Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Reactor Scram: early playtesting

I have finally started working in earnest on a co-op idea I've had percolating in my mind for the last few weeks.  The theme is that the players are workers in a nuclear reactor plant whose maintenance has been neglected, until finally the bad day comes when everything seems to break at once.  The goal is to get the plant into a "safe condition" without melting down a core or irradiating any of the workers.

First prototype of "Reactor Scram"
I ran a couple of solo playtests.  I won one and lost one, which made me think that I've got the initial balance at least coarsely in the right neighborhood.  What surprised me was how quickly each game completed - roughly ten or fifteen minutes per game.  I usually have the opposite problem with the games I design - play times that run way too long.  Right now I've got a game that takes more time to explain than it does to play.  So I want to figure out some way of extending the gameplay as well as the "story arc" so that I'm not just "making it longer" for the sake of making it last.

Yesterday I got to try out a two-player playtest for the first time with my wife, Kathy, the good sport that she is.  I realized as I went through the explanation of the game mechanics that I really need to make the game boards more self-explanatory.  Certain things happen at certain reactor power levels and so forth, and I need to put some kind of text or iconography on the power tracks so that players can easily tell what happens with the reactors depending on what condition they are in.  Our playtest when generally well, although Kathy said she felt like she really didn't follow what was going on and was just along for the ride.  But she thought it was fun and could be a good game with the right adjustments.
Close-up of the Control Room and the Electrical Room

So the next step is to redesign the game boards to be more self-explanatory, and then perhaps start writing
the first draft of the rules.  I also need to figure out how to extend that "arc" of the game.  Once I've done that, I'll probably order some game parts so I have a slightly better-quality prototype to work with, and then maybe try it out with more people.

I love this stage in game design - when the initial prototype starts shaking out the major issues, and I'm starting to refine it into something that could actually be fun.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Winter photos

A quick gallery of games played over the last three months:
Agent for one of the Lords of Waterdeep in the Jester's Court to recruit thieves...

Saturday, March 29, 2014

PrezCon 2014 Part 5: Finals

(c) Rio Grande Games
Used by permission
Saturday of PrezCon was a wonderfully full day of gaming.  It started at 9:00 AM with a game of Power Grid (designer Friedemann Friese; artists Antonio Dessi, Lars-Arne "Maura" Kalusky, and Harald Lieske; publisher Rio Grande), which I love but really don't play well.  We played on the original map of Germany, and I started in the north, where I found myself immediately in competition with Henry Ho.  I think the two of us beat each other down pretty aggressively, stealing cheap connections and forcing each other to leap-frog one another in order to expand, so we both ended up finishing poorly.  James Henderson, against whom I'd also played Acquire earlier in the week, narrowly won our game over Joe Rudmin in second.  I placed third powering 12 cities.

Monday, March 24, 2014

PrezCon 2014 Part 4: Social gaming

Part of what I love about conventions is re-connecting with gaming friends as well as meeting new people.  This year at PrezCon, I got to meet in person Dan Patriss, whom I'd heard many times on the Geek All Stars podcast.  He was with Chris Kirkman of Dice Hate Me Games, and Friday night we got together with Stephanie Straw, T.C. Petty III, and Darrell Louder for a couple of late-night games.

(l. to r.) T.C. Petty III explains Euphoria to the confused
Paul O., the enthusiastic Dan Patriss, the sedate Darrell
Louder, the demonstrative Stephanie Straw, and the not-
pictured photographer Chris Kirkman
T.C. taught the rest of us Euphoria (designers Jamey Stegmaier and Alan Stone, artist Jacqui Davis, publisher Stonemaier Games), an insanely-themed exercise in resource management rendered all the more mind-bending by the unique method by which T.C. explains games.  Euphoria is set in some kind of dystopian industrial setting in which each player represents a faction of workers seeking to ... well, I'm not sure what "stars" represent, but victory points are represented by placing stars in various locations on the board.  The first person to place all his or her stars wins the game.  Workers are represented by dice, and the number rolled on the dice when they are made available for placement represents the intelligence of the worker.  Oddly, workers that are too intelligent realize the futility of their predicament and abandon the nirvana of mindless labor, so rolling too high means losing a worker.  Workers can be placed to accumulate such resources as water, power, fruit, and "bliss," each of which tends to be associated with a faction.  There are also tunnels that factions can dig from one resource pool to another in order to gain easier access to resources of other factions.  Resources can be spent to manipulate various elements of the board - including retrieving workers for subsequent placement again - with the ultimate goal of finding an avenue to place stars.  Early in the game, star placement is very difficult and expensive, but in a clever semi-cooperative mechanic, players can combine efforts to open "markets" with easier star-placement opportunities.

