So Frankly...

So Frankly...

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Holiday Recomendation 2014: Love Letter

One game.  I only have one game to recommend.  It's all I need.

In the past, I have written holiday game guides for the casual and family play group.  In that group of reviews you will also find some recommendations for Christmas themed games.  This year, there is a solution for both.

Promotional image from AEG
First, I will talk about the one game that should be on your list to give this year:  Love LetterThis is my best find of the year.  It really hits the best possible combination in a casual game for Christmas: fun, accessible and inexpensive.

In Love Letter, players are courting the young and beautiful Princess Annette.  Unfortunately, she is distraught over the arrest of her mother (this is actually part of a game series with a storyline, but that really doesn't matter).  In her distress, the Princess has shut her door to suitors, so each player must find someone of influence to carry their letter to the her Highness.

Fun.  I have now played this with all kinds of gamers: teenagers, hard core gamers, and family members.  Everyone has liked it.  It is a short game (30 minutes), but the victory points required to win (actually cubes representing the successful sending of a love letter in this game) could be increased to lengthen it.  We have played matches lasting over an hour, and the game didn't wear out it's welcome.

Accessible.  Take a card, discard a card, and do what the discard says.  Last person standing wins the round.   Play until someone wins a given amount of rounds.  That's it!  This is a game anyone can play.  There is text right on the cards which tell you what each card's discard effect is.  Once someone is old enough to read, they could play.  And, since there are only 16 cards of eight types, kids would actually memorize the cards fast enough to play anyway.

Inexpensive.  The game is less than $10 a copy for the boxed edition.  If you get the velvet bag version, it's less than $8.  Personally, I have the velvet bag version, which also means it fits in my pocket.  We have played it in restaurants while waiting for our waitress before!

Promotional image by AEG
And as for Christmas themed games - there is a Christmas edition!  The characters are not the same; instead of getting a love letter to Princess Annette, you are trying to get your list to Santa.  However, the game play is the same.  It's called Letters to Santa, and just came out a couple of weeks ago.  I snatched up a copy on the first day available, because there just aren't too many really good Christmas games out there. Finding one was great!

This game plays well with two, but really needs 3-4 players to shine.  It is a game that is great for a stocking stuffer, or as just a little something to give. 

If there is one thing I don't like about my experience with Love Letter, it's that I found it late.  I missed so much fun with this!  It actually came out a few years ago, and I just didn't try it!  Don't do the same!

It's Your Move,


Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Game Group 2014

This past Sunday was the last Game Day of the year.  As my few frequent readers know, there are about a dozen of us that meet once a month to play a variety of games. This time, we played the games that we played in 2013, but that had not made it to the table in 2014. As a group, we played Acquire, Wasabi, Modern Art, and China. All of these are great games that we had somehow missed. 

So now that the last weekend is done, we can start tallying the numbers for the year.  Over the course of 2014, we played 28 different titles.  That is the largest number of titles we have ever played.  Of course, this is partly due to the fact that we have a larger number of attendees than we did in the past. And 2012 was a bizarre year anyway.  That year, we may have only had about half of the sessions we normally do.  This year we only missed one session. 

Interestingly enough, only seven of those were games were brand new to the group.  This is actually lower then any of the past two or three years.  (If you go back too far, my bookkeeping is a little sketchy.) This is partly due to a new tradition I started this year. Ending the year with a session built around the games we didn't get to this year, but that we have played before, means that there will be no new games in November. In January, the session will be built around playing games that we did play in 2014.  We can revisit the highlights of the year.  Of course, that means there will be no new games in January.  I did a similar thing this past January, so there were no new games for two of the months when there could have been. Add in the fact that June is for Dune, and there's a third month we did not have a new game.

There were some big hits, but I will cover them when I talk about my personal gaming this year. Suffice it to say I am looking forward to next year! 

So tell me, what did your family and friends play and 2014? 

It's Your Move!


Monday, November 3, 2014


Almost four years ago, I wrote about the value of games.  At the time I was pretty focused on the entertainment value.  I compared the price of a game to the price of a movie.  I talked about cost per play.  I went into some amount of detail analyzing the cost of some of my games in light of the fun I've had; I spent about three paragraphs on this. 

The last paragraph was almost perfunctory.  I briefly mentioned the value of games as exercise for the brain. And I had one line of about playing games as part of building a family. 

Photo from
I should have flipped that post around.  You see, I don't think I realized how great gaming is for building a community. As an example, I will tell you that I was laid off at the end of August 2013.  My gaming group, and particularly a few individuals within it, were absolutely committed to making sure that our monthly game day still happened.  Our game day ends with dinner for all those who can stay. That can be as many as 12 people. Without a job, it was hard to throw this little party every month. However, the commitment of the group made it happen. I needed that, as a way to get my mind off of the roller-coaster job hunting can be - as a way to keep my spirits up.

Photo from
That's great, but it's not where the community building attributes of gaming really struck me. A few of the others in the group have recently talked about how much of a community - a family - we have in our little gaming group. We talk about our joys and hardships, our triumphs and disappointments during our game day, even though we really try and focus on playing. Everyone knows that it is a day to rest, relax, and share a meal. And if you need someone to laugh with you, commiserate with you, or pray with you, you will find it in the group. 

