Saturday, July 22, 2017

Accomplishing Big Things

I'm going to post something a bit meta today. I'm not going to talk so much about games, but a little bit more about the games industry. In fact, I'm even pulling back my perspective to talk a little bit about creativity in general.

Let me set the scene. I currently live in central Oklahoma. There's not a lot in Oklahoma. There are farms, there is oil and natural gas, and there is a smattering of a few other things. If you live in one of the two major urban areas (the Oklahoma City metro area, and Tulsa), there's a slightly broader array of things to do and see. A small handful of companies have their headquarters here (most notably, the drive-in fast food chain Sonic), and downtown OKC and Tulsa have some offices for various corporations.

But otherwise, there's not a lot to Oklahoma. The state tries to rely on its Native American heritage (all of which was basically imported from other parts of the country anyway) to promote tourism, but not many people think of Oklahoma as a vacation destination.

All this results in people here working in agriculture, oil and gas, and then a small percentage working in corporate offices, with a smattering of other occupations. The University of Oklahoma is located in Norman, just a little ways south of Oklahoma City, and that institution provides many jobs, as well as an influx of cultural influence that is very distinctly lacking from the rest of the state. In Midwest City, on the eastern edge of Oklahoma City, is Tinker Air Force Base, and in the southwest corner is Fort Sill; these two installations also provide jobs, but not so much in the way of culture.

If you're not working in one of those industries, you'll find yourself more or less alone. Even the public education system is actively besieged at the moment by the state's leadership, both governmental and religious, and teachers are finding it harder and harder to make a living for themselves.

This is relevant to today's topic because in places like Los Angeles, Seattle, or New York, there is such a great wealth of diversity that even niche industries are flourishing. It's easier for people in those places to break into a career because there is a very good chance they'll be able to meet people in that industry, if they don't already know someone.

So, circling back to my point: I was watching some videos this morning. Several were from Shut Up & Sit Down, and a few were from Geek & Sundry. Some of these videos were covering games that had been funded through Kickstarter. And as I'm watching these videos, I'm thinking, I wish I could do that.

Specifically, I wish I could make videos. I wish I could design and produce games (I'd prefer to publish roleplaying games, but if I were able to come up with any decent board game ideas, I'd like to be able to publish those too).

But I don't have the resources to do that.

Making videos requires equipment. I'd need decent video cameras, editing software, a good computer that's able to handle everything I'd need to function... all of this costs money I don't have.

Even if I had any ideas for game to try to publish (I've never been able to come up with a decent board game idea, and the RPGs I come up with are of the old-school Statistic variety, and it's become apparent that modern RPGs are moving towards a more Descriptive model of game design), I'd need to be able to produce videos to sell the idea, and funds to advertise it.

If I were able to somehow come to the attention of a big and well-known organisation like Geek & Sundry, I'd be too far away to be able to benefit from their resources. I couldn't very well go into one of their studios to film; it'd be a few hundred dollars to buy a plane ticket, not to mention hotels, meals, and transportation.

My actual job is as a teacher. As noted before, being a teacher in Oklahoma is a difficult proposition. Most of the other teachers I work with have summer jobs to help ease the financial burden of working in such a poorly-paid profession. That, along with the volunteer work I do on some evenings, and especially this year as I've developed some health issues that are eating up a lot of my time, means I haven't even had an opportunity to work on the novel I had wanted to finish before August.

I know this post sounds very 'Oh, woe is me!' so far. But I'm actually using my situation to illustrate a larger point. It's not just my situation that is regrettable. I'm sure there are many others who would have more to offer than I do, but are just as stymied by their lack of access to resources. Maybe there's someone living in Quincy, Iowa that would be the next Reiner Knizia if only she were given an opportunity to explore and foster her ideas. Perhaps there's someone living in Sweetwater, Idaho, who would be able to create amazing video content for the Dice Tower YouTube Channel if only he were able to get his hands on a decent camera and video editing software.

I don't really know for sure where I'm going with this. Idle rumination, perhaps. But that's what I was thinking about today.

Anyway, something to contemplate. Until next week, remember to

Game on!

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Giving It a Try

Before we get started, please allow me to remind you that I have set up a Facebook page for this blog. If you like reading the stuff I write here, head on over to follow me, so that you can keep up to date, and see interesting new stuff that I might post there!

A friend recently drew my attention to an interesting post on Facebook. The short version is this:
An employee from Portal Publishing was irritated to see people claiming that a game is unbalanced and worthless after only playing through once or twice. Instead of learning the ins an outs of the game and getting good at playing that game, they give it a cursory single play-through and then give up on it entirely.
Really, the entry is quite interesting. It's a little emotional, as the author is clearly upset. But I highly recommend reading the whole thing.

I find this interesting, because it touches on some things I've talked about before. One thing that stands out to me is the way that people often forget that there's a difference between personal preferences and objective quality. In other words, if a person doesn't like something, that person usually has trouble understanding that other people do like it. To use an extreme example: most people take it for granted that everyone loves to drink beer. When they meet someone who does not like beer, for whatever reason, they cannot fathom that it's even possible for someone not to like beer. Often, this goes to the extreme of something like, 'What's wrong with you? Who doesn't like beer? That's un-American!' and other simplistic platitudes.

But in exactly the same way that people have different tastes, and some people may not like the flavour of strawberries, but other people do, someone may find the taste of beer to be unpleasant.

It's the same way with games. I, being a Storyteller player type, am drawn to games like Changeling: the Dreaming and FATE Core, which emphasise and accommodate games that focus on plot and character development. It is very hard for me to understand why so many people like Dungeons and Dragons, which uses a system that is usually detrimental to story-based games.

But the important thing is that I don't have to understand it. I just need to accept that people do like D&D. Their reasons are their own. No one is obligated to like the same things as me for the same reasons as me.

And that is often difficult for people.

