Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Let Slip the Dogs of Chore Wars

Chore Wars
 My family has started a Chore War!  For those unfamiliar with this game, it is a fun way to encourage yourself and your family members (or roommates) to get on top of doing the chores.  Basically how it works is that you can set up different "adventures" which amount to different chores. You can set experience points for each adventure which usually amounts to 1XP per minute the task is likely to take with really annoying tasks getting some bonus XP for encouragement.  It's entirely customizeable, easy to set up, and has been incredibly motivating for myself and my family.

For my famliy, we have been way more productive on our chores in the last two weeks of doing Chore Wars.  Above all, it has made it more fun for me to focus on getting the chores done.  There are three main ways I have found it motivating.

1. It Helps Me Keep Track of Chores.
By having every chore in the house on a fun "to do" list I am much more aware of what I've done and what needs to be done.  The XP also represents time so it's much faster to identify something I can do if I only have a spare 15 minutes.  Just getting organized has helped a lot.

2. It Encourages Competition For Cleanliness.
It may seem silly, but it bothers me when my wife is ahead of me on XP.  It makes me want to get more.  It's a friendly competition but I'm competitive enough of a person that it sparks my interst to try harder and stay ahead.

3. It Help Us All Understand the Value of the Chores.
This is the biggest boon of Chore Wars.  One of the frustrating things about the chores (for me) is that I never felt like my wife really recognized how much work I put in to the house.  Additionally, I realized she did a lot around the house that I never really thought about or gave her much credit for.  Chore Wars keeps track.  In addition to sparking a spirit of competition, it's just nice to know that your good deeds will be remembered.  It's nice to look at what my wife and daughter have done.  It helps me recognize the work they put in to keeping the household running.  It's a fun way to make sure you pay attention to the effort everyone in the family puts forth to help the family function.

The unfortunate part of Chore Wars is that you really only get out what you put in.  It's up to you to make those experience points mean something.  You can have quest let you fight wandering monsters, get gold and get treasure but it's all entirely text based.  Your treasure pile only means something if you decide that it does.  None of the "loot" shows up on your character as anything other than some text saying that you have it.  You do level up and you're stats do increase but the net effect is just numbers going up.  For example, my first level barbarian looked like this :

1st Level Barbarian
He's a pretty cool demon looking avatar.  However, I've leveled all the way up to a level 5 fighter.  Now my super awesome avatar looks like this:
5th Level Fighter

See the difference!?  Yeah that's because there is none.  The lack of graphical update is a bit of a bummer.  Chore Wars gives the impression of a great idea that had a great start and is now maintained with a minimum of updates.  The last update seems to have been February 2011 in which they fixed some kind of experience bug.  The update before that was September not a lot of improvements in the last 2 years.

The XP, because it represents real time spent that goes on a permanent record has some intrinsic value.  I could not, for the life of me, figure out the point of random monsters - so we don't use them.  The gold we earn we haven't figured out how to use yet.  However, we've discussed using to bid on who gets to pick a movie or an evening activity.  I think we'll find a fun way to spend it.  We set up a shop for my daughter (on a piece of paper) so she can buy more computer time, a treat from the store, or some other fun prizes.  The "treasures" seemed meaningless until we decided to avoid goofy treasures and have them represent real things.  Rather than a random chance, we always set it to 100% and only put treasures on big quests.  So, for example, my wife earned the treasure of "15 minute foot rub" for making me a huge batch of salsa.  She can turn that treasure in at any time to get that reward. 

Like I said, Chore Wars can be incredibly motivating and fun.  I don't know how long we'll keep doing it, but for now it's definitely been worth it.  Unfortunately, it is up to the user to make something motivating out of the game.  Its lack of graphics, animations, or even sound effects means that Chore Wars really only has meaning if you and your family decide that it does.  However, with a little imagination and willingness to go along, Chore Wars can help your family turn the everyday drudgery of chores into a very rewarding competition.

If you give Chore Wars a try or you've already tried it, please feel free to leave a comment about your expereince with the game and any tips you have to help others succeed.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Defenders of the Realm: My New Favorite Adventure Game

Defenders Of The Realm
To be fair, I must state upfront that I am writing this review after only a single play of the game.  That said, I have been searching long and hard (or questing you might say) for a solid adventure game that I could enjoy playing over and over.  I have played many and found few that I love.  Defenders of the Realm, however, has inspired my adventurous spirit.  I wish I was playing it again right now!

Defenders of the Realm does almost everything I want an adventure game to do.  The character classes are powerful and diverse.  The combat mechanic is simple but satisfying.  The sidequests are motivating and useful.  Above all, it’s a cooperative game.  You and your friends are actually allies working together (like in every adventure story ever) instead of trying to save the realm before the other hero does it. 

For those experienced with co-op games (especially Pandemic) there will be some familiar devices.  Each turn, your hero takes a number of actions to move around, fight monsters, accomplish side quests, or gather power.  At the end of your turn, you draw 2 hero cards (that can help in a variety of ways) and then advance evil.  When evil advances, minions are added to at random locations around the board.  When there are too many in one location they break out (like a Pandemic virus) to neighboring locations causing more monsters and more problems to appear.  Additionally, there are 4 generals of the monstrous hoards that move ever closer to the capitol city and leave more minions in their wake.
Good art and components enhance the play

Winning the game involves defeating each of these generals.  Generals feel sufficiently different from each other and epic in their scale.  They make for a very satisfying fight which you can attempt all on your own or team up with any players that want to get in on the action.

