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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Judging a design contest

Lowell Kempf
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You wouldn't think that gaming is a hobby that would lead to that many interesting experiences off the game table. Then again, a gaming meet up is how I ended up meeting my fiancee.

Last week, a friend of mine called me up. He was serving as an emergency judge for a library's game design competition. Three judges are needed for a quorum so I was asked to be an emergency emergency judge.

Since I was brought in at the last minute, I don't know all the details about how the competition. All I know is that I ended up in the back room of a library looking at seven different projects, both video and board games. Some of them were designed by one child, other projects were designed by groups of kids.

The ages ranged from around six or seven to teenagers. Now, it is worth noting that since there wasn't any separate categories, the competition was not necessarily fair. However, when you have only seven entries and you have to have a winner, there are sacrifices that have to be made.

I have to say that, for the most part, I had a good time. All the kids were fun to talk to and, while none of the games indicated that I had met the next Wolfgang Kramer (for one thing, none of them had a beard), all of the games that I looked at had at least something that made me think.

Actually, the worst part was the parents. The kids were all nice and willing to listen to me discuss and critique their work. The parents, on the other hand, acted like I was holding their kids future in my hands. If I ever have kids, I will have to remember to carefully choose whose throats I jump down for my children.

In the end, it was the largest group and the oldest group who won. In their defense, they had clearly spent the most time by far on their project, which was a computer game that combined civilization building with world conquest. They had notebooks of notes and they had also written their own music for the game. More than that, they had clearly had a ton of fun doing it.

Would I judge a contest like this again. Yeah, without a problem. Like I said, it made me look at games by breaking them down to their component parts. And, I was there as a judge and a critic but I also knew that I had to focus on the positive for the kids. All in all, a unique and fun experience.
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Wed Nov 9, 2011 4:31 pm
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Stepping into the Sun Temple

Lowell Kempf
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I recently commented in this blog that one of these days I would get around to logging on to Yacuta.de and trying the site out. After I had posted that, I said to myself “Well, what are you waiting for? Is there any reason to not register and try the site out?”

As a side note, I have been pleasantly surprised by how this blog has opened new doors for me. I’ve had a chance to interact with some interesting and nice folks. I’ve been introduced to some interesting concepts and had new game recommended to me. And, it has encouraged me to go back to Isotropic and check out Yacuta. Frankly, at this rate, I’ll start trying out Vassel before too long.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Yacuta, it is a German web-site that allows you to play quite a few different games. Just about all of them are Euro games and Yacuta apparently actually owns the online rights for some of them. Unlike BSW, Yacuta uses a turn-based system so games are not played real-time but turn by turn. That being said, the interface updates automatically so it is possible to play a game real time.

As I have said before (and no doubt will say again), I think the best way to play a game is face to face. However, online gaming allows me to play more game and a greater variety of games at that. My time spent playing online games has let me learn games that I might have never played (and has let me test drive some games before buying them) and has also let me play with a much bigger pool of players than I could ever play face to face.

There are two things I look at when I look at a gaming site: community and interface. Does the site have enough people there that I can find someone to play? Are they going to be friendly and inviting or are they going to be a load of jerks? Can I easily play games on the site and figure out what I need to do or is playing a game going to be an exercise in frustration?

So far, after a couple days of checking the place out Yucata seems to score pretty well in both categories. I’ve had no problems finding people to play with and they have seemed friendly enough. Plus, they make moves even more regularly than I expected. Honestly, a turn-a-day is all I ask for on a turn-based site but some of the games have pretty much been real time.

As for the interfaces, I’ve only had problems with one game out of the half-dozen I’ve tried, which was Thunderstone. Since that it probably one of the fiddlier games on the site, I’m not going to hold it against Yacuta. The others, after a little bit of fumbling, were easy to pick up and have worked perfectly well and the graphics have been excellent.

On top of all that, Yucata has a lot of games that I like to play and more that I want to learn how to play. In particular I am delighted to have a chance to Hacienda more often. Maybe I’ll even have a chance to get good at it However, I’m pretty sure Hacienda is just the tip of the iceberg for me.

