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.