Friday, 14 December 2012

Dominant Species: The Card Game

Dominant Species the board game is, according to the prevailing descriptions, a sprawling and detailed euro game, a tight mesh of interwoven mechanisms that makes for a detailed and deep game - it’s also a game I haven’t played.  In the wake of this apparent titan comes Dominant Species: The Card Game, similarly decorated with a loose evolution theme, but far from the tense epic that is its namesake.

That it doesn’t live up to the austere complexity of its older brother is nothing of concern, the Card Game is a solid and enjoyable game in its own right.  It feels a mixture of elements from other games I enjoy, such as Condottiere, but stands on it’s own as a good little card game.

The goal is obvious: to end the game with more points than the other players, and in play the game is fairly simple - you play a card, or you pass.  Whoever has the highest total once their played cards are added will win the points from the environment card (which is what everyone is competing over each turn).  On it’s own this would be a simple affair, but there are enough twists to make the card play interesting.  There are other avenues to score points, there are cards which will affect other cards, there are event cards, there are environment effects that will influence the values of some of the cards played... phew.

Now - while this seems a laundry list of exceptions and possibilities it is all very simple to explain and works very easily in practice.  Through the use of species cards, special powers and events players are both trying to claim as many points as they can every round, as well as set themselves up for the next round.  This pressure of needing to play cards for the current turn, manipulate the cards already played, and wanting to hold things back for what might be coming up, makes for a range of tense, tactical and interesting choices.

All in all Dominant Species: The Card Game is pretty simple to learn and play, but offers some tactical depth and interesting choices each turn.  There is chaos and luck, but there is also the opportunity for clever play - and this all makes for a game that I found to be really enjoyable.  In all - I like it, and am looking forward to it hitting the table again soon.


Thursday, 13 December 2012

Kingdom Builder...

This past weekend I had the opportunity to play a few good games.  It’s certainly been a little while since we’ve been able to wrangle some time from the calendar for such idle pastimes, but it was very much enjoyed!

In among the litany of older games that hit the table, my gaming compadre James and I also managed to get in a few new games, and I thought some of these deserved special mention, so today we’ll begin with:

Kingdom Builder:

There is not much that can be written about this game that hasn’t already be written, it’s one of ‘those’ games that hits the game market like a tempest of expectation and hype, reviews on release were plentiful, and from what I’d read, dripping with praise.  A portion of my cynical nature supposed this to be largely hype driven hyperbole, Donald Vaccarino certainly has his share of fans following his smash success ‘Dominion’ - and any game with his name on the box is going to garner attention regardless of its idiosyncratic merit.  In short: I was fully prepared to find this game overhyped.

I was surprised.  Kingdom Builder is a simple game: play a card, put some pieces down, maybe use a special power; no intricate network of interlocking mechanisms and rules here.

Despite and also because of this simplicity Kingdom Builder is actually a highly enjoyable game, while the actual ‘what you do on your turn’ rules are straightforward, there are some extra elements on the board that make for a nice level of thought and engagement.  It is, in other words, an excellent game that feels like it lasts just the ‘right’ amount of time.  In fact, it’s one I’m seriously considering buying - and I normally don’t buy games that James owns (since I can just play them with him).  Kingdom Builder has the dual honor of being both one of the simplest games I’ve played in a long time, and also one of the best.  

Congratulations to Mr. Vaccarino, I tip my hat to you and humbly swallow my cynical thoughts.  Kingdom Builder is a light and truly enjoyable game.


Thursday, 6 December 2012

Too much...

An evening recently passed saw me teaching and playing a game of 7 Wonders with some friends.  After an early description of the game, and as I was running through of the rules I reached a point in my explanation where I felt I was over-cooking the dish, so to speak. At some point, unforeseen by myself in the moment, I had crossed a line where suddenly it would be easier to learn in play than via an ever lengthier set of instructions.  This led me to thinking about games that can easily be over-explained.

Some games are quite simple, however deep they are the actual process of playing the game is straightforward enough to make the learning of the game relatively easy - even something that can happen while actually playing the game.  Such games can be things like Make N Break - a basic dexterity game, through to ‘deeper’ games, such as Blokus, and Hey, That’s My Fish.  In both these latter games the rules are very simple, but there is also some key understanding that needs to be expressed about the nature of the games, both quite brutal and aggressive despite their seemingly benign and simple nature.  All of this is easy enough.

