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Gathering of Engineers

Ludographic considerations from the Silicon Forest

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

It's that time of year again.

First off, my turn to give thanks. We had a nice, quiet, thanksgiving this year – just Jodie, Megan, and myself as the rest of the family dispersed in different directions for different reasons. Jodie cooked a great dinner, Megan even ate some turkey (she's not a big meat eater), and we enjoyed each others' company.

It was the kind of day Thanksgiving should be. Not to say I'm not thankful for the other people in my life, (most of them at least) and I would have been happy to spend the day with them, but it's nice to spend that day every now and then with the people that matter to you most.

Some random things I appreciate in no particular order: IKEA, craft sticks, Gevalia coffee, wireless networking, Moleskines, DirecTV, MP3s, open source software.

Okay, now to the core of the article. It's that time of year again: the annual "making out of the Christmas list."

This can be a bit of a bear. Fortunately, our extended family (at least Jodie's side – there really isn't much to my side of the extended family) does a random-draw gift exchange. That means the audience for my list is only three people – Jodie, my mom, and whoever drew me in the exchange. This year, that's Jodie's youngest brother Chris. (who, coincidentally, I drew in return.)

The problem I have when making this list isn't really what to put on it – it's figuring out what I want that they'll be comfortable buying. Personally, I'm more than happy to get gift certificates to Boards and Bits, Boulder Games, Games Surplus, Wargames Inc., or Warweb. But that doesn't fly so well under the tree in front of the rest of the family. They want to know what you got, not what you're gong to get. And then there's that lack of visceral satisfaction in getting an honest-to-gosh THING in your hands to open that morning.

So, that means putting real things on the list. Things that will be deliverable by Christmas.

My typical formula has been eight or nine boardgames and some miniatures (along with pointers/links to where to buy them), a handful of books, and a small handful of DVDs. I thought I'd break that formula this year, but it's looking like I'll just fall back to the old standby.

So, what games are on my list?

  1. Byzantium. I missed out on our group's playing of this over the weekend, but the combination of theme and designer are a must-own for me.
  2. Caylus. Ystari seems to be putting out some quality games. Haven't seen a new game shoot to #2 on the Geek like this in a while (ever?). It takes a lot to dethrone E&T.
  3. Ra. This is the lowest numbered game in The One Hundred that I've never played.
  4. Rommel in the Desert. The North African theatre is rapidly becoming my favorite campaign to game in WW2, rivaled only by the Battle of the Bulge. This definitely looks to be the most playable game on the whole campaign. While DAK2 (currently staring down at me from the top of my new desk) is probably the "most-detailed-while-still-playable" game covering the entire theatre, a five-map campaign game staying set up for more than a couple hours is not going to happen in my house.
  5. Crusader Rex. Keeping with the block theme. And keeping with the historical theme. I've had a thing for the Crusades lately. I keep staring at the Old Glory 15mm Crusades line knowing the 30% off sale ends Dec 15. Why do companies that sell goods typically NOT bought as gifts insist on sales in December? It's maddening!
  6. Panzer Grenadier: Deluxe Eastern Front. The new edition of the base game for this series – 8 mapboards, 112 scenarios. I think there's enough in there to keep me going for a while. Got to play the Bulge edition of Panzer Grenadier a couple weeks ago with Keith Todd, and had great fun.
  7. Indonesia. No, it won't get here by Xmas, but my birthday's only a couple weeks later...
  8. Sienna. It's all about theme this year, apparently. Last year's Zugames production was a bit pricey for how it apparently played, but this year's game looks much better.
  9. Railroad Tycoon. This should have been #1 on the list, in all honesty. However, it seems that Eagle has managed to do a complete 180 on their typical release. Instead of fantastic components and an iffy (at best) game, they've got a good game with bad components. I'm not asking someone to buy me a game where the boards can visibly warp during play until they get that straightened out. Then I buy it in a heartbeat.
  10. Are there ten games that I want enough to ask for them as gifts? There's a lot of candidates for this spot, most of them older games that I've never quite gotten to. Silverton, ZooSim, Trias, Runebound (2nd), Return of the Heroes, and others I can't quite come up with at the moment. Silverton and Runebound probably lead that list.

I don't know if Caylus or Byzantium will be available by Christmas (at least from any of the places I mentioned above) but most of the rest should be. I guess we'll just have to see what my brother-in-law wants to get me. He's played some games with his wife, Jodie, and I, but playing board games is definitely not on the top of his “things to do when I'm not at work” list.

Of course, his interests (outside of football and hockey) are very different than mine, so it'll be interesting to see what's on his list when he sends it to me.

I love surprises.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Beowulf: Hot or Not?

The early feedback on Beowulf has been largely negative, but it has also received very strong support from Chris Farrell and others. As with most things, I tend to find the truth is in the middle somewhere (although I'm hesitant to give too much leeway to a game title that anagrams to "Flub" and "Woe"). The most common specific complaint has been about how getting more than an average number of successful "Risks" is key to winning. I know that this wasn't true in my one match, as I took a fair amount of Risks and had a high rate of success, yet finished far behind the leader. I think that just as big of an issue is the number of times you draw double-symbol cards (and in which suits), but haven't we been through this discussion already with Giganten? Similarly, there is a potential imbalance in luck in drawing blind alliance markers (where the values range from 1 to 3). I like games with luck-of-the-draw, but this wide range in payout does seem a bit much for such a short and simple game. I expect someone to come up with a "strategic" variant that reveals upcoming draws prior to the drafting decision being made; this could be done easily with alliance markers, much less so with the cards (which I feel are the biggest problem).

All this aside, the game is a load of fun. In the final auction of our match, after Mike played the Iron Shield (with its four Fighting symbols), Doug proceeded to take a Risk and ended up drawing two matching double-symbol cards! But is the game that light, or is there substantial room for skill in hand & Risk management? I do not have the answer yet, but below are some aspects to consider. I assume that the reader is familiar with the mechanisms and terminology of the game; if not, check out Shannon's review.

Differences in the auctions: There are a total of eleven auctions where cards are used for bidding. Seven of these auctions are circular auctions (action continues clockwise until everyone passes), and four of them employ blind-bidding. The range between greatest reward and severest penalty (or, in some cases, least reward) differs among the auctions. Five auctions stand out as having the widest range, and they correspond to the most intense story action: Grendel's Attack; Hunting the Sea-Hag; Encountering the Sea-Hag; Raid against Friesland; and Dragon Battle. Each of these five is a circular auction. These differences should be accounted for in managing your hand and choosing your battles.

Differences in the suits: The five suits (not counting the wild-card Helmet (Beowulf)) are Axe (Fighting), Fist (Courage), Fox (Wit), Horn (Friendship), and Ship (Traveling). Each appears in four auctions, with Horn appearing in three blind bidding auctions, and Axe only appearing in circular auctions. The number of times that these suits show up in the five key auctions mentioned above is as follows: Axe, 4 times; Fist, 3; Ship, 2; Fox, 1; Horn, 0. None of the auctions featuring Horn have a negative reward, and Fox is the suit most often paired with it. Therefore, I rank the suits Axe, Fist, Ship, Fox, Horn, and this should be considered in Recovery (where players draft from a pool of cards). However, it may be more important to build up a strong suit (but how strong?), and, in any case, choosing between something like a single Axe and a double Fox gets a bit tricky.

When to take the Risk action outside of auctions: There are five such stops on the adventure track. Given the ranking of suits above, I think the only obvious Risk that's a must-do is the Axe/Fist Risk. I would consider the Horn/Ship and Fist/Horn Risks only if I was very sure that an extra Ship or Fist card would make a big difference in an upcoming battle. Tougher calls are the Fist/Fox and Axe/Fox Risks; I think I would prefer to save my Risk-taking for the end of the more important battles.

Playing the circular battles: Beowulf has been compared to Taj Mahal, in that one can spend a lot of cards in a battle yet exit without reward. However, I don't think that's as true here. In Taj, in every city after the first one, two players could be competing for a key palace location or elephant tile, and long battles are more common. In Beowulf, once one or two players have dropped out of the big battles, the remaining players can easily cut out of the battle. 3 of the 7 circular auctions (all among the "big 5" listed above) have a top payout that is significantly better than the second-best payout, so these are more likely to turn into a long battle between the top contenders. For these 3 auctions, if you have a mediocre hand, you might want to play cards early on to see if anyone else is forced to drop out, but I would be unafraid to bail out sooner (taking a Risk on the way out for a shot at avoiding the biggest penalties), saving your cards as long as others are spending them. For the other two big circular battles, most players will probably end up losing the same number of cards, so it doesn't hurt to stay in it, saving Risk-taking for later rounds. Playing the final two circular battles (Dragon's Rampage; Celebration) is a tougher call, and what I would do depends on how likely my opponents are to take Risks; I would certainly lean towards dropping out once one other opponent does so to avoid gaining card disadvantage.

Playing the blind-bid auctions: These 4 auctions feature Horn, Horn/Fox, Horn/Fist, and Ship. I would likely not play anything other than Horns in the first three. I am inclined to bid really light in the Ship auction; two big battles requiring Ships are coming up, and, while the penalties are near-equivalent to those in the blind-bid auction, the rewards are much greater!

