Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Candle Quest KS Funding Looks Unlikely, But You Should Still Back It

As of right now, a successful funding for our Kickstarter project Candle Quest is unlikely to happen. The momentum isn't there, despite good reviews from GeekDad and some promotions by a few other key bloggers.

However, you should STILL back the project right now, and at least before it's over. Why?

  • A fresh boost in project backers could lead to a cascade of new backers. When you back a KS project, it moves up the ranking on the "Popular KS Projects" list. Projects higher on the list receive more attention from visitors to the site, and thus more views and more backing. It's a positive feedback loop.
  • Backing the project costs you NOTHING if the project does not fund. This is entirely risk-free. If the project funds, you get what you wanted; if not, you're out nothing.
  • The more backers we get for the project, the more we can evaluate what to do next. If we get many backers, even if we don't meet the funding goals, we can take that number to a traditional publisher and show them that there is a proven fan base for the game and they should publish it. Or we can get some other investor willing to help us self-publish.
  • Backing the project makes me feel happy, and you want me to feel happy, don't you?
There you go. Don't stop spreading the word, especially to local religious organizations or game clubs. Promote the game on Facebook and Twitter, and post about it on your blog.

The artwork may make the game look like a children's game, but rest assured this is the same great game that is enjoyed by nearly every adult who has ever played it. Candle Quest is a great gateway game: simple to understand, simple choices on each turn, a balance of skill and luck, complex strategy options, lots of player interaction, an evolving story-arc, no player elimination, quick game-play, and appealing to all ages, genders, and religions.


Sunday, December 23, 2012

Shabbat Gaming

Last shabbat after dinner I played Anagrams using Snatch-It tiles with Raanana's reigning Anagrams queen Shuli and her friend Janine, also no slouch. I used to think I was good at the game. This time I was surprised that I nearly held my own. I came in third, only a word or two down from Janine, who was a word or two down from Shuli.

After lunch I played Settlers of Catan with Anne, Sarah, and Noa. First play for Anne, astoundingly first or second play for Sarah (who has been playing games for some time now, and first time playing with the correct rules for Noa (who is a Dominion fan but doesn't know much else about gaming).

Experience and a little luck still holds some sway. I carefully promoted trading as a worthwhile endeavor, warned against trading with the leading player, especially when he or she is at 7 points or higher, and encouraged them to gang up on me.

Anne played aggressively, immediately going to block routes or steal board locations that other players needed. She claimed that she just played the best moves for herself and not deliberately to be aggressive. I've heard that before from a lioness ripping the meat out of a zebra. Sarah ended up boxed in with only two spots to which to expand, which can be difficult (though not impossible).

I had only three spots, but I only needed two. A series of 5s rolled early, each of which gave me 2 bricks and 2 wood, allowed me to plunk down an early 9-length Longest Road. I would not typically pick up Longest Road early in the game, but I felt that the large gap I had over the other players made it unlikely that I would get into a road building war with anyone else (and thus let a third player win, which is what usually happens to road builders).

This worked. I was able to keep my longest road to the end of the game and plunk down my fourth city for the win. The other players all had hidden victory point cards and 7, 8, or 9 points. I think they didn't realize that there were only 5 points (and Largest Army) to go around in the development card deck; they might have (should have) built a few more cities first before going for the cards.

This shabbat after dinner I played a few card games with Anne and a few kids at their house after dinner. I taught them how to play Oh Hell. We played to the end and I came in second. Then I taught them how to play Hearts. We played five rounds, no moons shot. We were all in our thirties or so when we had to quit.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Long Distance Antike with Chris and Jim

Last night I played Antike with two friends on a different continent. We didn't play an online board game; we played by video chat with four video cameras and three copies of the game, one at each location.

Chris lives in Oregon. Jim lives in Indiana. I live in Raanana, Israel. This was not our first long distance game. Four years ago, we arranged for Chris and Jim to set up a game at BGG.con so that I could play "at the con" when I wasn't able to make it. This year the internet reception at BGG.con was spotty, and scheduling was difficult, so we delayed the game a few weeks. On that occasion, we played Agricola.

Face to face is best, of course, since you get to see your friends, pass around a beer, and need control only a single board state. Online gaming generally has only text chat, which removes most of the social element from the game. Also, in online games, you are subject to the occasional implementation issue, such as an interface error. Playing by video chat neatly fits into the space between these two options. We could see the other person in a limited way when we looked at the screen, although we generally looked at our own board. We could talk in real time, and even wave at the other players' families in the background when they came in to gawk at us geeks. The copied board states ensured that no errors were made during play.

The game took two and a half hours, including setting up the communications and the boards, resetting the communications to remove some static and mic problems, and a bathroom break. We used Google+ Hangout (although we toyed with using Skype). Chris used two cameras, one for himself and one for the main board.

Pics that Jim's and Chris's wives took are on my Facebook profile.

We played on the Middle Eastern map. I played Arabia (southeast), Jim played Persia (central north), and Chris played Greece (central west). Chris and I had similar strategies of early Know-Hows; Chris beat me to the first one and stayed about a turn and a half in front of me until near the end of the game. We each took one south side of the board. Jim played a heavy expansion strategy, quickly expanding to 15 and then 20 cities across the north, and then he armed himself and created a military front to protect his territories, which bulged in an arc across the entire north of the board and down into the center. However, having missed all of the early Know-How points, he lagged behind in points for most of the game.

I get the feeling that both of them are used to more conflict in the game. In our game, not a single city was conquered. In fact, the only fight that occurred was when I swapped some ships with Jim so that I could place a ship near his city, not to conquer it but to get the second "7 ships" award. Near the end, Chris expanded to get the last "5 city" award, which brought him to withing a point of victory, but I collected the "All eight Know-Hows" (worth a free point) and then got my 14th sea location on my next turn. The game ended 10 to 9 to 6 (or 7).

As usual, this was a great time spent with two amazing people whom I rarely see or interact with face to face. The conversation was game oriented mostly, but the game was really an excuse to get together. Hooray for games, and for video chat, and for good companions.

Support Candle Quest: The Hanukkah Board Game

Candle Quest, my well-designed Euro-style board game and therefore actually fun to play for both adults and children, is on Kickstarter now. It won't be produced unless it receives enough backing and support to reach its funding target in the next three weeks. So please back it now.

