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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Falling off the No-Buying wagon

Lowell Kempf
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I’ve been out of the habit of buying physical copies of games that it’s no longer a resolution or anything. I’ve either gotten out of the habit of buying games or gotten into the habit of not buying them.

So I surprised myself by picking up copies of Forbidden Desert and Choose Your Own Adventure: War With the Evil Power Master. Both were on clearance or it wouldn’t have happened.

Two things both games have in common is that that they are cooperatives that can be played solitaire and I have experience with both of them. So I’m still not willing to buy a game unless I already have some investment in it.

(PnP files clearly do not play by those rules for me)

And clearly, these two games are not in the same league. Forbidden Desert is a classic and considered by many to be the best of the Forbidden series. I’ve played it at conventions and liked it. Forbidden Island (which I have played a lot) can be compared to Pandemic (same designer as I’m sure you know) but Forbidden Desert is more it’s own beast.

The Choose Your Own Adventure games are really just game books broken down into decks of cards. And the mechanics that weren’t in the Choose Your Own Adventure books can be found in other game book series

But I had fun with the demo of House of Danger and I understand this one has more replay value. I think I will enjoy it as a RPG/adventure gaming. It’s not deep but I already know that.

I don’t think this is going to change my not-buying habits but o do think these two games will be well-used additions to our library.
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Fri Jun 17, 2022 8:01 pm
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The value and limit of In Hand games

Lowell Kempf
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Lately, I’ve been playing a lot of In Hand games. And by that, I mean even more than usual. For one reason or another, I just haven’t had a table handy.

(And yes, I can play a vast number of games, solitaire and otherwise, on devices. But it is a different experiences and I am convinced that manually playing an analog game brings other parts of the brain on deck)

This has led me to the twin revelations of 1) There’s a lot you can do with the In Hand format and 2) Wow, is it limited.

The Zed Deck is a zombie horror survival game that even has a rudimentary combat system. Flipword is a honestly solid word/party game. Palm Island is a good resource management game. Elevenses for One, um, is sorting cards but it’s good.

That’s just the first four In Hand games that came to my mind and each one is a pretty distinct experience. And I will argue each is a genuine game experience, not just an exercising in fidgeting. (I enjoy Down and Labyrinth Runner but I also think they are fidgeting activities)

But, while the Zed Deck does have a combat system, most zombie horror games have more developed, frankly better combat systems. And much more developed and immersive exploration systems. If I had the time and space and other players and a copy, I’d rather play Last Night On Earth, just as one example.

Palm Island is actually an impressively full Euro Game experience. You need to manage resources and improve your infrastructure to do even marginally well. But it pales in comparison to larger games that require a table.

One more example, just because it’s so crazy. The 2022 In Hand Contest has a tile-laying game called Little Dingy. But, apart from novelty, you can’t compare it to Carcassonne or Isle of Skye. Even if I am more fair and compare it to other micro tile laying games, Orchard or Sprawlopolis blow Little Dingy out of the water.

On the one hand, In Hand games have been developing a surprising range of gaming experiences. On the other hand, In Hand games are definitively not a replacement or substitute for games that use surfaces.

Post Script: While this doesn’t change the ultimate conclusion, if I used a clip board, pencil and some way of rolling dice, I could greatly increase the range of my table-free gaming. However, playing an In Hand game of Elevenses for One is a lot more discrete than playing a game of Yahtzee
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Fri Jun 10, 2022 8:46 pm
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The line between games and puzzles

Lowell Kempf
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I’ve been trying out Rove (but it will take some more plays before I’m ready to review it and decide if I want to try out the expansions) when I found myself asking what the line was between a puzzle and a solitaire game.

Now, my standard rule of thumb is that if you can do the same action and get the same result every time, it’s a puzzle. The Flipuzzle series, which I quite like, are pure puzzles because _they have a solution_ You could say they have one path to victory.

