I was enthusiastic about Kickstarter projects a while ago, but I have recently been seeing fewer that excite me. What has been exciting recently is the arrival of things I backed a while ago. My Tinker Dice arrived last week (the d6s look especially good, but I now covet the copper ones, having seen how they came out). Tiny Epic Kingdoms arrived yesterday (quick review Tuesday; it plays like a pocket-sized Hyperborea). Kingdom Builder is shipping now. After a lengthy drought, I am being flooded with tabletop games.

I hadn’t realized how long Kickstarter has been around. It has had some great, successful releases and some games still under development “Estimated delivery: Oct 2012.” Developers may not always be the best project managers, which is I suppose why I have a job.

: Zubon

[TT] Hyperborea

At Gen Con, we learned to play Hyperborea from one of the developers, which is one of the glories of Gen Con. As I type this, it is soon to be published in the US but not quite there; it may be available by the Tuesday this appears. It is recommended but costly ($90) and very strongly a gamer game.

The game is one of territorial control and resource acquisition with a bag-building mechanic in place of the increasingly common deck-building mechanic. That is, each player has a bag of colored cubes, and you power your abilities by drawing and spending them. A large part of your strategy is what cubes you add to your bag.
Continue reading [TT] Hyperborea

Variability and Time Investment

Love Letter is a fun game. In my first game, I was eliminated before my first turn, and in just over half the rounds I have played, I have been knocked out before my second turn. In most games, I would not tolerate that degree of lack of player control, but the game creates a low level of investment in each round of play that makes it acceptable.

Hands of Love Letter are quick. A full four-player round takes a few minutes at most. If you are knocked out, oh well, watch how this round goes and you will be back in the game shortly. Sometimes not having a fair chance is fine when you get lots of chances that come quickly; slot machines rely on that perception (although those never give you a fair chance, so the whole gameplay there is “slowly losing” with some steps backwards on the path to bankruptcy).

In Love Letter, poor luck is constrained rather than cumulative. Many games give you many chances, but if you get a bad start, you will never catch up. Lots of classic card games like Poker are very good at this: unless you are playing no-limit, your luck in one hand has almost no effect on your chances in the next hand. How many “strategy” games have you seen decided (90+% probability) in the first quarter of the game when one person has an amazing turn while another has the worst possible luck for 15 seconds?

The cumulative effect is not making you suffer through the rest of the game because of a bad bit of luck. You should never “suffer through” your entertainment. I am usually enthusiastic about Eurogames’ rarely knocking out players before the end, but if the outcome is (90+%) known and you are just going through the motions for another hour, that is a wasted hour. Finish it so we can play another game. Keeping everyone in until the end is only a virtue if they have a chance at the end; surrender in the face of certain loss is honorable, not rage quitting.

And finally, Love Letter advertises that luck and guessing are involved. It does not pretend to be a strategy game while having its outcome determined by luck of the draw. It is surprising how much players can control the outcome despite the luck of the draw.

: Zubon

[TT] Love Letter

Love letter is another simple bluffing game, with a little less to offer than Coup but with greater simplicity and a more pleasant theme.

You are trying to get your love letter to the princess. The deck of 16 cards represents 8 roles around the castle, with higher numbers being closer to the princess. You get 1 card to start. Your gameplay each round is to draw 1 card, discard 1 card, and do whatever it says on the card you discarded. Whoever has the highest value card at the end (or is the last suitor standing) wins the round.

It really does not get much simpler than “draw 1, discard 1.” Depth comes from bluffing and guessing. For example, one card is the princess; if you discard it, you are out of the hand (the princess has burned your love letter). There is no reason to discard the princess … except that someone else might guess that you have the princess and force you to. The next most valuable card is her closest friend, who you must discard if you have a card close to it in value, such as the princess (or else you lose the hand) or the king (who is #3 in value anyway) … or you might discard her and hold onto a lower-value card to potentially set up a better position for the final card.

It is a lovely little game you can learn in less than a minute. “Draw one, discard one, try to have the highest number at the end. Everything else is on the cards, and there are only 8 different cards.” And go. Elegance in design.

