Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Gaming Artifacts: Tank Battles

This feature is the first of a few I expect to write examining some of the “gaming artifacts” from my earliest days in the adventure gaming hobby, the idyllic “Golden Age of Roleplaying Games,” the mid- to late 1980s. Oddly enough, my first “artifact” isn’t for roleplaying games at all, though my involvement in them led me to dabble in other hobbies, including wargames and miniatures.

When I first discovered Dungeons & Dragons in the spring of 1982 I suddenly found myself exposed to all kinds of related adventure gaming materials at the local hobby shop, in advertisements in the venerable Dragon Magazine, and at the one local convention I attended. Besides buying nearly every D&D rulebook and module I could afford I acquired several Avalon Hill games (both wargames and lighter fare) and a handful of fantasy miniatures. I also created my own adventures for D&D and a host of small board and card games to play with our neighborhood gaming group. So it shouldn’t come as any surprise that I found myself – soon after diving into roleplaying games – exposed to and designing miniature wargames.

The tank game coalesced from a few components we acquired, some basic rules concepts about armored warfare, and a general interest in World War II tank combat. It didn’t have a catchy title beyond “Tank Battles” despite seeing several play sessions with both my brother and our neighborhood group.

The game was most likely inspired by two packs of 6mm “micro-scale” tanks I bought, each containing five tanks. I’m not sure where we found the minis; possibly PointCon, one of the first game conventions I attended, or maybe a forgotten corner of the late, lamented Branchville Hobby Shop which fueled my youthful exploration of adventure gaming. One pack was a set of GHQ Micro Armour “Centurion MK3 20pdr,” the other a pack of German Pkw IVs from another, less prominent manufacturer (whose name remains forgotten along with the location of the lost packaging). I gave them a very basic green paint job, with one side sporting red dots on the turrets, the other white dots (I wasn’t going for any degree of authenticity...we just wanted a simple tank game, not specifically a World War II game). The other components included a folding board consisting of two letter-sized pieces of corrugated cardboard with green construction paper glued to them; some cardboard-and-green-construction-paper contoured hill pieces, a few squares with “trees” (snipped toothpicks topped with crumbling modeling foliage moss, now hopelessly deteriorated); some rolled copper wire representing barbed wire; and a host of small card-stock European buildings from a cut-and-build book of my brother’s. I included a few small counters (and simple rules) representing infantry units and mortar squads, but those didn’t see much action on a board covered with hills, buildings, and cool tank miniatures.

The rules consisted of a few pages of handwritten notes, my standard format for game materials in an age well before personal computers, scanners, and laser printers. The very basic system included a random set-up system on each player’s side (with a small chance of placing some units in forward positions), a shoot-then-move action sequence, variable movement, rolls to hit and saving rolls, and graduated damage going from “disabled” (no movement, with a chance to “repair” each turn) to destroyed. Some oddities included increased chances to hit at closer ranges, a range bonus for shooting from higher ground, rules that offered a bonus to save if in cover (though no penalty to hit), a lack of terrain modifiers for wooded areas yet slower movement over barbed wire (assumed to also include tank obstacles), and sketchy rules for using air support to go with two airplane models we found later. I didn’t include line-of-sight rules, but I recall we played under the assumption you couldn’t shoot a target you couldn’t see from the attacking unit.

I’d date these “artifacts” around 1984-86 when I was in my final high school years. I have faint and pleasant memories of playing it with my brother and other neighborhood kids when we weren’t indulging our interest in D&D or other roleplaying diversions of the time. Much of the actual game play centered on moving around buildings or trying to gain the high ground before blasting away at enemy tanks. Few games lasted more than half an hour from set-up to finish, but “Tank Battles” remained on of our favorites among the quick games we could play in an afternoon.

The game has since sat in its box on a shelf for years, though I recently raided it to mount and re-paint the Pkw IVs for use in other games (notably GHQ’s Beer & Pretzels Game – WWII Micro Armour, an introduction to the company’s own tank rules offered as a free PDF download; and my own development of Panzer Kids). The rules were simple enough I might try running it with my four year-old Little Guy – who’s expressed an interest in playing some of Daddy’s games – but I think we’ll put our efforts to more practical purposes and see how much of Panzer Kids he can comprehend. “Tank Battles” served its purpose back in my gaming youth, not simply as a break from roleplaying games but as a vehicle for my growing enthusiasm for and interest in designing my own games.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Family Favorites at Awesome Con

This past weekend our family attended Awesome Con in downtown Washington, D.C., a fandom comic-book media event. We had a good time Saturday, despite a few con-management issues; the experience also demonstrated a few elements I thought would make any convention more family friendly.

