Tag Archives: games

Rejection Week: Trains to (literally) nowhere

Next up in my week of failure: My non-starter career as a map designer.

So, I like me some board games. A big welcome one in my house is Ticket to Ride, which is fun for people who are not big-time gamers (like most of the people I know, am related to, and live with).

TtR, as the cool kids call it, is a “route building” game, where players collect matching sets of cards to claim lengths of train track, thus connecting cities on a U.S. map and earning points. It’s a popular and influential game in the industry; it’s easy to play, with just enough decision making that it’s one of the pillars of the modern gaming era for the way it widened the appeal of board games to more and more casual players. It has spawned variants with European and Switzerland maps, so clearly it has a broad reach. My family likes this one, and I was content to play it and nothing more.

First edition map courtesy BoardGameGeek.com

And then its publisher, a company called Days of Wonder, announced an open contest to create a map. The winner would get his custom map included in a planned map set, as well as a cool 10 grand in his pocket. Even without the money, I’m pretty sure this was going to be a hotly contested contest, because gamers are people with big ideas, and there’s not a one of us who doesn’t think he can draw up an awesome map for a game like this.

And so I did. I took it seriously. I daydreamed, I doodled, I output, I playtested. As I told my wife: “I don’t have a reasonable expectation of winning; but I have a reasonable expectation of being considered.” I entered the contest in April of this year … and I never heard so much as a toot-toot again. If my entry ever achieved the status of considered, it’s cold comfort now.

But you guys, it was gonna be so cool! First I considered the setting: What’s the kind of unique and exotic place one would want to see if you wanted a new Ticket to Ride experience? Historical settings came to mind, like the Old West or maybe the famous roads of ancient Rome. Then I hit upon an idea that I thought was gold (and which I now have assumed everyone else had, too): set the map in a fictional place!

As fun as it would be to imagine Frodo hopping the 3:10 to Mordor in Middle Earth, there remains the little problem of copyright. Which means sticking to fictional works in the public domain. Which covers many (but not all) books before 1923. What realm in those old books is rich enough to support a map of train-linked  locations? Maybe the Oz books by Frank L. Baum … but then I reasoned, why choose just one location? Why not link all of the famous cities of literature in a mythical mishmash? That sounded like fun.

So I developed Ticket to Ride: Library. Entire genres of books would be divided into “countries” separated by mountains and rivers that required tunnels or ferries to link. To support the library theme, I brainstormed for a wide representation of the kinds of sections you’d find in a library, from obvious fictional realms to historical. For this last one, it felt a bit daft to link imaginary lands with real ones, but I settled on historical locations that exuded a bookish quality, from lost cities we can explore only in books (Pompeii and Roanoke Colony) to places best identified with legends and tales (Nottingham and Man in the Iron Mask‘s Chateau d’If).

I spent a full day in the library consulting the Dictionary of Imaginary Places. A great read even when you’re not designing a game.

A fat list of cities in hand, I sat down with some pencils and sketched something out. I used the same distribution of track colors and lengths as the original U.S. map, just to ensure I was starting from a place of balance. Here’s what I came up with.

So I put it to the computer. Using my hack-y Adobe Illustrator skills, I began to plot out this mix-and-match world. I quickly discovered that starting with a gridless sheet of paper was the biggest fiction of all, as I had given myself absolutely no quality control over fitting these pieces and parts together. Many things had to change on the fly, all while maintaining a playable balance of route lengths and colors.

When I was ready, I had Kinko’s output this map on 30 x 20 poster paper. Now we were working with a map at 100% of size, and it was time to playtest.

Handmade destination cards, with bitty maps so you can find what you need to connect. There's somethng diabolical about linking Mr. Toad and Dr. Moreau.

After dutiful testing, I recognized there were some rough patches. Some areas of the maps had too many long routes, and there weren’t enough short routes or “work arounds” for blockades by other players. I went back and played with it some more. Here’s where I ended before finally determining this map was not going to get called up to the big leagues:

Note how you need to build tunnels to places like Atlantis and King Solomon's Mines; meanwhile the differences between some genres are so steep (Juvenile and History, for instance), they are divided by mountains that must be tunneled through. Tunnel rules are borrowed from the Ticket to Ride: Europe.

By now, I renamed the game Ticket to Ride: Athenaeum, because I wanted to make it feel a bit more like a game, a little more playful. Athenaeum connotes an entire temple of learning (yet doesn’t sound quite so dry as that). I envisioned a game supplement that would act as a primer for the place-name origins, some of which are kind of obscure. (Did you know the “Cold Lairs,” are where the monkeys took the kidnapped Mowgli in The Jungle Book? What a sad-sounding place for such a primo Louis Prima tune.)

Here’s how I described it in the official entry (click to make readable):

I even suggested this game could licensed to a bookseller like Powell’s or B&N. “Consider the possibilities,” I wrote, “of TtR: Tattered Cover, or even TtR: Audible!”

According to contest rules, my entry had to fly forth without the actual map. If I could sell it on the entry form, they’d ask to see the rest. So to ensure it got opened and regarded, I gave it a snazzy jacket to grab the intern’s attention as he plodded through the buckets of mail:

Note the "Read or Die" tattoo design from the novelty book "The Illustrated Librarian: 12 Temporary Tattoos for Librarians and Booklovers" from Accoutrements.

