Blokus – Choose Your Own Adventure!

The final entry in my analog game blog posts will cover the game Blokus, which I played with my nephew. Blokus is defined as an “abstract strategy game” on BoardGameGeek.com and that description fits very well. Each player chooses a different colour of 21 differently shaped transparent plastic pieces of various sizes. The pieces are shaped a bit like various Tetris pieces and the challenge is to fit them all together corner to corner without allowing any edge of your piece to line up with another of your pieces. You are free to line up with other people’s pieces in this manner, however, enabling you to block them from expanding (hence the name!).

The winner is normally determined via a point system. You count up the number of squares in each piece you have not placed on the board. This number is subtracted from the total. Any player who has placed all of their pieces earns an extra 15 points and five additional points if they managed to place the smallest one square piece last. Whoever ends with the highest total of points wins. I say this is the way it is normally played because I was playing with a six year-old who found this process to be thoroughly uninteresting. As such, we altered the game to just be a challenge of who can place the most pieces on the board before there is nowhere else to put a piece.

This is a fine example of how rules can be altered to better accommodate certain audiences. I would highly recommend that the library maintain paper copies of alternative rules to games that they can include with their board game collections. This allows diversity of play and also allows the games to be better targeted towards certain audiences. Even better, a library could have a fun creative exercise in challenging a variety of players to take games and come up with variations on the rules. Encourage radical alterations and see what sort of things can be developed by your patrons! This method allows the game to act as a choose your own adventure rather than a standard novel, if we think of the games as text.

My nephew enjoyed our play session. He was fascinated by my method of sorting the pieces into different piles based on the number of squares they consisted of and he mirrored the practice. This allowed us both to try to figure out the biggest pieces we could place on the board while there was the maximum amount of space available. Since there was only the two of us space was at less of a premium than it can be with four players. We compensated for this by aggressively trying to block each other in to each other’s mutual amusement.

The game is an interesting one and it challenges a form of spatial thinking I don’t feel particularly proficient with. My nephew seems to be a natural at it, however, and over the course of a number of games we had a definite back and forth. The game won quite a few awards, including the Mensa Select. Since there is something inherently brain puzzley about the game this makes a lot of sense to me. I would recommend it to anyone looking for a bit of a brain teaser. The more players the better though, with a little alteration, it can be fun no matter what!

For more information on Blokus, see the following: https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/2453/blokus

For a step by step guide on how to play, see below: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bEvS5A6TCr8

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Having a Splendid Time with Splendor at the Adventurer’s Guild

As the term begins to wind down, the time has come for another game in my analog game series. Today’s game is Splendor, an economic Renaissance card game. Renaissance you say? That’s not the samey medieval theme found in dozens of analog game titles! Refreshingly, Splendor looks to let you channel your inner Medici and strive to become the most prestigious Renaissance merchant of your playgroup. It combines savvy mechanics with a pleasing tactile experience to create an extremely compelling and enjoyable game that would be at home in any library analog game collection.

In order to play Splendor I went to a board game cafe. I had actually never been to such a location and I really enjoyed the experience. The idea is essentially that you pay a small fee (generally around $5) and you get to play as many board games as you want for the day. The location also offers food and drinks and the employees offer to help you learn or select games appropriate to the number of people that you came with. In particular I went to the Adventurer’s Guild in Kitchener and I would recommend anyone in the area to check it out. The food is delicious and they have an amazing selection of games.

It is a testament to how much I enjoyed today’s game that although I spent hours at the Adventurer’s Guild I only played Splendor. My partner and I were able to pick up the rules pretty quickly and then just wanted to keep playing. The game revolves around three decks of cards arrayed in front of the players. These are shuffled and three cards from each are put face up beside the decks to form a kind of game board. Players then take turns purchasing these cards and gradually building up prestige points from them until the first person gets to fifteen prestige and wins the game.

These cards are purchased with gems that are represented by pleasingly weighty poker chip like game pieces. It is odd to say but the weight and clinking noise these objects made really added to the game for me and that’s why I emphasize that Splendor is a fun tactile game. It is nice to be able to clink about your pile of riches as you decide how you want to proceed with your turn. This really emphasized to me the amount of difference the physical element of an analog game can make. If the currency had been represented by other cards or small coins I think the game would have been worse for it.

