Saturday, December 19, 2015

Asmodee's Specialty Retail Policy: Paving the Board Game Utopia

The big news this weekend (not counting Star Wars) is the reorganization of Asmodee, Fantasy Flight Games and Days of Wonder into a globular amalgamation of board gaming intellectual property. And the biggest news from within that amalgamation is the new sales agreement Asmodee has announced they will try to use to save their retail margins and rescue everyone’s favorite local gaming store from the brink of extinction.

At least, that’s why I assume they are doing it. Ultimately, behind the corporate speak, only the executives at this new Asmodee North America truly know all the reasoning.

What we have is a agreement all retailers will be expected to sign, that severely limits their rights to resell their own property purchased from one of only 5 approved Asmodee North America distributors.

Advice is Cheap, But the Games Won’t Be

I don’t own a game store. But what I do see is a world full of game stores, both online and brick-and-mortar. And I have trouble envisioning why any type of trade agreement like this would ever turn out as a good thing for anyone involved. It’s not like its a new thing, small publishers of niche products have tried to control their retail channels ever since Games Workshop began slowly strangling itself to death doing the same thing back in the early 90’s. You have to buy at certain percentages. You have to sell at certain prices. You can’t sell online.

One of the few benefits to running your own game store is being your own boss. At least, I have to imagine it is. Any report from any “specialty retailer” has first and foremost reiterated it is not about the money. There are far easier ways in this world to slowly spiral into bankruptcy.

Why do We Even Have Favorite Local Gaming Stores?

This agreement, along with opening your eyes and looking at the world around you, both seem to indicate there are plenty of ways to buy cheap board games. Even the most hard-to-find game, if its in print, you can no doubt buy it somewhere at a discount.

In the cold, uncaring marketplace the Asmodee Specialty Retail Policy is fighting the good fight. To keep those faithful retailers making the profit they deserve. But what have retailers been doing in the meantime?

I’ve personally seen the typical gaming store evolve to cope with these challenges. The competent retailer has not stood by and watched people showroom their aisles and load up on their Game of Thrones, Star Wars and Cthulhu-based board games online. Heck, one of the biggest examples of the NEW board game store is the flagship retail establishment run by the former Fantasy Flight Games itself.

There’s places to play your games. Spaces to hang out with people. Food to eat. Drinks to drink. Demo copies of new titles for you to try out.

No online store can offer any of these amenities. They can only compete on price.

Getting Them in the Door

Ask anyone in sales, and they’ll tell you the biggest challenge is just getting people to show up. Once someone has walked into your establishment, they’re already halfway made up in their mind they’re going to buy something. Heck, when I go in a game store it take incredible, almost impossible force of will to leave without buying something.

So even if the prices are higher, if you bring people into your store you will no doubt get sales. And all of the previous reasons are exactly why people go in there. Buying the board games is almost secondary. Anybody can buy board games, any time. You see the ads on Board Game Geek. They’re all over the place.

Retailers don’t need the help. So maybe this agreement will really help Asmodee turn into a super-profitable game company, a board game Google, ready to take the entire board game industry to the next level.

Well, here’s the problem. Even with the acquisition of a couple other HUGE publishing juggernauts, there’s one inescapable fact:

Plenty of Board Game Fish in the Sea

Anyone can publish a board game. There are more small board game publishers than there are stars in the sky. Go ahead and try to count them sometime.

How will this affect the board game industry?

It won’t. No matter how hard they try, I don’t anticipate any time of agreement forced on retailers to do anything whatsoever. Except destroy Asmodee’s relevance in this changing niche economy. And even then, there are so many other companies ready to fill in the gap should even the mightiest oak fall I don’t see that as a problem.

While I’m sure board gamers are already jumping out the second floors of their townhouses in anticipation of some big board game collapse, there’s just no way for it to happen. Buy the games you want to buy, however you want to buy them. And visit the establishments you want to patronize. And if you’re a retailer, enjoy your independence and feel free to shun any board game company forcing you to sign overly complex agreements. Because your clientele aren’t coming to you for the board games. They’re coming to you because you’re you.

Some famous cartoon character once said it best: "Screw those guys."

The Best Theme is a Boring Theme: Xenon Profiteer and Uwe Rosenburg's Patchwork

The Compelling Truth, as told by T.C. Petty III

Recently the  designer of  just-released Xenon Profiteer offered up an in-depth Designer Diary on the nature of his creative process. What struck a chord with me was his analysis of the role of theme in games, and how many of the most interesting games actually had pretty dull themes.

