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Gathering of Engineers

Ludographic considerations from the Silicon Forest

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Tools of the Trade 2: Light Tiles

This is the second in a series of unknown length about making game prototypes. Today's session: making light tiles of any size that look nice and hold up reasonably well for playtesting. Next session I’ll cover making cards for card games and board games.

If you don’t need heavy tiles, but you want something that will lie flat and usually stay put on a board or on a table, this may be one way to go. I’ve used this to create light tile sets for Isla Nova (100 hexagonal tiles about 2 inches across) and for Metro 2 (60 tiles about 1.5 inches square). Here's a picture of this type of tile being used in the original Northwest Trek, which features a unique five-sided flat tile about 2.5 inches wide.

Fronts. The key to this type of tile is to buy and print the tile fronts on “full-page label stock.” I just Google’d that phrase and found plenty of stores, online and off, that offer labels of this type. The Avery standard numbers are 5165, 5265 and 8165 so anything compatible with them should work pretty well.

Print the tile images (color or whatever) on regular 8.5 x 11 full page labels. One example would be at Einktech, where 50 sheets of this 8.5 x 11 size label sell for $11.95 (on sale). Shopping Headquarters (whatever that is) has an even better deal with 100 full page sheets at $15.30 postage included.

Test the paper once it’s printed to see if the image will hold up under use – rub it with your thumb or something. If the print is frail at all, you can laminate your tile after it’s stuck to the backing. See the notes below.

Backs. My favorite for this type of tile is Report Covers, often pulled out of the recycle pile at business locations. These might be consultant proposals that get tossed, old computer printout covers, anything that is sturdy, cuts with scissors and is clean monocolor or patterned on one side. It usually doesn’t matter if one side has been used, since you can cover that up with your label stock. Flat cover stock is best, but you can use the flat portions of patterned or embossed covers as well.

We’ve also used clear acetate, leather look reports and vinyl for backing material. But some materials don’t stay flat once cut into tiles, so test ahead of time. Matte board (used to frame pictures), foam-core board and thin woods are also nice, but those materials all need to be cut with a razor knife or rotary knife and straight edge. I’d like to acknowledge “anonymous” who wrote in last week about his/her success in using matte board, spray glue and a rotary knife. Sounds good!

Preparation. Print the fronts first. Peel off the label backing carefully and expose an edge (like ½ inch) of the label. Place the backing material (so that you will cover the side you don't want) on the exposed sticky edge and arrange it so the printed image will have the backing material behind it all the way around. It usually does is you’ve printed an 8 x 10.5 inch image on an 8.5 x 11 inch page.

I usually do the next step upside down, that is, I'm looking at the printed label. Carefully peel the label backing in a straight line away from your exposed edge, smoothing the sticky label image onto backing as you go. You don’t want air bubbles under the image. If the label peel-off is split diagonally, make sure you catch all of it as you peel and press – there’s no UNDO button here!

Cutting. For decent prototypes, I just use a pair of heavy shears (scissors) and cut the tiles out one at a time, starting with longer straight lines for efficiency. It helps in your original tile image to have a little space between tiles, like maybe a neutral colored border. That way you can cut out each tile with a little wiggle room.

One level up in quality is to use a razor knife or rotary blade to cut the tile edges. If you’re careful, this method allows you to print your tiles closer together so you can get multiple tiles’ edges cut on a single pass.

Notes. Last, laminate if you’re going to. This will make a tile that lasts a long time, but it’s more work. Since you’ll be cutting these tiles out, make sure the laminate sticks to the image after the card stock is cut. There are peel-and-stick laminates for this as well.

And if you can get peel-and-stick laminate thick enough, you can make tiles directly by printing on card stock, thick laminating it and cutting the tiles out. However, I haven't seen thick laminate like this except in commercial operations.

Next time – the wonderful world of printing CARDS. I’ll try to cover card stock, peel-and-stick and using card sleeves. Hoo boy.

Thursday, April 27, 2006


First of all, a big “Howdy” to everyone – I’m excited to be joining the Gathering of Engineers crew! As is, apparently, semi-traditional, my first post will be something of an introduction – with a focus on my gaming history.

I grew up in Milwaukee, WI, in a family that did a lot of gaming – everything from cribbage, Yahtzee, Mille Bournes, and the like, including some chess, although I never played competitively. In high school, I played a lot cards – mostly Sheepshead (aka Schafkopf auf Deutsch), a trick taking game that I’ve never seen played outside of Milwaukee (although apparently it’s also still played in Germany). We played before school, during free periods, during lunch, and occasionally on weekends – keeping track of “points” while at school (since playing for money was, erm, frowned upon). I also got into more serious board games a bit in HS, including Diplomacy, and also RPGs, especially D&D and Traveller.

After high school, I went off to college at Milwaukee School of Engineering (MSOE), and while a lot of people remember college as the pinnacle of their gaming lives, for me there wasn’t much in the way of gaming during college. What with working quite a few hours at the local newspaper, to DJing at the college radio station, to actually studying now and again, I found I didn’t really have the time!

After graduating college in 1990, I got back into gaming – one of the guys I met through my first job introduced me to games like Cosmic Encounter, Shanghai Trader, Rubout and the like (hi Gerry).

In early 1993, I moved to Dallas, Texas to take a job there, and found the local gaming store through asking on Usenet (probably rec.games.board, although it could have been one of the RPG groups as well). This being 1993, I got sucked into Magic: the Gathering pretty heavily – I think the first cards I bought were black-border, and I definitely was playing prior to the release of Arabian Nights, as I bought a lot of that set at it's release. While I enjoyed MtG, it eventually paled for me – the main knock on it was that the deck-building portion was pretty much a solo activity, and with MtG deck-building was a big part of the game. I played MtG mostly in the back of the Game Chest, the local shop, and as a result met a lot of other game players, and was able to expand my gaming horizons to include board games – I remember play testing a set of expansion powers for Cosmic Encounter for Mayfair just before they lost the Cosmic Encounter license.

In 1994 or so, I discovered “German” games, primarily through a combination of UseNet (rec.games.board), Ken Tidwell’s Game Cabinet, and Mike Siggin’s Sumo magazine. My first purchase of a German game was Modern Art (the German version), which the owner of the Game Chest in Dallas had brought back from a trip to Germany. I was immediately hooked – not sure I can point to exactly why, although the shorter time commitment needed for a German game vs. a typical American game of that era probably had a lot to do with it! I bought quite a lot of German games – many that were imported (my first copy of El Grande was a German edition, pre-SdJ, for instance) from various sources, mostly mail-order and/or online.

In 1998 or so, Derk Solko posted to rec.games.board about trying to get gamers together in the Dallas area, and after meeting Derk I was invited to join the Dallas Metrogamers. This group met primarily on weekends, usually Saturday, and mostly at people’s houses rather than in public spaces. This invite is what eventually led to my being invited to the Gathering of Friends, as one of the guys (howdy, George!) in the Saturday group had been going for quite a few years, and was able to arrange an invitation – I think 2000 was my first Gathering, and I’ve been back every year since. I’ll have more to say about that other Gathering in my next post!

Eventually, Saturday only proved too infrequent, so some of us started gaming on Tuesday evenings as well, playing in the café at a local Border’s bookstore. We named our Tuesday night group the Card Benders, as we were there to have fun and enjoy gaming without having to worry about people being tense/uptight about using the components of the games. In 2003, Chris Brooks was in Dallas for a conference, and had contacted one of the other Card Benders about joining us for a night – this would later become important when I found a job in Oregon, and relocated to the Portland area in August, 2004.

In 2004 (in March) I was married to my lovely wife Carrie – who, luckily (for both of us, probably) is also a gamer, though not quite as obsessed as I.

Through Chris, I was introduced to the Rip City Gamers, and have been gaming (less regularly than in Dallas, but as regularly as I can) with them here ever since. It’s been a lot of fun, and I’m looking forward to sharing my thoughts on games in this forum – as well as attending my first “Gathering of Engineers” (an only semi-joking name for the gaming retreats the Rip City Gamers take) in just over a week, and I’m really looking forward to it!

So, happy gaming, and I’ll see y’all next week!

Monday, April 24, 2006

State of the Blog Address

First the good news: Tim Isakson will start writing weekly in the Thursday slot, which has been vacant for some time. With the addition of Tim comes the first direct link between GoE and GoF, which will take the edge off the flippancy somewhat. I, for one, hope that he takes us back and beyond.

The bad news is that I am not sure how much I will be able to contribute to GoE for the rest of this year. Those who know me really well know that I am not one to make promises that I am not able to keep - this manifests itself at work through my shifty unwillingness to commit to unrealistic requests - and I am just being realistic with everything going on. I would like to get back to my previous regularity, but between my two-year-old and an out-of-control project at work, I have little time or energy for things such as writing which take plenty of both. There is just way too much chaos in my other spheres to be able to concentrate on this one. Allergy season started this week and that will make the next two months all the more challenging.