: Zubon

[TT] Coup

Coup is a wonderfully simple and deep bluffing game. The rules you need to explain can fit on one side of a card; a reference sheet fits neatly on the other side, and the cards themselves have all the text you need.

Everyone gets two cards. If you run out of cards, you are out of the game. There are three actions anyone can take (take $1 from the bank, take $2 from the bank, pay $7 to make someone discard). What other actions you can take depend on the cards you claim to have in your hand. For example, the Duke can take $3 from the bank and can block anyone from taking $2 from the bank. The Assassin can make anyone discard for $3, but the Contessa blocks assassination. The other cards are the Captain and the Ambassador, which deal with stealing money, blocking theft, and trading cards. The deck has a few copies of each, depending on how many players you have.

Complexity arises because it is a bluffing game. Your hand is hidden. “I am the Duke, and I am taking $3.” You can challenge that claim. If you are right, I must discard one of my cards; if you are wrong, you must discard (and I get a new card in place of the Duke).

Not a lot of rules. LOTS of depth in terms of gameplay. It’s a simple game with 5 different cards, and my friends tell stories about showdowns and the levels of reverse psychology and game theory involved.

For this year’s Gen Con, we added a new card from an expansion, which was an interesting bit of spice. There are lots of variations on the game, but you get a surprising lot out of a few copies of five cards.

: Zubon

[TT] Dumb Fun: Poop

As the evening wore on at Gen Con, friends brought out a “dumb fun” game. It was a silly superhero game with lots of spirit and a chance to play as Heavy Metal Elephant. It also took more than a half hour to set up the board and explain most of the rules. That is well past my “dumb fun” threshold, and I have begun using a rule of thumb that a game with a book of rules (instead of a page) is a gamer game.

Another evening, someone brought out Poop. Poop qualifies as “dumb fun,” a game with a silly theme and rules that fit on a card. It plays like a simplified Uno. I doubt it will ever be one of The Great Games that You Must Play, but its owner was satisfied to have paid $5 for it. He got to play with Poop a few times, and the Poop box had several rule variants to explore in the future. He went back the next day to find expansion Poop.

It was not my favorite theme for a game, but the lads got to engage in puerile sound effects and had fun. I demand less of a game that I can learn in less than a minute and play in less than five.

: Zubon

Back next week to talk about simple and deep.

[TT] Tile Placement

I saw Monster Factory at Gen Con and was immediately reminded of Starbase Jeff from Cheapass Games. Both are tile placement games with two types of “fittings” where you try to complete stations/monsters to bank points. There are some differences in the details, but the mechanics are 90% the same. Carcassonne is broadly similar.

How much of gaming is that? Same core mechanic, same basic flow of play, but we are trying to find the perfect variation on the details that makes it pop, or maybe the same game with a different theme that we favor. And, you know? Sometimes that little difference does make a big difference. I love the mechanics of LOL but will never play DOTA or Newerth because they include a creep denial mechanic, and I find it fundamentally absurd to have a game encourage you to kill your own troops so that the enemy cannot.

So maybe those little differences in how you select or score tiles means a lot. We have generated an entire genre of deck building games in the last decade, and how many of them start with something very like 7 copper and 3 VP?

: Zubon

[TT] Random But Predictable

Randomness is rarely chaos. In games, randomness is a pick from a pool with known and computable probabilities.

Roughly 1/6 of the rolls in Settlers of Catan will be 7s that activate the robber. Roughly 5/36 of the rolls will be 6s and another 5/36 will be 8s, which is why they are the most sought numbers and why there is so much groaning when there are 5 6s in a row or when there are 0 8s for 15 minutes. Some players think that still leaves too much to chance, so you can buy dice decks, giving you the exact probability distribution over 36 turns rather than knowing it works out in the long run (but maybe not over the course of this game). Strategic play in Settlers involves both getting the best numbers possible and diversifying over numbers and tile types, to survive the swings of fortune.

Deck-building games are substantially about probability manipulation. In Dominion, you start with 10 cards, so you always know exactly what your second hand will be based on your first hand, and you can predict turns three and four based on the (usually) 12 cards you own after those first two turns. From there, the deck-building mechanic is about increasing the number of good hands you have by getting more good cards, fewer bad cards, or just more cards, or perhaps by exploiting higher averages or variability. There are strategies that depend on knowing what is left in your deck based on what you have played so far.

