Saturday, December 12, 2015

Worker Placement Games

Last night was the Backer Party for the Loot & XP Board Game Cafe. It was a blast! I had so much fun hanging out with awesome people, playing great games, and even making some new friends and reconnecting with some that I haven't seen in years!

In addition to playing Sushi Go and The Red Dragon Inn, I also ended up playing a game called Alchemists. I may do a proper review of that game later, but I just wanted to share a few thoughts I had as a result of playing that game last night.

I described the game to a spectator as a worker placement game with elements of Clue and just a soupçon of Compounded. I stand by that description. The core element of the game is a deck of eight alchemical ingredients (including toads, mandrake root, and raven's claws), each with specific alchemical properties. The exact properties are randomised by an app on your phone, and you have to spend a large portion of the game combining ingredients to see what potions result from them, and then using that information to deduce the alchemical properties of the ingredients.

Saturday, December 5, 2015


I just finished reading an excellent article. It's about empathy: what it is, why it's important, how we came to have it, why it's declining in modern culture, how to cultivate it, and how it will improve your life.

It's kind of long, but I think it's well worth the read. The highlights:
  • Humans are empathic creatures. We evolved in a social environment, and we need that social interaction to feel happy and complete.
  • Empathy is declining. With the rise of technology, we are getting our social interaction more through our phones and computers than face-to-face, and this is reducing our ability to be empathic.
  • Empathy is important. The article suggests some ideas on how to improve your sense of empathy.
I won't rehash the whole article. You really should go read it. It has some videos embedded in it. They're good videos. Watch them too.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Board Game Review: Scoville

A few months ago, a friend introduced me to a very fun board game called Scoville. The point of the game is to grow, crossbreed, and harvest peppers, which are then combined in recipes. I really enjoyed it, so let's take a look at it now, shall we?

We start, as always, with the 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.
Strategy: 4
Randomness: 2
Complexity: 2
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Ideal
Average Length of Game Play: 1 hour

Sunday, November 22, 2015

An Overview of Shifters

It has been a very crazy couple of weeks. I haven't posted according to the schedule in some time. But at least I've got the beta playtest draught of Shifters ready to go. So this week, I thought I'd give you a quick overview of how the game works.

Characters have five primary attributes:
  • Strength: An overall measure of physical sturdiness, covering body mass, lifting and carrying capacity, health, endurance, damage capability, etc.
  • Agility: A rating of flexibility and co-ordination, which includes the basis for most physical skills and proficiency in weapon use and combat.
  • Reason: A description of general mental capacity, including logical thinking and rational cognition. It doesn't cover knowledge, though.
  • Psyche: This is the attribute that covers what you know (rather than the ability to use what you know in a logical manner). Also governs social ability.
  • Essence: This is the supernatural ability. It covers willpower, but also ability to use magic, psionics, and most superpowers, as well as resistance to these.
Each is rated from 2 to 10. The ratings are then subtracted from 12, to give you that attribute's target number (thus, if you had a Reason of 7, your Reason Target Number is 5). You purchase levels in attributes using Character Creation Points (CCPs), with each level in an attribute costing 5 CCPs. Normally, you start the game with 150 CCPs, but the GM may alter this depending on what sort of game he's running.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Shifters Ready for Playtesting

I have mentioned here before that I am working on creating a new roleplaying game. It is finally ready for playtesting.

I have created a pdf of the beta-version rules set. I illustrated it myself, because I couldn't find anyone else to do it. Which means that the illustrations are crappy beyond belief. Some of them are photoshopped photographs, others are tracings of photographs done with pencil (some of which are finished in ink, others not). A couple of them are, in essence, completely brazenly stolen. I justify this theft with the fact that this is only a beta playtest version; if playtest goes well and results in a workable product, I will probably try to put this game on Kickstarter. If successful, one of the things I plan to include in the budget is paying for a professional illustrator (or possibly more than one). Every illustration I made will be discarded, the layout will be finalised and made more pleasant, and real actual honest-to-goodness illustrations will be included.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Board Game Review: The Lord of the Rings

Not surprisingly, many games have been created based on the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. However, my favourite is the co-operative board game by Reiner Knizia, in which players take on the roles of the hobbits in the fellowship and attempt to carry the One Ring to Mordor where they must drop it into the fires of Mt Doom. Very much like the story in the books, no? Perhaps that's part of why I like it so much!

Let's look at the numbers, shall we?
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.

Strategy: 3
Randomness: 3
Complexity: 3
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Pretty
Average Length of Game Play: 1½ hours

Saturday, October 17, 2015

My Ranking of the Star Trek Films

I'm going to do something a little different this week. I spent a good chunk of this morning reading some articles about how other people rated the Star Trek films, and it got me thinking about how I would rank them.

I know it's not about gaming per se, but Star Trek is at least as nerdy as gaming, and besides, there have been more than one game (some of them roleplaying games, even) set in the Star Trek universe. Anyway, it's my blog, and I'll blog about what I want.

So here we go.

Before we get started, I want to give you a little background. I grew up on Star Trek. As a young boy, I loved looking up at the stars and thinking about the vast cosmos in which we lived. So naturally, any story set in outer space strongly appealed to me. I watched Buck Rogers and Battlestar Galactica. I was a fan of the original Star Wars trilogy (although, apparently unlike other young male fans, I wanted to be Luke Skywalker instead of Darth Vader) ­– the new trilogy destroyed my love of the series so thoroughly that I no longer count myself a Star Wars fan at all; after I saw Episode II, I took a long hard look at the entire franchise and realised that the only thing about it that had kept me a fan was nostalgia – remembering the joy I had once gotten as a child from the films, but no longer had.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Social Bias in Role Playing Games

As I get older, I learn more about how modern society tends to have implicit social biases. Not everyone in a society holds these biases, and those that do don't always have the same biases. These can take the form of racism, sexism, anti-immigrant attitudes, homophobia, transphobia, religious bigotry, political bigotry, and many other forms besides.

It may seem silly to be talking about this on a gaming blog, but I believe that games can help shape attitudes, as well as vice versa. I remember noticing many years ago that almost all of the characters that were created for games in which I played were Caucasian, and the majority of them were male. Even before I'd noticed that, it had occurred to me that I didn't always have to play a character of the same gender as myself. I've played many female characters; some of these I count amongst my most enjoyable gaming experiences. Michelle, the Silent Strider Theurge from Werewolf: The Apocalypse, was one such character; another was Sarah Storm, the cyberpunk piskie from Changeling: The Dreaming. I've also tried to break out of my own ethnicity as well; Michelle was of Egyptian descent, and I recall at least one character that I created who was African American (I never actually got to play that character, sadly).

Even as a GM, I can try to bring in under-represented minorities as NPCs. The session I ran last night involved a Native American NPC. The additional NPCs who will be making appearances later on in this story include a Kenyan, a Qechua, an Arabian, an African American, and a Japanese. One of these is also homosexual.

These are small details, and the players may well not even realise that they're there, but in my opinion, every little helps.

For that matter, I remember reading a short essay by Beth Kinderman on her old geocities page 'Revenge of the Gamer Chick' (which, thankfully, appears to have been archived). I found the paragraph regarding her Noghri Jedi character to be especially disheartening. The relevant portion of this paragraph is as follows:

I once participated in a Star Wars campaign where my character was a female, a Jedi, and a Noghri.  The Noghri are a race of small, lizard-like beings that are not terribly attractive to humans to begin with, and to make it even worse, I took the flaw Albino.  By all rights and purposes, this shouldn't have been much of a problem—the Noghri are rare enough that the average human in the Star Wars universe hasn't ever seen one, much less have the ability to apply a standard of beauty to them.  But my poor little Noghri encountered more hostility from players and characters alike than any other character of mine—even Lupe the three-eyed werewolf!  The other characters made fun of her appearance constantly (fellow Jedi included... way to roleplay their compassion for all life-forms, people), and she had a devil of a time getting any respect from NPCs.  I wouldn't have had a problem with a little friendly ribbing if it weren't for the fact that one of the male players had actually taken Unattractive Appearance as a flaw for his human male PC, and never suffered a social stigma or had the slightest problem because of it.  And after several sessions, I was even asked to make another character that would "fit in better with the rest of the PCs."  (I refused.)

This worries me. I understand that this is supposed to be a game, and we're all supposed to be having fun. It's not really the place to be tackling serious social issues. But I firmly believe that these little details add up. If we can't try to make a difference in these little ways, what does that really say about us? Besides, having a minority character in the gaming group shouldn't detract from the ability of that group to complete their mission, or from the ability of the players to enjoy the game. So why not add a little variety to the party?

I, for one, will continue to push the envelope of what I can play. I will also encourage others to do the same. I hope that you will too. Until next week,

Game on!

