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Gathering of Engineers

Ludographic considerations from the Silicon Forest

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Game Storm 8 Postmortem

It turns out that my daughter had a mild case of pneumonia, so I didn’t have time to post last week. Fortunately she dramatically improved the night before Game Storm, so I was able to make it back to the convention after a one-year absence. Another Equinox miracle!

To put the critique below in context, keep in mind that Game Storm is manned by a group of volunteers, most of whom have been doing this for the last seven years. Objectively, it looked like all of the congoers were having an absolutely great timing accomplishing what they set out to do: hang out with a bunch of gamers and play games. That said, the following speaks to potential areas of improvements.

Location: I was bummed when they announced that they were moving across the river to Vancouver, but when I found out that the hotel was a short walk from the final stop of the Portland bus, I approached with an open mind. What a pleasant surprise - I love downtown Vancouver! It has that small city feel that I crave to return to. It felt like I went 20 years into the past – no cell phones, no face piercings, no general thuggery, etc. – although the area was a bit lacking in demographic diversity. Since the hotel sold out, I stayed at the nearby Hilton, which was just a cigarette away (that’s six minutes to you) and next to a large beautiful park that hosted a market on Saturday and Sunday. It was nice to get away from the gamer crowd – there was a seniors convention at the Hilton that weekend – and I like to pretend that Paris used the sheets just before I did (that might explain my current "itching" problem).

Compared to the previous location, the board game space was further away from the rest of the con – registration, RPG crowd, hospitality room – giving it the feel of a mini-con within a con, roughly the size and focus of BGG.Con. I definitely missed having the rooms that hosted the panel sessions nearby, as it was always worthwhile to pop in when between sessions. Fortunately, they moved the game library directly into the boardgaming room, whereas previously it required a bit of a hike to get a game and bring it back to the open gaming area. The biggest drawback compared to last year was not having smaller side rooms available for key boardgame events, such as KC’s two-player tournament. Overall, I though the previous site was slightly better, but I would prefer to stay in Vancouver again. Grade: A-

Logistics: The Game Storm crew had long perfected most of the logistic items (game library, registration, etc.), but where they made the big improvement this year was pre-registration. Not only did I pre-register with Paypal, but I was able create a schedule for myself under my account that I could revisit, revise, and print out. Although the staff was a bit slow in the initial setup of the boardgame room on Friday, I have no real complaints here. Grade: A

Eats: I was really excited when they introduced the hospitality room three years ago, but I was a bit disappointed with it this year – and I’m not just talking about the absence of frosting for the animal crackers. The availability of food and beverages was very inconsistent; I don’t know whether the cause was lack of funds or lack of runners. Unfortunately, there were no nearby restaurants akin to Jantzen Beach’s Original Joes (Bento/wrap joint), and the places that were a 10-minute walk away were hard to find. Fortunately, the farmer’s market had a lot of good options, including a great BBQ joint; however, there were no late-night options without traveling across the bridge back to Oregon. The Game Storm program booklet should have a map of the surrounding area showing food places (apologies if it is there already; I never read the program that closely). Grade: B-

People: There was a healthy mix of different types of gamers and games to choose from. Compared with previous years, there were many more Eurogamers. It’s hard to believe how far the hobby has come in the past six years. I have to say that I was wrong with the skeptical outlook I posted on BGG about there being too many events. Few events got cancelled from what I saw, although some events got a disappointing turnout while, as I wrote about previously, there was plenty of open gaming going on with the Eurogamers. It’s great that the hobby is growing, but I may be done with running events. I don’t want to have to predict what games folks are willing to sign up for; it’s just too much work for me to prepare for an event and lug games along. A big plus for the boardgaming crowd was how little eating there was in the room itself; one of the disadvantages to having restaurants nearby is that folks will tend to be more likely to be the food (usually consisting of vast quantities of grease and/or onions) back to the room. Grade: A-

Gaming: Easily the best opportunities for gaming of any Game Storm I have attended. Unlike previous years, there was a full crowd all the way from Friday afternoon through Sunday evening, including late night and early morning. There were Euros, abstracts, conquest games, fantasy games, “Ameritrash” - the whole range. The only knock against the selection is that most Euros being played were those released by American publishers (i.e., those I already have had an opportunity to play with my group). Compared to the national Euro-centric cons I have attended, it was difficult to find a more obscure import being played. Any issues I had with the quality of events were more than made up by the quantity. Grade: B+

In the final assessment, I would give the con a grade of A-. The slate of events was far from ideal, but the organization of the con kept things running smoothly. Most importantly, for three days, it got my mind completely off of home and work issues, and boy did I need that. Unlike most of my past gaming getaways, it will be the non-gaming moments that I will remember the most, such as the Denny’s excursion with GoE-mates Chris and KC. Our banter with the sassy Denny’s waitress - after we all ordered the same special - was a particular highlight. In the spirit of you had to be there:

W: Would you like identical desserts? Maybe milkshakes?
D: Do the milkshakes come with pancakes as well?
W: You wish they did.
D: (Yeeaaaah baby!)

My typical goal at Game Storm is to try out games that are new to me, usually outside the Euro genre. In addition to the below, I got in several prototypes, some by local gamers dabbling in design, others by local "professionals" who were pretty aggressive about roping folks into their demos. Below were my main events, listed in chronological order.
  • A Struggle of Empires that was not ideally planned for a couple of reasons. First, the GM was a Game Storm staff member, who had a lot of interruptions since the con was still undergoing initial setup. Second, there is a tendency for GMs to list available seats for a games as defined by the maximum number of players that the game is designed to handle; I went home early on Sunday evening to avoid a six-hour Age of Steam match, and I saw a six-player Tongiaki event going on at one point. In this case, we played with the full slate of seven players, which would have been okay except that only three hours was allocated for the event. Unsurprisingly, with mostly new players in the match, we didn’t even complete the second of three turns.
  • I had my first exposure to Sigma File (aka Conspiracy), which was a very pleasant surprise given the age and publisher of the game. I try to sign up at least once per Game Storm for an event being run by Andrew Nesbitt – one of the few GMs who have been there as long as I have – as he has a deep collection of delightful games from earlier decades. I fear that the design doesn't have a built-in way to force the action, especially as there is incentive to hoard money and wait around for others to pay their money for the assassinations. A fragile system, but I think it’s a cool little puzzler worth exploring further. It would certainly be easy enough to make a homemade copy (which I have no qualms about doing given its out-of-print status).
  • Next was an Icehouse event, featuring the recently announced Treehouse, and perhaps the most popular Icehouse game of all, Zendo. Treehouse was a decent-enough puzzle-type game, although our matches were far too chaotic and random given the number of players involved; I would like to try a 3p match before my final judgment. This was my first play of Zendo, and I was so delighted by it that I ended up running an impromptu session of it on Sunday while waiting for another event.
  • KC’s 2-player tournament had a disappointing turnout. Simply Fun’s Drive (aka Crazy Chicken) was intriguing once I figured out the “right” way to play it, although I wonder, independent of how aggressively you lay down sets, whether the best strategy remains to always hoard the highest possible values you know you have a shot at winning. I actually liked KC’s two-player Backgammon variant Versailles, even if the flow of the game was analogous to running up a down escalator. Having the tourney end with two of my favorites – Battle Line and Einfach Genial – gave me a chance to share my love of the game with the other players, even though I knew it pretty much guaranteed me the first-place prize. ;->
  • KC already wrote about the National Lampoon drug-themed game. A cute marriage of theme and design, but the game was too random and repetitive to be worth playing once the joke wore out.
  • Played in a late-night pickup game of King of the Elves. It is hard to win without a Gold card, especially with more than three players in the game. But it makes for a good filler in a social situation.
  • Started out Saturday by playing my first match of Antike. All the criticisms on BGG seem to be spot-on. One of the things that drives me nuts in multi-player conquest games is when the economic system detracts from what should be the primary focus: who is going to attack whom. Wallenstein was my previous star example of this phenomenon, but Attike might top it, as the numerous short turns encourages fast play centered around the mechanical production cycle. In a largely combat-free game, no temples were sacked in our match. As Greece in one corner, I came in second, while the player in the other corner won.
  • The highlight of the con for me might have been Dungeonville, a release from Z-man Games which features cute artwork and theme. You recruit characters to go out on adventures and find gold, which you then use to buy more characters, and so on. Ultimately, you want to start recruiting good fighters to go out and kill your opponent’s parties, which is the main way to gain VPs. However, good fighters are more expensive, will carry less gold back from adventures, and are more susceptible to booby traps (I assume due to their reckless bravado). There are enough elements that define a character to give the game sufficient depth. However, the default game as published has the players play to a low VP total, which gives the game poor arc as the obvious strategy is to buy the strongest fighters you can ASAP and just win a couple of quick fights. Clearly, a longer game with some ebb-and-flow is needed. Mike Selinker – who co-designed the game with James Ernest – ran the game and admitted as much, saying that his group plays to a higher VP total. Perhaps this explains all of the low ratings on BGG...
  • I have not played any of the big box Fantasy Flight Games products released in the past couple of years. As it was, Descent was the event that I was looking forward to the most, and it did not disappoint. I was given a ranged-combat specialist, and was then dealt the Rapid Fire ability and Ferret familiars to fetch me stamina potions which I could use to refuel Rapid Fire repeatedly. I was a killing machine even with a crossbow, but I soon found the Bow of Bone which made me even more deadly and at longer range. We had three ranged and one magic user in our party, so it was a pretty easy match. However, it was fairly long and repetitive, and I would imagine it to be pretty painful with a party mostly made up of tanks. It was a great con game, but I don’t think I would invest that amount of time to play this with my own crew. I may get it as an intro to D&D combat for my family, although the storage space requirements may prove to be prohibitive.
  • Although no one signed up for the single event I signed up to run - Celebrity Deathmatch Candamir Tournament - three folks showed up. The first just wanted to learn the Candamir game, while the other couple agreed to join us out of pity. What made the match so hilarious was that Legolas kept running into bears and snakes over and over again. Great display sportsmanship by the impacted player who took it like a champ. LeBron James was running away with the victory but Richard Simmons made a fierce comeback and ended up edging out LeBron, 10-9. It was an unusual match in that the deck of adventures barely got into level 2 (with level 3 a long ways off), and that two characters maxed out on XP. My biggest disappointment was that no one wanted to play my latest card: the infamous Katrina Looter (see below).
  • After Werewolf a couple of years ago, you think I’d have learned my lesson about signing up for midnight events at Game Storm, but I couldn't resist a late-night session of Mall of Horror. I ended up seated to the right of the start player in the first turn, so I predictably had to lose a character right away as the start player decided to announce that zombies would be storming the parking lot, causing all other locations to fill up. In the second turn, despite my being down a token to the other players, two opponents voted against me, perhaps as future leverage for bargaining with the third party. I then got hosed a third and final time a couple of turns later when I got stuck in last position again. I came back as a zombie the next turn only to get blown up by a shotgun, mercifully allowing me to leave the table. Still a great game, but it won’t be a great experience for every player in every match. Couldn't have happened to a nicer guy...
  • I arranged to meet loyal GoE reader Wes (really, do I need to mention the name as if there were more than one of you?) to play Crusader Rex. I played the Saracens in my first match and had a blast, so I agreed to play the Franks so that Wes could play the more exciting Saracens, and boy was that pretty dull. Wes’ extremely conservative play gave me a decent chance to win it - net consensus is that the game highly favors the Saracens - but it meant that I spent most of the game in a sit-and-wait mode. I still love the design, but will need to study more on how to play the Franks; hopefully there is an effective strategy which includes mixing it up a bit more.
  • The Rocketville tournament – ran by designer Richard Garfield – got a fair draw of 16 players, and I ended up winning the championship match when my final draw was the yellow card I needed to pick up four bonus points for two of the robots I collected. I give the game a Thumbs Up, if only for the top-notch presentation. This is a fairly pedestrian area-influence game with lots of random elements to it. However, unlike most area-influence games, this one is card-driven, and players will not be playing with equal resources. If you get decent cards throughout the game, there is plenty of skill in playing them to your best advantage.
  • Before heading home, I taught Chris how to play Scarab Lords. Then I schooled him.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006