There are also games that seem quite simple, and that ‘in play’ are quite straightforward affairs, but which require some more complex explanation due to twists in the mechanisms or most commonly, because of a convoluted scoring system.  In practice it would be very easy to ‘start playing’.  However, due to complexities in game symbols, the interaction of mechanisms or in scoring, the game teacher sometimes feels obliged to provide a more thorough explanation - after all, no-one wants to feel like they failed to relate some important aspect of a game they teach.

In these games, where there is both a real simplicity in the way to play, and an aspect to play that can seem convoluted on first blush, it is easy to over explain; to make a game appear more complex than it actually is.  I felt this way with my explanation of 7 Wonders, where the nature of some scoring cards (the science cards), require some special mention.  I’ve also felt this way about Poison (Baker’s Dozen), and Samurai, both of which have rather convoluted scoring systems, despite very easy game play.

It’s an interesting dilemma, because the instructor wants to dually make sure that the game can be played fairly and in full knowledge, but doesn’t want to over-burden new players with minutia that can be expressed in-play.  Some aspects to a game need to be known from the beginning, because they impact the way a player interacts with the game mechanisms - such knowledge informs the choices players make, some are just detail that can be added as the game progresses.  I suppose a good teacher will recognise the difference between the two and strike a nice balance between expressing those rules and pieces of information that needs to be known, without reading through every word of the rules themselves.  I crossed that line the other night, I hit ‘that’ point, where actually playing the game would make the experience of learning it more simple, and where my explanation was only starting to make the game appear more complex than it was in practice.

It’s easy to get carried away in a rules explanation, to start nicely and wind up, before you realise, in a discussion about the game author and their penchant for complex scoring mechanisms or such.  I think next time I’ll try and stick to my usual script - what does a player do on a turn, and how do they win the game.  Any especially complex or important points of note after that, and then onto the game - and we’ll learn the rest as we play... easier said than done!



Saturday, 1 December 2012

Boardgames to Go: podcasting about blogging...

I listened recently to the latest episode of the Boardgames to Go podcast, with Mark Johnson and Jeff Myers (of Gameguy Thinks), which was all about board game blogs.  Obviously this is a topic that I have some interest in, and it was a great and thought provoking discussion.

From a purely egotistical point of view I was thrilled to hear my own little blog mentioned (thanks guys), but throughout the episode Mark and Jeff had some interesting discussion points that resonated with me.

The most important, and perhaps the most philosophical point of discussion was, for me, about why we read the blogs we read.  There are plenty of websites and blogs around the internet covering all manner of topics.  I have, over the years, meandered from blog to blog reading this and that, following a link here, or a reference there.  The blogs that have stuck, the ones I go back to and make sure I keep up with, the ones I’ve added to my RSS reader, are ones that match very closely to the type of blog that Mark and Jeff talk about liking themselves - are the blogs that have a voice.

Many sites and blogs around the web, and I’m talking specifically about board game blogs here, are somewhat dispassionate, somewhat objective, seeking to provide ‘proper’ reviews or news.  Personally I tend to find these blogs the least interesting, and it has little to do with the content, but far more to do with the connection I have as a reader with the voice behind the words I’m reading.  More and more I am less interested in the minutia of news, or the specifics of the rules.  I understand why they are written this way, I wrote the Z-Man Newsletter for three years and needed to use that style of voice myself, but I find them less interesting.

More and more I am finding myself following the blogs of those who write with a voice, who write passionately, humorously, and most importantly: personally.  Similarly I also find myself reading reviews of games online and skipping from the introduction to the conclusion - missing the rules run-through, the ‘bits’ commentary, the art critique in favour of reading the opinions, the likes and dislikes, the subjective and personal over the objective and informational.

It’s not that I don’t like or appreciate the other stuff - I do.  But I read the blogs I do because I like the voices of the people behind them.  I’m more happy to read an anecdote or observation than I am a dyed-in-the-wool review.  I suppose this is because I read blogs because I enjoy them, not because I want to find out x, y or z.

Mark and Jeff also exhorted their listeners to get out and comment more.  As a blogger (if I can call myself that), I always love to read comments on my posts.  Given this, why is it I so rarely comment on the many posts I read on other blogs?  A part of it is that I tend to read on an RSS reader on my iPad (‘Pulp’ for those interested), so adding a comment to a post isn’t a simple click and type.  But nonetheless, I thought the idea that I should comment more was a good one - something I should endeavor to do in the future.

