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Loofish Ramblings

My thoughts and ponderings on games and gaming, including lunch time sessions, couple and family gaming and thoughts on the games that are catching my eye.

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Learning Online

David
United States
DURHAM
North Carolina
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There are so many games out there, with more arriving all the time, it is sometimes hard to decide which you would like to add to your collection. In theory, you would try them all before you commit but that is often difficult (and someone had to take the plunge and buy it untried!). So the prospect of trying an electronic version in lieu of the cardboard one is appealing: learn the game, with the computer helping out with the rules, the shuttling on the pieces and the final scoring and you get a feel for the game. It seems like a good bet.

It is certainly true it gives you a feel for the game but not the whole experience. Which makes sense for publishers - if you could get it all in an online play, why even bother getting a physical copy? You can muddle through that first play, not really knowing what you are doing, but it is easier to remain in that slightly befuddled state, making perfectly valid moves without really knowing what your strategy is or understanding the goal of the game. Because the computer does all the behind the scenes work, you don't need to and so you don't look hard into that black box and work out where all the wires go. You can just push buttons and see the lights come on.

So ironically, though a computer can really help with making a complex game playable, it is the simplest games that work the best in this format. Ticket to Ride has a wonderful interface but it is immeasurably helped by the game being simple enough that you can see everything on the single screen. Hey, That's My Fish! is even better online because it takes care of the most annoying part (setting up the
board) while the game play is so simple that it is clear what is happening. Compare with Agricola, a game I love dearly, but in order to play online you have the cards on one tab, the major improvements on another, your farm in one place, the other farms either a tiny graphic or another click away. All those things you can take in with a glance around the table become just a little bit more difficult.

Of course, I knew Agricola before I ever played an online version. Russian Railroads is highly touted here on the Geek, has won awards and clearly has many admirers. When it appeared on Yucata.de, I was very excited to play it. But I had not played it in real life, so I went through a series of games, trying to learn it but never really understanding it. I joined a tournament that was run to introduce the game - seemed like a good way to learn. I can move the pieces around, I have a passing knowledge of the main strategies, though not as such the wherewithal to successfully pull them off. Mostly what I got from the tournament was the realization that I don't know what I am doing.

This is a big difference in playing online against face-to-face. When you play around the table, you can watch what other people do as a matter of course, you can see what they do that works and doesn't work. You can much more easily see potential problems coming and things you need to do before they do. Playing online, it is a premeditated thing to look at what someone else just did and even then in some games it is hard to work out what exactly occurred. So it becomes hard to grow your skill at the game.

I will contrast my Russian Railroads experience with another game I recently learned, Space Mission. It came up as the winner for the BGG Game of the Week. I like that as a way to remember to play games I haven't played in a while but also as a spur to seek out how to play games you might be curious about but hadn't tried (which reminds me, I still need to learn A Few Acres of Snow...). So Space Mission won and I had no idea how it played, so I joined one game of also-newbs and it was OK but I also took up the offer of another player Liallan who taught me the game. And she really went the extra mile (in fact several miles!) to give me a run down of the game. It is a set collection game: you travel from planet to planet, you might need to play the right card to jump there, to scan it or to develop it (just matching numbers with the planet) but you pick up tiles from the planets which make sets which score in different ways. And this continues until enough planets are cleared of their goodies, then all the different ways you score are added up and a winner is determined. That sort of scoring, not unlike Russian Railroads, can be obscure and obtuse, but with a good teacher it was much easier to see what was going on. Which is another thing you can easily get in a face to face game, the ability to discuss the game (even if none are experts) and so often you don't get much of in a game played online.
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Thu Jun 25, 2015 2:10 pm
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Revisiting

David
United States
DURHAM
North Carolina
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Ahead of a recent game night, I asked our host if there was anything he wanted me to bring. "That D&D game," he told me, "and that card game we learned the same night."

It has been something of a running theme for our game nights that we play a new game, all like it and want to play it again, but our meet-ups are infrequent enough that actually getting around to doing so can be tricky. For the little, quick games it is easy - No Thanks! and Parade have slotted into game nights without issue - but anything more substantial can be tricky.

The other part of the problem is remembering how to play them. "That card game" we learned before was Guildhall. We were due to be joined by a fifth, so playing the 4-player game first seemed like the optimal move. Our host Rick had played this once before, a while ago. His wife Kristi had learned it the same night but played it one time since, but she looked at it uncomprehendingly. "Are you sure I've played this?" she asked as I laid out the cards. But that is almost a running joke, because they all know I can produce the date, time and final score. However, after a little while, the penny dropped and she did remember. In fact, she did well early on, the first to complete a guild chapter, but it was pretty even, Rick was technically in last place with regard to points but he had a guild chapter he was sitting on and it was nicely poised. Then our 5th player Tom showed up and Rick was getting distracted by some other things so he had Tom sit in for him. Dropped in like this in an unfamiliar game (he had played it once before), I thought he might struggle but he proved made of hardier stuff, making some good plays. I must have been doing well too, because one turn, each other player took something (or assassinated something) of mine, but perhaps that was right as it moved into the end game, Kristi on 15 points having spent her chapter, my wife a bit behind her, then Tom and me, when I completed 2 chapters in quick succession then ended my turn. And with what was available in the middle (including one 5VP card) I would cash in on my next turn and win. Well my wife couldn't do much about it and Kristi couldn't either, but Tom stood tall and grabbed that 5VP card, denying me the chance to get it myself. Then he flipped over the next card and it was another 5VP.

