John-Michael Gariepy

Archive for the month “August, 2012”

Two Books: ‘I, Robot’ and ‘Watership Down’

‘I, Robot’ is Isaac Asimov’s go-to book about the future history of robots.  ‘Watership Down’ is Richard Adams’ epic tale of how a brace of rabbits escaped the destruction of their warren, and hopped a few fields to start over.  Both books show animals and machines with qualities similar to our own, and in that strange mirror that reflects them back on us, we are forced to reexamine our own humanness.  What makes us more human, and what makes that important?  Both books also effuse imagination; ‘Watership Down’ does it by building up and taking down obstacles for an intricate rabbit society to overcome, while ‘I, Robot’ features a number of mysteries, some curious, some deadly, all featuring humans as they learn to adapt to robopsychology.  What the two books do not have in common, however, is faith in the reader.  ‘Watership Down’ has it, and ‘I, Robot’ does not.

Perhaps that statement is unfair.  ‘I, Robot’, after all, was written in the 1940s as a collection of short stories strung together through the premise of a robopsychologist relating her life experience of working with robots to a young reporter.  These nine stories were intended for pulp sci-fi magazines, and needed to use clear language that appealed to the greater audience of a new generation of science fiction readers.  I can’t fault Asimov for picking to pieces The Three Laws of Robotics.  Those rules may be old news for the modern nerd, but the story ‘Roundabout’ in ‘I, Robot’ was the first time the world was introduced to Asimov’s unifying robotics theme.  I also can’t blame Asimov for the retreading similar ground in multiple stories.  If his intention was to present the stories without alteration from Super Science Stories and Amazing Science Fiction, then this would be unavoidable   Besides, if a story is told right, it doesn’t matter how many times the premise is repeated.  Each time presented, that premise will be seen from a unique angle, and, itself, feel new.

But still, I can’t help feel that Asimov could leave some mystery in his writing.  He tries to explain everything, and, since he only has so many words to work with, he can’t get very far.  Characters are limited by archetypes, problems are presented early in stories, and are explained at the end like a formulaic Sherlock Holmes mystery, and easy to grasp ideas take up multiple lines of dialogue to stumble over.

Compare this to Watership Down.  Here, Adams has established a social structure, mythology and culture for his rabbit population.  The rabbits go on a quest to create a new burrow, and increase their ranks, while avoiding the dangers presented by men, Read more…

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The Top 11 Classic Monopoly Player Tokens – Part Two

Previously, in The Top 11 Classic Monopoly Player Pieces – Part One, we discussed the fastest and easiest way to lose a game of Monopoly:  By choosing one of those six inferior pieces.  The good news is that you don’t have to choose any of those pieces.  There are eleven Monopoly pieces to choose from, and Monopoly is a game for 2-6 players.  As long as you choose one of these six pieces, you’ve practically won the game already against the ignorant riff-raff who chose to play The Ship.

Oh, hold it.  We appear to have a snag.  Monopoly boxes vacillate on how many people can play the game.  The original game says… well, it didn’t list the upper number of players… I guess that’s where the confusion stems from.  But most modern boxes say from 2-8 players.  That means that if you’re unlucky and are forced into last choice of token, you’ll need to use some fancy reverse psychology to keep your opponent’s greasy hands away from these bad boys…

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Number Six: Sack of Money

We’re at the halfway point, which means that The Sack of Money is as middle of the road as you can get.  Introduced in 1999, The Sack of Money was voted in by the players over a piggy bank and a biplane.  So I have the whole lot of you to thank that I can’t run around the board squealing like a pig, or run around my living room, biplane in hand, shooting down The Red Baron.  Thanks, internet community.

The Bag of Money, getting back on point, is an odd token.  It’s like I’ve already won.  I got this bag of money.  If I lose (and let’s face it, unless I’m a tactical genius, the odds are against me), I’ve still come out a winner, because I still got an overflowing sack of cash, and no one can take that away from me (except, maybe, the owner of the game).  It’s like playing ‘Deal or No Deal’, choosing the minimum amount of suitcases I need to open, and yelling ‘Deal!’ before the banker has a chance to give his offer.  I’m going to walk out a winner.

It’s nice to know that The Sack of Money isn’t going to screw anything up, but unless that fella puts everything on the line, he will never be a Rockefeller, just be a spoiled rich kid.  The sort of person who can buy subservience, but never loyalty.  Loyalty costs a lot of money.

Read more…

The Top 11 Classic Monopoly Player Tokens – Part One

Which player token should you use?  No choice in the game of Monopoly is more crucial than this one.  The pawn you represent yourself with tells other players who you are, and what kind of strategy you will employ to seek victory.  Choose poorly, and other players will greet your trades with skepticism and scorn.  Choose wisely, and your play group will seek to trade commodities with you for little more than a smile.  Choose The Thimble, and the other players will snarl, snatching the game pieces back, slamming the box lid shut and insisting that you leave.

This top list is for The Classic Monopoly game, only.  I refuse to list and examine every permutation of every Monopoly game and game variant’s token.  So that means we will pretend that Monopoly didn’t have three tokens pulled from the core game in 1950 (A Lantern, A Purse and A Rocking Horse).  We’re also unimpressed with the Koala that only appears in Australian versions, the Locamotive, which only appeared in the Deluxe Edition, or the token remakes for Monopoly: Here and Now.    We’re also not here to discuss which of the Ninja Turtles was the greatest (That would be Donatello), or who is the most awesome character hanging out at the G.I. Joe home base (That was a trick question.  The answer is: Zartan in disguise).  Back in my day, we used to have eleven player tokens, and they were not created equal.

