Tag Archives: Dungeons & Dragons

I’m glad ‘Community’ is back in all its glory; now may that glory not kill them

Like a loud drunk at a wedding, "Community" amuses some guests, while grating on others and embarrassing the bride's mother.

“Community” is back on the air and you can count me glad. It’s the only show on TV I care to follow, and when I miss it (which is always) I catch it the next day on Hulu over lunch. When it went on hiatus in December, I wasn’t the only fan who worried NBC was trying to diffuse fan outrage over a pending cancellation, hoping we would become mollified by some other show and forget to launch our blistering letter-writing campaign.

The show has big cult following, but not a big marketable following, and the fans know it. “Community” isn’t for everybody. It’s the funniest thing on TV for my money, but let’s face it, my money’s not always good in this town. The show has two big strikes against it that make it hard for a wider audience to warm up: “Community” is weird and it’s cynical.

Weird shouldn’t be a problem.

“The Office” and “Parks & Recreation” and “30 Rock” are weird too. Tracy Jordan having a drug reaction, clinging to the ceiling of his dressing room, “bugging out” about little blue dudes and shouting out for “Doctor Spaceman” – that’s pretty out there. Then again, having two characters who convert a bedroom in their apartment to a Holodeck-like “Dreamatorium” where they can indulge their deep fantasy role-playing sorts of trumps it all. (Wider audiences failing to embrace this extreme penchant for oddity may be why, at the beginning of Season 3,” the “Community” cast pledged to “have more fun and be less weird than the first two years combined.” Of course, they pledged this as part of a Broadway song-and-dance dream sequence, so maybe they were being a little disingenuous.) Still, shows like “30 Rock” and the others mitigate their insane B plots with sweet, likable characters who can ground the audience in relatively-less-insane A plots.

Which is where cynical comes in.

Here, “cynical” is just a big umbrella word I’m using to wrap up all the deliberately thorny elements that distance viewers from this show and keep them from buying in to the long-term storyline of the characters.

Those likable characters from Dunder Mifflin and Rockefeller Plaza? They’re in short supply at Greendale Community College. (Individual characters are likeable, but “Community” makes sure we never feel sentimental about them for long. Everybody is flawed and occasionally ugly. “Community” writers make sure we remember that.)

Sweetness? It’s more an undercurrent of meanness that pervades this show. (Characters are dicks to each other – so much so, in fact, they occasionally call each other “dick.”)

Often the whole ensemble is at odds with one another and will end the entire show a fair distance short of a group-hugging make-up that gets us back to the cheery status quo. The status quo at Greendale is, indeed, that usually these characters are annoyed with one another.

I know precious little about improv comedy…

…but I know that one of the precepts is that you never improvise a disagreement or an argument that tears your fellow players down. You build them up. You never say, “No, you’re wrong,” you say, “Yes, and…” You build on one another. But “Community” is often an exercise in tearing others down.

To many, that’s the show’s strength. Some fans prefer that the show abandons treacle and contrived sitcom conventions to do something truly daring. It dares to make characters unlikable, racist, dumb, possessive, manipulative, intolerant and egomaniacal. Usually, audiences like shows where lead characters who skewer these traits in others; in “Community,” the characters are skewering these traits in each other.

When the show debuted in 2009, I wrote about my enthusiasm with glee, but I cautioned the main character, Jeff Winger, “seems to be an irredeemable cad. Cads can be a hoot, but he’ll need to be sympathetic before long if he’s going to be a cad in the spotlight.” At times, it seems Winger did grow. One of my favorite sequences in the first season is when he finally relents to become Spanish class partners with Pierce, the boorish old blowhard played by Chevy Chase. Winger doesn’t want to get sucked into Pierce’s weird event horizon, but to heal hurt feelings, Jeff finally lets Pierce dictate their elaborate presentation for tyrannical Spanish professor Senor Chang. Shown in a wordless montage, the presentation involves silly dances, tiny sombreros, dramatic gesturing and fistfuls of sparklers.

 

When it’s over, the two stand stock still, panting, under the scrutinizing gaze of Chang. Finally the professor nods as if he has at last given begrudging admiration for such a ballsy and ambitious delivery. Similar situations in movies and TV have taught us what to expect next. We expect him to say, “OK. That took guts. An A for the both of you.” But:

CHANG: “F … and F minus.”

PIERCE: “Did you say S?”

That’s comedy. That’s fresh and unexpected and it piles ridiculousness on top of ridiculousness. “Did you say S?” That kills me.

