Monday, 17 December 2012

A 2012 board game retrospective

2012 was an awesome year to be a board gamer. The hobby seems to be continuing to grow as it has year over year for as long as I can remember. Euro-style games are becoming as common here as are the traditional thematic games. Stores like Zellers and Toys R Us continue to add games like Catan, Carcasonne and even Dominion to their shelves. It seems like more and more mainstream media sites are talking about gaming. This is all a very good thing as far as I'm concerned.

As my personal game collection continues to grow and I wanted to share some of the best discoveries I made in 2012. Some of these are new just this year but many are just new to me. Games that have been out for some time but I just discovered them this year. This list also includes some games I don't actually own myself, stuff that awesome local gamers have brought out to our gaming events and have been cool enough to share.

One of the first games I played this year was Space Alert, which I broke out New Years eve. This is an awesome cooperative game in which players are trying to survive on a space station in crisis. The game uses a CD to tell the players what's happening to the ship as they plan their actions and react to things going horribly wrong. Gameplay is fast and furious and it's one of those games where it's almost more fun to loose than to win, not that you will be winning often.

Dominant Species was the next amazing game I tried in 2012. This is a great long play strategy game with a very cool theme. A deep thinker, this is a great main game for a night of gaming. Players each take on the roll of a species fighting for dominance on a randomly created Pangea. Mammals, reptiles, birds, amphibians, arachnids and insects start off in a delicate neutral balance which devolves quickly into survial of the fittest. One of the best and most detailed worker placement games out there, Dominant Species has players competing to become dominant on as many different terrain tiles as possible while trying to hinder their opponents from doing the same. Adaptation, migration and selective specification will all be necessary to get the most victory points.

Torres is a game that I heard was good, it won a Spiel and all but I had no clue what I was missing. It's one of the most unique game in my collection. In it players use plastic towers and wooden nights to rebuild the kingdom. Over three rounds players score points for each castle they have a knight in. Only the knight on the highest level of each castle scores and the points gained are equal to the height of the floor they are on multiplied by the area the castle takes up. It's a very cool looking game once under way, very three dimensional. 

Even with all of the other awesome games on this list no other game I played this year blew me away as much as Risk Legacy. It does things no other game has done before and so far no game has done since. Like many people I felt trepidation about permanently modifying my copy of the game but that went away after I ripped up the first set of cards. The only problem I have with this one is getting the group together to continue our war.

Next up is the reprint/second edition of Wallenstein. I tried the original version of this many years ago and fell in love. I picked up the English reprint/re-theme Shogun the month it came out and have loved it since. This new reprinting is well worth picking up though. It adds in all of the previously released expansions and clarified the rules somewhat (though there are no actual changes to the rules). I'm still in love with this mix of Risk style war game and Eurogame.

My friend Jamie introduced me to this one. He actually got it through Kickstarter and hasn't regretted backing it one bit. Alien Frontiers is, to me, the best of the new style of dice games that have come out. Get a set of six sided dice representing your ships, roll them and then place them on the board to complete actions. It's a new type of worker placement engine that I really enjoy. I haven't had a chance to play this one often but every time I have it's been very different and it's always been a close race to the finish. I'm hoping to get to pay this one more in the new year and hopefully try out some of the expansions that have come out since.

I picked up Ascension: Storm of Souls on a whim. We had our first gaming event out at Brimstone games this year and while there I wanted to help support the venue by buying a game. This is the one my wife and I picked and I have no regrets. This is the best deck builder I've played since Dominion. It plays just as well with one player as it does with four and the inclusion of Trophies and events are a significant improvement over earlier Ascension games.

Now I know this one is going to be on a lot of people's best of 2012 list and there's a very good reason why. Eclipse is an awesome game. It is the most elegant and well designed space exploration game made to date. It takes what games like Twilight Imperium and Galactic Emperor offer and refines it to a much faster, more intense and streamlined game. This is another one I hope to play a lot more of in the new year and based on how many others locally enjoy it, I doubt that will be a problem.

So those are some of the best games I tried for the first time this year. All of them are games I look forward to playing again and again, though I do have to wonder: what will 2013 bring?

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

What do you want to play next? For me it's Airships

What do you want to play next?

With an ever changing work schedule and the holidays hitting hard and fast I haven't been getting in as much gaming as I've wanted to. I recently took a trip up to Toronto where I spent far too much money on new games. The sad part though is that I still haven't had a chance to try some of them yet. So right now the top of my playlist is Airships from Queen Games.

Airships is an interesting looking dice based game. Each player is trying to build the best fleet of zeppelins while at the same time contributing to the building of the biggest zep. of them all: The Hindenburg. The interesting part about this one is that you start with just a simple crew and very little tech and you have to roll dice to get better stuff. Your starting bits give you two white D6. Now on your turn if you want to buy better engines, you have to roll these two dice and try to get the target number on those engines. If you make the roll you get them and if you fail your turn is wasted. What those engines do is give you more dice to roll, either more white or the better Red or Black dice. You continue like this using dice to buy better bits to give you better dice to buy better bits, scoring points for completing airships along the way.

