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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On the limitations and influence of Palm Island

Lowell Kempf
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As I’ve mentioned before, I have been playing a lot of In Hand games lately. And that means I’ve been revisiting Palm Island, which is the poster child of In Hand games.

Palm Island definitely didn’t invent In Hand games. But it did give the idea a kick in the pants. I honestly would say that a third of the In Hand games I’ve seen post Palm Island were clearly Influenced by it.

Something I want to do this summer is get the color files printed so I have the ‘full’ games and get the ‘full’ Palm Island experience. I’ve spent years with the low ink demo and I’ve wanted to see how much deeper the game gets.

However, when I actually looked at the files, I realized that most of the cards are for the two-player version of the game. As a solitaire player, the only new element are feats. Which turn the game essentially into a campaign but doesn’t seem like a major mechanical shift.

And I know that the basic framework can be tweaked just a little to get significant changes. In Battle for the Carolinas (which I have started replaying and really enjoying), you need different cards at different points in the game. You need maps and compasses to find the battlefields but then they need to become men and weapons. It creates a different tempo than Palm Island.

While Palm Island has a very solid structure of resource management and infrastructure development, it is ultimately very simple. The individual actions are very simple. This is not a bad thing.

Between the random shuffle of the cards and the limit of only being able to store four cards, Palm Island does has variabily and tough choices. But it’s presented in such an accessible way so that the initial learning curve is just about keeping the deck in your hand the whole time. It’s great for casual gaming.

But now I’ve been seeing that the si one structure is one that can be built on. And, while games like Battle for the Carolinas shows that other folks are doing this, the fact that Portal Dragon will be publishing Palm Laboratory and have mentioned Palm Galaxy shows that this was intended.

And even as I become more and more aware of the limitations of Palm Island, I am playing it more often. I keep on going back to it and having fun. There is a good game there.

Palm Island is not the definitive In Hand game. It didn’t create the genre. But I think it is an important milestone and has helped there he better games ahead.
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Mon Jun 27, 2022 4:22 pm
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Another look at Roll and Move

Lowell Kempf
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Babhan is a game from the third Roll and Write Contest, one of the three Roll ans Writes contests BGG held that year. (Seriously, for a number of actually legitimate reasons, it’s a contest type that happens a lot)

I’d have tried Babhan ages ago but, for some reason, it’s simple black and white graphics baffled our printer. But I finally made a copy.

Stripped of its theme of going to offer tribute to a king, Babhan is a roll and move game. That’s right, it’s a Roll and Move Roll and Write. (Not the first time I’ve played one either)

I’m not sure there is a game mechanic more reviled than Roll and Move, not even then optional fisticuffs conflict resolution system from Panzer Pranks. (To be fair, Dungeons and Dragons is the only game I can personally verify that has resulted in fist fights. Poker and hockey players have seen more, I’m sure)

I find it fascinating that one of the oldest examples of Roll and Move, Backgammon, uses several methods to add depth to the mechanic. Multiple pieces, the order you use dice being meaningful, the doubling cube. And while Backgammon took centuries to be codified, Wikipedia indicates many of these elements have been a part of the game since ancient times.

Of course, it is the Candy Land, Denny’s dining mat school of Roll and Move that makes the mechanic so hated. When you have one pawn and the dice/card draw/spinner determines where it goes then you either have minimal choices (in the case of multiple paths) or no choices whatsoever. It is an example of very lazy game design. And, no, the fact that it teaches very little kids how to take turns and count doesn’t help it much.

The earliest example that I am aware offhand is the Royal Game of Goose, although its history clearly indicates it wasn’t the first game that just used one pawn. That said, one the thing makes a difference in the Game of Goose versus Candy Land is that it was a gambling game. That changes why people would play it as a game of chance.

Why we play games is not the same as how we play games.

Yeah, Babhan was just an excuse for me to discuss Roll ans Write.

Babhan effective has just one pawn (if you are using a pencil, you mark off boxes) but has some mechanics to create choices. It uses a dice pool. You need sets of three or more 2s, 3s, 4s and 6s to move while 1s and 5s allow rerolls. There are branching paths, each with special rules. And you only have seven turns to complete the track, which doesn’t add choices but does add tension.

And, to be honest, it’s still not that interesting. I’ll play it some more to try out all the branches but I’m pretty sure luck more than clever play will still determine how I do. It might be better with modifications as a multi-player game.

