March 28, 2012

Card Game Review: Briscola

Briscola (unknown / 18th Century)
2-6 players / 8 + / 15-60 minutes

Kid #1: "Dad, what are those bolt-looking things again?"

"Um...that would be the 'cups' suit."

Kid #2: "Wait, how do you tell the ace of swords from the ace of batons, again?"

"Like I said, the ace of swords has the two chickens and the ace of batons only one."

Kid #3: "Where's the queen?"

"No, the queen is in the standard cards. These have knights, instead, remember?"

Kid #1: "The queen's a 'he?'"

"No! Well, yeah, from your point of view, sort of..."

Kid #4: "...are the swords curved or straight?"

Sigh.  "Most are curved, but some are straight."

Kid #2: "But the batons are straight!"

"Yeah, but they have little knobby ends."

Kid #3: "What's the king and the jack?"

"The kings are wearing the crowns.  And numbered 13 in the top corner.  Jacks are numbered 11."

Kid #4: "Well, if there aren't any 8, 9, or 10s, then why is the jack 11?  Shouldn't it be 8?"

"I don't know know!"

Kid #2: "Do you have any other cards?"

"Hmmm...well, I do have this German-suited pack..."

The Quick Rundown:

Briscola is a fun and unique point trick taking card game that is extremely popular in Italy and found in many variations throughout Mediterranean Europe.  It is not well-known in North America.  Using a 40-card pack, it is even more fun and unique when played with one of the traditional, regional Italian card decks.  You can also play with a standard, 52-card, French-suited deck by removing all of the Tens, Nines, and Eights. Cards rank A-3-K-Q-J-7-6-5-4-2.  In the Italian-suited decks, there are no Queens, but instead a Cavallo (horse/knights) and the Jacks are Fante (or infantrymen).  Instead of clubs, spades, hearts, and diamonds, the Italian suits are batons, swords, cups, and coins.

Basic game play is straight-forward.  In the 2-, 3-, 4-, and 6-player games, everyone is dealt three cards (in the 3-player version, you must first remove one of the Two's from the deck for a total of 39 cards).  The top card of the draw pile is then turned up to determine trumps for that round and placed face up under the draw pile so that the suit is visible.  Play then proceeds counter-clockwise; so the player to the dealer's right begins by leading a card of his choice.  Subsequent players do not have to follow suit nor are they obligated to play trump, if possible, but instead may play any card.  The highest trump card, or if no trump is played then the highest card of the suit led, wins the trick.  Beginning with the winner of the trick, each player will now draw a card, bringing their hand back to three cards.  The winner of the previous trick leads to the next.  When the draw pile is exhausted (the last player to draw will receive the face up trump card at the bottom of the pile), play continues as normal without drawing new cards until all hands have been played.  Then each player counts the card points in their captured tricks as follows:
  • Ace = 11 points
  • Three = 10 points
  • Re (King) = 4 points
  • Cavallo (Queen) = 3 points
  • Fante (Jack) = 2 points
The player or partnership that scores at least 61 card points (there are 120 points in the deck) earns one point for game. In a 3-player game, it is simply the player with the most card points that earns the game point.  Play typically continues over the course of several hands so that you may play to a set number, or best of 5, or best of 7, etc.  In the 4- and 6-player versions, you are partners either with the player sitting across from you (4 players) or the individuals sitting two spaces away from you on either side (6 players).

The 5-player version is slightly different.  In Briscola Chiamata (or Call Briscola), all players are dealt eight cards, so that there is no draw pile.  Then there is one round of bidding, beginning with the player to the dealer's right.  In one variation, players first bid the number of points they expect to win.  The highest bidder then gets to call one card of a particular suit which determines two things.  First, the called suit is trumps for that round.  Second, the holder of that card becomes the caller's partner for that round.  Play then proceeds as in normal Briscola (sans drawing new cards), with the called partner keeping his identity a secret until he plays the called card.  After all eight tricks have been played the caller and his partner must have earned at least the number of points originally bid.  The other bidding variation involves players calling for a specific card and suit, with the lowest card winning the bid.  That card determines both trumps and partners for the round, with the caller and his partner needing to win at least 61 card points.  In both variations, when successfully winning a bid hand, the caller earns 2 game points, his partner earns 1, and the other three lose 1 point each.  However, if unsuccessful, the caller loses 2 game points, his partner loses 1, and the other players each earn 1.

