Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Family playtest of East India Company

My mother-in-law Agnes enjoys the occasional boardgame, and she is not afraid to try out something new.  She was even one of my early playtesters of East India Company in its most rudimentary form.  Sunday afternoon, she agreed to revisit the game in its latest rendition, along with my wife Kathy and son Patrick.  I am grateful to get this shakedown of the current form of rules about three weeks prior to the Unpub 3 event in Dover on Martin Luther King weekend.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Shadows and Assassins

Last Tuesday night my friends and I played an "after school special," a gaming get-together after work at Game Parlor in Chantilly, Virginia.  There's one almost every week, but I usually only get to about one a month, so I always enjoy the opportunity to get with a larger group and play something different.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Wiping out Pandemic

It has been a long time since Kathy and I have beaten Pandemic (designer Matt Leacock, artists Josh Cappel and Régis Moulun, publisher Z-Man Games).  We usually don't play it in a two-player setting, but today I got a hankering to pull it out again, and I'm glad we did.  Since we had such early success with the game in "easy" mode, we've been playing in "normal" mode for quite some time but somehow never managed to beat it at that level of difficulty.  We've run out of cubes of a color, we've reached the end of the Outbreak track, we've run out of player cards ... basically we've lost every way there is to lose.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

WBC: Thinking about August in December

I'll preface my remarks by stipulating that I am a relatively new member of the Boardgame Players Association, and all I know is based on what I read in the newsletter and elsewhere online.  None of this represents any kind of official news or information from the BPA.  Caveat lector.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Clash on the Coral Sea

My friend and colleague Frank H. and I met again over the game table.  Over the last few months we've played three rounds of Midway (designerLarry Pinsky and Lindsley Schutz, publisher Avalon Hillwith a number of optional rules attached.  This time, Frank broke out his copy of the "Coral Sea" expansion, and we set our clocks back to May 1942 to determine the fate of Port Moresby, New Guinea.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Bellwether interview

About once a month, Bellwether Games interviews a game designer on their blog.  Over the last year and a half, they've asked some illuminating questions of designers in the field.  This month, they were gracious enough to ask me to take a turn in the barrel, and I took full advantage of the opportunity to espouse my thoughts on games and game design.

Oh, and by the way, I happened to notice (no, they didn't ask me to mention) that Bellwether is selling Drop Site (designer Dennis Hoyle, artists Guray Emen and Paolo Vallerga) at 30% off, plus free shipping.  I first heard of this game when it won the Carta Mundi prize for Best Card Game in the 2010 Premio Archimede game design competition.  I haven't played it myself, but from what I've read, it looks like an excellent candidate for a stocking stuffer.

Go forth and see last month's answers

Tom Gurganus posed a provocative "Question of the Month" for October:  "Where are the new game mechanisms?"  He received a fascinating variety of answers from a number of thoughtful designers.  Worth a perusal.

Coming up:  An interview with Bellwether Games

Friday, November 23, 2012

Holiday gift guide

(c) boardgamegeek.com
Used by permission
Occasionally I'll get requests from friends for boardgame recommendations, and I've posted some targeted lists for specific demographics and situations (see links below).  But today I'm going to tip my hat to the folks at boardgamegeek.com, who have assembled a terrific holiday gift guide.  The recommendations on their list are uniformly excellent.  I could certainly come up with my own holiday list as well, but if anyone asks me for recommendations for boardgames as gifts, boardgamegeek is the first place I will send them.

The boardgamegeek holiday list has but two shortcomings.  First, it does not include my own Trains Planes and Automobiles, which is appropriate for any family with kids ages eight and up.  (Okay, shameless self-promotion complete.  Moving on.)

Thursday, November 22, 2012

A game of "A Game of Thrones"

(c) Fantasy Flight Games
Used by permission
Last night my friend Brian G. had five of us over for a six-player game of A Game of Thrones (designer Christian T. Petersen, artists Tomasz Marek Jedruszek and Henning Ludvigsen, publisher Fantasy Flight).  I'd played this once before, at Grant G.'s house, and really liked it.  This time I played as the House of Lannister.  I started quick and moved out into the front of the pack in number of castles and supplies and expanded out into the center of the board, in direct violation of my two general rules for multi-player every-man-for-himself wargames:  Don't peak too early (and make yourself a target for everybody else) and don't be in the middle of the map (and make yourself a target for everybody else).

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Rules redlines

East India Company
prototype photo
Just a quick note that I've made some modifications to rules to "East India Company" based on the 8 November playtest.  The most drastic change was to move all the ship operations and unloading steps from the end of the turn to the beginning of the turn.  "Mike from Boston" made this recommendation after having read the actual rules while watching us play.  It makes a lot of sense for several reasons.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Carthage and Old Dominion

Pondering my next action
in Traders of Carthage
Last night Kathy and I played Traders of Carthage (designer Susumu Kawasaki, artists Peter Gifford and You Satouchi, publisher Z-man), which is quickly making its way onto our "regular" list of cocktail-hour games.  We are each beginning to dive deeper into the tactics and strategy of this little gem of a card game.  I came away with a substantial victory this time, but not for lack of some excellent play on Kathy's part.  ToC can be a real, fun mental exercise.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Trade triangles in "East India Company"

