Monday, December 12, 2022

Mark’s Bundle of 2022 Essen Game Thoughts

Unless otherwise noted, these are FIRST impressions… I only had the opportunity to play most of these games a single time with a physical copy and four of my Opinionated Gamer friends. I’ve left out the older (read: non-2022) games we played to keep this Essen- and Tokyo Game Market-focused and noted where I was able to play a game more than once.

If you’re interested in my Essen (well, post-Essen) impressions from 2018, 2019, and 2020, you can find them at the following links. (I’m not sure why I didn’t do one of these in 2021.)
For those of you who haven’t read a lot of my reviews, they may give you a better insight into my board game tastes and what I’m likely to enjoy. (Which, of course, may or may not line up with your choices. Your mileage may vary.) I’m also linking to OG articles about the games when they are available.

Finally, this post has been updated from the original version of it written for the Opinionated Gamers website, as there are more games with reviews (mostly by Dale!) and some games I've been able to play multiple times.

After Playing 51 Different Games in 4.5 Days…

…I have some thoughts. Well, rules, I guess.
  1. Publishers should have their rulebook and components blind playtested before approving for print. 
  2. Good iconography and clean presentation are more important than being artsy… not everyone has perfect eyesight and/or hi-tech lighting around their state of the art gaming table.
  3. If your game is going to take 2+ hours of my life, it needs to tell a story and/or help me tell a story. I do not want to do mechanical stuff over and over to harvest points for that long.
  4. If you’re not going to tell me a story, at the very least make sure your game has an arc to the game progression… rather than a flatline.
  5. Stupid and fun is still worth playing. 
  6. Don’t be creepy. (I’m looking at you, Girl Glasses Collection.)
  7. I will excuse a lot of weird design choices and even unclear rules if I’m having fun. If I’m not having fun, I don’t feel particularly charitable.
  8. More people should take the chance to play with folks like Dale, John, Ryan, and James. It was a great weekend.
My Three Favorites

  • Played 3 times over 4.5 days
  • I’ll be the first to admit that reading the rulebook of Challengers! left me cold – on paper, it reads like “War!: The Deck-Building Game”. (Credits for that humorous title go to one of my fellow OG writers.) On the table, however, it was a lot of fun each time we played… and it’s been the game I’ve talked the most about to my two sons (both gamers). We were pleasantly surprised how well the bot deck worked (since we always played with an odd number of players) and all of us agreed this would be a great game to play with a large group (it will play up to 8 players).
Eleven: Football Manager Board Game
  • Played 3 times over 4.5 days
  • While there are still some rules questions to be resolved, the underlying game system works like a charm and is fun to play, especially if you are (like myself) a fan of Premier League soccer. Match play is important – but the game is much bigger than winning matches… it’s actually an economic/management game. After two 2-player games and a solo game this weekend, I’m waiting impatiently for my my blinged-out copy of Eleven to arrive by the end of 2022.
Heat: Pedal to the Metal
  • Played once that weekend; played four times since then (thanks to my BGG Secret Santa)
  • Heat is what happens when you partner the designers of Flamme Rouge with the production quality of Days of Wonder – an auto racing game that zips along and was very enjoyable to play. We only did one race with the base game rules, but there are advanced rules that add a number of elements including road & weather conditions, customizing your car, bots to race against, and linking multiple races together. The box includes 2 double-sided boards… so you start with four different raceways available to you.
  • The Legends (bot) expansion works like a charm to play solo and/or with multiple players to flesh out the field of cars. 
Games I’d Be More Than Happy to Play Again

  • Played 2 times over 4.5 days
  • Nicely produced tile laying & stacking game… Akropolis is ostensibly a city-building game, but the the theme is pretty abstracted. Still, it’s an intriguing puzzle to draft and place pieces to maximize your score. (For those of you who’ve been in the hobby a while, the stacking strategy reminded me of the fun parts of Java without the overwhelming brain burn.)
  • My first thought when seeing the cover and the cards of Birdwatcher was “Welp, the Wingspan theme-leeching has begun…” – but I’m happy to be proven wrong. It’s a thematically solid drafting game where the order in which you take photographs (aka draft) of birds is a vital part of increasing your score.
Caldera Park
  • The slightly more gamer-y cousin to Savannah Park… and the game is richer for it. Rather than the Take It Easy/Bingo-style of drafting tiles found in Savannah Park, players choose a combination of location and animal type – a change that works really well. Caldera Park includes some forms of scoring and additional “badness” tiles to gum up your plans.
Hamlet: The Village Building Game
  • I had the opportunity to play Hamlet using the solo rules… now, this (unlike Akropolis) is a for-real city-building game. Both the odd-shaped village pieces and the “anyone can use resources or buildings” rules do some very interesting things to your typical game of this genre. I’d like to try it again, both solo and multiplayer. (I will note that I got to play using the KS edition, which was quite nice.)
  • For me, most Stefan Feld games feel like a mish-mash of mini-games and too clever-by-half game mechanics that wear their purported theme like a Halloween costume. So Marrakesh was a extraordinarily welcome surprise for me… thematically coherent, interlocking mechanics, proper use of a cube tower for randomization, and, most importantly, the game builds to a satisfying ending. I didn’t list it as one of my favorites because (a) it’s pricey for (b) a game I’d struggle to get to the table with my groups. Otherwise, highly recommended.
Marvel Zombicide: Heroes’ Resistance
  • played twice since the November weekend
  • An extra credit entry, as I played this recently released title the day after I got home with my son… it’s Zombicide distilled down to its very playable essence. Looking forward to our next game!
  • It needs more variety - but it's a great taste of what's coming in the Marvel Zombicide KS.
Next Station: London
  • I like a good flip’n’write game… and this is the best of the bunch for Essen 2022. It comes as a shock to no one that Next Station: London was designed by Matthew Dunstan, who also designed/released the excellent Guild of Merchant Explorers earlier this year.
No Mercy
  • Blindingly simple press-your-luck combined with ways to steal stuff from your opponents in 15 or so minutes? Count me in. (No Mercy is similar to/related to Cheeky Monkey – but not identical and much more portable.)
  • Pathogen reminded me of the classic Kosmos 2-player games, only with nicer bits. It’s not something I’d get to the table very often, but it is a well-designed control battle with a unique movement system.
  • The game itself is pretty straightforward – in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, you are aliens seeking to save humanity, so you need to rescue and heal humans, collect food to feed them, and fight off Banes who are hunting for them. It’s the method of how cards get played that reinforces the theme/name of the game and is unlike any other game I’ve played. (I will not attempt to explain how the card play works… it’s clever and well laid out in the rulebook.)
  • Another post-apocalyptic wasteland that needs to be revived – hence, the title. Revive is a game with a lot of moving parts – expanding the playable area of the main board, working the various tracks on your player board, cycling through cards to create playable combos… but it all works. The production is very nice for this table hog of a game.
  • Dale humorously named Rise “Tracks: The Game”… and while he’s not incorrect (there are a bunch of tracks on the table), it’s a lot more than that. I especially liked the drafting mechanic in which players who spend more get to partake in more events.
Games I’m Willing To Play

