the three columns on both halves of the board at the beginning of your turn (the seventh, middle column holds the "god cards" and is not counted towards any victory condition).

One of the interesting features of the game is that the various columns will give advantages to the player who has control over them at the moment; the two green columns allow players to draw cards from their deck, the two red columns force the opponent to discard cards from his deck, and the two blue columns allow the player to neutralize his opponent's already-played cards.

Additionally, the individual cards typically have rule-bending powers that, when used at a critical juncture, can have a significant effect on a player's fortune. Add onto that various restrictions on where and when stuff can be played, and then the Scarab Lords equivalent of M:tG enchantments (god cards), and then the Scarab Lords equivalent of M:tG instants (fate cards), and you have a fairly rich and complex little game on your hands. Furthermore, if the basic game ever starts to become stale, there is the Scarab Lords equivalent of M:tG deck building, though it might more accurately be called deck tweaking. The advanced game is a best-of-three affair, and after each match players have the opportunity to swap five of the cards in their preconstructed decks with five cards from a third deck of neutral cards, with the losing player swapping first.

The thing to note at this point is that the decks are not identical; both have their own particular strengths and weaknesses, and so swapping cards in the advanced game is not just as simple of getting rid of a 1 card for a 5. Even in the basic game players will have an advantage if they are familiar with the decks, since, just as in M:tG, you will want to accentuate your deck's strengths and take advantage of cards that work well together. For example, many of the cards in the red deck are powerful but do not have much flexibility, by which I mean they can only be placed in a particular type of column. If a red player held in his hand a bunch of smaller cards which could be placed just anywhere, he would not want to lump them all into one column which he might later be able to take quite easily with one big card.

As far as the game end goes, I've already mentioned one of the two conditions—supremacy in two out of three columns on both halves of the board—but this is misleading, because games rarely end in that fashion. The second but perhaps more typical game end condition is that your opponent's draw deck be empty at the beginning of your turn. This victory by attrition sounds a lot less satisfying than overwhelming your opponent by force, but much of the card play is directed towards this end, and it imparts an interesting rhythm to the game; in the beginning of the game you want as many cards in your hand as possible so as to get some good traction on the board, but at a certain point you have to put the brakes on and only draw when you're running low on options. The first sudden-death victory condition almost functions more as bait to get people to lock horns, even though when threatened players can usually pull off some desperate gambit to keep themselves in the game.

The theme, thankfully, is not just another trip to the Tolkien well, but instead concerns a fantasized ancient Egypt, the fantasies in question being that there are monsters and gods and spells and everyone looks Caucasian.*

So far I've played the game eight times, and most of those matches were extremely enjoyable. The feeling tends to be that of a pitched battle where threat and dominance see-saws back and forth between the opponents. It's always a challenge adapting your hand to the goals and demands of the moment, but knowledge of the two decks also plays an important role. There is tension and difficulty and moments of inspiration, and no two games play out exactly the same way. There is even some amount of long-term strategizing that is possible in the placement of the cards, and while luck does play a role I would say that over the long haul the smarter player will win the majority of games.

There were a couple of instances of games which ended unsatisfyingly, but I discovered that this was because of a missed rule—I had not noticed that players have the opportunity of skipping their turn to refill their hand back to six cards, and this resulted in two games which ended when one player could not win an economic supremacy before his hand ran out. Probably it sounds like botching this rule would have an enormous impact on the game, but except in those two cases it actually wasn't so; the fact is that the battles are always so heated that, so long as they have at least one card in hand and one economic supremacy, players rarely feel like they have the leeway to just skip their turn completely.

Unfortunately my opponent** has not wanted to play with the advanced card-swapping rules; after losing seven of eight games, he perhaps imagines that it would only be adding new and different tools with which I can beat on him. He may have a point.

Ultimately I must say that as far as two-player games go, Scarab Lords is remarkably high on my list of games to play. Due to its weight class I would rank it below most of the Gipf Project, and then possibly below Magic: the Gathering—played under perfect conditions, of course—and maybe also below Knizia's ultra-elegant Game for the Ages Schotten-Totten, but still I prefer it to all of the Kosmos two-player games I've tried, which would include Kahuna, Starship Catan, Odin's Ravens, Hellas, and Caesar & Cleopatra (the best of the lot).

