Monday, July 31, 2006

The Anniversary Tour Kicks Off -- Idaho


Just over a year ago Brian (Koldfoot) emailed me, along with a few others, and suggested the idea of a group blog that covered board gaming from a variety of different perspectives. The idea was the blog would be fresh daily because no one needed to contribute more than once a week.

Now I'm not sure why the others agreed, but I said yes because my fragile ego needs constant stroking. And what better way to build a false sense of emotional stability than bashing the people who I made my living from for 23 years?

Frankly, this is a great group of people and I eagerly await each writer's weekly (or sometimes monthly) contribution. Grogs left us this year to do other things, but now we have Kris Hall filling in along with other guests from time to time. Another thing that makes this group a good one is that we really do all get along. Sometimes I think that's only because we've never actually met each other... but I could be wrong about that. At least one of them might like me in person.

Another unusual thing about this group is that we're all filthy rich and we decided to squander untold amounts of money and foolishly waste a week traveling the world and gaming in the homes of our fellow members. Have fun this week. I know I will.

The Gone Gaming Gang.

That's Fraser floating angelically above us. Then, from left to right, DW, Shannon, Yehuda, Mary and our founder, Koldfoot.

Melissa and Joe disappeared just before this photo was snapped. Koldfoot kept muttering they didn't want to be seen with us, but I can't imagine why.

Monday 8:30 am - The Tour kicks off in a small rural shitehole somewhere in Idaho

I am so frickin' happy that that my Gone Gaming Buddies showed up here on Monday. That's because of religion. Not that I'm unreligious. I'm actually a pretty spiritual guy. In fact, I have even written and had published an article about the metaphysical qualities of dice. I'd think that qualifies me as both a reverent individual... and a gamer.

Nonetheless, being a gamer means you often have to adapt to the various rigors and demands of organized religion. So many of the gamers I have known and enjoyed over the years had to go to church when I'd have preferred they invade Russia with me. Saturday was out for my Jewish friends, Sunday for my Mormon and Catholic friends. No Wednesdays for the Jehovah's Witnesses I've gamed with and Tuesdays and Thursdays can be difficult for many of the more strict Baptists.

I long ago gave up gaming with people who go to church in a tent. I'm not overly fond of snakes and it gets real distracting when their eyes roll back in their heads and they drop onto the floor and start rolling around speaking in tongues.

But Monday seems to be the day God looks the other way and says, "Go ahead, if you must, make the Romans pay, mete out the punishment Rommel deserves, hack up a few Orcs, whip those slaves into gear on the sugar plantation and assassinate a few Italian Princes for good measure."

Of course my big plan was to get a poker tournament going. I figured I could use the money for the trips to Alaska, North Dakota, Connecticut, Israel and Australia. Getting to Shannon's place in California would be the easiest because we all know that Berkeley is more a state of mind than it is a physical location. As the airport van dropped the crowd and thier gear off I was already counting the extra money I could liberate from these cityfied Euro Gamers.

Before I could even get the cards and poker chips out Shannon had spread all sorts of charts and graphs out on my table. Everyone was jabbering about the connections between this German game designer and that French guy and how that American designer was influenced by so-and-so. Nice graphs and charts, Shannon. So we all ended up playing The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon instead of 7-card stud. Shannon won. Then Mary won. Then Coldfoot won. Then Melissa and Fraser won. Then Joe won. Then Shannon won two in a row and we all agreed the game sucked.

So I suggested a poker tournament. Mary kept trying to pull that idiotic sounding Hoity-Toity garbage out of what I thought was a steamer trunk, and turned out to be her handbag, but I managed to overpower her and shove it back in. During the struggle Koldfoot was setting up Advanced Civilization, having pushed my poker chips and cards aside and so I was drafted to play that mind-numblingly boring game. I lost. I forget who won. I think it was Koldfoot, but it might have been Joe. Or maybe it was Shannon. I know it wasn't Mary because she kept trying to sneak the freakish sounding Hoity-Toity into the "to play" pile. I spent more time hiding that one than I did advancing my civilization. Go figure.

As expected, after what seemed like 11 rounds of Kevin Bacon and a full game of Advanced Civilization, it was lunch time. So I treated. I felt like going for the classy comestibles and so sprung for toaster sandwiches at the local Sonic Burger. My pick-up wouldn't hold everybody so Joe, Mary and Melissa had to ride with me on the Harley.

I insisted Shannon drive the truck. Cruel, I know, because he doesn't drive. But after subjecting us to Kevin Bacon, he needed to be punished. So him, Yehuda, Fraser and Koldfoot got in the truck. What a hoot. Five minutes to get it into reverse, stalling it half a dozen times... Yehuda yelling directions, Koldfoot making seal noises and flapping his arms like flippers all while Fraser sat there looking ill. I kept Joe and the girls amused by doing wheelies on the Harley (pretty easy with them adding extra weight on the back) and then multiple stoppies everytime we circled back around the block and saw that Shannon was still in deep trouble... trying to get out of the driveway.

Somehow Shannon managed to get the truck to our destination without ripping the entire drive train out, but I think he came close. Despite the loud exhaust on my Harley and the joyous shrieks of Joe and the girls on the back, I could still hear Fraser yelling something that sounded like "effing drongo" at Shannon. Hmmm... probably some form of Aussie encouragement or something.

While we were at the Sonic Burger Shannon suggested most of them ought to take a cab back to my place. A great suggestion. Except there are no cabs within 30 miles of my town. Lucky for him I spotted Merle, the hay farmer who lives just past me. He just happened to be cruising by in his stack wagon and was more than happy to let everyone ride in the back. Koldfoot said he'd drive my truck, claiming he was going to do some psychic healing on it after Shannon's abuse.

My thinking was that I could easily get back to the house and get the poker tournament set up before anyone else brought out something European... or worse, something French. What I didn't know was that Merle had just picked his stack wagon up from the performance shop where he'd installed a fuel management chip, piped the damned thing and thrown in a turbo charger for good measure. I figured I was in trouble when he popped the clutch and the whole rig lifted off the front tires, belched a cloud of black diesel smoke into the sky and burnt rubber all the way down highway 52.

Merle runs a New Holland model 1037, similar to this beast. Only Merle's is flat black, has flames painted on it and is further adorned with little chrome skulls glittering along the frame and the cab doors.

Koldfoot made some comment about how he didn't know human eyes could get that big around or look that horrifed as we watched the Gone Gaming crowd disappear at warp speed, clutching the rails of the wagon and screaming in almost perfect harmony.

By the time I got there they had set up Citadels and I suffered through several games of that stinker. I was assassinated. I had my money stolen. The warlord tore down my town. The architect outbuilt me. The magician took all my good cards. Yehuda was King. Then he was King. Then Yehuda was King. I finally asked him if we should just start calling him Your Highness Yehuda. Needless to say. I didn't win a single game. But Poker was still in the plans.

Unfortunately, I had to take a leak.

When I got done and walked out into the gaming area Fraser had set up Formula De. Finally! A game I like.

Melissa crashed me out. Joe cut me off at every crucial corner. Koldfoot's pit stops were better. Mary just smiled smugly and got in my way. Yehuda and Shannon were terrible drivers but they always seemed to be ahead of me. Fraser won. Then he won again. Then mercifully, Joe suggested we play poker... but first he had a game that was a favorite. Okay I figured, no big deal. He'll want to play Amun-Re or some other bleached-out and bland Euro thing and then we can get to the real gaming. So instead he pulls out Tower of Babel.

As he's explaining it I started feeling like I had played this game before. So I say, "Wait up a sec Joe. We already built wonders of the world in Civ. And this seems like just another tile-laying, VP scoring rehash of every other tile-laying, VP scoring game with language independent cards I've ever seen."

"Not so DW", Joe replied. " This one is better. I have the Hans im Gluck version."

Whereupon he proceeded to thrash everyone at the table by virtue of not only being the only one who actually understood the hideous mess, but also because he had wisely not eaten any of the tater tots at Sonic Burger. The rest of us were intermittently absent several times each. Taking care of business, as it were.

Once our stomachs settled down everyone (but me) wanted to play again. Shannon won this time but truthfully, I think Joe let him win because Shannon was the only other person who could pronounce the publisher of the game correctly without sounding like Colonel Klink.

Yehuda immediately suggested we try some Victorian Era parlor games and so grudgingly I trooped into the living room with the group. The two Aussies seemed to excel at the games and I think Fraser won most of them. I suspect they cheated, signaling secretly in a distinctly Aussie married couple manner, but I could never prove it. As for me, I didn't have a clue what we were playing but I did my best and thought I was actually going to win some of the word games but Shannon sat there with a huge dictionary he'd pulled out of Mary's Steamer Trunk and proved, with charts and graphs, that I was never quite on the money. Thankfully, I had been sipping scotch all afternoon so I am reasonably certain I had a good time anyway.

The afternoon was wearing on into evening so I abandoned all hope of a poker tournament and treated the Gone Gaming crowd to a pit BBQ of roasted goat, corn-on-the-cob and wild asparagus. The only tense moment was when Mary and Melissa finally understood why I had a live goat tied up outside. Joe, Shannon and Yehuda saved the day by suggesting they and the girls go back inside and play a few rounds of Yahtzee, leaving me and Koldfoot to handle the goat. Koldie is pretty good with a knife.