T.C. Petty III wrote:
There's something deeply humorous (absurdist? dadaist?) about creating a game that transforms an activity that sounds absolutely un-fun into a deeply rewarding experience, and it's apparent that I'm not the only one that agrees. Some of the most popular games on this site have the most boring titles, cover art, and themes that the world has ever known, but against all odds, and with intense focus on the fundamentals that make gameplay truly engaging, they pull even the most skeptical board gamer deep into their worlds of abstract grids and crop farming and transitioning from canals to railroads. Seriously, Brass is a game about the transition from canal systems to railroads. Riveting. How is this not considered ridiculous? How is it not considered art?

This insight struck me hard, and I saw the incredible truth. I have felt this way myself, instinctively, for plenty of time during my gaming life. But it took Petty’s words to put all those theme yearnings together under one umbrella that made sense:
The most rewarding games often have the most boring titles, cover art and themes. 
Yet I want to play them, and then I enjoy them, and then I want to get more. Badly.

Time to Lay Some Pipe

And its not just me. One of the most popular games in my household...with the wife, with the kids, with my friends, is Galaxy Trucker. You might initially argue at the boring theme:
“What do you mean, boring? This game is about space, and spaceships. You fly around in space and get hit by asteroids and fight space pirates.
But, I would argue, the flying in space of Galaxy Trucker is actually the uninteresting part of the game. It’s essentially a super-long scoring phase, when the construction of your ship is “judged” against a revolving menagerie of variables. From cargo delivery, to exploration, to combat to the aforementioned asteroid collisions.

Where does all the fun come from in Galaxy Trucker?

The fun part is welding pieces of pipe together. The quick thinking involved in locating just the right piece. The rush of finding a spot it connects with. The balancing of different types of components to ensure your ship can reach the destination. The delight when your opponent fails to find a legal position for his chosen tile. It doesn’t really look or feel like a spaceship. I’m really pretty sure this is not how anyone actually builds spaceships. It could be anything. A bridge or a skyscraper or a sewer line. The fun would be the same.

It’s Time to Talk about my NEW second-favorite Uwe Rosenberg game

If you want to talk about how a boring theme allows you to build up elegant unconstrained mechanics, the best example I’ve seen yet is Patchwork, by famed board game sadist Uwe Rosenberg. Unlike most of his games, there’s no starving children or tortured mutant farmers. Instead each person is weaving together a delightful patchwork quilt.

Of course, its competitive patchwork weaving, so each player is drawing patches from a shared pool, paying some nefarious entity for the patches in the form of bright, blue buttons. Actually, now that I think about it more, this game might be about mutants, too. That makes a lot of sense. The theme, however, is definitely boring quilting.

Much like Galaxy Trucker, no one is going to look at Patchwork and say “oh, this is a perfect simulation of craft quilting.” No, instead the theme is used to surround some exciting mechanics, namely weighing the “value” of different pieces based on their shape, cost and ability to generate more buttons when another income phase comes around.

See I think these are mutants or goblins of some sort. Probably living in someone’s attic, I’m guessing. Play the game yourself and give me your theories.

I want to know where the buttons come from.

The Shape of Things to Come

Before playing Patchwork, I had heard it described as Tetris-like. I would agree on this. Certainly, you are paying buttons for specific pieces to fit better into your quilt design. Because you want your quilt to be complete, without any holes or ragged spots. Because here is the final “I Have No Mouth, But I must Scream” moment Uwe Rosenberg is known for:

At the end of the game, you have to pay this button freak back his buttons, 2 for every missing spot in your quilt. Which means if you don’t play this game right you might actually end up with less buttons than you started with, or even a negative number of buttons. And that’s how this guy gets more buttons, apparently by enslaving mutants in these predatory quilting expositions. No one’s going to buy a quilt with a ragged corner!

And ragged is how they all come out, guaranteed. The natural timer built into the game ensures it.

This Game Had Me in Stitches

The mutants, the button tax, everything is laid out in very abstract, bland terms. But in that vacuum, I was able to take the components I was given and tell an incredible story. How else would you use such an impressive Tetris tile-laying mechanic. You either use patches on a quilt, or you make a game literally about Tetris. Or maybe make it about snake stacking. Fun for you, but not so fun for the snakes!

