Search Results for: board games

Going Cardboard

I just got back from a preview showing (I think the first public preview showing?) of Lorien Green's documentary Going Cardboard. It was pretty great.

The movie covers the modern era of board games, what Green calls "designer" and I call "Euro" games -- Settlers of Catan and its genre-descendants. Jason Scott did the editing, so Get Lamp fans will recognize the style: lots of interwoven interview clips, giving an overview of a community and then several takes on particular aspects of it. We get some history (and an amusing sequence of gamers being ambivalent about Monopoly); we get a view of Spiel Essen, the mightiest of board-game conventions. (Fascinating to me, as I've only been to the relatively puny Origins.)

Going Cardboard has a bit more narrative than Get Lamp, I'd say. It follows a couple of people through full-circle story arcs. We see Don Vaccarino taking Dominion from a homebrew prototype, through publication at Rio Grande Games, to winning the Spiel des Jahres in 2009. And we watch Bryan Johnson recounting his tribulations publishing a game called "Huang Di" from 2006 to 2011. (Johnson just got a version of the game funded through Kickstarter, so that story has a happy ending -- the final cut of the film will likely mention that.)

I am peripheral to the board-game universe, but I recognized plenty of names of interviewees -- Vaccarino, Alan Moon, Klaus Teuber, Friedemann Friese, and others. Reiner Knizia, of course. I know a few of the faces as well. (Nice to see Kory Heath being typically enthusiastic about game design.)

Plus, I saw myself! One of the crowd shots at Unity Games distinctly shows the back of my head. I was wearing a Werewolf t-shirt. So, you've got that to look forward to also.

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

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

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

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

But what moves me to write today is the sand.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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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Voting Mechanism

Here’s a different take on “weighted voting,” from a CNN article about the French Senate passing the pension bill:

As is the custom in the Senate, senators voted Friday by placing plastic credit-card sized tokens into one of three different urns indicating a vote for, against or in abstention. The cards were then poured out into a scale and the vote was calculated by the total weight of tokens in each urn.
Just knowing that something like this exists makes me happy. I wonder if there are other funky voting things out there. I’m trying to think about how something like this might be used as a mechanic for a board game. You could have a plastic tub with several divisions. Each turn, players would put marbles or something into the different tubs based on something in the game. The tub would have a removable bottom, and at some point during the game the bottom would be removed, letting the marbles fall onto some sort of balance scale device, and you would see the result by which way the balance tipped, or maybe there’s some more complex mechanism, something Rube Goldberg-esque, that is affected by the weights of the various divisions.

Or I suppose you could have marbles that weigh different amounts but that are the same size and are painted the same color. So you would have them made of different materials (different metals or metal alloys? different woods?), and their weights would be such that a computer inside a scale could determine how many of each are in the container by weight. However, no one would know what anyone else was contributing to the tub (you would know either by the weight difference, or perhaps there could be different textures put on them so that you could tell the difference by feel). OK, maybe that doesn’t work out mathematically, at least not for large numbers of marbles, but maybe there could be something for smaller numbers of marbles. Or maybe the tub could have a mechanism inside it for sorting the marbles by weight, something that is invisible to the players.

Anyway, just some random thoughts about using weight as a voting mechanic. Anyone else have ideas? Anyone know of an existing board game that uses some kind of weight mechanic?

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Weekend links: two on chess

Lewischess2-popup.jpgVia the New York Times’ “Gambit” chess blog, we learn of a new controversy surrounding… well, not so much a very old game as a set of very old game pieces, with new evidence causing some to question the national origin of the celebrated Lewis Chessmen.

But really, I just wanted to take the opportunity to mention these extraordinary game pieces on this blog. Even though they’ve been known to the modern world since the 19th century, I first learned about them only some months ago while kicking around Wikipedia. While they like look like the whimsical work of a modern sculptor — at least to my unschooled eye — they were actually carved some 800 years ago.

I showed pictures of these little guys to a friend this morning, one who actually does know something about art history. She tried to add a little perspective to my astonishment, noting how a lot of medieval artwork looks comically cartoony by modern standards. But while she spoke, all I could think was: boy, I’d love to just reach over and pick one of these pieces up. I recognize intention in their squat, chunky shapes: they were made to thunk down on the board, decisively. I bet they make a really satisfying sound when that happens.