I'm the first to say that I think Podcasting is a great idea. It does for AM radio what the printing press did for newspapers - strengthen free speech while choking us on content. Just because you have an opinion doesn't mean that it's reasoned enough to broadcast. Rush Limbaugh is a prime example - most of his commentary is mudslinging. Disagreeing with Hillary Clinton is one thing, putting a chihuahua head on her body is childish and pathetic. I don't listen to Air America for the same reason, it seems that the only answer liberals had (once it was clear that reason loses to screaming every time) was to play the same game.

Now everyone, no matter how misinformed, can have their own talk show and niche audience. While it's a good thing in the sense that a hobby like boardgaming in the US has several podcasts from which to choose, but wouldn't it be nice to have a good podcast?

I've only listened to a few 'casts so far, but I'm having trouble finding one I like. The first one I heard was on the 'Geek, and I can't remember who did it. I distinctly remember them interviewing Jay Tummelson, who almost singlehandedly brought eurogaming to the US, and giving him a lot of crap for Fossil. To make things worse, they interrupted Jay repeatedly, who was giving his time freely (and did, to be fair, get to advertise his upcoming games, but most internet savvy gamers would be aware of what those are). While they weren't as bad as Rush, they were working on it.

Recently I tried out The Dice Tower, done by Tom Vasel [note: apologies to Tom for misspelling his name in the original post] and The Cranky Guy. I know, it's Joe Steadman, but boy is he cranky. Perhaps I could have done better than listen to the two episodes that featured the top ten most underrated/overrated games. I hate top 10 lists, as I feel that it is pretty much pointless to compare apples to oranges to kumquats, which is what any gaming list does (how can you really compare a wargame to a euro?)

The list of things I dislike about this particular podcast is pretty amazing. First, the humor is sophmoric, especially from Joe and whoever they let in the studio that day. It's like being trapped in a high school D&D session. Tom, to his credit, attempts to rise above the childishness, but it's a losing battle when you go up against the screamers. I'd listen to drive-time radio if I wanted this brand of humor. When you get people who do understand how to speak information clearly, like the guys who do the German and Boardgame news, their professionalism only demonstrates my point.

Second is the inability to pronounce game companies correctly. Dez Cartez is pronounced Dey-Cahrt, guys, just like the philosopher/mathemetician. That's the matter with Kansas, right there. I don't feel like you need to get the accent right, but at least get close. I certainly never get the impression that Joe is trying too hard.

But to be honest, I can live with these minor nits. What I do hate is the reviews and evaluations. Most reviews consist of describing the game's mechanisms, then saying they like it or don't. Very little qualitative information, just they don't like it. My favorite so far was Joe saying he didn't like Evo, and not just because of the theme. The politics of evolution aside (he must really hate anything to do with cavemen, as Evo doesn't even posit that people are the result of evolution), that was literally his only comment on the game. No "it's too slow," or "too chaotic" or "I don't like the neon colors", just "Ick". I know you guys are LDS, you certainly hit us over the head with it in pretty much every episode, but to dislike a game's theme simply because it doens't reinforce your worldview speaks volumes about one's insecurities. I'm not anti-LDS, although I do wonder how anyone gets involved in a religion found under a rock in upstate New York, but if I wanted to get a sermon on the evils of teaching evolution I'd find a different podcast. [Author's note: no one associated with The Dice tower is LDS. I made an assumption based on a couple of terms I'd heard used in the podcast to make an inaccurate guess. In fact, pretty much everything involving mentioning a specific faith should have been left out of the entry, but I am leaving it in place to avoid confusion and to avoid looking like I'm sweeping anything under the rug.]

Tom isn't much better, saying that he disliked Paths of Glory as it was too complex. It's a wargame, Tom. They are, by their very definition, complex, because they attempt to simulate, at some level, a historical event. Euros can simply use a historical theme and don't have that burden, so they require zero chrome. Yes, Tom claimed that the top ten list of overrated games was sort of a joke, but he might as well have included all wargames or none. Either way, saying something is "too complex" is like saying that since calculus is too hard we shouldn't teach it in schools. Not everyone will take it, but there are significant populations that should. If you don't get it, Tom, don't review it.

I can't even fall asleep listening to this stuff with all the snorting and chortling going on behind the scenes. It's like having lunch at a McDonald's close to a high school.

I understand that podcasting is a difficult and often thankless business (although there was a comment that Tom gets free games in return for his work on the Tower, followed by an awkward silence), and most people don't realize how much work goes into such an endeavor (I do, I've been a musician for decades and know my way around a mixing board). The basic truth still remains, however, that if you want to be a critic you should be good at it, and that includes having more of an opinion than "too hard" or "doesn't fit in with my religion".

It's really too bad, because I've enjoyed Tom's written reviews on the 'Geek, but listening to him talk has made me considerably less interested in his opinion regardless of the medium. And Joe? Yikes.

Yes, 'casting is a fledgling medium. Yes, 90% of anything is crap according to Sturgeon's Law. I'm just waiting for the 10% to start showing up in boardgaming 'casts. Perhaps audio is a poor choice for boardgaming, although if you think you don't want to hear boardgamers talking, you really don't want to see them. However, a well-done and well-produced 'cast, 30 minutes in duration, would take probably three-four hours to prep effectively, plus another hour of post-production. Perhaps this is what Tom and Joe should shoot for, doing 30 minutes instead of 60. Cutting out the top 10 list (is there any format more tired than this one?) would probably do the trick. And let's leave the snorty friends out of the taping session, hmm?

Guess I better do my own gaming podcast now or face the accusation of being an armchair podcaster.
[Author's Note: And, I better not be as cranky. This entry was too harsh in tone, although I stand by the issues I raise.]

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Why I Love (2-player) Gaming

My daughter Megan turned 2 years old yesterday. Needless to say, this is a big event for the all the grandparents. My mom flew up for the weekend, and Jodie's parents came by for the afternoon – dinner at the Old Spaghetti Factory, cake and presents afterwards, and all day Sunday was shopping with my mom in two stints – before and after Megan's nap.

As you can probably expect, it was a stressful weekend. Yeah, fun was had, but there was a lot of coordinating, explaining, chasing, etc. going on.

Still, Jodie and I found time for some games. A well earned respit, and it leads me to think about why I enjoy gaming in the first place: good mental exercises, good social experiences, and good clean fun. It's also a welcome escape when life is stressing you out.

And, on that note, here's what we're enjoying as two player games these days:

This has recently been Jodie's favorite game. (I'm sure in part because she beat me something like five straight times.) The game never plays the same way twice, and every strategy has a counter. (We've recently discovered we're playing with a hybrid of the rules fixes suggested to fix the Mercator. Our only rule change is that you can't get more than 6 gold in a turn.) We're up to 11 playings of this already.

San Juan
This is probably our current #2 game. We've developed very distinct play styles over the months we've played this (Jodie nearly always has more production buildings in play than me, but I nearly always build the 12th building.) We're evenly matched on this one. I haven't counted wins/losses, but I've played this game 54 times (according to my stats on the geek) and I'd expect no more than five of those are with more than two players. I'd guess whomever's in the lead hasn't won more than 5 or 6 more games than the other.

St. Petersburg
I actually think this game is best with two. We're well over thirty plays on it, and we're getting almost chess-like in our decision making. Jodie somehow manages to beat me in worker count more often than not, however.

A new favorite. We've only got a couple plays in, but it works well. A nice game when we have a little more time. Which, unfortunately, hasn't been all that often lately.

6 Nimmt!
An old favorite. Great as a starter, or when we've only got 20 minutes or so and we're too tired to really think. We've played with the variant rule a couple times (only use cards numbered 1-10 x players+4) but taking the cards out of the deck is more trouble than it's worth. Plus, we'd never see that nasty 55.

Others we'll occasionally pull out:

Bohnanza, Alhambra, Crayon Rail Games, Cribbage, Attika, Ticket to Ride: Europe, Carcassonne (Jodie still likes the original with the first two expansions best), Wyatt Earp.