Triestine pattern - Coins

E for Everyone:

There are a lot of point trick taking card games.  Indeed, it is probably the most popular and commonly played genre throughout Europe and the Americas.  Briscola is a very nice primer to the family.  The freedom to play any card you wish without the requirement to follow suit is off-set by the fact that you only have three cards in your hand at any one time.  This creates a manageable situation in which kids can learn how to assess what they're able to win and lose, as well as analyze what they're willing to give away.  In all point trick taking games, there is generally a give-and-take whereby sacrificing a higher point card is worth it to save another of even lower value, especially if that lower card is trump.  Briscola's three-card hand limit and basic rules set really facilitate learning these strategies.

Triestine pattern - Batons
 As with all card games, keeping track of what has already been played influences a large part of your decisions.  The unique, three-card hand limit generally forces a cautious game early on as players maneuver to relinquish the lead and hesitate to risk losing high non-trump cards.  In other point trick taking games that require players to follow suit when able, the lead player is often able to coax opponents into playing cards they don't want to.  That degree of sophistication is not present in Briscola until later in the game (though there is a variant that you can play where following suit is required after the draw pile is exhausted).  This mechanic makes things more accessible for kids, however it may not appeal as much to seasoned card players.  Instead, you're either waiting for opportunities to win tricks with your non-trump point cards or decide when to sacrifice one with hopes of taking bigger prey in later tricks.  There is also essentially what amounts to a "mini-game" on the fourth to last trick as it is generally more advantageous to lose so that you get the last trump card for play in the final three tricks.

Probably the biggest appeal to Briscola is its scalability.  Sure, many card games can be altered to accommodate a number of player variations, but really are only fun when played by a specific number.  For example, you can play Cribbage with 3 or 4, but it was created with 2 players in mind.  Pitch shines a lot better with 4 or 5, despite rules allowing for 3.  Then there are numerous games like Hearts and Spades and Euchre designed for only 4.  Briscola really is just as smooth and fun with any number of players (though I have not played the 6-player version).  I enjoy the 5-player variant the best, but there is enough difference between them all as to keep things interesting and fresh.  And while you may prefer other card games when you have 4 players at hand, this is a superior option for those times when there is the odd number of people; or it is just you and another (and you don't have a cribbage board!).

Initially, the odd card ranking kept tripping up my kids because they forgot that Three's are ranked just below Ace's.  Now, it's just automatic for them, though I honestly can't pin down exactly how many plays it took to reach that point.  It is also helpful, I think, to introduce and teach the game to kids using the Italian cards as they already have presumptions based on earlier experiences with the A-K-Q-J structure of standard American cards.  Of course, there are other games with a similar ranking switch in the Ace-Ten family (e.g., Pinochle), where the Ten replaces the Three.  Briscola's ease of play makes it a nice choice to acclimate kids to that mechanic.  The other possible wrinkle to this Italian gem, ironically, is the open-ended card play.  Most other trick-taking games require players to follow suit and/or play a trump card.  With no such restriction here, an over-familiarity has led to some hesitation amongst my kids to try other trick taking games that have such limitations.  They are too comfortable with the freedom that Briscola gives.

Triestine pattern - Swords

For more authentic flavor, I did purchase some Italian playing cards, having to choose from sixteen different patterns!  The Triestine pattern seemed like it would be a little easier for the kids and I to get used to.  First of all, it has numbered indices, in case there is confusion over counting the number of swords or batons.  Second, the court cards are double-sided like those in a standard deck, whereas most of the other Italian cards have single standing portraits that force you to constantly flip them over so that they're standing upright!  And finally, the words "Re," "Caval," and "Fante," are printed in the center of the court cards to help distinguish each from the other.  I would not say that the Triestine pattern is the most aesthetically appealing, but it certainly seems the most practical for Americans learning to play with Italian decks.

Triestine pattern - Cups

There are several electronic implementations of Briscola.  For the iPhone or iPad, I recommend the La Briscola app.  Although it is two-player only, it is free and has all of the regional card decks available.  Likewise for the BTM Pro+ computer download.  Thanos has an excellent four-player version for free download.  The entry has a handful of other options for download or online versions of the game.

Okay, I'll Shut-Up Now:

Briscola strikes a wonderful balance between light, breezy social game and tense, strategic battle of wits.  This is a good one for children and beginners as it is easy to learn, simple to play, and having just the right card at just the right time serves as an equalizing measure of sorts.  However, a player with a keen memory, experience, and savvy partnership chemistry will have the overall advantage.  It is a good introduction for kids in the point trick taking genre, while Briscola Chiamata adds a bidding element which is common to many card games, as well.  And from an American perspective, the peculiar, Italian-suited cards add a little touch of the exotic to enhance the experience.

