Saturday, September 30, 2006

Our babies have come home

No the girls haven't been away, Daughter the Younger has never spent the night away from us, I am actually talking about the fact that the games we had on exhibit at the Melbourne Museum have come back home after a month. We have really missed some of them! Now if both the girls went away for a day or two we would miss them too and probably say the same thing.

Some of them weren't really missed that much, in fact a couple of them haven't even been played yet, but with many of them not having them in the house for a whole month we were definitely starting to miss them. For me this was especially the case for some of the games that were set up on display, but we couldn't touch them or play them. This was particularly so with Power Grid and Age of Steam since the expansions were sitting at home to be looked at and touched but we couldn't play them because the base game was at the museum.

This will go into a GeekList one day, but here is what we had on display, starting form the entrance of the exhibit and walking around through it.

Blokus (which was on a fair dinkum shop display stand which was lent to us by the Australian distributors),

Big display cabinet

Set up: Dicke Luft in der Gruft, Die Nacht die Magier, Plus & Minus, Frank's Zoo
Boxed: Mammia Mia, Gargon, Coloretto, Gang of Four, 6 Nimmt!, Wallenstein, Vinci, Ra, Princes of Florence, Puerto Rico, Saint Petersberg, Brittania, Civilization, Tigris & Euphrates, Goa, Turn & Taxis, Attika and Amun-Re.

Big Display Case One
- Games that are good to look at
Set up: Power Grid and Big City.

Big Display Case Two - The Train Games
Set Up: Union Pacific and Age of Steam
Boxed: Ticket to Ride, 1830, Lunar Rails, The London Game

Big Display Case Three
- Settlers
Set Up: Settlers of Catan
Boxed: Settlers of Catan the Card Game, Seafarers of Catan, Cities and Knights of Catan, The Starfarers fo Catan, Settlers of the Stone Age and Die Siedler von Nürnberg

Small Display Case - Pretty games
Set Up: Tier auf Tier, Sheer Panic and Hameln (pieces only)

On the Wall:
Sunda to Sahul and Shadows Over Camelot

The Hameln pieces were very kindly supplied to us by Fragor Games when we mentioned to them that we were displaying Shear Panic at the museum (we pre-ordered Shear Panic last year and managed to pre-order Hameln whilst there were still some left). Gordon and Fraser also lent us their Shear Panic sign which we put up behind the display case.

Since a reasonable percentage of our games were now under lock and key this reduced what we had left for demonstration purposes. We would like to thank Caterpillar Games, Ventura Games, Divide By Zero and Even Toys and Games for supply or lending us demonstration copies.

We ran demonstration sessions from 11-3 every Saturday and Sunday and also on Tuesdays and Thursdays for the last two weeks, which coincided with Victorian school holidays, a total of twelve sessions in all. A very big thanks to those who came in to help with the demonstrations sessions. Take a bow Kim, Vince, Doug, Gregor, Diana, Duncan, Francis, Giles, Kylie, Richard, Daughter the Elder, Daughter the Younger and Justine.

The games that we demonstrated, in the order the I wrote them down, were:
Make 'n Break, Blink, Carcassonne, Catch the Match, Halli Galli, I Have..., Apples to Apples, Apples to Apple Junior, Pick Picknic, Itchy & Scratchy, The Same Game, Settlers of Catan, Ticket to Ride, Sequence, Piggy Back, Spooky Stairs, Trans America, Othello, Sunda to Sahul, Cartegena, Gang of Four, Guillotine, Sherlock, Marrakesh, Tier Auf Tier, Number Chase and Snorta.

Teaching games at the museum was very different to other places we have taught games. At home, you know your audience and you pretty much have all the time you want. At a games club it is generally pretty much the same, plus you are usually teaching gamers. At the games night we ran at Daughter the Elder's school we didn't know how involved with games people were, but at least we knew they had chosen to come to a games night and we had quite a few hours of their time. At the museum some people were just doing the rounds and weren't interested in stopping, some people could stay a few minutes, some for a while and some for an hour or more. The level of games knowledge varied from which-one-is-Monopoly? to some people who had a few of the games on display or demo. The experience with games was very wide too, ranging from school aged children who didn't have any idea of taking turns and playing cards face up to others that could jump straight into games with minimal explanation. It reinforced to me that exposure to games really helps children learn games in general and also, depending on the game, things like mathematical skills etc. They also just pick up new games much more quickly too. I was quite surprised to see that Daughter the Younger had watched a few games of Marrakesh at home and at the museum and knew how to play it, without having been actively involved in a game or being taught it.

Sinice most of the people were just passing through and most of the people interested in playing were children the games that got the most play were children's games and/or games that can be explained in a few minutes. Some of the most popular included Make 'n Break, Spooky Stairs, Blink, Catch the Match, Tier auf Tier, Snorta and Piggy Back. A friend of ours who works in a games shop told us that the Australian distributor for Make'n Break was out of stock - very unwise, I believe that could have set up a pallet load outside the museum and sold them all without any problem at all. I think that the museum shop also missed an opportunity by not stocking any of the games that we were demonstrating.

I am sure that Daughter the Younger will be most peeved the next time we go to the museum and she doesn't get to play games for four straight hours!

We got nice comments from lots of the people who stopped to play and very good feedback from a lot of the museum staff too. We also received this email a few days ago "Just a note to say thanks for playing games at the melbourne museum over the holidays.My children had a great time and it inspired us to spend a bit more time together.I was able to locate 3 of the games at my local Games World , Catch the Match,Blink and Apples to Apples. As I said to the girl there I would never have bought them if I had not played them so thanks for the incentive. Great concept and I think all games stores should have some of these great mind using games out to play."

It was a busy, busy month, but well worth it. Now to find some spare time now that the babies have come home...

Friday, September 29, 2006

The Joy of Shopping

First, a reminder that at Charcon (the first game convention in Charleston, West Virginia), on Saturday, October 7, at noon, I plan to run A Game of Thrones mini-tournament. Fantasy Flight Games has generously donated a copy of the Storm of Swords expansion as a prize for the game. You can sign up for this competition by e-mailing the Charcon gnomes at Find out more information on CharCon at

And now, today’s blog…

I once read a New York Times article in which the female writer claimed that she enjoyed the computer hack-and-slash game Diablo because it was all about shopping. She explained what she meant, but because I also had played the game (along with my wife) I already had experienced the joy of Diablo shopping. While it was fun to wade into tombs and dungeons and battle varieties of monsters, often the most satisfying part of the game was when I returned to town with my loot. After selling unwanted magic items and weapons, it was off to see what the various specialists offered in the way of armor, weapons, and magic items. I was particularly fond of magic items that sucked life or mana from enemies, and it was a happy day when I could upgrade my vampiric weapons.

Shopping is one of my favorite game mechanisms. Many of my most beloved games include shopping, and some of the most highly-rated games of all time (like Puerto Rico) have a shopping component to them.

Let me define what I mean by shopping so there’s no confusion. Shopping is the ability to pick and choose among weapons, defenses, tools, or special abilities within a game, and acquire them for some kind of price. Shopping is almost never about acquiring victory points (or at least not primarily about acquiring victory points). It is about obtaining the tools of victory.

In Arkham Horror, players can have their characters literally go shopping at the stores and magic shops of the haunted city. Players usually get a choice of three item cards; if the player can afford one, he can buy it for a price. There is a certain luck-of-the-draw with this mechanism, but usually at least one item is useful even if it isn’t exactly what the player was hoping to get. Characters can improve most of their abilities by acquiring the right weapon, tool, vehicle, or magic item.

I’ve only played Fantasy Flight’s Descent once, but I believe it includes shopping experiences that roughly mirror Diablo’s. After ransacking a dungeon, the player-character can teleport back to town, sell his swag, and then go shopping.

But a game doesn’t have to feature individual characters to include shopping. Shopping for buildings is a vital part of Puerto Rico, the economic development game. Each of the buildings gives a player a special ability that affects one of the phases of the game. These buildings also are worth victory points, but it’s the special abilities that make them so desirable. I particularly like the quarry--a building that decreases the price of buildings when I shop for them. And the construction hut is a building that makes it easier to shop for quarries. I’ve noticed that some of the items I most like to buy are the ones that help me with shopping.

What is the appeal of shopping? I think it is the seductiveness of improving one’s abilities coupled with the idea that you may be getting an advantage unavailable to other players. And both of these ideas are linked with the Western belief that happiness and fulfillment can be obtained from consumer spending. In real life, linking happiness with consumer goods can be a path straight to credit card hell. But within the game world, shopping may indeed be the path to salvation. Or at least, victory.

Are there certain guidelines for adding the shopping mechanism to a game that make it especially enjoyable? I think there are.

