Wednesday, September 12, 2018

The Sublime Joy of Losing

You all know how much I love playing games. And I hope you all know that I'm decent at a lot of games. I'm really only good at a small handful of games. I'm a mediocre-to-good player at the vast majority of games that I enjoy.

And that's okay, because it gives me a chance to lose sometimes, even against new players.

Losing is one of my less-secret gaming joys. I love losing.

Losing doesn't mean I didn't play hard. It doesn't mean I threw the game. Losing means someone else was better than I was (for most of the games I play).

When I'm new to a game, I like watching experienced players destroy me so I can learn the strategies they use. I can see how the various pieces fit together into a win.  At that point, I'm often just working on figuring out how the game itself works - what behavior it rewards and what it doesn't.

With "point salad" games, I'm often feeling out if I can single out one element and ignore the others. In 7 Wonders, for example, new players often try to bulk up on military cards. Don't get me wrong - military is great, but it's not The Key To Victory most of the time. It's one part of this nutritious breakfast the win, but it's not the whole thing by itself.

Once I reach the skill level of mediocre at a game, a loss means that either I tried a new strategy that didn't work out or I'm facing someone who is better than I am at the game. Or both. Or sometimes my opponent is also mediocre and her half-baked strategy is better than my half-baked strategy.

A few weeks ago, I had a chance to play CIV: Carta Impera Victoria with some friends. The game is fast-playing, and I'd played it a couple of times - enough that I wanted to play with some of its possibilities and see if winning was still viable.  So I used a military discard strategy - it left almost no cards in my tableau and reduced my opponents' tableaus to almost nothing.  It got expensive fast, though, because I was discarding two cards for every one card I removed from their tableaus.  I didn't win, but I learned that playing "pure" discard is not a path to victory. On the other hand, I also learned that some discard can frustrate your opponents and cause them to stumble.

Most of all, though, I love losing at games at which I consider myself skilled, because it means I still have a lot to learn.  I've been playing on boardgamearena.com lately. I'm a premium member, so I have access to Dungeon Twister. I've tried a variety of tactics against a number of players with mixed results. I'm currently 6-4 at the game online, and every one of those games was fun for me. I especially love the game where I messaged my wife, "I just moved my Warrior one space too far. It's probably going to cost me the game." And it did.

A lot of people hate losing because they believe that losing means you are a bad player. This is not true at all. It means your opponent was better. Or you made a mistake. Or you're having a bad day. Or maybe the dice turned against you. These things happen, and none of them mean you're a bad player.

Even in high-level tournaments, most players don't win. Keep that in mind. There are many games where a draw is simply not possible. And, yes, at the higher levels of many games, sometimes that win does come down to luck of the draw.

Losing is as much a part of playing the game as winning. In many cases, I'd argue that it's more a part of the game because of the number of players involved.

So when you lose, just look at the game, figure out what caused your loss, and try to do better next time. Because more often than not, you will.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Room 25 (Again, Some More)

I know I've talked about Room 25 in the past, but there is a new expansion for it and I'm excited all over again.

I'm going to start with a broad overview of the game, and then get into the details and the nitty-gritty.

Initially, there was just Room 25.  The base game held up to six players and had a couple of modes of play - fully co-operative all the way to (my favorite) semi-cooperative play. It was good. It was fun.

It's a programmed-action game, where everyone programs one or two actions at the start of the round and then triggers them in turn.  The list of actions wasn't extensive, and the game wasn't too complicated.

The goal was to move your characters through a complex to find Room 25, and then slide that room out of the complex and escape.  Before time runs out.  But each room was different. There were rooms that would kill you. There were rooms that would trap you. There were a handful of harmless (or even beneficial) rooms, too.  So you couldn't just go charging boldly ahead through the complex.

It was one part Cube, one part Running Man, and a lot of fun.

It came in a small box, and didn't get a lot of notice when it was released, as it came out in the middle of a flood of really good games. It's hard to stand out when you're a great game in a small box, especially when there are larger boxes around.

I can't find just the base game for sale anywhere other than the BGG Market, where there's a US version for $10.

