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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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An outsider's view of Pokemon Go

Lowell Kempf
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Unless you count playing boardgames online, I'm not much of a video gamer. However, I did marry a video gamer, which helps round out our household nicely.

So I am actually aware of Pokemon Go. Otherwise, I would just think I was seeing a lot of people reading deeply meaningful texts all at the same time.

As a non-video gamer and a dad, I have a lot of appreciation for Nintendo. As a company, they seem to really encourage family friendly fun and activities, including encouraging kids to get some exercise. And they gave me Professor Layton. That's a franchise I can really sink my teeth into.

For everyone who is like me, Pokemon Go is a game that combines hunting and live trapping cute little monsters with GPS. You actually have to get out of the house and hunt the Pokemon down on foot.

I've been calling it Pokemon the LARP.

I actually consider this to be pretty brilliant. I understand that the game eats battery power like it was going out of style and probably isn't that good for data plans. I know folks have wandered into bad neighborhoods looking for Pokemons and a Wyoming girl found a dead body (which sounds like the start of a weird crime drama - They collect Pokeman and Evidence!)

However, I like that it encourages kids to get off the couch, go outside and explore their environment, along with getting some exercise. Plus, the idea of creating a mashup of the real world and virtual reality is still new and exciting, even if other games like Ingress have already done it.

The other night, I saw a group of people standing outside a closed library, staring at their phones. I wanted to pull over and ask them what faction they were in.

I don't know if Pokemon Go will be a two-week phenomena or a lasting game or a sign of games to come. If nothing else, it's a fascinating social experiment and an interesting idea for a game.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Tue Jul 26, 2016 8:29 pm
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I'm not sure what 4X exactly means anymore

Lowell Kempf
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I feel like I'm seeing the term 4X used a lot more often than I used to, like its the new thing.

Which seems kind of odd. After all, while the term got started in video games, it's been around in practice in board games since at least the 70s.

The term refers to Explore, Expand, Exploit and Exterminate. Exploring means finding out what the map is. Expand means creating some kind of infrastructure, usually settlements and the like. Exploit means using the resources you find, almost always involving a tech tree. Technically, Exterminate means fighting and eliminating other players but it seems to just mean fighting these days.

As a genre, 4X really seems to have taken hold in the video game arena, which is where the term was coined in the first place. Basically, we're talking about in depth empire building. The term usually implies a big scope and a high complexity.

Over the last few years, what seems to have become a goal is create shorter and more accessible 4X board games. The first time I really heard the idea bandied about was with Eclipse, which described to me as Twilight Imperium for people who only want to play Euro games.

When it really struck me was when Tiny Epic Kingdoms, a 4X game that can fit into a really big pocket and take about a half hour to play. And now there's even a travel version that will fit into just about any pocket.

And when I got a chance to play Scythe, it was described to me as a 4X game that combined the sensibilities of Ameritrash and Euro. It sure seemed to live up to that description.

It seems to me that the term 4X might be changing or shifting, making it harder and harder to definitively pin down what is and what is not a 4X game. In particular, the Explore and the Exterminate aspects seem more nebulous to me.

With computers, the ability to create new maps and ones that are filled the fog and the unknown is a lot bigger than what you can do with a board game. Heck, in Scythe, a major component to the exploration experience are encounter tokens, which are one-shot multiple choice benefits.

And, as I already commented, Exterminate originally meant just that. Wiping someone off the map. Now, it seems to just mean fighting. With a loose enough definition of fighting to include siccing the robber on someone, someone could argue that Catan is a 4X. Not that I think anyone could actually get away with that argument.

I got curious and looked up if Nexus Ops was considered a 4X game. And I found that it was not. While it does have exploration and exploitation and even extermination, it does not have expansion. Which makes sense. Your forces really just squat on mines. You don't build any infrastructure.

Ultimately, what I'm getting out of 4X becoming a more common term is that the term has gotten more vague and not everyone is going to agree on what qualifies.
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Tue Jul 26, 2016 3:26 am
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Nexus, still hanging out in my collection

Lowell Kempf
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Nexus is a game that has stuck in my head for a good long time. Part of Cheapass Game's hip pocket line and _not_ to be confused with Nexus Ops, I don't know if it deserves the fascination I have with it but it's staying in my collection.

