Sunday, May 21, 2017

'Realistic' Fantasy

Some time ago, I wrote an entry about players who get upset about rules in RPGs that don't accurately emulate real-world physics. In that entry, I pointed out the oxymoronic attitude of demanding that a rules system that mimics in excruciating detail realistic swordfighting but have no problem playing an elven wizard who shoots lightning bolts from his fingertips.

I stand by that attitude. If you're going to let your demand for realism impede your own ability to enjoy the game (let alone other people's), then why are you playing a fantasy game in the first place?

But this entry is not about that phenomenon. I'm not going to stress about the physics of the setting. Instead, I'm going to stress about the setting itself.

Don't get me wrong. I'd never let this issue get in the way of me or anyone else playing whatever game they want in whatever way they want. It's just something I tend to think about on occasion.

I was thinking about it today as a result of a map I was working on. I adapted this from one I found online several years ago. I think I used it in the GURPS Fantasy/Supers game I ran for a friend, but I could be wrong. Anyway, I've had it floating around for many years, and I'm still pleased with it for many reasons, not least of which is because of the aesthetic quality of the map itself. So I decided to make a digital version of it. Here it is:

A map of a medieval/fantasy village called Fos. A river runs from the upper left towards the centre, snakes around some trees, then bends towards the lower left corner where it runs off the page. On the left of the river are many buildings of various sizes, with several roads passing amongst them. Some of the buildings are colour coded to indicate the locations of smiths, taverns, woodworkers, and tailors; others are labelled (including the town hall, inn, mill, marketplace, and two temples of different fictional religions. Three bridges lead across the river, with the main road passing by some more roads and buildings on the right side of the river. Many trees are scattered throughout the village, as well as several clumps in the upper right corner, where a ridge provides some alteration in the terrain.

One of the things I most like about it is that the buildings and the layout of the town itself are based on what I know of early medieval towns.

For example, before the advent of automobiles, it was extremely uncommon to have streets laid out in grids. There weren't districts like modern cities have (such as residential areas and business areas), but instead, homes and shops are intermingled throughout. Especially in smaller villages such as this one, homes weren't multi-room affairs, but small shacks that consist of a single room with benches to serve both as seats and beds, with a place for a fire in the middle.

Here's what I mean: just outside of the city of York in northern England is a museum called Murton Park. A large section is a recreation of a small Viking village. Here are a few photos to give you an idea of what it looked like, based on archaeological and historical evidence:

The first photo, of a small group of people standing next to a long building with several smaller houses nearby, shows the longhouse, which served as a meeting place, for village business, festivals, and the like. The rest of the buildings were more like the houses on the right of that photo, and in the second photo (the one that shows several of the smaller houses with a narrow road wending between them). Each of these was the home of a single family, who shared the one room that made up the house. The last photo shows the interior of one such home; just a single room with benches to sit and sleep on, and a small fire pit in the centre.

This is, of course, just one basis for a fantasy town. Depending on your preferences, you might base it on more 'high medieval' designs, such as the layout of the German city of Marburg in the 12th Century. Or you might model your settings on how the Greek city of Aigio looked in the 6th Century.

The point is that many fantasy settings suffer from what Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá termed 'flinstonization:' the tendency to view the past through the filter of what we know in the present. But how much more interesting, how much more exotic, would these fantasy worlds (which are supposed to feel exotic; after all, they are 'fantasy' worlds) be if we changed up such simple things as how the towns are laid out, and why.

Anyway, that's what I was thinking. I may make more maps like this for people to use. Keep an eye out. Until then,

Game on!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Playing the Villains

A few months ago, I posted an entry about the various forms of heroism that can be encountered in mythology and literature. In it, I took a brief look at some of the different definitions of what it means to be a hero.

But what if we look at the other side of the proverbial coin? What about playing the villain?

