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Gathering of Engineers

Ludographic considerations from the Silicon Forest

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Eating an Elephant

After reading Dave's post yesterday, I found it interesting that we're heading two completely separate directions on how we want to spend our limited gaming time. Dave goes for the half turkey sandwich, and I go for the four-course meal. Probably explains our physical shapes, as well.

As I alluded to last week, I spent a good amount of time this past week attempting to learn OCS. It was difficult to find more than 45 minutes or so to really dig into it, but I gave it my best. It didn't help that our older car threatened to die completely on us last Thursday. We took the opportunity to trade it in for a new Scion xB. Needless to say, I was a tad distracted by that for a good chunk of the weekend.

Anyway, here's some of the techniques I used to attempt to learn this game.

  1. Punch out all the counters for the scenario we'd be playing and set them up.
  2. What on earth do all these colors on the counters mean? Time to study the counter symbology. (OCS uses four different colors of numbers and backgrounds in their unit ratings to indicate a variety of things. All important, of course.)
  3. Find the terrain legend. (What is it doing on map A, anyway? What do you mean it's not on a separate reference card?) Examine the lay of the land to find choke points. The scenario is played on one full map, and the hexes are five miles each. However, since the turns represent half a week, a unit can cover a LOT of ground in one turn, particularly if it's on a primary road. I still am having trouble wrapping my brain around the scale.
  4. Okay, I'm playing the Italians, what forces do I have? What are the objectives of the scenario? What's the supply situation?

That was one night's worth. Probably an hour or so of just orienting myself to the physical components of the game.

Then, I started reading. I didn't read the rules in order, but skipped around reading a major section at a time – I covered air power a couple times. Had trouble getting that to stick in my brain.

Monday night, the day before we were supposed to play, I set up the scenario again, and starting mocking out plans – nothing really concrete, just an idea of how the game would flow. The British have a LOT to do in two short turns, but it definitely seemed plausible. I didn't work through any mock combats, though. Just reread the detailed examples in the rulebook.

I arrived at Keith's place earlier tonight feeling like I was about to explode my head. He had the scenario set up (as he always does – he's a great host) and after a bit of chat we got right down to things.

Keith had rather bad luck in this game, but we were simply using it for a learning experience. We only played one of the two turns in the scenario, but we learned more in those 90-105 minutes than the entire previous week. There's absolutely nothing that can top simply sitting down with the game and working through the situations to see what happens. You really get a feel for the big picture that you can't get pushing counters at home, or playing the games solo.

I do feel I prepared as well as I could have, however. There's just too much in the rulebooks to remember it all your first time out.

I'd go into a lot of the lessons we learned, but that really doesn't matter, as there's probably no more than one or two of you out there that cares about trace supply and when it's checked – it's the process of learning a big game that's important here. Given how things laid out, here's how I'd approach it next time (and this assumes my opponent is learning the game as well):

  1. Familiarize yourself with the physical components first. Only refer to the rules when you want a definition for something on the counters or map.
  2. Read through the rules, front to back. Don't worry if you don't "get" something.
  3. Mentally walk through the sequence of play for a typical turn. This is particularly important in games where supply takes a major role. Learn when supply comes into play.
  4. Scan the table of contents. Reread sections where you don't think you have good grasp of what's going on.
  5. Pick a scenario (assuming there's more than one) and set it up. Look at the victory conditions and think about what each side needs to do.
  6. Play a dry run. This is what Keith and I did earlier tonight. Play through with the intent of going after the victory conditions but don't try to optimize. Don't worry if three stacks of units suddenly disappear because you didn't understand the supply rules properly.
  7. Write down questions as you play.
  8. Reread the rules as soon as possible to try to catch things you didn't get the first time. This is where I go next. I'm sure I'll run across a lot of things that we missed or did wrong. I'll log them all, and we'll give it another go.

We're trying a larger scenario next time, and we'll only plan on doing one turn a night. Two if we're lucky. It's nine turns, and we meet every other week, so we should be done in, oh, late September or so.

18xx


For the other half of my "big game" fix, 18FL arrived today. Can't wait to get this on the table. John Tamplin (Deep Thought Games) does a fantastic job on his kits. His work is highly recommended.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Sunriffer Part 2: Half Turkey Games

I will continue with my riffs on gaming inspired by our Sunriver retreat, but I will postpone the GIPFathon thoughts to another week. That topic deserves something more Appelclinesque than I can handle after a long holiday weekend.

I have become obsessed lately with this incessant thought about how much the Half Turkey sandwich represents the state of my life right now. We have a pretty decent cafeteria at work - at least the menu is rather frou-frou- but I am usually so busy with lunch meetings and all that, instead of sitting down to a nice warm White Globe Radish Enchilada with Balsamic Chive Salsa, I only have time to grab a pre-packaged Half Turkey sandwich. That, a packet of Dijon, a bag of Sun Chips, and a Diet Pepsi is enough to keep me going until my 6:30 supper. So what's so special about the Half Turkey? It can be bought, eaten and disposed of quickly. I do not have to worry about indigestion. It is not too messy, so I can eat while working. It is familiar. But most importantly, it is always unspectacular yet satisfying (contrast with ham or, especially, roast beef). In an environment that is becoming increasingly difficult for me to control, I have to establish these ports of secure sanity.

The Half Turkey concept extends beyond cuisine. In my PC gaming, instead of subjecting myself to figuring out Civ 4, I am content with Guild Wars (and I would fully regress to Diablo 2 if it could run on my current PC). I am spending almost no time with my more challenging music (classical; bebop; death metal; IDM), instead preferring genres that require less brain and more feeling (ambient; doom; drone; soul). Now, boardgaming is not a solitaire activity like the other hobbies mentioned here; I have to merge my own desires with those of others. However, I am less afraid these days to pull out the veto (although starting with a passive-aggressive shrug usually suffices). Some days, I just want to play the equivalent of a Half Turkey.

For me, a Half Turkey game must have the following qualities:

  • Be quick to setup, teach, and put away (although not necessarily play). An example of a favorite game that does not have these properties is Settlers of Catan.
  • Even better, everyone in the group knows how to play it, and never needs a refresher.
  • Have a very low chance of unsatisfying plays, the unpleasantness usually caused by randomness. Games that do not have these properties (a favorite being Die Sieben Siegel) may also swing the other way, but some days it is not worth the chance of frustration.

Titan: the Arena used to be the group's Half Turkey. It regularly got 5+ plays a year, but seemed to have been forgotten after a tsunami of new releases wiped out our memories. It has been making a comeback as of late, including this past retreat. Slowly since its release, San Juan has emerged as the group's new Half Turkey. There are some fussy parts that bother me - keeping track of which pile is the drawpile and which is the discards; forgetting to conceal the most recent trading table - but it has a groovy, light flow, while having enough there to make you feel satisfied if you win or come close.

Our three-player match at Sunriver was relatively dull. It was the rare match where the winner (me) had a Guild Hall but not a Palace but was still able to keep the builder(s) at bay. The best builder was using his Poor House every turn and was able to keep the game at a rapid pace, while the third player had the best setup - including a FAT chapel - but was unable to find a 6-point building (i.e., was unwilling to select the Councilor role).

Just for Dug, here is my list of Top Ten Half Turkey Games.

  1. Katzenjammer Blues - Only six ranks - no suits - so there is not much complaining about luck of the draw. Partnership variant adds suspense and teamwork.
  2. Titan: the Arena - Easy to accept that so much is out of your control.
  3. San Juan - As long as I get dealt a Tobacco Storage.
  4. Fist of Dragonstones - I find the continuous blind-bidding to be a bit ritualistic. That's good, right?
  5. Heave Ho! - Token two-player entry. Joyous fun whether winning or losing.
  6. Dragonland - Can play conservatively - get rings as early as possible - if you don't care much about outright winning. Scores are usually tight.
  7. Domaine - Headier than others on this list, but the most replayable.
  8. Metro - Even if you get hosed early, there is the delight of kingmaking.
  9. Attila - Three-player only. Okay, maybe four.
  10. Wyatt Earp - Would place higher except Hideout can be annoying, and disproportionate Wyatt Earp cards can throw things out of whack.

In honor of the Half Turkey sandwich, I should start a game publishing business some day called Half Turkey Games, targeting this specific niche. "Bring your own Sun Chips!"

Thursday, May 25, 2006

1825, 18Mex, et al (or, Big Games Redux)

As Eric mentioned in his post, we got in a game of 18Mex at Sunriver, and that was enough to bring to the fore Eric’s existing but (long?) dormant interest in the 18xx games in general – so much so that we got in a 2-player 1825 Unit 3 last Saturday. The 18xx series are the games I’ve missed the most since moving to Portland, as my Dallas game group used to play them quite regularly, and most of the folks here in Portland don’t have (or haven’t expressed) an interest in playing them. I’m glad that Eric, and to an unknown extent George as well, found it enjoyable enough to want to try more of them – I already own quite a few of these, and I’d really like to see them hit the table more often. Chris and KC have expressed some interest as well, so things seem to be looking up.