We pondered the possibility of a quick filler before moving on, but Kristi had been awoken early that morning by children so time was ticking on how long she could last. So it was the D&D game, Lords of Waterdeep next. Our first time with 5, things were tricky early on, hard to get things going. But sadly for her, Kristi began to flag and, though she tried to keep playing, after a few rounds, she called it a night and dropped out. So the four of us continued, or rather 3 of us played and my wife gave us all a lesson on how to play. She was the Builder Lord and possibly key to her win was the first building she bought was the Palace of Waterdeep, making the Ambassador available. And she grabbed that guy with great regularity - and the rest of us did not do enough to stop her (plus she scored if we went there - it would really have been better to have not let her buy that building in the first place). So she bought 7 buildings during the game, plus she managed to complete a number of quests - 2 of which netted her more than 20 points. I managed enough points to be first among the rest, quite happy that I had made a better showing than last time I played with more than 2, when I had somehow unable to adapt to the more restricted availability of everything. Despite their losses, both the other two expressed their enjoyment of the game and, as they pointed out, at least they beat Kristi who had only scored 15 points all game. I left my copy of it with them though so she might get to play it when not dead on her feet.

Then Tom, aware that his infant child would be awake early the next morning, made his excuses and took off.
So we were down to 3 again. So Rick went to his favorite 3 player game list and came up with Basari and - my choice - Wyatt Earp. This turned out to be a great game, our host put on the Eagles' album Desperado, which I didn't realize was a concept album, set in the Old West. It really added to the atmosphere of the game, as we rounded up outlaws, furiously photographing them and sending Wyatt Earp out to flush them from their hideouts. The first round, my wife pretty much just played out her hand, it was done in next to no time, though she only took a slight lead into the next round. There I ran down Butch Cassidy on my own, pulling down quite a hefty reward, giving me the edge. Round 3 was a long one, we went all the way through the deck and reshuffled. Rick had a ton of cards, my wife put a hideout on Doolin' Dalton but I could not draw a Wyatt Earp to get rid of it to save my life. I did get a Hideout of my own and I worked out I could shut her out of the Billy the Kid reward and still have it pay Rick and I. It came off and when the round finally did end, Rick gained the most cash, but critically I crossed the $25,000 barrier and no one else did. Which makes me the one riding off into that Tequila Sunrise.


We weren't quite done, so Rick and my wife were both up for the other game Rick had mentioned, so with some reluctance, I played Basari. For those that don't know it, a game of second guessing, you either play a card to collect gems (according to the space you are currently on), get points (again, according to the space you are on) or roll the die to move round the track. The round ends when someone makes it all the way around, with points scored for most gems of each color and 10 points for making the full lap. If everyone plays a different card, then everyone does their action, but if you match, then the two have to negotiate, paying gems to the other in order to take the action. The other two fought more over gems, while I concentrated on grabbing points and making the lap, collecting only the yellow gems. My wife dominated the gem collection but trailed in points, Rick juggled it well, ending the round and I just made it on the die roll at the end. My wife moved up during the second round though, maintaining her gem dominance and it was pretty close going into the last round. I maintained my yellow superiority, by my wife took off like a rabbit round the board and I think if she had ended it one turn earlier she would have won. But that extra round enabled Rick to get enough red to overtake her, she got the most in green after we clashed on the last turn and I gave her a bunch of green to let me take points. But when the points were tallied, Rick had it by a point and I have to admit I quite enjoyed it. Once in a while, with the right people who are really trying to suss out what the others might do and not just playing randomly.

And that was that for another fun game night, with the theme of games we have come back to having played them recently. And it turns out that is a pretty good thing to do once in a while.

Photos today from AEGTodd, fabricefab, RitzzCracker, EndersGame and SlikkRikk - thanks to all of them!
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Fri Jun 19, 2015 1:48 pm
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Some Recent Plays - Asante, Biblios

David
United States
DURHAM
North Carolina
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A couple of my recent plays got me thinking about these games in a new light, what one might call blog-worthy material.

The first were a couple of plays of Jambo successor and regular guest on this blog, Asante. I was pretty excited by all the new shiny and in particular by the change to the market so small markets didn't basically decide the winner. The new holy place cards, which you give to your opponent when you play a utility card, were interesting and I liked that balance of do I play this because then they get this free thing. I was not so sure about the part where if you are replacing one of your items because you already had 3, you get the card instead. On one hand it makes you consider the holy place you want as well as which item you want to replace but it is also rewarding you for fortuitously drawing all the utilities while your opponent got none.

