Bora Bora

Game Night: Bora Bora and Ticket to Ride

On Saturday, we had a short game night with our friends, in which we played Bora Bora for the first time, and also played Ticket To Ride, which we had not played in over a year. The food was great, as usual, with the highlights of the menu being baked tofu sandwiches and a roasted vegetable soup that combined roasted garlic, cauliflower, and potatoes into a kind of creamy stock, though the soup was vegan. The highlight of my week, though, was that I was sitting upright for longer than fifteen minutes, as my recent surgery had required that I be reclining for most of the week.

Bora Bora and the Bora Bora Effect


For the last half dozen game nights, we’ve been focusing on playing games that we already know, as it lets us play more games, but tonight we decided to try a new one. Unfortunately, the game that we learned to play was Bora Bora, which is like the game Puerto Rico—already a Machiavellian pasttime—overinflated with a half dozen house rules pulled from Terra Mystca, Power Grid, and the inscrutable and sadistic games played by Arioch and the Lords of Chaos. While usually I’m down with the maniacal laughter and hand-wringing required to appreciate the most fiendishly convoluted of strategy games, the complexities of Bora Bora were lost on me, as the poorly translated rules were bobbing around in the gas bubble trapped in my left eye by my recent retinal detachment surgery. And, as the discomfort of reading twelve pages of Ravensburger tabletop game instructions apparently exceeds the discomfort of recovering from eye surgery, none of the other players rose to the occasion, and I was still our groups’ de facto game interpreter. Not that I blame anyone for their reluctance to take command over such ambiguous rules; rules which say one thing, while the symbolic task tokens seem to say something else, so that although we played the game accurately according to the written rules, for most of the game we were uneasy with our textual intepretation of it.

When I was a gaming noob, I would sometimes confuse my skill at tabletop games as an appreciation for them, and equate a victory with liking a game, but setting up hundreds of games of Catan not only gave me an honest appreciation of that game, it also helps to peel back the veils from other games. And in this case, winning with a huge lead didn’t soften my antipathy,

And losing obviously didn’t create a bias for the game in our other players, though all of their reactions varied widely: in all six rounds of play, one player begged to be released from Bora Bora so that we could play other games; another grumbled here and there, but since then hindsight has ameliorated her opinion, so that she now says she likes it; and the third—the buyer of the game—cheered louder for the game than a Ravensburger company shill. Of all the games that we have played, this game was the most polarizing, so that I might refer to it in future installments on Board of Life as the Bora Bora Effect—which I’m basically swiping from the Rashomon Effect. If you read the Rasahomon Effect entry on Trope TV, you basically know the Bora Bora Effect: each tabletop game is actually a nexus of shared experience, so that there isn’t just one Catan, there are millions of different Catans, each nuanced differently according to the players of Catan. The main way that the Bora Bora Effect might differ from the Rashomon Effect is that the Bora Bora Effect describes games, which are closed systems, and the Rashomon Effect describes perceptual experience, which it is assumed is less ordered and open-ended. I’m going to resist the sidebar, though, and return to the Bora Bora Effect when our gaming group has a larger selection of polarizing games.

I almost called it the Boring Bora Bora Effect, but spite doesn’t really serve the spirit of inquiry.

To those of you that visit this blog for the strategic takeaways, my main recommendation to you if you want to win Bora Bora is to invest yourself in building your temple as fast as you can, bevause the building blocks of your temple are worth much more in the earlier rounds (10VP eeach) than the later rounds (7VP or 4 VP). Also, if you build the temple entirely, you get a 12 VP bonus—6VP for having a full temple and 6VP for having a finished temple—unlike most other completion bonuses, which are 6 VP. This is on top of the 24 to 60 VP that you get for selecting the Builder role cards over six successive rounds. In addition to often playing Builder, I was able to complete my temple by putting high rolled dice on the Helper role card as often as I could so that I could get the bonus resources for my temple. Other than focusing on building my temple, I used my remaining dice to diversiy my VP investments on the board. Unlike Puerto Rico, you can select a Role card more than once per round, and I did this as many times as I could, prioritizing Builder and Helper, and only investing in other roles when necessary.

Diet Ticket to Ride


Next we moved into Ticket to Ride, which, with Catan, was one of the first games that we played as a group. It was extremely pleasant to return to the world of Ticket to Ride. Something about Ticket to Ride inspires us to be nice to each other in ways that Catan doesn’t, so that while on any of three successive turns I could have interrupted another player’s route, I just didn’t feel like doing it. And, as a point of fact, no player during the entire game deliberately interrupted another’s route just for the sake of doing it. Upon reflection, I feel that we may be ruining the game by being too nice as we play it, so that we’re not really playing Ticket to Ride but a Diet version of it.

Ticket to Ride has many virtues: lightning-fast set-up; speedy play; eminently teachable; multiple winning strategies. If Ticket to Ride went for the viscera like Catan so that it was half as gripping as that game of hexes and dice, we might have played the former more than four times as a group in the last three years. While an inviting game, it’s not very compelling—at leas the way that we currently play it. Because of this, I’m considering resisting my natural inclination to be a nice Ticket to Ride player next time, and blocking every single route that I can, just to see if it makes the game more dynamic and memorable. After some more experimentation—to see how far Ticket to Ride game play can be bent—I’d like to review Ticket to Ride here on Board of Life.

My current takeaway from Ticket to Ride, when players are playing the game nicely, is that the main struggle in the mid game is knowing whether or not you should risk getting new routes, as well as knowing when you should get them or when it is too late to get them. If you’re satisfied with a low number of finished routes, then you need to switch to saving cards in order to buy the biggest routes that you can. That said, if a nice player also decides to be cautious in their investment of routes, it is a very hard game to win.

Here’s what I project: if you’re going to play Ticket to Ride in the nice way, you should invest in a sprawling, easily diversified, series of routes, and get new routes frequently in order to capitalize on that investment. If you’re not going to play Ticket to Ride in the nice way, you should finish your initial routes as quickly as possible, and then spend the rest of the game saving cards so that you can play them strategically in a manner to cut off others’ route investments. This is actually what I had planned on doing going into this game, but as everyone else was playing in the nice way, I decided to play nice as well when the time came.

Conclusion

On the surface, I found Bora Bora to be overcomplicated and torturous, and Ticket to Ride to be enjoyable and gratifying, but bland, but upon reflection, this game night was more fruitful than many others as it has given me pause enough to consider that games have a Rashomon-like separation of individual experiences, and that sharing of the jointly-perceived game may be as important as the playing of the game. On top of that, I have begun to deconstruct the way that we play Ticket to Ride, and I wonder whether long term enjoyment of tabletop games depends on continual examination and deconstruction of their game play.

Bora Bora Strategy Board Game

Ticket to Ride

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Catan Blues

Catan Blues: The Catan Review

Catan nee Settlers of Catan

The original name of Catan was Settlers of Catan, and this maiden name is more descriptive of the concept of the game, which focuses not only on the hexagonally modular world of Catan, but also the three to four (or six) players that take the roles of the settlers and carve out a niche for their empire. I use the two names interchangeably, but make no mistake, the transition from Settlers of Catan to Catan demarcates a fundamental change in the way the powers that be would have you view the game. The current Catan product focuses on the game setting, while the game that won the Spiel Des Jahres in 1995 and became one of the most popular and most played games in the world was called Settlers of Catan for good reason, as that title puts the focus on the players that would learn just how compelling it was to eke out a victory with five elemental-like cards building commonalities of colored wood and armies of development cards.

