Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

An old favorite and a new discovery

(c) Queen Games
Used by permission
My first victory at PrezCon last week came Wednesday afternoon in the first heat of Alhambra (designer Dirk Henn, publisher Queen Games), a favorite of mine.  It was a very friendly game, despite the propensity for Elisabeth P., a PrezCon newcomer, to continually buy the very tile I was looking for.  (How dare she?) 

Winning in the first heat qualified me for the semifinal the next day.  Somehow in the semifinal I had a hard time waiting my turn.  Three times I tried to skip Tedd Mullally on his turn.  He was a good sport about it; he didn't even break the skin when trying to bite my hand off.  ;-)  Despite what I thought was reasonably strong play, I came in second in the Alhambra semifinal.  Losing semifinals would be a recurring theme for me in PrezCon this year.

Later that afternoon, my friends Brian Greer, Keith Ferguson, Glenn Weeks, and I got together for my first full game of Stone Age (designer Michael Tummelhofer [pen name for Bernd Brunnhofer], publisher Rio Grande), a worker placement game that reminds me of both Pillars of the Earth and Agricola.  As such, the game continually poses a variety of options for limited resources, all the more challenging when only one player can grow the family, upgrade a tool, or develop agriculture in a turn.  The rest are left to claim victory point options and collect resources to pay for them - not to mention gathering food for the family.  In my case, I thought I played a relatively solid game, though not good enough to place better than third of four.  I like this game, although I'm not eager to buy my own copy, given its similarity to Pillars and Agricola.  Nevertheless, it's a very fun game in its own right.

Next, bringing power to Germany and transportation to America...

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

One day at PrezCon

So much happened at PrezCon that I think I'll take it a little bit at a time.  Wednesday opened with an introduction to Leaping Lemmings by one of the designers, Rick Young (the other being John Poniske, the publisher being GMT).  My good friend Glenn Weeks was already familiar with the game, so we jumped in for a heat, which was going very well - until one of my lemmings failed miserably at what would have been a five-point cliff dive if not for an ill-timed rock slide.  Despite my last-place finish, this was a great diversion, and I'd love to try it out on the kids. 

LL is a nice light-hearted title with a decent degree of strategy.  It vaguely reminds me of Lost World: Jurassic Park from the standpoint of being a fox-and-geese kind of game (outnumbered predators trying to catch prey running the length of the board), but LL is far superior to Lost World from a play balance standpoint.  Rather than having predator players vs. prey players, everyone controls one faction of prey (lemmings), and control of the predators (eagles) rotates around the board.  It would be interesting to modify LW:JP along the same lines.

Unfortunately, LL sold out pretty quickly at PrezCon.  We all found it surprising that GMT would release this kind of title.  GMT has a reputation for solid wargames and a few other represented genres, but LL is downright goofy by comparison with their usual line-up.  It's very interesting to see GMT branch out in this direction.  Regardless, LL is now at the top of my wish-list for family games.

More posts to follow over the next few days - games played and lost, games bought, and the status of a game sold.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Eagerly anticipated box art

Hey, I just got a note from my publisher with a first cut on the box art for the "eagerly anticipated game."  They've got a good artist, and he's done a great job capturing the flavor of the game.  The company has also created a new trademark, apparently for their family game line, to distinguish those titles from their traditional wargaming base.  So it's all very exciting to see come together. 

It's a little intimidating to think about how important box art is to the sales of a game, but I guess that's a fact of the marketplace.  For my part, I'd like to think the outside of a game box doesn't drive my purchase decision.  To me, the most important factor in deciding whether to buy a game is whether I've played it before.  Second is whether someone has recommended it.  Third is seeing it demonstrated, as at a convention, for example.  Fourth is whether I recognize the designer or publisher and trust that I can buy something "untried" just because of their reputation.  Seldom will I buy a game based entirely on the box, but I have done it before, and with some success (as Can't Stop) as well as with some disappointment (as Clue: Secrets and Spies).  Conversely, I've seen some games I would never put money down for, just because the outside was so poorly done. 

