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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While the cat's away, the mice pull out board games

Lowell Kempf
United States
Tucson
Arizona
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Over the weekend, my fiancé Carrie went out of town to visit a friend and do some bridal things.e Left to my own devices on a Saturday, I had arranged to slide back into my old bachelor ways and wrangle up a couple of friends to spend the afternoon and evening gaming away.

To be brutally honest, I think that my gaming buddies miss the days when I could play for hours upon hours on a weekend a lot more than I do. That said, it was nice to spend some time at the table, learning new games and revisiting others.

I am definitely a member of the Cult of New-To-Me. It doesn’t have to be the latest game, just a game that I haven’t played before. Learning a new game and seeing how the mechanics work and putting them through their paces is a lot of fun for me. Fortunately for me, I got to learn three new games on Saturday. Of course, as is often the case, I had to teach two of them as well

The game that someone else had to teach was Lords of Vegas. It’s gotten some good press in my gaming circle and I was looking forward to playing it.

Lords of Vegas is a game where you are trying to build up your own share of Las Vegas as it forms in the 50s. You are trying make sure that you get control of the casinos that will get hit it big, as well as trying to get a commanding position on the strip. On top of that, you can try to earn some more grubstake by gambling at each other’s casinos. Doing that, though, can end up with your money in your enemy’s pocket.

Lords of Vegas definitely reminded me of Acquire. The board is a grid where chains of casinos are forming and you are trying to get control of chains. The game has more random factors than Acquire does but it gives you enough options that you can fight for your destiny, as opposed to let luck of the draw determine who wins. That said, I would say that, like in the real Vegas, a lucky break can change everything.

One touch that I particularly liked was the score track. After a certain point on the track, you have to earn multiple points at a time to move up. You cannot just dribble points in. You need to get a block of points at one time to move up. By the end, you need to score six points on the board to score one real point on the track. That makes catching up a little easier and it also forces you to really get your act together.

After that, I pulled out Gheos, a game that has been gathering dust in my closet for years. That’s one of the problems of compulsively buying new games. Promising games sometimes get hidden behind other, newer games. (I will get to you yet, Nefertiti! I promise!) When I was filling up my bag, something said “Yeah, let’s finally try this one.”

Gheos is a tile-laying game like Carcassonne where you play the role of capricious gods. Unlike Carcassonne, the tiles are triangles that are designed in such a way that they will always match sides. Also, unlike Carcassonne, you can replace tiles on the board, dividing and joining continents. And, in addition, unlike Carcassonne, no one has their one set of pawns. The players share the pool of six cultures and followers.

Actually, Gheos is really nothing like Carcassone!

Gheos proved to be a blast. The ability to replace tiles combined with the fact that it is public information how invested a player is in a given culture made this a vicious game where we constantly fought to keep each other in check. This was not a game where the board grew and sprawled across the table. This was a game where the board stayed small and tight as we did our best to destroy what someone else had built up.

And, while Gheos cannot be considered a Civilization building game but any stretch of the imagination, I did like how elements like farmlands, military technology and the like did give it the feeling trying to develop a culture.

In general, I was very happy with Gheos. It was easy to teach and we had a lot of fun playing it and we immediately played it again. It’s a game that will definitely make it back onto the table and a game that I will probably be throwing in the bag regularly.

The last new game that I got to try out was Barons. Barons is Cambridge Games’ latest product and the early buzz predicted that it would be their next Glory to Rome. It was sold out on the first day of GenCon but my fianceé had managed to find a store that still had it in stock and bought it for me. So, I went into Barons with high expectations.

Barons is a game where each player is building their own tableau of cards. There are four decks, each with their own color, that every player can draw from. Building cards require combinations of cards to be discarded to be laid down and they give you special abilities. Land Cards are just cards placed faced down but you need land to be able to draw cards. There are action cards, as well as knights which can be used to attack other players or defend against them. Whoever builds a cathedral (requiring you to already have a church and to discard two of each color) wins.

