Category Archives: Games ‘n’ Stuff

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This week’s Friday blog (and, likely, next week’s too) is going to be focussed a little bit on games of various sorts, because I find the whole subject of play to be totally fascinating.

It recently dawned on me that, as I approach my 30th birthday, very soon I will be taking my passion for playing video and computer games into my fourth decade on Planet Earth. Age-wise, I’m at the tail-end of the first proper generation of children that had video games as a major Thing in their lives, and I’ve been playing computer games as a serious hobby (and without any breaks) for 23-odd years now. Video games have been a constant presence in my life for as long as I can remember, and I’ve always fanned the flames of that passion by throwing myself into gaming at every possible opportunity and with every major console generation at, and since, the 16-bit era.

It’s only now, though, that I’ve sensed that I’m not really in touch with gaming anymore. I’m at a point, now, where I feel no great urge to make the leap into the current console generation of PlayStation 4, Xbox One and Wii U; nothing that draws me in to new hardware, nor encourages me to invest in the short-sighted output of AAA-studios and cash-hungry publishers. At least for the time being, I’m perfectly happy with my PS3 and my PC (and my Wii, my PS2, my GameCube, my DS, yada yada) and don’t feel like a few more pixels or some extra ultraFLOPs of processing power are going to lead to me having any more fun than the fun that I currently have with the machinery I already own, or owned in the past.

It used to be different, though: I remember the days of playing blocky, LucasArts point ‘n’ click adventure games where it was 100% about story and gameplay and not a jot about photorealistic textures, and hashy polygon-based stunt racing games where the absence of car physics and multi-reflective surfaces were no hindrance to the process of having a blast. I funnelled umpteen hours into Lemmings, The Simpsons: Bart Simpson vs. the Space Mutants, Sleepwalker, Soccer Kid and Lotus Turbo Challenge II, even though they looked like crap, didn’t necessarily play that well, and routinely broke or glitched out because of bugs or because the floppy disk was knackered. That was my era of gaming; one where I recall – with a misty-eyed expression – the simultaneous joy and frustration at having to constantly insert and eject Money Island 2’s ELEVEN floppy disks in order to load new scenes or dialogue to the game. Of course, while Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge has lost none of its charm and brilliance in the intervening fourteen years, the likes of Race Drivin’ on the Amiga 500+ have long since been eclipsed by genuine progress in design and mechanics, and all but forgotten except by Nostalgia-nerds like me.

Looking at the broad spectrum, games are better now than they were when I first engaged with the hobby: they’re more shiny, better written, work better and are far, far more accepted by the mainstream than I ever dreamt that they would be. The leaps that were made throughout the 32/64-bit era (PlayStation and Nintendo 64) and then onto the 128-bit one (PlayStation 2, GameCube, Dreamcast and Xbox) were genuinely mind-blowing; where the improvement in graphical fidelity was also joined by progress in game engines (and hence gameplay), along with improved cinematic awareness and well-written dialogue and storylines. There’s a reason why many of the most highly-regarded video games (Final Fantasy VII, Super Mario 64, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Half-Life) came from those eras: it felt like mainstream/’AAA’-games were just improving in every way; but never at the expense of fun, and never forgetting that they were there for play.

In the last four-five years, though, I’ve sort of felt like I’m not the target of mainstream games anymore – The need for even better graphics (beyond what we have now; which I could call ‘perfectly adequate’ for representing an immersive virtual world) doesn’t really grab me, and the prevalence for newly-released games to have Day One bug patches or pay-unlockable DLC sort of makes me be a little sick in my mouth. Furthermore, I’m not into sports games like Fee-Fuh; nor ones where fourteen year-olds go around shooting each other with realistic military equipment whilst calling every other player a homosexual. The term “Gamer”, these days, conjures up visions of spotty teenagers playing FIFA 15, Call of Duty and Candy Crush Saga. I’m a person that plays games, but I’m not a gamer.

I’m also not loads into disrespecting women or doxxing anyone that doesn’t 100% believe in the same views as me, which seems to be a big part of calling yourself a “gamer” these days.

Nothing about the PlayStation 4/Xbox One output from their first 18 months or so has shown me that we’re any closer to the asymptote of Gaming Perfection than we were, say, eight to ten years ago, and there’s no sinew in me that feels the urge to make the leap to the next gen. I’m not here saying that “old games were better” or anything like that; my gaming collection still spans over 25 years’ worth of digital fun, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. All I am saying is that – Oculus Rift and VR aside – I don’t truthfully foresee anything truly revolutionary happening to my gaming palate as I turn the clock over from twenties to thirties. It’s been a long time since a new AAA video game truly took my breath away (BioShock Infinite was probably the last one that did that), so it seems like – for now –  it’s still up to the indie gaming scene and my existing collection to continue to produce the most interesting and relevant contributions to my gaming buffet.

So yeah, excuse me while I crack on with some Borderlands, Chrono Trigger and Citizens of Earth. Boom.

[Zinar7]

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Café Carnage: Dev Update #1

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Ahoy there! I sort of semi-mentioned Café Carnage in my last Friday blog, but since I’ve now had some time to think more about possible ways the game could be improved (as well as getting a few tabletop gaming friends to play it and see what they think), I’d like to document the results of playtesting of Café Carnage v2.0 and offer some thoughts about what changes could be made. These game dev blogs are primarily a vessel for me to screw around with ideas and develop concepts, but hopefully that’s interesting to you guys, too.

So, in that spirit: onwards!

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So, essentially, Café Carnage is a party game. A light, card-based game with minor elements of strategy and push-your-luck but, at its base, it is a party game (albeit – at the moment – only a party that only four people are attending). The version of Café Carnage [v1.0] that Marco, Dickson and I developed as part of the Global Game Jam 2015 (#SotonGameJam) was a very simple, party-game for four players; stripped of some of the more fancy ideas that we came up with, in order to get a workable, fun game completed in the 48 hour time limit. To download the Print ‘n’ Play version of Café Carnage [v1.0], take a look at the link below:

Print and play files: Café Carnage – Global Game Jam 2015 game by Marco Caldarelli, Simon George and Dickson Chui // Ages: 8 and above, playtime: 15-30 minutes.

In its primitive state, it’s a short, no-brain, luck-pushing game that essentially boils down to picking the right time to run from your bill-paying responsibilities: basically, picking the right day (of five) to play your “Run!” card and hoping that none of the other players play theirs at the same time – it’s a slightly amplified version of the famous Unscrupulous Diner’s Dilemma. There’s some slight more complexity and decision-making as to when to pick the best time to run, but, in essence, there’s a fairly clear way to victory that sort of becomes obvious once you’ve played it more than once.

But that’s fine: Café Carnage is intended as a party game; one in which you quickly bash out a playthrough in 15-20 minutes, call your friends “bastards” and perhaps have a chuckle or two along the way (results may vary).

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The difficult problem now lies in how to develop Café Carnage [v2.0] and take it one step further into a more robust, more interesting game. After last week’s jamming, I’d sort of identified three key areas that I wanted to develop further in Version 2.0:

  • More players (5+)
  • More player interaction
  • More variation in the points/cost balance (and penalty for going over budget)

During #SotonGameJam, we only really tested and balanced Version One with 4 players. The idea of the game was, initially, to be a party game that could be played with a group of up to (say) 8 people who then debate over the bill; much like a large group meal IRL. The main logistical complication in adding more players lies in supplying sufficient number of cards such that, over the five rounds of the game, you’re not endlessly shuffling the discard piles and that there’s enough variety in the various dishes that diners can eat. Adding more players does, however, screw with the rules governing how diners can “Run!” from a meal and how only the ‘slowest’ diner (i.e. the player that consumed the most food that day and hence is the most out-of-shape) gets caught and all others escape without paying their bill – in a four-player game played over five rounds, the chances of 3+ players choosing to “Run!” at the same time is unlikely (in testing, rarely did more than two diners choose to “Run!” at the same time), but in a game with 6 or more players, you’re going to get multiple runners every round. How to ‘fix’ this such that one single diner doesn’t end up having to pay for 3-4 other meals (from successful escapees) is still an open question.