All Roads
  • Pretty standard “play a tile to create situations to place houses & other stuff”… but All Roads is solidly designed and easy to teach.
Block and Key
  • Really gorgeous production (the 3D bits are chunky!) that covers the same ground as Pueblo without all the extra Eurogame stuff.
Circadians: Chaos Order
  • Imagine if the original AH Dune & Terra Mystica had a baby… it would be Chaos Order. VERY asymmetric factions, individual victory paths, and an interesting costing system for the various game phases. We played with four – curious how it will play with two players.
The Wandering Towers
  • A solid design – combines memory elements with manipulation of the towers… and does so without wearing out its welcome at the table.
  • Korean design that utilizes deck-building combined with Goldland-like back’n’forth exploration. I’d like to try it again with 2 players.
  • Gorgeous production (the art is delightful) combined with sturdy game design… I wanted Flamecraft to do more but what it does, it does well.
Mists over Carcassonne
  • Played 2 times over 4.5 days
  • Both a stand-alone cooperative game AND an expansion to the original game – I played 2 solo games (Levels 1 & 2) and would be willing to play again. Have some serious questions about playing as a multiplayer co-op as the alpha player problem could easily show up to haunt you. (yes, the punwas intentional.)
  • You can win by winning the hand in this climbing game… or by betting on the person who will win. Very clever.
Perfect Shot
  • It’s pretty straightforward… drop one of your three “photo” cards onto the previous card to try and get pictures of the animals by lining up the holes in the card. Add in a set collecting mechanics (the photo book tiles) and you’ve got a game. I am taken aback at how willing I am to play Perfect Shot again.
Planet B
  • Interesting game systems (particularly voting) combined with a cynical theme… but I was not a fan of the rulebook’s attempt at humor, the occasional PG-13 rated card, and the absolutely idiotic “stuff paper money in your pocket” to turn it into VPs.
Starship Captains
  • I wanted to like Starship Captains a lot more than I did… but it’s an extremely well-put together game with nifty components. I wonder if I’d have appreciated it more with a stronger background in Star Trek (I pretty much gave up on ST after the first season of Next Generation… and yes, I know, it got better. No need to email me.) I’m willing to try again… the game, that is.
Terra Nova
  • My one play of Terra Mystica left me cold… but Terra Nova does a nice job of slimming down the original game while still keeping the interesting decisions in play. At one hour or so in game length, I’d be OK if this hit the table again.
The Green Fivura
  • The backs of all the cards are a Green Five… which means this trick-taking game lets you always have one more card in your hand. Wacky but fun.
Tidal Blades: Banner Festival
  • I haven’t played any other of the Tidal Blades series of games… but this one is a simultaneous action selection game that also determines what you get to do depending on where your card “lands” in the trick. But it’s not really a trick-taking game. Could be a little same-y from game to game but worth another play.
Wanted Wombat
  • Complete press-your-luck silliness… but remember rule #5 – stupid & fun is still worth playing. (And James Nathan was a savant at this game.)
World Splitters
  • There’s some UI issues with the spring-y board (it sits in the box so you can slot pieces into it), the compressed score track, and the conflict marker… but there’s also a really interesting game here. Getting every rule clearly understood messed up some end game strategies, so we definitely need to try it again.
Zombicide: Gear Up
  • played once that weekend; played five more times solo and with others since then
  • I’m working on a review of this cooperative flip’n’write, which does a really good job of capturing the Zombicide feel in a much-compressed (read: shorter) game. Perfect for those who want to fend off hordes of zombies without bringing along your entire Zombicide collection. (My first play was a solo play, which worked well.)
Games I Wasn’t All That Excited About