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Board Game Review: Sushi Go

Hello and welcome to another week of the Game Dork's rantings! It's time for another board game review, and this time around, we're going to do a card game called Sushi Go, by Gamewright Games. It's a fun little card game with an interesting mechanic! The object is to score the most points by picking the tastiest (and therefore most valuable) items from the conveyer belt at a sushi restaurant.

Let's start things off right:

Strategy: 2
Randomness: 4
Complexity: 2
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Pretty
Average Length of Game Play: 30 minutes

Players start off with a hand of cards depicting various kinds of sushi, or other items associated with sushi (such as chopsticks or wasabi). The hand size depends on the number of players. Each player chooses a single card to play, and they all play that card simultaneously, so you don't know what anyone else is going to play until you've already played your own. Then (here comes my favourite part), each player passes his entire hand to the next player. This means that you won't know what cards you'll have available to play until the next round. This is important, because most of the cards rely on multiple-card combinations!

Let me show you what I mean:

Nigiri is the most straightforward of the cards. Each nigiri card is worth 1 to 3 points (egg nigiri is 1, salmon nigiri is 2, and squid nigiri is 3). However, if you play a wasabi card, it's not worth any points on its own, but it does triple the point value of the next nigiri card you play! So it can be worth a lot of points, but playing it can be risky, because not only do you not have any way to be sure that there will be any nigiri cards in the next hand that is passed to you (or any subsequent hands; the nigiri doesn't have to be played immediately after the wasabi, it merely applies to the next nigiri card you play), but now that you have a wasabi card showing on the table in front of you, the other players will know that they don't want to pass you a hand containing a nigiri card (especially if that card is a squid nigiri!).

Dumpling is the only other card that is worth points by itself. However, the more dumpling cards you have, the more they're worth! A lone dumpling card is worth 1 point. Two dumpling cards together are worth 3 points. Three of them give you 6 points, whilst four and five are worth 10 and 15 points respectively. So they can be worth a lot if you have enough of them, but it can sometimes be hard to get a lot of them, especially if the other players notice what you're doing and start playing the dumpling cards before they get to you so that you can't have any!

Maki rolls are worth points to whoever has the most of them (and it's not the player with the most cards, but the most maki rolls; you may notice in the photo above that the maki roll cards—the red ones on the lower left—have one, two, or three maki roll symbols in the top. At the end of each round, players count the number of these symbols that they have in total). The player with the most gets six points, whilst the player with the second most gets three points.

Sashimi and tempura are worth points if you have combinations of them. Every two tempura cards you have are worth 5 points together, whilst you get 10 points for every three sashimi cards you have.

Chopsticks cards aren't worth any points by themselves, but if you have a chopsticks card on the table, you can swap it out for another card in your hand at any time. It's a placeholder that essentially allows you to play two cards at once on a later turn. This can be very useful if you've got a wasabi card and a squid nigiri card in the same hand and you want to play both of them!

The pudding cards are the most complicated. They are also not worth any points by themselves. Like maki rolls, they give points to the player with the most of them, but they're not scored at the end of each round, like maki rolls are. They're scored at the end of the game. The game consists of three rounds; players are dealt hands, and play through all the cards in those hands, three times, scoring the cards they have in play at the end of each of those rounds. Then, at the end of the game, the player with the most pudding cards gets six points, whilst the player with the fewest pudding cards loses six points! So you don't want to skip these cards, because even if you don't get any points from them, not having any will guarantee a big loss!

This game is super fun, quick and easy. I always enjoy it when we play. It's fun to weigh your options; do I play the wasabi and hope that I get a good nigiri card later on? Or do I play it safe and stick with a dumpling that will guarantee me at least one point? On the other hand, the player next to me already has two sashimi cards; do I want to pass him this hand with the sashimi card still in it and give him ten points? Or do I play it to prevent him from getting those points even though it means I won't get any points either?

Anyway, that's it for now. Tune in next time, when I talk about something completely different! Until then,

Game on!

Sunday, September 27, 2015

What Lawsian Gamer Type Are You?

As I prepare the Changeling campaign I'm running for a couple of friends, I turn my thoughts (as I often do) to the player types I have in my group.

Those who've been following this blog for a long time now may remember that I posted, several years ago, a description of the different player types. I always like to get an idea of the types of players for whom I'm GMing, so I can try to tailor the story to their needs and desires.

As this particular group is still so new to gaming, I imagine it will be a month or two before I start asking these questions. But to that end, I've created a survey on Google Forms that they can take when I feel the time is right to ask them to think about these things.

And then it occurs to me that it might be interesting to know what gamer types I have reading this blog.

So, to that end, I present to you the Lawsian Gamer Types survey!

Let me know what you think! Feel free to take the survey! If you want to know the results, leave your request in the comments below, and I'll respond with your stats. I can either leave them in a response to your comment (in which case everyone can see them), or I can email you directly (just let me know which you prefer, and provide me with an appropriate email address if necessary).

Short and sweet this week, but I think it's a worthwhile topic! I look forward to hearing back from you! Until next week,

Game on!

Saturday, September 19, 2015

External Resources

I wrote a post a few weeks ago about player aids. I've recently been able to start a Changeling game for a couple of friends, and I reworked an idea I'd used in the past. I think that will make an interesting topic for this week's entry.

Those of you who are experienced gamers may be familiar with a concept called "bluebooking." If this is a new idea to you, let me explain: some gaming groups began using blue books (small booklets of blank ruled paper, normally used in american universities for essay exams) to continue action of a game outside of a normal gaming session. If there were scenes that players wanted to play out in private, away from others in their gaming group, those scenes could be written out in blue books, which were cheap and easily available. GMs would then review those scenes and respond to them, if necessary, and could incorporate events of such private scenes into their game setting without other players being immediately aware of what was going on. Other types of scenes that could be acted out through bluebooking included scenes that occurred in a long lull in main action (i.e., if a couple of years of in-game time passed between gaming sessions, players could describe what their character was doing during that time), or if there was a scene that a player didn't feel comfortable roleplaying in front of other gamers, and so on.

This is just one example of an External Resource. External Resources are tools used outside of a normal gaming session to enhance stories being told.

Several years ago, I created a Yahoo! group for my gaming group. We could discuss our game in a forum, upload and share files that were of use to them, and so on.

My new Changeling group is brand new to this hobby. They're experienced video gamers, but I discovered that they'd never even played Dungeons and Dragons. I hosted an introductory one-shot Changeling session for some players in my game club, and I invited two of these friends to join. They had such a good time, that they not only began asking me to continue running a game for them, they told two of their other friends, who also became interested in trying it out.

As such, I'm working very hard to make sure that they're able to enjoy themselves as much as possible. One thing that I know can be overwhelming for new players is understanding and remembering so much new information ("What does Chicanery Art do again?" "Oh yeah, I forgot I had that ability!" "What do you mean, 'telepathy doesn't work on a computer?'") So I wanted to create a site where they could find this information easily.

This time around, since all players already had Google accounts, I chose to use Google Sites and Google Groups for this resource. I created a main page, which linked to a 'useful files' page, a 'character notes' page, and a forum. 'Useful Files' includes several maps, chargen pdfs, and similar files available for viewing or downloading. 'Character Notes' has a complete description of each level of Arts that each character possesses, as well as their Legacies, Merits, and Flaws, and if they have a chimerical companion, that companion's Redes and Banes as well. This allows them to easily re-read and remember what they can do. 'Forum' allows players to discuss previous game sessions (including summaries of in-game events from previous sessions), as well as talking about what they like or don't like about our game thus far, offer suggestions, etc.

This is just one example of External Resources. I'm sure that many other people have come up with even more ideas. If you have any suggestions for External Resources, please share it with me in my comment section below!

That's all for this week. I will see you again here in a week's time. Until then,

Game on!

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Board Game Review: Colosseum

It's time for another board game review, and I've got a good one for you this week. We're going to look at the game Colosseum by Wolfgang Kramer and Markus Lübke, published by Days of Wonder and Edge Entertainment. Players own colosseums in ancient Rome, and are competing to put on the greatest show.

Let's start in the usual place, with the numbers:

Strategy: 3
Randomness: 2
Complexity: 3
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Nice
Average Length of Game Play: 2 Hours

There are so many pieces involved in playing this game, it can take a while to set up. The board serves as a pretty, but ultimately excessively large, organisation area in which many of the pieces are organised. But the bulk of the pieces are placed in front of the players themselves, or in storage to one side, with no organisers at all.

The board consists of three main parts: the score track around the outer edge, the nobles' track, which follows a rectangular path just inside the score track, and the marketplace, which is the where five sets of three tiles are placed in the centre of the board. The game takes place in five rounds of five phases each.

In the first phase, players take turns making a single purchase. They can purchase an expansion to their colosseums (each player starts out with two end pieces placed at specific points along the nobles' track, and can add up to two central pieces to their colosseums during this phase), a season ticket section (which is good for 5 bonus points each round), an emperor's loge (which grants bonuses to how you move the nobles in phase 4), or a new event programme (more on these in a moment).