Items must have a cost. Parents have long noticed that children value a toy more if they’ve had to work and save for it. The same principle applies to shopping in games. It’s hard to value something that’s free. For some reason, I enjoy an object more if I get it by shopping and paying for it--rather than getting it assigned to me by a random event card.

Players must have a choice. Shopping in Arkham Horror would not be as satisfying if a player was given only one item to look at when visiting a store. To buy or not to buy is not nearly as agonizing as deciding between three different potentially useful items.

Items should be in limited supply. Even if the game contains dozens of items for sale, few of them should be identical. Scarcity adds value to items. And some items (legendary magic items, for example) should be unique. (In fact, we so expect legendary items to be unique that it can become funny when they aren’t. I’m thinking of the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail when King Arthur arrives at the French castle and asks if they know anything about the location of the Holy Grail. The Frenchman played by John Cleese replies with something like: “Yes, we have two of them”).

Maybe my favorite shopping game is Martin Wallace’s Struggle of Empires. There are a couple of dozen improvement tiles available in SoE, and it can be very hard deciding which to acquire. Army Training makes your armies tougher. But Banking allows you to raise funds without getting stuck with so many of the dreaded Unrest markers. And logistics…

Well, you get the idea. My mouth waters just thinking about all the ways I could turn my empire into a lean, mean, fund-raising-without-unrest machine. The idea that I am getting special abilities that the other players aren’t is just so enticing.

There is even a strategy I read about on Boardgamegeek based on the improvement tiles. The general idea is too spend the first half of the game trying to snatch up as many tiles as possible. Once your empire is as strong as Popeye after a spinach banquet, you can conquer your way to victory with ease.

Sounded good to me. So I tried it. I ended up spending two-thirds of the game getting the improvement tiles, and by the end of the game there wasn’t an army in Europe that could defeat me. Unfortunately, I had waited too long before beginning the conquering part of the strategy. Other players had racked up so many points that I couldn’t catch up with them unless the game went into overtime. Which it can’t.

I know what I did wrong, but I suspect that the next time I play I could easily make the same mistake. The lure of the improvement tiles may be too strong to resist. So if you want an easy-to-defeat opponent, join me for a game of Struggle of Empires. While you’re conquering, I’ll be shopping.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

IP, Morality, and the Gaming Industry

IP. Intellectual Property. It's theoretically what encourages creators to create, but here's a dirty little secret: it generally (and I speak for the United States here, but there's an increasing amount of conformity throughout the world) doesn't protect games.

You see, there's two types of IP of general interest to most publishers: copyright and trademark. And, as we'll see neither of them protects what's actually the core of a good game design.

(And before I get going, let me carefully note, I'm not a lawyer, but I have been working with this sort of stuff for a while.)

An Overview of IP

Copyright is the most general type of IP. It covers ideas that have been made substantial and concrete. The idea itself isn't copyrighted, but the specific way in which it's made real is. So, in The Settlers of Catan, the rulebook is copyrighted as are the artwork on the components and on the box. In other forms of media, entire short stories, novels, songs, and movies fall under copyright.

Copyright is really easy to get. Theoretically it magically appears as soon as you write/draw/create something. You can register it if you want, but that's mainly so that you can sue for damages.

Trademark is a sort of marketing protection. It most frequently covers a product name and/or a specific logo in which that name is used, but it can also cover other unique elements that distinguish your product. UPS, for example, has trademarked the color brown for package delivery. Other companies have trademarked things as weird as the specific shape of a box. When you look at trademark violations there's a core question of "Would this cause confusion with the trademarked item?" So, The Settlers of Catan logo and probably name is a trademark in certain areas of entertainment.

Everyone can mark something as a trademark, but to have a legal basis for suits you really need to register it, and that's a labyrinthine process that keeps lawyers and suits in Washington in a job. However, once you've done it a few times it gets easier.

You'll note in these discussions that we've missed a crucial element of game design: the actual game mechanics. They're not covered by copyright, because that only covers the concrete, which is to say the explanation of the mechanics in the rulebook, not the abstract mechanis themselves. Likewise, trademark clearly doesn't cover them.

And there's another type of IP to fill the gap: patents. Patents cover inventions that are new and original, and this is where game mechanics could fit in. The problem? The process to get them is even more complex and convoluted than what's needed to file a trademark. Rigorous and technical documents must be filed, and it can (and does) take years for a patent to be accepted or denied. Even then the patent office (in the US at least) is a hotbed of massive incompetence; they regularly give out incorrect patents, and so having a patent doesn't actually mean anything until it's defended in court.

Patents & Games

As a result of all of this, patents almost never get filed for games. Among other things, it's just too expensive.

I'm aware of the occasional aberration. Wizards of the Coast, for example, was granted a patent for certain aspects of CCG play after they released Magic: The Gathering. However, the rest of the CCG industry thought so little of the patent that Wizards wasn't really able to enforce it--but word is that it gave them the leverage necessary to pull down the Pokemon license when it came to the US.

Very small publishers patent their ideas sometimes too, but it's usually a sign of inexperience and a lack of understanding of the industry. The phrase "Patent Pending" on a gamebox is generally enough to get me to put it back on the shelf.

And, honestly, it's a good thing that patents aren't widely used in the game industry. Because, as I alluded to above, the whole system is utterly and totally broken and corrupt. If there was enough money in the tabletop gaming field to support patent work, someone would have patented "resources depicted as cards", someone else would have patented "the once-around auction as a game system", and a third person would have patented "rolling dice to generate a random event", and the whole Eurogames industry would have come to a grinding and total halt.

However, the lack of patents in the industry, and more generally the lack of anything actually protecting game mechanics, does cause problems in the industry.

Duplicating Games

The most loathsome result of this that I've seen is Covenant Communication's game Search, Play and Ponder, which is an exact copy (mechanically) of Looney Lab's Aquarius. This story was chronicled by Andrew Looney a couple of years ago in Wunderland. In short: the folks at CC took Looney's game, commissioned new art and rewrote the rules, but it's otherwise exactly the same, down to the card counts.

Looney wrote in a rant, "Intellectual property theft has been committed against myself". And, although that's clearly morally correct, legally it wasn't. I'm fairly certain the Looneys never filed a patent on Aquarius' mechanics, and the folks at Covenant Communications changed everything they were legally required to.

There's a good ending to that story: when the Looneys confronted Covenant Communications, the offenders offered to destroy their stock of the game. In the Looneys' last posting on the subject, they were trying to negotiate a license instead.

Much more insidious is an Italian game called Vive L'empereur. All reports seem to indicate that it uses Richard Borg's "Commands & Colors" mechanics, but places it in the Napoleonic wars. The publisher simply says that they "stand by their product" and makes no apologies for co-opting Borg's work. Unfortunately, it's probably entirely undercut Borg's ability to ever design a Napoleonic C&C game for the European market.

And, he has no options because of the bad integration of IP laws & games.

Barbarossa & Cluzzle

Which brings us, finally, to what got me started on this article: Klaus Teuber's Barbarossa and Dominic Crapuchettes' Cluzzle two similar games that on the other hand show that this sort of issue isn't black and white.

In Teuber's game each player make clay models, but they can't make them too good or too bad. If they're easy the player will lose points when they're guessed, and if they're hard they'll never get guessed (costing the player the opportunity to get points).

Players get points when their puzzles are guessed (as long as they're not guessed too early) and when they guess other puzzles.

Besides guessing you can also ask "yes or no" questions and request letters in an answer.

In Crapuchettes' game each player makes a clay model, but they can't make them too good or too bad. If they're easy the player will get just 1 point when they're guessed, and if they're hard they'll never get guessed (costing the player the opportunity get points).

Player get points when their puzzles are guessed and when they guess other puzzles.

Besides guessing you can also ask "yes or no" questions.

Now, there are a lot of differences in the details of gameplay. Barbarossa has fantasy theming and players get to take different actions each turn, depending on where their pieces land on a small board. In Cluzzle there's no actual board, and instead questions are asked in quick-fire 2-minute rounds. Crapuchettes also says that his Cluzzle is really directed at a different audience: it's an easier game with less rules.

Nonetheless when Crapuchettes recently asked me if I'd liked to review some of his games, I told him I wasn't comfortable doing so because of these similarities.

My viewpoint goes something like this:
  1. Mechanics aren't generally protected by law.
  2. But the tabletop gaming industry is a very small one, and it behooves its members to act politely and morally toward each other, because the industry doesn't have the money to file patents or talk to lawyers and we want to encourage our designers to keep designing.
  3. When two games can be (correctly) summarized as similarly as the two summaries I offer above, that's too close for me.
Crapuchettes offered an interesting alternative point of view. He entirely understood the issue of patents & gaming IP, and said that he'd waited until a patent would have expired if Teuber had actually filed one before he released Cluzzle.