I do like it as an experiment and an excuse to ruminate about Roll and Move.
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Fri Jun 24, 2022 6:47 pm
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The bookmark is the game

Lowell Kempf
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Brave the Book is a design contest entry that isn’t a great game but has a big ‘Hey, look at this!’ factor.

The elevator pitch is that Brave the Book turns any book into a dungeon crawl! The reality is that it turns any book into a solitaire word puzzle.

The game is actually a bookmark that you put at the back of a book. The bookmark shows tiers of monsters that you work your way down but pulling the bookmark up. The lower the monster, the more letters it takes to spell its name.

Choose a number. Go that many pages further into the book and look at the first of that number of words on that page. Can you spell the name of the monster with the letters in those words? You beat that level. Otherwise, try again. Get though the book before you defeat each tier, you lose.

There are other flourishes but that’s the core idea. One game element I like is that you have balance using a big number to increase your chances of spelling a monster with running out of pages. That creates balance and tension. Unless you are using War and Peace.

The game went through some interesting variations, including having a second bookmark that is a player character, each one with a special power. (Which does add some theme to the experience) While the final contest version went back to one bookmark (and streamlined other elements), I imagine the designer will go back to player character book marks if they develop the game further.

What Brave The Book really makes me think of is the book-based cypher that Sherlock Holmes cracks at the start of The Valley of Fear. (Indeed, that’s all I remember of that book. The Valley of Fear is no Hound of the Baskervilles) That goes a long way toward making me enjoy the game

Brave the Book is more of an exercise in novelty than a game. I doubt I’ll get a lot of replay out of it but the sheer oddity is appealing. And makes me want to revisit Warchon.
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Mon Jun 13, 2022 4:43 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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My May Gaming

Lowell Kempf
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Okay, what interesting gaming things happened to me during May?

I continued my effort at learning at least new one Roll and Write a month with Mini Town from Dark Imp. It belongs to the draw-stuff-on-a-grid school of R&W. The number of Roll and Writes I’ve played like it is in the double digits and that’s just counting published games. Throw in design contest entries and it gets silly.

And, honestly, while I like how the symbols interact, it doesn’t do anything special from a gamer standpoint. However, one of the design goals was to work in the classroom or a similar environment and I think it checks several boxes there. So, mission statement accomplished.

I also learned ROVE, a solitaire game about rearranging cards in a pattern. I haven’t made up my mind about it. I’ve done horribly in my plays so far But a solitaire has to be tough to be worth replaying. So I think ROVE will end up being a good experience.

However, the most interesting thing that happened to me gamewise was mentoring a group of fifth graders playing D&D as part of my job as a substitute teacher.

I went in afraid that it would be a ‘I cast magic missile at the darkness’ but honestly, the kids did a lot better than that. The kids needed a couple nudges to stay on track and to keep it clean but it went well. (And, no, I wasn’t the dungeon master)

It went a lot differently than my experiences playing Dungeons and Dragons when I was in fifth grade. I think video games and other media have given kids a better sense of how RPGs work. More than that, I think that fifth edition is both more user friendly and more balanced than first edition.

It reinforced my opinion that both players and publishers have really changed over the last forty years. And that’s a good thing.

So, May was pretty good.
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Fri Jun 3, 2022 7:57 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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Ukiyo: clever use of familiar ideas

Lowell Kempf
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Ukiyo is an 18-card tile laying game that brings absolutely nothing new to the table but it packages all its familiar ideas really well. More than that, it has both a solid multi-player and solitaire mode.

It’s actually a 16-card micro game since two of the cards are player aids. The actual cards you play with each have a two by three grid of symbols and a goal. (The four symbols are origami crane, cherry blossom, butterfly and acorn. Ukiyo has an aesthetic and it sticks to it)

The goals are different patterns, ranging from just having the entire grid full to having a three by three square of acorns. They are numbered and the higher the number, the harder the goal. Which serves as a tie breaker in the multiplayer mode.

In either mode, the placement rules are the same. The symbols have to be within a six by six grid. Beyond that, cards can overlap and cover each other up all you want.