There's nothing like a tender roasted goat after a long day of gaming. Plus, you can make warm little booties for the children from their hide.

So, having gamed all day, enjoyed two good meals and savored the sunshine and ambience of Idaho, the Potato State, I called Merle up and asked him if he could help me get the group to their rooms. Since the only motel in my town was full up - due to a statewide bovine artificial insemination convention - I had booked them into the local upscale Bed & Breakfast... Frozen Dog Digs.

Mary and Melissa looked at me like I was a madman when I mentioned the name but I assured them that the original frozen dog dated back over 100 years and they most likely had disposed of the carcass some time ago. By that time the house was shaking to the tune of Merle's souped-up stack wagon and we all loaded their luggage onto the bed, along with Mary's handbag. I followed them to the Digs and helped them settle in for a nice, peaceful Idaho evening of listening to the locusts eat green stuff, slapping at mosquitos and watching the irrigation ditches overflow.

It's what we do best out here in the sticks.

I wish I could tell you more about how totally cool the first day of the tour was but I have to get up early. We're all going to Yehuda's place next and he lives in Jerusalum. Which I think is somewhere east of Kansas City.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Daughter the Younger's requests

In my last entry I mentioned that Daughter the Younger was starting to really play games. She has come along in leaps and bounds since then. A week later I posted a GeekList Games that Daughter the Younger plays. I mean *really* plays as opposed to *plays with*, destroys or eats. because she was upto four games. This week Melissa came down with the flu so has spent most of the time cooped up in the bedroom. One of the things that has entertained Daughter the Younger has been games. She has been demanding quite a few including ones she should have no idea how to play.

Dominos has been played a lot this week, she doesn't mind that our set is missing two pieces. She has gotten over her dislike of blanks and the majority of our games are proper games. Every now and again we just build farms. One she had spread the dominos over three rooms and in our first hunt we managed to find all but four pieces. I told her that we were not going to play any more games until we found all of the Dominos. About half an hour later she found the last piece and gave it to me and announced "We can play games now". Of course, I then had to sit down and play a few games with her :-)

Piggy-back is still a big favourite. I have tried to convince her that we should only have two piggies each, but she will have none of that, three is the number.

There are a few other games that she has been consistently been asking for all week, I am not entirely sure why these are her picks, but anyway here are the top three requested games from our three year old daughter.

The game with lellow and horsies. Take a guess at what you think that might be and then click on the link and see if you were correct. I couldn't figure it out at first until she pointed at the box. The first time we opened it up she selected a set of pieces and starting putting them on the board. She then helped herself to a bunch of cards and laid them down in front of her as if she was playing a route. I didn't actually bother to check to see if her cards made a valid route :-) We only got this game a week and half ago, I figure she saw Melissa and I playing it a few times, so she wanted to get in on the action. Did you guess Thurn und Taxis?

YINSH. I figured she must have been watching Daughter the Elder and I play this a couple of times over the last week or so. I opened it up and she said "I will be white, you will be black" and took the baggie of white rings and opened it up and started placing the white rings on the board. She also knew that when you moved you placed a counter of your colour face up inside the ring and then "jumped" the ring to another spot. Another thing she had observed was that to win you had to take three of your rings off the playing area and put them in the scoring spots. The only things she hasn't actually picked up are the movement rules of the rings, flipping counters and knowing that once you get five in a row you take them and one of your rings off the board. You really do forget just how observant little children are.

Ingenious aka "the blue game with white writing". I think she might have seen this played face to face once or twice, but she has watched Melissa play it a lot on BSW. When I opened the box and set up the board, she demanded both the scoring tracks and the tile holders. I managed to convince her that we didn't need the scoring tracks. We have played it a couple of times now and I would say 90% of her moves are legitimate in that they would score decent points. Towards the end game, she either gets a little bored or just wants to place pieces in a bit more haphazard fashion. If I let her draw her own replacement tiles from the bag I do have to remind her that she is not meant to look, one time yesterday she announced "I am going to get myself a good one" as she drew herself a double red. She also knew that the tile holders stacked together, which I thought was quite amazing since I am sure she had only seen it out of the box at most twice.

Children definitely are a constant source of amazement.

Hmmm Meeples taste like...

Friday, July 28, 2006

Current Crises, Future Games

You’ve spent years working toward a final peace accord. On the eve of signing a treaty, a fanatic splinter group from your opponent’s camp attacks one of your outposts with great loss of life. Do you ignore the attack—and violate the never-show-weakness principle that has guided all your military actions? Or do you risk the peace settlement and retaliate?

In the July 23rd edition of the Sunday New York Times there was an article in the Arts & Leisure section by Clive Thompson on computer games that deal with real world problems. One notable game was called Peacemaker, and it lets players step into the shoes of either the leader of Israel or the Palestinian people to try to resolve the Middle East trouble spot. The game was invented more as a teaching tool than as competition for Grand Theft Auto, but it sounded fascinating nevertheless.

It made me wonder: where are the board games dealing with real world topics? Why aren’t designers making games about the issues that will shape the future of world? Is it because they have no interest in designing them? Or do they fear that the market will not support games that lack little plastic trains, tanks, or dragons?

I refuse to believe that game designers aren’t up to the challenge of tackling thorny current issues. And I do believe that a game can be both a compelling simulation and educational (in the broadest sense of the word) at the same time. Hard-core wargamers are turning to Ed Beach’s Here I Stand because they like the multi-player competition and rich historical detail. But as they try to capture Vienna or debate Martin Luther or circumnavigate the globe, they get a lesson in Renaissance and Reformation history. (Of course, it may be that the type of person who plays Here I Stand is the type of person who doesn’t need a lesson in Renaissance and Reformation history, but that’s beside the point.) Later this year, Decision Games will reprint A Mighty Fortress, SPI’s original six-player game of Reformation conflict that inspired Ed Beach to create his masterpiece. Isn’t it odd that there will soon be two games of religious conflict in the 1600s, but no reasonably realistic games about the religious, political, and military conflicts of the 21st century?

Here are three suggested game proposals dealing with topical issues.

Oval Office
There have been a lot of games dealing with presidential elections, but none dealing with the mechanics and challenges of governing America from the Oval Office. In this two-player game, players become either Republican or Democratic presidents trying to implement their political agenda while dealing with the unexpected crises that wind up on the president’s desk. At the beginning of the game, each player looks through a selection of Republican or Democratic policy cards, and secretly chooses cards to be his primary and secondary policy goals.

During the average turn, each player can attempt to woo Congress, improve foreign relations, court the general public (to improve his poll numbers), or please various interest groups. Each turn, each player also draws three crisis cards, and selects one card which he can play on his opponent. Crises may be natural disasters, terrorist attacks, Middle East conflicts, flu pandemics, Supreme Court nominations, political scandals, or economic problems. Players must solve these crises as fast as possible because each unsolved crisis that lingers into the next turn saps the president’s popularity and final victory point total. Some crises can be solved without the cooperation of Congress, but often Congressional action is required. Getting Congress to cooperate can be difficult—because the opposing player also acts as the Congressional opposition. Mid-term Congressional elections are a litmus test of each president’s effectiveness—and an opportunity for each party to try to gain seats in the House and Congress.

Will you place cronies and lobbyists in positions of power and reap vast campaign contributions while risking the effectiveness of the government? Will you try to get a modest health insurance benefit through Congress, or will you go for the big victory points by trying to get a controversial universal plan approved even as the HMOs bankroll ads attacking your plan? Will you take unilateral action against that saber-rattling dictator, or will you try to get United Nation sanctions passed by a Security Council that is filled with nations jealous of American power? All these painful tradeoffs can be yours when you occupy the Oval Office.

In this medium complexity Eurogame, players control non-governmental organizations trying to eliminate poverty and eradicate disease around the world. Players must balance their efforts to lobby governments, raise funds, and recruit volunteers with the necessity of sending aid workers to areas of the world that may be dangerous. Players choose weather to develop long-term projects that may have lasting results or to respond to the crisis of the moment. It’s all here: Irish rock stars, altruistic software billionaires, donor fatigue, famines, tsunamis, civil wars, and kleptomaniac third-world governments. Can you persuade western governments to increase their aid? Can you orchestrate a cease fire in a war-torn country? Can you provide malaria-preventing mosquito nets to Africa’s children? A consciousness-raising game that pays tribute to some of the most altruistic and courageous people on earth.

The Shape of Things to Come
A game of political, ideological, religious, and military conflict in the first half of the 21st century (in the same big-picture vein as Twilight Struggle). Players take control of the USA, Russia, China, the Islamic world, and (in a five player game) Europe. Each player gains victory points for increasing the prosperity of their region, but each player also has his own unique agenda. The USA gains points for increasing democracy around the world. Russia and China gain points for increasing their prestige and influence relative to the USA. The Islamic player gains points for religious expansion, acquiring nuclear weapons, creating a nation of Palestine, or removing outside influence from the Middle East.

