Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Best Games of 2016

So here we are. The last day of 2016. And a few days ago, I found an article on Ars Technica entitled Game on! The Best Board Games of 2016. They list the 20 games that they played most often in this past year.

Sadly, I don't have as much time to play games as I would like. And what time I do get is often spent on older games that I've played before. Which is not a bad thing; getting to play a great game more than once is always a good thing! So before I get to the main part of my article, a quick overview of the games that I played most often in 2016, regardless of when they were first published:

Most of these are because they're games that I own and other people enjoy. When I'm at other people's places, we usually end up playing something I've never played before. Which is also not a bad thing.

But that means that I've not had a chance to play many of the games that were published this year. I went to Board Game Geek and pulled up a list of all the games they have in their database that were published this year. There were nearly 3,200 such games. That's a ridiculous number!

To be fair, many of those were foreign games. Many more were reissues (such as Mansions of Madness: 2nd Edition) or reworks (like the many different variant editions of Rory's Story Cubes, which had several new versions released this year) or reimplementations (like Pandemic: Reign of Cthulu). Still others were releases that were so small and unknown that they don't even have any photos in their entry.

On the other hand, some games aren't in the database at all yet. I was recently sent a free promo edition of a game that was released on Gamecrafter called Geoquest. This game doesn't yet have an entry (though I know the creators have submitted it; it's simply not been accepted yet).

The point is, 32,000 is not an exact number.

But even so, that's a lot of games. And of those, I've played exactly 13. One of those (Sushi Go Party!) is already included in the list above. Geoquest is, of course, another one mentioned previously in this article. But here are the other games from 2016 that I have played:
Some of those I've reviewed, either here or at PinkFae. The reviews have been linked.

But that's not a lot from which to choose.

Here's how I'd rate those, given the small number available:
  • Games I'd like to own (if I don't already):
    • Sushi Go Party!
    • Tides of Madness
    • Tell Me a Story
  • Games I'd like to play again, but don't feel the need to own:
    • Imhotep
    • Tyrants of the Underdark
    • Oceanos
    • Evolution: The Beginning
    • Plague Inc.
  • Games I'd be willing to play again, if others wanted to:
    • Geoquest
  • Games I don't feel any particular desire to play again:
    • Quadropolis
    • Legendary: Big Trouble in Little China
    • Bill & Ted's Excellent Board Game
    • Simon's Cat Card Game
There are lots of games from 2016 that I'd love to try, but haven't yet had a chance. This includes games like Clank, Secret Hitler, and Cry Havoc. And, of course, some games that just don't look appealing to me at all. At the top of this list is Scythe, which from what I've seen, looks like a long and boring tactical game along the lines of X-Wing.

Maybe I will try to make a greater effort to try new games as they come out in 2017. But we'll see how that goes next year at this time. For now, that's a quick look at the new releases of 2016, from my perspective. I'll see you hear next year! Until then,

Game on!

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Board Game Review: ...and then we held hands

Most board games fall into one of two categories: fiercely competitive or humorous (sometimes both). Even in the case of co-operative games like Pandemic, Lord of the Rings, Hanabi, or Ghost Stories, there's still a strong component of competition. Although the players are not competing against each another, they are competing rather intently with the game itself, leading to strong feelings of tension. A handful of games are more story-oriented, where players are trying to tell amusing stories rather than to laugh or compete.

Another interesting phenomenon is the scale of how many players can play in a specific game. Seldom do I get to play two-player games any more. The Dork Spouse doesn't generally like the same sort of games I do, so there are few two-player games on which we can agree, and when I'm playing with friends, there's usually more than two of us there. Even on those few occasions in which I am playing with a single other player, we almost always end up playing games designed for 2 to 4, or 2 to 6. So the number of games I have that were designed specifically as two-player games almost never get taken off the shelf.

And when you combine these, the phenomenon gets even more interesting. By which I mean: when's the last time you heard of a two-player co-operative game?

Sure, most of the co-operative board games mentioned above can be played with two players, but they can handle up to 4 (Pandemic, Ghost Stories) or 5 (Lord of the Rings). It seems that co-operative games are not intended to be limited to 2 players.

...and then we held hands turns all of these ideas on their heads.

A game of ...and then we held hands, ready to begin. The board is in the centre, made up of three concentric rings made up of dots in blue, green, black, and red. On each side is a five-space sliding scale of negative two to positive two. There is a red glass bead on the centre space of the left scale, with another red bead on the space of the outermost ring closest to that scale. Two blue beads are arranged in a similar fashion on the right side. On both the right and left side are six emotion cards, each of which covers half of the card below it, and the top card half-covered by a plain white and grey cover card. On the far side of the board are three stacks of eight goal cards, with one card turned face up next to the first stack to show the red 'anger' icon.

...and then we held hands is a two-player co-operative board game that is neither intense, humorous, nor story-based. The mood of this game is, in some ways, almost more akin to psychology games such as The Ungame. That's not really a fair comparison, because The Ungame really isn't a game at all. ...and then we held hands, however, is. Unlike The Ungame, ...and then we held hands has distinct and specific winning conditions.

Before I palaver any further, let's get to the ratings.

Strategy and Randomness are rated from 0 to 6. A 0 means the rated aspect plays no part in determining the game's outcome; and a 6 means that it is the only factor that determines the game's outcome. Complexity is also rated from 0 to 6; a 0 means that it's so simple a six-year-old can play it, a 3 means any adult should have no trouble playing, and a 6 means that you'll need to refer to the rulebook frequently. Humour can be rated as 'None,' meaning the game is not meant to be funny, or it may have one or more of the following: Derivative (meaning the humour is based on an outside source, such as a game based on a comedy film), Implicit (meaning that the game's components are funny, such as humourous card text), or Inherent (meaning that the actions the players take are funny). Attractiveness has nine possible ratings. Ideal: the game is beautiful and makes game play easier. Pretty: The design is beautiful and neither eases nor impedes game play. Nice: The design is beautiful but makes game play harder than necessary. Useful: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but eases gameplay. Average: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Useless: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Utilitarian: The design is ugly, but eases gameplay. Ugly: The design is ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Worthless: The design is ugly, andmakes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Average Length of Game Play describes how long an average game will probably last, give or take. Gamer Profile Ratings measures how strongly a game will appeal to players based on their interest in one of four areas. These areas are measured as High, Medium, or Low. Strategy describes how much a game involves cognitive challenges, thinking and planning, and making sound decisions. Conflict describes how much direct hostile action there is between players, from destroying units to stealing resources. Social Manipulation describes how much bluffing, deceiving, and persuading there is between players. Fantasy describes how much a game immerses players in another world, another time.

Strategy: 4
Randomness: 2
Complexity: 2*
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Pretty
Average Length of Gameplay: 30 minutes
Gamer Profile Ratings:
   Strategy: Low
   Conflict: Low
   Social Manipulation: Low
   Fantasy: Medium

This game is about emotions. More specifically, it's about two people trying to balance their emotions, both within themselves and with each other, so that they may come together in peace and harmony.

I know, it sounds corny. It's not as bad as it sounds though. Don't get me wrong, this game is definitely not everyone's cup of tea. A lot of people won't like it. Many board gamers, especially the serious ones, will be turned off by the lack of direct or indirect conflict. You're not fighting to kill off enemy soldiers, or save the world from invading aliens, or conquer the universe, or defend Minas Tirith from armies of orcs.

But you might enjoy it, if you give it a try. Certainly, this game (both in theory and in practise) is a bold departure from the norm in the gaming industry. But it works.

