Saga on Board Games

Saga: Vol 3 features a weird otherworldly board game.  Here are the relevent panels.







What got played – November edition

Wow! I can’t believe we’re already at November 23rd. What a busy month it’s been!  I just wanted to take a couple minutes today to fill you in on what I’ve been playing since the last post (on Oct 28th).

What I Played

It seems to be harvest season for Kickstarter projects — Loop, Inc. , Best Treehouse Ever, and Epic PVP are all Kickstarter projects that I backed last year and just showed up.  We also had some fun games of Escape: The Curse of the Temple and Between Two Cities.

I’ve been working on a system to pick which games to play when the kids and I have some time to game. The problem is that often, for whatever reason, the kids will get at loggerheads about what game they want to play.  One will pick one game, and the other will absolutely refuse to play that game, and set their sights on another. You can see where this is going.  So we’ve gone to a classic system that’s worked like gangbusters — papers in a jar.

I’ve now got two jars, though, because sometimes we have two hours and can play something long like Agricola or Galaxy Trucker, and other times we have an hour or less, and we have to play something like Machi Koro or Between Two Cities.  So now there are two jars.

Here’s how it works:

  1. The two kids and I each secretly write a game fitting the category on a slip of paper. Into the jar it goes.
  2. We draw one of the games out and play it.
  3.  The next time we have that particular block of time, we draw another slip of paper from the jar, until all slips of paper are gone.

Why this works better than other systems: I don’t know! What I do know is that when we tried putting someone’s name on the paper, there would be wheedling and suggestions such that the person making the choice didn’t get to make a choice outside of the strange dynamics of sibling rivalry. But when we write games on the paper slip, we avoid that.  So far, so good!  We may need to make a third jar for filler games, but otherwise, we’re golden.

Feedback: How do you pick which games to play with your family?

Recent gaming: A mini-review of Elder Sign

#WhatDidYouPlayMondays #GameLog for 12 October to 28 October 2015

Stealing an idea from Rolfe for a bit of blogging content, here’s my next play log.

Card or Party Games: Quiddler, Two Rooms and a Boom (2 plays)

Board Games: Epic Resort, Galaxy Trucker, Elder Sign (Gates of Arkham), Battleship, Tash-Kalar,  Between Two Cities (2 plays), Last Will

Unrecorded plays: We’re in the midst of our Kickstarter for Cromlech, a card and dice game of magical battle.  I’ve decided I won’t be recording plays of that game until I have a production copy in my hand.  Until then, prototype plays don’t count.  That said, I’ve played a bunch of games of Cromlech, of course.

Mini-review of a game

Gates of Arkham

Elder Sign: Gates of Arkham

Fantasy Flight’s dice game of Cthulhu investigation, Elder Sign is a favorite of mine.  It has the excitement and surprise of dice-rolling, the collaborative element that keeps my son satisified, and is hard enough that you don’t win every time.  So I’ve picked up both expansions for the game.  The first–unseen forces–added a bit to the game and made it a little harder, but overall was just “more of the same.”  But the second one is a different monster altogether.

Here’s a quick primer in Elder Sign. The players are supernatural investigators, working to stop the creeping horror of an Ancient One from rising up and destroying the world.  Players do this by visiting adventure location cards and rolling dice, matching required symbol combinations through a selective dice mechanism familiar to players of Yahztee or King of Tokyo.  The game is chock-a-block with cards and tokens that help players do better in their rolls.  Succeeding becomes a process of balancing the end goal (of getting “Elder Signs”) with the need to keep characters in health and equipment.  There is an end stage where the Ancient One awakens. It is possible to win the game after this point, but rare.

Gates of Arkham reconfigures the original game, providing all new location cards, heroes, monsters, and mechanisms that map, essentially, a second game onto the architecture of the original Elder Sign.  This change is a welcome one, providing a variety of new challenges and differences that provide replayability for the whole system and also provide new challenges for players who have figured out how to game their way through the original game.


  • The game adds challenges by making players go to locations blind — traveling there and only THEN finding out what they have to face. Thematically, this works very well to raise the tension.
  • The new gate mechanisms are a great way to force players to deal with the other world cards which could, much of the time, be ignored in the old setup.
  • Gates is much harder than the original Elder Sign.  I subscribe to the idea that you should lose cooperative games at least as often as you win them, and this ramps up the difficulty again.


