Blog: Games

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True Dungeon

Both last year and this year at Origins we played True Dungeon adventures (one each year). I don't want to spoil either of the adventures we played (which they continue to offer), so I'll speak here in generalities.

True Dungeon is something like D&D adapted for physical sets. An adventure consists of a story played out in a series of seven rooms. You play one of a dozen or so character classes and each has some special rules and abilities. Spellcasters usually have to memorize things (cleric: identify this prayer bead to successfully cast your spell, etc). To disarm traps, rogues have to manipulate a gadget that is akin to playing the old board game Operation (move a pointer through a maze without touching any walls). Combat is done on shuffleboards; monster hit areas, including vulnerabilities, are drawn on one end, and you slide disks from the other to attack. (I'm not sure if monster damage is pre-determined or randomized; I didn't get a good look at what the GMs were doing.)

Before the session starts, the players get together to choose classes (no duplication allowed) and equip characters. Equipment comes in the form of tokens; each time you play you get a bag of ten (most common, a couple uncommon, one rare -- this should sound familiar to anyone who's played collectible card games like Magic). Naturally, you can buy specific tokens from them. Both times we played, the assortment we got for that session was not, by itself, particularly useful (I don't think my bag included a weapon, for instance), so you're relying on the experienced players who show up with their vast collections who can say "sure, you can borrow this sword" or "hey cleric, here are some healing scrolls, just in case". At the end of an adventure you get a few more random tokens. "Equipping" consists of laying out the tokens you're going to use (armor, weapons, cloaks, rings, etc) for a GM who records your final stats on a sheet that is carried through the adventure and given to each GM. You can then put most of them away, aside from weapons and any expendables you want to have on hand. Read more…

New games

These all came today. I think we need to tip our mail carrier. (I never expected some of these to be as heavy as they are!)

stack: Endeavor, Auztralia, Skylands, Railroad Revolution

Origins game con

We played a bunch of games at Origins Game Fair, most of which we liked. Here's my summary of them, in order of play: Read more…

Bards, simplified

At an upcoming gaming convention we'll be playing in a session of True Dungeons. This is, sort of, RPGs meet LARP -- you go through a series of (actual, physical) rooms and face challenges (monsters and puzzles). But instead of actually fighting with weapons like in LARP or rolling dice like in RPGs, the combat system uses something like shuffleboards, and each round you slide a disk (representing your weapon) down the board and where it lands determines what happens. One of the advantages of taking a fighter class is that you get to practice with this shuffleboard first. Mental abilities including spellcasting are implemented through a system of symbols that you have to memorize -- to successfully cast this spell, tell us the name of this rune (or whatever). I've only played once and we didn't have a spellcaster in our small group, so I haven't seen that part in action. In each room, there is a (human) GM who manages the events in the room and adjudicates as needed.

One of the classes you can play is bard. One of the bard's abilities is "bard-song": everybody else gets a combat advantage while you're singing.

I have questions. :-)

Does the song need to be topical -- for example, do you get better bonuses if you sing a song about fighting a dragon while fighting a dragon? Does the song need to be of a particular type, like inspirational battle songs or ballads about heroes? Does the song need to be in English? Does the song need to have actual words or do fa-la-las and niggunim count? The character description is silent on these important matters. (In the back of my mind I wondered if I could just prepare "Horsetamer's Daughter" or "Maddy Groves" and be good for the whole two-hour game -- just pick up where I left off in the previous battle. :-) )

Last night I found the detailed rules and looked it up. Most bards sing, they say, but you can play an instrument (not a loud one!), recite poetry, or even dance. And then, it says, there is no actual requirement that the player really perform; you can just say you're invoking bard-song.

How disappointing. Fighters need to actually aim. Spellcasters need to actually remember stuff. Rogues (I didn't mention this before) need real dexterity to manipulate certain puzzles. But bards don't need to sing, even if they accept any song at all? Huh. Perhaps this is defense against people who sing badly off-key -- "no no it's ok, we believe you, here's your bonus"?

