Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Drive-By Board Game Reviews & Thoughts: July 2014

I write for a wonderful blog/website (Opinionated Gamers) that encourages conversation between the writers... and this post is a collection of three things I've written as a part of those conversations.


There's a new edition of Chinatown coming... and I can still remember playing it for the first time back in 1999 at Gulf Games III in New Orleans. We had the rules wrong (Greg Schloesser does a nice job of summarizing these in the review I've linked to) and it still was a blast to play.

Rio Grande didn't pick Chinatown up to publish... and over the years it's been in and out of print. Here's what I added to Dale's well-written review:
Somewhere lost to the mists of time (and older computers) is my analysis of how the game doesn’t work with 5 players. (Basically, there’s not enough stuff for players to negotiate with – and luck of the draw plays a HUGE role in getting something worth trading.) I still like it with four players… but not enough to hang onto it when I got a great offer. (As for negotiation games I did hang onto, that would most notably include Bohnanza, Basari and Zauberschwert & Drachenei.)
Feld Madness

Stefan Feld is the current darling/favorite of Euro gamers... nearly every game he releases brings new waves of praise & adulation. I have not jumped on the bandwagon.

A number of us contributed to an article about our varied opinions about his designs - with the "top" games from our aggregate ratings being Macao and Notre Dame.

Here's what I said:
As much as I admire some of his designs, I feel like a lot of Feld’s work is mechanics with little or no thematic connection – and life is too darn short for that. 
  • Love it: Rum & Pirates
  • Like it: In the Year of the Dragon, Rialto (but just barely)
  • Neutral: Macao, The Castles of Burgundy, Notre Dame, Roma, Roma II
  • Not for me: Name of the Rose
Game Recommendation

Every once in a while, we dip into our mailbag and answer a reader question - this time around, a fan with a love for lighter dice-heavy games asked for other suggestions. (I can't believe I missed adding Machi Koro and/or Gelini Nightlife to my list.)
First, I’ll echo Dale’s suggestions of Yspahan Bang! the Dice Game. 
Then, I’ll add a few of my own that might be a little tougher to find (but will be worth the trouble)
  • Nur Peanuts – this OOP game from Heinz Meister is a 45 minute gambling game with some vague abstracted similarities to Monopoly – but mostly just a great way to press your luck for 3-6 players.
  • Cheese Snatching (Kaseklau) – a small box Haba push-your-luck game with cute wooden cat & mouse pieces that works great as a short filler and/or a game with kids.
  • Abandon Ship – an overlooked Knizia game which (I think) is the best of the “you can move any piece – but you secretly want 3 of them to score” family of games. The very cool sinking ship board is a plus.
And if you haven’t played Can’t Stop (the King of Dice Games), you should fix that now!

Monday, July 28, 2014

Stuck

This post was originally written in 2006 - when Collin was 16 months old. He's 9 now. (How time flies.) In the context of my spiritual walk today, I really really need to listen to Mark from 2006.

Collin has discovered the joy of putting small objects into slightly larger holes. Yes, it's that time the developmental progress of a young boy when everything is a puzzle waiting to be solved. So, yesterday afternoon, I found myself attempting to extricate an empty Mini M&M's container from one of his toys with a shish-kebab skewer. (For the record: no, I did not succeed.)

I've had a similar experience with my computer this last week. I returned home from vacation (which we enjoyed immensely) last Monday to find my e-mail box flooded with spam. And I when I say "flooded", I am in no danger of exaggeration. At one point, I had over 2500 new messages. (Evidently my mailbox on the network server was stuck - that's right, somehow a virtual piece of mail managed to get stuck in the virtual pipeline and cause a virtual overflow into my life.)

"Stuck" is a utility-fielder, word-wise.

OK, I'll take a short break to define "utility fielder" for those of you who don't live, breath & eat ESPN... a utility fielder is someone who can play multiple positions. We now return you to our regularly scheduled column.

We use the word "stuck" to refer to crushing football hits ("He stuck right under the chinstrap"), to register our disgust ("This chewing gum is stuck to my shoe"), and to commend someone who's stood up for what they believe ("They stuck to their guns"). We also use "stuck" to complain about our employment situation ("I'm stuck in this dead-end job"), grumble about the way our brain works ("I've got that stupid 'Macarena' song stuck in my head"), and describe what happened to our car when we drove through the mud puddle ("I'm stuck... call a tow truck").