Perhaps the most infamous trading triangle, slaves
for agricultural products for manufactured goods
Source: African Cultural Center USA
A very brief note on a subtle change to "East India Company" tonight:  In my last playtest, Mike R. recommended that I modify some of the commodity tiles, deliberately duplicating some of the key production or buying tiles so as to strengthen the probability of creating a "trading triangle."  Most students of history are already familiar with the concept - a product is purchased in Port A and shipped to Port B, where it is sold and the proceeds used to purchase B's product.  That product is now shipped to Port C, where it is sold and the proceeds used to purchase C's product.  That product in turn is shipped back to Port A, where it is sold to restart the cycle.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Tsuro, Settlers, and Time Travellers

(c) Calliope Games.
Used by permission
One of my posts last Thursday described my initial impression of Tsuro of the Seas, a recent variation on the Calliope Games gem Tsuro (designer Tom McMurchie; artists Shane Small, Cathy Brigg, and Sarah Phelps; publisher Calliope Games).  Playing TotS made me want to revisit the original Tsuro, which my good friend Grant Greffey had given us for Christmas a couple of years ago.  As it happened, we had in turn recently given a copy to our friend Jeff, so on the occasion of having a number of friends over for dinner and games, he was happy to break it out and give it a spin.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Running the numbers in East India Company

I've mentioned several times that I'm worried about game length in "East India Company."  Each turn has a "New Colony Phase" in which a tile is drawn from a bag and added to one of the seven colonies on the board.  There are 21 tiles, three for each colony.  My previous rules held that the tile draw would trigger game end when all seven colonies had at least two tiles.  But the Congress of Gamers playtest ran the maximum possible length, when the second China tile didn't come out until all 18 tiles on the other six colonies had been drawn.  That turned out to be too long.

After-school special: East India and Tsuro of the Seas

My friends Frank Hodge, Keith Ferguson, and Mike R. and I got together this evening for a couple of games at Game Parlor in Chantilly, Virginia, after work today.

East India Company
The guys were gracious enough to agree to another playtest of "East India Company."  It was Mike's first time with it, but Keith and Frank had each played at least once.  As I mentioned in my previous post, I increased the ship speeds, allowed for ship upgrades as an alternative to building ships, and added a new game-end trigger condition.  The first two measures were intended to improve the cost-effectiveness of investing in ships, and the third was intended to shorten overall game length.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Playtesting preparations

Tomorrow after work I plan to bring my prototype of "East India Company" to Game Parlor in Chantilly, Virginia, for a playtest session with some of my gaming buddies.  One problem I had with this prototype at the UnPub ProtoZone event at Congress of Gamers last month was that the labels I had made for the ships didn't stick well to the spray-painted basswood ship pieces that I'd made.  So I spent this evening re-gluing all the labels with Elmer's white glue.  I'll leave them to dry overnight in the hope that they won't start peeling off again tomorrow afternoon.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Reading all the rules

I can't count the number of times I've gotten rules wrong in learning boardgames.  It seems as though every time I learn a game for the first time, I get something wrong.  Even worse, I am often the person in the group charged with reading the rules and then explaining the game to the other player(s), so I propagate my misunderstanding to other innocent souls.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Close Camels in Samarkand

Cocktail hour came with camels, pretzel chips, and hummus as we broke out Samarkand: Routes to Riches (designers David V.H. Peters and Harry Wu, artist Jo Hartwig, publisher Queen Games).  I really like this game of Middle East merchant families and camel caravans.  Both Kathy and I have come to appreciate the scoring focus on expanding trading routes to products whose cards we hold and especially on forming trade relationships between families in which we have an interest.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Lessons Learned in Le Havre

For today's cocktail hour game, Kathy and I selected one that we both like but are still getting the hang of, the worker-placement masterpiece Le Havre (designer Uwe Rosenberg, artists Klemens Franz and Uwe Rosenberg, publisher Lookout Games [website in German]).  We've played three times before; Kathy won the first two, and I managed to win the last one.  This time we fell into a familiar pattern - Kathy kept beating me to the punch, with the knockout blow being a big shipment of leather and bread for 26 Francs.  I had some high-point buildings, plus both an iron ship and a steel ship, but it wasn't enough to overcome Kathy's strong position (including the 22-point steel mill), so she won 117 to 96.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Is two-player St. Petersburg a runaway?

(c) Rio Grande Games
Used by permission
Hurricane Sandy motivated me to leave work early this afternoon, which provided Kathy and me the Saint Petersburg (designer Michael Tummelhofer alias Bernd Brunnhofer, artist Doris Matthaus, publisher Rio Grande).  I've really come to like St.P. as a multi-player game, and I really hoped that it would work well as a two-player option.  I have to say that the jury is still out, though, on whether this will become a cocktail-hour regular.
opportunity to play our first complete two-player round of

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Changing history and other fun things with card games

I had a string of boardgame losses last week.  My last post recounted my thumping at the hands of Frank H. in Midway.  The next evening, my wife Kathy beat me in 7 Wonders with the Pyramids of Giza over my Statue of Zeus in Olympia.  And then the following afternoon, she beat me in one of our very favorite games, Citadels in which we used the alternate Tax Collector and Abbott.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Mauled at Midway

This evening after work, my colleague Frank H. and I met for a reprise of our customary (if infrequent) game of Midway (designers Larry Pinsky and Lindsley Schutz, publisher Avalon Hill).  Last time, we'd introduced a few rules modifications from the Wargamers Guide to Midway, most notably a variable order of battle (OOB) based on a chit draw.  Well, apparently that inspired Frank dramatically, because he spent quite a bit of time researching and revising the possible alternate OOBs as well as other optional rules, so that the game we played today was a considerably souped-up version of the Avalon Hill classic.