Cradle to Grave
  • The idea of Cradle to Grave is fun (trying to age your opponents out of the game) but there is very little control. 
Dice Conquest
  • Cooperative dice drafting/assignment dungeon crawl… worked fine as a solo but Dice Conquest would slow way down with more players.
District Noir
  • New version released of an older two-player only drafting game with a mafia-esque theme. District Noir made me wish I was playing 2F’s Famiglia instead.
  • Trick-taking game with interesting scoring mechanic (and gratuitous mention of kale)… felt like it needed a bit more development on how to deal with off-suit kale. 
Get on Board: New York & London
  • Very nice production of Let’s Make a Bus Route… but I found Next Station: London more interesting in the same route-building genre.
Nuts a GoGo
  • Stupid fun – grabbing wooden bits and filling your cup in real-time. Very short.
Piazza Rabazza
  • The idea is cute – delivering magnetic pizzas through a town shaking around due to an eccentric motor. In execution, it just goes on too long for the fun it delivers.
  • Powerline is a dice puzzle game – nothing wrong with it (it works)… but not much to it.
Shake That City
  • Incredibly clever gizmo at the center of the game (shaker that lays down 3×3 grid of cubes each turn) paired with a mildly interesting city-building game. My solo play was OK. Shake That City is currently on KS.
Vegetable Stock
  • It felt like a stripped down version of Point Salad with a stock market edge – and since I don’t love Point Salad, you can guess I wasn’t blown away with Vegetable Stock, either.
The Island of Misfit Toys Games

13 Words
  • It may be that I’ve entered a stage in life where I no longer like party games… but 13 Words tries to mine the same area as Just One (which I do like) and just fails to do anything particularly interesting.
Dragonquest: Fantasy Dice Game
  • Played 2 times in last week + a couple of more plays
  • Deeply saddened by the workmanlike effort here, in part because I’m a huge fan of the board game it’s based on – Dungeonquest. There’s a lot of dice rolling for very little reward – and the major interactive part of the game (drawing walls) is written so that you really can’t do much to slow another player down. (I’ll save my rant about Queen & KS for this game in the US market for another day.)
Fun Facts
  • Yet another cooperative party game… and no one thought out the potential problem with the first and last players gaming the system. (There’s a pretty simple solution – do not determine the starting player for each turn until all the answers are locked in.)
Glasses Girls Collection
  • So-so trick taking game coupled with incredibly creepy stalker-ish theme (taking pictures of cute anime girls with glasses) has gotta be a naw from me, dawg.
  • Some folks have been excited about this cooperative bidding game… but I’m not sure why. It lands with a thud when we played it. Evidently it's substantially better with less players.
Mikey Wonder Land
  • Trying not to mind-meld with other players is the prime game mechanic, which just isn’t enough for a full game. In addition, the weird little theme is keeping the magic alive for children about costumed amusement park characters.
Tiny Turbo Cars
  • Clever idea (slide puzzle real-time programming) saddled with too many exceptions and chrome rules.
Picture at the opening of the article:
  • Top row: Block & Key, Tidal Blades: Banner Festival, Caldera Park
  • Middle row: Marrakesh, Mists Over Carcassonne, Die wandelnden Türme
  • Bottom row: Starship Captains, Eleven, Revive
The majority of games in this article were sent/given to the Opinionated Gamers team as review copies.

Friday, December 09, 2022

A Pig, A Dog, A Bear, A Mouse & Some Castles: Ornament Stories

Putting up the Christmas tree at the Jackson house is a big deal... over the years, we've added way more lights, gotten rid of generic ornamental balls in favor of a plethora of ornaments given to us during our 32 years of marriage, and (due to the smaller space we currently live in) we are actually having to move furniture into the foyer of the duplex to make room for the tree.

There's something about having the tree up that changes not only the traffic patterns in our house but also makes my mood more buoyant. Each morning, as the first person up in our house, I turn on the lights and watch them twinkle in the darkness. Then I slide open the drapes to share those lights with our neighborhood. (There's a sermon illustration in that somewhere... preacher friends are welcome to mine the story for all its worth.)

The majority of the ornaments on our tree have stories that go with them... and as I looked at the tree this morning, I realized I wanted to share some of them with y'all. (That's part of the joy of blogging... I get to send my random thoughts out into the world - and these are particularly random.)

Rowlf the Dog

I think this is the oldest ornament on our tree - it was given to me by my high school friends Gigi & Alea Fairchild. Yes, my Muppet obsession has been around for 40+ years.

The Pig

When I was a youth minister here in Nashville, our youth group mascot was - wait for it - a stuffed pig. Some of my wonderful youth gave me a pig ornament which still has a place of honor on the tree.

Want to know more about the Pig and his autograph book? Here's the story...


Also a gift from that same group of youth... a homemade Pinky & the Brain ornament. We cherish it.

Winnie the Pooh + Mokei

We have a lot of Winnie the Pooh ornaments... Shari has always loved Pooh Bear, so I think I counted 4 or 5 of them on the tree. This one is particularly special, as it was the Christmas of 2000 when Shari was pregnant with Braeden. 

Except... at that point, we didn't know if our baby was going to be a boy or a girl. So, we'd jokingly put the potential names together (Moriah & Keith) to come up with Mokei... which is what you see on the star. (Keith became Braeden's middle name - but that's another story involving Shari's cousin and her threat to name our child for us.) It was a gift from my Mom (and Dad)... and a really special memory.

Castles & Such...

