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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.

Archive for Lowell Kempf

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Celebrating the holidays with the BGG card exchange

Lowell Kempf
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This is the second year that we've taken part in the Boardgame Geek Christmas card exchange. Last year, we just got our toes wet with four cards but we got more ambitious with ten cards this time.

Ever since we got a Cricut, which is a precision paper cutting machine, we've been making a lot of homemade cards. So the Christmas card exchange is just bringing two of our hobbies together.

It really is a way of being a part of the greater family of Boardgame Geek. Yeah, I spend a lot of time on the site. I post there regularly and have even played games there. But sending out homemade cards is one more level of being active in the community.

And it's been fun to get cards back. Our card wall has been extra spiffy this year, although the hand knit mug warmer decorated with meeples was a particular high light (Thanks, Ryan!)

Happy holidays, gamers everywhere!
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Sun Dec 25, 2016 7:38 pm
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Looney Labs sent one heck of a holiday present this year

Lowell Kempf
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I've been on Looney Labs Holiday Gift list since...2005. Wow.

And, up until this point, my favorite holiday gift from Looney Labs has been the 2008 World War 5, because using the pyramids to play a simplified Risk just tickled my fancy.

But the 2016 Holiday present of Sandships is a new high park for me.

Sandships is a light war game/area of control game. You build towers in Martian cities and fight with the title Sandships on a claustrophobic board. While your options are determined by specialty dice, there is a wild face and other ways of getting wilds so you actually have a lot of flexibility.

It also came with stickers so you could turn three playing dice into lightning dice, which are part of the Pyramid Arcade set. Since I have so far decided against getting that, since I have tons and tons of pyramids already, that is a really nice bonus.

But here is the real reason I was so thrilled when I open the mailbox.

One of the prototypes that Andy Loney showed us Looney Lab fans at Rincon was Sandships. And I got to play it three times in a row, with two, three and four players. And I had a really great time, despite getting crushed every game.

So I knew exactly what was in the envelope and it was something that I had had a lot of fun with.

It is always fun to get one of Looney Labs' holiday gifts. But this year, it was the bee's knees, the cat's pajamas and the crocodile's suitcase.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Dec 23, 2016 12:07 am
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Atacama: mining as through a spreadsheet

Lowell Kempf
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Out of all the games that have been recently added to Yucata, Atacama is the one that I knew the absolute least about.

A little bit of research later, I found out that Atacama is a game that was designed as part of a contest to create a game using the components of a previously existing game and other spare parts. And, just for the record, it didn't win. However, it did get published, which is saying something.

The theme of Atacama is mining for gold, silver and copper in South America. The reality is that it's an abstract of placing neutral pawns in a nine by nine grid. Bit like filling out a spreadsheet. Every space has a good or silver or copper mine on it, along with a numeric value ranging from one to five, indicated by dots of the metal.

OK, here's where it gets interesting. Each player or team is either the horizontal rows or the vertical columns. You need for pawns in line before it scores but each direction has a metal (a different one, natch) that scores negative points. And pawns can't be right next each other, creating a way to block each other and create dead spaces.

So far, I've just played the basic version of the game. Some of the variants include special pawns that count as two pawns and revealing the board slowly, one section at a time. (The board is made up of nine tiles so there is a lot of room for variable set ups.)

I still have to play the game plenty more times and play the variants but I have a feeling that the game is solvable, at least in the versions were you know the whole board. I suspect, at a high enough skill level that there is a strong second player advantage. Although, thanks for blocking, I can also see how there might be a very strong first player advantage instead. Regardless, I really suspect that skilled play will favor one position.

And, despite the mining theme in the reasonably pretty mining artwork, there is no denying that this is a pure abstract in a fairly dry one at that. Which isn't a problem for me but I know makes it less appealing for a lot of folks I know.

So here's the thing. I have been enjoying Atacama a whole lot more than I think it has any right to be enjoyed. The whole sharing pawns and creative ways of blocking each other has been a surprising amount of fun for me.

I don't know if I would play this face-to-face. There's a lot of good abstract options out there for that. But, as part of my Yucatá rotation, I can easily see myself getting in a dozen place of this and trying out all the variations. It's not going to be a game that I will play forever but I will play it for a bit.

I know that's not high praise but that's not bad.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Thu Dec 22, 2016 11:53 pm
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Dying on a mountain in about an hour

Lowell Kempf
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No, this isn't about the old Avalon Hill game Outdoor Survival. Similar ideas, though.

