Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

PrezCon Demos - 23, 24, 25 Feb 2012


I am elated to report that I will be demonstrating Trains Planes and Automobiles at PrezCon at the DoubleTree Inn in Charlottesville, Virginia on Thursday 23, Friday 24, and Saturday 25 February 2012.  PrezCon has a special place in my heart, because that's where I first demonstrated the game in 2010 to Worthington Games and we sealed the deal with a handshake on the spot.  Before long, Worthington's new BlueSquare Board Games had released TPA as the first in its line of family games.  Seeing it on the PrezCon schedule has got me all juiced about game design again.

It's time to get back to work and turn some digested ideas into real playable prototypes.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Reactor Scram

My latest design inspiration is a co-op game idea I've had for a while.  The setting is a nuclear reactor plant that has gone horribly wrong.  Players try to operate various controls to keep the reactor (or perhaps multiple reactors in a single plant) from melting down.  Problems can accelerate rapidly; players can quiesce one issue only to have another pop up elsewhere.  Players win if they can stabilize the entire reactor plant; players lose if any core gets hot enough to start a meltdown.

Existing co-op games like Pandemic and Forbidden Island are obvious models.  I have a couple of specific innovations to try to induce a strong sense of urgency (and perhaps panic) in the players.  I've realized that in general, a co-op game (one that does not have traitors) is rather like team solitaire.  That means that the game boils down to card luck and problem optimization.  The tricky part about making a game like this fun is ensuring that players' decisions are not obvious but do affect the progress of the game.  I want to make sure that mistakes cause setbacks but don't render the problem unsolvable.  So there has to be a pretty broad decision space, with multiple variables in play and multiple "knobs" for the players to manipulate in an effort to control the game state and get to a solution.

I recognize that in any players-vs-game, luck has to be a factor.  In fact, I think uncertainty and variability contribute to the fun and excitement of the game.  But I'd hate for the game to devolve into a question of what order the cards came up or how the dice rolled.
 
I had some thoughts regarding card luck in general.  In an upcoming post, I'll discuss a game design idea that came out of the question, "can I make a card game that minimizes card luck?"

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.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

A new dimension to Qwirkle

I was amused to see that Mensa-select game Qwirkle (designer Susan McKinley Ross, publisher MindWare) had won this year's Spiel des Jahres, the German annual award for best new game of the year.  Amused because my family (and many Americans, I expect) have been playing Qwirkle for quite some time.  But I guess if it's new in Germany, it's new, and that makes it eligible for the SdJ award.  Of course, Qwirkle is a brilliant game - easy to learn, fun to play, while aesthetically pleasing at the same time.  So the award is well-deserved, if a little overdue.

So the other day, I happened to have some rare time on my hands and wandered into Game Parlor Chantilly, my favorite local game store.  I really didn't expect to buy anything but had my eyes open - and spotted Qwirkle Cubes, a game by the same designer and publisher that I'd heard of but never thought to look for.  I snatched it up, secured my purchase, and whisked it home to try it out.

Kathy and I played it last night, and tonight our ten-year-old joined us for a game.  Qwirkle Cubes adds a nice Yahtzee-like dice rolling element in which tiles are replaced with dice, and the pattern you seek to obtain from your roll depends on the board configuration at the time.  Also important is that in Qwirkle Cubes, your "hand" of cubes is visible to your opponents (and vice versa), so that the risk of leaving an opening for an opponent to accomplish a high-scoring qwirkle is easier to evaluate.

The scoring in Qwirkle reminds me of basketball from the standpoint that the final scores are very high and usually close.  Tonight was no exception:  I won with 125 points, followed by Kathy with 122 and our son scoring a respectable 116 in his first game.

I can see Qwirkle Cubes quickly becoming a family favorite, perhaps even retiring the original SdJ-winning Qwirkle to the shelf for a while.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Trenes Aviones y Automoviles: Will TPA expand south to Latin America?

I've been very excited by the early positive response to the release of Trains Planes and Automobiles.  Most recently, my brother in Buenos Aires is trying to get a copy smuggled in a suitcase with one of the in-laws.  And the idea got me thinking:  Is it too early to work on an expansion?

