Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Solitaire Play Addendum

After posting “Celebrating Solitaire Play” two weeks ago I immediately thought of several more recent solitaire gaming endeavors worth noting. With the current increased interest in all aspects of adventure gaming – and the boom in new material available to consumers – I’m encouraged to see a plethora of innovative solitaire-appropriate games reaching the market.

As with the previous list, I own and have played a few of these, while others I’ve simply heard about. This by no means constitutes a comprehensive review of all such materials; feel free to read the “Comments” blurb to the right or at the end of this piece to make your own solitaire game suggestions:

Battle over Britain: This game came to my notice thanks to some solitaire gaming discussions over on Google+. Someone recommended it because it offered a solitaire play option, though the website description mentions it almost in passing. After looking over the Minden Games website and downloading a free game PDF, I decided to order a copy of this game and give it a try to indulge both my enjoyment of solitaire games and my interest in this particular aspect of World War II. Despite using a deck of playing cards for an innovative system to determine which pilot has the advantage, Battle over Britain’s mechanics felt like a traditional chit-and-board wargame, with plenty of tables and the fate of units hanging on single die rolls. The game’s rules and tactical scope make it far more accessible than John H. Butterfield’s strategic RAF solitaire game published long ago by the late, great West End Game, and plays in a fraction of the time (though one can also engage in campaign play).

Dungeon Roll: I supported the game’s Kickstarter campaign because it looked like a fun, push-your-luck game with lots of dice rolling and a fun dungeon-crawl theme. Group play consists of each player taking a turn to explore a dungeon, defeating monster dice with combinations of party dice, bagging any treasure, and completing the “level” before the monsters overtake the delvers. Each player gets a “hero” who allow players to use or alter the dice differently in certain situations, varying gameplay between those in a group or single players between sessions. With little interaction between players, the game seems designed more for solo play with a competitive scoring aspect allowing group players to evaluate their progress relative to others. Whether alone or with a group, Dungeon Roll offers some light diversion with a popular fantasy theme.

The Cards of Cthulhu: This was another project I backed in the Kickstarter phase primarily because it was billed as having strong solitaire playability...and well, Cthulhu. It’s very much like playing a card game of solitaire, except with some dice mechanics, resource cards, and the constant threat of losing your sanity. Each turn more minions show up on the four boards representing the imminent arrival of Cthulhu and the Elder Gods; players desperately try to budget their actions to dispel them and seal the gates through which more horrors pour...gates which keep reappearing! Out of the four games I played, I lost three handily and won a single match only by using the “easier” rules allowing for a smaller initial draw of cards each turn. The gameplay truly captures the futile struggle, the unspeakable and never-ending horrors, and desperate race against insanity typical of the Cthulhu Mythos.

Zulus on the Ramparts! I’d heard a little about this game yet foolishly passed up an opportunity to buy a copy of the first edition at a convention a few months back. Now the second edition from Victory Point Games sits atop my Amazon wish list. Late Victorian wars remain another area of interest for me – Zulus, Egyptians, and Dervishes – so a purely solitaire game based on the famous Battle of Rorke’s Drift with a purported 25-minute playing time seems extremely tempting. I know very little about the gameplay or mechanics; a quick perusal of the rules PDF one can download from the website gives me the impression of a very involved, crunchy system typical of may chit-and-board wargames along with some added complexities related to the various components (all of which look very nice, including the rulebook itself). Anyone have experience playing it?

Scenes of Chance: Roleplaying Adventure Companion: Last but not least, this recent Kickstarter-funded project promises a deck of oversized cards, most of which show visual scenes of locales along with a few choice icons to show what characters might encounter there. Each icon has a corresponding random table (on a separate card) so the gamemaster can roll 1d20 to determine what’s there; cards include multiple icons based on the setting, challenges, weather, and potential rewards. When used in conjunction with some other solo roleplaying tools like gamemaster emulators and Rory’s Story Cubes, Scenes of Chance could provide some setting and encounter situations without programming or planning on the player’s part.

