Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Credit Where Due: Noble Knight

I don't point fingers at a lot of online retailers, here, because I really do want you guys to support your local game stores, if you have a good one. If you have a bad game store, then, by all means, buy online.  And I mean that. If you don't have a local game store, then - again - buy online.

A few weeks ago, because of a weird timing hiccup, I had a small PayPal balance.

Since I'm getting back into the Mutant Chronicles universe via the RPG, I figured I'd get into the minis game, too. Because why not?

Here's the thing about the game: It requires a set of templates. Sure, I can order them from the manufacturer, but it's $12 for the templates and then $20 for the shipping.  So I poked around online, and saw that Noble Knight had a set listed on eBay (I couldn't find it in their webstore, however). So, having the PayPal balance to burn and needing the templates, I placed the order. They shipped very promptly and arrived crazy-fast.

Only ... the eBay auction was for a clear set. It was pictured on the auction. The one I received was the orange set that I linked to above. I have ... feelings about orange. And this template set is one of my favorite shades.

So I e-mailed Noble Knight, asking if they had a clear one and how to exchange if they did.  I also made it clear that I'd be okay with keeping the orange if they didn't have a clear. Because - again - necessary for play. And orange is better than nothing.

Side note: The manufacturer has put their rulebook up online.  The full rulebook. It's that "Corporate Warbook" that takes up the top half of this page. In that rulebook is a page that includes the necessary templates - but the book is set up for A4. I'm in the US, and A4 is not easy to come by. And even rarer are printers that can handle A4. Yes, I can "print actual size," and cut off the edges of the paper, but my system kept balking. Which is why I went to order the templates online, because my FLGS can't get any Warzone stuff, apparently. I wonder if they're in distribution in North America ...

Noble Knight's response was pretty fast. I e-mailed them on Monday, and had a response from their Customer Service Manager (Trevor Parr) on Tuesday (which asked for a bit more information, which I provided within an hour).  By end of business today, I had another couple of e-mails from them. "I have a replacement order set up and will personally verify that it's clear before it ships." (no an exact quote) I also had an order confirmation from them - and that confirmation had a note about it being manually checked before shipping.

It wasn't clear - it was also orange. Again: Necessary for play, so I'll stick with the orange. But Noble Knight was responsive and really on the ball. And they did what they said they would do.

I've known for a few years that Noble Knight was one of the good guys. In 2015, they purchased a bunch of product from d20 Entertainment that was intended for Kickstarter backers. When they learned that backers were still waiting, they stepped up and voluntarily sent product for free to backers.  They obviously lost money on the deal.

This was my first time dealing with their customer service team.  It's the first time I'd had an issue. And I think that I can confidently state that Noble Knight is one of the Good Guys out there.

Thanks, Trevor. I appreciate the help.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Conventions

I keep cycling back to thinking about (and writing about) conventions.

This weekend, I'm at NorWesCon 40, and we had a conversation with the front desk clerk that brought a couple of things into stark focus for me, and I feel the need to share these things with you.

Notably: Growth.

Conventions - by their very nature - want to succeed. And the most visible measure of success is their growth. Unfortunately, growth is not always a good thing.

Remember a while back when GenCon left the Lake Geneva area and went to Indianapolis?  It's because the convention had outgrown Lake Geneva. There simply was not enough room to host everyone who wanted to attend. All of the hotels in town were full, all of the campgrounds and RV parks around town were full. There were long lines at restaurants and grocery stores and ...

I wasn't there at the time. This is second-hand.  Either way, it was not a good scene. Conventions outgrowing hotels is nothing surprising. Hotels outgrowing regions, on the other hand ...

So they moved to Indianapolis. A larger city with more hotels and a reasonably large convention center.  That appears to have been a good move, but GenCon has outgrown the convention center, too, and is now starting to expand into the stadium. Because it keeps growing.

They also tried to split things up by adding GenCon SoCal. But that wound up not succeeding, because vendors didn't feel like paying for two GenCon events per year, one of which involved a great deal more travel for many of them. This meant that GenCon SoCal was treated as a lesser convention by the vendors, which means that gamers also treated it as second-class, and so on. But it did slightly relieve a bit of the pressure on Indy for the first year or two.