The year after the base game came out, they released Room 25: Season 2.  It added two new characters (bumping the player count to 8), gave special abilities to the characters, added Adrenaline, and a bunch more rooms. It took a good game that was already fun and made it great. It also replaced the grey minis that came with the base game with color-coded figures (which still had differently-shaped bases for colorblind players).  They also released those figures separately for those people who didn't want to buy the expansion.  And Season 2 came in a large box with room for all of the base game components (other than the box).

As much as I enjoyed the base game, Season 2 kicked it up a few notches. To the point where I don't suggest that people buy just the base game.

Nothing was released for the game in 2015.

In 2016, though, Room 25 Ultimate was released. Ultimate is the base game + Season 2 in one box with a combined rulebook. And some minor rules tweaks and clarifications.  If you're just now getting into the game, I heartily recommend that you start with Ultimate.

In 2017, Room 25: Escape Room was released, giving us Puzzle Mode.  Players now had to solve a puzzle (complete with a decoder) in order to escape the complex.  Puzzle Mode is a 100% Co-Operative mode of play.  And, of course, it had a few new rooms to shake things up a bit. It's compatible with the old base game and with Ultimate both.

And now Room 25: VIP has been released. In VIP, it's possible for one player to be (*gasp*) a VIP. And, because the VIP is famous, he (or she) doesn't truck with that whole "advance planning" thing. They're also impatient, and so the VIP must move every round. Otherwise the players lose (and the Guards win). VIP also included sleeves for the rooms - with so many sets from such a span of years, not all of the tile backs matched exactly, making it possible for some players to be able to determine which room was which. The sleeves fix that.  Of course, it includes 40 sleeves. If you have everything so far, you'll need more than that - you can purchase additional sleeves directly from Matagot. Shipping isn't too bad on them, either. I kept my original Base Game and Season 2 separate and sleeved my Ultimate + Escape Room + VIP. It took one extra pack of sleeves, with a few sleeves left over.

There have been three promos for the game so far.  The Audience is a die that the first player rolls each round that will impact play. You just need one of these dice and the rules from BoardGameGeek.

There is a Mr. Tom's Hall room, and there is a Raptor Room.

I've managed to track down Mr. Tom's Hall, now I just need to find a Raptor Room ...

VIP also included a couple of blank paper templates for creating your own room.  I'd love to see what kind of custom rooms the rest of you can come up with. Just comment on this post, and I'll see it.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

DramaSystem

We played Hillfolk again a few weeks ago. The first time we played (almost exactly a year before), I was ... uncomfortable. It was a little unsettling.

This time was better, but Steph asked me aftewards (in private), "Do you even like this game? Because it doesn't look like you were having fun."

Wade (the GM) is a fantastic GM. In fact, as I write this, he's at GenCon running Hillfolk and 13th Age and GUMSHOE and whatever else Pelgrane asks him to do. Because he works hard and does a good job. And I desperately want him to write a book about his GM Prep, because these days, he seems prepared for nearly anything.

So let me tell you about Hillfolk.

I was a Kickstarter backer, because Robin Laws writes good games. Because Robin Laws thinks about games and implications and stories and how games and stories differ.  Hillfolk is a good game, but it's utterly unlike anything else on my shelf.

There are games out there with emotional mechanics. Shadows of Esteren, for example, uses character motivation to provide bonuses and penalties to actions. Smallville uses bonds between characters and character ideals as the basis of which dice you're going to use for any given roll. FATE has a ton of potential for dealing with emotions.

But Hillfolk isn't like these games. For one, all of those games follow a more traditional model of "GM establishes a scenario." That's not to say they're traditional games, because they really aren't. But the in-play experience is frequently very similar to other games.

Smallville comes closest to Hillfolk in terms of "how the game works." Players start out by establishing relationships to one another, and the GM just sets the overall tone. What drives play is interaction between PCs rather than interaction with NPCs (including foes).  That is to say, the GM's footprint is very small. I'd wager you could play this game GM-less, as long as all of the players understood the setting (or were willing to embrace one anothers' setting ideas and modifications that came up in play).

Hillfolk's key conceit is that every character has something that every other character wants from them. It can be approval. It can be respect. Or trust. Or ... well, just about anything, as long as there is an emotional component to it.

Wade would turn to me in character generation and say, "Eric, what does your character want from Stephanie's character?"  And I'd explain what I wanted/needed and why. And then Wade would turn to Steph and ask her, "Stephanie, why is Eric not going to be able to get that from you?"

