Tuesday, December 27, 2011

A Little Holiday Geekery

We had a nice little holiday spent at home by ourselves, with the traditional Christmas Eve dinner of ham, potatoes, kale, and pinkelwurst (with a newer tradition of Virginia spiced plum chutney as a condiment with the ham) and a Christmas morning filled with torn wrapping paper and delightful presents. Given the crazy schedule around the holidays for us, this Hobby Games Recce entry is regrettably short but timely.
Among the gifts I received were several that satisfied my inner geek, particularly in the gaming vein:
The Hobbit (Illustrated Edition):
My parents have always quietly indulged and encouraged my interests in gaming, fantasy, and science fiction, and returned to my roots (and my Amazon.com wishlist) for gift ideas this year. Numerous, full-page illustrations by Tolkien artist extraordinaire Alan Lee grace this edition, which I hope to someday read aloud to my son when he gets old enough to sit still for a bedtime story without copious illustrations on each rigid, cardboard page. My paperback edition of The Hobbit a great uncle bought me many, many years ago is well-read, but in no condition for regular handling anymore. I’ll admit I’m probably more a fan of The Hobbit than The Lord of the Rings for a number of reasons, not simply its shorter length and easier style than the epic trilogy, but it’s classic hero’s quest theme and its much lighter shades of dark, moral severity.
Art of the Hobbit:
I’m a fan of Tolkien-inspired artwork (as evidenced by my delight in the give noted above), but to see even the most basic or stylized sketches by the author of my favorite of his tales remains an inspiring treat. Recently released in a slipcase edition, this book contains all of Tolkien’s Hobbit sketches, inks, and other artwork keyed to different chapters or iconic scenes, including material for the two famous maps featured in The Hobbit. Needless to say this and the previously mentioned book above have rekindled my inspiration for running some kind of Middle-earth roleplaying game campaign, probably around the time of the Quest of Erebor.*
Lego Ramses Pyramid:
Despite many reviews frustrated with the rules presentation and gameplay (possibly the reason it was only $9.99, one-third the original price, at the local Target toy department), this game remained on my list for a number of reasons: I love most things with an Egyptian theme; I love Legos; and German game designer superstar Reiner Knizia co-designed it. It was a gift from my son, with help from Mom. I still haven’t had a chance to build or play the game, but I’m looking forward to giving it a try. It’ll make a nice set with my copy of the Lego Minotaurus Game.
Overall it was a modest holiday gift haul. I also received many other way more practical gifts, but given the far smaller portion of my life geeky pursuits now inhabit, it only seems appropriate.
* Campaign Idea: Pipe-Weed to Erebor

This one’s from my old Griffon’s Aerie website, from a “Dispatch” about various roleplaying game campaigns I’d like to run. Gathering at Bree, the heroes agree to guard a train of pack mules delivering pipe-weed to the Dwarves of the  recently liberated Lonely Mountain. They must overcome their differences (and seek their hidden agendas), protect their premium Shire pipe-weed, and make the treacherous passage across Eriador and Wilderland, encountering Orcs and wargs fleeing from a terrible battle at Erebor, and evading dark forces seeking to seize a secret one of the heroes carries.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Savvy Game Buyer