Friday, August 28, 2015

Quantum: Eric Zimmerman's Work of Staggering Genius

Quantum gets very little appreciation, and I think it’s because people find it so hard to define. Like Spock flying into the heart of V’ger, there’s a lot going on. It might make sense internally, but there’s little common frame of reference. Today I’m going to try and as my assistants I will use 3 (decidedly inferior to Quantum) board games as examples.

Stage 1: King of Tokyo

Ships in Quantum are represented by dice. The face up number is the type of ship, 1 is essentially a Death Star, while 6 is a super-fast scout. The numbers in between are ships filling the spectrum of options between these 2 extremes. So the first thing you do in Quantum is randomly generate your ships by rolling dice, then rolling them again if you didn’t like what you got the first time.

The dice rolling is only barely similar to King of Tokyo. Once you’ve established your initial ships, they stay that way until they are destroyed or you spend effort to transform them.

Like in King of Tokyo, combat is encouraged but not completely necessary. Ships gain “infamy” points when they destroy other ships, but there is no penalty for losing in an attack. Your ship can only be destroyed when defending. These infamy points can eventually be used to buy a quantum cube (the victory points to win the game) and also to gain advance cards from the middle of the board (like the mutations in King of Tokyo).

Getting the advances can also be done via research, which a player is welcome to take as one of his or her actions during the turn. Research points accrue like infamy points, and when you’ve earned enough, you get to grab an advance card, this time with no quantum cube.

Stage 2: Catan

Building quantum cubes is how you win the game. The first player to deploy all 7 cubes on the board is the victor. Just like settlements in Catan, as you expand your empire you move closer and closer to winning the game. There are no victory points, and I really, really admire the thought that went into this.

You don’t gain any resources from quantum cubes, but you do get to build new ships in their proximity, meaning you really do get the feeling of an expanding empire. Building also does not require resources, instead you need a special numerical combination of ships (each planet is different) and getting these numbers together can generate the same sort of frustration as missing your wheat payout in Catan.

While quantum cubes can never be destroyed, the primary source of player conflict is in knocking opposing ships out of commission while their owner is sweating over getting just the right number combinations.

Stage 3: Space Chess

The movement of the dice is basically Chess in space. All the pieces have narrow, well-defined movement rules. Each has a special power you need to remember. And besides building quantum cubes, the primary use for ships is blocking opposing players from moving into new territory.

Also like Chess, the player needs to think a few steps ahead since accidentally leaving an opening for your opponent to build a final quantum cube is the eventual winning condition of every game.

Stage 4: The Game is Completely Original

After comparing Quantum to 3 incredibly diverse existing titles, I’m going to go ahead and negate everything I just typed by saying Quantum is like none of these games. You would never play it and say “This is just like Settlers of Catan” unless you were a weirdo committed to finding the parallels like I was. Instead, Quantum is an entirely original creation on both mechanics and style.

After playing over a thousand hands of Race for the Galaxy, I thought I had basically found my space game. But Quantum is most surprising of all to me because after spending way too much time searching for other games like RFTG, I love Quantum even though it has almost no similarities.

Designer Eric Zimmerman is a genius. I have absolutely no familiarity with his work before or after Quantum, but I’ll be doing my research. I found out about Quantum by playing on BGA, and now it's on my list to get. Do yourself a solid and check this game out. Then try to figure out why nobody seems to be talking about it anymore.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Rattlebones: Roll & Move Evolved

I love to watch a tried and true “common sense” design paradigm be shown false. If the broader board game community said the sky was blue, I would glom on to the carefully detailed report by the guy who took the trouble to actually go outside and confirm the sky is purple as it always has been.

Stephen Glenn’s Rattlebones is a completely neglected board game from 2014 that deserves love heaped on its plate. It sure wasn’t on my radar back then, and I still don’t own a copy now. But watching the latest Game Night reveals a fascinating artifact. Conventional wisdom says it shouldn’t be any good. But the more I think of it, the more every aspect of this game is amazing and alluring for that fact and more.

Roll and Move

For starters, Rattlebones is a roll and move game. Just like The Game of Life. You might think the game does something clever with the rolling, like allowing you to pick from different dice or use the same number in different ways like with Castles of Burgundy. But no you roll a die and move your pawn by exact count around a TRACK. Then you hold your head in your hands and think “Oh, no. What have I gotten myself into!”

Building your Dice

Of course there is an innovation here, in the dice themselves. You can take the faces off and add new faces you earn from landing on spaces around the track. Each player has 3 dice, and gets to select one of those die to roll. Gold pieces (which are earned by rolling the relevant die face) can be cashed in to roll more than one die, but the default is always that one lonely roll. Each die is like its own tool for the turn, you decide which one has the best chance to help you.