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Wheels Within Wheels; Hexes Within Hexes

Catan looks and sounds simple, but Catan players obtain their victory with several different types of resource and area management. First, the player must control their hand of cards, so that it will every now and then produce the right suits to build roads, settlements, cities, and development cards, while not attracting the blade of the robber; secondly, the player must eke out a space on the island of Catan, when space on the island is at a premium, and the best way to do this is by manipulation of roads and the “rule of one” to parry your competitors’ growth; thirdly, and optionally, a gamblers’ canny understanding of the probabilities of numbers can be an asset when this results in the ability to make this numerical assessment work in their favor, although it can also be a maddening and frustrating liability when the player doesn’t have an equal understanding that statistics in Catan, just as in real life, describe likelihoods and not laws.

Fortunately for those who do not have a grasp on the statistics of rolling two six sided dice, or want to play Catan in the easy-breezy way, the manufacturers have put a shorthand on each of the numbers on the board. Numbers with a higher pip count underscoring the number indicates a higher likelihood of that number being thrown.  The 2 and the 12 only have one pip on them, while the 6 and the 8 have five pips, and this signifies that the 6 and the 8 are five times more likely to be thrown than the 2 and the 12.  Just don’t bet your Catan farm on it.

Despite the wheels within wheels description that I’ve just laid out for you—which is 100% accurate and in no way an exaggeration, though many do play oblivious to these organizational layers—Catan is deceptively easy to play, as all the above game mechanics are concealed inside a simplicity of the highest order.

Catan: Playing By Numbers

In basic Settlers of Catan, the winner is the first Settler to move from two points to ten points. Only eight points are actually scored by the victor, as each player starts with two settlements, each worth a point, as well as two roads, which are worth zero points, but are necessary connectors for building more settlements and future points.

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To build another settlement, you first need to build at least one more road due to the “rule of One”—which should be called the “rule of Two” because it essentially says that settlements must be two hexagonal sides away from each other at bare minimum—and then spend a brick, a lumber, a wheat, and a wool. Each road costs a brick and a lumber as well, so you can see that at least in the early game and in the road building duel that consumes much of the mid-game, brick and lumber are extremely important.

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Another way to score points is to upgrade an existing settlement to a city, which costs three ore and two wheat. Cities are worth two points. As each player only has five settlements in their building supply, worth a total of five points, some upgrading to cities is usually imperative in order to hit ten points. However, each player only has four cities in their supply, so just upgrading settlements to cities won’t win you the game either, as four cities is only eight points. Players that focus on building things to win the game have an assortment of both settlements and cities at the end of the game. Cities also produce twice as many resources as settlements.

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The way resources are produced in Catan goes like this: if you have a settlement bordering a Mountain/Ore hex with the number 4 sitting on it, and 4 is rolled, then you would get one ore resource card, and if you upgrade that settlement to a city, you will get two ore every time a 4 was rolled. It is possible to get more than one resource every time the dice are rolled due to the fact that there are two of every number from three to eleven, with only two and twelve are singular. So if I have a settlement bordering the four ore and a city bordering the four wheat (“four ore,” “six lumber,” and so forth, is the nomenclature we use in our gaming group, and I have the feeling it is fairly universal) and a four is rolled, I get one ore and two wheat.

Resources are produced on every players’ roll, and every one that has a settlement or city bordering the rolled number gets to benefit. This can be one of the frustrating things about Catan—on your own turn, rolling a number that is immensely beneficial to everyone but yourself. What is even more mind-numbing and soul-crushing, of course, is one or two (or three) passes around the board without ANY of your numbers being rolled. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen too often, but every time it does, it makes you want to act like that sibling ot cousin that would flip the Monopoly game board. I wouldn’t do this, though, as Catan is a pretty expensive game, and this might get you banned from your Catan timeshare.

Catan: Road Wars, Development Hell, and Robber Knights

If the Catan rules stopped with the mechanics of production and construction, though the resulting diversion would have immense replay value due to the modular and random nature of both the resource and number tiles, what we would have would be a kind of math game favoring only the mathematically inclined and those lucky at dice. There are, however, some additional point-scoring opportunities, and with these additional factors in the game, there are many winning strategies, and it isn’t so much of a luck and numbers anymore, but a gamers’ paradise. Or a gamers’ hell, or a gamers’ purgatory, depending on your attitude to Catan. To be fair, playing Catan gives you access to all of Dante’s journeys; it just depends on your luck in the particular game.

These additional scoring opportunities include the two point Longest Road card, which is won by the first player with five contiguous roads uninterrupted by another player’s development, and it can only be taken by a player that has exceeded the length of the previous Longest Road; the two point Largest Army card, which is won by the first player with three Knights (see below), and can only be taken when another player exceeds that player’s quantity of Knights; lastly, there are also five victory points in the deck of 25 development cards.

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To buy a development card, you spend a wheat, an ore, and a wool. Development cards are not recycled, which means they are a finite resource for every game. In the deck of 25 Development Cards, there are 14 Knight cards, 5 Victory Points, 2 Road Building cards, 2 Monopoly cards, and 2 Year of Plenty cards. Most of the time (56%) it’s a Knight, but 44% of the time it’s something else, which can occasionally wreak havoc on those players that are counting on getting the Largest Army card to cinch their victory. Not that the other cards aren’t nice—the Road Building card lets you throw down two roads, which can let you block another player or reach a viable building spot; the Monopoly card lets you ask for everyone’s production of one single resource; the victory point cards are the cheapest way to get a victory point in the game; and, the Year of Plenty lets you get any two resources from the bank that you want. On the face of it, the Year of Plenty card seems like a bum deal—you just spent three cards to buy a development card that gives you two—but it’s a better trade rate than the Maritime Trade rule (4:1), and it does give you the exact resources you need at any time. Plus you can save the card until you need it, which means they’re resources that you can hold on to without being a sitting duck for the robber.

Oh? I haven’t introduced that shady gentleman, The Robber, yet? When a player rolls a 7, they move the robber onto any tile, with three consequences: 1) production stops on that tile until the robber is moved again; 2) the robbing player steals a resource from any player with a settlement bordering the blocked tile; and 3), every player with more than 7 cards must discard half of them. This third effect means that veteran Catan players tend to keep their hand as light as possible, and, even when saving for settlements and cities, might, for fear of the robber’s halving blade, buy a road or development card instead, just to prevent saved cards from becoming liabilities. The only way to move the robber other than with a roll of a 7 is to play a Knight card either before or after you roll the dice on your turn. This lets you move the robber immediately, but without the production-destroying third effect above. And yes, it is possible to move the robber twice on one turn, if you’re so lucky as to play a knight card and then roll a 7 too, and you can even do it the other way around if you’re a soul-sucking entity with ancestry in one of the circles of Hell.

Since there aren’t too many rules governing the robber, usually Catan groups develop their own shady practices, such as bribing the player that threw the seven with a card to avoid the robber’s obstructing influence. Since there isn’t a rule prohibiting it, I’m gathering that this is a legal practice, especially considering trade and negotiation rules are the other factor that prevents Catan from becoming math club.

Trading With Banks and Other Bandits

While it is possible to trade in Catan without going to other players, trading with the impartial bank sucks. The rules call this “maritime trade,” and it has a very unfavorable rate of exchange: 4 resources of the same kind for the resource that you want. If you have a settlement bordering a port, you can get a more favorable rate of exchange, depending on the port in question. There are five 3:1 ports, that drop the maritime trade rate from 4:1 to 3:1, and there are also specialty ports that let you trade 2 of one specific resource for 1 of another. So there’s a 2:1 wool port, a 2:1 lumber port and so forth, and these can be game-winning settlements when you have a lot of production of that specialty resource.

