Saga: Vol 3 features a weird otherworldly board game. Here are the relevent panels.
Saga: Vol 3 features a weird otherworldly board game. Here are the relevent panels.
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).
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:
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?
#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
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.
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.
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!
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:
Wow. Lots of great gaming ahead. I’ll try to get back to blogging more regularly.
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.
Head on over there to see what I wrote.
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)
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:
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…
…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!
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:
Some examples of Kitchen Sink games I like:
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?
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.
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.
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?
One of my favorite things a game can do is to make spending money (or currency) draw from your victory pool. Some examples:
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?
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:
Some Get Lucky cards:
And our newest arrival:
How shall I write about games on my blog?
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:
I am open to suggestions. Post them in the comments.
A few bits of stuff that have floated across my transom.
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
Pre-orders that showed up
On New Year’s Eve, we played round 2 of