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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.

Archive for Lowell Kempf

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Chief Herman gave the world more awesome madness in the sequel

Lowell Kempf
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In 2000, Cheapass Games put out Chief Herman's Holiday Fun Pack. It was a booklet of rules of quirky little games. Then, in 2003, they gave the world a sequel, Chief Herman's Next Big Thing.

And, for my money, Chief Herman's Next Big Thing is the better collection.

In both cases, Cheapass took games that originally were in advertisements and convention and on their website and then made a collection of them.

However, James Ernest had more practice making games by the time the second collection came out. And it shows. There is definitely more variety in Chief Herman's Next Big Thing.

And, for me, these collections are as much, if not more, about reading for enjoyment. I'm interested in game design, both mechanics and theory. More variety is more interesting for me.

However, what really makes Chief Herman's Next Big Thing shine for me is that it includes Darwinian Poker, also published as Lamarckian Poker. It's a really good game that I have played a lot with a wide variety of people. I bought the collection to read but including a game that I will suggest and look forward to playing is a big bonus.

I think it's safe to say that there won't be a third Chief Herman collection. For one thing, it doesn't fit into their current business model. For another thing, the Internet has changed a lot since 2003.

Cheapass's website has a free game section that serves as the successor for the Chief Herman collections. And, quite frankly, has a higher quality of games on a whole. The Poker Suite, a collection of fourteen card games, is quite literally a miniature Chief Herman collection.

The Chief Herman collections are not a bunch of brilliant games destined to become classics. However, they are testament to the ingenuity and determination of a quirky little game company.

http://www.cheapass.com/freegames/major

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Thu Jun 23, 2016 5:29 pm
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Chief Herman has kept me entertained for years

Lowell Kempf
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Chief Herman's Holiday Fun Pack has given me years of enjoyment. Even to the point where I've had to get a spare copy. Oh, but not to play but as bathroom reading

Chief Herman's Holiday Fun Pack may be the ultimate expression of Cheapass Game's game philosophy. Cheapass's argument is that you already have dice and cards and chips and pawns so they don't need to package them. They just gave you the bare minimum to play their games, often just rules and the boards. (These days, they seem to be more focused on Kickstarter, btw)

This philosophy resulted in a bunch of half-baked, cheaply produced (but cheaply sold) games for a good ten years in their original incarnation, which isn't bad. I bought a good chunk of those games and they have survived numerous purges. Partially because they're small but also because they are wonky and some are honestly good games.

Chief Herman's Holiday Fun Pack was a booklet with the rules for twenty-four games and six poker variants, plus a couple of game boards. Many of the games had been previously published as ads in convention flyers and such.

Let's be honest. While Cheapass and James Ernest has put out some surprisingly good games, particularly given their rush-it-out-the-door philosophy, this is not a highlights reel. In fact, it might qualify as scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Despite that fact, it has paid for itself over and over again for me in sheer entertainment value, as well as intellectual curiosity.

Published in 2000, Chief Herman's Holiday Fun Pack is an interesting snapshot of Cheapass's early years. It includes lot of their early freebies, as well as a board game that have been slated as a standalone publication.

Pennywise, Spots and Flip, all variations of the same game for coins, cards or dice, had their ruleset included in card game collection Change, as well as being refined for the online version of Pennywise. Hey Bartender was also part of Change. Dogfight is the prototype for Diceland, as well as helped in the development of Buttonmen, which is a brilliant game.

And, if you are like me and have an interest in game mechanics and design, Chief Herman's Holiday Fun Pack is a fun read. They are all bare bones designs and some of them were clearly actually prototypes of later games still being worked on. Plus, the snarky, egotistical comments by the fictional Chief Herman are funny.

I might even reach for the collection if I ever need to host a youth group or other kiddy gathering. It would definitely offer some different activities for that.

Chief Herman's Holiday Fun Pack isn't a brilliant collection of games. Frankly, I've only ended up playing a couple of them. However, it has been one entertaining read.

http://www.cheapass.com
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Tue Jun 21, 2016 7:20 pm
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Keeton's Journey - a tiny little RPG with some neat ideas

Lowell Kempf
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Keeton's Journey is my favorite game that came out of the Free RPG Blog's 2013 Harder Than Granite competition. The contest inspired me to write about several different entries and I saved what I think is the best for last. While it does make some interesting use of dice, it is the structure of the game that makes me appreciate Keeton's Journey.

