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A Gnome's Ponderings

I'm a gamer. I love me some games and I like to ramble about games and gaming. So, more than anything else, this blog is a place for me to keep track of my ramblings. If anyone finds this helpful or even (good heavens) insightful, so much the better.

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The issues of Micro RPGs

Lowell Kempf
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Over the last few years, I have looked at a decent number of micro RPGs. Those aren't just RPGs that are designed for one-shots but ones that take up only a few pages. I often discuss them with friends, including some who are really only interested in longer, deeper games.

One of those recent conversations really hammered home to me how micro RPG's are odd genre, one that is more defined about format than anything else.

Seriously, while micro RPGs are all minimal rule systems, minimal rule systems don't mean micro RPG. Baron Munchausen has two pages of rules but it has very a hundred pages on setting, theme and tone. It is designed for light, short one-shots with minimal preparation but it's not a micro RPG.

Let's be honest, when a role playing game is only a few pages long, it is impossible for it to really discuss setting or gaming philosophy or anything more than the bare bones. And sometimes... okay, most of the time, that's really not enough.

The ultimate goal of a micro RPG is that you should be able to pull it out if your picket, slap it down in front of people who have never seen it before and have a game going in five minutes.

I have seen some that do pull that off. The Name of God, which is even laid on a set of cards for easy transport, is one. But most just don't have enough meat. To be painfully honest, I have read two or three dozen of them in the last three years and there are only three or four that I seriously want to get on the table. And I am obviously part of their target audience.

But, I don't think that's entirely a bad thing. Even if I don't view them as games to play, that doesn't mean they aren't interesting thought exercises. I get a lot of fun out of looking at them in experiments in game mechanics. And it is really easy to and one to a friend, see 'here, read this', and have a conversation going in five minutes.

A great example is A Flask Full of Gasoline. It is an absolute hoot to read and I have shared it with a lot of my friends. Really, anyone who might even be slightly interested. And I would never, ever play the game since it includes rules for drinking gasoline. Not the characters. The players. But, man, have I had some fun conversations about it.

Let's be honest. I am going to keep on reading micro RPGs and I am going to keep on commenting on them. Because it is fun and they give me a quick RPG fix and because they do bring up ideas worth discussing.

Heck, how many full-size RPG's am I going to play? Really, when you think about what a micro RPG has to pull off, I am lucky to have found ones like the Name of God or Keeton's Journey that I think would be really good to play.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Sat Mar 25, 2017 12:24 am
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It is nice when the computer keeps me from cheating

Lowell Kempf
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I keep on telling myself I am going to teach someone Lines of Action and play a game of it face-to-face.

However, for years now, I've just kept playing it online at Super Duper Games. In fact, even when I am taking a break from all the other games on that site, I usually have a game of Lines of Actions going.

And part of the reason is that Super Duper Games will keep me from accidentally cheating. (To be fair, another part is I can _always_ find a game of Lines of Action there)

You see, while Lines of Actions' rules are so simple I can explain them in the three sentences (1. You win by connecting all your pieces. 2. A piece can move in any direction but only the exact number of spaces as the pieces in that line. 3. You can only jump over your own pieces but landing on an opponents piece captures it.), it is still easy to mess up moves. While I am much better at it, I still occasionally miscount moves.

Hey, I said that the rules were simple. The play can get pretty complex.

While there are a number of drawbacks to playing online, one benefit is that it can keep you from accidentally cheating. And with some games, abstracts in particular it seems, it can be easy to make an illegal move without realizing it.

I remember getting Quads, a pre-GIPF game by Kris Burm, and playing in a series of games with a friend. It's a super simple game but we kept on realizing that we were making illegal plays without either of us noticing. I eventually got rid of the game because, well, it wasn't GIPF quality and it was too easy not to catch mistakes.

