Musings from a not-so-serious gamer

Random thoughts from someone who loves the idea of games, spends way too much time on BGG, does actually play games, but isn't all that passionate about them.

Archive for Kevin B. Smith

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Java code for hex grids

Kevin B. Smith
United States
Walnut Creek
California
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WARNING: This entire post is about programming to display hex grids. Although my code is in Java, the bulk of this post would actually apply to any language. Anyway, if programming is not your area of interest, You might just want to bail out now.

Ok, you were warned...

Over in my Games I might try to create apps for geeklist, I mentioned that I wrote some Java code to manage a hex grid as if it were a square grid. Derek asked if I could share the code, so here goes.

First, I'll mention that it is available as a Mercurial repo. If you have Mercurial, you can clone yourself a full copy with this command:

hg clone ssh://fxa.org://var/hg/terraprime terraprime

But if you don't have Mercurial, I'll post the actual relevant source code in comments below. Meanwhile, I'll explain the concept.

Before we start, you'll need to know the shape of the Terra Prime map: It's kind of an inverted V shape, with the home base at the bottom, and the outermost reaches of space at the top. Here's a screenshot:


Ok, so first I wanted to identify all the hexes. For my X axis, I put 0 at the home base, with negative X values to the left, and positive X values to the right. For Y, I made the outermost reaches of space row zero, although I'm not sure why. If I were writing the code today, I would be inclined to make the home base (0,0) and the center of the red hexes (0,3).

Taking a quick detour, you might notice that the hexes are not perfectly proportioned. To avoid baking my brain, each hex is 5 wide and only 4 tall. Doing that allowed me to draw the corners on integer coordinates on the square grid. Dead simple, and close enough for my purposes!

Ok, so back to the bigger picture. Drawing hexes is nice, and would be enough for many games, but Terra Prime (like Catan) has tokens move along hex edges, rather than from center-of-hex to center-of-hex. So I also had to be able to refer to each corner of each hex. Conceptually, I set it up like this:


+---+
| |
+ +
| |
+---+


And thanks to the hex row/column scheme above, the hexes are just laid out next to one another. Thus, the corners of the green hexes look like this, with each legal corner represented as a + sign:


+---+---+---+---+---+
| | | | | |
+ + + + + +
| | | | | |
+---+---+---+---+---+


Moving the ship becomes simple: Just go up, down, left, or right. As if it were a square grid. And if the ship is on the left or right center point of a hex, it can't move left or right.

I'm not sure this would be worth doing with a map of a different shape. But it was fun to think it up. Even if I'm sure other folks have invented it on their own before me.

EDIT: Looking back at this, my explanation doesn't quite seem right. Or maybe it is, and I'm just tired at the end of a long day. Anyway, it works. Somehow.

EDIT2: Maybe it's really like this?

+---+
| |
+ +---+
| | |
+---+ +---+
| | |
+---+ +---+
| | |
+---+ +---+
| | |
+---+ +
| |
+---+
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Tue Jun 16, 2015 4:18 am
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2015 January Gaming Retrospective

Kevin B. Smith
United States
Walnut Creek
California
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It felt like I hardly got any gaming in last month, but I actually had 33 plays. I played only one new game, but got to play it 6 times.

Mostly I was going back and playing old favorites. Of the 9 games listed here, I have played each an average of 24 times! And every game I played this month (including the new one) has a rating of 8 or 9.

So it really was a great gaming month after all.

Within each category below, the games are listed roughly in order from favorite to least favorite.
New to Me


Break the Safe (6 plays)
Rating: 8

"Surprisingly good electronic 'kids' game from 2003 that works fine with non-serious adults. Has a feel similar to Escape, but is pretty swingy." My plays.


Not New to Me

Forbidden Desert (2 plays; 29 total)
Rating: 9

"Excellent thematic co-op. Straightforward rules, but has interesting decisions. My wife and I like it a lot better than Pandemic or Forbidden Island." My plays.



Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Rise of the Runelords – Base Set (17 plays; 79 total)
Rating: 9

"Clever deck management game with a good theme, and each hero plays quite differently. The gameplay is not as dull as some claim (it's NOT 'flip a card; roll dice; repeat'), but it's not fantastic either. The charm of this game, and the only reason it shines, is if you campaign over multiple sessions, watching your character grow, and eagerly awaiting new stuff to encounter. I went in with fairly low expectations, but it has become a favorite. "

I really thought I might enjoy playing solo, with one hero. I suspect going through with Lini or Lem might be OK, but I wanted to play Ezren or Seoni, since neither of my full campaigns had any Arcane spellcasters. At least in the first 3 scenarios, it is brutally hard to survive, and even if you do, you don't get good new cards. So after 13 tries, I gave up. Instead, I will finish up my second 2p campaign, and put the box away for a while. Eventually my wife and I will probably start a new 2p campaign. My plays.



