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Below are the 20 most recent journal entries recorded in Joe Krause's LiveJournal:

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Monday, July 22nd, 2013
4:22 pm
Cincy wrap-up: all the best stuff
So I almost never post anymore, but when I do it's in list form. I've lived in Cincinnati for almost a decade now, and we move in 2 weeks to Charleston, SC. Before we go, for those of you who might visit fair Cincinnati in the future, here's all the best stuff [that I'm an expert in, which isn't much].

1) Best Reuben. In every town I've ever lived in, I've tried every Reuben in town. The famous place for Rubens in Cincinnati is Izzy's, but the best place is actually a little carry-out sandwich shop called Fred and Gari's, on Vine Street.

2) Speaking of Vine Street, next door to Fred and Gari's is the best ice cream in town. No, not Graeter's (although that's really good). It's a new place called Hello Honey, where a kindly Asian lady makes her own ice cream daily.

3) Finally, a block from both those places is the Main Library, which is what Cincinnati, as a city, actually does best. Parks and Libraries. But especially libraries.

4) Best game store. The other thing I know something about. It's Yottaquest, in Mt. Healthy.

5) Best pizza. Definitely Dewey's, and specifically their Green Lantern. Don't let the locals fool you into believing that LaRosa's is superior. They are confused by childhood nostaglia.

6) Best running store. Bob Ronker's Running Spot, in O'Bryonville. They even have a shoe museum.

7) Best latte. You can argue about which store has the best coffee, or best service, or best food, but it is undeniable that the best latte in town comes from Rohs Street Cafe, in Clifton. But you now have to request Snowville milk, which is sad. They also happen to have the most expensive latte in town once you do that.

There's lots of other cool stuff to see and do in Cincinnati, but those are the only 7/8 things I've actually investigated thoroughly enough to speak definitively on. For example, I've spent many hours at It's Yoga in Clifton, and while I can testify that it is fantastic, I haven't been to any other studio in town. Maybe there's a better one; I don't know.

Also, from reading this list it seems like all I did for the last 10 years is sit around and eat. That's pretty accurate, actually.
Wednesday, March 28th, 2012
5:28 pm
Musings On Longevity
Today I wanted to muse about my changing experiences with two games over the last decade. In the last 10-20 years, there have only been two games that I've played with any real consistency: the collectable card game Magic: the Gathering (Magic/MtG) and the online role-playing game Kingdom of Loathing (KoL).

It rather surprises me that, as a rabid game collector and card-carrying member of the “cult of the new,” I would ever play any game more than a few times. I own hundreds of board games and hundreds more video games, many of them unplayed or played only for an hour or two. And if I had to guess, I'd say that many of those under-played games are structurally superior to MtG or KoL. So why do I continue to dump my precious time and hard-earned money down these particular rabbit holes? What do they have in common that keeps me coming back?

This is a particularly difficult question to ask of KoL, because the act of playing the game has morphed so much over time for me that I'm not even sure I'm really playing the game any more. Yet the game itself is very similar to what it was when I first began playing – it is me who has changed. Meanwhile, my experience of playing MtG has stayed almost identical to what it was in 1994, yet the actual cards that I am playing with are drastically different, as are many of the underlying rules. What games am I actually playing here, and why am I playing them?

Let's start with a little history, beginning with MtG, which I've been playing for longer. My obsession started in 1994, during the early days of Magic. The (comparatively) cool kids at my high school were all playing, so I joined the crowd, to the disapproval of my socially conservative parents. We would play before school every morning, and at lunch every afternoon. We'd play on the bus. What kept me playing at the time? The community, the thrill of discovering new cards and combinations of cards... and the joy of competition. I ran a few tournaments for my friends, and everything puttered along quite nicely until graduation, when my gaming community instantly vaporized. I tried to keep it going in college, but could raise no interest save from a lone friend, who would agree to play be very casually and very occasionally. And, frankly, doing college-y things was far more interesting than continuing to do left-over high-school-y things.

Once I reached law school, however, my ever-so-distracting undergrad community vaporized. But there was a comic book shop across the street from my apartment, and people hung out there to play Magic (this is fall 2001). Soon I was attending tournaments on Friday nights, and traveling to larger tournaments across the State. However, my new-found competitive drive shriveled in the face of the sheer amount of time and money required to stay competitive, and after graduation, lacking that comic shop social group to drive me to keep playing, I again fell “off the wagon” in 2004-05.

Oddly, in the last six months I have gone from not playing at all to being more competitive than ever, through the back-door of collecting cards to add to a very non-competitive “draft cube.” Realizing that my old cards are still very valuable because they are still seeing heavy tournament play made me want to climb back in the ring. The difference is that I have not bothered to find people to play with locally – I've got no community. Instead, I practice for tournaments by playing games against myself (a boring and strategically terrible plan, BTW). What has changed is that, with the advent of a global internet community I can pseudo-playtest simply be keeping up with the weekly tournament scene, without having to commit time (which, thanks to marriage, a kid, and a real job, I no longer have to spend) keeping up a regular playtest group.

So what can be gleaned from this cycle? First, when I move to a new city and don't have a social network, I use Magic to create one. Second, I enjoy Magic primarily for its competitive qualities, but am not dedicated enough to be truly competitive. Finally, I enjoy Magic for its ever-changing nature. You'll note that I tend to play Magic in 2-3 year cycles, then quit for several years. This has much to do with the “Standard” Magic tournament format, which allows you to play with only the cards printed in the last 2 years. So my cycles go something like this: year 1 – discover all these new cards, buying new sets as they come out; year 2 – I've caught up and can play competitively, which I do obsessively; year 3 – a new set comes out causing the cards I'd purchased in year 1 to become obsolete, which makes me grumpy and causes burnout, so I find a new hobby for a while. I suspect that if the price of Magic cards were lower and if my attachment to my “pet” deck were lessened (and/or if my current social group liked the game) I would keep playing without this burnout. But for the moment, watching the “metagame” of Magic is as interesting as playing the game itself. Of course, I'm in “year 1” of my cycle....