That's the value of games. 

It's Your Move!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Review of LOTR Confrontation

This past weekend was our monthly game day, and something strange happened.  After two games set up, with people at the tables, two of us were left out!  Rarely do we play two player games in the group, but this was one of those times.

Given the length of the games being played at the other tables, we wanted to play something that wasn't very long.  My opponent and I enjoy both heavy strategy and theme (not true for everyone), so we picked The Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation.  You could think of this game as a heavy version of Stratego, with more theme thrown in.  It was designed by Reiner Knizia, who is a well known designer in our little hobby world.  I tend to run hot and cold with his games.  I currently own a few, and have owned others that I didn't like and traded away.

Box cover art from the original version, which
is the version I own. 
This game, though, is one of my favorites.  It was originally published in 2002, two years after his popular Lord of the Rings cooperative game.  This is still in the heat of the post-movie glow, and was a huge hit.  I would describe the reasons I like this game with three adjectives:

Elegance.  LotR: The Confrontation has a fairly small, uncomplicated set of rules. Each side has nine pieces which represent characters from the story.  For the most part, you can move one piece forward to one of two spaces on your turn.  Two pieces from the same side can occupy one space, except in the four center spaces which correspond to the entirety of the Misty Mountains range.  If the space is occupied by an enemy piece, there is combat, which is based on he cards in your hand and the strength of the characters.  Each piece has a special ability which impacts combat, but they are simple.  Merry, for example, instantly defeats the Witch King. 

Brevity.  The game plays in roughly 30 minutes.  That makes it short enough to switch sides and play again.

Theme.  While Knizia is not known for thematic games, and many think his games are very math intensive, this game does have the feel of the Lord of the Rings.  It isn't incredibly immersive, like some other Tolkien based games, but the abilities and movements of the pieces make sense from the perspective of the story.

Just like most games that are asymmetrical (the different sides have very different abilities), many people think that one side has the advantage - the Sauron player has an advantage.  The exception would be those who think the other side has an advantage.  Typically, nearly everyone sees that one side is better, but no one can agree on which side!  The solution is two play two games and switch sides, keeping some kind of score in between.

The deluxe edition; currently available
(Promotional image from Fantasy Flight Games.)

The game is recommended for ages 10+, and that seems about right.  It is currently available as a deluxe edition, which has additional characters which can be mixed in. 

It's Your Move,

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Splenda of RPGs - Pathfinder Adventure Card Game

In my last post, I mentioned that time seemed to be working against me.  This really isn't a new thing; its been true for many years.  Age does that to you.  Another thing age does is force you to think more about what you put in your body.  Maybe even change it.  This is why I use artificial sweeteners.  This is why I play Pathfinder Adventure Card Game - Rise of the Runelords (PACG).

This is the game for that RPG itch!
Because really, I just don't have time for a full-up role playing game (RPG).  They are some of the most time consuming of games, and are their own special type of rabbit hole.  Some of you out there know what I am talking about.  Like me, you played Dungeons & Dragons when you were younger.  You painted minis.  You bought, or wrote, your own adventures.  You constructed a whole world with all of the back-story to make characters come alive for you and your friends.  You  felt the rush that comes from standing with your flaming sword, the blood of the dragon dripping from your armor as you revel over his lifeless eyes.  Some of you - maybe.

Maybe, like me, you are looking for that experience again.  You are ready to grab all those friends from college who played and relive those days.  (My brother Burnouts, are your reading this?)  Perhaps you are looking to guide your kids into that type of gaming adventure, without trusting that his friend with the gummy bears in his pockets and the runny nose can keep it from being too flaky.  That the kid who comes into the house dressed only in black - the one who doesn't talk to adults - who's dog seems to suffer from Munchausen syndrome - won't have every character be chaotic evil in alignment, doing things teenagers shouldn't be role playing.  But once again there is that time thing.

This is the game.  Since I started board gaming again as a hobby in 2008, I have been looking for the board game that scratched that RPG itch.  I looked for the game that tastes great, without all the time calories.  The artificial sweetener of role playing.  I tried a few, only to find out that they are not cooperative enough, or way too long themselves, or are just not a really good game.  When I read about Pathfinder, I thought this might be it.  I got it in trade (I won't say for what because I have family members who would cry) and in reading the rules it seemed to hit the mark.  I found some in my gaming group who were familiar with RPGs, and we found that PACG was the one.

Skull & Shackles is the second game in the series.  A third
is in the works.
Don't get me wrong.  This is NOT an RPG.  Some of the mechanisms in the game would not make any sense in a role playing scenario.  However, it definitely has the feel of a role playing game.  Cooperatively, you and your fellow players explore the scenario, overcoming traps, defeating monsters, and subduing the villain.  The story develops.  Each player's character advances in skills and abilities.  The enemies and obstacles get harder to defeat.  The weapons, armor and spells available to your party of adventurers become more powerful.

And all the work is done.  The scenarios are already written.  Out of the box the game has eight different scenarios.  With the expansions, there are 33, making an entire story arc - a quest if you will.  There is back-story available, since the entire story arc is based upon the Rise of the Runelords adventure series from the Pathfinder Role Playing Game.  (In fact, some incredibly patient and creative soul distilled the back-story down to a series of prologues and epilogues to be read with every scenario, base on the RPG game.  It's available here.)