(This isn't actually true, by-the-by, but it's close. Teuber released Barbarossa in 1988, while Crapuchettes released Cluzzle in 2004. That's a 16-year difference. Before 1995 the U.S. length of a patent was 17 years after the patent's release, while since 1995 its been 20 years after the patent's filing. Because there is often a 1-3 year gap from filing to release, the two lengths were about the same thing. If Teuber had filed a U.S. patent in 1988 it would have expired somewhere between 2006 and 2008. Crapuchettes says that he thought that patents lasted 15 years at the time that he released Cluzzle.)

Since Crapuchettes actually went to the heart of IP by imagining a world where games could be protected he somewhat side-stepped the whole issue of morality & legality, and instead offered the question how should things be? In other words, when Teuber's theoretical patent expired this year or in a few years from now, would it then be OK for other people to entirely stripmine his game, even moreso than Cluzzle does?

Crapuchettes said the following in one of his emails to me:
"Do you know why patent law exists? It is to benefit the people. Allowing 17 years of exclusivity gets individuals to risk years of their life (as is the case with me) to invent things that are better than what currently exists. Ending that exclusivity and returning the idea to the public domain allows others to build upon these ideas. Why? Because it is in the best interest of people. If things did not return back the public domain, we would not have electricity, we would not have cars, we would not have running water, we would not have plumbing. In short, we would have nothing. We would cease to be a civilization."
He's right, that is the purpose of IP, and it's something I sometimes overlook because of my own strong interest in IP as a creator.

But, on the other hand, I'm still not convinced that it's fair in the gaming field. If Klaus Teuber were a writer, his work would be protected for an absurd amount of time (namely, for about 95 years, which is honestly too long). But, as a game designer instead he only gets 20 years, even if he could file a patent. This difference doesn't strike me as right--that a creative writer gets a lifetime of protection and a creative game designer doesn't because his games are considered "inventions" if they're protected at all. I still think that an industry of the size of tabletop gaming needs to protect its creators even (and especially) when the law doesn't do so adequately.

But I understand Crapuchettes' point, and I can see some validity in putting out similar games that nonetheless aren't direct copies (and Cluzzle isn't) as games age. Even when there's a whole lot of similarity.

It's overall a difficult question, and so I also open it up to you, the readers.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

I like games


Sunday, September 24, 2006

Second Place for the Win

With a nail-biting, come-from-behind victory today in Caylus, it causes me to pause and reflect upon a common occurrence in Eurogames. Often, the best position to be in is second place. This isn’t true in every case, games with very little player-player interaction such as Puerto Rico can have a run away leader with very little penalty and two-player games are most often played with each player going flat out for the win from the start. As player interaction increases within a game, being the frontrunner as you near the final stretch of the game becomes less and less desirable. As in cycling, the front runner often has to accomplish everything on their own, while those coming along second or later can drift along and try to take advantage of first place while conserving their resources for the last mad dash. In games with moderate player interaction, such as Caylus or Settlers of Catan, being in a reasonable second place as the game enters the endgame is more desirable than being the actual leader. Once the endgame looms on players, they will often cooperate to “bash on the leader”. The thinking is something like this: “Sure, the second place player may be able to win, but I am SURE to lose if I don’t spend an effort to prevent that first place player from winning now. Perhaps something will come up later to take care of the player in second… “ In games with heavy player interaction, such as I’m the Boss or possibly Bohnanza, it is almost a given that the player in first place (or the person perceived to be in first place) will be hindered enough to prevent them from winning the game. Note that I’m trying to avoid the topic of kingmaking – where a player who has no possible chance to win the game but is in a situation to decide which of their opponents can win. I’m trying to focus in on situations where players are, for the most part, still in contention for winning and are willing to cooperate for what is perceived as the “good of the group”.

This entire attitude relies on a few factors. First, the game must have a minimum amount of player-player interaction. If there’s nothing your opponents can do to you, they won’t do it. Second, players need to be going for a game win rather than for an optimal finish. That is not always the same thing (and a topic that would fit well within an entire column.) Players in competition for first will typically be willing to penalize themselves a bit to bash on the leader in the hopes that they will be able to pass by and win. However, a very cautious player may give up the hope of winning and instead conserve all their energy to try to guarantee second place and let their opponents spend resources and effort in taking down the leader. Finally, if the players begin to separate themselves into various “packs” on the scoreboard, individual players may have their hands full fighting for a third or fourth place finish and decide to let the leader or leaders settle their own problems. This is one reason I enjoy face to face gaming far more than online board games. Face to face gaming allows me to read the other player’s attitudes and emotions to help me predict whether they would be more likely to join in on a round of bashing the leader and hoping for the win or whether they would rather hoard their resources and try to guarantee or possibly mildly improve their current position.

Now for the big question, how should this affect your game? Obviously, each game should be analyzed for the possibility of leader-bashing and it should play a part of long-term planning. Any game that has significant player interaction and consumable resources (cards, goods, actions, whatever) that can be stockpiled from round to round are good candidates for the second-place strategy. This is especially true if the stockpiled resources can be kept secret or at least out of sight . During the game, don’t let the leader get too far ahead, but also be aware of your other opponents. If there are only two people vying for first place, you will have a hard time convincing others to help knock down the leader, only to give you the win. Many deep strategy games have resources that are valuable at the start and nearly worthless at the end (money in Puerto Rico for example), and a good player will be able to determine when that value switches over from priceless to useless. Playing for second place can be very similar. An astute player may set themselves up to be in a friendly second place position to lull opponents into a false sense of security, right up to the point when it is time to race ahead for the win. Timing that transition from second to first is very important. Too soon, and you become a target, and too late and you will fail to catch up. Now, I’m not saying that you should pass by good opportunities if they are going to launch you into the lead. But once you are in the lead, you may need to adopt a less risky strategy. In Caylus, for example, it is usually not wise to try to take advantage of those buildings out there in front of the provost when you are in the lead, as nearly every other player will be willing to give up a small amount of resources (cash) to prevent you from advancing further into the lead. Keep in mind that a large part of multiplayer games are the actions of the other players. If you are in the lead, every other player at the board is going to need to pass you by before they can win, making you a juicy target for everyone. If you take the lead in the mid or late midgame, pour it on strong and don’t look back, but also manage your risks wisely and don’t give the other players an opportunity to shoot you in the back.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Musings from the museum

A short but rambling post tonight - mostly because we are now at the museum 4 days a week and I'm short on time.

What we are really noticing is the variety in the people who come through.

Variety in their attitudes to games:

* "Oh, look at all these toys!"
* "No, we don't have time for that stuff."
* "We love games"

Variety in their knowledge of games

* (Fraser swears he heard this) "That must be the new Monopoly" (looking at Power Grid)
* "We have a game called Junior Stratego, from about the 1960s. Was there ever a game called Stratego?"
* "Carcassonne ... we have that at home"
* "Settlers of Catan ... our friends love that game"

Variety in their ability to play games

This is the one I can't distill down to point form. We are seeing at first hand the incredible range of abilities that still constitutes "normal".

Whether it's the 3 year olds who find the matches in Catch the Match before their parents and siblings, or the 7 year olds who stare and stare and find nothing. Or the kids that take one look and decide it's too much like work, and run away.

We've had kids who thought Make 'n' Break and Tier auf Tier were too hard, and others that took to Blink like they'd been playing it for years. Today, we watched a group of six year olds whose maths wasn't up to Halli Galli - and a 10 year old who was in the same boat.

But we've also met the most lovely people and their fantastic kids, and really enjoyed gaming with them.

One family from Biggie's school came in on Thursday - they came to the family game night we ran, and played and enjoyed Ticket to Ride, so they came in specially to see the exhibit. The mother told me yesterday that they have since bought it for themselves and for another family, and some friends of theirs recently told them that they have bought it as well.

Another family came by today and played games - dad, 12 year old daughter and 10 year old autistic & intellectually disabled son. We found that the son enjoyed Make 'n' Break, as well as placing tiles in Carcassonne, while dad and daughter played a whole raft of games with us, including Blink, Apples to Apples and Tier auf Tier, and had a good look at Settlers too. They came back later for a game of Marrakesh, after meeting up with the family's mother as well.

We had a family last week, too, who reminded me of why we were doing the demos - they played games with us for over an hour, and by the end of it the kids were tugging at their parents' sleeves saying "you've played enough". They left the museum and went straight for a games shop to buy some of the games they had played with us.

And then we get home.

"I want to play a game," says Otto. "Actually, I want to play FIVE games."

