Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Notes on Games with Sequential Moves

In this second post in a series exploring games of strategy (begun last month), designers Aaron Honsowetz, Austin Smokowicz, and I explore strategic games involving sequential moves, i.e. those in which each player's decision happens in the context of knowing opponents' previous decisions.  This exploration has its foundation in Chapter 3 of Dixit, Skeath, and Reiley's Games of Strategy.

We recorded our discussion at UnPub 7 in Baltimore, Maryland, on Friday 17 March.

Game tree for "Battle of the Sexes"
Source: "Managerial Economics
Online," kwanghui.com/mecon
A sequential game may be illustrated by a network of decision points, at each of which a choice is made.  A game tree illustrates decision points (nodes) for all players and directional branches from those points to successive nodes or to an end game state (a terminal node).  The game starts at an initial node (on the left in this illustration).  Besides players' decisions, a node may represent an event of external uncertainty, i.e. a point that may branch in several directions due to factors outside the players' control, such as a random event.  Games (e.g. role-playing games) don't necessarily have end states, but for those that do, the payoff for each player appears at each terminal node.

Our discussion opened with a hypothetical game in which first Aaron and then Austin decides whether to go out to get ice cream.  Aaron prefers ice cream but more important than that prefers not to spend time with Austin.  Austin prefers ice cream.  Knowing Austin's preferences (his "payoff"), Aaron "prunes" from the tree those decision branches that he knows Austin will not take, leaving Aaron with a strategy to stay home and avoid Austin's company.  Austin will then go out and get ice cream.

In the sample illustration for "Battle of the Sexes," a wife and a husband are choosing whether to go to the opera or to the bullfight.  The wife prefers the opera with the husband (payoff 5), but would rather go to the bullfight with her husband (4) than to the opera alone (3).  Going to a bullfight alone is as bad as staying home (0).  The husband's payoffs are the same except that he prefers the bullfight over the opera.  In this sequential game, the wife chooses first, and then knowing the wife's choice, the husband chooses second.  This is not a zero-sum game, and the wife's payoffs don't necessarily compare to the husband's.  Rather, each seeks to maximize her or his own payoff in isolation. So if the wife chooses "opera (O)," the husband would rather go to the opera with his wife than to the bullfight alone (even if they would be equally miserable alone), and so chooses to go to the opera (O) as well. (Later we'll see how the social concept of "fairness" can undermine game tree analysis.) 

Making a choice at a single node is called a move.  A plan of action that governs moves in the interest of maximizing payoff is called a strategy.  In the case of the Battle of the Sexes, since each player has only one move, the move and the strategy are essentially the same.  For tic-tac-toe, a player can envision an entire game tree and can devise a strategy that maximizes his or her payoff (which will generally be zero, since optimum play by both players results in a draw).  For chess, the game tree is too complex for the human brain to analyze fully, so strategic play generally involves analysis of a "foreseeable portion" of the game tree.

The authors insist that a player's strategy be complete, i.e. that it include contingencies for nodes that perfect analysis says might be unnecessary.  It's not clear in Chapter 3 why that's the case, but they refer to stability analysis in advanced game theory, and so we accept that a well-defined strategy for a player is a complete plan of action for all the player's decision nodes.

Interestingly, the authors stipulate that every node have only one branch leading to it.  I find that interesting, inasmuch as it is possible for different decision sequences to result in a game state that poses the same player with the same decision and the same consequences.  If they are treated as different nodes, then the downstream game tree branches will be identical for both.  That seems an unnecessary restriction, but I don't see it as problematic, and in fact it may simplify game tree analysis.

An approach to solving a game tree, i.e. establishing a strategy for each player and predicting likely courses of a game, is to sequentially prune branches that represent decisions that are categorically not in the interest of the deciding player.  So for example in the case of the Battle of the Sexes, at node b, the husband is faced with a payoff of 4 for the opera (O) or 3 for the bullfight (BF).  So the BF branch may be pruned because in that case the husband will not choose BF.  At node c, the husband is faced with payoffs of 0 (O) and 5 (BF), so that O branch may be pruned.  The result is that now at node a, the wife's choices have payoffs of 5 (O), because she knows that the husband will also choose O in that case, or 4 (BF), because the husband will choose BF.  So at node a, the lower payoff BF branch may be pruned, and the game tree has a single path in which both partners choose the opera. 