There is a light competitive component which amounts to little more than Legolas' and Gimli's competition to see who could get the most orc kills in the Lord of the Rings movies.  You get victory points for every side quest and general you defeat.  The person with the most victory points is awarded "best defender of the realm" or something like that.  This amounts to making you the MVP of the game and NOT the winner so it’s a fun incentive to try to be the best without getting in the way of the cooperative spirit of the game.

All in all, it was an amazing first play and I am excited to play again.  Despite its high price tag, Defenders of the Realm has been added to my list of "must own" games.  Its awesome gameplay, beautiful components (Larry Elmore art is a big plus in my book), and solid co-op mechanics have won me over completely.  I suspect it will top my list of adventure games and cooperative games for some time to come.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011 Makes Me Feel Foolish

Okay so is an awesome site that is currently in its beta.  If you have the time you should check it out.  While is the go to site for board game info, I find it an nearly unuseable eyesore needs some serious design work. has fantastic design and some truly awesome features.  The top feature is the game overlay of the site.  You can level up for increased participation, reviews that get liked by others, providing useful tips and strategies, and other contributions to the community of the site.  It makes participation in the site fun and addictive and also means that for a beta that's been going a short time there is already a lot of really decent content to view. 

Sadly, this site has also shamed me.  I have officially written 5 reviews, 2 strategy tips, 1 general tip, and contributed to a discussion all while totally failing to update my own blog.  For some reason, writing for someone else's site lets me write casually with confidence whereas I over-anlayze my own blog posts to the point of never feeling like I have enough time to write that perfect post.  Soooo...enough of that.  I don't know if I'll actually stick to the review format I gave myself before because I don't think I really want a formal format.  I just need to get to some writing.  I've also got more free time again, so hopefully look for more on this blog. In the meantime, you can check out some of my reviews on and check out the site.  If you need an invite to get into the beta (which I believe is open until September 1st), just leave a comment with your e-mail address and I will send you an invite. 

Also, if you enjoy the site, leave a comment with your name on so I can check out your comments and reviews.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

7 Wonders Game Review

7 WondersI've played at least a dozen games of 7 Wonders and  I can tell you, this game is fantastic!  7 Wonders is a fast playing strategy game that lets you have all the fun of building a civilization in 30 minutes or less.  It accomplishes this by using a card drafting mechanic to determine what a player can build.  This means you will look at a handful of cards, pick one to play, then pass the rest along to the next player and look at an entirely new handful of cards.  This game is quick and fun, but might not have much staying power.  Check out the details below.

Not sure if I will ever get used to the term “Freshness”.  It makes me smile and want to smack myself.  Anyway – 7 Wonders’ use of card drafting as a build mechanic feels unlike any game I’ve ever played.  Sure the draft mechanic is stolen from Magic card tournaments, but it’s used in an entirely different way.  It’s a great fit for a building game.  It keeps the decisions strategic but the play time short.  I expect there will be many other games trying to copy and modify this drafting mechanic in the future.

This game has fantastic intrigue.  There are several different strategic paths, constant consideration from other players and the cards are lumped together differently each game so there’s always a slightly new puzzle to solve.

Unfortunately, here is where the game stumbles.  I loved the first dozen plays of this game, but I’m not sure how many more times I want to play it.  Remember, this game only takes 30 minutes.  That dozen or so games I played was literally three different game nights and now I’m “pacing myself” before I play it again.  While the cards are distributed differently each game, you still see the exact same cards every single time you play.  This game is in desperate need of an expansion that makes different cards available from game to game.

Elegance is this game’s strongest aspect.  7 Wonders is perfectly paced.  Three rounds of play and 6 turns to a round.  Even though there could be as many as 49 cards available in a round, you will never look at more than a hand of 7 cards in a turn and choose 1.   You always have just enough choices to consider.

While it plays quickly, 7 Wonders hits all the high points of a civilization building game.  There are build trees, military conquests, resource gathering, and trade.  It doesn’t provide the complexity and satisfaction of the more detailed civilization games, but it scratches all the right itches.  It’s also simple enough that more casual gamers could easily enjoy it.  There’s nothing about 7 Wonders that a Settlers of Catan player couldn’t handle and enjoy.

And that’s my first review in this new format.  Let me know what you think!

Monday, July 4, 2011

The 5 Factors Of Cool

Here on Cool Factor 5 I’ve decided we need a standard format for judging games. 5 things. The 5 components that all games should strive to have.

1. Freshness: Good design borrows; great design steals. All design builds on designs of the past, but great design has something that feels entirely new. Dominion caught a lot of attention because it was the first game to successfully turn deck building into a game all by itself.

2. Intrigue: A game needs a mystery to solve or a puzzle to work out. This is inherent in strategy games, but present in other games as well. Trivia games are still wildly popular because people love the sensation of figuring something out.

3. Variety: There’s an ancient Chinese proverb I just made up that says a monkey can shave a drunkard 10 times before it’s no longer funny. Games lose their luster if you see the same stuff every time. Magic the Gathering, king of collectible card games, offers near limitless variety.

4. Elegance: I don’t mean it dances well and looks pretty in a dress, though bonus points if it does. Elegance in design is about using a little to do a lot. Great depth in a simple to understand package. It takes 10 minutes to learn the rules of Chess and a lifetime to master it.

