Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Games in Rhyme

He travels all over Europe
Rarely leaving a clue.
Will you be able to catch him
Or will he catch you?

Fifteen islands
Placed in a ring.
He who rules the castles
Will capture the win.

To rule the castles,
You can’t play nice;
You must control Paladins
By rolling the dice.

It’s just you and me,
Under a tree,
Watching the river flow.
It merges then turns,
We’ll soon learn
To whose side it will go.

Quietly choose a character,
Don’t even blink.
To win, it helps to know
How your enemies think.

Build your city in yellow
Green, red, purple and blue;
The faster you build,
The better you’ll do.

Lay your tile wherever you wish
But the roads are required to match.
If you can capture Bonus tiles,
It’s likely you’ll score a good catch.

Your brave Knights guard the castles,
Tall and wide.
If need arises, they walk through to
The other side.
When the King visits a castle,
He gives rewards
To any Knight that he meets on the
Floor that he guards.

I’m in a race,
I know the place
That I’m supposed to go.
How I get there,
I do not care;
A card will let me know.

You may curse
If I reverse
And go into a spin.
But have fun,
Even if you don’t win.

Poetry it’s not but I hope you have fun with these rhymes. How many games can you name? Look for the answers tomorrow in the comments section.

And lastly, a quick reminder that we’re looking for guest bloggers on Sundays so all of you clever gamers with something worth saying who’d like to get your message to millions of gamers….uh, thousands of…several gamers, send your articles to

Until then, may all your camels find water.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006


When it comes right down to it, playing games has very little to do with playing games.

Consider the difference between eating and eating.

When one person sits down to eat, he needs to fill his belly and enjoy the taste while doing so. He doesn't eat when he is not hungry (unless it's cake) and he doesn't think much about the food development process, only whether he likes the results.

When another person sits down to eat, it is quite a different story. The food is examined and assessed. The wine is held up to the light and swirled. The dishes of the meal are deconstructed into parts, while the experience is evaluated as a whole.

Two different objectives for essentially the same activity, yet the perspective of the participants is so vastly different. Not only does one possess a different sensibility and subjective taste from the other, their conscious purposes are also different.

Whether or not they enjoy the meal depends only partly on any objective quality of the meal. It also depends on what they want out of a meal.

When Joe and Mary Average sit down to play a game, not only do they have different tastes than that of the prototypical gamer, they also have different reasons for playing. The Averages are playing to be entertained, to connect with their children, to pass the time, and so on. The gamer is playing to strategize, to evaluate, and to milk out an experience.

With such different possible reasons for playing, you might as well say that we are not even doing the same activity. Playing a game is not playing a game, any more than drinking to get drunk is like drinking to learn about wine. They only share some common physical props and methods.

If they were the same activity, but gamers simply liked "better" games, you would expect a chart comparing game types and tracking game likes and dislikes to follow a roughly linear curve, with gamers enjoying games at one end of the curve and the Averages enjoying games from the other end or middle of the curve. But consider the following:

The blue numbers are the top games on BGG, the red numbers the bottom 10, and the green names are a sampling of the top games enjoyed by the Averages.

You can see here that it is not a case of enjoying games at different parts of the curve. There are two distinct enjoyment curves that have nothing to do with each other. You would never even know that we were looking at the same activity.

What we need here are two different names for two different activities.

The Averages can continue to "play games". Maybe we "participate in ludographic recreational activities". Would you care to study ludography with me? Yes, please, but only one glass; I have to drive home.

Instead of "game groups", how about "ludography groups", subtitled "the study of board game cultures and game interaction"? You and I know that these are still fun, but when those Averages tell us that our games are boring, we can just say that academic studies generally appear to be so to those not steeped in the academic environment. And when they ask us why we don't like to play Barney's Chutes and Ladders, we can truthfully say that "we don't play games".

We separate two people who cannot convince each other why they enjoy entirely different activities. As usual for most arguments, the problem is our disagreement on more fundamental issues: not whether this or that game is any good, but what constitutes "good" for playing games.

Having separated the two activities, we can now make better distinctions. For "playing games", "good" means what the Averages want. For "ludography", "good" means what gamers want.

Another conflict solved.

Now on to more important matters. Rewriting the song "My Humps", because it annoys me.

The Blue Eyed Sesames sing "My Hephelumps"

(What you gon' do with all that junk?
All that junk inside your can?)
I'ma get, get, get, get, real mad,
Get real mad, yes that's my plan.
My junk, my junk, my junk, my junk, my junk,
My junk, my junk, my junk, my lovely little dump. (Check it out)

Mr Snufflepagus:
I drive these muppets crazy,
Cause I am big and lazy,
They talk about me nicely,
They never really see me.
Larry, Gina Jefferson,
Elmo, Mr. Robinson,
Ernie, Bert be starin'
But my vision they ain't sharin'
I only got Big "Bad" Bird,
He tries to speak a few words
And tell 'em 'bout my livin'
They say 'no', an' they keep givin'
Out like I ain't out here
It's really dip that all year
That they all keep on dissin'
But it ain't all my business.

My Snuff, my Snuff, my Snuff, my Snuff
My Snufflepagus
My Snuff, my Snuff, my Snuff,
My Snufflepagus,
(He's got me spinnin'.)
(Oh) Spinnin' round and lookin' for me, but you ain't gonna see me.
(He's got me spinnin'.)
(Oh) Spinnin' round and lookin' for me, but you ain't gonna see me.

(What you gon' do with all that junk?
All that junk inside your can?)
I'ma get, get, get, get, real mad,
Get real mad, yes that's my plan.
(What you gon' do with all those cookies?
All those cookies on your plate?)
I'm a make, make, make, make a mess
Make a mess, make a - Wait!

Cookie Monster:
I'm gonna eat you up, my yummy cookie lumps. (Oh yum yum yum!)

Elmo met a girl down by the sidewalk.
She said to Elmo "Hey, yeah let's go.
I could be your mommy, and you could be baby
Let's spend time together
And we'll be best friends forever
I'll give you milk and cookies
You can dip your cookies in my m ... hey, wait!"

Cookie Monster:
COOKIES! COOKIES! (yum yum yum, weck it wout)

Big "Bad" Bird:
They say I'm just a big bird
With birdie brains - it's absurd.
They always try to 'teach' me
Always saying words to me
Like "Can I say 'number 5'"?
Can I say 'number 5', man?
Now tell me what you're jivin'
Of course I can be fiving
Do I look like I just sprouted wings?
I talk to them real slowly
Cause they don't seem to get me
I got more brains in my feathers
Then they all got all together.

My dump, my dump, my dump, my dump,
My dump, my dump, my dump, my dump, my dump, my dump.
I love my little dump (dump)
I love my little dump (dump)
I'm lovin' all my junk (junk)
In the back and in the front (front)

Mrs Piggy:
My lovely Kerrrrmyyyy....

She got me hoppin'

Mrs. Piggy:
(Oh) I'm gonna get you froggy, froggy, you can't run from me, from me

She got me hoppin' (gulp)

Mrs Piggy:
(Oh) I'm gonna get you froggy, froggy, you can't run from me, from me

What you gon' do with all that junk?
All that junk inside that trunk, Bert?

I'ma gonna, gonna, throw it out,
In the garbage pail, Ernie.

What you gon' throw it out in,
Throw, throw it out in, Bert?

Uh, I'm gonna use the garbage pail
The garbage pail, just like I said, ... Ernie.

This garbage pail's got a hole in it,
Hole in it, it's a piece of junk, Bert.

Whatever! You can jus' just throw it out
Throw it out, with all the junk, Ernie.

Yeah, but how should I throw it, throw it out,
Throw it out, yeah, how, Bert?

Argh! Just put it there with all that junk,
Inside that trunk. All right, Ernie?

Yeah, but what you gon' do with all that junk?
All that junk inside that trunk, Bert?


This song was brought to you by
(Oh) The number five, five, a beautiful number (Ah ha haaa! *crash*)
This song was brought to you by
(Oh) The letter "b", the letter "b", whis'prin' words of wisdom, letter "b".

The end.


OK, OK, here is Grover, here is Grover. Grover is ready for his solo. OK.
What? Where did everybody go? Oh, I am a sad, late Grover monster.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

GAME STORE CONFIDENTIAL ~ Who you really ought to thank for the Golden Age of Gaming

Well, lucky me.

I get to write an article on Memorial Day.

This one's going to be shorter than usual because I have only a few things to say and then a large thank you to pass along. But to begin with, I want to talk about war games for a few paragraphs.

First off, I do understand that war games are offensive to some people. I'm not saying I understand why they are offensive... just that they are. Maybe it's similar to a fear of heights, or fear of snakes, it's just one of those unexplainable things that some personalities don't want to deal with.

War games though, are endlessly fascinating for many, many people. Even people who haven't been in a war or never intend to be in one. I've sat at tables with passionate peaceniks and played war games, also with Vets of a number of different wars. Truth is, war games really don't "teach" us anything about life. They can help those interested in history or military hardware understand how war works, but they don't send any message about war. Oddly enough, Euro Games don't send any particular message about Europe. Now that I think about it, backgammon tells me nothing about ancient gamblers and chess hasn't allowed me to see inside the minds of 15th century gamers.

