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Gathering of Engineers

Ludographic considerations from the Silicon Forest

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Tuesday Tidbits

Well, yet another light gaming week for me. Seems I've been doing more things about games than actually playing them. In "light" of that, this week will be a collection of thoughts related to gaming in a variety of forms spawned by the events of the last 10 days or so.

I hosted a SimplyFun party (run by Mike) at my house a couple weeks ago. We had about eight people there – good fun, and I think Chris had the event blogged before he got home. Picked up Drive and Zing (Die Sieben Siegal). Jodie and I played Drive (which is actually Michael Schacht's Crazy Chicken) a couple nights ago and it was "eh." Probably better with four. It seems to fill a similar niche to Coloretto, but isn't as good. At least it's playable with 2 where Coloretto is not. Looking forward to Zing as Chris and Mike both rank it as one of their top trick-taking card games.

I like the idea of SimplyFun. Being a gamer that likes the deeper games, however, I do find their catalog a tad fluffy. That is by design, of course, as they're emphasizing the social aspects of game playing. A concept I fully endorse. Anything that gets families and friends together and interacting instead of parking themselves in front of the TV set is a good thing. One thing that SimplyFun does that other game companies should note is the production style.

Here's the things SimplyFun does with their games that I wish other companies would do:

  • Sturdy Boxes. Of course, they're nothing like the near bullet-proof box C&C: Ancients comes in, but they're very well made.

  • Rules summaries on the front cover of the rules. VERY handy for a refresher after you've learned the game and just need to remember things like number of cards and turn sequence.

  • Journals. Okay, for cost reasons I can see why this one isn't done. I've always liked the idea I heard way back when about keeping a sheet of paper in every game that details when the game was played, by who, and who won. SimplyFun includes a little (game-specific) booklet in each game specifically for this purpose. A nice touch.

Our Friday gaming group at work just loves Tanz der Hornochsen. I think we're up to six plays in that group – that might be our all-time high. It fills a good niche as it's not very complex, plays in an hour or less, and handles a large number of people. I'm open to other suggestions for games in this category. Frank's Zoo is another favorite that fits. (Criteria: 1 hour play time, handles 7 players, low complexity a plus but not mandatory. Chris would probably prefer it didn't contain simultaneous action selection.)

Got my copy of GMT's Commands and Colors: Ancients. This is Richard Borg's third entry in the Battle Cry/Memoir '44 series. Given that I'm a fan of wargames based in the 18th century or earlier, I'm predisposed to like this title. I haven't had a chance to play yet, but I did get all the blocks stickered up. I was setting the game out on Sunday when Mike came by and we chatted about it a bit. I think it'll end up being my favorite in the series due to the theatre and complexity. Mike wasn't too thrilled with the blocks, and I admit the game lacks the visual appeal of the earlier games. As discussed on Alfred's blog, 1/72nd plastic figures might be the way to go here, though getting two elephants or chariots to fit in those hexes will be a challenge. Might have to get creative with removable support figures or something.

Another wargame that arrived recently that (undeservedly) got shuffled away with holiday chaos was Flying Colors, also from GMT. This is a Napoleonic naval game that is geared for fleet actions, not individual ships. Well, "Napoleonic" is compartmentalizing it a bit. It does handle conflicts back into the Seven Years War as well. This is probably going to grab a spot in my solo gaming space. In fact, I better do that soon, because as soon as Here I Stand arrives, I'll be plonking that puppy down in eager anticipation of a six-player session.

On the miniatures side, I finally finished painting my 6mm Russian Cavalry for Peter the Great's army. All I have to do now is the artillery and command stands, and it's complete. The immediate need is for me to paint some Swiss skirmishers and pack horses for the DBM tournament at Conquest NW in a couple weeks. After that, I'm full bore onto Charles XII's Swedish army to take on those Russians. (then it's the Poles then Saxons... a miniaturists' job is never done...)

Monday, January 30, 2006

A brief hobby, in brief

I had a raw draft about Internet boardgaming in general, focusing on play-by-web vs. real-time, but I just don't have the energy left to do any editing. It's Focal week at work - where us managers edit and rewrite and revise employee reviews - and I am burnt, fried, and refried. So, instead I will just post the last third of the article, which is a brief look at my brief foray into the glamorous world of internet boardgame programming.

A couple of years ago, I had ambitions to provide an Internet gaming site. These days, play-by-web (PBW) sites are abundant; SpielByWeb is a particulary nice site. However, PBW sites use Web & DB technologies. Part of my motivation was to beef up my skills in client-server .NET programming, as I work on control software at work. This would make my project more like the real-time network apps such as BSW. I ordered the hardware and started on some initial work, but two things happened. First, my kid arrived, and working on my PC or laptop is impossible when she is around. Second, I got promoted at work, which means not only am I busier, but I don't do any programming any longer!

The games I developed had minimal, functional graphics using simple widgets; the .NET WinForms library enables me to very rapidly develop prototypes on top of a working game engine. I wrote a tiered framework with a generic event-driven rendering interface on the client, so a nicer GUI could have been grafted on at some point. I focused less on the multi-player networking support and more on some rudimentary AI, ranging from Dumb to Dumber. Here is a list of projects that actually had working code at some point. (Click on the images to see a larger version.)

My first project was Mystick Domination, a CCG-like two-player game. I had the basic system in place, including all of the pawn attributes. However, implementing the special rules for every card proved to be too much work, and that was using the Basic set! A quick look at the Power set and I knew I was way in over my head. No AI here; I was just trying to create a point-to-point app so that I could play with my friend across town.

Next I whipped up Honeybears; it's a simple design, and creating a competitive AI was within my grasp. This game had the final version of the object library I used in every game since. Go Yellow Bear!

Next up was Titan: the Arena, a group favorite. Encoding all of the creature abilities was a fun challenge, but I never took the AI further than its current random behavior. Instead, this was the app that I most fully developed for a client-server architecture.

The last playable executable I "released" was based on a design of KC's, Trés Amigos. I won't say too much about it in case Sunriver Games is still looking to publish it. It's the first one where I included images (courtesy of KC) instead of just using painted widgets.

If nothing else, I gained a deeper appreciation for those who provide Internet boardgaming options, be it PBW, real-time, or standalone client with AI. Now, if you don't mind, I'm going to get in a quick game of San Juan before crashing for the night.

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Playtesting Best Practices

Sunriver Games is just starting a new round of playtesting games we’re considering publishing, so this week’s column is about what seems to work best (and worst) in playtesting – for the author, the publisher, and for the playtester. I’m happy to take input on any and all of these, and so develop a better “best practices” list.

Being the Playtester
First, if you’ve never tried this game out, even playing it yourself, tell me up front. If you’re a good friend and we’ve playtested each other’s stuff, some of the following rules can be broken at any time. =)

My Core Set of Values. I prefer to see decent graphics and a prototype that is more than just felt tip pens on blank cards or butcher paper. If you have an idea for theme, I want to hear it. It absolutely helps get me in the mood of the game. I don’t need written rules, but a player aid is nice in case I forget some of the rules you explained to me. If there’s scoring at the end of the game, give me a reminder that shows me what I’m shooting for. Spelling errors take my attention off the game, so please check the cards, tiles, or whatever before we play. If you have several versions of mechanics, let’s concentrate on what you want to test today – later we can discuss the other stuff.

After the Game. If you have some standard questions you ask everyone, write ‘em on a note card. I played this game to help you, so I’d like you to be a good listener if you do have some questions. It’s okay to explain why you chose a particular path, but if you argue with me about why your way is “right” you might lose me for next time. It’s not bad for you to write down my input and come back to me with more discussion later. The more work I do for you, the more likely it is I’d appreciate being listed in the credits if you get published, or getting a good price on a published copy.

Being the Company
We’ve decided as a company to look at designs in-house and out-of-house. This time we’ll be looking at two multi-player games and one or two 2-player games. Our goal is to gather data to then compare against similar results from last year’s playtests.

Live Testing. We meet as a company and pick a couple dates a month out or so. We pick a nice place, like a meeting room at a library, business, etc. that has tables, bathrooms, good light, and will allow food. We announce the dates on our Website, in the groups we play with, and to our email list of interested people. At the event we do name tags, shuffle people around from game to game, and provide food and drink during the day. We also have some door prizes or other ways to say thanks for giving us a day.

The games are usually nice prototypes with copies of rules and player aids for each player. The whole room plays game A, then game B, etc. so we can explain the rules and answer questions once as a group. We tell ‘em what we’re looking for, and have feedback sheets to fill out so we can capture a lot of data for later review. And we usually provide an optional dinner at day’s end for people who want to talk out some of their ideas.

Blind Testing. After we selected HAVOC as the first game we’d publish, we asked for volunteer game groups to give it a try. We sent out seven sets for blind testing, paying Priority Mail and International Mail Rates. We offered support by email, our website, and by phone. We made sure we had a primary contact, and we included questions we needed answered, with feedback sheets to fill out to capture the data.

