Archive for the ‘Games’ Category

Why the metagame is the best (and worst) thing about CCGs

September 17, 2010

Lately I’ve been thinking about CCGs.

For those of you who don’t know, a CCG is a collectible card game. Magic: The Gathering is the most famous example. In a CCG, instead of everyone sharing a common deck of cards, each player plays the game using his own deck of cards. The cards are sold in randomized packs, just like baseball cards, and you never know what’s in the pack before you open it. Each player uses the cards in their collection to build his deck before the game starts, carefully choosing each card going into it for its particular strength at a given strategy. The process of building a collection and creating decks from it is known as the metagame, and it is what separates CCGs from all other card games. A few CCGs have a market for individual cards, which fetch different prices based on rarity and game function.

It is precisely the metagame that’s on my mind. When Ian returned from a game convention in Laurel, he came back with a few thousand assorted cards for four such CCGs: On The Edge, X-Files, Jyhad, and Arcadia. These games were published 1994-1996, and died during the Great CCG Purge of ’97. Unlike Magic, these CCGs are no longer in print and are worthless. This is why Ian was able to get these cards for free. (I, on the other hand, returned from the same convention with an armload of old wargames.)

Ian and I have played and enjoyed CCGs for years. My first CCG was actually a dice game, Dragon Dice, which I learned back when the game debuted in 1995. I learned Magic the following year, and kept up with that game for most of the next decade. I never played Magic on the tournament level, only just casually, but I did keep up with the game’s hectic release schedule for several years. I later discovered other CCGs: Sim City, Doomtown, Netrunner, Pirates CSG… some of which were dead when I found them. I still play Doomtown and Netrunner frequently, and Magic from time to time. Ian and I have sat down to learn Mythos, 7th Sea, and Shadowrun before, and now we had four more to try out.

It was while playing around with the On The Edge collection, trying to both learn the game and build playable decks with it, that I came to an important realization about the metagame. I hate the metagame! I should be more specific though. Those who know me well should understand that I do enjoy the process of sorting and organizing things, and doing so with a big pile of CCG cards is no exception. What I hate about the metagame is that it turns a thirty-minute game into a six-hour game. I count the time commitment of a CCG in terms of how many other games could I have played with this time. This didn’t bother me when I was a teenager or in college, but as a bill-paying grown-up homeowner, someone who mows lawns not for allowance payouts but because it has to be done and I have to do it, the time commitment deducts away from things I’d rather be doing. (This is also why I’ve stopped watching television.) When I play a game, I want to jump right in and play. I don’t want to spend hours in advance preparing to play. I’m an adult… time is more valuable than money. If I have six hours to spend on gaming, I want to spend it maximizing my gaming variety, not sinking all that time into prep work. Spending hours preparing for a twenty minute game is like driving across three states to eat at Burger King. For this much effort, I could have gone to a steakhouse.

But the metagame is more complicated than that, more than just counting the hours and sorting cards. There is something really cool about playing a game using your own strategy. It works like Odyssey of the Mind, one of those academic contests where contestants build a machine to do a specific task. How exactly your machine does that task is up to you, within the constraints of the competition rules. Building a CCG deck is like designing a battle robot, and playing with that deck is like taking it into competition against other robots. Most of the work of winning is done before you arrive for competition. There is a lot of creativity and variety in machine design, and you can see some very novel approaches to problem solving. The beauty of CCG metagaming is the academic pursuit of building the perfect robot for a task, finding the most elegant and efficient robot for victory, of scientifically designing, building, and debugging a hypothesis. A CCG is an intellectual sport that taps into the same skillsets used in science, engineering, and programming.

So I love the scientific build and test part of the metagame, but I hate how much time that eats up. I suppose this explains why I like drafting rather than straight deckbuilding. But that brings me to my final insight about the metagame. The enjoyment of the metagame is directly proportional to the amount of experience I have with the game itself. Magic decks are fun to build because I really grok Magic. On The Edge decks are a chore to build because I don’t grok On The Edge. This finally explains why CCGs have always been such a small subset of gaming in general. If you don’t take the time to understand a CCG, to learn its nuances and strategies, to really and thoroughly grok it, the metagame will not be a pleasant experience but rather a chore. To extend my Odyssey of the Mind analogy to this point, this is how a liberal arts major feels when they try to design a robot. Only when you truly understand the principles behind the game does the metagame become fun and exciting. The tricky part is that the metagame is a fundamental part of playing the game, as essential as knowing the phase order of a turn or how many cards are in the starting deal. Sure, you can learn a CCG using somebody else’s deck, but then you miss out on the science fun of metagaming, and thus the most rewarding part of a CCG is avoided and you might as well be playing Fluxx. One cannot merely dabble in a CCG… you must either study it or drop it.