In short, I’m glad I’ve logged on to Yucata. Find new ways to expand my gaming experiences is always fun.
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Fri Nov 4, 2011 8:41 pm
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The Spiecherstadt: Auctions so sharp you can shave with them

Lowell Kempf
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While I have been trying to curb my impulse purchasing with Tanga, when the Spiecherstadt showed up a couple weeks ago, I decided to hit the purchase button. While it had not really been on my radar (since I had no idea what the name meant ), I saw it was by Stefan Feld, who had given me a lot of fun with Notre Dame, Roma and Macao and that was enough to make me make me say those magic words “It must be mine!”

As it turns out, the name of the game (which means something like Warehouse) is the name of the dock district in Hamburg. While I respect and enjoy the work of both Zed of Z-Man and Stefen Feld, I honestly don’t think that was the best name for the broader international audience. I’m the target audience for a game like this and the name made me almost miss it.

At any rate, the Spiecherstadt arrived and it hit the table last night.

Before I talk about the actual mechanics and what we thought about the game (short version for those of you who are bored, we liked it), I want to gripe about the rule book.

There were a few odd sentences in the rules that made me go “hmmmm” but nothing as bad as Macao. However, the set-up was at the very end. In fact, the rules had a quick start page you were supposed to cut out so, strictly speaking, the set-up and the rules were designed to be on two completely different documents.

I respect and appreciate quick-start rules. However, when vital information can only be found on them, I think that that’s a ding on the rule book. Honestly, when the set-up isn’t the first part of the rules, after maybe a flavor paragraph and a list of components, I think it’s a bad choice.

That said, the rules weren’t too difficult so, after insulting the editor’s ancestors, we had no problem getting into the game.

The core mechanic of the Spiecherstadt is a nifty auction system. Every round, a group of cards gets laid out. One at a time, the players place one of their three meeples over a card as a bid for that card. More than one bid can be placed on any given card. In fact, that’s kind of the point.

Then, in the order of placement, people have a chance to buy those cards. Whoever placed the first meeple on a given card gets the right of first refusal. They get the first crack at buying the card but it costs as many meeples as have been bid on it. If they pass, they take their meeple off. So, the more people that pass, the cheaper the card gets but sometimes hoping for a cheap card means you don’t get any cards at all.

Money is brutally tight in the game. There is just enough money for the starting cash for a five-person game but we were convinced after two games that you will almost never need more money than that. We played it with open money and every coin counted. The difference of one coin was the difference between getting a kiss and a kick in the balls.

However, while the auction is the real moving part of the game, the cards that you are bidding on and the order that they come out also play a big role why we liked the game. The cards are broken down into four sub-decks so that, while the absolute order of the cards is unknown, there is a definite pattern to how the cards come out. In fact, that’s why we needed to immediately play the game again. Knowing the cards and how they come out is a big part of learning to play the game.

Fortunately, it’s not too hard to learn. At the beginning of the game, you get the tools to use goods, be it contracts to be fulfilled or traders to sell them or the like. Later on in the game, ships start coming in and you get the goods to use with those earlier cards. Near the end, cards that are just straight up points show up.

As I already said, we all enjoyed the game quite a bit. It plays out in an hour or less, which meant that it was easy to play it again and we all wanted to play it again. It is a game that left us talking about strategy and planning on having it hit the table again soon.

I do have two concerns about the Spiecherstadt.

The main one is a question of how replayable it is. Since you know the cards that will come out and have an idea of when they will come out, will every game start to feel the same? While there seem to be multiple paths to victory, is there going to turn out to be one that is better than all the rest?

On the bright side, it will take some more plays to answer those concerns. If nothing else, I will get my money’s worth out of the game even if we burn it out relatively quickly. I also understand that there is an expansion of 60 more cards so that could spice the game up quite a bit.

My other complaint is that this game can bring out the analysis paralysis something fierce. After the cards and the good are laid out, all the information in each round is open. That leads some players to reliving the poison cup scene in Princess Bride. Every single turn.

So far, all of my experiences with Stefan Feld have been good ones and the Spiecherstadt does not change that. It is a solid game that offers some tough choices and plenty of meat, particularly for a game that is easy to squeeze in on a work night.
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Fri Nov 4, 2011 5:04 pm
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Finding fun in obscurity

Lowell Kempf
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As I have mentioned at least once or twice on this blog, I like abstracts. I’m not necessarily good at them but I do like them.

