Portrait of the Gamer as a Young Man

My dad died on Wednesday.  He was a good man and a great father, and my fondest memories of him many of you would no doubt consider fairly banal, such as watching great television shows together like Happy Days and The Six Million Dollar Man with heaping bowls of popcorn, or of our semi-regular family game nights during which we played Monopoly, or Clue, or, for a brief period in the 1980s—when Avalon Hill brought a lot of cool back to tabletop gaming with their line of more complex board games—Rail Baron, one for which Dad had a particular interest.  I remember being fascinated with Rail Baron, and thinking it much better than the run of the mill board games that we played, but I have little recollection of how the game is played, other than acquiring railroads.

When I became a teenager, I was more interested in reading books and comics, or playing D&D with my friends, and turned down more than one family game night.  Not that I would have remembered each of those family game nights, as all of them have combined into one archetypal moment as the years have advanced, much like my hours slogging through RPGs have, but I should have never said no to my father, with whom I played hundreds of games as a child, as he liked to play them then no doubt as much as I do now.

Yesterday, we were going through boxes of photographs to look for the best pictures of my father.  This was a little more difficult than you might think, for our dad was always behind the camera, snapping photographs of us in our most candid moments.  For those of you who have stayed with my blog for the last few months, as your hilarious reward, here are some pictures of the author as a young gamer.  In both pictures, he’s obsessing over a recent tabletop game gift.  I like the later picture more, as it’s true to my young self to see his back turned on mall fashions with what was my favorite birthday gift in 1986 and would become my favorite fantasy RPG of all, RuneQuest, on my lap.  Enjoy the hobbit feet and the mullet.



Catan Blues: Some Thoughts on Catan Inequity

Last week, I mentioned that Catan was a game which did not appear to favor either the first or last player. However, upon reflection, I believe inequity is a fact of Catan just as it is in most other Eurogames, although initial player order is still a mixed bag of advantages and disadvantages for each player, and the first and the last player do seem to have stronger advantages than the players between them. That said, I am amending that declaration to reflect my current point of view, which is that the first and last players have a considerable advantage over the players between them, so that it is good to go first, and it is good to go last, in the first turn.

The last player gets the following significant advantages resulting from being able to place both their first and last settlement at the same time: 1) they can pick their starting resources with more control; 2) they have more control over covering as many different numbers as possible, while the other players will risk more redundancy; and 3) if the player is a strategic gamer, they have the potential to make the other players’ second settlement selection extremely uncomfortable by spacing out their two settlement placements, in relation to the other players’ first spots, in such a way as to sorely restrict the available settlement locations, due to the “rule of one.” A strategically minded last player in Catan can restrict not only initial placement, but can also discourage the expansion of empires for many turns to come, as few players will make the long investment of building roads through infertile hex junctions. at which no settlements can be placed due to competitive building and the rule of one, in order to get to viable areas.

The first player, on the other hand, gets the obvious advantage of the statistically most favorable initial placement, and that goes a long way, especially if it is something like a 5/8/9. While the first player will have the least favorable second settlement location, and may even not have a three hex location for it, there should be a pair of two good numbers on the coast that can be nearly as good. This will, of course, disadvantage the first player’s starting resources,but the first player might get a harbor, and often has an extra turn in the game to make up for for starting with two resources instead of three.

You see, Catan, unlike Eurogames that followed it like Puerto RicoBroom Service, or Power Grid, is not a game in which all players get the same amount of turns. The game ends as soon as a player hits the requisite victory points to win that scenario. This means that if player one goes first, and then goes on to win the game, player one had one more turn than players two, three, and four. This means that in a four player game, player one will, three out of four times, have one more turn than player four. When Player One wins, he has one more turn than all his opponents; when Player Two wins, One and Two have one more turn than Three and Four; when Player Three wins, One, Two, and Three have one more turn than Four.  Only when player four wins a four player game will he or she have the same number of turns as his opponents.  Player Four never gets the extra turn that his or her opponents can, and as this is a lost opportunity to purchase, and purchases are what provide you with game winning victory points, this disadvantages him or her.

So the last player gets the advantages that come with placing both starting settlements at the same time, but the first player gets the best placement plus an extra turn compared to one to all of his opponents. Because the last player has to have some Catan experience and general expertise at playing tabletop games strategically, I would say that the first player in Catan has a greater built-in advantage, but the last player in Catan has enormous strategic potential that can be maximized by a skilled Catan player.

Catan 5th Edition

Catan: Family Edition


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The Wish Wall: More Details Emerge on Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle

Comics related news has been dropping pretty fast due to San Diego Comic-Con, so my blogging time has been pretty much restricted to posts on NerdSpan, where I wear the Comics News Editor hat.  And while I prefer thinking about tabletop games to eating or sleeping, my body disagrees, so my last post on Board of Life was four days ago…again.

This post will be pretty short as well.  I just wanted to share new details on the Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle Deck-Building Game, which looks more and more interesting.  USAopoly has revealed the Hero Cards, some of the other starting cards, a sample player’s board, and a picture of what the player’s “play area” will look like.

If Rupert Grint, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Matthew Lewis ever sit down to play this game together, it will be not unlike opening a collection of yearbooks, as the Hero Cards pictured are from their earliest film together, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.


You  may be able to see in the upper right hand corner of each card “Game 1.”  If you remember from our last look at this game, there are seven boxes, holding different playing cards for each year.  I’m assuming this means that in each of the seven games included in this box, you get a new Hero Card with a new picture.  So by the end of this game, you’ll be more familiar with how the cast of Harry Potter changed over the years than you did.

Here’s a picture of how a player’s “play area” should look when playing this game:


On the top is a turn order card and a Hero Card, and to the left is the player’s unique deck of cards, while to the right appears to be a pile indicating spell mastery.

Here are these elements up close:

Finally, here are some examples of some of the unique play cards, specifically two each of Harry’s and Neville’s.  For Harry, we see Hedwig and the Invisibility Cloak; for Neville, we see the Mandrake and the Remembrall.


USAopoly plans to release more details about Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle Deck-Building Game periodically until it is released, starting with a post coming next week.

Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle A Cooperative Deck Building Game

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Grokking Games: On Going First in Puerto Rico

(Grokking Games is a column in which I discuss strategy and game theory. Unlike the reviews on Board of Life that presume no knowledge on behalf of the reader, Grokking Games is recommended for those already familiar with the games discussed.)

In Monopoly, initial turn order can be everything. For instance, picture a four player game in which player one starts the game by rolling a 6, player two rolls an 8, player three rolls a 9, and all three buy the properties that they’ve landed upon. Before player four gets to roll, all of the light blue properties are out of the game, and he or she then has to roll a 3, 5, 11, or 12 to have a chance to make a purchase in the first round. While this exact situation isn’t that common, it is true that if you’re going last in Monopoly, each player that buys a property before you get to roll reduces the chance of you landing on an available property. In the hypothetical situation above, player one has a 64% chance to land on an available property (3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 11, or 12 on 2d6), player two has a 50% chance (the 6 being removed), player three has a 36% chance (6 and 8 removed), and player four has only a 25% chance. If player four compounds this disadvantage in probability with bad dice rolls, they will continue to follow the other players around the board and watch the available properties disappear.

This is why it can suck to go last in Monopoly.

In most other vintage roll and move games, though, there is little difference between going first and last, as each player gets to progress around the board with rolls of the dice toward their objectives, and only luck with those dice, and not turn order, determines the progress of the game.

Compared to roll and move games, in Eurogames and other modern tabletop games, the initial turn order follows the Monopoly model and favors either the first or the last player in the first turn. The two notable exceptions to this are 7 Wonders, in which everyone goes at the same time, and Catan, in which there are both distinct advantages and disadvantages to going first and going last. This may be one of the reasons that Catan remains a perennial favorite despite the fact that it still relies on those barbaric randomizers, dice.

Of all the tabletop games I play, Broom Service and Puerto Rico are the ones which disadvantage the first player the most. I’ve talked about Broom Service A LOT in this blog, but if you’re just jumping in now, I’ll quickly sum up why it isn’t good to go first in Broom Service. Player one’s dilemma is: do I play one of my four choice cards cowardly with a weakened effect, or do I play the card strong against the probability, that increases with each player in the game, that it will be trumped by others playing that card?

If everyone in Puerto Rico had the same starting resources, there would be a distinct advantage in going first. However, the game designers wisely decided to make the first player’s choice a problematic one by giving the first players Indigo, and the last players Corn, which is easier to begin producing due to it only requiring colonists and not cash.

Hence my opinion: there is a distinct disadvantage in going first in Puerto Rico, because each player in the first round benefits successively from the role card choices of each player before him or her, which sets up the last player to choose their first role having already been enriched by the actions of other players. Consequently, in the first turn, if you have the responsibility of going first, or second in a four or five player game, you should pick strategically from the few role cards that will have an effect for you.

Trader and Captain are out for the first player, as there are no benefits to those cards until the Craftsman card has been played with at least one player getting a good to either parlay to the Trader for coin or ship through the Captain for victory points.

Craftsman is likewise a bad choice for player one, and even the second player, as both of them start with Indigo, and to produce Indigo with the Craftsman, both the Builder and the Mayor have to be played. More often than not, the Mayor has to be played twice, which means the earliest that player one and two usually start producing Indigo is round 2. So Craftsman is out.

This means that Prospector, Settler, Builder, and Mayor are the only roles to benefit the first player and are usually the ones chosen by the first player for that reason. Prospector is good, as that enriches yourself without benefiting anyone else. However, of the three remaining roles, two are much more strategic choices.

If you pick the Mayor card, you get 2 colonists compared to everyone else getting 1, but as you have indigo, and the last players in the round have corn, they could use their one colonist to colonize their Corn plots and end up getting corn loaded onto the ships, scoring points before you get a chance to produce a single good. This assumes the following cards played in a four player game: Player 1 plays Mayor, Player 2 plays any other card, Player 3 plays Craftsman, and Player 4 plays Captain. This would give players 3 and 4 2 point leads in the first round. So Mayor is definitely out for Player 1, and Player 2 shouldn’t play it for similar reasons, unless player 1 plays Builder and player 2 takes the opportunity to buy an Indigo mill and then play the Mayor card to get both the Indigo tile and the Indigo mill colonized.

Settler can be good, because that gives you the first choice of the five flipped tiles, so that you can regulate production. Player one only has the conundrum of deciding whether to pick a Corn, if he is lucky enough that one is available, so that he can also start producing goods for the Captain phase, or taking a Coffee or Tobacco or Sugar in order to plan for successive turns by maintaining an advantage in trade. Taking the Corn can be an equalizer, and put the first player in a similar production situation as player three and four, but if they choose a more favorable resource like Coffee or Tobacco, that can give them trade advantages later in the game. You started the game with an indigo, worth one gold in trade and they had a corn, worth no gold in trade; if you pick Settler, and take a corn, so that you have indigo and corn, in order to more easily produce goods to gain victory points, and the corn producers both take Tobacco, worth 3 gold, they have more valuable plots on their island than you did at the beginning of the game. Player One has to be mindful of the impact of the Settler phase not only on scoring Victory Points, but of earning gold.

For that reason, despite that many people advise Settler as the opening move online, I cannot fully back taking the Settler as the best opening move. It either results in player one further postponing the production of valuable goods, or of giving up their trade advantage to other players. If you decide that you will open with the Settler, my recommendation is to take the most valuable tile showing, which will make sure that the players after you get successively less valuable goods for their islands. The early and mid-game in Puerto Rico is all about the money.

Builder is the other of the two most strategic roles for Player one to play. Choosing Builder gives Player One the immediate opportunity to buy one of two Small Markets. Because the Small Market is only a one gold investment, or zero for the lead Builder, and it adds one coin to all sales to the trader for the rest of the game, I’ve seen a lot of first Builder phases that end with both of the Small Markets being removed from the game. If Player One passes on the builder, Player Two will probably take it and one of the Small Markets, and Player Three, Four, or Five will be likely to take the other one, which means that if Player One passes on the Builder, he will have to do without the benefits of the Small Market. Additionally, Player One shouldn’t want Players Three and Four to get the Small Markets, as that gives them more of a chance to make money off of corn production by raising the value of corn for a Small Market owner from zero to one gold. As the Small Market is a free buy when choosing the Builder role, this purchase will also let Player One retain their starting money for the Builder phase in the second round, and will ensure strategic purchases in both the first and the second round for Player One. And while you will retain all of your gold, players two through five will have their gold decreased by their purchases which will lessen the impact of their second round purchases.