Regardless of any increase in players, a way of stimulating more interactions between the players is an important task. At present, players simply choose their three dishes (starter, main course, dessert) secretly from other players, and then the card showing what they choose to do when the bill arrives, before there is any engagement between the players in revealing what dishes they ate and revealing their chosen SHARE BILL/PAY SEPARATELY/RUN card. That there’s so much time spent simply doing your own thing means that there’s not only the potential for Analysis Paralysis (AP) to creep in, but also that the players are silent through this phase; which is not so fun. In Version One, what players choose to eat and choose to do when the bill arrives is in no way based on what anyone else is doing – you essentially do your own thing regardless of what other players might do, so you may as well be playing a solitaire game or playing against a droid. For Version Two, I’d love there to be more ways in which you can actually play against the other humans; be it by forcing engagement between players and revealing something about what everyone had to eat that day (perhaps, while everyone is eating their dessert, diners can choose to ‘grill’ [pun intended] a particular player about how much their starter or main course cost?), or more directly through bonus action cards or special powers that allow players to sabotage other diners’ meals.

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One other thing that became apparent during the #SotonGameJam testing was that, even though Café Carnage Version One was incredibly well-balanced for four players (due, largely, to luck more than any tactical game design decisions), games would often end quite close in terms of the final scores of players. While this is not necessarily a massive issue, it does mean that games can be lost or won based on a single, minute decision (for example, choosing a one-star Starter dish rather than a three-star one); or worse, sheer luck. Furthermore, this also penalises heavily any player that is involved in an unsuccessful “Run!” attempt, because the requirement for them to pay for their own meal in addition to the meals of all other players who successfully escaped means that they’re near-guaranteed to end up way over their budget and heavily out of the running.

Aside from Version Two addressing the problem of multiple (3+) runners during a meal, it is fairly clear that a better cost/star ratio needs to be manufactured: in Version One, a one-star meal costs one ‘money’ (there’s no set currency for Café Carnage yet); a two-star meal costs two ‘money’; a three-star meal costs ‘three’ money, and so on. Because of this (and because any remaining budget at the end of the week contributes to Victory Points), points at the end of the game tend to vary between 35 (for winners) and 25 (for losers) – considering that players start with 30 ‘money’, this is not a huge variation (although not an unreasonable one).

There are some options for making this more interesting, and for elevating the tension as to whether the gluttonous diners successfully share the bill (thereby forcing other diners to share the burden of your expense): one is to modify the “exchange rate” between stars and ‘money’ – e.g. a one-star dish costs one ‘money’, but a two-star dish costs two ‘money’ and a three-star dish costs five ‘money’; but at the end of the game only stars count as Victory Points (not your remaining budget), but you lose Victory Points if you end up in debt at the end of the week. Alternatively, there’s the ‘Tastes’ variant that adds additional ways to earn stars/Victory Points as bonus value-for-money – each player is dealt a ‘character’ that appreciates certain types of food (e.g. Pepper Grylls likes her food to be vegetarian and/or healthy; Josh Rogan enjoys spicy foods, etc.), and bonus stars can be collected by choosing dishes that meet your diner’s requirements.

I don’t know what the solution is to this problem yet, but it’s good to have ideas.

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Anyway, last Sunday, I gathered a bunch of my gaming friends ‘round my place to give Café Carnage a few rounds (with differing variants) to bash out some new ideas and brainstorm. I’m still thinking about the findings and feedback of that endeavour so I’ll leave those thinkings to the next post; but suffice to say that, after playtesting, I would like to add the following goals to the initial three that I laid out earlier in this post:

  • Less downtime/AP/potential for decision-making (and less shuffling time)
  • Action cards and during-dinner hijinks (e. stuff happening between courses)
  • Physical money (instead of a money-track)

So yeah, there you have the basis for Café Carnage Version Two. I’m still working hard on thoughts for Penny Black and my binary game, Bit Pattern, but I’m fairly pleased with the progress with “café game” as well 😀 Until next time, then. Godspeed!

[Zinar7]

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friday_004

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Last weekend, in less than 48 hours, I helped design a novel café-based card game from scratch.

I can scarcely believe that it’s been a whole seven days since the beginning of the whirlwind Global Game Jam 2015 / #SotonGameJam tsunami that wiped out 48 hours of my life last weekend but, evidently, it has. I’ve got a bigger game dev-based post in the works in which I want to write about my various board game projects (Penny Black, Babbage and, now, Café Carnage), so I won’t take up too much time here with them, but yes, in 48 hours Marco, Dickson and I came up with a brand new card game called Café Carnage as part of #GGJ15, and you can download the print ‘n’ play files here ~

Print and play files: Café Carnage – Global Game Jam 2015 game by Marco Caldarelli, Simon George and Dickson Chui // Ages: 8 and above, playtime: 15-30 minutes.

Café Carnage is a party, bluffing-type game where yourself and three friends decide to visit five restaurants with an initial budget of £30, and attempt to eat the most food whilst trying screw your friends over by getting them to share the bill when you’ve eaten heartily, or running away when it’s time to pay the bill. In the end, we actually managed to pretty much come up with the whole of Café Carnage in less than 20 hours after a false start where we focussed on a different concept, which sort of makes it even more surprising that we actually have a game to show at the end of it. And it works! It’s not the world’s best tabletop game nor is it free from minor problems and limitations, but it’s a playable game and (at least from the playtesting we managed to get done during #SotonGameJam) people seemed to be enjoying it 😀

There’s more work that can be done on it towards refining it, but it’s totally playable as it is for four players looking to have a quick, light-hearted bit of fun ordering food and trying to bluff your way out of the bill. So yes: overall, in between the panic-designing and epic exhaustion that were sort of hallmarks of the jam, I had a good time at #SotonGameJam. It certainly proved a dramatic, rollercoaster way of spending a weekend; even if it did – at times – help to fuel the raging inferno of insecurity in my own abilities and ideas.

Recently, a lot of my insecurities have (sort of) come to the forefront of my mind and hammered away at my sanity more often than I’d like. Over the years, I’ve become quite good at burying the insecurity and covering it up with distractions or occupations or (more genuine) stresses and strains; but, with my current situation of being between-jobs and on my own at home for most of the time, there’s considerable time for the insecurity to chisel its tiny way into your sanity and start tinkering away into your confidence and self-belief. I’ve never been particularly affluent in self-confidence and self-esteem but, recently, things have sort of accidentally conspired to erode what faith I did have in myself; causing me to doubt the confidence in my outward persona and the things that I say, make and create. The general result, essentially, is that I’ve had too much time to overthink a lot of things, and to reflect on where I am in life/love/legacy and whether I measure up to the imaginary standards I’ve concocted that I think the world is expecting me to live up to.

Whenever I’m faced with a question of “whether I’m good enough”, I naturally end up comparing myself to unrealistic benchmarks (famous people, fictional characters, people that I perceive to be “winning at life”) and conveniently forgetting about the millions of other people around me that have normal lives and normal expectations set of them; as well as the flaws & imperfections that my beloved ‘benchmarks’ inevitably possess in addition to their positive qualities. My brain knows that, rationally, there is no point in comparing my physical appearance with that of Tom Hiddleston but, for some reason, it seems to interpret the fact that Tom Hiddleston exists – and is uncomfortably pretty and charming – as some sort of sleight on myself and my own looks. I can sort of understand where it’s coming from, though: when Hiddlesexy is wandering about on the same celestial body as I am, who the hell would be physically attracted to me?

The thing is, such thoughts are far from helpful. I might be wholly unconvinced by my physical looks and (most of the time) think that I’m some sort of hideous troll, but that’s not to say that everyone else thinks the same, too. Naturally, I see my flaws and my imperfections because I’m looking for them, and I see them every day in the mirror or in my brain or in my hands and am continually reminded that they’re there. They’re there, right in front of me, all of the time and, because of the way my brain works, they blot out all of the good bits that aren’t flawed or opaque and cause me to forget all that’s good about me and the confidence I have in myself & my abilities. Deep down, I have trust that I’m not a terrible person nor possess the world’s most repulsive appearance, and that I have qualities that People value and want to have around them, but the brain sometimes has rather unhelpful ways of trying to be ‘helpful’.

It’s been a bit of a choppy sea that I’ve been sailing in these last six months out of long-term relationship, and I’m still finding my sea legs. I’m still properly figuring out where I stand in the world, now that I’m standing in it on my own; and, in trying to establish my comfort zone, I’m sort of still feeling around for signs that I’m doing things right and that everything is okay. I’m the sort of person that wears their heart not only on their sleeve but on their every facet, and so it’s sometimes easy for my exposed heart to find itself injured in the process of everyday life – in the absence of corrective feedback or affirmations of “yes, you’re doing things right”, my brain tends to interpret the neutrality as indications of my visible failures or inadequacies. Again: not helpful, brain.

