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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Well, Boxes is better than Tic Tac Toe

Lowell Kempf
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I’ve recently been playing Boxes with our seven-year-old on the Nintendo Switch via Clubhouse Games. That has to be a particularly ridiculous use of technology since Boxes is a game whose fame comes in great part from the fact that you just need a paper and pencil to play it.

You know it. Draw a grid of dots and take turns drawing lines in between the dots. Complete a box and you initial it to claim it as your own and get another turn. Most points wins.

Seriously, playing it on a video game console beyond overkill. Not quite as extreme as using a car as a way of honking a horn as opposed to transportation but it is silly. In fact, since you can’t change the size of the grid, it’s actually inferior to pencil and paper. Still, it’s a way to get a seven-year-old to actually play.

And, while I have played the odd game of Boxes over the years, I don’t know what I really think of it. It’s cute and very convenient to play but strategy really seems to come down to trying to not let your opponent finish a box and setting up a cascade of moves for when your opponent makes a mistake. The game feels like waiting for someone to make a mistake. And with decent play, one mistake will decide the game.

Yes, Boxes is heaps better than Tic Tac Toe, which I have also spent time playing with our son. And if they lead to playing better abstracts, so much the better. But both games feel more like fidgeting than strategy games for me.

And perhaps Boxes is a step to playing the better games on Clubhouse Games.
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Mon Oct 11, 2021 5:33 pm
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Nintendo’s Clubhouse Games... is actually really good

Lowell Kempf
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As a Christmas gift for ourselves, we got Clubhouse Games for the Nintendo Switch.

I can already tell that it will be a great source of play and blogging material.

Back in the days of yore, you could find game collections on floppy disks for ridiculously low prices. And they were always hot messes that, despite the bargain basement prices, you still overpaid for. Well, Clubhouse Games provides an answer for ‘what if one of those collections was good?’ Of course, it costs more than ‘fifty games for five dollars’ tag but that’s the price you pay for quality and actually working.

Of course, there’s a lot you WON’T get. Anything that is a licensed product is not going to be a part of Clubhouse. No Euros, no War Games, no Ameritrash. If there’s a copyright attached, it’s not there. Abstract strategy games and card games and party games. If those aren’t your jam, this isn’t your clubhouse.

What you do get is an eccentric, eclectic collection of games, ranging from century old classics to things like tank fights and toy boxing. There are even games like darts and bowling that are callbacks to wII sports.

It would be fascinating to see the process Nintendo had of selecting the games. I’m surprised there isn’t a form of Poker, let alone Go (Even a 9x9 board would have been something). Euchre would have been nice too. But you still get a wide selection of family games for a variety of occasions.

But the real star is the interface. There has been an endless history of game collections in the digital world and most of them have ranged from meh to terrible. Clubhouse Games works because it has an exceedingly clean and user-friendly interface. You can actually learn how to play and then actually play the games. It’s easy and it’s not easy to achieve that kind of easy.

Clubhouse Games is not what I think of when it comes to gaming on the Switch or gaming online. But... it’s good.

Originally posted on www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Feb 12, 2021 10:29 pm
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Abstract game or art project?

Lowell Kempf
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Some board games make good art activities for younger kids. And, at least for me, abstracts are the games that seem to do the best job at it.

Two occurrences in about a week’s span really brought that home for me.

First of all, I learned that our son’s kindergarten teacher uses both Blokus and Blokus Trigon in the classroom. Not as the games but as cooperative activities. I found out about this by our son pulling out my copy of Blokus Trigon and saying that they had a copy at school

The second was when our son decided he wanted to have a board game night with daddy and started pulling out my stack of GIPF games. (TAMSK is stored elsewhere due to its size and I don’t have LYNGK, in case your curious) And gosh darn it, didn’t he find the games interesting to manipulate and make patterns with, ZERTZ and DVONN in particular. He actually paid attention to the rules of DVONN but wasn’t interested in actually playing it

It makes sense that abstracts are good for this kind of play. Games with tiles and chits and cards and such don’t have the same ‘artifact’ appeal. Glass beads and stones and balls and pyramids and such are actual physical objects with all the dimensional and tactile elements that go into being just that.