Instead of pruning, a different way to represent the same technique is to highlight clearly optimal choices, such as the O choice at node b and the BF choice at node c.  Then highlight the O choice at node a to complete a path from the initial node to the terminal node.  In either case, this method of working backward is called rollback, or backward induction.  When all players use rollback to arrive at a strategy, the resultant set of strategies is a rollback equilibrium, and the resultant terminal node is the rollback outcome. The authors stipulate that every sequential game has a rollback equilibrium - typically exactly one, except where players have equal payoffs between two choices and are indifferent to the result.

Depending on the configuration of the game tree (and the Battle of the Sexes is an example), the rollback equilibrium may result in the player at the initial node gaining the maximum possible payoff while other players gain less than their maximum.  A game tree with such a configuration has first-mover advantage.  In other cases, when reacting to the first decision yields the maximum payoff (as it would if rock-paper-scissors were a sequential game), the game is said to have second-mover advantage.

Although chess is a sequential perfect information game that can be theoretically represented and solved with a game tree, its scope exceeds both human and artificial computation.  An approach to such a game is to assign values to certain characteristics of game states as a guide to decision-making.  A rule that assigns such values is called an intermediate valuation function.  Such a function typically derives from past experience of previous games; for example, maintaining a queen advantage typically results in a win.  Chess analysis has led to a variety of known openings - early decision sequences - that have demonstrated intermediate value.  Once the endgame is reached with fewer pieces remaining, a rollback analysis may apply.  Checkers, by contrast, was solved in July 2007 and, perfectly played, will always result in a draw.

Rollback analysis presupposes a clear understanding of the value of the payoffs to rational players.  An "Ultimatum Game" gives 100 coins to Player A, who offers some of them to Player B.  If Player B accepts the offer, both keep their shares; if not, neither keeps anything.  Rollback analysis dictates that Player A offer one coin and B accept, but in social experiments, observation indicates Player A typically offers much closer to 50 and B accepts only if offered something that appears fair.  So empirically, players value fairness in a way that the originally constructed game tree does not reflect.  When the experiment is posed in a way that Player B does not know how the offer was derived (e.g. whether it was random, by computer, by Player A, or by some other method), Player B typically accepts much lower offers because the sense of fairness is less offended by an arbitrary opportunity.  Going back to the "Battle of the Sexes," if the same game is played every week and the couple goes to the opera every week, the husband might - out of a sense of "fairness" - deliberately go to the bullfight alone rather than continue to accede to his wife's preferred event.

It will be interesting to see how rollback analysis might apply to social games where signaling might induce opponents down one branch over another.  For example, if the husband signals an intent to go to the bullfight regardless of the wife's decision (and if the signal is credible), the wife may choose to go to the bullfight rather than risk going to the opera alone.

We also discussed the game theory analysis of the last immunity challenge in the first season of the TV show Survivor, in which one player (Richard) evaluated the game tree and decided to step out of the immunity challenge (to the utter surprise of everyone watching) because his analysis indicated that he was likely to advance to the final tribal council regardless of which of his opponents won the immunity challenge.

So we can approach sufficiently simple sequential games with game tree analysis as long as we correctly value payoffs.  Game tree analysis still provides insight (if not explicit solution) for more complex games.  Irrational play may undermine strict analysis, so strategies need to take into account unexpected paths that the game might follow.

Next time we will discuss Games of Strategy Chapter 4, "Simultaneous Move Games with Discrete Strategies."

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Notes on Games of Strategy

Over three years ago, I wrote about my effort to approach a simple three-player race game using game theory.  Economist and game designer Dr. Aaron Honsowetz responded, which led to his recommendation that I look up the book Games of Strategy by Avinash Dixit, Susan Skeath, and David Reiley.  I finally obtained the third edition recently, and that has led Aaron, fellow designer Austin Smokowicz, and I to explore Dixit Skeath and Reiley's text in a kind of virtual book club.

Thinking about strategic games

We live-streamed last night's discussion.  We start with the first two chapters, which motivate the study of game theory and then define some terms and categories. 

Strategic games depend on player decision-making, as distinguished from games of chance, which depend on luck, and from games of skill, which depend on proficiency, dexterity, quickness of mind, or practice.  So, for example, chess is a game of strategy whose outcome is determined by the decisions of the players.  Bingo is a game of chance, whose outcome is determined by the order of randomly selected numbers.  Bowling is a game of skill, whose outcome is determined by the strength, accuracy, and proficiency of the bowlers.

The authors distinguish decisions that people make that are independent of the decisions of others from strategic games, in which people know that the results of their decisions depend on the decisions of others as well, i.e. that their decisions are interactive.  So, for example, blackjack plays out based on the decisions of each player in isolation, regardless of the other players at the table and of the dealer, who follows strict rules and makes no independent choices.  Poker, by contrast, plays out based on the interaction of the decisions among players.  So poker meets the definition of a strategic game, while blackjack does not.