Progress: Evolution of Technology (2 plays; 8 total)
Rating: 8

"Clever and fun civ-themed tech tree card game. Not a good choice for AP-prone folks. Official solitaire variant is OK but not great." My plays.



Witch of Salem (2 plays; 44 total)
Rating: 8

"Great light Lovecraftian co-op. Best without the 'portal secrecy' rule. Better story arc and less randomness than Elder Sign." My plays.



Star Trek: Expeditions (1 plays; 12 total)
Rating: 8

"Solid, but not amazing. The plot cards are fantastic, dripping with theme. Other aspects of the game are just mechanical. Ship minis are great. If you don't play too often, the repetition of the plot cards is not bad at all. We're up to 10 plays over 2.5 years, and it still feels reasonably fresh. However, an expansion with more Stardate cards and especially with a new set of Captain's Log cards would be much appreciated." My plays.



Augustus (1 plays; 6 total)
Rating: 8

"Fun and quick (30 minutes with 6p first-timers) game for gamers and non-gamers alike. More strategy than some say but obviously a lot of randomness too." My plays.



Thebes (1 plays; 7 total)
Rating: 8

"Very thematic game with great mechanisms. Great as a 'next-step' game after gateways, but interesting for more serious gamers who are OK with some randomness." My plays.



Ra: The Dice Game (1 plays; 33 total)
Rating: 8

"Yahtzee-style dice rolling combined with wacky Knizia scoring. I like it better than Ra." My plays.


For more details (mini-reviews) of every game I have rated, look at my game comments. I also record mini session reports for most of my plays.
An ongoing tip of the hat to Wes Baker (wesbaker) for creating a little ruby script that pulls play data off BGG. I started with his gist, and enhanced it to automatically create most of the content above. Sweet!
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Thu Feb 5, 2015 6:22 am
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What might have been on my 2015 10x10

Kevin B. Smith
United States
Walnut Creek
California
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I'm not doing the 10x10 challenge again. I'm glad I did the 2014 10x10 challenge, but it was hard. But if I were going to do another 10x10, here are the games I would like to see on it (in no particular order):

Vanished Planet
After 52 plays, this fiddly swingy game is still my only 10. I'll use whatever I can to get it played more, including putting it on another 10x10 list (it was part of my 2014 10x10).

Peloponnes
This was also on my 2014 10x10, but I mostly played it solo. I would really like to play this more with other players.

The Game of Life: Card Game
Surprisingly good and fun 2-3p family card game which I have only gotten to play a few times. Don't confuse it with the other (inferior) Life card games.

Legends of Andor
I have played it 9 times so far...and still haven't even gotten up to Legend 3, which is the one with a randomized setup. I haven't seen the dragon in play, and haven't gotten to play the back side of the board (the mines).

The USS Ocius
This is a real-time co-op where you have X minutes to survive and repair your spaceship. Yeah, similar to Space Alert, Damage Report, Space Cadets, The Captain Is Dead, and Red November. Of all of those, it's probably closest to The Captain is Dead, but even then the actual gameplay is quite different. I'm not yet sure how much I enjoy Ocius, so would like to play it several more times so I could give it an accurate rating.

Dead Panic
This is a bit of a gamble, because I have only played twice so far, and both were solo controlling 2 pawns. I'm pretty sure I'll like this better than Castle Panic, but the only way to know is to play it.

Progress: Evolution of Technology
I have really enjoyed my 8 plays of this so far. I need to try the solo game again (my first solo try was underwhelming). And after I get comfortable with the base game, I have 3 expansions to explore.

Legendary Encounters: An Alien Deck Building Game
Legendary Marvel was on my 10x10 last year. I sold it, because I believe Encounters will be better for me in every way. I have played Encounters twice, and want to play it more.

Tiny Epic Defenders
I'll probably play this one 10 times even without the challenge, but I'm really looking forward to it.

Well...that's 9. I would have to think more about what final game might fill out the list. If there were a list. Which there isn't. Maybe there will be in 2016.

