RePlay FX 2017: Retro Gaming in Pittsburgh (Review)

For its third year running, the Burgh’s retro gaming convention, RePlay FX, has marshaled an impressive army of the coin-op monoliths of arcades past—there are so many of these sizable and venerated artifacts of video gaming, in fact, that this year I was reminded of the moai statues of Easter Island. And unlike other nerdy gatherings, RePlay FX has Easter Island’s je ne sais quoi of being that rare bird in the convention circuit, having its own truly unique ambiance, and offering a one of a kind experience. There are dozens upon dozens of comic cons and gaming cons that are very similar to each other, but there’s only one RePlay FX.

While RePlay FX bears some resemblance to the arcades of decades past, the emphasis here is less on the arcade experience—though you buy a ticket at the door, all the coin op games are set to free play—and more on the culture and aesthetic of these vintage games, as if some time-traveling liberator arrived in the eighties, set all the video games free, and gave them a ride in his Tardis to a place where people would appreciate them more than twenty-five cents at a time. Moreover, in addition to the rows of coin-op arcade games and pinball machines, there are consoles vintage and current, musical acts, seminars (i.e. panels), and tabletop gaming.

While the inaugural RePlay FX won me over right out of the gate, and each year since then has simply added to the awesome, my experience of it this year was much different, because on Friday, my wife and I were able to attend kid-free. So while on Thursday and Saturday we gamed in the family-friendly way that we had at prior RePlays, Friday was a chance to take in one and a half concerts and play the games we wanted to play.

Nothing speaks to the ongoing development of RePlay Fx more than the evolution of Thursday attendance. While in 2015, Thursday was like a ghost town, in 2017 there were a good number of attendees, so that I had to wait for a game once or twice. That there still wasn’t a ton of congestion means that Thursday is still a great day for crossing things off of your convention to-do list. Attendance increases every year, so that if you’re reading this in 2020 it may no longer be true, but if you’re looking at attending the 2018 RePlay, I would definitely plan on going down your game checklist, hitting any vendors, and demoing tabletop games on Thursday, when the competition is lighter.

Our Thursday was epic, marked by a ton of coin-op play, including Ms. Pac-Man, Burger Time, Gauntlet, Gauntlet Legacy, Asteroids, Crazy Taxi, The Simpsons, Donkey Kong, Joust, Joust: Survival of the Fittest, Donkey Kong Jr. Missile Command, Tron, Tempest, and probably a few others I’ve forgotten.

Thursday was the day I discovered I can no longer walk past Tempest without playing it, an unspoken law that remained in effect during the convention. Of all the games listed above, I played Tempest the highest number of times and Ms. Pac-Man for the longest duration. While I’m no Ms. Pac-Man pro, I can often get past Act III on one life, and I was on my A game during Replay FX 2018. The game in which I showed the most improvement, though, was Burger Time, which I have never taken seriously, and for which I found a new appreciation this year. Not unlike Ms. Pac-Man, in Burger Time you can fake out the fatal food’s programming; when I realized this, Burger Time became more strategic, and I played it as many times at RePlay FX as I have my entire life. Also, the soundtrack is really catchy.

Magical Truck Adventure gave us a cardio burn and that mid-day convention push we needed. If you’re not familiar with this Japanese arcade game, you can find pictures of Magical Truck Adventure through this link to last year’s RePlay FX review. Suffice to say that MTA is a really fun game, especially when your co-pilot’s moves are coordinated with yours, and its best feature is that you feel more energized after you play.

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After our arcade fix and a snack, we decided to demo a tabletop game. RePlay FX’s tabletop area is staffed by volunteers from the local gaming / co-work association, Looking for Group, so that if you want to learn a game, and/or want an extra player when they’re not demoing for someone else, LfG’s volunteers, identifiable by the leis they wear, are happy to help.

Tiny Epic games were already on my radar, not only because they’ve been spamming my e-mail, but because they’re really committed to the “tiny epic” concept, as illustrated by its many iterations: Tiny Epic Galaxies, Tiny Epic Kingdoms, Tiny Epic Defenders, Tiny Epic Quest, and Tiny Epic Western, the one that we learned.

