Friday, March 31, 2006

Game Notes

Played the new Phalanx version of A House Divided a few days ago. We played the advanced version and I liked it. I do want to play again, and soon.

Although there was much rolling of the dice, there weren't that many DRMs (die roll modifiers) to keep track of. I've recently come to the conclusion that I don't mind lots of dice rolling, it's keeping track of all the DRMs that is a major turn off for me. I much prefer wargames with only a few logical DRMs. Try as I might I get confused with more than 2 or 3 DRMs. As soon as I think I understand all the DRMs my leader dies, my troops mutiny, or my nation revolts and I have a new set of DRMs to contend with. A House Divided was pretty intuitive. I probably won't get to play again soon. It's tough to fit two player wargames into my schedule. Game nights are usually multi-player affairs.

Played one game of Twilight Struggle. Wasn't too impressed. Seemed like a basic area control game with too much chrome. Edit the rule book down to 8 pages and you could have the definitive Cold War game. Martin Wallace could take this basic design and create a killer game.

Played the Revised Axis and Allies the other day. Played with my regular game group. Had fun. No one was more surprised than I. Two of the players had never actually played A&A before. I expected the game to go a couple rounds, the down time would get to us and everyone would agree to throw in the towel. We could then play a good game before the night was wasted.

Didn't happen.

We did quit a little early, but it was clear that Germany and Japan would pull out a win by the next round and the Allies were powerless to stop them. I think the designers really added some good improvements to the new version. It is a much better game than the original Axis and Allies. Victory conditions were changed to require the capture of a certain number of cities. The Sahara, Himalayas, and neutral countries are impassable. Destroyers and artillery were added. Most importantly Germany and Russia have more points of contact, I think that did more to revitalize the game than any of the other tweaks. I'll be able to go several years without playing Axis and Allies again, but it is fun to pull out occasionally, especially now that it was revised for the better.

Speaking of waiting years between games, I played a five player game of Advanced Civilization at a game convention over the weekend. The game started at 11 a.m. Everyone understood that three of us would have to leave by 6:30 p.m. Yes, seven hours makes for a pretty short game of Civ, but the time just flew by. We made it right up to the Early Iron Age/Late Iron Age. I eked out a win.

The original and Advanced versions of Civilization continue to keep their rightful place at the top of the heap among long empire building games. If you have never played Civ nor Advanced Civ you need to find someone with a copy, set an entire day aside and learn the game. You will be hooked.

It's not a new game, but the more I play Napoleonic Wars the more I like it. DRMs be darned. Of course I still struggle with strategy that is second nature to experienced wargamers. The frequent rulebook checks still irritate me. I know. That's just part of wargaming. Then there is the standard wargame response, "I just checked ConSim and that rule was changed last week." Arrrrrrrgh.

Living rules, my butt. It's a game. Wargamers just accept this nonsense? Try telling the guy from the IRS that the deduction in question was allowed last year, if he responds with, "the rules were changed to keep things more balanced," you would want to kick his smarmy teeth in. Have you ever had to deal with the Environmental Protection Agency? Same thing. The EPA specializes in "living rules". Living rules are a form of legal harassment. Why do we want to introduce this concept into our hobby?

Rules are rules. Rules that change when someone whines are not rules. Make a rule and stick with it. Don't change the rule to reflect popular group-think.

When did wargamers buy into this notion that if it is posted on the web it is official? If a rule is important enough to change I want a phone call. At least an e-mail. Don't post it and expect everyone to go find it. If you don't care enough about the change to give me a call, don't make the change.

Living rules as applied to wargames represent nothing more than a bunch of repressed wanna-be bureaucrats who've appointed themselves as arbiters of fairness, because nothing in life should ever be unfair.

If there is a mistake fix it. If there is simply unbalance, tweak the rules in the next edition. [/rant]

I've played a few games of Elasund, and I have come to the conclusion that it is not a very good game. There is more hosage than your typical Settlers variation, which makes the game worth trying, but play a friend's copy. Do not buy Elasund hoping your wife will like it because she likes Settlers. There is no trading. There is no player interaction.

The four phases to each turn are not intuitive. After several games I still find I need to constantly refer to the step by step chart to make it through my turn. If I don't follow the chart I forget to do something major, like place a building permit, or take my two gold. I always forget if I need two or three influence cards to perform different actions, and if the cards need to be the same color or different colors.

Elasund is a very simple game, yet it feels like Advanced Squad Leader after a couple rounds. Instead of asking "What phase is next?", "Do you get to shoot at me in that phase, or the next one?", "When do I get to rally my guys again?", like I do in ASL, I'm asking "Do I take two gold before I move a building permit?", "Did I already place a building permit?", "How many influence cards do I need to do that, again?". Shortly after it starts I find my mind wandering and wishing for the game to end, but it just won't end.

I'm holding off on pronouncing Reef Encounter good or bad. (So far it is bad.) I am intrigued enough that I want to play a few more times. (That would be an indication that it is good.) And by the way, alga? Alga? A Google search indicates that alga is the Australian Local Government Association. Is alga common usage across the pond?

Theoretically I should like Reef Encounter. Maybe if the parrot fish looked more like a parrot fish instead of a box, and there was some algae in the game...

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Anatomy of a Game: Carcassonne, Part One: The Original Game

Carcassonne was originally released by Hans im Gluck in 2000. It won the SdJ that year, and since has become a phenomenon. There are now 4 large Carcassonne supplements, 4 small Carassonne supplements, and 5 variant games. Within our Eurogame community, only The Settlers of Catan has been more successful in sheer bulk of releases.

This week I'm beginning a series that will analyze that phenomenon--talking about how Carcassonne works and also examining how the game system has evolved over the last six years. This first installment will examine the mechanics of the original game, while in future articles I'll be talking about how the game has evolved through a series of expansions and new games.

Before we get started, if you're now familiar with the game and its supplements, you may want to look at my reviews of the same. I've fallen down on the more recent Carcassonne supplements, because I don't feel like they fit the vision of the original game (which I'll talk about in the next few articles), and I haven't bought Leo Colovini's Discovery because I don't agree with its manner of distribution, but everything else is there.

Original Carcassonne Reviews: Carcassonne w/River (B+), Inns & Cathedrals (B), Traders & Builders (A-), King & Scout (B+), The River II (C)

Carcassonne Variant Reviews: Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers (A), The Ark of the Covenant (A), Carcassonne: The Castle (A-), Carcassonne: The City (A)

Not Reviewed: The Count of Carcassonne, The Cathars, The Princess & The Dragon, The Tower, Carcassonne: The Discovery

Analyzing the Gameplay

Last week I provided a broad overview of terminology for analyzing gameplay. Though I'm sure I'll use it again in the future, the immediate purpose was to provide a lexicon for this article. Broadly, Carcassonne's gameplay is very simple, but I'm going to break it down part-by-part.

Components. Each player has a small set of static personal tokens which he'll use to mark ownership of terrains in the game, but which don't move once they hit the board.

The board, meanwhile, is a classic example of an evolving environment that's constructed turn-by-turn. Each of the tiles used to create this board is accessed via an arbitrary draw, which we'll get back to when we cover Luck.

Activity. The overall activity of Carcassonne is split, linearly, among three parts: play a tile; play a token (meeple); and score completed terrains. As with most games, these activities are ultimately defined by component interaction.

The first activity is best defined as environment placement: you're creating the board through your tile draws.

The placement of the meeples, meanwhile is token placement. You're moving a token on-board, and will never be able to scoot it around the environment.

Finally the scoring portion of the activity centers on token conflict. Or, to use a more common term, it's majority control. It took me a long time to see it, but Carcassonne actually falls into the same category of games as El Grande or (perhaps more clearly) Entdecker. It's about getting the most personal tokens into an environmental area to control and thus score it. Carcassonne looks a bit different because you're building out the environment as you go, and because getting multiple tokens into a terrain is actually a trick rather than a standard mechanic, but nonetheless it follows a lot of the same conventions as the broadly understood majority-control category of gameplay.

Decisions. Last week I spoke of decision constraints and the need to keep options small; Carcassonne sort of tries to follow the "rule of 7" that I suggest, which means it tries to constrain any individual decision to just 7 options, to prevent a player from becoming totally paralyzed. But, it doesn't do so perfectly, especially not for inexperienced players.

Technically when a player draws and places a tile this is largely unconstrained. The tile could go in any legal space in the board, which is usually a couple of places at the start of the game, but could be a hundred (or more) different places by mid-game. I find this a serious problem for first-time players, who don't know how to quickly analyze the best board positions, and thus take agonizingly long amounts of time to decide where their tile goes.

