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A Gnome's Ponderings

I'm a gamer. I love me some games and I like to ramble about games and gaming. So, more than anything else, this blog is a place for me to keep track of my ramblings. If anyone finds this helpful or even (good heavens) insightful, so much the better.

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Hmmm... Guess I like quiet, two-player card games

Lowell Kempf
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I recently bought up Voltage in a conversation lately when I realized that it represented a genre of card games that I have a shocking number of.

I did an informal audit of my collection and noticed that I own Lost Cities, Emu Ranchers, Keltis the card game, Balloon Cup, Piñata, and Voltage. That's not including Battle Line or other games that are pretty close.

Not only are all these games all about laying out stacks of cards on your side of the draw pile, a number of them are openly variations on other games. Lost Cities begets Emu Ranchers and Keltis while Balloon Cup was revamped with Piñata and had to have inspired Voltage.

There is a rule or test about having similar games in your collection that I want to call the Meyer Briggs Test but that's about personalities. You know, I've even written about it in the past but can't seem to find it. Grrrrrr.... Any way, if two games are close enough to each other, the idea is you only need one of them.

More than that, I have done a lot of culling of my game collection over the last few years. That kind of thinking has definitely been on my mind. But I have kept all these games.

Well, it doesn't hurt that the biggest box of the whole bunch is either Balloon Cup or Piñata. We are not talking about a lot of shelf real estate here.

But what I found myself thinking is that I kept them all because they are a kind of game that I don't just enjoy playing. They are a game I find very relaxing to play and I like having the different flavors of art and different nuances in rules.

And they are the kind of game that we are playing it now, a quiet two-player card game after the kid has gone to sleep. They are what we want right now and I have a feeling that they will keep on being what we enjoy unwinding with.

Some games quietly earn their place.
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Fri Jul 3, 2015 11:41 pm
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Keeping records is important and... well, maybe not

Lowell Kempf
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I used to be incredibly meticulous about recording my game plays. That included games that I played online, as long as they were with another human being. Sorry artificial intelligences but you just aren't
the same.

However, over the last year, I've pretty much given up recording plays. About the only thing I really try and keep track of are live plays and I'm not even to take really good about those.

I think that there are very good reasons to keep track of your gameplay, even online plays. For one thing, when you have played dozens upon dozens of different games, it helps you let you know what you actually played. Although, if you forgotten that you ever play the game, it probably means that you don't need to play it again.

I have also found that recording my plays let me clarify experiences. I remember a Gencon where my group played a lot of Patrician. Which I definitely think it's a great game but I found that my records on-site of playing about six times didn't jibe with their memories of playing it twenty times.

But, in general, actually getting a chance to look at what you're playing in the patterns that your choices make can be helpful. It helps you understand what games are actually worth buying and will actually see play. It helps you understand what you honestly enjoy in your gaming.

However, almost all of my gaming over the last year has been done through online sites like Yucata and most of my time is been taking up being a daddy. Honestly, just taking the time to play games was more important than trying to keep track of games.

And, if I ever really really want to know, the sites I play at do keep records.

You know, the original point I was going for was that recording plays is valuable but sometimes life finds things that are more important. But looking at what I've written, it feels like I'm arguing the point too hard. Like I'm trying to come up with good reasons to record plays that make it sound all noble and scientific, all at the same time.

You know what? The truth is recording plays gives you a sense of accomplishment and it's fun and gives you some alleged bragging rights. But, seriously, it's not that important. When it became inconvenient and I needed to honesty focus in other things, I let it drop.

It's always fun when I start a blog with one idea in mind and by the time I've finished, I've actually completely revised that idea.
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Fri Jul 3, 2015 1:59 pm
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I keep knocking on Loyang's door

Lowell Kempf
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At the Gates of Loyang has been a bit of an albatross around my gaming neck for a few years now. I got it right when it came out since Agricola and La Havre were games that I enjoyed and Carrie took to as well.

However, Loyang is a very different game than either of those two. You're still building an engine but there is no worker placement and there's a whole lot more micromanagement.

We didn't enjoy our initial plays of it, which is why there weren't later plays of it. I also realized that there were a lot of people who I didn't want to play Loyang with since the analysis paralysis would be extreme, particularly in a learning game.

