Looking For Group

A Team of Like-Minded Individuals

The next big battle in the console wars is underway. The knock-down drag-out fight between Sony and Microsoft, with Nintendo yapping and biting at heels like a spry old Shih Tzu, has the techno-foes trading blows over system power, online security, indie game development, and a number of other issues. But very little of what I’ve heard (mind you, I have not been paying much attention) talks about how much more fun the games will be. Processor power and stronger graphics engines are lovely, but nobody is talking about increased interconnectivity with players, beyond a few “post scores and issue challenges through social media to your friends!”, which isn’t a meaningful connection.

The strange thing is, it wouldn’t be difficult. Imagine sitting in front of your Xbox, firing up a digital reconstruction of a game, and simultaneously opening up Skype to connect with friends. The game doesn’t even have to be tightly programmed, it could just be a graphical construct that allows dice rolling and piece movement. We could have a new era of tabletop gaming, something that could one day mend the rift of live tabletop and isolated console gaming.

I love both video and board games, but as far as interaction with people, live tabletop gaming cannot be beat. Thus it is a point of frustration for me that actually getting people to the table to game cab be such a Nightmare.

Whyyyyy is nobody showing up?! (heh, me and my puns)

Time and Space

That’s what you need to put a group together. Well, you need the people of course, and the desire to play, the physical games themselves, etc. But once the desire is there, and since everyone I know has at least a few games ready to play, it all boils down to the time to play (and learn) games and a place to play them. Time and space are the dwindling and scattered resources of planning.

Mark: Want to get a game thing going tonight?

Me: Yeah, of course I’m interested. Where should we do it?

Josh: We’re about to eat dinner, but we might be interested after. I don’t think we’re coming out to Watertown though.

Mark: Well, I’m in Melrose, and you’re on your way home to Watertown (Google maps estimate: 1 hour with traffic). What about Josh, he’s roughly between us (~22 minutes from both our homes).

Josh: Nicole and I are out for tonight, thanks though.

Me: I just got in, I don’t have it in me to go back out for an hour drive in traffic. Maybe some other time.

That Kind of Party

There’s something to be said for an impromptu game session. For most gatherings though, you need to plan it ahead of time, just like if you were planning a “normal” party. More so I’d say, since for most parties I’ve attended all you need is booze and space for people to stand around, drink, and socialize. For gaming, people need to know rules, be physically and mentally invested in the game, and be willing to adhere to certain customs not necessary in other parties; keep drinks and snacks off the table, don’t walk off in the middle of the game to chat with someone in the other room, don’t get into side conversations, and take the game seriously.

Me: (before many parties) You think I should bring a game or two, in case people want to play?

Katie (+a few others): I don’t think it’s that kind of party.

Me: …I know.

Normal Party vs. Board Game Party (as the internet, vis-á-vis Google Images, sees it)

Looking For Group

When you get older, your free time becomes scarcer and more precious. Certain life matters crop up, things like jobs, bills, kids, fund-raisers, that sort of thing.

Sukrit: My mother is visiting this weekend, so I’m out.

Mark: Flying to San Francisco for work. I’ll be there next week.

Josh: It’s my last show that night and after the show I plan on being extremely drunk.

Me: I’m getting married in X months (in which 8 ≥X≥0)

Gaming becomes one more thing you have to prioritize. I know people who are passionate about anygamegood, even if they don’t call it that. And they lament the occurrences when their gaming sessions have been knocked off of one or more persons’ list of priorities. It’s even more frustrating when it’s done on incredibly short notice (often the day of) and it’s treated as simply not a big deal.

Ted (on absences from the Risk Legacy campaign): “We all have things to do in our lives, of course. But for me it’s like this; if you’re interested in gaming you make time for it. If you can’t make it, fine, but don’t say you can make it and then just blow it off.”

Auston (author, games designer, and avid blogger): “I just feel like people are scheduling the game, and if somebody, anybody, calls them, my game is the first thing to get dropped.”

And therein lie the issue. I believe the perception of gaming gatherings is that of a frivolous activity, a source of amusement and diversion that begins, ends, and in the middle is filled with inconsequentiality. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t believe that, to a degree (it’s right there in the mission statement), but I would never call gaming, or the act of planning or reneging plans, as inconsequential. I believe it’s important to remind ourselves, every now and then, that play has its own important place in human interaction. I hold games in high regard, and the people who play them are closer to me than others. It is a social gathering that to me is not as arbitrary as eating a bunch of caramels.

Party Size

Before game night begins, I have to decide who I’m inviting. It’s more complicated than you’d think. You can’t just invite all your gaming friends and see who shows up. Well, maybe you can, I can’t. Josh and I have a spreadsheet of our gaming friends to keep track; it’s around 20 people, incomplete. If half those people showed up every time it would be bedlam.

Every game fits a certain number of people. Some are broader than others, but most have a recommended number. Just so with game nights, especially when I have certain games I’m hoping to play.

# of people

1:    Well, they do make a lot of neat board games with 1-player variants. Try Mage Knight, or Chrononauts solitaire.

2:    Duel night with a good friend/rival. Netrunner, Pixel Tactics, Twilight Struggle. Puzzle Strike and Innovation fit more, but are great 1-on-1. If this is what I’m looking for, I’ll ask one person at a time until I find somebody. Sometimes this can result in an unexpected cancellation and a ruined night so, to call it back, I do enjoy console games.

3-4:    Tons of games fit this number optimally, and it’s a good figure to shoot for if you want to have a low-key gathering with your friends. Which is why we never have it. This is the razor’s edge of gatherings; you either invite the exact number you’re looking for, and everyone bails, OR you invite a few extra friends, figuring that somebody won’t be able to make it, and everyone shows up.

Josh: “Improv people are notoriously flaky. I invite them, but I don’t count on them replying quickly if at all.”

5:    This is a tough number sometimes. Not a lot of games work with 5; they generally run long , there’s a large gap between turns, and the asymmetry precludes 2v2 setups. Still, it’s not hopeless. Co-Op games like Pandemic or Shadows Over Camelot work this way, and Betrayal at House on the Hill is pretty good with 5.

6:    There are games that fit 6, but I personally believe they’re the kind of games you plan for. Diplomacy, Twilight Imperium, and other large-scale games are great, but they’re the kind of games I want to specifically plan for, not drop in for a game night of indeterminate attendance and “what do we want to play” syndrome. More likely this is splitting into two games.

7-8:    Now you’re getting into definite 2-game territory. 7 is particularly difficult, since there are very few (non-party) games that fit 7, and I personally can’t name one. Even Dixit, a quintessential party game, only fits 6. 7 has to be 5&2 or 4&3. 8 provides more flexibility, but again, it will be 2 games.

9-12: This number frustrates me. We end up with it sometimes, when I haven’t had a game night in a while and want to see everyone. Or when I send a blast invite to make sure I’ll have enough people and, improbably, most of them actually show up. At this point, not only are we playing two games, they’ll take up the full evening. We won’t get a chance to play or chat with the other half of the group, which is fine when everyone is having fun, but it can be a drag gaming with 5 and cleaning up for 12. And considering our group isn’t big on Apples to Apples or other large party games, there’s no other recourse.

