Saturday, March 28, 2015

Golden Age

People are fond of pointing out the 'golden age' of things. There was the golden age of comics, the golden age of cinema, the golden age of television, the golden age of aviation, and so on. Normally, a golden age is identified in retrospect. People who study a particular topic look at the history and say, 'Look at the innovations that were made during this historical time period. Look at the great people who made a difference in that time. That was the golden age of [insert topic here].'

Rarely does one get to identify a golden age whilst it is occurring.

But that's exactly what is happening with board games right now.

I remember as a young boy in the 80s, reading Games Magazine. I enjoyed solving the puzzles, doing cryptograms and rebuses and other word games and visual puzzles. But there was a section in the middle of each issue that I always skipped: board game reviews. That seemed silly to me.

Back in the 80s, board games included staples such as Monopoly and Scrabble, as well as party games like ScruplesPictionaryTrivial Pursuit, and Balderdash. Those were your options. I was familiar with a few games from the 50s, 60s, and 70s, which populated my grandparents' cabinets: games like Life or Payday. All of these were fairly simplistic. They may have had an interesting theme, but there wasn't a lot of meat to the mechanics. Roll some dice, move a pawn, draw a card, follow the instructions.

I'd heard of some very intense war games; games like PanzerBlitz, unappealing games with huge but flimsy paper maps rendered in exacting tactical detail, accompanied by hundreds of small cardboard squares loaded with numbers and a silhouette of a tank, and topped off with a thick and foreboding instruction manual. These sorts of games were not for the casual gamer; you had to really care about wargames to be interested in playing them.

So the idea of spending a lot of time analysing a new board game seemed kind of silly to me.

But games are so very different today. Not only has there been an explosion of games, with thousands upon thousands of different titles from which to choose, but the quality of those games has increased. The mechanics are better, the concepts are innovative and interesting, the components are beautiful. From the carefully crafted pre-painted miniatures in the X-Wings combat game to the lavishly illustrated cards in The Resistance. Board games now offer absolutely anything you could ask for. Sci-fi? Mystery? Comedy? Action? Suspense? Horror? Tactics? Skill? Strategy? Luck? All these and more.

I've talked about many different games here in the past. These cover long games and short games, games of strategy and games of chance, games in original settings and games based on existing franchises, games with complex rules and lots of pieces and games with simple rules and few parts.

Board games are really undergoing a renaissance right now. How lucky are we to be part of it? I promise you, your friendly local gaming store has shelves heaving with excellent games. If you aren't currently playing a lot of awesome board games, you need to change that. You don't know what you're missing.

That's it for this week. I'll see you again next time right here. Until then,

Game on!

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Board Game Cafe

I recently learned about Thirsty Meeples Board Game Cafe. This is a shop where you pay a cover charge (the Thirsty Meeples cover charge is £6.00 for three hours, £5.00 for children, with a discount of £1.50 if you order something from the food/drink menu). If they're slow, they'll let you stay beyond the three hour limit. You are then welcome to come into the shop and play any of the games they have available (over 2,000 titles, according to the website). It's not the sort of place you go when you want a meal; their food offerings are a handful of cakes, snacks, and sandwiches. They're there mostly for people who want to play board games.

Thirsty Meeples is far from the only one. Board game cafes are popping up all over the globe. There are some in New York, at least one in Beijing, another in Toronto, a few in Australia (Brisbane and Melbourne at least), even one in Malaysia. There doesn't appear to be one in the state in which I live, unfortunately; that might be good news though, as I'd probably bankrupt myself if there were one.

The staff have to be well versed in board games. They're responsible for helping people find the right game for their group, and ensuring that they know how to play. Of course, this sounds like a fantasy job to me; spending all day showing people how to play board games and getting paid for it would feel like it was too good to be true!

Apparently, many of these cafes were created via kickstarter. It seems that there's a demand for such spaces. I wonder if I'd be able to get such a business off the ground in my home state. Of course, I'd first have to have the time necessary to run a business. That's simply not the case, unless I quit my current job, which I really don't want to do. As stressful as my career is, I love doing it. What I'd really like to do is get the funding and hand the reins over to someone I trust to manage the place. Then I'd pop in once in a while to play some games with my employees or bring some friends along.

I don't know how feasible this idea would be, but it's fun to dream. And if you're reading this, maybe you can look into your city; it's possible there's a board game cafe already there!

I know this was a short entry, but I really wanted to talk about the idea. But even if there's no board game cafe in your area, I hope you have the opportunity to sit down with some friends and play some awesome games. So with that, I will leave you for this week.

Game on!

Monday, March 16, 2015

Board Game Review: Hanabi

I've been keeping an eye on my site traffic, and something I've noticed is that the entries that are getting the most views are my Board Game Reviews. Apparently, those entries are generating some international traffic, which I think is excellent! I've been getting visitors from India, Germany, Australia, even the Ukraine!