The Tiny Epic premise is that of pocket games as potent as big box games, and Tiny Epic Western delivered by mashing-up a worker placement game with three card poker. While the insertion of poker enlivens the Wild West theme, it is also an unusually effective game mechanism, so that I was only reminded by its similarities to other worker placement games for a few minutes before I became fascinated by its own unique dynamics.

Judging by the volunteers that helped us this year and last, Looking for Group‘s demo staff are excellent facilitators that add to the value of RePlay FX. The tabletop gaming area was always bustling with gamers, which makes me excited for the future evolution of RePlay’s tabletop gaming. My concluding paragraphs mention ways that RePlay FX 2018 and beyond may expand in scale, and while I hope the RePlay FX formula stays the same, my fingers are also crossed for more tabletop gaming.

We also played a lot of video games on Friday, especially longer ones like Gauntlet that are hard to play with kids in tow. This was nice, but the real highlight of our kid-free Friday was Super Thrash Bros, an outstanding band that came all the way from South Jersey to the Burgh to drop some sweet sets, the coolest of which was their rendition of Donkey Kong Country. If Super Thrash Bros is coming to your local convention, you should definitely forego any other events to take in their act.

While we were only able to catch some of the Triforce Quartet, we were already fans, being familiar from last year’s RePlay FX and from their musical contributions on YouTube. As I’m a gaming nerd, a soundtrack nerd, and a classical music nerd, they hit a lot of my sweet spots. You may already know them from their 2014 interpretations of Super Smash Bros and The Legend of Zelda as these pop up occasionally in YouTube recommendations for those search terms. Triforce Quartet’s gift to the world is taking the already epic soundtracks of some of the best video games and letting that grandeur linger on classical strings. If Nintendo ever does that often-rumored The Legend of Zelda live action movie, it would be harder for them to do better than Triforce Quartet’s interpretation for a classical-styled soundtrack.

Saturday morning was a redux of Thursday, although my daughter and I first played Japanese arcade games, such as Pang Pang Paradise, in which you have to throw actual plastic balls–not unlike Chuck E Cheese ball pit balls in size, shape and lightness–at the touch screen a few feet in front of you; and, Future Tom Tom, which inserts your image into the game via a video camera, so that we could see what we would look like if we ever got into Furry fandom. The more that I play these awesome Japanese imports, the more that I wish someone would open an arcade in Pittsburgh with nothing but Japanese coin-op games. Each one of them seems to be its own separate experience, unlike the video games I played as a youth, which were all variations on shooting, racing, or levelling.

Since we’ve been working our way through Star Trek: The Original Series, it was nice to find the Star Trek simulator so that she could sit in the captain’s chair and kill Klingons. Eventually, we made our way over to Looking for Group’s LAN gaming area, so that she could play a variety of their PC games.  

Earlier in July, RePlay FX announced the welcome news that the convention had locked in three more years for the show at the David L Lawrence Convention Center. On Friday morning, I talked with RePlay FX’s Fred Cochran about some of the factors that went into this, as well as some potentially exciting news for fans of the convention. Cochran noted that they always had a five year plan, and this was fueled by their rapid growth—15,000 attended in 2016, with sales expected to outpace that in 2017—which has made them the third largest show at the DLC. Dates are already set not only for the 2018 RePlay FX, but also for 2019 and 2020, which will take them into their sixth year. While it has not yet been finalized, he added that it is almost certain that RePlay FX will add 50,000 square feet to 2018 by adding Hall C to the already-rented Hall A & B. Let it all be true—I hope nothing but the best for the future of this convention.

RePlay FX is not only an entertaining convention, full of amusements, but the curation of the experience is very strong as well, with a dynamic theme interpreted not only in the gaming contents of the hall, but the musical entertainment, the lighting, and a light-show on the ceiling in which you can see video game art as well as logo branding.  The only other Pittsburgh con with a passion, a theme, and a mission that’s at the level of RePlay FX is Tekko, and that RePlay has crafted such a strong presence in just three short years speaks not only to there being a demand for this convention, it also speaks to the future of this convention, as it appears to resonate not only with fans of vintage games everywhere, but also the local convention goer.  I look forward to the ongoing evolution of this gaming festival.

RePlay FX provided press passes for this event. Cross-posted to NerdSpan.com.

