Monthly Archives: August 2010

More games afoot: My favorite finds from the gaming halls of Gen Con 2010

In my last post, I promised I’d share my favorite finds from the 2010 Gen Con, that classic convention of games, gaming and gamers:

Summoner Wars

I like Magic: The Gathering well enough. Magic is the undisputed heavyweight of the collectible card games; it has a heavy fantasy theme and a high collect-em-all factor. Oldest Son and I will play it from time to time with the cards we’ve scraped together over time, and we generally have fun. But it’s a very daunting game to get going on. There are more cards, card sets, box sets, booster packs and starter kits than the brain can process, and even then you have to build your deck, test your deck, and go buy more cards to fix your deck.

So while I was drawn by the art and gameplay of Summoner Wars, I was not interested in starting another collectible game. So as soon as the volunteer at the Plaid Hat Games booth said, “It’s not a collectible game; you buy two decks and you’re ready to play,” I was in a chair and trying the demo. And loving it.

Summoner Wars borrows the fantasy theme of Magic, but makes the game a tactical chess game with simple rules that get players up and running. It presents the right amount of decision making to churn up your mental output. This is the sweet spot for a gamer dad with young-ish kids; I want them to have ample opportunity to think, but I don’t want to hold their attention all day as I teach them (or go back to consult) rules.

My favorite discovery here is that the cards move around a grid, which gives it a tactile feel, and removes some of the abstractness of “pretend combat with cards.” This places real structure and limits on the kinds of actions you can or can’t do, and that helps beginners get moving fast. (Some game with multiple options can lead to “analysis paralysis,” but Summoner Wars stops juuuust short of being too many decisions at a time.)

Oldest Boy and I were fired up and on the march immediately. Sadly, he got up to speed too fast, and promptly won the first game in a rout:

Here, oldest boy surrounds my dwarves with his goblin horde. Two short races in a very short war.

Plus the cost-to-entry can’t be beat. For $20 I got two decks (Dwarves vs. Goblins). You can add other decks to your set (Orcs, Elves, Undead, etc.) for about $10-15 apiece. When you buy a deck, you know exactly what you’re going to get — there’s no randomness or imbalance between “common” and “rare” cards as there is in Magic.

Plaid Hat Games is a one-man shop, and the founder and chief game designer himself, Colby Dauch, was working his booth at Gen Con and wearing the titular plaid hat. This is the greatest opportunity at a convention like this, to meet a guy who acted on his dream and to chat with him about his creation. This is for sure my best purchase of the con. (You can buy Summon Wars at Amazon, or at the Plaid Hat site.)

Pirate Versus Pirate

I love Out of the Box, the guys who gave us Apples to Apples (the greatest word-association-game-for-large-groups ever). This simple board game from their booth was an instant buy, too. Another chess-like board, but simpler, with plenty of randomnes from dice that make it easy to play with kids, without giving up the value of a planning and forethought.

Roll the bones (the dice really do have skulls and bones on them; see below). Move a pirate. Grab the treasure coins in the middle. Get ’em back to your boat. Very easy. Along the way you can “capture” other players’ pirates (to use the chess parlance; I prefer to say “kill,” because these are pirates after all).

After playing several games with Younger Son, I came home one day last week to find that he had gotten it out and taught it to his grandfather:

Back then, all pirate bands were color-coded.

Knock Down, Drag Out

Completely silly, but every game closet needs at least a few irreverent fillers. This is is just a quick card game for a crowd of people, each playing a character in a barroom brawl. Players throw cards out quickly (Punch, Kick, Haymaker) and roll a die to see if they connect. If you hit somebody enough, they get knocked out, they you can play a Tossed Out card to get a point for the takedown. Other complications (like chair legs and shots of whiskey) increase your damage (or your health).

Game play was a bit repetitive when I tried it with some family members who weren’t so into it at the time, but I think the addition of the aforementioned whiskey would put a little pep back in the momentum.

This is the kind of game that Gen Con was made for: Little indie company with heart and moxie and a $10 product. Sold.

Mountain of Inferno

I want to love this lightly thematic little card game, but the jury is still out. I tried to play it with the kids, and its subtle complexities were beyond the appetite of the squirrels at the table that evening.