Dominion still sits at #57 on the Board Game Geek's Top 100 list. It's variant, Dominion: Intrigue, is at #51. Clearly, a lot of people like this game. I don't. In my opinion, most deck-builder games suffer from a certain set of problems that I find unenjoyable (there are a few deck builders that have found ways to work around these problems that make them much more palatable to me: Tyrants of the Underdark and Miskatonic School for Girls being two examples).

But whatever I think of these games, other people clearly like them. Otherwise they wouldn't be on the top 100.

And here's the point: I recognise that. In fact, the majority of the reason that I developed the games review rating system that I use is because I felt like too many reviews (not just of games, but of movies and books and other things as well) told the reader whether or not they should like the subject of the review. In finding a random movie review online, I read quickly through a review of Wish Upon, and ultimately, it ends with a run on sentence that begins with: 'The movie is almost worth seeing for the scenes where the heroine's dad reconnects with his love of the saxophone...' The reviewer does not say, 'The only thing I found worthwhile in the movie...' or 'You might find it enjoyable when...' Instead, he simply offers a blanket statement describing his own personal opinion of the film and expects his readers to fall in line with his views.

I always make a point to describe my opinion of the game, and to say 'You might disagree with me!' I try to describe the game in objective terms, and let readers decide for themselves whether they want to try a game. A perfect example is my recent review of Apples to Apples. At the end, I say 'I hate this game.' I don't say, 'This is a bad game.' I offer my opinion. And I explain why I have that opinion. And I specifically state that other people love this game: 'I have described how I feel about Apples to Apples. Perhaps you disagree, which is fine. People like games for different reasons.'

The only time that I say flat-out that a game is bad is when it's objectively bad for concrete reasons. To date, the only game I have reviewed that received this treatment was The Princess Bride: Storming the Castle. That game is objectively bad (as you can see in my review of it) because the components are poorly designed and constructed, the rules are broken, confusing, and contradictory, and the interaction of elements of the game don't make sense. It's not a game that someone might like because they have different tastes; the game itself is actually bad.

Another important thing to remember (going back to my original topic of the Portal Publishing Facebook post) is that some games are more complex than others, and must be practised a few times before you can claim to be 'good' at them. This touches on what the Facebook post mentions when it says, 'You need to learn how to play each faction and how to fight each faction. Play more.' Just playing once doesn't allow you to know how to play the game well enough to have a decent chance of winning.

I've touched on this topic before as well. I mentioned specifically that one of the downsides to the Golden Age of Board Games is that I don't have an opportunity to practise and improve my skills with games at which I'm not very good. I spoke of economic development games like Terra Mystica and Scythe, both of which I suck badly at playing. But apparently, the difference between me and other gamers is that I am actively seeking opportunities to learn more, to improve, to find out how to be a better player. I recently had a fairly lengthy discussion with my friend expressing a desire to do exactly that. I told him that I would love for him to teach me how to play these games. Not as in 'teach me the rules,' but 'teach me how to formulate a strategy,' 'teach me how to be more successful,' 'help me to grow and develop an understanding of this type of game so that I don't feel like I have no chance of winning at all.'

And apparently, not many people think that way. Which is a shame.

Anyway, hopefully I've given you something to think about. So, gentle readers, muse on that topic for a week, and meet me back here next Saturday for another fun-filled entry. Until then, remember to

Game on!

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Board Game Review: Hoyuk

As I continue to write reviews for those games that were kindly sent to me by Mage Company, I come to the largest of the games that I received: Hoyuk. In this game, you control one of five clans of primitive people settling in a valley. You compete to build houses, fill it with people, attach livestock pens to those houses, fill those pens with cattle, and build add-ons like ovens and shrines.

The game box next to the board set up as if in the middle of a game. The box art shows large stone letters spelling out the title, Hoyuk, standing in a desert landscape against a sun preparing to set. The board shows a valley with stone outcroppings, trees, a river, and a pond. Tiles representing houses and pens are placed about the board, with meeples representing ovens, shrines, villagers, and cattle on some of them. Supplies of meeples are grouped on the right edge of the board, with various cards and building tiles on the left edge.

One quick note before we get started: I have set up a Facebook page for this blog, so if you like what you read, head on over, like us, and share with your friends! Now, let's start this party properly!

Strategy and Randomness are rated from 0 to 6. A 0 means the rated aspect plays no part in determining the game's outcome; and a 6 means that it is the only factor that determines the game's outcome. Complexity is also rated from 0 to 6; a 0 means that it's so simple a six-year-old can play it, a 3 means any adult should have no trouble playing, and a 6 means that you'll need to refer to the rulebook frequently. Humour can be rated as 'None,' meaning the game is not meant to be funny, or it may have one or more of the following: Derivative (meaning the humour is based on an outside source, such as a game based on a comedy film), Implicit (meaning that the game's components are funny, such as humourous card text), or Inherent (meaning that the actions the players take are funny). Attractiveness has nine possible ratings. Ideal: the game is beautiful and makes game play easier. Pretty: The design is beautiful and neither eases nor impedes game play. Nice: The design is beautiful but makes game play harder than necessary. Useful: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but eases gameplay. Average: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Useless: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Utilitarian: The design is ugly, but eases gameplay. Ugly: The design is ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Worthless: The design is ugly, andmakes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Average Length of Game Play describes how long an average game will probably last, give or take. Gamer Profile Ratings measures how strongly a game will appeal to players based on their interest in one of four areas. These areas are measured as High, Medium, or Low. Strategy describes how much a game involves cognitive challenges, thinking and planning, and making sound decisions. Conflict describes how much direct hostile action there is between players, from destroying units to stealing resources. Social Manipulation describes how much bluffing, deceiving, and persuading there is between players. Fantasy describes how much a game immerses players in another world, another time.

Strategy: 5
Randomness: 2
Complexity: 2
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Pretty
Average Length of Game Play: 1 hour
Gamer Profile Ratings:
  Strategy: High
  Conflict: Low
  Social Manipulation: Low
  Fantasy: High

An overview of Hoyuk

Each player controls one of five clans. Each clan has a special ability, so there's some level of asymmetry to this game, but the abilities are fairly minor, so it's not very unbalancing, even for novice players.