Lastly, I found the discussion on ‘pages’ really interesting, Jeff mentioned wanting to add a ‘resources’ page to his blog - a place to list those blogs, podcasts, websites and other things that he values that is easily accessible and all together.  I’ve been meaning to post about the podcasts I listen to for some time now, and have been wondering how best to add such a thing to my blog.  A page for these things seems a great idea, and would allow me to have sections for podcasts, blogs, publishers and so forth.  Perhaps others will find it interesting, more importantly, perhaps others will find media (whether blogs or podcasts) that they will also enjoy.

In any case, it was a great episode about a topic I find interesting - well worth checking out!


Saturday, 24 November 2012


Last blog I wrote a little about Thunder Alley, a racing game that is being kickstarted by GMT Games at the moment, this post I’m going to be writing about a totally different racing game: Pitchcar.

The cars line up on the grid...

If Thunder Alley, Formula D, Rally Man and so many other racing games are characterised by tactical choices about whether to play this card, advance this gear or take that corner, Pitchcar must stand in sharp defiance as a game that lacks any of those sort of choices, but which manages, nonetheless, to be a rollicking good game.

Pitchcar manages to remain a good game because it is not a game about choices, it is a game of action, it’s a dexterity game, and the name: Pitchcar, almost describe the rules in their entirety.  You have a car (disk) on the track, and you flick it...  It is as engaging as any game that involves some level of physical skill, whether that be something like darts, or something more obscure (well - obscure in Australian terms), like Carrom or Klop.  It is engaging because every flick is important, every straight, corner and jump has an angle and a speed which, in the players mind, is the perfect choice, but it’s not a choice, it’s down to flicking prowess.  Watching a race-car pitch off the track wildly because a shot had too much ‘pepper’, or limply slide a bare disk-length forward is hilarious.  Getting that perfect shot where the car slides around the bend and shoots down the straight just so, is exciting.  Pitchcar is a fun game, and that, to me, is all the recommendation I need.

Can red make the corner and the jump in one flick?

Pitchcar comes in two varieties, normal, and mini.  We have the mini version, because it takes up less space.  Both are highly enjoyable, but require a nice flat surface to rest on - if any track piece is slightly higher than any other it can really affect the disks as they move.

For my son’s birthday we bought a Lego table - this is a thing one wheels that is designed to slide under a bed out of the way, and which is the perfect surface to play with Lego on (and I might further suggest that trying to put one together an hour before work is not necessarily a good idea, it has more pieces than a Lego Technic set, and about a million screws). For Lego this table is fantastic, but my wife, bless her heart, suggested that an equally good use for the table might be as a surface to play Pitchcar on - a wonderful suggestion from a wonderful wife!

My son loves Pitchcar; being only a lad of formative years, the objective at this stage isn’t a tense race, but rather a simple enjoyment of flicking (sometimes swatting) the disks about the track.  We’ve played plenty of Disk Drivin’ on the iPhone/iPad (basically the same game), so he understands the idea of Pitchcar easily, being a simple game, it’s something we can easily play together, and is hilarious fun.  Pitchcar is a great fun game, totally different from most of the racing games out there - but as a game can be judged by the fun it induces, it stands as a great game.

Disk Drivin'


Thursday, 22 November 2012

Thunder Alley...

Kickstarter is a new(ish) force in board gaming that has already had a big impact,and is something that seems to attract a love-hate attitude. Personally I don’t have a horse in the race, I’m not worried that Kickstarter will diminish or flood the game market, and I do think it is most certainly a positive thing for small game publishers.

In fact, the only reason that I’m writing about this is not because of Kickstarter itself per se, but rather because I noticed that GMT, a publisher that already pioneered it’s own approach to crowd-funding, has put it’s first game up: Thunder Alley.

GMT is a company that is very well respected within the wargame niche of the board game market, they produce a huge range of wargames on a wide variety of conflicts throughout history.  Some are massive simulations, some more accessible for the non-wargamer out there; the sort of person who wants a game that is easy to enjoy and play.

Without a doubt they have had several run-away successes: Twilight Struggle, Command and Colours Ancients, and Combat Commander are the ones that spring most immediately to mind.

