Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Friday, July 29, 2011

What to pack for a vacation

We recently went on a vacation in the West Virginia mountains for some white-water rafting, horseback riding, paintball, and a zip line canopy tour.  (ACE Adventures, if you're interested.)  In the absence of internet and video games, we anticipated the need for some quality family downtime in the cabin.  So of course that means boardgames!

Last time we went, three years ago, we brought Uno and Guillotine, both of which were successful choices.  This time we wanted more options without having to bring the entire game closet.  So we put together a packing list of games that most of us like.  Everybody got to pick at least one game.  We wanted to have at least three options each for two, three, four, or five players.  At least three of the games had to be accessible to the youngest of us (ten years old).  We were mindful of space limitations, but we didn't necessarily cramp our style if there was something we really wanted to bring.  Here's the list we came up with:
This turned out to be a great list for several reasons, not the least of which is nearly all the games fit in a small tote bag.  (At one point I had 7 Wonders on the list, but the box is a bit bulky, and we already had plenty of options.)  The nice thing about this selection of games is that it has variety, nobody has to play if they don't want to, but we can always find options for any subset of the five of us.

So what did we actually play?  Well, Car-Go Othello got a lot of action during the six-hour drive to West Virginia.  The brilliance in the design of this game is that there are no separate parts.  The board (a six-by-six simplification of the eight-by-eight original Othello) has an integrated rotating piece for each space on the board.  Each space can be rotated to show a green blank, a white piece, or a black piece.  The game can be passed back and forth without risk of something falling on the floor of the car and getting lost under the seat (as happened with Travel Scrabble).

Whirlpool randomizer from
Uno H2O Splash
In the hot tub at our cabin, Uno H2O Splash got a lot of action.  Here is another clever production idea to solve the problem of a challenge game-playing venue.  The cards are clear plastic, printed in such a way that one side shows only the card face, the other only the card back.  The game plays like the familiar Uno with a water-themed twist:  Certain cards have a "splash" icon that, when played, require the next player to take a spin on the "whirlpool," a device rather like a small "Magic 8-ball" with an eight-sided die inside to yield a random outcome that the player must perform.

Sample page from Ace of Aces
Another brilliant game design that got some action was the old classic World War I dogfight game Ace of Aces.  This game requires neither board nor cards but is played with just a pair of books through which players flip from one cockpit view to another as they try to outmaneuver one another and get into firing position to inflict damage on each other's aircraft.  While I was in the Navy, I played this game many times with my chief engineer because it was so well suited to the tight confines of a submarine wardroom.  My sons each successfully chased me out of the skies, but in both cases I was able to escape with my badly damaged plane before being shot down.

We did play a few conventional games during our down-time in the cabin.  Incan Gold played out to an exciting finish, when our ten-year-old left the ruins with the artifact and the lead on the final mission, forcing the rest of us to play out the round until scared away by monsters and leaving him with the win.  Our Pirateer session saw a crazy round in which every player touched the treasure at least once before our ten-year-old stole the treasure on a perfect snake-eyes die roll and brought it home to his harbor just a few turns later.  My wife beat my 18-year-old son and me in Black Jack (using cards from Chicago Cribbage and money from Incan Gold) when she kept betting all her money to get out of the game but kept winning hand after hand.  My wife just destroyed me in a two-player session of Citadels, which is nevertheless still my favorite game right now.

And, oh yes, we were in the mountains of West Virginia, so we did plenty of white-water rafting, horseback riding, paintball, and zip-line canopy touring during the gaps between boardgames.

Six days until I go to World Boardgaming Championships in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Thoughts on approachability

[I'm still on vacation away from the internet, so today's is a re-post of an excerpt from an article from last October.]

