gaming gift guide 2014

November 17, 2014 Leave a comment

Okay, so I thought I would post another gaming gift guide — hopefully this’ll get me back into blogging a bit, but I’m not making any promises.

I’ve learned a lot about games in the last few years, and I hope to share some new discoveries.  Some of these games may be out of print, but that’s okay — it’ll likely still be possible to track them down.

A disclaimer:  most of these games are in the light-to-medium range, as I tend to prefer games that can be taught in 10 minutes or less.  I like gateway games — games that are suitable for gamers and non-gamers alike.  Heavy games are fun, but I find it a lot easier to get mid-weight games on the table.  And if I’m honest with myself, I’m up for a one-hour game a lot more often than I’m up for a two- or three-hour game.

These are the games that I’m almost always up for playing, the games that I can recommend without reservation, the games that I like best.  They are also, because I’m a designer, games that I consider to be elegant.  They are, in most cases, games that I wish I had designed.  Some of them are drop-dead brilliant.

So here they are, in order of their ranking on boardgamegeek:

  • Ticket to Ride — my favorite game to teach to newbies, it can be taught in 5 minutes or less.  There’s great tension, simple but meaningful choices, and a whole lot of fun.  My only complaint is that it can go on a bit long, but hey — it’s still a classic.  My favorite with 4 or 5 players is the original; my favorite with 2 or 3 is Nordic Countries.  The whole family of TtR games is discussed on the family page that’s devoted to them.
  • Jaipur — an excellent game for two, my wife and I play this one often.  The key to this game is getting into the flow of it — when you’re in the flow, you always seem to get the right cards at the right time.  Control the pace and you control the game.
  • Carcassonne — a tile-laying classic, this is the game that got me back into gaming.  It makes me feel like a kid when I play it, kind of like a sandbox where you can keep score.  Just don’t throw too many expansions in, though, as that’ll bog it down.
  • Battle Line — a great Knizia game for two, it’s kind of like Lost Cities‘ less popular cousin.  In many ways, though, I like it better.
  • Hanabi — if you like co-op games, you should give Hanabi a try.  It’s easy to teach to new players, unlike a lot of co-ops, and it’s fun, too.
  • San Juan — better than both Race for the Galaxy and Puerto Rico in my opinion, San Juan doesn’t get the love it deserves.  Sure there’s a lot of luck, but that doesn’t bother me.  It’s fun, it’s relatively easy to teach, and it doesn’t outstay its welcome.  One downside is that it takes a game or two to get used to the cards, but that’s true of a lot of games.  Can be hard to find.
  • For Sale — a brilliant, two-stage auction game.  I’m not any good at it, but I still enjoy playing it.
  • Lost Cities — another excellent two-player game by Knizia.  Lots of tension, and you can never do all that you want.  The big lesson?  Never bite off more than you can chew….
  • Santiago — a brilliant auction game with some very clever mechanics.  I definitely wish I had designed this one.
  • Blokus — like a strategic version of tetris, you want to get rid of as many of your pieces as possible.  A classic.
  • Coloretto — absolutely brilliant.  Schacht is probably my favorite designer, his stuff his clean and elegant.  I like this one better than both Zooloretto and Aquaretto (larger games based on the same mechanic).
  • Morels — a relatively unknown game, it’s an excellent game for two.  As far as I know, it’s only available on Amazon.  My one complaint is that there’s a lot of card sliding, but that shouldn’t stop you from trying it.
  • Hey, That’s my Fish! — very abstract, but lots of fun.  A quick game of positioning and area control.  Reminds me a bit of Amazons, but it’s lighter and more playful.
  • Incan Gold — a classic push-your-luck by Faidutti and Moon where you’re also trying to second-guess what your opponents will do.
  • On the Underground — a great connection game with a lazy passenger.  The only problem is that some players have a hard time figuring out how the passenger will move.  Fussy, in other words, but good.  One of my favorite discoveries of the last two years.
  • Word on the Street — a great party game if you like words.
  • Zombie Dice — a great filler, fun to play while you’re waiting for your guests to arrive.
  • Cockroach Poker — you like lying to people?  Good — get Cockroach Poker.  It’s very clever, and some of our friends absolutely love it.
  • Lascaux — no, this isn’t designed by Schacht, but the core bidding mechanic is his (from Mogul).  It’s brilliant.  My only complaint is that the cards can be hard to tell apart when they’re all the way across the table.
  • Fastrack — an excellent and highly-addictive dexterity game.  I played a larger version at BGG con and loved it.
  • Battling Tops — what can I say, this game is awesome — it’s really fun to watch the tops do battle with one another.  More an activity than a game, but a great activity.  And there’s probably a great drinking game in there, too.
  • Nada — a quick dice game requiring very fast thinking.  Simple and elegant, it’s a nice filler if you have somewhat manic friends.

