Saturday, September 29, 2007

Translating boardgames

An out-of-turn post this week - because (for once) I had a post ready early, and Fraser has been busy buying games this weekend. Paradise at our place!

I've spent the last week or two deep in the world of rules translation. Now, I'm an amateur at this, but I thought a glimpse into the process might be interesting.

As an example, I will use Agricola, Uwe Rosenberg's new (Essen) game about agricultural development. This is a medium-to-heavy game (literally - it weighs in at over 2.2 kg or close to 5 pounds), with very detailed rules, as well as lots of theme - and in this context, "theme" means (among other things) 17th century farming terminology. That complicates things because, like most of you, I am not a specialist in historical agricultural practice (although all those trashy historical novels are finally coming in handy). Especially in German.

Agricola boxfront
Agricola boxfront. Image courtesy of, uploaded by Uwe Rosenberg

In Agricola, players start with two family members, a 2-room hut and an empty farmyard. By selecting Actions (new actions become available in each round - players place a family member disc on an Action space to select that action), they can raise animals, plant crops, produce food, extend or renovate their hut and grow their family - important, because each family member can take only one action in each of the 14 rounds. They can also choose to play cards which allow them to acquire a range of abilities and equipment. The goal is to develop your home and farm as fully as possible while (of course) ensuring that you can feed your family after each Harvest.

The wide variety of cards (360!) ensures variety in the gameplay. It must have been a huge job to illustrate this game but the images and the design are simple, clear and attractive - kudos to Klemens Franz for taking on such a massive project. I see he claims to have had nightmares about the game - I can well believe it - I certainly dreamed about it while I was working on the translation!

I should stress again that this was an amateur translation, which I did for fame and glory fun. A week of fun. Several emails back and forth between me and the publisher to clarify teeny tiny details of fun. In other words, fun :)

I start out by reading the rules. It sounds obvious, but it's important. This isn't a detailed read - I don't take any notes - but it gives a sense of the flavour of the rules and also of their structure - what will I find where?

Next, I assemble my toolkit. My online dictionary of choice is - mostly because I can put the word straight into the URL, if needed. The paper dictionaries I have are somewhat older - not really a problem for this piece - but still useful, even though they are less comprehensive and more cumbersome to use. Why? Because it's easier to scan the page for any related terms or variant spellings - and because sometimes they have a different range of terms than the online dictionary. I have a German-English/English-German dictionary as well as a German-German dictionary, which can be very helpful. I also have a very very old (early 1900s) English-German/German-English dictionary, which I thought might be helpful for some of the farming terms, but it wasn't quite old enough to be useful. Also, the old font made my eyes bleed.

The first paragraph of the rules is often the hardest to translate - this is the background story for the game. Often I leave it till last, although in this case it was relatively straightforward. I did rework it a couple of times, though.

It's helpful that most rules start with the components - this forces me to make some choices about which term to use for which bit of the game. In Agricola, there were some decisions to be made:
  • Anschaffung - literally, Acquisition. I started with Acquisition, although I felt it was a bit unwieldy - can you really picture yourself playing a game and talking about your acquisitions?
  • Ausbildung - literally, something like Training. The word has the sense of a skill that you have acquired through training or even an apprenticeship.
  • Stall - Stable. I wasn't sure about this translation, because these buildings can hold various types of animals (sheep, wild boar, cattle) and to me stables are only for horses. Fraser pointed out that that was probably the Australian climate talking, rather than my extensive agricultural knowledge.
  • Nährwert - literally, Sustenance value. I kept Sustenance for about a day before switching, with the full agreement of everyone who had looked at the draft rules, to the much easier Food. It just sounded too over-the-top in English - just picture yourself asking an opponent, "How many sustenance will this acquisition provide me with?" Ugh.
  • Anspruch - Demand. On my quick reading of the rules, I had missed what these were for. There'd be time to clarify later.
  • Acker - Field. These are planted with vegetables or wheat.
  • Weide - Pasture. For animals.

Because I knew that this was a complex game and the rules were long and detailed (14 pages in the original German), I started a separate file with a glossary table. This let me quickly see what term I had already chosen (and make sure that I hadn't already used a word for something else - but more on that later). I've uploaded this file as a playeraid, as it should be useful for non-German-speakers who are trying to make sense of a card or space, but originally it was just for ensuring consistency across my translation. I believe that translation software is available (for professionals) that automatically manages these internal glossaries.

As I worked through the rules, I found that some of the terms really didn't work. The first to go was Training - when I found out more about the cards, I felt that some of them were not really training at all. Skills seemed to fit some of them - Wet nurse, Travelling players, Vegetable seller, Rat catcher - but not others. I toyed with Specialist but, in the end, I felt that Occupation was probably the best fit - although it still doesn't quite cover "Chief's daughter" or "Lazy student".

Next to go was the Demand marker - Claim seemed much more apt. Certain cards allow a player to take any raw materials that are left on an Action space at the end of a round. These markers are placed on the space as a visual cue that someone may take some resources. This is a nice addition that enhances the usability of the game.

Now it was time to get creative. The German terms Phase and Spielphase translate directly as 'phase' and 'phase of the game'. Ugh. There are 6 Spielphasen in Agricola, each consisting of a different number of rounds. Each round, in turn, consists of 4 Phasen (with a Harvest at the end of each Spielphase). I needed a better term for an English-speaking player, to avoid the problems we often experience in Power Grid and other games with this many-kind-of-phase problem.

I went with Stage - easily understood and clear. So now we have a game that is played in 6 stages. Each stage consists of a varying (diminishing) number of rounds, and each round consists of 4 phases. There is a harvest at the end of each stage, and a total of 14 rounds in the game. Seems clearer now, I hope.

At this point, a friend pointed out that rounds might not be the best choice of word either. Every time the rules referred to "round cards" he expected to be playing circular cards, not rectangular ones (there are no circular cards in the game). I solved this problem (I hope) by capitalising Round cards. Compare:

  • Play the next round card. (play a card that is circular?)
  • Play the next Round card. (play the next card from the Round cards deck).

Better, I hope. This decision led to lots of capitalisation through the rules, for consistency - hopefully it improves readability rather than hindering it.

It was around now, too, that I search-and-replaced Acquisition, which I couldn't like. I've used Improvement, which I think captures the spirit of what these cards do - they improve your family's home and farm. Examples: Bee hive, Chicken coop, Herb garden, Holiday house, Fish trap, Turnip field, Writing desk, Watermill.

One of the challenges of translating a game like this is that so many of the rules are actually on the cards. With 10 Major and 136 Minor Improvement cards, for instance, it just wouldn't be practical to include the effects of each card in the rulebook. This won't be a problem for someone playing the game (and the icons on the cards should make it OK for non-german-speakers), but for me as a translator it was a bit tricky. There were some emails back and forth to Germany about how exactly a fireplace worked to turn animals into food, and when you could bake bread in the various bread-baking facilities - all answered with a look at the relevant card. Too easy!

Beanfield Minor Improvement cardAnother example is the Beanfield Improvement shown to the right. (Image from Boardgamegeek - uploaded by the very patient Hanno Girke). While it may look a little daunting at first, all the information you need is on the card.

In the top left, we see the pre-requisite for the card: a player must have played 2 Occupation cards (2 Ausbildungen) before s/he can play this card. There is no cost to play the card (top right corner is empty). The number 1 in the gold circle shows that this card is worth 1 VP at the end of the game (scoring is only conducted at the end of the game) and the E indicates that this card belongs to the basic deck, important if players choose to play with only a limited number of cards. The highlighted text gives a brief description of the card: "Plant vegetables on this card" which is explained in more detail below: "When you choose the Seed Action, you can plant vegetables on this card as you would on a field (This card does not count as a field in the scoring). The icon, showing vegetable markers piled on a card, demonstrates this.

Once you understand how these cards work, and how they are laid out, it's easy to follow the rules.

This was where my OCD tendencies came in. As well as my glossary of game terms, I started a list of all the cards that were mentioned in the rules. This was important because I needed to make sure that I always used the same English term for the same German card - and that I didn't use the same English term for more than one German card! With so many cards, there are a few that can overlap - one example is the Fleischer and Metzger cards. Both words mean butcher - the only difference is in which area of Germany they are typically used. I didn't think that "Butcher (northern Germany)" and "Butcher (southern Germany)" would be particularly useful game terms, so eventually compromised on Butcher and Meat-seller.

Now, we were getting there.

