December 22, 2011

Gaming Report: Risk 2210

Quick note: This will be the last post of the year.

We recently acquired Risk 2210 A.D. and the kids were anxious to dive straight into it.  They really enjoy these epic, dudes-on-a-map games.  Part of me understands for the obvious reasons of how awesome they are.  But part of me is surprised, too, since the strategy is often difficult to grasp at younger ages and the down time between their turns is often agonizingly glacial.  Despite the lack of challenge (not the reason I play with my kids right now, anyway) and their sometimes frustrating lack of focus, I was more than willing to oblige.
North America was evidently quite devasted from the "last war!"
This will get a fuller treatment in a future review, but for now, Risk 2210 is a very nice improvement over the original game.  The theme is stronger.  The ocean and lunar territories significantly altar the old strategies.  And commanders and command cards throw in a fun amount of unpredictability and chaos while leveling the playing field no matter how far or behind you may think you are.  The dice can still destroy all your plans, as poor Cory discovered in trying to take Europe.  Brendon nearly beat me just in acquiring four command cards that awarded him bonus points at the end of the game.  Hope came close to victory, too, by deftly taking over the entire Moon, until I caught on in the last turn that she'd beat me if I didn't counter-attack there.  Lilly learned that, just like in old Risk, you can't try to take and hold Asia!  And they all laughed as I lost Australia to a back door sea invasion.  There's a lot to keep track of in this re-imagined version.

Hope begins her lunar conquest.

Interestingly, there is a five-turn limit, which means the game ends quite abruptly.  While certainly a great improvement over the day-long slug-fests of old, you still must plan on spending 3-4 hours, nonetheless.  Down time between your turns is also still a problem.  And ironically, the turn limit is one of the negatives I have with the game after our one play - just as you're finally gearing up to implement a massive campaign, it's all over!  Oh well, I guess that can be easily remedied if all players agree to a turn or two extension.  Although just when I agree to a 6th turn is when one of the little twerps will no doubt draw a scatter bomb card and wipe out half my MODs!
Making use of the sea.

December 19, 2011

Gaming News: Awesome-ness!

One of the all-time Ameritrash classics is finally getting a much needed re-print: Fortress America. Fantasy Flight Games is bringing back this 1986 Milton Bradley masterpiece, the Mona Lisa of that company's Game Master's Series that included the exhaustive Samurai Swords and the iconic Axis & Allies. I owned this title as a teenager, once upon a time, and wasted spent innumerable hours with friends on epic struggles as weekend benders. Sadly, I have no clue where that copy is now - but I know I did not sell or give it away. FFG promises that the finished re-print will be true to the original with some minor tweaks and optional rules - sort of like an expansion, I suppose. Their stated goal for including the add-on module is to update the game for the modern generation. Which begs a curious question: how will that generation receive it today?

You see, Fortress America pits one player as the United States trying to fend off three others who are invading the nation in a three-front war: West, South, and East. Apparently it's true that Canada never really took that whole War of 1812 thing personally. For me and my generation, the game is very much steeped in a Cold War psyche. It was published before the Berlin Wall came tumbling down and two years after John Milius' hokey, teen world war three flick had all of us adolescent boys crying, "Wolverines!" While much has been discussed (and I think over-blown) about the political propaganda of Red Dawn, that movie and the game Fortress America which looks and sounds like it, no doubt tapped into the psychological impact of the era and played upon the tension of its global, political narrative. For my kids, and others whose birthdays post-date 1989, the game would resonate completely different. For them, the Fortress America re-print will just prove merely an awesome and epic dudes-on-a-map game. For the ones like me, it will resurrect memories of an awesome and epic dudes-on-a-map game that intricately intertwined with a worldview that remains only in history books.

The NRA whooping commie butt?  Sign. Me. Up.

December 15, 2011

Kids View: Axis & Allies

What is the Game About?

The Allies (America, Britain, and Russia) are trying to save the world from the Axis (Japan and Germany) during World War Two. The main idea for Russia is to buy a lot of men for defense and to attack Germany. Britain wants to build transports and men so they can attack Germany, too. America has to worry about the Japanese. When I'm America I like to build a factory and put it in Hawaii or China if I can. You also need a good navy to beat Japan. Germany needs mainly tanks and men to fight Russia. Japan can attack both Russia and America - so they should have a lot of different types of units. Turn order is the same every round and you get money by taking over other areas. Different territories give you different amounts of money that you use to buy all of your units. Fighting is done with dice - you have to roll different numbers with different kinds of units.

What do I Like?

I like that you can play any of the five major countries and each one uses a totally different strategy to win. I like to be America because I'm from there and they go last and I can plan my attacks based on what Japan does. I like war games and so that is one reason I like playing Axis & Allies. And the history is interesting. You can learn a lot. I like the newer version (1942 Edition) because tanks get to defend on a roll of 3 or less (instead of 2) and it includes cruisers and artillery. Also, all of the pieces look different for each country - little plastic men are cool!

What do I dislike?

The sea zones are hard to keep straight on the old version's board. But the board in the newer version is smaller with squished territories that make it hard to fit all your guys in one space. However, more pieces means that there is a better chance of losing some, too. And we have to be careful not to leave any laying out on the floor because of our cat. The weapons research in the old version is confusing and a lot of times a waste of money. They took this out in the newer version. I also don't like it that you have to hit battleships twice to sink them (except when it's mine!).

December 12, 2011

Gaming Report: Mission: Red Planet, Red November, Sorry! Sliders

Who would have thought that a re-worked Sorry! game would create so much fun?  Put a little ball-bearing in the bottom of the pawns, slap a track down onto a target, and laugh away a solid hour before you know it.  We also have Sorry! Spinners which creates a good deal of hilarious agony.  Just as you're one space away from crawling into your safe zone, some one spins the board and your home fades away in the rear view mirror.  That revision still includes the random card engine.  But Sliders is a pure dexterity game.  If you've seen shuffle board or curling, just imagine pushing your little pawn down a small track to a center target to score points and/or to knock off your opponents.  This simple gem comes with four different targets and a few different track configurations to provide even some surprising variety.  And it's a wonderful family game.  Despite the skill factor involved, there really isn't much advantage given to adults over kids.  Well, at least in my household!

Memorial to astronauts
after just five rounds.
Just three turns later,
the body count rises.
We played one 5-player session of Mission: Red Planet.  This game is fascinating in that it predictably finishes in one hour.  I'm still amazed every time it happens.  That length is one of this title's strongest draws.  It is quite chaotic and tends to be confrontational, but its brevity and light theme (which is nonetheless well integrated) soften the interaction.  The game is very tight with limited turns.  If you waste one of them, or are the victim to a well-timed attack, you need to recover quickly.  The kids really enjoy this, but are still working on the optimal strategy in playing the various roles.  The other issue at hand is a one-track mind in focusing on their secret bonus missions which, if completed, score extra points.  If they are able to accomplish that, they reap some big rewards.  However, if they fall short, it proves problematic because they've ignored the normal scoring method, at the same time, which is to place majorities in the different regions on Mars.  This game was particularly cut-throat - lots of astronauts paid dearly!  This is a very good game.

