Saturday, June 24, 2017

My Personal History of Roleplaying Games

I spent some time chatting with a friend recently. In the course of the conversation, I ended up describing to her how I got into gaming, and which games I've played, in rough order from earliest to most recent.

It occurs to me that this may be of interest to others, if only in part because my path into gaming was so very different from that of most other gamers. So I think I will describe it to you, my faithful readers.

It's all my father's fault, really. When I was a teenager (15 or 16, as I recall), my father brought home a number of Marvel comic books. He was an executive in the regional offices for Hardee's, the fast food restaurant, before it was purchased by Carl's Jr. At the time, Hardee's was considering doing a merchandising promo with some Marvel characters, and so he brought home a handful of issues of various titles for research. There was an Iron Man, a couple of different Spider-Man titles, an Incredible Hulk, and so forth. But the two that caught my attention were the Uncanny X-Men #258 and Wolverine #23.

The X-Men comic featured Wolverine very prominently, and between the two books, I found myself strongly drawn to the character. He was, perhaps, the first example of an anti-hero that I had really encountered, and paved the way for me to be drawn to such anti-hero types in the future. I became quite fond of Wolverine, and began collecting his comic. One day, in one of the issues, I saw an advertisement for the 'Marvel Super Heroes Adventure Game Book #3: Night of the Wolverine.' According to the advert, this product allowed you to take on the role of Wolverine as you attempted to thwart the machinations of one of the many enemies of the X-Men.

I was intrigued.

I went down to the local comics and games shop and bought a copy. I rushed home, eager to explore this adventure. Although the book claimed that you didn't need to know the rules to the TSR Marvel Super Heroes roleplaying game in order to play, there was much I did not understand in this volume. I was able to work out some of the details through guesswork, but I never felt comfortable enough to try the game myself.

One day, I happened to mention this dilemma to my friend Blayke. He informed me that he owned a copy of the Marvel Super Heroes core rulebook. He loaned it to me, and I read it. Then, one day, on our lunch break at the high school we both attended, we went across the street to the house of a friend of his, where he GMed the first rpg session in which I ever participated.

After a couple of sessions, I decided I needed to at least try the granddaddy of all rpgs: Dungeons and Dragons. I bought the 'red box,' and brought it home where I began to read the rulebook. I was disappointed to discover that I did not find the game appealing. There were two major complaints I recall having with it: the different mechanics that it had for each different type of roll, and the armour class system.

I found it to be very frustrating that there was a different type of roll for each kind of action. You had to roll one kind of die to attack, and you wanted to roll high, but you had a different kind of die for saving throws, and you wanted to roll low, and a still different kind of die for special abilities (such as the thief's 'find traps' ability), and so on.

Also, the fact that the type of armour a character wears has no effect on the amount of damage that character takes also bothered me. The idea that 'armour class is the difficulty to hit and do damage' never sat well with me. Putting on plate armour doesn't make me harder to hit than if I were wearing leather armour. In fact, it would make me easier to hit, as I'm now a slightly larger target, and slower from the weight of the steel! Furthermore, if I were wearing plate armour, and an opponent struck me with, say, a sword, I wouldn't take as much damage as if I had been hit with the same sword whilst wearing leather armour. But according to the D&D rules, it doesn't matter what type of armour you are wearing: you'd suffer the same amount of damage.

Anyway. After that, I met John. He was a serious gamer, and had tried many different games systems in his life. We became good friends, and he introduced me to many different rpgs: Tales from the Floating Vagabond, Shadowrun, Paranoia, Call of Cthulhu, and Rifts. I read the rulebook for TORG, although I never got a chance to actually play a game of it.

Before long, John and I ended up as roommates. This occurred shortly after he had discovered GURPS. We played that game often, and I became enamoured of the system. It was more realistic than other games I had played, and the system of advantages and disadvantages allowed for a more detailed personality in the characters than I had seen in other games. I began purchasing supplements, and was soon very familiar with the workings of the system.

I continued to game, and played with many more people, experiencing (at least briefly) games such as Albedo, The Whispering VaultCyberpunk 2.0.2.0., West End Games' Star Wars, Blue Planet, and Toon. But in 1993, my main gaming group began to play Vampire: the Masquerade and Werewolf: The Apocalypse. Before long, those were the primary games we played. We'd still dabble in other settings, but for several years, the vast majority of our games were in one of the original World of Darkness settings.

I had at least a taste of other games after that. I've played at least one game of each of  Adventure!, Little Fears, Hero System, and 7th Sea. But after 1995, my favourite game by far was (as readers of this blog will already know) Changeling: the Dreaming. After 2003, it was almost the only thing I played. I tried my hand at the D20 Star Wars, because I was desperate and I had met a couple of people who were playing it. But apart from that, until 2012, when I discovered Fiasco, and then last year, when I was introduced to the FATE system via the Dresden Files Roleplaying Game, Changeling and (to a lesser extent) GURPS were the only games I played.

I know there's not really much of a point to this, aside from explaining why I'm familiar with so many different roleplaying games (and so many of them being so unknown to so many other gamers). But I hope at least that you found it interesting. If not, I'm sorry. Try again next week, when I will talk about something else. Until then,

Game on!

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Board Game Review: Wrong Chemistry

For those of you who follow me on PinkFae gaming, you may have noticed that the site is having issues. The owner appears to be having issues in her personal life. Which is totally understandable; I've been there. But this just happens to come at a time when I am supposed to be writing reviews for a couple of Mage Company's games. I had wanted to wait for the PinkFae site to be up and running again, but it doesn't look like that's going to happen for some time. So as much as I am disappointed to have to do this on the Game Dork blog instead of the PinkFae one, I don't feel I can wait any longer. So today, for my entry on The Game Dork's Gaming Corner, I am going to review the copy of Wrong Chemistry that was very kindly sent to me by Mage Company.

Here is my rating system for those of you that need it:

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: 2
Randomness: 4
Complexity: 1
Humour: Implicit
Attractiveness: Pretty
Average Length of Game Play: 45 minutes
Gamer Profile Ratings:
  Strategy: Medium
  Conflict: Medium
  Social Manipulation: Low
  Fantasy: Medium

An Overview of Wrong Chemistry

The game components. The box, with its cover art of a stereotypical mad scientist holding a large glowing sphere that contains the schematic image of an atom (the circle representing the nucleus and three oval orbits of the electrons around it), sits next to the tokens, tiles, and cards. In the centre is the main playing area: six yellow hexagonal tokens surrounding a blue hexagonal token with the 'Wrong Chemistry' title on it. The yellow tiles each have a large round wooden token on them, alternating black and white. A few extra tokens sit nearby, with the draw pile of the card deck next to them. On the other side of the tiles are two blue cards, the 'Restartium' and 'Extramovium' cards. In the front are nine cards from the deck, arranged in three groups. The first group has three sample green cards, worth one point each. The next group has three purplish-red cards, each worth two points. The last group of three contains red cards with three points each.

Players have taken on the role of mad scientists, trying to devise various chemical elements in their laboratory. They score points (called 'ideas' in this game) for each element they create. They do this by recreating patterns shown on the cards in their hand. They have four energy points to spend each turn to move the tokens and tiles in their attempt to duplicate the patterns on their cards. The game ends once the deck of cards is exhausted, and whoever has the most 'ideas' is the winner.

