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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.

Archive for Lowell Kempf

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GEM is a 'gem' of a game :P

Lowell Kempf
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I have finally played GEM, the only game in the Pack O Games series I hadn't played yet. Since it's an auction game, I had wanted to wait until I could play it with at least three players. I had high hopes for GEM and it did not disappoint.

Like all the games in the series, GEM consists of thirty skinny cards in a box the size of a pack of gum. As I already mentioned, it's an auction game. You are bidding on gems that you then have to leverage for money and points.

Each round starts out with setting out cards with gems on them, usually two gems per card. Everyone starts with three coin cards, worth one, two and three coins. Auctions are once around and you don't have to say which card you're going for.

Here's the thing. Each card has a red number and a green number on opposite ends. You get the gems with the red number, meaning they are invested. You have to pay that amount at the end of the round to turn the card to be green number, now they are leveraged. Then you can use the gems for bidding and only leveraged cards are worth points in the end. In the last round, you do get the card already leveraged. At the start of each round, you get your coins back but if you spent a gem card in a bid, it has to be leveraged again.

Leveraged, by the way, apparently means borrowing money based on the value of a property. So, if I understand it right, you're actually going deeper and deeper into debt as the game goes on.

You get one point per gem, two points to you share a majority in a type of gem and three points if you have the sole majority in a type of gem. Most points wins.

When I heard other players swearing at the start of the last round, I knew the game was good.

What really makes GEM work is the scoring. The extra points for majorities is a big deal, a game determining deal. And there are few enough of each type that one stone can make or break a set. Which means that the auctions can turn into a real fight.

I have been concerned that it would be too easy for players to go bankrupt or fall behind. And the economy of the game is tight. But the way the coins reset themselves and the fact that you have to pay to leverage the gems makes it very hard for someone to just run away with the game.

In general, I believe that the Pack O Game series does a great job exploring and expanding the micro game. Over the last few years, designers have been pushing past the idea that a micro game has to be a simple filler and creating games that have more depth and weight.

GEM might do the best job of this out of all the games in the first set of Pack O Game. It feels like a 'full-sized' game, one that would see regular rotation on a game night.

I went into GEM with high hopes but I was prepared to be disappointed. Instead, GEM was even better than I hoped.

originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com

Edit: it was pointed out to me that I mixed up the leveraged and invested states of the gems as terms. (I was still playing the game right, just using the wrong words) So, instead of borrowing more and more money so you're going deeper and deeper into debt, you're actually paying off your debt.
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Wed Feb 15, 2017 5:16 pm
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How SHH surprised me

Lowell Kempf
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I have to admit that I went into SHH with very low expectations. It is part of Pack O Game, a series of micro games that I have been very impressed by. However, it is a cooperative game and a word game, both genres that I am relatively indifferent to. There are games in both categories that I love, like Pandemic, Hanabi, Scrabble or Buy Word. But I don't go out of my way for them.

However, the second series of Pack O Game is coming out and I want to be a completist and play all of the first set. So when we had an out-of-state visitor who really loves cooperative games, I figured that it was the perfect opportunity to play SHH.

(Spoiler: it was very good!)

Like every game in the series, SHH is made up of 30 cards that are at third the width of the normal playing cards. So you end up with the tidy little box the size of a pack of gum. Twenty six of the cards show the letters of the alphabet while the other four are pass cards.

I have to pause a note that these are the prettiest cards in the entire series. Each one, in addition to showing the letter, has a bright and colorful photograph of something that starts with that letter. They really are nice looking.

Gameplay is very simple. The object of the game is to make words, one letter at a time, scoring points for every letter you successfully
use in a word. But, during the entire game, no one is allowed to say anything.

You set aside the vowel cards. They are double-sided and you place the side that has plus one facedown. Then, you do you out all twenty-one consonants to the players. And everyone gets one pass card. Now you are ready to play.

On your turn, you can do one of three things. Add a letter from your hand or one of the vowels. Flip your pass card over and skip your turn. Score the current word and start a new word.

Score a word, you put your thumb up, since you aren't allowed to talk. If everyone else puts their thumb up too, you score the word. The reason why someone would give a thumb down is if they think it isn't a real word. That's when you get the dictionary. If the word is scored, all of the consonants are put to one side has points. The vowels are put back in their row and, if the word was at least five letters long, you flip them over so they are worth a point.

The game ends when either you run out of consonants, hopefully scoring the last word at the same time, or if a word can't be scored because it isn't. A real word.. You get one point for every constant successfully used and one point for every vowel they got flipped. Thus, the highest score you can possibly get is twenty six points.

As I already spoiled, I was surprised at how good SHH was. It doesn't take any time at all to play, particularly if you mess up and can't spell a word early. However, there is a lot of tension in the game.

