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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Unsurmountable: it’s you versus that mountain

Lowell Kempf
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Unsurmountable is the third game in Scott Alme’s/Buttonshy’s Simply Solo series. For me, a work really earns its series label when it hits three works so good on them.

The game, like all of the games, is very simple. You are trying to build a mountain out of the cards with a path that runs from the bottom to the top. (For the sake of clarity, I should mention it’s a two-dimensional mountain)

You have eighteen cards and nothing else. No dice or tokens or such. Seventeen of the cards are mountain cards that show paths and a special action. The other card is the rescue helicopter with a one-time ability to put one card from camp/your hand at the bottom of the deck.

Shuffle the mountains cards and deal out four or five in a row. (The number depends on the difficulty level) You can either add the first card to the mountain, which will be a step-pyramid, or use the special power on any of the other cards. Draw back up and repeat. If you form a path to the top of the mountain before you run out of cards, you win!

Unsurmountable has five levels of difficulty, which is a very good design choice. After you get to know the deck, the game becomes dramatically easier. So the game needs the extra challenges to keep it interesting. I view the second level (four cards in your hand) as the base game with level one as a tutorial.

The worst thing I can say about Unsurmountable is that I still like Food Chain Island better. Scott Almes and Buttonshy started out the series with a very strong game in Food Chain Island.

Unsurmountable is a micro game that is designed to be played in ten minutes or so. It is not going to be Gloomhaven or Agricola. However, within the framework of its design expectations, it does very well. Mechanically, it is intuitive and easy to understand but the choices are legit. Sometimes you get the mountain. Sometimes the mountain gets you.

Not everyone is looking for a solitaire micro game. But, if you are, Unsurmountable is worth looking at.
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Tue Dec 21, 2021 4:43 am
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Looking at the 18-Card I Am Lynx

Lowell Kempf
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I Am Lynx is a fairly significant game for me. It wasn’t the first in-hand game I saw or played. However, it was the game that got me really interested in the genre and the game that made me hunt down Palm Island.

The game itself has you create a landscape out of four cards with the draw deck held sideways. One of the cards will always be your lynx, who moves through the wilderness. Cycle through the four seasons without being killed by hunters and that’s the game.

There’s honestly not much to the nine card version of the game. After a couple games to get to know the rules and the way the game works, it’s really just a walk in the woods. But I have gotten a surprising amount of play out of it over the last few years. It’s more of an exercise in relaxation than a game but sometimes that’s what I want.

I have now finally tried the 18-card version. I had been initially thrown by a card that had arrows on it. That turned out to be for saving your place if you needed to stop playing and didn’t have anything to do with actually playing. (Okay, as a beta, there is some fuzziness in the rules in general)

While I Am Lynx is still no Palm Island and 18 cards (really 17 cards since one of them is a bookmark in case you want to stop for a while) is still a micro game, the longer version stretches the game to the point where it feels more like a game rather than a meditation. (Not that there is anything wrong with a meditation in nine cards)

There are more hunters. Hunting for food is _slightly_ more complicated. There are rules about shelters I _think_ I understand.

But what really makes the longer version of the game better is just that it is longer. In the nine card game, you cycle through the seven cards that form the draw pile so fast that you can makes threats (ie hunters) go away easily. A fifteen card draw pile is big enough that you actually have to deal with stuff.

I Am Lynx’s greatest strength is that it gives you an environment to play with. Seriously, there are other in-hand games that give you more choices to make. But the walk in the woods is enough for me to enjoy it.

I Am Lynx’s real importance to me is it got to me to go find honestly better games. But I still like it enough to occasionally play it. And the bigger version is definitely better.

https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/1965957/wip-i-am-lynx-18-ca...

(I couldn’t find a place to comment on this where it felt like it fit but both versions were designed for contests but never actually entered. I believe that means they are effectively unfinished betas. They are pretty fun for games in that state)
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Mon Nov 29, 2021 4:44 pm
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Squarcles- where minimalism makes it work

Lowell Kempf
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I’ve been poking at a tiny game called Squarcles. It’s another game from this year’s One-Card Contest. You need four dice (ideally two white and two black but any two colors can work) and some way of keeping score so it’s pretty minimal.

It’s a speed puzzle game. The one-card part is a double sided card with a grid of interlocking black and white circles and squares.