The authors proceed to classify games in anticipation of the structure of the rest of the book:
  • In sequential games, players make decisions whose immediate outcome is unaffected by other players, as opposed to games with simultaneous moves, in which players must anticipate the unknown decisions of other players.  Chess is sequential, while rock-paper-scissors is simultaneous.
  • Some games pose players with strictly conflicting interests while others might involve common interests among the participants.  So most wargames are strictly conflicting, while Dead of Winter introduces both common and individual goals.
  • One-time games are distinguished from repeated games with the same opponents, which in turn are distinguished from games involving changing opponents.  So a one-time-only game might be the courtship, engagement, and marriage of a couple.  A bridge club plays the same game with the same opponents repeatedly.  And a single-elimination game tournament generally involves playing the same game with different opponents in each session.
  • The authors define games with full and equal information vs partial or unequal information:  External uncertainty applies to unknown information independent of others' decisions.  Strategic uncertainty applies to the unknown decisions by others.  A game with either or both has imperfect information; a game with no such uncertainty has perfect information.  A game in which one player has more information than another has asymmetric information.  So for example, a card game with a shuffled deck involves external uncertainty.  Rock-paper-scissors involves strategic uncertainty.  Chess is a perfect information game.  Scotland Yard has asymmetric information.  
Strategies that share or reveal information deliberately are called signaling.  Strategies that seek to motivate an opponent to reveal information are called screening. We spent quite a bit of time discussing examples of signaling, such as playing chicken and throwing the steering wheel out the window to demonstrate to an opponent your commitment not to swerve.  Aaron cited an example from Euchre in which card play signals to a partner information about your hand or about what the opponents do or don't have.  To Aaron's point, the important component of signaling is the degree of commitment to a decision.  Austin used an example from Hanabi as a method of communicating intent to fellow players.
 After the chat, Aaron further refined our discussion of signaling: 
Bluffing itself is an uncreditable signal. You claim you are committing to something (to alter player behavior).  To be a creditable signal, the price to make the signal must be sufficiently high that only a person committed to the action is willing to pay it. When I remove my steering wheel and toss it out the window I am saying I am willing to drive straight no matter the price. If the price of making the signal is too low, than people can make the signal without creditably committing to the action (bluffing) and destroy the ability for the signal to indicate you are going to take a particular action.
Screening involves eliciting information, and one way of doing that is to make an offer like a trade in Catan to see how players respond and thereby gain information about the contents of their hand and to an extent their future intentions.
During our discussion, I provided an example of sequential interactive decision-making that led to another follow-up by Aaron regarding signaling and screening.  In a game of Agricola, I built fences in anticipation of an opportunity to take sheep.  An opponent, who had no need of sheep and no means to store or cook them, took them anyway and let them run free to deprive me of that opportunity.  Said Aaron,
Your sheep example from Agricola was (if there was no other value for that many fences) a credible commitment that you would take sheep if they were available.  If that is the case it could also be part of a screening tactic.  If everyone is paying attention, it forces the last person before you who has a lower value play (assuming you are competitive in the game) to reveal that by responding to you.  And while you may not get the points from the sheep, it may still have been the best move because it blocked an opponent from taking an action to advance their score.
  • Games can have fixed vs manipulable rules.  Most tabletop games with which we are familiar have fixed rule-sets.  I imagine games with manipulable rules to include the interactions within a legislative body, whose rules of order may be modified by a party in power. 
  • The book defines cooperative games differently from the conventional use of the term that modern game-players might know.  The authors refer to games in which agreements are enforceable as Cooperative, while games with unenforceable agreements and that allow players to act in their own best interests are called non-cooperative games.  By these definitions, Catan is cooperative, inasmuch as a trade is an enforceable agreement; both parties are required by the game rules to hold up their end of the bargain.  Diplomacy is a non-cooperative game, since a player can commit to a future action and then renege on that commitment. 
Terminology and other concepts:
  • Strategies are available choices, or more generally a set of guidelines or algorithms by which individual decisions are made - a plan for a succession of actions in response to evolving circumstances, presumably due to the actions of other players.
  • Payoffs are the outcomes of interactive decisions, including expected payoff based on a probability distribution of random outcomes.
  • Rationality, or rational behavior, assumes perfect calculating players that consistently follow the best strategy pursuant to a completely known self interest.
  • Games involve a common knowledge of rules, specifically knowing who the players are, their available strategies or choices, the payoffs for each interaction of strategies, and an assumption of rational behavior.
  • When rational players interact, the game reaches an equilibrium where by each player is using the strategy that best responds to the other players' strategies. 
  • As opposed to assumed perfect rationality and calculated equilibrium, an evolutionary approach to games allows for a dynamic process in which poor calculators are motivated to choose strategies that proved more successful in previous plays of the game through observation, imitation, and learning.
  • Observations and experiments can help structure game theory and provide a check against its results.
The book stipulates that game theory can help to explain observed behavior of interacting decision makers, predict likely choices of rational actors, and prescribe strategic decisions.

