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A Gnome's Ponderings

I'm a gamer. I love me some games and I like to ramble about games and gaming. So, more than anything else, this blog is a place for me to keep track of my ramblings. If anyone finds this helpful or even (good heavens) insightful, so much the better.

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My awe at the Grey Ranks

Lowell Kempf
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The Grey Ranks is the emotional equivalent of getting a sock full of bricks to the back of the head while simultaneously getting hockey punched. Which is kind of the point. This is a role-playing game about playing child soldiers during the disastrous Warsaw uprising in World War II.

In the introduction to Slaughterhouse Five, there is a discussion about how there isn't any such thing as an antiwar story, that movies and stories always make war seem heroic and exciting. The Grey Ranks is about as anti-war as you're going to get, this side of Grave of Fireflies.

Part of what makes The Grey Ranks so strong is the respect and seriousness that it treats the subject matter. This is very heavy stuff, war and love and desperation and depression and death. If Jason Morningstar made light of it, the game would be an offensive abomination.

Particularly since this isn't just about the idea of child soldiers. The Grey Ranks is about a very specific event that actually happened. The book does not only give an overview of the Nazi occupation of Poland and Warsaw in particular, it also gives a number of brief biographies of real teenagers who were part of the Szare Szregi, the Grey Ranks of the title.

What is also very powerful is that the characters are only defined by their emotional growth and journeys. They have reputations which _will_ change over the course of the game and a place on a grid that depicts where they are in an axis of love, hate, enthusiasm and exhaustion.

And madness and death can be the very likely, almost certain, end points on that grid.

When your character dies or otherwise cannot be played, you don't create a new character. Instead, you play the absence of your character and how it affects everyone who remains.

The designer is Jason Morningstar and the mechanics have a lot of the touches I have come to expect from him. No game master, strong focus on narrative, and relatively simple rules but still create a tight framework. The centerpiece of the mechanics is the grid I mentioned, showing the emotional state of the characters.

I read a lot of role playing games. It's kind of become a separate hobby of mine. And there is a very good chance that I will never play a lot of the games I read. I am in between groups at the moment and, frankly, I'm more in the market to find a new board gaming group.

However, I do want to eventually play The Grey Ranks, even if it's just one of the modified, one session versions.



Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Jan 20, 2017 9:11 pm
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Button Shy, Avignon, and micro games

Lowell Kempf
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This is a little bit late, since the Kickstarter is almost over, but Button shy Games is kicking off the year with the standalone expansion to the game that they kicked off last year with, Avignon.

Button Shy has been on my radar since they're 2015 kick starter for Cunning Folk but Avignon is what really made me check on what they were doing on a regular basis.

You see, their wallet game line ticks off two of my board game interests. One, they are micro games, hence the full idea of being able to stick one in your wallet. Second, you can get them as PDFs and I like to dabble with Print and Play.

Micro games have long been part of the hobby. Heck, if you count games that you just need a couple of dice to play, for a very, very long time. However, there has been a definite surge in interest in them after Love Letter.

And not all of them have been that great. I'm not a huge fan of every game in Button Shy's wallet line, even as I'm praising it right now.

However, one of the things that I like about a lot of their wallet line is they push the line what you can do with just a handful of cards.

Seriously, there are games out there that are just one card. The test for how small you can make a game is a moot point. And Charades beat that test into the ground ages ago anyway. The real test is how much fun a game can be and how deep a game can be.

Cunning Folk gave me a game that I had been looking for. Something that gave me the feel of playing Coup but I could play with two people. Avignon, on the other hand, give me something that I didn't know I was looking for.

Avignon, at its heart, is a game of tug-of-war. You are trying to pool three of the cards on the board over to your side in order to win. It is themed around the historical schism in the Catholic Church when they had two popes (okay, one of the times)and the theme does work but the mechanics are the real center of the game.

One of the things that I like is how the cards create a board for the game and how playing in dimensions is a definite part of the game. That isn't anything new or innovative. Games like Verrator and Meuterer did that and did that well. Soccer 17, a game I think needs more love, did it with just two cards. Still, when you have that dimensional space as part of a game, it adds an extra layer of depth and engagement.

Avignon also adds special powers to the mix. There are two copies of six different characters (without only a random five on the board at any time) and they all have a special power to help mix things up.

By far and away the most interesting is the Noble, which doesn't have a special action. Instead, the Noble adds two more game ending conditions. Which adds a lot to the game in general.