Upside. Groups played HAVOC more than once, with different mixes of numbers or types of players. They gave us great feedback on which rules were hard to get, or ideas on how to fix those. We got feedback on some newer rules we weren’t sure about. And they didn’t all like the game. That was a bonus for us, since they were willing to say what they didn’t like. Honesty is awesome.

Downside. Some groups didn’t even try our game for a month. Some groups never played it as far as we know. Even though we paid return postage, we never got back some of the prototypes. Some groups returned the game with little or no data on who played or their comments. We waited too long for feedback that never came.

Next time we’ll try to fix some of what went wrong. One clear message: Please don’t sign up if you’re not sold on helping the company that asked you. It slows the process when someone says yes but means, “I think maybe I’ll consider helping if I feel like it when the game arrives.” If you said yes but find you can’t do the work, just tell us right away so we can ask the next group.

Being the Designer
Here’s what works for me. I conceptualize a design somehow, usually with lots of notes and drawings. If I have rules I write them down, at least the critical ones. Before I even consider foisting this new game on my friends (who I want to keep as friends!), it’s critical to test the game myself. I can do this a few different ways.

Do it all in my head or on paper. This is the worst for me, so it only works on very simple games. I recently designed a kids’ game based on Badger Badger Badger. It was simple enough – draw tiles from a bag until you decide to stop or get stopped by the game (drawing bad tiles). So this one I could self-playtest just by envisioning.

Make a paper copy. It just has to be enough for me to sit in the living room and simulate three or four players playing the game. Early copies of Pizzza were tiles cut out of typing paper, played on hex-grid paper.

Play on computer. I use Excel for most of this. I can shuffle cards or tiles, simulate blind draws or bids, have basic graphics if needed (like for tiles that rotate).

Once I self-test the game, it’s ready for a real world test. I generally prefer to make a decent-looking prototype since it’s what I prefer to playtest of other people’s games (see above). I can make cards on card stock; a white on the back is OK unless the card back is important. I can make tiles by printing to label stock and pressing the labels onto report covers or even cheap floor tile to give them a little heft. I’ll make rules, but usually only player aids or score sheets for first round testing.

I’ll take the new game to groups I play with, and usually at the start of the game session I’ll let people know I brought it. Sometimes it will get played, sometimes not. That’s all part of friendly group dynamics. I try to be appreciative of anyone who gives a game a try, and listen to any feedback. I will also take new prototypes to game cons like Portland’s Game Storm, Seattle’s Dragonflight, and Dallas’ BGG.con. For cons, I write down names of players, emails if I can get them, and player feedback. I have a few “convention friends” that will come see what new games I have every year!

OK -- a long post today but I felt I wanted to get my basic set of ideas out there for all three playtester groups. Thanks in advance for your feedback, whether posted here or emailed to me.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Let's You And Him Fight

I wrote a bit about 2-player gaming and how euros just don't do it for me in this regard compared to the multiplayer titles. I promised a comparison with wargames, and so here it is. Things are a bit frazzled right now for me (in fact, as Dave posts this I will be poring over accounting books from 12 different companies and shutting down one of them. My training is in computer engineering and music, so you can imagine how much I'm looking forward to 14 hours of this), so if I seem a bit scattered, it's because I am.

When I was growing up, most of my games were of the "King Oil" variety, and were played with a variety of friends. I discovered wargames through a copy of the original Anzio that my brother had left in the basement when I was 10. I was not quite ready for frequent division necessary for computing odds, but by age 12 I was (and was wondering why this had been so hard just a couple of years earlier). Still, while I knew literally nothing about WWII, much less where Italy was, the whole idea of a game of that complexity really grabbed me.

Through my secondary school years, my grade school friends moved on into the social upper echelons, while I remained behind (despite having the ability to play Elton John songs on the piano). I had a couple of new friends, mostly older than me, and it was with these friends that I really took off with wargames. The Russian Campaign, Afrika Korps, even Third Reich. I read the rules and figured out how things worked, and then my friends would beat me. Our multi-player games were things like Cosmic Encounter, but the bulk of my gaming at this time was definitely wargames.

In college, I suddenly had no opponents. A grand total of three other people from my high school went to the same college, even though it was in the same town, and everyone else either underwent religious conversions that required extended stays in such exotic locales as North Carolina or they went to school somewhere else. I did find friends who were into role playing games, but aside from an occasional foray into a game like Diplomacy, it was pretty slim pickings for boardgames.

Even after school, any wargaming I did was done solitaire. Once I finally started making enough money to have a little discretionary income, I started looking at games again, but they were still wargames. Sure, there were occasional titles like GW's Talisman (1st ed, wish I hadn't given that to my nephew), but playing with more than one other person was extremely rare.

Oddly, what kicked off my wargaming renaissance was starting a eurogaming group. The euros looked extremely cool, but they were essentially unplayable solitaire, while most wargames were (I stayed away from anything that couldn't be played solitaire up until this time, including games like Hannibal:Rome vs Carthage). They were so cool, I started Rip City Gamers with a couple of Usenet posts, and it's been a blast ever since. About half of the members are at least casual wargamers, and since I generally don't have space/time/patience for anything even approaching a monster game, that works out quite well.

OK, Doug, that's great, but this is supposed to be about why wargames are so much fun with two, but lighter games aren't. I guess that all of the above is supposed to show that wargames have historically been about the system for me rather than about the competition. When you play solitaire, social interaction doesn't exist. This is not to say that I don't enjoy the company of other gamers, and the tension definitely goes up considerably when you play face-to-face, but my previous experience prepared me for wargames to be a more cerebral activity.

Wargames also tend to have more of a story arc to them compared to euros. When most wargames play in over three hours and most euros play in well under this number, you have to play the long game. For me, that means less social interaction and more focus on play. This in turn means that having a socially-challenged opponent, while not the most pleasant experience in the world, is certainly not as bad as in a euro. On the other hand, a 10 hour game with a guy who hasn't bathed in a week is somewhere on the list under root canal and sexual reassignment surgery.

At WBC, which I attended for three or four years, I really enjoyed almost all of the 2-player wargames I played. I had a couple of opponents who were a bit, uhm, intense, but in general I was quite pleased to enjoy the company of everyone I played. James Pei, Bruno Sinigaglio, Jared Scarborough, Tim Miller, and many other gamers had great attitudes about playing (they weren't doing it for the award), and I really appreciated that. In comparison, the Successors tournament had its share of malcontents and Type AAA personalities that I can live without every seeing again, especially within the confines of a tournament. I love that game, and I enjoyed almost every game I played at WBC, but the metagames were just too much for me.

Now that there are more and more well-designed three-player games (as opposed to ETO strategic games where the Western Allies move three pieces until D-Day), not to mention four and five. Wellington, Sword of Rome, Nappy Wars, all of these work well with multiple players. The real problem is getting that many people together to play for that long. Sword of Rome is perhaps my favorite of these games, but eight hours is tough to pull off with four (and we found three players not to work so well in this title). Perhaps that is the real reason that 2-player wargames work so well: they have to. Finding one person to come over for the entire Saturday that knows the rules is much easier than four, especially here in the wargaming-deprived Pacific Northwest.

I also find it interesting that I will buy a wargame I have no intention of ever playing, but I won't buy a euro I have no intention of playing. Hmm.

That's all for now. Next week, I promise not to a) leak or b) submit a post on whatever our February Topic Du Mond is! Now all I need to do is think of a topic I can write on...

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Keep on Truckin'

Last Saturday, Mike, Doug and I got together for a rousing game of Roads & Boats. Dave was originally going to join us as well, but got called away at the last moment. Fortunately, the game scales well.

I was originally going to post this on my personal blog, as it sorely needs attention, but it fits very nicely here. Session reports are rarely a bad thing, particularly when both Mike and Doug have reported on the same playing.

As neither Doug nor Mike had played before, and I hadn't played in a year, we chose the symmetrical 3-player scenario out of the book. After getting things set up, I started explaining the game to the guys. After all questions and a rundown of the provided strategy tips, about a half hour was spent in preparation.

Finally we got started. The first couple turns went mostly the same for all of us. We all went for the clay pit/stone factory option over the quarry, but I felt like I was not being very efficient. This is definitely a game that rewards frequent play. After the initial woodcutter/lumber mill/clay pit/stone factory, there was some decision on what to build next. I had decided to work towards a paper mill right about the time Doug built one in the central mountains. "Well, I'll just use his" I thought. Later on, the realization that it can only produce one paper per turn meant I'd eventually have to build my own and let Mike and Doug fight over that one.

I decided to build a raft factory instead, and work my way down to the island on "my" side of the board. Around this time, the mines started appearing, and Doug was starting on his research. It's always interesting playing a game for the first time with new people, as you see play styles you'd never run across before. Both Mike and Doug were way more willing to "borrow" stuff from other parts of the board (including drive by snatch-and-grabs) than my old gaming group. There were probably five times more calls for player order resolution than in any other game I'd played.

Eventually the gold and coins started appearing. Around the same time, the trucks started appearing as well. This was also a new one on me, as my old group never got beyond wagons, putting the resources to other use. It definitely is a different approach. You really have to watch where your opponents trucks are, as four hexes is a long way on those boards. We'd all built up a significant road net, so there really weren't many places the trucks couldn't go.