So why does a company with a proven and well-honed crowd-funding system (The P500 system), turn to Kickstarter?  From the KS page for Thunder Alley GMT notes that they want to bring the game to market more quickly, and hope that KS assists in getting news about Thunder Alley to a wider audience than those who frequent

I think the latter is the most pertinent point, GMT has previously published games that are more family style games, games with themes that are not wargames.  But without a doubt they are most strongly associated with the wargame market - and it seems that more recently, with games like Dominant Species, Urban Sprawl, and of course Thunder Alley and Title Chase Basketball, GMT is looking to broaden their market, they are interested in good games, not simply good wargames.

Does sitting in a publication list of games about various engagements through history make it harder for games like Thunder Alley to stand out and be noticed?  Are the markets for the different games different enough for there to be some level of dissonance?  Perhaps the P500 system, well known and very successful for their wargaming market, is the perfect place to keep pushing those games, while Kickstarter allows the company to break the typical attachments associated with the GMT brand, and reach a different audience.  

Whatever the reasons I’ll be interested to see what, if any, other games GMT pushes out into the KS world.  I’ll also be watching Thunder Alley; I loved Jeff Horger’s ‘Manoeuvre’, and Thunder Alley seems to be a really interesting design.  I’ll also be interested to see how GMT approach the KS world of stretch rewards and such.

In any case, Thunder Alley looks like a fun and interesting racing game, and GMT are certainly a company I have a lot of respect for, best of luck trying this out!


Monday, 19 November 2012

Heavens Above...

Watching the moon slowly crawl across the disk of the sun through some eclipse glasses was a moment of duality - two competing senses, one of excitement at seeing so wonderful a spectacle, and one of stillness, a quiet sense of marvel at the machinery of the cosmos.  It inspired me to again lug my telescope outside, something I had neglected doing for most of the past winter.

The eclipse...

Winter is gone, and though the evenings are comparatively cool, they can hardly be used as an excuse.  I have four favourite things to look at in the night sky, probably because they are easy for an amateurs amateur such as myself to find.  The first is the moon; most obvious.  Next are the two largest planets in our solar system, Saturn with its rings is great to view, even with my telescope and surrounding street-light induced light pollution it appears an orange-y/yellow-y marble with the the rings clearly visible, and the most prominent moons as stars in a neat line around the planet.  Jupiter, which is visible now quite clearly is also nice.  And lastly my one-of-four favourite things is the nebula in Orion, M42, a dusty cloud in space punctuated by bright new stars.

Saturn isn’t visible during any of the hours I like to keep (it’s rising around 5.00am at the moment), but Jupiter certainly is.

Jupiter - a shot of this planet with no added equipment (just from my phone).

Viewing anything in the night sky from the backyard is always an exercise in mild frustration, the incoming flood of light from nearby street-lights can be annoying to say the least, and can also serve to wash out some of the colour from the things you’re viewing.  Nonetheless, Jupiter appears as a large bright white marble, and sometimes, on a dark night, creamy rather than white.  Several dark brown bands are also clearly visible as lines across its surface, on a dark night some of the detail of these bands can be seen, the turbulent edges, the spots.  The largest of Jupiter’s moons are also clearly visible - though these appear as stars in a rough line, changing position night to night.

Jupiter - the poor camera loses all sense of the colour and bands, but three moons are visible.

Tonight I also took some time to view the moon, since it is a crescent phase at the moment it makes for excellent viewing, the angle of the sunlight on it’s surface means the craters and mountains stand with long shadows, making the three dimensionality of the surface really stand out.

A phone's view of the moon...

I tried to take some photos using my iPhone through the eye-piece of my scope, but the results are (obviously) far poorer than what one sees with ones own eyes.

The brightness of the moon is overwhelming for the phone camera.  Nearly all the detail: lost.

It’s a cathartic experience, gazing heavenward; a good time to pause and contemplate life, the universe and everything.  The implacable march of the celestial machinery that drives the cosmos invites us to experience a sense of smallness in comparison.  A window into the fleeting nature of time and yawning enormity that surrounds us.  Far from being a depressing thing, it is humbling, a chance to to ponder the things that we as individuals invest importance in.  A vast yardstick against which my own troubles seem trifling and trivial things.  What do I think about?  The universe of course, and existence - how can one not.  But also my family: my larger family often, my friends occasionally, but most certainly my wife and my kids.

