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Thinking Out Loud

Friday, June 30, 2006

88,000 Words and 18 Months Later...

(88,000 words and 18 months ago) ... Cool, you want me to work on a big Dungeons & Dragons module for GenCon 2005? Sure -- I can do that! This'll be neat!

(80,000 words and 10 months later) ... Whew. That was tough. Now to incorporate all that post-GenCon feedback. Will this thing ever get done? Who is doing interior art? Will we have room for this other stuff? Eegads this thing is enormous.

(June 29, 2006, 4:30 PM CST) I see a brown box on the doorstep when I pull in. My mind reels. Did I order a game? Am I expecting a trade from BoardGameGeek? Looking at the return label, it's from some printer in Minnesota. Still puzzled.

(June 29, 2006, 4:35 PM CST) They're here! They're here! A utility knife and a few shredded bits of tape later, I'm clutching 5 brand new, gorgeous copies of Vault of the Dragon Kings, more than 18 months in the making. I spent all night oggling them, clutching them protectively, and drooling. They look AWESOME, and I'm thrilled with the interior art. Oh, let me tell you though, despite all the hard work, the crazy weekends, the surly playtesters, the hectic tournament and the ever-present edits and updates -- it is ALL WORTH IT!!! The module is eye-achingly beautiful, featuring a great cover painting by Erol Otus, and back panel by Jeff Dee, big names in the classic D&D art world. The interior illustrations are superb, and the book weighs in at a whopping 128 pages.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Introspection >> I've Gotten More Out of Wargaming Than I Thought

I just played my first game of the 3rd edition version of A House Divided with my good friend and Civil War buff Phil. Time flew by and we had a blast. The game features some wonderful components, a neat promotion system and offers tough choices and several different approaches to take. I can't wait to try again with some of the advanced rules to introduce supply attrition and leaders. I can see this getting a lot of play, and going more quickly, with familiarity.

Overall, I really enjoy playing American Civil War games -- it is easily my favorite theater for war-based boardgaming. And playing with Phil is always entertaining and educational. As proud as I am to be an American, I know embarrassingly little about American history, geography and politics. But with American Civil War gaming, this pivotal part of our country's story comes to life, and throughout games, Phil and I have some very interesting conversations.

Knowing next to nothing about the Civil War, it's interesting to see when my moves mirror what historically took place, and when they're completely the opposite of what really happened. And Phil can put things into a historical perspective -- this army marched here because they needed to sever supply lines, or this battle was a decided Confederate victory since a small force was able to hold of a larger Union force, etc. I have to admit, after playing American Civil War games, I'm more likely to go read more about a certain battle (like reading up on the Peninsula Campaign after playing Worthington Games' excellent Forged in Fire a few weeks ago).

Wargames with armor and aircraft -- WWI, WWII and more modern warfare from Desert Storm to the present -- don't interest me at all. There's something less personal, less visceral (and as such, a bit more horrifying) about war being waged by people who are so far removed from the consequences of warfare. But in an ever-shrinking world, with 24-hour news channels and non stop coverage of war efforts, I suppose nobody is removed from the consequences.

So even that puts things into perspective for me. I have a profound respect for the men and women of the armed forces who risk their own life and liberty for the life and liberty of others. So if I've learned nothing else from my recent forays into wargaming, it's brought me a greater appreciation for my own freedoms, and a great sense of pride for the bravery of men and women willing to fight for that freedom.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Quick Hits >> Dos Rios, Medina, Palazzo

I got some more gaming in last Friday, finally getting together with Jorge and Eva for the first time since the Geekway to the West. Alfred Wallace graced us with his estimable presence, stopping by St. Louis during his whirlwind trip throughout the Midwest. We only got four games in, but also got quite a bit of kibitzing in as well -- a most enjoyable evening.

