So Frankly...

So Frankly...

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Yearly Summary 2011

Now that Christmas is done, many of us become introspective.  The new year begs us to look over the old, and learn what we can.  So, what can I do but review my life as a gamer...

This past year has been the busiest year I have had from a gaming perspective.  Not only did I start this blog, but I have grown my collection of games more this year than ever before, adding an embarrassing 65 games and expansions in just 2011.  (I like to think of this as my own economic "stimulus package"!)  Most of these were trades, Ebay purchases or thrift store finds, so it really isn't as bad as it sounds.  That's my story and I'm sticking to it!

Best Acquisition of the Year:  7 Wonders.  Given the number of plays and the excellent play, this is the best buy I made this year.  Star Trek: Fleet Captains still needs a few plays for me to really have a feel for it.  Overall, though, the best game related purchase of the year was the shelves my wife bought for me; I really needed those!

Since I started tracking my plays in 2008, this has been the second busiest year for game plays (just behind 2009).  I played 44 different titles this year a total of 180 games played.  A few more games will probably be played New Year's Eve.  Of these 44 titles, 26 of them were games I had never played before this year.  It didn't feel like I had as much time to play this year when compared to 2009, a year when I was playing a lot on lunch breaks.  However, between the chess club at school and Boy Scout outings, I have played more games with kids this year. 

Most Played Game of the Year:  Hive. This game is a huge hit at Scout outings, and that accounts for most of my plays of Hive.  There are now four copies amongst all of the members of our troop!  This is a great game: really a "must own" game in my opinion.

Our gaming group expanded this year as it celebrated three years of getting together.  Tastes are broader, and it can get a little crazy trying to figure out who is playing what, but it has been great fun!

Game Group Hit of the Year:  Pandemic. This year alone, I played Pandemic 19 times, and all but one or two of those plays were with the gaming group.  This was easily the most played game for the group, and is another "must own" game.

Finally, I will list my Nickles and Dimes: games played 5 and 10 times respectively.  (I won't count the 100+ games of chess I played online this year.)  Interestingly enough, most of them are games actually purchased this year, too.


Plays /Game
13No Thanks!


Plays/ Game
8    7 Wonders
6Bang! The Bullet!
6 Hey, That's My Fish!

Monday, December 19, 2011

Grandma comes through!

I am glad I waited to buy Star Trek: Expeditions!   This past weekend was Christmas with my wife's family, and my son received it as a gift.  I received the expansion for Pandemic, entitled Pandemic: On the Brink.  I've broken the seal on mine; he hasn't...

The Pandemic expansion adds some neat gameplay, including more special abilities for players to choose from, but it really adds to the Awesomeness Factor.  The expansion includes little Petri dishes to store the disease cubes in.  Totally superfluous, and totally awesome!

Image by Tony Bosca

It's Your Move!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Ahead Mr. Sulu! Fun Factor 10! - Recent Star Trek Games

I have played several computer and board game versions of the Star Trek universe over the years.  I am a huge fan of all things Star Trek: in particular the original cast.  Since this is a boardgaming blog, I won't talk about the best computer game (Birth of the Federation, in case you are wondering), just my current candidate for the best board game:  Star Trek: Fleet Captains.

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In this game, two players each have a small fleet of starships: one Federation, one Klingon.  Each ship is an actual miniature model of the ship, taking the Awsomeness Factor nearly over the top.  (Unfortunately, they don't come painted, or it would be crazy good!)  Taking turns, players move around the Alpha Quadrant exploring planets and scientific phenomena, encountering aliens, completing missions and battling one another.  This is done with crew members of the various shows actually adding abilities to the ships in play.  As one owner of the game remarked, you end up playing a season of the Star Trek show.

But, if you really do paint them, WOW!  (Image by Paul Paella)
The story the game tells is fantastic, though it has what some will find to be a fatal flaw. There are ships from every show in the game, and this doesn't fit a good timeline, nor does it fit having the Klingon's as adversaries in the later years.  Hey, the movies can do a reboot; I have no problems suspending reality in a science fiction game.

Now, I am not going to do an in-depth review.  Having played this a couple of times now, I will say that it is not a casual game.  This game has a lot of moving parts, both literally and figuratively.  Keeping track of the actions going on, the special abilities of the crew members and ships, which things moving through space are cloaked ships and which are echos -- it's a lot!  There are still a few situations in the game that I am not sure we've played correctly.

