Tag Archives: gaming

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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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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Winter Games: Passing time with kids, but without pixels

Board games are good for the brain, obviously, but they’re good for the soul too. They draw people together, create friendly competition, ask for your attention, and reward you for your focus.

We game in our household year-round, but the snowed-in season has brought a flurry of opportunities to gather at the kitchen table with TVs off. But not just for any old game: Not all board games are created equal.

Games of pure chance are time-fillers on par with flipping coins. I know kids love Sorry and Trouble. I know this. But who cares how many die rolls it takes to get around a board?

The Sorrys and Troubles and UNO Deluxe Spin Ultimates of the world constitute a vast swath of the Target game aisle. That place saddens my heart every time I walk past it, expecting something magic to pop out, and getting instead a weary mix of played-out classics (original Monopoly is really not that fun; it gets no better when rebranded with puppies or sports teams) and classless junk made of cheap plastic and cardboard (with names like “Don’t Wake the Schoolmarm!” and “French Fry Frenzy!”)

Uninspiring.

As a wee Drew, I loved me some Mousetrap. I would set that contraption game up by myself and play rat catcher all afternoon. But today, oy. The only thing worse than the cover art on the modern version is its flimsy … flimsiness … that permeates the air when you open the box. This one doesn’t feel satisfying to snap together, and it fell apart in our hands shortly after opening. (Little cardboard chits of cheese are still floating around my house years later. What were those things for? Who knows.) None of us fell in love with the plasticrap in that box.

Thus, behold me now: an unabashed Game Snob. I look for games that ask for more noodling; for premises that tickle the fancy; for tasks that appear simple but are deceivingly layered; and even for parts of satisfying quality. There’s nothing that feels so good as a solid wood gamepiece in the hand as it is slammed onto the table as an act of final triumph over your opponents.

Here then is the hit parade, the games we’ve been getting out with regularity this season. These are the ones we can play as a family, but children are not required to be present before busting one of them out. (If you can find them. You’ll need to go further afield than dear old Target. But oh, it is worth it.)

Ticket to Ride (by Days of Wonder)

A modern Colossus of games in my opinion. Simple rules, object-oriented play, decisions to be made, gambits to be gambled upon. Even the 6-year-old (above) could understand gameplay, though he is more comfortable paired with an adult.

In Ticket to Ride, players connect cities by building their own railways. The mechanic is straightforward: Match cards in your hand with colored spaces on the board to claim a route. Need to connect Denver and Duluth? That’s six orange spaces; you’ll need six orange cards. From this simple gameplay opens up a rich (but not *too* rich) series of decisions to make about when and how to connect your given destination cities while blocking (or avoid getting blocked by) your opponent. Great replay value.

Portobello Market (by Playroom Entertainment)

Looks like Ticket to Ride, plays totally differently. Portobello Market requires a leap of abstraction. Your job is to place “stalls” in the famous London flea market, then score points by attracting rich customers to your lane. Your available choices of what to do next are small: Place another stall? Invite a customer over? But the variety provided therein makes for a wealth of decisions — or at least just enough decisions to keep an adult (or an 9-year-old) from going mad with “analysis paralysis.” It looks more complicated than it is, and it only lasts 30 minutes or so when you get the hang of it. Just right.

Risk (plus the variants 2210 A.D. and Godstorm, all by Hasbro)

Classic Risk gets good play at our house. Over at Board Game Geek, where real Game Snobs make me look like Peter Populist, a great debate rages over whether classic Risk is a truly great strategy game or a predictable relic from the era of the Game of Life. I say it is an addictive gateway to more modern fare, and a welcome way to spend time … every now and again. Risk spawned a number of heavily themed variants like the post-apocalyptic 2210 (above), and the ancient-mythological Godstorm, both of which we enjoy greatly. (We also own the Lord of the Rings version, but found it wanting.) These variant games have real drawbacks: The rules are dense and easy to get wrong, and the number of variables gets overwhelming at times. The addition of “power cards” adds a great deal more reading to perform special attacks or defensive maneuvers, which makes this more age-prohibitive than other games. (It’s one thing to be able to read, it’s another thing to decipher gamerspeak.) As a result, these are good indulgences that fill you up when you crave them. Just not too often.