The game is written to simulate a weekly dramatic TV series. Campaign play is not only possible, it's also encouraged so that you can learn more and more about your characters and the world they inhabit.

A session involves each player "calling" a scene. They set the scene and then who is in that scene with them. And then they play in character, trying to get emotional concessions from the other character(s) in the scene. It can get pretty intense.

At the end of a scene, players gain (or lose) tokens based on how that emotional demand was answered.

On paper, there are a lot of things that I really really like about this game. It's got some fantastic series pitches (much like a TV series pitch), and there are some great ideas in there.

In practice ...

So here's the thing. Every RPG's play experience depends on the synergy between the players. I'm including the GM as a player, here. And that applies equally to every single game. If I'm in Jim's game, but I don't like one of the other players, it's going to cause me to shut down a bit.

Hillfolk requires that you play it with a group that you know and trust. And not just trust. You need to be able to trust their ability to interact with you emotionally.  And yes, I know, "It's not you, it's a character!" But every character contains a kernel of its player.

I often struggle to trust my wife with my emotional state. There are things that I bottle away. So a game that depends on being open with emotions is ... foreign to me. Strange, awkward, and a little uncomfortable. Even when I like everyone who is at the table.  And that's where Hillfolk lives for me. It's a great game. It really is.

It's just not for me.

And I'd never have realized that had Steph not asked me about it.

Wednesday, August 08, 2018

Argent: The Consortium

There are a lot of games where the victory conditions are slightly different every time you play.  With Fluxx, for example, there is no way to win until after the game has started.

With Killer Bunnies and the Quest for the Magic Carrot, the win condition is simple: Have the magic carrot.  But no-one knows which carrot is magical until the very end of the game. It's really a kind of lottery game - you grab as many carrots as you can in order to tip the odds in your favor, but the winner (in the end) still comes down to the luck of the draw.

I've had Argent: the Consortium for a few years, and it just doesn't hit the table often enough.  Its win condition is closer to that of Killer Bunnies, but it's also its own thing.

Argent is a game where you are trying to become the next Chancellor of Argent University. It's a magical university, and people often draw comparisons to Hogwarts flavor-wise (only Hogwarts is a high school, not a university).

Each round, players will take turns placing workers (with special abilities), casting spells, or taking other actions in order to gather power to sway voters to their cause.

There are twelve voters in the game, and two of them are public. The other ten voters are pull randomly from a deck of cards.  There are ways for players to be able to peek during the game (and thus adjust their strategy), but not everyone does.

The two public voters are "Most Influence" and "Most Followers."  Both Influence and Followers are gathered over the course of the game. "Most Influence" is the most important voter, as it breaks all ties. Other voters will give you votes based on how learned you are or how invested you are in one of the factions in the game. There are a couple of "second-best" voters, who vote for second place in one of the categories, and so on.

The whole game is all about gathering stuff. You want to gather followers and influence and magic items and spells and knowledge and money and ...

I really like this game. It's primarily worker placement supporting point salad, and there's nothing new in the game. It's not hugely innovative, either. It just ... works.

I'm not saying the game is without flaws, mind you. It's a huge table-eater. Each player has a player display in front of them, and then there is the (modular) board and four lines of cards and their decks as well as supplies for gems (mana) and coins ... If you think your table is large enough for this game, it probably isn't. Unless you're only playing with three players, in which case ... maybe.

Fun is also highly dependent upon which rooms you have.  The last time we played (with a random selection of rooms), the only way to get money was to choose that option when one of your mages was wounded and sent to the infirmary. At the same time, there was a room in play where the top reward was 3 Buys. That room was only very rarely occupied over the course of the game.

The game leans a bit random. There are, as I mentioned, four decks with a number of face-up cards available, and there are times when nothing available is worth going for. Or when only one or two cards are worth the struggle.  I've played entire games where people only bought new spells to change the available in hopes of something useful appearing.

But with the right rooms, this game is just fun. There are enough decisions to be made that it's not dull, and the decisions (and the order in which you make them) matter.

Second Edition is now out - I have the first, but I also backed the Kickstarter for an upgrade kit. It reduced the footprint of the game by a small percentage and reduced some of the fiddliness at the same time. The rules themselves are (so far as I can tell) unchanged.