How bad is getting 1 wound and 2 cards? In the game Struggle of Empires, players can get stuck with undesirable Unrest counters; you automatically lose the game if you somehow get more than 20, but, otherwise, there are VP penalties for those who end up with the most and second-most counters. In Beowulf, you are effectively removed from the game with 3 or more wounds, but once you have 1 wound (and lose the 5 VP bonus for having no wounds), you can take on a second wound without penalty. It seems to me that taking 2 wounds to get 4 cards gives you a decent shot at recovering those 5 VPs.

What to choose in Selection: Take 2 treasure points, take 2 VP, remove two scratches, draw an alliance, or draw two cards? I am inclined to take the cards, although there are situations that make the treasure very attractive (e.g., treasure and alliances aren't being taken by others). Note that collectively drawing more cards could lead to a larger fluke of an imbalance in symbols on cards, whereas collectively taking a lot of alliances could have a similar effect there.

There are a multitude of other seemingly meaningful considerations: turn order for Recovery; use of your wild Beowulf cards; whether Great Rewards (2 Axes for 3 treasure) is worthwhile (if late in the turn order, I would go contrary to what most others do, otherwise I would go for it unless I had a fairly long Ax suit); whether Peace Recruits (one of each suit for 5 VPs) is worthwhile (seems to be another exercise in groupthink; if too many others go for it, at least one of them will likely match your extra cards on a Risk draw in another battle), which treasure auctions to participate in. And so forth. There are certainly a lot of things to consider, and each of them could probably warrant its own strategy article. Is this enough to overcome the various random distributions? Is Beowulf the type of game you have to play 100 times to reliably tag someone as the "best player"? I am not sure at this point. But I see enough that I want to get it back to the table - soon - and, even if the luck element does overwhelm the rest of the design, the game is sure a lot of fun in any case.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

What am I thankful for?

So like a lot of people, this is a week to think about what I’m thankful for. And for this article, I’ll confine it to games-related thanks. Yes, there’s a bigger world out there (I know it’s hard to believe that for some hard core gamers) but that’s a whole different post. But there’s plenty to be thankful for here.

Games
I’m here because someone smart imported German boardgames and cardgames into the American market. I was one of those who played Settlers when it first arrived, and it changed my gaming perspective forever. As much as I like Magic, the 3M bookshelf games and everything else I played before Settlers, that was the start of the revolution.

Gamers
Without gamers who also become you friends and even best buds, gaming would be far less the joy it is. Sure, I need a good game on the table, but the best game is easily spoiled by a group of whining gamers. And conversely, we have dredged huge amounts of fun out of mediocre games just because of the happy campers at the table. And truth be told, great gamers know when to put a bad game away and move to something more fun. And no, I’m not naming bad game names today.

Designers
I’m grateful to Sid Sackson for creating classic games, regardless of which country he had to publish them in. I use Sid’s game Can’t Stop to teach a class in Risk Acceptance. We’ve taught Solodice (aka Choice and other names) to lots of friends with a piece of paper and 5 regular dice. And Acquire and a few others of his stand as all-time winners.

Yes, there’s other designers I love, but Sid was the first author I specifically hunted for to see what other games he had created, and ended up liking many of them. We’ll miss you Sid and whether you wanted a memorial service or not, your legacy will be played.

Playtesters
As a new designer, I couldn’t survive without friends who will play a new game of mine and tell me what they really think, or come up with ideas to make a game better, shorter, tighter, etc. So thanks to all of you for a generally under-appreciated task.

And thanks to the many gamers at conventions and game parties who I only just met, but you’ve given me your time and in many cases your honest feedback on a game you’ve never played before. Hopefully the games that survive and improved deserved to.

Web Folk
I’m grateful to the people creating incredible websites for boardgames. Shining sites like Boardgamegeek (over 22,000 games listed, pictured and discussed), plus game review websites that got me started, like the original Game Cabinet and the Luding data base in Germany. And lately the gaming blogs of the world, with our team-mate’s Chris Brooks sites still one of the best in my humble opinion. To all you who sit down at a screen and create stories and pictures about gaming, my vicarious life is blessed because of your time.

Admins
There are people out there who organize game conventions and contests. People who finance game production, sell games or generally run the businesses that support the hobby. I think many of you don’t do it for the money! And you add to my gaming life by providing new places for me to play, new games for me to try, and even new gamers willing to try games published by Sunriver. “Thanks” seems underwhelming, but it’s still well meant.

Family
“If I started thanking you, right now, right here, I’d still be thanking you halfway through next year…”

My family gives me the support I need to create, test, play and store mounds and mounds of games in our house and everywhere else I can think of. My sweet wife is a gamer for which I’m both lucky and grateful. Even my kids will play a game or two once in a while, and when they’re gaming I truly think we connect and have fun.

I’m sure this list could go on. Who’s on your list? And have you hugged any of them lately?

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Talking of turkey...

It seems rather appropriate at this time of year to talk turkey, gaming turkey, that is.

At some point, in any game group, someone has to take a leap of faith and put down their hard earned spondulicks on the new game. You can't have everyone only buy games that they've played and decided they like, someone has to be the guinea pig. In our gaming group we were lucky in that we had two who were willing to take the risks and provide games for the group to try.

Eventually I started buying games, and first focused on those that I had played and liked, and that I thought woud be good to have in the game collection, either from a hosting perspective or from a family gaming perspective. After a while I started taking the plunge with games that were new to the group. And of course with buying games that I hadn't played before came the chance of buying turkeys. So, what are the games that I consider to be my turkeys?

  • Tortuga - a card game about pirates with really good looking cards, can't be bad, right? Wrong! This was almost painful to play in a solo walk through, but Eric was kind enough to play it once, which confirmed my initial thoughts
  • Royalists & Roundheads I - I _so_ wanted to like this game as it was based on the English Civil War, and features a battle that was fought only a few yards from where I used to live; however the game just didn't work
  • Die Baumeister des Krimsutep - OK, this is only a likely turkey as it came right at the very bottom of Dave's BGG.con list
  • Bohnaparte - unlike the original, where there are no 'strongest' cards - everything is balanced in trade - this one does have such a hierarchy; if you draw the top cards there is no incentive to trade them away

OK, a pretty short list, but there are plenty of new games in my collection that haven't been played yet. Plenty of opportunities for turkey's there.



On other fronts a lot of gaming related stuff going on. The local newspaper will be doing a piece on the gaming sessions I run at the local library, and I've managed to get Havoc/Sunriver Games included. I've already done an initial interview, and they're coming round on Monday to do some pictures. The school that my youngest attends is interested in doing something with board games, along the lines of the library games sessions. They're also going to publicise the library session in their monthly newsletter. SimplyFun parties are coming out of my ears at the moment, with 3 planned for this coming week. The company also sent articles to 3 of the small local newspapers, which all mentioned my name and number. Who knows if they'll get printed, but it could stir even more interest.

All in all, a very exciting gaming time for me.


Finally a very happy Thanksgiving to everyone!

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Thanks. Really.

Sorry for the late post, but my life has become a series of unexpected expenses and schedule busters recently. Today was no exception.

Despite the sarcastic tone of the title, there are some things I'm genuinely thankful for in the world of gaming.

Most of all, I'm thankful that I have a wife who tolerates, if not embraces, the hobby. As I've posted before, this is not always the case. When someone called and wanted to start digging in my yard this morning instead of on Saturday (I did say it was one of those months), her response was, "Great! That means you can game on Saturday!" And she meant it. For those of us who remember 1998 and her general response to gaming, this is nothing less than a religious conversion.

I'm thankful to have such a great group of friends to game with. I genuinely look forward to seeing these folks every week, even more than I look forward to the games. When I "founded" RCG, I had no idea that it would be this good.

I'm thankful to be able to get insight into not only the design of new games (mostly via KC's efforts), but also the development and production processes (via Chris' posts and conversations). For anyone who is curious and intelligent, this is like learning how Santa's sleigh flies.

I'm incredibly thankful to my parent's hard work to build up a real estate investment company whose income allows me to pretty much buy whatever I want whenever I want it. On the one hand, this is really cool, but on the other I have all of this Warhammer Epic stuff from the years when I needed Prozac and wasn't on it.

I'm thankful I am alive in a time when gaming is, if not prolific in my country, certainly in a Belle Epoque. While not everything published is great (or even good), the choice is undeniably better than perhaps at any time in history. Even in wargaming! By extension, I'm thankful for computers that enable cheaper development of games and the DTP revolution.

I'm thankful to have this blog to vent my spleen (or pancreas, depending on the week). I'm not sure if it was Dave that suggested it, or Chris that designed it, or who else was involved, but a hearty thank you to all of you. I'm also thankful I have such interesting writers to share posting time with.

I'm thankful that the other members of RCG have such interesting and quality taste in music. I really miss my undergrad days when you learned about new music mostly from what the guy down the hall was playing. Until the advent of the Apple Music Store, this group provided quite a bit of the new music I was exposed to, largely through Dave. While this isn't specifically related to games, it is connected because of what we listen to while gaming.

I'm thankful for old friends that show up again after not seeing them at sessions for, sometimes, years. Mark, we're delighted to be seeing you again, my friend.