Games I wouldn't put on because I'll play them more than 10 times anyway:
Witch of Salem (wife loves it and asks to play)
Forbidden Desert (wife loves it and asks to play)

Games I would love to play more, but wouldn't list because they don't solo that well, and I probably wouldn't get them to the table 10 times:
Uruk: Wiege der Zivilisation
Phoenicia
51st State

Games that I might really enjoy, haven't played yet, so would be too big of a gamble to put on the list:
The Golden Ages
Shadowrift (I have only played a mediocre solo variant)
Port Royal
Pandemic: The Cure
Escape: Zombie City
Zombies Keep Out
Shadows of Brimstone
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Sun Feb 1, 2015 6:00 am
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10x10 Lessons learned #6: Witch of Salem

Kevin B. Smith
United States
Walnut Creek
California
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The main lesson I learned by putting Witch of Salem on my 2014 10x10 list was: My wife absolutely loves this game. She asks to play it. She never seems to get tired of it.

For those of you who don't know, WoS is a game in the Lovecraft/Arkham/Cthulhu universe, but it's not by Fantasy Flight Games (the folks who did Arkham Horror and Elder Sign). WoS shares several thematic aspects with those other games, but it definitely feels like it's not quite in the identical world as them.

Back in 2012, I was placing an order for Walnut Grove (another game on my 10x10), and needed to add something to the cart to get free shipping. WoS was on my wishlist, but I had some reservations about it, based on the mixed reviews I had read. A local store had a demo copy, so I had been able to play one game of it with a friend. It seemed promising, so I ended up adding it to the cart, partly because there was only one copy left in stock. Thank goodness I did!

The elephant in the room is the "portal secrecy" rule. In the rules as written, players are not allowed to say (or even hint at) what they saw when they examined a portal. It might have been a rift that must be sealed to win, or it might have been a blank wall that must not be sealed. The rule is there to reduce the chances of an alpha player taking over the game, but frankly, it's a bad rule, at least for us. When my wife and I play a co-op, we want to play it together. We want to help each other, and we want to discuss strategies and options. Not being able to talk about the portals removes a huge part of the fun of playing the game in the first place. Additionally, the game has a reputation of being really hard to win, and has no (official) way to scale the difficulty down. Eliminating the portal secrecy rule, and allowing open discussion of whether they are rifts or blanks, neatly solves both problems. It makes the game winnable, and encourages social interaction. We have played with secrecy a couple times, but will never do so again by choice.

I have played 43 times now, and have won 22 and lost 20. When I play a co-op, I don't mind losing a fair bit, but I also don't mind winning most of the time. What makes it fun for me is not knowing whether or not we will win. It's about the tension. WoS has that, although it has blowout games (wins and losses) a bit more often than I would like.

The game can be very swingy, especially with the Necron card in the creature deck. If he shows up 2 or 3 times in a game, it's almost impossible to win. Sometimes he only shows up once, and depending on the timing, he might not even cause many problems when he does drop in. The nasty "loss die" (which you roll a couple dozen time per game) can also be crushing, or almost harmless.

Comparisons to Elder Sign are inevitable, since both games are on the lighter side, and play in about an hour. For us, the theme in WoS is much stronger than in ES. Having the map is great, and the creature images in WoS are about 20 times larger than those in ES. The flavor text in ES is almost unreadable, and if you do read all of it, the game becomes far longer than it deserves. As for the mechanisms: Many people (including my wife) aren't thrilled with the yahtzee-ish dice rolling in ES, and somehow WoS feels less frustrating for her.

Importantly, WoS also tells a coherent story every game: You must research and expose all the Ancient Old Ones (OO's) before Necron becomes too strong, or you will lose. But you must also examine all the portals, and seal any rifts (of the 6 locations, between 2 and 4 of them will be rifts). Meanwhile, you must defeat creatures to prevent them from taking your items, driving you insane, and/or strengthening Necron. Finally, to actually win the game, one player has to travel to R'leyh and subdue the OO, and then another player must go to Miskatonic University and seal the final rift. Even though that plot never changes, it is a lot more fun than ES's simpler "win enough challenges to gain enough elder signs to defeat the OO".

My gaming buddy who did the 10x10 with me didn't own a copy of WoS, so he relied on me to get his plays in. We played most of our games together, and then I loaned him my copy so he could finish the challenge.

Thanks to my wife, I ended the year with 22 plays of WoS. And if she had had her way, that count would have been even higher. As was the case with Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game, this is a game I would have played 10 times with or without the 10x10 challenge. But I'm still glad it was on there.
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Fri Jan 30, 2015 6:00 am
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10x10 Lessons learned #5: Legendary Marvel

Kevin B. Smith
United States
Walnut Creek
California
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When my buddy and I were negotiating our shared 2014 10x10 list, I proposed Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game. I had already played it almost 20 times, so I knew I enjoyed it. It was a bit of a risk for my buddy, because he had only played it twice, and he didn't love it immediately. But it grew on him.