In today’s information-driven Internet Age gamers have few valid excuses for purchasing games without first doing their homework to ensure they’re the right diversion for their play styles and expectations.
Years ago, before nearly everyone who could afford games could afford decent internet access, one had to trust information from advertisements, back-cover copy, recommendations from friends, dubious advice from game store clerks, and a few reviews in print gaming magazines when making an “informed” game purchase. This was more problematic with boxed games sealed in shrink wrap, for at least one could peruse the pages of a roleplaying game book in the store (unless, of course, that was shrink-wrapped, too, a discouraging practice some stores use for roleplaying game books that, ultimately, leads to consumer frustration and disappointment).
I know my game shelves once contained a handful of games purchased in this era that I found disappointing and probably would not have purchased if I’d had additional information (particularly a look at the rules). I’m not naming names, but most found their way to flea market sales, donation bins, or other giveaway venues.
Today, however, the internet offers a wealth of resources; its community-wide information base works well when coupled with more enlightened, professional gaming stores with friendly demo policies and more knowledgeable staff (even if it comes at the price of fewer game stores). Here are some resources when looking for new games and evaluating whether they might make a good purchase; these apply not simply to games we buy, but those we put on wish lists or request as holiday or birthday gifts…:
Publisher Websites: Most publishers include at the very least promotional information about their games on their websites, including a basic description of theme and gameplay, illustrations and lists of components, and price (or a link to purchase). Many allow visitors to download PDF files of game rules to give prospective buyers a full look at the game components, mechanics, and complexity (and allow current players to have a spare or replacement reference copy). Even companies publishing roleplaying games -- rulebooks unto themselves, so it doesn’t make sense to offer them as free downloads on the internet -- still provide ample opportunity to evaluate games by posting previews, samples, short, free scenarios, and even quick-start or basic rules. Some even offer the core game for free and sell supplements and adventures.
BoardGameGeek.com: This online encyclopedic community for hobby games remains a valuable resource for finding useful information, including playing times, suggested ages (both from manufacturers and actual players), basic play mechanics, descriptions, and component lists. It relies on fellow game enthusiast members to submit reviews, rank game popularity, post photos of game components, discuss games on forums, and provide links to other resources, videos, and rules (and alternate rules/scenarios). Though overwhelming at first to new visitors, Boardgamegeek.com offers a wealth of resources for those playing tabletop games. (Hobby Games Recce has featured BoardGameGeek.com before.)
Online Reviews: Other online venues besides BoardGameGeek.com offer game reviews of varying quality, each providing some insight into whether a game might be right for a particular consumer. Any gamer with familiar internet haunts finds just the right review and news websites to suit their particular gaming type and style. My favorites include the venerable RPG.net offering reviews of roleplaying games, novels, and board games most Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays; Play Board Games, a blog posting reviews several times a week; DriveThruRPG.com and its related sites (as well as other sales sites like Amazon.com) often list customer reviews available for specific products; I’ve also found that GeekDad offers an intermittent stream of board game previews to explore as new releases hit store shelves.
Game Stores: Your Friendly Local Gaming Store (FLGS) remains a great, local, in-person resource for learning about new games. Good game stores (especially those who have a game demo/check-out policy…see below) often have extremely knowledgeable staff and clientele who offer reliable recommendations and often connections to others playing a particular game. Many stores -- including my own FLGS, Game Vault of Fredericksburg -- offer demo games to unbox, examine, and play in the store’s gaming area or even borrow (for a small deposit) to take home and try. Game Vault’s policy allows patrons to “check out” and bring home a game to try with a $5 deposit, redeemable toward the price of the game should they eventually purchase it. Alas, we can only hope local libraries -- if they survive constant budget attacks and a need to “re-imagine” their role in our communities given advancing technology -- someday offer even reference copies of games to check out and try within their hallowed halls.
With these resources for information on games, gaming aficionados have no excuse for not knowing exactly what they’re getting in a game.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