13: At this point you’d better just hire a hobbit to round out the numbers.

13 is unlucky. Also, these guys are certain to f*** up your table

Plan Ahead

As I said before, planning a game night takes as much time as planning any other party.   I try to give at least a week, but the more people you’re looking to invite the more time you want to give them.  (And sometimes I ping guests who haven’t replied, as most people don’t RSVP anymore.)

I usually send out a list of games I’m hoping to play beforehand (Josh is a bit more loose, there are pros and cons to both).  If you know the number of people playing it’s easier, and will prevent wasting time deciding on what to play.

Finally, and most importantly, it is good to remember that game gatherings are fun.  It can be frustrating when your plans for an epic sit-down of Twilight Imperium get snuffed out, or if your multi-hour 12 man game extravaganza becomes 3 people playing Catan again.  But instead of focusing on how things went awry, consider how nice it is to play games with friends.  You can’t control other people or their plans, but you can plan ahead, and if your friends are looking to game, they’ll make time.

This weekend marks the one year anniversary of Anygamegood.  To celebrate (and also, coincidentally, since my friend and former boss is visiting from Texas) we’ll be doing a day-long gaming session at my place.  Hope everyone is getting some good gaming in this weekend.

Risk: This Is How The World Ends

Ted’s Campaign

Sam wasn’t able to make a number of the games, so we had a lot of 4-player sessions. This changes the texture of the game immensely. The map has more space, so placement order isn’t as critical. This changes draft priority, and allows for later conflicts and more time to bolster one’s armies. It also keeps one more faction out of play, which prevents them from acquiring knock-out or missile powers, which effectively removes them from the game.

It’s a long list of “if this than that” and “what ifs” in Risk: Legacy. That is, I think, one of its major strong points; our world is unique, it developed as only our could. Ours is a story nobody else has.

Unfortunately that isn’t a happy story for everyone else it seems.

Game 11

Sam is able to make this one, which is kind of exciting. He’s low on missiles, and everyone underestimates him. I hope to get a large exchange of cards late and win the game with a single push. I wait just long enough for Sam to do a smaller push and wipe me out, claiming my considerable card stack. He wins next turn. It’s two victories for the guy who didn’t have any going into game 9, so it provides a bit of hope for the campaign.

Game 12!

Sometimes hope is just a word.

I won. It was another game of someone having a lock on their turn, but somebody sneaking in a moment earlier and taking the victory. It wasn’t guaranteed for me, a lot of rolls had to go my way. But as Ted has said, “if you have a 40% chance of winning with a course of action, it’s worth trying.” So I gambled, pushed across the board, and took enough bases to win. If anything, it continues to demonstrate how important it is to protect your base.

This is my 6th win, and it gives me a plurality. Games 13-15 will have no bearing on who wins the campaign, as nobody can match my 6. Ted says a couple things, boiling down to, “Congrats, even though it’s not a game about winning, but we’ll keep playing, because it’s still fun.” Imagine my dismay when I found out he didn’t really believe that.

See, I’m usually the first person to get to Ted’s, as my work lets out earlier than everyone else’s, plus I live closer. So we have time to chat about the game before it gets underway. And again I had to hear Ted talk about how un-fun the game has become, and how it’s (mostly) my fault. I felt bad about it the first time this was thrown at me around game 8. But I’ve done my best since then to play tough but fair, and not politick or twist the game around. I don’t need this again. At some point it needs to be said. There was terrible play early on, a bunch of people made bad decisions and fought the absolute wrong opponents, and Ted didn’t try hard enough. I may have done some early prodding, but I’m not the sole architect of the game being so busted.

Game 13

I win the draft and take Mutants, the only time I’ve played them. At this point most of the people in the table are anxious to crack open the final packet, the Capital City. We start with the appropriate mission (randomly I swear), and a territory card that works for it comes out a few turns in.

This is where it becomes obvious how busted the game is. Aaron has a great chance to take the territory needed to make the mission happen. However, my stack of missiles is enough to keep it protected, even when Ted (the one who owns it) is playing missiles to help Aaron take it. He’s rebuffed, and I take it my next turn, giving me two points. I lost my base earlier, but I’m able to take it my next turn, though with only 3 armies on it. So when I’m at 3 points I see Ted checking his options. At this point I feel compelled to say, “I know I shouldn’t say this, but you should really defend your base.” He does, sort of. He ups the army count from 4 to 7, though he has more he could use. So when my turn comes around, his is the most reasonable target to go for. Even after the Capital City battle, and even after I spend missiles to defend my base, I still have 1 to use against him. I’m able to swing a double loss into a double win with it, and I have more than enough strength to take the base and the win.

I feel crappy for doing it, and I apologize to the table. The campaign is called here, as nobody wants to watch something like that again.

Aftermath

So yes, the game got busted. I took some wins I shouldn’t have, obtained a stronghold, gained an advantage too difficult to overcome (with 3 other people; it would’ve been much different if Sam could’ve made it). But After mulling it all over again, I’m pretty sure that I’m done apologizing for this sort of thing. Ted said that games aren’t about winning, they’re about competition. Yeah, I get what he means, but it’s a game, moreover it’s Risk. Says it right on the box, above the word Legacy. It’s an Ameritrash classic which has always been about random swings, massive armies, and grinding everyone else at the table into dust. The fact that it has a 15-game meta framework does not change that core stylistic design. I agree that the game is somewhat broken, but sometimes the players are too.

I hate that I have to feel crappy all over again while I type this. I hate that I’m in a position where I have to apologize for playing my best. I hate that everyone thinks it’s the game that’s screwed up and not their own stupid shitty play. It’s Beyond Boardwalk all over again; a lot of new mechanics and cool choices, but the same game at its core, with hurt feelings and sour looks when you lose.

You know what? Fuck it. I won, I’m not going to feel shitty about it. Besides, the other campaign manages to be balanced, despite having similar issues.

It’s Risk. Says so right on the box.

Greg’s Campaign, Game 8

So, that stronghold I had in Australia in Ted’s game? Jess has one in South America here. It’s not as great, as it still has two entry points and her city is surrounded by ammo shortage scars, but it’s still nice to have a guaranteed quality starting location. The faction she gets has an “ignore ammo shortages when defending” bonus to it, so her setup is pretty good.

The factions here aren’t fully loaded with powers and scars, so it’ll be interesting to see how they develop. The Saharan Republic has a sweet one-two combination of being allowed to use their redeployment in any territory they control, and being able to reinforce to one unoccupied territory per turn. I use it to get around the nuclear fallout in Australia. It’s not a great bonus, but it keeps my base protected, as the mutants are on the other side of the map.

I get a nice set of cards, but I don’t get to use them. Jess manages to take a few quick cards, and when nobody expects it (and I’m in no position to stop her), she turns in cards, marches through two bases and 9 territories, and grabs 3 points in a turn. I believe her base was a critical component, not because of the continent bonus (which I don’t believe she ever held), but the unbeatable population amount which gave her some great events.