Along the way, I had to make some formatting decisions. Although I never actually documented it, I essentially developed a Style guide, deciding how I would present the names of cards and actions and their German equivalents. Because this was an unofficial translation, to be used by English-speakers playing with a German copy of the game, I felt that it was important to include the German terms as well as the English translations. It makes the rules longer and somewhat more unwieldy to read, but I think it also makes them eminently more usable than if I had just produced an English-only document. Players will quickly recognise that Family Growth is Familienzuwachs on the board and on the cards, especially after playing the game several times.

I also had to decide how to deal with the gender issue. I'm just not comfortable using "he" for everything. Where possible, I avoided gender-specific terms or used s/he - and where longer text seemed to require more detail, I tried to alternate between she/her and he/his. I recognise that this will annoy some readers, but it would have annoyed me more not to have done this.

My rules document is not laid out like the German rules - it doesn't include the illustrations - but I have indicated where the page breaks are in the original rules so that anyone reading mine can refer to the illustrations and examples in the original document. A friend tells me that I need to produce prettier rules documents - at least using a serif font - and kindly tinkered with an early original - but in the end I couldn't bring myself to use his layout because it just didn't feel like the document I'd laboured over for the better part of a week. I never claimed to be rational about these things!

The rules didn't end with the original 11-page Word document, though. There was an additional Appendix (which runs to around 15 pages). This very useful document details the scoring and action spaces, and clarifies how the Improvement and Training cards work in combination with one another. Want to know how the 5 special ploughs work? Or what happens if you upgrade a Well to a Village well? Whether you can use a Market woman with your Market stand, or in what order to evaluate the Milking shed, Distaff (for spinning), Butter box mould, Milking stool and Weaving stool? How to use the Lassoo, or the Wood distributor? Whether you can combine a Stable boy and a Fence overseer? It's all here, and all spelled out in detail - based on what's on the cards. Not having the detail of the cards, I did have to fire off a few questions, mostly to do with interaction between the different players. Again, these were quickly and unambiguously answered with a look at the individual cards.

So what would I have done differently if this were an 'official' translation? Not much - I like to make my translations as good as I can, even if they are just (I hope) an interim step and planned to become obsolete - it would be great to see this game picked up by an English-language publisher. In the meantime, though, my goal is to make the game playable and unstressful for non-German-speakers - so it would be silly to cut corners.

I think the main differences are that for an official translation I would have had a full list of all the cards, which would also have needed translating, removing the need for so much to-ing and fro-ing about what the effects of a particular combination of cards might be. I'd also have put more detail into the names used for the cards - I think the terms I have are OK, but a book on 17th century agriculture might have clarified whether there are really such things as a Vehicular plough, Turning plough, Improved plough (OK that one might be a cheat), Furrowing plough and Hook plough. (Fraser is complaining that there's no Stump-Jump Plough -- maybe there needs to be an Australian expansion, with kangaroos, rabbit plagues, droughts and Jackaroos?) Depending on the publisher, I might also have to use US spellings (although that is perhaps better left for the editor to fix). A publisher might also have views on the personal pronoun/gender issues I discussed earlier.

Because my translation was for gamers, I didn't have to worry about some of the terms I used. I did eventually dump "Counter mix limit" (mostly, there isn't one, but there is a limit on the number of fences, stables and family members a player may have) as just toooo much jargon, but I have kept "orthogonally adjacent". I figure that anyone playing a German edition with a home-grown English translation is going to be a gamer, and gamers know what that means.

End result of the translation:

  • Rules (uploaded to BGG - currently in the Files queue)
  • Playeraid - glossary of game terms (uploaded to BGG - currently in the Files queue)
  • Appendix - scoring detail, clarification of interactions between cards, descriptions of cards (still proofreading)

At some stage, I hope to do a translation of the text of the cards as well, for the sake of completeness.

It's been interesting to chat briefly about the game with the lovely William Attia, who is doing the translation into French and who has encountered much the same issues as I have. Sadly, my French is almost non-existent (unlike his excellent English), which limited the opportunities to compare the two translations, but it was great to discuss the different terms that we were considering.

Thoughts on the game itself:

I think this will be fantastic. It is a deep, variable, well thought out and well-playtested game that is definitely worth a good long look. (In the interests of full disclosure, I should perhaps say that it seems on my reading(s) of the rules to be just the kind of game I like - role/action selection, development, limited number of rounds. )

I am unclear over how much interaction there is between players - I suspect this occurs mostly in the selection of actions in each round (any action may only be taken by 1 family member token, so there will be some competition) but some of the cards do seem to allow stealing a little more direct interaction.

The challenge is in building production to acquire other cards - developing a resource engine of sorts, I suppose - with the mix of cards that you have - thematically, making the most of your limited resources. You need to make new family members to help you with the work (Ha! I'm guessing the Rosenbergs don't have children!) but also to make sure that you can feed your family after each Harvest.

Players all have access to build the ten Major improvement cards which include fireplaces and cooking hearths for turning animals, wheat and vegetables into Food. In addition, each player is dealt a hand of 7 Occupation cards and 7 Minor improvements at the start of the game, which may be played as you achieve the required pre-requisites. Players do not draw additional cards during the game - you get what you're given - although a variant rule in the Appendix allows you to discard 3 cards from your hand and draw the (face-down) top card from one of the decks.

For non-German-speakers, the language barrier will be a hurdle initially, but I don't think it is anything like a show-stopper - with the clear layout of the cards, I don't even think that paste-ups will be needed. Obviously, it would be easier if it were in English, and it would be great to see this game picked up for an English language release <self-pimp>and I know a great translator who is very familiar with the game already</self-pimp> :)

The game itself offers incredible variety - I am not even going to try to calculate the number of possible combinations of cards - as well as a simplified "Family" game (no Minor improvements or Occupations) and a Solo game, where you are challenged to improve your score over successive games. Playing time is given as half an hour per player for the full game - shorter for a family game - and player age from 12 years or 10 for the family game. I'd be confident playing this with my 9 year old as well as with my gamer friends - from what I have seen, it has the range and flexibility to appeal to a wide variety of people.

Friday, September 28, 2007

A Short Rules Preview of Brass

Martin Wallace is one of my favorite designers. And so it was with great pleasure that I discovered that Brass, a new Wallace design, was nearing completion this fall. And when I saw that the rules were debuting on the Warfrog website, I knew I would have to download them pronto.

Brass is a game of industrial development in Lancashire in the early years of the Industrial Revolution. Players build coal mines, cotton mills, iron works, and shipyards in various cities, and try to connect these cities with canals (in the first half of the game) and railroads (in the second half). In fact, many industries cannot be built by a player until he connects the building location to his other industries by canal or rail.

Mr. Wallace has several mechanisms that limit players’ actions. First, each player has five stacks of industry tiles, divided by industry type. The tiles are arranged according to tech level, with the high-scoring high-tech tiles on the bottom of the stack. Players must build their less efficient low-tech industries before the higher tech ones become available.

Players also get a hand of cards to play each round, and each player may only play two cards per round. Cards allow the players to take the following actions: build an industry tile, build canals or rail links, remove the top tiles from their tile stacks (to get to the higher-tech tiles faster), sell cotton, or take a loan. The rules for cards allow players to combine the two cards they play each round into one action in order to get around some of the normal game restrictions. Card management seems to be a part of the game, but in most rounds players should have plenty of options.

Another limitation on growth is the need for coal or iron cubes to build certain industry tiles or rail links. Each coal mine tile produces coal cubes, and iron works produce iron, and players may obtain these resources even from tiles controlled by opponents. But if there are no appropriate cubes available on the tiles, players may need to purchase coal or iron from the game’s coal and iron demand tracks which may increase production costs.

But one man’s limitation is another man’s opportunity. When all the coal or iron cubes on a tile have been bought, that industry tile is flipped to its back side, and it yields income and victory points to the owning player. It seems that one strategy to the game is creating chains of industries that do not require outsiders to supply the raw materials for growth, and allows players to flip a maximum number of their own tiles to their profitable sides.

Another interesting twist is provided by the rules for selling cotton. There are no cotton cubes; when a player plays a sell-cotton card, all of his cotton mills that are connected to ports have the opportunity to sell their wares. But there is a cotton demand track that indicates how the price of cotton drops with every sale. Players may have to choose between using a valuable sell-cotton card now, or waiting to connect that final cotton mill to a port while hoping that another player doesn’t drive down the price in the meantime.

The opportunities for growth increase dramatically in the second half of the game as the rail era replaces the canal era. Each city can hold more industry tiles in the rail era, and there are some cities that can’t be connected to the others until the rail period is reached. Also, the canal connections are no longer operational in the rail era; players have to rebuild their network of connections using the new technology.