Beyond this tactile element, I love Splendor for its smart simplicity. Each player only has a single action each turn. They can pick up two gems of the same kind from the bank piles (though only if there are at least four of that type of gem which adds a delicious element of strategy to gem selection), pick up three gems of different kinds, reserve a card, or purchase/build a property. Reserving a card allows you to pick it up from the play area and keep it in your hand. This allows you to ensure you will be the one who builds it but also gives you a “gold” gem which acts as a wild chip that can stand in for any other type of gem. Reserving a property your opponent was clearly planning to build is a delicious moment in the game.

Each deck of cards has increasingly decadent (but more expensive) purchases for players to choose from. If you can get a card from the third deck you will probably score yourself quite a few victory points but be prepared to pay through the nose. To offset this, the first deck of cards are cheap but rarely offer victory points. Each card has a gem in the top left corner, however, and these represent a continuous supply of that type of gem. In the future, all your purchases have that type of gem discounted from it.

As such, it is possible to buy very extensively from the first deck and make things extremely cheap. There is something very satisfying about being able to select a card for free because you have secured so many discounts from your other cards. I won a few games by having a preposterous number of first deck cards that enabled me to cheaply buy massively expensive third deck cards. It makes all the cards feel worthwhile and when patrons are considered (discussed below) it adds an element of strategy as you decide what property makes the most sense to acquire.

The final crowning jewel to Splendor’s excellent design is the inclusion of three noble patrons in each game. These are randomly selected and they each have a different gem expectation. When you have acquired properties that match the noble’s gem expectation, they will become your patron and grant you a number of victory points printed on their tile. This means you get to strategize not merely about how to afford expensive property but also how to block your opponent from getting patrons and securing them for yourself.

I cannot recommend this game enough to any players or to libraries. There is a historical element to the game making it a potential programming tool for Renaissance historical exploration. Even more than that, however, I would say it makes a fantastic game for free play in the library. It is fun, easy to learn, and keeps people engaged for long periods of time. It is a fine example of how streamlined and smart an analog game can be!

For more information on the Adventurer’s Guild refer to the following: http://www.adventurersguildcafe.com/#about

For the BoardGameGeek breakdown of Splendor check out the following: https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/148228/splendor

For a step by step guide on how to play Splendor, see below: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rue8-jvbc9I

Murder Mystery Presentation

Hot off the presses, murder of business tycoon Clancy Woodward!

            The afternoon of March 18th, during an impromptu dinner hosted by librarian/private eye Flo Mulligan, tragedy struck with the grim murder of businessman Clancy Woodward. Current sources indicate that the crime was perpetrated by a Russian KGB spy who fled the scene and has not been seen since. Apparently Mr. Woodward was killed with poisoned water. It is believed the crime was motivated by bad business practices that Mr. Woodward was engaged in internationally. Mrs. Mulligan was left the bulk of the tycoon’s fortune while Mr. Lance Benjamin (aka Mr. David Jones, aka Mr. Thomas Anders, aka Mr. Heraldo Damian Sr.) was left a portion to cover Mr. Woodward’s substantial gambling debts. The search for this dangerous killer goes on but reliable sources indicate they may have fled back to Russian soil…

Rather than keeping to more conventional analog games, we decided to present a murder mystery and the manner that it could be used in library programming. In order to present this we donned costumes, gathered some props, prepared sound effects, and actually performed the murder mystery for the class. In doing so we sought to showcase how to host a murder mystery rather than merely outlining the process for the class. The following is a breakdown of the material covered in the presentation and some links to resources to further prepare for a murder mystery in the library!

History

The history of murder mysteries arise out of two main sources: murder mystery fiction from the 1800s and the formalized role-playing games beginning with Dungeons and Dragons in 1974. The real life murder of Saville Kent in 1860 captured the interest of the British public and resulted in a hunger for similar stories. Sherlock Holmes and the works of Agatha Christie both helped feed into this trend. In 1935 an attempt was made to put this theme into an analog game with “Jury Box.” This occurred again in 1948 with “Cluedo.” By the 1980s, likely partially due to the rise of formalized pen and paper role-playing games, prepackaged murder mystery nights became available for consumers. Today they are available via an abundance of websites.