PAX managed to expand without the same issue. There's PAX, PAX East, PAX South, PAX Australia ... and now PAX Unplugged, too. Which is a smart move, IMHO. Much as the various PAX conventions love having their board game contingent there, it's not an easy con for analog gaming folk, as video games are loud and flashy and showy. Which makes demos especially difficult.

NorWesCon has outgrown its home. It's at the Doubletree Hotel that is right across from the airport. There is plenty of very good food within easy walking distance, but the passing periods between panels are nightmarishly packed. Getting from one end of one particular hallway to the other is ... not good. It's just a solid crush of people.  There can be a ten or fifteen minute wait for an elevator with space, too. When there are convention events going on that are in the penthouse lounge, that can be a problem.

"It's true," said the clerk who was checking us in. "We're not big enough for this convention. But where else are they going to go?  Downtown Seattle isn't far, but it's triple the price, which triples the cost to attend. And that drops attendance back to the point where ... why did they move, anyway?"  There are other hotels nearby with convention rooms, and theoretically the convention could expand into one of them - but that still increases the price and adds the need to run shuttles between the various hotels. And any price increase reduces attendance numbers.

Running the same weekend as NorWesCon is Sakuracon. Sakuracon is in downtown Seattle. Its pricing is about the same as NorWesCon's.  Sakuracon used to be held in the Seattle Center, but outgrew it and is now in the convention center.  When Sakuracon was just starting out, they worked out a reciprocal agreement with NorWesCon, so the two conventions honored one another's badges - which was a good idea. I sometimes wonder if the two should just work together a bit more. Host a shared convention space, honor one another's badges, and balance the cost of the convention center downtown in that way. I know I'd still attend ...

Of course, most of the cost of moving downtown isn't the convention center itself. It's the hotels for guests. Here in SeaTac, I live about twenty minutes down the road, and we still get a room here for the weekend due to lack of parking. And it's a nice retreat from home.  If the con were to move downtown, I don't know if we'd get a room or not. Having a room is great when you've hit your limit of people and just want to hide for a bit.

Change is scary. Growth is scary. As a regular attendee, I just need to assume that the ConCom knows what they're doing and is willing to embrace change when it becomes necessary.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

So Blessed, Second Chances

I forget, sometimes, just how blessed I am to be living where I do.

This last weekend was Steph's and my 11th anniversary.  So we did what we do: We went out.

There were a couple of places I'd been meaning to check out, and a couple of places I'd been meaning to drag Steph to, so it all turned into a fantastic day.

We started by stopping at Blue Max. My parents have been going there for a while, and they're really fantastic. There's a good selection of game-fuel, too, in the form of pepperoni sticks and "trail mix" which is sausage and cheese.

From there, we headed to Capitula Uno Libreria, a brand-new Spanish-language bookstore that isn't terribly far. The proprietor was friendly and enthusiastic, and spoke English (I don't speak Spanish - Steph does). We spent a few bucks there.

From there, we headed to Game On! in the South Hill Mall. I'd pre-ordered a copy of Shadow Wars: Armageddon, and I wanted to pick that up ASAP. Now this was a second chance for us with Game On!. They'd had a location in Southcenter, and I had not been even a little impressed. The staff ignored me when I walked in, and when I went to spend money, they gave an attitude as though I was somehow putting them out by pulling them away from sorting Magic cards or chatting with their friends.  And that hadn't been a one-time thing, either. We gave them a number of opportunities to steal some of our custom away from Phoenix.  And the Puyallup location ... was different. When we got there, there were a dozen or so customers milling about and browsing. The cashier greeted us promptly, and we spent a few minutes browsing before spending our money. There was one employee who was standing in the middle of the store playing Ice Cool with himself and not really interacting with any customers, but he seemed to be the exception and not the rule. We picked up the game and got out of there.

We then headed towards South Hill Games and More. We had time to kill before they opened, so we stopped at the Games Workshop store that is about two blocks from their location.