It will require some more pro-active planning to make this happen, as they tend to be longer than most of our weeknight fare – so they’re likely limited to weekends. I’m hopeful, though, that we’ll be able to make it happen.

What is it about these games that lead to the level of interest (obsession?) that they do? I enjoy them immensely for the following reasons:
  • Multi Player – I find that I much prefer multi-player games to 2-player ones, and the 18xx series in general is designed for 3-5 players (1825 Unit 3 being the only one strictly limited to 2, while a few other 18xx’s support 2 or more players). I find that I enjoy games with multiple opponents more than those with only 1 – partially this is due to enjoying the socializing that comes with that, but I also enjoy the game dynamic of multiple opponents.
  • Low (or No) Chance – 18xx’s are definitely low chaos games – in most, there aren’t any external random elements (such as dice or card draws). For the most part, other than the other player’s actions, you are responsible for your success or failure. If there is a chance element in a game, I prefer that there be something I, as a player, can do to mitigate its effects on my position. My acceptance of chance in some games is higher than others, but a general rule of thumb is my tolerance for luck is inversely proportional to the length of the game.
  • Development Over Time – I tend to like games that, even if I don’t win, my position has developed over time, and the 18xx series definitely has that element in spades. Personally, stock holdings grow in value and diversity as the game progresses. Companies I control as president I develop on the board – they grow their routes, manage their assets (trains, stations and $$, mostly), and hopefully improve their position on the board (never forgetting, though, that the goal in 18xx games is personal wealth, which is not at all the same thing as corporate wealth). Even in games where I don’t win (or, even, do particularly well) I can enjoy if I’ve developed my position from where I started.
  • Strong Theme or Story– while I won’t argue that the 18xx games are simulations, they are definitely fairly strongly themed, and it’s a theme I find engaging. There is an element of history and geographical development that I find interesting, and even if they don’t simulate history, they do encourage me to learn more about historical elements I might explore not otherwise (I feel the same way about some war games – Paths of Glory in particular inspired me to read more about WWI).
  • Reward Experience – by this I mean that several plays reveal more about the game, and how best to play it. In 18xx games, this comes into play in everything from which private companies to bid for (in those games that have auctions), which major corporations to open, and how to develop their routes for maximum value. The downside to this is that new players may have a difficult time their first few games, especially if they play against experienced players, and may, as a result, find that they don’t enjoy them (in the inverse of Cooley’s Law).
The games I prefer tend to include many of these components, although I’ve recently become much less dogmatic on the low chance issue than I once was. Other games that I think include most (if not all) of these elements include Ursuppe, El Grande, Euphrat & Tigris, the Ticket to Ride series, and I’m sure many others would come to mind if I spent more time thinking about it. The 18xx games are probably at the upper end of my length (in time) tolerance, but they grab my imagination well enough that that isn’t as much of a problem as it could be.

As Eric mentioned, we’re planning to attend the 18xx con in Portland in a couple of weeks (June 23-25th) – it will definitely be nice having someone I know along, as well as someone who isn’t super-experienced (or super-obsessed) with the 18xx games. Hopefully Chris will be able to join us – I’ll be sure to let you know how that goes!

Until next week, happy gaming!

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Big Games

This is a bit of a short column this week as things have been a bit busy with Megan catching a rather bad cold and work being rather busy. It's also sort of a carry-on from last week's column and a continuation of my primary gaming theme nearly the entire calendar year.

Must play more big games.

18xx



After the 18MEX game played at Sunriver, Tim and I had been talking about getting some more 18xx games on the table. An opportunity presented itself last Saturday night – Tim came over after Megan went to bed, and we played 1825 Unit 3, an 18xx game designed for two players only. (It also links on to 1825 Units 1 and 2 to handle more players if you want.) 1825 has a linear stock market, not the two-dimensional one common to many of the games. There's also a few tweaks to differentiate itself. It's certainly one of the friendlier 18xx games.

Well, as expected Tim schooled me. Final scores were 7200 to 3550 or something like that. It was mostly a few early decisions that caused my demise. I'll improve on these with more experience, particularly with multiple playings of the same game. There's a few skills that seem to be applicable to any 18xx game, and a few that are unique to each game. It's just going to take time to learn how these things work. And I'm very eager to get my butt handed back to me a few more times – I'm trying to get these games on the table as frequently as possible. Which, given real life, won't be as often as I'd like.

Tim and I are planning on hitting the 18xx convention in Portland late next month. It'll be nice going with someone who likes these games but doesn't necessarily live them. (Though I'll admit to being a tad obsessed with them right now.) I hope to have at least one, maybe two more plays under my belt by then.

OCS



In 7 days, Keith and I will be playing an OCS scenario for the first time. (DAK2 scenario 7.3 – Sidi Barrani Tr'ng) This is a two-turn scenario set in early December 1940. This is a game I've been wanting to play for a long time, so I'm pretty eager to get going. The problem is, how do you really learn a game like this beforehand? As Keith and I only get to play every other week or so, we want to be as efficient as possible. I've read through the rules (43 pages of series rules plus 20 pages of game-specific rules) but it's really only going to work walking through it. So, I'm going to get the scenario set up tonight and try to do a solo walkthrough of a turn over the next few days.

I'll be keeping a log of how things go – if it turns out okay, it'll form one of my columns next month. If not, it'll appear on my neglected personal blog. In either case, the plan is to learn the game face to face and play longer scenarios over email. The turn flow is very conducive to email play, and there's apparently a pretty good Aide de Camp gamebox for it.

It would be a dream to play the full campaign face to face, but I don't think even Keith has the space to keep a 10foot by 3foot game set up in his basement for a number of years. Which is probably how long it would take us to play it. (Figure an hour or two per turn, 240 turns. And we only play every other week. Even two turns per session would take over four and a half years.)

Thankfully, there's a large number of smaller scenarios in the box. And we've each got Tunisia as well which contains six more scenarios.

Hopefully, this turns into something like 18xx where the play matches up to the early expectations. Can I be that lucky twice in a row?

Monday, May 22, 2006

Sunriffer: Part 1

There have already been reports of this spring's Sunriver retreat posted by Dug, Eric, Tim, and George. Instead of just running through the list of games again, I thought I would use the setting as a framework for various gaming-related thoughts that have been going through my head lately. In the spirit of "something is better than nothing", I'll stretch these out over the next few weeks.



My Spirit... Has Been Buh-roken

This past week has been a very emotional one for me:
  • Something bad and rare happened to the project I manage at work. Nothing fatal, but it will take months to restore the face. I'll just leave it at that.
  • Elliott Yamin got voted off of American Idol. Surprisingly, this was the most emotional for me of all of the items in this list. I guess that I just see a lot of myself in him (other than my not being a diabetic Jew from central Virginia singing old-school soul music). This man has overcome so much to get so far, and yet has maintained an amazing attitude throughout. It was sad to see him give up in the penultimate round, but, by deciding to go out on the obscure "I Believe to My Soul", it was good to see him take a stand for why he was there in the first place.
  • The Spurs staved off elimination twice in a row to force a game 7 tonight. Given the previous two events, I was convinced that the trifecta was going to happen. [Edit: Urgh. The gods are cruel, prolonging it like that.]
  • My daughter has gone through a serious mental growth spurt, becoming a full-fledged toddler with barely a trace of the baby girl I first met a year ago.
  • My parents sold my childhood home in order to move to a smaller, more manageable setting. I haven't been there in years, and it is unsettling to realize that I will never walk through the back acre of woods again. Having to raise my daughter in a high-density living environment makes it even tougher to wrestle with.
I was thinking last night about how unemotional I am when it comes to boardgaming. I have always said that there are hundreds of musical pieces that mean more to me than my favorite boardgame (still luv ya, Taj!), but nowadays it seems ever more so such a flat hobby. The only other thing in my life that is as uninspiring is solving pencil puzzles. I still very much enjoy the time spent gaming; perhaps it is just that I am at a stage where I am seeking more sources of inspiration and emotion.

As I see it, there are only three lines of growth in playing boardgames (omitting the creativity found in design work): mental stretching (along only one axis of the intellectual space); human interaction; and managing the adrenalin that comes from competition. When you sample from a wide repertoire - including a steady influx of new games - like our group does, you largely lose the latter two, leaving you with the first which has no real emotional component to it. I contend that continually playing with family and/or friends in such a manner is as stunting as a regular diet of television. In any case, boardgaming for me these days serves primarily as a distraction from other things in my life, a way to lose myself in an isolated vacuum; my upcoming cigarette break, my past Disneyland vacation.