I am hoping that this eventually turns into actually playing the games

Originally came to visit at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Nov 29, 2019 3:44 pm
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Abstracts and kids

Lowell Kempf
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Some board games make good art activities for younger kids. And, at least for me, abstracts are the games that seem to do the best job at it.

Two occurrences in about a week’s span really brought that home for me,

First of all, I learned that our son’s kindergarten teacher uses both Blokus and Blokus Trigon in the classroom. Not as the games but as cooperative activities. I found out about this by our son pulling out my copy of Blokus Trigon and saying that they had a copy at school

The second was when our son decided he wanted to have a board game night with daddy and started pulling out my stack of GIPF games. (TAMSK is stored elsewhere due to its size and I don’t have LYNGK, in case your curious) And gosh darn it, didn’t he find the games interesting to manipulate and make patterns with, ZERTZ and DVONN in particular. He actually paid attention to the rules of DVONN but wasn’t interested in actually playing it

It makes sense that abstracts are good for this kind of play. Games with tiles and chits and cards and such don’t have the same ‘artifact’ appeal. Glass beads and stones and balls and pyramids and such are actual physical objects with all the dimensional and tactile elements that go into being just that.

I am hoping that this eventually turns into actually playing the games

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Thu Nov 14, 2019 6:40 pm
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A five-year-old’s experiences with Go

Lowell Kempf
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I recently took a crack at introducing our five-year to the basics of Go.

And while I have heard Go described as having five rules with one of those rules being that you play it on a board, quite a bit of it didn’t sink in. Go is theoretically simple in theory but it is ridiculously complex to understand in practice.

But it was his idea so I ran with it.

The one thing that he really clicked on was the concept of eyes and that having two eyes makes a group of stones safe. Which, to be fair, is a very important idea.

I wonder if he will ask for Go again and what he will learn if he does.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Thu Nov 7, 2019 2:42 am
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Is SHOBU a newborn classic?

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While I was at RinCon 2019, I passed by a table that had a bunch of boards on it that were clearly for an abstract. I asked some questions, got a sample game and found myself a substitute for the tournament when someone else had to drop out. I lost but I had a great time.

SHOBU is a two-player, perfect information, 100% determinist abstract, just to get that part out of the way. The game consists of four 4x4 boards, two dark and two light. In the official version, they are made out of wood and it comes with a thick rope so you can separate them into a light-dark pair for each player. On each board, you place four stones for each player on either side.

And, yes, it would be laughingly easy to make your own copy. But I’d still like to get a legit copy eventually. Partially because it is nice but also because I’d like to see more games like this out there and supporting designers and companies is how you see that happen.

Every turn has two steps. A passive move, where you move a stone on one of the two boards closest to you one to two spaces in any straight line. Then an aggressive move, where you move a stone the exact same direction and number of spaces on a board of the opposite color. And with the aggressive move, you can push an enemy stone off the board.

Push all the enemy stones off of any one of the four boards and you win.

SHOBU is a knife fight in four separate phone booths and that’s part of what makes it so good. While smaller boards theoretically limit the number of moves and make a game solve-able, it also means that you’re in direct conflict by your second move.

And I freely admit that I generally prefer abstracts that are more about each move being a big, board changing move than a whole bunch of small, discrete moves. (Go is amazing but I also don’t get the chance to play Go very much anymore) SHOBU definitely has that.

At the same time, with four boards to keep track of and the restrictions on how you make your moves, SHOBU definitely has layers of consideration to out into each move. The game is definitely not impossible or even terribly hard to read but you have to think about it differently than you do in so many games.

It’s a definite example of a game where your first game will take five minutes and your tenth game will take an hour. But it will be an hour that will make you think and stimulate the little gray cells. Okay, maybe a half hour but the game steadily got deeper the more I played and I know there’s plenty more to explore.