In Keeton's Journey, one player plays a wandering medicine man named Keeton who travels from village to villages, helping them deal with mysterious supernatural life forms called yokai. One player plays Keeton while everyone plays villagers. While Keeton is there to deal with the yokai, the problems will always be intertwined with the secrets and lies of the villagers.

It's based on Mushishi, a manga I've never read. However, Keeton's Journey does remind me of Dogs in the Vineyard, Princes' Kingdom or Kagematsu. In each case, an outsider has come to solve an isolated population's problems with a strong focus on character development and story.

Setup for the game is quick and straightforward. You'll need a regular pip die for every villager and some paper and pencils. At the start of the game, the villagers come up with a rough description of the village and their roles in the village. They also need to each come up with an important secret they keep.

Gameplay has a fairly strict structure. Keeton has an introductory scene with each villager. Other villagers can appear in that scene but it is that player's spotlight scene. There is then a second round of scenes, heightening and escalating there situation. The outcome of these scenes will determine if the village can be saved, with the game ending on an appropriate epilogue.

So, here's the mechanics. At the start of each round, all the dice will get rolled. At the end of each scene, a die will be used to determine a dramatic revelation or action that will end the scene.

It gets even more interesting that that. It doesn't matter what the number is, per se, but what kind of picture the pips form. Two and three represent the Path, pushing people forward. Four and six represent the Box, when people close themselves off. Five is the Crossroads, tough decisions. Lastly, one is the Loner, isolation.

In the second round, choosing the Path or the Crossroads means you reveal your secret. Choosing the Box or the Loner means you keep your secret. At the end of the game, if more people reveal their secret, Keeton is able to deal with the yokai and save the village.

Yes, that means that the dice rolls will determine if the village is saved or not. And guess what, that doesn't matter. That isn't why you play a narrative-driven game like this. The reward of a game like Keeton's Journey is how you tell the story and a well-told tragic ending can be immensely satisfying.

Part of this is because, outside of the restrictions of the dice, there is immense freedom in what kind of story you want to tell. There is only the illusion of restriction. Instead, the structure in a narrative game helps guide you and keep you focused. The structure is a tool for you to use.

In other words, Keeton's Journey is the kind of game I've come to really enjoy after discovering and exploring the world of indie RPGs.

I like how Keeton's Journey is well designed for a low prep one-shot that still has room for deep and meaningful role playing. With just two rounds of scenes an experienced group of players could finish a game in three to four hours. Less experienced players, I'm guessing two to three hours. (Less experienced narrative players will probably have shorter scenes) I can even see breaking it down into two little sessions with ease.

Keeton's Journey isn't brilliant, although the dice symbolism is a really good idea. It is a game with a structure that I know works and creates some really great story telling. It takes many of the lessons I've learned about indie game design and story telling and puts them in a tiny, pocket-sized pamphlet, perfect for a one-off night of gaming and story telling.

http://www.thefreerpgblog.com

http://www.1km1kt.net/rpg/keetons-journey

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Tue Jun 14, 2016 10:24 pm
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TAJ is a tiny game that aims for big ideas

Lowell Kempf
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TAJ is possibly the most complicated and intricate game of the first series of pack of games. Note that I didn't say it was one of the best games or the deepest game.

A Rug of War, TAJ is about moving oriental rugs about in order to manipulate their prices. Everyone has a secret goal card, letting them know which colors on the rugs will earn them points.

Like every game in the Pack O Game series, Taj consists of thirty skinny little cards. The whole game looks like a pack of gum, hence the sales pitch. In TAJ's case, the cards come in a bunch of varieties.

There are two voting cards for every player, a regular yea/nay card and a special, one-time override card. There are ten rug cards. Each one shows three colors with a value of one to three for each color. The rugs also have eyes on one end, to mark that they've been appraised. There are ten secret goal cards, showing three colors. One color will be worth x2, one x1, and one x-1. Finally, there is the Taj Mahal card. It is an image of the Taj Mahal long ways on each side with a plus one on different ends.

All 10 of the rug cards are placed in the eyes facing down. The Taj Mahal card is placed above the row, which means it will be above three rugs. When the game ends, only the rugs below the Taj Majal will score points.

