Saturday, February 28, 2015

Co-operative Board Games

A couple of years ago, someone published an article over at cracked.com entitled '6 Board Games That Ruined It For Everyone.' The article describes six of the most well-known board games that suck (I don't necessarily agree with the author that they all suck; I still have a soft spot for Risk, although I will agree that that's better played as a solitaire game on the computer for the same reasons that the author lists for why it sucks). For each, it offers an alternative that does what the listed game tries to do, only better.

Three of the alternatives, I hadn't heard of. The other three are excellent choices. Even the three that are new to me sound like excellent choices. But there's something I think they should have mentioned in this article: co-operative board games.

In most board games, there's a single winner and the rest of the players lose. Some board games use teams, like Pictionary or The Resistance. But in co-operative board games, all the players win or lose together.

There were a few early attempts at co-operative board games, like Scotland Yard, in which one player is Mr X and the rest of the players are on a team trying to defeat him. Even in Betrayal at House on the Hill, it starts out with all players on the same team, but eventually, one person becomes the traitor and it's that-player-against-everyone-else for the rest of the game.

But truly co-operative board games have everybody on the same team for the entire game. To my knowledge, the first game of this type was Reiner Knizia's Lord of the Rings, released in 2000. The game has players taking on the roles of hobbits in Middle Earth, travelling to Mordor to destroy the One Ring. The random mechanics of the game (dice rolls, drawing cards, and drawing event tiles) present the players with obstacles which they must overcome in order to continue on their quest.

But other co-operative board games have been published since then. Perhaps the most well-known is Pandemic, in which players are medical specialists trying to combat a series of epidemic diseases. They win if they eradicate the diseases before one of several game-losing situations occurs.

I've heard of Forbidden Island (and its spin-off, Forbidden Desert), in which players are trying to find treasures and return to their helicopter before the island sinks into the oceans (or, in Forbidden Desert, to find the pieces of their crashed helicopter and reassemble it so they can escape the desert before they die of dehydration). There's also Ghost Stories, in which players are trying to protect villagers from evil spirits and eventually defeat a 'boss monster' spirit before everyone dies or the boss monster achieves its goals.

A twist on this is co-operative card games, such as Hanabi. In this game, players are expert but lazy fireworks craftsmen, trying to display their prowess by orchestrating an excellent fireworks display despite being drunk and a little careless. The cards represent the numbers 1 through 5 in five different colours, and players must work together to build progressive stacks of the numbers (playing the 1 first, then the 2 on top of that, and so forth) in each colour. The catch is that you can't see the cards you are holding; they're facing away from you so that the other players know what you have, but you don't. On your turn, you can play one of your cards and hope that it will continue one of the stacks; three failed attempts to play a card ends the game. Alternately, you can take one of the clock tokens to give one of the other players a hint as to what cards he holds. There are specific rules about what hints can be given and how, and if you run out of clock tokens, you can't give anyone a hint. You can get a token back by discarding one of your cards, however.

I've even seen a homemade co-operative card game. One of the members of the Tabletop Gaming Club that I've joined has created a game (I don't remember the name right off hand), but players are members of the bomb squad attempting to defuse the bomb in a briefcase. The cards are numbered one through nine, and one of those cards is placed in a briefcase. You have to guess which number is in the briefcase, and you can get hints as to which number that is by drawing a card from the stack of numbers that are not in the briefcase (so if you pull a 5, you know that the card in the briefcase is not 5). You have to be careful about how far you're willing to push your luck, though, because in addition to the unused numbers, there's an explosion card in that stack as well. The game ends in victory if a player names a number, opens the briefcase, and finds that number in the case. The game ends in defeat if the named number is not the one in the briefcase, or if the explosion card is drawn.

These are just a couple of the games out there that use co-operative play instead of competitive. But I personally think that such games are a lot of fun. I highly recommend that you try them out! But until next week,

Game on!

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Tabletop Role Playing Games

In 1971, Gary Gygax's game Chainmail (which he adapted from a rules system created by his friend Jeff Perren) was first published. This was a miniatures wargame, along the same lines as Warhammer 40,000 and Bolt Action. It had rules for mass combat, jousting, and single combat, and also contained a supplement that allowed you to include fantasy elements (magic, wizards, etc) in your war game.

