On the Railroad Again

Ten years or so ago, Terri and I used to play the heck out Crayon Rail Games. In gamers terms, British Rails was our Lost Cities. But her desire to play waned and we didn’t play for years. But she has recently regained the bug and we are back playing. So much so, in fact, that she told me to order the latest editions of the old first-edition “tube” games as well as the two newest releases, China and Mars. I used up the last of my credits at Noble Knight Games and they should arrive in the next week.

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Comments no more

The comment spam has gotten to the point of distraction, so off it goes…. except that  can’t get WordPress to turn them off for old posts.

For the most recent updates and to place comments, find me on Google+.

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One of the primary reasons why I never joined Facebook is that I hated having to sign up for it to see people’s pages. As it grew in popularity, I just become more obstinate in my not wanting to ever be on Facebook. As my friend Gil has put it, I’m “not a joiner.” With Google+, I decided to join simply because I wasn’t on Facebook and I figured I should be on at least one of them.  If that’s not a ringing endorsement, I don’t know what is. ;)

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Food Network Star

I do not watch many reality shows, but I do like Project Runway, Top Chef, and Chopped. And I was an Iron Chef fan from back when it only showed on local channel 26 in Japanese with English subtitles. Though I had caught bits of previous seasons of the Food Network’s The Next Food Network Star show, it didn’t grab me. This year, with season 3 of Top Chef Masters completed, it was time to pick up another food-based competition show and I thought I’d give Food Network Star (“The Next” inexplicably missing) a shot.

Compared to “pure” cooking competitions like Top Chef, FNS is an odd duck. Yes, they want the competitors to be good cooks, but they also want them to be personalities. A contestant is just as likely to fall for failing a camera test than making a bad dish. On Chopped, the judges might give a pass to a chef who makes an interesting, if flawed, dish. On FNS, it is the chef themselves who need to be interesting.

More so than any of these other shows, FNS is a popularity contest. On Top Chef, the winner can be a complete douche as long as the flavor is there. FNS‘s focus on camera work and personality makes complete sense because the winner will be getting a television show, rather than a fat check and a spread in Food & Wine magazine. Being the best cook is simply not going to cut it.

One of the difficulties of food competitions is that we can’t taste the food. On Project Runway, we can at least see the designs and judge for ourselves. With food, you just have to trust the judges’ palates. And this is where FNS works–we can be on equal footing with the judges because there is a criteria beyond the food. In other shows, my wife and I will root for or against competitors based on their on-camera personae and comments anyway.

The irony is that I’m unlikely to watch the show that comes out of this competition, unless the winner is the second coming of Alton Brown or host their own competition show.

Extra: I caught the first(?) episode of Extreme Chef. I liked the premise, which seemed to mix the most horrifying Quickfires from Top Chef with a Chopped-like format. However, it was trying so hard to be eXtreme(!) that it fell flat. Reality shows are known for their melodramatic, artificial tension-building, they took it too far.

In the first challenge of the episode, the main ingredient was rattlesnake. So far, so good. To keep it eXtreme(!), they had the chefs fetch their rattlesnakes from wooden crates filled with snakes. All this was very eXtreme until I quickly realized that the snakes were constrictors with rattle sound effects added in post-production. The actual rattlesnake carcasses where in burlap sacks. Lame.

Competitions shows are made by their judges, in my opinion. I would much rather hear their comments on the food than most anything the competitors have to say. Here again, Extreme Chef fails because the one or two judges were simply dull. The focus on eXtreme(!) physical challenges and X-factors (trademarked Marvel comics) is not enough to keep this show interesting.

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Auctions in Games

A great many board games use auctions (or a form of bidding akin to auctions). Even the venerable Monopoly has auctions, though it seems most players forget about them. There is a great variety of auction styles and ways of bidding–far too numerous to summarize here–but I will highlight a couple.

In the classic game auction, something comes up for bid and players take turns making bids (very different from open, public auctions) until all but 1 drops out. Power Grid twists this by making the leading player pick what is auctioned, and if no one bids on it, they must purchase it for the minimum bid. In Ra, you bid on a single lot of multiple items (making valuation harder) and the currency you use for your winning bid goes into the lot for the next auction. In Evo, there are multiple items up for bid, but you can only bid on one at a time and only win 1 if the items; you could run up the bid on item A and then switch to the cheaper item B.

In blind or closed-fist bidding, each player makes a secret bid which they reveal simultaneously; highest bid wins. These are notoriously frustrating because you not only have to valuate the item, but you have one shot at guessing what you opponents will bid. In some games, you lose your bid even if you didn’t win the auction; in others, only the winner plays. In Revolution!, you can bid on multiple items at once so that even if you lose one bid, you may still win others. And there are 3 types of currency with some being stronger than others (money< blackmail < force) and some not usable on some items (you can bribe or blackmail the General, but you can’t use force).

Auctions are great way to inset direct player competition into the game, even if the rest of the game involves more indirect interaction. They also add tension and nastiness to what could be an otherwise dry game. Plus, there is a push-your-luck element as you try to get your opponents to bid higher than they can really afford while not doing so yourself.

By their nature, auctions can determine the proper market value for any game resource. Rather than set fixed prices for everything, the game designer can use auctions and let the players themselves set the prices. This is also one of the disadvantages to auction-based games: the learning curve. It can take several plays before the worth of an in-game resource or position is understood and until that happens, auctions can become lopsided, giving away some things too cheaply while making others far too expensive, which helps or hinders players, respectively. For me, this can make the first plays of an auction game quite painful.