The silence is keyed to the game. If you could just talk, there wouldn't be a game. But since you have to be silent, there is a lot of desperation in the game and it is really exciting when you successfully make a word.

And SHH has a very tight economy of letters. There is only one of each letter in the game and you will only use each consonant once. That makes for a brutally tight game.

Don't get me wrong. I knew from just reading the words that SHH would work as a game, as long as people didn't cheat about words being real. What I didn't expect was how much excitement and fun the game will turn out to be.

Pack O Game continues to surprise me and prove to be one of the best purchases I've made in the last couple years. The last game I have to play from the original series is GEM and I have high expectations for that.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Feb 3, 2017 8:28 pm
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A visitor gives us a chance for some micro games

Lowell Kempf
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We are having a couple of out-of-town friends visit us, actually overlapping. And, while most of the time will be spent seeing sites and having quality toddler time, a little bit of gaming is going to creep in.

On the second night of Greg's visit, our toddler obligingly fell asleep early so we were able to get in a decent selection of micro games.

SHH, part of the Pack O Game series, is a silent cooperative game where you build words one letter at a time. You can only use each vowel once per word and each consonant once per game.

I have to admit had low expectations for the game. And I really wanted to get it played because I want to play all the games in the first series of Pack O Games before the second one comes out. But, while I do have some I really like, cooperative games and word games really aren't a big focus for me. But we ended up having a lot of fun with it. There was a lot of tension in it and we played it a second time, where we totally bombed.

I then pulled out HUE, a tile-laying game that is my usual game to introduce people to Pack O Games. It is very fast and simple but the simple twist of getting all your hand at the start of the game and your last card being which colors you score makes it very solid. As usual, it went very well.

We ended with my homemade copy of Cunning Folk, which is like Coup for two to four players with just nine cards. Lots of lying and bluffing. Don't get me wrong, it is not as good as Coup. But the fact that it plays down to two and still gives me that feeling makes it a keeper. We got in two games of that and called it a night.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Feb 3, 2017 5:41 pm
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My past life with Palatinus

Lowell Kempf
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While it's not the end-all, be-all of my measure of a game, interesting decisions and how many you get to make is something I often consider and I think it is a big part of how engaged I am with a game and how much I am truly participating.

Palatinus, which I consider to be a hidden gem, is a game that used to be one of my yard sticks for this sort of thing. It practically fits the model of a filler. I think we had games that lasted fifteen minutes. Very tight board, lots of interaction and conflict, bluffing and mind games. A lot going on in a small space and in a short time.

The theme, which is undeniably wafer thin, is about the founding of Rome. Basically, you are fighting over the seven hills of Rome. I guess whoever wins gets to control the future of Rome and the Roman empire.

The seven hills are made up of seven modular tiles, forming a hexagon board with one tile in the center. Each tile is a ring of six hexes around a center hex, with the ring being the spaces for tile placement. This creates a ton a of variety for set up.

Players take placing tokens on the board. Farmers score based on blue spring spaces and empty spaces. Merchants score based on the player tokens around them. Soldiers will either capture the farmers or the merchants around them, whichever group is bigger for points. But if they are the same size, the soldiers run away.

But there are a whole bunch of twists.

Some tokens have a wolf on one side, meaning what you're really placing a secret until scoring. And you only score after every token is placed, which means the whole game builds up to one big explosion at the end.

And you resolve each hill one at a time but tokens' areas of influence can overlap. A soldier might capture someone before their hill is scored. And a merchant might score a soldier and get captured by him later. The hills are marked A through G and you score them in that order.

Oh, just to make things more complex, each hill has a scoring token of three to six. The points that the players' tokens don't count towards their final score, just towards getting those tokens.

Palatinus is a very interesting game, albeit one with some issues. Not flaws or problems, just plenty of things that make folks not enjoy it.

It's a very dry game and not super intuitive. Check that. It is almost brutally non-intuitive. It doesn't help that all the conflict only gets resolved at the end with the game being very unforgiving of poor choices. If you like to learn as you go along, Palatinis will frustrate you. It's definitely not for everyone.

But it impressed me, back in the day, for how many tough and downright nasty decisions it crammed in. It is a head cracker of a game, a puzzle and a slugfest all at the same time. And in a time frame that's shorter than a lot of lighter games.

These days, in the post-Love Letter world, that isn't quite so amazing. But it was a big deal for me and some of my friends. Sometime, I will have to revisit Palatinus. With the right group of coarse and in the right mood. Some games don't stand the test of time. It will be interesting to find out if Palatinus is one of them.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Thu Feb 2, 2017 5:12 am
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Thinking about the forty five minute space

Lowell Kempf
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Something that has really happened to me over the last few years is that I have become much more of a causal gamer than a heavy gamer. By that, I really mean I have gotten more into casual games rather than heavy games. These days, forty-five minutes is a meaty game.