Here's a brief description of the game:

- Flip a candle card
- Buy, sell, or auction the candle card
- Collect 8 different colored candles to win

That's not too hard, right? Each step is described in detail in the rulebook, and you can be up and playing in less than five minutes.

However, for those of you who think this is just a kid's game (from the colorful pretty graphics), I've played the game upwards of a hundred times or so, and while it doesn't have the depth of Chess, it has a surprising amount of depth for a game with such simple rules.

In the first few games, you manage your money to acquire the candles you need. Then you begin to think how to prepare for the bad candles. Then how what you throw out or auction could help others (some people track the candles that other people collect). Then you start to track the cards that have been thrown out so as to know when you need to compete heavily for a card that is now in limited supply. You reassess the value of the dancing candles because of how they help you in the end game.

When you move to the advanced game, you try to balance the quick acquisition of candles vs the points on the candles. You consider the money and value how much you actually gain and lose each turn with your acquisition, while also considering the five point ending bonus.

The game is not just about the cards you draw; it is about the choices you make - flip or loot a card, buy, sell, or auction the card, and if you auction the card, for how much? But it has enough random elements to make it possible for younger players to complete against their elders.

See my analysis of the game for more.

Sound like a game that should exist? It can, but only with your help! If you've already backed the game, share the Kickstarter link with your local Jewish organization or synagogue or with others who you think might enjoy it. Do it soon, though, because the funding time period ends in three weeks!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

HeroQuest: Crying Out for a Re-Release

The following is a guest post from a staff member of the New York Film Academy:

My passion for Eurogames came at a very young age. My father used to run a computer game import business which, when you're seven, is akin to having an astronaut as a dad.

As a result, gaming inevitably became a large part of my childhood but being responsible folk, my parents did limit the amount of time I spent playing video games. I quickly figured out that I could get my fix equally well by playing board games during my downtime without any objection from the powers that be. By demanding the same kind of dynamism from my board game experience as I expected from their video counterparts, it didn't take me long to progress from simplistic chance-based games to more rewarding games like Carcassonne, Caylus, and the deservedly acclaimed Puerto Rico.

But before all those was an indirect predecessor that really opened my mind to open-ended gaming. It's a game which ticked all the right boxes, accomplished everything it tried to be, and is sorely in need of a re-release.

Today we're looking at the Milton Bradley/Games Workshop classic, HeroQuest:

HeroQuest (Hero Quest is also acceptable if the lack of space troubles you) was an archetypal fantasy dungeon-crawler released around 1990 depending on which side of the pond you were on.  The game is party-based and ideally played with between three to five people, lasting around two hours unless the players are very unlucky.

It's one of the few Games Workshop titles to feature a board (and easy to digest rules, for that matter) but does also include superbly detailed miniatures for playing pieces, the quality of which you'd expect from GW.

Players progress through a series of 'levels' as directed by the game master – who gets to have fun trying to screw over the players at every opportunity – and fight an atypical assortment of orcs, skeletal warriors, zombies and things of that ilk. Cheesy fun, but also brutally unforgiving and very immersive once the board has been fully populated with the furniture that comes with the game.

It's apparently set in the Warhammer universe, but given HeroQuest's self-contained nature and seemingly independent story-line  knowledge of other GW titles or their backstory is completely unnecessary. In fact, one of the major appeals of HeroQuest is that no prior experience with RPGs is needed; if you don't have the money or energy to invest in tabletop miniature gaming, you'll love HeroQuest. If you like fantasy but are turned off by the hardcore nature of paper-based RPGs like D&D et al, HeroQuest is a terrific board-based solution.

Covering the finer aspect of the game-play mechanics is outside the scope of this post, but here's a great video overview which does it justice.

Instead, what I'd like to do is look at it through the lens of Yehuda's 10 Most Important Aspects of a Game, which should really be industry standard when it comes to reviewing anything:

A Non-Offensive Theme: No concerns on this aspect. Given that it involves combat the suggestion of violence is inherent, but nothing that would raise eyebrows. 9/10

Limited Decisions on Each Turn: The game is remarkably delimited, and even encourages players to explore the board and approach situations from different angles. In terms of the number of actions a player can choose to carry out during his or her turn, this aspect deserves no less than: 10/10

Heaviness: There are a fourteen different 'quests' in the vanilla version of the game, which can take anywhere from ten to twenty minutes each to complete. However, this massively depends on the number of players as well as the disposition of the group. So in theory the game can go on for about five hours since the quests lead on from each other, but in reality I've never seen anyone make it through the whole thing in one sitting – if the dungeon hasn't managed to kill off all the players by the two hour mark, sadly, boredom seems to set it. In that respect the game does have a lot of drag, but at the same time it doesn't feel like a premature end if you decide to stop after quest number X and pick it up at a later date.  7/10

Multiple Strategic Goals: This is an area in which HeroQuest excels. Not only can players differ as to how best to achieve a shared objective – which leads to hilarious scenarios – but the game also offers at least one side-quest per level. These side-quests, if undertaken, can yield items which are hugely helpful later in the game but also finely balanced in the danger/reward ratio. And given that the game master has conflicting goals and is constantly throwing in the proverbial spanner, the game truly is a strategic head-scratcher and a superb exercise in balanced game design. 9/10

Randomness Without Luck: HeroQuest's combat system is dice based and ergo dependent on some gambling. However, given that the system is nicely weighted to give realistic probabilities of your wounded dwarf managing to kill a towering gargoyle, everything has a veneer of fairness to it. And anyway, you generally have the option of applying tactics and avoiding the fight if you don't fancy your odds. 8/10

Interaction: It's certainly a fun social experience and coordination between players is needed, but I wouldn't go as far to say that outcomes are hinged upon negotiation and trading. It's just not that kind of game. 5/10

Depth: HeroQuest has an abundance of depth thanks to its dynamic gameplay mechanics and number of options open to the player at any given time. The only place it lacks depth is in the story department; evil wizards, dwarves, treasure chests… yadda yadda yadda. These clichés were even old hat when HeroQuest was brought out - thankfully the loose storyline can be entirely ignored without ruining the game experience, but they still missed a trick in trying to dumb it down what is essentially a very nuanced game for a younger age demographic. 7/10

Extensibility: This aspect is a bit tricky to judge. The game was limited in a sense to what hardware you had, but it was no less extensible than Magic in that they released droves of add-on packs back in the day. Of course, that's no help to you twenty years after the fact. 7/10 

The Game Experience: Anyone who played this as a kid will attest to the swelling nostalgia it brings to them as an adult. That alone is the hallmark of a superb game. 9/10

Replayability: A slight let down here by HeroQuest's very nature; once you know the details of a quest, that knowledge mars the surprises of the game.  Again though, Milton Bradley/Games Workshop did keep a steady stream of add-on packs going to counter this, and I guess if I'm still playing it two decades later the issue is moot. 8/10

In Conclusion

HeroQuest went on to win the hearts of many, as well as an Origins Award for its incredible game art. Games Workshop also put out a similar game albeit with a sci-fi setting at around the same time, but whereas Space Hulk was deemed fit for a re-release in 2009, HeroQuest remains sadly dead despite its international success.  This is baffling given that Space Hulk was flawed with silly game-play mechanics like time limits on moves and a rushed-feeling playing time.

