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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Board games aren’t scary (and I don’t care!)

Lowell Kempf
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Halloween and monsters and horror are all great themes tor games. They are evocative and appealing. But one thing that board games that revolve around scary things struggle to do is actually be scary.

It’s absolutely not a deal breaker for me. Given the success of the genre, it’s clearly not a deal breaker for anyone else. In fact, it’s such a little deal, I almost never think about it.

The reasons are pretty obvious. The level of abstraction and control that a board game gives you dilutes the fear factor. The act of taking turns alone changes the tempo and adds enough control to make being scared tough.

(That does make me wonder if a horror-themed Escape: Curse of the Lost Temple could be honestly scary. There is a horror version that I haven’t tried. That might work! Real time makes everything scarier)

Honestly, if you want authentic chills down your spine, RPGs and Video Games seem to be the way to go, for opposite reasons. RPGs let you internalize the story while Video Games externalize the story.

And let’s be clear. Excitement is different than fear. Everything coming down to the wire in Arkham Horror is exciting. It’s not scary. But, really, I’ll take exciting over scary.

Even if a board game never gives me a jump scare, it’s still a great medium for Halloween. It’s a theme that everyone understands. And getting everyone at the table on the same page can be what makes a game experience work.
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Fri Oct 22, 2021 8:53 pm
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How ephemeral is a board game?

Lowell Kempf
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I have been thinking about board games as a disposable medium. It’s not actually the way I think they ideally should be. However, I have played a lot of Print and Play Roll and Write games. While I do laminate some of them, they are still, at least per individual board, disposable. (And some games require intricate enough drawing or writing that a dry erase marker just isn’t up for the job)

However, it might be disingenuous to automatically brand Roll and Writes as ephemeral. After all, I have the files and the ability to print the pages so I am in control of how ephemeral they are. And published Roll and Writes will cheerfully sell you additional tablets of pages or even have them available as downloads.

Actually, when I really start thinking of games as disposable, limited use items, I think Legacy games and Escape Room games may be a better topic point than Roll and Writes. I know that some Legacy games can continue to be played after the campaign is done but some cannot. My understanding of Escape Room games is that they are one-shots but I don’t actually know that since I’ve never played one.

And while my gut reaction to limited use games is negative (Board games should have infinite plays!) that isn’t a fair assessment. Dude, I have bought board games that have seen only one play or even none.

Instead, it makes more sense to use my movie ticket rule of thumb. Using a movie ticket as a way to assign value to two hours of entertainment. (And using second-run movie houses to skew the results is cheating)

Pandemic Legacy Season One plays two to four players for twelve to twenty-four hour-sessions. A two-player group that only plays twelve sessions is still coming out ahead by my movie ticket rule. And that’s the minimum value. Four players alone makes the value explode.

And, really, are either Legacy games or Escape Room games that different tuan D&D modules of old? How often are you going to run Steading of the Hill Giant Chief? (Tomb of Horrors is different. I knew someone who kept playing through it and taking notes so he could do better each time)

There are very few games that you are gojng to play dozens upon dozens of times. Treasure the ones that you find. But, for the most part, games wuth disposable elements have to be judged by how good they are, not how ephemeral they are.
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Fri Oct 8, 2021 2:57 pm
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I am convinced that Puerto Rico is NOT broken

Lowell Kempf
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When I’ll first seriously got into board games, it was generally accepted that Puerto Rico was the greatest game ever made.

Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration but back when woolly mammoths and sabre tooth tigers could be found in most backyards, Puerto Rico had a lot of prestige. As large and diverse as the gaming community has become (which is a good thing!), I don’t know if a game could hold such a central position again.

(Actually, that may be more of a statement of how provincial Boardgame Geek may have been, as opposed to any kind of statement on the actual real world of gaming)

Looking back, there are two things that strike me about my experiences with Puerto Rico. One is that there was allegedly an ideal strategy to play and that an inexperienced player would break the game, giving whoever sat to their left the win.

And I don’t actually think either of those things is really true.

Honestly, if Puerto Rico was solved, it would not have been nearly so successful or beloved. And with multiple paths to victory and the plantation supply being random, I don’t believe there can be one ‘perfect’ strategy. Still, I remember players on BSW who would quit games if they felt people weren’t playing ‘properly’

As for the inexperienced player ruining the game, any game where skill has matters and there’s interaction can be accused of that. I’ve certainly seen inexperienced players throw Knizia’s Modern Art or Sackson’s Executive Decision off more than I’ve ever seen it happen in Puerto Rico. Are poor players a problem or a convenient excuse? Different levels of skill is something you have to adjust for. Complaining about it is more a reflection of the one doing the complaining than the game.

