Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Days of Wonder Contest

It appears as though Days of Wonder is running an essay contest on their Facebook page. Prospective players may log into their own Facebook pages and through some Byzantine process enter to win a free game.

At first this seemed pretty awesome but a word of warning, it turns out the process is rather complex. You need your own Facebook page, a Days of Wonder Online account, and you have to play Ticket to Ride or Gang of Four online. Then you have to write a story about a Days of Wonder game experience and post it on your Facebook page. Your odds of winning increase if you post a new essay each day. Your essays have to remain on your Facebook page through the duration of the contest.

At first this seemed like a terrific idea, at least until I started reading the details. You could in fact start to rack up the online Ticket to Ride games and cover your Facebook page with inspirational essays and testimonials. Days of Wonder games are truly quite fun and the essays would be an improvement over Facebook's incessant "What Breed of Cat are You?" questionnaires. Or you could spare yourself all that work, bring your own lunch to work for a few days or babysit or walk someone's dog and just buy a Days of Wonder game yourself with your hard earned or saved cash. The latter sounds easier to me.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Careers- Classic, Revolutionary, and Fun

I was feeling like the game writeups were beginning to stray a bit towards the older kids and then I stumbled across a great classic game for younger players. I didn't play Careers as a child but now I wish I had. The game of Careers is superficially a classic American boardgame in which players circle a board by rolling dice and moving a token. Upon closer examination it's a very clever game design with huge replay value and speaks volumes about the directions chosen by game designers in the 1950's and 1960's.

Players begin a game of Careers by deciding their "formula for success." This is an amount of fame, happiness, and money which they will be aiming to achieve. Each quality is given a number and the total must add up to sixty. For example, the Phish band music lover might seek a happiness of forty, fame of fifteen, and money of five. The formula for success is kept secret. Each player will have a different formula and will thus play the game slightly differently. And in future games might choose a different formula and have a completely different strategy.

The gameplay is fairly simple. Players roll dice and move along the outside track of a gameboard in a way similar to Monopoly. In Careers, however, you have much more control over your token and extra places to take it. If you land on an Opportunity space you can turn and move along a short inside track simulating some career- "Explorer" for example. Completing a career path may give you points of fame, happiness, or money. Different careers will give different proportions of these, "big business" for example yielding more money.

The game expands on this basic concept. Players keep track of their careers. Some can only be started if you have completed other simpler vocations. For example, you can be an Explorer for $600, or for free if you have been an Engineer or gone Prospecting. If you "go to college" you have access to medicine and law careers, plus a salary bump on any career. A simple score sheet allows players to track their experiences.

Finally, players can accumulate "experience cards." These cards allow you to move an exact number of spaces rather than rolling the dice. Imagine in Monopoly when you desperately need to roll a four. In Careers you can choose to use a card to do just that, but then that card is gone until you earn another.

Briefly, Careers is an amazing game. Players can simply enjoy amassing careers and money and laugh about going into Hollywood or on a Florida Vacation. At a deeper level players can use the cards they accumulate to control where they land or when. Players can buy these cards from each other at whatever price they feel is fair. Players can spend money to "buy into" certain careers or try and get in through accumulating experience. There are a huge number of strategies possible for this game and the ability to choose a different formula for success in following games adds vast replay value. Again, Careers can be played simply if desired but players seeking a deeper game will absolutely find it here.

Better writers that I have expanded on how groundbreaking Careers was in 1955. The game designer, James Cooke Brown, took the square game board and literally thought outside the box by creating inner tracks and adding player control over movement. He then added a secret victory condition which the players choose, multiple ways to accomplish goals, "unlockable" areas, and a system for trading between players during the game. I had thought Barbie Queen of the Prom to be clever (which it is) but Careers takes clever to a whole new level. It's sad that designers chose to dumb down boardgames during the next few decades. It's not that they didn't have examples to work from, they simply chose to set the bar as low as possible.

Careers is released by Winning Moves, based out of Danvers, Massachusetts! Their web site lists several local toystores as stocking their items. I might call ahead and if it isn't in stock, ask them to order it. I don't think you can keep it more local than buy ordering a locally produced game at a small local toystore.

Pros: complex and satisfying, great replay value

Cons: may be too complex for some younger kids, probably Monopoly age and up at least.

Beyond the Basics: great replay value

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Race for the Galaxy- Now Online!