Ok, enough on Magic for the moment, let's move to KoL. KoL is a horse of entirely different color, and shares nothing whatsoever with MtG outside a generic fantasy setting, which both have, but neither with any particular continuity. I discovered KoL in law school, in late 2003/early 2004, courtesy of some internet forums I used to hang out in as an undergrad known as SomethingAwful (SA). The SA “forum goons” had a habit of getting a group of people together to “invade” various multi-player games, form a clan, and beat up on people for a while. They discovered KoL in its infancy, and tried this trick. Most quickly became bored and quit once it became apparent that clans in KoL were virtually meaningless, and that player-vs-player combat was a joke. I stuck around for a while because the game's humor appealed to me. It wasn't possible to finish that game at that time, so after creating a character for each of the 6 classes and playing as far as I could, I too got bored and quit. I would check in every few months to see if the game had been finished, but at one point I waited too long and my characters got deleted for inactivity. And that was that.

The next summer (2005) I was chatting with an RPG-obsessed co-worked with whom I shared an office, and mentioned KoL. Checking online I discovered that, as of the prior week, the game was now finish-able. So we both made characters. I've played almost every day since. This is despite that fact that I've long since played through the game; indeed, I've beaten it 116 times. But over the course of that play-time, both the game and my experience of playing it have changed enough to keep it fresh. First, like MtG, new content keeps getting added to the game. Not at the same speed or to the same extent, to be sure, but enough to, at absolute minimum, keep me checking in every few months to see what is new. And, as with so many video games these days, there are achievements to unlock, which get added just about as fast as I can accomplish them. As long as this continues, my inner collector won't quite let me quit. The number of trophies, outfits, and skills to collect always grows just a little faster than I can keep up with.

Unlike MtG, KoL is primarily a single-player experience. Instead of head-to-head competition, there is a more “euro-board-game” style of competition: multi-player solitaire, if you will. Which player can optimize their play best, “best” being measured by the ability to beat the game in the fewest days/turns? To the extent that there is true intra-player competition in KoL, it lies in this resource-management “speed game.” But the speed game is not a level playing field. As in MtG, there are advantages to having the money to purchase all the relevant tools. In MtG those are cards; in KoL those are ultra-rare items or the monthly donation items. In both cases, being an early adopter has given me a leg up, but I am by no means at the top of the totem pole. Nowhere close. So instead, as in the days when I ran track, the goal is always to better myself – achieve that elusive “personal best.”

Here's the part that is curious to me, the reason I'm writing this at all: while the game of KoL has changed only slightly in the time I've been playing it, my goals, and the interface through which I experience the game, have changed drastically. KoL is a browser-based game. You are given a certain number of “adventures” to use each day, and once you spend them you are done. The way the designers intended the game to be played, you open up your browser, read the text, make some choices, and repeat 40ish times per day. And that was how I played for the first few years. But as is the case for many games, eventually the trappings of the game become invisible, and the hardcore player begins to care only about the mechanics. You can only read the same joke so many times, after all. And so, in addition to optimizing turns, I began to lean more and more on scripts to optimize my time, and to prevent mis-clicks and mistakes. Eventually, and thanks to a client called KoL Mafia, which allows me to play the game without opening a browser at all, I reached the point that my “play-experience” was simply an exercise in optimizing script-code. I had gone from player to programmer.

Here is a snapshot of my current play experience: I first check the announcements and forums to see if anything is new. If there is a new podcast by the game's creators I will download and listen to it. Meanwhile, I download the latest version of KoL Mafia, and check for revisions of my favorite support scripts. I examine the logs from yesterday's play to see if there were any glitches or mistakes that may have impacted my speed. I then tweak my script code and tell it to play the game for me. That's right. My “game” is watching my script play the game. Which is almost assuredly not what the designers intended for me to be doing. In fact, it's so far removed from the original game as to be an entirely different entity.

So what keeps me coming back? The challenge, most certainly. The fact that the game keeps changing? Definitely. The 1-man “community” of my co-worker? Probably. But mostly, I suspect, it's pure habit. And the fact that I can play at work and it doesn't look like I'm playing. That helps.

But what about time? Is there a point where you've sunk so much time/effort/money into a game that you feel like you have to keep sinking more on the same into it? I definitely have felt that way about books/games that I've mostly finished but don't really want to complete – they almost always get finished in the end. But with both MtG and KoL there is no “end.” Is that their ultimate secret? Something – and I suspect that it's a very similar something – keeps me coming back to both, and I can't quite put my finger on what it is.
Tuesday, February 21st, 2012
9:22 pm
Mulling Mechanics #13: Crayon Rail Games
Crayon Rail games are the next that I am going to examine. There aren't very many of them, so let me list them all up front: there's the original 8-game Crayon Railway series from Mayfair Games (Empire Builder [i.e. USA Rails], Iron Dragon [i.e. Fantasy Rails], Australian Rails, British Rails, China Rails, EuroRails, India Rails, Martian Rails); Funkenschlag (a.k.a. Power Grid, First Edition); and Tahuantinsuyu (recently republished as Inca Empire). So, 10 games total, 8 of which are virtually identical.

In a Crayon Rail game, you are presented with a dot-covered map and a crayon/grease pencil. And some money. Your job is to connect the dots and create a network of [roads/railroads/power lines], which costs money. You then transport stuff over your network, and earn money doing so. Rinse and repeat until the end-game condition is met, at which point the person with the most money wins. Yipee. [Caveat: I haven't played Inca Empire, which may work differently].

Now, this is a fun system for those people who like building things and watching them grow. It is also a slow and clunky system that I don't enjoy very much. There's a reason that the streamlined non-crayon second edition of Funkenschlag (Power Grid) is in the boardgamegeek top 10, while the original edition languishes in the mid-hundreds. It's that the Crayon Rails system takes what should be a 2-hour game and makes it a 4-hour game. Route-drawing is slow. Moving goods around the country on your little wooden train is particularly slow. Admittedly, if you streamline away all the non-optimal potential routes and/or make the goods delivery instantaneous and abstract (c.f. Power Grid, Age of Steam, etc.), some of that “build it and watch it move and grow” fun disappears, but I think that's a fair trade-off for greatly reducing the play-time.

Long story short: stay away from this mechanic; it is slow and outdated. Thus, if I had to pick a game to go into my ideal library, I'd choose Inca Empire, even though I haven't played it yet. Why? The 'geek says it plays in 90 minutes, that's why.
Tuesday, February 7th, 2012
12:47 pm
Mulling Mechanics #12: Commodity Speculation
Commodity Speculation is the next mechanic I'm going to examine. It is usually one of the central mechanics of a game, and is often paired up with Set Collection and/or Auction/Bidding.