Games are just games. War Games don't glorify war any more than playing a game of Puerto Rico glorifies slavery. People play war games because of an interest in strategy & tactics, or because they are fascinated with the difficulties of terrain and weapons. Some war games add morale into the equation, but even that is usually a die roll and the best Civil War general or English Lord can suddenly find himself with an entire army running away, Monty Python style, because you rolled a "1".

About 25 or 30 years ago I read a book by a brilliant historian named Gwyn Dyer. He was, I think, a respected professor at a major university in Canada and is currently an anti-war activist. His book was called, simply enough, "War".

Good title, because it was a fantastic book about human beings and their tendency to fight and kill one another. If I'm right, PBS made a series about the book, sort of like the Ken Brooks' Civil War series. But back on point here... Dyer said something in his book that still, 30 years later, rings so, so true... if you just pause and think about it. In essence, the message he conveyed about war is this; in the end, all wars lose meaning to future generations. All wars become footnotes in history and eventually even lose their footnote status, becoming a collection of moldy old facts buried in books and databases that only doctoral candidates examine. He pointed out something that at once made me feel insignificant and at the same time awed... he reminded his readers that there have been more wars fought on this planet that nobody alive knows about than the total amount of wars recorded in history books.

So why then do we here in America memorialize war heroes, and by inference, war, every May? If war is so meaningless and so insignificant in the end, why make a holiday to remember and acknowledge those men and women who fight wars? And in the gaming world, why are men (and a smattering of women) fascinated by games that abstract death and killing in the form of hexagonal maps, cardboard chits and combat result tables?

I think it's because of a very simple thing... wars, while they may pass into history and become moot to current generations, are important things. War has shaped our civilization. Forgetting for a moment that all wars are indiscriminate when it comes to good and bad, because each side will lose lives, what wars do is push mankind towards something... or perhaps pull mankind away from something.

I am not one of those people who glorifies war. Like most of you, I dislike the very idea of inflicting pain, suffering and death on someone and the grim aspect of "collateral damage" is not just bad for pacifists... nobody likes it. Unless they really are evil.

So Mister Dyer in his book, wrote about war in a way I'd never personally thought about it. He got me to understand that wars only solve today's problems... or sometimes create today's problems, but that in the long run, we'd probably be a whole lot better off on this planet if we could figure out how not to have the damned things.

But we aren't there yet. And so we will continue to fight.

This brings me to the thing that makes Memorial Day the only holiday that has real meaning to me... other than July 4th. Memorial Day is a day to acknowledge the sacrifices of the heroes who have allowed America to write her own history books for over 200 years. Politics aside -- because if you think about it, politics become meaningless much faster than wars do -- every nation that is free and has fair elections and civil rights was forged with war. Even yours. It's so easy to pick apart something politically and forget that the prime foundations of what makes all free people free are the sacrifices that others have made for us... and the tradition goes back until it diminishes and fades away, becoming Gwen Dyer's forgotten history.

From where I sit, I'm pretty happy that some wars were fought and won by people in my family and the families of my friends. Hell, I'm happy for you that people I know and people you know cared enough about you, even though you might not have existed when they did, to take up arms and defeat those who cared nothing for you. I'm alive and living a good life because of people in your family, who never heard of me and maybe didn't get a chance to anyway, they cared enough to make the same sacrifices my circle of family and friends made.

So today, Memorial Day, may be a BBQ holiday for most people... which is a good thing... but it's the one day I call my dad up and remind him that every single breath I take, every laugh I enjoy with his grandchildren and pretty much every good thing in my life has only been possible because him and hundreds of thousands of others like him fought in a war that will eventually be a footnote... and finally, a forgotten piece of time that future free people will never know.

Thanks Dad. And thanks to the soldiers I don't know, but you do.

The item pictured below is a newspaper clipping from the Dallas Morning News, clipped on Sunday November 26, 1944. My grandmother sent it to my dad just several months before he and his fellow Marines waded ashore at Okinawa. To my knowledge my dad has never particularly enjoyed poetry and frankly, the poem itself is more than a little hokey. But he carried it with him and here I am, 61 years later, scanning that same clipping and posting it on the internet. Hopefully the author's family doesn't mind.

My grandmother's note in the upper margins says: "Son, keep this in your billfold, you might like to read it sometime."

Granny meant to say a lot more than that, I'm sure, and I think whatever she wanted to say, my dad understood it because he still had the poem all those years later.

And here's a picture of my father. This was taken in China in late 1945 or early 1946. Dad had been wounded at Okinawa, which was the bloodiest battle of the Pacific Theater, recovered in Hawaii and then sent to China as part of an elite unit of Marines to see the start of another, much bloodier and much, much longer war.

That's my dad, Mel, on the left. The other Marine is his best friend AW Smith. What put this picture in perspective to me is that when this picture was taken my dad was 19 years old.

So why am I making today's article about someone you don't know and most likely never will? Well, I guess because I like war games and I have an intense dislike for war itself. But I did want to remind you that we are lucky to have the time, money, freedom and education to play war games or family games or Euro Games, and that my people aren't the only ones who played a major role in our present-day affluence and abundance of freedom... you have people that lined up in the past to create the same wealth. So, pass along my hearty thank you to your people when you see them and I'll keep my people from becoming footnotes as long as possible.

Finally, a special thank you from me to all the current men and women from free nations around the world doing the same job today that millions before them have done. Maybe, just maybe, we have reached a point in this world where sacrifice won't become forgotten history... that just might be the one thing make war a thing of the past... and war games will be played only by paunchy, middle-aged men with goatees and pony tails.

That would be a good thing, wouldn't it?

Goodbye Grog/Calling all bloggers

It is with regret that we bid adieu to Grognads. Yes, the blogger who never pulled any punches pulled up stakes and moved on to other pursuits.

Grog made the first real post to Gone Gaming, and whether you loved or hated his style, you must admit that there can never be another Grog. His contributions gave a flavor to Gone Gaming that was memorable and is irreplaceable.

The staff, management and corporate owners of Gone Gaming held a pow-wow and decided that we aren't going to have a regular blogger fill the Sunday slot, at least not right away. We did have several writers in mind, mainly BGGers who are unusually insightful or witty, but instead decided to solicit blogs from anyone who feels motivated to submit one.

If you fancy yourself as a blogger and would like to contribute to Gone Gaming, send submissions to

Guidelines are fairly loose. Each article should primarily be about boardgames, card games, wargames, role playing games, or the like. We might entertain audio blogs, or the occasional foreign language article if the article was also translated. We might entertain other ideas as well, although you would be wise to ask first.

We do not have a full-time employee who rejects submissions, but we will not post inappropriate material.

We do not have a full time editor either. If we need to make more than a couple corrections we probably won't post your submission. We may post submissions "as is" if you are a complete moron and need to be humiliated, but we aren't expecting any of those.

Thinly veiled advertisements for your self-published game will be looked upon with scorn, but not rejected out of hand. We do have a full-time scorn-looker at the Gone Gaming building, he is one of DW's relatives. Thinly veiled ads need to be very good to get past him. We're talking John Wayne/Hank Williams/Joe Montana good.

There is no compensation, if you were expecting compensation you would be a dope.

If we do get more submissions than we are expecting there is a very good chance that your article might get posted during the week as one regular blogger or the other takes time off to enjoy the summer.

And once again,
Goodbye Grog.

Brian "Coldfoot" Waters

Saturday, May 27, 2006

Some lunchtime card variations

Our lunchtime games group usually varies between three and seven players depending on work and lunch commitments of the various members.

Over time we have dabbled in a few Euros, but given the one hour limit we generally end up with card games. The different numbers of players means either switching games or playing a variant. Our recent games have been:
Gang of Four - officially 3-4, we have played 3-5 (6 once)
6 Nimmt! - officially 2-10, we have played 3-7
Tichu - officially 4 or 6, we have played 4-6
Rage - officially 2-10, we have played 3-7
500 - officially 2-6, we have only played 5 so far.

Obviously 6 Nimmt! and Rage are the best for variable numbers, but they are not always available or we may prefer something else given the number of players, e.g. Tichu if we have four. On occasions, due to which ever particular game was actually available, we have had to come up with a variant or two to match the game with the number of players we have. Here are most of the ones we have come up with:

Gang of Four
Three player - Our preferred option is the official one. Deal four hands and if nobody has the student start card, the dealer swaps hands with the unused hand. The more chaotic, and less popular, option is the Jules variant. The cards are dealt out as three hands with the final card being discarded face up so all players are aware of what it is. This leads to very big and somewhat chaotic hands, although there are more gangs of four.
Five player - Rotating sitout each hand. The dealer deals four hands and sits out. The student card is the start card for every hand (as the previous hand's winner may be sitting out). Otherwise play proceeds as normal for four player. The sitout is rotated around the table and the player sitting out scores zero for the hand sat out.
Six player - Deal out the cards as six hands. This is actually uneven and since we only played it one day I have forgotten what we did with the short or extra cards. The hands were basically too small and thus play was very chaotic. We haven't tried this variant again and it does not come recommended.