This is a really a combination of a small child in my life and moving away from where my gaming circles lived. (To this day, I'm not sure if that's a remotely bad thing. It has let me focus on being a parent.) I doubt this is a forever thing but I hope that I remember the lessons I learn from this time.

It has also helped my interest in micro games and print-and-play but that's a long series of blogs in and of themselves. Heck, the rich variety of good games that that a half hour to forty-five minutes is fodder for tons of blogs.

Truth to tell, some of the basic building blocks of the modern hobby fit that time frame. Carcassonne with no expansions, Ticket to Ride, Bohnanza, Ra, Dominion all come to mind. Heck, back when I was playing Settlers of Catan and Puerto Rico on a regular basis, we'd usually polish off a game in less than an hour. (Twenty minutes is the shortest I've ever seen a game of Catan but the winner's dice were on fire like a star exploding.)

One of the big lessons I have relearned is that a game that fits into this time frame can have just about any mechanic, have a solid theme and be full of interesting decisions and tension.

To be fair, while I've been using the term casual game to describe a shorter time frame, some of the games that fit into this time frame aren't necessarily light or simple. Some of them can involve some serious play.

There are actually games that fit into an even shorter time frame that are still surprisingly heavy. While I'm not a big fan of TAJ, a five to ten minute game about adjusting the prices of rugs, it has a surprising the intricate framework. And that is just the first example that comes to mind.

However, I do think that the game taking at least a half hour as a certain degree of heft to the experience. Playing a game that lasts around forty five minutes feels like I've really taken the time to play a game. Had a meal instead of just a snack.

In actuality, the number of solid games that fit into this time frame means that if I never get back into games that takes hours to play, I would still have a very rich and varied gaming life

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Thu Feb 2, 2017 5:05 am
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Of Ricocheting Robots and Pyramids

Lowell Kempf
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OK, since I have been thinking about real-time, turnless games, let us look at Ricochet Robots, which I feel pretty safe saying is one of the classics of the genre.

Ricochet Robots is a speed puzzle game. One of those games where there are no turns. People just compete to solve the puzzle on the board the fastest.

You create a board out of four double-sided pieces. The boards both have both the goals on them and righty of different walls. It's not an actual maze but there are still enough walls to give the robots plenty of things to bounce off of.

There are four different colored robots, in the form of sturdy plastic pawns, that you randomly put on the board. Each turn, the goal is randomly drawn and players compete to find the shortest number of moods to make the robot that matches the color reach the goal.

Each move is moving any given robot. They move in a straight line, never a diagonal one, until they hit a wall or the side of the board for another robot. That ends the move.

So, the game doesn't come with built in perfect solutions. Depending on the position of the robots in the gold it's chosen, different solutions will be available.

Ricochet robots was designed by Alex Randolph, who was one of the earliest designers for modern game designs. He also gave us Ghosts and Twixt, among other games. He was friends with said Saxon and I have heard that the two of them help organize the freelancers who designed 3M's game line. (They had a network of game designing friends)

I have also read that ricochet robots was a extensive redesign of one of his earlier games, Moonstar. Now, I have played Moonstar and so I can see the resemblance. At the same time, if he did redesign Moonstar into ricochet robots, is a serious improvement on almost every level. It's both much more intuitive and much more flexible.

But I really have to admit that I admire Ricochet Robots more than I enjoy it. It is a brilliant design, combining both a speed game with a very thought-provoking system of puzzles. It is like a party game met a brain building exercise.

But it isn't the kind of game I normally go for. I do think is one of the best of its kind but it rarely saw play and not everyone enjoyed it. So it ended up getting purged from my collection.

More recently, I discovered that Russ Williams (Hi Russ!) had made a Looney Pyramid variation on Ricochet Robots. All you needed was three monochrome stashes and a chessboard. Well, I keep a chessboard bandana in my Looney Pyramid tool kit so it took me two minutes to set up a game.

If you already know how to play Ricochet Robots, Ricochet Pyramids is beyond easy to learn. Put the chessboard down where everyone can see it. Randomly placed a small pyramid in each color as the robots. Randomly place nine towers made out of a big pyramid and a medium pyramid (one for every color combination with three colors) to serve as goals and terrain. With the remaining pyramids from the three stashes, draw one of each size to determine which robot has to reach which tower.

The real question is, does it feel anything like playing Ricochet Robots? The answer is it feels almost exactly like that.

The most significant difference, at least for me is that Ricochet Pyramids is played on an 8 x 8 board while memory serves me that Ricochet Robots is on a 16 x 16 board. The smaller board creates a more tighter environment.

That being said, you could easily make the board bigger, even putting for checkerboards together if you felt like it. You could also add more colors in more robots and towers without changing any of the rules.

In all honesty, at least for me, the biggest question is would it be harder to get people to play this than Ricochet Robots? Let's be honest, homemade games don't have the same chrome appeal as fully manufactured games.

