Search Results for: tabletop games

A hypothesis on the life cycle of combat RPGs

A question from the blog-topics backlog which I’d now like to throw out to the readership: If you have ever played a combat-oriented tabletop role-playing game like Dungeons & Dragons, did you ever actually use miniatures on a grid, as the rulebooks generally assume of their players, with each square representing a 10’-by-10’ area? Or did the combat, as with the rest of the gameplay, stick to an entirely verbal format?

It’s been a long time since my last paper-and-pencil D&D session, but I’ve dabbled amidst perhaps a dozen different RPG groups since first discovering them way back in high school, in various locations up and down the American east coast. In precisely zero of these groups did the players ever move character-representative pawns around on a grid, treating them as a literal tactical representation of the battle. At most the GM might occasionally doodle out an abstract visual-aid snapshot of a particular battle setup, just as a visual aid:

OK, this is the cave [draws blob on paper]… here’s where you all came in, and there’s that mysterious light [writes MYSTERIOUS LIGHT down in one corner of the blob]. The goblins are coming at you from this tunnel over here. You have initiative, right? What’s your first action?

That sort of thing. And from there, everyone sort of co-wrote the resulting combat choreography, with the GM generally allowing any action that didn’t seem to stretch the limits of a character’s ability. A character couldn’t bound across the huge cave in a single move (unless magically propelled), but they could probably move to rearrange themselves relative to anyone else in the party, or run to cover. At no point in any such game I played did the action ever stop while we checked whether a character, given their height, dexterity, encumbrance, and so on, moved the sufficient number of feet per round to cover the distance between their current position and that stalagmite over there. And that’s to say nothing about missile weapons or area-effecting spells; generally, if the GM said you could see it, you could shoot it. (Or be shot by it.)

And yet, the games’ thick manuals always provided copious rules that seemed to assume that this number-crunching mode was the only way to play. To the best of my knowledge, this has remained true in D&D all the way up through its most recent fourth edition: just flip through any Player’s Handbook and observe all the words and diagrams given to describing the precise square-footage of fireball spells, varying by caster level, or the grid-footprint of white versus black dragon breath.

Any tabletop RPG group I have actually seen in action would just take these numbers as cues, suggestions of relative scale and feasibility. A GM would thus know that a black dragon’s stream of acid-breath would toast fewer targets than a white dragon’s wide cone of blasted frost, and narrate the results accordingly. They would not lay down a straightedge to determine which players, exactly, the dragon has line-of-sight on; they would instead build on the story so far to come up with an answer that just makes good dramatic (or fight-choreographic) sense.

Therefore, a hypothesis emerges from my very limited experience: the encoding of miniatures-combat rules into tabletop RPG rulebooks turns them into an odd sort of genetic carrier, allowing concepts seeded by wargamers in the 1970s to express themselves as videogames with perfect and infinitely patient computerized arbiters many years later. But the tabletop rules must exist first, an interim, crysalis form serving to entice a quite particular subgroup of unsatisfied players to adapt them into the digital formats that they strive to evolve into. Only then can these games, freed from the control of impatient human GMs, proceed to revel in their own rules’ arithmetic, right down to the fractional movement modifiers inherent in a character after they drop an extra electrum piece in their belt pouch.

(Granted, sometimes these combat RPGs will instead evolve into amazing duck-billed tabletop slugfests like Descent. This is because life is vast and beautiful.)

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The callow pleasure of inventing new Ascension cards

Ascension is a popular game, I personally am hooked on it, and it has an expansion. Therefore: I indulge myself by imagining cards for another expansion.

I am not the only one, certainly. But I have not flipped through BGG or game forums looking for other people's lists. So this may repeat ideas you've seen before.

This isn't about big, expensive, game-changing new powers. I'm interested in subtle effects.

(In case it's not obvious, nobody says "honor" or "rune" or "power" in our neighborhood.)

Explosive Homunculus: Monster, cost 3. Gain 1 VP and 2 sword.

I noticed there were no gain-sword-on-the-back-side effects out there, so I thought why not. Maybe they playtested it out, but this don't look broken to me -- just a nice limited chain opportunity.

Emri's Javelin: Void Construct, cost 4, 2 VP. Gain 1 sword every time you defeat a monster in the center row.

No, not for Cultists. Sheesh. Yes, if a Homunculus comes up, you get to throw metal fingers.

Rage Star: Void Construct, cost 3, 1 VP: Gain 1 sword. After you defeat a Cultist, you may treat further Cultists as 3/2 monsters for the rest of this turn.

A point here, a point there, but maybe at the end of the game your sword deck gets a big windfall.

Junkyard Diver: Mechana Hero, cost 3, 1 VP. You may choose a construct from your discard pile and put it in your hand. Draw 1 card.

Foul Slime: Monster, cost 2. Gain 2 magic. Return 1 VP to the pool (if you have any).

"Eww, it got all over me."

Worldly Fetter: Enlightened Construct, cost 3, 2 VP. Once per turn you may return 1 VP to the pool to gain 1 magic.

Adayu's Hut: Enlightened Construct, cost 3, 1 VP. If you do not defeat a monster during your turn, gain 1 VP.

Two-Faced Predva: Enlightened Hero, cost 1, 1 VP. You may gain 3 magic; if you do, then at the end of your turn, put this card on top of one of the cards in the center row.

A cheap one-shot booster, but then someone else gets him. Also lets you do some low-grade card denial.

Xeron, Duke of Lies: Monster, cost 6. Gain 4 VP. Draw a card. Each other player must banish a card worth at least 1 VP from their hand (if they have any).

Yes, it's friggin' Xeron. Everybody hates Xeron. This is an alternate Xeron which isn't quite as hateful. Use it as a house rule if you like.

I'm having a hard time coming up with Lifebound cards. Can't think of any interestingly different ways for them to build off each other.

And finally, I keep trying to invent the Onefold Askara. The joke is that it's just some guy. A guy with one face! "0 cost, 0 VP, draw a card"? Not funny enough.

Maybe "0 cost, 0 VP, cannot be banished". This is more interesting if you're playing the Variant, so that another card is visible behind him. But that next card might still be crap, and then nobody would touch him for the rest of the game. I dunno.

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Try the two-rows Ascension variant

The next time you play a non-digital edition of Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer (or any of its followup titles), give this simple variant a whirl. My local Ascension-fan friends taught me the game this way, in fact; I tend to agree that it makes the game more interesting, without wandering far from the core ruleset.

The new rules are these:

  • At the start of play, deal out the center row of six cards as usual. Then deal out another row of six cards above it, giving you a two-by-six grid of cards. (Yes, this won’t fit neatly on the game board. You may have noticed by now, however, that the board actually doesn’t really add anything to the gameplay experience, so consider keeping it folded up and in the box.)

  • The lower of the two rows is “the center row” referred to by the usual Ascension rules, as well as all on-card text. That is, all the usual purchasing, monster-slaying, and banishing occurs in the lower row alone; the upper row is untouchable.

  • When a player buys, defeats, or banishes a card in the lower row, instead of replacing it from the draw pile, immediately slide the card directly above it down to replace it. Replace the resulting gap in the upper row with a card from the draw pile.