  • Highest score at end of game - 178 points (one off the mathematical maximum)
  • Shortest game - 2 hands
  • Longest game - 21 hands

6 Nimmt!
No variants required. We play with the full deck.
  • Highest individual score for one hand - 53 points
  • Highest end of game score - 105 points

Five player - Play standard four player with one person sitting out. Scoring is kept for individuals as partnerships will probably change over the game, so the full points for the hand are allocated to each individual in the partnership for every hand. The last player for the hand sits out the next hand and swaps out with the player who is currently sitting out. This means that in the case of a one-two result the losing partnership needs to play out the rest of the hand to determine who will be sitting out the next hand.
Six player - We read the rules and were somewhat confused by the six player stuff. We play two partnerships of three. You pass only two cards, one to each of your partners. There is no one-two finish, but a one-two-three will score 300 points, although this has only happened once so far.

  • Stupidest Tichu call - When a partnerships was on 970 points and at least two hundred ahead of the other partnership. The Tichu was not made.
  • Most unfortunate Tichu call - - The hand had been going for a while. I was down to five cards and lead the bamboo which was the first single lead for the hand. Play progressed around until the player on my left played his first card and called Tichu. Looking at his hand later, it was pretty much a lay down win except for the fact that I had the Dragon and three aces as my remaining four cards. He called Tichu and I dropped the Dragon on his single and then the trio of aces. A Tichu call shot down in flames within two seconds of it being announced.

We have only played this once and that was yesterday. It will probably only get played with five, as four or six players are generally going to be reserved for Tichu, unless 500 really takes off anyway!

I grew up playing 500 with my grandmother. Nobody else at home really played games, so we played three handed with a dummy hand. I also played it a bit at school, but also either three player or four players as individuals. I probably haven't played it since school and I never played 500 as a partnership game before. In 500, after winning the bidding you may call for a partner by nominating a specific non-trump card. It is going to take me a little while to get used to the difference of five players and also having a partner, who should guarantee you one or more tricks depending on whether you have a void or not. I am still bidding on what is my hand, as opposed to factoring in the potential trick(s) from a partner.

Daughter the Elder update
Either I am getting worse at games or she is improving - I believe it is definitely the latter. Before bedtime tonight we played a game of San Juan followed by a game of Chess. We were tied for points in San Juan and she won on the tie breaker having both goods and cards in hand where as I had nothing but a single card in my hand. In Chess it came down to a stalemate - I had a king and she had her king and a knight.

Friday, May 26, 2006

On Being a Stranded Boardgamer

So I'm driving a cab one night. I pull up to the house and knock on the door. Lights are on, but no one answers the door.

I went back to the cab, waited a few minutes, nothing happened. I knocked again. Nothing.

As I drove away the dispatcher came on the radio and said, "Brian go back. They see you leaving, they will be right out."

Sure enough a guy comes running out of the house. "Sorry guy. We were in the middle of a boardgame. I was having too much fun."

Of course my ears perked up. "Oh." After a suitable pause I continued, "What were you playing?"


At first I thought he was still apologizing for not answering the door. Then it dawned on me. "You were playing Sorry?"

"Yeah. It's pretty fun."

"Were you playing with kids?"

"No, no. I was playing with my brother and his wife. Have you heard of it."

What was there to say? "Yeah. I remember playing it when I was a kid."

"Really, I thought it was new."

Thus ended what started out as an intriguing conversation.

I saw an item in the Boardgamegeek forum the other day. It was pretty innocuous, but it got me thinking. Some fellow was asking about game stores in his area and stipulated that he didn't want to drive more than 20 miles. Twenty miles? I've driven 360 miles just on the off-chance I could play a game if enough players showed up.

Myself and one other fellow are the only BGG users listed in the gamer database for this area. Although he logs on to BGG a few times each month, he won't respond to his Geekmail and I have never met him. There are perhaps a dozen users listed in the rest of the state, but only one of those accounts is active. I have actually exchanged e-mails with that user, we have even talked on the phone, but so far we have been unable to meet.

There is one small game convention in the state. Statewide there are less than a half dozen stores that stock "real" games, and only one within 20 miles. That store also happens to be the only game store within 300 miles.

If I was interested in collectible card games and miniature gaming I would have an embarrassment of riches. The CCG tournaments at the Comic Shop are usually packed with young 'uns and a few old 'uns. On any given day there are usually a few guys hanging around the store painting miniatures. These games hold little appeal for me, and through many conversations I have gleaned that boardgames hold little appeal to the miniature and CCG players.

I know that I am not alone. There are many stranded gamers in various regions of the country (and world). So what's a geek to do? How do you cultivate a circle of game friends in a sparsely populated region?

Two words: Persist and Persist.

After you've persisted you might have to travel more than 20 miles.

On a couple occasions I left a sign on the gamer's bulletin board at the Comic Shop. Those efforts have garnered a single successful response. I've also posted on the Fairbanks Gamer Website which is now defunct, but that effort proved fruitless. There is a group that posts flyers for Saturday gaming at the college. According to the flyer everyone is welcome, bring a friend, every type of game is welcome, look forward to meeting you. I checked out Saturday gaming at the college on three occasions and on each occasion was not made to feel welcome. Miniature games were the only games being played and none of the dozen players would even make eye contact.

Sooooooo, that doesn't sound too promising, does it? But those were just the obvious places to look for like-minded gamers.

Where does one go to find gamers? I can't answer that, but I can tell you that you will be surprised who will show interest if you bring a game into work, or to the park. So far I haven't been able to convert any of those showing interest into regular gamers, but one day it will pay off.

A couple years ago I brought my kids to the park and read the rules to the revised Axis and Allies as they played. An older man noticed the cover of the rule book and stopped to talk about Axis and Allies. Unfortunately he was a tourist, so nothing came of the incident.

I frequently bring games to work to read the rules. The most unexpected person was absolutely fascinated with Memoir '44. We decided to play a game the next time we worked together. Unfortunately he was fired a day or two later, and I haven't seen him since. (Note: True story. He had worked there for well over a decade. The firing was completely out of the blue.)

There are many, many people who don't know that "our" games even exist. Many of them will be just as intrigued as you were when you discovered "German" games. Bring a game with you when you leave the house. Advertise a little. At a minimum you will be surprised, with luck you will reel in gamer.

My first boardgame connections in Alaska were made at church. Churches are always good places to make social connections. If you attend church invite likely victims gamers to the house for games. If they aren't interested they will let you know. That advice holds true for any social organization, such as a bowling league or a fraternal lodge.

Most of my game friends were made simply by meeting a friend of an existing game friend. One at a time. It took several years. All told, there are a half dozen adults I play with regularly, and a half dozen more with whom I play with occasionally.

A dozen. That's not bad. Lately we have been able to draw 6 or 7 gamers to a weekly Friday game night, and 4 or 5 to a second, Monday game night. There are gamers in more populated areas that don't have as many game connections.

Don't give up. It took me several years to acquire a circle of game friends. For a couple years it was just me, my wife, a guy from church and his pre-teen children. If I can do it you can do it.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Italian Design Scene, Part One: The Analysis

In the last few years we've seen a dramatic increase in the number of Italian games being produced and being made available in America. A lot of this is due to the hard work of Mayfair Games, Z-Man Games, Fantasy Flight Games, and to a lesser extent Rio Grande Games in getting Italian games to the American market, but I think we're also seeing a new flood of Italian creativity, a renaissance if you would.

Over this week and next, I'm going to look at this Italian creativity, offering up my best outsider's view of the Italian game design scene. First up I'm going to discuss some of the more analytical stuff, featuring a look at the character of Italian game design and the network of Italian game designers.

Thanks to Andrea Ligabue, who's contributions to BoardGameNews gave me some insights for this article, and who was also kind enough to read early copies of these articles and to offer comments, clarifications, and additions.

The Italian National Character

Last December I wrote an article about schools of game design, and of the Italians I said I wasn't sure quite what their "average" game design was. Several months later I feel like I can put the overarching idea of Italian game design into a single word: "tough".

Italian design feels at the same time like the designers have never played another game, because they do things so wacky that I'm befuddled over the choices, and that they have, because despite the newness and strangeness, their designs still tend to work ... at least more often than not.

However, I also think Italian designers do one other thing which tends to make their games look alien to me: they depend upon the intelligence of their players. As I wrote in my 2005 year in review, I believe that German games have been getting simpler and more family oriented for a number of years. The Italians are releasing games in a different model. They have been publishing family-oriented games--it's clearly more than half of daVinci's releases--but at the same time they're also releasing "tough" games which require real thought.

To offer a few examples of this first major element of Italian game design:
  • Alexandros and Go West are Leo Colovini designs which depend upon players choosing when to score, as I mentioned in my overview of Colovini. This is a pretty obvious case of depending on players being intelligent enough to know when to do the right thing.
  • Il Principe is another example of a game needing its players to be smart. The auctioning is so open-ended, that you have to know what to bid in a way much deeper and more meaningful than in most auctions. Further, the requirements for building are so precise, that if you purchase badly, you can end up unable to do anything.
  • Siena is another game that is tremendously open-ended: there are three roles in the game, and you can choose to become a merchant or a banker whenever you have the minimum funds necessary, but the best time to do so can be a totally open question.
In general: Italian games often give players many more choices and many more open-ended choices, thus requiring more thoughtfulness and a better understanding of the game's strategy.

