Thursday, January 26, 2006

Stealing (Game) Time in Hong Kong with Alan Kwan

Two days after arriving from Bangkok it was time to pack my bags again for a conference in Hong Kong.

Now I haven't been to HK since I left my last "major" job which had its regional headquarters in HK several years ago. I was primarily a roleplayer then and tracked down a game shop in an office building somewhere in Kowloon. Name of the store had "wargame" in it somewhere I think - I can't remember exactly.

Anyway, this time around it was a snap to identify who to contact for a boardgame fix. Alan Kwan is an active voice on BGG. He's also the YINSH champion from the last tournament run at Essen Speile. Finally, he's the proprietor of Tarot Games Hong Kong, the premiere source of Eurogames in HK. I dropped him a line because I'd only be able to get around the city on a Sunday, and Tarot is normally closed on Sundays except by appointment be regular customers.

In a trend among Asian gamers that warms my heart, Alan was wonderfully accomodating. He agreed to meet me at his shop Sunday afternoon. That meant that not only would I get to meet him, I also would be able to buy games! He had TAMSK and YINSH in stock, two games that have been on my wishlist for a long time. He also amazingly had a copy of Stefan Dorra's MEDINA still in the store. Now, TAMSK and MEDINA aren't cheap, the former carrying an MSRP of $50 and the latter being an out-of-print game with a lot of wooden bits, but they are both on my wishlist as "grail games" so I had to have them. Finally, Alan also had a copy of Lo0kout Games's little card game Attribute (yes, the English version) which I believed to be almost impossible to find. Those four games cost me clost to US$200, which was reasonable for an Asian environment. Besides, we have to show support to the people who bring "our" games into the region. Without guys like Alan in HK, Damien in Singapore and Edwin in Malaysia, we'd all be in the same boat as Thailand - no game stores and no way to get a new game fix other than by expensive orders from overseas.

Tarot Games is located on Hong Kong Island, and my hotel was on the other side of the bay in Kowloon. Fortunately, my hotel was a two-minute walk from the nearby ferry dock, which took me across to HK Island. Again, I was lucky since the ferry dock on the other side was right across from the MRT (subway), so I hopped on a train. Fortress Hill, the station nearest the mall Tarot was is, was just two stops away.

I popped out of the MRT station and took the five minute walk to the mall.

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I was a bit early so I looked around. Alan had an intersting mix of games in his store window. There were a couple of games (I think they're kids' games) that I couldn't identify (boo). There was Ingenious, and Igloo Pop, and Pickomino, and of course the new Kris Burm game PUNCT.

Alan arrived shortly, and after the requisite introductions we chatted about the HK and Manila boardgame scenes. I had a bit of time, so I proposed that we play a game. PUNCT was handy in the store window, so that was what we played.

I had only played PUNCT before online at The physical game has nice Bakelite pieces. For the uninitiated, PUNCT is an abstract connection game. Players try to connect two sides of the hexagonal board using various-shaped pieces. There are three twists. First is that pieces that are already on the board can be moved in straight lines, with one of the three points on the piece as a stable pivot. The second is that the pieces can stack on top of each other, as long as the pivot point is placed over a piece of the same color. The third twist is that there is a dark area in the center of the board that players can't play pieces into, but can move pieces into.

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Alan, as expected, smoked me in two games. Hey, he's the 2005 YINSH World Champ and he's probably played PUNCT and all the GIPF games a lot more than me. I don't mind getting whipped like a BGG Pony two weeks in a row, in two different countries. Abstracts have never been my strong suit. (That's my story and I'm sticking to it!)

I had to run back to the hotel for dinner, so I thinked Alan for his hospitality and got going. Two games off my personal "grail list" and four games total off my wishlist, plus a couple more games played in a different Asian country. Not bad at all.

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Saturday, January 21, 2006

A Gaming Afternoon in Bangkok with Dale Walton of PIN

My flight arrived in Bangkok in the early afternoon so I was able to meet up with Dale Walton, "technical consultant" for toy and game maker PIN International headquartered in Thailand's capital.

I contacted Dale through Boardgamegeek prior to my trip. He offered to meet up with me and play some games. Sure enough, a call to his mobile phone and Dale said he'd meet me in my hotel's lobby to play.

As an aside, there is no place to get Eurogames in Thailand. Even PIN's abstract games which are manufactured in Thailand are not sold in the country. In light of that I guess I shouldn't feel so bad about Manila's dearth of game shops - at least one can purchase the likes of Die Siedler and Carcassonne off the shelf here, albeit at a painful premium. BGG member Michel "pixyfrog" Dauget had just relocated to Bangkok and was planning to open a game cafe sometime in 2006. I hope to visit next trip down.

Dale was carrying two of PIN's abstract games with him. One was a game I expressed interest in seeing - an unusual number that went by the name Zaroc. The other was a game called Creeper.

