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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Carcassonne makes me a hypocrite

Lowell Kempf
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I am a hypocrite when it comes to games firing other games.

For the most part, I refuse to believe that a game can’t be superseded. In fact, when I find a game that I really like, I often wonder what the next step will be with that idea and concept. (I have never come remotely close to believing anything has successfully fired a regular deck of playing cards thought. When one thing can replace Poker, Rummy, Bridge, Whist, Euchre, Blackjack, Spades, Hearts (you get the idea), then we can talk)

And sometimes, games can fire games on pure concept as well. For instance, the Steam family completely fired the Crayon Rail games as far as I’m concerned. Yes, they are actually quite different mechanically but Steam made me happy and feel like I was run a train line and Crayon frustrated me and made me feel like I was trying to keep one train engine alive.

However...

I have yet to be convinced that a game has fired Carcassonne. Other than maybe a different Carcassonne game. (I love me some Hunters and Gatherers)

I remember, when it came out, Isle of Skye being held up to me as the Carcassonne killer. And when I played it, I had thought it was a great game and one that’d I happily play lots more. If someone argued that Isle is a better game than Carcassonne, I might not agree but I’d listen.

But it’s a different enough experience for me that I can’t compare the two games in a way where firing comes in. (But you could for the Steam games and Crayon Rail games! Yeah, that’s because I really don’t enjoy Crayon Rail games)

But apart from personal preference and hypocrisy, what Carcassonne has that Isle of Skye or The Castle of Mad Ludwig or many other tile laying games don’t have is everyone trying to kick each other’s teeth in on a collective board. If you thought shutting down board sections with two-letter words in Scrabble was mean, Carcassonne is confrontation city.

If it isn’t just the filter of nostalgia, sharing a map and ge ability to aggressively fight over it is something that has kept Carcassonne enjoyable and vital to me.
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Fri Apr 9, 2021 8:19 pm
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Oh, that is a good reason for a list!

Lowell Kempf
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When I wrote about how I can’t seem to write lists of favorite games, someone pointed out that it was a useful exercise in figuring out what games you would try to get again in case of fire or flood or such. Yeah, that is a very good reason.

About ten years ago, I went through a reverse process. I did a massive purge of my game collection that I really needed to do between moving and becoming a parent. Games were taking up space that was needed for more basic life stuff. Seeing as how I was a game hoarder, it was also very good for my mental health.

But looking at it from that viewpoint of rebuilding a lose game collection, it’s a good question. And it shifts the question from what is my ideal game or my favorite game to the much more concrete question of ‘What actually gets played?’ That shoves a whole ton of games out the door.

I have gotten rid of a lot of ‘someday’ games, unplayed games that I am convinced will.l be wonderful when I eventually play them someday. (Someday!) Those games wouldn’t make the ‘buy again’ list. Ruthless practicality will be the rule of the day.

The other day, as I watched our son tell an elaborate story of wind spirits fighting fire demons with pieces from different GIPF project games, I realized that if I lost all the GIPF games, I’d really be intent on getting ZERTZ and YINSH again. I like the project on a whole but those two games are the ones that really see play. That was a bit of a revelation.

When you look with a cold, hard eye at what actually hits the table, you realize what actually sees use and what is worth having in the closet. Which isn’t always fun since that kind of breaks up some comfortable illusions.

I certainly don’t want to lose my collection due to a fire. For one thing, that would put us in danger. But my rebuilt game collection would be a lot smaller.
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Wed Feb 24, 2021 10:08 pm
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Why I can’t write lists

Lowell Kempf
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I sometimes think that one of the great hobbies within the hobby is coming up with Top Ten or Top One Hundred lists. Given that the internet is awash with lists of all sorts and minds, either lists are an innately human way of thinking or David Letterman is one of the most influential people whoever lived.

However, whenever I have thought about coming up with a top ten list, I’m stymied. Such a list would change dramatically depending on the context. I think I would have to have a regular group and a years worth of play with them before I might try to write a list. At the moment, I’m focused on solitaire and print-and-play and I don’t know if what I’m currently playing would make such a list. Well, Onirim would but beyond that, it gets nebulous.

And there’s always the practical versus the ideal. I think of Go as one of the most beautiful games ever made and it was a big part of me getting into gaming. But with over a decade since my last play, would I include it as a top ten? Would my list be a list of games that I’d play if time didn’t matter or a list of games that actually sees regular play?

Truth to tell, I spend more time looking at the hobby as art gallery or experimental lab than refining my tastes. I like to look at lists to see if I see something new and unknown but I don’t see myself writing one.