This ranks right up there with the greatest gaming discoveries I have made.  There may be better games, but we would be comparing apples and oranges.  This is a fantastic game (pun intended!), and could easily be played with the family.  Kids will really enjoy the story, and once they are old enough to roll a fist full of dice, they could play with the guidance of an adult playing with them.

It's Your Move!

Friday, September 12, 2014

Time is Not on my Side

Any loyal readership I have left is probably wondering where I have been.  The past six weeks have been very busy, and life is a little hectic.  I thought I would provide a little insight into what is going on, offering both an excuse and an intention in the process.  The craziness comes in these forms:

School.  As I may have mentioned before, my wife is a school librarian.  There is a lot going on there for her, and I am First Volunteer.  Our son is starting his junior year in high school, and with that comes taking him out for driving lessons.  That's where it starts; not sure where it will end.

Illness.  Both my wife and my son have fought a bit of the Classroom Crud.  I am pretty sure this is a bug very similar to what gamers and other geeks know as Convention Crud -- due to sudden changes in sleeping and eating habits and exposure to lots of germ carrying individuals in enclosed spaces.  I have been spared, but I have been the 7-up cabana boy keeping them in fluids.

Youth Group.  Our whole family is involved in our church Youth Ministry.  Specifically, we all are part of the junior high leadership team.  That has involved more stuff than usual as we approached the school year and began the planning.

Redecorating.  Our basement is in chaos. We decided to make the basement have a warmer feel, so that our son would have a cave to entertain his friends in.  This is also where my games are stored/displayed.  We are replacing the existing shelves, which have an industrial look, with something warmer yet still masculine.  My wife had the brilliant idea of putting some of the games with better artwork on their ends, so that they show their art much like a painting.  It means the shelves aren't used as efficiently, but it does look much more inviting.  It's okay, because at this point in time, I am trying to keep my collection at equilibrium.  I am trying to up the overall quality of games and reduce he overall quantity of games.

Work.  This has been absolutely great.  About this time last year I was out of work, and I was picked up by a consulting group in December.  Each of the consultants is responsible for their own clients, and personal income is derived directly from client revenue, so it was a little scary.  I am happy to say that things are going very well.  However, it takes a lot of time and energy.  (It's a lot of fun too!)

Play.  Okay, let's face it.  If it's a choice between writing about playing games and actually playing them, it's going to be the latter that I pick.  Every time.  So the fact that I have also now have a bi-weekly group playing Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (PACG) just means that I am having more fun.  In fact, this has been the best year of gaming I have ever had.  I have played 49 different titles for a total of 166 games, and 17 of those titles are brand new to me.  That last number is a little down compared to other years, but that's to be expected as my gaming career expands.

Now it's time for me to be better.  My plan is to review PACG in the very near future, and then to go into some of the other games that I am playing.  That's my intent. I just need to carve up my time a little differently.

It's Your Move!


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Fireworks for the Fourth - A Review of Hanabi

Last year, I reviewed a game that I played on July 4th: Battle Cry.  My son and I played it because of the holiday.  The Battle of Gettysburg was fought 150 years earlier over the first days of July.  This year I thought I would review a family game that tied in with the 4th.  Hanabi is a game about putting on fireworks displays.  It has won high praise, and is being highly touted as a fantastic family game within gaming circles.  However, I think the last three words are important.

Hanabi is a cooperative game for 2-5 players that should take about 30 minutes.  There five suits of cards (and an optional sixth suit) which have cards valued from 1-5.  There are three 1's, one 5, and two each of the 2's, 3's and 4's.  Players work together to lay down cards in order for each of the five suits.  Sounds simple, but there is one catch:

You can't see your own cards!

Players hold their hands backwards, so that a player only sees everyone else's cards.  On a turn, a player can provide limited information about either the suits or values in one players hand, discard a card, or play a card to the table.  The game forces discards, and only three wrong plays to the table can occur before the team loses.

This is a great idea for a game, and I had a "blast" with it.  But I am not sure how it would play in families.  First of all, while the game gives an age range of 8+, I can't imagine too many 8 year-olds that could really wrap their heads around this.  It's fairly "thinky"; not what one would call a "light" game.  It doesn't surprise me that it's a "family game" in the gaming world.  Kids in the gaming world often catch on a little earlier due to their gaming experience.  But for casual family play, I would suggest something else.  This is the co-op love child of Mastermind and Headbanz.

It won the 2013 Spiel des Jahres, so I am probably plain dead wrong with my reservations. There are families that will love it (including mine I think), and there are reasons to pick it up:

It's great for families with older children.  While the under 10 crowd might struggle, this would be great for older kids.  I always like cooperative games for families, but sometimes they can suffer from "dominant player syndrome", where one person is bossing everyone around.  That's impossible in Hanabi.  Not only is there too little information, but it's flat out against the rules.  As a result, everyone feels like they contributed.

Puzzle people will like it.  My wife is a puzzle person.  If we sit down at the table to do anything other than eat, she's going to pick a jigsaw puzzle for the activity.  There is a lot of "puzzling out" the logic in this game, so it's great for people who are into that.