The ratio of Top Shelf / Thumbs Up / Thumbs Down games I played at Sunriver (6/11/5) was more favorable than my ratings at BGG (51/137/83), and I tended to find blemishes in my favorites while searching for positive elements in those seemingly unfavorable. Overall, there were more ponderous games played than in past retreats, whereas I prefer frivolity.

A rundown of what I played is listed below. '+' = Top Shelf, '0' = Thumbs Up, '-' = Thumbs Down. A '+' or '-' after a slash indicates a threat to move up or down to the next level. A '*' indicates a provisional rating I wish not to commit to yet; if a '-' or '-/+' rating if marked as such, I usually have no desire to revisit the game to remove the provisional status. Games in bold font indicate victory (lone or shared) on my part.

GIPF: -
TAMSK: o
DVONN: o/+
ZERTZ: o
YINSH: +
PUNCT: -*
The First World War: -*
Anno 1503: o
Dragonland: +
Die Sieben Siegel: +
Die Sieben Siegel: +
San Juan: o
Ursuppe: +
Schnäppchen Jagd: o
Alexander the Great: o*
Big Manitou: -/+*
Air Baron: +
Schnäppchen Jagd: o
Ticket to Ride - Märklin Edition: 0
Marco Polo Expedition: o
Katzenjammer Blues (Partnership): +
Power Grid: o
Bolide: *
Tower of Babel: -/+*
Magna Grecia: o/+



Err Baron

I have played Air Baron several times, and almost every time with the advanced rules. In our match at Sunriver, I got a big ORD payoff after the initial buildup, giving me enough cash to go into Fare Wars. After a string of good luck gave me control over the ATL hub, I decided to press my luck and take the inexpensive but valuable DFW hub. I might have played more conservatively, but Chuck was looking pretty strong as well, so I went for it. After getting the first three cheap spokes, and with one more in the way of ensuing victory, I hit my Waterloo: Memphis, Tennessee. I attacked the space on my next turn, and once more got a bum die roll. Because of my earlier success, all five event chips were in the draw cup, and soon enough I got hit by Fuel Hike. With little cash on hand, I had to sell off most of what I had to pay off the 10% of my market share. Chuck had just taken out a loan, so he was able to cover.

At this point, all of us had low market share, but there were still five event markers in the cup! I never anticipated this situation before, even though it seems obvious now; it is easy to forget how brutal a Fuel Hike can be. This meant that a high percentage of draws were events, but we didn’t have the cashflow to keep up with it. A succession of Crashes, Strikes, and more Fuel Hikes continued to beat the trailers down. We said that we would quit and hand the victory to the game system if Chuck got below 100 market share, but he managed to tread water and finally break through to victory during a lull of the chaos, with the rest of us scrambling respectably out of bankruptcy or near it.

I thought that I took a reasonable chance, but surely my reckless pay dragged down the game for everyone. Was it my fault, or a flaw in the design that a player has a right to exploit? Knowing it is there, how will I approach the same situation in the future? Also, if an opponent faces the situation, how will I attempt to manipulate their behavior? How much should one allow the thematic context affect these decisions? Will the threat of the situation cause one to avoid the game altogether, or will the group adopt house rules to deal with it? If we reach it again, will we decide on the same "stalemate" end conditions, or come up with something else? This is another example of the type of discussions that bring fascination to my gaming life.



Next week: More on the GIPFathon; and how I blundered in two of my favorite games.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Keep Your Enemies Closer

I am now free to reveal that, as a direct result of the slappage I gave out to the Dice Tower podcast lo these many weeks ago, I was asked to contribute a regular segment. It is called "Fun With Mr. Whiney," and it debuts in Episode #51, alternately titled "Everything You Know Is Wrong."

Despite the obvious irony (which I love), I'm looking forward to contributing up to 3 minutes of unadulterated bile. In general, I've tried to keep this out of my posts on this blog (go ahead, Mr. Anonymous, take your cheap shot), but now I can wax annoyed on purpose, although I strive to use my indoor voice. I've already sent in five segments to Tom, and he appears to be pleased with the general content. The first segment he chose was, appropriately, "Why I Hate Top Ten Lists."

I'm not sure how long I'll be able to keep up a weekly rant without starting to sound like I'm repeating myself, so feel free to give me any ideas of things that drive you crazy in the gaming industry. No cow too sacred, no topic sacrosanct. As long as it's about gaming, of course, I save the religio-politico-socio commentary for the disclaimer, and that's all mine, baby.

As such, and since I've ended up taking on a couple of extra creative-type jobs for the summer, I'm unlikely to be posting often to this blog, although I've still reserved Wednesdays, especially if a topic occurs to me. It's not so much the typing, it's coming up with something "interesting" to say. By that I mean, of course, interesting to me. Because I'm Mr. Whiney. Nyah.

Anyway, check out the show. I'm not sure that all of the other folks Tom has lined up to do segments have "radio voices" (hint: compression and EQ work wonders in post-production, but you still need to sound like you've been awake for more than a few minutes if you want to keep anyone's attention), but the audience will help him decide what works and what doesn't. And of course, that includes me, the controversy-creating portion of the show, so by all means tell Tom how upset you are that I'm given any air time at all.

And Now, Back to Our Regularly Scheduled Gathering Games Review

First, I apologize for being later with this than I had hoped - dinner out last night went quite late (although it was at a very good - and, apparently, authentic - Chinese restaurant, so it was quite worth it), and I've been in training at work, so my brain has been a bit full.

With that said, though, one of the reasons I joined the Blog was because I'd had a chance to try out quite a few new games at that OTHER Gathering in Ohio, and I wanted to share some of my opinions. I didn't get a chance to play all of the new stuff that was available, but I did get a chance to try most of the big names - I'm going to focus on the ones I enjoyed (mostly because I'm not interested in writing about the ones I didn't).

The general consensus at the Gathering was that there weren't any real blockbusters - in general, I agree with this, although I thought there where quite a few games that, while not crossing the threshold of greatness are were, at least, into the realm of the very good.

Thurn und Taxis was my favorite new releases - it's a middle-weight game, and, like many German games isn't strongly themed. The theme here is building postal routes in and around Germany. The game does allow for some strategy, both in card selection and in placement on the board. It also had the advantage of being quite quick - I think typical playing time of the 3 games I played was an hour or less (probably closer to 45 minutes). I enjoyed this one each time I played it, although I haven't played since the Gathering, so I've not played frequently enough to have an opinion on the "first player advantage" issue I've seen discussed. This one is definitely going onto the wish list, and I'd give it (after 3 plays) a solid 7 on the BGG scale.

Augsburg 1520 was the best heavier game I played. The theme here is players are bankers in, oddly enough, Augsburg (I presume circa 1520). Through collecting the appropriate cards, you seek to provide loans to the different members of the royal family - the real goal being the influence that comes from having the royals in your debt (literally). The heart of the game is a rather unique auction system, that combines bidding numbers of cards (so sets of the same type are worth quite a bit), with using the values of the cards themselves to break ties if people bid the same size set. The other element is that you must develop your personal economy to bring in enough money to buy cards from the set you receive - you use your influence with the Royals to move up the social ladder (with corresponding improvements to your income, or ability to collect cards). I only got a chance to play this one once, but I'm very interested in trying it again - so I give it a provisional thumbs-up, and a provisonal 8 rating.

Nottingham is a game I've not heard mentioned to often, although I liked it quite a bit. It's definitely pretty light - and judging from other peoples comments also depended on a group willing to enjoy a game with a fair bit of chaos - but I found it enjoyable. It's again lightly themed (Robin Hood, as you might imagine), but what it really is is a set collecting game, with the different valued cards also having a "power" to them - for example, one of the values lets you steal a card from an opponent, should it be the one you draw. The ambush cards (one of the other cards power) allow another player to steal someones attempt to lay down a meld - unless the other player lays down a meld larger than what would normally be required. Worth a look if your group enjoys light, fun card games - but this game would definitely lose it's luster if players draw out their turns. I really enjoyed this, and would rate it a 7.

California was another game I really enjoyed, although I must admit a general bias in favor of Michael Schacht's games (Kardinal & König is one of my favorite games, and I also enjoy Hansa quite a bit). It's another quick, fairly light game about accumulating "things", and hence attracting people to your house - you get points if you attract more than one other person (e.g. you have a party at your place to show off your stuff). There are bonus scorings for particular sets of things, and a unique "bidding" mechanism, where on your turn, you may buy one of the things on offer, or take money - but by taking money, you reduce the price the other players will pay on their turn. Another one that is on the wishlist. I give California an 8.

These were my favorite games of the Gathering - I may spend some time next week talking about other games I liked, or I may go off in anothe direction (I'm still pondering that issue).

Until then, happy gaming!

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Sunriver After Effects

So, as it is with miniatures conventions, the Sunriver gaming retreat has sparked interest on at least a couple fronts for me.