In our game, I found a fairly nice engine involving bliss that allowed me to place stars fairly regularly, and I very nearly won the game until Dan snatched victory out from under me.  My general impression of Euphoria is that it is fun and interesting, but the board is so "loud" (in terms of color and graphic design) and there are so many mechanisms at work that I found the whole experience a little overwhelming.  (Perhaps the fact that we were playing a six-player game in the middle of the night added to my mental saturation.)  So I can't say that I'll go looking for a copy for myself, but if someone proposes playing it again, I'll be happy to do so.

Dan (second from left) clearly does not appreciate the
serious nature of Coup as do T.C. (l.), Chris (r.), and I.
Photo by Stephanie "Kill them one coin at a time" Straw
The other game that we played that night was one of my favorite hidden-identity games, Coup.  I have to say Coup at PrezCon last year and who is the consummate social meta-gamer.  Coup is just a crazy knife fight with six players, and we had a lot of fun second-guessing each other.  Stephanie took the ultra-conservative tactic of taking income gradually every turn while the rest of us assassinated and bluffed and challenged each other down to a Mexican stand-off, when I failed to assassinate her (because she had the Contessa).  After that it just came down to who could "coup" whom first, and Stephanie came out on top.
that I particularly looked forward to playing again with Chris Kirkman, who taught me

Interestingly, I believe that Chris K. and I have interpreted the rules differently as to what a player can or can't do when announcing an action.  My interpretation is that once I announce an action that can be performed by a specific character, I am de facto claiming to have that character.  That leaves me open to challenge, and if formally challenged, I can not "back down" but must either reveal the claimed character or lose an influence.  Chris seems to interpret the rule that there are different "degrees" of claims and challenges, and he can offer to take an action that, if challenged, he can simply back down and not take but just lose his turn (without losing influence).  I'll have to talk with him in more detail about his thinking on this game.

Dan, Chris, T.C., and Stephanie discussed these games and other PrezCon experiences on Episode 71 of The Geek All Stars.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

PrezCon 2014 Part 3: Pillars of the Earth final

As I mentioned in my previous post, I ran the Pillars of the Earth tournament at PrezCon again this year.  I had two heats totalling 14 different competitors in five games.  Four of the five qualifying winners showed up for the final:  Shane McBee, Philip Shea, Jeff Thornsen, and Tom Snyder.  I have really come to enjoy watching tournament games, because I get to see some real high-level play.  This year's final was no exception.

In the first round, Jeff sent most of his workers to the wool mill to max out at 30 gold.  I was immediately reminded of last year's final, when players consistently went heavy on cash to pay for early master builder placement.  Shane took both the gold-earning woodworker (which I think is a favorite tactic of his) and the tool maker.  Tom sent two master builders to Knightsbridge Priory for a quick three points. Archbishop Thomas extended his protecting hand over Philip.  After the first round, Tom had the early lead at five victory points, followed by Philip at four, and Shane and Jeff at two.

The second round saw Philip pick up the architect, Jeff the carpenter and the potter, and Tom the mason.
Jeff Thornsen and last year's champion Tom Snyder
 Stone would figure heavily in Tom's strategy.  Shane was favored by Pryor Phillip, who boosts the victory point benefit of Knightsbridge Priory - a big advantage to pick up so early in the game.  Jeff's master builder in the Archbishop's Office saved him from having to pay William Hamleigh's tax increase, while selling wood and buying sand in the market to put his mortar mixer to work on the cathedral.  Philip took the start player, and would continue to do so for three consecutive rounds (something I've never seen done before).  The second round saw Philip take a narrow lead at nine points over Jeff and Tom at eight, with Shane trailing at four.

