So Frankly...

So Frankly...

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Playing with Your Money – The Value of Games

A walk through your local game store, or even browsing an online store, can give you a bit of sticker shock. It’s very easy to find a game that retails for $50.00, and games for the hardcore hobbyist can run to $100.00 pretty quickly. While a gamer like me can justify (at least to myself) spending $50.00 on a game, how can that work for the casual gamer on a family budget? Is this a joke, spending that kind of money on cardboard and plastic? Really? Yes, really. There is far more value in buying a game than is obvious; I will show you how the cost is reasonable, and the additional value that doesn’t have a dollar figure.

Photo by Mikko Saari
A quick look online shows that a movie in my area goes for $10.00 per ticket. Settlers of Catan, a revolutionary hobby game that is crossing over to the mainstream, sells at Target for $45.00. So a family of four can go to the movies for roughly the same price as buying a copy of Settlers. Each will last about an hour and a half. Should the family like the game, (and it is an excellent, excellent game,) they will have it to play again. It has more variety than a movie, since the board is modular and never the same twice. Our copy has been played 25 times (yes, I count these things) and the “per hour” entertainment cost is well below a dollar

Photo by Angus the Bull
Even War of the Ring, which recently was in the list of games I’ve played that shows in the left margin, was worth the purchase. At the time I bought it, it was listing at $80.00 a copy. This is a hard core “gamer’s” game, taking about three hours to play. My son and I have played it only three times, but it is still worth the money. The “per hour” cost for both of us works out to be $9.00, or $4.50 per person, which is still below the cost of a movie. (Plus, I bought it used on eBay for half the price!) Again, there is more variety. No matter how many times I watch the movie, Lord of the Ring, Isildur still wants to keep the Ring. You would think by now he would know to throw it into the flames! In contrast, the last play of War of the Ring resulted in Aragorn relieving the siege at Minas Tirith with the Osgiliath garrison, only to be taken when Minas Tirith fell to another host of orcs. Gandalf died. Legolas died. The Ring was taken, and Middle Earth conquered by my son, the Dark Lord. The plot changes every time.

Beyond the money, there are other reasons games have value. First of all, watching a movie, or even free broadcast TV, doesn’t stimulate the brain the way a game will. Games encourage problem solving and creative thinking. This improves our minds for the other facets of life, whether we are facing algebra or Alzheimer’s. Furthermore, it’s done together, interactively. All of the game-play encourages deeper relationships within families and friends, and that doesn’t have a price.
Next time you are planning Family Night, plan on a buying a game. (Don’t worry; I will help you know which game to buy.) The fun will last beyond one night, and your family will thank you!

Roll On!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Game Stores – “Where Does He Get All Those Wonderful Toys?”

You’ve been to Wal-Mart and Target, maybe even Toys-R-Us, and you found Blokus, but where does someone buy Hive? Forbidden Island? These so-called hobby (or designer) games will not be found at a toy store or most major outlets, the possible exception being a major book store. There are three general categories of stores that will carry hobby games: local gaming stores, specific major outlets (including book stores), and online game stores. I will give a quick overview of each, and why you might consider buying from them.

Local stores can be tricky to find. If you look in the phone book under “Games”, you will frequently find video game or casino game stores. Often, a board game hobby store didn’t start out as such, but expanded into this style of gaming from video games or comic books. Because of this, it is worth it to call around to those types of stores and ask if they know of a boardgame store. Start with the comic book stores first; they tend to have collectors as patrons. Those collectors are more likely to know of the more obscure shops in town. Video game stores have a lot of kids and young adults as customers, who have none of the money, inclination or transportation to get around as much. The four stores I know of in my neck of the woods are good examples. Two started with comics, one with video games, and the last has always been a boardgaming store to my knowledge. One of them has a good selection. Many of these stores will specialize in one line of games. The good part about a gaming store is that they will have some knowledge of games, though not as much as you may think. Because of their specialization and due to their roots in other products, the staff often has less knowledge than, say, a golf store employee has about golf. Some will demonstrate games or have copies to try in the store. You will also be supporting the local economy. The bad part is that many of them are holes in the wall, and tend to be frequented by those who fall on the nerd end of the geek spectrum. These people are perfectly safe, despite any scary looks, but aren’t always the most helpful.

Barnes and Noble and the Books-a-Million stores carry some games, but the selection is pretty limited. These specialty stores tend to have word games, like Scrabble, or games having a literary tie-in. Around Christmas, the choices broaden and the hit hobby game of the year might well show up. Employees will know nothing of the games offered, but you are supporting the local economy.