And five games are played.


Friday, September 22, 2006

Ted Cheatham and the Road to Silk Road

First, a reminder that at Charcon (the first game convention in Charleston, West Virginia), on Saturday, October 7, at noon, I plan to run A Game of Thrones mini-tournament. Fantasy Flight Games has generously donated a copy of the Storm of Swords expansion as a prize for the game. You can sign up for this competition by e-mailing the Charcon gnomes at Find out more information on CharCon at

And now, today’s blog…

I never expected to know a real game designer. But Ted Cheatham, the heart of the Appalachian Gamers Club, is seeing his first published game debut this week. Silk Road is medium-weight game based on the famous medieval trading route that ran from the Near East to China. I decided to ask Ted for an interview and see what the real story was behind the creation of this wheeling and dealing masterpiece.

KRIS: Ted, I know you’re a major history buff, and so I assume that Silk Road was inspired by books about this legendary trading route.

TED: Absolutely. The idea came to me after reading the Stephen Ambrose book “One Hump or Two: The Silk Road and Camels of Glory.” Plus, Through the Desert had just been nominated for the Speil des Jahres, and Knizia was making boatloads of dough.

KRIS: Yes, I see how that could inspire you. So how did the various game mechanisms evolve?

TED: Well, from my research I learned that about 1240 A.D., Arab caravan masters began storing goods in three-foot wooden cubes. Turns out, storage cubes are the perfect shape for loading onto camels. And within fifty years after the introduction of cubes, they started color-coding them according to what kind of good was stored in them. Helped a lot during inventory.

KRIS: Of course. So that’s what inspired you to use little wooden cubes as goods in the game.

TED: No. I stole that idea from Age of Steam. But once I learned that there had been real caravan cubes, I felt a lot better about it. And I insisted that the game cubes be exactly 1/123 the size of the real-world cubes.

KRIS: What’s the significance of that number?

TED: It’s the size of the game cubes.

KRIS: Er…Yes.

TED: It’s also fascinating that real caravans used an auction to determine which cities to visit.

KRIS: And so you imported that mechanism into the game.

TED: Well, I really started out with a piece of cardboard and a plastic arrow spinner. But some of the playtesters suggested an auction might be cool. Luckily, that turned out to be a perfectly authentic mechanism.

KRIS: So how did Bruno Faidutti become involved with the game?

TED: I was having a few problems with an early prototype. And I wrote to Bruno, mentioned that I was a fan, and asked for suggestions. I happened to have written to him at exactly the right moment. Bruno had just broken up with Ashley Judd, and he needed a new project to take his mind off things.

KRIS: And what are the advantages of working with Bruno?

TED: Bruno is an exemplary game designer. He tightened up the game, clarified the rules, simplified the scoring system, and provided a lot of great suggestions about the graphic elements. Plus, I got to meet Scarlet Johansson.

KRIS: Wow. How cool is that. So was the game always called Silk Road?

TED: No. The game went through a lot of name changes, as we experimented with different prototypes, and even different themes. At one time or another it was called Chic Sheiks, Humpty the Happy Camel, Corduroy Road, Union Pacific 2 (don’t ask), and Hey! That’s my Cube! I even experimented with a prototype based on the legendary Turkish pastry caravans. That one was called Through the Dessert.

KRIS: So let’s get to the question that everyone really wants answered. Will Silk Road have more plastic camels than Through the Desert?

TED: Are you sure that’s the question people really want answered?

KRIS: Pretty sure.

TED: I mean, Zev at Z-Man thinks people really want a fast-paced, resource-trading game that plays in under an hour.

KRIS: Plastic camels. Got any?

TED: The initial ratings on Boardgamegeek have been very positive. I’m pleased that almost everyone who’s played the game so far has ranked--

KRIS: So there’s no camels?

TED: Who cares if there’s camels! It’s a great game. With or without them.

KRIS: My guess is there’s no camels. Too bad. People loved ‘em in Through the Desert.

TED: Sure. This from the guy who prefers Railroad Tycoon to Age of Steam.

KRIS: What’s that supposed to mean?

TED: Face it. You prefer toys over substance. You can’t handle tough games. You love the second-raters.

KRIS: You’re crazy.

TED: Mister Go-Broke-On-Turn-Three. We had to bend the rules just to keep you in the game.

KRIS: Age of Steam has that tiny dark little board. It’s depressing.

TED: Bet you think Roger Moore was the best James Bond.

KRIS: No, I don’t. But that parachute scene at the beginning of Moonraker is the best action sequence in the whole damn series. You gotta give him that. Why are we talking about this?

TED: You’re threatened by Sean Connery’s virility.

KRIS: Well, at least I didn’t design a caravan game with a great big hulking camel smack in the middle of the cover—and then forgot to put camels in the game.

TED: Bet you like Kevin Costner more than Harrison Ford.

KRIS: Boy, I’m glad you didn’t design Axis and Allies. Open the box and--wow! No planes or tanks or ships. But there’s five hundred wooden cubes! Johnny’s really gonna have fun playing Rommel this Christmas.

TED: Bet you like Rene Zellweger more than Nicole Kidman. You’re drawn to the second rate. You feel at home there.

KRIS: What is this pathetic obsession with movie stars? Did you put them in Silk Road? The winner gets to add Nicole Kidman to his harem. The losers get eaten by Rene Zellweger.

TED: That’s it. Railroad Tycoon is going on the prize table. From now on, it’s Age of Steam or nothing, baby.

KRIS: For the last time: are there plastic camels or not?

TED: Buy the game and find out.

KRIS: Fine. Be that way.

TED: Fine. I will.

KRIS: Fine.

TED: Fine.

KRIS: If Roger Moore had designed Silk Road, there’d be plastic camels.

(Interview resumes two days later)

KRIS: Will we be seeing more games from you in the coming years?

TED: I hope so. I’ve got several prototypes in the works. One that is coming along is based on the annual Amish grain harvest competition. I call that one Sheaf Encounter.

KRIS: Of course.

TED: And I’m putting my parental experience to use in my latest prototype. Each player is a parent with three demanding kids. The parent who can satisfy the greatest number of childish demands by the end of the game is the winner. Right now it’s called Whine Handler.

KRIS: I can relate. Now, what about these rumors that you’ve got a secret project in the works?

TED: I can’t say too much about that. But it isn’t a secret that a certain high-profile rock group wants to do a remake of the classic animated Beatles’ movie Yellow Submarine. The movie studio sees lots of merchandising potential, and they’ve asked me to put together a game.

KRIS: And what’s that one called?

TED: U2 Boat.

Thursday, September 21, 2006


Howdy and hello to everyone reading this. This is my first entry for Gone Gaming, and I thank Coldfoot for inviting me to contribute to this blog. It’s hard to imagine that I could contribute anything useful, certainly no handy quotable lines, but I hope to have some fun writing and to occasionally mix in all that good fuzzy crap that makes my partner Annie drag me to chick flicks.

About my name, it’s officially "Smatt." Some people aren’t comfortable saying this. Sounds a little to close to "smack" and "splat." Some folks hesitate, certain that they just heard me say "Matt" and that their ears are playing tricks on them. At this point, I must say that I usually decline to correct them. I have better things to do with my time than correct almost every single person who crosses my path. If they do happen to pick up the subtle ‘s,’ they will often say things like "That is an interesting name" or "Very unusual." You will never hear people say that to someone named "Moustapha" or "Ilya," probably for fear of getting their asses kicked, but for some reason, they don’t hesitate to say that to someone named "Smatt." Such is life.

Smatt is a derivative of Steven Matthew. I picked it up in the Peace Corps from a clever Yaley named Marc Hoffman. I liked it; other people liked it; it stuck. Here I am today.

So what makes me qualified to write for Gone Gaming? Well, I suppose that at the core of the reason is that I like games (I love Annie; I like games - this is a very important distinction, and while slip-ups have been known to happen, a night on the couch is a gentle reminder of the subtlety of our blessed language). I like games so much in fact that I started making up my own puzzles for GAMES magazine in 2003. I didn’t like their policy of buying all rights, so I started freelancing to Knucklebones soon after. In the meantime, I got a puzzle on NPR’s Weekend Edition with Will Shortz (Name a bestselling non-fiction author with 7 letters in the first name and 7 in the last; drop the first three letters of the last name to get a bestselling fiction author, 7 letters in the first name and 4 in the last. Who are these authors?) and bothered our local paper the Missoulian about having game reviews and exclusive letterboxing clues for their readers. The Missoulian bit, and I’ve been writing game reviews ever since (I did the letterboxing clues for over a year. They were popular with a core group of people who were disappointed that I ended it. Now I just do the game reviews.) I am in the middle of something with Games Quarterly as well, but it’s too early to know where that is heading. And finally, I am the new store manager of World Games of Montana in Missoula, MT. It’s a lovely place, and if you’re in the neighborhood, come and see us.