The solar system I can come at, the solar system I can wrap my mind around, but gazing into deeper space, into the turbulence of new star formation, of the death of stars, of galaxies, gazing into time itself... that I can only wonder at.  Trying to establish a mental foothold on the concept of something so... immense.  Rather than finding a foothold I end up feeling adrift, it is simply too large to fit within the confines of my small primate mind.  Adrift and in wonder.  Quietly marvelling.  

Through a smaller eyepiece...

Even through the smaller eye-piece most of the detail is lost...



Friday, 16 November 2012

A day in the sun...

We spent the morning class in the garden planting seeds.  A fantastic morning.  Let me stop there and explain a little.  It’s been awhile since last I blogged about some of the happenings at my school.  This term our theme is science, a topic I much enjoy teaching, and that covers far too many areas for the time we allot to it.

One of the things we are doing as a part of our theme, aside from the more general joys of making light bulbs shine, balloons pop and volcanoes bubble, is planting vegetables, fruit and herbs in the school’s kitchen garden.

This pleasant little hide-away seems a world away from the typically poorly lit and stuffy classroom (and don’t get me wrong – I love my stuffy classroom).  It’s a small garden, with room for several large garden beds, many more smaller ones, fruit trees, a work shed, a chicken pen (currently on the lookout for tenants) and a nice bit of lawn.  It had spent a little while overgrown, but with the advent of our science theme, myself and the teachers in the middle section of the school were intent on getting our students out of the rooms and into the garden.

On the face of it this may not seem an academic pursuit, if your concept of education or the purpose of school is all about spelling patterns, phonographic knowledge, syntax, place value and renaming numbers you may well ask what the point of such a diversion is.  For me, the point is rather simple: it’s real.

That’s not to say that verb conjugation or decimal/fraction equivalencies aren’t real, or to slight or malign the importance of such things in the general scheme of education.  But there is a visceral, tactile, physical, and invigorating reality to burying your hands in soil to plant a seed, or watching a plant grow that you have tended that is immediate and apparent: it is directly experienced, not a thought experiment or conceptual framework.

Burying your hands in the garden is an experience that can be used as a basis for writing, or maths, or drawing or science, or any other subject for that matter.  It’s an experience that speaks to the kids about the nature of nature, about the science that describes the beautiful machinery of this world in which we live.  It’s an experience you can lay your hands on, you can succeed at and fail at and watch the results play out as a consequence.  It’s an experience that pours information to the brain through all our senses, the sights, smells, sensations and sounds.

I find gardens and such places cathartic, that’s not to say I’m an avid gardener; I avoid weeding wherever possible and can kill the hardiest of plants with seemingly little effort.  But I find the experience of nature, well, nature that isn’t trying to eat me, pleasant and refreshing.  Sitting in the warm shade while the leaves twitch in the breeze, suddenly starting, and then easing to calm as the breeze dies away, where insects crawl, fly, buzz, drone and wander about going on with their business oblivious of us idly observing, is a great environment for learning.

Yesterday we watched the moon occlude the disk of the sun, today we caught a gecko, and planted pumpkins and beans, basil and lettuce.  These are the moments I love as a teacher.

A poor photo of the eclipse - taken on my phone through protective glasses.

Monday, 12 November 2012

Cupboards, cups, and entropy...

The cupboards in our kitchen seem to be unduly influenced by the laws of thermodynamics. At least, insofar as my little golden book of thermodynamics level of understanding is concerned.

As the arrow of time has progressed the neat order that once represented our methods of storing cups and pans and whatnot has been slowly replaced with a system dominated by chaos.  Additionally, the owning of children has seemed to have sped up this process.

Stage one, ‘Order’: In this low entropy state, the state of highest structure and order, our cups and pans were grouped in sets, occasionally by colour or size, a favourite perhaps jostling for front position, but otherwise neat.  Some of the shelf they rest on is even visible.  This stage does not last long.

Stage two, ‘The descent’: Energy is added to the system in the form of that mug set given as a birthday/moving out/engagement gift. An ill-conceived Tupperware party brings new vessels into the house demanding storage. A cup or two from this set and that is dropped and broken.  Individually these additions and subtractions can be roughly accommodated into the system without completely destroying it, but the accumulation of new cups/pans/utensils/whatever has the net effect of increasing the entropy of the system, order is giving way to chaos.