References

Trammell, A. (2014). From Where Do Dungeons Come? Analog Game Studies, III(II).

Steamfunk Detectives: Origin of the Murder Mystery Game. (2012, February 18). Retrieved March 10, 2016, from http://chroniclesofharriet.com/2012/11/18/steamfunk-detectives/

Common Themes and Tropes

Originating in part from fiction and having a very particular aesthetic, murder mysteries also share a variety of common tropes and themes. The setting is frequently a dinner or banquet of some kind and it will frequently reference events of a shadowy past to add intrigue to the setting. These events of the past might be crimes or indicate secrets that the various characters are trying to hide. These secrets often conceal hidden relationships between the various members of the cast. This all adds to a sense of foreboding and mystery that can sometimes be contrasted with humour while other times is kept consistent throughout.

The level of involvement for players varies. In some cases, those who will be guessing the murder are simply spectators who try to keep track of all that is happening. Other times, individuals are given characters and personas to play and may be directly involved in the crime. The individual to be murdered is generally preset, however, and indicated by their extremely unpleasant demeanor or tumultuous links to the other guests at the murder mystery.

Issues of Representation

As our presentation sought to satirize and as other events failed to recognize, the tropes and themes of murder mysteries can mean issues in regard to representation. Murder mysteries evoke many stereotypes surrounding class, ethnicity, and profession that are common to older fiction. The sexy femme fatal, the foolish floozy, the conniving servant, or the mysterious foreigner are all tropes that might be evoked in a murder mystery. This can mean misrepresentation of groups, of particular note from those examples women and those outside the normative middle class. It also can mean various groups are not represented. As such, any murder mystery hosted at a library should endeavour to shake up such tropes, enrich their setting with diversity, and not go for the easy “laugh” at the cost being of sexist, racist, or homophobic.

Library Programming

Finally, we examined the role that murder mysteries could play in the library. It is a handy tool for getting to know new people in a setting of fun and intrigue and it can be used to encourage individuals to explore the library for clues. The example linked below uses a murder mystery as an icebreaker for recently arrived undergraduates. It can also be tied into other improvisational games and form the backbone of a larger library event. Characters in the event can be drawn from popular fiction and this can be used to encourage those participating to engage with stories they may otherwise have been unaware of or indifferent to before attending.

The murder mystery also has the advantage of being extremely adaptable. With a little creativity a script or characters can be adapted to suit whatever programming need the library currently is experiencing. Furthermore, it can be altered to be either elaborate or simple in terms of costumes or scope as the library requires. If the library is seeking to host a large fundraising event with a sense of fun then the murder mystery could be a gala event with extensive costumes and food supplied. Alternatively, it could be a humble youth event that gets individuals more comfortable in library space. Regardless of what is needed the murder mystery can be adapted to suit that requirement.

Other Resources

For an example of an online resource for murder mysteries see the following: https://www.nightofmystery.com/how-to-play/

For instructions on how to host a murder mystery in the library see the following: http://www.carleton.edu/campus/library/reference/workshops/MurderMystery.html

Magic: the Gathering – Fostering Safe Space in the Library

The next game in my analog game series is the famous (infamous?) Magic: the Gathering (MTG). It is possible to play Magic in a multitude of ways and although the basic rules of the game are fairly easy to grasp, the devil is in the details. It is a game of sufficient complexity that there are various levels of certification for judges of tournaments so I do not by any means claim to be an expert. Despite this, I’m an avid casual player of the game and I have done fairly well at a variety of game events at card shops over the years. The question becomes, then, what to discuss for a session report when Magic is so diverse in how it can be played.