In a nutshell, Commodity Speculation works as follows: there will be some limited resources which players can collect (goods in Civilization), bid on (paintings in Modern Art), purchase (stock in Acquire and Imperial), or some combination of the three (railroad shares in some 18xx titles can be collected, bid on, or simply purchased). The value of the commodities will fluctuate based upon the “market” created by the players. In addition to the player-created supply/demand fluctuations (usually by making sales and purchases, but sometimes more aggressively – say, invading a country in Imperial), there is also often a random element to the fluctuation, governed by dice (Tinner's Trail), cards (Civilization), or pulling chits from a bag (Automobile, Reef Encounter). At the end of the game (or several times through the game – e.g. Airlines Europe), a player's score will be determined largely (Alhambra, Navegador), or even exclusively (Imperial) by adding together the values of all the commodities that the player has collected. Most commonly, those items will be traded in for their case value and added to the player's cash on hand, with the richest player being the winner (18xx, Modern Art, Acquire, Automobile, etc.).

So, what do I think of Commodity Speculation as a game mechanic? Well, it is a double-edged sort of design, in that these sorts of systems tend to be a bit non-intuitive, and almost always more complex than they appear. This means that such a system generally leads to interesting decisions and deep game-play. Unfortunately, that also means that there is usually a pretty steep learning curve, and that the game can be “knocked off the rails” by one person acting “irrationally.” This sort of issue is always a problem in bidding games, but that problem is worse when your uninformed action can create market-wide ripple effects.

The other danger in this style of mechanic is the impulse to make things too simulation-like, which usually ends badly. There's some grid-like board in the middle of the table with cubes and values on it, trying to track how all these market factors are pushing commodity values in different directions. And while there is usually an interesting game hiding behind that grid, it makes for a long brain-burning game (c.f the 18xx series), and/or simply scares people away (Tulipmania 1637).

Perhaps it is just my need for a little more drama and a little less math, but the best Commodity Speculation games, in my mind, are those with bit of randomness, coupled with a simple way to track item values. To that end, into my Ideal Game Library go Automobile and Modern Art, which represent about as far as I'm willing to go on both ends of the light (Modern Art) vs. heavy (Automobile) spectrum. That said, there are several very well-thought-of games in this genre I've never gotten a chance to play, that might supplant the above, including Civilization, Vinhos, Planet Steam, and Merchant of Venus. Also, although I've only played it only once, Airlines Europe might be in line to replace Modern Art.
Monday, January 16th, 2012
1:43 pm
Mulling Mechanics #11: Cooperative Play
So here we go again, with another longer topic: Cooperative Play (a.k.a. Co-op) games. Now, just for the record, before we get started, co-op doesn't mean “secret teams” (e.g. Werewolf, Battlestar Galactica, etc.) Co-op means that everyone (or almost everyone) is really, truly on the same side.

Co-op games can trace their lineage from two sources: role-playing games in which the players are cooperatively telling a story, and group puzzle-solving exercises (e.g. group crossword puzzle solving). Co-op board games tend to have the trappings and flavor of a role-playing game, but often are actually an exercise in group puzzle-solving. This has both advantages and disadvantages. One big advantage is that co-op games tend to appeal more to non-gamers than other games of similar strategic weight. There are two primary reasons for this. One is that many non-gamers are driven away by the competitive nature of many board games, and co-op games remove that element. The other is that it is much easier for the dyed-in-the-wool gamer to assist the non-gamer in a co-op game than in some other setting where the two are directly competing. Of course, this leads directly to the major disadvantage of such games: the “alpha gamer” taking control of the the game and playing everyone's turn for them, because he's so much smarter and more experienced at this game than everyone else. Also, those of us who enjoy the competitive aspect of games tend to be annoyed by too much cooperation.

So how do good co-op games try to mitigate these problems? There have been many attempts to deal with with the “alpha gamer” scenario. Some games encourage role-playing (e.g. Warhammer Quest, Arkham Horror), thus making player decisions more subjective. (Arkham's other solution – making the game so complex, with so many moving parts, that no one can figure out what they are supposed to do, much less what somebody else is supposed to do, is more problematic). Another solution is to restrict communication in some way, most classically by allowing players to talk about what they will do, but not allowing them to actually name the cards in their hand (c.f. Pandemic, Shadows of Camelot, etc.). This is a fairly artificial solution, and doesn't work too well. A more innovative plan comes from Space Alert, which adds a RoboRally-style timer and soundtrack, as well as occasionally forbidding players to talk at all. The timer in particular prevents too much back-seat driving, as everyone is far too busy doing their own thing to pay attention to anyone else. The final solution is to make the game less co-operative by making one player a hidden traitor (e.g. Shadows Over Camelot), or even having a team of “good guys” and a team of hidden traitors (e.g. Battlestar Galactica). As I mentioned above, though, taking this too far makes the game no longer a cooperative game.

Now, as for restoring the competitive aspect of the game, there is no really good way to do this and still keep the game cooperative (pretend I repeated my discussion of Battlestar Galactica here). Sure, you could have a “dungeon master” playing the bad guy (e.g. Descent; Lord of the Rings w. the Sauron expansion, etc.). Or you could even have a “co-op, but the highest score still wins” variant (e.g. Castle Panic). But too much oppositional scoring, and someone who is “losing” will start intentionally punting the game, so this is a slippery slope.

All in all, I do enjoy the occasional co-op game, but I do mean occasional. There have been far too many co-op releases of late for my tastes. So into my “ideal collection” goes, for role-playing-ish games: Battlestations; for math-y pure co-ops: Pandemic; and as a bonus I-can-play-solo “it fits in my pocket” game, Onirim.

Other excellent co-ops not mentioned above include: The Lord of the Rings: The Card Game, Dungeons & Dragons: Castle Ravenloft Board Game, Ghost Stories, A Touch of Evil, Forbidden Island, Defenders of the Realm, Warhammer Quest, Space Hulk: Death Angel, Red November, Elder Sign, All Things Zombie, Aliens, Silent War, Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective, Rune Age, Flash Point: Fire Rescue, Witch of Salem, The Longest Day, Wok Star, Cranium Hoopla, Sentinels of the Multiverse, Zombie in My Pocket, and Go Away Monster!
Monday, January 2nd, 2012
5:13 pm
Mulling Mechanics #10: Chit-Pull Systems
Expecting a year-end review? Sorry. My gaming year ends April 1, for no good reason. Instead, have a boring entry about cardboard.

