20 September: This Week In…

RPGs: we finally finished Epic 6-1.  It was a pretty satisfying conclusion with some genuinely fun epic stories being told.  And I guess fittingly enough, it looks like our bridges are being burned behind us as Wizards shut down their forums, which were basically the last bastion of 4e and had a huge amount of useful 4e content on them.  So, goodnight sweet prince, I guess.  On to better things, someone’s running Dungeon World in a couple of weeks.

Board games: we finally scored a 25 in Hanabi!  Took us a long time to get there.  Now we get to try it with a sixth suit…Also played Progress: Evolution of Technology, which feels like a VERY long game for its content and complexity or lack thereof.  I was a bit bored after an hour and it went on for nearly three.  Also Castles of Burgundy, which remains excellent, and surprisingly balanced, but retains major problems with its colours and really feels like it needs a reprint.  Finally, ordered Codenames which is supposed to be good, and was definitely cheap.

TV: new series of Doctor Who had some fun moments early on but just left me bored by the end.  Meeeehhhhh.

Why I like the games I like, part 1: Games I enjoy losing

Let’s face it, whilst I like playing board games, I’m not that good at them.  It often takes me several plays to get even basic strategies, and a LOT of practice to get good.  My gaming group are mostly a LOT better at them than I am.  So I lose. Frequently.

Accordingly, I really value a game that it’s enjoyable for me to lose.  So, what does that mean?

1: No player elimination.  This one’s fairly obvious; I really don’t like a game where the person behind (or anyone for that matter), can just be knocked out of the game, without any means to recover.  It sucks when it happens, in any game, but especially in a mid-length game during a long afternoon, where it’s not clear whether it’s worth sticking around until the end because something else might be played.

2: Limited kingmaking ability.  I really dislike being behind, and having my only options be ones which will benefit one or other opponent more, and make them win.  One of my group likes threatening in these games – if you screw me now, I will make it my business to take you with me, to the exclusion of all else including victory.  I don’t like games that allow that.  So, targeted attacks are difficult, as are games where it’s really obvious what each player’s best options are (i.e. ones which lack any hidden information), and where it’s easy to then screw with someone just by doing a single thing.  I have to say, this is a very difficult thing to avoid with any player count other than two in competitive games, because in those games what you do ALWAYS impacts what other people can do, purely by playing a competitive game with four players.  But it’s certainly possible to make it harder to mess with people.

3: No death spiralling.  This one’s important, and can really ruin an otherwise very enjoyable game – when early in the game, a single player can be easily prevented from accessing a critical resource, particularly early on, and then has to either resign – see point 1 – or spend the next 2 hours watching the game screw them over due to the lack.  Often, this is actions in games where extra actions can be bought, or workers in WP games.   In some cases, it’s resources, particularly in bidding games.  If you get behind in money and money is how you get ahead, it can result in you never getting ahead.

4: No doing less because you’re losing.  AKA, no de facto player elimination, as opposed to point 1.  This is probably the one with the highest ratio of importance to obviousness – I only really came to the realisation recently, and I’ve not really seen it mentioned anywhere else.  It’s kind of covered under all the others but it bears pointing out specifically – it’s important that you don’t have less to do just because you’re losing.  It’s important that to me even when you’re losing, you still feel like you have an engine to fiddle with, parts to reposition and optimise, about the same number of actions to take to improve your score as everyone else, *things to do*.  I really dislike games where, because I’m losing, my turn is ‘I do three things for no points and I’m done’ and the leader’s takes twenty minutes and involves doing fifteen things and jumping ahead another 30 points. Which brings me on to…

5: Discreet rubber-banding mechanisms.  This kind of falls under points 3 and 4, but it’s the inverse – the game should have some means for those behind to have a chance to catch up.  This is perhaps most elegantly demonstrated in Dominion – you get the engine going, then you gunge it up with victory cards, and it slows down, so the people behind might have a chance to get back into competition and even out luck spikes, or for their slower but more reliable strategy to pay off.  Runaway victors can be just as bad as death spirals, and good rubberbanding mechanics aren’t obvious, but make for nail-biting finishes where it’s really not clear who’s winning.