Dos Rios (by Franz-Benno Delonge of Manila fame) -- Love the production quality, and love the planning and visualization to reroute the river, but there is little you can do before your turn to prepare yourself, as the board changes dramatically from turn to turn -- which means a lot of AP and downtime. Even with that, the game would be about an 8.5 for me if it weren't for the absolutely atrocious endgame -- reaching the point of foregone conclusion where the only turn option you have is to do nothing and let Player A win, or do something and let Player B win. That is not a fun position to be in. Initial Impressions: 7/10

Dos Rios ran into an odd kingmaking quirk at the end of the game. After my turn, I had enough money to play my last casa to win the game on my next turn. But the Jorge, the player to my right, had enough money that if he earned $400 on the other two players' turns, he'd have enough money to place his Hacienda and win. That put Alfred and Eva in an odd situation -- either do nothing, and guarantee that I win, or do something and virtually guarantee that Jorge won. Since there is no other score or means to track success other than casas/haciendas placed, there's really nothing to "aim for" to try and come in second, so to speak.

Medina (by Steffan Dorra) -- Very nice bits, nice illusion of 3D and pretty fun for what it is. Feels a bit like a "flat" Torres or even a bit like Marracash (sometimes forced to help other players, so pick and choose your spots). I really enjoyed the game, and glad I finally tried it out. Despite its simple rules, there are some tough decisions and great gameplay in here. This and Marracash have changed my opinion of Dorra as a "filler only" designer. Initial Impressions: 7/10

Palazzo (by Reiner Knizia) -- Seems awfully clunky and mathematically uneven for an RK design. Odd situations occured throughout the game where your best move was to do nothing, lest you set up the next player for a strong turn -- but unfortunately, you're forced into these spots. Also gameplay easily bogs down in money drafting early on... there's no reason *not* to draft money over and over and over until you're through the entire deck. Sometimes it felt that whoever "blinks" first and takes a build/auction turn gets less out of their action than others who can benefit from the tiles remaining on the board after that move. And I was disappointed how incredibly derivative the scoring and structure were to Clocktowers and Alhambra. One of the least original RK games I've seen so far. Rating After 5 Plays: 5.5/10

Fairy Tale (Z-Man games edition) -- I really like the drafting mechanic, but found the art (in the Z-Man version) squeezed into a cluttered, ugly frame with the large icons. The strategy eludes me. Despite feeling that I make good personal and defensive drafting positions, I tend to come in last. There's something about the game that I just don't get. I'm not good at games requiring memory elements, and I can never remember what's missing from a hand being passed to me to deduce who has drafted what cards, etc. [UPDATE] The more I play, the more I do like it, and can appreciate the larger, blocky icons to easily see what other players have. Very fun with 3 or 4. Rating After 6 Plays: 8/10

Over the weekend, one of my special orders also came in from Clicks. Sadly, they couldn't track down a copy of Crusader Rex (none of their distributors carried it), but I did get A House Divided (3rd Edition) and Gulo Gulo. While I was there, I also snagged Alexander the Great, a few Navia Dratp expansions and Papa Bear, hoping the latter is something Ben might be able to play soon.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Publishing Daydream >> What Would You Do?

I found myself lying awake last night, as I often do, thinking about games. But instead of existing games, I kept thinking about stuff that isn't even real... yet.

As a dabbler in game design (with aspirations of some of my designs getting a closer look and consideration by publishers), I often wax philosophic about games. What makes a good game? What games am I missing from my collection? How would I tweak game X to make it better?

But last night, for whatever reason, I had greater delusions of grandeur. If I won the lottery, quit my day job, what would I do? Without reservation, I can tell you I would form my own publishing company and publish boardgames.

But what would I publish? Sure, I'd get some of my current designs out there, but there's always that Next Great Thing lurking on the gaming horizon. I'd surround myself with equally energetic, creative and enthusiastic people and work with them to develop that very game.

I think there are a lot of great opportunities to develop games rich in theme, nuanced in strategy and rewarding in gameplay experience. With captivating art, incredible components and limitless replay value. The trick is finding that opportunity.

What theme would you choose? What game design dream would you pursue? What would be your ultimate contribution to the gaming hobby?