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Random Encounter: Seas of the Sea Chicken Announced by IDW for May

Last year, Board of Life  reviewed Random Encounter: Plains of the Troll King.  While the game mechanics leave little room for players that enjoy strategic tabletop games, we admired its design, and its pluck in capitalizing on the Minecraft nostalgia boom decades before there was a Minecraft nostalgia boom.

Today, IDW announced the May arrival of the first expansion, Random Encounter: Seas of the Sea Chicken, also designed by James Keddie.

IDW describes the new installment as:

Random Encounter: Sea of the Sea Chicken brings 4 new special powers to the Encounter cards. With a black skulled card, you can double the combat strength of any Encounter that card is placed in, which can create an overwhelming advantage. Any Encounter card with a purple skull may flee to another one of your Encounters if the Encounter it is included in is attacked. Salty swashbuckler-scuttled swimwear swept sideways! Or something like that…

Also, while it’s described as an expansion, IDW also notes that it’s a “complete stand-alone product,” although this will not prevent players from combining the two sets into “hilarious off-the-wall land and sea mash ups.”

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Cross-posted on NerdSpan.com.

Thoughts on Splendor Online Play

Online play in the Splendor app is not yet a month old, and it appears to be, compared to other board games on mobile app stores, much healthier in terms of matching a bevy of eager players. It even seems easier to find other players than in the venerable Catan app, and it is much quicker to get the virtual table outfitted as well: from loading the app to picking your tokens takes less than a minute. Also, and most importantly, unlike all other mobile tabletop gaming apps that I own, the app forces players to stay involved by timing each player’s turn. In virtual Splendor, there are no agonizingly long three to five minute turns (although some players take an eon to realize that all they can do, if there are three short stacks, and there’s nothing they can afford or want to buy, is take three tokens or reserve a card). But if the other player’s timer does expire, congratulations! They just forfeited through being inattentive, and you won the game. This means that online Splendor, while slower than Splendor against AI, is much quicker than other games that feature online play.  However, it is still quicker than playing Splendor on a real-world tabletop, as most real-world players don’t use a timer, and there’s always that one Splendor player that takes two or three minute turns.

Possibly the most interesting aspect of this rapidity of play is that you are quickly introduced to a wide variety of Splendor strategies. I just finished playing a game with a player that started the game by reserving a red jewel card from the bottom row, and from then on in, was determined not to let me have any red jewel cards on the bottom row, so that whenever one would be placed, she would reserve it. As the green deck was top heavy with red cards, this meant that her first three turns required her to reserve three red cards in a row, so that while I quickly had a card and five tokens, she had three jokers and three reserved cards after the first three turns. Unfortunately for her, the next card placed in the bottom row was also a red token card, and as she had already reserved the maximum of three cards, and I had five tokens and a card, I was better suited to buying it before she did. I’m intensely interested in seeing how this kind of color monopolization strategy might work in another game in which the luck wasn’t as lopsided, but I will probably never play this way myself. I won this game 16 points to 10.

Another player closely scrutinized my till of tokens, so that whenever I was able to buy a point-scoring card, they would reserve it. This probably throws off other players’ games, but as I have played a lot of Splendor, and I have experience in diversifying my strategy, and they can only reserve three cards at most—cards that usually turned out to be useless to them, as they were saving very different colors than I was saving—I won 17 points to 5. However, I will admit to being more annoyed by this player than any other Splendor player, although the feeling was mitigated when I realized that they were stuck with three cards that did not match their game investments, which blocked their ability both to reserve cards and to get joker tokens for the rest of the game.

More than half of the players that I have played have reserved a card from the bottom row. Folks, this is a bonehead move, and tells the person across the table that you have no idea what you’re doing. I’ll allow the exception to this to be the color monopolization strategy I mentioned above, as I have only seen it used in one virtual game and no real-world tabletop games. Color monopolization on the bottom row may very well be a bonehead move as well, but I have little experience with the strategy to say either way. If your first three moves are to reserve a red card, a brown card, and a blue card, though, you’re definitely a mook, as the bottom row cards are inexpensive and plentiful, and are best purchased with a canny economy of three token draws and using prior purchases to make it cheaper to make future buys. Good Splendor players reserve around three cards per game, and they are usually three to five point cards. Sometimes a bottom row card might be reserved towards the end game if it is the color that a player needs to attract a noble.

spl01_annegood

For instance, if I have three green, three blue, and two white cards, and I need one more white to get the noble above, and the white card that costs three brown is drawn for the bottom row, reserving it to get the joker token to add to the two brown in my till will get me three points in the following turn—as long as another player is not about to take that noble.  This is usually the only instance in which I would reserve a card from the bottom row.

