Thursday, 26 September 2013

An Epic Game...

For a little while I’ve been thinking about writing a series of reviews, each based on a single word, like epic, majestic, lucky... some form of adjective, like a word association review - which game matches that word to my mind and why.

To kick what will probably be a sporadic enterprise off, and in keeping with episode 323 of The Dice Tower, a podcast about board and card games that I am a sometimes contributor to, this review will be based on the word ‘epic’...

An epic game...

I could write about burgeoning space empires exploring and exploiting their way to domination, or fantasy slug fests where armies of untold steely eyed warriors do battle for dominion.  But instead I want to focus on the historical, the type of game that charts the growth, development and ascendancy of empires and civilisation.  No theme could so fully engulf the term epic as this.

There are many of course, some great and long lasting like the empires they simulate, there are others that are less so, they burst forth in a maelstrom of forum post laden excitement and fade into the footnotes of game history.

The game I want to talk about seeks to compass a scope and span of human history that no other game I know of dares to assault.  It is Origins: How we Became Human, by the inestimable Phil Eklund.  Now, I need to begin by stating the typical Eklund Caveat - this game is obtuse, unbalanced and complicated, and is certainly not for everyone, not even for most perhaps.

However, for those fascinated by the theme, Origins: How We Became Human is a civilisation game like no other.

Is it epic? Well four letters do little to expound on it.  It is a game of evolution, beginning some 120,000 years ago it tells multiple tales as players guide their civilisations through this enormous gulf of time.  In the first age players represent a variety of hominds, from Neanderthal to Cro-Magnon man, to Homo Floresiensis and Homo Sapien.  The goal is the achievement of consciousness, and players develop social and technological practices that will help them spread, develop and unlock aspects of their developing selves, literally unlocking parts of their brains, and access to behaviors that may have been beyond them at an earlier stage.

In the second age the variety of hominds have disappeared and players represent cultural groups struggling to reach modern consciousness through the invention of metaphoric language - a Jaynesian and controversial perspective.

In the third age players struggle with ideologies, and seek to build and develop the most advanced and complete civilisation before the game winds to a close.

It is a game that seeks to explore not only the rise of civilisation, but the rise of us ourselves, it compasses not only the development of technologies, but explores the impact those technologies had on our potentials, it’s a controversial perspective on the evolution of modern human consciousness, and in every game, every player walks away with a story to tell.  

This is not simple civilisation building, where the drive and output of generations of a people is anatomised and boiled away to a short race to build the biggest building.    Origins How we Became Human, by Phil Eklund, is not an epic civilisation building game, it is a game the charts history as we know it.  This is a game that seeks to explore, through play, the journey of our species from our humble beginnings to the scintillating glories of our modern achievements, in short, this game tells the story of us.


If you have any suggestions, words or phrases that would be fun to base reviews around for this series - feel free to add a comment and suggestion!


Can't see the Forest for the...

A little while ago now I set out to make some forested pieces of terrain for my growing terrain collection - mainly for use with Song of Blades and Heroes (although I also have Dux Britanniarum that I'm itching to get to the table).

I wanted something modular, and something easy to store.  In the end I settled on a simple system using cheap round drinks coasters.

I chose coasters because they were cheap, because I could sit them next to one another with ease, and because without the trees they could also be used for rough terrain, or similar.

On each coaster I traced out some circles where the trees would go, painted the remainder with PVA and liberally coated them with sand I nicked from my son's sand-pit.

After shaking off the loose sand and undercoating them:

I used a dark brown paint, followed by several lighter layers of dry-brushing - each of course lighter than the last, with the final layer being a very thin coat of a flesh tone.

Lastly I added some static grass to break up the monotony.  They aren't highly detailed bases, but with the trees on board they look perfectly table-suitable.

The trees themselves were a part of a Woodland Scenics pine trees kit.  There were a mountain load of trees in there, so I have plenty.  The trees themselves were relatively easy to put together: cut away the bases (which I also glued to metal washers to make them a little more likely to stay upright), glue them, twist the trunks to splay the branches out in different directions, and finally add the clump foliage.

Woodland Scenics recommends using their Hob-e-Tac glue - which worked perfectly well, although seem to never dry fully (rather the point I think).  I liberally sprayed the foliage afterwards with watered down PVA to help them stay together.

All done they are not majestic and amazing scenic dioramas, but they look reasonable, were cheap and quick to make, look good on the table, and can be used to make lots of little copses or a couple of larger forests - I'm happy.

Being used in a game of Song of Blades and Heroes:

Different shaped coasters in use...