A Turn in Wrong Chemistry

Players (two to four) have a hand of four cards. On a player's turn, he has four energy points to spend. An energy point allows a player to:
  • Take a token off of one of the tiles.
  • Place a token on an empty tile.
  • Move a token from one tile to any empty tile.
  • Move an empty yellow tile anywhere they like, so long as it is adjacent to at least one other tile (either yellow or blue). The blue tile, being the centre of the atom, may not be moved. Doing so would cause a nuclear explosion! At least, that's what the rules say...
  • Discard a card from your hand.
Once you have duplicated the pattern on one of your cards, you may play that card on the table in front of you. Although the pattern does not have to match the orientation on your card (in other words, you can rotate your card freely to attempt to duplicate the pattern), it must match it in all other respects (empty tiles on your card must be empty on the board as well; the layout of the tiles must be the same, etc). Here is an example of a completed pattern:

The card 'teen' next to the tiles and tokens laid out in the pattern displayed on the card. 'Teen' (a play on the element 'tin') is a two point card, indicated by the number 2 printed inside a light bulb symbol in the upper left and lower right corners. The pattern shown on the card indicates that there are two yellow tiles in a row extending from the upper left side of the blue central tile and two more in a row coming out from the upper right side. Both rows have a white token on the tile adjacent to the blue central tile, and a black token on the further tile. There is also an empty yellow tile on the lower right side of the blue central tile, and the sixth yellow tile is on the bottom side of the blue central tile, this one with a white token on it. The art on the card shows the two mad scientist characters that appear on every card are dressed in high school cheerleader outfits, holding pompons. In the upper right and lower left corners is another cheerleader with pompons, standing behind a white rectangle which shows the atomic number and periodic element symbol for tin (50, Sn), the real-world element that this card is parodying.


Playing a card in this manner does not end your turn; if you have energy points remaining, you can continue moving tokens and tiles. Thus it it possible to score more than one card in a turn. I've heard of people scoring three cards in a single turn.

In addition to the actions listed above, there are two blue cards on the table which may be used by any player. The first is the 'Restartium' card. This card may be used only once per turn; you should rotate the card 90º to indicate that you have used it this turn, and return it to its original position at the end of your turn so that it is available for the next player. It does still cost an energy point to use this card! However, using this card resets the tiles and tokens to their starting position. Thus, if the tiles and tokens are in a highly scattered state as a result of previous players' actions, such that it would be easier to start over than to try to work towards a pattern in your hand, you can just reset the board and start fresh.

The second blue card is 'Extramovium.' This card can be used multiple times per turn, and does not require an energy point. However, you do have to discard one of the cards that you have already scored to use it. For each card so discarded, you gain three additional energy points on this turn. This card allows you to score the higher-point cards which have more complex patterns requiring more than four energy points to create. In practise, of course, you'll want to score a lot of one-point cards early in the game to serve as fodder for later in the game when you want to get those hard-to-get three point cards.

At the end of your turn, you must draw until you have four cards in your hand again. Reset the 'Restartium' card if you used it this turn. Then inform the next player that it is his turn.

More About the Cards

The deck contains 54 cards, each of which corresponds to one of the 103 elements on the current periodical table. The expansion (Expand your Lab!, which I will review at some point in the future) contains the rest. But for the base game, it uses only 54 of the better known elements. Each card is a pun on the element it represents (such as the element Germanium, represented by the card Germanyum, illustrated with the German flag and other symbols of Germany). However, each card is also denoted with the correct atomic number and elemental symbol for the corresponding element (in the case of Germanyum: 32 and Ge). The rule book even contains an accurate periodic table, which is colour-coded to indicate which elements are represented in the game. In this way, Wrong Chemistry might be used as an educational tool to help students learn the periodic table.

Additionally, there are two mad scientist characters that appear on each card, engaged in some activity in keeping with the pun of the card's name. For example, on the card that corresponds to Uranium (92, U), the title is Urineium, and one of the characters is sitting on the toilet holding a giant cotton swab with a drop of yellow liquid hanging from one end, with the other character holding a roll of toilet paper.

Ending the Game

The game does not end when the draw pile is empty, but when a player is required to draw and cannot fully replenish his hand back to four cards. At this time, the game ends immediately. The player with the most 'ideas' (that is, points for scored cards that he has played in front of him) is the winner. If there is a tie, the winner is the one who has the most points in a straight of consecutive atomic numbers. So, for example, if two players are tied with 13 points, and one player has scored Manganiece (Manganese: 25, Mn), Iron (Iron: 26, Fe), and Kobold (Cobalt: 27, Co), he would have a straight of three cards, each worth one point, for a three point streak, whilst the other player had only two cards with consecutive numbers, say, Baron (Boron: 5, B) and Carbone (Carbon: 6, C), each also one point, then the player with the three-card streak would be declared the winner.

Final Thoughts on Wrong Chemistry

This is not a serious game by any means. There's not a whole lot of strategy; it is, after all, difficult to know what the board is going to look like when your turn comes around again. Not knowing what cards your opponents have makes it difficult to intentionally arrange the board to make it harder on the next player. In fact, I have seen it backfire when someone attempts to do so. One player will say, 'I have two energy points left, but I can't score any of the cards in my hand, so I'll move a couple of tokens and/or tiles to make the board harder for the next player to score,' only to have the next player say, 'Thanks! You just made it easier to score this three point card!'

But for a simple, light game (especially one that's suitable for younger players – though certainly not for little kids), or as something for a break between heavier games, Wrong Chemistry certainly delivers. In fact, I'd say the only flaw this game has is that many players take it too seriously. It seems to me that Wrong Chemistry is intended to be a lighthearted romp for a quick laugh. But several of the players with whom I've played have taken it very seriously. They'll sit there on their turn, painstakingly analysing every card in their hand, trying to tease out some strategy for scoring the maximum number of points from one turn. There's certainly a place for that; I don't think you should just randomly move tiles and tokens around hoping to randomly get some points. You do need to consider a planned approach to your actions. But when one player takes ten minutes or more for his turn, much of the enjoyment of the game is lost.

That said, I certainly do not regret owning this game. In fact, a very good friend liked this game so much that he bought a copy for himself after playing his first game with me.

So, I will see you back here next week for another exciting adventure in games! Until then, have fun, and remember to

Game on!

Saturday, June 10, 2017

More Resources for Gamers


You may remember that a few months ago, I posted an article that was essentially a series of links to websites that would be of use to both players and GMs in creating both worlds and characters. It included a twitter feed that generated a random map once per hour, a website with story idea generators as well as name and race generators, another website with generators for many different kinds of names, a third website with generators for personalities and other things, and a random city map generator.

I have a few additions to make to this list of resources. However, whereas the links in my previous article all had to do with preparing for games, the two I have today are more for setting the mood in the game itself.

Crysknife007

The first one is Crysknife007, a YouTube channel that describes itself as 'Ambient Geek Sleep Aids.' At this moment, it has over 600 videos, most of them being ambient engine noise from various spacecraft from nearly any sci-fi film or television show you can imagine. These videos come in varying lengths, from one to twelve hours, enabling you to sleep all night long to the ambient noise of the engines from the original Battlestar Galactica. And not just engine noise; there are videos of the ambient sounds from Decker's apartment in Blade Runner, the ambient noise from the Star Trek Holodeck, or even the ambient sounds of the railgun from Quake 3.

Now, of course, if you're as big a game dork as I am, you're probably thinking, 'This would make excellent background mood settings for my sci-fi games!' And I agree. In fact, the GURPS Firefly game I was running was going to use the 'Firefly: Serenity Ambient Engine Sound' as a mood enhancer, before the group collapsed.


There's much more than just sci-fi and video game ambient sounds. Many of the more recent videos are simply generated noise of various types (there's one that's a combination of pink noise, brown noise, and blue noise), as well as ambient sleep sounds created from the actual electromagnetic emissions produced by various bodies in our solar system (planets and moons). I'm sure creative GMs can find use for these sounds!

Tabletop Audio

If you're looking for more evocative audio, you might head over to Tabletop Audio. This website is a collection of ten-minute audio files designed to help evoke the feeling of various settings that you might encounter in a roleplaying game. There aren't as many tracks here as Crysknife007 has, and they're not as long, but they have much more than just sci-fi audio. At this moment, they have audio for wild west settings, horror, traditional fantasy, modern urban soundscapes, early twentieth century settings, generic natural soundscapes, and much much more.