There are also the kind of players that you meet in real life, such as the Splendor Gamblers that like to reserve the cheap cards in the middle and top row as an opening move, for example the four point top row cards that only cost seven tokens of one color. While I almost never do this, and only reserve cards that I might play in a round or two, and very rarely reserve compeititively (taking a winning card from another player that will also give me the joker token I need to squeeze out a big purchase), when I see a player reserve a cheap card, it tells me that they know how to play Splendor, and this game will be more challenging than most. Experienced Splendor players fall on a continuum between Splendor Gambling and Splendor Economy, and one of the main disadvantages for a Splendor Gambler is that your early strategic reserves tell the other player that you grok the game while also telegraphing your strategy several moves ahead to your opponent.  I may return to the continuum of Splendor Gamblers and Splendor Economists in a future post.

While I’ve had a lot of fun playing the online mobile version of Splendor, I would only recommend it with the caveat that if you are not playing this game on a good WiFi connection, you could find it a frustrating pastime. If you have a rocket fast internet connection (I have Xfinity, which does the trick), and only try to play it at home on that network, you will probably have a great time with online Splendor play. If you’re trying to play through a 3G or 4G connection, you stand a good chance of being disconnected from the server, which the app counts as a loss for the player being disconnected. This is such a pervasive problem that on any given time if you enter the Online section of the app, the chat stream is likely to have one or two players venting about being disconnected.

Also, I should advise players that while I have mentioned in other articles on this blog that the Splendor app fits that five to ten minute sweet spot for a mobile game, that only holds true when you’re playing against AI. When you’re playing in the Online section of the app, even considering the timer running in the background, the games take at least 50% longer, around 15 minutes with an attentive opponent. 

However, even with these two criticisms weighing in, the Splendor app is currently my favorite online tabletop gaming platform, ending a period of several months in which, when I had ten minutes to kill, I would play San Juan or Puerto Rico nearly exclusively.

You can find my review of the tabletop version of Splendor by following this link.

Splendor Board Game


Splendor on Android.

You can find Splendor on iTunes through this link.

Board of Life uses affiliate links.

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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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

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Review: Looking for Group, Pittsburgh’s Game Center and Coworking Space

In our Replay FX adventure, we spent about four hours learning new board games in an expanded tabletop gaming area.  Our game play facilitators, that either ran or got us connected to games of Pandemic Legacy, Hanabi, and One Night Ultimate Werewolf, turned out to be representatives of a new business in Pittsburgh, Looking for Group, and when we were near the top of our gaming high, they gave us red tokens stamped with their name and address, as well as an offer of one hour of free game play.

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A quick note on this is warranted.  Looking for Group’s marketing model is as cutting edge as their game center would turn out to be, as while you can’t really call it “undercover marketing” due to their eventual disclosing of their identities, they definitely disclosed it AFTER we were hooked on our first game.  What do you call “undercover marketing” after it has evolved into a more friendly model that plugs its association once it has gained your trust and sold you on the possibility of a customer relationship?  I found it to be not only clever but an intriguingly fleet-footed way of transmitting their whole business concept to their prospects.  However, it was undoubtedly aided by the friendly and knowledgeable Looking for Group representatives that were in attendance at RePlay FX.

I was sure to put the tokens on the mantle when we returned from RePlay FX, though it was a good three weeks later when we decided we would go across town to Brookline to see the facilities.  Looking for Group is located on Brookline Boulevard, a historic Pittsburgh shopping and restaurant district, within walking distance of other colorful businesses, like Rather Ripped Records, Geekadrome, and more.

But even the eclectic neighborhood couldn’t prepare us for what waited inside the doors.

Looking for Group is truly gamers’ Eden, with the two Trees, the Tree of Tabletop Gaming and the Tree of Video Gaming, fully flowered.  Video gamers can play video games both in the large format, in widescreen from a nine foot couch, or in the more personal format of video rockers a few feet from the game.  While one of my kids played Mario Kart Wii and the other got to try No Man’s Sky at last, the wife and I learned Tokaido from one of the owners.