Heading away from the past and into an uncertain future, we discover quantum chess, a computer game by Queen’s University student Alice Wismath, based on a concept by Selim Akl, a computer science proessor at Queen’s. It appears to be an academic work in progress, though one fun enough to have gained a bit of media traction. Certainly, it’s an intriguing idea, using the notion of quantum superposition to add a (perhaps rather thick) layer of tactical surprise to an otherwise pure strategy game:

A piece that should be a knight could simultaneously also be a queen, a pawn or something else. The player doesn’t know what the second state might be or which of the two states the piece will choose when it is moved.

“It was very weird,” said Ernesto Posse, a Queen’s postdoctoral researcher who took part in a recent “quantum chess” tournament at the university in Kingston, Ont. “You only know what a piece really is once you touch the piece. Basically, planning ahead is impossible.”

Like a lot of geeks, I’m enamored with the twisty little passages that represent quantum physics (or at least the closest representation a layman like me can grasp). But even moreso, any science that can plug itself into a cultural foundation of gaming to produce wacky chess variants is my kind of science.

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More thoughts on the passing of cruelty

I find it interesting, as an aside to yesterday’s column, to examine how applied cruelty has fallen from favor across multiple game media over time.

I chose the word “cruelty” quite intentionally, referencing Andrew Plotkin’s famous Cruelty Scale for interactive fiction and adventure games in general, even though that particular yardstick actually hasn’t seen much use lately. Today, adventure games worth playing rarely require players to keep more than one save file. Gone, largely, are the days where players must save early and often, managing an entire tableful of carefully named save-positions for easy — and inevitably frequent — access.

(In fact, the main reason the concept came to mind at all was Sarah Morayati’s excellent but unforgiving Broken Legs, a game that overtly classifies itself as belonging to the thorniest rung of Zarf’s scale, the one where games merrily — and silently — allow you put them into an unwinnable state. The game is an intentional stylistic throwback to certain knotted puzzlefests of yore, leaning against the modern trend that favors narrative over puzzles.[1] The game (which took second place in last year’s IFComp) succeeds because the player character — the irascible, scheming drama princess Lottie Plum — is an acerbic joy to play, and she tells a rollicking story, even if she herself is more interested in sabotaging all her peers than actually performing on-stage. But it’s a story you’ll need to patiently play though several times, if you want to give Lottie the best ending.)

Board games, too, have largely become a stranger to cruelty. When we filmed Diplomacy last year, I initially felt disappointed that no players got eliminated from our game — an ever-present possibility in this game from the 1950s. Not only would that have added easy drama to our unscripted, televised narrative, but we could have capitalized on the very concept of a board game that can “kill” players, forcing them to stop playing while their friends keep going — something that seems flatly outrageous by today’s tabletop design standards. Never mind certain shambling zombie-games that still manage to keep up this pretense…

And when’s the last time any of you with a tabletop RPG bent have ever had a character die — or, at at any rate, die without your full consent as a player? A few years ago, some local friends decided to play a game of first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, taking the circa-1975 rules literally as written, with the GM making no exceptions. This was back when phrases like the character must make a saving throw versus poison or die could be found dozens of times in any given rulebook or adventure description.

The result, of course, was a massacre, with individual players sometimes ripping through several character sheets within a single session, as their powered-up superheroes succumbed in a heartbeat to unlucky die rolls around falling-rock traps or venomous spiders. Nobody tried terribly hard to develop their doomed characters’ abilities, nor was there much call for inventing a completely new persona for each of their mayfly alter-egos. Clearly, these rules fit much better to a time when the game still had one foot in the category of miniatures-based wargaming.

So, the next time you’re playing a game of any sort that recognizably punishes failure without diminishing your level of fun, thank all those before you who have gave their in-game lives — over and over and over again — for the sake of inspiring better game design.

[1] Sarah reminds me about Jon Ingold’s delectably evil Make it Good, another capital-C Cruel game of recent vintage that is far larger and more difficult than her own work. The key point for me, though, is that I played Broken Legs more recently, and my memory is weak. So there’s that!

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Three upcoming documentaries on games

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

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

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

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

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Go Euro Games!

My friend Devon Weller and I were at Barcamp Nashville and after attending some sessions we saw that there was a Impromptu session room, and it had a couple of open slots. We decided that we wanted to talk up EuroGames and to help build the local gaming community. Mainly, to try to introduce people to the awesome world of great board games. We came up with a talk during lunch, and even got some great slides! You can see the slides we did below. Feel free to steal our slides to talk up your own local games. We think everyone should try to introduce as many people as possible to the world of great euro games (we do include all games even the ones invented here). Why? Because they are awesome! We hope to give this talk again, and hope to refine it. Anyone have comments on how to get people interested in just trying games?