In this particular case, when I say abstract, I mean a totally deterministic game with perfect information. Random elements need not apply. Theme is strictly optional and usually doesn’t come up. Two players is usually the standard but not always.

(So, yes, that means games like Blockers or Ingenious would not qualify for this particular case but Medina, even though it has a fairly strong theme, would. I reserve the right to change my definition of an abstract in a future blog entry )

Historically, this has been one of the biggest arch template of gaming. Chess, Checkers, Go, Mancala, Nine Man Morris, games that have passed down the centuries have all fit this mold. Heck, if it wasn’t for Backgammon and Parcheesi, you could try and argue that perfect information, luck-free games are the history of gaming. (But then we have primordial knuckle bone dice and realize how wrong we are )

And, looking at the history of game development, people are coming up with new abstracts all the time and have been for decades. Now, it is true that we have had some really great ones come out lately. Blokus, the GIPF Project, Hive, all of those are so good that you could say we’re living in an abstract renaissance. However, there have always been a lot of them out there.

You would think that there would be some kind of limit to the ways that people could come up with to move or place pieces on a board but there always seems to be a new twist out there for someone to develop.

Now, having said that, that does not mean that any given abstract is actually going to be any good. I have come across plenty of abstracts that weren’t worth the time and effort of playing. Sometimes they are unbalanced and the first or second player has an overwhelming advantage. Other times, they are too easily solved or too easily broken. Sometimes, they are just too damn boring, even to a guy likes this sort of thing.

And, to be honest, testing out a untried abstract is not the easiest thing to do. Even when you know people who like abstracts (and I know a couple), getting folks to play a game that you had to put together yourself can be hard when there are professionally produced games to play that have proven their worth. Heck, I haven’t played most of the games in the Beyond series yet and those are by Sid Sackson!

Fortunately for me, I have access to the site Super Duper Games.

It might be forever in beta format and the graphics may not be anything to write home about but Super Duper Games does have a wide variety of strange and unusual games, a community of friendly players and a system administrator who seems like a really nice guy. Even if I someday make good on my threat to try out yucata, I think I will always keep Super Duper Games bookmarked.

I am really more of a dabbler and tippler. Months can go by without me being in a game there. And yet, I don’t think a year has gone by since I first discovered the site that I haven’t logged at least a few plays there.

My latest discovery there is a game called Aries. As far as I can tell, it has never been physically published and appears to have been designed using a checkers set. (Of course, the same can be said about Lines of Actions and that’s an excellent game) It is a game about pushing, with the pieces moving like rooks and capturing by either pushing a piece off the board or into a piece of the capturer’s color.

It is one of those games whose core concepts are so basic that you’re left thinking “Really? That’s it? Is there really anything new to do here?”

Still, it was near the top of the alphabet so it caught my eye and I was in a “what-the-heck” mood so I started a game. The worst thing that could happen is that it would be a boring, stagnant game and I would chalk it up to another game to avoid.

In fact, Aries turns out to be a good, dynamic game and I also turned out to be playing Russ Williams, who frequently comments on my blog and other places on the geek. (Hi Russ!)

The rules of Aries brought to mind two over pushing games that I have played, Abalone and Oshi. However, in Abalone, it is possible to defend against getting pushed. In fact, most of my games of Abalone have resembled the slow movement of turtles at war, with very careful deliberate play. Oshi is more dynamic, with a more wide open board and with rules that make pushing pieces much easier.

Aries, on the other hand, goes crazy with the pushing. The pieces move like rooks, which means they can fly across the board, and they can push whole lines of enemy pieces, albeit only one space. That created an environment that was constantly changing and encouraged dynamic, offensive play.

We did run into some issues regarding ko, when a move would undo the last move and render the board back into the same position. There were some points when we could have effectively stale-mated if we had been bloody minded enough to do it. I suspect that the game may have other hidden issues that might come out with more play.

Aries isn’t a perfect game. It is not the work of real brilliance that the GIPF games are or Blokus is. It isn’t going to be a game that I am going to make my own copy of (Er, not that I need to since it just uses a checkers board) However, I had a lot of fun playing it and it is definitely on my list of games to play again.
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Wed Nov 2, 2011 6:56 pm
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Why R-Eco succeeded for me where Terra failed

Lowell Kempf
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Terra is a game that I really wanted to like. In theory, it was a great idea and part of the profits when to relief efforts so it was for a good cause. I also realize that, with a different audience, my experiences with the game might have been more enjoyable.

