Gaming in a Power Outage

September 28, 2009

After a glorious first few weeks of September, autumn arrived in earnest this weekend, bringing with it cold rain and strong winds. On Sunday, an unusually strong gust knocked a branch off our neighbor’s tree, bringing it crashing down on the power line.  And just like that, the whole block was without power from 6-11 PM.

Joe was already on his way over to play a few games, and I didn’t feel a little darkness would get in the way of our playing. I hurried around the house grabbing candles from the bedroom and living room.  Joe arrived as night fell, and we lit the candles, placed them on the edges of the dining room table, and sat down to play.


Joe smirks--he's won.

The evening marked the first time I played games in my new house. It was built in 1928, and as we played Manoeuvre and Small World, I thought about all people who had sat down in the dining room in decades past with Monopoly, Risk, and other games. Outside, the wind lashed the branches of our trees, but it only provided quiet background noise as we moved figures across the board and rolled dice. Of course, the candlelight made it a little difficult to see the games, but it wasn’t too much of a hindrance. Instead, I would say that our experience was greatly enhanced by the warm, flickering light illuminating our Napoleonic regiments and sword and sorcery civilizations. It made me think about all the people throughout the centuries who have gathered at tables similar to my own, holding conversations over a light game.

*     *     *

It would still be a travesty to let my candlelight musings stop me from reporting on the games themselves, however! In Maneouvre, I played my favorite side, the Ottomans, on a relatively open map against Joe’s Prussians. I lost my 1st Janissaries early on in the game, once again not seeing the danger of an encirclement until it was too late. However, my Ali Pasha’s Cavalry really fired up in the mid-game, and they were responsible for three of the four Ottoman kills. I did my best to cycle quickly through the deck, discarding cards that weren’t immediately useful and hunting for knockout combinations (outlined in this post). Joe played his deck a bit more conservatively, which meant he had control of when the game ended. He made some gains on my right, while I got hung up on my left, attempting to destroy units instead of take territory.

The game ended with a nightfall victory on Joe’s part. He had control of seven of my squares, while I had control of six of his. In my final turn, I killed a unit and thought I had the victory, but Joe took his time and found the one move that would give him the win. It was one of the most intense Manoeuvre sessions I’ve had, and it was a nice way to return to the game after a 1.5 month hiatus.

Our session of Small World was a bit less intense, but still fun. Sara declined to play so we set up the two-player map and began. I opted for seafaring trolls and quickly marched my way across the map, grabbing the three water spaces (although placing stone troll lairs on oceans stretched my suspension of disbelief to the breaking point). Joe opted for alchemist skeletons in the early game and went after most of the lost tribes. I’ve only played with him once, and he surprised me by attacking some of my mountain troll lairs early on to slow me down.

In response, I declined the trolls and picked up berserker elves. Now he had no chance to grow his Skeleton army as my elves couldn’t be killed. I went right for him, doing  damage until he declined, picking up mounted wizards instead. My response was to pick up underworld Amazons, and it just so happened that he had taken three of the four underworld spaces. I overwhelmed the wizards, but when we counted up at the end, he won 84-79.

This session showed me how tight the race economy can be in a two-player game. In all three cases, I paid in a significant number of points to pickup what I perceived to be more powerful races. I ended up spending eight or nine points to do so, whereas if I hadn’t, I might have won the game anyway. On the other hand, Joe paid very little (three points the whole game) to pick up his races, and this contributed significantly to his victory.

*     *     *

Despite losing both games, it was an fun evening. Enjoying two games by candlelight in my new home while the wind blew fiercely outside was immensely satisfying, and I always enjoy Joe’s company. Despite his immense talent for these types of games, he never takes them too seriously, and there’s a lot of laughter at the table when he’s around.

Why We Don’t Play Risk Anymore

September 21, 2009

Whenever I describe the particular flavors of games that I tend to play, people always ask, “Are they sort of like Risk?” This has got to be up there with, “You mean like Dungeons and Dragons?” a phrase commonly heard by roleplayers holding conversations with the uninitiated. The equivalent for a hardcore video gamer would be, “So you play games like Pong?” The answer in all three cases is a vague variation on, “Yeah…but the games I play are more fun than that.” I think what gamers mean to say is, “The games I play are more elegant than that.” These hobbies develop, and the mechanics of the past feel cumbersome to regular enthusiasts.