Monday, October 15, 2012


This afternoon's backyard boardgame session was cut short by Mother Nature.  We finished a quick game of Pirateer, but we hadn't got very far into a round of Ingenious Challenges: "Dice Challenge" before rain unexpectedly intervened and chased us inside.  That's the first time we've ever had a game interrupted by weather.

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Backyard Traders of Carthage

My wife and I love this time of year.  The crisp air and the fall foliage call us to our backyard refuge, where we start a little fire in the firebowl, set out the cheese and crackers and cocktails, and play our afternoon game.  Today it was our new favorite, a bring-and-buy acquisition at Congress of Gamers - Traders of Carthage (designer Susumu Kawasaki, artists Peter Gifford and You Satouchi, publisher Z-man).

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

CoG Unpub Protozone Report, Part 3

Finishing up my after-action report on the Unpub ProtoZone event at Congress of Gamers.
[Edit:  The "Dr. Wictz" design team has changed the name of their game from "Pole Position" to "Post Position," so I have updated it here for correctness. - PDO]

Post Position
Austin Smokowicz and Aaron Honsowetz
with "Post Position"
The Unpub Protozone was organized to have us designers pre-register to bring our designs in for playtesting, but in fact the event was actually pretty open-ended.  Two fellows I'd never met before, Aaron Honsowetz and Austin Smokowicz, came in and asked Darrell Louder if they could get their game design playtested even though they hadn't pre-registered.  As it happened, there was an open table, so Darrell said, "Sure, no problem, go ahead and set up."  And thus the game "Post Position" was introduced to the Unpub.

Monday, October 8, 2012

CoG: Unpub Protozone Report, Part 2

Tonight's post continues my accounts of games playtested in the Congress of Gamers designers room last weekend.

T.C. Petty III considers his next
chemical concoction in
The game I specifically remembered from the CoG design room last year and really wanted to play again was Darrell Louder's "Compounded," a game of set construction with a particularly unique theme - building molecular compounds by combining elements.  Darrell calls it "better gameplaying through chemistry."  Players draw crystals from a bag whose six colors represent elements.  An array of 16 cards in the center of the table depicts different molecular diagrams that players can populate with element crystals to complete and score the corresponding compounds.  Some compounds are flammable and can be lost or even cause chain reactions.  All compounds score points when completed, but some also enable a player to draw more elements from the bag, store more on his workbench, claim more compounds for future scoring, or place more elements in a single turn.  Some also provide other particular special benefits.

Congress of Gamers: Unpub Protozone Report, Part 1

This weekend saw a two-day session of game design playtesting at the Congress of Gamers in Rockville, Maryland.  CoG was the venue for an Unpub Protozone event in which several designers convened to have prototypes playtested and to compare notes on game design, development, and publication.  I had a terrific time with a number of energetic, imaginative game designers and saw some clever prototypes.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Quick note on Congress of Gamers

A very quick note after the first day of Congress of Gamers 2012:  I spent most of the day in the designers room.  Detailed notes to follow in a subsequent post.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Prototype photos

At last, I've finished the second prototype of "East India Company," right down to the makeshift box art and player's aids.  This will be the copy that I bring to Congress of Gamers in Rockville, Maryland, this weekend.  I hope to gain a lot of feedback and really refine this rough cut gem into something special.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Prototype fever

Prototype art for English galleon game piece
As I mentioned Monday, this week is prototype week for "East India Company."  I've designed the stickers that will go on the ships and player tokens.  I picked up some bass wood and spray paint at Michaels craft store.  Last night I uploaded some updated gameboard art to the Superior POD website so they could finish my order and, I hope, ship it by tomorrow.

This evening I cut 25 "ships" out of the 1/16"-thick bass wood.  The next step will be spray painting all the wooden pieces in the five player colors.  I'm having a lot of fun spending time on the physical components; my first prototype was a very rudimentary hand-drawn paper affair - functional, not pretty.  It's nice to take the time to put together something that I hope will be nice looking as well as fun to play.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Favorite 2011 game

The following tweet inspired this post:

In that spirit, my Best Board Game of 2011 is Trajan. Last Will is a close second. Lots of games tied for third. Lots more unplayed.

Gil H. designed Prolix (artist Gary Simpson, publisher Z-man).  His tweet made me wonder, "how many 2011 games did I buy, and which would be my favorite?"

So as it happens, I bought seven games published in 2011:
  • Band of Brothers: Screaming Eagles
  • Belfort
  • Scrabble Turbo Slam
  • Sour Apples to Apples
  • Star Fluxx
  • Struggle for Catan
  • Trains Planes and Automobiles
So, the self-serving answer to the question would be that my favorite 2011 game should be Trains Planes and Automobiles.  And I do like my own game, but the fact is that TPA isn't the first of these seven that I'd choose to play.  It would be my first choice to play with kids, even over SAtA.  

But my favorite game of this list would have to be Belfort.  That's a game that has some depth and potential.  It's funny to find myself picking this game as my top acquisition of 2011 publications, given that Kathy and I found it less than satisfying as a two-player game.  But I was so impressed with it in the five-player session after work last week that I think it deserves top billing for last year's releases.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Battle Line in the Back Yard

Back yard setting for Battle Line
Fall is really our favorite time of year for sitting out back in the yard.  We have a fire in the firebowl, we set up cocktails and snacks, and play a small game on the little glass table outside.  This evening, after I got home from work, we sat down to beer and wine and Battle Line (designer Reiner Knizia, artists Rodger B. MacGowan and Mark Simonitch, publisher GMT).