  • There’s a lot going on in The Gates of Arkham.  There are new event cards, two secret societies, gates, a different way to buy bonuses, and a bunch of new icons on the cards.  Experienced Elder Sign players should be able to pick it up relatively quickly, but a new player would likely find a few games of the original more rewarding than trying to jump right into the deep end.
  • We’ve discovered through a couple disastrous mix-in sessions that the new characters and Ancient Ones are well-balanced with one another, but far over-power the characters from the original game and first expansion.  Thus, one is really handicapped if one tries to use a character from the original game in the Gates of Arkham. Likewise, an Ancient One from the Gates expansion brought into the original game would be unbeatable.
  • Like the original, Gates suffers from the momentum problem. Namely, if you’re doing well, your character can stay flush in equipment and re-rolls, and finish lots of adventures. If you’re not, it becomes ever-harder to solve adventures and get caught up.  I suppose this is thematic, but it can be despiriting, especially if you have two players doing drastically differently.  (Our house rule to solve this is that players can, before another player’s turn, give any of their items to other players.)

Overall, Elder Sign remains a favorite for me.  It’s got a healthy dose of luck, along with some tactical strategy, and the theme is involving and entertaining.  It’s fun to play with the kids, or even by myself.

I inadvertently took June off from blogging

It’s been a busy month around here, working on writing projects and creative projects and, well, work.  In all that time, I’ve just fallen off the blogging train.  Sorry about that!

Quick updates:

Not much reading this month.  I read Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood.  It was good.

Plenty of gaming.  It was my birthday this month, which became a gameapalooza, and should keep me sated for a while.  Here are the games I got, along with my impressions of them:

  • Gates of Arkham expansion for Elder Sign.  Wicked hard, but fun so far.
  • Titanic the board game.  Haven’t played it yet.  Looks like it will likely be fun as a novelty more than as a game to play a lot.
  • Ladies and Gentlemen.  Funny game that will be great in a big group.
  • A Netrunner expansion.  Haven’t had a chance to dig into that yet.
  • Galaxy Trucker.  Really fun so far — looking forward to more plays of this.
  • Agricola.  I can’t wait to try this one.
  • Cthulhu’s Vault, a kickstarter that showed up right around my birthday.  A storytelling game that looks cool.

Wow.  Lots of great gaming ahead.  I’ll try to get back to blogging more regularly.

On Game Design: Go Play Outside

I wrote a little bit over at Rattlebox Games about playing games outside:

This might be a bit of a conundrum.  The old stereotype of nerds huddling inside on nice sunny days isn’t entirely without merit, in part because of all the valuable cardboard bits our games have — we don’t want chlorine from the pool on them!  But just because you’re in fresh air doesn’t mean you need to leave the hobby at home.

Read the rest…

Head on over there to see what I wrote.

On Game Design: Yes, and…

I’ve written a bit about the improv rule “Yes, and” over on the Rattlebox Games blog.  Check it out.

…Like Improv, RPG storytelling takes real trust between the game master and the characters. And like Improvosational comedians, they need to remember the “yes, and” rule.  (“Yes, and” refers to the philosophy that Improv performers should pick up and add to the ideas offered by the previous person, rather than negating them or leading off in a different direction.  It goes back to trust.)  In RPG design, “Yes, and” is a useful and necessary mechanic.  In Board Game design, though, I think it’s pretty underused. (link)

Shake us and we rattle…

Some friends and I have been working at some board games, recently, and we’re very near to putting our first print-n-play game up for people to see, try, download, and so on.  As part of the project, I’m starting to tweet and blog over on that website occasionally, so that there’s content there, and stuff.  Please head over and check it out:

Rattlebox Games
Rattlebox Games

Anyway, when I post on the blog over there, I’ll do a little snippet here to let y’all know.  Here’s the first one…

attempt to move to a new tile

…The crux of the problem is a single word, part of that rule.  It says “a mouse can attempt to move to a new tile.”  The other half of the problem for me was that at other places in the game, when you ‘attempt’ something, you have to roll a die, trying to get an asterisk.  Since the rule said “attempt,” I presumed this was something you could fail.  And we spent much of the first game playing with my made-up ‘attempt’ roll in place.  Since Mice and Mystics also punishes you for going too slowly on an empty board, we encountered way more monsters than we should have, and the game took a lot longer than it was supposed to.  All from one word…. (link)

I hope to see you there!

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?

Game Design: The Rules that used to know

Have you ever had a game whose rules you didn’t know as well as you thought you did?  Discovering that the rules are different than you thought can be a real blow–suddenly that game you thought you had all figured out is something else altogether.  It’s like somebody you used to know.

