House Rules

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You’ve been there. We all have. You’re sitting around the table with six people instead of five and all the games you brought only work for five instead of six and you want to panic. Chills, the sweats. You start to mumble up things like maybe if you can just find a deck of playing cards some game that everyone can play will materialize from your childhood memories. Or maybe, you suggest, someone might want to sit by the fire. There has to be one person doesn’t like or games anyway. Or maybe you just hope for something to come in over the news, like a missile alert, say.

Of course, there’s something else. Something you haven’t thought of, that doesn’t appear in the rule books or in the little figures on the box that tell you, with unbending finality, how many people are allowed to play. It’s a cheat code. A hack. And it can save you from the most terrible of situations –  where someone feels left out.

House rules. Changing something about your activity to make a more inclusive, dangerous, or downright more entertaining for the situation that you’re in.

Let’s walk ourselves back to Sunday. It’s brunch. We’re circling the coffee table with the aforementioned too many players and too few spots situation. Thankfully, we’ve chosen a flexible game. The Mountains of Madness. Some games, when you have too many players, slow to a crawl and everyone proceeds to check out their phones to see who’s popping what pictures on Instafacebookgramchat. In Mountains of Madness, everyone plays at the same time. A party game gimmick mixed with serious game strategy. Ideal for unorthodox expansion.

So we play with six. I deal an extra hand. We get off the mountain alive, though, granted it was probably easier than the game’s creators intended. Even so, the experience comes with smiles and laughter. People are able to dash away fro a mimosa refill, or take care of kids, and there’s plenty around to keep the game moving.

We have a good time. I cheated, and nobody cared.

So next time you’re in an awkward player situation, see if you can’t bend or break your favorite game to accommodate your party. It might work. And sure, it might not, but you’ll probably have fun anyway.

Bob Ross and the Art of Chill – A Boardgame that Actually Exists

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Gag gifts. Those things given for laughs that, often, become nothing more than Goodwill fodder after the mirth has fallen away. Bob Ross: The Art of Chill Game, given to me by my brother-in-law for Christmas, is not a gag gift.

Or rather, it is, but one with substance. Not a lot, but even a small bit of something makes it an outlier in the world of cheap, one-time laughs.

I’m not going to go into Bob Ross here (he’s a painter with a fascinating history – google him). I will go into the game, which is both simple and better than it has any right to be.

I can also say that the Art of Chill game is best experienced while actually watching Bob Ross. In this game, you gradually complete paintings, and doing that while Bob Ross actually paints a very similar landscape on the TV nearby is both surreal and comforting. You achieve a sort of painting zen. One that quickly vanishes when you realize the Bob in the game is speeding his way through the painting far faster than the Bob on TV, and you’ve just rolled his face on the die for the third turn in a row and now all your colors are worthless because the scene just switched from a wintery forest to a tropical island.

So yeah. You’re all painting, more or less. You collect colors of paint in Ticket-to-Ride style – namely by choosing a number of cards each turn, and when you have enough of the ones you want, completing a “feature” part of the painting, such as trees or clouds, for points. First one with a bunch of points becomes the “most chill” and wins the game. You could argue that the person who’s collecting the most points is working the hardest and is, therefore, the “least chill”, but we don’t have time for your logic here.

Every painting offers 3 of these features to complete, and you’re incentivized to complete those features before other players to get bonus points. Usually, however, the bigger obstacle is the master of chill himself: Bob Ross. See, he’s trying to complete every painting along with you. Each turn, before drawing and playing cards, the players roll a special dice. Half of the six sides are pasted over with Bob Ross’s face, and that face quickly becomes the Mark of Doom. Not only are you, the player, robbed of a potential bonus action via the other dice sides, Bob happily whisks another space forward on the current painting. This may “complete” a feature for Bob, robbing the group of bonus points, or even complete the painting entirely, rendering prepped paints useless. Kinda like if your Ticket to Ride routes occasionally shortened or vanished entirely.