I'm thankful to be an unabashed gamer, unafraid to be seen gaming or discussing them in public. I've become less fearful of simply being myself as a result.

Finally, thanks to all of you who read this site, then come back again the next day and read the next entry. I sincerely hope you find what we have to say interesting and very occasionally enlightening.

Happy Thanksgiving to our US friends, and the rough equivalent to those abroad. Here's hoping that next year we'll have more to be thankful about.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Jumping on the List Bandwagon

A couple different lists prompt my column for this week.

First, there's The One Hundred that we've all been buzzing about for a while. Second is a geeklist called "Are You a Geek Grump?" that has you look at your ratings for individual games versus what the geek rates them at, then you take the ratio of your positive differentials vs. negative. I scored in the "optimist" range at 1.12. Not surprising as I tend to be an "any game any time" (AGAT) sort of guy.

I decided I'd take a shot at what I would have responded to Mark Jackson's query of "the fifteen games you have the most fun playing." Again, these aren't what you consider to be the best games, but the ones you enjoy playing most.

It's a tough question. Much of the time, the key to a fun time is the company as much as the game. All things being equal, though, here's my list. Or, it's my list as I composed it today. It would likely be different next month. In classic Dave Letterman style, from the bottom to the top:

#s 15-11: It's hard to actually put these games in order, but here's the bottom third, alphabetically:
Cribbage
Empire Builder series (India Rails, primarily),
Musket & Pike Battle System (Under the Lily Banners might be the best in the series),
Panzer Grenadier (particularly Desert Rats),
Ticket to Ride: Europe.

#10: Oltremare. A great little trading game that scales well from two-five.

#9: Settlers of Catan. The old classic still has legs.

#8: Die Macher. The poster child for "heavy eurogame." Possibly the fastest four hours I ever spent was the first time I played this.

#7: San Juan. Great little 30-minute card game. Very elegant design choice to have the cards be used for everything: goods, currency, AND product makes the game play very simply. It does suffer from the same issues most card games do in that there isn't much you can do if all you do is draw bad cards.

#6: St. Petersburg. I prefer this game as a 2-player game. Jodie and I have gotten to the point where we know what the other is trying to do, and the moves are getting three and four levels deep.

#5: Friedrich. This is possibly the most innovative wargame design in years. While I'm more a fan than most in my group due to the possible player elimination, I think it does a better job of capturing the feel of how the Seven Years War had to be run from the different countries than any other game out there. In six pages of rules.

#4: Age of Steam. The 2nd best 2-3 hour board game in existence. I'm hoping Railroad Tycoon makes this game palatable to more people (Jodie in particular) so I can play it (or games derived from it) more. Still haven't played the 2nd edition rules - I'm in the process of integrating the changes into a scanned copy for personal use.

#3: Power Grid. The best 2-3 hour board game in existence. Masterful combination of auction, resource management, and expansion. Doesn't play well with two, but with three-six it's an absolute gem.

#2: Roads & Boats. Splotter's signature game. It's really, really hard to design a deep game that features essentially zero down time. Rivals Die Macher for temporal acceleration - you might be playing for four hours, but it feels like two. Or even one. This is probably the best adaptation of "real-time strategy" games from the PC onto the tabletop. I will never, ever turn down a chance to play this game.

#1: De Bellis Multitudinis. My all-time favorite miniatures game. It definitely has a "love it or hate it" effect on people. I'm firmly in the "love it" camp and have been an active player since 1997 or so. I also noticed that it was the only miniatures game mentioned in The One Hundred. (It got a first place vote but didn't make the list.) I've painted a couple thousand figures over the years for this game, and have no intent to stop. The rules are designed to normalize armies (over 320 armies from 3000BC through 1500AD are listed in separate army books) against their contemporaries so you can actually have a good game pitting Medieval French vs. New Kingdom Egyptian. As it's frequently played as a tournament game, there's a bit of a reputation for "millimetrics" or rules lawyering, but I've found reality proves the rumors to be greatly exaggerated.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Pros & Cons: A Strategy for Poker Tournaments

[Pros & Cons is a (sporadically released) series on my con-going experiences, and I am using the term "con" very loosely here, including private "gatherings" such as Oasis of Fun.]

Note that I use basic poker terminology (flop/turn/river; loose/tight; semi-bluff; etc.) throughout this article, usually without defining it. Might I suggest a poker glossary?

It is common these days for boardgaming cons to run Texas No-Limit Hold’em poker tournaments. Usually there is a small buy-in with a cash payout for the top 10% or so finishers; at BGG.CON, there was no buy-in, but there were donated prizes to be won (the value of the prizes matched a ~$5 buy-in). These tournaments typically run 3-4 hours for those who last until the end. After playing in a few, I have noticed some trends, especially in the early rounds:

1) There are many inexperienced players, and, perhaps because of the low buy-in, they tend to play very loose, especially when it comes to calling to see the flop.
2) After the flop, these inexperienced players make a lot of poor bets, usually involving staying in hands that they should be folding.
3) There is so much socializing that even the experienced players don’t pay attention to how other players are playing. Usually you cannot afford to play tight without bluffing occasionally, otherwise you don’t get much action when you do play a hand; in this environment, you will get as much action as any other player, so this strategy can be very profitable.

When the books teach you how to play against very loose players, they usually assume that you are in a poker room atmosphere (i.e., you have buy-ins that allow you to absorb a few bad beats, as you will get outdrawn on occasion). There, the “perfect” strategy works in the long run; after a few hours sitting down with the same group of loose players, you will profit handsomely. However, in a sit-and-go format, when a lot of players are calling bets, the odds of getting outdrawn increase significantly, and you cannot afford a big loss without the ability to buy-in. This means that you can get easily burned playing second-tier hands (e.g., J-J) aggressively.

Example: You and one opponent are through the turn with you holding the better hand (say, three 9s), and your opponent's only out is drawing to a flush (~25% chance of success). You bet an amount equal to the pot (say, $100), giving your opponent 2:1 odds to call. A good opponent will rarely call (he will occasionally as a semi-bluff), but at a tourney like this, you will often get called. Against the good player, you will win the $100 almost every time; against the bad player, you will win $200 75% of the time, but lose your $100 25% of the time. In a sit-and-go, if the bets get really high, an early string of bad luck will do someone in more often than in a more competitive game, where folding is more common.

I use a conservative strategy, with the goal to avoid going out early on a bad beat. I play extremely tight – folding all but the best of hands – for most of the night – and pull in easy money when my good hands come up (see #3 above). Now, it may seem silly to play 4.5 hours and sit out most hands, especially if the prizes are relatively modest, but I just like to see how far this strategy can go.

In the first hour, the most inexperienced players play very loose; they rarely bet, but are unafraid to call an aggressive player. I simply play really tight (top 10 or so hands), and pull in a decent hunk of cash when I make my hand. With all of the pre-flop action, it is tempting to play hands that do well in big pots (like 9-8 suited), even in an early or middle position because of the implied odds being higher than usual. However, so many players at this stage are unwilling to fold once they have committed to a hand, you have to account for the fact that you won't be able to execute semi-bluffs to steal the occasional pot.

You will hear a lot of stories from folks who went out on bad beats in the first two hours, followed by grumbling about how poker is all about luck of the draw. However, this is really more of an issue of what boardgamers like to call “player chaos”: an opponent's unreasonable play impacted one's chance at success. At Atlanta this year, I went out late in the first hour on Ad-As. I made one other player pay modestly to see the flop, which came out 2c-2s-3s. I called their all-in bet, thinking that the only thing that would beat me was an A-2, which was improbable given the cards visible to me (plus I could beat it with a flush or tie it with a straight). It turned out that the player had something really weak like non-suited J-2. (The turn was 4s, but the river was junk.)

By the second hour, the casual players have had enough (120 minutes is typically the upper limit for most Eurogamers unless they really like the game), and will start to go all-in on mediocre hands more regularly. I continue to play extremely tight, but, in the late position, I will play more so-so hands if (1) there are few callers, and (2) those that do call have much fewer chips than I do (say, less than 50%). At this point, it is important to assess which players are in it for the long haul, as you can expect their played hands to be better than others. If you get your fair share of decent hands, there is lots of money to be had. This is the phase in which I did remarkably well at BGG.CON, pulling in lots of chips from loose players with fantastic hands like A-A and suited A-K.

In the third hour, most of the inexperienced/loose players are gone. Also, there is a better chance you’ll be playing at a smaller table (6-8 players) for a longer time. Combining these two, it means it is time to loosen up a bit and get more aggressive, returning to the style that you have been trained to use. I’ve made it this far twice in cons. The first time, my stack of chips was so small that I was forced to wait for good hands. At BGG.CON, I had the money, but I got crap hands the whole time; I was aggressive enough to steal a couple of pots which allowed me to last until the final table.

In the fourth hour onward (this should be at or close to the final table), continue to play as trained. Even these players are inexperienced enough that they will play very tight, trying to outlast each other in order to qualify for prizes; you can take advantage of this by being more aggressive than usual (although I tend to play the earlier rounds so passively that I risk not having enough chips at this stage). At BGG.CON, I was so far behind in chips that I had to be extremely tight (my single semi-bluff at the final table was met with a re-raise!); despite being ninth coming into the last table, I got some good hands and was able to hang on to place sixth.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Havoc History part 2

So back to my short series on how Havoc: the Hundred Years' War came to be. When last we left our heroes, we had a basic design concept, some prototypes with some basic art, and the game having benefited from some great input from my regular game group, RipCity Gamers.