And some of us live like we're just stuck...
And you are such a foolTo worry like you doI know it's toughAnd you can never get enoughOf what you don't really need nowMy, oh my You've got to get yourself togetherYou've got stuck in a momentAnd you can't get out of it Don't say that later will be betterNow you're stuck in a momentAnd you can't get out of it 
And if the night runs overAnd if the day won't lastAnd if our way should falterAlong the stony pass
It's just a momentThis time will pass     U2, "Stuck in a Moment"
Every time that song plays on my CD player, I'm reminded once again how easy it is to live as if I'm mired in the mistakes of my past. Each choice I make to focus on the muck & mud only serves to dig me deeper into worry & fear - which almost always leads to a frenetic search for ways to get myself distracted from the panic.

Thankfully, God speaks forcefully into our "stuck-ness" with the crowbar of His truth:
I don't mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection! But I keep working toward that day when I will finally be all that Christ Jesus saved me for and wants me to be. No, dear brothers and sisters, I am still not all I should be, but I am focusing all my energies on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, I strain to reach the end of the race and receive the prize for which
God, through Christ Jesus, is calling us up to heaven.     Philippians 3:12-14 (NIV)
Wherever you've been, whatever you've done, what kind of mess you've left behind... it's time to stop living as if that one moment (or string of moments) is the definition of your life. You are not stuck - it just feels that way.

Homework for today: ask God for help in seeing your life through His eyes. When we see things this way, the prayer "Help me get unstuck" is accompanied by the clarity of vison & spirit in order to drive our lives back onto solid ground. OTOH, if all we want is for our Cosmic AAA Tow Truck to come & pull us out of the mud we've created, we'll miss seeing God at work in a thousand different ways.

There's a difference between seeing people/situations like God sees them and simply waiting around for Him to "work." Guess which one is more conducive to being stuck?

Friday, July 18, 2014

Tiny Epic Defenders

Some of you will remember that I was an enthusiastic supporter of the Kickstarter for Tiny Epic Kingdoms... and won't be surprised that I've chosen to back Tiny Epic Defenders.

I'll write more about the game later - but for now, you simply need to know:
  • it's cheap ($16 for the game, $24 for the "deluxe" version)
  • it's cooperative (in other words, it's the players together against the game system)
  • it plays well (I've played both solo and with two players with the print-n-play version... and so far we've only won one time)
  • it's fast (30 minutes)
And, most importantly, you've only got 21 hours to jump on board

What are you waiting for? 

Friday, July 11, 2014

5 Cool Vacation Pictures

This is here so that you guys don't think I died. And so I can show off some cool pictures from our mini-vacation to Ohio.


Here's Collin emerging from a submarine at COSI... 


...and for the gamers in the crowd, pointing out Gulo Gulo to everyone. (Sadly, we did not see any gulos, baby or otherwise, at the Columbus Zoo - they were hiding.)


Dinosaur attack! Braeden is much more blase about it than Collin.


An amazing view from the top of an Indian mound outside of Cedarville, OH.


I'm still in love with this woman - so thankful for her. (Taken at Clifton Mill.)


Tuesday, July 01, 2014

The Beautiful Game(s)

In honor of the USA vs. Belgium later today (go USA!), I bring you a hybrid classic post. That's right, it's the merging of two posts into one sprawling mess of a single post!

Soccer was the first sport I ever felt semi-competent at as a kid... which probably has a lot to do with my enjoyment of the game, particularly played at World Cup level. It's the only sport I've ever "officially" coached. (Note: I coached Under 6 soccer, which is kind of like saying, "I herded cats while they played with a white ball & got distracted by their surroundings.")

I'm not a great soccer player - I don't have the stamina, the coordination or the willingness to practice to get better in those areas. I can handle the ball & can "see the field," which means I was (once upon a time) a passable midfielder. (And by "passable midfielder", I mean "I was slightly better than having no one playing the position... but only by a small amount".)

Soccer, by the way, is probably the easiest of the team sports to teach to young kids. While I enjoy watching the royal mess that is T-Ball, those kids have no idea what they're doing and/or why. But as long as you can sling up two goals, mark the edges of the field & get a decent ball on the ground, you can play soccer. (You may not play it well, but you can play.)

All of this is introduction to my "real" topic, soccer board games. There are a LOT of soccer board games available (Tony A over on BGG has an excellent Geeklist entitled Kick Off & Goal! that contains 50+ of them)... and I've only played 5-6 of them. That won't stop me, of course, from commenting on them.

