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A Gnome's Ponderings

I'm a gamer. I love me some games and I like to ramble about games and gaming. So, more than anything else, this blog is a place for me to keep track of my ramblings. If anyone finds this helpful or even (good heavens) insightful, so much the better.

Archive for Lowell Kempf

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Edge of the Woods looks good if you play by post

Lowell Kempf
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The Edge of the Wood, part of the Indie Megamix Mixtape, is a roleplaying game that falls squarely into my current interests. It's a GM-free system that's designed to be played via email or forum. It is entirely build around the written word.

At its heart, the game consists of taking turns writing stuff.

The game is broken down into two phases: character building and narrative building. Pretty much the way most RPGs work, really. First you make the characters and then you send them out into the world to have adventures.

The Edge of the Woods' character building is built around a bunch of lists. They include a bunch of character elements (what they are, what they can do, what they have and what they want), connections between characters and narrative elements. After you've done your bit with a list, you cross off one of the elements you've used and write down a new one. So the lists keep evolving and everyone gets to show how they would like the game to develop.

The narrative building phase of the game has the active player pick one of five different mini-games for the group to play. Each one uses a different form of interaction, although they all involve players taking turns writing.

These mini games include big events that shake up the entire setting, individual reactions to a specific narrative element or straight up character development. Some of them have players right out whole scenes while others have them just write a single sentence. One involves each player taking turns changing one word in a sentence that the active player wrote.

In other words, they aren't the same writing exercise about different subjects. Each one explores narrative and character development and writing in a different way.

The Edge of the Woods does read like a rough draft. The fact that it is only two pages long doesn't help. I have a feeling that if the game had a couple more pages, including a discussion on gameplay, it would tighten the game up and make it more accessible.

As it is, I am most likely to play it with friends who have played a lot of narrative-driven games and games-by-post so I am confident in our ability to make it work. Still, like I always say, a group can often determine if a game will work. The Edge of the Wood has the special burden of play by post. Great if folks can't get together but easy for people to forget to take a turn.

I also have to note that the default lists, which describe a lighthearted fairytale setting with gnomes and talking animals, could easily be rewritten without having any mechanical issue. You could take the mechanics of The Edge of the Woods and make it horror or science fiction or modern business drama. I am actually tempted to try doing a Star Wars hack of the system and I'm not even that much of a Star Wars fan.

The Edge of the Woods is very much a niche game, specifically designed as a game built around writing and playing via some sort of computer interface. But as someone who loves writing and has a lot of friends who live in different time zones, I am solidly in that niche. I have a feeling that I will end up trying it out and I think we will have fun.
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Fri Dec 9, 2016 5:33 pm
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I'm goring some sacred cows here, aren't I?

Lowell Kempf
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I read Bill Webb's Book of Dirty Tricks without a real idea what I was getting myself into. I assumed I was reading something along the lines of the Grimtooth's Trap books. Instead, what I really found was the philosophy of someone who's been running games for decades.

The premise of the book is giving a dungeon master a tool kit for making players' lives more interesting. The goal isn't to kill the characters but to challenge them in a way that makes good storytelling.

What was probably the most interesting part of the book for me was the section before it gets into the dirty tricks, Bill Webb's house rules. A big focus of the house rules is to slow down advancement. Take the time to get to know your character.

He's also a big proponent of simulation. One of the most fascinating examples of this is having players describe how they deactivate a trap as opposed to rolling a die to see if they can deactivate it. I'm torn between finding that really neat and completely unreasonable. After all, your character might be a master thief but you're not.

An interesting element in the dirty tricks section was, if the players have too much money, do something like start a holy war or put them in charge of a province. In other words, do something that's basically a campaign for the sake of making them spend money.

Needless to say, Bill Webb is an old school, back to Gygax kind of dungeon master. He makes a bunch of references to the good old, pile up the dead characters, Tomb of Horrors. This is some serious, pre-Reagan RPG philosophy.

There are some things I don't care for with this approach. Webb seems to have problems with players using the rules to gain advantages. While abusing the rules can be a real problem, Webb seems to push it to the point of punishing players for learning to use the rules.

It's important to remember that, back when RPGs were still extensions of miniatures games, the role of the DM really was to compete against the players, as opposed to a neutral referee or a friendly collaborator. But I think there are good reasons that changed.