Anyway, this lends a decidedly un-chill anxiety to the game as everyone adjusts their tactics based on the rolls of the dice. One of us, and she eventually won the game, earned her last third of points by forgoing the painting entirely (and, by extension, Bob’s sabotage) by buying up “Technique” cards. These grant a small, one-time blast of chill points and additional bonuses over the long term. However, by grabbing one or two of these every turn, she outpaced the painting points we chumps were making, and thus became the chillest of us all. Essentially, she “knew” how to paint everything, but actually did no painting. So, perhaps that’s actually chill?

So it’s a workable game with mechanisms and everything. Is it good? Meh. I’d pull it out over something like Candyland, because there’s some strategy. The paintings you complete are pretty (and are reprints of actual Bob Ross paintings), and the color/brush combo might play well with young kids, even if they wouldn’t have a clue as to why this strange man is racing them to paint things. Whomever goes first gets a significant advantage, because they’ll get one more turn than everyone else (our winner went first, and players one and two led the whole game) and can generally complete features first for the most points.

Still, it’s hard to hate on a licensed property that actually tries. So if you give this as a gag gift, be happy that what you’ve given (or received) isn’t the worst thing in the world. But if you’re looking at it for yourself?

Chill, man. And get something better.

Going Mad in the Mountains

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There are certain lines drawn between what might be called “casual” games and “serious” games – the latter being the type of thing you come to after having had some caffeine and with a readiness to bust your brain plotting out the most effective way to move little pieces around to accumulate points, and the former being, well, charades.

Mountains of Madness attempts to bridge this divide with a wonderful setting and, more or less, succeeds in doing so. You and your pals, up to 5, are a troop of people who’ve chosen the right place to dig for alien relics – a mountain full of mysterious auras that will slowly drive everyone insane. In most games, the insanity would act as some sort of points mechanic, or an obstacle that affects your pieces in some way. Not here, no. The madness truly infects you, the player, pushing you to do things like spin around or keep your cards at a distance or even leave the room at certain points. As the game requires intense communication, much of the madness that afflicts you interferes with your ability to tell everyone else what supplies you happen to have. This, of course, leads to frantic guesses and held breath as the donated supplies are revealed to see if your group survived, or better yet, if you’ve found something.

And Finding Something is, indeed, the goal of the game. Namely, you have to find a certain number of things before you all go insane or succumb to nasty injuries. In the games I’ve played, it’s usually the injuries that win out in the end after we’ve spent too long driving ourselves nutty on the mountain slopes. But because the outcome, due to randomized tile placements and a vicious die, is never certain, it’s not like other cooperative games where you know you’ve lost well before the last piece falls. You’re all in it to the very end, and escaping the mountain alive, even if you failed to get enough relics, counts as something of an achievement.

The game also contains a number of clever mechanisms to make sure everyone gets their moment to shine, like a rotating “leader” marker that forces a different player to make key decisions every round. This keeps the affair from being “quarterbacked” by one spirited soul who believes they know exactly where to go. There’s also a good chance that you’ll be useless on a given challenge, and being forced to rely on your insane friends to see the group through is all kinds of fun. Lastly, because the whole group moves as one, there’s no real downtime. Phones don’t come out, people don’t wander off to check the game on the TV or hunt for snacks. Once you start climbing the mountain, you’re invested till the end (which isn’t all that long).

So is there anything that doesn’t work?

I’d say two things:

There are some madness cards that aren’t all that fun, and because these specifically don’t hamper your communication abilities, they feel more like an annoyance than something goofy. Ideally, everyone should be laughing as they try to overcome every challenge. From what I’ve seen, these “dull” madness cards aren’t game breakers and, as there are many, many madness cards, could even be removed as you find them and the game would carry on just fine.

The tile layout of the mountain changes every time you play. This is mostly a good thing, though it does mean that it’s very easy to happen upon challenges at inopportune times, where rewards actually get you nothing and you’re just trying to succeed in order to, well, not fail. It’s not all that fun to throw a bunch of cards down and see that you’ve gained an award that does nothing just because certain cards didn’t happen to shuffle their way to the top. Once in a game might be fine, but when it happens three or more times, that’s a lot of meh moments to suffer through.