A second element that shows up in a lot of Italian design is what I call an overloading of choices. This generally goes to game complexity, and is a lot of what makes Italian games "tough" for me.

Il Principe
was the game that really highlighted this issue for me. Overloading shows up throughout the game. For example, when you build a city in Il Principe you spend cards. Directly that gets you the points for the city and lets you place some board-based majority-control tokens, but indirectly it also gives you the card majorities you need to collect roles. And roles in turn can give you cards, shields, or victory points. Many choices can have multiple, independent outcomes.

Many other Italian games include overloading:
  • Lucca Citta overloads card playing. It affects your sets, other players' scoring, your points, and your turn order.
  • Oltremare overloads a lot of different elements into each card: value, how many cards you can hold, how many cards you can play, pirates, ship movement, card draw, and money(!).
  • Siena overloads actions related to the three classes (peasant, merchant, banker). Whenever you take an action it can aid players in each of the other classes.
I'm not convinced that overloading is the be-all and end-all of Italian game complexity, but it does seem to be a pretty unique feature, and not one seen to the same extent in other national game design characters.

I also think many Italian games include a third element: uneven development. The Italian game design scene is really just a few years old, so it's not that much a surprise that developers are still learning the ropes, but I suspect it contributes to the "difficulty" of Italian games just as much as the other two, more positive, elements do.

Six Degrees of Italy

Though I say the Italian game design is just a few years old, there have nonetheless been game companies in Italy for quite some time. However, the older companies seemed mainly to be oriented around roleplaying. With Quality Games in 1994 and Venice Connection in 1995 there was more of a move toward board & card game design, just around when The Settlers of Catan appeared in Germany. However, German-style board games didn't really start showing up in Italy until 2000.

As a result, today the companies still seem very young. In addition, Italian designers seem scattered. Some are old-time gamers who are familiar with the genre and may even have some older publications under their belt. However, there's also a number of new designers in Italy who are entering the industry because it's so quickly growing, but don't necessarily have a good understanding of it. (For the most part it's the old-time designers whose work is going international, while most of the new designers aren't showing up outside of Italy.)

Part of the newness of the Italian design scene can be seen when you plot out the "Six Degrees of Italy", using the same methods as The Six Degrees of Bruno Faidutti. There are nexuses around the older companies, Venice Connection and Quality Games. Meanwhile newer companies like daVinci Games and Nexus Games are much more fractured and some new designers don't show up at all in the interconnections. Leo Colovini and Andrea Angiolino each form mini-networks, but they're distinct. There are many more subgraphs of Italian designers who haven't worked with anyone else.

I suspect that today's Italy is in a similar situation to the US of the late 1970s or Germany of the 1980s, with lots of enthusiastic designers finally getting the opportunity to put out their games to a wider audience. Greater complexity and more innovation seem to walk hand-in-hand with this period of early game design.

Most of Andrea Ligabue's articles at BGN have been interviews with Italian designers. The numbers on my Six Degree charts refer to his interviews of these designers; go take a look if you'd like more information on them.


So that's my first take on Italian game design. Next week I'm going to provide a quick reference to Italian games, with a look at award winners and game producers.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Social Dynamics

Thomas "Smerf" Robertson wrote in a recent entry in his blog Musings and Mental Meanderings:
Games, at least games that involve multiple players, are interesting to me for a number of reasons. One of these reasons is that they change the structures that people use to interact with one another, and in so doing change the ways in which people interact with one another.
He doesn't give much detail; it is a preparatory entry for future discussions on the topic. I'm not even sure if he plans on talking about social structure within an RPG world or in the real world around the game table.

But it triggered some thoughts of mine. So forgive me, Thomas, if I co-opt anything about which you were planning to write.

The Myth of Equality around the Table

Certain rules of life inescapably apply to all people, such as existentialism and death. Other rules are seemingly unfairly applied, such as as taxes, access to clean water, and love. Still others are equally applied, but we each have unique starting positions that affect our ability to succeed - such as taxes, access to clean water, and love.

One apparent aspect of a game is that it provides a clean slate with a new set of rules. However, not all games provide equal rules for all players. You may be playing the dark versus the light in Lord of the Rings: the Confrontation. Or you may simply be seated second in Puerto Rico. Furthermore, not all game provide equal opportunities for all players. You may roll well or poorly, or you may draw the wrong or the right cards.

Beyond the explicit rules of the game, each of us comes to the table with our unique abilities, which play a strong factor in determining our success or failure in the game. These can include prior experience with the game, or simply a better "brain" for this type of game, be it area control, math skills, or negotiation.

From what looks like a fair start, it seems that we have a whole lot of inequality and predetermination in store for us.

The Social Leveling

The defining aspect of equality around the game board is our voluntary mutual acceptance of the rules before play, regardless of the fact that some people are going to be playing with advantages or disadvantages. When we first sit down at the table, we are of one mind.

I've sat down with eight year old boys, seventy-five year old grandparents, PhD mathematicians, world experts in national borders, policy makers, secretaries, housewives, househusbands, teachers, lawyers, you name it. Each one lives a life of carefully ordered social dynamics.

Whether at work, at home, or eating out, we rarely experience true equality. Any two people adjust themselves around lines of power within a relationship - parent versus child, expert versus layman, host versus guest. Our understanding of equality is expressed through a hope for mutual respect and through the lens of our common humanity. But the rules are set before each encounter, and we carry them with us as expectations. We have built them up throughout our lives.

Take any group of friends, and you will find complex layers of social inequality even among seemingly equal members of the group. Some will suggest ideas more than others, some nix ideas more than others. One always hosts, another always pays, another decides if the night is over. The specifics change, but I've never seen a group that doesn't exist within some subtle balance of power and control. The lines of power are long term and return during each encounter.

Sit down for a game, however, and the standard lines of power are temporarily set aside. Not entirely; my skill at Go is going to trump your skill at Go, if I've played it a lot more than you have. However, even if foregone, the new game represents a point of re-creation, like a Garden of Eden. Maybe all year long I respect you as the greater Go player. But when we sit down to play, you are no better than I am until the first move is made. You must be retested. And we mutually accept this.

Our sitting down to play a game is a voluntary dissolution of social hierarchy. What a world it could be if people could do this outside of the game framework. If political leaders could start from scratch before negotiating. If spouses could communicate from an Original Position with no fear of power loss or need to establish long term control.

Unfortunately, in games, as in life, someone wins and someone loses, whether due to luck or skill. Games, and life, without competition are generally uninteresting and unproductive. When the games are over, the prevailing social dynamics return. And no one gets a break from the social dynamics of life.

Monday, May 22, 2006

GAME STORE CONFIDENTIAL ~ Is that a humungous telescope in your pocket? Or are you just happy to see me?

One of my very first customers, way back in 1982, was an ex-Army, gun collecting, long haired Nam vet named Steve. Put all of those aspects of who Steve was together with the fact that he was a grognard AND a postman and you have a recipe for "Film at 11 ~ War Gamer goes postal - while delivering the mail!"

So Steve, being a grognard, pissed and moaned every week about those newfangled RPG's... he poo-poo'd fantasy, he put down non-simulation games like Ogre and Warhammer, he ridiculed the younger gamers and just in general he looked down on anyone who couldn't ID every WWII military ship by silhouette and bought their ammo rather then loading it themselves.

In short, even though I'm talking here about a gamer who I first met 25 years ago, Steve was an elitist. He really was (and still is) a pretty good guy. He worked hard, served his country, raised a family and, to the best of my knowledge, never shot anyone on his carrier route that didn't have it coming. But he still was an elitist. He looked at any game that wasn't accurate in its reflection of historical accuracy as not worthy. And that elitism transferred to his opinion of the people who played those "fluffy" games. Steve could have cared less about art, die-cut counters needed to reflect the capabilities of the unit they depicted and if "art" reduced the data on the counter then the game was getting a bit too fluffy. Maps were all about topography, difficulty in traversing the terrain, cover and situational awareness. A box was created to hold the pieces, not entice lesser people to pick it up and wonder if it might contain that elusive quality we know as fun.

This is a real game. It's certified non-fluffy. Nobody really plays games this non-fluffy because they can't. Well, I suppose somebody could, but why would you want to? This game has individual frickin' counters for 50 gallon drums of diesel fuel! The only reason to own this game is so you can say you own it.

This is a fluffy game. It's visually appealling, has cool miniatures, is easily played by all ages, generates gales of laughter and the colorful parts and pieces generate interest to even the casual observer. Anyone playing this game obviously has no real taste and is easily amused.

Hmmm... that description fits me.

About 18 years before I met Steve I was at a sock hop at my high school in El Paso, Texas. The hired DJ brought a Beatles album and that night changed everything about how us pointy-toe, shit-kickin' boot guys looked at music. I dug the Beatles. A lot. And after that school dance I began listening to music other than Hank Williams, Ray Price, Johnny Cash and Elvis. For the next several years, particularly the time I spent in the much more "with it" city of Dallas, I combed the record stores and discovered British Rock, British Blues, Talking Blues, Bob Dylan, Gospel, Blue Grass, Acid Rock, Wilson Pickett, Chuck Berry and a bevy of R&B artists. But until the final days of the Beatles, they remained my favorite band of the 60's and early 70's. I also discovered the musical equivalents of Steve The Grognard. The music elitists. To the man (and occasional woman) they looked down at my fascination with the Beatles. The Beatles weren't "real", they were too commercial, they didn't play well, they didn't do REAL drugs, they had no real musical roots, blah, blah, blah.

