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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The cult of the old might look good on me

Lowell Kempf
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I have known folks who are driven to master games. While I do enjoy that, looking back, personally, I have been more driven to learn new games than to master ones I already know. From a time management viewpoint alone, those two goals tend to be mutually exclusive. If they aren't for you, then I'm really jealous of how much free time you have.

The far end of the drive to master a game is when you only play one game. There are plenty of games that are legitimate lifestyle games, ranging from class is like chess or bridge or some modern games likes Advanced Squad Leader or Warhammer. I have even met folks who has Settlers of Catan as a lifestyle game. (I love Settlers but that seems a bit, um, limited to me. Huh, gamer snob coming out)

The closest I have ever come to embracing a lifestyle fame was when I was learning Go. And if you are going to only play one game and you are going to spend a lot of time learning that game and mastering it, Go is an amazing choice.

I do hope to someday return to Go, particularly since you can play it online. However, I need to wait until when I can play live games, I'm pretty sure I'd get fed up with a turn based game and making one or two moves a day. That would also probably take the better part of a year.

That said, focussing on playing and replaying a smaller number of games rather than constantly learning new games is a more practical choice for me. Part of it is just the economic factor and storage factor. The drive to learn lots of new games means buying a lot of games.

However, there is another side of it. Frankly, constantly wanting to play new games doesn't just mean learning them yourself. It means convincing other folks to learn them as well as constantly teaching them. That can be a strain on you and it can be a strain on the group.

Sometimes, I envious of the folks who seriously review games. They are able to embrace the drive to learn new games and make good use of it. However, a good reviewer takes more than just one person. It takes a very special kind of gaming group, one that I don't think is as common as I use to think.

I do know that when my son gets old enough to get into games, I can't bombard him with games. I'll have to find out what he wants to play and the accept that I may be playing marathon sessions of Candy Land. (Which would beat him hating games all to heck, I got to admit)

How he grows up and what his interests are and who his friends are (and if their parents are gamers) will play a huge role in how my gaming life develops. But I am sure that I am going to focus in a smaller pool of games. Maybe even join the cult of the old. Heck, that'd match my gray hair.
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Mon Apr 27, 2015 8:08 pm
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Monopoly Express is much better than it has any right to be

Lowell Kempf
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One of these days, I am going to take a long hard look at the 'express' family of games, since that seems to become a term for taking a board or card game and making a dice version of it.

I'm pretty sure that, depending on how you define it, you'll be able to find examples of this re-mechanizing (you know, as opposed to re-theming) that go back a ways. For instance, poker dice have been around for dice. But one of my earliest exposures to the idea and to the term was the Hasbro Express Line. (In fact, I wonder if that's where the term came from)

I tried most of the games in the line (sadly, no Risk Express but now it's available under a different name so it might happen, yea! Or I just make my own copy. That can happen too!) and most of them did not stay in my collection.

The exception to that rule was Monopoly Express, which started life as an earlier dice game Don't Go To Jail. Perhaps the fact that is an earlier game and probably came out of a different design process may be why it feels different than the other games in the line.

The dice, which are such a huge part of so many games with express in the name, come in three flavors. Seven property dice, which you use to collect sets; three policeman dice, which add risk to the reward you're hoping for, and one house/hotel die that can help you earn the big bucks.

I was going to try and go into detail about the rules but it's not hard to find reviews that already do that. The short version: you roll the property dice and the policeman dice. You assign properties to earn points. Complete sets of a color are worth more points and unlock the house/hotel dice for the rest of your turn. However, policeman faces are locked and three policeman mean you go to jail and lose all your points for the round. Earn 15,000 points (or pick another number for a longer game) and you win.

It is a simple, push-your-luck game. The idea of rolling dice with the risk of busting and losing all your points is one that you can find in a lot of different games. That makes games like that easy to teach and easy to play but any particular example has to have something that makes it stand out, makes it sparkle.

The policeman dice, which create the push-your-luck tension, and the house/hotel die, which can lead to mad points, are both interesting touches. However, the property dice are what I think stand out in the game.

A friend of mine has complained that a specialty die that is really just a regular six-sided isn't really special. For instance, Zooleretto the Dice Game honestly captures the feel of Zooleretto but you could easily play it with just regular pip dice.

In Monopoly Express, the property dice are not seven identical dice. Instead, the various property faces are spread out over the forty-two faces of the dice. That makes figuring out the odds and choosing which dice to lock a lot more interesting

The board, which serves as the bank for locked dice, does give you an idea of the odds for throwing all seven property dice. But, after you start locking them, it isn't quite so easy.