What fascinates me about these complaints is that they didn’t seem to come from haters but from people who really loved Puerto Rico.

But the fact that I don’t think these criticisms hold water just makes me appreciate Puerto Rico more.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Sep 24, 2021 5:34 pm
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What is the actual value of stretch goals?

Lowell Kempf
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Magpie Games just finished up a Kickstarter for a licensed RPG about Avatar. (The Last Airbender/Kegend of Korea, not the ‘let’s see how many ideas we can steal from Poul Anderson’ one) As I understand it, they had a $50,000 goal and raised over nine million dollars. Is that a record? I can’t keep track of Kickstarter anymore.

A good friend commented on how tempting the Kickstarter was with all of the stretch goals. Even though he has never watched any version of the show, doesn’t really have much interest in it and doesn’t see himself running the game.

Which led to two us commenting that the extra value of stretch goals only has actual value if you’re actually ever going to use them.

The older and more cynical I get, the more I feel very cautious about stretch goals. All too often, I don’t even get a game on the table more than couple times, let alone enough to make any use of extra stuff. The Fear Of Missing Out that stretch goals creates is often a reality of missing nothing.

To be fair, there have been stretch goals that have turned out to have had value for me. For instance, the stretch goals for the Pack O Games Kickstarters were additional complete games. Which I did play and got value from.

Still, if stretch goals are the deciding factor for me, I probably shouldn’t back the Kickstarter.
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Wed Sep 8, 2021 6:52 pm
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Agricola is all about labor!

Lowell Kempf
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When thinking about what game to retire about for Labor Day, I thought about Agricola since it’s all about doing manual labor!

Agricola came out fourteen years ago… OH MY SWEET CATAN, I’M OLD! And that’s when Uwe Rosenberg stopped being the Bohnanza guy (a game I still totally love) and being a designer of games that cover medium-sized tables.

It’s been a while since I’ve played Agricola but that’s entirely due to time and opportunity and table space. I’d happily play it again. And from what I can tell, it may have had some revisions but it’s never gone out of print. But what is it that makes Agricola so nifty?

It uses a solid worker placement system. The different decks of cards give it vast variety and replay value. Later editions had adorable animal meeples. The game is a delightful work of game mechanics.

But I think an additional element helped Agricola go off like a bomb and has helped its long term success. It’s really easy to understand. Which is a more fun way of saying it’s accessible. Everything you do in the game makes sense. You are doing basic agricultural chores.

When I was more of a gamer snob, I used to have a meh opinion of theme and fluff. I thought it was just a way for Fantasy Flight to justify charging a lot for a bunch of plastic. But I now realize that these things can help you wrap your brain around a game and allow it to be more intricate. Agricola could theoretically be rendered as a total abstract but it would be not only less fun but also harder to understand.

Agricola. Maybe not my favorite Uwe Rosenberg game. Maybe not yours. But it is a good one. And you make your farm family labor. So it’s thematic for the holiday.

And happy Labor Day!
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Mon Sep 6, 2021 2:41 pm
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Limes tales Cities and makes it better

Lowell Kempf
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Limes might seem like Martyn F did a mashup of Take It Easy and Carcassonne. Which isn’t actually the case. It’s a refinement of his earlier mashup of Take It Easy and Carcassonne, Cities.

Short version: you are creating a four-by-four grid of tiles, creating a map. You are also playing meeples down to score specific parts of the map, Carcassonne-style.

Incidentally, the word Limes isn’t being used as a the citrus fruit but the Roman term for borders and border defenses along what would become Germany. So you are building a map of part of the Roman Empire and I got to learn a new definition of Limes.

So, everyone has an identical set of 24 numbered tiles, along with seven meeples. Someone randomly draws a tile and everyone places that tile. It will all seem familiar if you’ve ever played Take It Easy… or Karuba… or Criss Cross… or Rolling Realms. Wow, this has become a really common mechanic. You are forming a four-by-four grid so you won’t use all the tiles and you will end up defining the dimensions of the grid as the game goes on.

You can also either place a meeple on the tile you just placed OR move a previously placed meeple to an adjacent geographic feature.

The tiles are divided in four areas. They can be water, forest, city or watch tower. And all of them except for watch towers are doubled up on some tiles. And, Carcassonne-style, meeples score points in different ways depending on what they are are standing on.

Most points wins. Unless you’re playing solitaire. In that case, just try to do really well.