I need to let go of who I think I’m supposed to be, and embrace everything that makes me, me; imperfections and all. Just because I am not some famous, swooning celebrity who’s solved cold fusion and won a Best Actor Oscar and climbed Everest does not mean that I am not still a kind, generous, intelligent, thoughtful, funny person that’s – in his own way – unique and talented and beautiful.

I can do a lot of things that a lot of other people couldn’t even consider doing: I mean, last weekend, in less than 48 hours, I helped design a novel café-based card game from scratch. I bet Tom Hiddleston couldn’t do that, even if he would look infuriatingly pretty whilst trying.

[Zinar7]

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friday_003

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On Wednesday, I resurrected an old friend and restarted the bi-weekly (ish) ritual of sitting down with a few friends and watching some crappy, cheesy, low-budget horror films. This used to a regular thing that we did a few years ago and many good times were had but, in more recent years, life sort of got in the way and we kind of forgot about it. Anyway, with the turn of the New Year, I felt it was time to shamble down to cemetary again and dig up the corpse of the magnificent ScareFest such that we may, once again, marvel at unconvincing acting, horrendous special “effects” and terrible storylines in the company of snacks, drinks and good friends.

The original idea was to establish a night dedicated to watching pairs of horror B-movies: one properly in the realm of Z-movie horror with crappy budgets; one relatively good one with a moderately bigger budget and fair critical acclaim. Such fun was kicked off on Wednesday with ScareFest #01: Dolls and Dogs, which married the low-budget Doll Graveyard with the minorly-higher-budget-but-still-not-a-huge-budget Dog Soliders. It turns out that both performed pretty much as expected; with much commentary on low-budget actors trying to ‘do’ the ‘acting’ thing, confusion as to why the back of the DVD box for Doll Graveyard recounts a completely different premise for the film than the one shown onscreen, and excitement at the appearance of Davos Seaworth from Game of Thrones as a Special Forces Captain in Dog Soliders.

Anyway, the proposed schedule for ScareFest: Season One is thus:

ScareFest #01: Dolls and Dogs
Doll Graveyard (Charles Band, 2005) and Dog Soldiers (Neil Marshall, 2002)

ScareFest #02: Creaturezoids
Creepozoids (David DeCoteau, 1987) and Feast (John Gulager, 2005)

ScareFest #03: Biohazard Detected
Spiders (Gary Jones, 2000) and The Rage (Robert Kurtzman, 2007)

ScareFest #04: You Had Me in Stitches
Skinned Deep (Gabriel Bartalos, 2004) and Stitches (Conor McMahon, 2012)

ScareFest #05: Cradle of Flesh
Cradle of Fear (Alex Chandon, 2001) and MindFlesh (Robert Pratten, 2008)

If you would like to join in the horror movie fun, then you are very welcome to – give me a shout or something and I’ll add you to the next event! Also, if you have any crappy B-movie suggestions then I’ll add them to the rota 😀

Anyway, onto less horror-film climes: today marks the start of #SotonGameJam, which is part of the Global Game Jam 2015; an initiative to have a whole bunch of people, scattered across the planet, to design a game (digital or tabletop) in 48 hours. The Southampton portion of #GGJ15 is being co-organised by a few people I know, and the jam itself will be happening all weekend in one of the computing labs at the University of Southampton. I don’t really know what my game will end up being about, but thinking about it has already sparked some ideas about designing some kind of card game that revolves about binary numbers and bit patterns – Of course, maybe that’ll go completely out the window when we learn the (as-yet unannounced) theme of #SotonGameJam, but it’s still exciting stuff and I’m mega looking forward to getting involved.

Whilst I’m clearly already getting excited about my next board game design project, it’s notable that I still haven’t gotten much further with my other game-design opus, Penny Black, since I last blogged about it – largely, I’m too scared to play-test it and discover its flaws, lest it shake my confidence in what my creative juices can help to lubricate. Like many artists, I’m often too much of a perfectionist to fully relinquish control of what creative output(s) I manage to spew forth and, likewise, am very sensitive to criticism (even If it’s constructive). I suppose that I should just fucking do it and set up a playtest night with a few friends to give it a try with four players, and see what happens. I’m not sure what I’m really scared of (perhaps it’s finding something game-breaking or fundamentally wrong with what I’ve dreamed up), but I trust the opinions – and compassion – of my tabletop friends not to completely slam it, so I really should just roll the dice, deal the cards and see what happens. Hey, who knows, maybe it’ll be really good? And hey, if it’s not, then the feedback will be constructive and make the game better and, maybe, somewhere along the line, something awesome might happen with it. You never know ‘til you try, do you?

On the subject of game dev that I’m totally taking undue credit for, this week Citizens of Earth came out on Steam and pretty much every console ever, and towards which I very minorly contributing by doing some beta-testing way back in 2014. I’ve not played the most recent build and haven’t played it all the way through (I was involving in bug-testing of the very early section of the story and in combat and stuff), but from what I was involved in, it looked exactly my kind of turn-based (J)RPG-type game and I’m heavily looking forward to actually giving it a bash. I didn’t delve into any code and I was mainly looking at playtesting and usability and in-game bugs/crashes, but it’s nice to feel like I helped to make it better in some way. I considered making a proper video game for #SotonGameJam, but my coding skills are totally not in prime physical fitness for making anything other than a very simple, turn-based/logical strategy-game-thing, and I figured that I could have more fun doing the same sort of thing in the physical realm (with cardboard tokens! And wooden cubes! And 3D-printed Cthulhu meeples!) anyway.

Anyway, I’d better get shiftin’; I’ve got game-jamming to do. Let’s get to it.

[Zinar7]

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Special Delivery

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I’ve been playing a new game recently.

It’s called “When Will My Package Arrive?” and, for almost three weeks, I remained locked in battle with a deliveryperson from MyHermes in a conflict as old as time. But, after a rollercoaster of emotion and a tidal wave of confusion, the battle is finally over.

 

The game had been going on for over three weeks, ever since I ordered a package from Ebay not long after Christmas from a very pleasant Man in The North. However, despite the best efforts of The Man in The North, my beautiful parcel-child seemed destined never to materialise at my doorstep due to an array of factors that I’m still yet to comprehend. Like many of the problems that exist in my life, the source of bother was board game-related; although, unlike most of said board game-based problems (i.e. that I don’t have enough), it was one caused mainly by the wrath of the Gods themselves.

This all started on Christmas Day 2014, when I decided to try and remedy the ailment of ‘Not Receiving Any New Board Games For Xmas’-itis by picking up a copy of the third expansion to Dirk Henn’s Alhambra from Ebay because, by happy coincidence, someone (the aforementioned ‘The Man in The North’) was selling a German copy of the expansion and I need a version of it in German so that it fits in with my German copy of the original Alhambra game. So far, so straightforward.

Fast-forward a few days, and it’s New Year’s Eve 2014 and I’ve popped out at lunchtime to go and grab some food and coffee. Upon my return, I discover a ‘Sorry I Missed You’ card from the MyHermes person waiting for me, jammed in the metal shrouding surrounding the buzzer system to my block of flats. The truth is, I wasn’t expecting my package to arrive so soon (estimated delivery placed it at around the 4th-10th of January), and so had I known there was a chance of it arriving then I would’ve probably stayed in to receive it. Never mind, though; surely they would try again on the next working day to bring me my package, and I’d soon be whisking myself to Gametown to build my Alhambra with a few friends.

Alas, the next working day was New Year’s Day 2015; a national holiday in the UK. Friday came and went without an appearance from my package [snigger], and the weekend proved equally fruitless. With the coming of Monday, though, I felt sure that the days of my package being neglected [snigger] were numbered and that I would soon be fondling my package [snigger] in the comfort of my own home.

However, Monsieur/Madame Hermés seemed to have a difficult time in finding my house. Despite the fact that they had found it successfully once, I discovered that they had a penchant for listing the parcel as ‘Out for Delivery’ on the MyHermes tracking facility, but never coming to my flat to attempt delivery. Quite naturally, I took to social media to express my frustration, in an open letter:

Dear MyHermes delivery person,

I don’t wish to tell you how to do your job or nothin’, but I think you’ll find that the easiest way of actually delivering my package is to just come to my house and give it to me, rather than listing it as ‘Out for Delivery’ each day and then not bothering to come anywhere near my flat.

I know that it’s likely not that big or bulky, but it’s still going to get pretty boring to see that same package in the back of your van every day. Plus, think of the pennies of fuel consumption and tyre wear you’ll save by it not being in there and having a van that’s 250g lighter.