In the second phase, players take turns bidding on tiles in the marketplace. Each tile represents a component of a show that they may put on in their colosseum. They include things like gladiators, comedians, musicians, priests, chariots, horses, lions, scenery, cages, and torches. A player bids on a set of three tiles, and then other players have the option of attempting to outbid that player. Ultimately, each player must buy a single set of tiles. The sets are replenished before each player's turn at bidding, but if a player gets outbid on his turn, the sets are not replenished until the next player's turn begins.

In the third phase, each player gets an opportunity to try to trade asset tiles with other players.

Ultimately, it leads to the fourth (and most important) phase: putting on a show. Each player starts the game with two small event programmes. During the fourth phase, each player has the opportunity to put on a show using the asset tiles required for their event programme. For example, a player may put on the 'Cavalry of Spartacus' show, which requires three gladiator tiles and three horse tiles. If the player has all six of these tiles, the event is worth 12 points. There is a chart at the bottom of the event tile that displays how many points the show is worth if you don't have all the tiles (for example, if you're missing one of the tiles for Cavalry of Spartacus, regardless of which tile it is, the show is only worth 10 points. If you're missing two tiles, it's worth eight points. And so on.

Before you put on your show, though, you roll a die. The dice are numbered as follows:  I-III, II, III, IV, V, or VI (yes, the dice have Roman numerals printed on them. This can be hard to read, especially when a IV or VI come up, as it's easy to mistake one for the other, and this is one reason I gave the game a 'Nice' rating under 'Attractiveness'). You move one of the nobles clockwise along the noble track that many spaces (if you get the I-III, you get to choose whether to move a noble 1, 2, or 3 spaces). If you have an emperor's loge on your colosseum, you get to roll two dice, and either move one noble the combined total, or use one die for one noble and the other die for another. There are three consuls on the track, two senators, and an emperor. If you have a noble in your colosseum when you score, you get bonus points (three points for each consul, five points for each senator, and seven points if you have the emperor).

After moving the nobles, you score your event. The base score is shown on the event programme, plus bonuses for nobles, and other additional points (+5 for each season ticket section you have in your colosseum, +3 for each podium [podiums are awarded in phase 5], +5 for each event you've already put on, and +4 for each star performer [the player with the most -- minimum three -- of each kind of living event tiles: gladiators, lions, horses, comedians, etc.; non-living tiles like scenery and torches don't have star performer bonuses. So the player with the most gladiators gets the gladiator star performer tile, the one with the most lions gets the lion star performer, and so on]. Emperor tokens, which are normally awarded if you get a noble to land on certain marked spaces on the noble track, can be redeemed for three additional points as well).

The important thing about this game is that points are not cumulative. You get points equal to the highest-scoring show you've put on. Thus, if you perform a show for 20 points in round one, and a show for 40 points in round 2, then your current score is not 60, but 40. If you perform a show worth fewer points in a round than you had in a previous round, then your score does not change. It stays at the value it was at previously.

But that doesn't mean it's not important to score points in each round; you get money for each show you put on. However many points you score in a round, you get an equivalent amount of money in Roman Coins. These may be used to make purchases in Phase 1 as well as bid on tiles in Phase 2, and can also be used during the trading in Phase 3.

The first event programmes you have in the game are the 'small' events. You can eventually buy 'medium' programmes, which require you to have expanded your colosseum by at least one space, and 'large' programmes, which require a full four-space colosseum. The larger the event, the more tiles it requires, and the more points it's worth.

Finally, in phase 5 (which is skipped in the final round, as it's not necessary), players must discard one of the tiles used in their event. Also, the player with the most points earns a podium to add to his colosseum, and the player with the fewest points gets to steal an asset tile from the player with the most.

I really like this game. It's a lot of fun, and it involves more than just strategy. You must carefully balance which tiles you have and what tiles you expect to be able to acquire later with what event programmes are available. You also need to be able to negotiate trades, bluff players during bidding, and balance the events you're putting on now with the ones you expect to put on later. My one complaint is that some aspects of the game are poorly designed. There's a lot of wasted space on the board, as beautiful as it is, that could have been better utilised in organising the many pieces that each player possesses. In front of me, I may have as many as twenty asset tiles, a pile of coins, a few star performer tokens, emperor tokens, and up to five event programmes. These can be hard to organise, and it would have been nice to provide players with small boards that make this task easier.

But that's a small concern. I will usually not turn down a chance to play it. And that's all I have for this week. Until next time,

Game on!

Saturday, September 5, 2015

A brief overview of Changeling history (part 3)

In the last installment, we had just arrived at the point in which the sidhe had returned from Arcadia. At first, most of the kithain were overjoyed, as this seemed to signal a new Spring, a symbolic end of the hardships of the previous six hundred years, as Glamour began to return to Earth.

Their hopes were soon dashed, however, as the sidhe looked around themselves and said, 'Your rulers have returned. Bow down and serve us once more.'

Obviously, the commoner kith were none too pleased at this development. The sidhe had, after all, abandoned them to potential Undoing at the hands of Banality, only to return and demand fealty once more without even so much as a 'Good job in our absence.' Tensions mounted, until in most areas of Europe, the Americas, and Oceania, war broke out between the commoners and the sidhe. In some ways, this conflict was most severe in the Americas, where hostilities began with the Night of Iron Knives, otherwise known as the Beltaine Massacre. The sidhe had agreed to meet with the commoner leaders and forge a peace treaty. The leaders were instead betrayed, as the sidhe slew every one of them with Cold Iron, obliterating their faerie souls for all eternity.

The beginning of conflict wasn't so violent in other parts of the world, though the conflict itself was harsher. In the British Isles, the sidhe won a decisive but brutal victory, and returned to rulership. The Iberian peninsula suffered a similar fate. The Scandanavian commoners, on the other hand, chose to hand the crown back to the sidhe willingly; perhaps they had had their fill of self-rulership and were only too pleased to return to the traditional system of governance. In North America and (more slowly) Australia, the sidhe won the war, but then met with the commoners and agreed upon a compromise: the sidhe would resume their traditional positions of monarchical leadership, but their rule would be tempered by the existence of a Parliament of Dreams which could override the king. Furthermore, positions of leadership would be opened to non-sidhe changelings for the first time. In fact, with all of North America unified into the Kingdom of Concordia ruled by David Ardry, the continent was subdivided into several lesser kingdoms (Apples in the New England area through New York and Pennsylvania, Willows in the South, White Sands in Florida, Grass in the midwest, Burning Sun in the Southwest, Pacifica on the west coast and Hawai'i, Northern Ice covering Canada and Alaska, and all of Central America as the Feathered Serpent), the Kingdom of the Feathered Serpent was ruled by a troll monarch.

The Galatian Confederation was the oddball amongst the conflicts. The commoners in Eastern Europe all the way to Germany united to defeat the sidhe invaders. After their success, they formed the Galatian Confederation, a commoner paradise. There are very few sidhe here at all; most of them fled to France, which became the Kingdom of Neustria, a traditional monarchy in the style that had existed before the Shattering (the collapsing of the portals into the Dreaming). In fact, because of the influx of sidhe from Galatia and the commoners fleeing the harsh treatment of the sidhe, Neustria's changeling population is 90% sidhe.

For several years afterwards, there was peace and prosperity amongst the kithain. There were political intrigues, conspiracies and secret societies, and no shortage of adventures, but most were content. Things began to unravel in 1997 though, when David Ardry went missing shortly after his wedding to Faerilth ap Eiluned. Concordia began to unravel as many competing factions vied for the newly-vacant throne. Eventually, the sidhe Danwyn ap Gwydion ascended to the throne, and began warning the kithin of the return of the Fomorians.

His rulership did not have the auspacious beginning that he might have hoped. The kithain of California rebelled, and eventually won their independence. They formed the Golden Confederate Republic, a democratic state free from the monarchy of the rest of North America. Many of the existing sub-kings fell or disappeared, and Danwyn had to replace them.

Then more global omens began. Originally, only eight of the thirteen noble houses of the sidhe had returned from Arcadia (not counting those Scathach sidhe who'd remained on Earth after the Shattering). But after the secession of the Golden Confederate Republic, the reamining five houses appeared. Shortly after that, new kith began to appear from the deep recesses of the Dreaming. Although the Fomorians have not arrived yet, these omens along with prophecies from noted seers indicate that it is coming. It is only a matter of time.

Thus ends the history of the fae (thus far).

I should note, at this point, that some of what has been included in this history is of my own devising. Some of the events in the recent history (such as the creation of the Golden Confederate Republic and the ascension of Danywn ap Gwydion) are the result of games that I have GMed, and so were influenced by gamers in my games. Others, such as the existence of Dark Glamour and a Dark Dreaming, are of my own devising based on my personal philosophies on the nature of the game's setting.

But, even with that in mind, I hope that you have enjoyed reading this history of Changeling: the Dreaming. I will see you here again next week! Until then,

Game on!

