Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

After School Special: Three Games at Game Parlor

Most of my gaming experience on a week to week basis comes at home with my wife over cocktails - this time of year, out in the back yard next to the fire bowl.  But on occasion I will get together with friends after work at Game Parlor Chantilly, which is not far from where most of us work and therefore a convenient stopping place in the middle of the week for a game session.  We call it an After School Special, and sometimes even call it by its acronym...

This evening my buddies Grant, Keith, Brian, and I got together and started off with Tannhauser (designers William Grosselin and Didier Poli, artist Didier Poli, publisher Fantasy Flight Games).  I had first seen this game demonstrated at PrezCon a few years ago, and I have to say that I was mildly intrigued but also a little put off.  The demo was a little rushed, not well explained, and played through haphazardly, so I walked away thinking not much of the gameplay.  I have a very different impression of it now - a fun shoot 'em up skirmish game with a few neat special-ability twists.  In this evening's game, we paired off two players against two, each team controlling three heroes and two troopers.  Grant and Keith seized control of the center hallway of the house, but Brian and I managed to do some serious damage with a couple of hand grenades and some ridiculous dice luck.  We ended up winning in a game that probably shouldn't have been so lopsided.

(c) Z-man Games
Used by permission
Grant had to leave, so Keith, Brian, and I broke out my very favorite three-player game, The End of the Triumvirate (designers Johannes Ackva and Max Gabrian, artist Andrea Boekhoff, publisher Z-Man Games).  This was a very close game all the way through.  There were times when I really thought I was going to pull off a second election as consul and win the game, but instead Keith couldn't be stopped in achieving a competency victory despite best efforts from Brian and me to hold him back.  I am continually amazed at the knife-edge balance of this game.  It is not a symmetric game like many Euros, where play balance is a foregone conclusion because each player starts in an identical situation.  Yet there is no position in Triumvirate that has any kind of presumed advantage, or can be knocked out easily.  I've played three times now, and every time I'm left awestruck at how tight this game is.

(c) Fantasy Flight
Used by permission
With a little time left to kill, we decided to play Citadels (designer Bruno Faidetti, numerous artists*, publisher Fantasy Flight Games), which is right now my favorite game of all.  This was the game that kept us up until 2:00 in the morning at World Boardgaming Championships, after we'd each already had a full day of tournament gaming.  This time it was my turn to pull out the victory.  As always, it was a game full of second-guessing and back-stabbing.

Next post:  My latest design inspiration

* Artists for Citadels as listed on Boardgamegeek:
Cyrille DaujeanJulien DelvalJesper EjsingBruno FaiduttiDidier GraffetBjarne HansenDarrell HardyFlorence MagninJean-Louis MourierScott NicelyChristian T. PetersenBrian SchomburgRichard Spicer

Friday, October 14, 2011

Congress of Gamers: Acquisitions

Okay, after this, I'm done posting about Congress of Gamers (for now).

I still remember the best advice anybody ever gave me about a gaming convention.  It came from Justin Thompson as a recommended goal when attending PrezCon:  "Learn at least one new game; buy at least one new game."  Over the last few days, I've posted about the games I learned in the game design room at CoG.  But the convention experience wouldn't be complete if I didn't fork over a little cash to bring something home to play.

For my 15-year-old, I picked up two Steve Jackson titles.  The first was Zombie Dice from Our Game Table.  I'm not a fan of zombies (in fact, I despise zombie games), but heck, he likes zombies, and he likes dice.  It's a no-brainer.  (Sorry.)  Also, literally at the eleventh hour, Vince Lupo was packing up his stuff in the designers room when he held up a box and said, "Anybody want to buy Frag?"  It took maybe one round of haggling for me to take it off his hands.  The cover says, "If it moves, shoot it."  So that's another game that my 15-year-old seems likely to enjoy.  Vince also threw in a set of hand-made maps to augment the game, which I think is pretty cool.