And I have been in games where the DM has had an antagonistic relation with the players, although in one case, the players started it. For me, it ultimately becomes not just frustrating but boring.

This is more of a personal note but I also question the time of time wasters, something that got its own section. Having a party waste an hour on a fake door might make for a good anecdote but when you have to carefully budget your game time, the idea is just infuriating.

HOWEVER, while I don't like several elements of Webb's DMing approach, it did take me back to the days when I was able to be in a weekly campaign and spend years slowly developing both characters and storylines. It is an incredibly rich and engaging experience. It is a very rewarding way to explore role playing.

Old school elements like slow, gradual development and low fantasy and simulation, detail heavy mechanics aren't bad things. They are fundamental elements to the development of RPGs AND they have not been superseded.

Bill Webb's book didn't leave me with a desire to play under Bill Webb. However, it did bring back fond memories of another part of my game in life.
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Fri Dec 9, 2016 5:04 pm
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My journey with Attika continues

Lowell Kempf
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Attika came into my gaming experience after I had solidly gotten into gaming. I had played plenty of Catan and Carcassonne and Puerto Rico and the like. However, it was before I helped start a group that played at least once a week and before I really started seriously collecting games.

While I've seen every single element in Attika plenty of times, I have yet to see another game that puts them together in the same way. I've played literally hundreds of different games since I learned Attika and it still feels pretty distinct.

Here's the thumbnail sketch: In Attika, each player is playing a Greek city state, either trying to build every last one of its buildings or connect two different temples with their buildings.

The board is made up of modular hexagonal jigsaw pieces that have a hex grid on them. The nifty bit is, as the game goes on, you'll be able to add more jigsaw pieces to the board.

On your turn, you have a certain number action points you get to use. You can use them to draw building tiles, build building tiles and draw cards.

Every building has a resource cost. Resources are both printed on the board and on the cards. However, the different groups of buildings come in chains. If you build next to a previous link in a chain, it's free. Of course, you are randomly drawing the buildings.

Seriously, we have action points from games like Tikal. We got connections like games like Hex. We got randomly drawing tiles like you get in Samurai. We got a modular board like games like Catan. We got building stuff with resources like a ton of different games. There's a lot of familiar pieces but Attika uses them in its own way.

However, here's the first twist in my story. A couple years ago, I was purging my collection and I came across my own copy of Attika, which I picked up shortly after I first learned the game. And it was still in the shrinkwrap.

Was it a game that I had good memories of? Yeah. Was it a game I could remember the last time I played? Nope. Did it take up more space than a deck of cards? Yes. When push came to shove, I ended up selling Attika.

And, to be honest, I have never regretted that decision. I never played my own copy and I hadn't played anyone else's in years. There's only so much time for playing games and only so much to store them.

Ah, but there's a second twist. Attika has been added to Yucata, the online game site. It's amusing how I got excited to be able to play a game online that I got rid of. But sites like Yucata let me play games without needing storage space or a designated playing time. I just need a couple minutes a day to make a move or two.

Although, to be brutally honest, I've found Attika isn't as good as I remembered. Everything works well but there is a lot of mechanics going on for what is a relatively simple game. It feels a little busy for its depth.

But it is still a fun game and a good game and one I'm going to be playing regularly at Yucata.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon Nov 21, 2016 2:20 pm
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Time Lord, a game time forgot

Lowell Kempf
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I just stumbled down a rabbit hole and a blast from the past when I rediscovered the role playing game Time Lord. It was the second role playing game about Doctor Who. I actually picked it up back in 1991 and even tried playing it. However, it faded from my memory.

Time Lord was a very rules light game for the time. It will also wasn't published by a gaming company but by Virgin Publishing who marketed as a regular mass-market book. In other words, a good chunk of its potential audience never even heard of it. The game pretty much sank and is now just a footnote in the vast history of Doctor Who.

Heck, even though I am a role-playing enthusiast and a big Doctor Who fan, I totally forgot about it.

Going back and looking at it now, Time Lord is a curious mix of very traditional role playing concepts and remarkably streamlined mechanics. On the one hand, the characters are made up of eight stats and you are going to need someone to be the game master.

