Saturday, September 24, 2016

Board Game Review: Hot Tin Roof

The cover of Hot Tin Roof: Three cartoon cats on the roofs of buildings in a city landscape. One appears to be dancing to a cartoon-style song.
Leo Colovini is the creator of one of my very favourite games: Clans. Hot Tin Roof has a very different feel. Instead of neolithic settlers coming together to form the first villages, players of Hot Tin Roof are moving cats around the neighbourhood, over buildings, across clothes lines and telephone wires, and through patios to collect the most fish.

I first played this game as a 'Mammoth' version at Gen Con. I thought it was cute, so I bought it as a gift for the Dork Spouse. Of course, it's a bit different when you're moving wooden cat meeples around a board, instead of adorable fluffy plush kittens on a carpet with the game board printed on it.

Still, it was a fun game, so I shall review it now. Starting, of course, with the numbers.

Strategy: 4
Randomness: 2
Complexity: 2
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Nice
Average Length of Game Play: 30 - 45 Minutes
Gamer Profile Ratings:
  Strategy: Medium
  Conflict: Medium
  Social Manipulation: Low
  Fantasy: Medium to High

In Hot Tin Roof, players have two pairs of cats. Both pairs are in the players' colours, but one pair is sitting and one is standing:

Each player starts with ten sardine can tokens. The board represents a neighbourhood, with houses and attached patios for each family in the area. These houses are partially connected by rain gutters, clothes lines, TV antennae, corrugated metal roof coverings, and the like. These serve as the pathways along which the cats may travel. However, none of them cross the streets between the buildings. Players have six 'catwalks' (which resemble clotheslines, ironing boards, ladders, and wooden boards). These can be used to bridge a street and connect two adjacent rooftop pathways. They also have three shelters (which represent rubbish bins — trash cans — that have been knocked over. These may be placed in a patio to allow you to collect sardine cans from other players when they pass through that patio.

Along one side of the board are five dumpsters. One is labelled 'Shelter,' another is labelled 'Catwalk,' and the remaining three are not labelled. However, next to each unlabelled dumpster is a tile with two families' names on it. And off to one side is the Fish Market, which is a stack of twelve to fourteen salmon tokens (depending on how many players there are).

This photo gives you an idea of what this setup will look like. However, this photo is of the Mammoth game that I played at Gen Con, so the pieces in the game will look somewhat different. Click for a larger view!

Here's what happens. On your turn, you ante five of your sardine cans. These are distributed one to each dumpster. If you cannot ante, you take two sardine cans from the general supply and miss your turn. Once you've anted, choose one of the dumpsters and take all of the sardine cans from that dumpster, adding them to your own supply.

  • If you chose the 'Shelter' dumpster, you may place one of your shelter tiles on any patio not already occupied by a shelter tile. If you all of your shelters have already been placed on the board, you may move one of them to a different patio.
  • If you chose the 'Catwalk' dumpster, you may place one of your catwalk tokens over a street to connect two adjacent pathways. If all your catwalks are already on the board, you may move one to a different connecting pathway.
  • If you chose one of the unlabelled dumpsters, you take the tile next to it. Then you place one of a pair of your cats (either the sitting pair or the lying pair) and place one on the patio of each family labelled on the tile. So for example, if you take the tile with the Fentons on the top and the Johnsons on the bottom, you'd put one cat on the Fentons' patio and the matching cat on the Johnsons' patio. If all of your cats are already on the board, you may not take this action.
Once you have done this, you may move any one cat as far as you like (and are able) along the pathways. However, if  in moving along the pathways, you use a catwalk that belongs to another player, you must give that player a sardine can. If you enter a patio with another player's shelter tile on it, you must pay that player two sardine cans (if you start your turn on another player's shelter, it costs nothing to leave it).

If, at the end of your movement phase, a matched pair of your cats (both sitting cats, for example) are in the same patio, then both those cats are removed from the board back to your supply, and you take one salmon from the Fish Market.

Salmon, by the way, count as ten sardine cans, and you may exchange with the general supply at any time.