Except for where the walls were placed. About 1/2 of the way through the game, Doug suddenly exclaims "Walls! I'd forgotten all about them!" And thus began the (minor) turf war. Mike was probably the most effective at wall building, including one turn where he swooped a truck into "my" side of the board where four stone were sitting unprotected, and proceeded to wall off four of the exits from that hex. Right in the middle of my production zone.

As we were getting into the end game, I was concentrating on the gold/coins/stock pipeline while still trying to protect my stuff from Mike. (Doug never really did encroach on anything I was doing.) I'd been sort of paying attention to what people had been producing and I didn't think Doug had done enough for hard coinage, but he'd put a lot into the Wonder. Mike was sort of half and half, and I thought I had the lead on cash, but was way behind on the Wonder. I figured it was going to be close, but I had pegged Mike as winning, myself second, with Doug a close third. I ended up two turns short of getting a second stock certificate, unfortunately.

Fortunately, what I had was enough. I managed 200 points in hard coinage and 26 out of the Wonder. Mike had pulled 170 points in cash, 42 in the Wonder, while Doug had 150 cash and 60 from the Wonder.

So, I had estimated the rankings properly, but not the numbers. I was surprised to come out with a 226/212/210 victory. I knew I played rather poorly as I had resources laying around all over the place and never moved beyond donkeys/rafts.

Both Mike and Doug have posted their feelings about the game in their blog entries referenced above. Me? I love the game. It's permanently lodged on the top shelf for me (to steal Dave's terminology) and I've never had a session where I didn't love the game. The big concern in our group about the game has been playing time, with the estimate being 2 hours per player. However, this game lasted around 4.5 hours after all explanations were complete. Right in range for three people who either had never played or hadn't played in far too long, and perfectly consistent with my prior experience. I'm always happy to get this game on the table whenever possible. Tentatively, Mike and I have penciled in the last day of February for another session, so hopefully that works out.

We did manage to boof four rules, best I can tell. I didn't notice that Mike had geese reproduce in the forest (supposed to be plains only), Doug misread the aid card and was moving his trucks six hexes for a while instead of four, we built multiple colored walls on the same hex side (interestingly enough, this mistake is immortalized in one of the geek's images for the game), and we played one turn too long. (I forgot to take out the extra neutral bricks and we played 34 turns instead of the maximum of 33.) We also played the last few turns rather fast and loose. There was probably a bit of illicit activity on all parts there at the end.

All told, it was a great way to spend a Saturday.

Monday, January 23, 2006

Game Group: Jerusalem Strategy Gaming Club

This is the first of what I hope to be a monthly series. Game Group provides a unique profile of an established gaming group. It was inspired by the “book group” feature in the (most excellent) bookmarks magazine. We want to hear from you about your gaming group! If you would like to participate, send an inquiry to ripcitygamer@comcast.net.

Jerusalem Strategy Gaming Club
Submitted by Yehuda Berlinger
Edited by Dave Eggleston

How did the group get started? How does your group find new members?

Some time after 2001, I disbanded the regular roleplaying and CCG meetings I was having with my brothers and friends, and morphed them into bridge, CCG, Cosmic Encounter, and Settlers of Catan meetings. I started advertising for more regulars, got a few replies, and we started playing the other designer games that I had bought. In October 2003, we adopted the name Jerusalem Strategy Gaming Club (JSGC), started the website (http://www.freewebs.com/jergames), and began recording session reports online. The JSGC name was created to try to succinctly give an idea of what we play; however, we still occasionally get calls from video/computer gamers who want to know if we play those types of games. We continue to get people from word of mouth, standing advertisements in the local section of the English newspapers, contacts through online presence, and occasional publicity due to game days.

How would you describe your group?

We are mostly former English speakers, with some native Israelis. Most of us are Jews, with some occasional Christians in Israel for a visit or a year. I would like to have some regular English speaking Arabs/Muslims, since I think games are a great medium for cooperation, but it hasn't happened, yet. We meet in my apartment, and rarely meet in someone else's house. We tried a local café once, but none of us wanted to feel guilty and have to order food, and there were other logistical problems. We have a very friendly atmosphere, with a lot of advice given during play. We generally only like the complex Euros with light Euros as necessary fillers. Most players take a very long time to make their moves.

How do you decide which games to play?

Most come from my collection, to which others occasionally contribute. Sometimes other players bring a game or two, sometimes successfully, other times not so successfully. Deciding games is sometimes a problem, as there are always a few games that some people want to play and others don't, but it usually resolves itself okay.

How do you select the start player?

Randomly, by mixing and picking a piece.

What are some of the group's all-time favorite games?

Puerto Rico (with or without our home-brewed expansion buildings), Taj Mahal, San Juan, Amun-Re, Settlers/Cities and Knights of Catan, Cosmic Encounter, El Grande, Princes of Florence, Magic: the Gathering, The Menorah Game [ed: designed by Yehuda], and our Jewish-themed variant of Ra.

What do you consider your group's signature games?

Puerto Rico and The Menorah Game.

What games were featured in your most memorable gaming sessions?

Our game days are the most memorable, and we have played up to twenty games on game days. Sometimes our game day games run even longer than usual, such as an El Grande game that took six hours [ed: !].

What games were featured in your most unfortunate gaming sessions?

We had a row over Wallenstein once, where a former wargamer broke an agreement with a non-wargamer. The non-wargamer thought that breaking pacts is unethical, whereas the wargamer thought that it is part of the game. But they made up. The only truly unfortunate gaming sessions are the ones where very few people show up.

What games have created the biggest love/hate division among members of your group?

Our members either love or hate abstracts, word games, or card games. We have one or two members who hate Puerto Rico, while the others love it. It is the same with Taj Mahal and Princes of Florence. We have some that love wargames, or conflict-heavy American games (e.g., Shogun) and some that hate them.

What do you do about food at your gaming sessions?

Usually the players will order burgers from a local delivery. They are supposed to bring snacks, and one or two of do so. Tea and drinks – and occasionally dinner – are provided.

Any last words of inspiration?

There is also an irregular group that meets in the Tel Aviv area; just a bunch of friends who play together. And a new official group started up in Tel Aviv, although they are having a rough go of it. They get more people then we do, but can't find a good time or place. Right now they are meeting once a month. I don't think there are any other multi-game groups in the Middle East, or even near my area of the Mediterraneum (Turkey/Egypt). So, if you are anywhere in the area, please drop by!

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Gamer Down! Gamer Needs Aid!

Have you ever gotten a new game, learned it from reading the rules, and the first game you finished, you thought, “This needs a player aid,” or “I wonder why they did {X} the way they did?” If you acted on your impulse, you may have joined the hundreds of gamers who happily create player aids or fixes to games they love. There seem to be some generic good reasons for these.

Don’t like the components. When I first got Carcassonne, I didn’t like the game scoring board. It’s functional, but I didn’t think it went with the theme of the game. So I scanned the tiles of the game and made a new scoring chart. This one is rectangular, and it’s a completed game of Carcassonne in miniature with a single road running all the way from the central town to the end of the board – 100 spaces. And every 5 spaces, you pass through a new town which makes counting fives a bit easier. To make it work, I had to design a few “new” tiles, like two city-ends (east and west) with a road running north-south between them. When the expansion came out, it was cool to see they created some of those same tiles!

Make it easier to teach / play. When we first learned Ra, it was hard to keep track of the various sets. Someone (I think through Game Cabinet) had developed a player mat for keeping track of everything. I liked it, and decide to make my own with a little more color and information. We still use the mats today.

Rule book is too long, or not too great. Lots of nice folks on Boardgamegeek make “quick play” sheets for new games, often boiling down a 20 page rule set to a page or two. That’s great if you’ve learned the game and a few months later you jst need a quick refresher. And in the cases where unclear rules have been clarified by the producer or the game author, those “quick play” sheets can be updated with the latest info. My quick play sheet for Tichu has a quick summary of the special cards and how scoring works.

I thought of something different. There are a million pieces to Roads and Boats. So I decided to try 2 new things. First, I made hex tiles in a computer program (Excel, but that’s another story) and created scenarios from the Splotter website and from scratch. Since part of the fun is drawing roads, I created maps that had these hex-sets on them with a bit more background and texture. I printed them off on a map plotter and rolled them up. Sure they’re too big for the box – but use them with a plastic oversheet or draw right on the map with water-based pens and you have a cool map when you’re all done.

... Plus you can play part of a game. I created miniature sheets of the board layout in black and white so we could list what resources and movers where where in the game. So a game partially done gets logged and its map put on the shelf until we can finish. My other change was to the movers. I noticed in the original there were only 6 types of movers. So I made stickers for each type and found some 7/8” six-sided dice. Each player had a color, and each die had all 6 movers shown – whichever side is up is the active mover. No more switching out all those mover tokens for each player. And since there’s a limit for how many movers you can have, the number of dice is that limit.