It’s worth pointing out, by the way, that a lot of these are flexible; a lot of games can manage when only one or two of them are violated (Through the Ages springs to mind and hits a lot of potential low points, as do a number of co-op games), and the number of them that are violated can increase the shorter and less serious a game is.  I’m fine with player elimination in Bang!, Guillotine, Love Letter, or other quick party-style games because the next round will start in a couple of minutes, and they’re entertaining to watch played anyway.  I don’t care if there’s a runaway leader in The Big Idea because it means that someone’s being funny and interesting, and the group’s enjoying it so who cares who it is.  But if I’m half an hour into a 3 to 4 hour game of Nations and I’m the only one without any stability or food buildings, I know at that point I’m quite unlikely to pull back the early deficit, but I can’t leave easily because that messes with the game for everyone else.  So I either suffer in misery, or I ask for the whole game to finish…

Overall, there’s a lot of repetition here, so congratulations if you’ve made it this far.  Just one more, I promise…  Make it fun for the losers, as well as for the winner.  Fun is a dirty word in reviewing, I grant you, but it’s the one I’m using, so there – there are a tonne of ways to do it well, and a tonne of ways to do it badly, but do it.  Make those who are behind able to enjoy the game if not quite as much as those in front, then still enough that they go home satisfied.  If ½ to ⅚ of your audience goes home pissed off because your game sucks to lose – and make no mistake, that’s what happens when your game sucks to lose – your game is poorly designed.

11 September 2015 – This Week In…

Just a short one.  This week in:

RPGs: continuing with Epic 6-1 which has been fun, albeit grindy as epic 4e is wont to be.  Still need to work out what to do about a new system.

Board games: had a great time with One Night Ultimate werewolf.  I normally HATE hidden-role negotiation type games, but the time limit and single-round play make this really enjoyable for some reason.  Need to play a bit more to work out why.  Also tried Suburbia 5* for the first time which worked but I’m not 100% sold on it yet.

Books: Crossfire by Nancy Kress continues, and continues to be good with the exception of probably the single worst ‘as you know’ speech I’ve ever come across, literally preceded by the (really out of character for the speaker) statement “I know you know this already, but I’m going to tell you anyway.”  Super fail.

Making: I made a Dobos Torte for the office cake rota which went down well and was pretty fun to do.  I don’t often do sugar work, and I’d like to do it more, so it was an interesting challenge.

Tzolk’in – the Mayan Calendar

I can’t get enough of Tzolk’in.tzolkin

Wait, you want more of a review than that?  But I’m in the middle of a game on BGA.

*30 minutes pass*

OK, fine.  Here goes.

Tzolk’in, by Czech Games Edition, grabbed me when I first saw it.  The ‘it has GEARS’ factor was a strong driver for me to try it out.  I knew nothing else about it other than that it has gears.  That appealed to the engineer in me, as well as the model/miniature painter, though I don’t yet own my own copy so I’ve not painted the gears yet.

Tzolk’in has not let go.  From the first play I saw the huge potential it holds for interesting strategic and tactical decision making, for the sort of action and engine optimisation that really appeal to me as a gamer one who was brought into this hobby via the unrelentingly addictive crack that is Dominion, and for nail-bitingly hard moments of critical importance.

So, it’s a worker placement game, which is a big box ticked for me.  Its theme is reasonably strong, from what little I know of the Mayans.  It has cool, well-made, high-quality components.

Speed – even playing a slow, rambly, somewhat poorly-explained (by me) learning game, my notoriously slow group got done in an evening.  Once we all know what we’re doing, the 90 minute on-the-box play time seems plausible, which is very rare for us.  We usually estimate between 1.5 and 2 times the normal play time.  It’s also a very quick game to set up, which helps it a lot (get the board out, shuffle and deal buildings, monuments, start tiles, pile up resources, done).  Online, it’s even quicker, with a two player game on BGA taking less than an 45 minutes in most cases.

Limited bookkeeping – because the accumulations of stuff are handled by the cogs pulling the workers up to higher spaces, rather than by needing the players to restock the board as in Agricola, Caverna, Le Havre, or many other similar WP and bidding games, the game mostly takes care of the bookkeeping by itself.  It adds to the speed of play significantly, and limits mistakes in accumulation.

But the real reason I like it is that I can see where I’m going wrong, when I’m going wrong, and find out where I could have done better; there’s always room to improve even when I’ve won.  Could I have got that building earlier, could I have stopped my opponents from getting that crucial monument, could I have picked up more of those cool crystal skulls somehow…?