5. Fun: Like the old line about pornography, fun is hard to define but you know it when you see it. Fun is personal. It’s the spark that makes you smile. Despite a rather dull and uninteresting set of rules, Monopoly has survived the ages because it taps in to the fun of being rich.

So there they are, the 5 factors of cool. You’ll note they make a snappy pneumonic acronym FIVE F. True, I had to use the slightly “dude that’s awesome” surfer term of “freshness” to make it happen, but “originality” would have made the acronym FIVE O and I am not the game police. These are the categories I will be using to tell you about games in the future and whether or not those games measure up to something worth playing. Let me know what ya think.

Next time on Cool Factor 5: The game 7 Wonders and how it holds up to the Five Factors.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Welcome To The Re-Launch!

Back after a very long hiatus due to the birth of my son and needing to get my family re-oriented with its new size and structure. Turns out babies are cute...but mean. My son like to repeatedly fight me to a knock out.

But no more! I have found a moment to myself. I am re-launching this blog with a brand new approach. Henceforth, this blog will be a place for three things.

1. Reviewing Games: This is not new to the blog but I will be having a more standard format by which I judge games.

2. Displaying new and exciting things about the games I’m designing: I’ll share bits about the games I’m working on and the occasional freebees of alternate or additional rules for games you might be playing.

3. Game theory and game design concepts: I’m sure you’ve got games you like, but do you know what exactly makes you like them? By better understanding the inner workings of games, it can be easier to pick out ones you’ll like or create fun house rules to improve the games you already own.

I’ll give details on each of those soon. I’ve got updates on games I’ve played and games I’m working on designing. So here it is, the new blog, the new look, and the new approach. Let me know what you think!

Next time on Cool Factor 5: The 5 Factors of Cool. The standards by which I judge all games, the ones I play and the ones I design.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Bring Back The Spice

Randomness and Unpredictability in RPG Characters
Role-Playing Games have greatly refined their mechanics over the years. There has been a noticeable trend towards increasingly well-balanced rules that give the players complete control over what type of characters they make and how those characters end up. This trend, taken to its furthest extent, might help ensure that no player gets an unfairly powerful character, but it also ensures that no character will really have anything all that unique.

Big Daddy
Nowhere has this trend been stronger than in the most popular RPG of all, Dungeons and Dragons. In 2nd edition, there were many campaign worlds that included random tables in character creation. Darksun gave everyone random psionic powers. Birthright did something similar with blood powers. 3rd edition whittled most of these types of thing out. 4th edition put the nail in the coffin by taking away random die rolls for ability scores. 4th edition ensures that everything will be fair by ensuring that everything will be nearly the same.

Gamma World’s Getting There
The recently released Gamma World set does bring back some of chaos. It has a lot of randomness in its character creation and its gameplay. Randomly generated backgrounds, starting equipment, treasure, and mutant powers work together to make a game that is truly bizarre and unpredictable. Unfortunately, Gamma World is intended to be a completely absurd setting. You might be a half-cockroach, half-bird who suddenly grows 2 extra arms while fighting pig men only to have those arms fall off a few seconds later and have a horn grow out of your head. Gamma World is fun and I love it’s absurdity, but I don’t always want to play an absurd game.

Take a Chance
Characters with random stats, random powers, or other random aspects can provide so much more than mere absurdity. These tools can provide characters that have truly special qualities about them. Whether underpowered or overpowered, when you have to roll to see how a character will turn out, what you end up with is something more unique than is ever possible with the perfectly engineered hero. The pendulum has swung too far towards a very bland brand of balance. I would love to see more games bring back a little chaos and lack of control. When you take a chance and roll the dice you don’t always make something perfect, but you do make something memorable.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Miner Dig Deep: The Best Dollar In Gaming

Last week, as I was rummaging through the heap of XboxLive Indi-Games, I stumbled across a true gem. Miner Dig Deep serves an important reminder that at the end of the day fun does not take fancy tricks or impressive polygons. A simple idea, well designed shines through.

Simply Wonderful

Miner Dig Deep's simple idea is all in the name. You are a miner and your goal is to dig as deep as you can. The game sports pleasant, if simple, 2D graphics and pleasant background music that helps set a relaxing tone. The game presents the player with a single shop and save point at ground level, and then meter after meter of dirt to be dug.

The player makes all his or her own paths and, digging ever deeper, finds new ores and minerals to haul back and sell. Lamp fuel and bag space serve to limit each run into the mine. While you can always see the pathways you've dug, lamp light reveals the location of precious ore and hazardous, unbreakable rocks that you have not yet discovered. As lamp fuel is used, the aura of illumination shrinks, revealing less and less. Eventually, you find yourself digging blindly, unsure of where the next hazard awaits you. When this happens, or when your bag is so full of treasure you can hold no more, it's time to ascend to the surface, sell all your loot and buy new equipment and upgrades.

Perfect Rhythm
Miner Dig Deep hits all the right beats. Every time the game encourages you to come up for air, you will undoubtedly have enough money to buy or upgrade your tools in some useful way. Almost every time you head back into the mine it is with a new toy to try out. The penalty for getting stuck or killed in the mine is simply being warped back to the top without any of the ore gained on your recent trip.