It's a very simple tile laying, area of control game. It's made up of forty-eight cards showing white paths and intersections over a pale blue background. Very plain and simple but still aesthetically pleasing.

The rules are also really easy. Every side has one path so there's no possible illegal plays. However, the intersections range from dead ends to four-ways. In your turn, you place a card and place a marker you supple yourself (Cheapass Games, remember) on any open intersection on the board.

When a chain of paths is closed, you score it. And that's where the clever bit comes in. The value of each token is the value of the intersection it's on. So dead ends are worth one and four ways are worth four. Whoever has the highest value in tokens gets the points. But a chain is only worth the value of the unclaimed intersections. So a good fight over a chain can really tank the score.

By the way, you score closed chains and then place a token so you can't zero out a chain.

When someone gets to ten points, they get to be declared the winner.

I know that one of the reasons Nexus has stuck in my head is that you lay the cards long end to short end to create a basket weave. I know that's because they're rectangular cards, not square, but it still creates an interesting visual.

I also know it made an impression because it was a game I picked up before I really got started collecting games. That definitely gives it a leg up in the old memory department.

I honestly don't know how it would hold up now. Truth to tell, given my limited time to play games, other small area of control games, like This Town Ain't Big Enough For the 2-4 of us, are much more likely to end up on the table.

However, since it's smaller than a regular deck of cards, it gets to stay in the collection. Devaluing chains in order to claim them does make the game interesting. Maybe it will help me introduce my son to area of control.

originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon Jul 25, 2016 2:05 am
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My favorite Blokuses

Lowell Kempf
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In earlier blog, I wrote that I consider Blokus to be an important game. It's a simple abstract with deep choices that's had real mainstream success. I think it's a game that will still be played twenty years from now. However, I also wrote that I prefer Blokus Trigon and Travel Blokus to the original. So much that they are still in my collection and the original is not.

In the original game, each color starts out in the corners and work their way towards the center. It takes a few turns for any kind of conflict to get going. And you have to use all four colors. Otherwise, there will be too much open space. In two players games, each player uses two colors. With three players, you take turns playing with the neutral color. Or, better yet, don't play three players.

Travel Blokus or Blokus Duo solves these issues by being strictly for two players and having the starting positions near the center of the board. Instead of a leisurely series of opening moves, you get a knife fight from the start. And the smaller board makes that knife fight happen in the proverbial phone booth. It's a much tighter, more ruthless game than its parent.

When I first saw Blokus Trigon with its hexagonal board and pieces made of triangles instead of squares, I thought it was just a gimick. It took me literally one play to completely revise that opinion.

Like Travel Blokus, the starting positions are close to the center, allowing conflict right at the start. And there are multiple starting positions, adding to replay values.

The triangular shapes create more porous barriers than the square shapes in the other Blokus games. This makes blocking harder but it also makes for more interesting plays.

But the real treat of Blokus Trigon is that it is a really strong three-player game. With three players, you don't use the outer ring of spaces. That's all it takes to create a claustrophobic playing area. Blokus Trigon doesn't just play three players. It is the one of the strongest three-player abstracts I have found.

I think that, for the world in general, Blokus is important for being a modern classic. But for folks like me who already liked a abstracts, it's important for being creating a model that helped create even better games.

Originally posted on www.gnomepondering.com
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Sat Jul 23, 2016 2:28 pm
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The Masque of the Red Death gave me nightmares

Lowell Kempf
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Dungeons and Dragons has had a wide variety of official settings, which only makes sense for how long it's been around. Some of those settings have really made some extreme changes in the basic concepts of Dungeons and Dragons. In my experience, the one that made the biggest changes was Masque of the Red Death.

Red Death was a subsection of another setting, Ravenloft, the world of Gothic horror. Ravenloft, all by itself, tends to be deadlier than your general Dungeons and Dragons experience. Magic, particularly happy divine healing magic, tends to be weaker.

Red Death moves the play out of out-and-out fantasy and to a Gothic Earth in the 1890s. You know, just like a regular historical Earth, other than some eldritch miasma that causes horrible abominations to arise.