I just don’t get it. Sometimes, even if you think you have a good rule set, people let you know their learning style and your attempt at teaching just clashed. When we released Havoc, we never thought the Dogs of War would cause so much confusion. But they did, and through a few iterations we cam up with a player’s aid that shows how Dogs work and put it on the SunRiver site as a download.

I don’t speak German. Finally in this group a huge thank you to all the players who translate German rules into English or a variety of other languages. I picked up Euphrat und Tigris – the Card Game at Essen. Without the kind efforts of whoever translated the rules, we would not be playing this game today.

When I continue this story, I’ll talk about the close cousin of player aids – Playtesting. The better the playtesting, the better you can avoid the need for someone else later to play your game and say, “This needs a player aid,” or “I wonder why they did {X} the way they did?”

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Burning Down Those Unplayed Games

One of my New Years resolutions was to “play through my current owned but un-played list” of games. I spent some time this week updating my inventory of owned games and figuring out what belongs in the unplayed category. Two words: “uh oh”.

I’ve got at least 75 games in my collection that I haven’t played. This constitutes about 1/4 of my overall collection, which is a bit scary. I’m not going to start a dialog around how I get into this situation (duh), but let’s talk about how to get out of it and track progress.

Last year I proposed a lifecycle model for game development that made brief mention of agile development methods. My method of choice is Scrum, which we use heavily at Corillian Corporation for product development. Now I’m not considering using Scrum to help manage a project to get through my unplayed games, but I do like applying the concept of the burndown chart to track my progress. A burndown chart is simply a graphical depiction of the work remaining in a project, time-phased to provide some historical context and progress trend. A project that is tracking toward completion will generally show a linear trend towards zero work remaining at the scheduled project end date.

So, without further delay, here is the starting view of my burndown chart for 2006. As it is very likely that I’ll purchase more games this year (which in most cases start in the “unplayed” category), I’ll add those to the project as we go through the year. The total number of games I’m trying to tackle this year is essentially the scope of my project, and I expect a decent amount of scope creep. What would make this really interesting is if I tracked the estimated number of hours required to play each of these games to get a more accurate representation of the work required to get through the list.


There are going to be some serious challenges getting through this list. I wouldn’t be surprised if I revert to drastic measures like selling or giving away games (dropping features?) to hit my target. Some of these games are long and will require scheduling special sessions to pull them off (War of the Ring, Rommel, 1830). Some I’ve been very anxious to play (Battlestations, Vinci). You might be interested in the unplayed games with the highest and lowest rankings on BGG. Some of these are expansions, which should help as I don’t need to learn a new game system to get through it.

Highest Ranked Unplayed Games (best to good)

  1. War of the Ring
  2. Memoir '44 - Eastern Front
  3. Rommel in the Desert
  4. 1830 - Railroads and Robber Barons
  5. Duel of Ages Set 2 - Intensity
  6. Battlestations
  7. Santiago
  8. Torres
  9. Ark of the Covenant, The
  10. Memoir '44 - Terrain Pack
  11. Vinci

Lowest Ranked Unplayed Games (bad to worst)

  1. Mille Bornes
  2. Spy Alley
  3. 221B Baker Street and Expansions
  4. Magdar
  5. Blitzkrieg
  6. Sword and Skull
  7. Malefiz
  8. Stock Market Game, The
  9. Rivers, Roads, and Rails
  10. Outdoor Survival

I’ll try and give quarterly updates on my progress. Let me know if you’d like me to send a copy of the spreadsheet I’m using to track this.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Thakka Thakka BOOM

It's been a crazy week, including my wife having a car crash this morning (no one hurt, thankfully), so no usual post today.

In lieu, I'll post a question that people can respond to or not.

When I play wargames, I see a bunch of little counters and a map and all of the physical components that go into the game. For me, it's a bit like doing math homework, but a lot more fun. For me, the system is what generates interest, although there is definitely some history at work, albeit at a very abstract level. This is true even of very tactical games such as ASL.

What occurred to me recently is that some people may use their imaginations a bit more when playing these games, visualizing the actual combat, or armies sweeping over the vast steppes or whatever the situation is that the game implies.

My question to the public is where do they fall in this spectrum? Are wargames like toy soldiers or an engineering exercise?

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Gorgeous gaming

This week's going to be a bit of a short one for me. Between airport trips and a roundtrip drive to Seattle, it was VERY busy. Not a whole lot of time for game-related thought.

Except, however, for my 40th birthday present from Jodie waiting at home when we returned. A minty-fresh copy of Settlers of Catan 3d. Now THAT's a birthday present.

As I mentioned in my post last week, Settlers is the game that got me hooked on boardgaming. I'd been a wargamer back in high school, and had pretty much only played RPGs and CCGs after that. Settlers was a whole new thing for me.

It is fitting, then, that Jodie got me this deluxe treatment game seminal to my primary hobby. We haven't had time to play, yet, but it's gorgeous. I was a bit disappointed to see that Seafarers wasn't included, but the only part that would be important would be the ships. Mayfair could certainly put together appropriate ships if they wanted. The wouldn't need to do tiles or the frame, really. It's just flat water.

Of course, I could just go out and see if I can find appropriate miniature ships. Navwar makes 1/3000th scale Napoleonic era and Dutch Wars ships. At 1 pound each ($1.77 these days) 60 of them would be a tad pricey, though. Will have to track some down to see if they'd work. They'd certainly look nice painted up in a style similar to the Chest o' Catan.

Other recent acquisitions have included a trade for Triumph of Chaos, an eBay find on Pizza Box Football (finally got my own copy) and the Ticket to Ride computer game. (which should be arriving shortly) I don't think I've bought a computer game for two or three years. (last one probably would have been Shrapnel's game on 18th century warfare, and I can't remember its name.)

On the miniatures side, I took advantage of the tail-end of Old Glory's 30% off sale to pick up some 15mm figure packs that don't get much visibility. Camps, casualties, and captives. I'll admit to being a bit disappointed in that the Ancient, Dark Ages, and Medieval camps are nearly identical except for different types of tents. I'll be posting a review over on my blog sometime soon. Short term painting project is getting a handful of Swiss skirmishers ready for the next tournament in mid-February at Conquest NW.

Monday, January 16, 2006

First Impression: Dungeon Twister Paladins & Dragons

Next week, I will start my monthly Gaming Group Profile series . If you are interested in participating, please send me an e-mail at ripcitygamer@comcast.net. Please, don't make me start out with the Rip City Gamers.

There were a couple of different things I wanted to write about, but it's been a crazy week, including having to put one of our beloved cats to sleep today. So, I'll instead write a bit about Dungeon Twister (which is getting dogpiled in this BGG article). I picked up the Dungeon Twister Paladins & Dragons expansion yesterday. I am generally satisfied with the mix of characters and items that come with the original set, but I wouldn't mind swapping some tokens for variety's sake, especially if it can increase the overall character mobility. Below is the list of characters from the base set, listed in order from those I am most likely to keep to those I am most likely to replace.
  • Warrior - A great blend of strength and mobility.
  • Wizard - The threat of the insta-kill adds nice tension to the beginning of the game. Plus, after the fireball wand is used up, the wizard becomes an attractive candidate to make a run for it, given his great mobility. The existence of spells and other magic items in future releases will help to keep him in the mix.
  • Thief - Being able to walk over pits and escort others over pits and open and close doors makes the thief's mobility just insane. In my opinion, her combat should be reduced to 1 (see Wall-Walker) to counter this massive advantage. I consider her essential, as there are so many tactics available with her various abilities.
  • Goblin - No special rules for combat or movement, just a bonus VP if you get him off the board. Anything that moves the focus away from combat is a must in my book.
  • Troll - A fun character to play with if you can get it mobilized. However, moving these plodding characters slows down the game and makes it too combat-oriented.
  • Mekanork - Really, he doesn't do anything that no one else can do, he just does it more efficiently. He usually ends up stuck on one tile due to his poor mobility.
  • Cleric - His healing ability should make him a game-breaker, but his lack of mobility prevents him from making a difference as often as he should. What I would really like to see is a one-use healing potion.
  • Wall-Walker - Aside from the "steal the fireball wand and exit the board" gambit, I think the Wall-Walker is a bust. Having to chew up APs to move over walls just makes her too slow. In my opinion, her combat value should be switched with the Thief. Maybe even give her a sneak attack bonus when coming over the wall, and call her Assassin...
Here is a similar list for the objects. In general, I'm only looking to replace Armor.
  • Rope - The most indispensable token in the game.
  • Sword - Simple item with no special rules, but serves as a key strategic objective.
  • Fireball Wand - See "Wizard" above. There shouldn't be too many one-use items in the game, however.
  • Treasure - I like to initially place my Treasure token in one of the rooms closest to my opponent. I typically use another item to get there (Rope or Speed Potion), then I just pick up the Treasure and exit for the bonus VP. I like how it forces the opponent to block a specific exit path to prevent a big score.
  • Speed Potion - On the one hand, it overly complicates the search tree. On the other, it is one of the most interesting tactical elements in the game.
  • Armor - Similar to the sword, but, unlike the sword, doesn't see action, as it requires the wearer to be attacked.

