Search Results for: card games

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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US Postal Service shows some gaming love

Love stampsDelighted to discover this USPS stamp design, depicting a quietly romantic moment between one of western culture’s most cherished (if occasionally cursed) couples, during today’s post office errand. It was designed by Derry Noyes and Jeanne Greco.

Sure, like all their court, they have a reputation for fickleness. But isn’t it always nice to see them together like this anyway?

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The Bridge in the distance

Speaking of card games, I’ve been enjoying the Bridge-related articles by Brian Bankler over at The Tao of Gaming. The most recent post responds to this NYT feature on the promotion of Bridge in American schools, a development I wasn’t previously aware of.

I’ve always wanted to learn more about Bridge, which looks (from a distance, anyway?) like a solid blend of overall strategy with short-term tactics, centered around intriguingly constrained partner-communication rules. I also might like its abstract bidding mechanic over Poker’s freeform, psychologically charged betting: the focus, to my vague understanding, seems to lie more with sussing out what your partner can accomplish than on what deceitful tricks your opponents are up to. That’s a space I would like to explore further.

The last time I tried to learn Bridge was at the 2004 Origins Game Fair, where an enterprising professional Bridge teacher held a session or two. She was clearly used to teaching the game to a more typical retiree-based audience, and I admired her ability to deal with an excitable crowd of tabletop-gaming-convention attendees instead. (She shushed us several times; after one guy, for example, became thunderstruck at his discovery and declared the game better than Ra, setting off a wave of outraged chatter.)

I did end up coming home with some basic knowledge about the game and played a little bit of it against AIs on a freeware Mac implementation I’d found, but I didn’t stick with it. None of my local game-fan friends are really into it, and there does seem to be a dearth of solid digital adaptations — strange, for such a well known traditional card game, even if it does have little cultural cachet compared to other games we could name. It still seems to be true: while a search for “poker” in the Mac App Store today reveals lots of titles, “bridge” comes up bupkis.

Does Bridge somehow not adapt well to digital, or even to online play? I’d think it might possibly improve the nature of the game, more easily restricting interplayer communication to actions alone. If y’all happen to have any favorite digital Bridge games, I’d love to hear about them.

(By the way, I’ve been reading and enjoying The Tao of Gaming for a while. Brian writes quite engagingly on a wide variety of gameish topics, digital and analog; if you enjoy The Gameshelf, you’ll probably dig that blog too.)

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Full House Poker vs 1 vs 100

5638935722 cebd40cfc3 bMy online-multiplayer itch has been acting up again, so on the recommendation of some of my Xbox Live-playing friends, I recently started playing Full House Poker. Designed by Microsoft Game Studios, it provides a satisfyingly polished implementation of Texas Hold ‘Em. It manages to really impress me in a couple of more subtle and surprising ways, though, one of which has little to do with Poker itself.

With delight did I realize, after spending an evening with it, that Full House Poker is the spiritual successor to the late and quite lamented 1 vs 100, a game killed long before its time. I managed to write about that one only once during its brief life, recounting a wonderfully humiliating moment I suffered before an audience of thousands. Between the banter provided by a live host, the clever blend of game show and videogame tropes, and the simple fact that it really was a simultaneous ludic experience shared among a huge and diverse audience, 1 vs 100 was the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to true interactive television.

And I assume that’s what did it in, too; when you mix a videogame with a television show so successfully, I suppose you must also introduce television-specific risks to your game’s health. And so I witnessed a game near to my heart suffer the same fate that befalls half the TV shows I discover and love: it got cancelled two seasons in, for reasons the audience can only guess at. It will almost certainly never come back, forever buried under the immovable weight of expired intellectual-property agreements.

So you can imagine how pleased I was to discover though Full House Poker that Microsoft didn’t write off the entire parcel as a failed experiment. While it doesn’t present the same experience, or at the same scale, I find it very clear that a great deal of technology, philosophy, and in-house experience developed by Microsoft for 1 vs 100 lives on in Full House Poker, despite the significant differences in the games themselves.

The resemblance comes through strongest in one of the game modes, “Texas Heat”, a tournament-style game available only during certain evenings (similar to the timing of 1 vs 100’s twice-weekly live shows). These events drop the player into a room containing several dozen other live players, spread across a set of tables with varying stakes. Excellent play lets you graduate to a higher-stakes table, while losing all your chips drops you to a lower one; as a result, players shuffle seats fairly regularly. The tournament runs over the course of a few rounds, each with a strict timer attached; at the end, each player collects in-game rewards based on how well they fared compared to all the other players.