These come in a variety of formats: some are purely ambient noise (such as the track '747 Interior'), others are purely music (like 'Protean Fields,' which aims to evoke a Lovecraftian feel). Some are a balance of music and ambiance ('Super Hero' being one such example). Others are an unbalanced mix: either Music + Minimal Ambiance (for instance, 'Dark City,' for dark modern action/suspense games) or Ambiance + Minimal Music (like 1940's Office).

The Tabletop Audio Logo: The head, neck, and wings of a dragon spreading above the text 'Tabletop Audio: Original, 10 minute ambiences and music for your games and stories,' on a background of stars seen through a pale blue-green nebula.

The website is entirely advertisement free, and is powered by donations (they even have a Patreon), so you won't be bothered by annoying pop-ups or other intrusions.

I do hope that you find both of these resources to be useful in making your games even more immersive and enjoyable. Have fun playing with these new tools, and be sure to come back next week. Until then,

Game on!

Saturday, June 3, 2017

The Downside of the Golden Age

As I've mentioned many times, we are in the midst of a Golden Age of board games. Lots of amazing new games are being published every month. If you go down to your local Board Game Cafe (assuming you're lucky enough to have one in your town, and if you aren't, maybe you should try to start one up!), they'll likely have hundreds, if not thousands, of different titles from which to choose. And that's not counting the ones they don't happen to have at that particular location, to say nothing of the out-of-print titles that are hard to find!

And that is an incredible thing.

To have so many options... to have hundreds of games you can play. You can seriously play a different game every day for a year. Two years, if you have access to a good supply, and maybe even more if you're in a place with a vibrant gaming community!

Which is both a good thing and a bad thing (a 'bood' thing, to coin a portmanteau as was suggested by a typo that I just made). Yes, it's amazing to have so many games to play. What a wonderful opportunity, if you don't normally like games, to keep trying new ones until you find a game that you do like! But then what happens if you find such a game, and you want to play it again? Will the other people at your gaming table be willing to play that one a second (or third, or fourth, or seventy-sixth) time?

That's a problem I'm actually facing myself lately. There are so many awesome games out there, and so many of my gamer friends are always so excited to try new ones, or to introduce me to ones that they've just discovered, that I find I seldom get to play the same game twice.

In my normal Friday night game group, for example, which I've been attending now for some three years or so, I can think of only three games that I've played more than once (those being the Asmodee Eclipse, Between Two Cities, and Terra Mystica). Every other game we've played, even if someone says, 'Hey, that's awesome! I want to play it again!' has been preempted in favour of something that we've never played before ('Here's a new game that I just bought! I think you'll like it! Let's try it out!').

In some ways, this is my own fault. In making that resolution to play 80 of the top 100 games, I've set myself up to need to play a whole bunch of games once only. But even so, there's another aspect to this phenomenon: the inability to improve one's skills at a certain game (or type of game).

What I mean by this is: I suck at economic development games. Apparently, the way my brain is wired, I'm just not very good at forging a strong foundation in the early stages of a game that will provide a strong power base later in the game.

I refer here specifically to my experiences with Terra Mystica and Scythe. I've played Terra Mystica twice; the first time, I was so focused on learning the rules that I did incredibly poorly in terms of strategy and any attempts to win the game. The second time I played, I felt more confident in my understanding of the rules, and was able to pay more attention to the gameplay itself. I still lost very badly. By the time we'd moved into the endgame, I felt as though everyone had managed to build up a solid economic foundation for themselves, such that they had built almost all of their buildings, and were pumping out resources with nothing else they needed to do except dominate their opponents.

Except for me.

I was still struggling to build my third building. There were so many buildings I hadn't yet completed. Despite my best attempts to lay a solid foundation in the early stages of the game, my decisions simply had not borne fruit.

This led into my experience with Scythe: as I was learning the rules, I realised that it was going to be a similar type of game to Terra Mystica. Since my previous plan (lay a solid foundation early to enable a broad range of options later) had failed so spectacularly in Terra Mystica, I decided to instead decide on a specific goal (I chose to focus on getting victory stars in military might, combat victory, and enlistment goals) and only acquire economic power if it would directly feed into that goal.

The same thing happened. Just as I felt I had finally set myself up to spend the next few turns achieving those goals and was ready to make a rush for the goal line (so to speak), the other players dropped all of their victory stars at once and ended the game. Just like with Terra Mystica before, I felt like everyone else was finishing off their victory just as I was starting to finally develop a foundation.

I'm getting off topic here. My point is, I'm clearly going to need to play these games many many times (preferably with someone explaining to me how the strategy and economics of these games work as the game goes on so I can learn the dynamics of such games) before I'll ever be any good at them at all.

And like I've said before, it's not about winning. For me, games are usually a structure enabling me to enjoy social interaction more than they are a competition. But if I'm going to lose, I at least want to feel like I had a chance to win. With economic development games like Scythe and Terra Mystica, I always come away feeling like I am just an incompetent moron with no chance at all of ever winning. That sort of feeling doesn't really let me enjoy spending time with my friends.

But because we are in a Golden Age, and there are so many thousands of titles already existing and so many more being created every day, I will probably never have a chance to play either of those games again. The people I play with will almost always want to play a new game that we've never played before.

So that's a downside of being in the Golden Age.

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Board Game Review: Dead Last

This image is a triptych of three photos side by side. On the left is a photo of the Yellow player card, standing on the table by means of a plastic base. The image on the card is a woman holding two submachine guns. The middle image is a set of voting cards, one each for the Black, Blue, Teal, and Red players, as well as the yellow Ambush card, and a gold bar card showing a value of four. On the right is a detail of the game box, showing the title against a splatter of blood, with four coloured sections behind it. The green section in the upper left has a man in silhouette, and the red section on lower right has a woman holding a gun pointed towards the viewer. The blue and yellow sections can't really be seen very well.

I got to play Dead Last recently. This was exciting, because I'd been curious about it for some time. Here are my thoughts on it. Starting with the numbers. Of course.
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: 2
Randomness: 2
Complexity: 1
Humour: Inherent
Attractiveness: Average
Average Length of Game Play: 30 minutes
Gamer Profile Ratings:
  Strategy: Medium
  Conflict: High
  Social Manipulation: High
  Fantasy: Medium

An Overview of Dead Last

Players all stand to inherit a substantial sum of money, but only if everyone else is dead. Thus, they must engage in collusion, secret alliances, and backstabbing to knock each other off and be the last one alive.

Here's how it works: each player has a colour. They stand their cards, which indicates their player colours, in plastic bases which hold the cards upright in front of them. They then hold in their hand a set of voting cards. These consist of one card for each other player, as well as an 'ambush!' card.

For example, if you are playing Teal, you have the Teal character card standing in front of you, and hold in your hands one card for each other player in the game (in a nine-player game, for instance, you may have a Red, Grey, Purple, Yellow, Pink, Orange, Black, and Green card in your hand). In addition to these eight cards, you have one of your own colour (in this case, Teal) that says 'Ambush!'

The round begins with players discussing who to kill. Such discussion does not have to be overt; in fact, it's generally better if it's not. You are encouraged to use any covert means you can: furtive glances, winks and nods, flashing cards, subtly pointing, nudging under the table, and so forth.

Eventually, everyone chooses a card from their hand. The card you choose will indicate who you're trying to kill. Everyone reveals their cards simultaneously. Whichever colour has received the most votes is the Victim. If there is a tie for most votes, then everyone in that tie is a Victim.

Victims are killed, and are knocked out of the round. They place their character colour card down on the table to indicate that they are out for the remainder of the round. Any player who did not reveal a card corresponding to one of the Victims is also killed (for example, if Green was the Victim and you played a Teal card, you are killed).

However, if a Victim has played his 'Ambush!' card instead of voting for another player, then he is not killed. Instead, he gets to choose one of his attackers to be killed in his place. This card must be used wisely, though; if you play your 'Ambush!' card and are not the Victim, then you are killed anyway!