The only part that some players might find tedious is the trip back to the bottom of the mine to continue digging. As the mine gets hundred of meters deep, this can start to feel a little tedious. There are teleporters placed at various levels to warp you safely back to the surface, but you cannot warp back down. At first, I found this a bit frustrating. However, I realized that if the player could just warp back to the lowest point it would make the entire mine above irrelevant. Put in this perspective, the trip down became just another part of the game, and I found enjoyment in digging new paths to help make the descent faster. Additionally, you descend past previous mined areas with more lamp fuel at your disposal and often see ore that you missed before.

Bang For A Buck
Miner Dig Deep has an ending, but only after you've dug well past 1000 meters deep. My first play through took me almost 6 hours after which the game let me start a new mine will all my advanced tools. I had a blast as I dug all the way to the bottom again in 15 minutes. The mine is randomly generated each time, so I find myself tempted to start a proper new game and build a new mine from scratch all over again.

All this fun can be had for only 80 Microsoft Points ($1.00). I'm sure many people have at least that many points laying around as left over from prior purchases. I cannot remember the last time I was this entertained for so little money. Buy this game. You won't regret it.

If you do buy it, leave a comment and let me know how you liked it. Also, for a review of another game that presents simple fun, check out my friends at Growing Up Gamers as their 5 year old daughter reviews Sonic Colors for the Wii.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Gaming Disappointments: Final Fantasy Series

But First, A Quick Note About 4th Edition D&D…

Originally, for my greatest disappointments in gaming I was going to tackle D&D 4th Edition. However, my good friend Randy at Growing Up Gamers beat me to the punch. So, I will say just these few words on it.

4th edition D&D strips away just about everything that encourages role-playing and storytelling. It reverts years of D&D evolution back to something much closer to its roots as a miniatures battle game with the thin veneer of story. If all you want from D&D is a vehicle for playing classic fantasy archetypes who dungeon delve and hack up monsters, then I think 4th edition will serve you just fine. However, if you’re love of D&D stems from the love of experiencing heroic stories with unique characters where battles occur (but are not the entire point) then the 4th edition rules will lend you no assistance. True, intriguing stories and wonderful characters can be invented with no rules help at all. That doesn’t give Wizard of the Coast (makers of D&D 4th edition) a pass for removing all the customizable flourishes and non-combat abilities of class and character that helped D&D stories come vibrantly to life.

And Now…Final Fantasy

The original Final Fantasy was actually little more than a D&D adventure. The classes, the monsters, the spells and even some of the items were ripped straight from the pages of Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. In the years that followed, Final Fantasy grew past its D&D roots to find its own voice and its own wonderful style. It then went on to lose its damn mind and exchanged its soul (and its gameplay) all in the name of pretty graphics.

It’s Hallowed Roots

As the Final Fantasy games continued, the series became known for its wonderful characters, interesting stories, and vibrant worlds. The actual gameplay was beloved by many for its sense of exploration, enjoyable character advancement, and epic scale. The story path was amazing, but off the story path you could find hidden spells, new creatures to summon, powerful weapons and helpful accessories. The only real complaint most fans of the series would volley is that at some point the combat in Final Fantasy became repetitive and was reduced to little more than mashing a single button to make everyone attack, win, and grind up a few more levels before a big boss fight.

The Beginning of the End

The hints of Final Fantasy’s doom came even during its peak days on the Playstation. Final Fantasy 7 had long, unskippable summon spells that were incredible to watch the first time and tedious to endure the 20th time you wanted to cast you powerful spell. With the move to Playstation 2, Square released Final Fantasy X…that last good Final Fantasy ever made. With X, there was a big sign that the series was going off the rails. It was the first time where you had no overworld map to explore and when you finally got your own airship, it was nothing more than a map where you could pick points to warp to and check out.

Check Points On The Way To Fail

From Final Fantasy X you’ve got a series of terrible mistakes.

Final Fantasy the Spirits Within: Cutscene hubris leads the company to release a theatrical length cutscene that is devoid of anything resembling Final Fantasy, but sure does look pretty.

Final Fantasy X -2: Harping their first ever direct sequel, Square releases a game that has nothing to do with its beloved predecessor. It has a nearly linear, mission based structure with dress-up Barbie outfits as the main form of customization.

Final Fantasy XII: Square decides to solve the tedious, button mashing combat by letting the player do tedious combat that requires no thinking or button pressing at all. The game still has some sense of exploration, but once again the overworld is absent and there is no real airship.

Final Fantasy XIII – The Big Fail

All of Final Fantasy’s blundering attempts to find a way to update its style and stay cool, culminated in an epic fail called Final Fantasy XIII. Final Fantasy XIII does accomplish one amazing feat. It makes the combat fun again. Which is good, because combat is all you will be doing. Gone is the exploration. Gone is any semblance of interesting treasure or locales. Instead, the game consists of running down a narrow corridor with no real twists or turns and fighting monsters. Then you fight a boss and watch a cutscene or two. Rinse and repeat for 30 hours of game. I hear it opens up eventually, but that's about 30 hours too late for me.

Final Fantasy has fallen from one of my favorite RPG series, to one of my least favorite RPG's of all time. Sadly, I can only hope that Square Enix can find a way to get Final Fantasy back on track...or at least give it a proper burial.