This sort of leads into my new second thoughts about this game. One of the themes through the new set of cards and powers is more card draw. Cards were in desperately short supply in Jambo, you got one a turn, maybe another if you got a power working. In Asante, cards are still fairly difficult to get but there are more ways to draw, several people cards that allow extra draws, the strong box which allows you to spend I think 3 actions for 2 cards and my personal favorite, the meerkat nets you 4 if your opponent draws anything extra on their turn.

So we are playing and I am struggling a bit, while my wife has the strong box and is basically abusing it, keeping her hand size high, with a defensive card ready if I try and grab it or make her discard it. She absolutely destroyed me, by like 30 gold and considering you only need 60 to win and start with 20, that is quite the pasting.

So we play again and she gets that strong box again, this time with the sacred jewelry which allows you to get back a couple of actions, so using the strong box is now not so expensive. I do better, managing a few sales and scraping along - I think I even made 60 gold this game...but again her huge card advantage meant she had control of the game, and it was only once she has passed 70 on her final turn that I got up to 60.

It is something of a double-edged sword - there are cards in there that help you overcome a card shortage but the one with all the cards is more likely to draw them and thus more likely to maintain that advantage. Similar to the Holy Places rules - if you get all the utility cards, you are likely going to start grabbing the Holy Places on your own play rather than from your opponent's play.

I don't know that there is a "fix" for this, it is more just an observation and that there can be something of a runaway (or at least dominant) leader. Perhaps one of the cards that rewards a dominant leader (the Colonist, which gives you cards, money and wares if you have more in each than your opponent) was a bad idea and should be nixed or just removed? It plays pretty quickly though, so maybe that is just the nature of the territory, lots of different cards with variable powers, you are going to get games where someone gets the 'right' combos and the other player flounders a bit. Now I wonder if it will be made better or worse by combining the Asante cards with the Jambo cards?

The other game is also one I have talked about before and it is something of a resolution of the ongoing saga. The game is Biblios and I like it quite a bit, the two phases of the game, the deciding what to do with your draws in the opening phase and setting yourself up to do well in the second half auction. However, my wife had not really taken to it. I had almost traded it a couple of times but we gave it another chance, it still was not quite clicking for her. Her problem was the secret majorities: I have so many points in (say) the blue cards. Do I have enough to win? For me, that is part of the fun of the game, because ideally you win by a point so can you push it, get something else or dump one blue for a gold auction? But for her, it was confusing and frustrating because she could not get her mind around what the relative value of each color was and where she was in terms of the majorities. She would say that she could play the game but you might just as well play with a monkey playing cards at random.

So it was rather a surprise when she asked to play it again. We did but the familiar pattern emerged. I thought it was an intriguing battle - she had gathered a lot more brown cards than I thought, I had a ton and figured I was safe, dumping one for a gold card, but then I ended up just winning brown by a point. She abandoned red and orange completely (though she won the other 2) so I won those plus brown and the game. But it was not the most satisfying victory, she was clearly all at sea with the valuations and wasn't enjoying it.

Then in the post game discussion, she proposed an idea: what if she could see the cards that were not in the game? Obviously a huge advantage but perhaps the handicap we needed so we could play a competitive and more satisfying game. We tried it. In a 2 player game, 21 cards are missing, so you have no way of knowing just what the distribution is really like. But having that information enabled her to play with a good deal more insight and see how the game works, getting her head out of the fog as it were. It was a much more competitive game and, importantly, she enjoyed playing it a lot more. Once again, a key moment turned on the 4 brown - I had put it in the auction pile thinking to buy it when it came out, saving money to do so. But when it came out, my wife out-bid me and thus won brown. That led to an odd end-game where my big money cards I had saved ended up being spent on lesser valued things and she was out of money altogether, so the last few bids ended up being discarded because we were both broke. But that brown bid, plus her dominance in red and saving that one orange card to take the 1 point it was worth combined for her to take the win.

I don't know if this handicap will be like training wheels and at some point she will just say I am not playing with that extra information any more or, perhaps more likely, we will only play it every now and then and she will need her handicap to remember how to play again, but it has solidified Biblios as a keeper for me.

Photos from Asante by W Eric Martin & baltaistehws, from Biblios from kherubim & kadus. Thanks!
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Thu Jun 11, 2015 1:57 pm
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May Review - Supine to Murine

David
United States
DURHAM
North Carolina
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As I talked about in my last post, May has been pretty quiet month, but there was a bit of a rally over the holiday weekend and, in particular, the last weekend of the month. So in the end, it didn't look like that much of a lull, with 29 plays of 15 different games. The breakdown looks like this:


Game Qty
Star Realms 11
Asante 2
Biblios 2
Fluxx 2
Mice and Mystics 2
Rat Hot 2
Agricola: All Creatures Big and Small 1
Draco Magi 1
Lords of Waterdeep: Scoundrels of Skullport 1
No Thanks! 1
Parade 1
Spyfall 1
The Train Game 1
Ubongo 1


But even a cursory reading of that would indicate that it would have been a much quieter month without Star Realms, which holds it place as our go-to game at the moment and 'most played game of the month' for 3 months in a row. My wife played it even more than me, as she taught it to my eldest son as well. He was pretty thrilled to win the second game as well (though there was some coaching involved). She went as far to proclaim it her favorite of the genre, supplanting Dominion. A big statement, especially as it is usually me doing the set-up - the one area that Star Realms is truly and objectively superior.