This is not a new idea. In 1971, author John Gardner used one of the primary villains of the Beowulf saga as the protagonist of his own novel, reframing the story so that it was no longer a simple clear-cut case of a hero fighting against evil. A few years ago, Disney reworked their Sleeping Beauty film to tell the story from the point of view of the villain, whom they transformed from a malevolent being into a redeemable character motivated by revenge. Alan Moore's comic Watchmen was a deep look at the nature of the 'good vs evil' trope to examine the real world version of the phenomenon. Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles recasts the monsters of folklore into dynamic characters with motivations and goals of their own, not always driven purely out of malice. This concept was further explored in the first of the World of Darkness games: Vampire: The Masquerade, as well as most of the follow-up games. Then, in an additional twist, the antagonists of the primary character groups in those games were expanded as well, to give players the option to play characters who were seen as monsters by the monsters. For example, in Vampire, where the monsters become the protagonists, the Player's Guide to the Sabbat allowed players to take on the role of the antagonists (the hedonistic, often malevolent counter-sect to the 'good guy' sect of the Camarilla). This trend continued in Wraith: The Oblivion with the Spectres sourcebook, and in Changeling: The Dreaming with The Autumn People and The Shadow Court (examining two different version of 'the enemies' of the fae).

Even in the most basic of all roleplaying games, it is possible to play evil characters. Dungeons and Dragons allows players to choose one of three 'evil' alignments (Lawful Evil: those who hold 'demonic' agendas, but maintain respect for honour, reliability, and accept tradition and systems of authority; Chaotic Evil: those who not only have 'evil' goals but actively rebel against normal systems of societal interactions; and Neutral Evil: those who work towards 'evil' goals but do not feel compelled to either follow nor rebel against authority and social customs.

This concept of playing the 'villains' is parodied (or perhaps merely highlighted) in many works. The Order of the Stick #497 includes an evil adventuring party using the Plane Shift spell to enter and attack spirits in the Lawful Good afterlife. Earlier, in strip #194, they had the story's antagonists (who are very clearly of an Evil alignment) fighting off a series of Good-aligned monsters in a castle, inverting the usual trope of heroes wandering down corridors fighting Evil-aligned monsters.

The point is, this is neither new nor uncommon.

Now, of course, there are some stories (and, resultantly, some games) in which the concept of 'good vs evil' is eschewed for a more real-world paradigm, in which every person is the hero of his own story. This maps very well to the aforementioned Watchmen comic (less so to the film), as well as the original X-Men films (especially the first one, from 2000) in which Magneto and the other members of the Brotherhood of Mutants are, though unquestionably the antagonists of the story, working for a goal that is at least somewhat altruistic. By most normal definitions, this precludes the characters from being described as 'evil.' This situation is grounded in the reality of the comics on which the films were based; in the original Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars, when the Beyonder brings various superheroes and supervillains together to explore the concept of 'good vs evil,' he has no concept of what the comics normally treat as 'good' or 'evil,' and so must devise his own criteria. He settles on the definitions of 'fights for him/herself' for evil and 'fights for others' as good. Using these criteria, he places Magneto in the 'good' camp, because Magneto doesn't fight for himself, but for the protection of all mutants. This led to the character being considered one of the universe's superheroes for a while (even joining the X-Men for a time).

But regardless, there is certainly a justification for playing one of the 'bad guys.' To paraphrase the character of Lenny Nero from Strange Days, '...everyone needs to take a walk to the dark end of the street sometimes. It's what we are. Now, the risks are out of line. ...So you [write up a character and roll some dice], get what you need, almost as good as the real thing, and a lot safer.'

That's one of the things that is so enjoyable about RPGs. You get to be someone else for a while. Every now and then, it can be cathartic to slip into the persona of a villain and indulge your darker impulses. And for that, it can be fun on occasion to play the 'bad guys.'

Next week, we'll look at this topic a little more. In the meantime, go forth, play some games, and don't forget to

Game on!

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Board Game Review: Apples to Apples

A plastic tray with spaces for three stacks of cards, capable of holding about a hundred or so cards each. Two of these are filled with cards that have red backs and the 'Apples to Apples' logo, which is the game's name on a yellow circle. The third compartment has a similar stack of cards, except the backs are green instead of red. Spread nearby are six of the red cards, face up, showing the red apple character and the card's titles: Convenience Stores, Time Travel, Hawaii, Food Poisoning, Sandra Bullock, and Redwood Forests. Also nearby is a spread of three green cards, which look similar apart from being green. The titles are: Nutty, Endangered, and Special.

