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

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.

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.


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...

Friday, May 12, 2006

Blue Moon City

Beyond question, beyond examination, beyond any demand for rationalization, our world is one of grudges. We see names on the map and know that somewhere down in the basements and caves, in the bank vaults and board rooms, secret flames are tended by silent hands, kept sheltered and waiting for the moment to ignite a blaze. Was it always this way? In the ancient times, in the mythic days back when men had not yet been seduced by the written word, before the creepy crush on Permanence and the high-maintenance, one-sided love affair with Identity, you could almost imagine the heroes and kings of the day as simple and supple as schoolchildren, raging one day and embracing the next.

It seems OK, then, that the faux mythique civil war of Blue Moon should end in the reconciliation of Blue Moon City, a game about the reconstruction of the shattered capital of that distant, fantastical world authored by Kosmos and Knizia. With the help of the eight races and their unique talents, two to four players travel through the ruined metropolis and rebuild temple and handelshaus stone by stone; in so doing they will earn shards of the world's most sacred relic, the Holy Crystal of Psi, and these fragments will be returned to the city's central monument in a race to see who will be the one to make the crystal—and the land of Blue Moon—whole once again.

The board of this not-really-a-board-game is a layout of twenty two-sided tiles surrounding a central monument tile. The twenty tiles each represent an important building of the city, with one side being a sketchy blueprint and the other a rendering of the building as completed. To begin the game the tiles are placed semi-randomly around the monument with the blueprint side face-up. The players place their pawns at the monument and each draws a hand of eight cards from the deck of eighty.

Most player turns follow a very simple pattern: move, build, redraw. To start a player may make two orthogonal moves with her pawn, and after she has finished moving she may then choose to spend her cards to rebuild some part of the structure on which her pawn currently stands. The cards are split into eight suits which correspond to the eight peoples of the Blue Moon world, namely the Vulca, Aqua, Terrah, Flit, Pillar, Mimix, Hoax and Khind (black, blue, red, grey, gold, brown, white and green, respectively). Every building is essentially "owned" by one of these eight races,* with each race having three or four buildings on the map.* Each building plan will indicate between one and four building requirements, and each of those requirements will be a number between one and five; for example, the water temple, an Aqua building, has three requirements: 5 blue, 4 blue, and 3 blue. The active player may discard from her hand cards of the same people/color/suit as the building in order to complete one or more portions of that building. All the cards have a value between one and three, and to complete any one requirement the player needs to discard cards with a total value that matches or exceeds that requirement; in the case of the example, the player could discard Aqua cards valued at 1 and 2 to complete the easiest requirement. To mark her achievement, the player places one of her "building stones" (colored wooden cubes) on the printed box showing the requirement, thus indicating that that part of the project has been finished. Players may add more than one cube on a turn, but each build is a separate event; in the example, the player could not play four blue 2s to complete both the 5 and the 3.

Once a player completes the final requirement for a building, crystal fragments are awarded. All players who had cubes on the tile when it was completed will earn a specified crystal reward, and the player who contributed the most, the "master builder," will earn some additional bonus of crystals, cards and/or dragon scales, the dragon scales being an additional game mechanism that I will explain shortly (for now suffice it to say that the three dragons familiar to Blue Moon fans make an appearance in this game as well). The players retrieve their cubes and the tile is then flipped to the side which shows the completed structure. As an additional wrinkle, the flipped, "completed" side of the buildings lists yet another combination of cards, crystals and scales, and when a building is scored all involved players will also earn the card/crystal/scale awards indicated on all adjacent completed buildings. This bonus is an interesting and important mechanism that creates moments of drama and urgency in the game, and it also tends to make the board develop in a pleasingly organic way, since when one building is completed, all the unfinished buildings surrounding suddenly become more profitable, and so the result is that players tend to stick together to work the periphery. All this serves to increase the feeling of competition and prevent a game of multiplayer solitaire where players are wandering alone through the city streets.