All rooms flooded or on fire!

The Kracken! Ironically, it would have eaten us at
the same time we ended up being crushed by the deep!

We also set out for another 5-manned mission on the Red November.  This time I was able to convince my kids we should remove all of the "Respite" cards from the Event Deck.  I'm not sure they'll go for that again!  Just after the first two gnomes played, we already had four rooms on fire.  In less than fifteen minutes, we narrowly fixed the pumps to avoid asphyxiation.  Then the Kracken came.  Luckily we had an aqualung and harpoon which Brendon bravely took out to sea and slaughtered.  Then he promptly passed out on a faint check and died.  Alas, we shared his fate not too much longer.  Every single room on the sub was either flooded or on fire.  We were descending fast, but couldn't get to the Engine Room as it was on fire and none of us had an extinguisher or grog.  Even the Captain's Room was on fire, preventing us from raiding his personal stash for some of that "liquid courage" with which to fight the blazes.  We were finally crushed in the ocean depths in the 30th minute.  Pretty funny, if you ask me.

Crushed in uncontrolled descent!

December 07, 2011

Gaming with Kids: The 4-Player Threshhold

As the old idiom goes, "Three's a crowd."  Well in the board gaming hobby, five must be also, while four is just right!  One of my minor rants with the industry is the number of games that will not accommodate more than four players.  I have four children and have had to apply the brakes on several likely buys that are a perfect family fit - except for the fact it doesn't include our entire family of five gamers.  We are not unique in this, nor certainly even a minority.  Personally, we know more families of five and more than we do with four and less.  And beyond family gaming, most gaming clubs and groups include more than four members.  So why do such a vast number of games stop with four?

Perhaps price is one aspect?  Adding components for 5-6 players would mean additional production costs.  Realistically, though, hobby gamers understand that.  Though we sometimes like to whine and complain about value (like any other hobby market), we are still willing to pay a little extra for a title that accommodates a little extra.  Believe it or not, families are willing to, also.  So then maybe game length is a consideration?  It is possible that adding that 5th and 6th person will extend playing time beyond a title's welcome.  Yet hardcore gamers are well adjusted in dealing with the added time, and family-oriented games are generally elegant enough to keep game length under control despite a couple more players.  Finally, perhaps balance is a major factor?  Before ever hitting the market, designers and volunteers playtest games to work out the flaws and kinks.  It is likely that everyone involved in this prototype-to-production process discovered that four players created a "sweet spot."  Or at most, to add mechanics and components for an additional opponent would derail the entire experience so severely, they don't even include them as an option.  That sounds like a logical explanation, yet it is weakened by the existence of a number of expansions that add additional players to a base game which originally accommodated only four, such as Dominion, Race for the Galaxy, and Stone Age, to name but a few.

Scaling a game so that it plays smoothly regardless of 2, 3, 4, 5, or more players is not always easy.  It can be an art and a science.  I get that.  But that balance, as well as value and playing time, is a subjective concept.  I would not argue that every single game must accommodate 5 or more players.  But there seem to be a great many titles that would benefit by providing at least the option to the gaming consumer.  Games on our wishlist that we may never buy because they don't accommodate more than four include: Trollhalla, Forbidden Island, Rattus, Tobago, Defenders of the Realm, Sobek, Roll Through the Ages, and Stone Age.  Going that little bit extra would include another demographic of potential buyers.  Families and gaming groups who are willing can add a player or two, while at the same time, those who prefer keeping at four (or even less) have that option.  In a world where it's impossible to please everyone all the time, providing that choice is the next best thing.  Let's call it crowd control.

December 06, 2011

CFB: Bowling

Ahhhhhh.  Look forward to it every year, I do!  That great folly known as Bowl Season.  While every other sport in America determines champions on the field, college football allows nit-wit sports writers, ignorant pollsters, illogical computers, ESPN, and billionaire bowl executives to create some fantasy popularity contest which decides the number one team in the nation.  I fall for it hook, line, and sinker.  Of course, there are too many bowls (35).  Some fans love it.  Others decry it.  It's the same sort of polarizing response to the gluttony of board games in the hobby market.  For some one like me who can watch football from the first kick-offs at 11:00 am Saturday until those West Coast stragglers winding down at midnight, I can't say I see a problem.  Well, okay, so maybe that's not entirely true.  At any rate, below I present my personal entries in the worst and best offerings of this season's matches.

The Good
  1. Allstate BCS National Championship Game, Jan. 9 - LSU vs. Alabama  Not that I'm terribly pleased with the rematch (for many reasons), but you can't argue it'll be a horrible game.  Although LSU should have just been handed the trophy after destroying Georgia, it is the title game, for better or worse, and I usually prefer defensive slug-fests, anyway.
  2. Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, Jan. 3 - Stanford vs. Oklahoma State  This was a toss up with the Rose Bowl pitting Oregon and Wisconsin.  These two games will be fascinating match-ups of vastly contrasting styles: explosive offenses verse smash-mouth defenses.  Edge goes to the Fiesta with two Top 5 teams.
  3. AT&T Cotton Bowl, Jan. 6 - Kansas State vs. Arkansas  These two BCS-worthy contenders should put up the numbers, although via two different methods.  Opposing QB's Colin Klein (on the ground) and Tyler Wilson (through the air) will put on very different shows for a packed crowd of passionate fan bases in sparkling Jerry World.
  4. Bowl, Jan. 8 - Northern Illinois vs. Arkansas State  What a stupid name for a bowl game.  However, it's the MAC champ taking on the Sun Belt champ.  These two, solid, mid-level programs fight hard and have potent offenses.  Though low on the totem pole, this bowl should be close and fun to watch.
  5. Military Bowl presented by Northrop Grumman, Dec. 28 - Air Force vs. Toledo  This has the potential of being the highest scoring game of this year's bowls.  Air Force's depleted secondary should get smoked by Rocket's receiver Eric Page.  But Toledo's questionable front seven will be hard pressed against a dangerous running attack.
The Bad
  1. MAACO Las Vegas Bowl, Dec. 22 - Boise State vs. Arizona State  Surely, this can't be even close?  I know, don't call you "Shirley."  The Broncos are a missed field goal away from probably, as the year turned out, taking Alabama's spot in the title game.  Instead, they free-fall to here against a coach-less opponent that imploded in the second half of the season.  Yikes!
  2. San Diego County Credit Union Poinsettia Bowl, Dec. 21 - TCU vs. Louisiana Tech  Kudos to the Bulldogs for a strong finish to take the WAC crown.  But the Mountain West champs are a heavy hitter amongst the mid-tier programs and playing as well as anyone right now ranked #2-17.
  3. Valero Alamo Bowl, Dec. 29 - Baylor vs. Washington  Hopefully Bears' QB Robert Griffin III has his Heisman in hand for this game.  Even if he doesn't, he should torch an out-matched Huskies unit that should also be outnumbered by fans attending.
  4. AutoZone Liberty Bowl, Dec. 31 - Cincinnati vs. Vanderbilt  Vanderbilt and bowling are two words difficult to use in the same sentence.  The good news is they earned eligibility by beating another bowl team.  The bad news is that team was Wake Forest, another school rare to the environment.  Against Vandy's 2-6 record in the not-so-impressive SEC East, Cincinnati should win handily.
  5. Bridgepoint Education Holiday Bowl, Dec. 28 - Texas vs. California  While both teams had disappointing seasons, Texas is still better.  And since the Holiday Bowl is generally an annual blow-out, I just put two and two together.
The Ugly
  1. Allstate Sugar Bowl, Jan. 3 - Michigan vs. Virginia Tech  Exhibit A of what's wrong with the current system - the bowls only care about money.  Neither team deserves to be here, except in a business sense.  Big Blue fans should travel in droves as they are parched from years of languishing in a desert of competitive mediocrity.  Va. Tech has the brand name for television ratings, but how many fans want to travel after that shellacking in the ACC title game?
  2. Gator Bowl, Jan. 2 - Ohio State vs. Florida  Exhibit B of what's wrong with the current system - a prime game takes two after-thoughts just because they're tied to their conferences.  There is nothing impressive about either Buckeyes or Gators.  So, in that sense, I guess it could be a close game.  A good game?  Unlikely.
  3. Music City Bowl, Dec. 30 - Wake Forest vs. Mississippi State  Exhibit C of what's wrong with the current system - there are way too many bowls.  We're stuck with two .500 teams?  This is not the only such match.  I know this can be exciting for the schools and its fans, but a lot of money is invested in this.  Couldn't it be used for a better purpose elsewhere?
  4. Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, Dec. 31 - Illinois vs. UCLA  Exhibit D of what's wrong with the current system - special privileges are granted to the power conferences.  UCLA had a losing record and so had to apply for a waiver to even be eligible for this "reward."  A shame.  One, because this bowl supports a great cause.  Two, it meant Western Kentucky was denied their first bowl game in school history despite actually earning it.
  5. Sheraton Hawaii Bowl, Dec. 24 - Southern Miss vs. Nevada  Exhibit E of what's wrong with the current system - schools lose money while the bowl games and ESPN profit.  Exactly how many fans from either school will travel to this one and buy the tickets the schools are forced to eat?  With local fav Hawaii ineligible this year, there might by a few thousand in the stands.

