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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How I define Roll and Write

Lowell Kempf
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While doing some notes on Roll Through the Agesfor a blog post that I may never bother finishing, I found myself asking what is the line between a Roll and Write and every other side games

And, of course, the answer is that definitions are arbitrary. While there are definitive examples of Roll and Write, like Qwixx, there is plenty of room for people obsessed with semantics to quibble over it. So I’m just worried about my own personal definition.

I found myself asking the question when I realized I had started playing Roll Through the Ages and Monopoly Express (both games I still enjoy) at the same time. While you use a peg board to track resources in Roll Through the Ages, you do track all the stuff you build and develop on a player sheet. And while Monopoly Express makes really nice use of specialty dice, all you write down is your score.

So what do I think is the important part of a Roll and Write? I’m going to say the write. The player sheet has to be an active part of the game and the decisions you make. If you’re just tracking your score, it’s just not the same.

In Yahtzee, you have to choose which scoring how you’re marking each turn. That’s a Roll and Write. In Cosmic Wimpout, you just track points. That’s not a Roll and Write. Not to me at least.

And I’m not picky about the randomizer. Dice, cards, time stamp, some other way of generating random information. It’s all good as far as I’m concerned.

It may not be a perfect definition since Dungeons and Dragons would qualify as a Roll and Write.
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Sat Sep 18, 2021 7:12 pm
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Even middling Lord Dunsany is good stuff

Lowell Kempf
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I was surprised to realize, when I started reading it, that I hadn’t read Tales of Three Hemispheres before. While there are vast sections of Lord Dunsany’s writings I haven’t read, I’ve still read a lot of his early short stories.

There was a period about ten years ago when I was reading collection after collection on Project Gutenberg and I assumed I had read Three Hemispheres then. I’m glad that I didn’t. While it isn’t the best Dunsany wrote, if I had read it amidst a flood of other Dunsany, I’d have missed what nifty elements it does have.

The book actually breaks down into two distinctive parts. Some unrelated stories and three interconnected stories, including the previously published Idle Days on the Yann.

I enjoyed the first part. The stories might not have been extraordinary but even middle of the road Dunsany is good reading. I particularly liked the Old Brown Coat, which would have been at home as a Jorkens story.

But the last three stories, collectively known as Beyond the Fields We Know (a phrase that since been pounded into the ground until it has reached the Earth’s core), that’s the best part of the collection. Although the best story being a reprint from an earlier collection doesn’t Tales of Three Hemispheres any favors as a stand-alone book.

I’m not exaggerating that each of these stores is Lord Dunsany going to the land of dreams… and being a tourist. In particular, Idle Days on the Yann is a flat-out travelogue. It isn’t a narrative. It’s world building. And in Lord Dunsany’s hands, world building is magical.

Between The Gods of Pegana and Beyond the Fields We Know, Lord Dunsany basically created splat books.

Tales of Three Hemispheres is not one of Lord Dunsany’s greatest hits. However, it isn’t just for the completists either.
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Wed Sep 15, 2021 6:28 pm
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Wow, the Great Pumpkin is BLEAK

Lowell Kempf
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Since stories are already selling Halloween stuff and you can only watch The Nightmare Before Christmas so many times in rapid succession, we let out seven-year-old watch Its The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. It’s a special that neither of us had watched in at least a couple decades.

Wow. Was this actually aimed at kids?

The world of Peanuts is always bleak but there is usually some element of hope somewhere, particularly in the specials. And there are some many that there have to be ones I’ve forgotten or never seen. But the Great Pumpkin seems particularly bleak.

All of the characters are either mean or miserable, with the exception of Snoopy. It’s just a profoundly unhappy setting. In particular, the way that the world treats Charlie Brown is rough. Linus and Sally choose to ignore trick or treating and parties to wait for the Great Pumpkin. Bad things just happen to Charlie Brown. Every adult in his neighborhood singling him out to give him a rock is Kafkaesque.

The most redemptive character is Lucy. While she is cruel and bullying, she also gets extra candy for Linus and brings him home from the pumpkin patch in the middle of the night.

Truth to tell, given sophisticated jokes (needing to have a signed document notarized, denominational differences between Santa Claus versus the Great Pumpkin, demands for restitution) as well as the black comedy (as opposed to the slapstick of, say, the Three Stooges), I honestly wonder if adults were the actual intended audience for real.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon Sep 13, 2021 7:19 pm
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The Sound of His Horn is a fever dream of a dystopia

Lowell Kempf
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The Sound of His Horn is a novel that I occasionally saw listed as an influential one but not one I heard a lot of conversation about. As if it was a book that mostly read by authors It was written by Sarban, which was the pseudonym for the British diplomat John William Wall. And, as I read the book, I couldn’t help but wonder if his professional life influenced his artistic one.

The Sound of His Horn is a ‘What if Hitler won WW II’ stories but it’s one that not like any other I have read. Instead of an authoritarian dystopia, it is a fever dream with touches of primal fear and Brave New World eugenics.

The story is framed as a story within a story. An unnamed narrator hears the story from a WW II veteran named Alan Querdillon who is clearly suffering from PTSD. During the war, he escaped from a German prison camp. Shocked by a mysterious barrier, he wakes up a hundred years later in a world where Germany had won.

The entire future section of the book takes place at the hunting estate of Reich Master Forester Count Hans Von Hackelnberg. Almost medieval in many respects and science fiction in others, the estate is an absolute horror show where human beings, sometimes genetically modified, are the prey.

