Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Ticket to Ride: First and Last Journeys

A few days ago, in a fit of ludomania I tweeted this message.

Out of all the current titles under the Asmodee NA board game octopus (aka Bogactopus), the best game I could come up with was First Journeys, essentially Ticket to Ride "Junior".


There is a certain psychosis that pervades the hobby of board game collecting (and occasionally playing).

It goes like this:

If I buy the right game, people will play with me.

So you end up spending 50% of your board game budget trying to get inside the heads of your family members and friends, trying to figure out what would be an attractive sell to get them in the hot seat on the other side of the table.

It can be a pitfall. A real pitfall. Especially if you're not good at understanding other people, or if those other people just aren't very interested in board games.

Ticket to Ride: First Journeys wasn't for me. It was for my kids. One kid actually liked it, which makes it a roaring success. It might not just be the First Journey, but the Best Journey.
Are you ready to ride this train?
Reducing Train Paralysis

First Journeys junior-izes Ticket to Ride by removing the selection of face up train cards. Now you can only draw from the face-down discard pile. It also removes victory points, making each route worth exactly one "point" when it is completed. Both of these changes together turn a 60 minute game into a 15 minute game.

Do they reduce complexity? They do.

Do they make the decisions uninteresting? No, no they do not.

I was inspired to think about the face-down cards because of a comment made by another designer, Thomas Lehmann. In designing Race for the Galaxy, Lehmann made the unusual choice to have players discard face-down. This removes some strategy, because people aren't able to see what cards other people are discarding. But according to the designer diary I read (and I have no idea which one, because it was a long time ago) discarding cards face down also speeds up the game, since people no longer have to process that information every turn.

I'm wondering just how fast the Ticket to Ride might go if you discard face-down as well.

Settlers of Routes

Making each route worth a single point is another decision I keep thinking about. Settlers of Catan did this, making each Settlement worth a single victory point. The trick in Catan was of course finding the most efficient and quickest way to build that settlement.

Doesn't it seem like the same considerations should be made for a train route? Maybe train route builders shouldn't get MORE points just because a route took more effort and resources to build. Maybe they should be trying to build the quickest routes, and use those routes to daisy chain together the larger routes.

I'll tell you one thing, it's wonderful (especially playing with kids) to not have a scoring phase at the end of the game. When you place the last winning route in First Journeys you win. The game ends. And it moves right into let's play again.

I would happily play the "adult" (giggity) Ticket to Ride with the same rules. There might be some necessary modifications I'm not predicting, but I certainly don't see any less-interesting gameplay on the horizon.

As for Last Journeys, the only thing that would make this game better would be a space theme. Maybe I need to make a Martian board? Only time will tell.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Dungeon of the Apes: A Primate-centric look at Clank! the Board Game

Well, this is going to be interesting
My favorite fantasy stories carry a common plot twist.

You've adventured high and low, discovering secret knowledge and ancient treasures. But the final reveal is this:

You've actually been exploring Earth all along!

This unfamiliar Earth has been distorted by war, the clash of empires, deadly radiation, the rise of new ancient magicks, and more. Yet nevertheless this is all that's left of home.

Something about this seems familiar

What drew me to Clank!? Certainly not the theme. Adventurers exploring a dungeon and looking for treasure? I've been to that well before.

When I first heard about Clank! I was downright disinterested.

No, I crashed the first game of Clank! I even saw in action because people were pulling wooden cubes out of a mysterious  bag. I'm a voracious pulling-stuff-out-of-a-bag'er. My hunger for such things is insatiable. I had to see more.

What I found made me earnestly regret my original disinterest. 

The bag even has a deadly dragon on it

When I originally saw people pulling cubes out of bag, I was actually seeing DEATH in action.

In Clank!, characters are on a strict health-based timer to find treasure in the dungeon and then get the heck out.

Every time you draw a new hand of cards, some of those cards are going to add cubes back into the bag. And there are precious few ways to "heal" your character once these blocks have been pulled back out again. You run out of health in Clank!, you die.