And even before our toddler came along, trying to play it solitaire wasn't a good idea with three cats who like to get into their humans' business

Still, I am convinced that there is a good game in Loyang so it has survived purge after purge. I believe that when you play enough to see the whole picture and not just the individual gears, it will be very good. There are comes a point where a game stops being moving parts and becomes one system.

So now I've decided that it's time to use Yucata to work on actually learning Loyang.

There are some hurdles. For one thing, it's been so long since I played it that I'm basically learning the game from scratch and, at least for me, that's not the easiest thing to in a turn-based website. And since I usually have thirty-odd games at any given time and all my turns have to be in order, Loyang can become a roadblock in my overall Yucata play.

However, it is a way I can play and one that AP doesn't matter. People can take days to make their move and I don't care.

I haven't learned how to understand Loyang or even how to like it yet. Most of the time, that'd be enough for me to not play. But, somehow, this is a game where I think I can come to like it.
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Wed Jul 1, 2015 7:53 pm
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First Fable is a gift to the very youngest of gamers

Lowell Kempf
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I've been reading various RPGs aimed or at least suitable for younger audiences for some months now. My primary source for them has been the family friendly bundle from Bundle of Holding but I keep my eye out for others. Which is how I discovered First Fable.

First Fable is aimed at the younger end of potential gamers. Officially, it is for eight to twelve-year-olds but the rules note that six-year-olds should be able to handle it and there is no real upper age limit. In fact, First Fable is designed to be the next step up from games like Cowboys and Indians or Cops and Robbers.

Mechanically, it is very simple. Characters are built from tri-stats and edges and weaknesses. In fact, other than prebuilt stats, the classes don't have specific powers. The classes just give expectations on what the edges and weaknesses should be like. For instance, a knight would tend towards fighting rather than spell casting. There isn't a mechanic reason why a knight wouldn't cast spells.

Conflict resolution is dead simple. Dice pools with fours, fives and sixes as successes. So, yeah, you could just use coins but you want the kids to get used to dice. Contested conflicts have both parties roll their dice pools and compare results.

There isn't any kind of setting. It's just a world where pirates and fairy princesses both exist and can adventure together. Given the intended audience, I don't know if you need anything more. However, most of the RPGs for kids that I've looked at do have something.

One of the two things I liked about First Fable. First, when you go into combat, you set how much damage you'll take before you're out. It can be so little that you're just ducking out at the first sign of trouble or it could be much more significant. You'll never die but you can get penalties and additional weaknesses.

I think letting the players set the difficulty of the fight is very important. It gives the a sense of control and lets them own the conflict.

I also think that the ten point grown up (or GM) advice is very good. First Fable takes its job of being an intro to RPGs for the very young very seriously and I really respect the designers for doing that.

What I don't like about First Fable is how abstracted it is as a RPG and how freeform. I have no problems with that as a gamer but I think it's needs some more structure and concrete detail. Kids already know how to freeform. It's structure that might be the hard part.

Still, this is a free game that takes the idea of being an entry point into gaming for kids as young as six seriously and responsibly. It is gift to the community to help bring up the next generation of gamers. I really appreciate that and I think that is important.
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Sun Jun 28, 2015 4:01 pm
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My mind goes in circles about minimalism

Lowell Kempf
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Since I recently was looking at Cunning Folk by Button Shy, I decided to take a look at what other games they had come up with. Among their other micro games, I saw one called Wildcats.

It consists of three cards and I would either describe it as a meaningfully different variant of Win, Lose, Banana or a three-person One Night Werewolf.

But what it really made me think about was that minimal
games have come a long ways since when I first started collecting board games. Which is just a little over a decade, really.

When I first started really looking at designer games, Pico 2 with eleven cards was considered to be pushing the envelope. There was also 3 Spot, an abstract boardgame with three pieces plus the board. That was kind of the lunatic fringe of the minimalist movement.

But these days, three cards isn't even the extreme end. There are a number of games that consist of only one card. We're not going to count games like Rock-Paper-Scissors that don't use any components whatsoever.