December 05, 2011

Gaming Report: Red November

With pics, this time!  We got in two games of this chaotic, scramble-fest.  One 4 player session and one with 3 players.  The kids really enjoy the cooperative nature.  And I don't have to do all the thinking because they have caught on very nicely.  We won both games with only a couple of close shaves.  That's been the case with the last few sessions.  I'm trying to talk them into removing the "Respite" event cards in the future so we have fewer breaks.  I think it's much funnier when you're rushing to the missile room to try an prevent an ICBM from launching into your stern!  At any rate, this is a deceptively, good, puzzle-solving title.  Sure, it's got drunken gnomes trying to ward off the Kracken with a harpoon pop-gun!  But figuring out who's in the best position with the most favorable amount of time does work the brain - especially for younger gamers.

About mid-game. A couple of fires and flooding. Nothing too bad.

I'm (red) trapped in the Captain's cabin until yellow extinguishes the fire,
or I swipe some grog from his personal stash!

December 02, 2011

PnP Game Review: Battle of Marignano

Battle of Marignano (Paperworlds/Alex Kremer, 2005)
2 players / 10+ / 30 minutes

A general danced to and fro on horseback in front of the massed formations of pikemen ready for battle.  He saw the doubt and fear in their eyes as the gazed across the plains at gleaming barrels of the enemy's canon.  "Sons of Switzerland, I am Mattheus Schiner."
A young soldier in the front ranks sneered with doubt, "Mattheus Schiner is 7 feet tall.  And a Cardinal."
Spinning around in response, "Yes, I've heard.  Kills men by the hundreds, and if he were here he'd consume the French with cheeseballs from his eyes and bolts of army knives from his behind.  And, anyhow, haven't you ever heard of warrior monks?  I AM Mattheus Schiner.  And I see a whole army of my countrymen here in defiance of Frenchery.  You have come to fight as free men to defend our cheese, and free men you are. What would you do without cheese?  Will you fight?"

The timid soldier shook his head, "Fight?  Against that?  No, we will run;  and we will make watches."

The general's resolve stiffened.  "Aye, fight and you may die. Run and you'll make watches - at least a while. And dying in your workshop, dressed in your funny tights, many years from now, would you be willing to trade all the days, from this day to that, for one chance, JUST ONE chance to come back here and tell our enemies that they may take our lives, but they'll never take our CHEESE!!!"

What You Get:

You won't use all of the Swiss counters in one game.
Is what you put into it.  A bit of a different review for this print-and-play game.  First, you have to download and print the image files found here.  There is only one page of counters, a one page map, and rules.  The counters are quaintly illustrated, but a little graphically crowded so that some are difficult to read.  The map is plain and simple, but then so was the real battlefield.  I pasted the counter sheet and map on 1/16 inch cardboard. Certainly not the sturdiest, but enough to pick up and provide some dimension.  I then cut it all with a straight edge and box knife.  There are also a number of plain, white counters labeled "R" and "D" to mark a unit that is reduced or disorganized.  Hey, it's definitely worth what you pay for!  A special note about the rules: while they could really benefit from some editing, they cover the necessities - even including a few illustrated examples.  And there is a substantial treatment of the historical battle which was fascinating and provided a great, thematic framework for game play.  Unfortunately, the rules are fairly ho-hum on the end game victory conditions: either destroy or force off the map all enemy units, admit defeat, or play for 30-40 turns.  Um, okay...

The Quick Rundown:

The French Cheese Invaders!
Battle of Marignano gamely recreates the climactic engagement between the French and the Swiss (yes, the Swiss) in one of the Italian Wars' many phases.  The year is 1515.  The French, as well as other European powers, have had a history of being bullied by the big, bad Swiss (yes, the Swiss).  It seems that the not-so-neutral-at-this-time Alpine power had managed quite the anachronistic military machine composed entirely of formidable phalanxes of pikemen.  These well-trained, lightly-armed, democratically-inclined volunteers with their 16 foot pikes and tight formations made quick meat of enemy infantry and brushed aside heavy cavalry as so many gnats.  They finally met their match at Marignano, however, partly because of their over-confidence even though outnumbered almost 2-1, but mostly because the Frenchies had nearly 200 bronze canon.  Artillery doesn't mind tight formations; in fact, it much prefers them!  The defeat was so resounding that it convinced the little confederacy of yodelers that maybe banking was safer.  Therefore, they officially adopted neutrality, except for in supplying mercenary units since other kings highly sought after the military prowess of the Swiss (yes, the Swiss).