I'm curious to know how many people there are who will buy a game just based on what's on the outside of the box, and what they look for.  I also wonder how big a company has to be to spend time, money, and effort on real research to analyze customer reactions to box art and appearances. 

A funny thing just occurred to me:  All else being equal, I think I'd be willing to pay more for a game if it felt heavy when I picked it up.  That sounds dumb, but it's important to recognize one's own human foibles, and that's one of mine.  I specifically recall a conversation at HistoriCon with the president of one wargame company in particular.  They have some excellent naval wargames, but as we discussed the latest release and why it was priced the way it was, I casually reached down and flicked the corner of the mapsheet with my thumb.  The map was essentially a glossy poster paper mapsheet, not hard-mounted.  Mind you, the graphics were terrific, and the reputation for the series of games is excellent, but to me, if I'm going to pay a lot, it has to weigh a lot.  That's dumb, but it's true. 

Something to think about if I ever get into the production end of the business.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

There's gold in them thar moons

I'm working in earnest on an idea I've had for a while and mentioned here once or twice.  The game will be set at a time in the future when mining expeditions to other planets and moons in the solar system become cost effective.  Precious materials like gold, uranium, and tritium are scattered all over the solar system, and earth-bound industrialists will pay top dollar for them on the commodities market.  Players are CEOs of newly-capitalized mining companies seeking wealth - that is to say, "shareholder value" - by prospecting and mining rare raw materials as close as the moon and as far as Mercury or even Titan. 

This game is going to be a step up from my previous designs in terms of complexity and, I hope, nuance of game play.  The real balance I want to strike is to make sure that there is no single run-away strategy.  I want players to be motivated to take risks, but I don't want the game to devolve into a matter of dice and card luck. 

One thing I might be in danger of doing at this stage is trying to do to much.  I want to include a corporate strategy element, in which players decide how much to borrow to fund rocket missions and how much to pay in dividends to keep stockholders happy.  I also want to include a commodities market element, so that players deal with rising and falling prices of the raw materials they sell and the aerospace products and services they need.  I'm even entertaining the idea of have a futures market, so that players can sell inventory for future delivery.  I also want to have a space mission element, in which players are faced with the problems of getting equipment and crews to distant planets and moons and then retrieving the raw materials back to earth. 

I think this is going to take some real time to work out, and a lot of playtesting to be sure I have the right balance.  I really want this one to work.  I really want it to be fun.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Know when to fold 'em

With a new printer and a new set of blank business cards, I printed my first prototype of the submarine card game for which I'd adopted the title, "Enemy Unseen" (thanks to the suggestion from my gaming friend Paul R).  Although my wife Kathy isn't much for wargames, she was willing to give this one a try, just so I could test out the mechanics and see whether the rules made sense.

Right away there were some obvious problems.  First, business cards didn't shuffle well.  (This has been a problem for all my previous prototypes as well.)  Second, the font size on the submarine cards was too small.  Third, the game depends on two distinct parameters - detection range and firing range - but to the new player, they are too easily confused.  I was careful to discuss all the parameters that affect detection range first, and that went well, but as soon as I got into the mechanics of determining firing range and combat resolution, the mechanics really seemed to fall apart.

USS Scorpion
Artist - Viktor Stepansky
First, the submarines:  I included an assortment of NATO and Soviet 1970s-era submarines, both conventional and nuclear, including attack, guided-missile, and ballistic-missile boats.  The point value for each ranged from a one-point deisel attack boat to a six-point nuclear ballistic-missile submarine.  Each also had a "sonar quality" that could improve detection range by up to four kilometers (km) and a "noise factor" that could contribute to the opponent's detection range (i.e. increase the distance at which you would be detected) by up to four km.  The submarines would not be revealed until combat was initiated, so you would not know your actual detection range - nor your opponent's - until you had committed to combat.

I included some complicating factors:  Action cards could be used to modify the acoustic conditions by changing the strength of the thermal layer, or to change (secretly) a submarine's depth between "deep" (below layer) and "shallow" (above layer).  The strength of the layer and the relative depths of the two submarines would affect their detection ranges.  Also, combat options included firing a single shot, firing a salvo spread, or evading without firing. 