Every element of the game is very simple. But when they are all combined, they definitely become greater then their parts. It is a simple game. It is a quick game. But it has a lot of variety and replay value and it keeps you engaged for the duration of play.

The expansion, Avignon: the Pilgrimage, adds six more roles so you can play it on its own or mix it in. Come to think of it, there are also expansions for both versions that add a few more cards.

I do like these kind of expansions. They don't make the game longer or make it a different game. They just add variety. (Hence my love of Dominion)

For me, Avignon represents what I like most about Button Shy. Taking the concept of the micro game and pushing it further. Exploring what you can do with 18 cards.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Thu Jan 19, 2017 11:32 pm
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What did Yucata give me in 2016?

Lowell Kempf
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One of the things that I decided to do as part of my looking at 2016 was see what games were added to Yucatá last year.

Let's see:

7 Steps
Carcassonne: South Seas
Automobiles
Race
Lords of War
Castles of Burgundy: The Card Game
Attika
Packet Row
Spexx
Atacama
Las Vegas
Guildhall
Pax Porfiriana

I think that is all of them and I gave all of them at least one run through, except for Pax Porfiriana. Actually, thanks to the international dateline, it was the first one in 2017 anyway. I am keeping it on the list, even though it doesn't really count.

On the one hand, 2016 didn't have a lot of 'bigger' games, at least to my mind. 2014 gave us Castles of Burgundy and Carson City while 2015, a relatively light year, included the Voyages of Marco Polo.

On the other hand, as someone who has been more of a casual game player since the birth of our son, there are a lot of games that are great for me. If I can log on once a day, make a reasonable assessment of my board position and make a move that I am happy with, and have the endgame in sight, I am a happy camper.

I had been wanting to try out Carcassonne: South Seas, Las Vegas and Guildhall so I was really happy that they got added. And those are games that I am going to keep on my regular rotation with Yucatá.

And, really, while heavy games, they are all well regarded games. From that angle, those three games along with Castles of Burgundy the Card Game and Attika are the 'big' games of the year. From that perspective, 2016 was pretty darn awesome actually.

The surprise hit for my small little circle of Midwest friends who play with me on Yucutta was Automobiles. That has become a game that we go back to again and again. And I am still no good at it whatsoever

There are definitely some games that I need to revisit because I haven't played them enough to know what I really think about them. (Castles and Lords of War, I'm looking at you) But, honestly, when I look at all of the 2016 games in one list, there's a lot of games that I'm going to be playing on a regular basis.
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Sat Jan 14, 2017 4:56 am
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Ancient Committee is an odd beast

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I read Ancient Committee is an Emo Band! (I'll just call it Ancient after this) because I needed a distraction while trying to write a blog about the Grey Ranks that does it any kind of justice. And I only found out about Ancient because Jason Morningstar mentions it in Drowning and Falling.

Ancient is a game about being in an emo rock band. It probably says a lot about me and how old I am that I automatically edited it in my brain to a garage band. That being said, the band is doing well enough to get regular gigs and sell T-shirts so you must be doing something right.

The mechanics are very very simple. After everyone decides what they're playing in the band and you create a set list, it's time for your gig. You play out how the audience handles each song and your efforts at making them like you more by drawing cards from regular deck of cards. Afterwards, also using a regular deck of cards, band members determine if they are giving up or burning out or actually staying with the band.

Beyond having a name and what you do in the band, character creation only consists of drawing merit and flaw cards that will give you bonuses in audience reaction. Amusingly enough, merits and flaws work the same way in gigs. Their only difference is how they affect your chances of giving up or burning out.

Not only is the game a GM-free system, it is a particularly GM-free system. Nobody takes on the role of temporarily being the game master, except maybe the random draw from the deck of cards.

Beyond the fact that Ancient Committee has to be in the named of the band, because you have all those T-shirts, there are two choices in the game design that I do find rather interesting.

First of all, while the game is set up for ten sessions, which is how long it'll take sell all of those T-shirts, you don't need the consistent group. Whoever shows up, they're the ones who are in the band. While I can see some serious issues trying to run a game like that, I still find it funny and appropriate for the theme.

Second, every session should take about an hour. And Ancient draws a firm line on that. The more time you spend fighting about who plays what instrument or the set list, the less time you have to actually play music. And the gig has to end early enough to figure out if anyone is giving up or burning out.