Still! You won’t be suffering long because the game moves fast, and you’ll quickly be on to the next challenge, wondering if your eyes haven’t started deceiving you and glancing askance at your colleague who’s just started talking nonsense. For these mountains are mad, and they’re fun, no matter if you’re hardcore board gamers or no.

When Murder is the Name of the Game

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Lying, trickery, murder. With up to 11 of your friends talking past each other, trying to hint and push each other to incriminate someone else. Dramatic accusations and hilarious denials. Loose logic and double-takes.

All in less than 30 minutes, most of the time.

Deception: Murder in Hong Kong is a grand way to rope in some of your friends who may be a bit reticent about board games and get them to sit down at the table. It’s also perfect for larger groups – simple to learn and with plenty of social interaction. Turns are fluid, so you’re never waiting or pulling out the cellphone to kill time as someone draws their way through a deck or ponders a 12-move masterpiece to pick up another victory point.

Instead, Deception slaps all of you with roles, has one poor soul lay out some clues and guide the game through to its mysterious conclusion, and then backs away and lets you argue it out. Cards in front of each player give the means of the murder and hints as to what was found at the scene, like board-less version of Clue. Most of the players are innocent investigators, but one is the murderer, only nobody knows who. The murderer, therefore, must keep accusations pointing in other directions, deriving plausible explanations for other’s cards while denying his or her own guilt. If you’re skittish about playing poker with your friends, this game is a great way to learn whether they can bluff worth a damn.

The player tasked with laying out the clues must use general hints, such as a list of conditions of the victim’s clothes (“neat”, “shabby”, “bizarre”, for example) to try and point parties to the murderer’s tools. For example, if the killing was done through poison and a rolex was found at the scene, they might choose “nice”. There’s almost always several options that could fit the crime, and thus the game becomes as much about reading your friend’s faces, their words and reactions as it is about the cards in front of them.

I mentioned the length of the game above, but I’m going to come back to it here – this game can be short. You can complete games in 10-15 minutes or less, depending on the clues and the ability of the murderer to keep themselves hidden. The speed of these playthroughs, and that they’re still entertaining despite the brevity, gives everyone a chance at different roles. The setup time is minuscule. You break this game out and you’ll play it three or more times before people get bored. And if you ever tire of the core game, Deception comes with plenty of variants too.

If there’s a note of caution, it’s that this is a social game, and that anyone who isn’t fond of making things up, presenting arguments, or bluffing could find themselves uncomfortable. Thankfully, the short play time means they won’t be sad for long. Deception also, when played with a Witness character (an optional variant suggested for larger groups), makes it very easy for the murderer to be identified. While without a witness, we guessed wrong or really had to work to identify the suspect, a witness put the murderer on their heels immediately. So I’d try it without the witness, at least at first, if you can.

Overall, though, Deception is a light, fun game that’s playable by just about anyone in your group or family. It’s inexpensive, with tons of replayability. If you’re looking for something new to burn through some holiday afternoons, you could do a lot worse than this one.

Conquer the Galaxy – Star Wars Rebellion and a Board Game Feast

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There are board games, just like there are stories, at every level of scale. Some put you in control of a single piece with one ability – often just being able to move in a direction. Others give you mountains of rules, pieces, and options and it’s up to you to parse what to do with them.

Star Wars: Rebellion sits on the latter end of that scale – you pick a side from the movie series and play against the other (Empire or Rebellion – no prequels here). Rebellion chases after that most compelling of goals: the asynchronous victory condition: the Rebels win by staying alive long enough to get sympathy from the galaxy, the Empire wins by destroying the rebel base.

This conflict plays out through all sorts of movements, missions, die rolls and recruiting. You have a galaxy spread out, on a board befitting it, and you’ll use most of its planets in every game. I’ve played most of mine as the Rebels and I’ve always felt, at first, like there are a thousand places to hide. By the end, I’m scattered to a few defunct systems hoping against hope that the Empire will send its fleet in the wrong direction and, thereby, allow me to win.

