Friday, 27 April 2012

Playing in Common

There are times, as a teacher, when something happens that makes you feel like dancing around the room, playing rock ballads and accompanying them with exaggerated air-guitar, drinking in the glorious sunshine on even the dullest of days and generally revelling in the glory to be found in the mind-boggling machinery of our enormous universe.

Usually this happens when we feel that through some stroke of good luck, timing and work we have managed to make some scratch of difference to how a student sees or feels about themselves and the potentials.  

Earlier this week I had such a moment - when a group of students from our school; students who have been a part of our games program this year, took arm fulls of games over to the language centre attached to our school campus and taught and played games.

A small thing perhaps: the teaching and playing of games.  To give some scrap of credibility to my general feelings of excitement and elation I should perhaps give some context to these things.  The students from our school were a mixture of ages - from grades three through to five, meaning a mix of ages from 8-11.  The language centre, the Shepparton English Language Centre (SELC), is an educational facility that supports the needs of newly arrived families and refugees, teaching them English, among other skills.  

The group from SELC playing games were a mixture of mainly African, Iraqi, Iranian, and Afghani (the majority were Afghani) students.  They are high school kids and older - from around 16-25 years old.  All of them have newly arrived in Australia, many from extremely violent and horrific circumstances, most have experienced extreme trauma and the very worst our species is capable of.  I am not exaggerating.

The games our students took to play were selected on the basis that they were easy to explain, engaging to play, and language independent.  So we had kids aged 8-11, teaching games to young adults who have never had the chance to ‘play’ in their lives, who do not speak English, and who were taught through signing, gestures, smiles and nods.

It was a huge success.  The SELC students had a blast, and while the ability to communicate through language was absent, there was many a game played, much laughter, and plenty of enjoyment.  It was something nice in and of itself: to have such an eclectic mix of cultures from such traumatic backgrounds able to sit together and lose themselves in fun.  It was also something special for those 8-11 year olds - the real leaders and teachers, the real reason for the success of the afternoon - to have such a demanding and different experience, but one which was also much fun.  They came bustling back into classroom afterwards, full of stories of when Elaf had done this, or when Mohammed had done that, but also talking with each other about how they had managed to get across this meaning, or that rule with nothing more than smiles, nods and gestures.  It was a huge learning experience, and an enjoyable one.

We hope this will become a regular thing - I’d be more than happy to play air-guitar again in future - here’s to many more!

Some of the games played:

Animal upon Animal - HABA
Blokus - Hasbro

Blokus 3D - Hasbro
Chicken Cha Cha Cha - Rio Grande Games
FITS - Ravensburger
Halli Galli - Rio Grande Games
Jenga - Hasbro
Make 'n' Break - Ravensburger
Spooky Stairs - HABA

and probably some I have forgotten!



Thursday, 26 April 2012

A Weekend of Games and Revelries

Over the weekend gone my brother and another good friend arrived in pomp and ceremony, with panoply and many a trumpet call, at the Castle gates.  There was feasting, aquatic displays, the imbibing of fine beverages, and of course, many a game.

A handful of the games played were becoming known to us, familiar like acquaintances working toward full-fledged friendship.  Others were wholly unknown, their arrival at our tables heralded with quiet and unsure reservation, but an open heart.

7 Wonders is a game that has attracted much praise in the small but vociferous online community of board game lovers.  Early comparisons to another favourite game of mine: ‘Fairy Tale’, garnered nought but hesitation and a willingness to disregard from me.  ‘What need I of a bigger game with more things to set-up, if I have such a game already, in much finer and sleeker a package?’ I thought to myself.

Having played the game nearly ten times so far I can say that it has grown on me.  From a willingness to disregard to an eagerness to play is not the product of online praise, but of a good and heartily enjoyable game.