Saturday, August 29, 2015

A brief overview of Changeling history (part 2)

Last week, we looked at the earliest part of the history of the fae, from their genesis to the time that Banality sealed them off from the Dreaming. The sidhe had just abandoned the commoners to their fate, clogging the portals back to the Dreaming as the helpless commoner kith watched those portals collapsing.

Today, we will continue the history.

So the commoner kith found themselves trapped in an increasingly inhospitable world, without even the leadership of their traditional rulers to guide them. To be fair, a handful of sidhe did remain (most notably those of House Scathach -- pronounced SKOO-hah), but there was now a massive power vacuum. Some of the commoners tried to form new royalty, others looked to more progressive styles of government, and still others simply fell to chaos and petty infighting.

But the foremost problem was dealing with the threat of Banality. How to protect themselves from an energy which, merely by being exposed to it, could erase your very soul?

The solution: the Changeling Way. The remaining fae clothed their faerie souls in human bodies. This began a cycle of life, death, and rebirth. A faerie spirit would be born into a human body, and lie dormant for several years. The changeling would live as a human, perhaps not fitting in with his community, but still thinking he was just an odd human. Then, something would happen to awaken the fae spirit. Usually, this happened around puberty, but sometimes as early as age 6 or as late as age 25. The changeling would then live in two worlds simultaneously; they had to balance their human lives (working as a normal human worker to provide the necessities of human life; food, shelter, clothing, etc.) and their fae lives (indulging in the Glamour-fueled pursuits that were essential to their faerie souls, such as going on mythic adventures and living lives as courtiers at grandiose royal courts).

Eventually, one of several things would happen: the human body would die, in which case the faerie soul would wait to be reborn into a new one, or the fae spirit would be made dormant once more. This dormancy could be the result of excessive Banality, or through battle with faerie weapons. Sometimes, the fae spirit would reawaken, but other times, the changeling would live out the rest of his life as a normal human. In any case, even if the faerie soul was dormant, once the human body died, the fae would be reborn into a new human body some time later.

Of course, it's also possible for a faerie spirit to be destroyed entirely, usually by death with Cold Iron, but sometimes as a result of a massive amount of Banality. The human body, if it survives the experience, continues as a normal human until it dies, and then the changeling is simply gone forever.

Not all European changelings underwent the Changeling Way. Some, who felt themselves more tied to nature than to humans, became the Inanimae. These housed their faerie spirit in some natural object, such as trees, clouds, rivers, boulders, volcano calderas, or other items. There are also several varieties of Undersea Fae, such as the Merfolk, who have a ritual similar to the Changeling Way.

As European explorers travelled the globe, the kithain (as the European changelings called themselves) went with them. They encountered the Menehune of Polynesia, and the Nunnehi in the Americas, and the Hsien in eastern Asia, and other beings besides. These new creatures learned the Changeling Way from the kithain, and began a similar cycle of life, death, and rebirth.

As the Europeans became, in many ways, the dominant force in the Western World, so too did the kithain become the dominant fae in both Europe and the Americas. Africa is still largely forbidden to them; the strange and mysterious fae beings in that continent have resisted western fae incursions. Most of Asia is similarly inhospitable, though for different reasons... in many places, the Banality is simply too great. Eastern Asia, on the other hand, is simply too strange for the kithain to feel comfortable there. The Hsien, despite superficial similarities to the changelings, are so radically different that most kithain just prefer not to venture there.

So it went, for some six centuries, until the year 1969. It was on 21 July of that year when the convergence of two events caused an event known as The Resurgence. Following so closely on the Summer of Love, 21 July saw the first steps of a human being on the moon. As humanity looked toward the moon, which some believe to be the location of Arcadia, and began to dream and wonder again, a global concentration of Glamour blew open the previously collapsed portals into the Dreaming, and the sidhe emerged from Arcadia once more.

The Resurgence had massive worldwide effects. So massive, that they will have to be discussed in the final installment of this series, next week. Until then,

Game on!

Sunday, August 23, 2015

A brief overview of Changeling history (part 1)

I consider myself very fortunate at this time, because I have managed to get a group of players sufficiently interested in Changeling: The Dreaming to get a new game started. I will be meeting with them next week to walk them through the process of character creation, and I have developed the backstory for the major NPCs in preparation for creating the story we'll be exploring.

So I want to spend the next few entries describing the general history of the fae.

It all began in the Mythic Age, at the dawn of humanity, when the first humans dreamed, and those dreams became the first fae. Dreams of honour and virtue became the trolls; dreams of nobility, beauty, and finesse became the sidhe, dreams of cozy homes and humble craftsmen became the boggans. Dreams of travel and adventure became the eshu, whilst dreams of hedonism became satyrs and dreams of playful animals became the pooka. There were darker dreams as well; dreams of antisocial workaholics became the nockers, dreams of ravenous horror became the redcaps, and dreams of things that go scritch in the night became the sluagh.

The fae kept themselves mostly separate from humanity for centuries; sometimes, they'd cavort with the humans for sport, or toy with them as playthings, or seek their devotion as gods. But generally, they remained aloof, both fascinated and repulsed by these pitiful creatures with little to no magic, despite the fact that the fae relied on humans as the source of Glamour, the energy of dreams.

But there was another aspect of humans that the fae did not understand.

It did not take long for humanity to discover that they were able to use their intellect to shape their environment to their wills. It started slowly, with the crafting of stone tools to make their lives easier, making weapons to hunt food and tools to shape the remains of their prey into clothing, shelter, and other useful items. Eventually, after learning to work with soft metals such as copper, they discovered how to work with their first hard metal: iron.

The discovery of iron was a watershed moment for humanity. More than any other innovation, the taming of iron allowed man mastery over his world, and showed him that with careful application of reason and knowledge, he could conquer any obstacle before him.

This created the force known as Banality.

Iron, being the substance that sparked this realisation in the collective human psyche, is thus perpetually infused with Banality. Banality itself is the turning away from dreams, of looking at the world with a lack of wonder, of thinking only of the ways in which you might tame the world instead of revelling in the beauty of it.

At first, the fae were unconcerned with this new energy. It was insignificant, and not yet the omnipresent force that we know today. They continued to ignore the humans, thinking of them as their subjects or their prey, if they considered them at all.

In those early days, there were many other creatures of dream as well; just as the fae subsisted on dreams, there was another type of creature that fed off the darker energies. There was what is known as Dark Glamour. Whereas Glamour represented hope, creativity, love, trust, and marvel, and Banality represented despair, sterility, indifference, impassivity, and commonness, Dark Glamour was the energy of depression, destruction, hatred, suspicion, and monstrosity. The beings that subsisted on Dark Glamour were known as the Fomorians, and these monstrous beings were the sworn enemies of the Fae.

There was war with the Fomorians for years, and at last, the sidhe led a campaign to defeat the Fomorians. The enemy was sealed away in the deepest recesses of the Dark Dreaming, where powerful magics prevented them from visiting the mortal world again. Due to the sidhe's brilliant leadership, the fae made the elven leaders into their kings and queens. The noble sidhe ruled over the other fae for many years afterwards, often mimicking the style of human rulers as a form of amusement to themselves.

What you have read thus far predominantly describes the fae of Europe. There were other types of fae in other parts of the world; in the Americas, the Nunnehi represented the dreams of harmony with nature. Polynesians dreamed of the perfection of their social heirarchy, and these dreams became the Menehune. African and Asian fae were even more different still. But all subsisted on Glamour of some sort.

As the centuries progressed, and humanity came to rely on logic more and more, their collective turning away from dreams and wonder served to increase the amount of Banality. The fae soon realised that humans were a force with which to be reckoned. All attempts to curb the tide of Banality failed, and finally, the rulers decided to abandon the mortal world forever. The exodus to Arcadia had begun.

Arcadia, the mystical homeland of the fae, existed deep in the heart of the Dreaming. Some scholars have hypothesised that Arcadia actually lies on the far side of the moon, but it is reached by travelling through the chaotic world of the Dreaming until you have arrived as far from the mundane world as is possible.

So the sidhe began their arduous trek towards Arcadia. Being the royalty, they insisted that they be allowed to return before any of the commoner fae would be permitted to begin their journey. The commoners watched with growing dismay as the sidhe clogged every portal leading into the Dreaming, whilst those portals collapsed one by one. Finally, as the last of the sidhe passed through the last portal, that portal sealed shut behind them, and the commoner kith were trapped on a Banal earth forever.

When we continue the history of the Changelings next time, we will see how the fae adapted to a hostile world, and how the changing world affects the different fae beings. Until next time,

Game on!