Being able to roll multiple dice in turn sets up devastating combos of powers. For instance: the “2X” face doubles whatever points are awarded on the other die, but it requires you to be rolling another die. If you roll a “2X” by itself, you get zero.

Soup of the Day: Determination and Luck

Rattlebones is a dense broth containing 2 contradictory ingredients. You can steer the game in a certain direction, but you never know exactly how the dice are going to turn out. And the random movement of the game means you always need to be ready to change your plan.

Slowly developing your position is all well and good…and much of this game seems to be that. But what I hunger for is the occasion JACKPOT. When the dice show exactly what you want and huge piles of points come rolling out the machine. And you can take pride in this payout because you had to both build the framework, and take the ultimate risk to get there.

You can’t really “gun” for certain abilities. Both the randomness of the die roll and the fact that the spots on the board are randomly assigned before every game mean you will never be able to develop and optimal pattern to success. Each game will have its own unique pluses and minuses to weigh as you move around the board.

Racing to the Finish

I’ve railed against set numbers of turns in games. And I respect the dedication of a designer who finds a way to encourage movement towards the end game condition just through players acting normally during their turns.

Every time you roll a 1 on any die, a “Rattlebones” character runs backwards down the scoring track. Running into Rattlebones causes the game to end, and paradoxically the person who is caught is not ritually murdered but actually wins the game. Rattlebones is friendly!

As the powers of the dice increase, players are hurtled faster towards Mr. Rattlebones as well. Earning the aforementioned jackpot of points (from the train, stocks, stars, ex.) doesn’t just make you lap the score track, it actually ends the game quicker. If you get too far ahead of everybody else, at least they can take comfort in the fact the game will soon be over.

Dr. Caligari: The Dice Building Game

I just finished a post railing on Batman for turning up the creepy clown vibe to 11.

In contrast, absolutely nothing about the twisted reality of Rattlebones seems cheap, lazy or phoned in. The board is obviously some kind of crazy carnival attraction. The player pieces are the monkeys from Wizard Of Oz wearing party hats. Rattlebones himself reminds me most of the Buick Driver only briefly seen in Stephen King’s From a Buick 8. Try to imagine another intellectual property that has leveraged any of these concepts together in this way and you would be hard pressed.

The one thing you WON’T find on the Rattlebones board, no matter how hard you look, is a scary clown. And I am so very thankful.

When Randy Buehler started tweeting that he was playing Rattlebones at the World Boardgaming Championships, it sort of sealed the deal. As a game that’s been out for more than a year the hype train should be at an all-time low. Yet to see people continue to give it press has put the game firmly in the crosshairs of my basement-mounted periscope.

Additional Reading from The Examiner

Sunday, August 2, 2015

New Bedford: No Whale Before We Sail

In a vast ocean of bland fantasy dungeon delvers and dark zombie-battling miniature games, the historically unique theme of New Bedford was like a breath of fresh salt-tinged air. It was a Kickstarter I hated to see fail. My original observations can be found here, but to sum up: New Bedford looked like a smaller, tighter version of Minotaur-favorite Le Havre, with a better less-clunky system for building ships.

With the project canceled, Dice Hate Me Games posted this final update

As most of you have no doubt noticed by now, the campaign for New Bedford has been cancelled. We did not make this decision lightly, and ultimately felt that it was what was best for the project and for Dice Hate Me Games. Although New Bedford was tracking to fund by Sunday, we felt that a relaunch at a better time of year will allow us to bring more attention to the game and, ultimately, bring all of you more added value for your pledges.

And I started to wonder just what people had not liked so much about New Bedford. Constantly evolving and growing worker placement opportunities? Random whale tile draws out of a glorious bag of mystery?

Then suddenly, quite recently, the campaign was relaunched with this updated message on the original campaign:

We greatly appreciate the support that you all lent us in this first campaign, and we hope that many of you will consider supporting us in this new endeavor. We took a good look at feedback and lessons from the first campaign, and we have a lot of new goodies for everyone this time around, including a special promotional and lots of cool stretch goals to unlock!
There seem to be a few changes. The art looks like they’ve been doing some fine tuning. And a few of the buildings have different names. The designer attributed the poor previous start mostly to timing, and the new campaign displayed confidence things would be quite different this time around.

And they were right.

With 12 days left to go in the campaign, Dice Hate Me Games has managed to raise an incredible $55,000 and collected more than twice the backers of the original campaign.

