Wednesday, February 26, 2014

GenCon, Naming Names, Growing Teams

I am apparently physically incapable of not posting.  Even if it's a short post, I need to put something up, or I just feel like I'm letting myself down.

GenCon is coming.  I had another reminder of that this morning.

A few weeks ago, housing went live for attendees.  And sold out in under a day.  In theory, there are hotel rooms available - but not at the convention rate.  They are 100% sold out.

Vendor housing was scheduled to go live two weeks later, but, due to some apparent issues with general housing, they pushed it back to the fourth of March.

This afternoon, I had an e-mail from Asmodee's marketing and communications person, checking for our hotel preferences.  This is different from how we've done the last few years, but I have faith in Carol - the last few GenCons for us have been the most organized since I've been there.  They needed to be, too. The team has really grown.

Which highlights a small quirk of my writing here: I don't tend to name names. I refer to most publishers as though they were just the corporation. In large part, it's nerves. Even when I'm dishing praise, I'm always afraid it'll be misinterpreted.  I need to relax and just write.  Especially when I'm praising people for a job well-done.

My first GenCon was Christophe Boelinger, Christophe A., and Stephan B.  A total team of four of us, in a 10x20 booth. There was some organization necessary, of course, but compared to last year, I'm sure it was minimal.

Last year, there were ... um ... a lot of us.  In a huge booth. I'm pretty sure I couldn't name everyone who was present, and the team photo still missed a ton of folks.  I'm sure the amount of paperwork increased exponentially as the number of people did. I can't even imagine trying to stay on top of it. I have a ton of respect for anyone who can keep track of that much paperwork.

This year, the booth will apparently be even larger than last year's.  And it'll contain more people. And there are games coming that I'm really looking forward to, and a few games that are 100% new to me.

You can get occasional sneak peeks, by the way, by liking Asmodee Game News on Facebook.

GenCon this year is going to be amazing, and I hope a few of you stop by to say "hi" if you happen to wander past the booth at some point.  Even more importantly, I hope a few of you stop by for a demo.  Because - given the degree of organization shown so far - I'm confident that we'll be ready.

No Post This Week

I have a ton of excuses I could use, here, and all of them are valid.

But I'm not going to waste your time by making them - or my own time by writing them.

No post this week.  Normal service to resume in one week.

I promise.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Who Won? Who Cares? - Apples to Apples

One of my really good friends hates Apples to Apples.  I mean really despises everything about the game. And most of the time, I agree with him. I think that, as a game, it's terrible.  But that really comes down to your definition of game, doesn't it?

See, Apples to Apples is all about knowing your audience and trying to play to their preferences.  I don't think I've ever enjoyed myself playing completely by the rules.  But some of the most fun I've had at game-related gatherings was spent playing the game.

Why is that?

  1. Only play with people you want to get to know better. This isn't a game I'm going to play with people I dislike - moreso than other games. Even if the dislike is only mild, it gets in the way of the play, as I'm dramatically more likely to throw something designed to irritate them.
  2. Don't throw cards randomly.  Think about what you're playing.  If you have no good cards, discard your hand and draw a fresh hand. Is the deck somehow exhausted?  Reshuffle it.
  3. As the adjudicator, don't just say "No ... No ... No ... Yes."  Give reasons.  "I used to keep garter snakes that I caught in the yard, so I don't find Snakes to be at all Creepy."
  4. Don't keep score.  The game isn't about winning - it's about getting to know the other people at the table. In fact, when you "win" a card, just put it in a discard pile.  This is not a game people can win.
  5. Stop when you're bored with the game, not when an arbitrary goal is hit.  If we get two turns in and no-one is having a good time? Time to stop. Have we been going for six hours and it's time to get some sleep?  Time to stop.
  6. Allow players to drop in and out. Since you're not keeping score, there should be no reason players can't deal themselves in and out more-or-less at will.  This also allows for a continual table of this game at larger gatherings that serves as a "not in another game" pool. That way, when Saint Petersburg finishes and two people there want to play something different, they can head to the Apples to Apples table and mention that they need "at least one more" for whatever they feel like playing.  Or they can jump in and wait for Battlestar Galactica to end (sometime next week ... ).
These six tweaks make the game less of a game and a lot more fun for me.  I think that - realistically - removing the game aspects of keeping score and figuring out a winner is the thing that most works towards adding fun to the game. Because I'm not focused on, "Which of these crappy cards can I just dump for a laugh so that I can get a usable card later?"  Instead, my focus is on, "Which of these cards is most likely to pull an interesting or revealing response from the judge?"

