October 02, 2012

TV Show Review: Merlin

I’ll be blunt. In my opinion, today's television is on the whole pretty much worthless drivel. The rise of the throw-away, mindless “Reality TV” era has combined with a nauseating litany of insipid and completely unoriginal string of doctor, lawyer, and cop “dramas” to create a Great Depression in television entertainment. This claptrap of dramas (both reality and not) plus other recent sitcoms try to remain relevant by ever pushing the envelop in cursing, sex, and other questionable content which seems only to exist to tantalize and shock, rather than create meaningful plot and character development. I blame the lack of creativity mostly on the exceedingly mind-boggling number of stations that exist. However, that can’t explain it all. For example, I’m trying to give NBC’s Revolution a fair shake. A show about the struggles of humanity years after all of the power in the world goes out is new, refreshing, and presents a gold mine of potential. Alas, it has started out as Mad Max meets 90210 with apocalyptic, Hollywood hairdos and designer clothes fit for a Twilight set, a cardboard “teen-girl-wants-to-avenge-daddy’s-death” heroine, the reluctant Han Solo-esque anti-hero, and a cookie-cutter villain. But I’ll continue for a few eps more, hoping it doesn’t flail like the last promising sci-fi yarn, Terra Nova. Oh, well, there's always college football, at least.

Okay, there are some worthy exceptions. And, yes, some people prefer their entertainment to be mere, wasteful escapism never to be thought about again (though I’d argue a two-hour movie suits that purpose better).

But I didn’t come here to rant. Instead, I’ll talk about one positive my kids and I have discovered: BBC’s Merlin. Season 5 premiers this Saturday over in merry England and will air in the U.S. on SyFy starting in January 2013, though you may be able to view it online somewhere as it airs across the Pond. Seasons 1-4 are available online (free and clear or hacked) or via Netflix, I believe. I highly recommend the series.

Merlin is a re-telling of the famous hodge-podge of Arthurian legends through the titular warlock’s point of view. Rather than an older, father-type figure, this series portrays Merlin as a contemporary of Arthur's, perhaps slightly younger than the iconic king, who begins the series as a prince and remains as such through most of the first four seasons. I think that both fans of Camelot and newcomers will enjoy this fresh, stimulating, and family-friendly adventure yarn.

There be dragons in this one.
Season 1 introduces Merlin as an inexperienced youth with the rare gift of magic. The problem is that King Uther has banned all forms of sorcery and witchcraft, whether used of good or evil. Indeed, Merlin’s first impression of Camelot upon walking into the city is the execution of a warlock. Uther has declared a crusade against all manner of magic and any people or creatures associated with “the Old Religion.” Uther’s stubborn, maniacal obsession against eradicating the Old Religion is almost strangely a character in and of itself and the primary protagonistic pool in which the show swims, mainly and especially as Merlin must keep his powers a secret upon pain of death. As the series develops, Uther’s hatred proves born of his dalliance with magic when he bargained with the priestess Nimueh to conceive Arthur, since his wife, Ygraine, was barren. However, to give a life requires a life and so Ygraine dies in childbirth. Uther blames magic and sees all of it as evil (long beyond the point of reason in the matter), but is clearly blinded by grief and wracked by the knowledge of his own guilt. It eventually costs him everything.

The first season is decidedly episodic. Merlin is first put-off with Arthur’s prideful and spoiled upbringing, but is nonetheless thrust into the role of the prince’s man servant. Arthur can barely stand his nearly inept servant, but amazingly relies on him more and more. A reluctant relationship develops in which the two find nuggets of potential in each other but still relate in the roles of arrogant master and bumbling servant. On his off hours, Merlin develops two other important relationships. First he lives with Gaius, a family friend, the court physician, and a mysterious father figure whom you know there is more to than meets the eye. Gaius is also the only person in Camelot that knows Merlin’s secret and has a library of books from the Old Religion of which Merlin takes advantage. Second, Merlin discovers the last of the dragons, Kilgharrah, whom Uther had captured and chained deep beneath Camelot. Kilgharrah provides aid and help and antagonism, as well as prophecies that Merlin must protect the young Prince Arthur who will one day be a great king and bring back the Old Religion. At first, this news does not please Merlin who wants as little to do with the prince as possible. As Merlin becomes more and more powerful, his connection with Kilgharrah becomes defining and inseparable.

If there must be a reckless, charming rouge,
Eoin Macken as Sir Gwaine pulls it off triumphantly.
Through Season 3, the episodic nature fairly holds form. Many times, there is little relation between one week and the next. Many are silly – some groan-inducing – but most are fun.  Indeed, much of it smacks of Saturday afternoon matinee escapism. But despite that one ep may be thrown away individually, they all add up to create the background for which Season 4 really kicks into gear as a dramatic, soap operatic, and engaging tale. The only early story arc – which takes over in Season 4 – is that of Morgana and her slow progression to the “dark side.” Publicly she is Uther’s ward. Only he and Gaius know that she is really his daughter and Arthur’s half-sister. No one knows she has magic, including herself. That develops gradually, as does her traditional role as one of Arthur’s legendary antagonists, fueled by her claim to the throne and a growing hatred of Uther’s vengeance against her kind. Eventually of course, she allies with evil and seeks to destroy Uther and everything associated with him, especially Arthur and Camelot.

So much of the Arthurian legend, ancient and contemporary, is uniquely woven into this retold tapestry. The Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot triangle is introduced, nurtured, and resolved before Arthur becomes king. Guinevere herself is a commoner and Morgana's servant girl. Excalibur is semi-forged by the great dragon, Kilgharrah. Many famous Knights of Camelot like Perceval and Bedivere die long before the Round Table appears. Mordred is a Druid, not the child of Arthur, Morgana, or Morgause as various legends depict. The story of Arthur’s birth does not involve Merlin changing Uther’s form. Freya is the Lady of the Lake, instead of Nimueh. And so on. A list of familiar people and places from the mythical tales make a fresh appearance or play significant roles: Albion, Avalon, Tristan and Isolde, Agravain, Galahad, King Lot, the Black Knight, the Fisher King, the Questing Beast, and even the Holy Grail (which the series calls the Cup of Life).