Each player faces dilemmas that mirror real-world problems. The USA can strengthen international institutions that lessen the costs of dealing with regional or global crises, but this may put limits on American unilateral action. The Islamic player can unleash terrorism that reduces American or Russian victory points and hurts their economies. But terrorism also limits the prospects for Islamic democracy and prosperity (and can become a genie that refuses to return to its bottle). All the non-USA players can increase their democratic/human rights infrastructure as a way improving their economies, but democratic populations demand that more resources be spent on increasing standards of living. The USA player can degrade the American democratic/human rights index to improve its ability to fight terrorism, but this also weakens American prestige.

Event cards depict crises that are both threats and opportunities. These include: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the struggle for Kashmir, Taiwanese independence, Chechen rebellions, North Korean saber rattling, AIDS in Africa, leadership struggles in Saudi Arabia, nuclear and bio terrorism, and the on-going energy crisis. Meanwhile, global warming is a ticking bomb that threatens to destroy all players unless they unite to take action. A moderate complexity game about the struggles that will shape our lives in the coming decades.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Adventure Games, Part Two: In the Cards

Last month I posted an article about Fantasy Flight Games and their recent emphasis on adventure games. However, the adventure gaming genre is a lot bigger than just Fantasy Flight. As I mentioned in that article, the genre has been around for a while, with classics like Milton Bradley's HeroQuest and GW's Talisman. I missed out on Candamir, but it's clearly a German entrant to the genre.

And, the adventure gaming genre is a lot bigger than just board games too. There have been a ton of card games that meet some or all of the criteria of the adventure game genre. This week I'm going to concentrate on a lot of also-rans, or not-quite-adventure card games, that nonetheless meet a lot of the criteria of the genre. Then in a couple of weeks I'm going to return with a third article in this series, covering a card game that's just as much an adventure game as Runebound or Arkham Horror, and that's Atlas Games' Dungeoneer.

Before I get going, I'll offer a reminder of my basic definition of adventure games: they're board and card games built on the same model as roleplaying games. They center on characters, and tend to have two core mechanics: a model for character description and a task resolution system. Inevitably, one of the basic tasks tends to be combat (though that's not a requirement). Most adventure games also have you controlling a single adventurer and completing quests, but that can vary, and some of these near-miss adventure card games clearly show alternatives.

The Near Misses

Following are a set of four card games that almost meet the definition of adventure card games. Though they don't entirely meet my definition, they nonetheless have some interesting characteristics that true adventure games might learn from.

Illuminati (1983). In the last couple of years we've seen products like Candamir and Return of the Heroes, but for the most part, adventure games have been an Anglo-American phenomenon. That's not too much of a surprise, given that they've generally been published by roleplaying publishers, a genre of publishing that blossomed in the US.

Illuminati offers is a fine early example of a near-adventure game by a U.S. RPG publisher (Steve Jackson Games). It shares some a few characteristics with full-fledged adventure games, but deviates pretty widely in the details. Instead of characters you have organizations, but like adventure-game characters, they're entirely unique. Each organization is defined by a few basic characteristics--power and income--and each has a special power too, which is another common element in adventure characters.

There isn't a full-fledged task system, but the game system does include a few different tasks (taking controls of groups and destroying them) which use the same basic mechanisms, and which include various modifiers to a die roll, typically based on characteristics, just like an adventure game does.

So, this is pretty far from an adventure game, but it also is an interesting early ancestor. And, it's been built on itself, with variants including Hacker (1992) and Illuminati: New World Order (1995).

You could find a lot of other early games which include some of these same characteristics, but from here I'm going to jump straight on to some more recent cards games which are much closer to the genre.

Portable Adventures (2002). There's a distinct subset of adventure games where, instead of controlling a singular adventurer, you instead control a whole party of adventurers. This is one of them (along with cousin game, Battle of the Bands). I think controlling a party puts you further from the adventuring ideal, because you don't get the same feeling of personal connection with someone that you're playing, but they still have similar mechanisms.

Conversely, Portable Adventures use an entirely common adventure-game mechanic for victory: you complete quests, and those quests give you victory points, and those victory points eventually give you the game.

However, the Portable Adventures are weak in my core definition of adventure games. The characters aren't well modeled: each just has a value and a special power, nothing complex. Likewise, the task resolution system is very weak. It's only used for completing adventure, and you just add up character values, with a single chance to roll a die and take out some opposing characters.

One of the neat aspects of Portable Adventures is that they're multigenre. There are two of them, Lair of the Rat-King and 8th Grade and they're totally compatible. This points to one of the advantages that adventure card games offer over adventure board games: they're much easier to expand; the Portable Adventures show a really wacky and expansive way to do so.

Camelot Legends (2004). Camelot Legends is another game in the precise same mold as Portable Adventures. You have a group of characters and you send them around trying to complete quests and gain victory points.

The difference is that Camelot Legends has much more thorough modeling. Each character has a full six different attributes, plus a special ability. Now the attributes are functionally identical, they just affect different quests (and potentially different characters). However having those differentiations gives that much more individuality to the characters. (If anything the characters are actually too diffentiated. With each player having a small party of characters it's pretty hard to keep track of who can do what, a danger of the multi-character adventure game.)

The task system is entirely one-dimensional and simple, much like that in Portable Adventures. Each quest has a target number and you have to add up the values of the appropriate attributes for your character to meet it.

One of the other game elements found in Camelot Legends is that it has locations, sort of. There are initially three different places in the game, marked by cardstock sheets, and more can appear. Each character is at one of these locations at any time, and can (abstractly) move between them on his turn.

I'm not certain that locations are entirely necessary for a true adventure game, but they certain add a lot to the experience.

Im Auftrag des Konigs (2004). In recent years there have been some European adventure games, including Candamir and Return of the Heroes, they're just rarer than their Anglo-American brehtren. This German Arthurian card game came out the same year as the American Camelot Legends and is striking for how different it is.

Really, Im Auftrag des Konigs is a role/action system that's somewhat like more recent games such as Antike and Siena where the action roles are located on a roundel that you have to move around. Here, much as in Siena, the roundel represents locations, here 8 total. There's a Camelot location where you can do Camelot actions and a number of wilderness locations where you can take on certain quests.

Each player plays a "knight", but there's actually no difference between them. That's an attribute shared by another German adventure game I mentioned, Candamir. The European adventure games haven't really caught on to the idea of widely differentiated characters. You can train your characters in Auftrag, but it provides cards rather than any actual intrinsic gainm, another difference from more Anglo-American games.

It's mainly the theming that makes me thing of Auftrag as an almost adventure game, but the quest system helps. One of the ways you get victory points is through quests. You satisfy them by going to a certain location and having certain values, but here it's the values of cards rather than the values of characters. And that gives you victory points.

I suppose you could see Auftrag as a hybrid Euro/adventure game.

My Reviews: Camelot Legends (B-), Im Auftrag des Konigs (B), Portable Adventures (B)

Charting It Out

With all that said, what characteristics do these various pseudo-adventure games have, what characteristics do they lack, and what interesting elements do they offer to the genre? I have, of course, created a chart to detail this:

Power (attack).
Resistance (defense).
Character Points.
Abstract network.
Abstract Cards.
Circle of Cards.
Move around circle based on horse card selected.
Create a network.
7 Adventure points from "quests".
Most victory points from quests.
Most points from quests, court, and tournaments.
Unique Systems
Characters are actually organizations.

Core tasks aren't simple combat, but have more nuances.
Multiple genres that can be combined.

Many cards have two values for rightside up and upside down, an easy method for character fatigue.
Characteristics differentiated only by tasks they affect, not what they do.

Characters differentiated by notable, "take-that" type powers.
Very German.

Characters take communal "roles" for actions.

Skills modeled as expendable cards rather than permanent gains.


One of the most interesting reasons to look at not-quite adventure games like this is that they aren't stuck in the standard molds, and thus they show how the adventure game could grow and expand themselves. I'd love to see more full adventure games with German mechanics like those in Im Auftrag des Konigs, for example, or to put more thought into different sorts of tasks, like Illuminati offers.

And that's it for card-based adventure games this week. In two or three weeks I'll be back with Atlas and Dungeoneer. Next week, however, I'm going on vacation (all I ever wanted). I'll see you then.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Just let me have my game couch and I will be happy.

What do these games have in common?

Antike, Tempus, Kreta, Die Macher (English edition), A Storm of Swords, Age of Empires, Byzantium, War of the Ring Expansion, Nexus Ops, Ticket to Ride: Marklin, HamsterRolle, Canal Mania, Thurn and Taxis, and Blokus Trigon.

Answer: I don't own them.

And that is a situation that needs to be rectified.

Problem: I don't have room for the games I do own. The overflow games have found a spot on a mostly unused love seat which the kids and I have come to call "The Game Couch".

My wife calls it unacceptable. I offered to get a bigger couch (you know, one with enough room to stack games and sit) but that idea got vetoed.

The wife suggested selling some games. I vetoed that. My collection is barely at a respectable size.

A long time ago my dog claimed the space under our bed as his own. He is now getting too fat to crawl under the bed, so I thought about storing games under there. My wife pointed out that I am fatter than the dog. Of course I won't need to actually crawl under the bed, I have kids for that. I'm pretty sure her two cents were a veto simply masquerading as a smart-alek comment.