Terra is an educational game. I know. When you say those words, people automatically shudder. Despite the hard work of Big Bird and Mr. Rogers, most people just don’t associate education with fun. That is even though regular, non-educational games will teach you about history, economics, arithmetic, practical pattern recognition skills, and a lengthy list of other useful things.

Terra was designed to teach folks about how to save the world. The essence of the game boils down to the players have access to a limited number of resources. They can either horde them for points at the end of the game or use them to solve crises. The kicker is that if the number of crises ever reaches a critical point, the world ends and everyone loses.

The intended message of the game is that we need to work together in order to save the world from war, pollution and intolerance. And, let’s be honest, I like that message. I can get behind it.

Unfortunately, the game also is going to either have one winner or all losers. That means it’s a competition. And it doesn’t take the average competitive gamer long to realize that, while resources are tight, there are just enough so that one player can horde as long as everyone else focuses on saving the planet.

So, all of my games broke down into a race to be the first player to horde resources. That stuck all the other players with either having to carry the load of the selfish player to save the world and let them win the game or let the world end out of spite.

Okay, since that is how the real world often works, I suppose that that makes Terra very educational. However, it didn’t make it very fun and it is no longer in my collection. I understand that when Terra is played under other circumstance, like in the classroom, it can be a fun game played as a cooperative, as opposed to a competitive. However, the competition is right there in the rules and there’s no escaping that it is an intentional design feature!

All that being the case, Pandemic actually teaches the lessons of Terra better than Terra does and it doesn’t even claim to be educational

Years after I gave up on Terra, I was introduced to R-Eco. R-Eco is a game of set collection and hand management. It also happens to be an environmentally-themed game like Terra, albeit on a much smaller scale. In Terra, you are trying to save the world. (Insert Heroes-themed cheerleader joke) In R-Eco, you just don’t lose points if you don’t pollute the local neighborhood.

Other than the theme and the fact that they both use cards, Terra and R-Eco aren’t that similar. They are mechanically different and R-Eco has no cooperative elements in it. The themes aren’t even that much alike, saving the world versus running a waste disposal company. However, they are just close enough that R-Eco made a Terra-shaped bell go off in my head.

For me, they both had the same message: It’s a good idea to preserve and take care of the Earth. However, in Terra, there really wasn’t any incentive to do that. In R-Eco, you actually get positive reinforcement for doing the right thing. You can get points if you don’t pollute at all and you at least lose fewer points if you don’t pollute as much as the next guy.

At the same time, you can still win even if you pollute in R-Eco. If you’re willing to illegally dump, you can often get a lot more points, enough to potentially offset the loss and be able to win the game. So, R-Eco doesn’t just say ‘give a hoot and don’t pollute’. It gives you a real choice in the matter, letting you weigh the pros and cons.

Terra is a noble idea but one that is too easily tarnished by exactly the kind of behavior it is warning you against. R-Eco, without claiming to be an educational game, does a better job being a fun game and giving you something to think about.
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Wed Nov 2, 2011 4:26 pm
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Zendo and the Art of Conversation

Lowell Kempf
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As of late, I have been musing about the nature of meta gaming, a term that is so broad that it is almost meaningless. A game is more than just the rules and pieces. The people who play it, the reasons that they play it and the way they play it are all a major part of the game.

Now, there are games where those elements can be minimized. For instance, playing Chess or Go, particularly online, can minimize the meta game elements. Abstracts that had no random elements or hidden information can be very ‘pure’ experiences. And, make no mistake, I do enjoy those kinds of games. While my Go is sadly lacking, I do like to play a number of games online, including many abstracts.

However, there are many games where the meta environment plays a major part. Almost any party game is more defined by the party than by the game. (Although, to be honest, some of the guys I play games with consider Puerto Rico a party game)

I early wrote about Intrigue, a pure negotiation game where the pieces and the play money are just there so that your arguments have a context. The deals that you make are the real game. I chose Intrigue because it’s a very accessible and pure example of that genre, not because it’s an unusual example.

However, one of the first games that I thought about when I considered the ways that the meta meets the game is an unusual game: Zendo. While it could be described as multi-player mastermind with little colored pyramids, the truth of the matter is tat it is a game that creates a meta environment that is simultaneously restricted and wide open as the sky.

