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June 29, 2003

Favorite Games XIV

Just one game today, but it's a doozy...

Brawl is the other game supported by the website www.beatpeopleup.com, another Cheapass Games work of stunning simplicity and amazing originality all at once. Brawl is the second of three games Cheapass Games has released that fall into the "real time cardgame" category. That is, rather than politely waiting on your next turn, players in Brawl play as fast or as slow as they like, resulting in a game that can take less than a minute. If you don't think on your feet, this isn't for you... though the various decisions in Brawl are fairly straightforward, the game situation is ever-changing and you must keep up to use your cards to their best. As play progresses, you draw cards from your deck one at a time and decide if you should play it or discard it. The top of your discard pile is also available to pick up and play. In essence, though, you get your cards in random order and either use them or toss them away. It's fast and messy, and you have to make the right choice or a valuable card goes to waste.

At its base, Brawl is a game of trying to win the majority "base cards" by having more Hit cards on your side than your opponent does. Hit cards represent blows landed in the fistfight Brawl nominally recreates, so if you can connect the most, you win. However, when playing Brawl you must "follow suit" on cards, meaning that once the color you need to play on a base is established, you have to play cards that match that color. Hit cards come in three colors, and different characters have different mixes; sometimes it's even a good strategy to play a hit on your opponent's side of the table, just to lock that base into a color their deck is short on. There are several other types of cards, including Blocks (which prevent additional hits from being added until the block is dealt with), Nulls (which make the base they are played on worth nothing toward victory), Doubles (this base scores as two for victory), Reverses (which make the base they are played on score in reverse... fewest Hits wins), and more. Most dramatic are Clears, which let you sweep a base off to the side... it no longer exists for purposes of this game, and all cards played on it are out; characters with several Clears can be very difficult to overcome (though there are Hold cards that make a base Clear-proof). At the bottom of your deck are three Freeze cards; when played, these lock a base as it is (no more cards may be played on it). Once all bases are Frozen, the game is over and you can determine the winner. One common strategy in Brawl is to observe that you're currently winning and flip through your remaining cards as fast as possible, tossing straight to the discard so you can get to your Freeze cards. Best hope your observation is still valid when you're done, though.

Brawl is an amazingly fast game, to the point that it often takes longer to clean up the cards afterwards (as the two decks will get severely intermixed) than it did to play. However, card design is elegantly done to aid in this... Each card has large art of its fighter as the back, so it's quick to identify which card belongs in which deck. Also worth note is that each card identifies on its face how many like cards are in this deck, so you will know at once what you can expect in the future (without having to consult the website or count through your opponent's deck, neither of which are possible during a 20-30 second Brawl game). There are around 15 decks in print (including one featuring Ting Ting, a character from Shadowfist and Feng Shui who is a most righteous kicker of butts), and the earlier decks describe themselves as "easy", "moderate", or "advanced" so you can tell how tricky they are in play (essentially, how dependent they are on using cards other than hits and blocks to achieve victory); the Cat Girl set is considered all "moderate", so they aren't labeled. Balance is fairly good (the website identifies which decks people consider superior and why), and variety is high.

Learning to play takes minutes, playing takes seconds. What's not to love?

Posted by ghoul at 06:54 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

June 27, 2003

WISH 53: Hamming It Up

What are three examples of physical or verbal schtick that youíve used to develop your characters? Schtick means trademark gestures or phrases that identify your character uniquely. Itís about showing, not telling.

Well, I was part of that Roll The Bones Forum discussion, but I'll gladly run through a longer list, because I'm a big fan of character schtick in play. There's nothing else I know of that provides such a quick hook to the character, both for myself and for other players in the game.

The Mighty Leo, in Teenagers from Outer Space had the vocal stylings of the Cowardly Lion blended messily with the attitude of a pro wrestler. Lots of corny Brooklyn tough-guy posturing, complete with the occasional "I'll moidilize 'im, dat's what I'll do." Leo was played both face-to-face (mostly at GenCon and Origins, back when I attended both regularly) and on the CIS:RPGames forum, so I even had to learn to phonetically reproduce the silly voice as text. Leo was developed initially as someone to play at Mike Pondsmith's own TFOS games at GenCon, and was made as broad as he is to make sure sure he captured attention right off.

Gevrok is my most extreme current example, with a ridiculously thick lower-class British accent (more in the style of a Games Workshop Ork than a D&D half-orc). The most fun we have with that is when Julia and I swap accents to represent speaking in Orcish rather than Common. Gevrok is quite well spoken in Orkish (I try to mimic BBC newsreaders as Julia does the football hooligan bit).

Ezhno inherited one schtick from an earlier character (Emlyn), which is using short grunts as a primary communication tool. For Emlyn (who was played on CIS:RPgames), those were written as "...", based on a bit in the Gogol 13 manga. Emlyn had the additional quirk of not quite understanding the grammatical rules of the group's common language, and stated most questions as gruff orders ("You will assist me in this." rather than "Will you assist me in this?"), which caused a good bit of misinterpretation of his personality.

I'm still developing Nikolao's style in James's Passions of the Tide game, but it's quickly growing into something akin to a stump politician mixed with a slightly less menacing version of John Malkovich's take on Valmont in Dangerous Liaisons. His schtick is forming as an unusually casual style couched in courtly florishes. So he calls his rather strict and formal cousin-in-law Tamasi "cuz" and flirts outrageously with members of the household staff (including Isleen, another PC). He's failing to bite his tongue enough in a fairly private Imperial audience right now...

Oh, that's four (or perhaps five) already... I should stop now.

Posted by ghoul at 09:38 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

June 26, 2003

Favorite Games XIII

Two games of the "classic" variety today... And a special bonus.

Abalone is a game almost without peer, in my opinion. There just aren't that many simple, clean, easy-to-teach abstract strategy games of the caliber of chess and checkers that were invented in the last 20 years, and I think Abalone fits that description. It is a simple game of marbles on a hexogonal board. The board is designed to that the marbles can be pushed in any of the six directions, and this is how you move in the game. A line of 1, 2 or 3 marbles can be moved in any direction (by pushing one end or by shifting them to a parallel spot). If you move them by pushing one end, you can also push along a smaller number of your opponent's marbles (2 can push 1, 3 can push 1 or 2). The object is to push your opponent's marbles off the board while preventing your own from being pushed off. Simple, direct, but strategically unique. Unlike chess, the strength of a piece is less determined by its position or type than by its connections with others, by which direction the lines it forms can be moved. Unlike checkers, the act of taking a piece often puts you at risk of losing piece immediately, so you have to plan how to withdraw safely from attacks you make. It is a game of two forces meeting and probing one another for weaknesses, shifting and trying anew, reinforcing or withdrawing when their own weak spots are hit. I liked this game enough that I took a copy to work several years back and introduced it to the chess-players I worked with. Together, we developed a full notation (complete with an ability to back-off moves to a prior state of the board), wrote up over two dozen "puzzles" (find the move that guarantees a win) and played game upon game. If there's a flaw here, it's in the need for a chess-clock to control time and prevent endless maneuvering in the safety of the mid-board. But chess clocks are easy to get, and with just that addition there's nothing like a good game of Abalone. (There are variations of Abalone for 3 or more players, but the game is at its best in its original, 2-player form.) This game has had a very hard time catching on in the USA (it's gone through at least 4 publishers that I know of), but it's well worth giving it a look.

Illuminati is a card game with which only a few can compare. Years before Magic, this was the game you could find people playing over and over, trying to find new and interesting combinations. (Comments here will specifically focus on the 1999 Deluxe Illuminati edition... but I've been playing this one since it first came out, and loved it despite the tiny, hard-to-shuffle cards). It's a simple game at heart (most of the greats are). Each player takes the role of a secretive conspiracy trying to conquer the world. Each turn, you look at the cards that are available (groups both real and fictitious that you could use to enhance your control of the world) and try to work them into your power network (a layout of cards arranged so arrows point out of one card lead to arrows pointing into others). Sometimes you want to control them, sometimes take them away from others, sometimes destroy them utterly; it all depends on which Illuminati you are playing at the time, and that's what makes the game so good. Like Cosmic Encounter, every game can be different, because each Illuminati has its own special power and its own victory condition. There are fewer Illuminati than there are aliens in CE, but Illuminati also has the large deck of groups, which make it so you never know what pawns you'll play with this game. Add in expansion sets for more cards or for more options in play (the "Y2K" set adds Illuminati, groups and special cards to the deck, while the "Brainwash" set adds the option to shift world opinions and so enhance or weaken all groups of certain types). There's a lot of luck to play (you can't make any action automatic, so there's always a 1 in 12 chance of failure no matter how well you set it up), and a fair amount of repetitiveness in the mid-game (turn up a group, spend to get a 10- control chance, take it over, shift to a more defensible spot, move to next player), which are the two things that keep CE rated slightly higher to me, but Illuminati is still well worth getting to know. (The Y2K expansion set is scheduled to be re-printed very soon, by the way, and contains several cards that are well worth having, including the Church of the SubGenius!)