Looks like I'll be installing some shelving in my free time. Frankly I don't see a lot of difference between shelving and a game couch. The main difference is that shelving will never serve a purpose other than game storage. A game couch has many uses. Off the top of my head; a game couch can be used to store games, to set a chainsaw, or for a fat dog to sleep on.

The second difference is one of aesthetics, and that is the important difference for my wife. Functionality, you see, is rarely a concern for women. Aesthetics are much more important to the fairer sex. Don't believe me? I have two words for you: High Heels.

For example, the basket thingee hanging from the shower head is only for shampoo or conditioner. Never mind the fact that one bottle of ketchup and two cans of Nalley's Beef Stew fit perfectly. In fact they fit much better than either shampoo or conditioner. Do you think she will let me store beef stew and ketchup in the basket perfectly suited for such storage? Of course not. If it were up to me I would install a couple more of those baskets in the shower in order to store even more beef stew and ketchup.

For some reason women would be incredibly embarrassed if a guest saw a can of beef stew in the shower. Go figure. Personally, I would be embarrassed to have guests over and not have beef stew to serve, especially if that can in the back of the cupboard, the one that I thought was beef stew, turned out to be lima beans. I would die of shame.

Back to the situation at hand. Storing games in the shower basket is out of the question. Fortunately Dame Coldfoot and I are of one mind on that point. Storing games in the sewing room is also out of the question. Dame Coldfoot is of one mind on that point.

If I'm losing the game couch and the sewing room is off limits, I'll simply need more shelving. The wife is pulling for shelving fastened directly to the wall, I want to expand the current system:

Right now, I figure I am at that point where no matter what I do it will be wrong. I put up shelving here, she will want it there. I fasten shelving to that wall, she will want it in the other room.

Hmmmmmm. Maybe I'll just fasten the game couch to the wall. Aesthetics be damned, we're talking functionality here.

Yeeeeeeeeeeah. Ya' know what? That's not a bad compromise. Can't believe I didn't think of that sooner.

If you missed it here is a link to a very useful geeklist: Availability status of the top 150 games. Thank you for the effort, mateybob.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Encounter 5/9


By Yehuda Berlinger. Copyright 2006, Yehuda Berlinger. All rights reserved.

(Chapters: 1, 2, 3, and 4)

WARNING: Contains sexual situations, and may not be suitable for children 12 years old or under.

Chapter 5: Empath

At 10:30 pm NY time, 5:50 am Jerusalem, Sarah was already fuzzed, which was unusual. She watched Mitchell cross the threshold into his apartment in Soho, his long black coat rippling behind him like Doppler waves.

She dozed peacefully in her Jerusalem bed, and restlessly in Long Island. She rode the subway back to Queens with her keys in her curled-up fist, ready to ward off any potential rapists, as her friend Avi had instructed her. She stepped under the irregular spurts of hot water in her uptown apartment shower.

Sarah followed him into his apartment as he minded on the single halogen spotlight. The apartment was an almost empty studio. His boots echoed loudly as he walked to the kitchen. As he walked, he waved her in the general direction of the room's only furniture, which included a battered chrome and black cloth Seaman's fold-out.

He messaged: "Have a seat. I'll make coffee."

She messaged back: "Thank you."

She could see a bathroom painted in some dull pinkish color, partially visible through a half-open door. She heard the cat before it shot out of the bathroom and into the kitchen, white fur on edge. Mitchell opened a bag, poured into a bowl, and placed the bowl on the floor. He murmured something; she couldn't hear what. Another cat, this one grayish blue, appeared at a narrow window through which Sarah could see regular luminescent slits on the exteriors of other buildings. This one scrambled to the floor, and then streaked into the kitchen.

Sarah looked around at the bare walls.

It was an old-style studio, with uneven wooden floors of some generic species of wood and a high ceiling. Aside from the fold-out, there was a low black metal trunk and a black glass coffee table supporting two fat law textbooks, a silver scanning pen, and a scribbled up notepad. Part of the table could be flipped up to a wi-net monitor. The room was otherwise empty, if you didn't count the full-length digital wall opposite the window. The fold-out was lightly laced with white and gray cat hair.

After a moment, the sounds and smells of coffee floated into the living room along with whistles of Bach. Bach whistles delicately slipped into real and ambient from some hidden speaker system. A green diode in the upper left corner of the digital wall winked rapidly.

Sarah removed her jacket, laid it neatly on the side arm of the fold-out. She wore a sleeveless black T and dark suit pants. She stepped out of her pumps, ran a toe over the wood grain on the floor, rubbed her palms together and sat down. Legs crossed and uncrossed. Placed her right arm on the back of the couch and lay her head in her hand.

Message: "How do you like it?"


Mitchell returned with two blue ceramic cups which he placed on the coffee table. His coffee appeared to be mostly milk. It was off-white.

"It's been unusually cool, hasn't it?" he asked. "Whose soul are you, tonight?"

The halogen dimmed as the digital wall began to glow in a swirl of purples and blues. The table changed to waves of seawater green. Sarah's eyes reflected the diffuse light from the table.

"Quite cool, yes. It may get hotter again soon," she answered. "My mind and body may be subject to a diverse consciousness, but my soul is always my own. I'm fuzzed, if that's what you're asking."

Sarah, moved a little closer to Mitchell on the couch. Mitchell didn't move at all, damn him, other than to grin. The wall became the first flying scene from Dumbo. Bach continued to play.

"Soon, yes. A warm front coming in from the West, I heard." "How can a soul be owned, even by itself?"

"I heard that, too. But it may snow in the south," she added, eyes in a mock warning. "Come here and find out. And add me to your damn system's access list."

Dumbo changed to rain on evergreens. Thunder could be faintly heard under the music.

"Snow. That's not what I heard. I heard rain. Wet ... and rainy." He leaned towards her, his mouth brushing hers, softly. "Here you go. Don't do anything I wouldn't do." Sent her the access key.

In West Hempstead, Sarah broke into a drenching sweat.

"I guess we'll just have to wait ... and see ..." her voice trailed off. He was kissing her now, or she was him. Or both. "Don't worry, I'll try not to break anything." She changed the rain to a pulsing red circle, the music to violins sounding out a heartbeat.

Waves of red pulsed across the wall, speeding up until they were faster than human vision could follow. The violins played a single poignant melody, like echoes of a human soul.

In her bed in Jerusalem, Sarah's right hand crept down her belly while her left hand gripped her breast.

In less than ten seconds she was gasping, "Now. Now. I need you now." She rasped, or messaged, or some combination of both.

On the subway, Sarah's face was flushed and burning. What the hell? Her crotch was damp. She was worried it was going to be noticeable; she imagined that it already must be. A group of young black men across from her were laughing and cursing, evidently trying to impress an amiable black girl who may have been one of their girlfriends. She very badly wanted to hide. She curled up on the seat, tears beginning to stream down her hot cheeks.

Then she was twisting, arching, gripping, and raking his back with short unpainted nails.

In the shower, Sarah moaned, gripped the soap and sank to the shower floor, fingers dancing furiously.

Mitchell was barely inside of her when she had already finished her first and was starting on the second.

In some small corner of her mind, she thought, That was fast, but it got no further than that.

Monday, July 24, 2006

GAME STORE CONFIDENTIAL ~ Politically Correct Gaming?

Current events can be such a pain in the ass.

The last couple of gaming sessions I have enjoyed were blissfully free of any discussions of the world around us. A fellow gamer from SLC (that's Salt-Lake-City for you Yankees) was in the area on business and we managed to squeeze in some Command & Colors: Ancients and a couple of Memoir '44 sessions. Thanks Steve, for treating me like a dog in my own home... usually I let the host win a few.

With the temperatures exceeding even the expectations of Al Gore - OH MY GOD!!!! WE"RE ALL GOING TO MELT!!! SEE MY MOVIE TO SAVE THE PLANET NOW!!! - it was pleasant to take a break from watering my lawn, my sparse collection of flowers (still in pots) and watching the truck melt in the driveway. Shaun and I decided that Memoir '44 was in order when we played Saturday night. And not one mention of current events was made. Trying to figure out how to beat Rommel in Libya was a lot less stressful. For us. It was certainly not stress free for the Allied tankers in 1942 though. They were hopelessly outmatched.

In fact, I even allowed my dog to lounge around under the table while playing... just in case Al Gore had someone checking to see if pets in Idaho were being properly protected from the impending destruction of the planet and the rising CO2 emissions from his private jet. You know, the one he always seemed to be sitting in during his movie. Here's my proof that the dog is being well cared for -

This is "Shy". Which is exactly what she is, shy. I offer this photo evidence as proof that even though I may be a Conservative Hate Monger, I do love dogs. So I can't be all bad. Besides which, Shy doesn't have doggy gas problems and she's never pooped in the house. Amazing what a few beatings will do, eh?

If you're like me then you probably don't discuss politics, religion, criminal records or anything that's potentially, uh, exciting while you're gaming. It's not that I consider it bad form, I usually don't. But to be fair, you and I probably don't agree on many things. In my view why should we bring those things to a game table? Since I live in a red state there's a high probability that most of the people I game with will agree with the following:

* Low taxes generate a better economy

* The proper response to someone attacking you is to attack them back. Times two.

* The UN is a viper pit of corruption and that small piece of real estate should be razed, it's occupants sent packing back to live under the yoke of their despots, tyrants, dictators and mass murderers... or back to France, whichever is worse.