We started a tradition of choosing an ornament to take home from our major Disney trips - as a souvenir, they are relatively inexpensive and actually have a place to be displayed on a regular basis (rather than being relegated to a dusty shelf somewhere or the bottom of a storage box). And, more importantly for us, they remind our family of the fantastic adventures we've had over the years. All of the castles are from Disneyland (celebrating our trips in 2003, 2007, and 2012) and the glass Mickey is all four park icons from our trip to WDW in 2019.

I've written a lot about those trips and about Disneyland (even with some spiritual stuff thrown in!) over the years... if you're interested, here's how to find some of the best of those posts.

Monday, December 05, 2022

Reconstructing My Faith: John Wayne, Straight Lines, and the Benefits of Being a Nerd

John Wayne: Hollywood Icon

My favorite classic Hollywood actors are Jimmy Stewart and Gene Kelly… which, in the context of what I’m about to write, may offer a glimpse of insight into my own personal feelings. (Seriously – if you haven’t seen It’s a Wonderful Life, Singin’ in the Rain, Rear Window, or The Pirate, just stop reading this post and go have some fun. Then come back… I have a lot to say today.)

While I enjoyed John Wayne in a couple of his films, I’m not really a fan of most westerns.  His True Grit is very good, as is The Searchers – though you need to be ready for director John Ford subverting Wayne’s usual stock Western good guy character to deal with racism. Hint: John Wayne is NOT the hero in The Searchers.

Which brings me (finally) to Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. You may have heard of it – either through the effusive praise of exvangelicals and folks who are deconstructing their evangelical upbringing, or through the blistering critiques of those who are defensive of the various ministries, leaders, and theological preferences (i.e. complementarianism) she calls out in the book. 

I originally read Jesus & John Wayne in December of 2020… and I actually finished the book one day before the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. So, when I wrote my original review of the book on Goodreads, this is how I saw it:
My response to this well-researched trip through evangelical history is colored by my own personal experience of that history... and how I managed to avoid the worst excesses of "muscular Christianity" despite being around or involved with a variety of the organizations that the author profiles: Focus on the Family, Wild at Heart, Promise Keepers, Mars Hill Church (Seattle), and the Southern Baptist Convention.

I think that the author sometimes makes connections that may or may not be warranted... but she also does a tremendous job of surveying the problematic teachings and ministries that have influenced evangelical theology and political involvement.

I'm also aware that I would have read this book through very different lenses a decade ago... pre-Trump, pre-#ChurchToo... I'm going to spend a lot of time thinking about the issues she raises and what that means for how I live out what I believe.

I'd recommend this to any evangelical who wants to think carefully (and prayerfully) about how our tolerance for questionable teaching (and leaders) has created an evangelical culture ripe for fear-mongering, unbiblical rhetoric, and authoritarian demagogues in the pulpit and in politics.
Nearly two years later, I read Jesus & John Wayne again, wanting to write clearly about my own process of rejecting toxic versions of masculinity, whether they were taught from behind a pulpit or by the confused first world online culture. What I discovered was a little more complicated than that.

The Myth of a Straight Line

Later in 2021, I read and reviewed Heather Cox Richardson’s How The South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continued Fight for the Soul of America… and while I found a number of her ideas convicting and/or intriguing, I noted that she, like so many others, had fallen victim to “the myth of a straight line”. Here’s what I wrote:
It is profoundly tempting when attempting to make your point - whether it is drawing from historical precedent, religious text, or scientific data - to assert that since A happened, of course B occurred... and that inexorably led to C & D…

…I understand that Heather Cox Richardson wasn't writing a book about the SBC and its role in supporting the political structures and decisions she is criticizing. On her way to proving her point, however, she drew a straight line through a much thornier and complicated bit of history.

And that makes it more difficult for me to take in the rest of the book - leaving me to wonder where else she elided pesky historical facts or sandpapered down sharp edges from individuals or movements she supports. 
On a second read, that same tendency is even more pronounced in Jesus & John Wayne. I understand that Du Mez is arguing for a particular thesis:
By the time Trump arrived proclaiming himself their savior, conservative white evangelicals had already traded a faith that privileges humility and elevates “the least of these” for one that derides gentleness as the province of wusses. Rather than turning the other cheek, they’d resolved to defend their faith and their nation, secure in the knowledge that the ends justify the means… In reality, evangelicals did not cast their voted despite their beliefs, but because of them.
Unfortunately, the author’s dedication to that thesis leads to quoting primarily from those who agree with her premise and cherry-picking speakers and authors for their most egregious and toxic statements. Her use of “conservative white evangelicals” as a catch-all term (which sweeps decidedly Never-Trump me up in the same net) is problematic as well:
For conservative white evangelicals, the “good news” of the Christian gospel has become inextricably linked to patriarchal authority, gender difference, and Christian nationalism, and all of these are intertwined with white racial identity.
I’ll take just a moment to point that literally none of the things in the previous paragraph describe my own personal theological or political beliefs… and it is that dissonance that made the second reading of this book more difficult and frustrating.

Does that mean that the issues she raises about an overly militaristic approach to faith and a culturally loaded viewpoint about male & female roles are incorrect? Absolutely not. But it does mean that her expansive picture of the evangelical view of John Wayne/American Cowboy masculinity is not a Walter Cronkite-esque “and that’s the way it is”. 

Again, I don’t dispute that there have been a plethora of stupid and even potentially heretical things done/said by pastors and Christian leaders in an attempt to stampede evangelical believers into voting, giving, and behaving in certain ways. Fetishizing the cleansing of the Temple and the picture of the triumphant Christ in Revelation 19 while downplaying the compassion and patience of Jesus leads to skewed and unbiblical forms of engagement with God and with others.