In 7 Wonders players draft one card per turn that they must either play, or discard for money.  Some cards provide resources which expand a players ability to play other cards in the future, other cards break the rules in subtle ways, and other cards still are worth points - some a set amount, some an amount for a set.  Players must do the best they are able with one card of the cards they pick up each turn.  Slowly the capabilities of your ‘empire’ grow, enabling you to play more expensive cards in the future.  This progressive creep in capabilities makes for a highly enjoyable game, because of course, players are doing their best to ensure that this progressive creep creeps in the direction they want; one that is going to score many points.

All in all it is a highly enjoyable experience.  There is not too much set-up, and what is more, the game plays at a fast and engaging pace - it is one of those games that lasts just the right amount of time for the game play it offers.  It is a different game to the inestimable Fairy Tale.  A bigger and more involved game, without being layered in anything overly complex.  It is a rare game for me in that I would happily play it multiple times in a row - highly enjoyable and much recommended.

A smaller game to grace the high table was Chronicle - a small trick taking game where the way of scoring the point for each trick changes every round.  Players have a hand of numbered cards, cards that each also have a power that is usually activated the moment the card is played.  Of course the game is really in the powers and how they can be used to mess with the trick enough to help a player across the line and score them a point.  There is nothing overly complex here, but it is highly enjoyable.  We played with three players, and I feel that the game would be at its best with 4.  Nonetheless, it is a good little game if you fancy trick taking games - the powers and the ever changing landscape of point-scoring rules makes for an interesting and engaging game.

The next game worth mentioning is Endeavor.  I had played a modified two-player game a long while ago and found it pleasant and forgettable. There are so many little bits and bobs that need to go out on the board that set-up is annoying at best.  Despite this ringing endorsement a little voice nagged at me to get the game to the table again...

We began the game long after the witching hour had come and gone - all of us were weary from our day’s exertions.  I, nearly nodding off to sleep, meandered through the rules to the general confusion of all involved - including myself.  Despite what would seem insurmountable difficulties, we managed to set the game up and muddle through a turn.  And click.  It just happened.  Everything started to make sense, and my vague and wandering appraisal of the rules seemed suddenly daft in the light of what had become, of a moment, a simple and interesting game.  Yes, there are lots of little cogs all whirring beneath the surface, and yes, the billion chits are annoying to set up, but all three of us found the game to be highly enjoyable; a fascinating development game, where players struggle to build themselves the potential to take the actions they require to score the points needed to win.  This is a game that is most certainly coming back to the table - and soon.

Endeavor is a very good little economic/building game.  One of the things I like most about it is the finite nature of the game - it will end after 7 turns - at that point the player with the most points will win.  This system may mean that eventually the game will stagnate into an uninteresting malaise of optimised and pre-determined choices - but we are nowhere near this stage yet (and with so many games to play, will be unlikely to get there).  Endeavor is yet another game I chastise myself for leaving on the shelf for so long...

Lastly it is worth mentioning the most epic game of those attempted - Runewars.  This is a strange mixture of a game - part economic, part empire building, part wargame, part... and yet, despite its disparate elements it all seems to coalesce rather nicely.  We failed to get in a full game due to time constraints (damn you inexorable time!), but at the stage we left it the game was fascinatingly poised.

In Runewars players gain resources for those spaces they control.  Resources can be used to ‘muster’ certain things, like troops, influence and so on.  Every turn a season card will be overturned - providing some random event, as well as a seasonal phase.  Players will then pick a card to play - with each card allowing for a certain action and potential bonus.  The game, with its mixture of seasonal phases, action cards and bonuses, is all about timing.  Planning a campaign year, and seeing it come off exactly as you wanted is an absolute joy.  Having to suddenly change plans mid-year because of the encroachment of some enemy force is tense as you scramble to see what can be done with what you have left yourself.  

The winning condition is something of an area majority - with players wanting to control 6 or whatever Dragon Runes to win the game.  Regardless though, it is a large and sprawling game, there are systems and subsystems at play, but on the whole the game plays smoothly and remains tense and interesting throughout - thoroughly recommended for those who like a game with chapters.