Chit-Pull Systems. Doesn't that sound enthralling? It's just a way to generate a random result. Instead of rolling a die or drawing a card, you pull a cardboard square (a “chit”) out of a bag or cup. This system is almost always used when you have more possibilities than can fit on a single die, but these possibilities require less explanatory text than a full card's-worth, or need to fit on small spaces on a board. Examples include: the monsters from Arkham Horror, your potential actions in Neuroshima Hex!, goodies on an undiscovered planet in Merchant of Venus or Eclipse, and climate changes in Dominant Species. However, the most prevalent use of chit-pulling is for randomizing damage in wargames including the Conflict of Heroes series, the World at War series, the Grand Tactical Series, etc.


Into the ideal library: non-wargame = Dominant Species, wargame = Conflict of Heroes series. Both of which were already there (representing Area Control and Action Point Allowance mechanics).

Tune in next time, when I talk about a far more interesting mechanic: Cooperative Games.
Tuesday, December 20th, 2011
7:59 pm
Mulling Mechanics #10: Card Drafting
Next, one of my favorite mechanics: Card Drafting. The basic concept would be simple, except that “Card Drafting” can mean several different things.

Version 1 looks like this: There is a deck of cards. Each player is dealt a hand of cards from this deck, picks one card from that hand to keep, and passes the rest of the hand to the next player. Meanwhile, everyone else is doing the same thing, so the player now receives a 1-card-smaller-hand-of-cards, picks one of those to keep, and passes the rest on. Eventually the player ends up with a big pile of cards in front of them, which then then use for whatever “real” goal the game puts forth. If Fairy Tale, for example, the goal is simply to collect sets of cards, while in Magic: the Gathering you are then using the cards you drafted to build a deck and play the “real game.”

Version 2 is very similar: There is a deck of cards. Some number of there are dealt out face-up on the table, and play goes around the table with people picking which card they want. Often the cards are dealt out in a line, with cards toward the front of the line costing less to “purchase” than cards toward the end (e.g. Saint Petersburg, Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization). These cards, once collected, care then used for a variety of things, from collecting sets of cards (Ticket to Ride) to using them as “technology tree” upgrades (Through the Ages).

Version 3 of Card Drafting is a bit different, and is most commonly used in Deck Building games, a mechanic that we'll get to shortly. Basically it is like version 2, except instead of individual cards being face-up on the table, you instead have different decks of cards to choose from. Sometimes these decks all have identical cards (e.g. Dominion and other Deck Building games), and sometimes they don't (e.g. Battlestar Galactica). As a rule, decks with identical cards are face-up, and decks with different cards are face-down.

I've only mentioned a few top-rated games that utilize Card Drafting. Here's a more compelte list, before we talk about why I really like this mechanic: Earth Reborn, Railroad Tycoon, Thunderstone, A Few Acres of Snow, 7 Wonders, Phantom Leader, Trajan, 1936: Guerra Civil, Battlestar Galactica, Omen: A Reign of War, A Game of Thrones: The Card Game, Alhambra, Age of Industry, Ninjato, Belfort, Glory to Rome, Cyclades, Ristorante Italia, Wars of the Roses: Lancaster vs. York, Macao, Flying Colors, Taj Mahal, Notre Dame, At the Gates of Loyang, The Settlers of Catan Card Game, Web of Power, Union Pacific, The Road to Canterbury, Eminent Domain, Tanto Cuore, Tribune: Primus Inter Pares.

So the first thing to note is that a huge variety of types of games use Card Drafting, in a wide variety of ways, from introductory Euro-games (Ticket to Ride) to hard-core single-player wargames (Phantom Leader). Its importance in the game also varies, from a game which is 90% drafting (Fairy Tale), a game where drafting is only 1 of several things you could do on your turn (Age of Industry), or even where drafting is simply a prelude to the “actual” game (Magic: the Gathering).

What drafting adds to a game is massive replayability. You might be playing with the same people on the same board trying to accomplish the same things every game, but the cards are almost certainly going go be dealt out in a different order than the last 1,000 games you played, and that can make all the difference.

There is also an immense amount of strategic depth in the draft itself. Especially in deck building games like Dominion or Magic, you are not only trying to balance the eternal question of “do I take what I need” vs. “do I take what I know my opponent needs” vs. “will this card 'wheel' (come back around the table again) so I can take this other card now, instead?” but you are also trying to draft a deck of cards which have synergy with each other, so as to present a coherent play-strategy later. There are people, thousands of people, whose entire gaming hobby revolves around drafting cards. If you don't believe me, go listen to the Limited Resources podcast, which is 2 hours/week about nothing but Magic drafting.

You may have noticed me mentioning Magic more than a few times here. That's because it is my favorite game. And my favorite way to play Magic is to draft (specifically Cube Draft, which is a different topic). As a bonus, you can draft Magic in several formats, covering drafting versions 1-3, above. There's “standard” draft (passing hands of cards), “rotisserie” draft (all the cards face-up on the table), “pile” drafting (stacks of cards), or even “auction” drafting (think Fantasy Football drafting). No surprise, then, that Magic is the game which goes into my ideal Game Library for this mechanic.
Friday, December 16th, 2011
9:16 pm
Mulling Mechanics #9:Campaign/Battle-Card Driven games
So here's an interesting, newer mechanic: Battle Card-Driven games. It's almost exclusively a war game mechanic, but has recently started bleeding over into other genres, particularly political simulations.

Here's the basic idea: you are simulating some (usually historical) conflict, using a board (usually a map) and a hand of cards. The cards depict certain events that happened during the conflict, and also usually have a point-value. On a given turn, players alternate spending cards from their hand, either to enact the event on the card, or alternatively spending the card's points to place or move items around on the board.

Let me provide a concrete example from my favorite Card-Driven game, Twilight Struggle, which is about the Cold War. The card “US-Japan Mutual Defense Pact” can either be spent to “activate” that historical event (which prevents Soviet coups, etc. in Japan), or for 4 “operations points,” which can be spent to attack the other player, build up your defenses, spread your influence across the globe, or even advance your country in the US-Soviet “space race.”

