Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Sleeping Queens - now that's a game!

The folks at Gamewright sent over a package of games to review a few weeks ago. After reading the rules and examining the products I went ahead and passed them on to my crack team of game reviewing kids and waited for the feedback. As I expected Tiki Topple was well received. And, as I expected, Sleeping Queens was a huge hit. So huge in fact that the kids are reluctant to return the game because they have friends who "need" to be shown the game. Lots of friends.

Many of us grew up with classic games like Chutes and Ladders or Candyland. The strategy inherent in these games was pretty nonexistent. You rolled the dice or drew a card and generally raced to the finish line. In my experience Chutes and Ladders was played maybe once, but I still get a thrill just from looking at a Candyland board. The reason for this? The premise is so exciting it's almost beyond belief. A land... made of Candy! Everything. All Candy. Who would not long to visit Candyland? There is some game involved, but I think most children realize that Everyone wins when you visit Candyland.

Sleeping Queens operates under a similar concept. The game is so fundamentally cute and entertaining that any actual mechanics are secondary. Just for the curious, however, let's go over the game play. The game includes a set of cards illustrated with pictures of queens. Not tedious historical queens or vaguely spooky playing card queens. You get the Pancake Queen. The Cat and Dog Queens. Plus others of similar cuteness. All are placed face down in front of the players because they start the game asleep. The players then take turns playing cards and waking the queens. If you play a king card you can turn over one queen and place her, face up and awake, before you. You may guess that King Leopold of Belgium is not found in this game. Instead you get the Tie Dye King or the Bubblegum King. Players may also have knight cards in their hands. You can play a knight to "steal" a queen from another player. But that player can use a dragon card to scare away your knight. Or you may play a sleeping potion card to make another player's queen go back to sleep. Unless that player has a magic wand card in which case your potion is wasted. There are a few more rules to the system but this covers the basics. You play cards to wake queens, and attempt to steal or protect woken queens with other cards in your hand.

Until you play Sleeping Queens the appeal of the game may seem elusive. In real life experience our gang of kids found the cards to be endlessly entertaining and the concept of waking queens and then stealing them from other players great fun. I think Gamewright really hit the post in terms of creating an elegant and crowd pleasing little game. I've read some other reviews at different sites and they all agree. Certainly, Sleeping Queens is no replacement for Chess, but I plan on sending out copies to a slew of upcoming birthday kids ages seven and up.

Thanks to Gamewright for their review copy. Sleeping Queens is available in many toy and game stores in the area, I might call Henry Bear's Park or Belmont Toys.

Pros: Adorable and crowd pleasing, good for ages 7 through teen

Cons: none apparent, this game is the ultimate light fun game

Beyond the Basics: zero, but this is a basic game

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Tiki Topple - all ages fun

Tiki Topple comes to us courtesy of Massachusetts based Gamewright. I found myself very happy with the game, both as a great choice for younger players and as a light but engaging choice for older children and adults.

Tiki Topple includes a board, nine wooden tiki heads, some counters and a deck of cards. The game is played in rounds. In each round the nine tiki heads are arranged one on top of the other along the game board. Each tiki head is a different color. They form a sort of nine piece statue laying on it's back. During the game the heads will be moved up or down the line. For example the red colored head might be moved down to the bottom. Or the blue head may be moved up two spaces. In this way the statue remains intact but the component heads move up and down.

The object of the game is simple. Each player has a certain head which they want at the top of the statue. The specific color is kept secret from the other players. For example you may be trying to move the blue tiki head to the top. The player next to you may be trying to move the orange head to the top. Players take turns playing cards from their hands which move the heads up or down. One card may allow you to move any tiki head up one space. Another card may let you remove the bottom tiki head from the statue. There are a limited number of cards and the round ends when the cards have all been played.

At the end of the round players score if their specific tiki head is at the top of the statue. You can score lesser points for second and third place positions with two other colors. This serves two purposes. One is to spread around the points a bit and keep one player from dominating. The second is to prevent the phenomena of one "winner" and three "losers" which can be a real source of trouble when playing with younger children.