Mechanically, Barons was very sound. All of the pieces worked and worked well. However, it fell kind of flat for us. We all just generated our own economies and never ended up attacking each other with knights. (We did build small enough tableaus that it wasn’t easy to attack with a knight as it was) We played it twice but it just didn’t excite us.

I haven’t given up on Barons though. It could be that we missed a rule or that we simply didn’t play aggressively enough (although when there’s a way for us to attack each other and we don’t bother, that’s a bad sign in our group.) I suspect, though, that if there was a real problem, it’s that three players may be a weak number for the game. It didn’t create any scarcity for us so we could just ignore each other and carry on our merry way.

In addition to learning those games and getting in the required games of Dominion in, I requested that we play Dominant Species. It’s a game whose playing time means I will never get to play it enough, particularly compared to my bachelor friends. It’s also a game that I think is amazingly well designed. The layout of the board and the player’s aide makes it easy to see what you can do but deciding what to do is deliciously brutal.

And the game is strong even with only three players. I drew insects to my opponents’ birds and spiders. Every species in Dominant Species has its own strengths and weaknesses and every one places differently because of that. Insects go first on the initiative track and get a free chance to reproduce. However, they are at the bottom of the food chain and lose every tie. That is rough.

However, my lowly insect status managed to help me win since the spider player viewed the bird player as the bigger threat and ruthlessly attacked him while I quietly clawed my way to victory just barely by three points while no one was looking. That was a satisfying victory.

I don’t get in many days like that anymore. And, to be honest, I don’t mind since I have a lot of other things going on in my life now. However, every once in a while, they are a lot of fun.
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Mon Aug 29, 2011 5:41 pm
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Thanks for the suggestion!

Lowell Kempf
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Arizona
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A few entries ago, someone commented that Mosaix, a game that I’ve been pondering picking up, was probably based on High Score. I had never heard of High Score so I did the only reasonable thing that I could do and looked it up.

High Score, also known as Wurfel Bingo, belongs to that school of games that I think of as the Take It Easy school. These games are legitimately multi-player solitaire games where each player has their own board and there is no interaction, apart from possibly spilling your coffee onto an opponent’s lap to distract them. There is competition, though, since you are trying to get a higher score than everyone else.

I’m not quite sure why I enjoy these games so much. However, people clamber to play them and ask for them by name so I guess I’m not alone. I’ve had devoted diehard gamers and people who wouldn’t know Puerto Rico if it somehow bit them all enjoy and request Take It Easy.

High Score is one of those ideas that is so fundamentally simple that you wonder why you never thought of it before. Not only that, I also found myself wondering why I had never even heard of it before.

Each player has a five by five grid on a dry erase board and a marker. Two six-sided dice are rolled and each player puts their sum in an empty square. When every space is filled, you assess every column and row, as well as the two diagonals, as poker hands. Scores range from one pair being worth just one point while a straight without a 7 is worth a whopping twelve points. The diagonal scores are doubled. Play three rounds and whoever has the most points wins.

See? Simple as vanilla ice cream.

Of course, I had to try it out. Not trying it out would be like a vampire movie that didn’t have the gang of teenagers split up in the haunted house.

I have played it with both my fiancé and with my regular board game group. And, the end consensus was that it was a pretty good game that people enjoyed and wanted to play again. One player even said that he’d like to see a variant where you use actual cards instead of the dice to create matrix of poker hands.

Since we are talking about folks that have all played Take It Easy and Cities, what was it about High Score that made it stand out? The answer has to be in the dice.

In Take It Easy and similar games, the odds of any given tile being drawn is equal. When you’re looking at two dice, that’s not the case as anyone who has ever played Can’t Stop or Settlers of Catan will tell you. You’re a whole lot more likely to roll a seven than you are to roll a two or a twelve, which is why the highest scoring possibility in High Score involves one of those two numbers but not a seven.