After we work through some of the games I've received this year, it'll be interesting to see which ones we come back to this time next year.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Gamestorm Day 1

So I arrived at the Vancouver hotel around 3 pm, found the gaming easily , although sadly the board gamers are in a whole separate outbuilding from the rest of the Gamestorm convention folks.

I met a lot of old friends, and was quickly ushered into a Caylus game, picking up a game after a couple turns played by my friend Scott who had to take off. The game was fun although I had to re-learn as we went. My first three-player game, and overall still high marks.

Game 2 was Diamant with my draft expansions. Overall it was received well, just four of us playing, and the Cursed Temple expansion is still trailing the Three Artifacts expansion in popularity.

Then time for a quick check of the hospitality room before we set up for the Two Player Games Tournament. We did much more setup this year in terms of choosing and borrowing games, designing certificates, finding prizes (like Carcassonne Castle, San Juan, etc all sealed and new.) But we did less advertising - in previous years we haven't had to ... Well it finally bit us back, and only four people were there on time to play in the tourney. Maybe three other folks drifted in later and said they had signed up or wanted to play.

Our primary four played four games in all (all played the same games). First Drive by Simply Fun, one that Chris taught me tonight as the group learned it. Cute, I'd need to play a few more hands to see if I like it really. Then Versailles, a backgammon-style game of mine that seemed to go fairly well. Some players didn't care for (to wacky was the term I think!), and others (thanks Ken and Brandon!) really liked it.

Sidenote - while our main four were playing, at least three other games among people who shoed up late or just wanted in late were going on, including Battle Lines, Ingenious and Versialles. Now back to our regularly scheduled show ...

Third up was Battle Lines, played with the tactics cards. We had thought perhaps one round without the special cards (Schotten Totten) and one with, but it was pointed out that the two games would run to quite a length. And after that, Round Four was seeded based on winning scores and the championshpip game was... Ingenious!

dave beat Phoenix and claimed the first place prize. In the consolation round, Chris's son Jacob won his match and claimed a nice prize from our Prize Table. Thans to everyone who played, and sad we didn't have more. Live action Roborally, run by Richard Garfield the author (and of course founder of the Magic the Gathering phenomenon) might have pulled a lot of people, but who knows?

Then we were off to a quick dinner at Denny's, a fast game of Can't Stop with a pen-and-paper game board and the famous Chris Vest Dice that he now always carries. Back to the Hotel, and Dave and I got roped into OD, literally a game of trading and taking drugs first printed by the National Lampoon in the Sixties (our host Andrew Nesbet said). Cute game, but a bit slow. And the subject matter a little hard to swallow.

Finally we were rescued from planned overdoses and got to play three hands of King of the Elves with four players. Fun game, and fairly close going into the third round. Then Chris travelled around the world, collecting two gold cities (doubling those points) and collecting over 50 points in one round. dave and I threw in our hands, knowing we were nowhere close to that.

But still a fun ride and challenge, and the people, as ever, make the game. More games tomorrow, and I'll report on them and the panel talks next time.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

What Was This Post About, Exactly?

Another crazy week for me. I sang for a performance of the American Choral Directors, had an audition for an a capella vocal group (not the right group for me) with all of the prep work that goes into such a thing, getting ready to go to Victoria to celebrate my 20th wedding anniversary, and trying to do all of the other things that somehow I get roped into. And so, here it is, a pleasant Thursday in March in Portland, and I realize I've not done my blog entry.

Time for Stream Of Consciousness Theater! Yay!


I got bupkis. So, just ride with it.

A few years ago I got a speeding ticket. These things come in waves for me, usually I'll see two or three in a row, then nothing for years. Must. Find. Wood. To. Knock. On. There, all better. Anyway, in Oregon you get to send in an "explanation" with your fee, and they send half of it back. I can't imagine they actually read these things, but I'm sure that somewhere in the county courthouse there is a file full of the really good ones. So, I decided for this particular ticket to go through the various motions to see if being entertaining might get me a bit more of a refund. While I sadly no longer have the letter (it was written on my work computer at a job I no longer have, take that Capitalist Pigs!), it went something like this...

"Dear County Clerk,

I began writing my explanation, then thought that perhaps you might enjoy going through my thought process with me. While I am the first to admit that more than 20 seconds inside my head is likely to cause permanent damage to any outsider, I'll try to keep the noise down to a minimum..."

I then went through every "explanation" approach I could think of: Angry, Concilliatory, Dumb As A Post, etc. All in the flavor of "I could complain that I was not going the stated speed, that this was a saturation patrol for people driving uphill intended more to collect revenue than to prevent accidents, but that might come across as bitter." I ended by saying that I'd simply been going over the limit, although not at the speed I was clocked at (really, this was going uphill and I was in an old RAV4), and that I hoped they'd been entertained enough to give me a little more back than usual.

They did. No note from a clerk, as I'd dearly hoped for (I might have considered framing it had they done so), but I did get more like 75% back. More importantly, I believe I achieved my original goal and made it to The File. If anyone out there works for Multnomah County and has friends in the traffic renumeration department, if you could check on this I'd be grateful.

There was a point to this when I began...

Back in the late 80's and early 90's, Keyboard Magazine had a back-page columnist named Freff. Actually, Connor Cochrane Freff (IIRC). His head shot (that means a picture of his face, pervs) was actually of the torso of a marching band participant juggling two rubber balls. What was great about his columns was that they seemingly had nothing to do with music. Of course, that meant that they had everything to do with *making* music, albeit in about as oblique a way as possible.

One of the columns I will never forget concerned a story about young Connor, who was a starving something (student, bum, whatever), being invited to go to dinner with a friend who was a sci-fi writer. No one I'd ever heard of, but he seemed to know pretty much everyone who wrote sci-fi. And they were all there at dinner. Now Conner was a huge fan of these people, and to him this was a bit like an ancient Greek dining on Olympus with the gods. The only problem was that he had literally no money, and while he didn't mind just drinking water while his friend ate, he was definitely not cool with sitting there with a roomful of his favorite deities, and so he clumsily tried to avoid being seated with them by sitting out in the reception area. One of the writers who didn't know him, Philip K. Dick IIRC (and I'm sure I don't), came out and told him to come inside, and that he would buy young Connor dinner. Connor, trying to look like he knew what he was doing, made various excuses, but was pulled up short when the writer stopped him and said, "Son, never turn down a free lunch."

Words to live by. In fact, I myself never turn down a free lunch. Perhaps even more importantly, I never turn down the chance to offer someone a free lunch.

And it doesn't always mean "lunch" literally. The point of the article was that art is always based on the work that has gone before. Sometimes that means it's a pretty close copy, sometimes it means that someone has tried very hard to produce a work unlike anything they've ever seen before (and sometimes it works, most often it looks like what they were trying to avoid). It means that creating out of that heritage is a valuable thing, that it is not in fact stealing. In the Renaissance, composers regularly wrote "parody" works intended to sound like another composer (and Ravel did exactly the same thing in the early 20th century).

Point, Doug. You need a point.

OK, here goes.

That's what is going on in game design. We have a set of concepts, mechanisms, even themes that are used over and over again, often in a way that fails to engage us. New games are compared to what has come before, analyzed down to what works and what doesn't, reduced to it's component parts. We played Reef Encounter on Saturday, and while it seemed OK, I got the feeling that I was yet again disappointed that a game with good buzz was just another do this, get that, use it for this other thing game that I've already got 30 of.

In other words, sometimes a free lunch is not such a great idea, especially if it's at one of those $4 Chinese lunch buffets I went to too many of when I worked in tech. Too much incremental progress, not enough breaking of the mold. Too much repackaging of theme and mechanism, all to hope the game, however flawed, sticks in the public's imagination and makes money for *someone*.

The thing is, with literally hundreds of games coming out in the past five years, it's getting very hard to a) separate the wheat from the chaff, and b) have the time to even start the machine, much less try out a game like it should be. Single playings might tell you that something is a complete loser, but most of the time it requires time to differentiate quality. Wargames are less of a problem, as innovation seems to pop up every so often - look at card-driven wargames. A couple of games ten years ago, and suddenly they're everywhere, on every topic. And some do a good job.

But in Euros, aside from the fact that these games were essentially unknown in the US until eight years ago (and internet access wasn't as prevalent), there isn't that much innovation. I'm more influenced in my initial opinion of a game by undeserved screwage and by doing well as opposed to the actual quality of the game itself, so I'm leery of trusting initial impressions. And then it's off to the next shiny game and the once-played game ends up gathering dust or going to auction.

So why do I do this? Aside from the madness of possessing everything I see, that is?

Last night, Mike came by to pick up some games that were going to be used in a local convention for a two-player tournament. While he was here, he spoke glowingly of a recent session, two weeks old, where he'd gone so far as to title his report "A Sucky Day Of Gaming". Yet, he'd had a ball, perhaps as much fun as he'd ever had gaming.

You see, the games are only the excuse, the common ground that we use to bring our community together. It is the sense of togetherness, the trust, the genuine affection even for the guy wearing headphones and talking too loud, those are the real reasons we come together. We know that while many in the "real" world won't understand us, don't get why we'd ever spend time, much less money on these childish "toys" we are so enamored of, that in the end we are accepted by those we game with. That is, if you're lucky.

It is community that is the free lunch, the funny explanation file, the raison d'etre for all of these flawed games. Treasure it, nurture it, and above all, share it, and don't hesitate to trust it when you need to.

Somehow, I have managed to pull it all together, just like in Theology 101 term papers. Now that is a game that we should try to fit into a box. Next week, I will pull a rabbit out of my a**. I'll have to, as I'll have just gotten back from Canada the day before...

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Burning down, with a session

Burning down the unplayed games – a lite version for those counting calories.

I'm making steady progress in the number of games I own that I've never played. I keep track of these in four categories

  1. Games I'll never play. The only reason I still own them is they're in storage and I haven't dug them out – there's 6 games in this category.)
  2. Non-wargame expansions. There's now 9 items here, and six of them are Age of Steam expansions. Knocked one off last weekend (session report follows.)
  3. Wargames including expansions. I have 119 items in this category, though that includes some miniatures games as well. This is the category that is going to see the most eBay activity from me over the next year. Many of these games I acquired more as reference material than anything and have no intention to play. Most, however, are going to be sold.
  4. Everything else. Down to 22 in this category.