For my ten-year-old, I picked up a clever little tile-placement game called Continuo (designer Maureen Hiron, publisher U.S. Game Systems) at the Bring-and-buy flea market.  It's designer touts Continuo as a "one-rule game for the whole family."  I look forward to trying it out with my son.  (I also got him four alien dice at Our Game Table, because, you know, he likes UFOs, and he likes dice.  It's not rocket science.) (Sorry again.)

(c) Queen Games
Used by permission
For my wife Kathy and me, I bought Roma (designer Stefan Feld, artist Michael Menzel, publisher Queen Games) for a very reasonable price at the Bring-and-buy.  I'd read at least one positive review of this as a good game between spouses.  We've played through it once on a "we're not playing to win, we're helping each other learn the game" basis, and I think we're going to like it.  I can't wait to play it again on a "now that we know the game, we're out for blood" basis.

Meanwhile, I dropped off five games at the Bring-and-buy flea market to sell.  Of those, it was the two role-playing games that attracted buyers - En Garde! (the TSR role-playing rules set for 17th century rapier-dueling and derring-do) and James Bond 007: Goldfinger (a scenario module for the Victory Games RPG based on the Ian Fleming series).  I don't think I'll miss them, and I hope somebody out there gives them a new lease on life.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Congress of Gamers digression: Notes from a conversation with John Moller

I met John Moller of Car Trunk Entertainment in the game design contest room at Congress of Gamers the other day.  We started getting a little philosophical about game design - what we like in a game, what leaves us flat.  I like his perspective, and one observation he made stuck with me enough that I thought I'd expound on it here a little.

It's probably "card-driven" when the
printer resorts to 4-point font to fit the
special instructions on the card.
John described an interesting distinction he makes among card games into two general categories - card-driven games and player-driven games.  (I might not quite have his terminology right.)  The distinguishing concept is the nature of the cards in the game.  In a "card-driven game," most of the behavior of the game is governed by the text on the card - i.e. every card has its own rules or unique icons printed on it to describe its function and effects.  In a "player-driven game," the cards are relatively abstract, having only rank, suit, and/or perhaps a few other general categories, and the rules generalize across the deck.  In the extremes, a collectible card game would be "card-driven" and cribbage would be "player-driven."

One or two words on the "special" cards -
still in the spirit of a "player-driven" game
Of course, these are two general categories and not a strict taxonomy of card games.  Still, to refine definitions like these, I have a tendency to want to find exceptions, or ambiguities at the boundary between categories.  For example, Uno (designer Merle Robbins, artists Kinetic and Jeff Kinney, publisher Mattel) has mostly rank-suit cards, but there are a few special cards that change the play of the game - "Reverse," "Skip," "Draw two."   But really, I think Uno keeps to the spirit of what John describes as a "player-driven game," in which the card that you play depends on the tactical situation at the time and not so much whether you got a special card that drives a special effect under the circumstances.

I think Fluxx (designers Andrew and Kristin Looney, publisher Looney Labs) and its variations, by contrast, fall into the "card-driven" category.  Although some cards are simply objects ("Keepers") and objectives ("Goals"), many are unique rules and special effects.  I don't necessarily mean the simple cases of "Draw Two" or "Hand Limit Three."  The particularly unique cases of cards that interact with other cards - you can do this unless your opponent has that Keeper, etc - make Fluxx more of a card-driven game.  The point is that you can add or delete or modify the specific rules or effects on the individual cards in a card-driven game, and all you've done is change the game in some lateral way; instead of Martian Fluxx, it's Pirate Fluxx.

I think John's point about "card-driven" games is that they play themselves to a certain degree.  The course of the game is governed by the shuffle and who gets which card when, more than by the tactics that the different players choose to take.  I might not be explaining John's thesis very well, and perhaps it deserves a little more thought for me to appreciate and articulate it.  I was hoping - but failed - to find a write-up on the concept in his Car Trunk Entertainment blog, so perhaps I can persuade him to spend a few words on it some time soon.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Congress of Gamers Part II: Flummoxed Families and Punchin' Planes


I spent the latter half of my day at Congress of Gamers entirely in the game design room.  There I met John Moller of Car Trunk Entertainment.  He and I talked quite a bit about our philosophies on game design.  Rather than go into details on some of John's thoughts, I'll hold them for a subsequent post.