I will make special mention of the GO! Games stores that are now being franchised. I have only been in one; it was a combination calendar and game store. The store had a lot of games, but many of them were mass market games and Flavor-of-the-month-opoly. Again, the employees knew nothing of what they were selling.

Finally, there are the online game stores, including Amazon. This is where you will find seemingly unlimited selection and often better pricing, even after shipping. Of course you will want to shop around online for the best price. Since there’s no one there to answer questions, you have to know a little about what you looking to purchase, but that’s why I am writing this blog! (Feel free to email me, too!) I have used both Amazon and Thoughthammer, and have heard nothing but good things about Funagain Games. If you have trouble remembering those, there is, but I don’t know their reputation. Of course, one of the biggest advantages is that you can shop in your jammies, though today more and more people do that anyway at Wal-Mart.

I have purchased items from all of these categories of stores. (My next three games will soon ship from Thoughthammer.) I would have to say online stores tend to be my first source due to the convenience and price. (A good number of my games are bought used from eBay and thrift stores, but that’s another topic altogether.) Have fun exploring all of the options; getting your game for the right price can be a game unto itself. On the other hand, the cost of this activity is very reasonable, so no one should lose sleep over it. I will talk about the value of gaming sometime very soon.

Roll On!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Mass Market Moment – Blokus

Blokus is a family of games that started in the hobby gaming world and crossed over to the mass market, assisted by the purchase of publication rights by Mattel. The game won many awards, including a Mensa Select award. (Don’t tell the kids, but it also won a Teacher’s Choice award in 2004.) It them spawned several additional versions: Blokus Duo (aka Blokus for 2 and Travel Blokus), Blokus Trigon, and Blokus 3D (aka Rumis). With a simple set up rules and colorful pieces, it draws in potential players, appeals to children, and makes the whole series a set of excellent abstracts.

Photo by Tom Rosen
The original game Blokus is a four player game in which players alternate placing one of their geometric shapes on a board, covering as much as the board as they can by game end. The shapes are made of squares starting with one square and continuing up to every shape which can be built with five squares. The catch is that one player’s pieces can only touch at the corners, which makes it difficult to fence an area off from opponents. At the end of the game, players receive a negative point for every square (not piece!) that is not put in play. Positive points are received for using all of your pieces and for using the one-square piece last. Highest score wins. Stepping back from the board after the game is done shows a pretty mosaic that leaves observers saying, “That looks cool!”
Blokus 3D, originally known as Rumis, also won several awards. The objects are now three dimensional, as might be guessed. The scoring is different, with each player scoring positive points for the number of cubes visible from directly above the board. Negative points are earned for cubes left over as before. Since this is the one game in the series I haven’t played (though we do own it), I can’t say much more.

The two player rules for Blokus have each player using two of the four colors, as if there were two teams of two colors. A better approach is taken by the next game in the line to be published, Blokus Duo, which originally was named Travel Blokus. It is also sold exclusively at Target as Blokus to Go, which allows the pieces to actually snap in place for play in a moving vehicle. Regardless of the name, the difference between Blokus and Blokus Duo is merely the number of players and the start location. Duo is strictly a two-player game. This is my favorite form of the game. The board is smaller and makes for a very tight game.

Blokus does not play well with three players. Play starts from the corners, which means one player has an opponent on both sides; the others have opponents on one side only. The player in the middle is squeezed, and will nearly always do poorly. Blokus Trigon attempts to address this. The board and pieces are made of triangles rather than squares, which results in some strange shapes. The overall board shape is hexagonal, which allows three players to evenly space themselves out. There is equality with four players too, but the game tries to be a little too much. I, for one, have trouble visualizing what I want to do.

I can hear some of you thinking, “I need to buy THREE games, Blokus Duo for two, Blokus Trigon for three, and Blokus for four?!” No. Unless you really want to travel with it Blokus Duo isn’t needed. Many people play two player Blokus by using one color per player, and using a third color to fence of the board, reducing it to the size of Blokus Duo (14x14). Similarly, Blokus Trigon can be played with two colors and the two outer rings of spaces marked off on three sides. As for playing with three players, I would still play Blokus. Blokus Trigon is just too oddly shaped, and while it might be a more even game, it isn’t any more fun. Just buy and play the original Blokus with the strongest player in the squeezed position, or rotate through that position in several games of match play. Since the game plays in roughly 20-30 minutes, that’s a possibility. Therefore, while all of the variations are good, the original Blokus is the purchase to make.
Good Casual Gaming! Kid Friendly!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Table Talk – How to choose your gaming table