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Episode #7 - Diplomacy

I am pleased to present the seventh episode of The Gameshelf, a product of over four months' work from both me and my totally stellar cast and crew. In this episode, we focus on a single board game: Diplomacy, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of its original publication this year. In usual Gameshelf fashion, we show you a game in play. But this is a very unusual game, so we took an unusual approach to filming it. I hope you enjoy it.

Watch it through the embedded player above, or download it as a high-quality Quicktime video file.

This was the most ambitious show we've ever made, and I am as proud of it as I am looking forward to returning to humbler (read: easier to edit) show styles.


Some show notes and links:


  • A Chicago Magazine profile of Diplomacy's designer, Allan B. Calhamer, from earlier this year. Describes the life of a trailblazing game designer in a time when the world wasn't quite ready to support his chosen passion, which is why he spent most of his life as a mail carrier. (He's now retired.)

  • The two websites I mention towards the end of the show:

    • The Diplomatic Pouch, a Diplomacy fansite with deep roots, collecting lots of resources related to the game. It includes an archive of a "Dip" fanzine nearly as old as the web, and links to print zine archives decades older.

    • WebDiplomacy.Net, an online implementation of Diplomacy with some pretty sweet graphics, and the ability to browse games in progress. This website was brought to my attention from Matt Sakai (Italy), who hadn't played Diplomacy at all before the weekend of filming, and then went on to play several games online.

  • Wizards of the Coast's Diplomacy page. As mentioned on the show, WotC is the game's current publisher, and kindly provided the copy we used to play.

  • This is the weddingest episode of The Gameshelf ever:

    • Kevin Jackson-Mead, who played Russia, flew off to real-life Russia the following weekend to get hitched. (He wrote a blog entry about his experiences there as a visiting gamer.)

    • Dave Heiman (Turkey) and Diana Mirabello (France) got married to each other earlier this month.

    I'm fairly certain that, in both cases, the weddings were planned well in advance of our game shoot. But who knows how existing passions may have been further enflamed by the desperate clash of anthropomorphized nation-states?

  • We set up a "confessional camera" (a MacBook with a webcam app loaded) in a closet. All the players (and some of the crew) made healthy use of it, but I ended up not using any of the footage so collected in the final show. I plan on releasing a "bonus episode" that will simply concatenate all the confessions into a single document of world domination.

  • This was the first episode of The Gameshelf filmed without any use of the Somerville Community Access TV studio, though I still made use of their camcorders, with gratitude. All filming took place in my home, including the greenscreen bits.

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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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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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Random links

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[Boston area] Settlers Tournament at Eureka in Brookline, June 9

My local game store, Eureka, is hosting a Mayfair-sponsored Settlers of Catan tournament on Tuesday, June 9, at 6:30 PM. The winner gets an all-expense paid trip to GenCon this summer, where they will get to play in the North American finals for a chance to win a trip to Essen in the fall. Tournament entry is $10. More details at the Eureka website.

Edit: I just registered. Any other locals want to join me?

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A Few Links

I finally went through my 500+ starred-item backlog on Google Reader. I'm down to 25 or so, which is pretty good. Here are a couple of things that I thought might interest more people, one on board games and one on video games.

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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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Make Monopoly Fun

So, since April of this year, GameCareerGuide has been running these (mostly weekly) game design challenges, aimed at providing some real-worldish challenges to students of game design. They usually have to do with video games, but there have been some that don't deal with video games. The one on spoken word games was neat, and I think the current one on making Monopoly fun could be interesting, as well. Here's the challenge:

Monopoly has been one of the most popular board games of all time. As a new designer for the Parker Brothers, you have been tasked with updating the classic game for a new generation of families to play. The design team understands that the board game has some fundamental flaws and wants to address them.
The flaws of Monopoly have been identified as follows:

  • the game has a very large amount of luck involved
  • games go on for a very long time
  • once a player has lost the game, they have nothing to do while others play

In order to get the best possible ideas, all the designers on the game are going to propose three new rules or rule changes that address one or more of these flaws. These rules must be written in the same way they would be in an instruction book, and you have been instructed not to be overly complex with the rules to reduce the number of domestic disputes that occur from the game.
Like I said, they're aimed at students of game design, but they're open to everyone. The deadline for this one is Wednesday, so hurry if you want to enter this week's challenge. I'm very curious to see what people come up with.

