23 August 2007

Join me at the carnival!

The blog carnival, that is. For the uninitiated, a blog carnival is almost like an e-zine. A host comes up with a theme, then different bloggers contribute links to posts on their own blogs that fit the theme. It is similar to the link posts that blogger do from time to time, except bloggers send in their own links rather than the host scouring the internet looking for them.

Anyway, Yehuda is hosting a game carnival. Yes, I'm plugging it because I contributed a post, but there are other great posts besides mine. Although I focus on board and card games in my blog, I also play computer games. One of my favorite post in this edition of the game carnival talks about indy adventure games. I loved adventure games back in the 8os; the only reason I don't play them now is because I am too afraid of getting sucked in and neglecting my chores!

There are several other intriguing posts in the carnival that will lead you to new blogs you haven't read yet. The best thing is there will be another one next month!

19 August 2007

Session Report for 19 Aug 2007

PLAYERS: Me, ABM, CJ, Libby, and Josh

We started off with a game of Pounce, as usual. It's our favorite warm-up game. Then Libby bowed out to go to a meeting. That left 4 of us to play Word Thief and Mexican Train. These games were new to CJ and Josh, and ABM and I haven't played them in a while. Thank goodness for the internet, so I could go online and refresh my memory as far as the rules!

--Word Thief is a card-based word game. Each card has a letter, a point value, and a suit. Basically, each player makes a word on her turn. If the word is made of cards that are all the same suit, it is all yours. If it is a mixed-suit word, then another player can steal it to make a new word with it. There are bonus points for using all your cards in one turn and for making words longer than 4 letters.

This game doesn't get great reviews on Board Game Geek. One of the complaints that I saw repeated was that all players could just stick to making protected words and take all the challenge out of the game. That may be true in theory, but my group didn't find it that easy to make protected words. Josh won our game by a big margin, but it was because he racked up bonuses for long words.

--Mexican Train is a domino game. There are many variants so if you want to play it with your friends, make sure that everyone knows the same rules. The basic idea is to get rid of all your tiles, either by matching pips at the end of your own row or the row that another player is building. It is a quick and easy game that is perfect if you want to chat while you play.

Libby came back to collect her husband and we played a couple rounds of Poison before they left. I don't usually get to play games with adults 2 weekends in a row so I enjoyed myself. With cooler weather on the horizon, this may turn into a regular date. I need to buy more games!

My aversion to Clue

Eric Mayer wrote a post last week about his attraction to Clue that made me start thinking about the game again. I've always lumped Clue in with all the other American games that were in almost every house when I was a kid. Although I don't think board games are exclusively for kids, there are some games that I don't play because they are part of my childhood. As with many things, my philosophy is "So many XYZ, so little time." Why stick with the same old games when there are so many others to explore?

Anyway, that isn't the reason for my aversion to Clue. It is all my husband ABM's fault, really. Early in our marriage, I discovered that he had never played Clue. This was unimaginable to me. We went right out and bought a copy of the game. That was when my nightmare began. ABM fell in love with the game. He wanted to play the game every time we got together with friends. We played it so much that my fond memories of the game have been replaced by the sense of boredom I felt during those sessions. The desire to move Clue to the back shelf propelled me to research and find other games for us to play.

I'm wondering now if enough time has passed for us to bring Clue back into the house again. My kids have never played it, and I hate the idea of depriving them of a culture reference point. ABM still has the tendency to request the same games again and again, but these days he is leaning toward fast-moving games. I think the danger has passed.

14 August 2007

Why we play filler games

In issue 110 of The Escapist (an online gaming magazine), there is an article about casual gaming. Although the author is talking about video games, I think that some of the same principles apply to board games. In our hobby, casual games are called filler games or beer-and-pretzel games, but the reasons why we play them is the same.

Toward the end of the article, the author lists some reasons that people have given for being attracted to casual games.

The first true generation of gamers, people who grew up with console systems and PCs in their bedrooms, is aging. Members of the MSN boards had this to say about why they play casual games:
"I still enjoy posting high scores, even if my days of spending hours online are over now that I've got two kids."
"The shooters I loved tend to get [me] wound up, and these days I can only play in the late evening in the hour or two before bedtime.
"I just want to chill after a long day. A game should be a game, not a job."
"The games take more skill than people realize. There's twitch and strategy, but I don't have to deal with a massive, complicated controller or spend four hours on a learning curve. I just settle in and play."
"My kids took over the Wii and the PS3 takes too much effort these days."
Nearly every anecdote was along those lines. Coincidence? Could it have been a measure of maturity, all along?