Even though the Poker room you find yourself in contains only a few tablefuls of players, it still manages to express the notion that you’re playing with real people, and lots of them. While there’s nothing like the live color-commentating announcer that 1 vs 100 employed, Full House Poker does pause between rounds to display some statistics about the evening so far, and rattle off an appropriate pre-recorded comment about the number of concurrent players. In my experience so far (and assuming there’s no number-fudging afoot), that figure’s been in the middle four digits; a smaller turnout than I seem to recall for 1 vs 100 live events, but still enough to help reinforce the feeling that you’re enjoying this game with many other people, all together.

I’m not sure I quite know why yet, but this information dramatically changes the tenor of the experience for me. Even when I can’t directly see or hear the people I’m playing with, to know they’re there anyway makes the time I spend playing feel far more worthwhile than a solitaire activity. And I like to see the range of avatars at the table, too; assuming that most people try to put a little of themselves into their Xbox avatar choices, I see myself playing with both men and women of a variety of ages and backgrounds, and that makes me even happier.

Crucially, “Texas Heat” (and, to some extent, the game’s other, unstructured online multiplayer mode) also provides a place to play with the general public that feels, to me, like a safer space than a typical console-game multiplayer lobby. The Xbox avatar animations are entertainingly various and so well integrated with the flow of gameplay that there’s no real need to use the voice chat, or otherwise manually emote. The option is still there if you want it, and I have had enjoyable games chatting over my friends-only channel, but tournament players seem to generally see no need to add in any communication that’s not already part of the game.

As far as I can tell, the most threatening in-game action you can accomplish is have your little avatar turn to look at other people’s avatars, an animation that occurs when you choose to examine a table-mate’s play statistics and other info. I’m not sure I’ve seen any real abuses of this, though I did one online table’s host perhaps attempt to turn this into a teabag by diddling his look-at-other-players button rapidly. As a result, his avatar just sort of bounced in his own chair like an idiot. (I still left the table and blocked him, because: idiot.)

(I’d be curious to hear if my observations about safety jibe with the experiences Full House Poker players who don’t share my perch on the straight-wide-dude privilege mountain. I can only extrapolate based on my own objective sense of online tact.)

I’m happy to see the wisdom gained from 1 vs 100 applied to Poker, a game that, any current faddishness to one side, belongs to the public domain — any game maker can implement and experiment with it freely, unencumbered by tetchy legal agreements that may threaten to dismantle it from the outside. If Microsoft Game Studios had to use a delicate licensed property in order to gain the wherewithal to introduce this play style to the world, so be it; arguably, it’s found a better home now, gone to ground with a traditional game that nobody can issue a cease-and-desist letter over.

I hope that Full House Poker has a long life online, extending itself in interesting directions. More than that, I hope that it serves as a beacon to encourage more polished, high-concept, and widely attractive same-time multiplayer without resorting to the limited appear or cynical treadmill-play of an MMORPG or Zynga game. (I also hope to write more about my adventures with this title that relate to the actual game of Poker, but we’ll see how the chips fall for that, ho ho.)

Photograph by Rosella Bevivino, CC BY-NC-SA.

Review-esque disclaimer: I bought _Full House Poker myself. It’s a $10 download from the Xbox game marketplace._

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Boston Cardboard Game Jam

Last weekend, I attended the first Boston Cardboard Game Jam. It was like one of Boston Game Jams' usual events, but this time for card and board games instead of videogames. The basic idea is that a bunch of people congregate and split up into teams of 3–4 people and make a game over a weekend. I've never been to any of the videogame ones, but according to Jeff Ward, this one was way better.

It was a really great experience for me, and I'm really glad I went. The key takeaway for me was that being forced to collaborate with a small group of people for many hours with a hard deadline really gets the creative juices flowing, even if it can be frustrating at times. One of my teammates does a great job of explaining the various iterations we went through. There were definitely times I felt like quitting, and I'm sure my teammates were similarly frustrated at times, but we kept at it and developed a pretty nice auction card game that plays in around an hour. And having other people there to playtest it was key, since we certainly wouldn't have gotten it to where it needed to be without some key insights from other smart people.