Once the Fish Market is empty, the player with the most fish (each sardine can counting as one and each salmon counting as ten) is declared the winner. However, if you have any cats still on the board, you must pay 15 sardine cans for each pair. The exception to this is if you are able to bring your cats together in a single move, paying the normal cost for entering other players' shelters and using other players' catwalks. You don't get the usual reward for doing this, but if it's possible to get your cats off the board in this way, it saves you the 15 can penalty.

Obviously, this game is not a serious game in any way. It's meant to appeal to cat lovers (so it's a wonder it's not the Official Game of the Internet®. 😉 )

But if you're looking for a simple, cute, easy, quick, and fun game, Hot Tin Roof definitely delivers. The only complaint I have is that the artwork on the game board, though beautiful, can make it sort of hard to see where the cats can go. It can sometimes be difficult to tell which is a pathway and which is just part of the background. This problem is aggravated by the fact that the catwalk tokens can be hard to tell apart (the orange and the brown are a little too similar, and the blue and the violet have a similar issue), and the shelters are even more so (whereas all the blue catwalks are clotheslines and all the violet ones are ironing boards, the shelter tokens are all decorated with similar-looking rubbish bins).

Still, that's a minor concern for most people. As long as you're not colour-blind or otherwise have visual difficulties, it will not likely cause you trouble.

Anyway. That's it for this time. Join me again here next week. Until then,

Game on!

Sunday, September 18, 2016

What is a Hero?

Most modern adventure games, including both roleplaying games and video games, tend to gravitate towards the concept of heroism. Players are often looking for a chance to be the hero, and use games to vicariously experience the thrill of being the hero.

But what does it mean to be a hero?

The concept of heroism has changed over the years. Beowulf, for example, was considered a hero not only because of his strength and courage, but also his honour, loyalty, generosity, and hospitality. Compare that with many of today's heroes. John Wayne is often considered a hero by many Americans, due in large part to his integrity, his unwillingness to compromise his ideals. The Frankish hero of Roland was idolised for his bravery; he refused to sound the call for reinforcements until his army was nearly defeated and there was no hope of rescue. The Babylonian hero Gilgamesh went in search of the secret of immortality, only to have it stolen by a snake whilst he slept.

Heroes are different in various cultures as well. Perhaps the most well-known African hero is Anansi, but his story is unique. Sometimes he's treated as a hero, and others as a trickster (like Coyote from Native American traditions, or Loki from the Norse mythos). One of the most interesting comparison is the United States emphasis on success leading to heroes such as Jesse Ventura, the pro-wrestler who later became governor of Minnesota, compared to the English concept of heroism as perseverance against all odds, which is why in England, people are more likely to idolise Earnest Shackleton, who never succeeded in any of his attempts to explore Antarctica, but died just before his fourth attempt.

There's also a difference between literary heroes and living heroes. In the United States, some people adore soldiers, especially military leaders. Others idolise those who save others' lives, like the first-responders of 9/11. Still others look up to people who work hard to help others, such as teachers and charity workers. And of course, there are those who admire the rich and famous, like pop musicians and Hollywood actors.

By contrast, literary heroes are very different. In classical literature, there was a specific set of requirements for a character to be a hero. Odysseus is a perfect example of such a hero; his story meets all the criteria:

  • He goes on a long journey
  • He has assistance from his friends
  • He receives supernatural aid
  • He has a fatal flaw
This is different from modern heroes. According to the Fellowship of Reason, a modern hero is not required to perform epic feats, but merely to 'create a pool of light in a world of darkness.' He doesn't have a code of ethics, but must instead be stoic and 'hard-boiled.' He fights not so much against an enemy, but against meaninglessness; he wants to create purpose in a purposeless world.

Let's compare this to the majority of roleplaying characters. Many gamers don't bother with that much of a backstory for their characters; they're more concerned with what might feats they can accomplish than with who they are. Characters are expected to be larger than life, to be able to slay their enemies easily and without compassion. They are often loners, with no social or emotional ties to inhibit their adventures. Their stories tend to be that of the conquering hero: they face their enemies, slay them, and claim their reward.