A more experienced player usually quickly constrains a choice to 7 or less options. First, he looks at his current on-board positions (which, as it happens, maxes at 7 tokens), and sees if the newly drawn tile may be useful to: (1) close out a position; (2) expand a position; or (3) block others from getting into his position. Alternatively the player sees if he can use the tile to create any new on-board positions, and again this is usually constrained by a couple of "best choices" at any time. Finally if and only if he can't expand, he can't close, and he can't create, then the player may use a tile solely to block other players. Each of these main categories of options is pretty individual, and a good player will usually assess which is best based on the tile, on his current positions, and on his current token supply--but a new player can't.

Technically where a player positions his token on a tile is almost always constrained to seven or less options (excepting, perhaps, some road crossroads which could give the options of four road placements and four field placements, for a grand total of 8). However in actuality there isn't good separation between the placement of a tile and a placement of a token. The one so directly affects the other that they might as well be one decision. Thus a good player figures out his token placement as part of his 7 or less options that he quickly assesses when he looks at a tile, while an inexperienced player just sees it as a multiplier to his tile-placement decision, thus meaning that all told he probably sees several hundred choices. For me this has proven a very real failing of the game when playing with a certain type of relatively serious gamer who has some problems with Analysis Paralysis and hasn't played much Carcassonne. I literally can't play with them because games take hours.

Luck. The main luck in Carcassonne is arbitrariness, which comes about through the draw of the tiles. Some people see a ton of luck in the game, but I think it's phenomenally well controlled, and that's because of the multiple tokens. You can easily set yourself up in a situation so that most draws will benefit you: one type of tile drawn might expand your city, one might build out your road, and one might keep people out of your field. The original version of the game was a bit more "lucky" than later versions, solely because roads were always less valuable than cities, and thus you could do poorly if you only drew them. This has been corrected in most later versions, and through the expansions; I'll talk about this balancing act in the next article in this series.

The remaining luckiness tends to revolve around getting a very specific tile that you need. However, I think this "luckiness" actually results from poor gameplaying. If you're waiting for one specific tile, and there aren't many of it, then you shouldn't have let yourself get into that situation (or else you should congratulate your opponent who put you there).

There is also chaos in Carcassonne, and this centers around the landscape of the game changing between your turns. As you'd expect, the chaos factor gets bigger the more players you have. In a 5-player game you can have set yourself up with a perfect, well-defended city, then have one opponent place a tile which makes you vulnerable, and have another take advantage of that, all before it can back around to you. The arbitrariness of the tile draw can also multiply the chaos, since it can sometimes be several turns before you can respond to something.

Because of the chaos factor, I think the ideal player number for Carcassonne is 3. Two really doesn't work, for reasons I'll discuss when I talk about the Carcassonne variants (in part five of this series) while with 4-6 the chaos keeps cranking up.

Victory. Finally, looking at victory conditions, we realize that the token conflict activity translates into environment control victory. The exact formulas for those environmental control valuations are a bit varied, but the basic idea is obvious: the more environment you controlled during the game, the better you'll do.

The following chart shows these various elements of Carcassonne's game design in a more graphical format. Note that the different elements are color-coordinated. Arrows represent interrelations between the parts of the game and dashed lines represent decisions.

You can click on the diagram to see a larger version.

What I found particularly notable about the chart as I put it together is how simple Carcassonne really is. There's just a couple of components and just a few decision points, but the result is a very rich, replayable game.

Carcassonne Strategy

I don't really intend this to be a full strategy article, but I think it's worth looking at a few points of Carcassonne strategy to show how they illuminate the gameplay.

I already mentioned one of the most crucial bits of Carcassonne strategy, which is that you need to play a multivaried game. You have multiple tokens and you should use them to insure that every tile draw is a good one. If you've got good fields, good cities, and good roads, then tile draws will always help you out.

Much strategy comes from how precisely the tiles are laid. You have to make sure that you place tiles so that it's easy to complete your terrains, and hard to get boxed in. In addition you have to try and place your tiles so that it's hard for opponents to get into your terrains. You could probably write an entire article just on these intricacies.

A lot of the strategy of Carcassonne comes through a balance between cooperation and competition, which are elements that I'm going to talk about more two articles from now.

Cooperation means that you should try and share terrains with some of your opponents, particularly those opponents who are behind you in scoring. You'll both get points and you'll jointly earn more points than you could have individually. Inexperienced players can think that sharing a terrain with an opponent is bad, but this just isn't the case in a 3+ player game--unless the player getting into your terrain is ahead of you in scoring.

Competition means that you should try and harm your opponents, particularly those who are ahead of you in score, and particularly when you can do so without costing yourself actions. Placing a tile in such a way that it makes it harder for an opponent to close a terrain is almost always better than placing that tile somewhere out of the way, provided that your own token placement opportunities are similar in both opportunities. An experienced player will know a couple of the rarer tile types (for example "road, field, city, field", or if you prefer "a road running into a city" of which there is only one tile in what I call "classic Carcassonne") and may purposefully block a player by creating the need for that very rare tile. I'll get quite specific about tile distribution in the next article in this series.


Carcassonne is a very simple game system that nonetheless provides a lot of depth. However, that simplicity has also begun to change through many supplements. In my next three articles in this series I'm going to talk about Carcassonne's expansions; as we'll see, the gameplay has changed and evolved over the last five years, and if you're playing a game with all the expansions, you are playing a very different game from the original gameplay experience.

However, I don't want my portion of Gone Gaming to become the all-Carcassonne-all-the-time channel, so I'll be taking a break next week to discuss a different topic. But I'll see you in 14 to discuss game balance and tile distribution, with an emphasis on the "good" Carcassonne expansions.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

A Game I'm Looking Forward To

Here are simple overviews of several games that I enjoy playing. How many can you name?

-Area control game where you move all the pieces in one area to an adjacent area. Scoring is done when an area is totally cut off from all other areas.

-A race game where you play a card to move ahead and move backwards to collect more cards.

-An area control game where you not only fight for control of the ever-merging areas, but also for control of the majority color in an area.

-An area control game where the areas are decided by a pawn which moves along triangular spaces.

-An area control game where you place pieces in vertical sections of the board but the areas to control pass horizontally through 3 to 5 vertical sections.

If you recognized and enjoy these games, you join me in looking forward to the English release of Leo Colovini's Mauerbauer (Masons for those who are German-language handicapped). A Colovini game always has a unique twist to it, something new to it that challenges my thought processes. I get the feeling that if games are basically mathematical, then Colovini’s games are more geometric than algebraic; more about the special awareness than the numbers. I like that since I always hated algebra. I also like that his games usually have simple rules, and I don’t mind that the themes are thinner than one-ply toilet paper.

Sunday I got to play Europa 1945-2030 for the second time when Mike brought it to game day at my request. This one is a bit more involved than most of Colovini’s games and dealing with the overlays for each country is a pain in the butt but it’s still an interesting game with area influence and a little negotiation which can result in either happy cooperation or nasty back-stabbing. I was playing a bit nasty towards the end and it jumped up a bit me hard as a result. That means instead of being the winner, I came in 3rd out of four. Still, it left me wishing to play again.

An English translation of the rules for Mauerbauer from the Hans im Gluck site can be found on the Geek. This is probably not one of his most original designs since the ability to merge 2 cities before you score reminds me of Titicaca, another game that I thoroughly enjoy. That’s alright because it sounds like there’s plenty newness here for area-control freaks like myself to love. One twist, I think, is the fact that you do not own a particular color but are trying to place pieces in order to fulfill the requirements on the cards in your hand. Also the areas will develop differently each time you play so will be a totally new challenge, a feature I've liked in other games like Trias and Fjords.

This is one of the few new games that I’m really looking forward to. That’s actually a good thing since we just bought a new truck and will have payments to make for the first time in 4 years. You know what that means: either go on a starvation diet or slow down the game-buying mania. Well…I COULD stand to lose a little weight!

Oh, in case you were stumped by my Reader’s Digest condensed version of the games above, the answers are Clans, Cartagena, Carolus Magnus, Alexandros and Meridian.
Until next time, don’t trust King Arthur just because he’s king.


