A Gnome's Ponderings

I'm a gamer. I love me some games and I like to ramble about games and gaming. So, more than anything else, this blog is a place for me to keep track of my ramblings. If anyone finds this helpful or even (good heavens) insightful, so much the better.

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Hisss: not great but great with five-year-olds

Lowell Kempf
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I recently bashed Rivers, Roads and Rails for being a children’s game that really doesn’t work well as either game or an activity for kids to enjoy. The next kids game that I tried out was Hisss, a game that is mechanically similar but worked much better for us.

The short explanation for Hisss is that it’s a tile laying game where you are building snakes. The heads and tails are all either one color or wild but each segment are two colors. Colors need to match when placing tiles, just like in games like Carcassonne. If you complete a snake, you get that snake and its tiles count as points. Most points wins.

There are three things that made Hisss a more enjoyable experience than Rivers, Roads and Rails, most of them being the game being simpler. There are less than half as many tiles. The connections are simpler, one snake segment as opposed to three kinds of possible paths. And the rules are _much_ better written.

In short, Hisss is a lot more accessible for little minds who don’t have that much patience. Hisss takes the concepts of tile laying and makes them manageable for the young. Which isn’t as easy as it sounds. And having a tighter rule set is so much better.

For adults, it’s not a great game. I’m not even going to call it a good game. Hisss is not one of those kids games that adults can get into. However, it is a game that can keep a child engaged until the end. That might be be damning with faint praise but it’s also true.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon Nov 11, 2019 9:37 pm
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Italo Calvino makes me want to play impossible games

Lowell Kempf
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Reading Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities, I have a craving to design a game about creating cities in a few paragraphs, developing a map of urban worlds. Which means I’m completely missing the point of the book

The book has Marco Polo describing fifty-five cities to a bemused Kublai Kahn. He breaks the cities down into eleven categories and they all have women’s names. Beneath this poetic atlas structure is a deconstruction of language and geography.

Or so reviews and analysis of Invisible Cities tells me. I don’t grok that yet. In fact, I feel like I should be rereading the book again in six months and see how much it’s changed for me over that time.

So my desire to make a game out of it is based on the most superficial reading of it. But it’s still there.

I picture a set of tables. On your turn, roll to see what category the city is. Roll to see what name it is. Roll to see what details you are allowed to describe, like architecture or trade goods or monuments or such. From those rolls, you create a city in a few words.

Perhaps there might be two tables of categories and you must find where the city you are dreaming up fits on the matrix, turning a spreadsheet grid into a map of imagination.

Or perhaps the city that you dream of must fit onto a postcard. And after you have written your city into existence on your postcard, you must put a stamp on it and send it to the next player, letting them know it is their turn to bring a city to life on a postcard. And at the end, everyone has a physical artifact of a city that has only come to be due to the game.

Aaaaand I’ve just crossed the line from game to performance art. Probably the kind of performance art that would end up annoying everyone involved.

I’m actually not even halfway through Invisible Cities and I know it’s not a book about world building but more of world unbuilding. My feeble understanding makes it feel more about how you describe a place says more about you than the place.

But it still makes me want to build dreamy worlds.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Thu Nov 7, 2019 11:15 pm
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A five-year-old’s experiences with Go

Lowell Kempf
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I recently took a crack at introducing our five-year to the basics of Go.

And while I have heard Go described as having five rules with one of those rules being that you play it on a board, quite a bit of it didn’t sink in. Go is theoretically simple in theory but it is ridiculously complex to understand in practice.

But it was his idea so I ran with it.

The one thing that he really clicked on was the concept of eyes and that having two eyes makes a group of stones safe. Which, to be fair, is a very important idea.

I wonder if he will ask for Go again and what he will learn if he does.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Thu Nov 7, 2019 2:42 am
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2019 holiday card planning

Lowell Kempf
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Ah, it’s that time of year. The Boardgame Geek Holiday Card exchange.

