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Martin G
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Bristol
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I've been talking a bit about the dearth of critical writing about board games and board gaming on BGG. But it's certainly not completely absent. BGG blogs have provided a welcome chance for users to develop their own voice over a series of posts on disparate topics. Here are a few I enjoy.

The Jaded Gamer: Alec's a good friend in real life and I'm enjoying his quixotic mission to play 10 games 100 times before buying a new one.

[blog=347][/blog]: I discovered this one recently and found some interesting musings on mechanics vs dynamics in games, which I intend to post about soon. (RIP )

On Gamer's Games: Jesse is leading by example in his quest for better board game criticism.

Pulsipher Game Design: Lewis has a lot to say about game design. I often disagree with him (especially about Euros) but he's usually interesting.

Solitary Soundings: Patrick has a refreshingly different perspective to most BGGers. Although he doesn't play a lot of games that I do, I always enjoy reading what he has to say.

Lacxox.: Laszlo, like Patrick, is a fellow GCL Meatball Division member. He's also one of the very few bigger Knizia fans than me

Straight Talk on Strategy Gaming: Nate's a Meatball too, and at his best, he's my favourite writer on the 'geek. Shares my love of card games, but likely to be quiet for a while due to the arrival of Linus Straight!

So tell me, who am I missing? I'll cover other bits of BGG that I monitor as well as off-geek resources in another post.

UPDATE: oops, missed Oliver's blog: Big Game Theory!

and John's blog is great too, when he gets round to updating it: Mnmlst Gmr
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Wed Mar 28, 2012 10:41 pm
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The next step: NaNoNeGaMo!

Martin G
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My last blogpost generated a lot more discussion than I expected - thanks! Most of it was around my frustration with the Cult of the New and desire to explore fewer games more deeply. There were several murmurs of agreement and a couple of well-argued posts against.

Maarten/cymric posted:
Quote:
Okay, you've explained what you find frustrating. Soren has already pointed out the obvious similarity to other cultural endeavours, and rightly dismissed the anxiety as romantic nonsense. But suppose for the moment that he wasn't right, then what? Ready to take the next step?
So here's a next step I've been thinking about: NaNoNeGaMo!

What is NaNoNeGaMo?
It stands for National No New Games Month, and it's an annual celebration of the old.

What does it involve?
For the month of June, participants will endeavour to learn no new games, enjoy ones they have already played, and post about their experiences.

Why 'national'? BGG is international!
It echoes NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), which is also international, and I just like the sound of it.

Why June?
It's almost April now, and this will give me a chance to build up a head of steam. And there's no point having it in October or after, as I can't fight the Essen tide!

How do I participate?
Initially you can post a message of support here. Nearer the time I will set up a geeklist where participants can add an entry to describe their experience.

What about Grimwold's New-to-Me geeklist?
If I get my way, it'll have a quiet month!
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Mon Mar 26, 2012 4:01 pm
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Five years: the joys and frustrations of the hobby

Martin G
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It was Friday March 23rd, 2007 when a good friend I was staying with suggested he teach me some game called Carcassonne. I've always been a games player, but until this point I had no idea that the hobby I've come to love existed. The very next day, he pointed me to a games shop in central London (now defunct) to buy my own copy.

Scarcely did I imagine then that five years later I'd have played nearly 400 different games, own 100 (still pretty meagre by some standards!), run the biggest board games group in the country (with over 1200 members) and have appeared in national print and radio extolling the virtues of modern board games.

As a hobby, modern board gaming has turned out to be perfect for me. Playing games provides both a mental challenge and a wonderful social experience. As well as getting family and longstanding friends involved with my obsession, I've also made a bunch of great friends at London on Board and around the world through BGG, in particular the guys and girl of the GCL Meatball Division.

And it's not just playing games that I enjoy, it's reading, writing, thinking and talking about them. We're lucky to have BoardGameGeek as a central organising forum, for all its failings.

Frustrations
So that's the joys, what about the frustrations? Some are about games, some are about gamers.

Having played 300-odd games, my biggest disappointment is the lack of originality in modern designs, both in mechanics and theme. Although I'm primarily a Eurogamer, I'm utterly uninterested in the latest minor twist on worker placement and resource conversion. I want games to give me new ways of challenging myself and interacting with other players. Recently the marvellous Hanabi has restored my faith that this can still be done, by presenting a co-operative game that isn't just team solitaire.