Yes, this is a deckbuilding game with player elimination. And its awesome.

You have to carefully weigh each turn, doing a classic "press-your-luck" evaluation. Hopefully you get just enough points to solidly be in the lead. But simultaneously planning your escape as early as possible to catch the rest of the players flat-footed.

I have played quite a few hands of the original Thunderstone. It was my original fantasy-themed bar against which to set other similar titles. Clank!, I've found, is ahead in every area, using lots of ingenuity to keep the game exciting each turn and pushing the game along to a definitive end.

But IS Clank a true fantasy theme? I'm reminded a bit of the more recent Thunderstone expansion Numenera. The aged crust of supposed "fantasy" reveals a high tech center: full of magic and myth which is really just science advanced enough to be perceived as magic.

I got all the clues I needed by studying a subtle motif strewn throughout the Clank! dungeon. A repeating theme that kept coming up again and again.

There's something familiar about this deckbuilder.
It was the apes.

I'm not some kind of ape-loving fanboy. But I've seen the original Planet of the Apes and I understand the basics.

In the past, humans got too full of themselves. They started a game of Global Thermonuclear War that they couldn't finish. And the result was hyper-intelligent apes swooping in and picking up the pieces.

In Planet of the Apes we see a feudal society built from ape culture, with apes taking the place of humans in establishing a new civilization on Earth. It is assumed these apes are just as smart as humans once were, and will continue advancing technologically into the future.

Imagine a world of scientific, industrialized apes. We caught a quick glimpse at the end of the remake.

Ape Lincoln
But humans and apes probably share the same broken, selfish morals that originally led to humankind's downfall. It's indeed easy to imagine this new breed of Ape researching atomics and developing their own hideous weapons for global annihilation.

After careful thought, Clank! is quite certainly a new Earth born from yet another cataclysm: this time involving the hyper-intelligent apes. And now who gets to swoop in? Those humans who've been lurking in the wings this entire time.

Exhibit A
All the relics are ape themed. There are strange mechanical ape devices you can add to your deck. Lots of subtle signs point to a strange ape-centered civilization now reduced to ash and ruin.

This is no ordinary adventure.

If you are tired of fantasy themes, just remember  Clank! is NOT strictly fantasy. Instead, it is a new world swept clean by apocalypse, where humans aim to reclaim a long-lost heritage and hopefully do things right this time.

Delve deep into the dungeon. Hire some mercenaries. Grab that sweet, sweet ape gold. Just make sure you can get out alive!

Monday, September 5, 2016

Vacation Consumption Phase: Video Games

Out There
At the recommendation of Knarf Black, I finally downloaded this grim game of space exploration and ran it through its paces. You start as an astronaut awakening from cryosleep, adrift many millions of miles (perhaps millions of years as well) and the location of Earth quite uncertain.

Luckily, you have enough hydrogen, oxygen and iron to continue moving, continue breathing, and maintain hull integrity in the face of uncertain random events. At least, enough to get you to the next system before reaching a terminal loss of one of these resources.

The star map is quasi-random generated, full of randomly built planetary systems you need to investigate and mine. Much like a typical roguelike, a large portion of your success depends on lucking your way into some decent starting resources. In the run in which I finally reached one of the game ending screens, I had managed to stumble across an awesome abandoned ship much better than the starting vessel. Huge cargo hold for carrying extra supplies, and the alien engines accepted hydrogen as fuel (the typical source) but also carbon, one of the more easily acquired elements in the game.

Probably the ultimate frustration in any roguelike scenario is one that happens a lot in Out There: not finding one particular resource because it doesn’t come up, and then starving through no fault of your own. Once you’re dead, you start at the beginning with all your progress erased, with the bare minimum supplies in the bare minimum ship.

That said, I had a lot of fun during those few runs where I was able to really get a good system set up. The universe of Out There is jam-packed with exciting technologies you can upgrade your ship with.