Photo by Manuel Pombeiro
For Christmas, my wife gave me a card table. This isn’t the flimsy type with the padded top our (or at least, my) parents bought; this has a resin top and folds in half. It was a great gift, since we have run out of gaming space once or twice during the monthly gaming sessions. However, card tables aren’t always the best option, particularly for games with larger boards as in the photo, and so the question of “where do we set up?” arises. Size, shape, height and surface are all considerations. There is no right answer, but left in a dark room with no food, water dripping, and a single light bulb, I would probably break down and say the best overall gaming surface is a dedicated square table 54 inches (20 ft2), slightly below desk level, with a felt surface.
I don’t own a table like that.

Size, as in the length and width of the table top, is easily the biggest consideration. We play on four surfaces in our family and gaming group. (However, it’s not like they are all for gaming; only two of them are!) There is the aforementioned card table (roughly 9.5 ft2); an old, round kitchen table in the basement where toys and games are stored (42” across, giving about the same area); the dining room table (3.5’x 6’ or 21 ft2), and the actual kitchen table (4’x5’ – 20 ft2). The larger two tend to work out better, since there is more space around the board for players to use for their player area or tableau. As an example, playing Monopoly requires each player to have space for money and their properties. Of course, you also need space for the bank and unsold properties, and many games have similar needs. Larger tables help.

Shape comes into consideration, too. This is where the number of players enters the equation. If you tend to play with your spouse and another couple, a round or square table is fantastic, since you get the most amount of area for a smaller periphery. (Did I ever mention I am an engineer?) Three couples, or a family of six, work better around a rectangular table; round tables get to be too large to reach across and still give everyone elbow room. If you have a family of odd people (and who doesn’t!), say five players, the round table once again becomes a very good choice. Our dining room table seats six, and we often play five with one person on an end, or four with two on each side and no one at the ends. Shape isn’t critical, but is worth considering.

Our kitchen table is counter height. That works well for eating, but not as well for gaming. A height that’s a bit below normal is better because everyone is looking slightly down on the game, and can see everything more clearly. Enough said.

I believe surface is the least of the things to worry about, but there are advantages to felt or padded surfaces. They make it easier to pick up cards, and rolling dice becomes quieter. Do not, however, use a table cloth. A table cloth will inevitably be shifted, disturbing the game, which is particularly bad with tile laying games. If some pad is really needed, gaming stores offer them. Boards and Bits has a 48” square pad for sale, and other dimensions are available. This will also increase the size of your card table if you need the space. I have never used one, but they get good reviews.

Those are the considerations. The table may need to fold, like my card table. For most people, it is merely a decision between the dining room and kitchen tables, if that. More thought is required if you have a recreation or toy room, however. The billiards table might work, (foosball tends to be a little tough to use…), but a dedicated gaming table might make sense. With a little money or talent, an excellent table can be obtained for any casual gamers. The best table, after all, is the one that gets used the most!

Roll on!