Next came a lot of purposeful playtesting with people I didn’t know, starting through my local convention, Gamestorm. It was good to try the game with adults, with a group of teenage boys, and with a family of four with 2 daughters. Next came playing the game with local game groups (thanks to Jay, Ben, Nate, et al.) One of these turned out to be a huge 6-player game with a bunch of folks who took Havoc into role-playing game territory. Though the game lasted 2 hours, they seemed to like the possibility of playing the mercenaries who were selling their services to the French or the English for a few measily Victory Points.

I also took the game to conferences I attend for work in Traffic Safety. In one game, I had a traffic judge, a driving school instructor, a traffic cop and a high school teacher. One of the fellows said he didn’t play games much. After, he said this might be a good game to have out at the duck blind when they went hunting. I guess that was good…

So here’s what changed and what didn’t with all this playtesting. What I appreciated was people being willing to say what they didn’t like in particular, since that’s where some improvements might be considered. In that they offered a new perspective, they saw things we didn't.

WAS -- NOW
1. WAS: you could enter Battle by playing a single Dog.
NOW: “play 2 cards to enter Battle” – simpler, makes Dogs a little less powerful

2. WAS: Dogs could retrieve other Dogs in Battle or from the Discard Pile.
NOW: Dogs can’t take Dogs. It made playing the “first” Dog too powerful

3. WAS: Peacekeeper is given to the person to the left of the Havoc Caller after a Battle. This was originally made to keep the player card “income” constant but was confusing.
NOW: Peacekeeper goes to whoever won the Battle. Fits the theme better.

4. WAS: Dogs could only be used in Battles.
NOW: Dogs can also be used during recruiting to fetch an additional card. Seemed to go along with the theme and gave the Dogs more choices.

We then sent Havoc out to a bunch of good game groups we knew from BoardGameGeek, Spielfrieks and other friendships. In this group, I particularly want to thank Iain Cheyne, Ed and Susan Rozmiarek and Mike Frantz for their input and help. Admittedly, there were some changes asked for that didn’t get done, at least in this round. So here they are:

· Need to have a hand limit
· Should draw more cards than just 1 for staying out of a Battle
· Shouldn’t get free cards after the first few Battles unless you were in the Battle
· The next player after a Battle ends shouldn’t be able to cry Havoc! right away
· Agincourt shouldn’t be worth so much
· There shouldn’t be so many allowable Battle Hands

Many of these got debated, tried, argued over and tried again. We usually tried to err on the side of less rules or cleaner rules, and we may be able to improve on the rules for a second print run (hoping there is one.)

Notice that none of this story speaks to actually getting the production design ready and finding contractors for cards, box, rules, etc. That’s another chapter.

Meanwhile, last bit, Havoc was named Game of the Month for November by the Westpark Gamers, who we met at Essen this year. They are a fun bunch of gamers, and I’m very pleased that Havoc has been a hit for them.

Friday, November 18, 2005

The Top 100

Short post today.  Catching up from some extensive travel this week.  Looking forward to Thanksgiving week and some quality (quiet) time with the family and hopefully some gaming out on the Oregon coast.

Some of you have surely been following The One Hundred (final list here), an exercise aimed at identifying the top 100 games of all time.  The process involved surveying a group of gamers for their top 15 and combining the results to determine the ranking.

My geek score is 59 owned + 68 played = 127.

Some observations on the list:

  • I’m amazed at how many of the games I own, especially considering that I only started accumulating games two years ago.  At that time, my score would have been 10 or less, getting credit for the card games, backgammon, and Knizia’s Lord of the Rings.
  • There were few surprises for me on the list.  The omission I’m most surprised about is Amun-Re.
  • The games on the list that I haven’t played that I’m most interested in playing are Medici, Vinci, Die Macher, and Capitol.
  • The highest ranked game that I dislike is Tikal.  Next highest is Hoity Toity.

Lists are fun.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Pimping games

I recently signed up as a SimplyFun consultant. For those of you who don't know, this is the party plan game company, and for those of you not familiar with party plan, it's pretty simple. The host runs a party at their home and invites a bunch of people, friends, neighbors, whatever. A representative from the company comes along and demonstrates that company's products (whatever they be) and the people have the opportunity to buy those products. For SimplyFun, this means that you teach all the people at the party to play the games, and, hopefully, they enjoy them so much they buy them to play at home.

A few of my gaming buddies may be surprised that I got involved with this, but there are several reasons.

First is that I've been looking for some time for some way to get involved with some sort of business that leverages my interest in games. My first idea was to have a cart at the local mall to sell some of the favorite 'gateway' games, e.g. Carcassonne, Settlers, Ticket to Ride. With over a million shoppers passing through the mall over the holiday period (according to the mall web site) that's a lot of people looking for something different for giving as gifts. A few tables with demo copies of the games and it could sell a lot of games. However, the mall want $20,000 (yes, that's 20 big ones) to rent a cart for the 3 months over the holiday period. Wow! That kinda killed that idea.

From early in the year I've been mulling some sort of party plan approach to games. I go along to someone's house, demo a few of the same gateway games, and take orders. Using Boards & Bits to order the games (they discount about 30%, and ship quickly and cheaply to the PDX area) I think there's a penny to be made, even allowing for some sort of discount or reward for whoever hosted the party. And with the variety of games available there's plenty opportunity to visit the same host with a different bunch of games. I'd spoken to a few people and had encouraging feedback, although I'd never fully sat down and put together the fine details.

Then, in July/August, Chris posted the SimplyFun information to our game group, and floated the possibility of interest in either becoming a consultant or hosting a party. I went through pretty much every page in the web site and was very interested. The compensation plan was familiar to anyone who has been involved in that sort of business before (I had, back in Scotland). The games seemed a bit light, but there were a couple of games that I recognized as being decent (Oh Pharaoh and Drive) and one that is on my list of favorite games (Zing!, aka Die Sieben Siegel). Overall, it was very similar to my own party plan gaming type idea, but with the backing of a company.

Chris hosted his party and I went along. My initial impression of the games was confirmed, light and very (ugh!) party. Not good. However, I slept on it. So to speak, I decided to wait until after I got back from Essen before making any sort of decision.

During this time I read a lot of comments from other people about games and what constitutes a good game. I was especially affected by one comment (Doug's?) that pointed out that games are a conduit to having fun. This all forced me to re-evaluate my attitude to these games, as, despite my initial attitude to the SimplyFun games we played at Chris' party, I can't deny that I had a great time. Anyway, the long and the short of it is that I think I've had (or gone through) a paradigm shift, and I recognize that these sorts of games aren't there to be used/played in the same way as you'd play, say, Age of Steam. They're just there as an adjuct to the social interaction, not the focus of the social interaction. A bit of a revelation for me, as I'd always tried to compare them directly, which left me with an uncomfortable position that I'd had fun playing but was rating the games poorly. (This also touches on a previous group discussion about Cave Troll, a discussion I now more fully comprehend.)

One of the tenets (at least to me) of direct marketing (i.e. party plan or any sort of Network/Multi Level Marketing) is that you have to believe in the product. So, after all this shifting had taken place I felt in a position where I could, hand on heart, present the SimplyFun games from the position that I felt it was a good game. Of course the cynical would say that the desire to get involved with SimplyFun was a factor in the shift, and that can't be denied as a possibility.

This also fits into my other gaming ventures. (For lack of a better word.) I'm spending a fair amount of my time with the library gaming, or at Nike, or promoting National Games Week, teaching and bringing games to the great unwashed masses.

Another factor in my decision to get involved was the people in charge. This is another adventure from Jeremy Young, the guy who brought you Uberplay and Inspiration Games - serious games companies. SimplyFun have already produced Zing!, and I hope they'll keep going in the 'serious' games line. And if I can influence that decision at all.....

Finally, if you're going to get involved in any party plan/MLM business you have to be totally comfortable with your upline. I was very impressed with the consultant who came along to Chris' party and her background in games - she is co-owner of the local games store. Prior to signing up I had lunch with her, more to make sure that I was comfortable dealing with her than having her answer any questions. By halfway through the lunch I was sold and sined on the dotted line.

And so, here I am, Mike Deans, SimplyFun consultant. And don't worry, you local guys, I'm not going to be pushing this in the group. (I've already come in for some gentle ribbing about it at the recent games evening at my place.) I don't expect you to buy anything and I won't be pushing you to play the games. (I'd rather play the more serious games with the group, anyway.)

Hmmm, a fairly touchy, feely post this week. Thanks for reading this far.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

You'll Pay How Much???

I've been culling my collection of games recently, and I'm discovering that a few of the titles I have are worth what seems to me to be an unholy amount of money. An excellent example is Leading Edge's Aliens boardgame, put out in the 80's. Pretty rough components (the figures you move around the board are very roughly perforated light cardboard in plastic stands), and gameplay that encouraged me to put the box in the closet and not even notice it again until it was time to clean things out. I'm seeing prices into three figures US$, even for a "punched" copy.