High Score is a game that is all about playing the odds or backing the long shot. You still hear plenty of swearing during it, just like during Take It Easy but you go into it with the knowledge of how you’re playing with the bell shaped curve of the dice.

Which also meant that sometimes people’s boards actually do look alike, something I generally don’t see in Take It Easy.

Not a game that will shake my world but a filler that people are already asking to play again, one made out of very simple ideas but ideas that work.
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Fri Aug 26, 2011 9:15 pm
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Sometimes the rule book can be the biggest stumbling block

Lowell Kempf
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A friend of mine likes to say “Jargon is an impediment to communication.” He works in middle management so I figure he knows what he’s talking about when he says that specialized terms can sometimes cause other people to have no idea what you’re talking about.

Games tend to have a lot of specialized terms, sometimes using regular old words in different ways. Some role playing games, with their love of acronyms, practically sound like you’re talking to each other in computer language. And when you see a commonly used term being used in a different way or a different term used in place of a common term, it can at least make you question what the designers were thinking, possibly even really confusing the heck out of you.

That same friend, while he likes Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper, hates the fact that the draw pile is called the case file and the discard pile is called London, something you can’t escape from since those terms on the playing cards. Yes, it is atmospheric but it makes it just that much more difficult to teach the game and to remember what the game’s jargon is.

When I was reading the rules to Master of Rules (thanks Tanga) recently, I found myself wondering what they were thinking when it came to using the word trick.

For those of you haven’t played Master of Rules (and, to be honest, I’m one of those people. I’ve just read the rules. I haven’t had a chance to play it yet), it’s a game where players take turns playing two cards per turn. One of those cards is a number card and the other is a Rule Card, which states the condition in which the player can earn the Rule Card they played as a point, a condition that involves all the number cards that have been played that turn.

The game itself actually looks pretty simple with some nice bluffing elements, as well as some nice game theory elements since you need to predict what the other players are going to do. However, as ironic as it is for a game called Master of Rules to do this, I think the rules kind of fell down on the job.

Honestly, I think that the rules were a little confusing about order of play (you always redraw after you play a card but those actions were listed in different sections of the order of play) and I think calling the Rule Cards Goal Cards would explain what they do much better, although Master of Goals isn’t as cool a name.

However, when the rules called each player playing a card a trick, my brain went “Wha?”

Maybe that is technically true but each player has to play two cards (two tricks per turn according to the rules) before anything is resolved and the turn could be resolved with no players getting a point or multiple players getting a point.

The word trick automatically brings to mind trick-taking games like Euchre or Bridge or Wizard or, well a whole lot of other games, old and new. And I don’t think there is anyone who could argue that Master of Rules is a trick-taking game with a straight face. The use of that one word made me reread the rules twice to make sure I wasn’t missing something.

Now, you can point out that the game has been translated from another language (and I think most of the people reading this blog has seen some translating doozies) and that I am being pretty darn nit-picky here. And, those are both good points.

However, let’s be honest here. The rule book is an integral part of a game. And when you are learning a game through the rule book or you have to teach a game using the rule book, you want that rule book to be as clear as possible. If a rule book makes learning a game more difficult or more frustrating for the people who I am teaching, that make the rule book an obstacle in ever playing the game at all.

Now, there are extenuating circumstances. If I am reading the rules to a longer and more complicated game like, say, Advanced Squad Leader or Star Fleet Battles or even Dominant Species, I expect to make mistakes learning the game and for the rule book to be complicated. But when a one-sheet instruction manual for what looks to be a fairly simple game that should take a half hour or less to play is confusing, that’s an issue.