There is also negative fallout from Player One leading with Builder. I’ve often seen Player 3 and 4, when deprived of the Small Markets, grab both Haciendas. More importantly, if player one chooses Builder, and player two builds an Indigo Mill on that phase, and then chooses Mayor for their role, player two will be ready to start producing Indigo before player one. So choosing Builder can give player 2 a small advantage if they are smart enough to grab the Indigo Mill and then choose Mayor for their role. Additionally, if player three then plays Craftsman, and player four plays Captain, this will result in player 4 getting 2 victory points off of loading 1 corn, player 2 would get 1 victory point from loading 1 indigo, player 3 would get 2 victory points from loading 2 corn, and player one would get nothing due to having no production.

If Player One selects Settler, they potentially lose their initial trade advantage, and if they select Builder, they could give their opponents early victory points. However, in selecting Builder and taking one of the Small Markets as a free purchase, Player One also maintains an economic lead over his or her opponents, who must deplete their coffers if they want to make a purchase in that phase. While the Settler role is the safer one for Player One to pick due to it providing less advantage to his opponents, the Builder role provides a definite economic edge with the added risk that if the following players pick a certain series of roles, they could score some points in the first round.

For the preceding reasons, I consider Builder and Settler to be tied in their virtues for Player One’s opening move.  That said, I pick Builder when going first.

Due to the fact that only Settler and Builder are likely to be selected by Player One, it would also be possible to write an “On Going Second in Puerto Rico” advisement in a future installation of Grokking Games. As the third, fourth, and fifth players will have been set up by the previous actions of the players that preceded them, they are more likely to have multiple options that are less clear cut, and the benefits of analyzing their opening moves would be less advantageous.

Puerto Rico Game

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The Wish Wall: Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle

We’re definitely Potterheads in this house, and while I did prefer the books (with the exception of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, for which I concede the movie is better), we have multiple rewatches of the movies under our belts. In this house, not only do we have books and video, we also have Harry Potter t-shirts, Lego video games, homemade wands from a recent Potter-themed birthday party, and one of the new coloring books. My wife is reading through the series to my daughter, and occasionally I listen in. I know that I am a Hufflepuff according to Pottermore and a Ravenclaw according to the Sorting Hat Bot on Twitter, where I also follow J. K. Rowling. So it is probably fair to say that I think about Pottermania at least once a day, and I’m not alone in this home.

As tabletop gaming enthusiasts, you would think that we would also have a variety of Harry Potter themed games, and while we do have Lego: Harry Potter Hogwarts (2010) and Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone: Mystery at Hogwarts Game (2000) around here, neither are particularly satisfying as games, although they are cute pieces that fellow Pottermaniacs will enjoy. When I go to BoardGameGeek.com to find Harry Potter themed games, I see that many of the interesting looking ones were produced before Warner Brothers released the first of its film adaptations, and during the run of the Harry Potter movies, there are lots of underwhelming Scene It?, Clue and Trivial Pursuit iterations, as well as the obligatory Wizard Chess. None of these games seem to have a preponderance of fans; the most popular one on BGG, Harry Potter: Trading Card Game, has 451 voters in the 1-6 rating, and only 311 in the 7-10 rating.  

So I admit my trepidation and consider myself forewarned when I allow myself to get excited over USAopoly’s advance press about Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle. There are no advance reviews, but I can see from the pictures that this is not only the most ambitious Harry Potter tabletop game to date, but also one of the more ambitious board game releases for 2016.


For example, if you take a look at the above promotional picture you will see in the upper left a brown rectangle.


In this accompanying photo, you can see what look to be seven different decks of cards for each of the seven years that Harry Potter is in Hogwarts, one for each of Rowling’s famous novels.

There’s also four brightly colored game-dedicated dice, and each of the four Hogwarts students available to play—Harry, Ron, Hermione, or Neville—gets their own playing deck.

In just three weeks, we should know more through BGG and more conventional social media—that real-world GIF and video stuffed analogue to Potterverse papers like The Daily Prophet and The Quibbler—about whether Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle is any good, because USAopoly is taking it to GenCon on August 4th.

gencon_web_banner2 (1)

I hope that Harry Potter: Hogwarts Battle is by all accounts a very good game and ends up on our game shelf, and the truth is with so much Harry Potter enthusiasm in this house, we may end up having it anyway.  In the meantime, however, it’s sitting on The Wish Wall.

Official game description:

The forces of evil are threatening to overrun HOGWARTS™ castle in this new cooperative game! It’s up to four students to ensure the safety of the school by defeating villains and consolidating their defenses. Players take on the role of a HOGWARTS student: Harry, Ron, Hermione or Neville, each with his or her own personal deck of cards. To secure the castle from the forces of evil the students must work together to build more powerful decks using iconic Wizarding World characters, spells, and items.  Defeat all the villains including He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named and win the game!

Harry Potter Hogwarts Battle A Cooperative Deck Building Game

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Game Night: Betrayal at House on the Hill, Munchkin Panic, and Catan: Explorers & Pirates

At some point I may backtrack to our Fourth of July Game Night, in which we played the Rick and Morty Total Rickall Card Game for the first time, but as yesterday is fresher in my memory, and will give me a chance to bash two games for a change—one that I generally like but has become monotonous, and another that I have always disliked despite my general appreciation of its theme mash-ups—I’m jumping on that game night first.

This was our first long game night in a few weeks, and we were able to get in a good game selection that included Betrayal at House on the Hill, Munchkin Panic and Catan: Explorers & Pirates. We hosted for a change, and made a huge pot of potato soup with vegan cheese sauce to drizzle on top, as well as homemade rolls, and our friends brought their recent crop of homemade cider and a vegan cake. Our house isn’t as cool, so to complete the backdrop, you have to imagine the constant sound of two wall air conditioners and all of our celing fans.