I really like this game.  In fact, I'd go so far as to say Battle Line is my favorite Knizia game.  It's perhaps the most knife-edge card game I know.  You really never want to waste a move in this game, never want to make an unnecessary commitment of a card to a slot.  It's playing the odds, it's card luck, but mostly, it's calculated risk-taking.  Not exactly a push-your-luck game, BL is really a strategic game of options and opportunity cost.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Prototype progress

The last week has seen a lot of preparation for Congress of Gamers and the UnPub ProtoZone event on Columbus Day weekend in Rockville, Maryland.  I've been putting together a new prototype for "East India Company" in anticipation of getting some playtesting and exposure of the game in an exhibition environment.  My son helped me with the basics of Adobe Photoshop to put together a nice map layout.  I've got an order in to Superior Print-on-demand (Superior POD) for a mounted version of the mapboard that I hope will be ready in time for CoG.  Meanwhile I've been assembling materials to make up some nice game pieces.  So it has all been coming together, and I look forward to showing off my work-in-progress.

My focus has been more on constructing the prototype than on refining the gameplay, so the rules tweaks that will be in place are the ones I identified at the last round of playtesting at WBC.  I hope to get more comments and improvements out of the CoG designers room.  From there I should get a sense of how close to pitch-ready the game really is.  I'm getting pretty excited about EIC, and I look forward to sharing my excitement in a couple of weeks.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Building Belfort

(c) Tasty Minstrel Games
Used by permission
This evening after work, Frank H., Brian G., Mike R., Keith F., and I got together and cracked open Belfort  (designers Bamboozle Brothers Jay Cormier and Sen-Foong Lim, artist Joshua Cappel, publisher Tasty Minstrel).  I had played a couple of times in its two-player form but never finished a game all the way through because my wife Kathy and I just didn't find it altogether engaging.  I hoped that perhaps the game would be more fun with more players.

Most of us are fairly familiar with the usual Euro game mechanics, and we found that Belfort is replete with those worker-placing, resource-gathering, building-constructing, area-occupying, hand-managing functions that characterize the genre.  Oh, and there's elves and dwarves and gnomes.  (Sure, why not?)  I'd set up the game by the time the fifth of us arrived, so we launched right into rules explanation and got started.  We had the occasional, "oh, I didn't know that" moments where yours truly hadn't quite explained the rules clearly (although I swear I said everything I said I said), but generally the gameplay went well.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Was Alexander the Great a runaway leader?

This afternoon, Kathy and I played Alexandros (designer Leo Colovini, art by Grafik Studio Krüger [website in German], publisher Rio Grande), which was a gift from some years ago.  Although we hadn't played in a while, we've both done well against each other, so it was fun to bring back to the table.

Alexandros is a semi-thematic game of area control and card management with an interesting mechanism for moving the neutral Alexander piece around the map of his empire and carving it up into provinces for the players to occupy and tax.  The map is clearly recognizable as a representation of the extent of Alexander's empire, and the roles of the players as generals fits with the historical fracturing of his empire.  Beyond that and the Hellenistic iconography, the game is fairly abstract. The decision space isn't very large, but it can be a brain-burner.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Boardgame landscape 76 years ago

Last year I wrote about the shortcomings of Monopoly as a case study for game design.  I caveated my criticism of the game with the observation that it is still among the best-selling games of all time.  One reader commented that there might not have been a lot of competition for Monopoly when it first caught fire as an American staple.  Re-reading that post inspired me to have a look at what boardgame options were available back when Parker Brothers introduced Boardwalk and Park Place to the gaming public.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Labor Day weekend gaming

We marked the three-day Labor Day weekend celebrating American workers with several boardgaming sessions.  (In other words, we commemorated work by playing.)

Image courtesy of
Rio Grande Games
Friday evening, Kathy and I had our friend Theresa H. over for a game of Puerto Rico, one of our very favorites but one that we seldom get to play in its original three-to-five player form.  The three of us ended up very close in shipping and building points, but Kathy won with a strong showing of bonus points from the fortress and city hall.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Thought processes and algorithms

I was recently asked to help design the Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithm for an iOS app based on a boardgame with which I am familiar.

[I admit to a pet peeve regarding the use of the term "AI" to represent algorithm-driven characters and players in computer games.  I consider Artificial Intelligence to be much more sophisticated than simple state-driven rule sets.  Few if any computer and video games are truly artificially intelligent.  But that's okay.  I accept the terminology for what it is - adulteration of the English language.  There.  I've said it.  Now I can let it go.]

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Worker placement gold standard - another Agricola session

It seems that I can never talk about worker-placement games without comparing them to Agricola (designer Uwe Rosenberg, artist Klemens Franz, publisher Z-Man), which I guess was my first introduction to the genre and the one nearest to my gaming heart.  It has become the standard against which I measure all other worker-placement games.  Tonight, Kathy and I decided to drag it to the table again, and this old favorite still satisfies as much as it ever did.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Worker placement - comparison and contrast

My wife Kathy and I have played two worker-placement games in the past three days, and we've come to form very different opinions about the two of them.

(c) Tasty Minstrel Games
Used by permission
Friday we played Belfort (designers Bamboozle Brothers Jay Cormier and Sen-Foong Lim, artist Joshua Cappel, publisher Tasty Minstrel), which I'd put high on my wishlist based on a number of strong recommendations.  The appeal of Belfort is clear - it combines a number of Euro-game elements in a rather interesting format.  DiceHateMe Games called it the Game of the Year for 2011.  There is some area control going on, resource optimization, construction - all the things you expect in a Euro game these days.