If you don’t like either 3:1 or 2:1 exchange rates, though, you can always try trading with other players, and those negotiation terms are whatever you can hash out with that other player. So if you can get someone to trade you a brick and a lumber for two ore, the more power to you. More likely than not, experienced players will try to take advantage of your need, and make you pay more than a 1:1 rate, but they won’t be so usurious as to make you go to the bank.

The only restriction on trade is that you can only trade with the player whose turn it is. The rules don’t specify that the player who just rolled has to initiate trades, only that trades must be between that player and another player, so there’s nothing stopping you from being aggressive and leading with a trade proposal before your competitors come up with one. Also, sometimes you have to be fast: if the trading player says “I have an ore for a wheat,” it’s likely that another player might grab that deal before you if you’re not paying attention.

So You Want to Be a Catan Bastard…

Some other shady but legal practices are 1) initiating trade to discover who has the resource you need so that you can play a Knight and gamble on stealing it without giving up a resource; or, 2) if you have nothing but wheat and a monopoly card, trading away all your wheat to get what you need, and then playing the monopoly card to get it back. The only official restriction on this kind of behavior is that while you can buy as many Development Cards you want every turn, you can only play one per turn. So if you played a Knight card to move the robber at the beginning of the round, you can’t use that Monopoly card too.

Some shady practices that are completely illegal are 1) lying about a dice roll; 2) lying about how many cards are in your hand, or sitting on excess cards, to avoid the robber; 3) during a pause, snatching a few resource cards from the bank or adding a pivotal road to the board; 4) when someone gets up to grab a beer or use the john, swapping their hand with random cards from the bank.

In the interest of having a complete catalog of Catan villiany, please add your Catan Bastard best practices in the comments below!

Your Brain on Catan

So, when it’s your turn, you might have many questions running through your brain:

  1. am I playing a road to block my competitor or get cards out of my hand, or am I saving for a settlement?

  2. am I flipping this Knight card now, or saving it for when my tile is blocked by another player?

  3. am I saving this ore and wheat for a city so I can double my production, or am I buying development cards so as to get the Largest Army advantage or the victory points in the development card deck?

  4. how bad will everyone hate me if I play this monopoly card, and how much worse will they hate me if I take back all the brick I just traded them?

  5. who can I get to trade me a wool?

  6. I’ve been saving for this city for three turns, no one will trade with me, and I have eleven cards now. Do I keep playing chicken with the dice and hold out for that ore I need, or do I cash in these two ore, two wool, and two wheat for two development cards?

  7. I just hit eight victory points. Do I focus on building settlements and cities, or do i channel all my production and trade into road production, so I can steal the Longest Road card and win the game?

  8. My (wife, husband, significant other, boss, best friend, brother, sister) really wants to win this game, and I have nine points on the board and three ore and two wheat in my hand. Do I give up (sex, a happy home, my promotion, two decades of best friend-dom, holiday cheer) to win this one?

While I have no idea exactly how many games of Catan I’ve played, it’s certainly over a hundred with flesh and blood players, as well as another few dozen on the Catan app for iPhone and iPad. What keeps me coming back to the Threefold Island, which at times is Heaven, but just as often is an Inferno of frustration, and mostly is a Purgatorio of waiting for my number to come up?

Catan’s message is a noble one. Unlike Monopoly or Risk, in which all the other players are literally removed from play by being bankrupted or conquered, in Catan, every player stays in the game until the end. And that end isn’t wholly bitter, it’s a bittersweet closure, because each player builds their own discrete development, and while others can interfere or compete with you, they do not do so by tearing down or destroying your work. And even for Catan’s winner, the satisfaction is greater, because your worthy opponents’ might is still evident on the board, and your win seems more worthy as well, while in Monopoly or Risk, having not only trounced everybody but erased their very mettle from the board, the satisfaction is small. Because Catan isn’t an elimination game, the win is a more social and less solitary event, and seems less Pyrrhic and more exciting by being witnessed by all players. Compare that to the games of Monopoly that we played as children, in which vanquished opponents vanish from the table, and it ends with two economic juggernauts wasting most of an evening vying to be the final winner, only to rejoin the other players, who say, “you were still playing that? We lost hours ago, and we’ve been watching movies and The Simpsons.”

The game is called Catan, it isn’t Utopia or Paradisio, and it makes no pretense of being a perfect world. But it is one of the best games this world has to offer, no matter how much I like to bust on it in Catan Blues, and when I hear that someone has never played Catan before, I feel sorry for them. They’re missing out on not only one of the best tabletop games, but one of the generation-defining creations of the past twenty years.

To read more Catan Blues, follow this link.


catan

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Catan Blues

Catan Blues: The Protracted Unease of Three Player Catan

Though we have three Catan players in our household, we don’t play three player Catan anymore, and only play Catan with four players on game night with our regular gaming group, or, on special occasions (usually holidays), we play the 5-6 Player Expansion. Isn’t it easier and quicker to play with only three players, you ask? Isn’t it just as fun? Absolutely not, and wholeheartedly no.

This flies in the face of conventional wisdom that says Catan takes longer with each additional player, but anyone who has played any three player Catan knows just how long those games can take compared to the more traditional four player model. Three player Catan also seems to drone on for far too long when compared with the 5-6 player Expansion, which has an expanded map of point scoring opportunities and an increased rate of construction due to the Special Building Phase.

Does three player Catan only seem to drag on, or is it actually longer than games with more ambitious player counts?

Catan doesn’t end until enough resources have been produced by dice tosses, which means that—strictly looking at the dice, and ignoring the human factor, which we will see has its own negative impact on game length—the same number of rolls transpire in a three person game as in a four person game, only they are distributed among one fewer players. If the average game of Catan is 60 throws of the dice, then in a four player game each player will roll fifteen times, while in a three player game, each player will roll twenty times, and this substantial increase of each player’s responsibility can lead to game fatigue.

And once you add in the human element, a three player game may require more dice throws than a four player game, because, in addition to each player rolling the dice more times, there are also fewer producers every time the dice is rolled. In a four player game, there are four potential producers with each dice toss, while in a three player game, there are only three, and consequently, 25% less production. True, there are also fewer consumers to compete for these resources, but not every consumer has the same impact on the length of the game. That is, the unlucky player that is producing infrequently and consuming even less frequently due to not having the right combination of resources to build, and hence ending the game with four or five victory points that were eked out agonizingly, affects the game length negatively by making it longer, and the player that is producing frequently, consuming frequently, and trading favorably affects the game length positively by winning as quickly as possible. The winner’s development over time is the primary yardstick for game length, and the losers only contribute to the duration positively by producing and trading the resources that the winner needed. The losers’ own development, while important to them at the time, is either a neutral or negative factor in game length. And in a three player game, compared to a four player game, there are only two other losers aside from the winner, which subtracts from the winner’s potential trade partners.

Not to mention that three player Catan is Robber Hot Potato, as each player will receive the robber more times in a three player game than in a four player game if the number of dice rolls are equal, and many more times if the number of dice rolls are greater in three player Catan. If you accept as givens first that a game of Catan is 60 rolls of the dice, and second that the robber is rolled one in six, that means an average of 10 visits from the robber, which, when shared by three players, is more onerous than when shared by four. And, if the three player game does run longer—let’s say 72 rolls of the dice—then there are twelve visits from the robber shared by three players, or about four each assuming Pangloss‘s perfect world in which Catan players must be fair.