It’s rare, though, that victory by waiting out the clock feels satisfying. Think about it – if, in a novel or a movie, the protagonist sat around and the villains failed to find them, that isn’t in itself all that interesting. The protagonist doesn’t do anything in that scenario.

Now, twist it. Instead, the villains outnumber the hero and they’re running around, crafting traps and disappearing. Leading the villains in wrong directions. Harassing them without warning. Playing as the Rebels feels like being the kid in Home Alone – every chance you get, you’re trying to simultaneously slow the Empire down and run like hell. It’s a tense blast to play.

As the Empire, meanwhile, it can feel like there are dozens of insects to crush. The Rebels would be ground to dust if only you could catch them. Sometimes you manage Princess Leia to the dark side and she helps lead your fleets to the base and you detonate it with your Death Star, laughing at the elaborate Rebel defenses that have proved so useless.

On the other hand, perhaps you’ve sent your ships far and wide only to have the Rebels sneak behind you and sabotage your factories. Entice planets you thought were loyally yours to turn sides. Or even bait Darth Vader into a battle he can’t win and, when the Empire loses, strike Vader down permanently.

Rebellion, for better and for worse, is not a short game. These stories take time to tell. With experience, the average game would likely take 3 hours (including setup). Newer playthroughs are going to approach 4 or more as players get adjusted to all the parts. Still, it’s never boring. Combat, the worst part of the base game due to a lot of repetitive die rolls, is made much better with the Rogue One-inspired Rise of the Rebellion expansion.

Ultimately, what gets this game off the shelf more than anything else is the potential for unique moments. For those hilarious or crushing times, like a do-or-die attempt to blow up the Death Star that succeeds, or the capture of Luke Skywalker and subsequent corruption of the same. This game tells stories, and if you’re a Star Wars fan with a passion for the table-top side of life, you owe it to yourself to give this one a try.

Caravel Island – Avoiding the Sword – Part 2

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There’s a certain image that comes up in “Fantasy” settings – usually some monstrous creature, a dragon, say, is facing off with a knight and his (or her) sword. A horse might be there too, for color.

After a couple of sessions of Caravel Island, what I’m finding is that the combat is actually the least interesting part of the game. I don’t think this is the result of “boring” systems (though, perhaps, there is too much emphasis on combat abilities in the classes and whatnot) but rather because the players have so rarely been in situations where “stab them” is the first thing that comes to mind.

From a story perspective, this has interesting implications for how characters would really react. For example, when confronted with the possibility of physical conflict, would the dashing rogue really draw the knife or shoot the pistol first, or would they do everything they could to talk their way out of a situation (or just run)?

As entertaining as grand battle sequences are, it’s often in the interest of all parties to avoid risking life and limb for non-essential fights. What I’ve been seeing is that this translates to the players and their characters too – if there’s not a compelling reason to attack something, they’re not going to do it. In fact, the only actual combat that’s taken place so far came when the players were more or less forced to fight by some creatures they unwittingly antagonized. As soon as the players were able to end the fight (without murdering everything), they searched for and found a way to do so.

I should note that this isn’t necessarily because they feared that they would lose said fight, but more because there appeared to be a way out of it without conflict. It’s a perspective that I haven’t considered as much in my own writing because, generally, the stories build towards these scenes of swinging swords and blasting rifles. Getting to that point and then not having a fight would seem odd. Right?

Now I’m not so sure. Thing was, watching the players find ways out of the fights was more interesting than the combat itself. The sheer ingenuity the players used to squeeze their way out of danger was fascinating to see – moreso than the by-the-numbers roll dice and stabby stab.

I’m going to play with this in my own fiction, just because having characters that employ all of their energies in avoiding fights would be fun to play with, provided that their only solution isn’t a panicked flight to anywhere. And, for the game, I’m going to put more energy into making sure every conflict has some potential means of resolution that doesn’t involve an ax to the skull.