The idea to expand TPA to other continents came up in conversation with Worthington/BlueSquare even before we had the deal nailed down.  We were both excited by the possibility, and I think our initial thought was that Europe would be the next venue for TPA if the North American version took off.  But for some reason, the exotic Caribbean islands and Amazon jungles have really got my creative juices flowing again, and I'm starting to lay out what the map would look like for a Latin American follow-on.

I'll tell you, though, I'm learning some serious geography in the process.  If I keep to the current map size and scale, there's no way I'll fit all of South America on a single map.  I'm thinking I'll actually do two new maps - Central America (which would also include the northern third of South America) and southern South America (which would include the major cities of Sao Paolo and Buenos Aires).  The interesting thing will be how the geography of South America affects game play.  I have to believe that large swaths of the Brazilian rainforest as well as the Andes Mountains are impassible, which makes air travel that much more important.  But there are few heavily inhabited islands south of Panama, so theoretically everyplace should be accessible by car ... true?

Anyway, it's just great to be excited about game design again.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Congress of Gamers on Sat 8 Oct

Okay, everybody, I can't help but plug my favorite little game convention, Congress of Gamers.  This event is a nice opportunity for those in the D.C. and Maryland area to have an inexpensive, friendly one-day boardgaming experience.  Hope to see you there.

Here's convention director Kaarin E.'s email:

Congress of Gamers 2011 is coming soon--from 9am to midnight on Saturday, Oct. 8, in the same location as last year:
Rockville Senior Center
1150 Carnation Dr.
Rockville, MD 20850-2043. 


Go to http://www.congressofgamers.org/register.php to register and pay online. If you would like a t-shirt, get your order in this week. A few shirts will be available at the con, but they will be limited in number and size.


We'll have many great events, including the EuroCaucus, CoG Racing Series, General Services Administration (RoboRally), Embassy from China, Transportation Department (a demonstration and game of Trains, Planes, and Automobiles), Education Department (demonstration of Dystopian Wars), De Bellis Antiquitatis (DBA) Tutorial, the 7th Annual Washington DC-area DBA Open Tournament, and more! Take a look at the schedule at http://www.congressofgamers.org/schedule.php. We'll also have lots of open gaming, and Games Club of Maryland (GCOM) will bring a library of games that everyone can use.


The math trade will start soon. Watch the website and Boardgame Geek Convention Forum for details. 


If you are planning to sell things at the Bring and Buy, you can download item sheets at http://www.congressofgamers.org/commerce.php.


Our Game Table will be joining us as a vendor with great games and accessories. 


We look forward to seeing you this year!


Kaarin Engelmann
Convention Director, Congress of Gamers

Friday, September 16, 2011

Trading styles in Settlers of Catan

Seth Brown posted a nice essay about trading strategies in Settlers of Catan on About.com.  His strategies are very much in line with my own, and his article makes a nice summary of considerations for resource trades.

Resource cards in Settlers of Catan.
(c) Mayfair Games.  Used by
permission.  All rights reserved
His post got me thinking about some different styles of trading I've seen when playing among friends or in tournaments.  For my part, perhaps the most basic approach to a trade is to ask for what you need and offer what you don't.  It seems almost trivial, really - I need wood, I've got an extra wheat, so I offer one wheat for one wood.  In a friendly game, that's about as much thought as it takes.  I've even seen people approach Settlers as a co-op game, although they don't explicitly think of it that way.  They don't mind being helpful, and they enjoy building until at some point someone says, "oh, look, I've got ten points, I guess I win.  That was fun!"

A friend of mine has a son, on the other hand, who has a killer instinct for the barter economy of Catan.  His sense for which resources are going to be in demand is uncanny, and he invariably knows when to press a hard bargain on a trade that anyone else would have accepted on the first offer.  Because he is such an effective trader, he typically wins, and the people around the table look at him and ask, "how do you do that?"