I hope, if you try them, that you enjoy these games as much as I do.

a bit of news

October 5, 2013 2 comments

First, a bit of good news:  I just signed a contract with Mayfair Games to publish Lemuria in early 2015.  I don’t know what they’ll call it, or what the theme will be, but I’m very excited that they decided to move forward with this project.  Now I need to turn my attention to my next game, City Builder….

I haven’t been blogging very much lately, so I decided to try microblogging instead.  You can read my twitter blog at https://twitter.com/ddgdrs.

I still plan to blog occasionally, mainly to share news, game guides, and my own print-and-play games.  I may post other things, too, but the bulk of my blogging energy will be on twitter now.

May the dice be with you.  :-)

recent activity, Goblins Inc.

February 18, 2013 Leave a comment

“What we have here is a failure to communicate.”

Okay, so I haven’t been blogging much recently.  What I have been doing, however, is playing a lot, designing a lot, and trying to get things published.  I went to BGG.con in November, and it was a blast.  It was a kind of a busman’s holiday, where I was both trying to enjoy the con and talk to publishers.  I really enjoyed it, and I was also able to convince a publisher to take one of my games home with them.  Hooray!

So what have I been playing?  New games since the last time I blogged include Roma (a giveaway at BGG.con), Knizia’s Samurai, a number of Schacht’s games (Hansa, China, California), Lowenherz (picked up at the BGG.con marketplace), a number of Feld’s games (Notre Dame, Castles of Burgundy, The Speicherstadt), Friese’s Famiglia, Friese’s Copycat, Goblins Inc, Goa, Finca, and Princes of Florence.  For me, the standouts have been Roma, Castles of Burgundy, Goblins Inc, Goa, and Princes of Florence.

The wonderful thing about being a designer is that all these new games (and game purchases, if my wife is reading this) are all research.  I need to know what’s out there….

I’m currently working actively on about three games:  City Builder (an update of Hacienda, for those who’ve been keeping track), 12 Lords a-Leaping (a strange cross between Container and Coloretto), and Venture Capital.  City Builder is the one that’s been taking up most of my time recently, as I’ve said I would get a copy of the rules to a publisher by the end of the month.  That’s really going to be pushing it….

What am I looking forward to?  Two things:  Cabin Con 2013 (a gathering of friends in March) and owning my own copy of Goblins Inc.  I played it at BGG.con, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  There’s a lot of chaos, kind of like Galaxy Trucker, but in Goblins the mayhem is personal.  Published in 2012 by Czech Games Edition (and brought to the US by Rio Grande), it’s a fun game for people who don’t mind a bit of luck.  It plays in 60 minutes and is Filip Neduk’s first game.  I hope it won’t be his last.

For those who haven’t heard much about Goblins Inc, it borrows many of the mechanics of Galaxy Trucker (building a ship before piloting it, rolling dice for destruction, &c.) and wraps them in a theme involving battle bots.  It says it plays from 2-4 players, but the nice folks at BGG don’t recommend it for 3 — it’s recommended for 2 players, and it’s said to be best with 4.  Having played the game with 4, I have a hard time imagining how a 3-player game would go — there’s probably some clever mechanism in there to make it work, but it’s most naturally a 4-player game.

Battling robots (not sure where the Goblins bit comes in) is a team sport, where players must cooperate to both build and pilot their bot.  While players are cooperating, they’re also competing with one another, as each player has her own personal goals that differ from the goals of her partner.  It’s an uneasy alliance.