On to the games then:  John first showed me his game Flummox (artists Bill Bricker and Darrell Louder, publisher Clever Mojo, planned release March 2012), which involves taking actions and activating cards to move a marker (the "Flummox") among the players' arrays of cards in an effort to score points by having the Flummox end up on one's own array - or cause an opponent to lose points by putting the Flummox on his or her array, depending on whether the Flummox is "good" or "bad" in that turn.  I found this game to be a fun exercise in logic and tactics, vaguely along the lines of Guillotine from the standpoint of manipulating the arrangements of cards to gain points and thwart opponents  I think John's action-driven mechanism is a little more elegant than Guillotine, which depends on a separate action card deck to manipulate a line of nobles.  In Flummox, a player may exercise only one of four actions and then activate only one of two cards on the ends of his or her array in order to move the Flummox or modify the players' arrays on the table.  The cards themselves have only a few different characteristics and types, but they combine in a way that makes for some fascinating conundrums.  I really look forward to trying this game again.

John also showed me his design contest entry Family Reunion, a rather bizarre little game that I came to think of as a cross between Concentration and a kind of two-dimensional Guillotine.  (Maybe I just have Guillotine on the brain today.)  Again, this one provides a neat logical challenge, but I found the unique behavior of each family member's card to be a little overwhelming, at least in a first playing.  I imagine I would get the hang of it before too long.  I like the game, and I want to try it again as John refines it, but I can't decide whether I like it as much as Flummox.

John was good enough to try Trains Planes and Automobiles with me, along with Tim, who'd played it once already.  This would be my third demo of the day.  I think I was tickled just that Tim wanted to play it again.  For the second time that afternoon, I had ridiculous card luck with airline tickets.  Usually, games I've played have all been close, and I always lose.  At Congress of Gamers, I was winning by substantial margins.  I think I'm going to pay close attention to the course of the games I play to see whether card luck is too strong a factor.  Right now I still think that card luck can be mitigated with good flexibility and use of the discard-replace rule (or even the trading rule, which no one seems to use).

(c) Z-man Games
Used by permission
After dinner, Tim Hing, T.C. Petty, and I got The Speicherstadt out of the game library.  Tim had played before, but T.C. had not.  I had only played in two-player sessions with my wife Kathy at home, so I was looking forward to playing a three-player game.  The Speicherstadt has a nice bidding mechanic in which demand for available cards determines their prices.  The first bidder for a given card has the first opportunity to buy, but at the highest price.  If he elects to pass, the next bidder in line has an opportunity to buy the same card for one coin less, and so on until a bidder decides to buy the card for the available price (or the last bidder passes, in which case the card is discarded).  Money is very tight in this game, and bidding from a strong position can count for a lot if the right cards come up for sale.  I did very well in this game with a dominating position in firemen and the completion of some pretty hefty contracts.

T.C. then demonstrated Good Ol' Punchin' Planes, a prototype two-player game on the hilarious premise of pre-World-War-I airplanes that race alongside one another while pugilists stand on the wings and engage in fisticuffs.  Simultaneous card play determines both the relative motion of the two aircraft and the trading of blows between the two fighters.  Terrain obstacles over the race course (yes, these airplanes fly very low) present additional hazards to the pugilists, such as bridges, telegraph wires, and a barn.  I played against Josh Tempkin, moderator of the design contest, who managed to achieve a more crowd-pleasing performance than I did and therefore won the event.  Afterward, Josh and I had some ideas for TC to give a little more depth to the "combat" part of the game, but I have to say that it was good for a hearty laugh more than once during the race.

