A while back, I wrote lovingly of a sweet little tabletop RPG (TTRPG) called Mirror. Currently, I am in the middle of a campaign of an upcoming (to Kickstarter, October 1) TTRPG by the same author (a personal friend, it’s worth noting1), entitled Americana. I have no real desire to discuss the nitty-gritty mechanics of, say, where the dice go and how to use them, but as far as my experience is concerned this all works well. I don’t mean to be dismissive of the gears that make the clock tick – all the little details are incredibly important and difficult to make work. I just don’t think that writing about them is particularly expressive, and Americana has a lot of implementation facets that really make for a compelling experience. These experiential details are what I’d prefer to discuss.
Beyond nostalgia, I’ve enjoyed a lot of the modern takes on the Choose Your Own… errm… Narrative style of book. Recently, my fellow commuters and I have been laughing and stumbling our way through Ryan North’s 400-page Romeo and/or Juliet, which I highly recommend. There are great independent works up at chooseyourstory.com. It’s an art form that’s alive and well, and has grown beyond the exclusive realm of children. Does a book that you read out of order, and often fail to bring to a happy conclusion count as a game? Does it warrant a post in my ‘Solo play’ series?
Cardventures: Stowaway 52 by Gamewright is a card-based version of the choosable narrative. The premise is something along the lines of being stuck on an alien ship set to destroy Earth. The assumption is that you like Earth, and would therefore like to keep this plan from happening. My initial suspicion was that the thing should’ve just been a book, and that the card-based system was a cost-cutting measure or a gimmick. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was quite wrong about this.
HOW TO PLAY THE GAME:
- Slide ON/OFF switch to “ON” position. Listen to a few bars of the song “Anchors Away [sic]” and see a computer graphic of the American flag appear on the screen.
Such begins the instruction booklet for the Microvision game, Sea Duel. A few days back, I wrote about the Microvision, and reviewed the handful of games I had at the time. I figured I’d acquire the handful of remaining games, and in several months or whenever, I’d sum them all up in one more post. But then Sea Duel came in the mail. This game is such a prime example of depth in a limited system, that I feel compelled to discuss it on its own. Putting aside the hilarity of describing listening to a song and looking at a flag as one of the steps you must take to start playing, it highlights one of the immediate standout features of this game – despite having 256 pixels, a piezo buzzer, and ridiculously limited processing power and storage space, the game actually has an intro screen that shows something resembling an American flag and plays something that resembles “Anchors Aweigh”.
I’ve been restoring a Milton Bradley Microvision and am now happily at the point where I have a fully functional unit. Introduced in 1979, it’s known as the first portable game console with interchangeable cartridges. Anyone who has scoured eBay and yard sales for Game Boys knows that the monochrome LCDs of yore were fairly sensitive to heat and even just age. For a system ten years older than the Game Boy (and one that sold far fewer numbers), functional units are fairly hard to come by. But for a while, I’ve been invested in patching one together, and I plan to enjoy it until it, too, gives up the ghost1.
Is there a word for nostalgia, but bad? Kind of like how you can have a nightmare that is on one hand an objectively terrible experience, but on the other… fascinating, compelling even. When I was quite young, the household computer situation was a bit of a decentralized mess. I guess the Commodore 64 was the family computer, but it was essentially mine to learn 6510 ML and play Jumpman on. My sister had a Macintosh Quadra which I guess was largely for schoolwork, but it had a number of games on it that were positively unbelievable to my 8-bit trained eyes. Among these was the bane of my wee existence, Another World1.
I guess I’m about to give away a few spoilers, but they’re all from the first minute or so of
punishment play. Another World begins with a cutscene where we learn that our protagonist is a physics professor named Lester who drives a Ferrari2. At this point, we realize we are dealing with a science fiction title. Lester starts doing some very professorly things on his computer, and then some lightning strikes his ARPANET wires or whatever and suddenly our protagonist is deep underwater! Some kind of sea monster grabs him, and… game over?! The cutscenes are rendered with the same beautifully polygonal rotoscoping as the rest of the game, so it’s entirely possible that you die several times watching this scene before grasping that you’re actually supposed to press buttons now.
This stressful memory came back hard upon recently purchasing a Switch and inexplicably making this year’s port of Another World my first purchase. Well, I guess it is explicable: ‘nostalgia, but bad.’ The frustrations of a game that will let you die if you simply do nothing within the first five seconds had not changed much from my childhood. This is a fundamental part of the experience; Another World is a game that wants you to die. It demands that you die. A lot. It’s a lovely game, and one that I’m sure a lot of folks remember (fondly or otherwise) from their Amigas and Macs, but I couldn’t help but think that this sort of trial-and-error experience really wouldn’t fly today if not for nostalgia3. Though I have to ask myself, how does this differ from, say, Limbo, another game that tricks you into death at every turn?
The next death in Another World is when little polygonal slug-looking things slip a claw into Lester’s leg, collapsing him. You have to kind of squish them just right, and it’s the first of many deadly puzzles that rely more on a very finicky sort of perfection rather than just a clever solution. Slightly further into the game, Lester faces a challenge that neatly sums up the whole problem: perfect positioning and perfect timing are required to dodge two screens worth of oddly-timed falling boulders. These moments are very reminiscent of the frustratingly exacting challenges in Dragon’s Lair, a point of inspiration for designer Éric Chahi4. I think this is where a modern take like Limbo feels less annoying in its murderous tendencies – you rarely die because you didn’t time something out to the nanosecond or position yourself on just the right pixel; you die because something crafty in the evil, evil environment outsmarted you.