To begin, MTG in the library. MTG can be an extremely costly endeavour and the community of play around it is sometimes very toxic. As such, I see an opportunity for the library to provide a safe place for getting to know the game. In order to facilitate programming, the library could purchase a few starter decks and perhaps put together an inexpensive cube (see link below for what this entails). This would allow repeat play at minimal cost to the library and help give people a chance to learn the game and see if it is something they enjoy. In addition to this, the library could host regular friendly Magic tournaments where players are able to use library space to compete but bring their own cards.

For an excellent model of creating a friendly and inclusive environment, see the link below. Particular emphasis on welcoming women and LGBTQ+ individuals who are interested in learning the game would distinguish the library and help to create an environment of inclusivity. Furthermore, many individuals who are interested in the game but who are tired of the toxic environment of local game shops may choose the library as an alternative. This would help bring people into the library and foster community space.

For the purpose of reporting on actual game play of MTG, I decided I would discuss the creation of a new deck. Although this may seem out of place in a discussion of playing games, a big part of participating in MTG is the creation of decks. Actual gameplay is just one facet of many in the game. The deck uses the colours of mana blue and green and focuses on mechanics from a particular thematic area of the Magic multiverse known as Ravnica. Ravnica is a plane covered in a city overseen by a multitude of guilds that are based around different combinations of mana colours. Blue and green is the guild known as the Simic Combine and they are eccentric biologists, combining different creatures together in the pursuit of more powerful life forms.

I like the thematic aspects of the deck and this is generally important for me to begin constructing a deck. Furthermore, my good friend and roommate also collects cards and was disinterested in this sort of deck so he passed me a number of good cards to build my deck from. This helped me to keep the cost of deckbuilding down. I went through both my collection and his to find powerful cards for the deck and then gathered a pile of potential cards to include. Then I had to wheedle the list down to about 36 cards, leaving space for 24 land cards (which act as the currency of the game). I wanted the deck to be pretty creature heavy so I distributed those 36 cards as about 26 creatures and 10 other spells. This means the deck tends to create things that attack the opponent rather than casting spells for onetime effects.

I wasn’t able to decide what cards to cut once I had the deck down to 64 cards so rather than try to cut things down blindly I played against my roommate in order to test it out. It was my hope that a number of cards would stand out in playing that were superfluous or unhelpful in the deck. Although it is technically legal to have more than 60 cards in a deck, it is generally not advised because the fewer cards you have the more likely you are to draw the cards that you need. Magic is a game that already experiences a lot of variability based on what you draw so minimizing that is important.

After a number of games, I had won more than I lost and determined a few cards I felt weren’t distinguishing themselves. This let me know I was on the right track with the deck and helped to inform me on how to make some cuts. As you can tell, Magic is a thing of great complexity that can also yield great fun, ambition, and passion.

For an a guide to learning to play MTG, refer to the following: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GadqHggATe8

For an explanation of what a cube is: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rNDBTRG6keM

For an excellent example of a friendly and inclusive Magic community, see the following: http://ladyplaneswalkers.weebly.com/

Pathfinder – A World of Possibility

For the second in my series on analog games, I could not possibly look at anything other than one of my favourite analog game pass times: Dungeons and Dragons (D&D). To be more particular, I will be examining a session played of Pathfinder, a remastering of D&D 3.5 published by Paizo. This session was played with a number of other students participating in the Analog Games class and I was a player rather than my frequent role of Dungeon Master. We are playing through a published adventure called “The Rise of the Runelords” and this session represents a very early start to our adventures.

To begin, some explanation seems necessary. Originally created by Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax in 1974, D&D is a pen and paper roleplaying game. You create a character using the rules of the game and some creative thinking and then roleplay that character through adventures that are overseen and dictated by a referee (known as the Dungeon Master). The mechanics of the game ground events in random chance (reflected by the rolling of dice) and by the rules of the world (magic works in a certain way, weapons do a certain amount of damage). As the adventure progresses, your character develops both in terms of personal power and in terms of personal growth. This manifests through improved equipment from dungeon delving, improved powers through levelling up, and improved insight based on information gathered during play.

I love the game and I have a lot of background with it since high school. It isn’t a perfect game. Aaron Trammel (links to articles below) has some interesting things to say about the way it attempts to quantify the world with maps and charts and the problematic representations of women that have existed throughout the games history. Despite this, D&D remains a powerful game to me because it very much can be whatever you want it to be. All rules can be altered and all stories are possible. The point, the wonder, and the power of D&D is that it lets you tell literally any story you can imagine and to do so cooperatively with your friends.