Aftermath

This gives her two wins. At 8 games, everyone has two wins, except for Greg who hasn’t gotten on the board yet. It’s odd for me, knowing what’s in the remaining packets, and seeing how the game could play out. It’s difficult to keep that knowledge from coloring my decisions. Still, this game is progressing much differently, with a completely different set of players, so I’m excited to see how this one ends.

WHERE WE STAND

Greg’s campaign

Winston: 2 Wins

Brandon: 2 Wins

Spooky: 2 Wins

Jess: 2 Win

Packets Open: Second Win, 9 Minor Cities, Player Elimination, 3 missiles

Ted’s Campaign (Called)

Brandon: 7 Wins

Ted: 1 Win

Aaron: 2 Win

Mark: 1 Win

Sam: 2 Win

Packets Open: Everything

Legacies: the First Volley

My initial impressions of Risk: Legacy are positive overall. The first couple games feel, well, a lot like Risk. I think Ted said it best when he suggested from comments he has heard on-line that, “as the game progresses, it becomes less like Risk and more like a boardgame.”

As of now I have played 3 games in each campaign. The two campaigns already feel very different, and while I’m leaning towards one over the other, I think they’ll both be worthwhile.

Merry Band Of Brothers: Who’s in the Game

A game can only be good as its players. Let’s meet the groups.

The Vessennes Players

This group consists of me, Ted, and three of Ted’s friends who I don’t know very well. Their names are Aaron, Sam, and a man who calls himself DoubleMark, I think because there are so many other Marks in the group at large. It’s apparent to me that these are capital G Gamers; they’re in it to win it. Before the game even begins there’s this lengthy discussion about tactics and potential rules changes in the future, balance issues and statistical models people made on optimal plays. If you know a gaming group that has massive post-mortem discussions of a game when it’s finished, imagine that, only before the game has even started.

The Reimann Players

I know this group a little better than the Vessennes campaign, but not much. It’s me, Greg, Erik (a.k.a. Spooky), Winston and Jessica. Erik I know, and Greg I feel like I’ve known for longer than I have; he’s a kindred spirit of gaming. When I suggest that factions should have theme music he’s initially reluctant, then spends the night before sending me beautifully appropriate music for each faction. I get the impression he’s crazy excited about the game, but doesn’t want to show it, for fear of being that guy. F*** that, I’ll be that guy. Winston and Jessica are gamers, but of a more casual nature. Erik loves games, enough that even though he hates Risk he’s willing to play to make it happen.

War. War never changes.

A blow-by-blow of each game may not be the most riveting thing for readers, though rest assured each of the 6 games so far had their moments. In 3 games the maps have taken some interesting turns, and some compelling stories have developed.

The Spoils of War

The game has you track what faction you played, where you started, and whether you Won, Held On, or were Eliminated. Those who survive get to name and place minor cities or adjust the game’s resources by adding coins to territory cards, which increases the number of troops you get when exchanging. The victor gets to sign their name to the board, and can choose one of a number of tasty options:

  • Place a Major City. Major Cities have 2 population, which counts as territories for troops gained at the start of the turn (minor cities have one population). They are also legal starting locations only for the one who placed it.
  • Name a continent. This gives that player +1 bonus troop when they control it.
  • Give +1 or -1 to a continent bonus for all players.
  • Fortify a city. Fortifications add +1 to each defender’s dice when rolled, for up to 10 battles.
  • Destroy a card. Rip it up. Remove it from the game.
  • Cancel a scar. Cover one of the permanent marks on the game.

Vessennes Opener: Hard-Learned Lessons

Ted said he was very much of a mind to do anything that would trigger a packet or inlay being opened, as “opening things is the fun part.” He would be focused less on winning and more on making the game thematic and fun. Knowing ted as I do, I believe strongly that he can only take this so far. He will certainly seek to wipe out an opponent, or fire missiles in a battle he’s in without truly needing to, or fight to place 30 troops at once (all packet conditions), but he won’t ruin his chances of victory by doing so.

The first game proceeds very much like a standard game of Risk. The two main differences are this; most of the territories start empty (every one but the 5 we choose to start), and everyone has “Scar Cards,” decals we can apply to the board to cause permanent bonuses or penalties to one spot. It’s a neat little mechanic, but what’s truly interesting is watching people place them for small gains without realizing the long-term impact they’ll have on the campaign. The effects were felt as soon as game 2, and continue to be a big game changer.

I play terribly. I manage to spread thin and hold North America for a turn, but squander my bonus troops and lose the continent soon after. I never really recover. Aaron wins with a swift charge to a base. With that one, his own HQ, and two red stars (one to start, one for the exchange of cards) he takes four points and the victory. This is a great end condition, as it means you don’t have to conquer the whole board. He places a major city, and the rest of us place minor cities, many in Australia to increase the difficulty of keeping and holding it (this turns out to be a rules faux-pax; hangers-on can only place minor cities or coin upgrades to territory cards in countries they controlled at the end of the game). By then it was too late to start another game. I’m a bit soured on the experience, having gotten trounced, but I’m willing to give it another go.

Vessennes Session 2

Aaron isn’t able to make this one, which is kind of a bummer, but it means the ones who haven’t won yet have a chance to get on the board. After learning a bit more about the game, and remembering how Risk is played, I feel good about this session.

Games 2&3: A Game of Numbers & a Game of Stories

There’s not much to say about game 2. I win, primarily because Sam and DMark are focused heavily on Ted, and nobody notices me slowly building up cards and troops in Australia. An exchange of cards for my 3rd point and a quick dash to a nearby base for my 4th gets the win. It was a game heavy with calculations, politicking, and very standard Risk stuff.

Game 3 I do not win, let me say that now. Let me also say that I had more fun this game than I have ever had in a Risk game ever. And it’s all because of a beautiful narrative the table helped me weave. That great AnyGameGood feeling you get when a game makes you want to tell people about “this one time when I was at war…” This was one of my favorites.

I was playing Kahn Industries. Their flavor text paints them as a faction of cheap labor and mass-manufactured machines of war. Their special ability has you placing a new unit in your HQ each turn. The way we envisioned it, the new soldier is in fact a factory-stamped clone; pale skin, steam rising from the freshly stamped tissues. Bald, sunken eyes and a cheap uniform and blaster. During one of those pushes you sometimes have to do to keep a continent bonus from a breakaway leader, I fight from central Asia across the map to West Africa and Brazil. Then I free move one of the soldiers from my base across the map.

The line is quickly cut off. One three-soldier mech in Argentina, one lone man in Brazil who’s quickly gunned down. South America is very difficult to hold in this map, as it has an ammo shortage in Brazil (-1 to the highest defense die each roll), forcing the player to try to defend from Africa or risk taking a beating in the numbers. So nobody’s keen to be the one to clear it out when it can’t be held. The troops in Argentina stay, without reinforcements, without orders, nowhere to go. I begin to wonder out loud, and everyone at the table is quick to provide their take.

Brandon: What are they doing now? I wonder if they’re writing in their journals about the hells of war. Oof, maybe they don’t have journals.

Ted: They probably don’t have literacy, man.

DMark: Yeah, why would you bother to teach them how to read and write? They’d never live long enough to use it.