Many years ago, the Dork Spouse and I would attend the annual Christmas and New Year's parties of some friends. It was on such an occasion that we were introduced to Apples to Apples. This game is ridiculously popular. Especially now that the 'naughty' version, known as Cards Against Humanity exists.

Yes, I know they're not technically the same game. But they're basically the same game.

Anyway, I'm going to write a review of Apples to Apples today. We'll start, as is the norm, with the ratings:

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: 0
Randomness: 4
Complexity: 1
Humour: Implicit, Inherent
Attractiveness: Average
Average Length of Gameplay: 45 minutes
Gamer Profile Ratings:
  Strategy: Low
  Conflict: Low
  Social Manipulation: Medium
  Fantasy: Low

Most everyone knows how this game works. Just in case you don't: the game consists of a number of green cards, which contain adjectives or similar descriptive terms (for example: 'Demanding,' 'Bashful,' or 'Naughty and Nice'), and roughly three times as many red cards, which contain nouns (which can range from simple things like 'Marriage,' 'Claude Monet,' or 'My Boss' to more complex concepts such as 'Berlin - 1945,' 'Hammer & Nails,' and 'A High School Bathroom') or gerund-form verbs (such as 'Skydiving,' 'Ballroom Dancing,' or 'Panning for Gold').

Players have a hand of seven red cards. They take it in turn to be 'The Judge.' The Judge must draw a green card, read it aloud, and place it in the centre of the table. All the other players must then choose a red card from their hand which they feel is described by the green card, and place it face down near the green card. For example, if the green card is 'Devious,' you might choose to play the 'Tony Blair' card.

Once everyone has played (technically, the rules say that the last player to play a card doesn't get to play this round, but in my experience, this results in one or two players being excluded every time, as they aren't as able to think as quickly as the others. Therefore, many groups that I know ignore this rule, and simply say, 'Get your card in quickly so we don't have to wait on you'), the Judge shuffles together all the played red cards and reads them aloud. He then chooses which one is best described by the green card. Perhaps the green card is 'Dangerous,' and the players have submitted 'Feathers,' 'Terrorist Attacks,' 'Worms,' 'Waco, Texas,' 'Steven Spielberg,' and 'NYPD.' Which would you choose as the most dangerous of those options?

The player who played the chosen card gets the green card, which represents one point. The rules specify that the game ends once someone has reached a certain score (the target score depends on the number of players), and the player with the most points wins. However, many people just like to play until they're bored with it and count up the score after that.

I'll be honest: I hate this game. My brain is very literal. When I see a green card that says, 'Cuddly,' I'm going to play a red card that says something like 'Teddy Bear.' So I invariably get a little irritated when the Judge chooses a card like 'Iceberg,' which he then justifies by stating, 'You've never met my ex-girlfriend.' As a result, this game (which seems to me a word game) ends up being more of a social game, where you try to deduce how the Judge will react to the various cards in your hand. Especially given that I am socially incompetent, I am very bad at thinking in those terms. This is also why I hated playing with the listed 'the last player to play a card doesn't get to play' rule; everyone else would easily choose a card from their hand whilst I was still struggling to switch my brain out of literal mode and into social mode. Thus I was almost always the player who never got to play a card.

Another thing that annoys me about this game is the fact that it's dependent on luck more than any other factor. Even for those players who excel at social comprehension, if they don't have any appropriate red cards in their hands, they can't score a point. It goes back to my rant about player agency. I often feel, when playing Apples to Apples, that the randomness which is an inherent part of the game has left me with no viable options for actions to take. That doesn't make for a good game, in my opinion.

