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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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Where I come up with a theory about game design that is obviously rubbish

Lowell Kempf
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I started to write a response to Lazslo Molnar making a comment about how they had gotten more mileage from Knizia than Feld when I found my ideas is getting longer and more involved so I decided to just make it another blog entry.

My original premise was just that Knizia had a lot of games out right when I started getting into designer board games. That meant when I was in the right mindset to buy and try a lot of games, he had a lot of games for me to buy and try.

But, as I contemplated Knizia's designs, I found myself looking at what seems to be a fundamental difference between their two design philosophies, although I also found myself wondering if it was just a change in the market and collective groupthink of designers in general.

Now, I am about to jump into a whole bunch of unsupported speculation and gross over generalization. There are far too many examples that contradict the ideas that are in my head right now for them to actually be valid.

The first premise that went through my head is that Knizia, as a general design philosophy, tends to build games around one single mechanic. Which isn't to say that they are simple games to play, just that they have relatively simple rules that's when it comes to understanding the moving parts.

Then I found myself pondering the second premise, that the Euros of 15 or 20 years ago tended to be built around one mechanic, as opposed to a smorgasbord of mechanics.

However, both with Knizia and with Euros in general, I don't think either of those ideas hold up. Tigris and Euphrates, Amon Re, Stephenson's Rocket, Lord of the Rings and Blue Moon City are all major exceptions to the premise and significant enough games that I don't think you can argue they are exceptions to the rule.

Moving on to other older Euros, just look at Power Grid. It has auctions, it has resource management, it has infrastructure building. That is not building around one single mechanic.

I've been out of the cult of the new for a while now. My impression is that games are getting more intricate and filled with more layers of mechanics. But I could easily believe that that is a false impression. Maybe that is what gets the hype. Actually, when I look at all the older games I listed above, that really is what gets the hype.

I think the real conclusion that I need to come to this that I just happen to notice games with simple mechanics that lead to complex decisions. Knizia has just made a number of them, like Ra or Ingenious or Through the Desert (Sorry, Lost Cities, you have fairly simple decisions but I still like you)

I should probably blame Go.
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Thu Dec 3, 2015 7:10 pm
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I think about Feld while purging games

Lowell Kempf
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At this point, I have purged about 70 games out of my collection in the last couple of weeks, focusing on games in larger boxes and games that take more than an hour to play. While I have kept the careful log of what games I have gotten rid of and there is no denying that many of the games are very good games and classics, I also have to admit that most of them are games that I haven't played for years and probably wouldn't have gotten more than a couple plays out of if I kept them for the next 50 years.

I also realized that some of the games are games that I can play online and that is probably all I will ever need to do to experience them. I tried out In the Year of the Dragon online and decided that I really only need so many Feld games.

Which isn't to say that I think he's a bad designer. In fact, my collection would be stuffed with his games at an earlier point in my hobby. But I am now much more in the habit of cherry picking what games go on my shelf. Quality is a factor, of course, but what games will actually get played is an even bigger factor.

My journey with Feld began with Notre Dame. I picked it up right when it came out in the US. And, it has been one of those games that continues to get played year after year. With one group of long distance friends, whenever we get together, Notre Dame almost always comes out.

So, Notre Dame is definitely a keeper.

Two others that have seen a lot of play are Macao and the Castles of Burgundy. In particular, Macao has been one that we have enjoyed as a couple.

Looking at those three games, which are the three Feld games that have been the best for me, it occurs to me that I have really gone for his point salad games. Macao in particular really seems to live up to that description. The systems in it seem to a lot more diverse than Castles of Burgundy or Notre Dame.

(Although they should be up for purging, I'm also keeping Amerigo and It Happens. I got them through Kickstarter and had to struggle with Queen to actually get them. So, by God, I want to try Amerigo. Plus, I've nested two games I like in It Happens)

I have a feeling that I could've have become Stefan Feld fanboy as a game designer the way I did with Reiner Knizia when I first started collecting games. Knizia amazed me and I bought every game I could find with his name on it. And I have kept a good number of his games and I still think he is, or at least was, a brilliant designer. But I don't need a lot of his games.