I suspect that some elements of Ameritrash may appeal to my taste for high levels of interaction and my tolerance of randomness. But why oh why does AT have to be synonymous with orcs and spaceships? These hold as little excitement for me as do the Euro tropes of Ancient Egypt and the Renaissance. Give me more political games like Tammany Hall, more eccentric explorations of science like Phil Eklund's creations, more games that are inspired by strange little corners of history that we don't all already know about.

As for gamers, the biggest blight on my gaming life is nothing to do with stereotypes of smelly, antisocial gamers that I have found to be entirely unfounded. It's the Cult of the New that has people desperately seeking out the shiny rather than appreciating the old and tested. Together with the fact that there are just Too Damn Many games coming out, it makes it a delightful rarity to sit down at a table with a group who already knows the rules and the strategy of the game they're about to play.

I've made an analogy between learning a game and learning a language before. For me, the learning isn't the fun part. It's being able to converse. I'd stop learning new games right now if I was guaranteed opponents for the ones I already love.

Related to this is the phenomenon that Jesse Dean examined incisively the other day: the lack of what he calls a 'critical infrastructure' for the boardgame hobby. Although the volume of content on BGG is impressive, it's hard to find the types of articles I really want to read, if they even exist. I know plenty of people just want to play games and have fun, but some of us are interested in examing board games at a critical, maybe even academic, level, and there doesn't seem to be a platform for that right now.

Maybe there just aren't enough of us for a critical mass (no pun intended!), although there are interesting hints of what I'm looking for in blogs, some of the GCL lists and other sites (Fortress Ameritrash, Opinionated Gamers). But it really bugs me when I encounter the anti-intellectual attitude that even trying to examine games in these terms is contrary to the goal of 'fun'. I'm very much looking forward to Jesse's next blog post with his thoughts on ways forward for the field of board game criticism.

I appear to have written more about the negatives than the positive now, so I should probably stop. You wouldn't be reading this if you didn't share my opinion that this is a marvellous hobby, and one which I don't see myself ever growing tired of. Here's to the next 5 years, and hopefully not quite so many new games!
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Fri Mar 23, 2012 4:32 pm
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Eastbourne highlights

Martin G
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Over the weekend, 50 LoBsters headed down to a hotel on the South Coast for three days of (lots of) gaming, (very little) sleep and (highly variable amounts of) drinking. The Eastbourne weekend happens twice a year and it's the highlight of my gaming calendar. In November I managed to play 37 games over the weekend and I was aiming for 40 this time round. Thanks to advance planning putting a dozen of us on the same train there and back, I was just able to manage it!

You can see everything I played here, but I'll pick out a few highlights.

Kniziathon
I wanted to run a Kniziathon last time around but didn't get organised. This time there was sufficient interest to make it worthwhile and it proved to be a fun way to persuade people to play my extensive collection of Reiner games! Some healthy competitive spirit was on show but no one took it too seriously. As the great man says, "the goal is to win, but it is the goal that is important, not the winning".

There's a full report on the weekend's geeklist, but to summarise, I was beaten by one point with a game that took place after I'd left. Gah!

Old favourites
Eastbourne's a good occasion to make sure you play your all-time favourites. I had two marvellous games of Tigris & Euphrates as part of the Kniziathon (second in both, damn!), and three of Cosmic Encounter, including a weirdly relaxing session very late on Saturday night away from the chaos of drunken Werewolf in the bar.

A game of Tammany Hall has already become an Eastbourne tradition, and it was just as brutal and curse-strewn as I'd hoped. I had to take a stroll along the beach afterwards to allow my blood pressure to return to normal! And both nights ended (for me) at 3 or 4am with 10-player rounds of 6 nimmt, each of which we dealt absent friend Alec into as a random element.

New kids on the block
I got the chance to play both the new Hunger Games tie-ins that I rules-reviewed in a previous blog post. They're both good, and pretty much as I expected them to be. The Hunger Games: District 12 Strategy Game is quick enough that the brilliantly thematic Reaping rule (one player randomly loses) isn't annoying, and The Hunger Games: Jabberjay Card Game seems to be a great spin on The Resistance that would be even better once we get the rules right.