I try to focus on the positive and avoid the negative in both my online presence as well as real life (to varying degrees of success), so I’ll gloss over the convention management issues that threatened to put a dent into our one-day con experience – lack of entry signage and communication; an hour-long wait to get wristbands for people who bought advanced tickets online; and surly/clueless/oblivious con volunteers wearing shirts emblazoned with “Volunteer: Brute Squad” that seemed subtlety unwelcoming – and focus on convention activities that really impressed us.

Our family had a few ulterior motives for attending the convention. We primarily wanted to see our friend and Star Wars author Timothy Zahn and his wife, whom we haven’t seen for years; although we only chatted with them briefly, Tim and his wife were gracious as always and really made us feel welcomed (something Tim does whenever he meets a fan, even for a quick book signing). I was also interested in meeting Rod and Leanne Hannah, creators of the wonderful Star Wars parody web comic Blue Milk Special; we chatted briefly about a few of their other projects in the works, particularly the kid-oriented Hickory Hippo. And finally our son, the infamous four year-old “Little Guy,” has reached a point where he’s really into superheroes, partly from watching Batman and Wonder Woman reruns on TV and from reading about them at the local library (when those particular picture books aren’t checked out or outright stolen). We hoped to expose him to some generalized fandom, including a huge dose of superheroes.

I rarely attend large conventions anymore, nor comic-oriented events. So I was pleasantly surprised to find some very engaging elements to the convention, some planned by management as part of the con experience, but most reflecting a generous, friendly spirit in con attendees.

NASA & the K-Zone

Aweseome Con set aside an area on the exhibit hall floor as the “K-Zone,” a section with child-friendly activities.

The con volunteers here were the friendliest we met; they welcomed us and pointed out the various tables tempting kids with balloon artistry, Nerf-gun target practice at costumed members of the local 501st Legion organization, a slew of tables with crayons and coloring books, and several hands-on science and craft tables run by NASA.

The NASA tables offered a host of demonstrations and crafts all related to space science. The volunteers here (I’m not sure if they were from the con or NASA itself) really knew their stuff, went out of their way to engage youngsters, and gave away tons of goodies. We wandered up to the static electricity display, where the volunteer talked with the Little Guy, asked him if he wanted to go into space when he grew up, and then demonstrated static electricity with a red balloon and some table salt strewn across the table. A cool demonstration, but more relevant still when she described how the astronauts on the moon brought dust into their spaceship because of static electricity, all while the Little Guy listened with rapt attention. The Little Guy also learned about ultraviolet light and made a bracelet out of light-sensitive beads. But by far the best part was building and launching his own rocket. Volunteers helped him build a rocket out of a taped construction paper tube with a cone at the top and stabilizer fins at the bottom; then he brought it over to the launch zone where kids could put their rockets over one of two “gantries” (plastic tubes affixed to tripods) hooked up to hoses and a plastic bellows...by stepping on, or usually jumping on the bellows, they sent their rockets high into the exhibit hall atmosphere with much gleeful cheering.

We loved the K-Zone, with the Little Guy requesting several return trips throughout the day to launch his rocket. For future cons it might help to have the K-Zone somewhat more insulated location from the loud, pressing crowds of the exhibit hall floor, perhaps one of the meeting rooms used for panels (where apparently they did have programs for kids, though we didn’t notice these on site). I’d also suggest offering a con-exclusive coloring book or page with small packs of crayons kids could take home. Dare I mention that, if located near the equally isolated game room, intrepid organizers might offer demos of appropriate kids games....

