Boardgames To Go

Mark Johnson's occasional and opinionated podcast, Boardgames To Go, now has its own blog on Boardgamegeek.

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BGTG #126 - A Few Geeky Games

Mark Johnson
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mark wrote:
Note:

If you aren't receiving the new shows in your normal podcast subscription, try [b]resubscribing
to the feed through iTunes or equivalent (or directly to http://feeds.feedburner.com/BoardgamesToGo).

-Mark

It was good to get the opinions in the previous podcast off my chest, and the comments from listeners have been intelligent & polite...even when they disagree with me.

That's all well & good, but nonetheless I feel compelled to share some geeky games I do happen to enjoy. Do these poke holes in my earlier arguments? Perhaps. However, you'll notice these are all shorter games, and that's significant. I can more easily enjoy any game that doesn't hog the entire game night, and 1-hr games let me dabble in just about any theme and still have time for something historic and worthy of post-game Wikipedia research.



Board Game: Magical Athlete

Magical Athlete is a Japanese design that's a decade old, but I just learned about it. Apparently Z-Man brought this to English-speaking audiences back in 2010, but it still flew under my radar. At it's core it's a series of roll-and-move race games along a simple (simplistic) linear track. What makes it a worthwhile game, however, are the movement-based special powers for each character, the way those powers interact, and the fact that the characters are drafted by players before the races even start. That permits a little bit of strategy, a fair dose of luck, and some silly interaction. If you're surprised I like a game with fantasy/manga theming, so am I. It's the gameplay that wins me over, much more than the theming (though even I got a kick out of the character artwork).

Board Game: King of Tokyo

By now you've probably heard quite a bit about Richard Garfield's King of Tokyo, and for good reason. This is one of the best games of last year. Just like the last title rose above its humble roll-and-move origins, King of Tokyo takes the familiar Yahtzee mechanism of rolling a bunch of dice, freezing some during two re-rolls, and does something great with it. Starting with the theme of giant monsters destroying the city, the game uses fantastic artwork to cause instant fun. Though each player's monster looks different, they play the same until acquisition of special powers cards causes some differentiation. However, the core of the game is a finely tuned combination dieroll mechanism, where everyone can score points on their turn, heal damage, store up "energy" to buy more special cards...or inflict damage on the other players. That can happen to the point of wiping someone out--player elimination! And yet, it's so darn smooth, no one minds. In fact, it's fun to stick around for the ultimate outcome of a game in which you died. I've done that. The game had limited availability last year, but I understand that's improving now. Also, Garfield has an interesting expansion in the works, which you can hear about on his interesting podcast.

Board Game: Mission: Red Planet
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Finally, Mission: Red Planet is a steampunk-themed game about colonizing Mars in the Victorian era. Though the game mechanisms include some bits about that subject, it's the game's story told through its amazing artwork that really delivers the theme. Spaceships that blend Jules Verne's Nautilus with Buck Rogers deliver British aristocrats and soldiers to different territories on the Martian globe, with help and interference from other saboteurs, scientists, spaceship pilots, femme fatale, and so on. It's an area majority game merged with role selection, all wrapped up in that steampunk Mars setting that reminds me of the Space: 1889 (Original edition) rpg. Even though my real-life job is also focused on Mars, our spacecraft don't have these sleek and retro lines. Our vehicles have metallized fabric insulation, thrusters at odd angles, and a rover that looks like a Swiss army knife exploded. That's because it does so many things, we design for function over form, and it's all about optimizing mass & volume for the scientific mission. As of this writing, Curiosity landed in Mars' Gale Crater a few days ago, and all of us at JPL are tremendously excited. So, it seems, is everyone else. The goodwill is amazing!


-Mark


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Thu Aug 9, 2012 2:00 pm
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BGTG #125 - Boardgame Themes for Grown Ups (with Greg Pettit)

Mark Johnson
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mark wrote:
HURRAY!!

Boardgames To Go has now officially relocated to BGG! The podcast feed for the MP3 files hasn't changed, but you might need to unsubscribe and resubscribe (in iTunes, or whatever) once to make your podcast downloader recognize the new source. Also, the old blog will be maintained for its seven years of archives.

From now on, though, you can keep up with this new blog here on BGG with the rest of your BGG subscriptions.


-Mark

My friend Greg Pettit joins me on the podcast to officially kick off Boardgames To Go’s relocation to its new home on BGG by returning to our previous discussion about game themes, a favorite topic! Two years ago, in episode 104 we talked about Greg’s notion of two aspects of game theme:

• Narrative--the part of theme that includes the game's subject matter & physical production, telling its story

• Metaphor--the other part of theme that includes the game’s mechanisms, and how naturally they represent how the setting works

It was a great discussion, and many people chimed in with comments on the blog, as well as my BGG forum post.

This time I wanted to concentrate on the narrative part, the story. Specifically, I wanted to challenge the label that “thematic” games are just those ones about dragons and spaceships, and then go on to explain why I don’t like those themes, and wish for more “grown-up” games about history, economics, and—yes, trading in the Mediterranean Sea. A particular example is the interesting case of Vinci and Small World. Both are essentially the same game, from the same designer. The real differences are the theme: one is about the historic rise & fall of civilizations on a map of Europe, while the other is a territorial battle game between fantasy races on a fictional world. (Greg points out notable difference in the marketing muscle and publisher support behind these two games. Hmm.)