New to me
Including the Hunger games, I played 10 new-to-me games, and my favourite was the very last game I played on the train home. I mocked up a Hanabi deck a while ago and hadn't had the opportunity to get it to the table. But with a captive audience I finally got a game, and even though I don't normally like co-ops, found it utterly brilliant. So many games feel kind of samey, but not being able to see your own cards, only those of other players, is so different and so disorientating. A lovely information theory puzzle that I really want to play again soon.

A weekend like this needs a dexterity game hit and this time it was the ingenious Hamsterrolle, in which players place pieces on the inner surface of a mobile wheel. I played three times and won once.

I also played the recently reissued Kingdoms, one of the highest-ranked Knizias I'd not yet tried. And unsurprisingly I enjoyed it, even it is one of the games that deserve Knizia's reputation for being dry and mathsy.

Lost gems
Eastbourne also offered the opportunity to tick off another couple of games on my Trip Through Time 1996 edition, both by the reliable Kramer.

Detroit-Cleveland Grand Prix is a decent race game, but Expedition was the real surprise hit for me. I described it as 'Transamerica on steroids'. Like Transamerica, players have a hand of locations to visit, and take turns to add to a shared network. But there's loads more going on in Expedition: three point-to-point 'expeditions' instead of a single network; face-up location cards that can be claimed by anyone; tokens that you can spend on special actions; the possibility of upping the stakes on some of your locations by revealing them to everyone; and an ingenious mechanic for dealing with loops in an expedition.

I've also been on a bit of a Dorra kick recently, and Kreta turned out to be a slick little area control game.

It took me until Tuesday to recover from the sleep deprivation but I already can't wait for the next time. November seems so far away.
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Fri Mar 16, 2012 12:25 am
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Oh we do like to be beside the seaside!

Martin G
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Bristol
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Tomorrow, instead of going to work, I'll be heading down to Eastbourne (on the South Coast of England, overseas readers!) for three solid days of gaming with London on Board. This is the third bi-annual LoB away weekend, and my second. Around 50 of us are going, and many have booked the same trains so the gaming can get started early!

I managed to squeeze 40 games into my suitcase, 22 of them card games crammed into a shoebox, and 11 Knizias to get our Kniziathon kicked off!

They are:

Kreta
Intrigue
Marracash
Paris Connection
Steam
Merchants of Amsterdam
Before the Wind
Basari
Tammany Hall
Nefertiti
High Society
Modern Art
Risk Express
Sushizock im Gokkelwok
Pickomino
Kingdom Builder
Municipium
Winner's Circle

Wheedle
Money
Battle Line
Let's Take a Hike
Lords of Scotland
Decktet
Hanabi
Bottle Imp
Scripts & Scribes
Tichu
Chronicle
Mamma Mia
Meuterer
Palastgefluster
Coachride to the Devils Castle
Erosion
Gloria Picktoria
Die Sieben Siegel
Monopoly Deal
No Thanks
For Sale
Haggis

So, no blogging from me over the weekend, but look out for the geeklist of everything we played after we all make it back on Sunday night.
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Thu Mar 8, 2012 11:37 pm
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Point/Counter Point

Martin G
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I wrote in my last blog post about preferring reading game criticism over listening to or watching it. The point was emphasised by returning home from the podcast recording to find the fat little pamphlet that is the quarterly Counter magazine waiting for me.

Counter is a resolutely old-school British 'zine that has been going for 14 years and dates back even further in its incarnation as Sumo. I doubt the design has changed much in that time. It's an A5 black-and-white (including the cover) stapled booklet of around 80 pages. The text is laid out in two dense columns and the only illustrations are on the cover and in the occasional adverts from games retailers.

There's a pretty consistent cast of contributors, including well-known names on BGG like Larry Levy and Alan How. More than half of each issue consists of 20-odd game reviews; other regular features include reports on conventions, letters, and a guide to a particular genre of games.

I can imagine how valuable publications like this must have been in pre-Internet days, when they were the only source of information and reviews of games. But how does Counter stand up amongst the almost overwhelming range of sources we all have access to today?