March 27, 2012

Let's Play Green Bay!

Well, as I mentioned a couple posts ago, it's nearly off to Green Bay, WI, for the Let's Play gaming convention this weekend!  The sponsors/organizers just recently posted the program and schedule of events.  Scan it if you're curious.  I'd be interested to hear thoughts on how it compares with other comparable-sized conventions.  While I, my brother-in-law, and our sons will probably spend most of our time Saturday in the open gaming library and Pokemon area, I'm looking forward to seeing what an official Settlers of Catan tournament looks like.  I'd also like to check out the demos for Wings of War.  I'm fairly knowledgeable with World War I aviation history and know this game would be right up my alley - except for it's expansion-oriented cost!  Still will be fun to see the game in action, finally.  Another activity that sounds intriguing is the "Play for Keeps."  Essentially you pay a fee to play a particular game and if you win, you get to keep the game.  The fee looks to be about a fourth of the game price, so you could likely end up just footing part of someone else's bill!  But still, a fascinating concept - I have no idea if its a new one.

I'm still not sure exactly what to expect, but am looking very much forward to it.  I'm just left with one question.  What does that make me when I take a vacation day, eschew 6 hours of overtime, pull my kids out of school, and pack up our family of 9, with mother-in-law, to drive 400 miles for one day of gaming?

March 23, 2012

Gaming with Kids: Stories

There are many wonderful aspects to hobby gaming.  One of those is story-telling: creating or imagining a narrative arc while exploring space, plundering merchant sailing ships, slaying dragons, building up a kingdom, or marching armies across a map.  Now, I'm never one to imply that any theme, however good, will actually make you "feel like you're there."  That's just silly.  After all, you're just pushing plastic, wooden, and cardboard bits around a tabletop.  However, there are often fun stories generated by great themes, and you will find your family or gaming group retelling these memorable moments long after the game is folded up and placed back upon the shelf.  These photos illustrate just a few of our recent stories.

Risk: 2210 AD - One of the novel reimplementations to this traditional
standard are Devastated Lands. These are randomly drawn (4) from the Land card
deck at the start of the game and marked with large, nuclear warning style counters.
For the remainder of that game, no one may claim, enter, or march through any of
these territories as they were laid waste in previous conflicts. As you might guess,
this mechanic can really change up tried and true strategies. In this game, we had
Southeast and Eastern Europe completely devastated and cut-off from Asia.
This isolation made for some unique interaction between Europe-Africa and
Africa-Asia. On top of that, the owner of Europe still received all 5 bonus armies
even though needing two less territories to secure and protect! Of course,
growing up at the end of the Cold War, it was easy for me to concoct a narrative
of the U.S. and NATO having once defeated the U.S.S.R and the Warsaw Pact
in a great nuclear conflict leading to such devastation!

Red November - Oh, those unfortunate gnomes! This title is one of our favorite
romps for its frantic chaos. Here, the entire ship's bow was flooded except for
the missile room - and it happened to be on fire while the missiles were also about
to malfunction and launch prematurely. Luckily as both events occurred, we just
happened to have two seagnomes already there. Hooray! One put out the fire,
while the second disarmed the missiles. Just then, it, too, flooded. Doom!
However, their brave and skillful actions saved the crippled vessel as a mere
fourteen minutes later, the two surviving crew members, cowering meekly in the
engine room (the only compartment not afflicted by flood or fire), were rescued.
Those that perished were posthumously awarded the Chit of Honor for their
service to Mother Gnomia in a patriotically, moving ceremony!
Axis & Allies 1942 - So anyone who has played a fair amount of A&A over
the years probably has that story of the loan Kraut tank fending off the entire
British Expeditionary Force in Norway; or a lone Yankee Infantry holding the
Imperial Japanese Army at bay in China for a whole round. Well, here we have
sort of the reverse: mass slaughter by the invaders! Just the fact that my five
Infantry and Artillery all hit on one roll when needing a '2' or less was amazing.
But when you also consider that I'm usually lucky to get even two hits in such
a situation, the 100% hit ratio was stinking hilarious! My kids sure were
impressed with their old man!