Brandon: You guys are depressing me.

Ted: Hey, maybe they at least know how to not starve to death. ‘Day 30. Saw cow. Shot cow with blaster. Cow cooked, cow tasty.’

This went on for a while. Those guys probably have their own language by now, cave paintings and crude tools fashioned from the mech which has been out of gas for (based on what we thought a turn meant in game time) years.

Then the attack came. Sam had been slowly building his rail guns in Central America, pointing them at me menacingly. He has a force of around a dozen. I roll a 6-5. Two of his troops gone. 6-6. Two others drop. 6-4, he doesn’t have enough to beat the 4, two more deaths. With each roll the table gets louder and more shocked at this battle. 2 more drop. At this point Sam knows he can’t take the continent and hold it for a turn. He backs off. Soldier 47 comes through. This band of brothers with all odds stacked against them holds out without a single casualty (presumably by learning the land and using guerilla tactics developed from years of surviving the harsh environment). I don’t win, but Argentina never falls. Hell, they’re probably their own indigenous people at this point.

My father was a sleeve gunner. Not the right arm, the left. He was a man’s sleever.

Everyone seems appreciative of the narrative we’ve woven. Sam yields his right to place the last minor city to me, which is placed in Argentina and named “Ooxstahm,” the people’s word for ‘brother.’ I even use my off-hand to write it to give it that primitive scrawling look; it’s nigh illegible to those who weren’t there. Oh, Ted won.

PACKET OPENING: 9TH MINOR CITY

Ted already knows what’s in this packet, but he’s good about not spoiling the surprise. I immediately recognize some Eurogame elements in it, and agree with Ted’s declaration that “this is where Risk becomes an actual board game.” I just hope it doesn’t become a new way for me to screw myself over early on.

Reimann Session:

Next up is a trio of games at my house. The people playing the game, coupled with the fact that it’s my house and I can relax in it before, during and after the game, gives this group a more laid-back feel for me. Nonetheless, I’m still playing to win.

Side Note: the Differences

I find it very amusing, the way Ted and Greg wish their games to be handled. One stark example is the naming of cities and continents on the board. There’s something epic about stamping a name on the board, and even though naming a continent is not as strong a strategic move as other things a winner can do, it’s a rush to say that an entire continent is named for you.

Ted gave us explicit instructions in this regard: Please do not name anything stupid or jokey, like “Ted is a Bastardville” or “Bonerland” (direct quotes). He wants to frame and hang the final board, and he doesn’t want vulgarity or inappropriate stuff mounted on his wall. I can respect that.

Greg gave us explicit instructions as well: You can name any continent, any city, anything you want, including “Greg sucks balls” or “Brandon is a jerk” or “Bonerland” (again, direct quotes), as long as you write legibly and don’t smudge the ink.

Ted saves the components that are destroyed. They get tucked under the box inlay. Greg’s group shreds them, and Winston takes great delight in reducing a card to fine confetti.

Minute 1. This game has destruction at its core

Game 1: “The Deep March”

Erik’s running late, so we play the first game with 4. The initial placement for this game is nonetheless crowded, with everything placing their base on the eastern half of the board (except for me, where I choose to place in Australia and hole up). The very first turn Jessica uses her starting units to try to eliminate Greg and take his base. It doesn’t work, and the two are effectively crippled for the rest of the game. Wow. That never would’ve happened in the Vessennes campaign. Winston is close enough that swooping in and taking the fallen factions looks plausible, but he’s far enough that it’ll take him some time. Meanwhile, I’m able to sit back, gain extra troops, and get a few cards by using the special ability that allows me to take them when I grab 4 territories, even if they were empty beforehand (a power not available in Ted’s version). It’s a huge boon early game.

In a short few turns, I’m able to march across the board and claim Winston’s undefended base. A turn later I’m able to claim another for the victory. I name Australia “The Imperial Hall of Ra,” in line with the ideas of my faction (Imperial Balkania) and a play on my last name.

In Greg’s campaign the winner gets to sign the board AND give that game a name. I choose “The Deep March” for the global push I make from pole to pole and across the map. The color we infused, of the clip-clop of hundreds of Imperial soldiers marching across the globe, their rhythmic steps heard from miles away in the eerie silence of a still undeveloped world,

Game 2: “Victory…At What Cost?”

The next game I’m kept from Australia, as it’s viewed as too powerful. Erik’s finally able to make it, so the board is much more crowded. Greg mentions, in an almost casual manner, “I kind of don’t want to see Brandon win twice in a row.” It’s just enough politicking to get everyone on board with keeping me out of it. Winston takes the victory by being basically unassailable for the whole game, then exploding with a burst of units. He names a city, the rest of us take a mix of cities and card upgrades.

Game 3: An Unpredictable Table

Midway through this game it becomes very apparent to me that a couple players at the table are prone to unpredictable, often dangerous and ill-advised moves. It’s important to remember, as the areas they inhabit could be hazardous to be near, but also potentially valuable targets if the battles in that region go poorly. That’s what happens this game, as a number of crazy moves from Jessica make for a destabilized and impotent North America, with no real opposition against Winston to build his power base again and, despite starting a point down from the other players, take the second win. Don’t remember what we called it.

PACKET OPENING: SECOND SIGNING

When a player wins and signs the board for the second time a packet opens. While not as massive a change to the game, it still added interesting components that I look forward to experiencing.

WHERE WE STAND

Ted’s Campaign:

Aaron: 1 win

Brandon: 1 Win

Ted: 1 Win

Packets Open: 9 minor cities

Australia is being constantly modified with the tools we have on hand to make it more difficult to take and hold. It’s full of cities nobody can start in, all of them some form of Detroit. DMark hates Detroit, I think. I want to say it’s extreme, but my victories in both games have come from springing forth from Australia.

Greg’s Campaign:

Brandon: 1 win

Winston: 2 wins

Packets Open: Second Win

A second win so quickly is surprising. Not having that starting point is a big deal, but somehow, when the smoke cleared and the dust settled, Winston was the one on top. I expect the table to retaliate in future games.

The Question remains…

After three games I can say I’m enjoying myself in both campaigns, but the two feel very different. Ted’s group is fun, but very imposing. There are efforts to get into the mythos of the game, but in the end we’re all gamers, and the games are filled with swift numbers crunching and a huge amount of lobbying to get opponents to hold off attacks on us, or hit people in the lead so we can be left to amass our own army and take over the poor sap we convinced to do the dirty work.

Greg’s game is filled with uncertainty. It’s a spread of experience and tactics, from cold and calculated to random kamikaze. It also seems better suited to thematic involvement, though the best story to arise so far has come from Ted’s campaign.

Will one campaign ruin the other? Ted’s campaign is going to go quicker I think; it’s scheduled next, and seems to have more steam than Greg’s. One packet has been opened on each side; different ones, though the one at Ted’s has more content. Ideally, though Greg’s game will meet less often, more games will be played per session, keeping us level with Ted. The packets are designed to open in swift order, so that should even out quickly, and the foreknowledge of what is in them won’t affect my decisions in-game, towards keeping them closed or forcing them open. I am cautiously optimistic that I can keep one campaign separate from the other, and not spoil them for myself or for the other players.