There are more rules, but this overview should give you a good idea of what the game is about, and the major mechanisms in it.

There are some posts on the Geek from gamers who are concerned that Brass doesn’t have much player interaction. But it seems to me very likely that competition for connections between cities and industry spaces (both are limited) should add a good deal of inter-player tension. Brass looks like another solid economic engine game from Martin Wallace, and it is one of the upcoming games that I am most looking forward to.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Adventure Games, Part Four: Talisman vs. Runebound

As we near the end of September, the release of the new, fourth edition of Talisman is just a few days away, and thus I've decided to take the opportunity to return to an old series of articles that I've written on adventure games, and compare how the old relates to the new.

A Brief History of Talisman

First, a brief history of Talisman. Although it was by no means the earliest adventure game--that accolade probably going to TSR's Dungeon! (1975)--it was the first that was really, greatly successful.

Talisman's first edition was released by Games Workshop in 1983. It was shortly thereafter followed by a better quality, but otherwise similar second edition. These games had the same core ideas: you played a unique character who you could improve by gaining Strength, Craft, and items. You tried to get enough power to make your way to the center of the board, then kill all the other players through the magical Crown of Command.

Talisman's success was probably most notable because of the fact that it was very well supplemented. First up were the Talisman Expansion Set (1986) and Talisman: The Adventure (1986). Many others expansions followed, offering up new characters, new boards, new cards, and generally new adventures.

However by the early 1990s Games Workshop had been sold by its original owners, with ownership going to miniatures manufacturer Citadel Games (through a somewhat more complicated series of shared ownerships that's beyond the scope of this article). Much of GW's focus was thus turned to Warhammer miniatures and other bigger money makers. GW tried to release Talisman in a much revised third edition (1994) which better fit the "cool" new image of the company, but that soon fizzled out.

Fast forward a decade and Games Workshop is now moving back toward the roleplaying and board game industries that they abandoned. Thus a new fourth edition of Talisman is scheduled to be fully released in a few days. It is built largely upon the second edition from over twenty years ago, without much effort to update it, and a result, Talisman now stands as a great example of how much adventure games have grown in that time.

Talisman v. Runebound

In the 1980s Talisman was the prime example of a competitive fantasy adventure game. However, while Games Workshop slumbered for the last decade, a new company usurped their adventure game crown: Fantasy Flight Games. Today FFG's Runebound is thus the prime example of a game in the same niche for competitive fantasy (as opposed to cooperative fantasy, like HeroQuest or Descent).

Thus, comparing the two games shows how the genre has changed over the years. It also offers some good fodder for what adventure game designers should be thinking about when they create.

Character Modeling: Characters in Talisman were modeled by three elements: strength, craft, and life. Conversely characters in Runebound are much more complex. They are have 3 combat stats, not 2, and each stat further has its own combat results. Characters can also have specific skills, and besides life also have fatigue.

Unlike the other elements I'll mention, I don't consider this a straight win for Runebound. There is something to be said for both simple and complex modeling, particularly for games that are seeking to appeal to different audiences.

Randomness: Every adventure game is random. Encounters are usually randomly determined, and the results of those--depending on some sort of task resolution system--are usually random as well. However Talisman really cranked that randomness up a few levels more.

First of all, movement was largely random. You rolled dice, and then you moved the appropriate number of spaces clockwise or counterclockwise around the board, meaning that you typically had two choices. Runebound offers an interesting contrast here, because again you roll dice, but a handful of Runebound dice determines what terrain you can walk on. It's the difference between randomness limiting you to but two choices and limiting you to a half-dozen or more, between whether you'll be equally limited next turn, or whether you're setting yourself up for future play.

Second, the encounters in Talisman are hugely random. You draw a card which can be anything from a wussy 1-point monster to a 7-point dragon to gold or treasure to a talisman that you need to win the game. Compare that to Runebound where instead monster power levels are differentiated by four different decks of cards, which in turn lead to appropriate levels of gold or items drawn from a separate deck.

Power Differentiation: This leads to the second way in which Runebound has dramatically grown beyond Talisman.

In Talisman there was very little differentiation between creature encounter level. Wherever you were on the board, you could encounter any monster. There were only two exceptions: a few spaces made all monster encounter harder; and some tough encounters were printed on the board instead of depending on card draw.

Compare that to Runebound where, as already noted, different levels of monster come from different decks of cards.

However I also think that Talisman has one thing to teach Runebound here: pre-printed encounters can really add to the story of a game. I'm surprised there hasn't been much of that in the newer game.

Time: One of the surprising elements in the evolution of adventure game design is that the time element hasn't changed a lot. Talisman was a 3-6 hour game, while Runebound is more like 45-60 minutes per player, which probably averages 3 or 4 hours. In my opnion, they're both too long, and it's the primary problem with Runebound.

Talisman, mind you, deals with its time issues even worse than its more recent brethren: because characters can get wiped out and restarted and because players can more easily stop leaders, you can have an endgame that goes back and forth for hours. Worse, you can end up with everyone back where they started a few hours into a game. Runebound's newer design has eliminated issues of player elimination and brutal beat-up-on-the-leader sufficiently to keep the game's length from becoming totally unbounded.

(Meanwhile Return of the Heroes has proven that adventure games can be played quickly.)

Background & Story: Neither game has really learned how to tell a meaningful story through a board game. Talisman tried to model it by the set spaces on the board telling a story as a player moved inward, while Runebound tried to model it through randomly drawn event cards and the increasing levels of monsters.

An interesting element of Talisman is that it manages to get away with a pretty straight high fantasy background. Runebound instead turns to a more unique background of dark fantasy with evil dragon lords. This seems pretty common for the more recent adventure games: they're more unique and differentiated with their backgrounds, but thus they also lose some of the easy recognizability of standard tropes.


After my recent plays of Talisman I have no doubt that Runebound is a far better game and that Talisman was greatly hurt by its refusal to be updated for 20 years of game design growth. I think the randomness and the lack of power differentiation are the biggest strikes against Talisman--unless you're specifically playing with a non-gaming crowd who doesn't want to have to think about their moves.

Not that Runebound is the greatest shakes, mind you. It suffers from long games and repetitive play, but it also shows off how much games have improved since the 1980s.

If you'd like to see my earlier adventure game articles, click on the "adventure_games" label just below.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Princess of Florence

I've always been a fan of Princes of Florence.

Over the years, it's proven to be an excellent game. It provides a little bit of lots of things, auctioning, planning, spatial layout, etc. All the different bits adding up to a complete package that has never struck me as painfully solitaire, scripted, or any of the other complaints I've heard. I enjoy the fact that the auction is very new-auction-person friendly because you must raise by exactly one step and the more you lose, the more likely you are to pay less money.

Over the years of many games of Princes, I've seen auction values solidify. The jesters are worth lots of money, the landscapes aren't. Building is a viable strategy, but only if the auction values are high. To sum up, there are several paths and choices to take in obtaining victory, and the best paths often depend on the auction value of jesters and recruiting cards. If those items are going cheaply to players who know what to do with them....

But that's the case with most games where an auction is used to balance disparate items. I've run through my thoughts in order to give you a background of where I'm coming from, since I've recently finished playing Princes of Florence with the "Princess and Muse" expansion1.

It was great. Easily the best expansion for a game I've played all year. I wish I didn't have to play with the printouts from BGG. Why was it great?

It changed the game. Princess and Muse adds another auction to the game. After the standard PoF auction, players then bid on character cards. There are six characters that are auctioned in a Amun-Re/Evo/Vegas Showdown style. This means that all characters are auctioned at once, players can win at most one character, by placing their markers next to the cards on the amount they want to bid, taking markers off when they are outbid. Once each player has a winning bid on a character (or has passed), players pay the current bid and get the character they won.

I won't detail the characters abilities here (files available at BGG), but the abilities of the characters throw all the traditional auction valuation of PoF into disarray. To underline this fact to regular PoF players - in our game one player obtained four jesters. He came in fifth. Several of the characters have abilities that provide greater competition for Best Work towards the end of the game. Landscapes become more valuable. Hanging back in Victory points becomes a valid strategy. More prestige/bonus cards can enter the game. It changes a lot of things. All interesting.

In summary, it opened up new ways to win the game, and strengthened some older risky strategies. By doing this, the stronger strategies were weakened. It also feels like it increased the scores - the winning scores were about 10-15 points higher than normal. But that's hard to state with just one play.

It fit. The addition of the characters didn't feel jarring, and it didn't feel like a leftover idea. It feels like a fully developed add-on to the game. This is important to me - all too often expansions feel like the leftovers of design or development - ideas that get published after being rejected for the initial design. Princess really feels like a further development of the game.

