Sunday, February 26, 2006

Free Parking, or Why We Don't Do House Rules

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If there's one game mechanism that can show us why house rules, or not playing but a game's published rules, is something to avoid, it's Free Parking.

Free Parking jackpot, which usually consists of an initial stake plus collection of fines and taxes that would otherwise be paid to the bank. A player who lands on Free Parking wins the jackpot, which may then be reset with the initial stake (if any). The jackpot is usually put in the center of the board. (, Monopoly House Rules)

Thus it mystifies me when I read many posts of gamers modifying game rules due to perceived imperfections in the original design. Essentially, they are creating their own Free Parking problem. House rules are fine if the same group of players confine themselves to playing with each other. I'm sure that there are gaming groups where this is the case.

However, when gamers start playing with (or even worse TEACHING the game to) people from other gaming groups, then the house rules become a problem. It becomes easy to forget the correct published rules when you are used to playing with house rules.

Say, your group has decided that you don't want to deal with memory and therefore always play Euphrat & Tigris with open scoring. You then teach the game to a cousin from out of town, who then buys his own copy and takes it back home. He then teaches the game to his own friends with the same open scoring rules error. It is in this way that Free Parking comes to Mesopotamia. When these players go out and play with others, they are surprised to learn that they have been taught Euphrat & Tigris incorrectly.

It is understandable that gamers try to take a game that they found uninteresting or borken and try to salvage their investment by tweaking the rules. Perhaps it would be better to simply take the offending game and sell or trade it. There are many games that work very well out of the box. Why dignify a crappy game by devoting even more time trying to fix it, and then playing the same crappy game again in the hope that the fix improved gameplay? Sell or trade it for a game that you know works. Boardgamegeek is a good place to see if a game you have your eye on has any problems.

On a final note, companies are exhibiting an increasingly alarming tendency to issue games with poorly-written rules. Whether this is a result of poor translation from a foreign language or simply having a poor rules writer AND editor is irrelevant. Companies then try to correct this problem by issuing errata or "official variants". ("Official variant" is a term that is horrible and laughable at the same time.) A recent and very amusing example is the recent release of the new edition of Britannia, which had its "FAQ and errata" released one day (Feb 23) after the game (Feb 22). That's just pathetic from a consumer standpoint. There is clearly very little focus on quality in this case.

There are apologists who say that this kind of thing is expected and should be tolerated. Bullshit. What happens to the people who buy the game but never access the internet? They're stuck with a product that's flawed or even broken such as Avalon Hill's Betrayal at House on the Hill. The publisher's product contains house rules (since the rules are incorrect and/or incomplete) as produced, and the correct way to play the game is issued as a fix. We've already given up on holding software companies to standards of high quality, accepting that all software will have patches, bugfixes or service packs just to get them to work as advertised. Let's not do the same thing with publishers or any other companies that produce flawed products.

Let's not pay for Free Parking.

Saturday, February 25, 2006


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One of the unending debates in games is whether memory is a valid skill. I've always found this argument silly.

The people against memory usually invoke the term "trackable information" as an argument against memory. Essentially, if you can take pen and paper and take notes on (usually random) elements of a game in order to keep track of what has appeared and what hasn't, then that information should be open. A good example of this is RA's random tile draw. The initial tile distribution is random, so if you have a tracking sheet and tick off each tile as it appears, then you should have an exact inventory of what remains in the bag.

A closely related argument to this is "countable information" wherein all the game elements are out in the open except for one, and that hidden element can be determined by counting known elements and calculating. For example, the number of caballeros in El Grande's castillo, or the amount of cash each person has in Power Grid are examples of countable information. Countable information is always also trackable.

Now, I don't know if the people who want to keep this information out in the open are just bad at remembering things, so they don't want to be disadvantaged. Memory is a valid gaming ability, just as spatial reasoning or strategic brilliance or mathematical ability or word association or a vast reserve of trivia in your head. Is memory just as valid a source of competitive advantage as the ability to think four moves ahead or the ability to crunch numbers in your head accurately? Of course it is.

For example, if Karl-Heinz Schmiel wanted all players in a game of Die Macher to always know how much money each party had at any time, he would have either built it into his game mechanisms or components, or mentioned in the rules that players should keep track of everyone's cash with pen and paper. (Note that Die Macher is a game where you already need pen and paper for scoring and bidding. Money in this game is trackable information.) Therefore we can infer that Schmiel wanted players who can keep track of money in their head to have some advantage in bidding for the Opinion Polls, especially in the final election. You make that information freely avaialble to all players, and you remove a source of competitive advantage from the player with good memory that is granted to him by the game rules.

