So Frankly...

So Frankly...

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Memorial Day Gaming - Aliens vs GameGeeks!

I was all set to do a series of reviews covering the games we played over the Memorial Day weekend.  There were new (well, new to us) games we were going to try as preparation for our gaming group.  It never happened.

As it turns out, work around the house on Saturday meant travelling late to see my wife’s family on Sunday.  By the time that gathering was over, about the time the games come out, I was falling asleep.  Watching Pirates of the Caribbean was all I could muster up.  I was prepared for a shut-out when we finally managed to get in a game early yesterday afternoon.  Funny though – I doubt it’s a good game for the group.

Image by Jesus Perez
My wife’s brother, who is my most regular gaming partner, joined my son and me in a game of Space Hulk: Death Angel - The Card Game.  This is a spin-off of the classic Space Hulk, but done as a multi-player cooperative game rather than a head-to-head match.  Think of the movie Aliens played out as a game, and you have the theme down.  It’s an American style game in a co-op format, which I have not seen before.  The first and only game we played was a little rough.  I did follow my rules for learning/teaching a game outlined about a month ago in a previous post.  Nonetheless, the first time was definitely a learning game.  It nearly always pays off to play a first game with a few willing test subjects even after being fully prepared.  Lesson re-learned.  Death Angel had enough special character powers and rules exceptions that even my first solo play through did not hit everything.

I am not ready to give a verdict on this game.  My 13yo son has given it a thumbs-up, and I am leaning that way for casual adult gamers, but I am not sure about families.  While it will certainly appeal to testosterone-laden boys, those with less aggressive tendencies may not like it.  I really need a couple of smooth plays to decide this.  I will let you know.

In the meantime,

It’s Your Move!

Friday, May 27, 2011

Chess and the End of the School Year

We ended this year's incarnation of the chess club this week.  As much as I love the kids and I love chess, I am glad this is over for the year.  It does get tiring to keep these things going.  There are several healthy tensions that cause this, and finding the right course through them is where the effort comes in to play.  These tensions are somewhat about the differences between my expectations for the club and the kid’s expectations.  They are:
  • Teaching vs playing
  • Basic skills vs more advanced skills
  • Motivation vs discouragement
  • Accessibility vs focus
I once asked the kids how many of them wanted to read books on chess.  The answer was no one did.  I brought my modest chess library in, and even managed to avoid the word “study”, but nonetheless there were no takers.  In fact, on a day to day basis, the kids would just as soon I never teach.  They would rather play.  It doesn’t matter whether it is something specific – say an opening – or something very general, like being more aggressive.  The boys and girls would rather just play. 

What aggravates this problem are the various levels of knowledge the kids have when they arrive at the beginning of the year.  They either don’t know anything or are an expert player – just ask them!  In reality, there are several different levels of play going on at the same time, and with only two people who are instructing (my wife and me), it just doesn’t work.  At a minimum, you have three levels:

  1. Kids who know nothing about chess, but want to learn,
  2. Beginners,  who can move the pieces, but have no knowledge of tactics or strategy,
  3. Relatively experienced players, who know a little more and need more of a challenge.

It would be easy to think that you could hold off the second group until the first group catches up, but in reality the first group needs to be constantly monitored to be sure they are moving legally.  It takes one adult just to do that.  (I had one girl – I will call her Sally – that said she knew how to play when she came at the beginning of the year, but still was making basic movement mistakes at the end.)

Sally also highlighted the third issue very clearly for me.  Most of the kids want to compete.  Late in the year, we started a chess ladder, which is a method of ranking within a group mathematically too small to use a regular rating system with.  Most of the kids liked it.  It provided motivation to improve, and might have even brought them to the point of being willing to learn lessons to get better.  I started it too late to find out.  Sally, though, was reduced to tears because she never won a game.  I suspect this would have been swept under the rug without the chess ladder.