Our experience at that GW store was a complete reversal from the last time we'd been to one (more than a decade ago).  We were greeted promptly, and the staffer wasn't pushy, but she was available as soon as we had a question. Not only that, but when I mentioned that Game On! and The Game Matrix both had received copies of Shadow Wars: Armageddon, she looked up the phone numbers for one of the customers who was there and looking for a copy. That, by the way, was one of the most stunning customer service moments I've seen in years. From anyone.

After GW, we headed to South Hill Games and More.  They're in a terrible location, but the shop is clean and organized and the staff is enthusiastic and knowledgeable. And friendly.  We picked up a Guild Ball starter, because several friends have been raving about the game of late and the gentleman who demoed it for us made it sound fun.

After that, we were a bit torn. We could go to The Game Matrix for paint, or we could head home so I could start on dinner and take a nap.  We headed towards home, stopping at Happy Donuts on the way. Happy is not a fancy donut place. They don't have bacon maple bars or any of the new "hip" donut flavors. They have traditional twists and bars and cake donuts. But their donuts are really good. And I'd never taken Steph there before (despite mentioning it every time we drove past).

Then Steph napped and I cooked dinner, and then headed to Beer & Board Games at Fantasium.

In one day, I visited four game stores. The furthest one out is about half an hour from the house. This area is blessed. It's an embarrassment of riches, even.

I can't wait to get these games to the table, either.

Wednesday, April 05, 2017

Boycotts

Drama is one of those things that happens all around us all the time. Usually, it's small and unimportant to us, but sometimes important things are happening.

And those things are not always good.

Role-players seem especially prone to drama. It's part of what makes us good role-players - we get invested in things, and they are important to us.

So we get angry when a company betrays us by not behaving as we expect them to. It happens all the time, and is nothing new.

A few months back, Simon and Schuster signed a contract to publish Milo Yiannopoulos' book. This triggered a ton of calls to boycott S&S.

If you don't know who Milo is, can I come live where you live?

When (not long ago) they canceled that same contract, a ton of people started yelling about how people shouldn't end that boycott because "it was only a business decision."

Here's the thing: A boycott is an attempt to sway business decisions. That's the whole point of a boycott. So Simon and Schuster canceling the book means that the boycott was successful.

Yes, there were other things going on and the decision wasn't completely due to the boycott. It was more due to the fear of further boycotting by customers. But that's beside the point. The boycott's goal was "Keep S&S from publishing this book." And S&S decided not to publish the book.

You hear all the time that people will "vote with their wallet." And we do. Who you choose to buy from is important. Buying from McDonald's instead of Burger King means that McDonald's makes money from you and Burger King doesn't.

But that's different from a boycott.

When you boycott a brand (or line), you are telling that company, "I will not support X."  And you need to actually tell them. Really. It's voting with your wallet and your voice.

And it's relevant to gaming. Honest and for true.

Not liking a game (or game line) isn't the same as boycotting it. I don't like Munchkin, for example. It just does nothing for me, and it kinda drags in the endgame. But I'm not going to tell my friends not to buy it (if they like it - and a lot of them do). I'm not going to write Steve Jackson Games and tell them they shouldn't publish it. I'm just not going to buy it.

But I haven't bought anything from Games Workshop in more than a decade. Nor have I purchased anything that has been licensed from them. Because I've seen how poorly they've treated their fans and retailers over the years. I've seen what they do to the overall hobby.

But that ... seems to be changing. Part of that is due to the outcome of the Chapterhouse Studios lawsuit from a few years back, and part of it is new management (also as of a few years back). Either way, GW seems to be mending their ways. They're listening to fans. They're loosening their grip a bit on online sales. It's enough that I'm ... I'm thinking about jumping back in.  You know. Giving them another chance.

UPDATE: Since writing this, but before it went live, I had a couple of communications with GW customer service, and I am ending my boycott of GW product. I won't call myself a fan of their product, but I am willing to buy their things again.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Mechanisms I Like: Trick-Taking

A few weeks back, I wrote about a game mechanism that I really like - Programmed Action.

Today, I'm going to do that again, for a different mechanism. Today, I'm going to discuss trick-taking games.

I'd say that all trick-taking games are card games, but someone somewhere would pop up with a game that breaks that mold. I will say that all trick-taking games that I know of are card games. And all of them have at least a little bit of strategy to them.