On a player's turn, they will propose to switch two rugs. Everyone then vote on whether or not to swap those two rugs. If the yea's win, the rugs swap. If the nays win the vote, there is no swap and the rug farthest from the Taj Mahal is removed from the game. Yes, even if it wasn't one of the two rugs proposed for swapping. No matter what, the rugs that were proposed get rotated so the eyes are on top.

If the vote is unanimous either way, the active player must either move the Taj Mahal one space or flip it over so the plus one is on the other end. As I've already mentioned, every player gets a one time use override card which forces the vote to be unanimous.

When there are either only five rugs left or every rug has been turned so the eye is on top, the game ends. Only the rugs under the Taj Mahal count for scoring and the value for each color is added up with a plus one for whichever rug is under the plus one and of the Taj Mahal. And the high score wins.

With an estimated playing time of ten minutes.

Honestly, TAJ has a number of strikes against it. For one thing, my primary gaming group is my wife and two is clearly TAJ's weakest number of players. For another thing, teaching it could take as long as playing it, which is not desirable in what is intrinsically a travel game.

However, the biggest problem with TAJ is that it is too intricate for its playing time and for what you get out of it. The rules aren't intuitive and the decisions are opaque, particularly in the early game. Which wouldn't be so bad in a longer game where elements have time to develop but it's frustrating in a game this short. Too much of the game is spent taking care of the moving parts.

You know, I'm someone who is always on the lookout for micro games that offer some real depth and legitimate tough decisions. So it feels weird knocking TAJ for being too complex. However, complex doesn't necessarily translate to depth. I feel that both GEM and BUS, also in Pack of Game, offer some real depth to their play time and they are much easier to teach.

I don't dislike TAJ, although it probably sounds like I do. It's just that it hasn't delivered the way that the other games that I've played in the series have. I do hope to keep on playing it and seeing if it has hidden virtues. It is staying in my travel library.

TAJ is a legitimately ambitious and unusual game. It has some interesting ideas. However, I think the sheer number of moving parts overcomes the gameplay. At the same time, I have seen a lot of micro games that try and get away with being so simple they offer no actual choices. TAJ is brave to err on the other side of that equation.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Tue Jun 14, 2016 10:18 pm
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Arts and Crafts plus Print-and-Play

Lowell Kempf
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In our house, arts and crafts often crosses with gaming. My wife is a crafty woman, whose interests include chainmail and Cricut paperwork. I am a print-and-play dabbler with the paper cutter in the laminator being some of my biggest tools after the printer.

My wife just picked up a punch that will not just punched out pieces of paper in the shape of buttons, the kind that you find on dress shirts, but emboss them as well. You get a raised circle that is the outline of the button.

This doesn't just look neat, although it does do that. The punch allows you to make discs out of any color card stock you happen to have lying around, and we have plenty, that are both much easier to pick up then a flat disc and stack nicely.

In other words, they are ideal for creating playing pieces or tokens for any number of games. Since they are paper, I could also use a small stamp to add symbols to them. You know, like numbers.

Of course, as someone who has been doing print-and-play projects for years, I already have poker chips in different colors and different sizes that do that job nicely. And, for that matter, are a whole lot more durable.

Still, if I want tokens or playing pieces of very specific colors and I don't mind that they will have a very short lifespan, this button punch will come in handy. Oh, whom I kidding? I'm already looking for some project that will give me an excuse to use it.

On the one hand, the lesson that I might be getting from this is that, if you are into print-and-play projects, everything starts looking like something that you can use. On the other hand, the lesson might be that there are some really cool arts and crafts stuff out there.

Originally posted on www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon Jun 13, 2016 8:00 pm
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Falling into real time

Lowell Kempf
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Falling was one of the first, probably the very first, designer game that I discovered that used real time as an element. That is to say, a game without turns where everyone can do something at anytime.

James Ernst, the man who gave the world Devil Bunny Needs a Ham, is famous for his absurd themes and Falling does not disappoint. You are all falling and you are trying to be the last person to hit the ground. Not much of a goal but it's not like you have a lot of time to come up with a better one.

The game consists of a deck of cards. One courageous soul must choose to not be my seriously hurtling towards the Earth and be the dealer. (Wait a second? Choose NOT to fall to your doom? Make that one cowardly soul) They remove the five ground cards, shuffle the rest of the deck and put the ground cards on the bottom. Reasonably enough, you don't hit the ground until the end of the game.