Bang! The Bullet! - It doesn't take too much imagination
to generate narrative in this well-themed card game.
Since it can get a little long in the tooth if players are able
to play a lot of Missed! cards and Beer cards to heal, then
we like the Dynamite as a means to thin the pack...hehe.
When laid before you, you must first draw a card as your turn
begins. If you draw a heart-suited card, then boom goes the
dynamite and you loose three life points! If it doesn't explode,
then pass it to the next person. Funny thing is, there are two
dynamites with the expansion, so when the second one is
played, you can eventually get both in front of you, doubling
the danger! Now, technically we may be playing that wrong
because you're not supposed to have two, similar blue-bordered
cards in your tableau. However, the Dynamite plays differently
than those others and, besides, it is much more fun when both
are played down! One time we had a pair of dynamite circling
around for five turns before one finally went off! Talk about

March 21, 2012

Board Game Convention: Let's Play!

I'm getting deeper and deeper into the gaming world.  Oh, it all started out innocently enough as a young child with family games.  Harmless games like Candyland, Monopoly, Wahoo, and Yahtzee were popular in our house.  Then I played my first games of Risk and Stratego in the 5th grade.  Very soon after, in middle school and high school, my friends and I plunged into the Milton Bradley GameMasters series and even delved into Avalon Hill and SPI behemoths (often drowning).  It was in high school, too, that I broadened my scope of traditional card game knowledge, thanks to both sets of grandparents teaching me pitch, euchre, spades, hearts, pinochle, and cribbage.  But college and early married life was a desert of gaming experience.  Only fond memories remained.

That changed about two years ago.  On a whim, when visiting my parents one weekend, I decided to break out that old, 1975 copy of Risk to teach my two boys (both age 7 at the time).  I figured it was a pointless exercise that would send them crying and running the moment a legion of plastic pieces stormed through their bastion in Ukraine.  However, to my delight, they took to it like a mathematician to a Knizia game and wanted more.  We hit garage sale buys of Axis and Allies and Samurai Swords.  Heading to the internet to look for more of the old games I used to know, I came across the most intimidating web site I've ever seen not ending in ".gov" -  BoardGameGeek.  I'm still not sure I even know of everything that this resource has to offer for the hobby and enthusiast, but that's not for lack of spending time in browsing it's mind-numbing array of pages.  Needless to say, what a discovery!

After way too many nights of reading reviews and watching videos, I began browsing new-to-me online stores such as Troll and Toad, Boards and Bits, and Cool Stuff, Inc.  With research conducted and cross-testing prices and showing wishlists to my kids, we bought our first "Euro" game, Citadels.  Soon after that, I used birthday money to make my first bulk purchase - you know, those ones to reach the "free shipping" threshhold.  Then I officially joined the Geek, began logging all of our plays, started this blog, and just recenlty joined the online gaming community Yucata.

And as for the "next step" into the hobby, I've made plans to attend, and have passes reserved for, my first gaming convention!  It was actually my brother-in-law that tipped me off to the inaugural Let's Play Green Bay.  The 3-day (March 30-April 1) gathering will host venues and events for board gaming, CCGs, role playing, and miniature gaming.  There will be publishers and designers, casual and official tournaments, demos, sales, and open gaming.  A few highlights include a Settlers of Catan North American championship qualifier, the world's largest Monopoly collection, several official CCG tournaments, and a meet/greet with the reigning Pokemon world champion.  Presenting sponsor Gnome Games will be offering a great deal of assistance in planning and logistics.  This friendly local game store is knowledgeable, helpful, well-connected with the community, and offers a wide selection of products and support in all genres of the hobby.  They are missionaries sent forth from the gaming fold.

There's tons more.  Pat Fuge, the head gnome at Gnome Games, promises a refreshingly different kind of convention focused on social gaming and attracting new gamers.  I'm looking forward to this experience and sharing it with my two boys.  It should be a nice fit for our first convention.  On one hand, they have a lot of activities with some big name participants.  On the other hand, there should be under 2,000 attendees which, combined with the focus on social gamers, should make for a more relaxed and family-oriented atmosphere that is not intimidating for first-timers.  Of course, these are merely my initial thoughts.  Because of the six-hour drive to Green Bay, we're only able to attend Saturday; but I'll definitely be there from open to close.  Blog posts and photos are sure to follow with our exploits and my observations!