In a trick-taking game, players throw one (or more) cards into the middle of the table, and other players play additional cards into the center of the table usually in an attempt to beat the exist card(s) and win the cards which have been played.  Some games feature a trump suit that automatically beats other cards of different suits.

Honestly, when I encountered someone who wasn't familiar with trick-taking a few years ago, I was stunned. It's extremely common, and there are _thousands_ of games that feature it.

Many of these games use a standard Poker deck, so it's cheap to get started. In fact, you probably have a deck somewhere in your home.

Here are a few of my favorites (note: I'm only posting games I'm personally familiar with, so don't freak out when you don't see Contract Bridge on the list, for example):

Hearts
I first encountered Hearts not with my family (like so many kids do), but with friends. And then I re-discovered it when it was pre-installed on Windows '95. It requires a standard poker deck, and players throw one card per trick. The goal is to avoid taking cards of a certain suit (Hearts), and avoid another specific card (the Queen of Spades).  Each trick is one card per player, and players must follow suit whenever possible. If you cannot follow suit, you can throw anything. There is no trump suit.The game ends when someone reaches 100 points, and the lowest score wins.

Spades
This is - for me - a relatively new one. I know it's hugely popular, but it's just not one we played in our house. Probably because it's a partnership game, and we had an odd number of players. Each hand starts with a round of bidding - players bid how many tricks they will be able to win that hand. Spades are always a trump suit, and you must follow suit if able.  If you cannot follow suit, you can throw anything. Each trick is one card per player.

If you fail to meet your bid, you lose points equal to ten times your bid. If your team meet your bid exactly, you score ten times your bid. If you take more tricks than you bid, you score ten times your bid plus one point per additional trick taken. If, as a team, you ever take a total of ten extra points, your team loses 100 points.

You can bid "nil," which means you won't take any tricks that hand. If you succeed, you score 100 points for your team. If you fail, you lose 100 points for your team.

There are a number of variant rules for this one, including "Blind Nil," bids, which are worth 200 points but which must be made before you look at your hand. Some variants allow partners to pass a card back and forth.

Rook
I first learned Rook over a holiday break at my great-grandparents' house in Oregon. I think Grandpa White was just trying to get my brother and I to shut up and calm down. The game itself requires a special deck of cards. The deck is pretty inexpensive, but the paper cards will wear out quickly, so I bought a copy of 57 Cards. If you think you'll be playing a lot, I recommend doing the same ...

The game itself is pretty standard. Certain cards are "counters," and one card is played per trick. Players must follow suit if possible, and may play trumps if they cannot follow suit. Like many partnership games, it starts with a bid, and the bid winner gets to choose the trump suit. There are a ton of variants. I actually grew up playing a variant that isn't on that page.

The wrinkles that Rook brings to the table are the Nest and the Rook card itself.  When dealing the cards out, there is a separate pool of five cards that is created. The player who wins the bid picks those cards up and then lays down five more cards. Each trick is one card per player, and you must follow suit if possible. Whoever wins the last trick gets to take those five cards for scoring - it may be nothing, but I've seen valuable nests.  The Rook itself is usually the highest trump card, regardless of suit. Some variants (including the one I grew up on) features the Rook as the lowest trump card.

At the end of the trick, the bid-winning team checks to see if they made their bid (or more). If they did, they score what they took. If they didn't, they go negative by their bid. The other team just scores what they took.

Pinochle
Pinochle is the game I played the most with my family. It's another single-card trick-taking partnership game, but it requires a special deck of 48 cards. There are tons of regional variations (for some reason, double-deck Pinochle is the most commonly found online).

The team that wins the bid gets to pick the trump suit.

The unique feature of Pinochle is the meld.  After bidding, but before players start taking tricks, certain combinations of cards are worth points. So a King and a Queen, for example, is a Marriage. "Kings Around" means you have a king in each suit. You can also have runs (9-J-Q-K-10-A) in the trump suit. Some variants have runs as Jack through Ace (and note that 10 is between the King and the Ace in this one), with bonus points for the nine of trump. The "Pinochle" is a Jack of Diamonds and a Queen of Spades.  And it's possible to have doubles of most of these, as there are two of each card in the deck.