You know... it wasn't that I didn't like the music the elitists liked; I just had more fun listening to the Beatles. And to be honest, I viewed the elitists as beneath fun, perhaps even miserable, because everyone else but them seemed to be really enjoying music whereas they were somewhat offended that people listened to music for a good time and more than a little bit superior in their attitude that they, above all the lesser folks around them, really understood what music was all about.

Ha. What a bag of burning dog-crap that is.

This unendingly annoying trait, this elitism, this personality that demands it's "fun time" be spent seeped in accuracy, thoroughness, relevance and seriousness, it runs in all aspects of human endeavors. It just happens to be more annoying than normal when it comes to games. The music elitist can be ignored easily. I don't need him to listen to Travis Tritt, Rusted Root or Vivaldi Guitar Concertos. He can have his purity, I'll pop a beer, spin up Big & Rich's "Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy" and laugh my butt off listening. Even the auto or motorcycle elitist is easy to ignore. I no longer collect motorcycles and I never had enough money for a serious Porsche line-up, so I'll dial to Speed Channel's Barrett-Jackson Rich Guy Rip-off Auction when I want to see elitists spend the family fortune on a Chevy.

But the gamer elitist... now that guy is seriously annoying. We all need like-minded gamers to play the games we enjoy and that increases the chance of contact with one of these Game Geek Elite. I've met at least 100 or more of them in my career and the devious means I've had to employ to not have them at my game table have taken a lot of effort. Oh they're good enough people, Just like Grognard Steve. But man, they just grate on me. I don't care if something is misidentified, or rendered in less than historical accuracy. I don't care about the physics, the math, the engineering, the context or any of that. I just want to spend a few hours playing games... and the better the games looks, the more fluid and intuitive the mechanics, the more ergonomic the parts and pieces are... the more I enjoy it.

The thing that got me off on this tangent is a recent thread on BGG carping about the new artwork for the upcoming reprint of a game that is, at best, a passable way to spend some idle time but that I still did enjoy playing... mainly because the other players made it fun. Now the guys carping about the art may or may not be elitists, that's not the point. The point is - the publishers want to add some pizzazz! to the look of the game. They want it to have that "eye-candy" factor that grabs the eye. They want to, in short, sell even more copies of the game.

This is the artwork in question. Not only is the telescope unrealistically large, I mean John Holmes large, the math on the leftmost card, according to a few people who need a life, is wrong for the era. Now that I think about it, the Builder on the right? Doesn't he look a bit like Wolverine? And he isn't really "building", he's sculpting.

What struck me the most about this particular discussion was how seriously some people take their games. Even though I have made fun of Euro-Snoots many, many times, I never really saw any of them in the same light that I used to view Steve The Grognard. Steve was the iconic Game Elitist to me. In fact, grognards make really good elitists because you really have to know your silhouettes to be a war game elitist. Whereas to be a Euro-Snoot Elitist all you have to do is practice a good electronic sneer, write a few aloof and acerbic lines on BGG and rate anything low that is wildly popular and uses dice... and if it's designed and published in America, rate it lower... and if it even remotely touches on the theme of trains, Italian Princes or pleasing royalty, then rate it really low because it's a pale imitation of the real games dealing with those themes.

The image here shows similar tastelessness as the young lady has obviously been altered to appeal to the lowest common demoninator. While most elitist men would claim they were above her "type", I'd bet they'd see things differently if she dropped that set into their lap and they knew their shrewish wife wasn't around. Hey, fun is fun! The packaging is sometimes part of the fun.

I knew I was mingling with Euro Elitists when more than one person on the thread suggested they just might not purchase the game, when it was reprinted, because of the fantastic nature of the art. Huh? I thought it was such a great game? Really, really great. As a Beatles fan that would be like me wearing out my vinyl copy of the White Album and refusing to replace it with a CD because the cover was not plain white. If the music is good, it's good. No matter what's on the cover. If the game is good, it's good. No matter whether the art depicts the era fantastically or accurately.

The entire discussion reminds me of Steve the Grognard's virulent rants about D&D, Car Wars, BattleTech and even Axis & Allies... because it was not really a game, it was more like a toy set with dice.

In the summer of 1965 I was having a discussion about music with a friend who was a musical elitist of the era. He flat out told me, in no uncertain terms, that The Beatles sucked and had sold out. In his mind the real music was The Stones, Them and a few other (at the time in Texas) more edgy and obscure bands. Since my part time job was at a small radio station broadcasting on the recently opened FM bandwidth, I had heard pretty much all the edgy music of the time. For you Texas people, the lead station in Dallas was KLIF, an AM station playing The Beatles and endless hours of Surf music and The Ronnettes while the station I was employed at, KVIL, was broadcasting to techies who had purchased radios capable of FM reception... all 16 of them at the time. Nobody listened because nobody technically could do so, and KVIL played some pretty hot music for the time.

Essentially, my elitist friend's argument never got beyond this - You, and people like you, have heard of the Beatles, even purchased their music, therefore, their music is a sell-out and inferior to my music, which though it may suck and never be commercially viable, is still better because I am one of the few people I know cool enough to have listened to it.

I wonder if that guy even recalls the lengthy conversation we had... in light of the fact that The Stones, despite having already died, been embalmed, brought back to life, fallen from palm trees, slept with David Bowie, actually worn spandex on stage barely covering 60+ year old bony butts, had their classic "underground" sound used in hundreds of TV commercials, murdered people for body parts (especially lips) and in the process generated up several billion in sales... in light of all that, I wonder if that guy still think The Stones are hip.

Anyone who suggests that Keith Richards hasn't been repeatedly unearthed, filled with embalming fluids and then pointed in the general direction of a guitar has probably smoked way too many bowls of ganja. I'd have added an image of Mick's lips except the sight of them makes me hurl.

I know I don't. I think the last good track they laid down was "Under My Thumb".

Game Elitists, be they grognards or Euro-Snoots are pretty good people, at least the ones I know. But they do a minor disservice to the community in much the same way that any elitist does not serve their community of like-minded fans of the cars, music, stamps or whatever. The elitist attempts to take a basically classless activity, such as games or music, and add different classes to it. They seem to want to stratify the activity along the lines of this is good and if you think that is good, well then, see? You aren't quite as smart... or perhaps quite as discerning... or not nearly as tasteful... or perhaps blissfully ignorant... therefore the things you like, because they aren't __(fill in the blank)___ or are too __(fill in the blank)__ are just not as hip.

One thing I will say in defense of the elitist is this; usually they are themselves blissfully ignorant of the fact that they are an elitist. Which is why I don't take it personal when a guest in my pick-up truck can only find Country Western or Classic Rock on my radio presets and that puckish sneer starts to appear on their pinched up and judgmental little faces.

I took Steve's commentary for years and pretty much ignored it. I got him every war game he ever ordered, and some he didn't know existed, and I listened to him bitch about how hard it was to find anyone to play a war game with. I commiserated with him when he told me the horror story of meeting a war gamer on a BBS and then the guy was so fat that when he sat in the chair in Steve's dining room he put permanent dents in the linoleum... or that his boy only wanted to play BattleTech, D&D or later on MTG and the Star Trek CCG. Steve meant well, he was just a lost soul... he was living in an imaginary world that he had put boundaries on that very few people cared to enter. Steve assumed wrongly that there were viable groups of people who viewed games the way he did back in the 80's and 90's. Sadly, for Steve, 99.9% of game lovers view games the way I do... like this - Is it fun? Does it look cool? Can I teach the rules in something less than 20 minutes? Do the other people at the table laugh? Do they break out in a sweat and start asking if I will open the store at 3am to sell them a copy?

My way of judging a game has a whole lot to do with the impact that game has on me AND others. I want other people to want the game. I want them to be eager to play. I could give a crap if the game art depicts a telescope that is not historically accurate, or has a color selection that was probably not available in that era, or uses any fantastical elements that are intended to make the game attractive enough to buy, whether you have ever heard of it or not.

Those are all fun factors to me.

Grognard Update - About 1997 or so Steve's son convinced him to play a game of BattleTech. It was a bonding experience... Steve learned that when raising a child it's often best to ask them what they like and then do that with them. If you spend enough time teaching your kid that their time is as important as yours, they have a way of repaying that kindness with a very high rate of return. Over the next several years Steve and his son Marc played lots of games. Mostly non-historical ones. They even played EverCrack online together. And Steve, after he went through a divorce, found his current wife via that online game. I'm not going to suggest that Steve's elitism was keeping him from connecting with his son or seeing the need to get out of a bad marriage... but I do know that when he relented and started playing games for fun, despite their fantastical nature, some important things in his world improved.

But I'm still glad he's not my postman... I know he loads all his shells hot, and that scares the hell outta me.

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Quiet times

It's been a quiet few weeks for me, at least in terms of gaming. Real Life has been somewhat busier, which is at least one reason why you won't see any profound analysis from me here.

I've not done much face-to-face gaming since the school game night, although I have finally cracked the shrinkwrap on our copy of Tichu (and am very much looking forward to playing it more and more).

