Sunday, October 25, 2009

Stone Age: I lost and I hate it;also, gaming at Michael and Maura's

Larry and I carpooled over to Michael and Maura's place yesterday afternoon and got there around 4, and we got in some great gaming. Scott, "California" Doug, Larry, and I played Alhambra (I lost) and Goa (I won). Doug explained Stone Age while Michael finished up at the other table, and then I lost by about a zillion points at Stone Age. Larry had gotten up early to run cables in his attic, so we left about 11 or so.

Stone Age is an oddity, and I didn't like it at all, and not just because I lost. I had a huge, viscerally negative reaction, probably the strongest since my gut-churning hatred of Alexandros. Larry and I talked it over as we headed back, hopped up on soda and pizza, and discussing it helped express with words what I already felt.

Each player begins Stone Age with 5 cavemen, who are assigned each turn to perform such tasks as gathering food, getting resources via die-rolls, makin' babies, and doing Eurogamey stuff (converting resources into cards and/or converting resources into victory points). There are two ways the game can run out, making the game variable in length.

In theory, there's huge tension because you might not have enough food and might lose victory points for not being able to feed your cavemen. Larry tried a "starvation" strategy where he just placed his workers and took the victory point hit each turn, and ignored the resources-to-cards conversion track. Oh, and your "starved" workers aren't removed, they live to starve in the next round, and the next, and the next... Larry thus had free rein to place workers willy-nilly, where the rest of us either went up the food track a lot, or spent a lot of time wasting time collecting food.

As Larry pointed out, there's a huge set of unknown-unknowns: Are you going to roll to get enough resources? Is the game going to go fast or slow, and if so, what are these various victory point conversions worth? What's any placement really worth? How can I best block someone else, presuming they are in a position to grab a great victory point conversion? Are we there yet?

The start player gets to place workers first, and there are basically 3 excellent spots in the opening stages of the game, so if you're tail-end Charlie (and I was), you'll have to watch these spots be grabbed and take leftovers for 3 turns before getting to place first when the start player marker rotates around to you. The 3 spots are to create more workers, get a re-usable die-roll bonus, and permanently reduce your food upkeep cost. I loved the aspect of having limits and then having the limits eased, but again, there are 3 spots, and 4 people. If you're playing with other numbers of players, the occupancy limits are adjusted, so there's always an element of screwage that El Grande or Saint Petersburg players will enjoy (Saint Petersburg is also by Stone Age's designers, so it's no coincidence that player order figures so strongly in both).

In practice, unless you advance the food track or decide to adopt the "starvation" strategy, statistically, you need to devote about a third of your workers every turn, or all your workers every third turn, in order to get enough food to keep from starving. Again, as tail-end Charlie, I had to watch everyone else grab the food track 3 times prior to grabbing it for myself, at which point the player who advanced food first had also gotten an extra food advance from a card. In theory, this evens out, but in actual practice, it didn't, due to the speed at which the game ended.

The resources-to-cards set of cards use a waterfall cost method, so we had 4 cards out each round, costing 1, 2, 3, and 4 resources. In theory, as tail-end Charlie, you'll have a better chance at getting the cards you want, so it all works out. In actual practice, the cards are wildly variable in effect and value, so the fluctuating costs are simply another method for making player order frustrating. There's a ton of good, interesting things to do on every turn, and in practice, you're able to interact with very few of them. In some games, AP would lock players up, but the fact that there's only so much calculation you can do means players pretty much place and hope. There are strong opportunities to block, but again, you may not have enough cavemen to waste, just to be spiteful. All of this sounds great, but in practice, it's a giant dog's breakfast of icons, shopping for victory points, potentially-starving cavemen, and bitter regret. If you know anything about probability, it's better to clump up the cavemen than gamble them on single resource spots, so it was rare to see anyone place cavemen on more than one resource spot unless their tribe was going to starve.

So, if you're following this, it's Saint Petersburg (a shopping game where turn order is a total bummer)+Aladdin's Dragons (worker placement plus converting wildly-variable resources to varied victory points)+Agricola (worker placement and blocking plus brutal need for food)+ Caylus (worker placement and conversion of resources plus variable game length), minus fun. Some of you may recall this rant about turn order in Puerto Rico; Stone Age evokes that same frustration. The game length is wildly variable depending on which huts (resources-to-vp conversions) come up, and in what order, and based on players' whims. Spendthrift players can speed up the game significantly. Much like in Aladdin's Dragons, a player who wants to win must be pursuing resources-to-victory points conversions from the beginning, by finding bargains and opportunities.

After all my complaints, I'd still be willing to play Stone Age again, just to see if having two newbies threw the game out of whack. Rest assured, I won't play as the last player of a 4-player game next time I try it.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Design Considerations: What do these boards give you?

Today's design thought to mull over: The Game Crafter's boards are super inexpensive to put in your game box. What can you do with a flat piece of cardboard (0r 4)? It can be a player mat, a player aid, a communal score sheet, an open market, an auction house, a map unto itself, a portion of a "map" (like in Reiner Knizia's Lord of the Rings), or a character sheet. What if you stacked the boards on top of each other? What if you rearrange how they appear in relation to each other? What about using single cards on a board to show various statuses or input-output relationships? Is there room for stacks of cards on or near your boards? How big a table can your game cover? What's the most fun you can put into a small physical space?