There is absolutely no way to talk about The Sound of His Horn without mentioning the complete objectification of women in the bad future. They are hunted, bred to be hunting animals and even used as furniture. Since this is depicted as despicable and nightmarish, I’m choosing to believe that Sarban does not support such a view. The degree of dehumanization is profoundly and effectively disturbing.

And I also have to mention Von Hackelnberg. While he actually shows up in a relatively small portion of what is already a short novel, he looms over everything. A giant of a man who is full of primal rage and violence, I’m not sure if he’s supposed to be supernatural or not. His scorn for his fat, pampered guests emphasizes his other nature.

As I mentioned before, Querdillon is clearly suffering from PTSD in the present time and the future section has a definite fever dream quality. A very possible interpretation is that he went mad and all of his fantastic experiences were in his his head. That possibility makes the already dreamy, nightmarish book even more uncertain.

After reading The Sound of His Horn, I can see why the book is considered so influential and also why it doesn’t seem to be widely read. I don’t know if it is a good book but it is a memorable and disturbing one.
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Fri Sep 10, 2021 10:19 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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My August R&W

Lowell Kempf
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August came close to ending what has been my monthly learning new Roll and Writes. Which was never an actual goal of mine. It just kept happening August was just a busy month but I did manage to learn a few.

While I was already familiar with Robin Gibson’s Paper Pinball series, I tried a couple boards that I hadn’t tried before.

I’d played an earlier version of Sherwood 2146 but I tried the most recent version this time. I also tried a board from the second season, Squishington Goes to Venus. (Judging by the art, Squishington is a budgie that NASA sent to the planet Venus)

Paper Pinball is a guilty pleasure of mine, a game series that has slowly grown on me. They are very much part of the roll-them-dice-and-fill-in-boxes school of R&W. Which can be brilliant (The Clever family of games, for instance) but I’d call Paper Pinball just okay, if amusing.

I intentionally tried a very early board and a later board. And the differences were definitely there. Sherwood 2146 is so very simple and the decisions border on being mindless. Squishington, while still very simple, actually gave me choices and actual interactions between board elements.

Paper Pinball is still strictly a guilty pleasure but if someone asked me to recommend a board, it would be from season two. I will save season one for when I’m feeling brain dead, which means they will still see play.

The other Roll and Write I tried out for the first time is Stonemaier’s Rolling Realms. Holy cow, that was a completely different experience from Paper Pinball.

The game consists of nine micro-games, each inspired by one of Stonemaier’s larger games. It was developed as a game folks could play together long distance when they are under lockdown.

I’m not going to try to evenly lightly summarize Rolling Realms. It definitely uses the idea of there being way more to do than you can ever get done.

There have been ten different versions of the game, not counting the official version that is coming out. That makes it a little weird for me to access. And I’ll need more plays to really get even a vague handle on how many actual decisions the game has.

The only real issue I’ve had is that fitting all the micro-games and the rules on one sheet of paper leads to rule questions. The published version will have a rule book so that should clear that up.

September looks to be busy too so I don’t know if I’ll get in any new games. Even if I don’t, it’s been a better run than I expected.
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Sat Sep 4, 2021 6:22 pm
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My August PnP

Lowell Kempf
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August.

Okay, here’s what I made in August:

Timeline: Classic - Print and Play Demo

Yup. That’s it. School started for our son at the start of August so that’s where our focus and time and mental stamina was at. My goal is to get one ‘meaningful’ project in a month so I’m content.

I got the files from Asmodee’s website. I’ve looked at the series but never tried it so this will be a chance to sample it. Which is the entire point of a demo

The demo consists 30 of the 55 cards, over half the entire game. Would getting the complete game be that much more rewarding than the demo? I do have to wonder that.

September looks to be another month where PnP isn’t a priority. Eh, life gets crazy. As long as I get a little crafting in, it will help me stay balanced.
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Wed Sep 1, 2021 9:17 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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Railroads and Dungeon Crawls

Lowell Kempf
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Now, I don’t mean a dungeon crawl set on a train, although what limited knowledge I have of the cartoon Infinity Train makes me think that might be what that is.

Railroading is when a game master has the game set up so that there’s a preordained set of events with predetermined outcomes. The players effectively become actors in a script that’s already been written, without any acutal agency.

Dungeon Crawls, of course, are adventures that are set in some sort of spatially limited set of areas. Dungeons, castles, temples, caves, ruins, they come in different flavors but they are all a defined set of areas.

Part of me wondered if they were variations on the same idea. After all, there usually is some kind of order in how you go through a dungeon. Then I realized that they weren’t really the same at all.

You see, railroading controls what you can affect, sometimes even what you do. A dungeon crawl just controls where you can go. Maybe. I was once in a party where the party leader specialized in divination. Once he also got access to teleportation spells, he would crack open dungeons like Danny Ocean. (Fortunately, that amused the dungeon master)

The long and short of it is that I don’t like railroading. It turns the game into a movie that the game master is trying to force into existence. It turns the players into being an audience, not participants.

On the other hand, I have both a fondness and appreciation for a dungeon crawl. Yes, it is a controlled and limited environment which leads to controlled and limited choices but everyone knew what they signed up for. It’s transparent and doesn’t have a predetermined outcome.

I have also known plenty of game masters who have suffered from Bruno. Being able to get away from complex politics and elaborate schemes and villages where everyone has detail personalities and just run a dungeon? I am beyond fine with someone needing to just handle some orcs coping with home invaders.

And if someone says why don’t you just play a game like Descent in campaign mode with funny voices, I would say why not?

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Aug 27, 2021 4:45 pm
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