Eagle Game's Napoleon in Europe struck me as an improvement over some of their other early titles, but that's like saying the Miami Dolphins are almost at the top of their division at 3-6. It's true, but you're not going far in the playoffs. Perhaps it works well as a 2-player game, and while I'm a sucker for plastic I just can't see this one pulling in $150 on E-Bay.

Wiz War has been republished numerous times, and I have a Chessex Fifth Edition copy. I played it once, it seemed to be arbitrary and somewhat repetitive, and evidently worth at least $50 (E-Bay did not have a record of this particular edition, the 7th sold for this amount).

Friedmann Friese's early effort Frischfleish, admittedly interesting in that the theme is cannibalism, is also not seen on E-Bay, although a few entrepenuers on the 'Geek are asking 120 Euros, which I guess is pretty close to $150 depending upon how crazy our president seems that week to the world market.

I'm sure there are one or two other minature gold mines floating around in my collection, although none of them seems to have the insane value of some early Magic: the Gathering cards that my friend Matt sold that allowed him to buy a functioning car, a bike, and about 30 other things.

I'm not even getting into the wargames, which can be very valuable, even games published in the last ten years. Because wargame publishers tend to produce at best a few thousand copies, once they are gone the value shoots up quite a bit. However, I seem to have a bit more of a sentimental attachment to the wargames, so none of them are on the block this time around.

I've also discovered that a few of the RPG Playstation games I have, including a first edition Xenogears in great shape, are also worth 2-3x their original price. A copy of Persona 1 that I bought used for $20 is probably worth at least $50-60 now. Even some of the late-life-cycle RPGS like Vagrant Story are selling for at least original retail.

As some of you know, I'm not hurting for money, but it's very difficult for me to turn down this kind of cash. I'm not terribly excited about the prospect of poachers winning a bid on E-Bay and me having to go after them for what is not too far off from discretionary income for me. In fact, two of the people in my group have asked what I would sell Frischfliesch for, and I can't even start to give a price, even though when all is said and done I'd much rather see the game in their hands.

I've mentioned that I can't wait to get a game out of shrinkwrap, and I don't understand why anyone would buy a game for investment purposes - games are meant to be played and loved, not hoarded like some sort of commodity. Of course, there are those who are willing to pay ridiculous sums for games that I don't think are that great. Perhaps there's some sort of nostalgia factor involved, or the buyers are trying to fill a void of some sort (I know that when I personally am buying games, that this is a primary motivator, so I'm not pointing fingers). I just don't see the point in spending $150 for one expansion set for the old Eon edition of Cosmic Encounter (#8) that a mint copy went for recently, especially when the game was so broken at that point as to be laughable (not to mention essentially purchaseable in the Mayfair editions).

I suppose one day I'll have to go through this exercise with my comic books, although I do admit to having bagged and boxed all of them. Funny how games don't affect me in the same way.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

A Lead-Based Diversion

Well, this week's column is going to take a bit of an odd tangent. I just finished a long weekend in Gettysburg at the Fall In! historical miniatures wargaming convention. I was there to play in the US De Bellis Multitudinis (DBM) 15mm Open tournament. So, humor me for waxing miniaturistic for a while – my brain really hasn't been on boardgames for a couple weeks.

These events are always as much social as competition for me. I get to see a lot of friends from around the country that I generally only see a couple times a year at most. It's not unlike the invitational boardgaming events, except bigger. This year an old friend that used to live in Seattle before moving back to London was convinced to come play. As our tournament didn't start until Friday evening, and we had arrived Thursday night, we spent all Friday morning and half the afternoon walking the battlefield at Gettysburg. It was an incredible experience. I don't really know the battle that well, but they've got a nice "electric map" presentation that walks you through the events and troop movements that occurred over the three days the battle lasted.

We then headed out to see the hotspots of the battle. Culp's Hill, Little Round Top, Devil's Den, etc. It was quite educational to stand where the troops did and look at the exact same ground wondering just how you could possibly take that hill. Or cross a mile of open ground in the face of cannon fire.

After walking the grounds, it makes me want to consider getting one of the monster Gettysburg wargames. I've never really been that interested in the American Civil War, but I can make exceptions, right? I'm interested, but not interested enough to spend the time and money to do it in miniature. A boardgame will be sufficient.

I've only had a similar feeling once before, and that was when I visited Kitty Hawk ten or so years ago. There are only a few places where you can stand and truthfully say "history changed here."

Miniatures conventions are an interesting thing. You really do get all personality types – think GenCon but with a mostly older crowd. Most of the attendees have been doing this for many years. I've only been a miniatures gamer for seven or eight years, and that makes me a relative newbie. The shows I go to tend to be 90% historical, but you still get some sci-fi and fantasy miniatures games like Warhammer and Battletech. (Battletech tends to be pretty popular with historical miniatures guys because the rules work very similarly to many Age of Sail rules.) And things like scale model race tracks playing what are essentially boardgames with miniatures. The scale model Shadows over Camelot that Days of Wonder uses for demos would look right at home.

Occasionally, you'll get some re-enactor guys that also play miniatures. (There's not that much crossover as they both tend to be expensive hobbies.) I thought we had some near us, as what appeared to be some very finely dressed Confederate and Union officers started appearing at a table behind where I was playing. There was a fantastic scale model of the Gettysburg battlefield set up there.

Then, a camera crew arrived. Turns out, they were filming a spot for a PBS special to be shown sometime early next year. Can't recall the name of it, but I'm sure I'll be able to find it. It was interesting watching them run take after take. They were trying to distill the events of the three days down to three minutes. Lots of closeup shots of model figures in the model terrain, then panning out to some Pretty Young Thing (tm) next to the battlefield table interviewing the officers to get the rundown on that day's events. I'm sure they'll edit out any shots that might show the great unwashed masses of wargamers that were surrounding them, but you never know – they were in a relatively cramped space.

One thing that impressed me – one time between takes, I heard two of the actors discussing what was on the table in front of them. One of them actually started talking about the things he learned while researching the battle. I was impressed that they'd actually go to that length when filming something that would end up being so short. Guess my cynical attitude towards anything "historical" that Hollywood produces gives me a pretty low level of expectation.

Anyway, I didn't do too badly in my tournament. Tied for 9th out of 24. Considering it was the first time I'd used this army, and also my first tournament under the latest version of the rules, I can't complain. I did do what's called "submarining." Lost my first two games, then won my last three. The tournaments use the same pairing system that Chess tournaments use, matching people with similar scores together. In theory, that means after a couple rounds you find your proper level of competition. Just above halfway seems to be a popular finishing spot for me – I rarely do spectacularly well or particularly bad – just somewhere between.

A good convention is always an invigorating experience. You're really tired, but you get reminded of how much fun it is to play the game – and you start planning what project you'll work on next. Or how you want to tweak your current army, what army or battle you want to build, etc. And there's always the loot you managed to score in the dealer's hall. This time, I picked up a new set of rules for the early 18th century, a Polish army for those rules to go with the Swedes and Russians I already had, and some unpainted resin river sections.

Miniatures will always take a front seat to boardgaming for me. It's my favorite hobby, but I just don't have any opponents in my area that are interested in similar things – so I play boardgames far more often than I used to. It also helps that the boardgamers down here are great people and good friends as well.

After all, that's what it's all about, right?

Monday, November 14, 2005

Pros & Cons: A BGG.CON Postmortem

[Pros & Cons is a (sporadically released) series on my con-going experiences, and I am using the term "con" very loosely here. In this entry, I discuss my experience at the first annual (we assume and hope) BGG.CON. The feedback thread on BGG makes this post largely redundant, and I recommend you read that first, if not "instead".]

Location: I had every intention to stay inside the whole time, so I won't say much about Dallas other than it was refreshinging to ride on a light rail less pleasant than Portland's. The hotel rooms were very nice, although I'm fine with cheaper and less fancy accommodationsions (e.g., the $50 rooms at Atlanta's Oasis of Fun (OoF)). Having the 5th floor of Plaza of the Americas' South Tower was perfect meeting space; it contained the gaming action, had several small rooms for vendors and the game library, and the layout provided for both noisy and quiet atmospheres to suit a gamer's tastes. The question going forward is whether the con will grow, and outgrow this location. Grade: A-.

Logistics: Great job by all the people involved, and major kudos to the game library volunteers. Everything went very smoothly, and the workers did not draw a lot of attention to themselves as seen elsewhere. However, a lot of resources went into things like prizes, the poker tournament, the Game Show, etc., and while these were all well-executed and enjoyed by many, I didn't get a sense from other con-goers that these were actual highlights of the con. Rather, everyone was talking about the games themselves and meeting other gamers. That said, I would rather have resources go into the most important things first (e.g., read the next section). Grade: A.