I appreciate that my package probably hasn’t seen enough of the world, and that you’re doing a sterling job of driving it around and letting it see the sights of Southampton – I imagine the postcards of its exciting trips to St. Mary’s, Millbrook and perhaps even Chandler’s Ford will be something to show the grandchildren.

Perhaps it is simply that you have forgotten where I live, and can’t remember where you were supposed to be bringing my package to after it’d been on its round-the-world adventures. An easy mistake, we all do it sometimes. If that was the case, if you look on the back of my package, there should be – somewhere – a little tracking device called ‘An Address’ that you pop into this thing called ‘A Map’ and where it tells you where my flat is.

I know that that’s not as fun as playing ‘Hot or Cold’ with my package as you drive around Southampton for days on end, trying to get closer to ‘Warm’, but my package is late for his tea and he’s got school in the morning so it’s probably best that he come home now and do all his homework and everything. If you’re having trouble convincing him, tell him his mum said that if he comes home now then he can stay up for another hour and watch another episode of “Monsoon Poultry Hospital” as a special treat.

Anyway, sorry to bother you, hope to see you soon,

Si x

A day or so then passes before I once again remember to check the MyHermes tracking service, and realise that the courier had apparently tried to come round earlier in the day whilst I was briefly out meeting a friend for lunch. Confusingly, the MyHermes tracker lists as being “Not Del’d – 3rd and Final Attempt” (despite it being only the second try) and, even more confusingly, neither did the courier leave a ‘Sorry I Missed You’ card (nor on the imaginary second delivery attempt) so there was no way of contacting the deliveryperson to re-arrange the delivery for a more convenient time or to arrange to collect it myself from somewhere.

Because it’s fairly usual in these circumstances (after, say, 3 deliveries have been attempted to no avail) for the parcel to be returned to the sender, I leapt onto Ebay to message The Man in The North in order to explain the problem and to let me know if/when it turned up at his house so that we could re-arrange a different way of delivery. Speaking to His People™, he was informed that the parcel was – once again – listed as ‘Out for Delivery’ that day, and that I should wait and see if it turned up that day.

I waited in all of that day. I did not leave the house.

Granted, at one point I put one foot outside of my back door to lean out to see if there was someone in the car park because I’d heard a van and wondered if Captain(ess) Hermes had appeared but the door buzzer hadn’t worked for some reason [SPOILERS: they hadn’t]. But no, I waited in all day; driving myself slightly mental and paranoid in the process. And no-one came.

Nor did they come the next day. Or the next day. Or the next day after that.

“This is it,” I thought. “All is Lost.” Gone forever. Swallowed into the void. Fallen over the precipice. I would never see my beautiful package again. I would never know its loving caress. With a tear dribbling down my cheek, I wrote to The Man in The North, explaining that the fruits of our union would never be savoured, and that it was likely that our charming offspring would probably be returned to his address. Since The Man in the North was a lovely man, he immediately refunded my PayPal payment, and promised that he would re-arrange another delivery (via a more reliable carrier) once it turned up with him again.

It was with immense surprise, then, that I returned from a brief shopping trip yesterday afternoon to find a “Sorry I Missed You” card from Hermes, apparently from a driver called ‘Andy’. Was I dreaming? Was this merely a hallucination? Was there going to be a happy ending after all?

Well: this lunchtime, ‘Andy’ dropped by again with a sparkling blue package nestled in his grasp. There was no fanfare; no chorus of angels. I looked to the sky, in case a beacon of light was deigned to shine down from the heavens, but I didn’t see one. Perhaps the Gods had forgotten to set their alarms. ‘Andy’ and I stood, staring at each other, in the rain outside my front door. Looking in each other’s eyes, we both knew that we had found each other. The harsh reality of the modern world may place many obstacles in the way of progress but, in the words of the great Dr. Ian Malcolm: “Life, uh, finds a way.”

Out of the darkness, my package had burst forth, bringing light and hope to hitherto black corners of existence. As I cradled my long-lost package in my arms, the tear once again materialised on my cheek and I felt my lips tremble like the legs of a baby deer as it struggles, hopelessly, to open the blister packaging of a new Black & Decker cordless drill.

“Thank you,” I whispered.

And, in that moment, we both knew that everything would now, forever, be all right. The game might now be over, but a spiritual connection would forever exist between the both of us; a product of our combined journey and our growth as people. With nary a parting word or goodbye embrace, we went our separate ways; destined for diverging paths but always retaining the memories of our beautiful game.

We entered the arena as but footsoldiers, but left as generals. Let’s hope we never have to do battle again.

[Zinar7]

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Sinister Reviews #14: Gabriel Knight – Sins of the Fathers

GKSotF

Genre: Point-and-Click Adventure
Platform: PC (version tested), Mac
Release Date: October 2014 remake
Developer: Pinkerton Road Studios
Publisher: Phoenix Online Studios

I missed Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers (GKSotF) the first time around. Y’see, I was always a LucasArts brand of adventure-hound rather than a Sierra one; craving the comedy adventures in the vein of Monkey Island, Grim Fandango and Full Throttle (along with other, non-LucasArts games like Simon the Sorceror and Broken Sword) rather than more serious titles, like Gabriel Knight. However, since 2014 marked the twentieth anniversary of GKSotF’s release and saw release of an anniversary remake by Pinkerton Road Studios, the time seemed as good as any to leap into the world of Gabriel Knight and his roguish brand of amateur crime-solving.

GabrielKnight_1

Jane Jensen’s Gabriel Knight series still remains a heralded classic in the point-and-click canon, touching upon a tale of murder-mystery stuffed with conspiratorial happenings, secret voodoo cults and suspicious events. The titular Mr. Knight is a brash, book shop-owning novelist from New Orleans, who becomes increasingly involved in police investigation of a case known as the Voodoo Murders through his friend Detective Moseley, before getting in far over his head. Over the course of ten game-days, the player must manoeuvre Knight around various scenes and locales of New Orleans (and, later, Germany and Africa); examining objects, harassing the townsfolk and using objects with other objects in the time-honoured point-and-click fashion. However, what sets GKSotF aside from the average is Jensen’s superb narrative: where my childhood adventuring through the LucasArts catalogue mainly stroked the soft underbelly of light-hearted storylines and comedic set-pieces, GKSotF tackles far more dense subject matter; a true crime thriller, with its fair share of grisly crimes and decidedly ‘grown-up’ themes. It’s reminiscent of a page-turning detective novel, with some excellent story pacing and an array of suspicious characters all, inevitably, involved in a complex web of mystery that maintains a respectable level of tension throughout the experience.

A key part of maintaining this atmosphere lies in the engaging, well-balanced, puzzle design. While some puzzles will have you scratching head for a while, they rarely feel unsolvable; yet, never facile, either. Solutions are never made too obvious (nor is the player ever steered toward them using petty hand-holding), yet pose a median level of difficulty that don’t challenge either the player’s intelligence or stupidity. Furthermore, the puzzles all maintain relevance to the ongoing storyline and police/spiritual investigation, meaning that the game largely doesn’t feel padded out with extraneous hoop-jumping or completely bizarre, shoehorned puzzles. To my knowledge, there was only one occasion where I hit a puzzle that I would never, ever have solved without the hint system (spoilers: it was the exact wording for what I was supposed to write on the tomb wall in the voodoo code) and, of course, the ‘engage with the mime’ puzzle near the beginning of the game is possibly the most tedious puzzle that I’ve ever encountered in an adventure game, but we all make mistakes.

GabrielKnight_2

GKSotF should also be commended for not relying too much on the adventure games staple of constant back-and-forth between characters or scenes to progress the action; not that engagement with NPCs feels too much like a chore. Aside from the game’s abrasive voiced narration (which, thankfully, it is possible to mute), voice acting varies from ‘really good’ to merely just ‘acceptable’, and the initially-tedious dialogue animations certainly endear and lose their irritation. Dialogue trees are also well-constructed to avoid too much repetition and deliver the ongoing narrative in a focused, natural way. In this respect, the presence of a physical narrator of Gabriel’s actions feels like an alien concept (at least when compared to the LucasArts style of having the main character comment, narrate and break the fourth wall) since it disengages the player from Gabriel himself, but adds to the feeling of being involved in a detective serial or TV movie. Pretty much all of the dialogue, scenery and storyline are – I’m led to believe – faithfully recreated from the 1993 original version of Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers (except now rendered in prettier high-definition graphics and cut-scenes) and it’s satisfying to find that GKSotF has aged commendably in the intervening two decades.