It's $10 and fits in your pocket.  I know a lot of people have sticker shock when they see the cost of modern board games, but they are well worth their value.  This one is downright cheap at the price, and it can go anywhere you want it to go.

The game plays very well, and is a lot of fun. I really enjoyed it.  Despite my reservations about its appeal, I can recommend it as a solid game.

Thematically, it's a great fit for the 4th.  It can go to the fireworks display in your town, and you can play it on the blanket while your waiting for the show to start.  Have your own little fireworks!

It's Your Move!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Ticket to Ride - 10th Anniversary Edition

A few years ago I wrote a review of Ticket to Ride, a fantastic game by Days of Wonder.   What I said then still holds true:  no one has ever told me they dislike it. Both gamers and non-gamers alike are drawn to this game.

Ticket to Ride was released in 2004, and one the Spiel des Jahres.  While there have been some innovative new mechanisms in games, this game would still be a contender for the award today, ten years later.  Days of Wonder is actually putting out a 10th anniversary edition in commemoration, and it just gets better and better.

The artwork in Ticket to Ride has been updated with new illustrations, but still retains that Victorian, Around the World in 80 Days feel.  It's larger too; the board is actually 50% bigger than earlier versions.

New artwork, same Victorian feel!  (Promotional image by Days of Wonder)
 The box will need to be bigger too, since the train cars, which are actually more like pre-painted miniatures, come in tins.  There is one tin for each player:  circus cars, cabooses, passenger cars coal cars and oil cars.
Beautiful miniature trains for the game pieces
  (Promotional image by Days of Wonder)
 The biggest complaint I had against the original Ticket to Ride has been answered too.  In the original, the playing cards were very small: almost half the size of a typical playing card.  We solved this by purchasing the 1910 expansion, which had standard size cards.  The anniversary edition will come with standard cards.  All the same, Days of Wonder tossed the expansion into the box too!

Full size cards sport new artwork.
  (Promotional image by Days of Wonder)

This news is great for my wife and myself.  You see, our son is the one who actually owns Ticket to Ride in our house.  Of course, when he goes away to college, he'll take that with him.  Let me rephrase that:  he'll take that with him.  So, obviously, it only make sense that we will get a copy of the 10th anniversary edition for our shelves.  Oh, I misspoke again: we will get a copy of the 10th anniversary edition.  You should too.

Ticket to Ride: ages 8 and up, 45 minutes, 2-5 players.

It's Your Move!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Port of Call: Puerto Rico and San Juan Reviews

Today, you get a double feature!  I'm not going to review just one game, but two!  San Juan use the card game version of Puerto Rico, so it seems appropriate to do them together.

In both games, the object is to build a colony of buildings which produce resources, which are then traded away.  Additional buildings allow you to modify the rules, so that you can build buildings faster, or at less cost, or receive more for your current trade. This is done by taking turns selecting a role, which sets the action for the current turn around the board.  The actions consists of building, producing, trading, or getting more resources.  Players take turns selecting roles, so everyone gets to do everything, but not necessarily what they want to do at that moment. The person who selects the role gets to modify their action (using a privilege), giving them some slight advantage.  The first person to build their colony to a certain level ends the game, at which point victory points are tallied and the player with the highest total wins. There isn't a lot of player interaction in these games, they mainly consists of forcing your opponents to do things out of sequence for their strategy, or taking the privilege they wanted for yourself.

Puerto Rico has more moving parts than San Juan.  For instance, it also requires you to provide workers to those buildings in order to produce their goods. As a result, it clocks in at about 90 minutes. It is a very well respected game, spending several years as the number one game on BoardGameGeek; it is currently at number four.

And I traded away.

You see, San Juan has all the fun and all of the feel of Puerto Rico, but without the added complexity.  It also plays in 45 minutes, which makes the "fun density" much higher.  This makes it a better game for casual and family gamers, and I think for serious gamers too. Although it may not work for the under 10 crowd. There is a slight difference in the number of players each game supports.  Puerto Rico plays with 3 to 5 players, while San Juan plays with 2 to 4 players.  That might make a difference, if I needed another five player game, but I don't.

So, my recommendation to you is that you try San Juan, which truly is an excellent game, but set Puerto Rico aside.  San Juan starts to bridge over into a "gamer's" game, while Puerto Rico is well across that bridge.

It's Your Move!

Friday, March 28, 2014

A Party Game to Treasure - Reviewing Incan Gold

My gaming group doesn't really play party games.  Apples to Apples hasn't hit the table.  Neither has Taboo, Pictionary or Trivial Pursuit.  For most of the people in the group, they want to play something with a little more strategy.  For myself, I am not a fan of performance based games.  Each of those that I mentioned above require either trivial knowledge, quick wits, or artistic talent.  No matter the group, someone always seems to feel self-conscious about playing.

That said, there are times that one needs to pull out a game in the midst of a bunch of people to play.  The Resistance is a possibility, buy recently I have run into a few people that are uncomfortable with the deception part of the game.  It also isn't going to go well with little ones; they may not be okay with being called a liar to their faces.