Lastly, anyone who has read this blog knows I want the club to be accessible.  However, I am starting to feel as though there may need to be pressure to “get in or get out”.  There were too many kids that just showed up a few times.  It sometimes felt like it was dependent on whether or not after-school care was appealing that day or not.  I think being a little less open would concentrate the group to those who, well, want to concentrate!   Maybe a few kids on the fence would be left out, but the total value of the experience would go up for those kids who are in the club.

There are two adjustments my wife and I are planning for next year.  The smaller adjustment will be dues of some type.  This forces a commitment from the kids and their parents.  It will also allow us to purchase some supplies, like a few chess clocks, bags for pieces and boards, and notebooks/score sheets for the kids.  We have to think about the right amount, but there will be some dues nonetheless.

The big adjustment has to do with a chess curriculum bought through our Home and School Association.  (Our private school version of the PTA.)  We picked the Championship Chess program, having met the founder at an educational conference at the beginning of the school year.  I can’t endorse it yet, since we have to plan out next year with it.  I do have some reservations, particularly about the lessons on chess openings.  However, there seems to be far more good than potential bad.  Furthermore, it has DVDs, and two very specific benefits related to them.  Firstly, the program is designed through the DVDs to allow non-chess playing adults to present material.  Secondly, it allows the one or two kids who are older and uniquely experienced to work on their own.

The end result is that I have my homework for the summer.  I need to digest this program and figure out how to present it in a way that fits my kids.  That will give me some ideas on when and how much I want to close the doors, which in turn will help me set dues.  As I move forward I will keep you informed.  Some of you might be curious, and one of two of you readers might have kids in the club next year!

It’s Your Move!

Well, I guess not this time!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Games While Driving - 2nd Gear!

I recently posted about a couple of great podcasts that helped me get my arms around all of these games.  Now they are joining forces as part of the same podcasting network.  Along with that, there are other podcasts in The Dice Tower network that are excellent, if a little more geeky!

Find the news here on BoardGameGeek:

It's Your Move!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Helping Hands

Sadly out of print (image by Patrick Carroll)
This weekend I was talking to one of my cousins about playing games with his three-year old.  They are playing the classics: Candyland and the like.  It brought back memories of Clue: Little Detective played before bed time with Daniel, my now 13 year-old.  I remember the beginning being about teaching him a basic game mechanism: draw a card, play a card.

Of course, that's fine with Clue: Little Detective, since you aren't holding a full hand of cards. Managing a hand of cards becomes one of the first game playing skills a child learns.  Small hands have a tough time though, particularly with standard sized cards.

Enter the card holder.  They come in two main variations.

Promotional image from Gamewright Games.
Most card holders commonly found in teacher's store and the like are a variation on a theme: two disks fastened together so that cards slide between them.  Sometimes they are just a half circle, sometimes they have evolved into having a handle attached such as the ones from Gamewright Games above.  These work great.  The best part is that the cards are displayed in the natural fan of an adult holding cards, so the rest of the card handing habits are formed.

Sunnywood rack promotional image
The second type is more like a tile rack.   This type isn't held in the hand, but rather set on the table.  This isn't so great for little ones, since it doesn't allow for teaching things like holding your hand where it can't be seen, and laying it down face-down when its time to go potty. Where it has it's advantages is at the other end of the age spectrum, where holding anything in the fingers for very long might cause arthritis pain.  Cards are self standing and fully on display to the player.

As it is, we have a set of the first type (literally two disks fastened together), and I am about to purchase two of the second type.  No, I don't have arthritis, but there are games where having the cards up where I can see them while my two hands are doing other things would be very convenient.  This is particularly true in games where the cards have a lot of text on them.  The first game that comes to mind is War of the Ring, but historical card driven war games like For the People (the American Civil War) or political games like 1960: The Making of the President would be helped too.  On a more casual game level, I can see using them for themed variants of Risk, like the copy of Risk: Star Wars - Clone War Edition we have.