On the one hand, this more mundane setting makes magic even more limited than Ravenloft. Magic items are scarce to the point of non-existence. There really isn't any armor to speak of.

On the other hand, there are guns. Which might be ineffective against some monsters and opponents with opposable thumbs have access to guns too. At least there aren't misfire rules.

Still, if a player has to choose between a gun can take a long time to reload and a fireball, they'll pick a fireball every time. Or, heck, even a magic missile.

Really, in many ways, Red Death had a similar feel to Call of Cthulhu. At least in the games I was in, player mortality was really high and the sense of vulnerability was also very high.

That said, Call of Cthulhu focuses on cosmic horrors, vast and uncaring nightmares that don't care if you live in madness or die in agony. Red Death is gothic horror, where the nightmares are more intimate and do care about your suffering. It's personal choice which is worse.

From what I can tell, Masque of the Red Death never really took off. There was practically no supplemental material for it. Outside of the folks who were in the campaign that I was in, I've never heard anyone talk about.

It may have been too niche. In many levels, in theme and setting and concept, it went out of Dungeons and Dragons' comfort zone. Even in more bizarre settings, like Spelljammer, it's still heroic fantasy. Red Death isn't just horror. It's horror where the characters are significantly weaker than any other flavor of Dungeons and Dragons.

At the same time, many years and several editions later, my time with the Red Death still stays with me. That campaign gave me the worst nightmares I've ever gotten from a role playing game. The Masque of the Red Death was an odd beast but it did its job well.

Originally posted on www.gnomepondering.com
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Thu Jul 21, 2016 10:10 pm
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First impressions of Scythe, thanks to a convention fundraiser

Lowell Kempf
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The highlight of the July Rincon fundraiser for me was getting to learn and play Scythe. At one point, while I was there, there were at least three tables playing Scythe and very likely a fourth table.

One of the amazing things about the Tucson gaming scene is Rincon. Not only is it a nice local con, it has fundraisers through out the year, giving me some micro conventions to enjoy as well. Seriously, it's a really amazing community.

While I got warmed with a quick game of HUE (which actually manages to impress me more and more with each play), I spent most of my relatively short time there with Scythe.

Scythe is shaping up to be one of the big games of 2016. It's set in a sort-of steampunk 1920 Europe. When I say sort of steampunk, I mean that it reminds me a lot more of the steam powered agricultural equipment of the late nineteenth century. The players play different powers in this Europe, building up their political and economic power.

Scythe is a 4X game, which means eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXtermimate. Which means move out, build up, get stuff and fight. The actual mechanics of the game is action selection. Every player has a dashboard of actions, basically the same but tweaked for their national faction.

To be honest, I'm willing to bet most folks reading this know more about Scythe and have played it more than I have. Since I knew I wasn't going to buy it, it was off my radar.

The first thing that impressed me about Scythe was the design of the player boards. They are slotted for the wooden pieces, making it easy to know what goes where. And when you reassign them, new costs or powers get revealed. Simple but so clever as far as making house keeping quick and easy.

The other thing that quickly struck me is that Scythe has very intuitive mechanics for anyone who has played Euros. I told Carrie afterwards that Scythe is Le Havre on steroids and with fighting. Which isn't a perfect comparison but it gave her an idea of how it works and that she'd be able to pick it up quickly.

My learning game got me trounced. I didn't focus on popularity track enough, which helped tank my score. And I had a blast. It was so much fun and I hope to play again.

Scythe is a really smart design. It has a lot of things going on, game mechanic wise, but all of the gears fit together really well. It's full of tough, interesting choices built on a tight economy. The fact that it has a playing time of two hours is less is just icing on the cake.

I'm not planning on buying Scythe any time soon. Between a two-year-old and three cats, we won't be playing it. But our son will get older and we can lock the cats in the bedroom. In a few years, I can see myself either picking it up or getting a game that Scythe ends up inspiring.

Getting a chance to play Scythe was really amazing. It's looking to be one of the highlights of the year for me. I hope I got to play it again
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Wed Jul 20, 2016 6:57 pm
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Climbing up the pyramid of Pylos

Lowell Kempf
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I recently tried Pylos out for the first time through Boardgame Arena.