There are a lot of things I really like about these Card-Driven games. First, and perhaps most importantly, the cards add a lot of historical veracity to the game: real-life events, usually with accompanying picture and historical blurb, and some reasonable effect on the game. On a similar note, they add this veracity without bloating the rule-book to epic proportions. Many wargames add realistic details (a.k.a. “chrome”) by adding rules to the rulebook. The problem with such rules is that the often come up only in niche situations, are easy to forget, and then require a trip through the rulebook's index searching for answers. But the cards move all this “chrome” out of the rulebook, guarantee that you'll be holding the rule you need in-hand at the appropriate time, and successfully hide much of the game's complexity from first-time players. The down-side is that “booby-trap” cards can surprise new players who were not expecting them, but the same can be said of a rule mentioned in passing during your 3-hour rules explanation of some other non-Card-Driven game.

The other thing I really like about Card-Driven games is that they add a lot of strategic flexibility. In addition to spending the card for points (which you never have enough of and always need desperately), the historical event on the card is almost always quite powerful and enticing. Indeed, usually the power of the event scales to the power of the card, so that weak events are on 2-point cards, while game-changing events are on 5-point cards.

The reason I so love Twilight Struggle is that it adds and additional strategic wrinkle to this system: any given event will be good either for you or your opponent, but if you make the obvious choice and use the card for points when that event would be good for your opponent, the event triggers anyway. So now there's a disaster-management element thrown into the game.

At any rate, there are now quite a few excellent Card-Driven games out there. I'll name a few. No Retreat: The Russian Front, Commands & Colors family, Combat Commander family, Mage Knight board game, Starcraft, Julius Caesar, Star Trek: Fleet Captains, Maria, Here I Stand, Paths of Glory, Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, Washington’s War, Up Front, Successors, Star Wars: The Queen's Gambit. But if I had to pick just one, it should come as no surprise that I'm picking Twilight Struggle.
Thursday, December 8th, 2011
4:34 pm
Mulling Mechanics #8: Bidding/Wagering
Time for a comparatively simple mechanic: Betting/Wagering. You're going to guess about some outcome/answer, and then bet some amount of currency that you're right. The end.

Thematically, these games usually fall into three categories. First, we have traditional card games, wherein you bet that you'll win a particular hand, or take a particular number of “tricks” (e.g. Poker, Bridge, Mus, Tichu, Haggis, Mahjong [tiles, but same concept]). Second, there are games that try to recreate real-life gambling situations (e.g. Horse Fever, Lords of Vegas). Finally, there is a newer genre: betting on answers to trivia questions (e.g. Wits & Wagers, Fauna).

So there you have it. I don't have a ton to say about the genre – it's pretty self-explanatory. And, since most of the games I just mentioned are pretty light (and my memory for names is pretty lousy), it's not exactly my favorite genre, either.

Into the “ideal game library” goes: Tichu for traditional card game and Fauna for trivia. I haven't played enough of the simulations to have an opinion on those yet. I'll provisionally add Horse Fever to the mix.
Thursday, December 1st, 2011
5:48 pm
Mulling Mechanics #7: Auction/Bidding
Escaping movement mechanics for the moment, we reach one of the most popular (or perhaps “overused” is the better word) modern board game mechanics: Auction/Bidding.

But before we even get there, I want to make a distinction between Bidding and Betting/Wagering (our next topic). Bidding involves competitively offering to exchange something, usually money, for something else, usually some sort of competitive advantage. Betting involves wagering something, usually money, on the outcome of some future event. The confusion lies in the fact that, not only do they words sound the same, many games utilize both mechanics (e.g. Bridge).

Now, with that out of the way, let's look at the different ways Auctions are used in games. First, and most simply, there are games that are “pure” Auctions – the Auction is 99%” of the game. Reiner Knizia is the poster boy for this type of game, with classic Euro-games such as Modern Art, Ra, Hollywood Blockbuster/Dream Factory, and Amun-Re to his credit, all of which center around various types of auctions, and a player's ability to accurately valuate different goods or groups/lots of goods. In my opinion, this is the best possible use of the auction mechanic, and I applaud Knizia's wisdom in knowing when enough is enough in regards to piling too many other mechanics onto a basic auction.

The problem with auction games, you see, is that they have a huge learning curve. What is item X worth? Without quite a few games under your belt, you have no idea, and are bidding blindly. And just one bad auction-round, especially where you wildly overbid for a worthless item, or allow someone else to get something fantastic for really cheap, will almost certainly cause you to lose the game in a big way. A classic example of this problem is in The Princes of Florence, a game where one particular item (the jester) is worth far more than any of the many other items you could bid on. This is absolutely not apparent at all for your first few games.

On the flip-side, auctions are also a self-balancing mechanism, which serves to fix otherwise-broken games. Does going first confer a huge advantage over the player going fifth? Can't fix the problem? Just add an auction round before the “real” turn starts, and make your players bid on turn order! (c.f. the Age of Steam and 18xx families of train games, among hordes of others). The first person to employ this “fix” was clever, despite the solution adding not-inconsiderable play-time to the game. Later designers who copied him? I call them lazy. Auctions can be too-easily used as a crutch for sloppy design, forcing the players, rather than the designer, to balance the game.

But I was talking about the uses of Auctions, no? So far we've got “pure auctions” and “auctions to determine turn order.” To that list I should add “auctions for special player powers” (e.g. A Game of Thrones, the Age of Steam family, El Grande), “auctions to buy allies in a team game” (e.g. Die Macher, Struggle of Empires), and of course the classic “auctions for actual items” (e.g. Colosseum, Power Grid, The Princes of Florence). Some games, of course, offer a mix of types of things in a single “auction lot” (El Grande and Age of Steam auctions are for both turn order and special player powers, for example).