Until HeroQuest gets the re-release it so rightfully deserves, there's always eBay. It was so successful on release that enough were published for there to be a good number of surviving copies, but high demand brings with it a price tag of around $100…

… And that's for a copy which doesn't look like it's been used to house hamsters.

Shabbat Game: Alien Frontiers

I introduced five other people to Alien Frontiers on shabbat; two of the other "players" were actually teams. I had brought the game because I knew there would be a newbie, an up-until-now non-gamer who was nevertheless interested in trying out some games and who is particularly intelligent. I thought AF would be a good choice. It's actually a little dry as far as gateway games go; Settlers would have been better (as always).

AF is not a terribly long game, in theory, but my players tend to take a little longer than average. In this game, that little longer was a lot longer. Each turn took five minutes or more. Wow. I also made a few mistakes in the game explanation, having only played the game three times previously. These were corrected as the game went on with the occasional referral to the rulebook. The most egregious oversight was that players only receive 6 bases at the start; I had simply handed out all nine bases (we used the Kickstarter-supplied bonus rocket ships on the scoring track). After one player already had 4 bases settled we discovered the oversight and the end game was suddenly approaching a lot sooner.

Two of the players started the game with the force field card. That left the other two players, including me, the subject of all attacks for the first half of the game. Which left me, the only experienced player, the subject of all attacks for the first half of the game. By coincidence, the two of us without the force field cards started with the +1 VP cards, which are useless at the start of the game.

After the great oversight discovery, I sacrificed two of my cards to move bases around on the planet. This left all of the players within one point of each other, but could not prevent the newbie from winning the game on her next move, which I kind of expected from the beginning.

My BGG secret santa sent me two games: Castles of Burgundy and High Society, the first of which Nadine was able to bring back from the US for me (the other is still at her parents). (P.S. High Society is only $10.75 right now on Amazon.)

I also bought Thunderstone, which a local Raanana gamer has brought back for me from Toronto. I'm looking forward to playing it without the running score totals displayed as public knowledge, as they are while playing online at Yucata. Which are the best expansions?


Pre-order my Hanukkah board game on Kickstarter now!

Thursday, December 06, 2012

Preorder My New Hanukkah Game Now!

My (old) new game Candle Quest is up on Kickstarter. You can go there right now to pre-order the world's first and only decent game with a Hanukkah theme ... heck, with any Jewish theme. Go there. Right Now. I'll wait.

You should know, however:
  • This game is a new version of The Menorah Game, of which my previous published game It's Alive! was a re-theme. This new edition returns the game to its original theme, but with all new graphics and professional publication (the original game never went beyond prototype stage).
  • The game includes new simplified rules for younger players.
  • The game will not actually be available for a few months. You won't be getting it this Hanukkah. Kickstarter is being used to contribute to make publishing the game possible and as a PRE-order. We need the money NOW to print and ship the game. Your backing gets you all kinds of goodies, and for just $25 you also get the game itself, shipped free in the continental US.
  • This game will be printed in a limited run, so backing the project on Kickstarter is your best chance of securing a copy of the game.
  • As of right now we are seeing a large expense in getting individual games shipped internationally, and that includes Israel. Hopefully we'll have a solution for that sometime soon.

Everything you need to know about the game, the project, the rewards for backing, etc, is on the Kickstarter page. A brief summary:

Candle Quest is a lightly-themed set collection and resource management game that features an assortment of dancing, waving and sad candle characters. It is a fast-moving family board game for 2 to 5 players ages 5 and up and takes 30-45 minutes to play.
In Candle Quest, you and your fellow players each need to find 8 different colored candles to light your Menorah. Some candles you can buy. For others, you can’t afford to pay full price; you may have to sell or bargain for them. Be on the lookout for the highly-valued magical dancing candles, but watch out in case one of your candles burns out! Will you be the first to collect your candles and light your Menorah?
Backers of the Kickstarter campaign who pledge at least $25 will receive a copy of the game when it is printed. All backers will receive additional benefits such as signed games or artwork, or digital downloads. Like most small publishing efforts, this game will be produced in a limited release, so it if you want a copy, grab it now.
The game will appeal to experienced gamers looking for a quick strategy game as well as parents and teachers interested in an original game that relates to the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.  There is a complete lack of original entertaining games with Jewish themes beyond a few simple roll-and-move or trivia games for children. Candle Quest breaks new ground as the first and only designer game for Hanukkah intended to be entertaining for adults but playable by all members of the family.
Some gamers liked the horror theme of It's Alive! However, there were many others who liked the game but wanted a more family-friendly alternative. We hope that this new theme will serve the purpose. While it's about candles for your Menorah, there is no actual Jewish content in the game, so it should be enjoyable for anyone.

Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Alanis in Israel 2012

Alanis Morissette wrapped up her global Guardian Angel tour at the sold-out Nokia Stadium (Yad Eliyahu) in Tel Aviv last night, and she was awesome, even if her performance wasn't ... exactly.

The hall was supposed to open at 7:00 for the 9:00 concert, with two opening acts: the local Israeli artist Natan Goshen at 7:30 for 1/2 hour and Alanis' husband Mario ("MC Souleye") Treadway at 8:00 for an hour.

Natan didn't come on until after 8:00, but he was AMAZING. I've heard some Israeli music here and there in the twenty odd years I've lived here, and I've been to a few concerts. Natan was among the best I've heard, both in terms of songs and live performance. There should have been more than a half empty stadium during his performance, and it should have been longer.