That’s it. Everything else about the game proceeds per the usual rules.

Once you start playing, you should quickly see the implications of this simple change. “Knowing the future” for every center-row card, even only one draw in advance, adds a rich layer (literally!) of strategy where the original ruleset depends more on chance. You will see opportunities to grab a card and then immediately snag the one that will replace it — and, later, you’ll hesitate to get a plum card for yourself because you know it’ll give your opponent the chance to gain an even sweeter prize.

Do give it a try — and if you happen to know where this variant originated, please comment, so that I can add due credit to this post.

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Origins 2011: Fighting monsters through deckbuilding

DeckbuildingAs I wrote earlier, I hadn’t attended the Origins Game Fair (or any tabletop-focused game expo) since 2006, so I suspect that my shouting Holy grog, so many deck-building games! will sound a year or two out of sync with the forefront of game news. But I’m shouting it anyway. To my eye, Dominion-style deckbuilders seemed far and away the most prominent genre represented among new-and-newish games on display last month in Columbus.

I played no fewer than four new (or at least new-to-me) deckbuilders, and that still left a handful unplayed. The unifying theme among the whole field seems to be “Gee, Dominion doesn’t have any hit points or leveling up or monster-killin’, so clearly we can compete with it by adding all that stuff, because it’s awesome.” I’d argue that that’s rather missing the point of Dominion’s delicious rules elegance, and after playing a few, I find myself standing by that notion.

Which is not at all to say that these newer games are not worth playing. Allow me to now inevitably and at great length share my impressions of them with you!

The most charming is Quarriors, a dice-based game that Wiz Kids will release later this year. The rules are actually quite similar to Dominion’s, but with an additional axis of luck: not only do you randomly draw a hand of different dice from your “deck” (a dice-bag, actually) every turn, but you then throw it, resulting in unpredictable effects.

Quarriors’ monster-slaying and hit points and so on comes courtesy a creature-summoning mechanic reminiscent of Magic: The Gathering. Most of the dice you buy represent creatures. You summon them if you can roll the proper faces of their respective dice, so long as other dice you rolled display enough “quiddity” (buying power) to pay their summoning cost. (A creature die’s other faces instead provide quiddity, or trigger other effects.) Once summoned, creatures deterministically fight other players’ creatures. If they can stay on the table for a full go-round, they score points, and allow their player to tune their deck by removing one of their dice from play (usually one the initial, Copper-from-Dominion-analogue-dice).

In my experience, a throw rarely resulted in any decisions to make; you’d carry out all the creature-summoning and special effects that your throw allowed, then buy the most expensive die that your quiddity faces let you afford, then pass on your turn. And yet I had a good time! The dice are very pretty, and somehow a looser, less thinky adaptation of Dominion feels just fine when implemented with dice. I’ll be looking at this one again when it goes on sale.

The game I’d most like to try again is Resident Evil, a deckbuilding adaptation of the videogame. Of the new deckbuilders I tried, it’s also the most focused on monster-bashing. Players’ decks come to resemble the inventory screen of a Resident Evil character, filled up almost entirely with a variety of weapons, ammo, and health potions. A properly tuned deck will provide a narsty and fully-loaded boomstick on most draws, which players can then apply to the nearest bloodthirsty revenant to win victory points.

Resident Evil’s fighting mechanic comes directly from Munchkin: players can, if sufficiently emboldened by their hand, flip over a card from the table’s face-down “mansion deck” to reveal a gooey shambling survival-horror baddie. (Or, rarely, a groovy powerup; but don’t count on that.) If their hand contains enough firepower to properly perforate the monster, they collect its head for VPs, and with enough VPs they’ll level up and gain more powers. A weak hand against a monster makes the player instead lose some hit points. Losing all your hit points forces you to miss a turn, and if you make a habit of it you’re dropped from play entirely — not a bad way to give the action a videogamey vibe, evoking respawn penalties and limited lives.

The point I’m most skeptical about are the single monster deck, which makes it equally likely that you’ll encounter either a 98-pound milquetoast zombie or the toughest creature in the game on your first flip. My immediate desire is to split the monster deck should into halves or thirds, with each sub-deck representing a dungeon floor. By requiring players to clean out one deck before moving to the next, you’ll guarantee a smooth power increase as the players delve deeper and find tougher baddies, which strikes me as a good expression of a typical combat-adventure videogame’s spirit.

Gunther Schmidl informs me that I’m not the first to think of this, but suggests that the game is perfectly fine as-is. And to be fair, due to a rules misread, I spent most of our one play feeling more sour about the game than it deserved. My mood improved when we figured out how to play properly, and while the game still has a lot of oddity around it, it kindled my curiosity enough to want another go at it sometime.

I’ve already written about Ascension here lately, and so has Andy. While I did play through a demonstration of the card game’s inevitable first expansion set, learning about the original game’s then-nascent iOS adaptation piqued my interest the most. Since it appeared in the App Store only days later, it’s safe to say that this game among all the Origins deckbuilders has remained active in my mind the most.

And while it’s another deckbuilder-with-monsters, somehow Ascension manages to seem less, hm, egregious about it. Maybe it’s because the base rules are sufficiently different from Dominion that the presence of monsters feels less tacked on.

Taking a begging-your-pardon card from Race for the Galaxy, Ascension replaces Dominion’s stacks of randomly determined purchasable card stacks with a single drawpile, the same one every time (though shuffled, of course). At all times, the table features six face-up cards, a mix of killable monsters and cards you can add to your deck; picking up either kind of card results in its immediate replacement from the drawpile.

Gaining cards happens much as in Dominion, except that you may buy as many cards as you can afford, and the currency comes in two flavors: white for picking up deck-cards, and red for zapping monsters. Since monster cards are removed from play as soon as you pay their cost, their printed effects take effect at that moment. A skillful player will dispatch monsters in ways that maximize their short-term buying or killing power even beyond what their hands allow, letting them make some impressive purchases.

Ascension plays fast: the deck lacks pure no-op cards, like Dominion’s VPs or Curses, so even terrible draws let you do something with your turn. This doesn’t necessarily make me like the game more than games that allow you to draw a do-nothing hand, but I appreciate the intentionality that went into the design to avoid this phenomenon while remaining a perfectly playable deckbuilding game.

Really, my main disappointment with Ascension is that the official rules are not the house rules that my friends and I prefer when we’re playing the game’s cardboard edition, which we all agree make for a much more interestingly strategic game. That’s a post for another time, though.

By the time I got to Thunderstone, I’m afraid, I was so saturated with examples of the Dominion-plus-monsters meme that the game seemed like parody. Looking at it uncharitably, one imagines the game appearing by way of someone playing Dominion for the first time and thinking, “I don’t understand; why isn’t this game literally Dungeons & Dragons?”

And so you have a game where the cards represent hirelings in a classic D&D setting, each of whom has inventory slots and classes and levels and so on. Each turn, you can either “visit the town” to add equipment or goons to your deck, or hit the dungeon, represented by a tableaux of face-up monster cards.