Tuesday, 24 September 2013

Risk Legacy and a New Legacy Game in the Offing...

Risk Legacy broke on the gaming world with some turbulence.  A new take on the traditional game: one in which the game would evolve and change with each game, and one where those changes were permanent.  The prospect of writing on the board, adding stickers that couldn't be removed and tearing up cards was enough to send a shiver down the spine of some.  Seen as a gimmick to drive sales by a few at the time, to me it seemed a gimmick which held the promise of actually being a fascinating game experience.  Sure the game may be permanently altered and never reset to be replayed, but I have to be honest, if I manage to play a game 15 or so times then I have well and truly got my money in terms of play time - there are a great many games in my collection for which I paid more and have played far less, but I digress.

What is it about Risk Legacy that fascinates me?  The prospect of the game growing as it is played is certainly one part of that.  But there is more: the ability to name things, make choices about what gets a sticker and what doesn't, what may get a bonus and what doesn't - lasting impacts that a player can leave on a game.  The game grows certainly, but not simply in the sense that more and more rules and pieces are added as secret packets are opened.  The game grows as a result of the player choices, players indelibly stamp their experiences on the game board, it becomes a shared history... and this I think is an exciting and fun concept.

I'm really enjoying Risk Legacy, and I'm lucky enough to be playing in a group where the players, like the Led Zeppelin song, stay the same.  It is better this way, as the names of cities, continents and the placement of stickers are historical markers that spark some recollection of a game, event or experience in the shared history of this game we are moulding together. In-jokes and references abound, and are added in messy layers to the game board - a developing pastiche of our experience with the game from its opening to today.

Thinking about the system a little, the idea of growing a game and altering forever its make-up, I was struck by how well suited the idea might fit with an epic fantasy game - where secret packets opened to reveal the machinations and plot development of the arch enemy.

Well Rob Daviau, of course, is well ahead; just recently announcing SeaFall - a game that will be published by his own company (IronWall Games) and Plaid Hat games.  A 4X sea borne empires game with a similar evolutionary bent - a game where players explore, claim and name islands, where grudges between empires have the chance to blossom over many games, where empires can evolve and develop over the shared history of the game as it changes through the ages of play.

Image from the Plaid Hat website.

Colour me excited!

The Plaid Hat podcast has an episode where Rob discusses his game - well worth checking out!


Monday, 23 September 2013

Fortune and Calamity...

Orders from the Admiralty were clear, but far from straightforward: protect the small British expeditionary force resupplying and repairing off Padang, Sumatra.

The Royal Australian navy was called into service, a fleet dispatched to Sulawesi was never intended to engage, but rather draw the attention of any of the Empire of the Blazing Sun who might be watching the region from their bases in Papua.

Another fleet was dispatched to patrol the waters south of Sumatra, as the prying eyes of the Covenant of Antarctica were a ceaseless and an ever-present threat.  

As this second force took in water off Christmas island word from the Natives sparked and stirred excitement; green lit ghosts had been witnessed far out to sea, flicking and whipping in the great distance only the night before. The Sea was angry, it was said.

Setting out to run the fleet parallel with Sumatra the Admiral plotted a course to the Cocos Islands... it would be around a small chain of islands off the main archipelago where the Royal Australian Fleet would run afoul of the Southernmost empire; the Covenant of Antarctica.

It seemed on first blush that from the size of both forces it would be a chess like skirmish, but such idle thoughts would bely the truth of what would eventuate.  The Australian admirals gave orders that the Covenant flag ship be taken at all costs, we had to know, they said, what the Covenant did...

The Australian fleet, arriving spread out over such a distance was too disparate to allow for a concentrated effort, and in a stroke of poor luck the flagship of the Covenant was tucked well away from the Tasmania class Sub Tenders and their lethal cargo of Crocodile Attack subs, the Australians best chance of achieving their goal.

Hoping to cause enough damage to cripple, but not destroy the Aristotle (the Covenant flagship), the two Victoria class Gunships move to a more flexible position.  Whether the Aristotle continued in its path or feigned and made a turn, they should be able to heave-to and have her in their sights.  Coupled with the might of the Cerberus pocket Battleship they should be able to inflict enough damage to weaken her for boarding.  The only fly in the ointment was the fact that the attack subs had been deployed well away from the prospective conflict.

Focussing their attention on the gunships several torpedo barrages from the fast moving Diogenes frigates managed to inflict some damage.

The battle around the Victoria Gunships became a turning point, with the Covenants Ptolemy bombers, the Diogenes frigates and a wave of dive bombers all wreaking havoc.