I have, no doubt, overlooked many other worthy solitaire titles across the various genres of adventure games in the hobby. The topic remains a frequent interest for me and a notable offshoot of traditional group game design.

Have suggestions for solitaire games or solo gaming techniques? Want to offer feedback? Start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Gaming Artifacts: Earliest Dice & Felt Bag

Polyhedral dice have a particular allure in roleplaying games, a subject I’ve explored before. So I’m particularly grateful I still possess my original polyhedral dice from my earliest roleplaying game boxed sets. I received the light-red dice with my Moldvay-edition Dungeons & Dragons Basic set – an Easter present from my parents in 1982 – with the yellow ones from the Expert set a few months later. Like most dice included in these boxed sets they feel unusually light, yet the edges wore down easily with only moderate play...and these dice saw lots of use.

That first summer playing Dungeons & Dragons we loved rolling the dice, hovering over them to squint at the results and interpret how they’d affect the fate of our characters. The cheap crayons that came in each boxed set remained a mystery to me and those in our small neighborhood gaming circle. At the time I was terribly clueless about all the esoteric rituals roleplaying gamers in-the-know seemed to keep among themselves and scoff at outsiders trying to figure things out. Thus for a year or two we used dice without the numbers “inked in” with crayons or grease pencils...which actually enshrouded reading and interpreting the rolls that much more mystery.

After a while my brother and I found some nice “crystal” dice sets at the local hobby shop – I bought a set of “gemstone green” dice and he got some “caramel brown” dice – though I’m not sure their seemingly precision edges indicates they were the famous Gamescience dice (I wouldn’t have known about the distinction at the time). Unfortunately these slick-looking dice have since become dispersed among several dice-storage containers (some might even have been lost!) and hence do not reside within the hallowed dice bag of my youth.

I don’t know where I picked up on the idea of having a bag for one’s dice, but I understood that particular piece of gamer lore early on. Maybe I picked up that various illustrated characters in the Basic and Expert D&D rulebooks used such pouches to carry their coinage and thus it seemed to make sense to use an appropriately medieval accoutrement for toting dice. I fashioned my own bag from brown felt scraps and yarn; it withstood years of active use and years in storage with a little wear and tear. These days I use a variety of containers to hold dice for various games, including fantastic dice bags my wife occasionally makes.

I’ve continued collecting dice throughout my gaming career, though perhaps not as addictively as other gamers. Since most of my gaming has been with various d6-dependent systems, I have an uncountable host of six-sided dice. My favorite ones include some deep bluish-green ones with an Egyptian-style scarab for the “one” face; some tan Flames of War dice from Battlefront with the Africa Corps logo on either the “one” face or the “six” face (always have to check); the round six-sider with a hollow cube interior and a weighted ball so the die lands with one result facing up on its spherical surface (a small gift from science-fiction author friend Timothy Zahn); a hefty handful of Fudge dice an old friend gave me which I infrequently (yet recently) use; a brass die that sits on my desk as a paperweight and rarely sees any gameplay; a set of “Pizza Dice!” Flying Buffalo offered long ago (and might still sell) to properly randomize topping choices; and the red-with-gold-specs I ordered a few years ago with the Griffon Publishing Studio name and logo on the “one” face. Oddly enough during gameplay I prefer using solid-color sets of dice: usually red with white pips for basic rolls, with some smaller sets of dice to keep track number of opponents, hits, rounds, or other quantities during the game.

Since I don’t play too many D&D-style games much anymore I don’t have many favorite polyhedral dice sets. I’ve kept several I acquired over the years, many as swag or trades during my years with West End Games when I had some professional acceptance from other publishers, manufacturers, and game designers. I recently (in the past three years) picked up a cobalt blue polyhedral dice set with gold-inked numbers I find particularly striking. One of these days I might give a D&D-style game another go given the current preponderance of D&D Next/Fifth Edition, Pathfinder, and Old School Renaissance material.