In terms of library programming, D&D involves a lot of rules if you are going to adhere strictly to the mechanics laid out in rulebooks. If you are willing to be more flexible and accommodating, however, a world of programming possibilities open up in the library. You can role-play events from famous books and then provide call numbers to them so that interested players can seek them out. You can convey information by putting players in the “Dewey Decimal Dungeon” and using the creatures they encounter on various floors to teach the meaning of library call numbers. Alternatively, you can simply host a weekly game to give patrons a chance to have fun, get to know each other, and become more comfortable in the library space. The possibilities around so diverse a game as D&D are limitless.

For my play session, I created a Gnome Magus (a sort of battle mage) named the Great Griswald. An avid chef, he is on the hunt for unconventional ingredients to diversify his strange recipes and turn a profit. He lived in a nearby gnomish village until it was destroyed by giants and he harbors great resentment towards such creatures since. I enjoy playing eccentric and unconventional characters and Griswald accommodates this preference nicely. At the same time, his tragic past and hunt for ingredients gives me a clear idea of what motivates him and why he is willing to put himself into danger over the course of the campaign.

For our opening session we all arrived to the town of Sandpoint to attend an autumn equinox festival. The town was full of happy folk celebrating the completion of a cathedral to the goddess Desna, a goddess of luck. Myself and the other players engaged in some light antics; one player tried to pickpocket another and ended up with a bowl of Griswald’s disgusting stew thrown in their face. As evening fell, however, trouble arrived in the form of goblins who attacked the populace and attempted to kidnap a nobleman. Springing into action, our band of heroes battled back the creatures and freed the nobleman from his precarious situation. We ended the session with whispers of a mysterious human who orchestrated the attack on the town.

As you can see, D&D shares much in common with fantasy fiction. Given the programming options inherent into the game and how much fun it has brought me over the years, I heartily recommend it to anyone who is interested in giving it a try and can find a supportive game group to help them get started.

See the following to learn more about Pathfinder and Paizo: http://paizo.com/pathfinder

For some interesting scholarship on D&D see the following:

http://analoggamestudies.org/2014/08/from-where-do-dungeons-come/

http://analoggamestudies.org/2014/10/constructing-the-female-body-in-role-playing-games/

For some mood music, listen here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a-HyYklN55U

 

7 Wonders – Ancient History Lovers Rejoice

The following begins a series on my blog prompted by my Analog Games class. I will be examining five different games with a threefold goal. Firstly, to showcase some games that I have enjoyed and that I think others could enjoy. Secondly, to demonstrate the way that games can be read as text and subsequent implications for issues of representation and culture (for more on this see Clara Fernandez-Vara’s book Introduction to Game Analysis). Finally, to briefly discuss the manner that each game could be implemented in libraries and what they could offer to library programming.

The first game I wish to examine is 7 Wonders. Designed by Antoine Bauza and published by Repos Production, the game is a city building card game with an ancient world theme. It has won a multitude of analog game awards. As a former student of Classics, I was already predisposed to this game by its theme and the mechanics did not disappoint. The game features a drafting mechanic (similar to drafting in Magic the Gathering for those who are familiar) that has each player carefully considering a pick from a hand of cards before passing it to the next player. All players simultaneously reveal their selection. They all then pick up the passed hand of the player on their other side and make a selection from there. Play proceeds in this way until there are only two cards left in a hand and then a final selection is made and the final card is discarded.

There are three ages in the game and an age ends each time hands are used up in this manner. During these ages players build resources (both simple and exotic), build their wonder (different powers for different wonders!), create science, marshal troops, facilitate trade, or buy guilds. All of these different areas are represented by different cards and each has a different means of helping you secure victory. At the end of the game, victory points in all these categories are totalled and whoever has the most wins the game. This means that it can be unclear who is ahead during play. Furthermore, the game tends to reward diversification over specialization. If someone does well in all categories they are more likely to win than someone who has only science cards, for instance.