I think I will leave comment over most of the other games for a later post, but I will mention Mice and Mystics. My wife has a nice job, pet sitting and dog walking and the like, a role she is eminently suited for, as she loves meeting new animals. One of the jobs was staying overnight with this little dog in his own house. So I had a Saturday night without my regular game partner. Well, I said to the kids, you guys are going to have to step up and I think it is about time we finished that game we started at Christmas. (And it turned out it was the Christmas before)

That game was Mice and Mystics. I got it for their Christmas present when it came out, in 2012, as a sort of follow up to the beloved HeroQuest. We finally got it to the table the following Christmas, played out the first tile front and back, stepped into the Kitchen Tunnels and decided to take a break there till next time. I was sort of hoping for the eager chatter and excited request to play it again, but in the end it took me saying we are playing this tonight. But they did both sit down without complaint and got into it. There may have been some running around the room when the centipede got shot by Filch. Despite the little rules the game seems to have, we kept it going, with me using my DM skills to fudge over things that held up the game and just keep it flowing.

When my wife was home the next day, my eldest gave her the blow-by-blow account and then the eager asking and excited request finally started - we played Chapter 2 on the Sunday evening, all the way through and successfully too. I will note that my kids are much more proficient with dice than me - I think I rolled cheese for the bad guys almost every time, so they took that over and it was much less of a problem. Uncanny.

So I think we will be playing that a bit more frequently in the remainder of 2015.

But while my face-to-face plays were pretty quiet, I did get a decent bit of online play in. As I think I mentioned, I took up playing at boiteajeux.net again, played through a couple of YINSH agmes, compared The Castles of Burgundy interface with Yucata's (probably a case of which I learned it on, but I like Yucata) and am playing of course Agricola. (Incidentaly, I can't find any stats about games completed other than the email I got - do you have to pay to get that kind of thing?)

Most of my play is on Yucata: 78 games finished this month. For once, Roll Through the Ages: The Bronze Age didn't win, pipped by Glen More. I think I am better at the multi-player version of both games for some reason - I went 1-4 in a set of 5 2 player games of RTTA but topped the league in the semis of the 3 player version. I will also mention some of the less talked about games, I have been learning Founding Fathers (a game I didn't really expect to enjoy), rediscovering Arkadia (and remembering why I liked it first time around) and also had a great teaching game in Space Mission from Liallan, I got practically a qualification in playing it by the end, she was really great at answering my questions.

Game Qty
Glen More 10
Roll Through the Ages 8
Thurn & Taxis 7
Hanging Gardens 5
Targi 5
At the Gates of Loyang 4
Firenze 4
Port Royal 4
Two by Two 4
Arkadia 3
Maori 3
Pompeii 3
Balloon Cup 2
Hey That's My Fish 2
Palaces of Carrara 2
Stone Age 2
El Grande 1
Founding Fathers 1
Jaipur 1
Just4Fun 1
R-Eco 1
Rattus 1
Russian Railroads 1
Space Mission 1
Thunderstone 1
Vikings 1

And what is coming up, you may wonder. Well we have a game night Saturday night and this arrived yesterday:


That's right, some Diablo II. I'm officially playing games released this century! Can't wait.
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Thu Jun 4, 2015 2:09 pm
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Springtime Lull

David
United States
DURHAM
North Carolina
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For the first 4 months of the year, we were going at a great clip. I had managed at least a game a day all year, a couple of great months. April just barely 30 plays, but still a lot of good game time.

Then May arrived. Two-thirds through the month and I only have 10 plays, with none of the game much more than fillers - Spyfall has the most game time just because we played multiple rounds all in a row.

I can pinpoint the moment of the shift, it was when my wife looked out into the garden and despaired that it would ever be tamed again. After weeding and mulching and working hard on it last year, to look out at it now after a period of neglect (also known as winter), it was depressing to see how much the weeds had not only crept back in but had taken over. Time to concrete it over and paint it green? No, indeed not. We got to work, clearing the weeds and bringing a semblance of order to our immediate surroundings. I have to say it is looking a lot better.

Plus there is the inevitable work and school routine, work has been especially busy of late, a deadline fast approaching. Busy days don't make for a good evening time playing cerebral board games. A lot of nights, I just have dinner, catch up a bit on BGG and then go fall asleep to an audio book. My wife jokes with me that I find it so easy to go to sleep in this way: "Chapter 1 once upon a zzzzz."

Anyway, my spare time is limited and so is my energy and I am not getting as much gaming in. This is where the part-time gaming of Yucata and Boiteajeux come in, slipping a few turns in so you still remember what game boards look like. And learning a few games along the way. I have to do a post on the games I learned recently.