I always marvel at dice dealers at conventions, their vast displays of every size, color, design, and shape, and the inevitable bins from which gamers can scoop mug- or pitcher-fulls of dice for what seems like a bargain. Despite my frugal nature regarding purchasing excess dice – “excess” since I seem to have some many already – I inevitably buy a few at each convention, either to add some remarkable new find to my collection, give a novel gift to gamer friends, or replenish ones that go missing (one of my favorite scarab dice seem to disappear occasionally).

Dice dealer displays always amaze me with the seemingly infinite multitude of different symbols one can put on dice – states, animals, dinosaurs – plus the different kinds for determining hit locations, direction, and even random dungeon geomorphs (which I haven’t seen in person but would love to get my hands on). If I weren’t so frugal with what little discretionary gaming cash I have, I’d probably buy more dice that appealed to my personal tastes and gaming preferences. I’ll admit recent buzz about WizDice online (as featured by Tim Shorts and Dyson Logos) has me interested; 100 dice for $20 sounds like a fantastic deal, considering folks generally receive several full sets of matching polyhedral dice. It seems like a very fun idea for gamers, so I went ahead and put it on my wish list. Who knows, it might get me playing more fantasy roleplaying games.

So many games use dice it’s only natural for gamers to spend so much attention – and money – on one component that reflects their personal tastes. Some brag about the quantities, others showcase particularly nifty looking dice, and everyone seems to have a favorite dice-related story to share around the gaming table.

What are your favorite dice and why? Want to offer feedback? Start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Celebrating Solitaire Play

While discussing James F. Dunnigan’s The Complete Wargames Handbook: How to Play, Design & Find Them recently I called out an interesting quote regarding solitaire play:

“Playing wargames solitaire is by far the favorite mode for most wargamers. The most common reasons for playing solitaire are lack of an opponent or preference to play without an opponent, so that the player may exercise his own ideas about how either side in the game should be played without interference from another player.... For those players who do like to play with opponents, solitaire play is valued as a means of perfecting tactics and techniques in a particular game that will enhance the chances of success.”

Granted, this was published in 1992, hardly the earliest days of wargaming, roleplaying, or the adventure gaming hobby; nonetheless, more than 20 years ago. It’s remarkable that it embraces solo play not only an acceptable means of playing a game meant for more than a solitary player, but in fact the preferred method for an entire sector of the adventure gaming hobby.

Many feel solitaire gaming comes with a stigma, one perpetuated by a culture that often values social activities above solitaire ones, a society that often looks askance at anyone going off to do their own thing by themselves. Some folks feel ashamed engaging in an activity that by its very nature seems like it should occur among several people and not a lone player. Solitaire play sometimes becomes a guilty pleasure, something to enjoy now and then, but not the primary means by which gamers pursue their hobby.

Yet the adventure gaming hobby has a long and rich history of encouraging solitaire play. Certainly many preparatory activities occur with individual players working on their own – gamemasters creating settings and preparing scenarios, player rolling up and developing characters, miniature gamers painting armies or crafting terrain, board gamers reviewing rules and punching out pieces – but as the quotation above indicates, there’s no shame in playing a game, even one intended for a group, all by oneself.

Aside from the more immediate gratification of trying out the game without waiting to assemble a disparate crowd of friends, solitaire play allows one to explore the rules, strategies, and possibilities a game offers. Some solo activities aim to teach the rules (what I call the “solitaire tutorial” adventures that introduce some roleplaying games), while others exist simply to gratify the urge to explore the game alone.