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

The Kid's All Right >> The Fun of Children's Games

I haven't had much time for gaming lately, but I did finally get to try Gulo Gulo, and was quite impressed. I can't think of another game off the top of my head which has such an intrinsic balancing mechanism to put adults and kids on a level playing field. I've ordered it and can't wait to show Ben -- I think he'll have a blast. I know I will.

Speaking of gaming with Ben, he's still at the stage where most of the things I've introduced him to are more "toy" than "game" but I know that will come with time (he is three and a half, after all). He still likes playing Monkey Madness on a regular basis. And just when Trish and I have started getting tired of seeing that bright yellow box, he goes and does one of those incredibly cute things that kids do. He got his three favorite stuffed animals -- Blue Bear, Baa-Baa Sheep and Duffy the Raccoon -- put them all in a circle, game them each a board, and started playing with his friends. He taught them the rules, told them to take turns, clapped and applauded when Duffy filled up his card first, and then cleaned everything up and put it back. My eyes brimmed with tears of joy. It was simply beautiful.

I also recently picked up Snorta, which has some great components -- some small plastic barns and 12 plastic animal sculpts. While the regular game is a bit too complex for Ben right now, we've made up several different variants. They're all largely memory games -- hide an animal in one of the barns, then try to remember which animal is where when the corresponding card gets flipped up. Or make the animal sounds when you see the card, and try to find the barn with that animal before mommy or daddy does. Even though we've never played it the same way twice, Ben absolutely loves the game and requests it nearly every day.

Another game with cool animal bits is Cosmic Cows from Playroom. It's a Yahtzee variant, with two players basically "sharing" the opportunity to score a certain category ... So both players vie for the right to score a full house by moving a plastic cow along a line on the board for the full house scoring line. The first player to get 3 cows all the way to their side of the board wins, so there's a bit of tug-of-war going on. Again, the concept is a bit tough for Ben, but luckily the game is easily kiddified by removing the wonky scoring combos and breaking it down to just rolling dice and moving the cows on the numbered columns. With Cosmic Cows, though, Ben's interest wanes pretty quickly and it invariably comes down to all the cows leaving the board and running around the table.

I love gaming with Ben, even if it is more child's play than gaming play. We're spending quality time together, and I get to share my favorite hobby with an enthusiastic member of the family. Hopefully I'll have a bonafide opponent on hand in just a few more years of grooming!

What about you? What are some of your favorite games to play with children? Do you have anecdotes to share about kids and gaming?

Monday, June 12, 2006

Expense Account >> Viewing Expenses in Games Paid

I've often evaluated my spending habits to see if I might need to curb my rampant game purchasing. Then I've just as often discarded the ridiculous notion. I don't need to change my game buying habits -- but rather adjust the other parts of my life to better support my spending sprees. I tend to view nearly every non-gaming purchase I make as money spent on something less important than games. And not necessarily in abstract ways. I find myself waxing over games that could have been, if certain other expenses hadn't gotten in the way.

It is a slippery slope. For me.

Case in point -- My wife and I went out to dinner and then to see X-Men 3 for our anniversary. Dinner was $36, the movie was $18. Grand total: $54... Of course, in my mind, that came down to passing on my very own copy of Crusader Rex from Time Well Spent @ $44 + $7.16 ... $52.11 -- with enough left over to get a Snickers bar or two.

Funny thing, though... When I told my wife I treasured our special night out together as much as getting a new-in-shrink copy of Crusader Rex, she didn't seem overly impressed.

Our son Ben ran out of diapers the other day, and I needed to pick some up for both his daycare and at home. We usually go with Huggies or the store brand, as they work and are far, far less expensive than Pampers. Unfortunately, they were completely out of stock of his size in everything but Pampers -- and only had the super mega size -- which cost $19, or $7 more than the store brand for the same size.

So as I'm in the checkout lane, I'm gritting my teeth, thinking "Dammit, I could have gotten a copy of Mu & Mehr from the BGG marketplace for that!"