SHOBU combines several ideas I’ve seen before and, in principle, is a simple game. But it uses those ideas to create something new (to me at least) and really makes me think. I don’t _know_ that it’s a newborn classic. BUT, it could be!

Originally posted at www.gnomeponderimg.com
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Fri Oct 11, 2019 12:56 am
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Abstracts for more than two

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As I have written many times, one of the misconceptions I had when I was first rediscovering board games is that one of the key parts of an abstract was two players. You know, like Chess or Checkers or Go or Tic Tac Toe or such.

But that was one of the first rules that got tossed out the window. (No random elements was the hardest one to give up but the never-ending arguments that Qwirkle and Ingenious are abstracts wore me down)

Good old Blokus was a big factor in that decision. Definitely doesn’t have a theme, no hidden information, totally deterministic. And not only does it play up to four players, it plays best with four players.

And it’s not like it’s that new an idea. Chinese Checkers and it’s predecessor Halma date back to Victorian times and they play more than two players too. If you count Ludo/Parcheesi as abstracts (I mean, Backgammon is considered an abstract), we can talk about multi-player abstracts going back centuries.

Still, making a game for more than two players requires more decision space so everybody has a fair shake. It’s not a coincidence that the original Blokus has all four colors start in the corners where they develop some board space before meeting other colors while Blokus Duo has you in each other’s grill from the start.

Frankly, the more players you add to a game, the harder it can be to make sure everyone has an even playing field. And since abstracts tend to have simpler rule sets, that can make it more difficult. The random or hidden elements that can level the playing field aren’t there as much. It’s clearly not impossible but it makes it rarer.

Sometimes, the question isn’t if an abstract can be played with more than two. Without a special board, three-player Martian Chess is down right dreadful, for instance. So, it’s not enough that multi-player is possible. It also has to be good.

So, yes, multi-player abstracts are out there. And, like all things, not all of them are worth finding. But there are some good ones.
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Fri Sep 27, 2019 11:12 pm
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So what’s an abstract anyway?

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Okay. Since I am in an abstract set of mind, on to the next topic I’m musing. What actually is an abstract?

When I first started being interested in abstract games, I had a brutally strict definition. A two-player, perfect information game that has no random elements.

Almost immediately, that definition ran into problems. Stratego, for instance, has hidden information. And a game like Blokus can play up to four players. Okay, so we are going to take away perfect information and no random elements and using Total Determination with no player count. That should take care of it.

Then I saw people writing about how games like Ingenious and Qwirkle are abstracts because they have no theme. But wait! You draw a random hand of tiles! It has a definite random element! But having no theme trumps that? Is the definition of abstract just mean no theme?

Okay. I see the reasoning behind that argument. I mean, that is kind of the actual definition of abstract. But that means that Poker and Rummy are abstracts and, while that can be argued, that’s not really the way that anyone’s mind works.

We have reached the point where I’m saying ‘I don’t know what an abstract is but I know one when I see one’ And really, every game has some element of abstraction going on. So, it’s more of a degree than a binary yes-no.

The game that actually really got me thinking about this is Hey, That’s My Fish. It does have a random setup but after that, it’s perfect information all the way. And it has cute little penguins and fish but those could be replaced by plain pawns and numbers. It doesn’t fit the pure definition I had at the beginning but I don’t think anyone would argue it’s an abstract.

So what have we learned? That vague and arbitrarily definitions lead to nebulous answers. Plus, abstracts apparently require a board or other surface space, have either no or minimal theme, and favor choices over luck.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Tue Jul 16, 2019 3:46 pm
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I fail at Abstract classification

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I have this really silly tendency to divide abstracts up into putting pieces on the board and moving pieces on the board.

Which is nonsense as a taxonomy. Not only are there abstracts where you do both, like Hive (or ZERTZ or Amazons or Six or YINSH or...), there are games where neither term really fits. The Mancala family really doesn’t fit the concept of moving pieces on a board, for instance. It’s its own thing. And an abstract like Zendo is completely off the grid.

