Wednesday, August 07, 2019

Scoping the Scene

I'm one of those people who tends to form very strong bonds of loyalty to ... things. I drink Coke (or did, when I could still drink caffeinated beverages). I wear Nike and Red Wing shoes almost exclusively. And I support my local game store. Most of the time, this is neither good nor bad.

But I don't want to be a blind follower, so I work pretty hard at keeping tabs on what else is out there. I've tried on Adidas shoes (which were too narrow). I had an RC Cola. And, last weekend, I took Steph and drove to a couple of game stores that aren't Fantasium.

See, I'm looking at starting to play Corvus Belli Infinity, and apparently there aren't a lot of US distributors who carry it.

The first store we stopped at was The Game Shelf.  It was a ways out of the way for us, but seemed to be in a pretty good location. The small facing expanded rapidly into a large space once you walked in. It was brightly-lit and had a decent selection of games.  We were both greeted almost as soon as we walked in the door. I forgot to ask him about his special order process (which is always super-important to me), but the gentleman behind the counter was very friendly, very chatty, and - just as importantly - treated Steph as a customer instead of some sort of add-on to my presence. It was a good experience, so I bought a thing of paint and Steph got a couple sets of dice. And we went on.

I'm not going to name the next place we went. It was just a bit down the hill from The Game Shelf, though. It was small, and cramped, and there was an aroma that was ... less-than-pleasant. There was some sort of event going on (it sounded like a regular D&D group), and so they had a table in the middle of their front room that made two-thirds of the shop inaccessible. We were both ignored when we walked in. I spotted a few things that had clearly been on their shelf for a while (like a copy of the original 51st State) - that's not a bad thing, but it was prominently displayed. That's weird, as most retailers try to highlight hot-and-new items or rare-and-expensive items.  I bought a thing of paint and got out of there as quickly as I could.

Finally, we headed to The Game Matrix.  Over the years, The Game Matrix has been very hit-or-miss. They have (or can get) just about everything, but their customer service ranges from spectacular to nonexistent. You just never know what's going to happen when you walk in.  We were promptly greeted by an enthusiastic employee who - when he heard what I was looking for - found the one Infinity product they had in stock on the shelf. "We also have the RPG," I was told. When I asked about a specific product, he checked availability at their distributor without hesitating. Or ignoring other customers.

None of these stores is likely to lure me away from Fantasium on the regular, but for occasional special orders that Fantasium can't get? I'd rather spend at Game Shelf or Game Matrix than online.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Gamethyme's Game of the Year

It's weird to me - even though I'm not an attendee anymore, my personal calendar still revolves around GenCon. Which brings me back to today.

Today is the Wednesday before GenCon, which means that today is the day I pick my personal Game of the Year.  For those of you who haven't followed me over the years, this is for the best new-to-me game that I have played since the previous GenCon.

And it's always a challenge.  This year, I've been focusing on re-playing old favorites more than pushing into new games. That said, there were still a handful of eligible games.  But this was a tough decision.

Here are the three runners-up, with a tiny bit of discussion about them:

Fist of Dragonstones: Tavern Edition - I sometimes thought I was the only fan of the original Fist of Dragonstones. It was disappointing, as it was a really fun auction game that saw a lot of play in the early days of Game Night. So I was both floored and ecstatic when Stronghold Games announced that this was coming. I pre-ordered from the FLGS as soon as it had a listing, and then ... I waited.  It was worth the wait.

It's not the deepest game, and there are still a few rules details that could do with some clarity, but this is a faster-playing better-balanced version of the game than the original.

Magic Maze - Cooperative games have lately become My Jam.  Okay, not just lately. But I especially love it when a cooperative game directly impacts how I communicate with other players. Magic Maze doesn't allow players to speak. Each player has one command they can use to move pawns on the board, and everyone has to work together to move the pawns to specific locations. The game is scenario-based, but the replay value of each scenario is crazy-high because of the random deck.

And playing with three players is a vastly different experience than playing with four or five or up to eight.

Again: not the deepest game out there, but definitely worth checking out. I really loved it, and I thought the expansion was also money well-spent.

51st State, Master Set - This is the second game on the list that is a new edition of an older game that I really enjoyed. The original was very much a multiplayer solitaire game (at least until the expansions started to roll out). The art was decent, but the gameplay was a lot of fun for me. Once I puzzled out the (awkwardly-translated) rules.

I became aware of the new Master Set version when I read the back of a box of Imperial Settlers, which uses the same basic gameplay engine. The Master Set has better (clearer) rules than the original version, and it includes direct player interaction right out of the gate. And it includes two small expansions (and there are a couple of other expansions available, too, if you play them to death).

These have all been fun to play this year, but the real winner for me?