Solo Standouts

Some game materials intentionally designed for solitaire play stand out. They range across the history and varieties of the adventure gaming hobby and demonstrate that solitaire game design has been and continues to serve as a valid gaming option. As usual, this by no means constitutes a comprehensive review of all such materials, merely an evocative sampling of games I own, have played, or heard about and admire from afar:

Tunnels & Trolls: One of the earliest fantasy roleplaying games that made its mark on the industry primarily through programmed solitaire adventures, T&T, as it’s known, published a host of solo scenarios and served as one of the earliest models for solitaire gaming materials. I acquired my copy while still in high school and enjoyed many an adventure among my growing library of solo scenarios. My characters didn’t always survive, but they fought their way through quite unpredictable twists and turns of fate.

Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! and the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks: Another high school-era gaming vice, the Sorcery! books and the Fighting Fantasy series advanced the familiar Choose Your Own Adventure concept into the realm of engaging gamebook. I still have rough-drawn maps of the Shamutanti Hills and Khare tucked away in a notebook somewhere, though they did little to help me survive the numerous deadly endings within those books. The rules engine remained simple enough to introduce newcomers to the concept of fighting, casting spells, and taking damage and the content – text as well as artwork – helped readers become immersed in deadly fantasy worlds.

Windhammer Contest: For seven years now the folks at Chronicles of Arborell have hosted a contest for short gamebook fiction similar to that in the Sorcery! and Fighting Fantasy series. I’ll admit I’ve often thought of developing an entry but never had the inspiration or time. One entry receives first prize while notable ones receive merit and commendation awards; all entries find a home in PDF format at the contest website. The 2014 contest is in full swing, with entries due by Sept. 7, 2014; the site lists the comprehensive contest requirements and guidelines as well as prizes and past entries.

B-17 Queen of the Skies: This was the first solitaire wargame I tried based on my early interests in World War II. Although many chit-and-board wargames offered solitaire options (and the alternative to play solo regardless), B-17 was one of the more notable games designed solely for solitaire play. The mission log aspect offered some record of each play session and encouraged campaign play through the historic 20 missions I sat for many hours hunched over the central B-17 diagram, placing enemy fighters along its perimeter and rolling various results on a host of tables. The game and experience inspired my own humble contribution to the solo wargame genre, Operation Drumbeat, which used a similar mission log format and a series of tables for generating patrol encounters and outcomes.

Donald Featherstone’s Solo Wargaming: Among his many books on wargaming the late Donald Featherstone authored one specifically addressing solitaire issues in this hobby, Solo Wargaming (1972, reprinted in 2009). I’ve not yet acquired a copy but consider it an essential volume based on his reputation and prolific contribution to the historical miniature wargaming hobby. The fact that another one of the pillars of the miniature wargaming hobby endorsed and embraced solo play offers great encouragement for others.

BoardGameGeek Solo Contest: For the past four years BoardGameGeek.com has hosted a solitaire print-and-play game design contest. I’ve occasionally tried to look in on entries, development, and final games, but since each year’s contest, entries, work-in-progress reports, and discussion occupies a different, hard-to-find forum topic keeps, it strays off my radar and remains somewhat hidden from the public eye. Certainly a solitaire board game design contest of this magnitude deserves greater visibility.

Ring of Thieves: One of the best and longest stand-alone solitaire adventures, Ring of Thieves incorporates rules for the amazingly intuitive yet versatile Risus: The Anything RPG by S. John Ross. He keeps it available in several format on his Cumberland Games & Diversions free downloads page, though one can also order a bound-and-printed copy from Lulu. This adventure inspired my own humble efforts at a solitaire scenario, Trapped in the Museum, employing, with his kind permission, the Risus rules.

Numerous Solitaire Tutorial Adventures: Frequent readers know I’m an advocate of using the solitaire programmed adventure format to teach mechanics and introduce setting concepts in gaming rulebooks. Some more notable uses of the concept appear in the second edition of Paranoia, the West End Games Star Wars Roleplaying Game, TORG, the Lord of the Rings Roleplaying Game, the James Bond 007 Roleplaying Game, and Adventures in Tekumel. I’ve written such scenarios for West End Games’ Star Wars Roleplaying Game and Introductory Adventure Game, the Raiders of the Lost Ark Sourcebook, and the Men in Black Roleplaying Game. (I’ve discussed both solitaire tutorial adventures and stand-alone solo scenarios before.)

