Blog: Games

Most of these posts were originally posted somewhere else and link to the originals. While this blog is not set up for comments, the original locations generally are, and I welcome comments there. Sorry for the inconvenience.

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.


Last Shabbat, friends introduced us to a new-ish board game, Splendor. Here's how Board Game Geek describes it:

Splendor is a game of chip-collecting and card development. Players are merchants of the Renaissance trying to buy gem mines, means of transportation, shops — all in order to acquire the most prestige points. If you're wealthy enough, you might even receive a visit from a noble at some point, which of course will further increase your prestige.

The game setup includes chips for each of the five gem types, cards in three levels of value that you can buy, and a small number of patrons who becomes yours if you satisfy their individual conditions. Every card counts as producing one gem of its color, and cards cost varying numbers of gems in different combinations. So, for example, if a card requires one red, one blue, and one black, and you have a black card, then you can buy the card for one red chip and one blue one. If that card produces blue, then the next time you can automatically pay black and/or blue without expending chips. So, the more cards you acquire the fewer chips you need... except that higher-level cards have higher costs, so you still need chips throughout the game.

Victory points come from higher-end cards (the lowest-level cards confer no points, only gem production) and from patrons. Patron conditions are based on cards, for example if you have four red and four green cards.

On your turn you can take chips, buy cards, or reserve cards (set a card aside that you will buy later, so someone else doesn't beat you to it). There are several cards available for purchase at any given time, so you're trying to balance costs (what can you afford), card type (you might want particular colors either to help with future purchases or for patrons), and what other players might do (if you spend this turn getting the chips to buy that card you want, will the card still be there next turn?). It's a well-balanced game, allowing for future planning without bogging down in it. We played several four-player and three-player games, and each took about half an hour.

The game is well-made; the plastic chips are hefty enough to saty where you put them on the table, the cards are sturdy, and -- rare for board games these days -- the molded compartments in the game box actually match up with the pieces. The game is pretty without the art impeding function.

The gem theme is just a theme; it's not intrinsic to the game the way, say, trains are intrinsic to Eurorails or building settlements is intrinsic to Settlers of Catan. The game would not play differently if rubies, emeralds, sapphires, onxy, and diamonds were replaced with wood, brick, stone, grain, and sheep. But the theme also doesn't get in the way, and even if we called the elements "red", "green", etc, there's no reason you couldn't treat them as gems.

Link: how to win at Monopoly and lose all your friends

Forwarded by Siderea: How to win at Monopoly and lose all your friends:

Your goal is to play conservatively, lock up more resources, and let the other players lose by attrition. If you want to see these people again, I recommend not gloating, but simply state that you're playing to win, and that it wasn't your idea to play Monopoly in the first place.

Do some research on, and head down to your local gaming shop, where more often than not, you'll find knowledgeable staff and even demo sets for you to try before you buy. It shouldn't be too hard to convince your friends to try something new, especially if you offer to play another round of Monopoly.

Revelation for RPGs series (Worldbuilding)

Several weeks ago I wrote about a series of blog articles I was starting over on the Worldbuilding blog called "Revelation for RPGs". This is a series of posts about techniques GMs can use to build, and reveal to players over time, interesting and rich worlds. I'm basing this series on a game run by Ralph Melton years ago and chronicled in ralph_dnd.

I've added a couple more posts since then. Here's the list so far:

Revelation for RPGs I: Setting the Stage

Revelation for RPGs II: The Written Word

Revelation for RPGs III: Your World is Made of People

Revelation for RPGs IV: I Can See Clearly Now

I'm telling (in high-level outline) the story of the game as I talk about how it was played. We're about halfway through the campaign now; the latest article shares the "big reveal" of that part of the game. (Those who remember the game should know what I mean by that, and for the rest of you, I don't want to spoil it.)

I have a few more planned for this series.

First look: Caverna

For his birthday Dani received a copy of Caverna, a worker-placement game in the style of Agricola. We quite enjoy Agricola but hadn't heard of Caverna before.

This was pretty serendipitous; his family knows we like board games, doesn't know very much about the games we like, but found their way to this. They got advice at Snakes and Lattes, which sounds like an interesting place. As a nice coincidence (I don't think they knew to look for this), this game supports seven players, which is unusual in the games we enjoy. (Yes yes, of course Seven Wonders, and if you've got 8-12 hours there are other options.)

Like in Agricola, each player plays a family of workers trying to grow a farm and family. In Caverna you're playing a family of dwarves, and you have both cavern spaces (living quarters, mines, special rooms) and forest (that you clear for crops and pastures). Agricola's occupations and improvements have been replaced by (a smaller number of) special rooms that you can build. Some aspects of production have been expedited; for example, a single action can get you a double tile (field and meadow) and grain that you can later plant in that field. The game has ten turns, a few fewer than Agricola. It's easier to get food to feed your family, but harvests are more frequent so you need more. Harvests occasionally go...wrong.