The rulebook describes how to play the 'basic' version of the game, which does not include villagers, cattle, or the shaman, and has only three methods of scoring points. The 'medium' version increases the number of ways to score points to five. The 'advanced' version includes everything. Thus far, I have only played the advanced version. It's not really harder to play, in terms of rules. Each level of play only increases strategic options and possibilities.

The game is played in rounds, until one player has built all of his houses, at which point the player with the most points is declared the winner. Each round occurs in four phases.

Phase One: Construction

Construction tiles are dealt, one to each player. These tiles each permit you to build two houses and one other thing. Depending on the tile, that other thing may be a third house, a shrine, an oven, cattle, villagers, or a shaman. 

Here are a few sample construction tiles:
Six construction tiles. Each is long and narrow with room for three icons in a row. All of them have two icons representing a primitive stone house in the middle of construction. The third icon is different on all of them. Four tiles have a single icon in the third position: one shows a stone pillar with two feathers dangling from the capstone. This represents a shrine. Another has a stylized cartoon creature representing cattle. Another has a cartoon man with a beard and moustache in black clothes and headdress holding a staff, representing the shaman. The fourth three cartoon people in orange clothing, representing villagers. The last two tiles have multiple icons in the third space. One has two icons: a clay oven and a ring-shaped fence creating an enclosure. The final tile has four icons in the last space: the fence, the shrine, the oven, and the half-built house.

Whichever tile you are dealt determines what you can build. In the photo above, the top four tiles allow you build (starting in the upper left and moving clockwise): a shrine, a cattle, a villager, and the shaman. The bottom two tiles give you options for the third space. The one on the left lets you choose to build either an oven or a livestock pen. The one on the right gives you four options: a pen, a shrine, an oven, or a third house.

Houses are played onto the board in any square. However, you must follow the rules of 'families' and 'blocks.' A 'block' is any group of adjacent tiles. All houses, pens, and ruins that are connected to one another are called a block. If a single house is not adjacent to any other tile, it is its own block. A family is a group of adjacent houses of the same colour. So the photo below shows a single block of seven houses and four pens, and within that block are four families: one each of a single colour (the purple house and the blue house, which has the grey oven meeple on it), a family of two yellow houses, and a family of three red houses.
Eleven tiles on the board. The leftmost column has two livestock pen tiles in the bottom two spaces. The bottom tile has a cattle meeple on it. The next column has another pen at top, followed by a purple house tile, a blue house tile with a grey oven meeple on it, and a yellow house tile. The third column has the topmost space empty, with a pen containing a cattle meeple, then a red house tile, and a yellow house tile (the yellow house being adjacent to the yellow house in the previous column). The final column has two red house tiles in the bottom two spaces, so that the top one is adjacent to the red house tile in the previous column. There is also a white shrine meeple on the top tile in this column.

This is important, because when you build new houses, you cannot connect existing blocks. You may play a house to an empty space away from other tiles, starting a new block, or you may play into an existing block. If you already have houses in an existing block, any new houses built into the block must be placed adjacent to them, so that you are adding to an existing family. You cannot create a new family in a block where you already have a family. You also may not play a house in such a way that a livestock pen becomes completely surrounded; pens must have at least one side open. You are, however, allowed to build over a ruined house. Simply replace the ruins tile with your house (more on ruins in a moment).

Additionally, you may play a house tile on top of one of your existing house tiles. This represents adding a second floor to the house. This can only be done if that house is not currently surrounded on all four sides by other houses or pens (ruins do not count for this purpose). If you already have a shrine, oven, or villager on a house, adding a second floor destroys those items, and the meeples are returned to the supply. You cannot have more than two floors in a house. Two-storey houses can be useful in breaking ties, and in the medium and advanced versions of the game, are worth points in their own right.

Theses construction rules seem complicated, but once you've played the game a time or two, it will be much easier to understand. They are also, by far, the most complicated part of the game.

The third icon lets you place another item on the board:
  • Another house - this is built the same way as any other house.
  • Livestock Pens - These are placed adjacent to one of your houses. There's an arrow on the tile, which should be placed pointing to the house to which it is attached, so you know who owns that tile. If the attached house is destroyed, the pen is discarded.
  • Shrines and Ovens - These are placed on top of any one of your own houses. You may only have one on any single house; you cannot have two or more shrines, two or more ovens, nor an oven and a shrine on any house.
  • Villagers - These are also placed on top of any house. They may share a house with a shrine or an oven, but not both. There may be only one villager on any given house. Villagers are only used in the Advanced version.
  • Cattle - These are placed in the livestock pens. There may only be one cattle in any given pen. Cattle are only used in the Advanced version.
  • Shaman - There is a single Shaman meeple in the game. If you get to build a Shaman, you take him from where he is (either in his space on the edge of the board or from a player's house) and place him on one of your houses. The Shaman protects that block from catastrophes (more on catastrophes in a moment). The Shaman is only used in the Advanced version.
After all players have built everything they can on their tiles, a second construction tile is dealt, and players build on those just as they did the first. Then we move on to:

Phase Two: Catastrophes

This phase is skipped during the first round of the game. This is where the randomness comes in: a Catastrophe card is drawn and the effects are applied to each block where the conditions can be met. Here are a few examples:
Eight catastrophe cards. Each contains art with a one or two icons in the top section. Art includes: a house collapsing as a crevasse opens in the ground, a stone altar spattered with blood, a village on fire during the night, a flood washing through a village, a mother sheep and her lamb in the snow, a tornado, a locust on a plant stalk, and a repeat of the mother sheep and lamb.