The last new game I’ve played several times is "Bagh Chal" (or "Bagha Chal"), also known as "Tigers and Goats." It’s played on the lines/intersections of a four by four grid, though the board has a few diagonals thrown in for good measure. This is a two-player game in which each player chooses a side to play, either tigers or goats. The tiger player’s goal is to eat five goats by jumping them along any straight line if there is an empty intersection just beyond the goat (like in checkers). The goat player’s goal is to subdue the tigers; that is give the tiger player no legal jumping moves. The opening board has four tigers, one in each of the corners of the board. The goat player places his/her twenty goats one by one onto the board. The goat player may only place his/her goats onto the board during this time; he may not move a goat to save it. The tiger player may move and eat at will. Once all the goats have been placed, the player who meets his/her objective wins the game.

This game was oddly entertaining. I played four times, twice as the goats and twice as the tigers. I won three out of the four times. Playing both sides amounts to tricky abstract logic, but I prefer being the goat player. The game is definitely worth your time, and if you’re reading this blog, then you most definitely already have the pieces to play the game. If not, then think about finding a paper and pen for the board and twenty pennies for the goats and four nickels for the tigers. It’s still played today, so it might even help bridge the culture gap if you’re ever in Nepal or the surrounding area.

To sum up: first blog, named Smatt, possibly qualified, likes Tigers and Goats. I suppose I could have just said that to begin with.

Until next time gamers...


Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Speaking of Hand Management...

as I was last time if you were paying attention, I’ve been playing San Juan with my husband lately. This is a perfect example of the tension and tough decisions that a hand management card game should offer. It has a large variety of buildings, each with their own ability to help you, combined with the need to discard some of those wonderful buildings as payment to build. This means that every time you play, you’re going to be faced with a unique challenge.

I find this game discloses the greedy nature in myself as I want to build almost all the buildings in my hand and am loathe to use any of them for building payment. This leaves my brain spinning in place in the early game while I bite my lip trying to say goodbye to a beloved building in favor of another building.

If you’ve played this game a lot, which I have not, you may have what you consider to be a perfect strategy, your perfect combination of buildings, but acquiring those cards isn’t a simple matter. This is also part of the fun of a good hand-management game since you inevitably must deal with whatever you are given and make your decisions accordingly.

In the last game I played, I was dealt good cards for mid-game play but they’re tough ones to build at the beginning—4, 5, and 6 card buildings. I had to pass on 2 consecutive building rounds, once because I had nothing I could build and the second time because it would have meant using every other card in my hand (and they were very nice cards which I had grown attached to J ). My formidable opponent, on the other hand, had 1 and 2 card buildings and I began to feel that I was in some serious trouble.

I finally made the sacrifice and said goodbye to a couple of my lovelies in order to build a tobacco production building but I was still 2 buildings behind. With the help of his buildings, I was never able to build when Richard couldn’t so stayed 2 buildings behind him the whole game. I thought I was doomed but in the end I won by one point.

This demonstrates another characteristic of a very good hand management game (or any game for that matter), the ability for anyone to win even if it looks like they’re behind. This is probably one of the biggest flaws in games like Monopoly and Risk, the inability to catch up and feel that you have a chance to win.

All of this brain-twisting goodness is wrapped up in a game that is simple to set up and teach, and plays in 45-60 minutes. If you’re looking for other good choices that fit into this niche that uses cards for more multiple purposes, try Oltremare or FrachtExpress (or its alternate version, Hellrail--Third Perdition).
To game, perchance to laugh.


Tuesday, September 19, 2006

FAQ for English version of Bridge

I am pleased to announce that a new English edition of the Wolfgang Kramer game "Bridge" (the original German name is "Sehnen Sich Metallsache Die Einen Körper Des Wassers Kreuzt") will be printed by Missouri River Games and should be available sometime next spring.

It has new box cover art and a few rule changes. I managed to obtain a copy of the FAQ that was created based on comments and questions from the playtesters. Here it is:

Differences between German and English editions

Q: What are the main differences between the English and German editions of the game?

A: The German edition has been simplified for the new English edition. The English edition should play in about 1 to 2 hours, where the German edition took up to 4 hours. We managed this by reducing the number of points needed to win and eliminating some of the time consuming mechanics, as well as streamlining the rules somewhat. I think English speaking fans will enjoy the new edition.

We eliminated the German advanced version of the game, as it was too complicated for most players; the basic German version is now the advanced English version. In the new basic English version, instead of an auction in phase 1, you draw five contracts from a deck of contracts, select one, and return the rest to the bottom of the deck.

We added the two and three player rules that were inadvertently left out in the German instructions. And we removed special bids such as "double" and "redouble", as these were confusing for most players.

Q: What are the two and three player rules?

A: For three players, you remove the "Club" nation from the game and play with only the three other nations. After the auction, the two non-winning auctioners play to prevent the winner from completing his political votes. As there's no partner, no hand is laid down.

The two player game is the same as for three players, except that the minimum bid starts at "3/Clubs ascendant" in the advanced version (remove all 1 and 2 level contracts from the contract deck in the basic version). When it is time for the third player to play a political leader, turn over leaders from the third player's hand until a legal card is revealed. If the third player has no legal leaders to play, the first card that was turned up is played.

Q: Was the game originally designed for two and three players?

A: The designer indicates that the game was originally designed for exactly four players, but that the German publisher insisted on adding two and three player rules for marketing reasons. Unfortunately, while they added the range of the number of players to the box, the rules themselves didn't manage to get into the box due to technical reasons. We found a copy of the rules shredded and buried in the designer's back yard under a Jerusalem cactus plant, and we restored them as the publisher tells us the designer really wanted.

Q: What happened to the "marker token" in the English version?

A: The "marker token" was only used in the advanced version of the game in the German edition. Since the German advanced version of the game was not included in the English edition, the token was not needed.

Q: What were the rules of the "marker token"?

A: The "marker token" was used in the advanced version of the German edition. The "marker token" was used to mark the location of the marker token. Whenever the marker token moved to a new location, you moved the marker token to the new location in order to mark the new location of the marker token.

Auction questions

Q: It seems that the first player has an advantage in the auction. Is there any way to balance this advantage?

A: The first player's advantage is not seen to be overly strong. Players are encouraged to rotate starting player in each voting year in order to offset any advantage the starting player may have.

Q: Can I continue to bid if I have already passed?

A: Yes, you may rejoin the bidding after passing.

Q: Can I name more than one ascendant nation at a time, for instance, "Four/clubs and spades?"

A: No, only one ascendant nation can be named at a time.

Q: Can I bid more than 7 / less than 1 in the bidding?

A: No, you can only bid between 1 and 7.

Q: The rules say "Leaders in the ascendant nation beat any leader in any other nation." Does that mean that in "no trump" leaders from any nation not lead beat any leader from the nation that is lead? In other words, is "No trump" considered a nation?

A: No, "No trump" is not a nation. No trump means that no nations are ascendant, not that all are.

Q: Can I bid the same ascendant nation as another player?

A: Yes, at a higher number of votes promised.

Q: Is the first person who mentioned the ascendant nation the auction winner, or the first person in the team who won the auction? I'm confused!

A: In the German edition, the auction winner was determined as follows: consider only the team containing the person who made the last bid in the auction. The first person of that team who mentioned the ascendant nation named in the last bid was the auction winner.

In the English version, we simplified this overly complex rule: the last bidder is now the auction winner.

Q: Can I bid Clubs as the ascendant nation if I have no Club leaders in my hand?

A: Yes, you do not need to hold any leaders of the nation that you name as ascendant.

Q: What happens if a player accidentally bids lower than he is permitted in the auction?

A: The player's bid is considered to be the minimum number permitted for the named ascendant nation.

Voting questions

Q: Do I have to play my highest leader in the current issue?

A: No, you may play any leader for the current issue. If you do not have any national leaders for that issue, you may play any leader from any other nation, although your leader played does not count (exception: a leader from an ascendant nation).

Q: Do I have to play a leader on each vote?

A: Yes, you must play a leader, even if it does not help you.

Q: What happens if an issue is being voted on, and two people play leaders of the ascendant nation?

A: The highest leader in the ascendant nation wins the vote.

Q: Do you keep your leaders after playing them, or are they discarded?

A: The leaders are discarded after playing.

Miscellaneous Questions

Q: What changes have been made to scoring?