Board Game: Vinci
Board Game: Small World

Board Game: Lords of Waterdeep



As you’ll hear, it turns out I had a lot of issues wound up in this discussion, and it was a challenge to my polite nature to share my honest opinions. I never want to offend anyone, yet I do want to have this discussion. And Greg was there to extract it from me. In fact, his alternate title for this podcast was, "On the Couch with Mark Johnson: Why Do You Hate AmeriTrash?"

Board Game: Descent: Journeys in the Dark (Second Edition)
Board Game: Pergamon


At the end the episode, we close with two open questions. I’d love to hear my listeners’ responses to them. First is to offer your own suggestion for what the category of games like Descent, Arkham Horror, and Battlestar Galactica should be called. I don’t like BGG’s current label of "thematic," don’t think Ameritrash is right, either, and offered other suggestions such as heightened, fantastic, or geeky.

Second, I’d like you to think about the narrative themes (subject, story) of the games you enjoy playing, and analyze why you enjoy them. Is it because of the exciting, escapist subject matter about space empires or the undead? Perhaps it’s the chance to be exposed to something interesting in history and learn a tiny bit about it? Or maybe it’s just that the gameplay is competitive & challenging, and the narrative subject of the game doesn’t play a major role. You can guess what type of person I am, and I’d like to learn who you are.


-Mark


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Fri Aug 3, 2012 2:30 pm
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Recent Gaming (part 2)

Mark Johnson
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I'm really happy to have a lunch group for boardgames again. We only get together once or twice a month, but it's a great way for me to keep in touch with some friends in my old department. It started when one guy was really stressed-out and needed to just unwind a little. He knew I was a gamer and had read that Settlers article in Wired. We played that a few times back then, but in the year since I've learned to go with filler games. It just fits the time better, and they tend to be more resilient to varying numbers of players and time available. One month we might have three relatively heavy gamer-minds around the table for 75 minutes, and I used that opportunity to introduce Tigris & Euphrates. More often, though, we've got 4-5 people and thirty minutes left for games (after the important rituals of pizza & office talk!). In that setting, For Sale was a big hit. So was Exxtra. Both are quick enough to play more than once in that short time, which they appreciate after learning new rules. Everyone likes a second chance after they've just learned something, right? A couple times I brought out Roll Through The Ages. I'd list others, but apparently I've forgotten to record my lunchtime plays here on BGG. I need to bring in No Thanks! and 23. Truthfully, though, we sometimes just play good ol' Hearts and have a great time with it.


Board Game: Tigris & Euphrates
Board Game: For Sale
Board Game: Excape
Board Game: Roll Through the Ages: The Bronze Age
Board Game: No Thanks!
Board Game: 23



Meanwhile, the regular game group is on a roll. We've had a good group for a decade, but in 2011 our numbers had dwindled as friends moved out of the area, leaving the group struggling to stay afloat. I'm so pleased to say that's really turned around. We're still a small group, usually just one table, but that's ok. At least we've got enough gamers now to keep things going strong.

After we finished K2 as June's Game of the Month, we've gone back to just playing whatever we feel like every week. Sometimes we play a game two weeks in a row, but usually we're learning new things. I'd love to start a Risk Legacy campaign, but am not sure we've got consistent enough attendance in the summer to do it justice. Maybe this is something for the fall.

Board Game: Magnum Sal

Last night we played Magnum Sal, then a couple tries at Flash Point: Fire Rescue. One of our members is a first generation Polish-American, and he's excited by the new titles coming from Poland. Magnum Sal is not only designed & published in Poland, but its subject is a famous historical landmark of that country, the Wieliczka Salt Mine near Krakow that was THE moneymaker for Polish kings throughout the middle ages. It's now a UNESCO World Heritage site. You know what all of this means to me, don't you? Theme! History! Research! Wikipedia! I really love it when our hobby offers this kind of insight.

Well, it was good. The theme definitely comes through, but it doesn't overburden the game. You're left with a light, worker-placement game that has some unique features. I really enjoyed it, and look forward to playing again. You take turns placing meeples, sure, visiting buildings in the city DOESN'T require a worker. You just go there as one of your two actions, and take (and pay for) the benefit. On the other hand, mining is central to this game, and it's labor-intensive. In other words, you need to dedicate a lot of workers over several rounds in order to mine the salt that generates money (=victory points). This introduces a map to the game, and gives you something to think about as you send workers into the main shaft, or out into the corridors to battle water (remember Tinners' Trail?) and extract the of differing qualities/value. One more thing--you get to re-deploy workers, either because they're no longer needed at their current location, or you burn a turn resting them to reset the ones used up during a strenuous mining action.

I figured more workers are always a good bet in a worker placement game, and tried to get the jump on everyone else by using up the ability to hire more. That might have been good, but the money I used to hire those workers is exactly equal to victory points. With the winning score around 100, mostly fueled by royal salt contracts work 15-20 apiece, was it worth it for me to drop 25-40 points on extra workers? It gave me more ability to do stuff, true, but did they more than make up for their expense? I'm not sure.

Also, it proved not to be automatically the best move to mine the deepest, most valuable salt. That's because you need to pay your opponents when you bring it to the surface by a "chain" of everyone's workers in the shaft. Sort of like a bucket brigade, with a token amount paid to your opponents who help. Well, those tokens add up, and sometimes you run out of time in a round to complete a royal contract. All of that valuable salt can be sold for money at the marketplace, but at a reduced payout. Hard to figure out, which makes us eager to try again. Looks like a winner, so far.