The icons determine what happens. Some of the debacles that may occur include:
  • Fire #1: Half the houses of each colour in the block with the most ovens are flipped over to their ruined side.
  • Fire #2: Half the houses of each colour in the block with the fewest ovens are flipped over to their ruined side.
  • Bad Season #1: One house of each colour in the block with the fewest shrines is flipped over to its ruined side.
  • Epidemic #2: Each player with houses in the smallest block (not counting pens and ruins) discards half of their villagers.
  • Locust Swarm #2: The largest block cannot win any aspect cards this round.
  • Sacrifice #1: One house of each colour in the block with the most pens is flipped over to its ruined side.
  • Flood: The Shaman meeple is returned to his space on the edge of the board.
And so on.

Phase Three: Aspect Cards

On the left edge of the game board are spaces for Aspect Cards. These are the primary way of gaining victory points, and it is in Phase Three that the cards are awarded. It works like this:

The player with the First Player token chooses a block. That block is scored on all areas. The player with the most of the appropriate item wins the top card of that stack. Once all areas have been scored for that block, the next player chooses another block, which is scored in the same way. This continues until all blocks have been scored.

The areas to be scored are:
  1. Most Ovens: The player with the most ovens in the block being scored gets the top Aspect Card from this stack.
  2. Most Shrines: The player with the most shrines in the block being scored gets the top Aspect Card in this stack.
  3. Most Pens: The player with the most pens in the block being scored gets the top Aspect Card in this stack.
  4. Most Houses: (Medium and Advanced version only) The player with the most houses in the block being scored gets the top Aspect Card from this stack.
  5. Most Two-Storey Houses: (Medium and Advanced version only) The player with the most two-storey houses gets the top Aspect Card from this stack.
  6. Most Villagers: (Advanced Version Only) The player with the most villagers in the block being scored gets the top Aspect Card from this stack.
  7. Most Cattle: (Advanced Version Only) The player with the most cattle in the block being scored gets the top Aspect Card from this stack.
If a block contains only houses of a single colour, that block is not scored. Although it may seem advantageous to avoid building into a block that has just been started and so contains only one colour of house, this goes against the spirit of the game; you should always make it possible for other players to score, so that they will in turn be willing to play houses in your blocks so that you can score.

Note that the stacks of Aspect Cards are always face up, so that you can see which card you will get from each stack.

Aspect cards can be used in one of two ways. First, they may be used to build additional items. Each card has an icon in the corner (shrines, cattle, pens, villagers, etc). Players are given a chance to play aspect cards between each phase of a round; they may play a maximum equal to the number of families they control. Each card so played allows you to build one of that item anywhere it is legal permitted to do so.

Secondly, cards may be played for victory points. You are still limited by the number of families you control, but each group of cards that you play with the same icon scores you points. The more cards in a group, the more points you get. For example, if you only play one card, it's worth one point. If you play two cards with (for example) the shrine icon, they are collectively worth three points. Three cards with the same icon are worth five points, whilst four cards with the same icon are worth eight points, and five cards are worth twelve. In addition, if you are playing the Advanced version, playing a group of five cards activates your clan's special ability.

Phase Four: End of Round

Now we perform a couple of housekeeping tasks. Each player, in turn, gathers up all of the Aspect Cards that he played during the round. The entire stack is placed on the bottom of a stack already on the board. In this way, the stacks are replenished for later rounds. However, keep in mind that since you cannot divide your cards into several stacks during this phase, it is possible that some stacks will eventually be exhausted. If this is the case, no more cards can be placed on that stack; once a stack of Aspect Cards is empty, it must remain so for the rest of the game, meaning that no one can earn a card in that area any more!

Finally, the player with the First Player token gives it to another player of his choice. Then a new round begins with Phase 1!

End of the Game

Once a player has played his last house (normally 25, but you may choose to play with only 20 or 15 for a shorter game; it is also recommended that in 5-player games, you only use 20 houses to avoid running out of room on the board), you will finish the round and then perform final scoring. Any Aspect Cards remaining in your hand are worth 1 victory point each. Additionally, you must examine each block on the board; the player with the largest single family in each block gets one additional victory point per house in that family.

The player with the most points is the winner!

Final Thoughts on Hoyuk

I like this game. It's a very strategic game, but it's a different sort of strategy than I've found in any other game. It's not enough to try to build the most of any specific thing: you have to pay attention to where you are building so that even though you may have fewer of something, you may still score more than other players through shrewd placement decisions. Also, I found that the order in which you score blocks during Phase Three is essential. Because you know which cards are coming next, you can carefully select blocks to give yourself an advantage and royally screw over the other players. 

This game is very thinky-thinky. But, unlike economic development games, it can easily be won by someone who was doing poorly in the early stages of the game. By shrewd decision-making, a player can experience a surge in points at any moment and steal victory away from someone who was sure he had it won. That, in my opinion, is the mark of a very good game.

So that's my thoughts on Hoyuk. As I said above, the house and pen construction rules can seem intimidating at first, but once you've got that handled, the rules are actually pretty simple. The strategy on the other hand will have you tied up in knots no matter how many times you've played. So if thinky-thinky games are your thing, I recommend you give it a try. But, as always, look at my ratings and decide for yourself. That is the point of my rating system, after all!

So that's it for this week. Be sure to check us out on Facebook, and I will see you back here next week. Until then, remember as always to

Game on!

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Tales from the Loop

In 2015, Swedish musician/artist Simon Stålenhag ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the publication of his art book, Tales from the Loop. In this book, which was completed in 2016, the reader will find a wealth of paintings that show suburban Sweden in the 1980s, but with the addition of a number of sci-fi elements such as enormous technologically-advanced towers, magnetically levitating cargo freighters, debris from failed particle accelerator experiments, robots of various sizes, and even an occasional dinosaur brought forward through time portals.

This was so wildly popular that in November of 2016, a new Kickstarter was launched to turn these paintings into a roleplaying game. This one was also a great success, raising almost forty times their target. Thus, in early April of 2017, backers received their copy of the core rulebook.