It's solid and worth a look.

Wednesday, August 01, 2018

Gamethyme's Game of the Year 2017/18

Let's get this ball rolling again, shall we?  And what better place to start than with my annual Game of the Year award.

A quick reminder: I give this to the best new-to-me game played in between GenCons (even if I'm not going to be at GenCon).  And this year's crop?

Amazing.

Azul. Century: Spice Road. Sagrada. Photosynthesis.

In a normal year, any of these four would be standouts. In a normal year, there wouldn't be four games that are so close.

Narrowing these down to one game has been crazy-difficult.

And, by the way, all four of them were recommended to me by the staff at the FLGS. Thanks, Paula and Brian!

Here's a bit on each of the four short-listed games:

Azul is this year's Spiel des Jahres winner. It's a big deal and a well-deserved award. Players are trying to complete mosaics by drafting tiles onto their tableau. It's simple enough that I can play with my nephews, but complicated enough that I really like it.  Scoring is a bit fiddly in a few points, but - that aside - it's a solid game that I very much enjoy playing.

Sagrada is almost a brain-burning version of Azul. Dice are drafted based on their color and number and - again - placed in a player's tableau. Every player has a "hidden" objective (that isn't that secret after a few rounds) and there are a handful of public objectives that everyone is vying for. Players also have access to tools that might break the rules for a turn for them.

Photosynthesis is a luck-free game that comes 100% down to skill in play. Players are trying to help their trees grow and thrive while blocking access to the sun for their opponents' trees. It's cutthroat, and very tightly constructed.

Century: Spice Road is an engine-builder. I usually refer to it as a slow-motion deckbuilder. Each turn, you can buy a card (into your hand), buy a victory point card, use a card from your hand, or you can pick your used cards back up. There are no extra actions available - you get one action per turn. Period. And then you're done.

All four of these were solid games that saw a lot of play this year. All four of them are games I keep coming back to with different ideas both for how to advance my play and how to hinder my opponents.

There were other good games I played, too. This year really provided a bumper crop of really good games. Rising Sun, for example, was a ton of fun when I played it. But I only got to play once, and it's really hard to judge a game fairly after only one play (with that said: I want to get it to the table again).

Only one of game, however, can win this year.

For me, that game was Century: Spice Road.

Not everyone agrees with me - the folks at Shut Up And Sit Down, for example, didn't like it that much - and they are absolutely entitled to their opinion.  But I really like Dominion, and this game scratches a similar itch without the drawbacks that you can get with Dominion.

No. Really.

It's quicker to set up (and clean up). There's no "near-infinite actions" combo that will allow someone to take a ten-minute turn that gets them no closer to victory. There are no weird card interaction issues that occasionally pop up. There's also not a ton of opportunities for Analysis Paralysis (AP) - I'm not saying it doesn't happen, but it seems to be less frequent with this one than with many games.

While the art isn't amazing, it's also long ways from terrible. I've played (and liked) games with worse art. While good art is nice, it's not a deciding factor for me. I'd rather play a good game with bad art than a mediocre game with fantastic art.  The overall graphic design of the cards is clear - the art is there so it's not a mostly blank card, and it fills the space without interfering with necessary game information. And there are Dominion cards with worse art, so there's that.

Most of the time, you actually have to make a decision. There are occasional turns when the best possible play is obvious, but they're few and far between. But rarely is it an excruciating decision, either.

It's a solid game that has seen regular replay around my table. And I expect that Century: Eastern Wonders will see similar play (especially with its ability to combine with Century: Spice Road to form Voltron a third game).

So, because I find myself regularly looking forward to playing this one and being excited about getting it to the table, Century: Spice Road is my Game of the Year.

Thanks to Plan B Games for publishing this one, and thanks to the crew at Fantasium for introducing it to me.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

That Random Element Again

I know I've discussed this before, but it's time to talk about randomness again.

Every game has at least some random element. Every game.  Yes, even chess. Sometimes that random element is resolved before play starts.  In chess, it comes down to "Which player will take white and thus play first?"  Because it does make a difference.

And I don't hate the random element.  I really don't.