In the building phase, one player picks out the components that the other will have to use to build their ship.  While the builder might want more guns, his partner might want more engines.  And since his partner is the one picking which pieces will be used, he’s going to have to make do with engines.

Once the two bots are built, then they go into battle.  One player of the partnership chooses which tactics to use, while the other player drives the ship.  This doesn’t require as much cooperation as one might want, but it does give both players something to do.  If both ships survive the current round, then the two players switch roles and the bots go at it again.

This is one of those games that’s just fun to play.  In both of the games I played, players were laughing and whooping it up.  It didn’t really matter who won or lost, it was just as fun to see your own ship blown apart as it was to score a lucky hit on your opponents.

It’s not for everyone, obviously, but that’s true of any game.  Players who like Galaxy Trucker and want something a bit more confrontational should definitely pick it up.

If you want to read a review with a few more details about the gameplay, check out “Giant Robot Smash Up” by JohnBandettini.  He does a good job of explaining the game, and he includes a lot of pictures, too.  :-)

 

cult of the new?

September 26, 2012 Leave a comment

So I got to thinking the other day about the “cult of the new,” and I began to wonder if there was any way to see if there really was an effect along those lines at BGG.

How did I decide to go about it?  Using two sets of numbers:  first, a breakdown of the number of games in the top 250 ranked games by year, and second, a breakdown of the number of games in the top 250 most popular games by year (as measured by the number of players who have ranked the game).

Is this a perfect way to do it?  No, there are obviously any number of factors that would tend to skew the data in one direction or another.  But it isn’t bad, and all I was looking for was a back-of-the-envelope kind of calculation, anyway.

How did I get the data?  With a little URL hacking, that’s how.

For the number of games in the top 250 ranked games that were published in 1995, for example, I entered the following URL:  http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeksearch.php?action=search&advsearch=1&objecttype=boardgame&range[yearpublished][min]=1995&range[yearpublished][max]=1995&range[rank][min]=1&range[rank][max]=250&B1=Submit&sort=rank&sortdir=asc.  If you follow the link, you will see that there were four.

For the number of games in the top 250 most popular games that were published in 1995, on the other hand, I entered:  http://www.boardgamegeek.com/geeksearch.php?action=search&advsearch=1&objecttype=boardgame&range[yearpublished][min]=1995&range[yearpublished][max]=1995&range[numvoters][min]=3362&range[numvoters][max]=250000&B1=Submit&sort=numvoters&sortdir=desc.  The number?  Seven.

(How did I come up with 3362 as the minimum number of voters for the 250 most popular games?  Look at all the games in the database, sort by the number of voters, and see how many votes the 250th game received.  Simple.)

On to the visuals.  In the graph below, blue shows the number of games in the top 250 highest ranked games, broken down by year; yellow shows the number of games in the top 250 most popular games, broken down by year.  Red and green show these same numbers while looking at only the top 100 games in their respective categories.

So what, if anything, does this graph tell us?  Both the yellow and green lines (tracking the most popular games, as measured by the number of voters) peak in 2004 and then drop off.  Both the blue and the red lines (tracking the highest ranked games), however, peak in 2009.

While certainly not definitive, this does suggest that (a) games take a while to be widely adopted by the BGG community, and (b) our ratings of these games do tend to fall over time.  We tend to rank games more highly, in other words, when they’re still relatively bright and shiny, and we tend lower our ratings when games begin to show their age.

If I were on Mythbusters, I’d have to conclude that the myth was confirmed.  What do you think?

 

Protospiel post-mortem

August 13, 2012 Leave a comment

The title of this post might be a little misleading, but since I usually conduct a post-mortem after playtesting one of my games (what did you like? what did you dislike?  what could be improved?  what needs work?  &c.), I figured it was appropriate.

So how did Protospiel go?  Very well.

Protospiel is an amazing experience.  As a game designer, it is hands-down my favorite gaming experience of the year.  It is, in a word, awesome.

There’s something about being in a room full of other designers that really can’t be described.  The feedback is intense, sometimes brutal, specific, honest, pertinent, and very, very helpful.