So, if you wonder why the mere thought of playing a three-handed game of Catan fills you with dread, it is probably for the reasons discussed.  I would be interested in generating a sample of three player games to demonstrate conclusively that three player games are longer, except for the fact that it would be a torturous and punitive activity that I would wish only on the grossly impolite. That said, I did find one thread on BoardGameGeek.com in which a player logged four three player games and while one ran 44 turns, the other three ran from 70-80 turns.  

To read earlier installments of Catan Blues, follow this link.

Catan 5th Edition

Catan 5-6 Player Extension – 5th Edition

Traveller

Game Night: Classic Traveller RPG, Catan with 5-6 Player Expansion, and 7 Wonders

We had another Big Game Night on Labor Day, with a ninety minute Traveller RPG session spanning a terrorist attack on a starport, its resultant explosion chasing the players’ free trader, and a speculative trade adventure in three agricultural planets; Catan with the 5 to 6 player expansion; and, 7 Wonders. Just as in our Memorial Day Game Night, our game choices were dictated by our large player count, as while we have a preponderance of four player games and maybe a dozen five player games between us, we only have a few games that can withstand six players or more. (Not counting the vintage RPGs on my shelf, of course, as any RPG can have as many players as the gamemaster can tolerate.)

The Labor Day repast was exceptional, with black bean burgers, and hot dogs for both meat eaters and vegans. Not only the black bean burgers, but both the vegan hot dogs and the ever-flowing alcoholic spirits, were of home manufacture, and a testament to the culinary skills of our friends.

Classic Traveller

Based on the laughter and general player-participation in our first chapter of Traveller, this was the most successful of the games that we played on Labor Day. Even among the two players that were new to our group, while one was a little reticent, the other took to the RPG concept like a duck to water. The latter individual did have a wealth of game experience, being a Minecraft moderator for instance, but both of them had little modern tabletop game experience, with not a single game of Catan between them. What I’ve learned playing RPGs, though, is that knowledge of rules is only important in the gamemaster, and that good players are determined by the same things that drive other artistic endeavors, such as creativity and both ability and willingness to engage in a little improv. (The gamemaster should have these things, too, but also has to have mastered the forms of the game.) Not unlike John Keats’ idea of negative capability (“…when man is capable of being in uncertainties. Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason…”), the new player can do just as well as the experienced player, as it is not reaching for knowledge that drives RPG performance but spontaneity and the free flow of ideas. So I’m never surprised when new players like RPGs and do well at them. There are very few examples in life of activities with no learning curve that satisfy the creative impulse as purely as an RPG, as in most creative outlets you’re left with an end product that can trigger a critical response in the creator. In RPGs, on the other hand, after the creative act you’re only left with the memory of the game, which is certain to be a good result if you were amusing yourself and others.

If that isn’t good enough reason to play RPGs, then you should just get on the bandwagon now before they’re made trendy with the mad fandom-faddom for Stranger Things.

So what is Traveller, and why did we have so much fun playing it? Traveller is a first generation science fiction role playing game. Of the first generation RPGs, only AD&D is more influential, and Traveller is equally long-lasting, with new iterations dropping every now and then over the last 38 years. The brainchildren of arguably the two most famous pen and paper RPG creators, Gary Gygax and Marc Miller respectively, AD&D and Traveller were undeniably—after RuneQuest—also my favorite RPGs to play as a teenager and college student. AD&D 1st edition so deeply engraved my cortex that I still no longer need to consult the rule books, and with Traveller, I have only needed a few refreshers to prepare this adventure.

In Classic Traveller, after the somewhat lengthy but fascinating mini-game of player character creation, all you need to know from then on is:

  1. 1) 8+

  2. 2) stay out of the way of bullets, blades, and lasers, and

  3. 3) go for the moolah.

8+ on two six sided dice is the standard action roll for everything in the game, with your native attributes and skills acting as positive modifiers, and with environmental and situational modifiers acting as either positive or negative modifiers to the roll. Much action is ridiculously easy in Classic Traveller, just as it is in real life, which usually translates to players not doing stupid things. When it takes 20-25 minutes to make a character, and you’re staring down the barrel of a sub-machine gun (in-game: SMG) at short range (+3 for SMG), and unarmored (+5 for SMG) to boot, that means your opponent only needs to roll a 0 or better on two six sided dice. Yup, he’ll do it every time. And on auto-fire, he gets to roll two times. Hence my second recommendation above: stay out of the way of bullets, blades, and lasers.

Yes, I’m showing the extreme end of Traveller combat, but that is more common than a battle in which everyone has battle dress and Fusion Gun Man Portable TL 14s. And in that high-tech battle, most of the shots are hits too, and nearly all of the hits are kills. Don’t trust your armor in Traveller—trust your jump drive. The best way to survive a gun battle or sword fight in Traveller is to be in a different star system.

And guess what? Traveller doesn’t penalize you for avoiding battles. Unlike other games in which a murderhobo needs a healthy blood lust to earn experience points, only bad things happen to your character in a Traveller battle, because Traveller has no experience points or experience levels. Traveller is a skill based game. Also, it is unlike nearly all skill-driven RPGs in that combat and adventuring do not improve your skills either.

When you don’t have to fight and kill things to go up a level or improve your skills, far from it disincentivizing players, it encourages role-playing and, on the part of the GM, some ad libbing. Players can do exactly what they want in Traveller, just like in real life. And in Traveller players have much more mobility than they do in most games. They’re travelling in starships instead of walking or riding to the dungeon.

This is why in Traveller I tend to go for a more free form style instead of a narrative style. Instead of creating adventures like chapters, for this game I stocked the Rezayn subsector and let the players loose. To begin the first session, I did have to funnel five characters from different walks of life into a common situation, but after that, they reacted in their own way.

The setting was the hellhole planet Sonekaos (B552976-B Hi Po A NA), a water-poor planet with thin, tainted atmosphere, and eight billion inhabitants that had to wear respirators to survive. The Imperium classified it an Amber Zone not for those reasons, however, but because Sonekaons enjoyed a dueling culture and there were hundreds of pirate clans that would sack incoming and outgoing vessels. And, on top of that, there is a Zhodani Naval Base there, not that they have anything to do with the Sonekaons at all, nor do they police the sector or interfere with the pirates.

The only thing that sane people would do in such a place, unless they were born there and inured to its noxious charms, would be to leave it, and that is how our adventure started: the players were in an airport waiting for a orbital carrier to carry them to the starport that orbited Sonekaos.

As adventures invariably begin with either opportunity or coincidence, I chose the latter, and a mass transit bus full of terrorists plowed into the airport and started shooting anyone in an uniform. The player characters, though not targeted by these shooters, wisely took cover, and after the entrance cleared, they started talking about what they should do.

Here is where the advantage of free-form play comes in: the players could have 1) waited for law enforcement, 2) seized weapons from fallen security guards and pursued the terrorists, but instead they 3) seized weapons and went to the runway, where they “borrowed” an orbital craft to take them to the starport, as one of the players had a free trader docked there. They were, however, one step behind the terrorists, who had already raced to the runway and stolen a craft themselves.

At the starport, they arrived behind the terrorists, and with some encounters along the way, managed to board their free trader and escape the starport in an exodus of starships as the explosion triggered by the terrorists effectively removed Sonekaos from what little trade it enjoyed in the subsector.

After this, the player characters managed to leave the star system, activate their jump drive, and then start a little bit of mercantile adventure in a string of agricultural worlds. Interestingly, the players had just as much fun wheeling and dealing in this part of the adventure as they did in the more action oriented leg of this ninety minute Traveller session.