Every time I go through a game purge, it's a fascinating exercise in how I am no longer the guy who buys most of the games for the group and always buys the latest ones. (The fact that I'm in between gaming groups helps but it's a process I'd have to go through anyway)

I don't know if this counts as growing up or just part of the natural change that comes from being alive but it's still interesting.
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Wed Dec 2, 2015 5:56 pm
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What this Black Friday brought me

Lowell Kempf
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Earlier this year, I broke my resolution to not buy any new games when I had the chance to get last year's AEG Black Box, which contained two games I was very interested in getting. (Trains and Guild Hall, by the way) So I was looking forward to this year's black box.

But I shamelessly looked for spoilers and decided that it wasn't something I really wanted. (Yeah, it's cheating but I've gotten very particular about my game shelf so no regrets)

Instead, I used the power of Black Friday to get 7 Wonders: Duel and a used copy of Garden Dice with the card expansion.

We both really enjoy 7 Wonders so getting Duel was exciting for me. I am very impressed with the decision to not use drafting for card selection but a layout like a solitaire mahjong game. I was worried it would be simply like a more complex Fairy Tale but it clearly has its own identity.

Garden Dice was much more of an impulse purchase, one that reflects the direction I see my collection and gaming going. Family fare with a relatively short playing time but still being a game that still appeals to a gamer.

And, in fact, we broke our Garden Dice on Friday and tried it out. I'll admit that our first game of it wasn't that exciting. We were figuring out how things worked and we weren't too inclined to bust out our critters.

But I think the game has potential, enough that I think our next play will be much better. I also am glad we have the card expansion. Not only will our next play include it, I think we will always use it.

Not my most exciting Black Friday but a pretty good one.
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Sun Nov 29, 2015 2:56 pm
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Crawling out of the bloody water that is Reef Encounter

Lowell Kempf
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Earlier this week, I wrote about how I was going to finally try Reef Encounter out online. I figured that an online game that was turn-based was going to take me a couple weeks to get through but I planned on writing about my experience when it was done.

Three days and ten turns later, I was totally smoked. I got completely blown out of the water and was lucky to even get one shrimp's worth of tiles into my parrotfish. I had been expecting a game that smoothly grew and developed and instead I got blitzed.

Wow. Reef Encounter is one mean piece of sea life.

Of course, I am doing the only thing that I can do. I am getting right back up and getting ready to play another game. When life gives you a black eye, sometimes you just have to give it a chance to blacken the other one.

Here are some of the lessons that I took from my first game. Not counting that it takes a couple turns to get a real sense of how the rules work.

You don't expand the board with every player. Instead, there is another board to fight over for every player. That means that every space that you were fighting over is cramped. Reef Encounter is a series of knife fights in a whole bunch of phone booths.

Second of all, never underestimate the power and importance of resource management. You have the tiles that are behind find your screen. You have the cubes that are required for laying tiles on the boards. And you have the tiles that are in front of your screen, which are the only way that you can do things like buy algae discs.

Which leads to point number three. Holy cow but you cannot underestimate dominance. It doesn't just control endgame scoring. It isn't just a way to attack everyone else. No, it is key to getting those tiles in front of your screen and you need those to fuel your game.

Fourth: ATTACK ATTACK ATTACK!!! This ain't no do-your-own-thing game. The boards are way too small for that. You have to cut the other guy's patches of coral down because that's the only way you get space to grow your own.

Reef Encounter is deeper and nastier than it looks on the outside. It is full of confrontation and tough decisions. It is staying in my collection and I am going to keep on playing it online.
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Wed Nov 25, 2015 9:30 pm
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Repetition – am I really getting value out of certain games?

Lowell Kempf
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As I go through my collection to do another heavy purge, which might count as one of the most boring midlife crises ever if I was at least 10 years older, it definitely makes me think about repetition and replay value.

When I was being manic about buying games and always play new games, there wasn't a lot of replay. The game had to be really, really good to get a lot of replay.

And, when I remember that while looking at my games, I realize that there are games on my shelf that are really, really good but even if I still had my old gaming group, they really wouldn't see any play.

In The Year of the Dragon is a game I bought years ago. I still haven't played it once and it is exactly the kind of game that my old group would play once, say it was really good, and then never played again. Having it leave my collection stings a little but it's a decision that really makes sense.

Interestingly enough, since so much of my gaming for the last couple years has been online, that has actually really increased my repetition. Although, come to think of it, the same could be said of my years on BSW.

And I have found myself asking myself if I am playing a game online, does that mean I would play a game face-to-face? In some cases, it does. I learned how to play Transamerica online and that made me buy my copy that has seen tons of play. On the other hand, while I have enjoyed my plays of Galaxy Trucker, I don't think that it would be worth the time or space to have my own copy.