Monday, February 7, 2011

Gaming – Opening Moves

My re-acquaintance with boardgaming came about four years ago when my son received a copy of Ticket to Ride for Christmas. I had received a copy of Lord of the Rings before that, when the movies were in the theatres, but my own prejudices had kept me from playing it. With Ticket to Ride, I started down the path into the gaming hobby.
We had our share of mass-market games on our shelves: Monopoly, Balderdash, Taboo and Uno. There were also children’s games like Hi, Ho Cherry-O! After playing Ticket to Ride and then Settlers of Catan, I started looking for other games, and stumbled upon the BoardGameGeek website. This website supports an online community of gamers around the globe. With around 50,000 games in the database, it opens up the boardgaming world. After joining in January 2008, I have used this site to find games I love, received answers to questions on rules, and thoroughly enjoyed the hobby beyond just playing games.
Most of my friends and family, though, do not share this passion. Many of them play casually, socially, and it is for them (and you!) that I write this blog. The question many ask is, “What would be a good game for my family and friends to play now and then?”
The first step is to figure out what you have and start playing! Monopoly, Risk and Trivial Pursuit, amongst other commonly found games, can make for memorable evenings even if they are not everyone’s favorite game. (Did you know that stealing is not against the rules in Monopoly? I found out the hard way, and we still tell the story in our family!) As you play, you will start to see what types of games are better for you family. Are there little ones in the family? How much confrontation can the game have before tempers flare? How long can the game be and still keep everyone interested? How complex can it be?
It sounds complicated, but that’s why I am here. In fact, I am going to open up this topic with my first, all-purpose, suggestion: Forbidden Island. It is a cooperative game, which means all players are team up against the workings of the game. For most people, this is a completely new concept, but it is becoming more popular in the gaming world. Players form a team of adventurers, looking to recover ancient artifacts. A long-dead civilization placed these mystical items on the island to keep them from falling into the hands of enemies, and with safeguards in place to keep the artifacts from being taken. Once someone sets foot upon Forbidden Island, it begins to sink into the sea. The players must recover the artifacts and fly off the island before it sinks to win the game. Each player has a unique role on the team, and a corresponding ability, which will help the group in its efforts. Using these different abilities effectively is critical to win, and keeps the game fresh.
This game plays in 30 minutes with up to four players of nearly any age. Because everyone is playing as a team, children can be coached by parents within the spirit and rules of the game. Kids don’t feel like “the loser”, since everyone wins or loses together. It is certainly not a “kid’s game” though; adults will find themselves challenged to win. Forbidden Island will certainly promote a lot of group interaction without confrontation (though there might be some passionate debates!). The artwork and game pieces are wonderful, and it comes in a nice tin box. It is priced very reasonably, and shouldn’t be too hard to find. Bookstore chains were carrying it at Christmas, and online gaming stores will have it in stock.
Good Casual Gaming! Kid Friendly!
In upcoming posts I will discuss Ticket to Ride and other good games to start your play.
Roll On!

Thursday, February 3, 2011


This past weekend was the annual trip our Scout Troop takes to Angola, IN. We spend a few hours on the iced toboggan run of the nearby state park as the focal point of the weekend – 35mph worth of fun! Since it’s a three hour drive, though, we go up Friday night and come back Sunday morning, which leaves quite a bit of time for games. We have a big gym available to us at the National Guard armory where we stay. Much of the gaming is dodgeball and other physical games, but there is some boardgaming that goes on, too.
Typically, the Scouts play Magic: the Gathering, Axis & Allies, and a few other games. Apples to Apples seemed to be big this year. It’s always interesting to see what the Scouts bring themselves, and to see where there interests lie.
I brought an assortment of games that I consider travel games. Those are games that, at least individually, would easily fit in a briefcase or backpack for playing on the road or trail. Of the games I brought, two made it to the game table:
clip_image002Hive. This game has been a hit for a while now in the Troop. In fact, two other leaders have copies now, so it gets played fairly regularly on outings. It is an abstract strategy game for two players in which you move your different “bugs” around the hive in unique ways in an attempt to surround your opponent’s queen bee. There isn’t much theme, much of a storyline, in this game. It has been described as “the new chess”. I won’t go that far, but it does have the same strategic elements as chess: time, space and material. The rules are few, the components are great (you can wash them in the sink if they get dirty!), and it is a LOT of fun. There is a bit of “brain-burn” to it, but not too much. I would say more than checkers, but less than chess. Hive may not work for kids younger than 10 years old.  It takes around 30 minutes to play. 
clip_image003No Thanks! This is not a new game, but it is new to me. I had just recently purchase it, and was eager to play it. The game is a reverse auction, in which you pay to not take a card. Each card is worth points, and you are aiming for the lowest score. Very light on rules, they only took a minute to read, understand and teach them. No deep thought is required. The components are cards and small chips, which is perfectly appropriate for this game. This game doesn’t even pretend to tell a story, but is great fun. It played in about 15 minutes, so we played nine times! No Thanks! Is designed for 3-5 players, but we stretched it to six for a couple of games without an issue. This game should work pretty well with younger children.  This was a great purchase!
thumb-up Kid Friendly!
I also played a game brought by one of the other leaders. I only managed to play it once, but it proved to be a lot of fun:
clip_image004Abalone. This is another 2 player abstract strategy game, in which you place a group of marbles on a hexagonal board across from your opponent. You then attempt to align your marbles so that pushing a line of them (maximum of three marbles) against a smaller number of your opponents pieces shoves them off the board. This was a good, solid game, again with few rules but some thought needed. I personally enjoy Hive a little more, but Abalone is probably a little bit easier to grasp.  It would be a great introductory abstract for children. Playing time is roughly 30 minutes.
thumb-up Kid friendly!
Roll On!