But I would be remiss to not mention the drawback. There's one, which you could probably see coming. It adds time to the game. With the addition of another auction phase, our game took about 1.5 times as long. Part of this was obviously learning the characters, but I doubt a game of PoF with this expansion could be done in 60 minutes - something that was theoretically possible for a group of experienced players. So I wouldn't recommend the expansion become a permanent part of PoF - especially when teaching new players.

Two big thumbs up for Princess and Muse. If you like PoF, I encourage you to grab the translations from BGG and give it a try. The files aren't the best of quality - but it's good enough to play the expansion.



1 A recent republication of Princes in Dutch shipped with three expansions to the more common Alea/Rio Grande version. The changes are: Two-player rules, the "Princess and Muse", and "Cooperative Building". I'd also like to try the Cooperative building rules, but haven't yet2.

2 And these aren't actually the first expansions for PoF. They are simply the first published ones. Kramer (the designer) posted a series of tweaks and changes to the game on his website several years ago. These tweaks are obviously less developed than the Princess expansion - my guess is that the newer expansions came out of his tweaking the game. I've never used any of the tweaks, though we kept planning to do so3.

3 Okay, enough already! But I also felt I should mention that we do use one rule tweak in our games of PoF, and we have since the dawn of time(tm). That rule is as follows: "In a 4-5 player game of PoF, once there is only one profession card left in the deck, that card is turned face up next to the board. No player can buy this card, but it can be recruited as normal". This means that no player has an 'extra' profession card. Unless a player decides to forgo a profession card and another player snatches it. End of tiered footnotes.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Itchy feet, evil plans and enlightened self-interest

Ah, Spring is here. This is the time of year when my feet really start to itch.

No, I'm not talking about some personal fungal problem set off by the warmer weather - I'm talking about the urge to travel. With new rules and other game information posted daily, it seems, it's hard for any gamer to ignore the siren song of Essen. Come October, I will be one of many people scouring the internet for those first reports of "What I did today" and thanking the many people who post those wonderful reports.

It's also the time when Certain People begin bugging me for rules translations. A friend and I joked yesterday that there's a whole new P500-style business model there - either taking GG donations to determine which game to (unofficially) translate first, or starting a translation and leaving it at a critical point, with an appropriate ransom note.

Ransom note: We have your rules. Please send 100 GG in unmarked bills or the green pieces will be eliminated.
I am sorely tempted.

The Australian Games Expo next June may not be on the same scale as Essen, but it has its own attractions. Over the past two years, it has established itself as the premier event for boardgames in the country, and possibly the region. I'm excited about the Boardgames Australia awards, especially as game submissions are starting to trickle in. Not only are the awards a great step forward in promoting and raising the profile of games in this country, they also give me the opportunity to try lots of great new games. Enlightened self-interest is a wonderful thing.

I'm also excited about the Boardgame Designer event that we will be running in conjunction with the Expo next year. We already have one publisher who will be hearing pitches from game designers, and we hope to recruit more as publishers sign up to attend the Expo. There will be quite a few people from the Expo at Essen this year, so say hello to them if you recognise the "Australian Games Expo" shirts.


Gone Gaming is looking for guest bloggers! Please get in touch or leave a comment if you would be interested in writing for us.

Friday, September 21, 2007

A Short Rules Review of El Capitan

I don’t know what to think after reading the rules for El Capitan, the upcoming game from Wolfgang Kramer and Horst-Rainer Rosner and Z-Man games. Actually, it is a re-themed version of an older game called Tycoon, but I don’t know of anyone who has played the older game. Of course, maybe it’s just West Virginia that is out of the German gaming loop.

Anyway, back to first impressions. The rules seem simple and elegant, and experienced gamers could probably read the rules and start playing within ten to twenty minutes of opening the game. But it is also an area majority game, and on alternate Fridays I sometimes wonder if we haven’t had enough of these kind of games. Then again, I thought the same thing when reading the Midgard rules, and I ended up loving Midgard.

To the rules. In the game players are Renaissance-era merchants trying to dominate the trade in the Mediterranean. Players get cash for having the most (or second-most) warehouses in the various ports, for having fortresses in ports, and for having warehouses in a large number of different ports. There is a bonus for the first player to have warehouses in all nine ports.

The main decisions players make are based on assigning resources to one of three things:

Sailing cards (which move each players’ ships from port to port)

Warehouses (the main token of control that gets placed in each port city)

Fortresses (expensive tokens that guarantee a payoff of some kind)

I probably don’t even have to describe the game turn in any detail. You can imagine players using cards to sail to various destinations, and then spending cash to place warehouses and fortresses in destination ports. The overall description of the game reminded me a little bit of Winds of Plunder, but with more emphasis on placing tokens in ports and with less of the pillage-other-players aspect.

One of the little curve balls that the designers place on the area-majority mechanism is that new warehouses will eventually drive out old ones. After so many warehouses are placed in each city, the earliest warehouses are taken out of the city. This can create the need for players to return to cities visited earlier in the game to refresh their holdings.

Another odd twist is that players who can’t afford to do anything on their turn are forced to take a loan. Repayment of these loans can become expensive.

The rules also feature three optional-rules ports that players can add to the game. Each of these special cities is unusual in some way or has a unique power. One port adds a pirate ship to the game that players can use to collect cash from other players (and make the game a little more like Winds of Plunder). These optional ports certainly look like they can be added to the basic game without increasing complexity very much.

The Mike Doyle artwork will certainly make El Capitan a great-looking game. And I suspect that it will play smoothly. When the game appears in the near future, I will be very interested to see if the mechanics are original enough to impress the Appalachian Gamers.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Goodbye / Old Puzzler Answer


Well, this is it. The last post for me. I’ve had fun posting on Gone Gaming for however long I’ve been at it. Thanks, Coldfoot, for the initial invitation and everyone else for being so welcoming and helpful.

After managing World Games of Montana for a year (now under the management of Jonathan Crummett; also known as Ksensei on BGG) and writing game reviews for the local paper the Missoulian for two years, I can’t help but see a bright future for board gaming. Dozens of people came into the game store who had never been in before, and a good percentage found themselves liking what they found. Of course, our best sellers never really strayed too far from anywhere else (Settlers, Ticket to Ride, Blokus), though I did my best to push Aquarius with fairly nice results. The board gaming hobby is getting a greater voice as more and more people find out about easy-to-play and fun new games.

As a reader of Gone Gaming, I have been so impressed with the other contributors and their public demonstrations of board games. This isn’t a hobby like stamp collecting or coin collecting. In our hobby, games are meant to be shared and played. The difference is fundamental. Our hobby is contagious in this regard, and it seems to me only a matter of time before our hobby becomes more mainstream. I really appreciate hearing about successful Game Days, conventions, and family game parties. We need more of them in more places, in my opinion. This pastime goes back thousands of years, and I see no reason why the masses would hesitate to adopt it in its current manifestation if they were familiar with its charms.

As Annie and I prepare for our West Africa trip, I want everyone to know that I intend to play games, games, games with everyone I meet. I want to become more proficient at 10x10 Canadian Checkers (or International Checkers) because that’s what they play a ton of in Guinea and any other games we encounter. And of course, we’re taking a handful of Euros and classic games, from Jambo (of course!) to Cathedral, as well as games like cribbage and chess. And don’t forget to look for a feature in Knucklebones about West African games about 10 months in the future!

So thanks again for allowing me to participate in this hobby from the inside out. Good luck to everyone, and may the dice and cards fall in your favor.


Old Puzzler Q & A

Q: I took a common four-word phrase which is 25 letters long and deleted 10 letters from it. Without rearranging or reorganizing the letters, I simply changed the word breaks to form the new phrase: NED ATE STALE RICE. What was the original four-word phrase?

A: It was a government organization: UNITED STATES POSTAL SERVICE.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Balancing a game

I recently misread a post over on BoardGameNews on the game called Age of Discovery. I thought the writer was talking about Age of Empires III: The Age of Discovery, but it turns out Age of Discovery is a different game (although with enough similar terms to make me confused.)

In any case, the point of the article was about game balance and it got me thinking. There are clearly some games that have victory conditions that could have been better balanced. I can't believe this is a design choice when one of a few simple possibilities could have been added to the mix to better balance the game.