It's the everything else category that gets the most attention. Of course, it doesn't help that I've acquired 13 of those 22 games since the start of the year.

The nine games that I've owned since before new years that I've never played are:

  • 1856
  • 1860
  • Attribut
  • Cosmic Encounter
  • Druidenwalzer
  • Fjords
  • Indonesia
  • Labyrinth - Die Schatzjagd
  • Res Publica

That's a pretty manageable list. Chris and I (among others) have talked about trying out the 18xx series, so I'm optimistic about the first two coming off the list. Attribut will definitely get played at some family gathering or other. I'm bringing Indonesia to our Sunriver gaming retreat in a few weeks. Hopefully, it'll come off the list there. Jodie and I will end up playing Fjords and Druidenwalzer sometime soon, so I'm not worried about those.

That leaves Cosmic Encounter, the Labyrinth game, and Res Publica. None of these are really screaming "play me!" right now, and they haven't for a while. Of course I have the least desirable versions of CE and RP (the Avalon Hill version of CE, and the Avalanche Press version of RP) so they won't bring THAT much in sales. But I'm this close to putting them both on the sale block.

This Saturday I was able to host our monthly Saturday gaming gathering. Due to a variety of reasons, I haven't been able to host anything in a while, so it was refreshing to have the guys over for a few hours.

Dave and Chuck arrived a few minutes after 10, and we knew Doug would be showing up around noon, so we had tried to pick out a good 2-hour three-player game. We settled on the Italy map for Age of Steam (part of expansion #4.)

This expansion tweaks the standard rules a fair amount. Among the changes are:

  • No towns
  • No income reduction
  • You can issue shares at any time, but they only pay $3 unless you issue them in the proper phase.
  • You can build as many track tiles as you can afford, but you can only complete one link per turn, and cannot build incomplete links.
  • There are no black cities – instead, when you move a black cube it reduces the income of the link's owner by one instead of raising it.

There's a handful of other changes, but the above change the game enough to make it play very differently.

Once we got a couple turns in, the three of us were starting to get into the feel of the game. Early on, Dave and I had both started building in the north, and Chuck had the south all to himself – it was looking like Chuck had the inside track. Dave decided to contest the body of the penisula with Chuck, leaving me mostly alone in the north. About 2/3 of the game, I started charging to the lead, and it looked like I was going to pull off the win. As the game drew to a close, I ran out of high-payoff deliveries, and a timely black cube movement by Dave gave him what looked to be a bit of breathing space.

When the final tally came in, Dave had beaten Chuck 192 - 189 - 161. My big problem was the lack of built tiles – building in the north gave me a lot of deliveries, but it was a lot of short routes.

All three of us played relatively nice. We all had plenty of opportunities to move black cubes and reduce others' incomes, but we (mostly) decided to build up our own positions instead. As a result, we all had a lot of spare cash at the end. I could definitely see a more antagonistic game keeping the income WAY down.

All in all, this might be the best three-player map for AoS. The game was tight the entire time, leading to a number of tough decisions down the stretch. And we played it in under two hours.

After AoS, Doug joined us just in time to head off to lunch. Upon return, we cracked open Reef Encounter – a game none of us had played. To put it mildly, there's a lot going on here. You're trying to score points by building up and then eating reefs you grow over time. You do this by trading cubes for tiles and tiles for cubes (in varying types of color-agreement and/or placement) claiming reefs of a certain number of tiles with shrimp, and having your parrot fish eat the reef. There's also relative strengths of reefs (a white reef might be able to eat pink on this turn, but it will likely be changed later, etc.) At the end of the game, tiles your parrot fish have eaten are worth a point each plus a point each for every other color of tiles they dominate.

As you can tell by the rambling nature of the previous paragraph, I really don't fully understand what's going on in this game. Yet I won. (on a tiebreaker over Dave.) My initial reaction to the game was identical to my reaction to Antiquity. This is a game that has a lot of things working together, and it takes practice to figure out how it flows.

I'll definitely play it again (though probably not with four unless it's by email – way too much down time) but I don't know if I'll be buying this one. Breese's previous effort, Keythedral, and a game arc that is, IMO, way too short – this seems to be an overcorrection. It just seems to be a longer game than necessary.

After that, Doug had to take off (he apparently was up at the ungodly hour of 6:30 or something suitably lame like that :) ) and Jodie joined us for a quick game of Palazzo. Chuck won it relatively handily with Jodie second, me third, and Dave last. If there was some way to mitigate the luck factor on what tile gets placed in the center, this game would improve markedly. Maybe having to pay 10 for the newly-drawn tile no matter how many other tiles are there? Dunno. It's decent filler, but not one of Knizia's better efforts.

Monday, March 20, 2006

Rain Delay

My daughter has a bronchial condition, a fever, and four rear molars coming in, so I am unable to dedicate time to finish editing any of my half-finished articles in the queue. Hopefully, things will clear up soon enough, and I can post in the open Thursday slot this week.

Seriously, I should work on these posts during business hours.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Setting Up a 2-Player Game Tournament

We’ll be bringing back our annual Two Player Games Tournament to Gamestorm this year – in fact it’s next Friday! Since we designed it a few years ago, I thought I’d bring it out early in case some of our readers have some better ideas that will enhance any feature – organization, ease of play, fun, etc. I’ll be happy to work any input into the final setup that I can.

After we do some sign-in and orientation, up to 16 tournament players play four game rounds with a new 2-player game each round. Each round we offer a choice between two 2-player games, the games are taught, then contestants play 1 game. If time allows, contestants may play the “best of 3 games” between them. We tally scores and award prizes at the end of the night.

We’ll have 8 games total. So far the list of possibles has a few extra so we can make a final selection based on what we can get at least four copies of. Our game group often supplies us with their home copies on loan, for which we are publicly grateful (even before the fact!).

  • Take It Easy – a new entry this year, played as 2-player, this should be fun.
  • Ghosts (Geister) – we’ve used this in the past, a simple tactical board game.
  • Can’t Stop – a Sid Sackson classic, again played as just two player – you win by achieving four columns on the board instead of the multi-player three columns.
  • Solodice (Choice/Einstein) – another Sid Sackson game, we supply rules and scoring sheets for everyone to take home. Both players use the same dice rolls but make their own choices on how to score them.
  • Lost Cities – a classic Knizia 2-player. We’ll encourage players to play to a given number of points.
  • Odin’s Ravens – of the Kosmos 2-plyer series, here’s another easy-to-teach entry that plays well.
  • Battle Line – another fine Knizia title, we’ll debate playing it without the military tactics cards (which I guess makes it nearly the same as Schotten-Totten except for deck size and hand size.)
  • Yinsh – a new entry this year, and a very popular title from the GIPF series.
  • Ingenious – another Knizia game, this time tile-laying, and usually multiplayer but should work fine for 2 players.

This tournament uses a Swiss 4-round system and matches players with the same/similar Win-Loss record. A tie is scored as 1/2 Win – 1/2 Loss. After the four rounds everyone will have scores ranging from 4 wins 0 losses to 0 wins 4 losses. Ties will be broken by comparing the total Win scores of each player’s opponents. The tourney is really for fun, but we do get some very competitive people!

We try to keep the sign-up short, but people sometimes stumble in late, and we adjust as we go. We hand out first assignments and ask groups to pick one of the two games offered for that round. We’ll have one or more teachers for each game, and usually set aside about 15 minutes for teaching and 45 minutes for playing that game.

Then we tally scores while we introduce the next two games, hand out new assignments and teach and play. Wash, rinse, repeat, towel dry. At the end of the night we tally the final scores and hand out prizes. Gamestorm has donated some prizes each year, and we’ll also have some prizes from Sunriver Games and possibly some others.

We encourage all players to stay and have fun playing all 4 rounds of the tournament. We have prizes not only for the top 4 players but 4 prizes also for good opponents and good losers! We ask players to leave their tournament card with us (the hosts) if they have to go early. It goofs us up a bit, but sometimes it happens.

I think we’ve done the tournament for six years now, and it’s always fun. To those of our past players and champions especially, I hope we’ll see you Friday night.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Burndown Update, Geek Changes, Geek Apparel

First, a quick update on my unplayed games burndown (original post, February update).  I feel like I’m starting to make progress – some eyeball linear regression seems to give me a fighting chance of getting close to zero by the end of the year.  Adding to my general good cheer is the fact that I didn’t just make progress on short games – I managed to play War of the Ring, Zero!, and B-17: Queen of the Skies in the past week.  I’m hoping to get in a game of Manifest Destiny at GameStorm in two weeks, probably my best opportunity to get that played this year.


Did you notice that BoardGameGeek just revised its game rating system? I think the changes are definitely for the better.  I’m curious about what Aldie has done to discourage shill votes:

Second: I've developed a secret system for dealing with shillers. I'm not going to tell you what it is, but suffice it to say that I hope it will weed out a great number of the shill votes from affecting the feel free to reratings. Don't worry... ordinary users won't have their votes affected by this. I don't expect to get many, if any, false positives on this system, and the number of voters excluded is very small.

Maybe someone will do some reverse engineering based on actual game rating data to figure out his model.

Check out how low Downtown: Air War Over Hanoi is ranked now: 6.7.  This despite well over half of the ratings of the game at eight or higher.  The 100 average votes tossed in really pulls down a game like this, which only has 81 ratings.

For a gathering of engineers, we don’t spend much time talking about technology.  Most of us are self-admitted geeks, but if you had any doubts about me you are about to have all such doubt removed.

Some of you that see me in person may have noticed a black vest that I sport most of the time.  I purchased it about 3 months ago, primarily for business travel.  The vest is a Classic Vest from SCOTTEVEST (SeV), and is the ultimate in geek apparel.  While geared towards gadget geeks, I’ve found it to be the perfect gamer/gadget apparel, doubling (squaring?) the geek factor.