The cover of the rule book. It shows a painting of four children in their early teens, dressed in winter coats and hats with backpacks and bicycles, standing in a field of yellow grasses and cedar saplings, looking away from the viewer into the distance at three large cooling towers, slightly obscured by fog, with futuristic lights on the tops. The title is printed in white across the top, and along the bottom, it reads, 'Roleplaying in the '80s that never was.'

My good friend John has a copy of this game. He has suggested running a game for me and some others, so he loaned me his book.

I'm pretty excited to try this game. It looks like a lot of fun.

The first five chapters are the only ones the players are allowed to read. It contains the background, setting, and main rules. The remaining seven chapters are for the GM only. They contain further behind-the-scenes information on the background, as well as several pre-written adventures.

Seeing as I'm going to be a player in this game, I haven't read anything beyond the first five chapters. Those five, however...

An Overview of Tales from the Loop

In the fictional history of Tales from the Loop, Russian scientists discovered 'the magnetrine effect' in 1943. The book describes this as a powerful reaction with the Earth's magnetic field resulting from a neodymium rod spinning inside a metal disc. This discovery also leads to other advances in the fields of physics, and by the end of the 1960s, at least two enormous particle accelerators have been built: one in Sweden (on an island just west of Stockholm), and one in the US, very close to the Hoover Dam. The rules say that you can have others built, if you prefer to play in or near your home town, but there is a chapter on each of these two core locations in the main rules.

By the 1980s, robots are fairly common, and one can frequently see 'gauss freighters' – basically, enormous warehouses with an array of magnetrine discs on the bottom. Many teenagers report seeing strange things in the areas surrounding the particle accelerators (known colloquially as 'the loop'), but the adults always dismiss such stories as kids' overactive imaginations. 

A person in winter coat and hat walking through the snow towards his or her house carrying groceries, who has stopped to look at the two large gauss freighters passing by in the sky. They both look like futuristic cargo spacecraft floating a few hundred meters off the ground, with lots of discs sticking out from the bottom.
An example of the largest variety of gauss freighters

Players take on the role of children, aged 10 to 15, living near one of these 'loops,' who are constantly exploring the wilderness around their homes. PCs are known in this game as 'Kids,' and once a Kid turns 16, he is no longer able to be played, and becomes an NPC. The game follows several strict guiding principals:
  1. Your hometown is full of strange and fantastic things.
  2. Everyday life is dull and unforgiving.
  3. Adults are out of reach and out of touch.
  4. The land of the Loop is dangerous, but Kids will not die.
  5. The game is played scene by scene.
  6. The world is described collaboratively.
And in this setting, you play your Kid, setting out into the less-developed areas around your neighbourhoods, where you find strange things and mysterious events, and must rely on yourself and each other to figure out what's going wrong and overcome the Trouble in your scenario, before returning home to the mundane existence that you've always known.

The Rules System

The rules in Tales from the Loop are very simple. Kids have four attributes: Body, Tech, Heart, and Mind. Each attribute governs three skills. By adding the skill level to the attribute, you have a number of dice to roll. Roll that many d6, and if at least one of those dice results in a 6, you succeed (the GM may require two 6s for very difficult tasks, or even three 6s to attempt something that he feels is almost impossible). You can 'push a roll' by taking a condition to reroll a failed roll, or you can spend a Luck Point to reroll without taking a condition. Also, once per Mystery (their term for a single story within a campaign), you may use your Pride (more on Pride in a moment) to gain an automatic success, assuming your Pride is applicable.

The older your Kid, the more you have in your attributes, but older Kids also have fewer Luck points. In addition to the characteristics described above, there are five 'conditions.' These include 'Upset,' 'Scared,' 'Exhausted,' 'Injured,' and 'Broken.' Any time anything happens that would cause a Kid to experience one of these conditions (usually the result of a failed roll, or as a result of the actions of an NPC, but also choosing one as appropriate when pushing a roll as described above). Each condition a Kid has gives him a -1 to all rolls until he can clear those conditions. 'Broken' is special; all the other conditions are considered 'mild conditions.' If all four mild conditions are checked, and he must take another condition, he checks the Broken space, and fails all rolls until he is healed.

The character sheet has spaces for several other characteristics, such as Drive, Problem, and Pride. These are basically descriptions of the Kid's personality. Drive, for example, is what compels your Kid to investigate the game's Mysteries; some samples include 'I'm always looking for the answers to the big questions,' 'I'll do anything to escape the burden of popularity,' or 'I'm doing it for love.' Your Problem, on the other hand, is something that worries your Kid about everyday life. For example, 'My brother refuses to leave his room since the accident,' 'My parents are always arguing,' or 'That weird man keeps following me.'

Most of these have no mechanical effect, and are just there as guides to how to play your character. The exception is Pride. This describes what makes your Kid feel special or important. Some samples: 'I play guitar,' 'I stood up for my friend,' and 'I helped a bird with a broken wing.' Once per Mystery, in a situation where your Pride is applicable, the GM will allow you to use your Pride to gain an extra success on a roll (whether this is the only success you get, or if you are adding to success(es) you already have).

Final Thoughts on Tales from the Loop

This game looks like a lot of fun. It is imaginative without being too alien, but offers the potential for a lot of unique and innovative adventures. It's delightfully rules-light, making it accessible to novice gamers and those who want story-driven games. And it has a major nostalgia factor as well, for old fogeys like myself who wouldn't mind romping through their childhood again.

Of course, this is all dependent on actually playing the game. I'll let you know more once I've had a few sessions. So you have that to look forward to! Until then, play more games, and remember to

Game on!

Saturday, June 24, 2017

My Personal History of Roleplaying Games

I spent some time chatting with a friend recently. In the course of the conversation, I ended up describing to her how I got into gaming, and which games I've played, in rough order from earliest to most recent.

It occurs to me that this may be of interest to others, if only in part because my path into gaming was so very different from that of most other gamers. So I think I will describe it to you, my faithful readers.