R2-DC Builders

While wandering around the exhibit hall floor we happened upon a small crowd watching the comic antics of a life-sized R2-D2 droid, a remote-control creation of the R2-DC Builders, a fan club focusing on constructing actual-sized props from the Star Wars films (though primarily droids). Although the Little Guy was too shy to pose for a photo – he was too shy to take a photo with any costumed character – numerous fans took advantage of the opportunity for a shot with a blinking, beeping R2-D2. Aside from offering photo ops at their booth, the operators frequently took R2 out for a spin around the exhibit hall floor, spreading their excitement and bringing some unexpected wonder into everyone’s con experience.

Complimentary Con-Goers

Maybe I’ve not been to any major conventions in a while, or to any that encouraged costumed participants, but I was very encouraged to find that not only did many con-goers wear costumes, they were extremely encouraging to folks in costume. People stopped for photo ops, offered compliments, and – especially the kids – talked with their favorite comic book personalities in character. The costumes ranged across every license in fandom. Some costumes were simple, others complex, some homemade, others realistically elaborate. Old and young and even infant showed off their diverse costumed finery in a parade that coursed through the long line for pre-paid ticket-holders outside and into the packed exhibit hall.

The Little Guy, dressed in his very simple Han Solo outfit, got a few compliments and “Isn’t he adorable?” comments (and, in true Han Solo fashion, we had to offer him a reward to dress up; yes, I know, we’re terrible geek parents). But now that he’s on a superhero kick, he really enjoyed saying hello to every Batman, Wonder Woman, and Spiderman he passed (though he admired the more intimidating costumes from a distance). Many actively engaged him with high-fives and conversation, though he was a bit too camera shy to pose for photos.

Return Trip?

Will we go to Awesome Con again next year? I’m not sure. It’ll probably depend on whether Timothy Zahn is a guest, how con management resolves some of the issues and suggestions from this year, and where the Little Guy stands in his own superhero and fandom enthusiasms. But from our parental point of view we’re definitely considering bringing him to other conventions of a similar nature. I’ve already brought him to Historicon (as I reported earlier); we’re planning a return trip this year with the entire family for a day. We’re also considering other, smaller conventions which offer a nice assortment of costuming, gaming, and children-specific programming. And thanks to NASA, I’m already plotting in my head how to build our own compressed air gantry-hose-bellows launch set-up so the Little Guy can gleefully send his homemade rockets into the stratosphere.


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Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The One Page Dungeon Contest: Short & Sweet

I’m an advocate for brevity (though my writing rarely demonstrates that). I prefer game rules (both in mechanics and presentation) on the short and simplistic end of the spectrum given my lack of time and focus in a hectic life – a subject I’ve previously discussed here – though I have in my more than 30-year history of gaming indulged in “tome” games for both reading pleasure and actual play. So I’ve watched the past few years’ One Page Dungeon Contests with great delight because they not only showcase some outstanding, system-neutral short adventures but generate a host of free material for the gaming community every year.

I love short scenario material, whether a full-fledged dungeon crawl or some in-universe source prop with adventure hooks. Way back during the 2nd edition Advanced Dungeons & Dragons days TSR released several Deck of Encounters sets, boxes filled with oversized cards containing brief adventure elements keyed by location and difficulty level; I actually used one during solo play when the gaming scene in my life seemed slow. Some TSR boxed sets also contained one-page scenarios or adventure hooks with related player handout props. R. Talsorian’s Cyberpunk 2020 contained a section of adventure hooks with a “screamsheet” on one side – a one-sheet fax newspaper reporting on key events in the Night City setting, typical of what characters might find – with related scenario ideas on the other. The company used another concise strategy with its Castle Falkenstein game, offering one-page adventure outlines providing the extreme basics of set-up and plot along with brief stats for key allies and adversaries.

I’ve admired the One Page Dungeon Contest from afar for years, though I’ve never entered. I’ve tried to craft an interesting dungeon experience on one page; it’s quite a formidable challenge. The best I’ve managed – combining an adequate adventure with the constraints of one page – ended up being a whopping two pages: Labyrinth of Set, a Pulp Egypt scenario available for free/pay-what-you-want at DriveThruRPG. Creating an adventure with an engaging concept, enticing introduction, and challenging encounters in one page (including a map) seems a daunting exercise in clear, concise writing and tight game design. The contest entries, of course, range across a wide spectrum of quality, theme, presentation style, artistic finesse, and layout. It takes a lot of courage to submit one’s work, whatever it’s comparative quality, to such a very public forum. The contest offers a good opportunity for aspiring game writers to “get published” and gain some recognition for their work.