This sort of thing seems to be a point of maturity for gaming in general. The aforementioned Jumpman was one of my favorite games back in the day, but it was painstakingly picky down to the pixel. Collision detection has eased up in modern times, and additional system resources give designers a lot more room to make challenges diverse and clever instead of simply difficult-by-any-means-necessary. Another World’s spiritual successor, Flashback5 definitely still had these moments, but by the time its 3D sequel, Fade to Black came out, things were much less picky.
I’m certain I beat both Flashback and Fade to Black, but I don’t think I ever had it in me to get through Another World. I guess this was part of why I jumped right on the Switch port. The game has won many battles, but I do intend to win the war. And the fact of the matter is, that for all my griping, it is still an incredibly enjoyable game. ‘Nostalgia, but bad’ certainly doesn’t mean that the game is bad, it means that the game forced all of my respective memories to be bad. The graphics have a unique quality about them6, and the sparse atmosphere feels very modern. The challenges are often interesting, even when they’re more technical than cerebral. It’s a game that I think is best experienced in short spurts, so as not to be consumed by the seemingly infinite tedium of frustrating deaths. It’s a product of its time, and must be treated as such. And while its demands certainly reveal its age, little else about it feels out of place on a portable console in 2018.
Somehow, I missed that HAL Laboratory (creators of the Kirby franchise) had broken into the mobile market earlier this year with the game Part Time UFO1. I tend to be oblivious to even these big mobile releases because I’m just generally not that into the mobile game scene2. Touch controls are limiting at best, and the market is saturated with free-to-play snares. If anybody is going to release a mobile gem, though, HAL is bound to, so I snatched this thing up as soon as I heard about it.
In Part Time UFO, you control a flying saucer (oddly reminiscent of UFO Kirby) with a claw-game-esque grabber attached to it. Every level has a bunch of objects, and a place to put them. Some of the objects are mandatory, others might net you extra points or help you meet a bonus goal. The primary goal is usually straightforward – put all of the important objects on the target, get five objects on the target, get the objects to fit a particular shape on the target, etc. Each stage additionally has three bonus goals. One is usually a timer, and the other two either involve stacking things perfectly, not dropping things, stacking more things than required, etc. The real trick comes from the fact that the target area is small, so you pretty much have to stack things. The physics of swinging something four times your size from a flaccid claw make this stacking less than simple.
The levels are adorably-themed, and the themes tend to influence the overall challenge. For instance, my least favorite are the ‘Lab’ levels, which require you to fit Tetris-like blocks into a precise shape – which feels like a bit much going on all at once. But this adds a nice bit of variety, I think there will be some themes that a given person really looks forward to unlocking more of, and some that are less captivating (though still enjoyable).
Points equate to money, and money can be used to buy new outfits for the UFO. Aside from being cute (and occasionally referential to other HAL properties – Kirby’s parasol comes to mind), these affect the control of the UFO in various ways. Certain challenges benefit more from some outfits than others, but generally it seems like you can pop one on that gives you a boost in control that makes you more comfortable, and just leave it. I made the mistake of buying a speedy outfit first, and became very quickly frustrated with the game.
Make no mistake, the game can be frustrating. But never to the point where it feels insurmountable or stops being fun. Part of it is probably just how charming and sweet the whole thing is. The challenges are goofy (stacking cheerleaders, balancing hamsters on a circus elephant, and of course placing cows onto a truck), and even when successfully completed, the end result is often uproarious. This is one thing I wish they had included – some kind of gallery feature of all your wacky stacks.
I haven’t completed the game yet, so I’m not sure how many levels there are. I definitely think it’s worth $43 – it’s just so joyful, well-polished, and fun – everything I expect from HAL. I do think the default controls – a fake analog stick and button type deal – are awful. That control scheme is bad enough for games in landscape orientation, but even with my tiny hands and Plus-sized phone, I could not figure out how to hold my phone so it would work. Fortunately there’s a one-handed control that’s a little bit awkward, but still streets ahead of the faux stick.
Solo board games don’t seem to get a lot of distribution. Deep Space D-6 is still rather tricky to come by, SOS Titanic sells in the triple-digits on eBay, and it’s only recently that I managed to acquire a copy of Saashi and Saashi’s highly-regarded single-player bag-builder, Coffee Roaster. The game is accurately described by its title: you are roasting a batch of coffee beans over the course of however many turns you think you need, and then tasting the result to see how closely your roast matched the target.
Coffee Roaster is essentially played by pulling a handful of tokens out of a bag, potentially using some of them for some immediate and/or future benefits, increasing the roast level of any of the bean tokens that were pulled out, and then returning them to the bag. This is wonderfully thematic – the longer you take, the darker the overall roast becomes. Adding to this thematic element, useless moisture tokens evaporate (are pulled from the game) over time, before first and second crack phases occur yielding a more significant increase in roast level as well as adding harmful smoke tokens to the bag. The game is definitely on a timer, and while the effect-yielding flavor tokens allow you to play with time a bit by adjusting the roast, ultimately you need to be mindful of how dark your beans have gotten before you stop the roast and move on to the tasting (scoring) phase.
Scoring involves pulling tokens from the bag and placing them in a cup (which holds ten tokens) or on a tray (which holds either three or five, depending on whether or not you picked up the extra tray). You can stop at any time, but a major penalty is incurred for failing to fill the cup up to ten tokens. Whatever roast you’ve chosen has a target roast level, as well as flavor profile requirements. Again, all thematic to the point where my coffee-loving self was giddy over the little details.