I had one question that did not get addressed in our chat:  Can a game have more than one equilibrium, i.e. can there be local points of optimization that could emerge in an evolutionary approach different from what an analysis of perfect strategies would indicate?  The answer may come up in later discussions.

Next we will explore Chapter 3, "Games with Sequential Moves."

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Papal Pilgrimage: A preview of the sequel to Avignon

The microgame format that Love Letter popularized poses a considerable design challenge.  Fewer cards mean players face statistically fewer different situations.  Pared down to a skeletal structure, a microgame really has to make every card significant and capitalize on every opportunity for interaction. John du Bois introduced a clever two-player tug-of-war in this format with the 2016 Button Shy game Avignon: A Clash of Popes.  To that tight little design Button Shy Games is Kickstarting a sequel, Avignon: Pilgrimage, that introduces new characters that can stand alone as a separate game or that players can mix in with the original Avignon for a variety of interactions.

The games are set during the Western Schism of the Catholic Church in the late 14th century, when rival popes in Avignon and Rome sought to wrest control of the Church from one another.  Each player represents one of the papal factions recruiting key figures into the supporting congregation of Avignon or Rome to solidify that pope's control.  

Avignon in both its original format and its sequel constitutes a logic puzzle of card interactions with the goal of moving character cards to one's own side of the table.  Available actions are simple.  The complexity comes in the individual character card "Petition" actions that manipulate the positions of cards and the victory conditions.  The new sequel, Avignon: Pilgrimage, introduces a number of mechanics relying on the relative positions of other characters on the table and thereby adds a new layer of interactive depth.

The five locations on the road to papal legitimacy
between Avignon and Rome.  The Ascetic is shown in
Genoa, which is where he really wants to be.
The game consists of twelve cards, each depicting one of six characters.  Five cards are dealt in a row on the table between the players.  The starting row represents Genoa.  A card can be moved from Genoa in one direction to Florence, to Rome, and then to the Roman player's congregation.  Or it can move from Genoa in the other direction to Nice, to Avignon, and then to the Avignon player's congregation.  The goal is to collect three characters into one's own congregation - or to meet the special victory condition of a character in play.

Available actions to a player are to pull a character one space closer, to push a character one space further, to excommunicate a character (removing it from its location and replacing it with another character from the draw deck), or to petition a character (activating its special ability).  The crucial rule in Avignon is that although a player takes two actions per turn, they must be different actions.  So only one character can be petitioned for its special effect; only one character can be pulled; only one character can be excommunicated.  So good game play consists of recognizing and implementing the right combinations of actions to gain ground on the opponent in a lasting way.

Some Pilgrimage characters seem more interesting than others.  Petitioning the Courtesan pulls a character whose position is closer to the opponent than is the Courtesan; so her position generally benefits the player to whom she is closer.  The Canonist allows switching the positions of two characters, then pulling one and pushing the other.  Petitioning the Nuncio pushes him one space and then pulls all other characters that are in his new location - essentially having him trade places with everyone else in that location.  

Other characters seem less interesting.  Petitioning the Vicar pushes a Vicar (or Bishop from the original Avignon) two spaces, excommunicates another character, and pulls that character one space - a move that seems to make a considerable position sacrifice in exchange for a random character replacement.  An Ascetic ending the turn in Rome or Avignon automatically moves one space closer to Genoa, making him particularly difficult to recruit (and thereby less interesting).  The Scribe allows a player whose turn starts with the Scribe in Genoa to win with only two characters in his or her congregation.  This effect can be a game-ending (and random-feeling) consequence of pulling a character into one's congregation only to see that character replaced by the Scribe in Genoa to start the opponent's turn.

Having played Avignon: Clash of Popes and Avignon: Pilgrimage separately, I look forward to mixing them together and seeing the cards from both sets interact with each other.  I expect the logical conundrums to deepen even further, and I always enjoy when a small-footprint game turns into a little brain-cell-burner.