This also explains why the CCG market is so fundamentally singular. The metagame creates a high attention barrier against entry. Magic is a lifestyle game, like Chess or poker. Those who like to play it play little else (compared to eurogamers who play a wide variety of games only a few times each). They devote large amounts of time to it, and this leaves little time for the pursuit of other games. It’s true… when I played Magic, I played little else, and when I started playing other games, my interest in Magic waned away. This applies to other CCGs too. It is difficult to divide one’s intellectual focus amongst several CCGs. The subset of multi-CCG players is smaller still than singular CCG players. CCG connoisseurs are rare; it takes a unique and special mind to be able to study, play, and enjoy the pursuit of multiple CCGs. And that, ultimately, is why the CCG market has had so many terminal crashes over the years. The market gets oversaturated with CCGs, and then a great extinction event occurs. In 1997, hundreds of CCGs died like pre-Cambrian trilobites, their fossils remain buried in shoeboxes in closets and in game store bargain bins. The gaming market can only bear so many CCGs, and that number is small, perhaps no more than five. Unless a CCG can gain enough traction to cultivate its own following of lifestyle devotees, it will fail, because the CCG market is zero-sum and there are only so many CCG-gamer brain cells to go around. Malthus was right… about CCGs.

So here I sit, surrounded by CCG cards, able to look back on a transformative era in gaming that is fifteen (nearly twenty) years behind us, and reflect on it with the clarity of hindsight. Publishers keep making new CCGs, and I hope they aren’t surprised when those CCGs die. Such is the nature of the business plan. I look upon Fantasy Flight’s new direction, the LCG, with interest, as maybe it will keep the game format alive. FF’s "living card game" plan realizes that a CCG can be played with any big pile of cards, not just one mountain of randomized booster packs per player. Sell enough fixed non-random card packs to one gamer, and he and his buddies will have enough to perform metagame science with. This does nothing to alleviate the time commitment of the metagame, but at least you can still draft with an LCG collection. All these On The Edge cards came in one big box for me, already transmuted into LCG form, and I can’t tell nor care to determine which cards are collectible. All I see is a sandbox full of cardstock.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a hypothesis to test.

Nifty Wikipedia Thing: The Great Paris Exhibition Telescope of 1900

Movies I’ve Seen:

Death Race 2000 (1975) ~ I found Frankenstein’s stoicism intriguing

Star Crash (1979) ~ Star Wars rip-off goes whoosh

Shock Treatment (1981) ~ Rocky Horror "sequel" insufficiently abstract

Lair of the White Worm (1988) ~ More movies should deliver expository dialogue through Scottish drinking songs

Kick-Ass (2010) ~ Don’t be a hero, dude!

What I’m Reading:

"Tender is the Night" by F. Scott Fitzgerald

On the Nature of Co-operative Games

August 13, 2010

Cooperative games are games in which the players work together to defeat a common enemy. Sometimes one player plays the villain, either openly or as a secret traitor, but more often the enemy is the game itself which will defeat the players when certain thresholds have been reached. There have been many cooperative games published in the last few years, from Arkham Horror to Pandemic. Some say we’re in a golden age of co-op game designs. Whether it’s a fad or a cultural movement towards less competitive gaming remains to be seen, but I’ve been playing my fair share of them and I’ve even been developing one of my own.

What makes a cooperative game good?

First of all, a strong theme is important. It motivates the players to succeed. If the game is too abstract, then the threat doesn’t feel convincing. The theme also suggests to you what you should spend your time doing, letting you tap into real or fictional experience as a guide. The endgame must have a good thematic excuse, lest it feel arbitrary. I’ve lost many co-op games with a sense of "what, that’s it?" Theme helps make the threat matter, both to keep the pressure on, and to justify the doom looming over your head.

A good co-op game has lots of tough decisions, but not too tough. If the decisions are obvious, then you feel like the game is playing you. If the decisions are too difficult, then you and everyone else becomes bogged down in group analysis paralysis as y’all solve the puzzle by committee. Trust me, that part’s no fun when one player grabs the reins and dictates the actions of all the players. If you can understand the situation yourself, then you can analyze it solo, and will be less likely to ask for groupthink on an problem. Of course, one of the best strengths about co-op games is the ability to ask for help, both on rules and on strategy.

A good co-op game has multiple anti-victory conditions, and multiple ways to prevent your group from losing. It makes the game more replayable, and forces you to divide your precious time and resources in mulitple directions, thus increasing the decisions to be made.

A good co-op game surprises you with randomness. Again, this keeps the threat palpable, makes the game replayable, and prevents the most experienced player from driving the group. You should feel like you have a chance to win during any point in the game. At no point should you feel like all hope is lost. Ultimately, you should win a co-op game no more than half the time, and you should always feel like you earned victory.