Settlers of Catan: 5-6 Player Expansion


From here, we went into Settlers of Catan with the Catan: 5-6 Player Expansion. This is just like 3-4 player Catan except the island is bigger and players 5 and 6 have green and brown tokens to choose from, in addition to the standard red, blue, white, and orange. Also, the Catan: 5-6 Player Expansion introduces the Special Building Phase, an extra phase in every players’ turn during which any of the other players in the game can build, but not trade, in clockwise order after the player who just took their turn. By “build, but not trade,” this means that you can’t hand four wool and a brick to the bank on special building phase and get a road, as neither maritime trading or trading with other players is appropriate during that time. However, if you have a slew of cards, and want to get rid of them so your assets are not halved by the robber, this is a good opportunity.

The Special Building Phase encourages players to get cards out of their hand, and discourages them from hoarding cards (at least when they are being honest), as in a six player game the odds are likelier that you will get your resources halved by the robber. In a four player game of Catan, when you pass the dice to the player to your left, the dice are only rolled four times before you get to spend resources again, with a 51.77% (1-(5/6)4) chance of rolling a seven and triggering the robber; while in six player Catan, the chance of rolling a seven in six rolls is significant higher at 66.51% (1-(5/6)6). Also, with six rolls for production every time around the table instead of four, resources are generated much more rapidly, so the odds that someone would have too many cards in a circuit around the board greatly increases in a 6 player game.. The combination of these two facts—increased production and increased likelihood of the robber mechanic triggering the halving of these increased resources—is undoubtedly the reason why the special building phase was implemented in the 5-6 player expansion, because players would be dissatisfied with a game that kept crushing their production.

That said, we went about twenty rolls of the dice before a seven was rolled. Statistics are not a law, just a study. This was another game in which the Tyranny of Numeracy reared its ugly head, as while there were plenty of 8s and 3s and even several 2s and 12s, the number 6—in which I unfortunately invested—was rolled exactly three times in the entire game.

7 Wonders

I was pretty excited to play 7 Wonders with six players, as we had only played it with that high a player count on one other occasion, usually playing four players with our regular gaming group. Coincidentally, the meaningfulness of both six player games was wrecked by the same kind of misstep, happening identically in both cases—a player ended up with 20 played cards despite only having the ability to play one card during each of 18 rounds. Now, I’ve mentioned before that there is at least one Wonder that allows you to have more than 18 played cards. That Wonder allows you to have 19 with its A side, and 21 with its B side, assuming that you are able to use the card’s special power every possible time and you don’t cash in any cards for coins. But neither of the “overplayers” in either six player game had this Wonder.

There aren’t that many ways that a player can end up with too many cards in 7 Wonders. The final card of every age is intended to be a discard, and a player could retain these either willfully or through inexperience. The other way is through group missteps. I did not notice this in the first six player game of 7 Wonders, but we all noticed it in this one when we realized that some players had three card hands, others had four cards, and there was a pile of four cards on the table. In other words, some players had gone one play ahead of the others, and unfortunately four cards were not passed when this happened. We thought that we had compensated for it once we discovered it, but apparently not.

The lesson here is for every player to make a grand show of playing their card at the same time and not to get caught up in the passing of cards instead. I’m almost to the point of recommending that just like in Broom Service every player should say “I am the brave witch and I…” at the beginning of their action, that every player in 7 Wonders should say “I am playing so and so a card.”

Another observation that I had in this game of 7 Wonders was that there is a pretty big difference between 4 player and 6 player 7 Wonders in that in the former, your missed opportunities can return to you at the end of an age. In four player 7 Wonders, after you make your choice from your initial seven card hand, those cards make their way around the table, diminishing by one card with each pass until you have the chance to pick another card from the three remaining cards that are left from your initial hand. Sometimes this doesn’t work out, as you’re staring at three cards that you previously rejected, but other times you find yourself looking at a card that you almost played in the first round, but decided to forego for another card. By comparison, in six player 7 Wonders, your starting hand never comes back to you, as you play the first card of your initial hand, player 2 plays the second card, and so on, until player 6 plays the sixth card and discards the seventh card, then depleting your hand so that you never get another look at it.

My final takeaway is that cashing in cards has its strategic advantages. It will hurt your score, as you’re penalizing yourself a played card in a game that only has 18 played cards, but it might take away victory from another player in so doing. I know this from experience, as the player to the right of me in the Third Age showed me a guild card that would have given me ten victory points and the game, just before cashing it in for two coins. I know, right? By consolation, this player was the lowest scoring player in the game, and it served little purpose for them, but it does serve as an instructional example for the rest of us 7 Wonders players that are wondering just how useful cashing in a card for a measly two coins can be. It isn’t a game winning move, but it can help you stick it to another player, that’s for sure. So ideally, you would want to get some other player to do it, if you feel yourself above fair play.

In any event, since a player ended with 20 played cards in an 18 round game, the whole game was invalid. Only the winners of a misplayed game might disagree.

Conclusion

Overall, this was a pretty great game night, even though our 7 Wonders game was a meaningless stalemate for all due to our missteps in the Second Age, and even though the Tyrrany of Numeracy plagued my game of Catan, because the Traveller adventure set a pleasant tone for what was to come.  We’ve played so many satisfying games of 7 Wonders that an occasional game with a misstep isn’t so bad, and as for Catan, my column Catan Blues tracks my ongoing love/hate relationship with that game, and I know what I’m getting into when I start assembling the hexagons.


Here’s a helpful link to a variety of Traveller variants

Catan 5-6 Player Extension – 5th Edition
7 Wonders

Board of Life uses affiliate links.

One Night Ultimate Werewolf

Game Night: Imagine, One Night Ultimate Werewolf, and Broom Service

We had a quick game night last week, during which we introduced two games to our usual game night friends, both Imagine, which I’ve reviewed on Board of Life, and One Night Ultimate Werewolf, which we have wanted since playing it for the first time at Replay Fx. It was also the first time in a good while that we played board games with the kids. We also played Broom Service, which we haven’t played in a little while.

Dinner was spaghetti, salad, and garlic bread, and our friends also opened some home brewed wine that was as sweet and good as any regional wine I’ve tried. It reminded me of some of Lonz’s desert wines, although much stronger.

Imagine


My first takeaway from playing Imagine for the first time on someone else’s table is that though it has no board, Imagine takes up a larger section of your table than most board games. While the rules depict two circles of transparent Imagine cards, we ended up with three very large circles, and then had to spread them out even more to make the game play area in the middle.

The table also presented some resistance to the transparent cards, or rather, lack of resistance. We initially dealt out the cards on the table surface, but the plastic Imagine cards, due to a combination of thinness and slipperiness, not only were hard to pry from the natural wood, but also slid right onto the floor several times. So my friend put down the card game overlay that he built with craft materials, as it is softer, more textured, and an easier surface from which to play card games.

Which presented a new problem, as the predominantly blue, Star Wars themed, overlay and the dim light had the effect of obscuring the images on the clear cards. So, add to my game play criticism in my review of Imagine that this game has environmental limitations that stem from its components. There are other scenarios that immediately come to mind that would be averse to playing Imagine—this isn’t a game that you would take camping, for instance, unless you had a bright white tablecloth and a very powerful light either inside or outside your camper or tent. Fans of Imagine may want to have a coarse white tablecloth handy, or a white overlay similar to the one my friend built, for play indoors.