18xx


The 18MEX game Tim, Doug, George, and I got in really confirmed that I'm going to like these games. Yes, they're long, but they've mostly got a good game arc and provide a lot of decision points along the way. I also really get the feeling of developing and building something – not unlike the feeling I get playing Roads and Boats. I finished last in our 18MEX game at Sunriver, but I think I know the major decision I made wrong – paying out dividends one time too many thus shorting a company treasury and not having the money to buy a train after the "2"s rusted. Having more experience will help me refine those timing decisions.

I've done a solo walkthrough of 1860 and botched a handful of rules while doing it (you can't build two yellow tiles if you build one with a large station, for example) but got a feel for how a linear stock market works as opposed to the 2d stock market in 18MEX. Of course with these games, you can learn how to play them solo, but you can only learn how to play them well playing against more experienced players. So, Tim's going to come over and school me on either 1825 Unit 3 or 18Scan.

Racing Games


This will be the subject of a later column when I return to the sports theme, but I thought Bolide played very cleanly. It's got about the same amount of luck as Speed Circuit, but is less deterministic. Looks better, too. I'm really curious how this would play with 7-8 people and the egg timer. (It looks to be a 30-second timer, but I haven't checked.) I can see this easily clocking in under 2 hours with those conditions.

Of course, this has sparked interest in other racing games, as well. I still need to get my hands on Um Reifenbreite, Das Motorsportspeil, TurfMaster, and a couple others. More to come in this space.

OCS


This isn't a direct result of Sunriver, but Keith and I have talked about getting the Operation Compass scenario from DAK2 on the table. Now's the time to start planning. It's a 6-turn scenario, but I can imagine our first turn or two taking an evening each as we both get used to the amazing amount of stuff contained in these games.

Burma is going back into print (it's new on the MMP preorder list) so I'll be getting my copy eventually. There's seven games in this series, and I've got the only two currently in print. I don't have high need to get the OOP ones, so I'll just preorder them when MMP gets around to reprinting them and pick them up that way.

These are definitely the most playable "monster" wargames I've seen. Lots to do, but it all makes sense and the designer (Dean Essig) is very accessible for questions.

I expect that Keith and I will begin our foray here sometime in June.

iPod


I need to get an iPod model bigger than the shuffle I currently have. The ability to just plop your iPod down on the dock and your music is up and running is fantastic. Yes, I'm behind the curve here, but I've never really had the need for anything like this. At home away from the computer, we've got XM over DirecTV. At home on the computer, I obviously don't need the iPod. At work I either listen to mp3s or stream Groove Salad from Somafm.com. In the SUV, we've got Sirius. The only places where I don't really have a good solution are in the car (cd/am/fm only) and events like Sunriver.

So while there isn't a screaming need for one (or I'd already own it) the increasing capabilities in the product line plus an existing infrastructure in the gaming group means it's probably time to get one. Plus, they're pretty damn cool.

It was interesting hearing the different music selections at Sunriver. Though I probably heard a bit too much death metal for my tastes during a weekend of gaming requiring concentration. It probably hit me the most during the Air Baron game. But, I didn't bring anything, so I'm at the mercy of what others brought. (Note: I don't have a problem with death metal, but it's not music conducive to learning new games.)

Miniatures


Events have conspired to make Enfilade! a bit too much trouble this year, so I won't be getting the mental bump to get things painted like usual. However, a side effect of rearranging the house in preparation for our baby boy due to arrive in August, is making me focus on what I expect to work on soon. So, the 6mm Great Northern War, 10mm Marlburian, and 15mm WWII North African figures stay in the hobby room – the rest go to storage. Or on sale.

The nice part about this rearrangement is that it will force me to concentrate on one project at a time. All too often, I suffer from wargamer's ADD and have multiple projects on the painting table simultaneously.

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Tools of the Trade 3: Playing Cards

This is the third in a series of unknown length about making game prototypes. Today's session: making playing cards that look nice and hold up reasonably well for playtesting.

Company Plug. I’m happy to say our new Havoc Expansion is currently the number one seller at Funagain, and Havoc itself is selling at number three. Funagain just had a big sale that a bunch of our play group got in on, so I’m sure our games will not stay on top for long, but it was fun while it lasted.

PRINTING ON CARD STOCK
This is the most typical way I print cards for prototypes. They’re going to come out with plain white backs (some options below), and they will be fairly easy to shuffle and play. They will not resist water, and with hard play they will get bent, etc. I use Classic Crest cover stock, “solar white” color, letter size, medium weight (it says “Sub 80 216 g/m/m 28.76M” on the package.)

Here’s an example of the cards I did for an early version of Havoc: the Hundred Years War. I use Adobe Illustrator and InDesign for professional print work. But for everyday prototypes, Powerpoint works fine. I have a basic setup for 9 cards per page (1 of the three lines shown here). You can see how each card has a narrow black border, rounded corners (rounded at the same radius as Magic: the Gathering) and are fairly easy to read. Possibly you can also see a thin blue line that separates the cards – that’s the cutting line marker.

Preparation.
Print the cards directly on card stock. Sometimes it’s smart to do a test print in black and white on regular paper to make sure everything looks good. Card stock isn’t that expensive, but if you have a lot to print making sure they’ll look good makes sense.

Cutting.
For decent prototypes, I just use a pair of heavy shears (scissors) and cut the cards out one at a time, starting with longer straight lines for efficiency. One level up in quality is to use a straight edge with razor knife or rotary blade to cut the edges. If you’re careful, this method allows you to go much faster. However, in the long run I don’t find that the cards produced that way are that much better than hand cutting; but that may speak to my habit of making razor cuts slightly off line!

OPTIONS
Backs.
If you want a non-white or prettier back for your cards, you can print the reverse side of the card stock directly. If you go this way, I recommend a semi-random back, like the background in the cards shown above. With no repeatable pattern, you don’t have to line the cards up with the back image. To do this I print the backs first, a straight 7.7 x 8.3 inch image or as big as my printer will print. Thay way when I print the cards on the reverse side, each card is covered edge to edge with a color back.

Laminating.
You can laminate cards for a longer pasting product. Since you’ll be cutting these cards out, make sure the laminate sticks to the image after the card stock is cut. There are peel-and-stick laminates for this, and you probably want to laminate both sides to keep the cards from curling too much. I think they’re a bit harder to shuffle this way, but they do last.

PRINTING ON LABEL STOCK
Last article, I talked about using peel-and-stick full page labels for game tiles. Same general principles apply here. The Avery standard numbers are 5165, 5265 and 8165 so anything compatible with them should work pretty well.

This time though, the size of the card is made to exactly fit on a standard black bordered CCG card, like Magic: the Gathering, Wyvern, etc. We have tons of commons for these games lying around. The label stock fits right over the entire graphic portion of the CCG card, and our black border melts into their black border. With thin label stock, the resulting cards shuffle and play well, and they are even-edged with a color back.

Below are three cards from a sample game based on the movie Caddyshack. This uses the same template as above, but note how each card has a lot more information. Again it’s 9 cards per page, done in Powerpoint. And if it were a real game, we’d need to get HBO’s approval to use the movie images.

This is sort of a standard CCG approach, with a card title, graphic in the upper middle, text below, and numbers or game information in the corners, plus at the bottom and left side in this sample. This is printed on full-page label stock, then the cards are cut out, stripped of their backing and mounted on the CCG card.

Printing.
Print the card images (color or whatever) on regular 8.5 x 11 full page labels. 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.

Cutting.
Same as earlier, I prefer plain scissors, but straight edge and knife or rotary works fine. The main difference here is I often try to curve the corner a little (following the rounded edge) so it will drop more easily onto the CCG card face.

Adhering.
Peel off the label for one card backing carefully and expose an edge (like ¼ inch) of the label. Place the CCG card (face up) behind the exposed sticky edge and arrange it so the printed image will cover the original card art all the way around. Carefully peel the label backing in a straight line away from your exposed edge, smoothing the sticky label image onto the card face as you go. You don’t want air bubbles under the image.

AN OPTION: CARD SLEEVES
I don’t use these much, but some other designers swear by them. I tend to use sleeves if I have a game (like New Eden) where I’m actually changing some cards almost every playtest. In that case, using sleeves to quickly try out other card ideas works well.

On the down side, I find that card sleeves made for CCG’s are not that easy to shuffle, are sometimes prone to splitting, and are often expensive. One can make the argument that one set of sleeves can be used for multiple prototypes. However, I carry around 5 or 6 prototypes at a time, so I wouldn’t want to do that much switching in and out typically.

Preparation.
Print the card images directly on card stock or even regular paper. Cut the images out (you can go fast, since these images only need to fit inside the sleeve.) Place the images face-up in the sleeves. If you want a more solid card, you can place a regular CCG card behind your prototype image. The resulting card has a nice back, looks nice on the table and has a nice solid feel to it.