We need more Star Wars movies so we can have more great games like these! (Photo by Rich Chamberlain)
Getting some type of card holder is almost essential if you have little ones running around your house, either as parents or grandparents.  The opportunity for family bonding is something to start early, and those before-bed game sessions, short though they be, have the same effect as reading to a child.  The biggest difference is that you can involve more of the family.

It's Your Move!

Friday, May 20, 2011

Games While Driving to Work!

At the bottom of my web page I list other resources for family and casual gaming.  In general, those are focused on casual and family gaming.  The “Gaming Resources” listed below are places that helped me get my arms around this hobby when I was getting back into gaming.  They have a lot to offer the casual and family gamer too.  A couple of them are podcasts, and are easy to listen to on your daily commute.

There are a lot of game related podcasts out there; I listen to a half dozen pretty regularly.  Many of them are for the hobbyist.  Those provide an in-depth look at one particular game, or take an analytical look at the mechanisms of a game.  A lot of effort goes into them, and the quality of the works shines through.  Personally, I find them informative and entertaining – but then I am a geek about this stuff.

Two of the resources listed at the bottom are podcasts that are very good for those who aren’t as heavily into gaming as a hobby: the family and casual gamer.  They are the two podcasts I first listened to, and they helped me get my bearings.  The two that might be helpful in picking a game to purchase that your family and friends would enjoy are The Dice Tower and On Board Games.

The Dice Tower is hosted by Tom Vasel and Eric Summerer.  Tom and Eric talk about the games they have played recently, news and upcoming events.  There is a lot of playful banter between the two, which keeps it light.  In some sense, this podcast is the gaming equivalent of a magazine show, with several guests and contributors.  Because they receive review copies of games from publishers, they play a lot of games, and they hit on most of them.  Their reviews, which are really more like commentaries, are short overviews of these games.  While they talk about what they like and dislike in a game, it doesn’t get so technical – so geeky – that it would be a mystery to the non-hobbyist.  Their signature feature is also the best feature for the casual gamer: the Top 10 list.  Every other episode Tom and Eric put together a Top 10 list of games in some grouping.  It might be base on a theme (Top 10 economic games), or a publisher (Top 10 games by Fantasy Flight), or some other breakout.  Regardless, the list sets apart the better games to look at for in the vast sea of boardgames and card games out there in the world.

On Board Games is hosted by Scott Nicolson, Erik Dewey and Donald Dennis.  Again, the banter between these three makes it fun to listen to, but this podcast is very different from The Dice Tower.  Game reviews are more structured, and slightly more in-depth, but still short and to the point.  The signature feature is a roundtable discussion, where the three hosts discuss a game related topic.  The topic might be about good practices when teaching a new game.  It could be a discussion on how to deal with people texting during games, or the issue of food at the gaming table.  They discussion is rarely about any one game, but rather how to make the gaming experience better.  This podcast tends to be a bit more focused, and therefore shorter than others.  This is the podcast that consistently leaves me wanting more.

My drive to work is about fifteen minutes.  Generally, I can finish either one of these podcasts in the half hour round trip for the day.  They relax me, and having listened to them for a while now, feel like old friends.  I think you owe it to yourself to listen to at least one episode of each of these podcasts.  They will certainly better your experiences at the gaming table.

It’s Your Move!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Errata: How do you explain the hobby?

Once you play some of these games, and start explaining what you are doing, people wonder what you are talking about. I came across an interesting article that talks about one approach...

Errata: How do you explain the hobby?

It's Your Move!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

“There are no rules here -- we're trying to accomplish something.” - Thomas A. Edison

I had two opportunities for gaming this weekend.  My family and I went down to my brother’s Saturday night for a family gathering.  Since this was a noteworthy occasion, my nieces and nephews were in town, including my less-than-a-year old grandniece.  While the baby decided that sleep was more important than gaming, the rest of us broke out a few games and played.

