Top 11 board games – 2014

January 30th, 2015  |  Published in board games

Anyone who spends enough time around me knows that I love board games (some of them no doubt wish that I would shut up about them, sorry Jennifer). Over the past couple of years, their importance has grown for me. Aside from being fun, when I play board games, it is something that I can focus the entirety of my attention on, allowing me to stop thinking about work or whatever might be stressing me out. That benefit, combined with providing a framework for social interaction (talking to strangers is a lot less awkward when you have something to talk about, board games are perfect for this), makes board gaming an ideal hobby, for me at least. So what am I talking about when I talk about board games? Monopoly? Risk? Not really. Both of those are board games, yes, but it in the same way that an Apple II is a computer: it is, and it was really cool when it came out, but it has long since been superseded by vastly improved computers. Modern board games are a huge and varied thing these days, and looking at the shelf of your Friendly Local Game Store (FLGS) for the first time can be an experience akin to looking at the craft beer section of a well stocked supermarket: You know sort of what is going on in front of you but you don’t have a good idea if you’ll actually like whatever you pick out. Towards that end, I am putting together a list of board games that I enjoyed playing in 2014.

This year, I logged 166 plays (not of 166 different games, mind you, Star Realms alone accounts for 24 plays). I have put together a list of my top 11. They aren’t games that came out in 2014, necessarily, but they are games that I played in 2014. In addition, I’m restricting myself to games that I’ve played at least twice, as a game can seem great the first time around then fall flat on the second play. These games aren’t in any particular order, I’m not going to attempt to figure out if one is better than the other given that I like them all for different reasons with different people in different conditions. Without further ado, here’s the list:

Star Realms – Star Realms is a light, competitive deckbuilding game. To my mind, deckbuilders come in two flavors, “Dominion” and “Ascension”. Dominion style have a common pool of cards for players to buy (which is how they build their decks) that doesn’t change much during the game, as there are multiple copies of each card. Ascension style games also have a common set of cards that both players can buy from, but the selection changes from turn to turn and there are only a few duplicates (of weaker cards). Both styles of game have their strengths and weaknesses, so I won’t go into which is better. Star Realms is part of the Ascension family of games. The thing that makes Star Realms stand out is how quick and inexpensive the game is (15 minutes and $15) and how much player interaction there is (the goal of the game is to destroy your opponent, not to collect victory points like in Dominion, which can feel like multiplayer Solitaire). If you’re on the fence, the app is free and very good. Recommended for: anyone who wants a light, inexpensive, deckbuilder; recovering Magic: The Gathering players who want something to scratch the itch without taking over their lives and ruining their credit scores.

Puzzle Strike Shadows – This one is another deckbuilder, but in the Dominion style. It doesn’t play as quickly as Star Realms, and is much more expensive, but I the gameplay is deeper (lots of combinations and permutations while still remaining very balanced). The really cool thing about Puzzle Strike is that instead of cards, you play with chips (think poker chips made out of cardboard) which you draw out of a bag rather than shuffling. As shuffling is the most annoying part about playing deckbuilders (you usually start the game with ten cards that you cycle through very quickly, meaning you spend a lot of time shuffling a tiny deck, which is just annoying). I picked up Shadows rather than the base game because it is a stand alone expansion and my wife liked the art better. I plan on getting the base game this year. Recommended for: people who want a rich and highly interactive deckbuilder.

Mr. Jack Pocket – Mr. Jack is a classic asymmetrical deduction game in which one player plays as Jack the Ripper and the other as Sherlock. Players take alternating turns trying to confound their opponent (Sherlock attempts to narrow down the pool of suspects and Jack does his best to avoid this). I liked the original, but I felt that the setup and rules were too cumbersome for what was actually going on. Mr. Jack Pocket (or Jack Junior as my wife affectionately calls it) fixes all this. It does not attempt to miniaturize the game, but rather reinterprets it in such a way that the game is distilled down to its purest essence. The setup, rules, and gameplay are elegant enough that I can teach the game to a new player and get two or three full games in over the space of an hour with enough time left over to eat lunch (I have done this a few times now). All of this without sacrificing the depth of the original. Recommended for: people who want a quick and intense two player game with high portability.

