Saturday, March 26, 2016

Board Game Review: Balderdash

Last week, I talked about games belonging to the 'pick the right answer' family of games. This reminded me of one of my favourite board games: Balderdash. Well, I haven't reviewed that game yet, so I will do so now. We start, as always, with the numbers:

Strategy: 1
Randomness: 1
Complexity: 1
Humour: Inherent
Attractiveness: Varies by edition. The one I have is the original, which I would rank as Average.
Average Length of Game Play: 45 minutes.

As already mentioned, Balderdash is a member of the 'pick the right answer' family. In the original edition, players took turns being the dasher. The dasher's job was to draw a card from the deck, which had five words on one side and their definitions on the other. Those five words are actual words that can be found in at least one actual English dictionary. However, they are obscure words that few people know. Examples might include 'lucubrate' (to study late at night, especially by candlelight) or 'martext' (a blundering preacher who stumbles through a sermon).

The dasher rolls a die to determine which word he will use; if he rolls a 6, he gets to choose. He reads the word aloud, and spells it. All players (including the dasher) write this word on a slip of paper, along with their names. Then the dasher copies the correct definition from the back of the card onto his slip, whilst the other players make up definitions. Everyone gives their made up definitions to the dasher, who shuffles them all together along with his slip that has the real definition. Then he reads all the definitions (real and made up). Usually, players will be laughing so hard at the definitions that the dasher will have to read them all two or three times.

Finally, everyone votes for the definition they think is correct. Once everyone has voted, the dasher reveals the correct answer. Everyone who voted for the right one gets two points. Players also get one point for each vote that their own made-up definition received. If nobody voted for the correct answer, the dasher gets two points. Players advance their pawns along the score track a number of spaces equal to the number of points they received. Then the role of dasher passes to the left, and a new player starts the process anew.

The original game was published in 1984, and a sequel was published in 1993 called Beyond Balderdash. This game was basically the same, except that it included categories; instead of five words on each card, there was one word, one movie title, one person, one set of initials, and (depending on where in the world you bought your version) either a law or a date. You roll the die to see which of these you will use this round. Words work as described above; Movie Titles required players to make up a plot; People had players making up reasons why the person was noteworthy (i.e., what that person did); the Initials category asked players to make up what the initials stood for; Laws gave players the beginning of a law, and the players had to finish that law; Dates required players to make up a historic event that happened on that date. After about 2003, however, the two versions were merged, and the new variation with five categories was simply sold as Balderdash.

The game has almost no strategy; the only time you might be strategic is if you roll a six and choose a word that you think might give you an advantage as the dasher. The same with randomness; the rolling of a die to select a word is the only random factor in the game at all. But it does require a lot of skill. Bluffing is the most important one; players who can make up plausible-sounding definitions tend to do well. Linguistic ability is also helpful. Players who know a lot of words, especially obscure ones, generally do better at this game (especially as it's possible to earn three points if you know the actual definition of a word that the dasher reads off. This has happened to me on occasion; once, both another friend and I knew the word 'coprolite' (fossilised faeces). Thus, we ended up with three correct definitions in the mix.

All told, this game won't appeal to everyone. As I've mentioned before, I am a lexophile, so this game is very much right up my alley. But it can be hard to find others willing to play with me; either they don't like messing with obscure words, or they're not good at coming up with fake definitions.

One last point before I wrap up for this week: this game (and others like it, such as Fictionary and Dictionary Dabble) are all just variations on an old parlour game generally known as The Dictionary Game. You didn't need a board or cards, you just pulled out a dictionary, flipped to a random obscure word, and used paper that you had lying about the house for definitions and score-keeping.

Anyway, that's it for this week. Stay tuned next week for some exciting news! Until then,

Game on!

Saturday, March 19, 2016

'Pick the Right Answer' games

I was thinking about Dixit the other night, as a result of playing the game Mysterium. The latter was described to me as a combination of the former with Cluedo (or Clue for my American readers). This reminded me of one of my favourite board games: Balderdash. For those that don't know how it works, Balderdash has a set of cards, each of which contains five words that can be found in at least one English dictionary, but are not commonly known. This includes words like 'quincunx' and 'coprolite.' Players take turns as the 'dasher,' who reads off one of the words on the card. Everyone (including the dasher) writes the word on a slip of paper. The dasher writes the real definition of the word on his paper (the real definitions being provided on the back of the card), and everyone else makes up a definition for this word. The dasher shuffles all these papers together and reads out all the definitions. Everyone else then takes turns voting for the definition that they think is the right one. You get points for guessing the correct answer, and also for each person that voted for your own answer.

Dixit is essentially the same, but instead of making up definitions for words, you're coming up with simple (one to four word) descriptions of paintings. The cards are lavishly illustrated with elaborate artwork, often somewhat surreal in nature. Players take turns as the 'storyteller,' who chooses a card and gives a short description (something like 'Memory' or 'Loneliness' or 'Lost in the storm'). The other players then choose a card from their hands that they think can also be described by that word or phrase. All these cards are shuffled together, and players must choose which one they think is the storyteller's.

