Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

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 RĂ¼diger 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.