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Having said that, you are still wondering what game the Trekker should have under the tree on Christmas, there is another possibility:  Star Trek: Expeditions.  This is a cooperative game where, from the website:

You take on the roles of Kirk, Spock, McCoy and Uhura responding to an invitation from the Nibian government to open discussions about the planet joining the United Federation of Planets...  Lead your away teams made up of crew and resources from the Enterprise to solve the major story arcs plus key side missions before the Klingon Fleet arrives or the lone cloaked Klingon Battle cruiser in orbit destroys the Enterprise and her crew. Three difficulty levels, random side missions, player strategies and a unique branching mission tree ensure every game will be a unique memorable experience.

According to those who have played both, if Fleet Captains is like playing a season, Expeditions is like playing an episode.  Alas, I have not played both.  (Must..  resist... purchasing... until... after... Christmas...!)  While Expeditions doesn't receive the ratings and rave reviews of Fleet Captains, it still is a solid game, and seems to be more family friendly.  It's also designed by Reiner Knizia, one of the most respected board game designers ever.  I will get to play it one of these days, even if I don't end up with it on my shelves.

These are the latest in Star Trek games, and if your Trekker is anything like me, they will greatly appreciate the chance to live out the story.  If he or she is also a gamer, go for Fleet Captains, otherwise, Expedtions.  For me, these games would be a much better choice than say, giving me a uniform.  I don't look as good in tights as Seven of Nine...

It's Your Move!

Friday, December 9, 2011

Chess Sets for Gifts

One of my last posts was my buying guide for holiday gifts.  I suggested that the dedicated chess player is so focused that buying chess items for him or her is more likely to fail then succeed.  However, that's not true of the starting chess player.

This year's Chess Club at school has a lot of new kids in it.  I am so glad my wife is there as the librarian, so that she can use her classroom management skills to my benefit.  In the interest of crowd control, she has taken all of the new members and is walking them through a short introductory course in the game which will finish soon.  This is mandatory, even if you know how to play.  Meanwhile, I have the veterans, who are starting their chess ladder.  I will go into this another time, though I talked about it briefly in a post from last year.

With all of these new kids, I know there will be a few Christmas Lists that have chess sets on them.  Wednesday was the Feast of St. Nicholas, so jolly old St. Nick picked up all of those lists as he stopped by and dropped off tangerines and candy (at least at our house!).  So, where should Santa go if he needs a few more chess sets then he has ready?  I will give you two ideas:

The Chess House is a great place to find a chess set.  I have personally purchased from there, and the transaction was quick and easy.  I would buy their   Quality Regulation Tournament Chess Set Combo .  This set has several advantages: 1) this set (or one VERY similar) is the set used in the school, so children are used to it; 2) this set is a regulation tournament set, so it can be used in official events; 3) it transports easily; 4) it's nearly indestructible.

Similar sets can be found at the US Chess Federation's online store. Their are more options here, with different styles of bags, combinations that include chess clocks, and some that include the book How to Beat Your Dad at Chess.  Always popular.

The US Chess Federation (USCF) is the governing body for chess in the United States.  While you're there, consider getting a gift membership for your little chess player.  It will be well worth it.

I will apologize to my overseas friends; this post is very US-centric.  However, I am sure there are scholastic memberships available in your part of the world too, so the advise still holds.  Regardless of where your live, support your little chess enthusiast and your school's chess program!  There are studies that show how beneficial chess is to young minds, and there are measured results.

It's Your Move!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Thanksgiving for Games! (Plus a Review of 7 Wonders)

But not so much for actually playing them.  At least not this year.

Normally games hit the table more at Thanksgiving.  We did spend Sunday with my brother and his wife, playing two games of 7 Wonders.  My son and I also managed to get in our first game of Star Trek: Fleet Captains.  The jury is still out on Fleet Captains, since it took about four times as long to play as advertised.  The game does have a lot of moving parts, but most of that was “first play delay” issues.  I have since made a player aid that will help, and we will go at it again and hopefully soon.

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This post I will talk about 7 Wonders.  Not only did we play it this past weekend, but it’s also in my Top 10 lists, so I thought a review was in order.  The game was published last year and was immediately a hot seller; my copy was back ordered for four months.  This is due to a combination of rare attributes that came together in this game:  a civilization building game that plays in under an hour and the wide range of players supported.

In 7 Wonders, each player is attempting to build the most advanced civilization, choosing from among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World as the centerpiece:  the Great Pyramid of Giza, the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, the Colossus of Rhodes and the Lighthouse of Alexandria.  Players lay down cards from their hand to represent building they construct, or alternatively construct a stage of their Wonder.  The structures built provide either victory points or more capability for construction later.  Players then pass their hand to their neighbor, and do it again.  There are three ages to build in, and six turns to build in during each age.  Each successive age has more advanced structures which are worth correspondingly more victory points.  The person with the most victory points is the winner.