Image courtesy of
Rio Grande Games
This week our friendly neighborhood Game Parlor in Woodbridge is having a 20%-off moving sale on nearly everything that's in stock, so the other day I picked up Race for the Galaxy (designed by Thomas Lehmann, published in the U.S. by Rio Grande).  I'd had this on my list since I'd solicited my friends for two-player game ideas to add to our afternoon game session library.  I'd had a lukewarm experience with it at Congress of Gamers a year or two ago, largely because the people I played with were very experienced players and not altogether patient or thorough in explaining the rules.  But I read so many good things on boardgamegeek about it - especially in light of our fondness for Puerto Rico (designed by Andreas Seyfarth, also Rio Grande), with which a number of reviewers compared it - that I thought it was worth a try.

I was very methodical in going through the rules myself and then reviewing them with Kathy.  I think as we played the first time through, we agreed that we understood the mechanics of the game, and the goals, and even how to devise a strategy.  The thing we found frustrating in our first play-through was the abundance and density of symbols on the cards and their varied significance.  I think we went around two or three times on how the "Contact Specialist" worked.  I'm sure veterans of this game are used to the conventions and know what to look for and how to apply the symbols to the game mechanics, but we were each struggling to understand what we were looking at as we played along.  Both of us are confident, though, that's a game that we can learn and come to appreciate.  I'm looking forward to trying again.

There's a lesson here somewhere for me as a game designer, I think.  It's one thing to have a game that is complete in its rules integrity and components, that is a beautiful construct in both form and function, that aficionados come to appreciate for subtlety, nuance, and replayability.  But what about a game's approachability to the novice?  The analogy I think of is a mansion on a mountaintop.  It can be a marvelous engineering construction, stunning in appearance, awe-inspiring in surroundings, luxurious in furnishings ... but if visitors have to climb a rock face to get there and appreciate it, not many people will try.  So I'm coming to appreciate that even an intriciate, complex game needs to have a welcome mat, an entrance ramp, some way of introducing the novice to the game.

Agricola family board
RftG does this to a certain degree, with pre-selected starting hands for the players.  Settlers of Catan has its beginner's board layout; Agricola has its family game.  I remember Avalon Hill developed a rules construct called "Programmed Instruction," in which rules were divided into sections that built on one another.  The new player could read the first section, then play a scenario that depended only on the  rules in that first section.  A second section would introduce more rules, components, and options and would be followed in turn by more scenarios.  Starship Troopers and Tobruk, among others, had this kind of graduated rules approach. 

I don't know; am I asking too much?  Is it reasonable that a gamer should struggle with a game the first time through, until they say, "oh, that's how that rule works," or "that's what that card does"?  Every first-time player of Agricola goes through this, surely.  It's not that I want to play simple games; I just don't want learning a new game to be a struggle.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The mystery of play balance

[I'm on vacation someplace where I don't have internet access, so today's is a re-post from September 2010 when I explored the topic of play balance in game design.]

I mentioned when recounting my game of Stonewall Jackson's Way with Paul R. that we started to wonder whether there was a bias in the game toward the Confederates.  Sure enough, we weren't the first people to think so.  A user on boardgamegeek directed me to Multi-man Publishing's Great Campaigns of the American Civil War "New Scenarios" page, which includes modifications to scenarios from the original Avalon Hill edition.  That page includes a link to proposed modifications to the victory conditions to the Cedar Mountain scenario that Paul and I played.  If those victory conditions had been in effect, I would have played much more aggressively on the third day of the battle, and perhaps much more realistically from the standpoint of how we might have expected Stonewall Jackson to behave in that historical situation.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Arrival of Trains Planes and Automobiles

Trains Planes and Automobiles box art
Wednesday my publisher's shipment of Trains Planes and Automobiles arrived.  I could not have been more happy to have a production version of my game design in my hands, complete with professional art by Sean Cooke.

Trains Planes and Automobiles is a family game for two to six players, age eight and up, who play as news correspondents attempting to race each other to cover the most stories.  The game is set in mid-twentieth century North America, when airlines connected the largest cities, and newly built interstates allowed convenient long-distance travel by car, while trains still served as the workhorses of American transportation.  The board renders a map of most of North America in an old-fashioned post-card style, with Alaska and Hawaii as insets.  Faintly rendered hexagons divide the board into 100-mile-wide spaces for movement.  