Before we tackle its complexity, note its beauty. The whimsical cartoon characters are based on “Journey to the West,” a classic Chinese novel  about a Buddhist monk traveling from China to receive holy scrolls in India. He’s accompanied by four odd disciples, of whom the most famous is the Monkey King, the Jack Sparrow of Chinese mythology. (That’s Monkey on the cover of the box.) All the cards bear characters from the story, such as Pigsy (under the red token), Sandy and Dragon Horse. Aside from a few graphic symbols in the corners, not a word of text disturbs a single card. It’s graceful to behold on a table.

As you can plainly see, Blue is in the y'all-just-got-pwned position.

It’s the gameplay that’s a puzzler. I just can’t quite crack  the strategy behind executing a winning hand. Mountain of Inferno involves a puzzle-like  manipulation of your token around a field of cards (the “mountain”) until it sits at the intersection of a row and a column made of each of the four character cards in the deck. In the image above, the blue player is in the winning position because it sits at such an intersection: There are one each of Monkey, Sandy, Pigsy and Dragon Horse in each row and column where Blue sits. Lucky Blue.

Since I tried to learn this one with a live audience, I’ve tried a solo test round. I like the elegance of the play, which is a very contemplative sort, a bit like tai chi with cards. Plenty of special cards (like the Buffalo Demon King peeking out in the upper right) permit shoving other tokens and disciple cards around the mountain, but this strategy and every other action requires spatial awareness and zen-like inner calm. It’s an intriguing if aloof addition to our game stash.

D&D Delve

I’ve gradually become aware that Gen Con encompasses floors upon floors, and rooms upon rooms, where games are going on 24 hours a day. That’s right, the event catalog for the convention has hourly listings that continue uninterrupted through the night; the pickings may be slim at wee hours, but there are pickings nonetheless.

Among these copious events you’ll find tournaments for particular games, structured demos of new or popular games, and even “delves,” the D&D version of pick-up basketball. Just show up with a friend or two or none, and the volunteers of the Role Playing Games Association will seat you in groups of six at a table with a volunteer game runner, who has a map, some miniatures, and an hour to try and kill your character.

My pack of gaming compadres and I gave this a whirl for the first time this year, and I found it to be a hoot. For a few dollars in “event tickets,” we got a great hour’s entertainment rolling dice in a Dungeons & Dragons game with the wind at our backs. The RPGA runs several tables, each with a different scenario and set of six pre-generated characters. The volunteer dungeon master greets you, introduces the scenario, sets the clock for an hour, and says, “Roll for initiative.” (In D&D speak, that’s the classic utterance that means: “It’s go time.”)

The first time we tried this, we very nearly got through our two allotted encounters in our hour; the second time, we all died. Our DM told us only one party had survived both encounters all week; and brother, we did nothing to change those stats. Not only did all six of us achieve the vaunted status of TPK — total party kill — but I myself was dead inside the first turn. My burly fighter got mauled by a bear and thrown into a pit before my dice had a chance to warm up.

And you know what? I think that was the most fun encounter of all. Because killing pretend fantasy creatures can be almost as fun as getting killed by them … and being feasted upon before your still-living eyes.

There I am on the left, wondering how I can get my stupid character killed *again.*

Things I’m Watching

These are items that caught my eye, but which I didn’t buy. Limited budgets are such a drag.

The Adventurers and the Temple of Chac (Alderac Entertainment Group). Played a fun demo of this, which is essentially “Indiana Jones: The Board Game.” Players move through a complex Mayan temple hunting for relics, just like Indy. The game has loads of fiddly bits, from compacting walls, trap-laden floor tiles, a rickety bridge and even a rolling ball that advances around the board, threatening to crush rushing explorers. The minis are great, too, and even come in a pre-painted pack (for about $20 extra). Lots of rules for all those components, though, so I opted to wait a few years before springing this one on my young adventure-lovers.

Invasion from Outer Space (Flying Frog Productions). We demo’ed the first-born brother of this game, Last Night on Earth, which is a pretty popular zombie apocalypse game. I enjoyed it, but judged the theme — no matter how comical — to be a bit too raw for my household. We really wanted to try Invasion from Outer Space, which posits a Martian invasion of a, get this, circus. That sounds much more on-the-nose for my family’s appetite. Sadly, that game was packed deep with demo’ers, so I’ll look for it next time.

Playbook Football (Bucephalus Games). Had a great demo from an enthusiastic designer. If I had the scratch I would have brought home this beautiful, old-school wooden game. Next year, Bucephalus, I have you on my short list.