Let me give an example:  Puppet Masters.  I went to Protospiel thinking that the game was working well — I figured it might need a few tweaks here and there, but I thought it was working.  My two big questions were relatively small:  first, is it too long, and second, is there enough information in the game to figure out what’s going on?  I thought it might be a little too long, but that the time was reasonable; I thought there was enough information in the game, but I wanted to make sure.

Turns out I was wrong.  The game was a disaster.  Not only was there not enough information in the game, there wasn’t even close to enough information in the game.  Everyone, including me, was basically at sea.

Fellow designers offered a number of suggestions for ways to fix the game, ranging from little tweaks to gutting the project and starting over.

I was, to say the least, a little disappointed.

More than that, though, I was confused:  how could the game work so well at home, and then work so poorly at Protospiel?

And then it hit me:  at Protospiel, I was playing with relative strangers, with people I didn’t know very well.  At home, I was playing with friends.  I was playing the people, in other words, and I wasn’t playing the game.

Playing the players is all very well and good if you’re playing poker, but it’s a little out of place when you’re playing a deduction game.  There needs to be enough information in the game itself to try to sort it all out.

So it’s back to the drawing board with Puppet Masters.  I have a few ideas as to where I want to take it, but nothing definite so far.

===

I took seven games to Protospiel (never again will I take so many):  one flopped, two received mixed feedback, two never hit the table, and two went over very well.

I now have several games being considered by publishers, and that’s a good thing.  :-)

===

I plan to update the rules for Euronimoes shortly, and I also plan to upload a couple new games to the site:  Water Balloon Wars for sure, and possibly also Tatoules (short for Table Top Boules).  I know, it’s not a great name.  It is, however, a fun game.

gearing up for Protospiel

June 22, 2012 Leave a comment

I’ve been getting ready for Protospiel these last few weeks:  playtesting like crazy, tweaking rules, getting everything together, and making sure everything is — both literally and metaphorically — in the box.  If all goes according to plan, I’ll be taking 7 games:  Horsefeathers 2.0, Hacienda, The Super Awesome Dice Game (SADG), Strange Bedfellows, Euronimoes 2.0, Puppet Masters, and Venture Capital.  I don’t expect to play all these games, mind you, but I plan to have them there just in case.  I never know what I’ll be in the mood to play / playtest until the moment is upon me, and this way I’ll have options.

Some of these games may already be familiar to some of you, as both Horsefeathers and Euronimoes have been released as print-and-play games here on my blog.  I’ve continued to develop and refine these games over the past year, and I hope to have updates available in the not-too-distant future.  The changes to Euronimoes have been slight (tweaks to the scoring, no chip bonus for drawing from the bone pile), while the changes to Horsefeathers have been more extensive (using cards instead of dice, revamping the points structure, creating a board, and adding more texture).  Both games are significantly improved.

Puppet Masters and Venture Capital should also be familiar to some of my readers, as I’ve blogged about their development before.  (Venture Capital used to be called Empire, then Metropolis, then Urban Conquest, then Capital, then Central City, etc. — it’s the proverbial game in search of a name.)  Puppet Masters hasn’t changed much, though I’ve tidied up the theme a bit and changed the way the endgame is handled.  Venture Capital, on the other hand, represents a significant break from previous development — in open source software terms, the game has “forked.”

I now have two games:  Central City retains the action cards, general gameplay, and overall feel of earlier versions, while Venture Capital has evolved into more of a stock market / speculation game.  Both are still auction games at heart, but the two play very differently.  Venture Capital feels much closer to “done” at this point, however, so it’s the one I’m packing for Protospiel.  Central City will have to wait another year (or two).

What else is left?  SADG, Strange Bedfellows, and Hacienda.  These are all light-to-medium fillers, taking somewhere around 30 minutes to play.

SADG is a clever little dice allocation game where players try to complete various items in three different categories.  There are two twists:  first, it’s rarely possible to complete an item all by oneself, so players have to cooperate in order to make points.  Second, a player’s overall score is equal to the score in their lowest category.  The game is played over three rounds.