Voting continues in this manner until one of three conditions are met:
  1. All players are dead. In this case, all players reset their character colour cards and begin a new round of voting.
  2. All but one player are dead. In this case, the surviving player takes all four of the gold bar cards in the centre of the table (more on gold bars in a moment).
  3. All but two players are dead. The two surviving players go on to play a Final Showdown. Each player secretly chooses one of three Final Showdown cards. They then reveal them at the same time. Final Showdown cards include Share, Steal, and Grab One & Go.
    1. If both players reveal Share cards, they each get two gold bar cards.
    2. If one player reveals Share but the other reveals Steal, the player who has Steal gets all four bars.
    3. If both players reveal Steal, then neither gets any gold bar cards; instead, they are distributed amongst the other players.
    4. If both players reveal Grab One & Go, they each get one gold bar card.
    5. If one player reveals Grab One & Go, but the other reveals either Share or Steal, the player with Grab One & Go gets one gold bar card, and the other player gets the remaining three.

Winning

The Gold Bar cards each have a point value from 3 to 5 listed on them. There are always four in the centre of the table. If, at the end of any voting round, there are fewer than four cards, the supply is replenished. The first player to reach the target point value (which depends on the number of players) is the winner.

My Thoughts

This game is quick and bloody. It's also quite humorous; players are constantly bantering as they try to convince one another to target a certain player, or talk smack amongst each other. And when the cards are revealed, there is often much shouting of 'Ohh!' as players realise their plans have been thwarted by someone not going along with their plan.

I remember one round in particular in which I was about to choose a colour card from my hand, when I suddenly realised that I was feeling very suspicious about the other players. I can't say what it was that tipped me off, but I put the card back in my hand and chose the 'Ambush!' card instead. It turned out to be a good thing I did, too, as every other player had chosen my colour.

However, the rest of the game did not go so well for me. As I've mentioned in the past, I find social cues more difficult to read than most. This means that I am often at a loss as to how other players are trying to get me to vote. So many of those subtle social signals that make up the fabric of most people's daily lives go completely over my head. That made this game very hard for me to play well.

I know I wasn't the only one. One of the other players announced at one point that she was a high-functioning autistic, and she was suffering the same problem I was (though probably on a larger scale). 

So ultimately, this game is really going to appeal to people based on their existing social skills. Unlike with most games, which provide a framework for social interaction, Dead Last relies specifically on those social interactions.

Of course, that doesn't mean it's a bad game. Just that its appeal will be somewhat limited in the arena of players. So give it a try! Heck, even if you're socially inept as I am, give it a try anyway. You might find it works for you in a way that it did not for me. But whatever you decide to try, remember as always to 

Game on!

Sunday, May 21, 2017

'Realistic' Fantasy

Some time ago, I wrote an entry about players who get upset about rules in RPGs that don't accurately emulate real-world physics. In that entry, I pointed out the oxymoronic attitude of demanding that a rules system that mimics in excruciating detail realistic swordfighting but have no problem playing an elven wizard who shoots lightning bolts from his fingertips.

I stand by that attitude. If you're going to let your demand for realism impede your own ability to enjoy the game (let alone other people's), then why are you playing a fantasy game in the first place?

But this entry is not about that phenomenon. I'm not going to stress about the physics of the setting. Instead, I'm going to stress about the setting itself.

Don't get me wrong. I'd never let this issue get in the way of me or anyone else playing whatever game they want in whatever way they want. It's just something I tend to think about on occasion.

I was thinking about it today as a result of a map I was working on. I adapted this from one I found online several years ago. I think I used it in the GURPS Fantasy/Supers game I ran for a friend, but I could be wrong. Anyway, I've had it floating around for many years, and I'm still pleased with it for many reasons, not least of which is because of the aesthetic quality of the map itself. So I decided to make a digital version of it. Here it is:

A map of a medieval/fantasy village called Fos. A river runs from the upper left towards the centre, snakes around some trees, then bends towards the lower left corner where it runs off the page. On the left of the river are many buildings of various sizes, with several roads passing amongst them. Some of the buildings are colour coded to indicate the locations of smiths, taverns, woodworkers, and tailors; others are labelled (including the town hall, inn, mill, marketplace, and two temples of different fictional religions. Three bridges lead across the river, with the main road passing by some more roads and buildings on the right side of the river. Many trees are scattered throughout the village, as well as several clumps in the upper right corner, where a ridge provides some alteration in the terrain.

One of the things I most like about it is that the buildings and the layout of the town itself are based on what I know of early medieval towns.

For example, before the advent of automobiles, it was extremely uncommon to have streets laid out in grids. There weren't districts like modern cities have (such as residential areas and business areas), but instead, homes and shops are intermingled throughout. Especially in smaller villages such as this one, homes weren't multi-room affairs, but small shacks that consist of a single room with benches to serve both as seats and beds, with a place for a fire in the middle.

Here's what I mean: just outside of the city of York in northern England is a museum called Murton Park. A large section is a recreation of a small Viking village. Here are a few photos to give you an idea of what it looked like, based on archaeological and historical evidence:

The first photo, of a small group of people standing next to a long building with several smaller houses nearby, shows the longhouse, which served as a meeting place, for village business, festivals, and the like. The rest of the buildings were more like the houses on the right of that photo, and in the second photo (the one that shows several of the smaller houses with a narrow road wending between them). Each of these was the home of a single family, who shared the one room that made up the house. The last photo shows the interior of one such home; just a single room with benches to sit and sleep on, and a small fire pit in the centre.

This is, of course, just one basis for a fantasy town. Depending on your preferences, you might base it on more 'high medieval' designs, such as the layout of the German city of Marburg in the 12th Century. Or you might model your settings on how the Greek city of Aigio looked in the 6th Century.

The point is that many fantasy settings suffer from what Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá termed 'flinstonization:' the tendency to view the past through the filter of what we know in the present. But how much more interesting, how much more exotic, would these fantasy worlds (which are supposed to feel exotic; after all, they are 'fantasy' worlds) be if we changed up such simple things as how the towns are laid out, and why.

Anyway, that's what I was thinking. I may make more maps like this for people to use. Keep an eye out. Until then,

Game on!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Playing the Villains

A few months ago, I posted an entry about the various forms of heroism that can be encountered in mythology and literature. In it, I took a brief look at some of the different definitions of what it means to be a hero.

But what if we look at the other side of the proverbial coin? What about playing the villain?

This is not a new idea. In 1971, author John Gardner used one of the primary villains of the Beowulf saga as the protagonist of his own novel, reframing the story so that it was no longer a simple clear-cut case of a hero fighting against evil. A few years ago, Disney reworked their Sleeping Beauty film to tell the story from the point of view of the villain, whom they transformed from a malevolent being into a redeemable character motivated by revenge. Alan Moore's comic Watchmen was a deep look at the nature of the 'good vs evil' trope to examine the real world version of the phenomenon. Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles recasts the monsters of folklore into dynamic characters with motivations and goals of their own, not always driven purely out of malice. This concept was further explored in the first of the World of Darkness games: Vampire: The Masquerade, as well as most of the follow-up games. Then, in an additional twist, the antagonists of the primary character groups in those games were expanded as well, to give players the option to play characters who were seen as monsters by the monsters. For example, in Vampire, where the monsters become the protagonists, the Player's Guide to the Sabbat allowed players to take on the role of the antagonists (the hedonistic, often malevolent counter-sect to the 'good guy' sect of the Camarilla). This trend continued in Wraith: The Oblivion with the Spectres sourcebook, and in Changeling: The Dreaming with The Autumn People and The Shadow Court (examining two different version of 'the enemies' of the fae).