Strangely, though, Scarab Lords isn't a very well-known game (306 ratings on BGG compared to 822 for Odin's Ravens). It seemed to have gotten some fairly good initial buzz on Spielfrieks after it was released in early 2003, but this chatter eventually died out; the failure of the word to spread may have had something to do with an early withering review based on playings in which the author had missed a critical rule,*** or it may be the effect that one BGGer noted (I can't find the quote now, unfortunately) in which, on reading the rules, a player would be led to believe that a win via supremacy is the norm and a win by card depletion the exception, and so be disappointed when game after game ended with a lame backup victory condition. From my perspective, however, once a player realizes that making their opponent burn through his deck is an important strategic goal, they will start to perceive a lot of what is elegant, finely tuned and interesting about Scarab Lords.

Meanwhile, since I enjoyed Scarab Lords so much, I also ordered the sequel game, 2004's Minotaur Lords, which features improved components but somewhat lamer artwork. I've gotten to play three games of this one, and while the rules are the same, there is a tangible difference between the tone of the two games; whereas the Scarab Lords decks are somewhat generic and versatile, the Minotaur Lords decks have a more customized and specialized feel. The blue deck's strength is the infamous horde, while the red deck revolves around large buildings with complementing cards that get rid of all the pesky curse counters. The simple decks of Scarab Lords lure the players on to tweak the cards with the advanced game, but in Minotaur Lords it feels like the developers succumbed to this temptation themselves and had a little party putting together two killer decks. In fact, the red deck seems so finely tuned out of the box that it can hardly be improved by swapping cards with the neutral deck; I could maybe see someone switching some of red's god cards with Enlir cards, and maybe some of the Eternal Champions with Prophet of Jalal cards just for a laugh, but I doubt it would significantly improve his chances.

For this reason I found the Minotaur Lords decks to be slightly less enjoyable than those in Scarab Lords. Even though the Minotaur Lords decks have more character and are more challenging, the demands of the game seems to railroad players into certain patterns; blue has to mass its hordes into the religious column to hobble red's buildings with curses, while red has to meet the challenge by erecting its buildings in that same column and hope it can draw its uncursable zero-phase cards before it gets overwhelmed. So, while the original game plays out in a fairly complex way—similar to Schotten-Totten, one might win or lose because this card had to go there and then that decision led to that eventuality and so on—in Minotaur Lords one can sometimes feel that the game was won or lost just because there weren't enough horde cards early in the deck or because all the good curse-lifters came out before the big buildings. On the other hand, some might prefer these more challenging decks with their stronger individual flavor to the more low-key Scarab Lords decks, so I wouldn't want to write the game off completely. In fact, of the twenty people who rate both games on BGG, eleven rate the sequel as good or better than the original, so be sure to take my comments with a grain of salt.

Unfortunately, if Scarab Lords was a sleeper, Minotaur Lords is in a coma. The game has had a poor reputation from the get-go thanks to Fantasy Flight leaving out some important text on the Horde cards—their strength is equal to the number of active Horde cards in their column, not the in the game—an error which they didn't patch up until six months after the game was released. The howlings about unbalance must have had a fairly serious impact on sales, since even though in April of this year Fantasy Flight head honcho Christian T. Petersen announced a new installment in the series, in answer to an e-mail I sent F.F. a few weeks ago a rep said "There are no current plans for a reprint or future installments for Scarab lords." A shame, really, because as far as medium-weight two-player games go, Scarab Lords is great little offering, and I would have enjoyed following the series.****

Anyway, the game is now a new standard in my two-player arsenal, perfect for gamers who want something fast and involving but who don't cotton to the abstractness of the Gipf series. The next challenge: to see how it stands up against my newest acquisitions, the other Knizia quasi-CCG, Blue Moon, and Columbia's latest and greatest, Crusader Rex. All of the sudden having only two players is a lot more exciting....


* I always admired Wizards of the Coast for the great African theme of the Mirage Magic set; they really seemed to be trying to do it right and not just telling the artists to stick a gazelle somewhere in the back.

** Finally, another gamer at work! I can play games at lunch! In fact, the guy used to be a paid playtester at SPI in the seventies. He doesn't know from Eurogames, though; Fantasy flight has pictures of other products on the sides of their boxes, and while he liked the looks of Twilight Imperium, about Through the Desert he said, in maximum sarcasm mode, "well that looks like a lot of fun." "No, no, it's a great little game," I insisted. "Yeah. Right. Whatever."

*** He did later update the review to a mildly positive one, despite mentioning the luck of the draw and the frustration of being at the pointy end of a religious supremacy.

**** Dare to dream: Catgirl Space Pirate Lords. Now that's entertainment!

Friday, August 19, 2005

Well, I just got up, what did you expect, brilliance?