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Dice are nice: The growth of gaming as revealed by Gen Con 2010

A few weeks ago I returned from an occasionally annual pilgrimage to the game convention Gen Con, the self-professed “Best Four Days in Gaming.”

I like this kind of hyperbole, and am not inclined to disagree.

Gen Con, held each year in Indianapolis, is a four-color wonderland of dice and decks and divertissements of every nerdi-cultural stripe. In 1968, it was little more than a wargamer’s coffee klatch, but was soon taken over by the 300-lb. gorilla of gaming: Dungeons and Dragons. D&D, the great grandaddy of role-playing games, is still around, still going strong, and while it is still a central pillar of the proceedings, the scope of the Gen Con each year is a far, far bigger thing than it has ever been before.

The convention floor, which is just a fraction of the total real estate devoted to tables and tables and tables of gaming. (Photo by Tim D.)

I love it, and I think I love it a little bit more each time I go. I’m on record as being a pretty big advocate for games, not only as a laugh-filled timekiller but as a way to reconnect with family and friends, and to teach fundamental mental skills to young ones (or buff them up for adults).

My affection for Gen Con itself has taken some time to blossom, though. Gaming used to have a not-entirely-undeserved reputation as the bastion of large, pasty basement-dwellers with bad B.O. That was certainly an impression I got when I visited my first Gen Con in Milwaukee circa 2001. More than once did my nose intake a human scent that can only be described as “ripe.” Odors are a pretty rotten way to make an impression, but a great way to shoot your hobby in the foot.

But look at that image above. The mind boggles. Gaming has gotten so much bigger and more diverse since the days of swine and odors. The crowds are as eclectic as the games and hobbies represented within. It’s a bazaar of nerd culture, a glorious melting pot of people who like using their brains to have fun. My friends are tired of me going on about it, but the hobby really is becoming like comics: a once-marginal pastime seen as mildly toxic to mainstream grown-up types, but which is now enjoyed openly and unironically by a host of humanity. And for good reason. Gaming, like comics, is a fun and rewarding way to spend time, if you take the time to pair yourself with a match that’s right for you.

Let’s be clear about what “gaming” means in the context of this swell of popularity — because no matter how huge this looks, it’s still just a subset of a subset of the global population. This demographic of “gamers” who “game” may suggest all pastimes involving tables, dice and friends, but it’s more specific than that. Like Gen Con, the hobby generally excludes Monopoly, the Game of Life, Jenga and most of the other famous family games of my youth. There are many reasons for this:

* Snobbery. Let’s call a spade a spade. Those big-name games have crossed over into the main mainstream and are no longer cool. Such snobbery is true for fans of indie bands and indie movies, why not for indie games, too? Excluding collectible hobbies like Pokemon or Magic: The Gathering, a game found at Wal-Mart is more than likely going to earn a turned-up nose from a gamer. (Not that gamers wouldn’t mind large retailers selling their favorite games at huge discounts. But those games only appeal to a subset of a subset, remember, and truthfully I think a lot of gamers enjoy the guilty pleasure of geek elitism.) Besides, some of those games already have an insular culture that is so devoted to itself, it doesn’t welcome the outside distraction of more gamers. Take Scrabble, for instance.

* Intellectual rigor. No matter how you slice it, Trouble truly lacks the same mental discipline as, say, a six-hour recreation of the Battle of Smolensk. Risk begins to straddle this gap: approachable enough for a mass audience, while being just on the outer edge of the number of rules and hours the masses are willing to face to play a game. As a result, Risk is sometimes represented on the show floor, if only for nostalgia’s sake; many a gamer would prefer Risk’s super-charged cousin, “Axis & Allies.”

* Tactics. Hard-core gamers favor tactics over luck. Sure, luck (i.e., dice and cards) plays a big part in many gamers’ games, but usually it is balanced in some measure by a player’s planning, turn by turn. (Whereas Monopoly, for example, is 90% about where you land.)

* Strategy. Some games reward forethought as far in advance as the hours and days before you even sit down at the table, from improvements to a D&D character’s power set, drafting the right commanders for your WWII panzer regiment, or making sure Pikachu has an ample supply of support cards to make his ginormous zap attack.