At the same time, forming an image of your deity based on the prevailing cultural narrative is not restricted to American evangelicals in the 20th and 21st centuries. A big chunk of my personal “reconstruction” quest is to clean off the cultural barnacles that so easily accumulate on the ship of my Biblical faith in Christ.

Board Games Saved My Soul

Okay… maybe that headline is a little overblown – but I’ve come to believe that my non-athletic, theater-loving, board game-playing lifestyle protected me from most of the worst excesses of the “cowboys & warriors” culture in evangelical men’s ministry while enabling me to glean some incredibly helpful spiritual truths from those same folks. 

It's a weird paradox – the kid who was fascinated by war games and the history of the Civil War & World War II wasn’t particularly interested in shooting guns or tromping around in the woods. Due to extensive reading about battles and soldiering, I had a clear-eyed view of how horrific war could be – which fueled my admiration for veterans and those who gave their lives without mythologizing going to war as some kind of grand adventure.

But it wasn’t geek culture alone that helped me reject the overblown portrayals of Christian manliness. I was taught the truth of Scripture by wise female Sunday School teachers in SBC churches – including into my college years. At Baylor University, my key advisor at the Baptist Student Union was our assistant director, a single woman with a deeply compassionate heart and a willingness to ask the tough questions that helped me grow towards God. 

I also experienced deeply moving teaching and ministry through those ministries with a tendency towards “muscular Christianity” that Du Mez highlights in her book. I found parts John Eldredge’s Wild At Heart book & study to be warmed-over Iron John “back to nature” nonsense… but other parts – dealing with father wounds and living by vows rather than faith in God – were profoundly important in my walk with God. The staff at Focus on the Family’s ministry to pastors were incredibly helpful when I went through my first forced termination as a youth pastor, as were the staff at the Baptist Sunday School Board (now Lifeway). The PromiseKeepers Pastors Conference was a watershed moment for me in dealing with racial and denominational reconciliation. 

Yes, I understand the damage that various elements of those ministries and organizations have done – and, in some cases, continue to do. The books they write, the conferences they speak at, the interviews they give… all play a part in normalizing an unbiblical picture of Christian character, especially for men. Du Mez says it well in the book:
“The products Christians consume shape the faith they inhabit. Today, what it means to be a “conservative evangelical” is as much about culture as it is about theology.”
Final Thoughts

My responsibility as a follower of Jesus is to 
  • continue the difficult process of separating Biblical truth from cultural baggage, even the baggage I’m personally comfortable with
  • lean into the whole character of Christ
  • ignore the gendering of character traits as “male” and “female”, particularly when they attempt to sideline clearly Biblical values such as mercy, compassion, and self-control
  • speak truth
So, do I still think you should read Jesus & John Wayne? The simple answer is “yes” – even if it makes you mad, even if you find yourself arguing with it, even if it frustrates you with some “straight line” argumentation. Kristin Kobes Du Mez throws a blistering spotlight on the evangelical movement that highlights our tendency to echo parts of the culture we are in when it plays to our presuppositions… and our willingness to justify ungodly behavior in the name of preserving power and influence. We all need that wake up call.

Note: This post is already getting crazy long… so I’ll get into the role of women in ministry and in the life of the church in a different post – that’s a much bigger subject that deserves space to breath. The same is true of my reactions to Mark Driscoll and Mars Hill Church (Seattle).

Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Tale As Old As Time: A Review of Call to Adventure: Epic Origins

Once upon a time, I bought a RPG system from a wargaming company – SPI’s Dragonquest – which I never actually played with any other live human (despite my role as the primary DM for my group of fantasy/sci-fi nerd high school student friends). What I did do with Dragonquest is generate characters – the system made much more sense than early D&D’s “roll 3d6 six times and hope for the best”. So, armed with percentile dice and a pencil, I happily built characters for a game I would never play.

Fast forward almost 40 years and I had the joy of playing Brotherwise Game’s Call to Adventure, which turns my lonely (but enjoyable) RPG character creation pastime into an actual game. It was one of my favorite games of 2019 – and I’ve praised it multiple times for the beautiful illustrations, the quirky but solid rune-throwing randomizer system, and the nice balance between assisting and messing with other players. 

Designers Chris & Johnny O’Neal followed up this success with an expansion based on The Name of the Wind fantasy series (yes, I’m waiting with the rest of you for the author to finally finish the last book) and a stand-alone version of Call to Adventure based in the Stormlight Archive universe (which is on my list of things to read).

If you’d like to know more about how the game system works, Dale Yu wrote a great First Impressions preview on the Opinionated Gamers website that covers all of the basics… which leaves me with more time to tell you about the newest addition to the Call to Adventure family.

Epic Origins: The Changes

Call to Adventure: Epic Origins is a stand-alone game that can be combined with the other boxes in the system for variety… but it succeeds by itself (and, in fact, is my younger son’s favorite version of the game).

There are three major changes in the game from the original – but the structure itself will be very familiar to anyone who has played the earlier games. After choosing their initial character set-up, players take turns drafting Trait cards or attempting Adventures in their quest to create a successful character. (Yes… I know – “to create a character who has the most victory points.”)

The first change is the addition of Heritage cards – this is a fourth set-up card type that in “old skool” fantasy role-playing would have been called “Race”. (This is not the time or the place for me to comment extensively on the cultural forces leading to this change – but I will note that assuming that a particular ethnic or racial background automatically leads to certain disadvantages is something I would never want my sons to inherit, even from a board game.) Each player receives a single Origin card – each of which offers some kind of positive buff or ability to their character.