I can’t say much else about it because the whole experience passed straight through me. I had learned simply too many different new deckbuilding rulesets in one day at this point, and simply had no appetite left for more of the same, except with shuffled-in second-level clerics wearing gauntlets of strength, and thieves who added +1 to your hand’s light-source level. I look forward to playing it again sometime with a clean palate.

What can I conclude from this? Well, in one sense, I have nothing to complain about: I actually rather love deckbuilding games, and absolutely welcome more variants to come to my table in an attempt to show Dominion how it’s really done. And because the circles of “tabletop game designers” and “nerds” have an awful lot of Venn-diagram overlap, I can’t express much surprise that the first wave or two of contenders appear to be attempts to jam standard RPG elements into the core concept, starting with monster-slaying.

So I definitely look forward to seeing what the future holds for this sub-genre of card game. Until then, I’ll be over here with my seven Coppers and three Estates, ready to once again make my grandparents (on my mother’s side) proud.

(Present at Origins, but not played by me: Nightfall and The Ares Project, even though both were recommended to me by various other game-fans at the Expo. I just didn’t manage to cross paths with them that weekend, so I don’t know how monstery they are. Perhaps the second wave of Dominion reactions is already here…? I’d love to hear some thoughts on them.)

Image: Original photo illustration combining Deck Building by Reuben Cleetus and Evil Cat by Jason Bran-Cinaed. Both are CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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Ascension polish

Jmac referred to UI issues in this morning's post about Ascension for iPad. I have indeed been swearing and muttering about the UI (as I play incessantly). But don't get your hopes up for another tirade of designerly bile. This isn't the sort of bad UI caused by being an idiot, and then patching the patches on the patches until the result sinks into its own mire. Ascension just isn't right. It can be made right.

I rather assume that Incinerator Studios knows they have lobby issues, and decided to ship something rather than delay the project for a complete lobby rewrite. Nonetheless, for the sake of my own serenity, I will run through the diagnosis.

In short: game creation is clunky and misleading. The initial choice is "play offline" vs "play online", which sounds like the right lead-in. If you choose "online", you're offered the choices "create game", "find game", and "game list" -- the first sign of trouble: "find game" and "game list" mean the same thing, surely? If they don't, what's the difference?

If you try to "find game", you're presented with a list of tables -- fine. You select one. Bang, back to the previous screen with no indication that anything's happened. Huh? After some flailing you discover that you have to enter the "game list" and select the game you just selected. Except that this sometimes puts you in yet another unnecessary screen, where you discover that you're "waiting" -- gosh -- and you will eventually have to hit "back" and then select the game again.

Creating a game, again, dumps you back to this menu with no indication that the game got created. And throughout this process, the UI occasionally interrupts itself to tell you that it's been "disconnected from the server" -- meaning you have to push a button to get back to where you were.

The offline branch is nearly as bad. You can get into a game with a minimum of fuss -- "play offline", "create game", "start" -- three taps. But when you finish, the process to start a new game (and you will want to start a new game) involves hitting "done" and "quit", backtracking through those levels, just so that you can forward-track through them again. Five taps for "play again"? Bad.

But this is not a cavalcade of bitter failure. It's basically one mistake: the "game list" shouldn't be a screen. It should be a list, visible from all the other screens. When you create or join a game, a new entry pops down into the game list. Tap it and go. If one of the games becomes ready, that status change is immediately visible. This pretty much makes all the problems go away.

Oh, and if you get disconnected from the server, it should reconnect and refresh the list. I mean, that's just common sense. Keep the list up to date. There's no reason the player should have to think about TCP streams.

(You still want to streamline some things. For example, there really doesn't need to be a list of offline games, most of the time. You're only in one at a time. Just go straight to the game-setup screen. If you step out of an offline game, and then come back, then sure -- you'll want that list-of-suspended games, together with a "create new game" option. But don't present this list of six empty slots by default.)

(Also, remember my favored avatar for the offline game setup. I hate being that apprentice guy.)

A friend pointed out some in-game annoyances as well. It's weird that you double-tap a card to zoom to a closeup, but then single-tap to zoom out. Why not say that a single tap zooms in and out, whereas a double-tap means "fire!" Double-tap is a better shortcut for advanced players than the flick gesture, which is weirdly persnickety about where you flick the card to. (If I try to flick three Cultists off the heap, I inevitably wind up killing two and leaving the third to hobble home unharmed. C'mere, sonny, you're not getting away that easily...)

Yes, you should leave the flicking and dragging in place -- it's correct. I just want the double-tap too.

And the game screen really doesn't need to be so noisy. I know, the art is nice, but dim down the background another 50%. Nobody's looking at it.

I want to end on a positive note, though. The "end turn" button -- the way it turns green when you have nothing else left to do on your turn? Genius. Obvious, like all genius ideas after the fact, but genius nevertheless.

Okay, I think that's it. Go rewrite some code. Be the archetype of correct iPad lobby behavior. Show everybody how it's done. ...That way I won't have to rewrite this post every time another damn game ships.

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Descending beneath Ascension's surface

Tribute day3While I have a half-written post about my Origins 2011 adventures, I must defer it to address instead recent iOS adaptation of Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer. I’ve been playing an awful lot of Ascension (originally designed and published for the tabletop by Gary Games, iOS version by Incinerator Studios), and planned to write about it anyway. But it won priority in the wee hours earlier this week when I discovered myself hallucinating my way through a game. Only several moves in did I realize that I was lying on my side in bed, staring at a wall in the dark.

I did in fact enjoy a very real game just hours before that, sitting on Cambridge’s riverside esplanade with several excellent friends, passing my iPad around while we waited for Boston’s Independence Day fireworks to start. And while memories of a good game session have often rolled around in my head for hours after playing, I don’t recall the last time my subconscious mind blustered in and demanded to watch the tapes in full as soon as my head hit the pillow. So, something’s going on here.

Ascension isn’t a perfect game; while a very faithful and eminently playable adaptation of the physical card game, it’s not without flaws, mostly involving UI and polish (the details of which we shall leave for another post). It nevertheless strikes several chords with me, in particular my obsession with online multiplayer games, and my more recent interest in tablet versions of tabletop games. Its properly transparent use of Apple’s GameCenter has resulted in my playing at least as many online games as I have solitaire games against the bots (an especial boon since the bots don’t seem terribly skillful). Those online games have been a half-and-half split between my GameCenter friends and total strangers. And, now that I think of it, they’ve featured a half-and-half split along another axis, between real-time games and asynchronous ones.

None of these features are, taken individually, new to iOS games — I believe that the platform’s Carcassonne version features them all now, for one, and presents them in a far more polished package. So perhaps it’s just me; maybe Ascension just happens to be the first iPad game I’ve played that’s presented all this stuff to me all at once, driving it from a decent deck-building game into a startlingly direct expression of my current digital game obsessions.

But for me, the real closer is the game’s theme. Mechanically, it’s a deck-builder similar to Dominion, and follows a current trend among among new card games of presenting some variant of Dominion-plus-monster-slaying. (More on which when I get to my Origins post.) The theme, though, I adore. On the surface it’s somewhat corny dark fantasy; the flavor text on the cards tends towards the cartoonish, and the artwork is evocative but a bit loose. However, various card interactions that occur in play — and which the iOS version brings attention to — suggest an engagingly deeper story.

