Results tagged “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?

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.)

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.

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?

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.)

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.



Find recent content on the main index or look in the archives to find all content.


Warnings and Log Messages