Wednesday, November 18, 2015


I'm down to backing only one or two Kickstarter projects at a time.  It's a weird feeling, but a good one.  And it means I can be really picky about what I choose to back.

A few years ago, a friend of mine showed me his prototype card-placement game. It was a ton of fun, and showed potential.  We played it off-and-on for a while.  Every few months, I'd see him again with the latest revision.

At one point, the game went to Gathering of Friends with a friend of mine, but unfortunately no publisher bit.

And now it's on Kickstarter.

ManaSurge is a fun game, and they seem to be doing it the right way on Kickstarter.  By the time you see this, they'll have about four days to go, and I sincerely hope it's funded.

So what do I mean by "the right way" here?

1) The game's content is done. The rules are done. The card list is complete.  The only thing not finished is the art on cards that backers can pay to appear on. In fact, it's done enough that a number of reviewers have been able to post reviews that are quoted and/or linked to from the project page.

2) Reasonable stretch goals. I've seen way too many good projects sunk by crazy-expensive stretch goals that weren't budgeted for correctly. The first few stretch goals are single cards.  At goal-and-a-half or so, the game grows by roughly 15%.

3) Freight is accounted-for.  I don't know for sure if their numbers are accurate, but the numbers for shipping seem reasonable.

4) Sane backer levels. There aren't a ton of bizarre add-ons, here.  The backer levels are basically Game, Game + Mini-Expansion, 2 Copies of Game, 2 Copies of Game + Mini-Expansion, and so on. There are no t-shirts, bottle openers, can insulators, and the like.

As to the game itself: It's fun. It's not a completely-random smurf-up, either. Yes, there is a random element. Yes, there are times when the best option is clear. But over the years of playing, I've noticed that Frank wins a lot more often than he loses, and he's not a cheater. He just knows the game better than you do.

So I urge you to check it out. Back it if it looks like it's your bag. Pass the link along to someone else if it isn't your bag but you know someone else who might dig it.

So how do you learn if it's your bag?

The rules are already online. They're in the files section of the game's BoardGameGeek Page.

Do your homework, Check it out.  I hope you choose (like I did) to back.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Holiday Season

Some of you may have noticed that there wasn't a post waiting for you when you got up this morning. And that's right - there wasn't.  I have a couple of half-written posts in need of editing, but I wasn't willing to let any of them loose, yet, and I didn't have as much time as I wanted because I got caught.

By "got caught," I mean, "became involved with a writing project." And it's ... interesting to me, the differences between writing for games and writing "normal" fiction.

When I'm working on an adventure for my L5R group, for example, as the GM, I'm only telling part of the story. Sure, I have an arc in mind. Yes, there are ways I want the story to go, but it's not up to me. Players have this magical ability to make things go off the rails in unexpected directions, but the story I'm telling rapidly becomes the story we are telling. Because players are notorious for changing the plot.  So having complete control over both the protagonists and the antagonists is ... weird.

So I'm going to try to stay caught up both here and on my project. And on the revision work I have for a handful of games that always seem to trickle through post-Essen.

I'm not doing NaNoWriMo. That would be ... ugh. That would be the kind of pressure I don't handle well. But it is a good reminder to keep working on sharpening my skill.

If and when I'm done, I may share a few samples here.

Everyone's writing process is unique to that person.  My wife, for example, closes herself in the bedroom, throws some Top Chef on the TV, and just writes. It seems to flow easily and painlessly for her, and I try to just stay out of her way.

Me, I have to know my characters before I start.  I'll generally stat the main characters up as GURPS characters before I get too far in. For minor characters, I'll use Short Order Heroes. Because all I need from them is a sketch.

I've been using GURPS 3e for years for this. It's not a game I like as a game, but its benchmarks are good and detailed. I should probably upgrade to 4e, but some of the books I consider key are oddly OOP. Like GURPS Magic. Seriously. That price is crazy.

Or I could just by it in PDF, but that's still pretty high for a PDF. Higher than I want to pay, at any rate. But that's ... changing.  I should write about PDF pricing sometime.

At any rate: This next couple of months may be a bit spotty, here.  I've got posts on tap and partially written and the like. I just need to finish them and schedule them and get them posted.

Wednesday, November 04, 2015


A few years ago, a gentleman who was a district manager for a local chain of game stores told me that he'd brought Dixit in entirely on my say-so.  "It doesn't seem," he'd said, "the sort of game someone like you would usually enjoy.  So I knew it'd have broader appeal than its rules indicated."

While his gamble did well for him, he'd missed something key about me:

I'm a sucker for a game with an interesting communication mechanism.  Dixit is all about communicating exactly the right amount. Too much information, and no-one will guess wrong. Too little information, and maybe someone else will snag those points.

Concept is another communication-focused game that I just absolutely love to play, because it's a game that is about communication, and learning how the other players think is the key to victory.