The game ends when one player has scored thirty five points. I'm estimating that most games may need five rounds to play. This would make Tiki Topple a relative quick playing game, but one that would require some attention span on the part of its players.

I like games with some hint of strategy to them. Tiki Topple offers that potential. Younger players understand the basics of moving your piece up and moving other people's pieces down the statue. Older players, on the other hand, may find themselves studying the other player's moves. Which head are they trying to score with? Which move is a bluff? Should you concentrate on scoring highly yourself or disrupt your opponent's plans?

Tiki Topple was a very nice discovery. It's simple, light, and has the potential for some strategy and thought. The components are good quality and the tiki heads are just sort of appealing in their own right. Thanks to Gamewright for the review copy, you can find your own copy all across town, I might start at Henry Bear's Park in Arlington.

Pros: simple, nice components, good range of ages

Cons: none are apparent

Beyond the Basics: fairly good replay value, some potential for strategy

Friday, January 9, 2009

Zorcerer of Zo- fairy tale role playing

I recently set out to find role playing games that would be well suited for younger players, accessible to beginners, and fun to play. I hardly expected to have success so quickly, but it appears as though The Zantabulous Zorcerer of Zo (Zo) covers all of those criteria and more. Zo has quite a few Zantabulous features; let's talk about some of them. For a review of role playing games, and how they work, look to two posts from earlier this month.

At its simplest, Zo gives you rules for running a role playing game (rpg) set in a fairy tale world. Players begin the game by deciding what sort of fairy tale character they would like to play. As an example I'll design Pip the blacksmith. The rules say that I need to describe my character's background. I like the idea that Pip is an orphan adopted by his aunt and uncle. He is 14, a little rebellious, and wants to see the world outside his small village. The next step is saying what Pip is good and bad at. The rules describe this process in full detail. For our example I'll say that Pip is a terrific blacksmith, that he is good at climbing, that he is strong, and that he has good aim when throwing things. Pip also needs a thing that he is not so good at, or a weakness. I'll say that he rushes into things without thinking. Note that a person could choose almost anything to be good at- singing, making friends, etc. You can also choose a helpful item instead- a good horse or even a talking parrot. Finally a player can choose a magic ability, perhaps casting spells, flying, or talking to animals. That is character creation in its' entirety for Zo.

Playing the game is equally straightforward. If your character wishes to succeed at some difficult task then they roll two dice and try to get a high number. If they are good at something that is relevant to the task, they add two to the result. If they are great at something related to the task, they add four. If Pip wants to sing a song to soothe a giant, he is going to have be lucky and roll a high number. If he wants to make an enormous toothbrush for the giant at the smithy, then he has a much better chance of succeeding because he is a terrific blacksmith. Anyone can try anything but the talents and weaknesses which you described when you designed your character will influence what you're likely to succeed at. And that is the basic rule system of Zo.

An additional element to take note of, is that are examples abound in both the character creation and the rules sections. I don't think that you can read for more than a paragraph or two before a helpful explanation appears.

The full set of rules includes quite a few more examples and some refinements on the above rules, but the system remains smooth and elegant. Some of the added details are so charming, in my opinion, that they deserve mention. Say that I try singing to the giant and fail, the giant chases me away. If I were a younger player, that failure might sit very poorly with me. Never fear- the game rewards you with Learning Points. That's right, fail a task and you earn points because you learned something in the process! Now if that isn't a great lesson for kids then I don't know what is. Players can trade Learning Points later for improvements in their abilities or or short term benefits in some crisis situation. In the end, this reduces the sting of failure and encourages players to stay involved in the game.

In addition to Learning Points, the players can accumulate Hero Points. These can be awarded for various actions including doing something heroic, making a sacrifice, being brave, or simply for doing something particularly entertaining and fun. You can then spend Hero Points in tricky situations to improve your odds of success. You can also spend them to summon your "fairy godmother" for help or advice. In my opinion,Hero Points are another great game device that is especially well suited for younger players.