I was pretty excited to hear from my friend Steve that Race for the Galaxy (RftG) is now playable online. I think RftG is one of the best games in recent memory and it continues to be entertaining and challenging after multiple plays. Now you can play against strangers across the globe via Game Genie online.

The Game Genie site uses scanned cards and the resolution is not terrific. As a result you need to know the card values to play, otherwise you'll be squinting at the screen and trying to guess what "Improved Logistics" or "Runaway Robots" gets you. I suspect this is why Rio Grande Games approved the site's use of the game. It won't prevent any sales of the game, but just allows fans who already know the game to play at work.

Which I, for the record, have not done. Yet.

Barbie Queen of the Prom on Sale!

Funagain has put their replica copy of Barbie Queen of the Prom (QoP) on sale. This is the reprint of the first edition of the game. It's a beautiful product and lots of fun for the right players.

In QoP the players compete to see who will be, well, queen of the prom. You achieve this by getting a dress, a date, and becoming president of a school club. Players move their tokens around a board and hope for lucky die rolls that will allow them to earn money, go shopping, and otherwise advance their goals. In terms of rules this is a classic "go around a board" game not unlike Monopoly or Life.

This edition of QoP shines in several ways. Firstly, the art design is just spectacular. The outfits, the illustrations, and the colors perfectly capture the era at play. For whatever reason it continues to look appealing forty years later while more recent editions simply look dated (compare Barbie's potential dates from the original and updated 1980's editions).

Secondly this is a game which appeals to the ironic and tongue in cheek player. It's all very amusing to see retro outfits, prices, and social mores. Your hip cousins will find the game to be so cool.

Thirdly, the game is fun because it touches on a very real desire. Many of us would love to be queen or king of something. I held the prom in disdain (although I also had no chance of a date so some of that scorn may have been protective) but if there had been a Dungeons and Dragons Prom? To be the most popular boy with a 5th level Paladin? I would have given all my possessions to be king of that prom.

Clearly QoP is a dated game with many dated concepts. It is not multiracial, it does not acknowledge single parent families, same sex parents, or two working parents. Many of us (myself included) feel that society has benefited from progress in these areas. I don't believe that in playing QoP you are espousing a restrictive view of gender roles, family, and race but another person could reasonably feel otherwise and certainly this game is not for them.

Further, the game may be seen to suggest that a teen wishes only to be popular, successful, and well dressed. We would hope this was not the case and in a perfect world we and our teens would be mainly interested in the well being of our fellow human beings. I do not believe the two are completely mutually exclusive, happily. I believe that many teens and adults do wish to be popular, successful, and well dressed. I also believe that all of us have the potential to go further in our moral development. In that process, however, it may be fun to play a game where we struggle to find the cutest date and the best outfit.

Pros: simple, fun, beautiful art, retro-ironic

Cons: socially dated with some risk of offending

Beyond the Basics: this is a basic novelty game, but may turn your child into a graphic designer. If they start mentioning Eames and Haywood-Wakefield next you'll know for sure.

Song of Blades and Heroes - fight on!

The talk recently about plastic miniatures does raise the question- say your child has these figures, what could a beginner do with them? Or say you've picked up some of those cool Papo or Schleich knights. Is there a set of rules for having small battles with them? Up until recently your choices might be limited. Games Workshop publishes the Warhammer system but it may not be well suited to beginners, being potentially expensive and somewhat complex. Other options have also struggled with issues of complexity, expense, or availability.

Ganesha Games out of Italy publishes the "Song of..." series of gaming rules. Their flagship product is Song of Blades and Heroes (SoBH). This is a slim paperback book with rules for conducting battles on the tabletop between small groups of fighters. The initial book deals with fantasy battles so the combatants may be barbarians, wizards, wolves, or dragons. SoBH is simple and elegant and may be the best introduction to tabletop battles for older kids.

Players in SoBH begin with game with several figures. Each figure represents a knight, warrior, or some creature. Each figure is also assigned a number which measures how effective they are at fighting and a number which describes how well trained and motivated they are. A giant worm could be very effective in combat simply because it's fifty feet long, but perhaps not so well trained or motivated. In contrast a brave hobbit might be very motivated but perhaps just not all that dangerous.