Online, I've played a few play-by-web games. This generally works well for me, playing with people around the globe, although some games do seem to work better than others.

I like playing Hansa at Mabiweb, and usually have a few games going there at any time. Interestingly, this isn't a game that really excites me face-to-face - I don't hate it, but there are other games I would rather play.

At spielbyweb, I have tried Amun-Re, Tikal and Reef Encounter, all new games to me. Of these, I think my favourite was probably Tikal (hence the gingerbread). Reef Encounter left me feeling faintly confused (or possibly faint and confused) - I think I need to study the rules, although from what I hear that might just make it worse. Amun-Re, though, didn't work for me as a Play-by-Web. There are so many player actions, so many occasions where you might have to take ANOTHER action, that it just goes on and on - I think my games ran around 2 to 3 weeks. Maybe it was our playing style, but once there was a string of 2 or 3 contested bids for provinces the game really dragged out. And having people in different timezones didn't help with that at all - two or three actions meant anwyhere from two to four days.

As others have said, the best PbW games are games where a player takes a discrete turn and then the next player takes a discrete turn - games with minimal player interaction.

That's why, on the strength of a whole one game, I think that Through the Desert at Ludagora is a great example of a PbW game. There is no real interaction between players, and there is a simple sequence of moves. It's also not a game with grand strategy - you can take your turn and not think about what you're going to do next until it's your turn again.

(Is there a PbW Alhambra anywhere? That's another game with that very immediate element - I often play it with friends with very young children, who may have to go and deal with small emergencies during the game, because the turn-to-turn planning element is very low).

The other type of online gaming I have been doing is at bsw - again, I have learnt quite a few new games here. Before I joined, I was very sceptical about the people who said they had bought games based on having played them at BSW - but now I am a convert. Sadly for my future credit card bills, I am a convert with a longer game shopping list - specifically, Thurn und Taxis (how much do I love this game? Lots!), Emerald, Diamant, and of course Ingenious (which I really like as a solo puzzle as well as a multiplayer game). I've also rediscovered some games that haven't seen a lot of table time for us lately, like Ra, San Juan and Attika.

Lately, a lot of my BSW time has been working towards founding a new town with some friends from BGG. Reading up on the metagame is fascinating, and it will be interested to see it all put into practice soon (we hope!) So if you see a town called LupusLanding some time in early June, come by and say hello.

Friday, May 19, 2006

I missed posting the last couple Fridays, sorry about that. I had to return to Montana to attend my grandfather's funeral.

I suppose I was lucky when I was a kid, all four of my grandparents were alive until I was an adult and I can easily remember three of my great-grandparents. One great-grandparent passed away when I was in second grade, the other two when I was in high school.

Grandpa Licht was my last living grandparent. He was the patriarch of card games. Whist, pitch, poker and cribbage were frequently played when grandpa was present, but pinochle was king. He was a formidable opponent and formidable partner.

He never missed a play, and if you were his partner or opponent and missed a play you would not soon make the mistake a second time. He wouldn't chew you out, he would simply pause, or raise an eyebrow. If the error was subtle he would briefly explain what you missed.

I lived with Grandma and Grandpa Licht for a year when I was in high school. We played 3-handed pinochle every night, unless there was company in which case we would play 4-handed pinochle.

I can still remember the two of them making outrageously high bids. Grandpa would say, "You can't have that much. You're just bidding to piss me off. 480!"

Grandma would glare at him over the top of her glasses and mumble, "God. Damn. Asshole. 490!"

"Jez-uz pills.... 500."

"Now you're playing like a God-damned sausage. 510."

"God....... What have you got anyway? ....... You can't have anything. 520!"

"I got mine. You need to pay attention to the game. 530."

And so it would go. For the benefit of those who aren't familiar with pinochle, 300 is a pretty steep bid in 3-handed. Four hundred is a pretty steep bid in 4-handed pinochle.

For the first three decades of life my love of games was fostered almost exclusively with card games. I played a few boardgames when I was a kid. I played a few boardgames in the Army. I played a few boardgames in college. I played an awful lot of cards though. Played spades and hearts so often in the Army that I don't care if I ever play again. I also learned euchre in the Army, it quickly surpassed pinochle as my favorite game.

It has only been within the last 5 or 6 years that I became a boardgame fanatic. I often wonder how I could have missed out on the boardgame scene in my younger days. I sometimes feel as though I squandered three decades.

Looking back, those years weren't squandered. I enjoyed playing all those hours of card games. I still enjoy euchre, pinochle, cribbage, poker, etc., but since I moved to Alaska I am only rarely able to play those games. Perhaps it was the lack of card play that fueled my exploration into Euro games.

I guess I have my Grandfather to thank for fostering my love of games. My whole family has him to thank. He took the time to teach his children and grandchildren games. Gaming will be a part of his family for many decades after his passing. We are all better for it.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

The Golden Age of Board Games

"The Golden Age of Science Fiction is twelve."

It's a well-known quote popularized by David Hartwell in his essay of the same name. But, Hartwell never meant to say that we experience an age of wonder in our adolescence that cannot be replicated in adulthood. Instead, he claimed that the greatest wonder in science fiction comes when an individual is first introduced to it. The 1940s was not the true golden age of science-fiction, nor the 1960s, nor the 1980s; instead it was when each fan became a member of that culture.

When a reader is first introduced to science fiction, he enters a world of legends. He hears stories of Isaac Asimov's Foundation, rumors of a Rendezvous with Rama, perhaps even whisperings of Gene Wolfe's multilayered Book of the New Sun. They become larger than life, and so they take on mythic proportions. When a reader finally consumes Asimov, Clarke, or Wolfe he is not just consuming the actual tales--those words that they wrote--but he also is consuming every thing he has ever been told about them, and every image he has ever conjured up in his mind to tell those tales that he had not yet read.

So it is with board games as well.

I have enjoyed a Golden Age of gaming not once, but three times.

When I first discovered roleplaying games through the blue Dungeons & Dragons book, I began to seek out those legends that had come before. I searched out Greyhawk and Blackmoor, the two original supplements to the game. I tracked down back issues of Dragon magazine. Later I would sit in my childhood bedroom with a TSR catalog, wondering over such strange games as Dungeon, Saga, and They've Invaded Pleasantville.

A decade or more later I enjoyed a new interest in small-press American board games, and I often haunted convention flea markets and regularly visited game stores which sold used games. Divine Right, Arkham Horror, The Riddle of The Ring, and The Source of the Nile had taken on mythic qualities and thus they entered my collection in that time period.

And so it was a third time when I discovered Eurogames, four years ago now. Reiner Knizia, Klaus Teuber, and Wolfgang Kramer were the names spoken of in hushed, reverent tones. I pined for Ra, dreamed of Taj Mahal, and wished for Tikal. El Grande had already taken on such a legendary quality by the time I first played it that I was awash in its possibilities, awed by its magnificence.

My Golden Age of roleplaying games was 10, my Golden Age of American board games was 20, and my Golden Age of Eurogames was 30.

Now the mysteries have been uncovered. The legends have faced the harsh light of truth. There are few secrets left for me to uncover in the world of Eurogames, other than that which has not yet been published: the games still being developed and playtested by designers across the world.

My Golden Age has faded and become silver.

Other write of this and they call it "burn out". They ask, "Is it just me, or are this year's games not as good as last's?". They fondly say, "Do you remember 2000? That was the best year for games." Or maybe it was 1998 or 1995. Or 1975.

No reality can ever stand up to the dream. We are chasing after phantoms that will forever elude us. The Golden Age is behind us, always behind us, unless we move ever onward to new and different things: new genres, new entertainments.

But there is another option as well. If we look beyond the facade and see the truth we may find enjoyment there as well. It can not live up to the dream. Nothing could. But do you prefer dream or reality?

When I turn 40 perhaps I will have moved on to a new Golden Age. A new dream. Perhaps I will be chasing a new phantom. I can't see the future. However, in the world of board games I have found a strong core of enjoyment. I have found a true gold shining beneath golden dreams. So perhaps I will remain Eurogaming instead. I am certain that I will never again know that secret thrill that I felt the first time I heard of Puerto Rico, the first time I played El Grande, but that was a thrill born of phantasms, not facts.

Enjoy what you have, not what might be.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The Game Cabinet

Those of you coming late into the online board gaming scene will likely never have heard of The Game Cabinet, which was the major source for online board game information, along with The Game Report and, until Board Game Geek began.

I began playing OKBridge as early as 1993, commenting on as early as 1994, and reading and commenting about both D&D and Magic throughout the 1990's on both newsgroups and mailing lists.

It never occurred to me to look at general board game sites until I hit upon the mention of Settlers of Catan in some Magic newsgroup at the tail end of the 90's. I acquired Settlers, and then a year later Cities and Knights, but I didn't hit the real sites for online board gaming until about 2002, by which time BGG was already a force.

There were still many links to the Game Cabinet around at that time, even though it had stopped around 2000. Owing to the long tail of time of the internet, the entire run of TGC is still available online. It contains many reviews, rules translations, original games, and commentaries, and so on. There are some nice gems still hidden in there.

The first two issues included the complete rules to Waving Hands, and a complete initial rules set for Nomic.