Eats: As several others have noted, food was the (relatively) big problem, especially at night and over the weekend. Folks have suggested getting runners for snacks. One of the nicer recent developments at Portland's Game Storm is the hospitality room, where con-goers can find beverages and a wide variety of food, both healthy and, well, less healthy. For a con this size, a beverage option would be nice; I am not a big fan of snack foods at the table for multiple reasons. In the end, I think the primary gap is the lack of meal choices that are cheap, quick, and good. GameStorm has the Bento/wrap joint across the street, OoF has the noteworthy Barbecue Kitchen (meat, two sides, and biscuit for $6!), and both have the nearby Denny's/Waffle House for late night runs. The cafe downstairs was decent but the hours were too limited. Grade: D+.

People: Well, we are all geeks, but some geeks are stranger than others (cue Morrissey: "some geeks' mothers are stranger than other geeks' mothers"). I found this crowd to be fairly easy-going with a pleasant balance between competition and having fun. There seemed to be heavy representation of those who like low-randomness games (made evident by Caylus and Age of Steam being the most-played games). Of the games being played, there were very few party games (other than Werewolf), and not so many "fun" games (except for the new releases, such as Elasund). If you are a fan of games like Puerto Rico, this is your scene. One thing I noticed was the lack of alcohol present compared to other cons. The main reason was probably not having the con directly in the hotel, but I think the seriousness of the gamers factored in as well. Grade: A.

Gaming: There was a healthy mix of early risers and night owls. As I feared, it was hard to find a game at times; I did not put any energy to see there was much "clustering" (where specific groups of individual stuck together for the whole weekend). Folks in the aforementioned BGG thread observed this as well, and there you will find ideas of how to address minimizing downtime for all attendees. Two weeks ago, I expressed concern at attendees trying to schedule games into an open gaming atmosphere; in only one case did I observe a blatant conflict, but there was at least one other incident where things got unnecessarily hairy. In the end, it was easily the lowest average number of games played of any multi-day event I have attended, but the quality of play made up for it somewhat. Grade: C.

So, in the final assessment, I would give the con a grade of B. I recommend it most highly, especially to folks who enjoy low-randomness games. I would also suggest that, if you do go, to bring a buddy along.





While I didn't get a change to try out many of the new sexier titles, I did get a chance to play several new games, ranked here in order from most positive impression to least positive:
  • Carcassonne the Discovery: My fellow Rip City Gamers will be shocked to hear that a Carcassonne game is getting my Best of Show award. Unlike the original Carc, you won't be stuck drawing a run of "bad" tiles (e.g., a straight road across farmland), nor will you get obvious windfalls like a mid-game cloister. It also avoids the little increments of scoring that makes Carc H&G mediocre. The subtle changes in meeple management decisions (completed regions don't automatically return the meeples; you may either place or remove one meeple per turn; meeples removed from incomplete regions score a reduced value) are delightful. Screwage is still available via tile placement, but it avoids the pissing matches found in other Carc games.
  • Castle Merchants: Yeah, it's a bit klunky, but it's definitely my type of game. I had a solid lead, but then the other two players kept me stranded and I got edged out at end. A key lesson is to not bring yourself to a near-victory with a reduced hand! The game arc is kinda funky, in that movement in the endgame is essentially double-speed, but it's a fun mix of planning, screwage, and luck.
  • Techno Witches: When I saw another group playing this, I knew I would have to get this for my family! I played one match using the basic scenario, and was able to wiggle my way to victory while being very risky by selecting multiple tiles between flights. Exactly the type of game we enjoy at home, and it has a fun theme.
  • Havoc: Even though I was not part of the official demo team, I played and/or taught this four times over the weekend. In my first match, I was the only one to spend cards (5!) in a battle without getting points, but I still came back to win. I won the second match handily, but unfortunately missed a rule for the 3-player setup (it worked fine anyways). In the third match, I was holding four 6's, when the person to my right recruited the remaining two 6's from the face-up display. Argh! So, after winning the penultimate battle with a straight flush, I only had a Big House for the final battle, which got beat by a better Big House, and I lost the game by a point.
  • Mall of Horror: Played this one twice. In the first, I had my top two characters voted out early, so I committed suicide with the third, thus forfeiting my shot at the Sportsmanship award. In the second, I took over a bad position that I couldn't do much with, but had fun anyways. This is a very enjoyable game that critically needs the right mix of people to make it work. (Matt, I think you would really get a kick out of this one, as it's similar to the Lifeboat Game.)
  • Kreta: In a four-player match, I didn't really know what was going on in the beginning and developed on the opposite side of the board from where the other players were developing. They built up a big lead in the early scoring, but I ended up coming back and winning when scoring cards for my area started showing up in the endgame. My initial assessment is that this is a mediocre area-influence game where the luck of the draw is going to be maddening at times.
  • E&T Cardgame: I've played E&T in as quickly as 25 minutes, and usually within an hour, so I don't see a need for a "fast" version. It takes away many of the interesting facets while not adding anything new. The increased flow of cards reduces the chance of being weak in one color (although there's no easy way to get rid of an unneeded glut), but it also reduces the need to initiate conflicts. In the end, it felt much like the boardgame. For example, at the critical point of the match, I would have scored a huge kill in an external conflict, easily giving me victory, but I failed two successive external conflicts (with a +1 modifier) with 4 red cards in my hand. I'd just assume play the boardgame so I can pretend the rest matters.
  • Caylus: In my first match of the much-ballyhooed Caylus, I finished 2nd, well behind 1st and well ahead of 3rd. The game marries my favorite tactical mechanism (action drafting) with my least favorite strategic objective (do-a-lot-of-stuff-get-a-lot-of-points). Having shared building with no spatial element makes it way too tactical for my tastes, the game was too fussy (especially with the 1 VP adjustments for using the buildings), and the player chaos is pretty high, particularly in when someone decides to stop taking actions for a round. The long playing time is just too much given the other problems (especially that of it being a tactical game).
  • Cow Poker - A vanilla trick-taking game with a take-that element pasted on. The decent parts of this game reminded me of Gnadenlos!.
  • Die Baumeister Des Krimsutep: A vanilla trick-taking game with Carc-ish tile-laying. The hand bidding is similar to the Too Many Cooks menu system, but I do not think it works in a game with trumps. The kingmaking element was enough to put this over the top and make it Worst of Show (congrats to Doug Garrett - that's two cons in a row! Although I should also mention that Doug also taught me the new Carc.).

In addition, I played a couple of prototypes, Yehuda's omnipresent menorah game, and Jerry Dziuba's clever 2-player game. I normally don't say much about prototypes as per standard protocol, but I will say that I am very excited about Jerry's game. I also played some older games, again listed most to least favorable.

  • La Citta: I taught the game to two new players, and won by about 5 points or so. As with last match I played, the 3 random Voice of the People cards not used in the game were all the same color, hurting me in the final turn - I only needed one more to show up!
  • Money!: I had a horrendous starting hand: 2 gold coins and the rest all low cards - and predictably got spanked.
  • Magna Grecia: I volunteered to teach the game as others showed interest in learning it. I have only played once before, and that was a long time ago, but I recently refreshed myself in the rules and was perhaps over-confident in my ability to teach. I botched up the rules a bit, and we ended up voting to play the shortened game halfway through, but I think it gave everyone a taste for what the game provies. I sure want to play again! My massive central city controlled four oracles, which was enough to give me the win.
  • Liberte: I played this against four Texans, so it goes without saying that I won. I scored in two colors in the first round, and relied on red for the rest of the game. Red actually came one point short of the special victory condition at one point.
  • Princes of Florence: Two VPs separated a pro, myself, and a first-time player! Both myself and the pro built 8 works, but I took too much money out in the 6th round which cost me 1 VP. The jester prices were higher than my local crew usually bids, which I was not used to.
  • Fairy Tale: This was my first play. I love this style of draft mechanism, but, compared to CCGs, I felt that the card selection was largely obvious. The effects of the black cards (including cancellers) seemed unnecessarily chaotic for this style of game.
  • Alladin's Dragons: I have played this game once before. In that earlier match, I was just edged out wherever I went. This time, I stopped trying to be cute, and focused on only investing in a few key spots, and it paid off in a win. It also helped a lot that I went heavy for spells early on (knowing what the second spell is is almost as powerful as having it yourself), and the counter-spell artifacts didn't come out until mid-game. I definitely enjoyed this session, but I can see that falling behind early on can quickly lead to a miserable experience. Still, I would like to play again soon to see whether I should change my rating from Thumbs Down to Thumbs Up.
  • Showmanager: I have played this or Atlantic Star four times or so, and I always do horribly. Here, I finished 4th out of 6. I'm not a fan of card drafting, but otherwise I cannot really pin down what it is that I dislike.
  • Werewolf: My history and recent experience with Werewolf deserves its own blog entry. And so it shall be...

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Infection

“What have you done to help grow the hobby? Will you be doing anything to promote National Games Week?” You’ve read our team’s thoughts on many sides of the issue. I do want to grow the hobby, in a couple of ways. First, I want my friends to get involved if it suits them – not “the masses” – just people I would enjoy gaming with. Second, as a new designer, I want people I’ve never met who might enjoy one or more games from Sunriver to give them a try. I don’t need a million people to buy a Sunriver game; just a few thousand who will actually play it (and buy everything else we ever publish sight unseen!) =)

Growing the hobby is about infection. I love the hobby. If I’m doing it right, my enjoyment may impact someone else who otherwise might not have gotten into this pastime. I would like to have people recognize they’ve gotten “the bug” for gaming. Knowing from where doesn’t matter to me, unless that person actually needs to get more infection to reach critical mass, and he or she doesn’t know where we infected people hang out. Gaming is not widely visible.