Assignment card
The map includes 56 Canadian, American, Mexican, and Carribean cities (including Havana, accessible to the American traveler in the years prior to the Cuban Revolution).  Of the cities on the map, approximately a third have airports for travel by plane, about two-thirds are connected by railroads for travel by train, and the remainder can be reached only by automobile.  A number of island cities can only be reached by plane.  

Travel card
The game includes a deck of 57 "Assignment" cards, one for each city on the map.  The winner of the game is the first player to complete seven Assignments by traveling to assigned cities and claiming the corresponding Assignment Cards.  The game also includes a deck of "Travel" cards that govern movement on the board - by plane (the fastest means, but only between cities that have airports), by train (only along rail lines), or by automobile (anywhere on the mainland, but the slowest method).  The Travel deck also includes ways to slow opponents down (Bad Weather, Train Delays, and Car Breakdowns) as well as bonus abilities for faster travel.  

I have to say that I am really pleased with the feel of the game that Sean Cooke created in the art for this game.  It has a nostalgic atmosphere, with Travel cards showing paper plane tickets and folded road maps.  Assignment cards depict push-pins on destination cities (a subtle nod to a certain well-known earth map computer application).   

That evening my family sat around the dining room table and played my game with a real production copy for the first time.  They had participated in a number of playtests with early home-made prototypes, but it became a whole new experience to enjoy the game as a professionally made, artistically finished product.  My wife jumped to an early head start as she completed three assignments in her first three turns.  The kids of course ganged up on Mom to keep her from running away with the lead, but in the end it was Dad the Designer that won the maiden session of Trains Planes and Automobiles.

Both my sons (ten and 15 years old) said several times that they really had fun playing the game.  I think the gameplay is a nice balance of hand management, racing for goals while disrupting your opponent, and a little card luck as well.  There's no run-away leader, as there are some balancing mechanisms for trailing players to take action to stay in the game.  All in all, I have to say that I am pleased at how much fun TPA turned out to be, and the kids think so to.  I think this can be a real "family game night" hit.  

Worthington Games has published TPA under their new Blue Square label.  The marketing campaign is in work, so the game is not yet available online as the outlets for purchase are still being developed.  They offered TPA for sale for the first time at Origins Game Fair and will be selling it at the Boardgame Players Association's World Boardgaming Championships the first weekend in August. 
I plan to demonstrate Trains Planes and Automobiles in the Juniors Room at WBC starting Thursday 4 August.  

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

World Boardgaming Championships coming in August

The Boardgame Players Association will be holding their annual World Boardgaming Championships convention in Lancaster, PA the week of 1-7 August (with some pre-convention activity in the last days of July).  I'm looking forward to the opportunity to immerse myself in a fun, competitive boardgaming atmosphere.

Even more than playing, though, I anticipate meeting people in the game design and publishing business.  I'm fascinated by different philosophies that govern how people approach game design, and I look forward to engaging designers and developers in the industry to find out how the bring new titles from concept to market.  Clearly the various categories and types of games require different emphases and approaches, but I'm curious to explore differences among the way people design and develop games even within the same genre.  It would be particularly illuminating to find what distinguishes the makers of some of my favorite games (Z-man for example).  I suppose I'd like to learn how best to design the kind of game I like to play.

Britannia, designed by
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher
One designer I specifically intend to meet is Dr. Lewis Pulsipher, whose blog I've followed for quite some time now.  His series of instructional presentations discuss his thoughts on game design.  A good convention provides the opportunity to engage names in the industry and exchange ideas, and this is an opportunity not to be missed.

I am already making long-range plans for WBC 2012.  My intention for next year is two-fold:  To run Trains Planes and Automobiles as an official Juniors Event at WBC, and to bring a playable prototype of my space-mining game for playtesting or perhaps even demonstration to a potential publisher.

It's good to have a focus.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Maybe Werewolf beats Resistance after all

I'd earlier blogged about my recent discovery of The Resistance and my initial impression that it must be better than Are You a Werewolf?  Well, now I'm not so sure, based on two days of family reunion gaming in which I introduced siblings, nieces, and nephews to both games and got some very unexpected reactions.