The game has quite a few rules to get through; you absolutely want to read the rules start-to-finish before diving in. It can be a little bit easy to forget to do this or that, but for the most part the theme and artwork help guide you once you’re comfortable with the rules. There is one serious omission to this, however, and that relates to the aforementioned flavor profile tokens. Aside from leaving them in the bag to be used for scoring, these can be pulled out and played in order to achieve certain effects. As an example, I mentioned the extra tray, which you gain by sacrificing two flavor effect tokens while roasting. However, any time you give up a token in this way, there is an additional effect that controls the roast and must immediately be performed. One of the tokens turns (say) a single level two bean into two level one beans, one of them preserves the level of two beans, and the third turns (say) two level two beans into a single level four bean. The problem is that there’s no indication of this on the board, or the player aid. No indication that the effect must be performed, nor which effect goes with which token. It is really easy to forget to do this, and even if you remember, you probably need that page of the rulebook open to remind you which does what. This is my biggest complaint about the game, and I’ll be making myself an improved player aid to remedy it.
I really do love Coffee Roaster; though I haven’t gotten particularly good at it yet. Fortunately, once I do, there are a ton of ways to control the difficulty. Several levels of difficulty in beans, a three-round vs. single-round variant, there’s an on-board mechanism for tracking the roast that can be eschewed. There’s a lot of room to grow into this game, and I fully intend to do that.
You should immediately follow this link to the single-page tabletop RPG system, Mirror. There you will find my review, which is likely a more cohesive version of this post. You will also find a couple of other reviews from friends who playtested the game alongside me, and you will find the official description, and you will find the words ‘Pay what you want,’ to which I say… it’s worth a decent wad of cash.
Mirror does two things very well. First, it exists as a single-page ‘accelerated’ tabletop RPG system. Second, it breaks the tabletop mold in a meaningful way. It does the latter by basing character generation on real-world friendship. The former is aided by this, but is additionally accomplished by a simple dice-pool mechanic that drives interactions and health.
The dice pool mechanic is straightforward and covered by the rules, and not entirely worth expounding upon. CharGen is far more interesting, and is based upon the real human physically sitting across from you. I entered this rather nervous, and ended up playing across from people who I trust1 implicitly, but honestly have a hard time distilling to their core essence. You see, you play as an abstracted version of the person you sit across from, and during CharGen, you isolate four of that person’s strong suits, and two of their weaknesses. Without being an utter piece of shit, of course. I opted to play my weaknesses as counterpoints to my strengths — where my friend was absurdly creative, that creativity made her ideas occasionally impractical.
My best friend in the whole world games with me, and I am very grateful that in playtesting Mirror, I was not sat opposite her. Not for fear of insulting her during CharGen, but simply because I actually think I had to soak in what I love about other players in said group. A lack of closeness (let’s call it) made me feel a lot closer to the friends I played as. I guess Mirror has a way of doing that — it’s like a forced empathy, but since these are people you want to empathize with, it just makes you love them more.
And, this is important in the game, and brings me back to the first point — this is a single-pager. There are expectations for these things — quick, and simple to broach. I, personally, love Fate Accelerated Edition (FAE) as a quick, accessible tabletop system. But even FAE has barriers to entry… CharGen can theoretically be as long as a campaign, and for a new player, there’s no guarantee that they’ll be invested. Something about playing as one of your fellow gamers has a strange way of making you invested. And CharGen is quick and straightforward as you are simply… describing your buddy.
In my review on the DriveThruRPG page, I describe the friendship element and the one-page/one-off element as being intimately intertwined, and that’s really the magic of Mirror, I think. To non-gamers, even a quick system like FAE can be intimidating. But Mirror allows you to build a world, build a scenario and give your players an inherent motivation and set of character attributes — these are both dependent upon someone they care about IRL.
Mirror terrified me at first. Because I’m timid, and I’m bad at breaking even the people I know the most intimately into their prime components. But there’s enough of a balance between abstraction and familiarity that the whole thing is just… really comfortable. This is probably a first: I’m going to smash a redundant link here: go check out Mirror, it’s… special.
Well, damn. Come May 9, Nintendo is shuttering Miitomo. I don’t know that it was ever terribly popular – it was Nintendo’s earliest venture onto mobile, but it wasn’t really a game. There were some game-like elements, primarily throwing your body into a pachinko machine to win clothes, but ultimately it was a dollhouse. A game of dress-up.
Entertainment, in all forms and across all media, is often a tool for escape. Some wish to lose themselves in a setting, others as a passive bystander in a plot, still others seeing pieces of themselves in fictional characters. A dollhouse experience is largely concentrated on this third aspect – expressing yourself, consequence-free, as this blank canvas of a person. While certainly a valid means of escape for anyone, this seems especially valuable to trans folks and people questioning their gender identity. The answers and comments on in-game questions revealed a staggering number of trans Miitomo users. I don’t really know of another game of dress-up that will serve as a viable replacement to Miitomo, and this is heartbreaking.