Enter the temple of Incan Gold.  This a quick, light push-your-luck game that everyone can enjoy.  The game plays up to eight people, though I have stretched it to nine and it stilled played very well.  It's a short game, playing in about 15 - 20 minutes, so it could be stretched a little further by having the dealer sit out when playing multiple games of Incan Gold.  We had an 8 year old playing as a "teammate" of an adult when we have played, but she certainly could have played on her own.  In fact, she was fully part of the decision making for her team.

Imagine you are Indiana Jones, entering an Incan temple (actully, it might properly be Inca temple, but you get the idea) for artifacts and jewels.  Okay, maybe your not Indy - maybe your a little more self-serving like RenĂ© Belloq.  Regardless of your personal motives, the winner of the game is the person with the most treasure at the end of the game.

Hazard Cards (Photo by Ender Wiggins)
 There are five rounds to the game, with each round lasting several turns.  Each turn of the game, players will simultaneously reveal whether or not they are going deeper into the temple or leaving while the getting is good.  After everyone reveals their decision the dealer flips over a card which has an artifact, jewels or a hazard.  Jewels are divided evenly amongst the players still in the temple, with any remainders staying on the path.  Hazards (of which there are five types) and artifacts stay on the path.  If players decide to leave, they divide any jewels on the path on the way out.  If one and only one person leaves the temple that turn, they can take the artifact.  Those players who have left the temple are out for the round, but any treasure they have collected will be kept for the rest of the game.  The players who are still in take another turn.  The round continues until everyone as left the temple, or two of the same type of hazard appear.  If a hazard ends the round, anyone still in the temple loses everything they have collected during that round.  After the five rounds, everyone counts the value of their treasure, and the player with the highest total wins. 

When we play, everyone tries to play quickly.  If you take to long to decide, or leave early in the round, your are likely to be the target of lots of chicken sounds.  There also can be a little bit of bluff and deception in this game too.  I am pretty sure there are people who believe I was trying to talk them in to staying in the temple with me.  It was purely a misunderstanding, though when I then left it did allow me to collect an artifact and avoid splitting up the jewels on the path.  Purely unintentional.  Really.  Unfortunately for them, there were snakes.

It's Your Move!


Wednesday, March 12, 2014


I have talked about rules before, but mainly how to review and remember them.  I haven't addressed how to read them.  Really? How to read rules?

Rules don't always make sense at first...
Now, there's no doubt that rules can be confusing.  Often, they don't mention every circumstance that could come up during a game.  Sometimes they make no sense until after a game or two has been played.  This seems to be particularly true when there are cards (or some other mechanism) that create exceptions to the rules in the rulebook.

BoardGameGeek (BGG) is a great resource for resolving these issues, but I find that a literal reading of the rules and/or card will often answer such questions for you.

This is a skill that comes naturally to every 4 year old.  Ask them to put their shoes in the closet, and they will.  Where in the closet is another matter though; that wasn't specified.  I am finding that this also is a skill that returns around age 16.  Ask a 16 year old to take out the garbage because it is being collected tomorrow, and it will end up in the garbage can.  Taking it out to the curb to be collected is a different story.  It has to be specified.  And never tell them to get "a snack" without defining the term snack.

 My son's favorite Lord of the Rings scene...

I ran into a BGG entry recently in which a literal interpretation of the rules would have answered a question before it was asked.  The game being played was Battle Cry, and the question was about card play.  Apparently, the card being played was the "Forced March" card,  which allows the player to move units further than normally allowed.  However, "terrain movement restrictions still apply".  The question was whether or not terrain battle restrictions would still apply.  Why wouldn't they?  Even if the card had said "terrain movement restriction do not apply", nothing would change.  A literal reading of the card says nothing about battle restrictions.  Therefore, the normal battle rules - as written in the rulebook - are in effect.

Game rules are generally meant to be taken literally.  If the rules say a player "must" do something, it's mandatory.  If the rules say "may", then it is optional.  If the rules say that a player takes Action A, then Action B, then Action C, they must be done in that order.  If the card says "play immediately" it means just that: stop everything else and resolve the effects of the card.  

Do not pass go - it says it all!
It's nice when the rules provide clarifying text.  Monopoly "go to jail" cards make it clear that the player does not get $200.  However, a literal reading of the card and the rules makes it clear anyway.  According to the rules, you get $200 when passing GO.  The card says "go directly to jail" and "do not pass GO" (emphasis mine).  No $200 is collected.  

Does this always work?  No, but it certainly cuts down on the questions.  Occasionally, you will actually find a hole in the rules. At that point, you may need to look it up on BGG, an FAQ, or you may need to house rule it.  But take a moment and read the rules literally.

It's Your Move!

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Who You Calling a Variant?

Recently, I talked about a day when our niece was over, and playing Clue with her.  This game was frustrating at time, as I think I rolled a "1" six times in a row.  I was getting nowhere.  The only redeeming part of it was that our niece thought this was incredibly funny.  At least someone was enjoying it.

Mr. Hyde was a variant of Dr. Jekyll. Hopefully your variants go better.

