Thursday, October 30, 2014

Designing, Reviewing and Promoting

Just read a blog post I responded to in depth. Hopefully I actually responded to it, reading the blog certainly sparked me to write the following. But I am reposting it here on my own blog.

Here we go:

As we all go deeper into the hobby, we quickly find the world is filled with more games than we could possibly ever play. We play a tiny fraction of the games. We play good games, we play bad games. And then we will try to figure out the difference, because sometimes seemly good games aren't any fun and we start to wonder if the rest of the world is crazy or if its just us.

Reviewers spend all their time trying to figure out what makes a game good. Much like literature, or movies, you can spend a great deal of time clinically analyzing what is good only to find an example that breaks every rule you just made and is obviously good (maybe just to you) in ways you would never expect.

Board game designers take all of this creative analysis and use it to fuel the design of games. What they like, what they don't like, maybe what they think other people like/don't like. The kinds of things reviewers flail around about on the Internet, the designer I think pushes it inward into the creative process. So you don't see it, you just feel it when you play the game.

Indeed, for a board game designer, the search for what is good must be a tempest of insanity. Ideally, a designer wants only to make good games. Yet looking back on the games I like the most, I can't find a single designer who creates games I universally admire. Usually there is one game I really like, and the rest of their catalog I could take or leave.

So I think the truly good games these designers produce are about 66% intense effort on their part, and 33% blind luck that the games they make match up to whatever my brain wants a good game to be. How frustrating!

And this isn't some conscious, thinking part of my brain. Infuriatingly, Its a weird itchy lizard part in the back somewhere.

So reviewing is a process of answering a question which is ultimately unanswerable. And if it was answerable, it would probably only apply to myself. But again, by happy (or unhappy depending on how you value my opinion) coincidence my own internal turmoils match up to a small fraction of other people in the world.

And so I find the same with other reviewers I watch, read or listen to. Much of what they say actually applies only to themselves. Yet occasionally they can be a beacon to point me towards where I should be allocating my limited time and attention.

And yes, we should place admiration on the designers above reviewers. Because while the reviewer is shouting into his or her megaphone around the Internet, the designer is having the same struggle, hidden, silent, and using it to fuel his or her own creation.

I wonder if maybe one job of the reviewer/promoter is to talk more about the designers of the games. But then what exactly would we talk about? While a game has many interesting rules and components, designers are people, and this can be quite a challenge to talk about. Would we talk about a body of work?

It's much harder, but it definitely needs to be done.

This is something I will think about in my own writings in the future.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Dungeon Petz are a lot of hard work

Dungeon Petz looks like a light and wacky fun-filled game.

Raising "Petz." Entering them into shows. Finding them homes among a group of eccentric pet-fancying dungeon denziens. The game has the theme of a casual browser game on Facebook.

And yet when you open the box what jumps out instead is harsh, unforgiving, even tedious at times. Much like a real pet there are plenty of chores before you get to the good stuff.

The setup phase

The first thing you hit in Dungeon Petz is a brutal setup phase. The board requires much maintenance at the beginning of each turn before the fun can begin. Some unlucky player eventually gets press-ganged into the role of banker, and must go through a process where 6 different resources are managed (gold, vegetables, meat, artifacts, cages, add-ons and new petz). Plus income is generated for each of the players. And if you have less than 4 players, you must also move the 3-4 dummy pawns around the board to block various spaces. (sarcasm on) Because wouldn't that be horrible, if people could just pick any old space, whilly-nilly with no extra blockers? It would probably ruin the game for everyone. (sarcasm off)


Shopping is where you hopefully get all the stuff you need to make your pets happy. There's one big innovation in shopping I love, and its the method for placing the workers. Your imp workers can be placed in multiples to put them ahead in turn order, 3 imps always gets to be placed before 2 imps and so on down the line. Cash counts as extra imps, so you can really make a glorious pile to decisively win the one single spot you must have to suceed in the coming turn. Or you can place the imps individually, and nab the less popular spots no one else seems to be going for. Whatever strategy you want.

I find this bidding far, far superior to the "turn order" spaces found in most worker placement games. Probably because I lack the forward thinking to use them. So no worries about who places first, in Dungeon Petz you just pile on more imps.

Satisfying needs

"Needs" fufillment is Dungeon Petz crazy time. All the hand wringing from not having enough of something to satisfy all your petz happens right here.