There was a short break and then Mario came out with a DJ backer. Unfortunately for him, since no one announced him, pretty much no one in the audience knew who he was. It must be a tough job to be on stage performing to people who don't know who you are, are waiting for the main act, and are unimpressed with your act. The audience wasn't rude - they applauded after each song - but they were confused and didn't respond to the music. Part of the problem was that his genre (white rap) was not Alanis' genre, and so really intended for a different audience.

Another problem was the voluminous sound, which made it impossible to understand more than a word or two here or there, which is death for an hour long rap song set list where all the songs otherwise sound the same. "What did he say? Something something tragic, something something automatic, something something plastic, something something uh glass bit?" Another problem was that he's white and a rapper, which is not entirely impossible but difficult for someone who looks handsome, clean, married, and comfortably well off. I'm guessing that he would make a not bad pop singer, but as a rapper, while he tried valiantly to connect to the audience, moving back and forth on the stage, and signing with his hands in sync with his words, he lacked real emotion or street cred, as the kids are saying nowadays.

Alanis came on during his set for one song (Jekyll and Hyde, I'm guessing) to thunderous applause, sang a little, kissed him, and then promised the audience to come back a little later. It took a long time between sets until she finally reappeared at 10:10, over an hour late.

Set list (JLP=Jagged Little Pill, SFIJ=Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie, URS=Under Rug Swept, HaBL=Havoc and Bright Lights):

  • I Remain (Prince of Persia soundtrack)
  • Woman Down (HaBL)
  • All I Really Want (JLP)
  • You Learn (JLP)
  • Guardian (HaBL)
  • Mary Jane (JLP)
  • Receive (HaBL)
  • Right Through You (JLP)
  • So Pure (SFIJ)
  • Ironic (JLP)
  • Havoc (HaBL)
  • Head Over Feet (JLP)
  • Lens (HaBL)
  • Henei Mah Tov (instrumental)
  • 21 Things (URS)
  • Uninvited (City of Angels soundtrack)
  • You Oughta Know (JLP)
  • Numb (HaBL)
  • Hand in My Pocket (acoustic) (JLP)
  • Your Room (JLP)
  • Thank U (SFIJ)
Notice anything unusual here? Six songs from the album being promoted, nine songs from her breakthrough album 15 years ago, and almost nothing else. Ok, JLP was incredible, but so was a whole lot of material from her other albums. A few songs from the other albums made it to her set lists at other stops in the tour, and I would dearly have loved to have heard Citizen of the Planet, Eight Easy Steps, Excuses, Everything, Front Row, UR, Unsent, Hands Clean, So Unsexy, Precious Illusions, etc etc in place of a few of the songs from JLP.

Anyhoo ...

Alanis is one of the finest songwriters and music arrangers, and her raw singing passion is surpassed by no one, so being present at her concert was a privilege. Alanis and the band played with smiles and positive energy and the fan was appreciative. She still packs an emotional punch. She's no longer a frustrated jagged pill, so she doesn't sing the old songs with quite the pain they deserve, but so much of the angst is already packed into the lyrics and the music that it doesn't matter so much.

When Alanis picks up a guitar she rocks, and when she dances uninhibitedly like she did on Uninvited you can tell she's enjoying herself. It's fair to say that the night was awesome and the crowd loved it. Despite. Despite that the bass and voice mic being so loud that you couldn't really make out the words on some songs and they caused earache (I guess she had to sing above the screaming of the crowd) and the notes tended to dissolve at that high a volume, and despite that Alanis had some trouble singing all of the words in some of the more frenetic songs here and there. She looked a little out of breath at the beginning.

One lovely thing about Alanis is that she is a musician, not a celebrity pop star: there was no dance routine, no cleavage or thigh on display, no flash--in-the-pan style trying oh so hard to be a hit; just a conservatively dressed, kind of awkward powerhouse of a woman singing words she needs to sing. I say awkward, and really, during the first two songs she just marched from left to right on the stage and back again, over and over, as if she just learned how to take big steps. When she held the guitar she didn't look so awkward, and when she was jumping up and down and rocking (like on Uninvited) she looked like a typical clubber. The pacing was kind of funny.

My daughter also says that she does odd things with the mic, moving and contorting her head to control the sound volume rather than just moving the mic back and forth. However, she was holding a guitar, so I think that this was unavoidable.

On Mary Jane she proved she could still sing while belting it out. On So Pure, she changed the location from New York to Tel Aviv, but she changes the location at every concert to the local city. For Ironic, the audience sang so loudly that Alanis just held the mic out to us for most of the song. She also changed the verse from "and meeting his beautiful wife" to "and meeting my beautiful husband", which kind of robs the song of its point, but the song always was, ironically, never about irony anyway. Lens, with its lyrics about competing religions (used metaphorically) was particularly appropriate for the venue.

After Lens the pianist played a short riff through the classic Hebrew round about brotherly love Henei Ma Tov U'ma Na'im, which I'm pretty sure was not done anywhere else on the tour. It was something to hear 10,000 people scream her most gritty and powerful song You Oughta Know, including the infamous "and are you thinking of me when you f*** her" all together. I was at the concert with my daughter, as I may have mentioned.

She finished around midnight, and 12 hours later my ears are still ringing. We've had some other world class musicians here in Israel recently: Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, Red Hot Chile Peppers, etc. This was my first large concert in Israel, actually my first large concert since my first ever large concert Pink Floyd in 1987 at Nassau Coliseum. That one was a blast, and so was this one.

Sunday, December 02, 2012


Abe, Sara, and I played Carl Chudyk's second major multi-purposed cards game Innovation (the first is Glory to Rome, whose black box Kickstarter edition I am still waiting to receive; the first appears to have gotten lost in the mail). Innovation is published by Asmadi Games.

Like GtR, Innovation features cards that not only have several purposes (the same could be said for San Juan or Race for the Galaxy), but are crowded with text and icons across several sides and the center. During play, none, one, or some parts of the iconography or text are relevant at a time; the others have no function at all. While clever and resourceful, and while this naturally enables useful decision making mechanics, the design is threatening or confusing to some types of players. If you're not able to process five different meanings on seven different cards at a time while always remembering exactly which is in effect at any given time, or you're always forgetting what's in effect or asking what "will happen if I do this", this may not be the game for you.