It probably has something to do with timing sure. But also it might have something to do with that glorious white whale.

White Whale, Holy Grail

The previous Kickstarter was all about historical accuracy. But this relaunch of New Bedford finally surrenders to a classic blood n’ thunderous piece of New Bedford-related fiction.

When the original whalers of New Bedford went out to sea for their next hunt, very rarely did the pursued whales rise up and devour their ship. In New Bedford, it might happen just a little bit more often than true history would indicate.

But adding Moby Dick makes for a more fun game. And gives the whales just a little more of a fighting chance. One step removed from reality, you’ll feel less like a dirty whale killer. and more like a ship sailing into a sea of myth and adventure.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Batman Fluxx and the Ghost of Todd McFarlane

Should I get excited about Batman Fluxx?

Because Batman Fluxx is what Looney Labs is doing. Making new versions of Fluxx, while not exactly a full time job at Looney Labs, is at least a really hardcore flex-hours position that somehow avoids health benefits.

Per the press release:

We're very excited to announce that Batman™ Fluxx will be in stores August 7! With art and the style of The New Batman Adventures, Batman™ Fluxx introduces the Caped Crusader (and his Rogue's Gallery of villains) to the ever-changing card game of Fluxx.

It’s not like Batman is hurting for new pieces of merch to slap his gloomy face over. Even in the board and card game industry, The Bat is basically all over the place. He’s Here. He’s There. Plenty of Batman to go around.

What made me excited enough to set my tips to tapping on the keyboard was this line: With the art and the style of The New Batman Adventures.

The bone I’ve got to pick with Batman,  at least the current board game implementations of Batman is this foundation assumption Batman needs to be a gritty, demented roller coaster ride into madness. Batman is a detective, and sometimes you could call his environment “noir” in that Gotham City if full of corruption, forcing this man to solve crimes and met out justice from the vigilante position. But it's not Halloweentown, people.

But all I see from the Batman stable is artwork and theme that looks like American McGee killed Todd McFarlane and resurrected his ghost using ancient Korean black magic.

While I don’t read any of the current Batman comics books, I discovered while trying to catch up on Suicide Squad that the current version of the Joker decided to cut his own face off and sew it back on for some reason. This would have been super cool back in the 90’s when Spawn was stabbing pervert ice cream vendors to death with pudding pops but the scary clown well has seriously run dry. Instead of the clown prince of crime, The Joker is now basically a retread of Hannibal Lector.

I know, everyone wants something different and certainly there must be a huge market for scary clown Batman comics. But I’m saying there is at least a tiny market for cartoony fun Batman comics, and investing in a game of Fluxx might be the only current way to support such a position.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

High Production Value Board Game Videos -- Mirror Box's Chaosmos

A mirror box is a therapeutic device to help relieve the symptoms of phantom pain felt in missing limbs. Famous performed on an episode of House. Let go of the grenade! And he finally did. He let go of the grenade after all those years. House is a miracle worker.

But what you may not know is Mirror Box is also a independent game studio, famous for running a successful kickstarter to fund the space-exploring card game Chaosmos.

I don't know anything about Chaosmos other than the boardgamegeek page, but this video obviously took an incredible amount of time and work to pull off. An incredible display of dexterity game action, and even pyrotechnics.

My hat is off to them.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Agricola: Facing off Against the Lord of Grain

Check out this guy

Jacking in to the Game-Net

One of the banes/benefits of playing online is this…you have access to some of the world's best gamers. The magic of the Internet draws the infinite distance close, like pulling a string into a knot. They might be in their basement and you in yours. But now it is one basement, a forever basement, full of men (and potentially women) who play Agricola for real.

After a lot of plays, I can honestly say online Agricola players are special.

For many online games, there are the people who have optimized their play style to take the absolute most efficient path to victory. They are in the game for the big W…grinding out ELO, or whatever loopy-doopy imaginary point system the particular online game uses. These lizard people typically squat around random Puerto Rico games, complaining you aren't playing it right and petitioning the rest of the players to vote to quit the game early so they don't have to sit through this travesty.

Farm Living is the Life for Them

Agricola players are a different breed. When you play Agricola, you get these cards that create all sorts of modifications to your available opportunities each turn. The other members of the Rosenbergian dysphoria…Le Havre, Cavera, etc…never adopted this and the occupation/minor improvement cards are one of the unique things about Agricola. They even create combos…situations where you might be able to do something more often, make it cheaper, and then do BOTH and really run away with the game.