Da Vinci put out a whole line of one card games, that were used as handouts for a game fair. Now, to be fair, a lot of the Bonsai games do you require additional components. But a couple of them, like Jungle or Word Finger, are really just the card and nothing else.

Huh. Actually, when I look at the Bonsai series, I see that they were designed for the 2004 Essen Fair. So this whole only one component thing has been around for over 10 years. I don't know if the increased interest in micro games has made people more aware of them or if I was just totally blind.

Actually, as I'm actually thinking about it, when you add dice games or pencil and paper games or games in which all the components are part of a single board that has moving pieces, were actually discussing games that are made up of one or two or three pieces it's pretty common and actually has a long history.

I guess what I am really thinking is that there is no race to fewest components. And really, if there ever was one, it only existed in the minds of people who weren't stretching their minds for enough. You know, the way I wasn't stretching my mind when I started writing this blog entry.

Periodically, I find myself thinking about how minimal a game can be from a component perspective. As if there was some sort of minimalist arms race going on. But, every time I start thinking that way and start looking at how many more games can be, I realize that people have long been designing games with almost no components.

Minimal games are fun from the travel perspective and from a storage perspective and from a just hey they did this perspective. However, what I need to remember is that the measure of a game is in the game play, not in a gimmick.
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Sat Jun 27, 2015 2:23 pm
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Some of the ways Monsterhearts got under my skin

Lowell Kempf
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While I wrote a very general reaction to reading Monsterhearts, which could be summed up as it's an amazing game with a lot of potential for deep play and exploring identity, there were a few elements of the game that I want to comment on.

To be a little bit more precise, there were three skins that really struck me. If you're not even vaguely familiar with the system, a skin is your class. Although, it might be better to describe your skin as your hangups and problems as opposed to your class.

The very first class, excuse me, skin I looked at when I first was even looking at Monsterhearts was the Chosen. That's partially because they were in alphabetical order. The chosen could be described in one sentence and so you want to play Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

After reading the entire game, the first thing that struck me about the Chosen is that it is the class with the greatest ability to change and even warp the landscape of the game simply by existing. The Chosen is defined by external conflict, while almost every other skin is really about internal conflict. The Chosen, by being in the game, brings in direct opposition to the players and can even bring in a big bad.

Not that that's a bad thing and not that you need a Chosen for those things to be a part of the game. But in less you to find the Chosen as someone who is completely deluded with no actual big bad out there, I think it would be hard to avoid it with the Chosen in the game.

I also found myself thinking that the Chosen was the most shallow of the skins. The conflict in many ways is driven by an outside force. However, as I looked to deeper at the Chosen, I changed my mind. The Chosen is driven by an unreasonable sense of responsibility. If you decided that you wanted to do a Friendship is Magic version of Monsterhearts, Applejack would be a Chosen. I am so proud of that last sentence.

The next skin that really struck me was the Mortal. And it's also one that I can sum up with a literary reference. You play the mortal if you want to explore what it would be like to be Bella from Twilight.

Before the movies came out, a friend of mine insisted that I read the first couple Twilight books. Possibly because her husband refused to and she wanted someone to discuss them with. By the end of the first book, I had that Bella had knocked Holden Caufield from the Catcher in the Rye out of the position of worst role model for teenagers.

So I went into the Mortal with utter hatred in mind. So of course I was delighted to find that the mortal addresses all the things that I hated about Bella. If you are the Mortal, you take codependence and crank it up to on an unhealthy, self-destructive level. In fact, there are some people who would probably find that playing the Mortal qualifies as therapy.

The last skin that really struck me was the Ghoul. You can play a werewolf with out-of-control violent tendencies. You can play an infernal who is in touch with the devil and pays for it. You can play a vampire with all the issues that that comes with, except for maybe sparkling in the sunlight. But the Ghoul is the most flat out monstrous skin by definition.

The Ghoul has come back from the dead, traumatized and driven by a terrible hunger. Outside of that hunger, they are detached and distant from the world. You get to define the hunger but if you have sex with another character, then sex with that character becomes an additional hunger.