It's not the first time I have seen a hard and fast time limit set on the game. Puppetland did it earlier and better, with its emphasis about how you are playing out a children's story. However, I still like how it punishes you, quite logically, when you spend more time fighting about how the band is going to be and less time actually playing music. Punish being a subjective term, since you might just be there for the fighting.

Quite frankly, for a variety of reasons I can't see myself ever playing Ancient. For one thing, I'm not into the theme. For another thing, a campaign model that is built on whoever shows up gets to play doesn't seem like a campaign that will last two sessions.

Honestly, there are enough interesting one shots that I would rather play different game each week if I had such an irregular group.

I would be curious to know what people who actually been in an emo band think of the game.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Sat Jan 14, 2017 4:33 am
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Laughing while Drowning and Falling

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Since I have been going through a bit of a Jason Morningstar phase lately, all thanks to the Grey Ranks which I will write about fairly soon, I got out and read through Drowning and Falling.

Drowning and Falling is made up of two parts. The first one is a loving parody of Dungeons & Dragons. The second is an actual set of functioning mechanics. To be honest, when I started reading the game, I wasn't expecting the second part.

In general, the book is awfully funny to read. The theme of the game is being some kind of generic sword and sorcery hero who goes out to fight monsters and get loot. If you fail in this crucial task, you are either going to drown or fall. If you find yourself on fire or being strangled, you're clearly doing something wrong.

Characters have a whopping 15 different traits. Definitely brings back memories of some of the old-school games I have played. However, since their only mechanical use is to help generate numbers that you have to roll under with two dice, it's not nearly as complex or overwhelming as it might sound.

Since this is a Jason Morningstar game, it's not a surprise that it's a GM-free system. At the start of the game, you deal out playing cards to everyone. They then use those cards to create challenges. If you are really going old-school, each one is basically the next room in the dungeon.

Really, the only mechanical purpose of either the traits or the cards that you use to create challenges is to generate numbers. Individual names and details are just flavor to create the story. Come to think of it, isn't that how most role-playing games work? Using your strength, charisma and clumsiness to overcome a firebreathing dragon is a lot more interesting then just saying roll under a five.

I have to admit that since I read this right off of reading the Grey Ranks, which is the emotional equivalent of catching a sledge hammer between the eyes and one of Jason Morningstar's masterpieces, it was a bit of a let down. Compared to that, Drowning and Falling has an impossible act to follow.

These days, I look at role-playing games from two criteria. Was it fun to read and what I want to play it? Drowning and Falling passes the first criteria with flying colors. It is really funny and I can see it getting laughs if it was read out loud on the stage.

However, while it is clearly a functional and playable game, there are other games that fill the same niche of being a silly, funny one shot better. Toon, Kobolds Ate My Baby, Baron Muchaussen. Heck, both the Shan-al-Hiri Roach or Fiasco by Morningstar would be games I reach to before Drowning and Falling.

There is only one time I can see where I would really want to play Drowning and Falling. That would be as the last event on a Saturday night of a convention, when everyone is exhausted and slaphappy and just plain silly. I think it would work really good then.

So, I had fun reading the game. I'm not planning on playing the game. And the proceeds for the game went to charity. On the whole, Drowning and Falling didn't change my life or give meet any amazing insights. But I don't regret reading it.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Sun Jan 8, 2017 5:50 pm
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Chain of thoughts with Mastermind

Lowell Kempf
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Our latest game to introduce our toddler to was Mastermind for Kids. It's a simplified version of Mastermind with only three holes for the code and jungle animals for the tokens.

Okay, he just wanted to play with the animals and play with how he could put them on the board. Still, he's played matching games so some of the mechanics of Mastermind are already percolating in his brain.

But it got me thinking about Mastermind and similar games.

While I did play it when I was very young (and that cover is a classic), I'm not super found of Mastermind. I think it's because of the roles of code maker and code breaker just seemed... restricted and uninteresting to me.

What's funny is that there are games that clearly used Mastermind as a starting point or an inspiration that I really like.

Zendo is easily the biggest example, as well as my favorite Looney Lab game. Perhaps because it's a game for a group, not a two-player activity. It also has as wide as the sky options for rules, as opposed to just a series of colors. And the role of the Master isn't that of an opponent but that of a teacher. It's a deductive game with a code maker but the whole philosophy of the game is the opposite end of the spectrum from Mastermind.