Next time – I’ll run through my card ideas and see if I missed anything with this first attempt. If not, we'll move on to printing game boards and maps.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Burndown Update, Battleground: Fantasy Warfare

Things are looking good on the unplayed games burndown – quite a bit of progress since my last update.  I’ve managed some very focused spurts of activity to knock these down, plus the Ginn family visit and Ken’s willingness to play anything have put me back on track to finish this year.

Games Played Burndown as of May 12, 2006

It also helps that I’ve been purchasing fewer unplayed games this year than in the past three.  The highest rated unplayed games still on my to-play list are 1830, Battlestations, Liberte, Diplomacy, History of the World, Starship Catan, and Britannia.  All but Starship Catan are big, long games that will take some sincere effort to get played.  Fortunately I have a willing gaming group.


If you listen to The Dice Tower, you’ve been inundated with infomercials about Battleground: Fantasy Warfare.  The last 2 or 3 shows I’ve heard (I like the show much more than, ahem, Dug does.  Though I suspect his attitude will change soon) have had very detailed descriptions of the game, different races, and gushing enthusiasm for the game.  I trust Tom’s opinion on this and the game sounds interesting enough to buy without trying it first.  So I did yesterday in a big group purchase over at Funagain.

I picked up the Elves and the Orcs, as I think they are two decent races to start with and get the boys interested.  The idea of a miniatures game without the painting or collecting is appealing, but I have no idea if we’ll like it or not.  I’m only putting $40 at risk to find out, a smaller price than I’d pay getting into Warhammer or something similar.  I’ll let you know how it goes.


Speaking of the Ginn family, Jim asked me this week how much it would cost to go to Essen.  This was in response to my statement that Essen wasn’t that much more expensive than going to BGG.Con given the expensive hotel costs (about $650 for me – I didn’t share a room).  I did some asking around (my numbers were skewed last year because of the family trip and extended travel in southern Germany) and the consensus is about $1400 – $2000 total not including game purchases.  This assumes you can get a flight over there for about $800, which seems likely again this year.  I’ll be going solo this year (meaning without family, but with a big crowd from Portland) and am excited about returning.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

It’s About The People . . .

This past weekend I attended (with my wife) our groups gaming retreat in Sunriver, OR (near Bend, for those not up on their central Oregon geography). This was my first Sunriver, and I had a blast – Dug seems to have the hosting down to a science (or so it seemed to me). It was great to get in as many games as I did, but more importantly, it was fun to have a chance to game with some of the members of the group I don’t see regularly. I played mostly games I’ve played previously, although I did get in one game that was completely new to me, and another that was just recently released that I’d played once or twice previously but is still fairly new.

Last week I promised to “compare and contrast” our Sunriver retreat (the nickname for which gave this blog it’s name) and that OTHER Gathering held annually in Ohio (I am, of course, referring to the Gathering of Friends). The main thing of note is that, while gaming is certainly an important part of the time spent at both, by far more important is having the chance to enjoy the company of people with whom you share (at least) a common interest.

A frequent theme in other reports from The Gathering of Friends (aka GoF) is “it’s the people, more than the games” – let me add my voice to that chorus, as it’s certainly one of the main appeals to me. In this regard, Sunriver was similar to the GoF – although with people I’ve gamed with previously (mostly). Sunriver WAS significantly smaller - this years GoF had ~320 total attendees, while I believe the high count of people at Sunriver was just a bit over 10 folks. I can imagine the atmosphere at Sunriver being similar to some of the very first Gatherings (the first year was ~20 folks or so, I believe) - a small group of people who already know each other.

Another difference of note is the presence of a significant number of Europeans at the GoF – this includes designers, game company representatives and the like, but also a good sized contingent who are enthusiastic game players there to enjoy gaming (and get a chance to try the new releases as well). This lends a different feel to the GoF, since if you have a new game with rules only in German, you can usually find someone to translate for you! One of my more enjoyable GoF memories was getting the chance to play King Arthur – it’s an electronic game that will talk to you as you reach certain locations with your pieces, but all the dialogue is in German. One of my friends from Austria (thanks, Bernhard) was kind enough to act as the translator for the game, and I know I’m grateful to have gotten the chance to give the game a try, as it was enjoyable (and the “gadget” factor of the game just added to it).

Needless to say, the only Europeans we had at Sunriver were those who live here in the NW and game with us regularly (I'm looking at you, George!).

But The Games Matter Too

This brings me to the games – the GoF is different from Sunriver in the presence of newer games – sometimes even ones that haven’t yet been released generally, but usually the latest batch from the most recent Essen and Nuremburg fairs. This has pro’s and con’s – I enjoy getting the chance to try new games before making the decision to buy, however it’s fairly common for some rules to be misread, and then taught to others with the original misread propagated.

With a smaller gathering like Sunriver, we rely on the games members of our local group already own – this isn’t much of a hardship, as tastes vary enough in this group that most games (of any substance) end up in the hands of somebody. While we were missing some of the “newest” games from Nuremburg (like Thurn und Taxis), we had a copy of Ticket to Ride: Märklin that I know got played at least once (because I was in that game). So the end result is that, for the most part, the games played at Sunriver are games that are already familiar (to at least one of the participants).

They're Similar, But Different

I really enjoy the Gathering of Friends, for the chance to catch up with friends that I only see once a year, and for the chance to play recently released games. I try to attend every year (I've not missed one yet, since my first one in 2000), even if only for a few days, as it really is a great time.

Sunriver was a lot of fun as well, for the chance to get to know the other RipCityGamer’s better, and the opportunity to play some longer games that don’t (or can’t) come out on weeknights. I'll certainly be making an effort to make it to future Sunriver retreats!

I hope there is room in my schedule for both events in the future!

So what games did I play at Sunriver? See below!

Friday
Ingenious - Very nice abstract, Knizia at his finest
Hacienda - Newer Kramer game, enjoyable
Fury of Dracula - Used to enjoy the old one, still enjoy the new one

Saturday
Ursuppe - One of my favorite longer Euros
Railroad Tycoon - I don't like Age of Steam, but I enjoy this "simplification"
Schnäppchen Jagd
- with 3 players, a great trick-taking game
San Juan
- Probably the closest game of this I've ever played
Circus Minimus
- Dice hate me, this game had lots of 'em. Not my thing.

Sunday
Ticket to Ride - Märklin Edition - My favorite of the TtR series so far
18MEX - My chance to introduce the RipCityGamers to 18xx games . . . long, but good.

With that, I've rambled enough - I'll try and have some reviews of the newer games I got a chance to play at the GoF next week.

Until then - happy gaming!

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

A First Look Back at a First Sunriver

I get the lucky break of being the first to post on the past weekend's Sunriver extravaganza. I wrote the bulk of this Monday night a few hours after returning.

This was the first Sunriver gaming retreat I've been able to attend. It most certainly won't be the last, and it reinforces my desire to attend more of this type of gathering.

I rode along with George for the four-hour drive out to Doug's family's house in Sunriver, arriving around 2pm on Friday. Doug and Dave had arrived the night before, so after unloading the car and unwinding for a bit, we dove right into the gaming. I pretty much didn't stop for nearly three solid days (except for some sleep, of course...)

From 2pm Friday through 11am on Monday (when Dave, George, and I started heading out) I played 18 games. That might not seem like a whole heck of a lot until you see some of the games I played...

Friday


The weekend started off with a clunker. As we knew others were arriving relatively soon, we wanted to try something shorter (~90 minutes). We chose First World War, the newish Phalanx game on WWI designed by Ted Raicer (designer of Paths of Glory among others.) Ugh. I don't think I'll be trying this one again. Abstracted to the point of uselessness, really. I know Phalanx is trying to provide lighter, euro-wargame hybrids, but this game really can't decide which it is. And it doesn't do either well.

After Matt, Alex, and Mike arrived, we pulled out Saboteur. Dave had gone to the store, so six of us were playing. Matt won rather easily, and pretty much everyone enjoyed it (as far as I know). Tim, Carrie, Chuck, and Jodi all arrived while we were playing so the full complement was present from this point on.

My big game for Friday was the new Britannia published by Fantasy Flight. I'd never played the original, but it had always hung around the lists of games I was going to try and/or buy. This deserves a better session report, but I ended up finishing second by two points (243/241/236/191) when my last Saxon unit was killed on nearly the final die roll of the game. If he had survived, I would have won by two instead.

After dinner, I got in a game of Hacienda and two plays of Die Sieben Siegel. Hacienda surprised me – it was better than I expected. I might be buying this one. DSS played very cleanly. It's a great trick-taking game.

So Friday's summary: six games played, zero wins.

