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.

"7 things" #3

There was a parlor game going around where someone else picks seven things for you to write about and you do -- short or long, meaningful or random.

Alaric gave me: Pittsburgh, writing, your favorite song, chicken, D&D, knowledge, and al-Andalus. Read more…

"7 things" #2

There was a parlor game going around where someone else picks seven things for you to write about and you do -- short or long, meaningful or random.

Unique_name_123 gave me: computer, spirituality, laurel, rules, games, travel, artichoke. Read more…

Parlor game: let's talk about... (7 things)

This parlor game comes to me via TalvinAmarich: "Comment to this post and I will pick seven things I would like you to talk about. They might make sense or be totally random. Then post that list, with your commentary, to your journal. Other people can get lists from you, and the meme merrily perpetuates itself."

He gave me: Lisp, On the Mark, Accessibility, Books, Role-Playing Games, Filk, Faroe Islands (one of these things is not like the others).

LISP turned out to be a longer story. On the Mark, ditto. Read more…

First look: Origins, Bios Megafauna

A few years ago Dani bought a copy of American Megafauna, which I have written about before. The idea is that it's 250 million years ago and the players are playing proto-lizards and proto-mammals competing for viability in a world that's still changing due to things like ice ages and continental drift. The game concept is interesting but overall I found the game mechanics and physical set-up too challenging for the amount of enjoyment the game provided, so I stopped playing. Dani wasn't as frustrated as I was, but he did agree that the game was broken in some ways. So we ended up not playing it much, even at larger game days where it seemed possible to find four people interested in playing it.

There had been rumors of an impending new edition for a while, and when it opened for pre-order Dani went ahead and did so despite the early reports from play-testing. Basically, as I understand it, the play-testers were saying that some things needed to be changed, but the publisher really wanted to hit a deadline (a particular gaming convention) so he went ahead anyway, apparently with the idea that he could publish rules updates. Not auspicious, but Dani is more willing to invest the effort to figure these things out, so more power to him.

Meanwhile, at Origins this year Dani saw or heard about another game by this designer: in this one the players are various hominids competing to see who gets to be homo sapiens. Do you detect a theme? :-) Origins: How We Became Human was published a few years ago, and Dani ordered a copy.

We've played each game once, so it's too early to draw conclusions, but some notes:

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Women and role-playing games

Elsewhere, in a locked entry, a game designer asked what game designers ought to be doing to market role-playing games to women. (Women gamers are definitely a minority.) I wanted to record my (slightly-edited) reply to him. (If this post generates discussion, I'll probably point the original poster at it. This post is public.)

What got me into RPGs, in high school, was that it was a natural outgrowth of the books I was reading. SF&F nerd ostracized by the "cool" kids was the right basis, as it turned out. I, not the guys around me, was the instigator.

Once I got to college I found games to play in, all run by men, and I played rather than running for many years. (As a self-taught GM I was pretty terrible at it.) I was often the only woman in the group despite trying to draw female friends in. I didn't try to analyze it much then; I chalked it up to geek/non-geek rather than male/female. (I didn't know too many female geeks.) There wasn't much "R" in the RPGs I was playing at the time, by the way. More about that later.

More recently, I've seen the "associate" effect [that somebody else wrote about] dominate -- a woman who plays in the game because her husband does, etc. I don't think it's a new trend; I think it's just that I'm now in a position to run into it more. The most recent campaign I played in started with three women (among seven players): one was a not-very-interested wife of a gamer and both of them drifted away after one session; one was the wife of the GM and she was very interested but had a low threshold for rules-geeking; and I was the third. The two women who stuck around both engaged most with (1) storytelling and (2) interesting magic (not just direct-damage spells, though we used those too). I should note that I personally detest games like "Once Upon a Time", but I love the cooperative storytelling of a campaign with a plot and an arc through it. (What's the difference? Maybe the pace? Dunno.) I liked pure-hack-and-slash games when I was in college, but now they don't draw me. I want to craft a three-dimensional character who shares an interesting world with other non-cardboard characters.

To market to women like the two of us, then, emphasize the power of the system to tell interesting stories, to allow character development that isn't pure-optimization stat-wrangling, and throw in some interesting magic. Oh, and don't make the rules so complicated that they get in the way of the story; D&D 3.0/3.5 had its flaws but combat was smooth and spell effects were easy to calculate, and that's huge. I walked out of the only game of Traveller I ever played an hour into character creation because the whole thing was just too complicated. (Bookkeeping is fine -- RuneQuest! was one of my favorite RPGs, back in the day -- but it has to stay in the background.)

So that's one woman's view, for what that's worth.


There's lots of discussion in the comments.

Gaming day

This weekend Alaric and Elsbeth hosted a day of gaming. I got to play two new-to-me games (along with others), Through the Ages (board game) and Innovation (card game). Read more…

7 Ages

Yesterday we played in a five-player game of 7 Ages. We have not played this game a lot because it is long (and has lots of fiddly bits), but I enjoy it when we do play.