March 15, 2012

Board Game Review: Small World

Small World (Days of Wonder/Philippe Keyaerts, 2009)
2-5 players / 8 + / 60-90 Minutes

It was an empire to be feared!  A civilization to be envied!  A people to stay away from!  The great tribe of fortified trolls grew to legendary status.  Carving out a glorious realm, they stamped their footprint upon the land with ominous lairs and massive fortresses.  Only the foolish and desperate dared attack such formidable defenses.  The prestige and honor garnered by such accomplishments would resound throughout the rather smallish world.  Alas, it was not meant to be for eternity.  Stretched thin, even this mighty nation could no longer exert their authority.  Yet even though in somber decline, this once proud people's influence would be felt in their former haunts for many years to come.  Lo, instead, it was time for the rise of the...

...seafaring dwarves?

What You Get:

Appearance-wise, Small World should appeal very much to both the gaming and the casual crowd.  While there are no plastic miniatures to be found, there is a lot of extremely sturdy cardboard, all simple, colorful, and attractive.  These pieces are bright, the artwork is vibrant, and the rulebook is breezy.  There are two boards, both double-sided, each face used for a different number of players.  The coins (slash victory points) come in five denominations.  Various other tokens will denote "armies" and defensive impediments such as mountains, fortresses, and dragons, etc.  The last cardboard pieces to note, the heart of the game, are a set of banners identifying the many races available to choose from and another stack of badges to identify rule-breaking powers.  The race banners and power badges are cut so as to pair neatly together as each come up randomly for selection.  The artwork is light and humorous.  While decidedly on the whimsical side, it nonetheless thematically portrays many a familiar fantasy fare without being overly "geeky."  Everything is standard Euro business, but with a delightful panache.  A couple of final notes.  One, there is a very lightweight, wooden die with 1, 2, 3, or no pips on its faces.  And two, the box insert is extremely helpful and well-designed with even a plastic tray (and lid!) to keep all the race tokens organized and in place.  The tray's compartments are a bit small, however, for adult fingers.  But as I game mostly with my kids, it's not a problem - I just make them fish out the pieces!

Cardboard bits galore!
The Quick Rundown:

Like so many other civilizations in history, your goal in Small World is to earn the most victory points; all couched in terms of "conquer thy neighbor."  At the start of the game, 5 race banners and 5 power badges are randomly drawn from their separate decks and then matched together in order.  The player with the pointiest ears obviously goes first and can choose one of the 5 race/power combos on the table to begin.  However, there is one catch.  The first available race is free, but if you see a better race/power combo up the line, you have to pay one coin for each race you skip to avoid a guilt trip.  Those are placed on the people you just stiffed and will go to their eventual owner upon selection.  The banners/badges also specify the number of tokens of that race you receive; these are your "troops" which you'll send forth to subdue this world that is too small.  Warfare is simple math.  An empty region takes two of your race tokens to conquer, plus one more for each additional piece of cardboard occupying it.  Those impediments could be in the form of another player's tokens, or some other defensive obstruction such as mountains or encampments.  After all, everyone knows how stubborn cardboard can be.

Now, as is true of all war games not dealing with Napoleon, you're not just conquering territory for the sake of conquering territory.  No, instead, you want to capture regions that will score you points.  While occupying any old space will indeed earn you one victory point, your race's special ability and unique power will give you even more by going after certain areas or attacking in particular ways.  Each new turn, you'll pick up all of your tokens, less one per territory already owned, and spread the love again as best you can.  With so many race and defensive tokens lying about, the board will very soon be more crowded then my laundry room and you'll be out of men.  "Now what," you ask.  In that case, as has so inconveniently befallen many a great civilization, you will put your empire into decline and choose a new race/power combo to begin anew.  This mechanic was no doubt borrowed from Gibbon's "Cyclical History" thesis, which can apply to many other things such as politics, global warming, and dental hygiene.

E for Everyone:

The box's recommended age rating is spot on this time.  No question.  The rules are straight-forward.  Game play is simple.  The entire premise is so well formulated and accessible that young kids can grasp the fundamentals and play with little problem.  Yet, the unique abilities of each race and power combination afford the experienced gamer the opportunity to develop a bit of strategy.  Sure, it's not overly complex or extremely deep, but it is chess-like, your decisions do matter, and luck plays very little of a role.  Small World hits a sweet spot between making you think, yet not requiring in-depth analysis or fiddliness.  It's actually a very accommodating situation for parents to teach beginner's strategy to their children.  My own kids can compete on relatively equal footing with me.
The wizards need 5 tokens to defeat the
2 dwarves defending the mountain - just enough!
The variability of the racial and power combinations is Small World's greatest strength.  I mean really, a game about taking over cardboard tokens with 1 extra cardboard token, ad nauseum, would quickly get old.  Instead, you'll need to leverage the particular traits of race/powers as they become available.  When some one selects a combination, it is replaced by another random pair from the stacks.  This mechanic leads to a great deal of replayability, not to mention some ironic pairings such as stout elves, flying humans, heroic ratmen, and commando halflings.  All of these traits provide different bonuses.  You might earn more points by owning specific terrain, or be able to attack with less tokens under certain conditions, or build better defenses, to name but a few.