Kremer's light game models the historical battle very well.  Instead of familiar hexes that many war gamers know and love, the map is composed of squares.  Each unit can move a specified number and engage the enemy when in range: eight spaces for canon, three for crossbowmen, and toe-to-toe for infantry.  The Swiss army is composed almost entirely of menacing pikemen.  The French have better guns and more of them, plus a nice contingent of cavalry.  Fighting is resolved by basic Combat Result Tables as determined by 1d6 and various modifiers.  Battle ebbs and flows as desired until you meet one of the ambiguous victory conditions or have to replace the battery in your watch.

E for Everyone:

Marignano is a light war game covering a very unique period with a lot to offer new and young war gamers.  Want to know if your kids are interested in and ready for a war game but hesitate to spend too much money on even the simplest of titles to find out?  Well, is "free" cheap enough for you?!  This game is perfect in introducing time-honored war gaming concepts, basics, and lingo.  You have counters (albeit not on the more common hexes), limited movement, combined arms, ranged attacks, zones-of-control, disorder, CRTs, facing, flanking, various combat modifiers, and to a lesser extent, terrain.  These are core principles of war gaming writ simple.  Especially for ancient to pre-modern war gaming.  Therefore, even if your child proves lukewarm to the genre, he/she will have little problem learning the standards of it with this title.  At the moment, my kids grasp the game play and enjoy the tactical thinking.  They ask for it as, "Can we play that game you glued together!"

Initial set-up.
More than just the basics, Marignano also introduces the concept of variable strategy based upon historically derived factors relevant to the battle portrayed.  This is another common denominator across the war gaming hobby.  Essentially your play is determined largely by which side you choose.  As the Swiss, you must close with your enemy - and close fast.  First, because your superior infantry are more numerous and simply fight better.  Second, when cannon and crossbowmen fire on any unit already engaged face-to-face with another, there is a 50/50 chance of friendly fire.  This rule is far more favorable to the Swiss, who have only one artillery unit and no crossbowmen, yet are constantly subject to the numerous French guns.  As the French, you need to bring your deadly canon to bear as effectively as possible, and hold on until the cavalry arrives - literally.  These reinforcements tip the numbers in the Gauls' favor - and with fast moving troops to get around the flanks and cause disruption.

Ironically, this little war game also introduces some of the drawbacks in the genre that turn off many gamers.  First, it is very fiddly, even for a game with less than 50 unit counters.  Aside from the normal pushing and lifting of small counters, Marignano adds the stacking of additional chits to mark disorganized and reduced units.  Since it takes four reduced markers to eliminate a unit, you can easily accumulate a good number of cluttered stacks spread about a small circumference of the map where most of the action is taking place.  On a humorous note, this is not as major an issue with children, as they have smaller fingers to manipulate the tiny counters!  Game length is also often a turn-off in war gaming and, while not an all-day affair like many of it's bigger brothers, Marignano is still a bit long for what it is.  If one side were to concede victory after a dozen rounds, then perhaps the 30 minute length is feasible.  However, that is a very optimistic, though misleading, suggestion.  One final, seedy characteristic of the genre to note is the dice.  There is a luck element.  It can be mitigated to a degree by using your particular strengths effectively.  Small consolation when your guns can't hit the broad side of a barn.
The French guns (bottom) must fire with care on the Swiss engaged with their own infantry.
 Okay, I'll Shut Up Now:

Personally, I rate Battle of Marignano a 6 on the Board Game Geek scale (OK game, some fun or challenge at least, will play sporadically if in the right mood.).  If it weren't for it's introductory nature which will limit the desire to revisit this title, I'd go a number higher.  Still, this nice concept serves an underrated purpose: it is a light and simple experience that will introduce young war gamers to fundamental aspects in the wider world of war gaming.  Can you buy a more polished game that serves as a nice gateway into the niche?  Sure.  Manoeuvre does many of the same things in a simple manner, too.  If you already own or have access to the game, then great!  But if you don't, Marignano is a free taste test which could prove worth the effort for your kid(s) to print and assemble.

November 21, 2011

Gaming Report: Small World, Dominion

Per our usual, we got a couple games worked in while I kept a keen eye on one of the craziest weekends in college football, ever.  First, the boys and I played Small World.  This is really a true gem.  It is light-weight and light-hearted.  It involves spite and conflict without player elimination and providing plenty of opportunity for pay-back at the same time.  It scales perfectly from 2-5 players.  The artwork is a delight.  It is simple to learn and play.  The replayability factor is high with the random mixing of races and powers each game.  And it's quick with little downtime.  It's just about perfect to play with kids.  The only main drawback is that it's really very light.  Some people prefer games with more meat and strategy.  Even my kids.  Not all the time, though.  Cory was able to nab the Spirit Amazons and then the Ghouls.  I forgot who his third race was, but it didn't matter.  With the Spirit power, he was able to have two races in decline and with his second race being Ghouls, he was able to attack even in decline.  That led to lots of points and he ran away with the game!

Lilly hit me up later for a session of her favorite game: Dominion.  I still enjoy this game, but am starting to get a little bit of a "samey" feeling.  Of course, we just have the base game, so the Intrigue expansion may be the ticket, despite my general distaste for expansions.  The other tactic we may have to employ is the card randomizer; but it's just not always extremely convenient to jump online to crank that out quickly.  Lilly tends to pick many of the same action card piles.  The Woodcutter + Village + Market tends to be the strategy as the best option of drawing extra cards while laying down lots of actions and nabbing additional buys.  I won this time, exacting my revenge from the last game in which she successfully went after me heavy with the Thief!

November 18, 2011

Gaming with Kids: What's in a Number?

On my sixteenth birthday, my best friend and I went to see one of the greatest war films ever made: Glory.  We were huge Civil War buffs and gamers and so beyond pumped to see this movie about the story of the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first U.S. African-American combat unit.  One problem: we were both 16 and the movie carried an 'R' rating, technically meaning no admittance for 16 and under without parental consent.  Somehow we ended up in two lines to purchase our tickets.  The dude selling tickets in my line was some middle-aged, out-of-shape, crooked-tie manager type.  The dude in my friend's line was some shaggy-haired, grunge type not much older than us.  My friend bought his ticket without incident while the manager actually refused to sell me one!  Slightly ticked-off, we solved the problem when my friend went back through the same line and purchased my ticket from the young employee.  We proceeded to enjoy the flick, which earned its 'R' rating with strong language and pull-no-punches, war violence (especially for 1990).  At the time, we were just a couple of immature teenagers with naive ideas about war and sacrifice who just wanted to see an epic Civil War movie with death and carnage amidst fluttering banners and gleaming bayonets.  Although we weren't disappointed, I've since come to appreciate this story 100% more for its humanity, historical significance, acting, and tremendous pathos.  It's one of my Top Five favorites of all time.