Province – Province is the first microgame that I backed on Kickstarter. A eurogame small enough to be shipped in a letter envelope and streamlined enough to play in 25 minutes. It is not a heavy game by any stretch, but there is a surprising amount of depth here. This sort of game is also one reason why I love shorter games: its brevity creates a sort of freedom, you can try all sorts of crazy strategies and if they don’t work out, you haven’t spent two hours in the learning. For $5 I can’t think of a reason not to buy this game. Recommended for: anyone with $5 to spare.

Burgoo – Another microgame that cost $5. This is my go-to lunchtime game for more than two players (although it plays quite well with two, as well), it is easy to teach, short, and being a game about soup, the theme fits perfectly. After I received it, it sat on my shelf for about a month, as I wasn’t sure I wanted to actually play it (it had been an impulse purchase) and the rules didn’t immediately ‘click’ for me (through no fault of their own, the mechanics are different from anything else I’ve played before, as soon as I actually started to play, it all made sense immediately). Once I gave it a shot, however, I absolutely loved it. It feels quick and light, but the endgame can turn into a bit of a brain burner (in a good way, as I usually play it at lunch and while one player is thinking of how to screw over their fellow chefs everyone else is actually eating, no one gets bored). Recommended for: anyone with $5 to spare.

Vikings – Vikings, you know them: longboats, horned helmets, axes, pillaging. This game has nothing to do with any of that, instead focusing on the other stuff they did, namely founding settlements, trading, and farming. This game consists of six rounds in which players take turns buying island tiles and viking meeples from a really clever rotating rondel that adjusts the prices for things as each turn progresses. The game plays quickly (about an hour), has plenty of indirect interaction, and is full of interesting decisions. I had been wanting to try it for a long time but it was out of print, so when I heard about the reprint I requested a copy from my FLGS. Money well spent. Recommended for: anyone looking for a quick mid-weight economic game.

Waggle Dance – One of my goals this year is to spend less money on Kickstarter, particularly for larger companies who are using it as a preorder system. I have nothing against that, personally, but it screws with my budgeting. So, going forward, I want to shift my  focus to backing games that might not succeed without me. Waggle Dance falls squarely in this category. It met its funding goal, but just barely. And man is it a great game. It is all about building a hive and making honey, with each player having a ton of dice representing bees which are used to take actions. It feels really elegant, has beautiful design, and you get to chuck a ton of dice (each player can get as many as eighteen, though ties are broken by the player with the fewest bees, which makes for a really interesting dynamic). Recommended for: anyone looking  for a “dicer placement” game that can range from light-weight lighthearted filler to a cutthroat medium-weight game.

Dungeon Lords – “Well, everyone got what they wanted this turn.” Wait, I must be thinking of a different game. Dungeon Lords is a game about building a dungeon and killing pesky heroes, in which you never have quite enough actions or resources to make things work out like you want them to. That might sound kind of harsh, but I absolutely love this game. It is hard (even when I win, I feel like I’m losing for the entire game), but very rewarding (even when I lose, I have a great time, partially due to the shared suffering of the rest of the players). The learning curve is steep (expect to spend some time learning how things work before royally botching your first game) and the game isn’t for everyone, but if you know someone who owns a copy, you need to at least give it a shot. Recommended for: people who are distraught that things are just too easy in their lives; people who want to feel like they have accomplished something, even when they lose.