Phew - well that’s a rough run-down of the weekend of revelries.  Many a game found its way to the high table, many a game with which we were unfamiliar.  All left as firm friends - with hopeful promises that we should meet again soon... we shall see.

There is an old saying from the Norse book of wisdom: the Havamal - “It is far away to an ill friend, even though he live on one's road; but to a good friend there is a short cut, even though he live far off.”

None of the games played this weekend now gone are ill-friends.  All found a place in our collective hearts, and will forever be welcome guests at our high table.


Wednesday, 18 April 2012


I’ve been listening to a number of history podcasts of late.  Norman Centuries, by Lars Brownworth has been an interesting listen, and has certainly whetted my interest in the Normans, I knew a little about the history of the Normans from their origin to the conquest of England.  The Norman successes in Italy and Sicily were a chapter of history I had never glanced at or opened however, and so the latter episodes about the de Hautville legacy were a fascinating listen.

As a slight aside, Brownworth’s series on the Normans is a great listen if you are interested in this particular period of history, and nearly equally as interesting (to me at least) is his series ‘12 Byzantine Rulers’.  Both are worth checking out in my opinion.

I also downloaded some hundred odd episodes of the In Our Time podcast, with Melvyn Bragg (the older History feed, as well as the more recent combined one).  While not always covering periods and events I am interested in, and not always going as deep as I would like, this series represents an interesting taste of a wide range of historical events.  This is also worth a listen if you are partial to the odd historical discussion.

After listening to the Norman Centuries podcast, I’ve been listening to In Our Time on shuffle.  All of this has coincided with the rekindled flame of interest I have in miniatures games.  One of the games I have been thinking a lot about getting into is Saga, by Gripping Beast.  Saga is a Dark Age skirmish size table top game that seems to have some rather innovative features - a blending of some of the mechanisms found in some board games with a simple and straight forward body of more traditional miniatures mechanisms.  All in all it sounds a fascinating game.

A while ago I decided I would focus on one miniatures game: Song of Blades and Heroes, and see how I travelled with that before branching into too many systems and collecting too many miniatures that would sit un-painted on my shelves (well, I’m not sure where they’d go to be honest, storage space is at a premium at the moment).  However, the wyrd seems to be working at odds with this simple desire, the fates have inhabited my iPhone and the podcasts that have been playing on shuffle beat to a nearly discernible rhythm.  After running through the episodes available for the Norman Centuries podcast, I have heard In Our Time episodes on Stamford Bridge, Alfred the Great, The Volga Vikings, and The Normans among others...

The spirit of Sturlusson himself seems to be programming my play-list, the Dark Age is the beat: saga, saga, saga...

I will resist as long as I am able, holding close to me the shield of my earlier oath - patience is the long game, but it is a virtue I have been known to abandon before... we shall see.



Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Archaeology: The Card Game

I’ve recently played a glut of Archaeology: The Card Game, by Phil Harding and Z-Man Games; that is, if you can call 4 or so games in quick succession a glut.  

Archaeology is a short and easy card game, players are drawing cards and trying to trade them with the market (face up cards in the middle of the table) in order to build sets.  The bigger and more complete a set, the more points it is worth when you sell it to the museum (play it down in front of you).

There is, in this simple general idea, a tug-of-war between two desires.  The first is that you want to hold cards before playing them in order to build sets.  The second is, that because there are bad cards in the deck that can force you to lose cards from your hand, you want to get what you have on the table in front of you while you still have it.  Once cards are on the table in front of you (sold to the museum) they cannot be affected by bad cards.

Because of the risk that you might lose cards, and the resulting tug-of-war with the fact you want to collect full sets, there is a very real ‘push-your-luck’ aspect to the game.  It is quite within the realms of possibility to be sucker-punched by bad luck, but knowing from the outset that bad things can happen will bring the knowledge that there is a push-your-luck aspect that needs to be played to, to the fore - and the game is best played with this in mind.  Sometimes with a hand of only valuable cards, it is best to play an incomplete set that will score you some points, than to lose some of those cards and be left with even fewer points.