Having said that, I am probably being lazy and unfair to Lines of Action. After all, the whole count the number of pieces rule is also in Ramses and I have had no problems teaching or playing that. Heck, now that I've said it, I know I want to make a new set of Ramses via print and play.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Mar 24, 2017 8:49 pm
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When do the choices become the same over and over again?

Lowell Kempf
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I had been planning on continuing my musings on rondels with Province, which uses perhaps the smallest and simplest version of what might qualify as a rondel. However, replaying it against the AI to refresh myself on it made my brain go in a different direction.

I like Province. It is neat how it fits resource management and special powers into such a small package. When a small deck of cards is the basic format of micro games, it was cool seeing one that breaks out of that mold.

But... Province has some issues. I can get around the fact that it sure seems to have a first player bias by saying play the game twice and add up the scores. However, there are some serious replay issues.

Games of Province tend to play out the same, despite random bonus goals. And part of that is because of the intrinsic design of the game. Three of the eight buildings require prerequisite buildings. Which means things are going to get built in order. With only eight buildings total, that leads to predictable play.

And, let's be honest, any building which gives you an extra worker is particularly desirable so the three buildings that let you do that are going to be prime. If the first player doesn't build the camp on the first turn and get an extra worker right off the bat, that seems like cutting your own hamstrings.

And, in general, replay value and formulaic play is a big concern when it comes to micro games. A small number of components with a short playing time means games are going to have fewer choices and can mean fewer options with those choices.

Which doesn't mean being a micro game is a death sentence for long-term play. I have owned Pico Two for close to a decade and it has regular play while being just eleven cards. Games that have a string metagame elements, where the play each other, like Love Letter or Coup, also seem to have strong replay value.

(And, since I am an unabashed fan of Pack O Game, I'd say the variable set up most of the games has continued to give them new life in my experience. Not all of them (sorry, TKO) but enough that I think I will keep on getting serious value from those tiny games. I'll have to keep in playing them to be sure but I do want to keep on playing them)

Which opens up another question. How many times do you have to an a game for it to be worthwhile? How many times does it have to challenge you or entertain you? I admit that, since I've gotten into print-and-play more, it's easier for me to take a chance at a micro game since there's less investment. But it is still a big question. It is fun to dabble but you also want a foundation of strong games in your library.

I am still enjoying Province and I've definitely gotten my investment's worth out of it. I fear, in the long run, it may turn out to be more of a brave experiment than a diamond in the rough. But, no regrets.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Mar 22, 2017 11:20 pm
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A game I might play with D&D

Lowell Kempf
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I have said that all you need (or sometimes should) to create your D&D character's personality is two quirks and one motivation. The idea is to have enough of a framework to play the character but have it open enough to adjust to how the campaign goes.

In many ways, the micro-RPG Spirits in the Night feels like taking only that and seeing where it goes.

Part of the Indie Megamix Mixtape, SiN is about a group of friends meeting one last time around a campfire before all going their own ways. It isn't explicitly about graduating from high school but you'd have to modify the game to make it about something else.

The players create a group of five characters, picking Who (their role in the group), Wish (motivation) and Future (what they plan to do after this last night) from lists. You draw cards from a regular deck of cards to determine relationship strengths between characters, which can be negative.

During the game itself, players take turns choosing a character and having them interact with another character. You play out the scene by playing blackjack
with the end result changing their relationship. Other players can step into to play characters. Jokers mean an outside party has disrupted the campfire. Play through the deck twice and then give everyone an epilogue.

The one mechanical thing I like about Spirits in the Night is that it is a GM-free system that is an ensemble all the way through. Not only does no one own any of the characters, no one ever takes on the role of temporary game master. That doesn't necessarily make it a brilliant design but I do admire how thoroughly it breaks the paradigm of RPGs.

At first, Spirits of the Night didn't interest me as more than an intellectual exercise. Then I realized that it describes the basic origin of the heroes of the lance from the Dragonlance Chronicles.