In multiplayer mode, everyone gets a hand of cards with the size of the hand depending on the number of players. Your last card, instead of being played, is your goal. (If no one fulfills their goal, you then place that card to try and make your goal)

I first came across the mechanic, that your last card serves as your winning condition, in HUE from Pack O Games. I really like it. It helps remove any player order bias and makes games more tense.

For solitaire the play, Ukiyo has twenty sets of three to four goals, broken down into blocks of difficulty. You take those cards out, shuffle the rest and then play one card at time, trying to end up with a grid that fulfills all of the goals.

Since each shuffle creates a new puzzle, there’s a lot of replay value built in. And the brutal level puzzles are actually brutal.

As I said at the start, Ukiyo doesn’t break any new ground. But implementation counts more than innovation (Is the game actually fun to play?) and Ukiyo does a great job there. It’s easy to understand but still challenging with a solid decision tree and plenty of replay value.

Some micro games feel like bigger games in little packaging. Not Ukiyo. It feels like an 18-card game. But it’s a really good one.
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Fri Feb 25, 2022 8:16 pm
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When a game is literally a puzzle

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The first entry I tried from the 2022 In Hand Contest was a game called 3 Triangle. Because I just had to.

The consists of three double-sided triangular cards. The sides of the cards have different actions symbols that let you flip, rotate and rearrange the cards. The goal is to arrange the points in different arrangements. White triangles numbered 1-2-3, stuff like that.

I mean, seriously, how could I not try that?

This is at least the third time I’ve seen what amounts to a Rubiks cube as a card game. The other two times are Simple Card (whose rules I’m still not sure I’ve figured out) and Thin Cube. I have a feeling that there are more but those are the first ones that came to mind.

There’s a thin line between a lot of solitaire games and puzzles. But all three of these examples fall solidly into the puzzle side of the line.

I have come to this amazingly original and cunning definition of a puzzle. A game is actually a puzzle if doing the exact same thing always has the exact same result. I regularly play Take It Easy as a solitaire. And it’s constantly different. Thin Cube, on the other hand, has set solutions.

3 Triangles may not yet be finalized so it’s not ready for a proper review. And while it can be randomized beyond the six built-in puzzles, I suspect it has limited replay. But since it consists of three low-ink cards, that’s not a big deal. It has made me realize I like puzzles more when they have game elements.

https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/2773707/wip-3-triangles-202...
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Fri Jan 21, 2022 1:13 pm
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I don’t have a Star Trek joke for Deep Space D6

Lowell Kempf
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I’ve been vaguely aware of Deep Space D6 pretty much since it first showed up. I even downloaded the app. But it took trying to play a different dice games for Dicember 2021 for me to actually try it.

So, I decided to look at the tutorial… and then played the game five times in a row.

While the title implies that the game is themed around Star Trek Deep Space 9, it’s really one of the space ship wandering around the universe versions of Star Trek with the serial numbers filed off. And, as a Doctor Who fan who hasn’t watched a lot of Star Trek and thus isn’t the best guy to judge, I feel like it really nails that feel.

The game consists of a spaceship playmat, a stack of encounter cards and some dice. Well, you also have to have some tokens to track hull and shields. Honestly, the spaceship, with its separate hull and shields and stasis beam, is what makes the game a spaceship game and not a dungeon crawl with a different skin.

The dice are the crew and you assign them to different tasks each turn. Each pip is a different kind of crew member. Each one does something different and I think it succeeds in being immersive and thematic.

One thing that makes the game both great and nightmarish is that encounters don’t go away until they are resolved. (Most of them are enemy ships and you resolve them by blowing them away) If the dice don’t let you manage them, you end up fighting an armada while terrible things go wrong on board.

And, yes, the lack of control the dice can give you is the biggest issue with Deep Space D6. You have to manage your hull, your shields, your dice pool and the encounters. If you don’t roll what you need to do at least part of that, you will get buried. I’ve had games last six turns.

There is some dice manipulation… through the commander pip. So you have to roll a specific pip in order to manipulate the dice

That said, after you get an idea how the game works, it seems like you tend to win or lose by the skin of your teeth as opposed to massive swings one way or the other.

In short, I can see why some folks don’t like Deep Space D6 but I’ve been having a barrel of Klingons worth of fun with it. At some point, I want to make the fan expansions and maybe even look into the published version.
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Mon Dec 27, 2021 3:36 pm
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Unsurmountable: it’s you versus that mountain

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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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