The mechanics are unique to any other game I own and I really want to give Airships a shot. I'm hoping to bring it out to the Board Games at the Green Bean event this Friday.

Airships is the top game on my to play list. What game do you hope to get to the table next?

Monday, 3 December 2012

Never Unprepared: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Session Prep - detailed review

Looking for the perfect gift for the Games Master in your life? Want to bring some holiday cheer to your gaming table? Looking to convince your DM to round up that last 100 XP so you can level before the New Year? Never Unprepared is the perfect gift for the guy or gal behind the screen this holiday season. 

Here's a detailed review of Never Unprepared I wrote up a few months ago in September and I stand by everything I said then.
I've been sitting on this review for quite some time. I finished reading the pdf of Never Unprepared: The Complete Game Master's Guide to Session Prep well over a month ago now. The thing is that I really wanted to put all of the great advice in there into practice and see the effect it had on my games before writing this up. As is usual things didn't go as planned. Shifting schedules, changing groups and lots of other mundane boring things got in the way. I'm still working on it though, I think the book has some valuable advice and I really want to give it a real try using all of the steps. Just the way that's going it's going to be a while. So this review is written while adopting the Never Unprepared methodology is a work in progress for me.

Never Unprepared is a 131 page PDF or Softcover book published by Engine Publishing and written by Phil Vecchione. Game preparation is a topic you do not see covered very often at all, maybe on forums or blogs but rarely in published products. This is the most detailed look at the subject I've ever seen. In addition it's written by a true professional. Phil is a Project Manager and deals with time management and organization for a living. It's very interesting to me, with a background in quality, leen and problem solving to see these tools applied to gaming.

The book starts with a forward from Sean Patrick Fannon, an introduction and a couple pages on how to use the book. It then dives into prep head first with the largest portion of the book: Understanding Prep. This is followed up by a Prep Toolbox and a section on Evolving Your Style. The books wraps up with a conclusion, references and index and biography. It's the three middle chapters that we really care about: Understanding Prep, Prep Toolbox and Evolving your style and I will take a quick look at each.

Understanding Prep is the "Guide" part of this book. Phil puts forward a very structured method of game preparation based on tested project management techniques. After a lot of talk about theory we get right into a working methodology that involves five stages. With Phil's method, proper effective game prep starts with Brainstorming. Here we see the usual Blue Sky, accept every idea and don't throw anything out style of idea generation. The most interesting part of this to me was that selection, is the next step and not part of Brainstorming at all. During selection you riffle through all of your brainstorming ideas and pick the on that will be best for your game. During conceptualization you flesh this idea out. Here's where most of the work that people think of when you say Game Prep happens. This 'work' continues in Documentation when you make all the physical notes, maps, artwork for your upcoming game. Last is a step I've never even really considered before and one that Phil, thankfully, goes into in some detail: Review. Here we are presented with a concept where we go over all of our prepared material, not just to read it over and put some of it to memory but to edit it. The breakthrough concept here though is to go through it as three different types of editors. We first look for spelling, grammar and structure as a Proofreader. Once proofed we review again as the Director making sure the story works and flows and makes sense with the overall campaign. Lastly we play through our notes ourselves as the play-tester. This part of the book really struck me as novel and a bit of a 'head-slap' moment.

I think the one of the most valuable part of the Understanding Prep section of the book is that Phil presents an open method that should be used by any type of gamesmaster. It's not a codified set of hard rules that you have to follow step by step. It's an outline of a methodology. GMs who are used to running with 5 bullet points on an index card can get just as much use out of this method as the GM who brings a full three ring binder full of notes to each session.

Prep Toolbox
This section talks about the tools you can use to facilitate the steps in the Understanding Prep section. This one was a bit of an eye opener for me as well. I never really considered how much easier it would be to prep with a nice pen and an organized binder to keep all my notes in. Where I'm not searching for a scrap of paper to make notes on and even worse trying to find that scrap minutes before the game starts. This section looks at these kinds of things. How do you take notes, where, how do you organize them. What I really liked in here was how modern the suggestions are. Lots of digital tools are suggested and it's excellent to read a book like this and find a new use for Dropbox. Phil actually discusses paper vs. electronic at length. Just like the last chapter, there's nothing pedantic here. The book puts forth arguments for both sides and fully understands that everyone is going to have their own preference.

The Toolbox section of the book is also the most philosophical. Chapter 9: Mastering Your Creative Cycle looks at your non-physical toolbox, your mind. Here Phil gives you a method to figure out when you are your most creative and how to use that energy. what is fascinating here is that the answer isn't just "prep when you are most creative". The method described suggests mapping your creative energy and then once you have that fit various preparations tasks (as outlined in the Understanding Prep section) into different highs and lows. When writing NPC descriptions do that at a high creative time. Lunch time at work, your juices are low but you have some time, well that's the perfect time to do something logical and mechanical and stat out those NPC.

