Convention Report

Partner and I went to a small convention a couple weekends ago (MarsCon near Williamsburg, VA) and got to play five different games in one day. It was great.

Bridge Simulator

This one was a cooperative video game (still in development). Y'all play the bridge crew of a spaceship out on a mission or part of a campaign. There are five stations—Flight, Tactical, Science, Operations, and Engineering—plus the Captain's seat. I played Flight and didn't crash our ship into a planet! I kinda picked a station last and got asked to play Flight, an option I was really nervous doing because I don't multitask well or have great situational awareness. I thought Flight would need both those skills, although less so than Tactical (they shoot the guns! pew pew!) but it turned out I was okay on the Flight station. We didn't die, moved at a decent speed (space is big guys), and I kept the enemy fighters that showed up in range and view well enough for my friend L to shoot them all to itty-bitty bits. Partner played the Captain, who doesn't actually get a screen to play with, and kept communication between the stations working well. Plus made some good command decisions. As I said, my friend L was on Tactical, her partner W was on Engineering (keeps the power routed optimally for what we're doing), and two folks we'd never met before were on Science (scan objects around us) and Operations (communicate with other ships). The set-up we played had a big main screen projector and everyone had a pretty big touchscreen in front of us. But! It's playable off a central computer and connecting via a browser. So, the four of us (Partner, L, W, and myself) could hangout together on the game from our homes. Which would be really neat.

www.strangehorizons.com for anyone interested.

Century: Spice Road

A competitive card drafting board game. This one is all about building and playing a deck that gains and converts cubes (theoretically representing spices) into the right combinations to purchase victory point cards. There's four different actions you can do during your turn: take a card from the market, play a card from your hand, pick up all your played cards, or purchase a victory card. The game goes around players' turns remarkably fast, too.

I prefer the skinning of a different game with the same mechanics (from the same designer) we played later in the con, which I'll talk about later. I did not win this game, in fact out of five players, if I recall correctly, I came in dead last. But I like the mechanics, I think I can see what I need to do to have a winning strategy, and now it's just a matter of getting the practice to get better. I had fun playing with friends and am happy that L and W are considering buying the other skinned version.

Potion Explosion and Tiny Epic Galaxies

Partner and I introduced these games to some folks at the convention, both friends we already know and a new person we met this convention. My description of Potion Explosion still holds and it's still one of my favorite games. Bonus, now that W's played, he's decided that the game really needs a marble randomizer tower (like a dice tower) and is considering making one (he does quite a bit of woodwork) over the summer. Assuming he has time.

Tiny Epic Galaxies is an area influence/control game with what you can do determined by the dice gods, although there is a mechanic for re-rolling utterly awful crud. Everything fits into this small box and the lid turns into a tray for containing those dice you roll. And the artwork in the box is great. The goal is to accumulate points through controlling planets and upgrading your empire (which incidentally gets you more resources towards doing things and controlling planets). There's a couple different types of planets which need different resources to gain control of them and each planet gives you a different benefit or optional action when you do control them. It's a tightly designed, fun game that I'm glad we got to introduce to a few friends. 

Century: Golem Edition

This is the differently skinned version of Century: Spice Road I mentioned earlier. It's the exact same game mechanics wise, just with different art and theoretical premise. Those cubes you're gaining and converting in Spice Road are knobby rocks here which represent soul crystals. Turning in the soul crystals (i.e. buying a victory point card) represents making those crystals into golems (as drawn on the victory cards). It just makes more sense to me, from a narrative view point. Also, I think the art is a little funnier and a bit cuter. So, I rather own and/or play Golem Edition over Spice Road. 

It was a good convention, full of board gaming.

Board Game Review: Machi Koro

Machi Koro is a visually cute city building game. Partner and I only play with The Harbor expansion added in, so keep in mind those will be the mechanics I'm describing. I wouldn't call Machi a set matching or deck building game, although aspects of some mechanics remind me of those game types. The way the game works is there are four types of building cards which give you money if you roll the number to activate it: green (gives you money on your turn only), blue (money on anyone's turn), red (take money from other people on not-your-turn), and purple (unique cards). You start rolling one die and with two cards covering numbers 1, 2, and 3. You have a market of other buildings you can purchase and a set number of achievement buildings to build. The market is created by drawing from a shuffled deck of all the buildings until there are ten unique buildings in the market. If you draw a duplicate, stack it on top of the first one and keep drawing. The winner of the game is the person who builds all their achievement buildings first.