So, what reasons would my husband and I give for why we choose filler games?
--We play games about once every other month so we want to squeeze in as many games as we can.
--Since we don't game on a regular basis, we have to refresh our memories on game rules almost all the time. This is easier if we stick to simpler games.
--As someone said in the article, we don't want gaming to feel like work. If I want to play something challenging, I stick with a PC game. When I am playing with friends, I want to build memories of us laughing and drinking and playing games together.
Comments on Board Game Geek suggest that serious board gamers frown on filler games. The very name "filler game" means that it is something you play until all the players arrive for the "real" game. For our group, though, filler games satisfy our gaming hunger just fine.

Session Report for 12 Aug 2007

Games Played: Pounce, Fluxx, Poison

My group for this session consisted of me, my husband ABM, his friend CJ, and the couple who just moved in across the street, Libby and Josh. Pounce and Poison went over well with Libby and Josh, who had never heard of either one of them. Their previous gaming experience matched mine: the children's games that everyone had on their shelves (Candyland, Monopoly) plus some classic card games in Josh's case (poker and cribbage). Fluxx seemed to be fine with everyone except my husband. As I've mentioned before, he doesn't like the chaotic nature of that game.

The scorecard:

--CJ won Pounce, as he does quite often, but Libby made it a close game for a while. She won the first few rounds before CJ turned the score around.

--I won Poison; it is one of the few games I ever win. Even though people say there is a lot of luck in that game, I have built up a strategy of sorts that has served me well.

--Libby won Fluxx. She was a bit confused by the game in the beginning, so I had my daughter C2 sit with her. C2 is only 10, but she is the best card player of all my kids and the only one who can hold her own with the adults. I'm not surprised that she led Libby to victory.

What scares off new players?

I have found that there are certain things, even in supposed "gateway" or beginner games, that scare off my group of friends. One of them is unfamiliar game mechanics. The way that many designer games work is counter-intuitive to someone who grew up on basic American games like Life or Uno. For instance, many of the card games like Bang! or Fluxx require a player to draw a card first and then make a play. This trips my friends up every time because they are accustomed to playing games where drawing cards is a penalty.

Another thing that puts my husband off are games where most of the instruction is on the cards. Before I started researching games, his favorite card games were Uno and Spades. In those games, the gameplay is pretty much the same for every player. I thought he would like the newer card games because he likes games with a bit of a "take that" aspect. How wrong I was! He found Bang! to be confusing, and Give Me the Brain! to be chaotic. The gameplay didn't move fast enough for him because everyone had to read their cards to figure out what to do next.

Settlers of Catan or Ticket to Ride are usually mentioned as good gateway games, the sort of games that will draw people into the hobby and prepare them to play more complex designer games. Just from reading the rules I can tell that these games would only frustrate my group of friends. If you are like me and don't have an experienced player to present games to your group, then you should look for a game that has only one unfamiliar mechanic. That way, you won't overwhelm your friends and they will be more open the next time you show up with a new game.

10 August 2007

Game Review: Pounce

Pounce is always the first game that my husband wants to play when we have folks over, so I figured it was natural that it be the first game I recommend here. This is a fast-paced game that is easy to learn and will definitely break the ice if there are several members of your group who don't know each other.

There are commercial versions of Pounce under the names Nertz and Dutch Blitz, but they only accommodate 2-4 players. If you want to play a big game like we do, use standard playing cards. Be sure that every player has their own deck of cards and that each deck of cards has a different back. It will make it easier to separate the decks later. Pounce can be a bit rough on your cards, so I wouldn't pull out that souvenir deck you bought on your honeymoon to Niagara Falls. We usually buy decks from the dollar store for 50 cents each.

The short description of Pounce is that it is a game of group solitaire. If you know how to play the patience game Klondike (which is the version of solitaire found on most Windows-based PCs), then you are halfway to knowing how to play this game. Each player deals out a pile of 13 cards with only the top one face up. This is your Pounce pile. Then each player deals out 4 face-up cards that serve as the basis for the work piles. The object is to be the first to get rid of your Pounce pile by playing the cards on either your work piles or on the aces in the middle of the table. The twist that makes the game interactive is that each player isn't confined to playing cards on the aces from her own deck; she can play on any of the aces in the middle of the table as long as she follows the correct suit.