The second change is the advent of Class cards (played to the middle section of your board during set-up in the same place as Motivation cards from the original game). These cards give you additional powers by feeding them Experience points… and offer an interesting set of decisions as Experience points can also be used to Journey (flip new cards into the tableau), pay for certain Trait and Feat (Hero & Anti-Hero) cards, or saved to the end of the game for victory points.

The third change is the most extensive – it’s a shift of the “main” game from purely competitive to semi-cooperative. The Epic Origins Story decks don’t have any Adversary cards in them – instead, the group of players struggle throughout the game against a single Adversary. After one player places the third card under the class deck, their next turn begins a battle with the Adversary’s “right hand”… some examples from classic sources:
  • Saruman (right hand) – Sauron (Adversary)
  • Grand Moff Tarkin (right hand) – Darth Vader (also, technically, a right hand) – the Emperor (Adversary)
  • Karl (right hand) – Hans Gruber (Adversary)
Each player battles against the “right hand” in turn order before resuming the regular flow of the game. The Adversary card is flipped to the “big bad” side. After one player places the third card under their destiny deck, their next turn begins the final battle. Each player in turn uses this last turn to take on the Adversary for potential glory (aka – “points”).

More importantly, the Adversary must be defeated by the group (by removing all of his health) or no player wins the game… darkness rules the land, the Skynet Funding Bill is passed, unspeakable horrors, blah, blah blah – Game Over. If the Adversary loses all of its health, the game is scored as normal and the player with the most victory points wins.

In addition, there is an Adversary Quest card which has an easy and a less-easy side… this is the rules that govern the basics of Adversary play and is a part of every game.

Epic Origins: Modes of Play

Epic Origins offers three modes of play: semi-cooperative, competitive, and solo play. I’ll deal with each one in turn.

The game is obviously designed with semi-cooperative play (the process I outlined above) as the “main” mode of the game… and it works very well. There have been some debates on BGG about how a particular Adversary will force players to conform their characters to a particular set of attributes – but we haven’t found that to be an issue.

Competitive play works exactly the same – except you remove the Adversary, the Adversary Quest card, and any Feat cards that are Adversary-specific and simply play for the best score.

Solo play is identical to the base game… except you’re trying to defeat the Adversary by yourself. This is a marked improvement over the clunkier solo system from the original base game… and it has led to me playing multiple solo games of Epic Origins in addition to multiplayer games.

Additionally, the game comes with 7 campaign envelopes… making a loosely connected story that adds new Origin & Class cards to their respective decks as well as introducing new Adversaries. It’s not a legacy game – just a nice drip feed of elements for your opening games of Epic Origins.

Epic Origins: Other Stuff You Might Wonder About 

Some of you will complain (as you are wont to do): “Mark, you didn’t mention Roll Player, which is also about RPG character creation and pre-dates Call to Adventure by almost three years.” To which I will reply: “I’m well aware of Roll Player… and prior to Epic Origins, I’d have said it was the hands-down winner in the best RPG character creation board game for solo players. Now, I think it’s got competition.” I’d also likely add that Roll Player desperately needed the Monsters & Minions expansion (or the Fiends & Familiars expansion) to turn it into a really enjoyable multiplayer game… and that I own all of them.

Others of you will wonder why I didn’t tout the ability to convert characters created in Epic Origins into D&D 5e characters… ok, I get that. But my last game of D&D was in 2013 (and I was just “babysitting” a character for a friend who couldn’t attend the group)… and before that, I hadn’t played D&D since the early 1980s. So, while I think it’s cool that Brotherwise Games came up with a way to do this, I don’t have much to say about it. (If you’re interested, here’s the link on their website to the 5e stuff.)

Epic Origins: Final Thoughts

After seven plays of Epic Origins (3 multiplayer, 4 solo), I’m going to divide this into things I like… and things I’m less excited about.

Things I Like:

  • The introduction of Class cards
  • The vastly improved rulebook
  • The much cleaner solo mode
  • The ability to mix the games together (see this link for more information on how this works)
Things I’m Not A Fan Of:
  • Using cardboard chits for Experience points (the little plastic gems from the base game are better)
Yep, that’s it for complaints. Just the cardboard chits.

So, do you need this game if you already have the base game or Stormlight Archive? In my case, I think it’s a great addition to the system and am glad I own it – but it isn’t strictly necessary. I like the variety it adds and the quality of the design that has taken in comments from the gaming community and made the system even better.

OTOH, if you don’t own a copy of any game in this system, I heartily recommend Epic Origins as the perfect starting place. At roughly 15-20 minutes per player, this is an evocative and enjoyable chance to create a character (and their backstory), defeat the Adversary, and play a delightful game.

While my original copy of Call to Adventure was a review copy provided to the Opinionated Gamers, my copies of the Name of the Wind expansion and Call to Adventure: Epic Origins were purchased with money straight from my wallet.

The original version of this review appeared on the Opinionated Gamers website.

Thursday, November 17, 2022

Dinosaur Island: Rawr’n’Write – A (Mostly) Solo Review

It’s possible that you’ve always wanted to run a theme park… that’s certainly been the inspiration behind my two favorite computer games: Rollercoaster Tycoon & Planet Coaster. (It’s possible you may have had other dreams – perhaps shipping various goods back’n’forth across the Mediterranean Sea. In that case, it’s possible that there’s been a game or two published that right in your wheelhouse.)