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Games Canon from <em>Creating Games</em>

Disclaimer:I am an editor at A K Peters, the publisher of this book. Sales of this book help my company; thus, I benefit from the sale of this book. However, I don't get any kind of commission or bonus based on sales of this book, so the benefit is not a direct one. Besides being an employee of the company, I also worked on this book, so I am not necessarily unbiased about it.

9781568813059.jpgA K Peters is publishing a book called Creating Games: Mechanics, Content, and Technology by Morgan McGuire and Odest Chadwicke Jenkins. From the authors' website for the book (which contains a full TOC):

"This book is a comprehensive introduction to the process and theories of game development. It is written for academic games courses, professionals new to the games industry, and indie development teams. The book includes worksheets and exercises that cumulate in a game design document."
Basically, it talks about each area of video game development (much of which can be, and explicitly is in parts of the book, applied to board games), in enough detail so that you know what's going on in that area and are able to talk to the people who do work in that area. There's a lot of good stuff in there (I've read the whole book word-for-word, which, contrary to what might be generally believed, is not something an editor in technical publishing does for every book he or she works on), and I think it's something that might be interesting to people who read this blog, even if they never intend to develop a video game.

So, I wanted to put an excerpt up here, and I debated putting one of the meaty chapters of the book up, but I decided that the games canon that appears as an appendix of the book might actually be more interesting for the blog. So, here's the canon. I'll just note that this book is copyrighted by A K Peters, 2008, and used by permission (I asked the publisher). All rights reserved. The book should be out around Thanksgiving, and you can preorder it from the A K Peters website or from Amazon.


The Games Canon
(Appendix F from Creating Games: Mechanics, Content, and Technology by Morgan McGuire and Odest Chadwicke Jenkins)

Famous, infamous, radically innovative, critically acclaimed, or blockbuster successes, these are games everyone in the field should know about. They form the base of prior art. In any field, professionals work within a mainstream culture that references important previous work. These form the critical jargon (e.g., "this painting references Van Gogh's Starry Night") and the cultural context for new ideas.

Research is important in any field. It is how we build on the successes of the past and avoid their failures. You wouldn't try to write a book or create a car without first learning about the ones that preceded yours. When creating a game, you should research previous games. This list summarizes some of the most important games. It is intended as a jumping-off point for further research if a game sounds like one you'd like to make. Read through it to familiarize yourself with the previous work. No game designer would be taken seriously without at least passing familiarity with these titles, and most designers have studied several of them in depth.

For brevity, only the most critically acclaimed (or derided) and popular games are listed. In many cases, a previous game introduced a concept (e.g., Crystal Caverns predated Wolfenstein) but had a minor impact. These also include the games that designers often list as their major influences.

For additional cannon lists, see Lowder's book for an excellent recent review of major board games by famous game designers, boardgamegeek.com for up-to-date Internet ratings, and Wikipedia's best-selling (if not best) video game list at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_best-selling_video_games.

Minicanon

The minicanon contains the bare minimum set of games that you should be familiar with to appreciate the examples in this book and start making your own games. A games course should offer these or equivalents to students at a minimum, and anyone serious about games should own them. Most of these games are explained in more depth in the following sections and referenced throughout the text (see the index for references). Note that these aren't necessarily the absolute best games in their class, according to one specific design criterion, but they are likely the most widely acclaimed, easiest to acquire, and successful.

  • Carcassonne by Klaus-Juergen Wrede is a board game that features tile-laying and semicooperative mechanics. It has multiple ways of earning points, relatively low variance, and deep strategy and is supported by a series of expansions and alternative rule sets.

  • Settlers of Catan by Klaus Teuber is a board game with trading and building mechanics. Settlers and Carcassonne cover most of the mechanics found in modern strategic German board games and clarify the differences in mechanics and business models that distinguish them from ancient games and twentieth-century American games. They have also both successfully been converted to Xbox 360 video games. Puerto Rico is a good substitute for Settlers and features similar mechanics and theme but more advanced play and better balance.

  • Chess is representative of ancient strategy games. It is played internationally from casual to tournament levels and features rich emergent play. Almost everyone is immediately familiar with the basics of the game, and the knight and king playing pieces are challenged only by the six-sided die for the iconic status as the symbol of gaming in general.

  • Go beats chess in complexity (due to the large board), age, and elegance (there are only two rules to the game!). Although less popular in America than chess, many classic mechanics and strategies arise directly from the rules of go, including encirclement, flanking, captures, and variable board size.