I like what the expansion did to building the market of buildings to purchase. In the main game, you had a set block of buildings available which covered the numerical range. You could fairly easily build a city that statistically speaking ought to net you money every or every other turn. With the expansion, the market becomes luck of the draw and there's a lot more variance from game to game. For instance, the last game we played there were no four or seven buildings (in case you're wondering how you get seven on one die, one of the achievement buildings allows you to roll one or two dice). It can be frustrating if you're on the wrong end of grabbing rare buildings you need to fill in numbers gaps. But boy is it pretty if you can pull off having three buildings active on one die roll, snagging you 33 money (in a game where decent haul for one roll is 3-8).

So, Machi Koro and The Harbor expansion. I heartily recommend them. It's an easy game to pick up and learn and enough depth for repeat play. Also, and this isn't something I see very often, it plays well with 2 or 5 players as it does with 3-4. Most games tend to break down at the ends of the range of players they support. Machi is still fun at the ends.

Board Game Review: Potion Explosion

Our purchase of Potion Explosion was actually an exception to Partner and my rules about buying board games. They're expensive and there's only so much space in our place, so the rule is we both have to have played the game (we usually do this at gaming conventions) and both agree that we want to play it again, multiple times.  But, Caleb and Spencer over on the Mixed Six described the game so well and broke down why  they enjoy the game such that Partner and I looked at each other and agreed we'd enjoy the game too. And we were right. So thanks Mixed Six! Y'all found us our current favorite game.

Potion Explosion does set matching with actual marbles. The conceit of the game is that we are alchemy students working on our exam with a common set of possible potions to brew and ingredients to use. A track for the marbles to slide down is set up with five columns. You pull a marble and if the marbles that now clink together match in color, you've created an explosion and get to pull those marbles as well. Yes, it can keep cascading from there. Partner has pulled off some impressive cascading explosions. Potions can be used once after creation to do different things that break the rules once and at the end each potion is worth different amounts based on how many marbles and how many of different colors were needed to create the potion. There's eight types of potions but you only play with six in any given game, so which potions combo with others changes from game to game. It produces a lot of replay value.

Here's a slightly weird thing to talk about in board game design, but I feel it's emblematic of just how much attention to detail the designers put in and how well thought out everything is. So the very first time you play the game, you have to put together the stand the marbles will roll down. The box is built to hold the finished stand. You never have to take it apart and put it back together again. Seriously guys, the game would be a lot less fun if set up included having to rebuild this thing every game. But you don't because the designers were smart.

No if only I was as smart about taking off the front barrier to let the marbles slide into the storage bag. I've, um, had to rebuild the stand once or twice from doing that. I'm getting better with keeping the rest of the stand together and only taking the front barrier off, so I'm pretty sure this was also intentional design.

Overall, any one game of Potion Explosion does not outstay its welcome — individual games are fast enough that I don't get tired of the gimmick of marbles clicking together. There's a decent amount of strategy involved, the sound and physicality of the pieces are satisfying, and there's tremendous replay. I absolutely enjoy playing this game.

Learning the Rules

We recently had friends from out of town over who are big board game fans, so we broke out some of the games we have that they haven't had a chance to play yet.  In a way, it's nicer than introducing and being introduced to new games by more local friends because with local friends there's the question of 'do I buy this game I liked or are we going to see these friends often enough it makes more sense to just play with them?' Or maybe that's only a question for very introverted folks like myself. Either way, with friends from out of town there's no question about cross-board game collection duplication so everyone is free to just buy the new game or not.

On the list of games played were Machi Koro, Lords of Waterdeep, Five Tribes, and Flashpoint. This was the third (or fourth?) time Partner and I have played Flashpoint and I think we finally got the rules right? Co-operative games are not Partner's favorite style of game, so there's been some long breaks between each time we've played. 

Flashpoint is a cooperative game where players take on the role of firefighters and try to rescue seven people before fire consumes the building or four people die.  Yes, some of the people are actually the family pets. Part of the game play is not knowing which points on the board are actually people and which are false alarms until a player gets to that point on the board. There are different firefighters who have different numbers of action points (the in game currency which you turn into things your character can do) and different special abilities. For instance, this time I played the Rescue Specialist who has an average number of action points and three free action points which can only be used for movement. After every player's turn, we roll to see where in the house smoke now appears and if that immediately turns into fire. That's the part we finally got right this time; previously we'd been rolling for  smoke after we'd all finished for the round. Nope, no rounds, just continuous cycles of player turns. 