A civilization on the rise (Photo by Igor Mustac)
 Games with this theme have a reputation of being long games; over four hours in play time is not unheard of.   As boardgaming becomes a more popular hobby, the demand to better fit games into a busy lifestyle has grown.  Games in general have shortened in playing time, and seem to be targeting that 60-90 minute playing time range, which seems to be a sweet spot.  This is also true of civilization games; only a handful of truly good games managed to get this down to that time frame.  7 Wonders is one of two or three civilization games that actually reduced it further: 30 minutes.  This always gets gamers skeptical attention.

The second promise7 Wonders made was to cover anywhere from two to seven players.  Really?  Many games of this type cover three or four, and occasionally five.  Two is particularly complicated for a civilization game, since there is normally some type of game mechanism, like negotiation, that needs three people to work well.  More players normally means more time, particularly in a civilization game, since the interaction amongst many players is so much higher.  To play seven players and keep the playing time at under an hour seemed like an impossible combination.

Since 7 Wonders is in my Top 10, it’s pretty easy to guess that it delivers.  There are three things that contribute to this.  The first is that it is a card game, which tends to shorten games to begin with.  Secondly, all actions are resolved simultaneously.  The third characteristic is truly innovative.  Regardless of the number of players, each player only interacts with their immediate neighbors to the left and right.  Limiting interaction and simultaneous resolution means that the play time of each round is completely independent of the number of players.  7 Wonders does work incredibly well from three to seven players.  Due to the lack of full interaction with two players, there are special rules for this situation, which I haven’t played.  (Honestly, there are so many great two player games that I probably never will play this game with only two.) 

A game that plays in 30 minutes can’t be too involved.  Playing time and complexity tend to go hand-in-hand.  However, civilization games are notoriously complicated as players work out the societal, commercial, martial and technological growth of their empire.  Packing all of those factors into a short game seems too good to be true.  7 Wonders does this by having different colors of cards, suits if you will, which correspond to different aspects of the society.  Brown cards are raw resources, gray cards are manufactured goods, yellow cards correspond to commerce, blue are cultural items, red represents military structures, green are scientific achievements and purple cards are guilds.  Seven suits of cards, coupled with the plethora of icons on the cards, are where this game does get somewhat complicated.  One or two plays, however will sort things out, since the colors aren’t as important as the icons, and there is a system to the icons that quickly becomes apparent.

A couple of the cards used in 7 Wonders (Images by Julien Kirsch)

Since my son is now 14 and an experienced gamer, he isn’t a good gauge on how kid-friendly this game is.  My wife, who as an educator really understands children, hasn’t played it.  It certainly wouldn’t be for every child.  I can’t give it a kid-friendly vote due to the above complexity.

For older kids and adults, 7 Wonders is a great game that has multiple paths to victory.  Part of the fun is that “look what I built – how cool is that!” feeling you get at the end of the game.  This is definitely a great family or casual game that can be pulled out nearly anytime.  While it would be best to have the game taught by an experienced player, a little time with the rules and patience in playing the first couple of games will quickly make this a family favorite.  At seven players, it almost covers those party game situations for those who (like me) aren’t the biggest fans of party games.  It’s not quite a must-buy, but is pretty close.

It's Your Move!

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Monday, November 21, 2011

Game Buying Guide 2011

We have hit that time of the year when everyone is wondering what to gift to give.  I thought I would give you my two cents on what game to give as holiday gifts.  I have done this in the past in spoken word, and have already helped a few people this year, but now that I am blogging I figured I would write it down – before you spend all your gift money on Black Friday. 

First, let’s talk about where these games can be purchased.  There are a lot of websites, blogs and podcasts that will give you game gift ideas.  My approach will be a bit unusual; I expect that you, the reader, are not a “gamer”.  I am writing this as I do the rest of the articles here, with a focus for those who are casually interested in the boardgaming hobby.  Therefore, while these games will be available through local game stores or online, they should also be available through some larger, mass-market outlet.  These games are not only easier to learn and play but also easier to find.  Hey, that’s why I’m here!

Links to my reviews of these games are embedded in the text.  Now back to the show!

Type 1: “I loved playing games as a kid!”
This person has fond memories of playing Risk and Monopoly as a kid, and probably played these games at least some as a teenager.  He or she might well play them now, if they could find the time and opponents who don’t mind a four hour game.  This gift recipient will love the revised edition of Risk (or the deluxe version, Risk: Onyx Edition).  The game plays in roughly 90 minutes according to the box, and experience shows that to be accurate.  This game has all of the familiar game play and fun of the original, with different end game conditions to close out the game earlier.  A copy of the revised version of Riskcan be found at nearly any mass media outlet.

