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.

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Seven Steps or dice in purgatory

Lowell Kempf
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Earlier in May, I tried out Nine Circles, a Roll and Write about the first part of the Divine Comedy, the Inferno. (You know, the only part anyone ever reads) I enjoyed it enough that I knew I had to try its sequel; Seven Steps, which is about Purgatory.

(Not to be confused with 7 Steps, which is a published abstract with colored circles)

I’m not going to lie. I had to look up what happened in that part of the poem. Purgatory is a seven-tiered mountain with each tier being one of the seven deadly sins that you have to repent for.

Seven Steps, from the sixth R&W design contest, is a solitaire Roll and Write where you have to overcome seven dice challenges. It’s what I file under Yahtzee descendants. It’s not super-thematic but it does have nice woodcut-style artwork. And when it comes to these simple games, a little bit of theme goes a long way,

There are some nice touches that help Seven Steps from automatically blurting with the vast number of simple dice games out there. For one thing, rather than a static goal for each challenge, a challenge die is rolled which adjusts the goal. You also have a limited amount of dice manipulation, which isn’t unusual but is helpful.

But the real nice touch of the design is the dice pool management. You start with seven dice (although you can get two more by forcing rerolls at the start of the game) The dice that you use to complete a challenge? They go out of the pool into the scoring area. You can pull them back to pay for rerolls but those dice and dice that you rolled but didn’t use end up in ‘the penalty box’ and don’t back to your pool for a turn.

While Nine Circles was a decent, very playable game, Seven Steps is a definite improvement. In Nine Circles, dice management consisted of trying not to lose dice. In Seven Steps, losing dice is how you score points but you lose if you have nothing to roll. It’s a more more interesting dynamic.

Seven Steps is still a light little dice game but now I’m really curious to see what the (hopefully) inevitable Paradise game will be like.

https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/2553688

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon May 24, 2021 11:22 pm
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Pointree: a game about a tree with a decision tree

Lowell Kempf
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Pointree was a game I was looking forward to trying after I read about it since, hey, it’s about helping a tree get healthy. (Well, what else does making life energy flow through a tree mean?)

It’s a Roll and Write game that belongs to the Take It Easy school of design. Which means that everyone uses the same rolls so there’s no technical limit to the number of folks who can play and it works just as well as a solitaire game.

The sheet has the outline of a tree with a network of connected boxes inside it. The boxes come in three different colors and are either blank or already have a number. Pointree lasts six rounds and each round you roll six dice and then do something with them.

The core mechanic of the game is dirt simple. You can fill in a blank box with the number from a single die. You can mark of pre-numbered boxes with one or more dice that add up to that number or more. You start at the roots and all the boxes you fill in have to be connected.

There are six different ways to score points and you have to pick one of them at the end of each round. And, no, you don’t get to pick any of them twice. And there are a variety of ways to get bonus points, including checking off sets of ones and twos. (Which is a nice touch since high rolls are intrinsically better)

I quite like Pointree and one reason why is that I keep doing badly at it. Despite being mechanically simple, Pointree is not readily solvable. And, while it would help, I don’t think rolling all sixes is the solution. Pointree has an actual decision tree.

Pointree is a Roll and Write that feels like it started out life as a board game. In some Roll and Writes, the sheet is just a place to write down the die rolls. In Pointree, how you develop your paths and connections is the meat of the game, not to mention how you cope with bad rolls.

Pointree is my game of choice if I wanted to get people to try out Ignatov’s designs.

Originally posted over at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri May 21, 2021 9:08 pm
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Some incoherent rambling about Print and Play

Lowell Kempf
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I have spent a lot of time looking at PnP contests over the last few years. Quite frankly, if you have an interest in PnP, I think that contests are a resource that cannot be overestimated.

The 2021 9-Card Contest is currently in the voting stage, which means that all the final entries are out there for folks to look at. Since files don’t always hang around, it’s a good time to look at them.

For a while, the 9-Card contest was my favorite one. For one thing, they are really easy builds. And sometimes, the ability to just sit down and make a project is what I need. More than that, the limits of nine cards leads to some really interesting experiments.

But I realized that I’ve been enjoying R&W PnP contests more as of late. (And haven’t there been a lot of them!) And I think it’s because design doesn’t have to fight against restrictions as much when it comes to R&W entries.

Which doesn’t somehow erase all the fun I’ve had with 9-Card Nano games. I have had some really fun experiences with 9-Card games. The base version of Cunning Folk showed me you could have a real game with nine cards (and it was a game I was looking for) Pocket Landship is so dashedly clever. And I still hold that Orchard is one of the most impressive games I’ve seen in nine cards. And that’s just scratching the surface.