We got our butts kicked by the board. Pulled three people out, eliminated two (out of four) hazardous materials from the board, and were escorting two more folks out of the building when the whole thing collapsed on us. Three out of four players' characters died. Bad days. 

When it comes to board games (and role-playing games), I do expect it to take us a few times playing before we actually get the rules down, especially given the complexity of games Partner and I prefer. Part of the issue is that the first game we played was on the family version side of the board which is a) intended for including pre-teen kids and b) actually a different rules set. A simplified version of the advanced board rules set, true, but the more complex parts of the advanced rules set were excised rather than simplified, if I recall correctly. So the practice we got with the first game was something we actually had to unlearn. To put it in terms of Dungeons and Dragons edition sets, it'd be like playing a combat session under the 4e rules in order to prepare for a 5e campaign. Just different games.

Honestly, I think taking a few games to get the rules right as signs of a feature not a bug. If it takes us a bit to get the rules right that means we enjoyed the game enough to play again — actually, Partner and I have an agreement not to buy any games until both of us have played it once (this is what gaming conventions are for) and agreed that we liked it enough to buy the game. So playing a few games at home means the game is interesting and complex enough to continue being interesting as we get the rules down. Also Flashpoint is a cooperative game — cooperative games are designed to be hard. They have to be to supply the difficulty normally supplied by competing against other people. Complex rules sets are one way of making a game difficult.

Actually, that was part of Partner's initial complaints about the game, that he thought the game was too easy. When we were playing it on the family version. Hopefully I'll be able to talk him into giving it another try soonish. I'm interested to see how it plays with only two players: is two not enough to save folks or is it like Pandemic which just gets insanely harder with three and four players.

So, in the final counting, would I recommend this game? If you like cooperative games about managing actions, then yes, this is a well executed, fun example of the genre with skinning that merges well with the game mechanics.

Board Game Review: Takenoko (Pandas!)

Honestly, this game is filed in my brain as 'Pandas!', not, you know, its actual name: Takenoko.  

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It's another rather pretty game, but unlike Dixit, that's less the point of the game and more just good design and product development. The story is that you are a gardner to the Emperor of Japan who has just been given a panda and put you in charge of keeping it alive. And still in charge of cultivating the garden.

Basically Takenoko is a set matching game where you only have a limited number of moves to make in each round, that you choose from a larger set. You have to choose between expanding the board, picking up irrigation channels, moving the panda, moving the gardner, or picking up more sets to match (the only source of points). Furthermore the 'weather' is chosen each round by a die roll, only one face of the die allows bamboo to grow at all!

It's a game I'm still trying to figure out my preferred play style/strategy for. It would probably help if we could finally remember all the rules and stop allowing multiple tools on various tiles. Technically you're only allowed one tool per tile. We keep forgetting that. Although, last game we remembered that half way through, instead of three-fourths or at the end. So, you know, progress! 

I'm curious to see if the game play changes substantially between a two-player game and the three- and four-player games we've played so far. I think the difference between getting to affect the board layout every other turn and less is going to be substantial, but I really want test that instead of trying to assert something off of instinct. Trained by playing Euro board games for a decade (when did that happen?!) but instinct none the less. Empirical testing is better. Also gets partner and I a game. :)

The short version: Cute game with mechanics I enjoy that I'm not tired of playing yet and would totally recommend to folks.

Board Game Review: Dixit

Dixit is a pretty game. Each card is its own tiny painting, and I love it.

Dixit falls under what I think of as a party game — more dependent on understanding your fellow players than any particular mechanical or rules based strategy. The rules support 3-6 players, but I find three a pretty limited game. It works much better with four, and although I haven't had the opportunity to play with five or six, I think that would be even better.

The idea is that for every round, one player is the leader. They pick a card from their hand, place it facedown, and give the rest of the players a one or two word clue as to what that card shows. The rest of the players then pick a card from their hands based on the clue and add it to the pile. The cards are mixed up and then turned face up. Everyone other than the leader then tries to guess which one the leader placed.

If everyone picks the leader's card, everyone but the leader gets points. If no one picks the leader's card, everyone other than the leader gets points. If some (but not all) players pick the leader's card, the leader and the folks who picked that card get more points. Everyone (other than the leader) always gets bonus points for people choosing their cards.