At that point, I thought that if you adjusted the lists for Who, Wish and Future a little, I can see playing a game of Spirits of the Night to set up a campaign (D&D or otherwise). Play the game, have people choose characters, roll them up, and start the campaign ten years later. Everyone starts off with a shared background and connections.

I'm not interested in playing Spirits of the Night as a standalone game. However, I think it would be a really great tool to set up a D&D campaign.

Originally posted at www.gnomekin.com
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Wed Mar 22, 2017 6:30 pm
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Around the windmill with Finca

Lowell Kempf
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One of my first exposures to a game that uses a rondel was Finca. At least I think it uses a rondel. At any rate, it's a game that I have continued to play over the years and I doubt I'd ever let it leave my collection.

In Finca, you are competing fruit farmers Mallorca. (By the way, is never heard of Mallorca before this game. It's a Spanish island in the Mediterranean) I thought Finca meant windmill but it actually means a plot of land. You will be using a windmill though, moving your workers on it in order together fruit and donkey carts to deliver that friend.

The windmill is the absolute centerpiece of the game. Every blade (which are randomly placed at the start of the game so every time is different) has a specific fruit on it. Players have farmers on the blades, moving along the windmill to harvest fruit, just like no agricultural system in history ever.

On a turn, you can move one of your farmers clockwise on the windmill. The farmer moves exactly many spaces as farmers on that blade. Then they collect as many of the fruit on the blade they land on as the number of farmers were there. It's all very Mancala. And not the first time I've seen Mancala used in more modern games (Emerald by Steffan Dora comes to mind) but it works really well here. Passing the 'equator' of the windmill will earn you donkey carts which you use to complete fruit orders, which are how you get points.

Oh, and if a particular fruit or a cart isn't available in supply, everyone returns that item to supply before the player who would earn any gets some. I think that rule is awesome. I've played with too many people who hoard as a strategy so it's nice to see it punished.

I am leaving out different bonus tiles and special actions. But you get the basic gist of the game, which is moving your farmers Mancala style in order to get produce.

Finca is a nice looking game with pretty wooden fruit. It has some interesting mechanics and it plays out in under an hour. And it's also remarkably brutal.

Yeah, this colorful and family weight game hides under its friendly exterior a stiletto just waiting to slide in between your opponents' ribs. The set up is random but the only hidden information is the stacks of fruit orders. The movement of the farmers and the collection of the fruit can be calculated out.

And I have seen it happen. The first time it happened to me and got me skinned alive, it was a revelation. While Finca doesn't have any direct conflict, it's easy to undercut sales as well decimate folks holdings with the hoarding rule.

Yeah, any economic game should give you the chance to outcompete the other players but Finca's market is particularly tight between the power of carts to instantly deliver and the tight restrictions on supply.

And the combination of simple rules, the potential for serious strategic play and razor sharp markets is why Finca has stayed a part of my collection and gotten regular play. I keep finding new depths of play.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon Mar 20, 2017 9:48 pm
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Gaming with the Grandparents

Lowell Kempf
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My parents came to visit us for a week. Well, they really came to see their grandson but they had to see the parents as well And, while they aren't gamers, my mom and dad know they can't visit me without playing some games.

Dad and I got into a series of games of Pentago one night and all of us got in a couple games of Marrakech when the grandson went to bed early.

After all these years, I have a pretty good idea of what kind of games my parents will enjoy. Abstracts with relatively simple rules but room for depth. Marrakech was bending the rules a bit but I knew it would work well.

I was late to the party with Pentago. A five-in-a-row game where you rotate a quarter of the board each turn, I don't consider it to be as good as the GIPF series or Hive (Pentago just isn't as deep) Which isn't to say it isn't good. Pentago is very good and super accessible. It always been a hit when I've taught it.

I bought Marrakech in a whim and everyone in the group I was in was surprised by how good it is. You move a shared pawn across the board and place carpets down. You have to pay if you land on someone else's carpet. Simple rules with surprisingly nasty play.