I have seen far, far worse rule sets but its been a while since I read a rule set that made me go "Wha?"
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Thu Aug 25, 2011 10:58 pm
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Why do I play games? Part Four: Friendship

Lowell Kempf
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Lately, I have been writing about reasons why I play games. Gaming has been a big part of my life, one way or another, for all of my adult life. Some people, like some of my relatives, would even say it’s a way that I’ve been avoiding my adult life

All joking aside (You were joking, Dad? Right?), I have spent a lot of time and effort gaming and it’s been pretty darn rewarding. Not only do I keep on doing it, I look forward to it and I keep on having lots of fun. And, while I don’t have to understand why I do it, it’s still fun to wonder why I play games.

I have already written about how much fun it is to take part in the story that a game can create and try to guide that story in the way you want it to go. I have also written about my love of mechanics, the way that a game creates its own little system and how much joy I have in watching that process go. And I have written about how I have come to embrace the competitive side of gaming and how I enjoy trying to beat my opponents.

However, all of these reasons pale before the single biggest reason why I try to sit down at a table to play at least once a week, why I have a closet full of games suitable for almost every occasion and why I have such a good time playing games.

And that reason, of course, is friendship. It’s in the subject line so it shouldn’t come as any surprise.

Call it friendship. Call it social interaction. Call it an excuse to hang out with my buds. No matter what, it is the people who I play games with and the relationships that I have developed with them that keep me gaming. If it wasn’t for them, my game collection would be nothing more than a bunch of brightly colored cat perches.

When I look back at my life, I can see that most of the lasting and meaningful friendships that I have had are ones that are rooted in gaming. I am still in touch with my college Dungeons and Dragons group and all of my groomsmen come from that bunch of guys. Heck, I met my fiancé at a gaming meet up and a lot of our courtship revolved around getting together to play games like Ingenious and Lost Cities.

Any way you slice it, that makes gaming a big deal for me. Gaming has played a huge part in my non-gaming life and has had a major positive effect on top of that.

I have often said that different occasions call for different games. I am a bit of a social butterfly and my game collection reflects that. I pride myself in being able to find a game that will suit the players and the circumstances. My regular gaming group calls for longer and deeper games with a strong tactical element while I have a selection of lighter games for house parties and casual outings. People know me as a gamer but they also know me as someone who is fun to game with.

I am someone who has found friends through gaming and who brings games into friendships, usually to the appreciations of my non-gaming friends.

I thought that when I reached this point in this blog, I would be writing a really long entry. However, as important as friendship is to my gaming life, it really is quite simple. In the end, my friends really are the biggest reason I am a gamer.
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Thu Aug 25, 2011 5:34 pm
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Callisto: Was it worth it?

Lowell Kempf
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Callisto is a game that has been on my radar for a while but for all the wrong reasons. Yes, it is by Reiner Knizia, a designer who has developed many of my favorite games. Yes, it is a light abstract, a genre that I am quite fond of. However, neither of those are the reasons that I kept eyeing the game.

The reason that Callisto has been tempting me is because I’ve been seeing it deeply discounted at Borders bookstores that have been liquidating their stock before going out of business.

Chicago is down to their last one. I was in that neighborhood on other business. I had a Borders gift card that was going to soon become worthless when Borders completely went away. Short story even shorter, I went in, found that they still had a copy of Callisto and got it.

The next night, I put it on the table and found out if it had been worth the couple of books I could have gotten instead with that gift card.

Callisto is a tile-laying game where each player has the same set of tiles in their own color that are different shapes made up of squares. Think Tetris and you know what I’m talking about. Players take turns playing tiles on the board and whoever covers more of the board than anyone else wins. The board size changes depending on the number of players.

Three of a player’s pieces are columns which only take up one square on the board. They can be placed anywhere on the board except the middle. All other pieces need to share an edge with either a column or another piece of the same color.

The game ends when no one can place any more tiles. At that point, the easiest way to figure out who won is the count of the number of squares left in your unused pieces. Whoever has the fewest must have the most on the board and is the winner.

