Monday, June 24, 2013

Snap: The Interlocking Dragon Making Game

A short while back I made a post about the "interactive puzzle" class of children's board games.

An example of interactive puzzle done right is Snap: The Interlocking Dragon Making Game. But my kids just call it Snap. Gameswright publishes a lot of kid's games here in the good ol' USA.

Out of the huge overabundance I am directly familiar with Hisssss!, Castle Keep and Forbidden Island. Snap easily beats any of these games in enjoyability for both kids and adults. I find myself returning to this simple puzzle again and again.

Much like Hisssss!, Carcassonne or the ill-fated Rivers, Roads and Rails, Snap is a game about laying down tiles and matching up pictures. It's not just an art activity or jigsaw puzzle, though. Unlike more than half those games (and exactly like one of those games) you are scoring points competitively against actual opponents.

The Rules:

Each complete dragon earns you valuable victory points. After you successfully complete a dragon (must have at least 1 head and 1 tail), you score 1 point for a single "snap" and 2 points per "snap" for larger dragons. A snap is their simple term for the connection between two pieces. So if your dragon loops back onto the same piece, you count the connections, not the pieces.

Tigers are special tiles that let you re-score any tile you can fit them into, allowing you to cash in again on particularly high-value dragons.

Each player has a hand of 3 cards. You draw after you play a tile, allowing you to consider all your options while your opponent plays.

And those are the rules!

The innovations of Snap:

1) The jigsaw puzzle pieces. I don't know of any other tile-laying games with an interlocking design. Jigsaw puzzle pieces are awesome because the game stays put together, no matter how much you bump the sides or try to pull tiles out of alignment. I have seen mishaps that would cause an Irrecoverable Game State in Carcassonne instead not hurt Snap in the slightest.

2) The scoring. A point here and two points there might not seem like much. But Snap rewards two kinds of play with this victory point system. Firstly, a working strategy is to try to grab as many single point dragons as you can, keeping your hand cards fairly open to capitalize on available open heads or tails as they arise. But secondly, there are much higher scoring opportunities involving a certain amount of risk. You can steal someone else's dragon that they are working on. But it also might be a smart play to continue building a dragon when you have exactly the card you need to score big points on the next turn. I think it is an excellent educational opportunity for kids to offer up both paths to victory and let their minds stew in it.

3) The notepad. Someone went seriously old school and threw a small notepad + pencil in here for keeping score. The only question I have is why don't people do this more often? The cost of a standard generic pad+pencil is probably competitive to printing up a lousy victory track. Plus you also instantly have a record of every game of Snap you've every played!

Yes, this game has been played a few times. 
Plus I have a record of my son's handwriting from when he was 5, how cool is that?

4) Bridging the gap between jigsaw puzzles and games. My 2-year-old daughter does not play Snap competitively. But she loves Snap because she also loves jigsaw puzzles. Along with Tsuro, Snap is the great leap from puzzles to actual game play and she is slowly making it. We take turns and she loves making dragons.

The Negative:

X) The jigsaw puzzle pieces. One reason more games probably don't use jigsaw pieces is durability. Jigsaw pieces by design create friction at each connection point. Add in rough treatment from kids and every tile starts to look beat-up after a while. The cardboard starts to separate and eventually the teeth bend until you have to smash them back into place.

If you want to lay tiles and score some points with kids, there is no better game. Much like most tile laying games, for short attention spans you can just cut the pile of tiles in half and thusly play to an earlier conclusion. Kids love making dragons. And they love scoring points to show their superiority over the great lumbering dad. Keeping track of points is not a problem with the handy scorepad. And turns do not last very long, as long as you have your plan made up when the other players are going.

Snap was designed by a guy named P. Joseph Shumaker, who deserves more accolades then he probably received for this game. Snap is certainly his masterpiece. A+

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Table Talk Back 1: How do You Learn Games?

On the constant prowl for new blog ideas, I've decided to write responses to Rodney Smith's excellent Table Talk series. Eventually I hope to catch up enough so that my response can be a part of his follow-up video, but there's some serious road to cover before that happens.

First off, its easy for me to agree the best way to learn a game is to learn from someone else who already knows. The best learning experience I have ever had was my first game of Merchant of Venus. And the big benefit for it was we had a seasoned Merchant of Venus veteran who knew the ins and outs.

And I'm not talking about someone who played it once before. This guy owned the original 80's version, had the tokens separated into little bags for each player, and had the relevant places for most of the normal roadblocks dogeared in the Avalon Hill rulebook for easy reference.

Very rarely does this happen with games in my own collection. If I'm playing a game someone else owns, chances are I'm going to avoid getting it since I already have access to it.

What happens instead is I get a sealed box, fresh new rules, a bunch of counters to punch out and no idea what I'm doing.

