Category Archives: Board & Card Games

I Want to Write About Board Games.

I enjoy playing board games. One of these days, I’d like to make one, and possibly even publish it. I’ve tried to do so a few times now, but every attempt has fallen apart pretty early in the process. I have plenty of ideas, but I don’t have the skills to turn those ideas into something fun to play. I don’t even really have a good idea of what those skills are, or how to develop them.

I’ve long thought that part of the reason for this is that I don’t spend time thinking about board games the way I think about RPGs. I’ve spent the last 7 years of my life writing this blog; using it to tinker with D&D, and to build an understanding of RPG design. Before the blog, I wrote and ran adventures for my friends, made up new rules, new classes, and even attempted a couple entirely new games. With board games, by contrast, I just…play them.

That’s why, every few years, a post about board games sneaks its way onto this site. Those are my attempts to use the blog as a way of learning about board games. But, it’s a tricky thing. My bread and butter is writing about tweaks and extra content for D&D. That’s easy to do, because everybody who reads this blog either plays the same game I do, or they play a game similar enough that whatever I write could be easily converted.

If I do the same sort of tinkering with a board game, how interesting will that be to someone who hasn’t played that game? I could easily write some new races for Smallworld, or some new scenarios for Damage Report, but if you’re not familiar with the game I’m writing about, those posts will just be dead air to you.

That leads me to try writing about the games in a more generally accessible sense, avoiding the technical gobldygook that would only be interesting to someone who had played it. Realistically, that means I just end up writing reviews.

I don’t want to write reviews. They’re not interesting, they’re explicitly against the rules I’ve set for myself as a writer, and they don’t help me accomplish my goal. I want to learn how to make board games by tinkering with existing ones. Reviews don’t accomplish that.

I’d sincerely be curious to hear what other people think about this. On the one hand, part of me thinks “Fuck it! It’s my blog, it should serve whatever function is most valuable to me!” On the other hand, though, I put immense value in the readership I’ve built here. If posts where I tinker with board games would drive some portion of that readership away–(which would be totally fair)–I don’t think I want to do that. Perhaps the answer is a kind of reverse Joesky Tax. If I want to write some mini supplement for a board game, I first have to write a little review of the game to give context to people who haven’t played it.

Also, holy shit! This started as the opening to another post, but it has kade turned into a whole huge…thing all its own. I suppose I’ve been bottling up these thoughts of awhile. Now that I’ve put them into words, I feel obligated to share these thoughts, but this is too bloated to serve as an introduction to another post, and too skimpy to really stand on its own.

How about a practical experiment with that reverse Joesky Tax idea? Lets talk about Kingdom Builder!

Kingdom builder is one of my favorite board games. The base gameplay is very simple: you’ve got a hex map with various terrains on it. Every turn, you draw a card which specifies one of the types of terrain. You then place 3 settlements on that terrain type, trying to maximize your points within whatever limitations you’re dealing with.

That simplicity makes it easy to pull out and play, even if you have to teach new players, or if it’s been awhile since you played it yourself. But it’s not so simple that it’s ever boring. Indeed, I often have to study the board carefully for a good few minutes before I know where to place my pieces.

My favorite thing about the game is that it is incredibly modular. Everything can be swapped in and out with different pieces to change up the experience. The board is made up of 4 hex maps, placed next to each other in any arrangement you like. My set (The “big box,” which contains the base game and 3 expansions) has a total of 16 boards. Considering all the ways they could be arranged and flipped, you’ve got more possible layouts than I know how to calculate. And each board allows players to earn different special abilities, so that your moveset will change depending on how you set up the game.

Best of all is the game’s deck of 13 “Kingdom Builder” cards, which each have a different scoring mechanism on them. At the start of each game, the players draw 3 of these, which determine what their goals will be for that playthrough. So every time you play, you have to adapt to a new set of goals, finding synergies between them on-the-fly.

Given the modular nature of the game, it seems like a perfect place for me to start my tinkering.

Alternate Rules

Water Bridges
Rules as Written: In some places, the art depicts bridges crossing over water hexes. These are never mentioned in the rules, so they seem to have no purpose aside from being decorative.

House Rule: Any hex which shares a side with a water bridge hex may be considered adjacent to any other hex the water bridge shares a side with. This works both for settlement placement, and for scoring.

If the rule is in play, using the water bridges is an option for players. They may choose to exercise it or not on any given turn. This rule does not extend to bridges over canyons, since it is possible to build settlements there.

Random Locations
Rules as Written: Each board has two identical location icons on it. During setup, four tokens matching the location are placed on the board, divided betwixt the two spaces. Players who build settlements adjacent to a location may take the token, granting them the corresponding special ability on subsequent turns.