In practice, the scoring metric becomes easy to remember as you play. Even if it sounds like a confused mess when you lay it out. I've also found the ending score to be about when I want to stop playing naturally, too. Which is really nice since it indicates that the designers put thought (or testing time) into how long the game feels fun instead of letting it drag out.  

I've never played this with small children (like pre-teen or younger), but I really think it'd be fun for them too. You might have to limit your clues to more obvious links and use less pop culture, but honestly, you have to do that for any game with young kids.

It's a fun, chill party game with pretty artwork instead of (probably) offensive humor (looking at you Cards Against Humanity). Don't get me wrong, offensive humor can be a great way to relax with close friends. But so is pretty art and you can play it with more folks. Like your parents. Or new friends you haven't calibrated where the offensive line is yet. 

I heartily recommended Dixit to everyone, non-board gamer to occasional board gamer to hard-core board gamer. It's great for a mix of folks, drunk or sober.

MarsCon

Partner, Metamour, and I went to MarsCon last weekend, which is a little literary convention in Williamsburg, VA. I went to a few panels while Partner and Metamour spent most of their time in the board gaming room. It's a fun, chill convention. Since it's smaller (let's be honest, my benchmarks are Dragon*Con and GenCon — anything is going to seem small in comparison) there's less rushing to get across X hotels to go to the next panel which is really nice. The hotel we stayed at was less than a mile from the convention hotel which feels like short enough of a walk that I feel guilty when I drive between them, but gods damn, 10 or 11 at night in the middle of January is cold. So, you know, more driving than let's me pretend to be a decent environmentalist.

Friday

After we picked up our badges (yay pre-reg), we tootled around the dealers' room for a bit. I grabbed all three books in the Ancillary series by Ann Leckie:

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I definitely paid a lot more than if I'd bought them on Amazon or something, since, you know, I paid actual list price. But they were there, I was thinking about it, and I finally just did it rather than continuing to let these books languish on my wishlist. They'll probably languish on my to-read pile now but ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 

I did reread Ancillary Justice in the evenings before bed at the con. Just have to finish up The Real and The Unreal at home before I let myself start Ancillary Sword. 

After the dealers' room we all went to a panel: What Makes a Good Narrator or DM?  It was fun and interesting. There was some good give-and-take and feedback before the Q&A got semi-hijacked by a kind of socially awkward teenager who didn't know how to ask his questions with telling the panel the whole story of his specific situation. And he wasn't very good at telling the story. I'm glad he could get some advice. I wish the questions could have been kept more general and relevant to more people without everyone having to individually extrapolate out from the specific question.

After the panel was dinner and then board games. For the life of me, I can't tell you what we played — that information apparently never made it into the long-term memory. But any rate, after a board game I went back to the hotel to get some sleep while Partner and Metamour played another and then went to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Which apparently was a bust: technical issues plus incorrect assumptions. They thought it'd be in the tradition of Rocky Horror and have yelling at the screen. Instead it was just a watching party. Not bad, but not a desired activity at midnight.

Saturday

Actually did make it to the 10am panel I was aiming for: Economics of Self Publishing. First of all, I can't seem to sleep in so I was getting up at my usual time of 6am. Second of all, Partner and Metamour do not share this problem. So there I was typing away on my computer when Partner starts waking up. 

"What time is is?" 

Looks at clock. Well... damn. "9am." 

I made it anyway. 

The panel was pretty good. It was my second time at this particular panel (same moderator ran it at MarsCon 2016), so it mostly functioned (for me) as confirmation I'm doing everything the author's on the panel recommend. Best line of the panel of the panel was in response to the opening question of 'what does it cost to self-publish?' Answer: time, emotion, and pain. Second best: as much as you need it to.

After that, Metamour joined me at the panel on Genre Blending which was a lot of fun. Mostly thoughts on what works, why what doesn't doesn't, and talking about what's already out there. Of course, being me, I walked out with a recommendation for a book I do want to read (Vellum by Hal Duncan), a book I am going to read for the new podcast a friend is putting together where we tear apart why a book is bad and will regret reading immensely (Out of the Dark by David Weber), and an aesthetic I want to somehow write now: solar punk which was described as art deco/nouveau ecological sustainability.

If someone would like to draw that or point me at artists who already do, please please let me know in the comments.