So there’s evidence of Winger growing. But most of the time the show shelves this, and he and others go back to being snarky and mean to each other again. Which I guess is just like life, you know?

Depth is rare – but there

The thing is, “Community” is chock full of tender moments that mean something. Two Christmases ago, the Rainman-like Abed had a seasonal meltdown that resulted in him seeing everything in a Rankin/Bass stop-motion winter wonderland. The group played along with his delusion to get him to the bottom of his depression (albeit in their own snarky and sarcastic ways). The episode explored how small traditions can resonate more powerfully than the big, gaudy, bedecked traditions that Christmas seems to be about. In a way, it’s the most trenchant commentary on the holiday season since Charlie Brown and his crappy little tree.

Professor Duncan encourages Abed to visit the Cave of Frozen Memories to sort out this crazy Christmas delusion, but Abed is having none of it.

The episode before that, Troy the naïve jock-nerd turned 21 and the gang took him to celebrate “growing up” with his first trip to a bar. But alcohol turned everyone ugly, and Troy realized that growing up meant un-fun stuff like being responsible and driving your incoherent friends home. Amazingly incisive character exploration, all of it.

Hair in your soup

But then there was the much-ballyhooed Dungeons & Dragons episode of last season. As you may be aware, I’m a bit of an enthusiast for D&D, both as a game and as a cultural roadhouse where so many generations and demographics have stopped in for a drink, even a metaphorically tortured one. I had heard that “Community” was embracing a D&D themed episode, and the early buzz was that it was a love letter to the nostalgia of role playing and dice rolling. It started quite promisingly, as the study group tries to buck up the spirits of a seemingly suicidal fellow student by feigning interest in his favorite hobby: D&D. They put on brave faces and try out their first game with their friend, Fat Neil.

Pierce reads ahead in the module. There is no greater sin in a game about storytelling.

So far so good. But Pierce, who creator Dan Harmon once called “the Daffy Duck of the group,” just had to become the antagonist. Often Pierce is the source of derision in the show, and he regularly says and does dumb and detestable things. But in this episode, he takes it to a new level as a D&D villain, both in-game and in-show. He takes umbrage that the group did not invite him to play the game with Neil, and he goes on an episode-long tear replete with such dialog as:

“First of all, gay. Second of all, stupid. And thirdly, why was this a secret? Are you cutting me out of the group?”

“You remembered to let fatty sit in my chair. Get out! You’re stretching it.”

“I’m 66, dick.”

(upon taking Neil’s prize possession in-game) “Maybe I’ll wipe my ass with it. That’s what you get for taking my chair, fatty.”

A lot of people loved this episode. I was so disappointed. I had wanted to share it with others, possibly others who are married to me, and say, “Hey, look at D&D through this very funny lens and see why people like me aren’t totally stupid for getting a kick out of it.” Instead, it was as mean-spirited and nasty as a dracolich with an ochre jelly in his phylactery. (That joke would kill at D&D session.) It wasn’t that the writers did any kind of disservice to role-playing games. In fact, they gave D&D a fair shake, getting legitimate laughs with the tropes, not at them. Instead “Community” did a disservice to its characters and now I don’t recommend that episode to anyone.

But whenever I get down about these characters, they say or do something surprising that reminds me why I tune in. Like “Remedial Chaos Theory,” which re-imagines a story six ways based on which character must go to the door to fetch the pizza delivery. Or “Basic Rocket Science,” in which the gang is trapped in a KFC-sponsored space flight simulator. Or “Modern Warfare,” one the greatest-ever sitcom episodes ever about paintball … and possibly one of the greatest-ever episodes of TV comedy anywhere, anywhen.

Or even just a snippet of awesome banter, like this from last week’s back-from-hiatus episode:

BRITTA: Weddings are like a little girl’s tea parties, except the women are the stuffed animals, the men are making them talk, and they aren’t drinking tea. They’re drinking antiquated gender roles.

JEFF: Somebody tell Britta what an analogy is.

BRITTA: I know what it is. It’s like a thought with another thought’s hat on.

See what I mean?

So hooray for being back, “Community.” I await more laughs of this caliber and beyond. May I just request that your writers familiarize themselves with Wheaton’s Law?

You know: Don’t Be a Dick.

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Game Night in America: Are you ready for some boardgame?

We fill the long slog of winter nights with games whenever we can. Those damn nights are so dark so early, and even when the light comes back, this is still Chicago, and that means winter lasts until … well, let me put my head out the door. Yep, until about now.