On the other hand, the mechanics break down to subtracting the value of the appropriate statistic and any skill from the difficulty of the task. If that value is higher than the difficult the, you automatically succeed. Otherwise, you roll to six sided dice and subtract the lower from the higher. If you beat the difference, you succeed.

You know, that actually sounds complicated when I try to write it out but it's really super simple. You figure out what the difference is between your total ability and the difficulty and you need to roll higher than that. OK, the only reason that you don't just roll one die is because you need to be able to get a zero result.

Anyway, having such a simple resolution system creates a framework that can easily resolve just about anything quickly. It does lead to a lot of things being generalized. At the time when I first read it, I found it strange that the Auton blasters were just as deadly as the Dakek ones.

From a more much more experienced standpoint, this just makes sense to me. Powerful alien blaster kills people. Period. That's really all you need to know to make the game work.

Actually, the biggest legitimate weakness of the game, other than some serious marketing issues, is that it doesn't have character generation. Instead, it just gave you the stats for all the Doctors up to that point and a bunch of companions.

To be fair, this is still better then the Indiana Jones game from TSR. One person got to be Indy and everyone else had to pick someone like Short Round or Willie. (Oddly enough, the rules did not begin with 'there will be a fistfight to see who gets to be Indiana Jones'.) In Time Lord, folks could be different Doctors meeting through special circumstances or have everyone be a companion with no one being the Doctor. And there are plenty of companions to pick from.

That said, it wouldn't be hard to make a character with house rules and rules for character generation have been added in the later, online only rule set as well as some of the fan-based supplements.

These days, when I have been playing extremely streamlined games, ones that often don't even involve having game master, Time Lord doesn't quite fit what I'm looking for. However, I really wonder what it would have been like with wider distribution.

Simpler, more intuitive systems have become more and more common and accepted. I would even go so far as to say there has even risen a minimalist school of thought for role-playing game design. From that standpoint, Time Lord was ahead of its time.

The designer made a revised edition available for free online back in 1996 so I'm going to revisit Time Lord, see what it looks like now.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Nov 11, 2016 5:38 am
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A discussion on settings versus mechanics

Lowell Kempf
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I was recently told something to the effect that players will appreciate good mechanics but they will fall in love with a setting.

My own personal philosophy is that a good group or at least a good game master will be able to make sure that everyone has fun with all but the worst of systems. That being said, that isn't a far cry from the settings trump mechanic philophy.

For me, one of the most telling arguments about the power of settings is that there are dozens, if not hundreds, of books that are set in the Forgotten Realms, Dragonlance's Krynn and Ravenloft. And I have to believe that a lot of the people who buy and read those books don't actually play in those settings. If people who have no investment in the mechanics like the settings, that says something.

One of the two campaigns that I was in that lasted for over a decade ended up going through five different sets of mechanics. Obviously, the story was more important than what we use the dice for.

Mind you, my personal example works at least as well for the argument that the group itself determines how good a game is. And mechanics are important. They define how you interact with the setting.

But I do see how settings are the hook to grab players and how they help define the stories that you will tell.
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Thu Oct 13, 2016 6:06 pm
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Tak: the reality behind what was fiction

Lowell Kempf
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Tak belongs to that curious family of games that were fictional and someone decided to make real. The game was mentioned in Patrick Rothfuss's The Wise Man's Fear and James Ernst made the game real.

The object of the game is to build a road across the board. You can place your stones on the board either flat as flagstones or on their sides as walls. You can move an already placed flagstone one space, including on top of another flagstone. You cannot move onto a wall but walls cannot move and do not count as part of the road.

Both players get a special piece called the capstone. It is the only piece that can flatten a wall and nothing can be put on top of the capstone.

There is also a special rule for moving a stack of pieces. The person on top, controlling the stack, can move the stack more than one space but they have to leave the bottom piece behind after the first move. It's rather like sowing in Mancala.

I will be honest. I wasn't terribly interested in Tak when I first heard about it. I do love me some abstracts something fierce but I didn't feel like it offered me anything I hadn't seen before. I have played some really good modern abstracts but I've also played some pretty bad ones too.

But there was a giant set of Tak at Rincon 2016 and I saw in steady use so I ended up giving it a go. And then ended up playing the game three more times.