I'm often reminded of that day when I ponder one of the stranger characteristics of hobby gaming: the recommended age rating.  In America, I think we tend to look at age recommendations on board games in the same light as the Motion Picture Association rates movies: that is by content.  At least I did.  Video games are similarly rated according to content, which I think further solidifies the perceived connection between a game's thematic material and the age on the box.  But after playing a couple dozen hobby games with my own kids (ages 8-10), and reading a great deal about the hobby and its vast titles, I've come to the opinion that the recommended age rating is almost pointless and almost never about content.  It can still provide a wee bit of measurement regarding a game's suitability for certain ages, but by and large, I've come to even question what the number is supposed to represent or signify.

So first, a quick note on content.  This opinion piece is sort of an extension of a post I did on appropriate game themes for children.  In a few cases, a game is unquestionably adult-oriented and will carry an appropriate rating to denote as much.  On the other hand, some games really flirt with (or outright flaunt) quite suggestive themes.  Tanto Cuore's anime artwork, while not explicit, nonetheless seems disturbingly pedophilic for its 13+ age rating.  A few other games have overly dark motifs.  Chaos in the Old World (13+) is played with some of the hobby's most grotesque miniatures on a board of faux stretched skin.  Yet building up a business empire at the start of the Industrial Revolution, as in Brass, carries the same rating?

One very popular theme in gaming I've no interest in buying is zombies.  It's not that I think they're automatically inappropriate for my kids.  My two boys actually like them and pretend they're eating their sisters' brains all the time.  In fact, they quip they're still hungry afterwards because it wasn't a very large meal!  But personally I've never been into zombies, for whatever reason.  Still, I looked at zombie games on Board Game Geek and this darker theme still rates no higher than 13+ and as young as 10.  The lighter weight title Zombie Dice is rated at 10+, but only has the dice and little troubling imagery outside the container.  The highly thematic Last Night on Earth goes to 12+ with a good deal more disgusting artwork.  Then Zombie Survival one ups that to 13+ with some disturbing cards, including one of a face being graphically blown off by a shotgun at point blank range.  Meanwhile, Zombie State also rolls in at 13+ despite having very little of the stereotypical, horror imagery (and minor at that) on certain tokens.  So what gives?  Well, Zombie State is actually more like a war game.

If thematic material has little to do with the recommended age rating, then the next logical connection would be complexity.  This might equate to the concept behind age ratings listed on toys.  As games can be an extension of the toy industry, the relation seems natural.  Yet here again, various titles' age recommendations puzzle me.  Heavy and meaty games like Le Havre and Caylus rate 12+, while the extremely more refined and sedated Kingsburg comes in at an inexplicable 13 and over?  The rules for thematically immersive classics such as Axis & Allies and Twilight Struggle also carry a 12+, while the equally thematic Cyclades, I would argue, is more straight-forward, yet comes in recommended for a year older?

Then there is always the distinction between complexity of rules and complexity of game play.  Often times a simple rules set that children can understand belies a deeper strategic mindset that is really required to fully explore the game, yet is more suited for older kids or teenagers.  This is certainly more often the case with war games, which are generally rated in the low teen years or just under.  But strategy is not just for war games and I question certain age recommendations on seemingly simple titles.  Ticket to Ride, Dominion, and Yspahan all have very simple rules and have an 8+ age rating.  Yet the actual depth of play gets progressively more strategic from the first to the third.  While Ticket to Ride is a great introductory game for kids, Dominion requires more controlled and long-term planning and manipulating, while Yspahan throws a number of options and scenarios at you that require nuanced transitions between planning and flexibility.  These three titles are not on the same level, in my opinion, despite the same rating.

All this to say: the age rating might as well go.  I know it is only meant as a guideline.  But as outlined above, that guideline is nearly worthless.  Plus it is especially misleading to new or non gamers for whom it is probably meant to serve.  The ratings are just too sporadic regardless of content, complexity, or theme.  We do not have a Herculean collection, but my kids play games that are rated older than they are, and play them well (for example, Kingsburg and Red November).  On the other hand, they can struggle sometimes with a title that is rated in their age range, like Yspahan (which I'll concede could be an anomaly here) and is deeper than they'd like.  If you play hobby games with your own kids, you know where their capabilities and preferences lie.  When purchasing a game, it is a lot more useful to do your homework.  Reading a number of reviews about a title will give you enough information to determine if it is right for your own kids.  Not that I'm saying you should completely shy away from introducing more challenging games, as appropriate.  On the contrary.  Just don't overload them.  And keep in mind they're likely not going to appreciate everything that the game has to offer right away.  Just like my friend and me going to see Glory (a movie really geared toward college kids and adults for more reasons than just its language and violence), I didn't fully comprehend its message, significance, and artistry until I myself grew up.

November 11, 2011

Board Game Review: Yspahan

Yspahan (Ystari/Sebastien Pauchon, 2006)
3-4 players / 8+ / 45-75 minutes

"Mustafa!  You miserable miscreant!  Get your lazy rear up off the ground.  I didn't hire you to lay around in the sun all day.  You can't get a tan, anyhow!  We have work to do.  Goods to deliver.  Shops to visit.  Gold to earn.  All for me!  How am I to be the wealthiest merchant in all the city with you snoring daylight away?!  Now quit wasting my time and let's get this stuff on your back!"


"Oh, unbelievable...did you really just spit on me?"


"Lousy camel..."

What You Get:

This review is slightly different than my others, as we have only played the online/PC version.  So while I cannot speak to the quality of the components, I can pass along what is included.  First, there is a colorful, pastel city board, wonderfully rendered in the Windows version.  You will also have four player boards to keep track of buildings and a caravan board.  Then there are cubes.  This is a Euro, after all.  Happily, the camels are represented by wonderful little camel meeples, or cameeples, I guess.  They even spit!  Okay, so no, not really.  But they are a nice wee thematic touch in a title otherwise unencumbered by its theme.  Especially when the gold is just yellow, wooden discs.  Yawn.  The dice, at least, appear to be big and chunky and wooden and fun to roll.  There are 18 cards which give certain benefits.  If you have difficulty with the icons on the cards, the rule book provides a lot of deciphering help.

What comes out of the box. Courtesy William Hunt, BGG.
The Quick Rundown:

Yspahan pits you against 2-3 other merchants in 16th century Arabia, vying for gold, camels, and control of various city districts.  Whoever manages these resources best earns renown throughout the land for his vast tracts of...points!  You score these points by claiming colored sets of shops in any of four city districts, or by sending goods onto a separate caravan track, or by building a progression of six unique structures which also give you certain benefits in play.

Each turn represents one day and you have 21 days (or three weeks) to find ways to score points.  The unique twist to this standard Euro title is that 9-12 dice will determine what is available each day.  At the beginning of the day, the first player (which varies each turn) will roll the dice and then group and allocate them to a resource "ladder" in ascending order according to their face values.  Dice on the bottom rung allow you to collect camels, while dice on the top rung allow you to collect gold, and any of the four rungs in between let you place cubes on shops in the designated city districts.  How many of each you get depends on the number of dice on the ladder rung.  For example, if you choose the three 4's on the "Chest District" ladder rung, you are allowed to place a cube on up to three shops in that district.  If you take the one 6 value die on the top rung, you collect one gold.  Once a rung's dice are taken, that resource or action is no longer available to others for the remainder of the day.