Board Game: Flash Point: Fire Rescue

I missed the first wave of excitement over Flash Point when it first arrived, and only recently thought maybe I'd missed something when I heard so much about it on The Dice Tower's awards. (I was like this with Pandemic, too, which has proved to be one of my favorites.) We played the Experienced game at the lowest setting twice, and managed to lose both times. This was with three players. The first game I'm sure we messed up by working too hard on the victims before we knocked down the fire. I really enjoyed the interview the guys at The Spiel podcast did with a real gamer+fire chief, who stressed the primary importance of taking care of the fire, the threat, FIRST. For a second game we tried to do just that. Though we also lost that game, we got a lot closer to victory, and I know we'll do better.

One thing that I'm still unsure about is the theme. There's no question that it's a good theme, and one that's executed exceptionally well. No, my problem with it is the amount of death that's part of it. Am I thinking about too much? It's a victory to "only" lose three victims? Just when I got over that (and have to admit we laughed when the kitty cat hiding in the closet went up in flames), I described the game to my wife this morning and she had my same, initial reaction. Next you're going to read about my plays of a wargame set in the Pacific of WW2. There's obviously a whole more death & suffering going on there, but there's a remove that comes from scale, time, and subject. A game about a deadly house fire just gives me pause (meanwhile, I enjoy The Downfall of Pompeii).

Board Game: We Must Tell the Emperor

Last, I should say something about We Must Tell the Emperor. My Spring trip to some military history sites in Europe re-sparked my interest in wargaming, though it remains limited to the smallest/quickest/lightest games. I'm not opposed to cardboard counters, hexmaps, or case-format rulesets, but 6-hour (or 36-hour) play times are a dealbreaker for me. So I limit myself to the 1-2 hour wargames, happy with the sacrifices and abstractions they need to make. I picked up three different titles that fit that description from boutique publisher Victory Point Games before my vacation, and afterward decided to get a couple more. One of those is this solo game in VPG's States of Siege series, a critically acclaimed coverage of the entire Japanese war. That means more than just the American campaign that I was more familiar with (Pearl Harbor, Midway, Luzon, etc.). The campaigns in China and Southeast Asia play as large a role. Of course, the entire thing is covered at a high level of abstraction--how else could you cover this much material in a 1-hour solo game?--but the real subject comes through strongly, and I learned quite a bit. VPG is beginning to bring out some games on the iOS platform, and I expect the entire States of Siege series is well-suited for that. I'm very happy with this purchase, and I would LOVE to have this on an iPad. Perhaps later I'll try the iOS version of Levée en Masse: The Wars of the French Revolution. (I realize it's gotten off to a bumpy start, but it might still be worth a try.)

-Mark


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Sun Jul 29, 2012 1:36 am
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Recent Gaming (part 1)

Mark Johnson
United States
Santa Clarita
California
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Yes, I've got a new podcast recorded. This weekend my plan is to finish the move from my traditional blog (now renamed the Archives) to this new home on BGG. If all goes well, it will be seamless to my feed and your podcast subscriptions. The new show will be up early next week. Wish me luck!




Wow, I’ve managed to get in a lot of gaming recently, and that should continue at least throughout the summer—probably all year. Previously I posted my list of games played at a local Games Day, while my other gaming has been with coworkers, the Santa Clarita group, online (iOS and play-by-web), and even some with the family. Let me expand on that, in reverse order.

Board Game: Coloretto Amazonas

My wife & kids (now teenagers) are not really into boardgaming, but they’ll play things now & then. They even got me a new party game, Luck of the Draw, for Father’s Day last month, which we need to try soon. I’m a huge fan of original Coloretto (less so the boardgame versions of that idea), and almost picked up Coloretto Amazonas when it was first released. Then we all heard pretty atrocious things about it, and I steered clear. Thanks to an opportunity to play it online at designer Michael Schacht’s play-by-web site, however, I discovered it’s a very pleasant pastime for just two players. I had to find a private seller in Germany to track down a copy now (shoot, it would’ve been a cheap & easy acquisition when it first came out!), but that wasn’t too difficult or expensive. Make no mistake—this is very light, doesn’t have much to do with Coloretto (only part of the scoring), and is only worthwhile with two. However, it’s light fun, the artwork is fantastic for nature-lovers, and I think this will be one my wife & I play now & then for years.

Board Game: The Game of Life: Card Game
There was another OOP card game I was after, one that would’ve been even cheaper and easier to buy if I’d known about it in 2002. Believe it or not, I’m talking about the The Game of Life: Card Game (not the The Game of Life: Adventures Card Game that’s still widely available). Like others in my generation, I actually have fond memories of the original The Game of Life (with its Wheel of Fortune-style spinner!). I also have the good sense not to try to play it now, because I believe I’d hate it. I’m sure that’s why I overlooked the spinoff card game a decade ago, failing to notice it was another of designer Rob Daviau’s gems (original GoL designer Reuben Klamer gets a co-design credit). Some browsing I did here on BGG uncovered the GoL:Card Game, and I decided I had to have it. A kind friend gave me a copy, and I eagerly set out to play it with my family. Again, I’d read that 2-player is the way to go on this one, though it can also work with three. I played one game against my wife, a “test” game to how skipping college and having tons of kids compared to getting a degree, a high-powered career, and deferring marriage & children until established. (You see, I’m going to play this game with my teenage daughter next!) We liked how it turned out. My starving-artist-with-kids-galore strategy did not win…but it was not a disaster. What it lacked in money, it (nearly) made up for in life experiences. Had I known the deck better, I could’ve used those Rainy Day cards to save what little money I had and use it later to help some kids go to school, or get married themselves. My wife’s college-bound strategy scored more victory points and had its own interesting experiences. Later I played against my daughter, this time skipping college but doing a little better family planning. She, meanwhile, ended up with a power career: lots of money, but no time. The cards you play require one or the other, and she had a hand full of cards that cost time, so she was stuck. I was a repairman, later a cop, put in overtime, saved my money, had kids & grandkids, retired…and was elected President of the United States! Just as I’d hoped, despite being a fun, fictional game, it actually brings up interesting situations and choices in life to spark conversation with your family. I’m really glad I’ve got this one, and will be on the lookout for spare copies that turn up. (It used to be sold on the pegboard rack at Target/Walmart. They’ve got to be at garage sales and thrift stores now.)