And, yes, I’m going to participate. While I bowed out of the Secret Santa awhile back because, frankly, I’ve cut my my game budget to the point that I rarely buy games for myself, let alone other folks, making homemade cards to send out to strangers is a lot of fun.

However, while I’ve participated in the Mini PnP Secret Santa for the last two years, I’m bowing out of that as well. And that’s due to budget as well. While actually crafting the games I sent out didn’t take long and cost next to nothing, I always drew international recipients and the shipping was prohibitively expensive

Still, I’m thinking of including a one-card game in the cards I send. That way, I’m still sending out some PnP love. And there are options out there other than Coin-Age, which everyone already has, or Bonsai Samurai, which isn’t very good.

It’s not quite the same but it’s a hint of Secret Santa.

Originally posted at www.gnmepondering.com
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Mon Nov 4, 2019 5:00 pm
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My October PnP

Lowell Kempf
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Okay, here’s my October list:

Loot Boxer
Xscape

October was a crazy busy month and I wasn’t sure that I was going to get any Print and Play crafting done. In fact, I printed out one of the play sheets for Loot Boxer and laminated it just to make sure I made something in October.

However, at pretty much the last minute, I threw together a copy of Xscape, which had been on my list to make sometime or another. i had already printed and cut the pieces so it was a quick and dirty project to get done at the eleventh hour.

And I have to admit that the biggest drive to make Xscape was so that I continued my plan of making one ‘big’ project a month. Sometimes that been at least one a month but as life has gotten more hectic, it’s really bee making just one.

I made the black and white ashcan version (It takes a lot more for me to decide not to make the simplest version of a game. Toner is precious) At three pages of components with fifteen tiles and four cards, Xscape is pretty much the bare minimum for what I’d consider a ‘big’ project. Still, it just barely squeaks in.

Frankly, I’m more likely to play Loot Boxer than I am Xscape. But I am glad that I made it. Sometimes, just the act of making something is good.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Fri Nov 1, 2019 6:48 pm
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A kid’s game can be just an activity but it can’t be boring

Lowell Kempf
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Okay. I’m sitting down to do something that I really don’t like to do. Bash a children’s game. Because, in so many ways, it’s unfair and too easy to do that. You should not hold a game for someone under eight under the same scrutiny you’d give to a game for an adult. A kid’s game has different requirements but expectations.

But not only did Rivers, Roads and Rails from Ravensburger not work for us, I’m not sure how it would work for almost anyone.

R3 is a tile-laying game made up of 144 tiles that have segments of rivers, roads and railroads. The object of the game is make a continuous line of them with all the edges matching, just like just about any tile-laying game you care to mention.

But part of the problem is that on almost every tile, the paths are straight lines. So you’re building a single line of tiles and either a tile fits or it doesn’t fit on one of the two ends. There’s no room for choices or decisions.

A problem with the game is the rules. At least in the copy we got, the rules are printed on the back of the box and actually contradict themselves. If they were a little longer, they would actually being describing variations and not be contrary. The rules describe the game as cooperative and as competitive. You either all work together with all the tiles available or you compete with your own pools of tiles.

The problem with the game as a cooperative is that it’s really just a boring jigsaw puzzle with a definite picture. There isn’t the joy of discovery you get with an actual jigsaw puzzle. And the problem with the game as a competitive game is the lack of choices. You might have no choices, which is even worse in a kid’s game than having the game play itself with only one choice per turn.

Rivers, Roads and Rails is very pretty. I really liked the art. And I’d have really liked a fun activity, not even necessarily a game, attached to that set. Unfortunately, it just bored all of us.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Wed Oct 23, 2019 8:01 pm
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How did the world forget the Mad Scientists Club?

Lowell Kempf
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This isn’t about gaming so you can stop reading now if you feel like it



On a whim, I revisited The Mad Scientists Club, a children’s series by Bertrand R Brinley. It’s probably been at least twenty-five years since I last read it. I’d pretty much forgotten about the stories and, after rereading the first book, I have no idea how.

