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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Playing cards are a language

Lowell Kempf
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Looking at the Mystery Rummy series (and it has, frankly, been too long since I’ve played one of those games), I am reminded about how they are all built on the framework of public domain games. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of theme and special rules involved in making them into bona fide designer games. But the core idea is rummy. It’s right there in the name.

From that point of view, I remembered that a lot of games, particularly card games, have public domain games as their skeletons. Indeed, trick taking games and climbing games form their own vast subcategory.

In fact, I didn’t know about the Casino/Fishing family of card games when I played Lamarkian Poker. It didn’t seem quite so original after I learned more about those public domain card games but I still think it’s a great design. With just a few tweaks, Lamarkian Poker uses an older design to give a consistently rewarding gaming experience, one that I’ve played with a wide variety of people.

It’s not a new technique. Years after I first played Uno, I found out about Crazy Eights. And to be honest, both I and our eight-year-old would rather play Uno than Crazy Eights. I’m not a huge fan of Uno but I think that action cards make for a more dynamic game.

I don’t view this as a form of cheating in design work or shortcuts that somehow lessen the value of a game. Playing cards have a long history, involving a variety of formats and a ridiculously vast nunber of games and rule sets. I have long held that a deck of playing cards is the most flexible game system you can have and I haven’t found any reason to change that opinion.

Playing cards aren’t just numbers and suits. There are a wide variety of interactions that have been developed and codified over literally centuries. Playing cards are their own language and designers are constantly finding ways to use that language to say new ideas.

A game that I have long enjoyed Sticheln subverts many aspects of trick taking games with its anti-trump and pain color rules. However, it only works because there are previously existing paradigms for it to subvert.

No one is going to reasonably accuse Bridge of being a ripoff of Pinochle. The same goes for more recent card games.
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Mon May 23, 2022 10:18 pm
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Noch Mal/Encore keeps me calm

Lowell Kempf
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I have found that games involving patterns seem to be very decompressing for me.

Mind you, when I say patterns, I mean patterns being used blatantly. You can argue that every game is about patterns, just as you can argue that every game has some level of abstraction.

I have read that games revolving around pattern recognition (which is another catch all term) are used for medical therapy. Go, in particular, I remember being used to help ease issues with dementia. Or I’m misremembering and putting Go on a pedestal. It’s easy for me to do that.

With that in mind, I’ve noticed that I’ve been reaching for Noch Mal/Encore when I need to decompress. It’s short enough to serve as a mental coffee break but has a lot of pattern recognition to keep me engaged.

And when I am using NM/E as a mental coffee break, I always fall back on the starter sheet. I go through patterns I already know. It’s half decision-making and half zoning out.

On the other hand, when I actually want to use NM/E as a game, I go with one of the other six sheets. I wish that there was more color contrast (I’ve memorized the color locations on the starter sheet) but having a variety of sheets keeps NM/E engaging. It lets it me a way to zone out or really think, depending on what sheet I pick.

(I play it electronically. Otherwise, I’d mark the sheets as a workaround for my color blindness)

I have liked NM/E since I first tried it and I can’t even remember how I first heard about or who recommended it to me. But, as time has gone on, it has become on constant rotation more and more.

I play a lot of mental coffee break games for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is they are some of the easiest to make as print and plays. But there are a lot of flash in the pans. Finding one that consistently delivers over months and years of play, though, that is good.
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Fri May 20, 2022 5:23 pm
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Kukariyo feels very familiar

Lowell Kempf
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When you get enough books electronically out of the library, the system starts making recommendations. Which is how I got to learn Kukariyo exists. Apparently because I read Demon Slayer. I guess manga = manga to the system.

Spoilers

Spoilers

Spoilers

Kukariyo: Bed and Breakfast for Spirits is a manga based on a series of light novels. Aoi is kidnapped to the spirit lands by an ogre because her late grandfather promised the ogre her hand in marriage. Instead of marrying the ogre… Aoi starts a restaurant at the resort the ogre runs. (The whole marriage thing is to pay for the time her grandfather wrecked the resort)

If I were asked to describe Kukariyo, I would say it’s Spirited Away as food porn with some romance thrown in. Will she marry the ogre Odanna, whose actually a handsome and nice guy, or fall for Ginji, the sweet fox spirit? Who cares, let’s talk about food and cooking!

