Tuesday, March 31, 2009

My Awesome Losing Streak

Over the last month I've had an impressive streak of dud games and bored-appearing players. Further, I've loaned out some games to my elite game-testing gang and gotten very poor reviews back. Rather than changing the blog to Dr. Fischer's Import Car Tuner Night I set out to figure out this losing streak.

It seems like in each case I was introducing a game that was designed for a much older player. Some of the fault lies in the fact that I think all the kids I know are super geniuses. In addition I love all these games and assume everyone else should love them as well. I got a bit of a reality check, however, when one mom returned a copy of Bang! and said it held her kid's attention for about a minute, and then they all begged to play Sleeping Queens.

Of course, this doesn't mean that all the children I know are not in fact super geniuses. It does mean, though, that if you're investing in a game it's probably not a bad idea to check the age range on the box and keep your goals realistic. We know that developing an early interest in books has benefits for children when they reach school. In a similar vein playing the simple games early on may set the stage for Bang! and Carcassonne later.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Old School Role Playing Bonanza

It may be apparent that while I respect games like Blokus, and love games like Carcassonne, I have a special place in my heart for role playing games. Over the last few years many gamers and authors have re-examined the first generation of these games and published their own versions. These are known as "retro-clones." "Retro" because they are very "old-school" in their style of play, and "clone" because they are almost direct reprints of the originals.

The latest online menace to your child's college fund is Lulu, a site where you can order all sorts of small-press items that are not likely to be found in the local chain bookstore. Imagine my delight when I discovered that there is a central storefront which represents many of the retro-clone authors. The publishers are listed on one side and the products are listed on the sidebar along with an illustration. In many cases there are free downloads of sample product so you can see if the complete game is for you. The page is not super well organized but it does give you a place to start. Anyone with an interest in starting some old-school gaming for their children (or, uh, themselves) should take a look!

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Bang - Action in the Old West

There are some games that you just love within minutes of starting play. I feel that way about Bang! I joined a group of gamers one night at the local store, they taught me the rules in about a minute, and soon afterwards I was learning why Bang! has been printed and reprinted dozens of times.

Bang! is a card game set in the old American west. Each player has a job- typically this is either sheriff, deputy, outlaw, or renegade. Over the course of the game you play cards in your hand and try to eliminate other players until you are the winner. The sheriff player wins if they are still in the game at the end. The deputies also win if the sheriff is still playing. The outlaws want the sheriff out of the game, and the renegade wants to be the only player left at the end. The beauty of the game is that everyone's job but the sheriff's is secret. You don't know if the person sitting next to you is an outlaw or a deputy. You'll try to guess as the game progresses but that uncertainty adds real excitement to the game.

The game is played in a familiar fashion by drawing and playing cards from a deck. The cards may give a player a horse to ride on or a barrel to hide behind. There are also Bang! cards, which allow you to, well, Bang! someone. You can avoid a Bang! by playing a "Missed!" card. There are other special cards that let you heal from previous Bangs!, and one card that represents a stick of dynamite that you throw to another player. That person can pass it down the table, until it randomly goes off. Players can receive a certain number of Bangs! before being knocked out of the game.

Bang! is ultimately a game about gunfighting but the designer has made it extremely tongue-in-cheek and kept the violence somewhat abstract. You heal yourself by playing a "Beer" card for example. And you don't shoot someone, you Bang! them. Now we know there's nothing funny about gunplay and drinking beer will not heal injuries nor is it a recommended pastime for children and teens. For these reasons playing Bang! may not be to everyone's taste. Others may, however, see the game as ironic rather than harmful and those families may find a lot to like in it.

I think there are several things to recommend about Bang! I like the secret roles the players have and the excitement and tension that creates. Who is going to attack the sheriff and who is going to protect her? And if someone plays a Bang! card on the sheriff, is it a bluff? Are they actually the deputy and trying to find out who the outlaws are? If players enjoy secrecy and guessing they will love this game. I'm also pretty fond of how simple the rules are and how light and fast the game is. This is something you can learn to play in minutes and finish a game in maybe a half an hour.