In the course of a game your figures are placed on a tabletop decorated with small plastic trees, castles, or whatever you have handy. Players alternate moving their figures around and take turns casting spells, swinging swords, or shooting bows at each other. You roll dice to see if your attacks are successful and can potentially cause your opponent's figure to fall down, run away, or disappear from the battle. Let's talk about three issues that come to mind:

Firstly, we know from history that most combatants leave battles by receiving an injury or running away. Thus it is not unrealistic to tell younger players that the losing figure has run away, limped off or been taken captive. Tactical games often simulate fighting and combat but you can be historically accurate without being gruesome.

Secondly, these games benefit from "terrain." This is any item that makes your tabletop look like a forest, desert, or spooky cave. Be creative, make it yourself, use Playmobil gear, use JR Miniatures products, the sky's the limit. In Texas we had two fellows of about 5 years old who made terrain from PlayDough for our World War 2 games. They felt so involved and were really proud of the bridges and trees they had built.

Finally, let's consider the rules themselves. The game revolves around the idea that your figures may or may not do exactly what you want them to do. You roll dice and based on how you roll they may be very active or just sit there. The game adds a twist- your figure can do one thing with each high die roll and you may choose to roll one, two, or three dice. Thus, if you are very lucky your figure might have three high die rolls and do three things. However, if you roll low on two or three of those dice then nothing happens and the other player gets to go.

Say you have four figures. You could play it safe and roll one die for each. Your figures will only get to do one thing at best but all of them have the chance to go. On the other hand you could roll three dice and maybe the first figure will get to do three things, or maybe you'll roll low twice and your turn will end.

This gambling concept has the potential to be quite exciting. In our test game the experienced gamers took to it and enjoyed the tension of deciding whether to play it safe or try and really motivate their troops. On the other hand the younger players may find this counter intuitive and frustrating. In fact, it might be accurate to say that SoBH is probably more of a game than a historical simulation and if your 8 year old complains you can congratulate her on her judgement.

That being said the SoBH line is well written, inexpensive, and generally well put together. We played with the basic book and the King Arthur supplement. The latter is a labor of love and a terrific product. There are two fantasy supplements that are fair and include rules for magical spells. In contrast the Napoleonic supplement is fairly weak and best passed on unless you collect Napoleonic rulesets like my friend Rich.

I would wholeheartedly recommend SoBH as a game for older kids and up. It is only a rulebook and you'll need to buy your own miniature figures and terrain. For many families who already own the figures this is a great way to put them to good use.

The SoBH line is available through the Ganesha Games website. I found the official site to be a little lacking in detail but interested parties can get a better set of product descriptions through Wargames Vault.

Pros: simple and fun, a good value for the price, an interesting game mechanic

Cons: younger children (pre-teen) may find the game mechanic frustrating

Beyond the Basics: huge replay value and many interesting supplements

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Test Drive Update - Arkham Horror

I think this is probably a commentary both on the game and my wife but she and I recently ran through at least five rounds of Arkham Horror. I feel pretty lucky to be married to someone who will engage in such geekery but for now let's see how the game measured up after so many plays.

Arkham Horror was reviewed earlier but briefly it's a cooperative game in which players move around a board fighting monsters and having supernatural adventures. I'm happy to say that some elements of the game really shine after multiple playings.

Firstly, this is truly a cooperative game. Not simply because the players win or lose as a group, but also because the players need to help each other to succeed. We had our best success when we would plan out how our characters in the game would support each other: "OK, I'll fight that zombie so you can run past it and get to the church and remove my curse." Now some players may be put off by this need for coordination but I think teens could get a real charge from "teaming up" with their parents to defeat a menace. I know for me it made any victory all the more satisfying since it was sared.

Arkham Horror also delivers in variety of play. The characters have "encounters" in the town. They may meet a wandering creature, find a hidden scroll, or be whisked off to another dimension. There are enough options and possible events to give the game huge replay value. You also have a number of strategies to try and after many games we haven't found a single approach that's foolproof. The end result is a lot of replay value.

Finally, Arkham Horror is a sort introduction to role playing games. You have a "character," they acquire items, skills, and spells, and then they have an adventure. This is a nice choice for those people who have a secret goal of introducing everyone in their family to role playing.

Arkham Horror does have clear caveats. I think it's best for teens and up, it is an intimidating game to first examine and the rules could use some editing. You will not just dump this on a table and play "out of the box." With a slight amount of work, however, this is a very satisfying game.