Board Game: Zombie Dice

Edit: I forgot to include Zombie Dice! Steve Jackson Games has mostly gone in directions different from ones I most enjoy in boardgames, so I almost overlooked this fun, little diversion. It was really the iOS version that got me to try it. That implementation is pretty cool, and showed me how there's actually some cleverness and smart game design to this zombie-themed push-your-luck dieroller. Since I've played the Left 4 Dead series with my son on Xbox 360 (and he's started watching Walking Dead with some friends), I thought he might get a kick out of this one. He's going to college in a few months, and it might be a fun pickup game there, too. What makes it better is to give the dice names: the easy victims on the green dice are Girl Scouts, the average yellow ones are Townsfolk, and the tough hombres on the red dice are the Sheriff and Football Coach. It makes me want to get the expansion, not for the silly Santa die, but for the Hottie and the Hunk (which I'd rename the Hero, actually).

Board Game: The Hanging Gardens
I still enjoy play-by-web boardgaming, often playing games of Brass: Lancashire or a variety of things on Yucata.de. Maori remains a favorite there, along with Industrial Waste, The Downfall of Pompeii, Thurn and Taxis, plus more. The Hanging Gardens is a smart game that flew under the radar—check it out online if you’ve never given it a try elsewhere. Good stuff. I’ve even started to warm up to Thunderstone in this presentation, a game I don’t care for in its physical form (too slow). Just recently I played A Few Acres of Snow after a hiatus. I even loved the 1st edition of that game, and felt even better about the 2nd edition rules. Now I see you can pick from a shopping list of rules variants online, either to tweak your own notion of perfect balance, or just to jumble things up a bit. Really fantastic. Now I’ve just read that Rattus and Hawaii are coming to Yucata.de soon, and I’m looking forward to both. (Hawaii is a game I’ve already been playing online at Board Game Arena, where realtime 2-player outings finish in 25 minutes.)

Video Game: Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013
One of these days I’ll do a podcast about iOS boardgaming. I actually do quite a bit of this, too. In fact, I’ve never stopped playing Carcassonne on that platform. It’s just done so well! I’ve purchased and downloaded most of the rest of family strategy boardgames for iOS (often on sale), but only dabble with them. I really gave Caylus a try, but after several games I lost interest. I’ve downloaded Le Havre, but have yet to try. I don’t actually enjoy Le Havre, but I was cool on Brass when it first arrived, and the opportunity to play over & over showed me how great it is. Perhaps that can happen with Le Havre. The iOS game I have been enjoying immensely is Magic: The Gathering (I guess this particular game is subtitled Duel of the Planeswalkers). I really loved my mid-90s MtG days, and this brings back fond memories. It also highlights the fiddly timing rules that were always a minor stumbling block, but I remember enough to play well and pull of a few clever tricks. I gladly paid the ten bucks to unlock the full game, and it’s been one of my best purchases for iOS.

Over the weekend I’ll post about boardgaming with the other groups, especially since I’ll be adding to that tonight. As a tease, lately some titles have been Eclipse, Hawaii, Get The Goods, King of Tokyo, and Big City with the game group, while the coworker lunch group has enjoyed Roll Through the Ages, For Sale, and Exxtra. (I’ll throw in We Must Tell the Emperor!, a solo wargame I’ve played myself over several lunch hours.)

-Mark


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Fri Jul 27, 2012 10:57 pm
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SoCal Games Day 50

Mark Johnson
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Yesterday I went to a great, little gaming event. It was SoCal Games Day 50, where dozens of gamers spent a whole day playing boardgames together in a rented community hall, with a reasonable $10 entry fee. As always, there were several door prizes for some lucky few (including me!), but mostly it's a day of playing games. Free parking, not scheduled on a 3-day weekend, plenty of "open gaming"...all good. It's just amazing that this has been going strong for over 11 years. My buddy Dave Arnott has been the one organizer who stuck with it all that time, as others (like me) faded away and more (like Stephanie Kelleher) stepped up. Finding a venue to hold our Games Days has always been the toughest challenge, and I think it's rotated through 4-5 cities and 7-9 meeting rooms. But it's survived.