Everyone else will be developing a stack of cards in front of them. The dealer will be dealing out a card to every stack in the game, over and over again, working their way down to the grounds on the bottom. The dealer controls the tempo of the game and they don't have to go too fast for things to be frantic.

The players can play the top card on their stack, using only one hand. If you pick up that card, you have to use it before you can pick up another card.

The cards are either riders or actions. You slap a rider in front of someone, including yourself. They can make the dealer skip someone or deal an extra card or even start a new stack in front of someone. The dealer then sweeps away the rider, leaving an open space for a new one. Actions let you steal or push away riders, as well as the powerful stop card that destroys a rider or causes a ground card to back on the deck.

Because if a ground card lands on your stack, that's it. Game over and you are a pancake. If the dealer somehow runs out of ground cards, they just point and say ground. There's no getting away from gravity.

Like I said, the goal of the game is to be the last person to pancake. You still hit the ground, of course, but you will be the happiest person-shaped hole in the ground.

I have played a number of real time games since I discovered Falling but I have not seen another that uses an objective third party moderator like the dealer, who acts like a dungeon master in this one-way adventure down the gravity well. It gives the game very unique and interesting feel.

And Falling is a unique experience. It is a quirky but fun game, definitely falling on the frantic party game side of the spectrum. I picked it up over 10 years ago and it has remained in my collection.

Falling is far from the final word in real time game if it was a pretty good first word for me.

http://www.cheapass.com/freegames/falling

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Sun Jun 12, 2016 1:20 am
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Living in real time

Lowell Kempf
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I don't go out of my way to look for real-time games, games where speed and time are a factor and you usually don't even have turns. My earliest experience with games like that was probably Slapjack. Which was fun but didn't leave me with a lifelong craving for more.

However, whenever I start thinking about real time games, I start coming up with more and more good ones. What about Falling, I ask myself. That was the first real time designer game you tried and that was good. Oh, and what about Light Speed? That's always fun. And what about Jungle Speed and Ligretto and Spot It? Oh, Escape! Escape is brilliant! And there's Pit and Ricochet Robiots and...

You get the idea.

There are two lessons that I feel I really should be learning from this.

One, arbitrarily ruling out a family of games is a bad idea. Just because you don't like one game doesn't mean another one won't take the same ideas and give them to you In a package you will enjoy.

Second, real time is a big concept with a lot of variety. Some real time games are reaction games like Jungle Speed or Spot It. Others are timed games like Space Alert or Escape. Some are free-for-alls like Light Speed or Ice Towers. Still others do unusual things with time like TAMSK or Falling.

While categorizing games is a useful tool, it can sometimes make me blind to the bigger environment.

First posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Sat Jun 11, 2016 5:54 pm
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Settlers of the Stone Age uses Catan to give me a Civ feel

Lowell Kempf
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One of the defining games of the hobby is Civilization, the old Avalon Hill game about building up a civilization over epochs. Not to be confused with the computer game series, which is also a defining game. And resulted in Avalon Hill suing Microsoft and losing.

However, one of the downsides of the game is that it takes 6 to 8 hours to play, and tends to fall more under the eight hours. That's the kind of game that you need to schedule and clear an entire day for. So, there has definitely been a push for all of that in a shorter playtime.

Some of the key benchmarks to a game really giving you that civilization building feel are an epic scope, developing technologies, warfare, and an economic system, one that usually involves trading.

Often, it feels like a game that is trying to achieve this will either end up being a territory/wargame or an engine building game. There is nothing wrong with any of those things. A game can fail to be a Civ Lite game and still be a really great game.

To be honest, I've been kind of out of the loop on Civ Lite games for a while. I am willing to bet that some interesting ones have come out in the last few years that I have no idea about.

However, one game that I have had in my collection for quite a while that would be my Civ Lite game of choice if someone asked me to pull one out is Settlers of the Stone Age.

Yup, a Catan spinoff from 2002.

The two elements that really make it actually feel like a civilization building game for me are the scope and the fact that there are technology trees.

The scope in particular is what really gets the game that epic feeling. The map is the entire world, which is pretty much as big as you're going to get outside of science fiction settings. However, what really gives a sense of time and space is that, as the time goes on, Africa gets turned into a desert by over cultivation. When something like that happens in the game, I feel like it really evokes the passage of time.

The tech trees are pretty darn simple. However, you need to advance in things like clothing and shelter in order to be able to keep on moving across the map. So they are an important part of the game and they thematically makes sense.