Fufilling needs is random, full of unexpected twists you really just have to hunker down and accept. Similar to Galaxy Trucker, you know the kinds of things that might happen, but you are never prepared for all of them. Colored needs cards are dealt out, and then you must carefully assign them to your pets and of course at least one of your animal projects is probably going to have a miserable, miserable time.

You might know your gorilla (or is it buffalo?) esque pet is prone to violent outbursts. But the red "aggression" cards you are dealt may very well have magic, play, eating or something else as the actual need you need to solve.

You will have cages fill up with poop. Or diseases. Or play needs you just don't have the imps or cage enhancements for. You are going to make your petz very sad. The negative difference of a single point in any category means the difference between happiness and adding permanent suffering tokens. And beyond one or two points lurks the even greater penalty of losing your pet permanently.

Exhibitions and selling

Finally, Dungeon Petz caps off each round with something I absolutely love in board games: a judging phase. You've been grooming these petz and now its their turn to shine. And not only is there judging, but usually there is 2 different judging rounds! First, a general "pet show" exhibition for earning victory points, and then another judging round where prospective petz owners try to find a match to their sometimes esoteric interests.

Judging, like in a lot of games, can either get you a magnificent pile of victory points, or almost zero if you are in the lower ranks. Luckily, you can happily pass on selling your pet if you feel the victory points are worth it…with the knowledge your pet will grow and possibly be worth even more points in the next turn's judging rounds.

Ebb and Flow

The first part of the game is like going to the dentist. Many small tasks must be performed. None of them are particularly enjoyable.

But the reason I will keep playing the game is the second portion, with the feeding and judging. Here is where the emotions of the game come to roost, and where all the tension builds up or drips out.

I don't think anyone goes into this game planning on winning either, and I think that's pretty unique. Much like Pret-a-Porter, the enjoyment really ends up being running your machine and watching the business function. if I have a couple good judging rounds and create some unique stories I have all I need for a good time.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Minneapolis Board Game Marathon (October 12th)

Writing about things on the internet can be a lonely gig. or a hobby in this case. I got som really top quality time in some board gaming this last weekend and it really recharged my batteries. One night with my friends, but then another entire day with complete strangers at the Minneapolis Board Game Marathon.

The post about game night (will feature Rex and Dungeon Petz) is still perculating.

But I can kick out a few thoughts on the "Marathon."

First off I have never been much of a convention guy. Conventions are typically ok, but the ones I have experience with are 90% vendors. And once you are out of spending money, there's really not much else to do.

What this little conference room, about 20 people total when I showed up, provided was a cornucopia of game playing pouring everlasting (or at least until 10:00, when the hotel needed the coference room back). I felt welcome and among my peers.

A place you can sit, drink coffee and play board games: sounds like heaven to me.

So on to the games!

1) Tragedy Looper

It took a long time for me to wrap my head around this game. The teacher was patient in what, looking back now, must have been an avalanche of questions from my corner. Constantly interupting! But he persevered and eventually I got it.

In Tragedy Looper, a crime is going to be comitted. Or multiple crimes. You kinda know what's up by way of an informational sheet you are handed at the start of the game.

You look on the board, and you see various character cards who move about the board. One of them might be a killer, one of them is the person you are trying to save. All the players cooperate to solve the mystery and stop the events, except for one. One player is the evil mastermind who wants the events to happen, and he has a full arsenal of tricks in the form of cards he can play.

Eventually, and probably sooner rather than later the person you are trying to save will die. And you will gain some info based on what happened when he or she died. You will know this person had some importance in the story. And then the game rewinds (loops!) to the beginning and you start all over again.

You go through these loops, but you don't go through them forever. If the group fails to prevent the crimes, eventually the mastermind player is awarded the victory.

So after the first loop, you and your fellow time agents huddle up and try to suss out who the bad guys and good guys are in this little puzzle of a story.

One of the more satisfying things our group accomplished was getting one of the bad guys to kill one of the other bad guys, and hence reduce the level of the stuff you are trying to avoid considerably.

And the entire time we deliberated, the mastermind at the table was trying to figure out how to sneak around our suspicions, and juse any of our false assumptions against us. I can only imagine its an intense experience.

I played the introductory scenario, which is about half as long as the normal game. And comparing it to the info sheet given out for the full version, half as complicated too as far as characters and plots. But at the tend I had invested my mind entirely on the task at hand, and I found the conclusion very satisfying. Would play again.