Some gamers may balk at the direct confrontation; but again, your race's characteristics and special powers will encourage you to go after specific land targets or situations, not necessarily individual players.  This means that the belligerency is not as personalized.  Sure, there are times you'll want to target another to check his growing empire; but by the time you do, he's already earned his points for those lands, therefore it's not a central strategy.  So unless you just want to be a jerk or you like ocean views, you're not going to conquer any old territory willy-nilly.  Instead, you're going to take advantage of your race's particular capabilities and invade areas that will maximize your points in doing so.  The most efficient engine will win; there's very little room for any meta-game.  Also, despite the contentious nature, there is no player elimination.  First off, you will generally loose only one race token each time another player takes over one of your territories.  Anyone else so ingloriously evicted you simply redeploy to other territories after the current player's turn.  Second of all, if you do become too weak (and you will eventually, by design) you simply put that floundering race in decline and grab another.

The race tokens.

The spite factor is also softened by the humorous feel of the game's design and illustrations.  A variety of familiar, and not-so-familiar, fantasy creatures are artfully rendered to appeal to non-geeks.  At the same time, they're not so irreverently done so as to be completely offensive to what fans of Lord of the Rings have come to know and love.  It's difficult to get too upset when those prancing elves, ale-swilling dwarves, and cowboy skeletons march through your lands.  Besides, you can just liberate them again with your bikini-clad amazons or your sorcerers that look like Vincent Price.

Some combos make sense (top).
Others? Eh, not so much (bottom)!
Small World does include one wee element of chance.  On the final invasion of each turn, you often lack the required +1 number of tokens needed to conquer a territory.  In that case, you may roll the reinforcement die and add the number of pips to your leftover tokens.  If the two together are enough to successfully invade, then you get that space at a bargain rate.  Individual turns are relatively quick, although there will be some downtime in 4-5 player games.  A full game will go no more than 8-10 rounds, providing a nice end-goal that is in sight.  Overall, our own sessions run a tad over an hour with five players.  It also scales very well between 2-5 people because of the different board configurations and the fact that victory points are kept hidden.  However, we tend to prefer the chaos generated by 3 or more.  There are several small expansions to this base game, plus a very recent Small World Underground release that can be played alone or in conjunction with the original game.  So if you're really into that, you can keep adding variety until your heart's content or your wallet's empty.

Okay, I'll Shut-Up Now:

Personally, I rate Small World a 9 on the BoardGameGeek scale (Excellent game. Always want to play it.).  It is light, easy to learn, fun to play, pretty to look at, changes every time, and provides a variety of useful choices - which all adds up to an extremely accessible title that kids, casual gamers, and hobby enthusiasts can all enjoy together.

March 09, 2012

Gaming with Kids: Cult of the New

Yeah, I know.  I just wrote about my kids liking the familiar.  But they also like new things.  Besides, the "Cult of the New" could certainly compliment the expansion mindset, since you want the newest add-on to a favorite title.  Then again, it might run counter to it, if instead you desire something completely different.  The envious longing for the latest fad is not a recent phenomenon.  At the least, it has been popular since 1920's consumerism made cloche hats, typewriters, phonographs, and Model T's available in large, affordable quantities to middle America.  Today, that appetite is expressed in the sales of iPads, iPhones, Uggs, 3D televisions, or other trends and innovations.  For my kids, we've modestly run the gamut of products from big to small: iPod Touch, Gogo's Crazy Bones, Wii, Pillow Pets, Silly Bandz, and even Sketchers Turbulence.  You all know the story.  If their friends have it, they want it.  Shoot, if they see it on TV, they want it.  The more the better.  And I don't even want to get started on my teenage daughter!