It sketches out a fantasy world that’s suffered, I believe, a sort of Lovecraftian Greenhouse effect. Alien-worshipping secret societies have been allowed to flourish unchecked, and now all manner of squamous reality-bending horrors stomp freely down the street in the middle of the damned day, snacking on the citizens and converting the survivors into their enthralled cultists. The players are mage-lords, invincible in their towers and normally unmoved by the affairs of mere mortals. But many-angled Mistakes of Creation devouring the city is a bit much. And besides, if their rival mage-lords slay all the monsters first and win the peoples’ terrified love and tributes for generations, well, that won’t do either. And so they each get to work at their scrying pools, which manifests itself to the game’s players through the familiar motions of deck building, drafting armies of mystic warriors to put the hurt on some trans-dimensional outrages. The winning player is the one who collects the most points, through a combination of a high-value deck and a trophy case full of freshly lopped demon heads.

One key bit of flavor to which the iOS version particularly contributes involves the Cultist, an ever-present monster card depicting a raving, scripture-waving street lunatic. If you have the bad luck to draw a strong hand when no juicier monsters are on the board, you can always choose to kill a Cultist or two for a better-than-nothing reward. In the tabletop version, he’s just a single card that stays on the table no matter how many times players zap him for his one lousy point. The iOS version punches this up delightfully, having the Cultists emit Wilhem screams while they careen off the playfield as fast as you can flick them away with your finger — several at a time, if you can afford it, but always leaving another Cultist behind. I delight in the notion of your mage-lord, dealt a crap hand, taking out their frustration by planting their Wizard Rifle on the tower windowsill and burping a few rounds at the nearest batch of streetcorner pamphleteers, whose gory deaths barely attract notice. Even though we’re still looking at graphics of playing cards on a table, the extra, lightly-cartoony effects the digital version brings helps gel the game’s darkly humorous narrative to a surprising degree.

There’s an option specifically to silence the Cultists’ screams, but I don’t know why’d you’d ever want to do that. In fact, I’m disappointed that the screams aren’t extended to the Apprentices, your hapless underlings who play a role analogous to Dominion’s Copper cards. While they’re important to your first few buys, they quickly become dead weight in your hand, obsoleted by the very cards they allowed you to gain. Various Ascension cards let you “banish” unwanted cards from your deck, to use the game’s term for permanent removal. So the midgame often features players banishing their poor Apprentices as fast as they can, divesting themselves of two or three on a single turn if lucky. I find this strongly thematic, since I can’t help but read “banish” as a polite euphemism for rather more pyrotechnic exits — working as an all-powerful mage-lord’s lackey is dangerous work, you know? Inevitably, my mental enactment of a turn in Ascension has me envisioning a typical workday for the evil Mistress from the highly NSFW webcomic Oglaf (who graces the top of this post) or this gentleman:

(And that’s David Warner as Evil in Time Bandits, of course.)

I guess what I’m saying is that if you have an iPad, and you enjoy deck building games, you’ll probably like Ascension. And if you enjoy reading far too much into the storylines of your deck building games, you might even love iOS Ascension as much as I do. (It’s also available for iPhone / iPod Touch, but I haven’t tried that version.)

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42, in a Texan dialect

According to Wikipedia, Texans have long considered the dominoes game called 42 their very own statewide pastime. Texas State Rep. Erwin Cain has successfully led an effort to make this official, introducing his bill on the State House floor with an original bit of charming doggerel recapitulating the game’s traditionally accepted history:

Using double six dominoes in 1887
They created this holy game
Or rather it fell straight from heaven
Our blessed 42 with now such wide acclaim

No game of chance is this
As in cards, roulette or dice
For skill it takes in this game of bliss
Not so for those games of vice

(The full text is up at Purple Pawn.)

I get a kick out of this for a couple of reasons. For one thing, I like stories about the ingenious compromises people make when they wish to adhere to strict religious traditions while also satisfying their earthly desire to play a good game with friends and family. Rep. Cain seems to subscribe to the notion of dominoes as wholesome alternatives to the cards and dice that certain stripes of Christian culture proscribe as devilish — regardless of their functional similiarity! It reminds me also of observant Jews’ use of bookmarks to keep score during the Sabbath (the day of rest that forbids activities resembling labor, including writing). This creative tiptoeing through the sacred rulebooks in order to get some good games in strikes me not at all as shallow, but rather a beautifully human way of approaching the ineffable.

On a more material level, I always enjoy learning about the folk tabletop games associated with different parts of the United States. It seems that every nameable geographic/cultural region across the country has at least one game that it calls its own. The relationship between 42 and Texas is news to me — as is 42 itself, since domino games, so prevalent in the American south, remain alien to this Yankee. The child of Downeast Mainers, the table games I grew up with all involved one of those sinful card decks, with Cribbage chief among them. My friends of a more Midwestern bent, on the other hand, tend to be veteran Euchre players.

Do any studies exist on these sorts of regionally fastened games across America? One imagines this to be a subject as trackable as spoken dialect — and at least as interesting, as far as I’m concerned.

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iPad Ra: Very nice, but could use a spot of dusting

Yul Brynner in The Ten Commandments film trailerAllow me to expand on my parenthetical aside about the shifting sands of Ra from Tuesday’s essay:

First of all, I must emphasize that the iPad edition of Reiner Knizia’s Ra, implemented by Sage Board Games, passes the most important test I could give it. After writing that post, I brought my iPad to a friend’s regular board game night, and a shifting group of us played or watched the game several times. We had a perfectly splendid time! I quite genuinely look forward to my next opportunity to go a few rounds in the Middle Kingdom with my friends.

At the same time, this incarnation of Ra also features a handful of UI design problems, made more obvious through that heavy play session. Most of the issues come down to per-player controls popping up in inconsistent locations, which caused us to sometimes take each others’ turns inadvertently, as well as the use of simple recoloring for choice-highlighting — almost never a good UI decision. (If you see two choices, and one of them is red and one is yellow, which one is selected?)

But what moves me to write today is the sand.

In contrast to its choice to use vibrant original art for the game tiles, this edition’s visuals and audio effects use the theme of Ancient Egypt as a long-dead civilization, as familiarly portrayed in popular culture. Lots of brown: The playing surface resembles discolored, pitted stone, and the in-game text appears on frayed papyrus that looks like it would crumble at a touch. Every so often, sand drifts across the board, and the audio says whoooosh; during bidding phrases, sand dunes blow in to obscure the playfield entirely. Besides the background music, the only sounds are the wind and the stony grating noises the tiles make as they’re drawn.[1]

Leaving aside the appropriateness of filling the screen with animated effects in the middle of someone’s turn, I question what all this sand and the other mummified trappings are doing here in the first place. It would be perfectly at home in a game themed around excavating the sorts of ancient ruins, weathered by centuries of shifting sand, that we easily associate with thoughts of Ancient Egypt. But Ra is not that game!