Using infection as term is not in any way meant to be funny or negative. It’s just the right term to describe the process of building in others an environment where a critical mass of interest in gaming might grow. So here are seven practical ways I can infect people:

1. Invite people to attend game groups I play with. I remember exactly who invited me to each group I’ve played with in the Portland Area. Just their first names for now, but a true THANKS to these friends who welcomed me:
Lorna . . . . . Jay . . . . . Jay . . . . . Chris . . . . .
Dave . . . . . Doug . . . . . Doug . . . . . Nate . . . . .
Mike . . . . . Benjamin . . . . . Amy . . . . . Patrick

To some of these gatherings, we took our kids. Some of these folks became family friends. Some we vacation with. Even the ones I don’t game with all that often left me with a good impression of gaming.

2. Support my local stores. It’s a long way over to Rainy Day Games but they’re a great store dedicated to gaming. Years ago I took the original Carabande there on a Friday night as a demo. Steve Ellis, the owner, told me later he took a bunch of pre-orders for the game that night, and at the time he didn’t even carry it! Sometimes a game store has the spark that catches a Pokemon player and gets them to see that there are more games in the world that they could love.

3. Run games at my local conventions, like Gamestorm and Dragonflight. In 2005 I ran about 12 two-hour sessions at each con. I’m not suggesting that for anyone but designers desperate to have their prototypes played, but it can be done! But if you run even one session, you’ll be “giving back” to the community and possibly infecting someone new.

A few years ago Jay Schindler and I ran a Sunday morning Family Boardgames program. It was none other than Chris and Julie Brooks who showed up with their sons, we all had a great time, and today the Brooks family is half of Sunriver Games. Can’t think of a better example.

4. Go to the big events – like Essen and BGG.con this year. Here’s a chance for me to get re-charged and make great new friends. Not only do I have a chance to introduce games I like to other people, but I get to learn new games that might be “just right” to introduce to a family or work buddy back home. Big cons have a ton of choices, and peers and mentors abound.

5. Infect my own family – any gathering is fair game. But I do have to learn that some people just want to chat and eat and maybe watch sports or movies. Oh well! People in my family always notice that I carry a tub into every house we visit, always filled with games. Even if most of them get no play, they know the tub will be coming next time too.

6. Game at open locations. Recently I had a great game group at Powell’s Books in downtown Portland. Bystanders will ask questions, watch what you’re doing, maybe get interested. Our family has also gamed on floors in airports, waiting for a delayed flight. Easy card games attract other people’s kids, and their parents ask about the games.

7. Support my friends’ efforts – like Mike Dean’s Library gigs, Chris Brooks’ Simply Fun events, my wife Rita’s games event at work. I can offer to help, just show up and be supportive, make a new friend or two, whatever. It’s the standing beside my friends that increases the energy.

So, seven ways to spread games. And how will I promote National Games Week?

We are hoping to have the Oregonian picture article about Havoc come out sometime that week, if we’re lucky. We’ll be supporting Mike’s library gig if he does one, and attending Havoc launch party on November 20 (3-5 pm), the first of that week.

We’re also planning to go to Ashland that week for the Funagain Havoc Party (Saturday November 27. 1-4 pm), where we’ll finally deliver the rest of Funagain’s bundle of games and pick up the games I sent home from Essen. That date isn’t firm yet, but if it works it would make a nice finish for the National week.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Evangelism for a hobby

National Games Week Logo

First, I want to provide some clarification on National Games Week.  It is not a product of Hasbro or any other game publisher – it is a marketing effort led by Matthews Simmons Marketing, which publishes Games Quarterly magazine.  Mark Simmons is the engine behind this effort – he used to run GAMA but is now in the process of launching his own games trade fair (Games Expo) that will go head-to-head with the GAMA Trade Show.  I think Mark has great intentions with National Games Week.  Listen to this podcast on Pulp Gamer for more information.

As a reminder, the question of the week is “What have you done to help grow the hobby? Will you be doing anything to promote National Games Week?”

I’m not an overt evangelist for hobby gaming, but I am a strong believer in playing games as a family and I take every opportunity I can to introduce people to games beyond what they see in mass retail.  Not that I’m opposed to mass retail games – there are some great ones out there!  Liar’s Dice, Catch Phrase, and HeroScape are great examples of mass produced games that are fun and interesting and can be found on the shelves at Target and ToysRUs.

In the past three years, I have probably introduced 5–10 different families to family strategy games.  Most of these introductions are casual, such as when we have family friends over for dinner and are looking for something social to do together.  A recent case of very explicit evangelism was a SimplyFun event I ran several weeks ago.  One family in particular was so enamored of the event that they are putting on their own party as a pre-school fundraiser, introducing their games to 4–6 other families in the Sherwood area.

Julie and I just read Marcia Baldanza’s article in a 2002 edition of Counter about her games night at the elementary school where she was principal (Funagain article here).  We want to do this at Archer Glen Elementary, but we are both too busy right now to undertake yet another activity.  We are thinking maybe we’ll give it a try for late fall of 2006.  In the meanwhile, I plan to provide a single-page flyer at the school showing example games appropriate for elementary-age children – something like this flyer that Ben Baldanza put together a while back.  There has been a decent amount of local press on Havoc that people are coming to me asking where they can buy similar games, so the timing is perfect.

As Eric already mentioned, we have a successful lunchtime gaming group at work that is bringing some new people into the hobby.  I don’t make it nearly as often as I would like to due to extensive travel, but Eric does a great job keeping it going and the group continues to grow.  We are even planning a Corillian game night in the near future.

Finally, I’m happy to say that I will be doing something to promote National Games Week.  Sunriver Games will be hosting a Havoc launch party at Rainy Day Games on Sunday, November 20, from 3–5pm.  We’ll offer demos and some giveaways and will use the event as a kickoff for National Games Week.  And of course I plan to get in a lot of gaming over the holiday weekend out on the coast.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Growing gamers

Before I move onto my take of this month's subject, a word or two on where it came from.

I don't recall exactly why, but I was reminded recently of my days in the Sealed Knot, a British based English Civil War Re-enactment society, which I was involved with for almost 20 years, from my days in college all the way until shortly before we left to come over here. As might be expected, this involved dressing up in period costume and putting on events with pike, musket, artillery and/or cavalry involving anywhere from 2000 people (full scale battles) all the way down to a dozen people in a small display of weapons handling.

For most of these events, especially the largest ones, we used to travel some considerable distance, but as time grew on and we become more accomplished and confident, we started developing an interest in doing something more locally. Now, remember that we lived in the very north of Scotland, where most people hadn't even heard of the English Civil War, let alone the Sealed Knot. (And before everyone stands aghast at the deficiencies of the Scottish education system I am speaking somewhat metaphorically. Hmm, I may be closer to the truth than I first thought, as I was never taught much about British history at school, and absolutely zero about Scottish history. Until I met my SK buddies at college I certainly didn't know anything about Scottish involvement in what was called, after all, the _English_ Civil War.) A few of our members expressed doubts about people they knew finding out that they spent weekends dressing up and running around with pointy sticks. One, in fact point blank refused to be involved in anything in the local area where he had a chance of bumping into someone he knew. (At a more distant event, someone we knew was visiting, recognized us and came over to chat. Our guy dodged and hid in the toilets until the visitor had gone....)

Anyway, the point is that I was never worried about displaying my SK involvement in public. And anyway, whenever anyone raised an eyebrow about it you just say that it's all to raise money for charity (which it was) and then you get that 'Ah...' response, as if that explains or excuses any weird or unusual behaviour.

So, it was with this in mind that another memory mingled recently. At one recent game session the host needed us to move to a common room in the central building rather than game in his condo apartment. The trip over involved putting the games in bags, so no-one could see them, and then closing all the blinds in the room, so that no-one could see that we were *gasp* playing games. (OK, I may be exaggerating a little for effect, but you get the idea.) I've never worried about playing in public, and would be more than happy to arrange a regular gaming session in a local Starbucks, Borders or whatever.

OK, so now that we've established that I'm not a closet gamer, back to the topic at hand. I've got a small, and growing, group going here at Nike that meets every Thursday lunchtime. Numbers have varied between 2 and 10, but are generally around 5-6 mark. Some of us also meet on Tuesday as well, where we always (and only) play Carcassonne, which has been a huge hit here.

I've also been doing some game sessions at the local library. The ones over the last Christmas holiday break were tremendously successful, about 50 people over the two afternoons, although the regular Monday sessions have been very hit or miss, with numbers ranging from 1 to 10. I'll be doing the holiday sessions again, and I hope that it will spill over into the regular Monday sessions.

As for National Games Week, anything that encourages kids to switch off the TV or video game and do something that involves social interaction is to be applauded. Even if it is promoted by game companies, which is is, athough I don't see a big Hasbro promotion. I was very disappointed that the library were very not very interested in doing anything. I'll probably run an open house on the Sunday (11/20) afternoon for the neighbors.