It's all my father's fault, really. When I was a teenager (15 or 16, as I recall), my father brought home a number of Marvel comic books. He was an executive in the regional offices for Hardee's, the fast food restaurant, before it was purchased by Carl's Jr. At the time, Hardee's was considering doing a merchandising promo with some Marvel characters, and so he brought home a handful of issues of various titles for research. There was an Iron Man, a couple of different Spider-Man titles, an Incredible Hulk, and so forth. But the two that caught my attention were the Uncanny X-Men #258 and Wolverine #23.

The X-Men comic featured Wolverine very prominently, and between the two books, I found myself strongly drawn to the character. He was, perhaps, the first example of an anti-hero that I had really encountered, and paved the way for me to be drawn to such anti-hero types in the future. I became quite fond of Wolverine, and began collecting his comic. One day, in one of the issues, I saw an advertisement for the 'Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game Book #3: Night of the Wolverine.' According to the advert, this product allowed you to take on the role of Wolverine as you attempted to thwart the machinations of one of the many enemies of the X-Men.

I was intrigued.

I went down to the local comics and games shop and bought a copy. I rushed home, eager to explore this adventure. Although the book claimed that you didn't need to know the rules to the TSR Marvel Super Heroes roleplaying game in order to play, there was much I did not understand in this volume. I was able to work out some of the details through guesswork, but I never felt comfortable enough to try the game myself.

One day, I happened to mention this dilemma to my friend Blayke. He informed me that he owned a copy of the Marvel Super Heroes core rulebook. He loaned it to me, and I read it. Then, one day, on our lunch break at the high school we both attended, we went across the street to the house of a friend of his, where he GMed the first rpg session in which I ever participated.

After a couple of sessions, I decided I needed to at least try the granddaddy of all rpgs: Dungeons and Dragons. I bought the 'red box,' and brought it home where I began to read the rulebook. I was disappointed to discover that I did not find the game appealing. There were two major complaints I recall having with it: the different mechanics that it had for each different type of roll, and the armour class system.

I found it to be very frustrating that there was a different type of roll for each kind of action. You had to roll one kind of die to attack, and you wanted to roll high, but you had a different kind of die for saving throws, and you wanted to roll low, and a still different kind of die for special abilities (such as the thief's 'find traps' ability), and so on.

Also, the fact that the type of armour a character wears has no effect on the amount of damage that character takes also bothered me. The idea that 'armour class is the difficulty to hit and do damage' never sat well with me. Putting on plate armour doesn't make me harder to hit than if I were wearing leather armour. In fact, it would make me easier to hit, as I'm now a slightly larger target, and slower from the weight of the steel! Furthermore, if I were wearing plate armour, and an opponent struck me with, say, a sword, I wouldn't take as much damage as if I had been hit with the same sword whilst wearing leather armour. But according to the D&D rules, it doesn't matter what type of armour you are wearing: you'd suffer the same amount of damage.

Anyway. After that, I met John. He was a serious gamer, and had tried many different games systems in his life. We became good friends, and he introduced me to many different rpgs: Tales from the Floating Vagabond, Shadowrun, Paranoia, Call of Cthulhu, and Rifts. I read the rulebook for TORG, although I never got a chance to actually play a game of it.

Before long, John and I ended up as roommates. This occurred shortly after he had discovered GURPS. We played that game often, and I became enamoured of the system. It was more realistic than other games I had played, and the system of advantages and disadvantages allowed for a more detailed personality in the characters than I had seen in other games. I began purchasing supplements, and was soon very familiar with the workings of the system.

I continued to game, and played with many more people, experiencing (at least briefly) games such as Albedo, The Whispering VaultCyberpunk, West End Games' Star Wars, Blue Planet, and Toon. But in 1993, my main gaming group began to play Vampire: the Masquerade and Werewolf: The Apocalypse. Before long, those were the primary games we played. We'd still dabble in other settings, but for several years, the vast majority of our games were in one of the original World of Darkness settings.

I had at least a taste of other games after that. I've played at least one game of each of  Adventure!, Little Fears, Hero System, and 7th Sea. But after 1995, my favourite game by far was (as readers of this blog will already know) Changeling: the Dreaming. After 2003, it was almost the only thing I played. I tried my hand at the D20 Star Wars, because I was desperate and I had met a couple of people who were playing it. But apart from that, until 2012, when I discovered Fiasco, and then last year, when I was introduced to the FATE system via the Dresden Files Roleplaying Game, Changeling and (to a lesser extent) GURPS were the only games I played.

I know there's not really much of a point to this, aside from explaining why I'm familiar with so many different roleplaying games (and so many of them being so unknown to so many other gamers). But I hope at least that you found it interesting. If not, I'm sorry. Try again next week, when I will talk about something else. Until then,

Game on!

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Board Game Review: Wrong Chemistry

For those of you who follow me on PinkFae gaming, you may have noticed that the site is having issues. The owner appears to be having issues in her personal life. Which is totally understandable; I've been there. But this just happens to come at a time when I am supposed to be writing reviews for a couple of Mage Company's games. I had wanted to wait for the PinkFae site to be up and running again, but it doesn't look like that's going to happen for some time. So as much as I am disappointed to have to do this on the Game Dork blog instead of the PinkFae one, I don't feel I can wait any longer. So today, for my entry on The Game Dork's Gaming Corner, I am going to review the copy of Wrong Chemistry that was very kindly sent to me by Mage Company.