Instead, Ra means to invoke Egypt as it stood before all that: a living civilization, filled with a people whose strength comes from their ingenious use of the precious, verdant land the Nile gives them — the desert has little to do with it. The game’s beautiful tiles do succeed here: through them, we watch as the river floods and flowers bloom, with the farmers moving in after it recedes. The priests burn thick blue incense to curry divine favor, while artists and writers strive to set their patron pharaoh’s deeds in stone and clay. Sometimes there is drought, disaster, and unrest, but only in service to the game’s narrative of a people thriving despite adversity, scarcity, and competition.

That said, the game concerns itself with civilization’s mortality, as well. As the sun never falters in its marking the passage of time — and as each involuntary draw of a sun-inscribed Ra tile makes the game draw closer to its end — the players’ kingdoms will all fall. In the end, all that will be left is whatever great stone monuments they’ve managed to build (and which they now can finally score points for); all else is dust, without even anyone left to remember who used to live there.

And that is where the sand effects should appear. How subtle it would be to portray the desert not as a ubiquitous landscape, but a looming force just out of sight, waiting as long as it needs to inevitably reclaim all the proud humans’ achievements for itself. The game already does possess a more appropriate animation of the players’ non-permanent tiles sinking into the sand between the three rounds (which represent the rise and fall Ancient Egypt’s major dynastic epochs); the game would benefit from limiting the desert’s appearance to this — perhaps also having the dunes drift in to cover the board with finality at the very end, when only the monuments remain.

Knizia’s Ra is such a lovely game both from its elegant and rewarding ruleset and its very clever application of theme, and it speaks a lot to the latter that a background design detail in the iPad edition causes me to write this much. I still quite enjoy this edition of the game, as I say, and I’ll be playing it plenty more. I just needed to pause and shake some of this sand out my shenti.

[1] Surprised to find myself unable to illustrate this effect with a YouTube video. Note to the publisher: you’re missing an important cue about how to market an independent videogame in 2011. Consider getting on that.

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Speaking of tablet editions...

...I want to know who came up with this flaming disaster of a main menu. Confess. Right here. I'm talking to you. I want you to comment on this blog post and say "That was my idea."

This is the main menu from Days of Wonder's new Ticket to Ride iPad release. You can actually see the design bleeding to death in front of you. You start with some nice artwork. But you don't want to clutter it up with labels or buttons. Result: impossible to decide where to tap! Wound one.

So you had to add some "gear" icons (which aren't quite contrasty enough, but then if they were contrasty enough they'd detract from the artwork, right?) Now at least the player knows where the buttons are.

But she still doesn't know what any of the buttons do, so you had to add a voiceover to explain them. Wound two. The player has to sit through the entire list to learn the menu, and then probably has to sit through the list again every time she wants to use the menu in the future, because how are you going to remember all that? Oh, and the explanations can't be clear -- they have to be cutesey in-character clues.

But the UI still doesn't work, because the player might be hearing-impaired (or just have the sound switched off). So you had to add subtitles too. Wound three: bleed out. In order to avoid putting words on your menu, you've put entire sentences on your menu! But sentences that appear one at a time! It's perfect! And I'll have to listen to those stupid voiceovers forever.

Jesus Headpounding Migraine in a weasel-bucket. You've taken the worst idea of late-90s UI design -- the mystery-meat menu with cursor hover labels -- and port it to a platform that doesn't have cursor hovering, and you managed to make it worse. Kill me now.

(Ticket To Ride is fine once you get a game going. Nice solid implementation. I'd like a face-to-face play mode, even if it has to run with open hands. But it's worth buying as-is. Except the menu KILL ME NOW.)

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Tablets turn adaptations into editions

Finger pointing OWI’ve been living with an iPad 2, my first tablet computer, for a couple of weeks. Last year, playing a few games on Zarf’s iPad got me thinking about how gameplay on tablets harkens back to the “cocktail games” of yore. Now that I have a tablet of my own, able to play games on it whenever I wish, I find myself possessing a nigh-religious conviction that this is where digitized board games have wanted to be all along.

It suddenly strikes me as laughable that once upon a time (that is, two whole weeks ago) I was okay with the idea of playing a board game by moving a mouse to control a pointer which in turn manipulated the images of playing pieces located a vertical screen somewhere else on my desk. So many layers of abstraction between me and the game! Compare to today, when I can play a digital game by touching the piece directly with my finger, whereupon it leaps in response to my subsequent dragging and poking as I carry out my move.

The finger of which I speak is my real, non-metaphorical, made-of-meat finger, the very same one I use push around bits of wood and cardboard when playing an analog board game. It doesn’t matter that, on a tablet, the game pieces my finger touches are tricks of the light, and under a pane of glass on top of that. Somehow, the simple matter of direct touch makes all the difference between perceiving the thing as simply another published edition of the game, rather than a forced adaptation onto a digital platform.

Clumsier even than PC adaptations are those found on game consoles, which don’t even have the mouse’s trembling metaphor of waldoing flat objects around in a simulated planar space. Back when I was into the idea of publishing board game adaptations on the Xbox, I found the mediocre-to-poor sales of adaptations like Carcassonne, Settlers and Lost Cities quite unfair, and surely the fault of mishandled marketing. But now I see the truth: no matter how complete the implementation or pretty the pictures, the user’s interaction with the console-imprisoned game rules is so far removed from the the world where those rules evolved — a flat tabletop, with tactile components — that it may as well have been ported to the player’s microwave oven.

I choose the word edition to describe how a successful tablet adaptation belongs to a class apart from any other digital port. This comes by way of Nick Montfort’s reaction to a presentation at last weekend’s Media in Transition conference, about how some ancient computer operating systems — such as Nick’s beloved Commodore 64 — live on through emulation:

When the creators of VICE (the emulator I use) produce a program that operates like a Commodore 64, I understand this as being an edition of the Commodore 64. Yes, it’s a software edition. It isn’t an official or authorized edition – only being a product of Commodore would allow for that. (There are official, authorized emulators, but this is not one.) It’s not, of course, the original and canonical edition. But it’s nevertheless an attempt to produce a system that functions like a Commodore 64, one which took a great deal of effort and is effective in many ways. Thinking of this an edition of the system seems to be a useful way to frame emulation, as it allows me to compare editions and usefully understand differences and similarities.

Years ago, I purchased cardboard copies of Gang of Four and Ticket to Ride expressly because those games’ publisher, Days of Wonder, created attractive web-based adaptations of them, convincing me that the real thing would be fun to own. I don’t feel this way about Ra, whose adaptation by Sage Games I purchased a few days ago. While this edition isn’t flawless (remind me to write sometime about those doubly inappropriate shifting-sand visuals), I’ve enjoyed several games with friends around the table. It succeeds enough at delivering a proper sense of presence that, to my mind, I already own the game. Theres no concept of a “real thing” to obtain outside of what I have already, not like there was with the web games.

I don’t know if all tabletop game publishers are approaching the licensing of their titles, and their subsequent sales (often at a third to a tenth of the analog retail price), as new editions of their games, rather than adaptations that serve to drive sales of the “real” games. But my finger says that’s what’s happening anyway.