I thought it was some neat synchronicity when, this week, Craig Perko talked about how college should be about doing lots of projects with people who share your interests, and last weekend really felt like a mini version of that. I'm keen to try this again in the very near future, although I don't know if I'd be able to organize something like this before Boston Game Jams decides to do it again. I'm also keen to just make more games, even on my own. If you're keen to do that, too, then you could do worse than checking out Ian Schreiber's free blog-based course that he ran two summers ago (and that is still around) called Game Design Concepts (and you could also check out his book with Brenda Brathwaite, Challenges for Game Designers).

I had a simple game idea, too, which I actually solidified enough to pitch at the game jam. I didn't get anyone to work on it with me, but I've been thinking about it since then and definitely have a set of rules to try out with some people the next time I can find three other people and have my Sevendeck and Icehouse pieces handy.

And I'm serious about wanting to think about pulling together another cardboard game jam, even if it's only with a group of 8–10 people (I'm not sure what the critical mass is, since having people for playtetsing, as I mentioned, is pretty key). If something like this were to happen again, even if it didn't take place in a cool place like GAMBIT, are there any Boston-area Gameshelf readers who would be willing to give it a shot?

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Friday links: Race and Dominion online

RFTGScreenSnapz001.pngTurns out that both of the card games I wrote about Monday have officially sanctioned online versions. Dominion’s had an internet-playable implementation on the beloved BrettspielWelt for some time, but I only today got around to trying Race for the Galaxy’s computerized counterpart (pictured here). Both games are perfectly functional and free to play, but have a cost in… well, let us say that a polished user interface is not the top priority of either effort.

The brazenly unstyled HTML of Keldon Jones’ Race for the Galaxy page lets you know from the start that he isn’t out to impress you with a razor-sharp UI. But if it’s Race practice you’re after, I find his solution far more satisfying than the solitaire variant that comes packaged with the card game’s first expansion set. Keldon has been developing this AI in the sunshine for nearly a year, updating it frequently, and it’s very good. It consistently kicks my butt, anyway, whether with the base deck or any of the expansions — every one of which the programmer has implemented, and which you can mix in or out before each game.

In the tradition of one-hacker game-adaptation projects, obsessive focus on the rules and AI leaves the UI a secondary concern. Even with the simplest setup, it’s hard to tell with this Race board when anyone draws cards, for example, or which turn-phase is active. However, it quickly earned my trust that it wasn’t skipping any of the growing pile of interacting rules-exceptions that build up over the course over a single game. The requirement for every player to perform their own bookkeeping represents the weakest part of the physical game’s UI — one that I mess up all the time, to the annoyance of my friends, who grudgingly allow me to draw the bonus card I forgot to draw two phases ago. But this computer game quietly makes a non-issue of it, and I like that.

I was personally interested to discover that, all told, the interface Keldon designed shares several similarities to the UI I came up with for a digital version of Andy Looney’s Fluxx in 2005 [1]. We both chose, for example, the same solution to the puzzle of representing cards both as teensy icons that all fit on the screen, while allowing all the text on the cards to be readable: when you roll over any small card, a full-sized version appears in the window’s upper-left corner. I suspect that this is simply a result of drawing from the same deep well; I have been enjoying fan-digitizations of board games since I owned my first personal computer, and in almost every case found them as full of heart as they were of somewhat dubious interface practices. There are worse models to follow.

I must mention that, according its homepage, this adaptation exists with the full knowledge and blessing of Rio Grande Games, the boxed Race game’s publishers. We scratch our heads over the fact that they still print an email address on brand-new game boxes in 2010, but this shows that they know a thing or two about the benefits of not holding onto an IP with a death grip, especially when your product has creative superfans willing to do your internet-based marketing for you.

Take, for example, BrettspielWelt, which houses the digital Dominion. The user interface for BSW’s downloadable Java client is a deplorable mess, a nightmarish melange of tiny, overtiled panes with candy-colored buttons whose unclear purpose has nothing to do with the fact that the application is natively in German (appropriate to der Vaterland of many of its supported games, and of course only a problem to monoglots like me).

BrettspielWeltScreenSnapz001.pngAnd yet, it’s become the one place you go to play many popular tabletop games online, because that’s where everyone else goes. If you cross your eyes and look at this screenshot (click to enlarge), you’ll note that churning mass of colored bars in the background all say “Dominion” in them. Each of those is a game of Dominion in progress, and that horizontally(?!)-scrollable pane contains many more, stretching far off-screen. It’s like this all day long, filled with players from around the world and its many time zones. It doesn’t seem possible to play a game against bots, alas, but if you can convince friends to join you — or if you don’t mind practicing with strangers (and the risk of their ragequitting) — then this is the venue for online Dominion that the world has embraced.