We chatted about the abstract game scene while Dale demolished me at Zaroc. This little niche of the gaming world has its own quirks. What stood out for me was the stigma of an abstract game being labelled as "broken" or "solvable" which carry far more weight than they do in the Eurogame world. Lacking a theme, mechanisms are the only thing that an abstract can fall back on. If the mechanisms don't work, then the game is usually toast. If it wasn't an abstract, you could bathe the game in artwork and stick shovelfuls of plastic minis into the box and people would buy the game just for the look.

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Pic by Geoman, "borrowed" off the Geek

Anyway, about Zaroc - this is a counterintuitive movement game where you're trying to get three of your pieces into the five-slot "bottom" row of the board. Your pieces are skewered on pylons which get shorter as you go "down" the board. The counterintuitive element is in the movement. You can only move your piece "downstream" if it occupies the very top spot on a skewer, and even then it can only move into the adjacent downstream pegs. Otherwise all your piece can do is move sideways; it cannot move backwards. The rule that threw me though was the one where you couldn't "undo" the last move your opponent made (each player gets two moves on his turn). Zaroc is a short game, and it's not really complicated, but it certainly requires a bit of thinking.

The next interesting series of stories Dale related was about the abstract game industry, in which his PIN International competes against the likes of Gigamic. I won't go into details so as not to get Dale into trouble, but suffice to say that there are interesting rivalries and relationships between the companies and the game designers even in the niche world of abstract games.

The next game Dale showed me was Creeper. Now this was a more straighforward game and I wrapped my head around it much faster than I did with Zaroc. The object of the game is connect two corners of the rectangular board with markers. The markers are placed with metal pins that slot in between the hexagonal board spaces. When the pin hops over an empty space, it leaves a marker of its color on that space. If there's a piece in the space the pin jumps, it flips the piece (a-la Othello and YINSH). If it moves along the edge of the space and over an opposing pin, the pin is captured.

Dale still smoked me twice in a row, but at least I didn't embarass myself too badly.

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After a second game of Zaroc, Dale said he had time for one more game and would I like to see Fire and Ice? There was no way I'd pass up playing a new game, so he went to grab the game from his car.

Fire and Ice, as Dale tells it, is a game of symmetry. This explains the unusual board layout. Players take turns placing colored pins (red and blue, hence Fire and Ice) onto the board. The game starts with just a single red peg in the center slot of the center isle. The start (fire) player now has to move that peg, either to any open slot on the same isle, or to the same exact slot on a different isle. The catch? You place a peg of the opponent's color in the spot that your peg just vacated. The object of the game is to control three island in a row, or in a ring (see the pic of the board). You achieve control of an isle if you have three pegs in a row or in a ring on that isle.

The fun part is that the game is expandable in iterations. You can play on seven boards, thus expanding the game into controlling three isles in a row or ring on three boards in a row or ring to win. And then you can play on seven sets of seven boards if you really have a lot of time on your hands. Or you want to go insane.

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Pic by Pergioco, "borrowed" off the Geek

Dale had to go after killing me at Fire and Ice. Before leaving, he generously gifted me with the copy of Creeper that we had played on. Thanks Dale! It was a nice afternoon of coffee and games, and I was very happy that I got a chance to meet another gamer in Asia.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Games around Asia and a Time-travelling Note

I hadn't realized that I'd been away from the weblogs for over three weeks now. My last posts were from mid-January, after I began a series of three trips - to Bangkok, then to Hong Kong, then back to Hong Kong where I am right now.

I took up boardgames as a hobby in between "major" jobs - i.e. the jobs where I do a huge amount of stuff for a transnational corporation and travel a lot. This kind of travel has allowed me to "see" gaming around Asia and meet fellow gamers. These were my first trips to Bangkok and Hong Kong while being a boardgame hobbyist.

My last post promised the story of my afternoon with Dale Walton. It's coming, but don't mind the date. I've been writing the posts but haven't been completing and publishing them on time. So, I'm publishing these things with past timestamps. Not hugely important, but some of you may wonder. Anyway, on with the tales.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Just Happy to be Nominated

I was shocked to see this blog nominated for the Boardgame Internet Awards. Whoever nominated me, thanks, I'm glad that someone out there thinks it's worth the time to read my random ramblings. That pretty much made my day. :)

I should be more controversial. That nominated post was generated by getting pi$$ed at some stuff on the Geek (which prompted the creation of this personal pulpit to begin with).

An Afternoon with Dale Walton (placeholder)

I'm travelling right now, spending a few days in Bangkok, Thailand. As is my habit I dropped someone from Boardgamegeek a note asking if a meetup was possible. In this case, it was PIN International "technical advisor" Dale Walton who generously agreed to hook up for a few games. (The "technical advisor" bit is an inside joke which I might relate later.)