As one who logs plays and looks at such stats when I get the mind to do so, it does bug me slightly that I'm not getting the game time I "should". But I am trying to remind myself, it is a lull, not anything more than that. The long weekend coming up, that should give me some relaxation time, with some gaming opportunities. Even if there probably will be some garden spade work as well. Some changes coming too, my wife has a new job for a pet sitting agency, dog walks and the like but also includes staying with the client's pets overnight at their home. What am I going to do with my main gaming partner out of the house? Though she is already suggesting games to play online live so we can keep in touch. She has also been getting the kids to spend more time off their computers. That means they have been playing some board games together, including the classic Lost Valley of the Dinosaurs (see my avatar). So they might let me play if I am good.

So it might be a bit of a lull, but I think it all right if I sit back and enjoy the day lilies.

when we moved into our current house there were purple day lilies everywhere, but now we have a bit more variety, like this one. Like a spark of fire growing in the garden.
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Fri May 22, 2015 1:56 pm
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Luck of the Dice

David
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DURHAM
North Carolina
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We had some friends of ours come over for dinner and games recently. One of the games they brought was Cosmic Wimpout, which is an old school dice game from the time before electricity, a pass the time type game in which you roll a set of 5 dice, scoring points in various ways with something of a push your luck aspect because if you don't score more points on your roll, you lose all you have gathered thus far. But also it has a forced luck push because you can't stop until certain parameters have been met - you have to 'clear a flash' and you have to roll again if you scored on all 5 dice. One rule that probably wouldn't make it passed the first play test now but probably seemed cool back then was that you can't make your first score unless it is at least 35 points. And that is pretty tricky to achieve, what with the arcane rules about when you can stop and such. It was their hang out game when they were first dating so they rather like it. I mention this because you have to love a game in which you can end the game still stuck on 0 points because you never could quite get in the game - and then say you would play it again, ever.
Bam!

Right after that game, my wife suggested Zombie Dice. And I kid you not, the first roll our unlucky friend made was 3 shotguns, one of which was on the green die. Moreover she did that exact trick again later in the game, but at least she didn't end the game on 0 - she got 1.

It got me thinking about dice games and the luck of the dice. I had such bad luck with dice in certain games. I had some friends into Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000, games with buckets of dice. Any reasonable statistician would posit that any roll should give a number of successes, with enough dice being rolled here that things should conform to the probabilities. But somehow I would, game after game, defy those odds and get slaughtered repeatedly, even when against all chance I had managed to get myself into a good position - which was rare because everyone else seemed to know the system way better than I did. I even picked up the tyranid/genestealers faction because if I got to combat, those genestealers (or Jenny-stealers as my wife Jenny would call them) would roll 4 dice each to attack. So all game I would be taking hits from their ranged weapons, maneuvering, maneuvering, waiting for my big moment, then finally my horde of ravenous beasts would descend upon a squad of hapless space marines...and then totally fail to do the expected damage. It was a bit discouraging.

My other favorite dice rolling misery story was a game of Pirate's Cove (I think it was that game, it was long enough ago that I didn't keep track). I don't even really remember the details of why I was going what I was doing. Attacking something? Splicing the mainbrace? Something piratey. I needed a 4 on 2 dice. I rolled snake eyes and that was my turn over. My next turn, I get to try again and I roll a 1 and a 2. My fellow players were all suitably aghast and impressed with my remarkable talent.

You might have guessed that playing Risk was not one of my favorites either and you would be right. The tales of great defenses against all odds were usually someone else with the stout defender...defending against me. But at least those games didn't last as long as they might against a more statistically aligned player.

I moved away from dice heavy games into the world of Euros for obvious reasons, but somewhere along the way I made my peace with the dice. Perhaps it helps most of the dice I roll these days are not simply numbered 1 through 6, but I have no such horror stories to attach to my games of Eclipse or Merchants & Marauders. Missed rolls for sure, but nothing that stunning, that unexpected. And when I look at a dice game coming out, I no longer have that palpitation. Even with something like Catan, where it is sort of traditional to complain about the dice not going your way, it is usually someone else doing that (though I have done it in the past).

And a post-script, since writing about our friend with the epic bad dice luck, last time they came by, we played a silly little dice game called The Train Game. You roll these special train dice, you need an engine and a tender then if you have that, you can score for your cargo. There is a bit of push your luck if you get the double engine train and putting a caboose on the back to complete the train is often worth a good amount of points. It is highly random but the dice are cute and the price was right. Opening round, out of the 4 of us, 3 of us struck out, not making any points, while she scored over 30 on her first roll. And just when it looked like my wife might steal the game with a late surge, our friend made another big roll to take the victory by a point. So if you are patient the dice will reward you.

Thanks to the photographers, KSensei, van00uber, A skinned math nerd, thalescnm and PzVIE!
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Tue May 19, 2015 1:58 pm
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Shadow Feast!

David
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DURHAM
North Carolina
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Our recent bit of spring cleaning unearthed a few things. Old RPG characters, the Wraith (RPG) adventure I wrote for a con at Georgia Tech, a poster of Usagi Yojimbo of all things. And a pile of notes from a series of Shadowfist games we played.

