Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Kid Game Review: Robin Hound

Robin Hound
  • designer: Eugene Wyss
  • publisher: Haba
  • date: 2010
  • BoardGameGeek rank/rating: not ranked/6.33
  • olayers: 2-5
  • ages: 6+
  • playing time: 20 minutes
  • print status: in print
  • cost: $10.79 (
It appears we've been sold a bill of goods when it comes to the legend of Robin Hood. Evidently, he is not a human (as portrayed brilliantly by Errol Flynn & much less brilliantly by Kevin Costner) nor is he a fox (as the Walt Disney Company tried to convince us)... he's a dog. A hound - Robin Hound.

And if he's going to loot the castle at Nottingham, he's going to need to gather a band of merry, um, animals. Or, in the case of the game, you're going to have to gather five of them with the help of your fellow players.

The "board" is actually a layout of tiles - a circle of forest tiles with a larger castle tile as the start space/goal. Players place their hound markers on the space, the card deck (with 6 different kinds of animals) is shuffled and two cards are dealt face up in the center of the table.

In turn, players pick up one of the two face-up cards and either
  • keep it in their own hand (if it doesn't match anything they already have) OR
  • give it to another player

A number of the cards have shields on them which denotes that they can only be given to another player.

If you give a card to an opponent that doesn't match any of his cards, you get to move your hound through the forest as many spaces as he has cards in his hand. If, however, you give a card to an opponent that matches one of his cards, the card is discarded and you get nothing.

When a player's hound passes the castle on the forest track OR a player collects a set of five different merry animals, they immediately draw a treasure chest card - which has one, two or three bags of gold on it. The first player to either (a) collect five treasure chests or (b) get 10 bags of gold wins the game.

This is the part of the review where I strongly recommend that you skip to the "professional rules" with all but the youngest players, which are:

  1. There is a penalty for giving another player a duplicate animal - they get to move their hound!
  2. You can choose to discard a card rather than giving it to another player.

Both of these rules make for a more interesting game by giving you choices... and giving your choices a consequence.

This is a light, fast game of memory with a nice blending of cooperative & competitive elements. The art is very cute, the box size is perfect for making it a stocking stuffer, and all the members of our family (ages 6 to 47) have had a good time playing it. It's not going to take the board gaming world by storm like Animal Upon Animal or Maus nach Haus (both Haba games that have very positive feedback from gamers) - it's a solid & very enjoyable game for kids & families.

The box says Robin Hound plays with 2-5 players... and I was skeptical about the lower end of those numbers when I read the rules. However, my 6 year old son & I played two-handed and had a great time, so I was forced to rethink my objections. While I like the game better with more players, it also works well as "just the two of us" parent & child game.

Finally, because there are 6 different suits of merry animals, you could increase the difficulty (and length!) of the game by requiring players to get all six cards in order to grab a treasure chest. (Note: we haven't tried this yet.)

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Merry Holidays? Happy Christmas?

We all get "those emails" - you know, the ones where you are instructed to either pass the message on or forward it to five friends or whatever. (I've sounded off on this before here on the blog - go back & read my post Forward, Christian Soldiers.)

And I got another one today.
I will be making a conscious effort to wish everyone a Merry Christmas this year ...

My way of saying that I am celebrating the birth Of Jesus Christ.

So I am asking my email buddies, if you agree with me, to please do the same.

And if you'll pass this on to your email buddies, and so on...

maybe we can prevent one more American tradition from being lost in the sea of "Political Correctness".
You may sit now, as I did, for a moment of stunned silence at this bit of ridiculousness.

OK, silent time is over.

Elton Trueblood once said:
“There are those places in ministry and theology that you must draw the line and fight and die; just don’t draw the lines in stupid places!”
Here are three reasons that the above email (and the philosophy behind it) are clearly one of those stupid places:
  1. Please, please, please... any time you are tempted to use the phrases "celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ" and "American tradition" in the same sentence, you should use some of that cutesy holiday-themed scotch tape to shut your mouth. The celebration of Christ's birth is NOT an American tradition - it's a Christian tradition... and being an American doesn't make you a Christian, any more than walking into McDonald's makes you a hamburger. (Credit to Keith Green for that analogy.)
  2. "Happy Holidays" is not a frontal attack on Christianity... it's an attempt by people (and businesses) to be inoffensive in a season in which there are two major religious holidays (one Christian & one Jewish), one cultural holiday (Kwanzaa), and New Years Day as well.
  3. A methodological problem: email forwards tend to go to people who already agree with you - meaning you've created feedback loop of people who become belligerent about the way they wish people "Merry Christmas" because they're sure that everyone who doesn't do the same is opposed to all that is good & right in the world.

I'm not telling you to stop saying "Merry Christmas" - in the words of Reggie McNeal, "Don't hear what I'm not saying." Go right ahead & wish people "Merry Christmas"... you are celebrating the birth of Christ in this season. The sincere hope of those who are followers of Jesus is that more people would discover that for themselves.

However, I do want to give you a few tips in how to fulfill the command of Scripture while you're spreading holiday cheer:

  1. Stop correcting salespeople who are obligated - in order to keep their job! - to say "Happy Holidays". It's not their fault. And arguing with them or chiding them is not going to bring anyone closer to embracing the true meaning of Christmas.
  2. When you say "Merry Christmas", make sure you sound like Bob Crachit rather than Ebenezer Scrooge. Seriously, there are some folks out there who spit the traditional greeting at people like it's a bullet aimed straight at their pitiful heathen hearts. If you can't wish someone "Merry Christmas" with a heart filled with Christlike love, then don't say anything at all.
  3. Remember that the (gosh, I hate this cliche) "reason for the season" is Jesus Christ... not the preservation of tradition or winning the "War on Christmas". The Incarnation is about God clearly & completely expressing His love for us - Immanuel means "God with us". When we are just working to accomplish a cultural agenda, we are communicating the exact opposite message... what we're saying is "if you don't accept my particular way of celebration & the theological beliefs that go along with it, I'll simply stuff it down your throat."

And, since I'm a pastor, a Scripture to prove my point:

Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone. (Colossian 4:5-6, NIV)

BTW, Merry Christmas!