The actual game does an acceptable job with its interface, given the constraints. Wisely, its designer chose to render the cards as space-saving squares or minimized rows of text (depending on context), rather than copy the physical cards’ oblong shape. This means that the cards’ various powers are expressed only as mouse-hovering tooltips, but really, you should use them only for reminders anyway; I can’t recommend coming anywhere near the BSW version of Dominion if you don’t already know how to play. Fortunately, the rules are available online, if you need a refresher — or if you’re feeling brave enough to try the game for the first time there.

Keldon Jones’ Race game also features an internet-play mode, which — as of Friday evening — houses a healthy handful of active players. So I do believe I’ll wrap this up, wish you a nice weekend, and go knock over some planets.

[1] And, yes, you can actually play this Fluxx adaptation, made by myself and Andrew Plotkin, via, our misbegotten internet-game thingy that we haven’t developed further in years, but continue to keep propped up because why not. But this link goes into a footnote because it requires you to download a Java-based game client, the very sort of thing I go on to slag two paragraphs later. Look, I started designing it in 2003, and it seemed like the right idea at the time.

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The day I skunked MacCribbage

If you’ll permit me a bit of silly personal nostalgia:


I came across this screencap, dating from the summer of 1994, while pawing through some old files. Apparently I managed to skunk my Mac at Cribbage — that is, I crossed the 121-point finish line before it hit 91 points, which my dad taught me counts as a double-win, especially if you’re playing for stakes — and was so thrilled with my achievement (and perhaps chagrined that the final scoreboard didn’t acknowledge the mustelid nature of my victory) that I took a screenshot and filed it away.

Please note that the size of this image was the size of my entire monitor at the time, at least in terms of resolution — when projected upon my screen via jet-age electron-gun technology, it measured 12 inches along the diagonal.

Incredibly, MacCribbage’s homepage still exists. Despite the page’s year-one webdesign (and, indeed, an on-page timestamp reading 3/14/95), you can still download the game there, though it’s been many years since any Macintosh computer has shipped with the means to run it.

Meanwhile, the game’s author, Mike Houser, has carried his work into the future with an iPhone version. My heart aches to see the stylistic differences in those two pages’ screenshots, comparing the pixel-perfect artwork of his 1990s work with the flat, anti-aliased color fills of the 21st century adaptation. Fortunately, he still sells a handful of Mac OS X-friendly solitaire games that make use of his charming original deck art, including those smileymac-visaged court cards.

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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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I went to a game night this past week at my FLGS (friendly local game store). One of the new games I played was Anomia. It’s a fun little quick-thinking social word game. It’s pretty similar to Jungle Speed but with words instead of grabbing. If that doesn’t tell you everything you need to know, read on.

In Anomia, there is a face-down draw pile of cards. Each card contains one of 8 or so symbols and a category (“Shampoo Brand”, “Restaurant”, “Radio Station”, etc.). On your turn, draw a card and place it face up on top of a pile in front of yourself. If at any time the symbols on two players’ top-most face-up cards match, those players race to name something from the category on their opponent’s card. Whoever manages to get something out first gets to take their opponent’s card as a point. Play continues until the decks run out.

There’s a nice tension between your turn and everyone else’s turn. When it’s someone else’s turn, you know what symbol is face up in front of you, so you’re just looking to see if that one symbol turns up. But on your turn, once you turn up the card, you have to see if your new symbol matches any of the other three. Switching back and forth between those modes, especially if everyone is playing quickly, is very mentally stimulating. And there are a couple of twists thrown in, in the form of wild cards (where it declares two different symbols as matching in addition to the normal matching rules) and lower cards being revealed when a card is taken for scoring (we had a chain of three scores in one of the games we played).

There was quite a bit of laughter in the game, and I think everyone had a good time. The game comes with two different decks, and after we played two games in a row with the same deck and found some of the same answers coming up, we made the rule that you couldn’t say something that had already been said, which made it even more interesting. And I can’t pass up the opportunity to mention that one of the points I scored with the category “Palindrome” was “Able was I ere I saw Elba” (generally, the shorter the response, the more likely you are to score a point, since we were awarding the point to the person who finished first, not started first).