Each turn, roll the dice and set aside the one that is the farthest from you. The three remaining dice define the elements you’ll be looking for. Odd numbers represent circles and even numbers represent squares. Black and white are black and white.

Flip the card over and everyone races to find a symbol on that side that has all the elements of the dice. First person to put their finger on a working symbol gets a points. Eight turns is a game and most points wins.

At first, since there are shapes inside shapes, I thought the actual values of the dice were an element. Nope, just even/odd and black/white. Which, to be honest, that makes the game workable.

The word that really comes to mind with Squarcles is functional. All of the parts work. The second word is portable. This isn’t a game I’d schedule. It’s for waiting for people to arrive or the food to get to the table. It’s probably he hilarious at a bar with drink players.

If I’d have had it way back when my collection fit in a backpack and was built around playing at coffee shops, Squarcles would have done well. It’s a pleasant little mental exercise.

But what Squarcles really does is make me think of Ricochet Robots and Riciichet. Those were two of the first timed puzzle games I intentionally tried. (Boggle is something that just happens to people. Good game but there is a cultural osmosis thing going on)

I still think of Ricochet Robots as one of the best examples of a timed puzzle game. But just about everyone I played it with didn’t like it. I couldn’t justify its space on the shelf. I do sometimes play it online or play Ricochet Pyramids, a Looney Pyramid tribute.

Ricochet (also published as Leonardo and Picus) was a deck of cards. The puzzles were finding the path created by five random cards. It’s honestly so-so but just being a deck of cards has kept in the collection.

So… times puzzles are very casual in my gaming life and smaller size work better. So Squarcles should do okay.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Nov 19, 2021 8:28 pm
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So I guess I got a sneak peek at Flipuzzles

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I had been planning on writing about my PnP experiences with Thin Cube and the rest of the Flipuzzle collection that has currently been developed. However, the files are no longer public because Buttonshy is planning on publishing them.

Still, even if they aren’t currently available, the system/family is an interesting one.

Flipuzzles aren’t actually games, at least as I define a game. They are puzzles with set solutions. With that out of the way, they are decidedly interesting puzzles.

Okay. Let me see if I can explain how they work. Each puzzle is a two-sided card. While the exact details and particular rules vary depending on the puzzle type, they all have this basic formula. They all involve moving on a grid. When you move on the grid, you flip the card and you will be in your new position on the grid on the other side. Same coordinates. Different side.

And here’s the part that can be the best and worst part of Flipuzzles. The card is the only component. You have to mentally keep track of where you are on the grid. That makes the puzzles incredibly portable and convenient. But that makes it easy to lose your place. Well, at least if you’re me.

This actually pushes the games out of the fidget department and into the cerebral territory. I actually have to really concentrate to work on the puzzles. Which isn’t a flaw. They are just a different kind of mental exercise than I went in expecting to see.

I do want to highlight the Thin Cube puzzles. Thin Cube won best overall game in this year’s One Card PnP Contest. It actually translates the idea of a Rubik’s Cube into a single card. There is a lot of puzzle packed into the medium. Unfortunately, between having a black-and-white printer and being so color blind that even the colorblind friendly palate is hard for me anyway, it’s extremely hard for me to parse.

As I understand it, the Flipuzzles will serve as Buttonshy’s game of the month. I think they will be perfect for the format. Each puzzle is self-contained as a singly card, make them easy as both a mailing and a PnP.

Between this ans FlipWord, I’ve enjoyed everything I’ve seen from D. Teuber. I’m going to have to look at Word Trax.


Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Nov 12, 2021 3:25 pm
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Such an organized dragon horde!

Lowell Kempf
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Lockpicks was the game that broke my pause on the Legends of Dsyx series. It’s not like I got bored with the series. Theres just so much out in the PnP play world.

Okay, here’s the usual spiel: it’s a PnP, R&W solitaire. You make it yourself. You roll dice and write stuff down. Only one person gets to play at a time.

The game is about picking the locks in the chests in a dragon’s horde. Because this dragon isn’t like Smaug and just leaves stuff lying around. They are apparently type A and hyper organized.

The actual gameplay is quite simple, particular compared to other Legends of Dsyx games. Each chest is a grid with circles in certain spots. There are four tiers of chests and the higher tiers are more complexity grids.