Here is the list of the Paladins & Dragons characters, listed in order from those I am most eager to try to those I am most skeptical about.

  • Weapon Master - Nice, but too powerful? Same stats as the Warrior, but forces the opponent to expose the combat card before selecting her own. Give her a Rope and cause havoc.
  • Paladin - One more movement point than the Weapon Master and Warrior, and can carry two items. This guy must be quite the stud in the endgame. I list him second, but I wouldn't want any more than two of {Warrior, Weapon Master, Paladin} in the game, and maybe even only one of them.
  • Elf Scout - Similar to the Wizard; a bit faster, but with no Fireball Wand. Very basic character that would be fun to add to the original mix. Players who find the original game too chaotic in terms of planning will hate these high movement characters.
  • Golem - Same stats as the Troll, but, whereas the Troll has a self-healing ability, Golem can break down walls. Will this make the game too fast? He may be more essential on the P&D tiles.
  • Illusionist - Less mobile than the Wizard, but can create obstacles to slow down others' movements. I'll stick with the Wizard as the magic user to keep the game moving faster. (Question: if a Thief is wounded when standing over an illusion of a Pit Trap, surely she doesn't die as per the literal reading of the rules, right? Or is this like hitting the ground in a dream?)
  • Pickpocket - Lots of tactical options with this guy, who can steal objects from opposing characters. My fear is that his presence will cause the game to stagnate.
  • Ghost - Low combat, cannot use items, highly mobile yet with low movement. Basically, made to march slowly across the board for a single VP. Boring and weak.
  • Red Dragon - Yuk. No movement, but has an endless Fireball ability. Seriously cuts down mobility, and potentially makes the opening game a race to explore all the rooms as fast as possible (e.g., if your opponent has the dragon in a room with two of your own characters, he can easily kill both if he is the one to reveal the room).

Here is a similar list of the Paladins & Dragons objects.

  • Rope - Well, if nothing else, I plan on replacing the Armor with another Rope and playing the base set as-is.
  • Key - In my experience, being able to cross pits is more important than pass through doors. Also, crossing a pit is part of your action, while you have to break up your movement and spend an action point to open a door. I would be hesitant to select a Key over a Rope.
  • Fire Shield - Blocking fireballs and dragon-breath would be best for the Troll. However, the additional ability which protects the holder from Falling Rocks is intended to give some additional mobility boosts, which is key on some of the P&D tiles. It doesn't make sense to use this without the other P&D elements.
  • Teleportation Ring - If playing with the original set of tiles, I don't see this being much different from the Speed Potion. In the new set, it was made to combo with the Dragon.
  • Charm Scroll - Basically, an insta-kill similar to the Fireball Wand, but more complicated. I see no reason to replace the original.
  • DragonSlayer - Only useful against the Red Dragon. Note that the game has two different set of rules for token selection. In one, players separately choose which tokens to use, only revealing them over the course of the game, adding a layer of rock-paper-scissors (and luck) to the system. In the other, players take turn selecting a token, which both players must use, so they end up with equal forces. I will almost certainly use the latter, or some other similar approach.

Finally, there are new tiles with terrain features. In general, I'm not crazy about these. There is enough problems with luck in the tile layout using the original, more straightforward tiles. Plus, it will make the board even more difficult to parse (I'm reminded of the problem I had with the teleporters in the advanced layout rules of Fearsome Floors).

I will probably give P&D a go with one of my opponents; against most people, I will just stick with the basic set. I am a bit disappointed in the direction the expansion went, but I am still eager to give it a try with an open mind. It will definitely add some replayability to a game that I know will get many, many plays in years to come.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Worlds within worlds

When someone says, “I’m a gamer,” I immediately have some sort of kinship with them. But gamers come in so many different flavors! As we roll up on time for Gamestorm, I’ve been reflecting on how wide the hobby really is.

So here’s a list for different styles and types of games, along with some comments on my interests or shortfalls. And just to be clear, I’m avoiding the other meanings of games (head games, etc) lest I stray too far from the path.

Board Games. My favorite group since I could probably just play games in this category forever and be happy enough. It’s the Euros, like Settlers of Catan which started it for me, through Ticket to Ride and the big involved games like Roads and Boats. In this general group are also the Americans, Sid Sackson games like Acquire and Can’t Stop, and the Phil Orbanes’ masterpiece Cartel.

But the guy at the next table thinks board games means Monopoly and Clue. While great as iconic American culture, they’re not so much on my list of interest. There’s a huge group of these ho-hum games at Toys R Us ad nauseum, but rarely does one rise above the surface of tedium.

Card Games. There are the traditional partnership games like Bridge which I don’t like, Pinochle and Euchre which I do. But Euro twists on these, like Tichu (a current favorite) and Mu und Mehr are as good or better for keeping my interest. And there are more trick-taking games that aren’t partner based. My favorites here are die Sieben Siegel (now Zing! From SimplyFun) and Sticheln. We just played David and Goliath this week for the first time, and it was wild.

Other card games like our Havoc are also fun with varying number of players and strategies. We pulled out Sackson’s Venture (Die Bosse) at the beach a few weeks and it was challenging. My starter for “lots of game in tiny box” is Meuterer, which feels like a boardgame but is all cards.

Collectible Card Games. CCG’s gain a whole separate following at Gamestorm. I like the original, Magic :the Gathering. Still fun after all these years. We also play Guardians, Doomtown and Wyvern, but fair chance you’d never see those at a public game con. New tile games like Vortex and Chizo Rising also fit in this category.

Roleplaying. There’s a lot of this at Gamestorm, but I haven’t participated at all. My friend Lorna Wong is in a lot of these, so I’ll need to ask her advice. Chris also has a roleplay game about cats which would be fun to try. I played Dungeons and Dragons in the 80’s, but haven’t caught up with this genre at all since then.

Miniatures. Here’s one I also need to learn more about from Eric in our group, although I know Gamestorm has a whole area set aside for this. I admire the painting skills and the detail in the models, but don’t know much about the games themselves. Well, except for the offshoots like Heroscape and earlier StarWars: the Queen’s Gambit which feature pre-made miniatures. I’m guessing this sort of game is shunned by true miniatures players, since it’s so plastic.

War Games/Simulations. We played a great Generals version of Memoir ’44 over New Years, which was fun and cool, even though I’m guessing it’s on the “light” side compared to “real” war games. I’ve played the Columbia Block Games Hammer of the Scots which I like a lot, but other than those two I’m pretty much totally out of this loop.

Party Games. These don’t show up too much at Gamestorm except late nights, unless you’re in the Munchkin crowd which I gather counts as a party game of sorts. We play Attribute and Apples to Apples, and Electronic Catch Phrase was very popular over New Years’. I guess games like the Great Dalmuti also count in this group, and SimplyFun has a ton of games in this area that are fun.

Gambling. This is the group of games that historically has not been at Gamestorm, but I’m wondering whether we’ll see a Texas Hold ’Em tournament there this year. Other games like my favorite Craps and regular Poker are also what some folks mean by “gamer.” The popularity of Texas Hold ’Em has done a lot to put poker chips in many American households though. And since we usually replace paper money in games with those same poker chips, I guess the regular board gamers benefit as well!

I may have missed some big categories – if so just let me know. I had 2-Player games on the first draft, but they come in a variety of sub-groups as well.

Friday, January 13, 2006

I Can't Think of a Title

I’m supposed to be posting these on Thursday but haven’t been able to get caught up yet.  Maybe next week…

Over on the Teaching Board Games list, my friend Mike Frantz has been sharing his attempts to start an adult “Beyond Monopoly” class at his local community college in Wenatchee, Washington.  The idea comes from a course Ben Baldanza offered in the DC area, and it appears to be an effective way to reach an audience that might otherwise miss out on the typical mainstream marketing done for strategy games (that was a joke… what marketing?).  Mike appears to be close to his goal and recently posted the flyer he will use to advertise the course.  I would love to do something like this but I’ll need to wait until I shed some other extra-curricular, which I seem to be adding faster than I can take away.  While I step down as Cubmaster for my sons’ Cub Scout pack in February, I’m going to start teaching a Ruby on Rails class to high school students in February and will be head coaching a baseball team starting in March.  Where are my priorities?

My lovely wife Julie, on the other hand, is very active using games during special break-out sessions with third graders at Jacob and Matthew’s elementary school.  Favorite games include a 4–player version of Shut the Box that we picked up at Essen, Rolit, Amazing Labyrinth, Pickomino, and Blokus.  I just purchased three copies of 6–player Take it Easy to give to the school – we both think this is a great game for this age and it is the most scalable game since Bingo.  I hope to get Julie to write a guest column soon about her experiences doing this with the kids.  She takes a very no-nonsense approach and is equally likely to use older abstracts (like Othelo) as she is shiny new games.  I’m just a bit biased towards the new shiny thing, though I do teach chess twice a week at school and I guess that qualifies as an “older abstract”.  Most of the students that get pulled out are in the “Talented and Gifted” (TAG) category, but it is always at the discretion of the teacher involved.