On to the issues… the base game is perhaps a little unbalanced, with one particularly strong strategy being basically mandatory in two player against high skill level opponents – but the expansion goes some way towards fixing this issue.  It’s also perhaps a little samey after a few replays – but again, the expansion helps there.  The tribes add a lot of variety, and the prophecies add even more, albeit reasonably balanced, difficulty, plus a fifth player which is often very useful for my gaming group, good 5-player games we all like being somewhat few and far between.

First player advantage (and correspondingly, the potential for last player disadvantage) is a real problem.  To the point where the first player, unless they get a very specific and VERY good set of starting tiles, or in a two or three player game, the dummy players are located awkwardly, with basically always open with the same placements (0,1,2 on the Uxmal cog) as a very strong opening.  And similarly, the fourth player in a four player game has the potential to start off unable to place workers anywhere useful, which can really throw off the rhythm for the whole game, since this is a game about building synergies and momentum and rhythm.  It took playing it in person for me to notice this, though (I started online) and I’m still not 100% convinced that it’s a problem that needs a mechanical fix, although one does stand out (giving the last, or possibly 3rd and 4th, players some extra corn, or maybe just picking and revealing starting tiles in turn order).  But as it stands, it is potentially an issue.

Its biggest issue, to my mind, is its difficulty curve – or should that be mountain?  My first few plays on BGA were just DIRE.  It took a long time and not a little research to grasp the long-term strategies available in the game, and a lot more practice to get to be any good at even one of them – and I’m still not even approaching high levels at the most important two-player strategy.  I think without having done that research and being able to practice online, I might just have abandoned it.  Let’s not mince words; this game is hard.  It’s got a relatively short timeframe, with relatively limited numbers of actions available, and even more limited options on a turn-by-turn basis due to the pull-or-place mechanic, plus several points of critical long-term decision-making which take serious thinking to understand what resources are needed, especially when using the corn:resources trade action.  And unusually, and perhaps its biggest selling feature for me, is that it has a rhythm to it, it almost has a heartbeat.  That’s perhaps what’s most difficult about it, really grokking that rhythm.

It also helps a lot that it has online implementations.  BGA is good for live play, whilst BAJ is great for asynchronous play.  Both have their strengths, but add to the stable of games which I’m very impressed that CGE have made available for free online.

So… stick with Tzolk’in.  Even past its gimmick, it’s a very strong worker placement game, with a unique, interesting mechanic backing it up.  Once you get into the swing, once you get the rhythm, once you find its heartbeat… it can really start clicking.  A hearty 8 pyramids out of 10, unless I anger the gods this time round once too often!

*tabs over to BGA*

5 September: This week in…

RPGs: we played the second session of the second running of the finale of the Epic LFR campaign.  As ever with epic level 4e, it was a little slow and a little disjointed at times (particularly as I’m puppeteering our absent Bard, the party’s only leader), but mostly really good fun, and I have a whale of a time playing my character both in and out of combat situations.  My slight niggle in this regard is what we do afterwards, because there’s really not a home-play living campaign any of us are interested in doing, which either means playing a more self-generating game, or someone writing a campaign which will take more time than any of us can spare.

Board games: we played the first part of tier 2 Tuscany.  I love Viticulture, and I’m really enjoying getting my teeth into Tuscany.  We used the expanded board with all four seasons in addition to all the stuff we’ve previously used – Mamas and Papas, patrons, advanced visitors.  I felt like it changed the tactical landscape of the game a lot, in interesting ways; the stars and sellable fields in particular were interesting, but I think I still prefer the original board, purely on the basis that it’s quick enough to reliably play twice in an evening whereas I think this took a little longer even with the time for learning.  It also felt like it added to the AP which had been minimal in the base set.  Still loving the game as a whole though.  Also played Harbour, which was a neat, short, tactical tableau builder with a Le Havre-like feel.

Books: I continue to be an inveterate addict of ebook bundle sites like Humble Bundle and Storybundle.  For 12 bucks, less than the price of a single softcover book, I get 8 or more ebooks.  If even one of them is good, I’m happy, and I’ve yet to find a bundle without at least one gem that’s made me want to continue reading that author’s work or that series.  Sadly, this week’s was a proper stinker.  But the one I’ve just started, Crossfire by Nancy Kress is coming along much better so far.