Here's how: the game board is made up of three concentric rings of dots in one of four colours. Each dot is connected by paths to the adjacent ones. Each colour represents one of four basic emotions: red is anger, blue is calm, green is happy, and black is sad. To move from one node to an adjacent node, you must play a card of the appropriate colour. So to move from the blue node you're currently occupying to the adjacent red node, you must play an anger card. You're allowed to use cards from the other player's hand as well as from your own, but you must be careful not to cause the other player to become stuck as a result of your actions.

There are two twists on this, however. Each card in your hand represents a more advanced emotion, usually made up of two of the basic emotions. For example, the 'betrayed' card is a combination of red and black, whilst the 'manic' card is made of green and red. Some, like 'carefree,' have two of the same colour (in the case of 'carefree,' both blue).  There is a bar on each side in the appropriate colour, like so:

seven of the game's cards shown as examples. From left to right, they are: carefree (a painting of a fish swimming happily), with blue bars on both sides; manic (a painting of red, yellow, and bronze streamers emerging from a volcano) with a green bar on the left and a red bar on the right; ambivalent (a painting of a black and a white cat facing away from each other on a black-and-white chequered floor) with the left bar green and the right bar black; content (a painting of a teddy bear hugging a small baby) with the left bar green and the right blue; resigned (a painting of a child sitting on a bed in a jail cell with the door open), the left bar is blue and the right is black; betrayed (a painting of a single small flower in a vase with the shadow on the wall appearing withered), the left bar is black, and the right is red; euphoric (a painting of a happy-looking woman on a cloud in a rainbow-coloured sky), with both bars green.

You don't hold the cards in your hand, but rather array them in front of you with one half of each card covered by the card on top of it. The top card is half-covered by a 'cover card.' This way, only one of the coloured bars is visible at a time. When your piece is on the left side of the board, your cards are displayed with the left half covered. When your piece is on the right side, you must rearrange them so the right half is covered. In this way, your current position determines which half of the card is available at any time.

The second twist is that whenever you play a card to move to an adjacent node, it affects your emotional balance. Each player has a five point scale on his side of the board, which runs from -2 to +2. You start at 0, but every time you play a blue or green card, you move your token one space to the right, and every time you play a red or black card, you move it to the left. If you end your turn with the marker at 0, you can draw back up to six cards. Also, you must be at 0 to move into the centre space, which is the ultimate goal. If you are at either end of the spectrum, you cannot play more cards of those colours. So if you're on the +2 space, you must play a red or black card to move you back to +1 before you can play any more blue or green cards.

Finally, there are 24 goal cards. Each one has one of the four colours on it (anger, happiness, sadness, and calmness). These are divided into three stacks of eight cards. The top card of the first stack is turned face up. A player reaches this goal by ending his turn on that colour. This allows that player to discard that goal card and turn up the next one. Until the first stack is exhausted, players must remain on the outermost ring of the board. Once they get to the second stack, they may move to the second ring. Goals in the second stack must be reached on a node of the second ring. Once the second stack is gone, players may move on any of the three rings, though goals from the third stack must be reached on a node of the innermost ring.

Once the third stack of goal cards is exhausted, players may move into the central space. They must be at 0 on their balance scale to do so, however. If the players are able to move into the central space within one turn of each other, they claim victory. If ever a player is unable to move, either because he's at one end or the other of his balance scale and doesn't have cards available to move him towards the centre, or because he is not adjacent to a node of the colours available to him, the game ends in defeat.

However, there is one final permutation: players are not allowed to talk about the game in any way. They can discuss the weather, catch up on their lives, talk about movies or TV, or else just sit in stoic silence staring into each other's eyes. But they can't discuss strategy, analyse potential moves, or communicate about the game itself at all. This rule is lifted for the first time you play the game, to make it easier to learn. But after that, talking about the game itself is off limits.

All of this makes the game, in some ways, feel like new-age pop-psychology claptrap, which can certainly turn off some players. But if you're able to handle this sort of non-standard game format, it can be really rewarding.

One final point: I put an asterisk on the Complexity category of ratings. This is because the rules of the game itself are quite simple, once you understand what it is you are actually doing. But the complexity involved in playing a game without discussing the game you are playing is a different kind of complexity altogether.

So that's ...and then we held hands. A unique game, to be sure. But not without its merits. I certainly won't rate it as one of my favourites. But I'd definitely be willing to play it on those rare occasions when I'm sitting alone with one other friend, if that friend is up for it...

Anyway. That's it for this week. I won't be posting next week, as it's Christmas weekend. But I will probably be here again the week after. Until then, remember to

Game on!

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Games Storage

How many games do you own? 10? 20? Are you a semi-serious gamer like me, who owns nearly 100 board games, and several RPGs with supplements? Are you a super-serious gamer like John, who owns somewhere in the area of 800 board games and multiple book shelves laden with nothing but RPG books?

Even if you only own a handful of games, you may struggle not just with how to store the games themselves, but storage of the game components within those games. This is growing to be a major concern in the gaming industry. We're going to talk about about storage of games and game components.

Storing your games

First, there's the question of how to store the games themselves. This may not be an issue for you, if you don't own many games. Lots of people only own a few; maybe five or ten. Such a small collection can easily be stowed on a single closet shelf. As your collection grows, however, it may become more difficult to find a place to put them. The Dork Spouse and I possess a free-standing cabinet. It's a pretty lovely piece of furniture, with some nice woodwork and metal grating on the door, and three total shelves inside. It has, since we acquired it, become our 'games cabinet.' Apart from a small box of toys, the only thing in it is board/card games, dice, and some binders with our collectible card game collections. And just yesterday, the Dork Spouse said that she was considering making room in one of our closets from some of the contents in the games cabinet, to make room for the obviously impending growth of our games collection.

An example of the shelves in question. Thick black plastic, five total shelves, on a white background. These are of the type that might be found at Home Depot or Lowes or other similar home improvement shops.John, on the other hand, has purchased several of those heavy-duty plastic shelves available from home improvement stores to hold all of his board games.

There are, of course, specialised cabinets designed specifically for storing board games. They can be pricey, but for the serious gamer, they may be invaluable. Geek Chic has several gamer's furniture pieces available, which includes some cabinets. Even some of their tables have storage built in (see The Spartan for a high-end example of this).

If you're not as picky, there's a Pinterest board that's chockablock with games storage ideas.

Storing Game Components

Most people might not see this as a big deal. Just keeping the pieces of your games in the game box is enough of a storage solution for their needs. But some games, especially some of the ones you encounter when you start branching out from mainstream staples like Monopoly and Risk, can be problematic. For example, the game CV, which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago, consists of a couple of decks of cards, some dice and tokens, and a small board. It arrives in a normal-sized square game box, 28 cm to a side and 9 cm tall (11 × 11 × 3½ inches). Yet after opening the box and using the components a few times, the box ends up being mostly wasted space. With the exception of the game board itself, all of the components for both the core game and the expansion fit into the box for the expansion, which is 13 × 13 × 5 cm (5 × 5 × 2 inches).

On the other hand, some games are so densely packed that it's hard to combine expansions. Firefly: the Game, for example, has a plastic organizer in the main game box that keeps everything well organised. However, when I bought the Pirates and Bounty Hunters expansion, there was nowhere to put the new pieces. As a result, even though I don't foresee ever needing to play the base game alone without the expansion (because in my opinion, the expansion adds dynamics that so fill out a lack in the game itself that playing the core game alone is just not worthwhile), I have to keep the items in two separate boxes.