Recent Gaming

  • Went to Kevin's and played Dominion: Intrigue last Tuesday.
  • Played Transamerica with Alex last Tuesday and Wednesday in the morning before school. She is 5 and hasn't gotten the "most efficient route" idea, but loves the idea of finishing them and connecting the cities.
  • Larry came over on Saturday and he, Lee, and I played 2 games of Dominion.

Friday, October 16, 2009

John Scalzi makes a case for Chewbacca

A compelling case for why Chewie's the best sidekick ever.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Birthday activities

  • Learned 3 of my submissions to a recent math trade went through on BGG, so I need to get them packed up. Shipping stuff I don't want, getting For Sale, Kids of Catan, and some MtG cards.
  • Filed first unemployment request ever.
  • Dropped off official transcript and got more Texas teacher certification tests approved for me to take in the upcoming weeks.
  • Burned some DVDs to be able to delete stuff on my hard drive.
  • Opened the mail to find candy-coated sunflower seeds and some cards! Cool.
  • Played around with game components over at The Game Crafters.
  • Drank 2 beers.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Meet the Elements: TMBG live

They Might Be Giants on Jimmy Fallon to promote their new album/DVD, which we already own.

Hardcore Ludography is dead

Seriously, you guys, could you at least have posted an "hey, on indefinite hiatus" notice?

That sucks. Don't just throw all those posts away.

Since Hardcore Ludography is dead, here's what I would have posted there, if I were a member of Hardcore Ludography:

Clown Car Syndrome

So you're getting together at your local board game night, and it happens that there are 11 people there. If your group's like mine, here's what happens:
1. It is presumed that everyone is willing to play anything, unless otherwise brutally known. This is completely fair, since my group spans a large section of Houston, and everyone's minute preferences can't be memorized, beyond "Todd hates trick-taking games" or "Michael hates Cranium."
2. It is presumed that bigger is better.
3. As a corollary to #2, it is presumed that games are best when maxed out at their absolute highest player count, possibly even including one more player if the physical room at the table is there.

I'm moderately fine with #1, but #2 and #3 are fighting words to me. I think most games have a sweet spot at about (max players -1), and beyond that number, you're only increasing the annoyance level for everyone. More players means more opportunity for downtime, lack of control, and overall lowered fun.

In the example above with 11 players, it will be presumed that a 6-5 split is optimal, and that a 6-player game and a 5-player game are ideal. The idea of breaking into a 3-3-3-2 split is anathema. (Do I get any points here for pointing out Ray Mulford's Anathema? He's in my gaming group so it seems like I should.)

Games that immediately leap to mind: Merchant of Venus, El Grande, Duel of Ages, Settlers of Catan, Puerto Rico, Unexploded Cow, and Shadows over Camelot. The first and last are huge mistakes, but for very different reasons. Merchant of Venus actually shines as a 2- or 3- player game, and adding more people only increases the downtime, but Shadows over Camelot sucks and should never be played, so adding more people only increases the pain.

Games where adding more players may-or-may-not-work: Apples to Apples, 6 Nimmt/Category 5, Nuclear War, Werewolf/Mafia, and poker. All these are party games, and nightmarishly group-dependent in any case, but can be expanded out quite a bit, since the action in the first two is simultaneous, Nuclear War works out quite nicely ("You, blue shirt dude. Lose 25 pop!), Werewolf scales if you've got access to additional special roles, and poker is heavily skill-dependent.

Maybe I've been a tremendous coward all these years, for not attempting to push forward a 3-player Merchant of Venus game at every session, but the collective groupthink in favor of condensing tables is extremely strong.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Not enough time in the day

Without a job, I haven't been able to keep up with all the stuff in my RSS reader. Managed to read and clear out about a hundred items, have 285 to go.

Today I did manage to wake up under my own power in the morning, get Alex to school while Lee dropped off the others, went to the gym, ate Chinese food for lunch, and took a nap.

I swear, I have game-related blog posts in the works, including a top-100 list inspired by Chris Norwood's list.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Tim Scala Bim, also thrifting recap

Tim came over and he, Lee, and I played Roll Through The Ages.

Thrifting in the last week:
Bought Mousetrap, Bazaar, a beat-up Careers, and a Ravensburger game with only the board in it.
Skipped The Inventors, Zathura, and two copies of Risk, plus a ton of other non-notable usual thrift store garbage.

I gave the Ravensburger box to Alex, and she immediately concluded that it was about racing trains (since I had just got a copy of Railroad Dice). She asked me to make some player markers shaped like trains, which I did. She's still working on all the rules. You roll the dice, and either go forward, get passengers (which does nothing), or draw map tiles (which does nothing).

We are filling out the gifted and talented program application for her.

Single Use Websites: I love them!

Other than that, I did manage to get to the Houston Gamers last weekend and played Glory to Rome (x2), Endeavor, and Roll Through The Ages.

Tim came over last Sunday and we cracked the shrink on Dominion and my copy of Roll Through The Ages. Didn't get around to playing any Magic, but still a great time.