Due to its episodic nature and need to introduce its vision of the Arthurian story, Merlin is a bit fluffier to begin. The special effects are passable and the acting stiff, but both improve immensely over the first couple of seasons. The content becomes meatier in Season 3 and darker in Season 4, with both stakes and adventure ratcheted up significantly. And while the mood deepens, Merlin still exudes a great deal of charm, pathos, and humor thanks in no small part to the capable cast. King Uther’s vendetta against magic is frustrating and tragic. Merlin’s efforts and anguish with hiding his true identity is distressing. The Arthur-Guinevere love story is moving. And Sir Gwaine’s infectious energy simply rocks!

Much ridiculed in other circles, I'm sure, the love and loyalty between
Arthur and Merlin is of the John 15:13 type. Not only does it drive the show,
it is much the better off for it.
The show’s beating heart is the wonderfully crafted bromance between Arthur and Merlin. The initially reluctant relationship evolves into unbreakable commitment between two men that will, and do, sacrifice everything for each other. It is built upon tangible connectors such as living and fighting and struggling together, as well as an intangible aura that portends of greater things. On the one hand, it seems a rock-solid friendship because it is prophetically fateful. Yet on the other, it seems so very fragile as the revelation of Merlin’s secret could risk all in eroding that most sacred characteristic of any strong relationship: trust.

To be sure, many standard tropes are present.  Way too many times Merlin uses magic to save Arthur’s life unbeknownst to anyone. Merlin and the heroes have more than one opportunity to kill Morgana but, in true Hollywood fashion, fail to “pull the trigger” only to face a new evil plot. Camelot is taken over by the enemy (we may agree a rather climactic and epic event) not once, but twice. And Camelot’s dungeons have got to be the easiest to break free from in all of medieval history. Merlin’s strengths more than cover its foibles. As a family friendly show, it is never gratuitous or disturbing – if that is what you want, there is always HBO, Showtime, STARZ, and AMC (plus, the major American networks aren’t far behind). Yet it can still be dark and gritty, creating tension and dilemmas that challenge the characters and their beliefs with decisions of profound and meaningful consequence. For the audience, it raises questions about justice, peace, honor, commitment, loyalty, and servanthood. Most importantly, it asks at what lengths those ideals can be realized and at what costs they are achieved. That is, after all, the timeless message for which Arthur and Camelot stand.

September 18, 2012


I'm red - the turkey in the middle between a slice of green and tan bread!
It's easy in a war game, especially in a three-player session, to feel like the turkey in a turkey sandwich.  My boys seem to have a knack of setting up a game to put the old man in the middle!  Fighting a two-front war is nigh impossible - in a game or in life!

Our recent session of Warlords of Europe serves as another fine example.  Cory started in Spain, while Brendon took the Latin Empire at the other far end.  That left me in between them, to the north, in Denmark.  Cory first spread out east into France, while I marched south on Germany, and Brendon moved into Hungary just to his north.  I guess I could have built up and stayed put until the two boys met each other in Germany.  But the problem with using that strategy in Warlords is that this title rewards you when you have territory - a not at all uncommon feature in conquest gaming.  So if I had temporarily turtled, the two boys would have just been all the more richer and powerful by the time swords crossed.  Plus we play our war games more like General Custer, rather than General McClellan.  And Brendon got out to a fast start.

Another rewarding aspect in Warlords are bonuses for controlling all of the fiefs (individual territories) in an entire kingdom (a larger political region comprised of 6-7 fiefs).  Unfortunately, I was reduced to attacking piecemeal into France and Hungary just to keep Cory and Brendon from earning those bonuses.  I was holding my own against Cory, but large clashes with Brendon slowly ate away at my defenses.  Pretty soon, I could not prevent him from taking all of Hungary and the fight against his treasury became more lopsided than the one on the field.  Despite all of that, I actually did have one chance at victory - a card allowed me to slip some soldiers through an enemy fief and attack a castle on the other side, which I did successfully.  However, since Cory was last in turn order (randomly assigned), he was able to recapture it.

In the end, in this situation, it boils down to choosing your fights, because you cannot commit to all of them.  After all, I think it was Napoleon who said, "He who tries to defend everything, defends nothing."

September 13, 2012

Gaming with Kids: The Runaway

War, conquest, and strategy games often suffer from a characteristic that puts off many gamers:  the runaway leader.  This is basically similar to the concept "the rich get richer."  As you expand and conquer, you get more money, men, and resources with which you further expand and conquer, thus receiving even more money, men, and resources, etc.  Conversely, if you fall behind, you receive less which makes it very difficult to stop, and/or catch-up to, the leader.  Risk is the ultimate, poster child for this often negative side-effect.  The more territories you own, the more armies you receive, thus the greater ability you have to steamroll opponents.  Meanwhile, falling behind early can translate into a death sentence as you receive too few armies to both conquer new lands (gain more troops) and adequately defend your empire (keep what little you already have).  Now, obviously, there are ways to deal with the runaway leader, else Risk would not have survived in popularity for 55 years.

I suppose one could argue that the runaway leader concept thematically portrays the real life cycles of historical civilizations and empires.  Empires garnered numbers and resources through their conquests of lands - indeed that, and its resultant power, was generally their motivation to expand in the first place.  And as they grew, they gained more strength for further expansion.  That was one of the benefits of large empires.  However, what war games rarely thematically abstract are the problems with large growth: waste, corruption, regional discontent and revolts, cumbersome administration, and over-extension of resources.