You have a pool of five dice and each pip type is a different kind of movement. You need to draw a line on the grid with end points in each circle and finally on the lock at the bottom. You then get to roll for a treasure on a table for that particular tier of chest.

One of the most interesting design choices is that all of the dice manipulation comes from the first two tiers of chests. The last two are just points. That gives a mechanical reason to start with the simple chests. Oh and loot is points.

There’s an hour glass track that your check off as you either refresh your dice pool or open chests. But the game doesn’t have to end when you run out of hour glasses. You can keep playing but you automatically lose if you roll a one.

Compared to every other game I’ve played in the series (which is over half of them at this point), Lockpicks feels less intricate than other Legends of Dsyx games. It doesn’t feel as unique. At the same time, I definitely had fun playing it and would cheerfully play it some more. In fact, I might recommend it over other games in the series because it’s particularly easy to explain.

Lockpicks is the least representative of the series in my arrogant opinion. It’s not as thematic as the other games and it’s mechanically simpler. However, it’s mechanically solid. It is fun and accessible.

Roll and Write solitaires are a pretty niche genre. You aren’t going to find your next Agricola there. But Lockpicks was a surprisingly good use of the medium.
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Wed Oct 6, 2021 7:06 pm
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Limes tales Cities and makes it better

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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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The Count of Nine is a fun nine cards

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If you’re even just casually into PnP games (which, since I’m a lazy PnPer, is really where I’m at), you’ve heard of Count of Nine. It’s a Euro in just nine cards. No dice or cubes involved.

The game is all about infrastructure building. You are trying to build a big building and that is going to take resources and smaller buildings.

The cards are double sided and orientation matters. When they are in your deck, they are sideways. When you build a card, it goes upright in your tableau. When they are sideways, the resource on the top of the middle is the active resource.

You slide cards and flip them in order to expose resources and potential building to build. When you run through the deck, you can leave the deck unchanged, rotate the whole deck, reshuffle it or rotate just one card. All this can give you access to different resources.

The game ends when either there are no more possible moves OR you choose to end it. Your score is based on the buildings you built MINUS how many rounds you played. So there can be a reason to stop early.

It took me two tries to figure out the game. While the sliding and flipping was kind of different, what needed to click in my head was how the cards interacted. For one thing, you need a crew to build anything. At my current understanding of the game, building a tavern to get guaranteed access to a crew once a round is important. And some buildings require smaller buildings so you can’t build a different building on that card.

Okay. I definitely enjoy Count of Nine. I think it’s fun and well designed. It gives me a legitimate Euro experience in five, ten minutes with just nine cards. After a couple learning hiccups, the game becomes intuitive so you can just shuffle and go.

I do sometimes wish there were more cards. The game can sometimes feel formulaic, particularly if you play it a few times in a row. But the game is well balanced as it stands and adding more cards would make the game less tight.

The Count of Nine is one of those Print and Play games that I would say, if you have the slightest interest, make it and try it. It will be worth the work. It’s not perfect but it’s a pretty cool nine cards.


Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon Aug 23, 2021 8:18 pm
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Flipword - my new go to pocket word game

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Flipword is the most recent nine-card word game I’ve looked at. It’s not a huge field but I’ve seen at least five of them so there’s an interest there, at least for designers. And, to be honest, it is the best one I’ve found in case you don’t read anything but the opening paragraph.

It’s a print and play game originally from the 2021 Nine-Card Contest. All you need to play is the cards and some way to keep score. The core concept of the game is dead simple. Each card has a condition on each end and both sides, so four conditions on each card. And by condition, I mean some kind of rule that a word has to follow. Be seven letters, end in T, have exactly two vowels. That sort of thing.

There are rules for a base game but there are also nine more rule sets for playing with the cards. There’s competitive rules, solitaire rules, cooperative rules. They all involve having three (or two or even four) cards out and coming up with a word that fits all the conditions. One actually has players have their own hand of cards, which was neat.

Last year, I tried out and really liked a nine-card word game called Word Chain. The first player comes up with a word and each card involves coming up with a new word that builds from the word before it. I think it’s a really killer design with vast replay value since changing the first word changes the entire game.

But Flipword has a much greater ‘one more time’ factor. I start playing it and then I keep playing it. It is more accessible than Word Chain and I _think_ simpler. I like the design of Word Chain more but I have more fun with Flipword.