House Rule: During set up, all location tiles the players wish to use should be set aside in a bowl, or small bag.

The first two players to build settlements adjacent to any location hex may draw a random token from this supply, gaining its ability on their subsequent turn as normal. If a duplicate ability is drawn, the player may replace it and draw again.

Kingdom Builder Cards

Fortified – Builds settlements around location, castle, or nomad spaces. At the end of the game, players earn 6 gold for any such space which only they are adjacent to.

Highly Specialized – At the end of the game, each player should determine which of the 5 terrain types (Grass, Forest, Canyon, Desert, and Flower Fields) they have the fewest settlements placed in.

Start with 20 gold, and subtract 1 for each settlement on that terrain type the player has. The remainder is added to the player’s final score.

Wide Ranging – Each contiguous set of hexes which share an identical terrain type is counted as a single biome. This includes cross-quadrant adjacent hexes.

At the end of the game, players earn 2 gold for each biome they have a settlement in.

Guardians of the Land- At the start of play, each player draws a terrain card, and places it face-up in front of them for all to see. At the end of the game, they will receive 1 gold for each settlement that is adjacent to, but not on that terrain type.

Incomplete Thoughts

Part of the difficulty with modifying board games is making a physical artifact that is suitable to play with, This is particularly important for any component that needs to be part of a random choice, but even ignoring that, the physical artifact plays a substantial role in making a board game engaging and fun.

On the back of each of the 16 game boards, there is a scoring track printed. This is very nice, but the game hardly needs 16 different scoring tracks. It might be possible to use Hex Kit to make a board with a unique layout, print it out, and glue it over the top of some of the scoring tracks, making the boards double sided.

They’re slightly larger than an 8.5 by 11″ printer sheet, but using multiple sheets it could be possible to make a reasonably attractive play surface.

Do not attempt to place dice in another person.

Earlier today I was at the thrift store with my ladyfriend. As I am wont to do, I spent some time pulling through the board games. It’s 99% crap, but there’s always a chance of finding something cool. Like I did today!

Collective Wisdom ABC Dice GameThis unmarked tin caught my attention, so I popped it open and discovered these large dice with letters on them. These by themselves would have been worth the $2 price sticker. My immediate thought was that I could use them for generating the names of people or places. But also included were some rules for a fairly simple scrabble-like game where players roll dice, then try to create as many words as they can from the letters they roll. All in all, a very neat find. This is exactly the sort of thing that I love about garage sales and thrift stores.

But then there’s this:

DACE CAN KILL YOU BRUHThis warning takes up the entire back side of the 8 1/2″ by 11″ page that the rules are on. For the benefit of Lynx users (and google), here it is in normal text:

Do not play this game on a surface of glass or on a fragile surface that may be cracked, scratched or dented.

Do not forcefully toss the dice so as to damage the playing surface. Never throw the dice: Do not throw the dice at another person because this can cause severe injury. The corners of the dice can cause injury if contact is severe.

Do not throw the dice at glass or other objects because this can cause property damage and broken glass which is hazardous.

Place the dice back in their box when you are finished using them.

Store the dice in a place out of the reach of small children (under the age of 3 years) or pets who might try to chew or swallow them.

Do not leave dice on floors, steps, beds, chairs, sofas, or other places where someone might step on them, trip over them, or recline on them.

Do not beat dice with a hammer or heavy tool, which may cause them to chip or crack. If dice become chipped, cracked, or broken, discard the dice and broken pieces.

Do not place or attempt to place the dice in your mouth or any other body part or in that of another person.

The dice are not designed to be used in conjunction with any other product.

The dice should not be used to support the weight of another object.

Children should use the dice only under adult supervision.

Warning: Severe bodily injury could result from a failure to follow these guidelines.

This makes me feel very odd, because I can’t even.

The Grizzled

Screen-Shot-2015-11-10-at-2.57.40-PMI want to write about board and card games more frequently than I have in the past. So I’m going to.

“Grizzled” is a game I’d never heard of before I opened it up on Christmas morning. It’s an unassuming looking thing. A small box with a stack of cards, a handful of tokens, and a rule book. My ladyfriend tells me it was an impulse buy. Something she saw in the bargain bin. A way to fill out the space beneath our tree. Neither of us expected much from it, and were pleasantly surprised when playing it become one of the highlights of a delightful evening.