Tuesday, March 28, 2006

If - A Europoem

If you can keep your king when all about you
Are removing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can draw red tiles when you need them
But make allowance for having no reds, too,
If you can fake frustration with your drawing,
Thereby inviting an external conflict,
Or being the attacker, choose your victim,
Carefully, to maximize what you inflict:

If you can plan-- but not make plans your master,
If you can think-- but not only on your turn;
If you can smartly strike with each disaster
And from a lost position still return;
If you can bear to watch a mighty kingdom
Broken into parts by all your foes,
Or watch the monument you sacrificed for
Taken by your enemies, with repose:

If you can make four heaps of all your vee-pees
And see them grow in equal colored counts,
And not expend a useless tile playing
For a color you don't need in your accounts;
If you deceptively can place a leader
Into a kingdom soon under attack
And lose it, thus removing several tiles
And keeping your opponent's kingdom back

From encroaching on your other leaders,
And still not think that any certain kingdom
Is every really owned by anyone;
If all the other players think you're losing,
When you know that you've already won,
And can control the end-game at your choosing,
Yours is the Tigris and Euphrates rivers,
And--which is more--you'll win the game, my son!

--Reinard Knipling

Sunday, March 26, 2006

OLD "habits" are 'hard' to break

While a tiresome 'relic' from the "past" has been "resurrected" upon the "Geek" recently, and I'm talking upon that "Jack Chick" crap fest of purported "religious enlightenment" 'propaganda'. Which brings to 'mind' about IF "Patriotism" is the "last resort" of a 'scoundrel', then just WHAT is "religious fervor", or "Zealotry", considered AS in this 'manner'? I do so HOPE that there is a *Special* HELL 'reserved' for these 'folk' and their "ilk", as it would certainly seem a befitting 'place' for their 'likes'. NOW if only these "deities" would "call HOME" their 'emissaries', then the WORLD could become a much more "better place" for the remaining populace! "IMAGINE" there's NO 'religion'? I wonder IF y0u can? NO "God" to die for, a "brotherhood" of MAN! Yes, for those "people" without ANY 'qualms' about inflicting pain or misery upon others, then WHY wait for some "Supreme Being" 'justice'? I say MAKE an "example" of 'them', for any would-be OTHERS with sinister 'intentions' to mull over and consider. HAVE the 'punishment' FIT according TO the 'crime'! Then, make this ever the MORE "abhorrent" as a 'determent', and publicly displayed to boot, in order for SOME to 'learn' from the "mistakes" of another. The more "heinous", the BETTER, since just WHY should 'someone' who concocted and performed some "torture & torment" upon their 'victims' BE "treated" any better? YOU don't have the 'stomach' for such? Then allow the 'victim's' relatives to mete out "justice" instead. Many HAVE wanted to, and I don't 'blame' ANY in the least, of those who managed to for their "circumstances". Now, go and 'play' some "D&D" why doncha? oh yeah, and "Eat 'fecal matter' and DIE" there "Jack Chick", if that's your 'real name'!

ONTO "gaming" matters then, and 'props' TO my current ongoing "gaming partner" over in Belgium, Mrs "Gwen Dons", with HER as the "Invaders", of which I place here our most recent "Turn" in this then:
It may "look" a tad 'bleak' for the "good guys" in this here, but IT ain't 'over' until it's OVER! There is yet the "USA" Turn to conduct and for anyone wishing to follow along, then just check out my "Glog"-('Gaming Log') here:
GROG's "Glog"
while I'm going to provide the most recent "update" within that here shortly. We have been resolving the "dice rolls" WITH actual "die rollings" conducted within varying "Chat" programs for it all. Since we're NOT doing this for anything but the "fun" of it, then we completly 'trust' one another, for those who are wondering. There can become another means in which to actually "game" with one another, such as "web-cams" and the like, or those 'PbEm' methods, I have to resort to this "manner" due to my computer NOT allowing myself to 'do' otherwise. "Good Gaming" then everyone!

Saturday, March 25, 2006

“Sleep Well, darling. Don’t let the Meeples bite.”

Something a bit different this week. I hope you enjoy.

Inspired by the story of a family who read the rules of a game ("Return of the Heroes") to their kids as a bedtime story, I present three bedtime stories for gaming (or gamers') children.

How the Meeples invented Time Travel

Once upon a time there were some little Meeples. They lived in a big box on Mummy and Daddy's shelves and, when the stars were right and the children were tucked up safely in bed, they came out to play.

The little Meeples had a friend who they called Bubba. They liked to play with Bubba, but because he was the biggest and the best at counting they often sent him to the Great Scoring Track on the Other Side of the Table. Bubba liked to count, but best of all he liked to play in the Meadows with his little friends, even though he was so big that it took two of them to beat him at leapfrog.

Sometimes they built cities on the edges of the Meadows where the Meeples played. Some of the Meeples moved to the cities, and others liked to play on the roads that linked the cities together. It's never safe to play on roads, though, and those Meeples were never seen again. (You should remember that when you are out walking.) Others moved to Monasteries and surrounded themselves with wilderness (and sometimes with the wilderness of a city).

These Monastic Meeples liked to study the history of Meepledom. Especially, they liked to learn about the Olden Days, when ancient animals roamed the world. They told stories to the other Meeples of a race of prehistoric Meeples with one hand permanently raised in salute.

These prehistoric Meeples were a pre-agrarian society, and liked to hunt and fish for their food. They would forage in the jungles, and had special rituals to scare away the sabre-toothed tigers that lurked in the wide-open plains.

One day, one of the prehistoric Meeples escaped from his box and found his way into the other little Meeples' box.

The Meeples were so excited to meet him, and the Monastic Meeples wrote down all his stories. He told them fantastic stories of a King and a Count, a dragon, a princess and a fairy, and of a great Castle in a far-off land, inhabited only by Meeples of colours never seen before in the Land of the Meeples. He told them of a tower so big that it could hold all the land in the world. They told him of the Great Blue Bag from which all the land came, and of the Giants who laid it.

The little Prehistoric Meeple was so excited, he ran back to his box to tell his friends. Sadly, he went one box too far and was eaten by two dinosaurs named Jill and Fred, who we will read about in our next story.

The End.

A prehistoric love story

Once Upon a Time, there were two little dinosaurs. Their names were Bill and Fred, and they lived near the South Pole, even though they didn’t know it was the South Pole.

Bill and Fred liked to move about and explore their world. As they moved around, they made friends with some of the other dinosaurs that lived nearby. Their special friends were Susan and Jill. They liked Susan and Jill so much that they got married and decided to have some little baby dinosaurs together.

As they all got older, the world around them started to change. This was caused by continental drift, although the dinosaurs wouldn't learn about that until it was too late. Sometimes they would go to sleep on dry land and wake up in the water, swimming for their lives.

There were other groups of dinosaurs that lived nearby, but Bill and Fred and Susan and Jill (who were great-grandparents by now) were shy and didn't know how to speak to other dinosaurs, so they tried to stay with their own family. Sometimes they would graze on the same trees as other dinosaurs, but they preferred to stick together and find lovely big islands where they could roam free.

One day, Jill and Fred were drowned in a freak flood. Their children survived, though, and continued to grow and explore the wonderful world that they lived in, until one day the Earth was hit by a giant meteor and all the dinosaurs died.

Their bones lay buried for many, many years, until one day people found them and started to learn all about dinosaurs again. They found them so interesting that they wrote books about them and made models of them, and even made movies and games about them.

And so, Jill and Fred and Sue and Bill will never truly be forgotten.

The End.

My Mother was a Pirate

Once Upon a Time, Mummy was a Pirate. She liked to sail the seas in her boat ship, collecting lots of treasure by entirely legal means, because of course it would be Wrong to Steal. Daddy was a Pirate, too, and he liked to collect lots of treasure, especially if he could take it before Mummy got to it. This is called Healthy Competition and it is very good for married couples, as long as neither takes it Too Seriously.

Mummy and Daddy were both very scared of the Dread Pirates. Sometimes the Dread Pirates weren't very scary, but often they would hurt Mummy and Daddy's boats ships and make Mummy and Daddy have to limp home to Pirates' Cove to perform essential repairs.

There were lots of islands in the seas, and Mummy and Daddy liked to visit them all. Daddy's favourite island was Tavern Island, because Daddy likes to play with cards. Mummy liked Treasure Island best of all, because she got to dig holes and hide her treasure, and mark it with special little flags.

Mummy and Daddy were very good pirates, with very powerful boats ships. They both had very big sails, and Daddy’s had a very big hold, which is the place where you keep your treasure. Mummy had lots of crew, who are the people who work on boats ships. She kept her crew busy firing the ship's cannons at Daddy's boat ship so that Daddy would have to go to Pirate's Cove a lot. Then she would go to Treasure Island and make her crew dig holes and hide her treasure, while she drew clever maps to help her find it again.