This was the first game of the night, and the kids didn’t jump in until the next game, but this was still our first time playing Imagine with four players, as we had only played with three beforehand. Which brings me to my second takeaway–that Imagine seems to improve with more players at the table. While an extra person playing Enigmas didn’t make much of a difference to game play, an extra person guessing made it much more competitive. So while I maintain that Imagine is a suitable game for tabletop sessions that have a low player count, it can have a more exciting dynamic with additional players.

Also, comparing this game with the one we played next creates a very stark contrast in terms of replay value. While everyone enjoyed Imagine, no one wanted to play it again immediately thereafter, despite it being a fairly short game. One play through was enough to satisfy everyone at the table.

One Night Ultimate Werewolf


One Night Ultmate Werewolf, on the other hand, we played twice with just the adults and then five times with the kids included. I’m planning on reviewing this one later on Board of Life, so I’m going to save my analysis of the game itself for later. You know, the intrinsic stuff, such as how you play it, how you win, strategic analysis, if any, and why it’s fun as an activity or any good as a game–which are separate criteria, we’ve learned, from our examination of Imagine. You won’t find any of that here. What follows are just some notes on some of One Night Ultimate Werewolf’s extrinsic values, specifically that it’s easy to learn, it bridges all ages, and it has a ton of replay value.

In terms of learnability, One Night Ultimate Werewolf can be played by anyone that can speak, and although it can be played better by those that have mastered some social subterfuge, it has almost no learning curve until some of the more complicated roles are added to the mix. The first time we played it with our friends, it was just us four adults, and we simply played the One Night App with the recommended seven roles for beginners’ play and told everyone to listen carefully for their role and do exactly what the voice said. Then we played again, and then we recruited the kids for an eight player game.

The kids had a great time playing it, which led to us playing five games in a row with them and speaks not only to the fact that One Night Ultimate Werewolf is exemplary all-ages entertainment, but also that it has very high replay value. It isn’t that each game of ONUW is dramatically different, as while you can swap out role cards here and there, the game experience is essentially the same each time: listen to the narrator, do what it says, and, in the discovery phase, either shoot the werewolves or, if you’re the werewolf, try not to get shot. When you open the box, ONUW looks customizable, but that assumption turns out to be merely a cosmetic one. So why can’t gamers play just one game of ONUW? Because that game experience, despite its ongoing homogeneity, is simply that fun and addictive. Only time will tell as to whether ONUW will age poorly, and as Bezier Games continues to toss expansions to One Night fans, the dust may take a long time to settle.

Broom Service

I’ve discussed Broom Service in one review and two (here’s one; here’s two) previous Game Night recaps, and I don’t have a lot to add. However, our friends’ daughter has been wanting to play games with us, and she did sit in on this one, which not only made it a five player game with no bewitched cards, it also gives us another opportunity to examine tabletop games and their intersection with the small set.

So how does Broom Service mix with kids? Both of our daughters are pre-tweens and a year apart; my daughter—who occasionally likes to play Settlers of Catan and Puerto Rico, and watches Tabletop—does not like to play it, and their daughter—whose favorite board game is Machi Koro—had to be strongly encouraged to stay at the table and be prompted to take her turn. Honestly, both of these girls are probably more interested in tablet games, but both of them are fans of certain tabletop games, and with a concept like witches delivering potions, you would think that Broom Service would be able to crossover to that age demographic. Why it does not is puzzling to me, especially in the case of my daughter, who loves Kiki’s Delivery Service and Harry Potter and for whom Broom Service seems made to order.

That said, Broom Service may have a higher age range than you would think, as the game is currently 0:2 with the pre-tweens in our gaming group.

Conclusion

Overall, this was a pretty good game night, with its high point being seven games of One Night Ultimate Werewolf. Honestly, I’m suprised that I like One Night Ultimate Werewolf as much as I do, as I prefer more strategic games. This may be because ONUW is successful at relating its premise and concept with every single round, unlike many other games with more complicated staging that lose their way at times somewhere in the mid-game. On the other hand, while I have some admiration to Imagine’s design and concept—make the inscrutable imaginable and, ultimately, recognizable—the game’s shortcomings become more and more apparent with each play. Lastly, I discovered that while I find Broom Service to be a pleasant diceless refuge from Catan, younger gamers in my orbit do not like it.

Imagine

One Night Ultimate Werewolf

Broom Service – Strategy Game

Board of Life uses affiliate links. Gamewright sent a review copy of Imagine.

Game Night: Catan: Traders and Barbarians, 7 Wonders, and Sheriff of Nottingham

Our most recent game night was the pinnacle of a perfect day. Earlier that day we had gone to Market Square, where we ate veggie dogs at Franktuary, played a game of giant Jenga, and returned with two bags of coffee from Nicholas Coffee Company. We brought one of the bags–Cinnamon Pecan Praline—with us to our friends’ house, where it paired well with the home-made peach pie they baked. We didn’t start playing games until late, but we were still able to squeeze in three games due to selecting the fastest official Catan variation, the eighteen round game 7 Wonders, and the eight round game Sheriff of Nottingham.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you’ve probably seen that our sweet spot seems to be three games, as that is usually what we end up playing no matter how much time we have. This is a curious phenomenon which I believe to be an ultimately explicable attribute of game size, as measured by Scope, Scale, and Span. Just hold that thought, though, because this is a Game Night recap, and I won’t be going into depth on that subject here. We’ll call it fodder for later installments.

To complete the setting of the stage–the bright, sunny, day pierced the windows, and we had salads, roasted potatoes, and tofu marinated in cayenne pepper, garlic, and cracked pepper (the vegans), and various seafood including shark (the non-vegans). (Actually, the tofu was so good that everyone was eating it, so my overly simplistic demarcation is a bald-faced lie.) My youngest watched DVDs we brought of Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown and The Superfriends, so classic animation would crackle and flash in the background.

Catan: Traders and Barbarians: “The Fishermen of Catan”

First, we played “The Fishermen of Catan” scenerio from Catan: Traders and Barbarians. With so many variations of Catan between us—I have Seafarers, Cities and Knights, and Explorers and Pirates, and my friends have Traders and Barbarians and Star Trek Catan—it isn’t long before this demands expression in wooden empires on hexagon-ological islands. In an informal survey of our gaming group, only one of us had a clearly stated favorite tabletop game, and that was Catan. As for myself, Catan is the game that I hate to love and love to hate, and I acknowledge that there is a sixth element in Catan, aside from wool, wheat, ore, lumber, and brick, and this sixth element never leaves your hand and pulls you back to the game. It isn’t that we possess Catan, it’s that Catan possesses us.

I’d like to say that we selected Catan: Traders and Barbarians, the Catan box that we open least frequently, because we wanted to give the included scenarios another play, but it was because we had brought Catan: Cities and Knights and found that we had left the Cities and Knights progress and commodity cards in my 5-6 player C&K expansion box. So my friend took T&B down from his shelf, and we set up “The Fishermen of Catan.” It is the fastest scenario in Catan: Traders and Barbarians, and possibly all of Catan, as it is not only a ten point game like standard Catan, but the accumulation of resources is accelerated by the introduction of fishing to the game.

The fishing mechanic in “The Fishermen of Catan” is completely unlike the fishing in Catan: Explorers and Pirates scenarios. While in E&P, the player retrieves a wooden fish token with a wooden ship token, the simulation in T&B involves no movement of tokens. In fact, the game board is similar to standard 10 point Catan, with the exception that the desert is replaced by a fishing hole, and fishing shoals are placed between harbors. Fishing shoals and the fishing hole produce fish when their numbers are rolled, and you have a settlement or city bordering them.