* Story. Not everything at a game convention  weaves a narrative into its gameplay. Often a game is just an abstract series of decisions and lucky breaks that results in a winner — but not always. And what truly great gamers’ games have is an ability to call upon the imagination, and to ask us to invest a little more of ourselves than just a roll of the bones.

I consider myself a gamer because I support all those tenets. (Even, yes, the snobbery one — though not because I want to exclude people. Quite the opposite, I would love it if the rest of the world joined me in my enthusiasm for brainy, time-consuming, chin-stroking games. I just don’t hold out hope for that. Nearly 20% of my fellow countrymen believe our leader is a secret Muslim, despite every verifiable fact to the contrary here in the “Information Age.” So yeah, I’m a little down on how willing we humans are to use the brains God gave us.)

I found a lot to satisfy my gamer requirements at this year’s Gen Con. Next post, I’ll walk through the things I saw and did and bought that make my inner gamer feel like a pair of boxcars.

(If you’re interested in learning more about what makes a gamer tick, visit a community of them at Board Game Geek — be careful, it’s almost impenetrable to a newbie — or sample one of the reviews of gaming guru Tom Vasel, who deconstructs games for a broader audience better than anyone I’ve read.)

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The new hipster sport: Poking fun at other hipsters

I’ve been a fan of the site Unhappy Hipsters for about a year. It’s a  smug little site that pokes fun at people who seem a little smug themselves, but that’s permissible use of the snarky arts. Besides, it’s all pretty gentle.

The premise is that the anonymous authors copy photos from hip architectural magazines, particularly one called Dwell. Then they write whole new captions that lampoon the sometimes austere, frequently inexplicable and often off-putting decor of these most modern of homes:

Unhappy Hipsters isn’t alone; mocking the kooky randomness of haute decor is a new sport thanks to sites like Catalog Living, which imagines the people who live in the rooms featured in catalogs, and explains why they decorate in such idiosyncratic ways. But what I like about Unhappy Hipsters is that sometimes, we readers are invited to give it a try ourselves.

A recent contest in March asked readers to craft captions for a particularly odd picture…

… and each of the selected winners was funnier than the next one.

Sadly my entry did not make the cut, though you tell me, loyal Retort reader, if it had what it took to survive:

The Gundersons believed at first that the satellite TV was necessary to fill the lonely hours of their retirement, but then they noticed Carl had raised the shades again. They canceled their service the next day.

See, I think I took it in a whole new direction, something a little fresh and inventive and … bah, enough defensiveness. A new contest is upon us with a chance to redeem myself. And this time, the current photo…

… brings me right back to my inner unhappy hipster:

EUREKA, CALIF. — Plainclothes detective Valerie Cuthbert questions Hillary “Halfpint” Halliday, the alleged Toilet Paper Tube Killer, at the scene of the most recent TPTK murder. Prosecutors suspected Halliday would crack under the pressure of revisiting the crime scene, but were disappointed at her only scoffed communication: “Even the towels are white?”

Try it yourself before end of day Aug. 9, 2010. Blown the deadline? Post your much-better-than-mine caption here.

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How to make a superhero movie (Hint: It ain’t just punching, but boy it helps.)

I could point out that it’s the Age of the Geek, and that the Nerds have at last achieved the everlasting Revenge that they’ve been lusting for since the mooks at Alpha Beta burned down their house, but I don’t have to.

You’re already a Nerd.

Statistically speaking you are, at least. And if you’re not, if you’re really a Jock, then you’re trying to lie low so you don’t draw attention from the Nerds, which could only get you fired from your job or or your favorite TV show canceled.

I mean, us Nerds, we’re everywhere, right? We’re the mainstream. We’re where culture is at right now. Hollywood goes to Comic Con to beg for our purchasing power. Advertisers and merchandisers know they need to appeal to our sensibilities to or risk their products being passed over by the Dorkish Tastemakers with discretionary income.

But I’m nervous. We could still blow it. And the superhero movie could be our undoing.

See, in 2012, Nerdom is set to explode, really explode all over itself, when two long-anticipated hero movies hit theaters: the third installment of Christopher “Dark Knight” Nolan’s Batman franchise, and “The Avengers,” the summa summarum of a series of Marvel hero flicks that begins with “Iron Man,” continues through Captain America and Thor installments, and ends with a chorus line team-up of costumed characters so epic it can only be entrusted to director Joss “Buffy” Whedon, the godfather of geekpower.