But for you who enjoy the challenge of building a functioning theme park (albeit one with genetically bred dinosaurs) and who like the roll’n’write board game genre, here’s my woefully short summary and slightly longer thoughts on Pandasaurus Games’ Dinosaur Island: Rawr’n’Write.
“Welcome to Jurassic Park.”
John Hammond
Incredibly Short Summary

Two rounds of drafting dice and using them to activate actions, followed by a round of running your park.

Do that three times.

Ok, that wasn’t really very helpful. Let me try again.
“But if ‘The Pirates of the Caribbean‘ breaks down, the pirates don’t eat the tourists.”
Ian Malcolm
Actual Game Summary 

Each player has two different sheets in front of them – one which contains a large blank grid in which you draw your park (and areas in which to save money, roads, dino DNA, and record the purchase of various special buildings and your current security status). The second sheet is used to run your park – and is also the place where you mark various attractions (food & merch outlets + rides), hire staff, record the level of visitor excitement, and – if things go horribly wrong – the number of deaths in your park.

As I noted above, the game is divided into nine rounds – two rounds of park-building (using the dice) followed by a round of running your park.

Park Building (what the rules cleverly call an Action Phase)

The first player draws out the appropriate number of dice (2 per player + 1 more die) and rolls them. Starting with the first player, players draft a die to get whatever nifty thing is on the die (dino DNA, roads, money, attractions, security). Once all players have drafted their first die, the last player starts the second round of die drafting. 

When drafting is completed, players gain the resources from the dice they’ve drafted – and, if they’ve acquired attractions or roads, immediately build them into their park. If they use their coins and spend them to finish paying for a special building, that is built into their park as well.

Then, beginning with the start player, players assign one of their dice to the action board in clockwise order. You can place a die on top of another die in order to do the action twice… but you take the threat on the die you cover as a cost.

You can do any one of the following actions:
  • Make Dinos: spend your DNA to create up to 4 dinos
  • Raise Funds: gain 2 coins or 2 security
  • Extract DNA: gain any 2 basic DNA or any 1 advanced DNA
  • Duplicate: double the resources on the die you place here (all other players gain a single copy)… and you can’t double attractions
  • Build: build 3 roads or one attraction
Once all of that is concluded, the final leftover die gives both the resources AND the threat level on that die to every player. 

Park Running (what the rules cleverly call the Run Park phase)

After two park building rounds, players then run their parks, following the order of actions laid out on their second sheet.

  1. Attractions
    1. Stores: gain 1 random die roll for each merch location you have
    2. Rides: gain 1 excitement for each ride you have
    3. Food: gain 1 coin for each restaurant you have
  2. Staff
    1. Gain the income from each staff member – which can be actions and/or resources
  3. Dino Tour
    1. Create excitement by running a dino tour from your HQ through your buildings and roads
    2. If you end at a Park Exit, you’ll get those victory points at the end of the game
  4. Excitement
    1. Gain resources from your excitement track
  5. Death Toll
    1. Each threat not “protected” by security means one of your park visitors dies – and the death toll track has disaster spaces along it
    2. For each disaster marked off, you must lose something from your park…
      1. A dino paddock
      2. 3 roads
      3. An attraction
      4. 4 stored DNA
      5. Staff Member

Mapping Your Park 

What sets Dinosaur Island: Rawr’n’Write apart from other 2-sheet roll/flip’n’write games (like Fleet: The Dice Game or Hadrian’s Wall – which I reviewed last year) or from the previous Dinosaur Island games is the way in which you draw the map of your park as a key part of the game. 

Working with a large grid, you add attractions, dino paddocks (which can hold up to 4 dinos each), and specialized buildings… and then connect them with roads in order to create your Dino Tour route. Buildings cannot touch each other (even at the corners) and once placed are there forever. 

If a building/paddock is destroyed, it is marked out and nothing can be rebuilt on its spot.
“Ah, now eventually you do plan to have dinosaurs on your, on your dinosaur tour, right? Hello?”
Ian Malcolm
All By Myself

I’ll start by noting that only two of my eight plays of Dinosaur Island: Rawr’n’Write were multiplayer. That said, the majority of my feedback to you, gentle readers (and those who are more interested in breeding the largest/scariest dinos possible), will be about the solo playing experience.

The solo game begins with drawing five cards from the AI deck and choosing 3 of them as objectives – extra goals for the solo player to achieve to score more points.

The dice draft uses six dice… which are then narrowed to four dice by flipping an AI deck card and placing the indicated dice on particular action spots. 

And that’s it – otherwise, it’s the same game system… minus the hate drafting and grabbing actions to cut off other players, of course.
“Life finds a way.”
Ian Malcolm
Final Thoughts

This is not my first Dinosaur Island rodeo – I’ve played both the original game and Duelosaur Island (the two player game) multiple times – but I don’t own either of them. They are both games I’m happy to play but don’t need to have in my collection. (I have not – yet! – played Dinosaur World.)

In my ever-so-humble opinion, Dinosaur Island: Rawr’n’Write is the best of the bunch. I really like the freedom inherent in drawing the layout of your own park, the straightforward variety of 3 different special buildings and 3 different specialists each game, and the not-annoying simplicity of the solo system. In addition, the game has a relatively small footprint for a game with this much going on, making it much easier to play on a coffee table or hotel room desk.

My solo games average between 35-45 minutes each which does not out stay its welcome. Multiplayer games (remember: I’ve only played 2) clock in between 60-90 minutes.