Okay. I really enjoy playing Limes. You have to be in the mood for a Take It Easy-style game and it is definitely a light game. But if that’s what you’re looking for, it’s a good choice.

Cities, back in 2008, was a big deal for me. Along with Wurfel Bingo, it was one of the first Take It Easy-style games I tried that wasn’t Take It Easy. And I still quite like it. But Limes is an improvement. You can score using all four types of terrain and each scoring method is distinct.

Now, I have only played Limes online (https://ori.avtalion.name/limes/) The one downside to the physical version is only has enough components for two players. At one point, I had three copies of Cities so I could play up to twelve people.

I had wanted to try Limes for years and it turned out to be well worth playing.
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Mon Aug 30, 2021 10:14 pm
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Choose Your Own Adventure as a deck of cards

Lowell Kempf
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A few months ago, I printed out and constructed the demo version of Choose Your Own Adventure: House of Danger. I have many fond memories of the line of books from back in the 80s. I was curious and isn’t the point of a demo to give you an idea how a game works?

Just to get this out of the way. I am not going to discuss the actual story at all. There will be no spoilers as far as that is concerned. This will just be about mechanics.

And as far as mechanics go, the Choose Your Own Adventure card game is just what it says on the tin. It is a game book broken down into cards. Noting more and nothing less.

The game consists of a story deck, a clue deck and a board to track the danger meter and the psychic scale. The story cards are the story text and basic decisions. You earn clue cards by skill checks against the current danger level or being high enough level on the psychic scale. The clue cards can be items, additional choices or actual clues.

While dice-based skill checks are new to CYOA as a series, they are the standard for most game book series (Fighting Fantasy, Lone Wolf, etc) so no points for innovation there. However, I do really like clue cards. They are a very convenient way of keeping track of inventory and they are an excellent way of implementing hidden choices. They are my favorite mechanical element of the game.

To be perfectly honest, the Choose Your Own Adventure card game absolutely fulfills its design mission statement. It absolutely captures the feel and the mechanics of the original books.

But, at the same time, I can’t say that I have any plans to buy the full game. There are two reasons for this and they are both completely baked in to the intrinsic design of the game.

First and by far most importantly, there isn’t a lot of replay value in the game. You go through the story and then you were done. Heck, there are even rules for going back if you get yourself killed before the end so you will make it through the story. (Which also captures the feel of the original books where you could just flip back to the page where are you made the bad decision.) I don’t mind limited replay value in a print and play game but it’s some thing I want to avoid if I’m actually buying a game.

Second, I don’t see it really functioning as a cooperative game. There isn’t a real functional reason to take turns. It is fundamentally a solitaire game, literally like reading a book. That is much less of a dealbreaker but I do prefer to make my actual purchases multi-player.

I think the game does a very good job of doing just what it set out to do. Yes, it is a simple system but that is what is needed in order to capture the feel of the original series. And I did have fun with the demo. However, it is not something that I am in the market for.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Sat Jul 17, 2021 12:12 am
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Lord of the Rings - The Confrontation rocks

Lowell Kempf
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While I got rid of Reiner Knizia’s Lord of the Rings (the cooperative one) and haven’t missed it, I have kept his Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation and can’t see myself ever getting rid of it.

I have never enjoyed Stratego. That’s on me, not Stratego. I just don’t have the patience for it. The play is too drawn out and meticulous for me. And I like Go and Chess!

But I really like LotR-Confrontation and Alex Randolph’s Geisters. Apparently, I need a smaller board! And, while I have played a _lot_ more Geister, I think LotR-Confrontation is the stronger game.

The basic concept of the game is that the light player is trying to get Frodo and the One Ring to Mount Doom and the dark player is trying to catch Frodo. So, it’s the FedEx delivery from Hell.

And, yes, it uses the Stratego mechanic that you can see what your pieces are but your opponent can’t. Shhhhh… It’s a secret.

So why does it rock?

First of all, the board is ridiculously tight. At the start of the game, every part of the board except the middle row is packed. The conflict and the mind games get going right from the start. The older I get, the more significant I think this is. The game cuts straight to the knife fight in a phone booth and that’s where the fun is.

Second, every single piece has a special power and it’s a different special power for each piece. The way that they interact is a huge part of the mind game’s that define the game.

Third, it’s a great example of asymmetrical conflict. Not only do the two sides have different goals, they have different strengths that compliment different styles. The light is a scalpel to the dark’s hammer. Doing well with one side doesn’t mean you can do the same with the other.

In short, there isn’t just one good design choice in LotR-Confrontation. There are bunch of them.