Tzolk’in – Tzolk’in is one of those games that looked as if it might be a flash in the pan when it came out in 2012. It is a worker placement game (a game in which the primary mechanic is placing pawns–“workers”–onto a limited pool of actions that are available to the other players, too). It has a beautiful board with a giant rotating gear in the center. When it first came out, I thought that its popularity might be due to the novelty of the board, but it turns out that there is a solid game underneath those rotating wheels and that it does some interesting things with the mechanic. Usually in a worker placement game you take turns selecting actions and once everyone is out of workers, you get to do the things that you chose. In Tzolk’in, however, the workers stay on their spots until the player chooses to remove them, and because those spots are on gears that get rotated by the central wheel, the longer you wait to pull off your workers, the better the actions you can do. When combined with the variety of paths to victory, the result is a game that is packed with interesting decisions. Probably my favorite game of all time. Recommended for: anyone who isn’t afraid of some brain work.

2 de Mayo – When people ask me about games that I love but that no one seems to have heard about, 2 de Mayo is my go-to answer. It is often referred to as a wargame, but it lacks many of the stereotypical hallmarks of the genre: it is not a long, sprawling, complex game, but rather a short, tight, focused brain-burner. It plays really quickly (30 minutes) and I’m glad for that because I don’t think that I could handle it for any longer. The game is about Napolean’s invasion of Madrid on, you guessed it, May 2nd. The Spanish player’s goal is simply to survive ten turns and the French player is trying to destroy all of the Spanish forces while controlling all of the city entrances. The result is a cat-and-mouse game that is combined with secret orders and simultaneous actions. I may not always be in the mood for it, but I love it. Recommended for: People wanting a quick, tense filler. History buffs (the rulebook has an overview of situation and all of the event cards are based on things that actually happened).

Brass – I should be clear that I’ve only played this game twice and don’t know it nearly as well as the others on this list. That being said, I love it. It is the heaviest game on this list, I think, but doesn’t feel dry. I love just about everything about Brass, but there are a few things that stand out. First, I love the canal/railway dichotomy. Halfway through the game, all of the canals that you’ve spent so much blood and treasure building become obsolete, but most of the buildings in the cities that they connect stay around, leaving a very interesting puzzle as players have to rebuild the infrastructure. Second, it does interdependence very well, as you can sell cotton through your opponents ports benefitting them in the short term but possibly wrecking their timing (as they might have trouble selling their cotton after that. Finally, I love the theme. For me, well done theme means that the game feels like what it represents (Cash N Guns, for example, definitely feels like you are getting screwed over by your criminal associates), and Brass feels like a bunch of entrepreneurs scrambling to ride the tide of modernization. Recommended for: people who like economic games but want some flavor, too. Anyone watching Peaky Blinders.

Games I’m excited to play this year: Taluva, Panamax, Harbour, Impulse, Republic of Rome, and Tigris and Euphates. More on those in a future post.

Thanks to Zach Havok for pointing me to the post (worth checking out, by the way, as is the rest of the blog) that inspired this list, by eclectic blogger Keith Law. Zach is also the reason that the list is eleven items and not, say, ten (he really likes eleven, I guess).

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I know nothing about Robin Williams

August 12th, 2014  |  Published in commentary

Well, that may not be quite true. I know that he was in a bunch of films that I enjoyed, but I have no way of knowing how similar on-screen Williams was to off-screen Williams. So when I ascribe things to him, know that I am talking about neither of those people, but rather the version of him that lives in my head (who probably has little relation to either). That being said, he died yesterday. Well, off-screen Williams died, on-screen Williams can still be watched and there are millions of versions of himself running around inside the heads of just about everyone who has been influenced by him. Where am I going with this? Oh yeah, the Robin Williams who lives in my head says not to mourn him. As far as I can tell, Robin Williams made the world a better place, and that is a truly noble thing. I won’t catalog the things he did, as others will do a much better job of it, rather, I will repeat what I learned from him: Laugh. Laugh at things that are hard to laugh at. Laugh at yourself. Laugh at the things you take seriously, and if you can’t laugh at them, I would suggest that perhaps you aren’t taking them seriously enough. If you want to honor his memory, lighten up and make the world a better place, and maybe go ride a bike.

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Hey, I wrote a story about that . . .