My standard carrying gear includes keys, wallet, spare change, BlackBerry 8700c, iPod (when it isn’t in a crashed state), ear-buds, Moleskine reporter notebook, pen, and Bluetooth headset.  Recently I’ve taken to carrying around a set of 10 tiny d6 for solo dice and other ad-hoc dice games.  I’d like to add a tiny deck of cards to the kit as well, and maybe some small chips or gems for counters.  What else should I always have with me?  What is the perfect generic gaming kit that I could carry on my back? Maybe a Havoc deck is the perfect choice – there a quite a few games that can be played with it.

By the way, the vest is quite heavy (when loaded, not by itself) and I have to be careful not to wear it all day or else risk neck strain by late afternoon.  Buyer beware.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

A Bad Word, or Why I Love Red Sonja

Last week, I used a Bad Word in my post. I (obviously) didn’t consider it a Bad Word, but then there are very few words that I use that fall under that rubric. I’m not going to tell you the word, although if you read both this and last week’s posts and still can’t figure it out for yourself, then we have some work to do. Plus, it's pretty much the last word in the post.

However, one person who read the blog considered it a Bad Word, or at least one that went beyond what he called a “line of decency.” This was ill-advised, as I’ve never met a line of decency that I didn’t at least stick my big toe over. To be fair, the complainer was not so much worried about the word in and of itself, but was instead concerned that this blog has a certain audience and that said audience could be offended and/or distracted from the blog’s mission by the use of this particular word. Me, I give you all a little more credit than that. And any 12 year olds (or adults for that matter) wading through one of my posts deserve a little titillation for their efforts, no matter how misguided.

When I was confronted about The Bad Word, my first thought was that gaming is full of images of scantily clad women (or elves, or orcs, or pretty much anything human or humanoid), especially in the fantasy milieu. Look at the recent release World of Warcraft. Where a female character is represented, they are with few exception well endowed, dressed for very warm weather with lots of strappy non-functional touches that somehow don’t make it into enough business wear. Their depiction is clearly sexist in the sense that they are drawn this way to garner interest from males entering (or persisting in) puberty. Sure, the male characters, particularly fighters, are physically exceptional, at least much of the time, but with the exception of the occasional barbarian in fur shorts, it's simply a double-standard.

I was raised in the 60’s with a mother and sisters who were determined that I not think of women as baby factories and domestic help. They were, to put it bluntly, successful. There is not a single job in my home that either my wife or I don’t do at some point - no “men’s work” or “women’s work”, although there are certainly jobs that I tend to do more often than my wife, and vice versa. I do not look at women in the workplace and think, “there’s a person whose one pregnancy away from an unfilled vacancy.” For the record, I try to have the same view about race or s*xuality. (See, I’m already thumbing my nose at filter software.)

Nonetheless, I put up with it. Even when male wizards are typically depicted as wizened old men while female wizards are young, nubile, and fully equipped in pretty much every conceivable way, I guess I simply file this dichotomy away as a cost of having a hobby where the primary marketing is aimed at wistful young male teens still working on getting that first date. Strange, as I think the real demographic is probably late-20-something high-tech-employed men, whom you hope would be past this by now. But here’s the thing... we aren’t.

I’ve given it away, haven’t I? Men, at pretty much every age past learning fractions (although there are still a few holdouts), like to look. We like titillation. Quite frankly, the huge success of the internet is largely the result of this quintessential male trait. More than anything, and to be honest this is one of the many reasons why my game collection is out of control, we like something new and different. Pretty much on a daily basis if at all possible. Sure, it's annoying to significant others in every corner of the world, but it's also what we are. Genetic diversity vs security is just another way to look at the battle of the s*xes.

This is not some culture-specific bias, although I’m the first to say that American Puritanism/Victorianism and its simultaneous overt abhorrence and covert encouragement of things sexual certainly exacerbates the situation. Look at the Victorians, who tried very hard to completely mask their humanity in being “proper” and ended up inflicting all of that id energy on the lower classes. Looking for an opportunity to sew an oat or two is hard-wired into men. It’s why there are six billion people on the planet instead of six thousand. Pretending we can be changed in this essential trait (other than through drastic surgery) is flat out denial. Certainly, we can tone it down a bit, but it’s there. Always. And because it’s there, there will always be marketing and products that will appeal to men that the target demographic will declare publicly to be Indecent right up to the point where they pick up a copy of Penthouse at the local convenience store.

All of that said, this is not why I buy games. I don’t sneak out of bed late at night, open up World of Warcraft, and drool over the character cards. If this was true, I’d own copies of every fantasy based RPG on the market, and probably quite a few others as well, and I wouldn’t be coming up on my 20th anniversary. I certainly wouldn’t own any wargames, which will occasionally show a Gaul with a Roman sword sticking out of his neck, but certainly never cheesecake - why violence is so accepted in American culture but s*x isn’t is one of the things I simply will never understand. I’m all about how the mechanisms work together, how well the game evokes a theme, how the story of the game evolves, and most of all how much fun I have playing it with good friends. While I’ll agitate for quality of components every time, Elven booty isn’t really something I spend a lot of time on, although I do have to admit that I was terribly disappointed when the Harvard Lampoon’s parody Bored of the Rings didn’t contain anything involving the teaser passage in the front of the book, although I spent years trying to find it at 13. I know about teens still working on that first date, you see.

What would be terribly interesting, at least in theory, is to see a fantasy game involving female characters that didn’t play up on their, urm, physical assets. Make female wizards old and wizened, it works for the guys. I mean, women are supposed to be smarter than men, but a forty year head start on basic spells? Female fighters aren’t going to get much protection from a steel bikini, although they probably get all their drinks paid for at the local tavern. They should look like female versions of their male counterparts, at least if the goal is a realistic representation (even if they are comic-book versions of real life). I would love to see the marketing data on such a game, assuming it was as good a game as anything else out there in the same niche.

At the same time, until such time as gaming becomes more than a refuge for the geeky and socially inept male in the US, I see it as a relatively harmless, if not strictly necessary, evil. Yes, I’m aware of the various arguments against the objectification of women, yes, in most cases I agree. However, almost all of these arguments stress reinforcement of thought patterns, not creation. Until we accept our humanity and the biological imperative, objectification will continue. Pretending we hate our bodies and how we came into the world has always struck me as particularly hypocritical.

When you think a bit more, you realize that we are all objectified. When I was an undergrad, I was pretty non-descript, and most people would ignore me after they met me. In more than a few cases, though, once people realized that I had more than a little musical skill, there were quite a few people who were much more interested in getting to know me solely because I was a good musician. Sadly, the only “excitement” that this strategy got me was an evening with a groupie in Albany, OR that makes for a pretty entertaining story but was a) ill-advised and b) I really was trying to avoid the situation. Really. Oh God, I hope my mother doesn't read this...

Men do horrible, horrible things to women every day everywhere in the world, and I think that the world would be a much better place if they didn’t. But to say that our culture is worse than other cultures, even with our hyper-sexual advertising industry, is to show one’s ignorance. Repression rarely does anything other than divert energy in a different direction, usually one that is much harder to control. Thinking that banning steel bikinis will do anything useful is wishful at best. As such, so long as the same demographic that purchases super-hero comics buys fantasy-themed games, we’ll continue to see hot orc high priestesses, and frankly I’m cool with that.

This should make for some interesting comments...

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Standing over Here

This past Sunday, six of us got together and played the new GMT multi-player card-driven wargame Here I Stand (HIS). Doug has already blogged his session report. I want to add my perspective (since I came in last...) more in the form of a review.

Title: Here I Stand: Wars of the Reformation 1517-1555
Designer: Ed Beach
Publisher: GMT Games
Retail Cost: $79.00

Here I Stand (HIS) is a game based on the Protestant Reformation. The six sides (“powers”) are the major players of the time – the Ottoman Empire, the Hapsburg Empire, England, France, the Papacy, and the Protestants. The minor players (Scotland, Genoa, Venice, and Hungary) are handled in a very strict, procedural fashion. The idea of the game came from the old SPI (?) game A Mighty Fortress. This game acquired the nickname “A Mighty Tortoise” as it was apparently VERY slow moving. I don't know, as I never played the original. I preordered this game the day GMT put it on their p500 list, and I've been anxiously awaiting its release ever since.

The game, at its core, is the same multiplayer card-driven wargame engine used in The Napoleonic Wars. But it's about there that the similarity ends. The rulebook is very clearly written. In fact, after our initial playing, we only had one rules question, and one known botched rule. Both of which were extremely minor. The rules are 44 pages with 23 sections. However, the length is due to the extremely clear, procedural method in which they're written. Everything you can do in the game is explained in a step-by-step, annotated process. And that's a very good thing as no two powers can (or want to) do the same sets of things. There's even PBEM tips printed in the scenario book.

What impresses me most about the HIS design is it is highly asymmetric. Not only does every power have a different goal, everyone has different ways of acquiring victory points. And every indication is that things are highly balanced despite this.

To get a sense of scale for the following discussion, you should know that the game ends automatically if someone has 25 victory points or more at the end of a turn. (There's a maximum of 10 turns in the full game.) The starting VP levels in the full scenario range from zero (for the Protestants) to 19 for the Papacy.

Everyone (except the Protestants) gets victory points for controlling “key” cities. The Protestants get points for controlling the six Elector cities in Germany instead. In fact, controlling enough key cities produces an instant win. They're also the primary determining factor in how many cards you receive each turn. So, military objectives tend to revolve around capturing and holding these key cities. Every other power gets additional VPs in different ways:

Ottomans: up to 10 VPs for piracy.
Hapsbugs: mostly through operations in the New World.
England: in addition to New World operations, England gets 5VPs for producing a male heir.
France: New World operations and up to 6 VPs building chateaus.
Papacy: keeping cities Catholic, burning Protestant debaters at the stake and expanding St. Peter's Basilica
Protestants: converting cities, translating the bible, and disgracing Papal debaters.

There are also VPs awarded for winning wars, and a small number of cards can give extra VPs.