I’m not going to reiterate the rules for Zendo. There are a lot of places online where you can read them for free if you feel like it. The basics of the game boil down to this: one player is the master. They set an unspoken rule that the other players have to figure out. The other players create examples in order to figure out, by process of deduction and elimination, what the rule is.

There is only one real restriction on the rule that the master comes up with. That is that the rule needs to be self-contained. That is one place that meta stays out of in Zendo! A rule cannot be that a pyramid points to Bob or that an example needs to be made before 12 PM. The examples and the rules are untouched by time and outside space.

But trust me, that still leaves a continent’s worth of room to work with

The actual rules of Zendo the game (as opposed to the rules the master comes up with) are actually the code of communication between the master and the students. For all intents and purposes, Zendo is a conversation and the rules explain the language the conversation is made in.

If you’ve never played Zendo, this probably sounds like an awful lot of work and restrictions to go to in order to play 20 questions. However, the truth of the matter is that the restriction are not about keeping you from doing something. What they do is provide a structure for what you are doing, for the conversation you are having.

And, with someone who is a good master, it’s a conversation well worth having.

Once you are familiar with the structure of Zendo, it is a very open system. In fact, you don’t even need the pyramids to play the game. You could play it with a pocket full of change if you wanted to or even with just words or sentences. As I said, the rule and the examples only have to be self-contained. Beyond that, they could be anything.

I have some friends that do consider Zendo a party game. While I can see their argument, it is a very cerebral game that doesn’t have the light hearted elements that most people use to define a party game. I also know people who consider Zendo an activity, not a true game, since there is no way for the master to win. (Mind you, by that argument, almost all RPGs don’t count as games either) However, Zendo does have competition and there can be only one winner among the students.

To be honest, the biggest weakness that Zendo has as a game is that a bad master can spoil the experience for everyone. If a master either doesn’t understand how to use the language of Zendo well or one who intends to make an unsolvable rule will only frustrate the students. A rule should be tough, not impossible. (The definition of tough can vary depending on the group, of course. The number of blue pieces needs to a prime is an infamous example of a rule that can be perfect for one group and cause another group to kick over the table)

At the end of the day, Zendo is an interesting and unusual game. It plays with the roles that we are used to having as gamers. In a sense, the goal of the master really is to teach the students a lesson. For me, it broke new ground for what you can do with a game. Zendo has also been a fun game for me. It’s one that I’ve taught to quite a few people and almost all of them have had fun.

The game part of Zendo is how you communicate. The meta part is what you choose to say.
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Tue Nov 1, 2011 9:46 pm
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Negotiation: When lying and backstabbing IS the game

Lowell Kempf
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A gaming experience is a combination of the rules of a game, the components of a game, the environment the game is played in and the people who are playing it. Even a game that is played on-line or played by mail will have them. The environment and the components are just going to be a little different compared to a game of Puerto Rico at the dining room table.

I have been musing, as of late, about how the elements outside the rules and the board affect and influence a game. There are a lot of games where the game that gets played outside the written rules is where the meat of the game is. It’s a not a new idea. Poker is an excellent example of a game where bluffing can be a larger component than the cards in your hand.

When it comes to the meta game, you can end up playing the other players more than you are playing the game. Almost inevitably, things that are outside the game are going to affect what people do. Even something as petty as someone bringing a case of pop or not chipping in for the pizza can become a part of the game experience. Ideally, we should all be bigger than that. However, sometimes, there are games that embrace that kind of interpersonal interaction.

A game that crossed my mind while contemplating this is Stefen Dorra’s Intrigue, not to be confused with Dominion: Intrigue. It is a pure negotiation game, one that has been compared to Diplomacy. Some people might call it Diplomacy Light or Diplomacy without the map. I haven’t actually played Diplomacy yet :’( but I have played Intrigue.

These days, Intrigue is pretty easy to get a hold of, which is one of the things is has going for it. It also doesn’t take up much table space and it plays out in under two hours. So, if you are like me and haven’t been able to find the time or a large enough group to get in a game of Diplomacy, you can get a taste of what I have to imagine it would be like with Intrigue.