I ended up playing it 26 times in 2014, including a mix of multi-player and solo games. Speaking of solo, I find the base game solo rules to be good, the Dark City expansion solo rules to be very good, and the Golden Solo Variant to be absolutely excellent. As with several other games, the solo mode wasn't a factor in our decision to put the game on our list, but it turned out to be very helpful when we were feeling crunched for gaming time.

A couple of my friends own expansions for Legendary, but I never felt the need to buy them. Having played well over 20 games with just the base set, I still feel like there are several heroes and schemes that I haven't played, or have only barely played. The masterminds and villains are looking a bit familiar by now, but I can live with that. I figure I could play the base game another 20-50 times before wanting the expansion.

Another reason I haven't rushed to buy the expansion is that I'm one of the minority who prefer the way the base game used the same art for every card within a hero's deck. Many people (mostly comic fans, I think) complain about it, but having the same image on all the cards makes teardown MUCH easier.

At this point, I should mention that I have no love for the comic book theme. I never got into comic books as a kid, and haven't seen very many of the superhero movies. I don't dislike it. It's neither a positive nor negative aspect of the game, for me.

What I don't like about Legendary, however, is the semi-cooperative aspect. It really feels wrong thematically, and just isn't much fun for me. Fortunately, I have only played 2 sessions where someone was actively caring more about points than getting a group win. In many cases, we just played to win, completely ignoring points. But usually we would play for the group win, and then afterwards compare points, just out of curiousity.

So it can be played as a pure co-op. Except that there are a lot of cards that are only really balanced if you care about points. And except in certain circumstances, having bystanders in your victory pile means nothing. The game was really designed to be semi-cooperative, and that's too bad.

There are some other flaws in the game: First, the names of the villain groups is very hard to read. Second, it's sometimes hard to tell whether text matters or is just there for flavor. Also, the way cards trigger off cards that you already played is a bit counter-intuitive and thus is a bit tricky to teach. Star Realms streamlined that nicely by having cards trigger regardless of the order they were played.

Finally, I have to mention the setup and teardown time. Lots of people complain about it, and I'll admit it's a bit daunting. However, the reality is that it only takes a few minutes to set up, and a few minutes to tear down. Anyone who says it takes longer either hasn't actually timed it, or isn't organized, or is moving very slowly. The only time setup takes me a long time is if I'm letting the group pick the configuration instead of just using a randomizer.

I ended up selling my copy of Legendary Marvel, mostly because of the semi-cooperative aspect. As much as I enjoy it (especially solo), I think Legendary Encounters: An Alien Deck Building Game is going to be better for me in every way: It's a pure co-op (at least if you play 2p where a single death means everyone loses). I really like the way the hive cards progress face-down. And the theme is better for me and my wife. I'm not a big Alien fan either (never seen any of the movies), but we both generally like space/sci-fi. Oh, and the "Coordinate" keyword makes it more of a cooperative experience too. I have only played Encounters a couple times, and haven't picked it up yet...but I know I will at some point. Just waiting for the right trade or auction to come along.
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Wed Jan 28, 2015 6:00 am
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10x10 Lessons learned #4: Walnut Grove

Kevin B. Smith
United States
Walnut Creek
California
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When I first heard about Walnut Grove, it sounded good. One of my favorite parts of Agricola was having to feed your people, and WG has that. WG is often referred to as Agricola+Carcassonne, but since I dislike Carc, that didn't help. Fortunately I quickly realized that's a terrible comparison, since in WG you only lay tiles in your own farm, and don't have to make the features align. If anything, Agricola+Alhambra would be more accurate. But even then, about the only things WG and Agricola have in common are the farming them, and feeding.

I was a fairly early buyer of WG (April 2012), and really enjoyed playing it. It is a low-interaction euro, which is great for me. There are some races for items in limited supply (notably buildings and improvements), but otherwise you pretty much do you own thing. Now, I will say that those limited items can absolutely mean the difference between winning and losing, so it's not like WG is true MPS (Multi-Player Solitaire). If you don't watch your opponents, and preempt or react to them, you'll lose.

Anyway, WG was a 9 for me for a while, but slipped to an 8. Partly because I started to favor co-ops and more thematic games, and partly because it was a bit hard to get to the table. Despite a short play time, it didn't really go over all that well with my group at that time.