Evolving Your Style
This section of the book takes a look at how to take all of the previous information and personalize it. Phil has you look at your strenghts and weaknesses as a GM and then gives you a method of documentation that will help bolster these weaknesses and emphasize the strengths. Again the paper vs. digital debate is brought up and the book really helps you hone in on what you really need and what you can skip over.

From here the book takes a realistic approach. There is discussion on what to do when you don't have enough time to put into effect all of the methodology presented in the book, called the Prep-Lite Approach. This is very detailed and has specific suggestion for what happens when you under prep in each area and how to compensate. A section on prep in the real world continues with suggestions and a lot of excellent reactionary measures you can take when things don't go as planned.

Never Unprepared is a nice looking book. Evocative cover and lots of well placed well drawn black and while art. The index is a nice touch and something I wouldn't expect in a book like this. I personally read a PDF copy and my favourite part was the fact the book was well hyperlinked. The links did not only include material in the book but also external links to many of the tools discussed. I'm always impressed when a digital copy of a book actually offers me more functionality than just a scan of the dead tree product.

How has it worked for me
Here's what I'm sure everyone is interested in. How has this book helped me with my own personal games. Well so far it has all been positive, though I've yet to really do more than scratch the surface. I think the first and most important thing this book does, more important than any individual step is get you thinking about game prep and how you do it. Even if you never use a single step in the book, just sitting there and thinking about how you prep while reading the book is invaluable. As noted by Phil is's something we just don't normally talk or think about, it's just something we all do our own way. Analysing how I prep and thinking about how to make it better has helped me significantly.

The first thing I did after reading the book and being inspired to improve my method and find enjoyment in the act of prepping was to look at the tools I use. The first thing I noticed is that I do brainstorming for my games all the time, at random times. At work, while driving, while waiting in line, in the shower etc. The one thing I never did though was document any of this. This I realize meant that many times good ideas are lost. So my first task was to find some way to document my brainstorming and then selection task. So I crowdsourced. I went on g+ looking for suggestions. For now I've settled on evernote on my iPod. I'm still not 100% happy with it and that will probably change up.

Next I went and bought a new binder/organizer for my two current games. Something with dividers, a built in calculator, note pad, 3 rings, file folder all in one. No more will I be writing note on loose scraps of paper only to not be able to find them before the game. This has worked great. I've run 4 session since having made the binder and I've yet to spend the first half hour of the game scrambling trying to find my stuff.

As far as the rest of the methodology and system. I have to admit I haven't done much with it. At least not yet. I've taken the brainstorming and selection information to heart. I find that I'm now doing a lot better at picking where I want my games to go. The players seem to be enjoying the new direction and drive quite a bit. Now I'm not sitting down to the table asking 'so what did you guys want to do next, I can't remember' I'm sitting down saying 'so now that you've poisoned the food supply, you noted you were going to return to town, when you get there...." In addition to this, I've not formally sat down and done any of the review steps one by one but I have a mind for these things now and I find that while working on conceptualization I am a lot more aware of making logic errors in my story. I realize the importance of permanence in the game world and avoiding doing having an "oh that place was supposed to be 2 days away... right.... sorry, yeah it's a 2 day trip" moment. I want to improve my documentation and really want to find the time to sit down and make custom templates to use during my documentation phase but I just haven't found the time, and that's my main problem. Time.

I really enjoyed the section on mapping your free time and figuring out your creativity schedule. The problem is that it only seems to work for people who have a regular schedule in their non gaming life. It's great for people who work 9-5 and eat dinner around 6 every night. It's not so great for people like me, who's work schedule next week is - 7-3 Monday, 3-11 Tues-Thurs, 9-5 Friday, 7-11 on Saturday. I don't find out what my work week will be until Thursday the week before and it's always changing. Often 3-4 different shifts in a 7 day period. Due to this my free time becomes "When I can find it" and my Creative Cycle is pretty much irrelevant. So this section of the book while interesting I've found pretty much impossible to put into use for myself. Maybe at some point I should write a book: Chaotic Preparation: The Complete Guide to Game Preparation for Shift Workers.

So overall I was very impressed by the book. It had an immediate impact on my game preparation and an immediate positive impact on my next gaming session. While I've found it hard to implement everything in the book, the small steps I have taken have all showed noticeable reward. Based on this I've decided to continue trying to adapt more and more of Phil Vecchione's preparation methodology. Heck maybe some day I'll even figure out that lunch time on Midnights is the best time for me to draw maps. I strongly suggest this to anyone who ever plans to run an RPG. Even if you can't use anything in the book, the act of reading through it and questioning yourself along they way is well worth it. I can almost guarantee you are going to get a lot more than this out of the book though.