Monday, September 5, 2016

Vacation Consumption Phase: Video Games

Out There
At the recommendation of Knarf Black, I finally downloaded this grim game of space exploration and ran it through its paces. You start as an astronaut awakening from cryosleep, adrift many millions of miles (perhaps millions of years as well) and the location of Earth quite uncertain.

Luckily, you have enough hydrogen, oxygen and iron to continue moving, continue breathing, and maintain hull integrity in the face of uncertain random events. At least, enough to get you to the next system before reaching a terminal loss of one of these resources.

The star map is quasi-random generated, full of randomly built planetary systems you need to investigate and mine. Much like a typical roguelike, a large portion of your success depends on lucking your way into some decent starting resources. In the run in which I finally reached one of the game ending screens, I had managed to stumble across an awesome abandoned ship much better than the starting vessel. Huge cargo hold for carrying extra supplies, and the alien engines accepted hydrogen as fuel (the typical source) but also carbon, one of the more easily acquired elements in the game.

Probably the ultimate frustration in any roguelike scenario is one that happens a lot in Out There: not finding one particular resource because it doesn’t come up, and then starving through no fault of your own. Once you’re dead, you start at the beginning with all your progress erased, with the bare minimum supplies in the bare minimum ship.

That said, I had a lot of fun during those few runs where I was able to really get a good system set up. The universe of Out There is jam-packed with exciting technologies you can upgrade your ship with.

The various random encounters can be quite surprising. At one point I stumbled across an entire ship full of cryogenically suspended humans. I couldn’t thaw them out, and eventually I abandoned them back to space. But later I came across technology to create a “garden” world from a typical barren rocky one, and thought back about the rocky orb the cryo ship had been orbiting.

The Ending
When you reach the conclusion of Out There, the ending is basically some text and a couple of static pictures. Afterwards you are unceremoniously restarted, without any of your stuff, right back at the beginning of the game.

I started looking for upgrades and technologies again, but quickly ran out of fuel and died. I’ve tried a few times since then, but have not managed to reach any of the other endings. Since Out There is a cell phone game, I can see a future where I find myself trapped for an extended period in a government queue or doctor’s waiting room, at which point there could potentially be some more space adventuring in store.

My son’s 2 favorite games are Minecraft and Ark: Survival. A third popular option is Terraria. When he found out Starbound existed, it shot right to the top of his hot list for birthday presents. Strangely, once he secured the game it didn’t seem to get played with the unholy fervor of Ark: Survival, on which he has logged over a thousand hours.

Since I was on vacation, and it was technically my Steam account too, I decided to take the reins and see what this game was all about.

I dug in. LITERALLY. Ha ha ha HA ha ha ha. Sigh.

Okay, one thing I failed to realize about this game was this: of the playable races, one is a race of robotic knights trapped in a medieval aesthetic. If I had known this earlier, it would have been my game, not my son’s game. They even have glowy red eyes and weird emotionless dialog.

Exploring Caves and Visiting Planets
One of the strange things about my experience with Starbound is that my son had plenty of free rein beforehand to help craft my experience. Like most of today’s games, there’s an active modding community and my son and seen fit to download what was probably an insane about of additional content.

Since I never played the game beforehand, it can sometimes be tough to discern which was original and which is a mod.

Obviously the ancient forge that you can only use to craft lightsabers was an add-on. That one I saw through right away. But in the deep darkness of mining and cave exploration, I come across sections of weirdness.

Caverns made of copper piping and gears. Planetary substrate made of gooey pink flesh and acid pits. Patches of “alien soil” filled with glowing roots and eyeball clouds. When I asked him if any of these stuff was content from mods, he couldn’t remember himself. Obviously his video game experience is completely different from my own expectations.

So I go in digging through the goo. I mine gold and copper, tungsten and elusive “core fragments” hanging over steaming lava pits. I found you can even craft a breathing apparatus to explore airless moons and asteroid fields. The moons were particularly interesting: unexpected denizens were watching over the crystals you must eventually mine for spaceship fuel.

You can spend weeks exploring just one star system, and then you branch out and find untold other systems all with the same level of complexity, perhaps more.

There are rare periods my son’s not on the family computer. Or when my wife’s not on the family computer.

During those times, I am now on the family computer. And I’m playing Starbound.

Vacation Consumption Phase: Films

The Dark Knight
Up at the family cabin, there wasn’t a lot of DVD selection. The collection of hunters and fishermen who I call my relatives had amassed a bizarre menagerie including American Wedding, Wedding Crashers and Miracle. Why so many wedding-themed movies, guys? But they did have The Dark Knight.

Recently, the wife and I had gone to see Suicide Squad. The best part of that movie was Deadshot. By a mile. With a distant second being the pizza I ate while I watched the movie.

I can’t get over how much better the Joker of The Dark Knight is compared to the urban gangster/Hannibal Lecter mishmash presented in Suicide Squad.

Since last seeing it, I had forgotten some of the details of the bank heist at the beginning.

The Joker puts a grenade in the mouth of one the bank employees, and I assume its going to explode, and was pleasantly surprised that it turned out to be a simple smoke grenade. Because that’s something the Joker would actually do, occasionally let someone live in an unexpected way to keep you guessing.

And who could forget the nurse scene. Another of my favorite parts.

Overall though, I am sick of the relentless gritty, dirty, atmosphere Christopher Nolan’s Batman series helped contribute to the ongoing DC movie debacle. And speaking of which:

Batman Vs. Superman
Was this ever a hard slog.

After getting home, we picked this one up at Redbox. Everybody and everything sucked in this movie. I don’t know what I expected, since going in I had a few qualms with the entire scenario.