It's not a revelation that games that are good for non-gamers can be fun and fulfilling games for those of us in the hobby. Ticket to Ride would hardly be such a hit if that wasn't true. But it is good to always have some on hand.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon Mar 20, 2017 9:44 pm
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Confession: I don't get rondels

Lowell Kempf
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One of my failings as a gamer is that I've never really "gotten" rondels as a concept. I don't mean I've never played a game with. rondel because I've played a number of them. And I understand how each individual rondel works in the games I've played. I just have never grokked the rondel as a unified concept.

A rondel is a circular track where each space represents a different option. Players choices are restricted by having to move around the rondel, which means players are restricted from making the same choice over and over again. A key element to a rondel, as I understand it, is that it is a cycle. The choices are in a specific order. So a game like Puerto Rico or Alfred's Wyke where you simply can't take the action that the last player did doesn't count.

With some games that are considered rondel games, the rondel seems to be about gaining resources like Finca while others are choosing actions like Santiago de Cuba. One game that I'm not sure counts as a rondel game, Vikings, the circle is just price control for the market.

My problem might come the fact that there seem to be two definitions for rondel. One is for games that use cycles of actions or resources. The other definition is for games that are part of a specific series by the designer Mac Gerdts. (I don't know if he coined the term or if he set out to make a series of games using rondels or if the series was declared after he made a bunch of game using them)

Which might be part of my problem in a couple different ways. I haven't played any of those games. In fact, the only Gerdts game I played was one play of Princes of Macho Picchu. Although Antike Duellum is on Yucatá so this might give me the push to learn it.

So, on the one hand, I haven't played the games that helped define the concept of rondels. And on the other hand, the term have been overused too broadly.

Not grokking rondels hasn't hurt my experiences as a gamer but it does sometimes make me feel like I've missed something crucial. At the same time, Boardgame Geek doesn't list it as an official mechanic so I might not be alone.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Mar 17, 2017 7:30 pm
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Bridges to a crafting project

Lowell Kempf
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So far, 2017 has been busy enough that I really haven't gotten around to making many print-and-play projects. However, when I saw Bridges to Nowhere, I knew I was going to be making it. Preferable before April

In theory, Bridges to Nowhere fits into a niche that I really enjoy, a quiet, low conflict two-player game that would be mellow and relaxing. Morels or Lost Cities are examples of these kinds of games.

Bridges to Nowhere is a micro game for two players where you draft cards that show bridge sections to build your own bridges. The artwork, both minimal and atmospheric, is lovely. Makes me want to reread Johnathan Livingstone Seagull.

And on paper, it looks like the kind of game we would have fun with. But I have concerns that the pool of cards will prove to be too small. That getting the right cards or even card might swing the game.

But guess what? The game is four sheets of cards. Between printing, laminating and cutting, it will take me less than a half hour to make it, even with a three-year-old's help. It will cost me next to nothing to find out if it's any good so I am going to find out.
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Wed Mar 15, 2017 10:07 pm
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Okay, I will rank the Hip Pocket line

Lowell Kempf
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I had been planning on making this just a response to someone asking me about ranking the individual games in Cheapass's Hip Pocket Game line. But my response ended up getting so long that I decided to just make it a separate blog entry.

So, here's a ranking and commentary on the Hip Pocket Game Line.

1. Light Speed - it's a real time game of slapping down cards that represent space ships with shields and lasers that you trace to see if they hit anything. It's not the first or only game of its kind but it's the best I've found so far. In large part because it is so stripped down and simple while still feeling like a space battle. When I first played it, it felt like cheating to be so easy but so thematic.

I didn't realize there was a revised version called Stellar Conflict, which adds faction powers, until someone commented on it in my last blog post. I'd be willing to try it but part of the appeal of Light Speed is it's raw simplicity. Adding complexity and time to the scoring part of the game might be a game breaker for me.