Complicating matters further, there turn out to be many, many different types of auctions. The most typical one, in board games at least, is what I call the “round and round” auction, in which each player in turn can either raise the bid or pass, and this bidding circles the table until all bidders but one have passed. Then there is the “once around” auction, where each player in turn gets only one bid, or the even faster “simultaneous” auction where each player secretly picks a bid amount, and all bids are revealed simultaneously. More obscurely, there are “Dutch” or “reverse” auctions, where the price starts high, and is slowly lowered until someone buys the item. This should not be confused with a “reverse Dutch” auction, or “ascending clock” auction, in which everyone in the room is considered to be bidding, and the price keeps ticking up until you chicken out, with the last person to chicken out getting the item. Next, we have the “fixed price” auction, in which 1 person sets the price, and each player in turn has the opportunity to buy or pass, with the “price fixer” being forced to buy the item if no one else wants it (this is the functional equivalent of setting a too-high minimum bid on ebay). Another variant, also made famous by ebay, is the “2nd price” auction, in which everyone submits a secret bid, but the winner, rather than paying their own bid, instead pays whatever the second-place person bid (or in ebay's case, the second-place bid plus one monetary increment upward). Finally, we shouldn't forget the most classic auction style of all: the “free” auction, which you can witness at your local auction-house – any person in the room can raise their bid at any time, until people stop bidding. And if this all wasn't confusing enough, some games employ multiple types of auctions in the same game. For example, For Sale is divided into two halves, the first being a series of “round and round” auctions, and the second being a series of “simultaneous” auctions. Even more confusingly, Modern Art features 4 different types of auctions: free, fixed price, simultaneous, and once around.

As this avalanche of data suggests, there are hordes of games featuring an auction mechanic out there, and more are being published every day. I'll even suggest that the market is witnessing some “auction fatigue,” and that games with auctions are now being shunned by publishers. Nevertheless, it is a robust mechanic, and forces player interaction into games that would otherwise be solitaire exercises.

Into my ideal game library goes: for a “pure auction” - Ra, auction for first turn & player powers – El Grande, auction for allies – Die Macher, auction for items to be used later – Power Grid. Bonus for most brutal auction if you get things wrong: Age of Steam.
Wednesday, November 30th, 2011
1:39 pm
Mulling Mechanics #6: Area-Impulse
Area Impulse, our next mechanic, is the more-complicated younger brother of yesterday's mechanic, Area Movement. So go back and read that entry, and we'll proceed from there. Back yet? Ok.

So there are two complaints often leveled at the Area Movement mechanic: too much down-time, and a lack of realism. They are related. Let's take Axis & Allies (A&A) as a classic example. It's your first turn. You're the USA, in a full 5-player game (Russia-Germany-UK-Japan-US). First Russia takes their turn. They buy their stuff, they move all their pieces, they attack with all their guys, they place all their pieces, the upgrade their infrastructure, they collect their money. This takes half an hour. Repeat 3 times for the next 3 players, before you even get your first turn. This down-time is a huge problem, and it's the reason I refuse to play A&A. Plus, it's entirely unrealistic – things in real life happen simultaneously. In the WWII example, the Germans did not sit frozen while being invaded by Russia, then unfreeze and invade Russia and the UK while those two countries sat doing nothing.

So how do you solve this problem? You could have everyone act secretly and simultaneously, as is the case in Diplomacy. But this creates it own down-time problems, and also requires a moderator.

If you're committed to the Area Movement idea, but want to add both realism and lessen (or at least divide up) down-time, Area-Impulse is a good solution. Simply put, players (usually 2 players – I can only think of 1 multi-player example, Twilight Imperium 3rd Ed.) will alternate activating 1 “area's-worth” of units, until both run out of areas to activate, at which point we move on to the next turn. For jargon reasons I've never understood, these Area-sized “mini-turns” are called “Impulses.”

Now, there is some variety in what ends the Impulses, and starts the next turn. Usually, both players have to pass their turns back-to-back without doing anything. In some cases you have to spend some resource to activate an area, so your turn ends when you run out of that resource (which, if you think about it, also makes the game an Action Point Allowance game). I've even seen some games where you roll a dice after every Impulse you roll a dice, and if you roll too high, the turn ends immediately and unpredictable.

You'll notice that I have yet to name or talk about a single Area-Impulse game. That’s because I've never played one. They're almost exclusively wargames, almost exclusively 2-player games, and almost exclusively quite long. Which makes them nigh-impossible for me to get to the table.

That said, if I had to blindly pick such a game to add to my ideal game library, it would either be Hammer of the Scots or its semi-sequel Richard III: The Wars of the Roses. Probably the latter, just because it is newer and less widely available.
Tuesday, November 29th, 2011
4:51 pm
Mulling Mechanics #5: Area Movement
Area Movement is our next mechanic - one of several ways to solve a classic game-design problem: There are figures (usually soldiers) on a map/board/table, and you need to move them from location A to location B. Where on the continuum of movement-precision to movement-abstraction do you want to land? On the overly-precise side, the answer involves miniatures and tape-measures. On the overly-abstract side, you could use a chessboard. And sitting right next to chessboards in abstraction-land is Area Movement. You take a map, and divide it into irregularly-shaped regions (usually countries). Pieces move from region to region, regardless of regional size, and the only thing you need to define is how many regions different types of pieces can move through. Essentially, you've taken a world map and turned it into a modified chessboard. This has been the approach of large-scale and/or lighter wargames since time immemorial (e.g. Risk, Axis & Allies, Diplomacy, Civilization, War of the Ring, Europe Engulfed), and is occasionally even employed by the occasionally warlike eurogames (e.g. Navegador, Merchants & Marauders, Imperial, Small World).

I don't really have much to say about Area Movement. It's fast and effective, and can even be fairly realistic, given reasonably-divided regions. It prevents the arguments that inevitably ensue once tape-measures start being employed. But it's rarely the central mechanic in a game, just a sub-mechanic to deal with movement. And so there's not much to say about it, save that it exists.

Into the Ideal Game Library goes: War of the Ring for a light war game. Napoleon's Triumph for a heavier wargame. Warlike Euro? Navegador, I suppose, although I'm not in love with any of them.
Tuesday, November 22nd, 2011
6:17 pm
Mulling Mechanics #4: Area Enclosure
Next up, we have one of the less-common board game mechanics, Area Enclosure. Read: building a fence around things, and getting points for how many spaces on the board you fenced off. This comes in two basic flavors: a) building a fence (c.f. Go, Through the Desert, Domaine, and arguably Reef Encounter), or b) removing pieces of the board until you have the only pawn standing on an “island” (e.f. “Hey, That's My Fish!” and numerous GIPF project games (TAMSK, ZERTZ, arguably DVONN)) - a “negative fence,” if you will.

Frankly, I don't have a lot to say about the area enclosure mechanic. I've played all the above-named games except Domaine, and like them all. The mechanic almost always opens up interesting strategic decisions. However, you'll note that all the above-named games (except maybe Reef Encounter and Domaine) are abstract strategy games. This is just not a mechanic that has much direct relation to real life. As such, games are almost always going to center entirely around this mechanic, or not feature it at all. So you probably only need 1 or 2 games in your collection from this genre.