Board Game: Kingdom Builder: Nomads

For the first time in a long while, I was able to arrive early and stay late. That meant I got in several good games. First up was the new expansion, Kingdom Builder: Nomads. I'm not quite sure what it is about Kingdom Builder that doesn't interest me, because my preferences run strongly to the simple euros (as you'll read later). But it doesn't. For me, Kingdom Builder just lies there, uninteresting. I thought perhaps the expansion might inject something exciting into the game, but it's a more-of-the-same type of expansion. I'm not against those, in principle. In fact, most of my anti-expansion attitude is directed toward expansions that break the elegance of the original game by adding too much stuff...which is the opposite type of expansion than Nomads is for Kingdom Builder. But I guess more-of-the-same expansions can only appeal when you like the base game already, and I don't. Oh well, it was worth a shot.

Our game had two Nomad boards, I think. One had a "caravan" power to move one of your houses in a straight line on the hexgrid until it encountered an obstacle (mountain, water, or another house). The players that saw how to use that (especially with our scoring card for number of settlement areas, regardless of size), did far better than the dummies like me that didn't. The other Nomad board just had one-shot special powers that moved houses around, not a lasting special effect.


Board Game: Industrial Waste

After a good lunch at a nearby Lebanese restaurant, it was back for more games, this time an old favorite, Industrial Waste. Like Nomads, I played this game with Davebo and his son Jacob, as well as another friend. I sold my copy of IW to Davebo some years ago, and he's played it quite often, I think. Good! I always liked the game, but it just wasn't getting played enough at my house. The theme is (understandably) uninspiring to some, and my own pet peeve is the graphic design of the cards, which I find confusing. But under the hood is one of the best, most overlooked economic engine games around. As with most games, the opportunity to play it often in its online implementation at Yucata.de is a big help. I usually try to focus on technology improvements for cleaner factories and more automation, and did so again. What I DON'T usually do is take loans, let alone a couple of them. That happened this time when I made some bidding mistakes, but fortunately the game lasted long enough for me to pay them both off and cruise to victory.

I think that improving (reducing) your waste production is ALWAYS a good idea in the opening turns of the game. That part isn't enough a choice for me--it's an automatic decision. Everything else, though, is a strategic tradeoff, and I've seen players do all different things and be successful.


Board Game: Marrakech

My last game with Davebo and son (plus another) was Marrakech. This was a game I purchased from another gamer at the event, and it's actually my second copy. I'm either taking a cue Davebo on our recent podcast (where he wondered aloud why gamers don't buy more second copies of games they love, rather than continuing to take flyers on new games they often don't retain), or it's a copy I'll give to my brother and his young family later. In any case, I think this is an overlooked little gem. It's not a game of deep strategy, but rather a pleasant family game with tactics (estimating risk), a smidge of strategy (setting up future scoring possibilities), and great components. All for a very reasonable price, as I recall. The publisher is Gigamic, but this isn't one of those chunky wooden games. It's got a couple large, wooden components (huge pawn and die, coins), a playing board, and a bunch of small Persian rugs! Everyone always asks about this one when they see us playing it.

Now, it IS quite light, so keep that in mind. But it's a good game to play with kids or more casual gamers...or hobby gamers who want to unwind with an attractive game. As an added bonus(?), I think it's best with two players, as you each play two colors of carpets and there's a touch of additional strategy as a result.


Board Game: Pergamon

I introduced one of my favorites from 2011, Pergamon, to Dave Arnott at the last Games Day. That was a 4-player outing. This time we played it again, but just 2-player. This is another game that excels with just two, in this case because the game includes a smart variant for that number. It's not a "full" dummy player, but rather a "tomb raider" pawn that is played easily & automatically by the system (with helpful icons on the board to remind you how to do this). This raider doesn't actually compete with the players, but he gets in the way constantly, throwing a necessary monkey wrench into a game that would otherwise be "too open" for just two players. It's perfect, because the rest of the game plays the same as it does with 3-4.

It was a close game, but Dave managed to construct an exhibition in the early game that was good enough to survive the drop in popularity/novelty mechanic that triggers at several points during the game. My bonuses for ancient artifacts weren't enough to overcome that cushion of points he earned.


Board Game: Tammany Hall

My one heavier game of the day was Tammany Hall. You're right--it's not that heavy of a game. But compared to the superfillers I tend to play, this political game set in the "Gangs of New York" era gives me a lot to think about. It's political in its theme more than it its mechanics, since there isn't much negotiation between players (at least not the way we played it). There are a lot of wooden pieces. A few friends have ordered the new version on Kickstarter. I wonder what it will change about the components. The version we played has a really fantastic, evocative map that I heard will be maintained. Good! There's nothing really wrong with the colored cubes, discs, and "pawn" pieces, but I have to wonder if a different physical design would help players understand what's going on more easily. You see, I really struggle to internalize the strategic connections between cubes (immigrant population), discs (vote-buying?), political offices, and victory points. The latter is what ultimately matters, but the first three all have logical flows into victory points that are nonlinear, and non-intuitive. I suppose that may be the appeal, to have a game where all those connections AREN'T laid out like a map or flowchart.

I'd only played the game a couple time before, and that was online at slothninja. Getting to play with the physical version was a big plus. As it was, we played a VERY competitive game, with some big swings and jockeying for position that ultimately saw our final scores incredibly close. It was a good exercise for the old noggin, and one I look forward to again.


 

The last game of the night for me was The Speicherstadt. I think this game splits people into two camps. I'd previously just heard from the group that didn't like the game, so it took me a long time to try it. When I finally did, online at Yucata.de, I was surprised to find I really liked it! (Although my friends who played online with me came to the opposite conclusion.) Then I did a little research into the theme, and that also increased my interest. Admittedly, the theme doesn't have much to do with the game--its real attraction is the "pawn auction" mechanism--but I appreciate these things. Along the way, I discovered a subset of gamers who are enthusiastic about the game. Maybe it was designer Stefan Feld, one of the top names these days? Whatever the reason, I thought I'd buy a copy and play the real game for myself.