For those unaware, Shadowfist has rather an important place in board gaming, for it is this game (and its sister RPG) that Zev of Z-Man Games first appeared on the scene, in a bid to rescue the game after its initial publisher Daedalus Entertainment went out of business. It was one of many CCGs that followed in the wake of Magic: The Gathering, but it had a certain style and excitement about it, its back story based on wild Chinese martial arts movies, with all kinds of characters from serene Chinese monks to killer robots from the future. One whole sub-faction is based around ape-based puns (the Orango Tank, Battlechimp Potemkin), it was both fun and funny, with lots of action. Of all the CCGs we played, this was the one that my wife liked the most.

The game revolved around the control of Feng Shui sites, places of power. Playing these gave you power to use to do stuff on your turn. The characters would join you if you paid the power cost, but the more powerful ones would only join you if you had the proper resource symbols in your play area (including discard) - so the tougher characters would only join your team if you had some connection to their faction. There were of course lots of special cards events and equipment you could use and the timing of these things was important to learn if you wanted to play at a higher level. But the thing about Shadowfist was that you could play a lot more casually, beat up on each other and not worry too much about timing issues.

We had played the game for quite a while, with cards from the Daedalus times and then the game was resurrected by Z-Man, with 5 pre-set starter decks for each of the 5 main factions in a set called the Year of the Dragon. If you didn't want to build decks, these things worked pretty well. Our YotD decks are still as they were when I bought them, though we have a few other decks that have been tinkered with over the years. And it was after playing around with these new decks and pitting them against each other for a while that the idea of the Shadow Feast came up: which deck was the best? Who would win if you fought every deck against every other in a best of 3 battle? We had 12 decks built, that was a lot of games, so we divided it up, 6 each, my wife would play her chosen deck against all 6 of mine, then she would switch. We played through 4 out of the 6 completely and I could give a summary of every game (I worked through the play logs, which were what I do here for every game, but on paper instead) but that is not the purpose of this blog post, more to share some of the little bon mots that we wrote after the games.

* Her brilliant strategy of winning paid off

* Nasty nasty D picked on poor sick J

* She didn't get any Feng Shui Sites of her own, so she took mine instead

* Red Monk, Blue Monk ... Dead Hood

* 9 Fighting might not have been enough for J but it was too much for me


(Notice that it was her winning more than her share there...which I put down partly to her skill and partly down to me trying things and trying to build my own decks with my own quirky ways - like that Hood deck.)

And then there are the tales of back and forth and hard-fought victories, games decided by the turn of the card or by a single point of power. And those types of games are the reason we kept playing it. Because when we came back to it more recently, it was frustrating to encounter that bad draw that made the game either one-sided or just slow and dull. That is less of a problem in a multi-player match, where the slow starter can be left alone while the fast starts mess with each other (or defend the slow starter to stop the other player getting an advantage). But we played it predominantly 2-player and then the game's bad draws would make themselves felt - and Shadowfist has two ways to get a bad draw, making it more likely, as you need a source of power in order to buy things (usually Feng Shui Sites) and the resource-giving characters that enable you to buy the more effective and efficient characters that push things up a notch and make it a properly ding-dong battle.

Despite that, if you can get a game going, this was really a blast to play (and a lot of fun multi-player too, one of the best for that format). And looking back over these games brought back a lot of fond memories...and of my wife kicking my ass repeatedly.

Photos by laiernie, binraix, bengkohn and Rokkr - thanks to all!
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Tue May 12, 2015 1:43 pm
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Looking at April: Something Old Something New

David
United States
DURHAM
North Carolina
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April was a quieter month for games, at least in terms of number of games and indeed number of hours spent playing games, with the lure of Spring drawing us outside a bit more. But it did rain a good bit too, so all in all, it was an interesting month with some classic games played but with a slightly unexpected number of new games as well, especially given we had been talking about how we had plenty of games to explore right now. And it wasn't just me.


It's no moon
By the numbers, I played 30 games, with encompassed 15 different games. Star Realms is still the king, we are still very taken by its quick playing but still offering some interesting decisions. Are we just starting to look for particular paths through the game and ignoring others? Maybe a bit - we have our favorite ships. But the game does throw things at you that you can't just play from a set strategy - one game the middle got clogged by high cost ships and bases, no one had anything to hone or trim their decks, it was a war of attrition until finally enough Explorers came up to get that 6 trade we needed to break the embargo. It was also a nice palette cleanser after we played new deck builder Apex Theropod Deck-Building Game (which I talked about already), a big contrast after slugging our way through that game.

Other than Apex, we had 3 new games, one of which was recommended to me by readers of this blog when I played Jambo for my December Challenge. That game is its sister game Asante, which avoids our issue with the markets by getting rid of small markets and removing the cost to fill the last spot. But more than that, it includes a whole slew of new people and animals to mess and manipulate, some neat cards and powers. We did hesitate in the store, it seemed like quite a lot of cash for what essentially is an expansion for a game we already have, but we went for it and I am glad we did, the game was a lot of fun, a bit less prone to getting stuck (though there were periods of the game when the 'give up 2 actions for 1 gold' option was the best). We've only played it as a stand-alone game so far, but the possibilities of the combined deck are intriguing. As I said, there is (almost?) no overlap of the people and animal cards so the variety is huge.