2. The Very Clever Pipe Game - a tile laying game of connecting pipes and collecting the cards that make closed pipelines. This is easily the game I played the most, because it is so solid and requires nothing but the cards. It works well because it tosses out everything but the fundamentals. It misses being number one because it's in a more crowded field of tile laying, connection games. These days, HUE takes its place in my bag. Still, I'd never turn down a game.

3. Agora/Camden - creating a Roman market place with special events to spice things up until someone wins by earning enough money. This has some really weird placement rules that restrict how cards can connect to form larger stands but there isn't restrictions on how you place stands. I've never seen another game quite like it and it does a good job being different and and unique.

4. Nexus - you place cards in a basket weave pattern and claim intersections to control paths. When I first played Nexus, I really liked it. It was one of my first area of control games. But time hasn't been as kind to it as some the games earlier on the ranking. Not a bad game but not sparkly any more.

5. The Big Cheese - the token auction game in the line, themed around corporate rats completing projects. The biggest twist in the game is that the value of the completed project is determined by a die roll. While GEM is my choice of quick auction games, the Big Cheese would be interesting to revisit. I've played a lot of auction games since the Big Cheese and it would be interesting to revisit.

6. Steam Tunnels - you lay down tiles to create a maze of tunnels with players claiming tunnels whose value will be determined by their end caps. Okay, it's been so long since I've played it and it left so little an impression, I can't remember what I thought. Which is not a recommendation.

7. Cube Farm - a tile laying game where you build a map of an office floor where you try to get the good stuff like the copier and the exit close to you and the bad stuff like the Vice President far away. I did not have a great impression of it but, you know, I remember it. And I've been in a lot more cubicles since then. I'd revisit it to see what I think now.

Games that got left out:

I swear the Big Idea had a Hip Pocket edition but I can't seem to find any proof of that. Right group, decent party game.

And, as I've mentioned elsewhere, I haven't played Safari Jack or Timeline. And, revisiting the Hip Pocket Game line, I really need to play Timeline. A time travel game where the maze of time lines constantly shifts sounds like a lot of fun.

I personally own all these games but a good chunk of them of them are available as free print and plays on Cheapass's website and I'm sure can be printed on demand at sites like Drive By Cards.

http://cheapass.com/free-games/


Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Sun Mar 12, 2017 3:45 pm
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My stepping stone of Hip Pocket games

Lowell Kempf
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Wandering down memory lane has brought me to the Hip Pocket line of games, a line of games that Cheapass produced that were smaller than their usual games but better than a lot of them.

I played them quite a bit in between getting back into board games with Settlers of Catan and Puerto Rico and Fluxx and getting serious about building a library of games. They were a big part me testing the water with my toe before diving headfirst into the deep end.

Every single game is a little deck of cards in a plastic baggy and most of them are tile laying games. At the time, they cost between four to six dollars so it was easy to get a little library going. The games in the Hip Pocket line were simpler and more solid than most of the other games in the Cheapass catalog at the time.

Over the last few years, as I've become less of a game snob, I've come to appreciate Cheapass's designs more and more. Some of the games that have come out in the last few years have been good and well aimed at the 'causual' audience. But I really believe the Hip Pocket line are some of the best games they made.

The best of the Hip Pocket line, which I'm saying are The Very Clever Pipe Game and Light Speed, I have played more times than I can count, particularly since I wasn't keeping track of my plays back then. I'd honestly play any of the ones I've played again without a problem, even Cube Farm, which I thought was just okay.

Confession time: I have not yet played either Safari Jack or Timeline. I may never play Safari Jack but I do want to eventually play Timeline. It is probably the heaviest game in the lot, which was heavy when Fluxx was one of primary games, but it's probably light to me now. Plus, it looks like pretty good.

Small and short but punchy and well designed. The Hip Pocket line was a good way for me to edge into collecting games. And, while I have other games I now carry everywhere, they still hold up really well.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Mar 10, 2017 8:08 pm
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