If the available resources remaining on the ladder don't float your boat, you have a couple of options.  First you can draw a card.  This is not a bad option as cards are always beneficial.  Two, you can move the supervisor a number of spaces on the city streets equal to the pip value of a single dice on the ladder rung you choose.  You can increase or decrease that number of spaces by paying gold or building a particular structure.  Wherever the supervisor lands, any cube on an adjacent shop gets sent to the caravan waiting outside of town.  This might immediately score points for its owner.  When all the camels on the caravan are filled, it leaves town, scoring more points for everyone based on where their goods are located in line.

A for Adults:
The Windows version game in-progress.

It's kind of funny.  Most of the games we play have a recommended age range older than my kids.  Undeterred we take them head on, conquering any mechanic, rule, cube, or victory point track along the way.  Sure there are bumps in the road and minor blunders (not the least of which are committed by me, the adult!), but my kids will slip comfortably and smoothly into many a title with an age rating fully 5 years older.  There's a lot to be analyzed there in a future blog post; but for now, it mainly causes me to question what in the world that number on the box means or what it is supposed to represent?  And Yspahan only reinforces that sentiment, but from the opposite spectrum.  I'm not really convinced that this title is all that more complicated in its ruleset than either Kingsburg (10+) or Cyclades (13+).  Plus Kingsburg offers far less strategic scope, but has an older recommendation than Yspahan?  In any event, at 8+ Yspahan possesses simple rules that children can certainly learn without trepidation, yet belies a thoroughly strategic depth in game play that is often "above their heads."

I say that because Yspahan's strategic reach is mixed with a heavy dose of tactics in such a way that it feels very chess-like in nature.  You must have a plan and stubbornly work towards it; but you must be able to think and react on the fly, too.  The pressure is on, as well, with the limited number of turns to implement your plans.  That style certainly appeals to a good number of gamers.  It did not click with my kids and I suspect that would be a similar sentiment with most children.  Game play proceeds in a move/counter-move manner whereby you're just as concerned with what other players are doing as with what you want to accomplish yourself.  Apart from the tempered supervisor, it's not that you are directly attacking or hindering your opponents in any large fashion.  However, any move a player makes can potentially affect others in a few ways.

First, once you begin placing cubes on a set of colored shops in a district, that set is off-limits to other players (until the end of a week, when all shops are scored and then cleared for the next 7 turns).  Each set earns its owner fluctuating points based on which district it is located and how many shops are in that set - but only if you own all the shops of that color.  Often times, you can start to be locked out of some prime real estate by Day 2 or 3 because other players have already started hanging their shingles out in various sets and districts.  You could use the supervisor to evict some one, but it's a slow process with, usually, one cube at a time.

Cameeples on the Caravan track.
Courtesy David Cox, BGG.
That supervisor is the second chess-like element, so it's fitting that it is a pawn.  This guy gives you a couple options.  One, you can use him to send your own goods to the caravan and score immediate points.  Plus when a completed caravan is scored, the more cubes you have on it, the more points you'll earn.  Or two, you can use the supervisor as a mild "take-that" mechanic in breaking up monopolies.  While sending your opponent to the caravan may score him some points, it may be worth it if you can break up a set of shops that would otherwise score him even more.  This is an especially frustrating tactic towards the end of the week when he might not have time to reclaim his lost business.

The last, but certainly not least, move/counter-move aspect lies in the dice selection on the resource ladder.  Once a set of dice are taken, that resource is unavailable to the remaining players until the next turn.  If you're trying to complete a set of shops in the "Barrel District," but there are no dice on that ladder rung, then you're just out of luck.  You will often need to alter your plans slightly based on what's available when your turn comes around.  You can always take a card, which may seem like a lame pass, but cards are very good in Yspahan.  Still, turn order is important.  Not only does the first player have first choice of available resources, but she can also pay gold in order to roll up to 3 extra dice which only she can use that turn!

Ironically, the serious Euro gamers that might gravitate towards the strong balance of strategy and tactics that this title offers may be turned off by another mechanic: the dice.  Luck plays an influential role here by determining how much of each resource is available.  It is often the case you are able to grab the resource you need, but not enough of it.  And while the cards are all beneficial, the boost can be anywhere from positive to tremendous, depending on your situation when you draw the card.  Some of this randomness can be mitigated by the six structures you can build, but probability is always lurking its head.  For some hardcore gamers, it will lurk enough to sour their taste for future plays.

The ladder. Couresty Jorg Kuck, BGG.
My kids can handle the luck.  Where the disconnect between them and Yspahan seems to lie is in its theme.  Honestly I share it.  Simply put, I can appreciate, as an adult, this game's uniqueness for what it is.  My kids, however, have little desire to explore it further.  The historic trading motif is not necessarily exciting in and of itself.  But then simply placing and removing cubes from one spot to another only exacerbates the detachment between mechanics and intended setting.  My children tend to enjoy games with an imaginative narrative or ones that create an epic arc.  Yspahan is decidedly more abstract.  So our hang-up with its thematic veneer is not really a criticism of the game - it is designed as it was meant to be.  However, I note the issue as one that will limit its enjoyment in mixed-age groups as probably unappealing to the majority of children and even teenagers.  Hence the 'A' rating.

Okay, I'll Shut-Up Now:

In the end, I give Yspahan a 5 on the Board Game Geek scale (Average game, slightly boring, take it or leave it).  If my enjoyment of a game rested moreso on mechanics, this would be rated higher as it is certainly a solid design and probably many gamers' cup-of-tea.  However, theme is too significant a personal consideration for me to rate Yspahan any higher.  While I enjoy the unique dice allocation mechanic as a refreshing 15-minute diversion on the computer once in a while, the theme and game play has failed to draw my children.  Even amongst gamers that favor lightly themed abstracts, this sneakily thinky Euro is probably best left in their adult peer gaming groups.

November 09, 2011

CFB: Attend the Game, Win a Deer Stand!

What do you do when hunting season opens on the same day as a big game, cramping your style?  Give away a deer blind, of course!  In what must be a classic example of "thinking outside the box," Arkansas State University will run a promotion for this Saturday's critical conference tilt with Louisiana-Lafayette: a drawing for a $1,500 deer stand.  This in an effort to boost attendance and lure spectators away from the call of the Wild.  Seems that a large part of the Natural State's northeastern population would rather head to the woods this time of year than attend a Red Wolves game, who have been playing the top level Division 1-A (now FBS) football since 1992.  But, hey, this year the Sun Belt title is on the line!  Snickers from Yankees like me aside (in Illinois where deer hunting is still big), you gotta hand it to the AD for knowing his demographics.  But I thought the South always trumped football as religion above all other things?