In the third round, it was Philip who recruited a potter, while Shane took both a sculptor and a carpenter.  Jack persuaded the guilds to allow Shane a sixth craftsman in his employ.  Tom brought the Crying Madonna to Knightsbridge for three points.  Richard took control of the castle, distributing metal to all the builders.  Philip, who had been accumulating metal every round, sold five of them for 25 gold in the market.  Tom led at the halfway mark with 16 points, with Jeff right behind him at 15, Philip at 13, and Shane at 11.

The fourth round saw Philip pick up a carpenter, Shane another sculptor (going strong on stone-working talent), and Jeff a mason.  Tom the Snyder recruited Tom the Builder to improve his stone accumulation, while Philip of the Sheas gained the help of Richard of the outlaws to improve his sand collection.  A cold winter brought famine and reduced the productivity of everyone's workers except Tom, the beneficiary of the Archbishop's Office.  Tom sold five stone for 20 gold in the market.  Shane meanwhile sold his metal and bought three stone and two wood to make a tremendous contribution to the construction of the cathedral, more than doubling his score in one round and taking the lead at 23 points, well ahead of Philip and Jeff at 18.  Having sold so much stone, Tom made no contribution to the cathedral and remained at 16 points.

Shane McBee and Philip Shea
In the fifth round, Philip picked up a sculptor and Jeff recruited the first glassblower.  The King celebrated a great victory and awarded five gold to each player - except that Tom, who had sold stone in the market the previous turn, was already at the maximum of 30 gold.  Tom took start player from Philip in anticipation of the final round.  Philip bought sand to further the cathedral and gain the lead at 36 points.  Shane bought wood and stone and closely followed him at 34 points, while Jeff lost ground at 28 and Tom fell significantly behind at 20 with just one round to go.

Tom started the final round by taking the goldsmith and the sculptor.  Shane took the organ builder.  Tragically, the cathedral roof collapsed during this final stage of construction and killed four craftsmen.  Shane bought stone and wood in anticipation of a tight race for the finish with Philip,

In fact the final scoring was the closest I've ever seen.  Both Shane and Philip finished with 48 points and one gold.  The rules don't provide for a second tie-breaker after gold, but the PrezCon tournament rules don't allow for a shared championship.  As the GM, I looked at the final state of the players and decided that since Shane finished with five stone whereas Philip had no materials left, the victory and the plaque should go to Shane McBee.  Jeff finished third with 41 points and 13 gold.  Despite nearly doubling his score in the final round, Tom finished in fourth place with 39 points and one gold.

It was a real pleasure to run the Pillars tournament again this year.  Shane, Philip, Jeff, and Tom played a terrific final, and it was really fun to watch.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

PrezCon 2014 Part 2: Friday

(c) Rio Grande Games
Used by permission
Continuing my recap of PrezCon from a couple of weeks ago, Friday turned out to be a long and eventful day.  I started with Saint Petersburg (designer Michael Tummelhofer alias Bernd Brunnhofer, artist Doris Matthaus, publisher Rio Grande), a game that I never get to play as much as I would like.  I finished third in a heat of four players - not surprising given the level of competition I typically find at PrezCon for this game.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

PrezCon 2014 Part 1: Thursday

A couple of weeks ago, I enjoyed four days at my favorite gaming convention, PrezCon.  There were several hitches this year, a few things that didn't go right, but nevertheless I had a great time.  The next several posts will share some highlights.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Lorton Monopoly Tournament

By way of background, Lorton Community Action Center (LCAC) is a local charity that looks after the basic needs and means to self-sufficiency of low-income individuals and families in our area.  In support of LCAC, the real estate agency Ron and Susan Associates sponsors an annual Monopoly tournament as a fund-raising event.  I had the opportunity to participate in Ron and Susan's Seventh Annual Monopoly Tournament last weekend at the Workhouse Arts Center, a converted prison facility that now houses an art gallery and studio spaces for local artists.  Ron Kowalski (of Ron and Susan Associates) worked for Hasbro at one time and is something of a Monopoly enthusiast.  The event was very well run, and the setting in an art gallery was very pleasant.  Lunch was catered by Glory Days.

