The Tao of Gaming

Boardgames and lesser pursuits

Finally …

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Playing bridge online, I’m getting mostly good boards (the result of bad opponents) but not doing anything particularly well. Then comes the last hand.

S:xxx H:K87643 D:xx C:AK

Partner opens 1 Diamond (nobody vulnerable). We play weak NT at this vulnerability, so partner either has 15+ HCP or an unbalanced shape. RHO doubles. I’m not playing anything fancy so I just bid 1 Heart. LHO passes, partner bids 2 Clubs, and RHO passes.

Since we play that the fourth suit is an artificial game force, 3 Hearts should be invitational. I suspect partner has a weak hand with a stiff heart, but he could have 15+ with a stiff heart (or less and willing to shoot out 3N knowing where the points are).

I bid 3 Hearts and play it there.

LHO leads the Diamond Jack, and I see

     Dummy S:KTxx H:J D:AKQ9 C:xxxx
Diamond Jack Led
     Hand  S:xxx H:K87643 D:xx C:AK

I win the diamond ace.

I don’t like my chances. And I hit pretty much a maximum pass (I may have risked 3N with partner’s hand. Go down in game!)

Back to the task at hand. The doubler should (in theory) be short in diamonds, but he doesn’t have to be stiff. Perhaps I should lead clubs but — right or wrong — I cash the King of Diamonds (all follow) and then lead the queen and RHO ruffs with the deuce.

Perhaps I should pitch my losing spade. (One of them, anyway). But maybe something good will happen if I give the opponents some chances to go wrong. I over-ruff and lead a small heart. LHO gives a small hitch and plays the ace, then leads a club.

Can LHO really have his hitch? That would mean something like Ax of hearts (AQ would play the Queen, obviously). That also means that RHO doubled with 3 hearts, but sometimes you do that. I don’t think I’m making it unless LHO has his hitch.

I cash the heart king and both follow (LHO with the Ten, RHO with the Nine).

I have a shot. I cash the other club and then lead a spade to the ten. RHO wins the jack then plays the club queen and this is the position.

     Dummy: S:Kx H:-- D:9 C:x

                               CQ Led

    Hand: S:xx H:87 D:-- C:--

Now I’m golden. I ruff the club, then lead my last heart, pitching dummy’s diamond as LHO shows out. RHO wins with the queen and then leads the ace of spades and then the queen of spades to dummy’s king. Making three exactly.

I probably should have just cashed two clubs and then crossed in diamonds to ruff another club to start shortening my hand right away. And RHO only needed to cash his good trump when he was in with the spade jack to avoid the endplay.

I did a lot of questionable things, but at least I read the position correctly. Finally….

Written by taogaming

November 30, 2016 at 10:51 pm

Posted in Bridge

I wonder what else I don’t know

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After spending ~20 hours playing Magic Realm this weekend, I’ve been wondering what other games I might really enjoy that I’ve missed. It’s undoubtedly a small number. In fact, one of the common themes I’ve noticed is that “Games I was taught by non-gamers” is probably the only constant, because teaching rules well is hard. (I don’t think I’m necessarily better than others, but at least I teach them quickly.

Game First, Rules Later.

The next candidate game I can think of that might actually be good (but my experience with it was mediocre): Divine Right. I remember little about it, but the idea of the non-player kingdoms having rulers that were like little AIs with their own irrationalities strikes me as a good idea. But it has been 25+ years since I played. More (sigh).

I’m not saying it was good, I’m just saying it may be better than I remember. And I’m not actively looking for a copy — since its not a solo-able game — but perhaps I should play it again if I get the chance. And I felt like I should have a non-MR thread. (“Tao of Gaming, Manic/Depressive writing for way too many years.” Not a bad slogan).

So consider this the open thread for games you went back and rediscovered, or just want to spout off on.

Written by taogaming

November 28, 2016 at 7:57 pm

Posted in Open Thread

Random thoughts on Magic Realm

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Since every treasure appears in each game, the designer can plan for interactions between them. So you can have two treasures that are a key and chest, or map and destination. Whereas if you had a “Key” card in a game like Runebound or Talisman that only was useful if you drew another (specific) treasure, it would be a dead draw. It still could be, if your map to the Lost City got drawn a) on the other side of the board and b) the week after it was looted, but it may not be. And a few cards are likely to be out, since the Scholar won’t show up most games.