Strange Bedfellows is what I would describe as a “political auction game.”  It’s subtitle, “everybody knows that elections can be bought — how much do you want to spend?” sums it up pretty well.  There’s a primary phase (choosing which candidates will run in that election), a negotiation phase (where players try to get other players to support their favorite candidates), and an auction phase (where players pledge their support to one of the candidates in that election).  Oh, and did I mention that there’s plenty of room for backstabbing and betrayal?  Just because a player says he’s going to help you out in the upcoming election doesn’t mean he actually will.

Finally, Hacienda is a modular auction game where players buy properties and try to connect them together into large ranches.  Ranches only count for points at the end of the game, however, if they’re also connected to wells, so players must choose where to put their wells carefully.

= = = = =

Looking back over this list, I count four games with an auction:  Hacienda, Strange Bedfellows, Venture Capital, and Puppet Masters (in Puppet Masters, there’s an auction to determine turn order).  By any standard, that’s a pretty high percentage of auction games.

I’ll admit I’ve had a fascination with auction games lately.  I enjoy playing them because they require an accurate valuation of the game-state; I enjoy designing them because they’re what I like to call “self-leveling.”

By self-leveling, I mean that some things (start money, income, etc.) become less critical — it’s up to the players to determine the worth of various in-game elements and bid accordingly.  Bid too low, and your opponents gain an advantage; bid too high, and you run yourself out of money.

As a designer, this means you can worry less about the amount of money in the game and more about the game’s overall flow and feel.  And that, for me at least, is a Good Thing.  :-)

 

Trebuchets

April 22, 2012 3 comments

When I send out an invitation to game night, I typically include an easter egg somewhere in the list of things to bring:  “Please bring a snack, easter egg, and/or a beverage to share, and bring any games you’d like to play.”  Past eggs have included bowling balls, light sabres, and tam-o-shanters, but this months hidden directive was “trebuchet.”

I got several responses asking (a) what a trebuchet was and (b) where they could find one, so I sent out a follow-up email with a link to youtube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-wVADKznOhY) and a link to instructables (http://www.instructables.com/id/The-Curiously-Strong-Trebuchet-A-Pocket-Sized-Me/).

(For the relatively incurious, a trebuchet is essentially a catapult with a sling on the end to give it a bit more oomph.  Wikipedia has a very nice overview.)

I wasn’t thinking anyone would actually go to the trouble of making one, but I got a couple emails suggesting that a trebuchet was in the works.  This got me to thinking, and I decided that it might be fun to build one myself.

I knew basically what the concept was, but I was still a little unclear as to what released the payload.  As far as I can tell, there are several different ways of doing it.  There’s the simple way, where one end of the sling has a loop in it that slips over a pin on the end of the swinging arm, but then there are more complicated ways, too:  ropes in various configurations that trip a release mechanism when the arm gets to a specific point.  The advantage of the former is simplicity, while the advantage of the latter is greater control over the angle of release.

I opted for simplicity.

I did a bit more research to get some idea as to the design principles and considerations involved:

One problem was that I didn’t have a whole lot of time — I needed to get going, and I didn’t really know where to start.

So I turned to the construction material of choice for would-be modelers of the slacker generation, Legos.  And not just any old Legos, but the real deal:  Lego Technics.

I happened to have a couple small sets on hand (quel coincidence!), so I started building right away.  I didn’t have any specific plans in mind, but I knew I needed a base, two sturdy towers for support, and a pivoting swingarm.  I figured I could iron out the details later.

I didn’t know exactly how big I wanted to make the thing, but I knew I was restricted by the available materials — I opted for a swingarm that was 8.75 inches long and had a pivot roughly 1.5 inches from one end.  When the swingarm hung straight down, the end of it was just slightly above the base.

Once I had the basic structure down, I still needed four things:  a counterweight (and a good way to attach it to the swingarm),a pin in the end of the swingarm, a sling of some sort, and a smooth track for the payload to travel along (the bumpy tops of Legos would not do).

I fashioned the counterweight out of a little plastic box by cutting the top off, trimming the sides, and punching two holes in it (for the pivot pin) with a paper punch.  I figured I could then fill it with as many coins as necessary to get the right amount of weight.  I hung it off the short end of the swingarm and put about $8 worth of quarters in it.