A good co-op game has variable player powers. It encourages efficient teamwork, and again adds to replayability. If no one is special , you question your importance. By giving you a specific job, a specific role to fill, you become important. Everyone likes to feel important.

But most importantly, a good co-op game needs sacrifice. You should take big risks, make big bets, and take one for the team. This is what cooperative games are all about, the "thrill of victory and the agony of defeat". It took me a while to separate the good co-op games from the great co-op games, and this is it. Making bad decisions should cost you more than time, it should hurt. And sometimes you realize that you’re the best player to pay a cost and take a risk. Sacrifice leads to heroic deeds, heroic deeds lead to intense storytelling, and those times where you risked it all and won (or lost) will be the gaming tales you will tell long after the game has been packed up. RPG players know this lesson by heart, but I think the point is often lost on luck-averse eurogamers.

So, what co-op games are your favorite? Here they are, in order of worst to best:

  • Scotland Yard ~ This is an all-against-one game, where a team of detectives track a hidden fugitive through the streets of London, deducing the criminal’s unrevealed location through clues of his modes of transit. Scotland Yard is the oldest game on this list, and is an excellent deduction game on the level of Clue. However, there are no player powers or randomness, and player experience counts here more than in any other co-op game I’ve played. This makes it very tempting for one detective to drive the whole team, and that’s why Scotland Yard is best as a two-player deduction game, not a multiplayer co-op game.
  • Martians!!! ~ Martians is a competitive game with a cooperative variant. The players are residents of a sleepy midwestern town which has succumbed to an invasion by little green men from Mars. Your team must find and assemble parts of a bomb, and then find and destroy the mothership with it. It sure sounds exciting, but Martians!!! failed the decisions test. There were few decisions to make, and often the best choice was very obvious. Since the modular map is built by the players as the game progresses, it was all too easy to keep the bad stuff away from you. The Martian soldiers ended up quarantined on the outskirts of town, and the mad tiles that triggered bad events were completely avoided. As a cooperative game, I found Martians!!! neither threatening nor challenging.
  • Apophis ~ In this Icehouse game, your team of rocket scientists must assemble rockets to destroy an earthbound asteroid before it strikes the Earth. The threat in this game comes entirely from the egg timer. The theme made this endgame very real for me. We only have a short amount of time before the asteroid gets here… oh no! While it was exciting to beat the clock, it turned Apophis into a dexterity race, and it felt more like a sport than a game.
  • 3-High ~ This is the most abstract co-op game I’ve played. The team uses playing cards to assemble scattered pyramids into complete towers, and they have to do so before running out of cards. The decisions in 3-High were harder than in Martians!!! or Apophis, but without a theme I wondered "why am I doing this?" Also, 3-High proved to be too easy to win.
  • Shadows Over Camelot ~ You are a Knight of the Round Table, and you complete quests for the glory of Camelot. Find Excalibur, seek out the Holy Grail, and defeat the siege engines amassing around King Arthur’s kingdom. Shadows Over Camelot can be played purely cooperatively, or with a secret traitor. I don’t like deception as a pastime and strongly avoid traitor games, but many people find the game to play better with a hidden adversary. This game felt dry and mechanical to me; the quests were completed or failed due to some arbitrary number being reached, and the whole thing felt more like a accounting exercise than a game. There is also a relatively low amount of player interaction involved, and you go about your business regardless of what other people are doing.
  • Pandemic ~ Pandemic is regarded as the current king of co-op games. You are part of a team of CDC experts racing to cure diseases before the world is overrun by germs. Each player has a unique and useful power. I’ve had arguments over which of the powers are indispensable. Can you win the game without the medic or the researcher? The player roles are well balanced. The game also has an ingenious deck-stacking mechanic that allows for controlled randomness. You have a sense of what trouble is coming, but you never know exactly when it will arrive. Because of your special roles, the team works together like a Swiss stopwatch, with efficient and precise timing. However, I’m sure there are many people who are surprised to see Pandemic so far down on my list and here’s why. Pandemic is too dry, too mechanical, and generally too predictable enough to get me excited. It reminds me too much of work, where everyone gets together and solves the puzzle by committee, heatedly debating and second-guessing each and every possible choice. There’s too little room for error to avoid doing so. And when the game ends, it feels arbitrary. It makes little sense to me that the game should end because we ran out of cubes or because the draw deck is empty. If you want to solve a low-luck puzzle together, this is still the best choice, but note that all of the following higher-ranked games have high luck factors.