Behold the Lord of Grain

In this match, during the time I was flailing around trying to feed my starving children my opponent was instead getting down to business. The Potato Dibber and The Manure Pit both increase the number of grain/vegetables you get when you sow. While the Field Watchman plows a field for you whenever you take a grain. Which is how my opponent ended up with 12 grain and 4 vegetables.

With an oven to bake the occasional bread (which also allows you to sow grain/vegetables at the same time!), the guy never had a problem feeding people at any point in the game. Each field also uses a space, so he had a fully utilized board at the end, too. A really masterful and unusual use of space that makes you think more about the game rather than gnashing your teeth over what you didn't do.

Agricola Looking Forward

I started 2 new games immediately after losing this one. Opening my mind is a challenge, but I am buoyed by the fact that if I can't see the cool card combinations in front of me at least my opponent will be able to show me theirs. And that is almost as fun as winning. Or so I tell myself.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

The Exploding Kitten Situation

There is a huge Kickstarter going on right now for a game about Exploding Kittens. I read this blog post about it and it sparked enough interest I needed to jot my thoughts down too.

Exploding Kittens is making a lot of money and good for them. The Oatmeal is a funny website. The guy makes really funny, completely original content and that is one of the hardest things in this world to do. He is a master-class promoter, too, and when you combine those abilities you get crazy stuff like a Tesla Museum or a game about exploding cats.

What is this general malaise I feel, looking at the Kickstarter which is now topping $1,800,000?

One of Hung's issues was the huge number of people from outside the gaming community who were jumping on the wagon, merely because it was illustrated and promoted by The Oatmeal. This should be good, right? It's good to bring new people in. And it IS good to bring people in. We should all be happy.

There's an elephant in the room in the board gaming community. Every single gamer who has even casually strolled through the board game isle at Target or Walmart knows it to be true. In 90% of the board game market, the true board game market comprised of everyone who buys board games, game play has no value whatsoever. The actual rules of the game are entirely immaterial.

Milton Bradley and Parker Brothers figured it out a long, long time ago. The reasons people buy board games, unless you are the kind of board game aficionado most gamers assume all board game buyers are (when they obviously aren't) are completely separate to any judgement of quality whatsoever. They buy the game with the Disney characters on the front. Or even the John Kovalic illustrations.

And like so many other, more important things in society I have to sit back and reaffirm the simple truths:

This is the way of the world. I didn't choose for it to be this way. And so it goes.

But, say about 900,000 people start their gaming careers with Exploding Kittens. For 810,000 people, that is the only game they will ever play. Most of them will never even play it, but instead stick it in their closet where it will languish in shrink wrap hell for all eternity.

But 90,000 people will wonder if there is more out there. Imagine…90,000 people! Say a tenth of that start playing games I'm interested in. 9000.

The Kickstarter for Exploding Kittens is not for a game. It is a Kickstarter for a brand that everyone really enjoys, enjoys enough to plop down some serious coin.

But the unintended result, and this I am certain of, is that I will get at least 1 new Star Realms opponent somewhere down the road. That 1 single person is worth the anticipated $28 million dollars of other people's money. And its worth the inevitable newspaper articles around this Oatmeal guy.

I will bide my time, and shuffle my cards.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Catan Junior: A Twisted Parrot-Strewn Path

Sometimes I go on the Internet and argue about things. Sometimes on this blog, more often in some dark virtual alleyway elsewhere.

If the Internet is a series of tubes, than BoardGameGeek is in fact a series of winding dark alleyways, twisting and turning over each other. How many are there? One for every board game ever made.

If you don't care about a particular game, you don't have to partake in any discussion about it, because you don't have to go down that alleyway. You just pay attention to the games of interest with all your like-mined fanciers.

Well, if you go walking into the Catan Junior section of BoardGameGeek you are asking for it. Because I'm there, lurking. I've got a cardboard box all broken in and cozy. And if I hear you come down my alley, I'll come out of my box in a great stinking mess, raving incoherently.

No Bells or Whistles to Get Hung Up On

Catan Junior boils the main game down to the basest of elements. Roads are ships. Settlements are forts. There are no cities. There are no expansions. You only roll 1 die, and there is an equal chance of generating resources on every hex. Development cards are tiles, and those tiles are called Polly Tiles. As in the stereotypical parrot.