Don't get me wrong. Monopoly Express is an easy game to teach and to play. But it doesn't let you automatically figure out the best move and the odds at a single glance. After ten years of playing Can't Stop, I can do that with most six siders.

There are tons of light little dice games and light push-your-luck games out there. A lot of them are even pretty good. Monopoly Express may be a mass market game and party of the biggest zombie franchise in all of board games but it manages to be right up there.
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Fri Apr 24, 2015 9:07 pm
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Stacking and flicking remain in my collection

Lowell Kempf
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I recently had a discussion about dexterity games with one of my friends. I'm not big on dexterity games. My entry into modern gaming was Catan and dexterity only comes in when folks make funny shapes with their spare wooden pieces while some else has A.P.

But dexterity games are fun and they are also a crowd pleaser. I definitely think they have a place in a collection. And, quite frankly, the first games my toddler will play will probably be dexterity games.

I won't be surprised if Animal Upon Animal isn't the first game he plays, particularly plays by the rules. The pieces are big enough that choking isn't a concern and they are awfully gosh darn cute. And, while it may not be the deepest or most complex stacking game ever, it's one adults can enjoy too.

I may not be able to escape Candy Land being his first game, though. I have been told that grandparents can sneak Candy Land into a home with a skill that would make Lupin (either the original or the third) whistle with amazement. At least one friend's mother laid the the law that her granddaughter's first game WOULD be Candy Land.

Well, at least he would learn about taking turns and pawns and counting if that Halle s and I won't care if he feeds the gingerbread men to the garbage disposal.

What sparked the conversation, though, was Elk Fest. Since pictures of the stepping stones appear beside choking hazard in the dictionary, I don't think that will be an early game for him.

But Elk Fest, a game about getting your elk across the river/table/play area, is beautiful in its intuitive simplicity and in its cute little elks. The whole thing fits into anyone's pocket and is easy to understand. You are flicking stepping stones so your elk doesn't get his feet wet. An elk with wet feet is a pouty elk that always goes back to the shore he started from.

Still, since I don't have a copy of Crokinole, I'd say the best dexterity game in my collection is Sorry Sliders. If you don't have the budget or storage space for something like Crokinole or Pitchnut or Carrom, Sorry Sliders is an awesome cheat. I got on the band wagon when it came out and it turns a room of bored people into a party in no time.

I know a lot of serious gamers who don't like dexterity games. But, for me, they've always been worth having in my collection. I've done some heavy purging but I still have some.
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Thu Apr 23, 2015 8:56 pm
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Are we in a PnP golden age or is there a golden age within sight?

Lowell Kempf
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The more I look into print in play, the more I wonder if we are in a golden age of print and play or if technology is going to make print and play more and more viable so that we keep on getting into a more and more golden age of print and play.

At first, it seemed counter productive to me. After all, print and play represents a small segment of the hobby and the whole idea of crafting something yourself is kind of old school. However, technology has made it much easier for the producers of print and play games and the folks who are making them.

My very first print and play effort was making a copy of The Baton Races of Yaz in the mid-eighties. Since I wanted to keep the copy that came int he magazine intact, I used a copy machine at the library. I ended up with a grainy copy that was in black and white. You could only tell which side was which by the red being darker and even grainier. It qualified at being functional but that's the best I can say for it.

We have a printer/scanner/fax machine in our closer that can print in full color and with photograph level clarity and it can handle card stock. Sure, ink can cost a body dearly but a relatively inexpensive, all purpose machine is light years ahead of that old Xerox machine in almost every meaningful level and it lives on my dresser.

Seriously, I know we are taking thirty years but that is an insane difference.

And between things like the PDF format, which lets a producer create sheets of components that will be the same across the board regardless of the machine and the Internet making it supremely easy to distribute, finding something to make with that printer is a matter of picking projects, not finding them.

Across the board, being able to produce print and play projects, the ability to distribute the designs and the ability to make them has grown much easier in any given span of time you want to use. I'm pretty sure it's more cost effective as well. And I'm just concentrating on games. I'm willing to bet that there are no end of other craft-related projects out there.

It is pretty amazing, even for just the casual print and player. Actually, all of these advances make it possible for casual PnP to exist!

But I don't think we are even close to hitting the end of the line yet. 3-D printers exist. If those become cheap and convenient enough for the every gamer to have in their home, what will that do for print and play?

