Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Everything Old Is New Again: Changing Expectations

I'm not a huge video gamer. Haven't been since I was much younger.

My brothers and I saved up, and - together - bought an NES. This was during the era when the system included the Zapper and the included cartridge was Super Mario Brothers / Duck Hunt. My younger brother, who has always been better at anything physical, was significantly better than I was at both games.

After a year or two, we bought Defender II. At some point, we wound up with Legend of Zelda. We had one of the Castlevania games, too.

But that was it for us. We borrowed games occasionally, and played games at friends' houses, but the NES didn't take over our lives like our parents feared it would (probably because we never had Tetris or Dr. Mario).

We never got an SNES or a Genesis. In fact, the next video game system to appear in the house was my original Playstation - more than a decade after the NES showed up.

But when I was in HS, I spent many a weekend going to friends' houses and playing Street Fighter II for hours and hours and hours. "Winner Stays" was the rule of thumb. And I was very rarely the winner.

For Christmas this year, my mother bought me a device called a "Retron 5." I'd seen it on the shelf at a record store, and then added it to my wish list (which I use as a way to keep track of things I'd like to check out later), where she saw it. It's a retro system emulator, with slots for NES, SNES, Genesis, Famicom, and Game Boy Advance cartridges. Have a game? Stick it in, and you can play it!

I thought it was pretty neat, so I spent a few bucks and got some games. And I was amazed at how well some of them had held up over the years. Dr. Mario is still super-addictive (and fun). Tetris is amazing. Super Battletank II is ... not but it was cheap. Golden Axe is alright. Altered Beast is what it's always been.

I see a lot of discussion these days about the price of games and how short they are, and I realize that these retro games are almost all shorter than most modern games.

Super Mario Brothers is all of 32 levels. People are beating it (without warps) in under 20 minutes. But I don't remember people complaining about how short it was, because it was from a completely different era of gaming.

I remember when I played Star Wars: Republic Commando on my XBox, I was disappointed at how short its single-player storyline was. It's about a nine hour game. And so (on average) is Legend of Zelda. But I don't remember any complaining about that one being super-short.

Of course, my XBox had an internal hard drive that remembered where I was, so I could turn it off and walk away. Some Nintendo games had internal memory storage, and could remember where you were, but most of them didn't. Some games gave you codes once you hit a certain level. That code would jump you to that level so you didn't have to start over every time you turned the device on.

But longer games are more viable, now, than they used to be.  Early NES games were basically arcade games - play for a few, run out of lives, and then either continue or start over. I don't know that "arcade games" are still a thing, to be honest.

Meanwhile, on the board game end of things ...

A particularly deep or complex game used to take literal days. Empires in Arms was (and continues to be) a particular favorite of mine. It takes weeks to play. Civilization with its sequels and expansions could take days. Whereas Eclipse takes only a few hours (and scratches a similar itch for me).

I don't really have a point, here.  It's just fascinating to that video games are taking longer and longer while board games are getting more and more efficient.  The two branches of the "game" hobby seem to be traveling in opposite directions.

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Pushing To The End: The Failure Of Going Set

A few years ago, I was playing a lot of Tichu. It's a great game that pushes a lot of buttons that I like having pushed. It's (for example) a trick-taking game. And I love those. It's a partnership game, and I love those too.

I really like Pinochle and Rook, too. I suspect that, if I'd played more than a hand or two, I'd really enjoy Bridge. I sure enjoy reading about its strategy.

But all of these games have a small niggling problem: players can "go set." Although different games (and groups) use different terminology for it.

When you "go set," you fail to meet a pre-determined condition and lose points instead of gaining them for that hand. In Tichu, for example, you can call "Tichu" or "Grand Tichu."  If you then empty your hand first, you get a ton of points. If you don't, then you lose the points you would have gained. Your opponents still gain the points that they would have gained, too.

In theory - and on paper - it works. And it works in play, too. Mostly.

But losing points actually slows the game down.

Lately, I have been playing a ton of Haggis on BoardGameArena. Haggis is played very similarly to Tichu, only without the special cards (and with a few additional wrinkles). And it has a mechanism that is similar to calling "Tichu" to gain points.  In Haggis, you can place a bet.

If you place a bet and then don't go out first, then you don't lose points, though. Instead, any opponents who didn't place a bet score the points you would have made from that bet. So if I place a little bet (15 points) and fail, then my opponents each score that 15 points. If Steph and I each place little bets and Sean goes out first, then Sean will score 30 points from our best and Steph and I won't score any points.

In terms of spacing between players, it makes no difference.  If I bet 15 in Pinochle and fail, I lose 15 points and my opponents gain zero, for a total score difference of 15. If I bet 15 in Haggis and fail, my opponents all gain 15 points, for a total score differential of ... 15.

But the key difference is this:

My sliding back 15 points means that the game as a whole can potentially take 15 points longer to complete.  Whereas my failure pushing my opponents forward by 15 points means that the game is 15 points closer to a finish.

If everyone fails all the time at Tichu, it's possible to have both teams with negative points. Games like that can drag on for hours. But by flipping that on its ear, Haggis turned itself into a pretty fast-playing little game because every hand moves the game forward towards its end.

I find myself wanting to play Tichu and Pinochle with the failure condition flipped like it is in Haggis, just to see if it changes the feel of the game.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Let's Try This Again, Shall We?

I was planning to be back. I really was. But then things at work - which had been chaotic, but on an upswing - took several dramatic turns. In all honesty, I reached a point where I was considering deleting this blog and its archives and just doing what I could to disappear entirely from the internet.

Google Plus closed. Facebook continues to suck.

And now work is ... well, it's complicated.

But it led me to a realization:

If I don't force myself to write, I'm not going to write.

A lot has changed in my gaming life. A lot has changed in my home life, too. And it occurs to me that change isn't going to go away. Things are never going to be 100% stable. And that's not necessarily a bad thing.

The other day, a friend said to me that I need to blog more. And I realized that I really do.

I won't promise a regular schedule with my usual Wednesday updates. I may post half-formed ideas occasionally and then circle back to them in later posts.

But I'm trying to be better. I'm trying to be here more often.

We'll see how well that ends up working out.

Welcome to 2020.

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Are You Back Or Not?

I got an e-mail the other day from someone who wanted to know if I was back to blogging regularly here or not. And the answer is (obviously), "Not yet; I'm still sporadic."

Life is both stable and not, and the "not" part seems to be continually coming out of left field just as I'm getting comfortable.

I have a few half-written posts that I need to find time to clean up/re-write and get done, but realistically, I'll update when I update. I've found that forcing myself to a schedule puts me under (self-imposed) pressure that I'm not in any condition to handle right now.

I thank you all for continuing to read, for checking back, and for your occasional comments and e-mails.  It means a lot to me.

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?