TV: Enjoyed Bake Off, University Challenge, and Only Connect as usual.  Sad to see the end of the current season of the Last Leg coming.  Awaiting the new series of Doctor Who with some trepidation.  It’s been gradually diminishing in quality since it came back to the telly ten years or so ago, to the point where I’m less and less inclined to watch each new series.  I had high hopes for Peter Capaldi as the Doctor after his performance as Richelieu in the Musketeers, but he’s been under-used and poorly directed thus far and it’s really shown.

Making: laid out the arrangement for a nice collage of some highlights from our honeymoon in Nova Scotia.  Hoping to get it framed and hung in the next week or two.

Hanabi

HanabiHanabi is a beautiful little game; its incredibly simple gameplay leads to high quality and good replayability, and bedevillingly, bafflingly deep levels of skill and player involvement.  It’s a perfect example of how very simple rules can lead to emergent complexities.  The first play seems very straightforward, almost easy – I just have to tell my compatriots what to play or discard, how’s that hard?  And then you score 17 or 18 and realise that the trick is to give information-rich clues that allow multiple discards or ideally multiple plays with one clue.  And then you realise that every clue has not only positive information, but negative information as well – if that’s a 1, that means these aren’t… And then you realise that cards age in your hand, and the longer you’ve had something the more likely it is to be useless.  And then you realise that you might be able to give a clue to someone two seats away on the table that allows the person in between to play as well… the list is near-endless.  And then, once you’ve got all that and can routinely score high… you add the multi-coloured suit.  We haven’t gotten to that stage yet…

There are a few issues though: firstly, rules inconsistency – some versions, including the original, allow the giving of 0-thing clues (i.e. you have no 5s) whilst others don’t.  I like the ability; it adds to strategic depth without making the game significantly easier, but it’s potentially a problem if you’ve learned at one table and try to play at another, and it’s a really strange thing to change when doing a translation.

Secondly, components – it feels like a game that desperately needs card racks, which you can get in some deluxe versions, but I think they ought to be included in all of them.  We use the ones from Hab und Gut, so we didn’t need them, but it feels like a real missing element in the game, when you can’t put your hand of cards down between turns, because everyone else needs to see them but you don’t.

Thirdly, a more subtle one: this is a game that gets deeper and more interesting the more you play it, but at the same time has a strong potential to get less enjoyable the more you play it with the same group – because you wind up coming closer and closer to developing outright Bridge-style artificial conventions, wherein saying one thing means something completely different, agreed in advance, or where how you give a clue implies something (if I say ‘this this and this are 3s, it means they’re all playable, whereas if I say ‘these are all threes’ it means you can get rid of them, for instance), or where you assume a discard order from the start even before any information has been given.  These seem outside the spirit of the rules and get more and more difficult to avoid doing the more you play with the same group, because inevitably you discuss your score and your performance and way to improve.  For instance, one of my group adamantly maintains that ‘you have no 5s’ means you don’t have anything playable, purely by logical deduction; I just don’t see that, I can think of a bunch of situations where ‘you have no 5s’ would mean something else, mostly depending on them having previously been given other information.  There’s a simple test for them, I sometimes think – if you’d never played with someone before, could they understand your conventions without you explaining them – are they logically deducible from the game state, or not?  But, this causes issues in itself, because some things are logically deducible from the game state, but it’s highly unlikely that a new player would grasp them without explanation, so maybe it has to be someone who’s played a decent amount, but then, they’re much more likely to know some of the more logical near-conventions that feel uncomfortable.  It’s a difficult problem to work around.

But not too difficult for me.  I really like this game, I love how quick it is, how cerebral it is, and how animated it makes everyone in the group, especially when it’s all crashing down around our ears because someone forgot something, or someone said or did something they shouldn’t have and gave something extra away by accident.  I enjoy co-ops, which certainly helps.  And what I really like is that it really inspired me to think about what else mechanics like this could do – the hidden information mechanic really feels like it would lend itself to a mystery or whodunnit style game, it makes me feel like I’m a detective using incomplete information to deduce who killed Colonel Mustard; equally it feels like it could be some sort of Lovecraftian eldritch thing trying to build elder signs to summon Cthulhu.  It has a lot of potential.  Plus, it’s small enough to toss in a backpack, but long and re-playable enough to last in that context. Heartily recommended.  Eight fireworks out of ten.