2) Caverna

This is an incredible game in its scope and complexity. I was told it is similar to Agricola, and I have no reason to doubt it. I was reminded somewhat of Le Havre, only there were many workers with the obvious, always-in-demand family growth spot. You harvest crops. You collect stone and wood. You breed animals.

Despite the magical dwarves and cave dwellings, Carvena felt a lot like real life. Your house is never big enough. You work all day collecting resources. Then just as you think you have enough to finally put that gold-tinged victory point room in and earn a bunch of rewards, feeding time comes around again and all your carefully acrued good stuff gets gobbled down.

The other 3 people at the table were seasoned pros. And it was interesting to look over in contrast at their experience.

Making the rought moves, in the right places allows an incredible number of different strategies. You can get lots of points for animals, for vegetables, for rooms, for rubies, or just earning lots of victory point chips.

There are a lot of things to upgrade. Forests can be cleared for fields and pastures. Pastures can be fenced in for animals. Caves can be changed into to mines, and mines can be turned further into ruby mines. Rubies are really nice to have.

I wasn't doing much of any of this. But the stuff other people were doing looked really cool. I might start to get into Caverna if I play it about 3 more times. But those 3 extra times I predict will be the same mad scramble for just enough food to subsist off of...until everything finally clicks in my head.

3) Fresco

Ahhh! The game of the conference room! This is more of a family-level game and learning the rules leaves you with a clear idea of the strategy. You can see what you have to do right from the start, and you just bang everything out. All the victory point goals are right in the middle of the board. You can see what you have to do and you just have to do it.

The mind-blowing part...since Fresco is about painting all the resources are colors of paint. You know what colors you have because they are the same colors as the cubes. Creating new, better resources is as simple as mixing 2 colors of paint together. And of course the king color is brown. You have to mix a lot of colors to get brown, and consiquently painting things brown get you a lot of victory points.

Placing all your workers happens on a little card you hide from other players at the beginning of the turn, and then everyone reveals at once. You hope to grab certain paints, paint certain areas of the fresco, grab certain special powers and more but your oppents are trying to get there first. So the tactical action gets intense if someone does something you weren't anticipating.

Finally, at the end if you are like me you end up with a bunch of primary colors you never got around to mixing. And most of the fresco is done. And the game ends and everyone had a good time. This is the kind of game I immediately want to go buy the first time I play it. Or find someone else who has a copy. Again, a real winner.

A pretty good time

I really want to go back next time they do one of these. Perhaps even on a Saturday/Sunday type experience so I get the whole deal. The coffee is hot, the games are there and the people are friendly. What more could you want?

Friday, October 10, 2014

A Taste of Crushing Debt

From the "Game of Life" rulebook

There are many games where debt is an important part of the action. I like lots of games with debt. 
You might think debt always works the same…Louis C.K. had a really good comedy bit (I will look it up if I remember) about the only thing worse than having no money is having negative money.

But games (at least the ones I've played) actually fall into 2 different camps on debt. And the "camp" your game falls into can have a dramatic effect on what your decisions should be during play.

1) In some games, debt is a punishment. Back when we were all playing Monopoly, the end game condition for most players was running out of money. But in our more enlightened times, designers never want a player to be kicked out of a big multi-hour economic game so they came up with debt.

Punishment debt is Louis C.K. style debt. You can't actually buy anything. You still have to pay upkeep costs. And the penalty for not getting out of your punishment debt is even more punishment. But you still get to play the game!

2) In other games, debt is an opportunity. If you have played around with punishment debt enough, you  will initially avoid opportunity debt like the plague. But opportunity debt has a fundamental difference, its debt you acquire before you go broke. It's debt you might even WANT to have. Be on the lookout for this!

Opportunity debt allows you to borrow extra money at the beginning of the game. The proper thing to do with this money is to buy more money-making stuff earlier in the game, pay off whatever the inerest on the opportunity debt is later in the game, and eventually make more money than if you had never taken out the opportunity debt.

Example I have played with punishment debt: 7 Wonders (with the special debt expansion).
Example I have played with opportunity debt: London
Example I have played with both: Pret-a-Porter

What about a game with NO DEBT OPTIONS at all? Now that's what I call a fantasy game!