Image by Mike Stapp
 For the combat mechanics, I tried to work from a basic premise similar to the idea of a stand-off in an old Western movie.  At one end of the dusty town street stands the Bad Guy, pistol holstered, gun hand poised.  At the other end stands the Sheriff, likewise ready.  "Bart, I'm going to take you in."  "You're going to have to come get me, Sheriff."  One pace at a time, they approach each other, closing the range until one suddenly draws his weapon and fires.  The other draws and fires immediately as well, so that the shots are virtually simultaneous and the resolution immediate.  "You got me, Sheriff."

Okay, a little corny, but here's the point:  The gunmen approach each other until the distance between them is close enough that one of them believes he can hit his opponent, but the other hasn't drawn his weapon yet.  In other words, the distance at which shots are exchanged is the greatest distance that either of them believes he can hit the other - or, perhaps, the shortest distance that both of them feel secure that they have a reasonable chance of not being hit.  The idea is to initiate combat close enough to hit the opponent but distant enough to have a chance that the opponent's shot will miss. 

My thinking for combat resolution was that once a player decides to initiate combat at a certain "firing range," that range is compared to his "detection range" to determine the chance of hitting the opponent.  As long as the firing range is less than the detection range, there is a chance to sink the enemy - the greater the difference, the more likely the sinking.  But it must also be remembered that the opponent shoots from the same distance and compares that same firing range to his own detection range, so that if he has a better sonar and/or you have a noisier submarine, you are more likely to be sunk than to sink your opponent.

In my first iteration (which my wife and I playtested last week), I had the players "bid up the shooting range" until one of them "calls" by initiating combat.  That was really counter-intuitive to my wife:  Why would the shooting range go up if we're supposed to be getting closer together?  There were also some problems with how to force combat if one player has a high-value submarine and he just wants to get away without getting sunk.  What keeps a player from bidding up the range indefinitely until there's no way either submarine could sink the other?

Now, in both the gunslinger example and in submarine combat, it actually happens backwards - they bid down the firing range until one pulls the trigger.  Perhaps we ought to say that the players reduce the "too-far-to-shoot" range, or the "I-feel-pretty-sure-you-can't-hit-me-from-here" range, until one player decides they are close enough to take a shot.  So in my second iteration of the game (playtested the other day), I started with a set of range cards dealt face up between the players to represent the distance between the submarines.  Each player could elect to remove a range card to reduce the total range, i.e., to close with the opponent.  If a player felt the range to be close enough, he could elect to shoot, and the opponent would shoot or evade in response.

To solved the "difficult to shuffle" problem, I used some card protector sleeves (provided by my son) in several different colors (the kind used by Collectible Card Game [CCG] aficionados - you know, the Yu-Gi-Oh fanatics).  I put the Soviet submarines in red sleeves, NATO in blue, Action cards in black, and Range cards in grey.  That seemed to work very well physically.

But even the second playtest wasn't very satisfying.  Although my wife said the firing range mechanic made a lot more sense, I realized that players are not in general motivated to change the acoustic conditions, since acoustics affect both submarines in essentially the same way.  I had intended to create a certain "cat and mouse" effect, in which players tried to second-guess each other's vertical movements while attempting to close the range without getting too close.  Instead, though, we found ourselves continually closing range to some arbitrary point, and then shooting at each other.  Whoever had the better submarine generally won. 

So the bottom line is that I didn't really have the variety of options that I'd intended, I hadn't created any key decision points, and basically didn't have a game that was fun to play.  So I think "Enemy Unseen" is a bust, at least for now.  I think an important lesson in project management is to know when to kill a project that isn't working, and this might be one.  That's okay.  Not all game ideas are good game ideas.  I might go back to it again, but for now I think I'll just put it in mothballs. 

Friday, October 15, 2010

Congress of Gamers recap - Part 2

After our game of Carcassone, I went to the vendor "Our Game Table" and bought a tile bag for Carcassone and box bands to replace broken ones at home. 