First we played Betrayal at House on the Hill, which we have found enchanting since we started playing it late last year. Now that we’ve played it about eight times, the spell is starting to wear off on me, and while I still enjoy it, I’m beginning to find the placing of black tiles unrelenting, the haunt too easy to defeat, and, most importantly, it’s a co op game that doesn’t inspire co op play until the Haunt forces it. That it’s a co-op game which doesn’t inspire co-op play should be obvious to anyone else that has left a fellow player writhing in webs in order to open a different door and hopefully find an item. This happens every time the Webs Event Card is drawn in our gaming group. Many of the RPG games that Betrayal at House on the Hill is based upon (e.g. D&D and Call of Cthulhu) get criticism online for creating a style of game play humorously referred to as “murder hobo,” the definition of which you can find by clicking the preceding hyperlink, and Betrayal at House on the Hill seems to have found a more alienating formula of co op play, as even “murder hobos” work together as a group to kill the monster and grab the loot, while Betrayal encourages the group not only to split up, but to ignore the needs of the others. Betrayal at House on the Hill may have been a better game if it kept what was excised from its RPG simulation: a game master, to encourage the cohesion of the group. This may be why every time we play this game, I think of playing Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu RPG.

There’s also been an unpleasant sense of deja vu that I have played something like it before, and I realized yesterday that Betrayal is just a more intelligent version of the Dungeon boardgame. Dungeon also destroyed the strongest aspect of RPGs like D&D by removing the game master from the game and requiring a style of play in which everyone is out for themselves. While in Betrayal acting independently isn’t required, but only strongly encouraged by the game dynamics, in both Dungeon and Betrayal I see a strong parallel, in that the effects of removing the game master from a RPG are similar in both. Do I find it slightly existential that in removing the authority from a RPG, there is no reason for players to be good or to act as a group? Yes, I do, but I’ll save that for another essay on the intersections of what I call Amoral RPGs (RPGs without a GM) and Existentialism.

All this said, in the face of my growing consciousness of the repetition of black tiles and the unsatisfying co op element, I did enjoy this game, and it did surprise me for once by having the Haunt (#42) win for the first time. An unlucky Haunt roll no doubt contributed to this win, as we were only 45 minutes into the game before a player rolled a 5 on eight Betrayal dice when the Haunt score was at 6. As the Haunt was revealed early in the game, we had few items and almost no useful Omens to battle the traitor, who found us easy pickings. This was gratifying to me, because after an unbroken seven-game winning record against the Haunt, I was beginning to wonder if the game was weighted too much in favor of the players.

Generally, our gaming group is pretty agreeable, and we play things that we all like, which may give you the impression that I am too nice in my Game Night summaries. The truth is, however, that I am like everybody else in the fact that I have negative opinions about some things, including a few games that we have played. This can be awkward when the game is a gift from our game-playing friends, and my wife thinks it is wonderful, so my ongoing strategy to conceal my shameful loathing of this generous gift has been to make suggestions to play better games. In fact, the best implied criticism of this game that I can make is that there are SO MANY better games that this has been successful for about seven months. Yesterday the eventual train wreck finally happened, and I found myself staring at the most underwhelming theme mash-up in recent tabletop history, Munchkin Panic. It was on my table like a vile, poisonous, beast, and as I didn’t feel Panic, but Dread at the amount of my life that it would suck away, I suggest renaming it the more apt Munchkin Dread. And, in the spirit of critical honesty, I’m going to call it Munchkin Dread not only for the rest of this review but for the rest of my life.

Why the contempt for Munchkin Dread? Basically, I consider it a crime to underwhelm, and I can’t find enough of the splendidly over-the-top hilarity of Munchkin in Munchkin Dread. Where’s the Munchkin in Munchkin Dread? I can’t find it. There’s Munchkin art crammed onto the cards, but as the card text is dull and humorless, they’re not anything like Munchkin cards. A mash-up should be a natural fusion of two games’ themes, and not a superficial dressing up of crammed content.

Additionally, I am a big fan of co-op games, the best of which create a sense of drama by making the game board mutable and untrustworthy (Forbidden Desert, Forbidden Island), or by having cascading events (Pandemic). Compared to these great co op games, there is no drama and lots of tedium in the sliding of 39 monsters, and a half-dozen curses, towards your castle walls, and the presence of a Huge Rock in the bag of baddies makes me think of the myth of Sisyphus and wonder when the game will end.

These are pretty acidic criticisms, and just to be clear that Steve Jackson Games have given me some happiness in my life, from Car Wars as a teen to Gurps in college to Munchkin, Star Munchkin, and Adventure Time Munchkin in recent years. But Steve Jackson himself could not sell me on Munchkin Dread. Which is not to say that I won’t play it again, as it has three fans in our gaming group.

While in our first game, it was obvious that the honeymoon was over, and the second game was one for which I have never had any illusions at all, our third game of the night, Catan: Explorers and Pirates, already my favorite way to play Catan-the game I love to hate and hate for loving it—was such a refreshing change of pace that I felt a wave of relief. Even as I felt the wave of relief, I knew it for the cliche that it was, but that did not stop the cleanness and purity of the feeling that I was happy to be playing a seventeen point game of Catan.

Yes, we picked the longest scenario in the box, so we were using the all three of the leader boards: Pirates, Fish, and Spices. Due to time constraints and wanting to play other games, we have only played this scenario one time before this. I forgot how much space it takes up on our table. The last scenario in E&P is so immense that I don’t think it would fit on our friends’ game table without us going without drinks and snacks, and we’d have to use an end table for the game resource bank.


I went gung-ho into this game with off-board play, which I’ve mentioned before at length. To reiterate, in every version of Catan you can score points both on the board in the forms of settlements and cities or harbor settlements, and off the board in the form of other scoring opportunities, which in basic Catan are Longest Road, Longest Army, and Victory Point cards, and in Catan: Explorers and Pirates are the one to three points you can get on the Pirate, Fish, and Spice leader boards, plus the one point bonuses you can get from the Best Fisher, Best Spice Merchant, and Greatest Pirate Scourge cards. Catan: Explorers and Pirates makes it even easier to focus on off-board scoring, because you don’t have to worry so much about creating more resource-producing settlements due to the fact that when your numbers aren’t rolled you get gold.