The resource card. Behold the Polly Tile, available for 1 sword, 1 molasses and 1 gold

The Main Argument

The complaining about Polly Tiles is a constant thing, really just about the only thing going on with Catan Junior at this point in the game's cycle. And I will defend, to my dying breath, that the Polly Tiles are not in the least bit overpowered or unbalanced. They are perfectly fair, and only 1 route of many to advance your position towards victory. I will argue this. On BoardGameGeek, in the dark alleyway of the Catan Junior forum.

But I can't lie like that here. Not to you.

And no, I'm not intentionally being a troll in the Catan Junior forum. It's not my fault! They make me do it! When I am there, I truly believe the Polly Tiles are fine. And I love playing with the Polly Tiles.

I have not, and will not play any kind of convoluted variant of the game designed to rebalance the Polly Tiles  Because that's what they are always trying to do in the Catan Junior forum. They see a broken pipe. They want to fix it.

What is Catan Junior?

Catan Junior is a kids game. There are kids games adults also play. Silly games. But Catan Junior is not a silly game, It is a simple game.

If you are playing your kid, and he/she figures out to start spamming Polly Tiles  that is not a problem you need to rebalance. You need to get down on your hands and knees and thank the higher powers your kid is figuring out how to be a gamer. He or she has discovered there are paths to victory, a method to the madness of a tabletop game.

The Polly Cards are not meant to be obscure. Think if you were crossing a river on your way to work, and something shiny caught your eye in the riverbed. Bending down you find a large gold nugget. Well, if you start panning for gold in that riverbed, are you cheating the system? No, you're just being observant. You found a better way.

This might be a problem in a game where everyone is supposed to be traveling to different places, and instead they start all panning for gold because that's the undeniable best strategy. But I firmly believe part of the game, part of Catan Junior, is having your little game player catch sight of that shiny nugget, all on their own.

2 player End Game

And They Can Still Lose

And they can still lose! One of the complained about bits with these Polly Tiles are the ones giving out a free fort. Imagine in Settlers if there was a development card that allowed you to build a settlement. That would be pretty sweet.

Well, the problem with my son is he still forgets to build out first before drawing these tiles. He forgets to get a ship into position so that he actually has a place to put his fort. So instead of getting a free fort, he gets the runner up prize, which is just a free ship. Something you could normally buy for a goat and one stack of logs. When you use the Polly Tiles to build a "free ship," you are actually being inefficient.

The Ecstasy of Gold

There is only one gold spot in Catan Junior (at least for 2 players), right in the center of the board. No one starts out being able to gather the gold resource. And neither ships nor forts require gold. So since the rules of the game state the player who has built all their forts wins, why would I ever want to collect gold, anyway? There's only a single thing in the game you can buy with gold, and that's Polly Tiles. OHHH...wait...

See gold is pretty valuable and once kids have the Polly Tiles kinda figured out, they are going to rocket towards the gold section. And on the way they will learn EXPANSION. Because expansion is key to making your victory machine in just about anything.

Childhood's End

I do not play to win on the Polly Tiles in Catan Junior. I leave that for my son (or eventually my daughter when she gets old enough). But I do play to win in every other way. And there have been times my son has had 7 tiles while I've still come out on top at the end just cruising along, just expounding my empire.

If you need a flawlessly balanced game to play with your kids, you probably shouldn't pick Catan Junior. Or if you do, look up one of the homemade variants on BGG that attempt to balance the issue. I'll be sure to hop on and tell you why you're wrong.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Agricola : Into the Belly of the Beast

For the new year, I should probably start with something special. But instead you get this.

My 2015 prediction: this will NOT be my last post about the demon-game Agricola.

The end state to one of my first games of Agricola. And I busted my brain doing it.

Regrets of the Past

Until I played my 6th or 7th game of Agricola, I hate, hate, hated it. 

There was a lot of looking back to examine the actions I did not take. If there is one thing I have historically been bad at, in games and in my own life, its been long term planning. Caught up in the quick thrill of resource gathering, I get lots of resources only to discover I can't really eat them.

At the start of Agricola, there is no resource (except food) you can actually do anything with. Baking bread evokes the famous Carl Sagan pie recipe…to make it, you first have to invent the universe.

Our universe in this case is a ploughed field, sown with grain. And its also constructing an oven to bake the bread. Which usually takes clay, stone or wood in various ratios. And then you have to put the grain in the oven and bake it. Quite a few actions, when there are only 2 workers and hunger stands waiting.

Animals are no better. You need a fireplace or something to cook them with. And if you are planning on keeping extra animals around for points, you need to build fences to keep them in.