Even in the most basic of all roleplaying games, it is possible to play evil characters. Dungeons and Dragons allows players to choose one of three 'evil' alignments (Lawful Evil: those who hold 'demonic' agendas, but maintain respect for honour, reliability, and accept tradition and systems of authority; Chaotic Evil: those who not only have 'evil' goals but actively rebel against normal systems of societal interactions; and Neutral Evil: those who work towards 'evil' goals but do not feel compelled to either follow nor rebel against authority and social customs.

This concept of playing the 'villains' is parodied (or perhaps merely highlighted) in many works. The Order of the Stick #497 includes an evil adventuring party using the Plane Shift spell to enter and attack spirits in the Lawful Good afterlife. Earlier, in strip #194, they had the story's antagonists (who are very clearly of an Evil alignment) fighting off a series of Good-aligned monsters in a castle, inverting the usual trope of heroes wandering down corridors fighting Evil-aligned monsters.

The point is, this is neither new nor uncommon.

Now, of course, there are some stories (and, resultantly, some games) in which the concept of 'good vs evil' is eschewed for a more real-world paradigm, in which every person is the hero of his own story. This maps very well to the aforementioned Watchmen comic (less so to the film), as well as the original X-Men films (especially the first one, from 2000) in which Magneto and the other members of the Brotherhood of Mutants are, though unquestionably the antagonists of the story, working for a goal that is at least somewhat altruistic. By most normal definitions, this precludes the characters from being described as 'evil.' This situation is grounded in the reality of the comics on which the films were based; in the original Marvel Super Heroes Secret Wars, when the Beyonder brings various superheroes and supervillains together to explore the concept of 'good vs evil,' he has no concept of what the comics normally treat as 'good' or 'evil,' and so must devise his own criteria. He settles on the definitions of 'fights for him/herself' for evil and 'fights for others' as good. Using these criteria, he places Magneto in the 'good' camp, because Magneto doesn't fight for himself, but for the protection of all mutants. This led to the character being considered one of the universe's superheroes for a while (even joining the X-Men for a time).

But regardless, there is certainly a justification for playing one of the 'bad guys.' To paraphrase the character of Lenny Nero from Strange Days, '...everyone needs to take a walk to the dark end of the street sometimes. It's what we are. Now, the risks are out of line. ...So you [write up a character and roll some dice], get what you need, almost as good as the real thing, and a lot safer.'

That's one of the things that is so enjoyable about RPGs. You get to be someone else for a while. Every now and then, it can be cathartic to slip into the persona of a villain and indulge your darker impulses. And for that, it can be fun on occasion to play the 'bad guys.'

Next week, we'll look at this topic a little more. In the meantime, go forth, play some games, and don't forget to

Game on!

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Board Game Review: Apples to Apples

A plastic tray with spaces for three stacks of cards, capable of holding about a hundred or so cards each. Two of these are filled with cards that have red backs and the 'Apples to Apples' logo, which is the game's name on a yellow circle. The third compartment has a similar stack of cards, except the backs are green instead of red. Spread nearby are six of the red cards, face up, showing the red apple character and the card's titles: Convenience Stores, Time Travel, Hawaii, Food Poisoning, Sandra Bullock, and Redwood Forests. Also nearby is a spread of three green cards, which look similar apart from being green. The titles are: Nutty, Endangered, and Special.

Many years ago, the Dork Spouse and I would attend the annual Christmas and New Year's parties of some friends. It was on such an occasion that we were introduced to Apples to Apples. This game is ridiculously popular. Especially now that the 'naughty' version, known as Cards Against Humanity exists.

Yes, I know they're not technically the same game. But they're basically the same game.

Anyway, I'm going to write a review of Apples to Apples today. We'll start, as is the norm, with 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: 0
Randomness: 4
Complexity: 1
Humour: Implicit, Inherent
Attractiveness: Average
Average Length of Gameplay: 45 minutes
Gamer Profile Ratings:
  Strategy: Low
  Conflict: Low
  Social Manipulation: Medium
  Fantasy: Low

Most everyone knows how this game works. Just in case you don't: the game consists of a number of green cards, which contain adjectives or similar descriptive terms (for example: 'Demanding,' 'Bashful,' or 'Naughty and Nice'), and roughly three times as many red cards, which contain nouns (which can range from simple things like 'Marriage,' 'Claude Monet,' or 'My Boss' to more complex concepts such as 'Berlin - 1945,' 'Hammer & Nails,' and 'A High School Bathroom') or gerund-form verbs (such as 'Skydiving,' 'Ballroom Dancing,' or 'Panning for Gold').

Players have a hand of seven red cards. They take it in turn to be 'The Judge.' The Judge must draw a green card, read it aloud, and place it in the centre of the table. All the other players must then choose a red card from their hand which they feel is described by the green card, and place it face down near the green card. For example, if the green card is 'Devious,' you might choose to play the 'Tony Blair' card.

Once everyone has played (technically, the rules say that the last player to play a card doesn't get to play this round, but in my experience, this results in one or two players being excluded every time, as they aren't as able to think as quickly as the others. Therefore, many groups that I know ignore this rule, and simply say, 'Get your card in quickly so we don't have to wait on you'), the Judge shuffles together all the played red cards and reads them aloud. He then chooses which one is best described by the green card. Perhaps the green card is 'Dangerous,' and the players have submitted 'Feathers,' 'Terrorist Attacks,' 'Worms,' 'Waco, Texas,' 'Steven Spielberg,' and 'NYPD.' Which would you choose as the most dangerous of those options?

The player who played the chosen card gets the green card, which represents one point. The rules specify that the game ends once someone has reached a certain score (the target score depends on the number of players), and the player with the most points wins. However, many people just like to play until they're bored with it and count up the score after that.

I'll be honest: I hate this game. My brain is very literal. When I see a green card that says, 'Cuddly,' I'm going to play a red card that says something like 'Teddy Bear.' So I invariably get a little irritated when the Judge chooses a card like 'Iceberg,' which he then justifies by stating, 'You've never met my ex-girlfriend.' As a result, this game (which seems to me a word game) ends up being more of a social game, where you try to deduce how the Judge will react to the various cards in your hand. Especially given that I am socially incompetent, I am very bad at thinking in those terms. This is also why I hated playing with the listed 'the last player to play a card doesn't get to play' rule; everyone else would easily choose a card from their hand whilst I was still struggling to switch my brain out of literal mode and into social mode. Thus I was almost always the player who never got to play a card.

Another thing that annoys me about this game is the fact that it's dependent on luck more than any other factor. Even for those players who excel at social comprehension, if they don't have any appropriate red cards in their hands, they can't score a point. It goes back to my rant about player agency. I often feel, when playing Apples to Apples, that the randomness which is an inherent part of the game has left me with no viable options for actions to take. That doesn't make for a good game, in my opinion.

Anyway. I know a lot of people like this game. I'm not one of them. I find that the most enjoyable activities for me are those that involve a lot of mental activity. Games that don't involve mental activity, or are of a kind of mental activity that is counter to the way that my particular brain works (such as social interactions of the type required by Apples to Apples), are not enjoyable to me. Which makes game nights with many of the people I hang out with less enjoyable for me than it should be.

Enough wallowing. I have described how I feel about Apples to Apples. Perhaps you disagree, which is fine. People like games for different reasons. I have tried to be as impartial in my description of the mechanics of the game as I can, and in my ratings of the different aspects. With luck, that's enough for you to decide what you think of the game, if you don't already have an opinion.

And with that, I bid you adieu. Join me again for whatever I post next time. Until then,

Game on!

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Rant: Star Wars vs Star Trek

It has been two months since I posted. My goodness, that is a long time. I haven't had a break that long since I returned from hiatus in December 2014. I'm really sorry. Life got too busy there for a while. I just didn't have the time, or the energy needed to think of topics.

With that said, let's get back into the swing of things. I'm going to rant today about something that has been bothering me for a while now. I know I've mentioned this a little bit before, but I want to expand on it.