The main complaints were that it could feel too punishing, and that you only get 8 actions all game. It can be punishing, especially if you come in with an Agricola mindset, and try to grow your workforce quickly. In WG, workers are very expensive to maintain, and it's easy to get yourself into a situation where they are barely producing enough to sustain themselves...or in some cases, you can actually lose ground each round. I *like* that. My second least favorite part of Agricola is that you are generally forced to grow your family as early and often as possible. As of the end of 2013, I had played it 24 times.

My 2014 10x10 buddy also happens to be a fan of WG, so this was a title we were both happy to see on our list. Unfortunately, the two of us never actually ended up playing it together in 2014. Although we didn't consider it when adding it to our list, its excellent solo mode allowed us to play it even when we were struggling to find the gaming time to play 10x10 games. I did get to play it once with someone else, and I expect my buddy and I will play it together sometime in 2015.

It was great to play WG again, and to be reminded of what a solid design it is. With only 9 tile placements, 8 field-worker placements, and 8 town actions, every decision is huge. Winning scores are typically in the 20's, so every point counts.

From a strategy standpoint, my tips are:

Spoiler (click to reveal)
1) To avoid feeling punished, don't add any workers for a while. I have won games with only my original 2 workers. (In one of those, the second place player, with just one point less, ended with 5 workers). The most common number of workers that I have seen win the game: 3. Remember that if you end with 4 workers, you spent 25% of your town actions recruiting them.

2) Be patient with tile placements. Never place a bad tile. Even if your draw sucks, place a good tile that you don't need now but will need later. Don't close off your food areas too soon. Trust that decent tiles will eventually show up.

3) Once you know how to survive the brutal winters, the key to high scores is the improvements. Based on what is available, map out a strategy at the beginning of the game. Make sure you are able to afford to buy them, and in a non-solo game, make sure you buy them before your opponents do.


One of the designers of WG (Touko Tahkokallio) also designed Eclipse. Both games share the "draw VP chits out of a bag" mechanism, and both games have vocal critics because of that. In WG, throughout most of the game, whatever coin you draw is fine, because they all have equal value when you spend them. It's only when you hold coins for end-game VP that their value matters. Sure, there are times when you draw from the bag as your final action, and get four 0's, or four 2's. But remember that YOU knew the odds when you decided to take that as your last action. You chose a gamble rather than a sure 2 or 4 point move, so you have to live with the consequences.

As a side note, I saw a guy draw a 2 in the second round. He didn't want to spend it, so the rest of the game, he bent over backwards to hang onto it. He probably wasted 10 points throughout the game just clutching that 2-point coin.

Touko also designed Principato, which I have not played. Reading the rules, I see a shared design aesthetic between the two games. The only reason I haven't picked up Principato is that it has a heavy majority scoring aspect (military, a la 7 Wonders), and I rarely enjoy that in a game.

Summary of Walnut Grove: Quick-playing, low-interaction, very tight, moderately thematic farming euro. Highly recommended, if you're into that sort of thing.
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Mon Jan 26, 2015 6:16 am
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10x10 Lessons learned #3: Peloponnes

Kevin B. Smith
United States
Walnut Creek
California
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Peloponnes entered my world in 2011, and immediately liked it. I played with 4, 5, and 6 players (with the expansions), and was impressed that it wrapped up in under 90 minutes, even with a lot of first-timers in the game. Meaty games that play quickly with that many players are somewhat rare (at least among the low-conflict games that I enjoy).

I decided to try to write a Peloponnes desktop app, and got it working to the point that I could play a solo game. The UI was ugly, but it was playable. I was in contact with the designer about releasing it, but around the time I felt it was getting solid, he told me that someone was writing a commercial app, so I wouldn't be able to release my open-source version. Doh! Quite disappointing. But by then I was getting burned out on the game, having played dozens (if not hundreds) of times while testing the app. So I set the app aside, and since I still didn't own my own copy (it was pretty hard to get in the US back then), I didn't play it much for a while.

When I moved about a year later, I was shocked (in a good way) to receive a copy of Peloponnes as a going-away gift. The couple who owned the copy I had played several times felt that I would get more use out of it than they would. Wow. That was awesome!

Sure enough, I started playing again, both with my new gamer buddy, and solo. We added it to our joint 10x10 list, so I was "forced" to play it 10 times in 2014. We played together a few times, and I finished off the challenge with several solo plays. Unlike some of the other 10x10 games, this one never felt like a chore. I was always happy to play it.