On hobbies

I have a lot of hobbies.  I collect them, like I collect books, and miniatures, and tools, and clutter and boredom.  Part of me thinks they’re mostly reactions to the latter.  I get bored easily and I spend a lot of time bored.  My job doesn’t interest me much, much of the time, and the times when it does are few, far between, and painfully short.  So I collect hobbies, instead, in the hope of filling my own time with creativity and productivity and enjoyment.  Since this blog is about my hobbies, then a short run-down of the main ones seems like a good place to start.  They fall into a few categories:

Woodworking and general making of things.  Again, this is something I did at school, and which lay fallow for many years until it sprang back up around 3 years ago after too many sessions binge-watching Matthias Wandel on youtube and thinking ‘I think I could do that, with some practice, and I’d love to try’.  I’ve made a few successful projects thus far, but many of them have stalled at the ‘almost done but usable’ stage, and now need repairing or replacing, or finishing in the ‘put some varnish on it’ sense of the word.  I’m particularly pleased with the jigsaw tables (though in practice their joinery was pretty poorly done, and would have been much better with a rabbetting plane), and the still-distinctly-nascent Dalek project.  Again, problematic due to space – my 8’x8’ shed also contains all the patio furniture and the dryer, as well as all my stores of wood, two wheelchair ramps, and my tiny shopvac – and weather, as I have to do a lot of my work outside for the aforementioned space reasons.  Some of it’s also lack of tools – they say a bad craftsman blames his tools, but in this case… the things I want to build are big, and the tools I have are mostly small and cheap.  It’s close to impossible to accurately build something like a full-height bookcase in the space and with the tools available to me.  And whilst I could fill the house with (more) tiny wooden knicknacks (candle holders, decorative thingies, more coffee tables etc) I don’t like to build stuff that doesn’t have a purpose, and to be honest, we have more than enough clutter as it is!

Reading.  This is one of the few hobbies I’ve retained all my life, and it continues apace, with 70+ books read last year and I’m well on the way to the same for 2015.  I enjoy reading, particularly sf/f fiction, but I’ve usually found it less easy to actually think clearly about what I’m reading and why I’m enjoying it.  I’ve been trying to write reviews for exactly that reason, again without much success recently.  I hope to write more of those in the coming months and years, and/or republish a few old ones for a new audience.

RPGs.  I got into RPGs because I wanted to find something creative to do in person with other people who share similar interests.  I have to say, I’m still looking for the right RPG that mixes creative storytelling with real room to invent and come up with a fun tale, with a mechanical system that I like and enjoy playing in.  I found the latter with D&D 4e (not that it’s without its flaws) but I’m still to some extent looking for the former.  My 4e group is great fun and certainly we have our creative moments… but Living Forgotten Realms (and living campaigns in general) really tend not to lend themselves to creative problem-solving and character-driven stories, so I’ve yet to really satisfy the part of me that just wants to… invent.  I hope to eventually, but… life is busy, and invention tends to take time.

Board gaming.  Board gaming was an offshoot of RPGs.  I started playing designer boardgames with people from my 4e group, and that really shows in the games I like and the ways I like playing them – there’s a longer post coming on this point, but suffice it to say I like 4e’s character building system a lot, because it’s deep and fiddly and highly optimisable without being broken (well, not too much), which reflects in the board games I really like – worker placement games and engine builders, games with lots of competing strategies for victory, and things you can tweak and fiddle with the try to make them work better or worse according to how the game goes.  I LIKE boardgames; something visceral within me really enjoys sitting down with some friends with a structure for the afternoon.  I don’t get on anywhere near as well when I just sit in a pub or a park or whatever and natter, I really need something to direct the conversation and fill the low and quiet spots.  Board games hit that just right for me.

Miniature painting and modelling.  I started this hobby with GW games when I first went to secondary school, persisted with it for nearly 5 years as it and I became progressively less cool, then abandoned it when I moved out of home, mostly due to space issues.  I took it up a few years ago after spending too much time reading painting and modelling threads on SomethingAwful, and after playing D&D (more on that story later).  When it goes well I’m quick, accurate, and produce reasonable results, though nothing outstanding most of the time.  I struggle, however, with finding time for it – it requires good lighting, which I don’t really have in my home office, so it’s mostly a summer pursuit, and mostly a weekend pursuit, and my summers and weekends are usually full…  And when it goes poorly, I’m often disheartened by how difficult I find it.  I don’t find it easy to get enough practice to get good, and I often find that the colour I need has dried up or gone sludgy, or the brush I wanted to use has gotten screwed up, etc etc.

So, this is more or less going to be about those things, with some other bits and pieces thrown in here and there.