Unless the rules explicitly state that players should keep track of something with pen and paper, it is assumed that either players use their memory to maintain count or recount the game elements on the board when necessary. I know that many groups hate it when someone starts counting caballeros in order to determine how many of them are in the castillo. However, this is part of the game and is therefore part of the design. If you play El Grande, you get to count the caballeros anytime you damned well please. (This is one of a few reasons I'm not enamored of El Grande.)

If you insist on playing a game against the rules (like the very silly house rule to use open scoring in Euphrat & Tigris) then you are playing a variant that eliminates an important game element - memory. You (and your gaming group) might all agre to play it that way. That's fine. Just be aware that you're applying a variant house rule that tinkers with the way the game was designed, and are therefore playing a different game than the rest of us who play with the rules as published.

Friday, February 24, 2006

Simultaneous Action Selection, Bluffing and Other Mechanisms of Little "Skill"

Geeks love these kinds of discussions.

Jim over at The Gamer's Mind talked about Simultaneous Action Selection and randomness.

Thi Nguyen picked it up and made a counter-argument in Geeklist form.

I'm not really interested directly in the debate here, although it IS excellent reading for the hardcore gamer. I'm more interested in the use of the word "skill" within that discussion.

What follows here is my personal interpretation of the arguments in the articles preceding.

People seem to define "skill" as a game element where players' decisions have a meaningful impact. I.e., making a deliberate decision based on available information should give the player a better game result. So, this opens a different yet not-less-significant can of worms.

First: If a decision is based on pure conjecture, is it skill? Is "reading" your opponents a valid "skill"? Some, especially poker players, will argue this to be true.

Second: If a player makes a decision based on statistical probabilities, is there skill involved? The Rock-Paper-Scissors example cited in Thi's list is a simple example here. Now, if in the counter-example in the same list where you have "Good ol' Rock" Bart Simpson likely to pick Rock, a player (Lisa) makes decisions based on THAT assumption, it becomes "reading" the opponent OR using preacquired information. Is that skill? Is there skill involved in (a) knowing Bart picks Rock a lot and (b) therefore playing Paper more often than you otherwise would?

Third: If a player makes a decision based on perceived outcomes that he attempted to influence, but where he is uncertain of the outcome of his influence -i.e., Diplomacy - is this skill? Is a player who is backstabbed more often a player of less skill?

Fourth: I'm adding this as an afterthought. Are decisions based on historical information "skill"? This is part of the Simpson idea in the second item, where Lisa has information on Bart's tendencies when playing Rock-Paper-Scissors. It's also one of the "skills" poker players tend to cite - knowing how other players play. This explicitly means you are using "metagame" information - information obtained outside of the current game.

In all four cases, I would argue that there is no skill, as I define it. The reason is that the decisions a player makes is based purely on conjecture, or on information coming from outside of the current game. I would call this making decisions based on "peripheral information". This information is not coming directly from the game, but from the players. Is this part of the game? Maybe, but I would disagree. I *might* even call it cheating to an extent.

It's like playing poker on the internet. The only information you have is the amount of the bids and the bidding pattern. Poker players tend to not consider this as "real" poker because they lose the peripheral information they get from physical cues. Anyone can count cards when playing online with the use of pen and paper. So all you have now is the bidding, which is essentially how one bluffs. Without peripheral information, it's not much use game mechanism-wise. So the game of poker, without the peripheral information, is barely more skillful than blackjack.

Yes, yes, some gamers will call this "interaction". Any game has that. Even a game like Puerto Rico contains these elements. If I know that Billy prefers the corn strategy and he's sitting on my right, I can use that information in decision-making. If I know that Mary always bids in increments of five in Modern Art, I can use that information too. And if I know that Gerald is a pathological liar in Diplomacy, I'll play as if he's gonna backstab me every damned time.

Is that "skill"?

No, it's not. The ability to take current game information and only current game information and make a meaningful decision based on that - now THAT is skill. You MUST remove any peripheral information, such as historical preferences of the other players, from the mix. Decisions based on probabilities - my goldfish can do that. "Princess Bride" decisions also identify game mechanisms where skill in not involved. Same thing with "bluffing".