After the panel was lunch (hurray ConSuite!) and then a Star Wars:Edge of the Empire game with a friend who found out MarsCon was happening that morning and decided to drive up for the day. Yay living within an hour's drive? Any rate, I'm finding that I like the Star Wars stupid custom dice for the variety in outcomes they could produce (... got a few single success plus two disadvantages rolls) but the Star Wars universe is not one I'm particularly interested in playing in for an RPG. Nice to visit for the length of a movie. But not play in for extended periods. 

Two things from that game:
1) my (male) friend played a female Rodian while I played a male Rodian. Nobody at the table, including the two of us, could get character genders right. argh.
2) the other player at the table had a well timed "Master, shall I attack the darkness?" that was completely in character. Play stopped for a few minutes while Friend poked me to keep breathing, I was laughing so hard. :D

After RPGs was a spin around the art show and more board gaming, where I played Cosmic Encounters for the first time. Lost, not horribly, but man, the ending to that game. A little bit like Munchkin where everyone is trying to throw everything they have at stopping whoever is in the lead until everyone runs out of things to stop other people with and someone grabs the prize. I mean, I'd play again, I think there's strategy and interesting things to do. But that particular game end felt a bit grindy.

Sunday

Sunday had one last panel for me: Indie Publishing: Getting Known. This wasn't all that useful for me. I've got that I should have a blog and twitter and stuff in order to connect with people. But like how do I drive more people like you, dear reader, to the blog or catch people's attention to come check me out? I guess I need a marketing class or guru or something to get that answered. Meanwhile, I'll keep on keeping on with this blog and hope for steady organic growth.

Last thing we (Partner, Metamour, and I) did at the convention was play T.I.M.E. Stories with a friend we only know from and see at MarsCon. So, TIME Stories is, to my mind, an RPG campaign in a box. You're time travelers jumping between bodies in the past to try and figure out how to fix something gone wrong in the time stream. There's a time limit and no way to figure everything out in that time limit. So you jump back and do the loop all over again. And again. Until you figure out where what you need is and can, essentially, do a speed run through the time loop. I felt like each loop could be it's own weekly gaming session, except maybe the last speed run one. I think we played that game for... five hours? and I was mentally fried from taxing my brain at the end of it. Lots of fun! Have to buy new stories/expansions to go with the core game in order to have replay-ability. And yet, I'd like to own it/play it again. 

All in all, a fun MarsCon trip!

Kickstarters I Have Backed

Since 2012, I have, through my account (not my partner's) backed 13 Kickstarters:

  • Singularity & Co.
  • a smart thermometer 
  • wipebook
  • a card game about using funny voices for new characters (Noisy Person Cards)
  • a board game about political movement building
  • the Baby Beastiary, vol. 2 & vol. 1 reprint
  • 7 role-playing games
    • Unknown Armies
    • Red Markets
    • Ki Khanga
    • Dialect
    • Monsterhearts (2nd edition)
    • City of Mist
    • Harlem Unbound

Honestly, I think I've got some weird tastes. Either that or I tend to think if the project will eventually be available through some mainstream sources I'll just buy it that way instead of backing the kickstarter. Or both. It could be both.

So far, Singularity & Co. did what they said they were going to (keep a bookstore open and publish some sci-fi), the thermometer and wipebook were delivered to us, and I've picked up the Baby Beastiary at Gen Con 2016. Partner and I still use the thermometer. We tried the wipebook (notebook make of dry erase pages essentially) and found that while we liked the idea, it didn't fit with how we used notebooks. Not the fault of the product, just wasn't for us. And the Baby Beastiary is directly responsible for my Monsters and Other Childish Things character. Besides just being, you know, really fun to read. So, I feel like we've gotten our money's worth out of those.

Noisy Person Cards has slipped their planned released date but were good about keeping the backers up-to-date on what was going on, where they messed up, and what was happening now. All of the rest aren't even estimated to be coming out until sometime in 2017. Heck, Harlem Unbound finished its Kickstarter this morning. All of which is going to make for an interesting 2017 if even half these projects hit their projected release dates:
March — Ki Khanga: The Sword and Soul Roleplaying Game
April — Rise Up (political movement building board game) and Unknown Armies
June — Monsterhearts 2
July — Dialect (birth and death of a language)
Aug — City of Mist (Noir Superheroes)
and of course the one I'm working on, Red Markets, slated for Dec. 2017

I've been lucky so far. None of the projects I've backed yet has crashed and burned, flaming out in a wreck of not-finishing or putting out a product. If that continues to hold, I will have a lot of new games I can review here :D

Gen Con Report

So Gen Con!