Every year at GenCon, there are stampedes as crowds rush in to get that Hot New Game that is there in Limited Numbers.  It's as regular as clockwork. This year, we were the cause of one of those stampedes.  There were a limited number of copies of Mysterium. The pre-release buzz was pretty hot on the game, so when the doors opened, we saw this:

Every morning we saw that. We had 50 copies per day (except for Sunday), and the line was crazy. I'm glad I was in the demo part of the booth and not the sales portion, because a lot of people didn't get the game they had rushed to get.  The first day, the line wrapped around the back of the sale booth and back towards the demo area in less than two minutes.

I was curious about the game, having worked on quite a bit of marketing material, and I probably could have laid claim to one of the copies in the booth, but I chose to wait.

My copy arrived a few weeks ago, and it hit the table on the Wednesday after it arrived (the Wednesday before Halloween, appropriately enough). And I really like this one.

The most common comparison I've seen for the game is "It's Dixit crossed with Clue."  And that's ... that's pretty accurate.  Only there's more to it than that.  For starters, it's a cooperative game. Everyone wins or lose together.

The goal of Mysterium is for one player to get each other player to pick up on three distinct pieces of information.  That one player is the Ghost, and he communicates with the other players by giving them cards which strongly resemble Dixit cards. The ghost is not permitted to speak through most of the game, and I heard a rumor that some editions were going to include a mask to help the ghost's poker face.

Each other other players is trying to assemble a set of three items - one suspect, one location, and one item.  In that order.

At the start of the game, a number of cards from each category is turned up. The more cards, the higher the difficulty of the game.  Then the ghost has a duplicate set of cards behind the screen that they use to assign one from each category to each player using a screen that they sit behind.  This image on BoardGameGeek shows it off very well (and is set up for a six-player game).

Then the ghost gets a hand of seven cards.  They give one or more to each player, refilling their hand to seven after each gift.  Players will place their markers (crystal balls) on the suspect that they think that the ghost's clue is pointing towards.  And the non-ghost players (called "mediums" in this game) are allowed to (and encouraged to) communicate with one another.

Once all of the players have decided, they also have markers where they can indicate agreement or disagreement with other players' decisions. These tokens matter during the last phase of a game.

And then the ghost goes medium by medium and tells them "yes" or "no."  If it's a "yes," then the player advances to the next category.  If it's a "no," then they'll get to try again next turn.

But time ticks away.  The game only lasts for seven turns. If all of the mediums haven't assembled all of their sets by the end of that time, the game ends and everyone loses.  If they have, then players go to a final phase.

The ghost lays out each set for the players to see, and then looks at the cards they have in hand. The ghost is allowed three cards, one must point to the suspect, one to the location, and one to the weapon. Looking at the cards they have in hand, the ghost chooses one of the sets to be the actual culprit/location/item.

This is where the tokens for agreement and disagreement come into play.  The more correct tokens a player has played, the further they will have moved along a clairvoyance track. Also, mediums who assemble their full set early gain bonus points based on the number of turns remaining.

The ghost shuffles the three cards they have chosen, and flips the first one face-up.  Depending on how far they are along the clairvoyance track, some players are required to vote immediately for which set they feel is correct.  Then the ghost flips the second card up. Again, some mediums are required to vote.  Finally, the ghost flips the third card up. Any mediums who hadn't previously voted do so at this point.  At this point, it's a simple majority vote. The set which received the most votes from the Mediums is declared, and the ghost reveals whether the mediums are correct or not.  If they are, everyone wins.  If not, everyone loses.

The game has a couple of difficulty levels, which are adjusted in a couple of ways.  The first way to adjust difficulty is to increase the number of cards face-up in each category. If there are six players, having eight or nine or ten suspects can radically alter how difficult the job is for all involved.  The second adjustment to the difficult is that the ghost can limit the number of times they can discard their hand and re-draw a fresh hand of cards, because they may not have any good cards.

A lot of people on BoardGameGeek have suggested that you can play the game with Dixit cards instead of just the included cards. This will work, but you'd need to curate the batch of cards you're using to maintain the feel of the included cards. The art in both games is phenomenal, but Dixit cards have an optimism and brightness that is (deliberately) lacking in the Mysterium deck. The Mysterium cards are all gloomy and ominous, even when the color palette is a bit brighter.

All in all, I suspect that this game will see a lot of play on Wednesdays, as the group seemed as enthusiastic as I was when we played.

Update: This is apparently /r/boardgames' Game of the Week over on Reddit. A pure coincidence of timing, I assure you.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Digital Versions

At GenCon, this year, one of the things Asmodee had in the booth was an area for the digital version of Splendor. At the time, it was available on iOS.  Now it's also on Android and Steam.