Stage three, ‘Disorder’: Eventually the cupboards reach a point where cups and mugs are piled higgledy piggledy; they become a veritable teetering wave of crockery.  We stack the front ranks carefully, as a bulwark against the tide behind, but beyond that porcelain structure pure chaos rules.  This is the high entropy state, the laws of thermodynamics have taken hold and carried what was a very structured system into the realms of disorder.  Any further and a cupboard door opened too swiftly could precipitate a wave of ceramics that would take man, child and beast along with it.  The only upside of such a tidal wave would be finding that cup I used to love for tea and haven’t seen in years.

There seems little I can do to reverse the process, this is simply my story.  It could happen to you, you have been warned...


Pirates of the Spanish Main

Many moons ago, in the early days, when my board gaming was but a dalliance between roleplaying and table top games like DBA and Warhammer I found much to like in, what was then, a new and exciting game - Pirates of the Spanish Main.

This was a collectible/constructible card game, where the pirate ships were pieces stamped out of plastic cards (like credit cards) that one popped out and clipped together to make a little 3D ship.  The game was enjoyable, but also wildly unbalanced, and being of a collectible nature the imbalances in the ship powers, particularly as the number of different sets grew, forced players to continue buying more to stay in the ‘arms’ race.  I left it long ago for greener pastures, but kept my various ships and bits in a box in my classroom in case any kids wanted to play with them.

Since my days of playing this game passed by, the various plastic ships have been carted from school to school, from class-to-class.  Many have broken or fallen to pieces, and I didn’t lose much sleep over the matter.

In the last few weeks there have been a group of kids in my class that have shown a real interest in these ships, and not just playing with the ships, but playing the game.  Last week I worked my way through my box of Pirates of the Spanish Main, finding and putting back together the ships, matching them with ship cards and so on in an effort to build a basic set that can be boxed together and be played - and what’s more, provide a roughly balanced experience.

In the end I managed to salvage some 20 ships or so, and with various islands, treasure tokens, crew tokens and so on, they now sit apart, ready to be played.  We’ve had a couple of games so far, and the kids seem to really enjoy it.  The basic game: find treasures and sink your opponents, is simple, and because of it’s simplicity a lot of fun.  It’s still not the most balanced game in our school games collection, but it’s one that is enjoyable, easy to pick up and play, and exciting!

Seeing those pirate ships hauling-to across the table-top again after so many years of neglect and dry-docks is somewhat pleasing.  Hoist the Jolly Roger and chase down the treasure, and whether it be the crash of grape-shot through the mizzen or the clatter of dice on the table - the spirit of the Spanish Main is alive again.

And apparently there is a new card game due out soon based on the Pirates of the Spanish Main property, published by WizKids and designed by Bryan Kinsella and the Australian game designer Phil Harding... I shall have to investigate further...


Tuesday, 30 October 2012

The Games in Schools and Libraries Podcast

Games in Schools and Libraries is a podcast by Donald Dennis and myself that covers all things to do with board games, card games and digital games, and the place they can find in schools or at the local library.  We’ve been busily recording episodes and posting them over at the Games for Educators website, but we’ve also had a fair share of technical glitches and difficulties that none of us (at Games in Schools and Libraries or Games for Educators) expected.

There were RSS problems, authentication issues, a lost episode (if you happen to spot an episode on the history of computer and digital games let us know!) and so on.  All in all it meant that our intended release schedule was interrupted, and that listeners were bound to have trouble finding us on iTunes, and subscribing via their favourite podcatcher (I use Downcast on my phone, and love it).

So this post is here to make the bold statement that these technical issues are done and over.  Our RSS seems to be working perfectly, and our podcast has (finally) been authenticated by iTunes - so you should be able to find it there in the next day or so.  Much thanks to Pat over at G4Ed for working solidly on the issue and getting it solved!

Episode 8 has just been posted, and all seems well with the world.

So here are some quick links and information on the state of our show so far:

Our RSS can be found here.
Our page on Games for Educators can be found here.
Our guild on BGG can be found here.
Our website (bare bones at the moment) can be found here.

If you punch our RSS address into your podcatcher of choice, you should be able to see our episode list, this is what we’ve covered so far...