Some companies are beginning to realise this. Slugfest Games is a perfect example; The Red Dragon Inn has five versions of the core set out now, each of which contains four characters. The first four of these are shipped in a 27 × 27 × 5 cm (10.5 × 10.5 × 2 inch) box. This box contains a plastic tray with a compartment for each character, a fifth for the drink deck, and sixth for the other pieces, and a recessed area on the top of the tray to hold the player mats. Although it's possible to combine two of the core games into one box, if you're willing to squeeze everything together very tightly, there's no room for even one more expansion (not even the single-character Allies expansions). However, with volume 5, they've fixed this by shipping the game in a larger box that doesn't have inserts, but instead uses row dividers and separators that lets you keep all your various decks stored together (like many of the current deck builder games out there):

The box for the original Red Dragon Inn next to the one for volume 5. On the left, the smaller box is open showing the insert tray with compartments for the decks and other components. On the right, the larger box is open to show four rows in which the various decks can be stacked in rows, separated by deck divider cards.

Even discounting the issue of space, some games are poorly organised. Especially games with a lot of components, there may be no easy way to keep the different component types sorted. A perfect example of this is Betrayal at House on the Hill, which has hundreds of tokens for various purposes. Most of them are round, but there are also some square, triangular, and pentangular tokens. The round tokens are colour-coded (for example, the red tokens are people, such as 'cultists' or 'servants,' whilst the olive-coloured tokens are undead creatures like 'zombies' and 'vampires'). The box for first edition had a carboard tray that was divided into six sections, but the pieces of that tray fit together so poorly that tokens would often slide under a divider into another section. Even then, the number of tokens made it difficult to find the ones you needed. The second edition had a plastic tray with specially-shaped compartments, which was an improvement, but it didn't help with finding the right tokens. I solved this problem by purchasing small containers and labelling each with the included contents:

Five small food storage containers, each about 5 by 6 by 3.5 cm (2 by 2½ by 1½ inches). The lid of each is labelled in a different colour ink with the category and specific tokens to be found within. The categories include: Red - People; Olive - Undead; Orange - Animals/Roots; Teal - Ickies; Blue - Bodies/Outer Beings.

I've seen similar containers used by others, and they're very useful. They can be hard to find, though; I once bought a large supply of bead storage containers from Michael's Craft Store. They were useful because they had attached lids with clips to hold them closed. It seems they don't make those anymore though. If you find anything similar, I recommend stocking up. You never know when you might need some!

There are even some companies out there who now specialise in game organisers. There's a great company out there called The Broken Token. They produce wooden inserts that, when placed in a game box, make it easy to organise the components of that game. They have custom designed inserts for many of the most popular games, including Eclipse, Codenames, and King of Tokyo.

Anyway, I'm sure there's more that can be said, but I think that covers some of the more important topics. I'll see you back here next week. Until then, have fun with your games, however you store them and your components, and remember as always to 

Game on!

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Collapsed Games

Remember a few months ago, when I mentioned that I was going to be streaming a Changeling campaign over Twitch?

That didn't last very long. We had a total of two actual game sessions. And it became apparent to me during that time that I was the only one actually invested in the game.

I could sit here and wax poetic about the reasons why the other players weren't into. I could gaze at my navel and ponder whether they really were invested, and I just couldn't tell. But the fact is that gaming is my creative outlet. Especially when I'm GMing. It's not just a hobby for me. It's how I express myself.

I've said it before, but it's very true. Some people paint. Others write. Some compose, perform, and record music. I even know people who express their creative urges through creating board games and card games.

I run game sessions.

Just this past week, I spent some time planning for the next session of my Friday Night game, the 'Fae Team.' I lovingly crafted the encounters through which I expect to run the players. I put time and thought into the NPCs they'll meet along the way. I created props to help bring the story to life. I found, edited, and created images to help them visualise who and what they see.

And this coming Friday, when I actually run the game, the effort I put into designing the current story will pay off when I see the players react. The last session involved the PCs climbing into separate starfighters and discovering the bizarre features with which each one was equipped. Just as a couple of examples, one had a bakery and the entire catalogue of music from Projekt Records, another had a sushi bar and a pair of holographic dancing knights, whilst a third had a cinema concession stand and access to PornHub.

The players loved it. We got some video footage of it because we were having such a good time.

That's what I live for. Finding enjoyable stories to tell, and having people enjoy hearing them (or better yet, being part of them).

Part of what makes a good story, for me at least, is the characters. I can't enjoy a story if the characters aren't dynamic, robust, plausible, and relatable. Like the characters from Sense8, which I've been watching recently. They're interesting people. They have quirks and foibles and weaknesses and flaws and strengths and desires and fears and shortcomings. But they are all believable.

The same is true of the characters from The Order of the Stick. Even the villains can be compelling. Redcloak, who (depending on your point of view) is either the secondary villain or the primary villain, can be the subject of empathy at some level (though he is, unarguably, a villain, and evil, has motives that are, to an extent at least, somewhat compassionate). This is even more true of the villain Tsukiko. Even though she is unrepentantly immoral, you can see that she has been so badly hurt, so many times, over the course of her life, that her immorality is, on some level at least, understandable. This leads to me feeling some level of sadness when she meets her final fate.

If a story doesn't have this level of character development, I'm not likely to be interested. Which is why, when I'm designing a campaign, or a story within a campaign, I always try to develop specific story hooks for each character. Like when the character of Fee ran into her family in a recent session (which, as the player probably already knows, is setting the stage for further character development later on). The ongoing saga of self-discovery of the character known as Officer Daly is also of great interest to me.

To do this, I need the players to work up full personalities and back stories. I have a questionnaire that I ask my players to fill out, which helps them to give the necessary level of development to their characters.

Sadly, not all players are able to do this. The game that I was going to stream (which I was calling the Hobo group) fell apart in large part because the players could not (or possibly just would not) fill out the questionnaire. Even after two game sessions, only one of the six players had filled it out, despite repeated requests and reminders from me.

There were other indications that they weren't invested. But after two sessions, and the character creation process, when it became apparent that they weren't going to give me the same level of dedication that I was pouring into my game, that there was no point in my trying to continue. I can't put that much energy into a creative endeavour if I'm the only one that's willing to work at it.

This is one reason that I've spent so much time in the past talking about assembling the right group. People who are going to work just as hard as you are to make the game the amazing story that you want. Because if not getting to game sucks, it doesn't suck half as much as getting started in a game, only to have it fall apart after a few weeks because the players and the GM aren't all on the same page.

Anyway, that's what I was thinking about. I'll see you back here next week. Until then,

Game on!

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Board Game Review: Harbour

Two players contemplating their next move at Harbour. Both are sitting at a table looking at the components of Harbour, which are spread out before them.
Are you ready for a surprisingly great find? A friend introduced me to Harbour a couple of weeks ago. It's a game about owners of shipping companies building structures on the harbour to increase the amount of goods you can purchase and sell. That sounds really lame, doesn't it? And yet, between the humorous artwork and card text, the innovative mechanics, and the robust, competitive game play, this game turns out to be extremely enjoyable.

Don't believe me? Just look at the ratings:
Strategy and Randomness are rated from 0 to 6. A 0 means the rated aspect plays no part in determining the game's outcome; and a 6 means that it is the only factor that determines the game's outcome. Complexity is also rated from 0 to 6; a 0 means that it's so simple a six-year-old can play it, a 3 means any adult should have no trouble playing, and a 6 means that you'll need to refer to the rulebook frequently. Humour can be rated as 'None,' meaning the game is not meant to be funny, or it may have one or more of the following: Derivative (meaning the humour is based on an outside source, such as a game based on a comedy film), Implicit (meaning that the game's components are funny, such as humourous card text), or Inherent (meaning that the actions the players take are funny). Attractiveness has nine possible ratings. Ideal: the game is beautiful and makes game play easier. Pretty: The design is beautiful and neither eases nor impedes game play. Nice: The design is beautiful but makes game play harder than necessary. Useful: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but eases gameplay. Average: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Useless: The design is neither beautiful nor ugly, but makes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Utilitarian: The design is ugly, but eases gameplay. Ugly: The design is ugly, and neither eases nor impedes gameplay. Worthless: The design is ugly, andmakes gameplay harder than it needs to be. Average Length of Game Play describes how long an average game will probably last, give or take. Gamer Profile Ratings measures how strongly a game will appeal to players based on their interest in one of four areas. These areas are measured as High, Medium, or Low. Strategy describes how much a game involves cognitive challenges, thinking and planning, and making sound decisions. Conflict describes how much direct hostile action there is between players, from destroying units to stealing resources. Social Manipulation describes how much bluffing, deceiving, and persuading there is between players. Fantasy describes how much a game immerses players in another world, another time.