Soccer Tactics

This is a dice-based game which is played in real time (stopwatch included) and has a nice fluidity to the game (once you get past the tik-takky stuff in the rules). It has a bad reputation due to [a] a ill-conceived design choice to put the scoring spinner in the middle of the board (which has been solved by the addition of a scoring die), and [b] by the less-than-congenial relationship that the company has had with BGG.

The game usually runs a little long... so it didn't hit the table often enough to justify hanging onto it and was traded away in the Great Game Purge of 2013. I'd still be happy to play it - but I no longer have a copy.

Finale

Finale was only published in German in the 2-player Kosmos line... and as far as I can tell, is very much out of print. It borrows the rotating card mechanic from the Settlers of Catan Card Game combined with a set of tactics cards to create a pretty nice simulation of coaching a soccer team. Fouls & injuries are a little too common, though.

The problem with the game is that it's a tad fiddly, what with all the marking & turning of player cards. I've got my copy up for trade, but I like it enough that it would take a really good offer for me to part with it. It even managed to survive the Purge - but i'm thinking that mostly due to lack of interest.

Streetsoccer

This is a backgammon-ish 5-on-5 soccer game that plays quickly (25 turns) is incredibly simple to learn. Don't let that fool you - the folks who are good at the game are REALLY good at the game.(You can play online.)

It doesn't so much simulate soccer (like Pursue the Pennant attempts to simulate baseball)... instead, it uses a simple dice-based mechanic to simulate the feel of a soccer game - and does so brilliantly. In fact, it's not only my favorite soccer game, it's one of my favorite games, period.

Like playing backgammon, winning at Streetsoccer is as much about the position you leave yourself in as well as pushing hard to score. 

Here's two other soccer games:
  • Subbuteo - A very cool flicking game that has a RABID following. Someday, I'll trade somebody for a couple of teams so I can play it when I want to...
  • Lego Soccer - I have 3 different sets thrown together, so I can make a pretty large field. Sadly, it's cooler in theory than it is in actual play... but, hey, it's Lego!

Sadly, I have never played The World Cup Game... something I aim to remedy this year. I'd also love to try Würfel Kick (from one of my favorite designers, Wolfgang Riedesser.)

Friday, June 27, 2014

Ross Perot, Captain Kangaroo & Helen Keller (Classic)

I wrote this 8 years ago. Guess how old that makes me?

Yesterday was my 42nd birthday. It's not a particularly important milestone (like turning 16 or 18 or 21 or 40 or 65) - it's just another birthday. I've made one more revolution around the sun without getting myself killed (despite a car wreck & a minor fender-bender this last year).

I was blogging about my birthday last night and looked up which famous people were born on my birthday. There were a lot of names I didn't recognize (which, to me, raises the question of whether they're really famous - but I guess that's kind of self-centered to determine someone's fame based on my personal recognition of their existence)... and a few I did.

Yes, I was born on the same day as Tobey Maguire (the actor who played Spiderman), Ross Perot (noted rich guy & former presidential candidate), Bob Keeshan (who I loved as a kid - he was Captain Kangaroo) and Helen Keller (a deaf mute woman who did a whole lot more than learn how to spell "water"... check out the book Lies My Teacher Told Me for more info on Helen's adult life).  An eclectic bunch, eh?

Editorial Note: Here in 2014, I'd like to add J.J. Abrams (who came up with LOST and Alias and the Star Trek reboot... and is in charge of Star Wars: Episode VII), Leigh Nash (lead singer of Sixpence None the Richer),
and Khloé Kardashian (Wikipedia lists her as an "American businesswoman, model, and radio host" - huh).

Which reminds me... those of us who claim to be followers of Christ need to remember that we are an eclectic bunch as well. The church has a wide variety of folks: grape farmers, traveling salesmen, truck drivers, school teachers, handymen, stay-at-home moms, contractors, small business owners, cops, retirees, mechanics... you name it. One of the guys I served on staff with had been a repo man before he became a minister of education; my best friend in Nashville was an accountant before he went to seminary.

The same thing is true when we look at the Bible: Amos was a sheep herder, Moses was a prince, Paul was a rabbinical student, Joseph was a slave, Matthew was a tax collector, Esther was a queen, Samuel was an altar boy, Peter was a fisherman, and Jeremiah was a bullfrog. (No, not really, despite what Three Dog Night told you. I was just checking to see if you were paying attention. Jeremiah was a prophet.)

Anyway, God put us all together on purpose. This eclectic nature of the church is not (in the language of computer software) a bug, it's a feature.