Illuminati had a brief period as a CCG, in the form of "Illuminati: New World Order". INWO isn't a bad game at all, but the CCG format invites (in fact, encourages) you to pre-build decks with specific combinations of cards, whereas the fun in Illuminati was always the unpredictability of what groups would show up this game and the need to plan a strategy based on whatever you were given. INWO was fun; Classic Illuminati is more fun.

Special Bonus Review: Dice Games Explained Properly is an invaluable little book by Reiner Knizia (you thought I'd left him out of today's reviews, didn't you?). In it, he offers the rules and strategies for over 150 dice games, some traditional and some original, along with a good chapter on calculating probabilities, advice for how to determine good bets when gambling with dice, and countless observations on which mechanical ideas and strategic options are interesting and worthwhile. Games are nicely organized within large families, then by progressively more complicated mechanics within each group. Variants in both names and rules are given in case the game is called something different or played differently in some parts of the world. The book could use a fancier layout (it is very tricky to tell if a paragraph is more comments on the previous game or transition into the next, for example), but you simply will not find a book about games that offers more breadth and depth of insight, from the simplest of dice games to the reasons behind arbitrary-seeming casino behavior. This one is pure gold, wrapped in a very reasonably priced paperback cover.

Funagain Purchase Links
Illuminati Y2K
Illuminati Brainwash

Posted by ghoul at 05:51 AM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

June 23, 2003

Favorite Games XII

Another take on bidding and scoring by Reiner Knizia and a look at one of the simplest yet strategically deepest games yet from Cheapass Games.

Another note... In order to allow time for other things I do (like the morning stuff that made this entry slip to an afternoon posting), I'm going to shift these Favorite Games entries to every 3rd day rather than every 2nd. It isn't because I'm running out of games (far from it!), but it will allow me to get some other things done between writing mini-reviews.

Buttonmen is a game that looks really simple, but isn't (though it is easy to learn). The basic rules are direct enough... each button has a name and picture of a fighter and a few numbers in circles (usually 5, sometimes fewer, and for some sets more). These numbers represent die types (and sometimes special powers). Usually, one (or more) of your dice is marked as a "Swing Die" and can be set to any size from 4 to 20 (some Swing Dice are marked with different letters to indicate different ranges); you pick swing dice in secret before the match. In a fight, you roll your dice and your opponent rolls theirs. Then, alternating starting with whoever rolled the lowest number, you remove one opposing die at the cost of re-rolling one of your own. You can only remove a die via "Power Attack" (one of your dice is greater than or equal to the target die) or "Skill Attack" (one or more of your dice sum up to exactly the target die), and you must re-roll all dice used in the attack. The match ends when neither player can make an attack, and your score at the end is the size of all the dice you capture plus 1/2 the dice you successfully defend (usually only one player will have any defended dice left, but special die powers and restrictions can result in an early end to the match). Normally, you play a series until one player wins 3 matches (with the loser changing swing dice after each match). There are numerous special types of dice to complicate things, but let us stick to just the basic game for now... There's a ton of strategic depth here. When I attack, do I use my big d20 showing 18 to power through anything I see, or do I leave it 18 so it's harder to beat itself and re-roll my two d12s showing 3 and 4 after skill attacking a d8 showing 7 (because, after re-roll, they should be better defended)? Or should I target the d12 showing 2, and if so with which of my d12s? And what about swing dice? You have to pick them very carefully, as one too big makes you slow and gives away too many points, while one too small makes you weak on attack and defense. The strategy is deep (even without the numerous special die types), but not distractingly so. Games take only minutes and require minimal hardware (buttons and dice... though you may want some special colored dice to represent funky powered dice or oddly sized swing dice... I doubt you'll find a d19 out there, so you'll need to pick a d20 in a distinctive color and re-roll any 20s). Buy-in is easy (the rules are on the ButtonMen web site, along with several articles on strategy and a nearly-complete list of buttons), and all you need to do is pocket some dice and wear the button around any gathering of gamers... someone will challenge you to a fight. Buy some buttons (they usually come in two-packs for under $5) and take on a friend! Many (but far from all) ButtonMen can be purchased directly from Cheapass Games, others from various licensed sources.

Ra is another Knizia bidding game, but similarity with Money ends right away. In Ra, players bid to collect tokens representing various parts of Egyptian civilization (thinly... as is common in games from Dr. Knizia, the theme of this game is in the art on the pieces far more than it is in the game). The game is played in three rounds, called Epochs, and there is scoring and the return of some (but not all) tokens collected between each. Auctions are initiated partly by players' choice (if the current available draw of tokens seems worth bidding to you) or by occasional draws that force an auction. Various token types are received when you win an auction... Monument tokens are scored only at the end of the third round, but are worth a ton if collected into proper groups. Pharaoh tokens are worth a good bit if you have the most and cost you points if you have the least, but otherwise are worth nothing (and are returned to the box unlike most other counters are retained between Epochs), Nile and Flood tokens are worth a point each as long as you have at least one Flood token, but none if you have just Nile (and Flood tokens, but not Nile tokens, go back to the box between Epochs). Gold is always worth points and does go back to the box. Civilization tokens are worth a lot if you have 3 or more different ones, and you take a big hit if you don't manage to get any (and they all go back to the box each round). Bidding is done using Sun counters, which are also used for scoring in the 3rd Epoch only; when you win a bid, your winning counter is used to start the next bundle to be bid on. In essence, there are 6 ways to get points, each by its own rules, and some of them penalize you if you don't at least make an effort toward them. This requires careful budgeting of your Sun counters (only bid when it's worth it to take what is available), but also not letting the tokens you need to avoid penalties (such as Floods or Pharaohs) get all bought up before you get some. And be careful... there are "disaster" tokens that make you discard tokens if they're taken as part of a bid. The game takes a bit of careful teaching the first time through, but it's rewarding and highly interactive, so you'll come back to play it again and again. Also, the pieces are quite attractive and durable, so you won't regret pulling this one out for another play.

Funagain Purchase Links

Posted by ghoul at 05:21 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Role Call 23

What was the best character you came up with that you never had a chance to play?

This one's a quick answer for me... Lucas Blaine, the Marquis of Things Lost, designed for a Nobilis game I didn't end up able to play.

Lucas was a Brooklyn dock worker in the early 20th century with a gift for remembering the slightest minutia of shipping schedules. It was only natural that, eventually, he would be picked to manage the Warehouse, the great storing place where anything Lost is kept until it is Found. It was the task he was born for. He is a gruff, direct sort (I do that a lot in characters), but capable of creative solutions to complex logistical problems, and ready to work through the nasty little limitations I'd put on his Domain (mostly represented by the "unionized" staff of the Warehouse, who would only do a 'special task' after much grumbling and negotiation). And some of the fancier Powers could do with an ill-shaven dock worker jabbing the sad final bits of a cigar around as he gestured with an over-filled clipboard (where each and every Invoice of each and every Lost Thing can be found) and explained just why things couldn't be done right now.

And, of course, just having a character whose very existence short-circuits many McGuffin-focused plots (since anything lost immediately becomes something he can locate with ease) just sounded like fun to me.

Someday, I will find a Nobilis game and Lucas will be given life...

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June 21, 2003

Favorite Games XI

And now, let us proceed to corner the world currency markets and blame someone else when things go wrong. Sounds like quite a plan.

Who Stole Ed's Pants? is a game of investigating a crime most heinous, finding who committed the foul act, when, and where, so he can be turned over to the Law and Justice can be done. And that is an outright lie. Instead, this is a sweet little game of framing someone for the crime (while others try to frame you), because finding out the truth would be too much work. Though the game, witnesses (6 each in 6 suits, representing professions like Merchants and Circus Performers) allow you to establish suspicions and place blame (if your source is trustworthy enough relative to others'). Suspicions come in the form of Fact and Evidence cards, which use silly details to build a fragile case, just enough to feed the rumors. When all the cards of a type are drawn, the round ends with everyone scoring points for all suspicion currently pointing at them. A second round is played (though facts established in the first are not re-shuffled... so the second round goes a bit quicker than the first), and when that is over whoever has the most suspicion (total of both rounds) is obviously the thief. In the four player game, the player across the table is also locked up as an accomplice. Play is quick and a little goofy, as some of the fact and evidence cards are laughable if considered as "evidence" (you can prove someone "looks like a pirate" by displaying a pet parrot, for example). Lots of play relies on keeping your supporting witnesses sufficiently credible (and, in the four player form, your partner's witnesses as well), and a sudden shift of witness type credibility can change things fairly dramatically. A fun little pass-time for a hour or so, reasonably easily taught (though it's worth reading the rules carefully and playing a round to get a handle on things, as some bits are subtle), and quite replayable. And, under all the silliness, there's a good bit of strategy as you try to manipulate the witnesses and facts to maximize other's supiciousness while minimizing your own.