Strategy: 4
Randomness: 2
Complexity: 2
Humour: Implicit
Attractiveness: Useful
Average Length of Gameplay: 30 minutes
Gamer Profile Ratings:
   Strategy: High
   Conflict: Medium
   Social Manipulation: Low
   Fantasy: Medium

Harbour consist primarily of five items:

  • A central play mat - This has spaces to represent the current market value of each good (meat, stone, wood, and fish)
  • Individual play mats - Each one has a basic building and a commodity track to monitor how many of each good the player has.
  • Two decks of cards - one of various buildings, one of four cards showing bonus point conditions
  • Wooden blocks to represent commodities - there's one for each good per player, as well as one additional per good to go on the central play mat.
  • Meeples to represent each player - These resemble orcish sailors.
This does not include things like player aids or the 'Harbour Master' card.

The central play mat, as well as the deck of building cards, are placed in the centre. The starting value of each commodity is determined randomly by placing a block for each good at random on the commodity track. Five buildings are dealt face up in the centre. Players choose a colour and place their meeple next to their play mat. In the advanced game, each play mat represents a different character with a special ability, but in the basic game, all play mats are turned to the basic side, which are all identical. They choose three goods to start the game, and arrange their commodity blocks accordingly.

I'm going to pause here to describe the commodity blocks, because they're really kind of ingenious. Rather than having a bunch of tokens or other game components to represent the various goods, each player is given one block for each good, and moves it up and down along the track on his player mat to indicate how many of that item he possesses. Thus, in the image below, we see that the red player has two each of wood, stone, and fish, and currently has no meat.

A player mat. This one represents the 'Travel Agent' character. Most of the mat, which measures about 3 inches by 6 inches, is taken up with the character's quote and special ability. The upper left corner has the art, a portrait of the character, which resembles a female orc in standard witch's clothing. Along the bottom are six spaces, each with a different number of crates marked on them, from one crate in the space on the left to six crates on the space to the right. A red meeple sits on the character portrait. Three square wooden tokens sit on the 'two crates' space: a blue, a grey, and a brown. The brown one, on top, has a sticker to indicate that it represents wood. A red token with a sticker showing a cow and a pig, sits beside the board.

This limits the amount of components needed to play the game, as well as keeping costs down. Furthermore, the central play mat has a similar track, but instead of showing how many of each commodity there are, it shows the current market value for each one.

A track of eight spaces in a sideways U shape. The top four have arrows indicating that pieces move from left to right. The top left spaces is marked with 2+, the next with 3+, then 4+, and the top right space is marked with 5+. All four spaces on the bottom are marked with a ship, and have arrows indicating that pieces move from right to left. The bottom left is labelled $2, the next one is $3, then $4, and the bottom right is marked $5. An arrow on the left indicates that a piece on the bottom left moves to the space on the top left. Currently, the 2+ space has the grey stone token, the 3+ space has the brown wood token, the 4+ space has the red cow and pig token, and the 5+ space has the blue fish token.

When a player sells goods, he moves the token on this central play mat down to the ship space below it. This grants that player the appropriate amount of money. For example, in the photo above, selling fish would grant that player $5, whereas selling stone would only grant him $2. Goods are not sold on a cost-per-unit basis; that is, selling two stone does not grant you $2 per unit of stone sold. Instead, you gain that amount of money for your entire supply of stone. You must have at least the amount indicated on the play mat to sell that item. In other words, in the photo above, you have to have at least two stone to sell it at all. Having more does not grant you any benefit; if you currently have six stone and you choose to sell it, you lose all of your stone and still only get $2.

Once a player has finished selling his goods and spent the money he gains from it, all tokens are moved along the track, following the sideways U path indicated by the arrows on the mat. All tokens are move as far along the track as possible. This means that any time a good is sold, it decreases in value, and when two or more goods are sold at once, they are reversed in worth.

So, using the photo above, let's imagine that a player is selling all of his fish, meat, and stone at once. He moves those three tokens straight down onto the ship space beneath them. This grants him a total of eleven dollars ($5 for the fish, $4 for the meat, and $2 for the stone). Then, because the wood is the only one still on the top, it is moved all the way to the right, now occupying the 5+ space. The stone is the next furthest along the track, so is moved up to the 4+ space. Then the meat is moved to the 3+ space, and finally, the fish is moved into the 2+ space. Thus, the wood, which was not sold, has now jumped in price. What was formerly the most expensive item is now the cheapest. And so on.

So, now that we understand that aspect of the game, let's look at how the game is actually played. On a player's turn, he moves his meeple to any unoccupied building. This can be one of the cards in the centre of the play area (these being unowned buildings), one of the cards in any player's play area, either his own or an opponent's (these being the buildings owned by individual players), or the building represented on a player's play mat (again, his own or another player). 

Three cards: the Lumber Yard with a picture of a treefolk fighting three other characters, with icons indicating that the card lets you gain one wood for each anchor you possess; the Trader's guild, with art showing a cloaked figure holding a chicken trying to trade with a goblin leading a giant chicken, and icons indicating that it lets you gain one wood and swap the places of two goods on the market on the central play mat; and Golem Crafters, with art showing a wizard and a stonemason building a large statue, with icons indicating that it allows you to convert three meat into five stone.
After moving your meeple to a building, you may take the action described on that building. The two most common actions include purchasing a building and gaining commodities. Usually, you simply gain a commodity (or multiple commodities). For example, in the cards shown to the right, the Traders Guild grants you a single wood in addition to swapping the places of two items in the market on the central play mat. 

The purchase icon (which resembles a building next to two dollar signs) allows you to sell your goods as described above, and use the income to purchase one of the cards available in the central play area. This does not prevent other players from using that card, but unless a player has a card with a top hat icon (as seen for example on the Lumber Yard card at right), he must pay you any one good of his choice as a toll for using your building. But the important thing is that you gain victory points for each building you purchase.

The game continues until one player has purchased four buildings. Each other player gets one final turn, and then the player with the most victory points takes a selfie with the Harbour Master card and is declared the winner.

This game is surprisingly robust, with a lot of careful consideration being given to every action. Yet it's still quick and easy, with a lot of humour (look at the artwork in the cards shown above to see what I mean). I really enjoyed this game, and even though I've only played it twice, I'm impatient to own a copy so I can share it with others!

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

Game on!

Saturday, November 19, 2016

A Followup to Last Week's Entry

Last week, I posted an entry about Kickstarter. Specifically, I was talking about how some projects are on there because it's a new company (or perhaps just an individual) who has no way of bringing their idea to fruition without crowdfunding. Other projects are there as a way of gauging interest; some creators put their ideas on Kickstarter to see how many people are willing to back it, and if the project doesn't reach its goal, then it's probably not a viable product.

But there are quite a few people who use Kickstarter only as a way of funding a project without having to spend any money themselves.

By the way, for those of you who are curious, Conspire managed to get funded with just hours to spare. They finished at 101%, beating their goal by a mere $101. It was close; I wasn't sure it would make it. I was actually checking in every 20 minutes or so to see how they were progressing.