But, the pyramids are awfully nice looking and chessboards can be as nice as you want them to. Really, a glass or mirror chessboard with the pyramids and you'd have something really nifty looking going on.

Ricochet Robots is a really fascinating design. However, it was not a game that I enjoyed for many of my friends enjoyed enough to keep. But, thanks to Russ, I can still experience it when I feel like it. Shucks, I probably will playing Ricochet Pyramids more than I would play Ricochet Robots.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Sat Jan 28, 2017 2:57 am
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Ricochet - not a great game but I've held onto it

Lowell Kempf
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Ricochet or Leonardo or Picus isn't a particularly good game. However, it fits enough niches that it has stayed in my collection.

I first came across it as Ricochet so that's what I'm going to call it, although I have also played the Leonardo version as well. Frankly, the pinball theme of Ricochet probably fits it best but the theme doesn't really matter.

Regardless of its theme, Ricochet is a real time, turn-less puzzle game. Which means everyone is trying to solve the puzzle at the same time. There are other games out there that do the exact same thing, like Ricochet Robots or Set or Spot It.

The whole thing is just a deck of cards, which is why it's still in my collection. Each card, in the pinball version, shows four pinball bumpers, along with a pinball. The bumpers are red, blue, yellow and green (and contrast well enough my color blind eyes can tell them apart) and have numbers on them. The pinball is either big or small in one of the four colors.

Here's the game. Lay down five cards in a cross formation. The starting point is the center card. The color and the size of the pinball will tell you the next card in the sequence. The color tells you what bumper to look at and the size tells you if you are looking for the largest or smallest number. You then look at that card's pinball for to figure out the next card.

Every card can only be used once in a sequence and turn. There are no duplicate numbers so any given layout can have only one sequence. Whoever figures out what the last card in the sequence is wins that turn.

As I mentioned earlier, there other games that same trick of being puzzles that everyone is trying to figure out the same time. And, quite frankly, many of the ones that I have played have been better. Ricochet Robots offers up some very fascinating puzzles. Spot It is an ingenious design as well as a crowd pleaser. Jungle Speed is a raucous party. (Set, by the way, is very unfriendly to my color blind eyes and so I cannot physically put it.)

Still, it's stuck around on the shelf.

Well, the fact that it's just a deck of cards and takes up almost no storage space goes a long way to why It's still here. Ricochet Robots is a better game but a much bigger box so it ended up being purged. (There is a Looney Pyramids variation I've been meaning to try, though)

Games like Ricochet have an unusual learning curve compared to most board games. They reward reaction time and pattern recognition. And the only way to get better is raw practice. So different skill levels tend to be pretty significant. People who are better will constantly beat weaker players.

You can say that about any game. But lost a game of Go to a stronger player often teaches you something. Losing a game of Ricochet or other games like it is just practice. When they have a twist like Jungle Speed or Spot It, it adds that extra bit of fun. Still, I don't tend to play games like this. (Sorry, Ricochet Robots)

Most of the time Ricochet has come out, it has been as something for folks to do in other games with player elimination. It works well for that sort of thing, particularly since it is so relatively simple, even compared to other speed puzzles.

And, when the toddler is just a little bit older, it might be the quiet thoughtful activity to keep them occupied at restaurants or waiting rooms or the like. Make him think without getting him too excited. It might end up seeing some decent play then.
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Thu Jan 26, 2017 5:22 am
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Resolving not to buy any games in 2017

Lowell Kempf
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I think this is the year that I am finally going to make the New Year's resolution not to buy any new games.

Honestly, even after making some heavy purges, I not only have plenty of games. I also have games that I still have never played. This isn't swearing off gaming or having shelves that are sad and empty and gathering dust. I have more than enough games to play.

Of course, with every such resolution, there has to come clauses. Exceptions. Things that don't count. The honest Mister I'm not cheating.

One, Kickstarter. Let's get the white elephant in the room acknowledged. Kickstarter is not going to count in this resolution. Either for things that I am going to receive or pay for in 2017. However, I do try to keep a strict Kickstarter budget and I am planning on cutting it this year.

Two, games for our three-year-old. Not that I'm expecting us to go crazy but those don't count. That falls under parenting, not being a gamer. And, no, thinking that maybe my three-year-old would really like Scythe is breaking the rules.

Three, buying used games with store credit. Hey, some of those purged games did turn into a store credit. Frankly, I don't have a history of doing this but it's going to be an exception. Store credit usually turns into things like stuff for the toddler.

Four, print and play. If I am making it myself, it doesn't count.

Last year, I gave myself a limit of six new games in 2016. I only ended up buying two, although one of them, Machi Koro, prove to be a great game for us.

I think I can do it.
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Sat Jan 21, 2017 3:39 pm
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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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