August 6th, 2014  |  Published in writing

When writing science fiction, every once in a while you will see something that you wrote about actually happening (much sooner than anticipated). It’s weird, but makes sense. But when writing fantasy, not so much. A while back, I wrote a story called The Ash Tree (it’s available for free at Broken ShoresSmashwords, Barnes and Noble, and elsewhere so you should go read it if you haven’t already). It was the first story that I wrote in the Broken Shores setting, and it is still one of my favorites. One of the central elements of the story was the eponymous ash tree in the courtyard of a residential block (thanks Azby Brown for the architectural inspiration) which had many kinds of fruit and nuts grafted onto it. So I was kind of surprised to read about just such a tree the other day. Granted, grafting isn’t exactly new, but some of the early readers had told me that the grafted tree was a little ‘out there’.

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Good points, but hold the elitism please.

June 9th, 2014  |  Published in commentary

The other day I ran across an article in Forbes, “Kids Don’t Read Books Because Parents Don’t Read Books,” by Jordan Shapiro. The central point was that the print vs. digital debate is much less important than it is made out to be, and that the real story is how parents’ reading behavior affects that of their children. On board so far. Then I came to this paragraph:

I’ve met highly educated elite individuals who have told me they just don’t have time to read books. They skim the NY Times book review so they can participate in cocktail party conversations. They buy executive summaries from the back of in-flight magazines. I’m shocked by the number of people who ask me if there are audio versions of my books available.

That last sentence bothered me. Although he isn’t explicit about it, it looks a lot like Mr. Shapiro is equating audio books with executive summaries and book review articles. Huh. Even if I’m misinterpreting that, it is pretty clear that he is disappointed by these people who want to listen to his books rather than read them. Now, I won’t argue with the fact that listening to an audio production of a book is a different experience than reading the text of it, but it seems that I missed the part where he provided justification for implying that it is an inferior method.

The written word is a way of transcribing the spoken word, not the other way around, and though some books do not make the transition to audio very well, suggesting that text is the superior way of experiencing prose sounds to me like saying that we shouldn’t watch productions of Shakespeare as reading the plays is clearly far superior. Given his words in “Phaedrus”, I suspect that Socrates would side with me on this point. Or perhaps Shapiro’s derision is because listening to books can be less work than reading them on a page or a screen. Fair enough, but I would argue that the work of reading a book isn’t in how the text makes it from the author’s brain to your own, but rather with what you do with it once it gets there. Let’s not mistake audiobooks for television here.

Finally, it seems he has a bit of a double standard. He writes: “My kids read on the iPad, the e-reader, and paper. I make sure of it. I read to my kids every night.” I’m not exactly sure why a parent reading a story to their kid is worthy of praise and an adult having a story read to them is worthy of scorn. Perhaps it is because this inferior form of prose is okay for children, who cannot read on their own, except that he points out that his kids can and do. If, as parents, we need to model good reading behavior for our kids, it seems somewhat arbitrary that we should avoid modeling the enjoyment of listening to a book ourselves while encouraging our children to enjoy books that we read to them.

On another topic, at the end of the essay, he talks about some interesting findings from a recent study about what kids are reading. The one which caught my eye was the third:

3. Books like Twilight and Hunger Games are more popular than literary classics. These days, teachers assign these more often than Shakespeare or Don Quixote. Most of them will tell you that it is because they figure any reading is good reading and books like these increase student engagement. On the one hand, this makes sense. On the other hand, we should remember that popular fiction prioritizes sales over content. They are revenue generators first and literary explorations of the human condition only afterward. This doesn’t necessarily mean popular fiction is bad, but there’s also a reason that certain books have transcended the economic, political, and epistemological trends of particular centuries.

I’m not sure that most teachers would say that the reason they might assign a popular book is that “they figure any reading is good reading and books like these increase student engagement.” I missed the supporting evidence for that bit. Perhaps the teachers are just trying to assign books that their students will find entertaining and relevant. Perhaps these teachers are trying to show their students that reading is fun and rewarding. Perhaps the historical importance of the first contemporary novel is not the thing to create lifelong reading habits.