  • Poker is a gambling card game that rivals all other games in terms of tournament popularity and purse size. It is exemplary as a classic card game and relies almost exclusively on bidding mechanics, which can be studied in depth through the many variants on this game. Poker is familiar to most gamers and requires only a standard deck of cards to play.

  • StarCraft, or any other major RTS/TBS video game (e.g., Warcraft, Civilization, Populous, Master of Orion, Empire Earth), is a requirement for any game developer. We have a slight preference for the Age of Empires series, which combines some modern RTS UI conventions and elements of casual gameplay to make the games more accessible to new players (and also has a free demo of the latest version). These play like a board game but with mechanics so complex that you need a computer to resolve them, nicely showing the transition from strategy to tabletop wargame to computer game. The character-building RPG mechanics made famous by Diablo and Dungeons & Dragons all appear in RTS games, but the "character" is the army or civilization. Mechanics are at the forefront of RTS games, and these are a celebration of complexity.

  • Half-Life 2 stands out among FPS games. It is exemplary as a shooter, and the engine supports the other popular shooters Counter-Strike and Team Fortress, but HL2 also pushes farther toward storytelling than any other FPS and is among the most technically sophisticated of its time in terms of technology and Internet distribution business model. We believe that the original Half-Life had a better quality balance (HL2's graphics and physics advanced substantially, but the puzzles, mechanics, and story were at the same level as HL1) but believe that new gamers would appreciate HL2 more because they are accustomed to modern graphics and audio.

  • Tetris is iconic as a puzzle and casual game, and decades after its introduction is still considered the standard to meet. The elegant gameplay, tremendous commercial success, and geometric twist on dominoes meets Connect Four make this game a classic. Bejeweled, Hexen, Maki, and other popular arcade puzzle games are directly inspired by Tetris.

  • Guitar Hero and its sequels were neither the first rhythm games nor the first guitar games, but they took the genre to perhaps its natural acme. Guitar Hero 2 and Rock Band (by the same developer, Harmonix, and the moral sequel to GH2) are the best of the series. By combining a physical prop with popular music, these games offer broad casual gamer appeal and have consistently been among the best sellers every year since their introduction. Reasonable substitutes are Dance Dance Revolution (DDR), Karaoke Revolution, PaRappa the Rapper, and Guitar Freaks, although these do not have the same mass appeal.

  • Super Mario Bros. and its many sequels (e.g., Mario 64, Super Mario 3, Super Mario Galaxy) stand out as best-of-breed platformers. These have tight arcade controls for hardcore gamers combined with cartoony content for casual players. They are polished to a shine by Nintendo's development team and feature a Japanese experiential aesthetic that is still grounded enough for mainstream Western audiences. The Mario games are consistently among the best-selling games of all time, and Mario is probably the most recognizable (and longest lived) video game character—the video game equivalent of Mickey Mouse. As with most of Nintendo's most popular games, the Mario games were designed by Shigeru Miyamoto.

  • The Sims 2 and its sequels and expansions are the best of breed (and best-selling) of the god game/pet-raising genre games. These feature most of the mechanical complexity of an RTS, but that complexity is buried behind fiction so compelling that the player's mental model invariably aligns with the artificial characters and not the mechanics. The Sims series is often considered the best-selling video game of all time, taking sequels and expansion packs into account. The game was designed by industry veteran Will Wright, who dedicated it to the memory of Dan Bunten, author of M.U.L.E.

  • Indigo Prophecy is deeply flawed in its action sequences, and the plot goes haywire halfway through the game, yet it is one of the best examples of the potential for interactive fiction. This arcane mystery game features characters that the player will really empathize with and scenes that inspire true anxiety, fear, desire, and awe. Although few narrative games can touch Indigo Prophecy, some other well-respected narrative games include Dreamfall and Jade Empire. The older Lucas Arts games (many by Tim Schafer and with writing by Orson Scott Card) feature rich characterization, humor, and fantastic scenes but only occasionally gripping narratives: The Secret of Monkey Island, Grim Fandango, Full Throttle, and The Dig.

(Read the rest of the games canon, which lists games by category.)

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Noteworthy games I have not played

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

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


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


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

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


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


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

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

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Gleemax Games

The WotC social network for gamers, Gleemax, launched the alpha version of its online games page. The games are all free to play for a limited time (no clue when that time will be up, or what sort of charges will apply later). Right now, the games they have are Axis & Allies, RoboRally, Acquire, Guillotine, Desktop Tower Defense, Vegas Showdown, and Magic the Gathering: Online. And it looks like they have AI for each of them except MtG:O. I haven't played any of them yet. Free registration required.

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