Upcoming posts:  What I bought and sold at CoG, and notes from a conversation with designer John Moller

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Congress of Gamers Part I: Best laid designs

My plan for Congress of Gamers was to demonstrate Trains Planes and Automobiles once and then move on to the usual Eurogaming fare (Carcassone, 7 Wonders, Agricola, Settlers of Catan) for the rest of the day.  Strangely, it didn't work out that way.

Parker Brothers
1971 edition
Waiting for the main events to get started, I played a pick-up game of Mille Bornes (designer Arthur "Edmond" Dujardin, artist Joseph le Callennac, publisher Winning Moves) with young Josh and his father John.  I've always liked MB for sentimental reasons.  My family played it when I was growing up, and it brings back fond memories of my Mom (almost as much as Clue does).  Those memories were even stronger yesterday, because John and Josh had the same 1971 edition MB that was our first family copy of the game, with a chartreuse plastic card tray.  Theirs was an obviously well-loved copy, because the cards showed the wear of many, many plays.  It is especially appropriate that MB should be the first game I played yesterday, because its card-play mechanic provided the inspiration for the Travel deck in TPA.

I had time to play Can't Stop, the first entry in Mark Love's "America First" tournament series at CoG.  Clearly, I am way too conservative in my dice rolling in this terrific push-your-luck game.  I came in last place at a table of four players (with Phil and two more Joshes) because I just couldn't bring myself to be as aggressive as they were in the dice rolling.  The three central columns - sixes, sevens, and eights, were finished early, which made all subsequent dice-rolling risky.

I set up for my TPA demo later that morning in the same gaming room where the Stone Age / Ticket to Ride / Vegas Showdown Eurocaucus event was going on.  I had only one taker - young Josh from our earlier MB game.  (I didn't see as many kids at CoG yesterday as I thought I'd remembered seeing in earlier years, but perhaps I'm mistaken.)  Josh enjoyed playing, and the game attracted some attention from a few others in the room.

After lunch, I hooked up with TC Petty (designer of Viva Java, which I'd playtested at WBC last summer) and his friend Tim.  We had some time to kill, so I introduced them to TPA.  They seemed to like it, despite my ridiculous card luck with unlimited mileage airline tickets.

At this point, I made a pretty fundamental change in plans for the day.  Instead of playing Carcassonne or De Bellis Antiquitatis, I decided to head to the game design contest hosted by Josh Tempkin.  There I met Darrell Louder, whose unpublished prototype Compounded was ready for a run-through.  I sat down at what turned out to be a six-player game, the first time Compounded would ever have been played with that many people.

I have to say that I really like what I saw in Darrell's design.  As chemists, players accumulate crystals that represent elements (hydrogen, oxygen, etc), claim eligible compounds (hydrogen peroxide, sulfur dioxide, etc), and then allocate elements to those compounds to complete them for points, increased abilities, and new functions.  Compounds in progress can be undone by lab fires or an excess of oxygen.  What really impressed me was the way that the end-game conditions came together.  Game end is triggered by any of three conditions - running through the deck of compounds twice, scoring at least 50 points, or completing three of four experiments (solid, liquid, gas, or "wildcard").  In our session, all three conditions were met almost simultaneously.  Although the game was a bit lengthy for six players (five of whom were new to the game), I was hard-pressed to suggest any tweak to shorten the game duration that wouldn't disrupt the balance among the game elements.

Next post:  CoG Part II - More adventures in the game design contest room

Friday, October 7, 2011

Packed up for Congress of Gamers

Just a quick post in preparation for Congress of Gamers tomorrow in Rockville.  I get to demonstrate Trains Planes and Automobiles at 11:00 a.m.  Otherwise, there's pretty much at least two things going on at any given time that I want to do, every hour of the day.  Usually for a convention I'll plan out an itinerary, but I think this time I'm going to "improvise" from one hour to the next.  Maybe I'll play in the De Bellis Antiquitatis tournament, so I'm bringing my 15mm later hoplite Greek army.  Maybe I'll play in the Eurocaucus series of Euro games, or maybe I'll check in with the game design contest.  I'd really like to learn Go, finally, after all these years.  And there's a series of race games, including McGartlin Motor Racing, which I first learned at CoG a couple of years ago.  And Mark Love is running a series of American-designed games.