But games, man, games. We love ’em in this house. They’re fun, they warm the brain, and they give me something to do with kids that doesn’t automatically end in me throttling, yelling or banning desserts from all involved. (Those things might still happen, but games have the potential to delay Daddy’s snap.)

Last Christmas, Santa did his usual augmenting of the game closet, and we’ve had great new games in heavy rotation ever since. Here’s how we spent many a night this past winter, with our clothing-optional game nights before the roaring fire:

To be fair, they put their shirts back on after the resin-rich fatwood burned off. I mean, that stuff is the kindling from HELL.

If you’re at all interested in sharing moments of strategy, tactics, dumb luck and sick laughter with your family (preferably with the preponderance of your clothing on), consider this hit parade:

Pizza Box Football

The official BoardGameGeek entry on this dicefest game says that it’s suited for kids 12 and up, and many reviewers insisted only older kids would enjoy it. But they never met my 8-year-old son. When he daydreams, it’s of all-star baseball match-ups, buzzer-beating jump shots and Hail Mary passes into the end zone.

Pizza Box can intimidate, with pages and pages of laminated charts, and a bag full of dice in many colors and sizes. But once you crack the system, it flows. By the end of our second game, we already memorized some common dice results, and the game blazed by. The defense decides what kind of play it thinks the opponent will choose (run, short pass, or long pass), and chooses one of three colored dice in secret to reflect how it will line up. The offense announces which of those three it will run. Then dice are revealed and rolled. Charts are consulted. Plays unfold.

The charts! They could probably paper a bathroom wall with their pages of contingencies, cross-references and special cases. If I roll poorly on my long pass, I might get a result of “QB Pressure.” Quick, check the QB Pressure chart! Another roll, and you might save the day with a scrambling completion … or just get your sorry ass sacked. Whatever happens, move the down marker and march the peg on the “time clock” another tick closer to the end of the game. Hope you can hold the ball (or wrest it back) with smart decisions and hot dice.

It’s not for everyone, all this rolling and chart-consulting. But my little Butkus and I get a lot of energy from the back and forth slugfest that really does capture the feel of a pigskin brawl. In our second game, with the final “seconds” ticking away on the time track, and the ball on the 13, my son needed a touchdown to win the game. I lined up for the pass, and he surprised me with a run. A bushel load of dice rolled across the table. When all the modifiers were applied and the charts had spoken, he gained 12 yards on the final play of the game. I had stopped him at the 1.

How great is that? We still talk about that game, and how he came back in the rematch to stomp me like a narc at a biker rally. Pizza Box Football is probably a bit dry and abstract to most, but to the sports nut it’s the next best thing to Monday morning quarterbacking.

Enchanted Forest

Usually memory games are a big zippo for me. Who has fun matching pairs of butterflies and hot dogs? But Enchanted Forest makes it fun by adding really nifty plastic trees and wooden pawns that are fun to manipulate. This is the kind of game that my daughter will remember in 30 years, and get all nostalgic and go on eBay and pay too much for it.

This is a simple game. Roll the dice, get to a tree, peek under it, and try to remember the fairy tale image underneath. Meanwhile, there’s a stack of cards over at the king’s castle, and the topmost card informs you which image you’re looking for. Once you peek under the correct tree, you must race over to the castle and declare which tree hides the matching image. There’s some gamesmanship afoot (“Uh-oh, Daddy’s heading for the castle! That last tree he peeked under must be the one!”), and an interesting roll-and-move variant that lets you choose to move backward or forward in any combination of the two dice. Just enough analysis to give little minds something to noodle, and it plays mercifully fast for my waterlogged memory.

Summoner Wars

This smart card game has been in solid rotation since last summer, but Santa saw fit to drop a couple of new decks in Oldest Boy’s stocking. At Christmas, who doesn’t want to find undead hordes lurking by the chimney with care?

The new decks are killer great fun, and they only further my opinion that Summoner Wars is one of the best two-player cards games since Fifty-Two Pickup. Combine miniatures games with “Magic: The Gathering” and throw in the essence of chess, and you’ve got 30 minutes of tense dueling on a table top. What’s so refreshing about this game is that you can get a couple of decks for cheap and enjoy it just fine; and if you want to add some variety, you can stir in a new deck every so often for another 10 bucks. Decks are complete — unlike most collectible card games, there is no “blind buy” or hunt to find a rare amid the common cards  — so the allure of collectibility and customization are there without the expense.