Root - I've joined the band, here. Above, I mentioned that cooperative games are my jam? So are asymmetric games. And asymmetric games are hard to do entertainingly. Root both feels balanced and is fun.

The base game has four factions - the cats, who are in power; the birds, who want to return to power; the woodland creatures, who are tired of the cats and the birds oppressing them; and the vagabond who just wants to bum around living his life.  All four factions have different ways of scoring points and they do different things on their turns.  The cats are trying to build an economic engine that supports their armies and lets them crush the opposition. The birds have a rigid hierarchy which tightly restricts what they can do on their turn (and telegraphs some of their planning for their opponents).  The woodland creatures go around drumming up sympathy. When the other factions step on them, they get more powerful. Eventually, the woodland creatures are allowed to act.  The vagabond - seriously - just wanders around doing their own thing.

The expansion adds a different economic faction (albeit one without its own army) and more Vagabond options (including a second Vagabond in play).

In a full game, players can craft and trade and march and recruit and battle one another. But - again - each faction has its own spin on each of those options.

The art is evocative and cute, but not irritating. The components are good quality (wooden units, decent cardstock for the tokens, etc). And the way players interact in the game means that - while there is downtime in larger games, you'll want to pay attention because what they do will impact your turn.

It's light enough that you can play it in an evening, but - again - there's enough going on to entertain many hardcore gamers (but, of course, not all of them).

And that is why Root is my game of the year this year.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Different Preparations, Different Results

As I'm sure I've mentioned dozens of times, here, I live in the greater Seattle area. While we're famous for our small local coffee brand, we also have a number of (very good) tea shops in the area.  One of those shops is Friday Afternoon Tea.

If you go to their website, you'll see that they have dozens of blends. Different varieties of tea leaf, different additives and other flavorings, and so much more. Friday also does custom blends. A few years ago, my wife purchased a custom blend for me as a gift.  We wound up with a tea called "Pie Dreams."  It's white tea with peach, cinnamon, allspice, raw sugar, and a bit of vanilla.

You won't find "Pie Dreams" on their website, though, because it's a custom blend.  But if you contact her to order it, I think she'll be able to sell it to you. It's a bit like a secret menu at a fast food place.

But that's all beside the point.

Much like coffee, there are a number of ways to brew tea, each of which subtly influences the flavor. And there are things you can do post-brewing, too, that also change the flavor.

With Pie Dreams, when you make it in a more traditional way (hot water + tea blend, steep for a few minutes, etc.), you wind up with a tea that is sweet, and, at the same time, it's a bit warming. It's a very pleasant tea to drink. And it seriously tastes like you're drinking a peach pie.  It's very weird, but really good.

When you brew it hot and then ice it, the peach steps forward a bit more strongly. I often put sugar in my iced tea. I often put too much sugar in my iced tea, actually. But adding sugar to Pie Dreams actively hurts the flavor.

When you cold-brew it, the peach takes a big step back. It's there, but it provides a mellowing flavor against the spices that unfold. It's a more delicate flavor overall, and it's less sweet (but still very very good).

This is what an RPG session is like. Every single group is a custom blend of GM and players and characters and system and setting and ...

As a GM, how I prepare for a game makes the biggest change to the game itself.  I can spend my time figuring out every notable NPC (or group) and what they're doing, or I can roughly sketch some details out for myself.  I can let the players wander all over the countryside (even though the adventure is right over there), or I can force them to ride the railroad as it were. And, depending on what I have prepared, I can let my players steer - throw up a few signs to guide them now and again, mind you, but let them be players.

None of these options are bad. Even railroads aren't a bad thing (despite their negative reputation).

They're just different ways of brewing that tea.

And by "tea," I mean "fun."

Which is the point, right?

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Rediscovering The Classics

Steph's birthday was just a few moths ago, and I always struggle with What To Get Her. Because she's super-important to me, and a bad gift shows that I have not put thought into it.

She'll tell you that she'll love whatever I get her, but I've noticed that some gifts get used and some get shelved.

Her all-time favorite game is El Grande. It's a good game. It won a ton of awards in the mid-Nineties and is still a Top 100 game on the BoardGameGeek Rankings. Our copy was a bit long in the tooth, and has seen a lot of love, so I figured replacing it would be a decent gift.  Then Tabletop Gaming Deals on Twitter shared that the Big Box edition (which includes all the expansions) was cheaper than the core game alone (it still is).  So I bit.  And it was a good decision.

I've gotten to play the core game a couple of times since, and it reminded me of how much I love this game.  It's area control with drafting. Two things I'm terrible at.  But I'm ... okay at El Grande. And it's one of those games that I honestly don't mind losing at, because the gameplay is so much fun.