Mike Siggins reviewed Settlers, and decided that it probably didn't have much lasting power. He posited that some variants may be in the works which could help it out.

46 online game stores are listed on their links page as of Sept, 2000 (see bottom of page); only 21 still exist in some form, today. Note at the top of the page where the new site Board Game Geek is described as "the Gaming Dumpster on steroids with a self-image problem". I'm assuming that was meant to be facetious. Or a compliment.

While many people contributed content, the contributors page lists ten major contributors. Are they still active in games and on the net? I did some research to find out.

The three major players appear to have been:

Ken Tidwell, who was the major force behind the site. He still goes to game conventions, but doesn't have much online presence, otherwise.

Stuart Dagger, BGG. A co-editor, is now the editor of Counter Magazine, an IGA member and contributor to Board Game News.

Mike Siggins, BGG. Is active on BGG, a co-founder of IGA, and has a website (under maintenance). Mark Jackson interviewed him on Board Games To Go. He also contributes to Wargames Illustrated and is designing and developing games.

Additional regular contributors who are still active online in games:

Kurt Adam, BGG. Co-force behind Hangman Games.
Brian Bankler, BGG. Blog writer for Tao of Gaming.
Piet Notebaert, BGG. Maintains a huge real world game library in Belgium.

The remaining four:

Martin Higham, BGG. Blog writer for Ocasta, which has very little game content. He says that many of his play group sessions include playtesting games for Reiner Knizia, which is why he doesn't write about them online.

Peter Wotruba is registered on BGG, as is Tim Trant BGG, but I didn't find much else about them. Tim still goes to game cons.

Catherine Soubeyrand had written a series of articles about ancient games for the Game Cabinet, but doesn't appear to still be involved in gaming.

The Game Cabinet ended around 2000, with the rise of BGG and The Games Journal. The Games Journal stopped in 2005 with the rise of game blogs and podcasts.

Update: Some Q&A with Ken:

1. Aside from The Game Report and, what else was online during the nineties?

Ken: I believe Pagat had his card game site up.

2. Why did you stop the Game Cabinet, and what made you "drop offline" with regards to gaming since?

Ken: Startups and babies! I haven't even had time to play games, much less write about them. Alan Moon once opined that the typical fanzine editor lasts 3 to 5 years. I've continued to watch and I think he might be right. The time may have lengthened a bit because of the ease of publishing via the net but burnout looms large, in any case.

3. Was it worth it? Did you live for it, or was it more trouble than it was worth?

Ken: All of the above. I don't think I ever lived for it (you learn not to ever do that when you do what I do for a living) but I did enjoy it immensely. It immersed me in the world of gaming, it contributed to bringing German games to our doorsteps, and it allowed me to participate in the birth of the Web - the Game Cabinet is amongst the first 1000 web sites in the world. (For comparison, 17.5 million sites were ADDED in 2005...) All around, I had a good time being the editor for The Game Cabinet.


Monday, May 15, 2006

GAME STORE CONFIDENTIAL ~ The Price of Being Lazy (or) Why Appelcline Is My Hero

I would like to be more like Shannon Appelcline.

Not that I know Shannon or anything... I don't. And I don't mean personality-wise or anything else. The one trait Shannon has that so many of us lack is that he is always ready in advance. Right now there are at least 6 written or partially written articles ready to go for "Gone Gaming". The guy really pisses me off.

Why is this a big deal? Here's why...

Saturday was an enjoyable game night. Jumbo, Robee, Shaun, Lyle and even their uncle Tim came ready to game. Considering that Jumbo had been being a big baby about not having ever learned A Game of Thrones it was decided we'd pull out the 6-player expansion and give it a go. I have played AGOT as have Lyle and Shaun so it was a simple matter of teaching the other three. A great time was had by all as we played A Game of Thrones twice and then when Jumbo and Robee left I taught Santa Fe Rails to the three remaining players.

As is usually the case, I was gathering little snippets of material for the blog today and thinking through the events in the games and since Jumbo and I had tried War of the Ring last week-end I had this whole hazy image of a blog dealing with big games and the way personality works in them.

Then I went to bed... at about 2:30 am early Sunday morning.

It's now 7:55 am early Monday morning and I have been up for less than an hour. What happened during the missing 32 hours isn't pretty. But it wouldn't matter if I was more like Shannon. I would have logged on, selected one of my pre-written and editied articles, clicked on submit and then sauntered away to trade some stocks or consult or whatever else people who are annoyingly efficient do while the rest of us struggle with life.

I got bit by a flu bug... I think. I remember once, when I was a teenager travelling in Spain I got sick for a similar period of time... just over 24 hours. This is pretty much what happened yesterday. It's as if someone really large took a 2x6 and used it to knock me face-first onto the ground. Very little energy, aching joints, no desire for food, no strength to get up and write a blog... so I just slept for all but maybe the 5 or 6 hours I spent listlessly pondering why I was listless or telling people who called me to stay away for a couple of days.

The bad thing about being like me instead of being like Shannon Appelcline is that I have three or four fleshed out articles I want to write for the Gone Gaming blog but they are drifitng around in the murky stew that exists somewhere in the general area of my head, whereas Shannon's are already finished and ready to go. So one wrench (or spanner, for you blokes out there) gets thrown into the mix and I'm screwed.

Did I start this blog by saying I wanted to be more like Shannon? Yep... maybe it'd be better for the rest of us if Shannon was more like us. Then we wouldn't have to be as good as him, which I assume is hard, and he could just be lazy like us and if not, well maybe we could threaten him or something.

So I guess I'll have to save my detailed article on why Meeples are not only evil, they're stupid as well, for later. And then the one about how to recover from the advice I gave several months ago to teach male gamers their wives and girlfriends had no right to tell them what they should and shouldn't do... it'll have to wait for a future Monday as well.

But back to A Game of Thrones... and something that never really occurred to me until Saturday's games of it. Here's what happened... Jumbo won the first game very quickly because we had three new players and were all concentrating on teaching them or getting familiar ourselves with the expansion rules. So of course we all told Jumbo his win didn't count. I pointed out to him though that since it was my house, if I won the second game then his win would "count". Anyway, everyone felt very comfortable with the rules and we re-drew our starting Houses and began a "real" game. This time I was House Greyjoy instead of Lannister, Robee was Lannister instead of GreyJoy and every one of the other four players drew the same houses as the first game.

It was during the course of this second game that I learned something interesting about game groups primarily composed of people in their 20's and 30's... they don't always understand that games like this are often won or lost because of treachery, guile, deceit and off-board commentary. The whole game through Lyle and Shaun were referring to me as "the Songbird", I guess because of my running commentary, which was designed to focus everyone's attention on any threat on the board other threats that my Greyjoy forces represented. It's not as if I was the only one chattering, A Game of Thrones, and others like it, generate lots of commentary during play. But still, I could see that at least two of the boys wanted me to shut up and quit pointing out how evil they were and how blessedly good I was.

The game came down to Harrenhall... as is often the case. I had 5 cities of the needed 6 and Lannister had lost all but Harrenhall and one other small region. Barethon didn't have any forces close enough to take it and Tyrell was a new player and he failed to properly threaten one of my cities. Once I saw the situation I pointed how how the Winterfell player (Shaun) had built enough boats to strike on both the west and east coast and if the game lasted long enough for the 2nd march order to be played he would win. Shaun blurted out something mean to me then... I'm not sure what, but I could tell he wasn't used to having his own evil intentions so easily seen and then revealed by the forces of Good from the Iron Islands.

What Shaun didn't realize was that Tyrell had given me the game by not attacking. The other thing he failed to see was that if Tyrell had attacked, costing me a city, then Martell would have won as they moved right after me and before Winterfell. All this really highlights why games like AGOT are so good and also that they are open to off-table gamesmanship like Diplomacy.

Speaking of which... there are many, many similarities bewteen AGOT and Diplomacy. I burnt out on Diplomacy in the early 80's and I never want to play again. But I could see that a group of gamers who are learning big games that have political elements to them could be well-schooled by games like Diplomacy. I would not enjoy AGOT or Conquest of the Empire or Struggle of Empires or Manifest Destiny if the players were required to not "chatter" between each other and attempt to sneakily move events into a favorable direction for them. Big games are often all about table-talk and at the same time the chatter can be annoying if specific players feel they're the target. I have often been the target, partially because for so many years I owned a game store and therefore I was automatically targeted. In addition, I am somewhat mouthy, a trait that can come back to haunt you in future games.

We all sit in our respective positions, each knowing what has to happen for our House to win the game on this turn. Everyone "knows" they can win if only this or that does or doesn't occur. So if someone had pointed out to newbie player Tim that Tyrell ought to attack Greyjoy and keep me from winning it might have ticked me off. And since I didn't point out Winterfell's evil plan until the turn started I suppose I wasn't out of line.

I believe that there ought to be some basic agreement between players about what is and isn't acceptable table-talk for certain games. AGOT and others like it require about 2 hours to play, some games much more time, and I believe a participant has a right to expect that he or she can invest their time and that everyone will play fairly. Fair though, needs to be defined so everyone understands it.