Episode 0 - Welcome and Introduction - Don and I introduce ourselves personally and professionally, and talk about what we hope GSL will grow in to.

Episode 1 - Board Games - A short discussion on the modern era of board games.

Episode 2 - Digital games - The lost episode, we shall not speak of it...

Episode 3 - What Makes a Good Game - In which we consider some of the aspects of games that make them solid choices for schools or libraries, including durability, easy set-up and play etc.

Episode 4 - Considering Rules- In which we talk about how the rules of a game can make a game more or less suitable for a school or library environment - as well as some of the things we look for in games.

Episode 5 - Game Spaces - In which we discuss making a space ready for playing games, as well as some of the physical considerations worth taking note of (at least in our experiences).

Episode 6 - Themes - Part 1 - Can themes help make a game easier to digest? We talk about themes that tie into curriculum or topics, and how games can be used as a window to a subject.

Episode 7 - Themes - Part 2 - What themes aren't suitable for a school/library setting.  What are some of the things worth considering when getting a game for such a setting.

Episode 8 - Accessibility - In which we discuss physical accessibility issues, from games with kids to physical disability to colour blindness, games that have a high reliance on written text or even where card/board text is too small.

So that is Games in Schools and Libraries so far, we hope that people find it a useful and interesting podcast, and occasionally entertaining as well.  We have a collection of other topics already recorded, and a list of those we have yet to record.  If you have any comments or feedback - we’d love to hear it! Comment here, in the guild on BGG or over at G4Ed - or drop us an email (



Monday, 29 October 2012

Cult of the Old...

Episode 92 of On Board Games aired recently, and I was lucky enough to fill the third chair for the roundtable discussion.  In the episode we discussed the cult of the old - older games that retain their polish and allure despite the intervening years and the number of newer, more shiny offerings available.  One of the interesting discussion points was on what actually constitutes an ‘older’ or ‘classic’ game - how old does a game have to be to hold the vaunted position of not having been replaced by something newer.

In the board game consumer market of today the pace of new releases seems to be increasing at a massive rate.  Games released now need to be marketed, or capture the imaginations of the community, sufficiently to gather the attention required to clamber high enough to be seen.  Ten years ago it was absolutely within the realms of possibility to know what games one would see from an event like the Spiel or GenCon, but now it seems, to me at least, that a vast number of individual titles disappear in the haze of releases.  The signal to noise ratio is drowning out a great many titles.

Fairy Tale - my go to filler even after several hundred games...

Perhaps this is a subjective experience, perhaps I am taking less note of the titles, designers, publishers, kickstarters and so forth that appear each day.  Perhaps the consumer market is large enough to support this explosion of releases, with games now less often becoming the popular title, and more often appealing to niches within the broader community.

The old edition of Condotierre - a wonderful game...

Whichever way you anatomise it, I think it is apparent that the market is booming.  Is there room for all this growth? Perhaps, but that is a discussion for another time.  What does all this mean for the On Board Games topic? What then, in an industry where a game can hit its most popular before it is released and be almost forgotten by the time the boxes are shipped, makes for a game that is ‘old’?

Starfarers of Catan - my favourite of the Catan variations, best enjoyed with Daft Punk playing in the background.

For the sake of the On Board Games round table we did our best to provide some temporal yardsticks: 10 years, even 5 years. In truth I think the answer is highly subjective.  Of course some of the games I have loved are new to me but old in terms of publication date.  Some games are hot from the minute word gets out of the Gathering, or from the Spiel or BGG.con, but then fade into obscurity almost immediately.

Castle - Still one of my all time favourite card games, thematic, zany and a whole lot of fun.

I think ultimately the answer, for me at least, must be in the length of time I’ve owned and known them for.  A great older game for me is one that has been in my collection for years, in some cases from the start, and are nonetheless sitting front and center on my shelves.  These are the old favourites, the games I’ve played many times and yet haven’t wearied in my eyes.  These are the games with boxes worn by continued removal from the shelf; that have sat in the collection for a long time, and are yet still some of the least dusty.  