Then, a few days later, I was looking for something to play on Board Game Arena (which - again - is amazing), and I decided to play Can't Stop. Because it's easy to teach, light, fast, and fun.

But these two outcomes have me digging back into (recent) classics, looking for more fun things that I haven't played.  Carcassonne, for example, is a ton of fun in moderation. As long as you are not using more than the base game and maybe one or two expansions.  Catan is ... hit-or-miss. It depends on who you're playing with. Ticket To Ride is fun, but it gets super-repetitive super-fast.

So what twentieth-century games should I be looking into? What games are fun and good and short enough to be played in an evening with a mix of hardcore and casual gamers? What recent classics need more play than they get?

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Let's Talk About 5E, Shall We?

I eat a lot of Mexican food. Probably too much, actually. But when I go to a new place, I'll generally order either something I've never seen before or chicken fajitas.

"Something I've never seen before" is pretty obvious. Those are likely to be the specialty of the house and will set them apart from the tacos and burritos that are ubiquitous on Mexican menus.

Chicken Fajitas are a little less obvious - it's because chicken is a good platform to highlight unique or special spice blends. And I've never had two chicken fajitas that tasted the same.

My wife, by contrast, orders enchiladas. Most of the flavor of an enchilada comes from the sauce, and - much like fajita spice - that can vary wildly from restaurant to restaurant. Most Mexican restaurants have more than one enchilada sauce (and many of them allow you to mix and match sauces on your enchiladas).

So what does this have to do with Dungeons & Dragons?  Especially the fifth edition of same?

A lot, actually.

I've been playing D&D since I was ten. It was 1e at the time, and we played it on the playground at recess. I didn't get to play a lot, as my parents were part of the satanic panic of the eighties. This means I definitely wasn't allowed to own any books or dice.

Because of this, I played the simplest class. The one that had the fewest complex rules. In 1e, that meant I played a fighter. Why? Because the fighter's only real decision was "Which foe do I want to hit?"  Mechanically, 1e fighters were (and continue to be) super-boring.

By the time 2e rolled around, I was familiar enough with the rules that I was able to play something different. I dabbled with Wizards and Rogues before settling on (don't laugh) Bards. Because Fighters continued to be boring.

When Wizards dropped 3e on us, Feats made some interesting changes. Suddenly every class had interesting customization options (and Fighters were more interesting). Some of the fighter feats meant that there were occasional interesting decisions to be made. I only played a tiny bit of 3e (I was much more a DM than a player at that point).  By the end of 3e's run, however, it'd turned into an optimization game. "The best fighter takes and and ." Or "Check out this broken Feat combo!"

Pathfinder took the optimization aspects of 3e and turned them up to eleven. The game's power curve was structured so that players who didn't optimize were left behind. It also highlighted those parts of 3e that I didn't like, turning them into the focus of play. Note that I'm very carefully not saying "Pathfinder was bad." I'm saying, "Pathfinder wasn't for me."

Then we hit 4e. Suddenly every class was equally interesting. And theoretically balanced. Fighter powers/abilities hit harder or applied status effects (stun and knockdown were pretty common). Wizard powers/abilities did elementally-flavored damage and applied different status effects to foes. Feats were less-important than power selection.

And now we have 5e.

For those of you who are wondering, I haven't broken my self-imposed boycott of 5e. I received a copy of the Player's Handbook (PHB), Dungeon Master's Guide (DMG), and Monster Manual (MM) as gifts from a friend.  I spent the next few days following that gift reading the 5e PHB and ... meh.  I don't get all the love it gets.

One friend, when he saw that I had 5e in my hands, asked if I was "finally tired of that tactical combat simulator" that 4e was.

I've got news for you, Matt: All editions of D&D are tactical combat simulators. And 4e is the best/most interesting of the bunch for most classes. Every edition of D&D has fallen desperately short when it came to mechanically rewarding non-combat encounters. Which means that 5e is - for what I want in a game - significantly less-good than 4e. Because it's a less-detailed tactical combat simulator.

Reading through 5e, it's like a bizarre cross between 2e and 3e. There's good in there, mind you, but for the most part it strikes me as a huge step backwards.

The only real "killer app" of 5e is the Advantage/Disadvantage mechanism. And possibly "Inspiration," which lets you trigger Advantage.