The turn sequence is relatively straightforward:

  1. Bring in any new items scheduled to come in that turn, roll for New World riches (these are usually additional cards, i.e. Resources), and deal out a fresh hand of cards.
  2. Diplomacy – this is the only time “secret” deals can be hatched. At the end of this phase each power must state if there were any deals reached that change the game state (i.e. ending wars, etc.). You can also sue for peace or declare new wars in this phase. At any other time, all diplomacy must be at the table.
  3. Spring Deployment. You can move one formation of troops from your capital to pretty much anywhere within your domain.
  4. Action phase. This is where you play the cards in your hand. This goes in sequence (the same order in which I listed the powers above) until everyone passes.
  5. Wintering. All troops head for the nearest fort, or your capital.
  6. Resolve new explorations and colonization attempts in the New World
  7. Check for victory.

The action phase is similar to most other CDGs. You have a hand of cards, and every card has both a value (in command points (CPs) – think action points from Tikal, etc.) and an event. When you play a card, you choose which way you're going to play it. If played for the event, generally you follow the instructions on the card, and you're done. (The exception is Mandatory event cards – these must be played for the event, AND you get the 2 CPs to spend afterwards.) If you play the card for the CPs, you then get to spend the value of the card in actions as listed on your individual player mat.

Every power has a different subset of actions they can perform. England, France, and the Hapsburgs can explore the New World, for example – the Ottomans can't. But only the Ottomans can commit acts of piracy. The effect is that the game plays very differently for each power. In addition, each power has a “home card” which must be played each turn and then returns to your hand for the next turn. These are all 5 CP cards (the maximum) in addition to having powerful effects. Finally, depending on your specific power's current ruler, you may be able to hold one or two cards from one turn to the next.

The net effect of all this is that it feels like there's sixty-seven different things going on at the same time. England is trying to produce an heir, but is feeling the pull of reform. The Protestants are busy translating texts and publishing books as fast as the Papacy can burn them. The Ottomans are stomping through Hungary and raiding ports right and left. The Hapsburgs seem like they're everywhere, and France is busy admiring their chateaus – even the ones in Louisiana. Amongst all this chaotic activity you end up with some unlikely alliances – France and the Ottomans seem to ally frequently, as the Ottomans are the best at harassing the Hapsburgs thus keeping them off France's back. England needs Papal help for a while to get a divorce in order to get multiple attempts at an heir, but then turns into a papal enemy after breaking from the church. And so on. We didn't touch much of the diplomatic aspects of the game in our first play, but it can get very deep. Particularly later in the game when someone is approaching an automatic victory.

Obviously, the game has a lot of flavor. It's also best with all six players (though it handles 3-5 as well and the designer is working on 2-player guidelines) and good, deep six-player games are a rare thing. After our first play, we had only one rules question, and it was a “what if” for an event that wasn't played. Amazingly, we only broke one very minor rule. This is saying something considering the number of different subsystems interacting in this game. We spent a good 45 minutes to an hour walking through the game before play, and this was when all of us had at least read part of the rules. We played four turns, as recommended for a first go, and this took between four and four and a half hours. It's estimated that the whole game, once everyone knows how to play, will take around 7-8 hours to play, and that seems accurate. There's also shorter scenarios, including a “tournament” scenario designed to be played in under 3 hours. Given that the 3-player game has you playing two powers at once, I could see the three-player tournament scenario being playable on a weeknight. Rare for a game like this.

As you've probably gathered, there's a significant investment of time required to play this game. For me, the investment has paid off handsomely. As an example, I'm currently participating in a PBEM game (as France) moderated by Ed himself. We're just starting turn two, and already I'm seeing the side efffects of diplomacy. The Hapsburgs and I decided to end our war, and I had made my plans for the turn. However, I was greatly surprised by a formal alliance between the Hapsburgs and the Papacy resulting in the Papacy having full use of the Hapsburg fleets for the entire turn. This may significantly change my plans, as I am the only power with whom the Papacy is at war.

It's always dangerous to rate a game after one play. However, given the fact that everyone involved had fun and wanted to play again AND we ran into effectively zero rules problems, it must rate very highly. I'm wavering between an 8 and a 9 on this one. It'll probably end up a 9 in my book for the primary reason that you can get a significantly different experience playing the game as a different power. The Protestants and the Ottomans are really playing two completely different games at the same time. And it all just works. It really is a masterful design, and I think we'll be seeing this one both selling out and reprinting rather quickly.

I do have a couple minor nits. There isn't a player aid that has the turn sequence printed on it, so you've always got a copy of the rulebook floating around turned to that page. (This is being corrected, however.) There aren't any siege markers. But beyond that, GMT pulled off a well-executed production.

If you're looking for a deep multi-player wargame that plays smoothly, or the theme interests you and you're not turned off by 7 hour games, give it a shot. You'll be pleased with the results.

Monday, March 13, 2006

March Potpourri

In response to the others’ posts for last week’s Question of the Month, I noticed that, while everyone delighted in picking apart what constitutes a “series”, no one else other than Eric addressed the second part of the question (“What would you like to see next in the series?”). I added this part to make the QotM less mundane and elicit some creativity, but what else should I expect from a bunch of engineers? To make up for this, here is a bonus answer.

I collect all of the Mystery Rummy games, although I am no big fan of Canasta on which they are largely based. Other than Jekyll & Hyde (and Wyatt Earp, the unofficial entry in the series), I would not feel the need to own or play any of the titles if they were released outside of the series' context. What I do like is watching how the designer Mike Fitzpatrick morphs the system to fit the newly chosen literary/historical background. However, each subsequent setting has stretched the boundaries of what I would call a “mystery” (the last two being the Chicago gangland and Bonnie & Clyde). I would like to see the series return to something more conventional.

I’ve been reading a lot of Agatha Christie novels this year, and who better than her to mark the return to the series' dark roots? Evil Under the Sun and Murder on the Orient Express both have plot twists that could be modeled with this system, but the best choice for a Mystery Rummy setting has got to be And Then There Were None (also published as Ten Little Indians). It would take ten suits (or eight if you omit the servants), and you would have to have a mechanism to “kill” suits.

I enjoyed KC’s whimsical take on Havoc spinoffs - I would be the first in line to purchase HOVAC - but I thought he limited himself too much by just using the short name. Just look at the inspirational material that comes out of the full title Havoc: The Hundred Years War:

Don’t be fooled; it’s just another “Dictionary” variant.

One of those rare games that comes with an expiration date.

Once you learn the basic wing-clip maneuver, the basic game loses its luster.

Guide the introverted protagonist thru social situations and zombie slaughter!

What was I talking about again?

I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to sift through the seemingly endless anagrams for other feasible titles. Don’t be discouraged; I’m pretty sure there’s a decent Charades game in there somewhere…

Speaking of Havoc, I have to this point been noticeably (or perhaps not) silent on my opinions of the game. That ends today! After ~10 plays, I give the game a solid Thumbs Up. This rating encompasses scores from 7 (“Good game, usually willing to play”) thru 5 (“Average game, slightly boring, take it or leave it”), and my opinion of Havoc has wandered throughout this sub-spectrum over time, settling on the halfway point. I have a dislike of the card drafting mechanism in general, although here the card selection strategies and tactics are more sophisticated than found in most other games that employ card drafting. The choose-your-battles aspect works well, even though it loses the strategic planning element found in similar games that use a board and thus introduce a spatial aspect. I find the way battles play out to be a bit tedious; the tactical elements (e.g., bluffing) are practically non-existent due to card memory and the fact that playing half of a run/set usually leaves the other half worthless in your hand.

All that said, I think the game is above-average in terms of skill – and, yes, I consider memory a valid and acceptable skill – in the drafting. I win more than my fair share, but most of my victories have been against new players lured by high-valued cards; in these games, I usually finish strong with straight flushes across the lower ranks. While I do not experience the same “fun” factor that so many other players do, I think the game is somewhat underrated in terms of depth.

With more experienced players, I find lots of little subtleties in the drafting, often discovered in the post-analysis my own poor play. In one match (which I believe had the full complement of six players), I was aiming for a high-rank straight flush due to being initially dealt most of the cards. I quickly collected the others, except for one card right in the middle of the run. I soon realized that the player to my immediate left was collecting cards of this very rank. So, I had to wait until the first reshuffle to see whether my card was in someone else’s hand, still in the drawpile, or already in my opponent’s hand. Unfortunately, it turned out to be the latter. I jumped into too many battles hoping he would join in and play the card for me to retrieve with a Dog (as he was to my direct left, I could only speculate when he would join), but he kept passing and I ended up hurting for cards in the endgame. In retrospect, I think I should have either abandoned my strategy the moment I knew that he was collecting the rank, or, even better, started collecting the rank myself, in which case he would have been more likely to play the weak set in an earlier battle.

While I was happy to unload so many games at the Rainy Day Games auction this year, sales were somewhat disappointing this year (~$8/game mean compared to last year’s ~$11). Even more disappointing were the number of items I had to bring back home due to their not receiving the minimal bid. Perhaps, with the glut of games and limited number of buyers, everyone was content to return home with a mere handful of bargains; not only did they not feel the need to compete on items, but it curtailed the impulse buying of more obscure titles. The most surprising item of mine not to get a bid was a Wizard Kings bundle (base game plus expansion maps and two expansion armies with a minimum bid of $25); most popular titles have no problem getting sold at 33% retail value.

On the other hand, I failed to help matters any by my not participating in the bidding myself. The problem is that I don’t like to buy used games. I haven’t bought a single used CD ever since leaving school. Although I prefer to buy new copies of books, I do check out ~50% of my reads from the library due to storage limitations (and to abate my Excessive Consumerism Guilt).

Speaking of used games, I used to be a bit unsettled at the practice of middle-class games raiding thrift stores and boasting of their purchases online. I thought the mission of these stores was to make the “donations” of privileged community members available to those less fortunate. It turns out that I was far off the mark. The primary objective of these organizations is to use the store sales to fund more meaningful programs to help “disadvantaged” folks get a leg up, not just to simply help them accumulate “stuff”. It seems obvious now, but I thought I would share that with other folks not in the know. That said, they should implement a policy to jack up all boardgame prices so they can get more money off of you cheapskates! I hate to think about how little that box of Eagle Games we donated to the Veterans Association pulled in…

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Series and Parallels

It’s interesting that we all have different takes on this month’s question – and I appreciate my compadres covering pretty much soup to nuts on what is and what isn’t a series. To take it as a metagame, I’ll cover my votes in each of several areas: Themed Series, Shrinking Series and Format Series.