(Yes, I moved over the weekend. No, the new apartment is not in anyway put together. Yes, it resembles a shaken snow globe of stuff everywhere. Nope, not thinking about that right now.)

Gen Con was awesome. I hung out with friends we only see at Gen Con (played SmashUp, Hello My Name Is..., Brewin' USA, and Paperback over a couple of nights), went to several panels, talked on one, played in a live-action puzzle game, and ran two sessions of Dog Star. 

Dog Star is a scenario in the Eclipse Phase RPG. The tag line for this one is 'Doom Metal Laser Whales in a dungeon crawl on the surface of a Sun.' Yes, the characters are in the bodies of whales adapted to live on the surface of a sun who need to go investigate a space installation floating in the corona of a sun. It's awesome and I am looking forward to running this scenario for my gaming group, Technical Difficulties. (Also, if you're in the DC area, the partner is going to be running it at WashingCon 2!)

Running this scenario at GenCon is actually why I'm willing to talk about GenCon on a Monday, my Writing blog post day. This was the first convention I've run gaming sessions at and I thought I'd talk a little about the parallels I see with writing.

A few weeks before Gen Con, I got the scenario from Post Human Studios, the folks who publish Eclipse Phase. The scenario is (to my mind) a lot like the background development material you develop for a writing project. You've got the relevant world building material (or in this case, pointers to the parts of the vast amount of world building that are specifically relevant to the scenario). You've got your character bible, i.e. the character sheets. You've got the antagonists and their motivations. You've got the inciting incident and background material on it. You've got the outline of the action you expect to happen (i.e. what would happen before the characters come along and throw a monkey wrench in your plans). And you've got some expected resolutions. And then you read through it all, let it seep into your head, and sit down to execute the story. In this case, run the game.

The two sessions I ran, there were 6 players and seven available characters, so I had a slightly different mix of characters between sessions. And the interaction / comfort level between folks at the table was a bit different from game to game, of course. First game at four folks who play together regularly at home who had really fun character moments together plus someone who'd played the scenario last year and therefore was hanging back verbally to let other folks have more impact on the story. Second game, there were fewer humorous bits, fewer back-and-forth character moments, but everyone seemed to have a good time.

It was interesting, both groups made very similar choices. I mean, it's a pretty straight-forward scenario but both groups made similar choices. Option between getting to the interesting point fast but not having emergency bugging out fuel OR getting there slower and having fuel to leave fast? Both groups chose to go slow and have fuel to leave quickly if need be. Investigate now or rig to blow up in the event of 'oh shit'? Both groups chose to rig it to blow up first.

I don't think I was steering them into those choices....

Any rate, can't talk too much more about the specifics, not and surprise the Tech. Diff. folks when I run this. :D

So yeah, for me, the scenario is the developmental writing work and running a game is the four-hour marathon writing session where the details get filled in, clever bits of dialogue happen, and your characters surprise the heck out of you. Possible taking the story in a completely unexpected direction.

No editing phase though. We're doing it live!

As promised

Shadows over Camelot, Arkham Horror, and why my partner won't play Arkham with me EVER AGAIN.

Let's start with Shadows over Camelot. Shadows is one of those games I can look at and say are very well designed and good games while not being for me. I like pure cooperative games – when I play, I care more about playing better than I did the last time than winning. I'm always in competition, but it's always with myself. Sure, winning is a nice indicator that I did well. But I've been pleased as punch at coming in second or third in a game where I feel I developed a better grasp of the mechanics or better strategy than last time. As well as utterly bummed out by winning a game I felt like I made a lot of massive mistakes during but got rewarded by randomness or other folks' bigger mistakes into a win.

Right, Shadows over Camelot.

First, Shadows forbids telling other players information about your hand directly. But they totally encourage putting on 'ye olde' speech patterns to exchange information. Because it's totally cool if you're speaking like the Hollywood stereotype of a knight. As cranky as that last sentence sounds, I actually did like that rule, it got me to exercise some linguistic trickery.