I won't know what class I'm playing until I get there; it depends on available equipment (each player gets a bag of tokens) and party balance (each class can only be represented once). But bard is on my short list because it sounds like fun, and I will ignore the nerfing and sing actual songs if I do it. They might be 13th-century French songs or 15th-century Italian songs because, hey, why not? But there will be actual singing.

Origins game con

As we did last year, Dani dug through the vast list of games that are being offered for playing and extracted a much shorter list of games that sounded interesting to him and that he thought I'd like. I then sorted that list into four piles: really want to play, want to play, would play, and would rather not. He will put this together with his own preferences, work the jigsaw magic of the schedule, and come up with something that works.

Fairly often, games we want to play aren't available in timeslots that work, or sell out before we can register (more a problem with GenCon, I understand). So you need to go in with more options than you'll need, so there's wiggle room. That all makes sense.

After I gave him my list, I noticed that I had 27 hours of "really want", 47 hours of "want", and 67 hours (what's with the 7s?) of "would play". The convention is (effectively) four days long. I do insist on sleeping.

So, yeah. I'll be interested in seeing what subset actually works. :-)

(This was out of a list of about 60 games. We mostly aim for shorter games -- for me it's damage-mitigation, in case something turns out to suck -- but our list did include both Advanced Civilization and History of the World.)

More new games

A couple months ago I listed some games we played at Origins. We've now played a few more new-to-us games, some that a friend brought back from GenCon and some that coworkers introduced me to.

Orleans is is a worker-placement game with decent interaction. A novel feature is that workers are not generic; there are seven different types, and at the start of your turn you draw a designated number of workers from your bag. What shows up is what you have to work with that turn. Different assignments require different combinations of workers. As with games of this type, there is always more to do than you have time and resources to do. You can recruit workers, and each type of recruitment has a beneficial game effect like giving you resources (farmer) or advancing you on the knowledge (scoring) track (scholars) or increasing the number of workers you draw (knights). You can travel from town to town, building guild halls, which act as score multipliers. You can go after "citizen" tokens on various tracks, which are also score multipliers. You can focus on income or goods production, which add to victory points. You can permanently send some of your workers away to work on communal projects for various dividends. Every turn an event is announced at the beginning and enacted at the end -- taxes, plague, income, and more. When you've enacted the last of the 14 events, the game ends. I think a four-player game works best, though a two-player game is possible.

Istanbul (the dice game, not the card game) is a dice-allocation game. The goal is to collect six rubies. Rubies are available on several tracks; on each track the price increases with each one taken. On four tracks you buy rubies with resources of one of four types; on one track you buy them with combinations of resources; on one you buy them with coins; and on one you get them (for free) when you build five mosques. On your turn you roll a set of customized dice that give you resources, coins, or card draws. (Cards usually give you either resources or money, but not always.) After you roll you can take two actions based on the die rolls (take resources, take money, etc). After that you can buy rubies (as I described) or mosques, tiles that have prices and game effects. For example, one mosque might cost one resource of each color and give you an extra die. Another might cost three red resources and give you a red resource whenever you use the "take coins" action. One might cost three green and give you an extra action. You can also buy re-roll tokens to use when you really don't like some or all of your dice. A friend brought this over and said it works well for two players.

Trainmaker is a quick "push your luck" dice game. There are city cards; each city produces one of six types of goods and requires some combination of railroad cars to get there and get the goods. You are trying to collect cities, and win if either you collect all the goods types or you satisfy a secret victory condition. (Mine, for example, was to collect three corn or three coal.) On your turn you roll a bunch of dice that have, on their faces: locomotive x2, the three car types, and a caboose. (I didn't notice how many dice there are -- 7 or 8?) To start you must play a locomotive and at least one car; you then reroll the remaining dice and must play another car. Iterate until you play a caboose to end your train or run out of dice/rolls without doing so and derail. If you don't derail and the cars you played match one of the three visible cities, take it. If you're feeling lucky, you can start all that by playing two locomotives, which means that after you finish your first train, you get to go again -- but, of course, this means you took a die out of circulation for that first train. With learning, this was maybe 20 minutes -- a good filler game when one group has finished a game and is waiting for another group to finish theirs so we can shuffle players around.