Unlike many microgames, there is no hidden information (beyond the draw deck) and no bluffing, so this is not a social game of getting inside the opponent's head.  People who like quick microgames with real logic challenges will like both Avignon games.  Pilgrimage by itself is a bit more dynamic but also a bit uneven relative to the original.  All in all there is a lot of game in this small footprint.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Getting to Know "The Grid"

Games in some ways, like people, have personalities.  Some, like Ticket to Ride, are friendly, fun, and easy to get to know.  Others, like Two Rooms and a Boom, are gregarious and a little crazy; if you can handle the energy, they are very entertaining.  Some are obtuse and a little intimidating, like a Phil Eklund simulation or a heavy wargame.  And some are subtle, reserved, and a little introverted; they don't want to show you everything right away, and if you base your opinion on a first impression, you'll miss what's hidden underneath.

The Mexican industrial design studio Left has devised a unique abstract tile placement game with the understated title, "The Grid Game." This set of 88 hexagonal tiles in a muted color palette has a quiet beauty, like a southwestern desert at sunset.  And it has a subtlety of gameplay that only emerges after patient peeling away of layers. 

Designed by Estudio Victor Aleman, each hexagonal wooden tile is made from three rhomboid pieces, each one of seven colors.  Players will start with a set of randomly selected tiles and play them one at a time to an array, with the constraint that tiles may only touch if they match in color.  After the second tile is placed, subsequently played tiles must touch two other tiles, again matching colors on the touching sides. 

Interestingly, the tiles are cut in such a way that the corners where two rhomboid pieces meet are "taller" (i.e. stand higher above the table) than do the corners that belong to only one rhomboid piece.  This vertical height of the different corners is important, because placing a tile is further constrained by having the touching corners match in height as well.  It took a few plays for me to discover that this height restriction is specifically designed so that every hexagonal tile after the first one has only three legal orientations rather than six.  This restriction has the nifty effect of ensuring that no tile placement results in a theoretically unplayable adjacent space.

Clockwise from left: Black-sided tile
(5 pts), one-color tile (3 pts), two-
color tile (2 pts), three-color tile (1 pt)
There are several categories of tiles - those with three different colors, those with two rhomboids of one color and one of a second color, those that are all one color, and a separate category for those having two black rhomboids.  The tiles with black rhomboids are unique in that no tile - not even another black-sided tile - may touch the black side of another tile when placed.   

Sounds simple enough - place tiles to match colored sides.  Easy as Carcassonne, right?  In fact, at the start of the game, each player has many tiles from which to choose, so the early game is especially straightforward.  And the objective is simply to get rid of all your tiles.  If a player has no playable tile, the turn passes to the next player.  So the goal, really, is to be able to play a tile every turn and so to run out first.  If the game reaches the point where no one has a playable tile, then players score points based on the tiles they have left, and fewest points wins.

By the second play, it emerges that the tiles that are worth the most points - i.e. the ones you don't want to be stuck with - are the hardest to play.  Black-sided tiles are worth five points - huge in this game - and can only be played against two tiles of a specific color and with no other adjacencies.  Tiles that are all one color are worth a hefty three points but are almost as difficult as black-sided tiles to play.  So there is a tendency to unload black-sided tiles as soon after the second round as possible, and one-colored tiles right away as well.  The result can be a very difficult field to play, and in fact our second game ended very quickly when the entire field was essentially blocked with black-sided tiles around the entire periphery, as we each tried to unload black-sided tiles as fast as possible.

At this point I was ready to write off the game as crippled by a negative feedback loop, thinking that the point values motivated players to render the field unplayable quickly by unloading the high-value tiles as quickly as possible.  Our third play, however, revealed that the game can take a completely different direction, when I was able to play all my tiles without a pass.  Gameplay becomes less ad hoc, and attention becomes more focused on how many of which colors a player has - and which colors an opponent is short on.  Further reflection suggests that the tile mix has everything to do with the course of the game, so that a winning strategy can vary with the early game circumstances.  Now the players must discern which direction to take depending on the kinds of tiles that are in play.  Suddenly we found a new richness that did not emerge in our first two games.  Such is the personality of a shy game that takes time and several encounters to get to know properly.

We did establish that the tile draw at the beginning of the game is crucial to the game balance; we found that having significantly more black-sided tiles than an opponent, or more one-color tiles, makes for a considerable disadvantage.  The publisher would do well to include a rule to ensure that players start with the same number of each type of tile to mitigate this effect.  The actual mix that all players share can vary from game to game, and in fact a variable mix can lead to a variety of strategic options.  Balance is important, however, and a disparate tile mix among players appears to bias the game significantly.