Heroscape (by Hasbro)

Constructable battlefields? Classic heroes in miniature? Comics-accurate superpowers reduced to simple mechanics? Check, check, check. I’m in! Like many tabletop miniatures games, each of your unique troopers has special powers that can be activated by die rolls to damage their opponents. What makes Heroscape special is a versatile tile system that can form as many battle maps as you can imagine; an innovative die-rolling system that’s fun to reconcile; the ability to run special scenarios, so it’s not always fight-to-the-death; and, ahem, the Marvel license. (There are scads of other generic Heroscape minis you can recruit — Vikings, Knights Templar, vampires, robots — but make mine Marvel. DC, where are you?)

13 Dead End Drive (by Milton Bradley)

Sometimes you just want a game board with 3D pieces that replicate a mansion populated with characters you’re trying to kill. The appeal here is the goofy factor of triggering the chandelier trap to fall on unsuspecting game pieces, or tipping the suit of armor onto their heads. There’s some simple strategy involving which characters you should move closer to their dooms and which characters you can maneuver to safety to claim a dead widow’s inheritance. Just enough decision-making to cause a 5-year-old to pause in contemplation, coupled with just enough silly backstabbing to make that contemplation worth it.

Sherlock (by Playroom Entertainment)

Put away that boring box of Memory cards. No one wants to set up that mass of tiles anyway – and there’s always one of the pairs that’s half missing. Where’s the other hot dog? Why do we have only one tennis shoe? Bah, make room for Sherlock, the easy-to-digest memory game with a kinetic kick. In a circle of eight face-down cards, players must recall what objects are on the hidden cards. When you guess one right, the top of each card gives you a direction (left or right) and a number of spaces to move the “Sherlock” character. This system automatically tells you which card to recall next. When Sherlock lands on a face-up card, you keep it, and replace it in the circle with a new object card. This makes the game renewable — it can last as long as you can stand. Plus it’s is WAY easier to clean up and set up. My daughter has been awesome at this since she was 4.

Catch-a-Match (by Playroom Entertainment … again!)

Can you find the one matching pair? (Mouse over for the answer.)

A simple deck of cards that can go anywhere, including doctor’s offices, restaurants and the lines at Disney World. On each of the 15 cards, there are 15 differently colored objects. On any two pair of cards, only one set of those objects will match exactly. Find it first, win the round. I don’t know how it works, it just does. Try it yourself. What object — and only one object — on the two cards above is exactly the same? (Harder than it looks, right?)

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Game on! The nerdy, brainy fun of Sporcle.com

I’ve wandered into an addictive site of timed quizzes that flex your recall of trivia and facts you should know. I’ll type up this post right after I finish one more game at Sporcle. Yeah, hang on just a minute …

Aw, whattya mean I can’t name all the lyrics for the Flintstones theme song? (22 of 25 correct)

Courtesy of his feet? The 50s were so weird.States with only one U.S. representative — that’ll be easy. 5 of 7? Aw, come on, Connecticut! I wasted all those valuable seconds typing your name correctly — where were you?

Booyah! 7 of 7 on the original Justice League members. Don’t come around here with that junk, Aquaman!

Oh, Sporcle you temptress. Your ever-ticking timer and eclectic, user-generated trivia contests pit me against my brain. (How could I forget Chico as one of the four Marx Brothers? Mickey Dolenz — d’oh! Bah, I never would have recalled that “Go ahead, make my day,” came from “Sudden Impact.” Seriously, when a line from your movie is more memorable than your movie, you’ve got a problem.)

Anyway, if you think you can bring the pain — and can top my fearsome 56 of 63 on the Simpsons Characters quiz — visit Sporcle and leave it all on the field.

It's a pretty cheap shot to slip Cletus's girlfriend in there; but Crazy Cat Lady, YOU CANNOT HIDE FROM ME.

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