While reading through South Side of the Sky, one of the many teeny tiny RPG's from the Indy Megamix Mixtape, it has occurred to me that, even though I am trying to go slow, reading all of these little role-playing games is starting to make me blasé.

On the one hand, there is still part of me that is old enough that the idea of micro RPGs and two-player RPGs and GM-free RPGs and one-session-by-design RPGs are pretty amazing. The reality is the revolution is over and both sides won. There are a lot of new and innovative role-playing games out there but the older ways are still going strong with plenty of good gaming out there.

On the other hand, at this point, I've seen a whole lot of them. Some, like Microscope and Fiasco, have been amazing experiences period. Others, well, they can be okay but not inspiring. Any role playing game can fun and creative with the right people but some games and some systems help really bring that out.

South Side of the Sky is a two-player game about two people who are lost on a mountain and struggling to survive and get home. Hint: it's not going to end well. The best you can hope for is to not be dead yet at the end of the game.

The mechanics as fairly simple. Each player gets a hand of ten cards from a regular deck of playing cards. Each scene is a call and response, with one player setting the scene and the other responding. You play cards that define what's happening and the mood of the scene.

Most of the rules are actually a guide to what each card means. Or, if you want to be more free-form, each suit as a general meaning, giving you more room to improvise.

Whoever played the higher card put the cards in their discard pile. If the caller gets the cards, things went well. If the responder gets the card, bad times. Whoever has the fewest cards at the end will narrate the ending and if they have more black cards, everybody dies.

Having lived in a couple different places where there are mountains and getting to hear news reports on a semi regular basis of people getting lost and dying in them, I do have to admit that the theme resonates for me.

And I do think that the rules create a very strong if simple framework to work with. There aren't any gaping holes and the resolution system is very clean.

At the same time, South of the Sky didn't really excite me. I will freely admit that part of that is because I have just looked at so many micro RPGs this year. I'm getting a little jaded. But even considering that, I don't think there's that inspiring hook that really makes a game like this shine. Solid ideas but there isn't a twist.

There are definitely some good ideas that work here. But I think it needs just a little more.
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Wed Dec 21, 2016 12:47 am
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Yucatá keeps on delivering

Lowell Kempf
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Yucatá has been one of my primary gaming experiences over the last few years. The moving to a whole new part of the country and having a small child has meant online gaming has been a godsend. And the last few months have definitely seen a decent number of new games added to the site.

Every time a game is added to Yucatá, it feels like a game has been added to my closet. More than that, everyone who signs on has access to the same games so everyone involved has the same chance to play.

Since October, we've seen Attika, Packet Row, Spexxx, Atacama and Las Vegas get added. I've had a chance to play them all by now. In the case of Attika, it was the chance to revisit a game that I haven't played in years.

None of these games are particularly heavy. In fact, some of them are awfully light. However, when you are playing online Internet-based, the disconnect from time and space can add weight to games. Coming back to a game after a day or two and figuring out what's going on is a different mental process than playing face-to-face. Although, sometimes, that can actually make a game easier. But it is definitely different.

I do realize that five games over the course of three months might not sound like that much. Back when I was in the cult of the new, that could be one game order. However, I didn't always play all those games. These new games on Yucatá, I am playing all of them multiple times.

And I know that I will play even the weakest of the lot, which is probably Acatama, several times to explore it. That's another thing that Yucatá lets me do, really explore repetition.

Yucatá keeps on delivering a good experience for me.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Tue Dec 20, 2016 5:13 pm
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The Black Spot, a game for emergencies

Lowell Kempf
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The Black Spot is a very simple story-telling RPG that fills a couple of interesting slots in one's bag of tricks. It'll play a larger group, up to eight players; has almost no prep time; and will play out fairly quickly. It's not an amazing game, to be perfectly honest, but it is something that can be pulled out without a problem in a pinch.

I had assumed, from the title, that it was pirate-themed since the Black Spot is a reference Treasure Island. The rules even confirm that. However, it is actually a game of cinematic horror.

The Black Spot is a GM-free system, which is no surprise since it is a storytelling game with minimal prep. However, it has a tighter, less free-form framework compared to a lot of storytelling games.

The game is driven by a deck of special cards. You'll have to make the deck yourself, which could be a make or break issue for some folks. Personally, since print and play is one of my hobbies, that doesn't bother me.