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Number 11: The Thimble

The Thimble is the lowest of the low.  If someone you don’t like asks you to play a game of Monopoly, there’s no better way to insult them than to say, “Sure!  I’ll take ‘The Thimble!'”  You could grab the box out of their hands, rip it in half, toss both halves out the window, punch that jerk in the face, then storm out of his building.  But if you did that, the hated gamer might sit down, confused by your actions.  By claiming ‘The Thimble’, however, you’ve sent a clear message:  I don’t respect you as a human being.

Read more…

The Random Dungeon: Room Zero and The Theme

In my Previous post on Room Negative One,  I argued that you should Dungeon Master your game as if the world outside the dungeon is as exciting a place as the dungeon itself. ‘Dangerous dungeons do not exist in a vacuum,’ I implied, ‘and the players should be harried at every turn when approaching their destination.’  Now I’m going to argue the exact opposite.

Room Zero represents the first room upon entering the dungeon.  In many ways, it may be the most important room out of the one hundred or so rooms that your players explore.  That’s because the first room will frame the rest of the dungeon.  Players will subsume what to expect based upon what they see, or don’t see in this room.  If your players see an empty room with four doors, they can assume that your dungeon will be sparse, low on detail playground for a series of miniatures combat scenarios.  If, however, the first room they encounter is rich with details – from the mutilated bodies of dead orcs on the ground, to the cryptic runes etched into the wall, to the more crude taunts from one goblin tribe to another scratched below that – then your players are going to assume that your dungeon has a lot of important intricate details in it and they will advance appropriately.

You can do a lot with player expectations.  You can play against them, luring them into a false sense of security, or trick them into trusting in the wrong non-player characters, with some well-timed false clues.  You need to be careful when doing this, though.  If you subvert a player’s mental process too often, you’re inviting them to stop thinking about the consequences of their actions.  After all, if nothing follows its logical progression in your game, then its best to take everything at the point of a sword.  Just smash everyone or everything.  It’s probably a monster or a trap.

More often, you should seek to justify your player’s expectations.  Just like Chekov’s Gun, if your party sees evidence of orcs in the dungeon in the first chapter of your journey, then they should attacked by orcs in the second or third chapter.  “If it’s not going to be fired,” instructs Chekov, “It shouldn’t be hanging there.”  Playing within the realm of player’s expectations is a rewarding experience, even if it sounds counter-intuitive.  Giving your players what they expect, after all, doesn’t sound imaginative.  But finding a way to reward your player’s insights, while maintaining an engaging plot, is a very imaginative task, indeed.  Anyone can perform the unexpected.  Performing the expected, and maintaining excitement, is an earmark of good story-telling.

In this spirit, you should let your players have Room Zero, the first room of the dungeon, as a room to acclimate themselves, group Read more…

Session Impressions: Core Worlds

Rhythm.  When I re-listened to the Myriad Games Podcast on Core Worlds, this word popped out at me.

Many board games can have a great feel despite a complete lack of rhythm.  Monopoly-style games, for example, represent a slow and inevitable arms race.  Monopoly doesn’t have a rhythm so much as it has a tipping point, where the game breaks, and must end.  Magic: the Gathering is built off of an engine which implies rhythm:  You play one land per turn, then, tap those lands for more and more powerful cards as the game continues.  But the point of most Collectible Card Games is to subvert the rhythm of the game.  You want to find ways to ‘cheat’ the rhythm, advancing to stage five while your opponent is stuck on three.  While a Dungeons and Dragons campaign can be built off the tenet of good rhythm, more often it represents a series of individual scenarios that accumulate into an adventure, in the same way that life can be seen as ‘just a bunch of things that happen to you’.  These games are fun, so it’s clear that a game doesn’t need to have a good rhythm to be fun.

If you say, however, that a Deck Building Game has a strong rhythm, it’s a great complement.  DBGs are built with a certain amount of given information (there’s a small selection of cards that will be in a person’s hand, and, presumably, many of those cards will be resources), and the entire genre is built around the idea of making your deck better and better as you move through the game.  Despite these controls, when you play through Dominion or Thunderstone, for example, your game may result in a chain of meaningless turns, due to the players’ inability to overcome a hurdle, or the game might result in a romp, as the players smash through their decks and crush the scenario.  For a genre filled with a limited number of controllable knobs, it’s an odd truism that many DBGs can’t play a more sophisticated tune than ‘More! More! More! More!’.

Core Worlds has a strong rhythm.  What you do on turn three will be different than turn six.  When you get to turn ten, the game is over.  Count up your points.  Each round in the game is meaningful, and the consequences of your actions are tangible.  Early in the podcast, I teased Sara when she explained what Core Worlds is.  She starts off by saying the game is complicated… which is a rough way to sell a game.  When writing this mini review for Core Worlds, I also found this review on Amazon by M.P. Cummings:

“We’re somewhat new to card based tabletop games, so this was a great find. My girls (ages 8 and up) love playing, and since there are defined rounds, it doesn’t drag forever. Great game!”

That’s an excellent summation.  Sara’s right:  Core Worlds is a complicated game.  But that doesn’t mean it’s hard to understand.  That just means the game has breadth.  You can play it many times, and still struggle to wrap your head around ‘the right strategy’.

But, hey, if you aren’t convinced, maybe you’d prefer to listen to the podcast?

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