  • Arkham Horror ~ This is one of the best RPG-in-a-box games that offers a very immersive setting and character roleplaying, a reasonable simulacrum of a roleplaying session with far less time investment. It’s silly I should say that for a game that can run over many hours, but it beats the months of time an RPG campaign can take. Anyway, Arkham Horror, with or without the expansions, is about a team of adventurers who defend their New England town from invasion by otherworldly monsters. There is generally only one approach to playing the game, either prevent the Ancient One from waking by closing and sealing gates to other planes, or by defeating the Ancient One in epic combat. Now this is an endgame that matters. If you fail, you will be driven insane and eaten! There is no subtlety. Highly thematic, highly replayable, and with nearly a dozen expansions to add even more moving parts, Arkham Horror does many things a co-op game should do, and do them well, especially heroic sacrifice. My shortcomings with Arkham Horror are mainly around the fact that the game takes a long time to play; it’s the kind of game you reserve a weekend afternoon for. It is not easy to win, but it’ll still take hours to defeat you if you know you’re losing. Player interaction is not as strong as it could have been; like Shadows Over Camelot, you wander around blithely disregarding the actions of others. The decisions of your fellow adventurers have only minor impacts on you, but at least it is interesting to watch other players take their turns. Lastly, and more subjectively, I do knock Arkham Horror for the Lovecraftian theme, which doesn’t strike me as particularly cool or interesting.
  • The Isle of Dr. Necreaux ~ You’ve seen movies like this… a band of superheroes infiltrates the island fortress of a diabolical mad scientist and rescues the hostages before the doomsday device is activated. That is exactly what you’re doing in Isle of Dr. Necreaux. Each player is given three random superpowers that determine what character they are, so each person will play the game very differently. The challenge is to make it through the obstacle course known as Necreaux’s lair before time runs out… which could be as little as six turns! Each turn, the team has to decide how much risk they want to take, depending on the relative health of each team member and the preciousness of time remaining. Then they race to overcome traps and monsters. You find power-ups along the way, and suffer inevitable blows that give many opportunities for heroic sacrifice. You are all in it together, but only one of you needs to survive for everybody to win. The teamwork in Isle of Dr. Necreaux is stronger than with nearly every other co-op game because you are not dividing time or effort… you are dividing pain. It also scales well, playing just as difficult with one player as with six. The only drawback to this game is that the challenge of finding the scientists and the escape shuttlecraft don’t vary a whole lot, just the order of obstacles between them is randomized. Also, there was a lot more product refinement the publisher should have done to make the game play smoother. Many of my Isle of Dr. Necreaux sessions have involved several arguments over how a particular rule is supposed to be implemented. Each instance of this is sand thrown in the gears of fun. With a lot more polishing to smoothen out the rules questions, and with better recommendations for setup conditions (the rulebook treats the game as a box of components that you can tinker to heart’s content), this game could be my favorite co-op game of them all.
  • A Touch of Evil ~ This is Arkham Horror Lite, offering basically the same experience with far fewer rules and in a shorter amount of time. Like Martians!!!, Touch of Evil is meant to be a competitive game, but can be played cooperatively (and is equally good either way). The setting is not Lovecraft’s jazz age New England, but rather a generic small town circa 1810. The menaces are the usual black-and-white movie villains: vampires, werewolves, scarecrows and the ilk. Unlike Arkham Horror, where the choice of Ancient One has only a minor impact on the game, the villain in Touch of Evil impacts a large number of things. Like Arkham Horror, you have a character with special abilities, with the chance to level up and become stronger through your experiences. But one thing that makes Touch of Evil shine is the deduction element. There are Town Elders whom can be powerful allies when you go into battle with the villain, but some of these elders are secretly in league with the villain. Only by investigating the backgrounds of each elder can you determine who is friend and who is foe. Everything that Arkham Horror does well is done almost equally well in Touch of Evil, but in a design that is easier to learn, easier to teach, and faster to play.
  • Red November ~ A team of gnomes aboard a Russian gnomish submarine must keep the ship afloat for one hour before help arrives. This is a difficult task, as things are constantly breaking around you. Every time you fix a problem, three more creep up on you. You must decide which problems are the most dangerous to your survival, and decide how much attention they deserve. Spending more time solving one problem increases your chance of success on that task, but leaves you less available to deal with other, often unexpected, nasty surprises. This game is an elegant meshing of thematic flavor and simple mechanics. You interact with your players quite a bit as you trade items and run to their rescue. Nearly everything in the game is random. Sometimes life or death hinges on a single die roll! While there are no player power (yet), the items you carry are important enough that you are obviously the best man for the job, so get to work, sailor! Red November’s difficulty scales with the number of players, growing more difficult with more players; it is certain victory for three and certain doom for eight, while five seems to be just right. This co-op game has the best overall mix of strong theme, hard decisions, random surprises, replayability, and heroic sacrifice potential to put it on the top of my co-op games list. As one reviewer aptly stated, "you laugh, you cry, you die!"