An esteemed panel of judges determines the most outstanding of all the entries, but all submissions receive recognition and online publication thanks to a creative commons license. This year’s judges include such game-industry notables as Ernie Gygax, Martin Thomas, Steve Winter, and Sean K. Reynolds as well as several others from online communities and the blogosphere. Winners in a variety of categories can receive prizes from a host of supporting sponsors. All entries eventually find a home on the One Page Dungeon Contest website so readers can view or download the PDFs and decide for themselves which ones they like best. Previous years’ entries remain archived on the One Page Dungeon Contest website to peruse and download. They offer a broad spectrum of adventures enterprising gamemasters can customize for game system, genre, play style, and character level.

I admire anyone who enters the contest: they accept the daunting challenge of fitting an engaging adventure (map and all) on one page; they have the courage to share their work in public; and they contribute to a greater body of work available to everyone seeking inspiration for a short adventure.

Don’t miss the April 30 deadline for submissions to the 2014 One Page Dungeon Contest. Develop an interesting premise, sketch out a map, and write some encounters...it can’t take forever because it’s only one page!

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Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Playing with Other People’s Toys

On Saturday I walked into my friendly local game store to celebrate International Table Top Day 2014. My gaming friend waved, we checked out the store’s pile of demo copies on the center table, found one we liked, and gave it a test run. A fellow we’d never met came over while we glanced over the rulebook, set up pieces, and shuffled cards. “Want to play?” “Sure!” I’d read some positive reviews about Cryptozoic Entertainment’s Gravwell: Escape from the 9th Dimension but wasn’t sure it was something I’d really like...until we sat down and played. No review or feature, or even a download of the PDF rulebook, could give me the firsthand impression that actual play could. I didn’t have to buy it first before I tried it, because I was playing with the FLGS copy...playing with someone else’s toy.

Potential customers have many resources at their disposal when researching new games to purchase – rulebook or quick-start PDFs uploaded online, reviews, publisher websites, game community forum discussions, even actual play videos like Wil Wheaton’s excellent Tabletop show (all resources I’ve discussed before) – but nothing beats sitting down to play the game with a group of friends. The key, however, is finding someone else who owns the game, can clearly teach it, and has a ready source of additional players to fill the ranks.

“Playing with other people’s toys,” so to speak, has been a tried and true strategy for learning new games for ages. I imagine many patient parents (my own included) undergo the ritual of teaching their kids how to play chess...and the inevitable lesson in sportsmanship that follows. Many initiated into the esoteric practices of roleplaying games since their emergence 40 years ago learned by watching and joining other players who managed to own or pool their collections of the necessary rules tomes. How many times have kids – and adults – wandered past an exuberant group of players huddled around a board and wondered what’s going on...and have been invited to join in the fun?

A good teacher not only explains the rules clearly and concisely, shepherding players through turns and strategies as they play, but they share their enthusiasm for the game. On some level it’s a selfish urge: teach others how to play a favorite game to bring new players – and a new game experience – to the table. At the very least, even if they don’t return, everyone’s enjoyed at least one game experience together.

Learning games while playing with other people’s toys is a great way to “test drive” a game before buying it. Finding the right venue helps:

Friends: “Hey, I just got this new game...want to try it?” Many gamers enjoy the fellowship of friends who acquire new games, even ones outside their usual repertoire or genre of preferred games. Established groups provide a comfortable environment with familiar players, so there are few uncomfortable introductions while complete strangers break the ice (though doing so over a game often helps). While I don’t do it often enough due to schedule juggling and hefting the majority of housecleaning duties, I do enjoy hosting friends for afternoons of gaming (usually accompanied by a meal); sometimes we just have some basic games out for a general crowd, but other times we have a smaller group of more hardcore game aficionados to try more complicated fare.

FLGS: Among the many elements that make a really excellent friendly local game store (FLGS), two key factors encourage patrons to test drive games...in-store play area and demo copies. Open play space remains essential in creating a vibrant gamer community (and a consumer base) through store events and tournaments. It also offers a comfortable spot to gather with friends, look through the store demo copy, and give it a test drive. One of the two stores I frequent has a policy of lending games like a library for a small deposit...good toward purchase of the game if customers want to buy it. My really local FLGS participated in International Table Top Day 2014 and designates Saturdays in its busy weekly schedule for open board game play (when it isn’t hosting tournaments or other special events).