Coda, a very simple deduction game using numbers, is one where both players effectively play the role of code breaker and code maker, is another one I like. It's a good, relaxing little game and I think a key element to that is both players getting to play both sides.

Honorary mentions for me have to go to Jotto, which combines words with Mastermind, and Black Box, which is meaningfully themed around shooting rays at atoms. Seriously, what a theme!

Although, now that I'm thinking about it, doesn't the whole deduction game with someone hiding the information date back to at least Battleships in the 1930s? Probably a whole lot older than that. While I haven't played Mysterium or Codenames, don't they operate on the same principle?

So Mastermind didn't start the fire and isn't the the defining deduction game. It is probably as stripped down as you can get. So, even though I'm not a fan, maybe it is a good introduction for young minds. Maybe.


Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Sun Jan 8, 2017 5:21 pm
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A micro-RPG that covers love and death

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Despite my efforts to read through them slowly, I was starting to get burned out by the Indy Megamix Mixtape, that collection of tiny RPG's that was sold to help designers in need. The South Side of the Sky didn't interest me and Shelter left me with so little that I didn't bother writing about it.

Then I read Darlin' Corey and realized I was not so burnt out that I couldn't find something that would spark my interest.

Darlin' Corey is inspired by and quite literally about the folk song by the same name. My parents were survivors of the great folk scare of the sixties so I grew up listening to more folk music than you could shake a banjo pick at. So I will freely admit that the subject matter was one that I could easily get into.

As opposed to being written to have you play out the scenario like you'd find in a folk song, darling Cory is specifically designed to have you roll play out that specific song. It is the story of how a beautiful moonshiner dies.

The twist and the actual game play is that at three specific points, you essentially flip a coin to determine what is really happening. Is Darlin' Corey really in love with the narrator or is he a stalker? Who really killed her? What's going to happen between the government man and the narrator in the end?

It's definitely an interesting take on the old role playing concept of railroading. Generally, railroading means that the players have to do something specific. In this case, something specific happens and the actual choice is how you react to it.

The game also has the profoundly bizarre player account of one to three. Yes, you could play this game as a solitaire exercise. Which is nothing new in the world of role-playing, given options like video game role-playing or game books. But it is kind of unusual for a storytelling game.

Heck, I might try playing it as a writing exercise.

Make no mistake, Darlin' Corey is a very simple and limited game, extremely restricted in what it does. It's not a game that you would play over and over again. It's not a game for outliers who are trying to find a way to break the game.

However, it uses the two fundamental themes of love and death in a very strong way. It will only tell one story but it will let you explore it in a variety of ways. And, as I already said, it's not what happens. It is how it effects you.

One of the things that caught my eye about Darlin' Corey from the start was that it was by Jason Morningstar. Without realizing it, I have become quite the fan of his work.

My earliest experiences with his designs was with the Shab-al-Hiri Roach, an experience that was a laugh riot in black comedy. I really hope to at least be able to play the short version of the Grey Ranks some day. And, not only did I have fun playing Fiasco several times, I also think it is an incredibly important game in the overall development of RPGs.

Darlin' Corey is not one of Morningstar's great or important designs. But it does show how his approach to storytelling and GM-free play can be applied in a game that it's only two pages long.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Jan 6, 2017 11:12 pm
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Failing to sum up 2016

Lowell Kempf
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Ah, 2016 is behind us and now is the time to reflect on it, as well as start planning for the upcoming year.

And I tried a few times to write a year end wrap up but even just trying to limit it to my gaming life proved tough. Even in a quiet year (and it was a quiet year as far as gaming is concerned), it's tough.

Most of my face-to-face gaming was with our son, playing games like Don't Spill the Beans or Candy Land. Since he just turned three at the end of the year, he usually didn't have the patience to finish games and wasn't the best at following the rules either. Still, it's all part of building up the game knowledge.

My wife and I did get in some games after he went to sleep, including Machi Koro and it's first expansion. It's certainly in the running for the best game I learned this year, particularly for time strapped parents.

My most intense gaming experiences were at Rincon and it's fundraisers. Every year, my experiences with Tucson's own little con get better and better and this year was no exception. Definitely a great con.

And, as ever, I played hundreds of games on Yucatá.

At the start of the year, I set a small budget for how much I was willing to spend on Kickstarter. And, thanks to mostly sticking to just buying print and play files, I've been able to keep to that budget.