What cooperative games are your favorites? What about them makes them your favorite? What could they do better?

Nifty Wikipedia Thing: The 1779 Invasion of England

Movies I’ve Seen:

Where Eagles Dare (1968) ~ spies, action, and a heist

The Big Bus (1976) ~ disaster spoof powered by atomics

Men of Honor (2000) ~ DeNiro mimics my dive instructor

Children of Men (2006) ~ CNN directs V for Vendetta

Sherlock Holmes (2009) ~ Holmes shouldn’t be action franchise

What I’m Reading:

"The Scientist in the Crib" by Alison Gopnik, Patricia Kuhl, and Andrew Meltzoff

"Tender is the Night" by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Introducing Dectana

December 1, 2009

I invented a new game last month, Dectana!

Today I will ramble about how Dectana came to be, and why Gnostica lovers should play it. Unfortunately, I’ve never played Gnostica, and am unfamiliar with it beyond reading the rules. It’s no secret that I prefer Zarcana, almost entirely for the fun niftiness of the Trump Powers. So any in-depth strategic comparison between Dectana and Gnostica will have to come from somebody else.

(The rest of this article won’t make any sense unless you’re familiar with Gnostica or Zarcana. If your unfamiliar with either of these games, read about them at the above links before proceeding further.)

First, I guess the Decktet needs a formal introduction here. I learned of the Decktet’s existence through BoardGameGeek, and when I saw it I immediately thought of Gnostica. The Decktet is a Creative Commons game system, similar to a Poker or Tarot deck, with the twist that most cards have two suits. There are a handful of games invented for the Decktet, but I’ve never played any of them before. I printed out two Decktets expressly for creating Dectana.

Why two decktets? Good question. I didn’t think the deck was big enough by itself. A single basic Decktet is 36 cards. Consider that nine cards start out on the board. Then put three cards in each player’s hand. Even for a two player game, the setup alone uses 15 of the 36 cards, nearly half. With five players, the initial draw pile would only contain two cards! The decision to restrict the maximum player number or require a second decktet was an easy one. After all, Zarcana and Gnostica play better with more players, right? (NOTE: There are five more special cards in the extended Decktet, but that barely improves things.)

"But Ryan, I bought just one Decktet. Would I have to shell out my hard-earned simoleons on another decktet just to play your game?" I hear your cry. C’mon, the decktet is CC, free to make. Just print it out at home, cut the cards apart, and paste them onto a poker deck, or stuff them into card sleeves behind MtG basic land. I figured that game system enthusiasts wouldn’t be put off by a small amount of print-and-play workshopping. And you end up with two complete Decktets for you to try out the Decktet system game with. Who knows, maybe the two-deck requirement will challenge or inspire designers to create more two-Decktet games.

Back on topic (that being Dectana). I learned Zarcana two years ago, loved it, and even made a custom deck for it. I prefer Zarcana over Gnostica for many of the same reasons that Andy does in his "Why I Prefer Zarcana" article. But the designer within me wanted to hammer Zarcana into a better game, without simply repeating the efforts that went into making Gnostica. I mulled on this for years. When I found the Decktet, I found my canvas.

One of the immediate and apparant differences between Dectana and its predecessors is the number of suits, six instead of four. Most cards have two suits. Furthermore, I gave each suit two abilities, one for affecting pyramids and one for affecting territory. This means each Dectana card could do one of four things for you. With this kind of flexibility, you rarely get stranded thirsting for powers you can’t manage to find. There is no need for Wild cards, and card churning doesn’t happen.

Gnostica’s endgame trigger struck me as the most inelegant part of that game’s design, and I didn’t like its mean-spirited finale. I spoke with Jake Davenport and Kory Heath, two of Gnostica’s four designers, at Balticon ’07. They told me that they weren’t satisfied with that endgame either. In fact, in their eyes, Gnostica is stil a work in progress, one they’re unlikely to return to for completion. They never did find a satisfying endgame mechanic.

In Dectana, I think I finally found an endgame that I like. The Aces, having just one suit instead of two and having low point value, seemed underpowered and needed some boost, some appeal that made them less of a burden. So I tied Aces to the endgame trigger. You need to find, then reveal, three Aces from your hand. These less-potent cards take up spots in your hand that could be filled by more useful cards, but you need them to claim victory. The basic draw rules of Dectana make it hard to hoard Aces, as well, so you need to be resourceful in order to find and hold on to three Aces. And anyone can end the game, not just the leader, thus preserving Andy’s preference that the game have an Abort Switch for anyone to throw if they’re not having fun.

Dectana is a modern 3HOUSE game, instead of the older model of monochrome stashes. Three Treehouse tubes will support the full five player game of Dectana. And by limiting the pieces from fifteen to nine, piece management is a dearer skill in Dectana.