Dave Arneson later took those rules and merged them with his own ideas for controlling a single warrior instead of an entire platoon. He showed this adaptation to Gygax, and the two of them created Dungeons and Dragons from it. Thus, the first roleplaying game was born.

The idea took off, and Gygax released another RPG two years later, Boot Hill. Variations on the original D&D soon sprang up, such as The Complete Warlock, by Robert Cowan, Dave Clark, Kenneth M. Dahl, and Nick Smith, and Tunnels and Trolls by Ken St. Andre. Bunnies and Burrows was an early attempt to push the boundaries of what was possible in an RPG, and as early as 1977, gamers had already started to adapt existing franchises with the introduction of the game Flash Gordon and the Warriors of Mongo.

By 1980, many RPGs had arrived on the scene, including several long-lasting staples of the hobby such as Heroes, Villains and Vigilantes, Rolemaster, Runequest, and Traveller. The 80s saw many more publications, like Call of Cthulhu, Champions, Stormbringer, Palladium, GURPS, and Paranoia.

The 90s saw a revolution in the gaming industry with the release of Vampire: The Masquerade and its sister games, Werewolf, Mage, Wraith, and Changeling. These titles had a profound effect on gaming, and it led to such innovations as the third edition of Dungeons and Dragons, Everway, and the fourth edition of GURPS. Also in the 90s, the rising popularity of the internet began to affect things, and by the time the 21st century had arrived, people were already starting to release homebrew game systems on the web, like the Neverwhere roleplaying game.

Sadly, this era also heralded the decline of the RPG.

With so many games from which to choose, and the possibility of encountering more (or creating your own) on the net, not to mention the existence of visually arresting video games on the X-Box and Playstation, people tended to gravitate towards the established fare. D&D is still going strong, as are spinoffs like Pathfinder. Some of the more popular sci-fi/fantasy franchises like The Lord of the Rings, A Song of Ice and Fire, Firefly, and Doctor Who have maintained success in the RPG industry. Some of the other old mainstays, such as GURPS and Warhammer, still have devoted cult followings.

But otherwise, there's not been a lot of noteworthy new games released in some time.

I recall, throughout the 90s, I would visit the local game shops whenever I could, and peruse the selection of RPGs with great interest. There were so many wonderful games on the shelves back then: R. Talsorian's Cyberpunk 2020, Fasa's Shadowrun, Avalon Hill's Tales from the Floating Vagabond, or Palladium's Rifts. Not to mention smaller offerings like Albedo (originally published in 1988 by Thoughts & Images, but rereleased as a greatly improved version in 1993 by Chessex) or The Whispering Vault by Pariah Press. As well as many of the already mentioned above games (GURPS, Paranoia, Vampire, Mage, etc).

I don't often get a chance to go to the game stores anymore. When I do, I tend to browse the board games more than the RPGs. Partly, this is because I have trouble finding reliable groups with which to play RPGs, so board games are a more productive use of my resources. But it's also partly because the RPG offerings are kind of sparse.

Whereas the local game shop used to have six free-standing display shelves loaded with every imaginable game that you could want, those same shelves are now dominated by a few games with a handful of other titles. One shelf is nothing but D&D and Pathfinder, another one is purely Warhammer 40,000 supplements, a third is shared by the franchise licenses (Doctor Who, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, etc). A fourth has a few of the stubborn holdouts from the golden age of RPGs (GURPS, Deadlands, Shadowrun), and the last two seem to be a sparse sprinkling of newer options that don't appear to have much in the way of the charm or appeal of the older games.

Throughout the late 90s and the early 2000s, on the rare occasion when I'd see a new RPG on the shelves, it would seem like either a tired rehash of an existing idea (Feng Shui, 7th Sea) or very bizarre nuke-the-fridge types of settings that seem to be trying too hard (a|state, Triune).

I still want to create a roleplaying game based on alternate mythologies (like the Eiru setting I have detailed here previously, or the one I designed based on Aztec mythology), or to complete the Shifters game I started years ago. But I have to wonder if there's really a chance for any level of success with any of these settings, given the current state of the gaming culture...