This was my first attempt with the actual game, even though I've played online a dozen times already. I thought we might just play with two, since Dave Arnott had begrudgingly agreed to play with me, but we quickly filled out a 5-player game. Is it better with one number or another? I'm not sure. Online it's best with fewer, but that's only so its many small turns play faster. In person, that doesn't matter so much, and it's probably better to have more players for the interaction and competition. Unfortunately, I screwed up, removing just one card from the autumn season deck instead of the two the rules called for. It was an "asterisk game" as a result (for those that keep records!). In the end, the players who liked the game still liked it, and those that didn't were unswayed. Even Chris who liked it (I think) thought it could really use an aid card to make sure everyone knows what cards are coming up in each season. He may be right. I'm still glad I've got it, and will probably get the expansion, Kaispeicher, when I can.


In addition to these I played, I managed to sell a bunch of games at the event. Unfortunately I purchased several more! I say unfortunately because I'm trying to reduce my collection back to what can fit on my existing shelves, but there were bargains I just couldn't pass up! Then I was lucky enough to have my name drawn for a prize table pick, and grabbed a new copy of Hawaii.

Thanks to all for another wonderful event!

-Mark
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Mon Jun 18, 2012 5:48 pm
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BGTG #124 - A Sense of History (or European Vacation Part 2)

Mark Johnson
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Santa Clarita
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This podcast is nearly an experiment. Though I cover euro style boardgames 99% of the time (or meta topics regarding the hobby), you may recall the very occasional podcast of mine mentioning wargames. I'm not much of a wargamer, never really was a grognard, but my very first entry into hobby gaming was through science fiction "microgames," as well as some air combat wargames. This was 15 years before euros made their appearance, back in 1978, junior high school for me...

In the decades since I've dabbled in wargames, at least the shorter/lighter ones, particularly as my interest in history deepened. Every kid seemed to have at least a moviegoer's familiarity with World War Two, but as an adult I started to study WW1, the American Civil War, Napoleonics, and other subjects of military history. From time to time, that meant trying another less-than-3-hour wargame.

Don't run away! You'll hear in my intro to the podcast that I'm concerned my normal euro-favoring(?) podcast audience will tune out when I begin to discuss wargaming, but this episode isn't just about that. My son will be heading off to college in the fall, and just this April we got to go on a wonderful trip--just the two of us--to take in some military history sites in Europe. In the podcast I talk a little about that trip, and more about the movie and game-based research I did to enhance my/our enjoyment of it. Between that angle the inherent father-son context for the discussion, I hope it proves to be a worthwhile episode.

From gallery of MarkEJohnson
Board Game: Fall of Berlin

We went to Berlin (for the Cold War), Verdun (WW1), Luxembourg/Bastogne (WW2 Battle of the Bulge), and Waterloo (Napoleon). I didn't actually have a movie or a wargame to help me research Berlin. After-the-fact, though, I discovered the solo wargame Fall of Berlin in the first issue of Gary Graber's Panzerschreck Magazine. I've got a copy on its way to me now. In the meantime, it's time to re-watch Run Lola Run. No, that's not about the Battle in Berlin at the end of WW2, but it DOES feature the city as its notable location. (Same goes for The Bourne Supremacy.) Still, there must be some good movies set in Cold War Berlin, if not WW2 Berlin, that feature the city itself. Maybe Valyrie? Not a great movie, but it's the locations I'm after.)


From gallery of MarkEJohnson
Board Game: Trenches of Valor
From gallery of MarkEJohnson
For the horrors of World War One on the western front we went to Verdun, especially the fortresses defending that historic city. This is where the war of attrition reached its most extreme form, with explicit plans to "bleed France white" by killing their defending soldiers faster than the Germans knew their actions would kill their own men. We visited the built-into-the-hill fortress of Fort Douaumont, both its dank underground corridors and its numerous gun & observation turrets on top. Less obvious but no less amazing was the undulating ground, now covered in grass but still churned into shapes by thousands of artillery rounds. For the game I played Trenches of Valor, a "microgame" from Victory Point Games. Not specifically about Verdun, but it evoked World War One strongly enough, especially considering we also got to see some of those trenches.

The movie I watched beforehand was Kubrick's Paths of Glory (1957). It definitely captured the mud, confusion, and horror of being ordered to launch an assault over the top of your own trenches...and through no-man's-land to the opposing side. Very compelling.



From gallery of MarkEJohnson
From gallery of MarkEJohnson

The trip to Luxembourg was meant to take in World War 2's Battle of the Bulge through the Ardennes forest. Luxembourg was a wonderful little country, and I hope I get to return for a few more days next time. The little town of Vianden where we stayed was right near the German border, so was actually taken by the Germans a month before the actual counter-offensive. (Some Luxembourgish resistance fighters had been reporting troop movements from Vianden's castle, a hilltop vantage point, and even launched a few small raids before being squashed.)

There are so many Bulge wargames out there, and I already owned two. Bulge '91 was Avalon Hill's attempt to make a simpler, more nimble wargame on this topic, part of the American Heritage/Smithsonian series. Although I loved seeing Vianden on its map, I didn't love the game, and gave up my solo contest partway through.