After they had been pirates for one year, Mummy and Daddy decided to get married, so they went to Treasure Island together and dug up all their treasure and then Mummy stole it and left Daddy behind on the island they got married and lived happily ever after with their lovely daughters.

The End.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Be careful what you ask for. You just might get it.

Late last year I extended an invitation to Sexy Amy from Boardgamegeek to write a piece for Gone Gaming. Due to various circumstances we had to wait until March to finally coordinate, which turned out to work quite well for me. I have been rather busy this week. I was working extra shifts and preparing to attend the only game convention in Alaska, BRIMFROST, which will be held this weekend in Anchorage.

I must admit that I was duly warned. Amy told me several times that if she wrote something it might not be your typical boardgame blog. She worried that I might need to edit it for Gone Gaming, to which I replied, don't write anything you don't want me to post, 'cause I ain't gonna edit it.

Well, it isn't nearly as trashy as I had hoped, but I'm going to resist temptation, stick to my guns and not
edit in any gratuitous sex and violence.

For further reading, here's Amy & Friends' boardgame site
Amy's Artifacts. It's not a blog. It's a website.


Chess and the City

Part III: The Fianchetto

I have this girlfriend. For the sake of this story, let’s call her Carrie. We grew up on the same block of one of those tree-lined streets in the Magnolia District of Burbank. One summer when we were twelve and just beginning to discover boys, our parents sent us away to chess camp. That kind of thing happens when your fathers are, respectively, an academic and a rocket scientist—even in LA.
I remember how, right in the middle of one of our chess games, Carrie leaned over the board and said, “You are really cute. And that pisses me off!” But Carrie was smarter. A few months later when our school tested our IQs, she scored a full ten points higher than me. “That pisses me off,” I told her. “Good !” she said. “Now we are even.”

OK, now skip ahead ... wait, I’m counting ... yeah, skip ahead eleven years.

Carrie is now some kind of programmer for some kind of Silicon Valley startup. When the company went public, she made a killing in the IPO and bought a million-plus house in Palo Alto—in California real-estate terms, an 1100-square-foot cottage on a busy street. Still the address is prestigious and carries just enough cachet to peg her as an up-and-comer in the coding world.
Carrie and I are now in the process of reconnecting. We meet for coffee on campus or at the local Borders. Occasionally we even play chess.

One day she calls and asks me if I can meet her that evening for drinks in Sunnyvale. I recognize the name of the place—a bar famous for its geekiness—where the next great thing—the next iPod, maybe—gets invented on the back of a paper napkin.
I get caught in traffic and arrive thirty, maybe forty, minutes late. I find Carrie playing chess at a corner table—with a guy.
“Hi,” he says. “I’m Kev.” And, oh god, this guy is gorgeous. I see that right away, even in the light from the fifteen-watt bulb that hangs above the table. He’s wearing a polo shirt that he totally fills out, and he has these dazzlingly attractive arms that he’s built up to the point that they threaten to burst out of their shirtsleeves. Apparently this Kev saw Carrie alone with a chessboard and invited himself over for a game.
As it turns out, Kev is a pretty bad chess player. When I arrive he is already down a knight and a bishop. But then, all of a sudden, Carrie starts to blunder badly. She is playing quickly, so maybe that’s an excuse, but I can’t help wondering if it has something to do with me. By the time they reach the endgame, their positions seem about equal.
Out of nowhere, Carrie announces, “I need to go to the ladies’ room. Amy, you want to come with me?”
“Look,” she says when we are down the hallway and out of sight. “He’s already given me his number. Would you mind leaving now?”
So I do.

Two days later, I’m going through my purse. I find a slip of paper with a phone number. “Call me,” it says. “Kev.”

Now any reasonable person would tear it up, right? But I don’t. “I’ll tear it up later,” I say to myself. “I’m not going to call anyway. So what’s the rush?” My god, I’m pathetic.
Later, my cell rings. It’s Carrie. “Sorry about the other night,” she says. “But Kev and I hit it off right away. I know you understand.”
Yeah, I do understand—all too well.

Women don’t play chess as well as men. Statistically. Many explanations for this have been asserted. The most common one is this: Women lack the killer instinct. Well, I can think of about half-a-dozen explanations. Lack of killer instinct isn’t one of them. Look, there are a lot of ways to kill. I prefer not to use a gun. Most women don’t. It’s way too messy.
In chess I’ve always preferred the fianchetto defenses. You, sir, open with the aggressive d4? I reply with the shy Nf6. You stake out even more territory with c4? I meekly try g6. Most of the time it doesn’t work. I get lazy or can’t figure out what to do with my bishop or end up with doubled pawns. But it’s a style that fits my personality.

When Carrie and I meet for coffee now, she usually talks about Kev. At first their relationship seems hot and heavy. For a few months, while his house is being remodeled, he even stays with her in Palo Alto. But honestly— and I see this right away—there is no spark. It takes longer for Carrie to see it.
Kev is a weak chess player, despite his biceps. And that bothers her. She laughs about it, but it is the first chink in the armor. Those little things add up.
In the meantime, I stall for time. I push a pawn here, retreat a rook there. Inevitably my cellphone rings. “Kev and I broke up,” Carrie says. She is in bad shape—crying, almost hysterical. Of course, I commiserate. We have been friends for a long time. All the way back to Burbank, all the way back, even, to chess camp.
When she hangs up, I’m surprised at how calm I feel. I cross my bedroom and open the nightstand. I pull out my copy of Modern Chess Openings. I remove the bookmark and look at it. “Call me,” it says.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

A Theory of Board Game Design: Definitions of Terms

In early 2003 I wrote a series of what would eventually become 20 or so articles on the topic of strategic game design. They appeared in my continuing Skotos column, Trials, Triumphs & Trivialities, and I later reprinted them as a group in my now-defunct RPGnet column, Thinking Virtually.

It's now been almost three years since I finished up the core of the series, and I haven't quite decided what to do with it. I've learned a lot about board game design since, so I could revise them quite a bit for posting here, but on the other hand there's enough material for a book if I could find someone to publish it.

So, I'm leaving those articles in stasis for now, but at the same time I do want to talk about some of the ideas I originated there. Thus, I've decided to write up this article, which is a summary of some of my design ideas, and a general outline of how I analyze board game design, part-by-part. Consider it a definition of terms. (And if you prefer to go read the entire original and somewhat out-of-date series, it's available at Skotos.)

Broadly I think a game can be defined using the following elements: components, activity, decisions, luck, and victory.


Four types of components define most games: environment, tokens, markers, and randomizers.

Environment is the board upon which a game is played, though it may actually be a tabletop, a score sheet, or something stranger. You can have abstract environments (like a chess board), representative environments (like most Euro boards), randomized environments (like Settlers of Catan), evolving environments (like Carcassonne), and more.

Tokens are pieces which are placed upon that environment. They differentiate themselves from environment by the fact that they're dynamic. They enter play, leave play, move, or in some other way change. Broadly they're often "pawns" and they're defined by who they belong to, whether they move, and what they depict. You can have personal tokens, shared tokens, public tokens, dynamic tokens, static tokens, representative tokens, and many combinations thereof.

Markers are game elements which exist outside of the environment and which effectively replace a tic upon a piece of paper. They usually help you keep track of some quantity, such as dollars. You can have scoring markers (VPs, money), trading markers (goods), and more.

Randomizers are game elements which also exist outside the environment, and which in some way introduce luck into a game. See the discussion on Luck, below, for different types of randomizers, but the most common types are random randomizers (dice, spinners) and arbitrary randomizers (cards). Randomizers can sometimes combine with other types of components, such as the Carcassonne tiles, which are arbitrary environment and the Diceland dice, which are random personal tokens.

Tokens and environment tend to be the two more important types of components. By cross-referencing them you can usually say a lot about a game. For example, you could define The Settlers of Catan as using "personal representative tokens on a randomized environment" while some The Seafarers of Catan scenarios instead have "personal representative tokens on an evolving environment". Which is a fancy way of saying you have settlements and cities in both, but in one the board is randomized, but set at the start of the game, while in the other the board is randomized and can grow during the game.


I define activity as the mechanics that describe component interactions in a game. In other words they're the rules that say if you're allowed to change one marker into another ("wood for your sheep?") or if you're allowed to remove someone else's token ("die evil red army!").

I'm not entirely happy with my activity descriptions from my original article, but I still think they inevitably are classified by different ways that you move your components around. Following are some off-the-cuff definitions that I'm using for the moment.