For Christmas, I gave games as gifts to several of my co-workers over at Corillian.  In all cases, the games were hits with the families and I’m getting the common follow-on question – where I can I get more?  That’s when I know I have them hooked.  When asked, I invariably point them to our friendly-local-game-store (FLGS) – Rainy Day Games.  There’s nothing quite like the impact of walking into a store, being able to browse and touch the games, and getting advice from a knowledgeable store owner.

Changing subjects, over on Spielfrieks there has been a very involved discussion about the wisdom of exclusive arrangements between publishers and retailers, namely Funagain Games.  Clearly I’m biased here, so take my comments with a healthy dose of skepticism.  The thread started with a comment about recent games being carried by Boulder Games that are exclusives at Funagain.  If you look at the product page for Carcassonne: Neues Land over at Boulder, you’ll see this editorial comment:

Note: If you believe competition is good and going into cahoots with a producer to get an exclusive to thwart competition and fix the price is bad, then buy this game instead of Carcassonne: the Discovery. You not only strike a blow for all game consumers, you save yourself a good bit of money.

This is one of the silliest, most uniformed statements I’ve seen in a while.  When Funagain decides to enter into an exclusive arrangement, they take on a significant amount of sales risk in the process – they are effectively transferring risk from the publisher to the retailer.  I know this first-hand as a principal at Sunriver Games.  This is at the heart of what competition is all about – finding strategic ways to offer a competitive edge over the competition!  What would be anti-competitive is retailers getting together to decide not to do exclusives (or to price fix).

Havoc: The Hundred Years War is a first-rate production, but it is too bad that Sunriver chose a way to market the game that alienates gamers who believe competition is good and price-fixing is bad.

I guess I’d like some feedback – for those of you that believe competition is good, did we alienate you?  I’m convinced that we’ve sold 2x the product we would have otherwise, largely due to the exceptional marketing provided by Funagain.  What if we had chosen to only sell the product direct (as Columbia Games did for a while)?  Is that anti-competitive?  I guess I just don’t see the connection.  Exclusives are a common competitive attribute of a free-market system.

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

A Jug of Cheese, a Loaf of Wine, and Thou

Dave's post on 2-player gaming and why he in some ways prefers it to multi-player gaming got me thinking a bit on this topic. Being a wargamer, where virtually every game is 2-player (and any arguments regarding "less downtime" go out the window), I have a definite appreciation for a single opponent. For one thing, your odds of winning go up at least 16%. ;-)

I have a pretty good collection of 2-player games outside of my wargame collection, including most of the Kosmos line and the entire GIPF collection, including expansions. Sadly, few of these games are played these days, as I rarely have just a single opponent, and then I'm playing Twilight Struggle or some other CDG or block wargame (where most of my energy seems to go these days). I even bought Roma recently, partly to see if Queen has learned to publish good games, but also because it's gotten good local buzz from my group (OK, from Dave). It almost makes me want to go back to work just to spend lunch playing games with Laurent.

I do not play CCGs, although I was a huge fan of Vortex and have decks for all eight races - with a limited set of tiles for each race, I felt the game was fun and allowed for limited deck construction options without being overwhelming, which is my second biggest problem with CCGs (the "crack addict" aspect being numero uno).

I'll do a list of 2-player games I want to see hit the table more in a future entry, for now I'll just discuss the differences between two-player and multi-player experiences. I'll also limit this discussion to euros rather than wargames, as that's an entirely different area (although there are a lot of cross-genre games, usually involving a healthy amount of plastic figures).

First off is the social aspect. For an engineer, especially a computer engineer, this is a little odd - shouldn't I be worrying about the mechanisms and how well they mesh? I guess I've always been a rebel. I definitely agree that 2-player gaming has a much different feel than multi-player in this respect, and to be quite honest the multi-player experience is more fun for me when it comes to euros. This is not to say that I don't like 2-player euros, just that most of the games tend to be more cerebral and with less opportunity for social interaction.

For example, the GIPF series requires a lot of concentration to analyze the possibilites of what an opponent is trying to do, not to mention if you have the initiative. I find GIPF itself to be a real brain burner, and I hear Puenct is in the same league. The Settlers Card Game falls in the same category for me, I seem to be thinking about what I need to get to the next level instead of interacting with my opponent. Sure, there are counter-examples (Battlecards is a good example of a fast game with lots of screwage cards), but in general I get the feeling that I'm really playing solitaire for two, occasionally with a common resource pool.

In contrast, multiplayer games almost always involve smack talk (although we're pretty wimpy in that regard), great reactions from other people, and the always entertaining "Let's you and him fight!" I almost always have at least one milk-through-the nose moment in a Medici game, almost never in a two-player game. Sure, there are a few stare-at-the-board games like Samurai, but in general there is always interaction in multiplayer.

That said, I will qualify yet again that with Euros, it is all about who you play with. My experiences with euros at WBC, at least in tournament settings, have been miserable. Even some of the pick up games at cons are excruciating if you have the wrong group of people playing. I dearly love the people in RCG, and so I must qualify this particular preference as requiring people who I enjoy playing games with. If the social lubrication is working, I have considerably more fun (and you can run with that comment in any direction you want). For this same reason I just don't enjoy Euros in general played online, even though there are many opportunities to do this. I simply don't feel that same person-to-person connection that is critical to my enjoyment of euro gaming.

Another problem with 2-player games is that of having a design that while rewarding good play will still leave the opportunity for the person who is slightly behind to catch up. In a multiplayer game, there is often at least the chance for the others to beat on the leader as a group, but in 2-player you don't get this option. As such, designs have to be tighter. I'm not sure that this is the case, and most 2-player games tend to have some mid-game goal that once achieved will all but guarantee eventual success. The ninth settlement in SCG is a good example, although I have certainly lost after getting that last settlement up on occasion. Strangely, a game like Cribbage doesn't have this problem, as the entire "system" is reshuffled after a short time and everyone starts from scratch (at least in terms of the next hand if not in total points scored). Euros, on the other hand, while having theme and bits and interesting systems, typically give you one prolonged shot at building whatever it is the game demands, and if you get shorted early you are often left in the dust.

Similarly, interaction is part of a multiplayer design and not so much of two-player games. Action and reaction is a much trickier proposition with four players, and thus (for me, anyway) more interesting. With two players, you do something, and your opponent reacts. With four, you have three different sets of actions to decide how to respond. Friedrich is an excellent example of this, although it is playable with two players. The Prussian has to decide which threat requires resources immediately while taking future threats into account. In most euros, the interaction is even more complex, as the sides tend to shift during the game as different players get closer to victory.

I do like many 2-player euros, but I would much rather play multiplayer if possible. Even so, there are quite a few 2-player euros I want to give more of a shot in the next year - the GIPF games, Roma, even some of the multiplayer games such as St Petersburg that some in the group feel work well with two. The game I'm most anxious to get on the table in the near future is Pizza Box Football, and Blood Bowl is right behind that. LotR: The Confrontation I'd like to play more, and I miss the regular Vortex sessions we used to have a few years ago.

Strangely, I tend to prefer 2-player card games or classics like Backgammon to 2-player euros. However, the lack of theme seems to keep me from pulling this sort of thing out regularly. I'm sure there's a psych dissertation here somewhere, but I've gone on long enough for one post.

Next time I'll talk a bit about how my rationale stands on it's head when we start moving to wargames.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Viral Blogging

(sorry for the delay in my post - I had written this up Saturday night and completely spaced posting it today.)

I saw this post over on Alfred's blog, and thought it would be a good first “free” post of the new year. We did our intros back when we first started GoE but this gives a good snapshot of where I currently am in my gaming (and somewhat related) life.

How long have you been gaming?
My whole life, really. I have vague memories of receiving the Winnie the Pooh boardgame when I was three. I used to play rummy with my Grandmother around age 6 or 7 (and I'd read her cards via the reflection in her glasses until she got a new pair with convex lenses).

What was your first Euro game? Settlers of Catan. It was probably mid-1996 or so, and it marked the beginning of the end for my interest in role-playing.

Which game sucked you in? Again, Settlers. Part of it was the company, though. We had a great group of friends, and while I've moved out of state many of them still game together. Probably the most played game at that time after Settlers would have been RoboRally.

What is your favorite game? I've got one for every type. De Bellis Multitudinis is my favorite miniatures game, Cribbage is my favorite card game with a standard deck, Wyatt Earp is my favorite card game with a non-standard deck, The Musket & Pike Battle System is my favorite wargame, and Power Grid is probably my favorite eurogame.

What is your least favorite game? War! Age of Imperialism. It is probably the poster child for why Glenn Drover should stick to producing games and stop designing them.

Open or closed holdings? Depends on the game, but generally closed. From my experience, open holdings usually provides more information than can be processed quickly enough to keep a game going smoothly.

To gamble or not to gamble? I hardly ever gamble. Exceptions would be things like NCAA tournament pools and the occasional lottery ticket. I'll occasionally play black jack if I find myself in a casino but that's about once every other year at most.