Type 2: “I loved playing Clue!”
It would be natural to assume that this would be a subcategory of those above, but it’s likely this person did not like Monopoly or Risk.  There are many people, like my sister, who do not like direct confrontation in a game, and prefer the skullduggery of Clue.  Honestly, one of the best games for this person is to get them a new copy of Clue.  Of all of the mass-market games of old, this is actually one of the decent ones in the mystery genre.  However, I would first look for a copy of Scotland Yard.  I have not played this game, but it was published in the early ‘80’s and is still in print.  Furthermore, it won the Spiel des Jahres in 1983.  I am completely comfortable recommending this game.  Scotland Yard is currently being sold at Barnes and Noble.

Type 3: “We love/loved Scrabble.”
Interestingly, this is one game adults continue to play, and Scrabble has never had the reputation as something “only kids play”.  This group is at once the easiest and the hardest to buy for, since they are open to playing games but laser focused on one.  A more focused approach is called for:
Subtype 1: Families with small children.  Buy Qwirkle.  Not only is this the latest Spiel des Jahres winner, but it has been around in the United States for several years.  Qwirkle can be found many places, including stores for educators.  Target has been carrying it almost since first publication.
Subtype 2: Families older children or no children.  Find a copy of Bananagrams.  This is definitely a game for wordies, but it plays in 20 minutes.  Furthermore, it plays five and could probably play as many as six if you wanted to push it (not that I am recommending it!).  I originally blew it off, but after playing it found that I really enjoy it.  This is one of the more economical choices, too.  Furthermore, it’s actually hard to find a store that doesn’t carry Bananagrams; it’s the easiest game to find.  All of the mass-market outlets will have Bananagrams.

Type 4: “My family plays/played cards when at family functions.”
This is another tough group.  There are some great card games out there, and I will recommend something that is going to make hardcore gamers roll their eyes: Mille Bornes.  This is not a highly regarded game in the boardgaming community, but my wife and I have had a lot of fun with it and have introduced it to friends successfully.  The only warning I have is that there is a lot of “take that” in the game, so with little ones it can result in wailing and gnashing of teeth.  This game comes in a deluxe edition that is reasonably priced, and the basic version is found everywhere in the card game section of the store.  The basic version is very inexpensive, so it works as a stocking stuffer or in a $10 gift exchange as well.

Type 5:  The family/casual boardgamer
This starts to get tricky, because there is the chance that you will give a gift they already have.  However, if they have a few hobby games that they play casually, there is a decent chance they don’t have Dominion.  I realize in writing this post that I have been remiss; I have not reviewed this game.  I will correct that very soon.  In the meantime, trust me here.  This is an excellent game.  It’s a small step up in complexity from Ticket to Ride or any of the other games mentioned here, but anyone with a little experience will be able to read the rules and play.  This game works pretty well for those who used to play Magic: The Gathering, Pokémonor other collectible card games.  Dominion has recently become available at Target and Barnes and Noble.

Type 6: The Dedicated Chess Player
Handkerchiefs.   Seriously, this person is not hard to buy a game for; they are impossible.  The dedicated chess player has already ruled out any other games from their life.  Furthermore, they probably play a particular opening, prefer certain styles of pieces, and even have a favorite chess author.  No kidding.  I don’t consider myself “dedicated”, yet I have all of those things.  You are more likely to buy them something they don’t want.  If you live in New York City, there are brick and mortar stores specializing in chess items, so you could get a gift certificate.  My guess would be that’s true in London and Moscow (I’m talking Europe here) also.  If you live anywhere else in the world, buy handkerchiefs.  If you are worried about that taking all of the challenge out of gift buying, get 100% cotton handkerchiefs.  At least where I live, they are nearly impossible to find.  And then buy yourself a game, since clearly gift buying is a game you play already!

Type 7: The Gamer
Here’s another tough one, since you are more likely to get it wrong than get it right.  You have a few other options, though, that makes this person easier to buy for than the Dedicated Chess Player.  If they are looking for a specific game, you can find a local store or order online.  If you don’t know of a particular game, get a gift certificate.  If you prefer to do business locally, and game stores aren’t convenient, buy a gift certificate to Barnes and Noble that can be redeemed online.  Both B&N and Amazon carry games now.

Type 8: Kids
This is actually tougher than one might think, since there is so much out there that is just garbage.  I will suggest Blokus, which is not specifically a children’s game, but is kid-friendly and is colorfully eye-catching.  This game should be easy to find.  It was bought from the original publisher by Hasbro a while back, and since then Blokus has become available in the mass-market stores.