Writing is very hard for me, and I hold myself to such a high standard in everything I do (well, at least those things I care about; my wife would have a lot to say about my housekeeping abilities) that I am rarely satisfied with the final outcome. I do not like producing things which I cannot bring to a certain level of quality, a characteristic which dooms any ambitions I may have to be a game designer. Whereas it seems most of us here have a hard time with scratching up material, I easily have another year of topics in my head-queue, and have a strong desire to publish these thoughts. I actually have two near-finished articles for last week and this, but I am facing the dark side of the 80/20 principle. Even polishing off a submission for the Game Group series is incredibly daunting at this point.

I hope that the other guys will keep the momentum going, and hopefully the addition of Tim will help. I feel really bad about this; I feel as if I have let the gang down, I miss posting my articles, and I fear that if I (being the one to kickoff the project and still king of logistics) were to back down any, the whole thing would collapse due to others having easy outs. I feel very positive about our collective work even though I have been disappointed with my recent lack of contributions. After a few months, my daughter should be phasing out of the terrible twos, and my work project will be over the hump (if not axed). Until then, maybe this will turn out to be a temporary sag and I will get lucky, a second wind bringing me back to posting regularly. At a minimum, I will commit to participating in the Question of the Month articles. Anything beyond that, I cannot promise...

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Tools of the Trade 1: Heavy Tiles

This is the first in a series of unknown length about making game prototypes.

Today's session: making heavy tiles of any size that look nice and hold up reasonably well for playtesting. If I can figure out how to add or link to pictures of this stuff, I'll link those later.

Disclaimer - these techniques would also apply if you are making a "test copy" of a published game, but I leave that long discussion about the legalities and the ethics of that to some other discussion. I have used this, for example, to make a partial copy of the first Carcassonne, specifically so I could add other tiles that I designed to the game as a home-made "expansion" and not have those tiles stand out from the regular tiles in the game.

This is my favorite for a set of hand-made tiles that feel great, look nice and can be done fairly inexpensively. I’ve used this for Isla Nova (100 hexagonal tiles about 2 inches across), for Metro 2 (60 tiles about 1.5 inches square) and for smaller pieces like those in Pizzza (the topping counters are diamond-shape about 0.5 inches by .375 inches.

Fronts. Print the tile images on regular 8.5 x 11 heavy card stock. If you can find card stock that’s 12 inches square and you can print that size, even better, but I’ve never even seen it advertised. Test the paper once printed to see if the image will hold up under use – rub it with your thumb or something.

If the print is frail at all, consider laminating your tile front before sticking it to the backing. This will make a tile that lasts a long time, but it’s more work. You can even get away with printing on other lighter stock or shiny paper if you’re going to laminate it. However, since you’ll be cutting these tiles out, make sure the laminate sticks to the image after the card stock is cut. There are peel-and-stick laminates for this as well

Backs. We have a chain store here called Dollar Tree. At most of them, you can get three square feet of linoleum flooring (three square tiles) for $1.00. Or you can get slightly more expensive stuff at a Home Depot or similar. This stuff is peel-and-stick – so it’s easy to slap your card stock fronts onto it, cut it out and be done!

For now, pattern doesn’t matter. If it’s too obvious, use a tile bag for drawing tiles out of. I choose tiles that are butcher block, dark wood or marble – stuff that has no discernible pattern once it’s cut into tiles.

Preparation. Print the fronts first. Then laminate if you’re going to. Remember that some laminates don’t stick to the printed image if the edges are cut, so check that out too. You can easily get an 8.5 x 11 sheet on one of your floor tiles, but depending on size of tile, you should be able to use quite a bit more of the floor tile efficiently. And once you’re using smaller areas of the floor tile, cut the front image (cut out some tiles) so it does fit on the tile space available.

Peel off the backing carefully and expose an edge (like ½ inch) of the floor tile. Place the tile front (image showing!) on the tile and arrange it so there is a little border of tile backing all the way around. I usually cut the image right down to its border, so later I’m cutting just floor tile, not image and floor tile. Now carefully peel the tile backing in a straight line away from your exposed edge, smoothing the image onto the sticky backing as you go. You don’t want air bubbles under the image.

Cutting. For decent prototypes, I just use a pair of heavy shears (scissors) and cut the tiles out carefully, long lines first, finishing up one at a time. It helps in your original tile image to have a little space between tiles, like a darker colored dark border. That way you can cut out each tile with a little wiggle room.

One level up in quality is to use a razor knife or similar to cut the tile edges on the fronts. You want to cut through the card stock, but you don’t have to cut through the whole floor tile unless you really like using up razor knife blades. I just cut through the fronts and finish the job with my trusty scissors. This way the scissors edge doesn’t bruise the edge of the image quite as often and looks a little cleaner, and the tile cuts quite easily since it's been "scored."

If you’re careful, you can use a razor knife for the whole job and print your tiles closer together so you can get multiple tiles’ edges cut on a single pass. But for me, it tends to save me pennies and often as not I miscut at least one line which ruins a bunch of tiles. Then I have to do a specific image re-print, just to re-make those few damaged tiles.

Notes. There are other home decor products that can also work as tile backs – like peel-and-stick wall fabric and peel-and-stick cork board. To be useful in this application, it has to be fairly heavy, inexpensive, cut easily and cleanly, not fall apart later (which most cork board will) and look good. But the “3 for a Dollar Floor Tile" will be hard to beat.

Next time – the wonderful world of printing on peel-and-stick full page label stock! This gives us some other lighter choices for tiles, still good looking and durable.

Bet you can hardly wait! =)

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

You Can Pick Your Friends, And You Can Pick Your... Games

I hope I'm not generating Group Envy when I discuss RCG's Sunriver Gaming Retreat. Since last fall was the first time we'd had to cancel because of too many member conflicts, I've been chomping at the bit to get out there and play games for four days, especially some of the longer titles that we have trouble getting on the table when people's lives tend to get in the way. The retreat is intended to remedy that situation by taking away the competition, and it works pretty well. Today, I'll discuss the limits I impose on myself (one of the few places I actually exercise some discipline) in choosing what games to take.

Our group has trouble picking what to play at our regular sessions. My collection is hiding in a closet in our basement bathroom (we could have had a third shower, we chose more storage), at least the Euro portion, so it's not terribly convenient for people to trek down the flight and a half of stairs to stand in a glorified powder room looking at what I've got for them to play. Even then, my group tends to be polite about letting others pick to the point of pulling out the riot hose.

That's one of the things I like about our Sunriver retreat, I get to bring pretty much whatever I want to, subject to the physical limitations of owning a '98 Dakota pickup with a canopy and my willingness to get said games into said truck bed. It doesn't guarantee that the games will get played, but I can at least choose them.

Some time ago, after yet another crack about how many games I've brought (currently matched by at least three or four members of the group), I decided to take the opportunity to discipline myself (try it, you'll like it!) and limit the games I could bring to three of those plastic bins with the clamshell locking lids. I like these because they can double as empty bottle and recycle bins during the retreat, all I have to do is line them with a garbage bag, and the lids hang on the sides without taking up much room. They also stack nicely.

Anyway, trying to figure out what to actually put in the bins has become something of a metagame for me, and the entire group takes part in an oblique way. Here's what we do...

The first step is for someone to call the Game Game. OK, we don't call it that, but that's the general effect. This time, I started the ball rolling by posting a list of games I was interested in trying out and asking for more suggestions. I try to focus on games that are longer and thus less likely to see play at home, that are relatively new and unplayed, and/or have tended to become staples (such as Funny Voice Starfarers or Midnight Piratenbucht). Others contribute to the list, and the ones that come up repeatedly are the ones that I try to ensure see table time. This year, there seems to be a lot of interest in Indonesia, Antike, and Antiquity, although that last title may take the entire weekend from what I hear. That isn't the only criteria, but it does tend to point us in the right direction.

Once we have a complete list (a little late in the game this time, as a few of us are at that other Gathering, run by Albert Moo or something), we start parting it out. I don't seem to buy as many of the imports anymore, probably because I don't shop at Funagain Games anymore (another flame-inducing post, I'm sure), and Boards and Bits, which can deliver in a day for a set price regardless of quantity, gets most of my Internet business when I'm not buying from my FLGS. The games in the previous paragraph fit this bill, so someone else will need to bring them, or we'll need to borrow them from someone not going.