Attack or Defend

Please leave a comment with your own complaints or defense of Final Fantasy or 4th ed D&D. Or feel free to share some of you own great disappointments in gaming. Maybe a good cry will help us all feel better.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Wiz War: A Great Game You've Probably Never Played

Likely, many gamers have never played Wiz War before. It's been out of print for some time now. Well...I own it and love it. So, if you know me, you probably have played it a time or two. However, as there are rumors of a possible reprint this year, it seemed timely to extol the virtues of this happy little box of madness.

The Basics
In Wiz War, each player is a wizard trying to steal the other wizards treasure chests. Get two back to your base and you win. On your turn, you navigate maze-like tiles, attack other players, and cast crazy spells that create all manner of unpredictable effects. You can lose by having your hit points reduced to zero or having both of your treasures stolen and dropped on someone else’s base.

A Brilliantly Unbalanced Game
Most games try to achieve a well calculated balance. Players are given similar resources and powers. Die rolls and card draws have predictable probabilities. Balanced games help ensure a level quality of play from game to game and encourage strategic play. However, every so often it’s fun to play a game that throws balance out the window and invites you to go crazy.

Wiz War’s approach to balance goes something like this. Sometimes you will be capable of a few useful things. Sometimes you will rearrange the entire game board, trap players into inescapable prisons, and then teleport across the world. Unfair? Yeah, but it’s what makes the game brilliant. It’s the joy of the unpredictable and the truly mad. One powerful turn is balanced by motivating other players to aim all their nonsense at the new leader of the game. Wiz War rewards a sense of humor and creativity…not really skill or deep strategy.

Fun, Perhaps Not For Everyone
If you can’t stand the random, if you don’t laugh at absurd occurrence and if you need some sense of strategy…Wiz War is not for you. However, if you like creatively combining powers, if you enjoy the truly awesome and ridiculous even if it doesn’t go your way, and if you believe that revenge is a dish best served absurd, then there’s a lot to love about Wiz War. If the rumors of reprint prove true, I recommend you check it out.

Share You Treasures
Write in and let Cool Factor 5 know about lesser known or out of print games that you love. Also, check out my friends at Growing Up Gamers as they dive into a fantastic twist on a classic game: Stratego Legends.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Interview With Chrissy the Casual Gamer

My wife, Chrissy, is the author of the Muse of the Morning blog. She likes crafts, cooking, sewing, and sells her own patterns. She allowed me to interview her on her feelings about games and what it's like to be married to a gamer geek. The interview went long so look for part II on a later date.

ME: Do you consider yourself a casual gamer?

Chrissy: No not really.

ME: Do you consider yourself a non-gamer?
Chrissy: Yeah...most of the time.

How do you feel about your husband's (my) gaming habit?
I think that's its kind of an interesting pastime. Its different than what a lot of other guys do where there out building cars or whatever. So I think its interesting. It only bothers me when you want to go hang out with your guy friends, but I think that's pretty typical of all guys.

What's interesting about it?
Its just different and games are fun. You do bring home interesting games and things to try out.

What games do you like to play?
I like games in general that have a lot of strategy with just a little bit of randomness to them. In particular I love Settlers [of Catan]. Well I like the Cities and Knights expansion to Settlers.

Don't like the regular Settlers so much?
No so much because it can get kind of mean and if you don't earn it kind of just sucks. So I really like Cities and Knights and then there's Knights of the Rainbow which I'm not sure fits that whole strategy with a little bit of randomness thing. Its a lot of randomness. And it can get really mean but its kinda fun if you can take it all in jest.

My favorite game to play with you I think is Dvonn. Pure strategy, but its a lot fun. You know it's a two player game so it's a lot fun to just really beat the crap out of you. That's what I like about games.

Beating the crap out of me?
Mmmhmm, yeah. (Smiling)

Now I'm surprise you just named off a bunch of strategic games. What about games like Taboo or Scattergories or those casual games?
Oh, Taboo and Scattergories are good games for playing with bigger groups of people. I actually love, love, love Taboo or similar games like Catch Phrase. Scattergories I don't like as much.

Would you prefer playing a strategy game like Cities and Knights or large casual game like Taboo? Or is it equal just depending on your mood?
Yeah it just really depends on the mood, honestly. Especially those two games. Those are probably two of my favorite games really. Its just who do we have with us and what's a good game to play with the company that you're in.

What do you think about role-playing games?
Role-playing games seem to take a lot of time which is probably the reason that I'm not interested in playing them. There's a lot of sitting.

Well it's basically like playing pretend and pretending you're on an adventure. Does that even appeal to you?
No, not really. Not a type of game that I'm all that interested in. I don't mind reading about it [in a book] but I guess I don't want to make it up myself.

What do you think about video games?
Video games, with very few exceptions, kind of seem like a waste of time to me. Again it's that sitting and it seems very passive to me.

What about the video games you do like. You like playing Puzzloop and Zuma, right?
I do like Puzzloop a lot. And Zuma which is very similar to Puzzloop.

Do you feel like you're being passive when you play those games?
In the way that I mean passive, yes. I just mean not being productive. I like to have something to show for my day.

So what feels different about going out to a movie and just staring at the screen vs playing Puzzloop?
Well, going out to a movie usually has the benefit of also being a date. So I also get to spend time with you. So that would be kind of a different situation in my mind.

Do did you enjoy it more when when we played New Super Mario Bros Wii as a family?
Yes I did like Mario quite a bit. I could see myself playing it more but I'd have to be in the mood for it. I'm kind of a finicky person.

