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!