Of course, such lists say more about the person who wrote then than the games on them. Not that there’s anything wrong with that! After all, one of the things you might glean is if they are someone you’d want to play with!


Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon Feb 22, 2021 11:24 pm
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Oh, that’s where my D&D mimis were hiding

Lowell Kempf
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While looking for our wedding China (which I did find, thank you very much for asking), I found my old D&D minis from back when I played the skirmish game. Now that was a walk down memory lane.

D&D minis is as close as I ever have come to playing Magic the Gathering or any other collectible card game. It probably will remain that way unless our kid decides that he needs to embrace the Pokémon card game. Opening blind box products is fun. Buying blind box products is not

Looking back and knowing that a lot of folks wanted prepainted plastic miniatures for, you know, actually playing Dungeons and Dragons, having them as randomized blind boxes was really evil. And, at the time, your main choices were buying these blind boxes or buying lead miniatures and painting them yourself.

Hey, I remember when Zombies!!! first came out and getting a hundred zombie miniatures that bent if you looked at them funny was AMAZING.

While I didn’t get in on ground floor and the first wave of miniatures (it took friends being into the skirmish game for me to get into the game), I did start early enough to live through a change in the game that now seems amazing to me.

The original maps where blank grids and players would take turns placing large tiles down on the board. You’d still have a decent amount of empty space left on the map when you were done. Then they switched to fully preprinted maps. Those were thematic enough that I knew DM’s that used them for D&D games.

On the one hand, the fully printed maps drastically sped up setup time and guaranteed a balanced map. But setting up the terrain definitely added a layer of gamesmanship to the game. I had a friend who had an opening that required a two specific figures and a promotional tile that let him fireball his opponent’s starting space. A good setup was as important as your warband composition.

At the time, I thought removing a step that could effectively have you lose the game before you actually started playing was a good idea. These days, I think that’s even more true. The D&D minis game was really aimed for more casual play and automatically balanced maps just supported that.

Looking back, I am astonished at how, at least for a while, I spent a lot of time playing this game, including going to tournaments. (Where I did terribly at) I spent a lot of time designing war bands. Occasionally they’d even do well. But I’m okay no longer playing a game where I had to keep track of the special rules for hundreds of different pieces. That’s what actual D&D is for.


Originally posted over at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Feb 19, 2021 6:33 pm
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Can you make a tiny Power Grid?

Lowell Kempf
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I’m not sure if I’ll actually play Power Duel but it was too fascinating an idea for me not to make a copy. It’s a two-player distillation of Power Grid that will fit in a mint tin.

I have never actually owned a copy of Power Grid. That’s because, in every gaming group I have ever been in, at least one other person has already owned it. There have been times when I’ve played so much of it, I got burned out on it but I’ve never stopped thinking it was an A++ game. And I bet if I played it now, I’d think it was ever better than I remembered.

I originally found Power Duel via Project Shrinko and it is a good example of the Project Shrinko philosophy. Try to distill a beloved game into a pocket-sized package. I approach every Project Shrinko game with the same two questions: Does it actually feel like playing the game that inspired it AND is it any good as game in and of itself. The second question is really the more important

Power Duel is theoretically my Project Shrimko ideal. An easy way to have a portable version of a game I don’t own and really like Unfortunately, while I find many of the choices made in shrinking the Power Grid down downright fascinating, I think too much is lost in the process. More than that, I have to wonder if the game is solvable.

Not only are auctions removed (fair enough, two player auctions are a tricky proposition, albeit not impossible), all the power plants are available from the start. And using money tracks instead of paper money condensing the game but makes money public knowledge all the time. Removing all the random elements and hidden information might make it too easy to create an optimal strategy, probably one with a first player bias.

Other choices, players lose unpowered cities and the game lasting a set six turns and upgrading plants to accommodate a small number of cards, do seem like good choices. There are some neat ideas going on here. But the strong possibility of scripted play being too easy to develop makes me feel meh about using my limited game time to try it out.

Power Grid is a really nifty set of interlocking mechanics. I praise Project Duel for trying to make a smaller, simpler version but some things can’t be simplified without losing too much. But, man, the idea fascinates me enough that I’m writing all this about it and making a copy. Back at the very earliest point in my modern board game life when most of my gaming was at little tables at coffee shops, I bet I’d have played Power Duel if it had existed then.

https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/2214797/wip-power-duel-tiny...
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Wed Jan 13, 2021 9:32 pm
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The Great Races is really a look at the design process

Lowell Kempf
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There are three reasons I decided to make a copy of The Great Races: A) It was there B) it is a Sid Sackson design C) historical curiosity.

