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!