I wanted to introduce a variant, but at her age I didn't want to confuse things.  What, you say?  You have never played variants?  If you have played Monopoly, I bet you have.  If you have put money in Free Parking, you've played a variant.  In fact, I have never played a game of Monopoly that wasn't a variant!  I've never played using property auctions as described in the rules. That's a variant.  You've played them, you probably just called them house rules.

Many people think of house rules as bad.  "Your not playing by the REAL rules" seems to be their attitude.  Personally, I think house rules are great - as long as they don't break the game.   In fact, you'd be surprised to learn that many games encourage variant play.  There are times when a house rule or two can make a huge improvement on a game.  Publishers know this.  Let me give you a couple of examples.

In the Monopoly article mentioned above, I talk about variants to speed up the game.  One is the auction rule to get properties sold more quickly.  Another is to stop the game at the first player elimination, and count up everyone assets, with the richest person winning.  Even Hasbro (who owns Parker Brothers) encourages this.  Tournament rules - a variant - stop the game after 90 minutes. 

Fantasy Flight, publishers of many highly thematic games with lots of awesomeness, publishes variant rules in the rulebook.  These "official variants" are designed so that players can tune the game.  In some cases, rules benefit one side or the other to offset perceived game imbalances.  In some cases, the variants change the length of the game. 

There's even a case of forcing a variant by not putting a rule in a game.  As you may know, my favorite game (after Chess) is Acquire.  One of the frequently asked questions by new players is what information is closed, and what information is open.  Should everyone know how much money you have?  Stock?  The rules don't say.  The game is on something like it's eighth publishing, and the rules are still silent.  It would seem that the publisher wants you to decide for yourself.  (Just so you know, we play with open money and closed stock, mostly because of table space.  Most people play the other way, to reflect real life.)

The whole point of playing games is to have fun.  If tweaking the rules makes a game more fun for you, then I say go for it!  Just make sure everyone knows the rules that are in effect before the game starts.  People can get pretty passionate about Free Parking, so they probably ought to know up front!

Oh, and the Clue variant?  A while back I read about a variant where you get to spend nine actions points each turn.  It costs one point to move one space, except for the secret passage, which acts as describe in the rules.  It costs three action points to make a suggestion, and three to make your final accusation.  The whole point of this is to remove the randomness of the die rolls, and to speed up the game.  I haven't tried this, but maybe next time!

It's Your Move!


Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Gaming Pit Stop - Reviewing Daytona 500

Many of my readers probably watched the Daytona 500 race this past weekend.  (Okay, the crossover between NASCAR fans and my readers probably isn't overwhelming.)  I didn't.  But, I did get to play Daytona 500 a couple of weeks ago.  I enjoyed it, and would gladly play it again; it's a keeper.  But there are some issues...

Daytona 500
Daytona 500 is an odd little game.  Published by Milton Bradley in 1990, many would suspect that it has little for gamers.  However, it really has some strategy, probably because the designer is actually very accomplished.  Most would think it's really about NASCAR racing, and it is - sort of.  A lot of people would assume it's a family game.  On that, they would be right.

Milton Bradley (MB) has produced a whole lot of games over the years, most of which are viewed better through the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia than the magnifying glass of gameplay.  MB is known for such childhood wonders as Ants in the Pants and The Game of Life.  They published iconic games such as Axis and Allies, Scotland Yard and HeroquestDaytona 500 falls closer to the iconic set.  The designer was Wolfgang Kramer, who was Germany's first full-time professional game-designer. He has nearly 200 games to his name, many of which have made it across the Atlantic.  Daytona 500 is one of his best known.

Kramer designed several games around auto racing, and this game is arguably his best.  But it's not purely a racing game.  It's more of a race team investment game.

Each player starts with $300,000 and a hand of cards which will move the race cars around the track.  Based on the cards in hand, players will bid on the cars with which they expect to be able to win a race.  The second phase is the actual race.  Players play cards in their hands to move their car around the track, which is shaped like the track at Daytona.  The race consists of one lap.  The catch is that playing a card, in general, does not move just your car, but also moves other cars.  The turns narrow the playable spaces on the board, and can squeeze cars so they cannot move their full amount.  The result is that the timing of card play creates some great strategic decisions.  (Ones, in fact, that I didn't master at all!)  Each player is awarded money for how they finish in the race.  These two phases are repeated three times, and the winner of the game is the person at the end who has the highest cash total.  In theory, one could win the game without ever winning an actual race.

The curves make everyone jockey for position.
The auction process is what starts to move this away from a family game, though for casual play amongst adults it would be fine.  I am not sure at what age children would have the understanding of risks and rewards that is required by the auction phase.  At a minimum, they would have to be old enough to understand the relative value of money.  That said, I suspect kids too young for the auction phase would enjoy it as a straight forward racing game, performing the second phase by itself just one time. 

The only drawback to Daytona 500 is that it feels a little slow.  Most games with auctions tend to bog down during the auction phase.  This is no different.  At the same time, the racing phase feels a little slow, too.  The cards encourage counting spaces, which slows the game down a little, making it feel a little less like a race.  It is hard to pick a card too far in advance, since the previous player can change the board pretty drastically

And there is one more drawback to this game...