In general, the updated character models are well-rendered; faithfully-recreated scenes are packed with prettiness to look at and it all represents a fairly solid modern take on Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers. If there’s a weakness in the visual and atmospheric update, it’s in the game engine – the commitment to re-drawing scenes from the original leads to the limiting decision to use high-definition, 2D backgrounds with 3-D Unity-driven character models walking overtop, rather than fully-3D scenes. 99% of the time this raises no issues, but occasionally presents unfortunate graphical glitches and evidence that the gameworld is merely a 2D plane with characters pacing around atop a stationary texture. It’s not a game-breaker, but merely leads you to occasionally feel like you’re playing an adventure game version of The Sims.

[FYI, if you want to get hold of the original version of GKSotF, then head over to GOG.com]

GabrielKnight_3

But, I’m nitpicking: the fact that you notice such mild gremlins and glitches is simply because the rest of GKSotF is so solid and enjoyable. Sure, the storyline drifts off a little in the last third – away from the more interesting ‘police’-type investigation and toward a more linear path of “do this, then do this, then do this”, which feels just a teeny bit padded out – but it’s because the majority of the game feels so well-paced and –balanced in terms of both narrative and gameplay.

In truth, I was expecting to be a little disappointed by Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers. My curiosity had been piqued by Yahztee & Gabe’s playthrough of the first hour or so on Let’s Drown Out, and I’d expected to be mildly engaged by the storyline but to find fault with the game’s mechanics and object/NPC interaction. Imagine my pleasant surprise, then, to discover that it’s one of the best adventure games that I’ve played in recent years. Despite a few flaws, it’s still a masterclass in adventure game design and well worth a visit for the narrative exposition alone. Perhaps it’s testament to the forward-thinking innovation of the original, or the persistence of the point-and-click genre in being stuck in the mid-Nineties, but if ever there were a time to discover the world of Gabriel Knight (or perhaps just revisit it), then it’s now.

[Zinar7]

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friday_001

F001

I used to keep a regular, daily (ish) blog back in 2004-2008ish over at the almighty LiveJournal. In it, I would write down all sorts of random rubbish that would help vacate my brain of all the useless junk that clutters it up on a day-to-day basis.

I thought that I would resurrect that ethos for the year 2015, and maintain some sort of Friday Blog thing where I can just talk about random stuff that I’ve seen or played or done over the week, rant about the Star Wars prequels and salivate over board games that I want to buy but can’t afford. I’ll jot down things during the week and/or blog down little sections each day, and then collect them all into a Friday Blog (inspired by Friedemann Friese’s Friday project) which summarises some of the things that are going on in my own little world. Basically, it’ll just be a little catalogue of whatever’s hitting my brain at the time and what’s important to me.

Since this is the first proper Friday of 2015 (the last one doesn’t count since it only had a day to get prepared, and it sort of overslept), here is Friday_001. Let’s get shifting.

 

So: 2015, then. For all kinds of reasons, 2014 was a bit of a strange year. Lots of things happened across it; both good, and bad. The climax of the year sparked in me a noble goal of making the best of 2015 and for creating some sort of fresh start; at least, mentally. 2014 was plagued with a variety of struggles and stresses, and so I vowed to make the new year one in which struggle and stress would be minimised, if not eradicated. I see it as an opportunity to make myself a better person – not materially, or in terms of who I socialise with or who is in my life, but as a chance to align myself more closely to the ‘me’ that I’d like to be; better at keeping in touch with people, less susceptible to procrastination, resistant to worry. Simon 3.0, if you will.

I suppose that the success of this endeavour will only become measurable over time, but hopefully it will be measurable, eventually. 2015 marks the beginning of a variety of new journeys for me, so the time is as good as any to embark on a fresh page of ‘me’ and to decouple the feelings, troubles & regrets of the past from the adventures of the future. Too often, I’m my own harshest critic and will chastise myself far harder for my mistakes than I would do for literally anyone else in the world. Well, Twenty-One-Five is my chance to be 100% more awesome and 100% less rubbish, and those aren’t just hollow words. This calendar year will be one in which I cross over the threshold into my fourth decade, and so naturally it lends itself to a convenient excuse to let go of the past and its plethora errors & regrets to think only of the positives that the future will hold. I’m by no means a perfect person, but – again, perhaps with time – I can finally approach the asymptote of the well-rounded, mentally-strong, good person that I strive to be.

So yeah, my Resolutions for 2015 are generally just: be better at stuff; spend less money; eat less crap. Y’know, all the normal stuff that people resolve to do in the New Year, but with a genuine sense of incremental, noticeable change. Simon 2.0 was a solid release but still had a few bugs; Simon 3.0 aims to ship with fewer glitches, more documentation and better usability. Let’s crack on.

 

Anyway, that’s enough boring talk. What else in new in January?

Well, I’m horribly addicted to board games again. Those people that know me will say: “But…you’re always horribly addicted to board games!” Yes, this is true. I think it’s just amplified at the moment because [a] I’m in between jobs and therefore have a heck of a lot of time to think about them; [b] I’ve still got a bunch of new-ish ones on my shelves that I still haven’t played but would like to; and [c] I’m in the process of designing my own (Penny Black) that my brain is constantly being bombarded with new ideas and potential mechanics to introduce to the game. Furthermore, one of my best friends in Southampton has also just picked up the ‘designer board games’ virus (albeit, from me) and hence we’re spending much time and conversation in playing, and talking about what we want to play next.

Just before Xmas, I picked up Camel Up at Dave’s Comic Shop in Brighton, and it’s badass: not sure yet how it’ll stand up to repeated plays, but it certainly seems to be fun so far. In the pre-Xmas sales I bought The Witches: A Discworld Game and, only yesterday, put in an order for Stefan Feld’s lightweight strategy game La Isla; which is about searching for rare and exotic animals on a newly-discovered isolated island. Put this in the context of the other games that I own but still haven’t played in anger (Lewis and Clark: The Expedition, Asgard, Jamaica, Shipwrights of the North Sea, The Lord of the Rings) and those that I want to break out again (Village, Priests of Ra, Vasco da Gama), and I’m a bit wrapped up in the cardboard world at the moment.

Which reminds me: I would quite like to go to SPIEL ’15 in Essen this year.  Please?

Furthermore, I’m well back into the swing of point-and-click adventure games again. They’ve come and gone in my life, but always been a staple of my most memorable gaming experiences. After a bit of a false start this time last year (I only managed one; in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure), I’m vowing to get back into both adventure gaming and video game reviews; starting with the highly enjoyable 20th Anniversary Edition of Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers. In my ample spare time recently I’ve been drafting a review summary, penning some of my thoughts about the game and its comparative ‘good’ and ‘bad’ points. Hopefully it’ll materialise on here at some point in the next week or so.

Anyway, that’s probably enough words for now. Friday_001 is finished; in time, Friday_002 will rise to take its place. All power to the Friday.

[Zinar7]

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Penny Black: Dev Update #1

PennyBlack_1

For those that aren’t aware, I’ve been working on a board game. It’s been boiling around in my head since May or so; where it initially saw a great flurry of activity but, due to various other things, kind of got put on the backburner until a few weeks ago. However, in the last month I’ve focussed more time on it and into getting it to a position where I (and perhaps a group of friends) might be able to actually give it a try. Hooray!

The title of the game is Penny Black, which some of you might recognise as the name of the world’s first postage stamp designed by Sir Rowland Hill in 1840 for the Royal Mail. As you can therefore imagine, Penny Black is themed around a fictional Post Office; not in Victorian England but in the fictional Republic of Sinestria. So, what’s it all about? 

PB1

 

SUMMARYPenny Black is a strategy board game with a postal theme. Players take the roles of trainee sorting-office workers in the Mighty Republic of Sinestria, where the postal system has recently been introduced. In this role, players compete to serve customers, stamp their letters and process them into the Post-Bot’s mailbag in order deliver these to the intended recipients and earn points. However, the citizens of Sinestria are sceptical of this new postal system, and players will need to meet their various demands and expectations in order to secure the success of the Sinestria Republic Post.

The more letters that are picked up and delivered, the more trust players will acquire from the public (measured in terms of Victory Points) and, at the end of 7 days of training, the performance of the new trainees will be rigorously assessed. If players misplace letters or deliver them late, they will lose trust from the public. Furthermore, fellow players will be aiming to hinder each other or engage in outright sabotage, so players must maintain awareness of the competition.