Sometimes, playing online gives me enough of the taste or understanding of a game. Yes, I think that it is always better to play game face-to-face. However, since owning games cost money and space and playing games face-to-face costs time, you sometimes have to really look at what you are investing.

Mind you, my online playing of Reef Encounter has actually saved that game. So I guess I have to look at everything as a case-by-case basis.
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Wed Nov 25, 2015 6:48 pm
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Finally taking the plunge with Reef Encounter

Lowell Kempf
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After years of not diving in, I have finally decided that it is time for me to take the plunge and swim on down to discover if Reef Encounter is really a game for us.

Since the game came out in 2004, I have had plenty of years to hear how great it is. Also, to hear how complicated it is. I'm not even sure exactly when I brought it home from Gencon. (Goes and checks records) 2008. Sweet Y'Golonac. I have owned this game for over seven years and I haven't even punched it out.

Despite that fact, which really should be a red flag that I don't need the game, I'm not ready to let go of Reef Encounter without a fight. Which, by the way, it's a lot more than I can say for a lot of other games that have seen their way out the door over the years.

Part of it is, yes, the game does have an awfully good reputation. Another part of it is that both my wife and I really like aquatic life. Heck, Black Molly has stayed in my collection because it is about fish and it's really small. The fact that Reef Encounter does try to reflect some aspects of the life on coral reef goes a long way to making me want to hang onto it.

So, since we really don't have the time or energy to play out a game of Reef Encounter after our son goes to bed, I have done two other steps in order to try and figure out if we really want to keep Reef Encounter. I have watched Board Game with Scott's tutorial on the game and I have signed up for a learning game on Spielbyweb.

(Which is no small thing. A couple years ago, I found that my online gaming had become a really big time sink. Making one move the day in the game doesn't take up that much time but if you have over 50 games going on, it ends up being a huge amount of time. So Spielbyweb was a site that I said goodbye to. However, for this, I'm paying it another visit.)

And damned if I'm not excited about Reef Encounter.

I also have to say that damned if I'm not glad I watched that tutorial. While watching Scott talk about games is always fun, I had some real problems wrapping my mind around the game from just reading the rules. A lot of that came from the terminology and the fact that the separate boards are just playing areas for everyone, since it really felt like each player got their own board which didn't make any sense. They don't, which is why it didn't make any sense.

While I am willing to play anything, as long as it doesn't get in the way of other responsibilities, the two areas which I have found myself the most interested in gaming are euros and abstracts. Although, I have found that the difference between European games and American games has really shrunk in the last five or six years. Be that as it may, Reef Encounter hits a lot of my sweet spots.

Normally, I'd wait until I finished at least my first game but that might take a while and I'm pretty excited about actually trying out Reef Encounter. I am sure that I will return to this topic, either to write about how great a game it is or how big a disappointment it is.
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Tue Nov 24, 2015 12:04 am
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One of my periodic looking at my life as a gamer blogs.

Lowell Kempf
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My start back into board games took place sometime around 2002, when I learned Catan and Carcassonne and Puerto Rico from different friends. But I really didn't start down the road of being really into board games until 2004 when I ordered Ticket to Ride, Carcassonne: Hunters and Gatherers and Settlers of the Stone Age.

I did have a few card games, including copies of Fluxx and The Very Clever Pipe Game that ended up getting worn to pieces. However, buying games in actual boxes with actual boards was the step that turned me into a serious collector, not to mention a serious student of designer board games.

For the next five or six years, I was an obsessive game buyer. Mind you, I was also an obsessive game player. There were times when I was having three to five times a week and I always wanted to try out one of my new games.

Looking back, that was a crazy and educational time. I learned a lot about games and game mechanics and game designers and at least a little bit about the gaming industry itself. But, unless you are a professional game designer or game reviewer, that isn't a life style you can really keep up for too long.

I've swung over to what is probably the equivalent of the far end of the pendulum for me. I'm now actively planning on purging my game collection of games that I know are really good but I don't have the time to play with the space to store them. That something that would have never occurred to me in an earlier point in my life.

In a lot of ways, my initial mania with boardgames reminds me of being in college. It was fun but it was educational and I made a whole lot of friends in the process. But college isn't for life and people who I have known who tried to keep on living like they're still in college into their 30s and 40s honestly don't seem very happy or satisfied.

So, in honesty, I have found that I am very happy to have moved onto the next stage in my gaming life. I may yet become one of those people who has only 100 games in their closet but they are 100 games that I am always willing to play.