Kukariyo is foodie Heaven first, fantastic spirit land second and romance last.

There’s an amazing lack of tension in the work. Will Aoi manage to win over the latest troublesome spirit with her amazing food? Of course she will! Was there any question? The real question is what tantalizing dish will she spend three pages lovingly making.

The part of the manga that has been the most fascinating for me is Aoi’s late grandfather, Shiro. He’s dead from the beginning but Shiro casts a shadow over seemingly everything.

Shiro apparently had the ability to see spirits, travel between worlds and had vast undefined power. He could be a scoundrel and a trickster but he was also capable of great kindness as well. The dead grandad is the most complex character in the entire work.

And he’s the reason everything happens. Not only did he promise Aoi’s hand in marriage, he’s the one who taught her how to cook. And her mastery of the kitchen is literally a super power since apparently her spiritual energy is a part of it.

Kukariyo isn’t flawless but it does stick in my head.
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Thu May 19, 2022 2:14 am
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Playing Chess with a second grader

Lowell Kempf
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I recently learned that our son has been learning about Chess in one of his classes. And after he learned that I learned, he asked to play a game with me.

He has the patience of an eight-year-old so I didn’t know how it would go. While I had to correct him several times (pawns and knights were particularly confusing for him) and I went so easy on him that even he could tell, we actually got through the game.

I won’t lie. I’d rather it be Go but it’s easier for me to see why Chess works better for young ones now.

Beyond the fact that the scale of Chess is much smaller than Go ( 64 spaces compared to 361 spaces and 32 pieces compared to theoretically 361 stones (I am pretty sure you can’t legally filled an entire Go board but I’m prepared to be proven wrong)), it’s easier to see the narrative of Chess than Go. Yes, the narrative of Go is much richer but it’s more abstract.

Each Chess piece having its own type of movement and it’s own name may have helped our son understand the flow of the game. I’m seriously wondering if Hive would be a good game to try out with him.

I don’t know if he’s going to ask for another game of Chess but I’m glad that we got this game in.
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Mon May 16, 2022 9:48 pm
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Manly Guys and ADORABLE velociraptors

Lowell Kempf
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After years of seeing commented on, I finally looked at and binged the web comic Manly Guys Doing Manly Things. The title had turned me off but I found out that most of its humor comes from deconstructing toxic masculinity.

It’s about a temp agency whose job is to reintegrate ludicrously macho men back into society. And by ludicrously macho men, we mean characters from video games, movies and comic books. And, yes, I have to look up a lot of stuff to get some of the jokes.

When I do get the jokes, the comic is funny. And Commander Badass is actually an interesting reconstruction of the macho man. (He can be a loving father and sensitive partner AND perform brutal acts of violence.) BUT what won me over were the velociraptors.

Picture fat, fluffy chickens with teeth.

THEY ARE SO ADORABLE!!!

The velociraptors don’t show up often but a little goes a long ways. They are so ridiculously cute that I _refuse_ to look for plush ones on Etsy because I know they must be there and I don’t know if I could resist them.

If I was asked to show one comic strip that explain why I binged this web comic, it would be the one where the velociraptors needed hugs on the Fourth of July because fireworks are scary.

Manly Guys Doing Manly Things has been on hiatus since 2018 so it’s probably not coming back. But it gave us the most cuddly velociraptors ever so it did what ir needed to do.
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Sat May 14, 2022 12:52 am
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The Old Man and the Iceberg

Lowell Kempf
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I promised myself that I would try to read more stuff this year that was challenging and actually made me think. I also have to balance that with time management so I’m gravitating to shorter works. Which is why I reread Hemmingway’s The Old Man and The Sea.

Yup, another book that is a staple for high school book reports.

Is it possible to spoil The Old Man and The Sea? Well, just in case:

Spoilers

Spoilers

Spoilers

The book is about an old fisherman’s last great struggle bringing in a giant marlin, only to have sharks eat it before he can bring it back to shore. It’s one of the classic examples of Man versus Environment, unless you choose to interpret it as Man versus Himself.