Each player is in charge of an aristocratic household. You have eight relatives who you need to find ‘gainful’ employment for and you have four positions in your own household. Unfortunately, you can’t hire your own relatives. That would be nepotism! So, you need to bribe the other players to hire on your relatives. In the end, after every family member is either in a household or kicked to the curb, whoever has the most money is the winner.

So it works the same way that real life works

There are two things that really drive Intrigue. First, there are twice as many applicants as there are jobs. Period. Which means not everyone is going to hired. Which means that at least half the pieces in the game are going to end up exiled to the island, where they are not going to make any money at all. That is the scarcity of resources that drives the negotiating. There is simply not enough to go around for everyone so you have to work hard to make sure you get yours.

Second, in order to be considered for a position, even if you are the only applicant at that time, you need to bribe the owner of the household. Obviously, when there’s more than one person vying for a position, the bribes tend to get higher. And, no matter what the bribes are, the final decision is always the owner of the household and they always pocket all the bribes regardless of the decision.

Yes, that means that you can spend ten times the amount of the other applicants, still not get the position, and still be out all the money you spend.

There are no random elements in Intrigue and the only thing that’s hidden is your wallet. The game is about negotiation and nothing else. During the course of the game, you have to make deals and promises and there is nothing in the rules about having to keep them. However, when you break your word, you do have to be prepared to deal with the consequences.

And trust me, if you are going to have any chance of winning, you are going to have to break your word. However, that being said, I would not say that this is a game of constant back-stabbing. It is a game where you have to pick which backs you stab and when you stab them very carefully.

So, wow, is this a game that is all about the people you play it with.

The first time I played it, it was with a group of strangers. By the end of the game, I wanted to punch one of them in the nose. After that, I thought that I would never want to play it again.

Then I played it with a group of my trash-talking, war-game loving buddies. That time, it was a blast. Yes, we were merciless and cruel but we also knew just how abusive we could be to each other before feelings got hurt for longer than just the evening. And, yes, people got buried with their family members almost all in exile and their household in shambles. It was a savage night of fun.

I know some people really hate this game and I can understand why. Yeah, you can always say “It’s a tough game and you know what you’re getting into when you decide to play.” However, when push comes to shove, you may be surprised how hard you’re getting shoved and you may also be surprised at how hard you shove back. It can get personal before you even know it.

Intrigue is definitely a game that can get under your skin and there are some of my friends who I would not play with. Not because I’m afraid that they would be mean. No, those are the guys who I want to play it with. No, there are some of my friends who would get hurt and that is not my idea of fun.

Intrigue is not a game with a strong meta game element. In Intrigue, the meta game is the whole thing. The pieces and the play money just give you something to talk about.
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Tue Nov 1, 2011 5:45 pm
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Lessons from a Recovering Assassin

Lowell Kempf
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Tucson
Arizona
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Lately, I have been writing about the elements of gaming that are actually outside of the game itself. Meta gaming and gamesmanship, the parts of a game that don’t involve the rules or the pieces but the behavior and intentions of the players.

The nature of these elements that exist out of the game could be described as what we put into the game and what we get out of the game.

Over the weekend, I talked to an old friend who used to play The Assassin Game. In this particular case, this refers to a live action role playing game where a group of people agree to a play a full time game of last man standing. Using a set of rules that are designed to keep from anyone actually getting hurt (spoons for stabbing, nerf for shooting, etc), the players are open to getting eliminated from the game 24-7 until one person is left.

Now, I’ve never actually played a game like that, which means I really don’t know the rules or the system. I do understand that there is a referee system so there is some organization and adjudication going on. Beyond that, as far as I can tell, it’s just a bunch of nuts pretending to kill each other in the streets.

To be honest, I don’t think I’d ever want to play a game like that. Too much stress and too much time commitment. And, while my friend looks back upon his time of playing the game fondly, his stories make me even less inclined to ever want to play.

I’ll call him Mr. A because I think confidentiality is really needed in this case. Mr. A when played the Assassin Game was apparently someone who was willing to go to ridiculous lengths to eliminate other players. People who were involved in his games told me stories, like how he hid spoons in people’s lawns during the night so he could look unarmed or hid under someone’s porch overnight. I do know he snuck into someone’s office and sent them a ‘bomb’ note (just a piece of paper that says If you are reading this, you have been assassinated) in their inner office mail. He even apparently took to learning how to talk with a miniature spoon in his mouth so he could have someone pat him down and still get them.