My ideal procedure:

1) Read the rules beforehand. The rulebooks of today are amazing creatures for the most part. Inside you will find clearly laid out turn sequences, spelled-out special abilities and even examples with pictures. I enjoy reading rulebooks with the best of 'em, and reading the rulebook WELL in advance of the actual play session takes quite a bit of the stress off.

2) Mock play-throughs. Around the World in 80 Days - I played a solitaire game of this before I ever showed it to another person. The rules for this game are really simple, with a quick turnaround between players to keep the game moving. After I completed the solitaire game, I tried out a 2 player game with my wife. She is usually pretty good about finding instances where I am wrong, so this helped me iron out spots I understood but had difficultly explaining to others.

3) Play the first real live game with completely willing participants. Pick friends who have played many games with you before. Ideally these are people who love playing games and want to play games of their own volition. DON'T buy a game you think your in-laws are going to like, and then spend time trying to show them how to play when you are somewhat unsure yourself. To the non-gamer crowd, a person with a huge 6 or 8 page rulebook open in front of them is a dangerous warning sign of eminent boredom. You will be avoided and/or escaped from and the earliest possible opportunity! The same applies to kids, who normally are happy to try any crap you try to lay out on the table but who also quickly run out of interest if the game doesn't start moving at a brisk pace.

The Internet-connected world of today provides a wealth of information. Watch It Played and the How to Play podcast (and I'm sure many similar smaller operations) offer up huge amounts of information as to how the rules of a game are actually supposed to fit together. You can also sometimes find free-to-play online versions of board games which can really help with parts 2 and 3 of the procedure.

a game lobby, full of willing participants!

Neither Youtube or places like yucata figure into my rules learning process because in all likelihood I will have already used all these resources WELL BEFORE I ever purchase the game! Not only do I learn the game, but I can actually figure out if I want to spend my money on it in the first place. It's like giving your wallet a time machine…90's me would have never imagined such as resource as he was busy blind-buying gems like Lunch Money from the local Shinder's (now under new management!).

Don't skip any steps just because you've seen the video or played the game online. It is a seductive thought that you might be able to be an expert without muddling through the rules in the real world, but the great thing about video games is also an incredible hinderance to proper learning. All the little rules questions and bookkeeping are taking care of for you, automatically, and you are going to have to figure this stuff out…sink or swim style…before you play that first live game!

Learning the rules in all the wrong ways:

The absolutely last thing I want to do is have someone else read the rules out loud before the game begins, and then try to absorb the information using my amazing mutant powers of procedural memory recall. It doesn't work that way!

Instead, my eyes glaze over and I am unable to process a single thing he is saying. It could be a foreign language, or just gibberish. Whatever part of the human brain in charge of processing oral instructions, it is forever broken to me.

After the verbal assault, this method invariably switches to "figuring it out along the way." If I have a question, I'll ask. If I don't know what an action exactly does, I'll do it and see what happens. The first game you play shouldn't be competitive, and I never play it as such.

If I don't grasp the strategy of the game right away, the second and third game might not be very competitive, either. But usually I will figure it out. And hey, I'm playing board games so the day is looking pretty rosy already.

The absolutely worst rules learning experience was entirely my fault. It was my first play through of Pret-a-Porter, which it turns out is actually a really fun yet demanding economic game. It will be my first experience with this game that forever pushes me to do better in learning my games. Because its not just me I hurt, but the poor souls who had the optimism to attempt to play a game with me.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Rivers, Roads and Rails: An Interactive Puzzle

Rivers, Roads and Rails is a game published by Ravenburger, first in 1984, then 1989 and finally in 2011! Unbelievable.

This might be an example of why I have to limit my trips to the thrift shop…just because something is a good deal does not mean it deserves a place on your shelf.

The Ravenburger label should be pretty familiar with most people my age. During the typical 80's childhood, among the likes of the AMAZEing Labyrinth and the Enchanted Forest were many other boxes carrying the blue triangle. Most titles were not traditional games, but more like interactive puzzles.

Designed to stimulate a young child's mind into greater growth, very few of them were particularly competitive and the end game goal was loosely explored at best.

Rivers, Roads and Rails is such a game.

Each player starts with an initial pile of 10 tiles. The game then proceeds like a traditional tile-laying game, with each player trying to place a tile that matches either end of the growing combination of rivers, roads or rails.

Tiles have to match exactly, and if you don't have a tile you can play in one of the two spots (although a third spot can open up if you draw the very-rare branch card) you have to draw a tile. If you do succeed in playing a tile and you have less than 10 tiles, you have to draw a tile.

So your pile of tiles will continue either as 10 or slightly greater than 10 for the rest of the game, until the box runs out of new tiles to replenish your tiles. Then the first player to run out of tiles wins.