These Are My Friends

In a couple of my earlier posts I talk about board games, the physical games themselves, as friends. Without deeply exploring the underlying commentary one could do on my seemingly devotion to consumerism to the point of anthropomorphizing commercial products, let’s just reiterate that I take my games seriously. And as such, it vexes me when people talk crap about games I like. While fully understanding that not everyone will enjoy every game, I still get upset when people judge games I like as objectively bad, especially when I feel they haven’t given them a chance.

Last Saturday I went to a friend-of-a-friend’s house for gaming. Knowing nothing more than the fact that it was boardgaming, and a different group than the eclectic bunch at NESFA, I took the 5 minute drive to the apartment. There were 5 people; me, my new friend Kevin, the owner and his girlfriend (possibly wife? It didn’t come up.) and another woman who insisted that her status as an orthodox Jew prohibited her from doing work on this the Lord’s day of rest, which meant no driving, no word games, and no ringing the doorbell.

Among the games we played was David Sirlin’s Puzzle Strike 2nd edition. To stretch the friend analogy, PS is like that guy who’s not exactly a bully, not outright mean but somewhat off-putting, but has really cool ideas and is actually a lot of fun to hang around. The guy putting on the gathering, whom we’ll call J, heard of it and requested we play when he learned I brought it. We played a 4 player game, with me trying to explain the game to three people who never played. It was fun, though it did drag on a bit. Afterward, J proclaimed that it wasn’t different enough from Dominion to be anything special. Now, I disagree with this; the combat mechanic is a marked departure from Dominion which, while an amazing game, is largely 2 to 4 people playing a communal solitaire with limited card stacks. The game is very similar, more-so than most would care to admit, but I don’t think after one play-through that statement can be said.

We discussed it a bit, then moved on while I tried to let it go. We played Tichu. Kevin and I lost, from a combination of terrible draws and overly aggressive play. After that Kevin and I played some 2 player Puzzle Strike, which I now believe is the better way to play. interspersed throughout our three games was J’s commentary that the game wasn’t that good. It included an out-loud aside that he would be giving this game a 5.0 out of 10 on BGG (which is pretty bad).

What I should have said was nothing.

What I did say was, “I know initial experience is a big thing, but I think you didn’t get the full scope of the game with just one play. I think you should play it again before you give it a 5.”

What I wanted to say was, “Stop talking shit about my game! You played it once, you have no right to judge. I know you didn’t like it, we’re enjoying it right now, enough with your bitchy commentary.”

It made me feel kind of bad. I’ve said before, in owning a game you become its ambassador.  If I can wax philosophical for just a bit: Games are the language by which many of us socialize. It’s a medium we use to meet and measure our fellow man.  Saying you don’t like a game I enjoy is like saying you don’t like what I’m saying, you don’t like my friends and you may as well not like me. So I felt like it was my fault J didn’t have a good time. It’s a fun game, it’s Dominion with a cool fighting component, why didn’t he like it? Did I explain it poorly? Was it the other people? Or is he just a stupid jerk who doesn’t like fun? Maybe he’s bummed because he lost, but I lost, I’m (mostly) fine with it.

Now, a deeper analysis of the evening might reveal a few extenuating points. For one, I was coming off a somewhat frustrating game of Pandemic with a bunch of people not listening to my sound logical explanations and doing bad plays. Then we lost Tichu. And of note, PS isn’t really my game, it’s a game I own, I didn’t create the thing. People can hate books or movies I like, and I won’t get bent out of shape. But for some reason I hate it when people talk shit about games, especially games I think are great, especially after one play.

Sometimes it’s best to just stay out of it

So why is it that I (and I hesitate to use the word we here) take criticism of certain boardgames so seriously? It’s certainly possible that I’m just being immature in this regard. But I like to believe it’s because games touch us in a more personal way. Passive media such as books, movies, and indeed many video games can and do reach us on a personal level, but they generally don’t require us to make an investment in them beyond time and a certain level of attention. We make our own experiences with the games we play, we have a direct influence on the outcome of this game, and the ending is not written in stone. Perhaps it’s because we have a hand in the creation of this completed game/story/work that I take it personally when people put it down.

Josh is very up-front and unapologetic about the games he doesn’t like. We’ve played a few games of things I love that he says he hates, specifically Thunderstone and Ascension. And while it wasn’t every time, it seemed to be the majority that he’d put down a game after he lost. Normally I’d write it off as sour grapes; after all, the man loves Dominion, and he liked Puzzle Strike (which he won), what makes these so bad?  But once I get past the reflexive ire I realize that Josh isn’t big on the random components, or at least so many of them. He likes having a little more control over his resources and the state of the game.  In Dominion the only truly random component is your draw.  In Thunderstone it’s the draw and the dungeon, and in Ascension it’s the draw, the row, and the dual point system that could tend to fighting or economy.

We’ll be playing Android: Netrunner in a week, and I know that, before we begin, he’ll want to see each card in the box to get an idea of what the decks do. Which isn’t bad, but I’m looking forward to learning the game as we play, being surprised by each card and how it fits into the game and the narrative. It’s a weird thing to have an emotional investment in, but I’m really hoping the game is fun for us. It’s almost like introducing two friends from different circles and really hoping it works out, only weirder because I haven’t even met one of them, who is incidentally not a person but a board game.

As a final thought, it’s worth repeating that board games are about people as much as they are about the game. And if somebody doesn’t like the game I like, that’s fine, it doesn’t make either of us bad people. But it can mean that maybe I don’t want to play with a guy who isn’t speaking my language. Part of being an adult, even one with child-like tendencies like me, is learning that not everyone is someone you need to please. We meet people, learn about them and get a feel for their personality, then decide if this is a person we wish to spend more time with. Just so with games. And if any game good, any person good too. I look forward to seeing if J and I mesh on other games. Josh and I have our disagreements, but he’s a great guy, and he’s my friend. And nobody talks shit about my friends.

The Collectable Card Game: they all end the same way

A few weeks back, Brandon told me about a new game he was excited about. This is not an uncommon experience, Brandon’s exuberance for new things is one of his finer (if occasionally good naturedly mocked) qualities. He has diligently tried to get me to enjoy Disc Golf, Monday Night Combat, Dominion and plenty of other things with varying degrees of success (I prefer Ultimate, I prefer MW3, Dominion is one of my all time favorites).

This time the new game was an online card game called SolForge.

Brandon:  Oh yeah, I think this game’s gonna be sweet.  It’s designed by Gary Games, the guys who do Ascension, and Richard Garfield, the originator of Magic: The Gathering. It’s a CCG, free-to-play, and as you play cards, leveled-up versions enter your deck.  It’s a cool idea that couldn’t really be implemented physically, and I’m hoping it marks the start of a new wave of digital board games using cool new ideas that only work in the digital space.

Josh: It does look cool! And while I don’t love Ascension as much as Brandon, I would certainly try another game by the creator. But in the description of the game there was one little thing that made me pretty discouraged: “It’s a CCG”

Magic Powercards

This isn’t Magic for most people…

Brandon:  I want to get indignant for this.  But at the same time I think I know exactly what you mean. 