Bang! does play best with five or six people. I think it would be a bit of a bore with fewer so keep that in mind. It also does require some ability to understand that each player may win in a different way, and it helps to be old enough to enjoy guessing secrets and have some chance of success.

Bang! has been printed a number of times in different forms. At present it is available in a silver plastic bullet-shaped case. Again, if this is horrifying then clearly there are better games out there for your family. But if this seems like a fun diversion then I recommend it highly. You can find Bang! at Pandemonium Books in Central Square and Danger Planet in Waltham.

Pros: simple and exciting game, some fun guessing and surprises

Cons: violent theme may not appeal to everyone

Beyond the Basics: lot of supplements and replay value

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Battlelore- Beginner's Tactical Gaming

Ever since I cajoled my long suffering mother into playing Squad Leader with me in junior high school I've enjoyed tactical games- games in which one army battles another in some fashion. Any student of history knows all too well how destructive actual war is but the tactical game allows players to have an exciting few hours with a level of drama that other games may not deliver.

Battlelore is a game in which players fight battles on a game board. The battles may involve archers, swordsmen, goblins, dwarves, strange creatures or any combination of the above. The general idea behind the game is simple. Players arrange miniature figures of soldiers on a game board. Some parts of the board are marked as trees, others as hills or rivers. The players then take turns moving some of their soldier pieces across the board. If a figure comes too close to the other player's army there may be a "battle." The players roll dice and the loser may have to retreat or leave the board entirely.

The players may have a variety of miniature figures in their army. Each type may have some advantage or disadvantage. For example the dwarf soldier is slow but less likely to retreat. Some troops may be able to fire arrows at a distant target but will be prone to run away if approached too closely by the enemy. With experience a player learns where to put their troops in order to get the best advantage and win the battle.

Let's take a quick aside for experienced tactical gamers. What makes Battlelore any better or different from any other game? Briefly, it uses the same time-tested rule system as Command and Colors and Memoir '44. Players have a hand of cards and play one card each turn. Different cards allow different units to move and fight. You can add to your hand each turn so you may suddenly receive the exact card you're waiting for, or you may not. This adds some drama to the game as you try and create a plan which is effective but not too elaborate. I think that this system is very well suited to ancients and fantasy gaming and you can see other successful examples of it in Warmaster and even DBA. I've played many games of Battlelore and Command and Colors and in most cases I've found the outcomes appropriate and rarely the result of pure luck.

Battlelore is intended both as a historical and a fantasy game. Players may include wizards, spells, and magical monsters in their armies if they wish. These are optional components but add some more color and fun to the game.

I'm a fan of Battlelore. The game is expensive but absolutely jam packed with components. The miniature soldiers look terrific, the board is beautiful, and all the additional material is top notch quality. The rule system is simple and can be learned in an evening. The game is designed for two players but you can buy and expansion which allows four to play. I've found that the battles are exciting and that good basic tactics are usually rewarded with success.

There are a few caveats to Battlelore. For some reason I had some trouble making my way through the rule book. It's not that the rules are complex, I just found the reading tough going. If a parent throws down the money for the game, opens the box, and feels stumped by the rules, just sit back and start again slowly. I think you'll find it clicks soon, just maybe not very soon.

Another drawback to the game is the amount of material you get in the box. In one sense you say "wow, what a value!" In another you say "oh my god, what Is all this stuff?" Just grab the rules and start reading. Again, they're not all that complex, but the amount of stuff you see can seem overwhelming.

The publishers of Battlelore have a very nice website with lots of support material. Ironically enough I'm reading the "primer" as I type and I'm struck again by how hard it is to make sense of. It's a pity because the game is terrific and quite simple and, again, don't be put off by it.