I have yet to see or read any Superman story that really manages to make Superman work well in a world full of other superheroes. The guy is pretty overpowered. I have a hard time believing either Wonder Woman or Batman were really helping much in the fight with Doomsday.

Yet, fighting Doomsday was probably the best part of the film.

Why were there so many crazy Batman dream sequences? Why did the movie spend so much time setting up various other Justice League characters? I’m really hoping this will payoff as less setup in the actual Justice League movie, and more actual story. But I’m not getting my hopes up.

Let’s forget about the superhero movies for a second and wormhole tunnel our way into a theme that honestly never fails to entertain: Crazy, sleep-deprived, methed-up scientists creating portals to alternate dimensions.

If you want a low budget sci-fi production, that is all you need to do. And Synchronicity delivers.

The reviews surprisingly for this movie are pretty horrible.

But you are getting plenty of wonderful: flashing lights, dimly-lit tube-filled labs, actors playing duplicates of themselves, and plenty of twists and turns you think you have figured out, but then even more bodies start showing up and your brain breaks down trying to figure out where they came from.

I watched this on Netlfix as a random laundry day movie while I folded clothes. Would do again in a second.

The Addams Family
This movie, by all rights, should have been horrible.

But it’s a classic and when it came up as a recommended watch film on Netflix I accepted the challenge. Here is a movie that managed to feel incredibly authentic to the intellectual property it was using. Every five seconds another funny thing happens.

The only thing I was left wanting was the original Addams Family television series from the 60’s. Netlix used to have this long ago, but evidently the world did not want to watch enough to keep paying for the rights. Shame on you world!

I remember a time when a crazy old man with a shaved head and a fur coat could jump out of the hallway screaming “Shoot ‘em in the back! Shoot ‘em in the back!” while madly clutching his antique blunderbuss. And we would call that comedy.

Now look at what we get. Urban gangster Joker. And they call it edgy! There are people on Reddit who still want more of that guy.

Vacation Consumption Phase

I'm slowly coming back from a week-long family vacation Up North.

Since I live in Minnesota, "Up North" in this case means further north in Minnesota. Driving the long distances between various state parks, lakes and roadside attractions. Riding for hours drinking coffee, listening to the top hits on the radio. It was a lot of fun.

While the vacation itself is probably not suitable for this blog, I did consume quite a lot of various media. So I'm quickly dumping my hot takes this week while I try to get back on track.

I will leave you with a couple of must-dos if you are ever in upper Minnesota.

1) The Iron Range is awesome. Iron World, the Sudan Mine. Faded industrial glory, deep haunted dark spaces, vast epic monuments crafted from stone and metal. Love it.

2) My kids walked across the Mississippi River at the headwaters located at Itasca State Park. Its a beautiful location full of rocky, pristine water and sandy wading pools.

3) Split Rock Lighthouse, Gooseberry Falls, and Duluth itself are locations you never get tired of seeing. The weird rocky shores of Lake Superior remind me of an alien planet which pretty much seals the deal.

Anyway, reports from my vacation media consumption phase begin now!

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Conspiracy Theories, Board Gaming and Trolling before the Internet

The Dice Tower, a pretty reliable source of information most of the time, tweeted this rebuttal from "Gary F. White" regarding a scathing review from a young Alan R. Moon. The board game being reviewed was Mr. Trucker, and the reply from Mr. White is hilarious in its magnitude.

Link to the tweet

Here's the letter in it's entirety:

It's easy to forget that before the Internet, most of the information in this letter would be impossible to check. You wouldn't be able to easily find Garry F. White unless he also included his phone number in the letter. You wouldn't easily be able to look up statistics in Toy & Games magazine.

There are a few obvious "calling cards" that this entire letter is a Discordian fabrication.

1) The word "fnord" substituted for "ford." Fnord is a word invented in the Principia Discordia for exactly the purpose it is being used here: to be mingled into the word gibberish of a crank letter sent to an unassuming publication.

2) The word "megabuck" is used to describe the list of branded corporate logos printed on the cover of Mr. Trucker.

As everyone knows, megabucks are the official currency used in Steve Jackson's classic card game Illuminati.

It's easy to forget that before Munchkin, Illuminati was SJG's best-seller by far. First published in 1982 in black and white, then finally getting a deluxe color edition in 1999 (this is the version I have). Take a look at the Steve Jackson Games website and its still mostly conspiracy stuff, because darn it...the Illuminati are fun!

There's probably even more I'm not seeing. Certainly, all of the statistics sound completely made up. There's no way Mr. Trucker has possibly beaten Trivial Pursuit in any category. It's impossible Gary would have received 10,000 letters when its very likely less than 10,000 copies of Mr. Trucker were ever made.

The Conspiracy Goes Deeper

In fact, I have a hard time believing editors for a gaming publication would fall for this, and find it highly more likely they were in on the joke.

1) I find it suspicious that Mr. Trucker has zero reference to this article on BGG. Until today, that is. This tweet from The Dice Tower appears to be the first evidence of an Alan Moon "Mr. Trucker" review ever to make an appearance online.

2) I have no evidence Games International was even a real magazine. There's no evidence of it easily google-able. I suspect we are all being played, here. Supposedly Games International was in London, and this is a regional game published in Canada about trucking.

Either way, this makes me want to bust out some Illuminati. And I an incredibly grateful for the Dice Tower supplying me with this bizarre gift to roll around in my head over the lunch period.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

New Edition of King of Tokyo, and Why My Version is OK

It wasn't too long ago I was playing King of Tokyo again while also contemplating the slow-trickle of information regarding a 2nd Edition.