Standalone Solo Scenarios: Several roleplaying games released notable scenarios designed for solo play beyond tutorial adventures covering rules and setting issues in core books. Ghost of Lion Castle and Lathan’s Gold for Basic/Expert Dungeons & Dragons come to mind as well as On Her Majesty’s Secret Service for the James Bond 007 Roleplaying Game. Almost everything published for Tunnels & Trolls falls into this category, though that game line’s prolific contribution to and reliance on solo adventures remains remarkable. (I’m sure I’m missing a slew of classic and well-designed solo roleplaying adventures, but these are the ones I own or have played.)

Overcoming Solo Challenges

Making a commitment to engage in solitaire gaming often means more than simply overcoming the stigma that some attach to solo play. Some games by their very nature of pitting one side against another – primarily board and wargames – easily enable a single player to engage in the game while running all the opponents (though some devise elaborate, programmed responses for an opposing player). Solitaire play for roleplaying games remains a challenge beyond using existing programmed adventures. Nothing can really replace a living, breathing, creative gamemaster when interacting with a roleplaying game rules system and setting. Some online groups and bold bloggers have explored various issues in solitaire roleplaying: creating an experience that’s original and satisfying without another person serving as gamemaster; recording game session details in meaningful ways; organizing one’s play space and saving it between sessions.

I’ll admit don’t do as much gaming as I’d like these days due to my busy full-time parenting schedule and household duties. Occasionally I get out to the Friendly Local Game Store (FLGS) for a round of X-wing miniatures or head to a convention with a roster of interesting games to play. Sometimes we invite friends over for some board games (generally a step or two above the dreaded “party” game level), but rarely anything too complex, and certainly not roleplaying games. Solitaire gaming – when I manage to fit it into my schedule – usually consists of trying out recent game purchases or self playtesting materials I’m developing for publication. My brief solo gaming experience with random dungeon generators and subsequent development of my own inspired me in creating Schweig’s Themed Dungeon Generator as a means to provide some programmed yet original roleplaying game scenario material...and I even managed to test it with a game engine in development, with far more satisfying results than other methods. We’ll see where other solitaire gaming efforts lead in the future.

Have suggestions for solitaire games or solo gaming techniques? Want to offer feedback? Start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Encouragement from Books on the Common

For me a good place to live requires several elements – beyond safe neighborhoods, good schools, and a thriving business community – most people might not consider essential: a local newspaper intelligently informing the community, a Friendly Local Game Store (FLGS), organizations preserving local history, a public library offering programs for all ages and interests, and a supportive book store. I was fortunate to grow up in a town with a small but excellent independent bookstore that managed to survive 30 years despite economic downturns and the growth of digital media in today’s ever-changing Internet Age. The quiet encouragement the owners gave me in my formative years fueled my interest in fantasy and science fiction and helped inspire me to pursue my professional career in writing, editing, and game design.

I first became really interested in reading fantasy and science fiction back in high school. Sure, I’d read Tolkien’s The Hobbit and H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, but my involvement with roleplaying games inspired me to explore the hobby’s literary origins. At the time my hometown of Ridgefield, CT, possessed two independent bookstores: Books Plus on Main Street and Books on the Common in a remote cluster of shops near the main Copps Hill Plaza stores. Each had a small bookshelf unit set aside for the then-meager selection of fantasy and science-fiction paperbacks available at the time.