The second opportunity was the monthly session of out gaming group yesterday.  We were glad to have four new people shanghaied initiated into the group and proceeded to introduce them to a few of our games.

My brother’s family is pretty experienced, and my gaming group was almost fifty percent newbies.  Yet, there was a strong common thread between the two sessions: knowing the rules.  Actually, not knowing the rules.

My brother’s family had been playing a lot of Forbidden Island, which I described a bit in an earlier post.  Suffice it to say Forbidden Island is a cooperative game about explorers trying to get four treasures off an island before it sinks into the sea.  My nephews talked about not being able to figure out why it was so tough, since they were winning handily at the hardest level.  They wanted to play with me, so they could see how I was playing wrong strategically.  However, when they told me to take the first turn, it became obvious; the problem was theirs!  When I pointed out the fact that the island was supposed to be 25% flooded at the beginning of the game, I received a resounding “What!

That game had actually followed a game of Settlers of Catan in which they missed another rule: another setup rule.  I tried to blame that miscue for my dead-last position at the end of the game, but it really didn’t make that much difference.  (The dice conspiring against me is the real cause of my loss!)

Yesterday there was another situation, caused by simple mistake.  My wife volunteered to lead a game of Ticket to Ride: Europe.  I thought she had played it before, but she had only played the original Ticket to Ride (a great family game I reviewed in March).  The additional rules are just enough to confuse things, and it caught her off guard.  It’s my fault; I didn’t think about it when I pulled the game off the shelf.  Not only is the original a little less complex but I really think that Americans relate more to the US map in the original game.  The result was a game that took at least a half hour longer than it should have – probably closer to an hour – and there was still a mistake in the end game scoring.

My point is that everyone, no matter how expert they are at playing any one game, should still take the time to thoroughly and carefully re-read the rules every once in  a while.  That’s particularly true after early plays of the game, but even after the 20th play it’s a good idea to occasionally revisit the rules.  After all, no one wants to see an asterisk in the record book denoting a misplay.  Not that I keep records or anything!

And in case you are wondering, my nephews are still getting off the island with all the treasures on a regular basis.  That’s why I prefer Forbidden Island’s older brother, Pandemic.

It’s Your Move!

Friday, May 13, 2011

Lighting My Fire – Games Good for Camping

I mentioned camping with our Scout troop the other day.  It was supposed to be pretty rainy the whole weekend, (thankfully it was not!) so I planned my games for the weekend around those that can get wet.  In reality, though, it isn’t just rain that is bad for games.  No matter what the weather is supposed to be like, dirt, mud – even a little breeze – are all environmental considerations when you combine gaming and camping.

What game components are not good for camping?  There are really two characteristics that define this.  You wouldn’t want those which can soak up water.  That rules out anything with paper money or cards. (Though standard playing cards are cheap enough to be an exception.)  The second problem type is anything that might catch the wind.  These rules eliminate a lot of games, since so many of them have cards in them.

Promotional Image
Good components are ones that can get wet, since this allows not only for rain, but for cleaning them up at the end of camp too.  They should be chunky, too, since this helps keep them from getting lost in the grass.  Less common, except with games having homemade components, is having a vinyl or cloth  board (like a handkerchief) if any at all.  Dice and craft stones are the key.

Dice games are great, since they can always be washed off.  If they are standard dice, they can easily be replaced if needed.  On this outing I took GoLong!, an American football game, which is a fun little dice-fest.  These dice are not standard, but then I picked it up at the thrift store for $0.69, so who cares.  I won’t do a full review, but I will say that while it was very light and had nearly zero strategy, it was a fun game.  It comes with a dice cup, too, so I could easily take a couple of standard, six-sided dice to use with the cup for a game or two of Mia, a variant of Liar’s Dice.
Game stores have 12-sided dice, but not with these icons. (Image by Donal Dimitroff)

There are places online that sell handkerchief type boards for Nine Men’s Morris.  Different colored craft stones could be used for the playing pieces.  I am having a friend of mine print a board for Brandubh, another ancient game, on white cloth and I hope to have it matched with stones for the next camping trip.  Not that cloth is needed; printing a board on a piece of paper or even drawing the board in the dirt would work since craft stones can be washed.