There are two "wildcard" aspects to the game, rubies and expeditions. Rubies come from one of the possible actions each turn, and you can also dig ruby mines in your cave. Rubies, in turn, can be spent to get one of, well, pretty much anything -- a building resource, a crop to plant, food, an animal, and some special tiles. If you have some rubies, it's much easier to get out of a bind than it is in Agricola -- you can get that last bit of wood to add to your house, or that grain or vegetable to plant, or one more animal to eat.

The other "wildcard" is expeditions. You can spend ore (which you get from actions or from your ore mines) to give a dwarf a weapon, and armed dwarves can take expedition actions. An expedition lets you choose 1-3 items (depending on the type of expedition); how good those items are depend on the quality of the weapon (more ore = better weapon, plus they get better with use). As with rubies, most things in the game are available this way.

We've played two (two-player) games so far and enjoyed them. We'll definitely be pulling this out at the next games day (whenever that is), in addition to playing more games ourselves. The instructions claim the game is 30 minutes per player, but so far we're coming in around 45 minutes per, plus setup and cleanup. I assume we'll get faster as we learn the game better.

There's just one down-side, which we're trying to rectify: the game has a lot of pieces, many of which look similar enough at first glance that you do want to separate them. But they get mixed up in play, so setup and cleanup take a lot of time.

No, really, a lot:

box of many game pieces

That box is 5-6 inches deep.

Dani ordered some sectioned boxes that, with luck, will let us play right out of the trays, instead of having to dump pieces out on the table and try to keep them vaguely sorted.

Fun game, and a nice gift!

Building worlds for fiction vs. role-playing games: what's different?

Somebody asked, on a worldbuilding community: what's different, for the worldbuilder, in building a world for a story versus building one for a role-playing game? I answered:

The differences are fairly subtle. In both cases you need a world that's well-enough developed to be plausible and interesting to the people consuming it (readers or players). But there's an important difference: RPGs have players.

Well duh, you're probably saying. Let me unpack that. Read more…

Some gaming notes

Friends invited some people over for gaming yesterday. I played one new game and two new variants of games I already knew.

We usually play Carcassonne with the river and cathedral expansions. This was my first time playing with whatever expansion introduces the dragon and princess. This adds chaos to the game: there are six volcano tiles, and when one of those comes out you place the dragon on it. Twelve other tiles are regular tiles but also have a dragon mark on them; after you play the tile the dragon is moved (six spaces total; players take turns directing the move). If the dragon lands on a player marker it eats it. Losing farmers in fields you can no longer get into is especially irritating, though losing guys in nearly-finished cities and cloisters hurts too. There is also a fairy token, which protects one tile against the dragon; if you don't play a token on your turn you can claim the fairy, so it moves around a lot. There are also "princess" and "portal" tiles that, in our game, had a less-pronounced effect on the game. Overall, I found that this expansion disrupted the game and also lengthened it, and while I'm glad to have played it once, it's not on my must-do-again list.

(In general, every Carcassonne expansion adds tiles without taking any away, so the game keeps getting longer. I seem to recall 30-minute games early on, but none recently.)

We played a couple games of Seven Wonders, one with the "leaders" expansion. (I hadn't been aware that Seven Wonders had expansions, but it has more than one.) With this expansion you draft four leader cards and can play one at the beginning of each age (so up to three of them). Leaders cost money to play and give a wide range of advantages; I had one that gave me a victory point for each gold card, one that gave me a one-coin rebate on purchases from neighbors, and I forget what my others were. One of my neighbors had one that conferred a military advantage, and she was already playing the military-minded city (so well-played). There was one that gave a victory point for each color of card you had in play. This expansion also adds two more cities, one of which gives discounts on buying leaders (in place of giving a resource). The leaders did help to channel one's strategy; I wasn't really feeling the lack of variety in the base game that leads to expansions, but maybe when I've played more I will.

This was also the first game in which the "card trees" really worked for me: I think I played four cards for free because I had the prerequisite cards, and previously I'd never played a game where I got more than one that way. Most of our games aren't seven-player like this one was, and with fewer players not all cards are in play, so that makes a difference. On the other hand, there's more competition for the cards; each of these free plays was a decision made in the moment, not part of a larger strategy.

This was my first time playing with sleeved cards. I understand the desire to protect one's cards, but I won't be in a hurry to sleeve ours -- the combination of the reflective surface and the lights in the room wasn't a good one for me.

The new-to-me game was Dixit, which is a short social game in the same vein as Apples to Apples. You have a hand of cards with art on them; the active player chooses a card from his hand and provides a clue of some sort (description, phrase, song lyric, noise, whatever); each other player selects a card that also matches that clue. Cards are shuffled and revealed and players vote on which card was the active player's. Having either everybody or nobody guess correctly is bad for the active player; otherwise, points are given based on correct guesses and playing cards that fooled people. We only played for about 20 minutes before breaking for dinner. I wasn't very good at it (especially in the active-player role), but I would enjoy playing more to see if I can do better. Presumably part of the key to this one is to play with different people; otherwise as you learn the cards a group might fall into ruts.