On Game Design: The Kitchen Sink

I am an unabashed sucker for Kitchen Sink games.  I don’t know where I first heard this idiom applied to game design, but I definitely can’t claim it for myself.  I’m using the term to describe the following kinds of games:

  • They have lots of complex, interconnecting rules
  • They have multiple game mechanics to learn, often that affect one another in weird ways
  • They allow players to use different play styles
  • They are usually pretty thematic (which is probably the only way to hold all these pieces together)

Some examples of Kitchen Sink games I like:

  • Dead of Winter – This collaborative ‘survive in a village after the zombie apocalypse starts’ game has several different awesome mechanics in play: there’s a saboteur in your midst, maybe, which means you can vote people out of the colony; the group has to manage resources for each crisis and for the overall health of the community; each player has their own secret goal which will allow them to win; you can play defensively against the zombies or offensively; dice play both a mild role (determining what kinds of actions you can take) and a major role (the exposure dice can be brutally punishing).  Then there’s the cards that ask the group to make moral decisions as well.  So there’s some role-playing.  Awesome.
  • A Study in Emerald – This anarchist 19th-century Cthulhu-bombing mystery area-control deck builder is just as complicated as it sounds.  There are hidden roles, three or four ways to end the game, all sorts of secret information, cubes, cards, permanent effects, a few cards that radically change the game.  Then, when the game ends, you really don’t know who won until you reveal roles and tally points.  It’s amazing.  Also, Sherlock Holmes!
  • Vampire: The Eternal Struggle -is the first kitchen sink tabletop game I really learned (and loved).  Players can win by subterfuge, by politics, by brawling, through minor chipping-away actions or major bloodletting.  There are many factions, each of which plays differently, and even more skills to choose from.  It’s too rich, by half.  And awesome.

Of course, as board games get closer to RPGs, they get closer to the all-encompassing kitchen sink that is a good pen-and-paper RPG.  But I still find the contained aspect of these games very satisfying.

As a designer, one has to think carefully about what all these interconnected mechanics can mean.  Do the overly-complex rules turn off players (some, certainly).  Do they add to the overall experience and theme?  (Study in Emerald works particularly well this way, because it’s supposed to be about the madness of the Elder Gods.  And Dead of Winter tries to provoke the tension of living in this embattled colony, so having tons and tons of rules that you have to keep track of stimulates some of the same anxiety the characters are dealing with.)

One question I’m wrestling with is whether to cut a rule because it doesn’t get used very often — but a player who makes use of it well can radically alter the game, perhaps.

Which Kitchen Sink games do you like?

Games: Why you should be a Cheapass


Totally Renamed Spy Game Stuff and Nonsense Get Lucky

One of the first game companies I learned about back when I started collecting interesting games was Seattle’s own Cheapass Games, headed by James Ernest.  In my collection, I have old copies of Kill Dr. Lucky, Deadwood Studios, and some kind of space game with rabbits  (I have to admit, of those three, I’ve only played Kill Dr. Lucky).  After several years hiatus, Ernest has resurrected the company and begun releasing his games again in a variety of ways, including Kickstarter.  I’ve gotten in on a couple of these KS projects and printed a few of his print-and-play games, and a new KS arrived just last week, so I thought I’d do a survey of the Cheapass games that I have and what I think of them:

  • Kill Dr. Lucky is an awesome premise — it imagines what happened right before the board game Clue.  Each player plays someone who hates Dr. Lucky, and spends the game trying to get in a room with him, alone, to kill him.  The other players stop you by playing “luck” cards to overturn your attack.  It’s fun, but a bit slow on the first few plays.
  • Pairs is a press-your-luck pub game reminiscent of Liar or The Great Dalmuti.  The website comes with a bunch of different variants of play, so it makes for a very entertaining outing.
  • Get Lucky is a refined card game version of Kill Dr. Lucky, with fantastic art and funny text on each card.  I like it much better than the board game version.
  • James Ernest’s Totally Renamed Spy Game is a game I picked up for my upcoming (unscheduled) evening of espionage.  It’s a game of supervillains, in which you try to earn points by taunting spies who threaten your evil layer.  The cards are very funny, and the game plays quickly.

Some Get Lucky cards:

Get Lucky cards
Get Lucky cards

And our newest arrival:

  • Stuff and Nonsense, a repackaging of an older game Ernest designed, this is the game of fake world exploring and bluffery.  The theme features the chap-hop artist Professor Elemental, and makes play pretty fun.  I tried it with the family a couple times last weekend and so far, we’re liking it quite a bit.