Another aspect of this part of the Game Game is who plans to arrive when. Some games will work with a smaller number of people, or specific people want to play a specific game near the borders of the weekend when fewer people are present, so it's important for those people to be sure that the game in question will actually be there. This isn't such a big deal near the end, as we can always ask that a game be left for us, but if they want it to see play earlier, they need to be sure it gets there. Frankly, this hasn't been such a big deal in the past, but it could be, especially with the Big Bringers of Games like Mike not being able to attend this time. I'm hoping Tim and Carrie pick up the slack (hint, hint).

Once we know who is bringing what, now my challenge is to see if all of it will fit in my three bins. I do allow for one or two Very Large Games (and Descent, World of Warcraft, and War of the Rings fit this bill nicely) as they don't even fit in the bins at all. I do have to close the lids, I'm afraid, it's a rule. I'm pleased to say that most of the time I'm able to get all of the games on my list into the bins, but part of the fun for me is not actually seeing if it will work. It's a lot like when I played in a rock band and trying to see how best to fit the PA gear, keyboards, and other accoutrements into the back of my truck, or helping my sister-in-law move. Sometimes, though, games have to be left out, and I make that call pretty close to the wire. Usually I take out games that I want to play rather than others, so it works out pretty well. Some of the games dangerously close to the block this time out include 1835, Britannia, World of Warcraft, Reef Encounters, Princes of the Renaissance, and Arkham Horror. These are games less likely to see table time, so I don't see the point in hauling them out if they just sit on one of our patented Flat Surfaces.

That may sound like entire game, although I could include whether or not they actually get played, but the final part of the game is, you guessed it, getting them back in the bins to go home. This is actually the saddest part of the entire trip for me, as just a few days ago it seemed like we had entire days to play games and suddenly it's over. Nothing like getting up before 8am, setting up a game, then realizing we need to order pizza for dinner. Very disturbing, and if there were a good drug that could make time go slower for me (except for the downtime part, of course), I'd take it.

One of the nice things about knowing which games you intend to take is that you can bone up on the rules before going. I tried to teach Age of Steam the first time our group played it after a 10 minute read through of the rules the night before (it wasn't my game, but only a few of us seem to be willing/able to teach games, and I include myself only in the former category), and it was a bit of a mess. AoS is a tough game to learn anyway, on a par with 18xx titles, and even tougher to play well the first time as you can get yourself into serious trouble very quickly. So, about this time of year I find myself setting up a different game every day (sometimes a couple a day) and running through the mechanisms to be sure I've got it down. That includes checking for errata or new versions of the rules as well, so it can be a time-intensive activity.

Why limit myself? First, it's a pain to take more games. The first time we went, I got probably 50% of my collection in terms of actual titles, and they fit in an old iMac box. Mike made fun of me. Within a couple of years, Mike was bringing more than me, so nyah, nyah. Before I sold 100 games at auction, it would have taken me two hours just to load the truck. This really is an illness, folks. And that's just the euros.

Second, I can focus on bringing games that I really want to see hit the table. When there's less selection, it's easier to choose a game you want to play, and this has been very successful in the past couple of years, despite something like 100 games to choose from once everyone is there.

Finally, it gives me a chance to prove, if to no one but myself, that I actually can impose some discipline on myself when every fibre of my being is screaming that I should take everything I can lay my hands on. Can you say "illness?" Sure you can.

I'll post our final group list the week that we leave, and let you know what fit in the bins.

Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Blogging, Interrupted

My wife is addicted to Roma.


Please make it stop.

I'm trapped. I can't get out.

(Today's blog is inspired by a joke from my wife. Between the holiday, taxes, etc. I just came up blanks this week. We have, however, played Roma 20 times since March 1. It's a very good game. But she really is addicted.)

Saturday, April 15, 2006

And They Gathered

Alan Moon's Gathering finishes up this weekend, and I'm one of those who likes to read the reports and see the pictures.

I'm sorry I'm not there, but I'm glad for my many friends who are. It's kind of surprising to me how many folks from Oregon and even the greater Portland area are there. Off the top of my head, Tim, Carrie, Doug, Mimi, Patrick, Benjamin from here, plus Jeff, Nick and Lorna from further south in Oregon.

It's amazing how many luminaries are there from the German gaming world, major and minor publishers, and so many game designers. And I'd like to pay tribute to the chroniclers who have let me see the games and the people, and hear about what's hot and what's not. First to my email pals Jeff DeBoer and Lorna Wong, who have caught me up during the week on how things are going, whether Havoc is seeing any play (!) and what new games they're excited about.

Next are the wonderful reports of Rick Thornquist. His headlines page gives a quick overview of his daily reports, which always have some great pictures as well. Of special note is his video report - in the first few minutes Tim Isakson, Doug and Mimi Walker are on screen talking about the new Cleopatra game which looks great.

I also enjoyed Valerie Putnam's article called Prose on Cons. I'm a little jealous she lives in the town hosting the event! And I appreciate Matthew Gray's reports on almost each day of the conference.

Games that look cool to me and I want to try: Nacht der Magier (in the dark or not), Thurn und Taxis, Cleopatra and the Architects and Friedemann Freise's new card game. So I'll be hoping some of these make it back to Portland in the arms or luggage of our friends, and get a little taste of the energy of a ten-day game festival.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Mr. Manners, or Running A Retreat

First off, I'd like to ask for a little help from the readership of this blog. Now that we've drawn you all in with a little controversy (hehehe), it would be nice it you gave us some ideas for topics. Because I do my session reports on another blog (and that mail is then copied to our gaming group), I'm not going to do that here unless there is some other topic of interest that it ties in with, but just about anything else is (and should be) fair game.

So, on to today's topic. Many of you undoubtedly know that Chris is one of the owners of Sunriver Games, a small independent publisher that put out Havoc in time for the 2005 Essen fair. Many of you may not know that one of the inspirations for the name of the company was the Sunriver Resort in Central Oregon where I host a bi-annual gaming retreat for the Rip City Gamers and occasional guests. We've been doing this since 1999 with only a single retreat called because of lack of participation, and I'm gearing up for the next one in the coming weeks.

Hosting has been an interesting experience, with the group slowly evolving along with my hosting style, and the house as well. There have been challenges as well, as we all stay at my family's vacation home. It's pretty easy when there are seven of us, but we're looking at eleven to thirteen this time out, and that can get a little crowded (although I'm a big fan of "the more the merrier"). As such, I'd like to give my thoughts on what makes a gaming retreat of this sort successful, with the hope that some of you can take my experience and create your own memories.

First off, you need to have the right space for the right people. Our house has four bedrooms, able to sleep five adults or four couples (one room has two twin beds that we can convert to a king if necessary). Since we typically have only one or two couples at most, that means perhaps seven people can sleep in actual beds, with the rest on one of the two couches, inflatable mattresses, or the floor, and all in the great room area. In a worst case scenario with eleven people and no couples, that means four people on the floor. One year I slept under the dining room table, and I hadn't even been drinking! When we first began holding the retreat, we even had one less bedroom suite before we built out over the garage, so things were even tighter.

As you can imagine, the retreat is not about sleep, especially for those in the great room. People can get a bit cranky being that close together for a couple of days, so if you have personalities that tend to rub each other the wrong way, give them beds to sleep in to delay the eventual meltdown. I originally slept on the floor most of the time, but have decided that it's my house, dammit, and I get a bed. If we have three couples and one guy brings his son, they will all get bedrooms and I will sleep on the floor for the first time in a few years, which I'm actually delighted by. It means that we've got a lot of people coming!

Another potential sore spot is the kitchen. While our kitchen isn't tiny, it also isn't huge, and the fridge and counterspace are completely overwhelmed with food and drinks in no time at all. Fortunately, I managed to get an extra fridge to put in the garage for drinks, and that should help out quite a bit with this many people. While we have a full set of dishes, glasses, cooking utensils, etc, with that many people the dishwasher is in almost constant use, so we started using plastic "kegger" cups with people's names taped to them and paper plates to try to minimize dirty dishes, and it's been a good choice. We might be filling up the landfill faster, but we save salmon in the process. We also coordinate with common consumables, such as pop, OJ, milk, etc, so that everyone doesn't bring a half gallon of 2% milk that we have to find a place for.

Of course, people still use silverware, mugs, bowls, etc, and we still have some work to do in the area of keeping the sink area clean. There have been retreats when I noticed that female attendees (who for some strange reason find the idea of 72 hours of constant gaming to be A Bit Too Much) are the ones doing the dishes, and if it isn't them it's been me and one or two others who have a lower threshold for mess. This year, with so many people coming, it will be critical to require everyone to clean up as they go, washing any cooking utensils and putting dishes in the dishwasher immediately after eating, as well as cleaning up any counterspace they've used as they go. I've found that people want to be good guests, and a request up front helps quite a bit, along with the occasional reminder. It is hard when a long game is going to do this, especially when you're eating as you play, but it does help to keep everyone sane.