How much luck do you like in your games? I had sort of a revelation the other day about my feelings on luck in games. I don't mind luck at all. Particularly when you look at the fact that my favorite game (DBM) usually involves 100 or so die rolls per person in a typical game. What I don't like is if the range of possible outcomes is inappropriately wide. For example (and I'm working from memory here) War! Age of Imperialism gives you two ways to conquer a neutral territory. One involves flipping over a disk to see how tough the territory is – the number can go as high as 11 (IIRC – it might be 10) and you have to roll that number or higher on two dice. That's a 1 in 6 shot. It's entirely possible that half or more of the territories around your forces have high-number disks in them. You're completely at the mercy of the dice in this case. And this is a game that takes a number of hours to play – absolutely no fun.

Last three games played? I haven't managed a single game in 2006. Sigh. That means the last three
games I played were over Mike's: Rommel in the Desert, Blokus, and Phoenix. (update – played two games just before posting this. Bus and 6 Nimmt!)

Last three games purchased? Pizza Box Football, El Caballero, and Europe Engulfed. (if you count charges for preordered games that will ship relatively soon, add Here I Stand to the list and remove EE.)
Packrat or trader? Packrat, by all means. I stun my wife with my ability to retain stuff.

What game are you thinking about right now? Roads & Boats. We were supposed to have a game of it today (I'm writing this Saturday night), but for a variety of reasons, it didn't happen.

What's your favorite mechanic? Opposed die rolls for combat resolution. I'm not a huge fan of combat result tables. (that being said, the game I'm designing is sort of a blend of the two – roll for the offensive result, then roll for the defensive reaction to that result.)

What is your favorite Theme? I'm a sucker for anything historical set prior to the American Revolution. Some specific favorites are the Crusades, anything involving Byzantium, and the Great Northern War.

Who is your favorite Designer? Martin Wallace. Ben Hull's my favorite wargame designer.

Best Gaming experience? The first time I went to Historicon. Talk about a kid in a candy store... Imagine a 6-court tennis barn packed with dealers. And the experience doesn't even include the actual games (though I played 13 games of DBM that weekend...)

Worst Gaming experience? It's really hard to think of anything bad enough to qualify. It might have been the first time a member of an old gaming group offered to host a Saturday gathering. At his place of work. A dog groomer/kennel. The place stunk. Jodie and I bugged out early because we couldn't stand the smell any longer.

Favorite game for 2? De Bellis Multitudinis if we're talking miniatures or wargames, but if not, probably St. Petersburg.

For 3? Age of Steam on the Scandinavia map.

For 5? Power Grid

For 6? It's probably either Tanz der Hornochsen or Union Pacific, but Here I Stand will likely take this spot after it's released.

Favorite party game? Probably Attribute. I've played Apples to Apples more, though.

Do you value Theme or Mechanics more? Theme and mechanics are (to me) like blondes and brunettes respectively. Theme makes me look, mechanics keep me interested.

What color do you want to be? Blue. If not available, I try to take an uncommon color.

What is your favorite movie? Buckaroo Banzai.
Wherever you go, there you are.

What is your favorite book? This is really tough... It's probably Robert Massie's biography of Peter the Great, but Rushdie's Satanic Verses and Stephenson's Snow Crash are right behind.

Last 3 books read? I do a lot of reference and rule reading, but I'm not going to count those (even though the DAK series and game-specific rules are probably as long as many books). I think the last three books I read to completion were The Northern Wars 1558-1721 by Robert Frost, The Battle that Shook Europe by Peter Englund, and Harry Potter 6 (though that one was on audio). I've currently got three books going simultaneously, and swap between them depending on my mood.

Last 3 movies watched? I'm not going to count movies requested, nay, demanded by my daughter. (she LOVES Jungle Book and just got hooked on Toy Story). The last three movies I remember voluntarily watching all the way through would probably be Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, and Constantine. I quit watching The 40 Year Old Virgin halfway through. It had its moments but was rather silly. There's probably another one, but I just can't think of it.

Favorite alcoholic beverage (or non-alcoholic if you don’t drink)? Drambuie. I absolutely love the stuff. Jodie refers to it as cough syrup. I'll even occasionally order it as dessert.

Who are the three most important people in your life? This one is pretty straightforward – Jodie, my wife, is #1. Megan, my daughter, is #2. My mother would have to be #3, though (and don't tell her this) our pending child will become #2a. Mom gets bumped to #4. I think she'll understand, though.

Monday, January 09, 2006

It Takes Two

A common question asked in online boardgaming communities (most recently seen in Mark Haberman’s survey) is "what is the preferred number of players for a gaming session?". “4” is unsurprisingly the most common answer (as it seems most multi-player (MP) Euros play best with this number), but “5” is actually not far behind. My answer has always been “2”. The reasons for this:
  • MP games add elements of collaboration and manipulation, which I like as a change of pace, but not the norm. Similarly, in 2-player (2P) gaming, you don’t have to worry about a third player being “responsible” for you losing to the eventual victor (although, in these circumstances, I primarily blame myself for failing to effectively collaborate with or manipulate this other player).
  • I won’t lie – I like to win. One would expect to win more often in 2P matches on average. However, I think that my ability to collaborate and manipulate is better than my ability to analyze; in fact, in the first half of 2004 (when I last tracked games played), my winning percentage for MP games was actually higher than for 2P games by a few percentage points! I’m not sure why, but I usually get more satisfaction out of winning 2P games. I guess it just feels more “honest”.
  • Less downtime. ‘Nuf said.
  • The fewer the players, the easier it is to find games that all players are enthusiastic about playing. I would expound on this, but it is deserving of its own article. Given the current mix of players in our gaming group, this is no small matter.
  • I prefer the more intimate social setting of 2P gaming. Adding even just a third player to the mix drastically changes the interpersonal dynamics. I don’t observe this as much in other social settings (e.g., eating lunch with colleagues); I think that the competitive setting of MP gaming, with its shifting, fragile alliances, forces a layer of reservedness and/or dishonesty even in the casual conversations.
In 2005, I probably did as much 2P gaming as I did MP gaming (if I don’t count my time at conventions). Note that my wife rarely plays games with me these days. The vast majority of my 2P sessions are with one specific person. While the MP gaming in our group draws from a large repertoire in a given year, I usually stick to a much smaller set of games for my 2P gaming, focusing on revisiting games so as to master them. There are plenty of other games that will get played on occasion; in particular, Babel, Battleline, and Settlers of Catan Card Game always make an appearance a couple of times a year. Below is the set of games that will make up my 2006 list. “Keepers” are those games I played a lot in 2005 that will carry forward; “Adds” are new games (in some cases, sampled once in 2005) that will be included in the rotation; “Drops” are games that got a lot of play in 2005 but will be kept stored in the closet for now.

  • Magic: the Gathering: We like opening our sessions with 1 or 2 matches using the pre-constructed theme decks. With two more Ravnica sets being released this year (the next set’s guilds are B/W and R/G and R/U – I’m in heaven!), we will get plenty of play out of this most enjoyable block.
  • Roma: For now, it has become the standard “closer” for our sessions.
  • 7th Sea: I used to play this a lot with my wife, and supported the game up to the point when they changed the graphic design (soon after which the game died). My friend recently bought a ton of cards on eBay, and we’ll continue to throw decks at each other. Not sure this game would get played if it had a different theme…
  • Dungeon Twister: My Game of the Year for 2005 would continue to get a lot of play even if there weren’t several expansions in the works, including a Dungeon Twister card game. Speaking of, I see that the local game store now has the Paladins & Dragons set in stock!


  • Crusader Rex & Twilight Struggle: I’m usually not a fan of block games and card-driven wargames, but my first play of both of these was a real blast, and they played well under 3 hours each. It probably helped that I played the “favored” faction in each instance, but, in any case, I found the designs extremely accessible.
  • Empire of the Sun & Pacific Victory: Because, y’know, now I have to achieve my resolutions.
  • City of Heroes CCG: We have been playing the demo decks, and we like what we see so far. I do have some concerns about the rock-paper-scissors aspects of the matchups; after all, the City of Heroes MMORPG is built around teams of heroes working together, not one-on-one fights. I plan on reactivating my account for 1 month just to capture screenshots of all of my heroes and make custom tournament-legal cards out of them.


  • Spycraft CCG: Putting our trust in AEG, we bought a modest amount of cards and gave this a try in 2005. It seemed promising during deck-building, but playing out the game was literally headache-inducing for both players.
  • A Game of Thrones CCG: My most-played game for 2005 is likely headed for retirement (especially if the final version of City of Heroes CCG turns out to be a winner), what with the local tournament scene ending as of last summer. That’s just as well; I wasn’t very pleased with the direction the game was going in the new Winter Edition.
  • Jambo: Replaced as filler du jour by Roma. Will see play once or twice a year for the foreseeable future.