Whither game reviews?

How shall I write about games on my blog?

Hockey at Sunset by monkeyshine
A photo of a game I will never play (cc-licensed by monkeyshine)

As you’ve surely noticed, I’m playing a lot of board games lately and would like to write something about them on my blog.  I hesitate to do reviews because there are lots of good game reviewers who give games several plays before they review them, and depending on the game it would take me months before I had enough play under my belt to review a game.  So here are some other ideas:

  • continue what I’ve been doing – irregular random compositions about games as they emerge
  • reviews – I don’t care, Brendan, that you haven’t enough time to play games thoroughly before you review them.  Review away!
  • Why I play ____ – semi-regular feature, maybe twice a month, with just stuff about why we play a game.  Not really a review because I won’t be assessing quality so much as what we like.
  • Game Design notes – semi-regular feature in which I highlight one aspect of a game I really like from a design perspective.
  • Other?

I am open to suggestions.  Post them in the comments.

2014 in Review: Books

Top books I read in 2014 — Listed roughly in order of “favorite,” though this is not precise.

Fiction (click the image to read my review):

Southern Gods Southern Gods by James Horner Jacobs
A creepy, Lovecraftian tale buried in the Louisiana Bayou.  Startling and amazing.
The Girl with All the Gifts The Girl with All the Gifts by M.R. Carey
Deeply heartfelt, strongly-imagined tale of the zombie apocalypse as seen through a little girl’s eyes.
Lexicon by Max Barry Lexicon by Max Barry
A science fiction novel about the manipulative power of language.  Of a piece with Snow Crash and Pontypool Changes Everything.(See “Hacking the Brain Stem” parts one, two, and three)
The Last Policeman The Last Policeman by Ben Winters
A murder mystery with a heavy dose of meditation on life and living in a world about to end.
The Grand Hotel by Scott Kenemore The Grand Hotel by Scott Kenemore
A ghost story anthology with an amusing wrap-around tale.  Little gems of the eerie in the old style of The Twilight Zone.

Non-fiction (click the image to read my review):

Flash Boys by Michael Lewis Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis
Almost as infuriating as The Big Short, except that the people at the heart of this story are trying to change the system, at least a bit.  It will make you wonder whether your IRA is really just a sucker’s bet, though.
League of Denial League of Denial: The NFL, Concussions, and the Battle for the Truth by Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru
Almost as infuriating as Flash Boys, except the people at the heart of this story are trying to stop brain injuries rather than financial shenanigans.  A compelling book from the authors of Game of Shadows.
The Lindbergh Child The Lindbergh Child by Rick Geary
This long-form nonfiction comic about a murder case is a high point in Geary’s “Treasury of Murder” series, though they’re all pretty great. This one highlights the dubious case the government eventually brought to “close” the famous kidnapping.
Gulp by Mary Roach Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach
Another great book from excellent science writer Mary Roach.  This time, we explore all kinds of science about eating, digesting, and pooping.  Fantastic and disgusting (not necessarily in that order).
Dad Is Fat Dad is Fat by Jim Gaffigan
The soft-spoken and self-effacing comedian tells a lovely, heartfelt story about being the father of five in the modern era.  While I think it will work well for everyone, this book will resonate strongly with parents.

By way of comparison, here’s the full list of all fiction, non-fiction, and comics I read this year.

Jolly Hallowe’en

Jolly Hallowe'en post card  (from the New York Public Library Collection)
Jolly Hallowe’en (from the New York Public Library Collection)

I love the note at the bottom: May Fortune Smile On You.  Hear! Hear!

Railroad Crossing – 3 Tracks

Railroad Crossing 3 Tracks

New Orleans, October 2011

Chicago in the springtime

Chicago Fog in the Springtime

Behold, the hoary fog of Chicago in the springtime.

Throwback – Riddikulus! (on gerrymandering and Chicago politics)

Originally published on 5 November 2011.

Sometimes when I think about politics, I feel like Neville standing in front of the Boggart cabinet in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkiban.  But alas, our leaders dressed like ladies would hardly embarrass them.

When I was preparing my Open Letter to Congress last week, I looked up my representatives on the EFF website, but that page did not include a mailing address, so I followed up at govtrack.us, where I found a different representative listed for me.  I looked at the district map and saw this:


The red arrow is my home.  This map reveals that my small village, Forest Park, has constituencies in three separate representational districts.