Type 9:  Families with no gaming experience
Subtype 1: Competition encouraged.  For this group, either Blokus or Qwirkle is a good choice.  Qwirkle is a little more flexible when it comes to number of players (we’ve pushed it to six players and it worked), but Blokus is a little less expensive.  Your pick.
Subtype 2:  Cooperation encouraged.  I will go with the game I was widely recommendung last year: Forbidden Island.  All players work together trying to take treasures off a mysterious island.  In the meantime, the island is sinking, threatening to take the treasures and players down to the depths below.  This is a great game!   Since everyone is working together, little players can be freely helped, making this a fantastic family adventure.  This game is also a great value, yet comes with very nice components packaged in a tin.  Barnes and Noble has carried Forbidden Island ever since it came out last year.

Type 10: Couples / Everybody Else
Seriously, you can buy anything discussed in this post and it will be a great choice!  However, I will make one more suggestion, and that is HiveThis game is an abstract strategy game the is incredibly popular in our Scout troop, and it is easy to learn.  Furthermore, it comes with a travel bag, so it is easy to pack and nearly indestructible.  I recently found Hive at Barnes in Noble.
It’s worth noting that every one of these games is available at Barnes and Noble.  (Just to be clear, I have no affiliation with B&N.  It’s not even my favorite bookstore.)

I hoped this helped!  If you would like more personal suggestions, email me at
I will be glad to answer any questions!

It’s Your Move!

Friday, November 11, 2011

Publisher Profile: Hasbro Part III – Wizards of the Coast

This will be our third installment on Hasbro, and we will take a look at Wizards of the Coast.  This is where some of my recent posts come together, since Wizards of the Coast (WotC) is the publisher of both Magic: The Gathering and Pokémon.  These games are  arguably the most successful of all collectible card games (CCGs), which we discussed last week.

WotC found its first real success with Magic: The Gathering.  This allowed the company to expand the number of employees and office space, and allowed the financing of additional projects including RoboRallyand The Great Dalmuti, both of which are well known and well loved games.  In 1997, WotC acquired TSR, the publishers of Dungeons & Dragons, the granddaddy of all role-playing games.  A couple years later, in 1999, the company produce Pokémon, which sold 400,000 copies in six weeks!  With such success, WotC started showing up on Hasbro’s acquisition radar, resulting in Hasbro purchasing the company later that year.

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Technically, Avalon Hill falls under WotC in the Hasbro hierarchy, so all of the Avalon Hill games are also WotC games.  Setting that aside for the moment, WotC games have a tendency to feature fantasy and sci-fi themes.  The exceptions to this rule are the games developed while still an independent company, such as The Great Dalmuti and Guillotine.  (RoboRallyis under the Avalon Hill brand.)  Having the patent on CCGs allowed them to develop more of those games, but none were nearly as popular or long-lived.  Both Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons are still strong product lines.  New developments tend to be tied to those products, including the highly acclaimed Dungeons & Dragons board games, which attempt to capture the role-playing game feel in a board game setting.

As for myself, I have not played very many WotC games, and only currently own one:  Star Wars: Trading Card Game.  I haven’t played it.  We bought it after the second movie trilogy came out.  At that time, I had not started playing games again, and several copies of the game were purchased in mass market outlets as birthday gifts.  One of them ended up in my collection. 

Since all of the recently developed games are receiving a huge amount of acclaim, I would say that WotC is doing a great job publishing great games.  Are they family games?  Right now, I would say let the outlet be your guide.  Games such as Heroscape were found in mass market outlets, and would work well in a family or casual setting.  If the game is only found in hobby game stores, it is probably more complex than most families would find fun. 

How does all of this fit together?  Well, first of all let me make clear that I haven’t talked to anyone at Hasbro or its subsidiaries, so this is just speculation.  It would appear that the Hasbro brand is for those games marketed as “family” or “children’s” games, WotC tends to publish specific product lines, with Avalon Hill picking up the rest of the hobby game market.  As a result, Avalon Hill games are probably not family or casual games (with the glaring exception of Acquire).  WotC labeled games will be good, and may or may not be family games.  Hasbro games will be family games, but may or may not be good.  Sorry I can’t be more help!

In the end, it’s going to require some research, including playing someone else’s copy of a game if possible.  In the end, that’s always the best research.  If you want me to look at a specific game, I am always will to serve as your guide.  Just let me know!

It’s Your Move!

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    Tuesday, November 8, 2011

    I'm Not Ready Yet!