While that makes a fine discussion in itself, there are a few ways in which a game can be balanced but make me wonder if the game balancing mechanism is more of a cop-out rather than a well thought-out and thoroughly playtested mechanic. I'm talking here about Auctions, natural "pick on the leader" player balancing, and risk management. I'm sure everyone has their own opinion on these, as do I, but whether you like or dislike them I think an argument could be made that they are one of the simplest ways to balance a game that might otherwise have some problems in it. On the one hand, any of these could be added to a poorly balanced game to make it slightly better, but I wonder if some so-so games that incorporate these mechanisms might have made it to the "next level" had the designer found some additional ways to tune their game to rely less on these balancing options.

Lets take them in order. Auctions are found in so many games, and while I enjoy an auction game as much as the next guy I also think some are rather a cop-out when it comes to game balancing. As long as everyone gets a somewhat fair shot at whatever is being bid on it is difficult for an auction based game to become imbalanced. If there is a really juicy, powerful item to be bid on, players can simply bid it up high to make sure things balance out (can you say "Jester in Princes of Florence" - I knew you could....) The main drawback for this style of play balancing is that players simply must know and understand the value of what they're bidding on. Thus, a decent auction game is really only at its best after at least three or four games. Another example is the simple game No Thanks! I really enjoy the game as it is quick to teach and still has some decent decision-making going on. What players are really doing during the game is a sort of reverse auction by bidding on NOT taking cards. The first teaching game I play with people always acts quite strange as some players overvalue the chips and others undervalue the cards. But after two or three games most people settle quickly into a very similar valuation to cards and chips. The fun remains in the game due to its push your luck nature and the fact that it plays fast so taking a risk here or there doesn't doom a player to another hour of painful loss before the game can end.

Expanding upon the auction mechanism for game-balancing is when a designer leaves it up to the players to continue to balance the game as it plays out. Basically, requiring players to "bash the leader" or at least the perceived leader. While nearly every game has some mechanisms that allow players to interact some have very few and limited mechanisms while others have many and encourage lots of player interaction. One extreme might be Goa or other games of its ilk that are sometimes considered “multiplayer solitaire” (although I love Goa.) While the other extreme would be a wargame like Risk where nearly everyone can pick on one person exclusively if they so choose. In a poorly “balanced” game, player interactions can overcome a single player’s advantages but it always leaves a bad taste in my mouth to have to gang up on a person simply to take them out because they had a lucky draw or lucky starting position. Also, having players do your “dirty work” in balancing a game can make the game last a long time as each successive leader is beaten back into the pack until someone sneaks in a win. This can be fun, but since it often rewards the sneakiest or best fast-talker in the group, it can be annoying for others. (To keep my conscience clear I will admit I tend to be one of the better fast-talkers at most of my gaming tables… however, I like it best when I can claim superior play in addition to “good negotiation”.)

A final style of balancing a game (that I’ll be covering) is introducing an element of risk. (No, not the game.) While some players hate risk (and tend to call it “luck”) in their games, I am not adverse to at least some semblance of risk in my games. An example of this type of balancing could be done by comparing Puerto Rico to Age of Empires III. In both games, the end-game has upgrades (buildings in PR, capitol upgrades in AoE3) that help players score additional points in the endgame. In Puerto Rico the buildings are known from the game start and are available to the first player who can purchase them. While a couple of the buildings are usually slightly better than others, they are all quite comparable in the number of victory points they grant. In contrast, Age of Empires III has several capitol upgrades at the end of the game that add victory points but not all of those upgrades are going to be available in every game. Additionally, players have to vie for placement when trying to purchase them, they aren’t simply available to the first player who can afford them. They pop into existence (if at all) when the third age of the game begins. Thus, strategies that rely heavily on capitol upgrades (like most of the money-making strategies) may not always get the upgrades they need (or want). Just which upgrades become available may determine the game. So, while I think some of the money-making strategies are the strongest ones in the game, they also rely on getting good capitol upgrades and thus are more likely to suffer the whims of fate in the last few rounds. Thus, what some might call (me) “stronger” strategies are leveled out somewhat because they become slightly riskier. Push your luck types of games could be put in a similar category. Pursuing riskier strategies can provide larger payoffs, but are also more likely to fail in a big way. While I would have a hard time accepting a large effect of this type in a longer (an hour or two) game, it is perfectly acceptable in a shorter game.

How about you, are there ways you feel that games can be balanced (ie. The various strategies/cards/abilities) more than they are? Are there no-brainer styles of game balance (like just letting players take care of it themselves) that you find overused?

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Duel in the Dark

I first played Duel in the Dark back in June at the Australian Games Expo. It was just the one game with Zev from Z-Man games explaining the rules, I was quite taken by it.

Only a limited number of copies have hit Australian stores so far and Greg managed to get one of those. He has been playing it at lunchtime at work, but unfortunately he is now working in another part of the city, so I had to wait until Thursday night.

We played six games in a row. Three different nights with different weather and we played each night twice, once as the Germans and once as the British. We were playing the basic rules.

In a comment on a recent Gone Gaming post Larry talked about situational luck and resolutional luck. The former being this is the situation in front of you, i.e. the deal of the cards and now it is up to you to make the best of it and an example of the latter being where you have set up an event, e.g. an attack, and then a die roll is used to determine the outcome.

Duel in the Dark is a game that has no resolutional luck, but certainly has situational luck. There are four main aspects of situational luck that I can see and they are all quite thematic.

Firstly there is the weather. Is it clear skies? Full moon or new moon? Fog over the German airfields? Cloud cover or thunderstorms over the British target? What is the prevailing wind? All these things are are dependent on the weather card drawn and all can have an impact on both players. The British player would generally prefer not to have to fly over Germany on a clear night in summer with a full moon. Yes it does make it easier to see the target, but it also makes it easier for the night fighters to see the bombers. There are generally pros and cons to each aspect of the weather. The British see the weather and have to then plan the bombing mission taking into account the weather. The Germans then need to plan their air defence allocation based on what target the British may choose. There is an element of gambling or bluff here. If the weather looks like it is favourable for the British to attack Northern Germany, does the German bulk up the defences in the North leaving the South vulnerable only to find that the English player has gambled on the German doing precisely that and attacks Southern Germany? Trying to protect all cities equally can leave the German defences spread very thin. Even the wind direction can play an important part. In one of our games I chose the target city based on my plan to fly the majority of the way back to Britain flying directly into the wind which plays havoc with the German night fighters and their fuel.

As already mentioned, the second element is the British target and the route to and from the target. Will the British player go for the short, quick and generally safer but less rewarding mission? Or will it be to strike deep into the heart of Germany with a much increased reward but many more chances of being intercepted by the Germans? The British player must decide without knowing the layout of the air defences, but then again the German player then has to plan the air defences without knowing what the target city is.

The air defences themselves are the third element. The German player has forty items to distribute. As mentioned above, where to place them can be important. Also the mix. Radar units help night fighters, but not flak. Refuelling trucks can be very useful if you expect to be operating a lot of night fighters in the area, how many searchlights should you put in a given city? The questions and decisions go on and on. The British player cannot change the bomber's course in reaction to the air defences, however the Mosquito may be used to disable pesky search lights, damage important airfields etc. that may aid the British mission.

For the German player the fourth element is the Mosquito squadron. It is really an element of bluff on the part of the British player. Why has he moved the Mosquito directly in front of the bomber and knocked out one the searchlights in that hex? Is it because that is where the bomber is going and it is serving as an escort? Or is it because the bomber is about to veer to the South and he wants to lure the night fighters away from the bomber? Possibly the German can read the British player, or can deduce from the actions and the possibly target what the British intention is, but if the British player is mentally flipping a coin to determine between escort or lure then I would say there is an element of luck involved. Depending on the weather the German player can lose points when entering the hex with the Mosquito. If it is acting as an escort then these points should be made back with interest when intercepting the bomber, but if the Mosquito was just a lure then the sacrifice was for nothing. This decision point can be quite tense for the German, especially when the fighters are low on fuel and this may be their last chance of an intercept for a turn or two.

We played our six games in three to four hours. Each individual game can be considered a game in itself, but it is nice to play the reverse side and to string a number of missions back to back.

Whilst it doesn't scratch the same gaming itch that say a seven player game of Civilization does, it certainly does make for a very engrossing quite short game and scratches that gaming itch very well.

I'm looking forward to getting my own copy, moving on to the advanced rules and adding the expansion tiles I recently received into the mix and playing many more nights over Germany.

Mmm meeples taste like...

Friday, September 14, 2007

The Zooloretto Expansions

No, it’s not a Robert Ludlum novel. The Zooloretto Expansions are free downloads that are available on Boardgamegeek.

I only became aware of Zooloretto after it won the Spiel des Jahres. Once it showed up on my radar, the award, the zoo theme, and the family-friendly aura of the game made it an easy purchase. Michael Schacht’s game certainly seems to be the kind of easy-to-play and low-complexity game that usually wins the Spiel des Jahres.

