Special Abilities

When I started playing Town of Salem, I wondered if the game’s roles would spoil me for normal games of Mafia/Werewolf. They certainly give me the wrong expectations. In a normal game, few to no players have special roles. The Town is working on little better than random chance until they see a few votes. The game is very different without investigative roles.

Hypothesis: most of the recent posts about leavers arose from people who did not like their roles. There is one great way to eliminate all those people up front: no one gets a special ability. Those players will not show up to that game to begin with.

I am increasingly speculating that leavers are cheesy one-trick ponies. He wanted a killing role. Doesn’t get it? Gone. And it needs to be one of the good killing roles, like a Serial Killer! Arsonist has to wait a while to kill — gone. Bodyguard must protect instead of actively killing — gone. Consort role-blocks — that could be okay, and it might become a killing role. (This undermines my premise of nearly random suicides.)

: Zubon

Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn

The last game I learned at our post-Gen Con game night was Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn. I use “learned” loosely. We mostly learned how to play, but we were not sure that we had the rules right because we went mostly from someone’s explanation rather than having everyone read the rules, and when we did consult the rules we found things the explanation had missed and a few points that might have been missed in the rules entirely and need a FAQ. Or maybe we just did not find the right page in the rules in the midst of play.

Ashes is a living card game of the sort becoming popular after the relative decline of collectible card games. Android: Netrunner and the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game would be in the same category. Instead of buying blind booster packs, you buy an entire set and construct decks from that, then expansions and such come along.

We played a couple of games using the recommended decks. It seemed entertaining, although using recommended decks skipped the deckbuilding experience, and we did not have enough play experience to do much more than learn the basics (and maybe not well). So this is not so much a review as some vague impressions.

The cards are pretty. Continue reading Ashes: Rise of the Phoenixborn


Nevermore was a friend’s most cherished Gen Con acquisition this year. It is entertaining enough, with a mix of elegant and unnecessary mechanics.

Nevermore is primarily a drafting game. There are five suits of cards, and you get five cards. Pick two, pass three; you have five again, pick three, pass two; finally, pick four, pass one. This gives you a mixture of control and unpredictability. You then compare cards with the other players. Four of the five cards work the same way: whoever has the most subtracts the second place number and does that much. So if you have four attack cards, and someone else has three, 4-3=1 and you deal 1 damage to someone. The fifth card suit, ravens, is an anti-card that cancels your other cards, but it becomes powerful if you can get most of your hand as ravens. First person to six victory points or last human standing wins.

As a drafting game, it works pretty well. Because all five of your cards are up for choose/pass each round, you might change strategies completely after your first pass. Play tends to resolve pretty quickly. Our player who plays draft Magic twice a week did rather well in his first game, so I am led to believe decisions are meaningful even if there is fair amount of weakly controlled randomization. Some players complained about sitting next to (or worse, between) skilled drafters.

It gets a bit unnecessarily complicated because there are special rules for a variety of special cases. The special rule for getting a hand of 5 ravens makes sense; I have yet to see it happens, but it just fits the game for that to be something special. Then there are special rules for the unlikely circumstances of 4+ damage (not attack cards, damage after comparing to 2nd place), 3+ healing starting at full health (same healing vs. cards), and 5+ radiance cards (cards this time, not after comparing). And then there are two pages of rules relating to raven cards.

One worthwhile piece of complexity is that players turn into ravens instead of dying. They stay in the game and keep playing, with some chance of becoming human again and getting back in the game. Raven players have slightly differing rules for play.

Gameplay is mostly quick, the rules are mostly short and simple. The special rules for a half-dozen unlikely things feel like unnecessary cruft, but it was fun to play.

: Zubon


I tried Tokaido this weekend. It was an appallingly awful experience, but I am led to believe it could be better.

I played a five-player game using the Crossroads expansion. Those links will explain why that is a bad idea. Between the two, you pretty much have Candyland with vastly more complexity and a small bit of strategy.