Then there was Spyfall, again I already talked about that, but that day was clearly the best day of gaming for the month, including a classic game of El Grande.
The only other new game was a Cosmic Wimpout-like dice game called The Train Game, but it is notably easier to play, you should at least score some points and of course it has the cool little dice with various bits of trains on them. It was fun with the kids and my eldest is still quite the fan of trains so that was a worthwhile $4 purchase.

It was good to play Ingenious again, one of my favorite true abstracts and that lovely balance between easy to play but still challenging. That game was in the airport, on the iPad, waiting for our flight home. A fun if tiring trip, rounded off nicely by some games (of course Star Realms got in on that action as well).

And I finally won at Traders of Osaka so that was good, even if it did take me getting a big pile of red goods right at the end and leaping ahead to win by one point. This is one where I really have trouble, not with playing it, as the mechanisms in it are quite straightforward, but with working out how to get the result I want, in other words, how to get my ship to pay out without losing a bunch of other goods to pirates. But I like it a lot, a puzzle I will keep trying to solve.

Game Qty
Star Realms 9
Asante 3
Animal Upon Animal 2
Apex Theropod Deck-Building Game 2
Ingenious 2
Rat Hot 2
The Train Game 2
Cribbage 1
El Grande 1
Jaipur 1
Love Letter 1
Parade 1
Spyfall 1
Traders of Carthage 1
Wyatt Earp 1
(the games in bold are new-to-me this month)

In terms of online play, 76 games completed on Yucata.de with Roll Through the Ages: The Bronze Age again the winner, due to tournament play and how quick those games play. But I've been learning Sobek and had an enjoyable first game of Founding Fathers, which I only really tried due to it being the BGG Game of the Week in the Yucata Players Guild here.

I've also gone back to dabble with the games on Boiteajeux.net. I don't get there as much, but I joined some Agricola (of course) and tried out their version of The Castles of Burgundy, along with YINSH and Alhambra. I would like to dive in on either Deus or Concordia but haven't found the time to look over the rules yet. Usually I join a game and that makes me do it!

Photos from stadi, PzVIE and 2 from the excellent henk.rolleman - thanks to all!
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Wed May 6, 2015 1:54 pm
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First Impressions of Apex the Dinosaur Deck Building Game

David
United States
DURHAM
North Carolina
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I consider myself a fan of dinosaurs. As a kid, my dinosaur books were given rapt attention and the sticker book I had was a most prized possession. Jurassic Park was one of the first movies I bought on DVD with my own money as an adult. Heck, even my avatar has a dinosaur in it. So when I came across Apex Theropod Deck-Building Game, I was intrigued. It had some people excitedly telling us about their games and it had some glorious dinosaur artwork, done by the designer himself.

I was tempted, to be sure. But I held off during the first half of the kickstarter campaign. There were a number of red flags, the first was the game had no presence on BGG, it was a first-time designer and publisher, there were no reviews from anyone well-known in the hobby. None of those stop it being a good game, but it doesn't give you a lot of confidence. Still, I kept an eye on things. The BGG presence appeared and some play reports filtered through, which were encouraging and positive. The designer was active both here and on kickstarter, answering questions. My fears were assuaged and my interest was raised. So I pledged, helping it reach its goal and it even shot passed and picked up a stretch goal or two.

On a recent Dice Tower, Tom Vasel advised new game designers about what to do to help get their game published and one of his hints was "don't publish it yourself". He gave good reasons. I would not be surprised if Hershel would agree with him, because he clearly took on more than he expected when he published this. He did all the art, he did a bunch more development work, reworking the game in the months after the kickstarter ended. I think that was the right move. He ran into the inevitable issues with printing and shipping. He found out it cost more than he thought it would. Delivery was delayed as he needed to get money from sales in to ship the games out. Then there was the retail version changes - after the kickstarter ended, another company wanted to publish the game for retail and for one reason or another, wanted the rulebook changed around and streamlined. Broadly the rulebook I got in my kickstarter version was the same but different in organization and a few quite key things were changed. So the rulebook I have is not that useful and the retail version is a 180MB PDF document that is far less easy to look over.

This is some of the fun you get when you back a new game from a new designer and publisher. In a way, it is exciting seeing the game evolve (and despite my past record, that pun was not intended). But it makes getting to grips with the game a little trickier.

So finally I have the game. A solid box, with some dividers provided to help sort cards. Each player gets the Apex deck of the dinosaur species they are playing, though your starting deck is the same as everyone else - hatchling dinos, some carcasses and an egg. To get the cards from the deck you need that egg, to bring cards into the hatchery. You buy them with evolve points, which are provided by the carcasses in your deck and by successfully hunting animals in the Game Trail. In essence, you have money (evolve points) to buy the cards for your deck and Combat to hunt dinosaurs - which provide you with VPs and a 1-time boost in cash to get more useful dinos in your deck. But also in the hunt deck are other predators, including the Boss - rather bigger and meaner dinosaurs that if you want to be the apex predator of the game title, you have to take down. The game clock is managed by the environment deck, when that runs out the game is over. It is also a series of events, most of which are bad news, especially the last couple (Asteroid Impact and Extinction - the clues are in the titles). If you have taken down the most Bosses, you win; otherwise most points in your hunted pile wins.