I have it on my Kindle Fire, and the app is solid. The art and gameplay are exactly like the tabletop game.  In fact, it's only missing two things: that wonderful tactility of the physical game and online multiplayer.

I also have Ticket To Ride, Summoner Wars, Catan, Carcassone, and several other games on my Fire. And they're all good implementations of the various games. But I'm one of those guys who likes bits. For me, part of the joy of Splendor is stacking and restacking my chips.

On the other hand, playing Catan without having to set up the board is nice.  Finishing Ticket to Ride and not having to re-score to make things didn't get missed during the game is awesome. Not having to count and add for Longest Route is very nice.

And then there's the player factor:

I love, for example, Lords of Xidit.  It's an often-overlooked gem. A great little game. But too many folks in my local group aren't fans, so I don't get to break it out very often.

But I can (and do) play it on, where it's not hard to find enthusiasts. I've (so far) only played it against some friends from Plus.  Folks I can't play in person with (unless they move to Seattle).

I don't buy games for the art.  I don't buy them for the rules. I buy them for the social interaction. Gaming is the only social interaction I actively seek out.

So I'll buy digital versions. I'll use them as personal tutorials. But - for me, at least - they fall far short of the actual physical games.

This week at Game Night, I'm bringing Mysterium.  It's practically Halloween, and I can't think of a more appropriate game to play.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

That Post-Essen Blitz

I didn't mention it this year, but Essen Game Fair was recent.  Even if I wasn't keeping track, I'd know based on the sheer number of new games suddenly appearing at the local game stores.

BoardGameGeek did their usual Essen Spiel Preview this year, and it was (and continues to be) a bit terrifying.  That's a 32-page GeekList of games that are debuting at the show.

Yes, a few of them showed up at GenCon in limited numbers, but now they're Widely Available.

Below are a few games you may have missed, and one you couldn't escape (and not all of them are Essen games).  As ever, I'm providing Amazon links to them, but I really would prefer that you support your local game store (if you have one).

Deus - This is not a new game for Essen.  Hell, it was a 2014 game that won a ton of awards. And it's good. Really good. It was even a Kennerspiel des Jahres Recommended game this year.  That's a big deal.

Discoveries: The Journals of Lewis and Clark - More and more, I'm learning that I like dice games. Especially if they do something interesting with the dice. This is a worker-placement game that uses dice as workers, and allows you to sabotage other players by recalling dice in your color from them.  It's cold, it's cruel, it's brilliant.

Starfighter - I talked about this game a lot at GenCon.  It's out, now.  This is the best two-player game I've played in a very long time. It's a combo-building game, but you need to be careful to make sure that your combos do something, otherwise your opponent will beat you.

Ultimate Warriorz - It's not the deepest game. It's not the most complicated game. To be honest, I might even be able to play this with my nephews! But it's fun. I work on a surprising number of games for Asmodee (surprising to them, too, I suspect). I don't request copies of everything I work on, either. I'm way behind on my Dixit expansions. I don't have any of the Timeline: Animals or Timeline: Dinosaurs or several other Timeline sets. Because - much as I like those games - I don't need more.  But this game is one I requested.  I think it surprised them when I did so, too.

Mysterium - You couldn't get away from this game if you're at all involved with Geek Social Media or blogs or podcasts.  This is the game that caused stampedes at GenCon this year and crazy lines. The game is sorta like Dixit meets Clue.  One player is using images to communicate with the other players in an attempt to solve a murder. There is quite literally nothing else like it on the market. If my shipment hits me in time, I'll be playing this at Game Night next week.

T.I.M.E. Stories - Oddly, I can't find the base game on Amazon, so that link takes you to the first expansion, The Marcy Case. This is the first "decksploration" game I've seen. It reminds me more than a little of Quantum Leap (the TV series) - players take the role of people who are jumping back in time to prevent paradoxes and the destruction of the universe.  It's sort of a choose-your-own adventure book with character skills and die rolls. And the game is structured so that you can put it away without losing your place.  Again: Nothing else like it on the market. And there are a bunch of expansions coming with a variety of themes. Zombie survival horror. High fantasy. Action. Adventure. Suspense.  I'm really looking forward to this one.

The Builders: Antiquity - I really liked The Builders: Middle Ages.  This one turns the complexity up just a hair. I can't wait to get it to the table.

7 Wonders Duel - A two-player only 7 Wonders game.  What's not to love? It's considerably different from the "main" 7 Wonders game - players are drafting tiles instead of cards, for example. And there's no passing back-and-forth in the draft. Players can only pick tiles that are available.  All-in-all, it's a completely different game with the same theme. This might knock Starfighter off of my "Favorite 2p Game of 2015" pedestal.  Maybe.  I'll find out soon enough.

Shakespeare - I'm a theater geek. And I'm married to a theater geek. I knew when I did a pass or two over the rules to this one that I was going to need to own it. Players need to higher the right actors and set dressers and costumers to put on the best possible plays. It's already drawing rave reviews, and most of the mention the strong theme.