And that seemed to be the problem with the game for some of the Appalachian Gamers. After one play, they decided it was too simple. Not many tough decisions, not much strategy. Next game, please.

I almost agree. It certainly is on the short-and-simple end of the gaming spectrum. Usually I like games longer and meatier. But I played Zooloretto with the expansions, and they probably tipped the scales in Z’s favor. They added just enough decisions and options to keep Zooloretto from being shoved into my mental kids-game ghetto.

For those who haven’t played the game, I will just say that the object of the game is to collect zoo animal tiles and fill up your enclosures with these animals. Each enclosure can only hold one species of animal, and any extra species that you acquire that can’t be fitted into an enclosure causes you to lose points.

The main mechanism of the game is filling trucks with tiles, and then choosing one truck each round. Each truck has room for three tiles, and each turn a player has an option of picking a tile and adding it to a truck, or of claiming a truck. The trick is to get a truck with the tiles you need while sticking tiles you can’t use on other trucks. The problem is that other players may be sticking their unwanted tiles on a truck you want to claim.

Players also have a small amount of cash that they can use to rearrange the tiles they have already claimed, buy animals from other players, discard unwanted tiles, or to give themselves a fourth enclosure.

Perhaps the most fun part of the game is that some of the animals are marked with a male or female symbol which indicates that the animal is fertile. Get a fertile pair and they will produce one baby animal. Everyone likes the idea of a getting a free bonus baby, and fertile animals are always in high demand.

There’s a little more to the game than what I’ve mentioned, but not a lot more. As you can see, the game system is not very complicated. The game plays quickly, and I haven’t seen any serious cases of analysis paralysis (something that Appalachian Gamers are prone to when playing heavier games like Age of Empires III).

So what do the expansions add?

First, each player gets a two-space petting zoo enclosure. The petting zoo will only hold baby animals. The twist on the petting zoo is that unlike other enclosures, it generates cash but no victory points.

A second expansion adds three two-space enclosures that can be purchased for cash. Each of these three enclosures is coded to accept only one particular species of animal (panda, camel, and chimp). These enclosures can generate extra points for players, but they also create extra demand for these three species, and this can make it more difficult for some players to fill their enclosures with these types of animals.

A third expansion includes two pavilion tiles that can be purchased for cash. These pavilions can be placed in an enclosure in place of an animal tile, and thus makes it easier to fill up enclosures.

There is also a restaurant tile that can be purchased to increase the value of vendor tiles. But this is one element that I haven’t used when playing the game, and I won’t comment on it further.

These expansion elements are simple, elegant, and free. I believe Rio Grande is going to publish an official expansion to the game which may include more than just the elements I’ve mentioned. But I don’t know when it will be available.

Even with these expansions, a lot of gamers may find Zooloretto too light-weight for their tastes. But give them a try. The price is right.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Card Games & Randomness

Recently my Thursday night gaming group has had the opportunity to play some top quality card games, among them Tichu and the German Doppelkopf. Comparing and talking about these games led to interesting discussions of the the element of randomness in card games, which I offer up here for additional thoughts and comments.

The Heart of Randomness

Our conversation got started with one of players saying that Doppelkopf was too random.

The thing is, however, that almost any card game is random. It's a necessary and implicit part of the process. You take 52 cards (or whatever) and divide them up among the players. For a standard 4-player game that represents 635,013,559,600 different possibilities. In other words, sometimes you're going to get a really bad hand and sometimes you're going to get a really good one.

That's life. Or at least a card game.

I know of a couple of games that try and modify this. The classic is Duplicate Bridge where multiple people all play the same hands of cards, and then how well they did is compared. Personally, I find this entirely at odds with how cards work: they're a purposefully arbitrary mechanism meant to divide resources in a random method. To make sure everyone has the same hands is not only tedious, but also suggests you're not using the right component.

Trump, Tricks, Game is a rare game that I saw that had a method to redistribute cards that wasn't random but that I actually respected. After the first round of play you play additional rounds with the cards that you won previously, thus creating an additional level of decisions in the game, where you must not just collect valuable cards, but also cards that will let you do well in future round.

Offsetting Randomness

Given that randomness is a core element of card games, the question then becomes how do you offset it to make the elements of skill more important than the randomness?

The best answer is time. A card game will best offset randomness through continued play of hand after hand. My general assessment is that games that allow for 10-15 hands of play are getting to point where the standard deviation is creeping down, and players have generally had the same amount of luck over a game.

(Though always there will be some games were someone's luck was just unbeatable.)

Regrettably, this is where a lot of Eurogames fall down. They've gotten so into the mindset of short, simple games that you have card games where you might only play one round, or at best a number of rounds equal to the number of players, and this just doesn't do it. If those games feel random, it's probably because they still are.

(And it should further be noted that a lot of Euro card games are light enough that they can't support more than that amount of play, meaning that the high randomness is unfortunately an implicit part of the game that can't be reasonably corrected.)

However the best classic card games have at least three other ways to offset randomness, and these are generally methods that Euro card games could learn from.

The first method is value assessment. This means looking at the hand of cards you were dealt and then determining how good it is. Most games like Bridge and Spades do this through bidding. Poker's betting accomplishes about the same purpose--at least absent bluffing, reading opponents, and other elements that confuse the core value assessment.

The second method is hand refinement. Games like Hearts and Tichu do this by passing and receiving cards from opponents. It's more meaningful in a game like Tichu where you're trying to create various card patterns then in a game like Hearts where you're mainly focusing on Hearts, Spades, and voids. The commercial game Havoc: The Hundred Year's War does it via card-drafting, as does the classic Coloretto.

The third method is card play. Or rather, good card play. If the way to play cards is obvious, you're not going to offset any randomness, but if a good card player can make much more clever use of his cards--even if it's just by quickly completing voids or learning to see how your cards can simultaneously match a few different patterns--then his skill will start to shine through, especially as more rounds of play occur.


Yes, card distribution is random, but good card games overcome that. You have to play more hands, and the game has to be deep enough to support it. However even beyond that I think you'll find that the very best card games offset randomness even more with card assessment, hand refinement, or some combination thereof.

Light Euro card games could learn well from these, and consider how these methods could be built into their own gameplay.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Wrestling with Long games

How do you approach a complex game? Continuing my thoughts from two weeks ago, I'm debating how you can get games of a more rambling nature onto the table. Rambling in this case defined as games longer than 2 hours - which seems to be the point at which players start saying no.

The big question in my mind is if it is worth having the first session be a 'teaching' game. basically a game with a strict time or turn limit, with the stated purpose of teaching the rules.

Many people seem to espouse this approach, but it's never really felt right to me.

1) If the game is long by nature, then a shortened version doesn't capture the game.
A game like revolution is only 5 turns - at roughly 1 turn an hour. A two turn game has missed two-thirds of the game, and much of the benefit of a longer game (long-term strategy) is aborted. I'd argue that one of the key selling points of a longer game is the ability to choose to play for the long term. Taking short turn hits to position/income/whatever with the expectation to do better farther into the game.1

2) Bringing the same players together for a second game is hard.
I consider myself lucky to have a smaller game group that's been meeting weekly for years. There's 5 of us, but with life being what it is, it is not uncommon for the group to be four. Invariably, if we play a longer game, one player isn't there. And the next time the game is brought out, they are. I can only imagine how much worse this would be with a large/more infrequent group. So, if rules will always be taught, why play an aborted game?

There are plenty of reasons for running a shortened game, but I've rarely managed to convince myself it is a good idea. This cropped up because last week I ran a shortened game of American Megafauna at EndGame. I wanted to try out third edition/SOS style play and AM is a game that is going to be at least 3 hours the first time you play. I decided to call the game after 2 hours of play, and ultimately it worked. American Megafauna2 is a game that doesn't really call for a specific game length, so 'artificially' making a game timer trigger then endgame wasn't a problem. So a shorter game worked. Yay!

But I still don't think that it is the solution for all longer games. Mostly, I think the first play of longer games require players to commit to not worrying about victory. Yes, someone is going to win3, but the goal in the first play is to see what the game is like, and learn what tactics can survive through the mid-game into the end, and which ones are dead ends.

Unfortunately, giving up on victory is a hard thing to do - especially for a game that lasts two or three times as long as other available games. But the reward... well, that's for me to have more people who know how to play longer games.