Game Conventions: Not everyone can make it to even the closest regional convention featuring some solid game programming, but those who do have an opportunity to play old favorites or try new offerings, usually with an experienced referee. Exclusively gaming conventions (as opposed to those catering to the greater spectrum of fan media) provide access to roleplaying games, board and card games, even some miniature wargames. Some provide board game “libraries” offering vast selections of currently popular board games participants can “check out,” examine, and play in a friendly environment with plenty of potential players. Besides offering places to play new games other people own, many conventions also host dealers rooms where one can purchase games they’ve played and liked. I often lose count of the number of tables at friendly, local miniatures wargaming conventions where I stop to take a look at the fantastic terrain and detailed soldiers, only to have the referee or a participant ask if I’d like to join the game. I bought the World War I version of Ares Games’ Wings of War/Wings of Glory game after joining a beginner-friendly game at a con (though I’d already dabbled in the World War II version). At larger conventions many publishers offer game demos right at their dealers hall table or in some other space at the con. Although I didn’t get a chance to play at GenCon 2004 thanks to the massive crowds and long lines, I did watch Jeff Tidball demonstrate his Cthulhu 500 racing card game to some eager players; watching the game concept, theme, and execution first-hand inspired me to eventually add it to my collection (though it hasn’t seen much actual play). One of my latest experiences nicely demonstrates the concept of playing with someone else’s toys. I had a chance to try the Sergeants Miniatures Game from Lost Battalion Games (which I discussed in greater detail earlier), but, given the high price tag for just the basic game, let alone all the add-on soldiers and supplemental materials, it’s not something I’m going to go out and purchase at the drop of the hat (or even after some degree of consideration). Yet I had a fantastic time playing two games with referee Jason Williams, including a beginner-friendly demo session and a more involved game incorporating more advanced rules. (I played a German squad both times, and, thanks to the participation of a more experienced player on my side, came out ahead of the Allied forces both times.)

As a father I see kids at “play dates” sharing their toys. We can do the same as gaming adults; play with other gamers’ toys, try new games, broaden our gaming repertoire and horizons, cultivate a community of gamers, and expand the variety of our game experiences.

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Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Addiction Marketing in X-Wing Miniatures Game

According to news from the adventure gaming hobby trade show in March, Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game is the company’s most successful game of any kind ever. This comes as no surprise. FFG has combined one of the most popular media franchises with a fine-tuned marketing and tournament strategy pioneered by Wizards of the Coast in its more than 20-year campaign with Magic: The Gathering, a game that re-shaped the hobby’s manufacturing, sales, and play landscape.

The X-Wing Miniatures Game is a fantastic game. The basic set contains everything needed to play, including an X-wing and two TIE fighters. My four year-old son plays the quick-start version of the game (without all the numerous nuances of squad points, special pilots, and a vast range of vessel upgrades), though he usually flies the Millennium Falcon with a 360-degree field of fire so he doesn’t have to line up shots like the rest of the fighters. It’s a fun game that builds on the often overlooked minis-moving-along-templates design pioneered by the folks at Ares Games in their Wings of War/Wings of Glory games simulating historical aerial combat from World War I and World War II.

Since I’d only played the full version of the game a few times with friends (and without the aforementioned four year-old), I didn’t fully comprehend the complex relationship between a 100-point squad, named pilots with different special abilities, and upgrade cards that added enhanced equipment, secondary weapons, and extra pilot bonuses. But after recently participating in a tournament – my first – at my Friendly Local Game Store, I quickly realized how FFG inserted layers of complexity in the game design to encourage constant play and frequent purchases.