Anyway. I know a lot of people like this game. I'm not one of them. I find that the most enjoyable activities for me are those that involve a lot of mental activity. Games that don't involve mental activity, or are of a kind of mental activity that is counter to the way that my particular brain works (such as social interactions of the type required by Apples to Apples), are not enjoyable to me. Which makes game nights with many of the people I hang out with less enjoyable for me than it should be.

Enough wallowing. I have described how I feel about Apples to Apples. Perhaps you disagree, which is fine. People like games for different reasons. I have tried to be as impartial in my description of the mechanics of the game as I can, and in my ratings of the different aspects. With luck, that's enough for you to decide what you think of the game, if you don't already have an opinion.

And with that, I bid you adieu. Join me again for whatever I post next time. Until then,

Game on!

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Rant: Star Wars vs Star Trek

It has been two months since I posted. My goodness, that is a long time. I haven't had a break that long since I returned from hiatus in December 2014. I'm really sorry. Life got too busy there for a while. I just didn't have the time, or the energy needed to think of topics.

With that said, let's get back into the swing of things. I'm going to rant today about something that has been bothering me for a while now. I know I've mentioned this a little bit before, but I want to expand on it.

I don't like Star Wars. After I watched Episode II: Attack of the Clones, I lost interest in the franchise. I waited until Episode III was in the dollar cinema before going to see it. Then in 2012, when Disney bought the whole mess, it began a horrifying cycle of new Star Wars films every year. It began with Episode VII in 2015, followed by Rogue One in 2016. Episode VIII will release this year, with a Han Solo film planned for 2018. According to Wikipedia, Episode IX will come out in 2019, and there will be another film in 2020. If I know how Disney works, they won't stop there. They will continue to churn out films every year for as long as they can.

Which means that every year, I will have to endure the repeated indignity of nearly everyone else on the planet losing their collective minds.

I wouldn't mind so much if there were some counterpart for Star Trek fans like myself. After the release of Star Trek: Nemesis in 2002, the only Trek was Enterprise, a series I disliked due to the amount of retconning involved, until 2009 when the first reboot film was released. Even now, the controversy over those reboot films (such as Into Darkness, which apparently everyone except me hated, and Beyond, which it seems everyone except for me and one of my spouse's co-workers loved) has made the release of a fourth film seem unlikely, despite the announcements from Paramount studios. There is much talk about the potential new show Discovery, but the release date has been pushed back so many times already, and made more vague with each delay (first it was 'January 2017,' then it was 'May 2017,' then it was 'Late Summer or Early Autumn of 2017,' and now it's simply 'whenever it's ready'). So, you know, I don't have high hopes for it.

But here's the thing: Star Wars is not science fiction. It's not. It's really not. The Force has nothing to do with science; its basically a form of magic. This means that Star Wars should actually be described as Science Fantasy, if 'science' should be included in the genre name at all. Which I dispute.

Star Wars relies on special effects for its appeal. Nobody would watch it without the lightsabers, the Force-based acrobatics and magical powers used by the Jedi and the Sith, the massive space battles, the content-light but adrenaline-heavy action sequences... Star Trek, on the other hand, has always been able to hold its own with less reliance on flashy gimmicks (it doesn't always do this, but it can). The original series was very popular despite the bad special effects (or sometimes, essentially no special effects at all).

Furthermore, Star Wars is based on the trite 'war of good vs evil.' I don't believe in such things. It's why I loved the Watchmen comic so much: it hinges on the fact that villains don't set out to do evil things for the sake of being evil; they are doing what seems good to them, and that perception of good conflicts with other people's conception of 'good.' The same is true of Star Trek. In many episodes, and even several films, we see the protagonists and antagonists are at odds not because one wants to do evil and the other wants to do good, but because both sides are pursuing what they see as good, and those visions are in direct conflict. The Klingons don't oppose the Federation because they are evil; they oppose them because they perceive the conquest of lesser species as good. Even Khan, although he was in the end driven by a desire for vengeance, saw his attempts at conquest to be beneficial (just look at the episode 'Space Seed,' when he says, 'We offerred the world order!' He wasn't killing people because he was evil and killing was the evil thing to do; he was doing it because he felt it was justified, that it was necessary. Just as in real life, only the mentally ill actively pursue what they see as evil. This is part of what makes Star Trek a superior franchise: it more closely models real life in its portrayal of antagonism.