Anyway, the whole getting sick and being bed-ridden for 24+ hours thing allowed time for many different concepts to float through my mind and the special requirements, personality-wise, required for playing large, multi-player games like AGOT are not the same ones needed to get something out of, as an example, what seems to be Shannon's favorite game: Carcassonne. I suppose some of the appeal of Carcassonne and other Euro-style games is they have an absence of personality requirements in order to win. In that many of the multi-player war games are admittedly zero-sum and many of the popular Euro's try and cover the truth (that they too are zero sum games) by not having player elimination or in many cases, mechanics that require actual player interaction, getting the desired milage out of a particular game probably has as much to do with your personality as it does the quality of the game.

Carcassone and A Game of Thrones are perfect examples... I don't even recall how to play Carcassonne. It was so boring to me the few times I did play it that I was constantly amazed by how many I sold in my store. I never let on, of course, that Carcassonne was better than Sominex for ensuring a deep and restful sleep... unfortunately it usually happened to me in the middle of the game itself. I think the point is that games like Carcassone don't generate direct conflict or personality in the sense that games like AGOT or Struggle of Empires do. Which means playing Carcassone requires about the same level of people skills as playing Free Cell on your pc.... which is none.

I know I'm rambling a bit, blame it on the 20+ hours of sleep I had in the last 36 hours, but I'm actually headed somewhere with this. People like me do enjoy Euro Games, sometimes. The people-interaction though in most Euro's is not about the game itself because, in most cases, what you say isn't usually going to change the outcome. I'll play Euro's because I like games and usually enjoy the company of gamer people. But given a chance to play a game where what you say can and does affect the outcome of the game I'm all about that. Thinking back to the 70's and the angry games of Diplomacy and then into the 80's and games like Warrior Knights and Blood Royale where it was all about politicking a win, I can easily see that building up a thick skin and being impervious to the verbal assaults of other gamers is an important trait to have when playing direct-conflict games. If you don't have that trait (or don't want it, I suppose) then Euro's are the perfect style of game for you.

Since I started this whole muddled blog out stating that I wanted to be more like Shannon I suppose I ought to back up my statement with action. I hereby resolve to pull out my dusty copy of Carcassonne and get it to the table soon. I suspect the unruly and very emotional group I game with will not care for it, but damnit! Shannon likes it, and that alone is enough for me to give it another try.

Maybe some other of the goodness will rub off on me and I'll get one or two blogs done in advance. I think I'd like that and I'm certain Shannon would approve.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Urine the "Euro-nuch" ZONE

I had recently conducted some GAME "submissions" upon the BGG 'site', and then had these roundly "rejected" DUE to a notable sissyfied "admin's" outright BIGOTTED perceptions upon the matters. YOU won't be able to make any determinations upon 'this', since I can't imagine that it is "SAVED" in any manner. Here's what I had gotten as a "reply" for those, *quote*:"Reason:I told you before not to submit entries with all those quotes. If you persist I am afraid I will have to ban you from submitting new games." *end quote*
Here's MY "reply": *quote*:"Just because YOU have a "personal problem" regarding [i]EVERYTHING[/i] pertaining to what I had 'submitted'-what with their "quote" and 'other' markings, then why don't YOU just pass them along to someone ELSE
who "doesn't"? In case you hadn't even taken *notice*, then they were "directed" upon a specific 'person' in 'mind' so WTF were YOU doing going over those in the first place huh? I don't EXPECT whomever to "fess up" upon the matter, and why don't YOU provide this 'matter' as further "evidence" FOR your asinine 'behaviour' eh? I also don't believe that THIS will "survive" very long on here, while I do have a "remedy" for THAT as well!" *end quote* NOW, maybe you all can "fathom" the 'meaning' OF the "heading" for this here? Since I'm currently engaged within a "pissing contest" WITH whomever-(oh, and I do KNOW 'who' that IS by the way).

Holiday Happenings

Have a "Happy Mother's Day" for those who celebrate such!

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Ratings where BGG and I agree the least.

A while back Melissa did an audio blog on the largest disparaties between her ratings and the BGG ratings. The raw data comes from John Farrell's extract from BGG. Now it is my turn, although you will not be hearing my dulcet tones, you will just have to read along :-)

Scrolling through the data that John has extracted the thing that I notice the most is that there are lot of games that I haven't rated yet that I should. Secondly I should revisit the ratings on quite a few, especially the first twenty or so game I rated which tend to rate a little higher than I would rate them now based on a small random sample.

GameMy RatingBGG Rating
Poisson d'Avril4.07.39
Cosmic Encounter - Eon Expansion #63.56.7
LEGO Creator8.05.22
Dawn of the Dead3.05.53
Crocodile Pool Party6.54.55
Dwarves and Dice4.05.75

With my ratings I try to base them on ideal game group and conditions, i.e. Civilization is being played with seven people who want to play, have no other commitments for the day and Daughter the Younger and Daughter the Elder are at their grandparents. Kids games are being played with the appropriately aged children, not a bunch of adults who would rather being playing ASL or Caylus. Thus there are games that I have not played in years that rate very highly simply because given the ideal conditions I would play them a lot and enjoy it. You can consider this the beginnings of my ratings mission statement. The mission however, is not complete. There are ratings that need to be reviewed and a lot more need to be added - with comments too.

Anyway, back to those disparaties.

Set - My position on this is that Set is not a game. It is competitive IQ testing, if I wanted to IQ tests I would do them, but I wouldn't try and pretend that it is a game. I have "played" this once and never to intend to "play" it again. A friend of mine who has also played it once and is not intending to play it again gave a brief session report of his game - "I sat there and didn't say a word, I came second". If I remember correctly there were five or six players. There are those who say people who don't like Set aren't any good at it. I am actually quite good at IQ tests, I just don't appreciate mutton being dressed up as lamb and being passed off as a game. I have better things to do with my life than pretend this is a game.

Poisson d'Avril - I really can't say much about this, otherwise the Secret Masters of Gaming would hunt me down. This is one the games that I should probably rerate.

Cosmic Encounter - Expansion #6 - I can sum this up in two words "Luchre sucks". Never liked them, disliked the majority of the ten powers introduced with this expansion. Played with luchre quite a few times which just reinforced my original opinion. Our set has them permanently removed (moons too, but that is another story).

Basari - I have only played this once, but I really did not enjoy the experience at all. Possibly it was the way it was taught, maybe it was the people, maybe it was the game. One thing that I do recognise as an irritating game mechanic is the resolution of the rock, paper, scissors action. In Basari if two players select the same thing, they are penalised, where as in Goldbräu two people who select the same action get the action they select but if you uniquely select an action you get a bonus. Basari uses a stick, where as Goldbräu uses a carrot. I prefer the carrot and this is part of the reason for my low rating.

LEGO Creator - One of the best roll and move children's games around. The game is so well designed that children who cannot read can play the game without any help from adults after less than one game. You get to collect LEGO pieces and build models and there is even decision making involved. My rating of 8.0 is possibly a touch too high, but I would still say you would be hard pressed to come up with a better game for children around five.

Dawn of the Dead - Many years ago, and we are talking pre Settlers of Catan years, a friend and I where down at his family's beach house. It was raining and cold. We broke out Dawn of the Dead, we reached the point that neither of us were going to take an excessive risk to win and were both playing it safe. The rain set it in and it didn't get any warmer and we had nothing better to do. Many hours passed. Without risking losing the game, neither of us were going to win. We eventually gave it up as a stalemate. The theme worked, the mechanics were good, with less even opponents we may have got a result, but with us nothing was going to ever happen. Thus my rating is fair, it is unlikely that I will ever play this again.

Spellmaker - There are some nice mechanics buried under some of the worst written rules you will ever come across and gameplay that stretches out towards infinity which is why this game lost many ratings points. One player gets close to achieving victory and the others jump on him or her, some turns later another player is close to achieving victory - rinse, lather and repeat. Ad infinitum. Playing this game brought up one of the few occasions I think Kingmaking is valid. The "Please make it stop, I can't bear it any more" reason. You will do whatever is in your power to let one player, any player win, just to stop the torment from continuing. The other option is to just pack the game away and play something decent, but for all the pain and suffering that has been endured, at least one person should get the satisfaction of winning. This game would be OK for a cold rainy day at the beach house when the person with the good games hasn't arrived yet, because eventually it will finish, but just not in a hurry!

Crocodile Pool Pary - There just may be a conspiracy amongst the minions of Tom Vasel to mark this game down. Now admittedly the theme is best described as fanciful to be polite, or just plain stupid to be accurate, however there is actually a nice little mathematical game buried in there. It's never going to hit the sevens in ratings but it should be well above a five in my book.

Guillotine - One of the very first games I rated on BGG. 8.5 is possibly a little high in retrospect, but not much. We have this since it was brand new and it still gets played and is popular with people who have never played it before.

Dwarves amd Dice - On the plus side this is a fun little colour recognition game for small children around three or four and up. In terms of a game it works quite well under you get towards the end of the tiles and realise that nobody had any thoughts past lets match the colours on the dice with the colours on the dwarves and their playtesting obviously ended before they were half way through the dwarves. Daughter the Elder and I introduced some house rules to stop the continuous re-rolling until you roll something that matches one of the tiles that is left. A nice educational tool, but not much of a game.

It may be interesting to revisit this some months down the track after I have gotten around to reviewing my existing ratings and filling in all the blanks for the games I haven't rated yet.

Mmm meeples taste like...