Given an opportunity of three sidebars to focus upon, I focused on Spices, as each Spice obtained comes with an in-game bonus, and then I focused secondarily on Fish. I entered one Pirate battle just to get 1 VP off of that leader board, although from watching the other players go at them I realized just how much faster a player can climb up that board than the other leader boards. It takes six spices or six fish to get to the top of the Spice or Fish leader boards, but if you’re lucky or a good planner, you can get to the top of the Pirate board with only three battles. I may implement more Pirate raids in another game, but I will have a hard time prying myself away from the more immediate advantages of the Spices.

The most important Spice hexes to reach are the ones that give you +1 Move, as when you have both of these hexes locked down, you have a 6 Move instead of a 4, which then makes it easier for your ships to get other Spices, more Fish, and drop off crew to battle Pirates. Some players might not see that there’s much of a difference between a 4 and a 6 move, but over time it adds up so that it’s the difference between moving your ships 36 hexes over six turns instead of only 24. After those two, it’s good to have at least one of the hexes that allow you to trade a resource for a gold once a turn. As I only used three bricks in the entire game (one road, one settlement, and one settler), I used that throughout the game for the alchemical trick of changing brick into gold.

Fish require some careful planning to capitalize upon, as you have to keep an empty ship somewhere equidistant from as many Fish-producing hexes as possible in order to do well on that leader board. As two of the players rarely sent out empty ships, that meant there were only two players on the Fish board for most of the game, although another player managed to get one in on their last turn.

I won the 17 point Catan: Explorers & Pirates scenario with 9 points on the board and 8 points off the board: three harbor settlements, three settlements, three points on the Spice board, two points on the Fish board, the Best Fisher card, and the Best Spice Merchant card. For most of the game, I had only five points on the board, two harbor settlements and one settlement, as I wanted to ensure that I was getting as much gold as possible. So my weak production funneled into my strategy. Gold is more versatile and can’t be taken by the robber/pirate ship, and if I needed a resource, I simply bought one.

Overall, it was an enjoyable game night. While I had the most fun playing Catan: Explorers and Pirates, playing the other two games added to my understanding. For instance, my avoidance of Munchkin Dread had become something like a superstition in that I no longer remembered why I didn’t want to play it, and playing it yesterday made me a lot more conscious of the good reasons why I dreaded it. Additionally, heckling something distasteful can be a way of enjoying it and redeeming the wasted time. In a way, I found the game I hate a more profitable experience than the one that I love, which is no doubt a common feeling among critics. My usual tendency is to write about things that I like, but as the format of my Game Night recaps forces me to talk about all the games that we play, even the ones that I don’t like, I’m finding that I enjoy just as much writing about the bad games as the good ones. That said, I’m still a game player, not just a game reviewer, and I look forward to playing more games that I like.

Catan: Explorers & Pirates Expansion 5th Edition

Munchkin Panic

Betrayal At House On The Hill – 2nd Edition

On Not Going to GenCon

I’m not going to GenCon. I’ve never gone to GenCon, or Origins, although I did go to CapCon in the early 90s, of which I still have good memories of an amazing afternoon in which I bought the first edition of Empire of the Petal Throne off of Crazy Egor, and played an amazing session of Traveler in which the referee had constructed a sci fi complex on that AstroTurf stuff that modelers use. I’m sure you’ve seen lots of gamemasters get creative with making rocks and trees, but this guy put down buildings that I remember punching holes through with my character’s Fusion Gun Man Portable-14.

I still have this purchase from CapCon.

I’d love to go to GenCon. I have been to more than my share of conventions, mostly comic themed, such as San Diego Comic-Con 2011, New York Comic Con 2013, Megacon 2014, and the various and sundry shows in the Pittsburgh area such as the triannual Steel City Con, Wizard World Pittsburgh and the Pittsburgh Comicon that was its predecessor, 3 Rivers Comicon, Tekko, and RePlay FX. That feeling of belongingness that most people feel at sporting events—I feel it at comic, gaming, and other pop culture conventions. I remember feeling like part of the crowd 25 years ago at CapCon, too, so its probably always been in my DNA. When a big convention is going on across the country or across the world, due to how I’ve curated my Twitter feed, I’m able to feel some of that belongingness from my remote position. So, even though I’m not going to GenCon, I’m still anticipating the news and the previews of games that will be revealed there. I can only imagine what it is like to see all those unreleased tabletop games being played, as just seeing one tabletop game getting playtested at Tekko 2016 got me a little excited.

Tekko is Pittsburgh’s manga and anime convention. Just a few months ago, I had the pleasure of discovering that Tekko had greatly expanded its game room to include not only console, coin op, and pachinko games, but dozens of board game tables that were extremely popular. An interesting tabletop game, Havenfall, was being playtested there, but since I was with my family, I had to decline playing when they told me it could take up to two hours. You can see pictures of Havenfall in my review of Tekko 2016 through this link.

While this is not the year that I go to GenCon, I do have a gaming convention coming up: the second ReplayFX, the vintage coin op video game convention that hosts the Kong Off and other arcade contests. I reviewed the first ReplayFX last year on NerdSpan, which you can find by following this link. We found RePlayFX’s board game room late in our con experience last year, and this year I plan on playing some tabletop games there between games of pinball, Tempest, Asteroids, and my other favorite arcade classics. The first one was extremely good, and I’m really looking forward to the second. When I review it for NerdSpan, I’ll cross post it here. Interestingly, a TON of boardgames will be played at The World Boardgaming Championships just 65 miles away at Seven Springs Resort while I’m at RePlayFX. Southwest PA seems to be attracting a whole host of nerd culture conventions.

Tell me about your own local tabletop gaming conventions, as well as conventions friendly to tabletop gaming, in the comments below.

Clue Shoots Mrs. White, Gets 4 Day Pass to Comic-Con

Two bits of Clue news are buzzing around the internet right now:  1) Clue killed off Mrs. White, and replaced her with a new character called Dr. Orchid, and 2) USAopoly is bringing to Comic-Con their own version of Clue that is chock-full of murder: Clue: Game of Thrones.  Let’s stop pretending these are two separate news items, shall we?  Obviously, part of Dr. Orchid’s pay off for killing Mrs. White is a four day pass to Comic-Con.  Dr. Orchid sounds like she would be right at home at Comic-Con, as her background in plant toxicology would make her bosom buddies with Pam Isley aka Poison Ivy.  You could imagine the two of them having a tea social with Cersei and the other murder-happy women of Game of Thrones.