The May 9 date will put Miitomo’s lifespan at just over two years. Unfortunately, the app is entirely dependent upon the service, and assets users have acquired will not be retained locally, etc. While it seems plausible that local copies could be downloaded so that users could still fire up the app and change into any number of outfits they had previously purchased1, this will not be the case2. This is not a matter of ‘no more updates’, this is ‘no more app’. And that’s… a fairly short lifespan, even for a niche non-game. This absolute dependence on hosted assets makes me wonder about some of Nintendo’s other mobile forays. When Super Mario Run stops being worth the upkeep, will there be no more updates, or will the game cease to function altogether? Nintendo is in a weird spot where a lot of their casual gaming market has been overtaken by mobile. Obviously they want to get in on that and reclaim some market, but they just haven’t proven that they quite ‘get it’ yet. Or perhaps rendering a game entirely ephemeral is meant to prove to us the value of a cartridge. I… doubt it.
On January 24, Nintendo stopped selling in-game coins and tickets3 for real-world money. Daily bonuses, which used to be a handful of coins or a single ticket, are now 2,000 coins and 5 tickets every day. That’s a lot of in-game purchasing power for the next few months, and I’m glad that Nintendo is saying ‘here, just go nuts and have fun while it lasts’. Better than making this announcement on May 1, and operating as usual (including in-app purchases) until then.
I am truly sad about this; Miitomo has been oddly important to me. There is a lot of sadness and anger in the answers to the public in-game question running until May 9, ‘What was your favorite outfit in Miitomo? Show it off when you answer!’ Users are elaborately staging Miifotos with dead-looking Miis stamped ‘DELETED’, Miis crying on their knees, demonic-looking Miis labeled ‘Nintendo’ standing over innocent-looking Miis labeled ‘Miitomo’ with table knives sticking out of them. Ouch. We have #savemiitomo, #longlivemiitomo, #justice4miitomo (bit extreme, that) hashtags popping up. Suffice it to say, there is a frustrated community. I’ll be the first to admit that it never would have had the prominence of a Super Mario Bros. or Animal Crossing game, but Miitomo has been very meaningful to a lot of people.
Reigns was a game that really kind of blew my mind when it came out. I guess the idea was to sort of frame a narrative around Tinder-esque interactions, which I didn’t really grasp (Tinder seems like the polar opposite of how I wish to find a mate). To me it was just this story, played over a whole bunch of games (some of which you had to fail), each game potentially affecting future games, and all handled via this incredibly simple decision tree mechanic. For the most part, you have two decisions at any given time (swipe left or right, that’s the Tinder-y bit). It was an oddly engaging game.
Now, in Reigns, you played as a king. So if they were to make a sequel, it would only be fitting that you would play as a queen. This is Reigns: Her Majesty. I don’t really make a habit of reviewing mobile games1 on this blog, but Her Majesty is fucking phenomenal. I don’t know if Leigh Alexander was involved in the first game, but she definitely has a writing credit on this one, and it shows. Reigns was clever, but Her Majesty is ridiculously tight, smart, and progressive.
Part of my draw to the game is likely bias — you play as a woman, a woman who I deeply respect wrote the thing, and the entire game just oozes with femininity and feminism. This has always been a sticking point for me, I will become far more invested in a game where I can play as a woman vs. one where I’m stuck as a man. That’s not necessarily a knock on any given game (or unwarranted praise on any other given game), it’s just my bias. But, trying to look past that bias, this Queen’s world undeniably gives Her Majesty far more depth than its predecessor.
If you never played the first game, it’s worth briefly describing what swiping left or right accomplishes. For any given scenario, swiping either direction may raise or lower one or more of your piety, popular favor, might, or financial2 stats. If any given stat maxes out or reaches zero, you die. This is the same in Her Majesty, but there’s a much bigger struggle (at least, how I’ve played it) with the church. Part of this is that a major aspect of the plot involves astrology and the occult, and diving into that essentially requires you to defy the church. Part of it is that you’re constantly given the opportunity to flirt with all the other women in the game and I mean, how could you not!? Oh, and occasionally the Cardinal asks you to conceal your pendulous melons (or something), which… no, I dress how I want.
And this is why I think the feminine aspect really gives the game depth. Personally, I find it hard to play in a way that defies my feminist sensibilities (and, in fact, a random owl occasionally pops up to tell you how feminist you are or situate you in various fandoms3), but this is often detrimental to my score – you are, after all, ‘just’ the Queen, and in a sense must maintain your place. But beyond my personal hangups, this still adds a great depth to the game. Choices aren’t as clear-cut, and your level of control isn’t always what it seems. Layer the whole astrological woman magic icing on top, and it’s an even more impossibly complex swipe-left-or-right game than Reigns.
This complexity and my desire to be an empowered Queen means that I have been losing very quickly, very often. Which might be grating in a lesser game, but somehow losing Her Majesty usually feels pretty damned virtuous.
Animal Crossing: Pocket Camp has been available stateside for about a week now, and it is… strange. This post on ‘Every Game I’ve Finished’ (written by Mathew Kumar) mirrors a lot of my thoughts – I would recommend reading it before reading this. I haven’t really played a lot of Animal Crossing games before, and I tend to avoid free-to-play1 games. The aforementioned post is largely predicated on the fact that Pocket Camp doesn’t fully deliver on either experience. Which, I guess I wouldn’t really know, but something definitely feels odd about the game to me.
Early in his post, Kumar states that ‘[Pocket Camp] makes every single aspect of it an obvious transaction’, which is comically true. My socialist mind has a hard time seeing the game as anything but a vicious parody of capitalism. My rational mind, of course, knows this is not true because the sort of exploitative mundaneness that coats every aspect of the game is the norm in real life.