Finally, this is obviously a game for teens and older. You need a good attention span and the ability to plan ahead. You can find Battlelore at a number of local stores. Try Hobby Bunker in Malden or Pandemonium Books in Central Square.

Pros: Fun game, great introduction to tactical gaming

Cons: For older players, hard to read rules

Beyond the Basics: Lots of replay value and expansions for the game are available

Blokus- Simple Fun for All Ages

I have a personal prejudice towards games that allow you to build things- cities, space colonies, castles. I also like games in which you act out some fun activity- driving a formula race car or flying being examples. For this reason Blokus is a game which would not otherwise jump out at me. It is a favorite game of a friend's family, however, and has won dozens of awards and is sold in dozens of languages so let's take a look.

One of the appealing qualities of Blokus is it's simplicity. The board has a grid of squares on it. Each player gets a bag of colored shapes. The players take turns placing the shapes on the board so that each shape touches the corner of a shape of the same color. For example, I'll be the blue player. First I place a blue square. In my next turn I can place another blue shape anywhere as long as its corner touches the blue square's corner. The challenge of the game stems from the fact that space on the board gets taken up quickly. When there is no more space the players count up the number of shape pieces they have left. Bigger pieces count as more points and the idea is to have as few points as possible.

Blokus is simple enough for even younger children. No matter how you score the game there is a sense that every person is a winner. Simply by laying down some of your shapes you've participated in the game and parents can add liberal doses of "good job" and "wow" to younger player's experiences. Older players may recognize a strategy and try to get rid of certain shapes first, or block other players from getting rid of their larger shapes. One could imagine that teens and adults could spend some time planning their moves and develop complex strategies and plans. In this sense Blokus has good value as a game that can appeal to a wide range of players and remain fun over several years.

I've enjoyed playing Blokus more than I would have expected. Each game is different and results in a colorful pattern forming on the game board. I like the quick playing time and I like the potential for strategy that the game offers older players. Blokus also has good travel potential and could probably be played in the back seat of a car.

Interested parents can check out the game at Blokus.com. If it suits you then you could find it at many local toy stores- Hit and Run Games in Lexington or Belmont Toys come to mind.

Pros: Simple, good appeal over many ages

Cons: Abstract, does have smallish pieces

Beyond the Basics: Good potential for strategy and improvement

Friday, March 20, 2009

Event Update- Two Conventions on the Horizon

I've been following the news from Vermont and Northeast Wars is looking better by the day. The list of board, roleplaying, and miniatures games being offered is very impressive and includes possibilities for a variety of ages and interests. I would encourage anyone with an interest in trying a dozen cool new games in a single weekend to take a look! This event really seems to be shaping up beautifully.

On the local front the Havoc Convention arrives in a week or two. Havoc is solely a miniatures game event and may not be perfect for younger players. Teens and up with an interest in tactical gaming may find it well worth the trip, though, as there is a wide range of games being played.

In both cases these are ways to sample a variety of games and see if they suit you. Visitors sign up to play a game which will be hosted by an experienced player. Rules are usually simple and the session is designed with beginners in mind. You may find something unexpectedly fun, or discover that something that seemed interesting is actually a bit of a bore. Check out the web sites for lots of details and often photos of past events as well.

Monsterpocalypse Events

There are a few upcoming events that may be of interest to players of this game, or to people looking to start playing. There is a tournament and set of demonstration games being run at Hobby Bunker in Malden on March 21st. Contact pressgangsnakeman@yahoo.com (yes, that's his address, and no, it's no me!) for details.

Pandemonium Books in Central Square is also running several Monsterpocalypse events. They have weekly gaming on Wednesdays and are also having a special gaming day on the 21st of March. Call 617-547-3721 for details or check out Pandemonium Books.

I'm a big fan of Monsterpocalypse, silly title aside. Keep in mind that this is a game best suited for older players who are up for concentrating and planning. I'd think of ages 12 and up.