In a way, this is the reverse of games like Apples to Apples or Cards Against Humanity; in these, a judge selects which of the submitted answers is the best, choosing from amongst the cards given him by the players. In Dixit and Balderdash and similar games, the 'judge' is hiding his answer in the ones submitted by the other players, and it's up to the players themselves to sort out which one belongs to the judge. In other words, in one, the judge is choosing the players' answers, and in the other, the players are choosing the judge's answer.

It surprises me to find that there is no category on for this sort of game. Given how many games use this mechanic (players submit answers to a judge, and then must determine which answer is the judge's), you would think there would be a 'pick the right answer' category.

Here are some other games that use this basic design:

  • Out of Context: The judge reads off the name of a person, and players submit quotes. They must then guess which of the quotes can actually be correctly attributed to the person the judge named.
  • Malarkey: The judge reads off a question that people don't normally think about (questions like 'Why does popcorn pop, but no other kind of corn?'). One player has the correct answer; the others must make up a plausible-sounding answer.
  • Ex Libris: The judge lists a fairly-well known novel, and players make up the first or last line of that novel, then must guess which one is the real first or last line.
  • Wise and Otherwise: The judge reads the first part of a proverb, and players must make up the ending, then choose the correct ending amongst the made-up ones.
  • The Origin of Expressions: The judge reads off a well-known saying, and players must make up an origin story for that saying, then choose the correct origin from amongst the made-up ones.
  • Locale: The judge reads the name of an obscure location, and players must make up a description of it (including map co-ordinates).
  • Famous Last Lines: The judge reads the title and plot synopsis of a movie, and players make up the last line from that film.
  • Truth be Told: The judge reads a sentence with a blank at the end, such as 'Truth be told, my favourite snack is ___.' Players make up an answer that the judge might have said, and the judge writes down the real answer.
  • Say Anything: The judge reads a question (could be almost anything; examples include 'What's the greatest invention of the 20th century?' and 'What's the best activity for a first date?'). Players all write down possible answers to that question, and the judge chooses which answer he likes best. The other players must then guess which one the judge picked.
  • Imaginiff: The judge reads a hypothetical situation (such as 'Imagine if I were a cable channel. Which would I be?' Players then choose from a provided list of 6 answers (in the case of the question above, possible answers might include 'Comedy Central,' 'The Playboy Channel,' 'CNN,' 'Discovery Channel,' 'ESPN,' and 'Syfy') which they think the judge would pick.
In addition to all of these are variations on the main theme. For example, Balderdash is just one version of the 'make up a definition to a real but obscure word' theme. Other games from different publishers that are also 'definitions of words' games include Fictionary, Sesquipedalian, Nobody is Perfect, and Dictionary Dabble. There's even another game called Liebrary that is effectively the same game as Ex Libris.

Of course, all of these games are different in some way. They have a different feel, and will appeal to different people. For example, as much as I love Balderdash because I am a lexophile and I love learning and using grandiloquent words, I once acquired a copy of Wise and Otherwise because few of my friends liked the sesquipedalian nature of Balderdash, and I was hoping that Wise and Otherwise would be a nice compromise. Alas, it was not as well received by friends as I had hoped, and as I didn't enjoy it as much as I did my beloved Balderdash anyway, I let go of my copy many years ago.

Anyway, that's what's been on my mind for the last couple of days. I hope at least that you weren't bored in reading about this family of board games (ha!), and until next week,

Game on!

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Creating an Adventuring Party

'You all meet in a tavern...' so runs the cliched beginning of a great many roleplaying games. Even those that aren't set in a fantasy setting still have the PCs meeting up in a similar location (a dive bar for Shadowrun, just as an example). This trope is so overused and so well known that there are counter-tropes starting to show up. One example is the Giant in the Playground (the website where the Order of the Stick webcomic is hosted) forums, where some participants have sig files that read '78% of DM's [sic] started their first campaign in a tavern. If you're one of the 22% that didn't, copy and paste this into your signature.'

I honestly don't remember how I started my first campaign. I'm not even sure what my first campaign was. It may have been that game of TSR's Marvel Super Heroes. But I could be wrong.

Regardless, even if the adventuring party didn't start in a tavern, the existence of the trope points to a specific phenomenon within the gaming world: PCs who begin the campaign as strangers. This is by far the most common way for games to begin. For most of my early gaming experiences, this was the norm. In fact, it was so much the norm that when my gaming group started playing Werewolf: The Apocalypse, we ignored the pack rules.

For those not familiar with the game, or with pack rules, it works like this: players create characters who are part of a pack (wolves being pack animals, after all). Players were expected to spend some of their character creation points on the Totem background, and the entire pack pools all points so spent, and use them collectively to purchase a spirit to serve as that pack's totem. All members of a pack receive the magical/spiritual benefits of having that totem.