This becomes even more entertaining when you observe how players set prices in their Markets. For the uninitiated, when your character has a surplus of a thing, they can offer that thing for sale to other players. The default price is its base value, but you can adjust the sale price down a small amount or up a large amount. Eventually you’ll likely just max out your inventory and be forced to put things up for sale in this Market. More eventually, you’ll max out the Market and be forced to just throw stuff away without getting money for it. But in the meantime, people (strangers and friends) will see what you have to offer and be given the opportunity to buy it.
For the most part, if you need an item (I use the term ‘need’ loosely), it is common, and either hopping around or waiting a couple of hours will get you that item. So there should be no reason to charge a 1000% markup on a couple of apples. But (in my experience thus far) that is far more common than to see items being sold for the minimum (or even their nominal value). I don’t know if it’s just players latching on to the predatory nature of free-to-play games or what, and I’m really curious to know if it works. I’ve been listing things in small quantities (akin to what an animal requests) for the minimum price, and while I’ve sold quite a few items, most still go to waste – I can’t imagine anything selling at ridiculous markups.
So far this description of a capitalist hellscape has probably come off as though I feel negatively toward the game, which I really don’t. To return to Kumar, he leaves his post stating that he hasn’t given up on the game yet, but ‘like Miitomo, the first time I miss a day it’s all over.’ This comparison to Miitomo is apt, and a perfect segue into why I’m invested in this minor dystopia.
Miitomo (another Nintendo mobile thing) is really just a game where you… decorate a room and try on clothes. You answer questions and play some pachinko-esque minigames in order to win decorations and clothes, but it’s basically glorified dress-up. It seems like mostly young people playing it, but it’s also just a wonderful outlet for baby trans folks, people questioning gender, and any number of people seeking a little escape. I find Miitomo to be very valuable and underrated, and a lot of the joy Miitomo brings me is echoed by Pocket Camp.
While the underlying concept behind Pocket Camp is that you’re a black market butterfly dealer or whatever, there’s also a major ‘dollhouse’ component to it. You buy and receive cute clothes and change your outfits, which has no bearing on the game. You buy things to decorate your campsite which (effectively2) has no bearing on the game. You can drop 10,000
dollars bells on a purse that does nothing but sit in the dirt looking pretty. I guess it’s hypocritical to praise this meaningless materialism, but it’s a nice escape. A little world to mess around in and make your own.
I don’t know how long I’ll obsessively island-hop the world of Pocket Camp, but I think that (like Miitomo) once the novelty wears off, I’ll still pop in to play around with my little world when it occurs to me to do so. And the whole time, in my mind, it will remain a perfectly barbed satire on capitalism.
I’ve posted a few games-in-posts and other toys that involve rolls of dice, and my strategy is to use Unicode die-face symbols. I think, for the foreseeable future, this is how I will continue to handle such matters – it’s clean, compact, and rather portable. For whatever reason, I was wondering how best to achieve this in an SVG containing all of the pips, with the face selected via class and modified via CSS. So, below is an SVG die that contains seven pips, with its class set to
.die1. But if we set it to
.die2, it hides the (0-indexed, left to right, top to bottom) pips 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. If we set it to
.die4, it hides pips 2, 3, and 4. This works, of course, for
.die6 too, of course. Since pips 0 and 6 and pips 1 and 5 will always be (in)visible together, we can combine either set into a single class,
.pip15 to simplify the
.die classes that hide them.
Pros include the ability to customize dice (regular D6s and fudge dice, say, or simply multicolored pips), the potential to mix in other-sided dice, and likely superior accessibility. Cons are complexity and file-size (SVGs must be embedded into posts as SVG elements). The latter can be mitigated by generation of the SVGs from whatever JS would be running the show, but it’s still a bit clumsy. An interesting experiment, regardless of whether or not I ever use it.
‘Timeline’ is a game that I’ve been pushing to non-gamers lately. The premise is very simple – everyone has a (public) hand of several historical events, inventions, artistic creations, discoveries, etc.; anything notable and dated. The flip-side of every card has the corresponding date. One event starts the timeline date-side up. Players must then choose one of their cards and make an educated (or not, I suppose) guess as to where it goes in the timeline relative to the other events. Place it, flip it, leave it in place if correct or pull a new card if not. Gameplay is simple, fast, and almost educational. There are a whole bunch of sets, and they can be freely mixed-and-matched.
One of these sets is ‘Science and Discoveries’. Something always felt a little off about this set, and the last time I played it, I think I figured it out. There are 110 cards in a given set, and I have (to the best of my ability) narrowed this one down to a handful of categories:
- Sort of general mathematic and scientific theories and discoveries (16 cards)
- The theory of microbes
- The theory of evolution
- The theory of probability
- Things that can physically be discovered – and are not specifically noted as being discovered ‘by Europeans’ (36 cards)
- The discovery of microscopic life
- The discovery of the Sphinx of Gaza
- The discovery of the ruins of Troy
- As above, but specifically things that were ‘discovered’ by Europeans (24 cards)
- The discovery of Easter Island (by Europeans)
- The discovery of Angkor (by Europeans)
- The discovery of Greenland (by Europeans)
- The discovery of Pygmies (by Europeans)
- As above, but just ‘the Discovery of the potato (by Andeans)’ which seemed out of place elsewhere (1 card)
- Inventions, things that humanity specifically created or opted to do and the creation or doing of which is a matter of historical record (33 cards)
- The invention of the vaccination
- The discovery of anesthesia
- The invention of the = sign
- Construction started on the tower of pisa
- The abolition of slavery
- The invasion of Normandy
I had to make a few executive decisions so that I could neatly categorize things, and if I did this categorical exercise again right now, everything would likely be give or take a couple cards. But the heart of the matter is that the creators (rightfully) marked 22% of the cards as having been discovered (by Europeans). If my categorization is even remotely accurate, that’s 40% of the physical/corporeal ‘discovery’ cards.