Game Preview: Memoir '44 Campaign Book Volume 2

I love movie previews, so much so that I refuse to buy a ticket to a film unless I know I'm going to get to see the trailers before it starts. And that's my function here today, to act as a movie trailer for the upcoming release of Memoir '44: Campaign Book Volume Two from Days of Wonder.

Previews have targeted audiences, one excellent current example being the differences between the first American trailer for
The Adventures of Tintin (which pretty much keeps Tintin hidden throughout) and the European trailer for the same film, which both has a different name (The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn, which sounds like a typical Tintin graphic novel) and manages to highlight Snowy, Archibald Haddock and Dupont & Dumond (all classic Tintin characters). The people promoting the film know their jobs...

...and I know mine. Obviously, the audience for a preview of an expansion for a game system with the words "Campaign Book" and "Volume Two" in the title is going to be limited to those who already own
Memoir '44 (and some or all of the numerous expansions) – or, hopefully, some of you who are wondering whether it's worth jumping in based on this addition to the franchise.

Let's answer some questions you might have:

What is a campaign?

The Campaign Books (along with the additional web-released campaigns, The Vercors Campaign and Audie Murphy's Campaign) offer a way to chain Memoir '44 scenarios together in order to experience a series of battles or, well, a campaign. Two added game mechanisms – Reserves and Victory Rolls – combine with scenario and campaign specific effects to give a unique feel to each series of battles and reward the victor with some "spoils of war" to enhance his chances in the next battle.

Campaigns vary in length, usually consisting of 4-6 battles, but Grand Campaigns exist as well, tying together multiple campaigns to cover larger sections of World War II.

Which expansions do I need to use this book?

Obviously, you need a copy of the Memoir '44 base game. Beyond that:
  • The Island Hoppers Grand Campaign (which consists of four campaigns: Guadalcanal, Marshall Islands, Marianas & Palau Islands and Home Islands) requires a copy of the Pacific Theater expansion.
  • The Bicycle Blitzkrieg & Fall of Poland campaigns require tiles from the Terrain Pack expansion (although you could do without those in a pinch).
  • The Breakthrough Normandy Grand Campaign requires the Breakthrough map boards (which could also be the paper Breakthrough map from the Campaign Bag) as well as tiles from the Terrain Pack (in such quantity that faking your way through would be tough). Though not required, it would also be great to have a copy of the Winter Wars expansion for the Breakthrough command card deck; the extra fluidity of movement makes the Breakthrough scenarios flow better.
  • The Air Aces campaign requires the Air Pack expansion.
Wait a minute, I thought Air Pack was out of print. Why did Days of Wonder include a campaign in a new book for something that's difficult to acquire?!

DoW's Eric Hautemont explains what's going on in the Memoir '44 forums on the Days of Wonder website:
No, we have no plans to reprint the Air Pack (in this form or any other), as the costs to do so would be prohibitive.

The reason we went ahead and included this (small) Air Aces campaign at the end of Volume 2 is because the other campaigns in the book ran longer than initially planned, so we had to increase the page count in this volume from 112 pages to 128 pages (due to the way pages are bound, the page count in a book like this go up in 16 pages increments).

The Air Aces campaign was short enough to fit in the few remaining pages we had, so we added it in as a bonus for people that own the Air Pack.

For those of you that were not able to acquire the Air Pack while in print, we will post a free PDF of the Air Rules on our web site at the same time the Campaign Book Volume 2 ships.

Do I need Campaign Book Volume One in order to use this one?

Nope – the Campaign and Grand Campaign rules work the same way in both books. What you're getting is 46 new scenarios tied together into eleven different campaigns.

So, what do you think?

I'll be writing a full review for The Opinionated Gamers in the next couple of weeks, but so far we've played the first three Breakthrough Normandy scenarios – a hint based on my son's mistakes: the 82nd & 101st Airborne need to secure the area before attempting to grab objectives – and the first two Bicycle Blitzkrieg scenarios (where my younger son is trampling over my pathetic British defenses), and we're having a great time!

The scenarios are all top-notch, I love the variety of theaters of operation, and I especially appreciate the suggestions in the rules for "making do" if you don't have a particular expansion. (Example: The paratroop drop scenarios both use the Night rules, but offer an alternate way to have the same effect if you don't own the Night rules board.)

A review copy was provided by Days of Wonder to this reviewer. This preview originally appeared on BGG as a BGN article.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

I Had A Dream

And boy oh boy, was it a weird one.

Somehow, a bunch of us had decided that the only way to do [some important thing that was extremely fuzzy in my dream] was to travel across the United States on foot through a long set of cavern-like tunnels. We were staying in a hotel somewhere in [another fuzzy part] and I was packing my backpack full of food for the trip, worrying about the batteries in my head lamp. The entrance to the tunnels was in the sub-basement of the hotel... and every time I went near the opening, I could feel the weight of the earth pressing down on me.

The crowd of people in the dream was a wild mix: gamer friends (both local & far away), folks from my church, and even a couple of teams from the current season of the Amazing Race. Shari was there as well... though she wasn't going to be traveling with us.

As the time for our departure grew nearer, I began to think about how long it would take us to walk to New Mexico - evidently Albuquerque was an exit point from the tunnel system. I worried about how much food we were carrying. I wondered if we could pull roller luggage with us or if the ground would be too rough. I continued to feel like the caves would collapse and leave me buried choking for air, dying beneath the deserts of Arizona.

And then I woke up.

This morning, while I was shaving, a thought popped into my head: "Why were we going through the tunnels? Why didn't we just rent a car or take a plane?" (Obviously, this level of clarity is not always available to you in dreams.)

From there, it was only a short mental hop/skip/jump to an actual meaningful insight: how often do we decide to "walk across America underground" because it was the first idea that came to us? Regardless of resources & common sense, we plow ahead... unwilling to examine our decision or explore the alternatives.
  • in our personal lives, where we hang onto dating relationships that are clearly bad for us spiritually & emotionally rather than risk being alone
  • in our business lives, where we follow a strategic plan that has been eclipsed by changes in the economy
  • in our family lives, where we plod along on autopilot, doing marriage & parenting just like our parents did without heeding the consequences to ourselves or our kids
  • in our church lives, where we're unwilling to try something different because "we've never done it that way before"

So the question I'm asking myself today is this: "What decision needs to be remade? What in my life smells dangerously of musty caverns?"