I played in one tournament at PrezCon against a fellow who was a shrewd trader.  I specifically remember one interchange where another player said, "I need brick."  Shrewd Trader said, "what can you offer me?"  Brick Guy said, "Do you want a sheep or a wheat?"  Shrewd Trader immediately answered, "Both."  Neither of the other two of us had brick to trade, and Brick Guy had essentially admitted (if not in so many words) that he needed neither the sheep nor the wheat and therefore could spare both.  So Shrewd Trader held out and got the best deal.  Needless to say, Shrewd Trader advanced to the quarterfinal.

But playing hardball can backfire.  In another tournament, one guy at my table said that in his gaming group, nobody would trade straight up, one card for one card.  The active player, the one whose turn it was and therefore who would be able to build, had to offer at least two-for-one just to get people to consider a trade.  He said trading was not at all common in his group, and he was astounded at how freely the other three of us at the table would trade among ourselves.  He ended up in last place at that game.

So perhaps the lesson here is that a barter economy is still an economy.  A market equalizes when supply balances demand, so if one player is a hold-out and demands, say, three wheat for a brick, anybody else who has a brick can make a better deal than that, and the "price" of brick goes down.

Different people have different ideas about when a boycott is appropriate.  One practice I've seen is a hard-and-fast policy never to trade with anyone who has eight or nine points.  I try to be more flexible than that, but not by much.  I'll trade with someone who has eight points if I'm confident that I'm not enabling a big move (based on the number of cards my opponent has and whether a two-point turn is within striking distance) and if it gives me a sure point - and even then, I'll give it very careful consideration.  Others never trade with the leader, regardless of how early in the game it is.  A few even refuse to trade with anyone who has more points than they do, which can really shut the market down if everybody takes that position.

Sometimes its very tricky to balance the need for a trade with the potential edge it gives an opponent.  In yet another tournament game, I had six points, behind a very good player who had the lead with seven.  He made me a respectable trade offer, and after some hesitation, I accepted, over the objections of the other two people at the table.  As I handed him the card, I said, "I have a feeling I'm making a deal with the seven-point devil."  He gave a little half-smile, and sure enough, he stayed just out of reach of the rest of us until he won the game.

The infamous Monopoly card.
(c) Mayfair Games.  Used by
permission.  All rights reserved.
Making an offer generally requires that you have to reveal something about what you have, but that can be risky when someone could have a "Monopoly" card.  Some people like to be cagey about the way they pose deals, like, "if you had brick to trade, what would you want for it?"  I've described before the "Monopoly give-back," in which you freely trade a lot of one resource away for everything you need, then play the "monopoly" card to get it all back.  As non-confrontational as Euro games are intended to be, there are opportunities to take an opponent down at the knees.

So trading style sometimes comes down to a function of strategy, but it is also an artifact of the personality of the players.  Since boardgames are at heart a social activity, and since trading is inherently interactive, it makes sense that trading styles will vary according to the individuals playing the game.  That quality of sensitivity to the individual playing style is, I think, part of the appeal of Settlers of Catan.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Trains Planes and Automobiles available online!

The September 15 newsletter of Worthington Games announces the debut of their new family/Euro game label, BlueSquare Board Games.  And the first game in the BlueSquare lineup is Trains, Planes, and Automobiles, designed by yours truly!  And I love the retro postcard art by Sean Cooke.
As news correspondents in mid-twentieth-century North America, players race from one news story location to another to complete exclusive assignments and scoop each other to the next big story.  Players travel by air, rail, and highway to locations around the continent and the Caribbean.  The first player to complete seven assignments wins the game.   
This game is fun for parties of adults, kids, and families and was a huge hit with players at the World Boardgaming Championships.  Trains Planes and Automobiles retails for $40.00 and comes with pawns, cards, mounted board, and rules.  It is available to order from http://bluesquareboardgames.com.   
Trains Planes and Automobiles will make a great Christmas gift for the whole family!
I'm very excited about this announcement.  Other forthcoming BlueSquare games are

