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.

A little bit of subject knowledge makes enjoying a thing more difficult

Here's a thing about writing more, doing editing, and learning about the craft of writing a bit (mostly through the podcast Writing Excuses [it's good, go listen guys]) — it's harder for me to turn my brain off and just enjoy a piece of media. I mean, I've never really been able to turn my brain off but it used to be easier for a piece of media (book, movie, TV show, whatever) to pull me in so I wasn't thinking about the structure, craft, or meta-stuff of the item. At least until after I finished reading or viewing. Then it's a lot of fun! It's how I'm a fan and how I incorporate ideas. But now I've got more tools to analyze with and I'm doing more analysis while consuming the media.

Which is all a very long lead-in to: Star Wars: The Last Jedi has one too many try-fail cycles in it. Try-fail cycles being a writing term for plot structure I've picked up from Writing Excuses. It makes the middle a bit saggy and draws the whole story out too long. The thing is, I can recognize that but haven't figured out what I'd have cut in order to tighten up the pacing — everything in there contributed to characterization, even as the plot got a little overcomplicated. 

I really liked The Last Jedi though — about an 8 out of 10 on my personal metric. I love that the film continued with showing the First Order as predominantly entitled, white men (in positions of power, there's quite a few white women in the First Order), the good guys were women, people of color, and women of color who listen to each other and work together. I love that the message about mentors is not they need to be perfect — they need to teach their mistakes too. Everything is feeling like the more grown-up, nuanced version of good vs. evil of the first trilogy. And I love it.

System Review : Monsterhearts 2nd Edition

What, an actual gaming blog post on a Thursday like I originally envisioned for this blog, whaaat? 

Any rate, a review of the second edition of Monsterhearts. 


Monsterhearts is a role-playing system about the drama being a teenager and a supernatural monster. The game is centered around the social ties between characters and various ways they interact with each other. It is explicitly poc and queer friendly, with the ability written into the game to turn on another character, without restrictions on gender or sexuality — in fact, the author urges players to discover their character's sexuality over the course of the game through who successfully turns whom on. It's a collaboratively narrative game focused on social interactions and characters being not very nice to each other, in that way that generates drama and fun at the table.

The second edition is  primarily a refinement and expansion upgrade. One character type (The Chosen (think Buffy)) was moved from a default option offered in the book to an expansion option available on the system website, based on feedback the author received on how that centered a game on that character type (and how often people chose to play the character). Another character type was promoted to replace The Chosen in the book. Some of the abilities of characters were refined. A discussion on asexuality, how it interacts in the game, and suggestions on incorporating it into a game was included. New writers added a section on explicitly including diversity in the game and suggestions for handling playing characters outside your own ethnicity responsibly. A discussion on checking in with players and tools to use to making sure everyone is comfortable with potentially difficult material was also added.

Over all, I would say that the second edition of Monsterhearts is a worthy and useful continuation of the game. If you're new to the system, I would recommend the second edition over the first. If you already have the first edition, I would say to save your money for a new system altogether. Unless you want to support the author — I'm never going to object to people looking to support their artists. The mechanics updates aren't different enough to get you a new game. The expanded discussion of factors at the table is a good one and one the industry and its players desperately needs to keep having, but if you already have the first edition, it's a discussion you can research and educate yourself on online.

Takeaway: Good update, I'm glad to own the 2nd edition, recommend the 2nd over the 1st as the place to get into the game, not necessary for folks who already own the 1st edition.

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.

Game Review: The Play's The Thing

I have not played or GM'ed this one yet; this review is entirely based on reading the rules and listening to RPPR's actual play (Bouncy Castle Inverness!)

The Play's The Thing is a game about actors playing characters to put on a stage play. So you, the player, are an actor who is, in turn, a character within a play. You the player are in-character as your actor who can yell 'cut!' to try and talk the GM-who-is-the-play-director into allowing an edit to the play as y'all rehearse. Actors have types, plays have places, and characters have parts, plots, and props. Got it? Good, 'cause I need another read through of the rules or three.

One of the things I really appreciate the author doing is the nine Shakespeare plays they broke down into a cast list and five act structure that fits the rules set-up. One, that's like including nine one-shot adventures just ready to go for new GMs. Two, it's a great illustration of how to do it for any other play. While the central expectation of the system is that you're going to use Shakespeare's plays, I honestly don't see why you couldn't use a play from someone else. It's a nice flexibility to the system that I appreciate.

From the rules, this system also appears to have hit a sweet spot a lot of indie narrativist games have a hard time finding, the balance between doing a type of RPG play really well and long-term play. The system deals with the problem of character progression leading to over powered character really fast (*cough*Monster Hearts*cough*) by making progression non-linear. You don't get better at bending the story in your direction, you change up your approach and goals by shifting between actor types. It's character development instead of skill development in a way that allows the player to write a narrative for the actor over several sessions who writes narratives for their part in each session. 

Admittedly, I'm not sure how many non-theater nerds are going to want to play a campaign, but I think the structure in the rules is there for it.

I'm looking forward to trying this out with my gaming group. I'm thinking of trying to adapt The Maltese Falcon to the system as a play and seeing how badly the plot gets butchered :D

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.

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.

Review Time: No Security by Caleb Stokes

Hey all, life has a lot going on this month and the whole three day weekend, while lovely, has really been playing merry hell with my perception of which day of the week it is... So, have a review of No Security: Horror Scenarios in the Great Depression by Caleb Stokes I wrote on GoodReads.

 

No Security is an excellent source of horror system-less scenarios. The scenarios focus on creating a cohesive narrative and clues for game masters to completely terrify their players with, rather than any mechanics. This leads to highly adaptable scenarios, as full and ready to run in your favorite horror RPG system whether that's Call of Cthulhu, Gumshoe, Delta Green, or any other system, narrative or simulationist. 

Narratively, each scenario is complete unto itself and very creepy. The 'monster' of each one is original to this source – experienced players/readers of the Cthulhu mythos will be surprised by these monsters. Reading the scenarios from the mindset of a GM, I still followed the narrative like a player and found myself taking breaks in order to recover from being creeped out a bit and to think more about / enjoy the scenario. I highly recommend this collection of scenarios to anyone who plays horror RPGs or anyone looking for inspiration for their own horror stories.

Actual play episodes of three of the No Security scenarios, as run by the author:
The Wives of March, Part One and Part Two
Bryson Springs
Revelations