So you poker players out there - you're playing a game that requires very little skill.

Monday, February 20, 2006

New Look. New Name?

I just updated the weblog template, swtiching out one of the built-in Blogger looks for this style named "Beckett" courtesy of Blogger Templates. Let me know if it's an improvement or if I made a horrid mistake! (Those of you reading via an aggregator might want to surf over just to have a look.)

Also, taking a cue from my buddy Jim I'm considering changing this weblog's name. "Rick's Boardgame Blog" is descriptive, but not terribly catchy. (And there are a lot of Ricks out there.)

If you've got any suggestions, feel free to post it in the comments or email me at (Take out the NOSPAM of course.) If I use your suggestion I'll give you due credit, and 5 shiny Geekgold if you're a BGG denizen.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

No Games Played, and No Good Fantasy Quest Games

I showed up at the Lily Pad on game night to find George down with a bug. She wasn't feeling all that bad, but it was deemed best that she lie down and recover. Three others also either sent regrets or cancelled, so it was just the two of us. I did have YINSH and TAMSK with me, but in the end we decided that for a change we'd watch a film.

I'd just acquired the DVD of the film Mirrormask. It's an interesting story of twisted dark fantasy from the minds of Sandman collaborators Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. If that sounds interesting to you I put up a review on my film weblog, The Silver Screener. (I'm also reviewing all the Academy Awards Best Picture nominees.)

While viewing the film we did lament that there are no good fantasy quest games available. Good is relative, yes, but the ones we've tried have never garnered enough interest for a second look. Heroquest, Runebound, Return of the Heroes, Dragonhunt, Magic Realm - all either took too long, didn't provide enough flexibility, or required a player to be the "dungeon master". I suppose if you classify Reiner Knizia's The Lord of the Rings boardgame as a fantasy quest game (and why the heck not) then that would be the best fantasy game we've ever played.

I suppose our standards are just too high after growing up with AD&D and having some amazing game masters among our group.

Anyway. Hopefully back to Eurogames next week. I'll have to tide myself over with games on Spiel by Web, which just launched Tikal, and the new MaBiWeb, which debuts with Hansa and Richelieu.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

And I thought I was a curmudgeon...

Check out the Knizia-hating Geeklist by BGG user MichaelB. (I don't usually read Geeklists any more but a comment linked to the list from Jim off of my Geekbuddy list.)

I know I just ranted on low-utility plastic figures. I think I had good cause.

Conversely, I wonder why this guy plays games at all.

1. He hates randomness (E&T and RA tile draws).
2. He hates Taj's bits: the plastic palaces and their colors. While color is entirely subjective, the palaces are simple and nicely done. Cheap? So he hates plastic.
3. On Amun-Re: "Everything is great in this game but it just feels mediocre... " You're calling the game great and mediocre in the same sentence?
4. Samurai is "not as fun as it should be". Huh?
5. Lost Cities is "too light even for a filler". Duh. I wonder what his idea of a filler is. And I do not think "rip-off" means what he thinks it means.
6. TtD has "silly components and stupid colors". I love the comment "what is a stupid color"?

Amusingly, his Top 10 include Age of Steam (random production rolls, very cheap bits), Conquest of the Empire (plastic bits that are no better than Taj Mahal's palaces), Age of Mythology (more plastic bits, and a mess of a combat system that's more random than tiles could ever be) and Mare Nostrum (simply a mess of a game due to the map balance and crazy trading).

I'm not picking on the guy. I'm just noting that despite nitpicking on certain games and game elements, I enjoy playing games and don't rag on them just for fun. Vasel knocked Farrell for this in one of his recent podcasts, which was completely unfair and unfounded. Farrell has a staggering 42 '10's and 48 '9's which is far more than Tom does, so saying "why does he even play games" is uninformed. I don't expect journalistic responsibility from the boys in Korea, but they could at least do a little checking instead of shooting from the hip based on the negative stuff written on games they like.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

The Case Against Plastic

You've got your 'old school' chits-and-counters on one side of this theoretical spectrum, and plastic toy soldiers on the other. I'd place your common Eurogame wooden pieces somewhere between those extremes.

Bits. They can make your game look a lot better than it is, or make a good game look like crap. They can work well, or be tremendously annoying during play. They can also be completely useless.