Okay, if you’ve never seen Callisto before, you’re probably scratching your head and saying “This all sounds familiar.” And you’re right. Callisto shares a whole lot of characteristics with the Blokus family of games. Now, as has been pointed out, Blokus didn’t invent this genre of tile laying games. They date back to the sixties in fact. However, Blokus has set the gold standard for them and Blokus is the game that Callisto is going to be competing against for table time.

While there are a number of differences between Callisto and the Blokus family, like the fact that you are matching edges instead of corners, the real difference is the columns. Callisto lives and dies as a distinct game by the columns.

The columns do two very important things, game wise. The first two moves you make are placing columns and, although you can’t place them in the middle, that still gives you a lot of options. Even counting mirror placements, this still adds a lot of flexibility and options to the opening game.

The other thing that this adds to Callisto is the option of playing the third column later in the game. Blocking in Callisto can be a lot more brutal in Blokus since edge to edge rather than corner to corner creates much less porous borders. Not only does your third column help you deal with that, it gives you a way of infiltrating one (or more) of your opponents’ territories.

Is that enough? I’m honestly not sure. I do think Callisto is stronger than the original Blokus. I don’t care for starting at the corners of the boards and I think that the three-player Callisto is vastly stronger. However, I really wouldn’t be comparing Callisto to the original Blokus. I would compare it to Blokus Trigon. That is the version I pull out the most often and I think that Blokus Trigon is the stronger game.

Taken on its own strengths, Callisto is a decent little game with some good replay value. I expect I will get some good play out of it and I am curious to see what my friends who like Go think of it. (They loved Blokus Trigon) Still, there are times when I have to purge my game collection and, when that time comes again, Callisto might not make the cut.
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Tue Aug 23, 2011 9:00 pm
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Why do I play games? Part Three: Competition

Lowell Kempf
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Why do we play games? There are a lot of different reasons. I’m sure that everyone has their own reasons and I’m also sure that we all have more than one reason. I’ve been having fun mulling over why I personally play games and so I’m going to keep on going.

I’ve already written about how I can be drawn into the story a game tells, particularly when I’m playing a role playing game like Dungeons and Dragons. I’ve written about how I enjoy the intellectual stimulation of the mechanics of a game, both learning how a game works and how to actually make the wheels spin.

Now, I am forced to admit to a bigger driving force in my love of gaming, one that was actually kind of hard for me to admit to myself. No, not my compulsion to buy games. I already came to terms with the fact that I can be a crazed consumer thanks to books. No, I am talking about competition.

I’ve never thought of myself as a competitive person. I like to help people and even go out of my way to do it. I try to be a team player, be conscious of other people’s feelings and needs and every job performance review I have ever had has had ‘a good team player’ on it.

However, when I taught Pandemic to my fiancé and her response was “Eh, it’s nice but it’s more fun to beat you,” I realized that she was right. Like a bolt of lightning out of the blue sent by Zeus (who was a competitive guy if ever there was one), I realized part of the very nature of board games is the fun of beating the other guy!

That was also when I realized that a real component to that fun was the other guy. I do enjoy the occasional video game or cooperative game or puzzle but those are not things I really pursue or feel driven to do. That’s because beating a game or a system is not nearly as fun as beating another player. Competition is only competition when you’ve got an opponent.

Sometimes, competition is treated like a dirty word. And, let’s face it, there is something to be said about the fact that we are all in it together. Society can’t work if everyone is for themselves and never supports the basic infrastructure that we all live in.

However, at the same time, competition is also one of the biggest driving forces we have. Let’s face it, you want to get ahead and you get rewarded for getting ahead. If you break the rules to get ahead, then you’re a criminal. On the other hand, if you work within the rules (or at least don’t get caught)and get ahead, then you are a success.

So, competition is an innate part of human nature. There’s no point in denying that, just as working together in a group is also a part of our nature. Games provide us with a safe outlet for that competitive drive we have going, one where hopefully no one gets hurt and everyone has fun. Not everyone can play professional basketball but most people can play a board game.