Money is today's Knizia selection, a deceptively simple game of bidding and gathering cards. There are 7 suits (illustrated as world currencies), each containing 9 cards (3 20s, 3 30s, one each 40, 50 and 60... so not denominations you're likely to see often), gold coins (each worth a constant 10) and "play money" (one card for each player, used to allow bluffing in the bidding). Play consists of each player getting dealt a hand of cards, then 2 available spreads of 4 cards are laid out. All players now bid in secret... Highest bid (total face value of cards played) gets to go first buying what they want... one of the 2 4-card spreads or another player's bid (which can sometimes be nicer). You pick up what you bought and replace it with your bid. After all bidding and buying is done, you refill the 4-card spreads (which may have shrunken if someone bought them with a bid of fewer than 4 cards, as will often happen). When all the cards have been dealt (and one last bidding round completed), you score everyone's hand. As is common with Knizia, scoring is the heart of the game... Each currency is worth its total face value if you have 200 or more in it, or total face less 100 (but never less than zero) if you have less than 200. Any set of all 3 20s or 30s of a suit give a bonus 100. Three full rounds are played to smooth out the luck factor a bit (a mechanic Knizia likes... he praises it highly in his book on dice games). This is a light game, but offers chances for bidding, bluffing, and risk-taking, and so has enough strategic depth to be worth your time. It hurts when you pick the wrong currency to buy up early (Knizia also likes games where you need to bid on things before you really know what they're worth)... but when you get it right, the points reward you. This one just works.

Funagain Purchase Links
Who Stole Ed's Pants

Posted by ghoul at 06:49 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 20, 2003

Game WISH 52 - By Laws

Robin Laws identifies several types of gamer in his book of GM tips: The Power Gamer, the Butt-Kicker, the Tactician, the Specialist (plays one type only), the Method Actor, the Storyteller (plot and pacing fan), and the Casual Gamer. Which of these types do you think you are, and why? Most people arenít pure types, so multiple choices are OK.

Forced to confess, ehh?

I vary some by mood and style (I'm a different player by mail than face-to-face)... but there's some bits I can't avoid.

There's a healthy component of Power Gamer in most any Tactician, in my opinion... It's always easier to plot out a win when you're tougher, after all. I end up with a strong mix of these two. It's the math modeling geek in me; after all, modeling and trying to find an optimal path through the math of the model is pretty much what I do for a living. The thought patterns that builds are hard to totally abandon. I do tend toward seeing the plot as challenge to be overcome more often than something to interact with, and I love a good structured challenge to meet. And, sometimes, that means making character choices based on what works best rather than more "pure" decisions.

This personal style flavors my choice of games... I strongly prefer games where the mechanics support the style, because both as GM and as player I dislike doing things I know are pointedly unwise (in how the game reflects them) 'just' because they fit the style. A game that matches its mechanics to its style thus allows me to play the style with more comfort.

Beyond that, Method Actor, at least a bit (more by email). I tend toward certain character types (but more than one, so not much Specialist), and those types tend to be ones with strong roleplaying hooks, letting me over-act (acting is a weird thing... oversimplify method acting theory and it seems to say the worse you are at it, the more you do of it).

Posted by ghoul at 11:19 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

June 18, 2003

ReFi Fo Fum II

Paperwork continues. Rate slipped down another 1/8th of a percent, to a number I never in my wildest dreams expected to see on a mortgage with my name attached (4.0%!!). Getting worried about screwing something up, but so far fairly sure I haven't.

The Appraiser arrives tomorrow AM at 7:30, which means some clutter-reduction is on tap for tonight. Which will cause the next Favorite Games pair to not appear before Saturday (because Friday is The Hulk)... Sorry, all!.

Posted by ghoul at 03:43 PM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

June 17, 2003

Favorite Games X

Here's two games of backstabbing and treachery (a popular theme), one an absolute classic and the other an odd European game (to which I gave done more than a little surgery in the past)...

Family Business is a card game of good old fashioned gang warfare. Line your pal's men up against the wall and mow 'em down in a new St. Valentine's Day Massacre! Each player has a cast of famous gangsters to try to defend (though identity is irrelevant) and a hand full of contracts, hits, and various other cards. Play moves around the table (mostly), slowly building up a list of at-risk gangsters, until the list gets long enough that one starts dying each turn (cards can start this war early, call it off for a moment... or accelerate it to double speed!). The right cards defend you from Contracts (and can swipe turns from other players, too), a few others can pull you out of danger, or just re-arrange it so others go to their maker before you. The last man standing takes the prize. A quick, fun game with lots of options and chances to backstab right at the best time. Occasionally you can get a stinker hand and just suffer for the whole game (and, once people realize you're weak, a feeding frenzy is likely to follow, taking you out of the game rapidly)... But when that happens, it's time to shuffle and play another round. Newer printings include rule cues on the cards that help to reduce the need to refer back to summary cards (or the rulebook) for clarification (though you'll memorize the card effects quickly enough).

Courtisans of Versailles is a game I've barely played... and yet have played many times. Why do I say this? I'll get to that later... Players here take the roles of the heads of powerful families in the French Court, maneuvering for positions, undercutting one another with the king and queen, going off to war, or being sent to the Bastille. The board is just a record-keeper, showing where each player's fortunes stand with the royals, most of play happens with a thick deck of cards. Cards are used to attempt to get a title, to trap another player in a duel, to slip poison into an unwatched drink... All in an attempt to gather as much value into your family's coffers. Some cards require influence (including most of the good ones), some suddenly lead to death... even of the king or queen (which can really help if you're deep in the doghouse with the potential target). Clever play can get you to the throne (though it isn't easy), or at least to a time as the King's mistress or the Queen's favorite, which gives you almost unlimited influence... until you get found out. Choices are a bit short of players who end up low on influence with both King and Queen, but it's always possible to bribe another player to talk you up (or get yourself killed... you come back in a turn playing a relative, and get to randomly generate starting influence). Fun will be had, and at least a bit (likely a lot) of genteel backstabbing will occur. Rules are provided in English, but there are a few bits where the translation is a little unclear... You'll manage to figure out what they mean with minimal puzzling, I'm sure.

Now, why do I say I have barely played this game and yet have played it many times? Well, this game underwent a bit of re-working (mostly filing off names and replacing them, though I've added a few custom cards each time we've played it) to become Courtiers of Kolvir, a game I've presented to great results at AmberCon North and The Black Road. Anyone who doesn't think Oberon's court in the days long before Zelazny's Amber novels was just as outrageous as the Sun King's wasn't reading the same books I was.

Funagain Purchase Links
Family Business
Courtisans of Versailles

Posted by ghoul at 06:04 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

June 15, 2003

Role Call 22 - System Mismatch Error

Can you name a game or two where the setting was completely mismatched with its system?

Oh, there are many examples, big and small...

How about the GW Judge Dredd, where a rookie judge straight out of training could have a less than 30% chance to hit an average target with his pistol. This is the result of 15 years of intensive marksmanship training? Dredd should be arresting all the instructors for gross incompetence.

Or the DC Heroes strip-down Batman game, done in a rush to release with the movies, where the highly-exponential system of the DC Heroes rules (every +1 doubled your effective ability) was forced to try to deal with mostly normal people and absolutely no effort was made to make it fit (i.e., the attribute range was from 1 to 3 on almost everything)? Blech!

The first try at d20 Star Wars where space combat was done with an abstract, mapless system. Is anything other than light sabers more central to Star Wars than cool space dogfights?

The Indiana Jones RPG, with its "Indy cannot be killed" rules. The whole point was seeing Indy escape from death by the skin of his teeth... if we know by game rules he cannot be killed, then it becomes very dull very fast.

LUG's Trek game, where small character-building skills (like Riker's trombone playing) cost exactly as much at character creation as being a point better in your job. So, which would your captain be happier to see you be... well-rounded or capable of the tasks he'll assign to you? And which happens on the Trek shows? See the problem? And this isn't to mention the 50+ different phaser settings or the addition of a money system to the Federation...