I have been pondering Dungeon Roll. When you roll a lot of dice, the possible extreme swings in luck are large, but you are increasingly likely to be around the center of the distribution. You may have a random pick of a dozen heroes with a random roll of seven white dice against a random roll of foes on each level of the dungeon, but that averages out to reaching level 5 safely, plus or minus one, plus or minus a dragon. You probably end a turn with 4 to 6 experience points and 2 to 4 treasures.

Because you get only three turns, conservative play is encouraged, which is an odd thing for a “push your luck” game. If you go one level deeper, you get 1 or 2 more points for succeeding and lose 4 or 5 for failing. That is a big asymmetry, and you lose the game if you lose one round unless it encourages your opponents to also push their luck a little further (by why would they with a 5-point lead in a game where 30 is a high score?). I have yet to see anyone push his/her luck and fail, because you can predict your odds (two white dice left, enemy rolls six black dice) and your potential benefits (marginal).

On the other hand, there is some variation, particularly within one turn, and that can lead to unfortunate swings you cannot do anything about. “Leveling up” is worth about 1 more point in each of your latter two turns, so if a bad roll means you do not get the 5xp to level up your first turn, you are down even further against your opponents. Sometimes the dice make your special abilities useless. In my first game, I was the knight, and who turns scrolls (low value) into champions (high value); I rolled 0 scrolls on my last two turns. You can expect to roll 0 scrolls in 28% of turns, which means that 63% of games will have at least one turn where that ability does nothing, and it will not be used at all in 2% of knights’ games. In three turns, randomness can dominate long run odds.

: Zubon

[TT] Interaction

Eurogames are frequently distinguished from American games by being more abstract (focused on mechanics rather than theme) with less conflict (competition is often indirect, players are rarely eliminated). Zombie Dice and Dungeon Roll are dice-based “push your luck” games with no interactivity at all. Gameplay is no different as a single-player game, and the endpoint is arbitrary.

Zombie Dice puts you as the zombie. The dice can give you brains or shotgun blasts. You want as many brains as possible, but too many blasts mean you get 0 brains this round. Keep going until you either “bank” your brains or get blasted. Other players can cheer or jeer, but they cannot shoot at you.

Dungeon Roll has more complex gameplay involving a starting pool of resources, variable and growing opposition, and accumulated resources between rounds. Still, you are entirely in competition with the opposition dice, rather than another player. Officially, another player “plays” the dungeon, rolling the black dice against your white dice, but that player makes no decisions and it makes no difference if you just roll the dungeon dice yourself.

Zombie Dice ends when one player gets 13 brains. Dungeon Roll ends after everyone has 3 turns. This is where you get a mote of interaction: you can see what the others’ score is and adjust how much you are willing to push your luck accordingly. If Alice has banked 12 brains and is going next, Bob might as well keep pushing his luck because he either wins now or almost certainly loses next turn. Similarly, if Bob’s last dungeon run left him at 21 points, Alice might as well risk being eaten by a dragon if she only has 20 points, because losing by 1 or 5 is the still losing.

How do you pick the end point, other than boredom and time consumption? For Zombie Dice, it is entirely arbitrary whether you reset the score after someone reaches 13. For Dungeon Roll, because there is some power accumulation between rounds, it makes more sense to have a fixed endpoint.

: Zubon

[TT] Zombie Games

Critical mass of zombie games has long since been reached. We are now at the point where the pit of E.T. Atari games was dug up to create a hole big enough to hold all the excess zombie games being made.

I had not realized how bad the problem was until I went to Origins and walked through the vendor hall. There were at least 100 advertisements for zombie games in the first row I walked down, including zombie tabletop games, zombie dice games, zombie RPGs, zombie survival, surviving as a zombie, zombie superheroes, zombies vs. pretty much everything, everything except a zombie cookbook, which Google tells me also exists.

Someone could surprise me with a zombie game that brings something new to the table, but it would surprise me.

: Zubon