Saturday


I had a bit of a slow start as I was attempting to sleep in the same room as the Fury of Dracula marathon that stopped sometime after 1am. While they were finishing up in the morning, I got set up for our three-player Here I Stand tournament scenario session. Chuck (France/Ottoman), Doug (Hapsburg/Papacy) and I (England/Protestant) played this three-turn version. (which still took us around four hours) I pulled off the win in the last turn by managing to father an heir (a sickly Edward VI) and converting a number of English spaces to the Church of England. Final scores were England 23, Ottomans 22, France 20, Protestants 20, Hapsburg 18, Papacy 17.

After that, I jumped into a Railroad Tycoon game. I hadn't actually played this to completion yet, and enjoyed it. This is definitely a choice over Age of Steam if you've already fried your brain. Finished 3rd out of four in this one – probably should have built in the west sooner. I really wish they could have sorted out the color issues on this one – the constant confusion over blue and purple is annoying.

A quick game of San Juan followed. This might have been the tightest 4-player contest I've seen. Final scores were 36(2), 36(1), 36(0), and 31. I ended up winning by one card in hand over Alex who managed to build three 6-buildings and a Library when his only production building the entire game was the initial Indigo Plant. It was quite impressive to see.

After dinner, Chuck and I played a quick game of Twilight Struggle. Quick in that I got hammered by a Soviet auto-win on turn 4. I never really got anything going my way in that game. Frustrating, but that happens in card games some times.

The post-dinner game that night, for me, was Air Baron. Dave, Mike, Chuck and I rode the ups and downs of incredible luck swings in this game. At one point, Dave was two successful takeovers from winning, and fell all the way to last. We nearly called the game and gave the victory to the system. In the end, Chuck perservered and won, scoring more points than the rest of us combined.

Around 10pm or so, we started a game of Die Macher, knowing we'd only get a couple turns in. We stopped around 11:30 or so and crashed.

Saturday summary: five games completed, two wins.

Sunday


This was promising to be a good day. Any day when you start by playing Die Macher during breakfast can't be a bad one, can it?

Starting around 8:00 or so we resumed the Die Macher game. I was in the lead after the big, 80-point third election (Westphalia) and matched nearly the entire National platform, but my platform didn't really match (and in one case directly opposed) any of the remaining elections. I was unable to fully manipulate things to my advantage, doing poorly in most of the remaining elections – this also meant the National platform was falling away from me, and I ended up only matching two of the five opinions in the end. I fell to fourth as Chuck ran away with things. Only being able to get into two coalitions the entire game really hurt me. It's critical in a five-player game.

By the time that ended (around 10am or so), Tim had pulled out 18MEX, one of the entry-level games in the 18xx family. I own two of them (1860 and 1856), but had never played any before so I jumped at the opportunity. It took a while to work through the explanations, etc. but we got things limping along. Tim has played this one before, and has played a handful of other games in the system, so he won as expected. I really enjoyed the experience, though, and am very happy I got to play. I'm really looking forward to getting some of these games on the table now, but opportunities are slim. We called this one just before we were likely to break the bank as Tim and Carrie had to get going. I finished last (by only $30 or so behind George) but loved the game.

By this time, there were only four of us left. Dave, Doug, George, and I. (Yes, we were the first ones to arrive, and the last to leave.) We pulled out Power Grid, and played the France map. It was the usual close jockeying for position. Late in the game, I made the mistake of competing with Doug for garbage (against my initial inclination) and it cost me. I believe I would have won the game had I taken a different route, but I'll never know. Instead finished last as I was unable to power my garbage plant on the final two turns due to Doug buying out all the garbage on me. I love this game. I've never had even a luke-warm experience playing it. Always great.

After the four of us went out to dinner at the local grill, we came back to give Bolide a shot. This is a new racing game by an Italian publisher and it has a very novel momentum-based movement system. There is nearly zero luck in the game. I'll be devoting some space to it in a future column on racing games. Suffice it to say, I really enjoy the game but you really need to use the supplied egg timer or it just drags on too long. We only ran one lap and it took just over two hours. That said, we rarely had to refer to the rulebook – the game is simple, but takes a while to figure out how to manipulate your way around the corners. I like this one a lot – will need to try it again.

We capped the day off with Tower of Babel. Eh. It's not bad, and I'd like to play it again, but I don't feel the urge to own it.

Sunday summary: five games, 1 win, 3 last places.

Monday


This was a short day as I needed to get home before five – which meant leaving before noon. We only got two games in – Money! (the card-based bidding game) and Magna Grecia. Nearly caught Dave in the latter as I never sold a single market the entire game.

So... final tally – 18 games, three wins. Eight of the 18 games I played were new to me: First World War, Britannia, Hacienda, Air Baron, 18MEX, Bolide, Tower of Babel, and Money!. Four of the games were 4+ hour sessions (Brittania, Here I Stand, Die Macher, and 18MEX.) I only played one game I didn't like (First World War) and one I'm unsure about playing again (Air Baron).

Doug's hospitality was fantastic. Many years of running this retreat has seemingly fine-tuned the logistics. Many thanks to his generosity and enthusiasm.

Here's the list of games I played, approximate play time, my final position, and their BGG rank.

First World War, 60 minutes, 2nd (of 4), 1077
Saboteur, 30 minutes, 5th (of 6), 557
Britannia, 4.5 hours, 2nd (of 4), 168
Hacienda, 60 minutes, last, 131
Die Sieben Siegel (twice) 90 minutes, 3rd/last, 258
Here I Stand, 4.5 hours, 1st (of 3), 200
Railroad Tycoon, 2 hours, 3rd (of 4), 23
San Juan, 45 minutes, 1st (of 4), 31
Twilight Struggle, 60 minutes, last, 21
Air Baron, 2 hours, 2nd (of 4), 781
Die Macher, 4.5 hours, 4th (of 5), 7
18MEX, 6 hours, last, N/A
Power Grid, 2 hours, last, 4
Bolide, 2 hours, 1st (of 4), 710
Tower of Babel, 45 minutes, 207
Money!, 30 minutes, 2nd (of 3), 427
Magna Grecia, 90 minutes, 2nd (of 4), 286

For those of you counting at home, that's 36 hours of gaming in a 68 hour span. Still haven't caught up on my sleep - hopefully I can do that tonight.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Nor Egrets

Among the small handful of mottos that make up my creed is "Don't regret the things you do, only the things you don't do". While I have remained faithful to that adage throughout all aspects of my life, my gaming hobby is the one area where I have giving myself free reign without boundaries. Given that, I put an asterisk on my answer to May's Question of the Month - "What gaming-related decision have you made over the last year or two which you wish you had made differently?" - as no trigger has gone unpulled in recent years, so I can only list items of which I am truly comfortable with the outcome. The runners-up:

  • I have been very conservative with my purchases in the past two years, so there are few candidates in this front. I wish I hadn't given FFG my money for the first edition of Runebound; I should have waited longer to see how the promised expansion line would pan out. I knew all along that Pirates of the Spanish Main would not be the game for me, but my fondness for the pirate theming compelled me to buy two boxes of the first release. Finally, I wish I had first played the Franks before buying my own copy of Crusader Rex.
  • I do not recall when I first knew that Rainy Day Games was going to coordinate a used game auction, but perhaps I was desperate for the closet space when I gave my big box of many Eagle Games products to charity.
  • When I decided to reengage on BoardGameGeek, I did not account for the growth of the community, nor did I get a feel for what was now considered the range of acceptable discourse. I wish I had been more tentative; in any case, I am for now back to doing little more other than asking and answering rules questions straight-up.

My primary answer for this question is my decision to attend Oasis of Fun 2005. Making a trip like that is a big money investment, and it meant additional time away from my family on top of all the local gaming gigs I attend, so I need to get a lot of return out of it to make it worthwhile. One of the primary benefits of going in previous years was to find out which new games would be worth introducing to my local gaming group. However, since that time, other folks in the group have been buying new games at a rapid rate, and, due to my own personal tastes diverging from the group's tastes, my recommendations and anti-recommendations get ignored (example - the play Tower of Babel this past weekend at the group's retreat). With this aspect of the investment all but vanished, it ends up being more of a pure getaway vacation.

I do not want to burn any bridges here, so I will say up front that OoF '05 was really well organized, I had much fun most of the time - the Ron Howard incident will be a fond lifetime memory - and the organizers and attendees are very pleasant. When OoF was first created, it was largely intended to be an invitational event "for the rest of us" on the nigglybits yahoogroup. However, since that time, several of the OoF crowd have received invitations to the Gathering of Friends (as well as Greg Schloesser's Gulf Games), and, as a result, new additions to the OoF roster seemed to primarily come from the GoF/GG crowd. Again, all of these folks are very nice people, they do a good job at creating an atmosphere of inclusion, and I have no issues with the criteria used for this social selection. However, it dampens the experience somewhat. First, these persons do not have - or at least do not exude - the same level of excitement for being at this type of event as that of others who get fewer and more modest opportunities, particularly when it comes to the playing of releases that received first exposure at GoF (although they frequently display enthusiasm for exposing and teaching new games to others). Second, throughout the entire con, it is hard for someone on the outside to overlook the shimmering presence of an inner circle. While this is largely a non-factor in my online communications, things change considerably when you have to deal with face-to-face social interaction, and it seems masochistic to subject oneself to such an environment within the premise of a "vacation". Some may think I am being overly sensitive or paranoid or insecure or whatever, but I suspect it is a common, natural sensation (perhaps even a social truism); I am just sharing my feelings as I understand them to be.