  • BrainDrain - cross words with your family and friends to score the most letters (available for pre-order)
  • Mazedom - create an ever-changing maze puzzle to entangle your opponents (coming soon)
  • Antarchy (I love the title of this one) - lead the ant colony in search of culinary delights that will satisfy the queen's ravenous appetite (coming soon)

Saturday evening, my good friend Jeff W. invited us over for a dinner party and insisted that I bring TPA for a spin.  The six of us - all grown-ups (according to our drivers' licenses) - had a great time, and as always, I was surprised to see how close the game turned out to be in the end.  I feel that it strikes just the right combination of luck, thoughtful play, and lead balancing mechanics that keep the game fun, even when stranded at the airport in Bermuda in bad weather ... or in Thunder Bay, Canada, with a broken-down rental car.  Everybody was in it to the end, and I love games like that.

I hope more people do, too.

Gaming in a hospital room - what works, what doesn't

I missed my customary Monday blog post because I was in the hospital with a family member.  (The details aren't important, and he's home and fully recovered now.)  He was well enough yesterday to ask to play a game.  We had brought a few games with us for the visit, and the hospital also had a recreation room with a few titles that we could borrow.  We discovered a few things about gaming in the context of a hospital room that we'll remember for next time.

What worked:  Pass the Pigs (designer David Moffatt [or Moffitt] of the original title Pig Mania, now available as Pass the Pigs from publisher Winning Moves) is great for cheering up a hospital patient for a number of reasons.  It is terrifically portable.  It requires very little space on which to play and no set-up to speak of.  It requires little mental and physical effort to take one's turn.  It's good for a laugh.  The game can be interrupted easily without consequence.  It finishes quickly.  It lends itself easily to a re-match if "the pigs are against you" in the first round.

We also brought Uno, which, if we'd played it, I think might have worked almost as well.  There's a little more difficulty in sitting up in bed and holding a hand of cards, depending on the circumstances (like an IV or an awkward bed configuration).  But again, Uno doesn't require a lot of thought or effort, it's good for a laugh, and it interrupts easily.

What didn't work:  The game we borrowed from the hospital game room was Clue: Secrets and Spies (Hasbro).  We actually got this for Christmas last year and played it once as a family, to a decidedly lukewarm reception.  I had wanted to re-visit this title in the hope that perhaps it would gain some appeal with fresh eyes.

Unfortunately, we didn't really get the chance to properly evaluate Clue:S&S as a game.  The hospital room didn't have a proper game table, so we used the over-bed table (normally used for meals in bed).  The game board overlapped the edges of the table, so it was easily knocked.  Game set-up was a little "fiddly" for the context of a hospital room.  In this case, we were particularly hamstrung by the borrowed copy of the game that we had available.  Three significant game pieces were missing.  Two could be replaced with coins representing the missing pieces, but one - a black light for revealing secret text on cards - was indispensible.  The accommodations necessary to play this game under the given circumstances were too great, and we abandoned the effort.

I should make note of one other consideration for playing games in a hospital room.  Hospital-acquired infection is an ever-present risk, mitigated by simple but important hygienic precautions.  It is wise to ensure that hands are sanitized before handling game pieces.  Normally I don't think about who's been handling the pigs, cards, or dice in the game I'm playing, but medical professionals take a number of precautions to minimize the spread of germs in a place where sick people naturally congregate.  (I was particularly mindful of this issue with the borrowed game from the recreation room.)  The hospital had a hand sanitizer mounted outside the door to every room, and antimicrobial soap was available at every sink.  We found ourselves paying a little extra attention to keeping each other healthy and to keeping our own games uncontaminated so that we wouldn't bring home an extra souvenir from the hospital.

Friday, September 9, 2011

How many dice are too many?

My good friend Grant G. hosted six of us for a Firestorm Armada battle on Labor Day weekend.  This was our first time at this science fiction space battle miniatures game for most of us.  As a fan of Wooden Ships and Iron Men, I could really get into this "space naval combat" genre.  Many tactics of the sea still hold true in space - concentrating firepower on one part of the enemy's formation while trying keep the opponent spread out and disconnected.  Other tactics have to change because of the different weapons' firing arcs:  Ships that are strongest when firing straight ahead but can't easily start up from a complete stop require a different deployment from those that are strongest firing broadsides in a line of battle.