As they trickle in and hit the table, I'll probably have more to say about these games.  I got a new toy for my camera, so expect photos, too.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Character Flaws are Story Hooks

I'm sure you all know this, but I am a huge proponent of character-driven games. As a GM, I love it when the players start throwing ideas and hooks at me.

(Side note: I need to work on being better at this as a player)

Players contribute to the story in a number of ways, some of which are less obvious than others, and their first contribution for the vast majority of games is their character, because the characters are what the GM should structure the world around.

This is one of the ways in which I prefer characters who require construction.  Much as I have enjoyed all of the versions of Dungeons & Dragons over the years, it wasn't a system that was structured towards that sort of "GM and players telling a story" that I like. First and second editions were especially bad at that, because every fighter was (essentially) just like every other fighter.  The differences were all in your skills (and weapon proficiencies), but that was only as useful as your DM made it. And the difference between WP: Khopesh and WP: Broadsword only rarely came up.

I can't speak to fifth edition, however. I suspect that the "backgrounds" that it uses provide some of those story hooks which I so desperately crave as a DM.

But most games with constructed characters allow players to take advantages and disadvantages. You know. One eye. Cursed. True Love. Higher Calling.  Things that either constrain your character in some way so that you can get more points to boost your character somewhere else or that boost your character's abilities in some way.

Realistically, these are almost all story hooks. Even the advantages can provide good hooks for the GM to use.  Contacts and Allies? Who are they? Cursed? By whom and why? Dark Secret? What is it?

Skill selection can provide some of these story hooks, but often that requires deeper inquiry from the GM to the player.

As a player, I'm generally rotten about giving my GM good explicit hooks. I'll freely admit that. I'm a big fan of the amnesiac orphan characters in D&D-style games (which some GMs really appreciate and some really despise). 13th Age kept me from doing that via its backgrounds that invested me in a bit of worldbuilding (I'm pretty sure Wade is still shaking his head a bit at the presence of an Imperial Inquisition in his world).  But I really love interesting advantages and disadvantages.

As a GM, I love to see players like me when it comes to advantages and disadvantages, because it gives me ideas. Even players who aren't excited about a game can steer it quite a bit with their selections.

In my current Legend of the Five Rings game, for example, I have one player who didn't choose any advantages or disadvantages. He has one disadvantage, but it came from his clan's Heritage roll and not from his choice. As a GM, this has made it difficult for me to hang any kind of story off of that character.

With the Dungeons & Dragons game nearing its end (within a year or two, I suspect), there will almost certainly be another game spinning up to take its place. I need to be sure to give my GM as many plot hooks as I can ...

Wednesday, October 07, 2015

Mystery Rummy

A few weeks ago, Steph and I went to WorldCon, which was in Spokane. While in the dealer's room, I spotted a booth (Uncle's Games) that had the Mystery Rummy series of games in stock.

Now, I'd asked Brian at Phoenix Games a few years back if he could get them, and they were (at the time) sadly out of print. So when I saw them, I immediately grabbed the first one (Mystery Rummy: Jack the Ripper). I took it back to the room, and Steph and I fumbled through a hand or two.

I was immediately hooked. It was a solidly fun game that built on the classic Rummy rules. But I still wasn't sure I wanted to grab the others.  So I grabbed the fifth one (Mystery Rummy: Escape from Alcatraz), took it back to the room, and read the rules. And - again - it was a solid game with rules that were different enough from the first one that it didn't feel like a rehash of the other game.  This told me that all five games were likely distinct from one another.

So I grabbed all five, and took them back to our usual Wednesday gathering.

Where they were (and continue to be) a hit.

And where I learned that they are back in print and are now readily available through distribution.

Each of the five games has at least one special tweak to the rules.  Jack the Ripper, for example, doesn't let you meld cards until a victim has been played.  Jekyl & Hyde restricts what you can meld depending on which aspect of the good Doctor is currently active. Escape from Alcatraz has action cards that trigger the first time anyone lays down cards every turn.

It leads to five games with similar rules and very different feels.

Some of them are two-player-only, some of them are 2-4 players. Jack the Ripper, for example, is playable with 2-4, but I don't recommend it with more than two. Escape from Alcatraz is good with three or four, but it's playable with two. 

You can get them for around $20 from your FLGS. If you're at all curious, I recommend picking one up and giving it a shot.  So far, Jack the Ripper is my favorite with two players and Al Capone and the Chicago Underworld is my favorite with four (but several folks in the group prefer Escape from Alcatraz with four).

Unrelated to the above: I brought one of my old computers out of retirement, so I'm not completely computerless while my laptop is being repaired (under warranty), so maybe my posting schedule won't be terribly affected ...