I did what I often do when I confront something that is so popular that I just plain don't understand: I went online and asked my friends. Here's what I heard from them:

  1. Combat in 5e is faster. This is both bug and feature, as you can have multiple small combat encounters in a single session, but big set-piece battles are less interesting.
  2. Classes in 5e have three sub-classes that characters move into at 3rd level. Only one of the Fighter subclasses is boring 2e Hit 'Em more/better.
  3. There are fewer ways to apply fewer status effects in 5e, which is cleaner and easier to understand for newer players.
  4. Combat in 5e supports "theater of the mind" better than 4e and 3e. While you can use a map and grid, it's not as strictly required as it was in those editions.
  5. DIY players have an easier time tweaking 5e, as 4e was so tightly interconnected. Creating a power here-and-there for 4e was simple enough, but creating new classes was a lot of work.
Even a lot of 5e players expressed frustration with how boring and limited it felt after a very short time. One friend said, "Loved 5 E at first, got bored with it after a couple of years." And that was pretty close to consensus.

5E hits on more cylinders than 4E for me and also has some good ideas. I have played it several times and will likely play it again. 
All things considered, I would still prefer to play OSRIC, Advanced Labyrinth Lord, Blueholme, or Low Fantasy Gaming.

Other games came up, too. Both OSR retroclones and newer branches of the d20 tree (Pathfinder and 13th Age especially). And games that aren't from that family (Fantasy Age got a lot of love).

Indie gaming legend Ron Edwards left a long comment that I'm going to quote in full, here:
I just played 5E for the first time, just a couple of days ago, as a player. It struck me as a very 2000s game, maybe even 2010 on the nose. That's not a slam, but identifying it very much as of its era, and not any kind of old-school whatnot which in this case makes most sense as precise marketing.
More importantly, as a game, it is caught like a writhing insect in what I called The Impossible Thing Before Breakfast. If I play my character, in the sense of all this characterization and agency that the creation process fires up, then the DM cannot create the story, as everything about DMing and especially the published scenarios and campaigns emphasizes. And vice versa, perhaps especially, vice versa.

Everything for the player presumes a DM who isn't actually the DM as written/encouraged, and everything for the DM presumes players who aren't actually those players as written/encouraged. The net effect is almost always the same: the players are reduced to posturing, establishing and repeating tropes, and (eventually) goofing in order to enjoy themselves, as the DM waltzes them through fights that lead to clues, and clues that lead to fights. 
Exalted, all over again, and that's merely a refined point of reference among a sea of game texts of this kind. 
As with so many of these games, the solution is obvious: pick one or the other, and ignore, as in obviate, reject, abandon, defy, reverse the text and most of the rules concerning the one you didn't pick. But that solution is not arrived at very often. The more usual one is to play while insisting loudly online that this is the most awesome thing ever, then to limp along wondering about or resigned to the necessary outcomes of the Impossible Thing, and eventually to shift into lonely fun with one's extremely expensive purchases.
 There was also a ton of nostalgia for 3.x.  Publisher/designer Cam Banks said (in one of his comments):
When I moved to 4E, I hit a wall with the way the game was designed to centre around powers/techniques/etc. As a 3rd edition designer, I knew that system back to front; I could come up with stats and monsters and spells on the fly, and I even ad hoc'd a prestige class for a player (and wrote the whole thing up the next day). 4E was an inscrutable black box by comparison. I ran it like I ran 3E, and stumbled. I couldn't make my own classes easily, I couldn't eyeball anything, even with the famous page 42. It was extraordinarily frustrating because I liked what they were doing with the game, but the game didn't let me in.
 Peter Darley said:
It seems like D&Ds primary strength, in any edition, is to be a lowest common denominator. I don't think I would ever chose to run or play it given the universe of games available, but since not everyone likes the same stuff, D&D is often something that people can agree on.
 I had more than fifty comments on that post.  I'd link to it, but it's on Plus and Google is shutting that down next week, so the link would be useless.  There was disagreement, but not much. And it never got heated.

So the long and short of it, for me, is this:

If I am forced to play D&D and am given a choice of edition, I will still choose fourth edition. I can see some of the appeal of fifth, and I might play it a bit to see how it compares to second and third, but I don't see anything there that I can't easily find in a dozen other games.  Realistically, though, I'm more likely to play something else.

I didn't get into it here, but it's worth mentioning that the DMG for fifth edition is quite good with some solid advice that applies regardless of the game being played. It's a shame that the game itself is so uninspired.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Still There?

*tap, tap*

This thing still on?

I've been super-quiet here for ... months, now. Not as long as I'd thought, mind you, but a long while. And I'm about to spin it back up again for a couple of reasons:

  1. Google Plus is shutting down.  G+ is where I've been spending most of my game-related discussion energy, and it's been a really good place for that.
  2. I've finally (mostly) adapted to my work schedule. It's not ideal, but I'm now more-or-less functional again.
I'm not going to hold myself to a post a week, because then I feel guilty when I miss a post. I'm going to post when I have something to say or want to share something.  No more, no less. I'm also going to continue to be mostly-idle while Plus is still around, because - frankly - I get a lot more interaction on Plus than I do here. And I've grown to really value that interaction.

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.