Into Joe's ideal game library goes: Go, for “fence-building,” and DVONN, for “island building.”
Tuesday, November 15th, 2011
5:27 pm
Mulling Mechanics #3: Area Control
Area Control is one of the most ubiquitous of modern (and not-so-modern) game mechanics, and features heavily in many of my favorite games. It almost always is encountered as follows: you have a map, which is divided into regions of some sort. On your turn, you may dump resources, usually pawns or cubes representing “people” into that region, and usually also have the opportunity to remove opponents' “people” from said. Then, at the end of the game, (or more often, once or twice in the middle, and once more at the end) you earn points for having the most “people” in the region. Sometimes the runner-up gets points too (e.g. El Grande), and sometimes they don't (e.g. Risk).

Area Control has several very nice features. First, it's comparatively simple to explain and usually somewhat familiar, seeing how it's been around for a very long time (e.g. Go and Risk). Next, it scales well from 2-player games (e.g. Twilight Struggle, Carcassonne, War of the Ring) it which it often feels like a very tit-for-tat sort of mechanic; plays well with 3, which is unusual (e.g. China, Small World); all the way up through 6+ players (e.g. Struggle of Empires). This is largely because it is a self-balancing mechanic: if someone is gaining an advantage in one area, the other players can easily put a stop to it. It is also a mechanic that works well for virtually any genre, from wargame (e.g. Successors, Runewars, Liberte) to dice games (e.g. Alien Frontiers, Lords of Vegas), from heavy euro-game (e.g. Imperial, Dominant Species) to abstract strategy (e.g. Go, Torres, Shogun).

But, while I own many, many fantastic games which feature an Area Control mechanic, in Joe's ideal game collection lives: El Grande, Twilight Struggle, and maybe Dominant Species.

[Other excellent Area Control games I haven't mentioned above: Chaos in the Old World, Age of Empires III, 1960: Making of the President, Endeavor, Urban Sprawl, Rise of Empires, Power Struggle, Louis XIV, and In the Shadow of the Emperor.]
Wednesday, November 9th, 2011
4:52 pm
Mulling Mechanics #2: Action Point Allowance Systems
Almost all games are, on some level, about resource management. All the players are competitively (either against each other or against the game itself) working toward some goal, and they have only finite resources to spend toward this goal.

In a game that uses an Action Point Allowance System (APA system), you are given a “budget” of Action Points” (AP) to spend every turn. Usually that budget is 5 or 10 points. You are then given a menu of things you can spend this resource on.

For example, in Torres, an abstract strategy in which you are building towers and trying to place your pawns on top of the tallest ones, you have 5 Action Points per turn to spend, and 6 possible actions you could take take: play a card once per turn (costs 0AP); play a new pawn (2AP); move a pawn, add a tower block, draw a card, or buy a single "victory point" (each of these actions costs 1AP).

This APA system was very much in vogue in Germany the late 90's, and two games featuring it as their central mechanic won the coveted Speil des Jahres award in back-to-back years: Tikal in 1999 and the aforementioned Torres in 2000.

The other place where you often see APA systems cropping up is in wargames, where AP is used as a metaphor for time. Each individual unit in these games is usually given its own (usually 10, again) AP points to spend every turn, and the player has some additional, often secret, number of AP points to spend however he wishes. The catch is that different units in these games tend to have different AP costs associated with their actions. So, for example, in a World War II game like Conflict of Heroes, the slow, heavily armored machine gun unit might need to spend 3AP to move and 1 AP to fire, while the lightly armored scout unit might require 1AP to move and 2 to fire. The scale of the wargame seems irrelevant, with almost identical APA systems being used for individuals in skirmish-level games (e.g. Space Hulk), 5-to-10-man units (e.g. Conflict of Heroes), or even entire battalions (e.g. Europe Engulfed).

APA systems are very popular and highly regarded, and are used over a huge range of genres, from purely cooperative games like Pandemic or Defenders of the Realm, puzzle-style games like Dungeon Twister, sports simulations (Crash Tackle), civilization-building titles (Through the Ages; Urban Sprawl; Rise of Empires); card games (Netrunner; Jambo), very thematic “experience games” (Merchants & Marauders; Earth Reborn; Space Hulk; Middle Earth Quest), a wide range of “pure Eurogames” (e.g. Hansa Teutonica; Tikal; Torres), and of course wargames (Conflict of Hereoes; Europe Engulfed).

Now, looking at the list I just made above, many of my favorite games are on it. APA systems allow for a lot of design flexibility and open decision space, and are particularly good at simulating strengths and weaknesses of different pieces/units on the board, without over-complicating a rule-set.

However, when I don't love an APA game, I hate it. Jambo and Tikal are two in particular that I really can't stand. APA games occasionally either have such a small menu of AP options that there are no interesting choices to be made (Jambo), or have such a bewilderingly huge menu of options that they lead to that other dreaded AP – Analysis Paralysis (Tikal). Truly great APA games avoid these pitfalls by either offering a manageable number of options (Pandemic) or by otherwise limiting Analysis Paralysis (e.g. via Space Hulk's 3-minute eggtimer) and/or giving the other players something to do during your turn (e.g. Conflict of Heroes' interleaved turns).

Bottom line: in my ideal game collection lives: Pandemic, Hansa Teutonica, Space Hulk, and Conflict of Heroes. Honorable mention to: Through the Ages, Dungeon Twister, and Torres. (Caveat: I haven't yet had a chance to play Crash Tackle, Earth Reborn, Netrunner, or Europe Engulfed).
Tuesday, November 8th, 2011
5:31 pm
Mulling Mechanics #1: Acting
Starting our mechanical exploration with a generally inappropriate one seems somehow right to me. “Acting” on on boardgamegeek seems to refer to any class of board game that requires you to get up from our chair and move around or talk creatively. In other words, “board” games that don't have/need boards or cards. These generally fall into two categories:

1) “Silent communication” games such as Charades, in which the goal is to get a teammate to say the word or phrase you are acting out. The most popular and notable of these is Time's Up! (a.k.a. Celebrities or “The Hat Game”). I also can't let the category slide by without mentioning Aargh!Tect, the only game I know of that includes “inflatable bludgeons.”

