A couple of weeks ago I had my first spat around a virtual games table. A turn-based four-player game of Pax Porfiriana on yucata, to be precise.
As we moved into the mid-game, player A posted that I "need to" do x to prevent player B from winning. (Making sure other players aren't in a position to win is a key part of Pax Porfiriana.) Now I don't take being given orders well to begin with and I broke my usual habit and responded as soon as I read this, getting more annoyed as I wrote and culminating in telling player A to SHUT UP. (I have since apologised for SHOUTING.)
Thinking about my reaction, I felt I was being belittled: too stupid to spot the position or to know what to do about it. Hence my response.
Analysing the position, I saw that B did indeed have an opportunity. My first impulse was to ignore A's instructions and let B go for it. However, I had a more constructive move (for me) that also reduced B's position.
From the ensuing exchanges, A clearly viewed their intervention as nothing out of the ordinary. And the other players seemed to consider it just 'table talk'.
This got me wondering why I reacted this way. It has always annoyed me when players give unsolicited advice or suggestions to others (except when teaching newbies, of course), but I usually keep my annoyance under control. This is true even when it's couched as strategic observations. And particularly aggravating when it's directed at me (or messes up my plans!). Thinking about it, I can find three elements to my emotions. Apart from finding it belittling, I'm being manipulated (follow orders or rebel? Either way I could be doing what's wanted) and, thirdly, I feel it's interfering in the 'natural' flow of the game.
To expand on the last of these, if a player makes a mistake, that's up to them. Hopefully they'll learn from it. I don't see any other player ia justified in sticking their oar in, even if it means they'll lose. That's just how the game goes.
So, was this unwarranted interference or just table talk? Discuss.
(In a further twist, I've analysed the position again and spotted that A would have been able to stop B's attempt to win. Which suggests I was being played - now I'm even more annoyed!)
This was the title of my board games column in Flagship magazine, so I thought I'd resurrect it, 8 years after Flagship's demise. The idea is to get down my musings in a more contemporaneous way - expect things to appear later in To Win Just Once (www.pevans.co.uk/TWJO) in a more considered form. Now, can I manage a less formal style?
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09 Sep 2020
Life is definitely weird at the moment. I just spent three weeks of August on 'holiday'. Definitely weird, right? First off, who goes on holiday on August? (Apart from families with school age children, that is.) And, second, what's with the quotes around holiday?
Well, the proximate cause of our visit to Northern Ireland was the hospitalisation of my father-in-law. On top of that, it being the start of the month, I had work to do - there are downsides to having everything on the cloud. So there we were, stuck in a very comfortable holiday apartment with a glorious view over the North Channel (where the northern end of the Irish Sea connects with the Atlantic Ocean): beach, paddle-boarders, jet-skis and lobster fishermen. It was tough. Good job there were copious supplies of Prosecco and Guinness.
Since we drove over (it's surprisingly easy: north up the M6, turn left as soon as you enter Scotland and drive on until you find the ferry port), I was able to pack a few games. In particular, recent stuff that supported solo play. In the end, in between hospital visits, organising a return from hospital and the odd bit of socialising, I only managed to play one: Gil Hova's High Rise.
I played a demo game of this at the 2019 UK Games Expo (though not with Gil, alas) and have been waiting to get my hands on the game ever since. Luckily for current circumstances, it can be played solitaire. The idea of the game is that players are property developers, erecting ever-taller cardboard (what, no gold?) skyscrapers over three decades (rounds). Points are scored when a new building goes up with bonuses at the end of each round for the tallest in each 'neighbourhood' and overall.
The main mechanism is a one-way track. You can move your 'mogul' as far as you want, but never backwards, and only to action spaces no-one else has taken. The player in last place goes next. The actions give you materials and construction opportunities, plus bonuses and special abilities of various sorts. You can often improve your action by taking some 'corruption'. Corruption is minus points at the end of the game, with further penalties for the most corrupt.
How to reproduce this with only one player? Well, you have two dummy moguls circulating the board and getting in your way. Except that, by taking some corruption, you can use them to your advantage. That's neat. And there's another clever mechanism for setting a corruption limit each round with bonuses or penalties for being below or above this.
So, I took over the table in the apartment (the board is long and narrow, with lots of bits around it, so I needed the space) and tried it out. I kept the corruption down in my first game (also my strategy in the demo game last year) and scored a few bonuses for doing so. However, this was clearly not enough as I finished on 63 points - that's a loss. Then I checked on BGG for clarifications and discovered the correct way the 'Lobbying Firm' tenant works in the one-player game. That cost me 6 points and reduced me to a Critical Loss. Dammit!
