Ridere, ludere, hoc est vivere.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Getting to Know "The Grid"

Games in some ways, like people, have personalities.  Some, like Ticket to Ride, are friendly, fun, and easy to get to know.  Others, like Two Rooms and a Boom, are gregarious and a little crazy; if you can handle the energy, they are very entertaining.  Some are obtuse and a little intimidating, like a Phil Eklund simulation or a heavy wargame.  And some are subtle, reserved, and a little introverted; they don't want to show you everything right away, and if you base your opinion on a first impression, you'll miss what's hidden underneath.

The Mexican industrial design studio Left has devised a unique abstract tile placement game with the understated title, "The Grid Game." This set of 88 hexagonal tiles in a muted color palette has a quiet beauty, like a southwestern desert at sunset.  And it has a subtlety of gameplay that only emerges after patient peeling away of layers. 

Designed by Estudio Victor Aleman, each hexagonal wooden tile is made from three rhomboid pieces, each one of seven colors.  Players will start with a set of randomly selected tiles and play them one at a time to an array, with the constraint that tiles may only touch if they match in color.  After the second tile is placed, subsequently played tiles must touch two other tiles, again matching colors on the touching sides. 

Interestingly, the tiles are cut in such a way that the corners where two rhomboid pieces meet are "taller" (i.e. stand higher above the table) than do the corners that belong to only one rhomboid piece.  This vertical height of the different corners is important, because placing a tile is further constrained by having the touching corners match in height as well.  It took a few plays for me to discover that this height restriction is specifically designed so that every hexagonal tile after the first one has only three legal orientations rather than six.  This restriction has the nifty effect of ensuring that no tile placement results in a theoretically unplayable adjacent space.

Clockwise from left: Black-sided tile
(5 pts), one-color tile (3 pts), two-
color tile (2 pts), three-color tile (1 pt)
There are several categories of tiles - those with three different colors, those with two rhomboids of one color and one of a second color, those that are all one color, and a separate category for those having two black rhomboids.  The tiles with black rhomboids are unique in that no tile - not even another black-sided tile - may touch the black side of another tile when placed.   

Sounds simple enough - place tiles to match colored sides.  Easy as Carcassonne, right?  In fact, at the start of the game, each player has many tiles from which to choose, so the early game is especially straightforward.  And the objective is simply to get rid of all your tiles.  If a player has no playable tile, the turn passes to the next player.  So the goal, really, is to be able to play a tile every turn and so to run out first.  If the game reaches the point where no one has a playable tile, then players score points based on the tiles they have left, and fewest points wins.

By the second play, it emerges that the tiles that are worth the most points - i.e. the ones you don't want to be stuck with - are the hardest to play.  Black-sided tiles are worth five points - huge in this game - and can only be played against two tiles of a specific color and with no other adjacencies.  Tiles that are all one color are worth a hefty three points but are almost as difficult as black-sided tiles to play.  So there is a tendency to unload black-sided tiles as soon after the second round as possible, and one-colored tiles right away as well.  The result can be a very difficult field to play, and in fact our second game ended very quickly when the entire field was essentially blocked with black-sided tiles around the entire periphery, as we each tried to unload black-sided tiles as fast as possible.

At this point I was ready to write off the game as crippled by a negative feedback loop, thinking that the point values motivated players to render the field unplayable quickly by unloading the high-value tiles as quickly as possible.  Our third play, however, revealed that the game can take a completely different direction, when I was able to play all my tiles without a pass.  Gameplay becomes less ad hoc, and attention becomes more focused on how many of which colors a player has - and which colors an opponent is short on.  Further reflection suggests that the tile mix has everything to do with the course of the game, so that a winning strategy can vary with the early game circumstances.  Now the players must discern which direction to take depending on the kinds of tiles that are in play.  Suddenly we found a new richness that did not emerge in our first two games.  Such is the personality of a shy game that takes time and several encounters to get to know properly.

We did establish that the tile draw at the beginning of the game is crucial to the game balance; we found that having significantly more black-sided tiles than an opponent, or more one-color tiles, makes for a considerable disadvantage.  The publisher would do well to include a rule to ensure that players start with the same number of each type of tile to mitigate this effect.  The actual mix that all players share can vary from game to game, and in fact a variable mix can lead to a variety of strategic options.  Balance is important, however, and a disparate tile mix among players appears to bias the game significantly.