Obscure, nonagenarian, fashion references aside, what I've discovered is that kids often judge the book by its cover and this is particularly the case with my own children and board games.  If it looks pretty and/or appears to be about something imaginative, then my kids want it - regardless of what else they know about it.  This is only slightly worse than the way many "big kids" approach building a game collection.  It'd be nice to buy whatever; and sample everything.  Actually, that's only a half-truth.  That would still be a wasteful habit, even if I were a Rockefeller.  So with a limited budget to spend on gaming, how does one sail children to practical gaming harbors through the sea of shiny hotness?

First off, you should set a budget.  It doesn't even have to be scientific.  It's also good to teach your kids early about wise spending and/or investing (part of collecting games is an investment, after all).  Shop around online for the best deals and look for opportunities to buy several games at once for free shipping.  Local games stores may have customer loyalty discounts.  And you can always trade away games from your shelf, that haven't hit the mark at your table, for other titles that you think may work better for the family.  You can trade with some online stores, some local stores, and at the infamous BoardGameGeek.  But even with a budget set or a few games in hand to trade away, what next?

While most people reading this probably already frequent BoardGameGeek to great advantage, don't neglect this resource for your own children, too!  My kids don't really plow through all of the written reviews and individual game forums (I won't let them so that they can't learn any strategy tips with which to beat me!).  But they like to watch many of the video reviews.  They especially appreciate the ones that include kids, but their favorite is Board to Death - ever since Steve Nash talked with a Russian accent in their Dust review!  The videos give them a lot more information in a format that they relate to and that holds their attention.  Of course this resource is best for personal research in determining which games are best suited for your kids in interest and ability.  You know them best.

Another way to curb initial enthusiasm and weed out the chaff is to have them play the game first!  If you have an adequate Friendly Local Game Store, then stop in and see if they have a library of open titles you can look at - or it is likely they have an open gaming night during the week or month that you can join.  If taking advantage of such, just make sure to support such an operation with your patronage!  Outside of the FLGS, there might be a local gaming group or club in your community (see BGG, again).  You can also take your kids to a local gaming convention and sample all kinds of new and old hotness.  That can get a little expensive.

The best use of all this research and testing is to gauge what your collection really "needs."  Cody Jones, of the soon-to-be-off-the-air podcast Game On!, has an interesting philosophy, appropriately titled "The Jones Theory."  This postulates that your collection doesn't need more than one game of a certain genre, type, or mechanic.  Even if you don't take it to that extreme, this guideline might help control that impulse for the latest design in a style of game you have plenty of already.  Getting your kids to buy into it might be another matter!

Play a game while your drive?
That's some hotness I can get behind!

Another avenue would be in checking out the video versions of board games.  The most recent trend in this area is in the form of apps for iPads, iPhones, and Android devices.  Prices are relatively inexpensive, the games are ridiculously accessible, and the porting of such analog to video is certainly enough to judge interest in the "real" thing.  But there are free alternatives, too!  If you want to play live opponents online, there are communities such as Yucata, Board Game Arena, and Game Table Online which all have a variety of games.  You can also play single titles like Dominion and Race for the Galaxy at dedicated sites.  And still others are available for download to play on your computer in a Windows or Java version, like Yspahan, Kingsburg, San Juan, and even Settlers of Catan (simply use the power of Google).  This still may only scratch the surface of the innumerable titles out on the market - but it's a place to start!

Finally, something most parents naturally do already, make your kids explore other activities.  One, it makes them well-rounded young people, to begin with, in both body and mind.  Two, they'll appreciate the wonderful variety that life has to offer and realize there's more out there than having to keep up with the Jones' (not Cody).  Call it eclectic, eccentric, or whatever, but a balance in many hobbies provides more versatility than completeness in one.  And third, you and your kids just may discover what they would like in board games from their participation in something else.  Playing sports, reading adventure novels, stargazing, working with pets/animals, even cooking - or any other hobby/activity - can lead to an interest in games of a similar nature.  With so many themes on the board gaming market, it's almost like the hobby can cover two-in-one!

Of course, I also have to limit trendy purchases, impulse buys, and striving for all the new fads.  After all, kids learn a lot by imitation.  Nothing is a guarantee, of course.  You're bound to have a few misses among the hits.  Anyway, it sure beats just buying everything you want.  I mean, that's what they did in the 1920's, right?  And look what happened...