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Board Game Review: The Red Dragon Inn

I often talk about the heavy, thinky-thinky type games that I really enjoy playing. But, as I hope may be evident from some of the games I review on here, those aren't the ONLY types of games I like to play. Sometimes, it's a lot of fun to play a simple, light, fluffy type of game that's enjoyable because it's silly or funny. The Red Dragon Inn is one such game. Here are the numbers:

Strategy: 2
Randomness: 4
Complexity: 2
Humour: Implicit and Inherent
Attractiveness: I'm torn between Average and Pretty...
Expected length of Game Play: Varies with number of players; usually about 15 minutes for two players, and add an extra 7 or 8 minutes for each additional player.

The core game contains the equipment needed for four players. There are four 'sequel' games (Red Dragon Inn 2 through 5), which can be played as standalone games for up to four players, or combined with one another. You can have a number of players equal to the number of base sets times four. You can also buy expansions, which are individual characters allowing you to add one player per expansion.

The premise of the game is this: each player takes on the role of an adventurer from a D&D style adventuring party. The group has just completed its latest dungeon crawl, and has returned to town to celebrate their victory and spend their loot at the Red Dragon Inn.

Each player chooses one of the available characters. The base set(s) plus any expansions you have determine which characters are available. The first base set contains Deirdre the Priestess, Fiona the Warrior, Gerki the Thief, and Zot the Wizard (with his familiar, Pooky the rabbit; who, by the way, can be played as his own character if you buy his Allies expansion). Zot the wizard is so far my favourite character.

Anyway, each character has his or her own unique character deck. This deck provides the actions and reactions that a player can take. About a third of the deck is cards that all characters have in common, but the rest are specific to that character, and represents that character's strengths and weaknesses. Fiona, for example, is good at dealing out damage and intimidating the other characters into not targeting her. Gerki is good at stealing gold from other players and defending his own. And so forth.

In addition to the character decks, there is also a drink deck. Each card in this deck represents a drink purchased from the bar, ranging from the lightweight (such as 'Light Ale,' worth 1 alcohol point) to the intense (like 'Red Dragon Ale,' worth 4 alcohol points) to the dangerous (like 'Orcish Rotgut,' which has no alcohol points, but does 2 damage) to the restorative (like 'Coffee,' which heals 2 drunkenness points, or 'Holy Water,' which heals 2 damage).

In front of each player is a play mat, which has a space for their character deck, a space for their discard pile, a space for their drink cards, and a fortitude/drunkenness track. At the beginning of the game, you place your drunkenness token at 0 and your Fortitude token at 20. Each character has one drink card on their play mat, and a hand of seven cards drawn from their own character deck. Each player also has 10 gold pieces.

The play mat also lists the steps to be taken on each player's turn.

  1. Discard and Draw: You may discard any cards you do not want. Then draw up to seven cards.
  2. Action: You may play a single action card from your hand. Depending on which character you're playing, these cards may range from attacking other players (doing them fortitude damage), stealing their gold, forcing someone to take an extra drink, skipping your own drink phase (step 4, below), and so forth. Certain actions are available to every character, such as starting a round of gambling or tipping the serving wench.
  3. Buy Drinks: Take the top card from the drink deck and place it on top of the stack of drink cards on any other player's play mat.
  4. Drink: Reveal the top card from your own stack of drink cards and suffer the listed effects.

As you progress, drinks will cause you to gain drunkenness points (you move your drunkenness token up 1 for each alcohol point you consume). Other players' actions (and, occasionally, some drinks) will also cause you to take fortitude damage, moving your fortitude token one space down for each point of damage you take. If ever your fortitude and drunkenness tokens meet, your character passes out, and you're out of the game. If ever you run out of gold, you're out of the game. The last player remaining is the winner.

That's pretty much it. There are a couple of minor complications, though:

  1. Event cards: Some cards in the drink deck don't represent drinks, but are events. One example is the 'Drinking Contest' card, which causes all players to draw a new drink card, suffer its effects, and the player who had the largest alcohol content on his card wins 1 gold from all other players. There are also drink cards that say 'with a chaser' (for example, 'Dark Ale with a Chaser'). This causes you to draw an additional drink card and suffer its effects along with the current card.
  2. 'Sometimes' and 'Anytime' cards: Some of the character cards are listed as 'Sometimes' cards, which can be played under certain circumstances, often on other player's turns, to affect, alter, or negate a game effect. For example, Zot the Wizard has a 'sometimes' card called 'No, Pooky, that's my friend!' It may be played when another character causes you fortitude damage. It causes the player who did you that damage to suffer 2 damage as well (the image on this card is great; it shows Zot trying to restrain Pooky the Rabbit, who has gone rabid with rage at his master being injured). 'Anytime' cards are played at any time, and do not count as an action. One example is Deirdre the Priestess's card 'My Goddess Heals Me,' which heals 2 fortitude damage.
  3. Gambling: Some action cards begin a round of gambling. When this happens, the game is suspended temporarily as a 'mini-game' takes place. Each player antes one gold into the pot, and whoever began the round of gambling is considered to be 'in the lead.' Then you go around the table and each player has an opportunity to play a gambling card to put themselves in the lead. Once you've made a complete circuit of the table with no players playing cards, whoever is in the lead wins the pot. There are 'sometimes' cards that can affect this, such as ones that allow a player to sit out of a round of gambling, or to leave midway through a round, or to end the round with the pot going to the house (these cards are usually called 'I guess the wench thought that was her tip'). But the most enjoyable ones are the 'cheating' cards which put their player in the lead  (my favourite of these is Zot's card 'Pooky, stop looking at other players' cards!' The illustration on this card is adorable). There's even an expansion that allows player to actually gamble instead of the simple 'take the lead' cards that are the total of gambling in the core set.

And that's it.

This game is a lot of fun. It's hysterical, as the wacky hijinks of the characters interact to produce unending hilarity. It's not the sort of game that should be taken seriously; the vast majority of the fun is in being silly as you play D&D characters partying hardy after their last adventure. Far more so than with most games, this one is not about who wins, but the funny things that happen in the course of the game.

The last thing I want to say: the attractiveness level of this game was really hard to determine. The artwork is beautiful, with cute but well-done illustrations on every card. The play mats are lovely, made to look as if they are on wooden tavern tables. Even the gold coins are pretty, with lavish illustrations on cardboard tokens. But that's the problem; it's all on cardboard. As lovely as those cardboard tokens are, I can't help but think that they would have looked better as plastic coins. Now, I understand that The Red Dragon Inn 5: The Character Trove was just a few months ago successfully funded on kickstarter, and one of the add-ons available for that was metal coins. That sounds amazing! But I don't know if those are available elsewhere. So I feel as if the artwork alone should merit the 'Attractiveness' category being rated at 'Pretty,' but the fact that it is just printed on cardboard should limit the game to 'Average.' So I leave that one undecided.

I really want to pick up a copy for myself some day. Until then, I'll have to rely on my local board game cafe to get my fix...

And with that, I bid you farewell for another week. Until next time,

Game on!

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Importance of Stories

Over the last couple days, at my summer job, I was working on a project that involved this article on The Irresistible Power of Storytelling as a Strategic Business Tool in the Harvard Business Review. The general gist of the article:

Humans need stories. We live our lives through the stories we tell each other. It's been a part of our racial archetype since our ancestors were living in caves and drawing stories on the walls. People respond most strongly to stories that use Freytag's pyramid. Advertisers that use Freytag's pyramid as a structure for their advertisements have a greater return on investment than those who don't. So all companies should turn their advertisements into stories.

Setting aside my disgust at so shamelessly corrupting what may be the quintessential aspect of human existence for base monetary gain, I wish to talk (yet again) about the importance of telling stories. It's not just an enjoyable pastime; the article linked above mentions research that shows how the climax of a story triggers the release of cortisol in human neurological systems. This causes us to focus on the story, wanting to know what's going to happen next. Even if the story is completely predictable, and we have no reason to think that the hero won't save the day at the last minute, we still hang on every word.

The cortisol is augmented by oxytocin, our 'feel good' hormone, especially if the climax involves things like cute animals. And a happy ending triggers the release of dopamine, which engenders contentment and compassion.

All this from a simple pyramid:

I love telling stories. One of my favourite things to do when I'm hanging out with friends is to retell events that have happened to me, or to people I know. I love telling the Alaska story, or the story of the wreck in which I almost died. And, as regular readers of this blog will know, I love to play RPGs because it's another form of storytelling. I get a significant emotional thrill from being involved in the climax, the falling action and denouement.

It's why I don't care for video games. Sure, there are sometimes stories involved in the games, depending on which game you get. But it's almost always preprogrammed. The player has little to no effect on the direction of the story. With rare exceptions (Chrono Trigger being the most notable exception of which I'm aware), the actions of the players don't affect how the story progresses, but merely whether the story progresses.

Sure, there's nothing wrong with stories that are not affected by the audience. Movies and TV shows are the same way. So are books, really. But having once tasted the thrill of influencing the outcome of a story, I've found I have a taste for it. Why go back to static, passive stories, when I can take part in a dynamic, interactive story?