In Defense of Pre-Gen Characters

Despite the perspectives some might maintain in the pre-generated versus original character debate, pre-gen characters have their time and place in the overall gaming experience.
I recall a holiday visit to cousins shortly after discovering Dungeons & Dragons, and, in an attempt to run a game, spent all our time walking everyone through the minutiae of character creation instead of running the scenario, A1 Slave Pits of the Undercity (which, incidentally, came with pre-generated tournament characters). On another occasion a friend wanted to run a mech-oriented roleplaying game and spent six hours shepherding all eight players through character creation…and never got to play the game. More than once I tried introducing a new game in which, during character creation, players gave blatantly silly names to their characters, a clear sign (I learned too late) they really didn’t care about playing the game.
I’m sure there were other times in my youthful gaming days when we spent more time laboriously creating characters than actually playing the game. And while character creation certainly remains a core concept in many roleplaying games and a key activity outside of actual gameplay, it’s not quite ideal when introducing newcomers to roleplaying games or even bringing experienced gamers to new systems and settings.
Pre-generated characters have their time and place, particularly when the character creation process is secondary to enjoying a game session:
Published Examples: Sample characters often appear in published games both as illustrations of the character creation process and pre-generated characters enabling players to jump right in and start gaming. Often the rules focus on a single named character (sometimes with an associated player) in examples demonstrating the character creation rules. This shows exactly how players reading the rules might apply different options or strategies to forge an in-game persona best suited to their play style, the overall party of characters, and the expected adventures in the game’s setting. A full set of pre-generated characters (often one for each class or profession) helps illustrate the full spectrum of options and gives players ready-made characters to use right away; if they choose to keep using them in future scenarios, players can further customize them to their liking using character advancement rules.
Introductions: Having pre-generated characters ready for players helps expedite the process of explaining the game to both newcomers to roleplaying games and established players to a new system or setting. Similar to having published examples in a game book, pre-gens show what kinds of characters players can run without immersing them in the details of actually creating them from scratch (which is why many “introductory” games often provide pre-generated characters to play, in some cases without even including rules to create your own characters). For one-shot scenarios gamemasters can poll players in general terms about what kinds of characters they wish to run and prep pre-made characters incorporating many of their expectations embellished with nuances from the gamemaster’s familiarity with the rules.
Convention Games: Running roleplaying games at conventions often serves as a form of one-shot scenario showcasing a particular game to people who might have some fluency in gaming but aren’t familiar with a particular rules system or setting. Pre-generated characters allow con-goers to sample the kinds of heroes adventuring in the setting and dive right into gameplay without investing time and effort in character creation. This allows players to try new games for a change of pace or to test drive them as potential campaign games when they get home.
Be mindful when to use pre-generated characters and when to immerse players in the character creation process. Pre-gens work best when providing a one-shot introduction to a game, especially with players and a gamemaster who are not terribly familiar with one another. For groups with a greater degree of camaraderie, gamemasters should gauge the players’ interest in and familiarity with the game; at the least a gamemaster should take into account players’ past preferences and possibly ask them for any present expectations…and consider resorting to full creation if the players seem keen on crafting customized characters for the game.
Spending a game session creating characters -- with allowance for a short adventure encounter at the end -- can bring everyone up to speed, forge a cohesive adventuring party, and provide a good introduction to the rules and setting with greater emphasis on character creation.
My Convention Pre-Gens
I typically use pre-generated characters exclusively in convention games. I maintain a set of characters for each of the different settings I run: usually a set of adventurer/archaeologists for Pulp Egypt, the South Pacific cast from Heroes of Rura-Tonga, and a larger pool of Star Wars D6 roleplaying game characters depending on the era and scenario (some require a larger percentage of Rebel than Fringe characters, and a few focus entirely on Rebel special operations forces). The characters rarely change from one convention to the next, and some I’ve been using for many years (going way back to my time running convention games and demos for West End Games). This cuts down on my own preparation time and effort, enabling me to focus on other aspects of con prep, from self-promotion to new scenario design.
This core of pre-generated characters not only enables newcomers to quickly dive into my convention games, but allows returning players to play the same character in a new scenario or try their hand at another character with which they’re somewhat familiar. I often give returning players preference in choosing characters, especially if they played them before with particular panache.
Three pre-generated characters (one each from the games mentioned above) stand out not necessarily as typical characters but as ones which add different dimensions to the games and their players:
Rogov: The ham-fisted Klatooinan mercenary in my Star Wars D6 games isn’t terribly smart (he’s a bit of a lunk-head), but he remains focused on two core elements…blasting things and telling awful jokes. Nothing tells more about how well a player runs this character than how he reacts to Rogov’s character sheet quote: “Rogov tell joke: there were these three Jawas walking down the street...and they all died! Har, har, har, har…!” The character’s always good in a fight and offers players a ripe opportunity for low-browed, humorous banter.
Ibrahim: The elderly fellahin foreman in charge of the characters’ excavations in Pulp Egypt scenarios has a number of hooks players can run with to embellish his actions. As the lone native Egyptian character he serves as a liaison between the foreign characters and numerous Egyptians. He’s caught between Western prejudices and Egyptian interests. Ibrahim wavers between the scientific method of his employers (however sloppy) and his natural tendencies toward superstition. But he maintains influence in many sectors otherwise resistant or outright hostile toward the other characters, notably the common Egyptian. A good player latches on to several of these issues and plays them to the hilt.
Jasper: At first the dog in Heroes of Rura-Tonga seems like an odd character -- especially since he can’t use many normal skills on which people rely, and his communications are limited as per the Wookiee rule (the player can only speak when Jasper’s companion character is around…when apart, the player must communicate in dog) -- but as soon as the players hear they can play a dog, someone grabs him. This often results in a wonderfully animated player performance off which everyone else plays, though it’s hard not to just let the dog steal the show to everyone’s amusement.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Introduce Kids to Gaming with Gamewright