Three stories:

  1. Nearly everybody who reads board gaming news has encountered the Jonny Nexus essay arguing for the real game of Monopoly, in which you trick people and try to buy properties at auction.  I have to say, I still think Monopoly sucks, but he makes a cogent argument for why it’s better than we all remember.  The takeaway from this essay and the seven-years-later Internet freakout about it is that Monopoly is not the game we thought it was.
  2. A bit closer to home, Finn and I got out Forbidden Island for the first time in several months to give it a whirl, and I couldn’t remember how many cards we each get at the beginning of the game.  So I opened the rulebook and scanned the “setup” section, at which point I discovered that we’d been playing the game wrong THE ENTIRE TIME.  For the whole time we’ve had this game (at least three years), we’ve played by setting the game up and beginning with all tiles dry.  The rules indicate that three tiles should begin the game flooded.  This makes a HUGE difference in how the opening turns begin, as you’re already behind on upkeep when the game starts.  The Island’s treasures just got a lot harder to claim, I must say.
  3. Playing Last Night on Earth with some friends I hadn’t played with before, things were going swimmingly until we got to our first fight.  We rolled the dice and then tried to determine who won the fight.  Different ways.  As we realized that there was a fundamental disconnect between our understanding of the rules, we had this “oh shit” moment.  One of us–and both of us have been playing this game for a long time–had been resolving fights incorrectly.  For years.  When you discover that a fundamental rule for a game is different than you thought, it can be pretty disorienting.


So, dear reader, what rules have you mis-read?  Have you ever discovered that you’re playing a game wrong, and what happened when you did?

As a designer, we need to ponder, carefully, the way we communicate our rules.  And have people who haven’t played the game before read them to find the hidden rules we forgot to share.

On Game Design: Is It Luck?

As I started to get more serious about the board game hobby, I learned a number of amusing terms for different kind of games.  One that I enjoy quite a bit is “Ameritrash,” a seemingly-derogatory phrase for games that a) have tons of little fiddly bits, b) have a strongly developed theme, and c) rely heavily on luck.  There are more detailed descriptions of the term, of course.  The opposite game style is “Eurogame,” which is generally a) tightly constructed, b) focus on mechanics and play more than conflict, and c) use balance far more than luck.

While a developed theme is a big deal for me, and I love the little fiddly bits, I think the reliance on luck is the biggest divider between the two genres. While you can have bad luck in Settlers of Catan, the statistics of the dice rolls generally work out okay, and any failure you have in covering the various resources point back to your poor choices in the land-grab phases of the game.  By contrast, you can do everything right in Last Night on Earth, have a couple bad rolls, and find your hero being eaten for dinner.

So how do you decide when to rely on luck in your game?  I’d suggest three questions:

Is it thematically appropriate?

Figures an Ameritrash fan would focus on theme first. But really, luck amps up tension because you don’t know how things are going to come out.  In Last Night on Earth, which prompts players to imagine their characters in a zombie film scenario, luck plays a huge role.  It’s a common staple of the zombie movie for a character to do everything right, to beat back a zombie horde, only to get bitten on the ankle by a zombie laying under an overturned bookshelf.

Other games have themes that accommodate virtually no luck.  In Mammut, players are part of a primitive tribe, just returned from their hunting expedition, sitting down to divvy up the results of the journey.  They take turns taking piles of goods, either from the communal pot or from one another, until each has a share.  This system relies on hardly any luck at all (except for the handful of mystery tiles in the pool and the player’s secret amplifier card).  This fits the theme well, as the scenario doesn’t involve a narrative where surprise or mystery would be part of the tale.

So designers should ask if the luck they’re building into their game fits the theme they’re using.

Is it about skill and strategy?

Some games reward skill and strategy to the detriment of nearly everything else.  Games of perfect information, such as Chess, provide all the possibilities to players up front, and all moves are made in public.  Other games use complete information, meaning that you know all the things your opponent could do, but can’t always see what they do, or may have some options arrive by chance (such as a card that determines possible game states but appears randomly).  Battleship is an example of a game of complete information.

Games that rely on luck have an inherent information gap.  Neither player knows how a dice roll will come out, or which card will be at the top of the deck.  Additionally, games like Magic: The Gathering or Android: Netrunner have the additional issue of mysterious game elements — each player has information about elements in the game (her own deck) that are missing from the other player.  Games like this usually achieve balance through statistical averaging (the ‘best of three games’ rule, for instance, mediates the ‘luck of the draw’ aspect of CCGs).

So designers should ask how much they want to reward skill and strategy in play.  Should newbies have to grasp lots of complicated interconnections among many different features to compete with veterans?  Should one or two moments turn the whole game?

Does it add fun to the game?

Of course, this is the most subjective question to ask.  Some people find the churning-gear machine analysis of 7 Wonders intriguing and interesting, while others delight in the Elder Sign moment when a beleaguered investigator rolls the one crucial result on her last die to fulfill the task and prevent Cthulhu from waking and destroying the Earth. So it might come down to taste.

But we’ve all played games where the dice just aren’t on our side. For example, after a particularly bad game of Elder Sign, my daughter refused to play the game for months.  She only recently realized (or admitted to herself) that it wasn’t because she didn’t like the game, but because she’d had such a bad experience that one round.  We hadn’t kept the theme strong enough to offset the sour experience of luck going against her.

The question a designer should ask is: can the player do anything to change the game if the dice aren’t working in their favor?  If the answer is no, then that player is probably going to have a crummy time of it.