My two “games for all seasons” are Hive, which doesn’t have a board and has big chunky tiles, and a travel chess set.  (I took Hive on a Scout outing this winter, and talked about it then.)  I usually take a deck of standard playing cards and a little cribbage board as well.
With those games and the two other copies of Hive other leaders brought, there was plenty for everyone to do during the couple hours of rain we did get.

Quick – what would you bring to a campout or picnic?  Do you already own it?  It is amazing to me how weathering a storm by playing a few games as a group can bring people together.  I would certainly suggest having a few “games for all seasons” in your closet.

Do me a favor and drop me a line:  What games would you take?

It’s Your Move!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Don't Just Take My Word - Acquire and Hey! That's My Fish

I recently ran across a couple of other opinions on Acquire and Hey! That's My Fish.  They both get high praise, but I will let you see for yourself:

Acquire Review:

Hey! That's My Fish Review:

It's Your Move!

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Game Storage - On Speed

This past weekend I was camping with our Scout troop.  It was a lot of fun, as usual, but I was racing around Friday morning trying to find all of the stuff I needed to pack in my backpack.  Normally, I just have to pull together my clothes and whatever games I am taking (of course!).  Most things are largely ready to roll, since I have like items packed together in large freezer bags.  To be honest, I started reflecting on how plastic bags have become part of my organizational strategy in life, and particularly in camping and gaming.

Last month I wrote about making tuckboxes to store the cards in your games.  I mentioned plastic bags briefly then, but I want to talk about using them to organize game play, not just storage.

It is pretty easy to see that plastic bags keep like things together so they are easy to keep track of.  Pandemic has twenty-four disease cubes for each of four different colors.  Keeping each color in a plastic bag helps with keeping them from getting lost.  That’s important because running out of a color ends the game, so you have to have the right number of them.  Z-man Games, the publisher, provides bags in Pandemic.  The bags are large enough lay out the cubes in a single layer while still in the bag.  This allows me to square them up into a 4x6 rectangle, so I know all twenty-four are there without opening the bag.  Keeping each color separate also speeds play, since we don’t have to pick through all of the cubes to get the right color.

There is another, less obvious way to use bags to speed game play.  I am talking about getting the game started.  There are lots of games where the set up takes some time, which can lead to reluctance to play the game, particularly if you are running short on time.  Organizing the setup in the box is a great way to speed things along.

One game that could use this idea is Monopoly.  Players start with an assortment of money totaling $1500.  Rather than count that out at the beginning of each game, it would be faster to make “player packets” by packing four to six sets of starting cash into several plastic bags.  Then, to start a game, each player just needs a bag of money and a player token, and play can begin.  At the end of the game there will be enough money on the table to reorganize the packets quickly, rather than just putting all of the money back into the money tray.

For games with multiple phases, this concept can be used to organize the various phases.  When Phase 2 needs to come out, it is already organized into its own set of bags, and is set up in no time.

I have used this with The Fury of Dracula, which probably has one of the longer set up times in our game collection.  Between the player packets and the tuckboxes, everything is organized to start play, and the game table can be ready in just a couple of minutes.

I find that 3”x5” (76mm x 127mm) plastic bags are the most useful, since they can be used to store a decent number of anything, and can hold a small deck of cards in order if necessary.  They are available in most craft stores.  Honestly, though, sandwich bags will do.  Just remember, organizing the game in any way tends to speed things up.  After all,

It’s Your Move!

Friday, May 6, 2011

More Economic Game for Your Money: Acquire

If you want to challenge me in a game (other than chess), this is it.  Why?  Because I will always play, and I always lose.  I don’t recall ever winning a game of Acquire.  It isn’t a difficult game, but I haven’t found a winning strategy.  In fact, most games of Acquire in our gaming group are won by the same player – Kay’s brother.