Some scenario games do this by having generic cards in the game and having the scenario define the meaning, or you could have a game with “core” cards (always the same thing) and “rare” cards (the few rare cards in the main deck let you draw from another, larger, deck). I do think Magic Realm’s consistent treasures allow for some nice features, and may even be needed to balance (somewhat) the characters, but I think a “core/rare” card deck may be more interesting. (Even strat-o-matic has a rare-events table! In a recent solitaire play a batted ball struck the mound).

Our games take 4-5h, with some setup (we’ve been leaving it out over the holiday between games). That’s two players, two characters each. Although our last game took <4 hours with setup and teardown, that’s because 3 characters died the second week and we didn’t restart, so the last two weeks took almost no time.

There are some clunky combats where one character is immune or useless. That doesn’t bother me — although I may eventually try the Advanced Combat rules — but I imagine that polarizes opinions about the game. Some characters are totally untroubled by situations that would destroy other characters. Since not all characters are equal, why should all monsters be?

I’ve finally won a game, with the Berserker. Selling the Sacred Grail to the Order for 50 Fame is huge, although I would have won without that bonus. I now see how slaughtering or hiring the Order — so that the leader is not available to buy the Grail — is one way to mess with people. Interestingly, the super amazing Amazon (see below) only squeaked by with +1 VP, but just one gold shy of a few more VP.

Right now I think both MK and MR can be played three ways: Co-operatively, Competitively but without PVP, Full competition. (There’s no distinction in the rules, but you could simply disallow PVP).

I found the following quote by the Designer (Richard Hamblen) describing his four requirements: Variety, Detail, Creating a Fantastic World, and Surprise. Surprise relates to my prior thoughts, in particular:

“A game that entertains like fantasy each time it is played must therefore be able to surprise its players with unforeseen developments even after they have played it many times and have become familiar with its mechanics.”

Full marks for that.

Magic Realm has a large number of house rules? I’m playing a few:

  • You can sell stuff at the end of the game (instead of having to take time to rush back to sell stuff). Better experience (no having to rush back to the valleys in the last few turns) and makes sense. (You could just sell it tomorrow). You can’t sell it and get the Fame/Notoriety Bonus for possessing it. Either/or.
  • Watchful Natives (so if you attack a group it can attack you back right away) and a ban on attacking friendly (and possibly even neutral) natives without a Casus Belli. The “Sell your stuff to them, kill them, and loot your stuff back” strategy is powerful and a-thematic. Exact rules TBD, but probably Protected Natives I (barring campaigns) from the variant list.
  • I’ve proposed a house rule to prevent you from being able to freely fling minions/controlled monsters at attacks/traps that curse instead of wound.
  • Right now I’m playing the character restarts (after death) have to bid on less VP per full week passed. (So, 4 points instead of 5 if one week has passed, etc). That seems better for learning games, but in my current game the information revealed after dying in a week was valuable in character selection. So that’s why experienced players increase the VP requirements for restarts.
  • The Knights’ Adjustment — (Both Knights start “Friendly” instead of “Allied” with the relevant groups).
  • I might play with serious wounds (if you take a wound that would exactly kill you based on your vulnerability), you don’t die but take a die roll (2d6, higher) of wounds. Also probably good for learning games.
  • I think I’m going to add caches, since it makes sense (you hide stuff to find later, instead of just abandoning it).

Characters played so far, in rough order of number of plays: White Knight (often), Berserker, Wood’s Girl, Amazon, Elf, Black Knight, Captain, Witch.

Spells Cast: Absorb Essence (on the Octopus), Broomstick, Control Bats, Make Whole, Peace with Nature, Talk to Wise Bird (wise, my ass). The TaoLing collapsed a roof.

Most amazing Combo (TaoLing): Belt of Strength combined with Garb of speed to turn any of the Amazon’s fight** chit into a T3 attack, which can basically kill anything. (I think Bats and the Octopus are still faster). Makes a Berserker feel inadequate, truly. Controlling six bats was pretty good, though.

Things I wish I’d known my first time and suggestions for new players.