In other words, it re-aligns the goal of play to one that (to me, at least) better fits the game in the box than the rules which are included in the box.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

On The Role of Luck

A lot of times when I'm talking to friends about games, I'll find myself saying that I prefer a game where skill will win out over luck (over the long term).  Because I don't like luck in my games because I'm not a very lucky person.  Or so I tell people.

The truth is more complicated than that - because I am a lucky person, when I step back and take a closer look.  It's just that my luck is only good outside of the game itself.

No.  Really.

I've never broken a bone.

I've never been in a serious car accident.

I found my wife via LiveJournal's random user function.

For the Super Bowl, I won a pizza party from Garlic Jim's via Twitter.

In other words: I'm a very lucky person in general.

Until I have to touch dice. Or rely on card or tile draws. Or spinners. Or any other in-game randomizers. Dice hate me. Cards hate me. Tiles hate me. Tokens hate me.

And yet I find myself loving Rise of Augustus - isn't that just Bingo with a theme added?  That's what I hear from a lot of players.  And the answer is "No."

When playing Bingo, you just mark the numbers as they come.  And if you have the same  number on multiple boards, you mark that number multiple times.  And every number has exactly the same probability as every other number.  It is 100% luck-driven.

With Rise of Augustus, not all of the symbols are created equal.  There are more Crossed Swords than there are Chariots, for example.  So - at the start of the game - players can choose to play "boards" with more common symbols (and lower point values) or they can try to get more points with the lower-probability boards.  Or you can try to get a mix of them.  Then, when a symbol comes up, players can decide which of their active boards to mark - do you complete the easy one right away or do you work towards completing one of your more difficult boards?  Then, once you complete a board, choosing which replacement to grab is an issue.  On top of that, there is a question of when to grab the numeric bonus tiles.  And, of course, there are other bonuses to work towards as well - you need to keep track of what your opponents are working towards and how close they are so you can change course (or go for those attack cards).

There is a surprising amount of strategy involved. And while they won't win every time, a player with good strategy will beat a beginner most of the time.  And that, for me, is where luck belongs.

Games which are completely without luck have a reputation for being dry - and they can be. Luck provides for small surprises in gameplay. Even games like Le Fantôme de l'Opéra - which I love - can be dry without the small kick provided by luck. I love the mystery of which characters will be available this turn and can I use that to my advantage (or to your detriment).  I've seen "luck-free" modifications, but they annoyed me because they just didn't play well. They removed that little bit of randomness that meant every game was a little different from the preceding game.

So I like a bit of randomness - but I don't like games which are mostly driven by randomness. But - with far too few exceptions - I also don't tend to like games which are completely luck-free.

Even Dungeon Twister has a little bit of luck - the room layout.  I'm not saying that I'd dislike the game with a static layout, but I would probably like it less. In fact, the more I think about it, the less I think I'd like it.

It's a tricky balance, that of luck vs skill.  And the line will be different for every player. There are people out there who enjoy Fluxx.  I don't understand these people, but they do exist.

I'm just not one of them.

Wednesday, February 05, 2014


Those few of you who keep track of what games I play will notice that, of late, I have played a lot of regional Chess variants. Talking to people at my regular game night, I'm learning more and more that Chess is more-or-less a common bond.  Not everyone there played it a lot, but most of us learned it young. And all of us know how to play, even if it's not at an especially high level of skill.

I first learned to play the game when I was six. My early play was all about wiping my opponent's pieces off of the board. My strategy was far from strong. But I learned and improved.