    Tomorrow is the first day of chess club at our school.  We wait until after football season is over, since my son and several of the other boys play football.  That just makes it too hectic for my wife and I to get every place we need to be, so chess waits.  Of course, as I mentioned in previous posts, I made great plans for moving forward this year.

    I love the "whooshing" sound that great plans make as they blow right out the window.

    We bought a chess curriculum last year, and I might still be able to use it.  Hopefully I can do that enough to becomes at least familiar with it.  I have a little more time, since this week is just the first week, and is really about getting acquainted.  As I said this morning, the kids should break down into four groups, who can be generally dealt with separately.

    The first group are the kids who were coming last year.  They all know the rules, and can actually play a game.  Some of the older kids are decent players.  We will set up a chess ladder like last year, although I need to look at some of my "lessons learned" from last year.  Nonetheless, those kids can be turned loose to play for the first day if need be.  This is an easy group.

    Group two consists of those kids who willingly admit they have no clue how to play.  These are the children who just admit up front they can't even move the pieces correctly.  This is the other easy group, since we have material to teach them with, and nearly anyone can use the material.  Typically, my wife takes this group and brings them along.

    The last two groups are the hardest, since they need assessment.  The better of the two are those kids who are mature enough to know if they can play chess or not, but don't have much experience.  They may fit in great with the returning members, but also could be intimidated.  Helping them level the playing field is important.

    The toughest group are the kids who truly believe the know how to play, but don't.  In the same group are those who are too embarrassed to admit they don't know how to play.  Either way, you have to get them to the point where they know it's okay to be learning the game from the ground up.  That's a particularly tough job. Last year, I had a girl in the club who could not grasp all of the rules, but insisted she did to the frustration of her opponents.  She was crying at the end of the year, because she never won a game.  How could she?

    In the end, all of these groups will resolve into two; those who know the rules and those who don't.  When we figure out where everyone is at, then we will know how to proceed.  All that really matters is that the kids get a bit of a mental workout, and have fun playing!

    It's Your Move!

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    Friday, November 4, 2011

    Down the Rabbit Hole

    Magic: The Gathering started it all.
    Ever heard of Magic: The GatheringPokémon?  These are “rabbit hole” games, otherwise known as collectable card games or CCGs.  These are the greatest cause of grocery store checkout disputes since the invention of bubble gum.  Many of you experienced parents have an idea of what these are.  Some younger parents will soon find out, if you didn’t already play them as a youngster.  Once you enter the rabbit hole, there is a lot of game space to be explored.  It comes at a price though.

    What exactly are CCGs?  How do I avoid them?  Can I avoid them?  Do I want to avoid them?  I know we have had these questions as our boy has grown, and we seemed to hit on a solution that kept him happy an let us keep our house.  Let me clear things up a bit.

    Magic: The Gathering is the first and most commercially successful of all of the CCGs.  It was first published in 1993 and quickly became a huge hit.  When first published, it was a completely new concept in game design.  Following right on the heels of the bad press surrounding Dungeons & Dragons, it rapidly came under scrutiny due to the title and theme.  Parents wondered exactly what arcane things were really going on during those late night sessions.  Little did they know that the game play isn’t the issue; the business model is the real danger.

    Getting started in a CCG is easy.  Nearly all CCGs sell “starter decks” which contain enough cards to begin play.  The cards typically consist of characters, locations and powers or weapons which all work together towards combat prowess.  Typically two players face off with their decks of cards and play through various combinations in order to win the game by defeating the other player.  Starter decks are built equally, so getting started is easy.

    The genius behind the business model lies in making the decks more powerful.  After their starter deck, players can buy booster packs of cards that can be exchanged with other cards in their deck.  Customizing  the deck this way makes it more powerful through the cards or through the interaction of the various combinations of cards.  To play competitively, players need to purchase better cards.  There are several levels of cards: common, uncommon, rare and “mythic rare” (number of levels and terms may vary: these are specifically Magic terms).  Cards get more powerful as their rarity increases.  The “gotcha” is that the booster packs are random assortments, so players may need to buy many packs to find specific cards.  Cards are always being retired from official play even while new cards enter stores, creating an endless cycle.  Now we are fully inside the rabbit hole!

    Because it appeals to all ages, Magic maintains its success nearly 20 years later, largely through tournaments held from local to national levels.  These tournaments are key to the success of any CCG, since they drive the competitive spirit of the game.  Even in tournaments with prescribed decks provided by the tournament, players want to be aware of the combinations that might be possible. This leads them to buy their own cards.  Magic tournaments are common in any city, and there is even a professional circuit now.