Thursday, February 13, 2014


About three weeks ago, my friend Paul R. invited Grant G., his brother W.J., and myself to his house for a game of the classic Caesar: Alesia (designer Robert Bradley, publisher Avalon Hill).  This hex-and-counter wargame revisits the Gallic attempt to break the Roman seige of the fortress at Alesia in September 52 BC.  I'd read an English translation of De Bellis Gallicus by Julius Caesar, so I was somewhat familiar with the battle and its context.  The interesting aspect of the battle is that the Romans had formed a double ring of fortifications around Alesia - an inner ring to keep the occupants of Alesia from escaping, and an outer ring to defend the Romans from other Gauls attempting to break the seige.

Monday, February 3, 2014

UnPub 4 Part III: Sunday publishers

Publishers' Panel
Sunday of UnPub 4 opened with a pancake breakfast sponsored by Eagle and Gryphon Games and a panel discussion featuring eight publishers in a question-and-answer format.  UnPub convention director Darrell Louder moderated the panel.  Panelists included

Sunday, February 2, 2014

UnPub 4 Part II: Heartland Hauling and Ten-acre Farming

"Great Heartland Dice Game" with Tiffany Bahnsen
and Adam O'Brien (r.)
Great Heartland Dice Game
I was tremendously pleased to get to meet Jason Kotarski (Great Heartland Hauling Company) in person.  I got to playtest his dice-game spin-off, "Great Heartland Dice Game," with Shawn Purtell, Adam O'Brien, and Tiffany "Socially Inept Gamer" Bahnsen.  This was a fun variation on GHHC, kind of Yahtzee with cows.  Actually, there is an element of resource management, since having a gas reserve makes it possible to re-roll dice and score more effectively.  It's also possible to sell of extra dice to other players for gas.  The result is a clever little filler game that deserves a publisher's attention.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

UnPub 4 Part I: Pitching and playtesting

I spent Martin Luther King weekend at UnPub 4, the fourth annual unpublished games convention for designers in Magnolia, Delaware.

Friday night - designers dinner
I had the privilege of an invitation to a designers and publishers dinner the night before UnPub, which I attended with my friend and fellow designer Keith Ferguson ("Santa's Workshop").  It was so great to see so many other designers and publishers again, many of whom I hadn't seen since UnPub 3 last year.  UnPub founder John Moller passed the reins to Darrell Louder (designer of Compounded), who hosted the designer-publisher dinner and directed the UnPub 4 convention admirably, with the able assistance of his wife Lesley Louder, Stephanie Straw, and other volunteers.

Friday, January 10, 2014

An evening after work

A number of my friends typically get together after work almost every Tuesday for gaming at our local game store, Game Parlor Chantilly.  I don't typically make it as often as I like, but this week was a pleasant exception.

(c) Rio Grande Games.  Used by permission
I arrived early and met my good friend Glenn W., who happened to have a copy of Lost Cities (designer Reiner Knizia, artist Claus Stephan, publisher Rio Grande) in his car.  I'd played this once or twice at PrezCon years ago, so I was familiar enough with the rules to get reacquainted pretty quickly.  We jumped right in and played one hand while we waited for others to show up, and I think I won by a pretty narrow margin.  Most importantly, this re-exposure has rekindled my interest in picking this up as a candidate for Kathy and me to play during our frequent cocktail-hour games.  For some reason it had fallen fairly low on my wishlist, but now I really think it's a good option - not quite as brain-burning as Battle Line, but still a good two-player card game to try out.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

New Years gaming

The holiday season continues with more socializing around boardgames.  On New Years Eve, our friend Sheila D. hosted Glenn W., Jeff W., Kathy and me for dinner and games.  After a wonderful Mexican rice bowl dinner with shredded beef, we sat down to spend the last six hours of 2013 playing games.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Holiday gaming

The holidays provide plenty of opportunity for gaming time with friends and family.  (Sadly, for all the gaming we did in the last week, I have no pictures.  What's wrong with me?)