* We should start drilling for oil off the coast of Florida right now. The Chinese are.

* Communism has failed.

* The economy will not collapse if illegal aliens are stopped at the border and made to actually follow the laws we have.

* There really is difference between unintended (collateral) loss of life in a war and the intentional massacre of innocent men, women and children by terrorist groups... who operate behind the human shield of their own women and children.

* Some people are so evil that they really do need to be killed. Now.

* Children become better people when allowed to compete and succeed or fail on their own merits.

I could go on and add at least another twenty or thirty "current event" or hot topics that most of my game crowd would agree with. And my local gamers aren't all cut from the same bolt of cloth, they are diverse. Yes, there are solid blue-collar types, high tech executives, a programmer or two, a systems analyst here a college student there, a teenager in school, one is a geologist, another an former military officer, a guy who owns a small trucking company... you know. The normal group of people. A cross-section.

So anyway, I visit BGG at least 5 times a week. Like you, I go to the gaming database, check out the reviews and commentary on games I like and also on games I'm considering and, of course, I read some of the Geek Lists and some of the forum threads. The forum is always a potentially dicey place and the discussions can become heated. The same holds true for many of the Geek Lists as well. So, to continue... apparently there is a group of guys over in the UK who have designed a game called The War On Terror. They decided to go to BGG and announce an October release date. They have nice website and have posted art, rules and other goodies.

The boardgame does have what we might call "curb appeal". It's a brightly-colored and humorous look at people who get paid between $20,000-100,00 to blow up small children and their mothers.

Even if you haven't read the two threads they started in the forum I'd bet you can imagine the controversy there was about the subject matter of the game. Both threads are an interesting read and a great example of why I never go out of my way to bring current events up at a gaming table. A fair amount of the people who posted on the thread were upset that the game is being made. Outrage even, from one or two. Others staunchly defended the game while agreeing that the subject was a tad distasteful and a large group felt the topical subject was fair game and then fell into two camps: The I'm ordering it camp, and the looks okay but I won't buy it camp.

The game comes with one of these stylish ski masks. I plan to wear mine when I pick my little boy up from daycare. No sense coddling the youngsters, they should learn early not to fear and reject things they don't understand.

The most interesting responses though were the several people who felt the game subject was out of line because it was topical. They argued that Puerto Rico, where the underlying foundation of the economy was the abduction of blacks in Africa, by stronger African tibes, the selling of those slaves to European slave traders, the horrible transportation of the helpless victims to Puerto Rico (and other islands) and then the brutal working conditions where the average slave survived only 5 years, where allowing them to marry and breed was more expensive than just getting more slaves from Africa, so families were banned... that brutal piece of history is okay as a theme for a game because it happened a few hundred years ago.

If you carry that logic further you would conclude that anything evil or destructive, as a theme for a game or a subject matter, is fine so long as it isn't current. War games are okay, just not ones that deal with current or very recent wars. Which I suppose means that there is no evil so evil that it can't be a game subject so long as it is distant history and not likely to offend anyone in the here and now.

I gave this some thought and realized that political and religious differences in gamers has never really played a part in who I game with. If you read my little list above you could hardly call me anything but very opinionated and very firm in my views on the world. But I can't see how avoiding evil or bad behaviour as a game subject makes anything better or worse. To me, it's a non-issue. Refusing to play a wargame involving the English suppression of Scottish patriots doesn't change that history. Nor does playing it. Choosing to only play games that involve the Italian Rennaissance doesn't make the oppression of the lower classes in Italy go away, nor does it remove from history the terror of warring merchant fleets, imprisonment and assassination. Not to mention the toll paid in human life and suffering for prized merchandise from the East.

So here's what I think. I think that unless you're playing an abstract game like chess or Go or one of the goofy looking GIPF ones, then you're most likely playing a game that has a theme based closely or loosely on human history. The last time I checked, the history of humans on this planet has pretty much always involved death, suffering, inequality, oppression, murder, mayhem and injustice. But human history is also one of a gradual advance towards the opposite of evil. If you had told me back in the 60's that the internet could exist I would have agreed. Being a fan of Science Fiction and having a restless mind, I knew instinctually that such things could exist. But, if you had said that not only would the internet exist, but that China and the USSR would allow it's oppressed masses access to that level of communication with the outside world I would have laughed at you.

Last week I sold about $200 worth of out of production miniatures to a gamer in Moscow. And if you pay close attention to the little flags on BGG I think you'll see a couple that originate from China and a few other "evil" places.

I'm not sure what, if anything, this proves to anybody. But my thinking is that bad things are more likely to go away when confronted and dealt with. Since the most popular games involve humans and history of some sort, then evil will always be a seed in many games popular within our niche. So yes, I sent the fledgling publisher in the UK a pre-order for their War on Terror game. Playing it won't make more terrorists and it won't lessen terror. But ignoring it won't make it go away.

Besides which, it's possible that the game will become one of those sought-after eBay gems. And fairly gained profit is always good.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

A household revolution

I think I may be on to something.

Last night was our semi-regular game night. Fraser got home from work and announced that he had a surprise for me, but only if I cleared off the dining table for game night. (usually we have a bit of an argument about who has to do that)

Some tidying and cleaning later, the surprise emerged - our very own copy of Thurn und Taxis (technically, of Thurn and Taxis) - newly arrived in Australia and collected that very morning.

Despite never having played it face to face before yesterday, Thurn und Taxis is easily one of my favourite games. I rate it a 9.5 at BoardGameGeek - Always want to play it, don't see that changing for at least the foreseeable future. I've played it nearly 70 times at BSW, often a couple of times in an evening. I like the route building aspects, the hand management and the scoring options, as well as the possibility of winning or triggering game end in different ways. It's a very simple game to learn - I think it could almost work as a gateway - but it's definitely deeper than it appears on first play. And it looks so beautiful - I have to admit, I am a sucker for a pretty game.

Apparently I am not the only one, either. This evening, as Fraser and Otto packed away Colour Clowns, Otto announced that she wanted to play another game - "The game with the horsies and yellow". Fraser was perplexed, but I knew immediately what she'd meant - we had enough trouble keeping her away from it last night when we were playing. I think Biggie could probably learn (for the nights when Fraser won't indulge me), but it's still a long way beyond Otto.

Anyway, back to my grand plan.

We need a games / household chores index - an exchange rate.

This is timely, because our cleaner is going away for five weeks, so we will need to pay a bit more attention to housework than I usually try to.

A new game for cleaning the table (which had, admittedly, accumulated a lot of junk) seems a little extravagant to me. I think Fraser may have pegged the prices at the generous end. That suits me when I am being bribed, anyway, although it might make it harder to buy favours myself.

I'm thinking if a new game appears just for cleaning the dining room table, all this housework may run us into bankruptcy - the cost of paying someone to mop the floors, dust and clean the bath once a fortnight pales into insignificance.

So let's just look at playing games.

Cooking dinner is probably worth a game of Thurn und Taxis. Let's get that in there up front. Especially as I usually do the cooking at chez nous (Fraser does the dishes - should there be a reward for that?)

Sweeping and mopping the floors is a pretty sizable job. I think I might be willing to pay Fraser a game of Formula De if he does that.

Princes of Florence is a toughie. I need to find something Fraser really wants to get that one onto the table, especially as it involves getting other people over. Maybe if I do my tax he might succumb.

Making the beds and doing the laundry? I don't mind that so much. But I want to encourage Biggie to help out more with chores like that, especially if she'll start putting her own clothes away. San Juan is popular with her at the moment, and probably an appropriate reward.

Which leaves me straight into games as behavioural modification.

If Biggie does all her chores for a week, I could teach her to play Ingenious. Or play Yinsh with her, despite being the world's worst Yinsh player ever.

I just need to think this idea through some more. See, if I start offering games as treats, will my family somehow get the idea that I should only be allowed to play games after I have done some housework, or scored a new work contract?

That would never do.

What do you think? Got some trades to suggest?

See you in LupusLanding,


Friday, July 21, 2006

Build Your Own Game Convention

Coldfoot has invited me to become a contributor to this site, and you will probably be seeing my musings on Fridays. But sometimes it is better to listen than pontificate, especially when dealing with corners of the gaming world I know little about.

As a member of the Appalachian Gamers club, I occasionally rub elbows with members of the larger local wargamers club, the Kanawha Riflemen Wargming group (which specializes in miniature gaming). This spring, I started hearing people daydreaming about creating a local gaming convention. And then one night, I showed up at Ted Cheatham’s house for the weekly game session and learned that the daydream had become a reality. There will be a new game convention in Charleston, West Virginia in October.

I was delighted to learn that two members of the Kanawha club who occasionally show up at Ted’s house are also two of the main movers and shakers behind this convention: Nick Gillispie and Travis Reynolds. (Anyone who went into the miniatures room at Origins this year will remember Nick’s fantastic Lord of the Rings Helm’s Deep and Minas Tirith dioramas). I decided to do an e-mail interview with them to learn more about how to go about forming a new game con. Travis was the one who had time to respond in detail.

KRIS: What is CharCon? When and where will it occur?

TRAVIS: CharCon is a convention focused on gaming that will take place in Charleston, West Virginia at the Charleston Civic Center on October 6th & 7th.

