Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Among the Stars with Stronghold Games

I normally don't write about "current" games if I can help it. I cannot stress it enough: the anticipation for new game releases is the first cobblestone laid in a great freeway of gamer suffering.

Because we all want all the games, don't we?

Among the Stars isn't really a new game, but its about to become one. Supposedly you could have owned a copy of Among the Stars since 2012. It came out 2 years after 7 Wonders, and attempted to take the basic mechanics of a 7 Wonders card draft and adapt it to a new game in a science fiction universe.

This image was taken by Artipia. From what I understand, the game 
doesn't actually float in interstellar space like that. Wait, or maybe it does!

I love 7 Wonders, it's one of those amazing games you can play with as few as 2 or as many as 7 and have the same quick, enjoyable experience. From the description on Board Game Geek, Among the Stars sounds just as smart and easy-going. But it adds a couple of things.

1) I like space. I'm a big fan of science fiction, space and space exploration. When I hear about anything space station or colonization related, I get excited. Imagine the tableau of 7 Wonders, only instead of technological and cultural advancements the cards you were putting into play were modules to a grand Babylon 5-style space outpost. Dedicated to peace, understanding, and maximizing your end game victory point totals.

2) The space station modules are interconnected. They are scored depending on the surrounding modules, and indeed the makeup of the rest of your space station. Geography is a new wrinkle I am eager to explore.

So since about 2012, I've had Among the Stars on the backburner of my mind, always gently simmering away. Birthdays came around. Christmas-times came around. And I discovered something.

Among the Stars was a really tough game to find. You couldn't even find it on Amazon. What other product can you think of that is unavailable on Amazon?

Part of the problem was Artipia. A small, growing game publisher from Greece with poor international connections. They have continued publishing the game mostly thanks to Kickstarter. Some companies use Kickstarter to start their initial project, make it into the big time, then use the left-over profits to start the ball rolling on their next project.

Artipia has used Kickstarter for every project. They used Kickstarter for Among the Stars, the expansion, even a pack of promo cards. They are using Kickstarter to fund a reprint of Among the Stars right now.

I'm not super excited about Kickstarter. I really don't want to "invest" my money in an elaborate pre-ordering process with the end result of getting my game 6-8 months down the line.

But there's a big change coming. U.S. publisher Stronghold Games has decided to handle the reprint, and to me this suggests Among the Stars might be showing up in an actual distribution network. Perhaps an online store somewhere here in the U.S.A.

Because no matter how good a game is, I'm probably not going to get it shipped from Greece. There are too many titles out there just as good, just as interesting. And I only have so much space on my shelf.

Before the announcement, the excitement for Among the Stars had come and gone. I substituted.

Race for the Galaxy is an excellent choice. The interplay of cards, and the card vs. card evaluations seem pretty similar. And it just keeps getting better the more you play it.

But now with Stronghold picking up Among the Stars, I'm curious all over again.

If you want to know more about gameplay, check out the convenient Radho Runs Through It video.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Prophetic Flamespeaker: Playing vs. Casting

Wizards really can't win with the new mythic rare slot. People get outraged when the slot gets assigned these big sloppy monsters destined to never be played competitively. People get outraged when the slot receives a playable low-cost card everyone wants to own.

Prophetic Flamespeaker is one of those cards, at least to me, that looks unabashed and uncritically good. If he didn't have double strike, there would probably be a lot of talk right now about ways to give him double strike. And he would probably be pretty awesome even then. But he already has it.
There is seriously no work to be done. Everything you need comes right in the box, including the special cord you usually always need to buy because your computer lost the last format war.

But besides being good, he brings up the playing vs. casting issue.

Does it frustrate anyone else these two terms do not mean the same thing?

A while back when Theros block came out, left and right folks were trying to cast land using Daxos of Meletis. But you can't cast land. You can only play land.

It used to be, you played everything. I was a player of things. If I drew a card, sooner or later I would play it. That's just how I rolled.

But now, most of the time you are casting it. And no matter what anyone else tells you, you can cast a land. Because they aren't spells. Magic would probably be a lot simpler if they were. Because blue would just counter your land, you would die quicker, and we could all go home early.

This Flamespeaker guy even plays land. He plays it right on the table. Costs less than Countryside Crusher, and does more. I'm never going to own 1, let alone a set.

I'm noticing Daxos isn't really selling for a lot, so maybe I'm totally wrong. Although he has to PAY for things too, and doesn't have double strike. I've been wrong before. All I know is I'm old, I almost never play Magic anymore and this card looks amazing.

What would I do? I would make a shaman deck. Because it already has double strike!