A: The German edition used a complex table driven scoring mechanism. The English edition's scoring has been greatly simplified:

You get 10, 30, 60, ... points for a bid of 1, 2, 3, ... So a bid of 7 is worth 280 points. Extra votes secured above your promise are +10 points each. If you do not secure the number of votes promised, you forfeit your bonus and your opponents gain 10, 30, 60, ... points for each vote under what you promised.

Ascendant nation bonus:

Clubs---- x 1
Diamonds- x 1.5
Hearts--- x 2
Spades--- x 2.5
No Trumps x 3

This bonus applies to all scoring. Round all scores downwards to the nearest 10 points.

Q: What happens at the end of each round?

A: Move your scoring markers along the scoring track. Then remove the ascendancy token and votes promised token from the board. If no player has yet reached 500 points (1000 in the German edition), redeal the leaders and start a new round.

The publishers wish to thank our extensive team of American playtesters for their many hours of input and comments.


Saturday, September 16, 2006

Ways to reduce your life expectancy as a partner

o Pass partner a bad card after they call Tichu
o Call Tichu on 975 points
o After failing a Tichu call because the opposition had the Dragon and three aces say to your partner "Oh I thought you had those"
o Play over partner's high card when partner has called Tichu (except if you have the Dog and even then you should think twice)
o Wish for a card that you did not pass
o Wish for a card that you did not pass and lead a seven card straight forcing partner to play the middle seven cards of his nine card straight
o Lead the one when your partner has called Tichu and your right hand opponent has only one card left

o Trump partner's Ace, unless you only have trumps left
o Lead a suit when the opposition have already shown that they are void in that suit
o Overtrump partner's trump when trumps have not been led
o Bid a different bidding convention than the one you have agreed on
o Complement the opposition on the card play and offer to swap seats with one of them

Mmm Meeples taste like...

Friday, September 15, 2006

Build Your Own Game Convention (Part 2)

In the interest of promoting my local game convention (and in having a really easy blog today), here is another interview with Travis Reynolds, one of the powers-that-be behind this opportunity for West Virginia gamers (and others) to get together. Charcon starts three weeks from today (Friday, October 6) at the Charleston Civic Center, and will run for two days.

So, Travis, what's been happening since we last talked?

When did we last talk? What day is it? Where am I? Gosh, we have been really, really busy! We have put out our event catalog for public consumption. We have well over 100 games and the list is still growing. It includes a great variety. I have been spending a lot of time working with vendors, sponsors, the program and trying not to forget stuff.

Just this week we had some great developments. We did an interview for a statewide cultural newspaper called The Graffiti. Our article is not only in it this week, but we are the cover story! Plus, after years of treating our bodies like temples, Nick & I have finally been recognized with a full spread centerfold! A boys dream come true...

Another new thing is that we have incorporated. CharCon is now officially part of a non-profit company. The actual company is named West Virginia Hobby Gaming Association. We did that so that we would not be limited to only CharCon. So, CharCon becomes an event hosted by WVHGA and we can host others throught the year. Everyone who pays to be admitted to CharCon will automatically become a member of WVHGA. At this point, that does not mean much, but after CharCon is over, we plan to focus some attention on the organization and its growth.

Are you happy with the numbers of gamers who have pre-registered?

Yes and no. I would have liked to see more than what we have had (we have 13 at the moment). However, I could have easily seen us have a lot less that that. One of the brightest spots regarding pre-registration is having about half of them be from out of state! It’s great to see people from out of the area excited enough about attending to pre-register!

I know you've asked a lot of the big gaming companies for support. What has been the response?

The response has been great. I think I mentioned in the last interview that we spent a large chunk of Origins networking with vendors and game companies. That and lots of emails has paid off. We managed to wrangle support from Steve Jackson Games, Pinnacle Entertainment Group, Twilight Creations, Wizkids, Gale Force Nine, Battlefront, Fantasy Flight Games, The Fiend Foundry and The Evil Empire ©....errr...Wizards of the Coast. Plus, Ted Cheatham has managed to get support from both Rio Grande Games and Z-Man games. So overall they have been very supportive. They gave us lots of stuff we plan to use as both prizes and as items in our Silent Auction.

I've looked at your list of events, and I can see that there will be plenty of spectacular miniature action. And also some collectable card game events. But what about boardgames? What boardgame events can we expect?

Lots! For starters, the Appalachian Gamers will be on hand doing demo's of about 20 different games from both Rio Grande and Z-Man. Also, a variety of Steve Jackson games will be on hand. Plus we have tournaments planned in A Game of Thrones, Silk Road (with the creator even!), Munchkin and Zombies. There are also some other things being discussed that I expect to come together before show time. All in all, a very strong board game presence.

How can gamers sign up for these events?

Two ways: In order to sign up before the show starts, they need to visit There, they can get a copy of the Event Catalog, which will show them who, what, when and so on. Next, they will need to pre-register (which will end very soon, so they better hurry!). Then all they have to do is send an email to and tell us what they want to sign up for.

The other option is to just sign up the day of the show on site.

By the way, I know the con is just two days. But how late will things go? Will they kick gamers out of the Charleston Civic Center at any given time?

Things will go right up until midnight each night. The city requires the Charleston Civic Center to make business shut down at midnight (or so they say), so CharCon will officially close for business at 12. That doesn't mean everyone is out and the doors are closed, it just means things will be shutting down and everyone needs to be getting ready to leave. One of the drawbacks of not being a hotel convention.

Same question as last time: what has been the most frustrating thing about putting together this con? What has been the most rewarding thing?

Lately the most frustrating thing has been dealing with stuff that I not only do not have time for, but shouldn't have to and don't want to deal with. Just petty things that draw my attention away from more important stuff, which only adds to my paranoia that I am forgetting something! I am hoping to reach a point of zen at which I can let all the irrelevant stuff wash over me...

The most rewarding by far was seeing our article on the cover of The Graffiti. We had no idea. It was quite a rush!

And what additional advice would you give to folks who would like to start their own local gaming conventions?

I can't reinforce enough to visit with your local Convention & Visitor's Bureau. Ours has been an invaluable resource. They issued a press release for us just this week and we are already seeing some additional media interest. Also, don't be afraid to ask local businesses and national folks for help. I'm not sure why, but basically none of the big game companies replied to my first email. However, when I sat down to send follow ups almost all of them replied to the second. Just shows that persistence is a key. Keep good notes and maintain a to-do list. Make sure to have very competent people doing the stuff you can't like website and print management.

Thanks Travis.


At Charcon, on Saturday, October 7, at noon, I plan to run A Game of Thrones mini-tournament. Fantasy Flight Games has generously agreed to donate a copy of the Storm of Swords expansion as a prize for the game. Five or six gamers will compete in just one game of A Game of Thrones with the winner taking home the expansion. We will be using some of the expansion elements from A Clash of Kings (ports, fortresses, siege engines), and some of the expansion elements from A Storm of Swords. So if you have any interest in A Game of Thrones this will be an opportunity to win a copy of the new expansion, or at least an opportunity to check out how the new elements work in a full game. As Travis mentioned, you can sign up for this competition by e-mailing the Charcon trolls at Then just show up on Saturday and look for the guy with all the A Game of Thrones boxes. Please be on time or we may have to give your spot to someone on the waiting list.

And even if you aren’t interested in A Game of Thrones, stop by and say hello to me on Saturday at Charcon. If I’m not running the tournament, I’ll probably be demo-ing other games.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Last Year's Top 71 Games: 2005-2006

Last year at the start of September I wrote an article called Last Year's Top 70 Games in which I ranked the top 70 "new" games that I'd newly played that year, from best to worst. It was timed to followup the various awards for the year, and also to precede the new games out at Essen.

This year I've decided to continue that tradition by once more listing every newly released new game that I've played in the last year. For this definition I include any game released, for the first time, in a U.S. edition in 2005 or 2006 and which I played for the first time from 9/1/05 to 8/31/06. Unlike my reviews, in which I generally try and assess which games I think are best, philosophically, this list only includes my personal preference for and enjoyment of the games. I'm a casual-to-medium-weight gameplayer, so you'll probably get the best use out of this list if you match that category.

Oddly, I once more seem to have about 70 games fitting this category of play.

I've linked to reviews for each game when I have them, so click on the linked names for more information.