Top Race is a a very similar game to Dayton 500.
Daytona 500 is out of print, as one can imagine.  On eBay, it goes for a pretty penny.  As I type, there is a copy for sale for $125.00, and a new-in-shrink copy for auction starting at $39.99.  The auction will probably approach $100.00 USD before it is sold.  Going over that amount is likely.

So, do I recommend this or not? Yes, but with reservations.  If you are a die-hard NASCAR fan, this is a great game.  It may be worth the price on eBay.  I would also say that it is a possible thrift store find - that's how I got my copy - and I would definitely pick it up then.  (You could always sell it on eBay!)  Otherwise, there is an alternative game to fill that race car passion: Top RaceTop Race is a very similar racing game by Kramer, which is still in print and reasonably priced.

It's Your Move!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

"Let the Wookie Win..."

Yesterday our 1st grade niece was over for a Girl's Day with my wife. The day quickly moved from arts and crafts to boardgames, primarily consisting of Rebound. However, Uncle Frank, yours truly, was invited for a game of Clue. I was truly honored. Then came the dilemma. Before she became the schools librarian/media-specialist, my wife watched children in my home. Most of the kids couldn't handle playing a game unless they won...

Would this be a similar situation? I really don't want to ruin their Girl's Day - should I let our niece win to keep the peace? What would you do? I am a firm believer in playing to win regardless of the age of your opponent. Throwing the game isn't very satisfying for you as the adult. Worse, most of the time kids can smell a rat. That doesn't mean that I bring my "A" game, but I certainly don't give the game away, either. It's about respect and honesty, in both directions, and there are right ways to win and lose with a child.

Respecting the adult.  To a child, the adults in their lives are the ones who bring order and safety.  As an adult, you and I are supposed to win at games - at least games of strategy and skill.  I have lost exactly two games of chess in six years of coaching the grade school chess club.  Both were in situations where I was playing multiple kids at a time.  The kids know how tough it is to beat me.  Because I rarely lose, the kids respect my ability to teach them the game.

Respecting the child.  When an adult consistently lets a child win, they are also consistently saying they don't believe the child can win.  It doesn't take long for the child to figure out what is going on and to start to believe the same thing.  It's counter-intuitive, but letting them win all the time makes them believe they are losers. 

Aiming to be better.  It might sound trite, but letting a child win all the time means they have nothing to shoot for.  The child cannot get better in a way they can measure.  Now, combine that with the last point, and you have a confidence bomb:  I am a loser and I cannot get better.

Having said all of this, there is a middle road.  It has to do with making the right choices when playing a game with a child.  Here are some ideas:

Pick the right game.  There are games that children can win, even when the adult is trying their hardest.  Games that are largely random are good examples.  This is what has made Candyland such a huge seller.  (In fact, I can't imagine what "try your hardest" would mean with such a game!)  Adults will win a little more often, because they will make better choices than children (even though choices are few and far between).  Some dexterity games are good choices once the child is starting to master fine motor skills.  My hands just aren't steady enough to play Operation anymore.  This does mean that you might be a couple years off from playing Settlers of Catan, though.

Teach the game.  In my chess club, everyone understands that I can win against any of them.  They also understand that, if they play me, they will get instruction they would miss out on otherwise.  When I am playing them, I am helping them think through the position in front of them.  They can lose better when they know why they lost, and how to avoid it next time.  So do I, actually.

Cooperative games.  These two ideas can come together best in a cooperative game with a mixed group of adults and children.  A game like Forbidden Island puts the children in a position of not losing against adults.  The children might lose against the game, but they do so with the adults they are playing with.  This not only allows the adults to help the little ones and teach strategy, but also model good sportsmanship when losing.

With our niece, it worked out well.  Even as a first grader, she had no problems with the rules of Clue.  She did have a little trouble with the logic and strategy involved in playing.  She made a "suggestion" in the Lounge, and I showed her that I had the card for the Lounge.  A few minutes later, she did it again.  I could have showed her the candlestick this time, but that would have been bad play on my part.  Instead, after showing her the Lounge again, I pointed out that she didn't learn any new information, and why.  Of course, she went to do it a third time, but this time I reminded her that I was just going to show her the Lounge again.  (That gave some additional information to my wife, but she was good enough to ignore it.)  I ended up winning, though I think only because I went before my wife.  She had the game solved too.  Our niece was fine with losing, and I honestly think it's because she knows why she lost. She didn't pick Clue again, and I don't blame her.  The next game was another round of Rebound.  I played, and she beat me fair and square.  It was a better choice.

The day ended well; she didn't want to go home.  So all of the games we played must have been a fun experience.  Of course, she also painted and helped fix dinner, so it was an all around good day.

It's Your Move!

Monday, January 27, 2014

Irresistable: A Review of The Resistance

I already have my first "nickel" for the year.  (A nickel is a game you have five plays of in a year).  Our last gaming group session ended with seven of us at the table, a fantastic number for The Resistance, and we played five games by the end of the night.  Given the length of some of our games, some of you are asking how late it was when we broke up.  I think it was around 9pm.  That's normally very late for us, but the next day was President's Day, and most of us were either off or could flex our office hours.  On top of that, the game only takes about 30 minutes to play.  However, it can be a pretty intense experience, so its easy to play again and again.