All of this does lead to an interesting question: why don’t I play Risk anymore? It’s sitting upstairs on my game shelf, but it has been banished to the bottom of the pile alongside Clue and Monopoly. I played a decent amount of Risk between 2004-2006, perhaps four games a year, but as my interest in gaming grew, it fell by the wayside. This is due, in large part, to the mechanics.

Risk is, quite obviously, a dice fest, and one in which I don’t feel the better player comes out on top. Simply put, it has a high degree of randomness to it which detracts from the play experience. In a shorter game, this wouldn’t be as much of a problem, but Risk sessions do have a tendency to stretch past the four hour mark.

In addition to this, the reinforcement mechanic is just plain whacky. I can’t think of another game in which you get greater numbers of reinforcements as the game progresses. This means the game actually slows down as you play! You think you’ve got your opponent cornered when he turns in a set of Risk cards and suddenly he’s laying out 50 new armies. “Congratulations,” I always think to myself, “You have just extended our play time by another hour…”

Last, this game suffers from a defect most older wargames share: players can get knocked out early on in the game. This means one of your buddies faces the awful choice of a) watching over your shoulder for two hours, b) channel surfing while you finish, or c) driving home hours before everyone else.

Risk isn’t a terrible game by any means, but game design has moved beyond it. I think the best thing it offers us hobby enthusiasts is a way to identify people who might be interested the newer games we’re playing. If ever I hear a person say, “We pulled Risk out over Christmas and had a blast,” I know I need to invite him or her to our next gaming get-together. And every niche group needs something to play the role Risk does–it’s a small piece of the hobby that is recognizable by the public and serves as a gateway to more enjoyable and rewarding games.

You Ruined My Fun

September 18, 2009

I had just turned off the TV wondering what I was going to do next when my wife asks me, “Want to play Small World?”  I excitedly said, “Of course!”  So we set up the game and she says, “You start.”

I take Bivouacking Ghouls.  The Bivouacking special power serves no purpose here, but ghouls are too good to pass up – especially when I don’t have to pay for them.  She goes for Stout Giants knowing it will allow her a free decline, saving herself a turn.  I go into decline on my second round and she continues to expand.  An even start.

I then take Swamp Skeletons and am able to expand both my races.  She plays the giants once more then puts them in-decline.  She realizes my skeletons are spreading across the board like wild fire.  I’ve taken all the Swamps so I’m  getting lots of coins per turn.  She takes Berserk Elves to wipe out my tokens, but the dice aren’t rolling her way.  After a few unsuccessful turns, she switches to Commando Amazons.  I take significant losses, but it’s too late to make a difference; the undead have ravaged the lands.

I start counting my points.  She says, “You scored more than me every round*, do we need to count them?”  We count anyway; I win 131 to 71.  She says I’ve ruined her fun.  No second match tonight.

My first game of Small World was two weeks ago with John and 3 other newbies.  I instantly liked it.  I’ve been borrowing the game from him for the last couple of weeks.  Most of the games I’ve played since have been 2 player with my wife.  Her hobbies and mine don’t mesh all that well, but we’re competive people and board games give us a pretty equal playing field.

A couple nights after my first game, I teach her how to play.  Our first game is very close, I beat her by a mere 4 or 5 coins.  We play again now that she has the hang of it. After scoring 20 coins in one turn she goes on to beat me by almost 30.  I realize some flaws in my initial strategies.  A few days later we play twice more.  I beat her in both games, both are fairly close in score.

However, as I’ve been playing, I’ve been analyzing my plays, looking at how the different races/powers work in the start or end game.  After these 2p and the notorious 3p match my strategies are sound.  She has been playing more casually: she still maximizes her score each round, but sometimes at a cost on future turns.  The result is the match above.**

What can I do?  I really like playing this game***, but I can’t let her win – she and I both wouldn’t enjoy that.  How do I handicap a game without it seeming like pity?

So far I’ve come up with a couple options:
1. Pick the special power/race combo that seems least strategic.
2. Pick the last combo (costs 5 coins) available each time regardless.
I can still analyze and strategize with what I’m given.

Any other suggestions? Have you found this in other games with your gaming partner(s)?  What have you tried?