Not every turn will involve a build, however. If the player ends her movement on the central monument tile, she may turn in some of her crystals to place one of her cubes on the monument leader board. This monument is actually the central competition of the game: the first player to make a specified number of crystal deliveries to it will be the winner. Two things are important in this regard. First, the cube placements become gradually more expensive; the first cube placed will only cost seven crystals, but the last can require a deposit of twelve. Practically speaking, this means that one cannot just hoard crystals until the endgame, as those early-bird discounts might be the difference between victory and defeat, and so another of the tricky decisions of the game is gauging when to tear one's self away from the feeding frenzy and get on the tote board. The other important rule is that, unlike adding cubes to the building tiles, a player can only make one crystal delivery per turn.

The active player then finishes her turn by drawing two cards into her hand, after which she has the option of discarding up to two cards and re-drawing the same number she discarded. The question of whether to try to tailor one's hand in this way is actually one of the most tricky and time-consuming decisions in the whole game, since a particular opportunity might cause a player to hanker for a particular card and yet she still might be able to imagine situations where the cards she's throwing away will suddenly come in handy.

Now, the more attentive readers will be wondering "if I don't need to make exact change when building, why would I ever want to hold onto a crummy 1 card when I might draw a 3?" The answer is that all the 1- and 2-value cards have alternate, rule-bending uses, much in the way that the cards in a card-driven wargame can be used as either operations or a special event. A straightforward example is that of the airborne Flit: discarding a Flit 2 card allows the player to add two to his pawn's movement allowance, whereas the 1 card flies the pawn to any tile in the layout. These special powers all tend to be nicely thematic; for another example, the cards of the Pillar, the master traders of the world, allow players to make more than one delivery to the monument per turn for an extra crystal fee. As an aside I'll mention that on first reading the rules I thought that the Pillar cards' special power was the least useful of any in the deck, but with experience I have come to see just how critical these can be to gain a turn on the competition.

Most of these special powers simply bend the rules or provide more flexibility, but some involve an additional element in the game, namely the aforementioned dragons and their scales. The cards of the Vulca, Aqua and Terrah—the guardians of fire, water and earth—can be used to move the three elemental dragons around the map. As some might recall from the card game, the dragons are the judges and guardians of all that is cool and groovy in the Blue Moon world, and in the case of Blue Moon City they supervise the players' rebuilding efforts and will reward those who impress them with their exploits. In game terms, three colorful dragon miniatures will be moved from one building tile to the next, and when a player builds and places his cubes on a tile on which a dragon is sitting, the dragon will award that player with a dragon scale as a token of his esteem. The dragon scales serve as a kind of sub-game within the game; there is a limited pool of scales, and when the pool is emptied, the player who has collected the most scales will turn these in for six crystals while every other player with at least three scales will turn them in for three crystals. Typically there will be two or three dragon-scale scorings taking place during the course of a game, and this side contest adds a nice extra tension to the decision-making; the blue, black and red cards are valuable because there are more buildings of those colors, and moreover the Fire, Water and Earth Temples are the three most lucrative building projects, but then on the other hand snagging six crystals out of nowhere while an opponent walks away with none is a plum too sweet not to be considered.

For the most part, those are the rules of the game. Players travel across the map, spend their cards, charm some dragons, and then haul ass back to the monument to turn in their crystals. In the broad strokes it's rather simple, though in practice the small details within the rules create a lot of interesting situations. The specifics of the crystal payouts for completed buildings create an complex dynamic among the players; as said, most buildings have more than one requirement for completion, and so there's a certain tension between trying to get involved in as many projects as possible and working one project with an eye towards shutting others out of a payout; in a tight game, this latter is an important way to get ahead of the competition.** Complicating matters are the bonuses on adjacent completed buildings, which can up the stakes for a particular tile quite significantly. The other interesting aspect of the game is the puzzle of how to get the most out of one's cards, as their dual-use nature gives the players a surprisingly large scope of possibility on their turn. Sometimes one's goals are obvious and the question is merely one of efficiency, while at other times there are painful decisions to be made as to whether to use cards for rebuilding purposes or for their special abilities. The tradeoffs are balanced and fiendishly exquisite, and once a couple of these conundrums have caught you in their crosshairs there'll be no doubt in your mind who the designer of the game is. Really Blue Moon City is almost like some kind of infinite generator of puzzles and tricky situations, and that might be its main charm.