Especially in the way that Star Wars, like most settings, too closely models an antiquated view of what being evil means in the first place. The Jedi Order, which is seen as the pinnacle of 'the good guys,' states outright in the Jedi Code that natural and normal human conditions are to be avoided. Emotions are as integral a part of what it means to be human as it is possible to be, yet the Jedi Code states 'There is no emotion, there is peace.' It is mentioned in at least one of the films that the Jedi are not permitted to have romantic relationships (which, of course, includes sexual activity), despite the clearly essential nature of such relations. Yet the Sith, who include as part of their code the line, 'Through passion, I gain strength,' which indicates that they do not fear the natural and normal state of being, are clearly and constantly portrayed as evil. Their desires are cartoonishly simplified in the cliche 'good/evil' dichotomy that is so exhaustively used as the basis for the vast majority of modern storytelling: 'We will conquer because conquering is the evil thing to do. We will kill because killing is the evil thing to do. We will oppress because oppression is evil and we are evil people.'

I get so tired of that attitude.

Star Trek doesn't fall back on that perspective. Sure, some of the villains are fairly hackneyed; the Klingons and Romulans (especially in early incarnations), the Cardassians and the Dominion, even to a great extent the Borg; these are all conquering races because they come from a culture that values conquest. But at least they have a reason for it beyond 'We are evil, and evil people conquer.' Emperor Palpatine and his cohorts want to rule simply for their own evil nefarious purposes.

Even if we ignore the science fiction/science fantasy genre distinctions and compare The Force to Star Trek's lack of magic (advanced alien abilities and technology that masquerades as magic notwithstanding), we see that Star Trek offers a positive view of our potential. Look at all we've accomplished in a few centuries! We've achieved faster-than-light space travel! We've conquered many medical maladies! We've mastered teleportation technology! We have unified not only our own species, but many other extraterrestrial races as an allied force for peace!

What does Star Wars offer? Magic powers? I'm sorry, but Harry Potter does that too. Give Harry Potter a lightsaber, blaster pistol, and a star fighter, and there's basically no difference between Hogwarts and the Jedi Council.

But Star Trek? With the possible exception of Babylon 5 (which I wasn't able to watch when it originally aired, and I haven't been able to watch since), I'm not aware of any science fiction show that had such a relentlessly optimistic view of the future. Not just in terms of what technology we can develop (even The Jetsons showed a hopefully view of what wonderful gadgets we can someday create), but in terms of how far we've come as a species, in terms of overcoming social and political ills, in terms of who and what we are.

Star Wars will never have that.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Economic Domination Games

I know I keep referencing the Six Board Games That Ruined It For Everyone article on, but it's such a good article. The Top 100 list on Board Game Geek is awesome, but it doesn't compare bad games to good games the way the Cracked article does.

As an interesting side note, I saw that, if you reverse the order of the Top 100 List so that it shows you the Bottom 100, five of the six games from that article are listed. The one that's not? Risk. Which is interesting, given what I'm about to say.

Anyway. Here's what the Cracked article has to say about Risk:
The worst part of Risk is victory by excruciation. A well-designed game has tactics and skill building to a climax, a thrilling race to victory, and when someone has clearly won, it's because the game is over. In Risk, someone can win hours before it ends, and they will not let you just admit it and leave. They spent hours carefully planning this victory, and by God you are going to sit there and patiently lose for just as many hours so that they can enjoy it properly. They've turned having fun into a zero-sum game.
This ties in with a recent experience I had. I was learning to play Wallenstein a couple weeks ago, and it did not go well for me. In case you don't know, Wallenstein is a game set in the Thirty Years War, which ravaged central Europe (the areas known as present-day Germany in particular). It was an absolutely brutal conflict, claiming eight million casualties by the end of the fighting. The game captures this aspect very well, as any battle devastates both sides.