The only problem with this game is that since Christmas morning, I’ve gone 0-8 against the boy. In fact, I played the first 7 games with one of the new decks (a pack of healing humans called “Vanguards”) vowing that I would win with them once before trying a different deck. Then he said, “Dad, I’m gonna play the Vanguards against the army of your choice, and I’m gonna win.” The little snot was right.

This will sting less if Summoner Wars sparks his career as a brilliant military tactician.

Coloretto

Cool and abstract, this set-matching card game came highly recommended from my gaming adviser, BoardGameGeek. Santa thought my daughter would really dig a rainbow-colored pastime — but it was kind of underwhelming to discover that the cards come in an odd palette that included gravel gray, pressboard brown and spray-tan orange. With a stoic chameleon blending into the textured “art school photography class” backgrounds on the cards, “cuddly” and “fun” aren’t words I’d use for this aesthetic.

Gameplay is clever, however. Players draw cards from a deck and lay them down in the set of their choice; over a round everybody will have to claim one of these sets. The idea is to specialize in three colors, while collecting as few extra colors as possible. (These will count against you in the final scoring.) Players have nice, compact little decisions to make about where to put each colored card they draw; they try to put it in sets that either serve themselves, or frustrate their opponents. It isn’t flashy, but with simple mechanics that run just deep enough, this one has been a quiet success.

Zombies!!!

Totally ridiculous and chance-driven, this basically brainless game (yuk yuk — see what I did there?) is still a hoot with the right crowd. And with two boys aged 8 and 11, I always have the right crowd. In Zombies!!!, you’re a guy in a zombie-infested town, and you’ve got to bash your way to the helicopter, one undead obstacle at a time. You’ve got nothing but the bullets in your pocket and the 4s or higher on your six-sided die. It doesn’t get much deeper than that. (Well, maybe it does. Do you dare raid the zombie-filled hardware store to play the coveted “chainsaw” card? If you care about theme, yes, you do.)

Not for every family, as some of the card artwork is pretty gruesome. I just hope my children will tell their therapists some day what an awesome dad I was for screwing them up with fun games like this.

Heroscape: D&D style

My continued admiration for this miniatures wargame continues with this most recent set, a D&D-themed group of sharp-looking trolls, drow elves and shiny sword-bearing heroes. The game has a nice stand-alone feature that replicates the feel of walking through a D&D “dungeon crawl,” but as always, Heroscape is at its most fun when you mix the armies of different sets. If you’ve ever wanted to see Hulk and Spider-Man team up to take down a gnarly black dragon, then Heroscape is your game. The rules are simple enough for my boys to play, but deep enough to warrant some meaningful decision-making each turn.

Lost Pyramid

Note the addition of water glasses to hold down the egdes of the board. It just didn't want to lie flat. A small complaint.

I almost ignored this box at Toys R Us, because it was all alone on a bottom shelf — like a wallflower at a school dance, this game was begging to be treated like a loner. Plus the box artwork was miserably fuzzy. Who produces a boxed board without high-res art?

But the deeply discounted price tag – $7! – made a tempting temptation.

That crazy low price works both ways: Like seeing the box alone on the bottom shelf, a next-to-valueless price seems to project a low self esteem that’s hard to get cozy with. But there was something kind of interesting about the photo of the game board, and heck it was only $7 …

So imagine my surprise when we finally cracked open the game board, and it unfurled like a Robert Sabuda pop-up book. Look at that photo up there — that’s the game board right out of the box. That’s so cool.

The game play is interesting enough that I felt super bad about dismissing this box before I got to know it. It’s a move-around-the-board game, normally a pretty boring concept, but it twists the usual roll-and-move mechanic. Instead of rolling dice, players use cards that have multiple uses – for example, some cards bear both a stated movement value, or instructions for disabling a trap. It’s your choice how you want to use it.

Players must deduce the locations of all the pharaoh’s treasure while avoiding the mummy chasing after them. As they move, they face blocked paths or sliding hallways that can be moved in their favor – or against their enemies – by playing the right card.

Which proves that even though good games can comes in big, beautiful boxes, sometimes the awkward girl in head-wrapping orthodontics and taped up glasses is worth asking to dance.

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An Open Letter to Hasbro Regarding Their Greatest Asset: Ye Olde D&D

Dear Hasbro,

Hey. Hi. You don’t know me at all, but me and you, we go way back. Or me and a part of you, anyway — a division known as Wizards of the Coast, which you bought in 1999, which, in turn, bought my old friend TSR in 1997. What we’re really talking about is a 30-year-old game you now own called Dungeons & Dragons.