My Listing of 71 Games That I've Played

The average quality of the games seems to be about the same as last year. I think #1-10 are top-notch, #11-25 are generally worth buying (with the last couple being more iffy), and #26-50 are generally worth playing. Beyond that, the ordering is generally my most to least favorite.
  1. Dungeon Twister - An almost-brilliant games of tactical play with superb fantasy theming.
  2. Blue Moon City - A fine resource-management game that's a new mid-level Knizia entry, and his best since last year's Beowulf.
  3. Kreta - A great, baroque majority control game. Why, why has no American company picked it up!?
  4. Reef Encounter - A beautifully themed great game system, finally available in the U.S.
  5. Beowulf: The Legend - A very good Knizia auction game that's right up there with his best.
  6. Funny Friends - I'm afraid this unique auction game might eventually get old, but for now it's at the top of my list, though I'm sometimes afraid that it'll offend other players.
  7. Thurn and Taxis - The play is a little repetitive but this is a great short game with fun brinkmanship and interesting play.
  8. Havoc: The Hundred Year's War - This clever little Poker-like game continues to go up in my estimation the more I play it.
  9. Three-Dragon Ante - A wonderful fantasy Poker variant who's only deficit is that it's not a constrained game: you instead play it till you're done, like normal Poker.
  10. Ticket to Ride: Märklin Edition - This series has lost some of its personal charm to me through nearly 100 plays, but this is still the finest of the series and enjoyable to play if a bit fiddly.
  11. Hacienda - A very enjoyable Kramer game that doesn't feel that innovative, but is made up of a lot of nice parts you've seen before.
  12. Palazzo - Another Knizia auction, not as deep or interesting as his true classics, but still generally worth playing.
  13. Mall of Horror - A great variant of the lifeboat game where you throw fellow shoppers to Zombies. Rargh!
  14. Arkham Horror - A long game but beautifully thematic, and one that I have a lot of fun playing with my RPG group.
  15. Caylus - An intriguing and strategic game that allows for great and thoughtful play, though it fails somewhat on a per capita measure of fun/minute, as it were. (E.g., the game's too long.)
  16. Pickomino - A great press-your-luck game, ultra-light, but worth the 15 minutes any time.
  17. Big Manitou - A great trick-taking game, with lots of angles and lots of originality.
  18. PÜNCT - A great 2-player abstract with fun geometrical play.
  19. Fairy Tale - One of the best fillers of the year, starting to lose a tiny bit of its appeal after 6 plays, but still going relatively strong.
  20. Elasund: The First City of Catan - A nice Teuber resource-management game that personally strikes me as a bit slow and a bit dry.
  21. Parlay - A very cool word game that would go much higher if I played word games more.
  22. The Scepter of Zavandor - A bit longer than I'd usually play, but a fun, colorful resource management game.
  23. Seismic - Not terribly original, but a fine cross between Carcassonne and Metro.
  24. Ostia - An interesting auction & blind-bidding game that sometimes gets a little long.
  25. Hey! That's My Fish! - A very amusing and quite strategic ultra-light filler.
  26. Grand Tribunal - Some interesting Princes of Florence-like play once you get past the mistakes in the rules.
  27. Il Principe - An interesting and thoughtful game that I suspect won't get much table time due to its length and complexity.
  28. Marvin Marvel's Marvelous Marble Machine - Mirthful machinery makes many mug merrily.
  29. Castle Merchants - A pretty neat game of card management and racing.
  30. Dead Man's Treasure - I'm pretty certain this will fade fast, but for now this remains fine bluffing fun, as long as the game doesn't go too short.
  31. Knights of Charlemagne - Yet another cute Knizian filler that I'm glad is finally available in an American version.
  32. Ark - A thematic and clever game that I love but ultimately feel I have almost no control over victory.
  33. Cleopatra and the Society of Architects - An interesting resource management game that's just a bit too big for its own good when all is said and done. And a little dry too.
  34. Street Illegal - A pretty neat racing game played with cards.
  35. Glory to Rome - A deep resource-management card game that's just on the other side of too complex for me to commonly play.
  36. Camelot - A very amusing real-time game that I'd play a lot more often if I had a group that played this sort of thing.
  37. Poison - Hearts-light in a big box. Nothing heart-stopping here, but nothing bad either.
  38. Manila - An entirely OK risk management game that I'd be happy to play.
  39. Tempus - Another resource-management game, but one that seems to get more staid the more I play it.
  40. The Hollywood Card Game - A fine set-collection game who's only deficit is that it's entirely light.
  41. Epic Dungeoneer: Call of the Lich Lord - Generally not my gaming fare, but I'm sure my RPG group would love an occasional play.
  42. Conquest of the Empire II - I ultimately decided that, eye-candy aside, I preferred Struggle of Empires, and this game's very heavy weight (by which I mean mass) keeps me from ever bringing it to gaming.
  43. Herocard Galaxy - An interesting game that's not quite my style.
  44. 10 Days in Europe - Yet another 10 Days. Innocuous enough that I generally won't turn a game down.
  45. Double or Nothing - Nothing wrong with it, but no spark either.
  46. Mesopotamia - colorful resource-management game that was too repetitive, dry, and deterministic to be very exciting.
  47. Palatinus - A weird and chaotic majority-control game.
  48. Wallamoppi - A fast-action stacking game that I don't have anything against, but really doesn't meet my definition of playing games.
  49. Travel Blokus - A fine abstract. My wife hates it and so it shall never be played.
  50. Ice Pirates of Harbor Grace - An amusing American-style game that I'd have loved 10 or 15 years ago, but don't expect to play much again.
  51. Sneeze - An entirely innocuous family game that I'd probably play if I were a family.
  52. Lucca Citta - A sort of weird pseudo-set-collection game that I'd play, but which I didn't find at all exciting.
  53. Treasures and Traps - A mostly harmless but entirely random fantasy-themed American game.
  54. King of the Beasts: Mythological Edition - A Reiner Knizia game that's so light that it feels like there's nothing to it.
  55. The Nacho Incident - An American game that utilizes many a German system (blind bidding, card management, bluffing, majority control), but which never entirely geled into a game.
  56. Bone Wars - An American style set-collection game that was mostly flat for me.
  57. Nature of the Beast - A fine pseudo-CCG game with great theming that nonetheless isn't really my style. My games generally ran too long.
  58. Fuddy Duddy - A simplistic (family) set-collection game.
  59. Architekton - Largely a failure, because it seems dry and simplistic.
  60. Fjords - One of last year's wasted purchases because it feels like 25 minutes of setup for 5 minutes of game.
  61. Harry's Grand Slam Baseball - A pretty cool game for its time period, but that's not now.
  62. Desert Bazaar - Mostly harmless, but a great direction for Mattel to be moving in.
  63. Hunting Party - A deduction game with some so-so components and some OK gameplay that doesn't really draw me back.
  64. Antike - A long and sharp-edged indie game that could have been so much more.
  65. Vampire: Prince of the City - A very American majority-control game that was perfectly fine for its class, but for me took way too long and was way too complex.
  66. Siena - Painfully long and sharp-edged, with atrocious components. Sadly, there's an interesting game hidden inside.
  67. Dwarf Stones - An uninspired, largely random American wargame.
  68. UWO - A somewhat uninspiring game of 2-player combat.
  69. Beetlez - A kid's game with almost nothing going for it.
  70. Pepper - A cute card-matching game that falls apart in actual play.
  71. Conquest of the Empire I - The original version of this game made me want to claw my eyes out because of the boring, long play.

So how did the various publishers do? Here's a comparison of my numbers last year and this year:

Top 10Top 25
Atlas Games
Days of Wonder22
Fantasy Flight Games12
Hans im Gluck22
Lookout Games
Mayfair Games01
Phalanx Games12
Pro Ludo
Real Deal Games
Rio Grande Games36
Sunriver Games
What's Your Game
Wizards of the Coast
Ystari Games
Z-Man Games02
Zoch Verlag

Top 10Top 25
Atlas Games
Days of Wonder11
Fantasy Flight Games23
Hans im Gluck12
Lookout Games
Mayfair Games03
Phalanx Games01
Pro Ludo
Real Deal Games
Rio Grande Games28
Sunriver Games
What's Your Game
Wizards of the Coast
Ystari Games
Z-Man Games13
Zoch Verlag

Here's some comments on the results:
  • Companies will come and go from results like this. (In fact, I didn't even bother to list people who showed up last year but not this.) However some companies that went off this list are notable, particularly the fact that Amigo and Uberplay didn't make my top 25 this year, and they each had multiple entries last year. Amigo seems to have notable troubles getting anyone in the U.S. to carry their games, but that might be improving with their new Mayfair distribution of Intrigue and Weinhandler. Uberplay meanwhile mostly dropped off the face of the Earth when they started their new game-party business.
  • The most exciting new company entry is What's Your Game. They've only put out 3 games thus far, and every one made my list in the top 25. Wow. On the other hand, they're all reprints.
  • Asmodee is the other notable new-comer, with their new push on American games producing good results.
  • Alea continues with their uninspired performance of late, making just one entrant into my top 25 and no top 10 games for the second year running.
  • Of the American companies, Fantasy Flight is doing even better than last year and Z-Man is trending upward as I predicted. Mayfair also seems to be trending up, I think thanks to their new publication deals with Phalanx and Amigo. Rio Grande continues to be the top jobber on our side of the pond, despite any concerns about their self-publications.
And that's it for another year in gaming!