Friday, April 11, 2014

TV Wars' Flawed but Awesome Programming Battles

The world is full of terrible games. Usually terrible all the way through. Seldom do you think "I don't like what's happening here, or here, but this part in the middle has made me a fan for life."

Last night, boardgamegeek user calandale put up a video of the infamous Avalon Hill game TV Wars.

The heart of TV Wars, the part I fell in love with, has exactly 3 spaces on the board to land on. It is the Ratings War.

Everybody gears up for an eventual Ratings War.

1) Programming is deployed in secret, so no one knows what they will be facing

2) Each half-hour slot is judged in turn, comparing the programming each station has scheduled for that slot.

3) The worst performing show is immediately canceled. They don't even get to play the rest of the show. If your hour long show scores the lowest in the first half hour, you must throw it away and force your viewers to listen to dead air for half an hour. This is awesome.

4) Canceled shows often cause cascades of destruction you didn't anticipate. Getting an unexpected bonus or negative modifier could lead to a result completely contrary to what you anticipated. Terrible shows are frequently saved by being short. If they are competing against dead air because another show got canceled, the audience thinks they are pretty good in comparison.

5) The winner of the Ratings War feels like the winner of the game. And then you have to wait for someone to land on the space again.

The podcast Flip the Table recently reviewed the old roll-and-move McDonalds game from the 70's. (YES, indeed!) and I'm receiving the same sort of vibes for this game. The majority, 80% maybe, is a boring un-inspired game. You land on the spot, you do what the spot says.

But suddenly, if you land on the "Let's Go to McDonalds" space, the world undergoes a metamorphosis. Suddenly its time to play the Real Game. The one everyone's been waiting for. Time to take the orders, time to flip the burgers. It's show time.

Back to TV Wars, I am having a tough time coming up with a modern game with similar mechanics. The judging obviously rocks. I wish there were more games with judge-offs. I get a little feel for it at the end of Galaxy Trucker when everyone quickly checks to see who has the Prettiest Ship. And there is also a similarity in Pret-a-Porter at the time the stars are awarded.

But nothing to compare to the line-by-line judging of TV Wars. With the chance for so much to incredibly change from the moment you lay your lineup out until the end. A "TV Wars" version of Pret-a-Porter would have you deploy your collections in secret. And judges would rip poorly-conceived designs off your models and set them on fire before you were done showing your collection.

Many hours were once spent playing a roll-and-move game. It might have even contributed to my first failed attempt at college.

I didn't do it because of the news bulletin space. The awards shows or the sponsorship deals. Not even for "Steal a Star". I played it for the Ratings War. TV doesn't even work that way anymore. But I would love to see a similar mechanic rise again in a modern game.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Catan: Sub-optimal Play and a Session Report

One of the ways sub-optimal decisions show up is through the interference of real world events, relationships or scenarios.

A while back, I played a fantastic game of Settlers of Catan with my wife and mother-in-law. You can probably figure out where this story is going just with those two variables.

I would consider both of these people highly intelligent. And very strategic-minded opponents.

The first suboptimal decision I made was this: first turn of Settlers of Catan I decided to adopt a highly aggressive strategy of territorial expansion. I "felt" like roads were the way to go and blocking out a good area to build my civilization would enable me to get the settlements and cities in place faster than my competition.

This is the kind of decision you make when you have recently been playing against a lot of computer opponents. Computer AIs typically don't react to what you are doing except in a very abstract, calculating way.

What happens in real life is usually much different.

I had blocked off one of my wife's roads. She had wasted a wood and clay to build a road she could not continue because of my own encroaching road. It felt so good I did it again a couple turns later after she tried to expand another road.

So my territory was expanding. 

But my public perception, the one in the minds of both of my opponents, was rapidly degenerating. Underneath the surface, I was becoming Public Enemy #1.

I was punished in the way that the leader is often punished in multiplayer games. I, who had been trying to do the blocking, was instead blocked. 1 civilization has no hope against 2 other civilizations working mostly in unison. My trading opportunities were eliminated.

But I was just doing what you are supposed to do to win, wasn't I?

No, I wasn't. Because I didn't win. My wife won. She was able to gain positive support by being the underdog, and then used her own resources to their optimal effect.

I could have sat there and complained about everyone acting outside of their own best interests. But my wife was certainly trying her best. And my mother-in-law was reacting against the biggest threat she saw at the table…the guy who was apparently going for the throat. A game player all her life, she saw the warning signs I didn't realize I was putting out.