Adult gamers can lose interest in a game when it becomes obvious that they have very little chance of winning because the leader is so far ahead.  Children can downright lose heart and become completely demotivated to continue playing.  So, what to do?  The most obvious solution is the alliance.  Those currently not in the lead will ally against the clear leader.  It is certainly an effective strategy and often leads to another fun aspect of war gaming - diplomacy and all of its inherent psychological and brinkmanship glory.  However, not all gamers like the concept of alliances, in principle, instead seeing it as a cheap "gang up on the leader" gambit, whereby sheer numbers overtakes sophisticated savvy.  Another means of combating the runaway leader is to "turtle," a tactic whereby you take all your meager resources and pile them up in one place to create such a formidable fortress that the leader cannot complete the victory, but yet you are not able to win yourself.  This just delays the end, sometimes inevitably, and isn't any fun.

The always under-rated
Samurai Swords.
I still enjoy games with the runaway leader characteristic, but we also own some titles which have built-in mechanics to deal with or mitigate this sometimes sour issue.  Magnifico and Dust are interesting games in that they limit the number of times you may conquer territories each turn.  Other titles like Attack! and Warlords of Europe employ card play which can give significant bonuses to those falling behind.  A favorite mechanic to ease the pain and suffering of the runaway leader is a set victory condition, namely to shorten the game.  Axis & Allies 1942 (city points) and Risk 2210 (ten rounds) employ this kind of component.  And some games offer opportunities to make really, meaningful, one-time strikes against a leader that go a long way into evening the odds.  For example, in Samurai Swords, your three armies are almost more important than the number of territories you own.  Knock-out one or two of the leader's armies between you and the other "losers," and soon you're back on equal footing - or better!  Conquest of the Empire is similar in its use of generals.

Now most of the above titles possess one or more of those elements to check a runaway leader.  However, not to be misleading, a player can still runaway with a victory despite those built-in mechanics, so there is no guarantee to anything.  Nonetheless, these design points can ease game play, teach kids how to roll and react to less than ideal circumstances, and can always be counted on to add interesting dynamics.

September 10, 2012


Well, I'm just into my second week as an official contributor to the gaming blog iSlayTheDragon.  I'm quite stoked with the opportunity and experience.  Founder Futurewolfie and stalwart partner FarmerLenny have a much more streamlined and professional-looking web presence than my own here a Kinderspiel.  Of course, that is to be expected as our two blogs' underlying purposes are quite different, too.

I've followed iSlayTheDragon for the past year - as long as I've been blogging - and when they recently solicited help in expanding their web site, I thought long an hard.  Okay, maybe I'm being a bit dramatic.  But I was certainly interested for a number of reasons.  First, I've been blogging for a year now (as I said), and had been debating whether to continue with it or try to approach it differently.  Second, two of the foster kids that I gamed with and who helped contribute to the blog left our house to return home - changing the dynamics of my gaming/blogging lifestyle.  And also mostly, the kids did not "get into" blogging like I thought they might.  When we first started a year ago, they were excited to take pictures, offer opinions, and even do some brief write-ups.  The novelty has appeared to wear off, however.  They still want to play the games, but they're not so interested in post-game, hobby expository.

Despite my two-month posting silence, I'm still keen to blog, though.  Even if not as much, or in a different manner.  So beginning last week, Kinderspiel will morph into a bit more casual tone with shorter pieces and lighter commentary.  Perhaps some minor thoughts on the hobby or session recaps - if I can remember those pics!  Maybe some exploration in RPGs, especially what with our planned Mouse Guard sessions (I'm close to finishing up the print and produce material).  Meanwhile, I will add my game reviews and deeper thoughts over at iSlayTheDragon from here on forward.  I hope to add a unique perspective there with an eye toward the family gaming experience, especially towards kids.

July 05, 2012

DOS Game Review: Sid Meier's Colonization

Back in my bachelor days and early career, my friends and I liked to celebrate July 4th by playing the traditional British lawn games of croquet and badminton.  As history buffs, geeks, and professionals, we appreciated the irony.  Now, my recent personal tradition is to celebrate Independence Day with a week or so of Sid Meier’s Colonization.  I first played this game when it was released in 1994 and have revisited it at least once in every year since.  This well designed and implemented title will appeal to anyone familiar with Sid Meier’s Civilization franchise (currently in its fifth edition).  Unfortunately, the original Colonization itself was never remade or updated, unless you count the woefully lacking and underdeveloped Civilization IV: Colonization.  This year, my two boys joined in on the tradition as we aspire to foment and implement treasonous rebellion!

Without a doubt, Colonization’s graphics are hopelessly out-dated.  But quite frankly, for people of my generation, that is part of its charm today.  Of course, that was if you could even get the game to run.  Previously, the greater issue for gamers wishing to brave a new world was three-fold.  One, if you were fortunate (like me) to own the original discs (3.5” floppies!), then good luck finding a modern computer with a floppy drive!  Second, barring that, the game was nigh impossible to buy, so you would have to download the files from an abandonware site (I’ll not link to any, as some people have ethical concerns with them).  And finally, even with the original discs or files, today’s operating systems will not run Colonization.  It is a DOS program.  This is easily remedied by downloading the free program DOSBox, which creates a virtual DOS environment in which to run those old games and programs.  With some reading up and practice, you should be able to navigate DOSBox and its functions fairly effortlessly.  You’ll brush up on your command line typing in short order.  Today, though, you can bypass all that, if you wish.  For a small price, the fine, old-school, gaming aficionados at gog.com offer the original Colonization, Windows compatible, in all its charming, VGA glory.