Token activity might include: token conflict, where tokens directly affect each other, like Risk; token movement, where you're moving your tokens, often to some deliberate endpoint; the simpler token placement, where you're placing tokens on-board from an off-board position; or token removal, which is often a type of token conflict, but with a predefined result, such as when a dragon eats a meeple in Carcassonne: The Princess & The Dragon.

Environment activity usually centers on environment exploration (and/or environment placement), where you're trying to figure out what's in an environment and/or take advantage of it, such as in Anno 1503 or Goldland. It could also include environment conflict, if you're having environment in some way fight each other, though I can't immediately think of any games which meet that definition.

Marker activity includes almost any type of logistical game and most resource-management games. I usually classify them as marker collection and/or marker placement. The Settlers of Catan, Parthenon, and many others feature one of these as their main game activity.

Inevitably the activity within a game is defined by activity points (or "action points", to use their more common name), which define how many activities you can take during your turn. There are two degenerate cases which actually define most activity: where you have 1 AP, and can thus do just one thing; and where you have infinite APs, and can do do as many things as you want, subject to resource exhaustion. These cases usually don't actually define their activity as using APs. However, many gamers' games (particularly those by Kramer & Kiesling) make their APs explicit, and give you 2-10 to spend on a turn.


Decisions are what make activity interesting, because they offer different choices for you to make. You can usually define activity as a set of decision sets, each of which has two or more options.

Decision sets can cause Analysis Paralysis, which can be the downfall of a good game, and thus it's important to constrain them and thus make them more manageable. Some of the constraints I suggested in my original article include "constraint by turn phase", "constraint by game phase", "constraint by ability", "constraint by needs", "constraint by attractiveness" and "constraint by results".

The purpose of all of these constraints is the same: to reduce an infinite set of options to decisions sets which have 7 or less options each (using the psychologist's "Rule of 7" as a good thumbnail for what an individual can easily concentrate on). It's much preferred to have a 5-option decision, followed by another 5-option decision, then to have a single 10-option decision, and that's where constraints come in.


Luck is primarily used to determine the outcome of an activity. As I mentioned recently, in my second article on luck, I define four broad categories of luck.

Randomness is essentially selection with replacement. You get a random result from a set that never changes. These are dice.

Arbitrariness is essentially selection without replacement. You get a random result from a set that shrinks as you select from it. These are cards.

Chaos is the way that other players affect you & your plans.

Uncertainty is centered on hidden information, which is to say things that you don't know, but that other players do, which could have affected your decisions.

Dungeon Twister was a game that struck me last year for its claim that it has no luck. But it does: primarily chaos. Your placement of characters and items and your opponent's selection of the same can dramatically benefit one of you or the other through no real strategy. There's also some arbitrariness related to the placement of the room tiles. If my opponent's Dragon ends up on a big open square where it can flame lots of nearby rooms, and mine ends up on a square that's surrounded by walls no matter where he goes, then my opponent got lucky and I didn't.

Which is a long way of say that no dice doesn't mean no luck.


Just as activity is defined by activity points, victory is defined by victory points (and thus victory markers). Some games define a single victory point and some define five or ten required to win, but most constantly give you VPs throughout the game, and you call that a "score". Perhaps more confusingly some games use victory points as a resource within the game too (such as in Oltremare and many others where victory is money).

Victory Points are usually given out for component interactions (or, to put it another way, for certain types of successful component activities). Broadly, VPs are awarded for: token creation, destruction, collection, or movement; environment creation, destruction, control, or exploration; or marker creation, destruction, or collection.

As with activities, my definitions of victories have changed a bit since my original articles, and they're probably not quite settled yet.


This week's article was mainly intended to be a glossary. I suspect I'll refer back to it when I talk about game designs, starting with an upcoming series of articles on the design of Carcassonne(s). I hope I didn't bore too much; clearly defining everything here should pay off in months to come.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

No Easy Answer

I saw a question recently on the Geek: If I like Ingenious, will I like Through the Desert? This kind of question comes up occasionally and isn’t always easy to answer, especially if it isn’t accompanied by other information like what kind of other games you like and how many players you usually have.

Sometimes the games are so alike that it’s almost a given like Gemblo and Blokus which are, at their core, the same game. Other times there’s a superficial similarity in the play or feel of games, like Puerto Rico and Princes of Florence. These games both have a fairly complex interplay of components, offer different strategies and patterns of play to explore, and if the Geek ratings are to be trusted, the answer is a fairly confident “yes”. (I know some of you will want to complain and debate my comparison of these two games so go ahead; at least I’ll know someone out there is reading this!)

When games have almost nothing in common, it’s not so easy to give a useful answer. “I’m looking for a train game. Which one should I get?” I’m sorry, but without a lot more information to go on, there’s no way to answer that question with any confidence. Train games aren’t really about trains most of the time. They’re about collecting stock, point-to-point connection, moving goods, set collection or not going broke. They range from light, family fun to heavier, strategic brain exercise.

Even when games seem to have an important common element, the answer may be harder to answer correctly. I’m not a fan of auction/bidding games but I’ve enjoyed my online games of Amun-Re. If I were new to board gaming and was looking for suggestions with Amun-Re as my only tidbit of information, you might immediately think of Goa as a likely match. You would be wrong. Goa has my most-dreaded auction, the once-around.

There’s no way to compare Ingenious to Through the Desert except they both have neat pieces and the rules are pretty easily explained. The only answer that might be of help is, “I like them both so maybe you will, too.” In fact, I like Through the Desert much more than Ingenious.

There is no magic formula to answer the question If I Like X, Will I Like Y? But you’ll get much better opinions and more suggestions if you include as much information about your tastes and needs as you can when asking this question. After that, it’s a crap shoot, isn’t it? Hey, if I like Craps, will I like Roulette?
Until next time, keep your cardboard dry.


Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Generic mainstream news articles, so you won't have to read all those other ones

1. "The next Monopoly"

Board games have been in steady decline since the early 1980's, when console gaming and computer games took over the gaming industry. With the exception of Monopoly, Trivial Pursuit, Cranium, and a few other old standbys, board games no longer sell to today's youth.

In this day of flashing lights and video games, plain old dusty board games sit in the closet like platform shoes and polka-dot mini-skirts. Now ______ _______ wants to change that. He/she has invented a new board game that he/she hopes will become the next Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit.

"People today don't spend time together anymore, whether it's fast food, computers, or television. It's nice to have an actual board game for people to sit around. We're all really hungry for social contact."

The brainchild of __________ is the game ________, which combines the strategy of _____ and the luck element of _________. ________ created the game after being laid off at his/her current place of employment. He/she says that he/she can teach the rules in only thirty seconds, but that the game has lots of depth and is fun to play over and over for kids and grown-ups, alike.

Asked whether he thought today's kids would really have the patience or interest in playing an actual board game, he said that they would. "I was surprised at how good a reception the game got. When I first showed it to my kids, they weren't that interested. But when they started playing they were like, 'Wow! This is awesome!' Then they wanted to play again, right away. They brought their friends over to play, too. They can't get enough of it."

______ says that the game is not only fun, but can teach kids important concepts, such as pattern recognition/aiming to achieve a goal/economics/colors/ecology/how to sit still and pay attention.

______'s family raised the money to produce the first 2000 copies, which he/she is now trying to convince local game sellers to stock.

2. Board game group tries to revive the art of face to face games

At a local coffee shop, a group of adults huddle together over a table in furious discussion and laughter. They're not reading the sports section of the newspaper or discussing local politics. They're playing a board game.

Remember in days gone by, when families use to sit down together to play a board game? Well, this local group is trying to revive that old tradition. The _______ group meets every ______ to play board games.

In these days of computer games and video consoles, getting together with real people is a rare and welcome luxury. Board games are undergoing a resurgence in popularity, thanks in part to game groups such as this one.

"People think we're crazy, but there's a lot to be said about board games. Board games are good for you," says ______, the group's founder. "They teach strategy, get you thinking, and require you to deal with a real live person. They teach you how to sit still and pay attention. They're also a lot of fun."

People are rediscovering the old games that they/their parents once liked to play. Great board games to play are the classics: Monopoly, Clue, Snakes and Ladders, Candyland, and Sorry.

"People really connect to each other when playing a game," says _______.

3. The latest board games go digital

In this day of video games and computers, the old fashioned board game is having a hard time competing. Board game companies have found new ways to breathe life into the old classics, by marrying these old games to the TV screen.

"Kids nowadays don't relate to a flat board game. It's boring. Frankly, I don't blame them. They need fast moving pictures and electronics. And they have to be able to play the game in five or ten minutes, tops."