And that technology is already out there. What new developments do I have absolutely no idea about are waiting in the wings?
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Fri Apr 17, 2015 9:04 pm
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The train of thought that the Little Engine That Could leads me to

Lowell Kempf
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It will come as no surprise to anyone that knows me that I have been reading a lot of children's books to my son. And it will come as no surprise to anyone who know toddlers that I have been re reading a lot of the same books.

And, me being me, some books make me think of games.

In particular, the Little Engine that Could brings a number of train games to mind. I hadn't realized how much of the book was about the broken down train just trying to find an engine, as opposed to the little engine saying 'I think I can' over and over again.

(In fact, when I first read the book, I found myself thinking that this sounded suspiciously like the parable of the Good Samaritan. One Wikipedia entry later, I learned that the story had started out as a sermon)

The Little Engine spends a lot of time talking about the different type of cargo that the train has and the different types of engines that the clown who serves as the train's leader ask for help. Which then leads me to think about train games.

Station Master is what really resonates for me since it differentiates trains into passenger and freight. I can't think of another game offhand that breaks trains down like that. Usually, it is how much can it carry and how fast it can go

It also makes me think of the Crayon family of games since it gets so very specific about different types of cargo. Instead of colored cubes, the Crayon games let you know exactly what you're hauling

(Oddly enough, the book doesn't bring either TransAmerica or Ticket to Ride to mind, two of the first games I think of when it comes to toddlers learning train games)

What I'm choosing to take from this, ignoring that I'll clearly turn any topic into gaming , is that trains are one of those themes that have amazing appeal. My toddler son likes the Little Engine and Thomas and his friends. His uncle Din has turned his basement into an elaborate network of toy train rails. I love me some train games.

Trains resonate with so many of us. They inspire the imagination as they embrace travel and commerce and exploration. I'm glad my son likes trains.
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Wed Apr 15, 2015 10:37 pm
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Some general thoughts about RPGs and Skype

Lowell Kempf
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Lately, I have been thinking a lot about Skype and gaming. That’s because, in the last month’s time, I’ve used Skype to game with three different groups of people. I periodically play in an old school Marvel game, I got to play in a game of 1001 Nights and I used Skype to visit and participate in a small, regional convention.

Having now played both board games and roleplaying games via Skype, I have to say that it’s a format that suits roleplaying games more than board games. In many roleplaying games, you don’t need to see a board. You just need to be able to converse with each other.

While I am sure that I will play board games via Skype every once in a while, RPGs is where my focus will be when it comes to Skype gaming. It’s kind of amusing that, in a world of MMRPGs, I’m using technology to play the farthest thing from those.

However, I have a couple of additional hurdles to my gaming and they tie together. First of all, by living in Arizona, I am two to three hours behind most of the folks I play with. Second, I have a toddler who prefers to have Daddy be the one to put him to bed. Their prime playing time in the evening is still the late afternoon for me and I’m busy with dad stuff. By the time my night and free time starts, it's my friends time to go to bed.

Not that any of that is insurmountable. You're always going to have limits. Mine are just different than my friends'.

When I think about what would really work, I found myself with the following rough list of ideals. Games that are focussed on the narrative, not mechanics, so just being able to talk to each other gets most of the gaming going. Games that designed for one shots or just make good one shots. Games that have relatively short set-up, character creation systems. Games that have relatively short playing times.

Guess what? There are tons of games out there that fit that bill. I had been planning on making a list of games like Baron Munchausen and Puppetland and Fiasco and Murderous Ghosts and School Daze and Ocean and.. Well, the potential list just ended up so long.

Murderous Ghosts is one in particular I think would work really well. Between the short playtime and the fact that is designed for only two players should make it one the easiest games to schedule. (If I'm the only one skyping in and everyone else is traveling to one locations, I have to respect their schedules too)

Happy Birthday, Robot, which is really an exercise in cooperatively writing sentences, might also be a really interesting Skype experience and one that should also work with a short play time.

Scheduling Skype isn't the easiest thing to do, not with everyone having a busy schedule and me being in a different time zone. But it is truly the next best thing to being there.
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Mon Apr 13, 2015 6:21 pm
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My first visit to the Sultan's court

Lowell Kempf
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A Thousand and One Nights has been an inspiration for all kinds of art so it's not surprising that it has been an inspiration for games, both board and role playing for a long time.

I've wanted to try 1001 Nights for a while and I recently got my chance, with a little help from Skype.