There was another broad characteristic of the game that impressed itself upon me, but whether it is a good quality or a bad quality may depend on one's taste. Blue Moon City is actually quite unique in the Reiner Knizia canon in that it is almost immediately apprehensible. My mantra for Knizia games is "if you're only planning to play it once, don't bother," because it is very rare that one is able "get" everything on the first play. There are usually levels and sub-levels, and it's not at all unusual to hear someone say "you know, I thought this was pretty dull and pointless the first three times I played, but now that I'm trying it for the fourth time, I think I can say without a doubt that this is my favorite game of all time." Blue Moon City is different, though; the very first play will be a blast, but once you're done, well, you've pretty much "gotten" it. Now, that's not to say that the game won't be fun on repeat play—not at all—but there probably won't be any big "aha" moments several playings down the road in the way that you typically find with the designer's games.

Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily. If anything it might be an extraordinarily shrewd move by Dr. Knizia, since the gaming scene is so overcrowded that if a game of this weight doesn't blow its players away on the first try it usually gets thrown in the trade pile.*** To me the quick dismissal of the devilishly clever Tower of Babel—not to mention the not-nearly-enthusiastic-enough-in-my-opinion reaction to the Blue Moon card game—confirms this train of thought, though of course the reader will have his own opinions about that stuff.**** Moreover, one could say that such a quality is perfectly suitable for a relatively simple middleweight that only lasts an hour.

On the other hand, I kind of like those "aha" moments.

The other criticism I have heard of the game is that the turn order is overly important. It's true that the games are often very close, with players saying "I could have done it with one more turn" at the end, and of course if the start player wins the game, folks are bound to wonder whether there's a problem. I'm actually not sure about the answer to this; I can't recall whether the start player has won more than his share of our games. Looking at the rules and knowing how the game plays out I can't see why this would necessarily be an issue, since there is no reason why any one player shouldn't be able to gain a turn or two on another, either by getting a lead in crystals through clever play or by saving time through use of a Flit or Pillar card. However, if players all do somehow manage to play perfectly matched games, then, yes, I suppose the first player does have an advantage. Does this bother me? No. Or at least not yet.

The last thing I'll mention is something about the number of players, which is that it seems to me that the sweet spot may be at three. With four players there is a chance of down time and the game overstaying its welcome, whereas with only three it's pretty much guaranteed to rip along with a speed that is in perfect keeping with its weight and depth. Additionally, with four players there's a chance that the group may at times separate into two pairs which won't really interact with each other for a while, which might be fun in an "us against them" way but which I think in practice is more like losing touch with half the players in the game. I will say, though, that the one two-player game I tried worked just fine, and while Blue Moon City probably wouldn't be my first choice if I only have one opponent, the game does work, and quite nicely at that.

To sum up, Blue Moon City is a fun little middleweight, suitable for brainy casual players and for gamers who occasionally like to kick back with something short and tactical but interesting. There are lots of tricky decisions, there's good player interaction, and there's potential for competitive play for those who look for it. It may not be as deep as most Knizia middleweights, but it makes up for this with a breezy accessibility, and even if it's not something you will want to drag out for five sessions in a row, it's still a very nice every-once-in-a-whiler and change of pace. Overall, if you enjoy middleweights and tactical puzzles and are curious about or are already enamored with the Blue Moon universe, it's definitely worth giving a try.


* ...with one exception which is interesting yet not quite worth detailing here.

** Despite what others have said, Blue Moon City is not at all an area majority game, because even if there is a bonus for being "Master Builder," the reward is usually rather small, relatively speaking. In fact, what is much more important than being Master Builder is simply being involved in as many builds as possible, particularly in light of the bonuses for adjacent completed buildings; coming in first on one tile may be far less lucrative than being an also-ran on another.

*** ...though this bit of supposed foresight on Dr. Knizia's part presumes that jaded gamers are in the forefront of his mind, something which is probably not really the case.

**** Quiet, Rick.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Anatomy of a Game: Carcassonne, Part Four: Complexity & The Rivers

This is the fourth article in my series about Carcassonne. See part one for a discussion of the base game, part two for a discussion of tile distribution and balance in the expansions and part three for a discussion of cooperation, competition, and theming in the expansions.

There are many ways to expand a successful game system. Ticket to Ride continues to put out new editions of the game, featuring new maps and some new rules, an approach also seen in Empire Builder and other games.