My 10x10 lesson: It's still a great game, at any player count (from solo up to 6, and probably to 7 as well). Having said that, I'll explain why:

Perhaps I'm a glutton for punishment, but I really enjoy when games force you to feed or pay your workforce on a regular basis. Walnut Grove is another great example, but if you want to see more, check out Games with maintenance costs.

I also enjoy games that throw disasters at you, and Peloponnes does that fiercely. Other games that can slap you around include Uruk: Wiege der Zivilisation and World Without End. In Peloponnes, you know each of the 5 disasters WILL happen at some point, but you don't know when. You can kind of see which one is more likely next, but you can't be sure (except in the final round). Often even if you know that 2 are going to happen in the same round, the sequence that they come out can be mild, or brutal for you. In at least one game, poor planning plus some bad luck with the disasters led me to lose all my food in the final round...which meant I couldn't feed anyone at the end of the game, and my entire population died. Ouch! Zero points for me.

I love the auction format, which is reminiscent of The Princes of Florence, Vegas Showdown, Homesteaders, and Evo (EDIT: And Amun-Re). Basically, you're all bidding on multiple items at the same time, and you can move your bid from one item to another when you get outbid. Each of those games has a different twist, and with Peloponnes the twist is that when you get outbid, you can't raise or lower your bid when you move it to a different item.

The Knizia-like scoring twist is nice: You add up your population score, and your buildings score, and your total score is the lower of those two. You have to seek balance.

The game is a bit odd in that there are 8 rounds, so there are 8 auctions. And that's just about the entire game. You will have a few decisions to make with your resource management, but I would say 85% of the game is in those 8 auctions. I guess that's another thing I enjoy, as Walnut Grove also packs a lot of game into 8 rounds with only a few decision each round.

With Peloponnes, after the auction has ended, there is some bookkeeping. That bookkeeping probably takes most of the time, but can be done simultaneously, which keeps the game short.

What don't I like?

Hm. Well, I'm not a fan of the expansions. Or, to be more precise: There are a few expansions I haven't tried yet, and I really like the expansions that increase the player count. But I'm not a big fan of the expansion that adds a 9th round to the game. I find it too swingy and punishing. The expansions can add variability to the tiles with lower player counts, so that's a plus as well.

The auctions can get a bit nasty at times, but it doesn't feel like a nasty game. First, you can't afford to waste 1/8 of your actions just trying to mess with another player. Even if you deny them what they really wanted, there is usually some alternative that is "good enough". And if there is some tile you really need, then it is up to you to bid high enough to get it. If you get screwed in the auction, it's usually because you either made a mistake with your bid, or because you let yourself get into a position of not having enough cash.

The cardstock player mats are not great, although they serve their purpose. Tracking resources by moving disks on those mats isn't ideal (don't bump them!), but I understand the practicality of their choice. And I wish it were easier to get (and less expensive) here in the US.


I'm glad we put this one on our 10x10, because it was fun to get back into it. I feel like I have a ton more to explore in this game, and would like to get it to the table more. It's easy to overlook on the shelf, and it doesn't appeal to all tastes. ("A civ game without war? No thanks!")
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Sun Jan 11, 2015 7:29 am
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10x10 Lessons learned #2: Constantinopolis

Kevin B. Smith
United States
Walnut Creek
California
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When my friend and I agreed on our joint 10x10 list, Constantinopolis was a bit of a wildcard. He hadn't played it even once, and didn't own it. I had only played it a few times solo against myself. It's a longer game (box says 90 minutes), and it was the heaviest game on our list (along with Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island).

We dove in with gusto, and fortunately we both enjoyed it right from the start. Each session did take a long time, however, with our first couple plays going over 3 hours. Even at the end, it was running 2 to 2.5 hours. Keep in mind that we play slowly, so for "normal" people it really would be more like a 90-minute game. But for us, it was time-consuming. And it was brain-consuming. By the time we had finished a session, we were both pretty worn out. The rest of the day would have to be lighter games.

My least favorite aspect of the game is definitely the role assignments. Each role gives you (and only you) a perk, and you switch roles via an auction. At times, bumping someone out of a role can be pretty nasty, which I don't enjoy in games. We mostly played friendly, but there were a few times where we threw elbows. Aside from the auctions, the other main source of interaction is that there is only one copy of each of the functional (red/yellow/green) buildings. It's a race to grab the ones you want (or need).

The aspect of the game that probably gets the most complaints from other people is the randomness. Specifically, the random draws of contract cards. Yes, you can occasionally get a great or terrible draw. But there are several ways to mitigate the draw, so most of the time if you got screwed, it's because you chose to take the risk. I enjoy games that force you to do the best you can with some random input, and this game has that.