An opened game "box" showing the four tile trays (with
five more games in their boxes, behind)
Photo by Victor Aleman posted on boardgamegeek.com
The physical components are remarkable.  The wooden tiles are precisely cut and thoroughly glued, with only the slightest of adhesive residue visible on a number of the tiles.  The game comes in a set of four foam-sided trays that each hold 22 tiles in a snug hexagonal grid.  The four trays stack into a wrap-around gamebox-sized sleeve with a velcro flap that makes for a unique, snazzy-looking package.

A nice table presence, almost as appealing as
or Ingenious
I mentioned the subtle Southwestern color palette, which makes for a beautiful table presence, but in anything less than very good lighting, some of the colors are difficult to distinguish, particularly brown from dark gray and dark gray from black.  Many times during the game we wished for more strongly contrasted colors.  And yet, when the game is done, we marvel at how pretty it is.

An illegal placement due to different
corner height - difficult to tell until you
notice this tile is oriented differently
In the first few games, we found it impossible to tell the difference in height between corners of the tiles until we tried to place them next to each other.  Many times we would attempt to situate a tile only to discover that the corners were not aligned vertically, and it was not initially obvious why.  It wasn't until we discovered that the corner heights are intended to confine all tiles to be placed in one of three possible orientations, 120 degrees apart, that we could naturally identify legal ways to place tiles that would ensure same-height corners would be lined up with each other.  It seems that some stronger visual signifier might help in this respect, although such an indicator would probably change the visual aesthetic of the game.

The player count is ostensibly for one to 11 players.  The review copy did not include solitaire rules, though the publisher expressed an intent to include them in the final production copy.  As for high player counts, I struggle to see more than five or six players around this game enjoying any kind of strategic gameplay value.  With more than eight players, each person will place fewer than ten tiles in the entire game, hardly enough to feel engaged in what is otherwise a game of considerable potential depth.  The publisher admits that in tests with more players, although people found it inclusive, the game slowed down, and players were often distracted.

I find that this quietly attractive, subtly strategic game will appeal to people who favor abstract tile-laying games that evolve with repeated plays and who have patience to discover a game over time.  I would not recommend it for more than five players.  It will not appeal to those who prefer thematic games, games that they can fully appreciate in the first play, or laugh-out-loud party games.

Victor Aleman, Creative Director of LEFT, provided a copy of The Grid Game for this review. 

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Congress of Gamers 2016

Every fall there's a little weekend convention in Rockville, Maryland that I've always enjoyed.  Hosted at the unassuming Rockville Senior Center, Congress of Gamers features a series of Euro tournaments, an auction store, and a game design room.  The Games Club of Maryland sponsored the convention, and Break My Game ran the prototype testing event this year's session, which convened last weekend. 

My first priority was to play Acquire (designer Sid Sackson), my favorite game that I never get to play.  Five of us signed up to play in a single game that was a real brain-burner.  All seven companies came out within the first two rounds of play.  I had no chance of keeping track of who had what.  By the end, it occurred to me that I need to reconsider how I play this game.  I tend to buy shares strictly in small companies that I anticipate being taken over, in the interest of pursuing bonuses with a high return on investment.  Unfortunately, at the end of the game I found myself with a lot of cash but very few shares of the large high-value surviving companies.  The result was that I came in a distant second to Bill, the player to my right, whose purchase timing seemed impeccable throughout the game.  If I have one complaint about Acquire, it is that tile luck can factor strongly in the outcome, and Bill readily admitted that the right tiles came out for him.  Nevertheless I'm convinced that he also made some excellent investments at the right time and capitalized on a number of other players' mergers, so he deserved the win outright.

I spent most of my time in the Unpublished Gaming Room, as I usually do.  I didn't bring any designs myself but spent the entire time playtesting other people's games.  Highlights included
David Stephenson explains "Empire" to
Matt and Corinne Yeager

  • Getting in a four-player game of David Stephenson's "Empire."  I played it once head-to-head with David at UnPub 6 last spring, and I can tell now that the game is much more interesting in a larger group.  Negotiation plays a big part in this abstracted nation-building game.  I'm really fond of it, and it deserves attention from publishers.
  • Discovering "Bring in the Birds" by Elizabeth Hargrave, such an innocent-sounding game, and so strategic
  • Revisiting "Dichotomy" (alias "Zhongbai: Game of Balance"), by Matthew Yeager, much cleaner than its 2015 Congress of Gamers rendition and perhaps one of the best trick-taking games I've ever played (and that includes Diamonds
  • Trying out "Fealty," David Stephenson's nifty social bluffing game (that might need a new name, since Asmadi has a 2011 release with that title)
  • Learning "Cave Paintings of Lascaux," by Corinne Yeager, a dice-driven set collector with a simple tech tree and elements of Splendor 
  • David Stephenson (l.) gives feedback to
    designer Austin Smokowicz on
    "Cattle Car"
  • Playing through "Cattle Car," by Austin Smokowicz and Aaron Honsowetz (the "Dr Wictz" design team), a lean deck builder with a Western theme that I'd seen before but don't recall playing.  It's got some tricky little interaction mechanics, as Josh Tempkin demonstrated in our playtest.
  • Jumping back into Adam "Alf Shadowsong" Fischer's "Kahl'Shera," a chaotic dice game with a whirling dervish martial showmanship dance kind of theme that I'd seen at an UnPub event somewhere before