Because I know some of you will be interested, possible sources for some of the elements in my dream:

  • cave tunnels - too much D&D as a teenager
  • head lamp - Amazing Race + last week was "Black-Out Nite" at Awana and a bunch of the kids had head lamps
  • hotel - looking forward to a vacation in a week or so
  • Amazing Race - well, we watch it each week
  • Albuquerque as tunnel exit - Bugs Bunny... "should have taken the left turn at Albuquerque"
  • cave collapse - this last week's episode of Hawaii 5-0, which had kids being buried alive in a panel truck

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Gaming With Kids: The Answers

Grant Rodiek (who blogs at Exiled Here and Tweets as Herrogrant) is working a blog post about gaming with kids & sent out a list of questions... which he's graciously allowed me to post & answer here on my blog. (BTW, if you're a "nerd parent" - as Grant so accurately typed me - you might want to drop him a line & join in!)
  • How old is your child? (This question will be used to sort the answers you give below)
  • What is the gender of your children? (This question will be used to sort the answers you give below)
My boys are 10 and 6...
  • What are your children's favorite games?
My 10 year old LOVES Summoner Wars & Dungeonquest. My 6 year old has recently developed a fascination for Loopin' Louie... but his big game of the year is Gubs.
  • What are YOUR favorite games to play with your children?
I'm a huge fan of Haba games. I think that Kayanak is absolutely brilliant & Kaseklau! (English name: Cheese Snatching) is an excellent press-your-luck game with a fun "Tom & Jerry"-ish theme. I'm also enjoy Duck Duck Bruce & Gulo Gulo... but one of my favorite recent dad/kid gaming innovations in our home that makes me happy deep down to my toes is both of my boys wanting to play Memoir '44 with me!
  • What are the most important factors for YOU when you purchase a game for your children?
I want the game to have (a) great gameplay, (b) easy enough for kids to learn, and (c) not make me want to get a frontal lobotomy rather than play the game. Example of (c): Kinder Bunnies: Their First Adventure... shudder.
  • What seems to be most important for your children when buying a game? (I'm not sure if you take them to the store or shop online with them when you make purchases)
  • What themes seem to excite your children the most?
It's all about the theme for both of them... my youngest tends to like economic games (he wants to get money) while the older one likes fantasy, sci-fi & combat themes.
  • Do your children seem to enjoy a particular mechanic more than others? (i.e. dice rolls)
I haven't really noticed any one particular mechanic.
  • Do you want your children to learn something when playing a game? Do you prefer a game to be overtly educational, or is it okay for it to be more subtle (i.e. counting, chance, social skills integrated)?
Most educational games aren't very good games... and often do a poor job of teaching their subject matter. I think my boys have learned more in subtle ways (reading, math, logic, social skills, etc.) with "regular" games than they would have with a force-fed diet of "educational" games.
  • Anything else you'd like to add? Anything I forgot to ask? Any insights you have as a parent are greatly appreciated.

I just love that you're asking the questions!

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Game Reviewlet: Ticked Off!

I will not – though every bone in my body tells me I should – make the obligatory “ticked off” title pun joke to go with my less-than-positive comments about the game. You should feel no such limitations.

We had the opposite problem from Greg’s experience with Ticked Off! – our game (with four players) only lasted 3 rounds. The bidding didn’t get pushed high enough in the first category, giving me the opportunity to score 25+ points on the first turn. I was Start Player once more (for another 20 or so points), then scored another 15 with someone else as the Start Player. Game over.

And then we come to my particular beef with the game: Ted’s self-proclaimed “awesome rule that prevents a living encyclopedia from running away with the game!” (This quote is from his BGG comment on Ticked Off!.) Until I saw Ted’s comment, I wasn’t sure whether the rule was serious or not – the rules are written in a jaunty style with a number of witty asides about questioning the mental fitness of the Start Player and taunting others about their lack of knowledge.

The rule in question?

“IMPORTANT! If the player with the most points at the end of the game is more than 15 points ahead of the next highest scoring player, he is disqualified for cheating (really, how else could he be that far ahead?), and the player in second place wins.”

This may be a great game for some people – but if you’re good at trivia games, the “game” for you (thanks to this rule) is gaming the system to stay in front but not too far in front. In other words, you have to “play dumb” in order to win – underbidding, intentionally leaving off answers, picking categories you aren’t good at, etc. This is decidedly not a “game” I want to be playing.

And while I understand that Ted & Frank are going for a smart-alecky vibe in the rules, the “disqualified for cheating” crack gets under my skin. I reserve accusations of cheating for, well, cheating. (Yes, I know, I know – I’m the butt of this particular joke… but that doesn’t make it any funnier.)

This is not a shot at Ted or Frank as designers or publishers – while I love Time’s Up & Smarty Party (both published by R&R Games), I have the same issues with another R&R game designed by my friend Stephen Glenn (You Must Be An Idiot). Both YMBAI & Ticked Off! punish players with more trivia skills in the name of fun for the rest of the table – which is not fun for those players.

I will say in the game’s defense that one of the players at the table really enjoyed it (granted, he came in second). As well, the production is very well done – with the exception of the gold & yellow pawns, which are way too close in color.

This, as you can tell by now, is not a full review - thus the "reviewlet" title. It's actually my comment on a full review published by Greg Schloesser on the Opinionated Gamers website.

I also need to note that a review copy was provided by R&R Games.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Kid Game Review: Knock Your Blocks Off

Knock Your Blocks Off
  • Designer: Rebekah Bissell
  • Publisher: Gamewright
  • Players: 2-4
  • Ages: 8+
  • Playing Time: 15 minutes
  • Review by Mark Jackson (6 plays w/a review copy provided by Gamewright)
The word "off" in the title is not the only thing that Knock Your Blocks Off & yesterday's review (City Square Off) have in common - both are thematically city-building games. However, Knock Your Blocks Off allows - nah, encourages! - you to destroy your opponents' cities.

Each player has a set of 6 dice "blocks" which have a variety of two-color patterns on them. Simultaneously, the players roll their "blocks" and then build them into one of six different "structures". The first player to finish his structure places his king block on the top of his creation then grabs the destruction die from the center of the table, meaning he gets to go first when the attacking begins.