  • Think of monster numbers as “Seconds.” Faster is better. (A T3 attack takes 3 seconds to resolve, so it goes before a H4 attack. If it’s attacking a H4/4 monster, your attack (T3) is faster than the monster’s maneuver (4) … so it hits. If it was an H4/3 monster, your attack is not faster than the mosnter’s defense, so you have to match maneuvers to hit.
  • Solitaire (with a single character) is challenging, but two or three characters teaming up can do amazing things.
  • Technically you could just deal out the Treasures within treasures, then shuffle the six site cards in the great treasures and start. Just deal out treasures into locations as needed. (Ditto spells). Start playing and finish setup as you go. That reminds me of a mantra I may not have mentioned on this site (at least, not recently)

Game First, Rules Later” — I’m personally one of those people who don’t mind getting a rule wrong or not knowing everything before I start. Here I Stand I learned despite an excruciating 2 hour rules explination. When the Bridge Club started, I showed up late. The club president (good guy, but over-enthusiastic) had corralled the new players and spent an hour explaining the game. Since I was late, the VP gave me five minutes and tossed me into a deal.

I don’t think any of the others showed up next week. (I would have, since I’m a gamer…)

The point of this is that if you are a “Rules First, Game Later” type  (instead of “GF;RL”) then MR is going to be much more difficult for you to get into.

I suspect I could teach MR and be started in 15 minutes before starting, using the following ideas:

  1. Praise the Maker, have the game setup before hand or do it while you explain. Pick your character from the lesser (easy) offerings. No Enchant phases or Hiring, but maybe an odd spell. Everyone puts one point in each (non-spell) VP category (or just ignore VPs and say that whoever gets the best story wins). Let them take Amazon, Berserker, White Knight, Woods Girl. I disagree with Steve McKnight (at my peril) by thinking that you should avoid giving new players the Dwarf and swordsman, because players won’t enjoy them as much (and the Swordsman’s bonus won’t work as well with the modified game).
  2. When explaining rules, only broad strokes, no minutiae.
  3. Go over the daytime phases (Move, Hide, Search, Trade,Rest, Alert,Follow). Cover prowling and blocking.
  4. Don’t spend more than a minute on combat. Just explain harm/vulnerability and undercutting vs matching. Don’t elaborate. Skip it for a few days. (Try to get your character into a reasonable combat and go over it slowly).
  5. Have multiple copies of useful charts.
  6. Play your turns normally, but new players get benefits.
    • For the first week let them free-form actions (as per Timeless Jewel). Point out situations where a player may be blocked or is walking into a deathtrap.
    • Second week have them write down their actions after their activation draw (so they don’t get to see their hide/search rolls, but do know which monsters are prowling, and their current locations).
    • Third week write down actions after monster roll but before activation draws (so they have to worry about prowls from other players moving monsters).
    • Fourth week normal.
    • If they are thinking about going to fight something (especially in week 1), let them play out a combat to see, then cancel it when they die horribly. This also teaches the combat rules.
  7. Mention spying and information secrecy when it first comes up.
  8. By all means, don’t feel compelled to play four weeks, but if you are playing a shorter game make sure you’ve gone to ‘normal’ turn order before the end.
  9. Maybe show a spell (from one of the artifacts/spell books) and explain how reading runes works.  Awakened spells are fun, because anyone can cast them. Maybe seed the deck with only generally useful spells, discarding weird/useless spells.  The first time it comes up you can go over spells quickly, and just summarize what it can do.


Written by taogaming

November 27, 2016 at 9:34 pm

Posted in Ramblings

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The presumably final realm game of the Thanksgiving weekend & Colony

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Saw the following things happen:

  • The Witch’s familiar (which cannot be attacked or targeted by spells or monsters) almost died when he happened to be watching the Wizard at an underground Shrine when a demon appeared and the Wizard collapsed the entire roof on everyone. He tendered his letter of resignation at that point.
  • The Amazon died the same night while scavenging at a temple when the Winged Demon appeared and rent her asunder (failed hide roll combined with the only monster roll … 5% chance, so not too unlikely).
  • The Witch almost absconded with the heaviest treasure in the game, despite not being able to carry more than a few trinkets, but she ran out of time.