As I live in a state with a strong desire to recycle, we have a few bins for paper and returnables, but these are quickly overwhelmed with that many people. A great solution for the bottles/cans is to set up a large cardboard box in a corner with a trash bag liner and have people throw their empties there. Smaller bins work for paper, metal, glass, and other recycleables. Not everyone is as anal about this as I am, so again a little reminder is a good idea. The point is to a) get everyone involved in contributing their energy so that the host doesn't have to do it all, and b) take care of it as it comes up so nothing backs up in the more used areas of the house. When we leave, I just stuff these things in the car, we dump the returnables at the local store, and off we go.

Clean up is a bit of a pain. Because my entire family uses the house (my brother, my sister, their kids, another sister's kids, business associates, friends, etc - we don't rent the place), I like to leave it pretty much spotless if possible. We do have a cleaning service that comes in and vaccuums, cleans bathrooms, etc, but it still takes some time to get the place closed up. One of the biggest pains is laundry - with five beds and three point five baths, there are a lot of sheets and towels that can be used in just a couple of days. With ten people, it takes about four cycles, and when two are all towels that means about an hour per cycle. Not good if you want to get home that night and home is a four-hour drive away. One solution has been to do the laundry the evening before and have people use a sleeping bag on top of the remade bed. Another has been to have people bring their own towels (brilliant!). At worst, they can throw them in the dryer before packing them for home. A huge time saver!

What I haven't been so good at is figuring out how to divvy up the closing activities so that everyone can help out. I've tried to make checklists, but the simple fact is that I'm very fussy in this regard and just end up doing most of the work myself. One time, I even sent people home and spent the rest of the day closing up without any help, but it took hours and exhausted me. Regardless, many hands make quick work, and I think that this problem simply requires me to calm down, come up with a set of related tasks for a given person to do, then hand them out to the people who stay to the bitter end (we usually go to Monday afternoon, and not everyone stays).

Obviously, not everyone has a space like this to use, but you can just as easily rent a house for a weekend. If you do, I recommend you look for a place that will accommodate your group well. In addition to the sleeping situation, it is critical to be sure you will have enough large flat surfaces (also known as "tables") to play the games on. Our remodel included a breakfast nook, so we have a good sized dining table with butterfly leaves that extend it out so that two regular sized games (not World of Warcraft!) will fit, as well as a smaller table in the nook that also is nice for late night gaming away from the great room. Card tables are fine, but be sure to get one that is sturdy. One year, we set up a game of History of the World on a card table in the corner, and people would take their turns between other games. We almost finished it, and it wasn't a good fit for us, but it's worth trying out.

Another factor is a place to put the games people bring. I'm sure Chris has put up pictures of the massive FLGS-scaled selection that we've had show up from time to time. I used to bring the majority, but now I limit myself to three storage boxes (the plastic kind with locking lids), and we still get something like 60 games. We have several good spaces for this, including a rail that separates the loft from the living/dining area. Boxes are fine, but there is something about this kind of quantity spread out on flat surfaces that is really awe-inspiring. I also recommend that people compare what games they plan to bring, this usually allows me to bring the things I want to see played. In fact, I'm starting that process in the next couple of days, and I'll be very interested to see what people want to play this time out.

One of the big gripes that people have made over the past eight years is that Sunriver is a) a four-hour car ride away from Portland where we all live, and b) requires a trip over the Cascade Mountains. Dave and I had a very exciting year driving through a blizzard with ice freezing on my wiper blades before I remembered that the defroster was a Good Thing. With snow on Mt. Hood, the trip can go from 3 hours with no traffic up to 6 or even more. Needless to say, with a weekend crowd that plans to be in the house for something less than 48 hours, that can be a pain. We've shifted from having our fall gathering from November to October, and pushed the spring gathering from April into May to accomodate the weather. Still, it's a long way to go. Still, one of my favorite parts of the weekend is the drive in (usually with Dave, who has attempted to destroy my eardrums on more than one occasion) and our "recap" on the way home. Carpooling is a great chance to get to know other members of the group beyond our common gaming interest, and it's a great way to build community. Plus, we can only really handle perhaps six cars in the driveway of the house, and that's it for parking within two miles of the house. Buddy up, people!

This has been a very long post, not that that's unusual for me, but I'll try to wrap it up even though there are other elements that help make the retreat fun: the occasional tournament (not such a big hit with our group, but still a possibility), video games in the loft, including the always popular Hot Babe Beach Volleyball (hint: wireless controllers ROCK), an iPod connection to the stereo so we can groan at everyone's musical taste, wireless broadband internet access (very popular, people often bring their laptops) along with a computer/printer if we need to download rules/errata, and of course the grill.

One thing I strongly recommend is to decide on a level of recreational drug use that you are comfortable with. We aren't heavy drinkers, even by tee-totaller standards, and while there is beer and wine flowing most of the day it isn't anything more than a little social lubrication. Fortunately, there have been no problems with alcohol, and I hope there never are. Also, if anyone smokes in the group other than the occasional cigar, I've never seen it - a good thing as we don't allow smoking in the house. No other drugs are in use, and everyone is very comfortable with that.

And therein lies the true key to a successful retreat: Everyone is comfortable. That means that the host lays down the ground rules and the guests are clear about what they require to have a good time. Having clear and frequent communications among the group (typically through our Yahoo Group) ahead of time saves a ton of trouble later, especially for newcomers, of which we will have a few this time out. If you have a problem while you are there, let your host know and work out a quick solution if necessary. We had one member whose 16-year old son got up at the crack of dusk and stayed up until the sun came out - I think someone flashed garlic at him just to be sure we wouldn't end up with any awkward moments while he was "feeding" - and that was a problem for more than one person. I told the member, and he's going to take care of it this time (plus they get the room with the twin beds). It really is that simple.

As I said at the top of the post, please feel free to suggest topics for us to write on in the comments. I'm sure everyone *loves* hearing about how we overcame dishwasher paralysis, so it's in your own best interest. Thanks!

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Karnak? If only I was that accurate.

What changes will come to the gaming hobby over the next 10 years?

Going last on this one is hard. I've skimmed the prior posts but haven't read them closely. Hopefully I don't duplicate too much.

To get a handle on this, let's look back at 1996:

We were in the throes of the CCG boom. Alliances was the big 1996 M:tG release. (Since 1996, Wizards of the Coast has released 28 limited edition expansion sets for Magic. Twenty eight.) Other CCGs released in 1996 were Battletech, Highlander, Netrunner, Star Trek (and Star Trek Next Generation), XXXenophile, and Yu-Gi-Oh! (among others.)

El Grande won the Spiel de Jahres and the DSP. (other SdJ nominees were Ab Die Post!, Campanile, Carabande, Mu, Reibach & Co, Sisimizi, Word Whizz, Speed, Top Race, and WatnDat. Other top-rated games released in 1996 were Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, Settlers of Catan Card Game, Age of Renaissance, and Entdecker.

Avalon Hill was still a bit of a force, but only four games came out that year – AoR, Hannibal, Air Baron, and Stonewall's Last Battle. AH had only two years of existence left.

Some interesting miniatures games came out in 1996. Crossfire (a WWII game designed by Arty Conliffe on a dare – there's no measuring), Chipco's Fantasy Rules!, Inferno (a miniatures game based on Dante's book), and Stargrunt II (a great sci-fi skirmish game). GW pretty much owned the Fantasy/Sci-fi market at this point. The only game that really challenged 40K was Legions of Steel, and the aforementioned Fantasy Rules! was the beginning of the “generic fantasy miniatures game that uses anybody's figures” movement.

Since then, a lot has changed.

Arguably, every niche of boardgaming is in its heyday except for hex-n-counter wargames. Gone are the days of 250,000 printed copies of a game like PanzerBlitz. The only strategy games getting sales figures like that these days are SdJ winners. There are more and more quality eurogames being released each year. Yes, some years are weaker than others, but I'd be surprised if the number of published games has ever decreased year-over-year. The number of companies producing high-quality miniatures has exploded in recent years, and what was considered state of the art 10 years ago is borderline archaic now. CCGs have severely declined since 1996, but they had (and still have) a long way to fall.

Where are we going from here? Here's my thoughts. (BTW, I pay zero attention to the RPG market any longer, so I make no predictions there at all.)

1: The rise of electronic board games. Devices such as the Entertaible are the early harbingers. This will take a chunk out of both the board game and video game markets as the social aspects of boardgaming over video gaming become emphasised. A yet-to-be-formed company will have a level of success relative to what Days of Wonder enjoys in boardgaming solely due to games released for a device like this. My personal hope? Cyberboard (or Vassal) gets ported to this kind of device.