I'll often say that a game is "too random," when discussing it with friends - that just means that (for me), there is too much luck and not enough skill in play.

I like games where - over the long term - skill will trump luck.

I actually enjoy Risk once in a while (although there are a ton of better variants like Castle Risk or Risk Europe or even Risk Legacy).  There is a skill component there - knowing when and where to push or reinforce is huge.

For the record: My wife is significantly better at the game than I am. Regardless of version.

I absolutely love Empires in Arms, too. It's a fantastic game. If you have the time and a group invested in playing.

In both cases, though, my fondest memories aren't "and then I outmaneuvered him!" but "And then the dice did this crazy thing!"

Like that one troop in Kamchatka who successfully defended the province from forty-seven attackers that one time and almost cost Steve the game because he refused to stop pushing.

Or when my Turkish Feudal Corps managed to break the morale of the attacking British army.  Yes, part of that was choosing tactics well, but if the dice had been even a little bit different, I'd have been slaughtered.

And I think that's part of why I don't object to a degree of randomness.

The skill factor in a game keeps me coming back so that I can improve. There is a reward for repeated play (above and beyond 'getting to play games with my friends'): Improved skill, which leads to more wins down the road.

But skill doesn't always make for good stories. Or even interesting stories. When two opponents are well-matched, skill-based games either become stalemates or they get very swingy. Stalemates are dull to watch. So are games where the last player to take a turn is always the one in the lead, because "Who's winning?" should never be the same question as "Whose turn is it?" And that ... happens.

At the same time, games that are 100% pure luck with no skill will occasionally have those fun stories. Like the game of Fluxx that ended after a turn because the starting player had a Goal, both Keepers for that Goal, and a "Play All" card in their opening hand.

Side note: Best game of Fluxx ever. I never even had to take a turn.

I've played some really good games, lately.  Over the next few posts (which could be weeks or even months at my current rate of posting), I'm going to talk about some of the games I've played and how they balance luck and skill. And why I think it's well (or poorly) balanced in that regard. I'm not only going to talk about the luck/skill balance, mind you, because there is so much more to a game than that.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

The Ultimate Breakfast Sandwich

Do you want to know what the best breakfast sandwich I have ever eaten was?

Of course you do.  That's why you come to my blog, right? All cooking all the time.

Start with a croissant. Warm it up. Toast it slightly so that it's crispy and flaky on the outside and buttery-smooth and warm on the inside.  Cut it in half like it was a hamburger bun.  Slather both sides with cream cheese. Use just a bit more cream cheese than you would on a bagel.

One one side, put a couple of strips of bacon. The bacon should still be warm, and I (personally) like it crispy.

On the other side, put a couple of sausage links. Again: they should be still warm. If you want the maple-infused links, those work, but it's fine with just about any links.

Put the top half onto the bottom half and dig in.

Right now, there are really three groups of people who are responding mentally to that sandwich.

The first group is drooling a bit and vowing to try that some time.
The second group is curious and may try it, but it doesn't sound like the best sandwich of all time.
The third group is frothing at the mouth.  Why would you put CREAM CHEESE on that?

The point is this:

Not everyone likes the same things. For me, that is - seriously - one of the best things to eat in the mornings. I don't do it very often, because I like having a functional heart. But once in a while ... mmmmmmmm.

I hate Fluxx. It's a terrible excuse for a game that can run ten minutes or ten hours. The skill element of play is so minimal as to be basically absent. It's an excellent meta-discussion of "What is a game?" but it is not, itself, actually a game.

I don't like Munchkin as a game - the cards are fun to read occasionally. The art is amusing. The game sucks. It's dull and it drags and the last half of the game is everyone doing their best to beat down the leader.

Both of these games are runaway successes. Huge victories for their publishers - to the point where these games are largely why those publishers have survived. This fact actually makes me very thankful that not everyone has the same tastes I do, because I want more Icehouse games. I want more GURPS books. I want to see what Looney Labs and Steve Jackson Games are going to put out next.

So when I say something negative about a game you like, it's not an attack on you. If I sneered at everyone who like Fluxx, I'd be all out of friends in near-record time.

By all means: Continue buying games I don't like. Play them. Have fun with them.  Please. Because even games I don't like support games that I do like. And more games are always a good thing for someone.