Dungeon Petz, Lords of Waterdeep, Puerto Rico, Galaxy Trucker, none of these games provides the option of accumulating a negative account balance. If you don't have the money, you just can't buy stuff. And there's probably a worker space or role card to give you a little cash for next turn.

Or in the case of Dungeon Petz, you just bid more imps, since cash is more like extra workers (I really need to do a review of that game).

If you are designing an economic game, or if you are just a connoisseur of economic games, its easy to sit at the table expecting debt to be a given. You're so used to it.

But its possible to make a simpler choice, and often the game is more elegant (certainly the decisions can be just as difficult) in the long run.

And surprisingly, it is really refreshing to play a game where there is no option to subject yourself to crushing, soul-destroying shell-of-a-man debt. Merely not having enough, and knowing how to get a little more, can be just as interesting.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Space Punching into Galactic Submission with Star Realms

Not all of Star Realms is excellent, I concede. But most of it is extremely excellent.

Setup: exactly the same as every other deckbuilder you have played

Getting Star Realms ready for your first game is a textbook display of non-innovation. Each of the 2 players (there are only ever 2 players) start with a 10 card deck. 8 of the cards are worth a gold coin (universal credits, trade points, whatever). 2 cards are worth a damage point. You buy cards from a river of 5 random cards drawn from the trade deck. 

When you pull the cards out of the box, you can easily separate them into 3 piles. Explorers, Starter Cards, and the Trade Deck.

What is interesting about this non-interesting setup is just how simple it is. There's nothing to this game other than a single deck of cards and another pile of 20 starter cards to make the 2 initial player decks. No counters or markers or spaceship miniatures or anything.

Innovation: Direct Confrontation

More than any other deckbuilder I have played…Star Realms is a quick, mean game. Across the great history of deckbuilders, games like Ascension (and Thunderstone before it) may have thematically been about fighting things. But Star Realms is an actual fight between 2 players.


In Star Realms there are no victory points. No victory points on cards, and no victory point chits. The cards themselves are worthless.

Instead of earning your sweet little VP's, you are reducing your opponent's health each time you attack. And so the only victory in Star Realms is to crush your opponent as fast as possible, preferably before they get a similar death engine constructed on their side.

Each play starts with 50 life points. During the first few turns, this seems like a lot. With only 2 damage cards in your deck (Vipers), each only capable of shaving off a single life point, the war feels like it will go on forever. But it won't. Things in Star Realms escalate quickly.

Combo Damage!

These ships you are buying eventually start hurting your opponent. But to lay down the real hurt, you need to get a couple cards together of the same faction. Because there is often an "ally" ability that will also trigger, ramping up the effect of the card considerably. Play a few allying cards, draw into some more and things explode.

In the DC deck-building game, you often get to watch your opponent engage in elaborate combos of cards as they slowly collect enough power to sweep the board and defeat the current super-villian with ease.

If your opponent in Star Realms gets a long combo going, you are probably dead. A well-developed deck can do 30 or 40 points (theoretically even 50) of damage in one hand if lucky. So if your opponent gets lucky, you are probably dead.

Then you shuffle up the cards and start over again.

Together these 2 cards cause a whopping 10 points of damage, plus makes your opponent discard 2 cards. All for 4 trade coins…a good investment! And you have 3 other cards in your hand.

The Lucky Strike

I mentioned getting lucky. After playing a few games of Star Realms you might expect battles between 2 experienced players might come down to who can get lucky first.

An important way Star Realms tries to mitigate this is by making "trashing" in your deck easy and ubiquitous. Almost all cards of the "Machine Cult" faction can trash your starter cards for you, and many of the cards in other factions trash themselves as an extra ability. You might want to do this if you find your factional flavor switching, thanks to the vagaries of the random card selection.

2 players, working to get rid of their starter cards, will come down to who buys the best collection of cards in the meantime.

All your star bases

We haven't even talked about star bases yet. Star bases are the artifacts and enchantments of Star Realms, deploying and remaining on the board while the rest of the hand gets shuffled back in.

If you can get a star base of a relevant faction, you can easily ramp up the power of your cards since there will always be an ally in play.

Of course, your opponent can attack these star bases, choosing to do direct damage to them instead of to you. You might want to do this if the synergy between the base and the player's deck is sufficiently high.