The last game I ran was a one-shot Changeling session, designed to introduce the game to players who'd never played it. I took the 'World of Stone' campaign that I ran last summer, and condensed it down to a three-part one-evening story. That campaign followed the Freytag's Pyramid scheme very closely. It was designed on a set-piece scene design, with four major encounters, each one leading into the next in some way.

It started out with a group of changelings that happened to work together in the forensics department of the Hilo police force. They were contacted by a menehune (a native Hawai'ian faerie) named Lanahi, whose village had been turned to stone. They followed him to his village, learned as much as they could, and set out to track down the person who had done it. This was the exposition: introducing the characters, the conflict, and the narrative hook.

There were several encounters afterwards. They learned more about their antagonists, which led to an aerial chase scene on bizarre flying machines, pursuing a hog pooka.  They rescued the young girl that one of the PCs had sworn to protect from the rival of that same PC. They had an encounter with a shark that led them to realise that the mentor of another of the PCs wasn't really a selkie as he'd led everyone to believe, but was in fact a mer who had been banished from the undersea kingdoms. And they got trapped in a living house in the Dreaming who kept giving them various tests, and released them only once each one had passed his or her test. This was the rising action: all steps taken towards solving the conflict of the story.

Eventually, they had the big showdown with the main antagonist: an insane nocker who had cursed Lanahi's village for the purpose of stealing their sacred conch shell, which she used to power a bizarre single-occupancy tank that could cause the volcano at the centre of Hawai'i's big island to erupt. This was the climax: the conflict comes to a head.

The battle, of course, ended in success for the PCs. They disabled the nocker's machine, captured her, and remanded her to the appropriate changeling authorities. This was the falling action: we see how the conflict is resolved.

Finally, the remaining loose ends are tied up. Lanahi's village is restored, the conch shell returned to them, and the PCs return to their normal life, having grown, learned, and changed from their experiences. This is the denouement, the resolution: we finish out the story and see what has changed as a result of the story's events.

This story was so powerful that not only did the original players enjoy it, but the super-condensed version that I ran as a one-shot had the participants talking about the game for weeks afterwards.

This is the power of a story.

If you haven't been involved in a story/game of this nature, I highly recommend it. It's a lot more fun than just killing monsters and collecting treasure. I'm not saying you can't do that as well; the PCs in 'World of Stone' defeated many adversaries and earned some pretty nifty toys in the process! But they did it as part of the story progression.

And that's what matters.

Anyway, I think that's all for this week. I'll see you back here next time! Until then,

Game on!

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Exciting news!

I'm on holiday at the moment, so this one's going to be a short one. But there is some exciting news, and I felt I just had to share.
Remember a couple months ago, when I was talking about board game cafes? I believe I said, 'I don't know how feasible this idea would be, but it's fun to dream!'

Well, it turns out I was not alone in wishing for this. A kickstarter just went live for a group wanting to open a board game cafe right here in my own current home town!

They've had a couple of board game events at the local public library, so I've been able to play with them. They seem like really nice people, and I'm very much looking forward to helping them get off the ground. I know I'll be pledging, and I'd really appreciate it if you'd head over to their Kickstarter page and pledge something too!

Sadly, most of their reward packages will only be of use to people who live in or near this city, but there are a couple that may appeal to anyone, regardless of location. I'm certain the fine folks behind Loot & XP will appreciate your support. And I know I will!

That's all for this week. I'll see you back here next time, and until then,

Game on!

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Board Game Review: Panic on Wall Street

I learned how to play another great game at the game club I attend. It's called Panic on Wall Street. It takes all the chaos of being a Wall Street stock broker and makes it an exciting game. Let's take a look, shall we? The ratings:

Strategy: 3
Randomness: 4
Complexity: 4
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Average
Expected length of Game Play: 1 hour

In Panic on Wall Street, players are split into two groups: managers and investors. There will be two winners at the end of the game: a winning manager and a winning investor. In both cases, the winner is the person with the most money.

Play starts out with each investor in possession of a quantity of money and several purchasing tokens. The managers get a little bit of money as well, but they also have three small dry-erase boards that represent a single share of stock in a company. The companies represented are silly industries, like the sausage-in-a-tube or the hamster-powered radio. Game play consists of managers trying to convince the investors to invest in their stocks, and investors deciding which stocks to invest in, all with an eye towards turning a profit.

Here's how this works: each stock is colour-coded, blue, green, yellow, and red. Blue stocks are the safest, with essentially no possibility of losing money, but a very modest return on investment as well. Green stocks have a small chance of losing money, but a higher possible income. Yellow stocks run a decent chance of losing some money, but if they earn money, they earn a fairly sizeable quantity. The red stocks are the biggest gamble; they can end up losing the investors a lot of money, but they can also earn a lot of money! This works through the clever main board, which looks like this:

There's a marker on each band which denotes how much stocks of those colours pay out. It starts on the 30, in the centre, and after the negotiation phase, you roll dice to determine how far the markers move before paying out. There's one die for each colour; the blue die has two 0s, two +1s, and  two -1s. Thus, it has equal chance of going up, going down, or staying where it is, and even if it does change, it won't change by much. The green die goes from +2 to -2, so it can move a little faster. The yellow die goes from +3 to -3, but it has no 0. This means it's guaranteed to move, but it won't go any farther than halfway up or down the track. The red die is the most chaotic; it has +3, +4, +7, -3, -5, and -7. So it's guaranteed to move a fair amount, and has the possibility of going from one end of the track all the way to the other in a single turn!

So here's how it works. In the first round, each manager has three stock boards. You turn over the minute timer, and for that minute, there is utter chaos as managers try to get investors to invest in their stocks, and investors compete with one another to get the stocks at the best price. There are essentially no rules on this; whatever deal a manager and an investor agree on is valid. When a deal is struck, the manager writes down the agreed-upon price on that stock, and the investor places one of his tokens on the stock to indicate that he's investing that amount in it. However, if another investor is willing to invest a higher amount in that same stock, the manager is free to return the first investor's token to him and write in a higher price for the second investor to place his token on the newly-vacated stock.

It is in the best interest of the managers to talk the investors into agreeing to a higher price on each stock; this is how they make their money. However, the investors want to pay as low a price on each stock as they can, as the more money they invest in a stock, the lower the profit on that stock. There is a way to 'lock in' your bid, however; if you can convince a manager to accept your bid as a closing bid, then when you place your token on that stock, you flip it over to the 'closed' side, meaning that no further offers may be made on that stock. This is beneficial for the investors, as they now know that they can't be outbid on that stock. The managers want to avoid this for as long as possible, as it prevents other players from offering more money. But if they're reasonably certain that they won't get a better offer, or the timer's about to expire, it's usually worth it to squeeze a little extra money out of the investors.

Whatever else happens in this negotiation phase, when the timer runs out, the state of all stocks at that moment become frozen. If you were in the middle of removing your token from a stock, but it's still on that stock when the timer runs out, then you're invested.

At this time, you roll the dice to see how the value of the stocks changes. Then the investors receive the value of all stocks in which they've invested according to the main board. Sometimes this means they have to pay out! However they did in this phase, they then must pay the managers their agreed price for all stocks. Once the managers have received their income, they must pay rent on all stocks they own (a flat fee, so the value of a stock has no effect on how much the managers pay). Then five new stocks are put up for auction, and the managers bid on them to add to the range of stocks that they may offer the investors.

This continues for five rounds, at the end of which, the manager and the investor with the most money are declared the two winners.

There is some strategy involved; looking at the numbers on the main board and calculating the probability of how your investments will pay out; hedging your bets against the other investors, deciding to play it safe on the low-risk stocks or gamble on the high-risk stocks. Very often, the game is won or lost on the fortunes of the red stocks; if the dice are on your side, they pay off handsomely. If not, they will quickly drive a player to bankruptcy.

I thought this game was a lot of fun. It's not one I can play often, and it has to be with the right group of people. But for an occasional session of utter chaos and shouting, it can be quite enjoyable.

I hope you enjoyed this review! I look forward to seeing you again here for another entry. Until then,

Game on!

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Player Aids

Once, many years ago, I participated in a game of Dungeons and Dragons set in an alternate history version of Middle Earth. I did this primarily at the request of the GM, who wanted an experienced gamer to assist the newbies, as they were having trouble progressing in the plot.

This was  a challenging situation, not only because I dislike D&D, but because after every session, when we received XP and levelled up, there was a protracted period of passing around the one copy of the Player's Guide so that players could choose new skills, acquire new feats, learn new spells, etc. It was a boring time, sat waiting for the book to get back round to me, as all the other players fought over who got to look at it next.

This inspired me to create a booklet that I could easily and cheaply photocopy which contained all the necessary information not only for spending experience, but also for walking the players through the character creation process, step by step. I'd hand this out to players during the chargen session, and let them go, and be nearby if anyone had any questions. Nobody had to wait for the book to get to them, because everyone had their own copy.