It begins with Columbus. Deal with it.
Colonization is a turn-based, 4x (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate), civilization management game.  Beginning in 1492 (sorry, Leif Ericson), you set sail with one boat and a couple of colonists with which you will found, grow, and develop a European colony in the new world in the hopes of eventually achieving self-sufficiency and independence from King and country.  The economic and production models are quite in-depth, or were for their time, and the entire design is logical and intuitive, slick and sophisticated.  In addition to your own task of developing an efficient colony, you will struggle with Native Americans defending their homeland, other European powers trying to exploit it at your expense, and eventually your own sovereign.

The early map.
The heart of the game is harnessing the vast wilderness and its resources for wealth and power.  Early on, you’ll accomplish this through fur trapping, silver mining, and/or exploiting cash crops like tobacco, sugar, and cotton, for quick profits.  As you grow, you’ll turn those raw resources into more refined products like coats, cigars, rum, and cloth for even greater income.  You’ll also need to timber the vast forests for lumber to construct basic buildings, while later advanced structures will also require you to mine iron ore in order to make tools.  All of this comes in due time.  When you begin, you’ll primarily be dependent upon the home country for trade and immigration.  And the Crown graciously makes you pay more and more in taxes for the privilege.  Eventually you’ll be able to trade with the Natives and other Europeans.  There are eight native groups in three developmental levels, from the city-building Aztecs and Incas to the more nomadic lifestyle of Apache and Sioux.  Also, there are four European empires represented between Spain, England, France, and the Netherlands; one of which you choose and all with a unique trait that impacts play and strategy.

The colony screen.
Of course, you need colonists to build a colony.  There are nondescript “free” colonists who will perform average labor at any endeavor.  But there are also specialists that you can attract, hire, or train in any of the jobs available and will perform much better.  These various colonists will randomly immigrate to your colonies for free from time to time (represented as religious dissent which is generated by cross production in your colonies’ churches).  But many of them you will also need to pay for.  Free colonists are hard workers and will be adequate early on and do in a pinch, but coupling your specialists with the most advanced buildings and spaces will reap the greatest yields.  So, for example, in order to turn out the greatest number of muskets, your labor/building tree must look like the following: have an Expert Ore Minor mining a hill terrain space on which a Hardy Pioneer has built a road (using tools), which provides ore to an Expert Blacksmith working in an Iron Works, a third-level building which you can’t complete until Adam Smith joins your Continental Congress, which will in turn provide tools to a Master Gunsmith working in an Arsenal, another third-level structure, which will churn out muskets.

Aside from developing your economy and infrastructure, you’ll need to devote time, planning, and resources to protecting your colonies.  Some of your colonists will need to serve in the militia, and good luck getting through an entire game without at least some conflict with the natives or other Europeans.  Indeed, true to historical form, another means to riches and expansion is at the expense of other peoples.  Trading with the indigenous tribes and staying away from their settlements will reduce tensions, but sooner rather than later, just your growing size will begin to alarm them and strain relations.  They will raid your colonies to varying degrees, but can also be helpful from time to time.  Aside from that, you can actively campaign against them, taking the fight to their doorstep and wipe out whole settlements at a time.  Depending on the tribe, it can even be quite lucrative, something to consider while struggling with your conscience.  Less objectionable is taking out encroaching Europeans spread too close to your lands.  An expedition or two against a rival colony is a nice way to quick riches, while weakening your opposition at the same time.  Yet, be prepared for a similar strategy from them!

Converting the natives?
The other critical in-game development is Liberty Bells, which serve two important purposes.  A lot of civilization games have technology trees and Colonization’s is represented by the Continental Congress.  One at a time, great leaders will arise as you generate more and more liberty bells.  These Founding Fathers give you a variety of bonuses essential to your progress.  Second, liberty bell production increases Sons of Liberty membership.  This is significant because at least 50% of your colonists, though ideally greater than that, must support independence before you can make such a declaration.  Additionally, as rebel sympathizers gain a majority within a colony, it will earn production bonuses and upgrade more militia units to Continental regulars at the time of the Revolution.

The fickle market.
As you can see, there are a lot of moving parts to Sid Meier’s Colonization.  There are still many details and subtleties I've not covered, at all.  You’ll need to brace yourself for the very long haul.  While all of that makes for a wonderfully epic experience, it can be rather complex and slow for kids.  My boys like to watch me play the game and offer plenty of advice as to how I should run things.  However, they generally lose interest after the first hour, or so, of solo play.  Cory likes to run around and explore the map; while Brendon turns into a war game, going after Natives and Europeans in equal fervor.  The economic and production strategies are only in their nascent stages in the minds of my 4th graders.

Feels like you're kissing something else on him...
Epic, turn-based, civilization management games are rare these days.  It seems that the first-person, adventure story games are by far the most wildly popular.  Titles such as Halo and Call to Arms are quick, down-and-dirty, and action-packed.  Disposable is the word I would subjectively apply.  Colonization emerged from the 1990s, the hey-day of the 4X genre.  It was one of the more critically acclaimed and commercially successful titles of the genus.  It is complex and sophisticated.  It also covers a fascinating period of history that has always been under-represented across all styles of gaming.  If you pine for the glorious days of DOS gaming, or if you have always enjoyed franchises like Civilization, Master of Orion, or Europa Universalis, I highly recommend getting Colonization from gog.com or finding a download online (with DOSBox) and start channeling your inner Jefferson!

Founding Dads in the Congress.

June 29, 2012

Gaming with Kids: Sloppy

So it's traditional, at least in the States, to let your child tear into her own piece of cake on her first birthday.  Perhaps we do it because we're just sick and tired of having bottle and spoon fed her for the last 365 days and need the break?  Probably more so we do it because it's just funny.  Sure, the little toddler may have already fed herself a little.  But that was only Cheerios or dry crackers, unless you're some sick June Cleaver clone that actually loves cleaning up messes.  Because after you give baby her first solo run on a frosted dessert, you'll not only be cleaning her up, but also her clothes, the table, the high chair, the floor, and any pets that might have unfortunately wandered by.