After creating characters, who are made up of just a first name, an adjective and a profession (like Billy the Nervous Detective) and choosing a story concept (the game comes with some but, hey, horror movie. Not hard to make one yourself), you take turns being the dealer and dealing out one card to each player.

The cards, for the most part, consist of types of scenes and a sentence that you have to use in that scene. Depending on the structure you choose, you have 15 seconds to as much time as you want to use a scene. Go around the table with everyone playing their card and then the dealer moves and a new round of cards is dealt.

The Black Spot cards suspend regular play and create a more free-form scene where everyone has to interact with whatever the antagonist is.

The game wraps up when either everyone is dead or escaped or you've run the deck out. Honestly, even with no time limit per turn, I doubt a game would last more than a couple of hours.

The strengths and the weaknesses of the Black Spot are pretty closely linked together. On the one hand, it is a dead easy pick up and play a game. The longest part of set up is creating the deck, since you have to front load it with backstory cards and bottom load it with escape cards. You can get a game going with a larger
group of players in about five minutes.

On the other hand, it's going to create a fairly shallow story. A lot of the choices that you make will be influenced by the cards, particularly since you have to fit the sentence on the scene card into your scene. That does make it easier for folks who are not used to storytelling games but it is a big limiting factor and, if you were to play the game a lot, it could get repetitive.

And, frankly, there are a lot of games out there about horror. The annoyingly out-of-print Final Girl has a similar ensemble style but I think that it does it much better. Just as one example. If I had time in the planned group, I would probably pick another game then the Black Spot.

However, the Black Spot only takes up a deck of cards worth of space in the game bag. It works perfectly well as an emergency RPG that only takes five minutes to teach and set up. And it's structure makes it perfect to play with strangers or folks who are used to storytelling RPG's.

The Black Spot isn't a game I'd pick for planned play or my usual group of narrative players. But I'm going to make that deck in case of emergencies.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon Dec 19, 2016 10:03 pm
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Exploring a tomb on just one page

Lowell Kempf
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Tombs: The Sword of Valhalla is a solitaire PnP that combines an interesting theme with fascinatingly minimal mechanics to create... okay, not that great a game. That said, I can't help but appreciate how the designer crammed an adventure game into one sheet of paper.

T:tSoV describes how a team of archeologists are exploring and excavating the tomb of a Viking king, in search of the fabled sword in the title of the game. One of the most crucial mechanics is managing your resources by selling off artifacts you find.

Okay, make that a team of ethically questionable archeologists. Or just a group of tomb robbers.

The entire game consists of one sheet of paper, which includes the rules, a map of the tomb which looks like it was made out of Viking Legos, a couple of tracks and an event table. All you need to play is four dice.

One die serves as the pawn to show where you are in the tomb and track how many party members are still alive. One die will help you track how many accused hex points your tomb desecration has earned you. One die lets you track both your supply inventory and the number of artifacts you've found. And you actually roll the last die for the event table.

Basically, the game is one combat-system short of being a dungeon crawl.

It's cute how the whole thing fits on one page. The designer did a good job with the flavor text, creating a legitimate narrative of exploring the tomb. And I think that the way all the bookkeeping is done with just three dice is really neat.

But the game play is basically slogging across the map to the last chamber. If you run out of supplies or if everyone dies (which becomes a lot easier in the last chamber), you lose. You're not entirely at the mercy of the dice since you can use your supplies influence the roll but most of the decisions are pretty obvious ones.

So, while I admire how the whole idea of fitting an adventure on one page and the elegant way of book keeping with just a few dice and no pencil or paper, the actual game play just didn't excite me. I wouldn't have paid for the game and if it took more than ten minutes or so, I doubt I'd have tried it.

I admit, if I had found T:tSoV in an issue of Dragon Magazine in the early 80s, I'd have probably played the heck out of it for a few weeks. Since, hey, easy solo adventure. Indeed, it feels like something out of that era, before mobile devices made that sort of thing commonplace.

Seriously, mobile devices have really changed the whole solitaire game experience, at least for me. When I can turn on a dungeon crawl and get in some solitaire gaming with a device that I carry around in my pocket almost all the time, it makes games like T:tSoV seem kind of superfluous.

So I find myself being glad I found and experienced this game because it speaks to my inner eight-year-old. It's not something that I will revisit very often, maybe not at all. But it was fun to see something like this again.

originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon Dec 19, 2016 9:58 pm
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Riders is a neat take on the end of the world but I wanted more...