THEMED SERIES. These are the games, mostly of the modern boardgame era, that share a theme or a common set of resources. I agree with Dave on this one – the group of games relating to the original island of Catan by Klaus Teuber is my “favorite” series overall. I like StarFarers of Catan with its plastic rockets, the basic Settlers game with Seafarers, and the Settlers card game, including our four player version which uses two sets of the two-player card game.

In second place, I’d have to go with Mike Fitzgerald’s Mystery Rummy series: #1 Jack the Ripper – #2 Murders in the Rue Morgue – #2.5 Wyatt Earp (this game, though not part of the official series, looks like and acts like) – #3 Jekyll and Hyde – #4 Al Capone – #5 Bonnie and Clyde (not yet released). My favorite for two players is #1, but for a multi-player game Wyatt Earp is very good.

For the Carcassonne series in third place – my top picks in this line are the Castle (two player), and Discovery (multiplayer) for people new to the board game genre.

Here are some other series that came to mind, but didn’t make my list:
  • Risk – Castle Risk – Risk 2010 – Risk Godstorm – Risk Lord of the Rings – etc. A many-years-between series, some better than others. I like the new elements in Lord of the Rings, but it’s becoming harder to recognize it as Risk.
  • Amazing Labyrinth – Master Labyrinth – Secret Labyrinth – Labyrinth the Card Game – 3D Labyrinth. Mostly for kids, but a great base mechanism.

And here are a few others that are series of a slightly different ilk:

  • Tikal – Java – Mexica; the so-called Kramer Keisling tile trilogy
  • Euphrat und Tigris – Samurai – Durch die Wuste; the so-called Knizia tile trilogy
  • Can’t Stop – Gold Connection (Can’t Stop 2) – Sid Sackson classics on risk management
  • Bazaar – Bazaar 2 –Samarkand – Another Sid Sackson classic line. Bazaar II was never published as I understand it, but most of it was re-tooled into Samarkand.

OK, time for a snake’s tail (and a nod to John Crowley). What would the other games in the following “five letter” series be titled? (Answers at the end of the article.)

#1 A game about Medieval battles and the Dogs of War: HAVOC
#2 A board game where you try to trap your friends in the gold mine while you escape: CAVOH
#3 A board game based on the movie Saw, but with a Russian theme: ___
#4 A party game where players try to sing songs and sound “just like the original artist”: ___
#5 A card game where players are working girls who clean offices on weekdays: ___

SHRINKING SERIES. These are games that started life as board games and were later modified, greatly or gently, into card games.

  • Elfenland became King of the Elves – I like them both, and they feel like different games. I’d rather play Elfenland, but it’s definitely bigger/deeper/longer.
  • Settlers of Catan became Settlers of Catan the Card Game – I like them both, and they feel like different games. The card game can take a really long time to play.
  • Puerto Rico became San Juan – I like them both, and they feel like different games.
  • San Marco became Canal Grande – I like San Marco, but have not played the other
  • Euphrat und Tigris became Tigris and Euphrates the Card Game – I don’t think the card game is better in any way except for portability.

FORMAT SERIES. I had not thought of these as series until Dave mentioned the Alea boxes and the Kosmos 2-player boxes. In this line, my favorite is a nostalgia vote for three classics by 3M.

  • The Bookshelf series, with Acquire, Bazaar, Feudal and Twixt to name a few.
  • The Butterbox Series, with Monad, Venture, and other Sid Sackson classics.
  • The Gamette series, with similar titles to the Butterboxes, including High Bid, Sleuth and Foil.

And here’s the answer to the "5-letter series" quiz. Let me know if you think of other possible titles in this same series.


Friday, March 10, 2006

My Favorite Series

I love going next to last on these QotM.  At least I’m writing something this week!

One question I’ve struggled with this week is “what is a series”? One definition of series is “similar things placed in order or happening one after another” – a wide open definition that I plan to narrow. Eric at least attempted to frame his response, ruling out the Kosmos 2–player line as a series (it is a product line), and calling out the Carcassonne games as a canonical example.  I tend to agree with Eric, but I’ll add a few more criteria to add some precision:

  • A game plus a set of expansions isn’t a series.  It is a single game system with expansions.  I wouldn’t consider Magic: the Gathering or Duel of Ages a series.
  • A set of games marketed as a product line doesn’t necessarily count as a series.  I think there needs to be more of a unifying theme or system involved than just a marketing brand.  Many will disagree with this – for example, some would point to the Alea Big Box series of games.  I just don’t agree that those games have enough in common to be considered a series.  Just my opinion.
  • There should be something unifying about the games in the series beyond the size of the box, number of players, or publisher.  Examples here include setting (the Catan universe, Carcassonne) and mechanics / game system (the GIPF series, card-driven games). 
  • Most likely the games will come from the same publisher, though a notable exception is the Command and Colors series that have been produced by a wide range of publishers (GMT, Days of Wonder, Hasbro).

Given these criteria, here are my favorite series.

3. Carcassonne – While there are a number of expansions for this game, it is truly a series given the number of stand-alone entries that share the same core theme and mechanics.  My favorite by far is Carcassonne: the City, and I much prefer to play any of the games in the series with only 2 or 3 players.

2. GIPF Series – My favorite abstract games by far are in the GIPF series – I’ve played all of them except, surprisingly, the original GIPF.

1. Block Game Series – Though started and still dominated by Columbia Games, GMT Games has jumped on board with the release of Europe Engulfed and the soon-to-be-released (hopefully) Fast Action Battle: The Bulge and Asia (Pacific?) Engulfed.  I simply love how I can learn a base set of mechanics and apply it to a wide range of historical conflict settings.  This is strictly true of the non-Columbia games, but the basic mechanics of hidden information, laying your blocks face up for combat, and rotating the blocks to represent strength, are present in all of the games (as far as I know).  I still have several unplayed games in this series but (of course) hope to knock those out this year.

It is very likely that the Commands and Colors series will creep into my top 3 or 4 after I’ve played the new GMT release a bit more – that might happen this weekend.  While it feels like a block game (because it has, well, wooden blocks), the blocks are just representations of what used to be miniatures in the other entries in the series.  No hidden information, no rotating blocks.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

But Series-ously, Folks...

Oh, the puns are flying fast and furious now, eh?

When I think of the word "series" I'm usually thinking of television, books (especially the 800-page-per-volume fantasy series), porn, and Darlington Pairs (an electrical engineering reference I've been unable to purge in almost 20 years of life where, to my knowledge, the idea of cascading transistors has had no conscious relevance). I haven't really thought of games as being a series, although Dave pointed out several. Like him, I picked up the Kosmos two-player line for a long time, giving up when they charged me $20 for Crocodile Pool Party (actually not a bad little game, but an awful lot of money for a few pieces of cardboard). I also have all of the GIPF series, despite have almost no two-player activity other than wargames.

Dave also mentioned a few wargames series, linked by a common publisher and basic ruleset. There are lots of these, partially because it takes a lot of time to develop a historically accurate wargame for much less return. When you consider that "much less return" is compared to a successful euro-style game such as Havoc!, you see just what a labor of love this is for most of the designers out there.

In my case, my own preference would tend to be toward the Card Driven Game series, originally published by Avalon Hill in their We The People game, followed up by the ACW title For The People, then promoted in spades by GMT with more titles than I care to type in. There are many reasons for liking these games, among which I'd list relative ease to learn and enjoy and the unpredictability of the card distribution, but perhaps the biggest reason is that the fact that socio-politico (and occasionally, religio) elements of any historical period can be incorporated into the cards rather than the mechanisms. These games almost regularly get me interested in a period of history I know very little about, and I tend to pre-order pretty much any title that features this particular game element.

While other series (such as the Standard Combat Series from the Gamers) try to leverage a system into many different conflicts, and typically do a pretty good job of doing so, most of the time these games don't really give me any new insight into the period, but instead simply mean that I can learn a game more quickly (other than having a new version of the rules every other game, plus remember whether a rule lives in the series rulebook or the game-specific rulebook). The CDGs always give me additional insight, or at least spur me to search out the reference material the designers used. Twilight Struggle got me to read Gaddis' "Cold War: A New History". In this particular case, I learned that the author really liked Ronald Reagan (it is very hard to take any research seriously when the author talks about how canny Reagan was during the period that he was falling asleep in meetings around 1987), although most of the book was pretty interesting, if a little disjointed and light.

In euros, I'm surprised to say that I find series a good thing. While I'm a bit concerned that the Settlers franchise seems to be making forays into games that have had problems (Candamir, Elasund, both of which flopped with our group), I am quite impressed with the staying power of this franchise. Our group tends to like vanilla Settlers (in moderation) and some of the Das Buch scenarios. Carcassone, which started as a very light game, has evolved into some great titles, such as Discovery and The City.

On the downside, series can tend to perpetuate mediocrity, a growing problem in the hobby. While some good games come out, it is obvious that we are getting more games that see one or two playings at most, and very few that could be called classics. The new E&T card game looks to be an example of a series that is going the wrong way; a fantastic first game, part of what is perhaps the most successful (both commercially and operationally) series of all, Knizia's tile-laying trilogy that includes Samurai and Through the Wastes.

On the Ameritrash front, games like Duel of Ages, which I found to be a very straightforward game with a lot of historical fluff stapled on, had tons of expansions. Usually, I'm a real fan of this sort of thing, I got most of the Cosmic Encounter expansions back in the 80's (even the, God help me, moons). With my huge haul from the recent Rainy Day Games auction, I was sorely tempted to purchase the second edition of Runebound with all of it's expansions, but having been fooled into purchasing the original edition, I just couldn't give FFG money for this particular product. Had they been willing to give me an update kit at a decent price, perhaps, but they've lost my custom in this particular case. Strangely, I am willing to buy the Doom expansion, which turns a crap game into a good one (although i may just get the rules online)...