Clearly I'm very impressed with Zo as a game. What makes this product such a clear labor of love (and excellent value) are several other components included in the book. The author starts out with a nice set of essays on fairy tales in general. He describes certain elements which may be commonly found in fairy tales ( for example "In tests of courage, wit, strength, skill, or courtesy, even the weakest person can find their hidden talents, and the most derided person can find that their so-called weaknesses are actually strengths."). He describes various styles of fairy tale and common elements such as talking animals and magic. Then he describes techniques for using what you've learned to make your own fairy tale adventures. The section is rounded out by a bibliography, filmography, and list of pertinent web sites! I've read through dozens of rpgs and I've rarely come across such an accessible introduction to the game setting.

Finally, the author includes the details of his own fairy tale setting, the Land of Zo. You're presented with descriptions of various countries and areas within the land, as well as famous personalities that the players could encounter. You're welcome to use the Land of Zo as your setting, or start from scratch. The author rounds things out with examples of how play went when he ran the game.

If your family has an interest in role playing games, and this genre seems at all interesting, then I would give Zorcerer of Zo the highest recommendation. It's absolutely perfect for beginner players and beginner parents. The system is sturdy enough that experienced role players should have plenty of fun as well.

You can purchase Zantabulous Zorcerer of Zo through the Atomic Sock Monkey website or through RPG Now or Indie Press Revolution. Note that RPG Now only sells you a PDF document, not a paper copy. My thanks to the publishers for their review copy.

Pros: Ideal for beginners, good for all ages, superbly written rules, great value

Cons: I'm sure there are some, but I'm drawing a blank

Beyond the Basics: an rpg with good repeat play value, a genre that supports older players, and more complex themes.

Shadows Over Camelot - cooperative gaming!

One drawback to game playing is that you usually end up with one winner and one or more losers. Now there are good losers and bad losers but generally speaking no one wants to be a loser of any sort. One solution to this is role playing but another is the cooperative game. In a cooperative game the players win or lose as a group. Working together is the key to success and everyone shares in the glory of a victory.

Shadows Over Camelot deserves attention for a number of reasons. For one it is in fact a cooperative game. In addition it is a stunningly gorgeous piece of work and creates a fun and exciting gaming experience.

In Shadows Over Camelot you play the role of a knight who is attempting to defend the realm from various evil forces. In each turn you are dealt cards from a deck. Each card has a number on it from one to five. These cards can be "spent" to accomplish various tasks. You then pick a "quest" and discard some of the cards in your hand to begin the quest. The next player then takes their turn. If they spend the cards in their hand to help you on your quest then you'll finish your job sooner. Ideally several players band together to accomplish various goals and as each goal is accomplished the forces of evil are driven away from Camelot.

The "quests" of the game are related to the myths of King Arthur and Camelot. You may have to find the magic sword Excalibur, defend the castle, or discover the Holy Grail. Finishing each quest usually involves discarding cards from your hand. The harder quests may require certain types of cards that are more rare, thus the benefit to having people help you by adding the cards that they might hold.

There are two motivating factors within the game. The first is that each turn the "forces of evil" advance against the castle. This happens automatically and only by completing quests and tasks can you drive the evil forces away. This pressure to defend Camelot encourages players to think hard about which quest to pursue and makes the pace of the game fast and exciting.

The second motivating factor is an optional rule. One player can in fact be a "traitor." If you use this rule then one person is randomly chosen to be secretly playing against the others. Rather than trying to save the kingdom they are trying to fail at quests, not be helpful to the others, and in general sabotage the forces of good. The traitor rule is a real mixed affair. Sophisticated players with experience in gaming absolutely Love the idea. It can add real suspense and tension to the game and make it harder for the other players to win. Beginner players may find it more confusing than anything else. If you're just learning the rules it seems excessive to tell someone to secretly play poorly- they're still trying to learn how to play well! In our trial games the beginners Hated the traitor rule and in hindsight I wish I had saved it for later games.