Now, my kids are no longer 1 year old, but whenever they ask if they can pull a game off the shelf to play amongst themselves - as in "without me," because I'm busy - I cringe with that picture of their 1st birthday party dancing in my head.  I imagine pieces of my game strewn all over the place and on pets that might unfortunately wander by (we've already had a dog eat two of our Citadels gold pieces).  Then again, I don't have to wax nostalgic to imagine such fears - all I really need do is take one look at the disaster area we call a "toy room" in the basement.  Children, as may come as no surprise, don't always take the greatest care of their toys.  And when telling them to "pick up," you might as well be speaking in Latin.

When my kids play board games on their own, their playing space/surface often looks like the cat just tore into like catnip.  Card piles are splayed all over the place, instead of neatly stacked.  Tableaus are disheveled and intermixed so that you can't tell where one starts and another ends.  Chits and tokens are randomly scattered or lumped together so that I cannot fathom how they find what they need.  Even pieces specific to locations on the board are sprawled around as if they set it up while playing pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey.  Honestly, I'm not sure how they can even play.  But they must learn sometime, as we all must.  Well, perhaps not all.  So what do I do to impress upon the kiddos to use a little TLC?

In the beginning, the answer was simple: don't let my kids play without me!  As part of teaching them rules, strategies, and gaming basics, I also would stress how to treat the game's components.  Okay, yeah, so these games are not priceless artifacts or irreplaceable heirlooms.  At the same time, though, your game collection is an investment that you don't want damaged through carelessness or mistreatment.  Aside from the monetary value, which will vary widely, a lot of these games are not always easy to pick up if you need to replace one.  Many people have limited access to a game store, which means ordering online.  And if the game is out-of-print, you may be out-of-luck without having to fork over an inflated sum on Ebay or Amazon.  So to cut down on avoidable damage, I'm careful to stress things like don't fiddle unnecessarily with components, keep the pieces organized around the play space, maintain orderly card piles and tableaus, and don't lean on the boards, etc.  And probably most important, after a game is finished, box it up the proper way!  Not to worry though - I rarely break out the compass and protractor...

Eventually, though, they will be flying solo.  Just don't start with the large piece of sugary frosted dessert!  Instead, just have them begin with the "Cheerios," aka those smaller games with few components, easier to handle, and less messy.  I wouldn't be turning over that copy of Puerto Rico or Agricola, yet.  Card games are especially nice.  Even with card games that have components, as in the aforementioned Citadels, it is typically a minimal number.  This means that there are fewer pieces for them to deal with and account for, thus lose or damage.  Of course, cards can bend and wear, but they are generally produced with such use in mind.  Sure, the kiddos can be rough on these (especially in their bizarre and awkward shuffling techniques), which can be problematic as the cards are the game.  But these titles are typically cheaper.  In the worst case scenario in which you may have to replace the game, at least the damage to your budget is less.

In the end, it really boils down to reinforcing the principle of responsibility.  There is a balance to find.  On one side of the scale, I want them to play these games and enjoy them.  After all, that is why I buy them and it is a wonderful alternative to video games and television.  On the other hand, I will stress the importance of taking care of the games properly - without sounding too much like a broken record hopefully.  Observe how they play on their own, point out ways to avoid unnecessary wear and tear, all the while encouraging them to have fun.  Of course still, mixing birthday cake and game playing is right out!

June 20, 2012

Card Game Review: Villagers & Villains

Villagers & Villains (Studio 9/Aaron Kreader, 2011)
2-5 players / 9 + / 30-60 Minutes
Rollin', rollin', rollin'.
Rollin', rollin', rollin'.
Rollin', rollin', rollin'.
Rollin', rollin', rollin'.
Good cards!
Hah! Hah!

Keep rollin', rollin', rollin',
Though your village is gettin’ swollen,
Keep them dice a rollin', good cards!
Through citizens and buildings,
Heroes and villains,
Wishin' my luck wasn’t chillin’.
The good cards I'm missin',
The bad ones seem to be hissin',
“We’re waiting at the end of the line.”

Bring 'em out, lay 'em down,
Lay 'em down, bring 'em out.
Bring 'em out, lay 'em down:
Good cards!

Cut 'em out, throw 'em in,
Throw 'em in, cut 'em out,
Cut 'em out, throw 'em in:
Good cards!
Hah! Hah!

What You Get:

Essentially, cards and tokens.  The tokens are simple cardboard coins (64 total) in denominations of ‘1’ and ‘2.’  There is also a Start Player marker and a King’s Favor marker (used in the advanced game).  The cards are sturdy for an independent press, though not as good of quality as you’d find with, say, Fantasy Flight or Rio Grande.  That is to be expected and not really an issue.  I mean, who doesn’t like to support the little guy?  Anyway, we have played this game a ton and, so far, the cards have stood up and taken very little wear.  Besides, these cards’ appeal lies not in their quality, but in their quantity – Kreader has created a deck of 100 unique cards!  While some powers and abilities are duplicated, each card nonetheless represents a different citizen, champion, building, or challenge with its own distinctive illustration.  He was either very creative or very bored or very both!  He is certainly very talented.  All of the artwork is cartoony and expressive.  The first reference it reminded me of was the old Groo the Wanderer comic books that I read as a kid.  The art is appropriate to the game’s lighter style.  You also get one of those tiny, mini-d6 and a quad-folded, one-page instruction sheet.  Remember: little guy.