Second, the betrayer mechanic to Shadows is much more subtle than Dead of Winter's. Dead of Winter encouraged the betrayer revealing themselves in a sudden burst of destruction designed to wipe the other players out and win the game in one move. Shadows over Camelot encourages the betrayer to try to work the long-game, to survive undetected until the end – if they aren't found out, two out of twelve of the win mechanic are flipped from winning to loosing, so really big incentive there. The game is rather un-winnable unless everyone contributes everything they have and plays near perfectly every turn, so the best strategy my group developed as the traitor was to play just sub-optimally enough that entropy was winning, but still enough that it looked like you were giving everything you had. Not my desired play experience, but a well done game if that's what you want.

Arkham Horror

Believe it or not, this game was my first introduction to the Cthulhu mythos. Slightly ironic given how much Call of Cthulhu and Delta Green actual play podcast episodes I listen to (and play in) now, but I've never read H.P.Lovecraft's originals. Also, I have no plans to – I don't feel the need to subject myself to the racism, xenophobia, and sexism that were apparently a little much even for Lovecraft's day but spawned a mythology which still survives. I'm not going to get on anyone's case for making a different choice – time, place, and historical context after all – I'm just choosing not to imbibe from that particular fount myself.

Any rate. Arhkam Horror, the board game, is a purely cooperative board game. One of the Lovecraftian horrors from beyond time and space is trying to break into our reality and do whatever it is Great Old Ones do, inevitably spelling doom for humanity. You are investigators running around a little town called Arkham, in Massachusetts, trying to collect enough clues to close the tears in space and time to send the Great Old One back beyond time and space or build up enough weapons to induce a terminal case of kinetic lead poisoning. Because while they can tear your brain into a gibbering, weeping mess merely from looking at them, Great Old Ones will die to bullets. Who knew?

The game is hard, folks. During the first couple of months playing the base set when it came out in 2005, my group was winning by the skin of our teeth about 50% of the time and getting curb-stomped the other 50%. Time and movement are your most precious resources. Having the character who can deal with the problem that just popped up be stuck behind a monster on the other end of the board can spell your entire party's doom. But here's the thing – the game rewarded learning how to play, cooperating, and thinking about strategy. We really liked the game and played it pretty frequently. And started winning about 80% of the time. So we took out our preferred win condition. Our win ratio dropped back to 50/50. And then we started to creep back up to 80%. And figured out two mechanical hacks around Azethoth's three 'game over, you loose!' mechanics. By which point, the first expansion had come out and was promptly purchased.

You could play it like an RPG where your characters know what they know and don't have cell phones to coordinate with the other folks on the board. But my group always played like we had TacNet – think augmented reality tactical situation overlays where folks can share information back and forth, including getting a smart-link target lock for the person around the corner, in the other room. I use that comparison rather than the cell phones because the college gaming group I played with developed something of a hive mind about this game. Three of us could set up the entire game – base set, all three big box expansions, and all 4 little box card adders – in 15 minutes... That probably sounds more impressive to folks who've already played the game. But trust me, Arkham Horror takes a stupidly long time to set up.

So, we acted like a hive mind. 'Hey I think you should do X', without having to explain the rationale behind why, because as soon as it was pointed out, the other person saw the logic. Talking in short hand. Knowing which characters worked well off each other, which were under powered, and who's plot line you immediately went for and who's you ignored. 

Then we tried to play a game with my partner, newly back from the Peace Corps.  And forgot to slow down and explain what the heck we were doing. Didn't explain any of our strategy in order to teach what we had learned. More or less turning their character into a pawn we were moving on the board...

So yeah, partner will NEVER play Arkham with us again. Whoops... Don't be like us folk, remember to be inclusive of the new players. And go kill today's Great Old One, Arkham Horror's a lot of fun with folks who like cooperative games.

More on Dead of Winter

From @unsatisfiedkitty on tumblr last week:
Hi! I've been skimming your blog from reblogs by Ross & friends, but I'm very selfishly sending an ask about the Dead of Winter experience. I am 100% enthused by purely co-op experiences; is covering the changes you discussed within the scope of your blog? 

To everyone, yes please send me questions and thoughts y'all have from my blog – if I wrote about it once, I'll probably want to write about it again!