On the plus side, Counter has an editor - Stuart Dagger - and that gives it a consistency of quality and tone that you don't get by browsing random reviews on BGG. The editorial selection of topics to cover and games to review also exposes readers to games that might otherwise have drifted by on the ever-swelling tide.

The stable of experienced contributors also come to feel like trusted friends. The February issue features the regular reviewers' Top 5s of 2011, and Stuart points out in his editorial that the 'official justification' for this is to help readers judge their compatibility with each and thus which to pay more attention to when making game choices.

In this digital world, there's also something rather nice about a physical object dropping through my letter box every few months. It's so easy to flit from tab-to-tab and site-to-site in a browser, but this little booklet demands some attention. I've been reading it on my tube ride to work, where 3G and Wi-Fi don't penetrate.

Some might complain that a quarterly publication can't possibly keep up with the real-time information flow of the web. But this is board games we're talking about, not stock prices. Even if some of the games reviewed have been out since Essen 2011 or before, I haven't played most of them yet.

Where printed magazines like Counter do fall down a bit is in interactivity. Several times while reading this issue, I wanted to make a point or argue with someone. A case in point was one writer's exhortation to "ignore the rankings" because Age of Industry "languishes at 145 on BGG"; 145 out of 50,000+ lest we forget! There's a letters to the editor section, where readers can chime in on the previous issue, but that feedback just feels too remote when online I can have an instant response and start a conversation.

I guess my other complaint about Counter is its rather staid tone. This issue also makes reference to the fact that many of the contributors are more at the stage of reminiscing about their youth than enjoying its first flush. There's a slight 'seen it all before' feel to the reviews and not much real excitement or invective. The closest online equivalent to Counter is probably the Opinionated Gamers group blog, and they're a bit more, well, opinionated.

Finally, the reviewers' preferences themselves are very much aligned with the overall heavy Euro slant of BGG. The seven games picked in more than one Counter reviewer's 2011 top 5 include all five games that made the BGG top 50 (Eclipse, Castles of Burgundy, Mage Knight, Ora et Labora, A Few Acres of Snow), one that will probably join them (Trajan) and only one real surprise - Hawaii.

Of those, A Few Acres of Snow made my top 5, despite some reservations, but I disliked Hawaii and have little interest in playing the others. The other games in my top 5 are not included by any of the eight contributors. They are Kingdom Builder, Vanuatu, Ankh-Morpork and Lords of Scotland, generally indicative of my less complex, more interactive tastes.

While Counter might rarely excite me about a game or get me riled up, I'm glad it keeps going. The continuity is valuable in itself. It's fascinating to look back at old issues and read what the same guys thought about now-classic games when they first reared their heads in the 1990s. I won't be cancelling my subscription any time soon.
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Wed Mar 7, 2012 1:02 pm
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On air: reflections on podcasting

Martin G
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Bristol
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Last night I participated in the recording of a podcast for the first time. Three London on Board regulars (Karl, Henrik and Conrad) started the Royal Society of Gamers podcast last year, and completed 9 episodes. But Conrad has moved back to New York and Henrik is taking a bit of a gaming break, so Karl has decided to try out more of a magazine format, with a rotating cast of LoBsters contributing segments. Last night, John, Paul and I went round to Karl's place in East London to record a few reviews.

It was a very pleasant and easy-going experience. We played a game of Kingdom Builder, chatted for a while over pizza and beers, and then Karl set up his big microphone in the middle of the table for the recording. I think it's a good sign that it didn't feel much different chatting about games with the mike or without it. We all know each other well already and so it was easy to have a rapport. We reviewed Kingdom Builder (which Karl likes less than everyone else), Galaxy Trucker (mixed reactions, but everyone wants to like it) and I'm the Boss! (popular with all). Karl's going to edit the segments soon and probably split them between the next couple of episodes.

All that said, I don't really listen to podcasts (or watch video reviews). I much prefer to digest information and opinion by reading than listening or watching. I can get the information I want more quickly and skip the bits I'm not interested in more easily. But recording an audio review this way turned out to be much easier than writing one. I guess it comes down to the hierarchy of speed of processing words. Speaking is faster than writing, even if you're a fast touch-typer (as I am), but reading is much faster than listening.