I'm a little disappointed that people don't seem to be reading the other entries as much. But I suppose I shouldn't look a gift horse in the proverbial mouth, should I?

So with that in mind, I think it's high time I wrote another board game review. Although to be fair, this one will really be a card game review, as the game I'm reviewing this week is played entirely with cards, aside from a handful of tokens. That's right, it's time to review Hanabi!

Let's look at the ratings, and the system:

Strategy: 3
Randomness: 3
Complexity: 2
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Pretty
Expected Length of Game Play: 30 minutes

I mentioned Hanabi a few weeks ago in my entry on Co-operative Board Games. This card game pits players against the game itself, and all players win or lose together. Players take on the role of master fireworks craftsmen trying to put on an excellent fireworks show with a minimum of effort.

The game consists of a deck of cards, each representing a number from one to five, in five different colours (blue, yellow, red, green, and white). There are also twelve clock tokens and four fuse tokens. Players set the clock tokens in a communal pool in the centre of the table, and stack the fuse tokens sequentially nearby. The fuse tokens show a lit fuse, each token's fuse being shorter than the one on top, to indicate the increasing closeness of a disastrous explosion. The players then draw a hand of five cards each.

Here's the thing, though: you don't see your own cards. You hold your cards facing away from you, so that the other players know what cards you have, but you don't. On your turn, if you choose to play a card, you must select one without knowing what card it is.

This is where the co-operative aspect of the game comes in. There are three actions that you may take on your turn:

  1. Play a card from your hand.
  2. Discard a card.
  3. Give another player a hint about what cards he holds.
Playing a card is straightforward: you choose a card from your hand to play onto the tableau. The object of the game is to have five columns, one in each colour, starting with a 1 on the bottom and rising to 5 on the top. So when you choose a card, you look to see which card you have chosen. If it is card that can legally be played (i.e., you are playing a 1 in a colour that does not yet have any cards played, or a 2 for a colour that currently has only a 1, or a 3 in a colour that currently has a 1 and a 2, etc), then you add that card to the appropriate colour's stack. If, however, you have chosen a card that cannot be legally played (the number you have chosen is already in the column for that colour, or you play a card that is not the next sequential number in that colour), then you must remove the top counter from the stack of fuse tokens.

If you remove the third fuse token, revealing the fourth and final fuse token (which displays an explosion), then the game ends. In other words, three illegal card plays triggers the end of the game. The game also ends when the last card is drawn from the deck, or when you successfully complete all five cards in all five colours on the tableau.

Once you have played a card, then you draw a new one to replace it and turn passes to the left.

The second action, discarding a card, allows you to return a clock token to the communal pool in the centre of the table. This is useful not only for getting rid of cards you don't need (i.e., if you know you have a White 1 card when there's already a White 1 on the tableau), but because the clock tokens are essential for the third action: giving hints to your players. After discarding, draw a new card to replace what you've discarded, and play passes to the left.

The third action is in many ways the most important. First, you take a clock token from the communal pool in the centre of the table. If there are no more clock tokens available, you may not take this action. You must either play a card or discard a card.

Then, you give one of the other players a hint about the cards he holds in his hand. You may tell him which cards he holds of a certain colour (i.e., point to the three green cards in his hand and say 'All three of these cards are green'), or of a certain number (i.e., point to the three 4s in his hand and say 'these three cards are 4s'). You must indicate clearly which cards you are pointing to, and you cannot point to only some of the cards; you must tell him all of the cards of that particular colour or number. You cannot point out more than one colour, nor more than one number. And you cannot indicate both colour and number; you must choose to tell him about one or the other.

Thus, based on the hints you have received from the other players, you attempt to decide which cards are safe to play on your turn.

Once the game ends, you count up the number of cards that you successfully played to the tableau. The closer that number is to 25, the better your rank (the rules lists what rank you achieve based on the number of cards you've played).

I personally think that this game is a lot of fun. It requires a lot of trust on the part of your fellow players, as well as a little bit of deductive reasoning (if they just told me that this one card is yellow, then they must be trying to hint that it's the yellow 3, which is the next card that needs to be played on the yellow stack!). It can be pretty tense, as you watch the other players try to puzzle out which card to play based on the clues you've given them, and as you hesitantly play the card from your own hand that you're pretty sure might be the right card to play without causing an explosion...

If you're a fan of co-operative games, and a little bit of suspense in the game's action is appealing to you, then I highly recommend you give Hanabi a try. You can even play it online! Until next week,

Game on!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

My Game In Progress

I've mentioned here before that I'm working on writing a roleplaying game. I think it's high time I talked about that.