I know Tak is supposed to feel like a game that's been around for generations and it has a bit of that feel. However, what really
stood out for me was how intuitive it felt. I was able to pick it up and make more experienced players sweat for their wins.

There are some very interesting choices. Using a stone as a wall is a good blocking move but it doesn't help you build your road. The capstone is a strong piece but it has to enter the game on an empty space, like any other space. And getting it out telegraphs how you will use it.

One part of the game that I still have a long ways to really get a good handle on is the sowing move. Building up a stack and being able to effectively make a whole bunch of move is very strong and great stepped into to make that big, dramatic move. But you have to work your way there.

And there is also a strong alternate game ending condition. If you place all your stones first, you lose. That adds tension to the game as well as a timer. If your opponent forces you to place stones, it puts you on the defensive on a couple levels.

Tak doesn't quite make the top tier of modern abstracts for me. Games like the GIPF Project or the Blokus Family or Hive have set a very high standard for me. However, it is definitely a second tier game. It is easy to pick up and understand but it has enough depth to reward continued play and exploring the game.

The game hasn't actually come out yet but everything I need to know about making my own copy is available. And I am planning on doing that.

http://cheapass.com/free-games/tak/

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Sat Oct 8, 2016 1:07 am
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Reflections on Carcassonne in a tournament environment

Lowell Kempf
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While I have played Carcassonne for many years, I recently played in what I'm pretty sure was my first Carcassonne tournament. (Not sure what it says about me that I can't remember all the tournaments I've played in. And, compared to some of my friends, I'm not a tournament player) It was also the first time in ages I played basic, no expansion, vanilla Carcassonne.

Some thoughts

1) Brevity. With four players and just the basic set, everyone gets fifteen to sixteen turns, depending on their seating. That makes for a pretty quick game, which is handy for a tournament where time is a definite limiter.

2) Small Foot Print. With only 72 tiles, including the starting tile, you have a fairly small board. I would even go so far as to say claustrophobic. Again, handy for tournament purposes.

3) Luck. Since each player only draws at most 16 tiles, luck can be a huge factor. If you are looking for the perfect tile, the odds are against you. Luck will play a big part in who wins. That isn't so handy.

4) Cloisters. By the time I started playing Carcassonne, back in the mist of time, the first two expansions were already out and I usually played with those. With a bigger tile mix and more ways to score points, cloisters didn't seem that extraordinary. However, with just the original set, cloisters suddenly become strikingly powerful. Drawing a cloister in vanilla Carcassonne can be big.

(Yeah, I know that that's just a subsection of point number three, walk. However, it was still striking)

I don't know if Carcassonne is suitable for high stakes tournament. However, it was fun for a light, casual tournament. After all of these years, even the vanilla version holds up well.
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Fri Oct 7, 2016 3:23 am
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Pairs proves to be a more interesting game system than I thought

Lowell Kempf
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Since I subscribe to the Cheapass Games newsletter, I have been aware of Pairs pretty much since it was ever mentioned. However, it didn't really interest me very much.

However, I did sign up for what amounted to a Pairs seminar with James Ernst at this year's Rincon. He ran through four different games that you can play with the Pairs deck as well as some variants. And by the time he was done, I had a much better opinion of the Pairs deck as a game system.

The Pairs deck is a triangular deck. It doesn't have suits, only ranks one to ten. And each rank has as many cards in it as its rank. So there is only one one card but ten ten cards.

All the Pairs games I played were light, quick games. Pub games that would be good for figuring out who pays for the next round. The games I learned included elements push-your-luck and bluffing. And I know you can use the deck to play climbing and trick taking games since Cheapass has all but admitted that they started with a Great Dalmutti deck to create the Pairs deck.

The actual Pairs game was one of the ones I learned, which is a very simple push-your-luck game. In fact, I'd say it was the weakest game I learned. So instead of being a deck of cards that you can theoretically play other games with, I would buy the deck specifically to play the other games. It really is a legit game system.

The Pairs deck isn't the first triangular deck I've played with. I'm pretty sure that was the Great Dalmutti, which goes up to twelve. I didn't realize how much losing those twenty three cards (11+12) tightened up the odds in the Pairs deck until I had a chance to play with it.

The games I got to play were on the serious casual side. They were lighter than what we play when the toddler is in bed and we are exhausted. But they'd be great at restaurants or parties or bars. And great with folks who'd never play something like Love Letter. And I wouldn't be surprised if there are deeper games that I just don't know yet.