For me these games have stood the test of time, they have sat next to new boxes on the shelves and remained when the new have been put somewhere dusty and less accessible.  The rules stay unreferenced, the pieces familiar and known.  When it hits the table we all, in idle chatter, set up our familiar stacks or decks or patterns of bits, rather than reading through to see who gets how many of which one was it again.  These are the classics, and every game shelf, every cupboard, every gamer's old gems are idiosyncratically different.  So what is the cult of the old? It is, in a word: subjective.


Friday, 26 October 2012

Star Wars: X-Wing

Today I managed to play a couple of quick games of Fantasy Flight Games Star Wars: X-Wing.  I realise that getting too involved in discussing Star Wars is likely to tarnish my reputation as being quite geeky, but a quick glance over the last few posts here on the Castle, where I discuss painting miniature anthropomorphic warriors, should demonstrate that I am currently on an upward trend (geekiness wise).


Star Wars: X-Wing is a miniatures game of sorts, it is a game for two players (more with more sets) where each will take the roles of the Rebel and Imperial forces from the later (or earlier) Star Wars movies (later or earlier depending on whether you rather the chronologically by release date or setting).  Of course movies IV, V and VI are the ‘real’ Star Wars as far as I am concerned, episodes I, II and III are all toy commercials that I will hurl invectives at till I weary of the joy of it (not anytime soon).

But back to the game - it is really all rather simple, players run through phases of planning, movement, combat and end of turn clean up. Unlike many FFG games this one is clean and simple.  There are no teetering piles of hundreds of cards nor mountains of special tokens.  Planning is simultaneous, with each player selecting the move they want to make on a special dial.  This is neat and simple, allowing different ships access to different moves, and also keeps all the players doing things rather than waiting for others to finish.

All the ships from the core-set - very nice miniatures

Movement is also simple - each move is represented by a different length card board token, place this in front of the ship, pick up the ship and move it to the end of the token, and movement is done.  Of course, the fun of trying to visualise where exactly any given movement piece will land you, especially when the play area is congested with asteroids and other ships, can be a challenge for the visual-thinking impaired among us, but it is a lot of fun.

Set-up and ready to play, you can see the movement tokens on the right.

Combat doesn’t add any significant complexity to the game, if a ship is in range you may shoot it, with both players rolling dice to see what will happen.

Of course there are also a bunch of additional rules that can be added as the players learn the game or desire more complexity.  With everything mixed in together this remains a straightforward and highly enjoyable game.  The focus of the game is obviously on maneuvering your ship into a position where it can shoot without being shot.  It’s a game that doesn’t take long, is enjoyable, and also light enough to break out and play without having to pour over the rules book in order to remind yourself of the minutia involved with playing.

The dog-fight is on!

There are two negatives as far as I can see them, firstly the box is one of the worst ever created for the purpose of housing a game - like a net bag for carrying spaghetti. And second, it is quite possible that if you fancy collecting all the bits and pieces released and to-be-released by FFG, this will become a very expensive game.  Oh - and I suppose another negative is that there should be a special rule whereby any TIE Fighter that contacts an asteroid immediately explodes in a fireball of carnage.

One TIE Fighter is about to go BOOM...

Wings of War - a similar and earlier game.

There are obvious comparisons to be made between this game and Wings of War (published now by Ares Games).  They are indeed similar, and X-Wing could easily be seen as an evolution of Wings of War.  Personally I find the games different enough to enjoy both, they are indeed as different as say Fairy Tale and 7 Wonders - both games where playing drafted cards is a core mechanism.  I also think the movement system in X-Wing is better, if by the simple physicality of the pieces (Wings of War uses cards rather than thicker cardboard tokens, the latter allow, in my opinion, for a little more flexibility as well as being actually easier to use).  My favourite of the two games is clearly X-Wing, not only does it have a theme I enjoy more, but the game has both a simpler mode of play (great for my classroom) and a more thematic and complex version (great for home) than does Wings of War.

All in all I think Star Wars X-Wing is a neat game - I’m not sure if I’ll be rushing out to buy extra ships and more core sets, but it’s certainly a game I’ll relish getting to the table again.    A solid and fun game.

The last note is a simple word of advice: It would be best if you avoid playing with people who like to make the sound of TIE Fighters as they move their ships - this can start to wear at ones sanity after about turn 1.

Despite my best TIE impersonations - MWWWWOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOMMMMMMMMM - this was the final moment for my last TIE Fighter this evening. My wife flew back to base a heroine, and the rebels counted another victory (Rebel Scum!)