Image used by permission
of Indie Boards and Cards
First we tried two games of The Resistance (designer Don Eskridge, publisher Indie Boards and Cards), a social deduction game that I'd never played before but which I was convinced would be better than the more familiar Werewolf, particularly for the new crowd.  We found that the secret ballot process was a little clumsy, since we'd be constantly turning in votes, then turning in the unused vote cards, then redistributing them again, once or twice for every mission assignment.  But more to the point, in two games, the Resistance never successfully completed a mission.  In both games, the spies successfully sabotaged three consecutive missions.  Now, I don't know if that's a function of the experience of the players, in which we were invariably approving mission teams with spies in them, or a function of the play balance of the game itself.  So my intention later this week is to research what others have written about play balance in Resistance.

So then at my 15-year-old son's insistence, we switched to Werewolf (derived from the Dimitri Davidov designed Mafia, publisher Looney Labs).  I was worried about how the younger kids would react to the elimination aspect of the game, the killing theme, etc.  Oh, but that was not a problem.  Everybody jumped right into the spirit of the game.  My brother Pete was particularly enthusiastic.  I lost count of how many games of Werewolf we played over the two days.  The games were quite varied, too.  Sometimes we would leap right on the werewolves and eliminate them quickly.  Sometimes the wolves would make short work of the village.  And sometimes there would be long, convoluted debates over who was a wolf, or a seer, and why.  But I think everybody who played had a great time and kept asking to play again.  We even drew something of an audience at the picnic ground at one point.

(c) Looney Labs
Used by permission
So this experience begs the question:  Why did Werewolf turn out to be so much more popular with the family than Resistance?  Frankly, I think that there are two reasons: (1) We had an unfortunate early experience with Resistance appearing to be so lopsided after just two games, and (2) Werewolf really is an engaging, exciting game in its own right.  First, I do want to make sure we got the rules right; if so, I should revisit the play balance in Resistance, because that just seems so unlikely to be a common experience with a game that was so well-reviewed the first time I researched it.

How popular was this game with the family?  Well, my brother Brenden wants me to order a copy for him, and my brother Pete plans to order two copies - one for himself and one for his girlfriend, whose family apparently enjoys playing games.  I feel as though I should get some kind of discount from Looney Labs on my next order from them for all the business we generated...

Friday, July 15, 2011

Social media

My wife the writer has introduced me to the wide world of Facebook as Paul Owen and Twitter as PaulOwenGames.  You can find me there - wading at first, plunging a bit later, I expect.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

He who will not Risk

"He who will not risk cannot win." -- John Paul Jones

1980 reprint of the
1959 classic (but lengthy) Risk
My son (15) and his friend and I played Risk (designer Rob Daviau, publisher Hasbro) Sunday afternoon.  I should note that I was never a big fan of the original Risk (designer Albert Lamorisse [director of the French short film The Red Balloon], publisher Parker Brothers), largely because it simply took too long to play.  It didn't really seem to be much of a strategy game, either, at least not at the age I was playing.  A lot of pushing and shoving, taking territory only to have it taken back. Worst, if it was a multi-player session, it became a player-elimination game, which as anyone who has followed my blog knows is a fundamental flaw in any multi-player game outside of a tournament.

2008 Revised (and much more
enjoyable) Edition of Risk
My opinion of the new Risk, however, is quite the opposite.  With the introduction of objectives and the change in the way cards are traded in for armies, players have some real decisions to make, and that's something I appreciate in a game.  Particularly nice is being able to identify a winner in a reasonable amount of time, rather than requiring world domination simply to end the game.  Generally speaking, a winner emerges long before any single player is really close to elimination.  I think I most appreciate the fact that the facelift addressed only the weaknesses of the game and retained many recognizable, likable elements, right down to the combat mechanism - which is an imperfect attrition system but still an interesting tactical problem at times.