Here is my rating system for those of you that need it:

Strategy and Randomness are rated from 0 to 6. A 0 means the rated aspect plays no part in determining the game's outcome; and a 6 means that it is the only factor that determines the game's outcome. Complexity is also rated from 0 to 6; a 0 means that it's so simple a six-year-old can play it, a 3 means any adult should have no trouble playing, and a 6 means that you'll need to refer to the rulebook frequently. Humour can be rated as 'None,' meaning the game is not meant to be funny, or it may have one or more of the following: Derivative (meaning the humour is based on an outside source, such as a game based on a comedy film), Implicit (meaning that the game's components are funny, such as humourous card text), or Inherent (meaning that the actions the players take are funny). Attractiveness has nine possible ratings. Ideal: the game is beautiful and makes game play easier. Pretty: The design is beautiful and neither eases nor impedes game play. Nice: The design is beautiful but makes game play harder than necessary. Useful: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but eases gameplay. Average: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Useless: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Utilitarian: The design is ugly, but eases gameplay. Ugly: The design is ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Worthless: The design is ugly, andmakes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Average Length of Game Play describes how long an average game will probably last, give or take. Gamer Profile Ratings measures how strongly a game will appeal to players based on their interest in one of four areas. These areas are measured as High, Medium, or Low. Strategy describes how much a game involves cognitive challenges, thinking and planning, and making sound decisions. Conflict describes how much direct hostile action there is between players, from destroying units to stealing resources. Social Manipulation describes how much bluffing, deceiving, and persuading there is between players. Fantasy describes how much a game immerses players in another world, another time.

Strategy: 2
Randomness: 4
Complexity: 1
Humour: Implicit
Attractiveness: Pretty
Average Length of Game Play: 45 minutes
Gamer Profile Ratings:
  Strategy: Medium
  Conflict: Medium
  Social Manipulation: Low
  Fantasy: Medium

An Overview of Wrong Chemistry

The game components. The box, with its cover art of a stereotypical mad scientist holding a large glowing sphere that contains the schematic image of an atom (the circle representing the nucleus and three oval orbits of the electrons around it), sits next to the tokens, tiles, and cards. In the centre is the main playing area: six yellow hexagonal tokens surrounding a blue hexagonal token with the 'Wrong Chemistry' title on it. The yellow tiles each have a large round wooden token on them, alternating black and white. A few extra tokens sit nearby, with the draw pile of the card deck next to them. On the other side of the tiles are two blue cards, the 'Restartium' and 'Extramovium' cards. In the front are nine cards from the deck, arranged in three groups. The first group has three sample green cards, worth one point each. The next group has three purplish-red cards, each worth two points. The last group of three contains red cards with three points each.

Players have taken on the role of mad scientists, trying to devise various chemical elements in their laboratory. They score points (called 'ideas' in this game) for each element they create. They do this by recreating patterns shown on the cards in their hand. They have four energy points to spend each turn to move the tokens and tiles in their attempt to duplicate the patterns on their cards. The game ends once the deck of cards is exhausted, and whoever has the most 'ideas' is the winner.

A Turn in Wrong Chemistry

Players (two to four) have a hand of four cards. On a player's turn, he has four energy points to spend. An energy point allows a player to:
  • Take a token off of one of the tiles.
  • Place a token on an empty tile.
  • Move a token from one tile to any empty tile.
  • Move an empty yellow tile anywhere they like, so long as it is adjacent to at least one other tile (either yellow or blue). The blue tile, being the centre of the atom, may not be moved. Doing so would cause a nuclear explosion! At least, that's what the rules say...
  • Discard a card from your hand.
Once you have duplicated the pattern on one of your cards, you may play that card on the table in front of you. Although the pattern does not have to match the orientation on your card (in other words, you can rotate your card freely to attempt to duplicate the pattern), it must match it in all other respects (empty tiles on your card must be empty on the board as well; the layout of the tiles must be the same, etc). Here is an example of a completed pattern:

The card 'teen' next to the tiles and tokens laid out in the pattern displayed on the card. 'Teen' (a play on the element 'tin') is a two point card, indicated by the number 2 printed inside a light bulb symbol in the upper left and lower right corners. The pattern shown on the card indicates that there are two yellow tiles in a row extending from the upper left side of the blue central tile and two more in a row coming out from the upper right side. Both rows have a white token on the tile adjacent to the blue central tile, and a black token on the further tile. There is also an empty yellow tile on the lower right side of the blue central tile, and the sixth yellow tile is on the bottom side of the blue central tile, this one with a white token on it. The art on the card shows the two mad scientist characters that appear on every card are dressed in high school cheerleader outfits, holding pompons. In the upper right and lower left corners is another cheerleader with pompons, standing behind a white rectangle which shows the atomic number and periodic element symbol for tin (50, Sn), the real-world element that this card is parodying.

Playing a card in this manner does not end your turn; if you have energy points remaining, you can continue moving tokens and tiles. Thus it it possible to score more than one card in a turn. I've heard of people scoring three cards in a single turn.

In addition to the actions listed above, there are two blue cards on the table which may be used by any player. The first is the 'Restartium' card. This card may be used only once per turn; you should rotate the card 90º to indicate that you have used it this turn, and return it to its original position at the end of your turn so that it is available for the next player. It does still cost an energy point to use this card! However, using this card resets the tiles and tokens to their starting position. Thus, if the tiles and tokens are in a highly scattered state as a result of previous players' actions, such that it would be easier to start over than to try to work towards a pattern in your hand, you can just reset the board and start fresh.

The second blue card is 'Extramovium.' This card can be used multiple times per turn, and does not require an energy point. However, you do have to discard one of the cards that you have already scored to use it. For each card so discarded, you gain three additional energy points on this turn. This card allows you to score the higher-point cards which have more complex patterns requiring more than four energy points to create. In practise, of course, you'll want to score a lot of one-point cards early in the game to serve as fodder for later in the game when you want to get those hard-to-get three point cards.

At the end of your turn, you must draw until you have four cards in your hand again. Reset the 'Restartium' card if you used it this turn. Then inform the next player that it is his turn.

More About the Cards

The deck contains 54 cards, each of which corresponds to one of the 103 elements on the current periodical table. The expansion (Expand your Lab!, which I will review at some point in the future) contains the rest. But for the base game, it uses only 54 of the better known elements. Each card is a pun on the element it represents (such as the element Germanium, represented by the card Germanyum, illustrated with the German flag and other symbols of Germany). However, each card is also denoted with the correct atomic number and elemental symbol for the corresponding element (in the case of Germanyum: 32 and Ge). The rule book even contains an accurate periodic table, which is colour-coded to indicate which elements are represented in the game. In this way, Wrong Chemistry might be used as an educational tool to help students learn the periodic table.