Josh: I played a lot of Magic: the Gathering in my teen years. I have vague memories of the first time I was in Davis Sq (where I now live) visiting the two cardshops that sold Magic cards and had places to play. At my parent’s house I still have stacks and stacks of cards, and almost collected every card in the Weatherlight set. But there came a point when I realized that as time moves forward, so must your collection, lest you be left behind with inferior cards. Cards that were once powerful were made better in the newer expansions and unless you bought more and more and more cards, you’d never be able to compete. Quitting Magic coincided with my first plays of Dungeons and Dragons and Settlers of Catan. After spending hundreds of dollars on Magic cards, the thoughts of a one time purchase for similar levels of entertainment were delightful. While the core mechanics of M:tG were a lot of fun, I found far far more enjoyment out of building decks out of “proxy” cards; index cards on which was written the stats for the card it replaced. The “power creep” is what renders every CCG unenjoyable for those who do not want to devote more and more money for a game that rapidly finds itself jumping the shark. Combine this with the random nature of buying packs of cards and you get an addiction that while healthier than gambling or cocaine, follows the same pattern.

Brandon: It’s kind of funny we’re talking about this right now.  I went to a game gathering around the street from my place this weekend.  the place was the clubhouse for the New England Sci-Fi Association (NESFA).  Among the many and varied events I experienced, one was the back store-room.  Amongst the duplicate (and sometimes triplicate) copies of every Dominion expansion published, there was a stack of plain white boxes with old Magic cards.  I was told no less than 5 times over the course of the day that I could take them, as well as a couple comments that they would be thrown out, or shunted to a free pile for an upcoming convention.  These things really do pile up.
 
I should say I actually like M:tG, except for the abrasive community and the deck-building and the cost and the tendency to random bad draws ruining a hand.  Which should imply that I hate M:tG. But I honestly think SolForge will fix these four things specifically.
Josh: See, I loved the deck building, and didn’t even mind the random bad draws part too much, but the cost is what did me in. Both in terms of time and money. I’m not sure how SolForge can fix these problems and still be “collectible” because you can make lots more money if there are more things to collect and this is the trap that every CCG falls into. I’m not saying that the want for expansions to a game you like isn’t a legitimate one or that companies shouldn’t try to get more money out of something worth playing, mind you. If Nintendo had come out with Super Mario 64 II with no new powers, just new levels? I would’ve bought it in a heartbeat. Dominion continues to come out with expansion after expansion, and while power creep is a bit of an issue, everyone’s playing from the same pool of cards and you can simply not buy the newer ones and get away with it just fine. And yes, for some CCGs, even M:tG, you’re not required to buy new cards to continue enjoying the old ones.  But it’s “Collectible,” it’s right there in the title.  More cards come out, new options, and you really do have to buy them to get that full experience, or avoid the game getting stale after multiple plays.  I’m not sure how SolForge can promise to not fall into the usual CCG moneygrab if it offers you random cards via “booster packs.” The gameplay behind the shell does indeed look cool. The concept of level upped cards in a deck is fun, but I can’t see myself spending any money on a game that requires me to keep spending or risk losing out on what makes the game great.
6000 commons and uncommons

…this is what Magic looks like

Brandon:  I see what you mean.  And that’s a big part of what makes Dominion and the dozens of games now like it so successful; everyone gets to play from the same pool of cards.  Still, you do spend money on Dominion in order to enjoy it.  And I know what you’re thinking, Dominion plays fair and balanced without the expansions, it just offers more choice.  But tell me, doesn’t playing with the base set devolve into purchasing the 3 good cards each draw, ignoring the other crummy ones?  Your favorite cards are from expansions, not because they’re more powerful, but because they offer more choice, more flexibility.
Conversely, you can “get away with” not constantly upgrading your personal CCG deck some games.  Old Magic decks still contain the same fun of the game.  I’m admittedly not arguing for tournament play, and not just because my argument doesn’t hold up there.  But with friends, Magic is still fun with old decks, or janky promotional 40-card packs they give away at conventions and game store events.
 
So, in the midst of all this CCG talk, there’s really one thing I want to know:  can I convince you to try this game out with me?  We can try it, evaluate, decide if it merits more investment.  Just like any CCG, or indeed, any game that allows us to play for free.
Josh: I still do, and still would play with the base set Dominion, but I see your point about old MtG with friends. It holds some appeal, certainly. As for SolForge, I’ll certainly try it. Any Game Good. Just don’t expect me to put any money into it.

The Digital Divide

A few months back, I approached Brandon about this idea I had for writing a blog on boardgames together. “It’ll be fun,” I told him, “we both love boardgames, we both have strong opinions on them, and it’ll give us an excuse to hang out on a regular basis.” I had other ideas I thought would be cool that I relayed; having friends write guest posts (which is still an option, if you’re reading and want to run an idea by us), showing games turn by turn with recaps as to what we were thinking (if done well, I think this would be awesome with Diplomacy), maybe even starting up a game of Nomic (ok, maybe this is still a bad idea). But really the biggest impetus behind starting this blog was to spend more time with a good friend. See, Brandon and I had done theater together for the past couple of years, but our sketch show got canceled back in April, and the play we were working on together over the summer had a firm end date of July 13th. Sure, we could call each other up and make a plan to hang out, but it wouldn’t be consistent. And what better way to spend time with a person I enjoy spending time with than board games?

More recently, Brandon convinced me to signup for Yucata, a website where you can play board games for free (80 different ones, at last count) in a sort of play-by-mail system. Specifically he’s talked about a couple of games he finds especially interesting, A Few Acres of Snow and At the Gates of Loyang and so I signed up. I’m not new to the digitization of board games. I spend a decent amount of time over at Isotropic playing Dominion, and when I have time at a lunch break at work I’ve been known to bang out a game of Stone Age at BoardGameArena.com. Isotropic and BGA are both fast ways to play games that I love for experiences that are… lonely, actually.

This isn’t a new feeling. One of technological isolation wherein even though we are so well connected we feel alone. But the difference in feel is particularly striking when it comes to board games. The best interaction you’ll get from people in isotropic is a little self deprecation, maybe a comment on “i think you’ve got me”, or “one more?” More often though you get a “gl and hf” at the beginning and a “gg” at the end. There’s no commentary on an interesting play, there’s no pleading for “he’s gonna win if…” or the post mortem “I totally could have won if only…”. Just the bare minimum. Good Luck and Have Fun. Good Game. Or sometimes just “faster plz.”

gl and hf

Standard social interaction in online gaming

As a social person, this kills me, and usually prevents me from staying focused on the game at hand. I’m often multitasking, as the game rarely moves quickly enough to command my undivided attention. In person, this problem is solved by conversation, often about the game, but just as often just being jokey. My friend Jess and I make up little songs (greatest hits include “Every Game has the Longest Road” for Settlers, and “Slots” for Vegas Showdown) much to Brandon’s chagrin. Brandon (and I) will peer into the theme of the game for side entertainment. I even like the whining and moaning (to a degree) when someone’s game isn’t going well, because you have to be somewhat invested to whine, and the person losing is a lot more likely to talk about strategy, balance, and fun in a game than the person who’s trying to pretend they aren’t winning. (What Brandon termed “tactical bitching,” is a different thing, but even that I don’t mind quite as much as most people do.)