Other differences: There is no population limit on a territory or wasteland space. You CAN’T attack pyramids on your own territory. You can’t do anything to a territory’s card if it’s occupied, even by your own pyramids.

I think that the play time, strategic complexity, and gameplay variety of Gnostica is mirrored in Dectana, but I can’t say for certain. But it does give wannabe Gnostica players the chance to get the same game experience without involving Tarot, if that’s their concern. Yes, there is Zark City, but the difference between Zark City and Gnostica is like the difference between French’s yellow mustard and Grey Poupon.

I was able to teach Dectana to Icehouse neophytes at Capclave, folks who had never seen Zarcana/Gnostica before, and they picked it up handily, playing with confidence by the end of their first game (and even besting me at the final scoretime). I heard those three magic words… "Let’s play again!"

By the way, Dectana is listed on BoardGameGeek, in case you’d like to voice your opinion of it.

Nifty Wikipedia Thing: The Curta Calculator

Movies I’ve Seen:

The Perils of Gwendoline in the Land of the Yik-Yak (1984) ~ not surprised to learn it’s French

Napoleon Dynamite (2004) ~ very overrated so-called "art comedy"

What I’m Reading:

"The Gifts of the Jews" by Thomas Cahill

"As I Lay Dying" by William Faulkner

"The Physics of Star Trek" by Lawrence M. Krauss

Making Tuckboxes

November 6, 2009

After five years of heavy duty service, my original tuckbox for Give Me The Brain finally gave up the ghost. So I made a new tuckbox for it. Then I bought the Aquarius reprint, and wanted a smaller box with less dead air. So I made a smaller tuckbox for it. Then mission creep set in, and I found myself making custom tuckboxes for four other games as well. The finished results are pictured above. Here’s how you make them, in seven easy steps.

STEP 1) Measure the height, width, and thickness of the deck of cards that you want a box for. If you want to have the rules in the box with the cards, sandwich the rules in the middle of the deck, if able; make sure the rules do not stick out beyond the card dimensions. I prefer to make my measurements in millimeters, but to each his own. I advise you round up a hair on the dimensions; it’s better for the tuckbox to be slightly too big than to be slightly too small.

STEP 2) Go the the Craig Forbes Tuckbox Generator at Input the dimensions of your deck, add a title, and click "make PDF template". Save the PDF file.

STEP 3) Your PDf template is meant to be double sided, but the black text on white box is lame and boring. Here’s a fast way to put an interesting image on the box without spending hours with Photoshop. Find an image of the game, somewhere, anywhere, the higher resolution the better. I like using boxfronts and card scans. Whatever says "Oh Yeah, That Game" to you. Go for it.

STEP 4) Print the FIRST PAGE only of the tuckbox PDF on the thickest cardstock you can manage. I use 110-lb cardstock.

STEP 5) Use your printer’s manual feed tray to print out your selected image from Step 3 onto the other side of your cardstock sheet. This is going to be the outside of your box. Make sure you use the smallest margins possible, so that you cover the entire tuckbox outline on the other side. You can pay attention to how the page is oriented, to control the tuckbox outline and image features overlap, but don’t stress over this unless you’re picky.

STEP 5) Okay, now you have your single page with the tuckbox outline on one side and a big colorful image on the other. Now cut the tuckbox out, using only the solid lines. The wide strips of leftovers make great bookmarks!

Step 6) Score the dashed lines to make good crisp creases. The best tool for this is ballpoint pens that no longer write.

Step 7) Fold your box up along the creases, and glue the gray flaps shut, one at a time, side flap first, then bottom flap. I use a thin smear of craft glue, and slip the deck inside the box as a weight to put pressure on the glue as it dries. Be careful not to get your cards stuck to any beads of glue that might upwell into the box. This is why you should use the glue sparingly.

Now you’re done. Admire your handiwork. Call your parents and brag about your prowess in arts and crafts. Blog about it. I am right now.

Nifty future gadget: the Space Replicator

Recommended (dead) Webcomic: Narbonic, which ran from 2000 through 2006.

Movies I’ve Seen:

Roadie (1980) ~ win friends by fixing stuff

Arthur (1981) ~ John Gielgud best butler ever!

Strange Brew (1983) ~ subsidization perpetuates hackneyed Canadian stereotypes

The Flamingo Kid (1984) ~ hit by a smooth criminal

The Name of the Rose 91986) ~ 13th Century monks are creepy

Ride With the Devil (1999) ~ Oscar hopeful Civil War western

Toy Story 2 (1999) ~ finally seen ALL the Pixar!