In short, the Ghoul is a sociopath, sexual stalker, and potential rapist. That's really really heavy. And I don't think it's the easiest thing to try and avoid that stuff if you have that skin in the game. Out of a lot a very raw skins, the Ghoul is the rawest.

Having said all that, there is a potential description for both the Chosen and the Ghoul that isn't in the game but has come to my mind as I've considered them. They both could be very easily considered as different aspects or outcomes of child soldiers. I'm not sure what to do with that idea but it definitely has occurred to me.
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Fri Jun 26, 2015 6:41 am
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Delving into the meaning that is Monsterhearts

Lowell Kempf
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I have long been a fan of Apocalypse World and the Apocalypse World engine. I have also become a fan of Avery McDaldno. So it was pretty much inevitable that I was going to end up looking at Monsterhearts.

In fact, I was hoping to be in a Monsterhearts campaign a few years ago. In my personal perception of role-playing games, I consider Monsterhearts to be part of the Apocalypse Engine Trinity with Apocalypse World and Dungeon World.

On the surface, Monsterhearts is a supernatural teen drama. however, you barely need to scratch beneath the surface to see what it's really about people struggling to figure out who they are. Quite frankly, that's kind of an intrinsic quality to teenagers.

In fact, it would be very easy to see the supernatural elements merely being a way of framing the personal struggles the characters are going through. Your problems and your issues don't come from being a supernatural monster. Being a supernatural monster is a way of expressing your problems.

While Apocalypse World already gave you plenty of ways to create your own problems, Monsterhearts ups the ante. Many of the moves, particularly the skin specific moves, usually have built in drawbacks. Using your special abilities often cost to you as well as gets you ahead.

Monsterhearts encourages you to play feral and the rules reflect that. It takes the raw nature of the Apocalypse World and make it bleed.

In short, it's awesome.

A very important part of the game is the darkest self. Every skin comes with one. Very simply, it's what happens when your problems take control. It is you lashing out against the world in a way that defines both what makes you powerful and what makes you totally messed up.

The darkest self isn't your kryptonite. It's not some terrible weakness. Instead, it forces you to confront what makes your character so messed up and what they are really struggling with. Let's face it, in games and in real life, we tend to avoid the real problems. The darkest self shoves them in our face.

And that is why it is so crucial to Monsterhearts.

One thing that I found a lot of people commented on was the queer content of Monsterhearts. Since your characters are teenagers, you don't have control over what turns you want. So no one can claim that their gender makes them immune to another person's moves.

Amusingly enough, when I read that section, all I thought was that it was a way of preventing people from using gender to block other people mechanically. Because, let me tell you, I know some rules lawyers who would try that.

However, this just underscores that Monsterhearts is not a game that is designed to be played with a distant, tactical mind where you are looking for loopholes. It's not an designed to be an easy game. It is a game that is designed to make you think and even more so feel. In short, a game with meaning.
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Fri Jun 26, 2015 3:17 am
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The meta game as the meat of the game

Lowell Kempf
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I came very close to backing Cunning Folk. After all, it was a micro game with a low price point. One of those kick starters where you tell yourself, eh, that's next to nothing. But I have found saying that too often adds up. So I just downloaded the black and white print and play option. If we really like it, that will tide me over until it gets released and I buy it regular style.

And, truth to tell, black and white suits the theme of the game.

Cunning Folk is a good old fashioned, Crucible-style witch hunt. You are either trying to find the two good witches and the good elder or the two bad witches and the bad elder. Amusingly enough, it doesn't matter which. Good, bad, you're just going for three of a kind.

The basic idea of the gameplay is that the cards form a face down 9 x 9 grid. On your turn, you secretly look at a card and state what you want everyone to believe the card is, then performing the action of the card. You can be called out and forced to reveal what the card really is, but false accusations can lead to being ostracized and out of the game.

At first, this looks like a deduction game. But it's really a game about bluffing, deception and lying your way to deduction.

I have observed before that bluffing is a very common mechanic in micro games. Games like Coup, Love Letter and Pico 2 all use bluffing as a central mechanic, just to give three well regarded examples. When you have limited components, I think developing a well defined meta game can help make a game much bigger then its pieces.