Enjoy it!
He handed out gifts of apostle, prophet, evangelist, and pastor-teacher to train Christ's followers in skilled servant work, working within Christ's body, the church, until we're all moving rhythmically and easily with each other, efficient and graceful in response to God's Son, fully mature adults, fully developed within and without, fully alive like Christ.  Ephesians 4:12-13 (The Message)

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Game Review: Völuspá + Order of the Gods

Völuspá /Order of the Gods

  • Designer: Scott Caputo
  • Publisher: Stronghold Games
  • Players: 2-5
  • Ages: 10+
  • Time: 45 minutes
  • Times played: 6 plays (1 of Kachina, 2 of Völuspá alone, 3 with the Order of the Gods expansion)
  • Review copies provided by Stronghold Games
When the majority of your knowledge about Norse mythology comes from reading The Mighty Thor comic books (some 35+ years ago), watching the most recent Marvel films, and playing board games like Heroscape & Yggdrasil (and SPI’s Ragnarok: The Twilight of the Gods way back in the day), you have to do some research to figure out why Stronghold Games would name a game with Odin & Thor & Loki “Voluspa”. For the record, the word is “Völuspá” (Stronghold got it right on the box cover) – and it’s the title of one of the best known Old Norse poems. Translated, it means “Prophecy of the Seeress” (the völva referenced in the title).

That’s a whole lot of background for a game that is essentially a gamer-friendly version of Qwirkle.

Components

First, a heartfelt thank you to Stephen B. and the folks at Stronghold Games for giving us an appropriately sized box. I thank you, my shelves thank you, my wife thanks you.

The box is stuffed with attractive, thick tiles – seriously, the artwork is very nice. You also get a scoreboard, 5 scoring pawns & 5 tokens to indicate when you’ve “circled” the board (+50/+100).

But wait, there’s more! While there are no Ginsu knives or Salad Shooters included, you do receive the first expansion (Saga of Edda) in the box with the base game. This adds four new tile types to the mix.

Game Play

Let’s get this done quickly:
  1. Play a tile from your hand of five tiles
  2. Score points based on your play
  3. Draw a new tile
Lines cannot be longer than 7 tiles. (Evidently, creatures from Norse mythology don’t like to queue up in long lines. They would hate Six Flags.)

Moving on…

Scoring

Scoring is almost as simple as game play. Check the row and/or column that you played your tile next to – if your tile is the highest valued tile, you score one point for each tile in the line.

The Tiles

Each of the tiles has a value (between 1 and 8) and most of them have some sort of special power:
  • Odin (value 8)
  • Thor (value 7)
  • Troll (value 6 – no tile can be place orthogonally adjacent to a Troll)
  • Dragon (value 5 – can be placed on top of other tiles)
  • Fenrir (value 4 – the value of a Fenrir tile is the sum of all Fenrir tiles in the line)
  • Skadi (value 3 – put in place of another tile & put that tile into your hand)
  • Valkyrie (value 2 – score a line when there is a Valkyrie at each end of the line)
  • Loki (value 1 – tiles adjacent to Loki have a value of zero)
Game End

The game ends when all tiles have been drawn and played. The winner is (I know you’ll be surprised by this) the player with the highest score. In case of a tie, the player who reached the high score first wins.

Saga of Edda (first expansion)

This “in the box” expansion adds four new types of tiles: three which are added to the base set and one which is distributed to the players as the game begins.
  • Hel (value X – is placed face-down on top of another tile and creates a gap in the line; scores one point for each tile adjacent diagonally & orthogonally; one per player given at the beginning of the game in addition to the regular hand)
  • Jotunn (value 5 – can bump any tile to the end of a line; replace the bumped tile with Jotunn)
  • Sea Serpent (value 6 – scores across gaps)
  • Hermod (value 3 – after playing Hermod, score and play another tile; you can use multiple Hermod tiles in one turn)
Order of the Gods (second expansion)

This “in its own box” expansion adds four more types of tiles to Völuspá, as well as additional “circle the scoreboard” markers (+150/+200), booster tokens for use with Freya, and a set of zero tokens to make it easier to see Loki’s power at work. (Granted, it would have been nice to have had these zero tokens in the base game, but better later than never.)
  • Dwarf (value 2 – when placed score ½ the value of all orthogonally adjacent tiles rounded down; can be placed next to a Troll)
  • Freya (value 3 – play as normal or discard from hand to boost value of another tile played from your hand; you can use multiple Freya tiles in one turn)
  • Raven (value 4 – you may place this tile twice in one turn, remaining in the second placement; Ravens may cover other tiles like Dragons)
  • Niohoggr (value 7 – when you score a line with one or more Niohoggr tiles in it, score 2 bonus points per Niohoggr tile)
The rules offer several different suggested tile sets to play with, suggesting only that players avoid playing with all the tiles (from both expansions) at one time.