In any case, I will not be able to attend OoF '06 due to childcare issues. While I am still considering attending again the more bourgeois BGG.CON this November - I grabbed a reservation, but am waiting for more event info before arranging travel and boarding - starting next year I will likely use my summertime travel allowance for GenCon.

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Lessons Learned Ever?

"What gaming-related decision have you made over the last year or two which you wish you had made differently? Why?"

Like some of our other columnists, it seems wise to just start with a list of the bigger game-related decisions I’ve made in the past year or two. I’ve got an idea already of the one I regret the most, but here are some sketch notes. There are plenty of little ones, like not being able to get in either game of Die Macher our group has done this year (sniff), but those are for another day.

Top Ten Bigger Decisions
1. Start SunRiver Games
Like Chris, no regrets at all. We may not print as many games as we
want to, but that’s part of making use of the time and resources we have.
2. Publish Havoc as our first game.
No regrets. Havoc was an affordable first step into publishing. The
Havoc expansion is now out on Boardgamegeek as well now!
3. Hand assemble Havoc
This took ‘way more time and effort than we thought – probably wouldn’t
do this again except for much smaller print runs. And it’s dangerous!
4. Make Havoc “exclusive”
Debatable, but at the time it happened, no distributors or other outlets would
even talk to us about carrying our first game.
5. Import hundreds of games from Germany
Aha, this is my crown jewel lump of coal. More below.
6. Go to Dragonflight
It was fun to be an invited guest, and even though the location was funky
the people were great and I got lots of playtests done.
7. Go to Essen
No regrets at all. Fabulous company, got to meet my German friends
face to face, got to meet famous game folks, Havoc did well. All good.
8. Go to Boardgamegeek.con
Was not successful from a company standpoint, but Rita got to go, we got
to meet the Ginn family, Nick Danger (!) and some other great folks.
9. Not go to Sunriver (several)
Many regrets, but in almost every case something had come up at home or
at work that prevented me going. But missing my favorite retreat is tough.
10. Not go to PowWow
Some regrets, since this is a conference for game designers to play prototypes
and get feedback. Expensive to get to from here, but I’ll hope to go someday.

Why Did I Think Importing Would Be Fun?
So I won’t go into all the history here since I’ve ranted it out before. The short version is I brought about 200 games home from a friend’s house in Germany when I went to Essen. This is the big decision I regret the most I figure, in terms of “not being worth the hassle.” Where I though I’d be able to get rid of enough of these games to pay for the others and the shipping from Europe, it turns out not to be.

First, the work required to sell them on Ebay is not bad if I’m selling 5 games or less, but selling hundreds? Yuk. Selling on Boardgamegeek is easier, but still requires careful checking of the games beforehand; I hate giving or receiving games that are incomplete and I didn’t know that up front. And some of the games in this 200 lot are incomplete, although they were sold as complete. Grrr.

Second, pricing is also problematic. Games I bought that weren’t reprinted at the time (like Kohle, Kie$ & Knete / I’m the Boss) are now worth less than I paid for them. Heavy games like Carabande cost so much in shipping that their sale value is potentially less than I paid with shipping figured in. So I’ve got a bunch of games that I should donate to conferences, give to friends, etc since they’re not going to sell for what they cost.

A few good things did come from this – I got some games I’ve been dying for, like the original Roads and Boats, Tal der Konige, Schmidt Spiel Acquire, some other grail games. But overall, I wouldn’t do it again.

A Related Lesson
So recently I did a much smaller purchase on German Ebay, partly to see if it worked any better. I asked my German friend Norbert to just pack the games in one big box and send them over (they were sent to his house first). I got: Carabande (original), El Grande (German version), Acquire (Schmidt Spiele), Kula Kula (original Edition Perlhuhn), Waldmeister (Andreas Seyfarth), Foil (3M Butterbox), Venture (3M Butterbox) and Bongo (sealed, Bruno Faidutti). This worked a tiny bit better overall, and the big box was 62 Euros to ship, or about $10 per game, ($20 for Carabande).

While in auctions it’s sometimes good to buy more than one thing from the same seller, that’s not true for importing. I got Kula Kula, Waldmeister and Bongo for good prices, but didn’t really “want them.” So after paying shipping, they’re not bargains any more.

It looks to me like what works are the large group-orders, say from Adam-Spielt, or other group orders where I just get what I want and pay a share of shipping. Buying single games from Germany – too expensive. And importing games I don’t really want? Dumb. Oh, these harsh lessons …

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Regret is for Humans

"What gaming-related decision have you made over the last year or two which you wish you had made differently? Why?"

Wow – good to be back.  Can’t believe it has been over a month since my last post here.  Hopefully I can get back in the swing of things with this post.

This question is the most difficult I’ve faced so far, and even as I type I’m struggling to answer it.  So I’ll just ramble for a while about the significant decisions I’ve made and see if I stumble upon anything.  While regret isn’t specifically mentioned in the question, I’m going to use that as a theme as I walk through choices I’ve made in the past 1–2 years.

Certainly the most significant gaming-related decision I’ve made is to help start Sunriver Games and get into the game publishing business.  This wasn’t entered into lightly, and it has been more work than we ever imagined it would, but clearly no regrets there.  It would be great if we had the time and resources to publish more games more frequently, but for now we’ll continue doing the 1–2 games a year routine and make sure we have fun doing it.  We did just ship an expansion for Havoc thanks to some good early planning by KC.  Maybe I regret deciding to hand-assemble the game, but in the end it was a bonding experience for all those involved and is a sort of badge of honor we can all wear.

I’ve missed the last 2 or 3 Sunriver events, and I’m missing the one happening this coming weekend.  I can’t say I regret the decision to not attend because in all cases there hasn’t been a choice to make.  This weekend, for example, Julie is in Kansas City with her twin brothers celebrating their birthdays and Cinco de Mayo.  I don’t think Doug is ready to have Jacob and Matthew at the retreat… maybe when they are 16 and 18.  Instead I’ll host some gaming at our house and maybe I’ll even get the motivation to write it up over on that other place that I’ve been neglecting lately.

I committed to playing through my unplayed games this year, including new games I purchase.  No regrets there – it has been a blast so far and I think I have a decent chance of getting through it.  Especially if I can get in a game of History of the World, Conquest of the Empire, or Diplomacy this weekend.  I knocked down a bunch while Jim and family were in town, but have slowed down since.  I’ll give a detailed update in a week or so.

Let’s see… conventions.  Went to Essen, went to GenCon, went to BGG.CON last year.  No regrets there.  Would have been fun to go to the Gathering this year and I probably could have managed an invitation, but I’m doubtful to attend that until the kids are a bit older and I feel less guilty ditching them in spring (and in the middle of baseball season).  Even then… I’m not sure that would be my gig.  I’d almost rather just hold something more intimate out here in the NW.  I won’t be going to GenCon or BGG.CON this year, but I’ll make up for it with another trip to Essen.

Game purchases – sure, there are some games I regret purchasing but I have a hard time getting too worried about those.  The games still find a good home eventually and I rarely dislike a game so much that I regret with any sort of vengeance.

As some of you know I enjoy role-playing games quite a bit, but my gaming over the past 2 years has been limited almost exclusively to the standard D20 staples like Dungeons and Dragons and Star Wars RPG.  Fun stuff, easy to learn, and appropriate for the kids.  The problem is that I’ve missed out on some of the indie RPGs that have been widely received with acclaim – games like Dogs in the Vineyard, Polaris, Thirty, and probably a bunch more I haven’t heard of.  These are not necessarily kid-friendly RPGs, but that’s a regret as well – it would be very interesting to have an infrequent gathering of adults that would like to play some one-off RPGs like those I’ve mentioned.  So, conscious or not, the decision to not play any of these games is one I regret and hope to rectify.  If any of you RPG/boardgame crossovers have any suggestions on a good D20 alternative to consider for a light-weight RPG group, lemme know.

Decision Angst

I had planned to write a report on the that OTHER gathering (I am, of course, referring to the Gathering of Friends here) but I’ve decided to wait until next week, when I can compare (and contrast – I must be channeling one of my college profs) the Gathering of Engineers in Sun River to that Ohio gathering. I expect them to be completely different, but one thing I’m confident they’ll share is that they both will be more about the people than about the games! So – look forward to that next week!