All in all Archaeology is a relatively easy game, mechanically simple and thus easy to write off as uninspiring, it is, in the face of that, an enjoyable experience.  While not a game I’ll play when looking for something to challenge me to think harder, it is nonetheless a fun game; easy to teach and easy to play.  It’s one I’ll be taking with me when I go and visit family - between 2-5 can play it, and it plays quickly enough to remain interesting and engaging throughout.  I like it.  

Phil - you’ve created a fun and enjoyable game - what more need be said than that?



Sunday, 15 April 2012

A bookish dilemma...

I’m sure I’m not alone in the world in having multiple books stacked on my bed-side table, each with a stake on me, each clamouring for attention.  There is an uncomfortable pressure for those of us who suffer at times from an indecisive nature, or who flit from one area of interest to another like humming-birds to nectar filled flowers, to create a dangerously large pile of such books.

So I assume it is with others, and so it is with me.  Lately my interests have flitted from astronomy, to biology, to dark age history, to dinosaurs.  Given I don’t spend as much time reading as I would like, this leaves me little opportunity to clear the decks, as it were.

As I glance over the pile that is starting to develop a potentially dangerous lean I think: I should clear some of those away, rid myself of the detritus, enable myself to focus on only those books I’m truly interested in reading at the moment...

As one reads down the spines of the books however, one is almost nostalgically reminded of the burst of curiosity that led to the book’s careful addition to the structure.  ‘I should put that copy of The Song of Roland back’ I think.  But as my trembling hand reaches for it, I pause... ‘but this is an epic set during the time of Charlemange’, I consider, ‘and that is a fascinating period in history.’  My hand is stayed; the book remains; the tower grows.

I’ve recently been given this book to read as part of my professional learning, and like all such books (for me at least), it holds the dual potentials of both being of only a passing interest, and a book I actually have to read.  It is not helped much by my opinion that the best advice one can get on teaching at the moment comes from this old classic:

The other book I have atop my tower at the moment is Dinosaur Odyssey, by the inestimable Dr. Scott Sampson.  A book that details the mesozoic era’s most famous denizens and marks their place within the ecology of the time.  Having read the first chapter it is something I am eager to continue, but my reading time is precious, my tower is high, and there is a book within it I am obligated to at least glance through...

A tricky dilemma... Can professional reading trump dinosaurs? I think not.



Friday, 13 April 2012


All has been quiet on the blog this last week and a bit.  My lovely wife, my lad, and I packed our cases and headed away for visits with family.

We spent some time away from the screens and tones that burn so much energy throwing light and noise into our normal lives, and went camping.  There’s something delightfully relaxing to my mind about the combination of tent and fire.  It’s amazing to me that though I am normally excruciatingly slow to drag myself from the warmth and timelessness of the bed of a morning, the minute I’m living without walls, blinds and false light I manage to much better synchronise with the rhythms of the sun.  

It was a lovely break away from the normal cadences of our lives.  Fishing, boating, chasing the lad, relaxing by the fire, and enjoying too many fine ales.  The countryside was nice and the weather for the most part was beautiful.

One of the grandest things was the clarity and brightness of the milky way dominating the arc of the sky; 200 billion points of light. It reminded me sorely that my telescope was back at home. Next time I must remember to take our small Newtonian reflector - it's doesn't pack much power, but the skies are clear and bright. The only potential concern would be me wandering off away from the campfire and spending too much time gazing upward.

Well, now we’re back, and very slowly managing to tidy our grounds of all the paraphernalia required for such a break away.

I would have blogged last night, but Don Dennis (of On Board Games fame) and myself have been investigating the potentials of new podcast concept (new for us at least).  So here we are instead.  A day later than I had anticipated, but I’m sure the one person who regularly reads the posts here will forgive me my laxity.

One hopes the next post will not be so long away...