Here's the final situation showing my (white) 63 points on the scoring track (after the 1 point bonus for having so little corruption - on its own track). The lone building in front of me was constructed in the suburbs - I got points for building it, but no tallest building bonuses as "it's in the suburbs and nobody cares".
For my second game, which went rather faster, I decided to take more corruption. This is when I discovered the penalties for exceeding the corruption limit have a lot more impact than the bonuses for being under it. A good part of this came from using the dummy moguls to my benefit. Just 50 points this time - another Critical loss.
Here's the start of 2020 (the second round) with a second set of neutral buildings placed. I've got a couple of buildings on the board (I'm playing white again), but my corruption penalty at the end of 2010 means I've only got 2 points. Eek!
A quick re-set (different 'tenant' tiles and 'blueprints') and a third game finally brought a win. Though 73 points is only just a win - you need 80+ for a Critical win. I managed to keep the corruption down for two rounds, while continuing to score well. (Since you know what skyscrapers are going to be added where at the start of each round, you can maximise your tallest building bonuses.) The low limit on the third round caught me out, though, reducing my score by 12 points.
Here's that final position and you can see my corruption (white marker) is 4 spaces ahead of the limit (yellow marker). I've managed to get a building in every neighbourhood, all of them scoring something for the tallest building bonuses (1st, 2nd and 3rd score in round 3). That's a win!
Bottom line: this was good fun and, crucially, gave me a thorough grounding in the basic mechanics of the game (my main reason for playing on my own). Though the ability to use the dummy moguls in your favour does make solitaire play quite different from a 'real' game. What it has done is make me really, really keen to get this game onto the table with 2-3 other people!
My full review of solitaire High Rise is in issue 10 of The Spirit, due out about now.
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Fire! and Lux Aeterna. But I’m not sure that I have anything against single-player games per se. (I’ve written before in To Win Just Once of how much I enjoy Victory Games’s Ambush! – you’ll have to go back to issue 99 to find this.) However, I often find them more like puzzles than games. For me, playing a game involves pitting my wits against others. A puzzle is about, well, puzzling something out.
As far as I’m concerned puzzles fall into two groups. Either I can solve them, in which case they’re boring. Or I can’t, in which case they’re frustrating and boring. As you can see, I’m not a puzzler – I play Scrabble, but I don’t do crosswords (which was interesting when I started as a computer programmer: most of my colleagues did crosswords).
Solitaire (the peg-board puzzle - as in the photo on the left) or Towers of Hanoi: there is a single solution and, once you know it, you can always solve the puzzle. However, introduce an element of chance and you get something different. The various Patience games may or may not be solvable, depending on how the cards have been shuffled. I play Patience – usually on my phone to fill a short Tube journey – but I don’t think it’s a game. It may be a pastime, as that’s what I’m doing: passing time.
Ambush!, the clever designers (take a bow, John H. Butterfield and Eric Lee Smith) incorporated the idea of different states for your opponent (what would nowadays be called an AI and was then ingeniously implemented in cardboard - see photo on right). Thus you can play a scenario and capture an enemy courier with important documents. Play it again and you may find just a smoking pile of ash.
It’s this variability that makes it more like a game for me. There’s still the lack of interaction, but the challenge is different each time. You’re not just performing the same action over and over again, but having to adapt to different circumstances. This is also the difference between the two games I just reviewed. Lux Aeterna is closer to Patience: you’re repeating the same actions every turn every time you play, regardless of the slight differences in set-up. You may be repeating the same actions in Fire!, but progressing to the next level changes the rules and you have a fresh challenge to solve with the same techniques.
A solitaire game remains puzzle-like in that you are working out how to achieve your goals within the constraints set by the designer. This also forms part of what makes a game, of course. However, in a game you have the challenge of outwitting your opponents as well – or maybe just doing a better job than them within the game’s limits. In a solitaire game you’re only pitted against the system, however random or adaptive that is.
Which makes me realise the similarity between solitaire and co-operative games. The same contest against the system, but as part of a team of people. This actually makes a big difference for me. You have the ‘wisdom of crowds’ effect (albeit a small crowd) and the need to work together. This provides the interaction that is missing when playing on your own. Having said that, many co-operative games can be played solitaire (though having perfect knowledge of every player’s resources/abilities may be a problem).