Anyway. Whether or not a creator truly needs the money is only one consideration in deciding to back a project. Another factor is the stretch goals (for those of you who don't know, a 'stretch goal' is an extra something that will happen if the project reaches a certain goal). A perfect example is the Order of the Stick Reprint Drive. Rich Burlew, an independent artist responsible for The Order of the Stick webcomic, wanted to get his older books back into print, but didn't have enough money to do this on his own. He wanted to reach a goal of just under $58,000 to bring volume 3: War and XPs back into print.

I already owned a copy of volume 3. There was no reason for me to back the project. The first stretch goals was that if they reached $97,000, he would also be able to reprint the print-only prequel book, On the Origin of PCs. I already owned a copy of that book as well.

But once the drive hit $150,000, he would reprint volume 2: No Cure for the Paladin Blues. That was the only book I was missing from the collection. I suddenly had a reason to back the drive.

Finally, and I think in some ways most importantly, there's one other consideration in deciding whether to back a project: past performance.

I've heard from a friend about one company (I don't remember which one, nor the game they were attempting to fund) that he supported on Kickstarter. The project was quite successful, and in addition to the main game, several expansions were unlocked. However, the company chose to ship the rewards to the backers all at once. This meant that they were going to wait until all of the expansions had been published before sending out any product at all.

As a result, the main game and the first few expansions are already available for purchase by the general public. But John can't buy them (technically, I suppose he could, but it would be silly to do so) because there's a copy already marked to be sent to him at some point in the future. In some ways, one of the benefits of backing a game on Kickstarter is to be amongst the first to receive a copy. But this company has subverted that for their backers.

Anyway, I suppose some people are so excited about being the first ones to get a product that they're willing to back a project even if it doesn't really need to be backed. Patience is not a virtue that some people have, after all...

But for those of us who don't mind waiting a little bit, there are other considerations to keep in mind when deciding to back a project. To review:

  1. Does this project really need money to get published? Or is the creator just unwilling to put up the money on his own?
  2. What are the stretch goals? Do they make the project worth backing?
  3. Has this creator made any other projects before? If not, does he or she seem like they could use the support? If so, are the backers of those projects satisfied with what they got out of it?
That's what I was thinking about as I sat down to write this entry. Maybe I was influenced in part because I attended a meeting of people who are tired of ideology and irrational decision making have such a large effect on the course of life for so many.

I will end there for now. See you back here next week! Until then,

Game on!

Saturday, November 12, 2016


I was talking to a good friend recently about backing new games on Kickstarter. He brought up an interesting point. He described the criteria he uses to decide which projects to back. The way he described his approach, he would back games from new producers who looked like they have the potential to become something noteworthy. If it's a producer's first game, he's willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Subsequent projects will be judged on how he felt about the first project.

But one thing he said that was really interesting was that he won't back projects from big companies.

This is of particular interest to me, as I watch people going crazy for the new game from The Oatmeal. The game is called Bears vs Babies, and is currently sitting at nearly 25,000% funded.

Now don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that Bears vs Babies is a bad game. I'm not even saying that the previous game, Exploding Kittens, was a bad game. I've played it, and enjoyed it, and am not averse to playing it again.

What I am saying is that people are going insane over this game. With a goal of $10,000, they're already at nearly $2.5 million with five days left to go. Yet from what I can see, the backers of this project will get exactly two things that will not be offered to people who did not back it: a single promo card and some officially branded Bears vs Babies condoms.

And given how well the previous game Exploding Kittens did, I find it hard to believe that they need to crowdfund their new game.

Contrast this with the project Conspire. This is a storytelling game in which players keep their roles hidden from one another as they tell a story together about conflicting loyalties. It looks like it follows in the great tradition of Fiasco and similar games. It's the third project from Cherry Picked Games. Their first two projects were (barely) successful games; the first was a roleplaying game called Catalyst set in the modern world, in which characters must fight off a demonic invasion from Hell. The second is a party game called Drink.

All three of these look like good projects. And this is a new company, a small company, and there's really no way they can get these games published without the support of their fans. But at this moment, they are just under $1,500 short of their $10,000 goal, with only 21 hours to go.

This is despite the fact that they have some really good backer levels. Some higher ones allow fans to influence the art in the rulebook. So there's some good reasons to back this project instead of waiting for the game to be published to buy a copy. But because the company, and the games they've created so far, are so unknown, they don't get the support that games like Bears vs Babies do.

It's like the old YouTube celebrity phenomenon. People have a limited amount of attention to give out, and aren't likely to go looking for new channels to support. There can only be one Freddie Wong or Lindsey Stirling. Even if there are other creators out there, they're so likely to be overshadowed by the people that get all the attention that they probably won't be able to continue doing what they want to do.

I guess the point I'm trying to make is this: be more discriminating in the projects you back. Try to look to see if the company (or the individual) who's proposed the project really needs crowdfunding support. Will you get something as a backer that you wouldn't get if you waited to purchase the game once it's published? Has the project already been funded, indicating that you don't need to back it to get it?

Anyway, that's what I've been thinking about lately. What are your thoughts? How do you decide which projects to back? Leave your ideas in the comments. I will see you here next week. Until then,

Game on!

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Board Game Review: Terra Mystica

A game of Terra Mystica in progress. The board, made up of a series of hexagonal spaces, each representing a different terrain type, some with discs to indicate that it has been changed to a different terrain type, is covered with wooden pieces of various types, some of which have cardboard tokens indicating that they've been turned into cities.
I recently got to learn a hefty game called Terra Mystica. Being the dedicated game reviewer that I am, I will now review it for you. As always, we start 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. Gamer Profile Ratings measures how strongly a game will appeal to players based on their interest in one of four areas. These areas are measured as High, Medium, or Low. Strategy describes how much a game involves cognitive challenges, thinking and planning, and making sound decisions. Conflict describes how much direct hostile action there is between players, from destroying units to stealing resources. Social Manipulation describes how much bluffing, deceiving, and persuading there is between players. Fantasy describes how much a game immerses players in another world, another time.

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

Terra Mystica is a heavy and fairly complex game. Players take on the role of a faction. Many of these factions are a fantasy race, such as elves, dwarves, halflings, or giants. Others are classifications, like chaos magicians, witches, alchemists, or engineers. Still others appear to have been created wholecloth, like the auren or the swarmlings. Regardless of which faction you choose, you take the appropriate player mat, which details all the options, costs, special abilities, etc, for your faction. This mat also provides a place to organise your pieces.

In the centre of the playing area is the game board. This is comprised mostly of hexagonal terrain spaces, including mountains, deserts, wastelands, plains, forests, lakes, and swamps. Rivers separate some of these hexes. Each faction can only settle in one terrain type; for examples, merfolk can only live in the lakes, whilst nomads can only settle the desert, and so on. Players start by placing two dwellings on the board, in any hex they are allowed to settle.

During a player's turn, he may take any one of a list of eight actions detailed on a handy player aid. In some ways, the most important action is to build or upgrade dwellings. This is done by paying the listed cost (usually one gold and one worker cube to build a dwelling; six gold and two worker cubes to upgrade a dwelling to a trading house, etc. Note that trading houses may be upgraded either into a temple — which can be further upgraded into a sanctuary — or into a stronghold). And this is where the unique and interesting mechanic of Terra Mystica comes into play: whenever you build or upgrade a structure, any players who occupy adjacent hexes gain power.

Power is a strange little beast. On your player card are three 'bowl of power.' These are purple ovals on which you place markers representing your mystic power. You start the game with some tokens in bowl 1 and some in bowl 2. These tokens are effectively worthless until they are in bowl 3. They may be spent from bowl 3 by moving them to bowl 1 in order to take a variety of 'power actions,' which are generally detailed either on the game board, your player mat, or one of the various tokens you can receive throughout the game.