New games to bring out the budding board game player in your children include Scene It(tm), World Poker Championship, Candyland DVD, and Clue: the DVD edition, which are played using your DVD player. Each game comes with a disk which you simply pop into your DVD player. After the DVD starts up, away you go.

Kids love television, so these games are a natural fit. They are also educational, teaching kids to recognize colors and shapes, and offering basic counting and pattern recognition skills.

These games also offer the convenience of being able to play solo, when you can't find a partner. However, they are best enjoyed with company. The games only take 5 or 10 minutes, and they can be paused and resumed later, if necessary.


There you go, Ward. That should free up a lot of your time.


Sunday, March 19, 2006

the "Doctor" is in the 'hizz-ouse"!

YES! We're finally getting this T V 'show' airing here on a regular basis NOW! I had caught just one episode before this, upon a 'Canadian' station-(thank you "Oh Canada"!), and they graciously had shown '2' of these back to back last Friday night upon the "Sci Fi" channel! Since WE here aren't having any sorts of "UNcommon Destitute Gamings" going on, then it was nice to be able to relax and take in this at a leisurely 'pace'. While I know many have even gotten out to take in a 'movie' such as "V for Vendetta"-with a few having regretted such already-then it is hoped that many anew "fanzoid" for THIS, will get behind the rest of US on the matter as well. So I wonder WHY the "good Doctor" don't figure out a useful 'means' for them "Daleks", such as roving "street lights" with them going around and 'saying' their 'bit' instead as "I-L-L-U-M-I-N-A-T-E-!" eh? Since we'll have to await for the NEXT "Season" for "Battlestar Galactica", then this ought to fill the 'void' in the meantime. "South Park" is going to be having theirs this upcoming Wednesday night as well, so keep that in mind for you "fanzoids" of theirs. While just now I'm watching upon the "Gladiator" movie and of course I don't take this too "literally" and barely "figuratively" for that matter. We' ve got a "nice day" going on around here as well with the "SUN" making a full day of this, while yet others "below & around" are having "Cyclonic" fits in their parts of the World, so take care down there.

I also take *note* of "Cavedog_pdx" bringing up within a "list" of his on the "Geek" about some folks desiring upon some "Heavier Strategy" types of games. It seems to ME that there already ARE plenty available these days, what with "Europe Engulfed" or even "Caylus" from what I'd 'gathered' about such. I know that he's just trying to bring UP this 'topic' to alert those "idjits" around the 'industry' upon this FACT, but don't hold your collective "breaths" for anything spectacular, what with the more recent spate of "releases" and the 'let downs' that they've managed to elicit. Yet again, then I have to point OUT to many about this concerning just since YOU are "giving away" YOUR hard earned 'monies' for this 'stuff' on a regular basis-akin to 'feeding' your "wallet" some monetary "Ex-Lax"-then you are getting what you 'deserve' eh? Yep, them "fools" and their "moneys" are 'parting' at "Ludicrous" speed! I didn't wish to put up with their "crap" any longer, so that is mainly WHY I don't "buy into" this any longer msyelf. But then of course, I've got plenty to keep me "busy" in the meantime as well, so that's really of little consequence regarding 'moi'. This also brings to mind for ME about what is the "delay" upon having MY "game submission" becoming "approved"? hmmm? I 'devised' that "MEEP" "WARZ!" game for use IN their "chat" and we've even been conducting some "gamings" of this, although our "room" is so 'lag ridden' as to make that more like some sort of "Snail's PACE" for the time being. I would write to 'them' upon the matter, except that a "gnat fart during a Hurricane" would probably obtain better 'notice'!

I shall also bring up about HOW this 'blog' tends to have its share of 'problems' every so often and many HERE know of what I 'speak'. I don't have any idea just what is going on for that, and no quick 'answer' about this is forthcoming. Sure, they could be working upon this somewhere and 'whomever' just happens to be the "unlucky" 'person' being subjected to such at the moment. It is just another "thang" that we have to put up with and since this is FREE, then we have little "room" to complain about it all.

Here's my "shout out" to them 'good guys' of "Scott & Jason" over at "Point 2 Point" for their "grognard" podcasts! They've even gotten UP a "webpage" for that now and here's a couple of LINKS for this:

"Point to Point"


Keep up the "Good JORB!" you guys, along with the many others out around the WORLD doing their 'part' for the benefit of many others!

Saturday, March 18, 2006

A quiet night at Gamers@Dockers or the night Twonky got his guns

The spectre of street closures and parking chaos due to the Commonwealth Games meant that numbers were down compared to usual, although local readers should note that there were no particular transport problems at all. Note to American readers - the reason that the English threw the American War of Independence was so that you would not get invited to the Commonwealth Games, which is basically the Olympics for old English colonial countries who did not fight wars of independence.

First off was a three player David and Goliath with Tim, Greg and myself. Tim said he had played it once or twice before. They way he casually destroyed us time and time again implied that either he is a natural at the game or has played it a few more times than he admitted. To add insult to injury on those rare occasions that Tim deigned to let us build a legitimate scoring pile he gave us 1's or 2's from his seemingly limitless supply of low cards.

Luckily for Greg and I, Ben arrived and we switched to four player where despite a concerted effort by Greg and myself Tim still did very well.

We were now up to five people and broke out Paul's Avalon Hill version of Robo Rally. By the time we had decided what board or boards to play and had almost set up we were up to seven players.

I have played the original Robo Rally quite a few times over the years, but this was my first time with the new version.

The addition of the player mats and the starting board are very useful. I am not entirely sure why the virtual bots were removed, but I can live with it. The opinion of the table was that the 30 second timer was useless. If it is to be started as soon as the penultimate player has finished then it should be only 10 or 15 seconds, alternately you could make it 60 or 90 seconds and start it before people look at their cards.

We played that nobody started with any option cards (I am not sure what the standard rules for this actually are).

We had two or three newbies and played the board that has four square fast conveyor belts, quite a few rotating gears and a number of lasers. In fact it looked almost exactly like this except that the main board was rotated 90 degrees and the third flag was one square closer to the start board.

The start was peaceful enough, but by the third turn things started getting hectic. Most people had cleared the starting area and encountered either each other or the speedy conveyors which general played havoc with their programmed movement. With seven bots in play the most direct route to the first flag soon became crowded and naturally a lot of pushing, shoving and shooting ensued. It was rare for anyone to be positioned at the end of the turn even remotely near where they had planned to end up.

The first deaths were quite early, Paul pushed Ben off the map and was moving so fast that he followed him off. The mayhem continued with a large number of power downs required for people to keep moving in a vaguely controlled fashion.

Paul was the first to reach the first flag, Frank was very close behind after being pushed and having a locked register due to accumulated damage he found himself careering off the edge of the board the very next turn.

Having taken the long way around to make a pass at the first flag I (Twonky) got pushed and found myself on a speedy conveyor belt and waving bye-bye to the flag in a fairly damaged state. At this stage I decided to power down whilst enjoying the ride around the conveyor belt. When I powered up again my cards were not going to help me reach the elusive first flag, so I decided to visit the repair place and pick up an option card. I did this and got the howitzer (five optional shots which push the target bot one space in addition to the normal damage). My next pick up of cards had all turns except for a Move 1 and a backup. I wasn't going to be able to get near the flag, but I could return to the repair spot and pick up a second option card, so I did and got Fire Control (instead of causing damage you may choose to lock a register of your choice on the target bot). It is worth pointing out, that I was the only player to get any option cards during the game. They did give me an advantage, however it had cost me two full turns to pick them up.

With some new cards and my newly installed weapons I was now ready to strike out towards the first flag and possibly cause some havoc along the way. By this stage Paul had already left the second flag behind and three others had completed the first flag and were heading there way towards the second flag. A few more deaths had occurred by this point. Paul had pushed Frank off the board and soon after he had been caught in the crossfire of two other bots and been shot to pieces.

Unlike my first attempt at the flag, my second attempt was successful, avoiding being pushed by the other bots and getting there with nothing other than a few laser hits. As I left the first flag, Paul was zooming up the edge of the board towards the third flag. I decided I may as well move out and position myself for some opportunity fire towards the third flag, especially since I only had two Move cards to play that turn.

As my luck would have it, the instant I turned towards the third flag Paul appeared in my sights. He was on the edge of the board about to win the game, what is a poor young bot with a brand new howitzer meant to do? Fire One! Yes, I shot him with the howitzer, pushed him off the board and he was eliminated from the game.

During the this time, three people who were new to Gamers@Dockers had arrived. Greg explained David and Goliath to them and helped them play in between his turns.