Image (c) Mayfair Games.  Used by
permission.  All rights reserved
So, Saturday afternoon at Congress of Gamers found me sitting down to play Settlers of Catan (designed by Klaus Teuber, published by Mayfair Games) with Meredith M. and my good friend Grant G.  Settlers is an old favorite of mine.  Grant obtained Longest Road fairly early on, and he and Meredith seemed pretty evenly matched until she linked two road networks to steal Longest Road from him and jump to a commanding lead.  I was able to catch up to her, and we were tied at nine points when I had in my hand exactly the cards I needed to build my last settlement and win the game.  But fortune would not smile on me, because before I could take my turn, Meredith bought a development card and turned up the University of Catan for her tenth and winning point.  Argh!  Victory snatched from my grasp!

Sunday I brought my son with me to Congress of Gamers to meet his friend (whose mother Sue C. ran the Catchy Quips vendor at the convention) and play RoboRally (designed by Richard Garfield, published by Avalon Hill [Hasbro]).  Our session was a crazy one, with ten players on three connected boards.  The game master, Marc Houde, randomly changed one of the boards every three turns.  At one point, the second objective flag sat on a conveyor belt, a literal moving target.  It became clear that the game could go on forever, so after three hours with only a few of us having touched the first flag, Marc announced that the first player to touch the second flag would be the winner.  One player got to the flag but was carried to oblivion on the conveyor belt before he could declare victory.  Much later, my friend Keith F. was able to capture the second flag and win the game, four hours after we started.  There is a lesson hear about adding random complications to an existing game design.  The result can be an unintended convolution that makes a game unnecessarily long and potentially frustrating and draining.

Because RoboRally ran so long, I missed the Puerto Rico session and instead spent a little time and money at the Harmony House vendor picking up parts for a prototype of an interplanetary mining game idea I've been kicking around in earnest.

(c) Z-man Games
Used by permission
Finally came the game I'd been looking forward to most - Agricola.  Again, Virginia C. was at my table, along with a woman named Helen and the game master Eric Engelmann.  Our table was the only one to use drafting, whereby players keep some cards and pass the rest to other players before the start of the game so that each has the opportunity to assemble combinations of favorable cards and dispose of those least applicable to a strategy.  My big early move was bringing out the wet nurse so that every room I added to my house came with a baby.  I had a few other interesting occupations and improvements but still felt as though I was behind the group until some late moves to plow and sow, as well as to renovate my hut to clay and build fences near the very end.  I just missed second place to Helen by a point, but Virginia took a commanding win with a five-room stone house and 13 points in improvements.  With that, Virginia swept the EuroCaucus category for the entire convention.

After all that competition, I had a fun session of Castle Panic with my son and his friend.  CP is a fun cooperative game, and it was a nice light-hearted finish to a fun convention.  After that, we packed up and headed home, content to have played a solid weekend of games in good company. 

And fun in the company of good friends and new acquaintances, after all, is what playing games is really all about.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Congress of Gamers recap - Part 1

Last weekend I attended Congress of Gamers in Rockville, Maryland.  This is a fun little convention that I try never to miss because it's low-key and good fun. 

Saturday morning I arrived to find my friend Grant G. playing Can't Stop (designed by Sid Sackson, published by Face 2 Face Games), which is a nice push-your-luck kind of game.  I had picked up a copy for my now-nine-year-old son for Christmas a year or two ago.  It's still something of a family favorite.  When I played it at PrezCon last February, I was astounded at how far teenagers will push their luck rolling the dice.  I'm much more cautious at the game, which sometimes works for me, and sometimes doesn't.  So in Grant's game, the table was cleaned up by a young player who completed three categories before anyone else got a single one; so I guess there's something to be said for calculated risk-taking.