The various random encounters can be quite surprising. At one point I stumbled across an entire ship full of cryogenically suspended humans. I couldn’t thaw them out, and eventually I abandoned them back to space. But later I came across technology to create a “garden” world from a typical barren rocky one, and thought back about the rocky orb the cryo ship had been orbiting.

The Ending
When you reach the conclusion of Out There, the ending is basically some text and a couple of static pictures. Afterwards you are unceremoniously restarted, without any of your stuff, right back at the beginning of the game.

I started looking for upgrades and technologies again, but quickly ran out of fuel and died. I’ve tried a few times since then, but have not managed to reach any of the other endings. Since Out There is a cell phone game, I can see a future where I find myself trapped for an extended period in a government queue or doctor’s waiting room, at which point there could potentially be some more space adventuring in store.

My son’s 2 favorite games are Minecraft and Ark: Survival. A third popular option is Terraria. When he found out Starbound existed, it shot right to the top of his hot list for birthday presents. Strangely, once he secured the game it didn’t seem to get played with the unholy fervor of Ark: Survival, on which he has logged over a thousand hours.

Since I was on vacation, and it was technically my Steam account too, I decided to take the reins and see what this game was all about.

I dug in. LITERALLY. Ha ha ha HA ha ha ha. Sigh.

Okay, one thing I failed to realize about this game was this: of the playable races, one is a race of robotic knights trapped in a medieval aesthetic. If I had known this earlier, it would have been my game, not my son’s game. They even have glowy red eyes and weird emotionless dialog.

Exploring Caves and Visiting Planets
One of the strange things about my experience with Starbound is that my son had plenty of free rein beforehand to help craft my experience. Like most of today’s games, there’s an active modding community and my son and seen fit to download what was probably an insane about of additional content.

Since I never played the game beforehand, it can sometimes be tough to discern which was original and which is a mod.

Obviously the ancient forge that you can only use to craft lightsabers was an add-on. That one I saw through right away. But in the deep darkness of mining and cave exploration, I come across sections of weirdness.

Caverns made of copper piping and gears. Planetary substrate made of gooey pink flesh and acid pits. Patches of “alien soil” filled with glowing roots and eyeball clouds. When I asked him if any of these stuff was content from mods, he couldn’t remember himself. Obviously his video game experience is completely different from my own expectations.

So I go in digging through the goo. I mine gold and copper, tungsten and elusive “core fragments” hanging over steaming lava pits. I found you can even craft a breathing apparatus to explore airless moons and asteroid fields. The moons were particularly interesting: unexpected denizens were watching over the crystals you must eventually mine for spaceship fuel.

You can spend weeks exploring just one star system, and then you branch out and find untold other systems all with the same level of complexity, perhaps more.

There are rare periods my son’s not on the family computer. Or when my wife’s not on the family computer.

During those times, I am now on the family computer. And I’m playing Starbound.

Vacation Consumption Phase: Films

The Dark Knight
Up at the family cabin, there wasn’t a lot of DVD selection. The collection of hunters and fishermen who I call my relatives had amassed a bizarre menagerie including American Wedding, Wedding Crashers and Miracle. Why so many wedding-themed movies, guys? But they did have The Dark Knight.

Recently, the wife and I had gone to see Suicide Squad. The best part of that movie was Deadshot. By a mile. With a distant second being the pizza I ate while I watched the movie.

I can’t get over how much better the Joker of The Dark Knight is compared to the urban gangster/Hannibal Lecter mishmash presented in Suicide Squad.

Since last seeing it, I had forgotten some of the details of the bank heist at the beginning.

The Joker puts a grenade in the mouth of one the bank employees, and I assume its going to explode, and was pleasantly surprised that it turned out to be a simple smoke grenade. Because that’s something the Joker would actually do, occasionally let someone live in an unexpected way to keep you guessing.

And who could forget the nurse scene. Another of my favorite parts.