I don't like Star Wars. After I watched Episode II: Attack of the Clones, I lost interest in the franchise. I waited until Episode III was in the dollar cinema before going to see it. Then in 2012, when Disney bought the whole mess, it began a horrifying cycle of new Star Wars films every year. It began with Episode VII in 2015, followed by Rogue One in 2016. Episode VIII will release this year, with a Han Solo film planned for 2018. According to Wikipedia, Episode IX will come out in 2019, and there will be another film in 2020. If I know how Disney works, they won't stop there. They will continue to churn out films every year for as long as they can.

Which means that every year, I will have to endure the repeated indignity of nearly everyone else on the planet losing their collective minds.

I wouldn't mind so much if there were some counterpart for Star Trek fans like myself. After the release of Star Trek: Nemesis in 2002, the only Trek was Enterprise, a series I disliked due to the amount of retconning involved, until 2009 when the first reboot film was released. Even now, the controversy over those reboot films (such as Into Darkness, which apparently everyone except me hated, and Beyond, which it seems everyone except for me and one of my spouse's co-workers loved) has made the release of a fourth film seem unlikely, despite the announcements from Paramount studios. There is much talk about the potential new show Discovery, but the release date has been pushed back so many times already, and made more vague with each delay (first it was 'January 2017,' then it was 'May 2017,' then it was 'Late Summer or Early Autumn of 2017,' and now it's simply 'whenever it's ready'). So, you know, I don't have high hopes for it.

But here's the thing: Star Wars is not science fiction. It's not. It's really not. The Force has nothing to do with science; its basically a form of magic. This means that Star Wars should actually be described as Science Fantasy, if 'science' should be included in the genre name at all. Which I dispute.

Star Wars relies on special effects for its appeal. Nobody would watch it without the lightsabers, the Force-based acrobatics and magical powers used by the Jedi and the Sith, the massive space battles, the content-light but adrenaline-heavy action sequences... Star Trek, on the other hand, has always been able to hold its own with less reliance on flashy gimmicks (it doesn't always do this, but it can). The original series was very popular despite the bad special effects (or sometimes, essentially no special effects at all).

Furthermore, Star Wars is based on the trite 'war of good vs evil.' I don't believe in such things. It's why I loved the Watchmen comic so much: it hinges on the fact that villains don't set out to do evil things for the sake of being evil; they are doing what seems good to them, and that perception of good conflicts with other people's conception of 'good.' The same is true of Star Trek. In many episodes, and even several films, we see the protagonists and antagonists are at odds not because one wants to do evil and the other wants to do good, but because both sides are pursuing what they see as good, and those visions are in direct conflict. The Klingons don't oppose the Federation because they are evil; they oppose them because they perceive the conquest of lesser species as good. Even Khan, although he was in the end driven by a desire for vengeance, saw his attempts at conquest to be beneficial (just look at the episode 'Space Seed,' when he says, 'We offerred the world order!' He wasn't killing people because he was evil and killing was the evil thing to do; he was doing it because he felt it was justified, that it was necessary. Just as in real life, only the mentally ill actively pursue what they see as evil. This is part of what makes Star Trek a superior franchise: it more closely models real life in its portrayal of antagonism.

Especially in the way that Star Wars, like most settings, too closely models an antiquated view of what being evil means in the first place. The Jedi Order, which is seen as the pinnacle of 'the good guys,' states outright in the Jedi Code that natural and normal human conditions are to be avoided. Emotions are as integral a part of what it means to be human as it is possible to be, yet the Jedi Code states 'There is no emotion, there is peace.' It is mentioned in at least one of the films that the Jedi are not permitted to have romantic relationships (which, of course, includes sexual activity), despite the clearly essential nature of such relations. Yet the Sith, who include as part of their code the line, 'Through passion, I gain strength,' which indicates that they do not fear the natural and normal state of being, are clearly and constantly portrayed as evil. Their desires are cartoonishly simplified in the cliche 'good/evil' dichotomy that is so exhaustively used as the basis for the vast majority of modern storytelling: 'We will conquer because conquering is the evil thing to do. We will kill because killing is the evil thing to do. We will oppress because oppression is evil and we are evil people.'

I get so tired of that attitude.

Star Trek doesn't fall back on that perspective. Sure, some of the villains are fairly hackneyed; the Klingons and Romulans (especially in early incarnations), the Cardassians and the Dominion, even to a great extent the Borg; these are all conquering races because they come from a culture that values conquest. But at least they have a reason for it beyond 'We are evil, and evil people conquer.' Emperor Palpatine and his cohorts want to rule simply for their own evil nefarious purposes.

Even if we ignore the science fiction/science fantasy genre distinctions and compare The Force to Star Trek's lack of magic (advanced alien abilities and technology that masquerades as magic notwithstanding), we see that Star Trek offers a positive view of our potential. Look at all we've accomplished in a few centuries! We've achieved faster-than-light space travel! We've conquered many medical maladies! We've mastered teleportation technology! We have unified not only our own species, but many other extraterrestrial races as an allied force for peace!

What does Star Wars offer? Magic powers? I'm sorry, but Harry Potter does that too. Give Harry Potter a lightsaber, blaster pistol, and a star fighter, and there's basically no difference between Hogwarts and the Jedi Council.

But Star Trek? With the possible exception of Babylon 5 (which I wasn't able to watch when it originally aired, and I haven't been able to watch since), I'm not aware of any science fiction show that had such a relentlessly optimistic view of the future. Not just in terms of what technology we can develop (even The Jetsons showed a hopefully view of what wonderful gadgets we can someday create), but in terms of how far we've come as a species, in terms of overcoming social and political ills, in terms of who and what we are.

Star Wars will never have that.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Economic Domination Games

I know I keep referencing the Six Board Games That Ruined It For Everyone article on Cracked.com, but it's such a good article. The Top 100 list on Board Game Geek is awesome, but it doesn't compare bad games to good games the way the Cracked article does.

As an interesting side note, I saw that, if you reverse the order of the Top 100 List so that it shows you the Bottom 100, five of the six games from that article are listed. The one that's not? Risk. Which is interesting, given what I'm about to say.

Anyway. Here's what the Cracked article has to say about Risk:
The worst part of Risk is victory by excruciation. A well-designed game has tactics and skill building to a climax, a thrilling race to victory, and when someone has clearly won, it's because the game is over. In Risk, someone can win hours before it ends, and they will not let you just admit it and leave. They spent hours carefully planning this victory, and by God you are going to sit there and patiently lose for just as many hours so that they can enjoy it properly. They've turned having fun into a zero-sum game.
This ties in with a recent experience I had. I was learning to play Wallenstein a couple weeks ago, and it did not go well for me. In case you don't know, Wallenstein is a game set in the Thirty Years War, which ravaged central Europe (the areas known as present-day Germany in particular). It was an absolutely brutal conflict, claiming eight million casualties by the end of the fighting. The game captures this aspect very well, as any battle devastates both sides.

At the beginning of the game, I was in a pretty good position, and by the time we reached the first of two scoring rounds, though I wasn't in first place by any means, I was still doing fairly well. Very shortly after that, however, I was attacked by several other players and lost so much territory that I was no longer able to take any effective actions. The dynamics of the game meant that if I fortified my territories to defend against my opponents, I would score no points. If I attacked other players, or neutral territories, I would leave my defenses so weak that I would almost instantly lose not only the territories I had gained, but the ones I'd had to start with as well. If I built palaces or churches to try to score more points, I would have made myself a target for the other players without the ability to defend myself.

Perhaps, had I found myself in this situation closer to the beginning of the game, I might have been able to recover. Having a few turns to build up my defenses before trying to score more points might have made the difference. But as it was, I had insufficient time to try to recover the loses I'd suffered late in the mid-game.

I'll probably give this game another try some day, after my initial anger has faded. But for right now, I can only think about the games I used to play with Stephen many years ago.