Another unique feature is that you must play to win each trick, with a few exceptions.  Tricks are single cards, and you must follow suit. If you cannot follow suit, you must throw Trump (if possible). So if you throw a Queen of Spades to lead, I must throw a King, Ten, or Ace of Spades if I have them. If I don't have them, I can throw any Spade. If I don't have any Spades, then I must throw a trump card. If I throw trump, the next player must play Spades if possible (but my trump means they can throw any Spade because now I'm winning the trick).  If they can't throw a Spade, then they have to throw trump, but it has to be a higher trump card than what I played (if they can). If they can't beat my play, then they can play anything in the trump suit. If they're out of both Spades and the trump suit, they can throw anything.

Gang of Four
The first Days of Wonder game I ever bought was Gang of Four. And not this second edition, either. I bought it before I knew what I was doing. It was ... not bad. It's the first trick-taking game I had played where players could play more than one card to a trick. By "more than one card," I mean both "can play sets instead of singles" and "the trick keeps going until all players except one pass." I still really like this one.

No bidding in this one, just play. Before playing, however, you'll pass cards to other players, and then the cards themselves determine who plays first. Scoring is based on the number of cards people have in hand when one player runs out.

Tichu
Tichu is the highest-rated trick-taking game on BoardGameGeek. It's almost in the Top 100. At the time I write this, it's #103 overall. It has a lot in common with Gang of Four - it's a trick-taking game where you can throw sets of cards, and not everyone needs to play every trick. In fact, there will be times where you can't play.

Tichu has a different set of special cards that do different things. And it's a partnership-based game. The goal is to run out of cards before your opponents do, and the special cards include one card that passes control of play to your partner. After the deal, you'll pass one card to each other player.

Players also can call "Tichu" at two times - one is after only part of the hand has been dealt.  This is a "Grand Tichu" and is worth a lot of points. The other "Tichu" call is before you play your first card, and it's worth a smaller number of points.  If you fail to go out first after calling Tichu, you lose points equal to what you would have gained from that Tichu.

And Tichu also has a card combination that is called a bomb, which you can play at any time - even out of turn.

Haggis
Haggis reminds me a great deal of Tichu and Gang of Four, only this game is optimized for 3 players. There are vanishingly few games that are good with three, so this deserves special mention in that respect. It also gives each player three wild cards at the beginning of the hand that are worth points if they're not used.

Each trick is a set of cards, and you must beat the existing set to play. Or you can bomb it.

Haggis starts with a bidding round, but unlike most games with bidding involved, failure to make your bid doesn't cost you points - it gives points to your opponents.  It means that a game if Haggis is always moving forward. Unlike the other games on this list, every hand advances someone towards the in.  It's possible for a game of Pinochle to last a crazy-long time because players fail to make bid and slide backwards. In Spades, you can bid 'nil' and then take a trick causing you to slide backwards. In Haggis, an error like that that just increases your opponents' scores, driving the game forwards towards its end.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Game Recommendation And Another Kickstarter For Your Attention

Have you ever played Powerboats? If not, you're really missing out. It's become a favorite over the years, and I don't play it as much as I'd like to these days.

I say that about a lot of games.

Well somewhere along the way, Powerboats went out of print. You can still find it for a reasonable price on the BoardGameGeek marketplace.

So let me explain Powerboats to you - it's fast. I promise.

Each turn, you start by adjusting your speed.  There are three ways you can adjust your speed:

  1. Add a (three-sided) die. You then roll it and add it to your speed.
  2. Remove a die. Choose any of your current speed dice and pull it off of the display.
  3. Re-roll some or all of your current speed dice.
Note that even if you add or remove a die, you can still re-roll some (or all) of your current speed dice.

Once you've adjusted your speed, you then need to move. You can turn one hex side to the left or right, or you can go straight.  Once you've got that all adjusted, you then move in a straight line.  If you hit an island, you take damage.  If you take four points of damage, you sink.

It's a racing game, and you're trying to race around three buoys (that word always looks wrong to me) and then back to the starting line, and you score points based on the number of people you beat.

Ideally, each session involves three races. Race two is worth double points, and race three is worth triple points. After three races, the player with the most points wins.