*Actually in turn 2 when I put my ghouls in decline I scored 5 to her 6, but who’s counting?
** I was also probably reeling from the night before.  John and three other friends stopped by to game.  My 2p strategies clearly don’t work the same with the larger map and additional races to contend with.  I come in dead last.  A little over 60 points while the other 4 score 80-100+.  There were two lost tribe tokens that lasted most of the game – one until the end.  I think if we had kept track, I may have beaten the lost tribes score…maybe.
*** Hoping Santa brings Small World with the newly announced expansions… if I still have a gaming partner to play this with by then.

Table Foul!

September 15, 2009

Last Saturday, the most grievous of tables fouls was committed. Tired from six and half hours of class, two and half hours of driving, I sat down at my brother’s table for a friendly game of Small World.

Laid out next to me was the board and all the wonderful thick cardboard pieces; intricately illustrated with amusing pictures. To my left was a game aid and the rulebook. And there in front of me–what made Milwaukee famous and makes a loser out of me–beer, Goose Island nut brown ale.

It was early in the game, ability race combination were still being picked when it happened. Looking for the slightest advantage I could find, I reached for the player aid trying to figure out what would be better, Orcs or Sorcerers. Crash! My beer spills across the table!

All the players move lighting fast lifting things and rushing to get paper towels. The damage? A slightly wet rulebook. After drying, barely noticeable, just a bit crinkly along the edge.

Maybe there is something about keeping drinks off the gaming table.

Table Rules

September 13, 2009

[Note: It’s been a very busy few weeks with moving and starting another school year at work and graduate school. I haven’t been playing a lot of games, hence the “game culture” type posts.]

Since entering college in 2001, I’ve spent a lot of time playing either boardgames or roleplaying games. I’ve played in dorm rooms, apartments, convention halls, houses, and tents while sitting, standing, and kneeling. During that time, a group of “table rules” has spontaneously grown up through various play experiences, and I’d like to share them here:

  1. Dice Etiquette: We’ve all had similar experiences. You get at to a critical moment in a game, someone rolls a handful of dice, and one or more fall to the floor. Do you “read it from the floor” or re-roll it? My call has been “Re-roll it!” If you can’t keep your dice on the table, you need to cast them again, Butter Fingers. Similarly, cocked dice need to be re-rolled. If it’s resting drunkenly against a rulebook or soda can, it’s not a fair roll.
  2. Food: I know some gamers will scream in horror, but we’re okay with food at the table. We just ask that people use a napkin to clean off their fingers before handling game pieces. If you get the China Card greasy, there will be heck to pay.
  3. Drinks: For the past eight years, I’ve had no problem with drinks at the table, as long as they’re on coasters and people are mindful of them. However, I have personally spilled two drinks in the past two months and ruined two player aid cards. Now I keep my drink off the table, either on a nearby surface or at my feet. I also learned an interesting way of dealing with drink spills at the WBC: “You ruin someone’s game, you buy him a new one.”
  4. Mulligans: In years past, we have been just fine with people rewinding the game state to fix a mistake. However, after reading and playing Wellington, I’m adopting Mark McLaughlin’s rule: if you were playing a rule incorrectly, don’t rewind the game, but begin playing correctly as soon as you realize the mistake.
  5. Speed of Play: I gripe about analysis paralysis and “perfect move” play styles frequently, and rightfully so, dangit! But my brother has often reminded me that there is such a thing as playing too fast, especially when you have a number of inexperienced players at the table. Moving through a turn deliberately is crucial to ensuring everyone feels comfortable with what you’re doing. In short, it gives them time to see the move, think about the move, and react to the move.
  6. Teaching v.s. Coaching: This is a fine line in boardgaming. At our table, we ask that you assist other players fairly. For instance, if a new player asks you, “What’s the best move to make here?” you should not deliberately avoid talking about that best move because it will hurt your own position on the board. Also, you are obligated to deal with other players as fairly as possible in negotiation phases, etc. Concealing the impact of a deal from a new player puts you on the level of a wet-palmed, shifty-eyed, lemon-dealing used car salesman.

Are there any table rules you use at your gaming table that I haven’t mentioned? Let’s hear about them in the comments section!

A Balance of Complexity

September 3, 2009

Despite having Napoleonic Wars set up on my ping pong table all ready to go for the last month, I have yet to touch it.  Instead, I reach for Dominion,  a game I can teach in two minutes and don’t really have to think hard about when playing. I love tabletop roleplaying games and have a session to plan and two other game books I want to read, but when I’m home from work, I bust out Turok on PS3 and shoot dinosaurs with exploding arrows and plasma rifles instead. And don’t even get me started on the last time I posted to this blog.