I think the reason I tend to do this is because I have found that I like putting stones down more than moving stones. I admire Chess but I don’t really have any desire to play it. I admire Go and I do want to play it more. There’s a number of reasons but putting stones down is just more satisfying for me.

I don’t think it’s the biggest reason anymore but this tendency started for me because putting stones down also acts as a timer. You know the maximum number of moves in a game. Someone once wrote Othello was a great game for kids before bedtime since it had a predictable time frame.

However, stones on the board also lets you see the history of the game at a glance. For me at least, it’s a lot easier to read. It also makes it easier, at least for me, to feel the tempo of a game and to have a strong sense of what stage the game is at.

And for me, it feels less likely for a stones on the board game to stall out. Stale mates in Chess just make me feel depressed.

Atlantean, one of Knizia’s more minor games, has stayed in my collection in part because there’s a maximum of eleven moves per player. (Variable opening set-up that’s under the player’s control also helps) When I want a quiet, thoughtful abstract that will take ten, fifteen minutes, it’s one I consider.

And, while I consider it to be one of the weaker Pyramid games, I still occasionally play Branches and Twigs and Thorns because being a stones on the board game on a very small board turns it into a knife fight in a telephone booth very quickly. Mind you, the first few moves tend to determine the game but it’s so fast that the rest of the moves don’t take very long.

But I’m not just saying I like stones on the board because I can play some quick games. Go, the ur-example, is a longer game but you get to see the board develop and it becomes so wonderfully complex. The history of the play is there for you to see, even at my pathetically limited understanding of Go. It’s a living tapestry, which is a great turn of phrase even if it is too pretentious for words.

For me, I find myself using stones on the board as a category because I find that mechanic an act of meditation and creation as well as competition.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon Jul 8, 2019 10:31 pm
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Alas, some abstracts just aren’t going to convert non-lovers

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I have been spending perhaps an unhealthy amount of time dwelling on abstracts and abstracts I that folks who get hives from abstracts will still enjoy. Well, at least in my own arrogant opinion. Nine times out of ten, my reasoning probably breaks down to ‘I like it so you should too!’

However, there are some abstracts that I like that I’m absolutely convinced that only abstract lovers would enjoy. None of ‘Hive is the abstract for abstract haters’. Some games are ‘you don’t like abstracts? Yeah, you won’t like this’.

There doesn’t seem to be a formula to this. If simple and accessible were what it takes, Edward de Bono’s L-Game would be the gift for converting folks to abstracts. Each player gets one piece and there are two neutral pieces. Block your opponent from making a move and you get to win. But the game is so dry with the potential for the endless stalemates, I consider it more of an intellectual exercise in minimalism than a game.

Amazons, on the other hand, is a game that I think is cracking good. (I don’t actually know where that phrase comes from. I just stole the adverb from Bertie Wooster.) You move your queens on a ten by ten board, blocking off squares with every move. The board grows smaller and smaller and if you can’t move, the other guy wins.

Amazons is a head cracker of a game and a really smart design. But it seems to be only the darling of abstract lovers. I can’t put my finger on exactly why I know but I can’t see myself trying to convert someone to abstract games with Amazons.

(Okay, maybe the fact that it is such a brain burner is a reason)

Then, there is the likes of games like Alfred’s Wyke, which is a weird abstract lover’s weird abstract. You either remove or add tiles in order to control a grid and there are five different types of moves. And you can’t use a move that’s been used in the last two turns.

Honestly, I have never found a game even remotely like it. It’s never been published outside of a magazine article and the website Super Duper Games has probably given it any exposure it’s had. It’s brilliant and almost unheard of and just plain weird. This is a game I’d struggle to get other abstract lovers to like.

A lot of the abstracts I’m interested in are games that I think folks who aren’t into abstracts can still enjoy. I’m an Everyman of abstracts for the most part. But apparently there are some exceptions.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon Jul 1, 2019 4:50 pm
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