Due to a malfunction, the Stamp Machine does not output the correct stamps but instead spews them out randomly onto the Sorting Office counter. Players will need to collect the correct stamps, pick the most viable customer letters, and make sure that they are in the Post-Bot’s mailbag at the correct time in order to score Victory Points.

The Chief of Post for the Government of Sinestria has vowed to permanently hire the most successful worker to be elevated to the position of Post-Office Manager, a highly respected position, based on players’ performance in efficiently collecting stamps, sorting letters and getting them into the mailbag at the correct time.

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I’ve just reached a point of having the rules for v0.1 of Penny Black pretty much shaped up and written down. I’m yet to get round to playtesting, but I’ll look into doing so at some point over the Xmas period. If you would like to know what the hell Penny Black is all about (and, indeed, what the hell I’m talking about during the rest of this post), then a .PDF of the rules is here:

PennyBlack_v0.1 (December 2014, .pdf)

 

DISCUSSIONThe main concept of Penny Black is similar to a number of games that require collection of tiles/resources in order to purchase other cards, which require a varying combination of resources – these include titles like Unexpected Treasures (by Friedemann Friese) and Felinia (by Michael Schacht). In Penny Black, these, purchased, cards must then be redeemed by placing them in the mailbag at the appropriate time (and in competition with other players who are looking to do the same, perhaps with some amount of skulduggery) in order to score points.

Hopefully what is unique about Penny Black, when compared to other games based on collecting stuff and using it to buy other stuff (even so far as Alhambra by Dirk Henn), is that there is a ‘timing’ aspect to having the right things at the right time, and in the right place: the mechanic of having a semi-random method of dictating when a letter delivery takes place (defined by a dice roll which may mean that the Post-Bot moves at a steady 1-step pace [most likely], a rapid 2-step pace or does not move at all [least likely]) means that there is, hopefully, unpredictability as to when points are scored; wrestling complete control from the players and adding more tension along with incentive for skullduggery. The unpredictability of what exact delivery conditions (i.e. what earns bonus points for players when a delivery happens) also, hopefully, adds to the variation between games and leaves players guessing as to what will earn them points.

PB2

The main method of how players collect stamps is one of the key parts of Penny Black that I still don’t yet have a solid ‘feel’ for. I expect that over various iterations of the game, how stamps are collected by players will likely evolve a bit; perhaps taking cues from other games. For example, Felinia lets you collect similar tiles based on a ‘bidding’/market system, although this requires application of some sort of currency system which would add extra complexity to the game. I thought about some sort of worker-placement mechanic, but this seemed like an overly elaborate way of simply collecting resources. Maybe I’ll look into playing other games with similar mechanics, and see if there’s anything I can borrow or adapt if the current mechanic doesn’t feel quite ‘right’.

In the first iteration of Penny Black, the mechanic to collect tiles is largely similar to that of Ticket to Ride (by Alan R. Moon), yet with some similarities with Splendor (by Marc André): there is a general pool of stamp tiles, drawn randomly from a bag, that occupy six stamp spaces on the game board. On a turn, players may choose an action to activate the Stamp Machine, which re-fills any empty stamp spaces (left empty after previous players have taken stamps), and then choose three stamps to take from the available pool. Players may hold seven stamp tiles at a time. From their collection, players then trade the correct stamps with those depicted on an available customer letter in order to ‘stamp’ it and to prepare it for delivery, or use certain combinations of their stamps to influence the motions of the Post-Bot to speed up or slow down the time until delivery, or to kick out another player’s letter from the mailbag and replace it with one of their own. Yes, I know the Post-Bot is currently R2D2, shut up.

PB3

Another aspect that isn’t currently in place in Penny Black is the concept of having ‘special’ stamp cards. In addition to the way that basic stamp tiles are drawn from the bag and players may pick from them, I’m toying with the idea of having additional stamp cards that either allow a player to use them as any individual stamp, or perhaps as a double-stamp of a single colour. Further to this, something that isn’t yet fully-formed in my head is the method by which the Post-Bot either adds incentive (or penalises players) when it has reached the end of the Delivery Track yet the mailbag is not sufficiently prepared. It might be that an elegant way of killing both birds with a single stone would be to have the Post-Bot give special ‘one-shot’ stamp cards to all players that succeed in delivering a letter; although I’m aware that this might leave certain things overpowered, or lead to situations with runaway winners. In the current iteration (v0.1) of Penny Black there’s no facility for this yet, but it might be worth considering in a later iteration to see how it works. Certainly, I feel like a technique whereby players are rewarded for putting letters in the mailbag (not necessarily just for delivering them) could be an option; which might be as simple as taking a stamp tile from the available stamps on the Sorting Office Counter.

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So, in a nutshell, that’s Penny Black. Of course, it’s going to take a lot more shaping up and refining before it’s something that could potentially be released to the outside world but, even at this very early stage, I’m bloody proud of how far I’ve gotten with it.

The next stage, really, is to test the game with some actual play. After I’ve fiddling with it myself and an imaginary table of gamers, I’m going to look into recruiting a few friends to giving it a go and providing some feedback on the game (in addition to identifying the glaring holes or errors in design). With a game like this that will require a significant amount of balancing in terms of how many points successful deliveries should be worth, how long there should be between deliveries, how easy or hard it is to collect the right stamps and purchase letters, etc. I feel that there will be a lot of tweaking necessary to weigh out the game so that it brings a balanced atmosphere. I’m intending on documenting the progress fairly methodically to establish what’s working and what’s not, so expect more posts in this series on the continuing development of the game and my thoughts on it.

If you’ve got ideas on thoughts on the status of Penny Black, then I’d love to hear what you think. Hey, maybe it inspires you to think about designing your own game; or just creativity in general. If I can spark some imagination surrounding interesting board game themes or creativity, then that’d be awesome.

[Zinar7]

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Sinister Sevens: Designer Board Games

BoardGamesSevens

I admit it; I’m a desperate, ravenous tabletop board gamer. This frenzy has been sweeping over me for many years now, but it’s only within the last 3-4 that it’s truly taken over every sense and synapse, and led to full-on obsession.

Since I’ve been a kid, I’ve absorbed myself in games: both console and tabletop. Whilst most of my intervening years have been dominated by video games, the recent resurgence of family-based, tabletop strategy board games in the last decade has led to Euro-style physical games falling evermore into the mainstream and many games store being drowned in an avalanche of high-quality wooden pieces and plastic/linen cards; and, consequently, my living room.

In tribute to this passion, then, I’m going to run down my favourite seven games on the market and detail a little bit about why they mean so much to me. Perhaps, through my amateurish words, I can inspire yet more people to absorb themselves in my rampaging hobby. Let’s go for it.

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1. Carcassonne (Klaus-Jürgen Wrede, 2000; published by Hans in Glück)

In almost every respect, Carcassonne is my favourite tabletop game of all time, and that will likely never change. Dismissed by some as simply a gateway game offering passage to more complex titles, one should not confuse simplicity and elegance with adolescence. A tale of tiles, Carcassonne revolves around drawing land pieces at random, placing them on an ever-expanding ‘board’, and assigning miniature wooden people (“meeples”) to be knights, farmers, robbers and priests to score points for your growing empire. However, other players are aiming to do the same, and will interfere with your progress; either by trying to steal cities, roads and farms from your possession, or placing tiles inconveniently to block your developments.

Whilst the main game mechanic opens up a significant of luck (coming down to the tile you draw on your turn), you rarely feel completely at the mercy of misfortune and there is still plenty of opportunity for backstabbing and hindering of other players, even if you continually draw unhelpful tiles. Despite the compactness of the base version of Carcassonne, there’s also a supreme amount of expansion available to elaborate on the vanilla game if you so wish, with new features and expansion sets still regularly being released.

It may be passé to claim adoration of such a simple or ‘plain’ game in a world of complex titles but, to be honest, I’m having so much fun that I couldn’t care less.

Carcassonne

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2. Takenoko (Antoine Bauza, 2011; Asmodee)

A modern classic (ish) by Antoine Bauza, Takenoko, to me, is known by only one name: Pandas.

Pandas is…a difficult game to describe: it has elements of tile-placement, hidden goals and random interference, yet fits ideally into none of these formats. The primary success of Pandas, though, lies in it daring to be different. From theme to mechanics to player engagement, it feels fresh; unburdened by restrictive gaming customs, and bringing something genuinely ‘new’ to the table (pun intended). Players build an expanding bamboo field, tended by a moving gardener and devoured by a roaming panda, aiming to complete ‘goal’ cards that are based on varying conditions. Complete seven goal cards, and it’s the end of the game.