Am I burnt out on tabletop gaming? Have I reached my board game limit and I’d rather veg out in front of the TV? Is there something wrong with me? I doubt it. Instead, I’ve probably reached my complexity limit.

Not too long ago I read this article linked from Slashdot titled, An Epiphany I Had While Playing Pac-Man. In it the author argues that people, especially geeks, need a certain level of challenge or complexity to their lives. A geek’s “brain cycles” must be utilized at a certain complexity level or he starts searching for challenges elsewhere. A person’s job often creates the baseline complexity that must then be added to or subtracted from to create the desired complexity level. The variable complexity is introduced through hobbies.

For me, two of these hobbies are gaming and writing. Up until the WBC, my work schedule was pretty low stress and didn’t really tax my mental capabilities. In that time, I set up Napoleonic Wars and started reading the rules, I planned, ran, and wrote narrative recaps of a Star Wars roleplaying game, I wrote a blog post a week, and I jumped at every chance I could to game.

In the past three weeks, my work load has increased exponentially. Four projects are in the middle of deployment, each competing for my full attention. Meanwhile, I try to assist on another four projects, create user-conference presentations, provide first-tier technical support one or two days a week, all the while trying to finish two critical documents. Oh, and my graduate studies start next week.

The fact that I’d rather fight virtual dinosaurs than plan a campaign to conquer Europe using intrigue, guile, and military might is natural. Work has maxed out my complexity level. Blogging, war gaming, and even RPG planning has fallen to the wayside. Instead, my brain wants to just sit idle. Despite enjoying complex war games, I just can’t handle them right now.

So, dear readers, have you found the same to be true in your life? Is work affecting your gaming preferences? Are all your buddies stressed out and just want to play Rock Band instead of Here I Stand on gaming night? Or do you feel you have to drag yourself to the night’s Twilight Imperium game when you really just want to have a beer and play Munchkin?

Hiding the Resources/VPs

September 3, 2009

I apologize for the lack of activity here on the blog lately. I’m in the process of moving right now (stay tuned for pics of my new game room!). Once things settle down, we hope to create a backlog of posts we can draw on during busy times.

After playing a relatively high number of Euro games this summer, I’ve been thinking about hiding resources and victory points. Three games in my collection have this written into the rules: Power Grid, Settlers of Catan, and Small World. In Power Grid, you are told to keep your cash secret from the other players. As we’ve learned the game at home in recent months, we’ve usually kept money faceup so the other players can see if someone is sitting on a big stack of cash. Playing with the hidden money rule at the WBC tourney gave the game a very different feel; tabletalk was significantly cut as a result and we could only guess at people’s bank accounts. In this game, I confess I don’t understand why this rule exists. If you’re really playing a power company, then your resources should be public knowledge, right? Also, trying to keep track of other people’s cash flow is just another distraction in a game that already involves a lot of mental math.

In Settlers of Catan, you keep your resources secret. Again, we have often played with resources faceup, but that’s primarily because we’ve got new players at the table. When playing with Joe and other more experienced players, we’ve played with resources hidden. Again, I’m not quite sure why this should be the case. If it’s a game about resource trading, then you’d think it would be beneficial to see what people have so you can make offers or know who to target with the robber. Like Power Grid, hiding the resources adds a layer of complexity that doesn’t enhance the game any; it just makes things more complicated. However, I can see keeping development cards hidden. They do represent choices you get to make, and are much like the strategy cards in Conquest of Paradise or other games that involve buying cards.

In Small World, you keep your victory points hidden until the game ends. Considering how light the game is, I rather like keeping them hidden. Because you must count up your VP at the end of every turn and take them from the bank, it’s pretty obvious who is having a good turn (14+ VP, for instance). You can easily discuss it at the table and then turn on the current leader. It’s not a very complex game, and unlike the two mentioned earlier, hiding the VPs doesn’t add an annoying level of complexity.

I’m curious if there are other games out there that have you hide resources or VPs. This is a big component of Euro games–even  in Ticket to Ride you’re hiding your routes. Do you find this an interesting mechanic in some games, but not in others? Why?