2: We've had collectible dice, cards, miniatures, and “constructibles.” What's left? Beyond WizKids figuring out how many different things can be punched out of a credit card sized piece of plastic, what else is there? Look for emphasis on media/entertainment tie-ins in this space. With the video game, music, and movie industries all moving towards the same core issues (too many releases, no originality, and poor quality) cross-marketing will be huge. Topps sells WizKids to Disney.

3: All “wargames” will be produced via a p500-style preorder system. They will no longer be carried by distributors, and as such will not be seen in stores except in direct-order situations. One of the major wargame companies will either fold or be acquired by a different company.

4: Yes, there will still be brick-n-mortar game stores, but they'll be few and far between. No more than 1 per major metropolis.

5: If 3d printers become affordable, somebody will revolutionize the “DTP Wargame” market and merge it with miniatures. You buy a data file, and “print” out the figures.

6: Games Workshop will finally lose its stranglehold on fantasy/sci-fi miniatures. An economic turndown will come on the heels of yet another price rise, and their sales will plummet faster than anyone expects. It will be dramatic, and cause the closure of a number of independent game stores. GW will be bought by a publicly traded entertainment company, and they'll revamp the entire pricing structure. Quality will plummet, and they'll be replaced by Privateer Press as the top fantasy/sci-fi company.

7: The same economic downturn causes the international market for eurogames to shrink dramatically. Many mergers occur, and only three or four major publishers remain. Lots of small publishers try their hand, but distributors balk at most offerings. Look at the comic book market of 10 years ago for an example. However, 7 of the top 10 games on boardgame geek at the end of 2006 are still in print (or at least easily available) in 2016.

8: Battlefront will dominate the historical gaming market. They'll effectively complete their Flames of War WWII offerings, and redo the rules to mixed reviews. The rumored Napoleonic game will be a huge success, and leads to the introduction of either a WWI or Seven Years War line. (Those are about the only remaining conflicts with large appeal that have enough nationalities involved.) Persistant rumors of an Ancients or Medieval ruleset will not come to fruition.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Say the Word "Tomorrow" Without Fear

'Cause we all live in Future World
A world that’s full of love
Our future life will be glorious
Come with me - Future World!

I am a poor prognosticator. Being averse to change to a fault, I am perhaps too optimistic about things remaining as they are. If it ain't broke, et cetera. And in niche markets, persistence trumps obsolescence; for example, there is no way I would have predicted that Helloween would have released nine more albums - and counting - after the mega-cheesy Keeper of the Seven Keys (see above). Given the mob mentality of American taste, trends can blindside you like a train barreling out of a painted-over cliff face. Seriously, if you had told me a decade ago that puzzle magazines and books dedicated to Number Place (Sudoku) and Cross Sums (Kakro) would be all the rage, I would have bet big odds against it.

Ten years from now, my daughter will be 12, so I hope to be enjoying a lot of gaming time with her. I want nothing more than the environment to be much like it is today. But, as with all else in my life, there will be plenty of surprises, both pleasant and not. Perhaps these ten changes will be among them:

  • My boldest prediction is that the CCG market will crash. Gaming may still be hot in Europe, but retail stores in the United States that depend on the CCG business to sustain them will be folding. Best side benefit: the FLGS/online debate will be put to rest.
  • Our niche hobby - particularly German games and war games - will not significantly decrease. The bottom line is that most of us like having an excuse to get out of the house (or, in the case of cons, out of town) and hang with our buds. For gaming addicts, the key breakthrough for online gaming will be the quality and ease of integrating voice communication with our online experience. Combined with key graphics improvement, this will make playing boardgames on the 'net feel much like playing face-to-face.
  • In an effort to expand their market, Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition will be greatly streamlined, with many of the items currently in the core book moved to "supplemental" material. The campaign will be hugely successful, if only in the blue states.
  • Gambling laws will be relaxed to allow "professional" poker rooms to run games. The poker craze will grow even more, and at least one prominent nation-wide chain will be established. While the tournament format will be the most popular, there will still be open gaming, although players will have accounts that limit how much they can spend in a given time interval.
  • BGG.CON will continue to grow, eventually to the size and scope of GenCon. It will spawn off a several-day-long extravaganza which will replace Gathering of Friends as the premier gaming event.
  • Fantasy Flight Games will get into the collectible miniatures market. Their first effort will be derived from their Twilight Imperium: Armada game.
  • There will be another Bulge game or two.
  • The Gathering of Engineers crew will create an eponymous multi-day invitational, filling a gap in the Pacific Northwest. Alan Moon will decline the invitation.
  • Tom Vasel will make regular appearances on a big-time show in the U.S. - I'm thinking something like Ellen or Today - but he will still consider himself as not being among the elite.
  • Exactly ten years from now, the #1 game in America will be “Capture the Water Supply”. Shotgun not included.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Ten Years After

"What changes do you see coming to the hobby over the next 10 years?"

Ten years ago, fewer games named their designers. There was no online play, very little play by email (PBEM), few German games were known here. Magic was huge and Sid Sackson games were ahead of their time. War games and miniatures already seemed like a niche hobby to me.

I won’t offer predictions on what I don’t know very well: so no clues on war games, miniatures, role playing games or live-action role plays. But I’ll happily make some guesses on where I’d like to see things going.

1. There will be more opportunities for online board game play. Not only for smaller publishers to demonstrate their games, but perhaps something akin to blogging – where anyone that does some minimal work to get a game’s pieces and rules up online can host a small game site. This should also mean less traditional play by email where one just types in their instructions to a third party game master.

2. Essen in 2005 had more countries sending game designers than ever before. In the next ten years more designers from more countries will introduce games to the market, partly based on the lower expenses to release games via “print your own” and small subscribed print runs. This means more mechanics, more ideas and more interesting themes in games than the “traditional” Euro designers have ever thought of.

3. There will be more expensive versions of games offered for collectors and snobs to show off, like the all wood Settlers of Catan and the custom built Puerto Rico. At the same time, more cheap games (both in component quality and gaming goodness) will be on American store shelves, continuing to choke out any chance of good designer games making it into mainstream US stores.

4. Higher postage costs will make it harder to trade games with other hobbyists, especially our friends overseas. This will reduce the chance for game collections to grow in depth and width and expose our group to bizarre hard to find titles that turn out to be gems.

And the next few are just my wishes for games I want to play in the next ten years.

5. More games will come with computer power – if they can out a chip in a greeting card, they can sure get into game boxes. For instance, I want a smart pad for Tichu. After a hand, you place your stack of tricks on the pad; it reads your cards and scores your team and the other team as well. It displays current scores when asked. A smart chip for any game that has lots of bookkeeping would be awesome.

6. Next step up. When we need another player for a game, we often have a “cat” play – an extra player for whom all game decisions are made by the group, either as a whole or in rotation. Well, I want a computerized cat (Ccat) that plays various games with me. I tell it which game (using a menu, a plug-in, whatever) and it plays a random yet reasonable strategy. Yes, it requires that the game being played is also “smart” – since the Ccat has to have visual game information such as where are the current tiles and leaders on the board in Tigris & Euphrates. But with a set of games that the Ccat could play, it could actually come in handy when you’re short of players or want a challenge.

7. And this one for game design. There should be some way to write up a set of specs with needed images and have an online service make me a folding board, a set of playing cards, some nice tiles in various shapes, a box, whatever. Sure it might be costly, but what a service. There could be some great games out there that never get tried simply because the designer sees the game in his or her head, but can’t find the resources to get it in physical form.

Wonder if I'll even remember I did an article like this ten years from now ...

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Yet Another Crystal Ball

Here we are, one week after the infamous "Podcast" episode. I'm not going to address that at all (other than the occasional clever remark) unless we set up a listserve or something. It would take me a month to address every issue that the Three Amigos brought up, and something tells me that I'd be defending myself for a very long time. So, no more of that, at least from me. For the record, I am somewhat gobsmacked that this issue got picked up by other blogs, and someone even called me a luminary! Obviously, neither of us get out much. ;-)

Sorry to post a day late, but I've really had to think about this week's question. And I came up with it in the first place!

Part of prediction is to look back in the past and see what changes have occurred over a similar period, then extrapolate accordingly. In 1996 [Note: Dates are approximate for my purposes, so don't feel like you need to comment that such and such a game came out on Dec 33rd of 1995, 'kay?], Euro games were just starting to enter the US gamersphere. GMT ruled the wargame market (or were at least on their way there), even with AH still a going concern. The Internet was taking off, although the web was still just getting started (and online stores were scarce). Card-driven wargames were still in their infancy, with the titles limited to Hannibal and We the People. There was no ACTS, so anything involving hidden elements had to be refereed. I can tell you from experience that refereeing a pbem game is definitely a labor of love, although it does have it's rewards (such as managing to turn over an entire pbem game of History of the World in two months). Pbem was in use, but the graphics were non-existent. There were certainly no play by web games.