The game really is that simple.

There's an expansion that adds some variation to the basic game. Hexes that push you in one direction or another, jumps that let fast-moving boats jump over islands.Whirlpools that spin your boat.

You know.  Fun.

As I mentioned above - it's gone out of print. I honestly don't know if it even had a second printing. But Cwali doesn't tend to do large print runs, and many of their games command crazy-high prices once they actually start to attract attention.

Well, Cwali had decided that he enjoyed Powerboats enough to dig the design out again and tweak it.  The result is now on Kickstarter with just over a week to go. If you liked Powerboats, you'll almost certainly like Powerships. If you haven't played Powerboats, the rulebook for Powerships is linked to on the project page.

He stated on BoardGameGeek that the final print run will be Kickstarter Demand plus about 20%, so it's not a game you're likely to stumble across at your FLGS.

I try not to sell too many Kickstarters at folks here. I'm a games blog, not a PR or marketing blog. And Kickstarter has been very disruptive for the local game stores that I honestly believe should be at the heart of our community. I get a dozen or so e-mail requests every week from folks to advertise their projects here. And I've never done it at their request. There was one project that I had scheduled my post before I received the request, so I let that one slide.  Cwali did not contact me to request this post. Let's be brutally honest, here: I'm a small fish in the gaming blog world. But I'm still doing what I can for this project, because I want it, and it's not going to happen without your help.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Hugo Awards

This post is going live two days before Hugo nominations closes.  I'm not going to tell you all of who I voted for, but I want to spotlight a few works that I was especially fond of this year, and that I doubt will be on the final ballot.

There's a ton of overlap between SF/F readers and gamers, so I hope you'll forgive me this side-trip out of gaming for a week.

Best Novel
I don't like baseball. I think it's a dull sport that is not really worth the time spent watching it. This is largely because of a lack of strategy inherent in the game itself. Yes, there is some, but much of it is set before the game even begins and isn't particularly flexible after the game starts.

But if you strip the game itself out, sometimes baseball can be amazing. Transcendent, even. Shoeless Joe is one of W.P. Kinsella's three baseball-related novels (The Thrill of the Grass and The Iowa Baseball Confederacy are the other two). All three blend subtle fantasy with the baseball itself, and they're a joy and a delight to read. All three of them make me wish I liked baseball. And none of them are shelved in the Fantasy section of bookstores.

None of them are eligible this year, either. Kinsella was one of the authors who passed in 2016. But Harry Turtledove, whose books always wind up in the SF/F section of bookstores, did have a baseball book drop this year. The House of Daniel was fantastic. Much like Kinsella's books, it made me wish I liked baseball. And it highlighted just enough baseball strategy that the game itself is slightly less boring for me. Slightly. I still won't sit through a game, given a choice.

But it was good enough that it's on my Hugo ballot.

Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form
Person of Interest was initially a "guilty pleasure" show for me. The first season was - like many TV shows - a series of (mostly) unconnected stories in which the main protagonists had to get to the bottom of a mystery provided to them by a computer.  As the show went on, the SF elements spun ever higher until the last few seasons were all about a clash between two artificial intelligences.

It's worth getting through the first season to get to the other seasons, and the last four episodes are four of the best hours of television that I have ever watched.  Since the last few seasons were a cohesive story, I nominated it in the Long Form category.  I also nominated a few specific episodes in the Short Form category, because - again - they were fantastic.  It's on Netflix here in the US.

Best Series
This year, WorldCon is test-driving a "Best Series" Hugo award. There are a ton of series that are worth voting for, but The Craft Sequence series by Max Gladsone really grabbed me this year. The fifth book, Four Roads Cross is its "qualifying volume."

I've ranted about this series before in a variety of places (mostly on social media), but it's very much worth a read.  Book one is Three Parts Dead - and I warn everyone that it's a bit of a slow starter, but it gets better and better and better the deeper into it you go. The other four volumes either don't start as slowly or else I just didn't notice because I was already invested in the world.

Of the three items mentioned in the post, this is the most likely to actually appear on the final ballot - I have several friends who pushed the series on me, and they're Hugo Nominators, too ...