I feel like Shadows Over Camelot has a lot to offer a gaming group but it comes with some important caveats. The first is that the quests are fairly abstract. In order to "find the sword Excalibur" you have to play a certain number of points of cards. Some players will grasp this and say "how exciting, my five point card makes us that much closer to finding Excalibur!" I think the capacity for pretend play is the key here. In my trial games with adults some of the players never made the connection successfully and as a result found the game dull. Other players loved it and could happily cry out "I am Sir Galahad and the Grail is mine!" Make your best guess with your own gaming group.

The second caveat is that this game has simple rules, but a fairly good number of them. Unlike Carcassonne or Formula D this game does not pop out of the box and practically play itself. This is not a criticism per se. I see Shadows Over Camelot as a fine choice for experienced players who are looking for a more complex game. In that capacity it is superb. Experienced gamers will love the variety of quests, the excitement of working as a team against the forces of evil, and will find the traitor rule adds even more suspense and variety to the game. Consider this highly recommended for teens and older players.Shadows Over Camelot is available at many gaming stores including Hit and Run Games in Lexington.

Pros: Cooperative game, exciting, a real challenge, fabulous production values

Cons: Rules are lengthy, not for beginners or younger players

Beyond the Basics: plenty of room for new strategies and repeat play.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Role Playing Games- how do they work anyway?

In one sense role playing games (rpgs) are the simplest games in the world, but they can appear daunting to complete beginners. Let’s talk about how you play an rpg.

In order to play one person (the game master or GM) has to come up with a story idea. For example “a princess has gotten lost and ended up at the North Pole.” Or “a magic spell has turned everyone in the village into a mouse.” Now these are examples of stories for younger players, you could just as easily say “a farm boy finds his father’s magic sword and is drawn into a great journey to rescue a princess.” Of course then your children would realize you were copying Star Wars. Most of our favorite stories start out simple. The GM then expands the story- why is the princess at the North Pole? How did she get lost? Can the mice in the village talk? Do they wear clothes? Do they like being mice or do they want to go back to being people? There are no right and wrong ways to do this but a good GM tries to come up with fun or exciting details at least, things that their players will find interesting. The GM has all these details memorized or written as notes. The players will only learn the details gradually as they play the game.

The player's job is to make up characters they will act out in the adventure. A "character" is the person you're pretending to be during the game. For example one player may act the role of a knight, and another player may play a talking dog or a wizard. The game you’re playing will guide you in creating characters- a fairytale game may have pixies and talking cats, a fantasy game may have elves and wizards. The characters are usually described on a sheet of paper but as we’ll see you generally don’t need to read to play an rpg.

The idea of playing a character does introduce one critical requirement for rpgs. The players must be able to work with the idea that their characters have certain set limits and that they may not succeed at each task they set out to do. We can imagine a younger child playing Monopoly. They drive the car around and set up houses wherever it suits them. At some point they can play by the rules- they move a number of spaces as the dice dictate, rather than whatever suits them. They can accept the rewards and penalties that the game doles out. That ability to play “by the rules” is essential to rpgs as well.

Finally the group sits down and plays. For our example we'll say that you are the GM. You might say “All of you are living in the magic land of Ned. There is a queen and a family of princes and princesses. Today the good witch has summoned you to her castle to discuss a missing princess.”

The players will then look blankly at you. At that point you may ask them “what would you do if that happened? Would you like to help find the princess?”

The players agree they would like to help. Now you prompt them with something like “how will you get to the castle then, it’s a mile away?”

By this point the players may be catching on. “Can I ride a horse to the castle?” asks one.

“I’m a wizard, can I ride my broom there?” says another.

Now the game is beginning to pick up steam. You describe the results of their actions or decisions. In this case you might describe their trip to the castle. Maybe they meet someone along the way. Or maybe they just travel quickly and easily. The decision is based on what you the GM want to include in order to further the story. Once at the castle you could begin to act out the role of the good witch. You could change your voice and say exactly what the good witch might say, and encourage the players to speak back to you just as they would if they were speaking to the witch herself.

The remainder of the game is a variation on that experience. The GM acts out various roles and the players respond and make plans according to what they are told. If they are told the princess was last seen at the royal candy factory then they will “go there” and “search for clues.” You play the role of the factory foreman or a mouse at the factory and tell the players some clue which leads them onwards till they find the princess. The game is "over" once some goal is achieved but you can play again with the same characters on some other night. In that sense rpgs are like ongoing television shows where the same characters have adventures week after week.