So the co-op experiences. First, Dead of Winter has five variants written into the rules book:

  1. Co-op Variant
  2. 2-player Variant
  3. Betrayer Variant
  4. Hardcore Variant
  5. Player Elimination Variant

Most of these are very simple rules tweaks to the main game. 
5.       Player Elimination just does what it says, if a player's last survivor dies, the player is eliminated from the game instead of drawing a new survivor with different gear. So an escalation in difficulty, but I haven't played this variant, so cannot report on how much of an escalation. Considering that in the four or five games I've played no one has lost their last survivor, I don't think this would alter play that much. 
4.       Hardcore uses the harder variant of the main goal, which is already written on the cards in use for the game's objective. Again, haven't played this variant myself since every game so far has involved new people learning the game. Throwing them against the extra-special-hard mode before anyone feels like they have an inkling of how to play is a great way to convince them to never play again. Either the game or maybe with you. 
3.       The Betrayer Variant alters the number of betrayal vs. non-betrayal secret objectives to make it more likely there's a betrayer in game play. Enough of an increase in odds, assuming I'm parsing the statistics correctly in my head, that you should play just assuming there is a betrayer and working to ferret them out. Instead of keeping an eye out for maybe there being a betrayer. In practice, I'm not sure how much this would alter game play for the betrayer, if they know what they're doing. The best strategy I've seen/thought of for the betrayer is to play perfectly, like they're not a betrayer, until they're the last player in a round, and then set up all the characters in locations to be eaten by zombies, cratering the morale track. 

Finally, Co-op variant. I think the 2-player variant is just a specialized version of the Co-op variant, so I'm going to fold it into the Co-op discussion. So choosing to play co-op alters the game from set-up on. Instead of dealing out secret objectives (betrayer and non-betrayer alike) everyone is working towards the main objective and only the main objective. That objective gets bumped up to the hardcore variant, the mechanisms for dealing with the betrayer (i.e. 'exiling' a player) are stripped out, and a set of 'no co-op' cards are eliminated from the game. The only difference between co-op and 2-player is the number of starting item cards and survivors everyone starts with.

Having played the base game where everyone cooperated anyway (only way we've ever won), I have hope that the designers got the difficulty level for the co-op variant balanced. It was difficult to win without the hardcore main objective, but we were a bit distracted with our personal secret objectives, wondering if so-and-so was a betrayer, and cards that would never be used (because we were cooperating) clogged up our hands a bit. Eliminate the cognitive load of the first two issues and increase the usefulness of your cards and the game absolutely will need a harder main objective to remain difficult. Given how much the co-op parts of the game work well together already, even if the competitive parts work less well, I do think the hardcore objectives will balance the game well.

End verdict: If you want a purely cooperative game and like zombie theming, Dead of Winter is a solid choice to play. Prefer Cthulhu Mythos and have a large board game budget? Arkham Horror. Want a competitive-cooperation game? Try Shadows over Camelot. 

Tune in next week for Shadows over Camelot, my absurd experiences with Arkham Horror, and why my partner won't play Arkham with me EVER AGAIN.

Should have seen that coming

So I was board gaming with some friends a couple weeks ago, playing a game called Dead of Winter. Adam and I had played the game a few times with other friends and at conventions, but this was the first time for our friends, so they had some thoughts.

Dead of Winter, as we played it, is a cooperative game with a traitor mechanic PLUS not everyone who cooperated will necessarily win. And yes, it's skinned as part of the zombie apocalypse, but that's not really important, not to the game play. And for the first time in my experience, we a) had a traitor and b) lost hard to said traitor. Let me be clear, the traitor played extremely well – it was her first time playing and she saw about three different ways to simultaneously screw us all over. It was extremely well executed game play. And I was enraged. Not at her game play, but at how effective it was.

So that day I learned I don't like the traitor mechanic in my cooperative games.

But any rate, one of these friends didn't like that the game wants you to finish the main objective as fast as possible, whether or not all the other people have completed their secret objective. Because the game didn't, in his opinion, present itself as a competitive coop game. So you had a competitive coop without enough rules support for that type of play. And he felt like the special things happening card deck (called the Crossroads deck) wasn't triggered often enough given the expectations it set (by existing and being drawn every turn). And then he felt like the traitor mechanic was too powerful. That the designers had overcompensated for the traitor being all alone by making it so their actions were so powerful there was no way for the rest of the players to recover.

"So... you wouldn't play again, would you?"
"Not unless we play a purely cooperative game."
"There's rules for that."

This is what happens when I talk game design with a second generation science-fiction/fantasy fan who's been playing Euro-style games since their teens with an eye on how the mechanics work so he can win. It's a like a college course on game design stretched over a decade with practical applications. And I love it.