Once all the players have finished their structures, the starting player chooses one of his neighbors to attack & rolls the destruction die. The result determines whether the player will have to flick the die (boulder), throw the die underhand (ogre) or drop it from above (dragon) in his attempt to knock the king block to the table. If he's successful, he gets a point... but if he fails, the defender gets a point!

Now the die passes to the defender and he in turn attacks the next player. After each player has attacked and been attacked one time, the turn is over and players get ready to roll their blocks & build a new structure. The first player to reach 8 victory points wins immediately.

There are a few wrinkles, of course:
  • each of the five structures (tower, wall, fort, stairs, gate) have a special power - some give you extra points for attacking or defending successfully, while others make it easier to attack or defend.
  • the player who finishes their structure first not only gets the destruction die but also a victory point... unless they build the wall or the tower, in which case the ease of building means they don't get the point.
  • completed structures must match - in other words, the color on the edge of one block must match the color of the block(s) it is next to... and if they don't, the player doesn't get the special power of that structure
So, you ask, how's the game play? Well, it's quick... slightly faster with 2 players than with 3 or 4, but even with the full complement of players, it moves at a nice clip. (I think I like it best with 3.)

There are some tactical decisions, particularly as one or more players get close to winning. Do I build one of the quick structures to keep the the victory point away from another player, or do I work to maximize my own power? If I do get to decide the order of attack (by being the start player), which player should I attack?

Obviously, there's a bit of dexterity involved - the game rules specify that attacks take place from about a foot away, which is not as easy as it sounds, especially for younger players.

And that brings me to my one real caution about the game - while it's very attractive to my 6 year old son, he can not compete with his 10 year old brother or his dad in getting his structure built first. He's also not as able to attack successfully... which can be really frustrating for him in a game that he thinks is cool.

At the same time, Knock Your Blocks Off isn't substantial enough for gamers unless they approach it as an enjoyable short filler. I'd say that the sweet spot for the game is older kids (8+) and families... and in that context, it's been a great 15 minute game of construction & destruction.

This review originally appeared on the Opinionated Gamers website.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Kid Game Review: City Square Off

City Square Off
  • Designer: Ted Cheatham
  • Publisher: Gamewright
  • Players: 2
  • Ages: 8+
  • Playing Time: 15 minutes
  • Review by Mark Jackson (8 plays w/a review copy provided by Gamewright)
My wife likes this. Let me rephrase that... my non-gamer wife likes City Square Off. Heck, my wife voluntarily taught the game to one of her friends - a casual family gamer - who went out & bought a copy.

For some of you reading this, that's really all you need to know. This very straightforward Tetris-like two-player game is winningly produced (nice molds for the starting cities, Gamewright production people!) and the game play is simple enough that my six-year-old can play... though not competitively. And my very significant other likes it!

Ted Cheatham (note: Ted is a long-time personal friend) has created a game that's squarely (unintended pun - once again, my apologies for going OFF on a tangent.... dang, I did it again!) in the mode of FITS without being an identical gaming experience.

Here, players begin with non-identical city center pieces, an identical set of city "blocks" and their own gridded city board. (If you own a copy of Blokus, it's the same set set of tiles.) One of the players turns up a card which indicates which city block must be placed on the board... and that block has to go adjacent to the city center or an already placed block. The first player to be forced to play outside the grid loses... unless both players do so on the same turn - then the player with the largest single open area wins.

There are four variants listed in the rules - I especially like the "sprawl" version that lets player have city blocks hang off the edge - and there are four different city center pieces to increase the variety in the base game.

Like Take It Easy or Cities or FITS, there's really no limit on the number of players for City Square Off IF you have enough game sets... but the game is a lot of fun just with two players. As I said earlier, kids as young as 6 can figure out the game, but the ability to play well seems to develop a bit later.

Honestly, I'd be a fan of this game even if my friend hadn't designed it... but I do have give props to Gamewright for making it a classy & non-gamer friendly production.

This review originally appeared on the Opinionated Gamers website.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Prayer Space

Link Prayer Space.JPG Originally uploaded by bhsher

I asked God for strength, that I might achieve;

I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.

I asked for health, that I might do greater things;

I was given infirmity, that I might be happy.

I asked for riches, that I might be happy;

I was given poverty, that I might be wise.

I asked for power, that I might have the praise of men;

I was given weakness, that I might feel the need for God.

I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life;

I was given life, that I might enjoy all things.

I got nothing that I asked for;

But everything I had hoped for.

Almost despite myself, my unspoken prayers were answered.

I am, among all men, most richly blessed.

(Author unknown - quoted by Neil T. Anderson in his book, Who I Am In Christ)

Monday, October 31, 2011

Word Bible Design

OK, the reason I'm blogging about this today is that Jim is running a contest (that you can enter, too!)... but I've been following his Word Bible Design project for quite a while.

Head over to the Word Bible Designs page to check out what he's done - more than once, I'd have picked a different image or a different emphasis for a book, but Jim's thoughtfulness about the project has caused me to think & pray about the Scripture... and that's a good thing.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Kid Game Review: Hit the Throttle

Hit The Throttle
  • designer: Wolfgang Dirscherl
  • publisher: Haba
  • date: 2010
  • BoardGameGeek rank/rating: not ranked/6.00
  • age: 4+
  • # of players: 2-5
  • print status: in print
  • cost: $10.88 (
Over the years, I've heard Haba's Monza touted as a great introductory racing games for young kids... and I've even personally praised the game as "a great introduction to proper sequencing for young gamers"... but I think it's time for Monza to let another Haba game pass.

That would be Hit the Throttle (not to be mistaken with the great Haba puzzle card game, At Full Throttle). While it's a simple roll'n'move, it's tons of fun for young players, has some simple decisions, and is mercifully short so that parents and older siblings can dive in as well.

Each player is given a secret card at the beginning of the race showing two of the six colored cars - the cars they now will work to get to the end of the race track. On your turn, you roll three color dice and pick one of them, moving that color car one space forward. You then set that dice aside and roll the remaining two dice, picking one of them & moving the respective car. Finally, you roll the last die and move the car indicated. When both of your cars cross the finish line (even if it isn't your turn), you flip your card over & declare your victory!