The one element that makes an rpg different from simply storytelling is its set of rules, which usually involve some dice being rolled. The rules usually define how hard it is for a player to accomplish some task. Say the players are searching a factory for a clue. The rules will tell you as the GM to have each player roll a die and (just as an example) if they roll a six they find the clue. The rules might specify that wizards find magic clues if they roll a five or a six, or talking dogs find clues if they roll a four five or six, because talking dogs are (one might imagine) great clue finders. These rules set limits and add drama. Who will find the important clue? No one knows, it’s exciting to find out! Can the wizard cast a spell to turn the mice back into people? Better roll those dice and find out.

Paradoxically rpgs also allow the GM to Ignore the rules. We know that children can deal poorly with failure. A GM may bend the rules to allow “success in failure.” For example, the players don’t find a clue they need. The GM decides at that moment that they have a fairy godmother! She appears and finds the clue for them. Maybe in exchange for her help the players have to sweep her cottage. The quest goes on…

The idea behind rpgs can seem confusing. Happily most games include sample adventures and ideas for generating adventures. In addition stores that sell rpgs will often have people on hand to explain them, Pandemonium Books in Central Square being one example. If this seems like something that might be fun for your family then consider adding rpgs to your game night.

Role Playing Games on Game Night

Let’s talk briefly about role playing games (or rpgs for short). Most parents have heard of the most famous of these, Dungeons and Dragons. Is there a reason to consider role playing games for your family?

My wife recently attended a lecture at a local school concerning children and stories. The lecturer felt that it was good for children to be exposed to stories, especially those having to do with nature and the natural world. The feeling was that stories about animals, trees and outdoor adventures may lead a child away from the television and out of the house. I find that to be an attractive argument. In addition I think stories can teach useful lessons, they’re fun, and they bring people together.

At it’s simplest an rpg is a way for a group of people to team up and tell a story. Instead of listening to one person tell the entire tale you have each player contributing something. How many times do we read a book or see a movie and say “oh, I’d love to be that character but I’d have done it differently?” An rpg gives you the chance to do just that.

This is of course in now way intended to criticize classic storytelling. In my opinion if we doubled the amount of reading aloud and storytelling in the world then we’d be a better place for it. But if you as the adult can say “I like to make up stories,” and your children can say “we like to play pretend,” then an rpg may be a good addition to your game night.

Role playing games have other uses as well. In one sense they can be viewed as escapist. Your child can play one to act out an adventure of grand and crazy proportions. In another sense they can act as a way to model and test ways of dealing with the world. If your child is playing a wizard with a sword then how many ways are there to rescue the kidnapped prince? Should you wade in swinging the sword? Can you negotiate with the pirates? If the entire episode was a big misunderstanding does that mean it’s better to ask questions first? I don’t think every moment of play must teach a lesson but we do know that stories can teach morals and you can use rpgs to demonstrate different moral values. Just off the cuff I can imagine a game demonstrating the value of planning ahead, working with a team, respecting your comrades, the list goes on.

I’ll be discussing some rpg options in future notes. I’ll try to list games that are accessible to complete beginners. Parents should be able to pick up these titles and understand the rules with no previous experience in role playing. The games should also have rules that even younger children can understand. Finally they should be playable with the option for little or no violence. Rpgs can involve violent themes such as fighting dragons but I’ll try and focus on games that give parents the opportunity to limit or remove entirely any swordplay.

Northeast Wars IX April 2009

Northeast Wars is a game convention held in Vermont. Beginning on Friday, April third, you can attend and play a variety of board and role playing games. Despite the name this convention features games about every possible subject- car racing, farming, superheroes and more.

Conventions like this can be a great way to try a huge variety of games. You may find that one event leaves you bored and then the next game is the most fun you've had all month. Some games will be more or less suitable for children- read the descriptions carefully to see if they suit your family.

The web page for the convention is beginning to look very promising. I'm expecting a nice variety of games; check back as time goes by to see what's being offered.