Obviously, the first version I created of this was for the basic Changeling: The Dreaming. I later made versions for Vampire, Werewolf, Mage, and then the non-standard splats for Changeling, such as the nunnehi, adhene, inanimae, menehune, and hsien.

I've since expanded the basic Changeling one; last summer, when I ran a game, I split the booklet into sections, which allowed me to expand it and include more detailed information, as well as images. Rather than having a session where all the players made their characters, we worked on them individually, in advance. I sent the first section to each player, and as that player finished a section, I'd send them the next one.

A few years back, when I had conceived of the idea of running a GURPS Firefly game, I created a spreadsheet that automatically calculated the character points spent during chargen. It was a rather lengthy process; I had to include spaces for each possible skill, advantage, and disadvantage. But it got the job done.

About a month or so ago, I realised that there was a way to use a spreadsheet to guide players through Changeling chargen as well. I've been working on that since; although the actual spreadsheet itself is finished, I'm still working on including descriptions of all the possible traits so that you don't have to wonder what any given ability or Art or Merit or whatever means.

I've used it once to create a character I plan to use for the introductory one-shot Changeling game I plan to run next week. It's worked pretty well! I'm excited to finish it so I can introduce it to other players.

But I was thinking about how these sorts of players aids can be useful, especially for people new to the game. It makes the process of creating a character easier and less intimidating. It also alleviates the problem of having to share a single copy of the rules book.

Have any of you done something like this? I'm curious what other sorts of play aids are out there. Let me know in the comments below, and until next time,

Game on!

Sunday, July 5, 2015

'Where Do You Get Your Ideas?'

Many of the world's creative celebrities have spoken or written about occasions in which they get asked the question, 'Where do you get your ideas?'

Alan Moore (who, just on the off chance that you don't know, is the author of many of the world's greatest comics, including V for Vendetta and Watchmen), said, 'We imply that even to have voiced such a question places [a person] irretrievably in the same intellectual category as the common pencil-sharpener. ... I know it isn't nice.'s something that we have to do. The reason why we have to do it is pretty straightforward. Firstly, in the dismal and confused sludge of opinion and half-truth that make up all artistic theory and criticism, it is the only question worth asking. Secondly, we don’t know the answer and we’re scared that somebody will find out.'

Gary Larson, creator of The Far Side, says, 'I've always found the question interesting, because it seems to embody a belief that there exists some secret, tangible place of origin for cartoon ideas. Every time I hear it, I'm struck by this mental image where I see myself rummaging through my grandparents' attic and coming across some old, musty trunk. Inside, I find this equally old and elegant-looking book... embossed on the front cover in large, gold script is the title, Five Thousand and One Weird Cartoon Ideas. I’m afraid the real answer is much more mundane: I don't know where my ideas come from.

Harlan Ellison, a legendary sci-fi author, describes it like this: '...they ask and ask, always the same damned question, and we plead ignorance; and... the question is asked again and again, without change, without compassion. We would tell if we knew, honestly we would.'

Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Material trilogy, wrote, 'This is the question that every author gets asked, and none of us know, so we all have to make up something that sounds as if it’s helpful. People are genuinely interested, I know, and it isn't polite to be facetious about it. For one thing, people don’t always know you’re making a joke. I once said in answer to this that I subscribed to Ideas ‘R’ Us, and someone wrote in and asked for the address.'

This is such a common question for celebrities to get asked (especially celebrities who work in the nerdier genres, such as the above-mentioned authors), that I thought the answers were well known. And so it was that one day as I was having lunch with some friends, when the boyfriend of one of those friends asked me that very question, I laughed.

When he continued to press me on the subject, I realised that he had been serious. I felt like crap for having laughed at him, because I thought he was joking. Firstly, it seemed like such a ridiculous thing for me to be asked, the same question that is so often posed to much more eminent and well-known creators, being asked of me, an unknown nobody in the middle of nowhere. Secondly, given how often that question is answered with some variation of 'I don't know,' and how well documented that answer is, I thought that he was making a jest of the 'Everyone knows the answer to this question, but I'm going to ask it anyway because it's funny to retread such a thoroughly-covered area' variety.

But as the conversation progressed, it became obvious to me that he was impressed with my ability to GM. More specifically, he wanted to know how I came up with the idea for a story to tell through the course of my game.

That's a difficult question. I could be flip, and say, 'I don't know.' And to an extent, it would be true, but that's not entirely accurate. As Gary Larson suggests, it's not a physical place. The ideas come from our heads. I'm certain that it's different for every creative person. But mostly, my ideas come from listening to other people, and thinking, and realising, 'Hey, that would be an interesting theme to explore in a game!' Or, 'That would be an amusing setting for a game!'

Just a few examples of ideas for games I've had, and how they popped into my head (not all of these ideas have actually turned into games, but I still think they'd be fun to do if I had a chance):

  • A friend was describing her visit to a 24 hour Wal-Mart at 3 AM, and telling me that the fluorescent lights on the already-depressingly-wan faces of the customers and staff made her fear that David Lo-Pan (from Big Trouble in Little China) was going to pop out and kidnap her to his hidden fortress in the basement of the store. I thought, 'Wouldn't that be an interesting game if David Lo-Pan actually were using a Wal-Mart as a front for his operations?'
  • I read about how part of Joss Whedon's inspiration for Firefly was thinking about the estrangement that former Confederate soldiers must have felt being part of a nation against which they had once fought. I combined this concept with the notion that I'd read somewhere about how, in a 'realistic' sword-and-sorcery fantasy world, races would likely not mingle as freely as they do in D&D, but most individuals would know almost nothing about other races if they even knew that the other races existed in the first place.
  • I was listening to the song 'World of Stone' by Blackmore's Night, and the lyrics became a story in my head, and I adapted the story to become a game.
  • I read about how Tolkien used elements from Norse mythology to create the races of Middle Earth, and began wondering why no one else had done that (every fantasy setting since that time has been the standard elves/dwarves/goblins/trolls/etc, with some occasional variation, if it includes non-human races at all, with the notable exception of The Dark Crystal). So I created a setting using fantasy races based on Celtic Mythology, and another using races based on Aztec mythology.
  • I had a dream in which an ancient Irish warrior brought his three young sons with him into a cave lined with quartz crystals, where the embodiment of winter dwelt, to show them how to be strong, by demanding that she give him her powers. Instead of responding to him, she gave a crystal shard to each of the three sons, telling them that they were a gift. She then turned to the father and informed him that whoever had all three shards would possess her powers. I woke up then, but I knew what she had done: how could the father take the gifts away from his own sons? How would the sons get the shards from their brothers? With a father so obsessed with strength and power, how could any of the sons be willing to share their shards? And I then thought, 'Wouldn't it be interesting for a group to go on a quest to find the three shards? What happened to them after all these centuries? What powers would they have? And when they do get all three shards, won't the embodiments of the other three seasons appear to demand the shards back, so they can restore the lady of winter?
So to anyone who's looking to find ideas for stories to tell as a GM (or really, any other purpose), it's not a 'where.' It's not even a case of having ideas spring fully-formed into your head. It's a case of hearing things, or reading things, or thinking about things, and realising, 'Hey, I bet this would make an interesting story!' Don't worry if the idea wasn't entirely yours to begin with; as a good friend of mine often says, 'Good writers borrow. Great writers steal.'

That's not even the important part. The idea is only the starting point. Once you have your idea, you have to make sure that you can maintain the momentum. You have to ensure that you can follow through to the end. You have to make sure you know where you're going with the story.

I often have great ideas for starting points. 'Hey, that would make a great setting!' 'Hey, that's a great plot hook!' 'Hey, that idea would catch my interest! I wonder where it would lead?' And that's my biggest weakness as a GM. If I jumped off half-cocked with a great idea for the beginning of the story, but I'm not 100% sure what the ending is going to be, I won't be able to lead the story in an interesting direction.  I won't be able to hold the players' interest. I won't be able to make good story decisions on the fly. It's happened many times; I have a great idea for a story, but after a few sessions, when I'm kind of pulling stuff out of my butt on the spot because I haven't planned ahead, the group falls apart, and the story never finishes.

The most successful story I've run so far, in my opinion, is the one I ran last summer, based on the lyrics to 'World of Stone.' I took the advice from Robin's Laws of Good Gamemastering and set up a progression of set-piece scenes: an aerial chase scene on mad-scientist-invented flying contraptions, an underwater battle with a shark, and a climactic battle with a steampunk-style tank that fired balls of molten lava. Then I worked out ways to get from one scene to the next (easily if they'd been successful in the previous scene, but with a more difficult -- though not impossible -- path if they'd been defeated in the previous scene). With this definite plan and already-determined ending in mind, I was able to run the game without the hesitation or random BS that has plagued many of my other games.

So that's my advice to anyone that wants to know where I get my ideas. Don't worry about where your ideas come from. It's far more important what you do with the ideas that you do have. With some planning, foresight, and care, the most mediocre ideas can become the greatest adventures.