The Quick Rundown:

In Villagers & Villains, you are neither a villager nor a villain, but trying to manage both.  You are the mayor of a village trying to hire citizens and champions, erect buildings, and fight off challenges – all represented by cards in your tableau.  The game ends after the round in which one or more players have played eight cards to their tableau, and then everyone counts up their points.  The winning mayor gets a fancy sash.  Game play is divided into five phases which is easier to discuss in dreaded “bullet-point” fashion.  Trust me, I’m just as consternated about this as you are.
  • Recruit  Six cards are laid out in a row, numbered 1-6.  Unclaimed Citizens, Champions, and Buildings from the previous turn are discarded while remaining Challenge cards are moved down to the lowest slots.  Replenish to six cards, as needed.  In turn order, you will announce which card you wish to recruit and then must roll that number (or higher) on the d6.  If your roll succeeds, you may add the targeted card to your hand.  Otherwise, you are stuck with whichever card is in the first slot, so aim low when you can.
  • Defend  If you get stuck with, or voluntarily take, a Challenge card in the Recruit phase, you now have to roll to defeat it.  You always have a base town defense, but Champions give you better defense rolls and more of them.  Victory means gold now, and possibly points later, while...
  • Pillage  Defeat means the opposite.  Here you may lose gold if you cannot get rid of Challenges.  If they hang around until the end of the game, you'll lose points, too.
  • Earning  Receive the amount of gold as indicated by Citizens in your city (not your hand).
  • Build/Hire  From your hand, you may hire one Citizen or Champion or build one structure per turn, paying the required gold as indicated on its card and playing it in your tableau.  Citizens give you income each turn and maybe a special ability.  Champions help defend against Challenges.  Buildings provide points and may offer a special ability, as well.

Besides the point values you can earn listed on the cards, you can score bonuses by pairing certain cards together, or having the most Champions, or defeating the most Challenges, etc.  There is a handy-dandy score sheet, yahtzee-style, to help in bookkeeping, as the end-of-game tallying is actually the most complicated part of this title, believe it or not.

E for Everyone:

You’re certainly welcome to bring your finely honed strategic mindset into this game.  Just don’t think too hard.  And you can definitely plan to build your tableau in an efficient, machine-like, point-scoring manner.  But don’t bet the house on it.  This title is fun, as long as you don’t pretend its something grander than you want it to be.

By and large, luck and die rolls tend to be great equalizers in the hobby.  Villagers & Villains has those in spades.  This will turn-off serious gamers only interested in titles that give the old gray matter a workout.  But for those looking to engage in some good, frothy fun – especially with the kids – this card game will scratch the itch.  The rules are light, game play is straight-forward, game length should always be under an hour, and the randomness gives all ages a fair shake.

Let me re-summarize that unpredictable nature, as it is probably the make-or-break factor for most gamers.  Random element #1 begins with the cards in the recruit phase.  Other than left-over challenges from the previous round, you have no idea which cards will be available until they pop up that turn, which makes planning problematic.  Random element #2 lies in turn order, which is connected heavily with the order of the cards in the recruitment pool.  Sometimes going first is advantageous if there are good cards in the first half of the pool, thus easier to nab as fist come, first serve.  On the other hand, if the better cards are in the 4-6 slots, then going last can be advantageous in making it easier to roll for those higher cards which slide down in slots as the cards below are taken.  Random element #3 is then, of course, simply rolling for the card you want.  On top of that, any non-challenge cards leftover are discarded, which often results in a wanted card removed for the rest of the game!  Random element #4 constitutes defense against challenges as you must roll certain numbers to defeat them.  And finally, there are even some chance rolls and card draws in the special abilities, which rounds out this discussion with random element #5.

So how are we able to overcome such chaos?  Well first and foremost, we actually enjoy rolling dice.  Many gamers do.  In addition to its equalizing qualities, dice rolling provides a fair amount of tension and laughter in equal parts, which is sort of ironic and fascinating when you stop to think about it.  That aside, there are a few ways to roll with the chaos.  First, you can grab cards that help to minimize the luck.  Some cards provide aid in recruitment and defense rolls.  Others allow you to draw extra cards by paying gold or defeating challenges.  You can also simply purchase more dice during recruitment.  Second, the advanced game includes the King’s Favor token which is, ironically, randomly placed on a card in the recruitment pool and then awarded to the player who earns that card.  The King’s Favor can aid in recruitment, defense, income, or turn order.  Once used, it is returned to the recruitment pool for the next round.  And finally, there are multiple paths to victory, just in case you find yourself forced down a particular road.  You can stock up on gold-producing citizens to buy the high value buildings.  You can go for a village full of champions to get the hero bonus.  Or you can even willingly take on and defeat the most villains for the challenge bonus.  And if you feel particularly lucky, punk, aim to play matchmaker and pair up certain cards in your town for extra points.

Okay, I'll Shut Up Now:

In the end, I give Villagers & Villains an 8 on the Geek scale (Very good game.  I like to play.  Probably I'll suggest it and will never turn down a game.).  The randomness will sometimes ruffle your feathers, but just remember that you're not the only bird in the nest.  Once you learn to take the chaos in stride, you'll find a light-hearted, adequately themed game that is enjoyable and accessible for a great range of ages.

June 14, 2012

Explaining the Silence

Well, life intervenes!  I’d hoped to post way before now, but we’ve just not been able to get back to the (planned) final session of Monkey Pirates.  I haven’t had the combination of “all kids present and accounted for, plus a free 90 minutes.”  From my recent research into role-playing, I’ve read that our snag is not all that uncommon a situation in the hobby.  So instead, we’ve played other games with whoever was free and available at the time; or played other titles (especially card games) that are generally quicker and hassle-free.  I’ve just been terrible about documenting those!  But I did want to jot down some thoughts in regards to our introduction to the role-playing genre.

For now, an hour and a half per session is the limit of my kids’ attention span for role-playing games.  Ideally, 60 to 75 minutes.  While focus can be also problematic with our board games, the concern is even more acute in role-playing.  I am pretty sure this is because of the lack of tangible material.  While they do have their character sheets and a map for visual reference, it is a far cry from the tactile material that boards, pawns, chits, cards, money, and dice can offer.

