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. ...it'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!