Not Another Teen Movie (2001) ~ good example of well done spoof

Midnight: Chronicles (2008?) ~ teases with suggestions of plotline

What I’ve Been Reading:

"Black Like Me" by John Howard Griffin

"Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage" by Sherry Sontag

"Invisible Man" by Ralph Ellison

Playing Old Games

September 30, 2009
Due to indecision on my part, I’ve neglected to write a new article. As I’ve overheard elsewhere on the Internet, "not blogging is easy". I thought about writing on my nephew’s budding game designer ambitions, but it felt to personal for these pages. I thought about writing my thoughts on health care reform, but the topic fills me with negative emotions I’d rather avoid. I thought about writing about my recent trip to SPX, but thought it’d just be an exercise in name-dropping. Thus I fall back onto writing about… old boardgames. Gaming is pleasant, and politics is not.

Ian returned from Massachusetts with a truck full of old stuff, among which was a trove of games from the early 1970s. There were many classics in there, like Backgammon, Othello, Mah Jongg, and Risk. There were kids games like Careers. There was a 1960s edition of Acquire, of which I had recently bought the 2008 edition. But the most intriguing games in the pile were three: The Inventors, The Boston Game, and Anagrams. (None of the following pictures are mine: I borrowed them from BoardGameGeek.)

The Inventors was published in 1974, and bears some similarity to the old war horse Monopoly. Like Monopoly, the winner is the player who makes the most money. Like Monopoly, the players roll dice and move clockwise around the square board’s outer track. Like Monopoly, there are properties, in this case Inventions, to buy and profit with.

Otherwise, The Inventors is quite different. Inventions generate money for you only after you decide to enter the separate Royalty movement track. The value of the Royalties depends on the type of Invention (A, B, or C), the strength of the patent on it (0, 1, or 2), and whether any opponents have declared themselves as partners on the venture. After you leave the Royalty track, the invention is returned to the buying pool. The same invention can be bought and invested several times during one game, but there are only 20-ish patent chips. Each patent chip is used once, then is removed from the game. When the patent chips are all gone, the game ends and the player with the most money, including held inventions, wins.

The first thing that grabbed my attention was The Incredible Patent Picker Move Maker Machine, a quirky plastic contraption that does double duty as a dice tower and as a token dispenser. It’s a catchy toy… put dice in the top, push the button, and listen as the dice clatter invisibly through the machine’s interior, then it rings a bell as the dice tumble into view. Evelyn likened the bell to that of a cash register; every time it rang, she got money.

The style of the game is that of the Golden Age of Invention, from Edison to World War I. The art calls to mind the advertising style employed during the Gilded Age, with gratuitous scrollwork, pointing arrows and hands, and a wide sampling of loud bold fonts. The inventions are real, ripped from the sillier annals of the US Patent Office, such as the Air Conditioned Rocking Chair, the Horse Water-Wings, the Eye Protector for Chickens, the Automatic Hat Tipping Device, and the Dimple Maker. I am not making any of these inventions up.

The four of us really got into it, buying up the pool of twelve inventions, collecting patent chips, then taking our patented inventions to market. Unwanted business partners leeched profits, bargains were haggled, and money was earned and then lost. And after it was all done, we agreed that it was better than Monopoly. It took less time, had a more lighthearted sense of humor, and didn’t eject players before the game’s conclusion. Given the choice of playing Monopoly or The Inventors again, I’d choose the latter.


The Boston Game is a time capsule, a love letter to the Boston T written in 1973. The concept is simple… somebody looked at the Boston subway map and said "There could be a game about this". Indeed, the game was designed and published by two people (spouses or siblings?), whose only other fruit was the similar New York Game. For a 25-year-old self-published game, the production values are excellent, with decent graphics, cardstock, and printing quality to shame even some modern day game publishers.

The game is simple. Start off in the Boston suburbs as a tourist with a half dozen sightseeing destinations in the city. Roll the die and move along the train line until you get to your destination, then play it when you get there. Beware of line transfers, as it requires you to first take a chance on the Jeopardy Deck, just like real life. You could be suddenly teleported across town, or force a station to close. Make it to all your destinations first, and return to your starting place, and you win.

You can read a more elaborate write-up of my Boston Game session on BoardGameGeek. We three gamers all liked the experience, and felt that, despite its faults, there was a fun game to be had here. It begged for an overhaul, to throw out the bad bits, polish the good bits, and inject some lessons learned in the last thirty-odd years of game design history. The end result would be The Boston Game v2.0, allowed to shine its brightest. Would you be surprised to learn that I’m already making The DC Metro Game?