And since I’m known as the person who hypes local things on this blog, I’ll mention that the game was self-published by someone living in Boston.

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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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Game Design Concepts | Free Games

Ian Schreiber posted his last blog entry for the Game Design Concepts course today. My Russia trip followed by actually working derailed my plans to work along with the whole course, but I plan to go back and finish it some time soon. And you can too! He's leaving the course up, and there is a lot of valuable information in the 20 posts. In his last post, he says that he plans to do a class with a similar structure next summer, but this time on game balance.

I just won my second free game from Out of the Box. They have a contest in each monthly newsletter (you can have it emailed to you or you can grab it from their website), where you usually have to solve some kind of puzzle associated with a game. They have 25 winners each month, either the 25 best answers or randomly selected from all the correct answers. I won a copy of Letter Roll a few months ago, and I was just informed that I won a copy of Super Circle Stacking. I'm not sure how fun either game is yet, but, hey, free games!

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Wishing Well

Last weekend, I visited my FLGS and picked up two games. Both were expansions, Dominion: Intrigue and Citadels: The Dark City Expansion (an older expansion, but not one I'd run across before for some reason). And there was a bit of interesting synchronicity: both games include a card called "Wishing Well". I did a brief search but couldn't find any other card games (collectible or otherwise) that contain a card called "Wishing Well".

Does anyone know of any other games with a "Wishing Well" card?

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Games in Russia

I'm in Russia for 2 weeks. I thought it would be relatively easy to find a game shop in Moscow, find some nice games that haven't been released elsewhere, and bring them back home to play.

It turns out that adults in Russia play three games (if they play any): chess, backgammon, and a card game whose title translates to "Fool". I asked a number of people about other games, the kind of European strategy games I was hoping to find, and they were all baffled, suggesting that I should check out stores for children.

Well, there are games in stores for children, even some things like Settlers of Catan and Carcassonne. I didn't see any games that seemed to be Russian originals (except for uninteresting-looking games for little children). I saw a few that might be, but my Internet access has been almost non-existent here, so I couldn't easily check things out.

Someone asked me the other day if I could see myself living in Moscow. I had to answer that I couldn't, and one of the reasons is the lack of gaming culture among adults here (at least that I could find; I imagine there might be something among some small subsets of university students).

We gave a couple of games as gifts to people we were visiting: Modern Art (which I just recently played for the first time) and Coloretto. I doubt that the copy of Modern Art will ever get played. We managed to play several games of Coloretto with the people we gave it to (relatives), and they seemed to really enjoy it, but I imagine that the next time they will play it will be the next time we visit.

I'll have to investigate Russian gaming culture more once I get back home, so that I'll be prepared for my next trip here (probably in two to four years).

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Game Design Concepts: Level 2

I'm not necessarily planning on doing a post for every lesson (twice a week for ten weeks), but I thought I'd post today since I made two games.

Today's lesson talked about what game design is, the iterative process, and the benefits of paper prototyping. The readings were the second chapter in Ian and Brenda's book and an article by Doug Church.

At the end of Chapter 2 of the book are five challenges. The first challenge is basically the same as the challenge from Monday, so I decided not to repeat that. Challenge 2 is to make a territorial acquisition game, and Challenge 3 is to make an exploration game. I did both of those, and I'll present them next. Challenge 4 is to make a game with the mechanic of picking up things by passing over them, like you would in many video games. I have the germ of an idea, but I want to think about it a bit more, since this is a bit tougher than the previous challenges. Challenge 5 is an "Iron Designer Challenge", similar to Iron Chef, where two teams are supposed to work on the same design. I may or may not get to this, as it is fairly specific (make a game about a Civil War battle without using territorial acquisition or destruction of the enemy as the primary mechanic), and I think this kind of specificity would make the resulting game interesting only if there were others to compare it to. Of course, there are 1400 people taking this course, so I may end up doing it.

Now, on to the games I made today. I welcome any feedback on the games.

The first game is a territorial acquisition game. I couldn't come up with a good name, so I'm just calling it Outgrow.

(Pictured above: The endgame of Outgrow. The four players were blue/purple, green/yellow, red/orange, and white/clear.)

Game: Outgrow

Players: Two to four

Theme: Each player represents a fungal colony, trying to outgrow the other colonies in the limited space available.

Materials: chess board, two Icehouse stashes for each player (10 each of small, medium, and large pieces)

Setup: Each player places a medium piece from his stash in a corner of the chess board. Randomly determine the first player.