A touchstone game for me is The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen. While other games got me to truly delve into narrative RPGs and move away from the more traditional, simulation RPGs, Muchausen was my very first experience with a game where story telling was the central mechanic and you didn't need to worry about dice or stats.

1001 Nights takes many of the key concepts of Munchausen and takes them up several notches. In Munchausen, the players are debauched nobles telling stories in a bar. In 1001 Nights, you are courtiers in the Sultan's palace. However, in Munchausen, all your characters are worrying about is the tab. In 1001 Nights, the stories will affect their dreams, their freedom and even their lives.

The characters in 1001 Nights are bound together not just by being a part of the sultan's court. They are also bound together by ties of envy and jealousy. However, the only way they can say what they really think and get any digs in is through story.

For, when a character becomes the story teller, they don't just tell tej story. They become the game master of the story, assigning roles in the story to the other players. This can be a way to curry favor or to cast scorn. (As an example when we were setting up the game, I used "Barry, can you play the syphilitic whore in this story?")

As the story unfolds, the story teller and the other characters who are acting in the story can earn dice. At the end of each story, you create three dice pools. One for freedom, one for ambition and one for survival. The first two are positive tallies, the last one is a negative one. If you get enough pluses in ambition or freedom, you either achieve your dream or get out of the palace. If you fail to get pluses in survival, eventually you get executed.

When someone reaches one of these three end points, you wrap up the game and everyone gets a epilogue. So, I guess you could say there is either one winner or one loser.

1001 Nights is a story teller's story telling game. Between the fact that the dice only direct how you embellish your character's story and the meta game of the nested stories within stories, it explores so many elements of both stories and group dynamics.

As much as I really like Baron Munchausen and want to okay more of it, I feel that 1001 Nights takes the idea of a group of story tellers and takes up so many levels. The sultan's court, as a claustrophobic dance of manners, makes the lives of the story tellers as significant as the stories. And having everyone involved in the stories keeps everyone engaged and the group dynamic important.

I had a lot of fun with 1001 Nights and I would love to play it again. I'd cheerfully recommend it to anyone interested in the narrative form of RPGs.
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Sat Apr 11, 2015 7:49 pm
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The odd little bits of gaming I found this Easter

Lowell Kempf
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I honestly don't think of Easter as a board gaming holiday. Thanksgiving and New Year's tend to have the opportunity to sit down and play. Halloween has awesome themes for games. Christmas has both. Well, maybe not the awesome themes but you can find plenty of Christmas themed games and you can hope for games as presents.

But this Easter did end up showing me some games.

This was the first year we dyed eggs for our son. In addition to dye tablets, a crayon that arrives broken, stickers and shrinky dink sleeves, the dye package came with a sheet of cards for Mommy and Daddy to cut out so the kiddies could play a matching game.

Now, don't get me wrong. If your kids like matching games, you are already going to own some much better ones. Really, we are just looking at a cynical way to make you feel like you got more for your money by sticking in a piece of printed cardboard. But as someone who likes to see games out there and a part of our culture, I'm glad to see the idea was even tried.

What I found more interesting was little party favors of Apples to Apples Junior. Each one came with fourteen green cards and forty two red cards, all about a quarter the size of regular playing cards and in a box the size of a match box. So there's actually enough to play a game. And since this is Apples to Apples, not a deck of trivia questions, there's a little bit of replay value there.

Now, I don't think Apples to Apples is the greatest party game ever. Just off the top of my head, I think Dixit and Say Anything are better party games, if we're not counting games like Take It Easy or Liars Dice. And I've played it so much over the last fifteen years that I don't a burning desire to play it.

But you can play Apples to Apples with just about anyone and everyone will have fun. I do view it as one of the most accessible party games out there. So a copy like this can find a home in my travel bag.

But what I really appreciate about these party favors is that they even exist. It means that Apples to Apples, which I would argue as part of the shift in board games that's been taking place over the last couple decades, has a solid enough place in culture that it can be a party favor.
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Tue Apr 7, 2015 4:34 am
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Oh, how Best Treeouse Ever tempts me!

Lowell Kempf
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I've been looking long and hard at Best Treehouse Ever on kickstarter. To be honest, it has all the earmarks of a project I would back. It's a light family game, it costs less than twenty dollars and it's by Scott Almes

Seriously, the guy has a knack of packing a lot of game into a small footprint and a short playing time. That's pretty awesome.

Ever since Fairy Tale, I've been a fan of card drafting (7 Wonders and Notre Dame didn't hurt that love) and Best Treehouse Ever combines that with tile placement. It also uses a balance mechanic that I first remember seeing in Ark.