Totalcon Game Convention

Adventurous gamers may want to venture out to Mansfield Massachusetts for Totalcon. This is a four day long game convention, now in its twenty third year. This year it's taking place between February 19th and 22nd. You can expect plenty of board gaming as well as role playing games and miniatures games.

Conventions like this are a great chance to try many different games, meet people, and potentially do some shopping when you're all done. There are often games set aside for younger players. Read the descriptions of each event to get a sense of whether it's right for your child.

As of January 8th the details regarding the games were still not listed on the website. Check back later for a full list of the games and events.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Wings of War- air battles in World War One

Wings of War is a tactical game. In discussing a tactical game we have to acknowledge that the subject is violent, in this case aircraft fighting over the trenches in 1918. I think it's simplest to acknowledge that this sort of game is acceptable to some families but not to others. I present this review to those families in the former category, with the promise that future reviews will continue to cover the wide variety of gaming experiences.

Now that we have these sober issues on the table, let's consider Wings of War. In my opinion this is one of the most elegant and cost effective game designs I have come across in years. Many game players like the idea of having a swirling air battle on their tabletop. Nevertheless, simulating this can be a real challenge, and few products have succeeded in being both realistic and playable. Wings of War manages both. The game is quick to play, visually appealing, and has very few rules. Virtually no reading is required although some basic number skills are needed. The manufacturers add the option to play with gorgeous prepainted miniature aircraft and that's a terrific bonus feature.

Each player in Wings of War controls an airplane. The box supplies several cardboard counters with illustrations of famous Great War planes. The game play takes place on any medium sized flat surface. Each player also is given a deck of cards with arrows illustrated on them. One arrow goes straight across the card, one curves to the right, one to the left and so on. In each turn the player picks three cards which will represent the maneuvers their plane is going to make. For example, if you wished to fly straight ahead you would lay down cards with the arrows going straight across. If you wished to turn right you would lay down a card with an arrow curving to the right. During the game turns each player reveals their cards, one at a time. You place the card directly ahead of your plane and then move the plane till it's tail contacts the end of the arrow on the card. The illustration to the right shows two planes after they have played one maneuver card each. You can see that the green plane's pilot guessed correctly where the red plane was going to go.

With this simple mechanism players can act out various dogfights between famous aces in the Great War. You have to guess where your opponent is going to head and play accordingly. Different planes may have different maneuver cards available to them, and different planes can give out or receive different amounts of damage. The result is a fun, fast moving game that accurately portrays early aerial combat.

There are two supplemental products available at present. One adds counters and rules for shooting down balloons, a vital and dangerous activity in the Great War. The second adds rules and counters for two seater planes and bombers. In test games the bombers appear both tough and dangerous to approach. I felt that they may have been designed a bit Too tough and dangerous to approach as compared to how history portrays them but the supplement does add variety so the buyer can decide for themselves.

Finally, the manufacturers have released plastic models which you can use instead of the cardboard cutouts. While these are optional to the game you can see from the photo how stunning they look. This period featured some eye popping color schemes and they really come to life through the miniatures. The miniatures represent actual planes and you can follow up and read about the pilots, whose lives were often unusual and interesting. What I find especially appealing about the models is that their use is left up to you the player. You can purchase a basic set and have lots of fun for thirty dollars or go ahead and collect the miniatures as well. Not every collectible game shows such respect for the consumer.

One note of importance- one miniature aircraft portrays the ship flown by pilot H. Goering. Herr Goering did indeed play a role in the Great War so this is historically accurate. For me this crosses a certain line. I personally would not have that model on my gaming table. Parents should be aware so they can keep their eyes open and make their own decision.

Interested parents are encouraged to visit the game's website, which includes free downloads of the rules. If the subject is appropriate for your family I think you will find that Wings of War is a well designed game and a great value. I got my copy at Hobby Bunker in Malden.

Pros: Exciting, simple, quick play, great value

Cons: tough subject matter for many

Beyond the Basics: repeated play rewards players with better flying skills and expansions allow more variety in types of planes and flying missions.