Tokaido Board Game

Tokaido is an outstanding game, by the way, that will probably be our next tabletop game purchase, and you will probably eventually see it reviewed on Board of Life.  It is incredibly fun, with lots of strategy and a very tiny learning curve, so that you could play this great game easily with anyone you know.  It is also an extremely fast game, as it only took us about an hour to finish.  And after we completed our game, my oldest told me that she had great fun playing No Man’s Sky, in which she repaired a spaceship that she flew into outer space.  My youngest, on the other hand, did not want to leave, though we have Mario Kart Wii at home.

Earlier in Board of Life, I have blogged about the emergence of board game cafes, and while Looking for Group has some affinity with that concept, there is a much different vision here.  Looking for Group is described not only as a gaming center, but also as a “coworking space,” which started as kind of a game developers’ studio co-op, but has changed as people from different walks of life have joined the coworking space, not just game developers but also, for instance an educator and a systems administrator.  On their website, they say that their they have not only multiple server tools for game developers, but also things that would appeal to a more diverse group, such as fast internet, LAN access, a conference room, a kitchenette, and keyless entry via smartphone.

Membership at Looking for Group is pricey, ranging from a $25/month basic membership that allows site access for one day a month to the $225/month unlimited membership that allows access at any time.  There are also hourly rates–$4/hour or $10 for 3 hours–and a $20 day rate, for people to come in during gaming hours (2 to 10 PM), and every Wednesday from 7 to 10 PM there is a three hour Board Game Night that costs $5 per participant.

And this leads me to my only criticism of Looking for Group, that while the cost of the facility is probably reasonable for young millennials, it is prohibitive to families.  It would be $16 an hour for us to enjoy Looking for Group, or $40 for 3 hours.  Board Game Night would be more reasonable for us, at $20 for the three hour block, but there are numerous free board game Meetup Groups in the Pittsburgh area, including one that already meets on Wednesdays at a Crazy Mocha in Squirrel Hill, and that one has equally knowledgeable tabletop gaming fans as members.  And if I was a young millennial, I would have a hard time paying as much for one day at Looking for Group that I have paid for a whole month of gym membership.

Not that Looking for Group is aiming at the business model of a free library or meetup group, or even an economical gym membership; they’re selling the joy of networking, of unifying their coworking elite on the one hand, and of creating a tribe of gamers on the other hand.  Looking for Group is aiming at the church business model, and their high rates are not unlike tithing, fraternity dues, or the fees for auditing in Scientology.  They’re looking for members that will feel a belongingness to the space, not treat it with the rudeness that customers treat libraries, gyms, and movie theaters.

And, much as I am fascinated by world religious literature, I am fascinated by Looking for Group’s vision as well.  And, I have an undeniable affinity with their game center, so when I rue their exorbitant prices, it’s with the bitterness of Aesop’s Fox.  Not to mention the fact of their friendliness, professionalism, and welcoming nature, which makes me feel that my criticism is ridiculous, tantamount to Groucho Marx’s “I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member.”

If you’re in the Pittsburgh area, and you like board games or video games, you will undoubtedly feel right at home at Looking for Group.  I can attest to the fact that my entire family felt right at home and enjoyed every minute there.  However, the pricing is not as welcoming to families as the space is itself, so bear that in mind.  The pricing is geared towards young singles and couples that leave their kids at home.  And the most important caveat of all is that this space will make an impact on you, so that you’ll feel its draw moments after you leave.

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Game Review: Gamewright’s Imagine (2016)

While Gamewright is a publisher of what are ostensibly family games that you can play with your kids, perhaps because many of their games aim to cultivate the mind, they have found a wider audience of all-ages that enjoy stimulating tabletop games. In this household, we’re already fans of three eminently intriguing and mentally nourishing games, not only Dragonwood, which I’ve previously reviewed, but also Forbidden Island and Forbidden Desert.

Our most recent acquisition from Gamewright is Imagine, a game that dropped just this month during GenCon. It is described in its press sheet as a game that “transcends language and culture…which came to us from Japan via our French publishing partners” and allows players to “combine, overlap, and even animate the special transparent cards” in order to “convey your chosen subject without saying a word.” These are bold and ambitious promises, and Gamewright makes good on them with this curiously amusing card game.