    Before you decide to just nix this whole idea for your child, I must say that there are some benefits.  Some of them are common to many games, but one benefit in particular is unique to this style of game.  Simply put, CCGs are an activity as well as a game.  I have seen children sitting and discussing the various merits of various cards (providing social interaction) and trading each other for needed cards (developing negotiation skills) while customizing their individual decks.  Furthermore, customizing and re-customizing decks can occupy a child for a fair amount of time, which is sometimes critical as a parent!

    In that case, how does a parent handle this while keeping their child from spending too much?  I can give two approaches that have worked for us as well as others, and I am sure there are other approaches that will keep the expenses down.

    Some games just never catch on
    The key to both of these methods lies in this: without tournament play, CCGs are doomed to failure.  The gaming landscape is littered with failed CCGs, even those covering popular themes: Star Trek, Star Wars and Lord of the Rings to name a few.  (Note that there are several CCGs for every theme: it’s important to pay attention to the exact title.)  The first approach is therefore to allow your child to pick one CCG, and only support it on a schedule.  Our son picked Chaotic, since he loved the cartoon, and we had specifically ruled out Pokémon.  (None of the kids were playing Magic .)  Chaotic never caught on, and the danger was avoided for a couple years while it died out.  The one booster pack a month we promised to support, at a few dollars each, did not crippled us.  Soon, the cards were no longer available, though he kept looking.  If a child’s game does catch on, don’t let them enter any tournaments until they can support the habit; most tournaments have an age limit anyway. 

    Another alternative, which works particularly well for Magic and Pokémon, is to buy outdated cards in large lots on eBay or in a local game store.  The tournament model also means that there are a lot of cards, particularly for Magic, that have either fallen out of favor or are specifically excluded from tournament play.  Failed games can also be found this way as well as at thrift stores.  I have two games found this way:  Star Wars CCG and Star Wars: The Trading Card Game.  (A trading card game is the same concept, but the term is often used to produce another game with the same theme.)  The former has a good reputation, but I have found that customizing decks is something I don’t have time to do, so neither game has ever been played.

    Wings of War may do me in!
    Of course, I have found my rabbit hole anyway.  (And I am not talking about the elephant-sized hole that is buying games in general!)  Another type of collectable game involves miniatures, and I am slowly starting to buy aircraft for Wings of War (aka Wings of Glory).  The good news is that there are fewer miniatures to collect due to the production costs.  The bad news is that they are more expensive.

    Carrot, anyone?

    It’s Your Move!

    Tuesday, November 1, 2011

    Publisher Profile: Hasbro Part II – Avalon Hill

    Avalon Hill is a venerated name in the boardgaming hobby, particularly amongst wargamers.  Started in 1954 by Charles S. Roberts, the father of modern recreational wargaming, the company is alive today as a brand owned by Hasbro.  Current titles tend to be traditional Avalon Hill games and games within the Axis and Allies family.  These are produced for the hobby industry as opposed to the typical Hasbro mass-market game.

    There are several memorable games from the Avalon Hill line that many remember seeing as teenagers.  Tactics is the first published game, written by Roberts himself.  Many of these games still have a following: Squad Leader (and Advanced Squad Leader), Panzer Leader, Kingmaker, Dune,  Civilization and Wooden Ships & Iron Men.  (None of which have I ever played, though I own a few!)  The purchase of 3M’s gaming line brought several non-wargame titles to the company including Facts in Five, Twixt and Sleuth.

    An earlier version of Diplomacy (Bradley Eng-Kohn)
    Some of these games are still in print, and are almost legendary.  Diplomacy, one the earliest titles, is still in print after over fifty years.  Acquire, one of my all-time favorite games, will be fifty years old next year.  Several are being printed by other companies who have acquired the license, including Hannibal: Rome vs. Carthage, Britannia and The Republic of Rome.  Fantasy Flight is putting together a reprint of Dune, though under a slightly theme due to licensing issues.  Several companies have simultaneously announced a reprint of Merchant of Venus, and while it’s not a wargame, it appears to be setting up quite a legal battle. 

    The current version of A&A (Promotional Image)
    In the last ten years, Avalon Hill has still represented a line of games that are geared toward the hobbyist.  In addition to Diplomacy and Acquire, best selling games include Battle Cry, Betrayal at House on the Hill and Nexus Ops.  The largest publication efforts have been in marketing the Axis and Allies brand of lighter wargames.  The original Axis and Allies was a Milton Bradley game published in 1983, however revised editions were released as Avalon Hill titles.  The Axis and Allies rule set was then adapted to other WWII games, including Axis & Allies: Pacific, Axis & Allies: D-Day, Axis & Allies: Battle of the Bulge and Axis & Allies: Guadalcanal.  Naval and land miniature systems were also created.