After playing, I looked at reviews of Tokaido, and almost every one quickly said that the game is not Candyland. That is a lot of smoke for there not to be fire. In the game I played, the range of sane decisions was small, the randomness of the results was large for most squares, and most players were new so we did not even know the range within which randomness occurred. My random character was from the expansion and depended on that randomness, and then I got boxed out of even using most of it due to pawn placement. Such is life. I just repeated as a mantra, “it’s Candyland,” because how much can you care when your decisions have almost no impact on your outcomes?

So pausing here, I would be interested in playing again, but with no more than three players, not using an expansion, and I want a chance to read the cards so I know what the experienced players are basic their decisions on. Having started with two paragraphs of complaints linking to two pages of complaints, why would I be interested in playing again? < --more-->

Tokaido is thematically lovely. It is an equal and opposite of Blood Rage, where a peaceful theme plays into the mechanics. The goal of Tokaido is to walk along the coast. Whoever has the most fun wins. That is literally what you are scoring; whoever has the best time meeting people, visiting seeing the sights, and buying souvenirs wins the game. The visuals are peaceful and elegant. Gameplay is just moving along a line and picking up cards. It is a nice idea.

At a level beyond Candyland, there is cutthroat tactical play. Where you place your pawn matters, and people can aggressively block each other to thwart each others’ goals. Once you know what is hidden in all those decks of cards, you can rationally gamble on the outcome of picking squares with random results. There is gamer play here as well as casual play.

Make sure to have excellent lighting. The other great problem we had was just seeing what was going on. The icons are very small, and several of them are similar. In low lighting, there is not a lot of difference between gray and light blue, especially with glasses like mine. “Is that a hot spring or a view of Mount Fuji?” Tokaido is also one of those games that uses icons in place of words, most of which are good, but some of which only make sense if you already know what they mean. (The worst of that was probably the Crossroads expansion, which I will again curse. One of my friends was enthusiastic because one part helped solve a cash flow problem he had with his shopping-centric strategy; more than doubling the complexity of the game to add exactly six yen is a really bad trade-off.)

I like the idea of the game, and several people were enthusiastic. Under the right circumstances, it looks like it could be a good game.

: Zubon

[TT] Icons and Text

Many Eurogames seem to be minimizing text in favor of icons. This makes sense given an international market; if you are selling your Eurogames in Europe, you have a dozen languages to contend with, and if you are aiming for the lucrative markets in North America or east Asia, having lots of German text will not help your sales. Sadly, many of these icons are horrible, maybe meaningful if you already know what they mean.

For example, Kingdom Builder explains what location tiles do using an arrow for “move” and a somewhat curved arrow for “place.” You will be forgiven for remembering that backwards, and good luck seeing the curve from across the table. And then some do not follow that format, and expansions add more symbols. The icons are an okay reminder if you already know what the location tiles do, but if you do not, they will not help you unless that tile follows the standard format and is close enough to be clearly visible.

For example, Hyperborea uses truly awful symbols to explain what technologies do. As with Kingdom Builder, some follow a basic format that is easy to understand. Some have tiny variations. Some have unique symbols that do not appear elsewhere and may not be explained anywhere. You have not overcome the language barrier if players are having a five-minute debate using inferential logic to figure out what a symbol is supposed to mean. Given the number of similar but slightly differing technologies, these do not even serve as much of a reminder.

very small icons from the Tokaido board game For example, Tokaido has three space types that are mixtures of gray and light blue, some in close proximity and sometimes rotated on the board. The accompanying symbols for each space are measured in millimeters.

My favorite linguistics blog has an entire category for what it calls “nerdview.” This is described as “writing in technical terms from the perspective of the technician or engineer rather than from a standpoint that would seem useful to the customer or reader” or “a linguistically misleading communication in which the failure is not of grammar or meaning but of failing to keep in mind the viewpoint of the reader rather than the specialist (possibly nerdy) view of the writer.” More simply, the symbols make perfect sense if you are the game developer, but they can be incomprehensible for someone trying to learn the game. We have previously discussed MMO icons that are about 10 pixels across and hide multiple sentences of information. They can actually make perfect sense to a veteran player who can tell at a glance the fine distinction between a dragon and a fire-breathing drake. Players newer or less visual may be stymied.