My play session of the game ended in a tie between the Colossus of Rhodos (myself) and the Pyramids of Gizah (a friend). We both won by distinguishing ourselves in a multitude of categories. Rhodos was a military powerhouse that also excelled in trade. Gizah completed its wonder and beautified the city around it and bought a number of potent guilds. The relative unpredictability of the game helps facilitate engagement in all players. At the same time, players must consider what cards are helpful for them and what cards they should take purely to deny their opponent access to them. This back and forth makes each flip up of card selection a moment of fun tension.

7 Wonders distinguishes itself not merely with mechanics, however, but also with its theme. The artwork in the game is beautiful and all of the traditional seven wonders of the ancient world are represented. Encouragingly in the sphere of representation, expansions allow the addition of more diverse locations such as the Great Wall of China. This makes the game at least marginally less Eurocentric/Mediterranean-centric. The theme makes this game a viable tool for introducing people (Board Game Geek suggest 10+ for the game) to locations of the ancient world and fascination with what was built in that far gone time.

In terms of library programming, 7 Wonders could serve well as a free play game that is available to be used in a designated play area. Equally, programming could involve multiple copies of the game with each able to accommodate up to seven players. An exercise could be made of determining why certain wonders have the bonuses that they do in the game. Why does Gizah have so many stages of building? Why does Rhodos grant military bonuses? Why is Alexandria so good at trade? All of these mechanics have connections to real history that could help facilitate learning.

A big recommendation for 7 Wonders to those young and old, librarian or non-librarian. It is a lot of fun, involves a lot of strategy, and has the advantage of being relatively quick (about half an hour) to play.

For a more comprehensive outline of the rules, refer to the following: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z_Wfdn5Es8U

For all the details outlined on BoardGameGeek.com, click here: https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/68448/7-wonders

Resource Review: Limited Resources Podcast

Are you someone who enjoys Magic the Gathering (MTG)? Are you someone who particularly enjoys limited formats in MTG, such as drafting or the sealed events that are commonly found at prereleases for new Magic sets? Despite your enjoyment of those things, do you find yourself losing a great deal? If so, may I recommend Limited Resources! It is a weekly podcast that seeks to ground you in strategies for MTG, with a particular emphasis on limited games. It has been ongoing since 2009 and combines a friendly atmosphere with sound advice for how to improve your game with MTG.

You can access Limited Resources (LR) at http://lrcast.com/ as well as iTunes and anywhere else you can commonly acquire podcasts. LR covers all things MTG limited, with a particular emphasis on maximizing value and doing everything you can to succeed every game. It includes set reviews for each new set of Magic that comes out, including grading and analysis of every single card from common to mythic rare. If you are looking to have an edge for your local prerelease these set reviews alone may be sufficient. Other episodes cover play strategies (how to best draft, how to play control decks effectively) and still others cover special topics such as cube drafts or the best mentalities for play. An extremely active subreddit found at https://www.reddit.com/r/lrcast is maintained by competent moderators and the hosts, allowing you to ask directly for help if something isn’t covered to your satisfaction.

LR assumes a basic level of competence with Magic, basic familiarity with limited formats in particular, and probably is too high level for younger players of the game. I would recommend it to teens and older who feel serious about Magic and may be interested in working towards more professional levels of play or just securing a more consistent win rate at your local game shop. It is a resource that can be picked and chosen from very effectively. It allows you to seek out a podcast that deals with a particular topic if you only want one thing or to listen regularly to get a good overall crash course in MTG limited.

I would strongly recommend at the least giving the podcast a try if any of this sounds interesting. The main host Marshall Sutcliffe does a good job of making the podcast approachable and his co-hosts are definite experts. The current co-host is Magic Hall of Famer Luis Scott-Vargas so you can be certain you are receiving sound advice. Give this resource a try if any of the following fit:

– You are a Magic player who enjoys limited in particular

– You want to improve your strategic thinking with games

– You are competitive and like to discuss best possible strategies

– You like to hear comprehensive analysis of upcoming Magic set cards and rules

– You want assistance in working towards a professional level of Magic play