In fact, the thing that I am most surprised in how different a game feels when playing online versus when played in person, is my level of expertise. In a game like Dominion, where the game moves much more quickly online than in person (the thing that takes the longest in person is shuffling and reshuffling your deck. Computers do that instantly and that is very nice) and as such some games can be completed in 5 to 10 minutes, I do feel like I’ve gained a certain expertise that would have taken much much longer. The availability of players, at all hours of the day means I’m a much stronger Dominion player (at least, in two player games). Conversely, in games that take longer, the boredom and multitasking kick in and I find myself unengaged, which often results in solid, but not innovative play. I have a certain familiarity with Stone Age, but since I’ve only played it once in person, I don’t think I’m particularly that good at it. A player who is newer to the game probably will have more insights than I will, because I’m used to not paying attention. This problem is even worse on Yucata, where games can take days and you can have multiple games going at once. Keeping long term strategies separate is very difficult if you’re playing multiple games. And evaluating a strategy that you used is then impossible.

Playing online can leave you without the social aspect and without the strategic aspect of gaming, but I’m still playing. Brandon and I haven’t started up a game of A Few Acres Of Snow yet, but its pretty cool that we can try it out for free and when we aren’t in the same room to see if we like it. When a friend of mine moved to France he left me some games, and I had seen Stone Age before but had never sat down and played it, so online was a nice way to be introduced to a game that other people in my circle had played some before. I know which Dominion expansions I really like (Seaside, Prosperity, Cornucopia) and the ones I’m not a huge fan of (Alchemy, Hinterlands) even though I don’t own a few of them. And there are certainly worse ways to kill a lunch break.

Who Serves Whom

Josh and I had an interesting conversation while driving back from Cape Cod after a recent day-trip.  Like many conversations that take place after midnight, it was sleepy and borderline coherent, but I think it’s worth writing about.  We got to play a few board games, and each one had something to offer to the loose thesis that defines this post: at what point do the games we play stop serving us, and we begin to serve the game?

Carcassonne is a delightful little game that can be taught swiftly and played anywhere with enough table space. I lost by 3 points in a final score somewhere around 100 and change. We discussed the game on the walk to the beach, and we both agree that the game is great with 2 people. It suffers when more people are added, and in my opinion it suffers greatly when expansions are added. Carcassonne has a ton of expansions, each adding something and, actually, you know what, f*** this, here’s the BGG page search for Carcassone, showing all the 40+ expansions, standalone games, and upcoming titles that designer Klaus-Jürgen Wrede has wrought.  Game design lends itself to different philosophies. One tenet I heard from a friend (which I don’t entirely agree with, but appreciate its merit) is that there’s little purpose to adding new rules to a game if it isn’t fixing a problem. Basically, if it isn’t broke don’t fix it. Carcassonne is a game about haphazard road and city building, lashing tiles onto each other in the loosest ways, and that theme has made it into the design itself, with more and more expansions adding new elements to a game like a bunch of garish modern additions to an old Victorian house. To bring us back to the main idea: at some point in adding to this simple game, you’re getting less out of it than you’re putting in.  At some point, you’re serving the game more than the game is serving you.

When Architecture goes unchecked

Ascension was fun, at least for me. Josh doesn’t really enjoy the game, and giving him the benefit of the doubt it’s not because he lost; something about it rubs him the wrong way. Now, I love the game. My second post here is a testament to it. So in this, we have another component of our talk; what do you do when you like a game and a friend doesn’t? You get more out of it than they do.  Maybe It’s not much more complicated than “not everyone has to love a game, just play something else,” but it’s also a great example of the disparate levels of interest two gamers might put into a game.  But what about gamers and non-gamer type people?

Our final game was Thurn and Taxis. The game requires at least 3, preferably 4, so we got Dan And Emily Lavadiere (heretofore known as EmLav) to join us. Now here’s where we get into the main thrust of my meanderings. Games are supposed to be fun, and you can take them as seriously or flippantly as we want. Dan and EmLav aren’t game people like Josh and I are game people, but they like to play. Usually.

Yes yes, it’s very beautiful, can you take your turn please!?

It’s hard to focus on a game when you’ve got friends around, and drinks, and you’re just not invested in the game. I like EmLav, but when people wander off when it’s not their turn and you have to drag them back, it’s tough to deal with. It boils down to a gap in the interest in the game of the people at the table. Games are there to provide fun for the people. But the people need to respect their fellow players and, I believe, the game. We had fun, regardless, and in the end it wasn’t a huge deal, but it’s what got me thinking about the idea that, on some level, we “serve” the gamer as much as they “serve” us?

Phrasing it this way doesn’t really gel with Josh. For him, it’s more a matter of a low vs. high level of investment with the game. I agree with him, but it helps me to think of it this way. I consider it a question of how much the game asks of us, and how much we expect from the game.

I think of it as a spectrum, where at one end the games serve the people, and at the other the people serve the game. The former lays in a place of pure social interaction, where the game exists to facilitate a gathering of people to enjoy each other’s company. The game is simple, easily teachable, and its outcome ancillary to the jokes and drinks and revelry that is shared around the table. It may not even finish. If people have fun, and the game plays a part, it has done well.

Who takes this game seriously? Give you a hint: you’re reading their site.

BONUS: please write in to request the story of my 5-game tear against Josh, you won’t be disappointed, and I think it’s hilarious.

On the other end, where the people serve the game, imagine a tournament. Any tournament, for any game. The people who excel in tournaments serve the game. They know it, study it, revere it, they have a respect for it that most people will never appreciate.

As a somewhat obtuse example (but a worthy aside, IMO), click here and look at the photos. What you’re seeing is the Settlers of Catan 10th Anniversary Collector’s Edition Treasure Chest. With an MSRP of $380, the game is a work of art, far more so than any game I have ever played. Made with high-quality resin that feels like stone, hand-painted and made to fit inside a polished wooden chest, this game is a literal treasure to be admired. I have had the luxury of playing one a set like this once, and the people I was with knew how special playing it was. It’s still the same rules and strategies of regular Catan, but with a certain reverence to the game.

Expensive or artistically crafted games are one aspect, but not the only one. A game that takes a great deal to set up is another. Though it can feel like work sometimes, arranging the tokens and cards and pieces and perusing the tome-like rule-book, in the end it has a certain appeal. The game is fun, but you have to be willing to invest some time and energy in it. The game doesn’t just give you the fun; you have to do some legwork.

I have friends for whom the game must serve, and games that are meant to serve. Any Game Good, but not for any person. And if the game doesn’t work for someone it’s not the game’s fault. Josh is allowed to not like Ascension, and I’m allowed to want Carcassonne to stay simple, easily accessible, and not concern myself with a bunch of new mechanics if I don’t think they lend to my enjoyment of a quick game.