Hoo boy, rereading the first volume was a trip. It was like seeing a car wreck involving Mark Twain, Danny Dunn and a Boy Scout Manual. The books follow the misadventure and hijinks of a group of boys who are, in no particular order, explorer scouts, master engineers, and inveterate pranksters. All told by a narrator who has all the folksiness and self-awareness and snark of a modern day Huck Finn.

And the boys get themselves into some crazy messes, including making a fake lake monster and competing in a hot-air balloon race and saving a crashed Air Force pilot. The boys’ adventures are just a little larger than life. Almost all of them are grounded in reality and while their technology is cutting edge for the 1960s, it’s still in the ‘big trip to RadioShack’ range.

I have to note that, while the boys aren’t scoundrels and will help those in need, they’re more likely to pull pranks than save folks. I’m not saying that their moral compass is worse than my cats (and cats are born opportunists without a moral bone in their fuzzy bodies) but I find it surprising how non-preachy these stories that were written in the 1960s and for Boy Scouts are.

The books are far from perfect. They are dated, not just in technology but by the fact that if the club pulled half the tricks they pull anytime in the last thirty years, they’d be looking at serious time in juvenile hall. And while there are seven members of the club, I could only tell four of them apart. The other three could have been rolled into one character without losing anything.

That said, the voice of the narrator, being folksy and snarky and self-aware, is a lot more rounded and rich than a lot of stories I’ve read from the same time period. The setting may be dated but the tone is fresh.

I’m amazed that these books seem to be lost gems of children’s literature. The plots are fun and clever and the voice of the books is genius. There is some serious charm going on here. The quality of the writing definitely holds up and I’d recommend anyone even slightly interested to hunt them down.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Thu Oct 17, 2019 9:02 pm
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What does tone do?

Lowell Kempf
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Websters defines tone as ‘general character, quality, or trend’, as well as ‘style or manner of expression in speaking or writing’. Okay, it also defines it in terms of pitch and musical quality but I’m not worrying about that.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that every game has a tone, regardless of what kind of game it is. Which was includes abstracts, RPGs and video games.

And while tone is an essential part of theme, tone is not theme. Every element of a game, theme and components and the rules and the language of the rules contribute to overall character of a game.

Go clearly has a tone even though it has no theme and consists of a wooden board and two colors of stones. The austerity of its rules and its components let you understand what the experience of Go is going to be like. Quiet and calm until someone grabs the board and starts swinging. Go also has the weight of history behind it, which becomes another element of tone.

While I don’t think there has ever been a time when tone hasn’t been an important part of game design and game experience (I refuse to believe the unnamed monk or scholar who developed Rithmomachy didn’t want it to be more erudite than human endurance could handle), I think it has become more laser-focused as modern gaming has developed. As more games are developed at a greater and greater amount, every element ought to be seriously considered.

What got me seriously thinking down this path was the now venerable-by-modern-standards Guillotine, the jovial, silly game of competitive decapitation. With just a little tweaking and no rule changes, it could easily go to much darker black comedy or straight up horror. The light-heartedness was not a happy mistake but intentional.

Guillotine is a pretty heavy-handed example. I have a pretty good feeling if you did a more exhaustive study than I’m up for, you’d see a lot more subtle examples. You could probably write a dissertation about tone and Kickstarter projects, if that hasn’t already been done.

Theme is what a game is about. Mechanics are how you do stuff. Maybe one way to describe tone is what a game is trying to say.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Mon Oct 14, 2019 6:55 pm
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Is SHOBU a newborn classic?

Lowell Kempf
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While I was at RinCon 2019, I passed by a table that had a bunch of boards on it that were clearly for an abstract. I asked some questions, got a sample game and found myself a substitute for the tournament when someone else had to drop out. I lost but I had a great time.