Now, that ‘rightfully’ up there is important – I am glad that Asmodee opted to point out that these peoples and places were only ‘discovered’ in a very surface manner – the pygmies already knew that the pygmies existed. And this isn’t a very deep thought, hopefully it’s immediately obvious to any given American or European that their history textbooks are written with a bias and to a purpose. But I guess what fascinated me were those percentages.
This is by no means representative of a history textbook, nor the average person’s understanding of history. But I can’t imagine it’s terribly far off, either. Coming from a colonialist sort of viewpoint, a lot of our ‘big moments in history’ come from finding this or that ‘savage’ population and treating them not as humankind, but as a scientific subject. And here we have a truly trivial history game telling us that >20% of the notable achievements the creators could come up with are, in fact, just stuff we’ve decided we can claim as having discovered. Despite either it (for lack of a better phrasing) having discovered itself, or other (‘lesser’) civilizations having beaten us to the punch. I suppose there is far more important stuff to worry about right now, even in the context of colonialism, but I still find it to be an intriguing glimpse into our historical ownership.
Here it is! Game-in-a-post of ‘Rolling Market’, which I’m still pretty happy with, truth be told. Rules are here. This JS implementation has one bug I’m still aware of which lets you cheat during the endgame, so just… don’t do that until I fix it.
A few additional tips/thoughts on the game:
- $60 final score is pretty much the bare minimum. That’s like a game where I thought I was doing terribly the whole time, like I might end up with twenty bucks or something. Breaking triple digits is a success in my mind.
- Being mindful of volatility is crucial. If volatility is low, maybe you should influence something down by selling it to put it where you want it next turn. Likewise, you may have to sacrifice some buys, or perhaps you buy up to 4 hoping for a split. Use these shifts to your advantage – buy 1s until they turn to 2; chances are it’ll jump to 4 next turn and you’ve quadrupled your bucks.
- Along that vein, splits are a Good Thing. They can cost you, but it’s fairly minimal. Buying at 3, pushing up to 4, splitting, and then seeing a bunch of split shares jump back up to 4 is just… that’s how the big bucks are made. Mind your 4s, 2s, 1s.
I’ve been testing out a little solo game design lately that’s somewhat inspired by Sackson’s Solitaire Dice. Inspired in the sense that I was looking to come up with something that has that same lack of Yahtzee-esque luck mitigation, instead relying on intuition, probabilities, and risk management. Much like Sackson’s game, this can backfire, and the dice can utterly screw you. But even when that happens, there’s enough going on to where the game is still enjoyable (in my humble opinion).
Full rules are listed after the jump, and will repeat some of this brief overview, but here’s the idea: players have four companies they can buy and sell stock shares from. On every turn, the player rolls dice which influence the current value of a given company’s shares. Buying and selling also affects values. On some turns, the market is closed, but when it is open the player can buy shares of one company and/or sell shares of a different company. The player goes through 12 of these buying/selling turns, and scores based on their final pile of cash.
I have a JS game-in-a-post implementation
nearly ready to go, so that will appear shortly, along with a PDF of these rules, and potentially a few more strategic thoughts. Until then…
Sid Sackson, in his book A Gamut of Games1, describes a solitaire dice game that I have grown very fond of. Fond enough that I decided to whip up a little js version of it, found below. I won’t go into the rules here, others have done that well enough. I will just put a couple of thoughts out there on why I find the game so compelling. Dice are obviously the epitome of randomness; roll-and-move mechanics are universally bemoaned for this. Games that try not to be awful while still using dice generally do so with some sort of randomness mitigation technique. Yahtzee is an easy example – a player gets three rolls to a turn to mitigate luck. Sackson’s Solitaire Dice does not offer any mitigation, and in fact it can be brutal. You could theoretically lose 400 points on your last turn. And while this sounds objectively terrible, it really isn’t. Occasionally you will have a game where the dice just torture you, but for the most part the game forces you to think about probabilities, and attempt to control pacing. If the game is going really well, you may want to try to blow one of your scratch piles up toward the game-ending 8 marks. Similarly, if things aren’t going great, it would probably be in your best interest to take poorly-scoring pairs in order to scratch dice evenly. In my plays thus far, I’d say that a meh game is in the -100-100 point range, a successful game being 350+.
On to my number one solo game at the moment: Chris Cieslik’s One Deck Dungeon, released by Asmadi Games. This game takes all the uncertainty and the brutality of a roguelike, and packs it into a small deck of cards and a pile of dice. One’s character has attributes which indicate the number and color of dice that can be rolled in resolving a conflict. A section of dungeon, so to speak, is entered by spending time (discarding cards). This fills the player up to four face-down dungeon cards, which can then be encountered on a turn by flipping them up. One can either attempt to defeat the card or leave it for later, wasting time and available space to fill with new dungeon cards. Defeating these cards involves rolling the dice allowed by the player’s character attributes and placing them to beat numbers on the card. These can be color-specific or not, and spaces can either require the placement of one die or allow multiple dice. Unfilled slots are what ultimately cause damage – to either health, time, or both. Assuming the player lives, resolving a conflict allows them three choices – the card can be taken as an item (additional dice and/or health), a skill or potion, or experience.