New Art for a New Edition
As far as I can tell, the art is going to be the only difference. But it will be a complete art revamp, with different monster art, different card art, different board art, different card back art. The most interesting part of this new art was that it was financed by the French government. This makes me think the NEA needs to get turned on to the board game industry ASAP.

Just this single compare & contrast between new and old Alienoid shows home much better the new art is. But I have a hard time upgrading a perfectly functioning game when all that's changed is the art.

The Variable Powers of King of Tokyo
What appears to be the same, at least per any review I've read, are the powers you can upgrade your monster with using the ubiquitous green cubes.

I love the powers, even as I understand they are not balanced in the slightest. In fact, appraising the strength of these in different situations is a vital part of the game.

I do find it strange, however, that absolutely no tinkering took place with these cards since everything else about the game is being redone anyway (including a revised rulebook).

Forget about Releasing the Kraken
The traditional Kraken slot in the new King of Tokyo is being replaced by non other than Space Penguin. Apparently Kraken's going missing for the foreseeable future is to make room for a special edition Cthulhu avatar. Yet another very compelling reason to keep my current version.

Playing the Player Elimination Game
It goes without saying King of Tokyo is the sort of goofy game you can play quickly with a lot of people invested with varying amounts of motivation. When you get taken out, its not that big of deal. You can get up, go to the bathroom, dose yourself with some expired medication from the cabinet, wander around the living room with your thoughts. When you return to the table, the game will probably be over.

This beats any poorly-designed game meant to stay inclusive until the bitter end. The worst ending to a game is not, in fact, player elimination but the LACK of player elimination. Wben you are so far down in the hole, and everyone else knows it as well, and you just have to sit there and make your minimal move every turn.

Chasing Victory
So unless the 2nd Edition makes any improvements to the play of the game (and it doesn't sound like this is the case), I'm pretty happy with my current predicament. Pass me the big chunky dice, and I can try to make it to a points victory again, before being taking out in a flurry of claws on the top of a burned out Tokyo.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Anatomy of a Tableau

Look at the fancy Frenchman and his "tableau." Why doesn't he call it what everyone else calls it, an "in-play zone."
-- random invisible heckler

The construction of a typical Race for the Galaxy tableau feels very organic. The mind doesn't know exactly what it wants, but it has a half-formed idea and tailors the hand to fit this idea.
End of game score: 43 points

In the above tableau, the opening rounds were spent establishing a jack-of-all-trades mish-mash that could react to whatever cards I drew or actions the opponent played.

The first round I played Destroyed World and immediately traded the good to establish a decent hand size. The next round I dropped the space marines and drew some explore cards.

I then had both Terraforming Robots and New Survivalists in my hand, so I built the Terraforming Robots and was rewarded by my opponent also calling the settle action where I was able to play the New Survivalists for free and draw an additional card in the process.

When choosing to build the Terraforming Robots, I also had Consumer Markets in my hand. But I couldn't afford to build it and didn't want to wait around a turn exploring to get enough cards to make it work. That would have set me back quite a bit.

Luckily, the next turn I settled the Runaway Robots and traded the good immediately for a fresh stack of cards. And what should pop up but Free Trade Association. The next round I built Free Trade Association, then produced.

For the rest of the game, I consumed with the 2X bonus and produced until the victory point pile was exhausted. The last turn I settled Galactic Trendsetters.

If I hadn't drawn Free Trade Association, who knows how the game would have gone. I could have very well run into a bunch of gene/rebel/military worlds and gone that direction. If I had drawn one more consume development or settlement, I would have started a consume/produce cycle anyway.

All in all, a pretty good game.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

How To Race for the Galaxy

I'm going to hopefully be playing some online games of Race for the Galaxy this evening, and I thought I would go over the basic rules of the game.

If you've every tried to learn Race for the Galaxy from the rule book, it can be a harrowing experience. Surprisingly, the game itself will seem simple once the initial confusion is over. But that initial confusion can be a big hurdle to make your way over.

A Little Background
At the very heart of Race for the Galaxy was an attempt to create a card game version of the popular board game Puerto Rico. If you ever want to play the actual card game version of Puerto Rico it's called San Juan. Available in paper form at the store, and also as both an iOS and Android smartphone/tablet game. Race for the Galaxy is slightly more complex than San Juan, with a greater variety of play options.

Obviously the better game. But San Juan is pretty good, too.

Winning the Game
Race for the Galaxy is over as soon as on of the players in the game either a) builds the 12th card in their tableau or b) exhausts the victory point chit pile (which is typically 12 VP per player in the game). So building things and earning extra victory points (by the consume action) are the two things you want to be doing as much as possible.

The Actions
There are 5 possible actions in Race for the Galaxy, and at the beginning of the round you will pick a single action from these 5 choices. There are actually more choices than 5, but we will go into the options of each action further down the post. Each action is pretty simple, but complicated by possible bonuses.

While you just pick a single action, you will usually have the opportunity during the round to do multiple actions, because all the actions each player picks are available for every player to take.

1. Explore
This action is a simple way for you to draw cards if you don't have anything better to do, or you want to dig around for a specific card combination from the deck. The basic explore action is this: draw 2 cards, pick one of them, then discard the other card.

Typical developments
2. Develop
This action allows you to build a development card from your hand and place it in your tableau. The cost for building a development card is the number in the large tan diamond in the top left corner of the card. You pay this cost by discarding that many other cards from your hand.