Surely you know what I’m talking about, though I’d wager D&D is just a fraction of a fraction of a balance sheet entry to you. Wizards of the Coast is probably more well-known in your boardrooms for its lucrative “Magic: The Gathering” card game franchise. I doubt D&D comes up much in conversation around Hasbro HQ, especially when there are Play-Doh and NERF earnings to recount.

But to me, D&D has meant quite a bit more.

When I was 11 or 12, my parents took us to Pizza Hut (our typical Nice Dinner Out). After we ordered, and before the food came, I requested my usual leave to browse the next-door bookstore. And that’s when I feasted my peepers on this:

What was it? I had no idea. But I knew it would be mine. Those pages! Illustrated with swords and knights and mages and beasties, filled with intricate tables as mesmerizing as they were incomprehensible. I had recently finished “The Hobbit” and was currently halfling-deep in “Lord of the Rings,” so I knew this genre was a toy box full of epic stories to be plumbed. I wanted in.

It was 20 or 30 bucks, something big. I asked my parents immediately for a loan and got laughed out of our Pizza Hut booth. It was a lot of scratch for a middle school kid in 1981.

Somehow I saved enough to plunk down cash for it — this thing was still so mysterious I had no idea it was not the starting point for  a D&D newbie. (That would be the Player’s Handbook. Another classic cover to a classic book. And a second expensive purchase to pinch pennies for.)

It took some time to  really understand the concept of “role-playing game”: Roll dice to generate characters — heroes — who appear in stories of your own telling. Roll dice to generate bands of wandering monsters for these heroes to face. Roll dice to see if their longswords cut through the hides and shields of said monsters. Roll dice to dice to generate random piles of loot that litter the underground lairs of these freshly slain monsters.

Roll dice; tell a story. I don’t know what it is about this magic combination that transfixes us, we hordes of nerds and brainiacs. Like many fledgling geeks my age, I fell in with like-minded friends who debated rules, created more characters than could ever fit in a dungeon, theorized about which of the chromatic dragons would win in a cage match, and, occasionally, actually played the game.

But then high school rolled along. I dropped out of the D&D orbit — dropped the fantasy books, too — as I attempted to leave behind childish things.

Don’t take it personally, Hasbro. I may have broken things off, but D&D was never far from my heart. Despite my new pledge to be More Adult, I continued to sample genre fiction and action movies and increasingly elaborate board games, all kindred souls of our storytelling RPG.

Then something unexpected happened. When you released the third edition of the D&D rules about 10 years ago, a group of my friends caught wind, and they had an idea: What if we rekindled some of the mirth of middle school? What if we came back to D&D?

As pre-mid-life crises go, it was hardly a Ferrari. But it was a youthful hoot nonetheless. I also realized that I never really understood the rules to begin with. “D&D is hard,” I said at the time.

But when properly understood, it is fun, Hasbro. You guys should try it. It’s more than just a set of random rolls and tables, it’s a collaborative event where everybody contributes ideas and solutions and new wrinkles. Want to race across the rooftops to pursue the thief? Let’s do it. Want to convince the goblin chief you mean no harm so you can infiltrate his lair and steal his loot? Go get ‘em. Want to drink too much at the tavern and wager your weight in gold with a one-eyed dwarf over a game of darts? Bring it.

Our wives would tease us by asking things like, “Did you win tonight?” but we laughed back that they were utterly missing the point: everyone wins this game if everyone has a mind to.

Which brings us to the modern age. I don’t know if you knew this back in your Pawtucket campus, Hasbro, (after all, those WOTC offices are a continent away in Seattle), but the current keepers of the D&D brand recently launched the “fourth edition,” as an attempt to renew the brand for younger generations: the “red box” starter set, which looks so much like the boxed sets of yore, it really warms the cockles of an old gamer’s heart.

And here’s me with a 10-year-old son of my own with a penchant for goblins and orcs and other fantastical fictions. So I bought him a copy. At $14 on Amazon, it was impossible not to. When the box arrived, I set it out on the counter, and said, “Oh, hey, here’s this thing. Maybe you’d like it? I dunno.” Within hours, the result was this:

Drawing up his first character. Every scrap of paper from the box has been strewn strategically for easy cross-floor reference.