For those that like this type of thing, Innovation is far more chaotic that GtR, which was pretty chaotic. It is possible that my opinion about the chaos will change as I learn the cards. But in my first game, and with only three players, whenever my turn came back around nearly every players' boards had entirely changed. This made any kind of long term-planning nigh impossible, and so we played nearly every round simply grasping for the most points or progress that we could achieve each round.

Now this was not entirely the case; Abraham used the same card Democracy several rounds in a row because no one could find a light bulb to leech off of his card's usage. And I planned and executed a series of splay actions over three rounds that netted me the special achievement for splaying all of my cards. These were more exception than the rule.

Here is the gist of the rules: There are four actions. Each player has in front of him five card piles, one in each color. Each card has a series of icons, a number indicating 1) the deck from which the card was drawn, 2) it's point value if stashed as treasure, and c) the deck from which you may draw cards if it in on top of one of your piles. Each turn, you get to play two actions (the same or different, in any order). The actions are:

- Draw a card.

You draw from the deck matching the highest number on top of one of your piles. If that deck is empty, draw from the lowest number deck that is higher than that number. So if the highest valued number of top of your five piles is 6, and there are no cards in the 6 deck, draw from the 7 deck (if it is empty, from the 8 deck and so on).

- Play a card.

Play a card of any number on top of the pile in front of you of that card's color. It is now the top card of that pile.

- Activate a top card of one of your piles

The cards do lots of things. Each has one or more activated abilities, executed in order from top to bottom. Each ability is preceded by a miniature icon. There are two main types of abilities:

a) Force other players to do something. In this case, all other players who have LESS of the indicated icon than you do must perform the action. So, if the icon is a tower, and between all of your top cards you have 5 tower icons, all other players with fewer than 5 tower icons must do the action.

b) Do something. In this case, all other players who have THE SAME OR MORE of the indicated icon than you do ALSO perform the action.. They do it first, and then you do it. After you finish all the abilities, if ability of this type (b) was performed by any other player, you get a free "draw a card" action.

This explains the icons on the card. You are constantly watching not only the potential abilities on every other players' cards as well as your own, but also the icon count to see which ones, either positive or negative, will affect you.

Each player has up to five possible choices for card activation, one for each pile in front of them.

- Claim an achievement.

Some of the abilities let you take cards - from hands, piles, or decks - and stash them under your player mat as "points". There are 9 achievement cards numbered 1/5, 2/10, 3/15, ... 9/45 (these are actually regular cards from the deck being used for this special purpose instead of their regular purpose). To claim an achievement, you must use this action and have a) a top card in your pile equal to or greater than the achievement you want and b) have the required number of points (5 times the card level). Achievements cannot be stolen or lost.

That's the bulk of the game. You take two actions (each from the above choices of draw, play, activate 1, activate 2, activate 3, activate 4, activate 5, or claim) and play passes to the next player. On another player's turn, you might play an activity if another player activates it and you have the right icons. Many actions, unfortunately, cover over or remove the top cards from the piles of other players or from yours, so the available top cards - and thus player choices and powers - changes after nearly every action.

There are some other rules: five special achievements that are taken without actions if you fulfill their conditions, and card "splaying", which means uncovering the icons of cards beneath your top card in a pile, which basically adds some or all of the icons in these cards to your board.

We didn't get to finish the game by the end of about three hours, though we had a baby, first game learning, some interruption for cake, and a somewhat slower player. I took an early lead and we were fearful that this might lead to a runaway leader problem - I already had more points and better cards on the table. Thankfully, this was not the case, as first Sarah and then Abe caught up in points and achievements. We were neck and neck when we had to wrap up. It didn't look like anyone was going to win with the five achievements required (though still possible, I grant). The other way the game ends is when someone needs a card numbered 11, which doesn't exist.

Abe and I both wish to play again. Alas he is leaving for Houston. Bye bye, Abe.


Last night I had a family over for the first time, with some kids. Tal taught the kids how to play It's Alive, which they appeared to enjoy. One of the kids won. I then taught both kids and parents how to play For Sale, which they also enjoyed. I played together with the 8 year old and we won in a close game: 56 to 54, 54, 52, and 38.

Last shabbat I played some Gin Rummy and Oh Hell with my daughter, something I hadn't done in a while.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Gilead Games

I'm involved in a new project that aims to bring The Menorah Game back to life. The Menorah Game is the original prototype version of It's Alive, which was published by Jackson Pope of the now defunct Reiver Games. More info about It's Alive can be found here.

The new project is called Gilead Games.

It is a joint project between myself, Nadine Wildmann who took over the Jerusalem Strategy Gaming Club when I moved to Raanana, and our friends Bill and Shirley Burdick in the US. Nadine is a game tinkerer (she created a biblical themed version of Ra for our group), a PR specialist, and a Wordpress wizard. Bill is the designer of a wickedly innovative RPG system called Death of the Vele; here is an interview of Bill by New Style. Shirley has designed and run live action Euro-style games for large groups.

We are still exploring what is required to publish the game or license the game to another publisher. Kickstarter is a strong possibility. Nadine has commissioned new artwork for the game that you can see on the site. Example:

Some of you like the horror theme of It's Alive, and that's tribute to the publishing skills of Jackson. However, there were many others who liked the game but wanted a more family-friendly alternative. We hope that this re-re-theme will serve the purpose. It's about candles on your menorah, but there is no actual Jewish content in the game, so it should be enjoyable for anyone. Of course, the basic mechanics will remain the same.

If you're at BGG.con, Nadine is there, and Bill and Shirley will be there soon, so search them out and say hi.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Inca Empire

Played Inca Empire on shabbat with Abe and Sara. I took it to a decisive victory: 122 to 121 to 120. The trouble is that I've played the game two times before, but these were their first plays.

The game is divided into a few phases that start with everyone getting workers and end with everyone scoring their board positions. In between, you alternate between a) playing cards that affect two players in the game (either you and an opponent, or two opponents; which you choose depends on whether the card is beneficial or harmful) and then b) placing two roads followed by an action: build a garrison, build a city, build a temple, build a terrace, conquer a territory, place another road, or pass. Each item gives some greater points one time only to the person who built it and some lesser points at the end of each phase to all players connected to it. Conquering territories and building terraces increase your worker income.

The phases get longer as the game goes on, which means played cards accumulate. The cards give you bonuses, or make things more or less expensive, etc. At the end of each phase, all cards are cleared away.