Dream Park, a set of books that explicitly describe their characters as having strong classes, levels, and percentile-based attributes/skills, and yet the game system is a die+skill mod vs. die+skill mod house system with only nominal "class" rules patched on (and a role that, in the books, is a mark of seniority and skill made into just another class title in the game)? And where no effort at all is made to detail "real world" abilities and skills from "game" abilities and skills (another central part of the books)? I helped run several huge Dream Park tournaments at GenCon, and nothing was tougher than making this game even try to resemble the books.

And please... a set of books where the characters, their abilities, their backgrounds, even their settings change at the whim of the author based on the jokes he plans to make this time around done in a system with the most detail of any successful RPG? GURPS Discworld? I love both GURPS and Discworld, and Phil Masters did far better than I could have hoped, but this is just not a good mix.

Note the pattern here... licensed games, every one. It's a curse they must live under, that the very thing that drives them into existence (a popular, beloved game world) is their doom, because if they don't do it right, they don't succeed. And "right" is defined differently by the designers (who often have a mechanical bias based on prior work or the way they like games to flow), the original creators (who often don't want their world being played with at all, hence "Indy cannot be killed" rules), and the fans (many of whom want the thrill of proving their character better than, or at least as good as, the character they love from the original). Conflict is all but inevitable.

The biggest issue for me is games that try to just make "doing it the original way" possible... A successful licensed game makes "doing it the original way" into the way that works best (or at least nearly so) in the game mechanics if the original presented it as the best way. Thus, if in the original few characters wear armor, you'd best design rules where armor is only a benefit to a few character types (kudos to d20 Wheel of Time for making the effort there). If, in the original, all characters have significant flaws that trouble them throughout their story, you'd best make that part of the game (the new Marvel Universe system does this, to its credit). Make me want to do it the way the original says it should be done and you've won the biggest battle.

(Yes, there are system/setting mismatches in non-licensed games as well... Mercenaries, Spies, and Private Eyes trying to do gritty modern action adventure using Tunnels and Trolls as the rules base, for example. But licensed games are the big offender on this issue, IMO.)

Posted by ghoul at 08:43 AM | Comments (4) | TrackBack

Favorite Games IX

Two games today that couldn't be more different... a game of random, unpredictable magic and a game of careful, deep strategy.

Wiz War is a classic game by Tom Jolly (another name that will quite probably crop up a couple more times before we're done), sadly currently out of print (though there are rumors it may resurrect soon). The basic game is simple... a dungeon map is build by assembling several square map pieces, and wizards start at a "home" square on each map, after placing two treasure chests on two other, marked, spaces. These wizards are, for reasons of their own, engaged in a contest. The object... to steal two treasures from their opponents and return them to their home base. The basic game, as in Cosmic Encounter, is quite simple. The catch comes from the hand of cards each player has. Most are spell, many are very odd spells. Spells that summon creatures (who usually fight much better than wizards), spells that create traps (which can prevent or slow movement down the hall leading to a treasure), spells that rotate board segments (making even the map itself unpredictable), spells that let you flick a d4 onto the board and whatever it hits stays where it gets moved to (i.e., that are just weird). The game is unpredictable, highly competitive and has a huge "luck" element. But it's a perfect "beer and pretzels" style game, just great for blowing off an hour or two trying to trap your friends in a giant thorny rose bush while you run off with his treasure.

Tigris & Euphrates is the opposite extreme, is one of Renier Knizia's best. This is a deeply complex tile-placement game, starting with a map that is roughly based on the historical "fertile crescent" (modern day Iraq, but don't hold that against this brilliant game). Nominally, the game is about building civilization out of four basic building blocks (tiles representing Settlements, Temples, Farms and Markets), but as is often the case with Knizia, the theme is far in the background of the game's brilliant mechanics. This time, play is a complex series of tile and Leader placements (you normally place two a turn, in any combination you choose). Leaders are critical, as they are what allows the scoring of points. Each player has one leader for each type of tile (and you may pick one up and move it if the location has become less than optimal). When a tile is placed adjacent to a kingdom (that is, to any group of tiles containing at least one leader), the player controlling that kingdom's leader of the same type as the tile gets one victory point. Yes, you can get a point based on my play... and yes, there are times when it is worth-while for me to intentionally give that to you (usually in order to set up a second move that gets me far more). When Kingdoms merge, there is an instant conflict between any matching leaders, so at any time there will only be one to score. Group enough tiles of one color together and you can build a Monument, generating even more points. There are more complexities (leaders must be next to Temples, Farms can only be placed on rivers, catastrophe tiles that let you "destroy" earlier tiles, etc.), but this gives you a good view of the essentials except for one thing... the object of the game. And, in typical Knizia fashion, it isn't what you'd expect. Rather than trying to score the most points overall, the object is to score the most points in your worst color. This means, as with Samurai, one must focus on balance. Getting a dozen more Temple points than anyone else doesn't win you anything if you barely scored any Farms. T&E is a great game for 2-4 players, though it plays very differently with each number... it is intensely strategic at 2 players, but the fact that 6 pieces will be added/moved between your turns makes it less predictable at 4. People who like games where thought is rewarded will love this one, because each tile placement can prove critical. Settle down for 90-120 minutes of intense fun (if it's taking longer, you may want to consider a chess clock or egg timer to limit over-analysis of each move). This one is an absolute treasure. And don't let the fairly steep price scare you... this is a quality game with quality pieces, of wood (for the leaders, monuments, and victory point pieces) and very thick cardboard (for the tiles... plus there's a bag to draw from so it's easier to store and randomize them), so you get your money's worth.

Funagain Purchase Links
Tigris & Euphrates

Posted by ghoul at 06:19 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

June 13, 2003

WISH 51 - I Dream of Genre

(Sorry for the title... I'm in a bad pun mood of late.)

What are three genres that youíve had limited exposure to as a gamer that youíd like to try or play more of?

I do so much multi-genre play (Feng Shui and Amber) that this is kind of tricky, but I do have a few...

Real World Historical (true or "alternative"). I'm a big Harry Turtledove and Eric Flint fan, so something like Turtledove's How Few Remain (and sequels) or Flint's 16XX books would trap me in a minute. By this, I mean something firmly in the "real world" with just enough changes to make it unique and unpredictable. This separate from the (also attractive, IMO) style with more dramatic changes, such as Godlike.

The Classical Bronze Age (Greek/Trojan/Hittite/Egyptian/Babylonian or something with a similar feel) is very appealing, which helps add to the temptation of Testament despite the d20 mechanics (which I don't find do realistic-level very well at all). This has always been the appeal of RuneQuest to me (I don't much like Glorantha), and is the reason I have my own fantasy world (mentioned here) set back at this technology level.

And Westerns. I love westerns, particularly of the gritty 60's style. Sergio Leone did the world a great favor when he borrowed Kurosawa's Yojombo to make A Fistful of Dollars. TSR's old Boot Hill was never all that good, and few other mass-market games really did the genre justice. To me, Deadlands is too populated by weirdness. But Dust Devils is quite tempting...

I guess what all of these have in common is a reduction in the element of the "fantastic" (which is all too common in RPGS) in exchange for more of the "real" (which is too often absent). Of course, "real" is very much informed by movies and books here, so still likely isn't exactly authentic.

Posted by ghoul at 11:07 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Favorite Games VIII

Today, we build our castles in a dangerous land full of dragons and trolls, then we turn into stray dogs and try to beg for bones. And who says there's no variety in life these days?

Kingdoms is another Knizia game that shows his mathematical background. In this came, players go around the table slowly filling in a 6 by 5 grid with tokens (ranging from -6 to +6 in value with no zeroes), special tokens (a gold mine, two mountains and a dragon), or castles (ranging from 1 to 4 in value). When the grid is filled, each player scores the total of the tile values of non-castles in each row or column times the total value of their castles there, except that gold mines double any row or column they are in; dragons negate any tiles valued +1 on better, leaving only the -1 to -6 tiles and other specials; and mountains split the row and column they are in into parts, each scored individually. The object of the game is to put your best castles in the most positive row and column in each of 3 rounds of play (the board is cleared and tiles re-shuffled between rounds, except that castles valued over 1 are removed from play once used, so they must be placed with care). Of course, by the time you know it's the best row or column, someone else will be putting their castle there, so you have to take a gamble now and then. Is it really a game about building kingdoms while avoiding dragons and trolls (the -6 value tile)? No... it's a game of claiming positions on a grid to try to maximize your positional value. But, at heart, it's a good game, though one with a small degree of luck based on the order in which tiles are drawn (an optional rule suggests playing with all tokens face up, removing all sign of luck and making for a more intensely strategic game). Play is quick (unless someone tries too hard to optimize each move, which may slightly help him win but reduces everyone's fun and so should be discouraged with either an egg timer or a mallet, depending on how much force you feel is needed) and results sometimes wildly unexpected (mainly because it's very easy to disrupt other people's strategy through placement of powerful tiles like the troll or the dragon), making for a fun time at the game table.