In his entry, Dave had some very interesting thoughts and points. The major one is whether we should even care about hobby growth. As I said above, I'm concerned that our kids are losing opportunities to develop social interaction skills. (And, no, killing evil dudes together in on-line Diablo or World of Warcraft does not count.) I think our hobby has a lot to offer in this area, as well as building bonds and shared memories between parents and kids. Added to that is my general interest in sharing something I love with others. So, yes, I care about growing the hobby.

As for defining hobby growth, it's making people aware of these games that I'm referring to. fwiw, I think there are already plenty of games (perhaps too many, even), so I'm not interested in growing that side. (The fact that I couldn't design a game to save my life has nothing to do with it. I'm in total awe of those who can come up with the ideas for all these fabby games.) Partly I'm also wanting to remove from people's minds that playing games either means Monopoly or smelly geeks playing D&D for days on end surrounded by mountains of rule books.

He also presented his view that the best way to grow the hobby is to encourage the local games stores. From my experiences at Nike and the library this would be fine if the store was in a location where people could see it while about their regular business, like the local mall. Most people I've spoken to had no idea of existance of our local store, and don't have a high enough awareness of games to find out if theere is a local store. I really don't believe that sticking a store in an out of the way place is really going to do anything to help bring modern/Euro/designer (pick your favorite term) games to awareness of the general public. And even if they are aware of it, what is going to make them stop and go in? (I passed our local store many times before I bothered to go in - I thought it would be just another video games store.) And when they are in, how are they going to know what to buy? Presenting opportunites to educate them and let them try games, in my view, comes before them venturing to the store. Don't get me wrong, I think we need a local store (and I make sure that any new people are made aware that they can purchase these games locally), but it's not the first step in the process - 'If you build it they will come' isn't a viable method for growing the hobby.

Anyway, that's probably enough drivel from me for this week. Thanks to those of you who made it this far....

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Off Topic, Am I

Since I keep mistaking the start of the month for, well, the start of the month, my evangelism article is a bit early this time. Actually, I've covered the subject in two different entries, one on how I've given up on evangelism in a broad sense, and also the evolution of how my wife has come to accept my hobby. Well, one of my hobbies. You'd think one of them would be cheap...

As for National Gaming Is Good Week, I think that's fine and dandy, although I also suspect that it's part of a marketing ploy by Hasborg to get people to buy yet another copy of Monopoly or Sorry. I'd be more enthusiastic if the big US companies (whoops, company) would try developing good games instead of repackaging the same old thing over and over. For me personally, every week is National Gaming Is Good Week.

Since I've had a couple of very busy weeks recently (truck battery dead plus keys locked in car, days worth of bookkeeping entries lost at work, unintended water feature in my basement), I'll keep it relatively short this time. The subject: Attendance.

We had a great turnout last night at Rip City Gamer's Central Tuesday session (which happens every other week). Eleven people, including myself, showed up. This is, if not a record, certainly a tie for the most people showing up at my place. Two weeks earlier, it was myself and Laurent playing Blood Bowl. Not to denigrate Laurent, as we did have a good time, but there is something about critical mass that just lubes the social engine that makes gaming what it is. Another host told me recently that he was getting tired of people not showing up when he hosted our Thursday sessions, and in fact when Tim and I were a bit late in commiting, he even got to his house a bit late.

I empathize completely. Hosting requires at least a bit of psychic energy, not to mention a commitment of time. For me, while I am disappointed if few people show up, I generally can find something else to do when it becomes clear that the evening is now free. For those with children and/or busy schedules, commiting to that time can mean that another activity will have to be missed if it requires planning, travel, etc.

Recently our group went from weekly Thursday sessions (one on each "side" of town) to weekly Tuesday sessions and a bi-weekly Thursday session for those who live in the Wild West. Traffic patterns and recent familial additions made it difficult for those on the West side to make it to the more central or southern sessions, hence the change. Since then, while I have to admit that it is much more convenient for me to attend Tuesdays, and thus I tend to get to almost all of them, attendance in general hasn't improved that much. We now seem to have mega-sessions with more than six people, but when we don't it tens to be two, three, or four.

With the holidays coming up, and a bit more free time for people, we are planning more weekend sessions - a party this coming weekend, a gaming day over the Thanksgiving weekend, a 2-player game weekend (!) the following week, and another big session right after Christmas for those lucky enough to have that week off. As such, I expect the next several Tuesday/Thursday sessions to drop off a bit, although that isn't always the case. For some, attendance is tied closely to what sports they or their kids play in, so when soccer drops off after mid-November, there may be a rise instead.

Just some thoughts on attendance. As the founder of Rip City Gamers, I may take this sort of thing more seriously than many in the group, but I do understand that people are going to make choices on many many factors, many beyond their control. Children, for example.

Before I sign off, a quick update on the Great Game Purge. I think I've identified the "valuable" games on my list, including 5th ed Wiz War, Napoleon in Europe, and Frishfleishe. There were 125 games on the list, plus at least another six or seven that escaped me the first time. While many are barely worth the paper they are printed on, more importantly they took up considerable space. Several games have already been picked up by people in my group, which is nice.

Bit of a smorgasbord today, but there you go.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Proliferation, Expansion, Cultivation

Sounds like spam.

Anyway, the topic at hand: The Eternal Question. "Have you grown the hobby?" Every hobby I've been seriously involved with has asked that question, and I've answered it for at least three different hobbies. And, surprisingly the answer is yes on two of them.

Wargames
Not a whole heck of a lot. In fact, probably nothing outside of participating in GMT's P500 program which helps GMT get more games published. So, I guess I am helping in a roundabout way.

Miniatures
I haven't done that much to grow the miniatures hobby, but I do run a tournament at our regional annual convention, and I'm a contributor on a number of mailing lists. Of course, that's a bit of preaching to the converted. I have only rarely played miniatures in a setting open to the public, so I guess you could say I haven't really grown the hobby, only maintained it.

Boardgames
Okay, here the answer is a little more palatable. I've founded or co-founded two different gaming groups that met in (semi-)public areas.

A few years ago, WizKids opened up a retail outlet in Redmond, WA. This was within walking distance of my office. They had a decent selection of boardgames in addition to miniatures, RPGs, and (of course) WizKids products. I approached the lady behind the counter (who turned out to be the manager - Hi, Cynthia, if you're out there!) and asked if they'd be interested in hosting a boardgaming night.

We decided on Tuesdays, and I put together a flyer and sent email out to Spielfrieks and (I think) Nigglybits. I may have posted on the geek as well, but the memories are hazy.

To my knowledge, that group (with lots of turnover) remains to this day. I had to effectively drop out as we had moved south to Gig Harbor, and Cynthia had a baby and sold their interest in the store after WizKids was bought by Topps. I believe it's a Games and Gizmos now, but I'm not entirely sure what it's called. At least one other group has spun off from it as well.

Met some good people through that group. Jim Campbell, Alex Rockwell, Brad Miller and many others. (Hi, guys. Chime in if you read this. I'd love to hear what you all are up to.)

The second group was one Chris and I co-founded at work. We meet every Friday at lunch in the cafeteria which is open to the public, but not very much public comes by. We regularly have between five and eight players, so it's a pretty healthy group - I'm sure there's been some people introduced to eurogames via the people in this group if not the group directly.

National Games Week


Will I be putting on anything? Nope. Will I play in something? Most Likely. We really don't have any major plans over the holiday weekend, so I'm sure we'll find some time for gaming.

Further Thoughts


One question that came to mind, and Dave touched on it a bit in yesterday's post, is "do we really want to grow the hobby?" There's a LOT of discussion there, and it wouldn't surprise me if somebody picks that up as a future question of the month on here.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Short Answer(s): Little. No.

I just got back from five days of fun at BGG.CON (more on that next week) , so I'll be unusually brief in today's post in answering Mike's two-parter: "What have you done to help grow the hobby? Will you be doing anything to promote National Games Week?". I will likely expand on some of these points in the future, and it should be obvious to which points I am referring.

The first (implied) question to answer is if I even care whether or not the hobby grows. Actually, stepping back one step further, there's the question of how to define "hobby growth". Game production? No, in this case I would actually prefer hobby shrinkage. More acceptance by the masses? Being a fan of death metal has inured me to this; despite the challenges and growth opportunities, both intellectually and emotionally, that come from listening to intense music, I do not see myself selling relatives and co-workers on the finer points of Nile's "Lashed to the Slave Stick". Likewise, I think there are many aspects of playing Euros that would turn off most folks: calculating; competing; losing.

I think the only aspect of hobby growth I care about is providing means for folks to check it out on their own. I would cite Mike and KC's efforts in these areas, but I am sure they will talk about it in their entries. But each such effort only impacts a small handful of people. I really think the best way to do this in today's world is to support local game stores. I would not be in the hobby today if it were not for Gamekeeper in Albany, and Pegasus Games in Madison. I like to think that Rainy Day Games (RDG) has done the same for other folks, and that my early support of RDG has helped to make them the great store it is today.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

Question of the Month: November

Being the first full week of November, each blog entry this week will answer the following question, in all of its unedited glory, picked by Mike: "What have you done to help grow the hobby? Will you be doing anything to promote National Games Week?".

Those of you playing from home can use this entry to post your own answers!