An opened game "box" showing the four tile trays (with
five more games in their boxes, behind)
Photo by Victor Aleman posted on boardgamegeek.com
The physical components are remarkable.  The wooden tiles are precisely cut and thoroughly glued, with only the slightest of adhesive residue visible on a number of the tiles.  The game comes in a set of four foam-sided trays that each hold 22 tiles in a snug hexagonal grid.  The four trays stack into a wrap-around gamebox-sized sleeve with a velcro flap that makes for a unique, snazzy-looking package.

A nice table presence, almost as appealing as
Qwirkle
or Ingenious
I mentioned the subtle Southwestern color palette, which makes for a beautiful table presence, but in anything less than very good lighting, some of the colors are difficult to distinguish, particularly brown from dark gray and dark gray from black.  Many times during the game we wished for more strongly contrasted colors.  And yet, when the game is done, we marvel at how pretty it is.

An illegal placement due to different
corner height - difficult to tell until you
notice this tile is oriented differently
In the first few games, we found it impossible to tell the difference in height between corners of the tiles until we tried to place them next to each other.  Many times we would attempt to situate a tile only to discover that the corners were not aligned vertically, and it was not initially obvious why.  It wasn't until we discovered that the corner heights are intended to confine all tiles to be placed in one of three possible orientations, 120 degrees apart, that we could naturally identify legal ways to place tiles that would ensure same-height corners would be lined up with each other.  It seems that some stronger visual signifier might help in this respect, although such an indicator would probably change the visual aesthetic of the game.

The player count is ostensibly for one to 11 players.  The review copy did not include solitaire rules, though the publisher expressed an intent to include them in the final production copy.  As for high player counts, I struggle to see more than five or six players around this game enjoying any kind of strategic gameplay value.  With more than eight players, each person will place fewer than ten tiles in the entire game, hardly enough to feel engaged in what is otherwise a game of considerable potential depth.  The publisher admits that in tests with more players, although people found it inclusive, the game slowed down, and players were often distracted.

I find that this quietly attractive, subtly strategic game will appeal to people who favor abstract tile-laying games that evolve with repeated plays and who have patience to discover a game over time.  I would not recommend it for more than five players.  It will not appeal to those who prefer thematic games, games that they can fully appreciate in the first play, or laugh-out-loud party games.

Victor Aleman, Creative Director of LEFT, provided a copy of The Grid Game for this review. 

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Congress of Gamers 2016

Every fall there's a little weekend convention in Rockville, Maryland that I've always enjoyed.  Hosted at the unassuming Rockville Senior Center, Congress of Gamers features a series of Euro tournaments, an auction store, and a game design room.  The Games Club of Maryland sponsored the convention, and Break My Game ran the prototype testing event this year's session, which convened last weekend. 

My first priority was to play Acquire (designer Sid Sackson), my favorite game that I never get to play.  Five of us signed up to play in a single game that was a real brain-burner.  All seven companies came out within the first two rounds of play.  I had no chance of keeping track of who had what.  By the end, it occurred to me that I need to reconsider how I play this game.  I tend to buy shares strictly in small companies that I anticipate being taken over, in the interest of pursuing bonuses with a high return on investment.  Unfortunately, at the end of the game I found myself with a lot of cash but very few shares of the large high-value surviving companies.  The result was that I came in a distant second to Bill, the player to my right, whose purchase timing seemed impeccable throughout the game.  If I have one complaint about Acquire, it is that tile luck can factor strongly in the outcome, and Bill readily admitted that the right tiles came out for him.  Nevertheless I'm convinced that he also made some excellent investments at the right time and capitalized on a number of other players' mergers, so he deserved the win outright.

I spent most of my time in the Unpublished Gaming Room, as I usually do.  I didn't bring any designs myself but spent the entire time playtesting other people's games.  Highlights included
David Stephenson explains "Empire" to
Matt and Corinne Yeager