A Dog's Life is a more thematically sound game, since it takes its odd premise in pretty much every direction one could hope for (and a couple I would never have expected in a game). The premise is simple... stray dogs wander the city, begging for scraps, rummaging through garbage, delivering newspapers, and trying to find bones that can carry home and bury, all the while avoiding the dogcatcher. Yes, it sounds very silly, but it actually makes for a fun little game, even if (like me) you're more of a cat person than a dog person. There are six different dogs in the game, represented by attractive little plastic minis (full color!) and by a unique deck of action cards for each. Each dog's deck is different because each dog is good at some things but poor at others... Belle the poodle can beg most anything out of a restaurant staff, but if she gets into a fight against Grouchy the boxer, he'll take whatever he wants and put her in the pound, licking her wounds. And that is both the strength and the flaw of this game... You need to learn and master the strengths of each dog to win. But some dogs (the fighters) are much weaker in games with less than the full 6 players (because the other dogs just stay away). We have made a house rule that you can draw again if you don't want to play your first pick to try to avoid this problem. Additional rules in the game cover a wildly-moving dog catcher (each player moves it at the end of their turn, so it tends to swerve around a lot) and critically important rules for what the rules call "piddling on a lamppost". This is important because you can use this to block off streets against other players' dogs, who have to stop and sniff away all their remaining action points if they encounter a marked lamp. Control of the map (particularly if the dogcatcher is nearby) is a critical strategy in this game, the one significant part that isn't luck-based at all.

Yes, it's silly. But it's also fun. And there's nothing wrong with that. It isn't strategically deep (in fact, it's very luck-driven, as even the best begging dog can draw a "nothing" when begging, just as the best run-and-dodge dog can get snatched by the dogcatcher), and dogs need to eat a LOT more than really makes the game fun (close to half your actions will be spent seeking food rather than trying to win... which, by the way, is done by burying bones in your home territory). Still, it's a nice light game to play, particularly if you aren't too shy to make silly bark and growl sounds to "get into character".

Funagain Purchase Links:
A Dog's Life

Posted by ghoul at 06:05 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

June 11, 2003

ReFi Fo Fum

Just scheduled time with the appraiser and started reading through a nice thick set of new documents I need to understand and sign (or at least sign) as I attempt to cut my mortgage interest rate almost in half and roll some equity out to consolidate debt and even repair the roof this year, before I absolutely need to. That is, before it starts leaking in on my game collection!

Plus I get to move it all to the same local bank where my checking account is, which at least offers the hope I'll have a person I can talk to if things go weird, as they inevitably do.

Now if only I could really convince myself I understand all these forms and options... I do complex financial arrangements (including writing/reviewing insurance contract language) for a living, these should be something I can work through.

Should be...

Posted by ghoul at 11:15 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Favorite Games VII

Today's pair are brought to us by the good folks at Out of the Box Games.

Apples to Apples is, quite probably, the finest "party game" I've ever seen. It is a game you can teach in minutes and that can be enjoyed by pretty much anyone of reasonable literacy, and it is endlessly, reliably, fun. The game itself is simple... Two types of cards, Red Cards which contain Nouns (people, places, things, the occasional generic term like "my high school prom") and Green cards which contain Adjectives ("Dramatic", "Complicated", or "Fancy", for three examples). Cards also contain simple definitions, quotes, or other identifiers to assist someone not familiar with the word or name in question. Each turn, one player takes the role of Judge and turns up one Green card. Every other player then selects the Red card from their hand that best matches the adjective on the Green card, playing it face-down. "Best" is intentionally subjective... Play to the Judge, because the Judge will decide (after shuffling so the source of each card is unidentifiable) on their own criteria. Whoever's word is chosen wins the round, and you play to a total score based on the number of players. That's it. (Well, actually, there are a handful of alternate ways to play presented in the base game and with each expansion set, of which there are four, but those are all optional additional fun.) The game plays quickly and socially, and all sorts of fun can be had just trying to make people explain why they Judged as they did. Two "Junior Age" editions also exist (using simpler vocabulary and fewer people not currently in the news), and if you just don't have the words you want, there's always these. This couldn't be more recommended as a ready passtime, or as something to take to your next non-gamer gathering (family event, church social, or whatever you gather for). It's all but assured to be a hit. The only disappointment, to me, is the art... It's by John Kovalic, but it consists of the same cartoon apple (colored red or green) over and over. A little variety would add to the game, but it's plenty good even without that.

Gold Diggers is an ultra-simple Knizia game, at least on its surface. When you get a little deeper, it shows some bits of strategy behind its apparently luck-heavy structure. Written for 2-5 players ages 7+, it might seem impossible that there could be any real strategy here, but Knizia is a better game designer than that. Gold Diggers features 3 types of cards, representing Mines (there are 6 and they are used to form a board rather than shuffled into the deck), Characters (5 for each mine) and Gold (real gold ranging in value from 1 to 8 nuggets and "fool's gold" worth zero). The mines are placed across the table, and each turn you play either a Character (on the appropriate mine) or a Gold card (on any mine of your choice with less than five). If you play a Character, you have the option of "staking a claim" on the mine they are associated with by placing a chip on the mine (you can, at most, stake 3 claims in the game, so there are 3 chips in each player color). When the last card is played (there are exactly 60 cards and exactly 60 places to play cards), you total up the gold in each mine, divide by the claims (rounding down), and get each player's score. Simple, but there's enough strategic choice, even with only 3 cards in your hand, that skill does play a part in winning (though luck can still betray you, such as if you never draw a Character card). Still, as with many high-luck games, playing multiple rounds and totaling the score can level out the random parts. This game plays in minutes (10-20), so that's easily done. This time, John Kovalic does provide some fun art (the pun-laden character cards will provide a giggle or two). And for the price (under $10!), this game is very hard to beat, even if it lacks the strategic density of others. It's quick, cheap, and fun. What more could you want?

Funagain Purchase Links:
Apples to Apples
Gold Diggers

Posted by ghoul at 06:31 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

June 09, 2003

Favorite Games VI

The series continues, this time with an award-winning pair, one of conquering Japan and the other of cornering the bean market. No, really.

Samurai is a Knizia game that looks like it's more thematically firm than it actually is. Play is on a hexagon-divided map of Japan, with extra islands added to the south and north, respectively, if a 3rd or 4th player are added. The map is speckled with cities, into which are placed (at random) three types of tokens, indicating influence with the nobility (tall conical hats), the clergy (small Buddha statues) or the common folk (rice paddies); larger cities contain two or, for the imperial capital of Edo, three different tokens. The object of the game is to "capture" these markers by having the most influence of the appropriate type when the last of the land areas around the city is filled. Each turn, you place a counter on one hex. These counters can be political, religious or common influence (with a rating of 2, 3 or 4) or they could be samurai, who apply toward all three "suits" (but rated 1, 2 and 3 only). There are also special counters, including ships, ronin, and some special effect tiles (no attempt is made to tie them into the theme) that let you move around things already placed, under certain situations. Most of the special counters also are marked as "fast", so allow you to play an additional counter after them. Each player has their own set of the same counters, though they are shuffled and played out from a hand of only 5 (an optional rule allows players to intelligently select rather than shuffle their initial hand of 5 counters, which makes for a significantly more strategic game). Scoring emphasizes balance rather than simple overwhelming force. A player who wins the majority of 2 castes wins, but this usually only happens in a two-player game. Otherwise, players who won no majorities are eliminated (you need strong support in at least one area to even have a chance) and the players with one majority compare their total wins of their non-majority token types. Thus, the best strategy is to win a slight margin in one caste, then a good healthy number in the other two as well. Of course, everyone else is trying to do the same thing...

Game bits are of considerable quality here. The board is a nice puzzle-cut modular design to let it grow as more players are added. The reward tokens are simple but attractive black plastic and the player counters are thick cardboard hexes that fit nicely into the spaces of the board (just a little bit of space to spare). Players are also given small stand-up screens to let them hide their hand of tiles and scoring tokens from each other. A well designed package to support an elegant, highly strategic game. But it really has very little to do with Japanese history, despite the Japan-shaped map, piece design, and artwork.