Gameplay: A player may make one action per turn. There are four allowable actions:

  1. Grow a small piece into a medium piece.
  2. Grow a medium piece into a large piece.
  3. Make a medium piece spawn. Place two small pieces orthogonally adjacent to the medium piece, then replace the medium piece with a small piece (if you run out of small pieces, use a medium on its side to represent a small).
  4. Shoot off a spore from a large piece. Place a small piece up to three spaces away from the large piece in a straight line, either orthogonally or diagonally, then replace the large piece with a medium piece.
The one constraint is that you may not occupy a space that is already occupied.

Game end and winning: The game ends when there are no more empty spaces on the chess board. The winner is the player occupying the most squares. If there is a tie, then the winner is the tied player who has the larger pip count (small = 1, medium = 2, large = 3). If there is still a tie, then the winner is the tied player who had the fewest number of turns.

Analysis:I played one test game with four sides, and the final scores ended at 17, 17, 16, and 14, with one of the 17s having a medium while the other one had all smalls. Interestingly, the tied players started out by spawning their medium, and the other players started out by growing the medium to a large.

The next game is an exploration game. I've been interested in games that use a tarot deck where each major arcana has a different special ability (and this is now the second time that I'm mentioning that I intend to post about that here at some point, and maybe this will actually inspire me to do so), so I decided to make this game with a tarot deck. I didn't manage to get a special ability for each major arcana, but I think I got a decent selection of abilities. I may come back to this game idea and flesh out more powers (feel free to suggest some!).

Game: Tarot Dungeon (I couldn't come up with a decent name for this game, either)

Players: Two to four

Theme: Each player is a representative of one of four major powers who are working together to explore a dungeon and loot its treasure. Of course, each player has received secret instructions to get out first and seal the rest of the players inside.

Materials: tarot deck (can use a regular deck plus counters in seven different colors)

Setup: Separate the tarot deck into the major arcana and the minor arcana. Shuffle them separately. Put the minor deck in the middle of the table and set the major deck off to the side. Each player should choose a different suit (cups, disks, wands, swords, or whatever your deck uses). Randomly determine the starting player.

Gameplay: There are two phases to the game, going into the dungeon and leaving the dungeon. In the first phase, the starting player flips over the top card of the minor deck. If it matches his suit, he sets it in front of him and draws the top card from the major deck (he's found a treasure!); otherwise, he puts the card in the discard pile. Play continues clockwise until the minor deck is exhausted. (In the unlikely event that the major deck is exhausted, then play continues as normal, but new treasures are not drawn.)

This is the end of the first phase. All of the treasure has been found, and so players must race to the exit.

The first player of the second phase is the player with the least number of treasures. If there is the tie, then the first player is the tied player who went closest to last in the first phase. Reshuffle the minor discards (but not the ones that the players have kept) to form a new minor draw deck. The first player flips over the top card of the minor deck. If it matches his suit, he keeps it (separate from the cards drawn in the first phase); otherwise, he discards it. Play continues clockwise.

Game end and winning: The game ends when one player has collected five cards in the second phase. That player is the first to escape the dungeon, and he triggers a collapse, sealing the other players in the dungeon.

Treasures: Each treasure has a special ability. On a player's turn after he has flipped over a card (or sometimes before; see the list of abilities), that player may discard a single treasure card in order to activate its special ability. Once the active player has played a treasure card or passed on the opportunity to do so, each player in turn order has the option of playing a treasure card or passing. This continues until every player has passed in turn (i.e., there have been four passes in a row). A player may play more than one treasure card (assuming he plays one, then someone else plays one), and a player may pass but play a treasure card later in the round (assuming someone else plays a treasure card).

There are seven abilities, as follows:

  • Flip 2 - The player flips two cards instead of one. This is played before flipping. (Assign to major arcana 0-3.)
  • Denial - This is played when the active player flips a card that matches the active player's suit. That card is discarded. (Assign to major arcana 4-6.)
  • Leavings - This is played when the active player flips a card that matches your suit. You get that card. (Assign to major arcana 7-9.)
  • Counter - Nullifies the effect of the last-played treasure card. Note that a counter can be countered, which would let the original treasure card stand. Also note that Flip 2 can be countered (you go around playing or passing after a Flip 2 just as you would after a card is flipped). (Assign to major arcana 10-12.)
  • Double - If the card flipped is the same suit as the last card flipped, take the card that was just flipped. (Assign to major arcana 13-15.)
  • Weak Force - Take a card that you just flipped, even if it does not match your suit. (Assign to major arcana 16-18.)
  • Strong Force - Instead of flipping a card, simply take the top card. This may not be countered (but you might end up taking a card of your suit, thus wasting this treasure). (Assign to major arcana 19-21.)