I described First Class in my Origins post. We've played it a few times with two and three players and like it. Thus far we have only played modules A and B, the ones they recommend for new players. We'll explore some of the other three, though one of them sounds wholly uninteresting to me so maybe not that one.

Magical Treehouse is a card-drafting, engine-building game with a speed element. In each of four rounds you draft five cards, one of which you will use to bid for turn order and four of which you can play in ascending order within "suits" to build one or more treehouses. Some cards let you place "familiars" on a board to collect resources; some levels of your treehouses require resources as inputs. There's an extra score-influencing reward for finishing quickly. After four rounds of this you score -- visible cards have points, plus things you can actually make based on the resources you've claimed score points, plus there are some "have the most of resource X" points. Meh; I don't expect to play again.

Shards of Infinity is a deck-building slugathon for up to four players. The mechanic is similar to Dominion: draw cards from your deck, optionally buy cards that are for sale, play cards from your hand, deal damage to other players or their champions (cards) based on the cards you played, discard and draw a new hand. One thing I like about this game over Dominion is that card "affinities" are easier to see; there are four colors of cards and many of them give enhancements within color -- e.g. playing two green cards gets you something that playing one doesn't. (For one color, there are some enhancements if you play all three other colors.) I suspect that, like Dominion, this game will generate gazillions of expansions, none of which we'll buy.

Origins games rundown

I went to the Origins gaming convention for the first time this year. (Dani's been before and asked me to try it with him.) We chose games we've never played before that sounded interesting from their blurbs and BoardGameGeek pages. Here's a rundown on games we played:

  • Pathfinder Adventure Card Guild: Season of Factions' Favor: cooperative card-based adventure game. We've never played the Pathfinder RPG on which it's based. Solid meh.

  • Lancaster (Queen Games); worker-placement game with competition (your workers can kick others' weaker workers out). Shorter and less complex than Caylus, a game we want to like and usually like when we actually play it but we often resist playing it because of those factors. We bought a copy of Lancaster after playing once.

  • First Class: card-based train game that initially looked simple-minded but has some nuance to it. We enjoyed it and plan to buy it (didn't find it for sale there). The actual running of this game at the con was poor, but the game itself is good.

  • Aventuria Adventure Card Game: another cooperative card-based fantasy game. Ok but not novel; probably would have felt better a few years ago. I don't have strong memories from this now and might edit this entry after I refresh my memory at BoardGameGeek later.

  • Too Many Bones (Undertow): also a cooperative adventure game, futuristic this time and not card-based. You use dice to attack and defend against the monsters, and each character has specific skills which are also dice-based. We played through a scenario where the group had to make decisions along the way to fighting the big boss-monster. We ran out of time before the boss fight but had several others. The GM/teacher here was very active, treating it as more of a demo than an actual game session, which made it hard to evaluate. So dunno, maybe? Not a priority, but I'd play again. Also, the company has a very nice solution to the problem of needing to roll lots of dice without disrupting stuff on the table; this is way better than box lids. They're supposed to have their gizmo available for purchase in a couple weeks.

  • Mare Nostrum: Empires: we played Mare Nostrum once years ago and it didn't work well for us, but it's been redesigned since then so we signed up. Two things then happened: (1) we needed to resolve a scheduling conflict elsewhere, and (2) we saw the dread phrase "all expansions available" in the updated description. Piles of expansions tend to weaken games in both of our opinions, so we punted.

  • True Dungeon Adventures: this is sort of "live RPG" with abstracted mechanics and a lot of scenery and props. This deserves an entry of its own.

  • Sword & Sorcery (Ares Games): yet another cooperative fantasy game, this time with cards, miniatures, and a dungeon layout. They were apparently running a campaign (or at least a series of games) over several sessions, so we played "part 3" but it didn't matter that we didn't have the prior context. The characters (I played a dwarven cleric with a big-ass hammer) were well-balanced and play was not too complex. My character had a couple pieces of equipment and a healing spell, each of which was tracked with a card, which wasn't bad at all. Others were similar. I would play this again.