So, with a game that simple, why do I like it?
  • it's extremely accessible for young players - no number skills are required (just color matching)
  • races are close - we haven't seen a blowout yet
  • the pieces are chunky wooden cars on a colorful track
  • every kid who has played it (including my ten year old son) wanted to play it again
When we talk about "teaching our kids how to play games", Hit the Throttle is an excellent choice for ages 4-5... and the small box footprint would make it an excellent stocking stuffer.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Everybody Dance Now!

I am thankful for a number of things.

The first is that I am not the guy in the lobster costume (or the other one which I can't recognize).

I'm also thankful that DJ Chuang was kind enough to let me verbally spam everyone in his breakout session Monday afternoon with the address of my blog. (BTW, welcome to any newcomers... be sure to say "Hi" in the comments!)

Both of these things (the costuming of a bunch of youth interns & the blog shout-out) occurred at an amazing conference, Sticky Teams 2.0, which I'll be blogging about in the upcoming weeks.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Kid Game Review: Gubs

Gubs: A Game of Wit & Luck
  • Designer: Alex & Cole Medeiros
  • Publisher: Gamewright
  • Players: 2-6
  • Ages: 10+
  • Playing Time: 20 minutes
  • Review by Mark Jackson (11 plays w/a review copy provided by Gamewright)
I’ve played a lot of kid games in my life – some good (Family Pastimes’ The Secret Door), some great (Klaus Teuber’s Kinderspiel-winning memory game Hallo Dachs, soon to be reprinted by Mayfair as Badger Badger), and some downright awful (Reiner Knizia’s Nimbali – the ONLY Haba game I refuse to recommend). With all those years of experience sitting Indian-style next to our coffee table, I’ve learned that there are two keys to making a successful kid game that families can enjoy:
  1. It doesn’t cause the adults or older siblings involved to run away from the table in revulsion. (We will not speak of Pokemon Master Trainer again for fear of causing my gag reflex to kick in.)
  2. It does cause kids to ask to play it over & over & over again.

Everything else (good artwork, high quality pieces, a clear ruleset) is gravy.

And by that measure, Gubs is an absolute success. This clever little “take-that” card game has a well-written set of rules, beautiful cards in a tin box (similar to but smaller than the Forbidden Island tin)… and there are enough interesting things going on in the game so that I’ll gladly play it with my two boys… a lot.

According to the color text in the rulebook, the Gubs are a peaceful lot – but what with the Spears and the Lightning and the various natural disasters (Flash Flood, Rumor Wasps, the Gavock Plague, etc.), it doesn’t sound like these little guys have a very peaceful life. They hide behind Mushrooms or ride toads or Velvet Moths… and try to avoid being Lured away by precious stones (and Rings – these guys have a real weakness for rings).

I pretty much picture the Land of the Gubs as my front yard – like A BUG’S LIFE (delightful film) or THE ANT BULLY (decent if forgettable) or ANTZ (a pretentious waste of time & celluloid). This fast-paced war is taking place in miniature right beneath my feet – and until the card game was released, I was unaware of it.

Or, should I say, re-released. Gubs has a long history: the first version of the game was created by the designer back in the early 90s. In 2005, he began the long difficult process of self-publishing his creation – with the game finally reaching the market in 2007. In the spring of 2011, Gamewright published a new edition of the game with new artwork – and that’s what I’ll be reviewing for you. (If you’d like to read the whole history of Gubs – complete with early artwork – you can check out the website.)

The objective of the game is simple: keep the largest group of Gubs safe when the timer runs out. (In other words, have more Gubs than anyone else.) If there’s a tie, the tiebreaker is which player has the Esteemed Elder Gub in play. (I picture him as kind of a Morgan Freeman type – the Gub steeped in wisdom & a voice dripping with gravitas.)

Game play is equally simple. On your turn, you:

  • MAY draw a card (there are reasons not to draw in the late game)
  • play as many cards as you like
  • discard down to 8 cards (we have NEVER had to use the discard rule)
  • say “Go” so the next player knows it’s their turn

There are a wide variety of card types (Hazards, Tools, Barricades, Interrupts, Events… and, of course, Gubs) – and the meat of the game is figuring out how to use the cards you have to protect your Gubs & make life difficult for the other Gubs at the table.

In this way, Gubs actually belongs to the same gaming family as Fluxx & Munchkin – “take that” card games where players attempt to build a winning tableau in front of them while fending off the attacks of other players. For some of you, that last sentence is a glowing recommendation of Gubs. For others (including myself), it’s a warning that echoes in a Dante-ish fashion: “Abandon all hope, ye who agree to play this game.”

There are a couple of things, however, that set Gubs head & shoulders above the other games I mentioned:

  1. It’s fast. Really, really fast. A long game of Gubs is 15 minutes, with 10 minutes being more typical. That’s due in no small part to…
  2. …it’s got a wertung timer mechanic. (“Wertung” is German for scoring/valuation – and is a common way to refer to a gaming innovation found in a number of Alan Moon games.) There are three Event cards in the deck that spell out G-U-B (or, as my 6 year old noticed, B-U-G). When all three cards appear, the game is over & the player with the most Gubs wins.

There are a couple of cards that can extend the game (the Flop Boat can be used to shuffle one of the letter Events back into the deck – and the Cricket Song – the one wild card in the game – can be used as a Flop Boat)… but the discards are never shuffled back into the deck, so you know that the end is coming.

And while I will occasionally play Fluxx (most recently, Pirate Fluxx) under duress and have sworn off playing Munchkin ever again (ranking it just above – gag – Pokemon Master Trainer), the speed & whimsy of Gubs has me even asking to play this game with my boys.

The game is pretty easy to teach – the card text does an excellent job of explaining what each card can do and the goal of the game is simple enough to grasp. I’ve fallen into teaching the game “as you go”: deal out the cards, give the objective & away we go! However, it’s been my experience that kids deal with the random/chaotic nature of the Event cards much better than adults (and particularly gamer adults) the first time they play. If you’ve got gamer blood in you, you may want to thumb through the deck & see the possible craziness that can ensue – and the various ways you can counter it through card hoarding & smart play.

While the recommended age is 10+, my six year old (who reads well) does just fine with the game. I think success with younger kids will depend on reading level & ability to hold the cards.