1Some shorter games manage this as well (usually the ones that last closer to 2 hours than one), but most shorter games are much more unforgiving of sacrificial ploys or delaying tactics. Some shorter games are good precisely because players must time everything 'just right' (ex. figuring out when to migrate from money to points in Puerto Rico) but don't permit players to play much beyond the current board position.

2Phil Eklund is the designer of American Megafauna. And the Lords of... series. His games are truly odd unweildy beasts, and I'll get back to you with my impressions of them eventually, but one interesting facet is that the games don't really have a specific endpoint. Sure, the rules tell you when to end the game, but then they also say "or when everyone agrees to stop".

3 And yes, the person who has read the rules/played the game has an advantage.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Pick the Piece!

Time to lighten things up a little with another quiz.

But first, a message from our sponsor!


We are looking for new and guest bloggers for Gone Gaming.

If you are interested, please make contact!


What game are you playing if you use the following pieces/cards/tiles/game constructs...

Count bonus points if you get more than 1 game for an answer.

1. Shoot to Kill
2. Robber
3. Wheelbarrow
4. Cinema
5. Temple Guard
6. Jester
7. Phoenix
8. Garbage (Trash)
9. Giant Spider
10. Mosquito
11. Ra
12. Archon
13. Trade Tower
14. Conveyer Belt
15. Anne of Austria
16. Cube tower
17. Dummy
18. Caballero
19. Seer
20. Geese
21. Polyp
22. Silver Mine
23. Barn
24. Overseer
25. Trollwagon
26. Meat
27. Crocodile/s (you should get at least 3)
28. Sex
29. Vulch
30. Crown of Command

Hopefully they aren't too difficult - a relaxing activity for a lazy Sunday :)

Happy gaming!


Friday, September 07, 2007

A Rules Comparison of Hellenes and Athens vs. Sparta

This week, I noticed that two separate game companies have upcoming block games based on the Peloponnesian War, and both of these games have rules that are available for download. GMT Games may eventually publish Hellenes: Athens vs. Sparta, a game designed by Craig Besinque. Columbia Games hopes to publish Athens vs. Sparta, a game designed by Tom Dalgliesh, in the near future. I believe that Mr. Besinque’s game was originally going to be published by Columbia Games, but the backstory on the production of these games is of little interest to me. I just want to compare the rules, and note the similarities and differences.

Both games seem to be based or inspired by Jerry Taylor’s Hammer of the Scots system (although Mr. Besinque might say that it is based on EastFront or Rommel in the Desert—two of his earlier block games), and gamers familiar with the HotS will have little trouble learning these new games. Players get a hand of cards every turn, and then play these cards for their action point value or to trigger certain events. Card play also determines which player goes first in a turn.

RULES: The rules for Hellenes are nine pages long, and the rules for Athens vs. Sparta are eight pages long. The games seem to have roughly the same level of complexity.

MAPBOARDS: The mapboards of these games look remarkably similar. Hellenes has an area map and Athens vs. Sparta has a hex map, but the areas of Hellenes are about the same size as the hexes in Athens vs. Sparta.

SCENARIOS: Hellenes features several scenarios while Athens vs. Sparta only has one. The Hellenes card deck has some cards that are used only for certain scenarios.

GAME LENGTH: The Hellenes rules claim that the game can be played in four hours. The Athens vs. Sparta rules note that the game will last two to three hours.

GAMES TURNS: Turns in Hellenes represent a season, and there are special rules for winter turns. Turns in Athens vs. Sparta seem to represent a number of months, but the rules aren’t specific about what this length of time is. There are no winter turns in Athens vs. Sparta.

VICTORY POINTS: Both games award victory points for control of cities. In Hellenes, players can also gain points by winning battles or pillaging enemy cities. In Athens vs. Sparta, only control of cities gives players victory points.

LEADER CARDS: Hellenes features leader cards that remain in play from turn to turn and that give extra actions to players.

MOVEMENT: In Hellenes, all the units in a single area can be activated for movement. In Athens vs. Sparta, players must use action points to activate individual units. In Hellenes, units can attempt to force march, but they risk becoming weaker due to stragglers. In Athens vs. Sparta, units can double their movement allowance in a strategic move as long as the moving unit avoids enemy units. In both games, fleet units can transport land units.

COMBAT: Combat is remarkably similar in both games. Both use much the same system as Hammer of the Scots, except that both games have special rules for sieges and fleet combat.

CONCLUSIONS: Hellenes and Athens vs. Sparta are remarkably similar games (and you can probably guess the reasons why). You can preorder Hellenes from GMT at a price of $48.00. The Columbia Games website claims that Athens vs. Sparta will be available this month at a price of about $70.00. This would make Hellenes the bargain hunter’s choice, but there is no guarantee that GMT will get enough pre-orders for this game to publish it anytime soon.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Penultimate Farewell / Old Puzzler / New (and Last) Biweekly Puzzler

My time with Gone Gaming is coming to an end, though I will continue to be a part of the on-line gaming community. This is my penultimate post, and as such, I will keep things on the short end so that this whole thing will be little more than a blip.

My partner Annie and I are moving to Guinea, West Africa, which is where we met in the Peace Corps over seven years ago (started dating six years ago). We have had little contact with our friends and family in Guinea during our time away, and we're excited (and have been for quite some time) to return.

But we have to move from our place in Missoula first.

We have been scrambling to sell things and get the house ready for the next tenant. I can't really remember cleaning the house this well, even for us. We've been really getting rid of things, clothes from high school, useless things we've lugged around. It's been nice.

But I had a little slip-up that I think many of the users here will appreciate.

I logged a decent table on Craigslist. I wrote the description fast and without really pausing to digest what I was writing. When I went back to proof what I had written, I found a glaring difference between what I wanted to write and what I actually wrote. I wrote.

"Moving Sale! Nice round table with leaf for $20! Table accommodates four players, six with leaf. Contact us now!"

Ah, this life with games. Is there any other hobby like it? I think not.





Old Puzzler Q & A

Q: Name a word which uses the letters E, L, S, V. One letter appears four times, one three, one two, and one once. What is it?

A: (given first by Dave Peters) SLEEVELESS


New (and Last) Fortnightly Puzzler

There are four words that are commonly seen together that I had to see a few times while we've been moving. If you delete various letters and put the remaining letters together WITHOUT REORDERING THEM, you get the following phrase:


The word breaks are different, and the total letter count of the original is 25. What are the four words?

*As always, I enjoy hearing the answers via email. If you solve it, please refrain from posting directly on the site. If you feel the urge, write with the answers. I'll post the name of the first person to respond. Thanks!

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Lightweight and feeling good...

After a hiatus of far too long, I’m back and pushing my thoughts out there to the blog-reading community. After enjoying a visit to GenCon and then writing profusely about it it is time to wind down and collect my boardgaming thoughts. One such thought has centered around lightweight, fast-playing games. I do enjoy stretching my gaming muscles in longer games that take an hour or more to develop and finish, but I find a significant fraction of my gaming time revolving around gaming with relatively lightweight gamers. Thus, I have turned an eye toward finding a selection of favorite lightweight games.

In my book, a lightweight game needs to play fast. If I’m going to commit a chunk of time to a game I expect to get some nice, deep thinking about it. This is my main objection to Cosmic Encounter - it is great in theory and I love the “festive” nature of the game, but far too often the game can drag on past its initial welcome. If the game is going to have shifting fortunes and a significant element of chance I prefer it to land in the 30 to 45 minute mark so that a truly poor string of luck does not drag out for extended periods. However, I often find nonrandom, pure abstracts to be a bit too dry for my taste, so there has to be some sort of balance between luck and strategy.

Two games I came across at GenCon seem to meet both of my criteria: To Court the King published by Rio Grande Games and Owners Choice by Z-Man Games. They have a fair bit of luck (they both revolve around rolling dice), are simple to explain so that the game can start right away, take about 45 minutes or less to play, but still contain a decent number of opportunities for strategic decisions.