The same buildings are available in every game, and I could imagine that if 2 people played the game 100 times, the first couple rounds might become scripted, or at least nearly scripted. In 10 plays, we definitely didn't get to that point. Buildings that seemed overpowered in the first couple games were almost ignored in our later plays. We were both still experimenting with strategies after 10 plays.

There are several little rules that are easy to forget. But overall, once you understand the flow of the game, it is quite smooth. The list of phases printed right on the board walks you through each round.

When we started the challenge, I rated Constantinopolis a tentative 8, based only on some solo learning games. By the end, it's a full 8. I don't actually expect to play it much, only because I have very limited heavier euro gaming time. But I certainly wouldn't turn it down.
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Fri Jan 2, 2015 8:00 pm
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December 2014 Gaming Retrospective

Kevin B. Smith
United States
Walnut Creek
California
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In December, I had 32 plays of 14 titles (not including expansions). Of the new-to-me games, one was great, and the other was good. The new-to-me expansion was a slight improvement to a game I'm not that fond of.

I managed to finish off my "Iron" 10x10, so hooray for that.

Within each category below, the games are listed roughly in order from favorite to least favorite.
New to Me


Legendary Encounters: An Alien Deck Building Game (2 plays)
Rating: 8

"Excellent improvement over Legendary Marvel. Thematic, smooth-playing. Setup is non-trivial, but perhaps not as bad as some say." My plays.



Firefly: The Game (1 plays)
Rating: 7

"Pickup and deliver, in space, with some shenanigans. Probably best if you enjoy going after each other, and/or with a bit of roleplay. My first 2p game only took 55 minutes, which was a pleasant surprise." My plays.



Race for the Galaxy: The Gathering Storm (2 plays)
Rating: 5

"Nice expansion that adds 'more of the same', plus the new goals which are nice." My plays.


Not New to Me

Vanished Planet (3 plays; 52 total) E10x10W
Rating: 10

"My only 10, and one of my wife's favorite game as well. It is swingy and fiddly, but has a fantastic theme, unique mechanisms, and great tension. After almost 50 games, we both still want to play it." My plays.



Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Rise of the Runelords – Base Set (6 plays; 64 total)
Rating: 9

"Clever deck management game with a good theme, and each hero plays quite differently. The gameplay is not as dull as some claim (it's NOT 'flip a card; roll dice; repeat'), but it's not fantastic either. The charm of this game, and the only reason it shines, is if you campaign over multiple sessions, watching your character grow, and eagerly awaiting new stuff to encounter. I went in with fairly low expectations, but it has become a favorite." My plays.



Progress: Evolution of Technology (4 plays; 6 total)
Rating: 8

"Clever and fun civ-themed tech tree card game. Not a good choice for AP-prone folks. Official solitaire variant is OK but not great." My plays.



Witch of Salem (1 plays; 42 total) E10x10W
Rating: 8

"Great light Lovecraftian co-op. Best without the 'portal secrecy' rule. Better story arc and less randomness than Elder Sign." My plays.



51st State (1 plays; 3 total)
Rating: 8

"Low-conflict engine-building tableau card game, with resources that perish after each round. It is quite deep. A few awkward graphic design choices make it needlessly hard to learn and play. In terms of resource planning, it's more like Caylus than San Juan." My plays.



Roll Through the Ages: The Bronze Age (1 plays; 28 total)
Rating: 8

"Solid civ-themed meaty filler dice game. A bit drier than ideal for a gateway. Very enjoyable." My plays.



Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective (2 plays; 6 total)
Rating: 7

"Excellent mystery-solving co-op. Rich and thematic, but not in an overwhelming way. However, the first case was more fun than the next three. Hopefully they'll get better again." My plays.



Pandemic (1 plays; 26 total) E10x10W
Rating: 7

"Classic co-op. Not my favorite, but works well with a variety of people, and is easy to teach, but has some depth." My plays.



Robinson Crusoe: Adventure on the Cursed Island (1 plays; 4 total) E10x10W
Rating: 7

"Pretty heavy pure co-op with strong theme." This game hasn't really clicked with me. Part of it, I think, is how it can feel so oppressively brutal. I like to feel like I *could* win a co-op, whether or not I actually do. My plays.



Star Trek Deck Building Game: The Next Generation – The Next Phase (1 plays; 2 total)
Rating: 6

"Deck management that feels different from other deckbuilders. It's a race, and your deck is just a means to the end. Also, it doesn't ramp up massively Includes 1 competitive, 1 co-op, and 1 team scenario. I was disappointed by the co-op mode." My plays.