I guess what I'm saying is that, for me, podcasting shifted some of the effort from creator to consumer. When I write a review, I'll go back over it several times, revising words and honing the flow. With a podcast you have less opportunity to do that. Obviously you can (and should) prepare, but if it was completely scripted it would sound stilted. The big benefit is how easy it is to include multiple perspectives on the same game via a natural-sounding conversation. Written reviews are much more about communicating one person's experience.

Anyway, I will certainly make an exception to my no-listening habits to see how this one turns out, and I hope I'll be invited back!
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Tue Mar 6, 2012 10:55 am
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The Hunger Games: two interesting sounding tie-ins from Wizkids

Martin G
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Browsing Gone Cardboard at the weekend, I noticed a pair of upcoming new releases based on Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy. Having devoured the books on a beach holiday last summer, I checked out the rules, rather suspecting they’d be the usual dismal book/movie tie-in fare. But actually they both sound rather promising and since there’s little information up about them as yet, I thought I’d do a quick rules review.

The story (no spoilers!)
Haven’t read the books? Here’s what you need to know. The trilogy takes place in a post-apocalyptic USA, now known as Panem and divided into 12 districts ruled over by the dictatorial Capitol. The Districts exist mainly to service the needs of the Capitol’s elite, and, in punishment for a failed revolution, they are each required to send an annual Tribute of a teenage boy and girl to compete in the Hunger Games, a televised battle to the death in an arena filled with cunning traps (think Battle Royale). On coming of age, each citizen has their name entered into the annual Reaping draw to become their District’s contestant and face almost certain death.

At the start of Book 1, we find our heroine Katniss Everdeen in District 12, the coal-mining district of what was West Virginia. It’s a hard-scrabble, feudal life of hunting, bartering and somehow getting by. If you can’t feed yourself, there is one way to get enough grain to survive, but it’s not a pleasant one... adding another copy of your name to the Reaping.

The Games
Possibly to increase their appeal to families, the games aren't set in the brutal, murderous world of the Games themselves. The design team have instead come up with Jabberjay, a Werewolf/Resistance style social game which pits District citizens against Capitol citizens, and District 12, which portrays the start of the story described above. The designers of both games are Christopher Guild, Bryan Kinsella (one of the designers of Star Fleet Captains) from Wizkids, and freelance designer Andrew Parks. Parks has the biggest repertoire of other games to his name, including Core Worlds, Parthenon: Rise of the Aegean and Ideology: The War of Ideas, while Guild appears to be a first-time designer.

Board Game: The Hunger Games: District 12 Strategy Game
District 12
So on to the rules. The board game, District 12, describes itself as "a resource management board game for 2-4 players" (that’ll hook the kids!), set in the dog-eat-dog world of the Seam in District 12. The main mechanic is card drafting via worker placement, somewhat reminiscent of Tribune: Primus Inter Pares. A turn track also allows a look-ahead at which cards will be needed when, which reminded me of another literary adaptation, Beowulf: The Legend.

The board is divided into several areas representing key locations from the book: the woods where Katniss hunts; the black market known as the Hob; and the Everdeen family home amongst others. There are 12 turns, each of which simply involves each player moving their single worker to one of these locations and activating it. There must be a vacant space, and workers stay on the board from turn to turn, so blocking and turn-order effects will be possible.

Most spaces allow the player to acquire resource cards (representing food, fuel, medicine and clothing) in different ways. For example, the woods represent unreliable hunting by allowing the player to flip three cards and keep a food card if at least one is revealed, and the Hob allows you to trade a card with one of your choice from a face-down pile.

After each player has activated their worker, the turn track moves on, triggering resources to be added to the board and more importantly, demanding occasional discards from the players. Every 3 rounds, the players must discard specified resources from their hand, building up from a single food to a complete set of four resources. Each card also has a number of resource points (1, 2 or 3) but these values are only important in final scoring, when each player totals up the best 6 of their remaining cards to see who wins.

There are also 11 special cards, representing characters and objects from the books. Each player starts with one and replacements can be acquired later. The powers aren’t all listed in the rules, but it sounds like the starting ones will provide in-game benefits, but later on you will want to trade for a card that gives an end-game bonus: the classic Euro income-to-VP trajectory. There are also specified turns when inter-player trading of resources is allowed. There are scaling rules for 2 and 3 players, and it doesn’t sound like the game could last much longer than an hour.