I can't think of a single title that I like. If I choose yours I'll give you a Geek Gold, provided you are a BGG user. If you have never heard of BGG, well... you'll get fame and glory from being associated with the premier non-Canadian, non-Korean, boardgame blog.

And the winner is Mary. Her unintentional suggestion just seemed so right.

I took my lead from Tom and Joe at The Dork Dice Tower and asked my wife what her top-10 favorite games are. I thought I knew what she liked, but whenever the group is deciding on a game to play she rarely gives any input. She limits her input to complaining about the game that we chose.

My wife and I have been into the boardgame hobby for 4 or 5 years now, and all that I'm really sure of is the type of game she doesn't like. She doesn't like wargames, and she doesn't like abstract games. I have never felt insightful enough to venture posting a reply to those geeklists and forum entries on Boardgamegeek requesting suggestions for spouse-friendly games.

I wonder how many spouses have ever asked their significant other what their favorite games are? I bet the total is not very high. I would further wager that most of us think we know what the other likes, and that we would be wrong in some surprising ways.

Well, here's what my wife told me.

In true wifely fashion she revised my request. Instead of listing her top-10 games she listed 18 games that she really likes and only ranked the top-7. One of her top-7 includes a whole family of games.

Although I was only stunned with one of her choices, there were a couple surprises. Chief among the surprises was that Chinatown wasn't on the list, Goa was on the list, and Puerto Rico ranked so high. I would have guessed Settlers of Catan or one of the variations would have been her favorite game, and Puerto Rico to fall somewhere behind Traders of Genoa.

Here's her top 7:

7. Ticket to Ride
6. Star Wars: Queen's Gambit
5. El Grande
4. Goa
3. Traders of Genoa
2. Everything related to Settlers of Catan
1. Puerto Rico.

Rounding out the top 16, in alphabetical order: Acquire, Apples to Apples, British Rails, Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers, Condottiere, San Marco, Serenissima, Shadow of the Emperor, and Tikal.

And 2 games with caveats: Civilization (not a whole game, "I'll cover for someone during a potty break"), and Game of Thrones ("I think I'd really like it if I played it more").

If there was a stunner it was that "Game of Thrones" was listed. I make it a point to not play that game with her because she reacted in a strong, negative manner on her first outing. It isn't a style of game that she normally likes. Diplomacy? Backstabbing? Combat???? I reminded her of those not-so-minor points and she reiterated that she would like to play the game more often. As for the first time she played it, she reminded me that the rules have a big learning curve, as does the strategy. Now that she has a grasp of the rules and strategy she will enjoy the game more, she assures me. Okay. I'd like to play more, too.

Condottiere was a minor surprise. Although not a bad game I wouldn't have considered it to be in anyone's upper tier of games. Now that I think about it I think I can understand the high rating. Every time we've played she has been able to persuade the other players that I was a big threat, as she walked away with the victory.

As for her number one game, Puerto Rico, she says, "It is challenging every time I play. I never play it the same way twice." How true, how true. Never the same game twice, and we still play it a lot, even after 3 or 4 years.

Now if I could just sell her on Doom: The Boardgame. Hey, it could happen. There isn't even diplomacy, backstabbing, or difficult rule hurdles to overcome.

Others are doing it, here's my current list of my favorite boardgame blogs. My list of favorites constantly changes, mainly due to lack of posting by individual bloggers. My main criteria is that the blog is frequently updated.

In no particular order (and I tried for 15 minutes to get them lined up properly):

Chris Farrell
Mikko Saari/Gameblog
Jerusulem Strategy Gaming Club
Shannon A.
Thinking Out Loud
The Tao of Gaming
Joe Steadman

As Boardgamegeek gets larger, users get more whiny and nasty. Not everyone, to be sure, but many. Many are either out to offend or are offended by the smallest perceived slight. And forget about talking politics, sheeeeeeeeeeeesh. Moderation on BGG is getting more necessary and necessarily more heavy handed. There was a time when I read 80% of the forum entries, now I read closer to 8%. I still really like the 8% I do read and I think BGG is the best website EVAR, but the world-wide-web continues to evolve.

Blogs are where the interesting boardgame conversations are taking place.

The good conversations are spilling over into multiple blogs. Surely that is a good sign.


Can any of you recommend a good free RSS site for me to cut my teeth on? Preferably one that is worth paying for if I decide that I like it. I've tried Live Journal and I got absolutely no where with their free account. I have long forgotten my password and would prefer to try another service.

Thanks for any advice and good gaming,