The Order of the Stick, despite being based on the usual gaming tropes, is noteworthy specifically because it turns that usual story on its head. Though many of the characters of the titular group may have started out as the conquering heroes, they have grown and changed to fill a role much more akin to the modern superhero. They're out to save the day, to prevent the big bad guy from ushering in an age of ultimate darkness.

And that may serve as a perfect example of what I was thinking about this morning. Why does your story have to be the typical lone-wolf-underdog-triumphing-against-the-forces-of-evil story? Why can't you have other types of heroes? Frodo's quest is a more classical save-the-world story, with elements of Greek and Roman literary elements: he's on a long journey, aided by his friends, and receiving supernatural assistance. 

Or what about a heroic sacrifice? Beowulf's story ends with him killing the dragon at the cost of his own life. Even in modern stories, there are examples of this. The characters of Vazquez and Gorman, from the film Aliens, who die to protect the other survivors, can be classified as this type of hero.

Of course, you'll have to get players who are willing to play in this sort of game. Not everyone is willing to have their characters killed for the emotional or literary payoff of this kind of story. But if you've got players who are willing, maybe you could even go so far as the Shackleton story. The heroes have no chance of winning, and the bad guys still win in the end, but the heroes go down fighting.

These are just a couple of ideas. I'm sure that, by playing around with the concept of what it means to be a hero, you can have a group telling a truly epic story. Something to think about, at the very least! So think about it, play more games, and always remember to

Game on!

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Star Trek: Beyond

Back in October, I published my ranking of the Star Trek films. As I'm sure you know, a new Star Trek film was released almost two months ago. I really don't want this blog to turn into a movie review site, but I just have to express what I thought of the new one.

Be warned: This review contains spoilers. If you haven't seen this film and don't want it spoiled, DO NOT READ THIS ARTICLE.

In fact, I'm going to put this behind a cut just to make sure. Because


There. Now let's continue.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Board Game Review: Imhotep

A friend of mine recently acquired a copy of Imhotep. He brought it to game night, and I got to play it. Now I shall review it for you.

As you may remember, last time I did a board game review, I added some categories based on the Quantic Foundry board gamer motivation profile tool. I have codified those into my ratings system. Here is the new one:
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: 2
Humour: None
Attractiveness: Pretty
Average Length of Gameplay: 45 minutes
Gamer Profile Ratings:
   Strategy: High
   Conflict: Medium
   Social Manipulation: Low
   Fantasy: Medium

In Imhotep, players are working to build the structures in Ancient Egypt. This includes the pyramids as well as temples, obelisks, and burial chambers. This is accomplished by the use of wooden blocks. These blocks are not huge, but they are a good deal larger than the wooden cubes used as resource counters in most games. Players score points depending on what type of structure they're building.

Here's how this works. Each player has a sled that can hold up to five blocks. In the middle of the table are five boards, each one representing a different structure, plus a fifth one representing the market. Nearby are four boats. Each boat can hold between one and four blocks. There are also turn cards and market cards. The turn cards tell you which boats are available for the current round. Market cards are made available in the market board.

Here's a photo to give you a better idea:
The five main play boards, each with a variety of blocks, in white, black, brown, and grey, stacked on them in different ways. The Market Board is the exception; it has no blocks, but does have some market cards on it. The boat tokens are docked with four of the five boards by having their prow placed in the notch on the left side of the board. All the blocks that were on these boats have been moved to the play boards, except a white one and a grey one on the second boat which haven't yet been transferred.

Notice that the boats in this photo have already docked with the play boards. At the beginning of each round, they start off to the side, so we don't know which boat will dock at which board.

Here's what happens. At the beginning of each round, you draw a turn card. This card has four boats drawn on it, each of a different capacity. This determines which size boats are available this round. A card may show two of capacity four, and one each of capacities three and two, just as one example.