Stephen used to be my best friend, He can be described as 'incredibly intelligent, but with absolutely no common sense.' He's the one who ruined Go for me; he tried to teach me to play one day, but rather than giving me any advice on strategy or the intricacies of the game, he merely explained the rules, then proceeded to absolutely thrash me. Twice.

I will happily admit that I am no strategic genius. I seldom do well in games of pure strategy, like Chess or Blokus. I'm ok with that, as long as I feel I have a chance. If I lose because of my own actions, that's fine. It's when I feel the game is so stacked against me that I have no good options that I start getting irritated.

I know that Go was not a case of 'I have no good options available.' But because Stephen, who is a strategic genius, countered me so effectively at every turn, and never explained to me what mistakes I was making, or what a better strategy might have been, it very much felt that way to me. That feeling has persisted, decades later, and I will likely never play Go again. I know it's irrational, but that's the way it is.

Anyway. Getting back to my point. I played several games with Stephen, including Axis and Allies and similar games. Many of these are similar to Risk in that, the more territory you control, the more resources you have available. This means that, by about the halfway point of the game, one player has more economic power than the other(s). At this point, as long as that power is dedicated to garnering and maintaining more of that economic power, that player cannot lose.

Let me explain a bit more in depth. In Risk, there are 42 territories on the board. That means that, in any single round, a total of about 126 reinforcement armies are awarded (not counting the bonus armies from controlling an entire continent). If there are six players, who control 4, 6, 6, 7, 8, and 11 territories each, that means the the player with 11 countries will receive 33 armies this round. That's 9 armies more than the next player, who has 8 territories and gets 24 armies. That's quite a significant advantage.

Sure, in this setting, the other players can gang up on the 11 territory player, but if that player is able to defend his holdings, it's likely that he'll go on to win. But even more important, the player with only 4 territories is in a really bad position. He only gets 12 armies per round, and that's not enough to make any significant gains. The only way he can win at this point is if the other players screw up by letting him gain a lot of new territory whilst they're fighting each other.

That's what bugs me about some games. Eventually, you lose so much ground that you have no chance to recover. At that point, the game stops being fun and becomes a case of waiting until defeat has finally arrived.

That's one of the things that I really enjoyed about Power Grid. The way the game flows, it's entirely possible for the player in last place to surge ahead at the very end and steal victory. You're never truly out of the running; there are always options that can enable you to win if you play your cards right (so to speak).

Anyway, that's just a thing I was thinking about. I hope this post didn't end up sounding too bitter. That wasn't my intent. In a way, it's meant as a warning to game designers: don't make it so that, if the game goes poorly for a player at the beginning, he no longer has any chance at all of winning.

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

Game on!

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Board Game Review: Caverna: The Cave Farmers


Don't forget to check out the podcast version of this article! You can listen to it in the embeded media player above! And please let me know what you think. Is this a good idea? Or should I stick to text only?

A single player board, with various pieces arranged on it. The board has two halves: the cavern half and the forest half. Each is subdivided into twelve squares. Some of those squares have tiles representing conversion into tunnels, mines, or living areas (in the cavern half) or livestock pens and crop fields (the forest half). There are tokens of various types on these tiles.
As I progress in my quest to play 80 or more of the games on the boardgamegeek.com top 100 list, I find I'm getting to play all sorts of interesting games. This is certainly what happened last week, when I found myself playing Caverna: The Cave Farmers. I keep hearing that it's similar to Agricola, but as I haven't played Agricola yet, I can't comment on that.

But it does mean that I get to review Caverna. So let's get this started the right way: with a bunch of 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: Pretty
Average Length of Gameplay: 2 hours
Gamer Profile Ratings:
   Strategy: High
   Conflict: Medium
   Social Manipulation: Low
   Fantasy: High

Welcome to Caverna! You are a clan of dwarves living in the caverns of a mountain bordering a forest. You must dig into the stone of the mountain, and cultivate the forest into a farm to provide sustenance to the dwarves living there.

Caverna is a a worker placement game. The object is to have the most victory points at the end of the game. Victory points come in a variety of forms, from animals on your farm to rooms you've built in your cave to forest squares converted into farmland and other sources besides. You accomplish these tasks by taking actions available on an action board. This board is compartmental, so the actions available depend on the number of players. But even that is only part of the picture, because each round, you draw a new action card and place it on the action board, so that more actions become available as the game progresses.

A few of the actions available in the course of the game may include:

  • Go on an adventure. By converting ore that you've mined from your cavern into a weapon, you can send one of your dwarves on an adventure, to bring back one of a number of different rewards, depending on how high-powered that dwarf is.
  • Plant crops. You can turn one piece of grain into three, or one piece of vegetable into two, by taking this action.
  • Clear Forest Tiles. This action allows you to place a double-space crop and pasture tile over available spots in your forest. These are necessary for raising livestock and growing crops.
  • Furnish living quarters. By taking this action, you can put a living-quarter tile on a cleared space in your cavern. This grants you one of a number of benefits (there are a great number of tiles, and with the exception of a single stack of twelve 'simple dwelling' tiles, they all do something different).
  • Make babies. Eventually, you start being able to produce offspring, which gives you more dwarves, enabling you to take more actions on subsequent rounds.
This is just a small sampling of the actions available to you. Most of the actions aren't that straightforward, either. Many action cards, for example, gain an additional resource token each round, and when that action is taken by a player, he receives all the tokens currently on that card. Most of the cards tend to grant you a pair of actions that you can do, which you may do either or both. Some require you to choose only one. And so forth.

So. My final thoughts on Caverna. It's a fun game, with a lot of possible options. The number of available actions is staggering. The available rooms you can place in a cavern is also enormous. The rules themselves are actually quite easy to grasp. I read the first four pages of the rulebook, skimmed briefly over the remaining twenty or however many there are, and I was able to play the game. Not well, mind you. But most of the rulebook is specific rules for each possible action or tile, and as such, is more for rules questions than for understanding the game itself.

That said, it is a very heavy game. The number of components is astounding. The box is large, and every bit of space is used. It's certainly not a bad game. I'd be willing to play again. But for my personal tastes, I don't think I need to own a copy.

Anyway, that's my thoughts. As always, don't let me tell you how you feel. Look at my numbers, read my descriptions, and decide for yourself. Until next week,

Game on!

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Replayability

Some time in the last year, I learned to play T.I.M.E. Stories. I'm not going to review it here, because it's a very different kind of game. I'll just give you a quick overview before going on to my main point.

The game itself is, similarly to a roleplaying game's core rulebook, more about the mechanics and less about the objective. Whereas most board games state, 'To win this game, you must collect the most gold coins' (or whatever), when you play a roleplaying game, the rules state, 'These are the mechanics involved in playing. Now decide what goal your group must accomplish in order to win.'

T.I.M.E. Stories's base game contains the board and all the counters you'll need to play. It also includes a deck of cards. Most of these cards are similar to the pages of a Choose Your Own Adventure book. Each player is sent back in time to occupy the body of a person in a specific place. Whilst in this body, the player must help to solve a problem of some sort to fix the timeline. You lay out the cards in a specific order on the board, and the art of these cards collectively shows you what you see. For example, in the included scenario, you are inhabiting the body of patients in a 1920's mental asylum. The first set of cards that you lay out on the board will, when seen together, show you the day room of the asylum. Here's what I mean:
Five cards, laid out side by side. Each card shows one fifth of the total image, which is a painting of a day room in a mental asylum. The card on the left shows a nurse looking at the viewer, standing in front of the nearest window. The second card shows a man wearing a strange contraption on his head sitting in a lounger with a chess set on the small table in front of him. In the third card, as the wall of the room is seen running into the distance, with tall windows along it, you see a woman in a white patient's robe painting at an easel. The fourth card has the corner of the room, so the next wall starts moving into the foreground of the image's perspective. There is a love seat against the window of this card, on which sits a man in a suit coat and fedora, wearing a plague doctor's mask. The final card shows a chest of drawers on top of which rests a painting of a man.