Frankly, if I have to choose between a teen reading “Don Quixote” in high school and coming to the conclusion that reading is tedious or that same student reading “Hunger Games” and coming to the conclusion that reading is fun, perhaps even later in life listening to an audio production of “Don Quixote”, I’ll pick the latter any day of the week. As important as the classics may be, and as much as we should encourage people of all ages to read them (in whatever format works for them), how about we give them the tools and opportunity to decide to do it on their own first.

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And now for some good news

May 20th, 2014  |  Published in Misc

Smashwords (where I have a bunch of stuff) has just announced that it has partnered with Overdrive (the company that most libraries use for ebooks). This is awesome on a number of fronts. First of all, authors on Smashwords will have the opportunity to sell to libraries and get exposure through them. Second the publishing industry has been very reluctant to sell ebooks to libraries (and when they did, often selling them at exorbitant prices) and it appears that libraries will be able to purchase from Smashwords at pretty much the list price (although there is a price floor of $1.99 due to Overdrive). This move will hopefully add some leverage to the library side of things (after all, they do have budgets for procuring new material and it is more difficult to set one-sided terms if there is an alternative). Finally, this will allow libraries to better work with the independent and local community. All in all, good news.

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Judge Dixon, you’re doing it wrong.

May 19th, 2014  |  Published in commentary

Last year, a guy decided to drive his Ferrari through downtown Olympia at 100 MPH, while drunk and being pursued and with a captive passenger. It was his 7th DUI. He recently plead guilty to felony charges of the DUI as well as eluding a police officer. His sentence: no jail time and a one year work release program. WTF?

Reading about this, one has to wonder what Judge Dixon was thinking. It looks an awful lot like corruption, and even if it isn’t, when you’re talking about the judiciary, there is little difference between the appearance of impropriety and impropriety in fact. This sort of thing damages the perception of the courts, and therefore the fabric of society (insofar as we are a nation of laws). I doubt that much can be done at present, but until it can, lets just hope that the defendant decides against vehicular manslaughter, as the courts seem to have no interest in doing anything about it.

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What a thoroughly odd day.

May 10th, 2014  |  Published in Misc

Today was strange. I was tired all day–exhausted, really–and kind of cranky. On top of that, ShoStoWriMo seems to be fizzling this year, with participation much lower than would be expected from the initial response (I have some ideas on what I can do better next year, though). Finally, I had trouble finding any short stories to listen to at  work (from the Clarkesworld and Escape Pod podcasts) that did anything for me.

On the other hand, today was excellent. I finally got to the point in my follow-up to “There Are No Words” where I get to explore Calvin and Hobbes from the perspective of a guy in a post-literate society (everyone has computers in their heads, among other things). Also, I’ve been thinking again of doing a Kickstarter for Caldera (to have it edited, get it printed, and commission some art), which has a distinctly optimistic feel to it.

In short, I was depressed, but had a blast writing on my lunch break and am optimistic about doing something more with one of my favorite stories. What a weird day.

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How Things Are

April 29th, 2014  |  Published in announcement

Well, I was hoping to have an essay about the unexpected degree to which gamification (most notably in the form of HabitRPG, which you should go check out, right now) has changed my life in a facts-on-the-ground sort of way. But, apparently it hasn’t changed my life that much (fundamentally not bad, as I regard writing fiction as being exponentially more important than writing blog posts). Still, I am writing this now, and that’s something.

The main things that I’ve been working on for the past week have been the followup story to “There Are No Words”, tentatively called “Passport Denied”, which I haven’t yet published, but if you ask I would likely send you a copy. I’m really enjoying the story as it is unfolding and I look forward to seeing it in its final form. That being said, what started off as a short story is now nearing the 12,000 word mark, and will probably end up firmly in novella territory (barring massive cuts during revision). Overall, “There Are No Words” and “Passport Denied” are planned to be opening of a novel-length work that I would like to finish this year but probably won’t.