Anyway, I've ranted quite long enough. Sorry this was a lengthy entry. I'll see you back here next week. Until then,

Game on!

Monday, June 22, 2015

Board Game Review: Elysium

It's time once again for another board game review. This time, I'm going to talk about a game I played with the local gaming club: Elysium. You know how this starts:

Strategy: 3
Randomness: 3
Complexity: 4
Humour: None
Attractiveness: pretty
Expected length of Game Play: 75 minutes

In Elysium, you are trying to create legends. You do this by drafting cards. The cards belong to one of the Greek gods (Zeus,Hera, Athena, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, etc). Each card is rated from one to three depending on power. You can form two types of legends: family legends (from the same family -- that is, the cards all belong to the same god; a family legend contains three cards from the same god, one of each power level) and level legends (a set of five cards of the same rank, one from each of the five different gods in the current game). Collecting legends gains you victory points, as do other in-game effects.

Let's show you what the setup looks like:
Each player has one of the strips in the foreground, the one that has four multi-coloured pillars in the centre. This is basically an organising tool. You keep your pillars, your coins, and your victory point tokens on it. Also, the cards you have purchased are arranged around it: those above it are in your Domain; they don't count towards your legends, but they grant you special abilities. Those below it are in your Elysium, where they count as part of legends, for victory points, but no longer grant you their abilities.

In the centre of the playing area is the Agora, where the available cards are laid out, and the quest cards. These can be seen in the upper part of the above photo.

Turns occur in phases: first, you reset the playing area from the last round, then all players take turns purchasing three cards and one quest. You do these with the pillars; it costs one pillar to purchase any card, but (here's the confusing part of the game), each card requires you to have the appropriate colour pillar to acquire it. Quest Card number 1 requires you to have the red pillar, for example. However, you don't have to spend the red pillar to get that card; you just have to be in possession of it. Thus, as long as you have the red pillar, you can pay the blue pillar to get Quest Card number 1. Some of the cards in the Agora require you to have two pillars, one of a specific colour and one of any other colour. But still, these cards only cost one pillar to acquire. It doesn't cost two pillars to get the card; you just have to have the two pillars.

Anyway, so you go around until everyone has three Agora cards and one Quest card. Agora cards are placed in your Domain, where you can use their abilities (sometimes the abilities are one-use only, others are once-per turn, others give you a bonus once when you first acquire them and then never again, and others have effects that are always on). Quest cards allow you to transfer cards from your Domain to your Elysium, as well as granting you money (sometimes a card effect costs money) and occasionally extra victory points. Quest cards also determine turn order for the next round.

If you end up not able to buy three Agora cards, because you don't have the pillars of the right colour, then you get a Citizen card (which is like a wild card when used to form legends, but has no powers and also incurs a small victory point loss for each legend that has one). If you can't buy a Quest Card because you don't have the right colour pillar, you get the last Quest card, but flipped over to indicate it is a failed quest. this gives you the bare minimum of transfers and coins.

After this phase, players use the transfers they earned from their Quest Card and any powers granted by cards in their Domain to move cards into their Elysium. Five rounds are played in this way, then you score the legends you've formed in your Elysium (cards in the Domain don't count). Highest victory point total wins.

This game had potential to be good, in my opinion, but I found that it was too difficult to plan what cards you wanted to purchase, as often, the cards you want will be taken by another player before it gets around to your turn again. It was difficult to decide which card was a safe purchase, and which you felt could wait until a later turn. This kind of detracts from what I personally find enjoyable about board games. But don't let me sour you on it; you might enjoy this type of game! I might not jump at the chance to play again, but I wouldn't say no if that's what everyone else wanted to play.

Anyway, that's it for next week. I'll see you again next time. Until then,

Game on!

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Player Agency

Very quickly before I begin: Asphodel has been funded! There's a little bit of time left if you want to get a copy of your own: if you haven't pledged already, you have until 10:51 AM CDT (which is 15:51 UTC (3:51 PM for those who don't use 24 hour time) on Sunday 14 June, 2015 to head over and throw some money at this awesome game.

Now on to the post.

We had Board Game Night last night at the Game Dork household. One of our guests brought his copy of Kill Dr. Lucky and we ended up playing it. Perhaps you'll remember I reviewed that game a few years ago. If you remember that, you probably also remember that I didn't care for the game.

The version we played last night was not the one produced by Cheapass Games. It was the Paizo Games edition, with proper cardboard pieces and lovely, full-colour artwork. There were some tweaks to the rules as well, which made it a little better than the version I played originally.

I still didn't care for it. I was talking to the Dork Spouse afterwards and mentioned that I didn't like it because there was no player agency. She asked me what I meant by 'player agency.'

'It means that the game is not won or lost based on anything that the players do, but on who happens to be the first player in the room with Dr Lucky after all the Failure cards have been exhausted from the deck.'

This started me thinking about the concept of player agency, and how it relates to luck. I'm sure you're aware that one of the dimensions I measure with my rating system is Randomness, which is basically a measure of luck. Is this the same thing as player agency? Could I just rename the 'Randomness' category to 'Player Agency?' Do I need to include a 'Player Agency' rating with the other categories in my rating system?

I don't think that luck and player agency are exactly the same thing. Maybe if a game was rated at 6 in the Randomness category, you could say that they are the same. For example, slot machines are 'games' (I use that term loosely here) that might be rated at 6 for Randomness. There is no player agency, no decisions to be made, simply pull the lever and see if the slots line up. Chutes and Ladders (or Snakes and Ladders, depending upon the continent on which you're located) can also be rated at 6. No player agency here either: roll the dice, move your piece, whoever happens to roll the right combination of numbers to reach the top first is the winner.

But games that are rated at 5 or lower in Randomness have at least some player agency. Parcheesi (aka Ludo) is a very luck-dependant game; the roll of the dice determines what options are open to you, and often, if the dice roll poorly for you, you have no chance of winning. But deciding which piece to move allows you some control over the outcome of the game. Poker is another game with a high luck component; which cards do you draw? But Poker relies heavily on skill; are you able to successfully bluff your opponents, and discern when they are bluffing? Trivial Pursuit also relies heavily on luck; the roll of the dice and the draw of the card. However, in Trivial Pursuit, player's knowledge is essential.

All of these games have at least some level of player agency. Players make decisions or perform other actions based on skill or knowledge that affect the outcome of the game. The level of influence may be small, but it exists.

Player agency can also be absent from games that have no luck at all. Tic Tac Toe, for example; if the players know what they're doing, it's guaranteed that whoever goes first will not lose (they may tie, but they won't lose). Same with Connect Four; mathematically, if the player who goes first understands the dynamics of the system, he's guaranteed a win. Yet neither of these games have any random element at all.

This goes back to what one reviewer on calls the '4th player wins' effect. He describes it thusly:
This comes from a game ages ago, I forget what game, when players could very easier [sic] mess with other players. After awhile all five of us were close to winning, and I was in the lead. When my turn came you had Mark yelling "stop the leader! Stop the leader!" Everyone jumped on me and I couldn't win. Now Mark was next and his cry of "Stop the leader" trailed off as he realized he was the leader. He got stopped. And the Third player also got stopped. Now we got to the Fourth player, Roy. We discovered that we had all expended all our cards, and had nothing left to fight Roy, who won. Afterwards Roy asserted that his plan, the whole game, had been to be in Fourth place because he expected the first three people to try to win would get stopped. While this seemed to be a stupid strategy we couldn't deny that Roy won. Any game where you need to place yourself in fourth place to win isn't really a good game.
This is similar to the biggest problem I had with Kill Dr Lucky: The winner is not determined by what the players do or decide, but by where they happen to fall in the turn order.

As a corollary, I was thinking about the Luck/Strategy scale. I've noticed that in the 21 board game reviews I've done here so far, all but five of them have Randomness and Strategy values that add up to 6. Of the five that don't, four add up to either 5 or 7 (two of each). Only Labyrinth is more than one off, adding up to 4. This might suggest that games exist on a sliding scale between strategy and luck. But they don't! In the case of Labyrinth, the game has a strong spatial-reasoning component that is integral to the outcome of the game. This diminishes the value of both strategy and randomness. Trivial Pursuit, mentioned above, relies on player knowledge. Some games rely on skill, such as Poker, or most athletics games, as well as games with physical components like Tiddlywinks or Run Yourself Ragged. I don't often review games that have these aspects, which is why you seldom see Randomness/Strategy values that add up to something other than 6 (or close to it). But they do exist, and that's why I include both categories in my review scale.

Anyway. All this based on the fact that, last night, I played a game that, in my opinion, has almost no player agency. I don't much care for games without player agency; I prefer being able to say that my actions had an effect on the outcome of the game.

What do you think? Do you agree with my assessment that Kill Dr Lucky has no player agency? Do you have any other comments on the matter? I'd love to hear your thoughts! Please leave comments, and remember to check back next week when I post another entry! Until then:

Game on!