Do you get a different feeling from when we play New Super Mario Bros Wii as a family versus playing a board game as a family?
Well yeah in a way. If we're sitting around a board game table we're all looking at each other and interacting with each other in that way. Whereas when you're playing a video game you're just staring straight ahead. And even though you can talk to the person next to you, it's not the same as sitting face to face with somebody and being able to have a conversation even though the conversation is still about the game.

So you feel less connected to people looking at a screen than if you're looking across the table at them?
Yes, absolutely.

Do you think you are resistant to trying new games?
If I'm in the mood to play a game then, no, I'm not resistant to learning new games.

You've been uninterested in games, but recently you have played cards.
Cards I will almost always play.

That's interesting. Why are you more willing to play cards than jump into a board game?
Well because the games we play in cards, Hearts and Oh Hell, I know so well that I can just do it. And then its just completely a social thing. I just know it so well we don't even have to talk about the game. We're talking to each other and playing the game.

Is there anything about my gaming habit you'd wish I'd change or do different?
I guess not really. I mean, I wish you'd just always have your friends to our house because that's more convenient for me, but I understand that that's not really possible. I like it that you play games and I like it when you have friends over and there's a house full of people playing games or even role-playing, though you say it's going to be 6 hours and really its 12. I kind of like that and I like having people over. So no, I don't really think there's much I would change.

With your side of the family, what game is the most fun to play?
With my side of the family, Taboo, hands down. All the time. Love it.

What games do you prefer to play with my side of the family?
Your family is all about the cards. Love the card games. They know them really well and that makes it nice for playing. No one's asking about the rules, except your nephew who cheats and doesn't know how to play in suit. That's kind of fun to yell at him too.

Cool. Is there anything else you'd like to do to fill out the 13 minutes before the film runs out?
Um, I'm pregnant and I have to pee so I'm going to go do that.

I'm very thankful to my wife for putting up with my antics and giving the interview. Check back next week to hear her perspectives on games and video games in regards to our daughter. Also, please check out the latest post from our friends at Growing Up Gamers.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Bonus: House Rule For Cities and Knights

As a Cities and Knights bonus post, here is a house rule that my friends and I enjoy for Cities and Knights. It actually came from a misread of the rules. Once we learned the actual rules, we decided we still liked our version better.

Cities Walls Protect You From the Robber
City walls are supposed to “protect you from the robber” just by increasing your hand limit by 2. When a 7 is rolled you can have more cards in hand without having to discard.

We like to play that they also prevent the robber from stealing from the city that has the wall. The robber can still land on the hex and shut down that resource. The player that moved him can still steal a card from any player with an unprotected city or settlement next to that hex. However, if a player’s only settlement on that hex has a city wall, that player cannot have a card stolen. It makes the city walls a bit more fun and also gives you a way to discourage people from shutting down your most important resources.

Expansion Required: Cities and Knights of Catan

Settlers of Catan is a fantastic game. It has the distinguished honor of being the first “gamer game” that I was able to enjoy with my extended family and casual gaming friends. If you’ve never played or even heard of Settlers of Catan…first of all, where have you been? That game is practically on its way to joining the ranks of Monopoly, Clue and other classic family board games. In Settlers, essentially, players roll the dice each turn to see what resources are produced. You gain resources depending on where you’ve built settlements and cities. On your turn, you trade and spend resources to try and build more settlements, roads and cities to try and get to 10 points worth of structures first. It’s a lot of fun.

Cities and Knights
Settlers has, I believe, 1 ½ billion expansions, variations, and alternate versions of itself. Seafarers, Spaceship Catan, Settlers of the Stone Age, Traders and Barbarians, blah blah blah the list goes on. Ignore all that noise and get yourself Cities and Knights.

Cities and Knights adds some much needed extras into the world of Catan. By itself, the original can get a bit dull after a few players. It’s particularly dull when your game isn’t going so well and there’s not much you can do about it. Cities and Knights helps this out by giving you more to do with fewer resources. Here are the highlights.

The Jump Start
Instead of starting with two settlements, you start with a settlement and a city! With cities giving commodities for buying various improvements, it makes for more options at the start of the game and a greater variety of strategies to pursue.

City Expansions and Special Powers
Cities now earn you commodities and commodities are used to build city improvements. This isn’t terribly detailed or complex. When you can, you spend commodities to flip pages in this little flip book to represent general improvements you’ve to the trade, politics or science of your cities. These improvements can earn points, give chances at earning special cards, and gain you access to up to 3 special powers. Trade gives you a 2:1 port for any type of commodity, Politics lets you make level 3 knights, and Science, my personal favorite, lets you take a resource of your choice on any turn where you didn’t earn anything.

The Barbarian Hoard Vs. The Knights
This expansion also adds a third die which is rolled each turn. The die either lands on a color to indicate a type of special card that might be earned or indicates that the barbarians have moved closer to Catan. The barbarians have a strength equal to the number of cities in Catan and when they arrive, you'd better be ready. Each player can build knights to defend Catan. When the barbarians raid, Catan is either defended (earning some players points or cards) or it is not (costing some players to change a city back to a settlement). Then the countdown to the next raid begins again. The barbarians provide a fun alternate way to earn points and an important consideration beyond “build what you can, when you can.”