Overall though, I am sick of the relentless gritty, dirty, atmosphere Christopher Nolan’s Batman series helped contribute to the ongoing DC movie debacle. And speaking of which:

Batman Vs. Superman
Was this ever a hard slog.

After getting home, we picked this one up at Redbox. Everybody and everything sucked in this movie. I don’t know what I expected, since going in I had a few qualms with the entire scenario.

I have yet to see or read any Superman story that really manages to make Superman work well in a world full of other superheroes. The guy is pretty overpowered. I have a hard time believing either Wonder Woman or Batman were really helping much in the fight with Doomsday.

Yet, fighting Doomsday was probably the best part of the film.

Why were there so many crazy Batman dream sequences? Why did the movie spend so much time setting up various other Justice League characters? I’m really hoping this will payoff as less setup in the actual Justice League movie, and more actual story. But I’m not getting my hopes up.

Let’s forget about the superhero movies for a second and wormhole tunnel our way into a theme that honestly never fails to entertain: Crazy, sleep-deprived, methed-up scientists creating portals to alternate dimensions.

If you want a low budget sci-fi production, that is all you need to do. And Synchronicity delivers.

The reviews surprisingly for this movie are pretty horrible.

But you are getting plenty of wonderful: flashing lights, dimly-lit tube-filled labs, actors playing duplicates of themselves, and plenty of twists and turns you think you have figured out, but then even more bodies start showing up and your brain breaks down trying to figure out where they came from.

I watched this on Netlfix as a random laundry day movie while I folded clothes. Would do again in a second.

The Addams Family
This movie, by all rights, should have been horrible.

But it’s a classic and when it came up as a recommended watch film on Netflix I accepted the challenge. Here is a movie that managed to feel incredibly authentic to the intellectual property it was using. Every five seconds another funny thing happens.

The only thing I was left wanting was the original Addams Family television series from the 60’s. Netlix used to have this long ago, but evidently the world did not want to watch enough to keep paying for the rights. Shame on you world!

I remember a time when a crazy old man with a shaved head and a fur coat could jump out of the hallway screaming “Shoot ‘em in the back! Shoot ‘em in the back!” while madly clutching his antique blunderbuss. And we would call that comedy.

Now look at what we get. Urban gangster Joker. And they call it edgy! There are people on Reddit who still want more of that guy.

Vacation Consumption Phase

I'm slowly coming back from a week-long family vacation Up North.

Since I live in Minnesota, "Up North" in this case means further north in Minnesota. Driving the long distances between various state parks, lakes and roadside attractions. Riding for hours drinking coffee, listening to the top hits on the radio. It was a lot of fun.

While the vacation itself is probably not suitable for this blog, I did consume quite a lot of various media. So I'm quickly dumping my hot takes this week while I try to get back on track.

I will leave you with a couple of must-dos if you are ever in upper Minnesota.

1) The Iron Range is awesome. Iron World, the Sudan Mine. Faded industrial glory, deep haunted dark spaces, vast epic monuments crafted from stone and metal. Love it.

2) My kids walked across the Mississippi River at the headwaters located at Itasca State Park. Its a beautiful location full of rocky, pristine water and sandy wading pools.

3) Split Rock Lighthouse, Gooseberry Falls, and Duluth itself are locations you never get tired of seeing. The weird rocky shores of Lake Superior remind me of an alien planet which pretty much seals the deal.

Anyway, reports from my vacation media consumption phase begin now!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Conspiracy Theories, Board Gaming and Trolling before the Internet

The Dice Tower, a pretty reliable source of information most of the time, tweeted this rebuttal from "Gary F. White" regarding a scathing review from a young Alan R. Moon. The board game being reviewed was Mr. Trucker, and the reply from Mr. White is hilarious in its magnitude.

Link to the tweet

Here's the letter in it's entirety:

It's easy to forget that before the Internet, most of the information in this letter would be impossible to check. You wouldn't be able to easily find Garry F. White unless he also included his phone number in the letter. You wouldn't easily be able to look up statistics in Toy & Games magazine.