I'm going to go with a few assumptions about the next ten years as well. No environmental collapse, commercial activity continues relatively intact despite a dwindling oil supply, the US not under martial law, etc. [Note: This is not an invitation to bitch about my liberal *ss, here, this is just a basic assumption that things will continue more or less as they have for the past ten years without affecting basic infrastructure].

I will also assume that computer and information technology continues to get more portable, more interconnected, and more unobtrusive. We will have instant access to the internet in every populated portion of the US/Canada at the very least.

So, given the above, here are my thoughts about the future of boardgaming:

* Wargaming will become even more of a niche hobby than it currently is. New games will continue to be published, but most will be either DTP or intended to be played on ones Personal Computing/Communication Device (PCCD). Diehards like me who enjoy pushing cardboard around will be able to print up our own copies, but we will be in the minority. paper will have become so expensive that printing out a DTP game will be equivalent to purchasing a published game today. Because the computer will handle most of the bookkeeping, gamers will be able to learn games much faster, and it will possible to finally play all three Barbarossa: Army Group games simultaneously to completion, even if it takes five years. Even with the shorter learning curve, the hobby will continue to slowly die out because of the crumbling educational system in the US.

* The "eurogame" market will crash sometime in the next ten years. I personally believe that we are pretty close to that point now. Using the American film industry as an example (say buhbye to movie theatres as well), there will be such a low qualtiy to quantity ratio that people will simply stop buying/collecting and play what they have. I think this will happen sooner than later. Like wargames, boardgames will evolve into video games with some brains that we play over networks rather than at gatherings (although those will still happen to some extent). They will still be a minor niche in the market, much like role-playing video games are today, mostly because there won't be enough T&A and/or blood. However, I do see some growth in this market, as these games require no background in a historical subject to be entertaining.

* Before the crash (and contributing to it) will be a flood of digitally-distributed games put out by pretty much anyone with even a dumb idea. Sort of like blogs now. This will contribute to the crash in the US, if not everywhere. On the plus side, no one will complain that they are running out of places to hide games from their spouses as all they need is a bigger hard drive.

* As Chinese and South Asian populations become more affluent, more designers and players will emerge in those countries. If you think translating German is difficult, try Sanskrit! True innovation will take place in these cultures, largely because of their different worldviews - The Chinese, for example, will be very good at collaborative games, while the Indians will prefer games that focus on historical/mythological themes.

* Games will increasingly fill niche markets. For example, Christians currently have a few religion-oriented titles available such as Settlers of Canaan, but will have dozens if not hundreds of games to choose from because of distribution via the Internet (and the subsequent reduction in costs, problems with finding publishers, etc). Most of these titles will be derivatives of titles available now, but with niche-specific themes pasted on.

* Games with plastic bits will disappear because of dwindling petroleum supplies. [Note: I'm pretty sure that oil plays a big part in plastics production, but this is something I'm not completely sure of]. Most of the games that today have plastic pieces, even the really crappy ones, will fetch a premium from all the geriatrics who mocked them back in the 'oughts. Like me.

* Traditional card games like Bridge will make a huge comeback, mostly because there will be lots of card decks laying around. However, Poker will have been outlawed as a form of gambling, and all games will take place in clandestine locations. You will be able to watch Bridge tournaments on television (or on the 'net).

* Podcasts, blogs, and the internet in general will be monitored by the federal authorities (OK, this is dystopian, but you know it's coming). There will be a tax on bloggers and podcasters, and they will for all intensive purposes become Big Media outlets. However, there will be a few hardy souls putting out pirate 'casts (known as ArghCasts) in a vain attempt to stick it to the Man. All of these people will be Americans living in Korea. ;-) There will be no content for gamers.

* I won't cover CCGs, RPGs, MMORPGs, or minis, as I need to leave something for the other writers on this blog to cover!

As you can see, the biggest changes will be brought about by changes in the distribution/production channels. I use the changes in music distribution as a model, where the big CD store is eventually replaced by on-line distribution. Some of my predictions are a bit on the light side, but the increasing commercialization of the Internet combined with increasing transportation costs will drive the digitalization of gaming in the future. And to think this isn't the dystopian view!

Next week I will attempt to offend the entire Buddhist world community. ;-)

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Question of the Month: April

Being the first full week of April, each blog entry this week will answer the following question, provided by Dug, who gets first crack at it: "In the last 10 years, boardgaming has seen evolutionary change brought primarily through the ability to get information and even play via the Internet. What changes do you see coming to the hobby over the next 10 years?"

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

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

A Sporting Chance

For many people, the first week of April is the best sports week of the year. There's the NCAA Mens' and Womens' Basketball finals, Major League Baseball opening day, and The Masters. All in the span of a handful of days. There's also the push for the playoffs in the NHL and NBA, and the NFL draft is only a couple weeks away. Formula 1 and NASCAR are in full swing, and I'm sure there's something important going on with Soccer and Tennis. (I quit watching tennis when Bjorn Borg retired, and I'm American, so I don't “get” soccer. Then again, I don't “get” NASCAR, either.)

What on earth does this have to do with boardgaming? Well, if you remember back to when we were introducing ourselves, that's where my roots are. Sports games. A niche market probably more scorned than wargames. (Or at least more thoroughly ignored.)

Periodically over the next few weeks, I'm going to look at a different category of sports games. I've got more experience with baseball and racing games than any others, so those groups will get the most detail.

Baseball Games

First off, let's look at some of the top baseball games with at least 10 ratings. The top games here aren't any surprise at all to someone who's tried more than one or two.

  1. Sher-co Baseball (1971)
  2. Replay Baseball (1973)
  3. Dynasty League Baseball (1994, but a remake of Pursue the Pennant – 1985)
  4. Strat-o-matic Baseball (1962)
  5. Sports Illustrated Baseball (1972)
  6. Statis Pro Baseball (1971)
  7. APBA Pro Baseball (1951)

I've got a copy of Sher-co somewhere in storage. It had a neat gimmick of a grid for each stadium where you didn't get a “home run” result, but instead found out how far you hit the ball. The grid let you know if the ball was in the park or not. Didn't play very quickly from what I recall. As I've mentioned in the past, I was a big APBA fan. Cribbage might be the only game I've played more than APBA Baseball. It doesn't have the most robust statistical model, but it produces good results quickly. I've never played Replay Baseball but there's a large number of fanatics on ConsimWorld, including Richard Berg.

Avalon Hill had three different baseball games. Sports Illustrated (which used “franchise all-star” teams, and was eventually rebranded “Superstar Baseball”), Statis Pro (the more standard game with card sets for each season), and Pennant Race (not listed above – it took a GM's perspective on a baseball season. I think it's an underrated game with potential for redevelopment. I'll have to rescue my copy from storage.)

Strat-o-matic was the third of the “similar system, multiple sports” games after APBA and Statis Pro. It had a rabid following, and most people were either in the APBA or Strat-o-matic camp, but not both. SOM at least gave the illusion of having more statistical accuracy as the pitchers cards influenced events a lot more than in APBA. Whether it did or not is subject to a (lot of) debate.

Interesting that the young turk here is Dynasty League Baseball, and it's 12 years old. Part of this, I'm sure, is due to the computerization of the Baseball Replay market. Diamond Mind Baseball, in particular, is the king here. It was initially released in 1987, and has become the gold standard. In the era of the internet, it's pretty tough to recreate the DMB experience with a boardgame. I believe every game in the list above except for Sher-co and Sports Illustrated Baseball were computerized at some point, with varying levels of success. I know I had the very first APBA Baseball computer versions from Miller Associates. Boy that copy protection blew chunks.

The explosion of statistical research in baseball (and now basketball, football, and hockey) has steadily raised the bar on what these baseball simulation games need to cover to be considered “realistic.” The arms race has definitely displayed itself in the computer game market, but even Dynasty League Baseball shows the results of increased study. The emergence of two organizations, Project Scoresheet (first) and Stats, Inc (later) in the mid-80s made pitch-by-pitch other detailed data available to the public for the first time. This had a direct effect on the games that emerged later. I don't think it's any surprise whatsoever that Diamond Mind didn't come out until Project Scoresheet had been in existence for a couple years.