  • Railways of the World: tile-based train game where you build a network of tracks to move goods around the board. You start with no money and take out bonds as needed to build track and upgrade your engine. You pay interest on those bonds every turn, so you have to balance investment (at 20% interest per turn) against getting left behind while others build the stuff you wanted. Both Dani and I collected more bonds than the experienced player who was teaching us; that player interpreted the style as aggressive (it might have been more of "we don't know what we're doing") and said "I like the way you guys play". He won anyway, but not by a lot. We played on a map of Mexico. This game is more forgiving than Age of Steam and less complex than the 18xx games, which puts it right in our sweet spot. I want to get this.

  • Quest for the Antidote: the king and all of the players have been poisoned, and the goal is to be the first one to collect the ingredients needed for a cure and deliver them to the palace before you expire. The score counts down and is measured in "breaths". This sounded cute but turned out to be overly simplistic; probably good for families but it didn't do much for us.

  • Power Grid: yeah yeah, I know -- how have we gotten this far without ever having played Power Grid? We keep hearing good things about it but as far as I know nobody in our gaming group owns it. That will change as soon as we can order it (sold out at the con). Players are competing to power cities on a map (we played on a map of Germany). To do this you need power plants (which are auctioned), fuel unless you manage to get wind or hydro plants, and connected cities (which cost money). Each turn you get income based on how many cities you can power. We both enjoyed this game a lot, and I came within a few dollars of winning (which apparently impressed the GM). There are lots of maps available.

  • Evolution: you are playing and developing one or more species of animal. Everybody needs to eat, food is limited, and some species are carnivores which isn't much fun for the prey. Cards each have a numeric value and a trait; traits are things like "long-necked" (gets first shot at food others can't reach), "climbing" (protection from non-climbing carnivores), "body fat" (can store food), and, perhaps most important and fairly elusive, "intelligence" (which lets you get food in other ways). You use these cards either as their traits, as discards to improve your population or body size, as discards to start a new species, or -- one card per turn -- as your contribution to the watering hole (food), which is where the numbers matter. You can replace traits. I liked this game and felt it was what American Megafauna should have been; Dani was more lukewarm on it. This must be played on a table where everybody can easily see everybody ele's cards, which was not true of the large round table we played on.

  • Pulsar 2849: space exploration/colonization game with dice drafting. You have competing needs -- improve your technology, claim new galaxies, claim pulsars and use them to get power. When you choose dice that are either above or below the median roll for that round, you pay (or gain) position on your choice of two tracks, one that helps with technology and one that establishes turn order. This seemed like a well-balanced game; we ran out of time before finishing so we jumped to final scoring but missed some of the late-game stuff. I would play this again.

  • Freedom - the Underground Railroad (Academy Games): cooperative game set in 19th-century America. You are trying to move slaves from the plantations to the north and ultimately to Canada, but (almost) every time you move a slave, one of the slave-catchers moves in that direction. A new ship arrives every turn, and if there aren't enough open spaces in the plantation those slaves are lost. Your goal is to get a certain number to Canada before you lose a threshold number. (Or run out of cards, or some other losing conditions.) To move you need to buy "conductor" tokens, and to get money you need to do fundraising. You also need to pay support costs. There are also event cards. Each player has a (different) special ability. The game felt well-balanced (we barely won a beginner-calibrated game). We both liked it (Dani more so). I felt a little weird about the setting in a way that's hard to explain; it felt wrong to be playing a fantasy-hero game for recent horrific history that still affects people.

  • Flow of History (Grand Gaming Academy): card-based civilization-building game. Fairly light and quick. Acquiring improvements is a two-step process that other players can interrupt, so it's decently interactive. The ending felt rushed.

  • Dungeon Draft: punted so we could sleep in a little on Sunday. I guess it sounded good at the time we signed up, but last night we decided we didn't need yet another card-based dungeon game.

  • Atlantis Rising: the residents of Atlantis have angered the gods, who are responding by flooding the island. The players win if they can build a portal and escape before the whole island is gone. To build it, you need to gather resources from the tiles on the island. If the tile you're on floods, no resource for you (but you don't drown). The rate of flooding increases as the game goes on. Each player has some special ability. We won but not easily. I enjoyed it.