Since all players play at the same time, it can make for a hectic and funny game. It is great for loosening up new players, which is why I think my husband always likes to open the game sessions with it. I found a Nertz video on YouTube that gives a sense of the spirit of the game. You can't really see the suits on the cards, but it will give you a feeling for how quickly the game moves. In Party Game Central's entry on the game, it is noted that Pounce is usually a silent game. As you will see from the video, I think most people avoid that rule.

There is an official group devoted to the game called the National Nertz Association. Through their website I found that there are places to play Nertz variations online. If you use MSN Live Messenger, they have a version called Solitaire Showdown. It is only for two players, but you get a taste of how the game works. I say, if you are going to spend all evening chatting on an IM client, you might as well have some fun while you do it.

If you want to try something different after dinner with friends, I would say that Pounce is the first game you should learn. I have yet to meet anyone who is familiar with Pounce or any variation of it, but everyone I've introduced it to has loved it. If you have played this game, leave me a note in the comments section.

08 August 2007

Game Rules: They aren't always perfect

In episode 8 of the podcast On Board Games, presenters Erik and Donald discuss the poorly designed rule books they have come across in some board games. I've been lucky in this area. Up until now, most of the games I've played have come from major American companies like Hasbro and Milton-Bradley. These companies target their games at families, so the rules are clear enough for Mom, Dad, Grandma, and all the kids to understand. When you leave the shallow end of the board game pool, however, the water becomes a bit more rough.

I may not have a lot of experience with boxed games, but I have been experimenting a lot with free game rules that I find online. There are many sites dedicated to free gaming; they provide the rules and you provide the bits (cards, markers, board). Some of the games are simple to understand, while others made me give up in frustration. My tendency is to believe that I am too dense to understand the game. After all, the rules were printed (or posted online) so someone must have proofread and edited them, right? It must be my fault that I don't understand them.

The beauty of online communities is that people can discuss their experiences. I'm glad that podcasts like On Board Games and resources like Board Game Geek are around to remind me that designers aren't perfect. Confusing rule books do make it into print. There are typos, poor layouts, and other errors that can make game rules learning a new game difficult. If you are like me and jumping into the board game hobby without the guidance of a local game group, keep that in mind.

05 August 2007

Gaming Podcast: The Spiel

When I discovered podcasting near the end of 2005, most of the shows in the gaming category were about videogames. Slowly some shows about roleplaying games and miniatures showed up, then the family boardgamers came out of hiding. I think I've listened to almost all the podcasts devoted to boardgames, and The Spiel is my current favorite.

The Spiel is hosted by Stephen Conway and David Coleson. While they maintain the casual air of two friends sitting in the living room, the show is divided into different segments that give it a polish not found in many independent podcasts. Conway and Coleson must have listened to other podcasts and took notes about what works and what doesn't work. From the very first episode they sounded smooth and in control.

My favorite segments are Back Shelf Spotlight and Game Sommelier. Back Shelf Spotlight is the segment where Conway and Coleson talk about older games and games that got very little press. The choices range from modern Eurogames to public domain chestnuts such as cribbage. Game Sommelier is a challenge between the presenters. One of them picks five games that fit a certain criteria (such as games for a wine-tasting party) while the other votes on how well it was met.

I would recommend this podcast to boardgaming newbies because of the presenters' focus. Conway and Coleson embrace the idea that any game is worth playing as long as it is fun. You won't find any snobbish attitude toward party games or beer-and-pretzel games on this show. Go check it out!

02 August 2007

Games Magazine

Although I started this blog primarily to talk about board games, I felt that I needed to devote at least one entry to the magazine that first exposed me to the world of hobby gaming. In the days before I owned a PC, I entertained myself with crosswords and other paper-and-pencil games. After years of the supermarket variety, I found Games Magazine and it was a revelation to me. The puzzles are more witty and challenging than anything I've found anywhere else.

How does this relate to board games? Well, in the back of every issue of Games Magazine is a game review section. When I first subscribed years ago, it only covered board and card games. Nowadays they also review console and PC games. There are also articles about the hobby, such as interviews with game collectors and reports on game conventions. Right before the winter holidays, Games Magazine puts out a "Games 100" issue with an expanded review section. I used to pore over the Games 100 issue each year and wonder what it was like to play those games. That planted the seed for the New Year's Eve game parties that I would host with my husband years later.

With the advent of widespread internet access, I doubt that many people turn to Games Magazine these days to learn about the latest Ticket to Ride expansion. However, for those times when you want to entertain yourself away from your computer, I still recommend it. Studies show that crosswords and other word puzzles help to stave off senile dementia, and Games Magazine provides some of the best.