... And it just keeps going from there. You can read more about my financial fixation on games on my latest GeekList over on BGG.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Mutant Chronicles: Siege of the Citadel >> An All-Time Favorite

You can read my full review at BoardGameGeek.

Introduction: Discounting card games, where you can quickly rack up a lot of games played in a single evening, I'd wager that there are a handful of games I've played more than any others. These games have been a significant part of my gaming experience since first getting into the hobby. This core group of highly played games includes quite a few you've seen me tout on BGG -- Minion Hunter, Blood Bowl, Road to the White House, Cosmic Encounter and Mutant Chronicles: Siege of the Citadel.

Mutant Chronicles: Siege of the Citadel (MC:SotC) saw a lot of play in college with a wide range of different players. MC:SotC still holds up incredibly well today, even when compared to the invasion of Eurogames into the American marketplace. And it outshines clear competitors like Doom by FFG, offering a cleaner, more compelling gameplay experience. With its blend of incredible components, edgy sci-fi theme, tactical gameplay and well developed campaign rules, it's easy to see why Mutant Chronicles: Siege of the Citadel is -- and always will be -- one of my favorite games of all-time.

So Why Is It Awesome?

- The learning curve is ultra-short. I can fully explain the entire game in the time it takes to setup the board for the first mission. If a player still has questions, we'll just have him go last in the turn order during turn one.

- The gameplay is fast and there is very little downtime between turns. Even during the bad guy turn, during which he might have a dozen or so figures to move, things go quickly.

- Despite the simplicity of the rules, there are still some important tactical decisions to make -- split up your team or stick together, pick off weaker creatures or focus on bigger threats, when to spend your precious few extra actions or special action cards, move directly to the mission completion or soak up XP to help level for the long run, etc.

- The game encourages cooperation on the part of the mercenaries to ensure survival of the group overall, but yet each individual team has their own goals and interests (either via secret mission cards or simply self-interest in earning more XP or a bigger mission bonus).

- There is a wide variety of events, secret mission cards and special action cards, ensuring that even the same mission could play out very, very differently over repeated playings.

- Character advancement and development over the course of the campaign is really cool, and you start to feel an attachment to your mercs.

- The missions vary enough to make each mission in the scenario a new experience. Plus since the role of the bad guy rotates each mission, you can enjoy each mission as both a merc or as the bad guy.

- The components rock. The game is both tactilely engaging and visually engrossing.

- It's a helluva lot of fun to play. 'Nuff said.

The Bottom Line: 10/10 -- For its time and its competition (in terms of game style and genre), Siege of the Citadel has few peers. It is an excellent value, even by today's standards. Siege of the Citadel features incredible production quality, simple rules, fast gameplay and furious action. It's a great blend of RPG and tactical elements to appeal to a wide range of people. Mutant Chronicles: Siege of the Citadel is an amazing game design and production feat. It is and will always be one of my All-Time Favorites. I still love playing Siege of the Citadel. I love it so much I've tracked down 4 copies just to have more boards and bits.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Forged in Fire >> First Look, Initial Thoughts

A little while ago I mentioned that for some unknown reason, I've found myself interested in wargaming more than any virtually any point in my gaming life (with the exception of college, during which I played quite a bit of ASL with one of my roommates). I recently special-ordered a series of wargames from my FLGS, including A House Divided, and Crusader Rex.

Sadly, they're having a hard time tracking these games down, since they fall outside their normal purview. I could just order them online, but I'm really trying to "train" the hobby shop so I have a reliable brick n' mortar place to go.

Oddly enough, though, despite the spartan collection of wargames they carry, they had a copy of Worthington Games' Forged in Fire, an American Civil War game based on the peninsula campaigns in Virginia in 1862. There's very little information on the game on BGG, since it's so new, but that didn't deter me. Essentially, it's a "block game" using the same sort of block system like Wizard Kings or Hammer of the Scots, but with a small battle map for zoomed in conflict during combat resolution.