KRIS: How did CharCon begin? How much money did you guys have to come up with?

TRAVIS: Well, for several years a few of our close knit group have talked about different ways that we could become more involved in the gaming community. Give a little something back. At one time, we were discussing the idea of opening a game store, the kind that caters to the gamers. Life being what it is and always interfering, that never got off the ground. So, we started talking about doing a convention. We casually discussed it for awhile and then Nick and I just decided to get on it, and we are making it happen. I would guess that when it is all said and done, the pre-show costs will be between $2000 and $2500. Hopefully we will generate that much with some left over to get started on next year!

(Note: Nick says that expenses have run about $1500 so far, but he suspects they will rise).

KRIS: When will gamers be able to register? How much will it cost?

TRAVIS: Gamers will be able to pre-register sometime prior to August 1st. We will have pre-registration on our web page ( and at several of our sponsor locations (Treasures, All About Games, etc.). The super affordable price is only $15 for both days and $8 for Friday, $12 for Saturday. Children under 12 get in for $5 a day. Members of HMGS or gamemasters who run a minimal amount of games will receive a $5 discount. Anyone interested in checking things out can pick up a visitors pass for $3.

KRIS: What kind of gamers will the con appeal to? What events will occur?

TRAVIS: Hopefully all of them! We have a large variety of events planned. Miniatures of all sorts. Historical, Fantasy and Sci-Fi. We will have a ton of collectible games like Heroclix, Yu-Gi-Oh, Magic the Gathering and more. There will be plenty of board games for everyone to play. Role Playing Games will be covered in ample supply (including games of Shaintar:Immortal Legends being run by the creator Sean Patrick Fannon!). Plus, many games will be run in a tournament format with prizes for the winners. If we are missing something, please let us know!

KRIS: What are your goals for CharCon? How do you define success?

TRAVIS: that’s a good question. Well first I would like to see attendance be enough so that Nick doesn't take a bath on fronting the money! I want everyone who attends to have fun. I would like to see some younger kids who come in to play say Yu-Gi-Oh see some fabulously created miniature game and say, "WOW! I want to play that!" Then I would like to see some visitors come in because they saw it advertised or someone told them about it and they like what they see enough to upgrade to a real badge, play games and have a blast! If some of these things happen, then we have given back to gaming. If some good looking gamer broad or LARP queen were to fall head over heels in love with Nick because he just has the darned nicest LOTR terrain, well that would be good to I suppose. Oh and if we can make it through the weekend without Dave Gilligan incessantly complaining, that would be ok with me.

KRIS: What has been the hardest part of organizing the con? What has been the most rewarding aspect?

TRAVIS: Trying to remember everything has been a task. We have been pretty lucky in that Nick and I have been able to do most of the planning and we have some people waiting in the wings to help us with key elements. Its kind of a dive to get something like this started. Ask me the hardest part on Sunday the 8th and see what I say! Most rewarding so far would be seeing people we don't know on forums we just stumbled across talking about our Con. That was a rush.

KRIS: What advice would you give other gamers who might want to start a con in their areas?

TRAVIS: First, attend some other Cons. Get a feel for what you want to do and how other people do it. Nick and I spent most of Origins just networking with people and asking questions. Next, establish a core group of people you can count on. We have a board of directors. It includes a Webmaster, a Print Marketing Director, an Events Coordinator, a Customer Service Director. Nick and I are the directors and we pick up the slack on a few other things (like Vendor/Sponsor Liaison, Accounting, Registrations Coordinator). Also, pick one person to be in charge. Matters can be discussed as a group and if everyone agrees--great. If not, you need someone to make decisions. Sometimes things need decided on now and can not wait. I don't just say that because I am in charge of our Con, it truly is a vital piece of the puzzle. After that, pick a venue and reserve it. We went with a high profile venue that gives us lots of space and hopefully will give us some foot traffic. Go with the best thing you can arrange and afford. Once that is done, you only have about 1000 more things left....

KRIS: And is there anything you would like to add?

TRAVIS: I hope CharCon is a huge success and we are able to keep it going for years. Just about everyone we have talked to has been hugely supportive and willing to lend a hand. We don't have aspirations to grow to be a huge con or anything of that sort, but if we can add some gaming to the local area culture and let a bunch of people have tons of fun in the process...great!

Thursday, July 20, 2006

If It's Broken, Don't Replay It!

Last month Larry Levy offered up a column that he called The Curse of the Learning Curve in which he opined that players should have patience with new games, lest they throw out something good just because of a bad first-time experience.

I can agree with some of Larry's point. It does take some time to really figure out some games. However I disagree with some of his specifics. In particular, I see a big difference between a game that offers a first-time player a shallower experience (because they didn't understand the subtleties) and a game that offers a first-time player a broken experience (because it just didn't work).

Broadly I see four different types of game design that are related to "the learning curve", and in the first two cases I'd fault the designers and developers with bad design.

Case the First: Players Breaking the Game

The worst thing that you can experience in a first-time gameplay is a broken game. This was surely the case with one of the examples that Larry provided, Fifth Avenue. Therein players could place businesses to end the game very quickly, even when it wasn't in their best interest to do so.

Larry brushed this off as "groupthink", but I'd instead describe it as a natural consequence of a game with a nonintuitive strategy. It's not immediately clear which strategies are best in Fifth Avenue, and thus it's not really a surprise that one or more brand new players might try out the thing that happens to end the game.

Larry also said that it "probably couldn’t have been anticipated", and here I'd disagree even more. There's a way to anticipate exactly this sort of thing: blind playtesting. You give a group your game and your rules, then you let them play and you see what happens. Then you do it again and again. Big problems will turn up, and they'll turn up frequently--and then you go back to the drawing board.

If players can break a game through normal gameplay, it's broken. Period, end of sentence. It's a little better if a game can only be broken through subpar gameplay. And it's even better if players can only break it through purposeful, subpar gameplay. But it's still broken, and now we're just talking about degrees.

Sure, there might be a great game in there. It might be easy to figure out how to play that great game, just as the designer intended it. Or, you might keep stumbling around and never figure out the style of play that worked for the designers. I've experienced both situations with games I've tried out. But, the designer (or really, the publisher) still released a broken game.

A better designer or developer would track down the way that players could break the game, and they'd counter them. In Fifth Avenue you might put some cap on business building. It might cost the game some of its elegance, but traded off against even some percentage of first-time players experiencing a game that doesn't work, that's well worth while.

Of all the learning-curve experiences that I discuss in this article, this is the only one that I consider a deal-breaker: the game shouldn't have been published.

(And to close off, another of Larry's example fits into this category for me: Antike. As he notes, players can make that game stagnate through "bad" play. That's another word for broken.)

Case the Second: Players Ruining their Own Game

A less critical problem is when a first-time player is able to make sufficiently bad decisions in a sufficiently unforgiving game system that he ruins his own game, putting himself at such a deficit that he's totally unable to recover. Age of Steam is truly the poster-boy for this type of unforgiving gameplay.

Some players enjoy the challenge of this sort of gameplay, and I'd in no way call it "broken" like I did the previous category of play. However, it is very unfriendly and generally not what I'd consider a good style of play.

For me, a good game allows for players to come back from deficit. If not, there's no reason to continue playing the game after that first fifteen or twenty minutes, as it just becomes a however-many-hour-long festival to annoint the already clear winner.

Beyond allowing players to come from behind, a good game should also guide them in how to play well. I suspect many unforgiving games fall down at least partially in this regard.

So, though I wouldn't call a game with this failing "broken", I would say that it's limited its own appeal, and I wouldn't fault at all a player who decides never to play it again after a terrible first-time experience.

Case the Third: Players Being Confused

Another category of games which have a learning curve are those that are too opaque. I think a lot of Italian games fall into this category, for reasons that I've discussed previously. Il Principe is a fine example of a game that made little sense to me the first time because of the multiple interconnected systems. Many auction games generate this sort of confusion for first-time play because players can figure out how to value things. Michael Schacht's Hansa is another example of a game where the action-victory interface is sufficiently disconnected that, 7 plays later, I still dont' know how to play well.

Now players being confused isn't necessarily a game-breaker. I've been rating these issues in descending order of importance, and so confusion falls somewhere below players totally blowing their own games.

However, confusion isn't a good thing either. A clearer game will result in more enjoyment. Especially in an era where a game might only be played a few times, a designer should do what he can to clarify those first-time plays. Auction games sometimes do this with minimum bids, like those in Ostia. It's amazing how much that single benchmark helps out. Designers who think about these first-time inclarities and improve up them will just be improving their game as a whole.

Case the Fourth: Players Not Seeing The Depth

In Larry's article, he generally suggested that people should hang in there, and try out a game again to try and find its hidden beauty. I generally disagree for all of the cases that I've outlined already. If players can break a game, totally mess themselves up, or are generally confused by a game, then that's because the designer didn't produce a game that was robust, fair, or clear enough. Maybe there's a good game there, but I'll happily suggest that players move on rather than digging.

However there's a fourth case where I generally agree with Larry, and that's for games that have greater depth which you can only discover through additional plays. People often talk about this when they play Reiner Knizia games, and a second or third or fourth game suddenly opens up new realms of possibility.