But then there are other bases marked as "outposts" and these cards MUST be attacked before the player can be damaged. During beginning plays, I came away thinking this effect was inconsequential. But through a skilled player, a couple bases together can create an impenetrable wall…turning a death strike from your armada into a sneeze.


Like your games short and brutal? Like to get rolling on the next game right away without a lot of card sorting? This is what I am feeling with Star Realms. There's probably more to it, and I will certainly post secondary impressions later. Until then, beatings will continue. In space.

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Lords of Waterdeep Paradox

"I love completing tasks with clear, uncomplicated goals that don’t require resource conversion."
-- The Game of Wife

In days long gone, while the folks at TSR were busy running Gary Gygax out on a rail, someone in the building was simultaneously dreaming up the Forgotten Realms universe. No doubt Waterdeep was inspired by the ancient phrase "still waters run deep". Popularized in this modern age by a man named Snoop Dogg.

Lords of Waterdeep turns issues I have raised in other games on their ear. Because everything I don't like in these games, I love in Lords of Waterdeep.

This is why ultimately (and remember this for future posts)…

I truly know nothing about nothing.

Very Zen, very Zen.

But back to Lords of Waterdeep.

A million different places for your workers to hang out

LOD offers up a bunch of worker placement spots, and they all basically do the same thing. As in the majority of spaces involve the collection of various resources: either different colored cubes or spiffy gold coins with holes in the middle.

Traditionally, I find this annoying because it adds up to a whole lot of micro turns with someone holding their head in their hands while the other player looks for the optimal move.

In fact, I just got done singing the praises of Le Havre because it offers up only a single worker with which to do things with.

If Le Havre is on one of a worker placement spectrum, Lords of Waterdeep is on the complete opposite end.

There are so many spots, and they are so similar, that you never really get completely "blocked" by an opponent. So you don't HAVE to prioritize before each "micro turn" you can just check off things on your grocery list knowing sooner or later you will eventually get to them.

And as the game progresses, you gain additional workers automatically instead of the more normal fight for the worker reproduction spot (gross). Less worry and less hassle.

Then each player builds MORE buildings, offering up even more spots with which to collect the required resources. And you have even more options.

Finally, what are we doing with these resources? We are converting them into completed quests, which in turn are worth victory points. Delicious victory points, or as they used to say in the old days…points.

So the game itself offers up hardly any innovation. It appears to be a by-the-numbers worker placement game. But the "by-the-numbers" in this case are so incredibly streamlined and minimalist that the game moves through some sort of negative zone dimensional gate and back out into INTERESTING again.

Instead of boring, I find it relaxing. And while all the different spots give you lots of options, each option is slightly different and keeps your overall plan for advancement flexing like a reed in a stiff wind. You might have to pick a different space. You might get paid for someone using your space. The situation changes every so slightly with each worker placement I can keep up without having to rework the entire equation in my head.

No Upkeep

Here's a big selling point for the game: there's no upkeep! You don't have to send in your taxes, or feed your workers, or come-up with a mortgage payment at the end of the month. You will never default on a loan.

Le Havre is partially enjoyable to me because if I forget about my workers (or just choose to ignore their physical needs), there is usually some sort of gruel I can cook up at the end of the round using floor sweepings and leftover uncooked fish fillets.

Lords of Waterdeep, you don't even have to do that! Your agents are on their own for physical sustenance, and every building comes to you free and clear without any secret property liens from Waterdeep Ordinance Enforcement.

This is another reason the micro turns aren't bad…because you spend zero time thinking about what you NEED to do, and all the time figuring out what you WANT to do.

Quest Cards

Probably the biggest area of tension in the game is the scramble for quest cards. There are quest cards worth 25 points, and quest cards with 5 points. See the difference?

So while you and your buds and cleverly bantering and sliding workers across the table you will all be eyeing the row of quests for when a Sweet Opportunity comes out of the deck. True, most of the lesser point cards also give you special abilities, but at some point you have to be concerning yourself with victory.

And then there is one last true screw-you moment in the game and that is Mandatory Quests. If you are lucky enough to draw one of these, rest assured you will be able to significantly hamper your opponent with a quest he or see must fufil before moving on to the bigger point scoring opportunities.


So after looking at four worker placement games, the only single takeaway I can really offer is

1) I like to play board games

(sounds of things getting thrown off a desk)

Let's see if I can come up with anything else when I do the next worker placement study.