So a beginner's game of Agricola feels a lot like running in place, or worse…working really hard to starve to death. I've heard the game referred to as "Misery Farm" and I don't know why this isn't printed right on the box. It's one of the most essential bits of info to convey to first-time players.

A latter attempt at doing well

Place Your Workers!

Agricola outlines the "standard" method by which workers are placed in a worker placement game. All other games I've looked at so far I have unthinkingly used Agricola as the base, while calling out any differences I then labeled as "innovations."

Everyone takes turns plopping down wooden family members onto spaces marked with things you want to do. Take 3 wood? Plop down a worker. Take 1 reed? Plop down a worker. Sow some grain? You guessed it, plop down a worker.

Anyone who has more experience than you is always going to be plopping down workers one turn before you realize you needed to put YOUR worker there.

After several games of pure worker placement hell, what I finally did was break out the scratch paper and make a to-do list to accomplish before each harvest period. This might be a faux-pas for a regular game played around the dining table, but at the time I was playing online and these guys are complete animals to play against.

recipe for making some serious bread

The List Didn't Work

And here is what happens when you force yourself to do the exact things you need to do to be successful. Your opponents take advantage of it.

While I was forcing myself to collect clay, my opponent was filling up on wood. Going into the next round of turns before harvest, he had 16 wood and easily built all the fences he needed. And there is even a house pig to help get the animal population started once those pastures go up.

And the real teeth-gnashing heart of my failure…I didn't even do the list right. See where I wrote "sow" 2 fields. Well, what this actually should have said was "plough" 2 fields. Sowing is an entirely different action, one I never made room for.

What ended up happening, I never picked up the Baker occupation and sowed my grain instead. Then I couldn't bake bread because I sowed both of my grains. So then I harvested my grain, fed my family extremely inefficiently on unprocessed wheat, and continued on to the next turn.

Whoops, completely forgot to get animals in this one.

The Game Behind the Game

Finally, when you start figuring out how to consistently feed your family, you still aren't winning. 

Behind the feeding portion of the game lurks the actual scoring you are probably sucking at while your family consumes all your available resources. A game within a game.

A Score Board of Cows, Fields and Family Members

My instinctive reaction to a new game is to find some small bit of insight and repeat it. If you can find a way to get some extra animals, it makes sense to corner the market on animals, right? 


Each "thing" on your score board only goes up to 4 or so. To get the maximum number of points, you ALWAYS need to have 5 Fields, 4 Pastures, 8 grain, 4 vegetables, 8 sheep, 7 hogs, 6 cattle and 5 family members. 

And there's not really enough time to do all of that stuff, so you are never going to have a perfect farm.

Likewise, the game will punish you severely if you gravitate to one thing, like cows or wheat. You have to maximize everything.

The best I've done so far

A Final Note About the Theme

Since my La Havre post, I've thought more about board game themes. So often in these Euro-style strategy games, the avatar for the player is usually either pretty abstracted or else someone with a level of power.

Go through your game collection and see just how many games you are sacrificing people to win wars, or manipulating pawns in industrial situations. Ticket to Ride might be a fun game about building train routes between cities, but the workers who build those routes mostly died of exposure, hunger or disease out on the frontier and received a shallow grave as their only reward.

But Agricola studies the thrill of entreprenuership. The land is yours, fairly (as fairly as anything else) won away from your neighbors by the size of your club. You and your wife are the only two workers in the game, so anytime you place a worker you have a 50% chance to place your personal avatar.

Of course your wife gets no say in where she gets placed. And as your family grows, they also get ordered around with the same ruthless efficency. No toys or fancy schooling. In Agricola, you move straight from the cradle into the field. Start clearing lumber, Little Jon!

Keeping on Keeping On

Agricola has the rare distinction of being a game I started hating, and eventually liked. Liked so much that after 20 games of being destroyed online I got a real copy. 

Trying to figure this out

I truly admire the easy way Agricola lays out an extremely complicated game. Almost all the information you need is right on the board, written in plain English. Sometimes you have to squint a little but its usually there, in very small print.

Maintenance at the beginning of each turn is as simple as flipping over a card, and then replenishing each pile of stuff. And you know what goes on each square because it tells you! A few simple words really go a long way and bring Agricola setup light years ahead of other games I thought I would like more. (Ultimately, I do like the SCORING on Dungeon Petz a little better, mind you)

So much like the workers within, Agricola finds a way to thrive despite the horrible first impressions. I will let you know how it goes.