Clue isn’t my favorite game, but I will play it when asked, and USAopoly’s Clue spread actually sounds like a lot of fun, with not only daily murder weapon pins being given out to Comic-Con attendees, but also this fantastic looking Clue: Game of Thrones convention exclusive expansion pack.


Yes, you heard me right.  A game of Clue is getting an expansion pack, and joining the other much-heralded games that have rolled out costly expansions, such as Settlers of CatanDominion, and Carcasssonne.  Here’s the official description:

CLUE®:  Game of Thrones™ Convention Exclusive: Expansion Pack

Add more treachery and betrayal while solving the mysteries in CLUE®:  Game of Thrones™ with this special convention exclusive expansion pack.  Expansion pack includes: two new character cards: Oberyn Martell and Barristan Selmy with power cards, six gold weapons:  Poison Vial, Battle Axe, Arakh, Faceless Man Coin, Crossbow, Catspaw Assassin Dagger, and a custom scoring pad.
Exclusively available only during San Diego Comic-Con July 21-24, 2016 in USAopoly’s booth #1017 and in the HBO Store at http://store.hbo.com/.

It sounds like while you can only get this for four days in July during San Diego Comic-Con, there is an option during that time for non-attendees to snag this exclusive by visiting the HBO Store.  So if this sounds like something you would want, you may want to show up early on July 21st, because I expect HBO’s stock of these to run out faster than the ones at the booth.

CLUE: Game of Thrones Board Game

You Can Still Buy Classic Clue with Mrs. White by Clicking Here

Cross-posted to NerdSpan.com.

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Game Review: Rick and Morty: Total Rickall Card Game

Tabletop games that tie in with other media, like TV shows, movies, and books, have the advantage of already bringing highly meaningful content to the table before the exact theme of the game is ascertained. Unfortunately, their disadvantage often stems from the same source, in that the game developers sometimes bring their B game to a product that they know will be desired by collectors of the tie-in content, regardless of how good the game is. There is no doubt the feeling that many of these X-Files, Star Trek, and Star Wars products may remain in the shrinkwrap anyway, in order to stay cherry mint.

In the case of the Rick and Morty Total Rickall Card Game, if collectors’ fever results in any of the print run going into acid free storage boxes, one hopes that those games will be enjoyed some centuries from now by Vulcan Starfleet cadets that then go on to have their logic corrupted by the humorous TV show on which it was based. Because, while it doesn’t quite measure up to the co-op tabletop masterpieces of Matt Leacock, the Rick and Morty Total Rickall Card Game is a pretty satisfying co-op card game, and, better yet, the adaptation honors its source media by not only capturing the je ne sais quoi of Rick and Morty, but also the soul of a TV episode that is one of the fan favorite episodes of the show.


In “Total Rickall,” Rick locks the Smith family in their house in order to determine who is real, because an alien parasite that inserts fake memories of itself into your head, and then reproduces more parasites through flashbacks, would quickly take over the world if it was released from the premises. By the end of the episode, the Smith family has swelled to include all sorts of crazy parasites, which you can see from the episode screen cap that serves as the box art. This relatively simple science fiction premise is mined for comic moments and absurd revelations that are ultimately topped by a moment of “real” violence that closes the episode with a note of black comedy. I could go on at length about how the episode “Total Rickall” could compare favorably to comedies throughout history, whether Aristophanes, Voltaire’s Candide, or Arrested Development, but as this is a tabletop game review, we’re going to jump from here back to the Rick and Morty Total Rickall Card Game.

First, the contents. There are three decks of cards: the Identity Deck, which contains 22 Parasite cards and 8 Real cards; the Character Deck, which contains 24 different characters from the episode, from Pencilvester to Mr. Poopybutthole to Amish Cyborg; and, the Action Deck, which contains 60 cards that usually tell you to peek at identity cards or shoot characters. There is also a “First Player Marker,” which is passed around the board from round to round, and determines which player goes first in a given round.

The Rick and Morty Total Rickall Card Game has two sets of rules, and they run parallel to each other from the first page on, with the Standard Mode running parallel to the Advanced Mode rules. Advanced Mode is much more satisfying than Standard Mode, which on reflection seems like basically the training wheels for Advanced Mode.

To set up Standard Mode, you remove four Parasites and two “Reals” from the Identity deck, which leaves, at most, 24 different characters to enter the game at a 75% chance of being a Parasite. Then you deal out face down onto the table a number of Identity cards equal to twice the number of players, and top each of them with a face up Character card. In this way, there are from four to ten of the comical characters from “Total Rickall” on the table at the start of the game, and the players do not know which of them is a Parasite, and which of them is a “Real.”

Each player gets three Action cards, and the first player marker goes to the person who last killed a parasite. In our first time playing this game (game night recap coming soon), this went to my wife, who swatted some mosquitoes in a recent outing. All players pick which of their three cards they would like to play, and then place it face down in front of them. Once all players have made their selection, all of the played cards are flipped at once, and then resolved in order, starting with the player that currently has the First Player Token. As players may decide to play similar cards, this can mean that the actions of preceding players can negate yours, so a general rule of thumb is that if you are playing late in the round, pick a Shoot card so that you can hopefully benefit from others’ Peek cards.

If you do shoot, and kill a parasite, it is removed from the board, and you are closer to winning; if you shoot, and kill a “real,” it is also removed from the board, but four dead “reals” mean that the players lose the game. Additionally, if you shoot a “real,” it is immediately replaced on the board by a new character. At the end of the round, regardless of whether you have shot anybody, parasite or real, another character joins the board. This means that if everyone decides to Peek at identity cards, the game just got a little harder to win. While it can be nice to know that your shots are called shots, and not wild shots, players will soon learn that with the known 75% quantity of parasites, it can be a general rule of thumb that someone, every round, has to Shoot. We could call this the “shoot or get off the pot” strategy, or SOGO for short, and no doubt some of you feel that it is applicable in other tabletop games in which indecision reigns as well.