I'm also bringing a few games to sell at the bring-and-buy, games that have some degree of sentimental value but that just aren't going to get played again in my house and deserve a new home with a new opportunity to entertain:

  • Foxbat and Phantom, an SPI flat-box game of tactical jet combat in the 1970s
  • Gulf Strike, a Victory Games heavy-duty modern-day operational warfare game in the Persian Gulf
  • Wiz Kids, a simple little word game for kids
  • En Garde!, a TSR role-playing rules set for 17th century rapier-dueling and derring-do
  • James Bond 007: Goldfinger, a scenario module for the Victory Games role-playing game based on the Ian Fleming series.  (Somehow I managed to sell the core game JB007 at a yard sale but ended up with this module - how did that happen?)
I'll follow up with a post on Monday with feedback from CoG.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Wits and Wagers at work

Today we had a pot luck luncheon at work, a sort of celebration of the end of the fiscal year - or at least, just an excuse to blow off some steam on a Friday.  My team lead asked for game ideas, and I volunteered to be the game host for the event.  With a group of twenty generally smart but not avid game-playing people, my immediate thought was to run Wits and Wagers (designer Dominic Crapuchettes, publisher North Star Games).

W&W is a terrific party game for a large group.  In our case, we had twenty people, who divided themselves into five teams of four.  (The rules suggest seven smaller teams, but our game worked out fine with five.) The great thing about the game is that you don't have to know trivia; you just need to recognize the right answer when you see it.  We had a pretty good age range in our group, so questions about the Rolling Stones and Buddy Holly actually got some nods of recognition.

The premise of the game is that there are seven rounds.  In each round, a trivia question is asked whose answer is a number (such as a year, a measurement, or an amount of money).  For example, one question asked, "In what year were women first admitted to the United States service academies?"  Each team writes down an answer.  The answers are arranged from least to greatest on a betting mat.  Teams bet poker chips on the answer they believe is closest without going over.  The payout depends on how much of an outlier the right answer is.  If the median answer among the guesses turned out to be correct, then it pays 2:1.  If the smallest of all five guesses is correct, then it pays 4:1.

I should mention that one of the guiding principles of North Star Games is that they try to design games so that everybody is playing all the time.  There are no turn-based mechanics in W&W, and there should be very little down-time for anyone in the course of a game.  Everybody is working on an answer at the same time, and everybody is deciding what to bet on and how much at the same time.  That principle seemed to play out well in our session, and I didn't have to use the egg timer to keep things moving.

Usually when I play this game, people bet aggressively, and I have a problem with running out of poker chips when people win big.  That wasn't the case in this game at all.  Teams bet very conservatively (or very poorly), so there was never a team that bet a giant stack of chips and won a payout of an even bigger stack of chips. In fact, three of the five teams lost everything they had on the last question.  ("In what year was the novel Frankenstein first published?")  The winning team won with 59 points in poker chips - a remarkably low winning score in my experience.

But of course the real pay-off was how much fun everybody had playing this game.  I got a lot of positive feedback from co-workers who had a great time and really enjoyed themselves.  And of course that's what it's all about.

I should add that my team lead was very gracious to announce, before the game started, that I had a new game of my own published, and then showed everybody her copy of Trains Planes and Automobiles.  Needless to say I was surprised and very appreciative of her support.  I got a few questions about TPA afterward as well, which was really nice.

Frontispiece, Frankenstein,
1831 edition
Oh, and in case you were wondering:  Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley, was first published in 1818.  She wrote it while in Geneva one summer with her husband Percy Bysshe Shelly and Lord Byron, who had proposed that they each try a hand at writing a supernatural tale.  As for the service academies, the four major academies (West Point, Annapolis, Air Force, and Coast Guard) first admitted women in 1976.  As a member of the Naval Academy class of 1982, I was quite aware of this transition period.  What few people realize is that the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy admitted women in 1974, two years before the other academies.