I also set myself a limit of only buying six new games, not counting Kickstarter, in 2016. I ended up buying, let's see, two. OK, I did great on that goal. If my son gets into gaming in a few years, that kind of goal will go straight out the window.

I started 2016 with an online game of Microscope and and I ended it in another. Those two games provided bookends to my gaming year, a nice bit of symmetry that I didn't plan but worked out nicely.

2016 was also the year that our son turned three, which means it was a year where all kinds of development exploded. He can now talk back and argue with us, for instance. It was a year in politics that will get its own chapter in history books. It also seemed to be a year when a bumper crop of celebrities passed away, although it doesn't help that the world has a lot more celebrities these days.

Yes, 2016 was a year.
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Thu Jan 5, 2017 4:36 pm
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Modern Art the Card Game - all the flavor with none of the auctions

Lowell Kempf
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Modern Art the Card Game, also published as Masters Gallery for them who like classic artists, is quite literally Modern Art after Reiner Knizia took a chainsaw and hacked off the auctions.

Yeah, he removed the single most defining element of the game. And, Sweet Sackson, it still works!

In Modern Art, paintings in the form of cards are auctioned off. After one artist has had six paintings sold in one season (round), the paintings of the top three artists are sold for the profit of the players. If an artist was in the top three in a previous round, their paintings are more valuable. However, even if an artist's paintings would be worth an astronomical some things to previous rounds, they only get so if they're in the top three.

Modern Art the Card Game takes that formula and ditches the auctions. Instead, players just play cards from their hands in front of them. You don't by paintings from auctions and you don't get to pocket the profits from your own auctions.

There are still a few clever little bits, though, to help keep everyone on their toes. Some of the cards have special powers that go off when you play them. These include the power to play another card by the same artist at the same time, to draw a card into your hand, to increase the value of an artist, or to lay down a card facedown in order to keep everyone guessing.

Another twist is that you get dealt increasingly fewer cards as the rounds go by, getting no new cards on the last round. Which means that you got to start planning your long game right from the start.

What you get, at the end of the day, is a lighter and shorter game than the original. However, it's still a tense little game with plenty of room for clever play.

While you don't have the direct interaction of auctions, you still have the constantly changing, silent alliances since you can't put one artist on top by yourself. In fact, since you don't get the profits from auctioning paintings, these unspoken alliances are even more important.

When Modern Art the Card Game first came out, it's spent a couple months in constant rotation in my gaming group. And this was at a time when we were constantly playing new games (an unnamed member of the group, perhaps one that keeps a blog, kept buying new games) and a game getting played twice in succession was pretty impressive. So that much steady play is quite the compliment for the game.

Modern Art the Card Game isn't as good as its parent game. The original game is such an amazing auction game. However, the card game is still plenty of fun. It takes up even less storage space, which is always nice. It plays down to two, which the original game definitely couldn't do. And it plays pretty darn quick.

It does what a card version of a board game should do. It gives you a condensed experience while still being true to the original and fun.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Sat Dec 31, 2016 6:12 am
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The return of family friendly games

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I am a big fan of Bundle of Holding. For the last few years, I have bought quite a few different bundles. It has been a great source of Indy style games for me. But, one of the rewarding bundles was the family friendly bundle.

While some of the games were simply suitable for younger audiences, some of them were firmly aimed at the under ten crowd. While I am sure our son will grow up to have no interest in tabletop role playing games, it's fun to look at what might work with him in a couple years.

I still think Hero Kids, which is designed for kids as young as four, may be the best RPG I've seen for toddlers. Very simple but very mechanically grounded. Kids don't need to learn how to use their imagination but they do need to learn on rules work. I also really liked Mermaid Adventures, having a wide open but non-violent setting.

So, when Bundle of Holding ended the year with their second Family Friendly Bundle, I was super excited.

Two of the games are ones I've been very interested in. I've been wanting to read Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple for a while. I'm interested in games that include collaborative writing, like Microscope. I'm really looking forward to seeing what Do: Pilgrims of the Flying Temple.

I'm also very curious about No Thank You Evil, that has Monte Cook as one of the designers. It was recommended to me when I first started writing about RPGs aimed at the younger set but it hadn't even come out yet. Now, at long last, I'll get to read it.

But I'm going to read every last book that comes in the bundle. I'm sure 2017 will have plenty of surprises and unexpected events but I'm going to do my best to read and review everything in this bundle.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Sat Dec 31, 2016 4:42 am
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