The players can end the Standard Game at any point that 50% or more of the players feel that there are no Parasites left on the table. Any player can call for a vote by stating that all the Parasites are gone, and if he or she gets the majority to agree with him or her, then the cards are revealed. If there are any parasites, the players lose, and if they are all “Reals” the players win. Additionally, if at any time a fourth Real character is killed, the players lose the game. With only one way to win and two ways to lose, you would expect the Standard game to be hard to win, but it is actually fairly easy, which leads me to believe it is intended as training wheels in order for players to grasp the prerequisite game mechanics before attempting the Advanced game.

The Advanced game extends the indeterminacy of whether targets are Real or Parasite from the table’s center to its perimeter, in that the game’s players may now be either Real or Parasite. Remember the six Identity cards that are removed from the game in Standard Mode? The players draw from this small deck, so that with 4 Real and 2 Parasite cards, each player has a 33% chance of being a Parasite. Parasite Players win the game by trying to bring about a losing scenario, whether through ensuring that four Real characters are killed (and the fourth is killed by a Real), or through duping the other players into believing that a table with Parasites on it is free of threat. While the odds are pretty good that only one player is a Parasite, which modifies the game into a co-op game with a single threat like Spyfall or Betrayal at House on the Hill, it is possible that both Parasite cards are drawn, which means there are two different co-op games going on.

The Advanced Game allows occasional peeking at Player identities, and can end with a final Dinner Table round in which the players have the option to shoot each other to reveal the final parasite in their midst. This simulates the Dinner Table scene at the end of “Total Rickall,” in which the viewer expects to see Mr. Poopybutthole revealed as an actual parasite, only to see that the character that shoots him is revealed to be the greatest of the metaphorical parasites in the Smith family instead.

The Rick and Morty Total Rickall Card Game is an enjoyable game, but I do have some recommendations. My first recommendation goes out to all you Parasites in Advanced Mode who are at a loss for how to act: the best way to have fun with this is to avoid your Peek cards, unless they also require you to reshuffle Identity cards. Otherwise, your Real comrades will expect you to have good intelligence on whether those characters are Real or Parasites, and if you answer truthfully, your Parasite friend will be killed and the Real players’ win will get nearer, while if you answer deceitfully, this deception will be quickly uncovered, and your identity as a Parasite will be common knowledge. Play your shoot cards instead, and use other players’ peeks as intel to raise your chance of killing a Real from 25% without disclosing your own identity as a Parasite. For instance, while you don’t want to shoot a Real character if someone else says that they definitely are Real, if another player peeks at two characters and says “one is Real, and the other is Parasite,” the odds just rose to 50% that you have a chance to kill a Real and bring the end of the game a little closer. (Just don’t be the one to shoot the 4th Real character, because that ends the game with a loss for the shooting side.) Also, if you have a chance to shoot Reverse Giraffe, take it, as you will be able to look at another player’s Identity card, and you can mess with the rest of the players from that point on.  Moreover, if a Parasite Player does choose to play an occasional Peek card, they should invariably say that the Identity card is a Real. Here’s why. If it is a real, and you have a Parasite ally in the game, you’re revealing it to them so if they are less thoughtful in their machinations than you, they will help your agenda along; if it is a parasite, you are possibly protecting it from destruction, which will make you a winner if the players decide to make game-ending declaration that all the parasites have been destroyed. However, it can lead to another player learning your Parasite identity if they play a peek card after you, which is the reason for my advisement that your Peek cards played should be rare and strategically played. And lastly, why not try to mislead the players with a declaration yourself? Let’s say there are five cards left, and the players know that four of them are Real. If you play a Peek card, and look at the fifth card, instead of saying that the Parasite is Real as well, why not hold a vote by saying that all the Parasites are eliminated? If they agree, this means that Rick raises the blast shielding, and the Parasites take over the world. Yay team!

My other recommendation is that players should follow the suggestion in the rules that the blurbs at the bottom of the character cards should be read aloud, if only for the first few times the game is played. Not only are there important rule modifiers there that can be forgotten, but the dialogue bits help to evoke the episode that this game evinces. It makes the theme of the game a little stronger.

Overall, the Rick and Morty Total Rickall Card Game is a fun quick game that will take your gaming group about fifteen or twenty minutes to play at most, and will be a good one to shoe in between the more epic strategy games that your group plays. It isn’t likely to either have any costly expansions or take over your gaming group, but as this is one of two games from Cryptozoic based on Rick and Morty episodes, we can expect that we’ll see more games join the Rick and Morty themed tabletop game family in the future until the possibility of a Rick and Morty themed game night becomes a real possibility.

Rick and Morty Total Rickall Cooperative Card Game

Board of Life uses affiliate links.  Cross-posted to NerdSpan.com.

Game Night: Dungeons & Dragons: The Tower of Zyval, Part Two

If you have been following my blog Board of Life, I apologize for the hiatus. The following factors contributed.

First: we have not had many game nights due to our game-playing friends’ ten day vacation. Apparently, when I am not playing tabletop games, I don’t like to write about them as much. 

Second: while there have been a half-dozen board game news stories worth blogging about, I have had a creative crisis about whether plain news pieces fit the mission of my blog, which started as a forum from which to host my board game think-pieces—including general essays on game theory and strategy, reviews and game night recaps. While it’s natural to blog about the news when I’m following it, the blog needs to be the focus for me, and not the news.  San Diego Comic-Con is also coming up, so a variety of comic book news is dropping, which keeps me busy on NerdSpan.  That said, the board game news that I cross post on NerdSpan is very successful there, and so you will continue to see board game news cross-posted here occasionally.

Third: it’s summertime, and while my desire to play board games is unabated, there are other things going on. For instance, just before the first game day that followed our friends’ return from vacation, I realized we would only have a little available game time due to other players’ committments later that evening. I speculated that we would have at least two hours, and at most three hours, to play games. Not knowing exactly how much time we would have led me to test my theory that relatively small amounts of game time can be crammed with in-game content, or what I call Scope, in role playing games like Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, so I grabbed my AD&D books, my Chessex Megamat and markers, and my box of miniatures.

This time I allocated only ninety minutes for Part Two of my Dungeons and Dragons adventure, compared to two hours for the previous chapter. I could have ran it for longer, but I had hoped to get in a strategic tabletop game. This was not to be, however, as one of our local communities was having their annual celebration, and as one of the other gamers in our group had volunteered to help at a booth, our game night ended with us taking in the festivites there as well. So the ninety minute Dungeons & Dragons chapter was our only game that evening. Would it have the substance of a longer game night? Let’s see.