To get power tokens into bowl 3, you must move them there from bowl 1. However, you cannot move tokens from bowl 2 to bowl 3 if there are any tokens in bowl 1. You must first move all tokens from bowl 1 into bowl 2 before you can start moving any tokens from bowl 2 to bowl 3. Normally, tokens are moved as a result of other players building or upgrading structures on a hex adjacent to one of your structures. Each power gained in this manner allows you to move one power token to the next bowl. Occasionally, you will gain power as part of your income, or by advancing on a cult track (more on cult tracks in a moment). The only time you're allowed to move power tokens from bowl 2 to bowl 3 when there are still tokens in bowl 1 is if you take a free action to sacrifice (that is, remove from the game entirely) an equal number of tokens from bowl 2.

When building a new dwelling, you must place it adjacent to one of your existing structures. But, as it is rare to have two of the same terrain type adjacent to one another, this means that you will have to terraform. There is a terrain conversion wheel on your player mat; the further away from your native terrain an existing terrain type is on this wheel, the more difficulty it is to convert. You must use a number of spades (spades are normally obtained by turning in worker cubes, but can be acquired in other ways as well) equal to the number of steps you move along the conversion wheel in order to terraform hexes. Once you have transformed a terrain hex in this way, you place a marker on it to indicate the type of terrain that it has become.

In addition to building and upgrading structures, actions include:

  1. Upgrading your shipping. Most factions start with a shipping value of zero, but this can be upgraded during the game. Your current shipping value determines how many river spaces away a structure can be and still be considered 'indirectly adjacent.' Although indirect adjacency does not count when building new structures, it does count when determining how many connected hexes you control at the end of the game when determining victory point for largest controlled areas.
  2. Decrease the exchange rate for purchasing spades. At the start of the game, most factions must spend three worker cubes per spade, unless using a power action or other special benefit. Taking this action decreases the cost.
  3. Send a priest to a cult temple. There are four cults in Terra Mystica: one each for earth, air, fire, and water. The different factions start with zero, one, or two points of influence in each one (for example, the darklings start with one each in earth and water and none in the others, whereas the witches start with two in air and none elsewhere). By sending priests to a temple, that faction moves two or three spaces further along the track for that cult. Standing in a cult is worth victory points at the end of the game, and you can gain power from moving along the tracks as well.
  4. Take any power actions or special actions available to you. There are some power actions listed on the game board, and special actions may be made available to you as a result of actions you take during the course of the game (for example, once the Witches have built their stronghold, they gain the option of a special action that allows them to place a dwelling on any unoccupied forest space). Power actions and special actions may only be taken once per round (even if it was taken by another player; so once a specific action has been taken once by any player, no player may take that action again until the next round).
  5. Pass. Once you are unable (or no longer wish) to take any more actions, you can pass. When you pass, you turn in your current Bonus Card (which grants you resources, points, special actions, or some combination of these) and select a new one to use on your next round. In addition, the first player to pass on a round becomes the first player on the following round.
Once everyone has passed, you proceed through the cleanup phase, which involves resetting the once-per-round actions, gaining cult bonuses, and so on. Then the next turn begins with the income phase. The game lasts for a total of 6 rounds. At the end, the player with the most victory points wins. Victory points are rewarded (and can be spent!) in a variety of ways. 

This is just the briefest overview (and it's already quite long!) There are a lot of details I've left out (for example, I haven't even mentioned founding cities!). So you can see why I rated the complexity of this game at 5.

The first time I played this game, I lost very badly. I don't normally mind losing, but in this case, I felt like I simply had no real clue what was going on. I had trouble remembering what the iconography on the game pieces meant, I had trouble working out what options were available to me on my turn, and this left me completely unable to devise a strategy. The second time I played, it was better, but I still feel I need to play a few more times to really get a grasp on how this game works.

The other problem I have is that this game has a strong economic aspect. The more structures you build, the more income you receive. But of course, it can be very expensive to build structures. It's the old 'you have to spend money to make money' trope. And for whatever reason, I've never been very good at that. Games with a strong economic component like this are hard for me.

I don't know. I think I'll give it a few more tries before I write it off completely. But I also think it will take me two or three more plays to really get the hang of it. Which is a shame, because several of my friends really like this game. I'd hate to think I'm missing out on something good just because of a bad introduction. So I don't want to just give up on it. But I fear it will take a few tries before I can get it right, assuming I ever do.

Anyway. That's my impression. What are yours? Please let me know what you think in the comments below, and I will see you here again next week. Until then,

Game on!

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Loot & XP

It has been nearly a year since the local board game cafe opened. I'm sure you remember me posting about it when their Kickstarter went live. I also briefly mentioned in another post that I had attended their backer party the night before they opened. But I haven't yet written an article about them.

I will rectify that right now.

Loot & XP (the gaming hub of Norman) is the local board game cafe. They began a successful Kickstarter in August of last year, and opened their shop on 12 December 2015. The venture was undertaken by five friends who owned a massive game library, and decided to share their love of games with their home town. They held a series of public events at the local library to generate interest, which paid off in the long run.

As you walk in the front door, you see before you a long rectangular shop. The door is against the left wall, and to your right, there are three couches arranged in a U shape around a coffee table with a tabletop-sized video game cabinet on an end table beside them. Along the left wall in front of you are several shelves with their supply of retail games. Opposite that is the counter, where the cash register sits alongside their cafe. They sell various coffees and teas, pastries from a local bakery, bottled drinks and snacks like Ruffles and Butterfingers. They also have working arrangements with three local restaurants: Pizza King, Asian Cuisine (warning: the Asian Cuisine website has loud music autoplaying on most of its pages) and Billy Sims Barbecue. You can order from any of those restaurants, pay at the counter without leaving the shop, and have their food delivered right to your table!

There are a few taller tables with barstool-height chairs between the counter and the retail shelves. But it's when you get past the counter that the fun really begins. They have ten or so large tables, with at least six chairs at each, and both walls are lined with shelves that are chockablock with games of every sort. From Candy Land to Twilight Imperium and everything in between, including older selections like Frank Herbert's Dune and small indie releases like Asphodel. For a mere $5, you can purchase a game pass, which is good for the full day, even if you leave and return later on. With this game pass, you can play any game in the shop's library, as many times as you want (until they close, of course). If you don't know how to play, the staff can teach you; they know how to play pretty much every game there. And they're constantly expanding their library with new releases!

They have events, such as tournaments and trivia nights, and are in the process of becoming an official sanctioned Magic: The Gathering site. They even have roleplaying games available, and some groups meet there for their weekly gaming sessions!

It's hard to compare them to other board game cafes, because I've never had an opportunity to visit any others. But if there's something that is missing from Loot & XP, I sure can't think of what it might be!

So if ever you happen to be in or near Norman, Oklahoma, I highly recommend stopping in and playing some games with these great people in this great store! That's all for now. Until next time,

Game on!

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Mobile Games

I've mentioned before that I'm not a fan of computer games. There are a few that I enjoy, but on the whole, I don't play them. Usually, it's because (as I've described previously), I enjoy games because they allow me to engage in social interaction in a less-stressful manner than normal.

You Don't Know Jack is an exception. Whereas most computer games are either single player, involve taking turns so that you have to switch places with the other player, or are played over a network so that you're not actually in the same room as the other players, YDKJ has all the players with their hands on the keyboard simultaneously. This makes the game more social in nature.

Hypothetically, games on smartphones would be similar, right? To an extent, they are. However, there are a couple of games that serve to foster interactions, rather than replace it. I just discovered one last week.

It's called Spaceteam (that link is for Android devices. The following is for Apple products). Two to eight people, each with a mobile device connected to the same wifi network, run the game on their device. Each player sees a screen with three sections. At the top, an image of your ship flying through space. Below that is a small line where instructions will appear. The bottom half of the screen is an assortment of buttons, dials, slider controls, and switches. Each one is labelled with a humorous technobabble name, like 'flux gravitometric input' or 'Eigendryer.' Sometimes, they will be funny non-technical names, like the the button labelled 'Lose' on the control panel named 'Complete Control.'