Anyway. That was just something I was thinking about. I will leave you with that for now. Until next week,

Game on!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Board Game Review: Puerto Rico

Last week, I mentioned some of the great games to which I've been introduced as a result of joining the local game club. One of them was Puerto Rico, which I would describe as sort of a cross between Citadels and Settlers of Catan. I think I'd like to do a review of that particular game. So here we go! First, the ratings (the system, in case you need it):

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

Puerto Rico is a worker-placement game of acquiring and managing resources. The object of the game is to earn victory points. The primary method of earning victory points is by shipping goods to Europe, although the buildings that you purchase and build in your city also grant you victory points. To produce goods, you need plantations which grow the crops, special processing facilities to convert the crops into goods, and workers to operate both the plantations and the processing facilities. There are five goods that you may produce: corn, indigo, sugar, tobacco, and coffee. Corn is special; it does not need to be processed as the others do; simply growing it in the plantations is sufficient. The other crops, however, need to be converted before they can be shipped. Indigo is processed in indigo plants, sugar is made from sugar cane in sugar mills, tobacco is dried in tobacco storage, and coffee is roasted in a coffee roaster.

Players are given a board, with twelve spaces for plantation counters (you have one plantation at the beginning of the game) and twelve spaces for buildings. On each player's turn, they choose a role from the available role cards; the chosen role grants all players a specific action, although the player who selected that role gets an additional benefit that the other players do not get (the exception is the Prospector role; the player who selects this role gets a single dubloon, and the other players get nothing). It is through selection of these roles that the action of the game takes place. The roles are as follows:

  • Mayor - players get additional colonists, who may then be put to work in their plantations and buildings.
  • Craftsman - players produce goods according to their abilities (more on this in a moment).
  • Builder - players have the option to purchase a building, which they place in their city.
  • Settler - players gain additional plantations, which they may place in one of the twelve plantation spaces on their board.
  • Trader - players have an opportunity to sell one good to the trading house.
  • Captain - in some ways the most important role; the players load their produced goods onto ships to be shipped to Europe, and earn victory points for each good so loaded.
Goods are produced in the following manner: each time the Craftsman role is selected, you look at how many plantations you have. For each plantation that has a colonist on it (the plantations are small cardboard squares with a white circle on it; colonists are small wooden disks; when you receive new colonists, you may place one colonist on any empty white circle), you produce one unit of that crop -- corn, indigo, sugar, tobacco, or coffee. Each unit of corn you produce gives you a yellow barrel; corn does not need to be processed. Each unit of any other crop must be then processed in the appropriate building. For each colonist you have in the appropriate building, one unit of crop is then turned into a barrel (blue for indigo, white for sugar, light brown for tobacco, and dark brown for coffee). If you produce more units of crops than you are able to process into a barrel, the excess is lost; you cannot save crops to be converted later. Thus, it takes two colonists, one plantation, and one building to produce a single barrel, with the exception of corn, which requires only one colonist and one plantation.

In addition to the four processing buildings (technically, six; the sugar mill and indigo plant both come in a small and regular size - the only differences between them being price, victory point value, and the number of colonists that can be put to work in each), there are several other buildings that can be purchased. Each building grants its owner some benefit; for example, the small market grants you an additional dubloon for each barrel you sell to the trading house when the trader role is selected. There are many buildings; some grant you extra colonists, some give you additional plantations, some protect you from losing goods if you cannot load them onto a ship when the Captain role is selected, some reduce or eliminate certain limitations in specific scenarios, and so forth. There are even 5 large buildings, which take up 2 spaces in your city, that grant you multipliers to your victory points (for example, one grants you an extra victory point for each four full victory points you got from shipping goods, and another grants you an extra victory point for every three colonists you have).

The game is, in my opinion, a lot of fun. There are some intricacies that can take a little bit of getting used to, but after you've played one game, it shouldn't be that hard to remember how everything works for next time. It's a very strategic game; the only place randomness comes into play is in determining which plantations are available to select when someone chooses the Settler role. Don't think it's impossible to be completely hosed, though; depending on which roles the other players choose, you may find all your careful planning rendered moot. Just as one example, in the last game I played, I selected my roles based on careful consideration of what the other players were going to select on their turns. However, almost every time, they selected different roles than I had anticipated, even though such selection was not always beneficial to them. As a result, I was taking actions in a less-than-ideal sequence, which minimised the effectiveness of those actions.