Disabilities in RPGs and other fiction

Someone on Dreamwidth recently pointed me to this article about writing characters with disabilities by Kari Maaren. It's a thoughtful piece, well worth reading. Here's a taste:

So when I see fictional disability, I recognise the tropes. I’ve heard Matt Murdock described as “a blind man whose power is that he can see,” and yeah, that’s a common one. The “blind seer” is a particularly frustrating trope because its purpose is so dazzlingly clear: you want a blind person in your story because that’s so tragic, but you also don’t want the inconvenience of, well, having a blind person in your story. So he’s blind, but it’s okay! He can really see through his magical powers! He’s been compensated for his disability! Yay!

I tweeted a link, and somebody replied there asking for tips on including disabilities in role-playing-game systems without being disrespectful or creating broken player incentives. I said a few things there, but I think my readers are likely to have useful thoughts on this and why should we do it in 140 280-character chunks? So please comment, share useful links, etc. I'm going to share a link to this post.

Game (or other fictional) characters have a variety of traits. We gamers sometimes over-focus on a few stats, but a real, rich character is much more than ratings for strength, intelligence, endurance, dexterity, and so on. That's true whether the extra richness comes from the character's family background, formative experiences in wizard school, handicaps, affinity for fire, compassion for small furry animals, or whatever. So to me, three-dimensional characters depend on the players wanting to play that kind of game. I think these tend to be the same players who are interested in story-based games.

That's not all players. That's ok. You can't, and shouldn't, force richer characters where they're not wanted.

Regardless of game mechanics, players who want to play characters who are disabled in some way -- really play them, I mean, not use them as jokes or sources of offsets for abilities -- will do so. I had a player once who played, well, a vision-challenged character -- a challenge that the player proposed as a logical consequence of the character backstory he'd invented. He wasn't looking for any offsetting benefits.

Now, the game system can help or hinder this, and the person I'm talking with is interested in developing game systems that support disabled characters in a meaningful way. Game systems, like players, come on a spectrum. At one end it's all about optimization; at the other end it's all about good story. At the optimization end, you get players saying things like "I'll take the blindness penalty in order to get extra points for spellcraft". Champions was like this. I never actually played; I went through character creation once and decided it wasn't my style of game. But people did (and I assume do) play, and not all of them are only focused on points optimization, so I'm interested in hearing how they roleplay rich, sometimes-disabled characters in that kind of game system.

At the other, story, end of the spectrum you get games like Dogs in the Vineyard, where characters are nothing but collections of interesting backstory, traits, and growth. I only played a few times and not recently so I might have this wrong, but I don't think there even are stats for things like strength. What you have is things like "I had this formative childhood experience that made me really afraid of guns" (minuses to shooting, panicking under fire, etc), and during the campaign as you have to interact with guns that characteristic might gradually change. You know, just like people often do. Meanwhile, during the game you have other experiences, which might be character-affecting too... There's not a lot of bean-counting, of tit-for-tat -- I took fear of guns, so I'm allowed to be extra-good at riding. It works if the group wants it to work. Dogs has a system (and I'm told there's a broader "Fate" system that uses the same mechanic, if you're not into the setting built into Dogs), but it's not a very pushy system. When we played Dogs, we were mostly telling a collaborative story with occasional dice-rolling.

A story-oriented game system can support character disabilities well. Willing players can support disabilities in any system. What I don't know is how game systems not already at the story-oriented end of the spectrum can facilitate good treatment of character disabilities. Or is this something that is best left out of rules systems and placed in the hands of players?

Thoughts? (If my Twitter correspondent is reading, you can log in using any OpenID credential, create a Dreamwidth account (easy, no spam), or comment anonymously.)

There's lots of interesting feedback in the comments.

No GenCon

Dani has gone to GenCon, a huge gaming con, a few times and enjoyed it. (He started going after Origins, a large gaming con, took a quality dive some years ago.) He asked me to go with him this year and I agreed despite its size. (It is, literally, an order of magnitude bigger than any SF con I've been to.) We talked about things I would need from him to help me not be overwhelmed by it, and he was fine with making those accommodations.