7 Ages isn't exactly a civilization-building game (like Advanced Civilization) or a world-conquest game (like Age of Renaissance, Diplomacy, and many others). It's a little closer to History of the World, maybe -- instead of playing one civilization through the entire game you will, in theory, play several different civilizations, discarding and replacing them as they start to decline. (But no, not really like Vinci either, though maybe a little.)

That's the theory, but yesterday we only saw a few replacements, with people mostly playing their starting civilizations all the way through. In a game with an uneven distribution of possible civilizations I expect that more, but in a five-player game each person is guaranteed access to three at a time and that can't be taken away from you. I can't speak for anybody else, but what deterred me was the combination of my current civilizations doing OK score-wise and the cost -- in time and in conquering a new board position -- of starting a new one. Perhaps I do not play aggressively enough.

An aspect of the game that makes it fun, though also harder to track, is that each civilization has different victory conditions. I watched another civilization sprawl out next to mine and thought the player was setting his sights on my territories -- but his victory conditions weren't helped by conquering me, so he didn't. (And mine were only tangentially helped by conquering him, and I had other options, so I didn't.) I was playing the Assyrians (points for most land units on the board, among things), the Siamese (points for money, dominating southeast Asia, and others), and some guys in India who got points for India and world domination. ("Domination" means having the most territories.) That last seemed doomed until late in the game -- civilizations in China and elsewhere in Asia had gotten very big and I couldn't compete -- but then I realized that "world" could be anywhere, so my Indians started building boats to colonize Australia. If the game had gone two more turns we would have seen Rajeesh Columbus sail east hoping to discover Europe. :-) (There were unclaimed spaces in the Americas.)

The game ended up being very close, with the top two scores at 103 and 100, another in the 90s, one in the 80s, and one trailing behind. Everyone seemed to have fun and even the combat was good-natured, such as when someone started the Free States in the midst of a Chinese civilization and started what would be skirmishing between the two for the rest of the game.

We started at 1:00 at the beginning of age 2 (so most players were in age 1 after offsets), and -- after deciding to play a certain number of turns -- finished at around 10:00 with the lead civilization in the middle of age 5, about half the civilizations stuck in a dark age late in age 2, and everybody else spread out between. We are definitely playing more efficiently than when we first learned the game, without feeling rushed. I still think playing through all seven ages would be a weekend project at least; I expect that the game gets more complex as better military units afford better mobility.

There was a definite end-game effect as, on the last turn, everybody brought out the things they'd been holding in reserve. Perhaps a better way to limit the game is to set a limit (time, age, turn count) after which you start rolling a die to see if the game ends, increasing the probability each turn. That way you don't know when the game ends until it does; you don't get the last-minute hostile events and attacks and stuff, but you get people playing as if they expected another turn. I don't know which way is better.

Game report: Defenders of the Realm

I came out of my previous encounters with Defenders of the Realm, a cooperative board game, with one big question: is it possible for the players to win? Others in our gaming group shared this question, so this weekend four of us assembled to test the hypothesis. We theorized that having the cleric in the game is a huge factor, so we played two games with and two without. There are eight characters total, so we chose the cleric and three random ones, played two games, and then played with the remaining four. Exhaustive trials would have taken longer; the experiment doesn't have to be completed in one day.

The first game was a disaster. The starting board was not good, but we plowed ahead, attacking problem spots across the board. Then, on player turn ten (meaning halfway through round three -- I only got to play two turns!) we lost by having too many monsters in the central city. They appeared quickly; we got four from that "place one of each type that's adjacent" and then the next card involved an outbreak from an adjacent space, which contributed the fifth. Five monsters in the city is a loss.

We won the second game with one character death. If I recall correctly, we started with the cleric, sorcerer, wizard, and dwarf. The wizard died fighting one of the generals and was replaced with the eagle-rider. The cleric's job was supposed to be to just run around the board removing taint markers (since that's what he's good at), but he kept ending up in fights with generals too. It's hard to ignore someone having the cards that will help in a fight, after all.

We lost the other two games, one by running out of taint markers and one by having a general reach the city. So we were very diverse in our losses; the only loss condition we didn't trigger was running out of a type of monster, and we came close on that at times.

We had intended to ignore quests unless they were really good, but some people went after minor ones anyway. I think we need to be more rigorous about that; "because I'm nearby" can still mean a mostly-wasted turn in a game that doesn't support a lot of waste. We did not spend a lot of time in inns trying to pick up more cards; even the rogue (who's good at that) only did it a couple times in two games.