Additionally, there are two mad scientist characters that appear on each card, engaged in some activity in keeping with the pun of the card's name. For example, on the card that corresponds to Uranium (92, U), the title is Urineium, and one of the characters is sitting on the toilet holding a giant cotton swab with a drop of yellow liquid hanging from one end, with the other character holding a roll of toilet paper.

Ending the Game

The game does not end when the draw pile is empty, but when a player is required to draw and cannot fully replenish his hand back to four cards. At this time, the game ends immediately. The player with the most 'ideas' (that is, points for scored cards that he has played in front of him) is the winner. If there is a tie, the winner is the one who has the most points in a straight of consecutive atomic numbers. So, for example, if two players are tied with 13 points, and one player has scored Manganiece (Manganese: 25, Mn), Iron (Iron: 26, Fe), and Kobold (Cobalt: 27, Co), he would have a straight of three cards, each worth one point, for a three point streak, whilst the other player had only two cards with consecutive numbers, say, Baron (Boron: 5, B) and Carbone (Carbon: 6, C), each also one point, then the player with the three-card streak would be declared the winner.

Final Thoughts on Wrong Chemistry

This is not a serious game by any means. There's not a whole lot of strategy; it is, after all, difficult to know what the board is going to look like when your turn comes around again. Not knowing what cards your opponents have makes it difficult to intentionally arrange the board to make it harder on the next player. In fact, I have seen it backfire when someone attempts to do so. One player will say, 'I have two energy points left, but I can't score any of the cards in my hand, so I'll move a couple of tokens and/or tiles to make the board harder for the next player to score,' only to have the next player say, 'Thanks! You just made it easier to score this three point card!'

But for a simple, light game (especially one that's suitable for younger players – though certainly not for little kids), or as something for a break between heavier games, Wrong Chemistry certainly delivers. In fact, I'd say the only flaw this game has is that many players take it too seriously. It seems to me that Wrong Chemistry is intended to be a lighthearted romp for a quick laugh. But several of the players with whom I've played have taken it very seriously. They'll sit there on their turn, painstakingly analysing every card in their hand, trying to tease out some strategy for scoring the maximum number of points from one turn. There's certainly a place for that; I don't think you should just randomly move tiles and tokens around hoping to randomly get some points. You do need to consider a planned approach to your actions. But when one player takes ten minutes or more for his turn, much of the enjoyment of the game is lost.

That said, I certainly do not regret owning this game. In fact, a very good friend liked this game so much that he bought a copy for himself after playing his first game with me.

So, I will see you back here next week for another exciting adventure in games! Until then, have fun, and remember to

Game on!

Saturday, June 10, 2017

More Resources for Gamers

You may remember that a few months ago, I posted an article that was essentially a series of links to websites that would be of use to both players and GMs in creating both worlds and characters. It included a twitter feed that generated a random map once per hour, a website with story idea generators as well as name and race generators, another website with generators for many different kinds of names, a third website with generators for personalities and other things, and a random city map generator.

I have a few additions to make to this list of resources. However, whereas the links in my previous article all had to do with preparing for games, the two I have today are more for setting the mood in the game itself.


The first one is Crysknife007, a YouTube channel that describes itself as 'Ambient Geek Sleep Aids.' At this moment, it has over 600 videos, most of them being ambient engine noise from various spacecraft from nearly any sci-fi film or television show you can imagine. These videos come in varying lengths, from one to twelve hours, enabling you to sleep all night long to the ambient noise of the engines from the original Battlestar Galactica. And not just engine noise; there are videos of the ambient sounds from Decker's apartment in Blade Runner, the ambient noise from the Star Trek Holodeck, or even the ambient sounds of the railgun from Quake 3.

Now, of course, if you're as big a game dork as I am, you're probably thinking, 'This would make excellent background mood settings for my sci-fi games!' And I agree. In fact, the GURPS Firefly game I was running was going to use the 'Firefly: Serenity Ambient Engine Sound' as a mood enhancer, before the group collapsed.

There's much more than just sci-fi and video game ambient sounds. Many of the more recent videos are simply generated noise of various types (there's one that's a combination of pink noise, brown noise, and blue noise), as well as ambient sleep sounds created from the actual electromagnetic emissions produced by various bodies in our solar system (planets and moons). I'm sure creative GMs can find use for these sounds!

Tabletop Audio

If you're looking for more evocative audio, you might head over to Tabletop Audio. This website is a collection of ten-minute audio files designed to help evoke the feeling of various settings that you might encounter in a roleplaying game. There aren't as many tracks here as Crysknife007 has, and they're not as long, but they have much more than just sci-fi audio. At this moment, they have audio for wild west settings, horror, traditional fantasy, modern urban soundscapes, early twentieth century settings, generic natural soundscapes, and much much more.

These come in a variety of formats: some are purely ambient noise (such as the track '747 Interior'), others are purely music (like 'Protean Fields,' which aims to evoke a Lovecraftian feel). Some are a balance of music and ambiance ('Super Hero' being one such example). Others are an unbalanced mix: either Music + Minimal Ambiance (for instance, 'Dark City,' for dark modern action/suspense games) or Ambiance + Minimal Music (like 1940's Office).

The Tabletop Audio Logo: The head, neck, and wings of a dragon spreading above the text 'Tabletop Audio: Original, 10 minute ambiences and music for your games and stories,' on a background of stars seen through a pale blue-green nebula.

The website is entirely advertisement free, and is powered by donations (they even have a Patreon), so you won't be bothered by annoying pop-ups or other intrusions.

I do hope that you find both of these resources to be useful in making your games even more immersive and enjoyable. Have fun playing with these new tools, and be sure to come back next week. Until then,

Game on!