Progress Cards
Cities and Knights removes the Development Deck and the Largest Army reward right along with it. Instead, developing different areas of your city (Trade, Politics and Science) gives you a chance every single turn to earn Progress Cards in the areas you've developed. Trade helps you gain resources, Politics lets you mess with other players and Science helps you build. The Development Deck of the standard game often gives you the same card (knights) over and overt and that card is mostly used to be a jerk and steal from people. Progress Cards provide many interesting and useful abilities that often help you without having to screw over other players. More importantly, by choosing how you develop your city you also choose which types of cards you want to play.

The Best Way To Play
Cities and Knights does add some complexity into the game, but this complexity is worth the pay off in fun. I haven’t played all of the expansions to Settlers and I haven’t played all of its variations. However, I’ve played many of them. Most of them rank as fun, but not that great. Cities and Knights injects just the right amount of extra consideration and alternate strategy. I’ll play the base game with new players for a bit, but I don’t truly enjoy Catan if it’s not played with Cities and Knights.

If you’ve never played Settlers, buy the base game and give a try. If you’ve played Settlers and it’s beginning to get a bit dull, buy Cities and Knights. It’s the best way to play.

Please leave a comment about your Settlers experience or expansion to other games you wouldn’t want to play without. Also, check out my friends at Growing Up Gamers for their take an important expansion to another game I love: Race for the Galaxy.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Game Changers: Dominion

Incredible variety, intricate customization, and elegant simplicity. No game I've played before strikes this balance quite so well...

The Basics
Each player starts with a deck of 10 cards: 7 copper and 3 points cards. Each turn you draw 5 cards, buy a card for yourself, and then add that card to your discard pile. When you run out of cards, you shuffle your own personal deck (now containing the cards you bought) and continue playing. Treasure cards help you buy stuff. Action cards do special effects. Points cards do nothing but clog up your deck...but they also win you the game at the end.

The Crazy Fun
Dominion has two base sets: Dominion and Intrigue. You can buy either one or both. Each comes with 25 different special cards in addition to stacks of basic points and money cards. Each special card comes with 10 copies. Each game you play, you choose 10 unique cards and set out a stack of 10 for each of these cards. Between the base sets and all the expansion there are over 100 unique cards and an incredible amount of unique set ups that are fun to play. Every game set up can be a little different.

The Amazing Elegance
Despite all its wondrous variety, Dominion stays simple. Draw 5 cards, play what you can, buy something you can afford. This recent Christmas, I taught family members (casual gamers) to play in a matter of minutes. They loved Dominion and had no trouble understanding how to play despite the available cards changing every single game.

The Real Game Changers
Each expansion to the game seems to magically give Dominion more variety without increasing it's complexity at all. No matter what the specific cards do, it's always draw 5, play cards, buy something. It's also the only board game I've played that's enjoyable as single player entertainment. As the owner of Dominion, I have spent hours glancing over the cards trying to determine interesting set ups to play. This is fun by itself, but then of course I get the reward of actually playing these set ups with friends later.

If you're going to buy Dominion, shell out the extra cash and get at least one expansion to go with it. When you get that expansion, get Seaside or Prosperity. The base game is fun for a bit, but these two expansions inject a healthy dose of flavor and fun.

Please leave a comment and let me know about games that have changed your perception on gaming. Also, get the skinny on a video game changer, Heavy Rain, with our friends at Growing Up Gamers

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Seven Deadly Sins Of Video Games

I wish these sins were to be found only in bad games. Unfortunately, the seven sins of video games are annoying practices that mar even the best games today. Old habits, lazy shortcuts, and easy patch ups that the video game industry just can't seem to stop doing. I submit that if a game makers want to ensure quality in their games, they would do well to avoid these sins at all cost.

Unskippable Cutscenes
This one is a classic complaint but video game designers continue to inflict this prideful pain upon their players. Sometimes I’m re-playing the game. Sometimes I’ve died and am trying again. Sometimes the designer has just written a bad story I don’t care about. It doesn’t matter. The player should be able to skip over any content that isn’t actually interactive with the press of a few buttons. Games are meant to be played. Don’t prevent them from being played by deciding cutscenes, tutorials, and panoramic scenery shots are more important than a player’s wish to actually play the game.

Fat Price/Lean Game

The notion that games shouldn’t be judged on length and price is absurd. For $60 dollars, I want 10 hours of entertainment minimum. For this cost, I could go see 7 new movies, buy 8 paperback books, or buy several DVDs which I will watch several times each. All of these would provide well over 10 hours of entertainment. If you know you’re making a 5 hour game, give it a 5 hour price.

Rinse Repeat Game Design

Aaaand if a game is coming up a little short on time, the way to fix that is NOT to just add in more pointless wandering, longer levels, or forced backtracking. It doesn’t matter if a game’s got the worlds coolest main character, awesome graphics, and intricate enemies, things need to change up on a regular basis. If level 2 is basically level 1 with slightly different enemies and a differently painted back drop it should be cut or replaced. Repetition with little or no variation kills the pacing and the fun in any game.


Sniveling Tactics To Avoid Piracy and Resale

When a game’s sales tank, whiny designers like to blame piracy and used game sales. They writhe with envy believing that someone has “gotten away with something." The response? Obnoxious copy protection and forced downloads. Sometimes content that clearly should be a part of the game is chopped out and made into a download. Sometimes players must jump through several hoops to satisfy arcane copy protection. Either way, the game makers is a jackass and needs to knock it off. Make a better game or market the game better. Any other tactic just punishes loyal customers who paid for the product. It makes it more difficult to enjoy the game and harder to recommend it to a friend.