November 03, 2011

Board Game Review: Cyclades

Cyclades (Matagot or Asmodee/Bruno Cathala & Ludovic Maublanc, 2009)
2-5 players / 13 + / 60-75 minutes

The gravel crunched beneath my shifting sandals as I stood on the shore gazing out on the horizon.  An ominous fleet stretched as far as I could see.  The invasion was surely coming.

"So, Phaedrus," I said quietly to the austere priest beside me, "what say the oracles from the gods?"

"Well, my king," he replied reverently, "we cannot hope for the favor of Ares or Poseidon, so I'm afraid our forces are at the enemy's mercy.  We cannot prevent his landing.  But perhaps," he paused, looking out toward the vast sea.


"We can win Athena's love and so be blessed with time."

"Time," I responded inquisitively.  "What do you mean?"

"She will favor us in these days of Ares' sloth, presenting us an opportunity for our priests to summon a titan that still strikes fear even in the gods themselves.  We can destroy the enemy's fleet before he can launch his invasion."

"Very well, then," I ordered defiantly.  "Release the Kraken!"

 What You Get:

Unique men and boats for all.
Part of me thinks these guys are just showing off.  I mean, for $60 MSRP, this game should be entry #1 under "How to Make Components" in the Board Gaming Encyclopedia.  The board comes in two halves, both double-sided in order to create four combinations scaled to the number of players.  A third board tracks deities and turn order, and all three are quite solid.  The five sets of army/navy figures have separate molds so that each player owns unique infantry and triremes.  All of the cardboard tokens are sturdy and the coins intentionally cut slightly misshapen - a simple, yet tremendous thematic touch. The slick cards are just a wee bit better quality than a standard poker deck.  The pair of custom dice are indented and marbled, with rounded corners, and of a good, solid weight.  The deity tiles will stand up to repeated shuffling, as required.  And there are five mythological creature miniatures of such detail that they almost seem out-of-place in a board game - not that we are complaining (my kids love them)!  However, on average, miniature gamers are probably more suited than board gamers to exploit their true potential with paint.  Finally, the artwork and design layout is stunning all around - other than the use of Kenny Rogers as a model for the philosopher.  I'm no art historian, but the evocative and mystical beauty here seems to be a creation of Miguel Coimbra's familiar contemporary expressiveness mixed in with a classic Greco-Roman style.  On a family friendly note, it also happily avoids suggestive and unnecessary sensuality - a trait unfortunately not adopted in the new Hades expansion.
My apologies for the picture quality - it doesn't do them justice.
The Quick Rundown:

Swag offered by the gods.
The goal in Cyclades is to own two metropolises.  You can construct these through purchasing four unique buildings, which add up to one big city; or by collecting four philosophers, who somehow inspire the creation of such urban sprawl with all their hot air; or through military conquest, whereby you simply take one the old-fashioned way.  The heart of the game lies in an auction that opens every round.  In these auctions, you bid for the blessings of four different gods who each provide disparate benefits.  If an opponent makes a higher offering to a god whom you already bid for, you must make an offering to a new deity.  If yet another player out-bids you for that one, then you're allowed to return to your original choice as long as you increase the offering, thus sending that player groveling to another deity.  And so on until everyone is happy with their choice or too broke to do anything about it.  The gods also appear in random order every round (if you've seen Clash of the Titans, you know how utterly unpredictable they can be), so turn order is variable, depending on who secured which deity's favor.  If you want to build up your army and attack, you must secure the favor of Ares.  If you want to build up your navy and and sail around, you must bribe Poseidon.  If you want priests and temples to give you discounts on offerings and creatures, you must grease Zeus' palms.  If you want to build your metropolises through grandiose philosophizing, you'll need to flatter Athena.  Then there's Apollo - who is so easy to appease that he's free (and always last) - if you want to kick back and rest, or can't afford to out-bid other players.  Mythological creatures randomly appear to throw interesting and pesky options at anyone with the opportunity, and the gold, to pick one up and use their special powers.

E for Everyone:

I am quite puzzled at the 13+ recommended age rating.  While strategy games are more optimally suited for adults and older teens, Cyclades is fairly straight-forward, rules-wise.  No, I'm not saying a fifth-grader will destroy a retired grognard.  But the options and chrome in this title are much more manageable than other games.  That might be part of the perception.  Despite the super cool dudes on a map, don't think for a minute this is standard Ameritrash fare.

The psychological war waged in the gods auction is the meat of the game and this grows in intensity as the game crescendos to its conclusion.  In essence, you are competing for both turn order and role selection by trying to out-bid the other players.  This creates a couple of layers to what would otherwise be a generic auction mechanic.  First, you have to consider the turn order in addition to your desired god or goddess.  The favors granted to you by appeasing a particular deity may be offset by going third or fourth in turn order.  Second, you need to weigh the need of accomplishing your own goals verses hindering another's.  Perhaps you'd like to go after Poseidon to position your fleet for a future invasion, but who cares when your enemy is sitting there ready to grab Athena and her philosophers to build a second metropolis for the win.  All information is available, except for how much gold each player owns, so you know exactly what each player needs to complete their second metropolis.  Therefore, a guessing game ensues in trying to figure out if your opponent has enough money for their offering, as well as to pay for the required resource(s) necessary for the victory.  Then on top of all that, you'll need to consider who the next beneficiary will be in all that maneuvering!

What's with the Apache and Kenny Rogers?
At first, some gamers might be disgruntled that you are limited to particular actions based on which deity you acquire.  Being prohibited from attacking just because you're out-bid for Ares can be frustrating.  But each god and goddess has benefits.  If other players are out for blood with Ares or Poseidon, you can sit back with Athena and collect philosophers in order to complete a metropolis.  If bidding wars are driving up offerings higher than the price of gas, grab Zeus to nab some priests which give you discounts on your bids.  And if you find that you simply can't grab the deity you need at the right time, keep an eye out for a mythological creature that might give you an opportunity otherwise not available.  Even if you have to settle on Apollo, you at least get to save your money while increasing your future prosperity.  Indeed, it is very likely you'll go running his way by choice at least once per game!

There are some other finer points regarding kid appropriateness.  Elimination is not an issue since you cannot attack a player's sole remaining island unless successfully capturing it will earn you victory.  If you own only one island, Apollo gives you more gold to help combat the "weak get weaker" problem.  Battles are resolved quickly and simply - they reward good strategy and favor the stronger side, yet add dice rolls to give the weaker army a puncher's chance (unless outnumbered greater than 3-1).  After the auction round, downtime is minimal and sometimes nearly non-existent.  There are no victory points to gloat over in this one, but the two-metropolis win condition will usually keep this game to around 60-90 minutes.

One metropolis (top).
On the slightly negative side, there can be some irritable moments over losing bids if members of your group are sensitive to frequent interaction.  Some gamers might have issue with the numerous icons used to indicate the various powers of the gods and mythological creatures.  They're splayed all over each player's aid screen and can be confusing at first.  Most adults will have them memorized after a few games while it should only take kids, on the other-hand, a few turns!  The only potentially major issue with the game is analysis paralysis.  As god selection and open information become critical to the end-game, it can very much devolve into a thinker's chess match.  Although you're not allowed to trade any resources, the rulebook says nothing against alliances.  It is probably best to implement a rule prohibiting the free and open discussion of mutual strategy.  There is already a natural "gang up on the leader" element toward the end, but discouraging mutual planning to a degree not only increases the end-game tension, but will keep the game from dragging.  That's purely optional, of course.