In the summer of 1985 – right before my senior year of high school – I rode my bicycle into town once a week to Books on the Common to purchase a new novel to devour over the next few days. Back then most paperbacks cost $3.95, which worked out to a convenient $4 and a quarter with sales tax, an affordable weekly treat. Once I found a particular author I liked, I wanted to read all their books. Bob Silbernagel established Books on the Common with his wife in 1984 and ran it until his untimely death from cancer in 1991. I didn’t know his name at the time, but to me he was the friendly fellow behind the register who smiled when he quietly rang up my purchase. He didn’t mind me taking the time to browse titles, marvel at cover art, or read back-cover copy on numerous novels before settling on a single paperback for my week’s purchase. Before internet cookies, club cards, and lists of suggestions generated by market-driven algorithms (“Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought…”), Bob Silbernagel took the time to observe and care about what his regular customers bought. He quietly kept track of what books I bought and made sure he had both the continuing books in a series and other titles that might interest me in stock. When I began reading paperback editions of Michael Moorcock’s Elric saga and the other Eternal Champion books, he stocked every book in the series on those shelves. He made sure I could buy all the Larry Niven paperbacks to satisfy my hunger for his Long ARM of Gil Hamilton stories, the acclaimed Ringworld, and numerous Known Universe novels and short stories that still engage my imagination today. When I started reading David Eddings’ Belgariad he stocked all the books in the series so I could read them uninterrupted. He made sure the shelves remained stocked with every title that might possibly interest a teenager exploring his nascent and varied geeky interests.

Many people at the time encouraged me along my path of writing and game design, not the least of whom were my ever-supportive parents and several key high school teachers. Bob Silbernagel’s quiet encouragement – just making sure he provided inspiring fodder for my fantasy and science fiction reading – helped sustain and enrich my life as much as the more overt efforts.

The town of Ridgefield and Books on the Common have changed over those many years – I wouldn’t expect them to remain the same, other than in my nostalgic memories – but the store still stands as a cornerstone of what makes a good hometown. The store has since passed to new owners and found a new home, not tucked away in a development behind a shopping center but right on picturesque Main Street, Ridgefield (ironically enough, in the building where I got my first job, as a clerk at Bedient’s Home and Garden Center). We briefly visit it when making our annual pilgrimage to New England to visit family. I’ve found books on local history, my wife indulges in gardening fare, and my son’s even found a beloved Pete the Cat book.

The brick-and-mortar bookstore provides something digital venues cannot: the ability to freely browse a selection of books not tailored by one’s past purchase or internet history, but by the diverse offering stocked on the shelves by subject. If I hadn’t browsed the store’s local history shelves I would never have found Charles Pankenier’s Ridgefield Fights the Civil War, combining an interest in my hometown history with my growing urge to learn about my new current home, located amidst many battlefields of the “War of Northern Aggression,” as some locals still call it. On my last visit I’d hoped to purchase a copy of The Secrets of Wildflowers – by longtime Ridgefield Press executive editor Jack Sanders, with whom I briefly worked in the early 1990s – as a gift for my wife. When I asked the bookstore staffers if they had it in stock, they checked the computer and apologized that they had no copies on hand. But as I wandered the shelves, browsing at whatever subjects came into view, I happened into the gardening section and, lo and behold, one copy sat on the shelf. It didn’t stay there.

The debate on whether to buy books and games from friendly, local, brick-and-mortar stores or seek better bargains online continues raging. Some folks prefer one or the other, but savvy consumers keep both their financial concerns and their responsibility for the welfare of their geographical community in mind; they find a comfortable balance between shopping online and supporting their local businesses. Good game and book stores flourish and survive by offering more than just inventory for sale. They become community hubs for their clientele, providing a friendly gathering place to enjoy their hobby, interact with other enthusiasts, and expand their horizons with recommendations from helpful staffers. Books on the Common knew this right from the start. It provided an encouraging environment for a geeky teenager seeking to broaden his fantasy and science fiction literary horizons.


Want to share memories of your favorite book or game store? Offer feedback? Start a civilized discussion? Share a link to this blog entry on Google+ and tag me (+Peter Schweighofer) to comment.