My having played before didn't prevent me from forgetting most of the rules and making some rule mistakes that I only corrected as the game progressed. For instance, only about two thirds of the way into the game did I realize that we each get two free roads each turn, not one. As sometimes happens with misplayed rules, I kind of liked the misplay. When we started playing with two roads each, we all connected to just about everything nearly immediately, which was kind of anti-climactic. On the other hand, the reason that we could all connect to everything all of a sudden was that the first cities and garrisons were all built close to the starting positions, so it's probably a wash.

We all enjoyed the game. It's probably a bit dry for some. There's a theme in there, but it's hard to remember.

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

7 Reasons the Republicans Lost and Deserved It

No one person or party represents all of my political views. I agree with Democrats on some issues, Republicans on others, and Libertarians on still others. On yet other issues, no one represents my views.

Nevertheless, my hatred for the political system doesn't blind me to the problems of the Republican party. Here are seven reasons why they lost this election.

1. They made religion center stage.

Official debates and stump speeches were mostly about the economy and jobs, but Republican talking points that made headlines were about God, God, and God. Many Republicans apparently believe that America is defined by its bible-thumping conservatives. It isn't.

America left Europe because they wanted to be free and independent from religion-based government. Over and over some Republicans want to shove Christianity down our throats, from public prayer, to restricted abortion, to who can marry, to the ten commandments, etc etc. Americans do not want religion mixed with government. They want religion to be personal choice.

2. They threatened abortion and contraception

A direct result of the first point, too many Republicans talked about abortion. The idea that 40 years after Roe v Wade American women could lose basic health and human rights was enough to scare millions of women into the Democrats' pocket.

I get that you honestly believe that a fetus is a human; but that's your belief, and it's a religious belief, it's not everyone's belief. If you restrict abortion because of your narrow view of the bible, you become like the fundamentalist Islamic nations that you so rail against.

3. They are out of touch regarding gay rights.

Also a direct result of the first point, the right for all people to consensual love or sex with whomever they want is inevitable and it's sacred. The argument that someone else's private life diminishes some so-called institution of marriage is simply insane. When all of your arguments are based on the bible, you should stay out of American politics.

The arguments against gay rights echo the arguments against civil rights for blacks, and they will not endure.

4. They cling to the trickle down economic model with no government oversight.

The notion that its good to have rich people because they give money to poor people has been proven wrong again and again, but that's still the core Republican economic philosophy. The wealth gap gets bigger and bigger every year.

Too many large companies drive out competition from struggling small companies using monopolistic practices rather than by out-competing. Too many companies practice short term gain without considering human consequences. Republicans push for an economy that acts like a "business", which perforce leaves some people cut adrift; that might work for a business, but it's not a moral position for a country.

5. They clung to made-up pictures of the economy and foreign policy.

Too many Republican talking points about the dire straights of the economy just weren't true. No single number defines the economy. Unemployment is up, but so are jobs. The debt is up but so is manufacturing. Poverty is up but so is consumer confidence.

The same argument applies to foreign relations. America was hated by some and the target of attacks under Bush; it was hated by some and targeted by less attacks under Obama. The Japanese and French now view the US more favorably, the Egyptians and Pakistanis less favorably.  Obama is bad for Israel because he has unfriendly relations with Netanyahu and doesn't take the Islamic threat seriously enough; he's good for Israel because he provided record military support and technology like the Iron Dome. So it goes.

Republicans don't seem to be able to handle nuance. They drag out one number, sometimes a made up number, over and over, regardless of the complex reality.

6. They are more defined by what they're against than what they're for.

The Republicans congress is defined by the word "no". They are not seen as a party that unites America. They are seen as politicians who stubbornly cling to every policy, small or large, and never negotiate. They block progress, rather than govern.

We have a country where half the people feel one way and half feel the other way on many issues. It is wrong to insist that every policy go your way. Obama has shown flexibility by conceding some issues and negotiating others. Democrats appear as open to listening. Republicans appear to be intransigent.

Obamacare is perfect example: yeah, it's not great, but the point is not that it's not great, but that Americans want better health care. Republicans are known more for wanting to repeal Obamacare than for introducing something better to take its place; they missed the main point.

Romney was an exception, in that he flip flopped around, making it difficult to know just what to expect from him.

7. They violated Godwin's law.

Godwin's law says that, in any argument, the probability of one party comparing the other party to Hitler or a Nazi becomes more probable the longer the argument continues, and that the party that does so automatically loses the argument. When you come to that point, it means you've run out of the ability to work together to actually solve problems. And you've forgotten what Nazism and Hitler really were.

Sadly, both parties did this during the election campaigning. But the Republicans started all the way back when Obama first took office.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

2012 Holiday Gift Guide

This guide includes games for young and old, for every sex, generation, temperament, and culture.

Whatever you do, and whatever you celebrate, there is no better way to spend a Christmas, Hanukkah, or what have you than together with friends, family, and neighbors with a warm cup of (fair trade) cocoa and a stack of casual board and/or card games.

The overwhelming majority of the games listed here are meant for newer players, non gamers or the like. I don't list the complicated, heavier games for gamers only.

I hope you enjoy the guide. Remember: the holidays are not only for sharing the warmth with family and friends, but also for sharing with those who have no one else to share with them. Give to your local shelters, hospitals, and so on, because that's the gift that keeps on giving.
Apple iPad 2

I'm starting with this unusual choice for a board game list, because the iPad (and other tablets) is a perfect platform for playing thousands of face to face games for two to four players. Because you don't need to buy the physical components, you can stack all your games in a teeny space, the games (if not the tablet) cost very little, and you don't have to cut down old trees to make them or use fossil fuels to ship them. Tablets have their own environmental impact in their making, so that's a trade off; but if you're getting one anyway, most of the games on this list are available electronically.
7 Wonders: Ages 9+, 4 to 7 players

This game took the gaming world by storm last year (and, like Dominion, it uses an auxiliary mechanic from Magic: The Gathering tournaments). This is a game of drafting cards. You get a hand of cards; pick one and pass the rest. Everyone reveals the card they picked and puts it into their tableaux. Repeat. Done. Score points based on the combinations of cards you have at the end of all the passing.