One aspect of the game that got a lot of commentary was the dice rolling.  In combat, each ship has a certain number of six-sided attack dice (depending on range and firing arc).  Generally speaking, rolls of 4 or 5 score a  hit, while rolls of 6 each score two hits and add an extra attack die to roll.  So there is considerable potential for multiple extra rolls to score many hits even from a modestly-armed ship if the attacker's luck is good.

But what a few of us found a little unnerving and perhaps cumbersome was the sheer number of dice to roll and re-roll.  It was not uncommon for my Directorate battleship to attack with 17 dice all rolled at once.  Then I would have to sift through the results and set aside the fours and fives, count the sixes, then roll extra dice for each of the sixes.  If the extra dice also included sixes, too, then there would be more dice to roll on top of those.  Sometimes I might score in excess of 20 hits.  But the combat results might only translate into one or two points of damage to the target.  So it was hard to appreciate why so much dice-rolling was necessary for such unspectacular results.

I think some people like rolling huge handfuls of dice in their miniatures games.  As a mathematician, I can appreciate the probability distribution function that results from so many dice combinations.  But as a game player, I tend to prefer a roll-once-and-resolve combat system.

One of my favorite combat systems in a miniatures game appears in De Bellis Antiquitatis and others in the DBx series.  In those games, for each attack, the attacker and defender each roll one six-sided die.  Troop types, adjacent formations, and terrain can add or subtract modifiers to the die rolls.  The modified defender's roll is subtracted from the modified attacker's roll to determine a combat result for that attack.  The system is so elegant and the modifiers so easy to remember that with practice, it is seldom necessary ever to look up anything in a table.  "My spear attack your cavalry."  Roll, roll.  "Okay, three plus four is seven to your five plus  three is eight, I lose, my spear recoils."

There is such a thing as a Combat Results Table (CRT) that is too drastically sensitive to a single die roll.  Avalon Hill games had a tendency to have CRTs that were much more sensitive to the die roll outcome than to the size of the attacking force.  Efforts to alleviate this problem that were published in The General were themselves cumbersome, such as Steve List's "Resolving Fractional Combat Odds" in Volume 16 Number 5 ("Design Analysis").

If the shoe fits...
Something of a combat standard that has emerged is the 20-sided die, or d20.  We often play WarZone, which uses a single d20 for each attack.  A probability distribution over 20 possible die outcomes provides sufficient granularity that small tactical factors have a noticeable but not overwhelming impact on combat, yet the die is easy to handle and the combat quick to resolve.

So the question that came to mind as I reflected on our Firestorm Armada experience was, what would a d20 CRT look like that reflected the Firestorm Armada combat outcome distribution but didn't require so many d6 rolls and re-rolls?  Well, I did a little spreadsheet-cruching to find out, and here's what it looks like:

Hits resulting from one roll of a d20 for any given Attack Dice (AD) rating
d20
AD=1
AD=2
AD=3
AD=4
AD=5
1
0
0
0
0
0
2
0
0
0
1
1
3
0
0
1
1
1
4
0
0
1
1
2
5
0
0
1
1
2
6
0
1
1
2
2
7
0
1
1
2
3
8
0
1
2
2
3
9
0
1
2
2
3
10
0
1
2
3
3
11
1
1
2
3
4
12
1
1
2
3
4
13
1
2
3
4
4
14
1
2
3
4
5
15
1
2
3
4
5
16
1
2
4
5
6
17
1
3
4
5
6
18
2
3
5
6
7
19
3
4
5
7
8
20
4
6
7
8
10
Average
            0.8
            1.6
            2.5
            3.2
            4.0

Okay, so there's nothing intuitive about this CRT - nothing here you could memorize in the way of an algorithm and say, "I have three attack dice, I roll an 11, so that means I get two hits."  Maybe I need to go back to the drawing board on this idea.

Or maybe I just need to get used to rolling big handfuls of six-sided dice.