I'm not a strong player.  All through Junior High and High School, I was in the middle of the pack skill-wise. I would probably have been a better player if I'd just buckled down and played with the intent of learning instead of playing with the intent of winning. Because they are very different modes of play, sometimes.

I would have probably set the game aside had it not been for my Japanese class.  We took a field trip to the International District in Seattle.  There is a book store called Kinokuniya. At the time, it was upstairs from Uwajimaya. Our field trip was to Uwajimaya, but we were allowed to shop a few blocks around it.

While browsing Kinokuniya, I wandered over to the gaming section, because that is what I do.  I've been a roleplayer for longer than I've been a hardcore boardgamer, and so every time I visit a new bookstore, I make a beeline for the gaming section. Generally in English-language bookstores, there are a few RPG books. And some books on classic boardgames.  At this store, there were no RPG books that I could find, but mixed in with the books on Go there was a book called Shogi for Beginners. I saw it referred to as "The Japanese Chess" and was curious enough to flip through it. And there was a magnetic travel set there, too.  Both were within my budget, so I picked them up.

I read the book on the way back into town. Not cover-to-cover, but enough that I could figure out how to play.  The pieces in the magnetic set weren't exactly the same as the pics in the book, but they were close enough that I could figure out which was which.

And that is where I can trace my deeper fascination with Chess and its regional variants to. A cheap-o magnetic travel Shogi set and a book that has since gone out of print.

Chess itself had laid the foundation for me. And it was an okay game, but there were things about it that had always bugged me.  The Queen, for example, seemed badly overpowered. The play itself seemed very formulaic and rigid with centuries of history.  As it turns out, chess in its current form is much younger than many of its regional flavors.  The last piece to finalize in the game was the queen, who was set in place only about five hundred years ago.  Shogi is a few hundred years older. Xiangqi is up to a thousand years older. Changgi is contemporary with Shogi. Makruk is older than Shogi, but is reportedly the most similar game to Chaturanga still being played anywhere in the world.  Ouk Chatrang is a slightly tweaked variant of Makruk.

Of course, all of them are descended from Chaturanga, according to most scholars. But - as Wikipedia points out - "The exact rules to chaturanga are unknown."  And the history branched early - Chaturanga became Shatranj as it headed West, and Chess is descended form Shatranj.  As it headed East, Chaturanga became Makruk and Xiangqi and Changgi and Shogi - but the actual path from one to the next is unknown to me - and the more I dig, the more versions I find that I want to try ...

It's very interesting to me to see what the games have kept and lost in relation to one another.  For example, all of them have a Knight piece whose move is roughly equivalent.  Roughly. In Chess, the knight can move forward, sideways, or backwards.  It moves two spaces in its chosen direction before moving one space perpendicular to its initial movement.  It can jump over intervening pieces, both friendly and hostile.  In Shatranj, the equivalent piece is identical to Chess' Knight.  In Makruk, the knight is also identical to the Knight. In Shogi, the equivalent piece can only move forward. And, instead of moving in an L shape, it's described as one space forward followed by one diagonally. It has the end result of the same L-shape, but the "one forward, one diagonal" movement is an important distinction. And the Shogi knight can still jump over intervening pieces.  In Xiangqi and Changgi, the knight equivalent moves one space orthagonally and then one outward diagonally - a Xiangqi knight on an empty board can move to the exact same spaces as a Chess knight can.  But you can "break the legs" of these Knights because they can't jump.

Right now, I'm still playing to learn most of these.  Until you don't need to concentrate on "what is that piece?" you won't be able to play to win. Or to develop any sort of effective strategy.

If you're curious about any of these, you can play Makruk with a traditional Chess set, and many of the others can be acquired for around $25-$30 for a decent set.

I'm really lucky with my current Wednesday group - one of the regulars grew up playing Changgi, so he already understands some of the strategy - and he's been a patient teacher, too, which is important when learning a new game.  He's very good about pointing out my bad moves and why they are bad moves and letting me take them back.  So far, I've beat him once, but it was in a game that had several take-backs.  Some day, I'll get him with no take-backs. Just like he'll beat me at Shogi sometime ...