Developments are technological advances for your galactic space empire. They typically allow you to do things better, give discounts to other costs, better consumer options etc.
Settlements. The Artist Colony produces blue novelties
3. Settle
This action allows you to build a settlement (sometimes people call these planets) to your tableau. Settlements are mostly paid for exactly like developments except the cost in in the large circle in the upper left corner of the card.
An additional type of settlement is a military settlement. You will know a military settlement by the red ring around the planet. You can discard cards to play for a military settlement, instead you can play a military settlement for free if you have military strength equal to or greater than the cost of the settlement. Military strength is gained from various settlements and developments. You typically start with 0 military strength.
Adding military settlements to your empire is either extremely easy or completely impossible depending on your military strength.

4. Consume
This action turns goods into either the currency of the game (cards) or victory points. Some settlements and developments have consume powers and it will tell you right on the card how many goods you can consume and what you get back in return. The consume action is one of the ways you win the game.
In a consume action, you need to consume as many goods as you possibly can. Because all players have all actions available, this is one way to screw over other players by forcing them to consume goods before they have their cards set up optimally.
You may be wondering where goods come from, since I haven't said anything about them yet. Well just wait one more paragraph.
2 windfall Production settlements

5. Produce
This action creates goods in your settlements. Some settlements start with a good (windfall worlds, which are empty circles with a glowing halo on the outside). But most need a produce action to get goods. Settlements produce a specific color of good denoted on the card. Blue goods are the least valuable, while yellow alien goods are the most valuable.

All settlements that can produce a good do so during this action. A settlement can only hold one good, if the produce action happens again, any settlement with an existing good is passed over.

The Bonuses
When you pick an action for a round, you get a special bonus. While all other players get to take the basic action, only you get the bonus. Here's where things get a little complicated.

The 2 Explore action choices
Explore Bonus
When you pick explore, you have the choice of 2 bonuses.
1) draw an extra card and keep an extra card. (Draw +3, Keep +2 total)
2) draw FIVE extra cards, and don't keep any extra cards (Draw +7, Keep +1 total)

The first bonus is chosen most often, but the 2nd bonus is often chosen when there is a specific type of card you really need to make your economic space engine of doom.

Development Bonus
The development bonus is a discount of 1 less card to pay for building your development. Easy!

Settle Bonus
The settle bonus is to draw a card after you build your settlement for the round. Again, easy!

The 2 Consume choices
Consume Bonus
When you pick consume you have the choice of 2 bonuses.
1) "Sell" one of your goods for a specific number of cards. Blue goods are worth 2 cards, brown is worth 3, green is worth 4, yellow is worth 5. After you sell you then do the rest of the consume action normally.

2) 2X Victory Points. When you take this bonus, all victory points generated during the consume action are doubled. This is can be a bonkers number of points. If someone is taking this action and they have 3 or 4 planets with goods, they are currently in the process of winning the game. All will be over soon.

Produce Bonus
The produce bonus is to produce a good on one of your windfall worlds. Typically these settlements start with a goods card, but don't generate any extra during the game. With the bonus, you get to make a good on one of these special settlements.

Counting up Victory Points
When the end game conditions are met, the game is over at the end of the round. There are 3 sources of victory points. Settlements and developments are each worth a certain amount of VP, as printed on the card in the white hexagon. And then victory point chits are added to the total on top of that.

The final objective is simple enough, but there's a bunch of ways to get there. If you have a hankering to play Race for the Galaxy, check out the online version here.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Walnut Grove: Extremely High-Level Strategy (Not Really)

My 3rd Walnut Grove solo battle went about as well as the first one, with me earning enough points to just barely squeak ahead for a beginner solo victory. I was sabotaged by my daughter, who arrived about halfway in and started up a vigorous battle between my farmer and his farm hands. Seems they all wanted to live in the house together, and of course room was lacking.

The big improvement I cashed in on was the Ladder, which saved me from defeat. I also bought a barn and loaded both buildings with coins, ending up with 9 points that way.

I normally feel pretty competent in this game, but I'm usually teaching it to new people. Thanks to its relative obscurity, I have yet to run up against any seasoned Walnut Grove players.

In the face of practiced opponents, or perhaps the release of an on-line version, I would certainly fail, fail, fail. I am reminded most of my attempts to master Agricola. With the right brain on your shoulders, you should be able to plan your play out pretty far ahead, compensating for unexpected developments in the tiles you grab.

I'm actually looking forward to more solo games, and of course multiplayer games if anyone asks.

It's true you want to make as many resources as you can using the fewest workers. But past a certain point, resources lose their usefulness. Because the General Store only accepts 1 of each type of resource, ideally you want lots of different types of resources available. So after you build a 3 or 4 tile field, you should probably start on another one.

Being able to store lots of resources is also very important: a 3-tile field that can only store 3 of its resource is going to be dragging you down the entire game.

Placing Tiles
Finding a way to get more use out of every tile is a very important part of Walnut Grove. If you can find a way to make 2 tiles meet together to create an even bigger field, its about the best feeling in the game.

Fall Actions
As I've previously stated, Fall is the only time you can do most of the building actions. The one thing you should try to avoid at all costs is picking up MORE resources (from Post Office, Church) during the Fall. You have exactly 8 Fall Actions, never more, never less. And ideally every single one of these actions is going to be directly earning you victory points.

If you can nail down a really important improvement tile by waiting a turn to get more stone, go for it. But realize you are effectively making that improvement worth 2 turns of actions. Is it still worth it?

Buying Workers
Unlike Agricola, the extra workers in Walnut Grove carry a very steep price. With 3 different flavors of food to collect, and assured double-dipping at regular intervals, you need to be sure you can support a new worker and make some solid profit on the side.  But each worker also has the benefit of being worth an extra 2 points at the end of the game, the same as a gold coin.