The game box says it will play 2-6 players… but I think it’s probably best with 2-4 players. In fact, I enjoy it most with 3.

Monday, October 03, 2011

"You Gotta Fight Your Way Through"

Ira is talking about making video pieces... but I think this applies equally well to preaching. (Think about it.)

The video interview that this was taken from is available on YouTube.

Friday, September 30, 2011

“The best diplomat that I know is a fully-loaded phaser bank.” – a review of Star Trek: Fleet Captains

  • Designers: Mike Elliott. Bryan Kinsella & Ethan Pasternack
  • Publisher: WizKids
  • Ages: 14 and up
  • Players: 2 or 4
  • Time: 60-90 minutes
Review by Mark Jackson (review copy provided by WizKids)

Do they just let anybody review Star Trek games? What are your Trekkie credentials?

  • I’ve seen all of the original series as well as the all of the animated series. (Thank you, Saturday afternoon reruns… but why did I have to see the episode about the creepy teenage girl on the all-kid planet so many times?)
  • I’ve seen most of the films, though I’d erase the first Star Trek movie (yawn) and ST V: The Final Frontier (blech) from my memory banks if I could.
  • I gave up on Next Generation after the first crushingly boring season (there’s a Wesley pun hidden in there somewhere), though I did come back & catch the Borg arc (which was excellent). Yes, I know, real Trekkies, I left just when it was getting good.
  • Sadly, I have never watched DS9 or Voyager.
  • I still think the “Get A Life” SNL sketch with William Shatner (“You, you must be almost 30… have you ever kissed a girl?… I didn’t think so!”) is one of his greatest moments.
  • The quote in the title is from Mr. Scott, btw.

Could you summarize the rules… briefly?

Shortest version: read the rules posted on the WizKids website.

Shorter version: score victory points by destroying enemy ships, completing missions, surviving encounters & building starbases.

Long(er) version: players take turns moving their ships, adjusting the power settings (stats) for those ships & taking three actions: attacking, scanning, exerting influence, transporting away parties, building installations, etc.

In summary: the base system is pretty simple, with some fiddly rules for cloaking & use of cards. I think it’s possible for the Federation player to “learn as they go” – the Klingon players will have a little tougher time.

May I have a pithy & quotable comparative description of the game that people can argue about, please?

No problem… in fact, I’ll give you two:

  • it’s Dungeonquest in Space
  • it’s Tales of the Star Trekkian Nights

You need to know that I love both of the games I referenced – so I don’t consider either description to be pejorative.

But I think it’s important that everyone realize going in that Star Trek: Fleet Captains is an “experience” game rather than a strategy game. Yes, there are lots of interesting tactical decisions to be made and your Missions will help you figure out some long-term strategic goals… but you can be smacked around by bad Encounter card draws or abysmal dice rolls. By the same token, you can benefit from streaky card draws. (I managed to score 5 victory points in one turn: 2 due to destroying a Klingon ship that also completed a mission and 3 due to fulfilling the conditions on the next two Mission cards I revealed.)

There’s nothing wrong with building a game that works this way – but you need to know that you’re going to be playing a theme-heavy game with a variety of random elements (which Command cards you draw, the Missions you get & the order you get them in, the Encounters you run into & the layout of the board… and let’s not forget our pesky friend, the d6) rather than a Euro where player decisions comprise the majority of the chaos.

An aside: Frank Branham pointed out to me that there actually is a “Tales of the Star Trekkian Nights” game – Star Trek: The Adventure Game – and cast aspersions on my character for not having played this paragraph-based experience game. The next time we’re together, Frank, bring it along… it can’t be worse than S.P.I.V.’s.

Spock: “Random chance seems to have operated in our favor.”

McCoy: “In plain, non-Vulcan English, we’ve been lucky”

Spock: “I believe I said that, Doctor”

(Original series: The Doomsday Machine)

Can you name some things you really like about the game?

There’s a lot to like here:

  • Although my initial reaction to the random set-up was negative (“I want to pick the ships for my fleet!”), in practice I’ve found that the variable fleet structure and the way it’s tied to the Missions you’re assigned and how you chose your Command deck to make for very different gaming experiences each time Star Trek: Fleet Captains has hit the table.
  • I was also worried about the sheer number of options for a player each turn – moving all your ships, making power adjustments, taking actions, cycling cards, etc. – but now that I’ve got a few games under my belt, turns seem to move along at a nice clip and I really like how many different things your fleet can do.
  • I love the Command decks – having each deck of 100 cards divided into 10 sets of ten cards (connected by theme) and requiring players to pick 4 sets based on their mix of Missions allows for chances to customize your play experience without devolving into the tedium of deck building. (The design of the cards is also nice – very readable.)
  • I know I sound like a broken record – but the theme comes through so strongly from every element of the game. This is especially true for the power adjustment mechanic, which allows you to vary your stats to send power to Sensors, Shields, Weapons or Engines… which makes me feel like I’m sitting in the captain’s chair myself.

How long does it take to play?

I was pleasantly surprised to find that all three teaching games that I played took about 90 minutes (using the recommended 10 victory points for a win and 5×5 board). With experienced players, I can see this coming in at 60-75 minutes.

There is provision in the rules for making the board bigger and/or upping the victory point total needed for a win (which would up the size of your fleet as well)… but I’m concerned that doing so would increase the game length noticeably. (I have the same concerns about the 4 player rules, but I have not played the game that way yet.)

You can also make the game shorter by shrinking the board and/or dropping the victory point total.

Age 14+? Really?

My 10-year-old did just fine with Star Trek: Fleet Captains… of course, he’s a gamer kid who loves Summoner Wars & Heroscape, so your mileage may vary. I would note that his total lack of familiarity with the Star Trek universe didn’t diminish his enjoyment of the game.

Note: one of my fellow OG writers pointed out that the “age 14+”on the box may have something to do with the new child safety rules for toys. I’ll say this – I’m actually more afraid of some adults I’ve played with putting pieces in their mouths than my 6-year-old son doing the same

Is my favorite ship from Star Trek in the box?