Analysis: The idea is that the player with the most treasures will be bogged down the most, so they will be slower in getting out. For the second phase, in the minor deck, there will be the most cards matching the suit of the player with the fewest treasures. So theoretically, that player's lack of power will be balanced by their being more likely to flip a card that matches their suit. In the two test games that I played with four sides, one game was won by the player with the most treasures, and one game was won by the player with the fewest treasures. It's unclear whether the players in the middle are at a disadvantage.

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Humor in Boardgames

After playing a game of Galaxy Trucker last night, I was pondering "funny" games. The post-game discussion consensus was that GT is "funny like RoboRally" as opposed to "funny like Munchkin.

In Munchkin-funny games, the components are funny. The cards have funny names or flavortext, and it's amusing to be attacked by thousands of orcs while you have a duck stuck to your head. I'd put Illuminati and Chez Geek in this category as well (not that Steve Jackson Games has a monopoly on these). These games are very funny to begin with, but (to me at least) become less amusing as you become more familiar with the cards. It's probably no coincidence that Munchkin and Chez Geek have a lot of expansion sets.

In RoboRally-funny games, the gameplay is funny. You make plans, you have an expectation of what will happen - and then something completely different actually occurs. Instead of sprinting along the conveyor belt and jumping off just as you reach the flag area, someone accidentally pushes you onto a turning block and you sprint in the entire wrong direction, jumping onto the conveyor belt that throws you into a pit. I'd also put Wiz-War and maybe Fluxx in this category. These games don't sound as funny on first glance or on a read-through but in actual play both the players and bystanders were laughing raucously as our Galaxy Trucker ships got blown to pieces by asteroids and pirates. These games stay funny as you play them.

A funny subject or cards, like in Munchkin, can be applied to a very strategic game (I'm sure there's some way to make Go funny) but RoboRally-funny games are by definition not strategic at all. I'm sure some people would be too frustrated by this to enjoy the game but I really like them.

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Dominion and Race for the Galaxy (but mostly Dominion)

I went to a game night last week at my FLGS, Eureka! Puzzles and More, and I played Dominion. I had such a good time with it that I went and bought it immediately following the game night. I then played it the very next night with the same people I'd played it with at the game night, and then again quite a few times at a party last weekend instead of being social. It's one of my current favorite games.

Everyone starts with an identical small deck of ten cards consisting of money and victory points (worthless until the end of the game). You start out by drawing five cards, and then each turn you use some of them, discard all five, and then draw five more. So after the second turn, you're left without a deck. No problem! Just shuffle your discard pile, and that becomes your new deck.

The fun part comes with what you can do with your money. There is a common supply of cards in the middle of the table, each with a cost. Besides being able to buy victory points and money, there are also 10 types of action cards chosen from a set of 25. The rules list a suggested set of 10 cards to use for your first game, and they also list four other sets that you can use. There are 10 of each of these cards, more of each of three denominations of victory points, and more of each of three denominations of money. The game ends when any three of these piles are empty (i.e., people have bought the cards).

So what do you do when you buy a card? You put it in your discard pile. So you're adding it to your deck, but you don't get to use it right away. What you're doing, then, is slowly building your deck up so that it becomes able to do more and more, eventually letting you get victory points so that you can win the game.

I would almost describe this game as a multiplayer solitaire. Yes, there is indirect interaction with the other players in competition for the action cards (if you buy up most of one type, that leaves fewer for the other players), as well as some bits of more direct interaction through several of the action cards (there are action cards that attack other players, doing things like messing with the top of their deck, making them discard cards, and giving them curse cards worth negative victory points). However, mostly you're just playing your own game, trying to keep your deck balanced between action cards and money—you can only play one action card per turn (although there are action cards that give you more actions) and can only buy one card per turn (although there are action cards that allow you to buy additional cards)—while trying to decide when to add some space-wasting victory point cards (remember, you only draw five cards each turn, and every victory point you draw is a slot in your hand that's not something useful).