And when you sit down at a table to play a game, be it Settler of Catan or Poker, everyone is sitting down for the same reason. To win. So people know what they’re in for and hopefully, people won’t have hard feelings when you do your darnest to metaphorically kick their teeth in.

I’m not saying I’ve never had hurt feeling in a game. However, most of the time, if I’ve at least left bite marks on the ankle of the winner, I’m happy. Yeah, a hard fought win is the sweetest but it still feels good to know that you went down kicking and biting. If there’s no money riding on the game, it doesn’t matter if you won or lose but if you did your best to break the other guy’s kneecap.

Of course, there is a line. I used play with someone who would intentionally annoy and irritate other players to throw them off their game and make sure they couldn’t focus. After all, there was nothing in the rules that said that they couldn’t do that. And there is nothing that says I have to play with a jerk like that. When competition gets in the way of the common goal of having fun, then it has gone too far.

Competition had another great benefit. In addition to giving you a goal and making it more fun, it also encourages improving your game. I like to tell myself that the analytic skills that I am developing will have real-life applications. After all, studies have shown that the analytic and pattern recognition skills that Go develops have lifelong mental health benefits. Even if I’m fooling myself about that, getting better at a game makes me more competitive and gives me more satisfaction when I play.

That said, while competition is a big part of why I play games, I have at least one more good reason to go.
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Tue Aug 23, 2011 4:48 pm
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Why do I play games? Part Two: Mechanics That Let My Mind Go Play

Lowell Kempf
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In my life as a role player, story was king. Sure, learning how to make the numbers sit up and beg for you was definitely part of the game. Some of the groups I played in had people who dedicated themselves to studying the rules so they could find the loopholes, sometimes just they could do something that had no mechanical effect but was just neat. But other groups were more about having the narrative come first. Screw the rules, we have a story!

Yeah, when you’re playing an RPG, rules are important. As one friend of mine like to put it, they define the world that your character lives in. The rules make your fantasy world concrete. However, for me at least, the story is the thing when it comes to role playing games and the rules are just the vehicle for telling the story.

However, I will argue that, when it comes to board games, the rules are the meat and the potatoes. Rules let you play role playing games but board games are their rules.

When I first got into board games, I found myself in a brand new world to explore, one that fascinated me. For me, getting to see the kind of mechanics that were a part of the broader world of board games was like discovering a playground that had some really amazing jungle gyms and swings. The rules of a well-designed board game were like looking at an intricate piece of clockwork, one that only existed inside the mind. On the inside, my inner child was going whee!

I discovered that, for me at least, a well-balanced set of rules is a work of art. The word elegant gets used a whole lot to describe games. However, when I read a rule set in which all the fat has been stripped away and every element has a clear and definite purpose in game play and every possible outcome is covered, that is a work of beauty to me. I enjoy reading and studying games that are ‘elegant’ and I really enjoy seeing them in action by getting them on the table and playing them!

As one of the more extreme examples, take a look at Hex. It is a game that can easily be described in about six sentences, with two of them describing the board and the pieces. However, in about six rules, you can describe every possible contingency in Hex, a game that is simple to explain but complex to play. I know that’s not the sort of thing that makes everyone smile but it sure makes me smile. And don't even get me started on Go.

So, when it comes to board games, yes, I am much more drawn to Euros and flat-out abstract games. Oh, I’m willing to play just about anything once and there are plenty of more messy and fiddly designs that I’ve enjoyed and had a good time with. However, there is something about a good, balanced rule set that just makes my mind feel like it’s been sent out to recess to play.

I’m not done yet, though. There are other elements to why I love playing games, ones that are more important than mechanics.
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Fri Aug 19, 2011 10:38 pm
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Why do I play games? Part One: The Story

Lowell Kempf
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Why do we play games?

Well, the short answer is to have fun!