Of course, the fundamental engine behind the game is still Catan. There are some very significant differences, including the fact that you are moving your camps/settlements across the board instead of building a permanent infrastructure. But if you don't like it you're not going to like this game.

I don't view Settlers of the Stone Age as an alternative to Catan or a variant. It's not a game I would play if I were in the mood for a good time. It is a game that I would play if I want to have a sense of the earliest days of civilization as humanity spread across the world.
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Thu Jun 9, 2016 4:10 pm
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Outlaw isn't great but still worth the printing

Lowell Kempf
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Outlaw is a tiny little dice game that feels like a simplified version of Knizia's Pickomino with a bit of Sackson's Can't Stop and its bell-shaped curve thrown in.

While it is themed around capturing outlaws and bandits in the Wild West, it's really just about dice and odds. The board consists of two rows of wanted posters. One is numbered four to nine and the other one is numbered nineteen to twenty-four. Each poster has a reward, ranging from $1000 on the nine and nineteen to $10,000 on the four and twenty-four.

On your turn, you roll four dice with two rerolls. As long as you rolled one of the numbers on a poster, you get to place one of your tokens on that poster. If your opponent had a token on the poster, you replace it. BUT if you already had a token on that poster, you take it back.

When you have three posters claimed, you collect the reward for all three posters and take your tokens back. The first person to get to $50,000 or $40,000 in a three-player game, wins.

I've already compared Outlaw to other games, like Pickomino. And, quite frankly, Outlaw isn't nearly as strong. While there is a little interaction between the players when you poach claimed posters, it's pretty mild. More importantly, it's too easy to have a turn where nothing happens. Even with two rerolls, that happened enough in our games to be frustrating.

However, Outlaw does have one very strong thing going for it. It's a free print-and-play that requires virtually no work to make. No cutting and no gluing and no folding. Print out the board and add four dice and three tokens per player. Done and ready to play.

Seriously, for the deep budget gamer, Outlaw is a pretty good deal. It may not be that great a light dice games but it's still decent enough. If you are watching your gaming budget, Outlaw is a good choice.

Personally, I took the time to mount the board, the rules and the purely optional score board and laminated them as a travel game. Even that probably cost me less than fifty cents in material costs and time. I've also recommended it to friends who I know would like a quick, freebie game.

Outlaw is a light dice filler. It's not a great game, even within its own genre. However, for a free, print-and-play game that requires minimal effort to make, Outlaw is worth the effort.

Originally posted on www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Jun 8, 2016 5:00 pm
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What? They made Advanced Civ bigger?!

Lowell Kempf
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A friend of mine from back in the Midwest just picked up Mega Civilization. I didn't even know it existed until he told me about it.

So I looked it up. Five to eighteen players? Up to twelve hours playing time? The number of advances in the tech tree is more than doubled? The box weighs twenty-five pounds? Funagain games is charging $250 for it?

Holy cow, they weren't kidding when they put the mega in the name!

To be brutally honest, I can't see myself ever buying Mega Civilization. Heck, even back in my days of compulsive game buying, I am pretty sure the price tag would have been too high.

Frankly, between playing time and storage space and price tag, this is a game for a niche audience. I don't even know if I'll ever even play the game, although having a good friend own a copy means it's at least possible.

However, there was a time in my life when I did try to get a game of Advanced Civilization in once a year. (The same friend owns that too) By the way, playing it only once a year is not nearly enough to get good at it.

That said, while the game play in Advanced Civilization is deep and complex, the actual mechanics are remarkably simple. The most complex part is the trading and that's just a refined form of Pit. (And I don't mean that in a bad way. Pit is a ton of fun and Advanced Civilization and Civilization really elevate it)

Civilization, along with Advanced Civilization, define so many of the key points of a civilization building game. Epic scope in both time and geography. Some kind of technology tree with advances that give advantages. Trade and economic development. Warfare.

Even playing badly, I'm glad it has been a part of my board gaming experience.

I also learned that Mega Civilization has rules for shorter games, including a beginner game and six-to-eight hour variant. I still don't know if I will ever play it but that does increase the odds.

A shorter Civilization game has long been a goal for designers. I'm surprised to see a _longer_ one come out but I can see how folks who regularly play Civilization or Advanced Civilization can really appreciate that.

Originally posted on www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Jun 8, 2016 4:04 pm
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