We've also recently reached our yearly anniversary here at Gone Gaming, and I've been getting a bit burned out on the weekly schedule. Thus with this article I'll be dropping back to biweekly and (I expect) concentrating a bit more on Views & Reviews.

So I'll see you all in 14!

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

From the Mailbag


What's the story behind ASL (Advanced Squad Leader)?



ASL was actually invented by Joe, the supervisor down at the DMV. Joe is a long time civil servant. Not many people know this, but Joe retired as a clerk from the Supreme Court. He actually wrote most of the 1500 page decision in the original asbestos lawsuit. In his spare time Joe freelances writing environmental regulations for the EPA, and converting well thought out and sensible tax laws into meaningless gibberish for the IRS.

Joe once told me that he was originally commissioned by Steve Jackson to design a game that might best be described as a less complex version of Memoir '44. However Joe is incapable of designing anything less complex than workplace codes for OSHA. The project was cancelled after five years. Joe had just finished determining combat modifiers for Estonian mounted cavalry units with depleted hay reserves when the rug got pulled out from the project. Steve Jackson sold Joe's basic design to Avalon Hill which was later refined by Don Greenwood and sold as Advanced Squad Leader.

I hope I don't offend Joe, but if I an going to invest days studying rules just to play the most basic scenario, I'd rather study the tax code. Finding tax loop holes in order to save money, in order to buy games that are more fun than ASL, would be much more rewarding than studying ASL.


I'm thinking about starting a boardgame blog. I've already thought of a cool name (Linger Longer) and am ready to start raking in the big bucks as a full time boardgame blogger. What advice can you give me?

Omar in Dearborn


Linger Longer? Ahhhhhhhhhhhh... OK.

Big Bucks? Well, the money isn't bad, but once you are in the spotlight don't let the fame go to your head. Most of the boardgame groupies are fickle friends who will dessert you as soon as the cocaine and smack run short.

The #1 rule of boardgame blogging is to never make anything up. Boardgamers are an intuitive lot and can smell a white lie a mile away.

Luckily this should never have to be an issue for bloggers. The groovy thing about blogs is that there are no deadlines to meet. You should have plenty of time to check your facts before posting. In fact the only boardgame blog I can think of with a daily deadline is over at Boardgame News.

Rick "Cronkite" Thornquist (the chief bottle washer at Boardgame News) is a solid reporter, but the word around the campfire is that he is a slave driver. Not only does he pay his bloggers next to nothing, but he penalizes them if they miss a deadline, and imposes a fine if their post is less than 2000 words long. That is why I usually take anything I read in the Boardgame News blog section with a grain of salt.

Sorry Omar, I'm getting far a field from the original question, just let me reiterate: 1> Take advantage of the groupies before your stash runs low. 2> Don't feel you need to make stuff up just to fill space. 3> Always apologize to Thornquist. Sorry Rick.

Dear Coldfoot,

What would you suggest as an appropriate means of distraction during games with lengthy "analysis paralysis," such as Civilization or (gack) Axis & Allies? The time between turns is interminable. I mean, it's a real snoozer. Brushing up on the game rules and errata are almost as boring. So is staring out the window, lining up the game pieces and picking at the wads of chewing gum under the table. I've thought about bringing my laptop or some needlework, but I didn't think this would go over well with the other players. How about a book?

Bored enough to read Tolstoy

This question was actually handwritten and placed upon my kitchen table. The writer is obviously not a serious gamer. A serious boardgamer knows the difference between analysis paralysis and downtime.

My short answer is: If you can't run with the big dogs, stay in the kitchen and fix snacks for the big dogs.

Until next time: Keep those questions coming.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Bridge, by Wolfgang Kramer

Bridge, by Wolfgang Kramer
A game for 2-4 players

In ancient Greece, four kingdoms vie for political control of the land:

- The Clubs, masters of ancient warfare
- The Diamonds, traders and finaciers
- The Hearts, a nation of priests
- The Spades, an agricultural society

Each kingdom has an emperor, king-potentate, queen, prince, and ten other minor lords. Every year, these leaders gather at the senate at the great Council Bridge in ancient Greece, casting votes before the great overlord in order to implement their policies for the coming year.

Voting represents a great opportunity for the two teams of councilors to the great overlord. The councilors have secret ties to members in each of the kingdoms, and they promise votes to the great overlord. By establishing control over the families, the great overlord grants great rewards to the councilors. But beware! If you promise more than you can deliver, the great overlord gets angry and bestows favors on your political opponents.


1 gameboard depicting ancient Greece and with a scoring track
4 councilor tokens, 1 in each player color
1 ascendancy token
1 votes promised token
1 starting player token
52 political leader cards in 4 colors


Place the game board in the middle of the table. Choose two teams of two players each. Teammates sit on opposite sides of the board. (See special rules for 2 and 3 players on page 4.)

Place the councilor tokens at the start of the scoring track. In a 2 or 3 player game, place any unused councilor tokens back in the box. Place the ascendancy and votes promised tokens beside the board (see diagram).

The game is played over a number of rounds. Each round has 14 phases: an auction phase and thirteen action phases.

Choose a starting player. Give that player the starting token. Deal thirteen political leader cards to each player.

The Auction Phase:

During the auction phase, each team promises to deliver a number of votes to the great overlord from the gathered leaders. You do not know on what issues the votes will be, but you know what leaders you directly control for that year!

The first player starts the auction by declaring the ascendant kingdom and the number of votes he promises to deliver, or by passing. All players then do the same, either upping the bid or passing. The auction is over when three players have passed the last bid.

See the accompanying diagram for an example auction ...


The winner commits to securing a minimum number of votes during the year. Failure to secure the votes will result in political gain for the auction winner's opponents in the senate. Place the votes promised token on the number of votes promised.

Secondly, the declared kingdom named by the winner rises to ascendancy. For the rest of this year, even the lesser members of this kingdom have higher ranking authority than any member of any other kingdom. Place the ascendancy token on the declared kingdom.

Thirdly, the winner gets to go last starting in the first action phase.

Fourthly, the winner's partner must reveal his or her political holdings, giving control over to the winner. This only happens after the first political card is played by one of the winner's opponents in the first action phase.

Exception: in the rare situation in which all players pass, redeal the political action cards and restart at the beginning of phase 1: the auction phase.

The Action Phases:

Each phase represents a vote in the senate. Each player must play one political card from his or her hand each vote in order to try to sway the vote. The first person to play a card determines the issue being voted on. For instance, if a leader of the military kingdom is played first, then the vote is about a military issue. All players must play leaders to try to influence the vote in that issue. If they have no leader of that kingdom, they must play a leader of another kingdom, but the leader has no power to determine the vote. The highest ranking leader of the issue at hand wins the vote.

Exception: if a player has no leaders relevant to the current issue, they may play a leader of the ascendant kingdom. In that case, the highest leader of the ascendant kingdom automatically over-rides the vote and wins. A player does not have to play an ascendant leader, if they have none, or if they don't wish to expend one.

Exception: After the first political leader is played in phase 2, the auction winning player's partner reveals his or her hand, as described on page 2.

The winner of a vote begins the next vote.

See the accompanying diagram for example play ...


The auction winner plays both his or her own political leader cards, as well as the cards of his or her partner.

At the end of thirteen votes, the voting for that year is over. If the auction winning team gathered all the votes promised, each receives a reward. Additional bonuses are rewarded if the auction winning team promised a minimum numbers of votes, or if they collected more than they promised. Additional bonuses are rewarded depending on which kingdom was raised into ascendancy (or none at all). If the auction winning team fails to secure the promised number of votes, their opponents gain a certain number of points for each vote the auction winning team failed to secure.

Move your councilor tokens forward on the scoring track. Choose new teams, and then mix and redeal the political power cards for the next round. The game ends when one person achieves 1000 points. The player with the most victory points at that time is declared the winner. If there is a tie, the player with the most number of leaders in the ascendant kingdom in the last year wins. If there is still a tie, the tie stands.

Variant: deal each player one emperor card before dealing the remaining political cards. This will create a more balanced, and tougher, play scenario.

Variant: each player may not play a leader of the same rank during a vote, if one has already been played, unless that player reveals that he or she has no other leaders to play.

An expansion to the game is planned that will add a fifth player, special event cards, and a traveling great overlord token which gives bonus points for certain issues when he is moved onto that issue's location on the board.


Edit: Added instructions for the tokens.