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The Race to Expand your Dominion

expanding colony028.jpgThe only thing worse than a flawed expansion to a good tabletop game is listening to some know-it-all groan about it. Complaints about expansions, after all, suggest their own unbeatable counterargument: So, don’t play with the expansions, then! It’s not like eschewing an expansion makes the basic vanilla game suddenly stop working, right? Perhaps we don’t enjoy Knightmare Chess, but we don’t therefore conclude that the original game is forever spoiled.

So, in an attempt to turn such grumbling into an essay worth reading, let me turn it around: I hereby declare that it is not just desirable but possible to design an expansion set for a good game in such a way that actually improves the game as a whole, rather than simply making it larger. So this fact makes it that much more disappointing when a solid game releases an expansion that adds stuff, but fails to add an equal-or-greater amount of fun. Fair enough?

As it happens, I can find one example of each between two often-compared games of recent vintage. Dominion (Donald X. Vaccarino) and Race for the Galaxy (Tom Lehmann) are both quick-playing card games that have earned tremendous cachet from tabletop gamers in the last two or three years. (The Gameshelf has itself ruminated about both games, via Kevin and Zarf, respectively.) Both proved successful enough to spawn several expansions apiece; Race got its third such set into print earlier this year, and Dominion — despite being a slightly younger game — will see its fourth in stores by the holidays.

Let’s look at Race for the Galaxy’s general expansion philosophy. What comes in each of its little boxes?

First and foremost, new cards, which (after a requisite period of drooling admiration over the new goodies) get shuffled into one’s existing Race card deck, and then stay there forever, permanently expanding the size of your draw pile. Let us set aside the fact that, after two such boosts, a Race deck starts becoming rather unweildy, requiring a multi-stage effort to shuffle, and forming a teetering skyscraper on the table. I’m more interested in the implications of increasing your deck size in a shared-draw game like Race.

Optimal play requires familiarity with all the cards in the deck and the ways they can work together, a feat any attentive player can manage after several plays with the game’s basic set. When you double or triple the size of that deck, though, this becomes much harder, and — at least for players with fallible memory, like me — familiarity transforms into mystery, having a much murkier idea of the all ways the growing stew of cards can interact. No doubt, having to change one’s focus away from strategic foresight and more towards tactical improvisation brings its own flavor of fun. But I do see it as a one-for-one trade-off, permanently sacrificing one style of play for another.

Beyond the cards, each expansion brings a bevy of new rules to the game, and a handful of pretty props to help you track and enact them. The first set is the gentlest, adding only some tokens representing of new ways to score points via the established in-game actions. When it was brand new, and I was still a young and idealistic would-be galactic conqueror, this welcome first expansion felt like a patch. It gave players more things to aim at, but didn’t fundamentally alter play strategies — and those new cards sure did smell good. Mm-mm.

The next two expansions, though, proved much hairier. Between them, Race sees a new, complex game mechanic (Takeovers), an entirely new kind of resource to gain and manage (Prestige), a more complicated way of starting the game (red versus blue Homeworld cards), and rules regarding a “super-action” that each player can fire off once during a game. So it’s not just the card stack that grows; the game’s own rulebook gets fatter as well.

Here the game climbs into one of its own Terraforming Robots and digs straight down, adding depth to the rules via the rather direct method of adding more rules. (And, yes, adding height to the game as well, piling up more and more cards to draw from.) Somewhere within all these new levels, I got lost. I found the game possessing a just-right complexity level when I first learned it, a delightful mental juggling act that felt appropriate to theme of managing an upstart star-spanning empire. Now, even when playing with only some of the new rules in place, all that complexity tips over into becoming a burden. It’s so much to keep in mind, all at once.

But if Race for the Galaxy has used the depth strategy for its expansions, then Dominion has gone for breadth, and I think it works better. The three Dominion expansions published so far introduce only new “kingdom cards”, the short stacks of cards carrying unique play effects, that players vie over to build the best personal decks. The second expansion also introduces a few props and tokens, but they are each tied specifically to the effects of certain cards, rather than adding new rules global to the entire game.

That’s the key difference between Dominion’s expansions and Race’s, actually. Even if you start a game with all four available Dominion boxes as well as the various promo cards primed and ready, the core rules of the game do not change. And one of those rules is: pick ten kingdom cards somehow — randomly is just fine — and lay their stacks out. Leave your umpteen other sets of kingdom cards back in their boxes and think on them no more, because they’re not in this game. Everything relevant to the game now in session is now in the middle of the table, shared among all the players, and face-up. From here on out it’s just a question of competing strategies.

In effect, all the Dominion expansions do is broaden the pool that the game’s (usually random) initial layout comes from, making it more likely that you’ll run into delightfully novel power combinations and force-multipliers among them. The rules overhead, the amount of things you’ve got to keep in mind while you play, doesn’t significantly increase. No matter how many add-ons you pile up, you need concern yourself with only a small slice of your whole card collection in any given game. At worst, you’ll encounter new classes of cards, such as the Seaside expansion’s Duration cards or Alchemy’s Potions. But so far these have felt like natural extensions to the core rules, rather than the bolted-on mechanics of, say, Race’s Takeovers.

Clearly, I find much more satisfaction in Dominion’s approach to widening its gameplay through expansion sets than Race’s efforts to deepen itself. But these sets are so tied to their respective games’ designs that I certainly can’t say that I’d always prefer an expansion set that took the breadth-first route. I just find it interesting that two games with similar appeal took up their shovels at around the same time and dug their expansions along different axes, with the result of a startling magnification of the games’ diverging qualities.

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The New Cocktails

110157805_18f3ad9067_o.jpgThough I myself have yet to buy into tablet technology, I have had the pleasure playing Days of Wonder’s Small World on Zarf’s iPad a couple of times. I can objectively tell you that I like it a lot, based on the fact that he’s clobbered me at it both times and I still want to play it again. Since then, I’ve watched my Twitter circle get really excited about The Coding Monkeys’ excellent iPhone adaptation of Carcassone — due for an iPad update this summer — and I’ve also been turned onto Luigi Castiglione’s loving iPhone/iPad implementation of the Italian folk game Scopa, worth seeing just for the beautiful Neapolitan card deck it uses. I see more than mere coincidence in my discovering all these at once.

The iPhone is no stranger to board and card game adaptations, but something new seems to be afoot, driven by the little phone’s newer, corpulent cousin. Even with relatively few datapoints, I feel confident that tablet computing (and do note my careful non-namebrand specificity here) is destined to significantly boost public exposure to good, modern board games. Tablet-based games aren’t simply a digital adaptation of tabletop games; they are tabletop games, though of an entirely new sort.

Playing Small World on the iPad, I sit across the table from my opponent, facing them, and we take turns sliding our armies around the colorful little map with our hands. Between turns, we analyze the situation together, talking face to face and gesturing naturally at the table before us. And so, it’s like any strategy board game I’ve ever played. But it’s also digital: tapping certain labels on the “board” changes the view entirely, unfolding a display of your requested game-relevant information, and that seems entirely natural too, if along a different angle. And there are the more subtle effects stemming from the presence of a software-based referee: it resolves all in-game conflicts for us, and quietly prevents either of us from doing anything illegal, without anyone feeling the need to double-check the rules.