The game makes a strong first impression with its art. I confess, the art is not to my particular taste, but it suits the game well. It has a distinct style. There’s an economy of lines that is evocative of the period the game depicts. A time before digital tools allowed every piece of pop art to look pristinely slick and polished. And the palette is at once colorful, but also muted enough to mesh with the game’s theme.

The theme, by the by, is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Specifically, as suffered by French soldiers in the trenches of The Great War. 

The Grizzled Board Game - Box and all components

My first impression, while reading the rulebook, was that the game was pretentious. It seems to take itself so seriously, opening as it does with a plea for the reader to approach the game as a work of art. A contemplation on the horrors of war as valid as any film, book, or painting. The rulebook as a whole is pretty bad, actually. It’s just not very efficient at communicating game rules. (A flaw shared by too many board games really). There was at least one rule we had to make up ourselves, because we couldn’t find it anywhere in the text.

(Does anyone know what enables you to make speeches? We just ruled that speeches were a shared resource that could be used at any time, but some of the game’s cards seem to imply that the leader is meant to distribute who can make speeches or something like that.)

After playing a few rounds of the game, though, I changed my mind. It’s a game about war, but the challenge isn’t enemy soldiers. The challenge is your character’s own fears. As the game goes on your character will gradually become a more broken person. Even a more reprehensible person. It’s a cooperative game, so we were all trying to help one another come back from the brink. But in the end there’s just not enough support to go around. The best you can do is beat back entropy for another turn, and hope the war is over before you reach the turn when you can’t anymore.

So as pretentiously as the game presents itself, it actually does do an admirable job of discussing war trauma not just through its theme, but through its gameplay as well. It lives up to its pretensions. 

Of course as poignant and as sad as the game is, I said above that it was the highlight of an enjoyable evening. And it was! The gameplay is pretty simple: everybody has a hand of cards, and each card has some number of things that might terrify a person on the battlefield. The players take turns laying down cards, trying to minimize the number of times any given terrifying thing is represented. If any single thing is on the table 3 or more times, the round ends. At the end of the round you tally up the number of cards that are still in everybody’s hands, and you add that number of fresh cards to the draw stack. Pushing the bottom of the stack–and the end of the war–further out of reach.

The core mechanic is solid, and of course there are a number of additional elements to give players a range of tactical choices. For example, sometimes the cards in your hand aren’t terrifying things. Instead, they’re character flaws for you to attach to yourself that make you a greater and greater burden on the other players. “Mute” is my favorite, forbidding that player from communicating with the rest of the group “in any way.” Other character flaws are less funny, and more devastating, like the one that forces players to play a random card from the deck as they retreat.

The game has just the right number of options, I think. The rounds move fast, and there’s a lot of excited chatter between players as they try to figure out how to stay in the game just a little longer. Get just one more card out of their hand before they have to retreat.

On the negative side, I don’t love the way they handled the support mechanic. Players have tiles indicating one or two seats to their left or right. As each player withdraws from the battle, they select one of their tiles and place it face down in front of them. When the battle ends, everyone reveals who they offered support to, and the tiles are passed to the players indicated. Whoever receives the most support in a round gets a bit of relief from the mounting stresses of war. If two players receive equal support, then nobody gets any relief.

It’s a workable mechanic. But there’s always a niggling question of why this works within the game’s theme. Why does a player who receives two support tokens not get any relief just because another player got 3? And why does nobody get any support if two people get equal support? I suppose it could be interpreted as an abstraction of the idea that nobody gets as much support as they ought to, but it feels awkward and a little unfair. And not a good kind of unfair. An annoying kind of unfair. If the player on my right clearly needs the most help, why should I be unable to support them just because I only have “left” tiles? And if me being forced to use that left tile causes the player on my right to be tied for support with the player on my left, then nobody gets any support at all. And that’s the kind of thing that can cost you the game. I don’t think the support system is bad enough that it ruins the game or anything, I just feel like it could probably be done a little bit better. 

As cooperative games go, it’s difficult to win. My group lost both of the two rounds we played, but I don’t think I’ve ever had quite so much fun losing a cooperative game. I’ve got no problem losing a competitive game, because that just means someone else was the winner. But it always bothers me when there’s no winner. I suspect the short play time helps here. With a game like Pandemic or Castle Panic, a loss comes after an hour or even two. Putting in that much effort makes losing a bitter pill. But Grizzled just takes 30 minutes. And, really, losing almost feels more appropriate than winning does.

The Grizzled is an interesting game. The individual turns and the overall play time are quick, but as a player you’ve always got enough options that it feels strategic. The experience is fun, but it leaves you with a little something to think about once all the pieces are back in the box. I’m looking forward to playing it again. Maybe getting everyone home safe next time.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...