Now, as much as I love 2P gaming, I still very much cherish having the larger group. To prove my dedication to MP gaming, I will start a monthly series which profiles a gaming group (inspired by the reading group profiles that appear in bookmarks magazine). I hope to have my first article appear next week or the week after that. I don’t think anyone else is doing this – please let me know if I am wrong about that – and I best get moving on the idea before Tom Vasel beats me to it. If you are interested in having your group profiled, please send me an e-mail at ripcitygamer@comcast.net.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

I Need a Goal

Sorry I’m so late posting this week.  I figured I better get it in tonight or else I’ll be without any resolutions for the year (I prefer to call them goals).  Without goals, how can we measure progress?

I’ll be brief:

  1. Attend at least one mid-week gaming session a month (besides my own).  This is mostly a matter of putting it on my schedule and making it a priority.  I’m lucky to attend every other month, mostly due to my travel schedule.
  2. Play through my current owned but un-played list.  I’ll probably post this next week with some comments.  I’m allowed to add new games that go right into my un-played list.  Maybe I’ll get to those next year.  I think I might put a big burn-down chart on my game-room wall to track my progress.
  3. Play significantly more casual, short games at home with the family.  I’ve already had some good success with this in the past week, playing Lost Cities twice with Jacob and Blink with Matthew.  We also squeezed in a three-player game of Wyatt Earp this evening.  This is hard to measure (not a very SMART goal) but the intent will pay off.
  4. Organize and run sessions at GameStorm.  I did this two years ago but didn’t last year.  Not sure what I’ll run – any suggestions?  We will definitely run some prototype playtestings for Sunriver Games, but I’d like to run something unusual/unlikely.  Perhaps Battlestations would be a good choice.
  5. Improve my critical writing skills, particularly when reviewing and evaluating games.  This takes time (that I’m not sure I have), practice, and personal content review/editing.  I’d like be able to decompose a game as well as Chris Farrell but be a little less of a curmudgeon.


Saturday, January 07, 2006

Be It Resolved

It’s usually easy to make up goals and resolutions, and hard to even remember them let alone work on them a few months later. Except for the type where I work at them a little every week, I always have a tough time with these one-shots. But I’m willing to play! I divided mine up into easier and more difficult categories

Easier Resolutions
1) Continue my support of Gamestorm in the Portland Area. Organize either the annual the Friday night 2-Player Tournament or the Sunday morning Family Games focus or both. Even though I have plenty of friends to game with, going to a pay-for-it event still makes sense to me. It supports the overall hobby, opens it up to a whole bunch of new people and gives me a chance to find new play testers! While it’s a little like preaching to the choir, there’s some good crossover among the various game events, and it’s good to meet new gamers.

2) Get rid of 100 games from my collection. Take some to the Rainy Day Games auction like Dave suggested, or donate them to a library program, or sell them on Ebay or Boardgamegeek, but I need to get a good start on reducing my collection. I like the trade function on the Geek, but I do wish people would sort of check values on games before suggesting trades. It’s tough to stay nice and reply to all the folks who want to trade their $15 games for my $40 games.

3) Play games with 100 different people. This should be pretty easy really. Beyond my regular game groups that I dearly love, it’s always good to play with brand new groups or meet folks at conventions, etc. I need to do a little better job at getting names of folks I play with and saying thanks to them for playing, especially for helping playtest games of mine or games that Sunriver is considering.

4) Update my entire collection on BoardGameGeek. Here I might need some help from one of my more computer-savvy friends. For some reason, on both of our computers the section the Geek which shows My Collection says “Your user agent does not support frames or is currently configured not to display frames.” But I’ve never configured Internet Explorer to not display frames, and other framed pages seem to work fine. I’ve looked and looked, but haven’t found any setting I can change to get to that input window on the Geek. Any ideas out there?

Tougher Resolutions
5) Have a game of mine seriously considered or published by a company other then Sunriver Games. At Essen I chatted with Queen Games and Abacus Spiele about some of my designs, but I need to do the followup. These are games that Sunriver isn’t considering at this time, or they might end up being games that Sunriver would consider co-publishing if we were asked to by one of the European publishers. I figure this goal is pretty far out there, but I have to start somewhere!

6) Go as a presenter to a regional or national game conference or publisher conference. Last year I enjoyed being a guest at Dragonflight in Seattle, and I’d like to do something like that again. Gives me a chance to play Havoc with lots of new people, plus anything new that Sunriver Games is brewing. In addition, these conferences are good for playtesting other designs that may net be quite ready yet, and find people who are interested enough in Sunriver to sign up as future demo folks for us.

I’m kind of glad that Dave is going to track these lists, but I’m thinking I need to set up some personal tracking as well, since I know my own history with resolutions. First on the list is organizing my own game collection – it’s in enough different locations now that getting it down to 2 places would be a great first step.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Crystal Cube, or The See-Through Die

While I'm fully aware that this week we are supposed to be listing our gaming resolutions, I just can't do it. If there's one thing you should have learned by 40, it's that resolutions, like democracy, are great in theory. Then you get Dubya.

With that in mind, here is my list of predictions for 2006, which will almost certainly be thrown back in my face on a regular basis by those who know me. Since we're still in the run-up to the Epiphany (the 12th day of the 12 Days of Your Favorite Winter Holiday Here), I'll keep it down to 12 predictions. Here goes...

1) I will complain that there are too many games and too little time.

2) I will immediately buy more games after #1 above.

3) I will wish that we played more classic games like E&T.

4) I will, instead of actually suggesting classics, bring out the new shiny game I just got after complaining that there are too many games and too little time.

5) I will wish I was playing more wargames.

6) I will wish I had more wargame opponents.

7) I will do nothing to improve the situation in #'s 5 and 6.

8) I will continue to forget that it is Wednesday morning, and Dave will post my draft for me at about 11am.

9) I will, against all common sense and history, continue to believe in some small part of my heart that the Seahawks can, in fact, win a Super Bowl.

10) I will think about attending out of town gaming conventions, then just go to my group's retreats at the coast and Central Oregon.

11) I will try very hard not to purchase the DVD release of King Kong, then buy it anyway and be disappointed because it is not the same on even a 42" widescreen TV. However, I will, however, be able to watch Naomi Watts do tricks for a very large SGI monkey over and over and over and over...

12) I will be very happy to have so many good friends who love gaming and the relationships this hobby builds.

13) I will give too many predictions.

Happy New Year to all!

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Promises, promises...

Ah, yes. New Years Resolutions... typically unfulfilled promises made at a mostly artificial deadline.

The cynical bit being said, this is a good time to revisit things in your life that could stand some freshening-up. Or maybe change completely. As for most people, the following goals pale in comparison to the important parts of my life – family/work/health.

My general philosophy with New Years resolutions is to keep them realistic. There's no point in saying “I'm going to work out every day” when you know you can't, break the resolution before Martin Luther King day, and don't do anything about it the rest of the year while constantly feeling guilty. THERE's a healthy way to run your life. (and it's way too common...)

Be that as it may, let's take a look at the areas I'd like to improve in my gaming life.

Play more wargames. According to my records, I played wargames 30 times in 2005. 23 of those were DBM miniatures games (as mentioned last week.) That leaves 7 board wargames played in 2005, none of them twice. This needs to change. As Dave mentioned at the tail end of his post yesterday, the Hillsboro gaming session has been put on hiatus. This leaves me with alternate weeks open for gaming. I think I've got a wargame partner lined up for those off weeks. Hopefully it works out, as we share a lot of common interests in topics.

Play the unplayed games. I want to finish the task of playing every unplayed non-wargame I own. I started this last year, and I'm about 75% through the list. If I haven't played a game by the end of 2006, it's going to be sold.

Write the game already. I'm going to finish the first draft of my Great Northern War hex-n-counter wargame project. I've got the basic outline done, just have a few design decisions to make around command-and-control and flesh out the rules into something appropriate for a playtest.

Painting projects. I want to finish more painting projects than I start. I managed to finish two painting projects last year, but I started three others. This year, I'm going to (at worst) reverse that statistic. Being able to go an entire year without starting a new project would be a novel concept, as well. I'm not sure I'm actually ready to commit to that, however. I've got six projects currently underway – it's not inconceivable I could complete all six this year as only two of them are of any significant size.

Winnowing Down. I need to get realistic about cleaning out my board game collection. I'm going to go through the games I haven't played since early 2003 and decide if they're worth keeping.

Less lead. Do the same with my miniatures. I have WAY more miniatures than I could ever possibly paint. I need to get just as ruthless cleaning out the miniatures as I do the boardgames. The secondary market for these isn't very good, but I'm hoping I'll be able to trade figures for ones that still have my interest.

Gather with gamers. I want to attend at least one boardgaming gathering outside my group. The most likely candidate for this, Gamestorm, isn't going to happen as it's the weekend of my daughter's birthday. In fact, I seriously doubt I'll ever be able to attend Gamestorm as long as it's the last weekend in March. This means traveling to something – I'll have to check out the calendar.

For me, most of this will need to be done by the end of July. My wife and I have recently discovered we're having a second child in late August. If past history is any indication, I won't exactly get much gaming done in September or October at the very least. Any gaming that happens in November and December will be gravy. It's obviously a secondary priority at that point. The collection thinning goals are definitely there with a second child in mind - there's simply going to be less space to store my stuff. Therefore, only stuff that will actually get used should be kept around.