In fact, when he heard about how, in a current game, a player had been transferred to Prague for two weeks, his comment was “If I was still playing, I’d be pricing plane tickets right now.”

Needless to say, he had to quit playing the Assassination Game because he got too wrapped up in it. When he was playing, he was willing to things like trespass and aggravate a lot of people who weren’t in the game just to make one kill. When he lectured me about how to play the game, he said that you had to realize that your actions had consequences and then you had to accept those consequences if you wanted to win.

So what does this have to do with my own gaming experiences? While Mr. A is a good friend and I like him a lot, I still think that the game drove him a little crazy and that he is better off never going anywhere near it again.

It’s because this was his final word on the subject: “At the end of the day, what I got out of it was a lot of great stories, stories that I would never be able to tell if I hadn’t played.”

And, while I am never planning on sneaking into someone’s office in the name of a game or spending eight hours under their porch, I do have to admit that the stories that I get from gaming are sometimes one of the biggest rewards.

No, I don’t have any stories like Mr’s A’s. I have never had to risk getting arrested for a game of Settlers, although I have probably come close to getting a punch in the nose. However, I did meet the woman who I’m going to marry over a game of Settlers.

And there are certain games that you play because the overall experience of the play is going to stay with you for years to come. Advanced Civilization is one that stands out for me. While the number of players you need and the time it takes to play means that I am lucky to get in one play a year, every game becomes a story that you talk about for years to come.

Games become part of the story of our lives. Hopefully they don’t become the entire story or the most interesting part but they can certainly become something to remember and to talk about.
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Mon Oct 31, 2011 5:05 pm
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The Unpleasant Reality of Gamesmanship

Lowell Kempf
United States
Tucson
Arizona
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I keep on learning new terms this week. In a blog about metagaming, someone showed me the term Gamesmanship.

Like emergent gameplay or emergent narrative, it’s an idea that I already was familiar with. I just didn’t know what it was called.

Gamesmanship is the art of messing with another player’s head in order to win but not going so far as to actually, out-and-out cheat. For instance, intentionally walking into a snooker player’s line of sight as they’re making a shot it is gamesmanship. Bumping their elbow is cheating.

To be honest, I think there is a very fine line between gamesmanship and blatantly cheating. There are definitely times when I think it honestly crosses the line. I also think there is a very definite line between clever gameplay and gamesmanship.

For instance, I think that running up the price of an item in an auction game is not gamesmanship. I have played many games of Power Grid where people intentionally forced other players into the choice of either getting the power plant they wanted or being able to buy the resources to fuel it.

A more pure example is how this is the basic gameplay of High Society. Not only does running up the price of a card mean that you are leaving your opponent with less money. You are also increasing the chances of them getting eliminated in the end game.

In the same way, pushing the bid in a poker game, even when you might not have the cards to back it up, in the hopes of bluffing your opponents into folding could be viewed as gamesmanship. However, that’s how you play the game. Bluffing is an intrinsic part of poker. Some people will argue that it is the basis of poker and the cards just provide the excuse.

Are you messing with people’s heads when you do things like that? Well, yeah. However, it’s all still within the basic framework of how the game works. These are the kind of things that aren’t just acceptable, they’re even expected.

On the other hand, taking an interminably long time to play on your turn in order to aggravate other players, arguing rules when you are clearly wrong, singing off-tune drinking songs, intentionally misdealing cards in order to force a reshuffle, faking a heart attack, that’s when you cross the line out of cunning play and into gamesmanship for me.

That kind of behavior can sometimes be amusing but it can quickly become offensive and aggravating. I don’t play for money. I play games for fun and relaxation. If someone is intentionally playing in a way that is designed to make me not have fun, then they are wasting my time and upsetting me for no other reason than their own satisfaction. I don’t want to play games with people like that. I don’t even want to be in the same room as them.

In an earlier post, Patrick Carroll wrote about how a player in a play-by-mail game faked a terminal illness in order to have the other players basically let the guy win. That kind of behavior is so offensive that it blows my mind. It honestly makes me ask “What is so wrong with someone that they could consider this acceptable behavior?”