There is also a nice computer version for PC and Mac (non-Carbon, but it runs fine in a Classic window) from Klear Games (time and feature limited demo is available for download). While its AI is pretty sound (albeit far from immune to defeat), there's also an option to play real people over the net, and that can result in considerably more challenge.

Bohnanza is a game that sounds like it shouldn't work. Players take the role of bean farmers trying to grow various types of beans, then harvest their crops for cash. Doesn't sound interesting? Well, don't let the theme turn you off, because this is a very nice game of strategy, trading and set-building, easy to learn but with sufficient depth and strategic variety to stand several replays. The style of play is unique, and is what makes the game work. Every player has a hand of cards which must be kept in order (you may not under any circumstances arrange your hand... with one vital exception to come below). Each turn, you must play at least one card (representing a type of bean) to one of your fields (you initially have two, and may purchase a third during play). Each field can have only one type of bean in it, so if the card you must play doesn't match, you may have to sell off a field. And, as fields get more valuable the more beans you get into them, selling early is rarely what you want to do (and is exactly what other players want to force you to do). Next, you draw two face-up cards and try arrange trades. Trading is the way players can get bad cards out of their hand, because any trades end up face-up in front of the player and are planted (put into fields) immediately at the end of trading (which may require selling fields), so the card you trade away gets out of its spot blocking up your hand. Then you add more cards to the back of you hand to fill it. This makes for some delightful strategy, as players try to trade off beans they don't have decent sets of (or that are just ill-timed in their hand, coming up sooner than they want to sell a field), but never want to give away too much. Good graphic design is shown by printing coins on the back of every card... When you sell a field, you flip the cards over, keep the appropriate number for the type of bean and size of the field when sold, then discard the rest (the only problem there is a need to shuffle thoroughly, as the discards are inherently clumped into groups of the same bean). Silly theme? Yes. But this is a very high quality game, particularly for its low price (under $16 for the US edition, which includes cards for more players that were an expansion set for the original German game) and large number of players (up to 7, which makes for wild trading rounds and cutthroat competition for the really valuable beans).

Funagain Purchase Links:

Posted by ghoul at 06:43 AM | Comments (2) | TrackBack

June 07, 2003

Favorite Games V

A game of exploring the secret places of earth and a game of conquering the galaxy. A nice pairing, don't you think?

Lost Cities is Knizia again, a sharp two-player card game of exploration. Cards are numbered 2-10 in five colors, each representing a different area of exploration (jungle, arctic, underwater, etc.), and can be played only in ascending order (that is, once you've played the 6, only the 7 or higher can be played on your side of the table in that suit). Each player tries to build the best expeditions they can, one card a time, with the value being the sum of the cards played minus 20 (though if no cards are played, the value is zero), plus an additional 20 if you managed to accumulate 8 or more cards. This rather mathematical scoring scheme is typical of Knizia, but it works quite well. It is unwise to start any expedition you can't make at least moderate progress in, and the -20 cost to play the first card represents that well. Investor cards (3 per suit) multiply the eventual score of a column, but must be played before any other card, and do trigger that -20, making it possible to score as little as -80 for an expedition with full backing but no progress made. Also interesting is the discard mechanic. Discards go face-up to a stack for each suit, and the top of each stack can be drawn from by either player in the future (rather than taking a card from the face-down deck). Thus, you have to watch what you throw away, lest your opponent find it valuable. Or, if you're feeling daring, you can use the discards as a temporary holding place for a card you can't use now, but may want later. And, with as many as 5 face-up cards available, sometimes even the drawing of a card takes a thought-out decision (5 known cards plus one from the deck to choose among). There is a lot of luck to the game, which is why the rules suggest playing three (or more) rounds and totaling your score from each rather than just one play, which is fine because each single play goes by fairly quickly. Card art is interesting, showing progressively more interesting hints of what the expedition discovers as the card value increase. There is also a board that isn't strictly necessary to play, but since the whole package still comes in under $20 (under $15 from the link below!), I can't complain too much about it.

Cosmic Encounter is an absolute classic, a game that serves as a direct ancestor of all the Collectable Card/Miniature/Bard Games that have flooded the market for the last several years. You see, Cosmic Encounter was the first (or at least the first successful) game based on the the idea of having fairly simple rules but numerous special exceptions, governed by the player role or by cards drawn and played. I was introduced to it as "every player has their own way to cheat", which is as good a description as any. This made Cosmic Encounter an infinitely re-playable game, as every game has a new and likely unique mix of player options. The actual base game is very simplistic, as you send a small number of your units to attack other player's planets while defending your own, with both players inviting the rest of the game to ally on their side if they wish. Attack Cards are added to each side, the higher total wins ("Compromise" cards can be played to give up and take cards from your opponent's hand if they played a normal attack card, or start a round of negotiations for a deal if both players Compromise). If that doesn't sound overwhelmingly interesting, it's because it really isn't. It's the powers and the funky edicts/flares/moons/lucre that make the game the classic that it is (okay, maybe not lucre, which came in a very late expansion and always seemed too patched-on to flow with the game). Originally, the game was released (by the defunct but regularly brilliant Eon) as just its base self, with only a handful of alien powers. The really good stuff came in a series of 9 expansion sets, each adding new aliens (if memory serves, their final total was 75), new rules, new variety. Unfortunately, the original publisher went away, and CE has since been given 3 re-workings, only the middle of which (by Mayfair Games) actually managed to replicate the full range of the original game, and even expand on it a bit (with some new powers and a few new cards of significant impact). The most current edition, from Avalon Hill/Hasbro, looks by far the best with fancy plastic space ships replacing the familiar round cardboard disks of earlier editions, but is only a slight peek at this great game, lacking most of the options and alien powers that make CE such a great game, and it seems unlikely that it will be expanded to show its true strength. Which is really a shame, because this is really not a game where less is more.

Just an additional note... there is a new online version of Cosmic Encounter out there, and it's getting fairly good reviews, though it's still far from the complete game. It's adding new alien powers quickly (including some new ones created just for them and taking advantage of the computer to do things that would be hard with real cards, boards and pieces), which is a good sign, but it has a long way to go to be even half the game I wasted many a college night playing (thanks again, Alex, for letting your set take all the abuse endless gaming put it through!). Because, as I said about the board version, in this game it really is all about how many options for weirdness you have to choose from. Still, if you are curious, it's worth a bit of time trying it out!

Funagain Purchase Links:
Lost Cities
Cosmic Encounter

Posted by ghoul at 07:07 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

June 06, 2003

WISH 50 - Publish or ???

Have you ever considered trying to publish something professionally in the gaming industry? Why or why not? What are the good points and bad points of being in the industry?

Short answer... Yes. And probably not again soon.

I've had two professional publications and a rather long semi-pro period. Semi-pro was several years as editor for CompuServe RPGames forum's monthly gaming 'zine, for which I mostly produced game reviews. This "paid" in the form of a free account for use of the forum and a handful of review copies of games, and it was overall a positive experience, albeit one that took considerable time and didn't exactly endear me to a few game designers whose work I failed to praise. Still, I learned a good bit more about the industry, gained a larger appreciation of the value of smaller publishers (a font of creativity that the OGL/d20 movement has interesting effects on, both positive and negative), and became familiar with even more games than I would have just on my own. Net that one to a positive experience.

(I don't consider running AmberCon North as being "in the industry"... that's been a pure act of a fan.)

One pro was an article in Amberzine 7 (the only actual rules article ever to get past the Amberzine editorial process, as the usual focus is character diaries/stories), entitled "When Good Stuff Happens to Bad People". Its purpose was the object to the Good/Bad Stuff rules in ADRP, and the title was an all but offhand quip I made to Amberzine 7's editor (Joe Saul) at AmberCon 5 while bouncing a character idea off him. He said he pretty much agreed with my opinion and if I could write the article in three weeks, he'd put it into print. I still get occasional comments from people about this piece, mostly positive. And, unexpectedly, I received a reasonable pay rate (I had actually never asked about that before agreeing to write the article). Definitely a positive experience.

The other pro experience has more influenced my attitudes. "Teenagers From Outer Space Yearbook" was a less than positive experience. My co-author and I poured a fair amount of time to merge our two TFOS campaigns (and a few additional ideas needed to fill the page count) into one book. It was a list of NPCs, students and teachers, plus numerous adventure seeds. We arranged art (a friend of the co-author, who did an amazing job), put together the text, assembled a rough layout, and sent it off. The final project looked about like what we'd hoped (excepting a couple of annoying typos, one on my own favorite PC, whose stats in the printed book make no sense at all), but distribution was all but nonexistent. I don't think I ever saw it for sale except at GenCon... even at my own home comics/game store, who ordered it several times, failed to acquire even one copy. And getting paid... Well, we eventually settled up with the publisher, but I don't think any of the four of us (authors, artist, or publisher) were exactly happy with the experience. This was a lot of work for something too few people got to enjoy, and tussling over money issues drained even more fun out of things.