Once the boats have been placed, players take turns taking actions. There are three actions that a player can take on his turn:

  1. Take up to three blocks of his colour from the supply and place them on his storage sled. He may not exceed the five-block capacity of his storage sled.
  2. Move one block from his storage to a boat that has not yet sailed.
  3. Sail one boat that has not yet sailed and has no more than one empty space.
The point is to get your colour blocks into the various structures being built. You score points based on the placement of your blocks on these boards. This works a little differently for each structure:
  • In the pyramid, blocks are moved from the boat onto the structure in a specific order. There is a little chart that tells how many points blocks are worth based on where in the pyramid they are; for example, a block placed on the corner of the bottom level is only worth one point, whereas the block placed in the centre of the base is worth four points. These points are scored immediately.
  • In the burial chamber, blocks are again moved from the boat onto the structure in a specific order. At the end of the game, you score points based on how many of the blocks of your colour are connected by adjacency.  Thus, you want to get your blocks unloaded in such a way that they will be touching one another.
  • In the temple, blocks are unloaded into a row of five. Once that row is full, the next row is begun on top of the existing row. At the end of each round, players score points for each block that does not have another block on top of it.
  • In the obelisks, blocks are stacked according to colour (all white blocks stacked on one space, all black blocks on another space, etc.). At the end of the game, players score points based on the height of their colour obelisk. Thus, this is the only board in which the order of the blocks does not matter.
Now, at first, this may sound like a simple case of moving your blocks from your storage sled to the boats to the boards. That's certainly what I thought when I was first learning the rules, before we began playing. However, I quickly learned that there's a lot of planning involved. Not only do you have to place your blocks on the board in such a way that your colour will hopefully land on the highest point value space on the destination board, but you also have to account for whether the other players will place their blocks on the boats in a manner that won't screw you over, and also whether the other players will choose to sail a boat to a board that will end up scoring you fewer points.

For example, at one point, I looked at the scoring spaces on the pyramid board, and decided to place a block in the middle space of the boat, knowing that whether the first space was filled with another player's block or not, I'd land either on a 3 point space or a 4 point space. I took my turn to place my block on the middle space of that boat, planning to sail the boat to the pyramid board on my next turn. However, when Player Z took his turn right after me, rather than placing one of his blocks on a boat as I had expected he would do, he sailed the boat on which I had just placed my block, not to the pyramid board as I had wanted, but to the obelisk board. Thus, instead of the three or four points I had intended, I only got a single point from that block.

And that's where the surprising level of strategy came into this game: planning your own strategic moves is one thing, but accounting for the actions of other players ruining your carefully laid plans is entirely a different situation.

I haven't mentioned the market yet, so I'll quickly describe that, at the beginning of each round, four market cards are placed here. Market cards include statues, which are worth points based on how many of them you have at the end of the game, double action cards, which allow you to take two specific actions on one turn, and bonus points cards, such as one that gets you an extra point for every stone (both your own and other players') in the burial chamber. When a boat sails to the market, the player who owns the first stone gets to pick a card from the available four. The second stone determines who gets to pick from the remaining three, and so on.

Another good thing about this game is that the boards I have described above are the basic version. Each board has an A side and a B side. Players can choose to turn over any or all of the boards to the B side, which involves a slightly more complex scoring system. For example, the B side of the pyramids board has multiple pyramids being built, allowing players to choose the pyramid into which they put their stones. On the B side of the temple board, depending on where in the row the scoring block appears, the block may either get the player two points or one point and two blocks from the supply. This grants the game an extra level of versatility and replayability.

I like this game a lot. It has very little randomness (appearing only in which boats are available each round and which market cards appear on the market board), thus granting it a very high level of thinky-thinky characteristics. The one thing I will say about this game, in terms of downsides, is that the box is much bigger than it needs to be to store all the pieces. They could have made the package much smaller and still fit everything in. But in terms of game play itself, I quite enjoyed it.

But that's just my opinion! Try it for yourself! If you're into thinky-thinky games as I am, you'll probably like it too.

That's it for this week! Until next week, remember to

Game on!