(c) Lookout Games.  Used by permission
Last Friday our friend Theresa H. came over for a game.  We had several options, and when I described Le Havre (designer Uwe Rosenberg, artists Klemens Franz and Uwe Rosenberg, publisher Lookout Games [website in German]) as a "deeper version of Agricola," Theresa chose that to play.  We played the three-player shortened version, which has a few different buildings from the two-player that Kathy and I usually play.  This time Kathy really got her coal-coke-shipping engine going and made all kinds of money, but I was hot on the building strategy and constructed enough high-value buildings to eke out a win by five points.  Theresa made a good showing for her first game and had a good time.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Boardgames by candlelight

Early this week a sequence of winter storms came through northern Virginia, and my house lost power for about 45 hours.  My kids were pretty bored without their usual sources of electronic entertainment, but one nice thing about boardgames is that you don't have to plug them into the wall.  So as we sat by the fireplace trying to stay warm, we broke out the games and had a reasonably good time by lanterns and candlelight.

Thursday, November 28, 2013


Susan McKinley Ross at Speil des Jahres 2011
Recently I've been catching up on podcasts, including Tom Vasel's Boardgame University.  Back on Episode 16, he interviewed Susan McKinley Ross, designer of 2011 Spiel des Jahres winner Qwirkle (Mindware Games).  I was fascinated by the evolution story of Qwirkle, which started in "specialty toys," evolved through the "gamer market," and ended up in "mass market games."

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Saturday afternoon Triumvirate

Joe C. (l.) and Frank H.
My friends Joe C. and Frank H. joined me this afternoon for my favorite three-player game of all time, The End of the Triumvirate (designers Johannes Ackva and Max Gabrian, artist Andrea Boekhoff, publisher Z-Man Games).  Frank had played twice before, but it was Joe's first time.  We went over the rules, and he picked it right up.  Joe drew Caesar, Frank was Crassus, and I played Pompeius.  Joe keyed on the significance of the political competence and pushed himself immediately down that track, although Frank kept up with him and bought votes early.  I tried to bolster my military position and thought I'd left my civil servant adequately defended.  Joe proved me wrong and took it from me on, I think, the fourth turn, and I was never able to recover another one.  Frank maintained his political lead and won the first election.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Dice Tower News Interview - the uncut version

Chris Kirkman (l.) of Dice Hate Me Games is introduced
to Brew Crafters for the first time by designer Ben
Rosset at UnPub 3 in January, 2013
On Dice Tower News Episode 180, I included a severely edited version of an interview with designer Ben Rosset and publisher Chris Kirkman of Dice Hate Me Games to talk about their current Kickstarter project, Brew Crafters.  But I didn't want anyone to miss out on the rich experience I had speaking with these two enthusiasts just because of the time constraints of a news podcast.  So I have posted the entire interview on boardgamegeek so that everyone can hear Ben describe the experience that inspired him to design Brew Crafters in the first place.  Also not to be missed is Chris waxing on the passion that he brings to every game that Dice Hate Me Games publishes.  I always enjoy every minute I spend with these guys, and I hope you do, too.

[Update:  I'd previously tried to post the interview here on this page, but due to technical difficulties, I am just including a link to the interview posted on boardgamegeek instead.]

Friday, November 8, 2013

Latest micro-game addition - Council of Verona

(c) Crash Games.  Used by permission
Earlier this week I received my Kickstarter reward copy of Council of Verona (designer Michael Eskue, artists Darrell Louder and Adam P. McIver, publisher Crash Games).  I was intrigued by the description of this game as soon as I read it, both for the Shakespearean theme and for the apparently tactical gameplay in such a small package.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Boardgame marketing in the 1960s

3M edition, 1968
A few weeks ago, our friend Jeff invited my wife Kathy and me over for dinner and a boardgame along with our friends Rebecca and Sheila.  Rebecca had expressed an interest in playing Acquire (designer Sid Sackson), and I had obtained a copy on eBay of the 1968 edition published by 3M, so after dinner, we pulled it out and started to set it up.  When Sheila saw the box, she commented on the atmosphere that the cover art conveyed, a sophisticated 1960s image.  The connotation was very strong - almost like a Sean Connery 007 film - and very different from the typical boardgame published today.