At the beginning of the game, I was in a pretty good position, and by the time we reached the first of two scoring rounds, though I wasn't in first place by any means, I was still doing fairly well. Very shortly after that, however, I was attacked by several other players and lost so much territory that I was no longer able to take any effective actions. The dynamics of the game meant that if I fortified my territories to defend against my opponents, I would score no points. If I attacked other players, or neutral territories, I would leave my defenses so weak that I would almost instantly lose not only the territories I had gained, but the ones I'd had to start with as well. If I built palaces or churches to try to score more points, I would have made myself a target for the other players without the ability to defend myself.

Perhaps, had I found myself in this situation closer to the beginning of the game, I might have been able to recover. Having a few turns to build up my defenses before trying to score more points might have made the difference. But as it was, I had insufficient time to try to recover the loses I'd suffered late in the mid-game.

I'll probably give this game another try some day, after my initial anger has faded. But for right now, I can only think about the games I used to play with Stephen many years ago.

Stephen used to be my best friend, He can be described as 'incredibly intelligent, but with absolutely no common sense.' He's the one who ruined Go for me; he tried to teach me to play one day, but rather than giving me any advice on strategy or the intricacies of the game, he merely explained the rules, then proceeded to absolutely thrash me. Twice.

I will happily admit that I am no strategic genius. I seldom do well in games of pure strategy, like Chess or Blokus. I'm ok with that, as long as I feel I have a chance. If I lose because of my own actions, that's fine. It's when I feel the game is so stacked against me that I have no good options that I start getting irritated.

I know that Go was not a case of 'I have no good options available.' But because Stephen, who is a strategic genius, countered me so effectively at every turn, and never explained to me what mistakes I was making, or what a better strategy might have been, it very much felt that way to me. That feeling has persisted, decades later, and I will likely never play Go again. I know it's irrational, but that's the way it is.

Anyway. Getting back to my point. I played several games with Stephen, including Axis and Allies and similar games. Many of these are similar to Risk in that, the more territory you control, the more resources you have available. This means that, by about the halfway point of the game, one player has more economic power than the other(s). At this point, as long as that power is dedicated to garnering and maintaining more of that economic power, that player cannot lose.

Let me explain a bit more in depth. In Risk, there are 42 territories on the board. That means that, in any single round, a total of about 126 reinforcement armies are awarded (not counting the bonus armies from controlling an entire continent). If there are six players, who control 4, 6, 6, 7, 8, and 11 territories each, that means the the player with 11 countries will receive 33 armies this round. That's 9 armies more than the next player, who has 8 territories and gets 24 armies. That's quite a significant advantage.

Sure, in this setting, the other players can gang up on the 11 territory player, but if that player is able to defend his holdings, it's likely that he'll go on to win. But even more important, the player with only 4 territories is in a really bad position. He only gets 12 armies per round, and that's not enough to make any significant gains. The only way he can win at this point is if the other players screw up by letting him gain a lot of new territory whilst they're fighting each other.

That's what bugs me about some games. Eventually, you lose so much ground that you have no chance to recover. At that point, the game stops being fun and becomes a case of waiting until defeat has finally arrived.

That's one of the things that I really enjoyed about Power Grid. The way the game flows, it's entirely possible for the player in last place to surge ahead at the very end and steal victory. You're never truly out of the running; there are always options that can enable you to win if you play your cards right (so to speak).

Anyway, that's just a thing I was thinking about. I hope this post didn't end up sounding too bitter. That wasn't my intent. In a way, it's meant as a warning to game designers: don't make it so that, if the game goes poorly for a player at the beginning, he no longer has any chance at all of winning.

So that's it for this week. I'll see you here next time. Until then,

Game on!

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Board Game Review: Caverna: The Cave Farmers

Don't forget to check out the podcast version of this article! You can listen to it in the embeded media player above! And please let me know what you think. Is this a good idea? Or should I stick to text only?