Lowell Kempf
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Riders is an RPG that I have decidedly mixed feelings about. On the one hand, I find the concept neat and the game structure unusual for an indie RPG. On the other hand, I wanted so much more on the setting.

In Riders, you have been chosen by the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse to observe events and signs that will help bring about the end of the world. However, you live on the world. All your stuff is there. So, instead, you are trying to change those events and keep the end times from coming.

The driving force behind the overall plot of the game is the Doom Clock. It starts at 5 to midnight. The players are literally struggling to push the clock back seconds at a time. If it gets as far back is 10 to midnight, The four Horsemen decide it's not time yet and go away. If it hits midnight, well, the world ends. Messily.

Adventures are called chapters, which started out with a ritual that both gives you clues to the event you need to change and helps hide you from the eyes of the Metatron, the voice of God who is keeping track of all these signs. They end with you having an actual fight with the Doom Clock.

The rules state that a chapter should take about six sessions and you should have an off session after that about the characters' lives when they're not busy trying to save the world. And any given chapter is really only going to shift the clock a certain number of seconds.

Now, I have played a number of indie games and I have read a whole lot more of them. As a rule of thumb, I have found that they're designed for relatively short campaigns or even just one shots. Riders is different because it is clearly designed for the long-haul. Yes, there is a definite end in sight, one way or the other, but it'll take you a while to get there.

That means that I'm not likely to play this game anytime in the foreseeable future. However, I like the fact that it really is designed for a longer game with a lot of character development.

What really took me about the game is the concept and setting. It's definitely an interesting idea, maybe a little bit heavy on the sympathy for the devil for my taste, but it is an engaging world. The alternate character templates, if you choose not to be one of the riders, are both interesting and add depth to the setting. In particular, you can be a normal person who accidentally got a page out of the Metatron's notebook.

So here's my problem. Riders doesn't have nearly enough setting information to satisfy me. The designer intentionally kept things vague so that folks could develop the world in the wrong ways. And I am normally really all for that free-form, sandbox approach. My favorite dungeons and dragons campaigns have been in homebrew settings. However, Riders has a very specific structure and I think a more developed setting would be helpful for that.

And, really, I just want more. I thought this was a really interesting take on Biblical End times and I really wanted to see more. I like reading RPG's for fun and reading more about the setting would've been a lot of fun.

Oh, mechanics. Riders uses what is clearly an Apocalypse World influenced system with the addition of a potent but restricted bonus dice. Having had some decent experience with this kind of system, I know that it will work well. Still, if you just gave me the mechanics without the setting, it wouldn't even be a blip on my radar.

I enjoyed reading Riders and I thought that it was a really interesting take on the end of the world. However, I really wanted so much more. It gave me enough to be interested but not enough to get excited.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Sat Dec 17, 2016 1:25 am
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Tough cops busting serious rhymes

Lowell Kempf
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Rhyme Fighter the RPG combines hard hitting police police drama with a poetry jam.

Wow. I never thought I'd write that sentence.

Rhyme Fighter is part of the Indie Megamix Mixtape, a big collection of little games. Most of them are only a couple of pages long and Rhyme Fighter is no exception. Let's see, what other labels does Rhyme Fighter have other than micro game? It's also a GM-free system that's designed for one-shots.

You are a group of funky police officers, top notch rhyme masters who can take on the crimes that no one else can. You do this by collecting playing cards by doing well at a group poetry jam session. The setting is pretty fast and fancy free. While its allegedly a police procedural, the few bits about the setting include aliens and robots.

You create a case by drawing four cards from a regular deck of cards, consulting a chart for the details, writing everything down on index cards. You create four additional index cards marked Who, Where, Why and How. When you solve those questions, you've solved the case.

The role-playing fits a style that I've seen many times in GM-free systems. One player becomes the active player, setting the scene. Then the player to the right acts as the temporary GM. Everyone else fills in as necessary, both for their own characters and any additional NPCs.

Until you get to the point where you need some conflict resolution. When the temporary GM decides that things have reached the point where something is going to happen, the poetry jam starts.

Starting with the temporary GM, the players take turns rattling off two verse couplets. As long as anyone but the GM can keep the verse going, they get to draw a card and put it face up in front of them. Every time the GM passes the verse, they get to take a card away from someone. The scene ends when someone can't finish a verse. If it's the temporary GM, they have to draw and add a card to the players stash. If it's anyone else, the temporary GM gets to take away another card.