Friday, August 24, 2012

American battleships at Midway

Wednesday afternoon, my friend and colleague Frank H. and I got together after work for our re-match in Midway (designers Larry Pinsky and Lindsley Schutz, publisher Avalon Hill).  We first clashed over the Pacific in June, when I played the Americans and Frank the Japanese.  This time, we switched roles, so that I commanded the forces of the Imperial Japanese Navy and Frank those of the United States Navy.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Lemming luncheon

My wife Kathy, my eleven-year-old son, and I inaugurated one of my WBC acquisitions this evening -- the light-hearted Leaping Lemmings (designers John Poniske and Rick Young, artists Rodger MacGowan, Leona Preston, and Mark Simonitch, publisher GMT).  This fox-and-geese variation is actually a symmetric game, in which each player has a faction of lemmings seeking to evade the eagles, whose control rotates among the players.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

The game time conundrum

This isn't a new problem, but it's a problem that has recently really come sharply into focus.  I've been playing plenty of two-player games at home, and several multi-player Euros with friends.  But a number of other games and genres have caught my attention on which I'd like to spend more time and energy:

Friday, August 17, 2012

WBC: Acquire and acquisitions

Early in our game of Acquire.
I had a majority holding in Worldwide
(the purple hotel to the right), but
that wasn't enough to prevail
One of the great things about game conventions is that I get to play games that I never play at home.  One of those is Acquire (designer Sid Sackson, artist Kurt Miller, publisher Wizards of the Coast), which I played at WBC last week with Roger B. of Providence, Rhode Island, and the GM, Cliff Ackman of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  I first learned Acquire in a demo at PrezCon some years ago, and even bought a copy on eBay, but didn't give it much thought until my friend Rebecca E. remarked on it in comparison to Chicago Express last year.  That comment, plus a Little Metal Dog Show endorsement as a "stone cold classic," re-fired my interest, and I made a point to play Acquire at PrezCon last February.  I am definitely on a learning curve with this game.  I love the tense jockeying for majority shareholder investment, although I think that the tile draw aspect can introduce too much of a luck factor sometimes.  In our game last week, Roger couldn't draw a tile to start a hotel chain to save his life.  I thought I played reasonably well, but not well enough to beat the experienced Cliff.  I do very much enjoy Acquire, though, and I hope to get to play it more often.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

WBC: Designers' forum

One of the great things about a convention like the World Boardgaming Championships is having the opportunity to interact with fellow designers.  The open gaming room at WBC was practically an informal design laboratory of demonstrations and playtesting.

TC Petty III's Viva Java
Image courtesy of
Dice Hate Me Games
My friend Keith F. and I had only the briefest chat with one of my favorite designers, T.C. Petty III, whom I met at WBC last year when he was demonstrating the semi-cooperative Viva Java, a game that has already seen its successful Kickstarter campaign and has a Dice Hate Me release expected this month.  T.C. is working on a couple of ideas that sound characteristically original and off-beat.  It will be fun to see what creations find their way to production out of his unique perspective on game design.

Sunday, August 12, 2012

WBC: Wooden Ships semifinal and final

I was pleased to qualify for the semifinal in the World Boardgaming Championships Wooden Ships and Iron Men tournament.  The previous year, I'd lost in the semi-final to Evan Hitchings, and as it happened, this year would provide the opportunity for a rematch.

Semi-final: Frigate frenzy
For the semi-final, we were each given the opportunity to choose from among three orders of battle:
  • Two elite-crewed American frigates, including one 44-gun ship
  • Three crack-crewed British frigates
  • Four French frigates - one crack and three average

Friday, August 10, 2012

Thursday, August 9, 2012

WBC: "Ethics in Gaming" revisited

At WBC on Thursday last week, Joel Tamburo hosted his annual seminar on Ethics in Gaming.  This was my second opportunity to attend.

I arrived a little late and found myself in the middle of a conversation on the interpretation of rules
Signing of the Constitution of the United States
U.S. Government.  Public domain
ambiguities.  Not entirely a matter of ethics, the question on the floor seemed to center around whether an unaddressed action in the rules should be allowed (because the rules don't prevent it) or prohibited (because the rules don't allow it or provide for it).  Peter, an attorney, likened the question to that of Constitutional interpretation, whereby some people hold that rulings on Constitutionality ought to depend on the intent of the founders at the time that they wrote it, as best we can determine from other writings at the time.  Others hold that interpretation of the Constitution necessarily changes with the times, and so it is with game rules:  It doesn't matter how the game designer wanted you to play the game; what matters is how the players want to play.  So, then, the question became, does the designer's intent matter?

Monday, August 6, 2012

World Boardgaming Championships: Wonders, ships, and farmers

Last Thursday, I arrived at the World Boardgaming Championships in Lancaster, Pennsylvania with a "flexible plan" (which is just one step above no plan at all) of how best to enjoy this annual trek to the highlight event of the Boardgame Players Association.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

World Boardgaming Championships 2012: Quick note upon return

I just got home earlier tonight from the World Boardgaming Championships (WBC) in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.  A quick note before going to bed, with more to follow:
  • 7 Wonders: quarterfinals, and the loss of a card
  • "Ethics in gaming" seminar
  • Agricola with the Interactive deck
  • Wooden Ships and Iron Men:  Made the finals but lost
  • Acquire:  Still learning
  • "East India Company" demo/playtest
  • Heartland Hauling: first impressions
  • War Time:  Reprise
  • Mars Needs Mechanics:  Gaslight supply and demand
  • Trains Planes and Automobiles: My first event as GM
  • Acquisitions: Chicago Express, St. Petersburg, and Leaping Lemmings
  • A gift: 1949 edition of Clue

Thursday, August 2, 2012

East India Company: Turn sequence re-work pays off

After work today, I got a fourth playtest of "East India Company" with my friends Brian G. and Frank H.  Earlier this week, I'd completely reworked the turn sequence to improve the flow of decision-making and order of events, plus I added a couple of commodity tiles to the initial set-up to open up the early game.