At the end of each game, I had always wished I had worked on getting more workers.

Also, the milk workers seem particularly costly, as they eat the exact same amount of milk as other workers eat fish or grain, and milk is easily more valuable.

The Biggest Takeaway
Study the improvement tiles before you start moving in different directions. It is highly likely you will have to acquire one of these tiles, and they can steer your growth in dramatically different directions.

Also, have a plan and stick to it. Which I personally have a difficult time with.

Final Thoughts
I'm glad to be bringing Walnut Grove Week to a close. I feel like the content I've provided is a little uneven, but hopefully will offer insight into my own unique psyche. I can't provide the same level of evaluation as some other sites, but I can honestly say at least my madness is my own.

If you have a weird, under-appreciated game in your own collection, consider giving it some time in the spotlight to get reacquainted. Today I see Walnut Grove in a whole new light.

If I still have time I plan to do a short write up on Race for the Galaxy play and strategy. Might be tomorrow, might be the next day. See you then!

-- Zeke

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Walnut Grove: Battle Reporting

I have no idea what turn or which game this is

First Battle: Too Many Resources

The starting turn there was an obvious choice: I added to my wood production. In Walnut Grove, you never want to get caught in the cold. Perhaps I felt the same terror a frontiersman might have faced seeing winter on the horizon and not having a few cords of split wood in reserve.
When time came to visit the clockwork village itself, I decided to invest in extra resources to cover future contingencies. Knowing milk as the lifeblood of this game, I stopped at the Post Office to get two cubes of the vital liquid. Winter passed uneventfully.
When spring came around again, I expanded into wheat. My single farm hard was a yellow worker, and he would eventually hit me hard for 2X wheat. It was only a matter of time.
I then used my 2 0-value copper coins to buy a house for my farm hand. Over the rest of the game, this would save me 7 cubes of wood, so it seemed like a good investment. Winter again passed without too much agony, even with an especially cold winter I only had to spend a single wheat and 2 wood.
Turn 3, I decided money needed to be made to replenish my coin supply. After adding to my waterfront, I generated some fish and some wheat. In town I only managed to sell 1 milk, but since there was a bonus on milk I earned 2 coins: both a copper and a gold! Winter again was pretty low-stress thanks to my farm hand and his snuggly warm house.
Turn 4, I hit the bonanza. Circle of Farm Management: the "play 2 tiles" card. I liked having lots of wood, so I used both tiles to expand wood production. During spring I generated 3 milk and 4 wood. In town I used my 2 fish to buy another yellow worker. Winter has the easiest of the game, with no wood being spent and only 1 wheat.
Turn 5, I thought I better start making some stone. I expanded stone production and made 3 stone, 2 wheat and 4 wood. My conservative movements in town had so far avoided the taxman, but I was finally foced to pass over that bitter rubicon and pay my 1 coin. I then sold 1 milk, 1 wood and 1 fish for a stack of coins.
Turn 6, I finally managed to make enough stone to build a Gateway, and decided to work on building out my wood production for extra Gateway points. The worst winter yet, having to pay 3 wood even with the hut. Also 2 fish and 2 wheat. These workers are hungry!
Turn 7, expanded stone (hey, wasn't I supposed to work on wood?). I was really flying around the board and ended up having to pay taxes again. Built safe improvement. Had another cruel winter where I spent 2 wheat, 2 fish and 3 wood keeping everybody happy.
Turn 8, added to my wood field, ensuring I would get a nice 5 point bonus from my Gateway. Sold 3 resources (with bonus) to net 4 coins (I had to return a couple 0-value coppers to the bag). Mediocre winter to send me off.

Final Points 26! The big difference made here was the Safe (I ended up getting 11 points with all my coins added together along with the Safe). Next in line was the Gateway, with 5 extra points thanks to my big wood field.

According to the Walnut Grove rules, I just barely won if playing a "beginner game". Looking back on my performance, I generated a LOT of resources, with the result being an enormous surplus still sitting in my fields. At the end of the game, resource cubes are worth absolutely nothing. This indicates a low efficiency, and I definitely want to improve that for the next game.

Something was happening here...
Game 2: I go deep off my A-game
Round 1: I used the same player board as the first time, so having some extra wheat was a must. Especially because my Wheel of Farm Management was reporting my yellow farmhand was planning an 2X devour action at the end of the round. To compensate for not generating very much wood, I decided to build a house again right away. Worked good last time!
Round 2, I expanded milk (didn't want to rely on any magic post office hand-outs!)and because it was the awesome 2 tile turn, I also expanded wood. I sold 2 resources for 2 coins.
Round 3, I expanded fish. I bought an extra yellow worker (for 2 fish).
Round 4, I expanded wood again. I built a barn to hold extra coins I hopefully would earn later in the game. I was forced to take a neighborly help token to pay my taxes.

Note: The fact that I had to borrow a coin from the bank to pay my taxes on the same turn I build a barn to hold more coins has me pretty flummoxed, good reader at home.

The only thing I remember about this game was a sense of frustration I had somehow closed off my main wheat field without noticing, forcing me to start on a fresh new wheat field and use two workers for wheat production on some turns. The only outside influence I can blame on my performance is the hour, it was getting pretty late and maybe my brain went into power-saving mode.

Let this be a lesson to you! Don't stay up all night playing Walnut Grove!

Now, back to the action.

Round 5, I increased wood production. While in town I managed to sell 3 resources for a 3 coin payout. I didn't write down what coins I got, I hope they were good! I did use one of those coins to help heat my housing structure.