Expansion Addiction

The first level comes from providing additional “expansion packs” with new ships. At $14.95 adding a new ship to one’s squad doesn’t seem like a huge investment...until players start building toward a collection of one of each ship, or customized squads for either Rebel or Imperial forces, or both. Each comes with several ship cards containing the vessel’s combat stats (generally the same for each type) and a host of pilots from the rookie and typical squadron pilot to those with specific names and special abilities (including several from the films and the expanded universe). Each also comes with the same set of upgrade cards adding everything from new pilot bonuses to an array of equipment including droids, secondary weapons like bombs and missiles, and various sensor enhancements. Each in its own way affects the game; they alter die results, allow for extra actions, provide secondary weapons with greater potential firepower, and otherwise improve the overall performance of the vessel. Some upgrades seem common, while a few, more powerful upgrades only come with specific ships. Both ship and upgrade cards include a point cost used in assembling 100-point squads for the suggested personal as well as tournament play, with the more powerful pilots and upgrades costing more and theoretically balancing out advantages for fairness.

In the game a vessel can use an upgrade as long as a player owns that card (and the associated ship it came with) and the ship can add that kind of upgrade. Different vessels allow different kinds and numbers of upgrades indicated by symbols on the ship cards; however, upgrade cards rarely indicate they’re limited to Rebel or Imperial ships. So an Imperial ship could use an upgrade that comes exclusively with a Rebel ship, and vice versa. The combinations in a squad between ship types, named pilots, and valid upgrades seem limitless, yet they depend on owning more expansion pack ships. The expansions encourage frequent play as gamers try out different ships with varying combinations of pilots and upgrades.

This strategy requires an escalation on different levels. New ships can’t simply provide previously released upgrades, but must include some exclusive ones to tempt player purchases. New releases must also fit within a player’s vision of the continuity. Since the game’s publication FFG has thus far produced most of the vessels from the classic Star Wars trilogy. But those in the upcoming fourth “wave” of releases all originate in “expanded universe” material developed over the years in comics, roleplaying games, and other media (these include the Z-95 Headhunter, forerunner of the X-wing; TIE Defender; E-wing; and TIE Phantom) that some might not find fits with their own personal “canon” for the franchise. Hedging its bets, FFG also released more classic-canon vessels in “aces expansion packs” featuring two alternate paint scheme models of previously released ships (TIE Interceptors, A-wing and B-wing) with alternate ship cards (and pilots) and no doubt a host of standard and exclusive upgrades. Add to this the oversized ships – the Rebel medium transport and Tantive IV Corellian corvette – released with appropriately high price tags ($59.95 and $89.95 respectively) and even casual players start considering buying new ships to add to their collection (either to play with or simply admire). They’re beautiful models that look fantastic on the gaming table, lend a realistic feel to one’s Star Wars dogfights, and offer varying levels of play complexity that perpetuate the play more/buy more cycle.

Tournament Play

Although not every person who plays the Star Wars: X-Wing Miniatures Game invests time and money participating in official tournaments, the vast gaming population that does helps fuel FFG’s “most successful game of any kind ever” sales levels.

Avid players like to try out new ships just for fun, but tournament players seek to add new ships, pilots, and upgrades to their arsenal, test out different, potential-winning combinations in casual play, and then bring the best squadrons to the tournament table in competitive play. Tournaments offer a chance to face off against different opponents and squads with the goal of winning prizes and rising in the overall ratings. This cycle often encourages a min-max style of play as innovative players and avid collectors/consumers purchase more expansion packs and work out which combinations of ships, pilots, and upgrades work best together, usually providing incredible advantages over other, less proven squads. Unlike the random nature of Magic: The Gathering, in which available cards to play must show up in one’s hand as randomly drawn from the deck, X-Wing Miniatures players stack the odds in their favor with pilots and upgrades empowering their strategies in every single turn. This results in seasoned tournament players completely rolling over rookies like myself who haven’t had the time to exhaustively play out numerous combinations of pilots and upgrades from my limited collection of ships. I’m certainly not complaining that I didn’t enjoy the tournament games – I had a blast – and every hard-core gamer I played against remained friendly and in most cases helpful in explaining (and sometimes showing off) the nuances of 100-point squad play. It became very clear at the in-store tournament who were the power tournament players and who played the game mostly for fun.

“Organized play” has fueled game interest, sales, and fan loyalty since the days of the Role Playing Game Association (RPGA); it continues as a strong and carefully crafted marketing strategy through tournament leagues for Magic: The Gathering, the X-Wing Miniatures Game, the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, and others. Finding the right mix between game component “expansions” and combinations for winning tournaments drives casual and tournament play, collectability, and ultimately sales.

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