How the heck do I know? While I loved the old school series, I didn’t keep up with the later iterations of the show and so I found myself wondering “who is that guy?” and “I know this is a reference to the mythology but I have no idea what it means” when playing the game. And that’s just playing the Federation – on the Klingon side, I’m almost totally clueless.

That said, there’s a wide variety of ships in the game (12 on each side)… they may have missed a ship or two, but I think all the key “wessels” are available.

I’m mad that the miniatures are unpainted. Aren’t you?

Oh for crying out loud, talk about a tempest in a very small & geeky teapot. (Ladies & gentlemen, I give you the lovely lunacy of the BGG forums.)

Pick something reasonable to whine about already. If not having the minis painted keeps you from enjoying the game, either paint ‘em yourself or find another game to play.


Is this better or worse than Star Trek: Expeditions?

Much, much better… while I found Expeditions to be math-y and lacking in the necessary tension to make a cooperative game work, I think that Fleet Captains does what it sets out to do and does it well – the game gives you a great big Star Trek sandbox to play in and fills it with a truckload of thematically appropriate “toys”: ships, encounter, crew, etc.

A note: I don’t hate cooperative games… and I certainly don’t hate Knizia designing them (Lord of the Rings is still a personal favorite) – but Expeditions is not his best work.

Is it bigger than a breadbox?

Well, the MSRP certainly is… $99.99.

But you do get a lot of stuff in the very big box for your hard-earned gaming dollars – the ships alone (24 ships with a good level of detail on Clix bases) would be $60+ if you could get them at retail. And then there’s nearly 300 cards as well as tokens & the 50 hex cards that make up the board…

Want to complain about anything?

Sure. While I understand that WizKids is invested in the Clix base system, it’s not easy for those of us with aging eyesight to figure out the various numbers settings on the bases… and you might as well forget about playing this in a low light situation for the same reason.

I’m also a little iffy about the card quality – it’s the same weird finish on thin cardstock as the cards in Star Trek: Expeditions. I don’t think they’ll tear easily but they do feel like it wouldn’t take much to fold one of them.

And, since I’m being picky, I would have really liked it if the ship cards were larger.

How about a summary of your thoughts on the game?

With three plays under my belt, I can safely say that:

  • I’ve really enjoyed all three plays of the game
  • The one opponent who didn’t like Star Trek: Fleet Captains is not a fan of “experience” games
  • I look forward to playing it more in the near future
  • I am a bit concerned that none of my three games were close – I do wonder if there is a small “runaway leader” problem. (Note: I taught all three of my opponents the game & beat them, so this may well disappear with experience.)
This post originally appeared on the Opinionated Gamers blog.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Sticky Teams: Review & Highlights

I've blogged a good bit about Larry Osborne's excellent book Sticky Teams... but now, thanks to the Shameless Commerce/Conference Promotion/Win Mark & NewLife Something Free Division of this blog, I'm going to pull those threads together so you can see 'em all in one place.

First, my Goodreads review of Sticky Teams:
Fantastic book on recruiting, training & leading church leadership teams - both boards & staff. The author assumes you've already done your Biblical homework & instead focuses on practical wisdom on dealing with team leadership.

I especially liked the "sitting around, talking with a mentor/friend" tone - the honesty, the humor & the insight make for a readable, helpful & indepth look into the subject.
Then, some highlights from a series of posts I did late last year on selected quotes from Sticky Teams:

Chapter One:
  • me: I bought my copy of the book at the conference & promptly devoured it - it's chockful of amazing insight into church leadership, staff dynamics & following God as a pastor. Usually I'm the guy who reads a book once & then puts it on the shelf for reference... but I'm in the process less than 2 months later of reading through it again, which ought to tell you something about the impact it's having on me.
  • larry: Most church fights aren't over theology or even ministry goals; they're over priorities & methodology.
Chapter Two:
  • larry: Our rotating board did more harm than good. Imagine a corporation that changed one-third of its leaders every ten to fifteen meetings... When, by definition, thirty-three percent of the board lacked a corporate memory, it was hard to build on past decisions.
Chapter Three:
  • larry: The most common breakdown I see in terms of relational fit happens when we allow superior Bible knowledge or spiritual zeal to trump an obvious & serious lack of social skills or a bristly personality.
Chapter Four:
  • mark: I can not recommend Larry's explication of team dynamics/growth using the sports team metaphor highly enough... nor can I condense it down to a few pithy quotes. I won't even try.
  • larry: I knew that despite all the "sin words" that both sides had thrown around ("arrogant," "self-willed," "unaccountable," "not a team player," "boundary queen," and "inflexible," to name a few), the real issue was not sin so much as deep hurt & discomfort that came with our changing organizational dynamics.
Chapter Five:
  • mark: Nothing say "rewritten leadership talk" like the title "Six Things Every Leadership Team Needs To Know"... but when the quality level is this high, who cares?
  1. Ignore your weaknesses.
  2. Surveys are a waste of time.
  3. Seek permission, not buy-in.
  4. Let squeaky wheels squeak.
  5. Let dying programs die.
  6. Plan in pencil.
  • larry: Most squeaky wheels keep right on squeaking, for one simple reason: they don't squeak for a lack of oil; they squeak because it's their nature to squeak.
  • larry: Church harmony is inversely related to the amount of time spent oiling squeaky wheels.
Chapter Six:
  • larry: If I hadn't previously submitted to their decisions that I didn't agree with, there's no way they would have listened to me when I played the "God told me" card. It would have been seen as just another creative ploy to get my own way.
Chapter Seven:
  • larry: I've found that "You don't listen" often means "You didn't do what I suggested."
Chapter Eight:
  • larry: Like most leaders, I love the idea of servant leadership & putting others first, as long as no one actually cuts in front of me or starts treating me like I'm a servant.
Which reminds me... I need to finish blogging my way through the book. (He says, grinning sheepishly.)

The motivation behind this (as I mentioned earlier) is an opportunity to blog & win a free ticket to the Sticky Teams conference... which I attended & thoroughly enjoyed last year. (I was impressed with the practicality of the advice, the willingness to show their rough edges & the excellence with which they pulled off the conference. NewLife is using the Church Unique vision process that I was first taught at Sticky Teams in a great pre-conference session w/Will Mancini.)