Damage was heavy both sides, but the use of mines made this damage more widespread than focussed, which left both Victoria class gunships seriously damaged.

While the middle and right of the battle was give and take, the Tasmania class sub tenders came under fire from a squadron of Plato cruisers, a lucky hit on the ammunition supplies sent one to the sea floor while the shrapnel and concussive force of its demise left the other Tasmania crippled.

In the end the Australia fleet took a beating.  While able to land enough fire on the Aristotle to basically cripple it, they were seriously impacted by a spread out deployment and apt use of flanking attacks from faster vessels.  While a solid fight, the Australians limped away the battered party... taking only small solace in the fact that a lucky hit toward the end managed to sink the Aristotle... sink without capturing was a lesser success, but far better that than no damage at all!


This was a very fun battle to play out.  600 points a side, two players on each side... a lot of fun.  The magazine explosion and the sinking of the Aristotle were highlights, but the use of mines against the Victoria class gunships was also highly successful.

Devastating ordnance is exactly what it says on the shell casing: devastating!  In one barrage the Aussies managed a whopping 23 hits on the Aristotle... not dice, but hits.  And it was moments like that and the explosion of the Tasmania that make the game memorable and fun - the outrageous swings of fortune, of fortune and calamity.

Good fun!


Wednesday, 18 September 2013

The Event...

Annually my school runs a Games Day.  I wrote a couple of weeks ago about the various game related programs we run, and that we were gearing up for our games day.  I'm very happy to declare that The Event has come and more sadly that it has passed.

Rock the Beat.

As exhausting and demanding as our Games Day can be it is also a wonderful experience.  Over the course of the day we have some 400 or so kids come through the hall - all engaged in the act of playing games.  The kids range in age from 4 to 12-13, and we also had young adult refugees from the Shepparton English Language Centre come across to join in.  A huge range of ages, needs, prior experiences and abilities.


Facilitating the day is a cadre of students we call the Games Ambassadors - mostly from my class of grade 3-4 students (ages roughly 7-9), they have the unenviable job of teaching and managing the games at the tables.  My personal feeling is that such a mentoring opportunity is great for leadership, empathy and a range of other skills - and wow was I impressed.  The Games Ambassadors rose to the challenge, managing to teach games to players with such a massive range of abilities is a daunting task for the average 7-9 year old, but what a job they did.

Kids of Carcassonne.

Some of the players had no English skills, many couldn't count, or spell, and yet all were engaged magnificently - a real tribute to the Ambassadors, a shining example of what anyone can achieve.  I was really taken with the way the Ambassadors slipped naturally into the role of mentors and teachers, these kids, on the fly and with prompting from me, were modifying game rules and in some cases making up wholly new games to suit the kids at their table (as well of course as teaching the games as they were meant to be played).

The Amazing Labyrinth.

Seeing older kids explaining patiently a game to a group of fidgety 4 year olds, seeing younger kids explain a game to a group of 18-25 year olds with very limited English, seeing everyone engaged and playing, laughing and having fun was surely one of the standout highlights of my year so far.  I cannot speak highly enough, or be more proud of my class and the other kids who volunteered to take on the role of Games Ambassadors.

Double Shutter.

I can't wait till our next Games Day!

CooCoo the Clown.

Jungle Speed.


Tuesday, 17 September 2013

Dwarf King...

Recently I managed to get in a game of Dwarf King, a simple trick taking game by Bruno Faidutti.  Normally I find trick taking games fun, but not overly memorable, with one exception being Chronicle.  Dwarf King, on paper, seems to have nothing to take it from the benches of the merely ordinary to any pew closer to greatness, however, there are a few simple twists that make it a whole lot of fun.

Before I go any further I should note that I am usually a big fan of Faidutti games, where some might choose to see a chaos creating disequilibrium in the gameplay, I see a layer of of uncertainty that forces a player to play in the here and now, from the seat of the pants so to speak.  It pulls the game from the strategic to the tactical, and typically does so with oodles of theme - something I really appreciate.

I won’t gush so sycophantically about Faidutti games as to suggest that Dwarf King has much of a theme, it doesn’t.  However, the gameplay is certainly a huge amount of tactical fun.

As a trick taking game Dwarf King is remarkably simple, play a card, follow suit where possible, the highest card of the led suit wins the trick.  Nothing groundbreaking here, nothing that would cause the idle gamer to march on the local gallery and demand the game be added to the list of artistic works.  