The game is superb for player interaction, with an expanding playing area upon which bamboo pieces grow on on irrigated field tiles, and the unhelpful movements and culinary habits of the eponymous panda can destroy your finely-honed bamboo field whilst benefitting someone else. A further bonus to the main mechanics are the wonderful design strokes and charming artwork: delightfully colourful playing pieces, tiles bamboo pieces being lovely to both sight and touch, and cartoon-like miniatures representing the roving panda and gardener. Takenoko is a triumph, and one that I would introduce to any gaming environment; an entertaining romp for both newbies and seasoned gamers alike. Pandas!

Takenoko

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3. Agricola (Uwe Rosenberg, 2007; Lookout Games)

Agricola is a behemoth in the tabletop world; both in influence/acclaim and its actual, physical bulk. A game about the driest of the dry (farming in the 17th Century), it’s a heavy worker-placement game played over thirteen turns where you can do never do everything you’d like to, and compromise is the order of the day. Since its release, it’s been acclaimed as one of the greatest modern designer board games, routinely holding position near the summit of BoardGameGeek’s top 100 games. However, it’s totally an experience that takes time to drink in and appreciate; perhaps one reason why it never won Spiel des Jahres upon its release, but instead was given a special prize as “Best Complex Game”. Certainly, I don’t feel that I’ve spent enough time with Agricola to come anywhere near truly mastering its art but, one day, I will and that will be a glorious epiphany.

There’s an outstanding amount of range and variability that can be present between successive plays, thanks to huge decks of cards that dictate what occupations can be taken on and what farm improvements can be built – make no bones about it, this is a delightfully complex game that rewards those who explore every aspect, think logically and react to changing circumstances. It can be mightily brutal though, too: making sure you can feed your family, when there are a bunch of other things that you’d like to do too, can be a heartbreaking decision.

In Misery Farm, everyone dies.

Agricola

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4. 7 Wonders (Antoine Bauza, 2010; Repos Production)

As is probably becoming clear from my selections for this list, I totally have a soft spot for games designed by Antoine Bauza. To date, 7 Wonders is probably his most acclaimed game title, winning the Kennerspiel award at Spiel des Jahres 2011 for “best complex game”, and there’s a valid reason for that. It’s wonderfully put-together and crafted, with simple (concurrent) turn mechanics, fast & engaging player interactions and lovely artwork; making each player’s (of which there may be up to seven, or eight with the ‘Cities’ expansion) process of building a Wonder of the ancient world an absolute pleasure.

It’s rapidly quick; the concurrent turn order keeping things active and away from tedious Analysis Paralysis (AP); and the points salad options for points-scoring means that there’s plenty to think about in each turn/round/game. Spread over three Ages, in each one players begin with a hand of (n + 1) cards; taking one and playing it, then passing the hand to their neighbour, whereby the process continues until all cards are played. Players must build up resources, use them to construct cities with marketplaces, cultural focal points, commerce, military strength and, of course, their individual Wonder.

It’s elegant in every conceivable way, short in terms but not in terms of complexity, and with a heap of replayability that makes it a great choice for a medium-weight ‘filler’ game that makes city-building an absolute delight.

7 Wonders

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5. Tokaido (Antoine Bauza, 2012; Funforge)

Tokaido is, categorically, the prettiest designer board game ever designed (FYI: the Kickstarter collector’s edition is even more a delight), for which we have Xavier Gueniffey Durin to thank. Yes, it’s yet another Antoine Bauza title in this seven-strong list, but it accurately typifies his penchant for deriving completely novel themes and abstract (yet sensible) game mechanics, as players take on the role of Dynasty-era travellers migrating up the eponymous Tokaido Road on Japan’s coast; visiting picturesque view, hot springs and teahouses, and meeting a swathe of friendly characters and merchants.

In essence, it’s a ‘race’ game, but one which is full of charm and quirks – players cannot occupy the same ‘spot’ and the rearmost player always moves, therefore compromise must be made as to whether to jump ahead to guarantee visit to special locations, or to maximise visits by moving to the next available space. Points are awarded based on a variety of goals, with a ‘Points Salad’ approach allowing players to tackle different strategies (focussing, perhaps, on visiting particular locations or collecting certain souvenirs) and to react to other players’ circumstances. The fact that this is wrapped up in the most aesthetically-pleasing artwork is, admittedly, a bonus; but one which simply adds to the overall feel and gives the genuine feel of players going on a scenic, rewarding journey over the course of the game.

Tokaido is, at heart, a delight. Wonderful.

Tokaido

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6. Love Letter (Seiji Kanai, 2011; AEG)

Elegance is the only word that can be used to adequately describe Seiji Kanai’s microgame, Love Letter. Mechanics, artwork, components; it’s all simple, streamlined and with solid pick-up-and-playability. Formed of only sixteen cards, a beautiful velvet bag and a handful of cubes representing ‘tokens of affection’ from the Princess Annette, players must play cards until the deck runs out, attempting to draw favours from a range of colourful characters in order to deliver a letter of love to the Princess at the end of the day. The winner of the round is the player holding the highest-valued character card once there a no more cards to draw, and in the face of other players attempting to eliminate and backstab one another out of contention.

In a grand best-of-thirteen, the first player to accumulate 7/5/4 tokens of affection (for 2/3/4 players) secures the Princess’ heart and wins the game. It’s wonderfully simple and compact, and takes only minutes to pick up before players are guessing, bluffing and socially-engineering their way to the royal heart. It’s quick, easy to teach, simple to master and yet open to a wide range of strategies and opportunities for bluffing. I love it, so hard.

Love Letter

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7. Rampage [aka Terror in Meeple City] (Antoine Bauza & Ludovic Maublanc, 2013; Repos Production)

For my final choice, what remains to be selected but yet another Antoine Bauza game? Furthermore, one that is about as far removed from a traditional modern designer board game as it is possible to get, whilst still retaining a board, power cards, and wooden meeples.

Unlike all of the other titles on this list which require strategy and brainwork, Rampage is all about dexterity. Taking on the role of city-smashing monsters, (up to) four players must systematically destroy the buildings and towers of Meeple City, topple all of the resident meeples and gobble them up, using a choice of four different actions: moving your monster (by ‘flicking’ its feet across the board), smashing a building (by dropping the wooden monster pawn onto a building), breathing toxic fumes (by resting chin on monster pawn and blowing buildings down) and by lobbing vehicles (by placing a wooden vehicle on top of the monster’s head and ‘flicking’ it into buildings or other monsters).

It’s a dazzlingly physical game, and the natural antidote to the tedious end of the cube-shunting Euro game genre. In Rampage, Bauza and Maublanc have created the ideal bridge between hardcore tabletop action and the family, party game. You can’t help but be engaged by Rampage, and get sucked into the sheer fun and lunacy of a very interactive, hands-on game that’s in full flight. The snobs may dismiss it as merely a sideshow, but once you’ve played it it’ll change your mind about how tabletop games can truly bring people together in laughter.

Rampage

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So, there we have it. My top seven tabletop board games ever (or, at least, until some other awesome get released and bump some of these out of the charts). Mention should also go to some other games, which I list here for the sake of completeness:

Alhambra – Dirk Henn, 2003; Queen Games.

Thurn und Taxis  – Andreas & Karen Seyfarth, 2006; Hans im Glück.

Coloretto – Michael Schacht, 2003; Abacus Spiele.

Le Petit Prince: Fabrique-moi une Planète (The Little Prince: Make Me a Planet) – Antoine Bauza & Bruno Cathala, 2003; Ludonaute.

Splendor – Marc André, 2014; Space Cowboys.

Revolution! – Phillip duBarry, 2009; Steve Jackson Games.

[Zinar7]

 

Images from BoardGameGeek: (Carcassonne – Robert Hawkins; Takenoko – Johnathon Er; Agricola – Will McDonald; 7 Wonders – Babis Tsimoris; Tokaido – Henk Rolleman; Love Letter – Casey Lynn; Rampage – Henk Rolleman).

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A Lament for the Video Game Manual

Lament

Next time you’re playing a new video game on one of those spangly-new, current-generation consoles, spare a thought for the poor, humble, forgotten video game manual. In this age of digital releases where physical copies of games are more at a premium, and pieces of floating paper coming bundled with the game disc are becoming more and more unwieldy and rare; the presence of printed DLC (Downloadable Content) codes, etc. aside. Even then, where disc-based games still come with some sort of instruction booklet, in many cases it’s woefully inadequate in providing context to the main game, given that many AAA-franchises now have so many complex facets of gameplay and control mechanics that you’d need most of a rainforest’s-worth of papyrus to catalogue them all. The days of gaming instructions being “press right to move right, press x to jump; jump on the enemy’s head to kill the enemy” are, sadly, behind us.