K·I·S·S.  One of my girls just turned 11 and the other will turn 10 next month.  My two boys are both 9 years old.  At those ages, I think keeping it simple is certainly best.  Our game of Monkey Pirates was decidedly rules-light and heavily story-driven (I like the term “cinematic,” but that makes it sound a bit more dramatic than what it really was…hehe).  After playing this very basic and introductory title, I think they are ready for and would enjoy a bit more crunch – but not a lot.  They enjoyed the freedom given in story-telling and the flexibility when even failing tasks.  Detailed rules and complex character traits might bog that down.

I purposefully kept a tight rein on the adventure’s development.  At times, I wondered if I should give them more leeway to take the story in their own crazy directions – believe me it would have been crazy.  But as this was an introductory experience, I consciously decided to keep things strictly on track.  On the other hand, I still wanted them to use their imaginations and participate with their own role-playing, as well.  Therefore, while I scripted the outcome of each task, I generally let them role-play the manner in which they reached that outcome.  And in that, I enjoyed their creativity.  Typically they worked together to role-play their stories, even though technically only one person was responsible for a specific task resolution.  But they did a nice job and came up with some things that I wouldn’t have imagined.  And eventually they’ll grow more comfortable with getting into their parts individually.

As I mentioned when beginning this little series on the blog, one of the points was to see if my kids (and I, for that matter) had an aptitude for role-playing before I purchased Mouse Guard, a game based on the graphic novel series that we like.  I tweaked our Monkey Pirates campaign to even mimic many elemants and mechanics built into Mouse Guard.  David Peterson’s imaginative world, characters, and artwork are thoroughly engaging and fascinating.  Luke Crane’s role-playing game based on the setting is appealing to all ages.  It does have more crunch in test resolutions, but still seems to be on the lighter side with a definite emphasis on role-playing, instead of rolling dice.  However, the character traits, abilities, and beliefs system are all very well developed and in-depth and will be confusing at first.  It will be a learning and growing experience, but I believe the theme and setting will go a long way in fostering a pleasant one – which will go beyond just our experience in Mouse Guard, but rather lead to other titles in the genre, as well.

May 31, 2012

RPG Play: Monkey Pirates Session Five

Previously in the Monkey Pirates RPG blog series:
Introduction to the game
Character Creation
Actual Play Session One
Actual Play Session Two
Actual Play Session Three
Actual Play Session Four

(Blogger's Note:  My kids continue to show imagination and creativity in the parts which they narrate - they all compliment each other well and help to collectively tell their parts of the story, which is fun to see.  Obviously, some of the adjectives and adverbs in the text below are a bit above their grade levels and were added in by me for flavor at the time of transcription.)

Monkey Pirates and the Precipice of Doom
Date Played: May 19, 2012
1 hour, 3 minutes

As the adventuring band debates how best to begin searching for Captain Squawk, newcomer Lilly decides to use her first Treasure point to get a bottle of vitamins that will keep her healthy and fit to aid in her Climbing tests.

Still stinging from the humiliating defeat at the hands of Captain Jack Squawk, the four piratical monkeys agree to seek out Jacquette at the Pearlie Mist.  She’s strange and her place smells weird, but she seems to be a fountain of knowledge and may know how to reach the scoundrel.  They make the trek to her establishment in a lonely part of the island.  Approaching the door, they note it is slightly ajar and so they cautiously enter looking around the dimly lit store.  Jacquette is wearing an oversized cloak and rustling through some papers, with her back to the entrance.  Hearing the quartet enter, she raises and turns her head to the side and rasps, “What do you need?”

“We’ve come for some more answers,” says the captain with urgency.

“Really,” is the one word reply.  Her voice creaks.

Blue Tail raises her brows, asking, “What’s wrong with your voice?”

Jacquette stands, slowly turns around, and lowers her hood…to reveal that she is not Jacquette, after all!  Instead, standing before the confused quartet, the cloaked creature is a bugged-eyed frog, with the collar of a royal naval uniform protruding from the top of his robe.

“Who are you,” asks the captain, drawing his sword.

The mystery intruder smiles with embarrassment.  “Please, I know this seems awkward, what with me being here, and all, but I can explain.  My name is Commodore Christopher Greene of HMS Jumper.  I am looking for Captain John Smith and my contacts led me here, to the Pearlie Mist, as there may be some association between him and the owner of this establishment.”

The four pirates look innocently back and forth between each other.  “Why are you looking for him,” asks Patchey McNuttey.

Lilly rolls a Chatter test to pry the information from Commodore Greene needing a 3 on the monkey die, and a 2 on the chatter die.  She rolls a 3,6 and passes.

The amphibian thinks for a brief moment and sighs.  “I’m on official, yet sensitive, business for Governor Longneck and must retain a low profile.  His lordship would like to enlist Captain Smith’s services in dealing with the notorious criminal Captain Jack Squawk.  So you can appreciate our need to stay ‘out of the picture.’  And let’s just say the governor is aware of their little rivalry.  Do you know Mr. Smith?”

“We’ve heard of him,” replies Patchey.

Shiver Paw pipes up, “What do you want him to do?”

“You see,” replies Greene, “Squawk has something that the governor wishes to keep out of criminal hands.  Smith knows of it, we’re told, and his grace would like him to retrieve it.  In return, he is prepared to give him the whereabouts of Captain Squawk, to pay very handsomely for the object in question, and to give a full pardon for all of the captain’s crimes, plus pardons to his crew, as well.”

“I think he’s dead,” Patchey quips quickly.  She does not trust the frog.

The commodore looks sadly to the floor.  “Oh, dear, that’s…unfortunate.  We’d not heard that, although we knew his last destination was Cannibal Island, so perhaps,” his voice trails off.

The others pull Patchey aside and whisper to her, “Look, we need to find Squawk and this guy knows where he is. What if they’re already summoning Orangebeard?  We’ll have to trust him for now.”  Patchey does not like it, but Captain Smith makes the call.  “Can you prove your story?”