All of that said, in every case (other than CDGs, which are really more of a mechanism grouping), I could care less whether or not the game is part of a series. I'm much more interested in a good gaming experience than in having every Settlers game (I've sold off my Nurnburg and Cheops/Alex expansions). Sort of like porn...

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Unfinished Melodies

(Apologies to all in the delay posting - my recent Vegas trip really messed up my perception of what day of the week it was...)

Interesting that I'm taking a different take on “series” than Dave. His definition is a lot looser than mine. I don't consider the Kosmos 2-player, small box games a “series” as such. To me, they're a product line. The Carcassonne games? That's a series.

There's something about a series that makes it safe for consumption. In most cases, you already know the basics about how to play, but just want to see what new twists have been developed. Plus, it's a safer outlet for producers. Just look at Hollywood and the computer game industry. Series sell. You've already got a built-in audience, and you drag in folks that heard about, but missed, the first one.

As a result, we've got a fair share of series in the game industry, too.

What ones are my favorite series, and what would I like to see next in them? Here goes. (Fair warning: As I play a lot of wargames, and my definition of “series” is a bit tight, this is going to be a rather wargame-heavy list.)

Panzer Grenadier
I know Dave (and another gaming buddy of mine) just sold their collections of this series, but I still like it quite a bit. Lots of interesting puzzles in the large number of scenarios. Avalanche Press already has a number of games already on the drawing board. (Road to Berlin, and three biggies in their Classic Wargames line including a WWI game) but I'd really like to see a 2nd Battle of the Bulge entry that focuses on the 2nd week (and later) of that battle. IIRC, every scenario in the existing game is during the first week of the offensive. Something where the Americans are pushing back the bulge would be good.

I'm always up for more Desert Theatre games as well. Lots o' tanks running around in open space is always good fun.

Commands and Colors
Ancients just came out, looks to be the best of the three games, and the first expansion for it already has over 350 preorders in less than two weeks. There's a lot of designed expansions for C&C: Ancients in the queue, but I'd like to see this series taken to the medieval/early renaissance timeframe. Between the Hundred Years War, Burgundian Wars, War of the Roses, and Italian Wars, there's a lot of material for good games. And some that are actually even balanced.

Musket & Pike Battle System
There've been people asking this series to be moved forward up to the Nine Years War and the League of Augsburg. It could probably even work for the Great Northern War, but that might be a stretch as tactics had changed quite a bit by 1700. Once the remainder of the major Thirty Years War battles are covered, I'd second the request for the League of Augsburg. Some Polish battles would be great, too. (and I know Ben's got some coming in either the upcoming game or the next one.)

3W Quad games designed by Rob Markham
Could someone start publishing games like this again? Please? I know I've mentioned it before, but it's an underserved market...

I'd like another two-player only game in the series. (The Castle did NOT go over well with Jodie.) Something, perhaps, where you have the option of moving tiles not part of a completed structure instead of drawing a tile. Neues Land added the ability to pull meeples off and score before a structure is complete, and that adds a whole new layer to the decision process. It's becoming my favorite in the series.

Formula De
Just want to see Asmodee get this all sorted out and get the base game and most recent track pack back in print.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Whirled Series

My head is spinning from cold medicine, so please forgive me if there is a noticeable drop in coherency relative to my normal ramblings.

For all the moaning board gamers do about CCGs, we sure like our series, don’t we? Some like the challenge of seeking out the last obscure title to complete a collection; others get a visceral thrill out of seeing a full set of Alea games stacked next to each other; yet others like to speculate – or at least anticipate – what will come next in the series. We are all guilty of this sick consumeristic phenomenon to some extent, so how ‘bout you cut us CCG players some slack, ‘kay?

I have gotten a lot better at not collecting series. I abandoned collecting everything in the FFG Silver Line and Kosmos 2-player series long ago, and am now actively selling existing games in these series. I just dumped two collections (Panzer Grenadier; Down in Flames) at an auction and spent the money to complete my GIPF series. In all of my favorite series listed here, I have yet to complete the collection and really have no plans to, but I still eagerly await each release to see how the concept or vision further evolves.

Third Place: Fantasy Flight Games HexPlay Series
Twilight Imperium (3 editions); Battlemist; Thunder’s Edge.

I am a big fan of the multi-player conquest game (MPCG) genre. While FFG has been releasing more elaborate productions to greater acclaim, I have a soft spot for their earlier releases. The three titles feature Settlers-like tiles to create unique boards with each play and have a similar “create units which are sent out to grab more sites which generate resources which are used to create units which are sent out to…” design.

Twilight Imperium (space opera background) employs the most straightforward approach, which undoubtedly explains why it received two reworkings while the other titles were not. In my opinion, all three editions suffer from gameplay taking too long given the limited maneuvering that occurs. However, I have enjoyed play-by-web TI2, both has a GM and a player.

Battlemist (Tolkien fantasy) has the strongest theme, but the design consisted of two subsystems which did not fit well together. Additionally, the rules were unwieldy, and the horrible imbalance of the racial powers was worsened with the otherwise appealing sea-based expansion. I doubt this will get re-released, given the massive amount of development that it would have to undergo to match the quality of their latest releases, and considering that their Warcraft title fills the fantasy MPCG niche in their catalog.

Thunder’s Edge (sci-fi military) had the weakest theme of the three by far; instead of having a handful of richly themed races like the other games, they created several factions with little background and abilities that had very little impact on the game itself. However, the exploration element was intriguing (hexes were only revealed when units were sent to surface) and the combat system is still my favorite in any MCPG I have played.

Second place: Kosmos 2-player games
Avalon; Babel; Balloon Cup; Caesar and Cleopatra; Crocodile Pool Party; Dracula; Druidenwalzer; Elchfest; Finale; Gone Fishing!; Heave Ho!; Hellas; Hera & Zeus; Jambo; Kahuna; Lord of the Rings – The Confrontation; Lord of the Rings – The Duel; Lord of the Rings – The Search; Lost Cities; Odin’s Ravens; The Reef; Rosenkönig; Tally Ho

This series has been a mixed bag, especially in recent years. However, I just cannot resist those tidy little packages; I have purchased every title on that list except for Crocodile Pool Party. Kosmos always does a great job with graphical presentation, and I am always on the look out for great 2-player games.

Babel is the only game in the series for which I currently have a Top Shelf rating, but most of the others are solid Thumbs Up titles, many of which – Odin’s Ravens, Heave Ho!, Lost Cities, Jambo – will get a lot of play due to their accessibility and replayability. While I have given a few these titles a Thumbs Down, Avalon and die Pyramiden des Jaguar are the most likely candidates to be given a lesser score if I were to increase the granularity of my ratings. Also, two of the Lord of the Rings titles (The Search and The Duel) are among the very few games that I decided to trade immediately after reading the rules (i.e., I have never actually played them).

While this series has neglected my two favorite themes – Ol’ West and Pirates – to an extreme, my choice for next game is a 2-player design of Jerry Dziuba’s that I had a chance to play at BGG.CON last year. Everything about his game – theme, game weight and length, number of components – fits perfectly in this series, and the theme and mechanisms, while not being true originals in the gaming world, are definitely unrepresented in this series. I have no doubt that, with further plays, it would reach the upper tier besides the likes of Odin’s Ravens. You, Kosmos man, get on it!

First place: Klaus Teuber’s “Catan” series
The Settlers of Catan; The Seafarers of Catan; The Cities and Knights of Catan; Settlers of Nuremberg; The Settlers of Catan – Historical Scenarios; Settlers of the Stone Age; The Settlers of Catan – The Book of Games; The Settlers of Catan Card Game (+ several expansions); Starship Catan; The Starfarers of Catan; Anno 1503; Candamir: The First Settlers; Elasund: The First City of Catan

Okay, throwing Anno 1503 in there is arguable, but it is derivative of the card game and has a similar feel to the Catan Adventures games that were released soon after it. I think I count 35 different ways to play Settlers up there; I would be perfectly happy – instead of our current smorgasbord practice – to play one of those a week, and then restart the cycle on the 36th week. The only Top Shelf titles there are “vanilla” Settlers (the original board game without variants) the Settlers card game sans expansions, and The Starfarers of Catan. What makes the base Settlers the most attractive to me is the length of play; I believe much of the game is determined by your initial placement, and I just assume see it play out to its conclusion as soon as possible and then give it another go. I have played the card game more than any other non-CCG (~70 plays). Starfarers is unique in the line in that the open space really allows you to dynamically and drastically change your strategies mid-game.

The only titles in that list that I have given a Thumbs Down to are Nuremberg, Starship, Settlers of the Stone Age, and Elasund; I think that Nuremberg and Starship are overly restrictive in terms of feasible strategies, that Stone Age has a slight leader problem (and a major “trailer” problem), and that Elasund is more than a bit dull. Still, I would be happy to play any of those if someone were to request it. All of these titles dangle the possibility of a lucky run in front of the players, and this is something I really enjoy.

Now, I’m not sure the world needs anything else Catan – although I suspect someone else will pick up the baton after Klaus “retires” – but, since they already did a pirate-themed expansion for Anno, how about an Ol’ West expansion for the card game? I’m thinking a self-contained expansion, built around more uses for gold. Instead of Knights, you would have Deputies and Outlaws, with the Knight’s Tournament become a shootout. Example buildings:

  • Trading Post: Once per turn, trade one gold for one resource of choice.
  • Gambling Den: When an Event comes up, you may spend 1 gold and roll d6; on 3-6, gain two gold.
  • Brothel: When you win a shootout, gain two gold.

I could go on all day with that.

Honorable mention: The Magi U. series (unpublished, untitled)

This is my own system for which that I have designed three games already. The background is Magi University, a school for wizards-to-be which is more Unseen University (Discworld) than Hogwarth (Harry Potter), though it predates my exposure to both. There are five sources of magic – fire, water, earth, light, and aura, the latter of which is the most powerful yet unpredictable source – and the games share a hand management mechanism whereby players have to decide how to spend their mana via spellcasting. The three games I have designed are a maze game (freshmen hazing ritual), quest game (graduating seniors looking for jobs), and an economic game (faculty at the marketplace trading for supplies). The series highlights how I use theme to drive game mechanism decisions in my designs. Not even I know what will come next...