In our three-player game, my capital was in Greenland, my son's in Australia, and his friend's in Argentina.  My son easily took over Australia and moved quickly into southern Asia.  In so doing he completed the "Control 18 territories" objective.  His friend took over South America and a substantial chunk of North America.  I sought my first objective by taking over all of Europe, and succeeded only on my last dice roll.  So I was in a pretty vulnerable position even after my end-of-turn redeployment, and feared that my son's Asian army would roll into Russia.

My son smelled blood in Asia, however, and ignored me in favor of trying to take over the continent.  His friend started the game with a strong holding in Japan, however, and would not fall, so my son's Asian campaign stalled.  His friend sought to finish taking over North America, but he, too, could not complete the task.  As a result, my European position remained unperturbed, which made my next decision rather straightforward - to take over Africa.  Europe gave me five additional armies, and I started everything in central Africa, whence came the great tide.  Once I'd conquered Africa, I agonized over whether to jump the Atlantic and attack Brazil to break up the South American stronghold - but that position wouldn't have been as strong (given the way I left my armies) as it was to attack the Middle East and shore up the defense of my eastern border.  At the end of my turn, I'd taken over my second continent and thus completed my second objective ("Control two continents").

My son and his friend discussed the fact that I held everything from South Africa to Greenland and ought to be squeezed from both sides.  It certainly would have made sense at that point in the game - after only two turns, when I held two objectives of three needed to win - to gang up on me and take apart my continental holdings.  Strangely, however, the desire to control Asia still consumed my son, and after re-taking the Middle East, he turned away from European Russia and instead attacked his friend's holdings, east across the steppes.  His friend then nearly took over North America at that point, but I held my ground in Greenland.  At that point, my continental holdings still remained intact, and I started my third turn with 16 armies and seven cities.  The next step was obvious.  I attacked Brazil to obtain my eighth city and third objective, to win the game.

So I won in three turns, largely I think because my son and his friend allowed their own agendas (occupation of Asia and North America, respectively) to distract them from stopping me from winning.  Nevertheless, I came away convinced more than ever that this re-vamping of Risk has breathed new life into an old classic and made it a fun game to play, far more fun that the original ever was.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Sacked in Citadels

A couple of weeks ago, our good friends Sheila and Keith invited us and our friend Jeff over for dinner and games.  The five of us played Citadels (designer Bruno Faidutti, publisher Fantasy Flight Games), which turned out to be terrific fun.  As it happened, Sheila had an extra copy, so we went home with Citadels as a kind of door prize.  Later we learned that she and Keith had been playing two-player and really enjoying it, so we tried it ourselves this evening.

Citadels has become my favorite game of all - even over 7 Wonders.  The brilliance of the game is in the role selection and sequential role resolution.  When the five of us played, we all seemed to value the Architect most of all for the two free cards he'd offer - until someone would always select the Assassin and kill the Architect.  That seemed to be de riguer in our session that night.  So then people would shy away from the Architect unless they had some reason to believe that they wouldn't be assassinated.  There was a lot of second-guessing, and at one point I had a particularly lucky turn when I selected the thief with the expectation that Sheila (who had six gold pieces) would select the Magician for his card-exchange ability (because she kept complaining about her cards).  My bet paid off, and Sheila was set back more than a turn in building construction when I took her stack of money away.  (If looks could kill .... :-) )

So, fast forward to this evening:  Kathy and I decided to try the two-player variant ourselves, in which each player ends up with two roles.  The brilliance of the two-player game is that you can usually narrow down your opponent's likely roles to two out of four possibilities.  There is often a kind of, "you expect me to take the merchant, so I should take the bishop, except that you know I know you expect me to take the merchant, so you think I'll take the bishop, so I should take the merchant..."

Kathy's winning Citadel
at the base of her wineglass
 In our case, I think I was too willing to build small buildings with the intent to jump to an early lead and get control of triggering the end of the game.  My building efforts stalled out, however, and Kathy ended up building her seventh and eighth buildings in one turn.  That undermined my selection of the Warlord, who had planned to burn down her Church (but could not do so once she had eight buildings).  She ended up beating me both in building points and in building the eighth building first.  Final score - Kathy 36, Paul 31.