Not really my cup of tea. If I want to pour work into a game (and I have, on several), I'd rather it go toward making the game more fun for me and the players. Trying to also make it profitable for me... well, that just shifts my focus off and introduces strain that helps no one. I have a few ideas that might be worth publishing, but I don't expect I'll be going that route again anytime soon. Oh, I may finish and submit one of the half-dozen articles I have written or outlined, but I'm not focused in that direction at all. It's just not what I game for.

Posted by ghoul at 11:41 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Roll The Bones

Just a note... If you're into RPGs and haven't yet followed the link from the Roll the Bones blog to the Roll the Bones Forum, why haven't you?

Posted by ghoul at 10:22 AM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

June 05, 2003

Favorite Games IV

This time, a strategically deep, subtle game and a goofy toss-cards-around game...

Also, there is an improved set of links for those who, after reading these mini-reviews, decide they'd like to check out a game or two.

Battle Line is our Knizia game for this entry. This one is a two-player card game that nominally simulates battle between Alexander the Great and the Persian King Darius. But this thematic bit is not really important, as you don't even determine which player is which historical figure until during play, and may never know if the two leader cards don't come into play; as with many Knizia games, the theme is mostly an excuse to hang an abstract mathematical game from. This time, the game is a progressive effort to build up 3-card sets at each of nine "battle flags", where each card represents one of 10 different troop types (numbered 1 to 10, named and illustrated in ascending order from lightly armed skirmishers to massive battle elephants) . Sets made up of the same troop type, troops of the same color, or troops of types that form a sequence are superior to random sets (you could think of them as 3-card poker hands, if you like), so players carefully decide where to place their strengths to form the best formations. You play only one card a turn, and all cards are played face-up, so both players know everything about the game except what is in the other player's hand... and their devious little mind. Victory is achieved when you win either 5 battle flags (the majority) or 3 adjoining battle flags (a breakthrough). Each flag is decided when it becomes obvious that your set overpowers the opposing set. Note that this can become obvious even if one or both sets is incomplete! If, by counting face-up cards, you can demonstrate that no card still unplayed would result in the weaker set winning out, the stronger side takes the flag immediately. This rule results in some odd strategies, such as trying to lure your opponent into playing a second card toward a set you know (because the card they need is in your hand) they'll never be able to complete, or playing a card to show it isn't available, thus demonstrating a set at a completely different flag to be a loser. That latter strategy can result in you taking two (or, rarely, three or more) flags with one play! There are also "tactics" cards that keep the game from being too predictable, because they do things like modify the set rules for a single flag or cause a card to change sides. This is a very fun game of abstract strategy, with enough depth to require thought, but with sufficiently limited options each turn to avoid the game bogging down into unending quandaries about what to do next. Play is quick (20-30 minutes), so you can even go for a "best two out of three" play to minimize the impact of luck.

Munchkin is a light, silly game mocking dungeon crawl RPGs. Player take the "roles" of various dungeon invaders though you can change exactly roles pretty much at any time if, say, you get bored with being an elf (something that usually happens right when a monster that specializes in eating elves shows up). Play consists of tossing out cards to fight, then gathering up treasures and experience when you win (or taking damage when you lose). Other players can toss in cards to help or (more commonly, unless you bribe them) harm your odds against the monster you find. The object of the game is to be the first character to make it to Level 10 thanks to your monster-killing prowess. Expansion sets (2 so far) add even more silly roles, monsters, magic items, et al, to the mix, which just increase the silliness. This is a fun game to just sit around and read the cards (and enjoy the John Kovalic art)! But unlike many games that are just fun to look at, this one is also fun to play, preferably with as many people as you can gather to increase the madness (and the likelihood there will be at least one player currently in the role that your nastiest cards target!). Space Munchkin takes the same game into SciFi with minimal changes (in fact, the games can be somewhat intermixed if you like), and there's also Munchkin Fu that promises Martial Arts smackdown silliness (I will admit that I haven't actually seen it yet). And, on the even sillier side, there are three familarly-titled volumes that translate the cards of Munchkin to d20 rules (with allowances for a drastically increased power curve), in case you like your dungeon crawling this silly.

And yes, this was on the list to be included before Jenn's comment, though it's nice to know I'm not alone liking this one (though, with Munchkin, I would have felt pretty safe assuming that).

And here's an additional note... Many of the games listed here and in previous entries are available for purchase at Funagain Games. Here's a convenient set of links for the available games mentioned so far (and yes, these are "associate" links that gives me a little bit back on any referred sales... do support your friendly local game store first, but if they can't get the title, do give the folk at Funagain a try!). Future "Favorite Games" entries will include these links as well, at least as long as the games are available (sadly, not all the games I have already listed are, and I'm sure some future faves won't be, either).

Funagain Purchase Links:
Settlers of Catan
5-6 Player Expansion
Seafarers of Catan
Seafarers 5-6 Player Expansion
Cities and Knights
Cities and Knights 5-6 Player Expansion

Ursuppe Freshly Spiced Expansion

Kill Doctor Lucky (director's cut)

Lord of the Rings
LotR: Friends and Foes Expansion
LotR: Sauron Expansion

Lord of the Fries (special edition)

Munchkin II - Unnatural Axe
Space Munchkin

Posted by ghoul at 06:34 AM | Comments (3) | TrackBack

June 03, 2003

And Again, Ugh

Well, the meeting was actually enjoyable, or at least as close to such as all-day business meetings can get. And the flights down and then back from Greensboro to Philly went well. Despite the storms that had many NC flights being cancelled or delayed, we arrived in Philly 5 minutes early. But then...

(angry anti-airline grousing to follow... read on only if you don't mind a bit of aggravated bile.)

45 minutes (5 minutes longer than the expected flight time!) waiting in a line to take off from Philly, complete with the pilot apologizing for the delay (30 minutes after telling us there would be a 20 minute wait... thus 15 minutes before we actually took off). And all the while acknowledging that this is a common problem. If so, why hasn't it been solved yet? I realize it's crowded with NYC's airports to the north and DC's airports to the south, but if the schedule is so crowded that they can't keep it, they need to stop lying to themselves (and us) and make a schedule they can actually stick to.

And then there was no snack/beverage service outside of first class because, briefly, there was some turbulence (which lasted less than the length of the pilot's announcement). Of course, that makes perfect sense, right? We're 60 minutes into our 45 minute flight, so what better time to announce that there won't actually be the usual tiny offering of pretzels and liquid-of-choice? And all made worse by them then re-starting service 15 minutes later... to the first class passengers who wanted seconds.

I'll admit, my last trip on Amtrack was worse. Apparently, the line from Cleveland, OH to Albany, NY is Amtrack's notoriously late line... My experience then featured a full 6 hours of delays, including the train running short of fuel (thanks to earlier delays) and needing another engine to be run back to assist us. The concession made by the line for this... Free ham sandwiches, chips, and soft drinks from the dining car. Ahh, we were stunned by their generosity.

And my coworkers and family wonder why I'm usually happier to drive... I love my little white Prius!

Posted by ghoul at 10:53 PM | Comments (5) | TrackBack

Favorite Games III

I've already built up a list of some 32 titles for this series, so at a pair every other day, this won't be done anytime soon. And that's the limit only if I don't think of (or acquire!) other games deserving mention before I wrap this up.

But here's the next installment, a "lordly" pair if ever I've seen one...

Lord of the Rings is another Knizia creation, this one an ambitious attempt to create a game from the highly popular books (and initially released the summer before the first of the movies came out to get that tie-in as well). In this game, the players (in the roles of the hobbits, including the often-forgotten Fatty Bolger as a 5th player option, allowing from 2-5 people to play) cooperate against a difficult series of game boards, trying to maneuver through the various obstacles (Moria, Helms Deep, Shelob's Lair and Mordor) on their quest to destroy the ring. Yes, I said cooperate. This is a game that is either won or lost by all players.