I'll get into our afternoon games when I get a moment. Have to rush off to the conference.

Monday, January 09, 2006

So, I played Caylus on BSW...

I need to congratulate Ystari Games, the new French publishing house with two games to its name, for allowing online gaming places and to put its red hot title, Caylus, on the web. I think the reasoning is sound - games of this weight are desired by a small niche market, and that's the niche that's got a good chance to trying the game on those sites.

I've had my misgivings about Caylus purely due to its parentage - a game from a first-time designer and a two-game publisher. After disappointing experiences with titles from small publishers and designers with much more experience (F2F and Friedemann Friese's Power Grid, and R&D and Richard Breese's Reef Encounter) I approached Caylus with apprehension. Coupled with massive Boardgamegeek hype, it was destined to be a let down.

So, I played Caylus on BSW.

It was about what I expected it to be based on its lineage and rules reading. My four main gripes about the game follow in reverse order of significance. (Yes, I'm a curmudgeon. ;-) )

1. Caylus is fiddly. The BSW interface emphasizes this by showing the coins and cubes flying around the screen. Combined with the workers, tiles and house-markers, there are a lot of moving parts each and every turn. If the game was better, though, I could live with this (see Puerto Rico).

2. Caylus is long and slow. Before the the only BSW game I've played that took longer than 60 minutes was a game of Intrige. (Oh, that was painful.) Even the longish Power Grid never took 90 minutes, which Caylus did. This was with everyone taking turns briskly, with little or no downtime. I can imagine how long it will take with just one slow, deliberate player, the need to administer the game (see #1), and the need to consult the rules periodically. Again, I can live with this - Die Macher is even longer but I don't feel the time fly by. I felt Caylus being to drag after 60 minutes... online.

3. Caylus is underdeveloped. Perhaps I've been spoiled by the clean lines of the Knizia and Kramer titles, and by the development that HiG and alea put into their games. The little stock segment of Reef Encounter bothers me as an extraneous mechanism, as does the player-changing and power plant-manipulating mechanisms of Power Grid. I get the same grating feeling from the Bridge/Stable mechanism of Caylus, as well as the ill-fitting majority subgame in the Castle and the favor track. Finally, the multiple currencies (masquerading as "goods") are an element that I rarely like in a game. This is perhaps the thing that most says "needs additional development" because playing the game to collect various currencies then buying stuff with those currency "sets" is tremendously unappealing to me. This, I find very hard to play through.

4. Caylus is processional, a game on rails. Just as Power Grid uses its clunky "stepping" mechanism to control the game's throttle, so does Caylus rely on the three castle segments and the carpenter-mason-lawyer-architect sequence to control game flow. A player cannot decide to start the game off building prestige buildings straightaway, oh no, because you need to build the mason, then the lawyer, which needs to create a residence before you can make that monument. Oh, and you need gold (aka most scarce currency #6) which isn't available until the mid to late game due to similar constraints. This I find hardest to play through as it gives that good ol' cliched "the game is playing me" feeling. So, do I build something that produces two food and one wood, or two wood and one food? Oooh. That's an interesting decision. Not.

I can see how people can like Caylus. Hell, I still don't get the love for Power Grid (still inexplicably #4 on BGG). Caylus just doesn't have the things that I look for in a good Euro.

Tuesday, January 03, 2006

The BGGs I Have Known

Well, it was inevitable. On January 3rd, BoardGameGeek underwent a major facelift. As expected, the are those in support, those against, and those who are apathetic. Personally, I adapt to things that I cannot change, so I'll learn to use this version of the Geek as I have the versions in the past.

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This is the first version of the Geek I ever saw. I had just played my first game of The Princes of Florence and thought that it created possibilities. However, at the time we had a D&D campaign going, and there was just no time for a new hobby.

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I returned to the Geek in 2002 after playing Puerto Rico. Unfortunately, I was living in a foreign country at the time due to work and the main requirement for this hobby to catch on, a steady gaming group, was not available. So, again BGG was more of a curiosity, and my main hobby at the time was videogaming via PC and PS2. Interestingly, I was a sometime member of another online community over at GameFAQs, a site that I had seen evolve over several years. (It has since been purchased by CNET, but seemingly still retains its independence.) I rarely visit GameFAQs these days since I've practically given up videogaming (it was just a lifeline hobby in a lonely time) but when I peek in it's undergone radical changes itself.

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I created my BGG account in November 2003. I had returned to my home country and happily regained my gaming group. Our regular gamemaster no longer had time to handle a campaign, and none of us had the time to invest in full-time Magic: the Gathering involvement, so we turned to Eurogaming as our regular hobby. I started to collect games. Hello, Reiner Knizia.