So, a to-do list for my ministry-type readers:
  1. read the book - seriously, I don't know of a better book on church leadership structures.
  2. consider attending the conference... it's well worth your time (and it's near San Diego, for crying out loud)
  3. keep reading my blog - I might say something interesting

Monday, September 26, 2011

A Tale of Two Hats: Board Gaming & Ministry

I am not a hat guy.

Really – on some guys, hats make them look cool & sophisticated. (See, for example, Neil Caffrey on the TV show “White Collar” or Indiana Jones.) Hats make me look like Elmer Fudd on a bender.

With all that said, I’m a guy who wears many figurative hats:

  • I’m a husband (proudly married for 21 years)
  • I’m a father (I have two boys – ages 10 & 6)
  • I’m a gamer (with over 1000 games in my collection, I may well have crept into “obsessed gaming nerd” rather than the generic term “gamer”)
  • I’m a follower of Jesus Christ
  • and I’m a pastor (of a small Southern Baptist church in the Central Valley of California)

The question Dale (the Grand Poobah & Chief Bottle Washer for the Opinionated Gamers) asked me was essentially this:

“What’s the intersection of your hobby – board gaming – and your calling – being a pastor – look like?”

How I Use Gaming As A Pastor

I use boardgaming as a way to meet people and build relationships… both inside and outside the church. I’ve been running game groups for nearly 15 years – the last 6 years my regular Tuesday night group has actually met in the social hall of my church.

Gaming also enters into my sermon illustrations – for example:

  • I’ve used game translating as a metaphor for getting to know the Bible. In short: I can read a whole lot more German now than I could 15 years ago, even though I’d had 3 years of German classes in high school & college. Actually having to work with the German language for something I wanted – translating rules to games - changed the way I approached the language, instead of just learning it for a grade.)
  • In the same vein, I’ve talked about the language of the gaming subculture (newbie, TGOO, SdJ, DSK, etc.) and compared it to the language of evangelical subculture (born again, walk the aisle, “fellowship”, etc.). Both sets of words have valid usage, but they don’t adequately speak to the world outside those subcultures. We (speaking both to gamers & Christians) need to use language that communicates truth, rather than using it to build walls that close others out.
  • John Ortberg has a wonderful book entitled It All Goes Back in the Box in which the metaphorical anchor for the book is a story about his grandmother teaching him how to play Monopoly. This excellent illustration on giving became the heart of one sermon & the inspiration for entire series of messages themed around board games:
  • Game On! – Monopoly: Rule #1 (Luke 12:16-21)
  • Game On! – Gin Rummy: How Do You Keep Score? (Philippians 2:5-11)
  • Game On! – Liar’s Dice: Play By The Rules (Matthew 5:1-30)
  • Game On! – Scrabble: Fill Each Square (Matthew 6:33, Romans 12:1-2)
  • Game On! – Risk: Roll the Dice (Hebrews 11)
  • Game On! – Pit: More Will Never Be Enough (Ecclesiastes (selected), Philippians 4:12)
  • Game On! – Chess: The King Has One More Move (1 Corinthians 15:55, John 11:25-26)

How Being a Pastor Affects My Gaming

No surprise – there’s a difference in how my profession affects my gaming hobby and how my personal commitment of my life to Jesus Christ affects my gaming hobby. I try very hard (not always successfully) to NOT choose my activities & actions solely based on my job as a “professional Christian.” Still, I’ve made the choice in the past not to play some games more out of a concern for church member’s opinions rather than my own personal convictions and tastes. Hopefully, I’m done with that, except where my gaming choices could cause a fellow believer to stumble in their faith. (I’m not getting to the exact details of this Romans 14 based practice in this article. Anyone interested can contact me personally.)

OTOH, my strongly held beliefs in Jesus Christ and the authority of the Bible obviously play a role in my hobby. (If strongly held beliefs don’t play a role in your whole life, then they’re not strongly held beliefs.) There are certain games I choose not to play (Hellrail, Lunch Money, etc.) and other games I’m glad they re-themed (Twilight -> Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde) based on what I believe.

I’m a little bothered about how “I”-centered the last couple of paragraphs sound. They don’t fully indicate my conviction that moral choices are not subjective… but again, that’s a conversation for another day.

Gaming Groups & Churches

There’s a lot of ways to use games in a church ministry:

  • create opportunities for families to connect (Family Game Night)
  • open the doors of the church to people outside the church (regular game group)
  • use games as ways to break down walls & encourage communication in non-gaming events (small groups, Sunday School classes, youth groups)
  • and much, much more…

Some advice from a guy who’s “been there, done that, got the T-shirt & the free expansion”:

  1. The first thing is to remember your audience… while (as I mentioned above) I’m not bothered by certain games & themes, I realize that some folks in my congregation would have a hard time with them. So I choose not to bring those for our family game nights. (My guess is that some of your readers will want examples: I don’t bring Bang! or Family Business due to the violence… and I usually keep the heavily themed fantasy games to a minimum.)
  2. The second thing is to remember your audience. No, I’m not repeating myself. The vast majority of non-gamers are not ready to appreciate longer games, even those we would consider “light”. Here in Fresno, Tsuro, Smarty Party, Carabande, Abandon Ship, and Say Anything have all been very successful at our family game nights. So, choose games that fit the gaming “experience” of your crowd.
  3. The third thing is to remember what you want to accomplish. If the point of the evening (be it a club or a game night or whatever) is social interaction, choose games that will help that happen. If you’re appealing to a particular demographic, then pick games that fit their interests. (When I had the 4th-6th boys over for an afternoon of gaming, we played Battle Ball, Lord of the Rings, and Star Wars: Epic Duels.)
  4. The fourth thing is to train others to lead & teach games… that way you don’t have to carry the whole load. We played a lot of games after our small group on Wednesday nights, and those folks were a great help at our game nights in teaching games. (Yes, I had to help make some rulings and correct a missed rule or two, but that’s par for the course.)
  5. Finally, don’t count on what you start in a church context to satisfy your gaming/gamer itch. At our last game night, I spent about 50% of my time teaching games & making sure folks got involved. But that’s OK – my purpose was not to play games non-stop, but to give people an enjoyable evening together. String a lot of those kind of evenings together, and it makes it much easier to create a loving church community.
This article originally appeared on the Opinionated Gamers website.