(l. to r.) Peter Gousis, Dan H., and
Jessica Wade schooling me in Asara
Also in open gaming, I met up with Peter Gousis (MVP Games), Dan H. (League of Nonsensical Gamers), and Jessica Wade (Dice Hate Me - State of Games podcast).   (Actually, I kind of invited myself to their table.)  We all learned Asara (designers Michael Kiesling and Wolfgang Kramer, publisher Rio Grande), which turns out to be a nifty area control game.  Fun and clever, if not life-changing.

I also sat in on a demonstration of Eminent Domain (designer Seth Jaffee, publisher Tasty Minstrel Games), which I'd always been curious about since its seminal success on Kickstarter in the fall of 2010 as one of the ground-breaking boardgames of those early crowd-funding days.  As it happens, I found it to be rather a love-child of Dominion and Race for the Galaxy, both games that I wish I liked more than I do, and so I was left similarly unexcited by ED.  That's okay; that's why we do demos.

So Congress of Gamers was a fun, low-key gaming weekend.  Such a nice little convention.  I look forward to next year.

Friday, September 9, 2016


Having always approached game design as a solitary creative activity, I've been curious about successful design teams like Inka and Markus Brand (Village), or Kramer and Kiesling (Tikal).  My friend Keith Ferguson recently spoke about the collaborative process with Ben Pinchback, who said that he and Matt Riddle meet on a weekly basis and just work on games for a dedicated regular session. 

That notion got us thinking, and the timing was right, so Keith and I have decided to get together on a biweekly basis to try our hand at collaborating on a game project.  Our first session was Wednesday night, and in two hours we went from having a couple of vague ideas to sketching out the initial concepts of what could actually develop into a fun game.  The best part is that I'm excited about game design all over again, and I think we'll have fun seeing what we come up with, whether or not our efforts amount to anything worthwhile.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Summer vacation gaming

Our friends gave us access to their beach house in Rodanthe, North Carolina, for a week this summer.  For me, the best part of a summer vacation is simply sitting without a care in the world and reading a book or playing a game, and we did plenty of both.  I finished three books (including Girls on Games, reviewed in my last post), and we played games every day, including my sons, who are not normally enthusiastic gamers.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Hearing Women Tell It: A Review of "Girls on Games"

At a time when the board game community has become gradually aware of the unique experiences of women in the hobby, the gently feminist Girls on Games, an anthology on gender perspective in gaming particularly and in geekdom more generally, successfully Kickstarted in 2014 with over 900 backers.  Elisa Teague - designer of games, events, costumes, and props - compiled 15 essays by women and a foreword (by a man) and herself wrote six more plus an afterword.  She also interleaved “Share My Story Spotlight” anecdotes by two women, three men, and a girl, plus a poem – or perhaps a song lyric – by “The Doubleclicks.”  And to read and hear women tell it, despite a consistently optimistic tone throughout their essays, they experience some ugly behavior in our gaming hobby  – from condescension, to scorn, to challenges to their bona fides as game lovers.  After reading of these experiences, frankly, I don’t know how they put up with it.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Fifth annual-ish "What to pack for a vacation"

This summer we're headed to the North Carolina Outer Banks for a week at a beach house.  We just threw together a list of games to bring based partly on recent acquisitions, partly on old favorites, and partly on family stand-byes that we think we can get the normally reluctant sons to play.  Here's this year's packing list:

Friday, July 22, 2016

Can one house rule make an old game new again?

Replacing the dryer with one that was two inches wider led to having to move a shelf unit.  Which meant unloading all the old games from the shelves.  Which meant going through all the old games and deciding which to keep and which to dispose of.  Which meant rediscovering games that perhaps deserved a second look.  Which led to trying a 20-year-old game that I'd picked up at a PrezCon auction thinking my wife would like it but never actually played - 221B Baker Street: Sherlock Holmes and the Time Machine (designer Jay Moriarity, publisher John N. Hansen Co).