Prior to that time, my group always wrote up individual characters, then the GM was tasked with the unenviable chore of finding a way to not only put these characters together, but to somehow coerce them into following the story hooks placed before them. Given that players often wrote characters of vastly different personality, it was a frequently monumental obstacle to get them to co-operate. More than one campaign was a non-starter, as the characters (and usually, subsequently, the players as well) became increasingly hostile towards one another.

I still recall the time one of my circle of friends said he was going to make us use the pack rules. We all created characters separately, and then attempted to meld them into a pack with a single goal and a unanimously agreed upon pack totem spirit. It did not go well (in fact, it was as a result of that experience that I ended up creating Jurgi Deathbringer).

For a time after that, I still maintained that games were more fun if players got to create exactly the character they wanted without having to clear it with the other players first. But one day, I realised that the intra-party conflict caused by having such antagonistic characters more than outweighed the supposed lack of creativity spawned by limiting your character possibilities to those that would work within a specific group. So I tried it with a group. The players chose to play characters who had served together in a unit in Operation Desert Storm. Then I tried it with another group. The players this time chose to be residents of the same boarding house. And I tried it again with a third group. This one chose to be a troupe of travelling actors.

And I realised that, although the characters were somewhat more limited in the characters they created, they were having just as much fun working together to create the theme for the party itself as they were generating characters. This only accentuated the enjoyment brought about by the lack of internal strife.

I've talked about this topic before, but I wanted to expand upon it. The important thing here is to let the players decide for themselves what connection they have, then trust them to create characters within that connected group. Some other party themes that players in my games have used include:

  • Faculty at a university
  • Employees of a branch of the Citizen's Advice Bureau
  • Forensic Investigators
  • Members of a travelling circus
This usually is open enough that you can work the party into whatever story you already had planned without having to worry about how to get the PCs to the first story hook.

Anyway, this was something I was contemplating today, as I'm in the process of assembling a new Changeling group (a prospect about which I am very excited!). I'll leave you with that for now. Until next time,

Game on!

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Board Game Review: Stratego

Most people who read this blog probably already know Stratego. But it's one of the games I most enjoy, so I'm going to review it anyway. That's right! It's board game review time, and this week, we're reviewing that old classic, Stratego! First, the numbers:

Strategy: 4
Randomness: 1
Complexity: 1
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Varies by version. The 'Nostalgia Series' version, which I have, I'd rank as Pretty.
Average Length of Game Play: 30 Minutes

In Stratego, two players arrange their pieces in the first four rows of a 10×10 grid (there are two 2×2 sections in the middle, represented by small lakes, that cannot be entered by either player). The pieces are uniform in construction, so that when viewed from behind, you cannot know which piece it is. Players arrange their pieces in secret, so that your opponent doesn't know what rank occupies each space. Pieces are ranked in power (older versions, and the 'Nostalgia Series' version, rank the highest piece at 1 and the lowest at 9, whereas newer versions reverse the order). More powerful pieces always capture the less powerful ones (with a few exceptions; see below).

Game play is simple; each player moves a single piece one space orthogonally (excepting a few special pieces described below). If the space into which you are moving is occupied by an enemy piece, players reveal and compare the ranks of those pieces. The less powerful piece is captured, and is removed from play. If pieces are of equal power, both are captured.

There are a couple of special pieces in this game:

  • The Spy (rank S in the classic game, rank 1 in newer versions): If the Spy attacks the Marshall (rank 1 classic/10 newer), the Marshall is captured. If the Marshall attacks the Spy, or the Spy is involved in combat with any other rank, the Spy is captured.
  • The Scout (rank 9 classic/2 newer): can move any distance, like a rook in chess. This can have strategic benefit, but moving a Scout more than one space always reveals its rank to the other player.
  • Bombs: Each player has six Bombs. Bombs cannot move; wherever you place them during setup is where they remain for the entire game. Bombs can only be defused by The Miner (Rank 3 classic/8 newer).
  • Flags: Each player has one Flag. This is the objective of the game; whichever player captures the other's Flag is the winner.
That's pretty much the whole game. It's not a very deep game, but it is a very thinky-thinky game. Players must arrange their pieces in a beneficial manner, attempt to assess the arrangement of the opponent's pieces, and move his own pieces in a tactically sound manner.

There's some psychology involved, as players attempt to deduce one another's motivations and guess what sort of strategy he is using so that they can counter with an appropriate strategy. The only randomness involved is not knowing how the enemy forces are arrayed, so that at least for the first few rounds, attacks are done almost as if they were at random (I wonder which piece this is that I'm attacking here?).

I'll admit that some of the appeal of this game is nostalgic for me; I have fond memories of playing this game as a young boy. But even so, for a relatively simple game that's been around since 1910 (originally marketed in Europe as 'L'Attaque,' then later renamed 'Stratego' along with being manufactured with Napoleonic imagery, before being introduced into the United States in 1961), it certainly has managed to hold a strong following. In fact, there are world championships held every year in Europe.

So that's a brief look at Stratego. I'll see you back here next week. Until then,

Game on!