    One of Hasbro’s latest offerings, Battleship Galaxies: The Saturn Offensive, was released under the Hasbro line despite the fact that it really is a hobby game.  Given the fact that Hasbro has another game line, Wizards of the Coast (which actually operates the Avalon Hill line), it could be the Avalon Hill brand will not see new titles, but only continue to publish the titles it already has.

    Are Avalon Hill games family games?  Generally, I don’t believe so.  Acquire could certainly be played and enjoyed by a family with older children, but often an Avalon Hill game is either too complex or simply too long for casual gaming.  Many of the older wargames are strictly two-player affairs.  If you are looking for family games, this brand is one where a little extra research on the game is necessary. 

    It’s Your Move

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    Wednesday, October 26, 2011

    Dracula meets Frankenstein

    Almost.  As it turns out, I was hoping our monthly group would get to play both Fury of Dracula and Fearsome Floors this month, but it didn’t work out.  We only managed to get in the former, which is one of my all-time favorites.  Rather than give a full review, I am going to give two mini reviews of these games.

    Image by Brian (ColtsFan76)
    Fury of Dracula’s storyline has its roots in the original novel.  In this game, Dracula has come back from the grave (again) some years later, seeking once again to establish his vampire brood.  He also has sought revenge against those who brought him down in the novel, turning two of them into his minions (Jonathan Harker and Quincey Morris).  The remaining members of that group have reformed to bring down the Count again: Dr. Van Helsing, Dr. John Seward, Mina Harker and Lord Godalming (aka Arthur Holmwood).  The game sets one player as Dracula, moving in secret throughout Europe as the four other characters hunt  for him, attempting to attack and kill him.  Dracula is more powerful at night than during the day, loses life when travelling by sea, and card play provides information to the hunters as well as arming them against Dracula and his accomplices.  This game is one of the most thematic games I own, and like so many other thematic games, the card play adds much to the theme by interrupting the normal flow of the game.  It is worthy to note that all five characters are in the game regardless of how many players are playing, leaving a good game for anywhere from two to five players.  (This is accomplished by players playing more than one role if necessary.)  It also means that it is a good game for someone to show up late to, or leave early from, with his or her character is picked up by another player.

    That said, this is NOT a casual game.  In fact, I believe it is more complex than many of my other games.  The hunter roles are somewhat complicated, particularly with the impact of the cards, but they have each other to rely on.  Dracula is on his own, and is doing things in secret, so the potential is there for a completely screwed up game.  As it takes two to three hours to play, this can lead to a very frustrating evening.  This game is published by Fantasy Flight, and is typical of their style: very high Awesomeness Factor, but very complex.

    (For those of you have been reading along, I never did paint the figures for this game.  My artistic skills are at the “paint by numbers” level, so I am incredibly nervous about trying to paint them.)

    I haven’t played Fearsome Floors at all, but that’s not going to stop me from reviewing it.  I have read the rules, and I slept at a Holiday Inn Express last night.  In this game, the players have been imprisoned by an evil lord while trying to rescue a damsel in distress.  Now, they are poised for a massive breakout, but must avoid the monster that guards the exit.  Players have three or four disks each which represent their characters; the number of disks depends on the number of players.  The movement mechanics are simple, and the monster moves by its own rules.  As such, kids under ten could definitely play this, although they probably won’t play well.  The art is cartoon-ish, and isn’t really scary at all.  This is a good game for all players.  The one warning I have heard repeated  is that it can bog down in analysis paralysis, since the monster's movements can be figured out with enough thought.  The key is to play this as a light race game.  This game claims to take an hour to play, and can handle up to seven players, so it will fit most families and casual groups.

    Below will be links to other reviews on this topic, including these games.  Personally, I am pretty selective about horror themed games, as well as movies, so Fearsome Floors is probably one of the very few “family horror games” I would play.  Other perspectives would be good.
    The monster can be configured to look like the Frankenstein Monster -- or other horrors! (Image by Jesper Amstrup)

    Okay, now that you have made it this far, I am going to add a few things about the Dracula and Frankenstein novels.  Dracula is in my top five novels of all time, and Frankenstein is also well worth reading.  They can be downloaded from Amazon or B&N to an e-reader for free, as they are in the public domain; they can also be downloaded as PDFs from the Gutenberg Project.  Similarly, LibriVox, a public domain audio book source, also has them.  I am currently listening to their dramatized version of Dracula as I drive around town, and it is excellent.  Do yourself a favor and read at least Dracula if not both novels.

     It's Your Move!

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