Now, that might sound like sour grapes. After all, I'm now married and have a young child. No way that I can be out gaming all the time or play games until three in the morning. There's also no way that I can spend so much space or money on games. So of course I'm going to say yeah, this is so much better.

But, you know what? I was starting to get bored and frustrated with having so many games that I was never replaying anything other then Dominion. Having all of my social obligations revolving around games was starting to feel scale. Ultimately, living like that turned out to not be very fulfilling. So, yeah, my wife really is better now!

And I don't consider myself to no longer be a gamer. I have anywhere from 20 to 60 games online going on at any given time. I have developed a real interest in print and play. And I still get out to the convention and we play the occasional game when our son gives us the time and energy.

Clearing out more of my game collection has made me think about both change and maturity. I'm not saying I wasn't an adult when I got into gaming. I'm not even really saying I'm an adult now that I'm acting all responsible and stuff. But I have found, as I grow older and life keeps changing, it really does get better.

Accepting and embracing the change that I need to game collection that takes up less space and is full of games that will really get played is actually a good thing.
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Mon Nov 23, 2015 4:38 pm
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Time to take another hard look at my game collection

Lowell Kempf
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The time has come again for me to do another purge of my game collection. It's been a while and I haven't added a lot of games to my collection but it still really should be done.

The big reason is that I've been using my son's closet for game storage. Which wasn't a big deal when he was infant but he's a toddler and he's going to actually need to use that closet himself soon.

But, let's face it. There isn't a good reason to keep a bunch of games around that I'm not only not playing but might not ever play just doesn't seem like the act of a healthy mind. Never mind the fact that I did that for years back in my collecting and hoarding days.

Really, I've got three criteria for games that I'm planning on purging. The first one is, well, size. I mean, one of the big goals is to get some storage space. Getting rid of a couple little card games isn't going to help me do that.

Second, no one ever tells you this but having a kid really eats up a lot of time. I'm not playing a lot of longer games right now. I'll have to wait until I can force our son to play them. Which will probably be when he's eight or so and probably as an alternative to spanking. So, if a game takes more than an hour, it gets some scrutiny right now.

Third, if I have never actually played the game... I mean, seriously? That's a good reason to ask myself if I really need a game.

And, yeah, there will be exceptions. I can't bear to part with my unpunched copy of Reed Encounter, for instance. (Although, I could try it out online. Maybe I should do that and then reconsider my position.)

While getting back storage space that we can use for toddler stuff is the biggest reason, having a collection that is too big and unwieldy also gets in the way of actually getting games played. Just from a getting games out of storage to play perspective, it's better.

Don't get me wrong. At this point, I'm going to be getting rid of good, even great games. But I genuinely believe it will be better for my household and for my mental health.
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Sun Nov 22, 2015 11:40 pm
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Cacao is a fun little addition to Yucata

Lowell Kempf
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Cacao is the latest game to show up on Yucata. It's a fairly simple game, a tile laying game that uses a lot of tried and true mechanics. Without trying hard, I can point to at least four different games that different pieces of Cacao remind me of.

Which isn't a bad thing.

In Cacao, you are the chieftain of a tribe, trying to earn the most money by harvesting and selling cocoa, as well as exploiting the other resources of the jungle, like gold mines and lost temples and water holes.

Actually, I think would actually make more sense if you were playing entrepreneurs who were hiring local workers to exploit the jungle. I mean, if you're trying to take control of an archaeological site, that probably means you aren't a local.

Of course, as is par for the course, the theme really only applies as far as the artwork is concerned. The game could be taking place on another planet or on the ocean floor or on a cyberpunk Internet without changing any of the rules. But, as a long time Euro player and an even longer time abstract player, that really doesn't bother me.

I'm not going to go over the rules in great detail, I will do my standard practice of glossing over them so you know where I'm coming from and what I'm talking about.

As I mentioned at the start, Cacao is a tile laying game. Each player has their own stock of worker tiles while there are jungle tiles that serve as a common pool. Players will have a hand of three of their worker tiles while there will be two jungle tiles available on any given turn.

You see, in Cacao, your meeples are printed on your tiles. Each worker tile has four workers on it. Some of them have one on each edge, others have different combinations, with blank edges.

Worked tiles and jungle tiles get placed in a checkerboard pattern, with the workers sharing an edge with a jungle tile getting to use that jungle tile. Jungle tiles get added when two edges form a blank square that needs to get filled. Then EVERY worker next to that new jungle tile gets to use it.