Alhambra continues to publish small, distinct supplements which are easy to put in a game or take out because they form very different game elements.

The Settlers of Catan has tried both approaches, with standalone games like The Settlers of the Stone Age and also distinct add-ons like The Seafarers of Catan and The Cities & Knights of Catan. It's also offered semi-new games such as the Historical Scenarios, which are very similar to the standalone variants offered by other systems but reuse game components

Carcassonne, on the other hand, has centered its expansion policy on a different, and somewhat dubious method. Hans im Gluck just keeps on adding new tiles to the game, which once mixed in are somewhat difficult to pull out, unless you have tile distribution sheets showing you exactly what belongs and what doesn't. In certain ways, Carcassonne shows how not to expand a game. Because tiles can't be removed without work, the game keeps getting longer and longer and more and more complex.

This week I want to concentrate on that complexity, and to map out what the gameplay of the SdJ winner looks like, comparing the original game, the classic expansions, and the more recent brood.

Adding Difficulty to a Game

As I wrote in part 3 of this series, it was King & Scout which started to burn me out on the game's complexity. That one additional thing to keep track of--the special VP tiles for closing the biggest roads and cities--was the figurative straw that broke my Carcassonne's back. Granted those two little tiles really aren't that complex, but as one more thing they were too much. I never play with the King and Robber Baron tiles any more. Other peoples' tolerances will be different, but I suspect the number of people who can mindfully play a MegaCarcassonne game, with all 160+ tiles, is small.

Classic Carcassonne: I've spoken elsewhere about how I consider the classic Carcassonne set of Inns & Cathedrals, Traders & Builders, and King & Scout to be a fairly ideal playing environment. In the last couple of articles I outlined some of the reasons, such as the fact that these three expansions filled out the game's tile distribution, and that these three expansions were the ones that fit in most with the original game's mix of cooperation and competition.

Diagraming out the expansion's anatomy, however, shows a surprising elegance to their overall structure, which may be another reason to like this particular set. The original Carcassonne game had a pure simplicity to it (as shown in the thumbnail, nearby). However the classic Carcassonne mixture maintains a surprising balance.
  • There remain just three core actions: environment placement, token placement, and token conflict.
  • There are now three main decisions: where to place a tile, which token to place, and where to place that token.
  • There are now three general types of tiles: regular tiles, inn & cathedral tiles which modify scoring, and goods tiles which influence closure.
  • There are now three general types of meeples: regular meeples which influence token conflicts, pigs which modify scoring, and builders which allow extra actions.
  • There are now three general types of scoring markers: regular victory points, king & robber baron VP tiles, and goods.
  • There are now three possible results for closing a terrain: scoring points, earning VP tiles, and earning goods.
Now I'm sure that Klaus-Jurgen Wrede didn't move through these supplements saying, "We should have three of each major game element", but I suspect he did try and keep things balanced, so that there weren't too many tile types, too many token types, or too many ways to score.

The result is a complex, but straightforward general gameplay model, as shown in the diagram below. Click for a larger, crisper view:

The Later Expansions: I'm sure there won't be much surprise when I again say that the later Carcassonne expansions moved things in some very different directions. As my final MegaCarcassonne diagram (below) shows, the game has gotten a lot more complex. My original Carcassonne gameplay diagram showed 7 distinct elements, and my classic Carcassonne diagram expanded that to 13. The later expansions increase that to 31. In other words, though the sizes of the classic Carcassonne and later Carcassonne sets are about the same, the later ones added about 3x as much complexity.

The biggest growth area is in gameplay "activity". Where before the expansions assiduously avoided changing Carcassonne's basic gameplay, starting with The Count of Carcassonne each new supplement adds a major new gameplay system. In Count it's the whole Carcassonne Count gameplay loop, in P&D it's the fairie-dragon loop, while in Tower it's the simpler Tower system.

I actually had a lot of trouble diagramming out the megaCarcassonne gameplay. Part of that was due to the restrictions of designing a diagram in a ratio that would be easily visible on the web, but part of it's because when you try and put the systems of all the later Carcassonne games together they form a spaghetti-like mess. Just trying to figure out the ordering of some of the interrelations, such as the ordering of the Princess knight-stealing and the dragon meeple-eating proved to be a challenge. I think the result is accurate but not necessarily obvious.