The graphics are fantastic, the theme not so visible. It's easy to learn, with depth enough to spare.
Apples to Apples: Ages 9+, 4 to 10 players

Apples to Apples is a party game that is simple to set up, learn, and play. There is no writing involved, and no board. And unlike many party games, reading all the cards doesn't ruin the game.

Each player has a hand of red apples (nouns) with which they have to match the green apple (adjective) flipped up. Each player has a chance to judge the best match. The cards you have in your hand never exactly match what gets flipped up; you have to do your best!
Antike: Ages 8+, 2 to 6 players

Risk is a long game of laying low, with player elimination and just too much in the luck department; this game is the perfect evolution to, and replacement for, Risk.

It plays quicker, there's dice-less conflict, no one gets to lay low watching while others fight, and - excepting truly poor play - everyone has a chance for most of the game. There's also a lot more to the game than just conflict, but the rules are short and elegant.

Unfortunately, it's out of print, so it's a bit hard to find, and pricey when you find it.
Backgammon: Ages 6+, 2 players

Backgammon is a classic game that can be enjoyed by children and parents alike. While there is a large amount of luck in the game, there are also many meaningful decisions, which makes this a good stepping stone to future games with more challenge, such as Checkers or Chess.
Blokus, Blokus Trigon, Blokus Duo: Ages 8+, 4 players (Blokus), 2-4 players (Blokus Trigon), or 2 players (Blokus Duo)

Blokus, Blokus Trigon, and Blokus Duo are abstract games with very simple rules. Each round you take a piece and place it on the board such that it touches any previous pieces you have played, but only corner to corner. It can touch other players' pieces along corners or sides.

The rules are easy, the components are beautiful, and it's a lot of fun.
Boggle: Ages 8+, 2 to 10 players

Boggle is a word game, whose simple rules - find all the words you can within three minutes - make it a game that is both fun and quick. Adults can play with kids by restricting the adults to have to find words of four or five letters.
Carcassonne, variants, and expansions: Ages 10+, 2 to 5 players

Carcassonne is a bit more complex than some of the other games here, but the beautiful pieces and the fun game play are worth the time to learn. Pick a piece from the pile, rotate and place it so that it fits on the board (like dominoes), and then optionally place one of your pieces on that tile. There are several ways to score, some of which occur during the game and some of which only at the end of the game.

There are some more rules than that, but not too many more. The game play is engaging enough to make you want to play it more than once in a single sitting.

There are dozens of versions to the game, and some of the versions have several expansions. The one that I linked to is called "Hunters and Gatherers" and is a good standalone game to start with.
Chess / Xiangqi / Shogi: Ages 6+, 2 players

These three games, Chess, XiangQi (Chinese Chess), and Shogi (Japanese Chess), are all top-tier 2-player games that can occupy a curious mind for an entire lifetime. They also have wide followings, so learning the game is learning a language that will admit you to a culture of fellow players around the world.

Board and piece prices range from inexpensive to very expensive, and Chess pieces come in many different themes.
Chinese Checkers: Ages 6+, 2 to 6 players

Another great abstract, and a pretty one if you find one with nice marbles. The rules are simple: move or jump your pieces from one side to the other. Finding chains of jumps is a thrill for all ages.
Carrom / Crokinole / Nok-Hockey / Air Hockey / Billiards / Foosball, etc.: Ages 6+, 2 players

Carrom is the most played tabletop game in India. Like Billiards, the object is to knock pieces off the table area, which you do by flicking wooden disks with your fingers. Crokinole is another classic finger flicking game, as is a racing game called Pitchcar. All kinetic tabletop games, from snooker to billiards to foosball, are loved by players of all ages.
Playing Cards: Ages 3+, 1 to any number of players

Decks of cards, whether they are the well known Western type with 52 cards in 4 suits, or special European or Asian decks, are a great starting point for any number of wonderful games, including Bridge, Hearts, Skat, Cribbage, Pinochle, Oh Hell, Bullsh*t, Durak, President, Spades, Solitaire, and many others.

Check out for the rules to these games and to thousands of others.
Dominion: Ages 10+, 2-4 players

Dominion is a game based around deck building: as you play, you acquire cards which get shuffled into your deck. You need victory points to score, but too many early victory points will clog up your deck, making it harder to acquire more points.

A brilliant adaptation of a mechanic, it plays quickly and every game plays differently. The game has several expansions, all of which are good.
Froggy Boogie: Ages 3-9, 2 to 4 players

Froggy Boogie is a brilliant game to frustrate grownups and please younger children. All you have to do is remember where the picture of the fly is, under the left eye or the right eye? The dice have only colors - no counting necessary. It's a perfect first game.
Go / Pente: Ages 6+, 2 players

Beyond Chess, Checkers, or XiangQi is the absolute perfect game of Go (aka Weiqi); it's so popular, there are twenty-four hour television stations dedicated to it, an anime series based on it, and it's considered one of the four arts of the Chinese scholar.

It really is that good, and the rules are easy, too. Best of all, a built-in handicap system allows two people of any skill levels to enjoy a challenging game against each other.

The link I provided is to a nice-looking board; you should really play with the nicest board you can afford.

Pente, a game of getting five stones in a row, can be played on the same board. The rules are just as easy as Go, and while the game has much less depth, it is also a little less intimidating to new players.
It's Alive!: Ages 7+, 2 to 4 players

A little plug for my own game. This is a simple set-collection auction game with a Frankenstein theme. It fits in well with the other games on the list: easy to learn, quick to play, lots of replayability.

Of course, I may be biased, since I designed it. This game was published by Reiver Games. There is an iOS version, too.

I have launched a Kickstarter project to create a new version of this game with a Hanukkah theme. You can support the project right now - and pre-order the game - on Kickstarter.
Jungle Speed: Ages 8+, 3 to 8 players

There are several games of speed reaction / pattern recognition on the market; I chose this one because of the components. Players flip cards in turn and grab for the totem in the middle as soon as two matching cards are revealed. Don't play with friends who have sharp nails or finger jewelery.
Magic the Gathering: Ages 8+, 2 players

After nearly two decades, Magic is still The Bomb when it comes to collectible card games, although Yu-Gi-Oh sells more cards. These are not easy games to learn, but quick start guides can get you off the ground fairly quickly, and then you have months and years of challenging game play ahead of you.