As I read it, I couldn’t decide the book was holding up Santiago for his struggles against adversity and loss or if it was condemning those choices that led to him probably dying as the book ends. Which pretty much sums up Hemingway pretty well.

Reading about the book after I read it, I found that Hemingway himself had coined the Iceberg Theory of writing. That almost everything, particularly the things that the author knows, should be hidden, left out. The meaning of a work should be left for the reader to figure out.

Which is why Hemingway Scholarship is its own industry. When everything is up for interpretation, every interpretation can be pursued.

That said, I don’t belong to the school of thought that Hemingway was a lazy author or a bad author. Relentlessly shaving a work down to a theoretical minimum and still have it be engaging is an impressive feat. And frankly, it’s not as minimalist as people who don’t read Hemingway say it is. The Old Man and The Sea may be about an old guy, a boat and a fish and not much else but Santiago has a rich inner dialogue.

Reading about the publication of the book, I read that The Old Man and The Sea was the last major work that Hemmingway published before his death. It’s also apparently the book that revived and sealed his literary reputation. And, boy, it’s tempting to read the book as a metaphor for that point in his career. Which is definitely an option but the open nature of the work makes that only one of many interpretations.

Which just goes back to the Iceberg Theory. The more I look at the book, the more I come back to the idea that there cannot be any one right answer. Rereading The Old Man and The Sea made me think more about Hemmingway than the book.


Post Script:

While reading about Hemmingway, I found out he really was a champion fisherman. And that he kept a tommy gun on his boat to shoot any sharks that got near his catches. That might actually be an idea that is viable but damn.
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Wed May 11, 2022 11:53 pm
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Mario Maker 2 is an art studio

Lowell Kempf
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Our son likes to create his own goals and personal narratives in video games.

Enter Mario Maker 2.

Mario Maker is a virtual construction set that lets you build your very own platformer levels for Nintendo’s mascot to go through. More than that, it has a variety of different art settings so you can live as Mario through the ages.

Man but this thing was made with our child in mind.

One of my earliest computer game experiences was Bill Budge’s Pinball Construction Set. And, to be honest, I suspect that is a game/tool box/experience that would still hold up today. And the Mario Maker series is exactly like it for Super Mario games.

There is a story-mode that also serves as a tutorial for the frankly ridiculous number of tools that you have at your disposal. As opposed to Mario having to rescue Princess Peach for the upteenth time, he is earning money to rebuild her castle after it accidentally gets destroyed. Which I think is an adorable concept.

But our son isn’t interested in the campaign mode. He’s interested in creating what are more like art instillations than more functional levels. Which is absolutely wonderful. It turns Mario into a pure act of creativity. Whenever we get a new video game, there’s always the question if it will be good for us, Mario Maker 2 has quickly proven to be good for us.

I already consider video games to be an art form but Mario Maker 2 is an art studio.

(And yes, you can share designs via the internet but we’re not having our son share stuff with strangers on the internet. Says the guy whose positing this to strangers on the internet lol)
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Tue May 10, 2022 2:20 am
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Love Letter as a classroom game

Lowell Kempf
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There are a couple of classes that I sometimes sub for where board games can be used for learning purposes. And, I honestly have more than enough material to last until the end of the school year, I still keep thinking about even more stuff.

And if part of the lesson is having the kids figure things out for themselves, having components that help teach the rules is something to look for.

One game that I have already been discussing using is Cunning Folk, the game that got me interested in Button Shy (and that’s an interest that has been very good for me. Button Shy is awesome for the casual PnPer) yYou can’t learn the game just by looking at the cards but you can learn a lot.

But another game that fits my needs (relatively short playing time, informative components, easy to learn) is Love Letter. That’s a game that you can practically learn just from the cards.

The individual decisions the kids would get to make are very simple. Two cards per turn and every card tells you just what it does. But every decision affects the game and you have to pay attention to what everyone else is doing. There’s a very small jump between learning the rules and making critical decisions.

I am reminded why Love Letter was a watershed event. It channels interaction and decisions is tiny, focused format. I don’t know if I will ever have the chance to use it in the class room but I am confident it would work there.
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Fri May 6, 2022 8:08 pm
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A grab bag of media comments

Lowell Kempf
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While I like to write about what I’m reading or watching, this is going to be a catch all of stuff that I didn’t feel like writing a full individual blog entry of.