With that said, it’s fair to say that there is a blurry line between a puzzle and a solitaire game or some forms of cooperative game. I think it comes down to ‘Is there more than one valid option when you have to make a decision?’ Are there multiple paths to victory?

Relatively early in my PnP/solitaire exploration, I tried a couple of very, very simple nine-card games that just involved swapping cards on a grid to form a pattern. I found them relaxing but I couldn’t see them as games. For me, they were puzzles and very simple ones.

The 2019 Soliatire Contest had a varient of that idea called Solitaire Spellbook Swappjng where each card has a one-use movement power which were the only way to move cards. Still more of a puzzle than a game but there were actual choices.

And a game like Rove, with both more random elements and moving parts, feels very safe to call a game. And it’s still the tip of the iceberg. More and more games have solitaire modes, games with heft and depth and complexity.

The more unsolved the piece of media in question is, the more I feel it moves into the game category. I can see how someone can argue that any piece of media where you are playing against a system and not other players has puzzle elements.

In the end, I think the question matters more to designers than to players. While I am sure there are pure games and pure puzzles, I think viewing some works as blends is more useful.
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Sat May 28, 2022 5:06 pm
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Noch Mal/Encore keeps me calm

Lowell Kempf
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I have found that games involving patterns seem to be very decompressing for me.

Mind you, when I say patterns, I mean patterns being used blatantly. You can argue that every game is about patterns, just as you can argue that every game has some level of abstraction.

I have read that games revolving around pattern recognition (which is another catch all term) are used for medical therapy. Go, in particular, I remember being used to help ease issues with dementia. Or I’m misremembering and putting Go on a pedestal. It’s easy for me to do that.

With that in mind, I’ve noticed that I’ve been reaching for Noch Mal/Encore when I need to decompress. It’s short enough to serve as a mental coffee break but has a lot of pattern recognition to keep me engaged.

And when I am using NM/E as a mental coffee break, I always fall back on the starter sheet. I go through patterns I already know. It’s half decision-making and half zoning out.

On the other hand, when I actually want to use NM/E as a game, I go with one of the other six sheets. I wish that there was more color contrast (I’ve memorized the color locations on the starter sheet) but having a variety of sheets keeps NM/E engaging. It lets it me a way to zone out or really think, depending on what sheet I pick.

(I play it electronically. Otherwise, I’d mark the sheets as a workaround for my color blindness)

I have liked NM/E since I first tried it and I can’t even remember how I first heard about or who recommended it to me. But, as time has gone on, it has become on constant rotation more and more.

I play a lot of mental coffee break games for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is they are some of the easiest to make as print and plays. But there are a lot of flash in the pans. Finding one that consistently delivers over months and years of play, though, that is good.
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Fri May 20, 2022 5:23 pm
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Playing Chess with a second grader

Lowell Kempf
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I recently learned that our son has been learning about Chess in one of his classes. And after he learned that I learned, he asked to play a game with me.

He has the patience of an eight-year-old so I didn’t know how it would go. While I had to correct him several times (pawns and knights were particularly confusing for him) and I went so easy on him that even he could tell, we actually got through the game.

I won’t lie. I’d rather it be Go but it’s easier for me to see why Chess works better for young ones now.

Beyond the fact that the scale of Chess is much smaller than Go ( 64 spaces compared to 361 spaces and 32 pieces compared to theoretically 361 stones (I am pretty sure you can’t legally filled an entire Go board but I’m prepared to be proven wrong)), it’s easier to see the narrative of Chess than Go. Yes, the narrative of Go is much richer but it’s more abstract.

Each Chess piece having its own type of movement and it’s own name may have helped our son understand the flow of the game. I’m seriously wondering if Hive would be a good game to try out with him.

I don’t know if he’s going to ask for another game of Chess but I’m glad that we got this game in.
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Mon May 16, 2022 9:48 pm
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Love Letter as a classroom game

Lowell Kempf
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There are a couple of classes that I sometimes sub for where board games can be used for learning purposes. And, I honestly have more than enough material to last until the end of the school year, I still keep thinking about even more stuff.