2) Almost-Live-Action-Roleplaying games such as Werewolf or “Ca$h 'n Gun:$ Live,” which usually involve some cycle of voting to “kill” someone and then begging to be spared. I typically see this style of game played by classrooms of bored teenagers or late at night by large groups at game conventions.

Frankly, this is one of my least favorite board game mechanics. Time's Up! Deluxe is tolerable when you have 6 or 8 people who don't want to split into two smaller groups, and can be quite funny with the right group. Werewolf is OK when you have a large group of punchy people, but can go long, and has a real player elimination problem. My real problem with the genre, and I admit that it's a personal problem, is that almost all of these games require some level of name memorization and/or familiarity with pop culture. Neither of which is my strong suit.

Ironically, I really enjoy the occasional “true” live-action role-playing game (LARP), and many of my most memorable gaming experiences (both good and bad) come from such sessions, be they 3-hour convention games, murder mystery dinner parties, or multi-session “campaign” LARPS. I still try to play at least one a year.

You will also note that the Acting category does not include any sit-down role-playing, or even pseudo-role-playing games (i.e. Dungeons & Dragons or Descent, respectively). It seems that the boardgamegeek community finds it much easier to distinguish between tabletop boardgames and tabletop role-paying games than between parlor/party games and live-action role-playing. That said, there are still quite a few meaningless categorical distinctions there. For example, I find the mechanical differences keeping the Fabled Lands series of die-rolling choose-your-own-adventure style “game books” on the rpggeek site and Dr. Who: Solitaire Story Game on the boardgamegeek site utterly unfathomable. (Both are excellent, by the way, for when you're sitting bored in the bathroom, etc).

So, bottom line, in Joe's ideal game collection from this Acting mechanic category: Time's Up! Deluxe and Ultimate Werewolf: Ultimate Edition.
Monday, November 7th, 2011
8:56 pm
New Project: Mulling Mechanics
Ok, so I haven't written anything in a while, and though I seem incapable of writing anything particularly personal in this forum, I rather miss writing about various games and mechanics. So, new project. I realized not all that long ago that a game's appeal to me lies far more in its mechanics than its theme. I was also thinking that my game collection is too big, and one way I could think about shrinking it would be to get rid of games that had overly-overlapping mechanics. With that in mind, I wandered over to boardgamegeek.com, which handily organizes games by mechanic. 47 different mechanics, to be precise. So I'm going to take a look at each mechanic in turn, alphabetically, working (at least until I get bored) from Acting through Worker Placement.

So first let's take a look at some popular games, and how they're defined mechanically, just to get a feel for the concept.
Apples to Apples in categorized as: Hand Management and Simultaneous Action Selection.
Risk: Area Control / Area Influence, Area Movement, Dice Rolling, Set Collection.
Scrabble is: Hand Management, Tile Placement.
Settlers of Catan falls under: Dice Rolling, Hand Management, Modular Board, Route/Network Building, and Trading.

So we're not talking about theme here (e.g. World War II, Zombies, Pirates) and, more subtly, we're not talking about category (e.g. kid's, word, memory, real-time). Well, not “more subtly” at all. Boardgamegeek has actually made a completely arbitrary distinction between “category” and “mechanic.” Why, for example, is “bluffing” a category, but “bidding/wagering” a mechanic? Does not the one necessitate the other? So with that in mind, once I finish talking about mechanics, I'll probably go back and cover the more mechanic-like “categories.” (I.e deduction, but not fantasy).
Thursday, May 12th, 2011
12:30 pm
Board Game Wrap-up, penultimate edition: the 4/1/11 list
Let's just skip the typical year-long build-up, shall we?  Here's every game I've ever played at least twice, and remember well enough to rate, in a handy ranked list, as of April 1, 2011.  I've included shifts in rankings vis-a-vis last year (for the top 100)..  Feel free, if you're bored, to troll through entries in years previous to look at how things have changed over the last 5ish years I've been doing this.

For the record, I'd break the games down as follows: The top 15 are games I'd never turn down a game of, regardless of when or where we were, and how sleep deprived I was at the time.  Games 16-43 I'd never turn down, but might occasionally ask to re-schedule if exhausted, etc.  Games 17-94 are all games I quite like, and will happily play on a regular basis, but wouldn't want to play back-to-back all week long.  95-129 are all games that are objectively good, but that I have to be in the right mood for, and/or have the perfect number of players for; many of these are all-day "event games."   130-153 are games that I will probably grumble about if someone suggests them, but will still play.  154-172 are games I consider to be actively bad - they're not actually broken, but something about them really rubs me the wrong way.  Games 173-191 are either actually broken in some way, or the decisions you make in them are so trivial that they hardly count as games.  Finally, games 192-200 are either so broken/painful as to be unplayable, or have so few (if any) choices as to slide from the game category into the "something to keep my hands busy while I do something else" category.

On a depressing societal side-note, only 5 of my bottom 25 are unavailable for you to immediately purchase were you to get up from your computer and run to your local Wal-Mart.  You could probably get most of them in several editions, even.  The only game in my top 25 for which any of this is true is Chess.  You can add Balderdash (and maybe Ticket to Ride and Dominion (if you shop at pre-bankruptcy Borders)) if you're willing to go as deep as the top 50.  Top 100?  Maybe Modern Art and The Magic Labyrinth, at certain bookstores.  Well, and Poker.
The List - 4/1/11 editionCollapse )
Wednesday, May 11th, 2011
3:06 pm
Wrap-up #3: Stuff played 2+ times, for the first time, in 2010

As with the “played once, for the first time ever” list of last time, so with the “played for a 2nd+ time ever” list today: 2 or 3-sentence reviews of every game in that category. All 24 of them. In alphabetical order.



Stuff played 2+ timesCollapse )


Friday, April 29th, 2011
3:44 pm
Jury Duty + Game wrap-up part 2
So this week I supposedly had jury duty.  This basically meant that I sat around the courthouse twiddling my thumbs so that I could get interviewed and then kicked off juries.  Eventually, after serving only 2 days of my 5, and getting kicked off 4 juries, the jury commissioner gave up and sent me home.  Or, I should say, back to work.

Anyway, I had planned to devote part of the week to finishing off this gaming blog, but it didn't really happen.  Let's try it again.

First things first, games I only played once last year, and what I though of them.  In 1 sentence or less per game.

Things I Played Once, for the First TimeCollapse )
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