I've read the rules, downloaded a great player aids from BoardGameGeek, and am really psyched for this. I really enjoy the American Civil War setting for wargames, before aircraft, armored units and massive (reliable) guns. I find it a more visceral and personal timeframe.

For a full "first look" synopsis, read my initial reaction review over on BGG.

Forged in Fire has a much more interesting supply chain mechanic than Gettysburg 1863 or Sam Grant had, two other American Civil War games I played which just fizzled horribly. The Confederates have a strong supply chain stemming from Richmond, while the Union has to maneuver a supply depot and supply train to help provide a mobile source from which to trace their supply chain.

While the Union juggles its supply chain, the Confederacy has its ironclad, the Virginia, parked off-shore, ready to disrupt any Union amphibious landings or assaults they may be planning. It's the only ship physically represented in the game by a unit, and it creates an interesting game of "chicken" between the Union forces and the Virginia... The Virginia slowly repairs damage from turn to turn, but is removed permanently if destroyed. But the Union may end up wasting precious actions trying to activate amphibious movement, only to be thwarted by the Virginia showing up and making the way impassable.

My favorite element so far is probably the "confidence track" for McClellan. It's a long track denoting McClellan's confidence in himself, as well as the Union's confidence in the success of his campaign. Different game elements will make his confidence rise or fall (such as winning a battle, losing the supply train, sinking the Virginia, etc.) Different confidence levels may trigger the availability of certain reinforcements, or endgame conditions. For example, in one scenario, the Confederacy can win if they can drive McClellan's confidence to -4 or less on the chart.

I'm eager to try Forged in Fire out with a live opponent. The rules are interesting and lightweight enough to keep from being intimidating, while still detailed enough to provide what appears to be a nice, tactical experience. I really like the Confidence track dynamic, and the Union's need to keep its supply chain mobile. Forged in Fire looks like it might offer just the right balance of complexity and accessibility I'm looking for in a wargame.

Gut Reaction Rating: 7/10 -- hopefully moving up after a few plays.

Friday, June 02, 2006

One Was The Loneliest Number

May was a sad, sad month for gaming. The last week of May I desperately tried to get some more gaming in, but my schedule just didn't mesh well with anyone else's. I ended up getting one game in for the entire month -- one game, that's it! A single session of Hammer of the Scots, played the first weekend in May.

But looking back over May, while it was indeed a dry spell for gaming, I wasn't completely bereft of fun. I did put in some time playtesting the official Dungeons & Dragons GenCon Tournament Module for Goodman Games, which has been fun and let me re-connect with some of my RPG buddies whom I hadn't seen in several months.

My wife and I got to spend some quality time together killing things. One of our favorite past-times together is console RPG gaming. I had done some research for a good game, and had been holding out for one that had the right mix of elements to really grab (and hold) our attention. We're notorious for getting close to the end of a game, getting sick of it, and never finishing. Well, DragonQuest VIII for the PS2 is awesome, and just the sort of game we need. I think we logged about 24 hours of play into DQ in May, which has been a lot of fun.

We also discovered Firefly, the short-lived sci-fi/western show from the producer of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Firefly is simply, in a word, amazing. I can't believe it took us so long to come across it. The dialogue is wonderful, the characters are rich, the storylines are compelling and everything about the show is completely immersive. We got the first disc in the mail from Netflix, and watched all 4 hours in one sitting -- we couldn't tear ourselves away from the TV. And then we immediately purchased the entire series on DVD, cuz it's that good. And we've been enjoying it immensely.

And, hey, it's only June 2nd and I've already doubled my gaming output from May... Yesterday my wife and I played a game of Cosmic Cows, a Yahtzee variant from Playroom Games. It's nice Yahcht-style fun with nice bits (which Ben loves playing with). And I also logged a game of Condottiere online with Ekted, using the Vassal module he put together -- I was surprised how well it captures a face-to-face feel online (granted, that was clearly aided by the fact we were talking to each other via Skype at the time).

So two games down, and an entire month to go. June's looking pretty good! :)