You get to do things like harvest cacao and sell it at different markets, not to mention mine for gold, collect special sun tokens, get water points and use area of control to take over temples. When no one can make any more moves, whoever has the most points, excuse me, the most gold wins.

As I already mentioned, Cacao reminds me of a whole bunch of different games. The obvious one is Carcassonne, since that's pretty much the poster child for tile laying games and meeples. But there are elements of the game that remind me far more of other games.

The checkerboard tile laying reminds me of Architekton, since that's the first game that I ever saw that used a checker pattern. I know it's far from the only game that does and I doubt it was the first one but that's where my mind goes.

The way that you fill in the blank spaces with jungle tiles screams of the older game Trax, which is over 30 years old now and really doesn't get enough love. While you can get a cascade of moves in Cacao, you can get an explosion in Trax!

The way jungle tiles can be activated by already placed meeples reminds me of Oregon, another game that deserves more love. That was a regular game for my old group to play, and thanks to the power of Yucata, we almost always have a game going now.

Offhand, I can't think of the game with the meeples printed on the edges of the tiles but I'm willing to bet there's one out there that I just haven't played.

If it wasn't already obvious, I've really enjoyed playing Cacao. While it might not have created any new and amazing mechanics, it brings a whole bunch of tried-and-true ones together in a good way. I appreciate synthesis as well as innovation.

If I were still regularly buying games, Cacao is one that I would pick up. It has a relatively short playing time, something that I have come to treasure as life is gotten busier, and it would be pretty easy to teach. It's the kind of family game that I can see being easy to play with most families.

But even if I never play Cacao face-to-face, I am really enjoying it on Yucata. You see, it fits into that nice spot for me on Yucata in which the game is just heavy enough that I feel like I am really playing the game while being like enough that I don't have to take more than a minute to figure out my move. On days when I am snatching minutes to make moves, that's a real plus.

I have found that playing games online and turn-based artificially makes them heavier. Spacing out your moves over days and never seen your opponents creates a disconnect, at least for me. Games like Hawaii or Castles of Burgundy feel pretty heavy. So, what would be a pretty light game in person can become a meatier and more satisfying game.

Cacao was a delightful little surprise for me and a game I see playing regularly.
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Thu Nov 19, 2015 5:16 pm
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Where I am at at the moment on Yucata

Lowell Kempf
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Yucata has been my primary game shelf for the past couple years. So every time a new game gets added to the site, it's a reason for me to rejoice.

For the first eight months of this year, the only game that was added was Nations the Dice Game. Which, I have had a lot of fun with. Frankly, one game that I enjoy playing over and over again is pretty darn good. But, since September, we have gotten Kashgar, Helios, La Isla and Cacao. That's pretty cool!

As I have commented on in the past, playing games online and, in particular, learning games online is more difficult than face-to-face. For me, at least, games gain additional weight from being played in this way.

Learning how to play a game face-to-face, even if I am teaching and learning the game at the same time, is easier for me. Having to go through the work of moving all the pieces myself and keeping track of the housekeeping really helps me understand how the game works.

When I am learning a game on Yucata, I am physically removed from the game itself. All the housekeeping gets done for me. Which is actually pretty awesome when I already fully understand the game but it does make figuring out everything that's happening harder. And, I am removed from the other players by both time and space. A game that could be put under an hour is often played over the course of several days.

Mind you, there are also some serious advantages to that as well. But it still means that every time I go back to the board, I have to remember what was going on. In a face-to-face game, I would not living life and other things so I would already know what was going on.

While none of the four new games would be considered that heavy face-to-face, they are all new to me. Life has kept me from really being able to focus on learning them so it's still definitely still in process for me.

At this point, I understand the moving parts of Kashgar and La Isla enough to understand the games. I just need to figure out how to play them better (and I'd be further with La Isla, if I didn't have to go over all the special powers) Helios remains annoyingly opaque for me. I need to carefully reread the rules a couple times, maybe watch some videos and tackle it again.

Cacao, despite being the newest game in the site, is lighter than the other three and has mechanics I've seen before so it's the one that was easy to figure out. In fact, this started out as a blog about Cacao but I got distracted with Yucata in general

I didn't mean for this to become a My State in Yucata Address but it was fun to mull over all of these different thoughts.
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Wed Nov 18, 2015 4:05 pm
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