I appreciate the attempt to internationalize the game with a standardized appearance. I sometimes question the effectiveness of the solution.

: Zubon

Low Hanging Design Fruit in Online Card Games

I’m trying Magic Duels, and the story mode is mostly bad. You do not get to pick your cards, and they change after every win, so you do not even know what they are in advance. In theory, this means the difficulty of your deck and your opponent’s can be finely tuned to face each other. Because luck of the draw is a large factor, you can do exactly the same thing two games in a row and either win undamaged or lose before you get a fourth land (or draw a fourth card other than a land). Part of the point of CCGs is that you control the randomness through deck design. When the game controls your deck and what random cards are available to each side, your skill as a player is dwarfed by factors outside your control. And then the white deck is tuned and stacked for guaranteed wins, plus tutorials inside in tutorials.

The particular bit of randomness that is galling me is mana flood/screw. Streakiness is an aspect of true randomness, more so than most people believe. It is a fact of life in physical card games because you cannot get a relatively even spread of land throughout a deck without stacking the deck. But you know what computers can do? Randomize within limits. They can be programmed with rules like, “If a deck has 20/60 lands, the deck should not have 5-card streaks of all lands or no lands.” The lands need not be evenly distributed throughout the deck; toss in a bit of randomness to keep it from being predictable, it’s a card game. But if you have a computer that can keep the most ridiculous extremes of randomness from happening, why would you let them happen other than thinking that is a feature of the game? “Yeah, the dice came up that you had a near-guaranteed win/loss. Great game, eh?”

I have won games because my opponent did not draw a third land until its health was in the single digits, and I have lost games because of drawing 12 lands by turn 10. Neither of these were good games, and these are entirely preventable problems when a computer is in charge of the deck.

: Zubon

Tesla vs. Edison: War of Currents

Artana had a big booth dedicated to Tesla vs. Edison at Gen Con, and the game certainly merits trying. I have just the one playthrough under my belt, but everyone enjoyed it. The game supports multiple parallel and conflicting strategies and mechanics on the path to victory.

The theme is dear to nerd hearts: the competing current standards and the electrification of America. Tesla is a geek hero, so players are naturally drawn to him, with Edison cast as the villain. The game remains neutral on that question, although Edison’s special ability is to ignore patents. The potential player characters also include three lesser names in electricity.

You are running an electric company. Your company founder gives you certain stats and abilities. Supporting luminaries are recruited via bidding. Each round, you and your luminaries can research technology, build a project, engage in propaganda, or play the stock market. You are competing not only for science but for hearts and minds, as the value of your stock is affected by whether the public thinks AC or DC is the current standard of the future. Yes, people have strong opinions about that. At the end of the game, whoever is holding the most valuable stock portfolio wins. (You start with four shares of your own stock, so unless you are pursuing a very aggressive stock market game, highest stock value should tend to win.)

The strategy comes from which actions to pursue and in what order. Continue reading Tesla vs. Edison: War of Currents

Honest Deception

I finally got a copy of Coup at Gen Con, not a new game but one I enjoy. Coup is a game of bluffing, deduction, and assassination. You have two hidden cards that give you abilities, but feel free to lie about what two they are and use whatever abilities you like. If you are called on the bluff, you lose a card; if you are challenged but were telling the truth, your challenger loses a card.

Playing a bit at Gen Con, I found that I am better at telling the truth unbelievably than lying believably. This is a drawback for Mafia/Werewolf, but it works brilliantly in Coup. If I never bluff, I have no tells that indicate I am bluffing. But he could not really be telling the truth every time in a bluffing game, could he? Especially when you get a really unlikely draw, like two of the same card, or when you use the Ambassador to pick an unlikely pair of cards rather than a powerful pair.

And if I can train everyone to believe that I never bluff, I have free reign to start bluffing…

: Zubon