Don't get sucked into having to buy endless amounts of boosters; to play the game outside of a tournament, you only need a few hundred common cards which can be picked up for a penny each on various sites.
Mancala: Ages 5+, 2 players

This is widely known around the world under various names (e.g. Oware), and the national game of many African countries.

The rules are easy: pick up all the seeds in one of your bowls and place one in each bowl around the table. If you land on an empty space on your side, you win the seed and any seeds opposite.

There are a few more rules, but that's about it. It takes a few games to get up to speed; early victories tend to be lopsided. Once you get the hang of it, you can play several, quick, challenging games in succession.
Memory: Ages 3 to 12, 2 to 5 players

This is a first game for kids and adults, and a great game for it, because kids get the hang of it very quickly and adults find it a real challenge without having to pretend. All you need are one or two decks of cards, but an infinite number of these games are sold with various different pictures and themes.

You can play with more than 5 players, but I wouldn't recommend it.
No Thanks: Ages 7+, 3 to 5 players

This is an easy to learn and addictive little card game. A card is flipped up, and you either take the card and any tokens on it or place one of your tokens on it and pass it to the next player. Cards are bad, and tokens are good. But runs of cards only penalize you for the lowest valued card.

A simple and fun game.
Parade: Ages 7+, 3 to 5 players

Another easy to learn and addictive little card game. Add cards to the end of the "parade", taking cards from the parade into your pile based on a few simple rules. Points are bad ... usually.
Pit: Ages 7+, 4 to 10 players

I don't know if you can play up to 10 players with the original game, but you should. This is a loud trading game. The cards are dealt out, someone says go, and everyone shouts for what they need. The first player to collect a full set wins.

Raucous and fun. The deluxe version comes with it's own bell to signal the start of trading.
Poker: Ages 6+, 2 to any number of players

Playing for money is not a good habit, but a nice set of poker chips and some decks of cards is a great way to spend an evening. There are countless poker games, too.
Puerto Rico: Ages 10+, 3 to 5 players

Go is my favorite two-player game; this is my favorite multi-player game. I hadn't included it in previous years because I thought it might be too complex for the beginning player, but I think I've been underestimating people. I've seen new players pick it up and love it.

It's not easy to learn, but it's not that hard, either; it's just hard to master. A brilliant, brilliant game engine.

I've linked to the deluxe version, which includes some nice metal pieces and a few expansions.
R-eco: Ages 9+, 2 to 5 players

This is another short and sweet card game, with simple clever mechanics that leads to enjoyable but no stress game play. Easy to learn and easy to play.
Rummikub: Ages 7+, 2 to 4 players

A game of rummy, but a good one. And also playable with the grand-folks.
Scrabble: Ages 8+, 2 (or 2 to 4) players.

Scrabble purists will tell you that you should only play with 2 players and a Chess clock, but for casual purposes it can be played with up to four. It is The word game, and for a good reason.

My favorite way to play is to ditch the board and just play Anagrams: turn over tiles, and first to call a word gets it. A similar, recommended game is Bananagrams, where players race to create their own crossword boards.
Set: Ages 6+, 2 to 10 players

Those who don't have it won't enjoy it. For those who do, it hits just the right spot in the brain. All you have to do is call out matches when you see them, but the matches have to match or not match in all four characteristics.
The Settlers of Catan: Ages 8+, 3 to 4 players

This is the perfect game for beginning adult gamers that I use to hook new players into my game group.

All you need to do is collect ten points through building settlements and cities, connecting roads, adding developments and trading with your fellow players. A unique board that changes each time you play, constant interaction even when it's not your turn, and a great balance of luck versus strategy makes this The Game to acquire if you still think that board games are only for kids.

I've linked to the deluxe 15th anniversary edition.
Shadows Over Camelot: Ages 12+, 3 to 7 players

A cooperative game, this is no feel-good game of cooperation. The hordes of Saxons, Mordred, siege engines, and sinister knights are out to destroy Camelot, and you have to work together to save it. But lurking among the players is a traitor who wins if you all lose. Or is there?

Pretty components, albeit more complex than most of the games on this list. But it's easy for people to join and leave midgame.

Other recommended co-operative games that have made a splash in the last few years are Pandemic and Forbidden Island
Stratego: Ages 6 to 15, 2 players

By the time I was in my teens, I had outgrown this, but it remains a seminal game for early players, a great introductory war game with all the basic elements: strategy, tactics, and bluffing. Avoid the electronic ones; they break and they're noisy.
Through the Desert: Ages 8+, 2 to 5 players

This is an elegant route building game with a bunch of different scoring opportunities on each play. Simply place two camels on each turn to expand your camel trains. At the end, you score for oases collected, longest trains, and encircled areas.
Ticket To Ride: Ages 8+, 2 to 5 players

Many of my fellow bloggers think that this, rather than Settler of Catan, is The Game. I disagree, but who am I to argue? New players will probably find this a great intro game, with lots of choices and great game play.

There are several editions of the game.
Tichu: Ages 8+, 4 players

A partnership "ladder" game, similar to the game President (sometimes known by its crude name). It's similar, but the addition of a few special cards, a partnership, and passing elevate this to a perfect game for two couples. This is THE card game in gamer circles, and it's not at all complicated.
Time's Up: Ages 8+, 4 to 10 players

This consistently ranks as the number one party game on all of my fellow bloggers' lists. It's the number one ranked party game on Board Game Geek. Which says something.

It plays a lot like the parlor game Celebrities.
Uno: Ages 6 to 12, 2 to 8 players

This could be a child's second game, after Memory, and before moving on to real games. There's not much in the way of thinking involved, but its simple rules, portability, and quick play make it an ideal game for younger kids in almost any situation.

Just be sure to move up to better games when the kids are ready.
Wits and Wagers / Balderdash: Ages 8+, 4+ players

These are party trivia games where knowledge of trivia is not so important. The question is asked, and each player writes down an answer. These are revealed and players then bid on the answers they think are best. The winning answer, and the winning bids, all score points.

Wits and Wagers does this in the form of a poker game setting, while Balderdash requires you to make up funny possible answers. Both have won awards and acclaim as a generation better than you-know-which famous trivia game.
Zooloretto: Ages 8+, 2 to 5 players

Winner of dozens of recent awards, Zooloretto is a cute game for kids and decent game for adults. Simply take the animals as they are revealed from the deck and try to fit them into your zoo without overcrowding.

A few extra rules and some clever mechanisms makes the game enjoyable for all ages.