Looking to introduce younger children to the entertaining pastime of board and card games? Check out the offerings at Gamewright, a company that specializes in creating engaging games for kids and adults.
During the holidays game aficionados like myself often face the challenge of finding games to entice younger generations into the hobby. While my own son is a bit too young for even the most basic games right now (Kids of Catan is a bit too pricey for his first try at gaming), my nephews are in the prime of the “Age 8+” game category; finding anything for an even younger audience often becomes an endless and fruitless quest beyond memory games, Candy Land, and other kiddie fare at the local toy department. A good game for young kids should not only catch their interest and have enjoyable gameplay but also come at an affordable price tag so nobody feels bad if they toss the game aside, often a challenge for those of us immersed in the world of high-quality board games in the $25+ range.
Enter Gamewright, a Massachusetts company that’s been producing quality games for all ages for since 1994. Their game categories begin at age 3+ and move up from there, with substantial game selection at each age level and price points below $20.
Many of the lower age games focus on basic skills -- counting, spatial relations, cooperation, fine motor skills, color, shape, and set identification, matching, math -- all with interesting themes to engage younger players. Some themes even help confront typical childhood challenges, like fear of monsters in Go Away Monster! These games aren’t heavy strategic fare but they’re ideal platforms for parents to interact with children in a game-oriented play setting; they help foster an enjoyment of games clever parents can parlay into a future game-related hobby.
The offerings for older kids (10 and up) and adults range from light-hearted party-style games to serious, cutting edge board games.
Here are four Gamewright titles I’ve either played or heard about that seem perfect in both gameplay and price range for kids’ holiday gifts (or even gifts for creative adults):
Who Would Win? ($9.99, age 10+): Two players draw a card with the name of a real or fictitious “celebrity,” then convince a third player judge why their notable person would win a randomly drawn contest: for instance, who would win a figure skating contest, Darth Vader or William Shakespeare? An ideal party game for those who enjoy debating who was the better captain, Kirk or Picard, but with a wonderfully silly edge.
Rory’s Story Cubes ($7.99, age 8+): Part game part creative exercise, Rory’s Story Cubes consists of nine oversized (20mm) dice with a different line-art picture on each face. Roll them and use the simple icons in numerous ways to weave a short tale using any of several suggestions for solo or group play. The pictures include mundane items like a fish, house, question mark, and flower as well as more esoteric ones like a pyramid, alien face, and kid with monster shadow. Creative roleplaying gamemasters might even find ways to use them in devising off-the-cuff scenarios, encounters, and characters.
Knock Your Blocks Off ($15.99, age 8+): Each round players build castle-themed “structures” by matching the sides of six cubes they roll along set pattern rules. Then they have the chance to topple each others’ buildings using a special demolition die that determines how players attack. They gain victory points by completing structures first, spotting flaws in other players’ structure patterns, and successfully attacking and defending other structures. This seemingly simple game combines pattern recognition and manual dexterity.
Forbidden Island ($17.99, age 10+): A fantastic game for both kids and adults, this cooperative game comes from designer Matt Leacock, who also created the similarly cooperative yet far darker-themed Pandemic. The game sends the players as a team to a rapidly sinking island to retrieve four fabled treasures; each turn they must choose among several actions, including moving, “shoring up” flooded tiles about to sink, trading resource cards, and grabbing the treasure. The high-quality components include a plastic figurine for each of the four treasures, island location tiles with full-color original illustrations, location cards, treasure cards, pawns, and a flood meter. I’ve played Forbidden Island several times at the local library’s teen gaming event and, though it seems complex at first, quickly spirals into a suspenseful experience in cooperative gaming.
Alas, some of my favorite Gamewright games remain out of print, including Egyptian-oriented Mummy Rummy, the classic Honor of the Samurai, and the King Arthur-themed Quests of the Round Table.
Most Gamewright titles have garnered a host of official accolades, including Dr. Toy’s Top 100 Children’s Products and Games, Parent’s Choice awards, and Mensa Select honors. Online support remains limited to offering PDF downloads of most game rules (with no discussion forums or other resources beyond game marketing pages), but this enables parents or other potential players to get a feel for a game’s rules and components before buying the product.
Frequent Hobby Games Recce readers know my love for Gamewright and its Gamewright GameNight program that combines promoting family games with raising money for local school organizations. The company is not simply family oriented but community minded.
Friendly Local Gaming Store Deals
This holiday season don’t forget to check out your Friendly Local Gaming Store (FLGS) and the deals it offers this holiday season -- special discounts some stores frequently give throughout the year. Your FLGS is the best place to browse, try, and talk about games. It’s a good resource for game bargains, ideas for new games to play with younger children, recommendations for other age-appropriate games, and making special orders (thus avoiding the shipping charge with many online sales). Store discounts vary; some offer good sales during the holiday season to lure customers, but many offer discounts year-round through frequent sales, customer loyalty programs, or special orders. (Your mileage may vary; check with your local store for specifics on customer reward programs, discounts, and special orders.) For instance, my FLGS -- Game Vault in Fredericksburg, VA -- is running an after-Thanksgiving sale of 20% off most merchandise (through December 10), and has had all board games at 20% off since this past summer. Special orders usually arrive in-store in about a week or so, and, if the merchandise isn’t already eligible for an existing discount, it automatically gets a 10% “we don’t have to put it on the shelf” discount! Having extremely friendly, knowledgeable staff helps, too.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

“Never Give Up…Never Surrender!”