Which is really not the best way to try this game. Pylos is a game of stacking wooden balls in order to form a pyramid so there's clearly a strong tactile element to the Pylos experience.

The players each have fifteen balls, just enough to make a four-story pyramid. Luckily, you get a grooved board to hold the bottom layer. It's a two-player game, by the way, so there's light and dark colored balls to tell the two players apart.

The goal is to place one of your balls on top of the pyramid. Which, structurally, has to be the last one placed. If that is all there was to the game, the second player would win every single time.

But there's a couple of twists. Instead of placing one of the balls from your reserve, you can move a non-weight-bearing ball to a higher level if there's a space for it. And, if you form a 2x2 square in your own color, you can take back up to two of your non-weight-bearing balls.

Pylos is all about managing reserves. Trying to make sure that you keep your reserves up and that your opponent can't do the same. For a game that's about blocking but not capturing, it's surprisingly vicious. Simply put, whoever runs out of balls first loses.

Pylos was interesting and I would play it again. However, it's been part of my exploration of Gigamic games on Boardgame Arena. In particular, I've played a lot of Quoridor. In comparison, Pylos has simpler patterns and choices.

That said, the real reason I don't see myself buying a game made of wooden balls is we have three cats. In a few years, our toddler will be old enough to handle Pylos. But the cats will always be cats. This wouldn't be a game. This would be an invitation to kitty madness.

Pylos delivers an abstract that you can teach in a couple minutes, still has good choices and looks beautiful. You could teach it to anyone. It's biggest failing is not being as good as other Gigamic abstracts.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Tue Jul 19, 2016 8:50 pm
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Quoridor's mazes turned out to be worth revisiting

Lowell Kempf
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Quoridor is a game that I've come back to and found out that it is a lot better than I had remembered.

There's a very simple reason for that. I first played Quoridor during my 'so many games, so little time' phase, when I would play a game once or twice and then move on to a new one to try out. Now I'm more inclined to play fewer games but over and over again. Quoridor really benefitted from a more thorough examination.

Quoridor is one of those short, simple abstracts that has a lot more depth than its simplicity or brevity would immediately imply. Played out on a nine by nine grid, your goal is to get your pawn to the other side. Where the clever bit and the name comes in is that each player also has a supply of walls. Each wall is two spaces wide and will fit in between the grooved spaces.

On your turn, you can either move your pawn one space in an orthogonal direction or place a wall. However, you aren't allowed to wall anyone in. There must always be some sort of path for them to get to the far side.

You can play the game with two players or with four players but as far as I'm concerned, Quoridor is really a two-player game. Four players feels off and makes the board to cluttered.

The meat of the game is the walls. You're are fighting to give your opponent the most time-consuming path possible while making sure they don't do the same to you. Moving the pawns is just acting out the conclusions that you've come to.

Which isn't to say you build a maze and only then start moving your pawn. No, sometimes you have to move to either force a decision on your opponent or escape the trap they're setting up.

In my earliest exposure to Quoridor, I was just using my walls to try and block my opponent. However, when a friend of mine had me sit down and play game after game with him online, I started to realize that I was missing a lot of important gameplay.

The first thing that clicked in my head and I felt like an idiot for not realizing so much sooner was that I could cut a line my opponent was building by playing a wall along the same line but with a one-space gap that they couldn't fill.

From there, I realized that cutting was at least as important as blocking and that I would have to figure out how to react to my opponent's cuts. I realized that, like Go, Quoridor is a game of patterns. You need to see what patterns are emerging from the wall placement and how to use them for your own plans.

Of course, ten walls a piece on a nine-by-nine board is a lot simpler than the kind of patterns you're going to see develop on a Go board. On the other hand, a game of Quoridor is also probably only going to take you fifteen minutes to play, as opposed to the hours of a good Go game.

If there is one serious knock I would have to say about Quoridor is that, even by abstract standards, it feels particularly unforgiving. Particularly with players of different skill levels, the game can be decided by the halfway point and the weaker player is stuck being a rat running through the other player's maze. Which isn't that much fun.