The pivot pin was a little trickier, but only because I was overthinking it.  I originally thought I would need something both fairly rigid and yet bendable (because of the way they were bending the pin to adjust for distance in that second youtube video), so I started with a paperclip that I bent into shape.  All the while I was bending and tweaking the clip, I was making a conscious effort to try to channel MacGyver.

As it turns out, though, it didn’t need to be so complicated.  I switched to a simple plastic Lego pin at some point to try to ensure a smooth release, and that works just fine.  A longer pin seems to make for a later release, and a shorter pin allows the sling to slip off earlier.

The track was easy:  I started off with a bit of Hot Wheels track and then, when everything seemed to be working well enough, switched to a dedicated bit of masonite.  The original Hot Wheels track was too long, and I couldn’t bring myself to cut it up.  (Yes, yes, I know — I do appear to have kept a number of my childhood toys.  My wife occasionally makes the same observation.)

Far and away the hardest part (and the part I’m still playing with) is the sling.  I started with some heavy cotton string and a bit of plastic bag (for the pocket) but then needed something a bit lighter and more flexible.  I’m currently using some black thread and a bit of nylon.  In order to get the pocket to have a bit of depth, I bunched up the ends, but I bunched them up a bit too much:  sometimes the payload gets stuck and doesn’t come out at all.

The difference between success and failure in the trebuchet business is a very fine line.  Small tweaks to any of these details (weight of counterweight / weight, size, and shape of payload / materials in sling / length of sling / length of pin / &c.) will mean that the payload either flies across the room in a satisfying way, gets stuck in the pocket, shoots straight up, falls out of the pocket, shoots backward, zips around in a circle (when the sling doesn’t slip off the pin), or just doesn’t go all that far.  If the payload is too light, it won’t cause the sling to slide off the pin soon enough; if the payload is too heavy, it’ll cause the sling to slide off way too soon.  Everything has to be balanced.

This makes it sound like a pain to get it dialed in, and I’ll admit it’s a little tricky.  But when  you get it to work, and specifically when you’re able to fling a small d-20 across the room and into the side of a cardboard castle you’re wife built (because you’re a very lucky guy), it’s very satisfying.

Here’s the castle S built:

Here’s the trebuchet against the same background:

And here’s the trebuchet sitting on our table:

You can see the release mechanism in that last picture, it’s the black plastic rod there on the left:  push it in to hold the swingarm in place, pull it out to let ‘er go.  The counterweight falls down, pulling the swingarm around; the swingarm pulls the sling around with its payload safely in the pocket; the payload swings out as it comes around; the sling releases from the pin in the end of the swingarm; the payload (hopefully) flies across the room.

So how did game night go?  As it turns out, this was the only trebuchet there.  It worked well, didn’t hurt anybody, and even hit the castle once.  I’d call it a success.

I was hoping to have several trebuchets present, so we could have a contest of some sort, but that’ll have to wait until next month.

I’m thinking it would be fun to build a bigger trebuchet (I may have caught the bug), maybe one that could launch a baseball.  It wouldn’t be that hard to do, and I don’t think the counterweight would have to be all that large, either.  A few free weights, a few 2x4s, a bit of nylon cord, and some leather for the pocket, and you could have a pretty decent baseball chucker.  I’m hoping to get a few of the other guys from game night interested, too.

And of course I’m inspired to try to come up with a board game about trebuchets, but so far I haven’t had any luck.  It seems to me the real appeal of this kind of tabletop trebuchet is its physicality, and the fact that you have to play with it to get it dialed in.  I’m just not sure how that would scale up (or down) to a board game:  you could have a game where multiple trebuchets attack a castle, or you could have a game where you’re building a trebuchet, but in the end you’ll still be left with a bunch of plastic bits and some cardboard.

Some things can be easily abstracted (building a railroad, creating a financial empire, &c.), but some things can’t (riding a motorcycle, firing off a trebuchet, &c.).

So you could make and sell a trebuchet toy, but I fail to see how you could make a good trebuchet game.

If anyone has any thoughts they’d care to share, I’m all ears.  :-)