A single player board, with various pieces arranged on it. The board has two halves: the cavern half and the forest half. Each is subdivided into twelve squares. Some of those squares have tiles representing conversion into tunnels, mines, or living areas (in the cavern half) or livestock pens and crop fields (the forest half). There are tokens of various types on these tiles.
As I progress in my quest to play 80 or more of the games on the top 100 list, I find I'm getting to play all sorts of interesting games. This is certainly what happened last week, when I found myself playing Caverna: The Cave Farmers. I keep hearing that it's similar to Agricola, but as I haven't played Agricola yet, I can't comment on that.

But it does mean that I get to review Caverna. So let's get this started the right way: with a bunch of numbers!

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: 1
Complexity: 5
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Pretty
Average Length of Gameplay: 2 hours
Gamer Profile Ratings:
   Strategy: High
   Conflict: Medium
   Social Manipulation: Low
   Fantasy: High

Welcome to Caverna! You are a clan of dwarves living in the caverns of a mountain bordering a forest. You must dig into the stone of the mountain, and cultivate the forest into a farm to provide sustenance to the dwarves living there.

Caverna is a a worker placement game. The object is to have the most victory points at the end of the game. Victory points come in a variety of forms, from animals on your farm to rooms you've built in your cave to forest squares converted into farmland and other sources besides. You accomplish these tasks by taking actions available on an action board. This board is compartmental, so the actions available depend on the number of players. But even that is only part of the picture, because each round, you draw a new action card and place it on the action board, so that more actions become available as the game progresses.

A few of the actions available in the course of the game may include:

  • Go on an adventure. By converting ore that you've mined from your cavern into a weapon, you can send one of your dwarves on an adventure, to bring back one of a number of different rewards, depending on how high-powered that dwarf is.
  • Plant crops. You can turn one piece of grain into three, or one piece of vegetable into two, by taking this action.
  • Clear Forest Tiles. This action allows you to place a double-space crop and pasture tile over available spots in your forest. These are necessary for raising livestock and growing crops.
  • Furnish living quarters. By taking this action, you can put a living-quarter tile on a cleared space in your cavern. This grants you one of a number of benefits (there are a great number of tiles, and with the exception of a single stack of twelve 'simple dwelling' tiles, they all do something different).
  • Make babies. Eventually, you start being able to produce offspring, which gives you more dwarves, enabling you to take more actions on subsequent rounds.
This is just a small sampling of the actions available to you. Most of the actions aren't that straightforward, either. Many action cards, for example, gain an additional resource token each round, and when that action is taken by a player, he receives all the tokens currently on that card. Most of the cards tend to grant you a pair of actions that you can do, which you may do either or both. Some require you to choose only one. And so forth.

So. My final thoughts on Caverna. It's a fun game, with a lot of possible options. The number of available actions is staggering. The available rooms you can place in a cavern is also enormous. The rules themselves are actually quite easy to grasp. I read the first four pages of the rulebook, skimmed briefly over the remaining twenty or however many there are, and I was able to play the game. Not well, mind you. But most of the rulebook is specific rules for each possible action or tile, and as such, is more for rules questions than for understanding the game itself.

That said, it is a very heavy game. The number of components is astounding. The box is large, and every bit of space is used. It's certainly not a bad game. I'd be willing to play again. But for my personal tastes, I don't think I need to own a copy.

Anyway, that's my thoughts. As always, don't let me tell you how you feel. Look at my numbers, read my descriptions, and decide for yourself. Until next week,

Game on!

Sunday, January 29, 2017


Some time in the last year, I learned to play T.I.M.E. Stories. I'm not going to review it here, because it's a very different kind of game. I'll just give you a quick overview before going on to my main point.

The game itself is, similarly to a roleplaying game's core rulebook, more about the mechanics and less about the objective. Whereas most board games state, 'To win this game, you must collect the most gold coins' (or whatever), when you play a roleplaying game, the rules state, 'These are the mechanics involved in playing. Now decide what goal your group must accomplish in order to win.'