Yes, there is a matter of degree involved. I wouldn’t put trash talk, for instance, in the realm of gamesmanship. For one thing, it often has a certain degree of heavy-handed, friendly kidding involved. For another thing, everyone knows what you’re doing when you trash talk.

It's also important to realize when someone isn't practicing gamesmanship. Taking forever to take a turn can be a form of psychological warfare. It can also mean someone has analysis paralysis.

In the end, I try to avoid people who practice gamesmanship. That kind of play is contrary to every reason that I play board games. However, I can still run into it at conventions and meet-up groups. Sometimes, all you can do is be aware that it’s out there and do your best to ride out the bad experience.
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Fri Oct 28, 2011 7:43 pm
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The Game Outside of the Game

Lowell Kempf
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Tucson
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Metagaming is ridiculously broad term used to refer to any time a player goes outside the strict rules of the game. It doesn’t refer to cheating, per se (although I suppose all forms of cheating would be considered metagaming) since it doesn’t necessarily mean you are breaking the rules. It means that there are aspects of your play that go beyond or outside the rules.

Like emergent gameplay (or emergent narrative), metagaming is one of those topics I’ll never be able to cover in one entry. Instead, I have a feeling that it’s a topic that I’ll revisit a number of times.

Some people view metagaming as a bad, even detrimental thing. Other people view it as an absolutely essential element of gaming. However, the truth of the matter is that we can never completely divorce our own feelings and experiences from a game. One some level, there is always going to be some level of metagaming.

Fortunately, like I said before, the term is so broad-based that we’re not comparing apples to apples but apples to bricks to uranium.

I first came across the idea in role playing games, where metagaming is used to describe your characters acting on knowledge that they have no way of knowing but you, the player do. My fourth-level fighter has no reason to know that you need silver to fight devils or even how to tell devils from demons. As the guy who’s read all the monsters books, I do know that and can have him act accordingly.

Generally speaking, that kind of metagaming tends to make the RPG experience a little weaker, at best. At worst, it can derail of the narrative that your group is developing. So, my first exposure to metagaming was as a bad thing.

On the other hand, as had been pointed out to me, poker is a game where the metagame is more important than the actual rules itself. Any game where real money is on the line is a game where there’s a lot more going on than what’s in the rule book. And, in the case of poker, that’s what makes it a tense and exciting experience.

In collectable card games like Magic, the metagame is all about understanding the environment. Certain cards or styles of play may be prevalent and knowing how to use them well or how to counter them well is important in playing the game. Indeed, the metagame can sometimes be more interesting than the actual game itself

What does this mean? It means that either metagaming doesn’t have to be a bad thing or the term is so contextual that it doesn’t have anything close to a specific meaning.

So, let’s narrow the focus a bit. What do I think about metagaming when it comes to my usual board gaming experience?

First of all, I think that every regular gaming group develops its own groupthink. Certain play styles tend to become prevalent. Just like Magic players either learn how to excel at a particular play style or learn how to counter it, I think that regular gaming groups tend to do that.

As an obvious example, I have played Dominion face-to-face with two different groups on a semi-regular basis. (One is in another state so I haven’t played as much with them) One group tends to focus on trashing and creating speed decks. The other group prefers to focus on attack decks, leading to longer but much more aggressive games. Neither group is married to their own play style to the point that they can’t adapt but I know what cards folks with gravitate towards.

A valuable lesson that the second group taught the first group is that Mint isn’t such a tasty card when Pirate Ship or Thief is in the mix

So one element of metagaming that I find myself experiencing a lot is just how the people I regularly play with think.

Another aspect of metagaming, one that I have not seen as much of lately, is people who intentionally play or act in a way to make other people play badly.

I used to play with a guy who would intentionally whine during games, particularly Settlers. He explicitly described it as an intentional strategy. If he was really lucky, people would feel sorry for him and give him favorable trades. At the very least, it would irritate and annoy people to the point where it might throw off their game. After all, it was nothing in the rules that said he couldn’t whine. There was at least one game where I got so fed up with it that I hit him with the robber every chance I could get, regardless of who was winning.

Needless to say, that is one form of metagaming I really don’t like.

In the end, a game is defined by its rules. The limitations of your actions and the options that are open to you are set in place by the rules. However, the experience of playing a game will go beyond the rules.
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6 Comments
Thu Oct 27, 2011 4:52 pm
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