However, I think that we can have some fun digging deeper into that question. Personally, I have spent a lot of money and whole lot more time on games and they are big part of my life. I don’t regret that. Gaming has given me quite a bit over the years and might have even made me a better person.

So, let’s dig into a completely unscientific and totally biased and 100% personal look about why we play games. Actually, let’s call it why I play games.

Part 1. The Narrative

I love me some stories. I love reading stories, I love hearing stories, I love telling stories. According to a Mueller-Briggs test, I came out as a raconteur. My friends often say “That Lowell, he can tell some stories. Too bad none of them are interesting.”

So it comes as no surprise that story-telling and the narrative were a big part of what drew me into gaming. Although, not board gaming. No, my early gaming life and my middle gaming life were all dominated by role playing games.

Indeed, up through college, I played a lot of different role playing games. To my shame, I played quite a bit of Pallidium in high school and I tried out a lot of different systems in college. By the time I was out of college, I was pretty much sticking to that old standby, Dungeons and Dragons.

Which I still play to this day. I have played just about every edition, which has made me come to this conclusion: I like third edition and fourth edition more than first or second but as long as the DM is comfortable with the system and everyone is having fun, I don’t care.

I could actually write quite a bit about my history with RPGs. Heck, maybe I will at some point. However, that’s not the alleged point of this entry.

Story telling. One way or another, it’s a part of gaming. Sometimes the game itself is the story. Sometimes the story is talking about how the game went afterwards. However, one way or the other, games create stories and people love those stories. Why else would poker and casinos and gambling show up in so many movies?

And the theme and story of a game is something that can get us more involved in a game, something that can emotional weight. When we get pulled into the story of a game, the game becomes more important to us and often more enjoyable. It gives us a reason to care beyond just winning and losing.

That is certainly what has kept me playing gnomes wandering through dungeons for quite a few years.

However, I have to admit, as far as board games are concerned, the narrative is not nearly as important for me. Oh, I still like it when the mechanics fit the theme and when you can see a natural progression of a story. However, as long as the mechanics are sound, I can play a completely abstract game just as happily as an intricately themed one.

A big part of this has to be that euros and abstracts were a crucial step in my becoming a board gamer. Settlers of Catan and Go are two of my key touchstone board games that made me the way I am. And, to be honest, after spending years developing a character in a Dungeons and Dragons Campaign, a board game that wraps up in a night is never going to give me that same level of emotional attachment.

That does mean I don’t care at all about the narrative or theme? No, I still appreciate them. They add to the fun of the game and they can sometimes make a game a lot easier to explain. A good blend of theme and mechanics can make a game a really amazing experience. Stone Age is a game that I and my friends love because it combines solid worker placement mechanics with cavemen struggling to survive.

The story a board game tells is not the most important thing for me. Sometimes, the theme is just the spice that makes a good game better. However, it is still part of what makes gaming fun for me. Just not the most important part.
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Fri Aug 19, 2011 6:11 pm
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Six: The Little Abstract That Could

Lowell Kempf
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My mom picked up a copy of Six as a gift for me at a clearance bin at a Barnes and Nobel a few years back. I had never heard of the game before but I thought “Eh, how bad could it be? Thanks, Mom.” After all, I do enjoy abstracts quite a bit, particularly ones designed with a shorter playing time in mind.

And, much to surprise, Six came out of nowhere to be a game that regularly hits the table. It’s a game that almost always ends up in my bag on trips and it’s a game that my fiancé and I will play pretty much at the drop of a hat. It has become one of our go-to games to play several times in a row.

If you’ve ever played Hive, it’s probably impossible not to compare the two games when you see Six. They are both games where the pieces are chunky hexes (although Hive’s pieces are super-cool bakelite compared to Six’s more prosaic wooden hexes) and the pieces are what form the board. However, Hive is a darling of the gaming world while Six is more of “That guy, third from the right, at the back of the bar”

Despite that (and despite thinking that Hive is pretty darn nifty myself), several of the people who I’ve introduced Six to have liked it more than Hive. I think that’s because Six is even more elegantly simple than Hive since all the pieces do the exact same thing. Even the apparent three ending conditions is simpler than it sounds. Six does not have three different endgame conditions, it has three variations on the same endgame condition.