However, nine cards is a limit and a restriction while R&W is a medium. If a R&W contest required the printed portion, rules and all, fit on one piece of paper and you could only use one die, that would be a more fair comparison.

I also found this revelation led me back to a question I always circle back to. Can you have a healthy and fulfilling gaming life with only PnP?

The answer is clearly yes, particularly if you have unlimited funds and crafting time and skill. There are a lot of war games and train game and other games, big robust games, that are available as PnPs. If you have the time and the materials and the skill, you can make games like that.

However, as more and more time goes by, I become convinced that it can work for lazy PnP makers who have a budget. And Roll and Write games are a part of why that’s the case. Even in the short five or six years since I started seriously looking at PnP and R&W, I feel that a depth and richness has really developed in that medium.

Anyway, all the entries for the 2021 9-Card PnP contest are out there. The world and community of PnP is a living, changing, experimental place so go look at them.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Thu May 20, 2021 7:14 pm
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Pokémon Snap is world building

Lowell Kempf
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The New Pokémon Snap recently took over our Switch.

The game, in a single sentence, is a Pokémon photo safari. You ride what is, for all intents and purposes, a rail car, taking pictures of Pokémon in the wild. There are rails through a variety of different biomes so you get to see all kinds of environments.

My wife was a big fan of the original Pokémon Snap from 1999 and really likes the new one as well. My Pokémon experiences consist of Pokémon Yellow, Pokémon Go and Pokémon Sun. So I’m not completely ignorant of the franchise but it took me a bit to realize what made Pokémon Snap neat.

As near as I can tell, Pokémon Snap was the first time you actually saw Pokémon in the wild, as actual animals. Rather than, you know, fodder for pit fights. It actually showed let you interact with the world of Pokémon as an environment as opposed to to an RPG with a lot of grinding and bookkeeping. Pokémon as wild animals instead of your pet gladiators.

Yes, it also lets you play a Pokémon game where you aren’t trapping Pokémon in tiny balls and enslaving them to fight for your profit. That might add some appeal for some.

And, yes, it is a game where you basically shooting Pokémon. You just happen to be shooting them with a camera. Retheming it as Pokémon big game hunting probably would be an easier job coding.

But for me, Pokémon Snap is making the world of Pokémon into a world.


(Yes, I am very curious to what Pokémon Legends: Arceus will be like)



Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed May 19, 2021 4:40 pm
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Dante reimagined as a R&W

Lowell Kempf
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I recently tried out Nine Circles, which is apparently the first in a trilogy of little Roll and Writes since the second game has also come out. As the title implies, you are going through Dante’s journey through the first part of the Divine Comedy.

Nine Circles is a solitaire from the fifth Roll and Write contest. (I honestly have trouble keeping track of all the Roll and Write contests) It’s one those where you just print off the player sheet, add dice and away you go.

While the game is themes around the nine circles of Dante’s Inferno (which, to be fair, has informed every version of Hell since) and uses some nice woodcut style art (trying to imitate Gustave Dore would be a bit much and make the board too busy), it’s really nine dice challenges ranging between from having a one or three sixes or no fives.

You have nine dice and a checklist of rolls. You get six changes to roll one die and five chances to roll two, three or four dice. And that’s all the rolls you get in the game. You can freeze dice and you can use rolls to reroll dice or add more dice. You also get nine ‘Virgils’ which you can use to flip a die or add/subtract one.

But here’s the bit that makes the game interesting: every die you roll that’s not used to complete a challenge goes away.

So you have to manage your dice and your rolls. Run out of either and you lose.

I have a weak spot for light R&Ws like Nine Circles. They are the opposite end of the spectrum from what got me really into Roll and Write as a medium but they work as a guilty pleasure (Fitting for a game about Hell) Even when you’re exhausted and can’t think straight, they are still easy to learn and play.

In all honesty, I’d call Nine Circles a B game. It is mechanically solid and has good decisions. However, it doesn’t have that elusive sparkle that makes me immediately play it again. I also wonder if each challenge will become formulaic but, so far, the game keeps thwarting my designs to solve it.

And I have played _lots_ of worse R&W games. Nine Circles passes the dreaded Yahtzee test. I’d play it over Yahtzee. Losing dice you don’t use is a good mechanic. You don’t get enough slack to make the game easy.

It’s sequel, Seven Steps, is now on my try next list.

https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/2495658/nine-circles


Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon May 17, 2021 8:02 pm
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Someone has made a Gideon the Ninth RPG

Lowell Kempf
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After reading Gideon the Ninth, I knew someone had to have made an RPG based on it and I was right. Mandy Szewczuk and Linda H. Coders have given the world The Emperor is Undead. I found it on itch.io

And I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a game structure like it.