The retail rulebook introduced a first play mode, the Emergence game. This is named after the first and only environment card which helps things get moving. In this shorter game, you play through 6 turns then take it in turns to fight the Boss. It also removes some of the wrinkles like Ambushes. So we tried that first. My wife had a lot of trouble getting going, a little bit of frustration in her voice as she asked me what she could do. I had glanced at the list of dinos and pulled out 2 that were listed as "Easy". Though the one she had - Gigantosaurus - had a lot of big cards in its deck and, though very cool, they require some resources to put into play. Mine were easier, Acrocanthosaurus had a nice range including some reasonably little guys, so I built up a steady stream of dinos and evolve cards. She got her deck working late on and took down a predator (a minion of the boss we would fight) and that was quite valuable pointwise. Mostly we weren't really looking at their point value, more at how much we needed to hunt them and then gain their points to buy more dinos.

The Boss fight was tough, I think it was Tarbosaurus. We needed some big Hunt attacks and needed them over several turns in order to defeat them. Neither of us managed to do that, though we both got a couple of good licks in, they were only flesh wounds and not enough to slow the Boss down. So that high VP minion that my wife successfully hunted was the difference and gave her the win 15-11.

Well, that was a taster. But it is always annoying when your dinos have an ability that you couldn't use, so we set it up again for the full and proper game. The full environment deck is in play and you can use ambushes - you can put aside up to 3 of your hunters in the Ambush Point and on a subsequent turn, you can pull them out and increases the effectiveness of your hunt. However, when you set the ambush, an Alert goes into your deck and if that comes into your hand before you trigger the ambush, the ambush is a bust and you lose that advantage (plus a lot of the prey cards scatter or become a lot tougher). This is very cool in concept but in practice it was a combination of confusing and underwhelming. The new rules say the alerts are not triggered if there is no ambush set (i.e. you've used them already) so it is very easy to avoid problems. So all those alert abilities are never used. The old rules say they trigger the alerts, and I see some posters on BGG saying they have adopted that version of the rules for alert and ambushes.

In any case, we played through and we did develop our decks more smoothly, having played them once before. There seemed a lot more opportunity to trim your deck of fat in the full game and then there are more boss which come up in the game trail and you either fight or flee. And staying to fight can cost you in wounds and general deck efficiency. As we found out after trying our hands at that a couple of times. But they are so tough - I had an Ambush set with 3 dinos and a hand more to attack it and I still managed only 1 point of damage.

The other thing was the game was really long. It is supposed to be 12-15 rounds and it says 35 minutes per player but that is surely a nonsensical estimation, because each round requires quite a bit of overhead - set the new environment, resolve any effects from that, repopulate the game trail for player 1, play cards, Hunt, buy stuff, repeat for player 2. Each lot of that is not long as such, unless an extended Boss battle breaks out, but not doable in a couple of minutes per round. Our game we shortened by removing 3 environment cards so 12 rounds and it still took around 2 and a half hours.

Now a long game is fine if that felt like time well spent but I am feeling a bit ambivalent about even that. I said there were opportunities for deck honing but they were mostly caused by random events - predators in the game trail, the environment cards, not by anything you actually did. A lot of the card play seems rather straightforward, you have a hand and you play it. There aren't that many different Evolve cards (mostly eggs which are very important) so most of your cards come from your apex deck and you don't always have much choice of which one you get there even. You buy what you can, do your best with your turn. That is a complaint that is said about individual Dominion turns as well, but the game there is in what you pick out from the kingdom cards that both players have access to. Other than hunting the stegosaurus that your opponent wanted, there is very little interaction between players - I can see why this works as a solo game - and somehow it feels like it lacks a lot of player agency. It seems like it would not be hard to program a machine to play your turns for you, without much change in how it played out. That is a disappointment.

Now I will put down that this is a first impression. I need to go back over the rules and make sure I had everything right. I am sure we got some things wrong in fact! And perhaps encouragingly, my wife feels that there is a good game here and we will give it another try soon. But the first impression is a little underwhelmed - I would love to hear from anyone who had a different experience what made it enjoyable for you.

The photos were all from the designer, Hershel Hoffmeyer - thanks to him for those and the really cool artwork - and the game too
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Tue Apr 28, 2015 6:53 pm
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If You Log Plays on BGG

David
United States
DURHAM
North Carolina
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If you log plays like me (in an obsessive manner, so I am told by my wife), then you need to go here:

For the Disgruntled Play-Logger: SPLU to You!

Basically you bookmark the utility and then when on a BGG page in your browser, you hit the link on the bookmark bar and it starts up this play log utility.

I have been trying it out and it is awesome.
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Mon Apr 20, 2015 3:25 pm
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