Six is very simple to teach. Place pieces. If no one’s won by the time they’re all out, start moving pieces. Whoever forms one of three patterns of six pieces first wins. It’s that simple. There are variant rules where you can break the board apart but I’ve never felt the need to use them. The basic game has always proved interesting enough and I’m not sure the ability to discard pieces would make the game deeper, just more dynamic.

Six has that delicious feature of a good abstract, that the simple rules offer complex choices. The placement rules and the movement rules are simple but open-ended. That means that gameplay doesn’t have to be formulaic. Six is a game of patterns and the more you play it, the more patterns will emerge.

Six tends to very much a game of cat-and-mouse, where both players try to set up traps, preferably ones where they can form a pattern that lets them win the game in more than one way. While it is true that it could end up with the players constantly stale-mating each other, I’ve found that the open-ended play means that there are too many options for one player to forever keep the other in check.

Six may have a dull name, boring-looking pieces and no big name designer or publisher attached to it so it’s easy to overlook. However, I have gotten in dozens of plays and I’m pretty sure I’ll get in plenty more in the future. Scratch its rough surface and you’ll find a diamond of an abstract underneath.
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Thu Aug 18, 2011 9:19 pm
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Culling the Game Collection: A Work in Progress

Lowell Kempf
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I have always been a collector and a packrat. It’s part of who I am and part of my nature. And, to be honest, I don’t see that as something that’s going to change. I’m not going to become an ascetic and live a possession-free life. However, one thing that I have been working on is managing my collecting and packrat nature.

Now, I’ve never been to the point where I was in danger of going on Hoarders. At least, that’s what I tell myself.

However, by the time my fiancé got ready to move in with me, I knew that I had a problem and that something had to change. The problem was that I had a spare room full of boxes of books and games, some of which hadn’t been opened in five years. Truly, full to the point where you couldn't see the floor. Okay, that was on top of having a shelf of games in the kitchen that took up a third of the wall and games and books squirreled away in other places as well.

Part of the problem might have been my acquisitive nature. I couldn’t pass up a bargain and I could relate all too well to Igor from Dork Tower’s cry of “It must be mine!” But, clearly, part of the problem was that I didn’t have enough room for another human being and another cat to move in!

Well, I spent a month ruthlessly culling the books. We made multiple trips to a local used bookstore, once even renting a cargo van, until I was down to two book shelves of books. She got me a nook with extra memory so I could develop an electronic library, which I have indeed been doing. It might not be the same but, let me tell you, the space difference makes it totally worth it.

Unfortunately, culling games isn’t quite as easy and it’s a process that it still ongoing.

Step one was, of course, deciding what games had to go. In some cases, that was an easy choice. Some games I bought just because they were cheap and I knew that I was probably never going to play them. Other games were ones that I had tried out and hated. Those could go as well.

Then, there were games that I knew just weren’t going to see much, if any, play. A board game collection exists to be played (except for my collection of 3M games. Mine! MINE! Hisss!) and a game that’s just taking up shelf space and doing nothing else may have to make way for a game that will hit the table.

I have given games to friends and I have given games to charitable institutions and I have sold games to bookstores, particularly when I was sure that they didn’t have much resale value anyway. I still have a couple stacks of games to get rid of.

I’m thinking about using the geek market place, which I’ve never done before. A little scary since I’ve shied away from e-bay and similar places (since I clearly have poor self-control when it comes to buying stuff ) However, that might be the next logical step.

I'm not done yet and I have a feeling that something I need to learn how to do is regularly assess and cull the collection.
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Thu Aug 18, 2011 3:35 pm
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