So: given that it’s someone’s job to reminisce about these archaic forms of printed communication and – in the absence of anyone else – that ‘someone’ may as well be me, let me take you on a journey of discovery and revelation about the mythical artform of the video game instruction manual. Together, perhaps, we can reclaim this forgotten land for the generations ahead.

P1030868

In the distant past, the instruction manual supplied with a video game was there to do one thing: to teach you how to play the game. Back in the 1980s and early 1990s, a game would rarely have any introductory backstory, let alone hints as to how to get along, before thrusting you headlong into some gameplay. Haunting back to the idea of the game being a machine and the means operation of that machine needing to be communicated to the user by means of some sort of instructive text, manuals were included in video game boxes as the conduit by which the user understood what the game was and how it worked, and also where to find contact information and telephone numbers to call when the software inevitably failed or caused her ZX Spectrum to spew out little bits of cartridge tape in a very violent manner.

As video games grew and became more cinematic and three-dimensional during the 1990s, the instruction manual became a way for more information about the plot, characters and universe to be documented, in addition to how to press the right buttons at the right time. Perhaps the reasons for this are down to the increasing ambition of video games to rival full-blown movie entertainment in terms of story and lore, and perhaps to save the developers time and money on creating extra hours of Full-Motion Video (FMV) cut-scenes or expensive animation by filling the instruction booklet with bonus information and history in written form (cf. Final Fantasy VII, Puppeteer, Chrono Trigger).

As a player who has passionately grown up amongst video games for twenty years now, I still reminisce about the thrill of buying a new video game at the shops and devouring the instruction manual (not literally; I’m not a monster) during the car ride home because, until I got home and could boot it up, reading the manual was the next closest thing to actually playing the game. This heritage naturally inspires me to view a game’s instruction manual more as a taster for the game itself than a simple set of operation codes for playing it; whetting the appetite with exciting artwork, design and (sometimes) additional game lore. As an aside, it’s worth noting that I’m like this with music, and physical media, too – I love leafing through an album’s sleeve flyer, awaiting what music will to come meet my ears and throwing myself headlong into the band’s artwork and lyrics.

However, whenever I’ve bought a pre-owned console game, particularly from the last couple of console generations, the manual is – with alarming regularity – often in mint condition and unsullied by human hand(s). It’s equally alarming how many pre-owned games are still delivered with pristine DLC/download codes hidden away in/with the user manual: a broad conclusion that may be drawn is that their owners are simply unaware that they exist; a symptom of gamers simply too impatient to get playing to investigate the other manual guff before they dive in. In these modern times, if a game isn’t packaged with an in-game tutorial teaching the user, step-by-patronising-step, how to do every little thing in the game, many players are likely to head to the internet at the first sign of confusion rather than consult the manual; or worse, ragequit and abandon the game entirely. Gamers expect a playable tutorial; not a written set of the rules and limits of the game and the primary operators and actions used to navigate it (unless it’s an in-game version that can called up from a start menu prompt). As a result, I’d wager that only a small proportional of video game manuals ever feel the touch of human flesh; merely the fleeting fondle of an excited gamer’s fingers as they scrabble through it.

Ain't Nobody Got Time Fo' That

In the last decade, I’ve noticed an increasing propensity for video game manuals (particularly from Western developers and publishers) to exist merely as a few sheets of paper held by some ragged staples; hastily thrown together to print the primary control mappings but with scant pickings of game-enhancing content. They’re now no longer a necessity, but a luxury; perhaps supplied in order to meet console licencing requirements or out of some, long-forgotten obligation to give the player something to look at before they properly delve into the game itself.

A manual is, by and large, one of the last things that will be created for a game’s release. It’s something to be done at the end, and with little effort spent on it in order to maximise the man-hours that are spent on the game itself. This means that plans for an engaging, informative instruction manual are often the first things to be cut from a development budget that’s pushing its time or financial deadline; with publishers typically finalising their printed material at the very last minute (right before shipping), seemingly assigning the task to the resident intern or work experience kid. Some culprits may be guilty of throwing a user guide together seemingly at random, with random or out-of-date concept art presented as the real thing, out-of-date screenshots and typos still embedded in the text, with no quality control. Also, some developers/publishers may eschew the opportunity to publish more of the games’ development/etc art in the manual; instead, choosing to use such content in coffee-table ‘art’ books for which the consumer may often pay a pretty penny for (Ubisoft, I’m looking at you).

Of course, game manuals must serve an important, legal purposes – details of guarantee, warranty, licencing details, epilepsy warnings, [ yada yada ] must all be presented to the consumer. For health/safety/Quality Assurance reasons, it is still – largely – necessary for every major video game to be packaged with something paper-based on which warranties, blah etc. are written for the consumer’s benefit. As such, a large number of manuals are merely this; no frills, just the facts. And, often, not even any facts about how to play the game at all: the user manual for the PlayStation 3 version of the BioShock – Ultimate Rapture Edition simply says: “Consult [url] for game instructions,” somewhat defeating the purpose of encouraging players to engage with the complex, rich world and artwork of the BioShock and Rapture universe. THANKS, 2K.

VideoGameManualNotes

But, despite the bleak message of this post so far, it’s good to see that some developers still like go to town on the accompanying user guide; seeing the instruction manual as a part of the game’s package and an equal part of the art and aesthetic of it as the game itself. Although this adds time and cost to the production of the final game, as a conscientious (and academic) gamer, this adds to my experience of the game and the value that I obtain from its universe:

Assassin’s Creed II (PlayStation 3 version tested) uses its instruction manual to enhance the experience of the game as a whole, being laid out in the form of a set of research notes from Abstergo Industries explaining how to operate the Animus 2.0 (the in-game ‘machine’ allowing Desmond Miles access to the memories of the historical assassin, Ezio Audiotore da Firenze) and annotated by Desmond’s Abstergo refugee, Lucy Stilman. For example, in one such annotation, the AC II manual makes fun of its preceding game and the insta-death the player experience upon landing in water by mentioning: “Please make sure to remove that annoying bug preventing swimming.” It may be just a small in-joke, but it rewards the stolid adventurer that delves into the user manual, and adds some local colour to an otherwise perfunctory explanation of the game’s operations and features.

More archaic instruction manuals also reflect other curiosities of gaming’s history: the ‘Notes’ section of pages which are common in many instruction guides, for example. These hark back to a time when it was necessary for players to write down level passwords or codes, when savegame functions weren’t a widespread feature of most console games and in-game cheat modes were abound. Back in the day, the instruction manual was also an important barrier against software piracy – I recall the efforts of publishers like LucasArts doing their best to stop pirates from distributing pirated games (copied from floppy disks) by requiring users to look up a code in the manual (randomised each time you play­; e.g. “page 34, line 3 ……….”) in order to access the game. Of course, there would be nothing to stop large-scale pirates simply reproducing the manual, as well, but it may have halted the disk-copying of bedroom pirates.

"Piracy harms consumers as well as legitimate developers, publishers and retailers."

Page one of the manual for Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag ~ “Piracy harms consumers as well as legitimate developers, publishers and retailers.” /FAIL

What place do instruction manuals have, though, in a world where control schemes for many video games can be edited and mapped to a player’s particular tastes? If the primary operators for in-game control are not fixed, then what worth is there in publishing a list of them in hard copy form? Furthermore, with future consoles likely to ditch physical game discs altogether (Microsoft nearly managed to get away with doing it in the current console generation, but not quite), will we see an absence of all printed materials, with a reliance purely on download-only games a la PC gaming on Steam?

Of course, I have nothing against tutorials an in-game manuals per se – if they can be presented in the context of the coherent storyline and with due care and attention, then a tutorial is a highly effective way of inducting the user into the gameworld and setting up the rest of the game. But why waste the opportunity to present extra content to the consumer? Maybe I’m in a minority. Perhaps the evidence that many players don’t look at modern game manuals is evidence that they’re an archaic artform that should be retired; perhaps alongside physical copies of videogames altogether, I don’t know. But if I’m a last bastion of a bygone era where the physical world still musters a round of applause, then I’m happy to be its final pillar of support. Godspeed.

[Zinar7]

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