Monday, July 30, 2012

East India Company: More playtesting, more adjusting

My family and I did another run-through of "East India Company" this weekend with my wife, my 19-year-old son, and my mother-in-law, of all people, who isn't afraid to learn something new from time to time.  I made some adjustments to correct the issue with the pace of the game this time, and I wanted to see how effective they were.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

HistoriCon 2012: A Submariner's Life and a Gathering Storm

I must say that HistoriCon offered many more lecture opportunities than I've seen at my favorite boardgame conventions, WBC and PrezCon.  After the "Battle for Manila Bay," I turned my sights to a series of presentations by historians on topics of interest.

Monday, July 23, 2012

HistoriCon 2012: High Noon and the Battle of Manila Bay

High Noon
Image (c) Leo Walsh
Used by permission
Friday morning at HistoriCon opened with a demonstration of High Noon (designer and self-publisher Leo Walsh), a home-grown 19th Century Western skirmish game.  Leo had a large, elaborate Western landscape set up in 25mm scale - right down to gullies that descended below table-top level and bald eagles that graced some of the rock formations.  The rules were pretty detailed, and I particularly liked the wounding mechanism (example to follow).

Sunday, July 22, 2012

HistoriCon 2012: Borg Attack

Thursday afternoon at HistoriCon 2012 saw me in command of Star Fleet's task force at Wolf 359, assigned to stop the approaching Borg cube that threatened Earth.  The task force consisted of approximately twenty capital ships and perhaps ten interceptors.  The fleet focused nearly all firepower on the Borg propulsion systems to slow its progress toward Earth.  The Borg destroyed a number of Excelsior-class and other major starships with its torpedo missiles and did considerably damage to the fleet with beam weapons and collisions, but our unrelenting focus on propulsion turned out to be successful, as we rendered the cube dead-in-space outside weapon range from Earth.

HistoriCon 2012: A boardgamer's reflection

HistoriCon came to Virginia this year, and though miniatures gaming takes a distant second to my boardgaming preference, I couldn't let the opportunity pass to spend at least a couple of days in the world of scratch-built terrain and tape measures.  Inexcusably, I forgot to bring a camera both days that I attended, a virtual crime at a miniatures convention.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Games for a family of three (or four)

A co-worker recently asked me for recommendations for boardgames that she and her family might play together.  They have a 17-year-old son.  They need something that is perhaps more than just a "gateway" game, but not by much.  They play Settlers of Catan, but that seems to be about as complicated as they want to get.  They like Apples to Apples, Taboo, and Catch Phrase, but those games are more suited to a larger group.

Monday, July 16, 2012

East India Company playtest

While on vacation, I arm-twisted my family into playtesting my work-in-progress "East India Company" again.  I'm not proud of it, but it was necessary, and it was fruitful.

In this round, I incorporated a number of notes from our previous playtest.  I drastically - and successfully - simplified the process for declaring dividends for bonus points.  Also, since the previous game ended just when it seemed to get going, I lengthened the game from a minimum of 11 to a minimum of 15 turns.  I made this adjustment despite my general concern about the overall playtime.  

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Ethics in gaming: Reflections on the WBC seminar

[While on vacation in North Carolina, in anticipation of going to the World Boardgaming Championships in Pennsylvania in a few weeks, I scheduled a re-post of one of my most popular articles, a reflection on the "Ethics in Gaming" seminar from the 2011 WBC convention.  Originally appeared 15 August 2011]

Last week at the World Boardgaming Championships, Joel Tamburo led a fascinating seminar on ethics in gaming.  I had no idea what to expect and was pleasantly surprised at the directions that the conversation took.  Right away, the group explored the question of whether it is ethically acceptable to lie in the course of a game.  The immediate example that came up is Diplomacy, a game only half-facetiously blamed for ruining good friendships.  A consensus emerged that there is an understanding that in a game like Diplomacy, lying is an expected part of negotiation.  Although success requires alliances, winning sooner or later requires betrayal.  So as long as it is understood among players that lying is - or can be - part of the game, then that becomes part of the game's acceptable code of ethics.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Tumbling through Troyes

[I'm on vacation, so I scheduled this post on my early impressions of Troyes to publish while I'm away.]

I put Troyes (designers Sebastien Dujardin, Xavier Georges, and Alain Orban; artist Alexandre Roche; publisher Z-man Games) on my Christmas wish list based largely on Ender Wiggins' description as "perhaps the best medium-weight game for Euro gamers that emerged in 2010."  So far I've only had three sessions, all of them two-player with my wife.  We only got through one or two rounds the first time, and I don't think we finished the second time either, but one recent evening we got all the way to the end, despite ourselves.

I can see the appeal of this game to the Euro crowd.  Players are dealing in dice in three colors, influence points, deniers (money), meeples, and victory points.  Actions involve frequent exchanges among the different elements - spending influence to modify dice, using dice to obtain influence, using dice to acquire money, spending money to obtain dice, spending influence to obtain meeples, spending money to move meeples to take actions ... The astute reader will have caught on by now that Troyes is steeped in the Euro practice of resource optimization among disparate parameters.  As a dice placement game, Troyes adds dice luck to the mix.