About a year ago, I derided the lack of player interaction in most Eurogames. But this scenario is exactly why people avoid conflict so fervently. You can't just built a machine of winning and let it go to work. You have to feel out your opponents and also see how they you.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Race for the Galaxy: Robot Wars

I rolled the dice. I studied them. Another develop action for the robot. Looking upon its towering draw deck, I despaired. Victory was all but lost to me.

Race for the Galaxy is fun, quick-thinking, quick playing. I've played many times on-line at boardgamearena.com. For me, the computerized game fails in a couple of ways, making it still necessary at times to turn to a amazing design included in the Gathering Storm expasion: The Race for the Galaxy solo Robot!

I can hear your voice now:

Why would you ever want to fiddle with a stupid robot, rolling dice and sliding chits around, when you could just go online and play against REAL human beings?

The Voyage Home

Board Gaming is the method by which we escape the computer screen. Just about my entire life is spent in front of a computer or a television. Typing up stuff at work. Watching the latest Game of Thrones episode with my wife. Achieving total victory in my son's Mario Kart challenge. While boardgamearena.com offers an essential link to other gamers 24 hours a day, it is through a medium I already interact with way too terribly much.

But perhaps even more importantly, the computer version of Race for the Galaxy makes me sloppy, sloppy, sloppy! I might as well slide on a pair of clown shoes and a rubber nose.

You see, the computer (and in this case I mean an ACTUAL computer, not this bizarre cardboard playing mat on my dining room table) keeps track of stuff for you.

It knows how many cards you need to draw. It knows the amount of cards to pay to put developments and settlements out (even with discounts!). It keeps track of victory point chits for you.

The end result: the more I play, the more I forget exactly how to do any of these things.

Boardgamearena.com uses a timer to keep its players moving along at a good clip. Keeping the experience moving is a necessary part of a real-time game over the Internet. But it combines with my own forgetfulness to create a slobbering animal where once sat a man, playing cards "fast and loose," by instinct alone, and occasionally totally screwing up.

I might decide to settle one turn. My opponent decides to develop. I get excited and develop a card during his/her turn. BUT THEN I cry out in horror as I realize I don't have enough cards left to do the actual settle action I wanted! The burning, grinding pain of passing your turn during the settle action YOU CHOSE. The cold, dark shame you feel afterward. Both things I wanted to avoid.

The final nail came when I decided to take the Race for the Galaxy Robot for its first spin. And…I had to look in the rulebook to see how many cards I needed to draw to start the game. Was it 5, 6, or 7? Sad things done by a sad man.

How does the Robot work?

The Robot works nothing like a human player. You aren't going to get any strategy tips from this thing.

The crazy playing mat is the center of the action. Not only does it keep track of the robot moves (you roll dice) but it also keeps track of your actions (no need for action cards!) by sliding a couple of chits around.

So first you figure out what you and the robot are doing. For your actions (and responses to the robot's actions) you play the game normally.

For the robot, there's no hand, tableau, resources or anything else. It's a little bit of an Undiscovered Country.

For instance: in the above image, the robot explore action is to draw 3 cards (these are placed in a seperate pile called the "robot draw stack") and move the credit chit over 1 space. You see, the robot doesn't build an economic machine like a human opponent does. Instead, 2 attributes called credit and economy go up and down to simulate the synergy and development a human player is going to use.

The icons are pretty crazy. And each starting world has its own set of unique action modifiers, so the robot plays differently depending on which start world you give it.

I thought it was super weird. I might have been a little unhappy at first, too. But the more I played, the more I realized the robot was copying a human player in all the right places. Without a lot of the annoying record keeping and hand-shuffling I would have to do for a traditional "dummy" player.

This robot manages to punish you in all the same ways a human would. It draws extra cards when you try to explore. It plops down huge developments when you least expect it. It racks up insane victory points ever time you try to consume.

And I think I might actually be turning into a better player.

As I said, you don't really learn anything watching the robot play. But you do learn a few things watching yourself.

When you explore, you are always helping the other player. During a settle or develop action, they might not be able to afford to play a card. But they can always draw. So explores are pretty bad, and should be avoided at all costs. Another thing I had gotten lazy doing on the computer!

All the other actions have consequences as well. Develop and Settle actions both advance the robot. As do Consume and Produce actions. And you see all this because you are physically moving pieces all over this mat.

Playing the computer game, I often slip into a state of mind where I'm only thinking about myself. The logical antidote to this problem is forcing myself to carry out my opponent's actions as well.

The result…sometimes victory, but always satisfaction. It's a relaxing, mentally stimulating pursuit I can take at my own pace. I can only hope your next gaming experience is the same.