The basic idea of the game is that you are playing out the situation of Gideon the Ninth, playing necromancers and cavaliers who are trying to achieve Lictorhood in Canaan House, which is like Gormanghast in size and architectural complexity.

Gameplay consists of players taking turns picking one of eleven mini-games and playing them out. There is one that will end the game but you can play the other games I’m any order and (for the most part) as many times as you as want.

I cannot imagine what it must have been like to play test the Emperor is Undead.

I have played enough games, indie and old school and whatever is in between, that I usually have a sense of how a game flows and works. I don’t have that for the Emperor is Undead because of its structure. That isn’t a good or bad thing. It’s just how it is.

The Emperor is Undead isn’t the strangest or most experimental RPG design I’ve ever seen but it is very experimental. On the one hand, it is very much an open improv game. On the other hand, it is also a card game you are playing to win.

That said, creating a story is the most important part. You can still tell a great story while losing while focusing on card play to win would be boring.

Romance is the emotional heart of Gideon the Ninth and I have to note that the Emperor is Undead does give that an option but not a requirement. I feel that it’s a good choice for it to be included but Breaking the Ice is still the best romance RPG I’ve seen.

My biggest nit to pick with The Emperor is Undead is that the tone is very gothic horror but doesn’t touch the snarky tone that was important to the book. In the book, Gideon is a punk rock girl in a gothic horror world and that a big part of what makes the book fantastic.

We are going to have to wait until Tamsyn Muir finishes the Locked Tomb trilogy to have an RPG that really explores the setting. However, I feel it’s a testament to her work that the Emperor is Undead exists and it’s an interesting existence.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri May 14, 2021 8:17 pm
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Gideon the Ninth hides a sweet romance in a Grimdark world

Lowell Kempf
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Charles Stross has famously described Gideon the Ninth as lesbian necromancers in space. Which is pretty meme-worthy and not an unfair description, even if it sets up an expectation of explicit sex scenes when there aren’t even implicit ones. Me, I’d rather describe it as War Hammer 40K reimagined as a young adult romance.

While I want to minimize spoilers, the basic plot of Gideon the Ninth is that the undying emperor of humanity needs super necromancers and requests that the nine great houses each send a trainee. And because there wouldn’t be a plot otherwise, horrible things happen.

The hero of our story is Gideon who is from the ninth house and sent to be the swords woman for her house’s necromancer. Who she grew up with in the death cult that is the ninth house and the two have a tumultuous relationship to put it mildly.

There’s a lot of good stuff to unpack with Gideon the Ninth, even trying to not spoil the plot.

The world building is tasty. Set more than a millennia in the future, humanity has a galactic empire that is ruled by an undying emperor who once resurrected the entire solar system. (I’m hoping later books give us a little nore insight into that, including the possibility that it’s all a lie) And the empire literally run on death magic with necromancers being a key part of how they do business.

The book takes place in this solar system (which, according to the index, is the only place where necromancers can be born) I know that the empire is fighting wars but we don’t know if it’s with aliens or other humans or chaos marines. While the setting has plenty of differences from WH40K, there is still a similar grim dark, gothic horror vibe.

Which is contrasted but not undercut by a lot of snark. Gideon is an incredibly snarky. Which is also obviously a coping mechanism but her childhood makes Harry Potter’s seem like Christopher Robinson’s so any kind of coping is impressive. It also grounds the story, making it clear a galactic empire run by necromancy is her regular old world.

And while the book is all grim dark and full of more undead than the Tomb of Horrors, the heart of the book is Gideon’s relationships, including her realizing that she can have relationships. The book isn’t marketed as a Young Adult book as far I know but it uses the tools of one very well. (This is not a knock)

I went into Gideon the Ninth expecting cheesy gothic horror. Instead, I found sweet and snarky.


Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed May 12, 2021 4:35 pm
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Elasund: first pit fight of Catan

Lowell Kempf
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After the actual Settlers of Catan itself, my favorite Catan product might well be Elasund: The First City of Catan. (Settlers of the Stone Age is strong competition for that title, though)

Elasund is a tile-laying game where you are building a city on a grid with the first player to get to ten victory points winning.

The Catan part of the game is that the columns of the grid are numbered two to twelve (but no seven) You roll 2d6 and buildings within that column produce gold or influence cards. Sevens let the active player choose a column and players who have victory point cubes in that column lose resources.

Building buildings requires resources AND building permits, which are placed on the board. AND you can use someone else’s permit as long as you have more of your own. And larger buildings can knock down smaller buildings.