Zero Tolerance For Failure

A true fun-killer. One missed jump, one ridiculously powerful enemy, or one unfair level and all the fun comes grinding to a halt while you once again traverse familiar and increasingly boring terrain hoping this time you won’t make the same terrible mistake. Bizarrely, modern games still like to throw this in at the end of the game to present a “real challenge” and create a “climatic moment”. All it really does is kill the fun for everyone. Games need to keep a good flow. Either reset the player less than 10 seconds away from the failure point or better yet, find a way to let them fail, suffer a consequence, and continue playing the game anyways.

Meaningless Collectibles and Sidequests

Games are often filled with collectibles and sidequests in the hopes that they will divert the players attention from the main game, extend the length of the game, and add some variety. Too often, however, these diversions offer no real value to my experience. They feed on my desire to fully complete a game and my lust for a hidden widget that might be interesting. They also drive me to distraction. I find myself resenting the game for encouraging me to waste hours on useless junk hunts. True I don't have to pursue these optional goals, but the designers are often so good at drawing my attention to the least fun part of their game.

Bad Endings

If I’m going to go through all the trouble of finishing a game, it would be nice if the designers had taken the trouble to finish it first. Too often a game's epic experience sums up in the worst way possible. Endings are too short, non-interactive, and come across as a complete afterthought. A game's ending needs as at least as much consideration as it's opening. Reward the player for playing through the entire game. And P.S. Cliffhangers don't work in video games. Ever.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

How To Be A Good King (In Fable III)

The Dilemma

Fable III presents the player with an obnoxious dilemma. You are a new king. The kingdom has been ravaged by a tyrant. There is a terrible threat that will soon wipe out the whole kingdom unless you raise enough money to raise an army to save everyone. Unfortunately, the kingdom has been overtaxed, overworked, and pushed to the brink. There is great need for help from the government. If you offer this help, you are doing the right thing, the people will love you, but the coffers run dry. The people will flourish right up to the point that they are wiped out from this foreign threat. Ignore social programs, raise the tax, and let the people suffer and you collect a lot of money. Ultimately this money will save the majority of the people even though they will hate you and hate their life. At that point, what have you really saved anyways?

Real Morality Isn’t Binary

The solution to these types of funding problems, to me, is a progressive tax system. The wealthy pay a lot and the poor pay little to none. The wealthy can afford to pay a lot of taxes and still live in giant mansions and the poor can’t afford to pay anything because they have other needs…like food and maybe, god forbid, a night out for themselves once in awhile. Not being able to provide basic needs for your family is a legitimate concern. You’ve got a right to complain. Not being able to afford that second summer home on the beach is not a legitimate concern. You’ve got the right to go cry to your mama and snuggle a teddy bear until you learn to act like a socially responsible adult.

Fable III doesn’t really have the nuance to cover a progressive tax system. It’s morality is binary (or close to it). You raise the taxes or you lower them. You make children work in a factory or pay a lot of money to make them a school.

The Fable III Solution

The one thing that Fable III does allow you to do is to contribute personal money (your hero’s in game money not real world funds) to the kingdom. From this, I devised a tax system that seemed decent and fair. I lowered taxes across the board. Then I bought a lot of businesses and a few large homes. On the stall vendors that sold food and other necessities, I lowered the prices to the point where I gained no profit. On the luxury places like weapons shops, pubs, and ridiculously sized mansions, I raised the price to the max. To my mind, this means that the poor have more money and can easily afford the necessities and the well-off will be paying more to enjoy those finer things in life.

The Fantasy and The Reality

In game terms, I’m earning over 100,000 gold from my businesses every 5 minutes of game time (respectable but still not JP Morgan kind of profits). I’m then dumping the money into the kingdom coffers to pay for every last restoration project imaginable. So far, the kingdom is improving and I have every expectation that I will have plenty of money to avert disaster. In the real world a senate full of Republicans recently held up healthcare and equal rights legislation to ensure a continued tax breaks for the wealthiest 5%. Fable III’s system is a fun fantasy indeed.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

3 Gaming Wishes For The New Year

1. Wish For the Board Game Industry

I wish you would produce a rockin’ awesome adventure board game. Not a decent adventure board game. Not a kinda fun adventure board game. A rock-fricken-awesome adventure board game. Thus far you have let me down for many a year. What I want is simple. I want fun characters that improve, neat loot, somewhat strategic gameplay, interactions that are more than just combat, and I’d like it to play in an hour or less. Okay, maybe not so simple…but seriously. Get on it.

2. Wish For the Video Game Industry

I wish you would figure out the next big thing. It’s not Xbox Kinect. It’s not Sony Move. It’s not another console launch. Maybe it’s 3DS, but I kind of doubt it. 2010 had some very good games, but nothing that I was just dying to play. Please make something totally new, something good and then hype it like Moses on a mountaintop. I just want to be more excited about video games in 2011 than I was in 2010. Surprise me…but like in a good way for a change.

3. Wish For Myself In Gaming

Julian, I wish you would design and playtest 3 games. I know you worked hard on Cool Factor 5 but haven’t playtested it yet so I’ll even count that one if you get on it soon. That’s like only 2 ½ games to design and playtest. It doesn’t even matter how good they are. Good is nice, but finished and playtested is better at this point. It’s okay Julian. I know you can do it. Quit making excuses and make time instead.