There are a few obvious "calling cards" that this entire letter is a Discordian fabrication.

1) The word "fnord" substituted for "ford." Fnord is a word invented in the Principia Discordia for exactly the purpose it is being used here: to be mingled into the word gibberish of a crank letter sent to an unassuming publication.

2) The word "megabuck" is used to describe the list of branded corporate logos printed on the cover of Mr. Trucker.

As everyone knows, megabucks are the official currency used in Steve Jackson's classic card game Illuminati.

It's easy to forget that before Munchkin, Illuminati was SJG's best-seller by far. First published in 1982 in black and white, then finally getting a deluxe color edition in 1999 (this is the version I have). Take a look at the Steve Jackson Games website and its still mostly conspiracy stuff, because darn it...the Illuminati are fun!

There's probably even more I'm not seeing. Certainly, all of the statistics sound completely made up. There's no way Mr. Trucker has possibly beaten Trivial Pursuit in any category. It's impossible Gary would have received 10,000 letters when its very likely less than 10,000 copies of Mr. Trucker were ever made.

The Conspiracy Goes Deeper

In fact, I have a hard time believing editors for a gaming publication would fall for this, and find it highly more likely they were in on the joke.

1) I find it suspicious that Mr. Trucker has zero reference to this article on BGG. Until today, that is. This tweet from The Dice Tower appears to be the first evidence of an Alan Moon "Mr. Trucker" review ever to make an appearance online.

2) I have no evidence Games International was even a real magazine. There's no evidence of it easily google-able. I suspect we are all being played, here. Supposedly Games International was in London, and this is a regional game published in Canada about trucking.

Either way, this makes me want to bust out some Illuminati. And I an incredibly grateful for the Dice Tower supplying me with this bizarre gift to roll around in my head over the lunch period.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

New Edition of King of Tokyo, and Why My Version is OK

It wasn't too long ago I was playing King of Tokyo again while also contemplating the slow-trickle of information regarding a 2nd Edition.

New Art for a New Edition
As far as I can tell, the art is going to be the only difference. But it will be a complete art revamp, with different monster art, different card art, different board art, different card back art. The most interesting part of this new art was that it was financed by the French government. This makes me think the NEA needs to get turned on to the board game industry ASAP.

Just this single compare & contrast between new and old Alienoid shows home much better the new art is. But I have a hard time upgrading a perfectly functioning game when all that's changed is the art.

The Variable Powers of King of Tokyo
What appears to be the same, at least per any review I've read, are the powers you can upgrade your monster with using the ubiquitous green cubes.

I love the powers, even as I understand they are not balanced in the slightest. In fact, appraising the strength of these in different situations is a vital part of the game.

I do find it strange, however, that absolutely no tinkering took place with these cards since everything else about the game is being redone anyway (including a revised rulebook).

Forget about Releasing the Kraken
The traditional Kraken slot in the new King of Tokyo is being replaced by non other than Space Penguin. Apparently Kraken's going missing for the foreseeable future is to make room for a special edition Cthulhu avatar. Yet another very compelling reason to keep my current version.

Playing the Player Elimination Game
It goes without saying King of Tokyo is the sort of goofy game you can play quickly with a lot of people invested with varying amounts of motivation. When you get taken out, its not that big of deal. You can get up, go to the bathroom, dose yourself with some expired medication from the cabinet, wander around the living room with your thoughts. When you return to the table, the game will probably be over.

This beats any poorly-designed game meant to stay inclusive until the bitter end. The worst ending to a game is not, in fact, player elimination but the LACK of player elimination. Wben you are so far down in the hole, and everyone else knows it as well, and you just have to sit there and make your minimal move every turn.

Chasing Victory
So unless the 2nd Edition makes any improvements to the play of the game (and it doesn't sound like this is the case), I'm pretty happy with my current predicament. Pass me the big chunky dice, and I can try to make it to a points victory again, before being taking out in a flurry of claws on the top of a burned out Tokyo.