As the game begins, instructions will appear in the middle area. They might say 'Set flux gravitometric input to 3' or 'Engage Eigendryer.' But normally, the instructions that appear on your screen are not for the controls on your screen; they're for controls on someone else's screen! Thus, you have a group of people all shouting at each other, 'Activate thrust differential! Who's got the thrust differential? Activate it, you idiot!' And it's even more hilarious when you get the non-technical names like 'Lose complete control.' And funniest still, when someone says, 'Turn on dangling shunter! Someone turn on the dangling shunter! Who's got the dangling—oh wait, I've got it. Never mind.'

This sort of game leads to hilarious interactions, especially since there's a countdown timer for each instruction. If the instruction is carried out correctly before the timer runs out, the ship in the top portion of the screen moves forward a little bit. If the timer runs out without the correct control being operated, the ship moves backwards. And behind the ship, there's a constantly growing explosion getting closer to the ship. If your ship reaches the right side of the screen, you move on to the next level. If the explosion reaches your ship, then it explodes and the game is over.

Another game that facilitates, rather than negates, interaction is 'Heads Up Charades.' This game is a word guessing game similar to Taboo, in which one player gives clues to the other, but is not allowed to say the word itself, nor any part or form of that word. The app makes clever use of the phone's accelerometer to keep score. What happens is this: one player holds the phone against his forehead, so that the other player can see the screen but he himself cannot. The screen then displays a word or phrase in the chosen category (for example, 'Batman' in the 'superheroes' category). The partner must give clues that the player holding the phone must guess. When a word is correctly guessed, the player tilts the phone down. This lets the app know that the word was guessed, so it awards a point and brings up a new word. If, however, the players choose to pass, the phone gets tilted up. The app then brings up a new word without increasing the score.

Once the timer runs out, the app displays the words given in the round, and indicates which were correctly guessed and which were passed. It shows the score for that round.

I like these kind of apps. As mentioned, they are designed to facilitate interaction between multiple players. If you know of any others the do the same, please leave a comment to let me know! Until next week,

Game on!

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Board Game Review: CV

A couple weeks ago, I got to play an interesting game called CV. That's short for curriculum vitae, which is Latin for 'the course of life.' Although the term is used in the UK to refer to a usually two-page document similar to what Americans call a 'resume,' this game is based on the idea of telling the story of a person's life.

But we're here to hear the story of a game. So let's start with the statistics:
Strategy: 4
Randomness: 3
Complexity: 2
Humour: Implicit
Attractiveness: Pretty
Average Length of Game Play: 1 hour
Gamer Profile Ratings:
  Strategy: Low
  Conflict: Low
  Social Manipulation: Medium
  Fantasy: Medium

An overview of CV

A game of CV in progress. The three decks are arranged at the top of the board, with one goal card beside them. Five cards are available to purchase along the bottom of the board. In the foreground, one player's tableau of purchased cards is visible. The special dice, can be seen, as well as the bonus tokens, scorepad, and a player aid.

Players will take turns rolling dice and using the results, plus any bonus from cards they already have, to purchase additional cards to add to their tableau. At the end of the game, they score points for cards they have, as well as card combinations available from goal cards. In so doing, you are creating the story of a person's life, as each card represents aspects of a person's life story (health and relationships and jobs and possessions and so forth).

How Does it Work?

The game consists of a board that helps organise the cards, seven special dice, and the cards themselves. The cards come in three decks: childhood, early adulthood, middle age, and old age, as well as the goal cards. With the exception of the childhood deck and the goal cards, these are shuffled and placed in the appropriate place on the game board. Each player receives a goal card. A number of additional goal cards are placed on the board equal to one less than the number of players. The childhood cards are distributed, three to each player, who chooses one and passes the remaining two. Choose another from the two new ones you've received, and pass the remaining card to the next player, who keeps it. In this way, you start off with three cards to help you in the game. Deal the first five Early Adulthood cards onto the available spaces on the board. Now you're ready to play!

The point of the game is to build your tableau by buying from the available cards. The resources you use to buy cards come mainly from the dice. You get four dice (plus any from cards you possess, up to a maximum of seven). These dice are rolled Yahtzee style, keeping the ones you like and rerolling the rest, up to three times. The dice have the following symbols:
  • A medical style cross: this allows you to buy cards that have to do with health.
  • A light bulb: this allows you to buy cards that have to do with knowledge.
  • Two stick-figure icons: this allows you to buy cards that have to do with relationships.
  • A dollar sign: this allows you to buy cards that have to do with money and possessions.
  • A smiley face: this serves as a wild card. In addition, if you have three of these icons, you can use them to buy any available card.
  • A grimacing face: this locks the die so that it cannot be used or rerolled. In addition, if you get three such faces, you must discard one of the cards in your tableau (it doesn't end your turn; you just lose a card and keep going if you so desire).
These icons are used to purchase the available cards. The cost is listed on the card beneath the title and above the illustration. For example, in the photo above, the 'Manager' card (the third one on the board) costs two health icons, a relationship icon, and a knowledge icon.

Take any cards you've purchased and add them to your CV (that is, place them in your tableau). You must keep them in stacks according to their type. Most cards belong to the same type as the first four dice faces listed above (health, knowledge, relationships, or money). In addition, there are CV cards, which represent jobs you have (or had). The card that is currently on top of a stack grants you certain bonuses, represented by tokens, which are the same as the die faces. These bonuses are listed at the bottom of the card, below the artwork. For example, in the picture above, the 'Intern' card seen in the CV pile grants you one money icon and one relationship icon each turn. These are used to purchase cards, in addition to whatever you roll on the dice.

One other card type exists: events. These are not placed in your tableau as the other cards, but are held in your hand. They can be played for a one-time-only benefit of tokens. The icons work the same: the ones on top are the cost to purchase, and the ones on bottom are the benefit granted when that card is played. In the photo above, you can see an event card in the discard pile to the left of the board: 'Lottery Jackpot.' That card costs two smiley faces to purchase, but when played, acts as five money icons.

You may purchase as many cards as you can afford. Once you are done, move all remaining cards as far as you can to the left and draw new cards to fill the empty spaces. Turn then passes to the left. Once each player has had a turn, discard the leftmost card on the board before drawing new ones.

When the Early Adulthood deck is exhausted, start drawing from the Middle Age deck. Once this deck is empty, start drawing from the Old Age deck. When there are fewer cards in this deck than players, the game ends immediately.

Scoring in CV

There is a chart on the board that shows how many points you get for health, relationship, and knowledge cards. The points progress exponentially, so that a second card is worth more than a first, and a third is worth more than a second, and so on. Also, each possession (the yellow Money icon cards) grant victory points as printed on the cards themselves. In addition, players reveal their private goal cards and score them. These are scored by sets. For example, the currently displayed goal card in the photo above ('Activist') grants players two victory points for each full set of one Health card and one Relationship card. Thus, the current tableau is worth 6 points from this card, as there are three sets of one Health and Relationship card each.

Finally, players look to see who has the highest score according to each of the publicly-available goal cards. Whoever has the highest score according to that card gets it, and is awarded the points from that card. The winner is the player with the highest score.

Final Thoughts on CV

I wasn't super-impressed with this game. It was fun, and I wouldn't be opposed to playing it again. But it's certainly not in my list of favourites. The artwork was humorous (like the 'Lottery Jackpot' card, which shows a woman praying as money falls from the sky). It's an interesting concept. And although there is a little bit of thinky-thinky going on in this game, it's not enough to overcome the lack of storytelling for my tastes. I don't know, it just wasn't super appealing to me. There wasn't really anything I didn't like, but there wasn't a whole lot that I did like, either.