Round 6, built a barn.

Round 7, sold 2 resources and managed to get a gold coin. Huzzah!

Round 8, paid taxes. Sold 2 resources and got 2 silver coins.

Final Points: 17. A terrible defeat, but I am consoled by 2 factors. First, it was a solo game. Second, my Walnut Grove alien family continues to live on, even if they aren't experiencing success by solo game metrics.
They are happy and humble!

Typing up this Battle Report has reinvigorated me to do yet another solo game. I deserve it. My blog deserves it. The aliens of Walnut Grove deserve it.

But I'll save that for tomorrow. Along with the Walnut Grove strategy insights I've been developing.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Walnut Grove: The Fall Guys

Look at this haunted, empty city.

Upon a barren tor sits Walnut Grove. Workers stand frozen in their hibernation chambers. Decrepit machinery stands waiting to whirl into life once the proper amount of energizing milk has been poured into the system.

There are many forgotten artifacts strewn about this artificial realm. It may take some time to explore them all.

Where DO player's start?

I pride myself on having a better-than-average understanding of the English language. But even the most advanced Englishologist occasionally gets hung up in the odd mental corridors of the typical board game rulebook.

On the placement of the player pawns:
"In clockwise direction, each player chooses either the Church or the Town Hall and then places his player figure onto an empty starting space in front the chosen building. Spaces must be filled in order, starting with the space closest to the street running around town."
On taking turn order for the Fall season:
"The player whose figure is the furthest away from the town hall (in clockwise direction) goes first, followed by the other players according to the positions of their figures. In the first year, the player whose figure is on the first starting space in front of the church goes first."
Now, I'm not some sort of uneducated rube. I know which direction is "clockwise". I'm falling under the assumption (a mostly safe one) that they are using terrestrial clocks and not some sort of alien clock that runs backwards.

But direction is an odd thing when you're talking about a circular path. A pawn might travel away from a position, but because its a circle, it is simultaneously moving farther away and closer to the position it starts in. It took me 15 minutes of metaphysical exploration before I was 99% sure which pawn goes first.

In addition, the starting spaces for this game are lined up in a row in front of each of the 2 buildings. Technically there are multiple players who are going to be in front of the Church. A starting space could probably be either the space closest to the Church, or the space farthest away depending on where you start counting from.

There's even an arrow, which should have helped me.
I feel like there had to have been a way for all players to just start on the same space, in the same location, and just have the turn order be static the first time around. Maybe in order the players are positioned around the table.

But a rules reader should also probably be able to get past such rudimentary hurdles as figuring out which pawn is closer to a location moving clockwise on a circle. I feel like this is the first time in 30 years of gaming I've been stuck on something like that.

Finally, to top off all these turn order shenanigans, it's also easy to forget what color you are. Much like in my review of Rattlebones, I've noticed people have a tendency to accidentally grab the wrong piece. A reference point on your own player board would have helped this a lot.

The Dream Factories
There is a post office and a church, both of which vend you whatever resources you are most in need of at the moment. Imagine a post office that gives you a package filled with exactly what you want, and all you have to do is think of it. Is it the Twilight Zone? No, this is Walnut Grove.

Buying Extra Farm Hands
3 locations on the board, the Lodge, Hotel and Saloon, vend extra workers for you to use in generating more resources. Costs for unlocking a worker might be 2 fish, 1 milk, or 2 wheat.

The extra workers in Walnut Grove are very unusual for a typical "worker placement" game because there's only one section of the game they can be used: resource generation. Otherwise, all the other actions during the game are on this city board using your one "big hat" differently colored pawn.

And your farmhands eat a tremendous portion of the resources they generate, especially in the early turns.

Be careful buying extra workers!

Building Tiles and Improvement tiles
The 2 main upgrades you can add to your player board are building tiles and improvement tiles. There are 2 building tile types: huts and barns. The huts keep your farmhands warm and reduce wood payments during winter. The barns give you more room to store extra resources and coins.

Improvements are VP modifiers for the end game. They all have a serious case of BANG!-itis where each tile is just a picture and you have to look the picture up in the rule book to understand how many extra points you get.

General Stores
You can sell your extra resources for coins. Having a vareity of resources is helpful, since a general store can only accept 1 of each type. If you can swing 3 different resouces to one of these places it could potentially be a pretty big payout. Some of the coins are worth 2 points, others 1 point, and others 0 points. So you could earn between 0 and 6 victory points.

And you can always use the 0 coins to pay taxes.

Coins and Taxes
Coins have a variable value for victory points, but each is still worth 1 coin for the 2 purposes coins are used for in the game. First you need to pay taxes every time you cross over the 2 tax spots on the game board. Second coins can be "wild cards" to replace any other resource in any situation.

So it usually makes sense to sell as many of your goods as you can at one of the general stores, even if you need those resources later in the round.

The Ever-Presence of Milk
After a couple of plays of Walnut Grove, you realize milk has a special place in this game. Of the 9 spaces you can pay resources into, 6 of them use milk. In most cases, milk seems to have a value twice that of fish or wheat. Yet the milk-colored farm hand still demands the same amount of milk, and devours a double share if the milk worker comes up on the Wheel of Farm Management.

Always keep an eye on your milk production!

Stone is a tough resource to gather. No one eats it, but you need stone to build the improvements that actually give you a shot at winning the game. Luckily you can also use coins for this role, and keep generating other consumable resources in the meantime.