The gaming masses may never be able to play my version, but at least I have my own little home grown kit I can make my children play any time I want. “All aboard, kids! Daddy’s got to make use of his investment of the time and money that went into his failed game design!”

Follow ‘Em All!
Rejection Week Day One
Rejection Week Day Two
(Rejection Week Day Three)
Rejection Week Day Four
Rejection Week Day Five

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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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Forbidden Island: The game everyone everywhere must own. Now.

Run, run, RUN to your Barnes and Noble at once and buy the too-good-to-be-true game Forbidden Island before somebody wakes up and realizes what they’ve done.

There is no reason not to buy this game. Here are some major arguments for getting off your couch now and springing into action:

  1. It’s fun. Well duh. No game worth my recommendation would be anything else. More on this in a moment.
  2. It’s cheap. Fifteen bucks. $15. For a game with this many pretty, pretty components, a less-than-30 price tag is unheard of. Outrageous. It’s worthy of full-on, used-car-commercial promotion: “Low low low prices! How do we do it? I don’t know — it’s just crazy! No wonder they call me Crazy Vinnie!” From the sturdy cardboard cards to the amazing art to the miniatures of priceless artifacts, it’s just astounding how many awesome goodies made it into this tin.

    Go down the contents list: Four fancy "artifact" playing pieces, beautiful and sturdy cardboard tiles, wooden pawns, scads of cards and a nifty sliding-counter tool that measures rising flood waters. Oh, and joy -- that just doesn't show up on film.

  3. It’s easy to find. Every now and again Target surprises me by adding an unusual or hard-to-find game of quality to its wares, but that feels rarer and rarer these days as it descends into a soulless purgatory of Whack-a-Mole rip-offs and creaky Monopoly reskins. Usually, a game of this caliber would have to come from a specialty game store, which are hard enough to find as it is. But Barnes and Noble seems to have put the pedal to the metal on fine gaming recently. Their revamped Games section also carry such gamer’s games as Agricola, Dominion, and Settlers of Catan (about time this stealthy juggernaut reached the shores of mainstream stores).
  4. It’s co-operative. So many games pit me versus you, and that’s fine. But it’s a real gem to find a game that lets everybody in the family work together to defeat the game itself. We dither and dicker and barter about who will do what as tension mounts and the game races to defeat us. This means all ages can play, from my 6 to my 10 to us adults. A rare bird.
  5. It’s easy to learn and quick to play. For some people, those two criteria are deal breakers if unmet, and I’m happy to put to ease the minds of those reluctant gamers who look at rows of pretty components and have visions of a 12-hour Risk marathon. This is nothing of the sort. The rulebook is particularly well-written for getting a game up and running on the fly.

These are reasons enough to buy it. You have my permission to stop reading if you, as I assume, are so filled with the Gaming Spirit you must leap to your feet and flee to B&N. If your knees are a bit sore, or you need to finish your morning coffee, I give you leave to take another minute to contemplate the beauty of the gameplay.

You and your team of explorers have touched down on a mysterious island on the hunt for artifacts from an ancient civilization. But the moment you touch down, an ancient curse causes the island to begin sinking. Can you find the four artifacts and escape on the helicopter before the island swallows you all? Can you?

Early in the game, and already we're missing chunks of island.

The actions you can take on each turn are simple: Move. Give a card to another player. Claim an artifact. “Shore up” one of the island pieces (when a tile begins to sink, you flip it over to reveal a washed-out image; this means that a tile is starting to sink. But you can still keep it from sliding into the abyss, if you are swift!).

After your movements you draw cards that help you collect treasure — but which also might trigger the dreaded “Water Levels Rise” action, wherein the island sinks even further.

Later still in the game, and it's starting to feel a little moist around our ankles.

My kids actually shake with anticipation at this point, as the island creeps closer and closer to swamping us. As we scour the island for treasure cards, we shore up crucial pieces of land to keep them from disappearing. The game can beat you two ways: if the right kind of tiles disappear (the tiles where you can claim an artifact), or if the helicopter pad sinks. As these two types of tiles become imperiled, everyone begins to get antsy.

“We’ve got to save the Temple of the Moon!”

“But I need to give you my treasure card so you can claim the chalice!”

“I know, but the waters are due to rise, and if we lose the temple, the game is over!”

“Maybe we can give the chalice cards to someone else so they can claim it before your turn!”

“No time, I’ll never make it over there! We’ve got to take our chances that the Palace of Tides won’t sink before my turn.”

“Gahhh!”

And so on. But when you win — and it’s been about 50-50 so far when we play — the table breathes a sigh of relief as you board the helicopter with your salvaged booty and take flight.

For $15? That’s more than a great purchase. It’s a required purchase. I require you. Go. Now.

Oldest Boy celebrates our victory by re-enacting our helicopter escape from the island. Note the three upside-down tiles in front of the pink-robed girl, representing the last soggy patches of land on the isle; this one was a nail biter.

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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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