Oddly enough, I think my fascination with the simulation side of baseball games cost me a job when I still worked at Microsoft. They were working on a baseball game, and were in need of a Project Manager – I interviewed for the position but as my idea of a successful game wasn't really what they were looking for, I didn't get the job. I wasn't thinking “arcade” enough. In the end, I never even played the game.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Game Group: Boardgamers' Pastime

Boardgamers' Pastime
Submitted by Mario Lanza
Edited by Dave Eggleston

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

Turning 30 got me reflecting on life and goals and such. I remembered playing games through my teens: Games Workshop games like Talisman, Block Mania, Chaos Marauders, and a few other games from various publishers. I remembered how much I liked these atypical games to which I was introduced by a friend whose father owned a game. Despite having tried to track down game clubs at various times through my twenties, I had never found the doorway back into the hobby. At 30, I simply decided I was either going to find a club or start one.

I began calling around ― bookstores, game stores, and libraries ― for places that might be willing to offer their facility. The bookstores were a no-go since they couldn't see what was in it for them. All the game stores were willing, but I had high hopes of finding a place that had good lighting, a wide open space, and nice ambiance. I didn't want the typical dingy back room of a game store that is often filled by role-playing, acne-encrusted teens. So when my local library agreed to lend us their Foundation House, an unattached building that met all my requirements, I was overjoyed. I called the club "Boardgamers' Pastime" and promoted it as an opportunity for people 16 and older to come out and test their wits, find good mental exercise.

The wife of the family that donated the Foundation House had just read an article about how boardgames were a healthy pastime for aging seniors; while I didn't expect seniors to be our primary demographic, I certainly was open to having anyone come a join us and learn these games of ours. So with her approval I had a place.

Shortly after, I discovered a group called PA Strategists that met on the other side of the Susquehanna River. It was run by Charlie Hickok, an older gamer who is an excellent player and a true gentleman. I arrived at one of their events and participated in a few games and made the announcement about my new club. Since their club was meeting on the second and fourth Saturday of each month, they suggested alternate weekends. I chose the first and third Sundays and this arrangement has worked out quite well.

With the library as our sponsor, it posted regular announcements in the small local newspapers―a blessing for sure! Additionally, I set up a website as an Internet billboard that I recently converted into a blog. Though we have drawn a mix of gamers and non-gamers over the years the club attendance has plateaued and settled at around 12 to 15.

How would you describe your group?

The best analogy I can come up with is a recreational volleyball league where you get a mix of shapes, ages, and abilities. The club invites people 16 or older; however, most of the members are over 30. The average age is probably 35. Some of the regulars bring the kids, so we do, in fact, have a couple teenagers on occasion. We meet in the Foundation House beside the New Cumberland Public Library on the first, third and (periodically) fifth Sundays from noon till 6 pm. Everyone likes to win, and so that is a goal, but it is not one we take too seriously. The main goal is that we all want to have fun. The secondary goal for many of us is that we like to try new games. We are primarily about the business of games. We share a few off-topic conversations just before we get started playing while we are waiting for stragglers to show up, but mostly we just concentrate on playing and having fun.

How do you decide which games to play?

Charlie and I buy the vast majority of the new games though everyone brings their own tote of favorites. Because my taste differs from Charlie's, he and I do not often play games together. He likes the longer (3-6 hours) and usually more complex games and I like the shorter ones (1-2 hours). More than half of the time, I bring a new game. I set it on the table to showcase it right at the start of our meeting and this usually brings a few players who are more than happy to try it. A few of the regulars have a love affair with certain games and will routinely be suggesting and playing them.

How do you select the start player?

Sometimes we abide by the rules (e.g., "youngest player"), but mostly one player cups his hands from which another draws an unseen bit. The owner of that bit goes first.

What do you consider your group’s signature games?

A few in the group have their own signature games:

● Steve is always trying to stir up interest in Acquire, his personal favorite. His son Jon Shambeda won the Acquire event at the World Boardgaming Championships in 2002. Because he has played thousands of times and can memorize the complete hidden information, he usually cannot get a game going. His fallback is Union Pacific.
● Fred suggests Ra a lot, but his all-time favorite is Medici. He brings it, suggests it, and plays it whenever there are takers; if Jim is around, there are.
● Larry seems to play Settlers at least every other meeting.
● My favorites―La Citta, Tikal, and Tigris & Euphrates―are not well liked enough to often see the light of day.

The standby fillers seem to be Bang! and Citadels. The most popular games among the lot of us are Union Pacific and Settlers. Several in our group will make it past the first round U.P. qualifiers each year at WBC, and a couple have made it to the finals. Railroad Tycoon, which follows Charlie wherever he goes, has recently become popular. Personally, I usually avoid familiar games in favor of fresh ones.

What games were featured in your most memorable gaming sessions?

I remember once getting a perfect rainbow of colors on the first round in Medici and thinking I had no way of winning. Unbelievably, I was wrong!

Cliff: What is memorable to one person is not to another. What I like the best is coming to the group and seeing two or three games going with at least one person waiting. So a game can start anytime and the variety of games played is good too. Everyone who brings games is always willing to let anyone play any game they bring. That's memorable. Unfortunate is when someone is so concerned with winning that they will sacrifice their good will with the group by leaving, shouting, or arguing a moot point.

Steve: I remember an excellent game of Colorado Rails: tons of competition and fun. Union Pacific is always challenging and memorable as the “kids” try to (and usually do) beat the old timers.

Jim: For me personally, it was the first time I beat Fred - the resident expert and former WBC champion - in Medici. The more memorable gaming sessions are when, win or lose, I learn a game that I just love. It is hard to beat that feeling of discovery coupled with the camaraderie of a good mix of players. Learning Tigris and Euphrates from Mario and Puerto Rico from an enthused group of people are two such memories that come to mind.

What games were featured in your most unfortunate gaming sessions?

For me, the most dreaded game sessions begin with a poor rules explanation. My biggest pet peeve in gaming is having to sit through confusing game explanations when, I feel, with a little practice anyone could do a decent job. This prompted me to write “The Finer Points of Teaching Rules” for The Games Journal. My second biggest peeve (only because it occurs less frequently) is when rules are so poorly written or ambiguous that it muddles the first experience. I remember spending almost six hours trying to absorb American Megafauna from its rules and then teaching it for almost an hour with much difficulty. Once underway, the game fell flat. Prior to that first play, I was eager to try it from having read several positive reviews. I felt disappointed and it bothered me that I had sunk so many hours of effort into producing a lackluster result.

Also, I have this terrible (although irrational) feeling that dice work against me. I avoid games where outcomes are largely dependent on rolling better than the competition. Though I am not superstitious, nor do I believe in jinxes, people wail in laughter when my prediction for consistently bad dice comes to pass. I have experienced memorable bad luck in Manifest Destiny, Pirate's Cove, and Silverton. Some games allow chancy dice to be reasonably mitigated, so the inclusion of dice mechanics does not necessarily exclude me from a game.

Steve: Playing a 5-hour game that is advertised by members as a 2- or 3-hour game, thus wasting valuable gaming time. Not in a specific game, but if someone has had a bad day, or bad luck, they can sometimes get an attitude and exhibit a moment of poor sportsmanship. It ruins the game for everyone. This is an unusual situation for our group.

Jim: Easy: it was the day we playtested Manifest Destiny for Charlie, which took all afternoon. I like Charlie – he's a challenging opponent and just fun to play with – but I found that game laborious, and to sit through an hour of instruction before even playing was excruciating. I remember just trying to stay awake learning the rules.

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

Mario: Citadels stands out. Along with Fluxx and – appropriately – Plague & Pestilence, I avoid it like the plague. We predominantly play Eurogames; some play card games and others wargames.

Steve: Ticket to Ride (both versions), Union Pacific, Acquire, Attila: there are always people who make sure these games can be played every gaming session. Titan is another love/hate game, as is Risk. The newer versions of Risk (2210 A.D., Lord of the Rings) are better than the original according to many group members.

Jim: Wargames... I would like to play more of them but there is definitely a line there that some of the group will not cross. I generally do not like train games, so I guess everyone has a line drawn somewhere.

What do you do about food and music at your gaming sessions?

Mario: We provide neither food nor music. People bring their own lunches and snacks. Many eat while we are waiting for the rest of the clan to arrive. Sometimes, one of us will make a run to a nearby fast food joint.

Steve: I think this group is very serious about having fun with the mental challenges in games, and some think that music is distractive.

A closing note:

Mario: Because I laud the gaming pastime, I initially had the notion that I could evangelize it and grow the group. After several failed attempts―our National Games Week program brought one man and his little girl who consequently never returned, and the boardgames awareness class I was to teach for the township produced zero signups – I have aimed simply to make our club a light and to allow the moths to come. Helping people discover games is a matter of making the public aware more than it is about campaigning and door-to-door sales. Those who will have an affinity for games will ultimately discover them; in this, I have faith. I am an opportunity broker, that is all. Meanwhile, several times a month I personally have a great time playing games. For what more could I ask?