What’s the right balance of luck and strategy?  Which games do you think master this balance best?


On Game Design: You Gotta Spend Money to Make Money

Don Cruez
Don Cruez – spends blood to do stuff

One of my favorite things a game can do is to make spending money (or currency) draw from your victory pool.  Some examples:

  • Smallworld requires you to spend victory points to bypass races you don’t want to play.
  • The Sheriff of Nottingham doubles the effect by encouraging you to bribe opponents with coins, which increases their score directly while lowering yours.
  • The TV Show Cutthroat Kitchen requires players to spend their prize money to screw over their opponents

My all-time favorite version of this comes from the Vampire: The Masquerade CCG.  In this incredibly complex card game, you play as an elder vampire, controlling a stable of younger vampires by giving them your life force, blood, from your pool.  Each thing you buy costs you blood from your pool, reducing your life force and hastening your death (and the other player’s victory).  In my memory, it wasn’t uncommon to end the game on a knife-edge, gambling many of your last pool on a play that *should* put the other player out of the game.

I think the tension created by making players spend their own victory is an excellent way to augment a complex game.  What other ways can we make players weigh victory and defeat against one another?


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.

Random tidbits

A few bits of stuff that have floated across my transom.

  • I’ve watched “Shia Le Bouf Live” many times, but only recently realized Rob Cantor was part of Tally Hall.  It explains so much.
  • Castle Dice is one of the more fun / infuriating games I have in my collection.  You make a plan that involves getting, say, two or three of a resource, and then you roll all Barbarians on that resource and you get nothing.  The More Castles expansion gives a great zest of variety to the game, and the new trackers and other tidbits that game with the game are great.
  • I am going to see the Spongebob movie this afternoon.  Pray for me.

An avalanche of games

Netrunner: Creation and Control Cthulhu Gloom Ticket To Ride: Europe

As I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog, I’m a Kickstarter enthusiast, and have subscribed to a number of KS projects over the last 18 months, many of which came to fruition in the last two months, making it seem like I ordered a bunch of stuff for myself right around the holidays.  Nice one, Brendan.  Anyway, here’s the new game list, along with a few quick play reports.  We didn’t have a lot of gaming time in December (what with the holidays) but got in a few games during the break.

Kickstarters that showed up

  • More Castles expansion for Castle Dice.  Nice, but now I have to figure out how to put everything in the box.  Haven’t tried it yet.
  • Holiday Break expansion for Miskatonic School for Girls.  Tried it once and made a mistake in implementing it.  Looks fun.  Took out the plastic box liner and put in a foamcore grid to hold the cards.  Nerd level +1.
  • Epic Vacation has great art and looks cool, but haven’t found time to try it yet.  We started, but about 20 minutes in realized it wasn’t a “late at night for your first play” game.  Oops.
  • [redacted] showed up, but haven’t had time to play it yet.  The Agents Return should be here any day, so when that shows up perhaps we’ll have a spy-game night.

Pre-orders that showed up

  • Days of Wonder reprinted four different expansions for Small World – Royal Bonus, A Spider’s Web, Leaders of Small World, and Necromancer Island.  These all showed up while we were out of town.  We haven’t had a chance to try them yet, but will do so soon.  I’m disappointed that when you put the two plastic holders that hold the expansions next to one another, they’re slightly wider than the square Small World box.  This means that you have to bow the edges of the box out a bit to make them fit, or else trash them or store them separately.  None of these are good options, IMO.

Holiday haul:

  • Avery got me the “Creation and Control” expansion for Netrunner.  We played two games using the pre-built decks, and split the wins.  We will probably blend the decks into our collection next.
  • Jenny got me Cthulhu Gloom, which has gotten the most play of any new thing we got. It’s like the original Gloom, but with more tentacles.  Very entertaining.  We’ll have to mix the two together sometime soon for an extra gloomy experience.
  • Santa brought us Ticket To Ride: Europe, which mixes some cool new mechanics into the system, like the train stations and the tunnels.  I like these new techniques, but we’ve only played one game so we haven’t yet grokked them.
  • The kids got a copy of Battleship, which I haven’t returned to yet, but I’m sure I’ll play sometime soon.

Other gaming:

    • I had my new media class play The Resistance a couple times — boy that’s a fun game with the right group.
    • My detective class played Sherlock Holmes, and we had a good time, but it was really parallel play of four groups instead of one group playing.
    • On New Year’s Eve, we played round 2 of

Sherlock Holmes

      and did much more poorly than we did with Chapter 1.  Lesson learned — this is not a late-night game.  We missed a key clue and wasted tons of time chasing down bad leads we


    were bad leads.  We didn’t even bother scoring the round.  Ugh.


  • My weekly Warhammer 40k Skype Role-playing session has been on hiatus for about a month, but we just started up again, so it’s fun to be back to hunting down those hated aliens and eradicating them.