There are more details to the game, like spending lots of gold to build the church or building walls or covering up windmills for points. There’s a lot going on in the Elasund and I’m not going to go over the rules in detail. (Other folks have done that)

But here’s the thing. It is a knife fight in a phone booth. I think I have to play Reef Encounter to get more of a claustrophobic sense of confrontation. Elasund is very confrontational and things can get very nasty very easily. Conflict isn’t just taking a spot someone else wanted. It is stealing their building permits and knocking down their buildings. And conflict isn’t an option you might take. It is an integral part of the game and it will happen.

And, yes, I consider that to be a point in Elasund’s favor.

I do think that Elasund isn’t super intuitive BUT that might just be me. The end game tends to be brutal with lot of buildings getting bulldozed and I have never done well. AND a game being tough and having a real learning curve is NOT a negative.

For a group of my long distance buddies, Elasund was a standby. We’d get together and Elasund would hit the table after Notre Dame. I don’t think I’ve even played my own copy of Elasund but I still have it in storage because it is that good.

I know I can really enjoy non-confrontational games. (So many of them can be played solitaire without any changes) But I do like me some conflict and Elasund really delivers.



Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon May 10, 2021 10:37 pm
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What do people do with Catan dice?

Lowell Kempf
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Since I have been playing so many Roll and Writes, I decided to revisit one of the first designer R&W I’d ever played, Catan Dice. Other than as a way of fidgeting on my phone, I have pretty meh memories of the game. As I recalled it, it was basically Yahtzee with a Catan-shaped score board. In some respects, it was even more restricted than Yahtzee since you had to do things in order.

So I played it again. And, after years of exploring R&Ws, particularly light, casual weight ones, Catan Dice was actually worse than I remembered. Before, I didn’t like how it completely failed to capture the feeling and interaction of Catan. Now, in addition, I found it dull as a dice game. The one design choice I liked was the knights/jokers.

However, I decided to look at the variations that existed, including one that was one of Klaus Teuber’s original designs for the game in the first place.

Catan Dice Plus has players competing to reach ten points first and fighting over largest army and road. Okay, other than not having a solitaire option, this is better in almost every way from the first version that got published. There is some actual competition and tension going on.

Catan Dice Extra has you fighting over the same island on a shared player sheet, as well as fighting over longest road and army. That actually crosses the line to pretty much being a full-fledged board game.

(Oh, and doing some research while writing this, I found out someone made some home brew expansions for the original game. I guess I’ll check that out.)

Honestly, if I had to pick one for multi-player, I think I’d go with with Plus. There’s not enough to the original game and Extra makes me ask why not play the travel edition of actual Catan.

Over the years, I’ve played a lot of Catan, Catan expansions and Catan Spin-offs. I particularly like Elasund. The dice family seems like the lightest and weakest branch. But I am glad that folks keep playing with the design.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri May 7, 2021 9:38 pm
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How Ambush Bug helped me appreciate Deadpool

Lowell Kempf
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I recently commented ‘So the only difference between Ambush Bug and Deadpool is Deadpool kills people?’

The immediate reply was that Deadpool is also pansexual and cusses.

But the two characters are both remarkably similar and wildly different to the point that actually talking it through made me appreciate Deadpool more

Ambush Bug is a relatively obscure DC character created in the 80s by that wacky Keith Giffin. He’s a guy on a green suit who ignored the fourth wall so much that he wanted Julius Swartz’s job. (He was an editor at DC, just so you know.) Ambush Bug was actually pretty funny and skewered plenty of sacred cows. Giffin has said the character is now officially retired but that enough money could change his mind.

And Deadpool is- well, you already know who Deadpool is. And if you don’t, I don’t believe you. And like Ambush Bug, he’s really funny, is completely meta and started out as bad guy.

But Ambush Bug is, at the end of the day, a joke. (Which isn’t a dig. That’s the whole point of Ambush Bug) And, somehow, Deadpool actually has become a character with pathos, character arcs and such. They couldn’t have made a movie about him if that wasn’t the case.

Don’t get me wrong. Deadpool is no Thing. Ben Grim is in a class all his own when it comes to pathos. But I read the early issues of X-Force and, man, you would not expect Deadpool to be a breakout character in any way. I seem to even remember the original revelation that his face was mutilated and not caring because he was such a jerk.

(Just assume there are ten or twenty paragraphs ranting about how bad Rob Liefeld’s work is)

But somehow, by making him funny and making him still a jerk but one who is trying to better, Deadpool became sympathetic.

Ambush Bug is fun but Deadpool is interesting.


Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed May 5, 2021 4:57 pm
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