Caravel Island – On Playing a Game in a World You Create – Part 1

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So, around a month ago and at the behest of a friend who’s been watching a lot of Harmonquest, I agreed to run a tabletop game for some of our local group. If you’ve never had the experience of being a GM/DM (game master, dungeon master – both interchangeable terms for the person in charge of keeping the game moving, knowing the rules, and so on), it’s quite a bit more than being the guy who happened to read the manual. Perhaps the most important part of such a role is that the GM is responsible for the story. 

You can buy modules – pre-built tales with encounters and such – for various settings, of course, but the moment-to-moment action occurring around the table has to be driven by you, the GM. This has so many parallels to creative writing that, really, you can almost think of one of these games as you sitting around a table with your characters and attempting to moderate their various levels of insanity.

In this post, though, I’m going to talk about how I arrived at a system for running the game. In other words, the laws that govern the setting and help the players accomplish their goals (or die trying).

First, a bit of description: Caravel Island is a fantasy setting, a world that I’ve fleshed out to a light degree (though I plan to dig deeper later), in which humanity, after generally ruling things for a number of centuries, has been ousted from power by a conglomeration of other species and magical beings. In the aftermath of humanity’s collapse, everything’s in flux, and the remnants of humanity’s forces are attempting a strategic retreat to a number of places. Including a large island that has, thus far, been left alone for mysterious reasons. It’s on a ship to that island, as prisoners, that the story begins.

For a novel, you could take that and just start typing away. For a game, though, there have to be some rules. Knowing the group of players, I didn’t want to take something so involved as D&D. While I like their setup, I thought it would be too much for the lighter level of questing we were looking to enjoy. I did not, for example, want to explain to someone who’d never tried a game like this before all of the various permutations of clerics. Why a halfling isn’t a great choice for a barbarian, and so on and so forth. I wanted something simpler. With a focus on story-telling and minimal, yet impactful, die rolls.

I’d also experimented with Fantasy Flight Game’s (FFG) Edge of the Empire Star Wars rule set, which strips a fair amount of complexity away in favor of what they called a “cinematic” story-telling system. Of course, most of their materials were based on a science fiction, heavily licensed setting.

So I tried to combine the two of them in creating this one. We’re using FFG’s dice and general form of encounters, skills, and other such things combined with a fantasy world. It all seemed ripe for disaster.

And yet, after the first session, I’m cautiously optimistic. My friends turned out to be savvy, heartless killers, but that they were able to do things well apart from what I anticipated and the whole thing held together is important. The best part of being a GM is seeing the players get immersed in the world and trying to keep up with them. It’s a kind of stressful high, with lots of laughter when people make decisions nobody, sometimes even themselves, see coming.

Without getting into the minutiae, the specifics of what I took and changed and created for Caravel Island wound up being heavily focused on combat/skill elements. I wanted to make skills accessible and relevant without making them obtuse or require lots of writing/erasing on scratch pads. As such, most are focused around arranging/rolling/rerolling dice rather than outside effects that have to be tracked and dealt with. In many ways, building these components felt like plotting out a novel. Getting to the core of what was necessary for the enjoyment and cutting away the fluff… then carefully adding back in that fluff that was important.

Anyway, if the opportunity arises for you to take on the role of a GM (though I’d strongly suggest giving these sorts of free-flowing games a try as a player first), you ought to give it a spin. It’s a unique experience, and one that really tests your ability to “pants” a story as your players invariably take your grand plans and ruin them.

I’ll be doing some more posts on various aspects of Caravel Island, including what does and doesn’t work, as the group continues their adventures. And if you have any questions on building one of these up yourself, feel free to drop me a line!

Betrayal at House on the Hill: A story every turn

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The best board games tell stories. Victories and defeats occur in dramatic fashion. It wasn’t simply a roll of the dice that decided the fates of the players, it was the cunning move to trade this resource for that. To turn two other players against each other. To corner a section of the board and hold it against all comers in a valiant stand.