I really, really like this game.  I am surprised it has not caught on at PrezCon nor at the World Boardgaming Championships.  Maybe I should do something about that.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Poor Man's Resistance

I stumbled upon a review of The Resistance and immediately thought two things:
(1) this game of hidden identity and "social deduction" should beat Are You a Werewolf? hands down (no small feat, since I'm a huge Werewolf fan) and
(2) this game can be played easily with a small subset of a normal deck of cards.

The game is designed for five to ten players.  Players secretly determine their identities as rebels (attempting to conduct missions) or spies (attempting to sabotage the rebels' efforts) as follows:  From a normal deck of cards, select a number of face cards equal to the number of players such that a third of the cards (rounded up) are red face cards and the remainder are black face cards.  Shuffle the selected face cards and deal them face down, one to each player.  Each player looks at his or her face card to determine whether he or she is a rebel (black) or spy (red).  These secret identity cards remain face down in front of the players for the remainder of the game.

One player is randomly selected as the leader.  Players shield their eyes so that no one can see any of the others.  The leader announces, "spies reveal," and the spies (only) open their eyes and look to see who their fellow spies are.  The leader announces, "spies hide," and the spies close their eyes.  The leader announces "everyone open," and all players open their eyes and begin the game.  By this procedure, all spies should know who all the spies are (and therefore who all the rebels are), whereas each rebel knows only his own identity.  Unlike Werewolf, this is the only occasion in the game when it will be necessary for players to cover their eyes.

The remainder of the game consists of a series of missions.  For each mission, the leader assigns several players to participate in the mission.  The number of people that the leader assigns depends on both the number of players in the game and the mission number to be executed; it varies from two to three players (in the first attempted mission) to three to five players (in the fifth attempted mission) and can be discerned in the table appearing in an image of the gameboard posted on boardgamegeek.

Once the mission team has been selected, players vote openly whether to approve or disapprove the selected mission team.  [Edited for correctness.  In my original post, I mistakenly indicated that the vote to approve or disapprove the mission team was done by secret ballot. - PDO]

If the mission team has been disapproved, the mission is aborted, the role of leader rotates one player to the left, and play resumes as above with the new leader assigning a new mission team to be voted on again by all the players.  (Note that the aborted mission does not "count" as an attempted mission, so the number of players on the mission team does not change.)  If five consecutive missions are aborted, then the game is over, and the spies win.

If the mission team has been approved, then the mission team members (only) each get one red non-face card and one black non-face card.  From these two cards, each mission team member secretly selects a card to execute (black) or sabotage (red) the mission.  Each mission team member turns in his vote face-down to the leader, who shuffles the votes and then turns them face up to determine whether the mission succeeds (all black) or fails (at least one red).  There is an exception to the requirements for a successful mission:  In games of at least seven players, on the fourth mission only, at least two sabotage (red) votes are required to cause a mission to fail.

If this was the third successful mission, then the game is over, and the rebels win.  If this was the third failed mission, then the game is over, and the spies win.  Otherwise, the role of leader rotates one player to the left, and play resumes as above with the new leader assigning a new mission team to be voted on by all the players.

The brilliance of this game relative to Werewolf is that it requires no referee (i.e. everybody gets to play) and - most important to me - does not eliminate players over the course of the game.  Also nice is that it is only necessary for players to cover their eyes once at the beginning of the game to allow spies to identify one another (unlike Werewolf, which requires players to close their eyes in every round).

The reviews I have read and seen are quite exciting, and I look forward to trying this game out with a decent-sized group.

I should add that the original game comes with a small expansion set of cards that provide the leader with some additional "powers" to make the game more interesting, so there's motivation for buying the game regardless.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Release of the eagerly awaited Trains Planes and Automobiles

Well, it sneaked into the marketplace with little fanfare, but Worthington Games released my game Trains Planes and Automobiles under their new Blue Square label at Origins Game Fair last weekend.  It is not yet available from them online as they work out their marketing strategy.  More to follow.