With November over the National Game Design Month (NaGa DeMon) challenge is finished. Put down your pencils, stop designing your games, and get back to what you were doing, abandoning your work until next November, when Nathan Russell’s informal challenge once again gives you permission to create games….

Or so it might seem to some folks, notably prolific game aficionado bloggers like Michael Wolf, a.k.a. Stargazer, who, in a recent post at Stargazer’s World, declared “NaGa DeMon: I Surrender!”    

Yes, deadlines are great motivators to get us to undertake and complete tasks by a certain date; and publicly dedicating particular months to promote an activity or cause helps raise awareness and motivate people who might not otherwise engage in these activities. But the NaGa DeMon challenge represents a first step on a longer journey to complete and refine a game.

I mentioned in an earlier blog post about both the Solo Tabletop Gaming Appreciation Month and National Game Design Month (NaGa DeMon) that creativity isn’t easily forced; sometimes it results in an incomplete or unsatisfying product that didn’t quite reach its full potential. I fully understand how other duties -- blogging, career, family -- can consume one’s time and limit one’s ability not only to play games but to create and share them. Nobody’s expected to soldier on without giving any ground until they ultimately realize their goal. Producing any gaming product whether free or commercial takes considerable effort, especially if one isn’t simply slapping material together but taking the time, effort, and creativity to publish material that truly deserves admiration and play.     

Thankfully Stargazer shared some basic framework for his game, notably the task resolution system, an interesting blend of “skill” and “complication” dice pools (similar to something I’m working on for a game design project, though instead of using separate dice pools I designate success and failure numbers on the dice for a single die pool…but I digress). I would have preferred to see more how he intended to put his subject matter, astronauts, into a playable setting. Creating and sharing game ideas remains the core of the NaGa DeMon challenge, an objective we can pursue throughout the year.

I’m disappointed to hear Stargazer felt he must “surrender” or otherwise publicly admit defeat. That’s not the point of the challenge. Whenever I hear of someone “surrendering,” especially at geeky endeavors that are supposed to result in some degree of fun and enjoyment, I find myself recalling two relevant quotations. One, the title for this piece, comes from Commander Peter Quincy Taggart in the delightfully geeky Galaxy Quest film; it reminds us of the power of enthusiastic, sometimes silly determination, and that for many of us surrendering means giving up a part of our core selves. The other quotation does not come from a geeky source but from one of the great storytellers of Western literature, Rudyard Kipling. It’s a bit lengthy as memorable quotes go, but quite relevant when we start examining what we do, why we do it, and what happens when we start evaluating ourselves according to others’ standards:  

Never look over your shoulder at the other man. Paddle your own canoe and don’t worry about anyone passing you. Keep going in your own time. If you’re going to do anything you’ll do it; if not, watching others succeed only embitters failure. And failure in writing shouldn’t be bitter.

I don’t openly participate in activities like National Game Design Month and Solo Tabletop Gaming Appreciation Month for a few reasons: I don’t have a whole lot of free time, and what little I get often comes at unpredictable moments; I don’t need more disappointment set up by unreasonable expectations; and at any given time I’m working on many other game-related projects, only a few of which ever reach fruition and publication of some sort. The challenges issued, however, inspired me to explore game design in new directions. During the month of November I did dabble as best as my schedule would allow in the two activities encouraged for the month. I challenged myself to work on a solitaire tabletop game and a roleplaying game system, not with the goal of completing them by month’s end but with the aim of finishing significant portions of them and gaining a clearer understanding of where the projects are heading.    

To me appreciating solitaire tabletop games and designing and playing your own games are activities that should be part of life the entire year, not just during one month. We’re not simply thankful only at Thanksgiving, we’re grateful for our blessings all year round. Understandably few people put a particular game-oriented emphasis on their lives, but, like other holidays, November reminds us that we should take time to enjoy and design games throughout the year.

So keep your chin up, Stargazer, and return to your NaGa DeMon project some other time during the year when inspiration and enthusiasm really hits you.