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Kramer and Kiesling recommendations

A couple of weeks ago I tweeted my realization that I have no games in my collection that are designed by Wolfgang Kramer nor Michael Kiesling, arguably two of the biggest designer names of our time.  They collaborated to design such high-flyers as Tikal, Torres, and Maharaja.  Kramer also designed El Grande, Princes of Florence, and Colosseum.  So I solicited recommendations from Twitter followers, and here are the titles that came up:

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Perspectives on Origins 2016 - Friday 17 June

Continued from Part 1, Thursday 16 June

East India Company
My primary purpose at Origins was to pitch "East India Company" to publishers.  At noon on Friday, my first appointment went well, but the publisher had issues with some of the liberties I'd taken with history in terms of which commodities were produced at which colonies.  I'd certainly made some "convenient assignments" in the interest of making the math work in the gameplay, but he seemed to think I'd gone too far and ought to revisit the historical basis of the game.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Perspectives on Origins 2016 - Thursday 16 Jun

Keith Ferguson and I drove to the Origins Game Fair in Columbus, Ohio, on Thursday 16 June.  Most of what I recorded at Origins manifested in the medium of tweets.  What follows are a few highlights, and as the opportunity arises, I may elaborate on some of them.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Dice, Dexterity, and Tactics: A One-play Review of "Barrage Battle"

The application of dexterity to combat resolution in modern game design appears to be an emerging phenomenon, the Western-themed Flick 'em Up the most notable example.  Raechel Mykytiuk and Matthew Kuehn bring a new innovation by blending dexterity with the card-character skirmish format of such games as Up Front and Summoner Wars in the fantasy-themed combat game Barrage Battle, currently on Kickstarter with a funding date of Friday June 24. 

Friday, April 29, 2016

Gaming in a hospital room - revisited

A little over four years ago, I wrote a couple of posts on what works and what doesn't when playing games in a hospital room or waiting room.  We find ourselves in a similar situation this week, although the medical circumstances are decidedly more serious.  All the same, it is helpful to revisit the principles that make for a good pasttime under such trying circumstances - portability, compactness, simplicity, humor, interruptibility, and brevity.  What follows is an amalgamation of highlights from the two posts.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Games for a one-armed mother-in-law

My mother-in-law was in a rather severe car accident a few weeks ago.  She is home from the hospital and recovering from surgery to her elbow, arm, and hand.  We plan to visit soon, but we are faced with a dilemma:  What three-player games are appropriate when one player can't easily hold a hand of cards and really only has use of one hand?

Friday, April 15, 2016

UnPub 6: Adjustments to "East India Company"

"East India Company" demo at PrezCon 2016:
(l. to r.) Darrell Louder, T.C. Petty III, Paul O.,
Matthew O'Malley, Jessica Wade
Photo by Chris Kirkman
I had demonstrated "East India Company" to a publisher at PrezCon last February, and came away realizing that the action cards I had added since UnPub 5 last year still needed some balancing.  I was also dissatisfied by the amount of down-time I observed (although the players hadn't complained about it).  In anticipation of UnPub 6, I made three significant changes:

Friday, March 18, 2016

Ninja Countdown: A one-play review of San Ni Ichi

In the quintessential neo-tradition of first-time game designer/publishers, Ironmark Games has successfully crowd-funded and released debut designer Mike Sette's rather fascinating little trick-taking game with a Ninja martial arts theme.  San, Ni, Ichi, whose title translates from Japanese as "Three, Two, One," features simultaneous card play with a rock-paper-scissors resolution mechanic.

Friday, March 4, 2016

PrezCon 2016: Pillars of the Earth final

(c) Mayfair Games
Used by permission

I ran the tournament for Pillars of the Earth (designers Michael Rieneck and Stefan Stadler, artists Michael Menzel, Anke Pohl, and Thilo Rick; publisher Mayfair) at PrezCon again this year.  This worker placement game is based thematically on the Ken Follett novel of the same name.  Players compete to contribute the most to the construction of Kingsbridge Cathedral.  They have at their disposal a team of unskilled workers for collecting sand, wood, and stone, and for working in the wool mill for money.  Players can pay or recruit a team of up to five skilled craftsmen to use those raw materials to contribute to the cathedral's construction.  Metal is also available but more difficult to come by.

Sunday, November 29, 2015

2015 Holiday Gift Meta-guide

Plenty of people have plenty of gift ideas for the holidays, so rather than compile my own list to add to the rest, I've assembled my second annual collection of holiday gift guides with recommendations from all over the blogosphere.  At the end, I'll highlight the most frequently recommended games from all these lists.