Kachina

Völuspá was originally published by a smaller publisher as Kachina, which I had the opportunity to play not too long after the original release. The art on the new edition is definitely better – while the Kachina tile are was thematic, it was incredibly busy and difficult to read across the table.

The designer, Scott Caputo, listed two other changes to the game:
  • There are 2 less Troll tiles (called Ogres in Kachina)
  • A Skadi can now pick up a Dragon tile (which was not permissible in Kachina)
I think that Völuspá is a definite step up from Kachina – primarily because the game is easier to play with the better (and more attractive) artwork. As well, both rules changes make it easier to play tiles rather than more difficult… a theme you’ll hear me complain about some of the first expansion tiles in just a minute.

Impressions (the base game)

Now it’s time to defend my crack about “gamer-friendly Qwirkle”. Both games have similar turns (play a tile or tiles/score/draw to fill your hand), and similar placement rules (lines in Völuspá can have one more tile than Qwirkle – evidently simple shapes hate standing in long lines even more than mythological beings).

Moreover, both games are extremely tactical – you make the best play you can with some eye to future turns. The painful reality, though, is that Robert Burns was right: “The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley…” (The last few words are often translated “often go awry” – but honestly “gang aft agley” is closer to the sound I make when someone scoops up the points I was going to get for playing a Niohoggr or a Valkyrie.)

The wide variety of special powers on the tiles in Völuspá adds some intriguing twists to a standard tile-laying game – but at the expense of speedy play:

It is much more difficult to “read” the board in Völuspá than it is in Qwirkle. This is both a consequence of the (gorgeous) artwork and the multiple powers that affect each other.
The plethora of options means it take longer to prune down your decision tree.
Since the various types have differing numbers of tiles in the bag, it is not as easy to read probabilities and make informed guesses.

And your enjoyment may be impacted by the extra time involved… or it might not. (One person’s analysis paralysis is another person’s strategic cup of tea.) I will say that the game hasn’t yet bogged down to a dead stop for us (ask me some time about the first edition of RoboRally and one particular player whose name has been hidden to protect the unbelievably slow)… but over the length of a game those slightly longer turns can add up.

As in many games of this type (play something to a tableau and/or the table to score points), the common problems rear their head here in Völuspá as well:
  • You want the stupidest player possible to sit to your right.
  • The more players there are in the game, long-term (more than the next turn) planning goes out the window.
I don’t know that you can “cure” these problems – I think they’re inherent to these kind of game designs – but you can mitigate one of them by not playing with a full complement of players. (Personally, I avoid playing Carcassonne – and Völuspá – with more than 3 players.)

I would be interested in seeing some other tile mix suggestions from the designer – perhaps removing some of the base game tiles when adding expansion tiles to shorten the game a bit while continuing to add variety.

Impressions (the expansions)

While I found a lot to like in the new expansion (Order of the Gods), I was less enamored of the tiles included in the “Saga of Edda” set found in the base game. As I’ve thought about it, I think my reaction is due to the nature of the tile powers. The “Saga of Edda” tiles (with the exception of Hermod) require multiple plays to ‘pay off’ – and given the nature of the game, too often they are played at less than full effectiveness.

On the other hand, the Order of the Gods tiles all make it easier to harvest points, which adds not only to the overall scores of the game but also gives the game forward momentum. (They help players feel like they are advancing their game.)

Conclusion

Though the theme of Norse mythology is lovingly portrayed in the art (and some of the tile powers), this is really an abstract tile-laying game with a plethora of gamer-friendly powers. Those seeking an immersive thematic experience will be disappointed.

However, gamers who are looking for a tactical tile-laying super-filler will find a game they can enjoy … and if you like the base game, I’d highly recommend you add the Order of the Gods expansion for extra variety (and the helpful zero/Loki tokens).

I personally enjoy the game – but am not interested in playing it with more than 3 players ever again. (Ever. Seriously – I’d rather play Devil Bunny Needs A Ham again.) I think Völuspá is best with 2-3 players and with my own tile mix that includes Hermod, the Dwarf, Freya & the Raven. (Your mileage – or however Norse gods measure distance – may vary.)

If you’d like to try the game for yourself (before you buy), it’s available to play on yucata.de.