Fans of standard ten point Catan should see immediately how this scenario will speed up play. Instead of a desert hex, which is a dead, non-producing, hex, that limits the value of settlements and cities bordering it, “The Fishermen of Catan” has the fishing hole, which produces a fish token on a 2, 3, 11, or 12, which combined is as good as having a 6 or an 8, circa 16% likely on a given roll. Additionally, if at the beginning of the game, there aren’t any good three hex spots left when it’s your turn to place your second settlemtn, the coastal region is much more attractive as there are also regions there that produce fish when a number is rolled. In Fishermen of Catan, it is much more likely that all four players will have both a six and an eight, if they would like to have both, due to there being many more spots on which to border a six or an eight. In fact, sometimes the coastal regions are much better than the island interior in “The Fishermen of Catan.”

Each player can only have seven fish tokens at once, but in both of the times that we have played this scenario, no player ever reached this limit as the fish tokens are so useful. You see, each fishing token has from one to three fish on it, and you can exchange a total of two fish—not tokens, but the fish on them—-to remove the robber from the board; three fish allows you to steal a resource from another player; four fish allows you to take a resource from the bank; five fish gives you a free road; and, seven fish gives you a free development card. Game statisticians will no doubt point out that resource producing numbers will be more efficient than fish-producing numbers at building roads or buying development cards, but fish can’t be stolen by other players or by the robber either, so they give each player a secondary, 100% secure, production bank. Well, not each player—just the players that were wise enough to focus on gathering fish.

So, with resources entering “The Fishermen of Catan” normally, and fish production being exchanged for resources, roads, and development cards on top of that, you can see that this scenario enabled its winner to hit ten victory points quickly. This is probably why there is an “Old Boot” concealed in the fish tokens that any player can give to another player with more victory points, and that player stuck with the Old Boot needs 11 victory points to win instead of 10.  In this game, however, no one ever found it, so the winner won with three cities, the Largest Army, and the Longest Road.

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7 Wonders

In games with score cards, our game night group dates them for posterity, and this meant that when I opened our 7 Wonders box that it was a black and white fact that we hadn’t played this marvelous game since May 28th. There’s really no excuse for this, as 7 Wonders is not only currently in a three way tie with Puerto Rico and Broom Service to be my favorite game, but it is fast and epic. Not only can you always find room for 7 Wonders in a game night, it is such an excellent game with so many different winning strategies that you should strive to do this at all costs. (I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a sin against the god of game night, but yes I would.)

I’ve discussed 7 Wonders in some detail on Board of Life, and each time we play I have a different takeaway. It seemed that both players to either side of me didn’t need the resources that I was saving either to build their Wonder or to supplement their strategy, so I learned how to win at 7 Wonders when I wasn’t getting any income. This was a marked difference from my previous win at 7 Wonders, when both of my flanking players were trading with me constantly.

We were using the B side of the cards, and selected our wonders randomly. Mine was Halikarnassos, and while I was initially disappointed with this one due to it only rewarding the building of its wonder with only three victory points, the Halikarnassos B side also has an outstanding special ability.

7WONDERS_RULES_US_COLOR-page-009

It enables you to look through the discards once per age, in the round during which the wonder stage is built, even selecting from cards discarded that round. As I would have the greatest selection of discards at the end of each age, I decided that whatever happened, my sixth card every turn would build a stage of my structure so that I would be able to pick from the four discards in the sixth round for a free build. I was only getting three points from completing my wonder, so it was paramount that I grab the discard that was worth the most points to me. In the third age, the other players realized what I was doing, and the only discard at the end of the third age that was worth any points was the Arena. Which I grabbed anyway, as three victory points is nonetheless three victory points.

One strategy that I considered, but did not use this game due to rejecting its shadiness, involves abusing the rule that allows a player, instead of playing a card or building a stage of their wonder, to discard any card they want on their turn for 3 coins. I thought of discarding a card that I was unable to purchase so that I could then grab it for free immediately after by building a stage in my structure. I would be one card short at the end of the game, but I was already being rewarded for building my wonder by getting additional cards in my play area.

The strategy that I decided on was much simpler. After a heavy investment in brown, grey, and yellow cards in the first age, from that point on I simply picked the card from my hand that was both 1) a free build for me, and 2) worth the most victory points. Then, in the final, sixth round of each age, I would build a stage of my structure so that I could grab a free card from the discards. (It was very important that I not build it prior to that sixth round so that I have the largest selection of discards, as our group doesn’t cash in cards for coins very much.) By the end of the game, I had a set of green cards, several blue cards, and three of the purple guild cards.

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One general consensus in our group is that it is a mistake to over-invest in the green Science cards. The possibility of scoring twice with your investment in them is appealing to the math minded, but in practice it never works out. The player with the least amount of victory points had 26 points for six science cards, which sounds great until you consider that’s only 4.4 points a card, and there are many more valuable cards in the third age that are passing by while you’re completing your second science set; the three purple guild cards I grabbed were a total of 22 points, or about 7.3 points a card. If you can get a set of science cards before the end of the second age, that’s a good thing to grab, but go for the blue and purple cards in the third age. Even in the second age, the three blue cards (12 victory points) are worth more than a set of three green cards (10 points).

Sheriff of Nottingham

Next up was Sheriff of Nottingham, a game which has won my admiration after only two games despite the cold hard fact that I am horrible at playing it. This is partly due to the fact that I cannot keep from smiling when I am passing contraband, and my strategy to be always smiling like a fool, so as to conceal when I am actually doing it, simply means that my bag is always checked for contraband.

Some of you are saying, “contraband? bag? what?” Let me backtrack. As this is the first time I’ve discussed Sheriff of Nottingham in any length on my blog, for the uninitiated I’ll delve into the facts of the game, but as I may end up reviewing it on Board of Life, this will be a capsule summary.

Sheriff of Nottingham is best played with four players over a total of eight rounds. Each player is the Sheriff in two of those rounds, and a Merchant in the other six rounds. In every round, the other three players are Merchants that declare from their hand of cards—Chicken, Cheese, Bread, Apples, or Contraband—one type of good in any quantity to be in their bag. In addition to playing cards, Sheriff of Nottingham actually has enclosed not just cardboard coins, but also five “merchant bags” that are large enough to enclose them.

Sheriff of Nottingham-page-004

When the Merchant makes a declaration, he must correctly state the number of cards in his bag, and he also must pick just one type of good to declare from the four honest goods in the game, either Cheese, Bread, Apples, or Chicken. If a Merchant makes the declaration “Six Cheese,” the bag might actually have six cheese in it, or four cheese and two bread, or one cheese and five contraband, or six contraband and no honest goods, or any other combination of six cards. If the Merchant actually has six cheese, that’s awesome luck, beause not only will the Merchant earn huge points from that haul, but the Sheriff will undoubtedly inspect and end up paying a penalty on that lucky haul. More than likely, however, the Merchant will make smaller declarations, whether for honest or dishonest reasons.

After all three Merchants have made their declarations, The Sheriff must decide whether each Merchant is telling the truth. He or she can inspect any bag they want, and if they find an incorrect declaration, the Merchant must pay him a penalty. However, if they inspect an honest declaration, the Sheriff must pay the Merchant a penalty.

Merchants can bribe The Sheriff if they want to do so—sometimes this is because they are trying to get contraband through, sometimes this is because they want the Sheriff to check another Merchant’s bag, and sometimes this is because the Merchant is trying to entice the Sheriff to inspect an honest declaration, so the Sheriff has to pay the Merchant a penalty. So bribery can be massively strategic in Sheriff of Nottingham.