The God Engines by John Scalzi

This novella is about an galactic empire whose spaceships are powered by literally torturing gods. Man, you cannot escape War Hammer 40,000, no matter how hard you try.

I’m honestly not sure what my final opinion about the story is but I have to say that Scalzi never backs off from his premise and relentlessly escalates.

Lady Knight by Tamara Pierce

Protector of the Small is the first series I’ve read by Tamara Pierce. And, of course I started in the middle of her Tortall books. Well, it convinced me to read more Tamara Pierce. Maybe even go back to the beginning lol

Amusingly enough, I didn’t realize how much the series kept building on Kel being a defender of the weak and down trodden until she was openly referred to as the Protector of the Small when she was rescuing a refugee camp’s worth of kids.

The theme and arc of the entire series is in the name

Soft & Cuddly by Jarett Kobek

I keep Boss Battle books on my devices so I have ‘safe’ reading material when I’m at work and around kids. Not so much with this one. Soft & Cuddly only spends one chapter on the title game and the rest is a bitter, angry history of England’s early micro computer industry. Clearly biased, very informative and pretty interesting.

Moon Knight - episode 5

Man, this is the episode that we were waiting for, when Moon Knight finally hit its stride. I am fully expecting a cliff hanger ending and the promise of another a season at the end of the season.

I realized for the first time that, as someone who first read Moon Knight in 1981, I went in with certain basic assumptions. Until this episode, it never occurred to me that there could be a question of who the original personality was.

Dragonbreath Book 11: The Frozen Menace

The last book in the series. Our son wanted to stop three chapters from the end. I wonder if he just doesn’t want Dragonbreath to end. I wanted to find out what happened so I finished it by myself.

While the series ends on an open note for more books, The Frozen Menace feels like an ending point. Danny achieves some character development that has been in the works since book one and the last paragraph is about how good going home is.

This was a good series for our family.
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Thu May 5, 2022 9:50 pm
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My April Gaming

Lowell Kempf
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April ended up being a busier month for gaming than I expected. It was still a busy month for life but some gaming fit in.

As I’ve written about elsewhere, I had a chance to run a class of fifth graders through 13 Sheep. We’ve since then discussed trying out Pandemic: Hot Zone and Cunning Folk in the classroom as well.

It’s certainly a different way of using gaming than I’m used to.

I also spent some time with the third playtest version of Palm Laboratory. I don’t want to write about the game until it’s actually published but it is definitely more than a reskin of Palm Island.

And I learned a couple Roll and Writes.

Dice BBQ is from the 11th Roll ans Write contest and is themed around Argentinian barbecues. The game uses one of the most basic formats of R&W. Roll dice and write numbers in boxes. You get to change a die once. Cook steaks, pour wine, make salads, lose points with smoke.

Dice BBQ made me happy. I wasn’t sure I’d be trying any new games in April. Dice BBQ was something I could print out one page and learn in a few minutes. It is very simple and doesn’t do anything new but the pieces do come together nicely. The artwork looking like it’s from a High Lights magazine really helps. I don’t think it has much replay value but I had fun.

Daddy Issues… Interesting game and I hate the name. We live in a world where you can’t count on anyone getting or appreciating comedic irony.

You play the dad who went out one day for cigarettes and never came back. It turns out you got lost and ended up fighting rabid dogs, zombies and werewolves.

The game is actually a set of tables that you roll on to draw a map and generate encounters. It very much feels like a Fighting Fantasy adventure since you have to teach health and inventory.

I am fascinated by Daddy Issues. I like the theme, even if I don’t like the name. It’s amusing and quirky. And I have enjoyed game book experiences.

BUT I rolled up a store where I could buy cigarettes almost immediately in my first two games. The random factors, both for long a game might last as well as how difficult it can be, are definitely issues.

I want to play Daddy Issues some more so I can fully experience the game, give it a proper review. I have to see how the good parts of the game weigh out against the bad parts.

Looking back, April worked out pretty well for gaming.
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Mon May 2, 2022 8:19 pm
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