Read the rest

Throwback – The Coming Monkey Apocalypse

I’ve been keeping this blog for near-on 10 years, so there’s lots of good stuff in the archives.  I’ll make use of the common Twitter hashtag #ThrowbackThursdays to re-post links to old but great posts.  Enjoy.

In the past few months, I’ve become more and more convinced that one of Avery’s children’s books is actually a missing apocalyptic text, revealing to us the end of the world, in rhythmic rhyme.

If you aren’t familiar with Al Perkin’s Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb, check it out in the kids section of your local bookstore.  You’ll come away quaking in terror.

Page 1:

Innocent enough

Read the rest

Kickstarter update

I did a post about Kickstarter in September, noting which projects delivered on time and which were late. When both The Agents and Santa Vs. Dracula showed up at the same time yesterday, I thought it was time to update you.  Here’s an update, with changes marked using “strikethrough” and new notations

Here’s a breakdown of Kickstarters I’ve participated in and their timeliness:

And here are the ones that have not yet missed delivery predictions:

In case you haven’t done the math yourself, this means that 7 (roughly 40%) of my kickstarters have arrived on time.  Another 3 (or 17%) arrived within 3 months of their expected due date.

Happy Thanksgiving, friends

We’re spending the day with family, enjoying ourselves and eating a lot and trying to stay warm.  Here’s hoping you do the same.

Here are a bunch of pictures of Thanksgiving dinners from Flickr. (Thanks to all you folks who put your dinners online!)








Happy Thanksgiving.

You’re Not Doing It Right

You're Not Doing It RightYou’re Not Doing It Right: tales of marriage, sex, death, and other humiliations
by Michael Ian Black

MIB is one of my favorite voices in comedy.  He plays smarmy and snarky and disconnected, but there flows underneath a current of thoughtfulness and nervousness that’s moving.  While I enjoyed his collection of essays, My Custom Van, this book is downright amazing.  Black has written a memoir that digs deep into his life, revealing insecurities and pieces of his life that connect in a way that his snarky exterior pretends he cannot.

A few thoughts:

  • Black writes very candidly about his failings, venturing into deep caverns that most of us are unwilling to contemplate, much less explore and publish.  These moments give the book an earnest quality that resonates much more deeply than his less serious work.
  • Yet it’s screamingly funny, especially when he’s wallowing in the worst things we do.  His chapter about buying a BMW is magnificent.
  • That said, this probably isn’t a book for everyone.  MIB tackles the subject of his life with no taboos, meaning we get an awful lot of personal information about his sex life and his insecure feelings about his marriage, his ability as a father, and so on.  While You’re Not Doing It Right made me laugh many times, it’s a pretty dark book.

A must-read for fans of MIB’s comedy, a suggested read for people who like dark/comedic memoirs or memoirs from comedians (which are often both dark and funny), and a possible suggestion for fans of the Will Smith science-fiction movie series MIB.

Get your own copy from Amazon.

My daddy would never tell me anything that wasn’t so, would you, Daddy?

The annual Miracle on 34th Street post

A Miracle on 34th StreetWe had a mini-Thanksgiving dinner last night because my mother is visiting, so it feels like it’s a bit later in the month than it actually is.  To follow it up, we watched the best Christmas movie ever made — A Miracle on 34th Street. We also made an effort to watch it early this year because last year, for the first time in memory, we didn’t watch it at all.  Horrors.

But this year we watched it with our children for the first time and a few minutes in, I realized that we’ve either made a terrible blunder OR we’ve uncovered a brilliant way to deal with the question all normally honest parents must face when it comes time to pay the elf for the misdirection we’ve been perpetrating on our children. I can’t help but wonder if the central question of SC’s existence at the heart of A Miracle on 34th Street might spurn some soul-searching for our own daughter, who is about one year older than Natalie Wood’s character in the film.

Here are some specific my observations from this time around:

  • While Fred continues to show himself a fine bachelor, he’s also not a great housekeeper.  When he gets Doris a spoon, he wipes it on a grimy dishtowel before putting it down, presumably to wipe away the dried-water stains and/or leftover pudding.
  • What happened to Mrs. Claus?
  • Settling Your Nerves seems to be the name, or the end of the name, of the book on Mr. Sawyer’s desk.
  • Mr. Shelhammer has a lot of toys in his office: a fire truck on the book shelf, a couple train cars on his desk, and a sailboat on the file-cabinet behind him.  While his position as head of the toy department certainly justifies this to a certain extent, it comes up short as far as I’m concerned in the grand scheme of things.  I prefer to imagine that Shelhammer dreams of a different, more adventurous career: riding the rails with a truncheon in his hand, knocking tramps on the head, or sailing across the Pacific, single-handed, armed to the teeth and ready to wreak vengeance on the Japanese he’d just returned from fighting and who still haunt his nightmares so deeply that he drinks three martinis just to get to bed.
  • At the end of the film, Fred utters a line meant to be funny – “Maybe I didn’t do such a great thing after all.”  The implication is that his accomplishment wasn’t so great because he didn’t convince the court of an untruth, but merely reinforced a truth.  But I like to imagine that Fred shares my Cape Claus theory, and that seeing the cane there made him wonder if KK might be better off in an asylum.