In this game, I had a huge setback when I decided that I would try to be clever. In my first round, I played it safe and declared three cheese honestly. In the next round, after my draw, I again had three cheese as well as a bread and two contraband. I thought, why not declare the two contraband and a bread as three cheese? It will probably be passed through, and then when I declare three cheese—this time honestly—for a third time, it will undoubtedly be inspected so that I would be paid a penalty. Nope. The bread and two contraband were inspected because of my irrepressibly goofy smile, and my game never recovered from that.

Despite the fact that I was never able to catch back up after that initial loss, I still had a lot of fun playing Sheriff of Nottingham, just as I did the first time that I played. It’s fun to watch the Merchants try to get one over on the Sheriff, and it’s amusing to watch players try to rat each other out by bribing the Sheriff to check others’ dishonest declarations. And at eight turns, the game is of a perfect length, so that if you’re losing, you’re not losing for long, and if you’re winning, you get to savor your triumph quickly.

Conclusion

This was such a satisfying set of short strategy games that I recommend this exact combination for any game night in which you only have a few hours ahead of you. All three games took less than an hour while engaging our mental muscles in the strategic way that we usually expect much longer games to satisfy.

My curiosity is still piqued as to why three games seems to be the magic number for our gaming group, and once I have a large enough sample of Game Night recaps for analysis, I might speculate further on this mystery.


Catan: Traders & Barbarians Expansion 5th Edition

7 Wonders

Sheriff of Nottingham

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Grokking Games: More Thoughts on Game Span, Scale, and Scope

(While much of Board of Life is designed for all readers interested in board games, card games, and other tabletop games, “Grokking Games” is a column in which I write about tabletop game theory, and it assumes familiarity with the games discussed. “Grok” is a verb probably originating with Robert Heinlein, and it means a deep and intuitive knowledge.)

It’s been a few weeks since my last game night report, for multiple reasons, sad and otherwise. Game Night has continued, but my game night recaps take more wholeness of mind than I have possessed. I did do a mini-recap of sorts in my recent review of RePlay FX 2016, in which I played Pandemic Legacy, Hanabi, and One Night Ultimate Werewolf. The most interesting of the unrecorded game nights was a night on which we played Puerto Rico and Mysterium, and rolled up 1st edition Traveler RPG characters.

Why Traveler? This is part of an ongoing analysis of the three aspects of game size—Span, Scale, and Scope, specifically the one that, while the most abstract, is turning out to be the one I am most interested in measuring due to it being easy to create entertaining examples—Scope. Traveler, like the more successful second generation RPGs that followed it, such as GURPS, uses only d6 and combinations of d6 to generate the game content, and everyone usually only needs 2 six sided dice on hand, plus a pool of extra six-sided dice for larger weapons. It is my belief that this will decrease the imbalance between real time and game time that we’re observing in our AD&D chapters.

If you’re just coming in now, what we’ve seen in my analysis of our first two D&D adventures is that RPG games have tons of content compared to other tabletop games, and that they’re big in what I call Scope, or the size a game occupies in the players’ head space. The second D&D chapter, which centered on a larger battle, had less content and many more dice rolls than the one before it, and I believe there is a correlation between these elements, so that a first rule of Scope can be stated as the following: as opponents increase, Scope tends to decrease, until, when there are dozens of adversaries on a battle mat, you’re playing a tactical wargame and not a role-playing game for that chapter.

My recent experiment with AD&D 1st edition has made me well-aware of the shortcomings of all versions of Dungeons & Dragons—that players can stumble over dice too much as they’re generating game content. One of the problems with D&D is that it requires the player to switch out dice too many times, so that in one combat round a d6 is rolled for initiative, a d20 is rolled to attempt a hit, and any of six different dice (d4, d6, d8, d10, d12, d20) in different combinations (2d4, 3d4, 3d6, 2d8 etc.) are rolled for damage. Then the NEXT player has to do these things. The Dungeonmaster has to do all of these things, plus make d100 rolls occasionally. My thoughts are that because the players and the DM have to spend so much time going back and forth to the dice bank, so that a battle that takes five minutes of game time takes 45 minutes of real time for the players to translate it, it limits the real-time role-playing participation which is the heart of D&D. Hence, my second rule of Scope as applies to RPG: with diversity of dice and complexity of rules, Scope tends to decrease. Not that dice and rules are bad—dice and rules are the components of the “game” aspect of role-playing games, and without the game mechanics, there wouldn’t be a game to gather players around to enjoy the “role-playing” part. Most people like both parts of Role-Playing Games, but it seems obvious to me, now that I am returning to D&D after more than two decades, that the “game” aspect of D&D aspect is unbalanced. And it seems extraordinarily myopic of the game’s developers that in the years since 1st and 2nd edition D&D has become more complex, and not less.

A good analogy is to imagine if there were 25 minutes of forms that you had to fill out in order to ride a 90 second roller coaster. Now imagine that the roller coaster is one of the best in the world, so that it had literally millions of fans, with hundreds of forums for online commentary between Reddit, Facebook, and more. That roller coaster is Dungeons and Dragons, and for many fans of the game, it is such a wonderful and unique experience that not playing it is not an option, so these millions of fans regularly and masochistically throw themselves at the 25 minutes of forms in order to ride the ninety second roller coaster. When I was in college, we would start at noon on Saturday at the college union, and finish after 11 PM. During those eleven hours, perhaps a half dozen battles transpired. Do I remember any of the dice that I rolled? No. But I do remember some of the role-playing elements, such as key characters, settings, and narrative arcs. The goal of a good DM is to minimize the resistance of the game rules so that the players can participate more fully in the game setting and game narrative.

Also, while I haven’t concreted this into a rule yet, I’ve stated in our first AD&D adventure that I believe that controlling the time is paramount to mature enjoyment of these games, so that 90 minutes to two hours, at most, is allocated to an adventure chapter. Less is more—preferably no longer than a game of Catan. The same will be observed with Traveler. Expect our first adventure sometime in the next month or two.

As a bonus to former Traveler players, here’s the three characters that were created, but you have to be able to read first edition Traveler shorthand. The two humans are extremely viable characters, but the Aslan failed the survival roll during the first term, which according to the modified character creation rule that most Traveler GMs use, requires character creation to stop. One of my players suggest that we use the Aslan for an extra character on nights we have an extra hand, and allow the re-rolling of that character. I may allow this, because it would be nice for all the regular players to have capable characters. On the other hand, Aslans get more skills than humans do as a general rule, so that in the one term she was in, she got five skills compared to 8 and 10 for the three term humans. And she’s 10 years younger, which could be a benefit if they ever go to a Psionic Institute…but might not.

Human M former Marine Leading Sergeant. Age 30 88AD69 Gun Cbt-1, Battledress 1, Recruiting 1, Heavy Weapons 1, Vacc Suit 1, Tactics 1, Zero-G Combat 1, Leader 1. 7000 credits, High Passage, Traveller’s Aid Society.

Human F former Navy E8 Senior Chief Officer (MCUFx2, MCG) age 30 79586B Gun Cbt-2, Liaison 2, Navigation 1, Zero-G Combat 2, Ship’s Boat 1, Vacc Suit 1, Gambling 1. 10,000 credits, cutlass, Traveller’s Aid Society.

Aslan F Scientist age 20 795867 Computer 1, Gravitics 1, Electronics 1, Handgun 1, Jack of All Trades 1. 5000 credits, gun.

Follow this link to find vintage Advanced Dungeons & Dragons

Here’s your link to Traveler on Amazon

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I found the Traveler Aslan module on eBay

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