A few rules questions based on this are being debated. I hope.

Also got in two games of Colony, which works much better multiplayer (IMO). Still not great, but acceptable.

Written by taogaming

November 27, 2016 at 6:59 pm

Posted in Session Reports

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So … I picked up Colony

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I rationalize it because a) I heard good things about it and b) there’s a game store 6 minutes (~2 miles) from my house? I should buy something from them. (It was actually a pretty cool store, with a terrible web site, and I wish them luck).

Also — the new Blood Bowl is out? Who knew? I could do with that becoming popular again.

Anyway, I played some solitaire games of Colony. It’s OK solitaire, we’ll see how it is multiplayer.

On the Media Front…, iFinished iZombie’s fun second season, and am now wondering what’s next. I’ve been watching Columbo, which annoys the TaoLing and occasionally reminds me how much the world has changed.

Written by taogaming

November 26, 2016 at 9:08 pm

Posted in Open Thread, Ramblings

30 Rails

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A clever little filler that just takes a printout, some pencil and a few dice. Solitaire or multi-player. Worth checking out.

Written by taogaming

November 25, 2016 at 8:30 pm

Posted in Reviews

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Puzzlement and Wonder, Comparing Mage Knight and Magic Realm, Pt 2

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(If this were a book I’d throw a colon in there. ‘Tis all the rage in publishing).

As I mentioned, Mage Knight & Magic Realm have little in common except theme. Thematically they aren’t even close, Tolkeinesque fantasy versus a high power-gaming bash fest.. While exploring the Realm I pondered the differences between them.

I call the first the Combinatorics of World-Building.

Enter a Dungeon in Mage Knight and what will you face? A brown monster. No exceptions.

You can analyze how many you can defeat and weigh that risk versus the 2/3rds shot at an artifact and 1/3rd shot at a spell. A simple enumeration will do. Can you defeat the Gargoyle? the Shadow? the Hydra? Medusa? Crypt Worm? Etc? You can’t? Check again. Have you missed some trick?

A puzzle, to be sure, but a well defined puzzle. One monster, one reward — each have a parameter. You may get the one monster you can’t beat. You may get the easy monster. You may get the Horn of Wrath, or your choice of two dud artifacts to choose from (I’m looking at you, Banner of Fortitude and Banner of Courage), but there you go. You knew the risk/reward ratio.

There are 8 brown monsters, 30-ish artifacts and 30-ish spells, but the numbers don’t multiply. You can assign an approximate value to the artifacts and calculate what percentage of the monsters you can defeat, and solve.

Now Imagine that each artifact had a small box on the bottom that modified the rules in the combat when you gained them. Most of them don’t do much, but you may go down and face a Whatever and draw your artifact and peer at the bottom and it says “The narrow walls prevent ranged attacks….” and your plans are out the door.

What if every card did that? If you face a Crypt Worm, you weren’t going range attack anyway, but if you faced a Medusa, you most definitely planned on it. If you’ve played two dozen games of Mage Knight, you’ve likely faced every brown creature in a dungeon setting. But with combined effects — No way I’d have encountered all the combinations in my 300+ games.

I’m a fan of combinatorics.

I’ve already seen several interactions messing with people in Magic Realm, and that’s before you even get into players deliberately messing with you. You search for a treasure and get it, but boom! Curse. You start to buy something and boom — there’s a modifier that makes a combat likely to break out right away! These aren’t even interactions, just single cards, but the systems do interact. In my current game, I searched and found the black book, which provided black mana. The sudden influx of mana turned on a spell I had inert and — boom, I’m suddenly a giant octopus.

Now, I’d planned on being a giant octopus later that day, so no big deal. But if I’d been planning to try to hire some helpers it would have seriously cramped my style.

The book of learning has an example of the Elf controlling all six bats with magic, a feat the author says he’s never seen in 200+ games but happened in a solo game he set up to demonstrate, with no cheating. Amusingly, I did it in my first game with the elf. But it does take some lucky chit interactions and some lucky rolls, as well as having the Control Bats spell.

I like my puzzles, but have I been surprised in the last hundred games of Mage Knight. Not that I recall. Nor possibly the hundred before that.