To Court the King can best be described as Yahtzee on steroids. Players roll dice in order to match the values displayed on cards set in the middle of the table. Starting out with only three dice, players can hope to roll a pair to get the Farmer card, granting an extra die in future rolls. Rolling three of a kind gets players a different card with different powers. As the more powerful cards require players to roll dice that add up to a total of 20 or more pips or roll five of a kind, players must therefore slowly progress up the dice “technology tree” gaining more powers and/or dice at the conclusion of each turn. When someone finally rolls seven of a kind, they win the King card and triggers the final round of rolling. In a sort of roll-off, each player uses the powers of all their cards one last time to roll the most of a kind on their dice. My favorite part of the game is in the various powers granted by the cards. Some focus on giving a player additional dice to roll, while others grant special powers to manipulate the numbers on the dice. Thus, there are two extremes in strategy, a sort of gather up all the dice you can muster strategy or one where players gain a few dice but have many special powers to manipulate them as needed. The decisions tend to be entirely tactical, trying to optimize the result of each series of rolls, this is increased for players who obtain several of the special power cards, creating a kind of miniature puzzle every time a turn comes around. In my game at GenCon I was able to claim the King card using several special powers on my cards. However, in the final dice-off I just missed claiming victory and had to settle for third place right behind an opponent who had focused more on claiming as many dice as possible. (For the record I think I had seven 4’s to his seven 5’s or some such thing even though I only had eight dice to roll and he had around eleven or twelve). As mentioned, the game can be explained and quickly started without too much preparation, an important consideration when trying to coax noncommittal boardgamers into a game. At a running time of around 45 minutes it strikes a nice balance of strategy, luck, and depth.

Owner’s Choice in contrast, is a very lightweight economic game. There is a central board and a single pawn is moved around the outside track one time and then the game is over. Players invest in one or more stocks (there are four types) with the highest shareholder of each company declared president. The president holds onto a special colored die representing the fate of that company. On their turn, each player moves the pawn from one to three spaces forward (their choice). It will typically land on a space matching the color of one of the four companies. If, for example, it is placed on red, then the president of red must pay $50 to the middle of the board and then roll the red die. The red company then suffers the result, which is typically a good thing. Each company has strengths and weaknesses, depending on the distribution of results on that color die. The green company slowly increases in price or pays out frequent dividends, the yellow company has very high variability, going greatly up or down in price, the red company tends to go up in price but might force the president to increase the price of a different color stock, and the blue company can increase but can also allow the president to cause other company stocks to fall. If a president doesn’t wish to pay $50 (or can’t) he or she must roll the black die. In most cases, this drops the stock in price one or two levels and awards the president with all the cash previously paid to the center of the board. After the pawn moves once around the outside of the board, the game ends. Since the board is not that large, a game can be played in 20 minutes or less, although typical games average more like 30 minutes. Since games rely on the vagaries of the roll of the dice, Owner’s Choice plays differently every game. While the dice are set up to favor net increases in the long haul, I have also witnessed games where nearly all the stocks fell in price and if a player had not bought any stock the entire game, they would have come out in a comfortable second place. I am still not sure if the luck of the game is overpowering, it definitely can be in any single game, but there seems to be enough room for strategic decisions so that good decisions will tend to be rewarded over the long-term course of several games. One friend remarked that he enjoyed the chaos aspect of the game as players are encouraged to make strategic, long-term decisions to mitigate the luck of the dice rather than what is found in many other games - tactical decisions responding to the luck of the dice.

While I currently slightly favor To Court the King over Owner’s Choice I am willing and eager to continue to bring either one to the gaming table. They’re not my first choice when I have an hour or more to kill and dedicated gamers to play with, but for my frequent bouts of gaming with more laid-back players, a quick game or three of a lighter weight game with meaningful choices is still a good deal.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Transformers Risk and some other things

In general I am a believer in replaying games. It’s one of the reasons I buy games I like, so that I can play them again next week, next month, next year or next decade. At Gamers@Dockers sessions however, I quite often find myself playing new games, either physically new, or games that I haven’t played before.

On some occasions this is because it is a game that I haven’t played before, but I wanted to and because somebody was there who had the game and new how to play it I seized the opportunity. Sometimes it is because someone has just bought and brought a new game and wants to try it out. One of our members runs a OLGS so he often brings demo copies of new stock to play. Other times somebody just wants people to play their favourite game(s) and is recruiting people to play.

Transformer Risk
fell into the ‘someone had just bought and brought a new game’ category. We had actually lined up a game of Fury of Dracula, but it had still not arrived at the building and Transformers Risk was there. REGGY sticks by his claims that he bought it to play with his ten year old son.

Four player Transformers Risk is team play, red and yellow versus purple and black. At this point I must admit that my knowledge of Transformers doesn’t go much past the words Megatron, Decipticon and robots transforming into vehicles and vice versa. Therefore I it is possible that I am unable to appreciate or convey the richly themed aspects of the game that some others may pick up on.

A quick run through the rules had us on top of everything with the possible exception of the spinning discs and the “secret” factories. C’mon people , you slide the region and it is written right there on the board “Secret Factory”, it is hardly a very well kept secret is it? The spinning discs were conceptually OK, but we could find no mention in the rules of whether they started open or closed. We opted for closed, or mostly closed in the case of Asia^H^H^H^H the green territory since it will always be at least partially open.

Mr Skeletor
had never played Risk face to face before, although had played it on the PC. B5mith didn’t make any admission about his Risk pedigree, I used to play it a bit in my younger days, but the only time in the last five or so years would have been my one game of Risk 2210 at the same venue.

Fans of the original Risk may look at the map of the Transformers planet and remark that it looks an awful lot like the Earth. Obviously not I say, I mean there’s two paths into Australia instead of one and you can go North and South from North America to South America, I mean from the Red region to the Yellow region. Totally different! And let’s not forget the Secret Factories shall we? Or maybe we should, since they are meant to be secret aren’t they?

Anyway during the setup phase Mr Skeletor built predominantly in the Red region and I built mainly in the Yellow. We also branched out twards the other areas including some well garrisoned outposts in the middle of bad guys territory which caused them to waste more and more resources defending the neighbouring territories.

During the first turn Mr Skeletor and I consolidated our hold on the Red and Yellow continents and defended the approaches. We also caused some havoc from our outposts in enemy territory, especially against the secret factory (which was clearly marked on all our maps).

Since resources are scarce and you can only win a maximum of one card per turn, it didn’t seem worth over-extending ourselves. Where we were close together we operated in concert, for example Mr Skeletor softened up one of the bad guy territories in our area and then in my turn I cleared it out.

When day 2 arrived we each held a complete territory. This gave us bonus robots, not many admittedly, but every robot helps. We continued our attacks into their territories, picking of their large concentrations and keeping our home territory defended. I conducted much more reckless assaults from my base near the “secret” factory figuring that they were going to come and get me anyway so I may as well cause as much grief as possible before they did.

Our two pronged assault in to Asia was very successful and by this stage unless we were doomed to forever roll ones it was just a matter of time before we overwhelmed our opposition as we were probably producing three time as many robots as they were and could afford to drop them into the front line to use as assault troops.

Despite some spirited defence it was all over red rover by the end of turn four. Total annihilation of the bad guys had been achieved. I’m not sure if Mr Skeletor’s singing of the Transformers theme helped, but it did add to the theme.

To quote and old real estate expression, the important thing during initial placement is “location, location, location”. Our initial placements were much more consolidated and defensible and we took advantage of that.

The special areas are cute, but given that you will win a maximum of six cards in a game and some them don’t even have the ability to activate one of the areas, I am guessing that aren’t likely to be used very often. Especially if the alternative use for the card is to add one to any die roll for the turn.

This said, as far as my admittedly limited experience in Risk variants go, this is a good one. Limited resources makes it a more strategic game and the fixed or capped number of turns should keep playing time reasonable.

I also got to try Ahoy, Logistico and Factory Fun.

Ahoy is a short game and good strategy is reliant on memory. If you memory is faulty you will probably not go well at all. There is some strategy involved with the memory aspect, so elder children would probably enjoy it.

Logistico is one those games that is, for me, going to require a few plays to get a complete understanding of the different possibilities and strategies that may be there. Did we deliver too much early in the game for low rewards, or was that just safe guarding it from being exploited by other players for large rewards later in the game? I am not at all sure.

Factory Fun, is it a game or a puzzle? You are definitely competing against other players for the choice of machines. You either want the best machine (i.e. most valuable) or the one that suits your factory the best. You need to know what qualifies the machines in this aspect and then pick the appropriate machine before somebody else does. This is a very quick but tense phase. Where’s the machine with blue outputs but no brown input? Is there one, yes there it is, oh no wait that’s a blue input not output, ah there it is, drats someone else has taken it. Is my red reservoir still accessible because everything that is left needs red… etc.

When placing the machine consideration must be taken for allowing room for future machines, both leaving room for them and efficiently using the output of one machine as the input of another (which is greatly rewarded). Substantial rebuilding of your factory is allowed, but this costs money and you may not have enough.

We were all happy enough the first time to jump straight back in for a second play.

The highlight of my gaming month though was finally getting Melissa to play Formula Dé, we had seven players, six of whom hadn't played before. We played a one lap race on the Zandvoort 2 track and it seemed to go well.

Mmm meeples taste like...