Last time we left our adventurers, they had just survived a pitched battle with two different opposing groups–one being another adventuring party that had been competing for the same reward that they were after, and the other being comprised of lizard men raiders that had landed five ships near a farmhouse. From here, they went into the barn adjoining the farmhouse, and they found inside only a handful of combined survivors from the farmhouse and the lost caravan that our adventurers were tracking.

At the end of the first installment of this adventure, I commented that the lizard men that survived the previous encounter had returned to the sailing ships from which they had disembarked, and were now doubling back at great speed to surround and most probably overwhelm the players. In the interim, while I still believed this would make the most narrative sense, I also decided that the lizard men had a greater taste for man flesh than horse flesh, and there would be enough remaining horses on the farm, where they could be more easily fed and maintained until the lizard men decided to cast off. As all the PCs had riding skill, this would also give the players a chance to evade capture and the chance for them to be as heroic in their second outing as they were in the first.

This time I set up the Chessex Megamat by drawing the barn, the farmhouse, and the corral. Two horses and six survivors from the lizard man raid were in the barn, and five horses were outside. Six lizard men were facing the barn’s front doors, and four were ready near the barn’s rear windows. Not having enough miniatures to represent all the pieces on the board, I used twelve sided dice to represent the horses and six normal dice of a similar color and texture to represent the human survivors of the raid, and this conceit also enabled me to easily keep track of their hit points, with the appropriate HP number facing up, at the same time. This is a fairly common makeshift expediency among the gamemasters of my generation, whether they are practical or fanciful in their temperment, unless a primary focus of their RPG hobby is also the collecting and maintaining of a prized miniatures collection.

A lizard man broke into a rear upstairs window into the barn’s hay loft, and when Paten and Sakaal climbed a ladder to the loft to investigate, they were the first locked in battle. Kastasia, the Paladin, told the frightened survivors to bar the barn’s front door, and one successful reaction roll later, they agreed. At this point, the other lizard men started breaking through the rear downstairs windows and rushing the barn’s double doors, which buckled but resisted the initial onslaught. Still, there were soon four lizard men inside the barn, having entered through the windows, and half of the human survivors could now no longer be defined as survivors, as they had become victims to the invading lizard men.

So, with three human corpses on the floor, three human survivors left to deliver to Governor Meludio Malacasso in order to collect their reward, and the horses rearing up in fear at the sight and scent of lizard men, the adventurers lit upon the idea that flight was best, just as the lizard men shattered the barn door. Kastasia told the remaining survivors to escape through the windows, which they managed to do. Paten leapt from the loft, hoping to make a storybook leap onto one of the rearing horses, and fell on the floor. Sakaal also leapt from the loft, but through the upstairs window, and managed to land without injury outside the barn, and mount one of the horses in the corral. She rode around to the front of the barn, where she found her comrades spurring the horses that they had mounted in the hopes that they could charge through the lizard men.

In AD&D rules, they certainly had the superior movement to flee from the lizard men once they were mounted, but I had to resolve attacks of opportunity, and this resulted in Kastasia and her steed being sorely wounded. The escaping human survivors also found steeds, and they fled as a group. While I figured it would take less than a minute for the lizard man leader to give the right orders that would result in some of them also mounting the remaining horses and pursuing the adventurers, it would take another indeterminate amount of time for them to calm the horses that would be accustomed only to human riders and naturally frightened of the sight and smell of lizard men. So I gave the adventurers a quarter mile lead, which is probably on reflection a little too fair to the lizard men, but the idea that the heroes were being chased added to the dramatic closure of the second chapter.

At this point, we had five minutes left on the clock, but what followed was simply the denouement of returning to Cambir, and proceeding to the downtown Capital area, with which none of the adventurers were familiar. They arrived in the dark hours before dawn and Governor Meludio Malacasso’s guardsmen fed the adventurers and allowed them to sleep in barracks bunks until the Governor’s estate opened its gates for the day. Not only did they receive their six hundred gold piece reward, they also received eighty gold for their troubles, which they gave to Hubrek, the ranger that joined them in Part One. Also, the Governor retained their services for Chapter Three, in which the adventurers will lead sixty man-at-arms to sort out the lizard men ships.

While I wish I still had my AD&D Battle System rules to simulate this battle, my notes for the adventure state that if the lizard men encounter adventurers, and the adventurers successfully flee, the lizard men will decamp for fear of a larger force arriving soon after. Which is, of course, exactly what is happening. So what exactly will happen in chapter three? The other players read this blog, and I have to keep them guessing, which means I must now leave you in the dark about what comes next.

However, it does seem that even with ninety minutes of game time allocated that there is a lot more content—in the form of meta events that transpire in a causal and transactional way—in a RPG than in any other game. Causal, in that the Player Characters speak and choose their actions nearly as fast as the players do, and transactional, in that these actions must be resolved with game mechanics that then slow down the in-game time. Playing first edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons makes me conscious of what the second generation RPG developers were thinking—how do we simplify these transactional mechanics, so as to make the causal links between Player and Player Character more satisfying by taking less time to resolve. Thinking about how to improve the AD&D experience led to games like GURPS or Traveler, in which only six sided dice were used; RuneQuest, in which percentage dice are used for every transactional mechanic except damage dice; and video game RPGs, which take the dice and the dungeon master out of the game to great effect in reducing the transactional element, but with the necessary side effect of reducing the free play of the RPG, which was the reason why people sat down to play these games in the first place. Contrary to these other game developers, TSR made the decision to develop Dungeons and Dragons in the direction of complexity instead of simplicity. This eventually made me less interested in Dungeons and Dragons and more interested in games like RuneQuest and Traveler.  Whether our gaming group will attempt any other RPG games in an attempt to reduce the transactional clutter of Dungeons and Dragons 1st edition—the simplest version that exists, in many ways— and thus maximize the potential content of a RPG gaming session, remains to be seen, as we are still heavily invested in eurogames and other tabletop games.

Chessex Role Playing Play Mat: MEGAMAT Double-Sided Reversible Mat for RPGs and Miniature Figure Games – 34 1/2in x 48in


Advanced Dungeons and Dragons 1st edition

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