The key mechanic
OK, so far it sounds like a decent stripped-down resource management Euro, with the aforementioned echoes of Tribune and Beowulf. Where does the Hunger come in? Well, with one unusual and rather bold rule that won’t sit well with all players. Each player starts with one Reaping Card entered in the Glass Bowl for drawing at the end of the game. Every time you fall short of being able to discard a necessary resource, you must add another Reaping Card. After the final round, the Reaping Cards are shuffled, and one drawn. That player will become a Tribute and is ineligible to win.

The automatic loser has appeared in games before, for example the poorest player in High Society and the meanest player in Hab & Gut. But in those games, the choice is deterministic, not random. Here, it’s perfectly possible that you could not go hungry all game but still end up screwed by Fate. It’s brilliantly thematic, but I can see it causing tantrums! Anticipating this, the designers have provided a variant, but it’s rather a bland one involving a small point loss for 1st, 2nd and 3rd most Reaping Cards in the pot. The penalty seems small enough that Reaping would carry no real threat, and it may even be better to add a Reaping Card than ditch a valuable 3-point resource.

Board Game: The Hunger Games: Jabberjay Card Game
Jabberjay
The accompanying card game seems to draw a lot from The Resistance. It’s for 5-12 players and has the same split into two teams: a smaller group of District citizens who know each other’s identity, and a larger one of Capitol citizens who don’t.

The action comes from Status Cards marked 1 (Ignored), 2 (Accused), 3 (Exposed), 4 (Hidden), 5 (Fled), which will track players’ changing status through the game. Each player is dealt two cards at the start of a round, and they then take turns to assign one face-down to another player until all players have been assigned two cards. Each player’s cards are mixed up so that the assigner is unknown, and then revealed, with only the higher card counting as the player’s new status.

The major wrinkle is that a player can only go to Fled status from Accused or Exposed, not from Ignored or Hidden. Interestingly, this means that Fled cards, with their high value, can also be used protectively to stop players becoming Accused or Exposed. A Fled player is basically eliminated from the game, only allowed to assist other players in a minor way. Additionally, if your status is Exposed twice running, you must reveal your hidden identity.

The Capitol citizens win if all the District citizens are exposed in this way or have Fled, while the District citizens win if a round ends with at least two more Fled Capitol citizens than District citizens. I’m not a huge fan of this kind of hidden role game, mainly because I tend to be bad at them, but it sounds good for those who like them.

Impressively, the rules also include a different, entirely co-operative version of the game for 2-4 players. The District and Capitol citizens are represented by a central pool of role cards, and players work together to protect the District citizens by playing face-down status cards against them. Random cards representing the security forces are also added, and statuses are resolved each round in the same manner as the team game. Crucially, the amount of information players can share is restricted by a convention: they can identify to the others only one card they do have in their hand or one card they don’t have.

Wrapping up
It will be interesting to see how successful this pair of games is. The previous game in the franchise, The Hunger Games: Training Days, from a couple of years ago and also designed by Kinsella seems to have gone by largely unnoticed. Credit to Wizkids for coming up with not just one but two fresh-sounding games and for not bottling out of the harsh, capricious Reaping rule in District 12.
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Mon Mar 5, 2012 4:42 pm
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A man, a plan, a blog: golbanalpanama!

Martin G
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I've been really enjoying several of the blogs that have sprung up under the BGG umbrella recently, and figured it was about time I started my own. It's nice to have a space to write things that don't fit particularly well in the existing site fora.

Topics likely to be covered include:
* mathematics and statistics in games;
* running a large games group (London on Board);
* ruminations on classifying games (see also the Game Genome Project);
* rants against the things I dislike in modern Euro design;
* why I will always love Reiner Knizia.

Sound vaguely interesting? Then welcome, and please click subscribe!

And thanks to:
Laszlo Molnar
Hungary
Budapest
Hungary
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Samurai, Tigris, Yellow, Babylonia. Through the Desert, Ingenious, Stephensons Rocket also rock!
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Knizia tile laying rules! Samurai is #1, closely followed by the three games with two rivers
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for his inspiration on naming the blog!
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3 Comments
Mon Mar 5, 2012 4:25 pm
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