Can I be surprised by Chess? Yes. The unexpected move. The deep brilliance. These are usually based — again — on some combination (Chess even uses that phrase). Mage Knight has that; the core of the game is manipulating your hand of card to get the most oomph. So I’m not sure why it doesn’t surprise me that much. Then again hundreds of games is a lot. It may be that you always … always control your hand of cards. No monster shows up that says “Oh, discard one card before combat.”

To be fair to Mage Knight, The Realm extracts a high price for surprise. Gameplay suffers under randomness. You see ‘unfair’ results. Nobody would say that Mage Knight is less fair, I think.

Unfairness has a charm, in a way.

I like puzzles, but I also like puzzles where you can’t enumerate the possible outcomes. (Even with full knowledge). Approximation and intuition are skills like any other. I don’t care for Tales of the Arabian Knights and I’m not sure it’s a game, but its a hell of Story-telling engine. Combine that potential with something that gives me some actual decisions — even if the results could just be “lose a turn” — and I’m intrigued.

Magic Realm has lots of combinatorics — Each map hex has a few chits that define what’s there. While you build the map in MK, once a tile is up its fully known. Until you know the chits on a tile in Magic Realm, it might contain treasures, or dragons, or spiders, or an Octopus Garden. (Also, the tiles can be flipped over, so its not as static as you think).

You can play your twelve chits, but only two points of effort each combat round. Your items can combine. You may have one thing you can’t use at all, but if you get that second (rare) thing you suddenly have a powerful combination. Any Mage Knight can cast any spell, Any Mage Knight can get any other’s skill, but Goldyx will get Goldyx’s skills the most often. But in Mage Knight, the White Knight will never learn any spell the Witch can learn.

Jay Richardson has a review comparing Magic Realm to RPGs that’s worth checking out. One of the interesting (to me) points he makes is that the characters not leveling up makes the game less grindy and more interesting, and that’s a novel point. You get better be getting better stuff, or working together with others. An interesting dynamic.

OK, so combinatorics. What else?

Magic Realm contains more hidden information (and randomness). Part of that was discussed before — you have face down chits and monsters that can appear and disappear, and the treasures are put into piles but that’s really not that different than randomly drawing them (like in MK). But the hidden information causes a novel effect.

In Magic Realm, you make (some) decisions with incomplete or even wrong information. You plan your turn and then roll for monsters. This gives you — in effect — a huge fog of war effect. Do you hide before you move? Well, there may have been no monsters prowling the Deep Woods this turn. Was your hide a waste?

There aren’t any monsters on your path, but other players may move and monsters may follow.

You have to make information on much less information, but each of the sub systems that you base your decision on is understandable. You fail a hide 11/36th of the time. The monsters appear on a known system (if you know the chits). Knowledgeable players can quickly determine if a monster is safe or deadly or risky (I can do this for simple battles, now). You can guess the price range that item will cost you. You go first 1/n times (n= number of players, ignoring hired helpers) at which point the game state will match.

Each of these systems are calculable, but the overall impact gives remarkable breadth. From a game play perspective there’s a lot of “Why this” but it has a certain logical sense. In the real world if you were hiding from monsters, could you ever be certain you were successfully hidden? Only in the negative and only too late.

I was trying to think of an example. Consider a game of chess where you wrote down your move and only then did your opponent reveal his prior move. (You’d have to cover White’s first turn advantage, perhaps they wrote down two moves and the opponent got to pick after he wrote his first move, and you’d have to deal with issues of failed pawn captures, etc).

This game would most definitely not be chess, even though it used a lot of the mechanisms of chess. You could make theoretically horrible chess moves that would work quite well.

Chess isn’t chess because the knight moves two in one direction and one in an orthogonal one, or because of castling. Chess is chess because its a complete information alternating move game. Chinese Chess and Shogi feel closer to chess than my game which uses the exact same rules, but doesn’t reveal the moves right away.

Magic Realm feels a little like my chess analogy. You don’t see your opponents move until after you’ve declared yours. In order to simulate this, MR uses lots of charts and randomness. At it’s heart, Mage Knight feels like a ruthless rush to exploit a world, and Magic Realm feels like avoiding the onrushing of a ruthless world.

Written by taogaming

November 25, 2016 at 8:28 pm

Posted in Reviews

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