Unlike many of these games, Rivers, Roads and Rails has a more cut-throat variant. "Roadblock" starts with a predefined perimeter that tiles cannot cross. When someone is unable to continue the game ends, and the player with the fewest number of tiles wins. You shorten the number of tiles people get, which in turn shortens the game length. It almost gets to feeling like a modern board game. There are aficionados.

But there are just much better games. I would never try to play this with adults. I will however gladly play with my kids, and they do occasionally suggest it.

notice, we aren't playing with any crazy 10 tile pile either!

That's because kids love games irregardless of goodness. And they don't mind packing it up and quitting halfway through, which you are guaranteed to do with Rivers, Roads and Rails. But before that   happens you can spend some time building a little free-form puzzle, and watch all the little tiles spin off in different directions like the world's most distracted snake.

If I have any say in the matter, I would rather play Tsuro with the kids or Carcassonne with adults. But I have a feeling this bright orange box is going to be on my shelf for a long time.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Random Pic: Merchant of Venus

I took great pleasure in my first game of Merchant of Venus. So very glad there was a veteran player there to teach us! There was much learned in the playing, and much will be done differently on the next game.

Things I notice: beverages. The coffee cup in the lower right corner is not a drink, however, but the container we were pulling new chits out of. Classic Avalon Hill rule book next to it, so you knew exactly who was running the table.

Space Trading is Fun, but you already knew that.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Puerto Rico - Plantation Management in the New World

Puerto Rico, after more than a decade in print, manages to retain an 8+ rating on Board Game Geek. In a world where players are more and more obsessed with the next big thing, this high regard is really saying something.

Like Race for the Galaxy or 7 Wonders you will find yourself with little down time. When one of your opponents inevitably gets bogged down by analysis paralysis, you will welcome the pause in tempo to actually try to nail down your strategy amid the constantly changing variables.

When someone takes an action, all the players share in it for the most part. Settle a plantation, and everyone else gets a plantation. Build a building, everyone else gets a chance to add to their buildings as well.

Delivering goods to the ships gets you victory points, but more importantly it provides an opportunity to force your opponents to take a delivery action as well. Just like Race for the Galaxy, loading your goods on the boat is mandatory. Goods must be stacked all of one kind to a ship. Any remaining goods must be either warehoused or dumped in the ocean. That's how they rolled in the New World!

Victory comes when the building section of your play mat is filled out, or when the shipping victory point chits run out, or when you run out of colonists on the "colonist ship". So once a healthy lead is established, I've seen players attempt to speed up the game by spamming actions to help along any of these 3 areas.

Buildings and Quarries (a type of plantation) are both in high demand, and specific buildings only have a small number of copies. In the two player game there is usually only one of each kind and the game state definitely shifts gears from the slightly uncomfortable pace of the main game into a full-fledged hater's ball where you buy a somewhat useless building (for you) to prevent your opponent from completing his economic super weapon.

And of course, you are also forcing him to dump his coffee in the ocean whenever possible. Because that's just good business.

Indeed, the winning strategy of Puerto Rico is to keep your strategy open. Both victory conditions (points from buildings or points from shipping) can be blocked easily by your opponents. Get caught up in one at the beginning, and you can end up shut down and unable to achieve anything. You have to be ready to do both, and then jump on whatever wagon is guarded the least when the moment of decision arrives.

There's enough in this game to play it again and again.

Perhaps the one thing I wish I would have researched a little more before purchasing it was the theme. You will find very little talk about the actual theme of this "New World" colonization game in most reviews, because the awesome part of Puerto Rico is the engine and the game mechanics.

In Puerto Rico you manage a network of plantations and refining facilities in the New World. And all of your plantations and buildings are necessarily (this is the history of Puerto Rico) staffed by slaves. You will wait and wait for the slave boat to come in, so you can get your indigo plants up and running at full speed. You will assign slaves to your various interests and watch as their tirelessly crank out corn, sugar, tobacco and more to be traded or shipped away as part of the Atlantic Triangle Trade.

Now, that theme is certainly not a deal breaker. But anyone who is going to be playing the game should know that 20% of the time you are going to be distributing little brown-painted wooden counters from a "colonist ship" to your various investments. Unlike Puerto Rico's card-based descendent San Juan, the relationship is explicitly illustrated during every turn around the board.

Certainly the workers in most other games probably didn't lead very happy lives either. And just about every war game by definition involves a host of pawns being fed into the meat grinder while you try to realize your overarching victory.

Puerto Rico is a cut-throat, very interactive game that keeps your mind working at nearly a constant pace. If you don't know what to do during your turn, try to screw over your neighbor and you will probably come out ahead!