To set up Imagine, you simply put all 61 transparent cards in a series of circles on your tabletop, so that all players can easily see them. Then you shuffle the Enigma cards, and place those and the score tokens within easy reach of everyone.

Here’s how you play one round of Imagine. On your turn, you grab an Enigma* card, which has eight different enigmas with corresponding clues. Any other player then tells you a number between one and eight to determine the enigma of that round, you provide the other players the associated clue, and then the hinting and the guessing begin. At this point, you can use any of the transparent cards, in any quantity, to communicate your hint. If no one gets it, you can build onto that hint, or you can scrap it and start over, whichever you prefer. There’s no set time limit either, and the players can decide when they’ve had enough. If no one guesses correctly, then no one scores, but if someone does grok what you’re trying to do, both that player and you get one point. Yes, Imagine rewards both good hinters and good guessers, which can encourage a quick game.

As for a more specific example of play, first take a look at a sample Enigma card:

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When this card game up during a game, someone called “six,” so that my enigma was “hula hoop,” and their clue was “Sports and Leisure.”  I only needed two cards here, and the hinter and I scored after about five seconds.

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No, it isn’t a perfect hint—there are only 61 transparent cards after all, so your selection of imagery is limited. I had wanted someone to call “five” so I could play these three cards as “Captain America”:

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These two are probably among the easiest enigmas in the game. More than most games, Imagine has a learning curve, as while there is a limited arsenal of symbols, there are still 61 different cards to absorb.  As the Imagine “alphabet” is learned, the game will become quicker as the players will be able to rely on a more articulate memory of the cards and not play “hunt and peck” as they pore over and over again looking for cards they don’t yet know by heart. After my first time playing this game, my second thought was the hope that there will be expansion packs with additional transparent cards, as 61 shapes are not enough for some enigmas. (My first thought was that I was looking forward to introducing this to other friends that play tabletop games.)

Three to eight players can play Imagine, and I can tell you that unlike games that break down in games with a low player count (I’m looking at you, Spyfall), my wife, daughter, and I played a very satisfying three player game. Footage of our game play could have been used for a TV commercial, as there was a lot of laughing, loud banter, hilarious clues, and amusing guesses.

I really only have one criticism of Imagine.  The game rewards bad hinters and bad guessers, not just good guessers and good hinters.  However, this flaw may assist the game in securing mass appeal, as  it levels the playing field.

You see, Imagine doesn’t end until every player provides two good hints that are guessed correctly by another player. In one game, a player provided two good hints within three moves (the seventh play overall), while it took six moves (the fifteenth play over all) for the player whose second hint ended the game. The superior hinter hit the hint quota early, and would have won if the game ended then; the inefficient hinter didn’t meet the quota until eight plays later, and because the game ended at that moment, the bad hinter scored the game point with her second good hint. Hence, Imagine rewards bad hinters by letting them enjoy a prolonged game with more scoring opportunities, as well as one of the two points given out in the final scoring opportunity.

As to rewarding bad guessers, this same player, instead of using thoughtful guessing, would throw out dozens of guesses at the rate of two a second, using the “throw everything until something sticks” strategy.  This scattergun approach is as effective as you would expect, and, pragmatically speaking, more effective than thoughtful guessing when the thoughtful guesser is drawing a blank.  Twenty bad guesses have a better chance of getting a right answer than no good guesses at all.

The bad news for those that like the casual analytics of tabletop gaming, or even those that overcome the learning curve involved with grasping the language of 61 symbols in Imagine, is that their acumen will not be much of an advantage over the bad hinters and bad guessers. The good news is that if you’re bad at hinting and guessing, you may still do well at Imagine, and you even get a slight advantage in being one of the two final scorers in a game.

As Imagine not only has a strong premise, enjoyable game play, high replay value, and a level playing field, its potential audience is huge, and I expect Imagine to have strong word of mouth that will sell hundreds of thousands of copies.

Footnotes

*”I, Enigma” is also an anagram of Imagine, which may or may not have influenced the translators during their localization of the game.


Imagine

Gamewright sent a review copy of Imagine. Board of Life uses affiliate links. Cross-posted on NerdSpan.com.