This week, I’m going to try and address Eric’s “Question of the month”:

"What gaming-related decision have you made over the last year or two which you wish you had made differently? Why?"

A tough question, to be sure – not that I don’t have a good candidate for it (I do), but because in general I’m happy with most of my gaming-related decisions.

Most recently, I was able to attend the Gathering of Friends again this year – the added twist being that I took my wife along for the first time (not without some trepidation). It’s not that I was worried about the people, I was more concerned that she’d find that much gaming, all at once, not to her taste – luckily, that turned out not to be a problem, and we both signed up to attend next year, so I guess she liked it enough to return!

Another (less recent) decision was joining the RipCityGamers upon my move to Portland – although it wasn’t much of a “decision”, since at the time I didn’t know of any alternatives, and since it’s turned out well I’ve had no occasion to investigate if any exist! If it were a game, this would have had very low “turn angst”!

A minor decision that I somewhat regret is that I HAVEN’T done the game purge thing that others in the local group have – I certainly own games that I’m unlikely to play, but for whatever reason (sentimental, hoarding, take your pick), I’ve been unable to pull the trigger and even make a list (or, more likely, a pile) of candidates. This is pretty minor, though, and hopefully I’ll eventually overcome the resistance – if Dug can, I ought to be able to!

So that leaves the decision I felt the most disappointment about - not attending the inaugural BGG.con. The main reasons were due to being swamped at work (transitioning into a new position with the same company), and having allocated all of my (sadly all too limited) vacation time. I would’ve enjoyed it immensely, I’m sure, as I used to game with the organizers back in Dallas – and while I include Aldie and Derk here, I’m also referring to most of those who worked the con as well. Also, several folks from the local group made the trek – so it would have been a nice chance to game with friends both old and new.

Sadly, I don’t think this year will result in a trip to BGG.con either – although that could change, depending on what we decide to do with our vacation time (visiting friends in Europe – and possibly a jaunt to Essen in the bargain – are currently being pondered).

So, there you have it – my biggest regret, and a promise to discuss the Gatherings next week!

Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Grets and Regrets

"What gaming-related decision have you made over the last year or two which you wish you had made differently? Why?"

You'd think I'd be able to answer my own question, but this is actually a hard one. It's not easy to think of gaming-related "decisions." Career or family related decisions, sure, but gaming? What exactly do you "decide" about gaming? Other than "yes, more please."

The timespan roughly covers the time since I moved to the Portland area, so that makes it easier to break things down. Over this span, I've:

Left one gaming group in Tacoma
Joined this group (Rip City Gamers) in Portland
Attempted to attend the Rainy Day Games boardgaming nights and never did see anyone.
Co-started a gaming group at work with Chris
Not joined two miniatures groups based in Portland
Started a semi-regular wargaming night with Keith
Joined this blog
Bought a lot of games
Sold a few games
Traded a handful of games away

In between all that, Jodie and I have managed to play games 2-3 nights a week, on average.

Along the way, there's been lots of choices to make about a lot of things. Most small, but a few larger ones have presented themselves, too. And as we all know, not doing something is a choice, right?

I'm having a hard time coming up with a decision to do something that I've made and regretted. Joining RCG has been a great thing – I've met a lot of good people and played lots of games I would likely never have been exposed to. The gaming group at work has been great fun, and Keith is a great host for wargaming. I just wish I still had a setup like his...

I did get into a couple online tiffs with a wargame-designer-who-shall-not-be-named and I no longer buy his games (and I've sold many of the ones he designed that I owned.) I don't regret that decision, either.

As I'm really not seeing any likely candidates for things I've done that I regret, there must be something I've decided NOT to do that I regret.

One big candidate is deciding to not join either of the miniatures groups in Portland. (Western Oregon Wargamers or Ordo Fanaticus) I miss playing miniatures games. I get to paint occasionally, but pretty much the only times I've been able to push lead since moving down here has been with my old group up north.

There's a lot of structural problems with joining those groups, though – they both meet in the same facility in Central Portland. That's not easy for me to get to on a weeknight. Also, time is precious – I'm already committing one night/week to boardgaming and I doubt committing to a second one to miniatures would be considered a good thing by my wife. Thirdly, there isn't a whole lot those two groups play that I'm interested in. I haven't seen a single game announced by WOW that caught my fancy, and pretty much only Flames of War and Blood Bowl are games OF players play that I like. That limits the appeal a tad. Of course, I could always evangelize my games within the group, but that's usually a lot of effort for very little return.

So, while I regret not playing much for miniatures since I've been down here, I can't say I would change the decision to not join those two groups.

That really only leaves one thing that's sort of been nagging at me for a while, and after some serious thought, it deserves its spot as the primary decision I've made that I regret.

Once you become sufficiently advanced or literate in a hobby/sport/pastime of any sort you end up with a number of decisions. Some are implicit, some are explicit: "Stay at this level, or advance?" "Travel?" "Move up a league?" In miniatures, I've definitely moved up a couple steps – I frequently travel for tournaments, and am listed in the national rankings for DBM. Back when I was a frequent bowler, I got my average up to the mid-190s, joined a scratch league and even joined an amateur tour in the Seattle area. That's where I stopped, though – I either had to devote a LOT of time to it, or scale back. I even played in the 1985 US Chess Junior Open in Berkeley. (Never got out of E class, though.)

For boardgaming, though, I haven't. The furthest I've ever traveled was driving from Seattle to Portland for Adventure Game Fest (Gamestorm's predecessor). I've had a couple opportunities to go to the Oasis of Fun down in Atlanta, and haven't pulled the trigger. I've certainly wanted to, though. It falls into the category of how there's 25 reasons to not do something.

You know you're noticed ("someone") in the gaming world when you get an invite to the Gathering of Friends. (or you're a friend of someone who's someone.) Let's call that "moving up a level." There have been a few things I've had a chance to do that likely would have gotten me an invite, but I've always stepped back and let the opportunity pass. In fact, I nearly let the opportunity to join this blog pass, as well – and some Tuesday mornings, I really wish I had. I've at least co-started two different gaming groups, but that's different than stepping out here and posting – that was definitely a major step for me.

This is something I regret. There are zillions of real reasons why those things weren't done or the trip not made, but every single time I've backed down. Whether those opportunities will come again remains to be seen, but I plan on jumping on at least one. It probably won't be WBC or BGG.CON, but it could be the Oasis next year.

This weekend, we're off to our Sunriver retreat as Doug's posted about a couple times already. This will be my first boardgaming weekend like this, so I'm really looking forward to it. Maybe I'll get to one of the bigger ones next year. We'll see how that goes. Either way, you'll be getting my report next week.

Now That Was A Bad Idea

Kudos to Eric for coming up with a truly stellar question of the month. What gaming-related decision did I make in the last year or two that I wish I'd done differently?

This is a toughie, as most of my gaming-related decisions have been good ones:

o Selling off a bunch of games through a local FLGS auction,

o Changing the night RCG meets from Thursday to Tuesday,

o Stopped going to WBC, electing instead to spend the same amount of time wargaming with friends at Sunriver,

o Got into blogging (yes, that's a plus),

o Smacked down the Dice Tower, even if a bit harsher than I intended,

o Started gaming more often (4-5 times a month instead of 2-3), and

o Stopped playing wargames online (and stopped waking up at 3am thinking about what I should have done).

The list goes on and on.

In fact, I can think of only two truly painful decisions made recently, outside of a poor decision within a game, which would take several days to list all of them. The two things were:

o Chose to cancel the fall '05 Sunriver retreat when it was down to myself and two others, one of which I'd met once (and haven't seen since), and

o Bought Rocketville at retail.

Since I still think that cancelling the Sunriver retreat was a legitimate choice, I'd say that the winner goes to buying Rocketville at retail. Although even that has a silver lining in that I can whine about it for at least a few months.

When I was younger, so much younger than today, my mother told me that everything happens for a reason. While I have to admit that I don't buy the idea of a Higher Power manipulating things in my life at that level (it would correspond to us taking an active role in the life of an anthill every minute of every day), it does give me some motivation to look for positive results in any negative events in my life. The only place I have trouble doing this is when the negative event is health-related, I simply can't get past feeling crappy (or terrified, as in when my singing voice crashed for six months a few years ago and no one knew what caused it or if it would get better - and no, prayer didn't help).

As such, the only truly negative thing that could happen that would be game-related would be to lose one of the long-standing members of Rip City Gamers, especially to death. So stay healthy, guys.

Question of the Month: May

Being the first full week of May, each blog entry this week will answer the following question, provided by Eric, who gets first crack at it: "What gaming-related decision have you made over the last year or two which you wish you had made differently? Why?"

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