What Else Can I Say?
There's one more post coming to close out Walnut Grove Week (which ends on Monday/Tuesday of next week). At the urging of this guy, I've started playing some solo games of Walnut Grove to re-familiarize myself with the game.

So what could be better than a Walnut Grove Battle Report!

Plus I plan to include some next-level strategy to consider for your future games of Walnut Grove.

See you then!

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Walnut Grove: The Wheel of Farmland Management

There's a lot of really good parts in Walnut Grove. In fact, the game has at least 1 weird similarity to Race for the Galaxy, in that most of the actions happen simultaneously across all players. The result is a surprisingly fast-moving game. 

During each of the 8 rounds you expand your territory, produce resources, sell them at market and even buy upgrades for your empire. And the whole thing takes about 45 minutes, unless there's extra rules-explaining or a deep-thinker holding up the show.

The wheel of modifiers
Each round is described by one of these circular tiles you flip over at the beginning of the turn. They are nice, simple, graphic representations of the various modifiers to be aware of during the round.

1) You start the round off with Spring, which in true xenomorphic fashion is denoted by the color pink. In this case, you draw 3 tiles from a bag a la Carcasonne, and place one of them.

3 tiles to choose from

This how a player board would probably look on the second turn. You don't have to match up the terrain on each tile, but it helps to do since this matters for production.

Placing workers and producing resource cubes

2) You follow Spring with Summer, when all the resource cubes are generated. I put my yellow farmhand down on the wheat field (since I'm going to want a little wheat for him to eat) and my farmer on the wood so I have lumber to light my fires during winter. Because there is a wood bonus this round (per the wheel) I get an extra cube of wood. Normally I would get 2 because my wood field stretches over 2 tiles. I have to put my 3rd wood cube into my barn storage, because the field can only hold 2 cubes.

3) During Fall you go to town. Fall is where you will spent the most time during your game, since all kinds of decisions have to be made. It's  like an entirely different game, and I'm going to do an entire post on the Fall actions of Walnut Grove.

Feeding Time! Time to Eat the Wheat
4) Finally, winter comes. This is where most of the resources you generated (only moments ago!) get consumed. I pay my wheat to my wheat-eating yellow worker. I heat my property using 2 wood, which I calculate by adding the fire icons (1 on the wheel and 1 next to yellow farmhard's covered wagon).

If I had a white farmhand, he would have devoured TWICE as much milk as normal. A pretty scary thought, but luckily you can see this extra payment before you plan the production part of your turn. Hopefully there would have been a way to squeeze out some extra milk somewhere.

The 3 seasons I just described all happen simultaneously. And the decisions are usually pretty simple and straightforward. Anyone you teach this game to will understand most of it very quickly.

But you'll notice our player board has lots of empty spaces. That's because you can build houses for your workers, add more barn space, and buy victory point increasing upgrades.  You can  sell some of your resources for money. And you can also buy more workers to occupy more of those covered wagons. All of that happens during the fall going-to-town season. Actions are no longer simultaneous. And things get crazy. 

Stay turned.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Walnut Grove: Not of This World

Walnut Grove is a cross between jigsaw puzzles and worker placement, with the players as farmers who find their plots merging into a single landscape as time passes and their holdings grow.
-- from BGG

Once you start laying out tiles, you notice something funny about Walnut Grove. I've lived on Earth most of my life, and lived in Minnesota almost as long. This farm you're creating looks nothing like a typically terrestrial rural area.

There are: water areas, woods areas, yellow wheat fields, green fields with some sort of milk-able animals grazing on it. And mountainous quarries.

IAnd what about these farmhands?

There's all sorts of laborers for hire in Walnut Grove, of all different colors. At first I thought the different colors denoted a specialty. Like the yellow laborers produced more wheat in wheat fields or something.

But the color denotes what they eat.

At first, I made a slight alteration in my own mind: you were paying these laborers in a specific type of resource. I could envision a seasonal worker at the time signing a deal to be paid at the end of the season in a specific good they were interested in.

But the rulebook is specific: laborers are eating these resources, and sometimes they demand twice and much as originally promised. What laborer only drinks milk, or only eats fish?

An Alien One.

The Theme of Walnut Grove falls apart pretty fast unless you take the drastic leap of assuming you are in some Alien Science Experiment.

Prison? Zoo? Laboratory? Created long ago by inscrutable gods, the strange planet sits in its own pocket dimension…inescapable, unobservable, solitary to its bizarre inhabitants.

Each "field" is its own biome. Separated by an invisible barrier, each field contains a complete ecosystem along with all the requirements for a particular intelligent species to thrive.

You can send laborers to produce resources in any area, all of them can breathe the air, and harvest the 3-eyed whale fish or milk pods or whatever. However the color of the laborer pawn refers to the alien's home biome, and when it comes time to feed he (or she, or it) MUST devour a resource cube from that color. All other colors an anathema.

This means yellow laborers only eat from the wheat fields. Blue laborers only eat from the blue fish fields. White laborers only eat from the green milk fields. It is a simple system, once you understand.

If This is a Town, Where's Are All the People?

The town of Walnut Grove (if you want to call it that) is eerily deserted. The buildings look like facades in a barren artificial world. Yet each building provides valuable opportunities for advancement!

At one store, you might purchase a new laborer in exchange for a cube of milk.

At another, you might build a new barn on your property in exchange for a cube of milk and a cube of wood.

In fact, milk is the primary lubrication for a variety of commercial endeavors, replaced by stone when you move up to the victory point doubling bonus tiles. Who do you pay the milk to? I imagine some advanced android, constructed from the same artificial cells found in the surrounding plants.