Luann: To me the group seems to have a larger percentage of females than most gaming groups and a fair number of family combinations. I am also impressed with the variety of ages and personalities. Plus I always have a good time! Last Sunday was hilarious playing Settlers.

Jim: Roll well and live.

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

Game Group index:

01/2006: Jerusalem Strategy Gaming Club
02/2006: Long Island Boardgaming Organization
03/2006: Boardgamers' Pastime

Saturday, April 01, 2006

The Graphical Design of Antike

Antike was one of my favorite releases from 2005, and I continue to be impressed with the simplicity and elegance of the game design.  I had a chance to play it again last weekend at GameStorm, and though I lost to a last-minute dash by George, it reinforced my belief that this is a solid, fun, replayable game that scales well from 3–6 players.  I have yet to try it with 2, but it looks worth trying.

The more I play Antike, the more I am impressed with the graphical design of the game.  I figure I could probably learn a few things about design (or at least evaluating design) by breaking down what I think is so special about Antike.  So… join me on a photo-rich journey into the myriad of good design decisions made by Mac Gerdts & Steffi Krage.

Bits: Antike has high contrast wooden bits with easily distinguishable colors.  There’s no confusing player-specific components in this game, and I suspect even those with mild color blindness would do fine with these colors.

Antike Bits

Cards: The nation cards for the game are outstanding, eliminating the need to consult the rulebook to determine what nations are used with different numbers of players.  It is also obvious who the start nation is with each nation as well as each nation’s starting cities.  This is true for both the English and German maps.

Antike Nation Cards

The victory point cards are well designed, though I would have prefered to see English on the back sides of the German language cards.  This would have been easy as there’s no need to keep these secret, so no need for a generic card back.  Still, the icons make the victory cards easy to distinguish and the numbers help remind players how many of each remains in the game without having to count cards in the stack.

Antike Know-How Cards

Map board: Antike comes with a two-sided board, adding variability to the game geography while providing language-specific (English and German) help on each respective side.  The know-how track has great visuals: it is clear how much each advancement costs for the 1st and subsequent players as well as the benefits accrued for each technology.

Antike Know-How

The map itself is outstanding, providing bold red and blue lines to separate the regions and making it obvious where troops and ships can pass.  Contrast this with a (great) game like Indonesia that uses a highly artistic board but often leaves players guessing about where country border lines start and finish.  No such confusion in Antike.

Antike Board

The victory point track on the board is equally solid and self explanatory.  No need to look up how many VPs it takes to win in a 3–player game -it is right there on the board, though the statement “ACTUAL NUMBER OF ANTIQUE PERSONS” is interesting.  The VP cards that players collect are technically called “Antique Personalities” but are really just victory points.

Antike Victory Point Track

 The rondel is one of the more interesting and innovative game mechanics in Antike, and the design of the board component is on par with the rest of the game.  A simple clue like “up to 3 fields for free” helps eliminate any confusion about the cost for moving your marker beyond 3 fields at a time.

Antike Rondel

Most of the rest of the game’s mechanics are explained in an easy-to-use, dual-language quick reference card.  Only criticism here is that they only include 4 of them in the game, but it is easy to share between players when playing with 5 or 6.

 Antike Quick Reference

Cities on the map produce a specific kind of resource, and the game uses both colors and symbols to indicate the resource type.  They even use a different background color on the scroll with the city name to help distinguish the city types.  In the picture below you can see the city marker for Mecca (the gold pot) with a gold coin next to it.

Antike Resource Tokens

Antike could have been extremely fiddly and hard to pick up and play without such well designed components and human factors.  There’s no cross-referencing and very little rulebook lookups once you learn the basics of the game as the information a player needs is right there on the board or on the cards.  Well done!

Gamestorm Report part 2

We got started early Saturday morning at a great breakfast with Jeff DeBoer from Funagain Games. He has a lot of great ideas for upcoming services and products that he can bring to the market. Then back to the main gaming hall to set up some prototypes.

They’d given me a couple tables, which was great. I set up Isla Nova, a game about building infrastructure in a new community just preparing for new colonists to arrive. Just as I got that done, a photographer from the Oregonian showed up to follow-up on a story about Havoc: the Hundred Years War that was started last November. So we chatted a bit and I set up a couple other games we’re playtesting, Pizzza and Metro 2. William and Avery, selling their new Collectible Card Game (CCG) Konquer, dropped by for a test-play of Metro 2. While this game was not their normal cup of tea, they seemed to get how it works pretty quickly and finished a game in around 45 minutes.

After that, time for another panel with James Ernest, Richard Garfield and Dave Howell. This one was only attended by about 15 people, but it seemed to go well. It’s interesting that the bigger designers all have what they consider a “primary” test group, who they go to for first and biggest input. We all agreed on the value of conventions as a source of unbiased gamers, but it was pointed out that not all gamers enjoy or are good at play-testing.

Next up Chris ran several demos of Counterspy, a new 2-player game by our friend Kevin Nunn. It was received well, and played by people new to gaming as well as some die-hard gamers. Meanwhile, the CCG Konquer gentlemen gave me a demo of their game. This can play two or more and involves at least 15 “races” right now, each with nice back stories and art by the designer. The game also has a dungeon-crawl setup for even more flexibility which is good in the competitive world of CCG publishing. Then I corralled some folks to try “Sphinx of Black Quartz” which is a set-collection game based on pieces which taken together form letters and words. I still like it, but true to form it gained (at best) mixed reviews from the three people who played. Perhaps it’s more of a past-time than a game. (Or maybe it’s just past it’s time.)

I joined with the same panel gents for a packed-house panel on Prototyping. Each of us had brought boards, bits, cards and other examples of things we used for prototype games. My use of Excel for graphics, etc brought quite a reaction, even from the panelists, partly because it’s not really an art program. The graphic artist on the panel felt a good art program would get the same results much faster. On the other hand, Richard Garfield said that the Sharpie Pen is his favorite graphics tool. All in all, it was a great panel and everyone came away with good tips about materials for boards (tyvek hinges, mat board), cards (CCG sleeves, full size labels), bits (Lego, Risk armies) and boxes (recycle everything).

Early evening: 16 people in all showed up for or were cajoled into joining the first-ever Havoc tournament. We had the main players play two 6-player games, and four visitors played to learn the mechanics, etc. After comparing all the scores, the 12 main players teamed up for three four-player games to determine a champion. We had about half players who’d played Havoc before, and half had not.

We were lucky enough to be joined by a reporter from the Oregonian (local largest newspaper), who joined us for the whole tournament and took in a lot of the overall Gamestorm atmosphere as well. At the end of the evening, Phoenix from the GameStorm staff took home first place and a $20 board game. Second place went to first-time player Tyler Tinsley, who picked up Havoc as a prize. Other prizes were awarded as well, and it appeared that everyone had a great time.

Several years ago we decided that Gamestorm needed peeping up early Sunday and started the Sunday Family Gaming event. This Sunday morning was great as ever. We had kids with their parents, parents without their kids and even a few loose kids trying out games like Looping Louie, Walk the Dogs and other family fare.

This year George Vriese put up a special Kid’s Games table with ours which was awesome. We saw Kids of Catan and several great Ravensburger titles on the table. Mike Deans also brought a variety of new games to his SimplyFun table, with titles like Drive, Zing!, Walk the Dogs and Plext available for trial runs. Luckily, I got Jeff DeBoer and his girls Emerald and Jade to try a game based on BadgeBadgerBadger.com along with Becka (a visitor) and Mimi Walker. That got played a few times, as did the copy of Diamant I added a test expansion too with sort of an Indiana Jones theme. Overall the three or four hours zoomed past.

Then a final panel, this time joined by Mike Selinker who’s now part of LoanShark Design with James Ernest and just published Gloria Mundi, which looks very impressive. This topic was on “Getting Published”, but seemed to just as much cover “How and When to Self-Publish.” It was great that most the panelists had started by self-publishing, and were in favor of new designers selling home-made models at game convemtions.

After that my final treat of Gamestorm was learning Richard Garfield’s Rocketville from the designer in a loose tournament setting. It’s a board game with 36 quick elections, determined by card play, with elections won netting you more cards, special cards or possibly area control which score points to win the game. A model rocket moves around to show where the next election happens, and there’s bit of luck in the card shuffle, but it’s all good fun and great retro graphics. The winners of the first games played a final, this time with supporter cards which make the game a little more meaty.

Overall a good time this year, plenty of new friends and contacts, a bit of learning and ideas for next year. If you weren’t there and could have been, plan now for the future!