Nothing is going to beat the standard deck of cards as a game system. It has had literally centuries of development and refinement and playtesting. And the best alternative I've found is the brilliant Decktet with its multi-suited cards. The Pairs deck is still pretty flexible and fun, though. And, since all three take up less space than some paperbacks, there's no reason not to own all three.

http://cheapass.com/pairs/

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Oct 5, 2016 10:27 pm
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Isle of Skye: initial play was a lot of fun

Lowell Kempf
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My first game at Rincon was Isle of Skye. I had heard of it before. After all, it won the SdJ for strategy games. But, since I'm not buying new games, I didn't look any further. What I discovered is a game I'd love to play again.

In Isle of Skye, you are all building your own little map of tiles. It reminds me a lot of Alhambra. Which is a compliment. Alhambra is an older German Family-style game that has held up very well for me. (I can see someone also comparing it to Glenn More but I think Isle resembles Alhambra more closely with its tile market)

In Isle of Skye, you create your own market. Everyone draws three tiles and secretly decides to discard one and out prices on the other two. Everyone gets a chance to buy one tile and any tiles that aren't purchased, the person who put them on the market buys them. I definitely like this. It creates a lot of interaction but it's a kind, gentle interact.

At the every round, there's some scoring. And here's where Isle gets all cute. There are several different scoring tiles, each one showing a different way to get points. And you only use about a quarter of them in any given game. So every game, there's a different way to get points and it will be in a different order for when you use the tiles. That adds a lot of replay value and means that you are always looking for something different in how you build your little map of tiles.

After just one game, I am definitely no kind of expert at either how to play or what the game structure is really like. I do know that I had fun.

Isle of Skye seems to blend the German Family ideas of heavy interactions and intuitive rules with Euro point salad. It feels like the kind of game that should be a good family game but still has enough meat to make more serious gamers respect it and enjoy it.

Frankly, if I had a regular group at the moment, I would seriously think about picking it up. Although, if I did have a regular group, somebody would've already picked it up by now.
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Wed Oct 5, 2016 12:26 am
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My Rincon 2016 experiences

Lowell Kempf
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Every year since we've moved to Tucson, I've attended Rincon, the friendly little gaming convention that is Tucson's own. I think it's actually Arizona's only gaming convention. And every year, it seems to have gotten better, both my personal experiences and in general.

This is the first year at its new location. I'd already attended two fundraisers for Rincon at the new hotel but the actual convention made me like it even more. In particular, the hotel shares its parking lot with two restaurants, which was great.

I won't be surprised if this Rincon had record attendance. My experiences with the volunteers was very positive. They were friendly, always eager to help and, most importantly, seemed to know what they were doing.

The guests included Andrew Looney of Looney Labs and James Ernst of Cheapass Games. Both of those companies were a big part of me getting into board games and I still really appreciate what they do, particularly for casual gamers and family gamers.

I've gotten into the habit of registering for events instead of looking for pick-up games since we've moved out here and I don't have a posse of friends from nearby states to serve as an automatic gaming group. It doesn't hurt that it's usually free to register for events it's more cons.

In fact, this year, I was afraid that I had signed up for too many events. Instead, it proved to be a great idea. I was able to keep busy and every event was fun.

In addition to learning Isle of Skye right at the start, I attended events hosted by James Ernst and Andy Looney and played in two tournaments. Heck, I placed second in the Carcassonne tournament on Sunday, although lucky draws of cloisters probably had more to do with it then any brilliance on my part.

In fact, the only pick up games I got in were ones with the giant set of Tak in one of the free play areas. I had kind of followed its development because I get the Cheapass newsletter but it proved to be a much better abstract then I ever expected. Making my own copy is now on the shortlist of games to make.

I have to note that talking with designers at smaller conventions gives you a much bigger chance to have a real conversation with them. I also got to talk with David Short, who designed Automobiles and Skyline and is a Tucson local.

In the past, I've only spend an afternoon at Rincon between the age of our toddler and the further distance of the old location. I was there for most of Saturday and part of Sunday this year and it was bustling and fun the entire time.

Originally posted on www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon Oct 3, 2016 11:52 pm
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