Flipword is a game that takes up basically no space, either to store or to play. If you keep score in your head or just play for fun, all you need the cards. It is super easy to teach and should work for non-gamers and casual gamers. So, it’s been added to my travel bag.


Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Aug 13, 2021 8:47 pm
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A Rusty Throne is a war game for folks who don’t know war games

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I am both the perfect audience and the worst commentator for A Rusty Throne. It’s a solitaire war game that feels like it was designed for those of us who don’t know much about war games. (My war game days were back in high school and that was a…while back)

It’s a PnP game. There is a board, which takes up only one page and consists of nine areas, and a small deck of cards. Beyond that, all you need is ten tokens for you and ten tokens for the AI king.

The idea behind the game is that the king has gone insane and you’re trying to take over the island kingdom. You know, in order to save the kingdom. I’m sure A Song of Ice ans Fire didn’t inspire the theme at all. Your goal is to control all four of the castles in the board. You lose if you lose your home castle.

The game is entirely card-driven. The cards have symbols for combat, actions for the king and command points that you pay for your actions.

There are actually only two actions in the game. Adding forces to a castle you control and movement. Combat happens when troops live onto an enemy-occupied space. And combat is pretty simple and symbol-based. Swords remove troops. Shields block swords. Then add up surviving troops and bugles. Higher number wins and the losing troop is shoved off. If there’s nowhere to run, they are destroyed.

While the game is simple; even for someone like me who isn’t war game savy, it is very procedural. The hardest part is getting all the steps in the right order without missing any.

I have to note that the game balances you being able to think and the king taking actions (sometimes randomly) from cards by making the king a lot stronger than you. The king outnumbers you at the start, goes first (which is particularly strong in battle) and has a higher stacking limit.

One lesson even I have learned is that you are not going to to win if you charge in Leroy Jenkins style. The AI king is stronger than you and you are going to have to use finesse to win.

A Rusty Throne has been an interesting experience for me and it is a game I plan to go back to. Frankly, between the relative ease of play and construction, I think this is a game that you should make and try even if you are just a little bit interested.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon Aug 9, 2021 8:08 pm
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Utopia Engine justifies the hype

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I’m honestly not sure how many years I’ve been meaning to learn Utopia Engine. It’s been one of the darlings of both the Print and Play and Roll and Write worlds for ages. And I finally got through a game of it.

I have tried playing it a few times over of the years but didn’t seem to click in my head. To be fair, each individual piece of Utopia Engine is simple. It’s that it has a bunch of moving parts. (Well, a bunch compared to a lot of Roll and Writes. It’s not many compared to even a medium weight Euro)

In Utopia Engine, you are an artificer in a dreamy, post-apocalyptic world that feels a little like Jack Vance’s Dying Earth gone steampunk. The world will end but you can stop that from happening if you assemble the fabled Utopia Engine. To do that, you need to gather legendary artifacts that are lost in fantastic lands, activate them in your workshop, assemble them and finally bring the Utopia Engne to life.

Each step in Utopia Engine is kind of like a mini-game. You need to explore the wilderness. You will inevitably have to fight monsters in the wilderness. You have to activate the artifacts you find in your workshop. And you have to connect them together in order to make the actual Utopia Engine.

Now, I can see how someone could find Utopia Engine pretty dry. The basic mechanic is use dice to generate numbers and subtract them. You want a small difference in the wilderness and a big one in the workshop. But after I went through the wilderness and the workshop once, it all clicked and I was into it.

(For some reason, my mental calculator kept thinking I’d be rolling two d10s. Two six-siders compressed the numbers and made them easier to manipulate)

The game actually felt like an RPG campaign for me. Each artifact gave you a bonus power and the biggest monster in each wilderness area can drop special equipment. So, as the game moves forward and time runs low, you also get more powerful.

I ended up liking Utopia Engine a lot. There’s a lot of both storytelling and game compressed into two pages, plus two dice. And I felt I had some actual say in what was going on, particularly once I started getting some of the special powers.

Utopia Engine is now over ten years old and folks still speak well of it and (other than its sequel Beast Hunter) there really isn’t anything else like it. It’s not for everyone but, particularly considering how easy it is to try, I think it’s worth experiencing.


Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon Jul 26, 2021 4:32 pm
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