Wednesday, 4 April 2012

A world in miniature

I made the bold claim several months ago that I wanted to get back into painting for, and playing, miniatures games.  Back in the dim recesses of my personal gaming autobiography one might find a dust laden chapter or two concerning my earlier dabblings in games like Warhammer, De Bellus Antiquitatus and so forth.

As life went on I moved away from miniatures games and into roleplaying, and from roleplaying to boardgaming.  As time wears implacably onward I find myself yearning for those games of old.  And so the wheel turns... as Robert Jordan was wont to note.

One of the things that I really quite enjoyed about playing miniatures games was the hobby aspect of painting the models.  And so it is now, with me wanting to get back to spending some time painting and basing the figures, it is a cathartic experience after all.

I’ve spent some time and energy trying to find a game or three that balances all those things I want.  It needs first and foremost to be an enjoyable game (always the toughest the measure without playing it), it needs to have a short-ish playing time, not be overly complex (I’d rather a game with a light and easy rules-set over one laden with rules, exceptions and special situations), and it should use a small-ish number of figures per side.  The number of figures per side is important, as I want to retain my sanity as I ease back into this hobby, and I want the experience to be cathartic - in other words: I don’t want to fall into a mental death spiral as I gaze over the half-a-billion pike bearers I still have to paint for my one-to-one scale Sassanid Persian army.

Having looked at a variety of games over the last 2-4 months I’ve setting on a handful that strike me as interesting.  The first of those is Song of Blades and Heroes.  I’ve played several games of Song of Blades and Heroes now, using my Battlelore minis as proxies, and I have to say I quite enjoy the game.  It hits all of the marks I’m interested in - it will provide me the opportunity to collect and paint a small-ish number of figures.  The rules are simple and work well, and additionally allow for quite a abundance of variation.  As a game it doesn’t outstay its welcome.  Most importantly it has been a fun game to play.

Of course the interesting thing with most miniatures games is that they are produced quite separately to miniatures.  So if one finds a miniatures game one likes the look of, one often must also, separately, find the miniatures one would like to use.  After looking over a bunch of miniature producers with Song of Blades and Heroes in mind, I finally settled on a scale of 15-20mm.  It’s a scale I enjoyed painting when I was collecting stuff for my DBA and DBM armies many moons ago, and has the added advantages of being relatively easy to store and being cheap to buy.  I wanted to be able to buy a couple of warbands after all.

In the end I have chosen Splintered Light Miniatures - I bought a couple of their anthropomorphic animal warriors packs, mostly because they looked like a lot of fun.  Now I have them in my hot little hands I can add that Splintered Light make some beautiful 15mm scale miniatures.  They are well detailed and each has a great personality seen through the poses, animals and costumes.  

I apologise for the photo quality - the Splintered Light website has better examples.

I’ll post another blog in a couple of days about getting ready to paint them - for now it will suffice to say that for my first minis game in some years I have chosen Song of Blades and Heroes, and have bought some wonderful little miniatures from Splintered Light to paint up and play with.

I also have my eye on several other minis games:

Saga is one, with its dark age theme it certainly hits the mark in terms of interest.  It also seems to have a fascinating dice system, reminiscent of some board games.  I’m tossing up whether to collect this game in 6mm - using figures from Baccus... first I will see how I travel with my 15mm animals!

DinoMight and Tooth and Claw are two others that have piqued my interest.  With my lad’s growing obsession with dinosaurs I am increasingly finding myself drawn to these mesozoic beasts as well...

Lastly, my brother and I have loosely talked about getting some stuff for Dystopian Wars, which has a wonderfully Jules Verne-esque steam-punk style and theme.  Spartan (the publisher) also produce their own line of minis...

Before leaping feet first into a world filled by shelves overstocked with unpainted metal figures, I shall have to exert some small measure of willpower and wait to see how I travel with Song of Blades and Heroes.  No use buying too many miniatures and games if I never get around to painting them!