T.I.M.E. Stories's base game contains the board and all the counters you'll need to play. It also includes a deck of cards. Most of these cards are similar to the pages of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Each player is sent back in time to occupy the body of a person in a specific place. Whilst in this body, the player must help to solve a problem of some sort to fix the timeline. You lay out the cards in a specific order on the board, and the art of these cards collectively shows you what you see. For example, in the included scenario, you are inhabiting the body of patients in a 1920's mental asylum. The first set of cards that you lay out on the board will, when seen together, show you the day room of the asylum. Here's what I mean:
Five cards, laid out side by side. Each card shows one fifth of the total image, which is a painting of a day room in a mental asylum. The card on the left shows a nurse looking at the viewer, standing in front of the nearest window. The second card shows a man wearing a strange contraption on his head sitting in a lounger with a chess set on the small table in front of him. In the third card, as the wall of the room is seen running into the distance, with tall windows along it, you see a woman in a white patient's robe painting at an easel. The fourth card has the corner of the room, so the next wall starts moving into the foreground of the image's perspective. There is a love seat against the window of this card, on which sits a man in a suit coat and fedora, wearing a plague doctor's mask. The final card shows a chest of drawers on top of which rests a painting of a man.

Then, players choose which part of the room to explore, and which person to approach, by turning over the appropriate card and reading what it says on the back. The card describes what happens, what the person says, if there are any challenges that must be overcome (such as combat with the person, or rolling to find a hidden item, and so forth), and anything else that happens. If the players come into possession of an item, the card will say, 'Draw Item Number 23' (or whatever card number is appropriate).

By choosing what actions to take, and where on the overall mission map to go, players are given clues that will lead them to the story's eventual resolution (a word of caution, though: some clues are red herrings, and lead to dead ends, causing the players to waste the limited amount of time they have to perform their mission before they are recalled to the future).

And that's where the problem comes in: if players are unsuccessful in their first attempt to play through a story, they can try again a limited number of times with some of the knowledge they've already acquired. And it's almost guaranteed that they will fail the first time.

In this first mission, for example, if you run out of time before completing the mission, the T.I.M.E. Corps Director will send you back a second time. If you still don't complete the mission, he sends you back one final time under a 'Condition Red' status, which suspends the time limit, but places other restrictions on you. When you complete the mission, you read the appropriate 'Mission Successful' card (depending on whether you finished on the first, second, or third attempt), or you read the 'Mission Failed' card (there is a 'Mission Failed' card for each way the mission might fail: if all the agents die, or you make a bad decision and fail to prevent the temporal anomaly, or so on).

But once you've played through this mission, you can't play it again. You already know where everything is, what the important clues are, which characters to talk to and which to avoid, and so forth. In order to use your T.I.M.E. Stories set again, you must purchase one of the expansions, which contains a new deck of cards that allows you to simulate a new mission.

That's something that I've never cared for. I prefer games that can be played an infinite number of times. This means that I like games such as Red Dragon Inn, or The Resistance: Avalon. Even Balderdash has high replay value, because there are so many cards that even if one player sees them all, it's highly unlikely that he'll remember all (or even most) of them.

On the other hand, games like Malarkey, which ask players to guess which answer to the 'Imponderables' question is the correct one, even lose their replay value after a time. Once you've seen every card in the set, you know all the answers.

This is part of what I don't like about many video games, as well. Once you've finished a game, it's seldom enjoyable to play it again. Sure, some recent video games are using the branching story method, where the decisions you make in the game determine which ending you get. Once you've finished a game, you can play it again making different choices, and you will get a different ending.

But I still prefer games that give you different stories every time. I like sitting down for a rousing game of Hot Tin Roof, not knowing who's going to win, where each player is going to put their shelters and catwalks, not knowing what decisions are going to be available. Yeah, it's the same game. But every time you play it, it's new, and you don't know any of the crucial information before hand.

Anyway, that was what I was thinking this morning. Some people, of course, enjoy that sort of experience. Millions of people purchase new video games, play it through, then sell it back to the store and buy a new one. Obviously, it has some sort of appeal for somebody! Just not for me.

So go have fun playing games, whether you replay them or not. I will see you back here next week, and until then,

Game on!