After that I tried One-Page Bulge, and though I liked the gameplay better, the minimalist components eventually nagged at me. The game design was better than Bulge '91, but still a bit dated. I'm happy to know that even straightforward, smaller wargames aren't trapped in the mechanics of the 60s-80s. Wargame designers have made advances since then that deliver better gameplay with essentially the same components, and no great increase in rules (as we'll see later).

When it came to moves, I'm sorry to say that I was suckered by The Battle of the Bulge. I guess in my mind I thought it might be like The Longest Day, or Midway--a Hollywood production with multiple stars that still did a decent job telling the story of the battle. No way. That movie was a HUGE disappointment. I'm very sorry I had my son watch it with me. After we returned I re-watched Patton, which was so much better.

From gallery of MarkEJohnson
From gallery of MarkEJohnson


From gallery of MarkEJohnson
From gallery of MarkEJohnson

From gallery of MarkEJohnson

For our last stop we went to Waterloo, the scene of Napoleon's famous last battle. This was the oldest battlefield we visited, coming up on its bicentennial in three years, and the most altered. Though the rolling hills & fields are still visible--as are the significant stone farmhouses of Le Haye Sainte and Hougoumont--the famous "reverse slope" hill that hid the British forces from a French artillery barrage is mostly gone. It was scraped up and piled high to make the famous Lion mound and monument on top. These days, we don't do such a thing to historic sites. Not usually, anyway. Waterloo itself is a 21st century, small, Belgian town, but fortunately the battlefield is just a ways away.


Le Haye Sainte is difficult to get a good look at it because it borders a small highway, and you can't get too close. Hougoumont, on the other hand, is owned by a private party, but one that encourages tourists to walk around and see it from the outside. This was a high point for me, walking the perimeter of a place that witnessed such desperate fighting.

Just as this battlefield was a highlight, so was the wargame I played solo covering the same ground. Waterloo 20 is another small wargame from Victory Point Games, and one I'm very eager to try again. Designer and developer have worked together to create a playable, exciting, and historically-grounded game that is just right for me. Serious wargamers may scoff at its simplifications, but for me they mean the difference between a game that's played, and one that's merely read. Many of the mechanics are traditional (e.g. hexmaps, differential combat results tables), but some smart design choices (limited counters, no stacking, event cards) mean the game moves right along and includes unpredictable events that I know threatened (or happened) in the actual battle.

Not only were the battlefield & game satisfying, so was the movie I watched to prepare for both. Rod Steiger's Napoleon and Christopher Plummer's Wellington were both outstanding in the wonderful film Waterloo (1970), by Soviet director Sergey Bondarchuk. Seriously--seek this film out and watch it...then look me up for another game of Waterloo 20!

As I'd hoped & planned, the research I did for the trip enhanced the experience for me. The Wikipedia articles did that, the movies did that (even the bad ones), and the wargames definitely helped do that. Who knows? I may even get my son to play The Drive on Metz with me some day.

From gallery of MarkEJohnson
Board Game: The Complete Wargames Handbook

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Thu Jun 14, 2012 4:00 pm
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Upcoming podcasts, and Game of the Month (K2)

Mark Johnson
United States
Santa Clarita
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From gallery of MarkEJohnson
From gallery of MarkEJohnson

No new podcast quite yet, but I've been working on notes for the next couple episodes. First is a solo show where I'm going to talk about...well, I'm actually going to be talking about some wargaming, but I have a plan to make it interesting to everybody. In fact, it's going to have as much to do with movies, vacations, history, fathers & son, and solo gaming as it is with hexmaps and counters. Stay tuned.

After that I'm very excited to be working with Greg Pettit on another show that will wrestle with boardgame themes. The show we did earlier--where Greg introduced the concepts of "theme as metaphor" and "theme as narrative"--was one of my most popular, and for good reason. It's such an interesting topic for a lot of us. I've got more thoughts about theming, and Greg is helping me untangle them into a cohesive discussion.

As for recent gaming...

The business trips, vacations, and major work projects that kept most of my Santa Clarita Boardgamer group occupied for the past couple months have subsided. We had a great game night last Friday, and can look ahead to a steady stream of them this summer. Who knows? Maybe we'll even have that Saturday party with food and an all-day game of old SdJ winner Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective: The Thames Murders & Other Cases that we've been wanting since last year. Also, in a couple weeks we'll be enjoying SoCal Games Day 50. 50! More on that after it happens.

Board Game: K2

Our buddy Marcin returned from his trip to Poland and Germany with a suitcase full of games. He bought as many Polish designs and Polish editions as he could. These days, that's a lot! The Spiel des Jahres and Kennerspiel des Jahres lists were announced while he was over there, and it just so happened he'd already purchased K2. Yea! We played just once so far, on the "easiest setting," and I enjoyed it. In a weird way, it reminded me of En Garde, in that both games use a set of numeric cards and a linear board to end up with a surprising level of simulation of a sport. Ok, not simulation, but verisimilitude. K2's board is not strictly linear (it's at least branching, though not really 2D), and its cards aren't strictly numeric (having a couple different "suits"), but I see some similarities in design style. Since I love En Garde, this is a good thing.