Quite a bunfight was brewing around the second flag. I couldn't resist the opportunity to shoot Tim with the howitzer to push him into Greg who was then pushed off the board. During another entanglements Frank ended up being eliminated.

After David and Goliath finished, Frank and Paul started up a five player game of Ra with the new people.

Tim made it to the to second flag as I powered down just near it and then he made a good run towards the third flag. On the way towards the third flag, I irritated any other bots that got into my sights by using the Fire Control to lock one of their registers, usually a fun one like U-turn or Move 3.

It was a race to the third flag between Tim and I and Tim was a fair way in front. I positioned myself to be coming up the map on the speedy conveyor belt that had direct line of sight with the third flag. The phase that Tim reached the flag, I had just come around the corner of the conveyor belt and had a shot lined up, so used the howitzer and pushed him off the flag. The next phase Tim turned and I was still on the conveyor belt facing the flag and Tim. This time I used Fire Control and locked his first register, which was Move 3. His final card was a turn that left him facing the edge of the board. He was now two spaces away from the edge with a locked Move 3 as his first card and thus went sailing off the edge to return to flag two. I had the right cards to sail off the conveyor belt and straight on the third flag to claim victory in a damage filled game.

The game of Ra was continuing at the other table, so the surviving bots (Tim, Ben, Doritos and I) broke out Alhambra. Neither Ben nor Doritos had played before, however in a tight finish Doritos pipped Ben by a point who in turn pipped me by a point. Tim was a bit further behind, but he had a very symmetrical palace, which may have been worth a few style points, but no victory points.

A very pleasant eveing, no problems with the Commonwealth games, three games played and three new people to Gamers@Dockers. Thanks as usual to Frank for the lift home.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Gaming from 60 B.C. to 1 A.C/The pre-history of modern games

60 years before Catan to the release of Catan.

The modern era of boardgaming began during the Great Depression. Prior to the widespread release of Monopoly in 1935 themed boardgames were viewed as a childish pastime. Boardgames often had a Biblical theme, or were merely tools to help teach children to count and read.

Most of the readers to this blog know that the following story is a load of malarkey, but for our purposes it will suffice. Actually, this small snipette of the story is probably true.

According to the popular story Charles Darrow was making copies of a game in his garage for his friends. Soon demand was greater than he could meet in his home workshop. Charles took his game to Parker Brothers who after several refusals eventually picked up the game and started mass producing it under the name Monopoly. In doing so boardgaming would make an epic shift for the better.

Who knows why popular culture takes the turns that it takes? In the case of Monopoly it seems to be a matter of timing.

During the Great Depression Monopoly provided a diversion which allowed adults to momentarily forget about the poor state of the economy and to play with large sums of money, albeit play money. In times of economic downturns people tend to be more inclined to stay at home to find entertainment, hence the traditional increase in birth rates during times of economic downturns (the Baby-Boomers being the notable exception to that rule). These two forces; the fantasy spawned by tossing around money frivolously and the economic impetus to stay at home converged (a convergence in the forces if you will) to make Monopoly popular with adults.

Who knows all the reasons Monopoly caught on with adults? I suspect there is probably a certain amount of truth to both of the reasons I presented, but I doubt that either can account for the current popularity of Monopoly. However it happened, catch on it did and our culture has changed for the better.

More boardgames designed with adults in mind followed in the wake of Monopoly. The Monopoly Stock Exchange Add On in 1936 (which may be the first game expansion); Stock Ticker in 1937; Tripoley in 1938; Scrabble in 1948; Yahtzee in 1956; among many other games captured the fancy of many adults.

The release of Tactics II in 1958 marked another turn in popular culture. Not only was Tactics II a game designed for adults, it had no pretensions about being a family game. With the release of Tactics II we see the coalescence of tactical wargames as another branch of boardgames. Charles Roberts, the creator of Tactics II, founded the Avalon Hill game company in 1958 and promptly released another wargame, Gettysburg. Diplomacy and Risk were both released the next year and the era of popular wargaming was officially underway.

Although renown for its line of wargames Avalon Hill published many types of games many of which were targeted at a young adult (read: college students) and older audience. AH published the original 18xx Railroad games, Rail Baron, Shakespeare, the Status Pro series, numerous race car games and other games too numerous to mention. In 1974 AH acquired the rights to many games in the 3M line including the venerable game of Sid Sackson design, Acquire.

Acquire was first published in 1962. At the time of its release Acquire was considered to be a pretty good game, and stayed in print for the next 40 years. Acquire wasn’t a game that changed boardgame culture on its own, but its influence has been felt for decades after its release. I have often considered Acquire to be the “Velvet Underground” of boardgaming. Brian Eno once said of the band Velvet Underground: “Only a few thousand people ever bought a Velvet Underground record, but almost every single one of them was inspired to start a band.”

I doubt anybody was inspired to start a band after playing Acquire, but the game has come to be known as a very inspirational design.

Acquire has only recently, within the last 10 years, become widely recognized as the original designer game or German game. No one gets eliminated in Acquire. Each player is in control of his own destiny and not at the mercy of dice. Skillful players have an advantage, but random tile draws give new players a chance to win and keeps each game fresh. Players don’t actually control game tokens in Acquire, players own stock in companies and can only influence companies in a small way each turn. Several players can own stock in the same companies. This concept in game design, arguably, did more to influence future game design than anything since the invention of dice.

That’s a lot of innovation for one game. At some future time I will argue that Scrabble actually did several of those thing prior to Acquire, but no game designer ever put all those elements together in the same game as successfully as Sackson did with Acquire.

By the late 1980s boardgames were again considered to be a childish pursuit in most circles. Dungeons and Dragons had long before started its meteoric ascent and a slew of role playing games designed for the teenager and very young adult would appear in its wake. Most importantly the era video games, both arcade and home versions, was in full swing. The wargaming arm of the boardgame hobby and possibly Scrabble were the two exceptions where adult players still thrived. Luckily in Germany boardgames were still considered a family hobby.

Game design in Germany developed along different lines than the rest of the world. In Germany the topic of war was taboo. Wargames were taboo. Not only were wargames taboo, but game boxes that depicted certain German WWII insignias were illegal to import (and still are). This aversion to war games, coupled with the fact that more games are produced and sold in Germany than any other country, eventually lead to a new worldwide shift in the way adults think of boardgames.

In the mid to late 1970s the era modern "German games" was starting to bloom. The German designers had scrapped the traditional "roll and move" mechanism, and were designing games with no player elimination. Some of the other hallmarks of a German game were, and still are; simple rules, clever mechanisms, <2 hours in length, if there was any luck in the game it was managable, lots of player interaction, and quality production.

In 1978 the German game industry created the Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year) award to promote the best family games coming out of their country. The first winner was Hare and Tortoise (Hase und Egal) in 1979. In the years since the Spiel des Jahres was established it has become a mark of excellence. Today a winner of the SdJ can easily sell a quarter million copies.

By the 1990s games of German origin were starting to make their way out of the country and into the hands of game enthusiasts in other countries. Word of mouth and small publications like Mike Siggins’ Sumo helped spread the word about the “German games”, but the rise of the internet in the mid 90s was the real turning point for German games. Or should I say; the rise of the internet coupled with a minor game that you have probably never heard of called “Settlers of Catan”.

The internet became a point for enthusiasts of boardgames to congergate and exchange information about games. With the internet a gamer in Jerkwater, Alberta could read a review about a game produced in Germany, and buy it from an on line store. Not only could he read a review, but an English translation of the rules would eventually get posted, and reposted to other boardgame websites. Gamers who had never heard of Sumo nor Mike Siggins could now easily get information about games produced around the world.

For many (self included) the internet opened our eyes to a boardgame world that we never new existed.

Just as the internet was becoming a household word the spark that was the German boardgame industry turned into a blaze with the release of Settlers of Catan. How odd that Monopoly, the game that gave legitimacy to boardgames for adults, would come to be viewed as a child's game in the wake.

But again, who knows why cultures take the turns they take?

Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Problem with Luck II

Last year I wrote about luck in board games, with attention to the fact that most well-designed luck in games actually asks you to balance risk versus reward.

Last week I played two luck-filled board games, Parthenon and The Settlers of Zarahemla and in each case I lost due to some "bad luck". But, I was entirely happy with the results because the losses were ultimately the result of me risking and losing, and that's exactly how I think it should be in a game with a random factor. Thus, I'd like to use these two game sessions as case studies, to show what good, controllable luck looks like, and how you can risk and lose.