However, if I have to be that rat and end up trapped in someone else's maze, at least I am getting to see the surprising depth in this pattern of walls.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Tue Jul 19, 2016 5:04 pm
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Blokus and its mainstream impact

Lowell Kempf
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While the last twenty years have been boom years for European family games and American adventure games, they've also been good ones for abstract strategy games. There have been a lot of good ones over the last couple decades and some of them seem destined to be classics, games people will play twenty, fifty, three hundred years from now.

Blokus seems like it will be near the top of the list of abstracts any grandkids I have will be playing. In addition to being a very good game, it seems to have broken out of the gamer niche and made it to the mainstream audience.

The original Blokus is a pure abstract for two-to-four players, although it does four the best by far. The games comes with a big, silver 20x20 board of slotted squares and four sets of 21-pieces in different colors. The pieces are every possible combination of shapes made of of squares from one square to five squares and are slotted to fit in the grooves. They're also transparent so they look extra groovy.

The players take turns putting one piece down at a time, starting from the corners. The twist is that every piece after the first one _must_ touch the corner of another piece of the same color _but_ cannot touch the side of a piece of the same color.

The game ends when no one can place any more pieces. Your score is the total number of squares you've covered. What that really comes down to is counting all the squares on the pieces you haven't been able to play with the low count winning.

Blokus is the not the first game that's been all about putting down geometric shapes in a board. Alexander Randolph created Universe in the 60s, which uses two sets of Pentominos (all the combinations of five squares). Cathedral from 1978 is another one that comes to mind and I bet there are tons shape placement games I've never heard of.

So what makes Blokis special? The groovy silver board and transparent pieces? Actually, what I think it comes down to is Blokus actually has the simplest rules. Touch corners, no touch sides, no capturing rules. Everything that goes on the board stays on the board.

At the same time, while 400 spaces is a lot of room to work with. There is a lot of replay value in Blokus, not to mention a lot of patterns to explore. Even with the basic strategy of use your biggest pieces early and move towards the center that the game really requires, there is so much to explore.

Personally, I actually prefer Travel Blokus (redesigned for two players only) and Blokus Trigon (which uses shapes made out of triangles) but neither of those games would have been possible without the original Blokus. It is a simple game but it's found its way out into the world and had impact.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Jul 15, 2016 11:50 pm
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Looking back at Hive (or, huh, never blogged about Hive before)

Lowell Kempf
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Hive is a game that helped changed the way I looked at abstracts and what I looked for in abstracts.

A two-player game, your goal in Hive is to completely surround your opponent's queen bee. Each player has a small army of different insects, each with their own kind of movement.

One of the signature elements of Hive is that it's played without a board. Every piece is a hexagon (my set has them made out of chunky Bakelite) and players either place a piece or move a piece that's already out.

Every piece must be placed next to a piece that's already out on the board. More than that, as the pieces form a constantly shifting shape, that shape can never be broken. That's the hive the game is named after.

However, Go-like placement is only one third of the game. The other two thirds are chess-like movement. Each piece moves in a different way. With almost every piece, there needs to be an outside edge for them to work with and move from. Otherwise they will be pinned in, which is game ending if it happens to the queen.

While the game is a pure abstract, there is something in the way that the different insects move. Ants run at lightning speed while grasshoppers jump from one side of the hive to the other and beetles can crawl on top of other insects.

While the board-less play and the neat-looking insects are what makes makes Hive distinctive, what made it so important for me in my growth as a gamer is that it's a fast and dynamic game that's still really good.

When I was in high school and college, I played enough Chess to know that I still wasn't any good at it. I still enjoy the Chess but it was a methodical, drawn-out experience that required setting aside some serious time, unless we were using chess clocks.

Now, Hive is not anywhere nearly as deep as Chess but I could play it in a fraction of the time. Heck, I could teach in a few minutes. And every move changed the board dramatically. Things happen fast in the insect world of Hive.

Hive is not the only abstract that fits this bill. It wasn't the first abstract to be quick and dynamic. In fact, I started playing the GIPF Project around the same time I discovered Hive. But Hive does such a good job at it. Portable enough to play anywhere, no need for a board, neat looking pieces and easy to teach.

And games like Hive and the GIPF Project really did change what I was looking for in abstracts. They became something I could find the time and the opponents to play. Which made me play a lot more of them.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Jul 15, 2016 4:13 pm
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