My (probably, maybe) second most-played solo game currently is one of dice, cards, and worker placement. Designed by Tony Go and released by Tau Leader (in very small print runs, it seems, though one can print-and-play), Deep Space D-6 packs a lot of game into a very small package. One of several tiny boards with illustrated ships, explanations of their features, countdown tracks for hull and shield health, and placement areas for worker dice sits in front of the player. To the right of the players ship, tiny threat cards are added every turn, and positioned to indicate their health. The player rolls their crew dice for the turn and assigns them to various attack and defense roles. Worker actions are taken, then a die is rolled to see which, if any, enemies activate and attack on that turn.
Friday is third up in my list of top solo games, and routinely comes up whenever solo board/card games are being discussed. Designed by Friedemann Friese and released by Rio Grande, Friday is a card game in which the player takes on the role of the titular character, helping Robinson Crusoe survive his time on the island. The theme is not one that has been beaten to the ground, and while the game by no means drips with theme, it makes sense and the art supporting it is goofy fun. Even if the theme does nothing for you, the gameplay shines so much that it’s easy to get lost in it.
For as small as the game is, as few card as there are, Friday is just loaded with decisions. Essentially, every turn involves pulling a hazard from the hazard deck (actually, decision number one: you pull two and choose one to take on), then pulling a series of counterattacks from your fighting deck. You get so many fighting cards for free, and then pay life points to keep drawing. Additionally, if you opt to simply lose the fight instead, you will lose life points. While the primary goal here is to obviously not run out of life, you’re also essentially building your deck for the future – defeated hazards become fighting cards, and a lost fight gives you the opportunity to get rid of poor fighting cards that you may have drawn that round. When your fighting deck runs out, you get to shuffle it anew, including the new cards you’ve gotten from defeating hazards, but you also end up throwing one aging card in with negative effects every time this happens.
Beyond Dungeon Roll, this list is a real struggle to rank. Do I push games with creative mechanics higher, or games that ultimately speak to me more? I’m inclined to go with the former, in this case, only because the things that make my no. 3 work as a solo game make for such a tight, decision-addled game. But Onirim (Shadi Torbey, Z-Man Games), my no. 4 may very well get more play for its relative lightness, small footprint, and fascinating artwork/theming.
As someone who is far more into board (and card) than video games, as someone who spends a lot of time alone, and as someone who has immense insomnia (compounded by the ridiculous anxiety brought on by recent politics), the volume and quality modern board/card games continues to impress me. While I know I’m not alone in seeking these out, I do think they get pushed to the side a bit, and I’ve been meaning to get a few write-ups out there about the games I’ve been enjoying as of late. Initially, I’m going to present this series as my current top five, but in the future I’ll be tacking others on in no particular order. With that…
First up is Dungeon Roll from Tasty Minstrel Games and designer Chris Darden. Its appeal is pretty clear: it’s cheap, has fun dice, and comes in a tiny cardboard chest that you pull treasure from during the game. They bill it as playing 1-4, but multiplayer is essentially just every individual playing a solo game while others watch. All of the encounters are based on dice, with no automatic rerolls (some character abilities grant rerolls), so it is very much a game of randomness and of pushing one’s luck. There are a handful of expansions out there (all bundled together in a cheap package at CoolStuff Inc., conveniently), which are largely just new player characters, though the winter one also adds some interesting new treasure.
Brains: Japanischer Garten (Japanese Garden) is a
single-player game brain-teaser, if we’re being honest, from Reiner Knizia. With Knizia’s name on it, it’d be easy to assume that it’s actually some sort of solo game, but really it’s a simple set of puzzles based on this theme of a Japanese garden. If anything, it reminds me of those ThinkFun puzzles with the chunky plastic pieces, except this uses seven cardboard tiles and a stack of paper containing the puzzles. Alternatively, there is a mobile app, which I think I would recommend over the physical edition as a simple value proposition. I’m assuming since ‘Brains’ is so much more prominent than the ‘Japanese Garden’ title that perhaps more of these puzzlers are coming down the line from Knizia.
Ruleswise, the puzzle itself is quite simple. The theme is utterly unimportant (though it means we get the lovely art, so that’s something). It’s a well-designed puzzle despite not being particularly unique or groundbreaking. What fascinates me is the whole tile-laying with placement rules as a solo puzzle is actually rather clever, and opens up some thought processes on how one could make puzzles of, say, Carcassonne. I mull from time to time over ways to implement solo Carcassonne play, particularly using the limited tile set of the Demo-spiel. One way that I’ve played has been to use one meeple, and allow her to move a tile per turn in lieu of placement. Moving off of a feature scores it as is, and a meeple is placed on the feature on her side to indicate that the feature has been scored and cannot be scored again. This may or may not warrant its own post (likely not, as I think I just covered everything), but my point is that I’m always looking for a way to throw down tiles by myself. This puzzle-like concept in Brains: Japanese Garden certainly has potential with other tilesets.
While searching through the rule book for ‘Raptor’ (an admittedly great game by everyone’s favorite Brunos) for a bit of errata this weekend, I came across a grossly irritating footnote early on:
Note: throughout this document male pronouns are used for the sake of simplicity and readability. It should be clearly understood that in each instance, we mean to include female players as well.