Board Game: En Garde
Board Game: En Garde


I thought the best single design feature in K2 is the variable weather "track." It was a major factor in our easy game, and it seems it would drive the more challenging settings. Besides opening up the opportunity for some good strategy, planning, and even a little risk-taking, this strikes me as another simple feature that has some real connection to the game's theme. My knowledge of mountaineering is mostly limited to reading Krakauer's Into Thin Air, true, but it felt right. Also, the traffic jam that occurs near the top of the mountain also makes thematic sense. After we played I felt compelled to do some Wikipedia research on history of climbing K2 itself, along with the more famous Everest stories. That's always a good sign.

The fact that K2 comes with a double-sided board and two levels of weather difficulty cards means there are several options for play right away. Add to that the fact that Marcin bought the K2: Broad Peak expansion already, and we thought we should make this our Game of the Month for June. We rarely do a GotM, but often want to. Now's our chance again.

Board Game: K2
Board Game: K2


-Mark

P.S. My recent auction here on BGG went well. Thanks to everyone that took a look, whether you bought something or not!
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Thu Jun 7, 2012 5:44 am
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BGTG Auction #4

Mark Johnson
United States
Santa Clarita
California
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FYI, I'm running another geeklist auction. Even though I'm not in the Cult of the New, I still buy some games, and I need the shelfspace!


Boardgames To Go Auction #4
http://boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/142738/

Auction ends Friday, June 1st, sometime after 9am (PDT)

From gallery of MarkEJohnson

Jamaica
Way Out West
Battle Cry
Heroscape Jandar's Oath (Kilts & Commandos)
Heroscape Jandar's Oath (Monks & Guards)
[listitem=2161032]Heroscape Jandar's Oath (Heroes of Nostralund)[/listitem]
Hansa
Rumis
Buy Low Sell High
Caravelas
Fire Bulls
Ingenious
Tabula Rasa
Origo
Ringgz
Rome
Sumeria
Wat'n Dat?!
Water Lily
Hey That's My Fish

Thanks for looking!

-Mark
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Wed May 30, 2012 5:28 pm
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BGTG 123 - Outdoor Boardgaming (with Dave Gullett)

Mark Johnson
United States
Santa Clarita
California
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The weather is great here in SoCal...but probably where you are, too, now that it's May/June. Do you ever combine our shared hobby and that glorious weather to play boardgames outside? It doesn't come naturally to me, and there are a number of games unsuitable for it, but many remaining that DO work. I've played boardgames outdoors a handful of times, and every time I wonder why I don't don't do this more often. That's what davebo & I talk about on the podcast.

Board Game: Hive
Board Game: Qwirkle
Board Game: ZÈRTZ

Besides traditional classics like chess, dominoes, or mahjong, what sort of games lend themselves to outdoor play? There are a few like Hive, Qwirkle, and ZÈRTZ that are just as robust as those classics. Then there others like Carcassonne, Ra, or Tigris & Euphrates that could probably play easily outside. I maintain that the real obstacles are cards, which so many games have, and wind, which even nice days may also have. Do you have a good solution for handling a draw & discard pile of cards in a light breeze? I don't.

Board Game: Carcassonne
Board Game: Ra
Board Game: Tigris & Euphrates



Here are some of the helpful Geeklists I researched before the podcast:
Get Out! Tell me how games do in the Outdoor Challenge
Games well suited for outdoor play
Indestructible Games - Second edition

Thanks for listening,
-Mark

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Tue May 29, 2012 4:00 pm
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Family gaming over Memorial Day Weekend

Mark Johnson
United States
Santa Clarita
California
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When my normal Friday night game group had to cancel, I thought I wouldn't be playing much of anything over the weekend. In fact, that wasn't true. My wife & daughter wanted to play a game with me on Friday night, and I tried something new. Does that happen to you? It's rare enough that they want to play a game, then I risk it all by springing something new on them instead of going back to one of their known favorites!

Board Game: Mondo

Actually, my daughter had played Mondo before, but it was new to my wife. I'd played just a couple times before (maybe all with my daughter, come to think of it). We played with the basic side boards (water borders) and basic game (none of the bonus scoring tiles). It was fun! Light & quick, but that's the idea. I'm looking for more titles that we can just pull off the shelf and play in a half-hour. In other words, it doesn't have to be a special night for games or anything. I'm a little worried, though, that the gameplay is both very repetitive, and requires spatial skills to do well. If so, that means over time the same person will win over & over, and the others will enjoy themselves less. The bonus scoring may even accentuate that. We're not there yet, though. Also, apropos of the podcast I'm editing, as long as I don't worry too much about well-loved (worn) pieces and resale value, this could be a good game to play by the pool in the summer. Hmm...

Board Game: Animal Upon Animal
Board Game: Qwirkle

As I'm trying to pare down my collection and liberate some much-needed storage space, I've given some of my best kids' games away. My own children are 18 and 16 years old now, while my nieces and nephews are in those elementary school years when titles like Mole in the Hole can be put to better use. In fact, one of my nephews is a clear gamer-in-the-making, so it felt great to send a bunch of my games over to him and my brother. (My own kids aren't like that, so it was something to see!) I didn't send away ALL of my kids' games, though, and this weekend I was glad I didn't. A young niece from my wife's side of the family came with other relatives for a few days, and we needed some boardgames to play together! We played Sorry! Sliders, but the real hit was Animal Upon Animal. We had another fun time with Qwirkle, only with the young one we just did it as a taking-turns puzzle, not keeping score. Maybe that sounds like there was no point, but in actuality it was a fun pastime.

-Mark
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Sun May 27, 2012 11:06 pm
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