Then, players choose which part of the room to explore, and which person to approach, by turning over the appropriate card and reading what it says on the back. The card describes what happens, what the person says, if there are any challenges that must be overcome (such as combat with the person, or rolling to find a hidden item, and so forth), and anything else that happens. If the players come into possession of an item, the card will say, 'Draw Item Number 23' (or whatever card number is appropriate).

By choosing what actions to take, and where on the overall mission map to go, players are given clues that will lead them to the story's eventual resolution (a word of caution, though: some clues are red herrings, and lead to dead ends, causing the players to waste the limited amount of time they have to perform their mission before they are recalled to the future).

And that's where the problem comes in: if players are unsuccessful in their first attempt to play through a story, they can try again a limited number of times with some of the knowledge they've already acquired. And it's almost guaranteed that they will fail the first time.

In this first mission, for example, if you run out of time before completing the mission, the T.I.M.E. Corps Director will send you back a second time. If you still don't complete the mission, he sends you back one final time under a 'Condition Red' status, which suspends the time limit, but places other restrictions on you. When you complete the mission, you read the appropriate 'Mission Successful' card (depending on whether you finished on the first, second, or third attempt), or you read the 'Mission Failed' card (there is a 'Mission Failed' card for each way the mission might fail: if all the agents die, or you make a bad decision and fail to prevent the temporal anomaly, or so on).

But once you've played through this mission, you can't play it again. You already know where everything is, what the important clues are, which characters to talk to and which to avoid, and so forth. In order to use your T.I.M.E. Stories set again, you must purchase one of the expansions, which contains a new deck of cards that allows you to simulate a new mission.

That's something that I've never cared for. I prefer games that can be played an infinite number of times. This means that I like games such as Red Dragon Inn, or The Resistance: Avalon. Even Balderdash has high replay value, because there are so many cards that even if one player sees them all, it's highly unlikely that he'll remember all (or even most) of them.

On the other hand, games like Malarkey, which ask players to guess which answer to the 'Imponderables' question is the correct one, even lose their replay value after a time. Once you've seen every card in the set, you know all the answers.

This is part of what I don't like about many video games, as well. Once you've finished a game, it's seldom enjoyable to play it again. Sure, some recent video games are using the branching story method, where the decisions you make in the game determine which ending you get. Once you've finished a game, you can play it again making different choices, and you will get a different ending.

But I still prefer games that give you different stories every time. I like sitting down for a rousing game of Hot Tin Roof, not knowing who's going to win, where each player is going to put their shelters and catwalks, not knowing what decisions are going to be available. Yeah, it's the same game. But every time you play it, it's new, and you don't know any of the crucial information before hand.

Anyway, that was what I was thinking this morning. Some people, of course, enjoy that sort of experience. Millions of people purchase new video games, play it through, then sell it back to the store and buy a new one. Obviously, it has some sort of appeal for somebody! Just not for me.

So go have fun playing games, whether you replay them or not. I will see you back here next week, and until then,

Game on!

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Board Game Geek's Top 100

I was looking at the top 100 list of Board Game Geek a week or so ago. I realised that, despite all the games I've played in my life, I've only played about 16 of the ones in the top 100.

So I've made a resolution. I don't normally do resolutions, for several reasons. I think New Year's is a stupid holiday.  I believe that every day you wake up is a chance for a new beginning; you shouldn't have to wait for a specific day of the year. Besides, most New Year's Resolutions are silly, and forgotten before January ends anyway.

So this is not a New Year's Resolution. This is just a resolution that happens to coincide with New Year's, and is measured against the calendar year. My resolution is this:

By the end of 2017, I will be able to say, at least once, that I have played 80 or more of the games on the Board Game Geek's Top 100 List.

I know that the list is changing constantly. New games are added to the database, and get rated highly enough to displace some of the games already on there. BGG users change their ratings from time to time. New users add ratings. So the list is constantly in flux. 

That's why I'm setting my resolution for 80 games, instead of all 100. If a game that I've played drops off the top 100, I don't want to have to stress too much about it.

Also, if I've played 80 of the games on the first of December, and one of those games drops off, so my score is only 79, it will still count, because I will be able to say, 'At one point in 2017, there were 80 games on the top 100 list that I have played.' 

By wording it this way, I don't have to stress out about the constantly changing nature of the list.

I will keep track of the games I've played using the table (which is behind a cut) below. I'll check in once a week to see how I'm progressing. So you should come back on occasion to see how I'm doing, and how the list has changed! Until then, remember to

Game on!

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Board Game Review: Push a Monster

Sometimes, it's nice to play a very simple game that's suitable for children as well as adults. Games that don't require a lot of thinking, and don't even involve a lot of luck. Games of skill, like Run Yourself Ragged (which has apparently been renamed Screwball Scramble). I'm not one to shirk a 'kids' game.' Labyrinth is one of my favourite games, after all!

So when I was asked to join in a game of Push a Monster, I agreed. It's a very simple game, so let's jump right into it. Here are some 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: 1
Randomness: 2
Complexity: 0
Humour: None*
Attractiveness: Ideal
Average Length of Gameplay: 15 minutes
Gamer Profile Ratings:
   Strategy: Low
   Conflict: Medium
   Social Manipulation: Low
   Fantasy: Low

The point of Push a Monster is to do exactly what the title says: push a monster. The game consists of five components: monsters, monster tokens, a die, a table, and a monster pusher. It looks something like this:
A small cardboard 'table' with an irregularly shaped tabletop. There are several wooden tokens, each adorned with a sticker of various monsters, arranged on top of this cardboard table. You can see some more of these tokens lying nearby. The hands of a player can be seen, holding the monster pusher, which consists of two rectangular pieces of cardboard, each decorated with monsters pushing at one another. The longer of the pieces is held in one hand, with a wooden monster token lying on it, and the smaller piece is used to push the wooden monster token off the bottom piece and onto the cardboard table.

The game starts with the two purple monsters on the table. On your turn, you roll the die. Five sides show one of the five main monster colours: white, green, yellow, orange, or red. The sixth side is a question mark. Whichever side the die shows determines which colour monster you must slide onto the table. If you roll the question mark, you get to choose.

You take the monster pusher, which is two rectangles made of cardboard, one slightly longer than the other. Place a monster of the appropriate colour on the longer one. Then use the shorter one to push the monster onto the table. You must slide it on, so that it does not sit atop any other monster.

Very quickly, the table starts to get crowded. Eventually, someone will cause one or more monsters to fall off the table. When that happens, all other players get a token in the same colour as the monster(s) that you knocked off.

These tokens are of varying widths. The red one is the narrowest, with the green one being just slightly wider. The white and yellow ones are next, followed by the orange. The purple ones are the widest of all, but they are also the rarest, as there are only two of them, and they both start already on the table. In a sense, the wider the token, the more 'points' it's worth. But remember, every time you knock a monster off the table, you're giving these 'points' to the other players. So if you have to push someone off, it's better to try to shove a red or green monster out, and avoid pushing the purple ones off if you can avoid it at all.

The game goes until the die rolls a colour that is not available (because they're already on the table) or until one colour of the tokens is gone. At that point, all players line their tokens up. Whoever has the longest row of tokens is the winner.

It's a very simple game. It's great for kids, and if you're in the mood for a nice easy game that doesn't involve a lot of thinking but you don't want to play a luck-based game, then Push a Monster certainly delivers. The monsters are kind of cute (and regarding the asterisk on the Humour rating above, I wouldn't say that the artwork is humorous per se, but the cute paintings can be a source of a mild chuckle. Certainly, it's fun to draw comparisons to various animals. For example, the orange monster has some sort of elephant trunk, and the white monster appears to be related to the rhinoceros in some way).

Anyway, I think it's a neat little game that can be fun in the right circumstances. Don't be afraid to give it a try! And with that, I bid you

Game on!