Until next year!

See also:
Miracle on 34th Street, 2004
The First Mailbag of the Year, 2005
It’s That Time Again, 2006
Media Over Break, 2007
You Know the Holidays are here…, 2008
Still Miraculous, 2009
Better Every Year, 2010
Like a Box of Crayons Barfed All Over It, 2011
The Kris Kringle Presents/Presence Paradox, 2011 (Not actually about Miracle)

Changing the story: on plot moments that rewrite a series

Spoiler alert

This week’s episode of Castle had the usual formula for the non-serious episodes of the show: murder, something funny or weird is discovered, Castle imagines a bunch of amusing plots, it all works out in the end.  The amusing plot this time around was time travel.  Quick plot summary: Joshua Gomez (Morgan from Chuck) is suspected of murdering someone but claims to be a time-traveler sent back from the future to try and save that someone.

Castle and Beckett interview "Simon"
Castle and Beckett interview “Simon”

Like many such episodes, the plot plays out in ways that are slightly ambiguous, with a killer who turns out to have been off the grid (and thus could also be a time-traveler) and with the time-traveling hero disappearing right after walking around a corner.  But these are all explainable.

Then comes the second-to-last sequence of the show.  A crucial clue in the episode was a photograph of a letter the villain used to find a man he was trying to kill.  The letter had a prominent coffee stain on it.  When Beckett and Castle found the original letter, it was unstained (though the show didn’t draw attention to this fact).  In Beckett’s last scene, she spills her coffee on the note and creates the stain on the paper that was already in the photograph.

In other words, the writers of Castle just confirmed that time-travel exists in the future of that world.  I don’t imagine that the show will suddenly become Fringe or The X-Files, but I am amused by the idea that this world-changing revelation (which I suspect will not come up again) could change the whole direction of the show, as regularly happened on Joshua Morgan’s previous series, Chuck.

This reminds me of other key moments when shows took clear stands on world-defining questions and thus changed their own narratives:

  • The X-Files did this all the time, especially toward the end of the series.  Those conspiracies had to go somewhere, yes?
  • Doctor Who famously added the twelve regenerations rule early in the run, and now must find ways to redefine the world to keep more doctors coming.
  • Twin Peaks goes from being a weird show to being an other-worldly one when we definitively learn that “Bob” is not an hallucination but a real evil spirit.

It makes me sad that Castle won’t suddenly become a Terminator-style battle against the terrors of the future, but I suspect it won’t.  That said, wouldn’t Stana Katic make a great Sarah Connor surrogate?

I know where I’ll be October 17th…

At the Simon Winchester reading at Unity Temple. Viz:

The Men Who United the States: America’s Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible

Please join us for an evening with Simon Winchester discussing his new book, The Men Who United the State: America’s Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible.

For more than two centuries, E pluribus unum–Out of many, one–has been featured on America’s official government seals and stamped on its currency. But how did America become “one nation, indivisible”? What unified a growing number of disparate states into the modern country we recognize today? In this monumental history, Simon Winchester addresses these questions, bringing together the breathtaking achievements that helped forge and unify America and the pioneers who have toiled fearlessly to discover, connect, and bond the citizens and geography of the U.S.A. from its beginnings.

Winchester follows in the footsteps of America’s most essential explorers, thinkers, and innovators, including Lewis and Clark and their Corps of Discovery Expedition to the Pacific Coast, the builders of the first transcontinental telegraph, and the powerful civil engineer behind the Interstate Highway System. He treks vast swaths of territory, from Pittsburgh to Portland; Rochester to San Francisco; Truckee to Laramie; Seattle to Anchorage, introducing these fascinating men and others-some familiar, some forgotten, some hardly known-who played a pivotal role in creating today’s United States. Throughout, he ponders whether the historic work of uniting the States has succeeded, and to what degree. (link)

Will you be there?

See Also: Krakatoa, The Crack at the Edge of the World, The Man Who Loved China, The Atlantic