Or, in the case of Betrayal, to unleash a horde of hellbats and murder your hapless former friends as they flee into the dark crannies of a haunted house.

When we have a number of people over, Betrayal often gets more than a cursory mention because of its story-telling ability. The minute-to-minute gameplay is often slow and, without sufficient enthusiasm for the atmosphere, the group can find themselves wishing for the game to end not long after it’s started.

A potential turn: A player moves the jock character into an unexplored part of the house. Flips over a tile. Announces that it’s the kitchen and, say, draws an event. He reads out that there’s a ghostly gravedigger whose coming at him with a shovel, and then he rolls a dice to see if the gravedigger happens to hurt him. Everyone else sips their drinks, checks their phones. Plays with the cats.

But with the right group, Betrayal can become a hauntingly fun experience.

Let’s take our potential turn and goose it up with a bit of the adventure that can make this game so much more than just flipping tiles and rolling dice:

Flash, the track star, goes exploring because he hasn’t found anything useful yet, and when all Hell breaks loose (and it will), he’s gotta have something better than his fists to fight with. Turns out, through door number one, is the kitchen. Not, perhaps, a fantastic source of weaponry, but hey, there’s an event. Flash takes the top card and reads slowly, in the best voice he’s got for a jock scared beyond all reason. A gravedigger, menacing and rotten, crawls out of the floor. Stares at Flash with dead eyes. Flash is frozen to the spot with terror, the disgusting remnants of meals long since served decaying in the kitchen around him. Without warning, the gravedigger charges towards Flash. The jock resolves to stand his ground. Does he, or does Flash Thompson, king of the school, run in terror?

This could be every turn in Betrayal – one short story after another. That’s without getting into the eventual traitor element where, based on what parts of the house you’ve explored and what trinkets you’ve found, a different scenario will occur. You’ll never play the same game twice.

Sometimes I want something faster. Sometimes I want a different theme. But when I have a group that wants stories, that wants to find themselves late at night in an adventure they may not escape alive, I haven’t found a better choice.

Surburbia and Organic Storytelling in a world of tiles

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Last night, as I’m wont to do, I gathered around a coffee table with an assortment of ne’er-do-wells that I call friends and engaged in what, on the face of it, should have been the epitome of dull.

Suburbia is a board game about, yes, building a suburb. Generally regarded as the most boring places on the planet, a suburb is usually a haven of chain stores, manicured lawns, and evening walks well away from the “buzz” of city life. Suburbia, by contrast, is a compelling argument for why I, nor my friends, should ever be allowed near a civil engineering office.

Tiles are placed one after another, chosen by each player to add to their own “borough”. Theoretically, your little collection of tiles would network nicely with one another to create some semblance of a balanced town full of people, businesses, and parks. In reality, my brother had at least four airports by the end. My most profitable structure was a parking lot. Another player built so many housing communities with little else such that they were continually going broke.

One of the brilliant parts of board games is that they encourage organic stories. Whether we wanted to or not, our choices began to create worlds for our imagined citizens. As we placed our tiles, we argued about the benefits such things had to our citizens. Surely my choice to have two high schools with no elementary or middle grade education was a brilliant move – colleges only look at high school transcripts anyway!

Suburbia is an analytical game – the scoring and general turn-by-turn choices are driven by numbers. How much money you have, how many people you need, and what tile will do the best to boost your gains. Strip the name and setting from the game and you could just have a bunch of cardboard cutouts with values on them and have, at the core, the same game. Only you wouldn’t have the stories. You wouldn’t be able to visualize the messed up place you built. Your maze of freeways circling around a mobile home park and a factory. A series of museums trapped between airports and landfills.

And that’s where board games like Suburbia bring out their best parts. These are stories you’ll talk about later. These are tales that could be spun into actual fiction (if you want), but even in the moment, serve to draw people into the room with each other. We put down our phones, keep the TV shut off, and for an hour get lost in the gleeful creation of magical places.