In the process, I'm going to talk about several different types of unpredictability in games: randomness, which I define as sample with replacement, such as a die roll; arbitrariness, which I define as sample without replacement, such as a deck of cards; and chaos, which I define as player interaction. (A fourth type of unpredictability, uncertainty, which depends on hidden information, didn't really come up in either game.)

Case #1: Parthenon

Parthenon was one of the more interesting games released in 2005. I wouldn't say it was high profile, but that's mainly because it came out from Z-Man who is still building their Eurogame creds (though they came out with a pile of great games in 2005). Nonetheless, if this game had been put out by Rio Grande, everyone would have been talking about it. Parthenon got quite a bit of good, early press as either a Civilization-light or a new Settlers of Catan. Then, as it reached a larger audience, people started complaining about the randomness, saying that it ruined an otherwise good game. As of today Parthenon is still ranked #586 on BGG, which is entirely respectable, and in the same area as Relationship Tightrope and Around the World in 80 Days, both good games. I personally gave Partheon a solid B.

The basic idea of Parthenon is to build 16 buildings on your home island. This is done through resource management. You collect various goods, among them the hard-to-get gold and papyrus, and use those to build your buildings, and at the same time you're influenced by current events, and the harbor status of the ports that you want to trade at.

In my recent game of Parthenon I had a very strong position going into year 3. By the end of the first season I had 15 or my 16 buildings built, with my second Wonder of the World being the only obstacle. But when I drew the plans for that second Wonder, I learned that the conditions for building that Wonder were very difficult given my particular setup and the particular conditions of the game.

In order to finish the Wonder I had to give away one gold, then one papyrus during the island trading phase. Unfortunately I didn' thave either in hand at the time, and the papyrus was very hard to get. It could only be traded for at Egypt, and Egypt had a "tribute" harbor status, meaning that you could only carry two goods there to trade, unless you had an army to protect them.

I had no army which meant I was indeed limited to those two goods in Egypt. I further had no way to build an army because I'd elected not to construct the Fortress building which would have allowed me do so. Since I was limited to trading just two goods in Egypt, I wouldn't be able to trade for both gold and papyrus on the same turn, and I'd further never built a second ship, which meant that I couldn't trade for gold somewhere else on the same turn that I got papyrus from Egypt. Oh, and the other players were embargoing me because of my strong endgame position, which kept me from trading for basic goods that I could have used to create gold at my marketplace. In other words, I was all-around out of luck. It would be at least season 4 before I could finish up my wonder, and if I met a single hazard-related setback, I'd never finish at all. And, I did.

It would be easy to say that I ended up in such an untenable position because of a bad card draw, and I suspect that many detractors of Parthenon's randomness would say exactly that. However, looking closer, I think it's pretty clear that my downfall was entirely my fault. Parthenon is at heart a logistical game of efficiency, as many resource management games are. This means that you try and make better use of limited goods and turns than your opponents. I had chosen to try a path of minimalism during this game. I hadn't bought any armies (or gifts of Poseidon or warships), because that would have slowed my path to victory. I hadn't bought any extra ships for carrying my goods for a similar reason.

If I'd drawn a better Wonder plan, I might have won in year 3, season 1 thanks to my superb efficiency to that point. Contrariwise if I'd taken a safer path, it might have cost me a season or two or efficiency, but I would have been in a better position once I got the Wonder I actually drew. With a ship or an army I had an opportunity to win the season after I drew that plan.

I didn't lose because of the card I drew. I lost because of the risk I took.

As I said in my previous article on luck, good luck in games should be controllable. There are a large number of different luck factors in Parthenon, but I believe every one of them is controllable. You takes your chances and you reap your rewards. Or not.

Here's a chart of those luck factors, which will probably be more meaningful to people who have played the game:

EventsArbitraryNegotiate with the Archon.
Build appriopriate structures.
Hold appropriate goods.
Buy Nihilism.
HazardsArbitraryBuy Gifts of Poseidon, Warships.
Buy Stoicism.
Harbor StatusesArbitraryBuy Armies, Warships.
Buy Epicureanism.
Wonder PlansArbitraryBuy plans early.
Buy Materialism.

One of the players in our Parthenon game mentioned that Stoicism is often the first Philosophy bought, because hazards come up so often. However, I'm no longer convinced that's the best strategy, because hazards can be controlled in other ways (especially through the all-purpose-hazard-avoidance Gift of Poseidon card), while other arbitrary card draws are much harder to control. If I'd purchased Materialism instead of Nihilism, I would have been taking my chances with events, but I would have been able to finish off my Wonder.

Before I close out on Parthenon I'd like to mention that the risk/reward structure is slightly more complex than what I discuss above. You have to expend resources to purchase the various cards which can allow you to offset risks, as I already mentioned. However, for all the aegis cards (that's the Army, Gift of Poseidon, or Warship) you actually have to put it on a boat, taking up one of your 6 cargo slots, in order for it to take effect. Since I've often had cases where I needed all 6 of my cargo slots in order to achieve the trade I wanted, this can be another large risk/reward decision.

Of course you can have your cake and eat it too. You just buy a second or third boat (cost: 1 or 2 gold), and then you will have to buy the correct aegises to protect that boat too, and you're set; you can now carry an extra six cargo, minus the slot(s) for those aegises. Of course you've spent more resources at this point, to lower your risk further.

Because of its multiple levels of risk decisions, I increasingly think that Parthenon is a very fine example of this particular genre of risk/reward game.

Case #2: The Settlers of Zarahemla

The other game that I played on my "lucky" game night was The Settlers of Zarahemla. It's a licensed version of The Settlers of Catan that I'm more likely to carry around when I'm interesting in a Settlers game because it's very beautiful and it has one slight addition: a pyramid to build, with a 2-point "best builder" VP bonus in contention. There are a few terminology changes: instead of sheep you have water as a resource, and they call ore stone.

As is often the case in Settlers my bad luck came about because of my setup decisions. I was greedy, and I made my initial placement decisions in order to try and corner two scarce-looking resources: stone and water. In the process, however, I placed my two settlements pretty close together, and right in the center of the board.

As the game proceeded I very quickly realized that I was in a bad position. I was getting cut off in multiple directions and every time I started to build in a direction, someone else got there just before me. I eventually had to build four road segments (off of a bad production of brick + wood) before I could get a third settlement down. I don't know that this all cost me the game, per se, because we had some strong players, but it definitely ensured that I was out of the competition.

Now I'm sure a lot more people are familiar with Settlers, and it's thus a lot easier to see some of my decisions as plain bad. For a start, if I was going to put myself in a board position where I needed to build out quickly, I should have made sure I had the brick and wood to do so, not the exact opposite resources. Further, striving for longest road (which I did, and which I held for a time) was pretty dumb when I had no wood resources. Instead I should have been working on the temple, which took brick and ore. I had brick, and as you may recall I made an effort to corner the ore market.

However, I can also measure my choices as risk/reward. I took a bad risk--hoping that the other players wouldn't cut me off before I really got my resource machine going--and I'd balanced it against a questionable reward--grabbing a set of resources that I'd decided were nice. And this is how risk/reward games are often lost: in measuring your risk or reward incorrectly, not in drawing the wrong card or having an opponent cut you off at the wrong time.

During my game of Settlers I also got hit by the robber 2 or 3 times, losing my hand when I had 8 or more cards. As with my building choices, this often comes down to greed. I was building up for the big win, rather than buying a development card or doing something else less efficient. If I'd taken a more tactical approach to the game, I might have been able to inch ahead a bit, but instead I took the risk of long-term strategy, and lost out.

As with Parthenon, the luck and the control of Settlers can be mapped out in a chart:

Development CardArbitraryNone. (Or perhaps: Buy more.)
Die Roll: ProductionRandomSpread out settlements by production number.
Die Roll: RobberRandomBuild, even if it's suboptimal, to keep hand size below 7.
Opponent BlockingChaosSpread out settlements by geography.

Controlling the luck of Settlers doesn't map out quite as cleanly as controlling the luck of Parthenon, but it's still there. You just have to work a little harder to achieve it, and you have to think a little more about it because the game system is a bit more tightly woven, and thus you don't hae elements that scream out, "I'm here to control luck for you", as is the case with Parthenon.


Luck is a fine element in a game if it can be controlled, and Parthenon and Settlers provide two great examples of games that were designed with controlling luck in mind; if anything writing this article has assured me of how deliberate this design was in Parthenon.

If you can't deal with randomness, fine, but let's stop hearing about how you lost due to bad luck, when there were options for control that you could have taken advantage of and opted not to.