Hasbro, your designer guys had a kind of genius idea. They made the starter kit look deliciously intricate while reducing the proceedings to something simple. So simple, it reads like a choose-your-own-adventure story, and at the end, you’ve got a stat sheet full of numbers and attack powers and a hook to go on a little quest.

And my son took your bait.

He pored over the book and laid out the map, reading and referencing and asking curious questions. When he had his first character drawn up, an elven thief named Shuk-tai (where did he come up with that?) we sat down and followed the adventure that came with the kit. With me running the monsters and a few companions, an amazing transformation came over him on the first roll.

Do you know that scene in “Jack Jack Attack,” the DVD extra on “The Incredibles,” where young Jack Jack hears Mozart for the first time and his eyes refocus ever so slightly — a moment that awakens all his latent superpowers? That was my son with his first D&D encounter. Gone went his aimless observations and restlessness and lack of focus. In their place was a kid with a singular purpose: a pressing need to, as Samuel Jackson may have put it, get all these mutha%@$# goblins outta this mutha%@$# dungeon. He planned our attacks, dictated not just what his character would do but how (down to hand gestures and full body re-creations), and even offered helpful suggestions for how his opponents were going to act, react, speak and meet their untimely ends. He immediately created a new character for our ranks, a female slayer (a girl? really?) with anger management problems. It turned out that “Arien” likes to provoke her quarry with insults and taunts before pursuing them to their inevitable grisly ends, working out all manner of pent-up tween frustration in the process.

“I like playing Arien,” he told me. “She says all the stuff I’m never allowed to say.”

Here’s a small indication of how engaged my son is with your product, Hasbro. One monster in our inaugural encounters threw an ax at Arien and missed. My son immediately countered with, “Can I catch that and throw it back at him?”

I responded, dumbstruck: “Yes. Yes, you can. If this game is about anything, it is about catching handaxes and throwing them back upon your enemies.” We instantly instituted HOUSE RULE NO. 1: If an enemy attempts to attack with a thrown weapon and rolls a 1 , you are considered to have caught the weapon and can make an immediate thrown attack as a free action.

Later, I taught him the rules for flanking, which grant a bonus on attack rolls when two allies stand with an opponent in between them. (You’ve simplified the rules a lot, Hasbro, but there are still an ever-loving crapload of them.) He could have been bored by all this rule-mongering, but instead my boy had another brainwave: “Could I duck out of the way so the two flanking guys hit each other?” HOUSE RULE NO. 2: If a flanking enemy rolls a 1 on his attack roll, the attack is considered to have hit the guy on the other side.

Later still in our first adventure, we faced a wily dragon that clearly was meant by the writers to be a Thing That Cannot Be Killed — in other words, it was to teach the common D&D lesson that some problems should not be stabbed away, but reasoned with. After learning the hard way that we would not prevail in a fight, we walked (ran) away. He continued to mull over how he could get at that dragon’s fat lewt and soon his muse struck.  As we were beset by yet more foes, my son lowered his weapon and tried to convince them that it was in their best interest to help us defeat that dragon. He argued persuasively, and I granted him bonuses to a few skill rolls — and before long, we had not just a party of four but a party of  eight ganging up on a mighty white dragon that until so recently had been Unkillable and was now just more cuts of exotic meat. (My boy thought to collect the head and carry it with us as a trophy to strike fear in all who would defy us. So far it has worked wonders.)

This is beautiful.

You may not see it that way, Hasbro, except as the beauty of more sales, but to me it’s as pretty as a sunset. My son has discovered his inner storyteller, as well as an aptitude for thinking creatively on his feet. In the real world, he is presented with problems and all too often shuts down rather than solves them, or uses inelegant tools like whining and avoidance to deal with them. In D&D, he is learning the opposite: Problems are conquered, creativity is rewarded, and everything you get must be earned.

We’ve enjoyed our time so much, that he has roped in a few friends, and their dads have been joining us for some afternoons of laughing and slaying. A new generation has heard the call of Dungeons & Dragons and come a-running.

Recently I saw you had introduced another product for the beginner, a set of sturdy cardboard tiles for building a dungeon map on the fly. (At $14, it would be a crime not to invest…) I placed the box on the counter. “Oh, hey, here’s this thing. Maybe you’d like it? I dunno.”

You be the judge:

We have a gamer for life, Hasbro. I render him, and much of his disposable income, unto you now. Reward him well.

Thanks, Hasbro, for all the memories you’ve peddled at me over the years. And for all the ones yet to come.

Sincerely,

Drew “Groggi Greatbeard, dwarven warpriest” Scott

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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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