  • Getting in a four-player game of David Stephenson's "Empire."  I played it once head-to-head with David at UnPub 6 last spring, and I can tell now that the game is much more interesting in a larger group.  Negotiation plays a big part in this abstracted nation-building game.  I'm really fond of it, and it deserves attention from publishers.
  • Discovering "Bring in the Birds" by Elizabeth Hargrave, such an innocent-sounding game, and so strategic
  • Revisiting "Dichotomy" (alias "Zhongbai: Game of Balance"), by Matthew Yeager, much cleaner than its 2015 Congress of Gamers rendition and perhaps one of the best trick-taking games I've ever played (and that includes Diamonds
  • Trying out "Fealty," David Stephenson's nifty social bluffing game (that might need a new name, since Asmadi has a 2011 release with that title)
  • Learning "Cave Paintings of Lascaux," by Corinne Yeager, a dice-driven set collector with a simple tech tree and elements of Splendor 
  • David Stephenson (l.) gives feedback to
    designer Austin Smokowicz on
    "Cattle Car"
  • Playing through "Cattle Car," by Austin Smokowicz and Aaron Honsowetz (the "Dr Wictz" design team), a lean deck builder with a Western theme that I'd seen before but don't recall playing.  It's got some tricky little interaction mechanics, as Josh Tempkin demonstrated in our playtest.
  • Jumping back into Adam "Alf Shadowsong" Fischer's "Kahl'Shera," a chaotic dice game with a whirling dervish martial showmanship dance kind of theme that I'd seen at an UnPub event somewhere before


(l. to r.) Peter Gousis, Dan H., and
Jessica Wade schooling me in Asara
Also in open gaming, I met up with Peter Gousis (MVP Games), Dan H. (League of Nonsensical Gamers), and Jessica Wade (Dice Hate Me - State of Games podcast).   (Actually, I kind of invited myself to their table.)  We all learned Asara (designers Michael Kiesling and Wolfgang Kramer, publisher Rio Grande), which turns out to be a nifty area control game.  Fun and clever, if not life-changing.

I also sat in on a demonstration of Eminent Domain (designer Seth Jaffee, publisher Tasty Minstrel Games), which I'd always been curious about since its seminal success on Kickstarter in the fall of 2010 as one of the ground-breaking boardgames of those early crowd-funding days.  As it happens, I found it to be rather a love-child of Dominion and Race for the Galaxy, both games that I wish I liked more than I do, and so I was left similarly unexcited by ED.  That's okay; that's why we do demos.

So Congress of Gamers was a fun, low-key gaming weekend.  Such a nice little convention.  I look forward to next year.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Collaboration

Having always approached game design as a solitary creative activity, I've been curious about successful design teams like Inka and Markus Brand (Village), or Kramer and Kiesling (Tikal).  My friend Keith Ferguson recently spoke about the collaborative process with Ben Pinchback, who said that he and Matt Riddle meet on a weekly basis and just work on games for a dedicated regular session. 

That notion got us thinking, and the timing was right, so Keith and I have decided to get together on a biweekly basis to try our hand at collaborating on a game project.  Our first session was Wednesday night, and in two hours we went from having a couple of vague ideas to sketching out the initial concepts of what could actually develop into a fun game.  The best part is that I'm excited about game design all over again, and I think we'll have fun seeing what we come up with, whether or not our efforts amount to anything worthwhile.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Summer vacation gaming

Our friends gave us access to their beach house in Rodanthe, North Carolina, for a week this summer.  For me, the best part of a summer vacation is simply sitting without a care in the world and reading a book or playing a game, and we did plenty of both.  I finished three books (including Girls on Games, reviewed in my last post), and we played games every day, including my sons, who are not normally enthusiastic gamers.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Hearing Women Tell It: A Review of "Girls on Games"

At a time when the board game community has become gradually aware of the unique experiences of women in the hobby, the gently feminist Girls on Games, an anthology on gender perspective in gaming particularly and in geekdom more generally, successfully Kickstarted in 2014 with over 900 backers.  Elisa Teague - designer of games, events, costumes, and props - compiled 15 essays by women and a foreword (by a man) and herself wrote six more plus an afterword.  She also interleaved “Share My Story Spotlight” anecdotes by two women, three men, and a girl, plus a poem – or perhaps a song lyric – by “The Doubleclicks.”  And to read and hear women tell it, despite a consistently optimistic tone throughout their essays, they experience some ugly behavior in our gaming hobby  – from condescension, to scorn, to challenges to their bona fides as game lovers.  After reading of these experiences, frankly, I don’t know how they put up with it.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Fifth annual-ish "What to pack for a vacation"

This summer we're headed to the North Carolina Outer Banks for a week at a beach house.  We just threw together a list of games to bring based partly on recent acquisitions, partly on old favorites, and partly on family stand-byes that we think we can get the normally reluctant sons to play.  Here's this year's packing list:

Friday, July 22, 2016

Can one house rule make an old game new again?

Replacing the dryer with one that was two inches wider led to having to move a shelf unit.  Which meant unloading all the old games from the shelves.  Which meant going through all the old games and deciding which to keep and which to dispose of.  Which meant rediscovering games that perhaps deserved a second look.  Which led to trying a 20-year-old game that I'd picked up at a PrezCon auction thinking my wife would like it but never actually played - 221B Baker Street: Sherlock Holmes and the Time Machine (designer Jay Moriarity, publisher John N. Hansen Co).