(c) Z-man Games
Used by permission
My first game of the convention was Carcassonne (designed by Klaus-Jurgen Wrede, published by Rio Grande) with the river expansion.  [Edit:  Carcassonne has since been picked up for distribution in the U.S. by Z-Man Games under a new contract with the original German publisher Hans Im Gluck. - PDO]  This was my first time playing with the Third Edition scoring rules, whereby each farm scores three points for each adjacent complete city.  I thought I won against Amy R., Meredith M., and Tom R., but my EuroCaucus card showed I came in second.  Oh well. 

Every convention I try to learn a game I've never played before.  This weekend it was Endeavor (designed by Carl de Visser and Jarratt Gray, published by Z-man), a colonial mercantile game of expansion, action placement, and the usual conundrum of decision-making.  Though I advanced rapidly in technology to acquire advanced buildings, I neglected to accumulate tokens for taking actions (rather like growing the family in Agricola), and so was left with few opportunities for growth in the latter part of the game.  The winner at my table was a delightful woman who, it turns out, has a monthly gaming group not far from us in Virginia.  So once again, the nice thing about a convention is that if I'm not going to win, at least I'm going to make a new connection.

Next post:  Settlers, robots, and ... you guessed it ... farming.

Friday, October 8, 2010

More playing than designing this week

All week I've been coming home from my paying job and unwinding by playing games rather than buckling down and working on my submarine game. 

Image courtesy of
Rio Grande Games
Yesterday Kathy and I played Puerto Rico, inspired perhaps earlier this week by Race for the Galaxy, which is similar in concept though considerably more complex (to us) in execution.  PR is one of our favorites.  It's actually designed for three to five players.  We adopted the two-player variant that appears in a solitaire rules set called "SoloPlay Rules," which works well for us.

I used to approach PR with a rigid strategy in mind - either grow lots of cheap crops and ship them like a madman, or focus on generating income and go heavy on buildings.  I've since learned that a semi-flexible strategy is important, as is paying attention to what roles benefit one's opponent(s) as much as or more than oneself.  I have a hard time articulating my strategic approach to PR better than that, so perhaps it's worth some thought and a subsequent post ... and perhaps some research first into what others have written on PR.

In yesterday's session, Kathy picked up a hospice early, as well as a couple of quarries and a few corn plantations, so I was afraid she'd be off to the races. I had a small start in indigo but went pretty long in sugar. I picked up both small and large markets, so I had some good cash coming in, enough later to buy the fortress and city hall. Kathy got tobacco production going but could only sell it once or twice. She picked up the guild hall very late, but my building points ended up carrying me by three points at the end.

This afternoon was an absolutely perfect fall day, so Kathy lit a fire in the fire bowl in the back yard, I made some drinks, and we sat out and played a couple of games of cribbage.  That game was quite popular on my boat when I was in the Navy (and holds a submarine tradition going way back to World War II).  Nowadays, I find it a nice diversion.  I have to say that my opponent today is distractingly better looking and much more pleasant company than were my opponents aboard ship.

I picked up a copy of Castle Panic (designed by Justin de Witt, published by Fireside Games) today on the recommendation of my son, who came home after a game session raving about it.  We tried it as a family game after dinner tonight, and we picked it up pretty quick.  I think the cooperative aspect of this game works well for us as a family, once we have the "game courtesy protocol" established (no touching pieces on other people's turns, etc).  We players won against the monsters, and my youngest son emerged as the Master Slayer with 16 points.

This nice discovery of Castle Panic (thanks to Spike and Mary) comes serendipitously after my posting earlier this week in which I expressed concern about the approachability of games in their first playing.  CP turned out to be very intuitive and straightforward in its execution, and therefore easy to learn in the first play-through.  Now, it is a relatively simple game by any measure.  Still, I think its construct is conceptually transparent, so that individual quirks and capabilities of unique monsters and action cards could be learned one at a time as they came up.  We could learn each new capability as it emerged and accommodate it into our overall understanding of the game without the frustration of saying, "oh, well if I'd known that, I'd have done this differently."

So I think if I want to design family games, I really have to give some thought to this aspect of being able to sit down, start playing, and learn while playing without ever having to go back and re-visit points in the games that the new player previously thought they'd understood.