Robinson Crusoe is a prime example of this: I never feel the team is safe and achieving the scenario’s goal often takes second place to simply surviving. I rarely get that feeling in a solitaire game. It has happened in Ambush! though: the first time a German tank clanked onto the board. My squad had no anti-tank weaponry… We followed the advice of Buffy: The Vampire Slayer’s Xander in dealing with danger: we hid until it went away. But for a moment, my heart was in my mouth. I’ve not had that happen with any recent solitaire game.
Tapestry is a good example. The mechanisms of the one-player game are the same, but you have two ‘automa’ (as the rules call them) to play against. There is variability in precisely what they’re doing, but the main effect is to make sure you can’t just claim all the achievements and bonuses. I found this a useful way of becoming familiar with the game, but that’s its main purpose for me. (Though maybe I’ll break out Tapestry and play it solitaire to keep my hand in…)
So what’s my conclusion from this internal debate? Well, my issue with solitaire games is that they can be more like puzzles than games. However, give me a properly testing solitaire game that gives different challenges through the game and I’ll happily play it. Though not in preference to sitting at a table to play properly. This article originally appeared in issue 206 of To Win Just Once, but has been slightly edited. (You can find the current and previous issues of the magazine as PDFs at www.pevans.co.uk/TWJO.)
* I know the current vogue is to call them ‘solo’ games, but they were ‘solitaire’ back in my wargaming days and I’m sticking with that.
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I've just realised it's five months since I last posted anything on my blog! It's amazing how quickly time flies in a pandemic.
My excuses are that: 1) I was busy (and this blog turns out to be my lowest priority); and 2) the blog is largely driven by the games I play and I haven't been able to play many games in recent months (for some reason I don't count what I've been playing online - somehow these games don't feel real).
With work largely under control now, it's about time I started up again. Watch this space...
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During my latest
period of exilesojourn in Northern Ireland, my other half, Geraldine, suddenly expressed an interest in playing Carcassonne - one of the few games she enjoys. Of course I hadn't brought my copy with me. A few quid later and the app was installed on my tablet so we could pass it back and forth to play...
And that's when I discovered they'd changed the rules! I used my usual tactic of infiltrating extra meeples into high value fields to take the points. Except now everybody scores for any field they have a meeple in. Aagh, all those wasted meeples!
It wasn't until the second game that I spotted that Geraldine was scoring 4 points for all the two-tile towns she was creating. Last time I looked, a town that was only two tiles big scored half points. That it's, 2, not 4.
Anyway, that's my excuse for why Geraldine beat me four times out of five.
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A couple of days before seeing off for Essen, I finally got my hands on Doctor Who: Time of the Daleks – Second Doctor & Sixth Doctor - yes, I can finally play as my favourite Doctor, as played by Patrick Troughton (yes, I'm that old).
On opening the box, I found the usual add-ons: new Companions, adventures, locations etc. And two new Doctor Who figures, both wrapped in their own little bit of bubble wrap. I immediately had forbodings: this precaution hadn't been necessary in previous expansions.
And guess which Doctor this is. Whimper.
On the bright side, one email to GF9 and a replacement is on its way.
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Not so long ago, I indulged my inner fanboy with Doctor Who: Time of the Daleks and duly reported my experiences: Exterminate! and Time and ... Space. At the same time I ordered all the expansions - each contains material for other incarnations of the Doctor: companions, adventures and equipment. Plus, of course, models of the relevant Doctor.
The first two of these have finally arrived. Number one gives me the fifth (Peter Davidson) and tenth (David Tennant) Doctors. The second provides the seventh (Sylvester McCoy) and ninth (Christopher Eccleston). Now, what's wrong with this picture?
On the left is the first Doctor (William Hartnell) from the base game. In the centre is the 'Tennant' figure, which may not look much like David T (where does that quiff come from?) but it's at least a good match with the other piece. And on the right is 'Eccleston' (once you know who it's meant to be, you can see the resemblance) in a completely different colour of plastic (it also feels more brittle) and on a base that is wider and thinner than the other two. Since the figures pop into coloured bases to show who's playing whom, this could be a problem.
These expansions appeared at the same time, so were they actually manufactured by different firms? Or did GF9 change the spec for one of them? On the plus side, the player boards for the new Doctors are a decent thickness, rather than the flimsy cardstock of the originals.
I'm still waiting for the expansion with my favourite Doctor (number two, played by Patrick Troughton, who was a breath of fresh air after Hartnell's curmudgeon), but will this figure be grey plastic, white plastic or something completely different?
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