March 06, 2012

Gaming with Kids: The Expansion Mind-Set

It's not even a new concept, really.  I mean, Egyptian dynasties were rolling out re-themed pharaohs beginning with Pepi II as early as the 23th century B.C.  And while kings and emperors and popes have also extended prominent names throughout history to extend power and ideology, even common man has joined in on the practice in christening his firstborn son, "junior."  When you got a good thing going, why re-invent the wheel?  Just add another spoke!  Zip forward to modern times and loosely apply the theory to Hollywood and this becomes my biggest gripe with the movie industry.  If you're covering a series of novels as in Narnia, Lord of the Rings, or Harry Potter, then multiple films is understandable.  But do we really need another Scary Movie, Jaws, or Matrix just because the previous ones made money?  How about all the Spider-Man, Batman, Iron Man, and even (lest I risk incriminating myself) Star Trek iterations?  Obviously this is a highly subjective matter and my criticism is one of personal preference.  I would just prefer seeing more original material and less regurgitation.  But then again, a sequel can always surprise.  The last Rocky - one of the more parodied series in Hollywood history - scored a big hit with a poignant inner reflection of both the character and the franchise, seemingly in conversation, even, with the numerous barbs and jabs thrown its way.  In short, I do admit that expanding on the original can be a good thing.

Before I get too far down the rabbit trail, let me bring this back to gaming.  My kids want game expansions.  They like the familiar.  I even expounded on the concept once upon a post.  When they have something they're already really into, they want more of it.  This is, of course, a natural sentiment.  My kids will often catch me scouring BoardGameGeek to update and refine my gaming wish list.  They happen to have their own little mini-versions based on my own.  And theirs includes expansions of all shapes and sizes for our humble little collection.  They are especially keen for add-ons to the likes of Small World, Dominion, Kingsburg, Cyclades and Lifeboat.  But in owning such a small collection, I'd rather introduce them to the beauty of variety!  With a limited budget to spend on games, I want to teach them how to stretch those dollars to build a well-rounded collection that offers plenty of choices to fit many interests and situations both now and as they grow older.  At the same time, I want to get what they like.  The two concerns are actually fairly easy to satisfy, because despite all I've said, my kids could easily jump into the "Cult of the New," as well (but that tangent is for the next post...).

My primary hesitation with purchasing expansions has much more to do with value.  While I want to strive for a diverse gaming collection, I'm not completely averse to an expansion that really adds something significant to a title we really enjoy.  For example, Kingsburg's expansion (under consideration) looks like it is well-made, intuitive, versatile, and adds a number of components and rules that fix that title's biggest weaknesses: uniformity and lack of replayability.  In our most recent purchase of Bang! The Bullet, I headed this whole expansion issue off at the pass.  The Bullet includes the base game, plus three expansions and a couple of extra goodies - all for the price of what the base game and two expansions would have cost separately.  What I want to avoid are over-priced expansions that offer little in extra components and mechanics.  I'll also resist the wave of add-ons with which many publishers/titles flood the market.  I have no need for 8 expansions to one game.

So there are many reasons that designers and publishers create expansions: to fix an issue with the base game; or to add components that publishing costs prohibited the first go-around; or to tweak mechanics for greater replayability; or to just add more of a good thing.  Consumers will judge whether the cost is worth it or not.  Probably my favorite designer to date, Bruno Faidutti, wrote an op-ed article on expansions at his web site.  It is a thoughtful summary of the topic from a veteran, industry insider.  I highly recommend it.  But with all that said, there are many expansions (and in some cases multiples of expansions) created to simply exploit a popular game.  This is not an evil practice.  Quite the contrary, it makes perfect business sense.  No, designers are not making millions.  Yet publishers will expand on what's already been successful because there is little financial risk.  That could actually be a good thing as companies can use the profits from "bread and butter" sales to fund the riskier, "outside-the-box" designs.  It would be fantastic to see companies climb out on the limb even further to give us unique games.  After all, I think the success of Kickstarter proves that consumers are hungry for those projects heretofore relegated to the Indie side.

Though I may not always share it, I understand my kids' desire for more of the same.  Apart from board games, they want gobs of Pokemon cards, even though we only play very casually.  They claim to need all 32 Skylander characters, even though they don't have time to play with the 18 they already have.  They yearn for every conceivable American Girl outfit and accessory, even though the dolls' wardrobe rivals their own.  There is a tad of this "completionist" tendency in me, as well.  And that idea I think explains many an attraction for board game expansions.  But I'm determined to immerse them in a potpourri of gaming.  If for no other reason so that they may find what their interests truly are in the hobby.  However, while not all expansions provide a lot of improvement, still others significantly enhance a title or series.  I mean, for every Rock V there is a Rocky Balboa!