Most of play is done by trying to match cards of certain suits (conflict, friendship, travel, hiding, and the wild suit of magic) against the current challenges, and do so rapidly as the challenges get nastier if not quickly overcome. Every board has tracks for three of the suits (Mordor has all four suits, making it even nastier), and an Event track, representing plot events that act as a time limit on finishing the other tracks. Each hobbit has a unique "power", essentially one rule that applies differently to them than it does to everyone else, as a way of differentiating them. The non-hobbit members of the Fellowship are abstracted into cards that help push past big challenges, and the Ring is the ultimate tool for evading danger... but using it carries a major risk, as it can move the Ringbearer closer to Sauron on a critical corruption chart. Players must get the ring to Mount Doom before they are pushed to Sauron's location on that chart by game events gone wrong and use of the Ring. It isn't easy, and the game suggests an aggressive means of cranking up difficulty (essentially starting with Sauron much closer to the hobbits) as players get better at the game.

Also available for LOTR are two supplements. Friends and Foes adds two new boards to play through -- the fairly easy Bree and the fairly nasty Isengard -- plus scary monsters that start trailing the party but which, if overcome, can allow some boards to be "skipped", though at a price. For example, if the Fellowship can evade all pursuit through Bree, they can avoid Moria, but at the price of giving up most of the rewards that would have come from visiting Lothlorien and starting the next board with several newly drawn Foes on their tail. Also, each Hobbit gains a second power, though this one can only be used once per game.

The newer Sauron expansion is an even more dramatic change to the game. When using it, one player stops cooperating (or a 6th player joins in), taking on the role of Sauron, now intelligently throwing dangers in the Fellowship's path, though limited by the cards and tiles he draws and by the Fellowship "activating" him when taking risky actions (of course, risk is unavoidable in their quest, so Sauron won't sit quietly for too long). Also added is a direct mechanic for the Black Riders, traveling up and down the Corruption board, from Mordor to the hobbits then back. If they complete the cycle, it's all over for the good guys. Game balance still favors the hobbits over Sauron, but not by much.

As a whole, this game is a lot to learn (the rules re-write at the site linked to above clears up a few points from the original rules), but it's manageable, especially if you grow into the rules one expansion at a time. This is a very challenging game, however, and you can expect to lose and lose badly if you don't work out how to cooperate effectively. Scan ahead on the boards as soon as they come up to work out which sub-quests you need to complete first, or you'll give up some of the nicest benefits (for example, at Helms Deep you must work fast on the "Friendship" track or you won't get help for the Riders of Rohan, and that is quite a loss). Throughout the games, in the rules and on the board and cards, is full color art by John Howe, one of the two main conceptual artists of the Lord of the Rings movies, so the look of this game is very well matched with the films. Also, there are many little game bits, from an oversized plastic ring (complete with the traditional lettering), a haunting Sauron piece and, with the Sauron expansion, a very imposing Black Rider. The hobbits themselves are a bit chintzy, but that's a small problem in such a lovely game.

Lord of the Fries is my second choice from Cheapass (though their whole catalog features only a couple of clunkers), an odd card game of the rummy family, only here the meldable combinations are the ever-shifting makings of various combo meals at a zombie-staffed fast food joint (the same place as their earlier and almost equally fun Give Me The Brain). The target hand at any time is the "order", chosen from a menu, which might range from simple to very complicated. There is a fair amount of strategy in card-passing and in order selection, but not overly much. For the most part, it's just "try to get rid of all your cards", and that's easy to figure out. The current "deluxe version" comes in color and with several alternative menus (though no longer in the cool chinese take-out box that was used to pack it briefly), creating even more game play alternatives, and still at a price well below most any other game anywhere near this much fun.

Posted by ghoul at 01:05 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

June 02, 2003

Away for a Day

Work is sending me on a busy day (plus a bit), of which half-again as much will be spent traveling as attending the HQ meeting I'm traveling for.


Usually work travel to and from the HQ is via the minimum-overhead 8-seat company jet directly from the tiny airport here in town, sitting in comfortably padded real-person-sized seats and snacking at will from the well-stocked chips, candy, and soda drawers. But, thanks to a busy week of meetings company-wide, I got pushed off to commercial from the crowded airport 45 minutes away, plus all the security overhead, plus a coach seat that likely won't fit my nice new powerbook well at all (let alone me... coach is not sized for anyone over 6 foot!), and a lay-over in Philly each way.

Again, ugh.

I'll to get the third set of Favorite Games posted from the hotel or from the office tomorrow, if I can get it finished and transfered, but don't expect much else.

Posted by ghoul at 12:27 PM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

June 01, 2003

Role Call 21 - Playing the Movies

Oh, now this one's right up my alley...

What are three movies whose mood and/or situations you'd like to emulate in a roleplaying game, and why?

Only three? Well, I'll be selective...

As might be inferred from other projects (scroll down a bit on that second link, as it's near the midpoint), I'm well into cinematically influenced style in RPGs, and take lots of inspiration from movies. But let's do three I haven't been able to actually do yet...

Twelve Monkeys -- Oh, wow! This is time travel done with guts. Even Continuum is only barely scratching the surface of the deep use of paradox, doubt, and predestination that Terry Gilliam managed in this all too neglected movie. Paranoia-style post apocalyptic humor and an amazingly manic Brad Pitt performance just add to the mix. As with Memento, structure would be everything in this game, with little time loops building until the whole game comes full circle, just as the film does. And the psychological twisting could be as cruel as Power Kill. I doubt I have the skill for it ("Mementos of Amber" was hard enough!), but this is the sort of project I'd love to attempt.

Cemetery Man (originally titled Dellamorte Dellamore for its original Italian release, and not available on DVD, it seems... which is a crime! Glad I've got that old LD copy!) -- This is another odd-atmosphere piece. This time, we focus on a cemetery caretaker who, in addition to trimming weeds, has to deal with the fact that anything buried here rises as a zombie a short while later. Rather than try to convince anyone this happens and face the resulting paperwork, he just kills them again. And that's just the opening premise, from there it gets weird. This sort of horror is a fave of mine, and there are other movies that work in it as well (say Peter Jackson's worlds-from-LotR Dead Alive or Sam Raimi's Spiderman-came-later Evil Dead and, especially, its sequels), but this is a particular favorite of mine. Extremely gory horror mixed with offbeat comedy makes for a difficult atmosphere to maintain in a game, but if it could work it would be great to try.

And, in a less mind bending but still endlessly fun direction, how's about a good treatment of It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World? Just a madcap treasure hunt, lacking in any functional teamwork or character skill or anything but humor. Alliances forge and shatter, plans collapse for the silliest reasons, new supporting characters wander in just to make things even more of a mess. Characters are defined by their quirks more than their skills (because they don't have much by way of skill). A perfect example of a game where failure should be the expected ending, for a WISH cross-over.

Wow... this barely dented the laser disk collection... and didn't even look to the DVDs!

Posted by ghoul at 08:54 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Favorite Games II

Here's another two games, including the first of what will undoubtedly be several Cheapass Games and, in what will likely prove to be a rarity, nothing by Knizia...

Ursuppe (preferably with the "Freshly Spiced" expansion set that adds another player and many more gene options) is a great game with an odd theme -- your species of amoeba trying to out-evolve other players' species. The central mechanic is a bit icky, since each turn you must eat one food cube of all colors not your own and then excrete 2 cubes of your own color... Think about just what that means you're eating. Eeeew! This is not the "circle of life" from that Disney song! Still, play is clever and reasonably quick (one and a half to two hours), with lots of strategic options in where you move your amoebas, in how quickly your multiply, and in what traits (represented by gene cards) you choose to evolve toward. It's easy to get lost on pursuing a personal goal and not even realize you aren't winning the game... And that means you get a chance to "win" against the goal you decided to achieve even if you lose by the official score. The pieces, solid wood and plentiful, give the game a good, solid heft for its price (it barely fits back into the box once assembled!), even if they are just wooden polygons not remotely amoeba shaped. And don't worry... the game is printed with German and English rules, and with double-sided cards, one side (with color art) in the original German and the other side (with B&W art) in English.

Kill Doctor Lucky is a Cheapass Games favorite. In effect (and with apologies to William Goldman), this is the "good parts" version of Clue. Here, instead of stumbling around a mansion trying to figure out who killed someone, you get to stumble around trying to kill him (but only if no one can see you). It's a light, silly game, somewhat flawed by its length (it goes on a bit longer than the joke lasts, unless someone gets unusually lucky early on) and the occasional ability of one player to create a situation where they get 3 or more (sometimes many more) turns in a row, skipping the rest of the players. Cheapass is currently selling the "director's cut", which features more jokes on the cards, some optional rules (some of which serve to shorten the game to a more reasonable length), and an alternate board which dramatically changes gameplay (yes, you still get the original board). As is the norm at Cheapass Games, you get quite a lot of fun in a simple package for a very reasonable price!

Posted by ghoul at 06:00 AM | Comments (1) | TrackBack