I'm actually working on two games. They use the same system; I started writing Shifters and then realised that the system worked really well for an RPG set in the Tron universe. So I've begun adapting the rules for a game called The Grid.

I got the idea for Shifters when playing with a group that would cycle through GMs; one GM would run a game, then another GM would take over and run a different game. We played Changeling a lot, and one of the games was a crossover Mage: The Ascension and Werewolf: The Apocalypse. Several of the players in that group were new to gaming, and there was talk of introducing them to a lot of different RPGs. I found myself worrying about the fact that every time we switched to a new genre, we'd have to teach them a new system and spend time creating new characters. Even if we'd used a universal system like GURPS, we'd still have to make new characters every time we switched genres.

That's where I got the idea for Shifters. It works on a similar premise to the old TV series Quantum Leap; the characters are participants in a 23rd century experiment to travel between alternate universes or dimensions or planes or whatever. But something goes wrong; instead of appearing in the new dimension, they've swapped places with someone from that dimension. They maintain their physical and mental characteristics, but for whatever reason (illusion, mental projection, etc) everyone (including other party members) sees them as the person with whom they've swapped places. So for example, if shifting into a sword-and-sorcery dimension, one character might trade places with an elf, and everyone who looks at the character sees the elf, even though the character is a 23rd century human.

This allows you to use the same characters no matter what genre you're playing; after a while in the current setting, you shift to a new one, allowing new players to sample a different genre without having to create a new character or learn a new rules system.

The mechanics use what I named 'The Merge Engine.' It took the best bits of other systems, plus a bit of a dice fetish, and merged them into a whole. It takes the streamlined skills and attributes of the original World of Darkness, the combat system from GURPS melded with the initiative system of Exalted, the health and damage system from Blue Planet, and a dice-rolling system of my own invention, and turns them all into a cohesive whole.

Here's how it works: there are five attributes -- Strength, Agility, Reason, Psyche, and Essence -- rated from 2 to 10. Subtracting the attribute from 12 gives you that attribute's Target Number (so a Strength of 5 gives you a Strength Target Number of 7, and so on). You roll three dice, one of which is a different colour (this is called the Botch Die), and every die that comes up equal to or greater than the Target Number increases your success level. If one die equals or exceeds the Target Number, it's a Partial Success. Two dice is a Complete Success. All three dice gives you an Epic Success. If all three dice are less than the Target Number, it's a Failure. If all three dice are less than the target number AND the Botch Die is a 1, then it's an Epic Failure.

You can buy up to three ranks in skills, which will modify your Target Number when rolling for that skill.

Here's the thing: you use different dice depending on the difficulty level of the task you are attempting. Whenever you make a roll, the GM will tell you whether the task is Very Easy, Easy, Average, Hard, or Very Hard. The easier the task, the larger the dice you will use. So you will roll 3d12 for a Very Easy task, 3d10 for an Easy task, 3d8 for an Average task, 3d6 for a Hard task, and 3d4 for a Very Hard Task.

The damage system doesn't use Hit Points; instead, each injury has a chance to kill you independent of any other injuries you may have already sustained. This more closely resembles how it works in real life. If your character is the victim of a successful attack, you take the Damage Rating of the attack (for example, a punch or a kick might be Damage Rating 3, whereas a laser pistol might be Damage Rating 9), modify by your character's Endurance (a derived attribute based on Strength and Essence), and roll an Easy roll using the modified Damage Rating as your Target Number. On an Epic Success, you take no damage. On a Complete Success, you take a Flesh Wound (each two full Flesh Wounds gives you a -1 penalty to all subsequent rolls except damage rolls). On a Partial Success, you must roll to stay conscious. On a Failure, you must roll to avoid dying. On an Epic Failure, you simply die.

That's the general rules system. The Grid works the same way, although there were some slight tweaks made to the attributes to reflect the fact that there is no magic on the grid.

I'm to the point where I'm ready to release a beta version for playtesting, but I want to have some illustrations before I do so. I've got a couple I've thrown together for The Grid, which aren't very good (because I can't draw well at all), but I need several more. I'm hoping for about 15, give or take a couple, on top of what I already have. What I've done so far is to take photos and trace them or manipulate them in GIMP (Gnu Image Manipulation Programme), so they're not great. But if anyone is willing to draw some more Tron illustrations for me (or to pose for photos that I can trace), I'd appreciate it.

I'll need quite a few more for Shifters, as that's a longer document. These illustrations can be from any genre; fantasy, sci-fi, modern, pulp action, historical, etc.

You can see the illustrations I have so far in the folder I set up on Photobucket. I would love to have your feedback! Or, if you're willing to donate your time, I'd also love any illustrations you're willing to send me. Just leave a comment here and I'll contact you!

Until next time,

Game on!