There's been a trend lately, led by Eagle Games (okay, they've been doing this for a while), Fantasy Flight Games, and good ol' Hasborg (fine, they've been doing it for a while too) to stuff as many plastic figures into a game box as possible. The function of this practice is pretty clear - appeal to the Army Men toy gene inside male gamers to entice them to buy a game. For the longest time Eagle did this a lot, with mediocre games like War! Age of Imperialism, Attack! (before the expansion) and Age of Mythology sporting lots of cool plastic figs adorning games that leave much to be desired. Hasborg never really stopped, most recently releasing THE game for young boys to have these days, Heroscape. Finally, FFG has Chinese factories churning our prodigious amounts of plastic figures to stuff into their "epic box" games - Twilight Imperium 3E, World of Warcraft and Descent: Journeys in the Dark, and the less-than-epic-yet-still-plastic-choked Doom. FFG also did the stateside release for Nexus Editrice's War of the Ring, no pushover in the plastic wars itself.

So, what do all of those games have in common?

The plastic pieces have little to do with the game itself. They're purely eye candy and have no impact on the mechanisms. They don't even carry any game information outside of whatever unit they represent. In some cases, the units are even functionally identical despite looking different.

I think that's just silly from a gameplay standpoint. Of course, to some marketing to the eyes is more important than actual gameplay, so you have the games presented as above.

Forget for a moment that I hate War of the Ring's mechanisms. Even if the mechanisms were good (say, Hannibal good) I still would have been unable to get past the tremendously annoying figures that not only choked up all of the board real estate, but were functionally identical. The physical attributes, the decision to use plastic over more sensible counters, would make me give War of the Ring a rating of no more than a generous 6/10.

Days of Wonder has so far shown restraint. The worst offender in their portfolio is Memoir '44, but that's a game that's targeted towards young boys who appreciate the plastic Army Men so we can forgive them. Its older sibling Battle Cry was a Hasborg publication after all. Ancients gave up on the plastic and uses far more sensible blocks. Sadly, BOTH sides of the blocks show the unit. I don't get it. Why not stick with the usual fog of war granted by block wargames?

The bottom line is that the drive of some companies towards using plastic figurines (a) prevents more meaningful use of the game component, (b) is often detrimental to gameplay, and (c) drives up the price point of the games.

Down with plastic. Go back to sensible cardboard counters.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Weblogs, Boardgamegeek and a Surfeit of Idiocy

It's the topic of the moment I guess.

Susan Rozmiarek

I just mention what Mary (aka sodaklady) said in the comments on Susan's blog entry. BGG HAD blogs, and those who were so inclined did use them a lot when they were there. Your humble weblogger here included. When the Geek went all Forums on its community, the Geek Journals, as they were called, disappeared from the front page and were relegated to an obscure corner of the Geek Forums.

The motivations in using a weblog vs the Geek forums are easy to cite: more control, no inane traffic, ability to censor comments without idiotic invocation of nonexistent "freedom of speech" in that context. Yeah, sure there's freedom of speech. Go set up your own weblog and you can say any fucking thing you want. You post it on the Geek, and Dan Karp can delete your ass any time he damned well pleases because AlDerk say he can. (By the way, I like that I can say "fuck" on here without people screaming that the Geek is a "family site". As if your 10-year old is going to be researching the advantages of Age of Steam vs Railroad Tycoon. Besides, one post of Mr. Cranky is going to traumatize him more than any four-letter word will.)

Oh, and I don't have to put up with reading worthless comments on "cost per minute of enjoyment" computations on every other thread. Good lord, the idiocy that has permeated the Geek. I long for the days of Aaron Potter.

While I'm ranting, what's with the steady stream of irrelevant pics? Girls with game boxes where the games are a fraction of the picture and the girl isn't even playing the game? Does now point to What the fuck? Miss Panda's cleavage pic was a lot more relevant than the "kitten pics" and the "meeples in strange places" pics and the "look at my nice paint job" pics. At least she was playing the damned game!

I knew I had to give up Geekmod when I rejected 14 of the first 15 pics I looked at (mostly for being too big or irrelevant - pictures of computer games? Can I submit 20 pics of the World of Warcraft PC game under that game entry?) and all but one got accepted. At least when a pic I submit gets rejected it's for "redundancy" of my own pics.