The iconography is clear – and in case it isn’t for you, the rules have an excellent explanation of the many of the individual building and specialist cards as well as the back page of the rulebook having an icon summary.

My one complaint is a constant from all three of the Dinosaur Island games I’ve played – the amber-colored dice. It’s not just that they’re amber-colored, though… it’s the clear acrylic/amber design of them that makes them difficult to read across the table, especially when you’re looking for threat dots. It’s not as big of an issue when playing solo, but it’s been a problem otherwise. I’ve found that playing on a lighter surface tends to help.

With that one caveat, I’d recommend Dinosaur Island: Rawr’n’Write to fans of roll’n’write games, solo players looking for an interesting challenge, and those who are still looking for a game about running a theme park that they enjoy.

This review originally appeared on the Opinionated Gamers website.

Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Gaming: Activity -> Hobby -> Obsession

Yes, this is my game room/home office.

As we all bask in the glow of post-Essen coverage, I bring you this classic post from my personal blog (written because the game I was supposed to be reviewing that morning had not yet arrived… though the USPS promised that would happen sometime that week. They came through - finally.)

More accurately, the progression could be stated:
  • our family owns a copy of Monopoly, Scrabble and a couple of decks of playing cards
  • our family owns all of the above plus some mass-market kid games, Apples to Apples & Sequence
  • our family owns all of the above plus some “high end” kid games from the “educational” toy story that have this funny red pawn on them
  • our family owns all of the above plus a copy of Axis & Allies and The Settlers of Catan
  • our family owns all of the above plus some of these newfangled cooperative games (like Pandemic) and a couple of games with cool plastic miniatures
  • our family owns all of the above plus just bought shelving to store all of our games that we’ve recently bought after discovering BGG
  • our family owns all of the above plus has taken out a second mortgage on our house to finance a trip to Essen
  • our family owns all of the above plus it’s about to be featured on an upcoming episode of Hoarders
  • I refuse to answer where I fit on this chart on the grounds that it may incriminate me.
Here’s what inspired this… my good friend & gamer buddy (and fellow member of the OG staff), Jeff Myers, blogged about this topic in a different way – his When Does Gaming Move From an Activity to a Hobby? post is a lot of fun to read. (I actually feel kind of bad about hijacking the theme of his post… but the link I have for it doesn’t work any longer, so I’m giving him props and attention this way!)

He included a quiz…

Do you keep track of your plays? If you also keep track of who was playing and who won, then give yourself a star.

My answer back in 2014 (when the original post was written) was: Yes… and no. (Well, not any more. Unless I’m at a gaming event where I’m playing a lot of games, so keeping track of that helps me remember stuff later.)

Thanks to the excellent BGStats app on my phone, it’s now Yes & Yes.

Have you gotten excited about a game before it was published? Give yourself a star if you have translated a game into English (or whatever) because you didn’t want to wait.

Yes… and yes. A lot of times. (My profile picture includes three games which I translated from German to English.)

Have you ever purchased a used boardgame? Give yourself a star if you’ve participated in a math trade.

Yes. Yes. (I’m still very proud of my $5 copies of Tumblin’ Dice & Betrayal at House on the Hill.)

Do your children understand the term Meeple? If you do not have children, then get some and come back to this post in five years. I’ll wait….. Good. Wow, you look like crap. Parenting is hard. Uh huh. Tell me about it… Yep. Give yourself a star if you own a Haba game.

Yes. Yes. (Is having a professional reviewing relationship with Haba USA for a few years worth an extra star?)

And does my children having their own collections and teaching other people board games count for more stars? (Granted, one is a college student and one is a senior in high school… but I like to think I shaped/warped them.)

Have you ever watched a video or listened to a podcast about a boardgame or tabletop games in general? Give yourself a star if you’ve been in one.

Yes. Yes. (I’m proud to have been a guest on BoardGameSpeak, Garrett’s Games & Geekiness, BoardGamesToGo, The Dice Tower… and The Dice Steeple.)

Do you own more than 50 boardgames? If you have more than 200, then give yourself a star.

Yes. Yes. (200 was a line I crossed 15+ years ago.)

Look at your bedside table. Are there any rules to a boardgame or RPG? Give yourself a star if it’s not the first time you’ve read them.

No…. though if Jeff had said “work space”, it would be Yes.

Have you ever played a game and then thought to yourself that it would be even better if those little wooden cubes were actually shaped like ships or sheep or grain? Give yourself a star if you have created specialty bits out of Fimo or other material.

Yes… and sort of. (I’ve replaced or added bits to a number of games.)

My newest quirk is finding better organizing systems for games… and with that, a shout-out to the folks at FoldedSpace as well as another friend and gamer buddy named Jeff who helps me out with 3D printing stuff. (Note: Jeff Leegon has recently started a business doing some nifty stuff with hi-tech machinery for gamers & others… which you can check out at Tennessee Native Goods.

Can you name five games by a single game designer? Just one game designer, not a game designer that is unmarried. That would be weird if you knew which game designers are married or single. That’s just creepy, seriously. Give yourself a star if you have a copy of a game that is signed by the designer.

Yes… for at least 20 designers. Yes (Starship Catan and The Starfarers of Catan – both signed by Klaus Teuber.) And a Race for the Galaxy card signed by Tom Lehmann.

Could you easily spend an entire day playing games? Give yourself a star if you already know what you’ll be doing for International Tabletop Day.

Oh yeah. And yes.

How did some of my faithful readers fare on the quiz?

This post originally appeared on the Opinionated Gamers website.