Okay, I'll Shut Up Now:

In the end, I give Cyclades a 9 on the Board Game Geek scale (Excellent game. Always want to play it).  The auctions create a tense, mini meta-game in which you need to balance how to achieve your own goals while thwarting your opponents' strategies.  Kids will learn how to make the best choice available when often presented with limited options.  After all offerings are resolved, game play is smooth and quick.  Conflict plays an important part, yet is not overwhelming.  Luck is mitigated by the deity roles and well-timed planning.  And it does not overstay its welcome.  Cyclades is a unique and highly thematic title seamlessly blending Ameritrash and Euro game elements.

November 01, 2011

Gaming with Kids: (Un)Attractive Themes

Ever look back on something you did in life and wonder what the heck you were thinking?  I only have to blast to the past a couple years ago when Facebook was just morphing into the all-consuming, Big Brother social network mainstay that dominates so much of culture today.  And FarmVille.  Many people I knew on Facebook got hooked on this life-draining, social game to one degree or worse.  If you were impenetrable to its soul-sucking powers than you're a better man - or woman - than me.  My addiction lasted maybe half a year.  Oddly enough whenever I mention those days, not fondly, with a former "neighbor," neither of us can remember exactly why we felt the urge to stay on-line until 2:00 in the morning picking virtual asparagus.  Nor why we needed carnival tents, Roman villas, every conceivable seasonal decoration, and 500 animals and trees that took an hour to individually "click-and-harvest" every stinking one.  Nor what led us to bug our friends non-stop to just hurry up and start a farm and be our neighbor, already!  Sure they were smart enough to ignore our thousand pleas, but just register!  I don't care if you play with your farm - just sign up as my neighbor so I can expand mine!

I'm very much a theme guy in gaming.  Which is the major reason I wonder about my former FarmVille addiction.  I find farming probably the least attractive theme in all of hobby gaming.  Beyond the fact it is not a pull factor for me, it actually serves as a push factor.  For example, I have no desire to play, or certainly to buy, one of the most popular and highly-rated board games on the market: Agricola.  I should clarify here that this does not necessarily equate to the discussion regarding pasted-on themes.  While I prefer games in which the theme intricately interweaves within mechanics and rules, I'm also fine with titles that emphasize strong mechancis and game play which would work effectively independent of a number of themes.  However, whether it is heavily integrated or added on as an afterthought, I want the theme to be an interesting one - which of course is subjective.  Some major and recurring game themes that do little for me include trading, the stock market, and trains.  Ironically, all of those generally involve a degree of building and development, which I do like.  It's just I'd rather be building and devloping elsewhere.  Some very popular, and I'm sure well-crafted games, that seem bland to me are Hansa Teutonica, Acquire, Power Grid, and any of the 18xx genre.  And while I applaud unique themes and am very happy to come across them, some just sound bizarely boring like the new fashion show Pret-a-Porter.

Where do my kids enter this discussion?  Well, so far they seem to fall within the same gaming interests as myself.  Now, one could argue that is no surprise because they're my kids and I'm subconsciously influencing them merely by my game purchases.  That very well might be the case.  It might also be a result of the video games they play and are used to, the majority of which are quite forgettably action oriented.  Then again, it may simply be a fact that they're a bit young still to be engaged by economic themes involving more than an average amount of math.

To examine this a bit further, I first consider the point that they can only play the games I buy.  This is definitely true, but I do let them pick games; and they have their own working wish lists based upon my own.  In the interest of variety, this "master list" includes a number of titles with themes I find less interesting, but which I've added because they seem like nice family games that would suit kids and introduce them to a sampling of the hobby's many mechanics and genres.  To name but a few examples, this includes lighter Euros such as Silk Road and China, plus card games like Bohnanza and Sobek.  Yet still, after seeing the videos and pictures on the Geek, they want the space, pirate, western and medieval games that promise adventure and/or conquest.  Even if it isn't critical to the game's mechanics, the theme still draws them.  And that rarely has anything to do with economics - unless it is more abstracted and folded into building an empire.

Knowing that I can't buy scores of games to test which themes most appeal to my kids, I turned to another medium they are already familiar with:  the computer.  There are a modest number of hobby games made available online either through membership sites, or via free download in Java, Flash, or some comparable format.  Two mechanic-driven games I have had difficulty getting them to test drive are Yspahan and the iconic Settlers of Catan.  Yspahan, available for free in a Windows version and for online play at Yucata online, pits you as an Arab trader against 2-3 other merchants vying to control shops, gold, camels, and caravans in the 16th century.  It includes a smattering of area control (or maybe more set collecting), resource management, building, and a sometimes annoying "take that" mechanic.  However, the fresh twist (for its time) is that 9-12 dice will determine how much of which resources are available every turn.  I downloaded the game hoping that the dice mechanic would appeal to my kids.  Even though the theme is not that interesting, it is exactly because of those dice that I enjoy the game as a unique diversion from time to time.  My kids aren't as interested, though.  After showing and teaching them the game, two have played it to lukewarm response and the other two have yet to try it because it doesn't look fun.

We've had a similar experience with Settlers of Catan.  I downloaded a free (and cheap and ugly) Java knock-off, plus you can enjoy limited play for free at  After teaching them the basics, they all gave it at least a partial go.  Again, I assumed that the use of dice and the Robber, ported as a computer game, would connect with my kids.  But it didn't click.  They didn't enjoy the repetition with little major development (not their exact words, but...).  Now that can certainly be chalked up to their inability to grasp the larger strategies.  But without a strong theme to engage them, they're not likely to stick with it long enough to explore all the game has to offer.  For example, they enjoy the repetition of Kingsburg, yet that title has a more enhanced theme and even a battle at the end of each year - even though ironically both are still abstracted.  Still, it's enough to keep them hooked in order to stay with the game long-term.

One title's online version that they do enjoy is Battle Cry via the member site GameTableOnline.  I have yet to purchase this 2-player only game because my preference is for titles that accommodate at least 5 players.  It has proven a success, especially with the boys.  Combining a board game theme they enjoy with the computer is a win-win as far as they're concerned.

Yes, this is all anecdotal evidence that theme is important for a game's reception among kids.  It won't hold true 100% of the time.  For example, my son is oddly fascinated with Carcassonne.  While I'm sure a fine game with some strategic nuance, it still seems like another exercise in simple repetition with a thin theme, hardly anything like he currently requests.  Then again, FarmVille is very much not like any other computer game I'd load up and plow through.  Therefore mechanics, game play, or maybe originality can sometimes trump theme for me and my kids.  However, for the most part, kids will lean toward adventure and conquest in serious hobby games over ones that focus on economics and bookkeeping.