Thinking about what defines a particular game medium, one doesn’t always consider elements like the player’s physical posture, and where they sit relative to their fellow players. But the experience of playing a digital game with a friend on the iPad proves quite different than that of sitting side-by-side on a couch with Xbox controllers in hand, or sitting alone with a mic strapped to your head. Your sense of posture and presence is part of the game’s medium, as much as the material of the game’s manufacture. Playing Small World gave me a frisson of novel confusion, marrying the player-interactivity of a board game with the board-interactivity of a computer game. I felt the seam that joined them, but it felt right. This was something new, comfortable, and fun.

On reflection, I realize this isn’t the very first time I’ve encountered this peculiar recombination, though I must cast my memory back decades to make the connection. During the height of video games’ golden age in the early 1980s, so-called “cocktail” game cabinets were a common sight. These machines eschewed game machines’ familiar stand-up shape, instead taking the form of small, square tables, around the size and shape you might encounter at a bar or coffee house; just large enough to seat two people — and their drinks — comfortably. Two identical sets of game controls sat tucked under either end of the screen, which itself was embedded under the thick plexiglass of the table’s surface.

Cocktail games were an attempt to take the familiar, cozy setting of two friends or family sitting at a table to both play a game and enjoy a lovely beverage together, and applied it to the then-new entertainment of video games. And, for a brief time, they succeeded. Back when coin-operated games were marketed as social amusements as much as they were attractions for children or game-hobbyists, cocktail games could be found in many spaces outside of arcades or game rooms. As a child traveling with my parents on their many business trips, I would frequently encounter cocktail versions of my favorite video games in hotel lounges. While I delighted in discovering them, I was far too young to really appreciate them as they were intended — in fact, I remember the frustration I felt at seeing two grown-ups sitting at the Pac-Man table and just talking and not even playing it.

Alas, cocktail games did not survive coin-ops’ decline in the latter 1980s, long before my own adulthood. But sliding my little orcish army-tokens around on Zarf’s iPad, I think that I start to see what I missed. Whether or not the new games’ deveolopers consciously realize it, the very form of tablet gaming tips its hat to the cocktail games of yore, and then strides confidently where the old games wanted to be, 30 years ago.

This is going to be great.

Image credit: Photo of a “Dig Dug” cocktail unit by Chris Kirkman; CC BY-NC-ND.

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Three upcoming documentaries on games

We seem to be entering a nexus of documentaries about games. Far be it from me to do anything but encourage further flowering in this field! Witness:

Lorien Green has released a clip of Gone Cardboard, a film about board games -- particularly Eurogames, by the looks of it -- and the people who play them. She expects to release the final cut in early 2011. (Link via Kevin Jackson-Mead.)

The enigmatically named Spinach hopes to produce a doc about people who create digital games, called You Meet the Nicest People Making Videogames. That link leads to the project's Kickstarter fundraising page, which includes a teaser he filmed at GDC. Mr. Spinach approaches this endeavor from scratch, and needs help covering both equipment and travel costs, a position I can certainly appreciate. He's a quarter of the way to his goal, so far... (Link via Anna Anthropy.)

And of course, just 49 hours and 15 minutes after I type these words, I plan on attending the world premiere of Jason Scott's Get Lamp at PAX East. It is part of the interactive fiction track which is of course the real reason to attend the show, ho ho. Jason's been working on this film for years, and I was privileged to see a clip a few months ago at a Boston IF meetup. It's gonna be a goodie.

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Sevendeck now on sale

A plug for a little bit of local craftiness:

The Sevendeck is a deck of playing cards containing seven suits of seven numbers each. The suits are ranked both by color (ROYGBIV) and by the number of angled corners ("points") on their pips. As with a regular deck of playing cards, there are several games that can be played with a Sevendeck, with more on the way.

Sevendeck's designers are fellow Bostonian game fans Andrew Greene and Denis Moskowitz. You'll recognize Denis as an occasional poster here, and also as a frequent face on the show (he was Germany in the Diplomacy episode).

I have had the pleasure of helping them playtest some of the games posted on the website, and playing with a prototype deck. The new decks cost eight US dollars each, and they're accepting orders for this first print run only through Nov. 30, so hop to it if you'd like one for the holidays!

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Cranky webserver / Deletionpedia

Sorry if you've been having a sad time trying to access (or, for some of you, post to) The Gameshelf lately. The webserver has been acting very wonky for reasons I haven't sussed out yet. I beg your patience in the meantime.

For your troubles, please enjoy this vaguely game-related tidbit, which I shall feel free to cut-n-paste over from my personal blog:

Deletionpedia is a machine-generated website, built entirely from Wikipedia articles that have been deleted. It itself is not a wiki, even though it copies Wikipedia's page layout. The result is somewhat fantastic.

Its current featured article is this exhaustive list of all the weapons found in the tabletop wargame Warhammer 40,000, complete with what appears to be meticulously fan-made illustrations, many with labeled parts and exploded views. Someone put a hell of a lot of work into this. While I can see why the WP hivemind would give it the boot (WP is famously tolerant of nerdwank, but still has its limits), I'm oddly relieved to know that it's preserved elsewhere.

And there will be a lot of pages like this guy's, a short biography of "a British-based Starship captain, commentator on society and volunteer ticket collector on a steam railway". Or the sad tale of List of Films with Monkeys in Them, which was cut down before it could even grow past three items.

The list of magical things goes on, preserved forever. I am glad this exists.

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Noteworthy games I have not played

I have not played Agricola due to its length - it takes at least a couple of hours, and I haven't been able to spare that for games lately. (Please don't ask how many half-hour games of Race for the Galaxy I've burned through lately.) During the time I have been not playing it, though, it's managed to knock Puerto Rico from the number-one spot on Board Game Geek's rankings. I discovered this today, and it's a real shocker; "PR" has been the top game for the several years I've known about that website.

As I understand it, the main conceit of Agricola is that it ships with around 300 cards, each of which alter the game rules in some way - but only a handful of these cards appear during any single game. By itself, it sounds like a gimmicky way to tap up replay value (I mean, that's how CCGs work, right?) but I'm informed that it's actually pretty cool. I look forward to trying it myself, sometime.

I have not played Dwarf Fortress because I get to the first screen where I can actually make something happen, and then I sit there going duhhhr. I think that fully reading through the documentation and figuring out all the keystroke commands would take at least as long as a game of Agricola. Its UI is of the Nethack / Angband lineage, complete with graphics built entirely out of animated text characters, and learning to play one of those properly is practically like learning a new programming language.

But I really want to play it someday, because its two game modes include a Rockstar-style sandbox game and a Maxis-style simulation game, both set in ye olde Tolkeinesque fantasy world. The simulation game has you commanding a gaggle of dwarves to construct and maintain the titular fortress, and has a reputation for usually ending in not just total disaster, but hilarious disaster. Indeed, I heard of the game by reading friends' oh-my-god-you-guys blog posts telling the story about how their fortress ran out of alcohol and then burned down and now their last starving dwarf has gone insane and is wandering the woods attacking elk with his fists or whatnot.