2008 Edition (photo by sbiliby)
Nonetheless, this game is the only game (again, other than chess) that I have rated a “10” on BoardGameGeek.  My definition of a “10” (quoted from my profile on BGG) is:

I have loved these games for a long time. I expect to always love them. If I am ever forced to live in a retirement community with a closet for a room, I will make sure I somehow have a copy of these games with me.

Acquire definitely fits; I am always stoked to play.  Like Monopoly, it is a game about making money in the hotel business.  The rules are about the same in complexity, though very different mechanically.  Where Acquire beats Monopoly is in game length and player participation.

In Acquire, each player has a “hand” of tiles and some money.  Tiles placed on the game board during play abstractly represent the growth of various hotel chains.  On your turn, you will select a tile from your “hand” and place it on the board, generally creating or growing a hotel chain.  After placement of the tile, you may buy up to three stock certificates of any hotel chains on the board.  No one actually “owns” a hotel chain, just stock certificates.  At times, the tile being placed will connect two hotel chains.  At that point, a merger occurs, with the smaller hotel incorporated into the larger.  The player owning the most stock in the smaller chain gets a big bonus and the player with the second most a smaller bonus.  All players have the option of selling the stock they own in the incorporated hotel chain to generate income.  Play continues until one of the end game conditions is met; generally the game is played until one hotel chain reaches a size of 41 tiles.  At that point, all assets are converted to cash, and the player with the most money wins.

1968 Edition in play (photo by Matthew Gray)
Note that there is no die rolling.  The key to the game is having an idea of what hotel chains your opponents are interested in growing, and predicting which hotels will merge and which will grow based on that information.  Should you capitalize on that information, and try to gain one of the top two stock owning spots for that chain, or should you try to build your own chain?  Is there a middle ground?  Don’t ask me!  Remember I lose!

1968 Edition (photo by toh!)
That’s the game in a nutshell.  The rules are not much more complex than Monopoly.  The decisions are far more varied and interesting.

Acquire, however, plays in roughly 90 minutes.  It is not the four hour marathon Monopoly can be.  Turns are relatively short.  Often, players are involved even when it isn’t their turn due to the mergers.  Players are engaged the whole time.

Let me rephrase that: All players are involved the whole time.  There is no player elimination in this game, which is another huge improvement over Monopoly.  In fact, if Acquire were to be premiered today, it would be labeled a European style game.  It has no player elimination and is somewhat abstract.  With money acting as the victory points, the game has mid-game scoring (mergers) and end game scoring (final tallying of assets).  While I am not a huge fan of the thematic abstraction that Euros tend to be designed on, it seems to fit here.  After all, trading in stocks seems to be a little abstract in the real world, too.  However, Acquire was originally published in 1962 by 3M (imagine that!) before Euros were big in the US, and was pretty unique at that time.

One point Acquire loses to Monopoly is in number of players.  For any meaningful interaction to occur, the game requires three players.  There are two-player variants online at BoardGameGeek, and they work pretty well, but it’s not the same.  Additionally, this game might not engage the kids, even though they might grasp the rules.  For casual gaming and families with kids over 10, it will be great.

1999 Edition (photo by andreo)
One note about purchasing:  The current version of Acquire can be purchase at a game store, either brick-and-mortar or online.  However, older 3M versions (particularly the 1968 version) can often be found on eBay or in thrift stores for a bargain.  The components are somewhat different – some say better – but the game play is exactly the same.  So if you tend to haunt those places anyway, it may be worth your while to look for a copy.  If you find the 1999 version for a reasonable price, you found a treasure!  (And please let me know!)

Vital Statistics:

                Ages:                     12 and up
                Time:                     90 minutes
                Players:                 3-6

It’s Your Move!