And if part of the lesson is having the kids figure things out for themselves, having components that help teach the rules is something to look for.

One game that I have already been discussing using is Cunning Folk, the game that got me interested in Button Shy (and that’s an interest that has been very good for me. Button Shy is awesome for the casual PnPer) yYou can’t learn the game just by looking at the cards but you can learn a lot.

But another game that fits my needs (relatively short playing time, informative components, easy to learn) is Love Letter. That’s a game that you can practically learn just from the cards.

The individual decisions the kids would get to make are very simple. Two cards per turn and every card tells you just what it does. But every decision affects the game and you have to pay attention to what everyone else is doing. There’s a very small jump between learning the rules and making critical decisions.

I am reminded why Love Letter was a watershed event. It channels interaction and decisions is tiny, focused format. I don’t know if I will ever have the chance to use it in the class room but I am confident it would work there.
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Fri May 6, 2022 8:08 pm
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My April Gaming

Lowell Kempf
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April ended up being a busier month for gaming than I expected. It was still a busy month for life but some gaming fit in.

As I’ve written about elsewhere, I had a chance to run a class of fifth graders through 13 Sheep. We’ve since then discussed trying out Pandemic: Hot Zone and Cunning Folk in the classroom as well.

It’s certainly a different way of using gaming than I’m used to.

I also spent some time with the third playtest version of Palm Laboratory. I don’t want to write about the game until it’s actually published but it is definitely more than a reskin of Palm Island.

And I learned a couple Roll and Writes.

Dice BBQ is from the 11th Roll ans Write contest and is themed around Argentinian barbecues. The game uses one of the most basic formats of R&W. Roll dice and write numbers in boxes. You get to change a die once. Cook steaks, pour wine, make salads, lose points with smoke.

Dice BBQ made me happy. I wasn’t sure I’d be trying any new games in April. Dice BBQ was something I could print out one page and learn in a few minutes. It is very simple and doesn’t do anything new but the pieces do come together nicely. The artwork looking like it’s from a High Lights magazine really helps. I don’t think it has much replay value but I had fun.

Daddy Issues… Interesting game and I hate the name. We live in a world where you can’t count on anyone getting or appreciating comedic irony.

You play the dad who went out one day for cigarettes and never came back. It turns out you got lost and ended up fighting rabid dogs, zombies and werewolves.

The game is actually a set of tables that you roll on to draw a map and generate encounters. It very much feels like a Fighting Fantasy adventure since you have to teach health and inventory.

I am fascinated by Daddy Issues. I like the theme, even if I don’t like the name. It’s amusing and quirky. And I have enjoyed game book experiences.

BUT I rolled up a store where I could buy cigarettes almost immediately in my first two games. The random factors, both for long a game might last as well as how difficult it can be, are definitely issues.

I want to play Daddy Issues some more so I can fully experience the game, give it a proper review. I have to see how the good parts of the game weigh out against the bad parts.

Looking back, April worked out pretty well for gaming.
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Mon May 2, 2022 8:19 pm
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Musings about optimal play

Lowell Kempf
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I’ve brought up the concept of optimal play, recently. Which brings up two points: Is it desirable and is it possible?

What is optimal play? I’m going with the act of consistently making decisions that have the greatest likelihood of resulting in the destined outcome. Which is probably winning the game, since we are talking about gaming, but not necessarily.

Frankly, I think that’s a more nuanced definition than ‘Making the best moves to win’

When I think of optimal play as a concept, I often think of a scene from the manga/anime Hikaru no Go, which proves that the game of Go is more thrilling than a light sabre duel over a pit filled with shogoth. When Touya is forced to play three games simultaneously with his back turned, his joseki is strong enough that he can pull it off.

Joseki, as I understand it, is the equivalent of Chess opening moves but involve a lot more moves and deal with smaller percentages of the board. Because a Go board is a HUGE piece of board game real estate. The Hikaru no Go example isn’t realistic but it does give an example of how understanding a game leads to optimal play.