SHOBU is a two-player, perfect information, 100% determinist abstract, just to get that part out of the way. The game consists of four 4x4 boards, two dark and two light. In the official version, they are made out of wood and it comes with a thick rope so you can separate them into a light-dark pair for each player. On each board, you place four stones for each player on either side.

And, yes, it would be laughingly easy to make your own copy. But I’d still like to get a legit copy eventually. Partially because it is nice but also because I’d like to see more games like this out there and supporting designers and companies is how you see that happen.

Every turn has two steps. A passive move, where you move a stone on one of the two boards closest to you one to two spaces in any straight line. Then an aggressive move, where you move a stone the exact same direction and number of spaces on a board of the opposite color. And with the aggressive move, you can push an enemy stone off the board.

Push all the enemy stones off of any one of the four boards and you win.

SHOBU is a knife fight in four separate phone booths and that’s part of what makes it so good. While smaller boards theoretically limit the number of moves and make a game solve-able, it also means that you’re in direct conflict by your second move.

And I freely admit that I generally prefer abstracts that are more about each move being a big, board changing move than a whole bunch of small, discrete moves. (Go is amazing but I also don’t get the chance to play Go very much anymore) SHOBU definitely has that.

At the same time, with four boards to keep track of and the restrictions on how you make your moves, SHOBU definitely has layers of consideration to out into each move. The game is definitely not impossible or even terribly hard to read but you have to think about it differently than you do in so many games.

It’s a definite example of a game where your first game will take five minutes and your tenth game will take an hour. But it will be an hour that will make you think and stimulate the little gray cells. Okay, maybe a half hour but the game steadily got deeper the more I played and I know there’s plenty more to explore.

SHOBU combines several ideas I’ve seen before and, in principle, is a simple game. But it uses those ideas to create something new (to me at least) and really makes me think. I don’t _know_ that it’s a newborn classic. BUT, it could be!

Originally posted at www.gnomeponderimg.com
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Fri Oct 11, 2019 12:56 am
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Bang the Dice Game: making Bang fun again

Lowell Kempf
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After years of hearing how much better Bang the Dice Game is that the original card game, I finally had a chance to play it. And, short version, it sure seems better than the original game.

My history with Bang goes back a ways, before I was really serious about board games. At most, it had only been out for a couple years. And, at the time, it was really cool. At least for the first few sessions.

But Bang has some definite issues. A lot of which comes down to being too busy for what you get out of it. The theme helps it out a lot but it doesn’t do enough, at least not for me.

Okay. Thumbnail of Bang the Dice Game: At the start of the game, everyone gets a hidden role. The Sheriff, who gets revealed at the start, has to kill the outlaws and the renegade. The Deputy wins if the Sheriff wins. The outlaws win if they kill the sheriff. The renegade wins if they kill everyone else. You also get a character card that gives you a special power.

On your turn, you roll five dice that let you shoot other people, heal up, and possibly blow up dynamite in your face. That sort of thing. You get two rerolls, although dynamite faces are locked. One element I really like are arrows. You draw an arrow token every time you rolls one. When the tokens run out, everyone takes damage equal to the number of their tokens and they turn their arrow tokens back in.

The obvious advantage that the dice game has it is that is a lot easier to teach. The card game, while simple once you know the cards, is surprisingly fiddle. Teaching Bang the Dice Game to non-gamers from scratch is clearly much easier.

However, I also think that, mechanically Bang the Dice Game is stronger. Yes, it uses dice but the game is juggling six different possible faces. There are a lot more than six card possibilities in the original Bang, before even adding in expansions. I think the dice flattens the luck out and makes the luck much more manageable.

I would definitely play Bang the Dice Game again, particularly to find out of it’s as good as it seems to be. It’s not the best dice game I’ve ever played but it does a good job making its theme work and being fun.

Originally posted at www.gnomepondering.com
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Tue Oct 8, 2019 4:58 pm
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