The Geek is still the supreme database for boardgames, but as a community it's steadily descending into anarchy. Jim's creation of the BGGF was prescient. Thanks Jim.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Home Sweet Home - Two Game Nights, Three New Games

After my two trips I was only too glad to get back to the Lily Pad for gaming with the gang. Jay was going to join us so I packed five unplayed games for both game nights - Maharaja (this groups still hadn't had the pleasure) and the four games I got in Hong Kong (Medina, Attribute, TAMSK and YINSH).

We had just four players so Medina was the first out of the bag.

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I first experienced arguably the best game from Stefan Dorra's catalog online on Brettspielwelt. Medina is intriguing in that it's the ultimate game of stalling, or what I call "negative timing" as players try to hold out and force opponents to cede the initiative on the board. It's got a feel akin to Reiner Knizia's Samurai, but taken to the extreme. Morgan Dontanville has called it as a game where he never wants to take his turn (he doesn't like Medina). I see it as a plus as players are forced to manage their resources in an unintuitive manner. Here, it's not HOW you spend it, it's WHEN you spend it. (And sometimes, IF you spend it at all.)

Then of course there are the bits. Sure, they could have used cardboard tiles, but the effect wouldn't be the same. This isn't a case of a game company stuffing low-utility eye candy plastic minis into a game just to increase marketability at the cost of functionality. Medina's wooden pieces help visualize the game and set the city features off from each other, which is important in a placement game such as this. People with big hands may have trouble sticking the little wooden men into the alleyways snaking through the city, but otherwise, the wooden pieces are a huge plus.

Anyway, we screwed up the most difficult rule in the game - taking control of the watchtowers by building walls adjacent to palaces. We played through with the incorrect rule, and will correct it on the next play. I had a decent lead through the midgame, but George took the negative timing of the game to heart and held out for a couple of large palaces. The Frog sacrificed a bit of time to deny everyone else the use of his palace blocks after he'd claimed palaces of those colors, but that cost him in the endgame as he "went out" the earliest. This decision led to his not having any towers to his name. All in all, everyone liked Medina and are looking forward to the next game.

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It was late that night so I proposed that I show the gang YINSH. Now I've played YINSH extensively on BSW but again this was the first time I was going to teach people the game with a physical copy. The Bakelite felt good, and The Frog picked up the rules quickly. Of course, this being a GIPF game experience counts. Even in YINSH, the most accessible of the series due to its fluid game states, having a few dozen games under one's belt leads to wins over newbies much more often than now. I left the game at the Lily Pad for the enjoyment of my hosts until the next weekend.

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So, it was a week of lots of YINSH and lots of TAMSK. Over this period I grew to love TAMSK and as much as I enjoy YINSH, TAMSK is the best game in the Gipf series for me. The three-layered fourth dimension of time creates a game so unique that I could play a half-dozen games in a row and still be left wanting more. That's a first from an abstract for me.

For the unfamiliar - TAMSK is a game where player's pieces are three 3-minute hourglasses. These pieces move around on a hexagonal board, and when they move the players place a ring on the peg/space when the hourglass lands, and if a peg/space ever gets full up on rings it becomes illegal to move there. When an hourglass is moved, it is flipped. The object of the game is to use more rings than your opponent. If an hourglass ever runs out of time, it dies and becomes immobile. The last element is the 15-second "move glass" or what I've begun calling "the hammer" (because it drives the nail into your opponent's coffin if used correctly - i.e., brutally). You may flip the hammer to force your opponent to move before it runs out of time. If he fails to complete a move he begun, then you get to place a free ring. If he fails to move at all, he effectively passes and you go again.

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Try to use the hammer off-rhythm. Don't automatically flip it when your opponent's turn comes up. This forces him to pay attention to it, as he can't reliably determine how much time he has left to move if he doesn't. At the very least, it creates a distraction from the main board. At worst, it'll kill an hourglass or give you a free move.

Anyway, Erik was present for this gathering and we kicked the night off with several games of TAMSK and YINSH before dinner. A good time was had by all. Geroge and I won the TAMSK games. I also won the YINSH games I played.

After dinner, it was decided that it had been too long since we played Puerto Rico. Having four players, the opportunity was ripe so out came PR for its first appearance in 2006.

As usual, a brutal game with The Frog and I ending up with the Factories, and Erik and George scarfing up the Harbors. It was close through the midgame, and the Harbors were humming, but in the end the Frog picked up the win with great balance between shipping and the city, bolstered by the very deadly Guild Hall/Fortress combo.

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