To the best of my knowledge, the Great Races has never been published in a box format. I know it was published in a collection of paper and pencil games in 1974. I’ve seen it reprinted in The Greatest Games of All Time by Matthew J. Costello and I’m sure it’s been reprinted in other places as well.

And if the Great Races isn’t a precursor to Can’t Stop, my cats are secretly lemurs with retractable claws. The board is almost the same and the dice mechanics are also very similar. If the Great Races wore a hat that said ‘I’m a prototype for Can’t Stop’ and danced a ‘I’m a prototype for Can’t Stop’ dance,’ it wouldn’t be more obvious.

The game consists of eleven tracks, numbered two to twelve. They sort of form a bell-shaped curve with the two and twelve tracks being the shortest and seven being the longest. You roll four dice, pair them and move up on those two tracks.

And here is where it’s different than Can’t Stop. Your turn ends at that point. There isn’t the same kind of push-your-luck element. The game ends when every track has been completed and there are points for first and second place in every track.

Can’t Stop is an absolute classic of a board game. It’s been around for decades and it is the game that all push-your-luck games are judged by. Between on-line and in-person plays, I’ve been playing Can’t Stop several times a year since I got into playing board games.

And compared to Can’t Stop, the Great Races doesn’t measure up. Not that it’s reasonable to expect it to but it isn’t a lost gem that has been unfairly languishing in the shadow of its more famous offspring. In addition to having a significantly weaker push-your-luck element, I honestly feel the game takes too long for what it gives you. Having to finish all eleven tracks makes the endgame drag. It is incremental where Can’t Stop is dynamic.

That said, I have played plenty of worse dice games. Some of them predate the Great Races and plenty of them came after. I feel like it should have had a bigger moment in the sun. But it led to Can’t Stop. That’s a big deal.


Originally, this was over at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Jan 8, 2021 3:17 pm
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Board games and art criticism

Lowell Kempf
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I recently saw a thread on Board Game Geek about how ugly, functional game boards are better than pretty ones. I’m pretty sure that idea gets batted around at least once a month and I think the original idea misses a crucial point. (Which I’m sure came up if I read every page of the thread)

Problems don’t come up from pretty or ugly. Problems come when form gets in the way of function. A component can be absolutely beautiful and, if it works, no problem. And a component can be uglier than a-really-ugly-thing-since-I-don’t-want-to-offend-anyone but if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work period.

Of course, to add to the discussion, not everyone’s aesthetic tastes are the same. I think Hex is elegant in it’s simplicity but some people might think someone just tried to make a game out of a tile floor. (Yeah, that was a John Nash joke)

Really, the real problem are poor design choices and those can happen on pretty or ugly games. I’ve seen them happen _at least_ as often with ‘ugly’ games. Components, be they pawns or boards or cards or tiles or mysterious statues, are all about communication. Failure to communicate will make a game fail.

In fact, since you can use theme to help convert concepts and ideas, I would say that artwork will help a game out more than a lack of artwork. I love abstract games but abstraction can make it harder to understand something. Really, I would say that erring on the side of ‘pretty’ often means erring on the side of clarity.

(One of my favorite designs as far as clear communication is concerned is Venture by Sid Sackson. The aesthetic of the 3M cards is definitely from several decades ago but it communicates all the information you need to know amazingly efficiently.)

Pretty versus Ugly is just an opinion unless you had acid splashed thrown in your face and you end up fighting Batman (Wow, were the designers of Two Face shallow or what?) But ‘Does this work?’, now that’s a question!


Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon Dec 7, 2020 4:04 pm
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Clans - this simplicity couldn’t have been easy

Lowell Kempf
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Leo Colovini has been a mixed bag for me. Alexandros spent a long time in one of my groups as the standard for a terrible game. I may never life down bringing it to the table. And Cartagena never clicked for me no matter how hard I tried it. However, Clans still stands out for me as a really solid game.

Oh and it was also my introduction to Colovini.

Here’s the review I wrote 14 years ago: https://boardgamegeek.com/thread/123543/prehistoric-migratio... My opinion of Leo Colovini has gone down since I wrote this but my opinion of Clans hasn’t changed.

The concept of the game is so simple. Everyone can move about collections of huts and create isolated villages that score points for their participating colors BUT everyone’s color is secret. Very easy to grok hidden information and bluffing.