If the players can make a set from one suit that adds up to 10, they put those cards on one of the evidence index cards. If you have a face card in the mix, that means there are complications that will have to be resolved later. Jokers will let you mix two suits, but when that happens, that's when the aliens with lasers and mind control show up.

When all the evidence has been stitched up and all of the complications of been resolved, you cracked the case. And there are no rules for failure. You are the best of the best, rhyme masters supreme. It might take you a while but you will solve that case.

In the end, what we are looking at is a ludicrous premise tied with a party game for the mechanics. Of course, I'm a fan of Baron Munchaussen, an early indie RPG whose rule set is so simple that it makes Rhyme Fighter look like Champions. So neither of those things are a bad thing in my eyes.

I do like the quirky theme of the game. I also like how, despite the very simple rules, Rhyme Fighters does push the boundaries of what you can do with narrative games. And I've seen a lot of pushing. I also like how the odds are actually stacked in the players' favor.

But... the players having to be able to come up with a rhyming couplet that furthers the story on the spot? That might be a deal breaker. That's something that some players might really struggle with. That could turn the game from fun to frustration.

I'm glad Rhyme Fighters exist. I think that quirky, narrative games are an important part of the development of the hobby. However, particularly as I develop a large library of those kind of games, I doubt I'll ever play Rhyme Fighter.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Dec 16, 2016 5:36 pm
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Looking at my past means looking at Catan

Lowell Kempf
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Like a lot of people who got into boardgames around 2000 or so, Settlers of Catan was my entry point into designer board games. Other games like Carcassonne and Puerto Rico and, yes, even Fluxx played important roles but Catan was the very first.

I first encountered Settlers of Catan visiting my out-of-state friend Doug. It would actually be a while before I'd play again or really get into board games but that was the very start. And when I did start really getting into the newer board games, Settlers of Catan was at the forefront.

As I commented before, Settlers of Catan was a lot of people's introduction to designer games/Euro Games/German Family Games when I first got into myself. I wonder if that's still the case or if there's another new entry point. There are a lot more games out there and a lot of good ones. But Catan has also reached the point of being mainstream. Worldwide, really. It is still a good game, one I still play when I can.

Over the years, it feels like I've seen a lot of Catan hate in the actual community. Some of it, I think comes from the same kind of thinking that when everyone starts liking the band that no one ever heard of, they stop being cool.

I also wonder if the fact that Catan is fundamentally a family game is another reason that some folks have issues with it. Because while there are ways of attacking each other and it is anything but a cooperative game, you still have to interact and get along with each other well enough to pull off a least a couple trades. I have played with folks who could keep a mental spreadsheet going that I would need excel for but who couldn't trade for beans.

I haven't heard this old saw in a long time, the idea that non-gamers would compare anything they'd see you playing to Monopoly. (So, Twilight Imperium? It's just like Monopoly, right?) My favorite experience like that was someone watching me teach Zendo and saying "So it's like Mastermind but with Tetris pieces" to which I replied "Exactly" since that was a pretty good call.

But, in many important ways, Catan is like Monopoly. If you play Monopoly as a trading game about infrastructure development, that is. If you play Monopoly as 'roll the dice and go round and round the board', you just like hearing me scream.

Still, all the things that make Monopoly actually worth playing (developing an infrastructure, wheeling and dealing as you trade with each other, the dice making everything uncertain and exciting) are in Catan, without the stuff that makes people burn bundles of Monopoly in a bonfire. That's part of what makes it accessible.

At the same time, Catan was the first board game I ever played that was truly inclusive. Between the possibility of being able to get resources on anyone's turn and trading, Catan does a good job keeping everyone engaged all the time. No long waits in between turns where I can go and make myself a sandwich.

I think Catan's true strength and staying power is that it is fundamentally about interacting with the other players. On the one hand, you have to get along well enough to make good trades. On the other hand, you have to be prepared to stomp their faces into the dirt with the bandit and monopoly card and cut them off. That's a pretty high level level of interaction within a pretty simple set of rules.

Settlers of Catan is a milestone in boardgames. It really did change the hobby. But, more than that, I think that it is a game that still has the place in the world and in a lot of people's collections.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Thu Dec 15, 2016 6:21 pm
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