Lastly I tried Anagrams, a word game ancestor of Scrabble. BoardGameGeek says that Anagrams was first published in 1911, with a haphazard free-for-all publishing history since then. Let me tell you, the Anagrams set I played with could have been one of those ninety-year-old sets. The homemade box held the ancient hard plastic letter tiles, possessing all the heft and smell of reverent history. It called to mind the age of straw hats, buffalo nickels, Model T’s, brass nickelodeons, and ragtime. Each tile was jet black, as if carved from coal, with a raised white letter on it. The white paint had flaked in places, enhancing the sense of time these tiles had sojourned through.

Ian summoned Anagrams rules from the Internet, and we played. Start with a common pool of tiles. Draw another tile, and form a word with them. If you can, great. If not, add your tile to the pool and give your opponents a chance to grab the word you overlooked. You can even snipe claimed words from other players, by making a longer unrelated word from a previously played word. I am really good at this last part. I think it would be a great idea to have an assorted heap of letter tiles around, for inventing folk word games on rainy days, so I’m keeping my Goodwill eyes open for orphaned Scrabble tiles and cheap Bananagrams sets.

Nifty Wikipedia Thing: St. Elizabeths, DC’s abandoned mental asylum.

Movies I’ve Seen:

Shaft (1971) ~ surprisingly slow funky noir blaxploitation

Bound for Glory (1976) ~ Woody Guthrie digs a hole

Earth Girls are Easy (1989) ~ B52-s are the perfect soundtrack

South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut (1999) ~ cruder than Carlin for naught

Futurama: Into the Wild Green Yonder (2009) ~ worthy capstone and series finale (?)

What I’ve Been Reading:

"A Fine and Pleasant Misery" by Patrick McManus

"The Federalist Papers" by Madison, Hamilton, and Jay (#45)

"The Sound and the Fury" by William Faulkner

"Candide" by Voltaire

"The Devil in the White City" by Erik Larson

Icehouse, a Call to Arms!

April 30, 2005
Ever since Andy Looney announced last week that production costs were forcing the boxed set of Zendo to go out of print, long discussions were sparked about the future of Icehouse for Looney Labs. Looney drew a lot of criticism for his business practices; he was accused of destroying jobs rather than let them go to China. With Asian labor, the production cost per pyramid could be slashed down to a pittance. Newbies balk at the $40 cost of Zendo. Many fans realize that the current retail prices are cost-prohibitive, and that the long-term health of the game system would be better if more people were drawn into it (a move that lower prices would go hand-in-hand with). However, Looney Labs is proud that their products are made in the USA, with money staying within our borders supporting the local economy. This position is not likely to change in the near future, given LL’s mission statement.

I for one appluad Looney’s position. It takes fortitude to refuse to compromise his ideals in the sake of his business and livelihood. Though it seems stubborn to put his favorite and oldest game design at risk for such ideological beliefs, he’s believes that the system will survive by its merits alone, despite higher costs than competing products. Andy takes the blame for his products’ high costs, but he feels that the ethical values behind his decision are worth it. He holds his convictions strongly, but even devoted Icehouse fans aren’t entirely sold on the idea.

Regardless, Looney Labs is looking for ways to lower the costs of pyramid production. I think the best way to do this is to get molds that can produce more pieces per run, and use a hot runner to eliminate the manual labor costs of clipping. But these new molds will cost a large sum of cash on hand. and it’s more than LL can muster. Eventually, the reduced cost of making pyramids might pay for the mold over time, that is if Icehouse stashes pick up. I think the mold is worth the investment. The plastic pyramids have already outperformed their predecessors, and I think they ar slowly but steadily making headway. I support the Icehouse fan community in any effort to raise capital for a mold fund.

So, what is to be done with these pesky pyramids? I read through the Hypothermia archives, which chronicles the history of Icehouse from 1990 to 1996. Having read this, I learned that Icehouse has always been plagued by a combination of high production costs and lackluster sales. Yet, a small and dedicated fanbase has helped the game survive and evolve.

On Monday, Mike Sugarbaker launched, a new site for Icehouse fans. If Icehouse is to grow and thrive, it needs to get its name out there. I think the biggest hurdle Icehouse has to overcome is that people, even gamers, look at the pyramids and wonder, "what the heck are those things for"? Most people aren’t aware of the games these pyramids are used for, or the variety of those games, from Zendo to Homeworlds to CrackeD Ice. Also, the Icehouse community needed a better community portal, a place where new designs can be perfected, and established games can be referenced. The wiki does just that. However, the site is only as strong as the community that supports it, so I urge all Icehouse fans to go and contribute! It has really grown in only four days, and it is an impressive establishment already.

I even submitted my own Icehouse game design, Traction! Please give it a try. I think it combines the fast pace of games like Icetowers with the maneuvering tactics of Icehouse. If it goes well, I hope to enter it in the next Icehouse Games Design Contest. Soon I will add another game to the site, a partial design I have dubbed Juxtapose.

So, go and try out some games, new and old! And remember to have fun!