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This was a minor redesign in 2004, when the Geek first switched to the two-column format that we see today. It was a very nice format, clean and user-friendly. The twelve months surrounding November 2004 were the peak of my Geek activity, when I wrote most of the content I've submitted to BGG to date, and when I met and began gaming with the online boardgaming buddies I've known the longest - Mary, Gerald and Chester. Joe Gola joined our little group shortly thereafter when we discovered 5P Durch die Wuste on Ludagora.

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2005 marked the debut of the Tabbed Geek, which was just an evolution of the 2-column design. This is what most of the current regulars of the Geek should be familiar with. Despite the emegence of Boardgamespeak, my BGG activity declined as the number of users and site traffic increased. I started this blog early in the year when the old BGG Blogs were removed as a site feature. It was a respite from the noise of the Geek, and provided much greater freedom and control. My group of online gaming buddies expanded, and later in the year our invite-only extended online gaming "group" (I use the term loosely here), BGGF, was created. I had the pleasure of meeting and gaming online with Jim, Jasen, Jason, Gerald the Elder, Kane, Chad, Seth and I'm sure I forgot a couple of others!

Which brings us to today.

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I'm not quite sure I like it, but that was more or less how many people feel about familiar things that change. It's like tossing your old, comfy but worn-out shoes for stiff shiny new ones. They more advanced, more functional, and shinier, but they're less comfortable and you have to break them in for a while. I use BGG a lot less now than I did in 2003-04 when the hobby was new and much research had to be done on the back catalogs and there were a lot of cool Geeks to meet.

Now, with regular online gaming buddies, a nice selection of online gaming venues (BSW, SBW, BaJ, Ludagora) a mostly-complete collection of all the games I care to own, and a wealth of content being cleanly fed to me by Bloglines, there is much less need to be on the Geek. That is why I guess the redesign bothers me much less than it does other users. I still plan to send in my $25 eventually, as well as submit more content, just for old times' sake.

Thanks to Aldie and Derk, and best of luck to Scott in his new career as Overlord of Boardgamegeek.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

2005: My Year of Boardgaming, Part II - The Best Games

In a previous post I mentioned that we have a very tight rotation of games. Most of the games that "click" with us will get a lot of repeat play, and those that fail to make a good first and/or second impression likely will not see the table again in a good long while. In 2005, I acquired many games based on their chances of breaking into the rotation. I whiffed with some (Through the Desert, Santiago, Mexica, La Citta - I like them all, but my group likes them less) but others outperformed expectations.

Here are our Top 10 Games Played in 2005. All these games, save for #3, made it to our dime list.

10. Euphrat & Tigris

Much as I'd like to play this a lot more, some of our group just get paralyzed on E&T. I realyl have no idea why. In specific combinations of players, we can polish off a 4P game in an 75 minutes, which is pretty good.

9. Samurai

Got play despite its arrival pretty late in the year. Speed and elegance. Games are over in under an hour. Will continue to see time in 2006.

8. Taj Mahal
7. Modern Art
6. RA

Three rotation staples. Taj gets less play than the two auction games due to length, but overall I don't see them leaving the list anytime soon. RA was finally reprinted so I have an uberplay edition to supplement the lone alea edition we have for play.

5. Clash of the Gladiators

Purchased on a whim, due to the Knizia/HiG pairing and the theme. Turned out to be a huge hit, and hit the dime list in under two months. I think the heavy play will want eventually, but it should be a rotation staple for years to come.

4. Traumfabrik

T-fab surpassed my lofty expectations, becoming more popular than RA and Modern Art just because of the Hollywood theme. It's also surprised me with its mechanisms - I wasn't expecting much due to comments read, but it's a lot more intricate than I was led to believe. It's at least as interesting as RA and Modern Art. I consider this US$70 well spent, as the 2006 reprint does not look promising. This was my best purchase of the year.

3. Die Macher

Follow the story here and here. We have played Die Macher every game night since it got here, which is 5 times. Not unexpected, despite Macher's 4 hour playing time. I've managed to come in last or next to last every single time, which is a sign of a very good game. ;)

2. Puerto Rico

If I did this list for the past three years, PR would have come up as #1 every year. It slips to #2 this year, which is still nothing to sneeze at. I chafe at the 5P game that the rest of the group loves, but still would play 4P in a heart beat. This must have contributed to the rise of our new #1.

1. The Princes of Florence

I finally got some of the people in my gaming group to say that Princes is better than Puerto Rico. Well, of course it is, a lot of people just haven't realized it yet. We usually play with 5 or 4, and Princes plays with 5 in half the time (or less) than our 5P PR games last. So it gets the nod, having even served as "the appetizer" for our last Die Macher game. Isn't that amazing? Princes is still the best Euro ever made.

(No, it's not lost on me that 7 of our top 10 are Knizia games. However, none of the top 3 are by Reiner. Interesting. Just missing the list were Amun-Re, Goa, Power Grid and Java.)