The game itself is simple. You are drafting rooms in your treehouse, which blossoms on the table like an upside down pyramid. However, the rooms come in five different colors. Once a color is started, every room of that color must be part of the same group. In addition, when you add a room to one side of the tree, it leans to that side and you'll need to balance it out on the other side.

The two games that Best Treehouse Ever reminds me of are Sushi Go and Yardmaster Express, since they are both light family games that are centered around card drafting.

I know that Sushi Go is the poster child for light card drafting these days. And there are things that I like about it. It has super cute art and is super easy to teach, since it is fundamentally just about building sets.

However, for my wife and I, just building sets isn't that interesting. Fairy Tale has more complicated interactions between the cards and ways to interact with each other. For us, Sushi Go just wasn't interesting after Fairy Tale.

Also, in Fairy Tale, you draft a hand of cards before you play them, as opposed to aging each card as you draft it. And the order you play the hand can make a huge difference in a hand. Sushi Go, on the other hand, doesn't have that tension.

If I was teaching non-gamers or wanted a relatively quick and stress free game with a larger group, I'd consider Sushi Go. For just me and the missus, it doesn't make the cut.

Yardmaster Express isn't about creating a set but a run, in Rummy terms. Every card you play in each turn must either match the last card in number or color (or be wild, which is doesn't help your score) This restriction adds a lot more tension to the game. It's arguably simpler than Sushi Go but I think it is a better, tighter game for two players or for gamers.

And Best Treehouse Ever, between having restrictions with keeping all of the rooms of the same color linked together and on the balance of the tree, just takes that tension and adds to it. It isn't just what cards you get but how you use them.

Card drafting is fun but Sushi Go proved to me that you need to do more. You need to build a framework on top of that card drafting, have other mechanics that the card drafting supports. And I think this draft supports a really cool treehouse

Plus, let's be honest, the theme and the prototype artwork are adorable. It will be easy to entice folks to play it and the finished tree houses should be a lot of fun to see.

I haven't backed Best Treehouse ever yet but, if I don't, I know I'll end up getting it when it does come out. And making a copy from the print and play files that they've offered up has gone to the top of my project list.
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Fri Apr 3, 2015 7:31 pm
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Dream Askew makes me ask which world is ending

Lowell Kempf
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The other day, a friend of mine let me know about Dream Askew, sixteen pages of role playing philosophy and tough questions designed to be played out in three or four hours.

I am a big fan of Apocalypse World and the sprawling family of games that is has sired and inspired. In many ways, it uses the standard framework of having a game master and rolling dice to determine what happens when you do something risky. On the other hand, it puts a strong priority on story telling and streamlines the mechanics so you can focus on narrative and choices and character development.

It was immediately obvious that Dream Askew owed a lot to Apocalypse World, even though it did away with the GM and the dice. It has a similar flavor, where character types are driven as much by the questions they ask and choices they force as they are by the special powers they are given.

And Dream Askew takes those questions and choices and ratchets them up a few notches with its intrinsic theme. Playing a queer enclave in a world that's in the process of ending. At first, I wasn't sure if the author meant alternate sexuality or if they just meant strange but it's pretty clear we are going with the first.

And we are not talking about just having all the characters be gay. The character creation system gets uses much more specific terms to define sexuality. Honestly, I'm going to have to look some of them up.

This is a subject that can definitely be outside of some folks comfort zone. Heck, I don't think of myself as being too conservative or prudish but I can easily see how it could get out of my comfort zone. That doesn't mean I wouldn't play it but I wouldn't play it casually or flippantly.

This is a game that is set in a world where there are waves of apocalypse taking place. There are still places of wealth and stability and "normality" but the queer enclave is not in one of those places. The enclave is made up of those who have been rejected and cast out of the privileged world.

I lived in Chicago for quite a while before I learned that a lot of the young teens who were hanging out around Belmont and Broadway were actually homeless and been kicked out of their families for being gay. Call me crazy but the world of Dream Askew sounds like one that already exists.

Which is probably the point.

Dream Askew asks a lot of its players. It asks them to play without a lot of the normal conventions of RPGs. It tackles a very serious topic. But between the layout and the writing, Dreams Askew does a very solid job explaining the rules and ideas of the game, which include respecting the boundaries of the players. I've read a lot of RPGs and being able to communicate the game that well is no small thing.

Dream Askew is well worth looking at.
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Thu Apr 2, 2015 8:13 pm
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