For now, though, I can only describe it as a vast piece of work that's crying out for a tutorial mode.

I have not played Freeway Warrior: Highway Holocaust because... well, it's a bit silly, isn't it. Here's another digitized version of a Joe Dever-authored solitaire RPG book from the 1980s; we've linked to a digital version of his "Lone Wolf" series before. This book was the start of Dever's attempt to turn the game mechanics he developed for that series towards a Mad Max theme.

To play properly, you're meant to do up a full-on character sheet for your dude. In its original format, this was printed on one of the back pages, and you could pencil it up all you wanted. Now you can print it out in order to carefully manage your character's inventory, hit points, and food rations. You can even print out the random-number page that you're supposed to close your eyes and poke at, in lieu of die-rolling, in order to resolve combat and other chancy situations that pop up during the story. But I find it just as satisfying to click through the pages and enjoy the perfectly nostalgic text, which contain both Dever's writing style (which I enjoyed as a tyke) and the undiluted 1980s imminent-nuclear-holocaust gloom.

I was impressed to find a simple number puzzle in the story, whose solution was the page to which you were to turn - that's something I don't remember encountering during any other period work. So, yes, despite the title of this post I must admit to kinda-sorta playing this game. So that's as fine a note as any to go out on.

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Homebrew tabletop mashups

I have many clever and creative friends who like games. One or another of them will regularly host game-playing gatherings at their homes, where we sink a few hours or more into various tabletop contests. But sometimes, some of these clever and creative people will find themselves a little tired of the well-worn titles, and that's when the combinatory experimentation starts.

quiddler_texas_holdem.jpgI took this photo last weekend, during one such event. The card-based word game Quiddler (published by Set Enterprises) is an old favorite of many-perhaps-most of my gamer friends. My pal Marc, one of the weekend-long game-gathering's hosts, led a groggy Sunday-morning group in inventing the mashup of Quiddler and Texas Hold Em depicted here. Players each held two of Quiddler's letter-cards, and as community cards appeared according to the standard flop-turn-river pattern, players bet on wether they held the highest-scoring Quiddler hand. This photo shows the final round's winning hand in the lower left; it allowed Marc to spell ZITHERS.

One especially memorable mashup I enjoyed several years ago, via the same group of friends, was "Apples to Ideas", a collision of the increasingly well-known party game Apples to Apples (Out of the Box Publishing) with the rather more obscure party game The Big Idea (Cheapass Games). It essentially involved pitching pairs of the green and red apple cards instead of using the standard Big Idea cards, and otherwise playing according to the The Big Idea's rules, which involves rapid-fire pitching of cockamamie startup-company ideas based on the cards you play. We found that this not only led to a much larger pool of cards, but players had to get more creative coming up with (at least vaguely) legitimate-sounding business models based on cards not tuned for this purpose. During this one game, I scored big by playing the card pair [Industrious] [Industrial Revolution], selling it with the slogan The socioeconomic paradigm shift so nice, we named it twice!™

Have you seen, pondered, or even invented and playtested any game-mashup ideas, yourself?

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Aquarius drifting into the ether

According to the game's official mailing list, Looney Labs is letting Aquarius drift out of print for the time being, so that they can concentrate more on their core products, like Fluxx and Icehouse Treehouse.

This is kind of a bummer; when I first became a Looney fan around 1999, the game was their most recent release, and so it's always been closely tied to the company itself in my mind. It's the single game that best visually personifies the Looneys' "Hippie Game Company" self-image, with its colorful, Peter Max-esque artwork. And, while a lot of hobbyist-gamers I know roll their eyes at its many random factors, it's definintely the only Looney game that I can consistently get anyone in my family to play!

But, business is business, and I totally understand their decision. In the meantime, you can take Aquarius for a spin online at, or via Kory Heath's Javaquarius. If you dig it enough to want your own real-life deck, your best bet is to grab one from the Labs' online store, since they've stopped distributing it to retailers.

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Digital Carcassonne

This isn't news to anyone but me, but still worth a post: Carcassonne, the tile-placement map-building game that we covered in episode 4, was released for XBox Live last year. I only recently got a chance to try it, and am pleased to report that it seems quite faithful to the board game. (Oddly, it didn't seem to allow the placement of farmers, which I hope was an artifact of my copy being a free trial version.)

The game displays, as public information, the tile that the active player is "holding" and pondering - this is good, as Carc's rules specifically state that it's supposed to be so. It also highlights all the spaces on the table that you can place the tile, which I suppose is unavoidable for a computer adaptation, but unfortunately obviates much of the reason for interplayer discussion during a physical game. I find myself quite curious what online Carc culture is like, and how chatty it is, compared to my in-person play experiences (where it's one of the chattiest non-cooperative board games I know of). I'll report further after I have a chance to investigate.

This digital version looks just like the physical board game, with just a subtle and restrained addition of special effects. Only when you complete a structure goes the game drop some 3D magic, making that map feature "pop out" and turn into a tall castle, cloister or road. The aesthetic makes it feel like the flat, incomplete structures are blueprints, and that you're not so much revealing a map of an existing landscape as you are actively constructing it.

I imagine people liking the XBox version so much that they go out and get the wood-and-cardboard edition, and find themselves gawping at the little meeples, crying "Wow, this is just like the video game!!" I am having a hard time thinking of other examples of digital adaptations with this peculiar potential. Many people have undoubtedly played, say, Chess against a computer before playing with a real set, but chess sets are so ubiquitous that all these folks had probably at least seen one before. Not so with games like Carc, which (at least from an American perspective) remain somewhat exotic artifacts.

Possible exception: Days of Wonder, who have made a point for years to have excellent and mostly-free-to-play online versions of their games available. In this case, they're Java-based, in-browser, highly literal adaptations, and so feel less "video-gamey" than anything you'd play on an XBox. But they definitely help move the tabletop product - heck, it's why I own my copy of Ticket to Ride.

Anyway, I note all this only today because I picked up an XBox 360 of my own last weekend. My Gamertag is "Jason McIntosh", and XBox-enabled Gameshelf gawkers should feel free to friend me, though I'm still learning how this thing works. I've been meaning to check out the XBox world for a couple of years, actually, because I've been quite curious about how Microsoft is handling online play - as far as I've been able to tell, they're the only console manufacturer who's been doing it correctly, and online gaming is a topic I have a deep personal investment in.

(Image ripped from GameSpot.)

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Igel Ärgern on the DS

Continuing the apparent trend of German game designers colliding with the Nintendo DS (it's happened twice that I know of and therefore it is a trend, you see), Doris & Frank's Igel Ärgern has been ported to the hand-held system, under the title Hurry Up Hedgehog. As the name suggests, it's a game about a hedgehog race. I don't think it gets any deeper than that, and why should it? Just look at those little guys; they're adorable. It's slated for release later this month.

I'm under the impression that Igel Ärgern is a beloved classic among European gamers, first published in the 1980s. As far as I know, it's never enjoyed an English-language edition, and I've never had the chance to play it (though several of my local friends own it anyway). If you say "hedgehog racing" to a typical American they're more likely to think of this thing, if they think of anything at all.

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