I have games for whom the players must serve, and gamer friends who live to serve. Catan, while easy to learn, demands attention. Any war-game I know takes effort, in its setup and the execution of one’s turn, and it does not forgive frivolity. Puerto Rico takes a great deal of assembly and explanation, and in return gives a wonderful experience of managing a hacienda and trade business. Race For The Galaxy gives something similar, at about 1/5th the setup. Both have their place.

I mean this not as a sweeping declaration, or even a tenet of my philosophy, but as a musing on gaming. As a final thought, I think of games, the physical cardboard-and-pewter constructs, as friends in their own right. Some are easy to be around, simple to teach and always good for a laugh. Some require study, an investment of time and interest, and are the source of the most amazing times I’ve had, because of the game as much as the people who care about it like I do.

Invested

Friends in the Business

Since moving to Boston I have been very fortunate to meet a number of friends. Most of them were big board game aficionados. And a few were avid game designers.

Two friends were named Rob. One was named “Fake Rob,” not because he was less corporeal than the other, but because he was one of the lead minds behind Cambridge Games Factory ,* a local company that helps board game designers develop and polish their games and sell them under the CGF label. He always brings play-test and beta versions to game gatherings, so he got the moniker “Fake Rob” for always playing “fake” games.

Here’s a logo.

There’s something special about play-testing a board game. Being a part of a developing product, contributing to what makes it work, what makes it fun, is at times a very fulfilling venture. I love playing games, but I also love the opportunity to teach them to new people, and I love being able to give a developer feedback on what I think works and doesn’t. I’ve never designed an original game, but I’ve tinkered with old ones, added rules I think make the game more interesting, or make them flow better. When they work you feel pretty good, and when they don’t you generally shrug them off and move on. But sometimes you don’t, you can’t.

When you design a game, commercially or for fun, or you help develop it in the beginning, or even if you paid a great deal for it, something happens. You become invested. You want the game to succeed, you fight to make it fun, you’re upset when it isn’t, and you’re elated when it works. Its success is your success, and its failings become yours. Such is the case for me, and the soon-to-be published card game Grimoire Shuffle from Level 99 Games.

Here’s another logo

I gave to the Kickstarter that’s funding this and several other games. I won’t write about Kickstarter itself, but I will say I gave to this company partly because it’s a worthwhile project I want to see succeed, and partly because I’m getting some cool games at discount prices. And as a backer I was given links to download a print-and-play version of Grimoire Shuffle. While I didn’t design the game, and my $50 was by no means the tipping point in a very successful KS project, I still felt kind of bad-ass printing the game, cutting the cards into the right size, placing them into sleeves, and assembling the components for a game that most people won’t get to see for several months.

The First Playthrough

My first chance to play the game was a Monday game night. Six people played; Me, Josh, Jess, Dan, Sukrit, and Katie. The game is a team relay race through an ever-shifting library. Players use magical books to move through the library in different ways. Some books allow you to blow players back, some shift rooms, others allow you to pass through walls, etc. The catch is you never get to choose your own book; the team leader, which rotates regularly, chooses his teammates’ books, and the opposing leader’s book. It’s on him to set the stage for the best strategic movement of his team. He will fail often.

And put them back when you’re done!

A first play through of any game can be difficult, and one where the rulebook isn’t totally finished can add issues. Some things we forgot; I made the board too small. Other things were misprinted; the special rooms were named differently than the cards that caused them to be played. Some rules were just frustrating; you could give the opposing leader a book, but the best books you always kept, and one team had the only books that allowed movement through walls, which was a huge factor.

If THIS guy hasn’t made it out yet how are WE supposed to?!

In the end, we called it after one point scored, which took about an hour. There was an air of frustration, and a bit of disappointment. But I wasn’t willing to give up on a game I felt invested in.

Feedback

Brad David Talton Jr. is a fairly accessible guy. His e-mail is out there, he recently did an “IAmA game designer for Reddit” post, and he’s currently asking backers for their feedback. So I wrote him. I mentioned a couple rulebook grammatical issues and oddities, and how the game itself was frustrating at times. And he responded. He suggested a rule that a book is discarded and replaced form a team each round.

It was a simple exchange, but it felt cool to play a game and give the creator direct feedback, and then have him reply and update the game based on it (the new rulebook has that rule, so the other play-testers must have been having similar issues).

The Second Playthrough

This time it was 4 people; me, Katie, Fraley and Melissa. The game played a lot more smoothly, and the act of discarding a book each turn added a very exciting element. Leaders now have this additional factor to consider. At least one book has to go to the opposing team, and if you want to save a certain book, you have to give it to a teammate, because there’s no hoarding now. You could give it to the opposing team and hope it makes its way back to you, but that’s very unlikely. It makes the decision a more interesting one, and when a game gives you that moment where you hem and haw and agonize over what decision is best, it’s doing a wonderful thing.

We played to 4 books. Both teams played well. This second game gave me a much better picture of how the game as a whole is supposed to feel. There are some good strategic moments in the game, but the majority of the game is set in madcap, back-and-forth tug-of-war antics on the board. Once everyone realized that we weren’t playing a game where you think ahead 3 to 5 moves it progressed much more quickly.

Melissa and I won, 4 to 2. Afterward I sent Talton an e-mail about the game, our thoughts, and my thanks for the opportunity to help with the game. He hasn’t replied, but I’m sure he appreciates the feedback.  He wrote back a week later, giving his thanks and actually changing a game component I suggested was too powerful.  Sweet.

I’ll save you some time; it isn’t really like this

Gaming is more fun when you’re invested.  I’m using that word very deliberately, and with many meanings.  One meaning is a person’s emotional investment in the game as an activity.  Games work best when you care deeply about the outcome, otherwise why play?  the immersion in the activity is what makes it great.  Johan Huizinga calls it the “magic circle.”  While the game happens, it’s the most important thing in the world, and when it finishes, you can walk away.  Investment also refers to one’s personal connection to the game itself, the product that makes the game possible.  Printing the sheets, cutting and shaving the cards to fit into sleeves, printing a nice rule-book, and prepping the game for play gives you a small sense of pride.  And while it’s not an “investment” per se, putting money into a project to help it succeed gives you the teeniest tiniest sense of ownership in the final product, and it’s good to see something you like enough to donate money to is coming along nicely.

Grimoire Shuffle is an amusing game. It isn’t perhaps as amazing as I was envisioning it, but it fits the bill of a game that fits in your pocket, is (fairly) easy to explain, and has a decent depth of strategy. I’m guessing that repeated plays with different people will result in varied games based on how people prefer to play. If everyone tacitly agrees that they’re playing a thought-provoking, in-depth strategy, we will play that. If everyone is set to play a fast-paced race through the swiftly shifting shelves we will play that. Either way, I’m looking forward to the final product, and the games we’ll have.

——————————————————————————————————————–

* The first board game I played when I came to Boston was a nearly finished version of Glory To Rome, published by CGF. It’s a very cool game, and I highly recommend it. The designer, Carl Chudyk, also made Innovation, which won BGG’s Best Card Game for 2010, and will certainly come up on the site at some point.