A God of Your Own Realm

Finally, tile-laying in the game gives an interesting feeling. Since you are allowed to pick from a couple different tiles, and then choose the exact spot you want the new tile to go, it feels much more like you are creating your world rather than exploring it.

This is a very powerful feeling, to terraform blank useless space into mountains, or lakes or grand green fields full of chittering multi-segmented milk-producing organisms.

But it does't feel like Earth.

Perhaps it's a test of sorts

But Who Wants to Live on Earth Anyway?

From the perspective of a strange organism constantly fighting against the constraints of the machine around me there is something refreshing in Walnut Grove.

Making the long journey to an alien world, where I can forge my own empire out of the empty wasteland, staffed by milk-sluicing reptoids appeals greatly to me. So by no means does any of the previous commentary intend to steer you away from this board game.

And the mechanisms are awesome (although some could do better). But more on that to come.

Welcome to Walnut Grove Week

Going through the drafts section of this blog reveals one big standout: Walnut Grove. For whatever reason, I've been trying to write about this weird little game for more than a year and been unsuccessful at it.

It's been hardly touched by most reviewers since its original release back in 2011. One reviewer who didn't leave it lay: master video promoter Richard Ham from youtube channel Radho Runs Through It

Which is how I learned about the game. You can watch his take on Walnut Grove right here.

You may recognize Walnut Grove as the main setting for the Little House on the Prairie television series. Strangely enough, Laura Ingalls Wilder doesn't mention this town in any of her books, but it is home to the Wilder museum and I believe the Ingalls family spent some time there during Pa Ingalls continual adventuring.

If you are a huge Little House fan, it will have little bearing on liking this board game implementation. But more on that in the coming posts. Walnut Grove Week will continue until Tuesday the 16th, when I may or may not make another detailed post about Race for the Galaxy.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

RFTG: Jump Drive due for Q4. A Few End Notes.

Ok, last post on Jump Drive until new information comes out. Let's break this into like 3 mini-posts.

Graphical Clarity
Twitter user (and iSlaytheDragon writer/photographer) Uplift Andrew noted the graphical clarity of the new cards versus the older Race for the Galaxy cards. While the RFTG art appears to be getting recycled to a certain extent, it's presented in a far better way: text and iconography in a completely separate box, without covering portions of the art like in RFTG. For the most part.

The Moons of Color-blindness
In the above Space Symbionts card, a small moon is orbiting the planet in the bottom left corner. In the above Blaster Factory, the moon is orbiting in the top right corner. Per Lehmann, this was done to help color-blind players quickly identify types of planets without guessing on the color. I'm glad to see these little touches go into a game, most people would never even notice them unless it was called out.

Dirty Downward-facing Discard Piles
After spending a lot of time playing RFTG online as part of my GenCant celebrations, I once again really appreciate all the work the designer of this game went into taking out extraneous thought points.

In most games, it's a given you can see the discard pile. In many traditional card games sometimes this is the only information you have!

But RFTG, The City, Jump Drive (and even San Jaun) buck this historic tradition and tell players that in all cases cards are discarded facing down.

I thought this was pretty weird at first. But after countless games, I really like that I can focus with laser precision on my hand, my tableau and my opponent's tableau without trying to memorize what cards I've seen go through the discard pile.

In a big stack of cards, with many duplicates anyway, seeing the top card hardly makes a difference. But it speeds up the game by chiseling away information that might subtly affect your decision making.

When you end the round in RFTG, and I assume the same applies to Jump Drive, you have all the information you need in your hand for planning your turn, and unless there is a big upset during the turn you won't be changing your plans.

The Future of Jump Drive
Unless Rio Grande Games throws out a surprise delay, Jump Drive should be arriving in stores in time for Christmas. Very convenient indeed. Now I need to find something else to focus on for the next post.

See you then!

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Tom Lehmann and The City

As details continue to trickle in for Jump Drive, I can't help but consider one of the inspirations for Jump Drive, Tom Lehmann's 2011 title The City.

The City is somewhat like Race for the Galaxy. Cards are the main currency of the game. 

But The City plays faster, with scoring every round, and fewer paths to victory. There are no goods or production, only a tableau that steadily improves each round.

A typical round:

Building or Surveying

Players each lay a card down in front of them, then reveal simultaneously. The card becomes a part of their tableau and is paid for using remaining cards in hand. If a player can't or doesn't want to build, instead they survey and draw 5 more cards into their hand.

Score Victory Points

Each development in the tableau earns victory points, and the victory points come each round. This sounds somewhat like the experience you'd normally expect from consumption powers in Race for the Galaxy.

Earn Income

Each development in the tableau also potentially earns you income. After scoring, each player draws cards to collect the required income for the turn.

Ending the Game

The game ends when a player reaches 50 points. I would expect these points ramp up quite quickly, as each round cumulatively earns greater points and income (with which to buy ever-bigger developments and earn even more points). Per BGG reviewers, games of The City last about 15 minutes as the main action is the very definition of snowballing.

From BGG user binraix
But I've never played the game. 

An official English version has never been produced. I pulled this summary together using unofficial prototype rules posted on BGG by Lehmann in 2011. And in 2014 an English version was still waiting when Lehmann posted news to BGG he was attempting to "recover" publishing rights for an potential English version.

I personally blame Amigo. What good can possibly come from a company responsible for Bohnanza?

Finally, in 2016 we have Jump Drive. 

Per Lehmann, it will be the best of all worlds, combining the simple play of The City with the added complexity of "two card types, different actions and bonuses, military conquest, and some new player interactions."

Of course, we'll probably see the rules this weekend. I will keep my eyes out for the moment they arrive.