The activity cards in three categories - clerical, military, and civil - provide the primary engines for converting dice (the workforce) into money, points, influence, or even modifications to other dice, with varying degrees of efficiency.  We are still new to the game and trying to grasp the activity card symbols relative to their actual functions; as it is, we refer to the Appendix page every time a new card is turned up to be sure we understand how it works.
My orange meeples executing my strong military strategy - three in the castle plus the Diplomat and Troubadour

One source of confusion to us early on is the pricing for purchasing dice from other players or from the neutral district to use in your own activity.  The important thing to remember before buying any dice is that for any given action, a player may opt to use one, two, or three dice.
  • If one die will be used, the price of buying a die is two deniers.  
  • If two dice will be used in the action, the price for each die purchased will be four deniers.  Note that purchased dice may be combined with a player's own dice to complete an action.
    So for example, if I want to use two dice to conduct an action - one of my own, and one that I purchase from a neutral district - then I have to pay four deniers for the die that I purchase.  (That one die would only have cost two deniers if it was the only die that I used in my action, but the fact that I am using it as part of an action involving two dice means that the price for the purchased die is four deniers.)
    If I want to purchase two dice to perform an action, the price of each die is four deniers, and so the total cost is eight deniers.
  • If three dice will be used in the action, the price for each die purchased is six deniers.
    If I'm only buying one die and combining it with two of my own to complete a three-die action, then the cost of the die that I buy is six deniers.
    If I'm using one of my own dice and buying two more, the price of each is six deniers, and so the total cost to me is 12 deniers.
    If I'm buying three dice to use in a three-die action, then the total cost is 18 deniers.
An aspect of Troyes that I've really come to appreciate even in the few games that I've played is the great potential for replayability.  In any given game, there are nine actions available by the third round - three clerical, three military, and three civil.  But the first, second, and third actions in each category can be very different from one game to the next, so the combinations of options (and the interplay among the options) make for many different possible decision spaces.  Unlike Agricola, in which you can anticipate the same 14 action spaces to come out in roughly the same sequence every game, Troyes offers the numerous possibilities of multiple combinations.  That random configuration makes for a game requiring fluid strategy and flexible approach to make the most of available options.

So while my wife has developed something of a dislike for dice-placement games (another being Roma), I'm hoping to get an opportunity to explore Troyes further and understand how it comes together.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

What to pack for a vacation

[While on vacation in North Carolina, I scheduled this re-post of my vacation boardgaming selections from last summer.  Originally appeared 29 July 2011]

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.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Run roughshod in Robber Knights

Kathy's winning wine
over my losing beer
Thursday's cocktail hour saw my wife and I break out last month's impulse buy from FunAgain GamesRobber Knights (designer Rüdiger Dorn [website in German], artist Michael Menzel [website in German], publisher Queen Games).  We like this game as a quick encounter with not a lot of set-up time but plenty of thought and tactical play.  The game requires a certain balance of resources vs. scoring opportunities.  It often poses the conundrum between seizing more points that are vulnerable to stealing and taking fewer points that are protected.  

This round, I think I lost sight of the resource-conservation aspect of the game, as I grabbed every big-point play I could make.  Early on, my blue knights thoroughly dominated the board, and though I knew some of the points were destined to be stolen, I thought that I'd sufficiently saturated the board that I could protect a substantial number of acquisitions and maintain a lead until the end of the game.  

But by the middle game, Kathy had taken over a significant portion of my holdings.  Although we were at one point fairly even in number of remaining tiles and knights, she had taken a lead and locked in quite a few positions that left me little opportunity for cherry-picking any points away.  Again I burned up tiles and knights in the late game, so that by the end, I had only two knights and two tiles (a city and a forest castle - which meant that I'd be unable to score the city).  Kathy meanwhile place a city tile with three sides open so that she'd be confident that she could reclaim it if I tried to steal it from her.
Close observation reveals the number of my blue knights covered by my wife's green for the score

The bottom line was a strong win for my wife, 34-22, thanks to taking full advantage of my impulsiveness and her making judicious use of resources to dominate the board.  

Friday, July 6, 2012

Relaxing 24/7

In my last post, I described the tactile appeal of games that use bakelite-style tiles for game pieces.  I mentioned 24/7: The Game (designer Carey Grayson, publisher Sunriver Games) as an example of games of physical quality in that caliber.  The reminder prompted me to propose that my lovely wife and I play 24/7 at our cocktail hour this afternoon.
Close-up of 24/7: The Game showing the physical tile quality - in particular, my run of five tiles 
('2' through '6' in sequence) that Kathy subsequently used in her own "24-in-7" bonus score

A Christmas present for Kathy, 24/7 featured in another photo in my 6 January post.

Unlike For The Win, a new game that Kathy and I just started to explore on Wednesday, we have considerable experience in the tactics of 24/7, and this afternoon's game saw both of us in true competitive form.  My wife racked up 140 points in "sums of seven," as well as a 60-point "24-in-7" bonus (completing a row of seven tiles that add up to 24).  Those two categories alone constituted over a third of her total score.  But I managed multiple runs of three and four sequences and even one run of five consecutive tiles.  I eked out a win by the ridiculously narrow score of 600 to 590.  