Personally, I shy away from auction-based games. Rarely do I get a chance to play enough to overcome the learning curve. And there are other game mechanics, like network building, which I enjoy more. I don’t mind if a game has auctions, but I don’t want it to be the focus of the game. Power Grid, for example, has auctions which are critical to the game, but it is also about resource management, network building, and efficiency. But I don’t have an interest in Modern Art a well-regarded auction game that has four(!) different types of auctions built into it. Even if my personal tastes differ, I can appreciate what they add to a game.

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Too much game balance

One of the common features of Euro-style games is the ability to generate victory points several different ways. This gives players different strategies to explore which enhances the replayability. Because there are multiple paths to victory, if you fall behind in one path, you can switch to another. Games are kept close and tense right up to the end.

Taken to an extreme, however, this can hurt a game. You can end up with “multi-player solitaire” with each player doing their own thing and you see who was most effective or efficient in the end. The lack of conflict, direct or indirect, sucks away the tension. Also, it can eliminate hard decisions. If paths to victory are equivalent, then the choice between them doesn’t matter and anything you do is going to do well.

We played Troyes, I felt the game was too balanced. We only played once, and it was a learning game, so my experience may change as we play it more. The scores were pretty close among the 4 players. Too close. Merwin and I ended in a tie and there was no tie breaker. But rather than feel like a tightly fought contest that ended in a tie, it felt flat, like our choices didn’t mean as much. I got the bulk of my points in one way, Merwin in another, and they cancelled each other out.

We have had several Euro-style games end in ties and go down to tiebreakers (even 2nd or 3rd tiebreakers) that had much more tension than Troyes. I imagine that Troyes doesn’t have a tiebreaker because anything you might have used to determine the winner has already been used to generate victory points; there simply isn’t anything left to score and anything else would feel even more arbitrary. Troyes definitely has direct and indirect player interaction and as we play more, we will learn ways to block each other. But blocking basically means doing the thing your opponent wanted to do, which means you aren’t doing the thing you wanted to do. Whether you block or not, you will get points and thus, we are back to the “well, it doesn’t matter what I do, I’ll get points” problem.

Games which I really enjoy could be said to suffer from a similar problem. Macao has several different ways to gain points and cards to build an “engine” to generate points. Power Grid only has a single path to victory and it all about being the most efficient with your money and your power production; it is also (in)famous for the disadvantages it hefts onto the leader. One distinction is that both these games would be considered heavier than Troyes with more difficult decisions. Games tend to be close, but not too close.

* June 5th Addendum: We played Troyes again. This time, with a slightly different player mix and a different set of action and event cards, the flow of the game was definitely different. Merwin won with me in a close second (and arguably could have won had I not been hit by a couple of event cards that just came out before I could do anything about them). While I still feel that the game may be too balanced, at least the replayability seemed to be there.

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Rules: Games or Processes

The other day, my friend Merwin and I played 51st State, a card game about rebuilding in post-apocalyptic world. He had read the rules, but we spent much of the game figuring things out as we went. By the end of the game (which I won, btw), I think we had figured them out except for a few nagging doubts about how we interpreted some specific rules. But before we got there, we had to muddle through the iconography (learning the difference between “=”, “=>”, and “–>”, for example) and jargon (resources vs. workers vs. contacts, etc.). This made the first few turns pretty painful. My first thoughts when I headed home were how I would have explained and taught the rules.

I like writing rules and instructions, whether for a game, product, or business practice. You want them to be clear and concise, but not overly simplified. You have to know what needs to be explicitly stated and what can be assumed (though usually erring on the side of the former). Examples should be used to clarify edge-cases and not just to reiterate the basic points (that likely don’t need examples). Illustrations and diagrams are almost always a good idea.

Many games benefit from having a cheat sheet or player reference which summarize the key rules and can be used in play without having to hunt through the entire rule book. Very often, I’ll make my own if a game does not come with one. If I cannot fit it on a single page, the game is probably too complex. The same is true in product management. After writing the lengthy, meaty product specification, I will also create a brief product presentation. If I can’t get my key product message across in a few slides, then there is a problem, either with the message or the product itself.

The biggest challenge when teaching a game is that everyone learns differently. Some learn best by reading the rules for themselves; others do better when taught (and our group has one of each: Brian and Merwin, respectively). Some people like to have all the definitions and concepts stated at the beginning while others require a more naturalistic approach where concepts are explained as they are needed. While those with an engineering mindset might prefer the former, it can make for awfully dry reading and when introducing a product to sales and marketing, the latter might be best.

A couple of weeks ago, our group played Troyes. As is typical, Merwin owned the game, but I’m the one who read the rules. But not having the game in front of me sometimes hinders my understanding. In particular, Troyes has a final rule about end-of-game scoring that I just could not wrap my head around. And indeed, neither did the other players when I read it verbatim. But when we played and went through the motions of calculating the score, it made sense. I’m still not sure it is a good rule, but that is a discussion for another post. The point is that sometimes now matter how well written the instructions are, sometimes you just need to do it before you really understand it. This is the value of hands-on training; face-to-face interaction and actually using the product or process can bring insight that reading a document cannot.

I often complain that cooperative games (Pandemic, et al) feel too much like the type of crisis management that I do at work and I don’t want my hobby to feel like work. But writing and teaching, whether games or products or processes, are areas where my hobby and professional career overlap happily.

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Comments on comments

I’ve been getting more spam in the comments lately. This is why I have to moderate the comments, which may be an impediment to posting, but it’s the nature of the beast.

Granted, I don’t get any comments, which is fine, since most of my online discussions happen over at RPG.net or BoardgameGeek anyway. I could just turn comments off and I might if the spam gets too bothersome.

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Here again?

After a year-and-a-half (and change), I’m back on the job market. What a pain. Time to update the LinkedIn profile

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5 Reasons Humanity Is Terrible at Democracy

5 Reasons Humanity Is Terrible at Democracy

Yet further evidence that people suck. Even if we don’t know it.

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