The cast of "The Avengers," assembled for the first time at the 2010 San Diego Comic Con. And the nerdosphere squealed.

Don’t forget a certain 2011 movie dedicated to the least understood Justice Leaguer, Green Lantern, who wears a magic ring that creates indestructible goodies like giant hands and baseball bats and (in one hilarious Silver Age comic moment) enormous radiators. (That last was for absorbing villainous heat rays. Naturally.) This one has Mr. Scarlett Johannson donning CGI spandex:

Ryan Reynolds, reporting for duty in Sector 2814. (That's Earth, duh!)

And I’m nervous about this not only because it could be superhero overkill (it could be) and not only because real-life humans wearing supersuits look silly (they do). I’m worried because pulling off a great hero movie is the exception, not the norm. The goofier these heroes are — namely any Man not named Super, Bat, or Spider — the less likely it is audience are willing to suspend their disbelief, or sustain their tolerance for this costumed tomfoolery.

I mean, moviegoers barely tolerate the ridiculousness of a strongman in blue, yellow and red who no one can recognize when he puts on glasses, but that’s purely because Superman has been anointed in the sacred waters of American legend. He’s an icon now; if he had debuted in the ’60s we’d have laughed him out of his little red boots by now.

So I’m really worried that during the ultimate hero scrum of “Avengers,” the Jocks will look at each other and go:

“You know what? These dudes look really stupid.”

“Yeah. A Norse god? Seriously?”

“Totally. If Captain Yankeedoodle went into a real Marine barracks wearing that outfit they’d beat the spit-and-polish out of him.”

“Oooh! A guy who can shoot arrows real good! I’m glad he’s on the team with the thunder god and the flying iron guy with the laser cannons in his palms.”

And then the spell would be broken. The Age of Nerds would end, and the Jocks would resume casting their Sauron-like aura over the Middle-earth of our souls.

But there’s hope. There’s a way this could all build to greater heights without tearing down our house of Magic: The Gathering cards. I have seen the salvation of superhero storytelling and it is this trailer for DC Universe Online.

DCUOnline is a massively multi-player online game, and whether it’s fun or not is almost irrelevant to me, based on how UNBELIEVABLY AWESOME I DON’T WANT TO OVERHYPE THIS BUT LOOK OUT HERE I GO the trailer looks. What’s important here is that the creators seized my attention with tight, tense superhero action. Not just one superhero, but the whole cast of the Justice League and its stable of archenemies.

There’s punching, swordplay, major ordnance discharging and all manner of magi-cosmic hooha thrown into this 5-minute sequence, and none of it feels out of place or, dare I type this with a straight face, implausible. This is exactly what a balls-out battle between superpowers would look like.

Joss Whedon, and all other big-budget, super-franchise moviemakers out there, please take note of this trailer. Right off the bat, it makes Wonder Woman seem like not the most silly concept for a hero ever. The mechanics of her punching, stabbing, throwing, ripping, and leaping — oh! that leap! — blow out the bulb of her hero thermometer, and then some. This is a Wonder Woman you could watch a whole movie about.

This trailer makes a cosmic-powered ring work on screen by not dwelling on daffy constructs or look-at-me graphics. Instead, Green Lantern uses his glowing green magics to bitchslap badguys — when not getting bitchslapped by them himself.

Then there’s a beautifully choreographed (and comically, deliciously brief) fight between Black Adam and a really, really, really pissed off Man of Steel.

One  reason why this all works is because these are cartoons; put live actors in those suits and you begin to lose an ineffable believability to it all. It’s ironic that cartoonish characters make the scene more plausible, but that’s the magic of comics, and of art in general: Images are abstractions, and abstractions are easier to graft our meanings and our stories onto.

So all I’m really asking is that if we insist on going through with it, that we’re collectively determined to put Ryan Reynolds and Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans in some of the dopiest four-color costumery that 25-cent funnybooks can muster, then please, please, please let the action live up to this trailer.

It’s not enough to build character: Take Brandon Routh of “Superman Returns,” who had gobs of pathos and regret and loneliness and other emotions that went deeper than Spandex … but who didn’t punch anything. Nothing, which is a big deal for a guy like Superman. As we learned from “Iron Man,” first you make us care about an intriguing character. Then you let him hit the hell out of something, and good.

Otherwise your franchise will wilt faster than Aquaman at an Arizona SB 1070 protest rally.

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