I commented that one of the reasons I got rid of Knizia’s cooperative LotR game that it abstracted things to the point where it wasn’t fun and was hard to follow. Confrontation can be accused of being pretty abstract but, mechanically, it all fits together super well. The game mechanics make sense. (Okay, I also think the design choices fit thematically but I can see how someone can argue with me about that)

I don’t actually have the deluxe version of the game, just the original one. And I’m nowhere near playing it out to the point where I’d need another set of characters. (I’m hoping someone has made a conversion kit since I like the compact size of the original game if I reach that point)

I am a big fan of River Knizia and many of his best games are built around a single, solid concept. Lord of the Rings: The Confrontation, though, is built around a bunch of them.


Originally posted at www.gnomeponderimg.com
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Wed Jul 14, 2021 9:22 pm
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Why I got rid of Knizia’s Lord of the Rings

Lowell Kempf
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Reiner Knizia’s Lord of the Rings was my introduction to the cooperative genre. I know that the genre actually dates back to at least the 1940s. While many older examples are children’s games, the original Arkham Horror is still thirteen years older than LotR. Still, at the time when I found Lord of the Rings, cooperatives were very much the exception to the rule. It’s been almost ten years since I culled it from my collection.

And, looking back… yeah, no regrets.

Back when I was trying to get it on the table, a friend described it as less of a game and more like a ritual that we had all gotten together to perform. And I think that’s both an amusing and appropriate description.

Knizia’s LotR is a tough game to beat but that’s not its problem. In fact, that’s its biggest selling point. (Although cooperative games having become more common makes losing to them easier for folks to accept) And it is physically cumbersome with multiple boards and pawns and decks of cards and such but that’s honestly not a big deal unless you are playing on a TV tray.

No, what really killed the game for me and for literally everyone I played with is that it abstracted the Lord of the Rings to the point where we couldn’t see the story and it felt aggressively non-intuitive. In fact, if I were to play it again now, I’d probably like it even less.

We only beat the game once. And that was by abusing the power of the One Ring as much as possible. Which feels kind of against the spirit of the game. (It was a race between finishing the game and corruption finishing us) Afterwards, one player said ‘Okay, we never have to play that again’ and he turned out to be right.

I did get two of the expansions but never had the interest to actually try and use them. Getting the game out of my collection didn’t give me any regrets. Maybe even some relief and definitely some shelf space.

It is a fascinating, maybe even brilliant design. But that didn’t make it enjoyable.


Originally posted over at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Jul 9, 2021 4:24 pm
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Hanabi - because I felt like writing about fireworks

Lowell Kempf
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It’s cheesy but I’ve decided that the Fourth of July would be a fun time to think about a game about fireworks. In this case, Hanabi. Which i think is actually about New Years but close enough

It’s actually been a while since I last played Hanabi but, for a while, it was in regular rotation as a two-player game for us. My sweet wife even made me a Hanabi-themed birthday cake one year. Hanabi won the Spiele de Jahres in 2013. And, from what I can tell, it’s remained in print and popular. So it’s doing well.

While the game is themed around fireworks, Hanabi is really about sorting cards into suites and rank order. As someone who has played a lot of different solitaire games over the last few years, I am amused at how many games have sorting cards as their base concept.

Really, just like folks used to say you could play a four-suited Lost Cities with a regular deck of cards, you could do a hack of Hanabi with a regular deck of cards and some sort of tokens. It wouldn’t be as pretty, though, which would make it less fun for a lot of people, including me.

As most of my readers know, Hanabi is a cooperative game. The clever bit is that you hold the cards backwards so you can’t see the faces but everyone else can. You can play a card, discard a card or give a hint on your turn. But there’s a limited number of hints in the game and, when they’re done, they are done.

The whole backward card thing is incredibly simple but it’s also incredible effective and clever.

Here’s the thing. By 2013, cooperative games had already gotten plenty of traction. (And I’m old enough to remember when Knizia’s Lord of the Rings was a bizarre oddity, even though it didn’t invent the genre. No by a long shot) At that time, folks had started complaining about Alpha Dog syndrome, when one player takes over and tells everyone else what to do. Hanabi made sure that that couldn’t happen. (And I have seen other games like SHH that have followed its example)

But, really, Hanabi stands on its own virtues, as opposed to in comparison. The game is intuitive in its play but it’s still tough to get a perfect play. It has a focus on communication and logic that will work for a lot of audiences, including non-gamers.

And I’ve just learned that, if the possibility of body language giving too much away, you can play online where limited communication is strictly enforced.

Hanabi. It’s a great game for the entire year.


Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon Jul 5, 2021 4:13 pm
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