Most of the games I've played have ended up being races to get your deck working well enough for you to buy victory point cards worth six points. Six points for one space-wasting card is the most efficient way to do things, but it can take a while to get your deck to a place where you're able to buy those cards, the most expensive in the game. There is a second way to end the game, emptying the pile of six-point victory point cards, and this is how most of the games have ended.

Of course, one way (and the most fun way, in my opinion) to decide on the 10 action cards out of 25 to use is to do it randomly. It's almost like you're playing a different game with each combination. There are over three million ways to choose 10 cards from the set of 25 (and of course there are going to be expansions to add even more action cards), and some of those ways can be very different from each other. For example, some games you can have lots of money. The "Big Money" suggested set of cards in the rules is certainly not misnamed, as you can sometimes buy two six-point victory point cards in one turn. In other games, however, it can be a struggle to do anything. A recent game I played included three attack cards and no defense cards (the set of 25 only has one defense card). One of the attack cards gave every other player a curse card, which is bad enough that it gives you negative victory points at the end of the game, but it also takes up space in your deck. Another of the attack cards allows the player the chance to steal money from other players. With those two cards in each player's deck, there was only one six-point victory point card bought the whole game (there are a total of 12), decks didn't grow very large at all, and the total number of victory points in the game at the end was the same as at the beginning (i.e., the total number of curse cards given out exactly balanced the extra victory point cards players bought).

Having played close to 20 games of this so far, I think I can safely say that there's high replay value, and I will certainly be buying the expansions when they come out.

I've read a number of reviews for Dominion, and many of them mention another game, Race for the Galaxy. Most of the mentions are along the lines of, "Dominion is not like Race for the Galaxy." I suppose this is because some people have compared the two, and it's easy to see why. They're both card games, they both have you building up your own little world (in Race for the Galaxy, it's a tableau of planets and developments rather than a deck), and they both severely limit interaction between players.

However, Race for the Galaxy feels much more like a multiplayer game than Dominion does, even though the player interaction seems less important. Whereas in Dominion you can do some limited messing with other players' decks, in Race, you can't effect other players' tableaux at all. For those unfamiliar with the game (and I assume people are more familiar with Race for the Galaxy, since Dominion is much newer), in Race for the Galaxy, there are five phases (explore, develop, settle, consume, produce), and at the beginning of each round, each player secretly picks a phase. Then everyone plays each phase, but any players who picked that phase get a bonus associated with that phase (drawing more cards, spending less on developments, etc.). There can be times you want to do things in two or three different phases during your turn. Being able to only pick one phase yourself, however, gets you to playing the guessing game, trying to figure out which phases your opponents will pick so that you can pick another phase and get the bonus. It's possible, for example, that you want to play the develop phase, but you don't need the bonus associated with it. If you are reasonably certain someone else will be picking the develop phase, then you can safely pick, say, the explore phase, thus getting the bonus where you get more cards. However, if everyone thinks the same way, you could all end up picking the explore phase, and then you will have to hang onto your development card until the next round (when, of course, everyone else picks the develop phase . . . or will they?).

This form of player interaction, being able to do something based on which phase other players pick and giving other players the opportunity to do something in the phase that you pick, makes for a game with a lot more significant player interaction. Now, maybe I'm wrong about this. I've only played three or four games of Race (if you don't count the dozen or so games I've played of the solitaire game, which comes with the first Race expansion—I'd go into that, but this post is already long enough, and this is mostly a post about Dominion), but they've definitely felt much more interactive than any of my games of Dominion.

However, I'd be hard pressed to say which of these games I like better (and their BoardGameGeek rankings are currently 8 (Race) and 9 (Dominion)). The higher level of interaction makes Race for the Galaxy more mentally stimulating, but the constantly changing selection of action cards keeps Dominion very fresh, forcing you to reevaluate the strategy for each set of 10 action cards. Dominion is also quite a bit more friendly to people who aren't into games that are more complex, which means I'm a bit more likely to find people to play Dominion. I haven't bought Race for the Galaxy yet, but if I don't get it as a gift in the next month or so (I've dropped several hints), I will definitely pick it (and its expansion) up. Even if I don't get as much chance to play it with other people, the solitaire game is enough to make it worth the purchase.

I wonder what a solitaire version of Dominion would be like . . . (OK, after typing that, I went and checked BoardGameGeek. There is indeed a thread about solitaire variants, but none of them seem compelling enough for me to want to try, especially when compared to the quality of the Race for the Galaxy solitaire play.)

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