But, as I get older and more exposed to more and more games, I have to say that the simplicity of Clans had to have had a LOT of work out into it. The board alone is designed to create both balanced set-up and play. There’s a lot of little touches in the game that look obvious but couldn’t have been simple to develop.

With a younger audience, I might actually try Quicksand before Clans. (Back when our son was into Paw Patrol, I pondered making a Paw Patrol retheme) It’s a quick and easy introduction to the concepts and easy to teach in a loud room. But I think Clans has greater depth and I would use it to secretly introduce negative space.

Back before Covid put a hold on in-person conventions, I had gotten into the habit of taking older games to little cons. I’ve done this with TransAmerica, Money, For Sale and Through the Desert. And they’ve held up for new (okay, younger) players. Clans would fit in to that group and do at least as well.
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Mon Nov 30, 2020 8:13 pm
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Sometimes, a little randomness is what makes the difference

Lowell Kempf
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For a while, Leo Colovini’s Alexandros was considered the epitome of a bad (or at least disappointing game) While it wasn’t really the worst game any if had ever played, it was a very frustrating and disappointing experience and our opinion of Leo Colovini never really recovered.

The problem was that you could basically either set off a scoring round (where everyone had a chance to score points) or build up your hand of cards to take advantage of a scoring round. Simply put, we always for it disadvantageous to set off a scoring round. It had all the disadvantages of crafting in Puerto Rico with none of the possible benefits.

(And, yes, I’m sure that if we had taken the time to play a lot more, we would have found out how the game is supposed to played. However, the experience was so not fun we never wanted to go back)

Colovini has another, similar game, Masons. Likewise, you divide a board up into closed areas and set off scoring rounds where everyone has a chance to score points. However, unlike Alexandros, scoring happens automatically after a closed region is formed and everyone has secret scoring conditions. There is a random factor that makes scoring a risk worth taking.

A friend who is more of a gaming purist considers Alexandros to be the more elegant, better designed game. However, he will also admit that Masons is more fun and more playable. And while Alexandros was banished, Masons has seen some decent play for me.

Alexandros is a more precise, calculating game. You can have a pretty decent idea what people will get out of a scoring round. Masons is looser, more random. But that random factor makes the game more playable, more enjoyable.

I had a similar experience with Sid Sackson’s Bazaar and Monad. Well, except that I think Monad is a good game, other than being really hard to play when you’re as colorblind as I am. But that random factor of the die roll in Bazaar made the game looser but more fun and easier for me to get folks to play the game.


Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon Nov 23, 2020 8:04 pm
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New assessment: Ablaze works great for casual gaming

Lowell Kempf
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I have sometimes wondered if I have some kind of weird obsession with Heinrich Grumpler’s Ablaze, which is actually a thematically linked set of three games that use the same components. If you count games I’ve played only once, I have played a lot of different games over the years. And, on multiple occasions, I’ve revisited Ablaze for binge plays, despite thinking there are more deserving games for that honor.

But after my latest revisit, I’m wondering if I’m being too harsh to Ablaze, that Ablaze is actually quite a good set of games. I just haven’t been using the appropriate criteria.

Okay, here’s a short overview. The box has rules for three different games: Wild Fire, Volcano and On the Run. All three are tile games that are themed around forest fires. More than that, they all are can be played competitively, cooperatively and solitaire. They are pretty abstract but their themes do shine through.

And all the games were too light and too random to really work as serious abstracts or ‘serious’ games so I always felt like they weren’t actually good.

And if I want a brain burning abstract or a meaty game that will be the centerpiece of a game night, Ablaze isn’t a good choice. But for casual gaming? The Ablaze collection is quick and easy to teach with the right amount of choices to keep everyone engaged. And for solitaire, which I play a lot more of right now, the games are light enough that I can get them in but still feel like I have gamed.

Over the last few years, I have gained or regained an appreciation of casual games. (I have also regained an appreciation for James Earnst and Cheapass Games, which is clearly related) Outside of organized game nights and conventions, this is what gets played. And there’s a broader audience for it.

And Ablaze is a really good example of a casual game system. It’s one step more thematic than a deck of cards (Don’t get me wrong, I think a deck of playing cards is the most amazing tool you can have in your tool box) while being very accessible and versatile. Heck, the original Feurio version came out in 2003 and the Ablaze version is still pretty easy to find.

I was right in my old thinking that Abalze isn’t going to set the world on fire (thank you, folks, I’m here all week, don’t forget to tip your waiters) but I now really it’s a game that would see a lot of play for a lot of different audiences.




Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Oct 30, 2020 9:49 pm
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