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Kramer and Kiesling recommendations

A couple of weeks ago I tweeted my realization that I have no games in my collection that are designed by Wolfgang Kramer nor Michael Kiesling, arguably two of the biggest designer names of our time.  They collaborated to design such high-flyers as Tikal, Torres, and Maharaja.  Kramer also designed El Grande, Princes of Florence, and Colosseum.  So I solicited recommendations from Twitter followers, and here are the titles that came up:

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Perspectives on Origins 2016 - Friday 17 June

Continued from Part 1, Thursday 16 June

East India Company
My primary purpose at Origins was to pitch "East India Company" to publishers.  At noon on Friday, my first appointment went well, but the publisher had issues with some of the liberties I'd taken with history in terms of which commodities were produced at which colonies.  I'd certainly made some "convenient assignments" in the interest of making the math work in the gameplay, but he seemed to think I'd gone too far and ought to revisit the historical basis of the game.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Perspectives on Origins 2016 - Thursday 16 Jun

Keith Ferguson and I drove to the Origins Game Fair in Columbus, Ohio, on Thursday 16 June.  Most of what I recorded at Origins manifested in the medium of tweets.  What follows are a few highlights, and as the opportunity arises, I may elaborate on some of them.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Dice, Dexterity, and Tactics: A One-play Review of "Barrage Battle"

The application of dexterity to combat resolution in modern game design appears to be an emerging phenomenon, the Western-themed Flick 'em Up the most notable example.  Raechel Mykytiuk and Matthew Kuehn bring a new innovation by blending dexterity with the card-character skirmish format of such games as Up Front and Summoner Wars in the fantasy-themed combat game Barrage Battle, currently on Kickstarter with a funding date of Friday June 24. 

Friday, April 29, 2016

Gaming in a hospital room - revisited

A little over four years ago, I wrote a couple of posts on what works and what doesn't when playing games in a hospital room or waiting room.  We find ourselves in a similar situation this week, although the medical circumstances are decidedly more serious.  All the same, it is helpful to revisit the principles that make for a good pasttime under such trying circumstances - portability, compactness, simplicity, humor, interruptibility, and brevity.  What follows is an amalgamation of highlights from the two posts.

Friday, April 22, 2016

Games for a one-armed mother-in-law

My mother-in-law was in a rather severe car accident a few weeks ago.  She is home from the hospital and recovering from surgery to her elbow, arm, and hand.  We plan to visit soon, but we are faced with a dilemma:  What three-player games are appropriate when one player can't easily hold a hand of cards and really only has use of one hand?

Friday, April 15, 2016

UnPub 6: Adjustments to "East India Company"

"East India Company" demo at PrezCon 2016:
(l. to r.) Darrell Louder, T.C. Petty III, Paul O.,
Matthew O'Malley, Jessica Wade
Photo by Chris Kirkman
I had demonstrated "East India Company" to a publisher at PrezCon last February, and came away realizing that the action cards I had added since UnPub 5 last year still needed some balancing.  I was also dissatisfied by the amount of down-time I observed (although the players hadn't complained about it).  In anticipation of UnPub 6, I made three significant changes:

Friday, March 18, 2016

Ninja Countdown: A one-play review of San Ni Ichi

In the quintessential neo-tradition of first-time game designer/publishers, Ironmark Games has successfully crowd-funded and released debut designer Mike Sette's rather fascinating little trick-taking game with a Ninja martial arts theme.  San, Ni, Ichi, whose title translates from Japanese as "Three, Two, One," features simultaneous card play with a rock-paper-scissors resolution mechanic.

Friday, March 4, 2016

PrezCon 2016: Pillars of the Earth final

(c) Mayfair Games
Used by permission

I ran the tournament for Pillars of the Earth (designers Michael Rieneck and Stefan Stadler, artists Michael Menzel, Anke Pohl, and Thilo Rick; publisher Mayfair) at PrezCon again this year.  This worker placement game is based thematically on the Ken Follett novel of the same name.  Players compete to contribute the most to the construction of Kingsbridge Cathedral.  They have at their disposal a team of unskilled workers for collecting sand, wood, and stone, and for working in the wool mill for money.  Players can pay or recruit a team of up to five skilled craftsmen to use those raw materials to contribute to the cathedral's construction.  Metal is also available but more difficult to come by.