But of course, that's just my impression. Don't be put off by what I didn't like. Give it a try for yourself! I'd love to hear what other people think of this game. So go try it out, play more games, and as always,

Game on!

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Board Game Week at Geeks Are Sexy

The fine folks over at Geeks Are Sexy decided to spend a week looking at board games. If you don't regularly follow that site, first off, why the heck not? And secondly, here's a list of the five articles they posted as part of that theme:

I thought that these articles were fairly well written, for the most part. I especially liked days 1 through 3.

I kind of disagreed with Day 4, though. Perhaps it's just my personal preferences, but I wasn't impressed with their picks. The first suggestion, Pick-omino, I had never heard of. But even after watching a video tutorial, I'm still not super impressed. The second one, Zombie Dice, runs into my dislike of zombie themes. I've played it once, and wasn't too keen on it anyway. Their final suggestion is Fluxx (or some variant thereof). I've played a few different iterations of this game, and they are all basically the same. And my problem with them is the same as well: they have very little player agency. Sure, players get to decide which card they want to play on their turn, but the winner is basically chosen at random by whoever happens to draw the needed cards when the correct Goal card is in play.

Here's a few games I would suggest instead:

  • Bananagrams — Sure, players can't jump in in the middle of a round, but the rounds are so short that it only takes a couple of minutes before someone else can join in. The rules are so simple that spectators can easily learn them just by watching a game.
    Plus: word games!
  • Scattergories — Technically, this game occurs over three rounds. But there's no reason to play a series of unconnected rounds letting people join in after each new one. Rounds are pretty short (and can be made shorter by setting the timer for a lower time), and the scoring phase at the end is quite quick. Again, spectators can usually get the idea of how a game works by watching.
  • Superfight — No matter how many players there are, only two of them are active at any given time. Thus, it doesn't matter who joins in between each round. Again, the game can be learned by watching. And since there isn't really a score (the winner of the current round competes in the next round; otherwise, there isn't really a 'winner'), new players won't be at a disadvantage for joining in late.
  • Tell Me a Story — I just reviewed this game last week over at PinkFae. But the important thing is this: 1 player gets a point each round. However, this game isn't fun because of who wins, but because of players telling amazing stories together. So there's no reason you couldn't just dispense with scorekeeping and simply play round after round until everyone is ready for something different. By dispensing with the scores, new players can quickly and easily jump in at any time with no penalty.
Day 5 was a little bit of a disappointment for me as well. Most games, I don't care overly much for expansions. If I like the base game, I usually don't see a need to add to it. There are exceptions, of course; I'm very glad I got the Friends and Foes expansion for Reiner Knizia's The Lord of the Rings game. Some card games need expansions to keep things fresh (Cards Against Humanity and Superfight! being two classic examples). Expansions that allow additional players (like for Catan, Firefly: the Game, or Gloom) are also very useful. But otherwise, I just don't have a lot of interest in expansions.

The thing that disappointed me is that they chose expansions for one game I've never played and two games of which I'm not a big fan. Minor disappointment, I know. But still, I would have had Friends and Foes for The Lord of the Rings on my list. In most of the scenarios in the base game, event tiles are almost always Bad Things. But in the Bree scenario from Friends and Foes, the first couple of events are actually desireable. This lets players take it a little easier at first, not panicking at the prospect of an event tile being drawn. 

I'd also have included the Pirates and Bounty Hunters expansion for Firefly: The Game. That expansion not only adds up to two new players, but also allows for some inter-player conflict that was lacking from the base game.

Anyway, that's my take on their articles. But don't take my word for it! Head on over and read them for yourselves! Until next week,

Game on!

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Little Guys

I've recently begun reading Redshirts by John Scalzi. I'm only 50 or so pages in, and already I love it. Not only because it's clearly a look at the plight of being a redshirt in the original Star Trek series, but because it's telling a story from the point of view of the lowest-ranking crew members on board.

The Star Trek: The Next Generation episode 'Lower Decks' is one of my favourite episodes of that series. It's a great story in its own right, but seeing the operations of the Enterprise from the perspective of junior officers, who don't know what's going on, was a fascinating change from the usual stories told in most media.

A friend once told me of a disagreement he had with someone, in which he was describing the reasons he didn't enjoy playing Dungeons and Dragons. The other person's response was that he 'liked playing characters that were larger than life.' That is very much a part of American culture, and informs a great deal of the stories told in this country. Nearly every movie, every TV show, even a majority of books and comics and other stories tend to have the leaders as the main characters. From Star Trek to Battlestar Galactica to the X-Men franchise to A Song of Ice and Fire to iZombie, the protagonists are always the ones with access to resources and in some sort of leadership position. That leadership may take the form of being a lone wolf (as is the case with The Doctor from Doctor Who, who works with a single companion at a time, or Conan, who works alone most of the time unless he knows he needs help), making him the leader of a gang of one (so to speak).

Very seldom do we see characters who don't have access to the resources normally viewed as forefront in the heroic archetype. If there's information a character lacks, he's usually able to gain access to it somehow (pulling strings with friends, hacking into a computer system, sneaking into an office to find documents, etc). One of the things I really like about 'Lower Decks' is that the main characters are specifically forbidden to have the information that is driving the story. Most of them know some small piece of information (Nurse Ogawa is aware that there is a Cardassian aboard the Enterprise, Ensign Taurik is involved in making a shuttlecraft appear to have been damaged in a firefight, etc). But each of them is under orders not to share that information with the others.

A similar arrangement appears in Redshirts. The main characters are a group of five ensigns who have just been assigned to the starship Intrepid. At first, they become aware that something very strange is going on aboard the ship, but nobody will tell them anything. Eventually, they start to find small pieces of information on their own, and other crew members begin revealing little nuggets of knowledge. But so far, they still are mostly clueless about the events they're witnessing.

I see a lot of story potential in this setup. Although most players may be drawn to the free-wheeling power that comes with having characters who are at the forefront of their field, the dramatic tension of withholding vital knowledge can be instrumental in weaving a fascinating tale.

Warning: The next paragraph contains a lot of spoilers for the TV series Lost Girl. Proceed with caution.

Of course, in doing this, it's important to avoid the same sort of mistakes made by the Canadian television series Lost Girl. I really liked that show in the beginning, when the main character, Bo, chose to break from tradition and forge her own path in fae society. But the series made the mistake of foreshadowing too much. In the first season, secondary characters would constantly make comments out of Bo's earshot about how she would one day become the most powerful fae. Starting in the second season, that prophecy was dropped, and they started preparing a great deal of build-up of the role of Bo's father. This was so intense, that when they started the Wanderer storyline, viewers thought that 'The Wanderer' was Bo's father, and certain things that were seen and said reinforced this. But at the beginning of season 4, when we finally meet The Wanderer, he's not Bo's father after all. We don't even see her father at all until halfway through Season 5. Despite building up the tension of her father, he's not seen until two seasons later.

End of Spoiler Alert.

The point is, be careful that, in withholding information from the characters, you don't change what's going outside of the character's awareness. Whatever the plan was you had at the beginning, stick with it. If you change what the tidbits of information meant after they've been revealed, the story will have a disjointed and dissatisfying feel.

The exception to this is if the players start making predictions that not only work, but work better than the plan you had to begin with. Sometimes, making the character's predictions be right at the cost of some behind-the-scenes retconning can be more satisfying than sticking with your original plan, as long as it doesn't disrupt the flow of the story.

Anyway, I think this story format has a lot of potential. Playing the low man on the totem pole can be fun! Give it a try some time! And if you do, let me know how it turns out. Until then, remember to

Game on!