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.