My only complaint with the game is that it is not of the most durable construction. The boards are not as sturdy as those found in most other games, and although this does help to keep the game's price lower, it also means that handling the pieces can be sometimes slightly awkward. The tokens used for the buildings are plain rectangular pieces of cardboard of a single colour; I feel like they could have had a watermark illustration of the building behind the text to make them a little more attractive. The components are shown in this photo:



But those are, honestly, superficial concerns that do not affect game play at all. I, for one, recommend this game. I think it's a lot of fun. If you want to try it out, you can play it at http://en.boardgamearena.com/ (I played a game with a guy from the US, one from China, and one from Indonesia!).

So with that, I conclude another game review. Until next week, I bid you:

Game on!

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Game Clubs

So, you have a problem. You love to play games, but you don't have many people with whom to play. Maybe all your friends are too busy, or their schedules conflict with yours. Perhaps the people with whom you used to play have moved away, or no longer have a lot of interest in playing games. Maybe you've just arrived in a new city and don't know anyone yet. But whatever the reason, you're stuck at home wishing you could play games, but not having anyone to sit down at the table with you.

What do you do?

Well, your friendly neighbourhood Game Dork is here with a solution for you. The answer to your dilemma is simple: join a game club.

There are ridiculous numbers of game clubs. They're all over the place. I've learned of many in places I wouldn't have ever expected to find one. But I think you'll find that once you've joined a club, you'll make new friends, discover new games, and have the opportunity to scratch that gaming itch that's been bothering you for so long.

About a year ago, I learned through Facebook about the existence of a game club in the next town over (about a ten-mile drive) that meets every Tuesday, as well as once a month on a Saturday, to play whatever tabletop games the members feel like playing. I started going, and I am so glad I did! I've made some awesome new friends, and played some amazing new games, and found some people to play my favourite games with me! In fact, it was through this club that I discovered the game I recently reviewed: The Resistance: Avalon.

I've introduced some games to the players there as well. Several members of that club are now devoted fans of Fiasco because I brought it to some meetings. I also introduced them to Reiner Knizia's co-operative Lord of the Rings board game. Every Tuesday night (unless I have something unusual going on), I'm there with the others playing Firefly: The Game or Puerto Rico or Ghost Stories or Star Trek Catan or some other awesome game.

Several of the members use the club to indulge their particular preferences; several people play Fantasy Flight's X-Wing miniatures game at every meeting, and there are some members who bring out the Warhammer 40K sets every chance they get. Most members play board games or miniatures-based war games, but I've also seen them play long-form roleplaying games like Pathfinder on occasion. I'm trying to drum up enough interest to start a GURPS: Firefly campaign.

If the club is worth anything, it will be open, welcome, and inviting. Members will welcome people who like just about any kind of game there is (there may be some humourous exceptions to this; when I lived in York, for example, I knew of a game club called 'Beyond Monopoly' which stated that they played absolutely every kind of board game there was, except Monopoly). I'm sure there are elitist, snobby clubs that enjoy excluding people whose tastes don't match their own, but there's no reason to try and get involved in such a club when it should be fairly easy to find a different group that is much more friendly.

How can you find such a club, you may ask?

There are a lot of channels to explore. As previously mentioned, I heard about my group through Facebook. Despite the concerns that many may have with FB, it serves as a great way not only to advertise but also to communicate with other members. My group often has posts asking who's going to be at the next meeting and what games people are interested in playing.

Another option is meetup.com. If nothing else, you can always google 'board game club' with the name of your city or state, and chances will be good that something will pop up.

And if all else fails, you can always start your own. There's an excellent article over at about.com that provides some great suggestions on how to start a club in your hometown.

As one final suggestion, just remember that even if you already have a great, reliable, fun-filled group of friends with whom you play your favourite games regularly, joining a club is still a great way to meet new friends, discover new games, and best of all, play more games. So with that advice, I bid you:

Game on!