Part of the reason for that is that May 1st is almost here, and with it, ShoStoWriMo. Preparations are going well for that, and I think that it will be a good year for the event. In any case, I’m going to try and get a little bit of writing in before I go to bed, so good night.


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ShoStoWriMo 2014!

April 22nd, 2014  |  Published in ShoStoWriMo

Up until a few minutes ago, I was unsure whether I would do ShoStoWriMo this year or not, but since I just created a subreddit for it, it would appear that I am going to do it after all. I’ll post more about it as May approaches, promise.

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Stories I Probably Won’t Get Around To Writing: The Silent and The Dead

March 17th, 2014  |  Published in Uncategorized, writing

Okay, let’s say that there’s a zombie outbreak and virtually everyone gets infected (99% or more).  What would that look like? I’m going to use Olympia as an example, as that is where I live.

The average population density of Thurston County (where Olympia is located) is 347 people/square mile. This could be better (the average for the US is 88) but it could be a whole lot worse (Los Angeles County has a population density of 2,100 people/square mile). Assuming “Walking Dead” style zombies, with a small group, you should be able to clear a square mile without too much trouble over the course of a week. The problem comes in when people get guns. Something like an assault rifle might be audible as far away as five miles. With sustained shooting, it isn’t unreasonable to assume that you would draw every zombie within a three mile radius. Not so bad, right? Wrong. A three mile radius gives you an area of a little over 28 square miles, with 347 zombies per square mile, you’re talking about nearly 10,000 zombies.

Now, let’s say that you’re a survivalist shooting zombies from their roof. Even with a 100% accuracy rate, you would be talking about 10,000 rounds, and at 28 pounds/1000 rounds, you would be talking about 280 pounds of ammunition, just to give you an idea of the amount of supplies you would need. Furthermore, what would 10,000 zombies look like? Shoulder to shoulder, that many people would take up something like one and a half football fields. In any case, I think that you get the picture. Things would not be good for our lone survivalist with his buried gold, canned food, and mountain of ammunition. I wouldn’t write about him.

Instead, I would write about the sort of group that would survive the math of the situation. They would need to be competent, not necessarily at killing zombies, but in organizing themselves as a group. A disorganized or fractious group of people with weapons doesn’t have many more choices than the a single armed person (in fact they may even have fewer, as their resource footprint would increase with their size). Weapons are force multipliers for individuals. Organization, on the other hand, is a force multiplier for groups.

The group would find a defensible place with a source of fresh water (and as far from survivalist types as practicable), and they would secure that area as quietly as possible, then gradually move out, clearing the area around them.  Once they had carved out a large enough area for themselves, they would create zombie traps, basically pits with sound emitting things (perhaps a shishi odishi for zombies?) scattered around the area’s perimeter. Every day or so, someone would head out the pits, dump in some gasoline, and burn the day’s zombies.

Wouldn’t they need that gasoline for their cars? No. First of all, gasoline goes bad and eventually will not work in your engines (but will probably still be viable for burning some zombies). Second, cars are loud (see the bit about drawing zombies to you above) and require cleared roads or paths. Finally, gasoline production would cease at the zombie outbreak (or shortly thereafter), and the group would soon find itself scavenging farther and farther away just to fuel their vehicles.

So what sort of stories would take place in this setting? First of all, there wouldn’t be much soap opera (which isn’t to say that it would be entirely absent, either), as it requires a fractious group and would likely get everyone killed before long. Instead, the story would probably focus on the various struggles from within the group, such as how decisions are made, and how to deal with divisive issues (51-49 votes are terrible for morale, see congress). The group would have to decide on its relationship to other survivors. I’m sure that there would be plenty of stories to tell in this setting. The main difference is that it wouldn’t be as annoying as much of what you see being made these days, which either assumes that people are basically bad (it seems to me that our world is an example of the opposite) or that people want to watch petty squabbling, or both.

In any case, I probably won’t write this, or at least not any time soon, but wanted to share the ideas anyway. If you do want to write it, feel free.

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