Althought some of the later expansion changes befuddle me (such as the tile distribution changes that I mentioned two articles ago), I have a theory as to why the complexity of Carcassonne started dramatically racheting up with Count; it also explains why the game suddenly became more competitive at that point. I'm guessing that by the time 2004 rolled around Hans im Gluck had sold most of what they were going to sell to the SdJ-worshipping general public, and so they explicitly decided to start pushing for the more serious gamers. And what do serious gamers want? Competition and complexity, the exact ingredients that a general audience would probably disprove of.

So that's my theory about the later Carcassonne expansions.

Here's my final anatomy diagram for Carcassonne, and the one that required the most time and hair-pulling of all of them. You're really going to need to click on this one to make out the details:

As I said, it's a spaghetti-like mess, and that was even after oversimplifying some of the component-action interrelations.

The Rivers

I've complained some about the recent evolution of Carcassonne, mostly because I don't like how much things changed after 2003. Carcassonne is no longer the game that I started playing, and competition and complexity aren't what I'm personally looking for if I sit down to play a Carcassonne game. (Instead I'm looking for a casual game to play with my wife or less gamerly friends, and if I want a more serious game, then I look elsewhere.) However I don't want to close this part of this series off with my whining. So, I'd like to talk about the recent release of River II. I think it shows not only how a supplement can be successfully remodeled, but also acts as a benchmark for the evolution of the game.

The nearby picture, though not as elegant as Aldaron's distribution diagrams, shows the differences between the two rivers. What's most surprising, perhaps, is that they're pretty similar. A minimum of changes have been made to the River, but all the changes are good.

The biggest complaint about the original river was always that it created huge fields, especially at the two ends of the river. This new river still has some of that potential, but it decreases field size. Where the original river cut the board into 5 starting fields, the new one cuts it into 7.

It's worth briefly mentioning the other changes:
  • The new River better integrates with all the major expansions, because there's one inn (from I&C), one pig field (harkening to T&B), and one volcano (from P&D). This is a purely aesthetic boon, but a nice one.
  • The river adds a branch, and now you can build on either branch. This slightly increases the strategy of the river-building phase since you now have two places to build on for some of the time.
  • A pennant on the one castle corner, combined with that aforementioned inn help increase the valuations of these initial terrains, making people more likely to place on them, and thus more likely to feel like they're making important decisions.
  • The volcano insures that the dragon gets placed on the board before any dragon tiles could move it, thus short-circuiting an inelegant aspect of the Princess & the Dragon expansion.
As I said, the changes to the river are pretty minor, but they're important, and I think they offer a great example of how to tweak a game to improve it.


I've spent a lot of time knocking the later expansions to Carcassonne throughout these articles, but I don't mean to suggest they're necessarily bad supplements. More correctly, they're different.

The classic Carcassonne supplements made certain decisions about balance (that all the terrain types should have somewhat comparable values), about tile distribution (that fields should be smaller and that stealing into someone's terrain should be a challenge), about competition (that it shouldn't be in your face), and about complexity (that it should be limited to new tiles and followers, not new action systems).

The later Carcassonne expansions have reversed almost all of these trends.

What I hope I've done in these three articles is to carefully denote (and graphically illustrate) how the game has changed over the last years, and to thus leave it open to any players to first see the interesting changes that have occurred, to second understand a bit more about some of the design decisions, and to third then go out and put together the exact Carcassonne that makes them happiest.

I'm not quite done with Carcassonne yet. Next I plan to look at the variant games that have been released over the last few years, to one more time examine what decisions have been made to slowly change the game system over a span of 6 years. However, while I wrote these first four articles all in one fell swoop (back in March, during a week that my wife was out of town), I haven't yet scribed the articles I'm planning on the variant games. So, I'm going to put them on hold for a bit, while I hopefully wait for The Discovery to enter mainstream distribution; when I have that in hand, I'll be back with some more discussions of Carcassonne, probably this summer and fall.

Coming up, I've got discussions of the Golden Age of Gaming and Italian Game Design planned. I'll see you back here to move into those topics in 7.