I found myself willing to spend cards quite freely for travel except for whatever color we were currently working toward. As a non-cleric I never went after taint; you have to have the right location card (out of a couple dozen) and spend it for a chance to remove the marker, and I was finding it too hard to keep track of where taint markers were to compare to cards. (The markers are very hard for me to see. Actually, many things about the board are hard for me to see; this is another game that suffers from the triumph of art over function.)

We didn't think to time individual games, but we played for a bit over six hours total and that first game was very short, so I think of it as a two-hour game. For me, that tips the cost-benefit balance away from this game; if it were a one-hour game its added complexity and challenge, as compared to Pandemic, would be an interesting change. At two hours, more complex, gratuitously complex (in places), and hard, I don't get as much enjoyment as I would from the three to four games of Pandemic we could play in the same time.

So to finish off the evening, after dinner we played Pandemic and won on the penultimate turn (five epidemics). Ah, much better. (Dani and I have lately been playing two-player games with six epidemics and winning about half the time; we haven't tried with four players yet.)

New game: Defenders of the Realm

Dani played Defenders of the Realm at Origins and found it promising despite its high similarity to another game we enjoy, so he ordered a copy. We've now played a few games.

This is a cooperative game where the players are trying to prevent the spread of four strains of monsters before they overwhelm the map. The map consists of a bunch of interconnected sites, each color-coded to one of the four types of monster. On each turn new monsters appear in designated locations (dictated by cards), and if you get more than three monsters in a particular location that spot becomes tainted. Each type of monster also has a general; the generals might move during the "darkness spreads" stage (also when new monsters come out), and if any of them reach the capital you lose. Other ways to lose are to run out of taint markers and to run out of monsters of any given color. You attack monsters by going to their locations and rolling combat dice; you attack generals by accumulating cards of the right colors, which you draw each turn. Each player has a unique role with associated special abilities. You win by killing all four generals.

But wait; this isn't at all like Pandemic. Why, this is non-deterministic! You have to roll dice to attack infections, er, monsters. And the infection, err, darkness-spreads, cards don't get reshuffled and put back on top. And taint is completely different from outbreaks. Um, yeah.

But all that said, it's an enjoyable game; while it blatantly rips off most of the Pandemic mechanics, it doesn't feel like a complete knock-off. This is its own game, though I do wonder how the publisher has stayed out of trouble.

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New game: Agricola

At Origins Dani played Agricola and found it worthy of more exploration, so he bought a copy. We've played several two-player games and yesterday we played a four-player game. The game is evocative of Puerto Rico and Caylus and plays in about half an hour per player. I've found it a lot of fun so far.

The description from BoardGameGeek starts:

In Agricola, you're a farmer in a wooden shack with your spouse and little else. On a turn, you get to take only two actions, one for you and one for the spouse, from all the possibilities you'll find on a farm: collecting clay, wood, or stone; building fences; and so on. You might think about having kids in order to get more work accomplished, but first you need to expand your house. And what are you going to feed all the little rugrats?

In each turn you can take one action per person in your family. Each action can only be taken once per turn, so there is competition for certain spaces (not always the same ones). A new action becomes available each turn. Some actions provide resources, some allow you to plow and sow fields, some let you build things (which consume resources), and some let you acquire skills, and, later, some let you expand your house and then grow your family. You start the game with a hand of two types of cards, minor improvements (these are things you can build) and occupations (skills). Both give you some sort of advantage and there's a great variety. For example, the fishing pole (cost one wood) lets you take extra food from the "fish pond" action. The woodworker (occupation) lowers the cost of building wood improvements. The oven (costs three clay and a stone) lets you bake bread (one grain becomes five food).

At set points during the game there are harvests: you take grain or vegetables from your sown fields, must feed your family (if you have a fireplace you can cook animals or vegetables for this), and then can increase your flocks/herds (if you have enough fenced pastures to hold them). As you increase your family you need more food and as the game goes on the harvests get closer together.

Scoring is based on how well you did in several factors, and, like all optimization games, you have to choose which ones to pursue and which ones to accept lower scores for. You lose points if you didn't touch a category at all (for example if you had no plowed fields or no grain). Points are given for plowed fields, fenced pastures, three different types of livestock, two different crops, upgrades to your house, and number of family members, and some improvements also give points. So you'll find yourself facing quandries like "if I don't get a vegetable to sow I'll lose points for that, but if I blow that off I could build this improvement that'll be worth points, but it requires materials I might not be able to get in time".

I find that the cards add a lot of variety to the game without adding a lot of complexity. When I play Puerto Rico I'll probably settle into one of the established strategies (corn king, builder, variety, etc), depending on what the other players are doing. In Caylus (which I have not played as much) there also seem to be some basic strategies that players fall into, again depending on what others are doing. All of that is true of Agricola too, but the occupations and improvements in your hand can play a big role in this, so, at least so far, it feels like there are more strategies available. Or maybe it's just that the tactics are more varied. Either way, I'd like to play more.