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Losing "For The Win"

Kathy (black) wins second game
of For The Win.  Can I blame it
on the martini?
I recently received my copy of For The Win (designer Michael Eskue, artist Eric J. Carter, publisher Tasty Minstrel) from its Kickstarter campaign.  I was intrigued by early reviews that compared it to Hive!, which I enjoy but which my wife dislikes.  Something about FTW struck me as different - a lighter theme, a more approachable mechanic, not sure what - different enough, at least, to kick in and see what Michael E. had put together.

I hadn't bothered with the pre-release print-and-play version because, to me, the appeal of FTW as it was for Hive! is the physical domino-quality tileset.  Yes, the gameplay is important, but as with 24/7 and Confusion: Espionage and Deception in the Cold War, there's a tactile gratification to handling the bakelite-style game pieces.  And FTW does not disappoint.  In fact, somehow I had the mistaken impression that the tiles would be significantly smaller.  I had envisioned something like 7/8-inch (22mm) squares, but they are in fact 1 1/4 - inch (31mm) square, a very comfortably sized playing piece.  
Bakelite-quality square tiles make for a gratifying tactile experience.

We played our first two rounds of FTW at our customary cocktail hour this afternoon.   We found the game to be easy to understand but tricky to strategize, as I suppose any good two-player abstract game should be.  It is also a rather quick play.  I think it took Kathy less than 45 minutes to learn the game and beat me twice at it.  Now, to be fair, the first game we were taking a rather ad hoc approach just to get the feel of the game and the mechanics of the rules.  It was in the second game that we each buckled down and tried to exercise some real tactics.  (And, yes, she won that game, too.)

As it happens, Kathy and I misinterpreted (that is, I misread the rule and misled my wife) the behavior of the monkey's banana.  We assumed that the monkey's banana action renders all tiles adjacent to the monkey face down (inactive), regardless of original state.  Instead, a closer reading of the rules shows that "tiles that were face up are now face down and vice versa [emphasis added]."  So now I see the monkey in a whole new light.  The monkey can be used to activate multiple friendly pieces in a single action.  <Bwa-ha-ha-HAH>  I make no claim that this rule misinterpretation was in any way a factor in my losing the game twice in a row.  I just wanted to point that out.  

All kidding aside, we really like FTW as a two-player abstract short game with simple rules, no luck, and considerable potential for depth.  I'm reluctant to call it a "filler" only because we don't know just how tactically challenging it might prove.  I have to say, I'm very pleased with this Kickstarter discovery.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

I have an Alibi

Image (c) Mayfair Games.  Used by
permission.  All rights reserved.
Seth Jaffee's misfortune is my good fortune, I must admit.  Seth (designer of Eminent Domain and Terra Prime) suffered a personal setback that motivated him to auction many of his games to raise money.  Among the things with which he was gracious enough to part was a copy of Alibi (designers Darwin Bromley and Jim Musser, publisher Mayfair Games) - a copy, as it happens, that he'd never got round to playing.

For my family, Clue has been a multi-generational favorite.  Whenever we'd go home to visit my mother, we'd play it on the kitchen table.  I lost count of how many different copies and editions we went through.  My kids enjoy playing it even today.  Clue is not what you'd call a great game in the context of the boardgame culture, but it has great sentimental value and meaning as a focus of family get-togethers.

Nevertheless, recently, we have been looking for another mystery game for some variety, as Clue has betrayed its  age and repetitive nature with so many playings.  Based on a review by BoardGameGeek "Tim," I had added Alibi to my wishlist as "a bit more interesting than Clue, though not compellingly so."  It seemed worth taking a shot to bring Seth's unplayed copy into our household and see if it couldn't get some attention.

My two teenage sons, my wife, and I played our first game this afternoon.  At first, the task of adding emotion (motive) to the customary questions of murderer, location, and weapon seemed only a minor complication - until we realized that there are ten suspects, 18 locations, 18 weapons, and 18 motives to eliminate, as well as time of day (morning, noon, or evening).  Whereas Clue has 21 cards from which to determine three, Alibi has 78 cards from which players must discern which four describe the murder.  Daunting, indeed.

But of course the game works very well, and in many ways very differently from Clue, which is what we were really hoping for.  Questions can only be asked that have a number as an answer, and only of one other player.  Rather than ask (as in Clue), "do you have Colonel Mustard, the knife, or the dining room," a question might be, "How many weapons do you have," or "How many blunt objects have you seen?"  Even more dramatically different is that players are required to pass one or more cards to the left after each question is asked, so that some cards eventually get seen by some or all players.  

Three "Auto" location cards.
(c) Mayfair Games.  Used by
permission.  All rights reserved.
Bonus points are awarded for exposing full sets of categorized clues.  Cards are organized in sets of three - for example, three different guns, three different "sharp objects," etc.  Players are therefore motivated to expose such sets of three to everyone at the table, e.g. "The victim was not killed in the Auto" while laying down all three Auto cards (Front Seat, Back Seat, and Trunk).  Finally, the winner doesn't have to make a perfect accusation - just outscore his or her opponents in the accuracy of his accusation (positive points for correct elements of the murder, negative points for incorrect elements).  

The result is a game that requires completely different approaches and strategies to deduce a near-correct answer well enough to outscore one's opponents.  In our game, our 16-year-old initiated the end-game with what turned out to be a correct accusation, but my wife tied his score because she had exposed higher-scoring card combinations.  Everybody agreed that it was a fun, approachable, and different take on deduction games, and we are likely to play it again soon.  I am sorry for Seth that he had to give it up, but he may like knowing that his copy has found some fresh life in its new home.