Cover of The Resistance
The Resistance is a game for game of deception and deduction for 5-10 players - almost a party game.  The players are part of a resistance cell that is fighting against a dystopian government - something along the lines of the government in The Hunger Games.  They have to complete three missions against the Government to win the game.  The catch is that there are traitors in the cell; roughly half the players are actually Government agents.  These agents are working to prevent missions being successful.  If the Government agents can cause three missions to fail before three succeed, the agents win the game. 

But who are the Government agents?  No true Resistance member knows!

At the beginning of the game, cards are passed out which assign each player to be a true member of the Resistance or a Government agent.  Everyone closes their eyes.  The Government agents then open their eyes to see and identify each other.  They close their eyes; then everyone opens their eyes.  Now the agents know who is who, but the Resistance members do not!

There aren't really turns in this game.  Without too much detail, this is how the game plays:

Each round, a team will be selected to go on a mission.  If the team is approved, the team then secretly votes for the mission to succeed or fail.  For most missions, one "fail" vote is all it takes for the Government to win that mission.  The game then revolves around each side trying to have teams put together that will achieve their goals.  The Government agents must deceive the Resistance members into including them to win.  There is an included expansion, The Plot Thickens, which gives an individual a little bit of knowledge to share about another player, but is everyone telling the truth?

The game is just great, for three reasons:

Simplicity.  This is an easy game to teach.  A couple of minutes  of explanation will have everyone in the game.  Furthermore, no one has to be familiar with strategy games to play.  Most of the gameplay is in conversation, and everyone knows how to bluff, right?

An alternative setting for the game

Brevity.  There is almost always time for a 30 minute game.  The only catch might be that one game isn't enough!

Number of Players:  At five to ten players, this will cover most small get-togethers and family gatherings.  It may not be suitable for children under 10 or 12 though, since someone looking you in the facing and calling you a liar takes a little bit of a thick skin - particularly when you know that they are the one lying!

 If you want to see more, the game was recently featured on the YouTube webshow TableTop.  Click here to see it.

There is another version of this game set in the Arthurian Legend: The Resistance: Avalon.  I haven't played it, but the gameplay is the same.  Either one would be a great addition to your collection!

It's Your Move!

Thursday, January 9, 2014

More Games than You Think

It happened again.  I was asked how many games we own, and my response (around 300) dropped a jaw.  Eyes darted around, looking for an escape route.

Yes, I know that's a lot of games.  In my defense, I only got one for Christmas (Coup), and it really wasn't a gift. I was something I backed on Kickstarter months ago, and it arrived just before the holidays.  I only bought seven games this year, including Coup.  I traded for three more.  One game I received as a review copy (Clubs), and another new game is a print-'n'-play game.

The funny part is that most people have more games than they imagine.  When I count games, I count the children's games that are still around the house, mass market games that we could probably donate to a thrift store, and all of the specialty card games (like Clubs) that are stuck in a drawer in the house.  I also count specialty decks of traditional cards, like a Canasta or Pinochle deck.  I include expansions.  Chess sets count, though only as one entry.  (That would add another 10 entries if I counted them separately!)

So, realistically, how many games do YOU own?  My guess would be more than twenty-five, and a number of you more than fifty.  Make sure you count them the way I do.  That copy of Hi Ho! Cherry-O counts.   And include that copy of the Monsters, Inc. memory game.  Honestly, you also need to count that specialty deck for Old Maid that your aunt bought your little girl for her birthday.

'Fess up.   How many?

I bet it's more games than you think.

It's Your Move!

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

My Personal Yearly Summary

I'm back.  A few days ago I wrote about the gaming group and what we've played this year, but now I want to review what a great year I have had gaming.  Doing this helps me appreciate what a good year I have had, and maybe it's interesting to you.  And maybe it will show the variety of games that are available today.

Image by Tom Conder
This was a much better year than last year.  I played twice as many games in 2013 as in 2012 - or nearly so. Last year I played 65 games.  This year I played 127.  Much of this is due to the regularity of the gaming group meeting, which didn't happen in 2012.  Furthermore, I was able to play a few more games during the time I was laid off.  One of the guys in our game group gets off early from work at times, and we were able to get together for a few games.  That was great, and with my new job, it might be able to continue at times.

The truly amazing thing is how many titles I was able to play: 47.  That is more titles played in a year than any time since I started recording my plays in 2008.  Of those, nearly 20 titles were games I had never played before.  This isn't the most new games in a year, but that is probably going to get harder to do as my gaming career goes on.  What excites me about these numbers is the variety of games that I played, and the variety of gaming experiences that I had.

By far, the highlight of the year was playing Dune.  This was one of the greatest gaming experiences I have ever had.  But there were more.  I was able to play some classic games like El Grande. Shogun and YINSH.  There were a few mediocre games, but no real duds this year, which is remarkable.  It was a great year.

There are a few of these games that I need to play a few times before I review.  But that brings me to my goal for 2014, which is to do a better job at reviewing games.  I only reviewed six games this year, which is pretty sad.  I feel as though I owe all of you, my readers, an apology.  This year, I specifically plan to do at least one review a month.  That's still not a lot, but I will try to grow that number as the year goes on.

What are your gaming goals for the year?

It's Your Move!