However, there are twists.  In Dwarf King, each turn, players will flip a scoring tile which will basically provide the rules for how points are scored that turn.  It may be that the players who manage to collect Dwarves over the tricks that hand will score points, it may be the players who collect Goblins will lose points, it may be that players will score for collecting tricks with certain numbers in them, or lose points for other numbers... Every turn the method of scoring or maintaining points will change, and for the length of that turn players will be trying to shoe-horn their hand of cards into service in order to either gain, or prevent themselves from losing points.

There is a visceral tension as players try to balance losing the right cards to tricks that don’t matter and save cards for the tricks that count.  Sometimes players will be trying to give the trick to another player, sometimes to anyone but themselves, sometimes for themselves.  The twisting, turning, changing pressures of the points tiles make for a varied and fun game experience that doesn’t last too long.

Faidutti strikes again in my view, a very fun take on an age old genre of game.  Well played Faidutti, well played...

Friday, 6 September 2013

Games and School...

I've talked plenty of times about our school games club on the Games in Schools and Libraries podcast.  But for those who haven't listened (what are you waiting for? ;) ), at St Georges Primary School we run a variety of game events over the year.  Early next week we'll be running one of our annual games days (which I'll no doubt write about later), and on a weekly basis we also run an after school games club, in conjunction with the Smith Family - a charity that provides various types of assistance for families in need.

Some new games arrive in time for our games day...

The Smith Family here in Shepparton run a mixture of after school learning or homework clubs at a collection of schools.  Over the last two years we have worked with them to provide a games club, which has been a fantastic thing, catering for between 15 and 25 students.

Double Shutter...

Jungle Speed...

Firstly, games are about enjoyment; they are a form of participatory entertainment that engages people socially and mentally in a commonly defined activity.

CooCoo The Rocking Clown...

The Amazing Labyrinth...

Now, I'm obviously biased, but I think games are a great activity for kids and adults alike to participate in, because by their very nature they are a socially engaging thing, of course I also think they challenge players to think, to problem solve and to use a variety of other important skills whether that is adding points, spelling words or whatever.  But some of the most important experiences with games, for me at least, reside in the fact that they involve a range of players, who may or may not typically be friends, and encourages them to sit around a common activity, to plan together, to compete, to talk, and to generally interact.

Guess Who...

Piggy Back...

This term I've been particularly impressed, kids in the club are really delving into some of the games.  There is a group of kids who have fallen in love with Ticket to Ride, and I had the pleasure of playing a game with them the other week which turned out to be one of the best and most enjoyable games of it I have played.  The kids strategised, bluffed, smack-talked, encouraged each other and played a really good game.  It was a blast.  We've also been playing some whole group games of Wits and Wagers, Say Anything, Word on the Street and others... and they've been exhausting, but fun.

Enchanted Forest...


I think any extra-curricula activity in a school is a good and positive thing, it encourages kids to find and engage with a hobby or passion, with a small group of people who can become something of a community around that shared activity.  Ours being a game based club it also encourages and provokes thought and a spirit (I hope) of fun.  All in all our games club has been a blast to be involved with.  Now to turn my focus to finalising the preparations for our games day... it should be fun!


The Piggy Back pigs used in a dexterity contest...


Wednesday, 4 September 2013

The case for Battlefoam...

For my birthday my dear wife ordered me a Battlefoam case to house the mounting piles of miniatures that are threatening to engulf various spots around the house.  When you take the time to purchase, prep and paint a bunch of stuff, it becomes clear that you also want it well kept, and letting a dozen large painted ships knock about inside an ordinary cardboard box is not the way forward.

I looked around online for various storage solutions that would fit the need, KR Cases and Battlefoam seemed the front runners, and in the end I opted for a Battlefoam Spartan Games case.

The case comes with three trays, two around 1" deep and one 2" deep, the 1" trays are suitable for pretty much all my minis, although the handful of large ships fit perfectly in the deeper tray.

The case itself has some nice firm inserts reinforcing the sides and bottom, and also has plenty of pockets - fitting turning templates, cards, dice, the rules, and a tape measure.  It also has a velcro strip on the front, and comes with the logos for Spartan Games three flagship games - Dystopian Wars, Firestorm Armada and Uncharted Seas - which fix nicely to the velcro.

It took me several hours with a hobby knife, and a headaches over what should fit where, but I finally settled on an arrangement that should suit my ever growing collection of Dystopian stuff.

All in all I'm really happy with how everything fits in.  I chose to grab the pluck foam trays, and a little work with a blade allowed to fit everything I have rather neatly.  As is evident, I still have a good quantity of minis requiring paint - hopefully they won't languish too long!

In summary - the Battlefoam case is fantastic - easy to arrange and organise, and fits everything nicely.  At least now my minis won't be knocking the paint off each other!