Then the schedule of events came out at the end of May and I realized that a convention an order of magnitude bigger than any I've been to also has a program an order of magnitude bigger than any I've seen. Even after Dani sorted the spreadsheet into categories and suggested some pruning mechanisms, I stared at that "board games" tab and kind of wilted.

But I don't need to find All The Best Games; I just need to find enjoyable games. So Dani made a pass through it for things he thought were interesting, and I reviewed his picks and gave him a short "no" list and a short "meh" list and said everything else was fine. (I'd already reviewed some other categories, including "spouse activities" (yes they have "spouse activities"), for things I could do while he was doing things I didn't want to do.) The general plan was to attend most things together, splitting only on these differences of interests. This is all very kind of him. We were going to mostly attend this con as a couple, which is cool.

Then he took all that data and went to sign us up for things, and... almost everything on the "A" list, both games and other things (seminars, concerts, brewery tour (ok that one was for me), etc) were booked already. He started to assemble a schedule based on the "B" list but it was hard and, anyway, it was the "B" list. He said this has not been a problem in the past, but this year is GenCon 50 and that probably has something to do with it. So we bailed. We'll try this another year, when he can show me his con in a better light and not be feeling "meh" already before even getting there.

New games

A friend brought some new games home from GenCon and brought them over this past weekend. We played each of these games once, for three players.

Mystic Vale is a deck-building game (like Dominion, for example), but instead of adding cards to your deck you augment cards. Your deck always has 20 cards, each of which has three "slots". Some are blank and some start with one slot filled. Slots produce resources, which you can use to buy overlays. Each card is in a plastic sleeve and each overlay is a transparent sheet of clear plastic with one of the three regions filled in; you slide the overlay into the sleeve to use it. On your turn you deal out some cards (the exact number varies), use the resources to buy overlays (or some other special cards), and then discard all those cards. You go through the deck a lot, gradually building up resources so you can buy better stuff. Some of the cards grant victory points, which is ultimately what matters.

The game is very pretty, and it's pretty in a non-invasive way. (I often find pretty games to be hard to play, because the art overruns the function.) I think our game was about an hour, though the next one would be faster because we were learning. I liked this game a lot and would gladly play it in preference to Dominion; Dani thought it was ok and much prefers Dominion.

Next up were two quick games from Perplext. These are tiny games with few moving parts; they're designed to fit in a pocket and be playable, for example, on a table at a restaurant while you're waiting for your food. In one game, Gem, you bid to buy cards with gems on them, which you can use to buy more cards; goal is to corner the market on particular gem types. There are six gem types in the game; you get points for having the most of any type, and one point for each gem you have at all. It's a lightweight auction game that calls for some planning and strategizing. I'd like to play this one again, too.

The other Perplext game was Bus. You lay out a (randomized) grid of city streets with some bus stops and some destinations (color-coded). At bus stops you can pick up fares, which you score when you deliver them. A fare card has a point value and a speed limit and they tend to add up to the same number -- so the more benefit you get from a delivery, the slower you'll move to do it. There was one usability problem with this game: the red and pink passengers/destinations were quite difficult to distinguish from each other. It was a cute game but not one I'd seek out again.

Somewhere in there we also introduced our friend to Roll Through the Ages: think Advanced Civilization distilled down to a dice game and abstract commodities and improvements, playable in about 20 minutes.

The last game we played, and a clear winner for all of us, was Fantahzee. The similarity of that name to "Yahtzee" is quite intentional. Players are defending a town that's under attack by an army of monsters; on your turn you can play heroes from your hand, then (try to) activate them this round, then attack monsters. If you don't kill the lead monster you lose part of the town (negative points to you). You get victory points for killed monsters.

The activation is dice-based. Each hero has an activation cost represented in die rolls -- "4", or "2 of a kind", or "1 2 3", and so on. The powerful ones are harder to get. You start with five dice and get up to three rolls; after each roll you can allocate any dice you want to activate heroes and then reroll the rest. Some of the heros, once activated, grant you extra dice or extra rolls, which is essential. Many of them have other special abilities, like extra defense. There's a lot of randomness, but you also need to plan your party of adventurer heros to balance between power and ability to actually activate. I think this one took about an hour.