Let's face it, trying to identify three out of nine cards would get pretty boring quickly. Being able to try and influence your opponent through or manipulation and out right lying is a lot more interesting.

The obvious game that Cunning Folk brings to mind is Coup. But it also makes me think of Werewolf, probably because of the theme. A small, isolated, claustrophobic village that is being torn apart by secrets. It's a theme that is bigger than nine cards.

Of course, the question is will Cunning Folk live up to the potential of its meta game? Only play and repetition will answer that.
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Wed Jun 24, 2015 7:29 pm
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Hoping Yucata is doing well

Lowell Kempf
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Something that I didn't really notice for what I'm realizing was a good six months is that there hasn't been any new games added to Yucata. And I haven't seen anything about that on the forums I've peeked at.

Now, I don't have a problem with this. For one thing, I know that making a good interface takes time. I also know that you just can't just grab a game and make an online version of it. There's legal stuff at work. More than that, there are still a number of games on the site that I still haven't played. Of course, the most important thing about Yucata for me is that it has lots of games that I want to keep on playing.

Last year, thirteen games were added to the site. Some of them were really good ones too. And that was a very good thing for me last year. I was in a completely new city taking care of an infant. Yucata was my outlet for gaming and how I was able to stay in touch with some of my old gaming buddies. Having that infusion of new was very important to me.

However, while I may not have a regular physical gaming group yet, I'm now much more accustomed to living in Tucson and being a dad, not to mention a toddler is a lot more active and engaging than an infant. That need just isn't as strong.

I'm still on Yucuta a fair bit, trying to make moves at least once a day. I am very grateful that it exists and this isn't me bashing the site.

Seriously, I get to play a wide variety of games, some of which I am playing with good friends who live on the other side of the country, and I get to do that for free. I have nothing to complain about.

What I am hoping is that this isn't a sign that Yucata is in trouble and that I need to worry about its continued existence. I have gotten a lot out of the site and I wanted to continue to keep on thriving for years to come.
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Mon Jun 22, 2015 9:38 pm
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Can cartoons help personal growth?

Lowell Kempf
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In addition to enjoying Howard Taylor's comic strip Schlock Mercenary, I also look forward to when he posts reviews of movies. His tastes are close enough to mine that I'll usually end up agreeing with him. And he sometimes makes points that really get me thinking.

His reaction to Inside Out was that he didn't personally enjoy it himself but he felt that it was the most important movie Pixar had made and that it is a film that every kid should see nice it creates a functional model for understanding emotions.

Now, with a toddler in the house, we are going to have to wait until it comes out for the home market before we see it but I have a feeling I'll agree with both of his assessments. I have a feeling I'll interpret the movie as being about mental health issues and that it will be a very meaningful movie.

Which got me thinking about how cartoons address emotional and social issues in general.

At first, I found myself thinking about how cartoons when I was a kid were either pure entertainment or heavy in the blatant eduction and that cartoons talking about emotional and social issues are a relatively new development.

Even without doing a shred of research, I realized I was completely wrong about that. Even ignoring that folks like Fred Rogers were addressing emotional issues for decades, the early eighties were chock full of cartoons that were influenced by parent interest groups. If I remember correctly, the poster child of those was the Get Along Gang which was about solidarity and conformity.

(And yes, this resulted in a backlash of snarky deconstructions that were in many ways aimed at older audiences. However, as a dad of a toddler who is becoming more and more aware of the world, I'm focused on cartoons that are actually aimed at small children)

While social awareness and emotional growth have been a part of cartoons aimed at kids for what I'm realizing is three decades at least, I feel like they are getting more nuanced. (Yes, it could just be I am looking at them as a parent for the first time)

Just as a single example, we discovered Peppa Pig. While it has plenty of delicious snark for the parents (and occasionally, BRYAN BLESSED as the loudest rabbit in existence), it has a strong emphasis on emotional health, social behavior and diversity without making the kids goody goodies. In fact, they can be believably real brats.

I'm probably living in denial and in a bubble in my own head but the idea that cartoons aren't just for entertainment or even to reach numbers and letters but as a platform for real discussions about serious topics with my son is pretty cool.
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Mon Jun 22, 2015 7:08 pm
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