Game designers have to be careful here, because if their game don't offer sufficient depth of play a first time out, players will have no reason to try again, but if a designer can manage to make a good game great through additional plays, that's well worth while, and shows the sort of thing that additional plays should reveal.


Yes, there's definitely such a thing as first-timer's impatience, and yes, people often move on from a game without having discovered the exact formula that turns it into a great game. But, generally, this is a perfectly valid and reasonable response. There's a glut of games on the market. If something doesn't seem to be working, then move on to the next one, and maybe you'll encourage that designer to make his next game work all the time rather than just part of the time.

It's evolution in action.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

You Might Be A Gamer If...

This was originally posted on my personal blog but I had no fresh ideas this week so I’ve updated this with a couple of new lines.

If the emergency kit in your car’s trunk includes a game for any situation, you might be a gamer.

If your idea of a Square Dance is four people moving around a Formula De board on your kitchen table, you might be a gamer.

If you’ve ever spent more money in a week on games than on groceries, you might be a gamer.

If it’s extremely important to figure out what game the Peanuts gang are playing, you might be a gamer.

If your wife asks you to take out the trash and you grab the Monopoly game, you might be a gamer.

If someone asks you “Have you heard the news?”, and you immediately think that the new game you’ve been waiting for has finally been released, you might be a gamer.

If you knock out a wall in your home to improve access to the game table, you might be a gamer.

If you take a German language course just so you can read the original rules, you might be a gamer.

If your idea of an innovative thinker is the guy who decided to make game pawns that look like little wooden people, you might be a gamer.

If you ever returned that thoughtful gift from your mom and took the money to your local game store to buy a new game, you might be a gamer.

If the first thought you have when you wake up to a blizzard is that it’s Game Time, you might be a gamer.

If receiving your income tax return means finally placing that big game order, you might be a gamer.

If you’ve ever been awakened in the middle of the night by a horrible dream involving cardboard and a large glass of soda, you might be a gamer.

If your favorite designer isn’t interested in fabric color and texture, you might be a gamer.

If your dog gets excited by the sight of the UPS truck coming up the street, you might be a gamer.

If you bought your house mainly for the “game room” you could create, you might be a gamer.

If you carry a picture of your game collection in your wallet, you might be a gamer.

If you buy small Ziploc bags by the case, you might be a gamer.

If you have game rules lying on the back of your toilet instead of the Reader’s Digest, you might be a gamer.

If your dream vacation includes a small bag of clothes and a large empty suitcase, you might be a gamer.

If you have to rearrange some part of your living space to make room for your games, you might be a gamer.

If you’ve ever turned down a date simply because it was on Game Night, you might be a gamer.

If your 3-year-old knows what a DVONN is, you might be a gamer.

If you want your epitaph to read “He/she played a good game”, you might be a gamer.
Gamer Crossing


Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Game Group

True happiness is of a retired nature, and an enemy to pomp and noise; it arises, in the first place, from the enjoyment of one's self, and in the next from the friendship and conversation of a few select companions. - Joseph Addison

At 5:15 I head for home, stopping at Hebrew University (Givat Ram campus) to pick up Rachel. We arrive home by 5 to 6. As usual, we are pressed for time.

Between the two of us, we form hamburgers from the defrosted meat, chop vegetables, and defrost some pitas. Game night is supposed to start at 6:30.

While Rachel finishes the meal, I place an insert into the table, and bring in the small card table from outside. I unpack and unfold the chairs from the closet, setting up the card table in the living room.

We are ready to sit down to eat at 6:15 or 6:20, which is when Brendan arrives. Brendan catches an infrequent bus from Hebrew University (Mt Scopus campus), so if he didn't arrive early, he would arrive late. He brings with him 2 "mana chama"s, packaged plastic food items that require only hot water to reconstitute. Sometimes we ask him to join us for dinner, and sometimes he insists on eating his plastic food.

We are not done eating when Guy and Nate arrive at 6:28, usually with Binyamin following. Itamar may be with him. Binaymin has brought some games in his bag, probably a few new ones that none of us have played. They talk about games, and may start a warm-up game while we finish eating - something new and short, or San Juan, or similar.

They ask "who is ordering"? There's always a few people ordering food from the local Burger's Bar. Nadine arrives. Elijah arrives. Elijah always orders a steak salad. Nadine usually orders a single burger, spicy. You need at least two people ordering or they won't deliver.

Adam and Gili arrive, and maybe Ben, and some others. Altogether we may now be between ten and fifteen people. If we're over ten people, I let everyone sort out what they will be playing. If under ten, I need to help arrange the games, dealing with the usual chorus of "I don't like that", "I really want to play that", "We played that last time", "I'll play anything but that", "That doesn't work with X players", and so on. So far, this has never taken more than ten minutes.

As requested, some of the players bring snacks, typically some sort of cookies, chips, or similar items. Even though I'm not ordering food, I place the food order now, unless I have to explain a game in which case it will have to wait until the explanation is over. For most games, other people can also explain them, now.

Games explanation is always: 1) These are the victory conditions. 2) These are the primary means of obtaining the victory conditions. 3) This is how each turn works. 4) So, as you can see, the primary paths to obtaining the victory conditions are X, Y, and Z, or a combination thereof. 5) A few things to remember, and a few exceptions.

If David is there, we plot how we can split off from the others to play Magic at some point during the evening: Rochester draft from my cards. I take 20 cards at random from each color, and another 20 cards from artifacts/gold/special lands, shuffle, remove 30, and we draft from that. Then we build decks and I lose three games to him.

Otherwise, if we are lucky, the shorter games have ended by 7:15 or so, and the main games may start. Intro games are often abandoned in favor of the main games, in order to not keep people waiting. As the first game ends, I take out my pen and paper and begin writing down games played, by whom, and scores.

Sometimes with ordering food, a short game, figuring out which game to play, latecomers, and explaining the rules, the main game may not start until 8:00. That eliminates certain games from a number of the participants who have to leave by 10:00 - no Power Grid, Caylus or other games that take too long. Instead, they will opt for Taj Mahal, Puerto Rico, Prince of Florence, or similar.

The noise gets a bit loud, and people are asked to hush. There is a constant chatter about what moves to take, what other players should do, clarifications on the rules. The phone rings at least four times. The food arrives, and everyone starts figuring out how much money to pay and how much tip to give the delivery guy (not required in Israel, but we usually give, anyway). Then people have to figure out where to eat, which are the meat silverware and the meat sink, where is the garbage, and please don't put that cup so close to the game.

If we're lucky, games will end at close to the same time. Those that ended a little earlier may finish eating, talk, surf the net, decide what to play next, or go to the bathroom. If we're unlucky, the Amun-Re game is only at round four by 10:00. People admonish each other to move quicker, yet still take a long time to decide what to do on their own turn. But everyone is pleased with the game.

If the first games end by 9:30, another main game will be started. If later than 10:00, a shorter game, such as Settlers or San Juan. If after 10:30, maybe some Bridge hands.

If a new game has been played, judgment is passed. A poor game will likely not be seen again. A game that some like and some don't will, and it will enter the roster of games that we argue about the next time a game has to be chosen. My own game collection doesn't vary too much, but a borrowed game may be returned, and I may have traded and received the trade recently. Mostly, new games are brought in by others. Mostly Binyamin.

I will complain that I'm losing, but not seriously. Binyamin will complain that he made the wrong move because he didn't understand the rules. Nadine will suggest that we rewind the game several moves so that someone can redo their turn. Elijah will furrow his brow, or be bored. Adam will warn you not to move where he wants or risk his vengeance. Gili will do whatever is the opposite of what was suggested in order to try something new. Brendan will ask if we can play Apples to Apples after this.

Gili or I will heat up water at some point. Gili drinks Chico, while I drink tea. Brendan drinks cocoa.

Some leave at 10:00 or 10:30. Rachel warns everyone else that she wants game night over by 11:30. On a good day, she will be drawn into a Puerto Rico game with variant buildings and enjoy it, although she will be chomping at the bit to get to her next turn already. She'll win. On a bad day, she may be sucked into the PR game when she had other things to do, and regret playing. In this case, she'll lose.

By 11:30, the last game is almost done, and by 11:45 it is done. There will be a bit more talking as I herd people out the door saying "Goodnight! See you next week!"

After it is over, the tables go out, the chairs are folded, the garbage is thrown out, the cups put into the dishwasher, the insert removed, the floor is swept, the games put away, and the counters cleared. I used to stay up and write the session report on the computer, but now I wait until the next day.

Somewhere in the fabric of the night, the tendrils of gaming and companionship bind us in a web that, though we scatter from the group, bring us back again.


Monday, July 17, 2006

GAME STORE CONFIDENTIAL ~ How stupid is too stupid?

Back in my teenage years I came across a definition of stupidity that made me rethink a lot of how I view the world around me. The particular writer I was reading at the time defined stupidity thusly:

Lack of awareness about: Time, Place, Form, Event

What this particular definition made me think about was that perhaps some of people's stupidity can be explained not by a hazy assertion that they lack native intelligence, but instead by the fact that perhaps they aren't properly applying the intelligence they do have.