Go may be the perfect example of a game for optimal play. Perfect information and no random elements. Go is all about the skill and Go has been researched for centuries with no final conclusion in sight.

With most other games, I think there are three elements that make me question optimal play as a viable concept. Random elements. Multiple paths to victory. Variable desired results. (Which is not the same as multiple paths to victories but can be related)

Random factors are the least important element. I mean, seeing as how most games have random factors, they are just something you have to factor in. Optimal play doesn’t mean a game is solved. Unless a game is solved. Then it’s not a game anymore. It’s a puzzle.

And while winning is kind of the core concept for most games, the nature of winning can be more complicated. There may be more than one way to win. And interactions with everyone else at the table can get affect how and what you do.

Ultimately, I think optimal play is a loaded term. I’m not saying that folks shouldn’t do their best to play their best. However, as much as games are about winning and losing, the process and experience just isn’t that binary.
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Mon Apr 11, 2022 4:52 pm
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Rat Hot has a space in the back of my mind

Lowell Kempf
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I haven’t played Rat Hot that much but it’s one that I find myself referring back to a lot in my head.

That’s because it was either the first tile laying game I played where the tiles were allowed to overlap or it was the first good one I played. Anyway, it made an impression.

The game has thick, chunky tiles that are three by one so it’s like you are playing with itty bitty planks. I’ve seen one PnP file for the game that’s designed to turn a Jenga set into a Rat Hot set.

Which actually isn’t a crazy idea. One of the placement rules is that, while you can stack tiles in top of each other, you can’t have gaps underneath. Using Jenga tiles would definitely help make that an easy rule to track.

But, in all honestly, what makes Rat Hot stay stuck in my head is the sudden death rules. If you end your turn with three rats of your color exposed, you lose. Good day, sir, you get nothing. To be honest, if memory serves me correctly, it takes either bad luck or bad play for it to actually happen. BUT it does mean you can make moves that your opponent has to react to. In Go terms, atari. (As opposed to in video game terms where Atari means something quite different)

But, as I mentioned, for me, this was one of the first times I saw overlapping tiles. Since then, I have seen that mechanic enough that it’s not even remotely novel. And I am absolutely sure it wasn’t the first use of it either.

I also don’t think that Rat Hot represents an innovation point in game design. I’m pretty sure games like Micro Rome or Hanging Gardens would exist without it. I do wonder if it influenced HUE from the Pack O Game series.

Rat Hot isn’t one of my favorite Michael Schacht games. It doesn’t even make it into my top ten of his games. But it has survidd many purges and stayed in my collection.
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Fri Apr 8, 2022 11:49 pm
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I won’t let optimal play spoil my Catan

Lowell Kempf
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To gamers of a certain age, Catan is ubiquitous with entering the hobby. I don’t think that’s the case anymore. I think the options have grown so much greater that no single game draws people in.

(I do suspect that Dungeons and Dragons still holds that place for RPGs. But with the sheer number of exceptions and loopholes baked into every edition, after you’ve played D&D, you’re ready to take on almost every other system. It’s a useful starting point)

I have met people who put Catan on a pedestal and people who have nothing but disdain for it. I’m closer to the first group but I try not to have my glasses too rosé colored. (And apparently the game continues to sell just fine)

A big reason that I hold that Catan still hold up is that it does such a good job keeping all the players engaged and active in the game. The trading is intrinsic part of player interaction.

But…

I’ve been told by multiple competitive players that tournament-level players in Europe almost never trade. That they consider trading to be a very weak, desperation move.

So… am I wrong? Is what I feel is one of Catan’s strongest points contrary to optimal play?

Well, I’m prepared to accept that that is a reasonable argument. But I’m going to play the social card.

Catan is a family-weight game for a family audience. And under those circumstances and conditions, trading and interaction is good.

So there.

I’ll save the optimal play for if I ever get back into Go.
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Wed Apr 6, 2022 10:21 pm
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