Greene pulls an envelope from his cloak.  “These are my official orders, and the governor’s offer to Smith, with his signature.”

Smith removes the letter from the envelope and scans the document.  He seems satisfied and stands straight.  “I am Captain John Smith.”

Greene’s wide eyes brighten.  “Excellent!  I suspected as much and the governor will be grateful for your services, sir.  So, it is agreed that you will acquire the, ahem, ‘special object’ in exchange for a generous reward and full pardons for all?”

“Agreed,” confirms the captain.  “Now, where is he?”

The officer places his hood again upon his head and begins to walk out of the Pearlie Mist.  “In one of the clearings on High Pointe to the northwest of this island,” he says and adds, “Good luck,” as he exits.  The monkeys all stare as he leaves and then gather their courage to confront Squawk.

Hope rolls a Sailing test to find a path to High Pointe needing a 3 on the pirate die, and a 2 on the sailing die.  She rolls a 5,6 and passes.

[Hope narrated] Blue Tail leads them outside and looks out in the direction of High Pointe.  “I know that place,” she beams brightly.  “On the ship I used to serve on, before this one, the whole crew would go up there to camp and drink slushies!”  She heads off down a rough trail and up to the Pointe and then sees some light ahead with faint smoke trails climbing up into the air.  “That must be them,” she declares.

The four walk up to the clearing and peer through the wall of greenery.  There’s a small gathering of weasel pirates with Captain Squawk and his first mate, Oliver le Peel.  They’re all circled around a large boulder on which the amulet rests.  Stooped over the natural altar is the wily, gypsy fox, Jacquette, chanting some gibberish which the monkeys don’t understand.

“She’s trying to raise Orangebeard,” exclaims Patchey in a frantic whisper.  The sneaking pirates quickly decide they must act fast, though not rashly.  So they nonchalantly stroll out into the clearing and join the crowd watching Jacquette’s ritual as if nothing is abnormal.

Squawk and his gang gaze transfixed on Jacquette and her strange ceremony, oblivious to the intruders.  The gypsy continues her exotic incantations until, as if pausing mid-chant, she stops and looks straight at the new arrivals.  Then Squawk notices them, too, and draws his cutlass.  “What in me bloomin’ pantaloons is going on?”  He is obviously concerned.  “Ye just never learn, Mr. Smith!”

John Smith answers back with a challenge.  “I think you have something of mine, Jack, and I’ll take it back, now!”

The macaw glances to Smith’s three companions and then at his own weasel crew and smiles mischievously.  “I tell ye what, sir.  How about a personal duel?  You beat me champion mate Oliver le Peel and you can have the amulet.  If’n ye lose, well,” he paused, “I’ll think of something.”  His beady eyes widen above his beak.

Captain Smith contemplates the challenge while he stares at le Peel, a massive and hairy gorilla with a large broadsword.  While Squawk’s diminutive rodents seem easy to overpower, Smith realizes that he and his friends are still out numbered, plus they have the thuggish silverback on their side.  With seemingly little alternative, Smith says, “Agreed, sir!”

Brendon rolls a Swords test (vs. Oliver le Peel) needing a 3 on the pirate die and a 2 on the swords die; meanwhile le Peel will need to roll the same.  Brendon rolls a 4,2 while the ape rolls a 6,3 and beats Brendon on aggregate!  Brendon fails but applies his Luck point to pass.

[Brendon narrated] Captain Smith and Oliver le Peel frown at each other and start to circle around like preying buzzards, waiting for a chance to strike.  The rest of the animals all gather to from a ring and crowd in closer to get a good glimpse of the battle.  They all start to cheer as the two fighters begin exchanging the first blows and Smith soon sees that the gorilla is going to be much stronger.  He has trouble attacking le Peel, but instead is driven back and then to the side, then back again, always having to defend.  Just then, a weasel sailor whelps in pain.  So intent on watching the duel, he had inadvertently backed into the campfire, setting his butt alight!  He panics and scrambles around hitting other weasels like a pinball, setting more fur on fire.  Mass chaos ensues with weasels running in all directions in pain and fright.  One such combustible ferret bumps into le Peel and knocks him momentarily off-balance.  Smith sees his chance and swings a fortuitous knock-out blow which sends the oafish ape to the ground.

Captain Smith pauses to catch his breath and the four monkeys happily look about the clearing.  Flaming weasels are dashing off to the beach, le Peel is out cold, Jacquette is gone, the stone alter is empty, and Jack Squawk is racing off into the jungle with the amulet in hand.  Who would have thought a notorious pirate would not honor his word?!

“He’s getting away,” shouted Patchey.

“No for long,” resolved Shiver Paw.

Cory rolls a Climbing test (chase vs. Jack Squawk) needing a 3 on the monkey die and a 2 on the climbing die; meanwhile the macaw will need to roll a 5 and a 4 on the same.  Cory rolls a 4,4 while the captain rolls a 2,6.  Cory succeeds.

[Cory narrated] Jack Squawk flies away through the trees, staying low.  Shiver Paw darts off after him and climbs into the first tree and starts swinging from vine to vine, slowly gaining on the bird.  Squawk looks behind him to see if anyone is following, but he does not look up to see Shiver Paw.  The monkey swings directly above the macaw and then drops down and grabs him by the feet, pulling him to the ground.  They both tumble down, wrestling, and Shiver Paw pins him down and snatches the amulet.  Jack has a broken beak for his troubles.

The other three monkeys join their nimble companion who is astride the former baddie.  With hostage and amulet in hand, the quartet exudes hope with the anticipation of fame, fortune, and a forthright future.

Before wrapping up, I replace Brendon’s Luck point used in the fight with le Peel.  Well-earned, I thought, for the butts-on-fire incident.