With that in mind, let's talk about my favorite game - Poker. In the late 60's, when I was in Los Angeles, I played in a table stakes game every Friday night. It was required that I win because I had no real income and was a student at the time.

One particular night there was a big hand I was involved in that came down to me making a decision based on something I could possibly have known but had failed to know. That something was the amount of Tens that I had seen. You see, I had a pair of Sixes in the hole and the other two Sixes were laying face up in my hand during a game of 7 Card Stud. My eventual opponent in the hand (a jerk named Jack from Hawaii who's Daddy had bought him a Mustang just like the one Steve McQueen drove in the movie Bullit) was showing three Tens and he was betting the frickin' farm.

After Jack and I each received our last card, the down card at the end, I bet to Jack's check and then Jack chortled, called the bet, and raised the amount I had left on the table. I was terrified. And for good reason. There was over $600 in that one pot, which was a small fortune at the time and every nickle I had was in the pot if I called the raise. But hey, I had four of a kind. How could I lose?

Easy, I could lose if Jack had four Tens. And I couldn't for the life of me recall having seen another Ten during the hand. So I had to decide based upon my assumption about the location (place) of that missing Ten. If Jack had it I was screwed. If he didn't then he would have to have four-of-a-kind in the form of three hole cards and his remaining open card, which was a Nine. As it dawned on me that I had paid no attention to Nines and had no recall of having seen one, I realized this was possible, though very remotely so.

What would you do?

This type of decision point is common in most good board games and to my eternal shame, I victimize myself with self-induced stupidity in way too many games for me to have any real bragging rights about situational awareness. Here's a couple of examples of what I'm talking about... stupidity that is self-induced and one that I think shows how what many people often think of as stupidity is really just a person who's not as far along the learning curve as you are.

I know a guy down in Boise who's a Captain in the Fire Department. For several years he got heavily into Warhammer and played in every tournament we held. I never once saw him win a single game. I watched as he made one dumb decision after another. He blundered through each game, totally unaware of anything about the enemy force. He had no concept of their unit capabilities, their magic tools, their armor, movement rates, nothing. Every game of Warhammer for this otherwise intelligent guy was one shocking and upsetting suprise after another.

So here was a guy who had intelligence, responsibility and was in most aspects of his life, a smart guy. But he was as dumb as a bag of hammers when it came to Warhammer. And it was self-induced. Instead of buying or borrowing the army books for the enemy forces, he chose to remain unaware of anything about Warhammer other than what his High Elf army could do. Every game was another sad tale of him being blindsided by his own stupidity and then grumbling and bitching about how lousy the rules were for days or even weeks after a tournament.

I fell victim to my own stupidity many times in one of my favorite games - Railroad Tycoon. Having played endless hours of the PC version of RRT I had a mindset (which could be defined as an assumption of Time, Place, Form and Event) about what the game was all about. But that was a mindset about the PC game, not the boardgame. In my first 30 games of RRT I only won three of them... my losses could be traced to my poor assumptions about the game. Since I have a pretty high opinion of my own mad gaming skills, a 10% win rate was horrifying to me.

So I thought about the particular definition of Stupidity that I started this article with. And I studied the game, as well as the decisions the two evil RRT kings in my neighborhood were making. Since neither one of them had a preset idea of RRT from the PC game, they were able to identify the most effective moves to make and maximize their play. I got un-stupid pretty fast on RRT when I began to view it in present time, as it's own game with it's own form, it's own events, it's own timing and so on. My win ratio increased to 25% just by removing the self-induced dumbness I was victimizing myself with.

You may be like me in agreeing that social game playing, in particular board gaming, has positive effects on our lives. I do know that it brings together many people who might normally never have the pleasure of each other's company. It increases communication skills, especially in teens and children and gaming exercises the brain muscles. I plan to play games until the last breath of life is forced out of me. My thinking is that if there is such a thing as re-incarnation I'll be better equipped to buy larger quantiites of small print run collectible games next lifetime. That's assuming, of course, that at least some intelligence carries forward to the next lifetime.

But playing games does have it's darker, stupid side. For example:

* Puerto Rico is the best game evar... as evidenced by it's #1 status on BGG

* Railroad Tycoon is dumbed-down Age of Steam

* Hasbro, or as Grognads would say, Hasborg, has an evil conspiracy in place to keep classic games out of print

Actually, this last one, the Hasborg Affair shows how really stupid some very intelligent people can get. For the most part I think the vast majority of consipracy theories demonstrate how unaware some people can make themselves in order to justify a mental position that the conspiracy exists to begin with.

I was watching a talking head show the other day and the talking heads were interviewing a guy who is a professor of something or the other at some highly acclaimed university somewhere in the upper midwest... you can tell I was really paying attention. As it turns out this professor is part of a network of other acclaimed professors, all tenured at highly thought of universities in the midwest and northeast who have some sort of website that is intended to educate the world that the 9/11 attacks on New York were actually a conspiracy cooked up by George Bush and his evil band of malicious cohorts in order to... well, in order to... I dunno. Do something awful? No matter how the two talking heads asked the question of why the Evil Bush would do that, the Acclaimed Professor shifted his answers away from that and back to the whole idea of the conspiracy to begin with.

Eventually one of the talking heads, who is normally a sullen and dull witted Liberal, asked a very intelligent question: Okay then, the airliners were really remote controlled and the Twin Towers were pre-wired with high explosives... so then, where are all the people who were supposedly on the airliners?

Acclaimed Professor couldn't answer that. But he did make the point that just because several hundred people might have gone missing, that didn't prove the conspiracy theory was false.

To which the normally belligerant and screeching Liberal talking head asked a follow up question: Since this theory would require several thousand people being involved, how is it that the evil and malicious Bush Administration has kept it a secret? For Chrissakes! The White House can't even cover up ol' Dick Cheny shooting a buddy in a remote section of Texas! How are they keeping this under wraps?

Acclaimed Professor couldn't answer that. But he did make the point that just because the conspiracy hadn't leaked, it didn't prove that no conspiracy exists.


The professor reminded me of the Fire Captain and his Warhammer failures. The answers to most questions are available to the vast majority of intelligent people. But getting the answer requires making an effort to KNOW the Time, Place, Form and Event of a situation. The degree of stupidity we all exhibit in a situation is proportional to what we have failed to know about it.

Mister Fire Captain chose to not know enough about Warhammer to ever win a single game of it. He ended up getting so frustrated and pissed off that he totally swore off gaming. I even invited him many, many times to come to our board game nights and have some positive experiences... but he refused. It's my opinion that he refused for a specific reason - that being, if he came and played other games, found he enjoyed them and could even win at them from time to time... then that would cause his carefully constructed belief that Warhammer is flawed to crumble and prove that he was just being stupid when he played it.

A few of you may know that I have a young son... he'll be 4 years old in October. My little buddy has a mild case of what is defined as oral apraxia. That means he doesn't communicate well because he can't properly make all the right sounds required for clearly intelligible speech. In reading about his situation I came across a description of what children like my little guy go through internally (emotionally) when they fail to talk at the same level other children their age do. They are embarrassed. Yes, a 3 year old can be embarrassed. And it's very, very normal for late-talking children to not even attempt to talk because they "know" they will garble it, get frustrated and feel shame.

Working with my little boy is tedious and often frustrating for both of us because he first needs to understand what is going on with him, then he has to have the will to discover, for himself, what is required to overcome it. Doing that with a human being who can't communicate well to begin with is difficult at best and requires extreme degrees of patience and restraint on my part and huge amounts of willingness on his part. I'm fairly certain though that viewed from the "outside", many people just assume the little guy is stupid or slow. Which, when you think about it, actually makes them stupid... using the definition at the beginning of the article.

Aside from the emotional commitment and bonds of love, I don't view my boy's situation as being anything different than a board game situation or, for that matter, a real life situation of politics, career, romance or lifestyle. It's all about knowing. And what you know is usually less important than what you're willing to know about any given situation. Discovering the exact Time, Place, Form and Event would mean you have the truth of it. Discovering some of the truth makes your game more fun and enhances your experience... win or lose. I think the same thing can be said about anything in life and for me to draw parallels to life by using board games is not outrageous in the slightest. You can learn a lot about people by observing how they approach a board game.

So. I called Jack's raise... shoved my last $14 into the pot and waited. He laughed loudly and obnoxiously, called me a total dumb ass and spat out, "What kind of f**king idiot are you? Why would I bet that much if I didn't have the Full House?"

Why indeed? Jack did the right thing. He did what I would have done, he had Tens over Nines and that is a poker hand worth betting the ranch on. But I think that poker hand is really a lot like life - he decided that I was bluffing. There was nothing I had showing that would make him suspect I had four-of-a-kind. So he probably never saw it coming. I had more knowledge about the hand than he did but I still paused and had to consider if I was being stupid. What where the chances that he had the 4th Ten as opposed to the chances that it had been a card in a folded hand or was still in the remains of the deck? On top of which, I had over $200 in that pot and only $14 in front of me... it would have been really stupid to fold a powerful hand at a time like that.

So I won, he lost. But we both made the right decisions. Jack just didn't have the same level of awareness about the hand that I did. I know he felt stupid afterwards. I would have. But that's the beauty of the games that have the most appeal to me... nobody has perfect information and everybody is a little stupid at every single decision point in the game.