This is bullshit on so many levels. The most inclusive choice would, of course, be to use the singular they. The most sorry-gaming-is-horribly-patriarchal choice would be to use female pronouns throughout1. And while I hate enforcing the gender binary, the most ‘readable’ choice would be to use male pronouns for Player A and female for Player B or vice versa. ‘Raptor’ is exclusively a two-player game, so all of the included examples rightfully include two players. Switching between two people with a shared set of pronouns is far less readable than unique pronouns for either. Ambiguity is always a potential pitfall of pronoun usage, easily avoidable when you’re dealing with two purely hypothetical humans.
Failing all of the above, however, I’d almost prefer they just used male pronouns throughout and cut out the nonsensical and condescending footnote. The footnote reads as though ‘some woman complained that we did this once and rather than adapt we’re just going to make up a bunch of excuses.’ Whose ‘simplicity’ is this for the sake of? The reader’s? Are we to assume that they are so caught up in the masculine gamer trope that a single female pronoun would cause their brains to shut down, eternally paralyzing them, rulebook still in hand? Or is it for the sake of simplicity on the part of the writers and editors, so lazy and consumed by male hegemony that they can’t even bother to do a find-and-replace on their masculine-as-default pronouns? The message put forward by the footnote is a brutally honest display of privilege: ‘we know we should be more inclusive, but we think it’s simpler not to.’ The footnote does not read as a statement of inclusiveness, rather an outright denial of it and a mockery of the very idea.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about new game concepts and designs using existing bits – dice, playing cards, checkers, &c. One such recurring thought is expanding on the Yahtzee sort of theme – solitaire dice-chucking games with poker-like scoring. It’s easy to pan Yahtzee as a garbage game, but as a quick solo activity it isn’t terrible. It isn’t great, but nor is it terrible. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been playing around with an idea for a dice game that offers a tiny bit extra in the decision-making category. I call it Yamzod, which is a name I came up with while on the brink of sleep, and have stuck with because it makes me laugh.
So, Super Mario Run has been out for half a day or so now, and I’m sure more meaningful opinions than mine are bouncing around all over the internet. It’s just too juicy to not set my own uninspired thoughts in pink internet stone, however. I’ve always been a Nintendo fan. These days I really don’t game much at all. The occasional weird indie, a nostalgic retro re-release here and there, but mostly if I’m gaming on a screen it’s either a roguelike on the computer or a board game adaptation or point-and-click (point-and-tap?) adventure on the phone. The last consoles I’ve owned were the original Wii and DS Lite. All this to say, having a Nintendo side-scroller on my phone is ridiculously exciting. The game is a ton of fun, well worth the cost of entry, and generally feels very much like a Super Mario Bros. game. A few thoughts:
Karuba is, essentially, a solo game that two to four players play simultaneously. One player could theoretically play for a high score, but the randomness of the draw makes that a little problematic – and playing to beat a high score outside of the arcade isn’t terribly fun anyway. But as I was playing with the pieces and the tiles and thinking of a simple notation for my aforementioned hypothetical correspondence game1, I accidentally came up with what seems to be a decent solo variant for this game.
I recently received a copy of the 2016 Spiel des Jahres nominee, ‘Karuba’. It’s a tile-laying game of sorts, albeit less free-form and less interactive than Carcassonne. It’s really about solving a puzzle more efficiently than everyone else at the table. I don’t really aim to explain or review the game, however, as plenty such explanations and reviews are already out there. There is one interesting angle that I would like to touch on, however.
I have always been a fan of correspondence chess1, the idea that the game is open, all information is public, and moves are simple enough to easily notate, pass back and forth, and replicate. It was immediately obvious to me that Karuba has a great potential as a correspondence game. Due to the lack of interaction, it will certainly be nothing like chess. But as a casual puzzler, all the pieces are there for correspondence. All information in the game is public. All players start with the same board configuration. All players place the same tile on a given turn. Because of the way this mechanic works, tiles have unique numbers and would just as easily be described in correspondence. To ease in initial setup, rows and columns of the board already have labels. The four explorers every player controls are all unique colors, and can therefore easily be described in notation.
I don’t expect a huge community to explode around correspondence Karuba, but this possible means of play immediately struck me as such a perfect fit. Kind of the icing on an already rather impressive cake.
I’ve been meaning to implement a way to incorporate style or script requirements into my posts using Hugo frontmatter. I’m not there yet, and before I get there, I need a test post that requires one or the other. I thought a little toy that lets one play a turn (three rolls) of Yahtzee, and then returns the highest possible score of the roll would be a fun and simple demonstration. Aside from small straights wigging me out a little (and I still have a nagging feeling this can be optimized), it was indeed simple1 to come up with an optimal score search. Fortunately, for a single-turn score, we don’t need to worry about a few scoring rules: bonus (joker) Yahtzees, the upper row bonus, nor chance. We could implement chance easily, but it really doesn’t make sense for single-turn scoring.
Tonight marked my first night spent actively hunting Pokémon; it was, in fact, the first time I’d ever bothered to catch one outside. Finding new critters in new places, seeking out pokéstops with lures attached, comparing notes with a friend… this was all fun but predictable. I guess I just also haven’t been on an evening walk in a while1, because the whole meatspace community aspect of the thing was new, and very unlike what I expected.
Walking through our main town park, which was technically closed since it was after dark, was fascinating. Where there were pokéstops, there were just masses of people huddled together… enough where it seemed rather unlikely to me that all these people actually knew each other… little social gatherings were forming in the middle of the night just out of the desire to catch virtual monsters. And while the basic idea here wasn’t surprising, the sheer scale of the groups, the sheer number of people glued to their phones and alerting others to the presence of a Goldeen really wasn’t something I had anticipated.