Elder Sign (6 plays; 20 total) E10x10W
Rating: 6

"Not terrible, but ultimately it's too long for the level of randomness, or too random for the length. The postage-stamp monster images that you put face-down don't help the theme. The flavor text font is unreadable." My plays.



Race for the Galaxy (2 plays; 304 total)
Rating: 4

"I don't mind the icons, but the whole game just feels like a slightly-bloated San Juan. I prefer role drafting of SJ over the simultaneous reveal of Race. The base game of Race feels a bit incomplete (while also feeling needlessly complicated)." My plays.


For more details (mini-reviews) of every game I have rated, look at my game comments. I also record mini session reports for most of my plays.
An ongoing tip of the hat to Wes Baker (wesbaker) for creating a little ruby script that pulls play data off BGG. I started with his gist, and enhanced it to automatically create most of the content above. Sweet!
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Fri Jan 2, 2015 7:40 am
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10x10 Lessons learned #1: It's hard, but worthwhile

Kevin B. Smith
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Walnut Creek
California
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It's hard?

I went into the 2014 10x10 challenge thinking it would be a breeze. I often play 30-50 games per month, so allocating just 15-30% of my plays seemed easy. A friend and I had hand-picked the list of games, and I had played all of them before, and several were among my favorites. Piece of cake.

We get together roughly weekly, and agreed that we would focus on one of the longest/hardest games (Constantinopolis) first. Each play was taking us 2-3 hours, and then after that we would play a couple of the lighter games. That was mostly OK, although even though we really enjoyed Constantinopolis, the feeling of *having* to play it was a bit unpleasant.

Then we discovered Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Rise of the Runelords – Base Set. And we wanted to play it. Lots. That meant that our weekly session became Constantinopolis (first, while our minds were fresh), then Pathfinder, and finally a light game or two if we had time.

Meanwhile, each of us were acquiring or re-discovering games that we really wanted to play. But we "couldn't", because our gaming time was already allocated to the 10x10. That led to more frustration, and we started to squeeze in non-10x10 games.

By April, it was clear that this wasn't working for either of us. The 10x10 rules had changed, to allow you to swap other games in to replace your original list. But neither of us wanted to do that. We wanted to complete the original "iron" challenge. Fortunately, inadvertently, almost all of our games could be played solo.

So each of us went off and played most of our 10x10 games solo. My wife helped me with several, and my friend and I did still play several together (especially the titles that only one of us owned!). With that, each of us was able to chip away at the list. My friend completed his challenge in early October, and I finished mine on December 31.

But it's worthwhile?

Despite all the frustration, both of us are glad we did the challenge. Constantinopolis, in particular, was a real joy, as we learned it, and then dove deeper and deeper into its strategies and tactics. We were still learning new tricks in our 10th play, and I'm sure that's true of most medium-weight games. Playing a game like that just a few games really doesn't do it justice.

I probably would have played Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game and Forbidden Desert more than 10 times anyway. But I still really enjoyed every play. And I had already wanted to try Escape: The Curse of the Temple (without any expansions) more, so those 10 were great. Peloponnes and Walnut Grove are fantastic quick-playing euros that are also fun solo, so I didn't mind those. (I did end up trading away WG right after completing my 10th play, but mostly because it was a great trade.) Through my 10 plays of Pandemic (most solo), my skill improved greatly. Witch of Salem is my wife's favorite game, so I had no trouble getting 10 plays in. And I had been neglecting my only 10-rated game (Vanished Planet), so it was great to have an excuse to get it back to the table.

I struggled completing 10 plays of just 2 titles: Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on the Cursed Island, and Elder Sign. Both had been proposed for the list by my friend, and I happily went along. But RC didn't thrill me with my first play, and given its length, it wasn't one I would ask for. A few more plays have left me feeling "meh" about it, despite my deep respect for the design.

My last 5 plays of ES were like pulling teeth. I *only* played them because I wanted that iron microbadge. The 10x10 turned a game that I could take or leave into a game I almost resented. I guess I'm over that now, and it gets to keep its 7 rating, but I remain pretty unimpressed with it as a design.

What's next?

Neither my friend nor I are going to do the 10x10 for 2015, and I think he said he would never do another one. I might try it again at some point.

But regardless of that, I'm definitely going to make more of an effort to play games repeatedly. At least the ones I like, or want to explore more. And I'm going to treat each play of a game as more of an opportunity to really learn it deeply.
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Fri Jan 2, 2015 6:45 am
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